Friday, July 28, 2017

The Big Names Booker

This year's Booker prize longlist will no doubt please the booksellers. No small publishers (just big indies, Faber, Bloomsbury, Canongate; majors and imprints) - lets hope this is just an anomaly, not a trend - and most of the "big" names who released books that qualify, find themselves on the list - mammoth books by Paul Auster, and past-winner Arundhati Roy, alongside Zadie and Ali Smith, and acclaimed story writer George Saunders for his first novel, and probably favourite, Irish historical novelist Sebastian Barry. More interestingly perhaps, Jon McGregor makes an appearance with his new novel, "Reservoir 13" - his first for seven years - and Irish writer Mike McCormack's prize winning "Solar Bones" arrives a year late, after finding a British, as well as Irish publisher.

First thoughts on the Booker since it let in the Americans has been that they do a bit of cheese slicing, a third British, a third Commonwealth, and a third U.S.  It does seem increasingly an arbitrary list. In the past the Booker was notorious for longlisting books still in manuscript, so the general reader couldn't get to read them - this year both the Saunders, McCormack and Colson Whitehead's acclaimed "The Underground Railroad" feel like they've arrived here last on a very long tour. I guess we're all  a little fluid on when books are published these days. Naomi Alderman's "The Power" which won the Bailey's Prize is nowhere to be seen, surprisingly. As ever, the longlist is a little bit of a distraction - often it seems a little bit of a sop to newer writers, giving them a bit of time in the sun, this time its the bigger writers who may not make the cut.

There will be a couple of months for the longlist to get attention before the shortlist is announced. There's certainly enough interesting books on this year's list to make it potentially a break with the past but as Booker shortlisting is mostly about horse trading between several judges I wonder how that will manifest itself.

Our three big arts prizes - the Booker, the Turner, and the Mercuty, also released this week with a mix of Radio 1 pleasers (Alt-J, Ed Sheeran, Blossoms), and grime (Stormzy, J Hus) - seem to be struggling for relevance in an age where on the one hand the "game" is very much controlled by a non-pluralistic media, and on the other hand, where the best work is happening far away from the mainstream with little interest in being co-opted into "safe" spaces.

Monday, July 10, 2017

A Creative Mini-break

As a friend said, Manchester International Festival offers a "holiday in your own city" and to my shame the last couple of times I've hardly taken advantage of it: two years ago, I was busy with work and away for half of it and two years before I was recuperating from an eye operation and not feeling like excitement of any kind.

This year I took some time off, checked the schedule and decided that this middle weekend would be the perfect time for a creative mini-break. Life intervened as it always does, and a friend's 50th in London took me away for 24-hours. But, still, I feel like I've experienced a bit of MIF this year, and with a week of it still to go, it aint over yet.

A week before I'd gone to see New Order and attended the public event "What is the city but it's people?" a wonderfully life affirming piece of public art/theatre. Then this Wednesday it was the Manifest fringe arts festival launch - where the city's small galleries, pop up spaces, studios and project spaces come together for a city wide art tour. I saw a mesmerising performance from Ruby Tingle in Chethams on Wednesday before an impromptu MIF "gig" - minimalist composer William Basinski - at Festival Square. All of this and more I talk about in my new forum for everything arty and contemporary - my new Interesting Drug podcast which I hope to publish every three or four weeks for your listening pleasure. Its on Mixcloud so I can include music in the podcast - and its about 15 minutes of chat for 45 minutes of talking.

On Thursday night it was "Available Light" at the Palace Theatre, and tonight I'm going to "Returning to Reims" at HOME. During Friday I took advantage of the Manifest programme and visited a range of galleries and project spaces. Manifest is over for now, but some of the shows that are featured in it go on for a few days and weeks yet so check them out if you have the chance.
The swift trip to London was meant to include some more art but it was such a lovely day I just mooched around Russell Square, and dropped £50 on magazines and books at the LRB bookshop. London does sometimes seem to be a different city culturally as well as in every other way - there's simply not a bookshop in Manchester that matches LRB, Foyles, Tate Modern or a number of others unfortunately.

So last day of my cultural mini-break and its now raining - ah, Manchester, so much to sodding answer for indeed - so I'm going to write up a few poems, send a few off, and head into town later before the play at HOME. Next weekend as MIF comes to an end I'm seeing Lets Eat Grandma on Sunday afternoon before heading to Ceremony the final event near HOME/Bridgewater Hall.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

My Life With New Order

It may seem ridiculous now, but at the time - 1982, 1983 - I had only the vaguest sense of the connection between Joy Division and New Order. I came to the former via the posthumous outtakes album "Still" - a life changing moment - but in those days the only way you found out about music was the weekly music papers, and they were not prone to nostalgia. That Ian Curtis had died, I must have known, but I don't think - coming to Joy Division after his death - that I knew what he looked like. Today, a large picture of him smoking a cigarette is the centrepiece of a new exhibition at "True Faith" the Manchester International Festival exhibition featuring work inspired by Joy Division and New Order at Manchester Art Gallery.

In the mean time, my friend Dave said that New Order were the new band that had formed after Joy Division. Their first single, "Ceremony", did sound like the same band, though the vocal was tentative and back in the mix. In the mean time, the album, "Movement", looked unobtrusive with its blue abstract cover, and the music inside sounded equally tentative. The song I most liked, an outlier (as Peter Hook shares the vocal), was "Doubts Even Here."

Yet over the next couple of years New Order became far more than the band that had come out of the tragedy of Joy Division. "Everything's Gone Green" with its obtuse title and slight dance feel, was good, "Procession" - its B-side - was as majestic as its title, but it was "Temptation" that glorious northern attempt at new wave soul, "oh you've got green eyes, oh you've got blue eyes....", that was the record I adored. It was - I think - the first single I bought with my own money. Going into the record shop....wait....going into John Menzies, the newsagents in Walsall, I asked behind the counter, I think, for the 12" but they only had the 7" in stock so I got that version and took it home and played it to death.

Oddly enough New Order weren't the band who I loved most over the next few years. I tended to tape their records off Dave, who would religiously pick up each new single as it came out. He'd got a job at 16 after his YTS ended, so had more disposable income than me, staying on at sixth form, and then going to university. Yet along with the 3rd member of our group (and we were briefly a group - Damn the Visual - as well as a group of friends), Dan, we went over to Birmingham Powerhouse to see them. This must have been about 1984. By this time they'd released the seminal 12" "Blue Monday" as well as its follow up (which briefly I preferred) the out and out disco record "Confusion." "Blue Monday" was seminal to me in a number of ways. At a 5th year disco the girls danced, the boys didn't. No hardship, to a soundtrack of Wham! and Culture Club. Then on came "Blue Monday." "Come on guys," I said. "Let's dance." I danced. How I danced. If hearing "Still" had been the thing that freed up my ears, then that first dance to "Blue Monday" freed up my body. I danced. I danced to the beat. To the rhythm. People stopped what they were doing and watched. Over the next week I walked the corridors of the school to sounds of ridicule, and occasionally praise. I dared to break some kind of code that I didn't even understand. But I did understand the music. "Blue Monday" was modern music. In January 1984 I would take ownership of my beloved Roland Juno 6 synthesizer, a relationship that continues to this day, though without a drum machine or proper recording equipment the pristine modernism of "Blue Monday" was never achieveable.

I seem to remember "Power, Corruption and Lies" being a bit of a disappointment - especially in relation to "Confusion" and "Blue Monday." The only pure electronic track - "586" - was sort of an early version of "Blue Monday" - the rest of the songs were more solid, but weren't the expected futurism. Yet, there was also "Your Silent Face", a song so gobsmackingly gorgeous, that even its lyrical crapness, "so why don't you piss off?" seems an acceptable piece of balloon puncturing. Its hard to explain to people how fast things moved back then musically. I was listening to SPK, Einsturzende Neubauten, Test Department on the one hand, Tracy Thorn and Aztec Camera and the Go Betweens on the other. My favourite band were the Cocteau Twins, and New Order - and the Cure - sat either side of me - as bands I loved, but didn't quite feel an ownership towards; perhaps aware by then of that back story. But also - their rare interviews were inconclusive, they seemed unwilling and unable to articulate their music; their Factory record sleeves gave no games away. Who'd have thought that there would be all these books, biographies, autobiographies, films, documentaries, exhibitions all these years on?

The first album of New Order's that was truly mine was "Low Life" which I bought on the day of release to get me through my A levels. I played it non-stop for a month then probably not again for five years. But I love that album, every note of it. I saw them on tour again at this time, at the Tower Ballrooms, Edgbaston, a strange venue on the edge of a reservoir away from the centre of Birmingham. My memory is of a chaotic start - of technology breaking down; possibly even a broken bass string. I don't think the album was out yet so all the songs were new and strange - they began, according to with "Sunrise" and would encore with "Confusion".  Actually, that reminds me. At that earlier gig at Birmingham Powerhouse they'd left the stage and yet the stage lights had stayed on and the crowd stayed calling out for more even though we knew that New Order didn't do encores. I looked around for Dave and Dan but couldn't find them so assumed they'd stay. I waited maybe twenty minutes or more and then they came back on and gave a blistering version of (I think) "Confusion." It turned out they'd gone to the car thinking it was over, where we were being picked up. They were just about to leave - stranding me in Birmingham - when I eventually turned up, full of excitement at the unexpected encore.

By the time I was at University New Order's perceived futurism was now a given. A run of amazing singles, rarely off the albums, or when they were, in very different versions, were the soundtrack to many a university club night. When the CD player became the latest new thing, pretty much the first album I bought on the format was "Brotherhood", a strangely dense and unflinching album, and there wouldn't be another studio album for three years, when a retooled, loved-up band would translate their role as dance pioneers into the rhythms du jour of 1980s acid house via the "Technique" album. In the mean time though there was perhaps their finest hour, the double CD compilation "Substance" which brought together those expensive 12" singles and their b-sides, often dub or reworked versions. I think I asked on an earlier post if there was ever a better run of singles than those early Jesus and Mary Chain singles, but perhaps New Order is the answer. From "Ceremony" to "Touched by the Hand of God" there is a virtual soundtracking to the decade. Only "Blue Monday" and the beautiful "True Faith" were big hits - and it was a constant frustration how Radio 1 and the BBC were so reluctant to play or show this wonderful band - like ignoring the Beatles in the sixties. New Order didn't do themselves any favours. Still staying in Manchester - a city I first visited in late 1985, before later making it my home - the Factory aesthetic, a situationist play, that had more to do with art that commerce, saw them "invest" in Dry Bar and the Hacienda, not realising that all the money they were making was being immediately blown by Tony Wilson's schemes. This is a well worn story - but the Hacienda had a role in their music of course. For New Order, were veterans by now, but as bit by the dance bug as a younger generation. After all "Blue Monday" was almost a proto house record, or  a proto hip hop record - take your choice - they influenced both genres.

But "Technique" and their only number one, the unexpected football anthem, "World in Motion", was also kind of an ending. At their commercial peak they had one more album in them, the untypical "Republic", with its plethora of remixers and versions. And a band who had previously not released singles from albums, released four from this one. But there was a reason....Factory records, which had been riding high with both New Order and Happy Mondays, had overstretched at just the wrong time - another recession, remember Norman Lamont's "green shoots of recovery?" - and, as documented in the film "24 Hour Party People" the excess was catching up. By the time "Republic" came out it was on London records. Peter Saville still designed the cover - an advertising pastiche this time - and the record was a massive hit, but with the death of Joy Division producer Martin Hannett, and the ending of their label, as well as the ongoing problems of the Hacienda, it was hardly a surprise that the band stopped.

As the eighties became the nineties New Order, never the most reliable of live bands, had nonetheless become a massive festival draw, not just in the UK but around the world. But putting the band on a hiatus after "Republic" they all started working on other projects none of which had the impact of New Order. (Though Sumner's Electronic came closest.)

Absence makes the heart grow fonder - and relocated to Manchester for a second time after a brief spell in London - I heard that they were forming and playing a gig at the Apollo. I managed to get tickets - this is 1998 - and got to see a band who I thought I would never see again. Not only was it a triumphant return, but for the first time, they made peace with their past and included Joy Division songs in their set. I had always seen the bands as two separate entities, but post-Factory, this unity would become more and more important, despite the ongoing issues in the band itself. In some ways, this restart was also an ending - I remember seeing most of the Manchester "faces" at that gig, people you'd seen off an on at other concerts. When in 1998 there was the handover of the Commonwealth Games to Manchester for 2002, I was amazed to hear that one of my favourite bands was playing the handover ceremony in Albert Square. There felt a massive vindication that this wayward, independent band, whose classic "Temptation" the BBC amongst others had hardly played, as being too obscure, were now the standard bearers for this civic occasion.

It could have been left like that of course. But New Order were never destined to be a heritage act. Their alchemy has always manifested itself in the songwriting. Both "Get Ready" and the later "Waiting for the Sirens Call" albums had brilliant lead singles, even if the more rocky album tracks were less effective. Few bands that long into career would still be in contention even. The once inscrutable New Order became, at some point over the last decade or more one of the most documented bands in pop culture. Several movies feature Joy Division, New Order and Factory records as their theme; everyone associated with them has written their story, at least once; and that civic acceptance has continued to this day - with a generation of Manchester politicians and civic leaders having grown up with the band. There's also sadness. The untreated wound of Ian Curtis's early death is a central theme to some of this memorialising. Curtis and Joy Division are now canonical. But the other deaths - Hannett, Rob Gretton and especially Tony Wilson, seem to have robbed the city of its officer class. Manchester, never knowingly a sentimental city, can get a bit teary-eyed about Wilson, and by association Joy Division/New Order.

The band, remarkably, carried on after a final split with Peter Hook, bringing back Gillian, who had left to look after family a decade before. A new album repositioned the synthesizers and the dance sensibility centre stage. They tour incessantly, whilst Hook's band "The Light" do the same, at smaller venues, providing fan friendly renditions of back catalouge albums.

Amazingly, in its ten year history, New Order have been a notable absence from the Manchester International Festival's line up - despite music being such an important strand. So this week, i went to the first night of their residency at MIF, at Granada Studios, where Joy Division's first TV performance, on "So it goes...." (also the subtitle of this collaboration with Liam Gillick) took place. Not knowing what to expect - a gig? an art piece? We were told there would be a Synthesizer orchestra. I imagined a retooled New Order, ditching the guitars, but thankfully it wasn't this. They know what they do well. Spread across the stage as they normally would be, and behind them, hidden away in 12 identical boxes, were 12 keyboard players from the RNCM, who were being conducted from the stage. The setlist was one that not even the most attentive fan could have guessed at, with old songs, obscurer songs, deep catalogue cuts from across their career, and only two or three of their most popular hits -  no "Blue Monday", and no "True Faith." It felt like that promise of futurism that was there from nearly the start, was still very much a driving force. A few years back I saw Peter Saville's cover for "Power, Corruption, and Lies" - a typical appropriation - at the V&A in their post-modernism exhibition. New Order, very much a northern working class band, somehow have always stretched way beyond those imaginary limitations. They are accidental post-modernists, perhaps their own Year Zero moment, with the death of Curtis, meaning they had to forget, then remember again the past. Alongside this series of concerts, a new show opened at Manchester Art Gallery last night, introduced by Sir Richard Leese, the leader of the council. He made the point that in naming an exhibition after a thirty year old song - "True Faith" - we are seeing how pop music, once ephemeral, can become our new "classical" canon. Of course, New Order were never quite pop music - but they were pop music nonetheless - and its fascinating to think how a song or a piece of art can last longer, and resonate further, than a city's regeneration, than a political epoch.

Not for the first time, I think this might be a suitable ending for my story with New Order, but its already had so many different phases, I wouldn't bet on it. For now, if you've got a ticket to one of their shows, you're in for a treat, and for the rest of us, the show - art inspired by Joy Division and New Order - is on now at the Manchester Art Gallery.