December 2010


The cover, featuring Diana Dors.

Please note that I’m not going to review this album because anyone with the remotest interest in the subject will love it whatever I say. I will note that it’s of amazing quality and offers the roughly equivalent thrill to you that the Beatles‘ Anthology might have done, except without Ringo. You need this, Dewy.

Someone needs to explain to me why, when Warner Bros. gained the rights to the Smiths back catalogue in 1992, they released two sets of Greatest Hits and decided not to include this disc of rarities which has surfaced on vinyl bootleg this month. Since then there have been several compilations, each as worthless as the last. The Smiths were a band that split before they gave themselves the chance to get shit; in actual fact they were just becoming even better. Here we have, if the devotees of the Morrissey forum are to be believed (and I for one would bet the house), said outtakes, nicely mastered so they don’t sound like demos at all, along with (again according to the site) a number of tracks put together for a 25th anniversary release of The Queen Is Dead which has yet to see any sort of daylight. Their loss.

To understand the impact of the Smiths you have to remember singles. In my formative years, bands like The Jam, Madness and later The Smiths would churn out wonderful singles on what seemed to be a bimonthly basis. In the case of The Smiths I remember hearing This Charming Man, then watching them on The Tube (a hugely influential 1980’s music TV show). Later the hero worship of the effete man we now know as Stephen Patrick Morrissey became a little ridiculous and it’s stayed that way ever since. But for a while their music was completely new and, in many cases, polarising. You try writing a band’s name on your bag (with a fountain pen) when the lead singer was prone to wearing gladioli out the back of his jeans and quoting Oscar Wilde[1] and the guitarist Johnny Marr (whom I correctly thought personified cool) wore big sunglasses and and a necklace of beads.

The Smiths, circa 1984.

The world of The Smiths had references to rainy Manchester evenings that resembled Dublin ones, and undefined relationships and hurts which resonated much more fully than the self-contained Careless Whispers available in the pop world. They gave us Diana Dors, not Doris Day. DJ’s, it was asserted, hated playing Panic because of the Hang the DJ refrain; we loved it because another line sang of “panic in the streets of Carlisle/Dublin, Dundee, Humberside”. Quite what the cachet was in being referenced among “the provincial towns you jog round” I dunno….

I bought some singles and the Hatful of Hollow compilation of BBC sessions, known to the cognoscenti to have the superior version of This Charming Man. I can still smell the huge sleeve of The Queen Is Dead as I took it out of its Freebird Records bag. I knew my Ann Coates from my Craig Gannon. But I missed The Smiths in the National Stadium where the version they played of How Soon Is Now? became the stuff of legend. I’ve seen Morrissey a bunch of times but I think I know I’ll never see The Smiths. I’m too old, for a start. Their swagger remains, however, when Marr and then Morrissey denies David Cameron the right to like them. This from the band whose lead singer described “the ony sorrow…” of the IRA bombing of Brighton at the Tory Party Conference “that Thatcher escaped unscathed” (ironically, their management hid them from the bristling British tabloids by booking them a tour of pubs in Donegal).  Like their offspring The Stone Roses Morrissey and Marr realise that the band will never age unless it takes to the stage again, but that they can still trade off their image. You certainly can’t say that about U2.

In a similar manner to The Clash, although without a Cut The Crap, The Smiths left a beautiful corpse. History will forget the nastiness of the court case where Morrissey tried to welch out of paying the rhythm section their royalties. The singles will remain, however, despite how cack-handedly their legacy is played out in a succession of compilations. I love that this collection does what the official stuff couldn’t as the industry persists in its attempts to remarket The Smiths as some sort of greatest hits thing, repackage, repackage, repackage. This leak gives away the material that the band and its various record companies have dithered over for ages. See, I’ve already waited too long.

*but the boys and girls over at Morrrissey-Solo seem not to mind.


[1] The Oscar Wilde connection worked out for me later in life, when I acquired a beaten-up postcard from the Hot Press seller outside Bewley’s in Dublin and used it to win the entire back catalogue (which I owned anyway, save the shite compilations) from a contest in the Irish Times. “It seemed like a good time to use this”, I lied. Lying is the art of true purpose, Wilde might have said.  He was on my side.

I read with interest a review of Lords of Chaos (a book about the Norwegian Black Metal underground) by the immensely talented blogger and my very good friend Paul Debraski. That last sentence is a link to his review, which you should read first. I was going to write a note on it but I’ve always written as if I’m paid by the word and the note got longer than the review. I was interested, not least because I recently read up to date on Mr. Vikernes, as you’ll see. But I’d also read Lords of Chaos a few years back and was familiar with the Euronymous killing from the music papers of the day.

There was a show called The Word on British television in the ‘90s that got into a great deal of trouble for a regular item known as The Hopefuls. Kids desperate for their 15 minutes would be dared to do horrible things in the name of fame, such as bathing in cowshit or French kissing an octogenarian. People were perhaps unsurprised that the kids would do it, but appalled that it became poplular television. I think of this when I lament at the dreadful events depicted in Lords of Chaos.

Burzum's Filosofem.

First things first: Burzum are not that bad. There are two albums I’ve heard you may like: Filosofem is a concepty piece, featuring otherworldly vocals and guitars but also some dark ambient stuff which works very well as a ur-Sunn 0))) for the young at heart. The other, Anthology, is a compilation which is mixed a little better and features a range of work including tracks from Filosofem. He kept his sound deliberately lo-fi, but while many other bands were fast but not particularly talented, Varg Vikernes seems to have some chops. Both of these (the albums, not the chops)  are, I understand, quite widely available.

Varg apparently continued to work on his music in prison, moving further into electronica because of the limited instrumentation available to him. And there’s been some new material in March this year (might I say I have yet to hear it). Varg was released in May 2009, you see, after 17 years in jail. He’s unrepentant, not surprising to anyone who reads his website (burzum.org) which he ran from jail (Sweden is not about stifling one’s creativity while incarcerated, apparently), claiming still that Euronymous had planned to torture him to death and that his killing was in self-defence. There seems to be quite a little flirtation with white supremacy in his last few years, too. He lives on a farm in Telemark with his family. The September 2010 Mojo has a feature on the whole thing, including interviews with three surviving members of the Norwegian underground and an Email from Varg which adds little to any claim for Nobel glory.

Varg Vikernes, following his relase last year.

Varg before he did the whole church/murdering thing.

But back to Lords of Chaos. There seem to be quite the number of contradictions in the story. Paul contends that they seem eloquent, even smart young men, and that certainly rings through the narrative; it’s particularly chilling to see how level-headed and logical much of their bullshit seems (as Paul, again, observes). But at the bottom of it all is that these are nineteen-year-old kids who were desperate to make a name for themselves and young enough to be blinkered to quite a lot of the implications of their actions. Venom and the Black Metal bands, from Black Sabbath on, traded on the whole Satanist thing as a marketing move, but the Norwegians carried the dare through and it’s in Euronymous’ treatment of Dead I really begin to be nauseous.

Dead (the original singer with Mayhem, you may remember) was a clearly troubled kid; when he may have got help in some other circle, Euronymous and his little underground record shop cultivated this damaged kid, getting headlines from his dysfunction and trading off a mind sick enough to keep a bag of roadkill to inhale before going onstage. When Dead (his stage name might have clued someone in somewhere) killed himself he did so in a theatrical way (cutting his wrists before shooting himself) commensurate with someone who sought a particular kind of fame; Euronymous took the next step in marketing death, and his use of Dead’s bones in jewellery and the rumour of his having eaten part of the dead man’s brain speak of a nasty determination (not to mention a distinct lack of humanity). So the first contradiction is that this group of people was disaffected and chaotic, while their behaviour seems to have been led by Euronymous’ management of the situation. It’s as if New Order put a shot of Ian Curtis in his kitchen on the cover of their live album[1].

Euronymous, pictured recently.

The second contradiction is Varg’s assertion that Euronymous was a fat, inept laughing stock: if so then there’s no real reason to fear, let alone launch a pre-emptive strike against his plot to kill Varg. In all the other versions Euronymous seems much more level-headed (relatively speaking) and ruthless, as you can read from his sensitive treatment of Dead, above. You can’t have it both ways, Varg, even from jail. Remember, he stabbed the guy while he was running away, sixteen times in the back.

The next contradiction is in the intelligence and talent of Varg. Here was a bloke who came to represent the whole genre, gave great copy as part of the Norwegian underground and who made pretty much the only music of the scene anyone gives a toss about, yet balance this against his having been arrested with camo gear, a few gallons of gas and a map to the churches he was going to burn, all sitting there in the back of his car, following escape from his low-security prison in 2003. Not the brightest move. His defence in court was another doozy, blaming his situation on “the Jews who killed my father Odin”. And there’s all that Nordic white supremacy to deal with. Sad that someone who seems to be so bright turns out to be such a twat.

Paul may be right about the authors of Lords of Chaos getting more moral as the book concludes, but not before this whole scene gets an analysis by fans of the music, rather than journalists slowing down to eyeball the tabloid story. More accurate, perhaps, is the observation that things got so screwed up that even fans had to hold up their hands and say just how bad things became.

So you have a bunch of kids who had no real boundaries and the courage of conviction only insofar as it fed into self-mythologising. Really sad. Like X-Factor or America’s Got Talent with a body count. What would you do, I mean what would you be prepared to do, really, to get famous? That?

Eh, okay.

Thanks to Paul Debraski, an inspiration as always.


[1] To be accurate New Order played it a little more for laughs, telling an American journo who asked where the lead singer was that he was “hanging around in the kitchen somewhere” and putting a reference to Herzog’s Stroszek, the film Curtis watched the night he died, on the run-off groove from the posthumous Joy Division album Still.


Fellow Mercurians, polish thy resumé.

Imagine knowing Orson Welles in 1937 when he was 22, knowing then what we know now. Imagine watching him build his reputation instead of trading off it. Imagine him inventing a history for himself before events became bigger than any attempt Welles could make at art. Imagine going on the batter with him.

Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) gets a job by schmoozing Welles, agreeing that Hamlet tells us nothing we don’t already know in the “To be or not to be…” scene. Welles’ Mercury company is mounting a version of Julius Caesar that anyone who knows theatre history knows turned out quite well. We’re not so sure at the time the film is set, though, whether the play will even open, as the principal occupation of the company (as noted in the text) is “waiting for Orson”.

Richard Linklater directs, but there’s not a huge amount going on unless you count the impressive staging of the eventual play. For the vast majority of the film it’s all thirties music, double breasted suits and Radio Days ambience. What anyone who recommends this film–and I do–mentions about it is the performance as Orson Welles by Christian McKay. It’s spectacular, the best so far.

The man himself

Welles is played as a megalomanic on the up, ready to show off and absolutely riven with all kinds of moral turpitude. It would be easy to do the voice and marginally more difficult to do the charisma (see Liev Schreiber, then Angus MacFayden) but a lot more of a challenge to address the insecurity and consequent dickishness we all imagine to have been the price of such genius. The script aids McKay, developing a sense that everything about Welles fed into his art: there are nods to and foreshadowings of some of his later work (Ambersons, Chimes at Midnight, Macbeth, Othello, Kane, (throughout)), and Welles himself declares as much at a pivotal moment with the declaration “I’m Orson Welles… I own the store”. An early character note tips us off: Welles, in an attempt to outsmart New York traffic, rides in the back of an ambulance he retains for the purpose. This is not a particularly nice man, so how come we’re so disarmed when he’s in the shot?

The story is basically true: Welles made a leap into fame with a revolutionary production of Shakespeare’s tragedy with his Mercury Theatre group, boosted by his reputation as a radio actor. History is attended to by the presence of real-life figures like the exasperated John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), George Courlouris, played as a sweet and delicate luvvie by Ben Chaplin, and Joseph Cotten, although the latter (a successful film actor before Welles cast him in Kane) is rather one-dimensional, underwritten to leave James Tupper with little to do except bet on girls’ underwear. The only fiction here is the plot itself.

Which brings us by deft segue into the performance of Zac Efron, the reason, presumably, anyone in the lamestream media knew of this film’s existence. His is our perspective on all things Welles. He’s a talented kid, outgrowing the high school desk where he’s bored by the old fart teaching him Shakespeare. He loves his music and it seems only a matter of time before he and some other impossibly pretty mates put a show on right here. But Linklater doesn’t allow him to play to type; there’s some uncertainty and eventual disillusion in this story and Efron pulls it off. It’s not Rainman, by any means, but it may well be up there for someone with Zac’s cheekbones and capability to inspire fizzy knickers in any teenage girl at 100 paces to do ‘uncertainty’ at all. it’s to the credit of Linklater, of scriptwriter Holly Gent Palmo, and of Efron himself that he manages it. He even gets a punchline: when he is asked onstage by Welles for the lute he has mislaid he replies “Some asshole… doth stole it”.

This is a small film with limited ambition, and as such it’s a success. The setting and soundtrack are redolent of Radio Days, but in all fairness how do you do anything set in New York in the 1930’s (anything that doesn’t feature a big mechanical ape, at any rate) without it looking like a Woody Allen piece? A good ensemble does well, even the perennially dislikable Claire Danes. There is a bit of a cul-de-sac subplot about a writer but we’ll forgive it. The real success of the film is McKay: at best when he is at full tilt, railing at the cast as his eyes already begin the process of weaselling out of apology for the words he’s speaking. Although Welles portrayed Brutus in his production Linklater has him more as a Caesar, looking superstitiously for the “bad luck thing” before the first night, dictating his own inner circle (especially those without) and establishing a regime in which “Orson’s not allowed to be wrong”. He may be Romeo to the girls within reach, Falstaff to Efron’s Hal and as two faced and cynical as Iago, but to us he’s constant as the Northern star, and when he lets us down we can’t say we were surprised. I’d have liked to see more Welles, but I’ve always been a sucker for the big lug.

This is as bright as the stage gets. Dublin, 10 Dec.Photo by Lar Duffy

The venue was too big. The Tripod in Dublin is all very well but when you’re a band like this one intimacy is, I think, a prerequisite. I don’t see it working in the Enormodome and it didn’t really work here.

There was the anticipation of six years without any Godspeed. The reputation of a band spoken of in the hushed tones reserved for those who died young (or who went on a hiatus they themselves described as ‘indefinite’.) And there was the fact that the older generation of Godspeed fans may well have outgrown the band’s indulgences a little.

The audience didn’t really seem to notice when two members of the band (slimmed down to eight members—where’s Norsola?) began a drone; the noise continued as the word “hope” flickered on the screen behind (Godspeed don’t go in for show or even lights, instead using film loops originally designed by violinist Sophie Trudeau while they sit around on chairs). By twenty minutes in the audience finally twigged that the band were finally all onstage, and off we went. Another perspicacious reviewer noted that Godspeed’s recorded product amounts to around eleven or twelve pieces, and we got seven tonight, along with an overlong new piece which I’m reliably informed was titled Albania. They began, though, with Storm, the first suite from their Levez Vos Skinny Fists… album. It’s a big, building thing, beginning with Gathering Storm and ending with an insistent, buzzing flurry from the guitars. Tonight it lacked the nuance present on both recorded and live performance from the early 00’s. The guitar was stodgy and the drums lumpen. It should be noted that this got markedly better, but not before it got a whole lot worse. Monheim, one of the band’s most heartfelt pieces, was magnificent, though, moving slowly towards another trademark crescendo, but doing so in a much more tasteful manner than the previous piece’s onslaught. Then the new bit.

It’s now on record that this reviewer is all too aware of the debt owed by Godspeed to Swans, and the beginning of Albania sounded just like the new incarnation of the latter. In fairness the link with Swans has been mutually acknowledged (in as much as the members of Godspeed declare anything except their genius) so that’s fine, but the length of this piece, and the lack of much progression before it reached its inevitable climax (via what resembled some sort of metal riffola), outlasted its novelty. Perhaps this music requires multiple listens but there were too many rough edges for it to earn its place in the middle of the set.

Two further pieces brought things back to a semblance of interesting: the first from the aforementioned Levez… album was Chart #3, a slow, angular piece, the second, Dead Metheny from the first album, an angry, edgy piece led by guitar (so many these days seem to begin with Sophie’s violin) and finally breaking out into the fury missing from the set thus far. Getting a little better, then, except for the big fat bloke in the Depeche Mode teeshirt beside me, who broke off his insistent chatter (presumably of the I.T. or Warhammer variety) to headbang furiously at one stage. I used to shush these people; now I couldn’t be arsed. They used to sleep on the beach at Coney Island, too….

Your money’s worth came, though, at about 1035, when Sophie rang out the arching notes at the beginning of Moya, from the band’s masterpiece Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada ep, and finally given the expanse it deserves. Originally called Gorecki and heavily influenced by the late composer’s Third Symphony. To say the audience were rapt is an understatement: this was terrific stuff. A much messier BBFIII, plagued, it seemed, (but how can one tell?) with technical problems and lost towards the end in a mush of guitars, followed. And then I was gone. Too tired. This anonymous band left one by one and so did I. It was after curfew and too hot. I subsequently discovered that they played another tune, but I was on the way home.

The venue was too big, then, except for the 14 minutes of Moya, when I wished it was big enough for me to drag every person I know in to hear this wonderful racket.