2021….What I’ve Seen

As music declines as s force in our cultural lives there’s an inverse blooming of analysing the past. 

We are living in a golden age of documentation which has probable reached its peak with the ‘Get Back’ documentary which would take the best part of a working day to watch.

Theres also a plethora of platforms SKY, Apple, Netflix, TV (especially BBC4) as well as YouTube, so many in fact that I’ve forgotten half of what I’ve seen this year. So, here’s what I can remember.

The Velvet Underground.

A Todd Haynes documentary it says so I guess that must be important. A bit of research shows that he’s done this sort of thing before notably with Dylan where he used 6 different actors to portray  different periods of the bards life.

Thankfully he plays this pretty straight. The first 20 minutes or so are just stupendous with split screens and sound collages, Its  nearly two hours long though and difficult to sustain that level of intensity, Theres also the issue that Sterling Morrison, Nico, Andy Warhol and Lou himself are all gone  so there’s inevitably a few gaps. There’s also the issue that there are no clips of the band with real time sound  soHaynes has to work hard to compensate.

If you had asked me for my all time favourite albums in 1981 ‘The Velvet Underground with Nico’ would have been in there but its not stood the test of time for me, its great music but not my favourite anymore. By the same token the whole New York Factory scene that seemed so exciting just looks pretentious now especially the whole cult of Reed as an ‘Artist’ we don’t feel the need to do that with the likes of Ray Davis or John Lennon or Joe Strummer in Britain and I rather like that.

The most interesting person seems to be John Cale who is still around to tell his story  but his journey from a small Welsh village to New York is fascinating. The other notable character is Mo Tucker who has become very right wing (apparently ) and quite terrifying . Doug Yule doesn’t appear in person for some reason and Angus MacLise the bands first drummer is written out of the story  altogether which is a shame because he’s got his own tale to tell.

To be fair though this is probably the best Velvet Underground documentary its possible to make lets leave it there.

Foundation Velvet: The Drumming Of Maureen ‘Moe’ Tucker

At the other end of the production scale there’s this fascinating video by Cam Forrester which analyses the drumming style of Tucker. It’s a real labour of love instigated by Forrester reaching 100 (!) subscribers. 

It’s a great piece of work and he now has 21.5 K subscribers. Its meticulously researched  and Forester recreates many of the Velvet’s tracks  which is impressive as Tucker’s drumming tends to get lost in the general noise of their recordings.

He also remembers  Angus MacLise ands its half the length of the Haynes documentary so I cant recommend it highly enough 

King Rocker

Even less popular than the Velvet Underground were Birmingham bands the Prefects and the Nightingales both fronted by Robert Lloyd, The prefects were punk, the Nightingales were post punk and probably not a whole lot different to a whole load of other bands up and down the UK. Early on though the band attracted the attention of John Peel and in Britain that meant the difference between obscurity and cult status.

And so, Sky Arts have made a documentary fronted by Stewart Lee who is much loved by the Guardian Crowd and  adds a bit mor credibility to the notion of an obscure band being regarded as genius’s.

There’s not a huge story to tell, when the Nightingales disbanded Lloyd tried his hand as a solo artist with diminishing returns then dabbled in writing before reforming the Nightingales with new and better musicians and he’s spent the last 15 years playing to small numbers in rooms above pubs. He still has a small but fervent following.

To pad out the scenes of Lloyd and Lee sharing drinks and amusing each other there’s a kind of King Kong metaphor  about a statue of the great ape that was put up in Birmingham town centre much to the disgust of the residents collective disgust leading to its removal, at one point ending up as scrap. It’s a thin analogy but Lee makes it work and it makes a break from another visit to a curry house or café.

Much is made of Lloyds fringe status buts that’s exactly why he has any career at all. He has a loyal following because of his self depreciating demeanour and his championing by John Peel which will be recycled at every interview  even though its 40 years old.

It’s an entertaining  documentary , Lloyd knows he’s not exactly doing something the world needs but its given him a purpose and a small number of people love his music which isn’t a bad way to spend your life.

Lindisfarne’s Geordie Genius: The Alan Hull Story

Unlike the Velvet Underground, Lindisfarne just seem to get better to my ears every year that passes. BBC channel 4 have commissioned a documentary   fronted by a young man Sam Fender, who I haven’t heard of course, to tell us how good their main songwriter Alan Hull was.

The thing of note here is just how isolated Newcastle on Tyne was and is from much of the rest of England. It’s still a close knit society and those paying tribute tend to be fellow Geordies like Sting, Dave Stewart and Jimmy Nail, Hull pretty much reflected that society, he never decamped to LA, his politics remained grassroots left wing and he loved his beer and fags and his family. In the northeast in the 70’s he was a god. He wasn’t a genius or the new Bob Dylan but a talented songwriter who documented time and place and he died from a heart attack at the age of 50.

Madness: Before We Was We 

3 separate hour long videos were released by BT.com this year although a bit of searching can fine them online. Like all right thinking people I enjoy a madness song  but they weren’t my favourite band, however these documentaries made me reappraise their career.

Britain in the late 70’s wasn’t really that difference from the 1930s or 1940s, A bathroom was a luxury, an outside toilet was the norm, schools were brutal and career opportunities were limited or non existent. Or at least that was the case in North London where all of Madness grew up, they weren’t all dirt poor, but they grew up in pretty much the same circumstances, all self-taught musicians who really learned to play by being in Madness where they’ve continued pretty much uninterrupted since the late 70’s

There’s  a case for Madness being the 70’s Beatles, they possessed a real knack for song writing and instrumental abilities that were just right for the band they were in. In addition to this they had a sense of humour and an ability to connect with each other and the general public.  

Sometime around their first flush of success the band made the extraordinary film Take it or Leave It where they basically acted out their own biopic. Clips cropped up thoughout BeforeWe Was We creating the illusion  they were real rather than recreated. Take it or Leave it seems extrodinarily genuine and might be the best film featuring a band since Slade in Flame.

And it can usually be found on YouTube.

Finally, also occasionally on YouTube, is a biography of Sax Player Lee Kix Thompson. Thompson’s father was a career criminal  and his son seemed likely to follow suite with regular run ins with the police and a period in youth detention. Thompson’s triumph over an inauspicious start is quite moving, not only because of his own persistence in learning the saxophone but also the band’s sticking with him though times when he wasn’t really offering musical or personal reliability.

One Man’s Madness is quirky and funny but most touching is the way the band themselves have continued to remain comfortable with themselves. Relatively few of the band came from two parent families and the group became their surrogate. Theres no massive fall outs, no drug hells and none of the scandal one might associate with almost any band. Madness remain the blueprint for the healthy and still creative functioning outfit .

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2 Responses to 2021….What I’ve Seen

  1. greenpete58 says:

    I’m one of maybe five people here in the states who knows about and appreciates Alan Hull. Not bragging, just observing. I will certainly check out this documentary, and thanks for alerting us to it.

    The Velvets are my favourite group next to The Beatles and for that reason I’ve avoided Haynes’s doc. If I watched I would find myself picking it apart and zeroing in on its faults…such as the total absence of Angus MacLise. Mo Tucker? A perfect drummer for that band because all she had to do was be a mindless machine. Which might explain her current right-wing obsessions.

    Lastly, have you read Popism: The Warhol Sixties? I read it in 1980 and again a few years ago. Fascinating to re-visit that Factory scene, and while I agree with your pretension observation, I think the pretense came later on. So many of those artists and bohemians died so early and so tragically that I think it was more than just play-acting. Lost souls all.

    And lastly, lastly: you’re so right about the “inverse blooming of analyzing the past.” But it’s not only because pop music sucks today. It’s also because there’s lots of $$$ to be made from “rescuing” unearthed product.

    Liked by 1 person

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