Sunday, January 21, 2018

Ghosts Beside Our Starlit Thames



A post on this blog from as long as four years ago made reference to the need for due regard, diplomacy, respect, tact and dignity in the processing of murderous Troubles history within the legacy process in Northern Ireland. The political outplay this month regarding the fatuous antics of the recently resigned Westminster MP for West Tyrone need not be elaborated upon but surely this event must mark a final line in the sand regarding historical revisionism of the conflict in its most crass, throwaway and offensive manifestations.

Both political sides of the Ulster divide are guilty of such subterfuge and sleight of hand - and of course the rural horrors of Kingsmills were mirrored in urban Belfast's loyalist romper rooms - but the trivialising of a mass murder that had the chronological potential to throw the island of Ireland into civil war in early 1976 is truly beyond the pale as we approach the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

The political and public response to the matter - including horrifying testimony from the solitary survivor Alan Black on RTE Radio - has been one of genuine mortification on both sides of the border. It clearly underscores an existent and very dangerous social fissure regarding the brutal dynamics of sectarian warfare, the victims it left behind and the psychological safe spaces occupied by the perpetrators that Irish civil society is expected to honour without question.
 
However mainstream media's own culpability for the longevity of certain political factions' selective amnesia cannot be underestimated. In turn the politician at the centre of the controversy has apologised fulsomely and it must be accepted within our residual Christian culture that that was a genuine display of chastened regret and we move on collectively.

Growing up in the complex battleground of Ulster in the Seventies and Eighties was perhaps the main ingredient underpinning my cognisance during my final years living in London that something of genuine historic import was happening to the metropolis as both the capital of Britain and one of the world's truly great cities. This despite similar lack of analysis from the mainstream media - about property mega-inflation and two-way demographic shifts in the case of London- that allowed gesture politics in Ulster to reach its recent farcical denouement across the Irish Sea.

My own busy and stressful life in London for some reason allowed a singular tract of Orwellian insight pass me by at the time - either that or the fact that the upbeat and hip millenial cover art throws up a somewhat misleading pointer to the gritty downmarket contents inside. Ben Judah's This Is London reportage is an extraordinary and acutely depressing insight into the social transformations since the turn of the century that have turned the city on its head in terms of lifestyles, atmosphere, infrastructure and sustainability. It reads like an even more dystopian, grotesque and hellish update of the writings of Geoffrey Fletcher that inspired Norman Cohen's 1967 documentary The London That Nobody Knows.

The author does not hide from the criminal underbelly of the city or the dynamics of black economies. Furthermore his reportage clearly corroborates the garnering awareness that hundreds of thousands of working people resident in the city had sensed all along that tectonic shifts were afoot from one week to the next as we ourselves struggled to barely meet spiralling domestic outgoings on frozen salaries. This transmogrification across both physical streetscapes and within vintage frameworks of social mobility alike. The reality of what was changing in London as we lived and slept was of course much much more malign than even the most pessimistic soul could have foreseen - a truly unparallelled peacetime transformation of a European city that will surely take its own place in the more desperate readings of the continent's modern geopolitical history.

As important of course as Judah's research is the sobering fact that it has been put into the public domain by a major publisher - Pan McMillan's Picador imprint. Released two years ago this month it remains - and most likely will remain - the last word on the capital and its brutal, irreversible and deeply strange transformation into a city that bears little resemblance to 20th Century London or indeed any major Western conurbation one would have ever heard of before outside the realms of fiction.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Christmas Island



It is the medium of television by default that provides the most effective portal for the diffusion of so much cultural memory and recall today. This in diverse respects too such as the regular passing nowadays of celebrities from childhood times gone by like The Partridge Family's David Cassidy and The Likely Lads' Rodney Bewes of late. Likewise for reflections upon particular periods of life transition that spring forth automatically from hearing certain and often obscure theme tunes again - Man Alive, The Family,  World in Action, Take Another Look, The Waltons, Robin's Nest and Sorry for myself personally.

Even long lost regional television station iconography such as the classic Thames Television and LWT logos, the concurrent Knight statuette and Golden Hind on Anglia TV and Westward Television respectively or even UTV's mighty "Antrim Road" start-up transmission music can often overwhelm the senses.

Children's television from the Sixties and Seventies alone is another huge self-contained world of delights from Catweazle's capers down at Hexwood Farm to such timeless American imports as Scooby Doo Where Are You, The Banana Splits and HR Pufnstuf. And then of course for so many people in their forties, fifties and sixties today there are the misty recollections of Christmas television in Britain.

There is a wonderful and comprehensive 25-part overview of the Radio Times and TV Times editions from the Seventies and Eighties to be found over at the MAWH  blog that is guaranteed to bring back so many warm and fond memories of those days. All of them - even the overviews from the Eighties - seem so distant and from another world now. This alike when I look at black and white pictures of the thriving Belfast of the Fifties and early Sixties I never got to see and enjoy before it was meaninglessly destroyed.

Britain in the Seventies of course had a rich multiplicity of complex political and economic problems afoot and indeed the decade was more than likely the pivotal era when our national decline ramped up several gears. However like many other people I look back to a childhood that entailed so much fun and laughter from so many quarters year on year - from the music, confectionery and cinema to the toys, comics and football. Most important of all our course were the people of those days  - so many of whom have left us.

Returning to television I have one strange memory long-lodged in my mind of Christmas programming. It was definitely the very late Seventies and I remember opening my Christmas presents one morning in my living room back in Belfast. I assume it was the ITV channel on the television in the background showing an animated version of the bible story. I recall at one point in the narrative John Henry Hopkins' We Three Kings of Orient Are was playing in concord to the visitation of the cartoon wise men. Just for a moment - and a moment I oddly enough can never quite forget - I felt that all was totally right with the world.

This particular hymn was included on the one collection of Christmas music I have been listening to every year since a child - Mario Lanza's Christmas Hymns and Carols. This 1969 compilation of festive songs on the RCA Camden label   - which includes wonderful versions of I Saw Three Ships, God Rest You Merry Gentlemen and The First Noel - is either a reissue of a 1951 original release of seasonal sacred music Lanza Sings Christmas Carols, the recompiling from 1956 with new versions of some songs added or the full 1959 re-recording. Incidentally another beautiful version of The First Noel was recorded by the great Mario Lanza fan Elvis Presley on his second Christmas album released in October of 1971 - this also contains one of the great lost Presley classics If I Get Home on Christmas Day.

The Philadelphia tenor and star of such movies as The Great Caruso and Serenade - who had his own life demons with alcoholism and overeating - died of a heart attack in 1959 at the age of only 38. During his 1958 European tour he performed at the King's Hall in South Belfast on March 29th and stayed in Royal Avenue's Grand Central Hotel. I could clearly see the King's Hall building across the city from the back bedroom window of my family home in North Belfast when I was growing up and it would be the music venue where I attended the best concert of my life in 1984 - the late great Stuart Adamson's Big Country on their Steeltown tour. The hotel in turn would become a base during the Ulster Troubles for the British army from 1972 onwards and was subsequently attacked over 150 times by terrorists. An interview with the late Belfast comedian Frank Carson on youtube includes his recollections of meeting Lanza during this visit.

Lanza's deliveries on the Christmas album are not just impeccable but literally awe-inspiring at times. The singer once said that "I sing each word as though it were my last on earth"  - here the power of the complex Christian message never sounded more crucial and genuinely humbling.  This year - with both Britain and Northern Ireland enveloped in a labyrinthine compound of irreversible political problems centred around Brexit and historical revisionism - I will be listening to it in another European country far away from Belfast and those Christmas Days of long ago.

In the meantime - and although looking back to our shared past brings more than its fair share of melancholy - at the same time we must remember that what backbone, character and decency still remains in our society was put there in the first place by the working people of our country alone. This remains the last and most immutable archetype we have left to fall back upon nowadays and cannot  ever be taken away by any degree of stealth from the falsest of friends around us.

Sincere best wishes to all readers and Twitter followers of Saturday Buddha for Christmas and 2018.

Monday, November 27, 2017

A Time When Time Didn't Matter



Oh what happened to you?
Whatever happened to me?
What became of the people we used to be?
Tomorrow's almost over, today went by so fast.
It's the only thing to look forward to - the past.
 
In these very trying times the attraction of literally disappearing into a retrospective
counter-millennial Sixties and Seventies Anglo-American socio-cultural safe space has such a fundamental and logical appeal. However a permanent return to the world of hard rock albums, Vesta prawn curry and and beef risotto, Sven Hassel and Ed McBain pulp, dimpled pint glasses, Hai Karate aftershave, Walls' Count Dracula ice lollies, Triumph Stags, Rancheros, Commando comics, Afghan Hounds and Fiesta Summer Specials may well be a celestial joy reserved for the other side of this life. Let's frigging hope and pray so.
 
An earlier blog has went into considerable detail about the utterly wonderful football culture of that period - days of real renegade talent where goalkeeper John Osborne of West Bromwich Albion was once pictured smoking a fag during a match itself while Georgie Best played one game intoxicated in Scotland.

Yet another blog post touched upon the female British  and Irish solo singers of the Sixties and Seventies and how well their material has dated. Actually to go completely off-message it is a moot point to say that some of our national artistes of that period were as beautiful and talented as any performing across the world at that point. I think off the top of my head here of Anita Harris, Linda Thorson, Suzy Kendall, Petula Clark, Caroline Munro, Susan George, Sandie Shaw and the Geeson sisters. Even in the world of situation comedy both Nerys Hughes and Paula Wilcox were stunningly attractive women.

This week has seen the passing of  two major stars from the Seventies in David Cassidy and Rodney Bewes. I know little of Cassidy's music though am aware of where he sat in the narrative of teen pop stardom and the world of  revolutionary Jackie magazine mass marketing. As for Bewes, I am too young to remember the Sixties BBC black and white episodes of The Likely Lads but of course clearly recall watching the colour Seventies sequel as a kid.

I was reminded too this week in the obituaries for Bewes that he was of course the first human assistant to Basil Brush who tweeted his own sad farewell to Mr Rodney this week. Once again I am not old enough to really place the two together as opposed to clearly remembering Derek Foulds and Roy North as the now 54-year old gentleman fox's fall guys. What I will never forget in turn however is Mr Roy's own ITV Granada pop programme in the late Seventies and its extraordinarily grating theme tune - Get It Together.

The two series of Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads (1973-74) were set in North East England and guaged around the tensions between Terry Collier's instinctual working class drives and his friend Bob Ferris' middle class aspirations.  Since the time of the three original 1964-66 series Bob had moved into white collar office work while Terry was readjusting to life after Army service - in fact he may even have been one of the brave squaddies on the streets of the Belfast I grew up in. Both characters however relate to the social changes they see around them in a changing Britain and their own lost youth. A feature film was released in 1976.

The music that was played over the opening and end credits of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads seems to this day to still resonate hugely with thousands of people all over the country. The song was written by Mike Hugg of the Manfred Mann group and series writer Ian Le Frenais. Performed by Hugg's session band under the name Highly Likely - and sung by Tony Rivers - it reached number 35 on the British music charts in 1973 and spent a total of four weeks in the Top Fifty.

Even though the chorus of the track effectively underscores the sadness that any disconnectivity with the past brings it is interesting that both the verses too strike very similar chords. These of loss, longing and a surety that fundamental life security lies a long way from the present day's travails and rank awfulness:

There was a time when time didn't matter - only the time of day.
And living was living in hope which would never pass away.
Well it was a Monday morning when weekend was done -
fear was the fear of being what we had become.

You say I'm a fool in a fools paradise - let my life slip away.
Waiting with my head in the clouds - lookin for a sunny day.
Never go back you tell me - it's the worst thing you can do.
But I must go there till I find out where it is I'm going to.

A brief survey of public commentary left on Youtube uploads of the track from BBC Records (b-side God Bless Everyone by Hugg and Bewes) brings up the following incisive observations in turn:

"Most evocative tv theme of the seventies..."

"Always bittersweet as the opening titles are the Newcastle I remember aged about 9 or 10 when the old city was being cleared and all the soulless concrete going in. Plus look at all the fishing boats then! What a difference now."

"Beer, loneliness and drugs brought me here..."

"Now I'm a forty-something I've become "stuck in the mud" Terry not yet Victor Meldrew! I really quite disliked Terry's character because he was deliberately trying to hold Bob back. In my 20's & 30's I considered myself as "progressive" fellow but you hit an age then deep down the emotions kick-in & realise this old soul hankers for the old days. Perhaps cherishing the past is what maturity is about....& they say it is better to not look back, but I don't see an improvement with present."

"It's basically Let it Be, but it's brilliant...."

"... with a smidge of "Mighty Quinn" thron in for good measure."

"Guaranteed to make the hairs rise on the back of the neck for any Geordie over 50 - this was our time. Expats all over the world, look back with pride, but don't come back, you'll just trash your memories. There's no smoke any more over Geordieland, but there ain't no soul either."

" I didn't understand the series or the song's lyrics when I first saw it as a teenager in the 70's. Now I do. I know lots of Bobs, but I have to admit I am definitely Terry."

"I've always loved the intro and outro song of this series. The strings make the song sound so tragic. Like recalling a time in which one can never return. Longing to be back there but knowing you can never return. It makes your heart race but then tears it down...."

There is truly little more to elaborate upon here about what would appear in  hindsight to be a much more important piece of art than the creators could ever have imagined it to be at the time. This as tieing in 44 years later with what British people think today of the state of the nation, the reward for our labours, the sum of our lives' worth and the likelihood of a better tomorrow - both individually and collectively.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Laurel and Hardy in Fifties Ireland



I remember once reading a thread on the "Exiles" section of the main Belfast history internet forum where a lady in her sixties from Canada wistfully recalled the good old days and the friends she left behind. She mentioned three of them by name in the hope that the possibility may arise in the scary new digital world that somebody would know them and there might be a way to re-establish contact. The first reply from a jet black Ulster cyber-humourist simply noted: "They're all dead".

My first interface with the fateful circularity of life came as a child when I was watching one of those old compendium of clips from Laurel and Hardy movies - I cannot pinpoint the specific feature but it
included the famous Way Out West sequence of their charming soft-shoe shuffle outside a saloon bar. On asking my mother about their whereabouts thereafter I was informed that alas they were gone in body and spirit. A crushing and literally tearful blow I recall to this day.

For many people in their forties and fifties Laurel and Hardy were a mainstay of television viewing in their youth. In hindsight, and while cross-referencing their filmography, I can distinctly recall seeing the entireity of their 1929-1935 talking shorts output on the small screen. These were often transmitted around the 6pm slot on BBC2 in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Likewise for all thirteen of their Hal Roach- directed feature films made between 1931 and 1940. I also remember that Channel 4 showed some of the later Twentieth Century Fox and RKO features during the Nineties - A-Haunting We Will Go, Air Raid Wardens, The Big Noise etc - though these were essentially of interest to movie buffs only by virtue of their status as some of the worst films ever made (through no fault of the artists' doing).

One of the final Laurel and Hardy features to be generally well regarded - and which I have recently revisited - was 1940's A Chump At Oxford. In this film Stan and Ollie are a pair of total witless eejits in America who manage to foil a bank raid. The kindly and decent bank manager subsequently offers them a reward of their own choosing. Being conscious of being complete morons they decide upon "an education". They are subsequently dispatched to Oxford University England while dressed as Eton schoolboys - as fifty year olds.

On arriving in Oxford the world's most beloved comedy duo are mercilessly harried and bullied by the resident sneering and well-heeled students including a particularly young Peter Cushing. They are directed to their digs by way of a maze and - while lost therein - are practically scared to death by a genuinely terrifying apparition of a ghost-demon which of course is nothing more than a merciless prank by the resident privelaged rotters. Their accomodation also turns out to be the Dean's residence and he is well furious at the turn of events in his cosy academic ivory tower.

This of course is trumped by Stan Laurel bashing his head and transforming into Lord Paddington - the ultimate upper-class arrogant braggard imaginable. Ear-wiggling and monocoled Paddington physically thrashes the student body ranged against him before turning on his erstwhile buddy Ollie and tormenting him mercilessly. From calling him "Fatty" every minute to denigrating his obesity and physical bearing alike, it is truly painful to watch even seven decades later. Stan finally snaps out of his reverie but not before directly inducing Oliver Hardy's nervous breakdown.

This ten minute segment alone - as an extraordinary prefiguring of modern British political and social culture - is a priceless moment of magnificent comedy and arguably one of the highlights in the entire career of Ulverston's finest son Arthur Stanley Jefferson. The rock group Mott The Hoople once reflected upon the light-year distance between the Liverpool docks and the Hollywood Bowl. Cumbria to Culver City in the early 20th Century was certainly no mean feat either let's face it. Take some time and watch it through. Time has been very kind to a lot of Laurel and Hardy material - even the introduction to the RKO Dancing Masters feature is quite hilarious with Oliver Hardy's toddler clowning on the dancefloor with some Gil Elvgrenesque beauties while his lapses into folksy down home Southern patter as at the end of Way Out West never fails to raise a warm smile.

After their movie careers ended with the dispiriting mess of Atoll K, Messrs Laurel and Hardy peformed on stage in many UK and European theatrical venues in the late Forties and early Fifties. In June 1952 they appeared for a fortnight at The Grand Opera House in downtown Belfast. During their visit they stayed in a fan-besieged Midland Hotel near York Road station in the north of the city. The pair had their hair cut in James Mulgrew's local Whitla Street barbers - a fact  subsequently advertised prominently by the business - and some recollections of the visit gathered online talk of the couple walking with their wives in the nearby Sailortown district and tipping a busker outside the Great Victoria Street venue they played at. One individual remembered how their West Belfast grandmother saw the couple on the Dublin train and how Oliver Norvell Hardy responded to a compliment from the lady by wiggling his tie and saying "Thank you ma'am". The late Belfast comedian Frank Carson also would recollect shaking their hands at the Midland Hotel entrance. A feature on the visit produced by the Belfast online movie review website Banterflix references a possible meeting the pair had with the legendary lion-wrestling Belfast hardman extraordinaire Buck Alec and a seaside visit to Bangor's Tonic cinema to judge a singing competition.

The show that Laurel and Hardy peformed in Belfast was named A Spot of Trouble and was based on their 1930 short Night Owls. During the time in Northern Ireland Stan Laurel was taken ill and spent a brief period in either the Royal Victoria Hospital on the Falls Road or Musgrave Park in South Belfast - online information differs. The Stan Laurel Correspondance Archive includes a letter sent from the Midland Hotel dated the 24th June that references his pending hospital stay and the scale of the welcome in Ireland:

Haven't had much chance to get down to personal correspondence due to the exciting visit to Ireland. Being our first time here, they went ALL OUT to give us a true Irish Welcome and didn't miss a thing. Bus. as you can imagine was enormous - broke house record here (57 years).

Prior to the Grand Opera House dates the comedians had performed in Dublin's Olympia Theatre on O'Connell Street and stayed at the Gresham Hotel on the same thoroughfare. In the following year of
1953 Laurel and Hardy resided for 33 nights at Dun Laoghaire's Royal Marine Hotel (as pictured above) and pending a one-night performance at The Olympia for a polio charity. A return visit to Belfast on this trip to the British Isles had to be cancelled because of Hardy's visa problems. This was also the Irish visit so often mentioned because of the resounding harbour welcome the people of Cork gave the actors on the 9th September which they would remember for the rest of their lives - Stan Laurel recalling:

It's a strange, a strange thing, our popularity has lasted so long. Our last good pictures were made in the thirties, and you'd think people would forget, but they don't. The love and affection we found that day at Cobh was simply unbelievable. There were hundreds of boats blowing whistles and mobs and mobs of people screaming on the docks. We just couldn't understand what is was all about. And then something happened that I can never forget. All the church bells in Cobh started to ring out our theme song, and Babe looked at me, and we cried. Maybe people loved us and our pictures because we put so much love in them. I don't know. I'll never forget that day. Never.

It is sixty five years now since Laurel and Hardy visited my home town. The once grand Midland finished long ago as a hotel business and was finally torn down this month, York Road Railway Station is demolished and much of residential York Street and Sailortown long gone. The Grand Opera House and the Europa Hotel next door however survived the thirty years of grotesque and politically pointless terror that came to pass and of which the Royal Victoria Hospital and the Musgrave saw much of the bloody consequences.

A certain seven-year-old boy resident in Belfast at the time of the comedians' visit grew up to change the world of football and pop culture forever while an eight-year-old Donegal boy who arrived to live in Cork just three years after the famous appearance of the Hollywood stars in Cobh Harbour went on to produce some the most timeless electric blues rock ever on vinyl and stage. George Best and Rory Gallagher never forgot Belfast City - it would appear that Belfast and Ireland too left its mark on the greatest comics in history. All four beautiful souls long gone from this world but still casting an extraordinary  light into our dark and utterly desperate times.

 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Last Ghost Dance

 

I read an interesting New York Times article by Steven Erlanger on the afterglow of the Brexit vote last weekend which seems to tie in with some earlier points I have made on this blog over the years regarding how the sub-national outplay of the dissolution of the United Kingdom - as first critically analysed in the mid-Seventies by the Marxist writer Tom Nairn - has thrown up as much if not more socio-cultural discord in the English heartland as within the Celtic littoral. That not withstanding the grotesque political paralysis in Ulster caused by one particular party or the qualifications facing Scotland in negotiating a genuine national independence within the constructs of a splintering European Union.

As another desperate year of stagnation in Europe moves to closure I am personally drawn in my mind to a new formulation of post-war British history wherein the gradual storm-like descent into fundamentally irreversible political conflict and communal disunity can be traced on both sides of the Irish Sea from the late Forties onwards. The strengths of the tidal surges and the violent impact of the breaking waves may have differed but the end result has proved remarkably similar by way of today's broad-based discontent, high personal angst, the unsustainability of such a civic imbalance and a garnering disconnectivity with our past.

In the case of Northern Ireland I feel that the withdrawal of the Irish Republic from the British Commonwealth in 1948 by the Fine Gael/Clann na Poblachta coalition - a party political move which had no major public dynamic underpinning its execution, originated in a diplomatic snub against Taoiseach John Costello in Canada by the Governor-General  and singlehandedly destroyed the relatively nonpartisan Labour movement in the North by default - was actually the first significant transitionary and indeed tectonic shift towards the years of bedlam which lay two decades ahead and now can be seen as an extremely fateful turning point. Mainland Britain's socio-political problems likewise lie deep in our modern history and had equally sobering consequences.

The mismanagement and subsequent fudging of the Brexit vote by the British political establishment in turn appears by the day now to represent the approach of something fundamentally terminal in our social history - particularly in regard to the failure of mainstream media to reflect the clear-as-daylight dynamics behind the populist surge.  The same British media of course that has been selectively dumb about the future shock foibles of the past decade regarding frozen private sector salaries and firestorm house prices affecting the vast majority of people with no secondary sources of income in reserve.

The immobile leaden atmosphere evident in the aftermath of the Brexit vote now seems to be coalescing in the theatre of living history as some form of latter day and particularly lumbering Ghost Dance - the religious movement of the native American Indians at the end of the 19th century which in part was predicated in making the white colonists leave and bring co-operation and unity to the Indian people in its wake. In turn, and beyond all qualifications,  our country clearly faces the future in a state of social, ethical and particularly industrial inversion to the better world we appeared to have entered in the early Fifties. All bridges now burned - all quick fixes now exhausted.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Starburst 76 - Lynyrd Skynyrd at Knebworth



Been recently reading some very well-researched and humorous overviews of solo Beatles material on the Holy Bee of Epheus blog. The rollercoaster quality ranging from I Found Out to The Luck of the Irish, Junior's Farm to Wonderful Christmastime, I'd Have You Anytime to Ding Dong, It Don't Come Easy to No No Song. The same author has also recently put together some sound reviews of the post-Exile on Main Street period of the The Rolling Stones' career which covered the three often overlooked mid-Seventies albums Goat's Head Soup, It's Only Rock n Roll and Black and Blue.

Some months after the latter release the Stones appeared at the 21st August 1976 Knebworth Fair in Hertfordshire in England. This was the third major concert to be held on the grounds of Knebworth House - in July 1974 the Bucolic Frolic drew a 60,000 crowd to see a line-up headed by The Allman Brothers Band while the following July 100,000 attended the Knebworth Festival to watch Pink Floyd and others.

In 1976 five acts supported The Rolling Stones who appeared very late in the evening and would not finish their set until 2am - these were Todd Rundgren,  Jefferson Airplane offshoot Hot Tuna, 10CC, The Don Harrison Band whose rhythm section were Creedance Clearwater Revival's Stu Cook and Doug Clifford and of course Lynyrd Skyrnd.

The seaport of Jacksonville in North Florida would steal the entire day from surburban Dartford Kent on the River Derwent - Lynyrd Skynyrd performed third in the bill before 10CC and their eleven-track Southern Rock set makes for extraordinary viewing to this day. It has never been forgotten in British rock history as one of the most amazing live superstar performances ever - and by a support act at that. The electrifying picture of singer Ronnie Van Zant punching the air at the lip of the stage with guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins - with a Confederate battle flag to the forefront amongst the ecstatic 120,000 crowd - remains perhaps the most instantly recognisable image of the group for tens of thousands of music fans over the world to this day.

Growing up in Belfast in the Eighties - long after the 1977 Mississippi plane crash that killed three of the band's lineup - I had a double album compilation of the group but at the time never really got fired up on their music beyond the classic rock station stalwarts of Freebird and Sweet Home Alabama. In recent months however Lynyrd Skynyrd's music has really came together for me over the course of some prolonged listening and it is quite clear that - like Little Feat - they represented an unparalleled fusion of incredible individual virtuosity, raw passion and deep soul on both album and stage.

Between 1973 and 1977 the group released five studio albums - Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd, Second Helping, Nuthin Fancy, Gimme Back My Bullets and Street Survivors. The existent fanbase seems to have certain qualitative reservations about the third and fourth albums though I personally cannot hear that significant a downturn - from the pallid and bereft perspective of 2017 anyway. Tracks such as Simple Man, Poison Whiskey, The Needle and the Spoon, The Ballad of Curtis Loew, Saturday Night Special, On The Hunt, Every Mother's Son, Searching, One More Time and That Smell are utterly magnificent - driven, thoughtful, exciting and intelligent by turn. Workin for MCA may indeed be the most underrated Seventies hard rock song in the entire genre - check out the cool Hamburg concert footage of this track from 1974 on youtube for original guitarist Ed King's smokin' smoking alone.

Soberingly of course, if one looks at footage of the Knebworth concert from that endless summer of 1976, seven members of the ten musicians on stage have now passed on. Beyond Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his backing singer sister Cassie - who all died in the crash - four others are no longer here. These are bassist Leon Wilkinson, guitarist Allen Collins, keyboardist Billy Powell and backing singer Jo Jo Billingsley. The original drummer Bob Burns was killed in a car accident two years ago as well.

After 1977 Lynyrd Skynyrd under various lineups have produced nine further albums to date - the two original guitarists also put out a pair of albums as the Rossington Collins Band in 1980 and 1981 with a further short-lived Allen Collins Band releasing one more album in 1983. I know little about the later Lynyrd Skynrd material so far though have found the three other albums mentioned very listenable.

Gene Odom's biography of the band from 2002 - which includes a fantastic black and white picture of Rossington, Collins and Powell strutting down a dreary British high street that is worth the price of the book alone - also lists fairly comprehensive tour information. With other dates and venues gleaned from online it appears Skynyrd played 48 gigs in the four years between 1974 and 1977 in England, Scotland and Wales.

In 1974 the group played in Glasgow November 14th, Edinburgh November 15th, Newcastle November 16th, Liverpool November 18th, Bradford November 19th, Birmingham November 20th, London November 23rd, Leicester November 26th, Manchester November 27th, Brighton November 28th, Bristol November 29th, Southend-on-Sea November 30th, Bournemouth December 1st and London December 2nd.

For 1975 the venues were Portsmouth 25th October, Birmingham 26th October, London 27th October, Brighton 28th October, Liverpool 30th October, Sheffield 31st October, Glasgow 1st November, Oxford 3rd November, Cardiff 4th November and London 5th November.

In early 1976 they played in Bristol on 10th February, Manchester 11th February, Glasgow 13th February, Leeds 14th February and London the following day. In August two days before Knebworth they performed on the 19th in Hemel Hempstead.

Finally in early 1977 a British tour incorporated London on the 27th-29th January, Bristol 31st January, Portsmouth 1st February, Birmingham 2nd February, Manchester 4th February, Sheffield 5th February, Liverpool 6th February, Newcastle 8th February, Glasgow 9th February, Lancaster 12th February, Leeds 13th February and their last ever British concert was at Leicester on the 14th.

Other European countries that the band performed in over these years included West Germany, Holland, Belgium and France - Lynyrd Skynyrd never appeared to have played in either part of Ireland. The specific venues for the London gigs over the four years were at Finsbury Park's Rainbow Theatre in 1974 and 1977 - long gone as a concert venue - and the Hammersmith Odeon in 1975 and 1976. Their famous performance for the Old Grey Whistle Test was recorded at the BBC Television Theatre Shepherds Bush Green on November 11th 1975.

Many of the memories and reminiscences of the group at Knebworth 41 years ago that can be found across the internet appear of similar dumbfounded regard to seeing Georgie Best's explosive breakthrough into public consciousness in the September 1964 midweek match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge - this from the ukrockfestivals website will suffice entirely:

Then Lynyrd Skynrd hit the stage in mid afternoon and the whole place just lit up. They played that incredible, now legendary set. Great, good times boogie rock n roll with lashings of rich guitar playing. Lanky Alan Collins was a very striking figure, dressed all in red like the stage, he became the focal point visually. Huge flares, impossibly long hair and a jutting Gibson Firebird. "Freebird" was the greatest moment of the whole festival and perhaps the greatest of any live performance I have ever seen, for the generosity of the musicians and the sheer joy of the crowd.  Thousands of people jumping around and cheering in unison. As the barefoot Ronnie Van Zant sang the last refrain, he threw his mike and its stand over the back of the amp stacks, took Collins under one arm and Rossington under the other, and led them down the sloping stage to the crowd, as the two began their furious soloing, it seemed to last forever, coming to a long drawn out final crunch in front of a standing ovation. An impossible act to follow.

This year I have been properly reacquainting myself with the music of Lynyrd Skynrd having left London permanently and taking a few months away from that rank madness in a truly beautiful North European country. At the start of the summer on some days here I even saw a real life Freebird eagle type thing flying over the next field to where I am staying - no shit.

Listening to the lyrics of the band - which cover a lot of ground within the human condition as regards kinship bonds and life priorities alone - they reflect such a contrast to the times I left behind in Britain. The Ponzi greed that has toxified the soul of London and much of the country, a Kafkaesque job market which seems to offer up the polar opposite of everything libertarian souls claim to aspire to on social media, rundown and seedy public infrastructure, mainstream media silence on both historic demographic shifts and their even more sobering secessionist consequences, the cultural marxist remodelling of every complex historical issue under the sun for peurile adolescent mindsets and the general air of sadness and directionless. 1976 was a long long time ago for all its own godawful problems with bogeymen unions, butcher dentists and damp sparkplugs in the winter.

The folk tales of Lynyrd Skynrd of course recall communities forged in financial hardship and want
but also flag up the positive aspects of a simpler and less cluttered life away from the speed, harshness and fetidity of modern urban existence. The appeal this offers to so many of my own middle-aged peer group today - our future security clinically betrayed on every socio-economic front imaginable by pure short-term venality - is now overwhelming. Ironically the very same future in fact that four generations of my own family fought and put their lives on the line for I assume.

Much of the social culture of the American South of course - and indeed the blood composition of its now vilified military formations who fought bravely from Manassas through to Appomattox Court House and right up to Stonewall Jackson himself  - originated geneologically from the historic Scots-Irish Presbyterian footprint that arrived in British America from Ulster in the 18th Century. The irony is not lost on me - and many contemporary visitors alike  - how in the modern United Kingdom that Northern Ireland is one of the few regions to have retained a deep rooted sense of place, moral decency, spiritual faith and individual warmth for all the bad history the country has had to work through together.

From their very early material recorded in 1971 at Muscle Shoals Alabama such as Comin Home and Was I Right Or Was I Wrong and through to I Never Dreamed and What's Your Name on the final Street Survivors album the vista of Lynyrd Skynyrd's music touchs upon loss,  regret, love, lust, brotherhood and ethics - the common sense fundamentals of life and how to live it well.

Truly in our beginning is our end.

Every time you feed that face
Do you look around
For somebody right in your own neighborhood
Sleepin out on the ground
If you've ever felt the pain inside
I know you'd understand
When you see somebody who's down and out
Lend a helpin' hand

Monday, June 19, 2017

Midnight Summer Dream - Folk Horror and the Ancient Kindred


Last month I watched two fantastic pieces of vintage British television horror. Shalcken The Painter was the 1979 continuation of the festive A Ghost Story for Christmas slot on the BBC and whose plot revolved around an artist’s lost love and her terrible fate. The Beast was an episode of the West Country Tales series of the early Eighties involving a city dweller’s encounter with a ghastly aggressive entity in the Cornish woods - the creature being played by the familiar character actor and former wrestler Milton Reid who can be seen in three of Mary Millington’s features.

In light of the latter work I have recently finished Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange by Adam Scovell which was published some months ago. Forging beyond the main cinematic trilogy associated with this sub-genre - Witchfinder General, The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw - and the short stories of MR James, the book incorporates analysis of a truly comprehensive scope of Sixties, Seventies and Eighties film and television material from the Play for Today features Robin Redbreast and Penda’s Fen to the Hammer horrors Plague of the Zombies and The Witches and the Dr Who Jon Pertwee serials The Sea Devils and The Daemons.

Beyond the obvious association of these works with the British landscape and countryside - and of course the occult - there is consideration of similarly eerie creative dynamics that were transfused into urban settings right through to Public Information Films for children in the Seventies. The writing is academic in part but it was still a fascinating read and comes highly recommended.

In a not dissimilar context some months ago I read Thomas Sheridan’s absolutely intriguing fourth book The Druid Code. I am huge fan of Sheridan’s work by way of his Velocity of Now broadcasts and the incredibly interesting discussion of politics and Forteana to be found on his youtube channel and website.

At first I expected this book to have considerably less appeal to me than his previous book Walpurgis Night on the occult roots of Nazism but found it an extradordinary deconstruction of ancient British and Irish history as relating to the complexity of megalithic remains across the British Archipelago, Northern Europe and the Mediterranean.  It also traces the passage of magic theory from druidic sources into witchcraft and freemasonry. Years ago I got engaged to my partner at the Holestone in Doagh in County Down and in turn have visited many of the places that Sheridan talks about in Ireland and the English West Country. Sheridan is both an insightful mind and a genuinely good humorous soul - his recent documentary works on occult Dublin and the mythology of Germany’s Odenwald Forest have been exemplary.

Both of these books of course hold particular relevance at this time of acute political and cultural strain in Britain as harking back to the purest of connections with our folk past - yet untrammeled and unsullied in this world of avarice, directionlessness and idiocy.


Saturday, June 10, 2017

Tangled Webs


This week has seen some extraordinary political developments across the British Isles - in Northern Ireland alone the shocking electoral outplay for Unionism equals the February 1974 victory of the United Ulster Unionist Council albeit this time within the remit of a sole political party who have become the Kingmakers of the next UK government.

The off-message nature of much Democratic Unionist Party discourse over the years should of course have seen the organisation wither on the metaphorical vine following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement - to the secular benefit of the Ulster Unionist Party, Alliance and even New Loyalism - but the outplay has proved radically different.

As this blog has noted on many occasions, the historical revisionism attached to much post-Troubles discourse from Irish Republican sources has proved both toxic and unrelenting. The price for the broad stroke rebranding of the takers of human life as folk heroes without equivocation has clearly now been paid in kind while mainstream British media stayed silent throughout.

The same selective dumbness from the major news outlets of course affected the sole fundamental demographic explanation for the Brexit vote. Or even the slight moral dichotomy of the leader of the British Party of Labour having historically expressed less than due regard for the wellbeing of thousands of working class English, Scottish and Welsh soldiers who staved off a civil war in Ulster that threatened my own street and doorstep.

British politics today appears mired within a confluence of deeply complex and contradictory economic, social and cultural dynamics. Any restorative move towards civic respect, structural stability and genuine progression will embark upon a long lonely journey across a desolate British landscape.

That vista in turn transfigured by a decade of fake media, the asset stripping of millions of Britons’ futures by employers and banks, the infrastructural devastation of our capital city,  gormless political imbecility of the general public, the immoral filth of the Ponzi property scam, unbridgeable class division and a national sub-psyche of profound disappointment in all that has came to pass on this bitter wind.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Ancestral Voices, Bad Blood and Contested Shores



Some considerably edgy kulturkampf over the civic funding of Gaelic in Northern Ireland of late - a fascinating subject in its own right with regard to the reach and endurance of the languages in modern Ireland and Scotland, where it sits linguistically alongside Welsh within the British Isles' Book of Invasions, the undeniably politicised dynamics of its usage in modern Ulster and the logic behind the current outreach to learners from the Protestant tradition in the North.

Yet there is still so little comprehensible clarification in the midst as to the actual linkage between Irish and Scottish Gaelic as it relates to the history of the Irish Gaels' footprint in Western Scotland, King James I's Protestant Plantation of Ireland or even the concept of a Pictish settlement in Ulster back in long ago and far away ancient times. A member of the public tried to comment intelligently and analytically on this last week on a BBC Radio Ulster phone-in I was listening to and obviously exhausted the presenter's 21st Century attention span very quickly.

Certainly whereas the promotion of Ulster Scots dialect since the Eighties may well have proved an essentially mischievous driver of cultural regeneration for northern Unionists  it is quite clear in the outplay of Brexit that the concomitant notion of a specific Ulster Scots identity was significant, timely, underplayed and alas unappreciated. This particularly with regard to the role of Ulstermen at war and in North American history or even the role of Francis Hutcheson in the Scottish Enlightenment (born in Saintfield in County Down in 1694). Indeed the rebranding of The Troubles as an intra-Celtic/Irish-Scottish conflict (in however qualified remit) could have fundamentally redefined the bitterness in time between two peoples who essentially rub along "okay" in the scale of things.

Interesting book I have just finished on Northern Ireland history by the way was Richard Bourke's 2012 Peace in Ireland: The War of Ideas - not an easy read but an incredibly important contribution to the political debate in his presentation of the Ulster Troubles as a consequence of competing yet essentially legitimate conceptions of democracy as opposed to more routine readings of ethnic and religious fractures.

Will definitely look forward to similar enlightenment in years ahead as to what the previous decade of my London life was all about - how exactly the biblical demographic shifts, the Ponzi property scamming, the infrastructural collapse, the lack of a serious party political choice in a fundamentally flawed electoral system, the garnering urban aggression, faking of news and the frozen salaries together somehow positively underpinned my financial well-being from my considerable labours, my core liberality and my big scary grown-up faith in a better (albeit medium term) future.

Either way I will be reading such analysis at that point from a different location  - the lack of both a vanguard and a rearguard in our national political culture (as referenced some posts ago) have succeeded to such an extent that my thirty year sojourn in London now comes to an end. Saturday Buddha will commence World Broadcasts again soon from another place and a better tomorrow.....

Friday, May 12, 2017

Stewart Parker's High Pop


This month sees the release of Hopdance by Ireland's Lilliput Press - the Ulster playwright Stewart Parker's autobiographical novel that he had worked upon in the Seventies and Eighties but was uncompleted at the time of his death from cancer in 1988. It is in turn centered on his experiences of having a leg amputated from the same disease while at university in Belfast.

The book is edited by Marylinn Richtarik whose long comprehensive overview of the artist's life I have just completed reading this evening. Alike Johnny Rogan's biography of Van Morrison the work is grounded on genuinely fascinating narratives of Irish social history alongside the profound changes affecting the commercial constructs of stage performance, broadcast media and cinema production during his lifetime.

I was very lucky to have seen Parker's final play Pentecost at the Lyric Theatre in London's Hammersmith in 1989 - it remains for me the finest piece of drama I have seen on stage in my life. The eleventh hour political detente witnessed in Ulster following the death of Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness certainly resonates with the religous undertones of the play's melancholy denouement. Set during the 1974 Ulster Workers' Council strike - yet the most successful industrial stoppage of the European working class since the Second World War - it in turn reflected the desperate zero-sum game political turmoil in Northern Ireland in the wake of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Parker is remembered in the main for his stage plays Spokesong and Catchpenny Twist, the BBC Play for Today productions of Iris in the Traffic Ruby in the Rain and The Kamikaze Ground Staff Reunion Dinner, the award-winning ITV Playhouse feature I'm A Dreamer Montreal, London Weekend Television's Blue Money with Tim Curry, the Channel 4 series Lost Belongings and his extraordinary Northern Star telling of the 1798 United Irishmen rebellion leader Henry Joy McCracken's life and execution. Further to his work being so heavily grounded in Irish history - and the perennial cultural fractures that impinged so strongly on community and personal relationships - Richtarik's biography also noted further projects that never saw dramatic fruition including works on the 19th Century Land League campaign and the internment of Allied and Axis servicemen in Eire during the 1939-45 Emergency.

Will just take the opportunity here to especially flag up Parker's High Pop rock and folk album reviews for the Irish Times which were compiled some time ago by Belfast's Lagan Press. This is an utterly exceptional collection of vintage music journalism - Parker's reviews being tight, funny, enthusiastic and highly informed. It includes many albums recorded by Parker's personal favorites which clearly included Steely Dan, The Band and Joni Mitchell but the critques cover a huge amount of artists and styles in the 1970-76  period from The Incredible String Band to Dr Feelgood. His reviews of Lennon's Some Time in New York City and Dylan's Self-Portrait in particular are utterly unreserved. This is an incredibly warm, interesting and witty book in itself and merits many a return reference - do find a space for this on your bookshelf if you are a music fan of the period.

Parker grew up in Sydenham in Protestant East Belfast across the dual carriageway and railway line from the modern day George Best Airport. His funeral took place there too though he had lived the latter part of his life in South West London and previously in Edinburgh. Parker's ashes were to be scattered from the Larne-Stranraer ferry in the middle of the Irish Sea - an irreverent yet deeply symbolic farewell to the restless natives of Britain and Ireland from a true radical and a man of profound intelligence and heart.