Thursday, June 21, 2012

Busk on the Usk

From the Chartist Rebellion of 1839 to Paul Flynn's views on cannabis to the recent election of an actual member of Goldie Lookin' Chain to the local council, Newport has always had a bit of a rebellious streak. It also happens to be a place with a rich pop cultural heritage: Joe Strummer was a former resident; the Sex Pistols passed through on their Anarchy Tour; the Stone Roses adopted Newport Corporation's cherub logo for the cover of their comeback single Love Spreads; and then there is the whole Kurt and Courtney at TJ's mythos. What I like about the city is that unconventionality is not frowned upon. It's no surprise to me that gay Surrealist photographer Angus McBean and acid-dropping feminist film-maker Jane Arden were both educated there. Newport also spawned proto-Beat writer WH Davies. And nobody tapped into the latent weirdness of the wider Gwent landscape quite like Arthur Machen. It's a place where extraordinary things happen. Blondin once walked a tightrope across the Newport marshes. Houdini escaped from a cell at Newport police station and on another occasion dived off a bridge into the River Usk! In 1968 Jane Russell - possessor of the most famous cleavage in cinematic history - did a week of shows at Cleopatra's Palace, a local Newport nightclub. And lest we forget in 1944 Joe Louis, arguably the greatest heavyweight of all time, boxed an exhibition bout at Rodney Parade.

What better way, then, to celebrate the city of Newport in all its idiosyncratic glory than a FREE festival. Busk on the Usk will be hosting bands and other music industry-related events on June 30. Green Gartside (aka Scritti Politti) who once sold communist newspapers on the streets of Newport will be back but this time subverting your ears with his musical ideology. Also performing will be punk legend and former Newport resident Jon Langford. Upstarts such as Cate le Bon, Kutosis, Anna Calvi, Dirty Goods and Fist of the First Man, amongst others, will add some youthful vitality to proceedings. In addition potentially fascinating talks and seminars are scheduled to take place. Dai Davies, former manager of The Stranglers, is set to wax lyrical about pub and punk rock. The man behind Stiff Records, Dave Robinson, will enchant you with tales of his life in the music biz. And James Endeacott, the man who signed The Libertines to Rough Trade, will share an anecdote or ten about that particular ensemble. Also holding forth will be Pauline Black frontwoman of classic ska outfit The Selecter. Adding some literary colour to the festival is Richard King whose recent tome How Soon is Now? charted the rise and fall of independent record labels such as Factory and Creation. It all sounds fabulous to me. For the full line-up, specific event locations, and details of how to obtain your FREE festival passes you need to investigate the Busk on the Usk website.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

John Cale for Breakfast

I’ll have a bacon sandwich and three glasses of champagne please. This charming photo from 1966 shows poet Gerard Malanga, artist Andy Warhol and our very own John Cale ordering a champagne breakfast at the Automat. They had, naturally, just attended a premiere of Our Man Flint. As you can see, sartorially, Cale is in full-on I'm the coolest Welshman to have ever walked the planet mode. Oh to have been that humble canteen lady!

Picture is ©Bettmann/CORBIS

Bethan Huws - Invisible Art

The Hayward Gallery in London is currently hosting an exhibition of invisible art – an event that is guaranteed to infuriate both art philistines and the humourless. Invisible art actually has a venerable tradition which includes works by Yves Klein, Yoko Ono and Andy Warhol – all of whom are included here. In the late ‘50s Klein displayed in what appeared to be an empty room “immaterial pictorial sensibility”. Yoko Ono has written instructions for invisible paintings. She also, notoriously, didn’t appear at an art event in Cardiff in 1968 but sent instead a photograph of herself. In the 1980s Andy Warhol created an invisible sculpture in a New York nightclub which just consisted of a label saying: Andy Warhol, USA/Invisible Sculpture/Mixed Media 1985. One of the contributing artists in the Hayward Gallery show is Bethan Huws from Bangor. She has apparently hired some beautiful actors to wander about the gallery distracting art lovers from their picture viewing thus rendering the exhibition itself even more invisible. If you happen to be in London why not go and see Bethan's work - well, sort of.

*Invisible: Art of the Unseen 1957-2012 is on at the Hayward Gallery in London. If you want to investigate more of Bethan Huws’s always interesting ideas check out this YouTube.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Make Me Believe In Hope

Bright Light Bright Light is the nom de pop of Rod Thomas from Neath. His debut album, Make Me Believe In Hope, is currently illuminating the murkier chambers of my black heart. In this era of Simon Cowell-validated musical vacuity, pop has become a dirty word. The alchemical process that turns an unknown into a star is now more important than the potentially transformative power of the songs themselves. As a consequence craft and intelligence are no longer words that we readily associate with pop music - but here you'll find both in abundance.

Make Me Believe In Hope charts the everyday crises and small earthquakes that make up ordinary relationships: the pursuit of love; the abandonment of love; the rejection of love. You know, the really important stuff. The diction may be simple - hearts, love, and light get mentioned a lot - but the lyrical content has deceptive emotional depth. The twin guiding presences on this recording are Hope and Vulnerability who preside over affairs like Classical deities. It's also worth noting that the majority of tracks are gender and sexuality unspecific allowing listeners maximum scope to fit their own relationship triumphs and (mostly) disasters within the parameters of each song.

The real strength of the album, though, is the deft balance Thomas strikes between lyric, melody and rhythm. He's obviously a bit of a wizard in the technical department but none of his tunes ever sink under a weight of meretricious knob twiddling or lurch off into onanistic beats and blips odysseys. All component parts are subservient to the integrity of The Song itself. Killer melodies (A New Word to Say); adrenalin rush surges (Waiting For the Feeling and How to Make a Heart); and moments of heart-stopping beauty (Debris) crop up throughout the album but are always wonderfully well controlled and delivered with crisp precision.

After a Cinderella moment in the limelight superannuated pop stars often have a belated stab at authenticity. Rod Thomas has taken the opposite career path, going from serious acoustic performer to purveyor of glittering pop. Clearly what he has retained from his previous incarnation is the ability to write and structure really strong songs. His influences are fairly brazenly worn: Pet Shop Boys, '80s synth pop, House, but he is not in thrall to any of them and here manages successfully to forge his own musical identity. Pop has always implied transience but Rod Thomas's outstanding songwriting skills and his in demand production talents might suggest otherwise. Either way, with this album Bright Light Bright Light is in serious danger of giving the genre its credibility back.

*Make Me Believe In Hope is out now on The Blue Team/Aztec Records and it's a bit of a pop masterpiece.

**Here's a good recent YouTube interview with the man himself.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Brian Josephson

In 1973 Welsh physicist Brian Josephson won the Nobel Prize for “his theoretical predictions of the properties of a supercurrent through a tunnel barrier in particular the phenomena which are generally known as the Josephson Effects.” This achievement was even more impressive as he had actually made his scientific breakthrough 11 years previously when he was just 22-years-old. Soon after picking up the glittering award in Stockholm Josephson did something totally unexpected: he moved away from mainstream physics and began to pursue an interest in the paranormal, particularly telepathy. Apparently his interest in the esoteric had first been aroused in the 1960s when he got into eastern mysticism. At Cambridge he investigated the links between quantum physics and telepathy, suggesting that we can sense things such as potential danger in our nervous system. The very fact that he gave credence to telepathy has earned him derision in certain scientific quarters. Josephson’s open-mindedness towards other esoteric pursuits such as spoon-bending might not have helped his cause. For his part, though, Josephson has castigated fellow scientists who approach new ideas from a totally disbelieving standpoint. Open-mindedness should surely always be the correct approach for any scientist. Only time will tell if Josephson’s work on telepathy at the Mind Matter Unification Project at Cambridge University proves him to be a visionary or a heretic.

*The above picture shows Brian Josephson lecturing at a Society of Psychical Research conference in 1982. The photograph was taken by Dr Elmar R Gruber and is ©Fortean/TopFoto

Friday, June 08, 2012

Hughesovka - Dreaming a City

Wales inevitably haven’t qualified for the 2012 European Championship finals but we are there in spirit – well, in Donetsk, at least. For that industrial city was originally named Hughesovka in honour of its founder John Hughes, an entrepreneur from Merthyr Tydfil. In 1869 he bought some land out there and set up New Russia Company Ltd. The following year he emigrated, taking with him a team of 100 highly skilled miners, metal workers and engineers, mostly from Wales. Hughes’s company quickly established itself producing iron for the expanding Russian rail network. A town soon sprang up around the ironworks in order to house the local workers. By WW1 Hughesovka was producing over 70% of Russia’s total iron output. Most of the Welsh families, however, left the town with the arrival of the Bolshevik revolution. It was renamed Stalino in 1924 after you know who and it was now part of the Soviet Union. The name would change again in 1961 to Donetsk when it became a Ukrainian city. The story of Hughesovka, which reflects in microcosm the political upheavals of the region as a whole, is told by Colin Thomas in his excellent book Dreaming a City. The book also contains a DVD of a documentary Thomas made with Welsh Marxist historian Gwyn Alf Williams, entitled Hughesovka and the New Russia.

*Dreaming a City by Colin Thomas is published by Y Lolfa and costs £9.95.

Friday, June 01, 2012

The Plot Against Common Sense

So I’m ambling through Cardiff city centre and it’s like UKIP have staged a coup because everywhere I look is strung Union Jack bunting. And shoppers are swinging their Nazi-porn Hollister bags that could have been designed by Leni Riefenstahl - all sleek depilation and Reinhard Heydrich cheekbones. And for some reason all the young women of this city appear to be wearing denim shorts over black tights in a fit of collective bad taste. And just walking past the queue outside Krispy Kreme Doughnuts is causing me acute Diabetes anxiety. And from a clothing emporium Radio Banality is leaking out a particularly irksome Red Hot Chili Peppers track. And to compound my distaste a fawning DJ refers to them in glowing terms as “the Chilis” which also awakens within me a dim urge to go on a killing spree. And opposite the Hayes Island Snack Bar an Orwellian Big Screen is spouting non-stop Olympic propaganda, so that having a coffee there is like spending 5 minutes of your life inside Abu Ghraib. And in the Ballardian expanse of the St David’s 2 shopping complex I notice an advert which refers to children as “little shoppers”. And the earnest busker on Queen St is droning his way through Wonderwall by Oasis - a band whose cultural conservatism depresses me more than I can say. And today all the mothers seem to be graduates of the Aleister Crowley Do What Thou Wilt School of Parenting. And across the street I glimpse a snacking office worker fending off a lesser black-backed gull with her handbag. And a man in a tee-shirt that says MEGA LOLZ is asking me if I’ve had any accidents in the last 12 months. And from a bench I pick up a discarded newspaper which contains a free colour supplement celebrating the Queen’s diamond jubilee. And everywhere I look there are Union Jacks…

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Cardiff-based Future of the Left have a new album out on June 12 entitled The Plot Against Common Sense. If their previous releases are anything to go by it will create royal havoc inside your ear-holes and provide incontrovertible proof that the world is not entirely peopled by ****s.

Smother Girl

Here’s a short video starring north Walian adult entertainment divas Loz Lorrimar and Shay Hendrix. They appear to be exploring that somewhat underused hybrid genre - the superhero porn film. Lorrimar as Smother Girl is on the trail of an underwear thief who has just purloined Hendrix’s panties. If she catches him she’s sure to mete out some pretty stern justice. As ever, excellent understated and potentially award winning performances from both Lorrimar and Hendrix.

*You must be 18 years or over to view this video.