Wednesday, 28 January 2009

How I learned to stop worrying and like EC2

About a year-and-a-half ago I moved to a new job in Shoreditch. For the previous decade I had been based in the centre of London, and daytime EC2 contrasted pretty poorly: expensive delis, few convenient shops, and empty bars. It comes to life when the nightshift clocks on and jobbing hacks have gone home.

Whereas in the past I could browse record or book stores in my lunch hour, now I was at a loose end. It one day struck me that I was in a perfect position to document the area’s street art, and the graffiti artists’ ongoing battle with the borough’s street cleaning department. I could capture the latest additions to walls, doorways and shutters in daylight and before they were erased from view.

An unexpected bonus of this project, usually conducted in lunchtime walks between Brick Lane, Redchurch Street and Rivington Street, was that I grew to like the area. I came to know its passageways, recognised artists’ themes and styles, and learnt the spots that were particularly favoured for stencils, stickers, sprays or posters.

In April I will have documented these city markings for a year; it’s tempting to put something together at that point, to document changing trends in the art, and the changing nature of Shoreditch. Many of the most popular sites have been redeveloped or are more closely monitored than before.

One night I noticed some posters that had just gone up but I couldn’t get a clear photo because of the camera flash. I decided to try again in daylight. When I returned early the next morning, it wasn’t just the posters that had disappeared – the whole side of the building they were on had been demolished. It was a salutory lesson.

Another, very simple, tip: be aware of your surroundings. Residents may not be thrilled about you taking pictures of some rundown building next to their home (the old poverty tourism, which I may return to some time). And watch out for traffic, it’s all too easy to step off the kerb for a better picture and nearly get run over (a lot of Shoreditch’s side streets serve as shortcuts).

In the autumn, I noticed a lot of these now-familiar signatures have moved into the centre of town, notably Covent Garden. There hasn’t been much new work over December and January; it may be that the artists are conceding the wallspace war, or maybe they’re too lazy to go out over the holidays in the cold.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Updike at rest

I'm reading Hanif Kureishi's Something to Tell You at the moment and had just reached the sentence, "I was reminded of a book, Updike's Couples…" when I heard that John Updike is dead. He published The Widows of Eastwick only a few months ago and had outlived his greatest creation – he extended the great Rabbit series beyond the death of its central character, Rabbit Angstrom. I would recommend, too, his Bech books; light they may be but in them the author Updike seems truly free.

I tend to group Updike with Philip Roth and Saul Bellow (Roth is exactly a year less a day Updike's junior). But while Roth's prose tends to roll in waves, and Bellow's books build into one giant crest, Updike would be sitting on the beach, tending for a glimpse of pubic hair from a bikini crotch. He was a writer who loved cunt.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Probably the best pop group in the world?

I'm sure that most of my friends, if asked, would say that my favourite band is either Pet Shop Boys or Depeche Mode. There's something about the former's clever lyrics or the synthesiser sounds of the latter that represent all the things I look for in pop music.

But my favourite pop group is a little-known bunch of Scandinavians that split up 10 years ago. (My friends, if asked, would no doubt say this is typical of me, just me being difficult, and pretentious.) If I had to choose the work of one band to take on a desert island it would be that of Danish trio Gangway.

It was thanks to the Pet Shop Boys that Gangway first came to my attention – and maybe even yours. It was the summer of 1988 and the Pet Shop Boys were standing in for DJ Simon "Our Tune" Bates on his mid-morning Radio 1 show and most days they played a new single called My Girl and Me by a group called Gangway.

My Girl and Me is a jaunty three-minute number with an insistent, chugging beat, some very tight string arrangements, and what sounds like an oboe in the background. Fine, a rare but deservedly Top 20 tune, you might think. But the song is made all the more interesting by its unusual lyrics: instead of stage-show jollity, My Girl and Me is a rather bleak, abusive, alcoholic romance.

"At night you know that I will find you/It's been the same way for three years/I know every bar in this town/I just have to find the right one," sings an unadorned male voice. And this is the chorus: "My girl and me/We hang around in bars/And we're usually drunk/But never too drunk to fight/Like cats and dogs all night."

The only other group doing something similar lyrically at the time was Furniture (barely remembered for their own three-minute wonder, Beautiful Mind), who came up with such pearls as: "The one who wants me, I don't want/The one I want, don't want to know." Two years later Pet Shop Boys released my favourite single of theirs, So Hard, with the wonderful couplet: "I'm always hoping you'll be faithful/But you're not I suppose/We've both given up smoking/'cause it's fatal/So whose matches are those?"

That's not all, though. My Girl and Me manages to squeeze in a quote from the Bible, verbatim. That scans. With the full reference. "Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging/And whomsover is deceived thereby is not wise/Proverbs, Chapter 20, Part 4: Warnings and instructions." It's all there, I've checked.

I won't say the usual things about pearls before swine, media attention (though the NME was especially positive, describing the sound as Pet Shop Boys meets Madness!), the charts or their record company; the single tanked and that would have been the last I heard of Gangway but for a fortuitous trip to Paris one year later, in 1989. In the big, new Virgin Megastore on the Champs Elysées I found the album from which My Girl and Me was taken. As far as I know, Sitting in the Park was never released in the UK, so this was a stroke of luck.

The album, which became the soundtrack for an 18-year-old's Parisian adventure, is notable for its inversion of the boy meets girl, girl and boy live happily ever after theme. Contrast simply the titles of Madness's bestselling It Must Be Love with This Can't Be Love ("And if you ever leave me/I would feel as sad and lonely/As Mr Carter when he arranged that mission in Iran/And everything that could go wrong went wrong"). Out on the Rebound from Love, a great putative radio single, could just as well be titled I've Finally Found Some Love – it scans – but isn't.

A perfunctory second attempt at success came a couple of years later with single Biology, alongside a positive reference to the album from which it came, The Quiet Boy Ate the Whole Cake (1991), in a review of another band in Time Out. It was only with the development of the internet that I was able to find out more about this band.

Cut forward a few years and a quick Lycos search calls up a rather wonderful (English-language, like the band) website: That's Gangway. And by then it was Gangway, as they had split up. But what a wealth of material they left behind: six other albums on top of the one I already had (including an earlier version of that same album), as well as a greatest hits compilation, Compendium. The FAQ section ("Everything you always wanted to know about Gangway but were afraid to ask") told me who the trio were (songwriter and guitarist Henrik Balling, lead singer Allan Jensen and keyboard player Torben Johansen), how many drummers they had (four), and how many record companies they had been with (again four).

There's a huge section of their lyrics, which became like prose poems to me. There are strange songs like Belgian Lovers, where the narrator, provoked to find out more about the horrors of war, is thwarted by petty bureaucracy: "Belgian lovers standing tall in the fields of Flanders/Belgian lovers take a fall in the house of horrors/I went straight to my local library/Read a book and asked for some help/No one seemed to really care/I got mad and I yelled at them/With no luck and that made me sad/'Cause we pay a lot of tax." He finishes: "Oh how it frightens me/How little we all know/Of Flemish history."

There's the dry humour of the stand-up at work here: "I really hate those pins/That they leave in new shirts/'Cause you never get them all" (Nothing's the Matter); "I think I'll buy some new CDs/And watches without warranties/'Cause they'll never break" (Think of Spain).

Among the whimsy is some lovely use of English idiom: "You make me sick/You're such a prick" (Don't Ask Yourself); "I'm a fairly quiet guy but I like to laugh and that's okay/But when I'm laughing I look just like a twat… Just the other day I went to a concert on my own/I forgot to read the programme and I felt so alone/All they played was an overture by some Russian git" (She Keeps Telling Jokes).

But what did these songs sound like? I already had a clue from the single Biology that since Sitting in the Park the band had moved further towards using synths and programming. I went to Boxman, a music site at the time that had a branch in Denmark, and ordered all seven albums.

According to the That's Gangway site, debut album The Twist (1984) was "the first Danish record with English lyrics that sold over 10,000 copies in Denmark". Surprisingly, considering the Pet Shop Boys/Madness comparisons, the album sounds more like The Smiths. The influence of Morrissey on the vocals is telling, though the first indication of the clear, unforced style Jensen takes up from then comes on a short, faux nightclub number, The Idiot. (The song's entire lyrics are: "I'm an idiot, I'm a fool/Because love has me wrapped around her little finger/And I don't know if that's good").

The group's most popular album, Happy Ever After, includes the surprisingly frivolous Mountain Song (Denmark's seventh bestselling single of that year); a near sell-out (domestic) tour followed and four Danish Grammys, in February 1993 (Best Danish Band, Best Danish Songwriter, Best Danish Rock Album and Best Danish Music Video). A darker fifth album confirms Balling's songwriting ability, as well as including some numbers by his bandmates, but seems surprisingly lacklustre. It's called Optimism.

The band saved the best for last. That's Life was recorded in four weeks in London during the winter of 1996 and features many songs I've already mentioned: Nothing's the Matter, Belgian Lovers, She Keeps Telling Jokes and Think of Spain. The other tracks are equally worthy of mention; there's both a poignancy and almost viciousness at play here, a last throw of the dice – this is all and nothing.

The impression the band quit on a peak is confirmed by two new numbers on 1998's valedictory Compendium. Much as Gangway employed unexpected, heavy hip hop beats on The Quiet Boy… so on track Don't Trust Me Balling's lyrics are underpinned by drum'n'bass programming. You've got to love a band whose final track on their last album is called Goodbye. (The track is full of advice: "Leaving your girlfriend is always a pain/She'll be upset and you'll be just the same/But to make things more easy, don't say a thing/Just pack your bags, leave without saying goodbye." It's set to a disco beat.)

I now possessed their complete oeuvre and could gauge their full achievement: here were a very, very good band with a back catalogue to match any pop group you could mention – sustained over a period of time – who stopped at the highpoint of their career, not commercially but certainly artistically. (Which begs a question: can a proper pop group ever separate success and artistic achievement?) There was only one thing for it: to go to Denmark and track down this band they called Gangway. But that's for another (hopefully shorter) post