As the year swings inexorably to its close and I contemplate wrapping up my 50/50 project it is inevitably a time for reflection. Many will be writing and publishing reviews of the(ir) year and inevitably one suspects these reviews will be less than cheerful. These reviews will wonder if ever there was a year more filled with loss and desperation, and so devoid of light and hope. Me? I think perhaps, perhaps not.
What has struck me most as I have plumbed the/my past 50 years of song and arts however is that it has left me feeling oddly incomplete and frustrated. The very process of producing this series has illuminated the fact that it’s not really very much at all, is it? Fifty years and what is to show for it? Stood beside the bodies of work I have attempted to illuminate it all pales to insignificance, doesn’t it? Perhaps this sounds self-pitying as only the middle classes can sound. Perhaps not.
As I fumble around then for an artwork to slip into 2016’s slot I cannot help but come close to home. To Dawlish Warren and to an ongoing project whose evidence of existence is intentionally low key. Timid, even. It exists, for the moment, in a tiny window ‘gallery’ at the Exeter Phoenix and comprises a few collected artefacts. ‘Throw Only To Alert Catcher’ is a transient work, an ephemeral work. It is an ambivalent presentation of art that is ridiculously self-indulgent, whose connection to ‘the real world’ is tenuous at best. And yet this is exactly why I like it so much. This is not work that is artfully constructed in a studio, meticulously catalogued and perfectly presented. It is art that is raw; art that is unsure of itself; art that dares to whisper; art that doesn’t care what you think of it; art that cares passionately about what you think of it. It is a work that is collaborative and communal; art that both celebrates the individuality of place and the paradox between the uniqueness and universality of experience. It’s not everything but it is close to nothing and that is important. The value of making art that is as close to nothing as is possible, perhaps. The conflict between our urge as humans to leave a mark and an educated desire as environmentally aware individuals to leave no mark at all. This or that. This and that. Either or neither.
In ‘Throw Only To Alert Catcher’ we see a woman mimic a seal, shuffling across the sands. We watch hands wrap rocks and trace the tracks of the sea’s motions as a lark sings somewhere out of reach. We admire lines of whipped cream that mark the march of the waves which lick their lips, gently acknowledging the barriers with kisses before sweeping all before them. We listen to a detached voice as it describes stones within a circle; an act that addresses our need to connect to the natural world we gaze at yet simultaneoulsy acknowledges that the language we might have at our command to do so is essentially ineffectual.
‘Throw Only To Alert Catcher’ suggests that here is art that exists uncomfortably within its own skin. ‘Throw Only To Alert Catcher’ is art for whom that very discomfort is perhaps its most important quality. For whilst this is a work that explores relationships between the human and the non-human, its ultimate message is perhaps that any attempt to define such a relationship is doomed to at best discomfort and at worst abject (but glorious) failure. If this sounds bleak and dispiriting then perhaps such a reading of the work has been infected by the spirit of the year. Perhaps too though it clings to the notion that even within the atmosphere of loss and desperation we might make attempts at light and hope. Times are tough but we can still picnic, right? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Those who know will know the reference in my last paragraph to Postcard records and will have smiled no doubt. Nods and winks. Secret handshakes.
Such people will see the connections on to The Goon Sax too, whose sound is suffused by the Sound of Young Scotland perhaps, and certainly by the sounds of ‘I Need Two Heads’, and yes, yes I am disappointed with myself that I felt the need to make such clumsy and obvious statements of connection. But if it is certainly unfair to talk about The Goon Sax as being the group in which Robert Forster’s son plays it is also, for those of a certain age and persuasion, inevitable. So perhaps it is best that it has been got out of the way first. Perhaps it is for the best that we start by stating the obvious; the obvious being that even if the sound of The Goon Sax’s debut record is unquestionably infected by the spirits of ‘Send Me A Lullaby’ we would doubtless make those observations regardless of genealogy. The comparisons would be meant in the same complimentary way as we might have said ‘Send Me A Lullaby’ was tender and awkward and infected by the spirits of The Seeds and Dylan, the Monkees and Beefheart, Archie comics and surfing magazines. All of which applies to The Goon Sax, but with the addition no doubt of many more contemporary reference points that I shall leave the Younger Generations to identify and shine spotlights on, mostly because in my doting age I frankly have no concept of what those reference points might be. Except that what I will say is that The Goon Sax are held close to my heart alongside other Antipodean delights of recent years such as Males, Trick Mammoth and Astro Children. Frankly it sometimes surprises me that The Goon Sax are not from New Zealand.
So certainly The Goon Sax are tender and awkward. Certainly The Goon Sax are Pop that has been taken apart and put back together with intentional disregard for expectations. Or, rather, it has been put back together entirely in line with the expectations of those who like their Pop brittle, twisted, bleakly hilarious. The Goon Sax are sharp and sexy, clumsy and coy. All at once. As if there were any other way.
‘Up To Anything’ then is the sound of excellent haircuts and studied stances. It is the sound of struggles against nature, the sound of 'Against Nature’ even, perhaps. Geometric, angular and amusingly angst-ridden, ‘Up To Anything’ is the sound of teenagers growing up and inwards, simultaneously celebrating and knowingly mocking the very essence of What It All Means. Which means that ‘Up To Anything’ is Richard Hell and Lester Bangs arguing against each other around the same core of being the awkward outsider. No-one wins. We are all losers.
Except: ‘Up To Anything’ is also the sound of little lisps and lips lifting on lips; is the touch of finger tips and profiles traced in soft sand. ‘Up To Anything’ is the sound of tender, hesitant footsteps on the stairs; is the flick of eyelashes on nape of neck and the glimpse of pale pink morning through the softness of night. ‘Up To Anything’ is hope amongst desperation, indeed is desperation as a positive force. Ultimately, should we wish for anything more? Perhaps, perhaps not.
There are people who feel nothing when they read. There are people who do not see images in their minds’ eye; people for whom the very notion of ‘the minds’ eye’ is baffling. I load no judgement in those statements, but more than two decades of teaching have taught me that they are true. Instead I share the observation mainly to point out the difficulty, and, some might say, pointlessness of trying to explain the (for me) essential experience of listening to records. There is a distinct probability that if you are reading this at all then of course you are on broadly the same wavelength. You are in my (very, very small) echo chamber. For those who may not be, well, I can think of few ways of explaining the reasons for my record listening than by listening to this record:
It’s all there. Minor details are different (I was never remotely dumpy and was never a Goth), but essentially, this is it. This is how it feels. This is why it is important to me.
Now I have long felt Jof Owen, who leads the grandly (and sweetly, knowingly ironic) titled Legends of Country, to be a kindred spirit. When I was running my Tangents webzine (remember when we used that word? Remember when it felt like a word that was a harbinger of a bright, positive new age of enlightenment?) Jof sent me his first 7” singles as The Boy Least Likely To and they simply thrilled me with their infectious, sublimely sweet Pop instincts wrapped in a DIY suburban aesthetic. Later he wore one of my record labels’ Pipettes badges in a Boy Least Likely To video and that warmed my heart no end. Connections are what counts. Later still I heard Terry Wogan play one of his songs on the morning radio as my friend Emma gave me a lift into school. It was a delicious conflation of memory and moment, of then and now and forever, for Wogan was the voice of mornings in our house as we got ready for school and here he was again as I drifted through my own forties and he was playing my kind of music. Our kind of music. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
I don't know whether to laugh or cry when I listen to The Legends of Country either, so inevitably I do both. This is probably as it should be, for Country at its core is heart and soul. Country at its core is magnificently manipulative and transparently opaque. Country at its core knows the essential myth of authenticity and gleefully plays the myth for all it is worth. The Legends of Country know this. So do The Legends of Country. Of course they do. Of course they do.
To turn back on ourselves then, ‘Turn To Dolly’ then is the song that explains the appeal of songs; is the song that conjures the magic held inside the act of listening to records and of reading (comic) books. Of watching films both on screen and inside your head. ‘Turn To Dolly’ is the song that explains how it feels to be lonely; that explains the value of the connections we make to soothe ourselves and to make the days bearable. ‘Turn To Dolly’ is the song that acknowledges the essential value of those self-curated and created connections to our youthful years, and the way in which we revisit that centre at vital points throughout our lives. The energy held at that core may dwindle over time, but it can still surprise us with the its power to move. It can still make tears twinkle in the corners of our eyes.
We ‘Turn To Dolly’. Of course we do. Of course we do.
I turn to Rachel Duckhouse’s 'St Lawrence Flow 2' daily. Sometimes it is a glimpse in passing. At other times it is a prolonged pause, a feet-apart, leaning-in stare of intensity. Always it brings pleasure. It helps, of course, that the etching happens to hang in our dining room, above the array of Speyside whiskies and beside the chair from which my morning coffee is consumed.
Of course this is a terribly privileged middle-class thing to be saying, and this makes me sad mostly because really Art should be something we can all afford and enjoy. It ought not to be an investment opportunity or a luxury afforded to those who need not worry about where their next meal is coming from. Indeed there are arguments to be made that say the qualities provided by art (in its myriad forms and mediums) are as important to us in the ‘pyramid of need’ as shelter. That the reality of our society is so far removed from this ideal would be depressing if it were not so laughable.
There is a flicker of guilt in my daily enjoyment of ‘St Lawrence Flow 2’ then, but only the faintest, for whilst our purchases may perpetuate the capitalist structures our society is built on (or more accurately that it increasingly feels it is collapsing in on) then there is too the determination to operate as far outside of those systems as is feasibly possible (or, at least, as is physically comfortable, for which see the 2016 Unpopular Advent entry for day 11). Which means supporting artists as directly as possible, through systems as independent of corporate meddling as can be achieved. Conflict. Guilt. Contradictions. Wouldn’t life be dull without them?
There is conflict in ‘St Lawrence Flow 2’ too and this is surely one of the reasons I love it. In the ’St Lawrence Flow’ work Duckhouse takes the notion of organic wave forms and water flows and wraps them in a container that is forcibly, unflinchingly geometric. It is this contrast that makes the work so appealing. Indeed it is what appeals to me most about landscapes in general, for I admit that on the whole I am largely unmoved by the supposed grandeur and magnificence of nature. Often it is only when human intervention enters the picture that my interest is really piqued. Think electricity pylons marching down the Culm valley. Think concrete dams holding back Alpine rivers to create vast reservoirs. Think china-clay pits as photographed by Jem Southam and the attendant brutalist containers that once lined the road into Kingsteington. They no doubt line the road still, but, tragically, progress has since led to this industrial complex being by-passed and I admit I miss seeing those mounds of clay dust contained by angular forms and shadows in summer sun as I cycled past (not to mention the brilliant contrast of tanned legs against the white dusted road surface, but that’s another matter entirely).
‘St Lawrence Flow’ then puts me in mind of our ultimately vain yet magnificently vainglorious attempts to contain nature. It puts me in mind of harbour walls and managed water ways and this is all to the good. It reminds me too of experiments in Physics class with shallow plastic bowls of water. Refraction, reflection, interference and something or other. The magic of science laboriously hacked away to the mind-numbing facts. It looks beautiful, so who cares how it’s made? Who cares about understanding it? Can’t we just enjoy it? Perhaps, perhaps not.
Perhaps it is the same for art. Perhaps it is the same for ‘St Lawrence Flow 2’. As an Art teacher of course I understand how Duckhouse has made this etching. I even feign an understanding of the creative processes that may have led to the form the work has taken. But does this matter? Does this increase my enjoyment when looking into its depths? Of course not. Of course not.
Hymn on the 45 - Allo Darlin' (the farewell single. Bandcamp) Mulligan - The Pooches (from 'The Pooches' LP. Bandcamp) Spanish Song (Don't Go) - Strawberry Switchblade (from 1982 4 piece demo. Bandcamp) Stars - The Clean (from 'Getaway' LP. YouTube) Antlers - The Bats (from 'The Deep Set' LP. Bandcamp) Dead Tree! Dead Tree! - The Blue Aeroplanes (from 'Welcome Stranger' LP) Plastic World - Candy Maps (from 'Plastic World' EP. Bandcamp) Emily - The Eversons (from 'Stuck In New Zealand' LP. Bandcamp) Same Place - Peaness (from 7" single. Bandcamp) In The Morning - Gloria (from 'Gloria In Excelsis Stereo' LP. Bandcamp) 50/50 (Better Stop Now) - Starry Eyed and Laughing (available on 'To Try For The Sun' LP) Western Splits (After Lear) - Year Of Birds (from 'White Death To Alan Power' LP. Bandcamp) BODY2BODY (A CERTAIN RATIO DO THE DU ZU MIX) - NO ZU (12" single. Bandcamp) Eudamonia - Them Are Us Too (from 'Remain' LP. Bandcamp. R.I.P. Cash Askew) Overnite - Loch Ness Mouse (yes, it is a Scritti Politti cover) Some Nights - The Corner Laughers (from charity single. Bandcamp) St Nicholas Vicarage - Papernut Cambridge (from 'Love The Things Your Lover Loves' LP. Bandcamp) Don't Be A Dick At Christmas - Niagara Balls (feat Matt Moskal) (from 'A Very Cherry Christmas Vol 11. Bandcamp) Christmas Is a Time For Giving - Girlsville (from 'Christmas' EP. Bandcamp) The Moment Your Heart Would Say Goodbye - THE YEARNING (from 'Evening Souvenirs' LP. Bandcamp) Save What You Can - The Triffids (from 'Calenture' LP. YouTube)