Saturday, June 17, 2006

Album: The Raveonettes - Pretty In Black

The Raveonettes are a Retro Country Rock’n’Roll duo from Denmark who specialise in slow ballads. They harp back to the 1950s at a time when slow urban Rock’n’Roll was often indiscernible from its Country cousin. The sound is simple, enjoyable and confident, however for me the vocals had a tendency to grate when they weren’t being bland, and the lyrics were rarely anything much. Sometimes there’s a modern(ish) edge, when a 1990s Indie influence creeps in, but this is not frequent.

The album opens with The Heavens, a plodding fireside ballad to a lost love or missing horse or something like that. It’s dripping in Country and, indeed, Western and there are frequent returns to the genre, particularly in the wistful Uncertain Times and Somewhere in Texas which is pure undistilled Country, not be taken neat.

Love in a Trashcan is clearly the single as it was stickered all over the front of the album. This is an upbeat garage tune which is pleasant if uninspired. Sleepwalking actually has some atmosphere, and could almost be Transvision Vamp returning from the grave, albeit toned down. And Here Comes Mary is like Buddy Holly backed by The Jesus and Mary Chain, although that makes it sound better than it is.

The mainstay of the album is the ballad, such as the typical If I was Young and irritating Seductress of Bums. Ode to LA sounds like cheesy Christmas Motown and My Boyfriend’s Back is a pop cover that will make you want to kill their manager.

The Raveonettes, like a lot of bands, take the whole retro thing too far, and rather than making it their own thing, they tend to be very faithful and thus uninspired. A nice afternoon pub band, but was a record contract really necessary?

Rating (/5): One Limp Danish Waffle.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Book: Making History – Stephen Fry

Slow Start. Historic Middle. Hollywood Ending.

150 pages into the book – where, in my opinion, the ideal book would be reaching a climax – this book finishes with its exaggerated introduction and begins in earnest. That’s 150 pages of pure set-up. None of this jumping into the middle of the action nonsense, this book spends a long time setting up the slightly irritating central character as well as establishing the threads of history that are going to be paralleled in the middle section. It takes about 125 pages too long to do this. What doesn’t help is it is written in a prosaic style which, whilst fitting the character of the narrator, seems very flat after the Wodehousian style of the author’s earlier works.

Towards the end of the first ‘book’, there’s an exciting bit, when the discussions and setting up have finished and the transition into the second part of the book is created. This is marked by the use of screenplay format. Screenplay format makes the pages turn faster because there are fewer words in descriptions and also makes the action more immediate as it is written in the present tense.

In the central section, we are back in prose, but now the prose doesn’t drag. The middle is where the meat is: It depicts a well-constructed alternate universe where the balance of power is completely different to how it is now. A world where the US is the underdog and stuck in the religious, homophobic, apartheid-like society of the 1950s. It’s a brilliant piece of “what-if” thinking. The question in this case, “What if Hitler had not been born and someone more calculating had filled the vacuum of power in 1930s Germany?” The realisation of the answer and the central character’s discovery of it and of how he played a part in it is compelling.

Of course after the great middle, it would seem a shame to go and spoil it with a lousy end. But that’s exactly what happens. In fact the rot sets in before the end of the middle section, with a less explicable return to the screenplay format. This time it is for the dullest section of the part of the book, where the hero studies history and engineers a meeting. Maybe some sort of reverse mirror technique was implied. But it didn’t really work. Why have any dull bits in your book? It made you realise that if the book were turned into a screenplay, this part would not be copied directly to the final draft, but severely edited.

I think the problem is Mr Fry wrote it with an intention to have it made as a film. (As far as I can see this has not happened yet, but these things take a long time unless the book’s a monster hit, then they get churned out in no time.) Because of this eye on Hollywood, the end is treacly and seems tacked on (the way Hollywood endings to book adaptations usually do). The odd thing is it gives the book a definitive end – attempting to return to how things were – despite the fact the author had a continuing theme (particularly at the start) that this was part of some cyclic story line that could start “anywhere and nowhere.” It is more accurate to say the story starts nowhere and ends nowhere, but in the middle really does go somewhere.

Rating: Three thumbs up (four if you only read the middle).

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Book: Ginger Geezer: The Life of Vivian Stanshall; Biographies in general.

Life and times of Bonzo Front Man, Troubled Genius and Great British Eccentric.

Reading this reminded me of why I don’t read many biographies any more. They are always depressing. The main character always dies. And always right at the end, just when you want something happy to happen.

It's my fault for only reading biographies of people I admire. You are emotionally connected more than in a novel because this person was real and you have (usually) experienced their work or seen them. Maybe even touched them or perhaps thrown your underwear at them. (Perhaps I should only read biographies of people like Adolf Hitler, so when at the end he shoots himself, defeated in a concrete bunker, I won't feel that sad about it.)

I guess the problem could also be circumvented by only reading biographies of the living. But there’s no point in doing that. Who wants to read an unfinished book?

There is a big difference between the structure of most novels and most biographies. In a novel there is a struggle ending in triumph. Most biographies have struggle, followed by a period of success, then usually a slow fade with even more struggling then tragic death. In a novel, the text moves towards the ultimate climax. In a biography, the climax comes somewhere in the middle, and the whole story works towards the death of the subject. All very morbid.

No matter when it occurs, the death is always tragic. No artist dies without any more work left in them. So even when they die peacefully in their sleep at 104, if you like their work, it is still a tragic death before their time.

Because of this, the book I mentioned in the title has been sitting around on my shelf waiting to be read for well over a year. A book co-written by someone on whose floor I have slept, about someone I greatly admire. It had to be read sometime.

There are lots of people these days, some of them on the surface not ignorant people, who don't know who Vivian Stanshall is. It is understandable, he has been dead for ten years and in the latter part of his life did not enjoy widespread success. In fact, not since the early 70s has he been involved with anything that has reached a mass market. Back when he was singer and musician in The Bonzo Dog (Doo-Dah) Band. If that doesn't ring a bell, then your education has a very large hole in it. So, in any case, read on dot dot dot.


One of the supposedly searching questions people ask is "what time would you go back to if you could go back to any time?" Most people seem to say thins like, "back to the time of Jesus and see what he was really like," or "back to the Tsarist times and see what Rasputin was really like," or "go back to the dawn of time and see what came first, the chicken or the egg."

For me, History is History. It doesn't matter what Jesus was like because it won't change the popular mythology of the man today and it would just be frustrating to know he really was just an earnest rabbi with gift for communicating to crowds and not a real son of a god.

I would want to go back to just beyond my lifetime. To an early Bonzo Dog Band gig and experience the sublime mayhem of them in their prime. To see the delightful silliness and awesome invention of creative people enjoying the freedoms of the age.

People say that I am odd to want to do this when I could go back to the time of Napoleon and see if he died of natural causes or wallpaper poisoning.


The book goes into great detail in certain periods, such as the well-researched childhood years, but almost seems to skip through the art-school and early Bonzo Dog years. But then this was the late 1960s, and as they say, anyone who remembers the sixties wasn't really there. And all the Bonzos and everyone around them were really there. Big time.

What I feel I really missed was a good feeling of what it was really like to be in the studio with the Bonzos and even more of an impression of what those early gigs were like. That is not to say they are missing from the book, just not there in enough detail to satisfy my obsessive desire to relive what I can’t.

Periods later in life are better documented, although there are years and years that are practically missing. But this is what happens you drink and are addicted to tranquilisers. All famous drunks have months, weeks and years missing from their diaries. Periods where their friends have no idea what they are up to, but complete strangers have outlandish anecdotes.

Some biographies manage to pin down their subject and get you into their mind. The mind of Viv Stanshall is a vast and bewildering place and defies exploration without some sort of marvellous Heath Robinson / Rube Goldberg / Roger Ruskin Spear contraption probably shaped like a mechanical fish holding a basket of monkeys. As the great, late John Peel put it, "I fear that a single one of Viv's thoughts would blow my damn brains out." All we can really do is list what people remember and what Viv said and latch on to the infrequent insights he and others can give us. And this is where the book does very well, in its use of anecdotal and autobiographical quotations to get a glimpse into the troubled mind of a man plagued with raw genius. All the time treating the subject with respect, but not hiding the warts at all.

This is the sad story of man who spent his life fighting back the deluge of ideas in his mind sometimes drinking them away, sometimes honing them into a body of work which veers from oddness to sublime genius. It is a warm yet depressing book that I would recommend to anyone who has been delighted by The Intro and the Outro, tickled by Tent or awed by Sir Henry at Rawlinson End. Unless, of course, like me, you find biographies depressing.

Rating: Three oscillating pallindromiduses with wishtastically good rhinoledging up

Monday, January 30, 2006

Book: Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

Neglected anti-war classic that could have been called "Farewell To Arms, Legs and Face."
Who is or was Dalton Trumbo you may well ask? Well he was the writer behind some classic films including Spartacus and Papillon. He was also one of the many writers, directors and performers blacklisted by a paranoid regime in Hollywood during the 50s. He also wrote books.

Johnny Got His Gun was written shortly before the Second World War and is set during the First World War. Aka The Great War; Aka The War to End All Wars. But actually this isn’t really the setting, as the entire book is set inside one man's head. One man who wakes up confused and has to work out from data (or, more often, lack of data) that he has lost both arms, both legs, his eyes, ears, nose and mouth. The book mingles dream-like memories of his bodied life with the coming to terms of being trapped inside his own new body.

It is written as a stream of (barely) consciousness, with very little punctuation to interrupt the thoughts. In fact I didn't find a single comma in the whole 240 pages. It's a much easier read than the lack of punctuation implies. However, the subject is NOT easy digest.

The book brilliantly explores what happens to a mind isolated from the outside world except for a sense of touch, pain and of vibration. What happens? It has no choice but to think, to latch on to every piece of information it is lucky enough to get, and to be patient. What it can’t prevent is the slow drift towards a kind of frustrated mania obsessing about every idea it has. At points it is a great amplified description of what goes on in the mind of a writer, or other person who tends towards thinking rather than doing.

Johnny Got His Gun is a book against war, and even ends up being a pro-revolutionary polemic arguing for rising up against those who would send innocent young men and women off to be killed in the name of intangible ideas. But what other conclusion could the mind of a previously healthy twenty-year-old man come to, after finding that all that is left of him is his brain and his brain has almost no way to communicate with the outside world?

Towards the end of the book, Joe does find a way to communicate. But he has been trapped for so many years with only himself to talk to, that he sends out the same stream of consciousness that has been his monologue for years. His early patience has been replaced by a desperation. Even he can only conclude they think he has gone mad.

I loved this book. It was clever, insightful, inciteful, and gripping. A book against the terrors of war, without describing war very much. In fact most of the anecdotes about times at or near the battlefront were darkly amusing or even whimsical. The horror of war for Joe Bonham was not the actual war itself, but the terrible, isolated aftermath. And the fact that it should be allowed to happen at all.

At the end, you are feeling Joe’s desperation to be heard, but instead of the opening of a communication channel being his salvation, it is something other than that. We are left with the conclusion that to the outside world he seems mad and probably not worth continuing the communication with. Or even worth keeping alive.

This is an amazing book for its feat of taking you into a mind locked in that cruellest of cells – ones own practically dead body; tortured by that most evil of mental tortures – being allowed almost no sensory input and no movement; and having been put there by that most prolific dispenser of unjust punishment - War.

Rating: 5 dismembered limbs up.