It was the eighties, I was a youth and I was often in the company of goths. Evenings around friends’ houses were often suffused with the smell of cheap hairspray and hot crimping irons. ‘Cider and Black’ was the drink of choice at our underground haunts.
It must have been a comforting subculture to join; to feel misunderstood by the world, retreat behind a black fringe and nurture your alienation, studying your toes as you walked back and forth on the dancefloor.

But goth was something I could never identify with. I had never been into the occult, I didn’t enjoy being miserable. I liked passion and honesty. I wanted to look the world in the eye and tell it where to go.

Goth was a movement but not a musical style as such, but the bands associated with it all tended to sing in deep, moody voices and avoid conventional tropes of popular music like y’know…melody and dynamics.

There was one band, though, that were worth my attention. The Cult had started out as Southern Death Cult, which was shortened to Death Cult and finally, The Cult. Their early highlights included the Killing Joke-ish single ‘Ressurection Joe’. But they really broke through with their 1985 album Love and the big hit ‘She Sells Sanctuary’.

This single, with it’s high-energy beat and switchback riff, was a surefire floor filler at any indie, goth or rock disco. Ian Astbury’s voice was powerful and faintly androgynous, similar to Pete Burns of Dead or Alive. During the ‘Love’ era, The Cult had a great look, with Astbury rocking a gothic Haight-Ashbury vibe. And with Duffy playing a beautiful Gretsch White Falcon as his onstage sparring partner, it was a perfect package.

It didn’t last. For the band’s next album Electric, produced by Rick Rubin, they decided to reinvent themselves as a heavy rock band. Perhaps this was an attempt to firmly distance themselves from the goth tag they’d got sick of, but it was all a bit hard to believe.

I welcomed it at the time, and in retrospect the single ‘Love Removal Machine’ has an enjoyable, punchy swagger. But the musicians, particulary Duffy, lacked the skills to really pull it off. Duffy had been a creator of classic alternative rock riffs, now he just sounded like a piss-poor Angus Young imitator.

The subsequent album Sonic Temple had it’s moments but they no longer had any relevance. The Cult were an inherently limited band but they still had something. And for a brief moment they managed to distill it into magic.

Footnote:

The Cult have continued to release albums for a hardcore of devoted fans including the most recent, Choice of Weapon in 2012.
Astbury went on to tour with the remaining members of The Doors, impersonating his hero, Jim Morrison.

We have all met people possessed of a natural charm that enables them to hold the attention of groups of people, who listen to their opinions, laugh at their jokes and possibly want to share bodily fluids with them.

Charisma is like a magical chemical product flowing in certain peoples’ bloodstream. If you start out in life with nothing but charisma, you will usually make it because you can make people believe in you. Charismatic people are never short of people to help them in their ventures, or to vouch for them if they get in trouble. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with wealth, looks or talent but how they can make people feel.

In theory I’m a believer in collective organising, but I’ve noticed that successful projects are usually spearheaded by a motivator who has a vision. People will always be happy to fall in line if there is an inspiring figure who knows where they are going. The most successful generals are those that somehow manage to make their troops love them. The danger is that their position can become like that of a cult leader, with their power unlimited.

I remember a TV documentary a few years ago which told the story of a pub barman who convinced several customers he was a spy on top-secret government business. He held them under his spell for years, involving them in bizarre fabricated missions and swindling them out of thousands of pounds for ‘essential’ expenses before eventually being brought to justice.
I’ve never come across anyone like that, but certain people I know have led me to believe that we should be wary of people with an excess of charm. They have often read the book How To Win Friends and Influence People and consider themselves experts at psychological manouvering.

Psychological strategies can be leaned, but I’d argue true charisma is inborn and largely unconscious. Charismatic people seem to have an amplified personality ”turned up to 11” that they couldn’t turn down if they tried.

I can think of a couple of people I know who are not close friends, but when I bump into them and have a brief chat, I always walk away feeling exhilarated, inspired and perhaps just a little jealous of their self-possession. Charismatic people can help us to believe in ourselves.

Then there are others with a quiet charisma, who attract attention by not trying to. They are in their own space and hold a mysterious aura around them. I can imagine the impression conjured by the young Bob Dylan when he was playing in coffee houses in New York City in 1961. Here was a guy who was hard to pin down; odd-looking and enigmatic, there was clearly ‘something’ about him. And fifty-odd years later, people are still trying to figure out what it is.

Throughout the entertainment world, charisma is a highly-prized and relatively rare commodity. I go to a lot of gigs but only occasionally do I see someone with a magnetic presence that holds the attention. When you see it you can never explain it, it’s just ‘it’. There are all kinds of tips and tricks of stagecraft that can be learned from teachers or picked up by experience; but star quality is inborn.

A few years ago, after being a drummer and a guitarist in several bands, I decided to try being a vocalist in a band, just holding the mic at the front of the stage. I wanted to see what it was like being the focus of everyone’s attention.

We were a ragged punk rock outfit, stylistically not far from The Stooges and at the time I was in awe of Iggy Pop, who is surely one of the most unpredictable and riveting live performers ever. My first gig as a frontman was in a small bar in front of perhaps 70 people. I threw myself into it, prowling the stage, climbing on the amps, wrapping myself up in cables.

“He’s a live wire!” I imagined people thinking “…What will he do next?!”

I thought I was doing great, then I looked at the audience’s faces. Not one of them was looking at me. I couldn’t believe it. Their eyes were either on the guitarist’s hands, or the bassist’s flailing hair, or the drummer – anywhere but on the person actually singing the songs – me!

I was internally furious. What was wrong with them? Couldn’t they see how hard I was working? Weren’t they moved by my unpredictable passion? I felt like ranting, but I just continued the gig, now intimidated by the whole situation and feeling like a fraud. I laugh about it now, but I learned a tough lesson. You can’t decide to be charismatic. You either have it or you don’t.

shortly afterwards I had the opportunity to watch someone who most definately ‘has it’ . I was working at the 02 Arena in Liverpool and got the chance to see a few big mainstream acts. Def Leppard, Meatloaf and Michael Buble were all entertaining enough, but Diana Ross had something else. Standing onstage in a red satin ballgown, her charisma completely filled the huge venue. Even inbetween songs, her speaking voice and regal presence cast some kind of shimmering spell over the place.

I’m sure one day some brain scientist or communication theorist will come up with a theory that will explain charisma, but until then all we can say is that some people have a kind of magic!

Achtung Maybe!

Rumblings on the grapevine suggest that a new U2 album is likely to appear before the end of the year, in fact according to Rolling Stone magazine it could even be released this month. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, it’s a significant moment as U2 have now been spent several decades amongst the very biggest bands.

u2I remember when I first got into U2 as a kid in the early 80’s. I liked the imaginative guitar style, the tribal-influenced drumming and the fact that the singer bellowed those impassioned choruses like his life depended on it.

They weren’t megastars at this stage, just one of many great post-punk bands around at the time. Something that marked them out was their Irish background; along with other celtic bands like Big Country and Simple Minds, their music had that bracing, romantic (in a misty-eyed sense) flavour – a sensibility, incidentally, that is incompatible with cool.

I bought their album War, which had an extraordinary cover. It featured a black and white photo of a boy about my age, staring into the camera with a serious expression (the same kid had also appeared on the cover of their debut album, Boy). I identified with him, whoever he was. I was young and indignant and I felt like standing up for something, or at least for myself.

u2-war_a_l

The album seemed to come from a place of conviction – “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was about the troubles still kicking off in northern Ireland; Larry Mullen Jnr’s drums were mixed loud, evoking the rhythms of the marching season. The rest of the album was an object lesson in small-band dynamics, The Edge’s chiming guitar lines interlocking brilliantly with Clayton and Mullen’s driving rhythm section.

I remember Live Aid so well. I sat and watched the whole show in our kitchen from twelve noon until, well…it must have been about midnight when I finally sloped off to bed. One of the highlights of the event for me was U2’s performance when they extended the song ‘Bad’ to about nine minutes, Bono disappearing to the front of the stage, plucking a girl out of the front row and dancing with her. It was an outrageously confident performance from a band who most of the world didn’t even know about at that stage.

We all know what happened after that. In a short time U2 became globally massive, with the epic, mainstream album The Joshua Tree. It was satisfying to see them make it big but I was aware that amongst my friends, no-one seemed to like U2; in fact most of them seemed to hate them.

I couldn’t work it out. For us, originality was the key trait we valued in music. U2 were clearly one of the most original bands around, having invented their own sonic landscape, but something about them was turning off the ‘the cool people’. On the rare occasions I could get anyone to mull over the issue in their minds their complaint was usually with “that dickhead singer”.

Google “I hate Bono” and 2.5 million seperate pages appear. No other rock star has attracted so much bile. Can you imagine any other rock star inspiring a film with a title like “Killing Bono”?

If you examine some of the reasons on internet discussions, you will find people saying “He’s so egotistical” or “He wears sunglasses all the time” or “He loves himself” All of these may be true but are they not also amongst the main criteria for being a rock star? Was Jim Morrison not vain? is Axl Rose not arrogant?

A more compelling criticism relates to his charity work. Ever since live aid, Bono has had a parallel career as a campaigner, working for debt relief, human rights and AIDS projects, setting up charities and foundations, meeting world leaders. His efforts have undoubtedly raised the profile of many issues but they have also raised the profile of Bono.

And this is where the animosity comes in. Bono’s fame and fortune is intrinsically linked to his charity work; there is no way to disentangle the two. To his detractors, the vanity of his persona is all-pervading. He can’t hold a press conference about human rights without sounding smarmy and pleased with himself, or play a benefit concert without basking in the glory of his saintly mission. It all appears to be for the greater glory of Bono.

Then there is the fact that he has often seemed a little too pally with the likes of George W Bush and Tony Blair. To his radical critics, it is always going to look like he is ‘cosying up’ to the powerful rather than influencing them for the good. He should be smashing the system not flattering it.

For other people who have little interest in global politics, all the campaigns just feel like lecturing. For them rock’n’roll isn’t about being responsible, it’s supposed to be the exact opposite. Authentic rock heroes give themselves up to their spontaneous, debauched, animalistic side; and as a result their fans get a vicarious release from the tedium of their workaday lives. Real rockers don’t give a shit. It’s not cool to give a shit.

As someone on a Drowned In Sound discussion board says:
“If Bono had never done any charity work and just set himself up to be an abrasive cunt, we’d probably all think he was a bit of a legend.”

I get that Bono is quite annoying – ok very annoying – but it doesn’t put me off. Like Prince or Sting, he’s one of the artists I regard as a bit of a tit, but I still have affection for. When interviewed in music magazines, his humility and intellect are undeniable; and there are often self-mocking lines in his excellent lyrics.

In his defence, he is one of the few celebrities attempting to use his fame and influence for something useful. And is his approach to campaigning so misguided? Perhaps you have to get inside the powerful cliques to have any hope of changing the system. After all, a kid with AIDS hasn’t got the luxury to wait for a world revolution.

As for his band, I can’t think of another who had such an impact on the sound of music of rock music in the last thirty years, apart from Nirvana. That impact was not all for the good in my opinion; the big, widescreen production techniques of Brian Eno on U2 albums laid the foundation for the blandly-streamlined wash of sound favoured by Coldplay and many others.

The ace in the pack for me is The Edge, who back in the 80’s came at the guitar from a completely original angle, with a range of chiming, percussive, atmospheric techniques that he continues to develop.

Despite that, he’s always been somewhat low on the pecking order in guitar hero terms. It probably has something to do with that worthless currency of cool. Despite his name, Edge has never had any ‘edginess’ around him – he’s never looked particularly iconic, or had any reputation with drink or drugs; he just gets on with being a boundlessly inventive musician who wears a crap little beanie.

As for the new record, I’m not particularly eager to hear it. The last thing I liked by U2 was the single ”Electrical Storm” from 2002 and I think their best work is probably behind them. I’ll keep on listening to their best stuff like this, the title track of what I think is their best album, The Unforgettable Fire.

gaza mural

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There will be no more divisions,
No cultural collisions,
Or blinkered racial visions
On the other side of the wall

There will be no flagellations,
No female mutilations
Or power-hungry nations
With no mercy at all

There won’t be terror forces,
Denial of resources
Or distant bearded voices
In stony holy vow

No vicious circle game
Of here we go again
Where history takes the blame
But punishment is now

On the other side of the wall,
The strong will heed the call
Of dignity for all,
The need to understand

To heal the great divide
That festers deep inside
And cannot be denied
When written on the land

On broken Belfast streets
Where concrete keeps the peace
With reinforced beliefs
That stand twenty feet tall

In east and west Berlin
The long divided kin
Who never did give in
Until they saw it fall

In Gaza on the strip
Where sniper bullets rip
A nation in the grip
Of merciless control

Existing without power
Beneath the look out tower
With murder by the hour
And hospitals in holes

On the other side of this pain
Truth will fall like rain
And pour down onto flame
Extinguishing the grief

On the other side of this rage
The troops will disengage
Like someone turned a page
Restoring our belief

There will be no more excuses
No temporary truces
Or human rights abuses
To dim the inner light

Suspicion will be banned
And martyrs will be slammed
And people will demand
Their safety from the fight

On the other side of the wall
Hearts run free
Horizons of hope
Stretch continuously

The dream of all nations
Believe it we must
On the other side of the wall
The rebirth of trust

 

Season of Sweat

female boxer Today the temperature has hit 29 degrees (that’s centigrade, my American friends) which is pretty ferocious anywhere in the UK but particularly so in a Northern town like Liverpool. Sitting here without a shirt and sticking to the back of my vinyl chair, I have little energy to do anything more than muse upon that familiar yet strange physiological phenomenon, sweating.

It’s the bodily function we have least control over. We can, at least briefly, control the impulse to urinate, defecate, vomit, sneeze, fart, cough or cry but when things get hot, our sweat glands get to work without consulting us.

For many people, it’s a regular cause of embarrassment. Sweating reveals us as essentially bestial – we talk of “sweating like a pig” – and many people carry anti-perspirants around with them every day, regularly blocking their pores, lest their uncontrollable animal body lets them down.

Of course we know that the actions of those two million tiny glands are our body’s cooling system, but it’s one that has had limited effectiveness since humans started wearing clothes, and now it’s only function is to mess up our hair and make us smell.

Airplane!Sweating is often triggered by anxiety; the nerve-wracking experience of a job interview is often accompanied by moist palms, while a best man’s speech at a wedding is not complete without a constantly wiped brow. It’s a disloyal bodily function that reveals your inner state to the outside world like a blush or a stammer. And when it strikes, whether as a result of anxiety or simply overheating, the discomfort is magnified by the embarrassment of damp patches under the arms.

Nevertheless, sweat also has plenty of positive associations – it is synonymous with honest physical toil and is also frequently highly erotic. Sweat is such a powerful signifier that if it didn’t exist, the advertising and movie industry would have had to invent it.

In the 1951 film The African Queen, Humprey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn make a hazardous journey down an African river in a tiny steamboat, both covered in a layer of sweat throughout the film. Sweat seems to dissolve the class divide between no-nonsense sailor Charlie and Rose the prim, dignified missionary, leading to an unlikely romance.

Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn

Of course, respectable ladies didn’t sweat in that era (the film was set in 1914). In the polite parlance, they ‘glowed’, while gentlemen ‘perspired’.

During the pre-air conditioned years of the British Empire, sweating would have been a regular physical reminder to Europeans that they weren’t built for tropical climes; but of course it wasn’t only the ruling classes that suffered so.

The vast majority of colonial sweat was shed by Africans slaves forced to work through midday heat on cotton and sugar plantations. The black sweat and blood that built the United States and made the Empire rich stains our collective conscience to this day.

I happen to be blessed with a skinny frame, therefore I rarely sweat profusely. If I do, it normally happens on a packed bus on a summer day. Other people, usually the heavier ones, will be already have wet fringes and beads of sweat on their faces, even though the windows are open. When the bus is stuck in traffic with ruthless sun coming through the windows, the situation is a mild kind of torture and the only remedy is to pant like a dog!

So far this has been a great summer for sport, from the warm lawns of Wimbledon to the sticky heat of the World Cup in Brazil. Sweat is part of the iconography of physical performance, whether it’s the sweat-varnished torso of the boxer or the soaked hair of a rock vocalist sticking to his face. Here it is an index of heroic effort; it shows how hard they are working to entertain us.

Iggy Pop

Despite our uncomfortable relationship with sweating, ultimately one of the most relaxing experiences in the world is sitting in a sauna and just letting your pores do their thing. When you are wrapped in a towel gently stewing in your own brine, the worries of the world melt away. Those stressed out citizens on the bus might reflect that it’s not sweat that is the real enemy, but our modern lives.

And now for a nice cool drink…

 

“The key to a good album is to be both eclectic and cohesive, and paradoxical as it sounds, that’s exactly what Tom George achieves on ‘Postcards” – liverpoolacoustic.co.uk
postcards cover

I recorded this album with in Liverpool with the expert help of Jeff Jepson at the controls. If I had to sum it up I would say it’s a collection of melodic indie-rock reminiscent of REM, Jeff Buckley and the Stone Roses, but you can decide for yourself by visiting http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/tomgeorge

You can listen to clips of the tracks and if you like them, buy tracks individually or the album as a whole. You can also get the album it on amazon if that’s more convenient.

I played most of the instruments on this album, including electric and acoustic guitars, bass and drums. Jeff also filled in with some keyboards, and Norweigan artist Ragz provided extra vocals. I hope you enjoy it.

Flyingcircus_2

It might have seemed as unlikely as a dead parrot coming back to life, but next month, the team who have been described as “The Beatles of comedy” are set to return to the stage.
45 years after their TV debut, the Monty Python team will be reuniting for ten shows in London.

The five remaining veteran comics (Graham Chapman died in 1989) will not be performing any new material, just well-loved and oft-repeated classics like the brilliant “Arguament Clinic”.

Such pieces have become iconic in the national culture, particularly for those who witnessed them the first time around. My Dad was one of those fans who witnessed the Monty Python’s Flying Circus TV series, which ran from 1969-1974 and the other day he was telling me about the impact they had on his generation. To paraphrase, he said “we liked them because they seemed like us”.

The Python team, all ex-students with an irreverent attitude, embodied a cultural change in the country. Their lampooning of many aspects of British society and the class system resonated with baby boomers who had grown up in the repressed post-war years.

In keeping with other cultural revolutions of the era, their shows and later their books, records and films exploded the conventions and structures of comedy, creating a kind of anarchic intellectual playground where ancient history and philosophical discourse were wired up to the chaotic energies of surrealism and silliness.

Their impact on comedy, and culture as a whole, was enormous and continues to this day. But do we really want to see a live comeback of pensionable Pythons? And does that old material have anything relevant to say to the Britain (well, the London) of 2014?

It might be useful to compare the Pythons with another group of performers from the same generation. The Rolling Stones are currently on what, depending on who you believe, could be their last tour.

rolling-stones

The Stones have never stopped playing live and Mick Jagger, always a highly physical performer, inspires amazement that at 70 he can still pull it off. Last year’s Glastonbury performance proved that he has plenty of strutting energy and charisma left.

Like the Pythons upcoming shows, the Stones’ live gigs are built around their most famous material. But there’s a big difference between music and comedy. We can listen songs like ”Satisfaction” indefinately and they still sound fresh; a good song keeps on giving. But the impact of a joke is always most powerful the first time around; the humour comes from the surprise of seeing the world from an unexpected angle. The Pythons themselves emphasised this in “The Funniest Joke in The World”.

Of course the Python team don’t do jokes, as such. Their sketch-based comedy is sophisticated and repays repeated viewing, but I suspect there will be more chuckles of nostalgic affection than gut-bombs at their shows next month. Hopefully they will be able to inhabit the characters and material convincingly despite their advanced maturity, perhaps with some ad-libs and asides to freshen up the iconic routines.

Eric Idle has already tested the water for this kind of enterprise with his massively successful musical Spamalot which combines the script of the film Monty Python And The Holy Grail with a selection of the team’s best known songs, although none of the original team are involved onstage.

This will be the last chance to see the much-loved comic pioneers performing together. But any fans hoping to see the silly walk sketch have been told not to expect that particular hit of nostalgia. Following John Cleese’s hip and knee operations, attempting it would be a very silly thing to do.

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