I haven’t seen my old university pal James Ellis since his graduation, about four years ago. We met in October 2009, when we were both doing Combined Studies at the University of Glamorgan. We were studying the same psychology modules, and we hit it off immediately. I think we could see each other as kindred spirits – outgoing and talkative, quite widely read, fairly polymathic, interested in a broad range of music, rather eccentric, and neither with ‘conventional’ sexual tastes.
When I had to crash out of my course halfway through my second year, it became apparent that I wouldn’t be able to graduate on schedule (if ever). Knowing how disappointed I was, James invited me to be his guest at his own graduation the following summer. We’ve since kept in touch via Facebook, and we’ve made tentative plans to meet up whenever I go to Cardiff, but he always seems to be busy with even more projects than I manage to juggle.
James writes regular reviews for a student newspaper called The Sprout, and has recently been involved with a number of offbeat theatrical productions in between trips to London for orchestral performances. I singularly failed to take advantage of London when I had the chance. James has made the most of living in Cardiff and thrown himself headlong into as many creative ventures as possible.
About a month ago he created an event on Facebook: an evening of music and drama in a small venue in (old) Cardiff Bay, to mark the 150th birthday of the French composer, writer, artist and general oddball Erik Satie. He sent me an invitation, and I ticked the ‘Interested’ box for the time being.
I confess that at the time I knew next to nothing about Satie. I knew one of his best-known piano pieces; I knew that Brian Eno had quoted his maxim about wanting ‘music that could mingle with the knives and forks at dinner’ in the sleeve notes to Discreet Music; I knew that he was regarded as a sort-of spiritual leader by the minimalists and the Ambient Music movement. And that was about it.
About a week later James shared the event again, adding that there were only limited seats left. I decided to take a chance and go down, regardless of what was in store. The tickets were £8.00 a throw. I thought it would be an intriguing change from an average Aberdare Tuesday night (on which nothing exciting happens if you’re lucky). I ordered my ticket, and then emailed my very good friend (and fellow proofreader) Rob H. to see if he’d be interested in coming down as well. How’s this for a small world? Rob and James already knew each other through attending various concerts in Cardiff. Rob ordered his ticket as well, and I emailed James to let him know we’d both be coming on the night.
That was on the Tuesday afternoon. In the evening I called into the Glosters for a pint, and Jason C. was there. After chatting about all sorts for a while, I mentioned the Erik Satie evening. Jason knew even less about Satie than I did, but he agreed with my assessment of an average Tuesday in the Valleys. He gave me the cash, and I went online and booked another ticket straight away. And then there were three …
Jason and I set off from Aberdare on the 1552 train yesterday. Sort of. A low-loader had dinged the bridge just south of Aberdare Station, and the road was closed while the police sorted the accident out. I was half-expecting the trains to be cancelled while Network Rail engineers inspected the structure, but in the event the train arrived about ten minutes late. There are ‘recovery times’ built into the timetable anyway, so we made it into Cardiff only marginally behind schedule. We changed trains, caught the shuttle service to Cardiff Bay, and went in search of the venue.
My A-Z of Cardiff is so old that it doesn’t even show the barrage, never mind the Roald Dahl Plass development, the Welsh Assembly, the Millennium Centre, or any of the tourist hotspots that have sprung up in this previously run-down and neglected part of town. (Even the station is still labelled as ‘Bute Road’.) It does show Mount Stuart Square, though. Rob and I had both looked it up online, and found that Sunflower and I was on one corner. Jason and I soon found it, but we were way too early for the start. We decided to walk as far as the barrage to kill time.
I must admit that I don’t know old Butetown very well. There are some marvellous Victorian buildings in the area – some in much better condition than others – and even though they don’t qualify for the Vanishing Valleys project, I’ll be photographing them in due course. Just look at the former offices of the Capital and Counties Bank.
We found our way to Roald Dahl Plass, walked across the steps of the Senedd building, followed the footpath past the famous Norwegian Church, and hugged the edge of the bay as it curves around towards the barrage. We passed the new Doctor Who Experience, which is housed in something only marginally smaller than an aircraft hangar. It’s odd to think that the Cardiff docks, part of which is now home to BBC Wales’s production facilities, are still are a working port as well – albeit with a fraction of the shipping that passed through here in its heyday.
We walked on past the Captain Scott Expedition Exhibition (pardon? – Ed) and made our way towards the barrier. There were loads of people jogging and cycling on this stretch. Neither of us could see the point of doing that, when a decent stretch of the legs has much the same effect.
There are terrific views across the bay. I shared my first ever panorama of Cardiff Bay with you in ‘Flipping Pictures‘ a few years ago; the sun was out and the sky was blue. Yesterday the sky was grey, and the sun was playing hard to get behind a bank of ominous clouds. It was refreshingly blustery, but the rain was holding off. We pressed on regardless, and once again our comic timing let us down.
I’ve never seen the Cardiff Bay Barrage in action, so to speak. This amazing feat of civil engineering consists of a set of sea locks separating the relatively calm bay from the choppy waters of the Bristol Channel, just a few metres away. Every so often the road surface lifts on hinges to allow boats to come and go. There are traffic signals nearby, presumably adapted from a level crossing, which stop everything in its tracks when a vessel needs to pass through. We were still a few minutes away when I saw the masts of a yacht making their way slowly from the sea into the lagoon. By the time we reached the barrage itself, the road had returned to its normal position and the traffic was starting to move again.
We were halfway across the barrage when we spotted the yacht making its way into Penarth Marina, on the west side of the bay. The sea lock was still empty, though, and I was able to get a decent photo of the extraordinary sight.
At the western end of the barrage there’s the old Custom House, now converted into a couple of upmarket restaurants, and a shockingly derelict building beside it. We wondered why on earth it had been allowed to fall into disrepair, when a shrewd investor would have transformed it into apartments to die for. We had time to kill, and we wondered about having a pint in Penarth. The trouble is that neither of us really know our way around, and we didn’t want to be late for James’s show. We decided to retrace our steps and have a pint closer to the venue instead.
While we were passing the Millennium Centre on the way back, I spotted a familiar face. My friend Cerian does a lot of work with young musicians, and she was in town for a rehearsal with BBC Wales. Jason and I still had the best part of an hour to kill, so we found a pub called the Packet and decided to call in for a pint. It’s quite a large old-school pub on a corner, rather reminiscent of some of the East London pubs I remember from my first student days. The prices were reasonable (for Cardiff) and the lager wasn’t bad (for Cardiff), so I made a mental note of the place for future reference. We sat in the beer garden and had a chat before making our way to Sunflower and I.
It’s an odd place: rather a grand old building filled with tables and chairs, a couple of grand chandeliers, shelves lined with books and ornaments, and – in the middle of the room – a baby grand piano. By day it’s a flower shop and tea rooms; by night it becomes a venue for occasional live music. The young guy on the door (who we presumed was the owner) ticked our names off the guest list, and we made our way inside. To my surprise, Rob was already there, having gone directly from the station.
The venue was already fairly full, and James was bustling about putting last-minute preparations in place. I grabbed him for a couple of minutes and introduced him to the other guys – although he and Rob already knew each other vaguely, of course. We let him get on with things and found a space at the end of a long table and sat down to look at the programme for the evening. A few more people came in after us, including another of my friends, the versatile and gorgeous singer Cat Southall. How she and James know each other is a mystery, but he’s mixing with all sorts of creative people in Cardiff, so I suppose their paths were bound to cross at some point.
The performance of Medusa’s Trap started without fanfare or fuss. There wasn’t even a curtain for the cast to hide behind. Instead, they were performing in a small area in the middle of the room, with only a couple of armchairs as props. The main character, Baron Medusa (played by Tom Seymour), was ‘on stage’ pretty much the whole time, while the others came and went throughout. From overheard snatches of conversation during the interval, I gathered that they’re mostly involved with the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. I’ll namecheck them all, purely for journalistic accuracy: Polycarpe was played by Luke Hereford; Astolfo by Tom Roderick; Frisette by Gemini Anderson; Jonas by James himself; the prepared piano was played by Philip May.
What can I say? It’s a one-act play with bizarre dialogue, a slightly surreal situation, a handful of musical intervals, and a dancing monkey (played by James himself). By the halfway point I could see why the Surrealists and Absurdists would have looked on Satie as a kind of godfather. I can’t say I entirely understood it, but it was certainly well done and extremely French (in a nice way). The only problem we had (from our perspective behind the stage, so to speak) was that Mr Seymour was rather soft-spoken, and we often found it difficult to catch his lines. Still, it was just an appetiser for the main course.
During the interval Dr Caroline Potter of Kingston University gave a brief talk about Satie’s life, work and legacy. She’s written a book about him, which has just been published. (How on earth James had managed to invite her to speak remains a mystery. His networking skills put mine to shame, to be honest.)
The second part of the evening was a recital of some of Satie’s music, starting with probably his best-known pieces, Gymnopédie 1 and 2. I was in very slightly more familiar territory here. Mr May played most of the music during this second part, but James played a couple of his own brief minimalist (and quite experimental) compositions. A young girl named Lynne Phillips joined Mr May for a couple of fearsome-sounding piano duets, and the rest of the company either sang or played as well. Between costume changes, changing sides on the piano, singing with a pet rat on one’s head (seriously!) and almost trashing the piano, it was a pretty weird concert all told.
At the end of the performance we had a slice of birthday cake, sang ‘Happy Birthday’, had a very brief chat with James while he was helping to clear up, and made our way back to the station in time for the last train home.
On last night’s evidence there’s no doubt that we’re producing some fine talent here in Wales, and it was great to see some of them performing in an intimate – albeit unusual – setting. Weeping Tudor Productions are planning more Satie festivities over the next few months, and I’m hoping to support them if I can fit them in around my other commitments. I’m so proud to see one of my good friends doing something which he’s clearly passionate about, and it’s good to know that my other pals are willing to support something a bit out of the ordinary as well. Watch this space (or check out Weeping Tudor on Facebook for more details of their calendar) …
(By the way, did I mention that the tall, slim, attractive and red-haired Ms Anderson could very easily be my next ex-girlfriend if she plays her cards wrong?)
An interesting meme popped up on Facebook yesterday. It was a fact I’d known for many years, but I’d never seen the evidence with my own eyes.
This milestone in US musical history heralded the so-called ‘British Invasion’ of pop (and, later, rock) groups across the pond. Within a few months of the Fab Four’s explosion into American youth culture, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Animals, the Small Faces, and a whole host of popular beat combos started to repay the debt they all owed to Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Little Richard et al – with substantial interest! Arguably the most productive, inventive, experimental and enduring two decades of popular music started pretty much this week, forty-two years ago.
I say ‘enduring’ for a reason. Radio 2’s long-running Sounds of the Sixties, presented by the avuncular broadcasting veteran Brian Matthew, continues to do exactly what it says on the tin. On a Sunday afternoon, Johnnie Walker (who last week marked his fiftieth anniversary on the air) presents Sounds of the Seventies. I love both shows, but whereas Mr Walker spends a fair bit of time reminiscing between records, Mr Matthew just spins the discs and reads out dedications. (Incidentally, if Dad were still alive, he’d be just about six weeks younger than Mr Matthew. Mr Walker is about two years younger than Mother. You can probably tell why I’ve got such a broad taste in music!)
Anyway, last night in the pub, Gareth S., the usual Friday night DJ, was a no-show. I don’t know where Mark, the guv’nor, was. The upshot was that the DJ booth was unoccupied. Courtney, Mark’s daughter and barbint of this parish, was in notional charge of the jukebox. And thereby hangs a tale.
Courtney is eighteen. Her sister Brooke is a couple of years older. They’re very definitely products of the Heart FM/MTV generation, which I referred to at the tail end of ‘Pick ‘n’ (Re)Mix‘. Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. (Incidentally, kids, the M in MTV originally stood for ‘music’, in case you’re wondering.) There’s a TV channel called The Box, which broadcasts an endless stream of advertisements for mobile phone apps, cosmetics and fashion chains, punctuated with the occasional music video. (Or is it the other way round? It’s hard to tell sometimes.) Anyway, on Friday afternoon they broadcast what’s amusingly referred to as the ‘Top 40’. Forty videos, averaging four minutes apiece, plus ad breaks, makes a reasonable three-hour slot on TV. Then, instead of delving into the archives (which, in MTV terms, equates to about 1988 at the earliest), they play the entire three hour show again!
As my young friends would say: I shit you not!
The weirdest aspect of the whole phenomenon is that, once a song drops out of the Hit Parade, it ceases to exist entirely. There was a time, when I was in my second first year at university, when you couldn’t walk into a pub without hearing ‘Poker Face’ by Lady Gaga. It was a breath of fresh air when it first came out. Then it was played to death. The Pickled Pepper in Aberdare (formerly the Bush Inn, and now the Bush Inn) had one of the music channels on all day, and ‘Poker Face’ must have been on at least a dozen times every day. After a while the novelty kinda wore off. But Gareth gave it a spin last weekend, and I thought, ‘Wow, I haven’t heard this for ages!’ (It’s still a great song. It ain’t ‘Comfortably Numb’, but it’s a great song nonetheless.) It goes to demonstrate the market saturation we’ve reached, that a song you couldn’t escape from less than seven years ago is now considered to be a Golden Oldie.
A few weeks ago, Chazza invited (challenged?) me to duet with her on the karaoke. She’s half my age, if that. Straight away I said, ‘I know the perfect song: “Shut Up” by the Black Eyed Peas.’ She leapt at it, once she got over her initial amazement. I think she was expecting me to suggest something from Chicago, or a classic sixties/seventies hit. But it’s a great pop song (or rather, it was – until we got our hands on it!)
I can’t say the same for the majority of the stuff in the Top 40 at the moment. Acts don’t even have decent names any more. Gone are the days when you could call yourself the Clash, or the Stranglers, or even So-and-so and the Such-and-such. Now it’s all What’s-his-face featuring Wossnim and Wossnim. When I started doing my regular Xmas special quizzes in the Cambrian, I used to dread the music round. On paper, it’s a nice idea: identify all the No 1 UK hits from the year – a point for the title, and a point for the artist. In practice, it’s a pain in the arse, because half of them sound identical, and there are often as many as five or six credited performers. Teams were scoring forty or fifty points just on the fucking music round! Crazy.
As for the ‘songs’ themselves – well, this meme (again found on Facebook) kinda sums things up:
(Yes, I know the date for the Led Zeppelin song is wrong! I don’t make the memes. And I thought a hoe was something you used in the garden, too …)
A few weeks ago, I was chatting to Gareth E. and Wayne W. about music in general. Wayne and I share the opinion that Morrissey is probably one of the the finest songwriters working in the UK today. He’s disarmingly frank, outspoken, erudite and witty. The aforementioned Ms Minaj could live to be a thousand years old and never come up with anything remotely close to the sheer audacious brilliance of ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ or ‘This Charming Man’.
But great lyrics are only half the battle, aren’t they? You also need to have great music behind them. That’s why the Morrissey/Johnny Marr partnership was such a revelation in the face of synthpop (which I also love, by the way). That’s why Pink Floyd’s masterly concept pieces work so well. That’s why Abba’s massive hits have stood the test of time. Look at the superb body of work which resulted from Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s collaboration, or Simon and Garfunkel’s back catalogue, or the tremendous output of Lamont Dozier and Brian and Eddie Holland. (Stock, Aitken and Waterman had the brass neck to call themselves ‘the Hit Factory’! They were a cottage industry in comparison to the Motown guys.)
When songwriting partnerships really come together, it’s a perfect illustration of what R. Buckminster Fuller meant by synergy – the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. And they didn’t get much greater than John Lennon and Paul McCartney when they were firing on all cylinders.
To illustrate my point even more fully – as I’ve said, last night Courtney was in charge. After pumping several credits into the jukebox, she proceeded to dial up the same music that was on the TV (with the sound down). She could have saved money and just turned the idiot’s lantern up, but that’s not the point. The Lighthouse isn’t a kids’ pub. Yes, youngsters come in, but they rarely stay for the duration – it’s just a stopping-off point on the way around town. Most of the punters are around my age, or a bit older. We don’t want to listen to Justin bloody Bieber or Iggy Azalea (not her real name, apparently), or Jason DeRulo, or even Fetty Wap. (Personally, I thought Fetty Wap was a bondage-themed website optimised for mobile phones.) We were brought up listening to proper music, after all.
So, when Courtney returned to the bar and left the jukebox unattended, I thought I’d mark the momentous anniversary of the British Invasion in fitting style. I couldn’t remember all five songs, but I found four of them on the menu, and threw in ‘She’s Leaving Home’ for good measure.
And the atmosphere was immediately transformed. One couple, around my own age, started dancing. Everyone else started singing along. A few people who were passing came in and stayed for a drink – purely on the strength of the music. It only lasted for a quarter of an hour or so, and then normal service was resumed. I, along with quite a few others, made my excuses and left.
I know it’s early days, and (as I’ve noted several times previously) predictions of the future often land well wide of the target. But I’m fairly confident that people will still be playing the Beatles’ records in a thousand years’ time – and that they’ll continue to influence countless generations of songwriters and musicians to come.
What can Britain offer the world today, by way of comparison. Sam Smith? Fine voice, but largely wasted on piss-poor material. Adele? (Ditto) Ed bloody Sheeran? Some clothes horse from Simon Cowell’s stable? Do me a bloody favour! Most of the current crop of UK performers will be lucky if anyone’s still listening to their music ten years down the line, never mind fifty. In fact (as I observed to my pal Jimmy N. yesterday), I strongly suspect the current charts, filled as they are with interchangeable and indistinguishable garbage, are probably America’s way of getting revenge for showing them exactly how it’s done, forty-two years ago this week.
Being a Non-Linear Account of the Life and Opinions of The Author, Cross-referenced and Illustrated, with Occasional Hesitations, Repetitions and Deviations.