Monday, September 27, 2010

Friday Night on the London Beach

Cold, dark and wet in the drizzle, down by the river Thames on Friday night looking for a party. Boom boom boom - the sound of gabber in the distance, head towards it and find the sound system? No, a false trail, it's just engine noise from a passing boat.

Adjourn to the pub and try again, head through alleyways and past building sites and you're there. The cold and darkness partially dispelled by a fire on the beach, a barbecue pit dug into the sand, yes real sand in South London. You've seen pictures from the 1930s, deckchairs and sunbathing on the Thames - how many Londoners ever get down to their beaches today? But tonight some of us are, even in the absence of sun.

Old boats on the shore, relics of the almost vanished working river of docks and ferrymen. City lights across the water, banks and offices of the 'new' London. This too shall pass.

Small sound system, techno, Jill Scott, Ray Charles. Nice music but it's not really a night for dancing, more for huddling around the fire, drinking, chatting, eating - deep fried tempura freshly cooked in barbecue-heated oil. Who knew?

Full moon on one side, the river on the other, tidally creeping up the beach. It will disperse the party before the authorities will, in any case I doubt if anybody's complained. Remarkably in the early 21st century city there are still isolated spaces away from sleeping residents. Maybe for not much longer as every brownfield old industrial site is earmarked for development. Then again maybe recession will create new zones of dereliction for squatters and party goers to recycle...

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Firefighters & the vuvuzela

A couple of weeks ago (16 September) I wandered down to the Waterloo headquarters of the London Fire Brigade, where hundreds of firefighters were staging a protest outside a meeting of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA). They were demonstrating against management proposals to impose new shift patterns - with the threat of mass sackings if they don't comply.

One thing I noticed was a new instrument of protest - the vuvuzela. The plastic trumpet beloved of South African football fans has now circulated around the world following the exposure given to it in this summer's world cup.

I saw a few firefighters blowing vuvuzelas to cheer speakers:

Seemingly back in June, firefighters staged a specific vuvuzela protest outside a similar management meeting:

So as cuts and austerity take effect, is the vuvuzela going to be the sonic weapon of choice for the strikers and demonstrators of 2010-11?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Electric Eden

Rob Young’s Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music is an ambitious, accomplished and entertaining survey of 100 years of music-making and its associated literature and counter-cultures. Its focus is on the pastoral dream of evergreen Albion, with its core the story of folk music since Cecil Sharp began collecting rural song at the turn of the 20th century. Folk’s various revivals and re-inventions are encompassed, from the use of folk themes in English classical music (e.g. Ralph Vaughan Williams and Peter Warlock), through the proletarian focus of Ewan McColl and A.L. Lloyd and on to folk rock and beyond.

Young is less interested though in ‘folk’ as a specific musical genre, than in the vision he sees underlying it - the use of music as a form of ‘imaginative time travel’ to the ‘succession of golden ages’ (both semi-historical and entirely fictional), found in British culture – Merrie England, Albion, Middle Earth, Avalon, Narnia. As he states in the introduction ‘The ‘Visionary Music’ involved in this book’s title refers to any music that contributes to this sensation of travel between time zones, of retreat to a secret garden, in order to draw strength and inspiration for facing the future’.

This is not a characteristic solely of what is normally defined as ‘folk music’ and he includes within it dreamy English psychedelia, and the work of later visionary musical outsiders such as Kate Bush and Julian Cope.

The stories of Cecil Sharp and Ewen McColl have already been well documented, for me the most interesting parts of the book deal with the subsequent trajectories of late 1960s/1970s folk rock and ‘acid folk’, with their infusions of both Early Music and futuristic psychedelia. As well as covering the obvious reference points (Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Incredible String Band, Nick Drake), Young gives space to many less well known artists such as Bill Fay, Comus and Mr Fox.

After languishing in relative obscurity for many years, some of these have only recently secured the listeners denied them at the time. In another form of time travel, it’s almost as if some of the albums recorded in the late 1960s/70s were set down as ‘time capsules’, to be unheard in their present but acting as a gift to the future that would appreciate them. The paradigmatic examples are of course Nick Drake, who only achieved posthumous fame when his fruit was in the ground, and Vashti Bunyan, whose Just Another Diamond Day sold only a few hundred copies in 1970s and who has only really gained widespread recognition in the last five years or so. I saw her give one of her first major performances at the Folk Britannia 'Daughters of Albion' event at the Barbican in London in 2006, alongside Eliza Carthy, Norma Waterson, Kathryn Williams, Sheila Chandra and Lou Rhodes.

Places and Spaces

Young is very good on place – both the specific landscapes that influenced particular musicans, and the spaces where music was performed. In relation to the former he mentions for instance Maiden Castle in Dorset, inspiration for John Ireland’s Mai-Dun (as well as incidentally the novel Maiden Castle by John Cowper Powys, an author with a similar take on the visionary landscape).
In relation to the latter, he mentions clubs such as Ewen McColl’s Ballads and Blues club/Hootennanay upstairs in the Princess Louise pub in Holborn (founded in 1957) and its later evolution into The Singers Club at the Pindar of Wakefield on Grays Inn Road. In Soho, Russell Quaye’s Skiffle Cellar at 49 Greek Street (1958-60), was replaced at the same address in 1965 by ‘the poky palace of Les Cousins, where the folk monarchy held court, audiences of no more than 150 were routinely treated to mystically revelatory performances. The club never got around to applying for a liquor licence, so patrons consumed tea and sandwiches in a haze of hash smoke, straining to hear the soloists over percussive effects from the cash register’. Denizens included Bert Jansch, Davy Graham, Simon & Garfunkel, John Martyn, Martin Carthy and Roy Harper.

Outside of London in the 1960s, ‘Hertfordshire was already one of the most influential hotbeds of the new folk movement outside of Soho… Herts heads keen for a lungful of marijuana and subterranean entertainment would gather at the Cock in St Albans… Down the road from The Cock brooded the Peahen, where a more traditional, MacColl-style folk-revival club was held’. In nearby Hemel Hempstead, singer Mick Softley ran the Spinning Wheel, while at the Dolphin Coffee Bar, Pete Frame opened Luton Folk Club in 1965.

There's also a good chapter on free festivals, 'Paradise Enclosed', as 'a serious attempt to stake out and remake Utopia in an English field. The temporary tented villages of Britain's outdoor festivals represented a practical attempt to live out the dream of Albion' two hundred years after the Inclosures Act of 1761 and the enclosure of common land.

Some criticisms

In a work of this scale and scope there are bound to be some factual errors of geography (Luton is in Bedfordshire not Hertfordshire) and history (Aleister Crowley was not the founder, or even a founder, of the Golden Dawn). But these are minor quibbles.

There are though a few problems with the framework Young uses for all this rich material. The chief one is its use of the term ‘Britain’s visionary music’ when it is clear that what he is describing is primarily an English phenomenon. Of course there has been plenty of folk music from other parts of the British Isles, but Young barely mentions it. In any event, it has often had a different aesthetic, concerned precisely to differentiate itself from Englishness and commemorating historical conflicts with the 'English' state from Bannockburn to the clearances (in the case of Scottish music).

Although Ireland is clearly not part of Britain, its influence on English folk is also largely unacknowledged here. Did the raucous Dubliners influence those who wanted to take folk in a more rocky direction? Did Irish rebel song envy inspire English political song (Dominic Behan was a key figure in the Singers Club)? Wasn't Thin Lizzy's Whiskey in the Jar one of the biggest folk rock hits? This is left unexplored, and arguably the greatest London folk band of all time - The Pogues - don't even get mentioned.

Young is a better musicologist than a folklorist, and while he is clearly aware that claims of an unbroken folk music tradition stretching back into the mists of time are highly questionable, he seems to want to hold on to some notion of 'pagan survivals' in folk. Despite citing Ronald Hutton in the footnotes, he disregards Hutton's findings that we know very little about the pre-Christian beliefs of the British Isles. Instead he repeats the whole Golden Bough/Wasteland mythology of ritual sacrifice as it if were fact: ‘The gods controlling these cycles needed to be appeased with sacrifices. At first, the leader of the pack, the king himself, was slaughtered before his vital energies began to die off, and a new healthy replacement was appointed in his place’.

Finally, Young does not really explore the potential dark side of all this dabbling with blood and soil. He may be right that many of those working within the folk idiom ‘have been radical spirits, aligned with the political left or just fundamentally unconventional and progressive in outlook’ – something that applies not just to the post-1950s Communist Party revivalists but to earlier pioneers such as Holst and Vaughan Williams who, as Young mentions, hung out with William Morris’s socialist circle in Hammersmith. But it is also true that this look backwards to a pre-capitalist idyll can be profoundly reactionary, and potentially very right wing. In a brief survey of current trends, Young mentions the post-industrial 'neo-folk' scene, but does not refer to the controversies over some of the neo-fascist elements involved (see the new Who Makes the Nazis? blog for more on that).

Now I've read the book (all 664 pages), I will no doubt be spending the rest of the year tracking down some of the music in it that I haven't heard yet.

(see also review at Transpontine of some of the South East London connections)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Club security - let a thousand warehouse parties bloom

As discussed here earlier this year, Shoreditch-based club Plastic People was threatened with losing its license, prompting a wave of consternation and protest. The club did re-open, and its famed dubstep/grime night FWD>> has restarted.

Now however some punters are complaining that it has lost its relaxed vibe as the club has been forced to impose tighter security in order to keep the police and Hackney Council happy - and therefore allow the club to remain open. Complaints have included heavy searches on the way into the club, scanning of IDs, and a security guard with a torch patrolling the dancefloor for drugs. Dan Hancox has written at his blog:

'Since it re-opened - and London's forward-thinking dance fans breathed a huge sigh of relief - there have been some good nights there, and FWD>> has returned to its spiritual home on Curtain Road. They seemed to forget to re-install the ventilation at first, making it a de facto bikram rave, but that's tolerable, for the unmatchable joys of that system, that room, that ambience. What isn't, is the conditions imposed on the license-holders in terms of security and crowd-control. Queuing for 15 minutes just to get outside for a breath of fresh(-ish) air or a cigarette is not the one. Nor are police hovering outside in a massive van every night, interrogating the crowd. Nor is airport-style security for the only fucking club in Shoreditch that NEVER HAS ANY TROUBLE'.

There's also discussion on this at Dissensus.

Frankly some of the complaints seem a bit naive. To paraphrase: 'I turned up at a venue with drugs in my pocket, knowing that it's under intense police scrutiny for alleged drug taking, and would you believe it I got banned?'.

But there is a serious point - as well as clubs losing their licenses altogether, clubs can be ruined by the authorities imposing such punitive conditions on them that the pleasure in going there is not worth the hassle of getting in.

I guess like many people I sometimes entertain the fantasy of winning the lottery and opening up a free space with parties and interesting social gatherings (naturally in this fantasy me and my mates do most of the DJing). But seriously, supposing it came true and you had no commercial/financial pressures, even then would you actually be allowed to keep such a place open without being forced to have a heavily policed regime and having to jump through a thousand hoops? It seems to me that whatever the intentions of club owners/promoters it is becoming increasingly difficult to put on nights without these restrictions, just as it seems virtually impossible to get permission to put on any kind of festival without a big fence around it. This obviously applies particularly in gentrifying areas like Shoreditch where clubs and bars have done their job in making the area safe/attractive to the middle classes, and are now being squeezed out as the same middle classes move into the area permanently and want it to quieten down a bit.

Still with recession and cuts, there is an increasing number of empty buildings in London. If licensed clubs are finding harder to survive, there's always the unlicensed option - let a thousand warehouse and railway arch parties bloom!

See also Drinking, Dancing and Fingerprinting

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Cider Tax

A British government in debt following an expensive war seeks to make people pay through unpopular policies - sounds familiar? This instance was in the 18th century in the aftermath of the Seven Years War, and was also a moment in the long history of the state attempting to regulate the production, distribution and consumption of alcohol.

In 1763 the Earl of Bute's government decided to impose a tax of four shillings a hogshead on cider. Since large numbers of farmers and others in the South West produced their own cider, excise officers were empowered to gain access to farms and cottages in order to collect the tax.

'The tax prompted demonstrations, mournful processions, "gatherings intent on violence" and the harrassment of excisemen. The new Bishop of Exeter found that "the people in Devonshire acted childishly and unhandsomely" towards him because "he had the misfortune to vote for the [cider tax] bill". In Exeter 1765, "the mob hissed and insulted him and one fellow had assurance to throw an apple at his head". Sir John Phillips, baronet and MP for Pembrokeshire, did not get off so lightly. A newspaper reported in 1763 that "a riotous mob did grossly affront him" while he was travelling through Monmouth. The citizens pulled him from his carriage, and after discussing whether to hang him for voting for the cider tax, decided to "extremely ill-treat him instead. They made him go down on his knees and beg their pardon'.

The government backed down in 1766. 'The West Country celebrated in 1766 with public tea parties, ox roasts, balls, bell ringing, and the decoration of orchards with gilded apples and laurels. The Gloucester Journal reported "There is nothing heard in our streets, but 'the day of the oppressor is over, the calamity of the cyder drinker is put away; the deadly excise man shall appear no more in our quarters'"

(Source of quotes: The Great Scrumpy Crisis of 1763, Independent 16 February 1992)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The night Steve Biko died I cried and I cried

Stephen Biko, anti-Apartheid activist and founder of the Black Consciousness Movement, died at the hands of the South African police on this day (12th September) 1977. His life and death has been commemorated in many songs - here's a short playlist (for a fuller list, see the Biko wikipedia entry).

Robert Wyatt - Biko,
his take on the best known song, written by Peter Gabriel and recorded by many:

Port Elizabeth weather fine
It was business as usual
In police room 619
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja
-The man is dead

When I try to sleep at night
I can only dream in red
The outside world is black and white
With only one colour dead
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja
-The man is dead

You can blow out a candle
But you can't blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja
-The man is dead

And the eyes of the world are
watching now
watching now.

Tapper Zukie - Tribute to Steve Biko:

Beenie Man - Steve Biko:

Steel Pulse - Biko's Kindred Lament ('The night Steve Biko died I cried and I cried'):

Sweet Honey in the Rock - Biko:

Tribe Called Quest - Biko (Stir it Up) - 1993. Not all about Biko, but obviously name checked in title, chorus and the line 'I'm radical with this like the man this song is after':

Dead Prez - I'm an African (mentions Biko):

As mentioned at previous post, today is also the anniversary of the arrest in 1973 of singer Victor Jara in Chile (followed by his murder in custody a few days later). The two deaths are commemorated together in the song 'Chile Your Waters run red through Soweto' recorded by Sweet Honey in the Rock, Billy Bragg and others: 'The hand that cut short the song of Victor Jara, Put young Stephen Biko in a dusty hill grave'

Victor Jara: my guitar is not for the rich

On this day (12 September) in 1973, the Chilean folk singer Victor Jara was arrested by the military and taken to the Chile Stadium. The day before, a right wing military coup had deposed Salvador Allende's Popular Unity government.

Jara was one of thousands of leftists rounded up, tortured and killed in the aftermath of the US-backed coup. He was apparently shot dead in the stadium - where over the years he had sung many times - on the 15 September.

One of the last songs he wrote was Manifiesto. As his widow Joan Jara recalled in her book 'Victor: an unfinished song':

'during those weeks Victor was composing one which he felt that he had to write before it was too late, to express his reason for singing. He was quiet as he worked on it, introverted and withdrawn. I could hear him singing gently in the workshop as I worked in the house. Then he came to call me to ask me to listen to it. Although it was a very beautiful song, my heart contracted as he sang it to me. I knew that
Victor was writing his testament.

I don't sing for love of singing,
or because I have a good voice.
I sing because my guitar
has both feeling and reason.
It has a heart of earth
and the wings of a dove,
it is like holy water,
blessing joy and grief.
My song has found a purpose
as Violeta would say.
Hardworking guitar,
with a smell of spring.

My guitar is not for the rich no,
nothing like that.
My song is of the ladder
we are building to reach the stars.
For a song has meaning
when it beats in the veins
of a man who will die singing,
truthfully singing his song.

My song is not for fleeting praise
nor to gain foreign fame,
it is for this narrow country
to the very depths of the earth.
There, where everything comes to rest
and where everything begins,
song which has been brave song
will be forever new.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Sid Rawle: death of a free festival veteran

Sid Rawle, a key figure in the free festival movement in the UK, died last month aged 64. His activism encompassed the Hyde Park Diggers in the late 1960s, the People’s Free Festival in Windsor Great Park (1972-4), the Stonehenge Free Festival (1976-84), the Peace Convoy and the Rainbow Village camp outside the planned cruise missiles base at RAF Molesworth (1984-5).

There's a very informative post by Andy Worthington at his site about Sid's life and times. As Andy says:

'Sid played a major part in the British counter-culture from the 1960s until his death, although he is, of course, best known for his involvement in the free festival movement, first at Windsor, from 1972 to 1974, and then at Stonehenge, until the violent suppression of the festival in 1985. The author and activist Jeremy Sandford (who died in 2003) described him as “the squatter to end them all, having squatted flats, houses, commons, forests, a village, boats, an island, an army camp, Windsor Great Park".'

Read Andy's full post, RIP Sid Rawle, Land Reformer, Free Festival Pioneer, Stonehenge Stalwart. See also Ian Bone, Turn Left at the Bridge. Not an uncontroversial figure, he was identified by the media as a leader of the hippies and his role in attempting to mediate with the authorities earned him criticism from some quarters - stilll, nobody can say he didn't try and make the world a more interesting place.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Summer Free Parties

Summer's almost gone, so guess the free party people will be moving back indoors soon. Here's news of a few outdoor gatherings last month:

Police close down illegal raves in Suffolk (BBC, 22 August 2010)

'Two illegal raves in Suffolk have been closed down and sound equipment seized by police.
Police said about 100 people waiting near Corton beach complied when they were asked to leave on Saturday night. Two generators were seized.

Officers were then alerted to loud music in a field in Culford, near Bury St Edmunds, in the early hours. People at the rave were compliant with police and the site was cleared and cleaned by 1100 BST, police said'.

Up to 1,000 attend illegal rave in Wiltshire forest (BBC, 29 August 2010)

'Between 500 and 1,000 people are estimated to have attended an illegal rave overnight in Wiltshire. Police are working to disperse the last of the party-goers from Savernake Forest, in Stitchcombe, near Marlborough. Officers said they received a tip-off about the rave on Saturday night, but did not know the location at that time.

Dozens of cars were abandoned on roads leading to the village and the noise could be heard from several miles away. Wiltshire Police said they had received two complaints, but there were no reports of any damage. Karen Gardner, who lives in the area, said she was first woken up by the noise at 0400 BST.

"You almost feel this thudding," she said. "I was a bit concerned what might be going on in the little wood behind us, but couldn't establish where it was coming from. If it was coming from Savernake Forest there are quite a lot of woods to go through so goodness knows how loud it was over there."

A rave attended by 800 people was also held in the forest in 2003 and a similar event was thwarted by police in 2005'.

Police vow to come down hard on ravers using Trent Park (North London Today, 25 August 2010)

'Police are to start patrolling Trent Park after hundreds of youths gathered for a series of illegal all-night raves. For the past month, ravers have managed to avoid arrest on the picturesque park off Cockfosters Road, Cockfosters, by feeding false leads to police. Police officers have warned the organisers not to hold any more raves, but so far no arrests have been made and parks police have now been called in to patrol the park and prevent ravers from getting in on Friday and Saturday nights.

In order to avoid being hunted down, savvy rave-goers steer clear of posting information about the raves on the internet – even castigating fellow ravers for posting party pictures after the event. News of the events is being spread through text messages instead. The Trent Park decision follows news that officers across the country are being called in to shut down raves held in fields and parks.

Cabinet member for the environment Chris Bond said: “Zero tolerance will be shown to anyone setting up illegal parties in Trent Park. Any ravers who fail to leave will be arrested on the spot and the organisers may well lose their equipment. We are not prepared to allow our residents’ quality of life to be spoilt by a small band of mindless, selfish idiots. Trent Park is one of the most beautiful parks in London. We won’t stand by and watch it being abused.”

A police spokeswoman said: “We rely on intelligence to find out when these raves are taking place but they do not always happen at the times and locations we have been given. We’ve initiated two operations in recent weeks and will continue to monitor and react to intelligence. While no arrests have yet been made, we do have powers under the Criminal Justice And Public Order Act to seize equipment being used and also prevent people from attending. We can arrest those who refuse to leave when requested by police to do so, but we have not had to resort to these powers so far....'

Sunday, September 05, 2010

The Night Shadows

Chapter 3 of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities (1859) is entitled 'The Night Shadows' and opens with reflections on night, sleep and its secrets:

'A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this. No more can I turn the leaves of this dear book that I loved, and vainly hope in time to read it all. No more can I look into the depths of this unfathomable water, wherein, as momentary lights glanced into it, I have had glimpses of buried treasure and other things submerged. It was appointed that the book should shut with a a spring, for ever and for ever, when I had read but a page. It was appointed that the water should be locked in an eternal frost, when the light was playing on its surface, and I stood in ignorance on the shore. My friend is dead, my neighbour is dead, my love, the darling of my soul, is dead; it is the inexorable consolidation and perpetuation of the secret that was always in that individuality, and which I shall carry in mine to my life's end. In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them?

Picture credits: Sleeping Beauty by Edward Burne-Jones (top); photo titled 'Sleeping Dancer' sourced from here. Unfortunately I don't know anything more about the photographer, who seems to be called Matilde, but check out the site for some good pictures.