Thursday, 30 June 2011

Come Into My Parlour...

Here are two recent studio visitors. Actually I think the spider lives here. Well, loads do and they go about their business decorating the upper reaches of the room with their handiwork. I think we're going for that Miss Havisham look. The moth is a ‘fly-in’. I think it’s a Privet Hawkmoth. Quite big and impressive. And absolutely harmless. Just curious for a look around to see what’s what. One of the things I love are the small moments when people and wildlife overlap in a harmonious manner. We’re so lucky in Britain that everything that lives out there is benign. Nothing wants to hurt us. I only wish we would treat nature with a little reciprocal respect.

And here’s two art spiders. One by me for Insectopedia and the other by Odilon Redon, whose work I like very much.

And a little tune to go with: Wire's Blessed State.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Thomas Leer and The Long Mac

Youth tribes in my young England never remained static. Fashions were always mutating and tastes shifting with the seasons. Styles were never quite as rigid and uniform as some of our latter-day style history gurus would have you believe.

Mods became skins became suedes and smoothies and hippies etc. Punk was no different. One faction took to wearing face-powder and capes and set up camp at the Blitz Rooms in Covent Garden (a former failed attempt at a West End pie & mash shop). But for those of us who didn’t look so good in pantaloons there was the Long Mac. The heavy fustian WW1 greatcoats beloved of the progressive rock hippies were replaced by our lightweight green military raincoats (U.S. preferably). This was where Punk went Prog I guess. No-one danced at Long Mac gigs. You would stand at the back nodding sagely, perhaps taking notes to effect a writerly air. The pockets in the macs were good for wedging paperbacks in so that the title was poking out: Albert Camus was popular, as was The Naked Lunch and Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. And anything with Nietsche's name on. It was all very earnest.

But it created some fantastically innovative music and performances. Cabaret Voltaire, Wire, Throbbing Gristle, Joy Division, The Human League, Soft Cell, The Normal, The The, Robert Rental, Thomas Leer are just the first few that spring to mind.

Thomas Leer is I think one of the great unsung influential figures in music at this time. I’d heard ‘Private Plane’/’International’ over the P.A. at a gig and immediately had to find out who it was. It’s irresistible layers of raw lo-fi synth sounds and almost ethereal, dreamy psychedelia (he had to whisper the vocals to avoid waking up his girlfriend in the bedroom where he recorded) made it quite unlike anything anyone else was doing. Maybe the first and greatest Post-Punk record.

Anyway, I tubed over to Rough Trade on Saturday afternoon and bought it and Robert Rental’s ‘Paralysis’ single. I took them both back to my mate Paul’s house in Epping and we sat up all night playing them over and over again. Sometimes, especially when you are young, you have these little moments where you see with sudden clarity where the future is and you know nothing will be quite the same again. These two home-made records suggested so many possibilities for where music could go next. We sat there chain-smoking Bensons and lifting the arm back to the beginning over and over again as we excitedly outlined a new direction for our own group and weighed up the cost of a Wasp synthesiser.

My band never did come up with anything as beguiling as ‘Private Plane’/’International’ . After a year of endless rehearsing, one single and a handful of gigs around Essex supporting our near neighbours Crass and The Poison Girls, I realised that my real love was with drawing and not making music. I got rid of my little P.A. system and went to art college. Over the next few years as The The took off, people often asked me if I regretted not staying with music. And I must admit I sometimes wondered myself. But the truth was I didn’t. I’d had fun but also boredom (b’dum b’dum) and I knew that it wasn’t where my heart lay.

A couple of years later, I had the opportunity to meet Thomas and tell him what a god-like genius I thought he was. He is a modest, quiet, charming Scotsman. We even talked about me doing some cover artwork. But as is the way of these things, it didn’t materialise. But I still often play his music and it sounds as vital now as it did then.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

"Don't Stand Outside And Be Miserable - Come In And Be Fed Up!"

When you are born in the East End of London, there are always certain assumptions made. I actually don’t like jellied eels much. Over the years I’ve tried them every now and again thinking perhaps I’ll finally acquire the elusive ‘taste’ but it’s never happened. Something about the combination of texture and flavour is not appealing to me. Stewed eels are supposed to be a subtler delicacy but I’ve never really taken to them either. When I was a very small boy in Walthamstow, I would play with the little girl from next door. Sometimes she would take me into her flat and I was both horrified and fascinated to see their bath was full of live eels. (Her dad would put them there temporarily before selling them on, but I assumed they were kept there all the time like an aquarium).

Anyway, eels are not for me, but Pie & Mash definitely is. A traditional staple food of the London working classes from at least the Victorian times, to be honest I think you are best introduced to it at a young age. I’ve taken people to my favourite shop a few times but I can tell by their slightly uncomfortable expressions and weakly feigned enthusiasm that it’s not really for them.

Every East Ender will have his own favourite pie-shop and there will be heated discussions about the qualities of each one. There are better looking shops but my own favourite is the ‘Noted Eel and Pie House’ in Leytonstone High Road. It was originally in Bow but moved to this location about thirty years ago. It always looks as though it opened last week and is likely to close next week. It had the air of a pop-up shop before anyone had coined that term. The cutlery is a jumble of mismatched knives forks and spoons, the tables and benchs of varying heights, some topped with stainless steel, others with marble, all with a big bottle of vinegar and a pot of pepper plonked down. The service hardly ever comes with a smile. I go there regularly with my Dad and we often have a wry laugh that having been regulars all that time we are still treated as though it’s the first time we’ve ever walked through the door! But we keep going back because of the pies. Pie & Mash pies are made in a traditionally slightly secretive way. Somehow steamed underneath and baked on top - they are a combination of crisp and soft pastry with juicy minced beef in gravy - they taste nothing like any sort of pie you would get anywhere else. Three pies and a double scoop of mash doused with a good ladleful of parsley sauce (‘licker’) and plenty of pepper and vinegar. I always have a can of pepsi with mine (this is slightly frowned upon by my old-school father who suggests tea or preferably nothing). This is comfort food of the highest order. I always leave here feeling replete and at ease with the world (and a bit fatter).

Like pie shops we all have our favourite fish n’ chip plaices. So here’s a drawing of mine. A world away from urban East London it’s in the genteel Suffolk coastal town of Aldeburgh. It’s certainly no secret and sometimes you can queue for three-quarters of an hour but it’s always worth it. The fish are freshly caught in the sea that morning, the golden batter is crisp and barely greasy and the chips are perfectly fried in beef dripping. The ladies behind the counter are always cheerful and super-efficient. And perhaps best of all, you take your hot package through the alleyway and onto the long shingle beach and sit and scoff while watching the north sea rolling in. The seagulls will patiently hover nearby but a word of warning: don’t feed them - there’s now a £1000 fine! Fish and chips don’t get batter than this...

Bon Apetit!

For anyone interested in the history of pies and eels there’s a really good book by Chris Clunn called ‘Eels, Pies and Mash’ with far more information than I can offer here. It may be hard to find now but here are some of Chris’ excellent photographs.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Can You Guess What It Is Yet?

I was lucky enough to meet the great Bruno Richard in Paris in the early 1980’s and overnight became heavily influenced by his transgressive Elles Sont de Sortie project. I began producing lots of stuff like this - I had a strong desire to make an aggressively visceral way of drawing that would in some way mirror the cultural and political atmosphere of that time. You don’t have to listen to too many punk records to sense the frustration in the air at the beginning of that decade. But somehow Thatcher, Murdoch and the corporate state, one way or another managed to marginalise a lot of that feeling. Council house dwellers were enabled to buy their homes and ordinary people were encouraged to buy into the stockmarket as the national utilities were all put up for sale. Amongst the young creative types that I knew, ideology began to give way to the pragmatism of getting onto the property ladder, filing tax returns and filling up that filofax with all those lucrative contacts. I carried on producing ‘angry’ looking artwork for a while but increasingly began to feel looked upon as a quaint but misguided soul. Anger just wasn't cool anymore. It took a while for that to sink in.

Actually I still really like this stuff and can’t understand why I don’t work in this manner nowadays.

To add a bit of period flavour, here's another big influence, the brilliant JG Thirlwell (don't call him Foetus!) as Clint Ruin here performing 'Ghost Rider' with Marc Almond:

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

"Their Tiny Racing Hearts..."

A couple of birdspreads from recent sketchbooks...

Elbow have long been among my favourite current groups. But I like them even more since those songs about birds on their last album.

Bird activity is at it’s annual peak here. My garden sounds like a school playground with squadrons of sparrows and tits and finches and blackbirds and woodpeckers and crows whooping and swooping from bush to tree to rooftop to birdtable. When I wander out in the morning with their food I feel like I’m stepping into some extraordinary Disney fantasy.

In my studio fledgling swallows are circling over my head shepherded with shrill squeaks and squawks from mum and dad. I love it when they’re in residence. This year they arrived back from Africa on exactly the same day as last year. I know this because I’ve started to log things like this (my excite-o-meter is calibrated to a very low threshold these days). They sit on a perch and talk to each other for ages - I feel like an eavesdropper - a complicated series of chirrups often ending with that decaying ‘chiiiirrrrrrrrr’. Noone can tell me they aren’t having conversations.

Birds remain so fascinating because we still know so little about them. How do they find their way from South Africa to my garage/studio every year on the same day? (I’ve got friends that can’t find their way from Wanstead to here). Do they follow the sun and the stars? Or is it the pull of magnetic fields? There are lots of theories, lots of ‘may’, ‘might’ and ‘perhaps’ but no-one seems to know properly.

Anyway, here’s a fresh face that flew in last week. A nondescript little brown bird - I couldn’t quite place him - not a dunnock, not a whitethroat. I reached for my bird book and was delighted to identify him as a nightingale. He didn’t sing but he seemed a spirited little fellow who only reluctantly let me give him a hand to get back to the great outdoors.

“...what we gonna do with you?... same tail every time....