Friday 27 December 2019

Recent gigs: The Wonder Stuff and Big Country

A couple of late entries in this year's gig calendar  -  both are bands that I've liked for a long, long time but have never seen play live, and both are bands that have soldiered on after tragedies have cost them members over the years.
Firstly, and in the usual reverse order, it's The Wonder Stuff at Bristol's O2 Academy on 12/12/19.

As I said, I'd never seen the Stuffies before but I had seen main main Miles Hunt and violinist partner Erica Knockalls play as a duo at Gloucester's Guildhall back in 2015 and promised myself I'd catch their "other" band some time. Four years later I finally made good on that promise and I'm very glad I did. But before that I picked up my old friend Glenn ( Borrowed Time superstar! ) and headed down to Brizzle through sluggish, late-rush-hour traffic. This gig was a kind of joint birthday present for us both, with Glenn's birthday being on the 10th and mine on the 14th  -  as they are most years it seems. After enjoying the culinary delights of the local Subway ( vegan subs, yum! ) we headed into the venue for an evening of refined musical entertainment. Glenn hung back by the balcony, saying he would join me later, whilst I got down to my customary spot at the front where I met up with die-hard gig-goer David Rose ( of David Rose's Gig Diary fame ) and his friend Robynne. Already on stage and giving it some ( sparkly ) welly was this urchin:

Could it be? Yes, it could. It's only that bleedin' Jim Bob innit? Yep, formally half of the sadly-missed Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine ( another band I saw at the Guildhall back in the day ) the man also known as James Robert Morrison was here to sing us his pun-packed, wordy and wry songs of life, love and losers. I'd wondered how the drum-machine-driven, sample-heavy Carter songs would stand up when played acoustically  -  pretty well, as it turns out. Jim Bob was in fine voice and played with all the passion and energy I remember from Carter gigs back in the ( gulp! ) '90s. Standouts from the old material were Do Re Mi So Far So Good ( I'd actually forgotten that one! ), a wonderfully moving Lean On Me I Won't Fall Over and a heartfelt The Only Living Boy In New Cross  -  still my fave Carter song, with Jim holding that looooong note on the chorus perfectly, and prompting me to babble in David's ear that the song was "pure poetry". Of JB's new songs the highlight was Victim, a stark and honest account of the time he was mugged and the effect it had on his mental health.
After the expected "You fat bastard!" chants, Jim Bob finished with the equally-expected Sheriff Fatman and remarked "Well, my parents were married when they had me so I'm technically just fat."

After a brief interlude in which more and more ridiculously tall people began to appear between me and the crowd barrier, Miles Hunt bounded onto the stage ( well, as much as any 53-year old man can bound ) and instantly went into a cheesy Las Vegas compere kind of routine, telling us The Wonder Stuff were here to play some new songs, followed by two old albums in their entirety  -  "and to do that, guess I'm gonna need me a band!" At which point the band duly appeared stage left and kicked off the show with newie Feet To The Flames. This was an absolutely cracking song to start off the set which showcased Miles' impressive vocal range and showed how confident the new material is. After four more new songs the Stuffies took a 15-minute break  -  the first band I've seen do that since The Dandy Warhols sat on that very stage many years ago and smoked cigarettes for 10 minutes...

They then came back out to run through second album Hup, celebrating its 30th (!) anniversary this year, starting with the kicking and snarling 30 Years In The Bathroom and the teen-punk snottiness of Radio Ass Kiss. By the time Miles claimed The Wonder Stuff had invented Country music ahead of a joyous Golden Green I was completely sold. Cartoon Boyfriend was a massive singalong, Unfaithful a showcase for Miles and Erica ( see photo at the top ), while Piece Of Sky was poignantly dedicated to those we've lost in the last 30 years. The only weak spot for me was Let's Be Other People which I found turgid but was quickly followed by the all-conquering Don't Let Me Down, Gently. Which was nice.

With barely a pause for breath they moved on to first album The Eight-Legged Groove Machine. Apparently they'd missed the 30th anniversary of this last year so, when the idea came up "in the boozer" to play Hup in its entirety, the decision was made to play TELGM as well. Obviously gluttons for punishment.
If anything, this section of the gig was ( wonder ) stuffed with even more bangers: It's Yer Money, Unbearable and Give, Give, Give Me More, More, More were all sweet 'n' sour indie pop classics, while the surreal Ruby Horse reminded me of Robyn Hitchcock with its lyric about the sun shining down like marmalade... and it certainly pleased the guy who kept shouting for "Ruby fackin' Horse!" all the way through the set. The Stuffies finished with a rampage through the stuttering Poison ( "P-p-p-poison!" ) and then came back out for a final Good Night Though, a track from Hup which had come adrift and found itself a more appropriate place at the end of the set.
Miles said "Thank you, Bristol, you were a pleasure!" And the feeling's mutual. What a great gig! I'm so glad I finally got to see The Wonder Stuff and will definitely have to catch them again.

( After the gig, when I finally caught up with Glenn, we got stuck in a massive tailback on the M5 due to late-night roadworks which meant I didn't get home until gone 01:00 am. It was worse for Glenn  -  he was going to work the next day, then playing a gig that night in London! And, of course, we all woke up the next day to the disastrous election results with Labour more or less wiped out and Boris Johnson's Fascist  Conservative party continuing its lemming-like course of destroying everything worth saving in this country. Talk about a comedown. )

And, just a few weeks previously, I saw another old fave for the first time ( huh? ) at Gloucester's groovy Guildhall  -  Big Country in a small venue. This was the 35th anniversary tour for their second album, Steeltown, and I'd luckily acquired a ticket from David Rose ( it's that man again! ) who had double-booked gigs so couldn't make it to Gloucester.
I was an early fan of Big Country, buying their first single Harvest Home on 12" vinyl the week it came out, after hearing them on Radio One ( probably on Kid Jensen's show ) and reading a Sounds review which described them as "sparklingly innovative". I was given their first album The Crossing for Christmas 1983 and was instantly hooked by its juxtaposition of tough indie rock, folk influences and melancholy lyrics. I have to admit that, when Steeltown came out, I was beginning to think it all sounded a bit samey ( plus the second album's production sounded a little muddy after The Crossing ) so I drifted away from the band. I think they even played in Gloucester, at the old leisure centre where I'd seen the likes of Thin Lizzy and Ian Gillan, but I didn't go, unfortunately. This local gig was a chance for me to make amends.

I went with Glenn ( of course! ) who knew the promoter so got in on the guest list. His band Borrowed Time had supported The Skids here back in February ( see here for review ) and, of course, Big Country share DNA with that other gang of Dunfermline art-punks.
We missed all but one song by support band The Q ( perennial Jam-copyists but very good at what they do ) and then Big Country ambled onto the stage with very little fanfare and launched into the anthemic 1000 Stars. ( It may seem redundant to call BC songs "anthemic" 'cos most of them are but this was a perfect, rousing start to the set. ) I'd expected them to play Steeltown track by track but they mostly split the set between the first two albums which worked fine.

The first thing I noticed was just how well they captured the classic Big Country sound, even without the leadership of the late, great Stuart Adamson. Having two founding members in Bruce Watson ( guitar ) and Mark Brzezicki ( drums ) certainly helped, while Bruce's son the hugely-talented Jamie Watson again showed, as with The Skids, what a fantastic guitarist he is, more than equal to the BC challenge. Frontman Simon Hough, however, was in a difficult position. His vocals were strong and clear but it's bound to be difficult to replace such an individual, powerful voice as Stuart Adamson's. Hough comes across as a nice bloke who does a fine job but lacks the stage presence of his predecessor. The focal point of the band was often Bruce who had loads of salty banter with the audience and the other band members and was clearly loving it. Playing with , as ever, a HUGE grin on his face he was a delight to watch, especially when rocking some classic "dualling guitars" poses with Jamie. At one point the Celtic-influenced sounds of the twin guitars and the old school jamming prompted me to shout into Glenn's ear "Thin Lizzy or what?"  -  and then they dropped a snippet of Whiskey In The Jar into the song. They know what they're doing!

After such muscular rockers as Flame Of The West, East Of Eden and Look Away ( from third album The Seer ) they played my absolute favourite BC song, the mournful, romantic Chance. This was just wonderful and it seemed to be everybody else's fave too, as we all joined in with the surging "Oh, Lord  -  where did the feeling go?" chorus. A spine-tingling moment.
They finished the set with ( of course ) the mighty Fields Of Fire. Which was an anthem. It was proper anthemic. It reached 100% anthemicity. I really can't avoid using the word "anthem" at this point. Look, it was just bloody great, alright? They then encored with Restless Natives which, I'm ashamed to say, I didn't know at all but was a suitably powerful, quintessentially Big Country song to end with, all heart-on-sleeve lyrics and swirling guitars.
So, it's taken me a very long time but I've now seen two great bands who I really should have caught back in the day and all I can say is we're lucky they're still out there.

Wednesday 25 December 2019

Merry Christmas from The Glass Walking-Stick

Season's greetings to all you lovely people out in the blogosphere. I hope you're all having a healthy and happy time. Wishing you all peace and love.

Saturday 14 December 2019

Frankenstein by Bernie Wrightson

One of the late, great Bernie Wrightson's original art pieces for his Frankenstein series of plates has sold recently for $1,000,000. Please click on the picture above to see it in all its insanely-detailed Gothic glory. The selling price is a testament to the regard in which people hold the work and the man, a sadly missed master of the sequential art form. It really is a beautiful piece of work and must surely be the jewel in the crown of some lucky person's collection...

But... I was hoping someone might have bought it for me for my birthday ( for 'tis today )...
Oh, well...

Thursday 31 October 2019

"I do believe in Spooks"

Well, I don't really. But I've always been interested in the supernatural and things that go bump in the night and, hey, it's Halloween so now must be the time to talk about it, right?
I'm more interested these days in fictional ghoulies and ghosties but when I was younger I was borderline obsessed with the supernatural and was always reading "true life" ghost stories. As a teenager I subscribed to the infamous part-work The Unexplained which contained many a tale of spooky and, yes, unexplained phenomena in its eldritch pages.
Of course I had an active imagination as a kid and the fact that I was brought up in a creaky, draughty 200-year old farmhouse just added to my fascination for the weird and bizarre. I was always imagining footsteps on the attic steps outside my bedroom door or hunting for secret passages in the cellar. My dad, Pete, told me his family had lived in the house since 1930 and nobody had ever seen even the merest wisp of a spectre. By the time I was a teenager I was starting to doubt that...

As an adolescent I started having weird experiences at night ( no, not those! ) which had me thinking there were stranger things in heaven and earth etc. etc. On many, many cold dark nights I would wake up ( always at 01:40 am for some reason ) with a feeling of absolute dread. I found myself unable to move, as if some giant weight were pressing down on my chest, and there was usually the impression of a shadowy figure standing at the foot of my bed, no doubt meaning to do me harm. After much struggling and scrabbling around to find my light switch I would feel the weight suddenly disappear, switch on my light and reveal... nothing. I don't know for sure how long this lasted  -  probably a couple of years  -  but I was understandably freaked out by it. I couldn't tell my parents, or anyone else for that matter, because I was sure they'd (a) think I was nuts, (b) laugh at me or (c) both. I began to think that the house was indeed haunted... or I was indeed going nuts.

Many years later as an alleged adult I was watching a TV documentary about sleep and dreams ( this time in our resolutely non-spooky one-bed suburban terraced house ) when the narrator mentioned the subject of sleep paralysis and I nearly fell out of my chair. This was it! This was the cause of those fear-filled nights. There was no nocturnal creature holding me down or lurking at the foot of my bed, merely a quirk of REM sleep which keeps the body immobile and presumably safe whilst dreaming. I wasn't haunted or mad! There was an actual physiological explanation for this private night-time terror which had gripped me for so long but was now an adolescent memory. Boring or what?

As much as I might wish otherwise I've still never had any real kind of supernatural encounter. Even when my mate Paul and I tried to sacrifice my sister to the Devil down in the cellar of the farmhouse there was no puff of sulphur or echoing voice from another world. ( I suspect Lucifer would have rejected her for being just too nasty for the hot place anyway. ) All we got was a telling off from my Nan for "trying to raise evil spirits"  -  chance would be a fine thing!

Really, the only sniff I've had of the spirit world was sometime in the early 90s when Sarah and I visited Littledean Hall in the Forest Of Dean. This is one of the oldest houses in the country and is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest, being home to a colony of Greater Horseshoe Bats. I'd spotted it on my travels ( I was a truck drivin' man in those days ) and thought it would be worth a look. We had a nice couple of hours there, looking around, and although there didn't seem to be anything too notable about the place, it was a pleasant enough way to spend a Summer's morning. There was very little in the way of information on display so we didn't really find out much of the house's history at the time.
One of the last rooms we looked in was a fairly unremarkable, almost bare room containing not much more than a table, a fireplace and some exposed roof beams. For some reason, even though the day was warm and all the other rooms felt light and airy, I suddenly felt an extreme cold creeping into my bones. As the room felt colder and colder I started  to feel anxious, claustrophobic, I just felt I shouldn't be there. I didn't say anything to Sarah because, again, I would have felt foolish but I was extremely relieved to get out of that room and breathe some fresh air and feel the sun on my face. From the outside I could see that the room was bathed in sunlight, not obscured by trees or hedges, and there was no real reason why it should have been so marrow-chillingly cold.
In the car on the way home Sarah suddenly confessed to me that something had really upset her in that room and she'd felt oppressed and nervous and couldn't wait to get out. She hadn't told me in case I thought she was just being silly...

Brrr! I'm feeling cold, just typing this. ( Well, it is October. ) We later looked up the history of Littledean Hall and apparently it's been the site of many supposed hauntings over the centuries. We hadn't been aware of that before our visit and had no reason to expect any "cold spots" in the house or anything like that. We both just think of it as a strange anomaly that we can't explain and it certainly didn't turn us into believers in ghosts. But... maybe, just maybe...

Wednesday 30 October 2019

Joker and other recent movies

"Clowns to the left of me / Jokers to the right..."

2019 has been a year where jokers and clowns have been seemingly all around us, from the ones cavorting on the silver screen to the ones who ( allegedly ) run our countries and institutions. And this feeling of the lunatics having taken over the asylum very much feeds into the first film I'm going to talk about here in my quick rundown of recent big screen fare:

Joker ( Dir. Todd Phillips )

Strangely enough, this origin story for DC's Clown Prince Of Crime has turned out to be the most controversial film of the year, even if its content doesn't really warrant all the hysteria. I guess you've heard all the hype, Dear Reader, from the ridiculous warnings that certain misfits could identify with the central character and go out and do Bad Things, to the director's confession that he planned to sneak an "indie" film into the DC cinematic universe, to the spectacle of elder statesmen of film slagging off super hero movies. So, does the movie justify all that uproar? Well, not really.
In its subject matter, Joker is basically an amalgam of two Martin Scorsese movies, Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy  -  and the fact that the latter film's Rupert Pupkin, Robert De Niro himself, turns up as a supporting character only pushes the cross-referencing envelope. The problem is Todd Phillips ain't no Scorsese. The movie seems confused to me and its pretensions to making Big Political Statements are, well, just pretensions. If you really want to talk about such subjects as the banality of violence, class war and the madness of crowds then using an old Batman villain will only get you so far.
Having said all that, the film certainly delivers in terms of the visuals ( the grimy, grainy, 1970s New York vibe is superbly evoked here ), the deliciously mournful score by Hildur Guonadottir and, of course, the central performance by Joachin Phoenix. Barely off-screen for a moment, Phoenix is compellingly, frighteningly believable as mentally unstable outcast Arthur Fleck, whose pitiful attempts at fitting into society are obviously doomed to fail. It's a towering performance, brave both emotionally and physically ( the actor must have really put himself through the wringer to achieve this ), and probably far better than the film deserves. Hopefully there won't be a Joker 2 or an attempt to shoehorn the character into the next Bat-pic ( although Hollywood bean-counters would surely love that ) because that could only detract from Phoenix's utter ownership of this Joker and his world.

It: Chapter Two ( Dir: Andy Muschietti )

Hopping in ridiculously oversized shoes from one clown to another we come to what was probably my most anticipated film of the year. The first chapter of this Stephen King adaptation was a delight, a wonderful mix of horror, humour and nostalgia that did a damn good job of catching King's unique "voice" and brought the world yet another memorable circus-themed monster. This second part of the story is fun but, for me, lacks the magic of the first. It starts off promisingly with some very nasty scenes of brutality as the Pennywise character reincorporates 27 years after the Losers had thought they'd beaten him, but it all becomes more generic as the story progresses. As with the Tim Curry-led TV mini-series, the adult versions of the Losers are far less interesting than their teenage counterparts. There's some fine work here from James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain and Bill Hader but none of it really catches fire, something which is only highlighted when their younger selves pop up in flashbacks. There are admittedly some creepy scenes here but the atmosphere is often punctured by ill-judged humour and probably the freakiest scene in the film ( the Bit With The Old Lady ) was available in truncated form online before the movie came out, so is completely spoiled. Muschietti piles on more and more supernatural shenanigans as the film winds down, proving yet again that more is often less in horror movies. I still think King's novel would have benefited from being made as a 12-part Netflix show or some such which would have given the mammoth story room to breathe.

Blinded By The Light ( Dir. Gurinder Chadha )

In complete contrast to the previous two movies, Blinded By The Light is a warm-hearted and exuberant story of the growing pains of a British Pakistani in the 1980s who happens to be a Bruce Springsteen fan. Based on Greetings From Bury Park, the autobiography of journalist and broadcaster Sarfraz Manzoor, this is the definition of the "feelgood Summer movie" but one mostly free of the saccharine touch of the likes of Richard Curtis. The main character, Javed, comes of age in the late '80s, living in the seemingly nowhere town of Luton, dreaming of breaking free and becoming a writer but feeling constricted by the weight of his family's expectations. A friend at college introduces Javed to the music of Bruce Springsteen and he finds a deep connection to Bruce's songs of loners, outcasts and dreamers which he struggles to explain to his friends and family.
The push and pull between East and West, and between Javed's and his father's dreams, drive the story whilst Springsteen's songs underscore or counterpoint the narrative.
Gurinder Chadha's assured direction imbues what seems on the surface to be a light and frothy movie with some darker undertones as racism rears its ugly head and poverty bites at the characters. There are also some fascinating insights into Pakistani culture which you barely see in mainstream movies. Mostly, though, it's just huge fun as Javed finds the music of the Boss helping him get through his growing pains, often breaking out into song, Bollywood-style, or finding the song lyrics whirling around him on screen as they comment on his life. The film is unashamedly, cheekily cheesy and emotional, wearing its heart on its denim sleeve, and is all the better for that.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood ( Dir. Quentin Tarantino )

Tarantino's latest is, for want of a better description, 100% Tarantino. A lovingly recreated Hollywood past is the playground for a cast of characters, some fictional, some real, all trying to survive turbulent times and maybe make a buck or two. The story ( or what story there is ) revolves around fading '50s movie star Rick Dalton ( DiCaprio ) and his stunt-man / buddy / gopher Cliff Booth ( Pitt ) as they hang out, drive around LA, go to parties, drive around LA, try to hang on to their careers, and drive around LA some more. Versions of the likes of Steve McQueen, Bruce Lee, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate drift in and out of the film, some making more of an impression than others. Margot Robbie is conspicuously under-served by the script, having little to do except look gorgeous and ( you've guessed it! ) drive around LA, whilst most attention is lavished on Leo and Brad whose combined charisma is the real engine of the movie. The film is slooooow even by QT's standards, without much of his standard violence to break up the general sluggishness
( although there is one typically ultra-tense stand-off scene and the old ultra-violence does put in a controversial appearance near the end ) but it all gets by on the star power of the two leads and the gorgeous visuals. Just.
A love letter to the movies in general and late '60s / early '70s Hollywood in particular, it's probably the most self-indulgent film yet from a consistently self-indulgent film-maker. QT here re-imagines a pivotal time in Hollywood  -  as the Studio system gives way to the era of the Movie Brats and darker forces are at work behind the scenes and in the dust of the Californian desert, Quentin audaciously attempts to right wrongs and give some people the happy endings they never received in real life. I'm still not sure if he really succeeds ( or even should have attempted it ) but it's brave and foolhardy at the same time and is pure Tarantino.

( Sarah, James and I also went to a revived screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the good ol' Gloucester Guildhall. James and I last saw this on the big screen only last year but it was still great to see it again and it didn't lose its power on the smaller screen. Still the Ultimate Trip. )

Soundtrack: various obscure Vaporwave artists

Sunday 13 October 2019

40 Years of DWM!

Forty years ago this week saw the publication of the debut issue of Doctor Who Weekly, the first ongoing magazine devoted solely to everyone's favourite Time Lord. As the Fourth Doctor, the mighty Tom Baker, was fully embedded in the public's consciousness at this point, with Tom having played the character for five years, it was clearly an ideal time to launch this new magazine.
The 12-year old me was certainly very excited to read this "Fantastic First Issue"  -  I'd been a Doctor Who fan for 7 or 8 of those years and had just recently watched what would turn out to be my all-time fave Who story, the Paris-set beauty that was City Of Death. ( The current serial at the time was the overly-camp Creature From The Pit which was 2 or 3 episodes in at this point. )
Doctor Who Weekly combined two of my great passions, Doctor Who and comic strips, so I was as happy as a Dalek with a planet-full of pitiful humans to exterminate. And it was a Marvel comic too
( master-minded by comic book impresario Dez Skinn ) so that ticked another box for me. A Marvel comic with a secret ingredient... the cream of 2000 AD!

Yes, the lead comic strip in the first issue featured some absolutely stellar work by 2000 AD mainstays Pat Mills, John Wagner and Dave Gibbons, bringing us eager young fans the kind of budget-busting science fiction spectacle that the Beeb could only dream about. The issue was rounded out by some entry-level articles about the show and another couple of short comic strips. I was instantly hooked and became an avid follower of the magazine. After a year or so of publication its name was changed to Doctor Who Monthly as it began to be published ( you guessed it! ) once a month. Now known as Doctor Who Magazine ( or DWM for short ) it has managed an incredible run of 40 years of continuous publication. In an age when print media seems to be dying this is really impressive.
DWM has unsurprisingly had many ups and downs over the years but for the most part has been a wonderfully entertaining and informative mag, devoted to the Doctor and the various spin-offs from the show  -  from the New Adventures novels, to TV off-shoots like Torchwood, to the long-running Big Finish audio stories.

( The above issue has a special place in my cold, unfeeling heart as it contains the first fan letter I ever had published. I'll have to dig it out sometime and scan it for this 'ere blog. )

So, many congratulations to all the talented people who have kept DWM going for all these years, even through the "dark times" when the show was off the air. Happy times and places!

Monday 23 September 2019

Happy 70th Birthday to The Boss!

( Photo courtesy of Backstreets Magazine )

Hard to believe, I know, but the legendary Bruce Springsteen is 70 today. I just thought I'd pay a quick tribute to the hardest working man in rock 'n' roll and one of my all-time favourite musicians.

I've written before about Springsteen and what his music means to me but I'd just like to thank Bruce ( like he'd ever see this... ) for the years of pleasure his work has given me. From the stadium rock of Glory Days and Dancing In The Dark, to the introspection of The River and My Hometown, to the bar-band rumble of Rosalita ( Come Out Tonight ), the experimentation of Streets Of Philadelphia or the sheer "we-gotta-get-out-of-this-place" romanticism of Thunder Road, Springsteen's songs have been a touchstone for me  -  tales of love, life, anger and hope, sometimes reaching for the stars, sometimes digging down into melancholy, but always heartfelt and real.
And, unlike many of his contemporaries, Bruce doesn't just trade in nostalgia for the glory days, he's also phenomenally productive. Since the E Street Band's Reunion Tour in 1999 ( 20 years since my first Bruce gig at the NEC! ) he's performed literally hundreds of gigs, released 10 albums with or without the E Streeters, written his autobiography and performed 236 sold-out solo shows on Broadway in 2017 / 2018. Phew!
( Cowboy ) hats off to Bruce!

Hope you're having a great birthday, Boss! Keep on rockin'!

"Talk about a dream, try to make it real"

Saturday 21 September 2019

Up, up and away...

Packing this young man off to Hereford University today!
( The one on the right. )

The sky's the limit!

Sunday 15 September 2019

NICE Con 2019

Last weekend ( keeping things current, as ever with this blog ) I went to Bedford for this year's NICE con. The main draw for me last year had been meeting the legendary Don McGregor and, while there was no one creator I was as interested in this year, there was certainly an inviting array of artists in particular on display.
After a trouble-free drive on a sunny, late-Summer morning I arrived at Bedford's lovely Corn Exchange and almost instantly bumped into my old blogging buddy Joe Ackerman. After a quick look around the con we went for a walk into Bedford where we had some lunch and Joe took me to local comic shop ( and sponsors of NICE ) Close Encounters. This turned out to be a pretty cool little shop with a surprisingly well-stocked back issues department  -  I bought a couple of recent Marvel comics, just out of interest ( including Marvel #1000 ), and an issue of Planetary which now completes my collection of that title. As ever, it was great fun to chat with Joe as we covered such subjects as DC's TV shows, tattoos, Brexshit, the merits or otherwise of drinking alcohol, and which inkers worked best with Gil Kane...

Back into the Corn Exchange where I spent some time just wandering around, trawling through the long-boxes of comics, chatting with some of the exhibitors and watching the artists at work. This last is always a pleasure, whether it's Dylan Teague working on a Batman sketch or Esad Ribic putting some finishing touches to a Conan painting. As well as the big players ( Alan Davis! Adi Granov! ), there were also plenty of independent comic creators there and it's heartening to see people being creative and often not just following the latest super hero trends. If I'd had unlimited funds I would have bought quite a few art pieces and indie comics but I had to settle for the three comics shown above.
I've recently been re-reading my New Teen Titans collection ( the wonderful Marv Wolfman / George Perez run from the early '80s ) and I'm now on the hunt for some issues to fill the gaps. Funnily enough, I'd been talking to Joe about the DC TV version of the Titans compared to the source material, and then I came across the two Titans comics above and promptly snapped them up. The Fantastic Four issue  -  number 80 from November 1968  -  is one I've been after for a very long time. This is one of the very few post-1965 issues of the Lee / Kirby FF that I don't own and it's one of only two FF stories from the Silver Age that I'd never previously read in any form. ( The other being FF #21, the first appearance of the Hate-Monger, if anyone is feeling generous and wants to buy me a copy. )

This is quite a goofy, stand-alone story in which Reed, Ben and Johnny go to the aid of almost-forgotten supporting character Wyatt Wingfoot, whose tribe of Native Americans is under attack from Tomazooma, the Living Totem. ( Of course. ) Hardly a classic but fun nonetheless, with Tomazooma being one of the last new antagonists created for the Lee / Kirby run, almost a precursor to the Celestials from the later Eternals comic with its shiny, metallic, robotic look juxtaposed with cod-mythology. And it's a lovely copy  -  cents-priced with no UK price-stamp, a shiny cover and some lovely white pages  -  all for less than £30.

There's also the added bonus of a letter in the letter column from one Donald McGregor of Providence, Rhode Island. Yes, this letter is from that self-same star of last year's NICE con, who was then a 22-year old comics fan, just a few years away from his own breakthrough into the business. It's a small world...

So, I had a great time in Bedford and hope to go again next year. I'm also hoping to persuade another blog-buddy Pete Doree from The Bronze Age Of Blogs to come along as well, and hopefully finally meet up with the Mighty Joe. Wouldn't it be NICE?

Sunday 11 August 2019

Spider-Man: Far From Home and other recent movies

So far this year my movie-going experiences have oscillated ( and that's a word I don't use enough! ) between MCU blockbusters and assorted classic re-releases. I'm just going to do a quick rundown in roughly reverse order, starting with super-hero shenanigans...

Spider-Man: Far From Home ( 2019 )
James and I saw this at our local Cineworld last weekend, and probably just in time too as the film is down to one showing a day now. We'd missed seeing Spider-Man: Homecoming at the cinema so really wanted to catch this sequel on the big screen, especially because there were scenes set in Venice, as the poster above demonstrates. After the huge, world-saving, time-travelling Endgame where everything was about the BIG STAKES, this movie was lighter and smaller scale but a lot of fun. Again going for the John Hughes teen-comedy vibe this took Peter Parker and his friends on a wild school trip around Europe, taking in beautiful Venice ( sigh! ), Prague, Berlin, somewhere unspecified in the Netherlands ( we knew that 'cos there were tulips and windmills on display ) and ending up in London. Some fine action sequences, Jake Gyllenhaal having a ball as anti-hero / villain Mysterio and some great performances from the young cast. I'm still uncomfortable with Peter being Tony Stark's bitch and not really his own man but this movie went some way to move the character onwards in the wake of *SPOILER* Stark's death in Endgame.
So, I'd rate this a solid Three and a Half out of Five Web-Shooters

The Matrix ( 1999 )
Sarah, James and I went to see this 20th anniversary re-release in Southampton while we were on holiday down in Hampshire. This was at the Showcase Deluxe cinema which boasts a 70 ft (!) screen which was perfect for a film like The Matrix in which you need to be totally immersed. For a film that is two decades old ( I still can't believe that! Surely it came out in about 2010? ) and has been almost constantly imitated ever since, The Matrix stands up really well. Apart from a few wobbly effects and some obviously outdated cultural references it's still a visually spectacular thrill-ride, with its cod-philosophy more integral to the plot than the endless navel-gazing in the sequels, and lots of fun to be had in the interactions between the lead actors. Carrie-Anne Moss and Laurence Fishburne are still impeccably cool, Hugo Weaving and Joe Pantoliano are hilariously slimy and Keanu is... well, he's Keanu. Playing a hacker-turned-action hero who seems to be simultaneously the smartest guy in the room and the dumbest dope on the block, the role of Thomas Anderson / Neo is absolutely perfect for the former Ted ( Theodore ) Logan. And, bizarrely, Keanu is of course an action hero again all these years later in the John Wick series. "Whoa!" indeed.

Avengers: Endgame ( 2019 ) ( SPOLERS! For anyone who hasn't etc. etc.)
What more can be said about The Most Successful Movie Ever Made TM? ( Until the next one, anyway. ) There's not much I can add except to say it was hugely entertaining, with the Russo brothers somehow managing to corral the immense cast, spectacular action scenes and emotional payoffs to this long-running MCU saga into a convincing, and mostly coherent, whole. After the intense setup of Infinity War this last chapter in the Thanos saga was surprisingly light and comedic, although the early scenes of post-"Snap" trauma were suitably anguished. Most of the characters received appropriate screen-time and were given fitting ends / next chapters in their stories. Chris Evans and Mark Ruffalo easily walked away with the acting honours... or hobbled away, in Cap's case... but it was also suitably sad, if inevitable, to see Robert Downey Jnr's Iron Man meeting his heroic downfall. ( Also, as Doctor Who fans, James and I both laughed when the concept of a "time heist" was unveiled but, of course, nobody else in the cinema did. )

Captain Marvel ( 2019 )
More super-hero action of the cosmic variety next with the latest iteration of Captain Marvel. It's certainly past time the MCU focused on a female hero and its previous applicants ( Black Widow, Scarlet Witch ) have never been strong enough characters to carry their own movie. Carol Danvers, on the other hand, former test pilot - turned - Kree warrior, is far more interesting and worthy to be Marvel's answer to DC's successful Wonder Woman. The film showed huge confidence by instantly plunging the viewers into the middle of the intergalactic Kree / Skrull conflict with very little hand-holding by the way of exposition. Brie Larson was the definition of "steely" as the good Captain, trying to discover the secrets of her past and to escape from the toxic shadow of Jude Law's Kree mentor Yonn-Rogg. Her scenes with Samuel Jackson's Nick Fury were a delight, their spiky, acerbic chemistry being the best parts of the film. Larson brought a subtlety to her character which many nay-sayers confused for blankness but I thought was refreshing after the often over the top stylings of many other super-hero actors. The action scenes were well handled and surprisingly not too gratuitous, while the 90s soundtrack was a blast. Hopefully, apart from her short appearance in Endgame, we won't have to wait too long for this gutsy, empowered hero to return.

A Clockwork Orange ( 1971 )
Another classic movie re-released, this time Kubrick's controversial adaptation of Anthony Burgess' equally controversial dystopian novel. James and I saw this at Stroud's Vue cinema with only about a dozen other people. Maybe another Fast And Furious movie was out or something.Anyway, it was a lovely print of the film, lending extra clarity to Kubrick's eye-popping visuals and, as often when you see a familiar movie on the big screen for the first time, all the little details of the set design just sang out, enhancing the experience. I hadn't seen A Clockwork Orange for some time and I found "the old ultra-violence" to be as shocking as ever ( especially the sexual abuse scenes ) but I was surprised to recall just how much of a pitch-black comedy the film really is. From Malcolm McDowell's alternately charming and sneering performance, to all the typically Kubrickian grotesques that make up the supporting cast ( "P and M", Mr. Deltoid ) to the juxtaposition of horror and farce, this was a film that had you laughing at some "real horrorshow" situations, then feeling suitably uncomfortable that you'd found it so funny. Viddy well, O my brothers, viddy well...

A Matter Of Life And Death ( 1946 )
And finally, another re-release, in complete contrast to the last one  -  Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's romantic fantasy masterpiece A Matter Of Life And Death  -  or Stairway To Heaven if you're American. This has long been one of my and Sarah's favourite films and we jumped at the chance to see it on the big screen at the Cheltenham Playhouse, part of a season of "fantastic films". We dragged James along too and I think we converted him.
I should probably do a whole post on my love for this movie, and for P&P's other classic films, but I'll just state for now that it's one of the most beautiful, heart-felt, witty and wise films ever to be made in this country. The direction by Michael Powell and the cinematography by Jack Cardiff are absolutely perfect and the wonderful script by the Hungarian Emeric Pressburger is a total joy, masterfully capturing aspects of the British character as only an outsider could see them. The story of a WWII airman who jumps from his burning plane without a parachute but survives and then has to justify his life to a maybe-imaginary Heavenly court is a triumph  -   a sweet love story, wrapped up in a fantasy, underpinned by philosophical ideas and touching on darker themes of war and mental illness. There really isn't anything else like it. And the lead actors  -  a never-better David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesey, Marius Goring and Raymond Massey  - are all sublime. I have to admit, I've never watched the last scene of this movie without getting a bit misty-eyed... and I hope I never do.

Wednesday 3 July 2019

Recent Gigs Part Two: Chameleons Vox at the Gloucester Guildhall

After the theatrical, stadium-rocking excesses of the Muse gig in part one of this epic series ( of two ) here's a very contrasting gig experience  -  Manchester's Chameleon Vox playing to an audience approximately 100 times smaller. Well, I say "after", but this gig was back in May... of course, this 'ere blog has never been known for a strict adherence to the laws of time.

The Chameleons were one of those early '80s post-Punk bands that I always saw mentioned in earnest, deadly-serious pieces in the music press, when rock journalists were desperately looking around for someone to replace Joy Division. And, like fellow potential pretenders to the Mancunian miserabilists' crown such as The Sound and The Comsat Angels, I didn't have the first clue what they sounded like. I suppose I may have heard The Chameleons on the John Peel show, sandwiched between Peruvian nose-flautists and angry Germans banging pieces of metal together and screaming, but they certainly didn't stay on my radar. My loss, really. So when The Chameleons ( or Chameleons Vox as this incarnation are actually called ) stopped off at me fave venue, the Gloucester Guildhall, I thought it worth the gamble to see what I'd missed all those years ago.

The other draw for me was the chance to catch up with fellow blogger David Rose, the mega-talented mastermind of David Rose's Gig Diaries. David is the veteran of over 1000 gigs ( puts my efforts to shame! ) and writes eloquently and passionately about music on a far more regular basis than I ever could. His blog has long been a favourite of mine and is a must-see for fans of music in general and live music in particular. David and I had briefly met earlier in the year at the triumphant Skids gig in the same venue, but this time we had more of a chance to hang out and have a proper chat. ( There was no support band that night so we stayed in the bar until Chameleons time. ) We had a fine time, yakking about our shared passions for music and comics, and discovering that on many occasions we'd both been to the same gigs, long before we'd met. One of the joys of blogging is hooking up with some lovely people, either virtually or in the "real" world, and it was a real pleasure to properly make David's acquaintance after following his blog for so long.

We moved into the sadly only two-thirds full main hall to watch The Chameleons shuffle onto the stage with very little fanfare.

They were playing their third album, Strange Times, in full plus some other "hits". All this was new to me even though I'd given them a quick listen on YouTube prior to the night. Instantly we were transported back to the post-Punk days as the band conjured up an intense, dense sound  -  the pounding, tribal drums, melodic bass-lines and chiming guitars familiar to fans of the likes of Killing Joke or Theatre Of Hate. Mixed in with this familiar sound I could also hear hints of Folk and even Prog, adding unexpected colours to a music which could so easily be monochrome.
The typically reserved Gloucester audience ( well, typical for a certain age group ) took a while to warm up, even though many were clearly old school Chams fans ( can I call them "Chams"? ), but the epic, none-more-Goth Soul In Isolation did the trick and kicked the metaphorical doors open. The twisting, turning riff and windswept melodrama of Swamp Thing reminded me of early Big Country ( which is obviously A Good Thing ) with Mark Burgess' sturdy vocals soaring over the tune like an eagle over moorland. Or something.

Although not the most loquacious of front-men, Burgess put on a mesmerising performance, every note seemingly wrenched from his soul via his lungs. From the little I've heard of The Chameleons' recorded output I'd say his voice is even stronger, more commanding and more nuanced than back in the day. The passion just blazed from the man and it was a privilege to watch.
The slashing, chiming guitars of Nostalgia ( surely an influence on The Horrors! ) heralded the end of a fantastic set and I walked out of the Guildhall converted  -  just need to track down some Chameleons music now. David and I chatted a bit more before parting ways, both agreeing that we'd just been spellbound by The Chameleons and needed to do it again some time. Great gig!


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