Tuesday, January 3, 2017

2016. How Was It For You?

It's a misnomer that the older you get, the quicker the years seems to pass.  Some years seem to go on forever simply as a consequence of what happens during them while others leap past like a gazelle with its arse on fire.

2016, for me, was a very full year.  Each month seemed fully loaded with events, both good and tragic, and I confess to a sense of exhaustion as it comes to a close.  

On a professional level, I look back and feel that I have nothing to complain about.  I've performed at so many new venues in so many new towns and cities and I look forward to continuing these working relationships into 2017 and beyond.  Big thanks to my wife and my oldest cousin (the matriarch of the family) for finding so many of these new places for me.  

It was my wife who found me a new agent early in the year so, again, much appreciation for that, Mrs Livesey.  I'd all-but given up on agents but the new team who represent me have proven to be a stellar group of people who've wasted no time time in finding me some great bookings.  Thank you, Jeremy and Chloe.

Thank you to everyone who has had the good taste and goodwill to book me for work this past year.  You have helped keep a roof over my family's head and put food on our table and for that I am grateful.  

Professional thanks to Yamaha, Peavey, Tascam, Shure, Maplin, Dawsons, Karaoke Version and London Arrangements, without whom I would just be a man, standing on a stage, with no way of making myself heard.

Indirect thanks must go to every driver who has overtaken me or cut me up on the motorway in a rush to get home from their tedious jobs.  It must be awful to be stuck in a job you hate so much that you're prepared to risk your own life and that of other motorists because you're in such a desperate rush to get home.  So thank you for unwittingly reminding me of how wonderful it is to make a living from doing something you love.  

Personally, it's been an up and down year and there is the sense that, going into 2017, some of us are not entirely out of the woods yet.  So, eternal thanks to my family, both immediate and extended, for your love and support.  You have all helped keep sanity at bay these past twelve months.

Outside of work and family, I have scant time for anything else.  Longstanding friendships have perhaps been the biggest casualty of this but, having realised that when all you have in common with someone is a barely remembered past, it's hardly the basis upon which to build a future.  So, I go into 2017 leaving some people behind and I'm quite sanguine about that - I wish them all well in their respective lives.  

That said, I have vowed to be a better friend to my "best man" in 2017 and I intend to stick to that intent.

In the slivers of time between work and family, I continue to find pleasure in the music of my heroes (some of whom have been icons for a long time) and so I give praise to Phil Collins, Genesis, Yes, Frank Zappa, Miles Davis, King Crimson, The Rolling Stones, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Alice Cooper, all of whose tunes have kept me going whether on the road between gigs or in the twilight hours when I'm at home and everyone else is asleep.  

In closing, I hope that 2016 has been kind to you and that 2017 proves to be a blessed year for you and yours.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

My Poppy Is Bigger Than Yours

Evenin' all.

The solemnity with which we mark the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month has never failed to move me.  That moment at which we pause from our daily lives to silently thank those who have served and who continue to serve Queen and country - both on November 11th and on Remembrance Sunday - is a duty which we must all observe.  And, thankfully, most of us still do.

You know there's a "but" coming, don't you?  

The wearing of a poppy to publicly signify that we remember those who have died on behalf of their country is something that goes back to World War One.  I was brought up to wear one on Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday.  As a kid I was never aware of there being a need to wear one in the days leading up to these events, nor was I ever encouraged to wear one in the weeks after. 

Somewhere along the way, we seem to have lost perspective on this simple but poignant tradition.

You see, this is what a poppy looks like:

It doesn't have to look like this:

Or this:

Or this (beautiful as it might be):

Now, at this point you may well be saying to yourself: "But, Stefan, I can wear what I want to pay tribute to our dead heroes."  And that would be a fair comment.  There is nothing wrong at all with the poppy brooches that have sprung up over the past few years (although a giant poppy plastered to the front of your car was never a good idea).  What I object to is how ostentation has now been confused with the simple act of paying respect.

I first became aware of the ugly-mindedness of some people some years ago whilst sitting in the canteen at work and my colleague was making it known to anyone within ear-shot that "I always buy the five pound poppies that they sell."  Well, bully for you pal but isn't a charitable donation something which is, by its very nature, a private affair?  Didn't somebody make a comment around 2000 years ago about the meek inheriting the earth?  Yeah, I thought so.

I suppose buying an expensive poppy brooch saves you buying one every year but I don't believe that's the point of the exercise.  Better, surely, to quietly drop your money into the British Legion collection box and wear your simple and unadorned poppy with pride and no small amount of humility.  That's what I was brought up to do. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Horror, The Horror Part Two

Now, where were we?

Ah, yes, somewhere around the late eighties when my hair was long and I was a skinny young pup (so skinny, I had to run round in the shower to get wet) and my days were spent reading the works of Messrs King and Barker and watching illicit videos at the home of a friend whose name I shall keep to myself for fear that he might suffer reprisals from Customs and Excise.

It's funny when I think back.  Horror videos weren't the only films we used to watch at his house.  His dad also had a healthy collection of porn which we used to view during school lunchtimes (the school was a five-minute walk away so we could always get in a decent viewing over a Pot Noodle and a bag of Space Raiders before going back for History with Miss Chambers).  Naturally, this lunchtime film club gradually got bigger as word spread through the school.  One day we looked out of the living room window to see dozens of heads popping up out of the bushes as seemingly every deviant in the school had come along for a quick fifty-off-the-wrist over my friend's dad's porn collection.  When my friend went to the front door, presumably to shoo them away, they barged in and made all haste for the video player.  It was like The Charge of the frigging Light Bridge.  

Within the blinking of an eye, these lads had their trousers around their ankles, anxious to knock one off over Debbie Does Dallas.  I didn't know where to look.  It certainly put me off my noodles.

Words can not do justice to the commotion that ensued when, quite unexpectedly, my friend's dad's van pulled up on the drive.  Before his key was even in the lock, the wankers surged as one towards the back door, desperately trying to pull up their pants as they ran.  

I can't remember what happened next.  I was too blinded by tears of laughter by this point.

Anyway, I digress.

As my teenage years retreated behind me and I entered into my twenties, my affection for horror remained.  It was the nineties, and while mainstream horror was pretty pitiful, with Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddie Krueger performing in sequel after sequel to ever-diminishing returns, I had discovered the joys of the banned and uncertificated movies that had been kept from these shores by those bastions of morality at the BBFC.

Zombie flesh eaters are here!  

There's nothing quite so exciting as doing something that you've been told not to.  And if it's someone in authority doing the telling, then all the better.  The conceit of these pent-up prigs that they know better than the general populace has never ceased to get under my skin.  Remember Clive Froggatt?  He was a top Tory in Margaret Thatcher's cabinet, a doctor in charge of her government's health reforms.  He was also a smackhead.

Of course, he kept his addiction secret.  It simply wouldn't do for it to be public knowledge that someone in his lofty position spent most of his time strung out on heroin.  After all, it was part of his job to make sure that such drugs were kept out of the hands of you and I.  Because what are we anyway but just a bunch of soft, ill-educated proles who voted these fuckers into power in the first place.

And it should go without saying that Dr Froggatt's boss - who was, lest we forget, the most powerful woman in the country at the time - knew nothing of what he got up to with the needle and the spoon.  Just as she knew nothing about the dodgy predilections of anyone whose company she kept.

Margaret Thatcher and Jimmy Saville.  How could she have not known?

So, you see, I have little time for authority.

Having said that, a lot of those films that were on the banned list were shite.  The Driller Killer, Anthropophagous The Beast, Bloody Moon and Death Trap will never trouble anyone's top ten film list.  But movies such as The Evil Dead, The Last House On The Left, Zombie Flesh Eaters and Tenebrae are all excellent fare.

When the chairman of the BBFC, James Ferman, retired in 1999, many films on the banned list were re-submitted for classification and passed uncut.  And rightly so.  After all, it's only special effects and bad acting, right?

Since then, the horror industry seems to have boomed beyond all expectations.  Despite a worrying trend towards parody and self-reverence as displayed by the Scream franchise and its imitators (which are little more than Scooby Doo with claret - and I never liked Scooby Doo to begin with), the industry quickly recovered with the remake of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and its prequel, Hostel, The Devil's Backbone, 28 Days Later and some startling movies from the Far East including Audition, Ring and Grudge.

Ring.  Terrifying in any language.

Somewhat surprsingly, given its ultra-conservative stance on video games such as the Grand Theft Auto series, Australia has really been the one to watch when it comes to audacious and original horror moviemaking.  It was ever thus, really, as this is the country that brought us Razorback, Night Of Fear and Picnic At Hanging Rock.  In the last few years, they have built on this already impressive roster with Wolf Creek, Lake Mungo, The Snowtown Murders, The Reef, The Babadook, The Loved Ones and Black Water.  Superior films, all.

Wolf Creek's Mick Taylor may well be the scariest horror icon since Hannibal Lecter.

Even tv has picked up on the commercial potential of terror as entertainment with highly successful serials such as Hannibal, The Walking Dead, American Horror Story and The Exorcist.

Horror fans have never had it so good.


Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Horror, The Horror Part One

Greetings from the dark side (well, North Wales).

I'm writing this during a break in gigs.  It's October 31st, at around three in the afternoon, and the sky is already darkening.  Scared yet?  You will be.

To quote Sammy Davis Jnr, "the time is right and the mood is proper" to talk about ghosties, ghoulies, long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night.

I have long had an affection for horror.  I still remember my very first scare.  I was sat in a doctor's waiting room and there was a Reader's Digest magazine on a nearby table (this was the seventies, folks, when every waiting room had a plentiful supply of Reader's Digest magazines through which to browse).  Flicking through it, I came across a black and white photograph of a girl with leprosy, her mottled stumps raised to the camera as though to reinforce the plight of her condition.  The image so terrified me that every time my parents took me to the surgery thereafter, I couldn't wait to see it again.

And so began my enduring fascination with horror, both in print and on celluloid.

Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster.

I started with the classic Universal movies: Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Mummy and Dracula.  These films just drip with atmosphere and I still cherish them to this day.  Less spectacular, in my opinion, were the Hammer movies which also featured largely in my formative years.  As a kid, I was yet to appreciate the heaving bosoms of Hammer's leading ladies and so, with the exception of Curse Of The Werewolf which starred Oliver Reed, I was less than impressed with their efforts.  Much better, I thought, was Hammer's tv series Hammer House Of Horror.  Some of those episodes were genuinely scary and the theme music still gives me shudders.

As I advanced through the years, so the films became scarier.  Salem's Lot, The Wicker Man and Halloween became instant favourites when I first saw them on television.  Tobe Hooper's adaptation of Stephen King's second novel may have been made for tv but images such as little Danny Glick floating outside Mark Petrie's bedroom window or our first sight of the vampire Mr Barlow are absolutely terrifying.  As for The Wicker Man, which boasts one of the bleakest endings in horror film history, I consider this to be the finest British horror movie ever made.  And Halloween is 91 minutes of perfection, a winning blend of story, performance and scares with a killer (oops!) soundtrack.

Edward Woodward as the well-meaning Sergeant Howie in The Wicker Man.

There is one film, though, that is so profoundly brilliant, the first time I saw it is forever etched on my mind.  When I first saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre at a friend's house, I was so convinced by it that I thought I was watching a documentary.  John Larroquette's opening monologue, the use of cinema verite and the natural performance of the cast all add up to a film which, in my opinion, is the definitive horror experience.  Unlike practically any other film, there is no safety net with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; the filmmakers do not let the audience off with a happy-ever-after ending and there is the sense throughout that any notion of responsibility towards the viewer has been gleefully thrown out of the window by director Tobe Hooper and his crew.  In preparing for the role of the stand-out villain, Leatherface, the late Gunnar Hansen spent time in a mental institution.  Such dedication paid off; Gunnar's performance remains the most convincing portrayal of a horror villain to date.  Played with pathos and innate understanding, the severely retarded Leatherface is terrifying because he, himself, is terrified by the events occuring around him.  There is nothing so scary as irrational behaviour - just look at the people who vote for Donald Trump.

Donald Trump and his parents in their Ku Klux clan regalia.  Terrifying.

My love of all things scary also extended to the literary.  The first horror book I read was Guy N. Smith's Night Of The Crabs, a novel whose title has proved far more memorable than the story.  Incidentally, I read somewhere that it was in reading something by Guy N. Smith that inspired Shaun Hutson to start writing.  He said he knew that if someone like Smith could do it, then he surely could.  Having read many of Shaun's books I can honestly say that his feelings were absolutely spot-on; he is equally as shit a writer as Smith ever was.

After such a dispiriting start, I quickly discovered James Herbert, Stephen King, Clive Barker and Ramsey Campbell.  Such wonders to behold!  Both King and Barker were especially impressive and I remain a fan of their works to this day, often revisiting stories that I originally read as a teenager to find new elements that I can appreciate more as an adult.

Stepen King's The Shining.

Take The Shining, for example.  As a kid, I thought this was a story about a haunted hotel and on that level the book works just fine.  I read it again recently and, as a father of two, I find that the real horror of this book is Jack Torrance's failings as a father, repeating the same cycle of abuse that was visited upon him by his own dad.  Through the character of Jack Torrance, King (a man who grew up without knowing his father) reveals his own fears that he might mess up in raising a family, not just in being able to provide for them but also that he might lose his temper - you lost your temper, Jack - and cause some dreadful harm to them.  I think all fathers, knowing their physical strength, have this fear, that something might cause them to lose control, that the red mist might descend and blind them to the havoc they might wreak.  It's certainly a fear of mine.

It is not incidental that Jack Torrance, a writer of moderate success, is also a struggling alcoholic (is there any other kind?).  Stephen King's history with substance abuse is well known - he has written whole novels whilst under the influence - so it doesn't require too big a stretch of the imagination to see that novels such as The Shining are as much a confession as they are a work of great fiction.  

Clive Barker could not be more different to Stephen King, both as a writer and as a person.  It was King who said of him: "I have seen the future of horror, and his name is Clive Barker."  High praise indeed.

The Books Of Blood, The Damnation Game, Cabal and his films Hellraiser and Candyman are searingly brilliant pieces of work, pushing the boundaries of the genre with a level of audaciousness not seen since the days of Edgar Allan Poe.  He also shook up the tired old fantasy genre with the novels Weaveworld, The Great And Secret Show and Abarat.  Oh, and he's a Liverpudlian.  Perfect in every sense.

That concludes the first part of my little essay on scary stuff.  Next time, I'll bring things up to date with what I'm reading and watching now.  Until then, have nightmares and plenty of them. 
All that we see or seeem is but a dream within a dream.




Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Remember The Coop

Autumn.  Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.  And pumpkins.  And all-night horrorthons.  And killer clowns.

It's only appropriate that at this time of the year I turn to the scary tunes in my record collection and give them a spin.  I've been checking out the Spiderland album by Slint and Suicide's eponymous first album.  Pretty harrowing stuff.  But for sheer entertainment, you simply can't beat the grandaddy of them all.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Detroit's Vincent Furnier.  You can call him Alice.

I was first introduced to the music of Alice Cooper at the age of twelve.  A friend played me the Welcome To My Nightmare album and I was entranced.  Songs such as Steven and Years Ago scared the shit out of me (and still do) but, like the best horror films, I kept coming back for more, unable to resist the delicous dread those tunes invoked. 

Some years later, while I was keeping different company, Alice was introduced to a new generation of fans with the success of the album Trash and its lead-off single, Poison.  Many of my peers dug the record but then again they were also into Motley Crue and Bon Jovi so I didn't take their opinions that seriously.  I'd heard of Alice Cooper long before they had and he was much cooler then.

After the temporary blip that was Trash, Alice returned to what he did best: scary and twisted tunes that veer between the disturbing (The Ballad Of Dwight Frye) and the comedic (Cold Ethyl).  Always entertaining.  Never boring.

What appeals to me about Alice Cooper's music is that it fully embraces the horrific and the taboo without ever lapsing into gratuity.  It's intelligent but it's also fun.  And the stage show is pure vaudeville.

In the Alice Cooper show, the titular character cavorts with cyclopean monsters, impales babies with rapiers, makes love to corpses and is hung, decapitated and fried in the electric chair for his crimes.  It's a morality play.  Shakespeare would be proud.

Of course, the outraged and the pious have tried to ban Alice's concerts over the years.  Mary Whitehouse, Cliff Richard and David Blunkett have all had a go.  And failed.

They miss the point, though.  More often than not, Alice is addressing very real issues through his art.  Dead Babies deals with child neglect, Only Women Bleed addresses violence against women, Pick Up The Bones is about war while an entire album is devoted to the singer's struggles with alcholism in From The Inside.  Unsurprisingly, Alice's alter-ego, the golfer and arch-Republican Vincent Furnier, is a born again Christian, something which has become more apparent in recent albums such as Brutal Planet and Dragontown.

Don't let the man's religion put you off, though.  There's nothing preachy about Alice's lyrics and the music is as hard-hitting as it ever was.  If anything, the songs have become less compromising, the lyrics more substantial.

With 26 albums to his credit - both as a solo artist and with the Alice Cooper band - The Coop is still very much alive and kicking.  His last album, Welcome 2 My Nightmare, the long-awaited sequel to the 1975 classic that first sparked my interest, is classic Cooper.  But then, every album is classic Cooper.

Sleep tight. 


Friday, September 30, 2016

Anger Is An Energy

Greetings hepcats, swingers and ring-a-ding-dingers.  It's your Uncle Stef here once again with some select picks from his record collection.

You're excited.  I can tell.

Sometime in the nineties - I can't be more precise than that on account of being high as a kite for most of that decade - I shared a flat with a recovering heroin addict (if you live in Birkenhead, as I did at the time, there's really no such thing as a recovering heroin addict; if circumstance or free-will has driven you to ride the horse without a hoof then there's really no coming back for you).  When my flat-mate wasn't on cloud nine we enjoyed many a long night listening to tunes.  It was on such a night when he introduced me to the delights of Public Image Limited.

I'd had the briefest of introductions to the music of John Lydon's post-punk band through the promos for Rise and Don't Ask Me.  Both songs - like Mr Lydon himself - were hard to ignore.  I still love those tunes to death.

My flat-mate's enthusiasm for PiL was not enough, though, to encourage me to explore further and when I eventually moved on I left him and his music behind me (he was also into The Manic Street Preachers, a band whose music I've never cared for, then or now).  

Fast forward to 2016 and I find myself immersed in the collected works of PiL, from their inaugral First Issue right up to What The World Needs Now.  And what a collection it is.

Lydon possesses one of the most distinctive voices in rock and roll.  At turns snarling and sneering and at others whimsical and irreverent, there can never be any denying the truth in his vocals.  I find his purity invigorating, especially in these stale, plastic times.

Musically, he has been served by some fantastic musicians in PiL, all of whom have helped make for some of the most innovative and endlessly listenable songs ever made.  I exaggerate not.  

Jah Wobble, Keith Levene, Tony Williams, Scott Firth, Steve Vai and Ginger Baker have all been part of the PiL story, such is the diversity of the band's sound.

A curious blend of dub, industrial, dance, pop, metal and everything in between, PiL present a beguiling repertoire.  Pioneering, provocative and never boring, their songs deal with subjects diverse as abortion (The Body), the environment (Don't Ask Me), the South African apartheid (Rise) and the death of John's mother (Death Disco).

There can't be too many bands of whom it can be said that whoever you are, whatever you like, there will be at least one of their tunes that will appeal to your sensibilities.  PiL is such a band.  Dig them.    

Keen readers will note that I haven't mentioned Phil Collins yet.  And I always mention Phil; he's like the Kevin Bacon of the music world insofar as there are, at most, six degress of separation between him and anyone else in the industry.

The link between PiL and Phil is quite amusing, really.  PiL producer Nick Launay had cut his eye teeth working as assistant to Hugh Padgham when Hugh was making Peter Gabriel's third album.  Nick was so impressed with the work Hugh did with Phil Collins's drums on the track Intruder (Peter had been having problems with his record company at the time so Phil lent his talents for free, also bringing in John Giblin from Brand X to play on some of the tracks) that he used a similar approach when recording the drums for the PiL album The Flowers Of Romance.

While Nick was working on The Flowers Of Romance at the Townhouse, he bumped into Phil and Phil asked him how he was getting on working with John Lydon (up to this point, Phil's only impression of John was an interview where he'd described Genesis as 'boring old farts', something which coloured Phil's opinion of a man whose music, up to that point, he'd been quite into).  Nick responded by saying that John was actually a "top geezer" and if Phil was keen, he'd introduce the two of them.

Later the same day, while John and Nick were having lunch in the Townhouse canteen, in walked Phil.  True to his word, Nick introduced the two singers to each other and, much to his surprise, the two got on like the proverbial house on fire.  

A few years later, when Phil was producing The Chinese Wall for Philip Bailey, he sought out Nick Launay to help him get the drum sound that he wanted.  He'd heard The Flowers Of Romance and was really impressed with the drum sound, the very sound that he had inspired, and wanted the same kind of sound for the Philip Bailey album.  

Funny old world, isn't it?


Friday, September 2, 2016

There Was A Boy, A Very Strange Enchanted Boy......

Greetings music lovers.

We've just come back from holiday which is why there's been little in the way of blog activity lately.  It also means that this update will be short because I want to get this out of the way so I can have a beer and watch the wife do the unpacking.  

Lately, I've been using this blog to write about anything and everything other than my job.  The reason is very simple: I don't consider my job to make particularly interesting reading, not when I could be writing about any number of other subjects which I do consider to make for interesting reading.  I know that looks like I'm undermining what I do for a living but, really, that isn't the intent.  I love my job and I am not blind to the rare privilege of being able to earn a crust from doing something I love, something at which I excel.  Yes, it's bloody hard work but when you're doing something you love, hard graft is not begrudged.  However, if you're looking to find out where I'm playing next, I'm afraid that this blog is not the place.  Most of my shows are private engagements, in which case there would be no point in promoting them here or anywhere else.  I do perform the odd public event but in the case of such shows there are people better qualified than I to promote such events and so I leave it to them, confident that they will do their job just as well as I do mine.  

That said, I do have something of mine I'd like to share with you.  It's a little recording I recently completed at my home studio.  Some time ago I was in conversation with Tom Watson - yes, the  Tom Watson - about what a wonderful song Nature Boy is.  He won't remember - he was a busy man at the time we spoke and he's even busier now - but when I talked about recording a version of it he said he would be very interested in hearing it.  So, for Tom and the rest of you, here it is: Nature Boy