Monday, 29 November 2010

Etienne Daho's 10 best albums

I have been remiss: I failed to mark the release of French pop star Etienne Daho's new album earlier this month. Le condamné à mort revisits a poem by Jean Genet Daho performed in part earlier in his career, this time accompanied by actress Jeanne Moreau. Genet's first poem, written in prison in 1942, it was dedicated to his muse Maurice Pilorge, who was executed aged 24 in Rennes in 1939. As one reviewer on Amazon France notes, 'à ne pas écouter en présence des enfants.'

Daho is a pop phenomenon, whose equivalent in English-language music might be a mix of Madonna, Pet Shop Boys and George Michael. Born in Oran, Algeria, in 1956, he emerged from the post-punk movement in 1981 as a writer of perfectly formed songs with a quick ear for the happy collaboration, notably with friends from his student days in Rennes.

Le condamné... is his 21st album in a 30-year career, including a couple of EPs (notably Reserection with St Etienne in 1995), a few greatest hits compilations and several live discs. Here's a round-up of his 10 studio albums, many of which were recorded in London, starting with the best:
  • 1. Pour nos vies martiennes, 1988 While Pop satori marks a crucial moment in the development of French pop music, equivalent to Pet Shop Boys' Please around the same time, Daho's song writing has never been consistently stronger than here. It's impossible to pick stand-out tracks from Pour nos vies' menu of acoustic pop classics, whose cover was painted by Rolling Stones and Bowie luminary Guy Peellaert.
  • 2. Pop satori, 1986 Daho's playful mid-1980s take on synthpop includes some of his most popular songs, Epaule tattoo, Paris, le Flore and Duel au soleil. The title track and chain-rattling 4,000 années d'horreur add to the fun, while a deluxe edition released in 2003 included remixes by Fischerspooner, among others.
  • 3. Eden, 1996 Ten years after Pop satori, Daho bravely returned to the electro frontline with this biblically themed concept album, of all things, which builds from opener Au commencement, through slinky Un serpent sans importance to the fractured L'enfer enfin. (Benjamin Biolay provided a form of secular response in 2005 with A l'origine.)
  • 4. La notte, la notte, 1984 Unmissable for its Pierre et Gilles cover, Daho's second album features more of his most famous songs, including Sortir ce soir, Le grand sommeil and Week-end à Rome, retooled with St Etienne for He's On the Phone (1995). Other favourites include Si je m'en vais avant toi and Poppy Gene Tierney. Very poppy indeed.
  • 5. Paris ailleurs, 1991 Non-native language speakers always love a good pun and Daho is no different, beginning with a 'day-o' chorus. This swaggering, confident album, recorded in New York with Edith Fambuena, gave rise to no fewer than five singles, among them opener Des attractions désastres (remixed by PM Dawn) and Comme un igloo (which features one of my favourite French words, farouche), while Toi + Moi and La berlue could have taken that number to seven. Splendid.
  • 6. Mythomane, 1981 Daho's superb pop sense and flair for constructing perfect three-minute moments is immediately recognisable on his debut, which includes perennials L'ete and Mythomane. Even the rudimentary Va t'en and Encore cette chanson hint at more to come.
  • 7. Réévolution, 2003 Back to the territory of Paris ailleurs, with a similar black-and-white portrait cover, Réévolution is notable for a couple of guest appearances from Charlotte Gainsbourg - for single If - and Marianne Faithfull, on Retour à toi, another single. The title track is another stand-out.
  • 8. Corps et armes, 2000 I was initially underwhelmed by this layered entry in Daho's oeuvre but returned to it after Neil Tennant included track La baie on Pet Shop Boys' Back to Mine compilation (alongside Elgar and Biosphere!). Sure enough, numbers like Le brasier, L'année du dragon and San Antonia de la Luna repay dedication.
  • 9. Le condamné a mort, 2010 The poems of Genet set to music by Hélène Martin in a calmer version of Hector Zazou's startling 1992 assault on Rimbaud, Sahara Blue, though it's still strong stuff. The album's released on Daho's Radical Pop Music label and is available on iTunes, which assumes music-buyers aren't interested in any form of additional information.
  • 10. L'invitation, 2007 First single L'invitation makes for a terrific opener, although the songwriting is less immediate than usual for this reunion with Edith Fambuena. A form of counterpoint to the title track, La vie continuera is a heartfelt point to close - outstanding.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Indecent exposure, from the street to our screens

The issue of privacy brought up by a new exhibition and current film remind me of some photocopied photos pasted up in Shoreditch a while back. Those posters (pictured) showed a semi-clad woman captured in compromising positions and they may be another example of street art being ahead of the curve.

The second prize winner for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2010 - on show at the National Portrait Gallery until 20 February 2011 - is a relatively explicit picture of a naked woman. Panayiotis Lamprou's candid Portrait of my British wife, 2010, shows her wearing only a vest top, looking relaxed, sated perhaps. Shot outside their Greek holiday home on a hot summer's day, the photo wasn't initially intended for public consumption; its title hints at that other repository for these kind of snaps, Readers' Wives.

The question of whether to publish intimate shots forms the crux of director Ashley Horner's debut film, brilliantlove. Characters Manchester and Noon spend a summer shagging and soon Manchester's photos of their sex soon find their way to a broader audience (without girlfriend Noon's permission). Suddenly they - Manchester, Noon and the pictures - are a very public phenomenon.

A man in New Zealand was recently jailed for posting such a photo of his ex girlfriend on Facebook. In what was described as 'a certain symmetry', the judge ordered the offender to allow himself be photographed by the press. Not poetic, justice.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Book-photography photography books

The earliest photograph in André Kertész's On Reading features barefoot Hungarian children poring over a book in 1915. The collection, first published in 1971, features readers in the important locations of the Hungarian-born photographer's life: Paris, New York, Argentina, where his younger brother emigrated. There are groups of students, presumably, sitting with books in NYC's Washington Square, otherwise many of those captured by Kertész are reading newspapers. The best images are of isolated book-lovers caught surreptitiously on rooftops. Reading is a solitary pleasure and here people have found their own undisturbed space, until Kertész's lens comes snooping.

A friend takes beautiful pictures of people reading. As with Kertész, the book cover is generally obscured but the books lend their titles to the photographs; while these are portraits of people, you can be in no doubt what the subject is. I would have liked to have been photographed on the blue bench outside my old flat, where I could sit on summer evenings. Now it would have to be on my daily commute, when I do the majority of my reading. I'm not sure what I'd be holding, something by Simenon, no doubt. (The pictures accompanying this post are my own, of Shakespeare and Company in Paris.)

In 2002, Cuban-born Abelardo Morrell (famous for his camera obscura images) published a book of photographs of books, A Book of Books. It's not an obvious project but apparently some of the first pictures taken by photographic pioneer Henry Fox Talbot were of his library. Morrell's photos feature some tomes that have been altered, for instance by having a hole drilled in one, though I'm especially drawn to his image of an edition of A Tale of Two Cities, where the print of the reverse side of the page is coming through. Giant storage spaces work well, too, reminiscent of Alain Resnais' 1956 short film about Paris's Bibliotheque Nationale, Toute la mémoire du monde. And then there are heartbreaking images of books damaged by dirt or irreversibly warped by water. Tragic.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Shooting war: art on the frontline

Vietnam changed the art of war forever. Think of the most memorable images of that conflict and they are all photographs: Don McCullin's 1968 photo of a US marine that defines 'thousand-yard stare'; Nick Ut's famous image of naked, scarred nine-year-old Kim Phuc escaping a napalm attack in 1972, and Eddie Adams' picture of Southern Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a suspected Viet Cong with a gunshot to the head (1968).

Of our most recent conflicts the defining images are more remote: footage of the missile attack which wrought 'shock and awe' on Baghdad or black-and-white aerial videos of targets before they are wiped out. On the ground, the most memorable photographs are those connected with the humiliation of our prisoners, whether US soldiers' snapshots of hooded or naked men in Abu Ghraib or the orange-garbed inmate being wheeled on a makeshift trolley in Guantánamo.

In Iraq, official US artist Michael Fay's best sketches are portraits of fellow marines or, again, prisoners. British artist Michael Cook's pictures of Afghanistan are particularly odd - these could be images of an unlikely tourist destination, off the beaten track, superimposed with the paraphernalia of war: a football match where everyone is wearing khaki, with sandbags in the background, a man leading a camel train blocked by an armoured army jeep, or ordinary street scenes, notable for their bullet-pocked buildings.

One of London's best museums, the Imperial War Museum has a great collection of war art, notably from the First World War, including work by Paul Nash, William Orpen and CRW Nevinson (who, Wikipedia informs me, was credited with holding the first cocktail party in England). As well as those haunting images of strobe-lit fields (Futurist Nevinson is especially good on this), some of my favourite paintings feature those behind, in each sense, the carnage: try A Peace Conference at the Quai d'Orsay (1919) by Orpen, or William Nicholson's The Canadian Headquarters Staff (1917-19) - impossible to miss at some two-and-a-half by three metres. (Nicholson is notable for a couple of other war paintings a long way from the frontline, including Ballroom in an Air Raid, 1918, where a trail of red, perhaps a fallen curtain or rolled-up carpet, leads the eye to the centre of this desolate picture.)

Battlefield surgery is a perennial favourite as are flag-draped coffins, which led to the biggest recent controversy over war art. Last year, US defence secretary Robert M Gates announced that the Pentagon had lifted a ban imposed in 1991 on photographing the return of war dead to America. That was five years after Amy Katz and Tami Silicio's picture of an apparently endless line of coffins bearing the Stars and Stripes in an airplane fuselage.

World Press Photo 2010 is at the Royal Festival Hall, on London's South Bank, until 5 December and features pictures of the aftermath of a suicide car bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, a phosphorus bomb over Gaza City, and a fatally wounded US soldier being treated in Helmand province, Afghanistan, among other images of current conflicts.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Pierre Etaix: The Great Love, slight return

On the night I saw my first film by French director Pierre Etaix, I also met him - at a screening in London's estimable Ciné Lumiere. Etaix was guest of honour and - 10 days short of his 82nd birthday - stepped onto the stage with a bounce; afterwards he happily signed autographs, adding a trademark clown doodle, and retained a sparkle in his eyes despite what must have been a tiring evening. Part of his joy, he said, was to meet Terry Gilliam, who introduced Etaix's The Great Love (Le grand amour, 1969) that night.

A cabaret performer and clown, Etaix served as assistant director to Jacques Tati on Mon oncle (1958), also creating the iconic illustration for the film's poster. Following this apprenticeship of sorts, Etaix went on to direct and star in a series of his own features. While Tati's work is imbued with a sadness at the passing of the past (highlighted nowhere better than in Sylvain Chomet's beautiful The Illusionist, 2010, from a script by Tati), Etaix is more ambivalent, recognising the values of tradition while embracing the new. (In 1989 Etaix worked on a film in a groundbreaking new 3D format, Omnimax, which has no screen but places the audience at the centre of the action.)

His humour has probably dated better than some of Tati's films, too, though that may be because Etaix's films have been hidden from public view for a generation due to what is consistently referred to as a 'legal imbroglio'. There is nothing forced about his work; while Tati can sometimes seem a tad ponderous, The Great Love is at once snappy and measured. Etaix was a contemporary of the Nouvelle Vague and says he was approached by Truffaut to help with a dance scene in Jules et Jim (1962) but the collaboration didn't happen: 'They [the Nouvelle Vague] didn't need me.'

Because I saw Etaix giving a brief introduction before viewing The Great Love, I hadn't been prepared to see him as a young man in the film's main role. Incredible, I thought, how Etaix managed to find a lead actor who looks exactly as he would have done then. It was as if I were seeing the premiere of a new work the 81-year-old director had travelled back 42 years in time to make.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Francesca Woodman: Chasing shadows

In a piece for ArtReview reprinted in his new collection of essays Working the Room, Geoff Dyer, 'eager to demonstrate some awareness of the technical side of photography', asks Michael Ackerman what the latter does to achieve his trademark blurry style. 'That's just how it is,' Dyer is told.

The same might be true of the work of American Francesca Woodman, whose face is routinely blurred in her self-portraits, head fizzing side-to-side during the photographs' exposure, hiding in plain sight. Woodman was famously her own favourite model. As she said: 'It's a matter of convenience, I am always available.' (There is a more playful comment I can't find, how her fellow students must be fed up with seeing her in all these pictures.)

Her identity hidden in this way, it's not always easy to recognise the often nude artist in her work. (A curled metal ring is one cue.) She poses herself like a sculpture in a precariously poised fireplace, lying on top of a wardrobe, or hanging from a doorframe; she creates an Yves Klein-esque imprint of her torso on a dusty studio floor. She uses found props: a pane of glass is pressed over her crotch to create a disorienting reflection or, more dangerously, against a breast. The settings tend to be deserted rooms, wallpaper peeling, the sort we're used to seeing in countless bad movies - this is photography as performance.

I first encountered Woodman's work in the Artist Rooms touring series at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art only last year; about a tenth of her 500-strong oeuvre went on show today at Victoria Miro, in an exhibition running until 22 January. Born in 1958, the daughter of a photographer, Woodman committed suicide in New York by jumping from a window (there is a section on Wikipedia of 'suicides by jumping from a height' but is there not a better term?).

The introduction to a retrospective of her work in Murcia, Spain, last year includes this unfortunate phrase: 'Up until her untimely death at the early age of 22, in a brief albeit extremely intense trajectory, she mapped the territories of estrangement and solitude…' The catalogue is otherwise coy about her death, presumably in keeping with the wishes of the artist's estate; while this does no disservice to her photographs, it's difficult to see portraits of Woodman with coils of silver birch bark wrapped round her wrists like bandages without thinking of her depression.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

From Knowing Me, Knowing You to a-ha

Today The Beatles finally agreed to the inevitable, selling their back catalogue on iTunes (Apple on Apple). Anyone who loves pop music and doesn't acknowledge the Liverpudlian foursome's contribution is a moron but why are all Beatles fans into rock music? Perhaps it's a generational thing, but I don't know anyone hooked on the Fab Four with an interest in fab pop. This makes me wonder if Revolver (1966) or Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) could count as the greatest pop album of all time.

I've no doubt shot myself in the foot having suggested that Thomas Dolby's slightly obscure The Golden Age of Wireless represents the highpoint of turn-of-the-1980s synthpop, but I'd like to put forward Abba's The Visitors as the best pop album ever. An outstanding roster of hits, including Take a Chance On Me, Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man after Midnight), Lay All Your Love On Me, has its high point with my favourite single of all time, The Winner Takes It All.

In the wake of well-documented splits within the band, this poppiest of pop groups aired its marital trauma for all the world to hear; it's heartbreaking to think of the words put into the mouths of performers Agnetha Falkstog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad from the opening, 'I don't wanna talk/ About the things we've gone through...', to lines 'But tell me does she kiss/ Like I used to kiss you?' and 'Somewhere deep inside/ You must know I miss you'.

This was the spirit songwriters Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus took into their eighth, and final, studio album, creating an unlikely masterpiece. (The only other group I can think of who quit on the heels of their best album is Gangway.) The Visitors, much like The Golden Age of Wireless, pitches the battleground of relationships against global politics. While Dolby's is the more modern album, with its overt use of synths for their own sake, thematically The Golden Age... is the more backward-looking as it harks back to the Second World War, while Abba's 1981 work is set against the backdrop of the contemporary Cold War.

It's a template that has been followed most succesfully by a-ha on album Scoundrel Days (1986), from angular, titular, opener through excellent single I've Been Losing You and epic The Weight of the Wind to the lighter ending, tonally and emotionally; Maybe Maybe for Abba's Two for the Price of One. (Abba, a-ha and Gangway are all Scandinavian - the full compliment of Swedes, Norwegians and Danes, respectively - make of that what you will; I no doubt will make something of it at some point.) Abba would still produce one great, autobiographical, single - The Day Before You Came - before calling it a day. Remarkably, it's a decision they've never gone back on.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Pierre Etaix: The Great Love

'It started badly…' - Pierre

I've just seen the film of the year: it was made in 1968. This evening, Terry Gilliam introduced The Great Love (Le grand amour) at London's wonderful Ciné Lumière with director Pierre Etaix in attendance. The film is a whimsical take on provincial mores and marriage; it's as if Ozu's Late Autumn (1960) were invaded by the spirit of Les demoiselles de Rochefort (1967), this time not under the hand of Jacques Demy but invested with the anarchical comic outlook of Laurel and Hardy.

Etaix considered filming The Great Love all over France to create a composite city but, much to his producer's relief, settled on Tours, in the middle of the country. The film's centres are its main characters' home, the office, a city park, the railway station and a nearby café, filled with its habitués - the setting of so many bleak Simenon novels invaded by transcendent Technicolor.

Etaix's clown sensibility is captured in a wonderful scene where he, in the lead role, tries to remember whether he met his wife-to-be - played by real-life first wife Annie Fratellini (of a famous circus family) - on the terrace or inside that bar. One central set-piece is a surrealistic dream: Godard's Week End (1967) played out in motorised beds.

The sequence begins with Etaix's character, married Pierre, dreaming of his beautiful new secretary, Agnes. His bed wheels itself out of the marital bedroom and into the wider world (pictured), reminiscent of those beautiful closing scenes in two films separated by generations and temperaments: Fellini's I Vitelloni (1953) and Roy Andersson's You, the Living (2007). They're some of my most-loved sequences in all cinema, to which I can add a new favourite.

Asked for his advice to would-be directors, Etaix's answer could be translated as make what you love, or do what you love. A whole new audience is set to fall in love with his recently restored work; certainly every director should now be expected to perform sleight-of-hand tricks during Q&As, as the soon-to-be 82 year old did.

His debut feature, Le soupirant (1963), screens at the Ciné Lumière tomorrow and, on this showing, I can't recommend it enough. I shall return to Pierre Etaix.

Friday, 12 November 2010

The Golden Age of Wireless: the best synthpop album ever?

The burgeoning of synthpop acts in the late 1970s through early '80s didn't produce many great albums; the music from that period by artists like Depeche Mode, Gary Numan, Human League, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and John Foxx is best experienced on greatest hits compilations. By this point, Kraftwerk had released their most influential work, and classic albums by Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys and Erasure, for instance, were a short while off. Other British acts were, however, mining a rich seam of electrosoul - from Heaven 17's Penthouse and Pavement (1981) through Yazoo's Upstairs at Eric's (1982) to Cupid & Psyche '85 by Scritti Politti.

Against this background came a debut that was very different from everything around it. The first inkling I had was heralded by the opening lines of a single: 'Switch off the mind and let the heart decide/ Who you were meant to to be'. It was a musical challenge. Set against a soundscape of navigation bleeps, Windpower wasn't the first single by English musician Thomas Morgan Robertson but, from the moment those heavily programmed synth drum sounds kicked in, you were hooked.

The cover of the album from which it came, The Golden Age of Wireless (1982), features a mock-up of one of those old illustrated magazine covers, this time featuring Robertson - or Thomas Dolby as he rechristened himself, legal suits apropos the sound system notwithstanding - as a lab technician, skull cut away to show a glowing egg shape. As exemplified by the intro to Windpower, The Golden Age... is fascinated by those currents crackling over our heads (Airwaves); he's a keen sailor and the album conjures images of tramp trawlers on the North Sea, as well as pilots making solo air deliveries, and even those post-apocalyptic motorways created many years later by Danny Boyle in 28 Days Later. (I remember Raymond Briggs's When the Wind Blows coming out around this time and its drawings would also be a good fit.)

These scenes are striking in their isolation but the tracks are about movement, too, notably Flying North, with its insistent tchk, tchk, tchk drum sound (now spelt !!!): 'Metal bird dip wing of fire/ Whose airlanes comb dark Earth/ The poles are tethers we were born in... Down with the landing gear/ Up goes the useless prayer' - tremendous! While Numan was transcribing the dreams of JG Ballard into his own fantasies - nowhere better than on the post-punk Tubeway Army (1978) - Dolby was creating a future built on an antique heyday of technology and history, personal and otherwise. She Blinded with Me Science made No 5 in the US Billboard chart and was added as the album's upbeat opener; Dolby also cuts loose on another single with a female subject, Europa and the Pirate Twins.

The sea washes back for the final tracks: One of Our Submarines is built on sounds you'd associate with a sub (Dolby's uncle died serving on a submarine in World War II) while Cloudburst on Shingle Street builds slowly ('I've been a cork in the ocean, been bobbing in the North Sea') to a choir repeating the title. Using very synthy synthesizer sounds, Dolby creates a much warmer soundscape than his contemporaries, a good fit for the broken relationships and end of empire he ponders here. Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode are acknowledged masters but Dolby created a coherent masterpiece: the stand-out album of a golden age.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

The five best electropop albums, ever

I thought about calling this post 'Was 1990 the best year for electropop, ever?' but two choices fluffed it up.
There used to be an argument that an era's defining music came at its midpoint - so, for the 1980s, that came with Live Aid, for the '90s some might say it was Definitely Maybe. Others, though, manage to be ahead of the curve, setting out to define a decade, and beyond, from its start…

1. Behaviour, Pet Shop Boys (1990)
You won't be surprised I've put this first. For their fourth album of original material, Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant decided to return to working with a single producer for the first time since their debut, Please (1986). The duo decamped to Harold 'Axel F' Faltermeyer's Munich home studio, where afternoons were spent sampling the former Giorgio Moroder-programmer's draught beer; in contrast with much contemporary pop built on digital samples, they would use analogue synths. From opener Being boring through to closing number Jealousy (the first song the Boys wrote together) it's uniformly brilliant, with the sole exception of How can you expect to be taken seriously? (later paired as a single with their cover of Where the streets have no name/ Can't take my eyes off you). While Being boring was the group's lowest charting single up to that point it's become a live favourite, heralded by that funky, skittish intro; Behaviour also produced my favourite PSB single, So hard, and some of their best lyrics: 'Tell me why don't we try/ Not to break our hearts and make it so hard for ourselves?'

2. Violator, Depeche Mode (1990)
This is a remarkable album, most notable for singles Enjoy the Silence (with its iconic video) and Personal Jesus (covered by Johnny Cash) but boasting many other great tracks. I was intrigued to read that Pet Shop Boys used Violator as a benchmark for Behaviour. Like that album, Violator makes a lowkey start, with another single, World in My Eyes; producer Flood (who had previously worked on such electro classics as Erasure's The Circus and Nine Inch Nails' Pretty Hate Machine) immediately sets out the album's very precise sound, typified on Halo, Waiting for the Night, Blue Dress and Clean. I wonder if it's a template the band have tried to replicate for their more recent albums, though without such strong songwriting (or bass, it can sometimes feel). It works best in its use of nuanced vocals and percussive noise, giving way to brushes and guitars for one of my favourite tracks, The Sweetest Perfection, the rockier Personal Jesus - and then there's Enjoy the Silence. The Mode have never been better.

3. Technique, New Order (1989)
Whereas a couple of the albums here
- Behaviour and Chorus -
sport a deliberately retro manifesto that means they still almost sound futurist, Technique was both ahead and very much of its time. I would have sworn it was released after Behaviour and Violator though it hasn't aged quite so well. Pet Shop Boys are well-known for underpinning great pop songs with contemporary club tropes (Can you forgive her? from 1993's Very album springs to mind, the only pop song I know whose title is taken from a novel by Trollope), but the only album other than Technique I can think of that so absorbs dance culture successfully in a pop idiom is The Beloved's Happiness (1990, natch). New Order harnessed the acid house boom and the Manchester foursome immersed themselves in the Balearic scene (the album was partly recorded in Ibiza), while managing to preserve Peter Hook's distinctive basslines (All the Way) and their own roots (Love Less). Round & Round prefigures True Faith while stand-out opener Fine Time includes those bleating sheep samples prevalent in the ambient scene. Great lines, too: 'Hey, sophisticated lady... You've got love technique'.

4. Chorus, Erasure (1991)
Erasure followed the massive success of the gloriously OTT Wild! (1989) - featuring Drama!, Blue Savannah and Star - with the back-to-basics approach espoused by Pet Shop Boys' Behaviour. The opening, title, track is all bleeps, bloops and burrs, in service of a tremendous pop song; catchier still is Love to Hate You, which has the audacity to open with a crowd going wild(!) and harks back to some of the greatest, campest, disco classics. All the artists here are fascinated with remixes but Erasure chose some of the oddest collaborators to rework the singles from this album, notably for the Am I Right EP (including The Grid, below, and tremendous Warp-ers LFO). Since then, the duo's output has been somewhat patchy, which may have lead critics to miss out on the unrivalled songcraft of I Say I Say I Say (1994), Erasure (1995) and Nightbird (2005).

5. Electric Head, The Grid (1990)
Another duo, making quite a different sound. I wouldn't say the debut album by Dave Ball (ex of Soft Cell) and Richard Norris is underrated, instead underknown. I hesitated between the aforementioned Happiness and Electronic's self-titled debut for this slot but Electric Head is hugely influential. The Grid did become more poppy in successive albums 456 (1992) and Evolver (1994) but this has many mindblowing, sampler-delic moments: A Beat Called Love, This Must Be Heaven, Intergalactica and Dr Celine. Floatation, their first single, is the band at its most blissed out and serene, and makes a fine pairing with The Beloved's The Sun Rising (the two bands shared a record label, EastWest).

Monday, 8 November 2010

Retrospective: Pet Shop Boys' 10 best b-sides

Celebrating 25 years of Pet Shop Boys and the pop duo's new singles compilation, Ultimate.

1. After the event (b-side to Did you see me coming?, 2009)
One of Pet Shop Boys' best songs, I have no idea how this ended up as a b-side, it's utterly beautiful. It's built on a circular background of synth chimes that means that you can put it on repeat - I have done, often - and it segues into itself; it grows towards the end with a backing chorus of 'come on, come on'. Lyrically, it appears to be concerned with the pressures of urban life ('Drilling, always someone drilling'; 'The school run has begun/ Mothers all arrive, each in a four-wheel drive') and being oversensitive ('Sometimes someone gets upset/ Doesn't hear the laughter'), followed by Princess Diana's funeral: 'Suddenly someone dies/ Everyone's overreacting, with clichés and bad acting/ Misty in the rain, flowers in their cellophane… ' Lovely, just lovely.

2. The resurrectionist (I'm with stupid, 2004)
I don't like the a-sides of either of the top two songs here; the b-sides are far superior. This song is about nineteenth-century bodysnatchers and I hope I'm right in saying it was inspired by Sarah Wise's book The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave-Robbery in 1830s London. They would dig up corpses and sell them to hospitals for medical research; the song namechecks a couple of pubs where the bodysnatchers used to hang out: the King of Denmark and the Fortune of War. I love the topographical content; it's rare you can trace the outline of a city (in this case London) from a song: 'Crossing Blackfriar's Bridge to Guy's/ Then back to Bart's for a better price… I met a man down Thieving Lane… On Newgate Street we saw a hanging'. Considering its subject matter this is a remarkably upbeat song - Pet Shop Boys' b-sides tend to be cheerier than their album material - and this is guaranteed to put a spring in your step.

3. Don Juan (Domino dancing, 1988)
This was written by Neil Tennant before he met Chris Lowe and is famously about the crisis in the Balkans in the 1930s: 'King Zog's back from holiday, Marie Lupescu's grey/ And King Alexander is dead in Marseilles.' It's quite cryptic and, from a minimalist start worthy of Miserablism (b-side to Was it worth it?, 1991), goes all cinematic, led by the lyrics: 'The man who will cover for Don Juan's old soothsayer/ Films for a Warner brother or Mr Goldwyn-Mayer/ Think of his starlet, how much will he pay her?' The climax of a string of great b-sides, stretching back to I want a dog (reworked for the Introspective album, 1988) and Do I have to? (revived for the Pandemonium tour).

4. We all feel better in the dark (Being boring, 1990)
According to Tennant in the sleevenotes for Behaviour: Further listening 1990-91, this is 'the most lustful song the Pet Shop Boys have ever recorded'. Lowe stars as a sort of e-ed up Rex Harrison: 'My body surges with energy/ Shivers down my spine/ I look deep into your eyes/ And I know that you'll be mine' with the title softly repeated by Tennant. There is a laid-back, piano-laden remix by Brothers in Rhythm that features the sound of a woman climaxing instead of Lowe's vocals, which is available on the Disco 2 compilation. What times those were.

5. Blue on Blue (Minimal, 2006)
This is tremendous but wasn't easy to listen to initially (it was released on DVD!). I hesitate to say it's got some of Tennant's least inspired lyrics - 'Look over there/ Sky meets the sea/ Blue on blue' - as they work so well, lifting a track that could be backing for an item on Tomorrow's World. Even more contrarily, it is almost like an instrumental, comparable to other PSB-sides Music for boys (DJ Culture, 1991) and Euroboy (Yesterday, when I was mad, 1994), the latter memorable for its brilliant, mad, Afro-Cossack samples.

6. Delusions of grandeur (A red letter day, 1997)
Another hugely upbeat number, based around a chord change from Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. 'The idea came from the book Hadrian VII by Baron Corvo, who was an embittered English writer living in Venice at the turn of the century,' according to Tennant. 'His book is about an Englishman with megalomaniac fantasies who becomes pope.' Again it has a sort of chiming base, piano stabs, backing choirs possibly borrowed from the album with which it coincided (Bilingual) and a sample that sounds as if it comes from the start of My October Symphony on the Behaviour album
. A cheery insight into the world of Kim Jong-il, perhaps: 'They said, "We don't understand you"/ And I want revenge'

7. I get excited (you get excited too) (Heart, 1988)
A great song for going out (coming out?) based on the Oscar Wilde quote, 'We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars'. Tennant claims, 'It's never entered my head it had any sexual connotations at all.' Originally recorded with Bobby 'O' in New York, it's about the lure of the Big Apple. It's one of PSB's 'party' b-sides, exemplified elsewhere by the great pair of songs that accompanied Numb in 2006: Party song ('We want a party song with a good-time lyric') and Bright young things ('Lucy's wearing vintage/ Boy's in a rented tux').

8. It must obvious (So hard, 1990) & Bet she's not your girlfriend (How can you expect to be taken seriously?/ Where the streets have no name, 1990)
These two tracks were recorded at the same time, between sessions for the Harold Faltermeyer-produced Behaviour; It must be obvious would fit very well into the analogue sound of that album. These songs share the theme of hidden sexuality - approached very humorously in Bet…, which was inspired by George Michael, apparently, as well as Tennant's experience of going out with a beautiful woman at school in Newcastle. Pet Shop Boys' best songs about being gay, they work as tales of unrequited straight romance: 'Everyone knows when they look at us/ Of course they do, it must be obvious/ I've never asked you now I suppose/ That you're the only one who doesn't know'.

9. Your funny uncle (It's alright, 1989)
A terrifically poignant track, inspired by the funeral of the friend whose party features in Being boring. It's a tone the group strikes again in the untitled closing track on Very (1993) and another lovely b-side, Hey, Headmaster (Can you forgive her?, 1993). Your funny uncle was paired with One of the crowd, one of Pet Shop Boys' very English, funny songs, sung by a Vocoder-ed Lowe ('When I go fishing with my rod/ I often get that urge'), much as Jack the Lad accompanied Paninaro on the back of Suburbia (1986).

10. The ghost of myself (New York city boy, 1999)
In which the Boys wig out, and another song with (this time autobiographical) mentions of London locales: Café Picasso on King's Road, nearby Flood Street and the V&A. It's tempting to imagine the vocalist wandering back further, geographically and temporally, to the earliest track I'll mention here, That's my impression (Love comes quickly, 1985): 'I went looking for someone I couldn't find/ Staring at faces by the Serpentine'. Other b-sides where PSB rock include Disco potential (Somewhere, 1997) and The truck driver and his mate (Before, 1996) which, says Tennant in the sleevenotes to Bilingual: Further listening 1995-1997, is 'a song about male bonding'.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Geoff Dyer and Michael Ackerman

I'm very excited to be starting Geoff Dyer's new collection of essays, Working the Room (Canongate), not least because it solves a question that's been bugging me for a time. I tend to judge books by their covers, and have been known to buy multiple copies of the same work simply because I'm taken by the alternate jackets. I have duplicates of a couple of books by Dyer - this is a coincidence; I don't do it that often - but have always regretted not picking up a US imprint of his novel Paris Trance for its striking cover image (detail, pictured; it had a terrible jacket in its initial UK versions), nor could I remember the name of the photographer.

One of the shortest pieces in Working the Room reveals the name of the man behind this blurry, sexy shot: Michael Ackerman. It also features another similar picture (Untitled) of a naked person bent over, hand gripped in front of face, perhaps scooping up water, or giving a blow job for all you can see. It blew me away in much the way Dyer reacted when he first encountered Ackerman's work: 'The pictures were subtly erotic, incredibly intimate and, as can happen when you are exposed to certain works of art, I felt as if something in me had been waiting for them. It was like falling in love.' The series he saw was called Paris, France, 1999, which almost lent him the title for a book, presumably.

Though the author doesn't mention Ackerman in his survey of American photography, The Ongoing Moment, the photographer does feature in Dyer's last novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. In the novel's second half - Death… - the unnamed narrator finds Ackerman's book of photos of Varanasi, End Time City, in the hotel where he is staying: 'They were like pictures of the inside of the photographer's head while he was here, or later, while he was remembering it, or while he was asleep, sweat-drenched and dreaming about it.'

This is the kind of brilliant insight you'll find in Dyer's essays; his journalism always contains one line that turns perceived thinking on its head and is worth the price of admission. (In a review included in the latest book, he breaks down the title of Ian McEwan's Atonement into its constituent parts: 'at-one-ment'. I don't share Dyer's admiration for that novel's stylised nature, but I hesitate when I read his assessment: 'McEwan… seems to be retrospectively inserting his name in the pantheon of British novelists of the '30s and '40s.')

There are many reasons why I love Dyer's writing - not least because he writes so well: he's fluent, captivating, endearing (is this what they call man love?) - but I also share many of his fascinations. He namechecks many of my favourites: Jacques Henri Lartigue, Rodin, James Salter, Denis Johnson, John Cheever, WG Sebald… There's a beautiful photo by Miroslav Tichy (Untitled, again), who I hadn't heard of before but about whom I immediately want to read and find out more: I trust Dyer's judgement.

Typically modestly, he writes in the introduction: 'I see I keep coming back to Rebecca West or John Cheever or DH Lawrence when I'm writing about other people: they constitute the core of my personal canon, the writers I can't do without. The fact that Robert Frank keeps coming up as a point of comparison when I'm talking about other photographers might be a symptom of the author's inadequate frame of reference; or perhaps it shows that there is no getting away from him (I meant Frank but perhaps the same is true of the author).' Which is pretty much how I feel about Dyer, and why I keep coming back to him - here, and here, and here. Well, you get the picture.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Gangway: The sequel, finally

As this is my 100th post over the two blogs (my, erm, 'stronger', film site is here), I thought it was about time I followed up my first effort. Having become fascinated with Danish pop group Gangway, I decided to go to Copenhagen and meet the group's main songwriter, Henrik Balling, helped by the generous email introduction of Brian Iskov, the man behind fan site That's Gangway. At no point did Balling ever question what made me track him down; he probably figured it was best left unasked.

He met me at my self-proclaimed 'sweet' hotel, though there was something about the area that made me uneasy. 'This used to be the red-light district,' Balling announced as, dark coat flapping round his knees, we walked to a nearby café. Drug addicts sunbathed on the stone square in front of us, where a bright yellow box was marked with a pictogram of a needle and syringe. Balling laid out a cigarette packet and lighter, and wrenched off his coat to reveal a white T-shirt, holes at its shoulders. At first he was reticent, not unreasonably in the circumstances, but soon he opened up, revealing someone passionate, knowledgeable and deeply thoughtful about pop.

Balling was given his first guitar when he was 11, on the day The Beatles split up; you might think they were a huge influence but his passion was heavy metal. 'The first time I started buying albums, that was Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and a lot of Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Led Zeppelin and all that,' he says. 'I still like hard rock a lot.' He puts the contrast between his influences and songs down to Gangway vocalist Allan Jensen: 'Allan has a very soft voice so I couldn't really write hard rock for him. If he'd been a different singer I would have written different songs.'

Structurally, Gangway's songs are classic pop songs but the perspective is unusual: they are novelistic, often written in a voice, and about characters (take the cavalcade of oddball neighbours in track Here's My House, for instance, from the 1988 album Sitting in the Park: 'The man next door's playing games with his daughter/The girl upstairs is always shouting 'bout demons'). It's a unique way of writing that seems to have sprung from a frustration with homogeneous pop product and as a way to turn around any shortcoming Balling may have felt as a songwriter. 'I realised very early on that I couldn't actually write songs like the really good, clever songwriters like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen or John Lennon. I'm not a poet so I had to do something else.'

Balling was reading Alberto Moravia, Italo Calvino, Milan Kundera, Witold Gombrowicz and Thomas Mann, who had an advantage over him. 'Sometimes it's a problem if you're writing rock'n'roll, if you say "I" it's always yourself. When you write a novel it's normally someone else, so you can have someone who's a sadistic, right-wing doctor [but] if you do that in a rock'n'roll song, everyone will think that you are a sadistic, right-wing doctor. That annoys me sometimes.'

To the consternation of their contemporaries, Gangway sang in English: 'Everybody else was singing in Danish in those days and we thought they were uncool. It was not a conscious decision to sing in English it was just that everything we'd ever listened to in our lives was English. It's weird but it didn't sound natural if we tried to sing in Danish.'

Balling is also interested in classical music, reading biographies of composers he likes such as Stravinsky, Delius and Purcell. 'I've always listened to a lot of classical music and that's where a lot of my music writing comes from. I think Neil Tennant [of Pet Shop Boys] does that as well, and I think Paul McCartney did that. I'm not saying I'm as great as them but there's some similarities that come from that somehow.'

Success at home came quickly, peaking with their fourth album, Happy Ever After (1992), which sold around 40,000 copies (pretty good for a country whose population is one tenth the size of Britain's). By the time of seventh album That's Life (1996), sales had tailed away, leaving only a greatest hits Compendium (1998) to follow, for which the group got back together to record two final songs: 'That was a nice way to end it.'

Though there was never any conscious plan to their career, the band's failure to break the English-speaking market grates, 'because I think we were very close,' Balling says. You can sense how frustrating it must have been not to receive the acclaim they deserved from a territory in whose language they were singing, whose very best pop music they were emulating and to whose contemporary bands they were the equal, if not better. 'One of the reasons I think we didn't do it was it was very easy for us in Denmark. We should have moved to England, at least to show the record company that we really wanted it, like A-ha did, like all the bands that made it.'

We decide to head for a floating bar Balling suggests, to make the most of the summer evening. 'It's not something that keeps me awake at night, it's fine. But sometimes when I talk about it, I think we could have done more.'

POSTSCRIPT A few years ago, Balling and Jensen staged an intimate reunion gig in a Copenhagen bar, where they ran through an extensive set covering Gangway's 14-year career. In part due to the group's success in Japan ('I don't know how that happened'), there tends to be sporadic talk of a box set or reissued greatest hits but nothing has so far come to pass. Jensen made a very poppy solo album, One Fine Day (2001), and Balling continues to write new material, as well as producing. The Myspace page for his brilliant new band, The Quiet Boy, is here.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

London's best cinema screens

I'm excited by the hype surrounding TRON: Legacy, which is due out Christmas-time. When Tron first came out in 1982, my family lived around the corner from the Odeon Marble Arch. At the time it was probably one of the most impressive screens in London and my friends and I trooped there five times to see Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner whizzing round their ZX tracks.

The Odeon Marble Arch has since been spliced and diced into a multiscreen, like most venerable picture houses, and I've been trying to work out if there are any big screens remaining in London that have survived fairly intact. Chelsea Cinema is perhaps one, the largest of the Curzon screens at 713 seats dating from the early 1980s, though it is part of a much larger cinema that was replaced by King's Road Habitat. (The Gaumont Palace had a capacity of more than 2,500 and the current auditorium is where the old cinema's balcony used to be.)

Curzon Mayfair is my favourite large art-house cinema left in the capital, a Grade II-listed building from the '60s, though even this lost its rear stalls - where I remember watching a glorious reissue of Lawrence of Arabia with my dad - to form a second screen in 2002. Another Grade II-listed cinema is the Electric, on Portobello Road, which opened in 1910 and underwent a thorough, thoroughly bland, refurbishment nearly 10 years ago.

The turn of the last century was a golden age for new cinemas (watch out for these anniversaries): in Brixton, the Ritzy (1911), has had many screens added, but retains much of its charm in the foyer and main auditorium. There's the Rio (1915), Dalston, which is largely unchanged in layout since remodelling in 1937 despite a refurb in 1999. Other contemporaries include Islington's Screen on the Green (1913) and Notting Hill's Gate cinema (1911, though the building whose ground floor it annexed dated from 1861), while the nearby Coronet was converted from a theatre to full-time cinema use in 1923. Hampstead's Everyman is another theatre that became a cinema, in 1933, and another cinema, like the Electric, that has gone the sofa route. (You can sense my displeasure, can't you?)

In Leicester Square, the Empire and Odeon continue to hold their popcorn; on the South Bank there is NFT1, while the BFI Imax is a more recent purpose-built innovation (1999). The main screen in my local Odeon (pictured), in Richmond, still impresses, though the auditorium has been sequestered so you are sitting in the old balcony again, with other screens beneath. The recently refurbished Ciné Lumière, in South Kensington, should be cherished as a rare, single-screen repertory cinema. (As is the Riverside, in Hammersmith, though it's part of an arts complex.)

My most missed screen? That other Lumiere on St Martin's Lane, where I frittered away the best part of teenage holidays, indulging Peter Greenaway, among many others. It couldn't have had a more contrary new life: after lying dormant for many years, in 2006 it was turned into a gym.