Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Album of the Year
Jon HassellLast night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street (ECM Records)

Jon Hassell's  dreamy, meditative “Fourth World“ music has long been admired by discriminating listeners.

Understated and ethereal, his art may be on a par with that of Miles Davis. Indeed, experimental/ambient icons like Brian Eno, Arve Henriksen, and David Sylvian acknowledge the huge debt they owe to his innovations in musical theory, live sampling and soundscaping.

Last night the moon came dropping its clothes In the street is Hassell's first recording for ECM since 1985, and is merely the latest in a long series of jaw-dropping experiments - including the astounding Power Spot and the sublime acoustic masterpiece Fascinoma.

Seamlessly blending theory with practice, Hassell celebrates all music, all cultures and all worlds as he fuses the beauty and sophistication of Indian, Arabic, African and Asian forms with the cool strivings of post-modern jazz and the possibilities of new musical technology. Cerebral yet sensual, the universe he creates is lush and profound.

As he disdains fear, judgement or prejudice, Hassell presents a stunning cultural credo. He reminds us that if there are boundaries to musical, philosophical or emotional expression, they exist only in our minds, demanding to be burst open by our most gifted pioneers - among whom Hassell himself is surely pre-eminent.

VIDEO: Jon Hassell: Last Night the Moon Came Dropping its Clothes in the Stree

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Ancient Ways

Music and Nationalism
Part Two: Uyoku Dantai

If you live in Japan you soon become aware of the ominous black trucks ["gaisensha (街宣車)"] which prowl the streets blaring propaganda slogans, outdated military marches and the national anthem Kimigayo.

These are the Uyoku Dantai (右翼団体; lit. "right wing groups"), reactionaries who seek to - ho-hum - return Japan to the ancient ways. They remind me of loony Christian fundamentalists who crave a return to the old time religion, never wanting to move humanity on to a more enlightened future.

It's hard to say exactly how many Uyoku Dantai there are in Japan, although in 1996 it was estimated the country was home to more than 1000 right wing groups comprising about 100,000 members. But that only works out to a piddly 1.2% of the population.

Political beliefs differ between groups of Uyoku Dantai but generally they espouse a flatulent philosophy of anti-leftism and hostility toward the Japan Teachers Union. Since I'm a liberal-leaning university teacher you can imagine I don't exactly see eye to eye with these baka.

Most are revisionists who endeavor to justify Japan's calamitous role in the Second World War, denying war crimes such as the Nanjing massacre and attempting to rewrite history in school textbooks.

Strangely Uyoku Dantai often contain many foreign members, especially those dominated by Yakuza groups - Japanese 'mafia' - which include Zainichi Koreans. Thus many Yakuza groups use Uyoku Dantai as cover for their nefarious activities.

Although the extremists maintain a high public presence throughout the country, I doubt they obtain many converts. And not only because they insist on forcing stuffy military matches down the collective throat of a public which would rather listen to SMAP.

The vast majority of Japanese seem indifferent to politics and sensiby ignore the tedious anthems which irritate their earholes. I saw this on a recent visit to Tokyo, where Sunday shoppers hardly noticed the hysterical ranting of a right-winger who screamed at them as they scampered from one designer store to another.

One opinion poll after another confirms that the Japanese are politically apathetic. In fact among Asian nations nihonjin are the least willing to die for their country.

So just because people wave the Hinamaru flag and warble Kimigayo, there's probably no reason to fear a return to 1930's-style nationalism. Japanese may not be as individualistic as westerners, but their jones for J-Pop and craving for consumption is of more concern to them than any hankering for a nationalist revival.

Watch. "You're a loony."
Japanese fascists display impeccable musical taste


Music and Nationalism
Part One: Cultural/Liberal/Triumphal


Is having lousy musical taste a necessary precondition for being a nationalist? Maybe it depends on what kind of nationalism you are referring to.

Historically speaking, the development of nationalist-flavored music has tended to follow the same lines in different countries. Generally a "cultural nationalism" gives way to a more politicised "liberal nationalism," before leading in many cases to an exclusivist "triumphal nationalism."

Some of the greatest music of the Romantic period grew out of romantic exaltations of national "feeling" and "identity" and the liberal notion that statehood be based on "the people" rather than religion or imperialism. This nationalism was the most successful political force of the 19th century.

Since early nationalists shared the assumption that their nation existed in some "natural" sense, composers understandably created a national identity through the evocation of landscape. Sibelius' Finlandia suite or Smetana's Ma Vlast (My Fatherland) are beautiful examples.

My favorite piece in this vein is probably Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia. It evokes the quiet majesty of landscape in the most moving musical language you can imagine.

I can easily appreciate that kind of cultural nationalism. But things start to get dodgy when the politicisation of nationalism leads to a triumphalist tone. Oftentimes such musical reaction becomes formalized or state-sanctioned. The Nazis' Reichsmusikkammer promoted music approved by Hitler's regime, while suppressing any music which conflicted with it, including jazz and anything else with a modernist flavour. Japan's militarist leaders also outlawed western music and dance in the 1930s.

We British certainly haven't been immune to such reactionary impulses, as shown in works like Elgar's Land of Hope and Glory or Thomas Arne's Rule Britannia – both still wheeled out every year at The Proms concert series for an audience singalong.

Context is everything, and Elgar and Arne made more sense in the days of empire than in these politically correct days of multicultural awareness. Though undeniably rousing, their militaristic flavor sounds hokey to me and reignites my distrust of patriotism and dogma.

Don't get me wrong; to a large degree I am proud to be British. After all, we gave the world Shakespeare, The Sex Pistols and Yorkshire Pudding. But were I ever to attend The Proms, I'd need to be completely off my trolley to join in with clunkers like Rule Britannia.

Borodin: In the Steppes of Central Asia:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Fiery Jacks

Happy Birthday to Me

Click painting to enlarge

Islands of Ecstasy occupies a decidedly modest position in cyber-space. Blissfully ignored by the majority of web users, it enjoys what the French-Algerian writer Albert Camus termed “the benign indifference of the universe.”

So on my recent birthday I was touched and surprised to have my ramblings immortalized in a rather splendid illustration by Kyoto artist Oliver Kinghorn. Such recognition!

Not only is Oliver a talented painter, he’s a man after my own heart: a bon vivant, aesthete and party animal whose idea of a good time is to dissect the secrets of the universe while seeing off several bottles of the finest wine he can procure.

Mr. Kinghorn’s ecstatic masterpiece pays tribute to assorted beats, gurus and rockers. Those who are, in Kerouac’s memorable words, “mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn.” Fiery Jacks, one and all.

As Oliver’s drawing demonstrates, they number a good few of my main men, including Van Morrison, Henry Miller, John Lennon, Ray Charles and my chief spiritual influence - that great sex symbol Kermit the Frog.


Friday, November 13, 2009

Sayonara Screamathon!

Live: The Only Ones
King Cobra Club, Osaka, Japan

Now this is strange. Surveying the darkest corners of King Cobra, I perceive I am the only westerner among the fifty-odd Japanese fans who have made it to Osaka on this chilly November evening. But then I spy an enigmatic looking lady whom I later discover is Peter Perrett’s charming wife Xena.

I’m amazed to run into a few Kyoto friends stage front.
Who knew they were into this band? Look out, there might be some secret Only Ones fans in your neighborhood, too.

The DJ is playing a decent selection of new wave tunes, the kind of singles you might have heard at any Only Ones show back in ’78: A Certain Ratio, Durutti Column, The Undertones and - most fittingly - the late, great Johnny Thunders.

No sooner has she started spinning Joy Division’s Isolation than here come The Only Ones and, as in Tokyo, they begin with a full tilt version of The Immortal Story.
It's a brilliant start and I’m astonished when a Japanese guy immediately in front of me starts to pogo! Time Warp City!

The guys continue with Programme and Perrett looks chuffed at the warm reception. By the time they get to Black Operations the crowd is going bananas and starts shrieking and whooping up a storm. Maybe they think it’s The Beatstalkers up there. The show quickly turns into an hilarious screamathon as the band join in with the fans.

I hate to say it, but this does conform to the stereotype of Osaka people as the loosest, loudest, most in your face of all Japanese. Certainly last Saturday’s Tokyo crowd - enthusiastic as they were - didn’t get nearly as rowdy.

The sound isn't great but the music rocks. When they hit Another Girl, Another Planet the place predictably goes nuts and the guy in front starts pogoing again. A good portion of the crowd sing along not only to the band’s most celebrated song but with most of the other numbers too.

I must say that after 8 years in this country I have the utmost respect for Japanese music fans. On the surface reserved and taciturn, they are a committed, knowledgeable bunch who support their favorite artists with a passion. There’s inevitably a relaxed, welcoming vibe at Japanese shows, and this newly chilled-out bunch of Only Ones seem to dig it too.

For the second time in a week I find myself coming over all emotional at an Only Ones show. Two teary Japanese guys fling their arms around me in a gesture which goes beyond words. I think it means, “I'm on another planet with you.”

Then we are treated to a song few fans have heard of, let alone witnessed live. In Hamamatsu they played a chorus of Watch You Drown for the first time in thirty years. Tonight Peter manages to remember two verses and there’s a gorgeously expressive solo from Mr. Perry.

The version of Miles from Nowhere the band conjure tonight is, quite simply,
immense, Perry’s guitar soars. Then the guitar man introduces Why Don’t You Kill Yourself? as “a bit of hari-kiri for ya.”

There are two encores. From Here to Eternity features more gritty guitar from Perry, maybe the best he’s played tonight. Finally The Beast builds and builds until it ends in a maelstrom of feedback, an appropriately dramatic finale to the Only Ones’ whirlwind 2009 tour of Japan.

And that's yer lot.

Four shows in six days and a hell of a week for Only Ones fans in the land of the falling yen. Peter, John, Mike and Alan, "Sayonara,” and “Arigato gozaimashita!” Don't be strangers and come back soon. Y'hear?

Set list: The Immortal Story/Programme/In Betweens/Transfixed/It’s the Truth/Black Operations/Till it Hurts/Flaming Torch/Louder than Words/As My Wife Says/ 'C' Voyeurger/ The Big Sleep/Another Girl, Another Planet/Me and My Shadow/Watch You Drown/Is This How Much/Lovers of Today/Miles from Nowhere/Why Don’t You kill Yourself?/From Here to Eternity/Trouble in the World/The Beast

Photo Set HERE

Video: The Only Ones, "Is This How Much?"

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Another Planet

The Fan

Miki Says...
I feel that The Only Ones can say many things to young Japanese today. For example their song Another Girl, Another Planet.

Sometimes I feel I am a girl on another planet. That's this crazy planet called Japan where life is so strange. I wonder if The Only Ones can feel they are on another planet here in Tokyo tonight. Actually, one of my friends is an alien.

The Only Ones are an older band but I guess they are kinda timeless with cool, edgy but gentle image. I love many UK bands but for me The Only Ones are the best.

Their songs can teach us many things, like there are many kinds of love and love has many sides. We shouldn't judge others too harshly. You know, that's the whole of the law.

They've had many trials and tribulations, so I want to tell Peter, Mike, Alan and John please "kiotsukete" (take care). Oh and come back to Japan soon.

Seventh Heaven

AntiKnock Club, Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan

This is the Big One. My friend and I are both celebrating our 50th birthdays and there's no place we would rather be than Tokyo's punky AntiKnock Club.

That's because our all-time faves The Only Ones are on their second visit to Japan since they gave their fans the shock of their lives by reforming two years ago.

The guys get a delirious reception from the crowd and kick off with a rocking version of The Immortal Story. Front man Peter Perrett looks every inch a star in black suit and red shirt. Guitar hero John Perry - judging by the expression on his face - is already in seventh heaven. Mike Kellie can't wait to bang the bejasus out of his kit and Alan Mair rapidly puts his mark on the proceedings with a tasty bass solo.

After that we get exactly what we came for: one timeless classic after another reminding us why we love this band...and why we've been missing them like hell for the last twenty-odd years.

Those familiar faces may be more lined, the waistlines a tad wider, but the music hasn't aged a day. The band storm through Programme, In Betweens, Transfixed, It's the Truth, Flaming Torch, As My Wife Says, Miles from Nowhere and they sound as fresh and vital as the day they were released.

But this was no exercise in mushy nostalgia. If the oldies sound great, the newies sound bleeding AWESOME. Black Operations, Till it Hurts (?), Louder than Words are bona-fide Perrett classics. If the band can do justice to them in the studio (and why wouldn't they, the four of them seem to be on such a high right now) I predict the forthcoming LP is gonna be FUCKIN' MEGA.

The lads proceed to bring the house down with a barnstorming Me and My Shadow which features Perry's milky slide guitar and a sweeet drum solo just to underline the fact that Mike Kellie – he of the permanently upturned white collar - is one of Britain's most rock solid rhythm gods.

Naturally they play Another Girl Another Planet – if they didn't I'm sure a riot would swiftly ensue. Even if you've never heard of The Only Ones you probably know this one, and the fresh-faced Japanese fans who form the majority of the audience – most of them young enough to be my kids - whoop with appreciation.

Perrett has a recurring tuning problem with his rented Les Paul Junior guitar which only adds to the loose, celebratory air and gives the crowd a chance to banter with their heroes. He asks for requests and a collective cry comes up for Why Don't You Kill Yourself? which seems to be everyone's favorite track from Baby's Got a Gun. There's one amusing moment when Mr. Kellie counts in before Mr. Perry is quite ready and is playfully rebuked, causing laughs all round.

By now a touching bond between band and audience has developed, and the room is filled with good vibes. Long-time fans - grown men for chrissakes - are yelling “We love you, guys!” and Peter graciously replies “We love you too! We wouldn't be up here if it weren't for you.“

It doesn't feel the least bit corny or fake. In fact it's as real as it gets, this connection between an all-too human band of outlaws which has returned from the edge of oblivion and an audience which never really went away and ecstatically receives its heroes with open arms.

It's like each of us – musician and fan alike – is having the same realization: "We made it, didn't we? After all these years we're still standing. Christ, who'd-a thought it?"

There are tears of joy in my eyes and I'm telling my friend this is the best gig of my life. And maybe it is and maybe it isn't and who the hell cares? What counts is that this is what life is about: art and love and friendship and survival and singing along with your favorite band. Right?

The Only Ones perform two encores and leave us with the triple whammy of The Beast, The Whole of the Law and Lovers of Today. It's been a superb show and I have a huge smile on my face as I leave AntiKnock and breathe in the balmy Tokyo air. The Only Ones. Blimey. I wish they'd never gone away, but it sure is good to have 'em back.

Set List: The Immortal Story/Programme/Inbetweens/Transfixed/It's The Truth/Black Operations/Till It Hurts/Flaming Torch/Louder Than Words/As My Wife Says /C Voyeurger /The Big Sleep /Another Girl,Another Planet /Me and My Shadow/Smokescreen/Miles From Nowhere/Is This How Much You Care /Why Don't You Kill Yourself?/The Beast/The Whole Of The Law/Lovers Of Today

Photo Set HERE

Friday, October 30, 2009

Shine On

The Only Ones (Rock)
LP: The Only Ones (1978)

When The Only Ones emerged in 1978 with one of the great debut LPs in British rock - and a name which showed they had cojones in spades - stardom seemed a foregone conclusion.

Great songs, superb musicianship, a brilliant live act uniformly adored by the music press. What could possibly go wrong?

But only three years later it was all over. Mired in drug addiction and with a lead singer bizarrely on the run from an attempted murder rap on their final US tour, The Only Ones imploded.

I was a rabid fan from the very start, buying every release and following their live act around the UK. One highlight was the legendary Leeds Futurama festival, where they shared a star-studded bill with Joy Division, The Fall, Public Image Ltd and other post-punk luminaries. The Only Ones were supposed to come on before Hawkwind that night, but they got held up on the way to the gig and ended up topping the bill.

Though they were lumped in with the new wave vanguard, the band were too musically literate - not to mention long in the tooth - to be punks. Rather they were sophisticated guitar rockers whose sound embraced all flavors of 50s ./ 60s / 70s rock.

In Peter Perrett they possessed a gifted, idiosyncratic songwriter who seemed destined to become a leading figure in British rock. An androgynous Dylan obsessive with a quasi-hippy fashion sense, Perrett sang in a narcotic drawl which perfectly matched his tales of tragic dissociation.

In John Perry they boasted one of the great unsung guitar heroes. A portly, cricket-loving axe genius who wore an expression of semi-stoned indifference, Perry was a guitarist's guitarist, effortlessly unleashing one awesome lick after another on his trademark white Stratocaster.

Drummer Mike Kellie and bassist Alan Mair were 60s renegades who had seen it all with progressive rockers Spooky Tooth (Kellie) and “The Scottish Beatles” The Beatstalkers (Mair). Kellie was a commanding and musical drummer, Mair a solid and inventive bassist. He was also, as it happened, no slouch behind a mixing desk.

So how could a band so obviously steeped in talent fail to attain the success which seemed their birthright?

It was partly because they signed with corporate monsters CBS, Perrett reportedly being keen to share a label with his idol Bob Dylan. But The Only Ones were far too wayward to accommodate the demands of a major. Their constant stylistic variation, anti-image, aloof stage persona and Perrett's unusually fey vocal style didn't exactly make them obvious chart toppers. Tragically they spurned the advances of Island Records, whose maverick style would have suited them better.

And then there was the dope.

Three-quarters of the band were unapologetic drug fiends whose interviews were loaded with references to smack and marijuana. Their eponymous debut stands as one of the great substance-driven albums in rock, packed with drug-inspired ballads of elegantly-wasted dissolution.

It kicks off with the aching love song The Whole of the Law. Taking its title from dark magus Aleister Crowley's thelemic dictum “Do what thou wilt, that shall be the whole of the law,” the opener sets the tone for the album's romantic fatalism. With superbly restrained guitar flourishes from Perry, it's a stunning beginning and a worthy curtain-raiser to...

"The hit single that never was.”
Perrett's stupendous Another Girl Another Planet - the band's most celebrated creation - seems to equate love with addiction until you realize the “girl” is actually heroin itself: “Space travel's in my blood/There ain't nothing I can do about it.” The parting line, “Another planet is holding you down” suggests escape is futile.

The greatness of Another Girl demanded nothing less than superlative musicianship, and as usual the band rise to the occasion, especially John Perry, whose legendary guitar solo is only one of his many impressive moments on this record.

If an obbligato should be part and parcel of a song, emerging organically from its spiritual center, Perry's effort is a case in point as he comments on the lyric's general sense of elevation and transcendence. Admirably tasteful and accomplished, it's a jaw-dropping effort.

Throughout The Only Ones, love is always on the verge of collapse, threatened by dissolution and departure. The protagonist of Breaking Down describes mental anguish and the hand of fate closing in: “People keep away from me/Guess there's something wrong with me/I can't do you no good/I always thought I could.”

The song's jazzy break illustrates how The Only Ones were musically miles ahead of their punky peers. Here as on every other song, Mike Kellie's drums are fluid and articulate, his tom-toms characteristically punctuating the stereo spectrum in effective style.

After that the carousing City of Fun celebrates city madness with “people drowning in a sea of life,” from which there's “only one way out.” And what do you think that might be? A haze of narcotic escapism? Perry's frantic guitar adds to the general sense of life on the edge.

Creature of Doom begins with a comparative feeling of optimism: “I know something that you don't know/It's our destiny /You and me could conquer the world.” But with its talk of epitaphs and final straws there's always the feeling that romantic debilitation is around the corner, redeemable only through some kind of unholy co-dependency.

So it is that It's the Truth describes the stunted communication between a pair of heroin-addicted lovers. “Something's been going wrong/I'm all fixed up and I don't know what's going on/I gotta talk to you...," but then “It's the last time I'm ever going to.” Again the romanticism of the decadent junkie aesthete: maybe I never appreciated you and we're both fucked-up, but this whole stupid thing means everything to me.

Language Problem contains some of Perrett's most twisted lines: “My parents told me that love don't exist just for pleasure/So I guess I'll throw in some pain for good measure.” If there's a moral lesson, it's that drugs lead to a debilitating codependency. Having said that, in typical Perret style there's always a healthy dose of black humor in evidence: “Taking drugs is one thing we got in common/It helps to overcome the language problem/And we really enjoy the damage.”

If I have a favorite track on The Only Ones it just might be No Peace for the Wicked. With its sense of weary isolation and its self-mocking lyric, after all these years it remains one of my personal theme songs.

I don't know how Perrett manages to fit lines like “Why do I go through these deep emotional traumas/Why can't I be like I always wanted to be, carefree?” into a pop song, but he does so in a way that would make Syd Barrett envious. The track features a heartbreaking guitar solo from Perry before Perrett confides: “I'm in love with extreme mental torture,” a declaration of lovelorn masochism which will appeal to beautiful losers the world over.

With its opening declaration: “I used to dream of this/I'd lay awake at night imagining this," the album's closing track, The Immortal Story deals with the scary prospect of finally possessing the object of one's affections: “When dreams become reality that's living death can't you see?“ In its recognition that the best laid plans sometimes go awry, the song unconsciously foreshadows the demise of The Only Ones' quest for fame and glory. Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

Scandalously ignored by the record-buying pubic - it only reached number 56 in the UK album charts - after 30 odd years this bona fide classic remains one of my all-time favorites. That's probably because I can still detect echoes of my past - my aspirations, friendships and romantic tragedies - in each exquisite moment. Moreover it takes me back to a time when each musical experience mattered and seemed loaded with meaning and discovery.

Fans and admirers have long lamented the fact that a band blessed with an abundance of musical and songwriting talent never achieved the success that seemed theirs for the taking. But it's clear now that the seeds of The Only Ones' demise were evident in their earliest recordings. The band's downfall serves as a cautionary reminder to those who would confuse druggy excess with artistic expression.

For one brief moment, The Only Ones' debut shone brightly and gave us 35 minutes of perfect, twisted pop. Describing the search for love and meaning in a nether world of narcotic romanticism, it's an album of intelligence, wit and emotional honesty which also happens to rock like a mutha.

And thirty years later it continues to shine on, a timeless jewel which only improves with age. Not to put too fine a point on it, it's a fucking masterpiece. And you know there's a million frustrated rockers who would give their right arm to leave behind a legacy like that, me included.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


Flaming Lips (Existential Pop)
LP: Embryonic (Warner Bros, 2009)

At this stage in their career Flaming Lips surely have little left to prove. Though not commercially successful, their off-the-wall psychedelic rock has justifiably earned them critical praise and The Soft Bulletin stands as perhaps the last truly great experimental pop record of the twentieth century.

It can't have been easy following that masterstroke. So after Bulletin we got the flawed genius of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002) and the meandering cul-de-sac of At War With the Mystics (2008).

The band have heralded their new double album Embryonic as their White Album.  Like that fab landmark it's a great single LP padded with self-indulgent – though not necessarily unlistenable - filler. Like  Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots it's a half-realized concept album stuffed with free-form prog-rock jams and wig-out fantasies.

It's also packed with empathy, love of life and a philosophy which is decidedly 21st century in its naturalistic world view. A psychedelic jam session for hippies, brights and eco-warriors, if you will.

Best of all, Embryonic is mostly a head-spinning return to form, which will come as a mighty relief to those of us who were beginning to fear that the steady decline of the band's recorded output since the astral heights of Bulletin and the better bits of Yoshimi was irreversible.

Like life itself, where chaos and uncertainty periodically give way to moments of clarity,
Embryonic's random sense impressions somehow organize themselves into a compelling philosophy. This feeling is reflected track-by-track throughout an unevenly brilliant album.

In opener Convinced of the Hex the band throw caution to the wind and dump anything and everything into the mix. Nothing seems too far out to make the final cut, yet Hex sets out the central thesis of the album in no uncertain terms: "That's the difference between us / I believe in nothing / And you're convinced of the hex."

Just as the best science fiction tackles the big questions,
The Sparrow Looks Up At The Machine grapples with the meaning of experience. A dead ringer for Yoshimi's sublime Are You a Hypnotist, the song presses home Wayne Coyne's obtuse secularism: "What does it mean/To dream what you dream / To believe what you've seen? / Why do we feel 
/ To try to find real / Underneath a machine?"

Then there's the eco-grunge of
See the Leaves, one of the record's key statements. Bereft of hope and love, the song's conflicted protagonist refuses to believe life has no end as she sees the natural world decomposing and re-emerging around her.

The title of
Embryonic reflects the infancy of humankind as tracks seem barely developed from their rudimentary beginnings. The magical faux-naivete of If - multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd invoking the ghost of Skip Spence – feels like an audio verite moment that went wonderfully right:

"People are evil, it's true
But on the other side, they can be gentle too

If they decide
But they don't always decide
We live on the impulses

Love is powerful
But not as powerful as evil."

On the other hand, inspired improvisation occasionally gives way to throwaway ditties like
Scorpio Sword, which sounds like Syd Barrett on a bad day. And half-realized jams like Powerless recall the Lips' origins as a spaced-out head band.

But this is the Flaming Lips, so hope is never far off. Post-Nietzschean popsters par excellence, the fearless freaks continue to ask the big questions, attempting to reconcile the unimaginable vastness of our inner and outer worlds with the miracle of existence.

Embryonic is filled with references to planets, nature, technology and philosophical riddles. Its theme will be familiar to Lips fans: the struggle of the modern human to negotiate the impasse between magic and math in order to overcome evil and approach a transcendent reality. Sagittarius Silver Announcement spookily exhumes the ghost of Ian Curtis to announce "We can be free / We can be like they are / We can be one with the silver machine."

In typical Wayne Coyne style, The Ego's Last Stand celebrates the mystery of a sunbeam, while Worm Mountain invokes the wonder of creation in its litany of frogs, bears and mountains.

Insisting that our cosmic solitude be seen as a source of wonder, Flaming Lips stand up to the challenge facing a post-religious world: to find meaning in a godless universe while avoiding the pitfalls of ennui and nihilism.

We can do this, they suggest, by immersing ourselves in a kind of serene eco-mysticism, good old-fashioned love and peace, and a healthy dose of shit-kicking rock 'n' roll. They're all part of the same thing, and if you've beheld the wonder of a flower, wept at a sunrise or heard a Flaming Lips record, I have a feeling you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.

Listen: See The Leaves

Watch: I Can Be a Frog

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Spanish Bum

Flamenco performers
El Arenal
Sevilla, Spain

I'm on a quest for flamenco in Sevilla, home of Spain's earthy, self-defining art form.

Settling into my seat with a bottle of rioja, I fear I might be letting myself in for a touristy version of the flamenco experience. But to my relief most of the crowd seem to be Spanish. Hopefully that's a good sign.

There are two guitarists, three singers and four dancers who over the next two hours offer up a concentrated exposition of flamencology. If it feels a tad diluted, it's an experience unlike any other.

As the musicians ignite a roaring cantando, we are plunged into the never-ending romantic struggle between man and woman, the human drama which elates, frustrates and gives meaning to our existence.

Though life contains suffering, this  music proclaims, it is indeed better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. The beauty and the ecstasy make it all worthwhile and enable us to bear anything.

A handsome and intimidating woman takes to the stage and proceeds to offer a dance filled with desperate passion. She brings the crowd to its feet. As she takes her bow, the perspiration oozing between her impressive breasts is one of the most erotic sights I've ever seen.

The following male dancer is sensational. Astonishingly, he is a dead ringer for footballer David Beckham, and I notice that the ladies in the audience can't take their eyes off his tight Spanish bum. As he stamps and flexes like a coiled spring, the passionate tension he communicates is almost too much for them.

Pleasantly Woozy

Cante Flamenco
El Cairo,
Sevilla, Spain

I'm propping up the bar at El Cairo, a Sevillan pub I've taken a liking to. It's frequented mainly by old Spaniards  and serves up delicious fish soup, tortillas sevillianas and a house rioja which goes down mighty easy. 

I'm starting to feel pleasantly woozy when a couple of Spanish geezers along the counter suddenly break into song.

You're never far away from music in Sevilla and its bar culture is the perfect environment for a bunch of old codgers to let fly. Their spontaneous crescendo of cante flamenco libre leaves the two viejas who have been tolerating my pidgin Spanish beaming with delight.

The barman seizes the moment to erupt into a Spanish rendition of Herb Alpert's This Guy's in Love with You, proving that cheese is universal and goes as well with rioja and tapas as it does with ale and pickled onions.

Uno tinto mas por favor!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Dance of Death

The Music of the Bulls
Sevilla, Spain

As I take my seat in the arena I notice I am situated directly opposite the bandstand. A chorus of trumpets plays popular tunes and heady Sevillan fanfares.

But this is no concerto, opera or pantomime. It's the music of the bulls. A dance of death.

An excited international crowd is eating snacks, drinking beer and chattering in Spanish, Italian and German. But beneath me, somewhere in the bowels of the arena, I can hear the bulls bellowing. Their hoarse, brutish roar betokens a bloody, inescapable fate, and a lump rises in my throat.

The orchestra's farty noodlings lend an inappropriately comical air to the grisly proceedings which are about to unfold.

As the music builds to a crescendo, I recognize the tune: Another Day in Paradise.

A bejeweled matador parades around the ring then stops directly in front of me. Unspeakably handsome, he seems to belong to a different time. Proudly addressing himself to family members seated behind me, he announces, "I will kill this bull in tribute to the mother I recently lost."

With the heady combination of the music, crowd and vino tinto, it's a surreal, startling moment straight out of Hemingway.

Suddenly a mighty roar goes up as a black mass explodes into the ring.

It's a fearsome, majestic sight, a primal force totally in accord with its nature. In its animal purity the bull is the moral superior of those who would despatch it on this balmy Spanish evening.

I am conflicted about my presence. My vegetarian friends would disown me forthwith if they could see me now. But nothing on earth can alter the fact that six bulls will meet their end in the ring tonight.

The trumpets play a few staccato bursts which signal the entrance of the picadors. They harry and prick the bull to weaken it. Again the flatulent horns before two bandilleros pirourette around the giant beast before spearing him with arrows.

Finally it's man against beast as toro and toreador perform an appalling ballet. The bull is tiring and heaving as dark rivulets of blood course over its huge shoulders and down its flanks. I feel shocked yet transfixed, removed yet somehow culpable.

As the matador makes his final assault - brave, audacious, narcissistic - he grievously mistimes. Not once, not twice, but thrice must he deal the final blow. A chorus of boos and whistles go up from the crowd until finally the animal is slaughtered. The effect is one of undignified bathos.

The bull takes it final bow as its carcass is unceremoniously hauled out of the arena by a team of horses, leaving blood and dust in its wake. Once more the sound of trumpets fills the air as the matador takes his bows and receives the acclaim of the crowd.

The bullring is meticulously raked and manicured. Then the orchestra strikes up a noble fanfare in honor of the next victim.