Thursday, 28 March 2019

Being Frank:The Chris Sievey Story

I hate funerals.

Well I guess no one looks forward to funerals but they are an event where people are remembered and talked about with warmth, honesty and love by those who thought the world of them. Often feel that it would be good for that to happen while the person is still alive. I hope that Chris Sievey felt the great love, respect and gratitude expressed in this excellent documentary by Steve Sullivan before his death in 2010 aged just 54 - still with plenty of fun and nonsense planned.

I first encountered Frank Sidebottom on the British version of MTVs 'Remote Control' quiz presented by Tony "Mr Manchester" Wilson where he was one of the channels that contestants could pick a question from. This was also at a time when Jonathan Ross' chatshow would feature early appearances by Vic & Bob, Higson & Whitehouse plus Jools Holland Hootenany stalwart, Roland Riveron. Despite being given minimal airtime Chris / Frank made an instant strong impression on me with his surreal, childlike wit and imaginative props. His outsized papier mache head cocked to one side he skilfully built up this world for Frank to inhabit which was a skewed version of reality.

The documentary is clearly a labour of love and miraculous distillation of literally days of film, audio and written material. In fact it is a minor miracle that the archive exists as it was rescued at the 11th hour from authorities clearing Chris' old house. That would have been tragedy upon tragedy as a vital record of outsider art would have been lost

Like the unhurried genius that was Ivor Cutler, Frank's talent was built on a particularly individual worldview that we were invited to share. Spurred on by The Beatles ill fated talent scouting Apple project he was fizzing with creative ideas. The mind that creates the worlds first ever computer program released on vinyl should be cherished. His straight ahead pop career was beset by bad luck despite the tunes yet also there seemed a devilish self destruct strain running through his work. His DIY ethic led to him personalising videos and extravagant replies to fan letters.

It's hard to tell from the film how much the success, although limited in terms of the general public, of Frank was an albatross or a useful tool to express himself. His five year plan that was cut short by his death involved using the character of Frank to build up a public profile and then remove the head at his zenith like an unmasked Kendo Nagasaki to emerge as Chris Sievey, musician.

The person that emerges from behind the mask via the documentary however is a wonderfully positive optimistic and enthusiastic soul. He had his demons and vices like we all do but his relationship with his children is a joy as he colours their world with his fantastical adventures. When they reach school age he admits "They aren't mine anymore" cursing the passing of time and relinquishing their minds to the influence of more mundane adults.

Bursting with grainy VHS footage, songs, home movies and intimate moments it's a treasure trove for Frank fans but easily accessible for those who are new to Franksworld. People like Chris Sievey are rare and rarely cherished or acknowledged for their spirit until after they are gone. This film hopefully will give him the recognition that he deserves. For me he stands alongside people like Ivor Cutler & Viv Stanshall - those unable or unwilling to accept the world as it is & try and show us how magic and absurdly funny life can be.

Treasure those who create and embrace the woozy strange dreamlike vibe of this life affirming documentary

'Being Frank' opens on 29th March and screening venues and dates can be found here

The soundtrack is out via 7A Records on limited edition vinyl picture disc and CD here

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Daylight Music Presents: Distant Voices

I grew up connecting songs with prison. One of my touchstone records that I wore out was Johnny Cash live at San Quentin with his hastily penned title track that tears the walls down and takes the roof off with its bitterness and fury. Todays sets provided by members of the Distant Voices collective, written in conjunction with serving prisoners looked beyond their current surroundings, often backward with regret but forward with hope

What made this event truly special was that we were able to gain insight into the people and the stories behind the songs. Not what these people had done to end up where 0they were but how their lives shaped where their imagination took them. Presenting the songs featured on the album 'Not Known At This Address' and beyond, Emma Pollock, Jo Mango, Louis Abbott & Donna Maciocia. gave voice to those often forgotten by society.

Some of the songs delved into the life story of the inma8tes with 'I Will Not Follow Him To The Grave' showing the influence that Liam Forsyth's brother had on his life and how that will shape his future. Emma Pollock, ex-Delgados, gave us all the pain, sorrow, hope and spirit of the song through her performance. 

Dreams of home are unsurprisingly at the heart of a couple of the songs played but not in a cliched or standard way. 'A Home From Home' is from the point of view of an Indian national who was looking forward to release and returning home. However his song is full of thanks and memories he will carry with him of Scotland where he lived and unfortunately served time. 

Frewsie penned a tribute to the Magnum Leisure Centre of his hometown, Irvine, 'Rendezvous With Warpaint' which was demolished while he was inside. The song represents the death of a part of his childhood and something in his life that he thought would always be there. 

During the show, betwee2n cake runs, we were encouraged to ask questions and engage with the subjects, learning about the creative process and the artists own reactions to the process. Jo Mango played 'Regardless' her response to 'Franks' song' reflecting his use of sunshine and light at its emotional peak. I particularly enjoyed a song I didn't catch the title of (and is not on the album) with the lyric 'I wish I could rewind the tape and record over all the mistakes I made'

All the performers put such emotion into the tales they were telling , Donna on the mournful 'Never Got To Say Goodbye' and Louis perfectly inhabiting the aching to be free of 'An Open Door'. The set ended with a slight rewrite in 'Buck It Button' - perhaps in deference to the chapel or younger ears in the audience 8(I've heard worse there meself) an upbeat funny warning to the  dangerous, often fatal impetuous spirit in us all
You came away from this event, back into the wild windy Saturday afternoon with its traffic and noise perhaps thinking more of those behind bars as individuals with stories more complicated and imaginations more varied and intense than the media like to portray.

As always, Daylight Music is a unique oasis of calm contemplation that I am torn about - I'd love as many people to experience it as possible but not too many that it would mean getting in becomes a problem. Such a chilled out vibe, children are welcomed, not shushed into submission and its all so friendly. Add to that the wonderful sound, in one of the country's finest venues plus cake and hot drinks - its always a pleasure.

You can find more about the Distant Voices Project HERE
And download or buy 'Not Known At This Address' HERE
 or via iTunes & Spotify

And Daylight Music runs throughout the year at UNION CHAPEL Islington - full details HERE

Friday, 8 March 2019

I'm Every Woman: A Musical Celebration For International Women's Day

Quiet please, there's a person up there
And she's been singing of the things
That none of us could bear to hear for ourselves
Give her your respect if nothing else

Every year the comedian Richard Herring spends 8th March on Twitter telling anyone asking the question 'When is International Men's Day?' that it is on 19th November - raising laughs, awareness and money for charity. You can check his twitter feed for this years efforts and how to throw in a few quid.

For the past couple of years I have marked it by attending events organised by the award winning Green Note and curated by Michele Stodart - bass face extraordinaire from The Magic Numbers.

In reality nights like this can be mixed affairs with varying quality and degrees of success when interpreting songs in often vastly different arrangements but this evening flowed perfectly representing the many stages of womanhood.

What I enjoyed about this years event was the slightly wider breadth of age and experience gracing the stage which opened up themes and insight through their and other artist's eyes. There was a strong mix of covers and original material throughout with accapella trio The Rosellas kicking us off with a sweet 'Que Sera Sera'. Margo Buchanan gave 'At 17' a wistful and dreamlike quality that made a familiar tune sound fresh once more. She later joined Charlie Dore for an impromptu comic double act as they discussed their hero, Joni Mitchell, before a simply beautiful version of 'Both Sides Now' that even captivated this casual fan of the lady. 

Charlie's own song 'All These Things' which revolves around a couple going through IVF - she admits the 1st line "Waiting in a petri dish" came to her and the rest just tumbled after - is a heartbreaking song full of hope, prayers and dreams. It wasn't the only one to bring a lump to the throat as musical arranger and Dream Academy vocalist Kate St John's 'We Watch You Slip Away' about her own mothers battle with dementia seemed to make the whole room hold its collective breath.

Bristol's Celestine closed the first half and absolutely blew the roof off the place with her take on Nina Simone's 'Four Woman' inhabiting the strength and power of the lyric and Nina herself at its climax. Encapsulating motherhood and what it means to be  female wre at the core of Michele Stodarts' choices for the night in Dar Williams' 'When I Was A Boy' and Brandi Carlyle's take on motherhood, 'The Mother'. The Rosellas mostly unaccompanied version 'Grandma's Hands' really shouldn't have worked on paper but was genuinely brilliant. Throughout the night violinist Connie Chatwin added subtle colour and pathos to the songs.

Was thrilled that Angela Gannon chose Dusty's 'Quiet Please, There's A Lady On the Stage' * (she is the Magic Numbers "Paddington Bear death stare" weapon to constant qig talkers apparently) as the 20th anniversary of her death has just passed I thought Angela stole the Leonard Cohen tribute gig here a couple of years ago with her country tinged take on 'Tower Of Song' and she nailed this too. The audience rose without prompting on the 'stand for the ovation' line and stayed there for the title song Whitney\Chaka Khan's 'I'm Every Woman' with Celestine again wowing with her voice and expressive dancing. 

The night was rounded off with a group sing-a-long of 'Turn Turn Turn' and this incredibly talented group of women took their final bows

Quiet please, there's a lady on stage
Conductor, turn the final page
And when it's over we can all go home
But she lives on -- on the stage alone.

yes I know it's a Judy Garland song but its Dusty's for me

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Tower Theatre: Talk Radio

I was all over Oliver Stone's film based on Eric Bogosian's play at the turn of the 1990s - his ranting black hearted beat poet of the airwaves chimed with my other obsession, the stand up of Bill Hicks. Haven't rewatched the film in many a year but was keen to catch this stage presentation by Tower Theatre Company

A key component to the play's success is maintaining the claustrophobia of the situation, feeling that we are trapped as much as Barry Champlain (Simon Vaughan) with these disembodied voices of the sad, lonely, angry and dispossessed. Anyone who has ever listened to late night radio of any kind will recognise these people. The set helps maintain the pressure on the DJ, pinned in on one side by his call wrangler and punching bag, Stu (Luke Owen) and the other his on/off producer/girlfriend, Linda (Samantha Psyk). As the night roll on we learn a little about Barry from these sidekicks as well as his anxious boss, Dan, who can see bright and profitable future for his star performer if he can just keep him from burning out.

Simon Vaughan plays Barry as a ball of nervous chain smoking energy, a wisecracking sick puppy led to flights of fancy to twist the knife or amuse himself with the callers. The lines left natural rather than monologues, you could see the wheels turning and his delight and dismay in what he is creating and hearing.

The naturalism and playfulness is particularly striking when a caller , Kent (Leon Zedlmayer), worms his way into the studio and the interplay between the dumb kid and the cynical broadcaster has no hint of artifice.
If you are familiar with the film it is not a mere re-tread but a fresh feeling tale that despite being set in 1980's Cleveland still has deep resonance for society. Racism, poverty, division and loneliness are very much out there in the darkness

Talk Radio continues at Tower Theatre, Stoke Newington until Sat. 9th March

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

So this happened

Had a bit of what we euphemistically call 'a wobble' a few weeks back. The sort of wobble that means your boss makes sure you got home safely and rings you in the morning to check you haven't done 'anything silly' - which is also a euphemism. 

Long term readers will know that I once planned to take my own life in a train based scenario. I had planned the where and when but (spoiler alert) drew back from the brink. I think I am in a better place now, have friends that I can call on and know how to spot when I am spiralling into dark depression. I cope better in all manner of situations I used to run screaming from and I'm proud of myself as much as I know people are proud of me.

Some things thou never stay buried.

I want to keep the time and place this happened a little vague as  possible as in part this isn't my story to tell. I was travelling home on train from working in London which is something I once thought impossible - the working, the commuting (only occasional thankfully) and train travel. As I got off at my destination I was feeling tired and aimlessly thinking about dinner.

I glanced over at the spot. The spot where I had stood that day as an express train approached. I did so almost out of habit as it reminds me of how far I have come and drives me forward. I noticed that someone was standing there and heard the announcement 'the next train does not stop here'. The train flashed past but the person had gone. 

You have heard the sound of a train flying through a station hundreds of times - its exciting, scary and strangely otherworldly whatever your age. That day sounded no different. There may have been a bang or impact noise, perhaps my brain has erased it to save my psyche but the person left no sound as they departed. I heard people shouting and screaming, the running footsteps and being pushed past but I was still looking at the spot. 

Don't really feel its appropriate to go into the details of what happened after that and I have avoided reading any reports as selfishly I need to keep a distance between the reality of what that poor soul did. It gave me a sense of what it would have been like for an observer if I had jumped that day. And I feel bad about making someone else's death all about me but its the only way I can relate to what happened.

I was given an appointment for counselling a couple of weeks later which I thought 'bah, been there mate, done all my talking' and tried to carry on as before. Didn't really feel like talking about it as couple of people I know were caught up in the train delay aftermath and made noises about 'selfish people causing misery for others' . 

A few days later I was at work and the job wasn't going well - the staff on site rude and unhelpful, the venue hot and uncomfortable plus we heard most of our previous five hours of work would have to be undone due to bad communication. What I would normally have dealt with using mumbled curses and hopes of karmic violence became a perfect storm of despair. Suddenly all the feelings of that day years ago that witnessing that person die has reopened in me punched me in the solar plexus and I sat and sobbed for what seemed like ages, apparently gibbering about wanting to end it all so much so that my boss called top check I was ok. I had given him a brief outline of my mental health just after Christmas as he wanted to be able to deal with employees who are dealing with problems on a permanent or temporary basis
Since then I have seen a professional that deals specifically with this kind of trauma and am doing ok. Life has meant having to return to the places where it happened and deal with the emotions, accept the difficulty and pain, trying to get through. Not going to lie, the first time it was damned hard but the brain is a tough old sod at times and its getting easier with each step.
I wish I could have called a friend to discuss this but my shame over any weakness - yes I know, its understandable but you are trying to rationalise and irrational thought process here - which is at the heart of all people struggling with their mental health. 

The worst thing about being 'that friend with depression' is that people rarely turn to you when they are having a bad time because they assume that you have enough to deal with. Well that's exactly how we feel about everyone else all the time. 

Is there a point to all this - I'm not sure other than explaining my freak out online if you saw it and that I'm ok.