Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Saving London Venues: the Half Moon and the Foundry

Campaigns are currently being waged to save two iconic London venues.

The Half Moon in Putney (South West London) has been hosting live music regularly since 1963. Since that time it has seen performances by, among others, The Rolling Stones, U2, The Small Faces, Ralph McTell, Badly Drawn Boy, Richard Thompson, Kate Bush, Kasabian, The Wombats, Newton Faulkner and Mr Hudson. The current tenant has been ordered by the brewery (Youngs) to quit the pub by the end of January 2010 and there are fears that the venue could be turned into a gastro pub. Following a public campaign, Youngs are now saying they are sympathetic to music remaining in the pub but it seems that the new tenant could decide otherwise. See Save the Half Moon on Facebook for latest news.

The Foundry in Shoreditch is a relative newcomer and a different kind of venue. Not so much a music pub like the Half Moon , more of a bar with art/performance/music and various other parties and happenings. It has a squat bar ambience of the kind found in places like Berlin or Rome but rarely in London, although it is not actually squatted. Anyway it is facing demolition and replacement by a hotel - almost a text book case in the urban regeneration cycle whereby hipsters take over run down properties for low or no rent, make an area trendy, and then are displaced by corporate operators cashing in on the value they have added. The Save the Foundry campaign is urging people to comment on the planning application for the hotel - the deadline is 4th January.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Deities of Music & Dance (1): Saraswati

The existence of gods, goddesses, spirits and saints of music and dance in religions and mythologies across the world is testament to the fundamental human impulse to sing, make meaningful sound and move to rhythm. Although priests of various persuasions have often feared and sought to control the power of music and dance, they have never succeeded in banishing it - not even from the stories and legends of their own religions.

So, a short series on some of these musical and dancing deities start with Saraswati, an Indian goddess associated with knowledge, music and the arts. She is usually shown holding a stringed instrument called a Veena. While Saraswati is mostly a figure in Hinduism, she is also acknowledged by Buddhists. Musicians and others often recite a mantra known as the Saraswati Vandana Mantra, which goes: 'May Goddess Saraswati, who is fair like the jasmine-colored moon, and whose pure white garland is like frosty dew drops; who is adorned in radiant white attire, on whose beautiful arm rests the veena, and whose throne is a white lotus; who is surrounded and respected by the Gods, protect me. May you fully remove my lethargy, sluggishness, and ignorance'.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Thimbleberry Festival Under Attack

Following the cancellation of this year's Big Green Gathering thanks to official pressure, another festival is under attack.

On Friday 11th December 2009 Andy Norman, host and organiser of Thimbleberry Music Festival in County Durham, UK appeared in court facing the charge that he "did permit the use of cannabis on his premises". The charge relates to alleged use by the festival-goers of cannabis at the last September festival. He has not entered a plea and is due back in court on the 5th February 2010 to face committal to Crown Court.

The charge is being brought under Section 8 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. An amendment to this Act passed by the Government in 2001 made it a criminal offence for people to knowingly allow premises they own, manage, or have responsibility for, to be used by any other person for the adminstration or use of any controlled drugs.

A conviction would doubtless be used as a pretext not to grant a licence for the festival next year, and would also set a very dubious precedent. People inhale at pretty much all festivals, so presumably the police could charge anybody organising or hosting a festival with this offence.

There is a facebook group in support of the festival.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Dinah McNicol and Torpedo Town

A man was convicted this week of the murder of 18 year old Dinah McNicol (pictured) in 1991. Peter Tobin is now known to have killed at least three young women, including Dinah whose body was found in his garden in Margate in 2007.

All three cases are equally tragic, but Dinah's particularly touched a chord because she was killed while hitchhiking back from the Torpedo Town Festival, held at Bramshott Common near Liphook in Hampshire from 7th–9th August 1991. This free festival on Ministry of Defence land, with Spiral Tribe and Sweat sound systems, attracted some 12,000 people and is fondly remembered by many who were there. For some it was life changing in a postive way, as Steve Spiral describes:
'We pulled onsite and I was blown away, as I said I had been to quite a few of the big 89 parties like Energy but this was totally different, Crustys in knackered trucks mixed with ravers in flash cars and the vibe was amazing. I remember... the Brainstrom cafe which was an old 51 seater coach parked up on the edge of the area that was space set aside for the rave, which I think was owned by Rob who later became know for Universe and Club UK. There was an old generator that was revving so high that it was billowing out black smoke this was because it was not powerful enough to run all of the equipment plugged in to it. As all of my mates were good friend with the whole Spiral crew I was introduced to the lot of them as their mad friend who had come back from Tenerife for a few days, they were all so down to earth not like Rave promoters egotistical and full of them selves but just normal people who wanted to party for the fun of it and not for the money and recognition. This party changed my life and my perception of what a party should be, no police, no security being moody, and great people who just wanted to get on one and have fun, and all for free. I didn't want to go home, I had found my calling. I did go home though and explained to my folks that I had decided not to go back to Tenerife'.

So sad that for Dinah this was to be her last weekend. Though you can only hope she had a good time, that is little compensation for her friends and family.

See also: Tobin victim Dinah McNicol: Bright, kind lover of rave music (Guardian 16.12.09); picture of Torpedo Town 1991 from The Acid House.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Beijing Coma

Ma Jian's Beijing Coma (2008) is a fictionalised account of the events leading up to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in China, and its aftermath. The novelist travelled from Hong Kong to visit the Square and support the movement at the time, and his rendering of the story is undoubtedly on the side of the protestors.

It is not a particularly uplifting book. The description of the massacre itself - and indeed of earlier atrocities in the Cultural Revolution period - is, as you might expect, very harrowing. But there is also an honest treatment of divisions with the protest movement. The narrator's judgement is presumably also the author's: 'When the guns were pointing at our heads, we were still wasting time squabbling among ourselves. We were courageous but inexperienced, and had little understanding of Chinese history'.

Although the Square where the demonstrators camped out was ultimately to be a killing zone, there is also a sense that within it a zone of freedom was temporarily created where thousands of (mainly) young people were able to escape the rigid controls of living in a police state: 'Tiananmen Square was the heart of our nation, a vast open space where millions of tiny cells could gather together and forget themselves and, more importantly, forget the thick, oppressive walls that enclosed them'.

The author describes moments of festivity - in a sense Tiananmen Square was that generation's Woodstock as well as its Wounded Knee: 'The Square was blanketed in dawn fog. Everything was quiet. The nights were much livelier. Boys would sit back to back drinking beer. Couples would huddle in quiet corners humming love songs to one another, then sneak off into empty tents to make love. It was like a huge party'.

When the Goddess of Democracy statue was raised in the square 'Students from the Academy of Music stood up and sang 'The Blood-stained spirit' and Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy'. Barechested boys from the Dance Academy performed a Shaanxi Province folk dance, beating drums tied to their waist'. In another episode, two characters get married in the Square: 'Someone put a tape in the cassette player and told the newly-wed couple to dance....The crowd of children and adults began to dance too. The air and sunlight seemed to move to the rhythm. As the crowd spread out, the paved terrace began to shake. 'This is the season of love... You can smell the love in the air, Everyone needs to fall in love....' Soon everyone on the Square was dancing. Tens of thousands of people were singing, clapping and stamping their feet. The Goddess of Democracy's upheld arms looking like a flock of white doves soaring into the blue sky'

Another feature of the movement was that protestors continued to sing socialist songs, in particular the Internationale. As the soldiers gathered to crush the protest. 'The broadcast station played a tape of the Internationale. The sound was louder and cracklier than usual. Everyone in the square sang along. The announcements blaring from the government speakers on the lamp posts had become louder too, and the echoes added to the din'. The author is aware of the contradictions of this: 'The national anthem blared out again from the loudspeakers on the Monument. 'Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves! With our flesh and blood, let us build a new Great Wall'. As we sang along, we began to relax a little. It occurred to me that most of the people who'd been shot by the Party since 1949 had shouted 'Long live the Communist Party!' when the bullets were fired. I wondered whether I, too, was going to die singing the national anthem beneath the national flag'.

This caused me to reflect too - to what extent can the language and symbols of the 19th and 20th century socialist movement still be used by those who aspire to a better world? Can the red flag, the Internationale, the hammer and sickle be reclaimed or have they been tarnished beyond repair by the butchers of China, Cambodia and the USSR? I am not sure.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Trafalgar Square

I was in Trafalgar Square on Friday night, where there was a fairly surreal assemblage of sights and happenings. There was the big Christmas tree with carol singers; a giant Menorah for the Jewish festival of Chanukah (right in the above picture); the World Wildlife Fund's London Ice Bear - a melting sculpture to highlight global warming...

... and the Climate Camp with similar concerns, while world leaders convene in Copenhagen. There didn't seem to be a lot going on and it was much smaller than the Camp on Blackheath over the summer. I guess the temperature had something to do with that, and the fact that a lot of activists have headed to Denmark.

It all put me in mind of the history of this place as a focus for all kinds of collective celebration and protests in London, from the Bloody Sunday demonstrations of 1887 to the poll tax riot in 1990, from dancing in the fountains on the anti-Criminal Justice Act demo (May 1994) to dancing outside the national gallery on the Reclaim the Streets 'March for Social Justice' demo (organised with the striking Liverpool dockers) in April 1997 - pictured below:
Hymns, rebel songs, slogans, speeches, sirens, smashing glass - if only those Trafalgar Square stone lions could tell of all they have heard.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Oscar Wilde on Socialist Songs

In 1889, Oscar Wilde wrote an article called 'Poetical Socialists' for the Pall Mall Gazette (February 15), reviewing a book of socialist songs, Edward Carpenter's Chants of Labour.

Mr. Stopford Brooke said some time ago that Socialism and the socialistic spirit would give our poets nobler and loftier themes for song, would widen their sympathies and enlarge the horizon of their vision and would touch, with the fire and fervour of a new faith, lips that had else been silent, hearts that but for this fresh gospel had been cold. What Art gains from contemporary events is always a fascinating problem and a problem that is not easy to solve. It is, however, certain that Socialism starts well equipped. She has her poets and her painters, her art lecturers and her cunning designers, her powerful orators and her clever writers. If she fails it will not be for lack of expression. If she succeeds her triumph will not be a triumph of mere brute force.

The first thing that strikes one, as one looks over the list of contributors to Mr. Edward Carpenter's Chants of Labour, is the curious variety of their several occupations, the wide differences of social position that exist between them, and the strange medley of men whom a common passion has for the moment united. The editor is a 'Science lecturer'; he is followed by a draper and a porter; then we have two late Eton masters and then two bootmakers; and these are, in their turn, succeeded by an ex-Lord Mayor of Dublin, a bookbinder, a photographer, a steel-worker and an authoress. On one page we have a journalist, a draughtsman and a music-teacher: and on another a Civil servant, a machine fitter, a medical student, a cabinet-maker and a minister of the Church of Scotland.

Certainly, it is no ordinary movement that can bind together in close brotherhood men of such dissimilar pursuits, and when we mention that Mr.William Morris is one of the singers, and that Mr. Walter Crane has designed the cover and frontispiece of the book, we cannot but feel that, as we pointed out before, Socialism starts well equipped.

As for the songs themselves, some of them, to quote from the editor's preface, are 'purely revolutionary, others are Christian in tone; there are some that might be called merely material in their tendency, while many are of a highly ideal and visionary character.' This is, on the whole, very promising. It shows that Socialism is not going to allow herself to be trammelled by any hard and fast creed or to be stereotyped into an iron formula. She welcomes many and multiform natures. She rejects none and has room for all. She has the attraction of a wonderful personality and touches the heart of one and the brain of another, and draws this man by his hatred of injustice, and his neighbour by his faith in the future, and a third, it may be, by his love of art or by his wild worship of a lost and buried past. And all of this is well. For, to make men Socialists is nothing, but to make Socialism human is a great thing.

They are not of any very high literary value, these poems that have been so dexterously set to music. They are meant to be sung, not to be read. They are rough, direct and vigorous, and the tunes are stirring and familiar. Indeed, almost any mob could warble them with ease. The transpositions that have been made are rather amusing. 'Twas in Trafalgar Square is set to the tune of 'Twas in Trafalgar's Bay; Up, Ye People! a very revolutionary song by Mr. John Gregory, boot-maker, with a refrain of

Up, ye People! or down into your graves!
Cowards ever will be slaves!

is to be sung to the tune of Rule, Britannia! The old melody of The Vicar of Bray is to accompany the new Ballade of Law and Order -which, however, is not a ballade at all - and to the air of Here's to the Maiden of Bashful Fifteen the democracy of the future is to thunder forth one of Mr. T. D. Sullivan's most powerful and pathetic lyrics. It is clear that the Socialists intend to carry on the musical education of the people simultaneously with their education in political science and, here as elsewhere, they seem to be entirely free from any narrow bias or formal prejudice. Mendelssohn is followed by Moody and Sankey; the Wacht am Rhein stands side by side with the Marseillaise; Lillibulero, a chorus from Norma, John Brown and an air from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony are all equally delightful to them. They sing the National Anthem in Shelley's version and chant William Morris's Voice of Toil to the flowing numbers of Ye Banks and Braes of Bonny Doon.

Victor Hugo talks somewhere of the terrible cry of 'Le Tigre Populaire,' but it is evident from Mr.Carpenter's book that should the Revolution ever break out in England we shall have no inarticulate roar but, rather, pleasant glees and graceful part-songs. The change is certainly for the better. Nero fiddled while Rome was burning - at least, inaccurate historians say he did; but it is for the building up of an eternal city that the Socialists of our day are making music, and they have complete confidence in the art instincts of the people.

They say that the people are brutal
That their instincts of beauty are dead
Were it so, shame on those who condemn them
To the desperate struggle for bread.
But they lie in their throats when they say it,
For the people are tender at heart,
And a wellspring of beauty lies hidden
Beneath their life's fever and smart,

is a stanza from one of the poems in this volume, and the feeling expressed in these words is paramount everywhere. The Reformation gained much from the use of popular hymn-tunes, and the Socialists seem determined to gain by similar means a similar hold upon the people. However, they must not be too sanguine about the result. The walls of Thebes rose up to the sound of music, and Thebes was a very dull city indeed.

Chants of Labour: A Song-Book of the People. With Music. Edited by Edward Carpenter. With Designs by Walter Crane. (Swan Sonnenschein and Co.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Loud bass music ‘killed student’

Loud bass music ‘killed student’, Metro 9th December, 2009

A student collapsed at a freshers’ party and died after complaining the loud bass music was ‘getting to his heart’, an inquest heard yesterdayTom Reid, 19, was taken ill in a crowded London club after standing close to the speakers and telling a friend: ‘The bass is affecting me.’ There was no trace of alcohol or drugs in his body and his heart was in good condition.
A coroner recorded a verdict of natural causes, saying the straight-As student was killed by sudden arrhythmic death syndrome (SADS), a heart disorder which kills 12 young people a week.

Cardiac experts said the bass could have triggered SADS if Mr Reid had underlying, yet unknown, genetic problems. On September 27, he had gone to Koko nightclub in Camden, north London, for the party, dubbed Night Of Mayhem. His friend Alisha Riseley told the inquest they were pushed towards the speakers. She added: ‘Tom said he felt like the bass was getting to his heart and we went to stand at the back.’ He told her: ‘My heart feels funny. I think the bass is affecting me. Oh God, I feel very weird. My heart is beating so fast'.

A sad story, don't think we should make too much of it - sometimes everyday things affect people in very serious ways (e.g. peanut allergies). It's not strictly true that bass killed him - a heart disorder killed him, for which the music may have been a trigger. There is some evidence that infrasound (very low bass frequencies) can cause discomfort or worse - see this Basswatch summary. These are generally too low to be used musically though, even if Throbbing Gristle apparently experimented with them using an industrial tone generator.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Islamists and Music

Interesting article by Robert Fisk in the Independent at the weekend (5 Dec 09) on Islamism and music:

'But music and Islam have a dodgy relationship. In Saudi Universities – and here I thank Jonas Otterbeck, Independent reader extraordinaire of Malmo University in Sweden – the most sanctimonious of students have assaulted music enthusiasts; when a professor at King Saud University, Hamzah Muzeini, condemned this brutality in the daily Al-Watan newspaper, he was convicted by a Sharia court – a ruling later overturned by King Abdullah. Yet according to journalist Rabah al-Quwai'i, some sheikhs encourage youths to burn instruments and books in public. In Saudi, I should add, Christmas carols – like all Christian religious services – are banned, except for the all-purpose "Jingle Bells". Father Christmas, I suppose, wasn't really a Christian.

It's not difficult to understand the objections to modern music and pop. Hamdi Hassan, a member of the Egyptian Assembly for the Muslim Brotherhood, complained about Ruby's first video and "the gyration of other pop stars". Incredibly, of all issues raised by the Brotherhood in the Assembly between 2000 and 2005, 80 per cent involved cultural and media issues – so much for the injustices of Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan!

In my own country of choice, Lebanon, the Ministry of Defence monitors music, according to musician Mohamed Hamza. In November, 1999, Marcel Khalife was charged with blasphemy before the Beirut courts, an outrageous infringement of cultural liberty supported by the Sunni Grand Mufti, Mohamed Kabbani. Khalife had set a verse by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish to music in his album Arabic Coffeepot, but Darwish's poem contained lines from the Koran (part of verse four of Sura 12, for the uninitiated) and protesters argued that Khalife had defiled the Koran by singing it as part of a commercial song. Shiite clerics – to their great credit – defended the song-writer. He was acquitted, the Beirut judge adding that Khalife had "chanted the poem in gravity and composure that reveal a deep perception of the humanism expressed in the poem ornamented with the holy phrase." Phew.

But when Amar Hassan wanted to sing about love as well as politics in the Palestinian city of Ramallah in 2005, he was threatened before a Nablus court and his concert broken up by gunfire and the explosion of stun guns. The conflict, as Otterbeck realised in his thesis, has deep roots: between secular nationalistic music and Islamist music. In Algeria, the Islamic Armed Group made their point in lethal fashion, assassinating Berber singer Matoub Lounès'.

Full article here.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Baghdad clubbing ban

From the Observer, 6 December 2009, by Martin Chulov:

Baghdad's night life falls foul of religious right - Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki accused of colluding with fundamentalists to shut down night clubs

'The raids came just before midnight a week ago. At the start of Eid al-Adha, the four holiest days on the Islamic calendar, hundreds of Iraqi police and soldiers stormed each of Baghdad's 300 or so nightclubs. Officers from the most elite units stood outside as soldiers slapped owners' faces, scattered their patrons and dancing girls, ripped down posters advertising upcoming acts, and ordered alcohol removed from the shelves. They left many of the clubs with a warning – any owner who tried to reopen would be thrown into prison, along with his staff.

The official reason for the mass raids is that none of the premises had licences. The reality is that a year-long renaissance in Baghdad's nightlife may be over, as this increasingly conservative city takes on a hardline religious identity. Bohemian Baghdad did not last long. "They treated us like terrorists," said Sinan Kamal, a chef at the Jetar nightclub in east Baghdad, displaying both a licence and weekly receipts for fees collected by the Tourism Ministry. "They sat us on the ground and made us put our heads between our legs. They slapped us and were impolite with the girls. They were behaving like religious police."

...the nightclub owners, and other representatives of bohemian Baghdad, can expect more of the same. "Saddam wasn't troubled by nightclubs at all until he suddenly found religion again in 1994," said Kamal. "Then he came along and closed everything. We have so far not seen anything which has led to an improvement in our society. In fact, it is increasingly like Saddam's regime. I'll give you an example: three days ago when I drove home, there were guys in their cars listening to loud music, just near the Jaderiya bridge. The police at the checkpoint went over to them and beat them heavily. For about a year guys have enjoyed driving the streets like this. This is something they couldn't do ever. Then they could. And now they can't again."

One of Baghdad's leading Islamic figures, Saleh al-Haidri, happily claims credit for leading the crackdown on wayward youth – and for curtailing the city's nightlife. "They were forbidden under Saddam and they are forbidden again now," said Haidri, the head of the Religious Endowment Office. "There is social and religious backing for this. Two months ago I personally talked to the Baghdad governor. I saw many youths drinking alcohol in the streets and in cars and I received many complaints from families, especially about nightclubs, which are dens of pornography and corruption. Believe me, they are a breeding ground for crimes and they anaesthetise our youth. They violate Muslim rules, but Iraq will not turn into a religious state by closing these dens down. We need to teach people culture and morals in order to rebuild this country, not allowing them nightclubs."

Much more in the full article here

Monday, December 07, 2009

Shop your neighbour - they might be drinking at a party

I came across this story from earlier in the year from Michigan (US), and had to read it through several times to check it wasn't a satire. But it does seem to be true:

'There's a new effort underway to help prevent underage drinking in Walker and Grandville. This afternoon the police chiefs from both communities, along with other local leaders, announced an expansion of Silent Observer's "Fast Fifty" program for students. The program which offers a $50 reward to students who anonymously report weapons and other school offenses, is being expanded to compensate callers for reporting underage drinking parties as well. Chris Cameron with Silent Observer says, "For those that report underage drinking parties to Silent Observer and police go there and are able to break it up and prove there is an underage drinking party going on, that tipster will then be a 'Fast Fifty' tipster. They will receive a $50 reward as well.'

I am sure the good citizens are delighted that the police have enough time on their hands to chase up young people for the heinous crime of drinking at a party- many of them at an age where they could legally drink in Europe, and certainly old enough to be sent off to Iraq or Afghanistan. And yes it really happens, according to Merrimack Journal, 3 December 2009:

On Friday, Nov. 27, Merrimack police arrested 13 young adults and charged each with possession of alcohol by a minor over a party at 24 Seaverns Bridge Road just before midnight, according to a Merrimack Police arrest log. Everyone arrested at that party was 18-20 years old and they were charged with possession of alcohol by a minor. One of the men, Stephan Halvatzes, 19, of 23 Cascade Circle in Merrimack, was also charged with “facilitating an alcohol by a minor,” according to the arrest log...

The party was one of two alleged underage drinking parties over the holiday weekend.
On Sunday, Bedford police arrested 26 people between the ages of 15 and 23 years old allegedly having a drinking party inside a local business, according to police. According to police reports, an officer was on routine patrol around 1 p.m. on Sunday, when he observed a group of individuals hanging around a parking lot. The officer discovered containers of alcohol outside the entrance after the individuals ran inside.

Inside ATA Martial Arts Studio, on Route 101, the officer found 26 people having an underage drinking party. One juvenile and 14 people were charged with internal possession of alcohol, eight people were taken into protective custody and Erica Therrien, 19, of Goffstown, was charged with facilitating an underage alcohol party at the ATA Martial Arts Studio, where she worked.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

100+ dead in Russian nightclub fire

Terrible news (via BBC) of a nightclub fire in Russia last night:

'At least 101 people have died following an explosion at a nightclub in the Russian city of Perm, 1,400km (870 miles) east of Moscow. Officials said fireworks caused the blast and that most victims had died from smoke inhalation. More than 140 people were reported injured in the accident, which happened at 2315 local time (1815 GMT). The Lame Horse nightclub had been celebrating its eighth anniversary, emergency services said'.

The photo below, from the BBC website, shows people in their party clothes laid out dead on the pavement.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Pirates to the rescue?

I noticed that on Galaxy FM (99.5) at the weekend they were broadcasting appeals for people to donate food, clothes and other stuff to people who lost their homes and belongings in last week's fire in Peckham.

Five local 'pirate' radio stations (or as they prefer to call themselves, community radio stations) jointly broadcast the appeal. They invited people to drop off donations at Uppercuts Barber Shop on Nunhead Green, Maestro Records in Rye Lane and the Real McCoy clothing shop in Brixton - evidently many responded. This was part of an impressive display of community mutual aid which saw local people, and indeed council workers volunteering their time, coming together to respond to the fire.
The local press have picked up on the story this week. The South London Press had the headline 'pirates to the rescue', while the Southwark News has the full story, in terms of actually giving credit to the stations involved - Lightning, Galaxy, Vibes, Genesis and Ontop FM.

Anyway makes a change from they usual Ofcom-led nonsense media tales of criminal radio operators disrupting the airwaves.

(cross posted from Transpontine)

History of the Flyer (3): Dance Cards

Closely related to the history of the flyer is the dance card - popular in the 19th century and beyond in Europe and the US, they set out the programme of dances and were often used by women dancers to record who they were dancing each dance with. They also served as souvenirs of the event and were, like flyers, designed to create a particular visual image of the event and its style.

There's some interesting examples online, including at the Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library at the Alamo blog. The following example comes from that collection - the front of 'a dance card for a masquerade ball held at Lenzens Opera House on March 7, 1891. The name "Miss Laura Stein" appears in the lower right corner' - probably the name of a dancer at the ball.

There's some examples from Cork at Set Dancing News, including this one for a National Dance at the Hibernian Hall in 1916:

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

World AIDS Day: We Salute the Disco Dead (2)

Following yesterday's World AIDS Day post, here's a few more of the HIV disco fallen remembered (thanks to Disco Delivery's twitter feed for reminders).

Walter Gibbons (1954-1994), Salsoul producer and DJ:

Jacques Morali (1947-1991), the man behind the Village People, he also wrote The Best Disco in Town for The Ritchie Family:

Paul Jabara (1948-1992):

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

World AIDS Day: We salute the disco dead

Today is World AIDS Day. Let's pause for a moment and remember some of the dance music greats who died from HIV/AIDS.

Sylvester (1947-88):

Mel Cheren and Michael Brody, founders of Paradise Garage:

David Cole, (1963–1995) of C+C Music Factory:

Arthur Russell, (1951–1992):

Sharon Redd, (1945–1992):

Dan Hartman (1950–1995):

Patrick Cowley (1950-1982):

Tony de Vit (1957-1998):

Ofra Haza (1957-2000)

See also: We Salute the Disco Dead 2

Monday, November 30, 2009

Yet more free party news

Electronic Farm celebrates the 20th anniversary of DIY Sound System, free party pioneers originally based in Nottingham. Nice interview, recalling among other things their role in the movement against the Criminal Justice Bill/Act: 'We ran a series of fundraisers in Nottingham - 'All Systems Go!' in conjunction with Smokescreen, Desert Storm, Breeze and Babble sound systems - we raised about 5 grand a time, which we spent on publicity and information - we did our best to oppose the CJB but they weren't going to let that one be stopped'.

Meanwhile out in the fields and warehouses, the party people struggle continues....

Suspected rave organisers bailed, BBC, 23 November 2009
Four men arrested on suspicion of being involved in the organisation of an illegal rave in Suffolk have been bailed by police. Officers were pelted with missiles when they tried to break up the event at a disused warehouse in Homefield Road, Haverhill, on Saturday night. More than 200 people were at the warehouse, which was cleared by 0720 GMT. Three men from Hertfordshire and one of no fixed address have been released on bail until January. A notice to close down the event was served at 0140 GMT and officers contained the area, which was cleared by 0720 GMT.

Swoop on Middleton barn rave Lynn News, 24 November
Police successfully disrupted an unlicensed rave in a barn at Middleton in the early hours of Saturday morning. Two men were arrested and music equipment seized when officers swooped on the barn shortly after midnight on Friday. A Norfolk Police spokesman said they found about 50 people and up to 15 cars at the event."Our priority is the safety of the public at all times. We acted swiftly to close down this event and continue to work closely with the landowner as we attempt to finalise the investigation," he added.

Two taken to hospital and one arrest at huge illegal rave, Northampton Chronicle & Echo, 16 November 2009
Two revellers were taken to hospital and one man was arrested on drugs offences at a huge illegal rave in Northamptonshire. The underground party took place in a barn in Bugbrooke Road, between Kislingbury and Bugbrooke, on Saturday night and police have confirmed an investigation is now under way following reports of criminal damage.

A spokesman for Northamptonshire Police said because of the number of people who attended, officers decided against breaking up the gathering and instead contained it all evening and into the morning. He said: "Police have contained an illegal rave which took place in a barn on farmland between the villages of Kislingbury and Bugbrooke. "By the time poilce arrived a large number of people had arrived and vehicles had been parked along the side of the road betweeen the two villages. "The venue itself was some way away from residential areas and noise disruption was minimal. " In light of the location and large number of people police took the decision to monitor and contain the eventand contain the event. "One arrest was made, a man from Essex on suspicion of drugs offences."

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Dancing Questionnaire (18): Pete from London

Next up is Pete, a one man link connecting jazz, mod and techno rave scenes. He is currently involved in the Young Unknowns gallery project on the South Bank.

1. Can you remember your first experience of dancing?
When I was 8 my mother sent me to ballet lessons on Saturdays - in baggy football shorts because she couldn't afford tights. A mate saw me coming out of a lesson and grassed me up to other kids at school. It was all very Billy Elliot except I wasn't much taken by the music to bother fighting my corner.

2. What's the most interesting/significant thing that has happened to you while out dancing?
Dance has played a big part of my life since I was a kid in the 1950's, but I was in my 40's before the muse really took a hold. I'd become a world music fan in the late 80's then a guy came to share my flat who was big into techno, and for the first six months going to rave parties and clubs, my body just couldn't find a way to properly move with the sound. One night, seeing me struggling, a dancer whispered in my ear "Get between the beats". That tip stayed and the magic hasn't left me. I've since spoken to Africans who've said similar: "dance against the beat"

3. You. Dancing. The best of times…
It was Xmas 1991 in a club called The Alarm (in Strasbourg where my nephew lived) and there it all fell into place.They had to drag me out of the place.

4. You. Dancing. The worst of times…
An odd analogy springs to mind: In the same way a bad craftsman blames his tools, a good dancer can dance to any music. In my case there are limits - one is disco.

5. Can you give a quick tour of the different dancing scenes/times/places you've frequented?
At 64 I've known many: Rock and Roll but I was a bit too young. At 15 it was Trad jazz , Ken Colyers Jazz club in Great or was it Little Newport St? I was happier with Modern Jazz, Mingus was a hero. I saw & bopped to Kenny Clark in The Blue Note, Paris in '62. Then the mod scene in which I felt at home, going to The Scene, in Soho, and The Lyceum. The 70's during my breaks as barman in Dingwalls, there was the The Average White Band.

There's so many: Chaguaramas, but I'm bad remembering names and that same venue became a Punk place [The Roxy] where I pogoed to Johnny Moped. The 80s I remember House at The Brain, but African did it most for me then, and I went to WOMAD three years running. Then on after it was Techno everywhere!

6. When and where did you last dance?
Celebrating my 64th birthday in a Paris Bar called Rosa Bonheur, last August.

7. You're on your death bed. What piece of music would make your leap up for one final dance?
You must be kidding!

All questionnaires welcome - just answer the same questions in as much or as little detail as you like and send to (see previous questionnaires). Quick disclaimer: please note that people who complete the questionnaires do not necessarily share the wider views expressed at this blog on politics, sex, drugs or disco!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Dorset, Dancing, Ecstasy and Dream

'It was a fine September evening, just before sunset, when yellow lights struggle with blue shades in hairlike lines, and the atmosphere itself forms a prospect without aid from more solid objects, except the innumerable winged insects that dance in it. Through this low-lit mistiness Tess walked leisurely along...

Approaching the hay-trussers she could hear the fiddled notes of a reel proceeding from some building in the rear; but no sound of dancing was audible -an exceptional state of things for these parts, where as a rule the stamping drowned the music. The front door being open she could see straight through the house into the garden at the back as far as the shades of night would allow; and nobody appearing to her knock she traversed the dwelling and went up the path to the outhouse whence the sound had attracted her.

It was a windowless erection used for storage, and from the open door there floated into the obscurity a mist of yellow radiance, which at first Tess thought to be illuminated smoke. But on drawing nearer she perceived that it was a cloud of dust, lit by candles within the outhouse, whose beams upon the haze carried forward the outline of the doorway into the wide night of the garden.

When she came close and looked in she beheld indistinct forms racing up and down to the figure of the dance, the silence of their footfalls arising from their being overshoe in "scroff"--that is to say, the powdery residuum from the storage of peat and other products, the stirring of which by their turbulent feet created the nebulosity that involved the scene. Through this floating, fusty debris of peat and hay, mixed with the perspirations and warmth of the dancers, and forming together a sort of vegeto-human pollen, the muted fiddles feebly pushed their notes, in marked contrast to the spirit with which the measure was trodden out. They coughed as they danced, and laughed as they coughed. Of the rushing couples there could barely be discerned more than the high lights - the indistinctness shaping them to satyrs clasping nymphs - a multiplicity of Pans whirling a multiplicity of Syrinxes; Lotis attempting to elude Priapus, and always failing.
At intervals a couple would approach the doorway for air, and the haze no longer veiling their features, the demigods resolved themselves into the homely personalities of her own next-door neighbours. Could Trantridge in two or three short hours have metamorphosed itself thus madly!

She did not abhor dancing, but she was not going to dance here. The movement grew more passionate: the fiddlers behind the luminous pillar of cloud now and then varied the air by playing on the wrong side of the bridge or with the back of the bow. But it did not matter; the panting shapes spun onwards.

They did not vary their partners if their inclination were to stick to previous ones. Changing partners simply meant that a satisfactory choice had not as yet been arrived at by one or other of the pair, and by this time every couple had been suitable matched. It was then that the ecstasy and the dream began, in which emotion was the matter of the universe, and matter but an adventitious intrusion likely to hinder you from spinning where you wanted to spin'.

(Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D'Urbevilles, 1891)

(Pictures - top, Nastassja Kinski in the 1979 film version of Tess; bottom, people dancing in a barn in Dorset 2008 by Caiusp at Flickr)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


It started in Los Angeles last summer and is now being touted as the new breakdancing.

From Hip Hop's new steps, New York Times, 20 November 2009:

“Jerking started off in L.A. as just a little inner-city dance,” said one of the New Boyz, Earl Benjamin, 18, known as Ben J. “We used to search for it on YouTube and we noticed it had potential to be bigger than it was. It was like when you first saw break dancing: it has so many different parts, and when you get the dance down pat, you wanted to do it all the time. It reminded you of how fun hip-hop used to be.”

... Seen in formal terms, said Sally Sommer, a dance historian who teaches at Florida State University, jerking may merely be a cousin to the “lambada or the twist.” It is certainly, Ms. Sommer said, less physically demanding than krumping or vogueing or the other highly skilled and innovative urban forms of dance. But the lambada was a fad. The twist was a fad. And jerking, its adherents say, has a cultural resonance that goes beyond the Reject and the Tippy Toe. “Jerking is a movement, almost like in the ’80s when rap started,” said Tammy Maxwell, the manager of the Ranger$ and the mother of Julian Goins. “There’s a style to it, and a music and a lifestyle and all the kids have really jumped on it.”

The Ranger$ Jerkin in JerkVille (dancing doesn't get started until about 1:20):

New Boyz, "You're A Jerk":

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Dancing Questionnaire (17): Georgina, Drumz of the South

Next up with a Dancing Questionnaire it's Georgina/infinite, artist, photographer and the South London bassnik responsible for Drumz of the South and much else besides. Another respondent who I haven't yet met but whose path has crossed mine - in this case as recently as last Saturday night when somebody said to me 'Georgina's here somewhere...'

1. Can you remember your first experience of dancing?
Not specifically, but I have vague memories of dancing at family parties and weddings and of winning a primary school competition with friends doing "The Locomotion."

2. What's the most interesting/significant thing that has happened to you while out dancing?
Nothing specific, but generally,all the amazing and interesting people that I've met and photographed on dancefloors in London and around the world. Dance has definitely changed my life.

3. You. Dancing. The best of times…
Very stoned and deep in a trance at Forward>> or DMZ; I used to particularly love dancing to Youngsta. Dancing on a bar in Paris on a college trip. Dancing to I Feel Love at home when I should've been doing the housework. In a House tent at Secret Garden Party Festival in 2007 with my friend Breezy. It was pretty wild. I can't say much more about it!!

4. You. Dancing. The worst of times…
Having my camera stolen at a gig cos I was drunk, dancing and careless. :(
Generally getting toes trodden on by stiletto's or bum pinched by stupid men!

5. Can you give a quick tour of the different dancing scenes/times/places you've frequented?
1996-99 (aged 15-18) I'm not afraid to admit it....The Blue Orchid and Metropol in Croydon- under 18's, over 18's dancing to garage in high heels! I would take them off at the end of the night and walk to Crazy Chicken for a burger and chips with sore feet and blackened soles.

1999-2001 (aged 18-20) Beautiful People at Metro in Oxford Street and various Rock/Metal concerts where I really learnt to dance.

2001-2005 (aged 20-23) Drum n Bass nights at The Black Sheep Bar, followed by every other DnB & Jungle night in London around that time.

2004-09 (aged 23-28) FWD>> & DMZ. Dubwar, Subdub, Platform 1, D.O.T.S. Dubstep / Bass for the soul.

Also plenty of festivals and carnival over the years!

6. When and where did you last dance?
The Dodo's gig at The Scala last Monday evening.

7. You're on your death bed. What piece of music would make your leap up for one final dance?
I can't choose between Donna Summer's 'I Feel Love' or 'Red' by Artwork.

Photo: Georgina pictured taking pictures at DMZ.

All questionnaires welcome - just answer the same questions in as much or as little detail as you like and send to (see previous questionnaires).

Monday, November 23, 2009

Hyperdub at Corsica Studios

The Hyperdub night at Corsica Studios (Elephant & Castle) was excellent on Saturday, with two awesome live appearances. Kode9 and Spaceape were intense, but due to moving around, saying hello to folks and then being squeezed to the back, I only caught the latter half of the set. I was luckier for King Midas Sound - squeezed at the front instead - and they were outstanding on their first London gig. The project is a collaboration between Kevin Martin (of The Bug fame), Roger Robinson and Hitomi.

Must admit I did think of early Massive Attack when they were playing, something which Jonny Mugwump has already criticised (see link below). It's not so much that they particularly sound like Massive Attack, but in some ways there's a similarity of approach. On the first Massive Attack album they magnificently filtered the then current state of dance music (including hip hop) through a UK reggae sound system sensibility. King Midas Sound do something similar, except in the interim there's a whole lot of other stuff that's been added to the mix, from techno to dubstep. The KMS album is out next week, and not having heard it I don't want to overdo the hype, but on the evidence of the live show there is potential for it to have a similar impact to that first Massive Attack album as a sonic landmark that crosses over to a wider audience.

There's a couple of good new KMS interviews out there - John Eden at FACT and Jonny Mugwump at The Quietus).

(photo - Roger Robinson under the spotlight on Saturday)

Corsica Studios and La Provincia

Corsica Studios is located in a railway arch directly underneath Elephant and Castle station so joins the list of great railway arch clubs which I will eventually get round to writing about. Two good-sized rooms with nice sound system plus a bar overlooked by a picture of Dickie Davies (yes really). At the back there's a covered outside area shared by the other railway arches, including La Provincia, a Latin America club frequented mainly by Colombians. Thanks to a Spanish speaking member of our party we ended up in there for a while too.

As someone who is always as fascinated by the crowd and dance styles as the music when I go out, it was interesting to compare the two. Dress codes weren't that dissimilar - jeans and t-shirts predominating, though a bit smarter in La Provincia. Gender balance was similar too - fairly evenly matched, but with more men than women. Hyperdub though was very crowded, whereas in La Provincia people were sitting round tables.

And the dancing was very different - in La Provincia it was exclusively salsa dancing couples, whereas in Corsica there wasn't room for much more than nodding heads, shuffling on the spot, and hands in the air for the more enthusiastic. At Hyperdub a lot of the dancing was in rows facing the front, which means people are mostly looking at the back of the person in front of them. Understandable for a live performance, but something I have never really understood when it's just a DJ. I don't think I ever saw this before the 'superstar DJ' boom in the late 1990s, in fact I distinctly remember noticing it for the first time at the famous 1999 Armand Van Helden vs. Fatboy Slim clash where they DJed in a boxing ring in the middle of Brixton Academy. Not proposing that people should start trying out strict tempo Latin moves to dubstep - though that might be fun - but there is something to be said for shifting the balance back from the DJ to the dancefloor as the centre of attention.

Anyway just some thoughts rather than criticisms, it was a good night enlivened even more by this sense of these different dance worlds coexisting in time and space in a corner of South East London. Some more reviews of the night: Uncarved, Yeti Blancmange, Vice Magazine (from where this Moses Whitley photo comes).

(cross posted at Transpontine)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Dancing Questionnaire (16): Kevin, The London Nobody Sings

The Dancing Questionnaire series has been slightly dormant of late, so I've invited a few people to have a go - though anybody is welcome to participate. Next up is Kevin from Your Heart Out and The London Nobody Sings, the latter an excellent blog featuring a daily song about London. One of the things I like about people's answers to these questionnaires is the connections that emerge - how people at different points in their life journeys cross paths in particular places (not necessarily at the same time), or enjoy similar tunes at opposite ends of the earth.

I haven't met Kevin, as far as I know, but like many of the respondents, I am sure we have shared a dancefloor sometime. In Kevin's case I am wondering whether we might have bumped into each other, literally, at The Camden Falcon in the indie pop heyday (remember seeing Jasmine Minks there) or perhaps more recently on one of my occasional visits to How Does it Feel? in Brixton. Anyway here's Kevin's Dancing Questionnaire:

1. Can you remember your first experience of dancing?
Yes, there was a scout hall near my home in Bexleyheath which held a weekly disco for several years. This was for primary school kids, and as it was '73-'75ish there was lots of Gary Glitter, Suzi Quatro, Hues Corporation, George McCrae etc. Wonderful. Still remember winning a copy of Ken Boothe's Everything I Own for being best dressed one week.

Suzie Quatro - she so invented punk

2. What's the most interesting/significant thing that has happened to you while out dancing?
I remember particularly a few years ago going to a Labour Party event in a stately home/hotel in North Wales in a work capacity, and while everyone was networking a few of us went to dance in another hall where a DJ was playing some old soul tracks more or less to himself, and after a while the guest of honour sneaked out (a Welsh Assembly minister) and joined us, literally dancing round her handbag. Beautiful summer evening, and it just suggested music as a common bond, overcoming boundaries, making friends, no words needed ...

3. You. Dancing. The best of times…
Probably 1980s going to see underground pop groups like the June Brides, Jasmine Minks playing to horribly small crowds but having a whale of a time dancing with abandon.

4. You. Dancing. The worst of times
I really feel uncomfortable in large crowds with flashing lights (unsociable so-and-so). I have particular unpleasant memories of a Ramones gig at The Lyceum where the punks all seemed to be 7 foot tall and were slam dancing madly. It just seemed horribly macho and boring.

5. Can you give a quick tour of the different dancing scenes/times/places you've frequented?
Well, Alan McGee's Living Room, Dan Treacy's Room At The Top, Bay 63 were regular haunts in mid-'80s. Later put on own events with live groups/old soul discos etc in West End pub function rooms, then into the '90s becoming obsessed with drum 'n' bass/Mo' Wax trip hoppy stuff though only occasionally getting to places like the Heavenly Social due to shift work patterns. More recently outings seem to be confined to '60s soul type events.

6. When and where did you last dance?
Around my living room, waltzing to a Ewan MacColl song.

7. You're on your death bed. What piece of music would make your leap up for one final dance?
Candy Skin by the Fire Engines.

All questionnaires welcome - just answer the same questions in as much or as little detail as you like and send to (see previous questionnaires)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Autumn Free Parties in England

'No arrests made as police shut down rave at rural site'
(Northampton Chronicle & Echo 13 October 2009)

'An illegal rave was shut down by police in Northamptonshire, who surrounded the encampment and trapped partygoers inside. A call was made to the force during the early hours of Sunday, following complaints about the rave near Horton. A spokeswoman for Northamptonshire Police said that when officers arrived they found "a large number" of revellers hosting the illegal party at a rural site in Yardley Chase. She added: "There were approximately 40 vehicles found on arrival. Officers sealed off all the entrants to the site and did not allow anyone to leave. Those who had already left and were attempting to return were denied entry. No arrests were made at the scene." The police helicopter was also called to the scene, shortly before 1.30am on Sunday'.

'Illegal rave in North Petherton'
(This is Somerset, 15 October 2009)

'An illegal rave in North Petherton was shut down by police within hours of starting on Saturday night. Swift action by the Avon and Somerset Constabulary ensured illegal ravers were stopped when reports were received of around 200 people blasting loud music in Kings Cliff Woods off Cliff Road at 11.30pm. Officers raced to the scene and found around 50 cars parked up. The North Gate entrance to the woods was open and the lock had been broken. The operation to close down the music and empty the site of the would-be revellers was completed by 2.30am without any problems. Safer Stronger Neighbourhoods beat manager PC Richard Tully said: "Our prompt action in tackling this illegal rave hopefully sends out a strong and powerful message to would-be organisers that we will not tolerate this kind of illegal activity and we will respond swiftly to concerns of local people.

'Up to 3,000 people took part in an illegal rave'
(Telegraph, 1 November 2009)

'Up to 3,000 people took part in an illegal rave in an old factory, according to Nadine Dorries, the Tory MP. The Mid Bedfordshire MP said the youths were playing loud music and taking ecstasy all night, while they had no access to water at the Wavendon Heath site in Bedfordshire.
"We have 3,000 kids taking ecstasy with no water and a kid could die any moment. They're still arriving in droves and there's no safety here at all, there are no toilets, there are no facilities for them", she said. "There's no safety here at all, there are no toilets, there are no facilities for them." She criticised the police for failing to act decisively.

The rave is believed to have started at about 3am on Sunday and was eventually stopped by police in the afternoon. Police later estimated that the number of ravers was between 200 and 450. A spokesman said: "We had some intelligence to suggest that a rave was planned in the vicinity of Milton Keynes/Woburn but information was too vague for us to act initially. At the point where we became aware of the location of the rave, at about 0200 GMT, it was under way with above 200 people present. Given the danger of trying to move people, some in an intoxicated state, near to a quarry in the dark and wet, it was decided it was safer not to attempt to move them but to monitor the situation." She added that there had only been three noise complaints up until 6 am'.

'Stark warning to rave organisers'
(Beccles and Bungay Journal, 30 October 2009)

'Norfolk and Suffolk police have issued a stark warning to anyone planning to organise an illegal rave in the county this weekend.There is a zero tolerance approach to such events, which are unsafe and disruptive to our local communities. They will be working closely with colleagues in Suffolk and will share information and provide additional police units to specifically target rave-goers or anyone suspected of involvement in the organisation of a rave across the two counties.

Chief superintendent Tony Cherington said: “I want to make it quite clear that we will use all necessary resources to prevent, disrupt and close down illegal raves in this county. We have issued this warning as we approach the Halloween weekend. “We will continue to take a hard line against them and seek to prosecute and seize and destroy the equipment of anyone found to be involved in their organisation. We will be putting on a significant police presence this weekend to achieve our aims.” Following the successful disruption of previous unlicensed music events, Norfolk Constabulary has again made arrangements with surrounding forces to share resources to disrupt or stop any such events.Last weekend, following a rave in the Feltwell area, over 150 vehicles were stopped and a number of arrests were made for vehicle offences and drink driving. A large quantity of sound equipment, amplifiers and music was also seized.Members of the public are also being urged to play their part and support police action by remaining vigilant over the coming days and by reporting any suspicious activity which may lead them to believe a rave is being organised...'

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

London Sound Survey

London Sound Survey is an ambitious and 'growing collection of Creative Commons-licensed sound recordings of places, events and wildlife in the capital'. You can, and probably should, spend a lot of time there listening to some very evocative, and well-recorded London soundscapes. Current favourites of mine are recordings of buskers including a child playing the accordion for money on the London underground, and a Saxophonist playing the Girl from Ipanema against a background of sirens in Old Compton Street. There's also the sound of a riot in progress on May Day 2001.

Unfortunately we don't have sound recordings from the past, a gap which London Sound Survey seeks to fill by including some written descriptions of historical London sounds, such as this account of a London market from Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor (1861):

'A bootmaker, to 'ensure custom', has illuminated his shop-front with a line of gas, and in its full glare stands a blind beggar, his eyes turned up so as to show only 'the whites', and mumbling some begging rhymes, that are drowned in the shrill notes of the bamboo-flute-player next to to him. The boy's sharp cry, the woman's cracked voice, the gruff, hoarse shout of the man, are all mingled together. Sometimes an Irishman is heard with his 'fine ating apples', or else the jingling music of an unseen organ breaks out, as the trio of street singers rest between the verses'.

Here's a couple of other descriptions of London noises I have come across which London Sound Survey might want to add. The first is from Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs Dalloway, set immediately after the First World War:

'For having lived in Westminster—how many years now? over twenty,— one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June'.

The second is a description of Deptford Market from Geoffrey Fletcher's The London Nobody Knows (1962):

'Saturday morning is the time to see the human element at its richest in Deptford, and in the crowded High Street are all sorts of buskers and street entertainers whose presence gives additional character to the street: an organ grinder, perhaps, whose instru­ment is more properly termed 'a street piano' (there is still one firm left hiring out the' pianos' in London, near Saffron Hill: look for the pictures of Edwardian beauties on the panels of the organ), one-man bands, sellers of Old Moore's Almanack and so on. Today, a couple of stocky, red-faced men take their stand under the railway bridge - one plays an accordion and the other sings 'The Mountains of Mourne'. Appropriately, too, for Irish ideas are not lacking in Deptford - witness the large pub charmingly named The Harp of Erin and here today at the Catholic Church a gaudy Irish wedding takes place. As the bride and groom assemble on the steps, they are joined by their families and friends, the women in pale blue and the men in navy-blue suits. All wear large pink carnations, and the men's faces, each creased in a wide grin, are all red from the application of yellow soap. Small boys, also in blue suits and with even shinier faces, cross their legs uneasily, and the accordion plays 'The Meeting of the Waters'... '

Monday, November 09, 2009

Rock Around the Cock (1978)

A feminist critique of rock written in the immediate post-punk period. It was published in London-based radical magazine The Leveller in October 1978.

'LINDSAY COOPER, ex Henry Cow, now in the Feminist Improvisation Group, looks at rock and sexuality:

The Sex Pistols didn't like Glen Matlock, their first bass player, because he put minor chords in his songs. Minor chords are pouffy they said. It's a crude way of putting it but then rock has never been subtle in its presentation of masculine and feminine, homosexual and heterosexual. But no-one ever asked why the subtle, melodic changes of the minor chords should be reserved for gay men and, by implication, women

Rock has been always about sex. Jazz and blues were both originally various forms of sexual slangs. It wasn't till the sexually explicit words and beat of the blues got mixed up with puritanical country music that white music fans discovered there was more than just kissing and cuddling. It was rock 'n' roll.

Elvis's thrusting pelvis left little doubt about what he was expressing. This new explicitness brought with it a music of genuine teenage rebellion with a threat of sexual liberation which proved as potent and threatening as communism to 'straight' America. It shook up traditional sexual values, even if it didn't change them much. The sexuality of the music was very much part of the dancing that went with it.

Later, this cathartic and liberating element in dance would be lost, as sixties rock culture focused more on the superstar performer. Music and dance changed from being a substitute for sex; hip easy listening like the Eagles and Jackson Browne ­became a background accompaniment to sex.
But this concern with sexuality is not about sexual liberation. Rock remains a machismo cult, a rebellion of young men against old. Its sexual content reproduces and caricatures existing values.

Lyrics of every kind of rock music, from cock rock to teenybop, insult women and glorify dominant male sexuality:

Under my thumb, the girl who once had me down
Under my thumb, the girl who once pushed me around
It's down to me, the difference in the clothes she wears
It's down to me, the change has come, she's under my thumb
Ain't it the truth babe (Rolling Stones)

The notorious, male sexual posturing of cock rock with its pumping beat and arrogant style underpin an aggressive sexuality which often spills over into violence at concerts. You can't wipe out the memory of the brutal killing at Altamont or the uncheckable violence of Sham '69 fans
I'm not saying that women don't enjoy this type of music. For the screaming girl fans, the Rolling Stones were a lot more exciting than their fumbling boyfriends. Also the 'romance' of the hit singles may well have seemed more real than their own.

You don't have to say you love me, Just be close at hand
You don't have to stay forever I will understand
(Dusty Springfield)

It's no answer to say 'there have always been women performers'. For rock culture has always turned them into sexual objects (like Debbie Harry) or makes them , into Armatrading-type cults.

What they can do is limited. They can be singers but rarely instrumentalists; they're so good at conveying emotion but are limited musically. Their voices are invariably controlled by production techniques, geared to a market that is used to a manufactured femininity.

In a recent TV show Helen Reddy was told that she would have to have elastoplast over her nipples and shave her armpits. She refused. Panic ensued. The situation was saved by a compromise. She would wear elastoplast over her nipples but not shave her armpits.

Women performers like Dory Previn can sing about how they're pissed about by men, but never about understanding this oppression or changing it.

As elsewhere, rock shows women as idealised, unreal male-fantasy people; the all-understanding women, the dependable women, the women who won't come up with the sexual goods and so on. The range of images for women performers, accepted by the public and the music biz, is very small.

Men are allowed to be sexually ambiguous like Bowie and Jagger or downright unmasculine like Tom Robinson and Elvis Costello. But female sexual ambiguity is short on popular appeal. Only Patti Smith (and she's a poet) can get away with it. An image which challenges female stereotypes is even harder to pull off. Would we have had Poly Styrene and Siouxsie (of the Banshees) without the ­general challenge of punk?

But you can't just talk about rock's sexism in performances and record lyrics. It comes from a profit-making industry "selling people what they want", which is not in business to challenge its own existence. It can be forced to make concessions like Tom Robinson's Glad To Be Gay and Right On Sister but this is a drop in the ocean alongside the unending volumes of heterosexist records streaming off the presses.

Chris Brazier of the Melody Maker can criticise The Stranglers for their sexist attitudes but he fights hopelessly against the endless 'tit 'n' bum' ads for records and sexist articles by other writers.

So if rock is virtually about male sexuality how can it be changed? No real breakdown of rock machismo is going to happen until more women are playing music and women who work in rock aren't automatically slotted into being just 'sexy chicks'.

One optimistic sign is that over the last two years music has started to have a far greater political impact and context than it's ever had. Although experience has taught women that a rise in leftist consciousness can still exclude any awareness of sexism.

At a Rock Against Racism gig, the Fabulous Poodles started to play a song about schoolgirls. Several women objected. The band became abusive. An exchange of sharp letters ensued in RAR's mag, Temporary Hoarding. The women accusing RAR of not taking sexism as seriously as racism, when in effect there was no difference between the two. The organisers replied that the band would never have learnt how women felt if they hadn't mounted the gig and how difficult it was to ensure politically 'sound' bands.

In Europe the reaction against anglo-american cultural imperialism has produced a lot of political rock music, most of it being made independently of the music industry. The number of women musicians involved can be counted on the strings of one guitar, and the audiences are predominantly male, but the collective, unmacho approach of most of the European political groups is making more than cosmetic changes in the music and its performance.

In Sweden there is a well established political music movement which is utterly male dominated, but also an autonomous women's culture including several rock bands.

What is it, I'll rape it
(the Who)

In Italy, where mass political consciousness is high and where the left-wing parties are actively involved in putting on rock concerts, the whole context of rock performance is obviously very different. The Stormy Six, probably the most interesting of the Italian political/independent groups do at least sing about sexual politics: "This is not a political song"' they say with endearing irony, "because it's about sexual politics" and launch into a bitter rock parody using preposterous macho gestures and lyrics about monogamous romantic love.

In France the growth of an indigenous rock culture has been less consciously political and Magma, the group who virtually singlehandedly started it, presented a quasi-mystical concept of masculinity with their superman philosophy (more serious by far than the Bowie of Oh You Pretty Things) and authoritarian stage presence. Their influence is waning, but can still be felt in the Belgian Univers Zero, who see being an all-male group as a problem, but whose stern, tormented-male image is unlikely to attract many women musicians.

You'd better watch out baby
Here comes your master
(Jimi Hendrix)

But it is in women's bands that the problem of sexism and constructions of sexuality in performance are being specifically tackled. For women musicians, the choice to work in all female bands comes as much from the positive effect of working with other women as from the problems of working in mixed bands, either inside or outside of commercial music (even if you can get work you're likely to be just a token woman/sex object or -­only marginally better - token feminist).

Every woman should be
What her man wants her to be

(Marvin Gaye)

Women's bands are not negatively separatist (that's much truer of men's bands) or a refuge for the incompetent (women's music is developing fast considering that most of the performers have for obvious reasons had relatively little experience), but a way of getting away from performance being equated with sexual performance as defined by men, and of exploring different relationships between performers and between performers and audience.

The importance of a women's musical culture developing independently from the music business, however, shouldn't undermine what women are doing in commercial music and in mixed political/independent groups -the main thing is that we are now actively redefining sexuality in rock instead of hoping that the few enlightened stars would do it for us'.