Thursday 23 September 2021

Twenty-one in '21: Before We Was We

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading twenty one books in 2021. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

Before We Was We by Madness

9/21: Before We Was We by Madness

The blurb: In Before We Was We Madness tell us how they became them. A story of seven originals, whose collective graft, energy and talent took them from the sweaty depths of the Hope and Anchor's basement to the Top of the Pops studio.

In their own words they each look back on shared adventures. Playing music together, riding freight trains, spraying graffiti and stealing records. Walking in one another's footsteps by day and rising up through the city's exploding pub music scene by night. Before We Was We is irreverent, funny and full of character. Just like them.

The review: this is as close as we are likely to get to a collective autobiography of The Nutty Boys, one-time Invaders, Madness. Rather than regular prose, the book comprises recollections from all band members, chronologically ordered and grouped into chapters that follow the magnificent seven from 1970 right through to the release of My Girl, their third single and the point at which they felt they had "made it". And when I say not regular prose, I mean the whole book is in this format:

Before We Was We excerpt

There are pros and cons to this format. It doesn't read with the flow of a more conventional structure, however carefully interwoven the quotes are, but it does allow you to quickly identify seven similar but unique voices, and it does allow you to dip in and out of the book easily.

As for the content, well, it's an enlightening read, and I say this as someone who thought he knew a lot about the band already. Most of it concerns the band members' childhoods, all growing up in and around the same north London streets at a time when bomb sites were still a playground and there were only three channels on TV. What quickly emerges, aside from the basic commonality of being the same age in the same place, is the fractured home lives of the seven - you can quite see how being in a gang, and then a band, would have appealed to them all, the group mentality of it, us against the world...

And then there's the criminality, mostly petty but some not so: theft, mainly. But there are also burgeoning graffiti careers going on here, and jumping freight trains, drugs, breaking into gigs and cinemas... you name it, someone in Madness has probably done it, at some point. Time at her majesty's pleasure too. And yet they emerge from these recollections, not as deplorable figures or requiring sympathy, but as lovable rogues, chancers who have learnt and moved on. Of course that's the joy of autobiography, you get to paint things your own way. But it feels genuine... and it's very readable too, and at least as interesting as the later years in the book when the band are starting to happen, and records are getting made.

That's an interesting point, actually, for out of the twelve years or so covered by this book only the last three cover years when Madness were releasing records. The first nine years cover the formative experiences of the band, literally what made them what they were, and for all that make a fascinating social history of growing up in the Seventies, of being a kid in a London that still felt austere and post-war. On that basis, you don't necessarily have to be a Madness fan, or know much about their music, for this to be an enjoyable read. I hope there will be a follow-up, covering the heights of their early career, band members leaving, the break-up, "The Madness", Madstock and the National Treasure treadmill they're now on; I would certainly buy and read that. But I don't see how it can be more interesting than this.

The bottom line: fascinating look into a time and place that doesn't exist anymore, as much as genuine and engaging autobiography of a much-loved band.

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★☆

Wednesday 22 September 2021

A Simple Message

Matt "The Hat" James was the drummer in Gene. Not content with that, he has now surprised us all by using lockdown to write and record an album's worth of solo material, the release of which is imminent. Some old collaborators are involved - I think Stephen Street has produced the album, and Gene guitarist Steve Mason has played on four tracks. It certainly sounds a bit like him playing on this teaser track, A Simple Message, previewed by Matt on Soundcloud, but apparently it isn't (so what do I know?).

So there you go: drummer records literate solo album. What do you think?

Monday 20 September 2021

Twenty-one in '21: Two Tribes

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading twenty one books in 2021. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

Two Tribes

8/21: Two Tribes by Chris Beckett

The blurb: As a historian in the bleak, climate-ravaged twenty-third century, it's Zoe's job to record and archive the past, not to recreate it. But when she comes across the diaries of Harry and Michelle, who lived two hundred years ago, she becomes fascinated by the minutiae of their lives and decides to write a novel about them, filling in the gaps with her own imaginings.

Harry and Michelle meet just after the Brexit referendum when Harry's car breaks down outside a small town in Norfolk. Despite their different backgrounds, and Michelle having voted Leave while Harry voted Remain, they are drawn to each other and begin a relationship.

From her long perspective, the way Zoe sees their world is somewhat different from the way we see it now. Two Tribes becomes a reflection on the way our ideas are shaped by class and social circumstances, and how they change without us even noticing. It explores what divides us and what brings us together. And it asks where we may be headed next.

The review: I've read a bit of Chris Beckett before. He does a nice line in cleverly constructed and very plausible speculative fiction... the slight difference here is that the imagined future serves primarily as a vehicle for examining the mess we are in now. Okay, I suppose you could argue that a lot of speculative fiction does that, inviting you to join the dots between the now and some imagined dystopian hell. But Two Tribes imagines a future historian, looking back at these early years of the 21st Century with an academic detachment, albeit a detachment that falters as she becomes more engrossed in the entwined lives of protagonists Harry and Michelle.

I should also add, to save the time of any readers that aren't interested, that Brexit plays a massive part in this story. Harry and Michelle's romance plays out like a Romeo and Juliet for our times, with Leave and Remain replacing the Montagues and Capulets. So, cards on the table: I voted to remain in the EU. I have also been pretty scathing about the arguments of the average Leave voter, have despaired at the impact of Brexit, and have indulged in a fair amount of "See, I told you so, look at the mess we're in now" hand-rubbing at Leave-voters' expense. So it's a credit to this book, this work of fiction, that it has made me think about how and why so many people came to vote Leave more than almost anything else. Don't get me wrong, I still don't forgive Cameron for calling the referendum, and I certainly don't forgive people like Farage, Johnson, Cummings et al for campaigning to leave... but I can understand some of the Leave vote better now. That's something no amount of Guardian articles has managed for me...

There's a timely environmental sub-plot going on here too. An unspecified climate event has occurred sometime between now and historian Zoe's time; it is referred to as The Catastrophe. The fall-out from this is neatly illustrated with a succession of small details: parrots are more common in Zoe's London than pigeons; the preying mantis is a common pest; rising water levels have literally reshaped the country; and constant work on flood defences is essential but poorly-paid work for the slum dwellers of London's shanty towns. The historical perspective also allows incredulity to be expressed about our current way of life: on a number of occasions, Zoe expresses amazement that people in the 21st Century would drive around in personal vehicles that burned 4 or 5 litres of refined oil every hour. The implication is obvious, every time: we're making out own Catastrophe, right now.

There's more going on too - the central theme of Two Tribes seems to be how polarisation leads to separation and division, that when everything is black and white with no shades of grey (and no compromise) then the result will inevitably be conflict. Beckett drops this backstory in neatly, and historian Zoe lays the foundations for a civil war so consuming that not even The Catastrophe can stop it.

On the face of it, this is an easy read: Beckett's prose flows nicely, he creates a compelling and plausible future, and the two storylines (Zoe's, and that of Harry and Michelle) both keep moving forward - the pages keep turning. But it is also an uneasy read, making it all too easy to extrapolate our current situation, politically, socially and environmentally; for this reader, who already thinks that everything is going to hell in a handcart, Two Tribes will linger long in the mind, and prompt many an uncomfortable question whilst it does so.

The bottom line: well-written and all too plausible dystopia, and carefully-constructed, thought-provoking examination of the now, through the imagined lens of history.

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★☆

Friday 3 September 2021

Back soon

Technical difficulties

I'm off for a bit, to do this. Wish me luck. I'll see you on the other side.

Wednesday 1 September 2021

More new to NA... Bleach Lab

This, from Bleach Lab, dropped into my inbox today, and the best compliment I can pay is that it sounds a bit like a lost Sundays track, if Harriet (sigh) was singing at the lower end of her register.

The South London band have Stephen Street on production duties, and that has led to some Cranberries comparisons too, of course.

Whatever the influences, this is pretty good, I reckon - you can listen to this and other tracks at