Friday, July 1, 2016

A New Day Yesterday

And so last week a four-decade-long political and socio-economic timebomb - merrily helped along past critical mass instability by years of deregulated financial devilment and venal personal greed by large segments of the British population - erupted off the back of two detonators provided by European Union membership. Britain will never be the same again in terms of the balance of our political classes - the European Project in turn lies in total disarray due to grotesque mismanagement and sneering arrogance.

This blog, as a small and very humble contribution to British and Irish social history,  has of course touched base often with much of the toxic contents of the aforesaid device and as brought to you by our nation's unique class divisions - the Ponzi property scam, banking criminality, the cultural denigration of the Old Labour working class communities, population transfers with concomitant senses of rank entitlement in tow, imbecilic celebrity worship, stagnant private sector wages, selective historical amnesia buried within the Northern Ireland peace process, the deconstruction of London as a national capital city, cultural marxist overload in advertising and the mainstream media, asset stripping, hard working professionals lodged in squalid rental accomodation for a king's ransom, lack of career opportunities and pathways for social progression, permanent austerity and the North-South divide. We lived in a very happy contented land last Wednesday.

Back in the mid-Seventies off the back of the Ulster Workers Council strike - another political earthquake which followed upon a democratic political mandate remember  - the Marxist writer Tom Nairn's The Break Up of Britain had of course touched base with national political fractures as galvinised by an Ulster at war and the question of devolution for the Celtic peripheral of the UK in Scotland and Wales. The political shock of last week underscoring how the endgame all along - for those with insight to see the lie of the political land in the past 20 years - was going to be focused on the English core of our nation.

Surely any society living through this strained degree of disconnectivity with the past - from consideration of my own great-grandfather's experiences on the Somme front with the Royal Irish Rifles exactly 100 years ago this morning through to the memories of a Seventies childhood of community, warmth, home, decency, place and belonging - is not fit for purpose. No amount of social media screeching, awkward friendship fallouts or generational fractures can take away from this. If anything it merely underscores the hopelessness of ever scientifically fusing north, south, east and west when nobody cares to know where the centre is situated or the mechanics of what makes it mechanically and emotionally tick.

From what I can garner from the order of battle my great-grandfather was in the second wave of soldiers attacking the Schwaben Redoubt on 1st July 1916 - he must have seen sights of hell's own creation that morning in Flanders as the Ulstermen progressed further than any other body of infantry on the Allied front and paid the price of 5,500 casualties including 2,000 dead. The two pictures accompanying this blogpost are of northern Irish soldiers from the Royal Irish Rifles and the Royal Irish Fusiliers. So remember the Protestant and Catholic fallen of a then British Ireland today as well as the brave men who returned to a deeply unsympathetic future on these islands - never forget the sacrifices of the 36th Ulster Division and the 16th Irish Division.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Belfast Burning - April/May 1941

I watched this city burning with a bitter scarlet flame
                     And I heard the banshee sirens when those big black bombers came
        But we kept the sea lanes open under Churchill's mighty plan
                     Till the victory day when you danced away round the Ould Black Man

The Ould Black Man was a monologue performed by the Ulster comic actor James Young at the Group Theatre in Belfast's Bedford Street in the late Sixties - it can be heard on his third album It's Great To Be Young which was released in 1968. The eponymous subject is the statue of the 19th Century Presbyterian leader Henry Cooke on Great Victoria Street and his musings on the city's changing social complexion  - from the heavily populated and industrialised early part of the 20th century through to the swinging youth culture of the time.

The lines quoted above refer to the four Luftwaffe attacks on Belfast in April and May 1941- the second of the raids on Easter Tuesday caused the single highest death toll for any aerial bombardment during the Blitz on Britain outside of London. 900 men, women and children were murdered in one of the least protected cities in the United Kingdom. This particular raid also left 1,500 people injured and 50,000 homes destroyed - fatalities were also caused in Derry City, Bangor and Newtownards on that 15th of April 1941 night.

An ecumenical service of commemoration was held last month in Belfast on the 75th anniversary for the dead of the Belfast Blitz - alongside the unveiling of  plaques at the Falls Road Public Swimming Baths and the central St George's Market which would both be used as temporary morgues. Other plaques have been erected near the scenes of significant death tolls around the city such as Percy Street on the Shankill Road where thirty died when a landmine struck an air raid shelter. Percy Street lay on the Protestant-Catholic interface in West Belfast and that night many Shankill Protestants sheltered in the Clonard Monastery on the Falls Road.

A BBC microsite on the Belfast Blitz includes four incredibly well made five minute-animations which reference many of the events now enshrined in the folk memory of the city - the possibility that Luftwaffe bombing patterns were focused on residential areas because of the misidentification of the Belfast waterworks as the docks, the destruction of many potentially dangerous animals at Belfast zoo (although a baby elephant was secretly looked after each night in one female keeper's own home), the aid given by the east coast fire services of Eire to their fellow Irishmen and the independent Unionist MP Tommy Henderson's assurance to the Stormont establishment that the sectarian mixing going on in the Ulster countryside between the working classes who had fled the city had clearly lead to a firm conclusion by all that "the government is no good."

Both my parents were in Belfast on the night of the Easter Tuesday raid as children and both of my grandparents' homes suffered serious structural damage in the north and west of the city, My father recalls being brought to the basement of his local primary school in the Oldpark district from where he could see the local church burning and that the end terrace house on his street was completely destroyed with the death of an entire family group.  The four raids destroyed eleven churches, two hospitals and two schools across the city in general as well as severe damage to industrial infrastructure.

The story of the Belfast blitz is covered in great detail in a definitive study by Brian Barton from 1989. It was it was also discussed in a full chapter - Many Fires Were Started - of Robert Fisk's 1985 classic history of the respective neutral and belligerent statuses of a politically divided Ireland... In Time Of War. The Blitz in turn had provided the background for the author Brian Moore's superb novel The Emperor of Ice Cream in 1965 - Moore having served in the air raid warden services in North Belfast at the time and with the book juxtaposing Irish Republican glee at Britain's geopolitical mistfortunes with the mass murder that ensued in 1941 on the streets of proletarian Belfast. The late Moore is little discussed now though I remember well listening to an interesting lecture he gave in the early Nineties at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts on his Troubles thriller Lies of Silence.

Philip Orr's moving history of the 36th Ulster Division - The Road to the Somme - references a Shankill Road family who refused to leave the area after 1916 off the back of two family members who were reported "missing, believed killed" in Picardy and their wish to remain in the house in hope of their physical return. On the anniversary of the first day of the battle on 1st July the family always flew the Union Flag from their house in memory of the fallen - as indeed did my own great-grandfather for that one day alone in respect of his comrades from the 15th Battallion Royal Irish Rifles. Orr references how their house was destroyed during the 1941 blitz but on the first day of July a neighbour organised some local teenagers to emplace the flag on top of the rubble in order to maintain the continuity of the tradition.

As the BBC animations show, one of the main aerial routes the German planes took on their way to attack the great port city of Belfast was northbound along the coast of the beautiful Ards Peninsula by Strangford Lough - one of the most idyllic parts of the British Isles to this day. Architectural destruction of central Belfast over the course of the attacks was extremely severe on the third of the major raids in particular - the "Fire Raid" on the night of the 3rd of May.

Less than thirty years later an unprecedented sectarian conflict was to continue the destruction of the city centre and bring it to the point of social extinction and societal obliteration. A conflict whose outplay is today epitomised by the common sense, warmth and humanity of the working people who healed the breach and moved on as opposed to a Troubles legacy now apparently owned by dry academic verbiage that denies human agency or the misreading of history at all costs.

Much is yet to be gleaned in future from the course and consequences of the Spring 1941 German air raids on Belfast as to how a life or death struggle engendered class solidarity across Belfast's religious divide and one unforgettable gesture towards national reconciliation - this as sadly opposed to how the fossilisation of cultural identity in Ireland by the Forties would irrevocably steer society into sterile social relations and bloody conflict alike,

Messrs Hancock and Rimmer

Revisited two truly great British movies over the recent Bank Holiday that in different ways reflect very stark modern-day realities in the United Kingdom - Tony Hancock's 1961 The Rebel and Peter Cook's 1970 The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer. Hancock's movie was the sixth most successful British film of that year at the box office while Cook's political satire was a commercial and critical failure - having had its release held back so as to not coincide with the General Election of that year when Labour's Harold Wilson lost to Edward Heath's Conservative and Unionist Party.

Whereas the latter half of The Rebel tends to fundamentally stall in the main - and I personally have never seen the appeal of Hancock's second and final film The Punch and Judy Man of the following year - the earlier segments of the movie remain utterly joyous. Hancock portrays a thoroughly disgruntled and soul-destroyed banking clerk who dreams of the bohemian life and one day leaves surburban London commuter hell and goes for it in cool France. The scene where he is down to his last sous in a Boho Parisian cafe and becomes so inspired to be even within hearing distance of impassioned artistic debate all around him is priceless. The hook of the movie being that his utterly crap, infantile and shitty art suddenly becomes seen as valid cutting edge product off the back of his own hamstrung idiotic misinterpretations for the awestruck Beatnik cognoscenti.

The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer sunk Peter Cook's career in one fell swoop as a solo headline performer though alike Cook and Dudley Moore's 1967 Bedazzled time has been very kind to this work. The movie is essentially the story of a marketing and PR genius' rise to prominence within political Conservatism - without ever breaking sweat or questioning the moral codes of society in truly psychopathic fashion.

The cast of both films are interesting in turn - The Rebel has John Le Mesurier as Hancock's dreary City boss and one of the angry artistes in the cafe in the beginning is a young Oliver Reed. The Cook movie has a great peformance from Le Mesurier's Dad's Army superior Arthur Lowe as an advertising manager whose cushy life is about to be obliterated by the amoral Rimmer down to the point of having to sell his own furniture and car under his wife's nose in the wake of his cool rival's career light flight. Other well known cast members include Graham Chapman, Ronnie Corbett, Diana Coupland, Michael Bates, Ronald Fraser and Denholm Elliott - all of whom are now deceased.

In reality Tony Hancock and Peter Cook were complex personalities on so many fronts and lived fundamentally foreshortened lives - Hancock committed suicide in Sydney in 1968 at the age of only 44 while Cook died of alcohol-related liver damage in 1995 when 57 years of age. Both The Rebel and The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer do seem so clearly relevant to irreversible societal changes of the modern day and especially with regard to modern London - vile greed, grotesque media spin, avarice that has altered the national DNA forever, the distancing of the general public from the political classes, staggering social immobility and the retardation of creative endeavour among them.

Indeed recently while on a walk through the bland remnants of Soho to see the new blue plaque to Mary Millington in Great Windmill Street I noticed a chain of art shops in the West End whose frontage was emblazoned with the legend TURN LONDON INTO A CITY OF ARTISTS. The irony being almost overwhelming in a city whose experience of one of the biggest population transfers in global history in the past decade now overlaps with what would certainly appear to be an imminent
collapse in property values off the back of grim Ponzi mischief that will end in very big and very bitter tears. In turn having a creative talent today that is even the equivalent of being in Birkenhead in 1959 with a flashy Rickenbaker and a good voice may alas count for sweet fuck all in the scale of things.

Check out both of these films at some point with regard to a devastated London, a lost England and a mangled value system.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Ricky Warwick - Tank McCullough Saturdays

Northern Ireland musician Ricky Warwick is due to shortly release two solo albums - one acoustic, one electric and seven years after 2009's Belfast Confetti. Just heard this incredible song from the forthcoming Hearts On Trees release about a long disappeared industrial Belfast and the old Saturday heroes. A truly amazing piece of work.

Friday, February 12, 2016

La Vision Lamentable

Northern Ireland's twin historic associations with the Eurovision Song Contest are Clodagh Rodgers and Phil Coulter. Rodgers was born in Ballymena in Country Antrim and released many albums and singles for Decca and RCA in the Sixties and Seventies. Her most famous tracks were probably 1969's Come Back and Shake Me and Goodnight Midnight - both top five hits. She was Britain's Eurovision entrant in 1971 with Jack in the Box and received IRA death threats for the decision to do so. She came fourth.

After Eurovision the extremely attractive Rodgers had only one more British hit in Lady Love Bug though became popular on television variety shows with her impressions of contemporaries such as Cilla Black. Her career suffered a downturn after she walked out of the Meet Me In London show at the Adelphi Theatre on The Strand in 1971 on opening night. She was sharing the bill with Tommy Steele and the show was only saved through the exertions of - yes you guessed it correctly - Scotland's comedy legends Hope and Keen who I talked about some posts back.

Jack in the Box of course was a basic Toytown rewrite of Sandie Shaw's Puppet on a String schlager which triumphed in 1967 and was penned by Derry's Phil Coulter. Shaw was one incredibly cool, stunningly beautiful and truly talented performer right the way through from her first number one in 1964 with There's Always Something There To Remind Me to her collaborations with The Smiths in the Eighties on Hand in Glove and Jeane. Sandra Ann Goodrich came originally from Dagenham in Essex - alike Dudley Moore and the fictional and non-fictional characters called Dave as immortalised in separate songs by Morrissey and The Stranglers.

There is some wonderful footage on youtube of Shaw performing the Eurovision song and its b-side Tell The Boys on a British television show - also an earlier performance on German TV of the songs Tomorrow and I Don't Need That Kind of Loving. Shaw's smiling, effortless and easy connectivity with the audience is obvious - this country has quite clearly fallen a long long way since those golden days auf allen Fronten.

The fractures and chaos of the past 12 months within North Western Europe and particularly in France Gall, Benny and Bjorn and Nicole's homelands need not be detailed here. Needless to say what deconstruction of national identity - and parallel political co-ordination - commenced with the Council of Europe in 1949 and the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 would perhaps have been better to let lie with Eurovision itself in 1956.

How amazing to think back to the 1975 British referendum on continued membership of the Common Market alone and all the nutcases who warned about the consequences ahead - Enoch Powell, the Reverend Paisley, the National Front Disco, the scary Provos, Tony Benn and the Communist Party.

Europe indeed seems now to be politically disassembling at such speed  - alike London's current soul destroying endgame following upon the high-stakes Ponzi gamble with its own future - that my mind these days seems to often dwell on our own kin and blood who left these shores over the years for North America, Australasia and Southern Africa. Thinking about the reasons why they left and the dread similarity with our own daily social and financial struggles - invariably class-based at root to nobody's bloody surprise.

Indeed the literally ludicrous nature of the European project's collapse even makes me dwell more and more on the real sadness of that tangible and yet clearly premature cultural divorce between the British Isles and North America over the past two decades.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Elvis' Golden Records

The previous blogpost considered how both Sgt Ernie Bilko and Sgt Elvis Presley - as reflections of a decade that is so beyond reach and memory now - still effortlessly display creative dynamics of an ilk that puts the modern day to mortifying shame. I first heard Elvis' proto-punk A Big Hunk O' Love racket on the album whose sleeve featured the famous image of the singer in his gold lame suit - Elvis' Golden Records Volume 2 which is more commonly known by its 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong subtitle. Elvis appearing so handsome on the cover he barely looked human.

There were four albums originally released in this compilation series - in 1958, 1959, 1963 and then in 1968. The Golden Records collections contain some interesting material that have remained well under the radar across the years for the more general listener - Lieber and Stoller's classic Don't, the fantastically catchy Witchcraft, Pomus and Shuman's A Mess of Blues and the She's Not You lounge
b-side Just Tell Her Jim Said Hello.

The year that the fourth volume was released Elvis would enter the now long-defunct American Sound Studios at 827 Thomas Street Memphis to record some of the greatest popular music ever in Suspicious Minds, The Grass Won't Pay No Mind, Kentucky Rain,  Power Of My Love, In The Ghetto and much much more. Oddly enough RCA never released another volume in the series in his lifetime - Volume 5 arrived only in 1984 and included his greatest Seventies song of all in Burning Love.

The other Elvis who could clearly fill eight to ten sides of Golden Records released his autobiography Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink in late 2015 and it has proved to be a fascinating insight into both his own life history and that of his parents and grandparents. It is a very funny self-deprecating read and often incredibly moving in turn.

Declan Patrick McManus was born in 1954 in Paddington in West London and moved to Birkenhead on Merseyside in his late teens. His paternal and maternal family roots of course lie on the island of Ireland - home to some of the most unique and original folk wit on earth. This to be considered in tandem to the uniquely jet black humour located within the maritime and industrial triangle of Belfast, Liverpool and Glasgow.

That especial kind of wry Irish humour and lateral thought often travelled easily across the Irish Sea in popular culture and despite the political conflicts of the 20th century. This underscoring the pointless social fractures and animosities between the working people of the two islands - divisions that rampant historical revisionism is doing nothing to heal within Northern Ireland itself today. This in large part thanks to the selective blindness of the flaccid, unrespected and finished British mainstream media.

Growing up in Belfast in the late Seventies I remember buying both Elvis Costello and the Attraction's Chelsea and Pump It Up vinyl singles on the Radar label. This would have been 1978. After that he released Radio Radio and then a song directly inspired by witnessing the sheer youth of British squaddies on duty in downtown Belfast when playing a concert there. It was named after the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Wales between 1653 and 1658 -  Oliver's Army.

My knowledge of his material essentially ends with 1994's Brutal Youth album but regarding that - and the thirteen albums that proceeded it - the quality of his output is utterly extraordinary in scope, deep intelligence and eclectisim. The 1978 debut single Less Than Zero about the British Union of Fascists leader and former MP for Harrow Oswald Mosley, Pump It Up's b-side Big Tears,  the theme from the Channel 4 series Scully in Turning The Town Red, Girls Talk which would be covered by Dave Edmunds and Rockpile and Goon Squad about the heavy price to be paid for anybody not playing the straight game in life. There is Night Rally, Green Shirt, White Knuckles, Clubland, Man Out of Time, You Little Fool, Shipbuilding, Brilliant Mistake, I Want You, London's Brilliant Parade, My Science Fiction Twin or just the sheer overwhelmingly high quality of songs on 1980's  Get Happy alone - The Imposter, Possession, King Horse, Man Called Uncle and New Amsterdam. Tieing in with an earlier blogpost - and on the 1989 album Spike - Costello's Any King's Shilling analyses the quandries of national identity and military service within British Ireland in a period of revolutionary upheaval.

I saw Elvis Costello and Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve perform in the mid-Nineties at the Royal Festival Hall in a very very different manifestation of London. In fact since my last reference to the changing landscapes of the capital it would appear that the Soho mainstay Stockpot is now gone on Old Compton Street and Kettners restaurant on nearby Romily Street is following suit. Even Hampstead Heath these days resembles Flanders Fields in terms of the scale of physically and spiritually overwhelming reconstruction work afoot.

Costello left Britain in the early Eighties and still lives in the USA today - after his 2005 peformance at the Glastonbury Festival he claimed that he had no desire to play in the country again: I don't get along with it. We lost touch. I don't dig it. They don't dig me. Have a listen to Costello tonight if you are thinking of leaving the confines of Austerity Britain yourself in the near future - remember what a creative hotbed London and these islands used to be and why you would never have once even considered the notion.

As an afterthought to all the above, in a two-part BBC documentary filmed some years back the late Terry Wogan travelled across Ireland both north and south. The final scenes were filmed outside the residence of the President of Ireland at Phoenix Park Dublin. During the period when the Presidency was held by Mary Robinson - who had resigned from the Irish Labour Party in 1985 in protest at the strategic implementation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement as affecting the rights and dignity of the Unionists in Ulster - a light was permanently kept lit in an upper storey window for all the people of Ireland who left voluntarily or had been pressured into emigration, That light underscoring that it would always and forever remain home for the departed and their bloodline. This indeed was the subject matter of a very moving monologue Salute to Belfast performed by the comic actor James Young at the Ulster Group Theatre in the city and released on the album Young and Foolish in 1967 some years before widespread civil disorder and urban terrorism erupted.

I wonder how many people in Britain tonight can relate to Elvis Costello's sense of cultural disconnectivity? Furthermore, how many lights are ever likely to shine at dead of night in memory of living, leaving, passing and human worth in a land of such greed and avarice as this now is?

Monday, January 25, 2016

Fort Baxter Memories

Let's go campers. It's 10am. Time to start the day.

And so a brief diversion from the torrid affairs of our island home to another place and time entirely. One of the fondest of television viewing memories for many British people over the age of forty lies with a late Fifties American comedy which ran for four lengthy seasons on CBS Television and won seven Primetime Emmy Awards. The show ended while still highly successful -  in terms of popularity and viewing figures alike - and never actually made it through to the Sixties in this specific format.

The Phil Silvers Show - originally titled You'll Never Get Rich - and commonly known as Bilko or Sgt Bilko was shown over 143 episodes between September of 1955 and September of 1959 and revolved around the money-making scams and general mischief making of the Mess Sergeant and his platoon of eejits at military bases in Roseville Kansas and then in California.

It was transmitted in Britain from April 1957 onwards on BBC Television through to the show's cancellation - it would then be repeated on both national channels during the Sixties. During the following two decades however Bilko became a mainstay of late night programming on the BBC though I recall it being shown on the weekday early evening slots on BBC2 which often used to show familiar Laurel and Hardy three-reelers of the ilk of Below Zero, Brats, Any Old Port and Beau Hunks. Around the mid-Seventies in turn I clearly recall Bilko being lodged in the middle of summertime schoolkids' programming in amongst the likes of The Banana Splits, Camp Runamuck, Zorro and Why Don't You.

The profile of the programme has risen of late with the long overdue 2015 release of all four seasons on DVD and the ongoing work of the British Phil Silvers Appreciation Society.  Personally, I hold Bilko in the same regard as I do Elvis Presley's final recordings prior to his own army service in West Germany  - the tracks  A Fool Such as I, I Need Your Love Tonight, Ain't That Loving You Baby, A Big Hunk Of Love and I Got Stung which he cut on June 10th-11th 1958 in RCA Studios Nashville. Utterly timeless, driven, passionate and perfectly crafted echoes from a decade which feels like several lifetimes away today in terms of female style and the buzz of big city life alone. Interestingly one episode of the comedy saw the arrival of the rocker Elvin Pelvin on the base to Bilko's undisguised delight.

Bilko fits into classic comedy archetypes of a frustrated man out of time - Basil Fawlty the misanthrope being lodged in a daily interface with the phlistine public in Fawlty Towers, Sales Rep Tim Canterbury's purgatorial weeks on a Slough trading estate in The Office or Father Ted Crilly's substitution of what should have been a long and happy family life for that of the Catholic church in Father Ted. Bilko basically should have been in political charge of the whole of the USA instead of organising poker games in what is by far the greatest situation comedy in television history.

The popularity of the programme inspired a run of DC comics,  advertising for Camel cigarettes and later the cartoon Top Cat.  Silvers himself would star in the fourteenth Carry On film Follow That Camel in 1967. This Sahara-set movie was filmed at Camber Sands in Kent - which Squeeze sang of on the wonderful Pulling Mussels From A Shell. Silvers' relationship with co-star Kenneth Williams was apparently chilly at first alike the snow that fell on the beach and held up filming. The movie also starred the legendary Charles Hawtrey - referenced by John Lennon in Twickenham Studio dialogue preceding the last great Beatles song Two of Us on the Let It Be album - and the beautiful Anita Harris whose 1965 Bacharach and David London Life single captured the world's greatest city before its long irreversible decline into spiritual comatosity.

When George Best died in 2005 the Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson acclaimed the  Belfast star for the million memories he had left behind - all of which were good. Bilko was and IS   that good today - reflective too of times when Britain sailed so close culturally to America in comparison to any European pull and when the affection was often thoroughly mutual.

So as January 2016 limps to closure in Britain take some time out from permanent austerity and cultural marxism to check out daily life at Fort Baxter and Camp Fremont if you haven't already. You will not be disappointed. It is heartwarming to think that in some parallel universe Bilko and his motor pool buddies are still creating havoc, fleecing the naive and chasing women - either way, with the exception of Terry Carter who played Private Sugie Sugarman, literally every person you will see on that black and white screen today  is sadly now dead.

Permission to speak freely Sarge.
Permission? What, are we in Russia? Say anything you want.

Saturday, January 23, 2016


We are now living our lives through interminable weeks of existential dread, constant angst and the clinical obliteration of vintage pathways to social mobility. This exemplified in modern London with the grim pension timebomb awaiting millions of hard working - and often well paid - private sector workers trapped in the unregulated rental sector which devours so much dead money and which by right should be directed towards savings or even patronising the last surviving local butchers on the High Street at the weekend for retro-liver or cool fusion-sausages.

David Bowie's death has clearly emplaced a significant shadow across the beginning of another dreary and literally pointless groundhog year to come. Yet forging beyond Bowie's magnificent artistic output of the early Seventies - from Starman to TVC15 - for myself personally it is another song from that period that often penetrates the lunatic cultural marxist fog of mainstream media and the awkward mists of modern social observance to celebrate a lost Britain and a clearly soon-to-be forgotten people.

The antithesis of Bowie's mystic ramblings - across Crowley, the Kabbalah and Nietzsche - this particularly joyous combination of terrace chanting, glam stomping and Fifties romantic fluff would directly inspire what is arguably the greatest song in the history of punk rock. Yet ironically, alike the New Year's Eve European television comedy staple Dinner For One - a 1962 German recording of a Twenties British stage sketch which is virtually unheard of in this country  - the song is to this day largely unknown in Britain despite the band having ten Top Ten hits in the United Kingdom between 1971 and 1975.

Bay City Rollers' Saturday Night harks back to a period of British social history when the country was immersed in American culture from Starsky and Hutch to Hollywood action movies and from Marvel comic books to bubblegum rock. The cultural connectivity the average Briton would have felt for mainland Europe at this point would have been severely circumscribed so soon after the Second World War and with most male children of the period being raised on stories of Allied military glory in Victor, Valiant, Battle and Commando magazines before the sobering late-teenage rites of passage transition onto Sven Hassel Nazi pulp. Only ABBA's Agnetha Faltskog alone would eventually bridge this socio-political chasm in saint-like fashion.

A recent documentary about the Edinburgh group -  Rollermania - featured footage of the band peforming the track on American television. The song had been a flop in Britain in 1973 but got to Number 1 on the American Billboard chart two years later at the first attempt the group made to crack the US market.

It cuts to the quick of male teenage DNA of that time - a life guaged towards laughter, girls, physical attraction, friendship, washing your hair and making a bloody effort, young adulthood away from creepy and often violent teachers, dances, finding a life partner, smoking and drinking, working class communities and hope for tomorrow:

Gonna keep on dancin' to the rock and roll
On Saturday night, Saturday night
Dancin' to the rhythmn in our heart and soul
On Saturday night, Saturday night
I, I, I, I, I just can't wait - I, I, I, I got a date

At the good ole rock n' roll roadshow, I gotta go, 
Saturday night, Saturday night
Gonna rock it up, roll it up, do it all, have a ball
Saturday night, Saturday night

One must surely assume today - in a period when most children and adults under the age of 30 are catatonically connected to hand-held devices and idiot social media - that "a good ole rock n' roll roadshow" holds little attraction for many to getting off their arses, getting out the door into fresh air and trying to work on their personalities by getting their leg over.

Interestingly a BBC Northern Ireland programme in 2015 commemorating the 40th anniversary of the murders of three members of the Miami Showband in County Down between Banbridge and Newry - The Day The Music Died - incorporated a catchy track the band had recorded called Rock n' Roll Roadshow. Saturday Night in turn was co-written by Phil Coulter who would later write what is considered the definitive anthem of loss as surrounding the Ulster Troubles - The Town I Loved So Well.

Saturday Night's introduction of course directly inspired The Ramone's Blitzkreig Bop - Dee Dee Ramone having magnificently claimed that the group were as influenced by the Rollers, The Wombles and Shaun Cassidy as much as Iggy Pop, The New York Dolls and Alice Cooper. It garners so many memories for me of a period when British social culture - when guaged specifically to a youth demographic - was so encompassing in scope and attuned to market variables affecting pop, television, books, radio, comics, advertisements, toys and even food on such a highly creative and truly fun-packed level. However it also engages with that familiar melancholy that I often pick up upon when listening to British New Wave acts like Elvis Costello, XTC or Joe Jackson in particular nowadays when thinking of the current mauled and obliterated face of a finished London.

At my primary school in North Belfast The Bay City Rollers were without doubt the most beloved of all acts then marketed towards younger female audiences - beyond The Rubettes, David Essex and even The Osmonds. Understandably the rest of their material has little appeal to me beyond this one song though it is important to underscore that in that terribly difficult period of Irish history these five young Celts at least embedded a populist three-letter acronym into society that had nothing to do with murdering, maiming and generally hating the working classes of the other religion. I believe they played at the ABC Cinema in the city centre around 1975 for their legions of adoring fans - also the Tonic Cinema in Bangor.

The Seventies are often portrayed as the grimmest of times in popular television social histories that in turn present modern Britain as a country now luxuriating in broad affluence, sterling opportunity and exciting social fusion by comparison. The blatant fudging and misreading of British history in these smug, sickeningly bourgeois, sneering and politically skewed productions is too nauseating to dwell upon.

For indeed it was fundamentally a decade when only the working people of a then still-industrialised Britain kept the country alive in spirit and soul  - just as they had physically secured our cultural existence thirty years previously in time of war from the Arctic convoys to the Normandy beaches. Conversely those who have clearly destroyed our life security today have no doubt never met a working person in their lives and even if they had listened to the popular music in those days long ago - from BCR to Bowie and T Rex - they would never have really heard it.

They do not know us and they certainly will not miss us - Remember Saturday Night.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Men Shall Not Wholly Die - Messines Ridge 1917

Last week I read an interesting opinion piece in a Belfast newspaper that reflected upon one of the most sensitive and indeed politically inopportune of subjects in modern Irish history - the clear reticence of the Northern Protestant to morally equate the Irish Republican dynamics of the modern conflict since 1969 with historic fissures of yore between Unionism and Nationalism on the island.

This issue of course lies at the heart of political stasis in a Northern Ireland at peace yet is barely discussed in mainstream media alike two of the other unmentionables in the afterglow of war - the ongoing and indeed healthy existence of paramafia in Ireland and the clear historical revisionism being practiced by one particular political party with nauseating connivance of the British state broadcaster.

The latter came to a ludicrous and indeed quite appropriately post-modern head last week with one very popular BBC Radio Ulster programme garnering feedback on the creative legacy of David Bowie from a local politician whose party originated in a body who blew up my local Esso garage, Spar supermarket and newsagents in North Belfast the early Seventies. This at a point when Bowie was probably wearing a dress in Beckenham Kent, painting his fingernails and thinking about cool stuff like Kafka, girls and peace.

A timely airing indeed of an immovable historical quandry as the recent spate of Irish political anniversaries now reaches its apogee with the forthcoming 100th year anniversaries of both the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme - the foundation stones and indeed foundation myths of both the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland states.

Back on the 50th anniversary in 1966 - a year which commenced when I was not even one-month old - the tensions engendered in Northern Ireland by Unionist political mischief-making about potential Republican offensives lead to three Loyalist paramilitary assassinations of innocent Protestant and Catholic civilians and the path was thus paved to a quarter-century long conflict three years later.

This year is full of desperately sobering memories for the people of Ireland in regard to the political battles undertaken and the physical sacrifices made in 1916 by Ulster Unionists, Irish Nationalists and Irish Republicans at home and abroad. Yet beyond this milestone - and individual reflection upon both the horror, waste and destruction of the subsequent Black and Tan War, the Irish Civil War and the two civil wars in the North of Ireland - lies another sobering anniversary which conversely embodies so much human potential for a genuine shared future.

Much has been written in recent years about the military heritage of the Southern Irish army regiments of a then British Ireland - Neil Richardson and Kevin Myers' studies are both extraordinary overviews of this hidden history and are highly recommended. The volunteers of nationalist Ireland who served in the British Army may have been transfigured into dupes or traitors by the dictates of a certain foregone or random pathway of history but they were clearly as proudly nationalist as Carson's volunteer army were King's Men and they loved their country as much as any Irish Republican.

As discussed in other posts it was at the Battle of Messines in June 1917 - the military engagement preceding the Third Battle of Ypres (or Passchendaele) which in turn followed upon stalemate at the Somme - that soldiers of both the 16th Irish Division and the 36th Ulster Division fought side by side. Irish Nationalists and Ulster Unionists bound together within the genocide of the European working man. The initial bombardment of German lines and the detonation of mine-laid explosives created the loudest man-made noise in history at that point  - it felt like an earthquake in London and was even registered in Dublin. The battle itself to seize Messines Ridge was bloodthirsty on both sides - British military objectives were however secured.

The Irish Nationalist leader John Redmond's brother Willie was Westminster MP for Wexford and joined the Royal Irish Regiment which recruited in Tipperary, Waterford, Wexford and Kilkenny.  Redmond had been withdrawn from combat duties on promotion to the rank of Major but actively requested permission to engage in the frontline. The night before this battle - in which he would be fatally wounded - he spoke to every man in the 6th Regiment. The following day he was recovered from the battlefield by Ulster stretcher-bearers from the 36th of whom at least one was a member of the Orange Order. Richardson's history also notes that the Ulster soldiers contributed 100 pounds to Redmond's memorial fund and formed a guard of honour at his funeral. Both Irish Divisions also fought alongside each other later in the year at the Battle of Langemarck.

The 25-year long civil war in Northern Ireland brought nothing to that country beyond shame, hatred, psychotic violence, fear, infusions of bad blood and the destruction of one of Europe's great port cities. Beyond George Best, Van Morrison, Mary Peters, Alex Higgins and James Young few lights shone in the darkness of those wasted years in one of the most physically beautiful parts of the world.

Sadly one hundred years of Irish history in general since Flanders Fields and Sackville Street can be read in a not dissimilarly deflated, sterile and retrograde fashion. Yet for all the struggles and strains of modern day Ireland - from permanent austerity to high levels of immigration - Messines yet stands for something unique and clearly untested. There are of course a myriad of qualifications surrounding the subject but a core dynamic remains of released scope for both a new transcript of history and a literal transfiguration of Irish identity - that unless one wants to forge back to ancient considerations of a Pictish footprint on the Gaelic Irish soil to square an historical circle.

The Island of Ireland Peace Park stands today at the site of the Messines Ridge battlefield near Ypres in the West Flanders province of Belgium. Six hundred miles to the west - where the mighty Atlantic first engages rock and shore - may yet lie a font of decency, warmth and forgiveness in this economically broken and politically lost continent.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Bowie - Sunshine On The Wasteland

She's uncertain if she likes him ... 
but she knows she really loves him...
it's a crash course for the ravers ...
it's a Drive-In Saturday

Over the years I have always wavered in my memory between what was actually the first seven-inch vinyl single I actually bought back in the Seventies. I know I definitely purchased it at Smyth's Records on Royal Avenue in Belfast and it was either Golden Years/Can You Hear Me by David Bowie or A Glass of Champagne/Panama by Sailor - the latter some extremely catchy faux-Roxy for the schoolkids.

Today on Bowie's passing I have made an effort to finally confirm the release dates - Tony went to fight in Belfast on the track Star from Ziggy Stardust in 1972 and I picked up the two singles in that security fence-enclosed city centre three years later in 1975 with British soldiers on the street outside the record shop. Golden Years was released in November and apparently the Sailor track was as well. Hence my understandable confusion over the past four decades.

I followed Bowie's career with interest up to the mid-Eighties and the Never Let Me Down album - probably no other major musical artist with the exception of Neil Young and Van Morrison ever produced such high quality output over such an extended period from a late Sixties starting point.

Bowie's musical legacy is truly breathtaking in scope, merit and eclecticism - from Letter to Hermione to Running Gun Blues to the Hunky Dory outtake Bombers to Moonage Daydream to  Panic in Detroit ....from The Who cover Anyway, Anywhere, Anyhow to Big Brother to Win to Station to Station to Be My Wife. 

Bowie also resurrected the career of what would become one of the greatest of all British Seventies rock groups and indeed was an enthusiastic sponsor of another fantastic American band who should have become globally successful - Mott the Hoople and Carmen respectively.

I also saw him in concert in 1987 at Slane Castle in the Irish Republic when Humble Pie's Peter Frampton was his guitarist on the Glass Spider tour. Support that day was the late Stuart Adamson and the magnificent Big Country - very nice to see another memorial blog reference this. The weather was not kind for such an historic occasion and remained generally overcast. At one point however some weak milky sun broke faintly through the clouds over County Meath and the Boyne Valley. Bowie immediately moved to the right hand side of the stage and mimed for it to come out fully. It actually did. The gig ended with a performance of the cabaret Time from Aladdin Sane and two Eighties pop hits - Bowie got into his spaceship and I got the coach back north to a then-bitter oul Belfast City.

As for Bowie's affect upon the sexual politics of the time, my very old friend from London - who now works on the other side of the world - underscored to me today in a mail how the singer's embrace of Mick Ronson on the Starman performance on Top of the Pops seems innocuous enough now but of course at the time it came across to Middle England as the queerest and most outrageous thing imaginable. A literal sci-fi broadcast from a parallel Universe of the Damned:

I always loved Bowie's flirtation with gender definition and androgyny. A direct challenge to prevailing learnt attitudes in post-war, repressed Britain and beyond. Men were often men, but not all of them wanted to be the stereotype, nor indeed could live up to it. The day we get to a universal acceptance of freedom of gender expression it will largely have been Bowie to thank for leading the way: many boorish lads in their teens went around 'hating queers' but still buying Bowie, Bolan and Queen records. How's that for confusion?

So today the residual spirit of old London dissipates a significant degree further while - as upon George Best's death a decade ago - another chapter of British folk history comes to closure. Both of these men guaranteeing that next weekend would be very different than the one before.

Unique once-in-a-lifetime antidotes to the kind of straight life which is now being thrown up as the only low-risk pathway to the grave - lives without spark, wit, intelligence, erudition, individuality, suss, good humour, cool, originality or even sexual energy.

Good night David Robert Jones of Brixton SW9 - The Only Survivor of the National People's Gang.