Silent Running

Silent Running posterThroughout November the Guernsey Museum at Candie Gardens have been showing a series of films to coincide with their rather excellent Engage Warp Drive exhibition of science fiction paraphernalia and the Guernsey Arts Commission‘s exhibition of work by Chris Foss.

Following on from Forbidden Planet from the 50s and The Quatermass Experiment from the 60s, was Douglas Trumbull’s 1972 classic Silent Running – a film that, despite my being an avid wittertainee and it being one of the favourite films of Mark Kermode, I had yet to see.

Made in the wake of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, in fact by one of the people responsible for that films special effects, Silent Running exists as a parallel film in several ways.

The most obvious for me is that they are clearly both products of their time, with both strongly connected to the prevalent ‘counter culture’, either intentionally or otherwise.

While 2001 became a favourite for its trippy ‘stargate’ sequence and its ideas of expanded consciousness, Silent Running takes another tack, focusing on ideas of conservation and feeling very much the product of the so-called ‘hippy’ movement.

Bruce Dern and robots - Silent Running

Dern and two of the ‘robots’

Another way is in its visual style. While this is fairly obvious thanks to Trumbull’s involvement in the former, as 2001 presents a dark and stark image of space travel, in many ways, at least at first, Trumbull’s view is far more bright, colourful and comparatively homely, and certainly lighter, both visually and in tone.

The film centres on a performance by Bruce Dern as Freeman Lowell, a member of the crew of the Valley Forge, a ship carrying one of the Earth’s final forests (the earth having apparently undergone a Blade Runner 2049 like ecological disaster in the recent past).

Dern’s performance is a genuine tour de force as he spends most of the film acting alongside a trio of small robots (the clear forerunners to R2-D2) shifting from sympathetic eco-warrior through various stages until the film’s, in hindsight, inevitable climax.

Given the look of the film and the fact that it was made by a ‘special effects man’, Dern’s performance is all the more impressive as it gives the film a heart it could easily not have had and he is remarkably convincing in it.

Silent Running - Valley Forge

The Valley Forge and a sister ship

Credit for some of this must also be given to the actors inside the drone robots as they too manage to imbue near immobile boxes with surprising amounts of character, rather like their counterparts in Interstellar, but somewhat more modestly successful.

My one criticism of the film is that there are moments where it seems to sacrifice internal logic in order to further its thematic cause. While not a major problem as it leads to the film having a coherent feel and tone, there are moments where it jars, particularly for someone more accustomed to the more precise style of mainstream sci-fi that has come to the fore in the last few decades.

Silent Running Bruce Dern

Dern

Even with its generally ‘green’ message Silent Running does reach a climax that rather surprised me but again fits neatly into the post-Altamont-era making for a film that is undeniably great but that I feel will grow in my mind the more I think about it and with now inevitable re-watching.

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Fourteen Days in Trump’s America: Part 2 – Los Angeles, October 2017

Los Angeles from Skyspace

Los Angeles from Skyspace

Click here to read part one

On my last two visits to California I made the journey from the Bay Area to Los Angeles using the Amtrak Coast Starlight railway service. While an in places spectacular (if fairly slow) ride, having done it twice it felt a little like a wasted day to do it again, while also involving an early start and a late night.

This time then I made the choice of hiring a car to make the drive down the famous Californian coast highway. While the most famous chunk, through Big Sur and down to Morrow Bay, was out-of-bounds thanks to some spectacular landslides earlier in the year, I thought it still worth doing – and I wasn’t disappointed.

Picking the car up near Union Square in San Francisco meant the first half hour of drive was something of a baptism of fire having never driven a left hand drive car on the right hand side of the road before and being launched into city traffic.

Lands End Point Lobos

Lands End viewing point in San Francisco

By the time I reached the Lands End viewing point though, my nerves were largely overcome and after a brief stop to work out the radio system (Sirius XM Satellite radio is a godsend on a long drive, particularly the Lithium 90s alternative station) I set off along Ocean Beach and onwards towards Santa Cruz.

This stretch of coast road is hugely impressive with quaint sheltered bays, rousing surf beaches and many small communities dotted along the way. As I was aiming to drive all the way to LA in the one day I didn’t really have time to stop, but I would suggest if you have the time allow at least two days to make the drive if not more.

After lunch I joined the 101 freeway through the farming valley between Salinas and San Luis Obispo, the so-called ‘Salad Bowl of America’. While not the most fascinating scenery, it was my one real experience of one of those long, straight American roads you see in movies, the expanse of the land is astonishing and great to experience from ground level.

Channel Islands from Gaviota vista point

Channel Islands from Gaviota vista point

After San Luis Opisbo the scenery gets a little more exciting again and from Gaviota there’s another coastal stretch affording some amazing views of the Channel Islands and the oil rigs that sit just offshore.

This is followed by the beginnings of the sprawl of Los Angeles, via Santa Barbara – a fine city I’m sure, but I hit it at rush hour – then Oxnard as night fell leaving an exhilarating run along the Malibu coast in the dark and on to El Segundo, my home for the week.

While I had visited El Segundo before this was the first time I’d had any opportunity to properly explore the town. The first thing that struck was how, despite being a stone’s throw from a huge international airport and within minutes of Santa Monica, Venice Beach and even Hollywood and Downtown Los Angeles, it felt like its own entirely separate, comparatively sleepy, small town community.

Centred on a couple of streets (and yes one is called Main Street), it features a selection of local bars and restaurants and a polite but bustling feel, particularly I think given the fact I arrived as the baseball World Series was reaching its peak, with the LA Dodgers being one of the teams vying for the championship.

El Segundo Brewing Company

El Segundo Brewing Company

I also discovered, in the modest but inviting tap-room of the El Segundo Brewing Company, that they are brewers of Broken Skull IPA, the official beer of former WWE world champion Stone Cold Steve Austin.

Of course the forty-two cities of the vast dystopian sprawl of greater Los Angeles have a hell of a lot to offer so narrowing it down to a week is always going to be a challenge. With this in mind I focussed in trying to do as many different things as possible to my last visits, so I started out by heading south, an area I’d never really visited, and going to Long Beach, famed for its aquarium and harbour.

The drive to Long Beach, despite being largely based on the freeways that criss-cross this vast urban sprawl, was as smooth and simple as possible so I arrived at the Aquarium of the Pacific just before lunch and headed in, hoping to keep out of the midday sun that was even stronger than usual for LA thanks to an unseasonal mini-heatwave.

Rays and sharks at the Aquarium

Rays and sharks at the Aquarium

The aquarium itself features an impressive display spanning everything from the warmer tropical regions to the south to the colder, rougher seas to the north, along with touching on the natives of the river systems around the LA area (though I doubt much lives in the concrete canals of the LA or Santa Ana rivers that reach the sea near by).

While the likes of the sharks, rays, sea turtles and sea otters provide the most obvious visual highlights of the aquarium, it was the story of the rainbow trout and steelhead that particularly captured my imagination thanks to an explanation from one of the museum staff I entirely failed to remember the name of. While it may not look to exciting its well worth asking the staff on duty about the detail of this exhibit should you find yourself there.

Outside the aquarium is Long Beach’s tourist harbour area with boat cruises, fishing trips and seafront restaurants on offer along the stretch of boardwalk.

Queen Mary in Long Beach

Queen Mary in Long Beach

Adjacent to this is a precision manicured headland park area overlooking the estuary to the LA river (looking slightly more natural here than further upstream, though still very man-made), including the permanently moored Queen Mary cruise ship which is open as a hotel and museum.

Given the heat, I think, and the fact it was mid-week this area was near deserted and that gave it a slightly eerie feeling despite the picturesque views and the same was true of the shopping centre behind the waterfront.

I’m sure Long Beach, like all cities, must have a bustling heart but this was certainly not it as it felt more like a ghost town than anything else.

Los Angeles city itself nestles at the heart of the sprawl and is generally referred to simply as Downtown, bordered by freeways and the concrete channel of the LA river. As city centres go, it is a strange one and it’s clear to see, even now, how the writers of the likes of Blade Runner extrapolated this to their bleak future visions.

Lavish office blocks, apartment buildings and hotels stretch up to the sky making concrete, glass and steel canyons of the wide streets and, despite the relatively small area, it feels as much designed to be navigated by car as the whole of greater LA does.

Michael Jackson costumes at the Grammy Museum

Michael Jackson costumes at the Grammy Museum

This makes walking the streets a very strange and slightly on edge experience (see my previous blog for a bit of discussion as to why), our first stop over the weekend spent largely in the area though was the Grammy Museum, a part of the LA Live complex that includes a central convention centre and the Staples Centre arena, home of many events and sports teams including the LA Lakers and a run of WWE SummerSlam shows over the years.

While not as big as I initially expected the Grammy Museum packs a lot in over three floors of exhibition space. Starting with an introduction to the awards statues themselves and how they have developed over the years, it goes on to take you through a history of American music that could easily take up hours if you explored every facet of the several interactive displays.

Leaving the first floor you encounter an exhibit on how the Dobro style of resonator guitar is made that, while a little on the specific side, is still interesting, along with a look at the songwriters behind some of the biggest hits of the last hundred years, including some original notes from Woody Guthrie on his most famous song, This Land Is Your Land – a particular highlight for me.

Ella Fitzgerald Grammy

One of Ella’s Grammy awards

The next floor of the museum boasted a selection of Michael Jackson’s stage gear that is impressive to see in all its glory, but the highlight for me was an exhibit that, using a live recording from a Grammys show of the Dave Matthews Band, demonstrated how recording technology has advanced from wax cylinders in the 1800s through vinyl to Dolby home surround systems, and the now prevalent ear buds of MP3 players.

The museum also housed two special exhibitions during my visit, the first of which was a comparatively small but none the less interesting look at the career of Ella Fitzgerald with trinkets and mementos alongside elaborate dresses and photos of her performing with many other jazz greats.

The other, taking over the entire lower floor of the museum, looked at the LA punk rock scene and specifically the band X, who mark their anniversary this year. While I’m not hugely familiar with the band the exhibition was still fascinating showing how they developed and with a wealth of artefacts, photos and film of the band in their prime.

X posters at the Grammy Museum

X posters at the Grammy Museum

Also fascinating was a map of the city with the main venues for punk shows from orange county to Hollywood to Santa Monica marked (now mostly defunct) along with flyers for gigs from the late 70s punk heyday adorning the walls showing the expressiveness of the DIY scene and featuring the names of bands who went on to be international players.

While the mainstream entertainment side of things in Downtown might be centred on LA Live and the Staples Centre (the area was packed with cosplayers over the weekend for Stan Lee’s Comic Con as well), the rest of the area has a number of interesting places dotted between the downbeat looking jewellery stores and literal sky scraping high rises.

You’ve probably guessed by now I like a good bookshop and Downtown features a real gem in that regard with The Last Bookstore. Downstairs the store is relatively regular with bestsellers and some vintage special editions lining the shelves, alongside a modest vinyl and DVD section.

The Last Bookstore

The Last Bookstore

Upstairs however is where it comes into its own as the bookshelves become a maze spanning genres from sci-fi to political history through tunnels made of free-standing books.

It genuinely feels like you could lose yourself here both literally and figuratively, all making for a place that feels as much an attraction as a regular shop, and it’s a great place of pick up some reading matter related to the city so I took the chance to get some vintage noir and something by LA native Charles Bukowski.

Not far from The Last Bookstore stands the outcrop of Bunker Hill, while it’s now home to several tower block offices, the Broad Museum of art and the Disney Concert Hall, it was once a residential neighbourhood so the presence of the Grand Central Market at its foot makes some sense.

Now the market feels more designed to cater to the office staff for lunch and visitors like us on the weekends, but despite this has retained the bustle and charm of a real market place.

Grand Central Market

Grand Central Market

With many of the stalls now selling takeaway meals, a number do still sell fresh produce of various sorts and the place was packed during our visit.

It really felt like a microcosm of all the communities that make up LA with ‘street food’ type cuisine available spanning everything from pizza to sushi to noodles and probably a whole lot more besides making this one of the few places in Downtown that felt genuinely like part of a real living city and hopefully I’ll get to eat there on a future visit.

Across the street from the market is something that looks somewhat out-of-place but, at over a hundred years old, feels like a rare actual historical artefact in this constantly evolving metropolis, the Angels Flight railway.

Angels Flight with the US Bank Tower above

Angels Flight with the US Bank Tower above

Only traversing a distance of a few feet, the orange cars are useful for the fact they also take passengers up the near vertical incline of Bunker Hill’s south-east side, and for a dollar remains a nice taste of the history of the area that is otherwise almost lost at street level.

In contrast, towering over Angels Flight is the US Bank Tower, atop which is the viewing area Skyspace, 69 and 70 floors, and more than 1000 feet, up. With an introduction featuring some truly epic panoramas of the city from many vantage points, the actual views were a little hampered by an uncharacteristically misty day but being the highest I’d ever been in a building was none the less impressive – though I feel I’ll probably have to return some time on a clearer day to get the full effect.

In a lot of ways this blog has been looking at the real side of LA, which also included a brief visit to edges of Santa Ana in Orange County for Tiger Army’s Octoberflame show, so I’ll save the other side of the city, arguably its more famous aspect, for my next (and hopefully final) blog on this trip…

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Speakeasy – Lost Souls

Speakeasy - Lost Souls album coverMod revival supergroup Speakeasy returned in November 2017 with a third full length album, Lost Souls, on the Heavy Soul Records label.

Following on from Trouble and their self-titled debut the album continues their trend of mixing classic rock ‘n’ roll with elements of mod, punk and soul.

The band is made up of members of The Purple Hearts, The Chords, The Risk and Long Tall Shorty (amongst others) including Simon Stebbing, Mark Le Gallez, Buddy Ascott and Ian Jones.

My review appeared in The Guernsey Press on Saturday 18th November 2017, you can read it below:

Speakeasy - Lost Souls - review - 18/11/17

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Murder On The Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express posterThere’s often talk of tapping into different audiences with films, with one that comes up with fair regularity being the somewhat patronisingly named ‘grey pound’.

On paper Kenneth Branagh’s take on Agatha Christie’s famed mystery, Murder On The Orient Express, falls firmly into this category with its cast of familiar faces, well-known name and the distinctly Sunday night period drama feel of its advertising.

For the most part that’s what the film delivered, following an elaborate bit of scene setting introducing Branagh as the magnificently moustached but awkwardly OCD detective Hercule Poirot with one of his famed pieces of sleuthing in Jerusalem, before he joins the titular train ride, with the rather impressive list of passengers, one of whom doesn’t last the duration.

Story-wise Branagh and co do a good job of building the sense of mystery and tension on the train even before the murder occurs, and, for the most part, this cranks up nicely throughout until the inevitable final reveal.

Not knowing the story before hand I didn’t feel anything was spoilt as it went along and the mystery was nicely maintained.

Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot

Branagh as Poirot

While the cast list was impressive including Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Willem Defoe, Penelope Cruz and more, aside from Branagh most didn’t really have a huge amount to do, but they came together to create a nice ensemble of characters centred on Poirot, but each with their own enjoyable idiosyncrasies.

This version of Poirot meanwhile feels a little like a more sedate version of Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes, more due to the slightly irreverent and socially awkward feel than the slow motion bare knuckle fighting sense.

Where the film lost its way somewhat was the pace, at times it felt like it wanted to be a very deliberate murder mystery tracing Poirot from clue to clue as he put the pieces together and this is when it was at its best.

Johnny Depp

Johnny Depp

At other times however it gave in to bursts of action that felt a little out-of-place or speedy montage’s that didn’t really sit well with the rest of the film, along with an unfortunate habit of having people telling us how good Poirot is at his job rather than relying on his impressive sleuthing to make that point.

In the end though it balanced out ok and, while the climactic explanation scene was a little clichéd and ridiculous (though I suspect this may be the source of the cliché), it came with a spirit that was, to probably stretch a metaphor to breaking point, like the cherry on top of one of the cakes it seems Poirot is so fond of.

So, what Branagh has created is just that, a nice, enjoyable confection that won’t over stretch the mind or sit especially heavily on the memory, but does a good job of bridging the gap between older and younger audiences and I can see becoming a longstanding Christmas evening favourite once it makes its way to TV.

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Fourteen Days in Trump’s America: Part 1 – San Francisco, October 2017

San Francisco skyline

San Francisco as seen from Alcatraz

Ok I’ll admit that given the fact I’m talking about a visit to California, specifically in this case San Francisco, we are far from the heart of Trump’s America. But, given the inescapable nature of his presence over the last twelve months (and more) it’s hard to avoid it even when visiting this most liberal of cities.

In that regard, and don’t worry this won’t be all politics and will settle into more travelogue based things soon, a few things did spring to mind while exploring the city. Primarily amongst these was the continued growth in the number of homeless people.

While it’s fair to say that during Obama’s time in office this isn’t something that decreased, it seems the number of people, particularly men of colour, living on the streets of the city has expanded even further.

Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz island

Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz island

With one notable exception, these people seemed largely harmless (and I don’t have any evidence the less harmless person was actually homeless) but it remains a disturbing trend, particularly in light of the other trend I witnessed, and both of these were echoed in Los Angeles as well.

That other trend is how the higher end of the property market has expanded.

In San Francisco this was most notable in the sudden escalation of skyscraper development with three structures that, two years ago looked almost stagnant in the South of Market area, having been completed or near completed in the last two years.

In Los Angeles, meanwhile, new high-rise offices and hotels have appeared along with an increase in the ‘gentrification’ of the downtown area leading to a really stark contrast between those on the street and those in the towers – particularly poignant given the recent release of a new Blade Runner film which I saw twice during this visit.

With all that in mind, back to my trip.

Mission Dolores Park

Mission Dolores Park

For the second time I had chosen to use AirBnB for accommodation in San Francisco, but, rather than staying in the area of North Beach/Downtown as before, I headed further west, to the Castro side of Mission Dolores Park.

While Castro is famously the city’s gay district, the area between it and Mission Street to the east, roughly within three blocks of the park, has become something of a hip area in recent years and this was obvious right away with the selection of smaller business that have sprung up focussing on fresh produce and moving away from the usual chain stores (though of course the likes of Starbucks, Walgreeens and Seven-Eleven are never far away).

These seem most prevalent along 18th Street with coffee shops, cafes, restaurants and grocery stores aplenty.

The ones that grabbed my eye in particular were the Bi-Rite Market grocery store that had the feel or a real local store with a great selection of speciality produce from cheeses and meats to teas, wines, and more.

Pride flags at Castro

Pride flags at Castro

Another was the Tartine Bakery that was a fine place for breakfast and had a selection of impressive looking cakes and pastries, even if it appeared to be near permanently packed.

On a couple of occasions I ate at the small Pizzeria Delfina that had a great, bustling atmosphere and very nice traditional style pizza, along with a very relaxed service style that was refreshing in light of the often painfully forced service offered elsewhere in the US.

A couple of blocks up, at 20th and Valencia, was a great bookshop as well, part of a small chain dotted around the city, Dog Eared Books. While not as iconic as City Lights (which of course is always a must to visit) this came with a similar feel and charm celebrating the independent side of things while also stocking the bigger names.

Not too far away on Church Street, near the intersection with Market, was another bookstore specialising more in second-hand and older titles, Aardvark Books, that also featured a rather friendly cat.

Mission San Francisco de Asis

Mission San Francisco de Asis

Along with the evident history provided by the Mission de San Francisco de Asis and more recent historical structures makes for a fascinatingly varied area to explore.

Mission Dolores Park is a hub of all of this and, on the warmer days, it was packed with people relaxing in the sun, playing ball games, walking dogs and anything else you could think of doing in a municipal park, creating a great friendly atmosphere that permeated the area.

By the time of reaching Mission Street, and the Mission District that surrounds it, this atmosphere had changed slightly and, while still generally friendly, took on a slightly more down at heel vibe. While I would like to explore this area more, it’s one I would do in day time and, in this instance, led to one of the few disappointments of my visit to the city with an at best average meal at the otherwise strongly reviewed WesBurger ‘N’ More restaurant.

Heading to the west the Castro district remains one of the brightest and friendliest in the city with a genuinely cosmopolitan and welcoming atmosphere from its many cafes and bars that open onto the street, with a real sense of modern life mixing with the history of the area. Even the homeless guy who seemed to have a regular pitch outside Walgreens had a sense of this with his various signs playing up on the area’s obvious more liberal political stance.

Cable car

Cable car

On my first full day in the city I headed to the tourist and commercial hub of Union Square, mostly to pick up a Muni Passport for the week (a must for anyone without a car as for $40 you can use any of the cities main bus and tram lines as much as you like), but also to indulge in some of the more typically touristy things, starting with a ride on the cable car tram from its Powell and Market turnaround point.

Riding the cable cars is a must and, while about the most typical of things to do in San Francisco after Alcatraz, is great fun and gives you a view of real cross-section of the city as it goes from the bustling commerce of Union Square through the edges of China Town and some more residential areas of the city centre, all the way to the sea front park at the end of the Fisherman’s Wharf tourist district.

I hopped off at the top of Lombard Street, the highest point of the ride, to soak in the views and see this famously winding block of street.

Lombard Street

Lombard Street

While busy with tourists doing the same it is a unique sight and has great views both down to Alcatraz and across to Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill.

If you really feel brave and fit find your way to the bottom of the hill on Columbus Avenue and walk up – I stuck with walking down a block then heading down towards the coast, stumbling on the cute little Fay Park garden in the process (the city is dotted with these from small ones taking up a house plot to ones a block or two in size).

Coming out at the Maritime Park, with great views afforded across the bay from the Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz and some old ships that have been converted in museums, I made my way along to Pier 39. While not especially edifying and packed with tourists seeking out food, souvenir tat and little more, there are a few interesting little things on offer including the Musee Mecanique which I also visited on a previous trip and the always entertaining and fascinating sea lions on their pontoons at Pier 39.

Sea lions at Pier 39

Sea lions at Pier 39

I followed this by taking one of the vintage streetcars (also covered by the Muni Passport) around the Embarcadero for a gentle ride to the Ferry Building, another bustling tourist spot but a little more relaxed than Pier 39 with some interesting, less naff looking, shops and cafes and a local produce market in the old harbour transport terminal.

Another area of the city I headed to this time, which I had previously not explored at all, was the westerly most point, at Ocean Beach.

Stretching miles down the Pacific coast of the peninsula the beach is genuinely impressive, even with mist hanging in the air.

Along with some great views along the coast it features some impressively graffiti’d sea defences and, somewhat uncharacteristically, a pair of traditional windmills emerging from the end of Golden Gate Park that lies on the other side of the coast highway.

Ocean Beach

Ocean Beach

While I’m not really one for sitting on the beach, given the mini-heat wave that was starting up many were taking this opportunity, though few were venturing into the surprisingly rough and famously chilly sea – I guess the potential for sharks could be a deterrent too, though there were some surfers out amongst the waves.

From Ocean Beach we picked up a bus along the length of Golden Gate Park to the famed Haight-Ashbury District – home of the original 1960s ‘hippy’ movement. While it’s a little on the touristy side, it has a certain tatty charm that evokes something of its most famous time and clearly still attracts some of the same people it has for the past 50 years or so, and, if anything, has become less commercial over the years since my first visit back in 2006.

Another place I headed this time that I hadn’t before is to be found in The Presidio out towards the Golden Gate.

Yoda fountain

Yoda fountain

The area is a lush green one with residential and business space nestling among leafy glades and a surprisingly large and unspoilt forested patch, but where I was interested in was in the grounds of Lucasfilm’s extensive ‘campus’ that includes the company’s offices and Industrial Light and Magic space.

As well as the business side of the now Disney owned company it features an iconic statue of Yoda as well as a publicly accessible lobby with artefacts from the Star Wars films and a collection of vintage movie posters and an impressive cabinet of awards trophies.

Of course no trip to San Francisco is really complete without a visit to the infamous island prison of Alcatraz. Once again I was lucky to get a trip with clear weather, leading to some great views of the city and the bay and the historical side remained fascinating even on a return visit (you can read more of my impressions of the island in the blog on a previous trip).

Alcatraz island

Alcatraz island

Away from all that and a visit to the Academy of Science for their Nightlife show which is also well worth a visit and this time featured an exploration of our attempts to discover and communicate with extra terrestrial life, San Francisco remains one of the most interesting and welcoming cities I’ve visited with new things to explore in a place where walking doesn’t make you feel like an alien and with one of the best public transport systems I’ve found anywhere.

And all that recommendation even with the event of a random pepper spray attack on one of my tram trips that led to making a statement to the very helpful local constabulary and meeting some very friendly firemen and paramedics as it seemed if you call one you get the lot!

While in the city I also caught the band Dinosaur Jr at The Regency Ballroom, you can read my review of that by clicking here

You can see more of my photos in a public album on Facebook by clicking here

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The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds by John Higgs

The KLF - Chaos, Magic and The Band Who Burned A Million PoundsWhere does one start with telling the story of The KLF (variously known as The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, The JAMs, The Timelords or The K Foundation)?

That is exactly the question that John Higgs starts with in his 2012 book exploring the story of the musical career of Bill Drummond (King Boy D) and Jimmy Cauty (Rockman Rock) between the mid 1980s and mid 1990s.

What he chooses to do is something rather akin to what the pair did in their careers and ignore any past conventions of their chosen form to create a narrative representative of them and their inspirations while also, it seems, getting to the heart of the matter far more than a basic list of facts might.

The band are intentionally shrouded in mystery and, through an exploration of their work that touches on everything from magic thinking to Discordianism to straight forward journalism, Higgs at once tells the story from their early theatrical and musical endeavours to the titular act of ‘burning a million quid’ via being a chart topping dance act.

John Higgs

John Higgs

While the basic story is fascinating and engrossing, where the book really succeeded for me was in its revealing of things i hadn’t previously been aware of, but now am quite fascinated to explore.

For a start there’s the somewhat confusing back catalogue of The KLF (and their various alter egos). While officially deleted by the band themselves, a lot of it is on YouTube and the like, though even there navigating it feels at best randomly chaotic and you’ll likely find a few songs far more easily than the rest – particularly their unlikely team up with country legend Tammy Wynette.

Then there is Illuminatus! the book that inspired, or was it inspired by, the Discordian movement that itself grew out of the counter-culture movements of the American west coast in a way that, going by accounts here, is fabulously impenetrable to almost the point of not being worth bothering with – which just makes it all the more interesting.

The KLF

The KLF

As well as that it asks far bigger questions about the state of our place in the universe than any other band biography I’ve read before, with a real focus on the act of destroying money and the relationship that has to everything that has happened since and then there’s the introduction of magical thinking…

So, while this book is full of wilful contradiction and what feel like flights of fancy that one suspects are closer to the truth than one might think possible, it also feels like a great evocation of The KLF both in terms of their literal story but also their philosophical outlook.

Or maybe it really isn’t…

Either way it’s a great read mixing pop philosophy with the tone of an extended article from the NME in a way I’ve never previously encountered and if you’ve any interest in either the band or pop music on any level, I’d heartily recommend diving in and seeing where you end up.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man: Homecoming posterIt’s hard to escape the fact that this is the third iteration of Marvel’s wise cracking web spinner in the past two decades.

While Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was generally well received (for the first two appearances at least), Andrew Garfield’s take on Peter Parker has at best been relegated to being a footnote in the Marvel canon (though I thought it had its merits even if the films pretty much missed the target).

So we now get the first full film featuring a Spider-Man inhabiting the same universe as Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, et al – Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Here Tom Holland plays a version Peter Parker far more true to the original comics and as seen in Captain America: Civil War; a 15-year-old high school student who is a science wiz but something of a social outcast and happens to have, at some point relatively recently, acquired super powers.

A massive point to the film’s credit is that it doesn’t just go over the origin again – there are a couple of throw away lines and no mention at all of Uncle Ben or great power coming with great responsibility, making it all feel remarkably fresh.

Jacob Batalon and Tom Holland in Spider-Man: Homecoming

Jacob Batalon as Ned and Holland as Parker

The plot is pretty much what one would expect with your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man discovering and tracking down one of his rogues gallery of villains, in this case a version of The Vulture played by Michael Keaton in excellent fashion, and continuing a slightly ‘meta’ trend that has led from Tim Burton’s Batman, via Birdman, to here.

What helps set it apart from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe run of recent times is that it really does keep things (pretty much) at ground level.

Rather than dealing with the ongoing civil war story or adding to the sci-fi/mysticism stuff that’s been going on of late in Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor and Doctor Strange, this is about people in New York living and reacting after the events of the ‘bigger’ films, with a nice streak of light-hearted humour running through it.

Michael Keaton as The Vulture

Keaton as The Vulture

In this way it almost feels more like The Defenders Netflix series and its progenitors, but a teen version rather than the grittier, adult toned, outings they’ve had.

Connecting it to the bigger story are appearances by Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark and, more prominently, Jon Favreau’s ‘Happy’ Hogan, the second of whom particularly fits the tone and I think could become a recurring figure in this run of Spidey movies.

In the end though, rather like Ant-Man did a couple of years ago, this feels like a breath of fresh air in the MCU and certainly refreshes its leads character in just the way that was needed.

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Octoberflame IX: Night Two – The Observatory, Santa Ana – 27/10/17

Tiger Army and guests

Tiger Army and guests

Arriving at The Observatory in Santa Ana, Orange County, a little before doors for the second night of Tiger Army’s ninth Octoberflame Halloween weekend spectacular, there was a real sense of community spirit amongst the crowd, reminiscent of when I last saw The Wildhearts when they were touring their PHUQ album.

It was clear talking with just those around me that these feel like more than just regular gigs, even though the band have been back to a regular touring schedule for the last two years, with people travelling from as close as minutes away to those from nearby cities, other states or, like in my case, considerably further.

It was also clear their was a strong contingent there to catch the opening band, Las Vegas based, So Cal regulars, The Delta Bombers.

Combining a little bit of country with a lot of rock ‘n’ roll and a raw rockabilly kind of energy the quartet blasted out from the off and had the crowd with them all the way.

The Delta Bombers

The Delta Bombers

Dressed for the night as The Hives as their choice of Halloween attire, they were reminiscent of the Swedish garage rockers in terms of energy but with more grit thrown into the mix.

Their big presence and big sound, highlighted by the huge voice of frontman Chris Moinchen, that stood out even in an a capella moment, and the brilliant work of drummer Kirk Highberger, meant that as their thirty minute set came to an end it was clear many wanted more, myself included.

As with my past Octoberflame experience, Tiger Army have curated each night to feature a varied line up, so after the sizzling rockabilly of The Delta Bombers it was time for some pure vintage So Cal punk rock from Channel 3.

While they may have a looked a little like the teacher from The Breakfast Club fronting a punk band, it was clear right away the image didn’t really match the attitude.

Being one of the lesser elder statesmen bands of Californian punk rock they played a brand of fairly standard but highly enjoyable skate punk that was a little lose around the edges in places.

Mike Magrann of Channel 3

Mike Magrann of Channel 3

Given the welcome received by The Delta Bombers it was hard to escape the fact that there weren’t as many here for CH3, so they had a bit of a struggle winning over the audience, but, by the half way mark people were getting into it.

By the final track of the set they got a pit going and seemed to have won over many fans, not surprising given frontman Mike Magrann’s charm and energetic presence.

After a slightly protracted break, and it felt like the air conditioning being switched off, Tiger Army stepped onto the stage to a huge reaction and the mosh pit kicked off in earnest from opener Ghost Tigers Rise, onwards.

With a different set on each of the three nights of Octoberflame, it felt like this one was maybe a little on the harder and faster, more punk and psychobilly, side of the ban’ds repertoire, but it featured enough variation to keep everyone happy.

While the band were a little sloppy on some of the lesser played songs, playing to this, metaphorically if not entirely geographically, hometown crowd meant this was all taken in stride and every song was greeted like a hit single and the pit never let up, save for a brief waltz to the slowest of numbers.

Tiger Army and their crowd

Tiger Army and their crowd

The standard trio of Nick 13 (guitar, vocals), Djordje Stijepovic (bass, vocals) and Mike Fasano (drums) were joined by two guests to augment their live sound, allowing for more rarely heard album tracks to be realised.

First was backing vocalist Savi who’s astonishing voice made sounds I would otherwise have assumed might be a very well controlled theremin adding at points a suitably spooky atmosphere but also adding to the bands more recent noirish vintage tendencies.

Also joining the band, on keyboards, was TSOL’s Greg Kuehn adding to the Southern California punk community feel and again helping out on both some of the newer tracks and a few of Tiger Army’s older more country tinged moments.

Ending the main set on Santa Carla Twilight (a particular favourite of mine) and their anthem Never Die the band were soon back for an encore that left the hot (in both senses) crowd satisfied, at least until the next night for those doing the Octoberflame marathon, and backed up the feeling that, in this setting, Tiger Army’s fan base feels as much like a movement as that I’ve seen with The Wildhearts and My Chemical Romance in their prime.

You can see more of my photos from the show over on Facebook by clicking here

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BBC Introducing Guernsey: October 2017 – Sound Guernsey and 10 years of Introducing

Sound Guernsey on BBC Introducing-Guernsey

Anni and Jon Bisson from Sound Guernsey

Click here to listen to the show

Earlier this month BBC Music Introducing celebrated 10 years of supporting new and upcoming music from around the British Isles with BBC Introducing Day.

For the October 2017 edition of BBC Introducing in Guernsey then, I presented a show very much looking back and looking forward.

The first hour of the show featured the organisers of the Sound Guernsey events for under-18s, Jon and Anni Bisson, who over the last two years have provided a place for the islands youngsters experience live music while also giving new bands a place to play alongside some more established acts.

Then for the second half of the show I took a look at some highlights of the past decade of music in Guernsey (there too many to fit into an hour) as well as the BBC Introducing 10th birthday celebration that took place at Brixton Academy earlier in the month.

Along with that I took my usual look at some bands who’ve been gigging around the island recently and we featured the new single from Kings (you can see the video below).

Everything Everything at Brixton

Everything Everything at Brixton

You can listen to the show online for the next 30 days by clicking here

Tracklist

 

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Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 posterEver since the announcement of Blade Runner 2049, a sequel to Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-if movie of the early 80s, there was a sense of worry, for two reasons.

First was wondering could a sequel heading back into this world after such a long break live up to its predecessor and not just spoil it, and secondly, given it took about three watches for me to properly appreciate the original, would I be left cold and/or more confused than satisfied after a first watch.

As the film begins and we are introduced to Ryan Gosling’s new Blade Runner, K, initially appearing very similar to Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard, as he speeds across a future California under a grey sky and over a vast ‘farm’ to track down a renegade replicant.

Through this encounter we learn that K is also a more modern form of replicant and what at first appears rather routine sets in motion a series of events that build on the themes, mysteries and story of the original film in a wider context.

Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049

Gosling as K

What really makes Blade Runner 2049 work so well is how it expands what we already know of this world; from the thirty years between the settings, to showing us more of this ruined future Earth, but all with purpose and not just to show off some impressive special effects (though it does have impressive special effects).

Added to this is the attention to detail in this being a future of the world Scott created rather than just a future version of now.

I won’t go into too much detail of the plot, but as it goes on it raises some pretty big questions for a major blockbuster level film, particularly focussing on what it means to be human.

While this is the same question raised in the original here it is developed further, both through the advancements in the technology of the replicants and with the introduction of holographic life forms.

Blade Runner 2049 Los Angeles

Los Angeles 2049

This is then balanced with a good dose of noir styled dialogue, some very well handled and never gratuitous action that actually moves the story forward and a pace that echoes the original and stands out from current blockbuster cinema by being very measured and deliberate – in less talented hands it could be called slow but it never feels that, rather crediting the audience with patience and intelligence.

As the film ends with enough sense of mystery maintained to not spoil the original and with enough story told to leave new questions, Blade Runner 2049 is a great movie that has everything in place it might need to become a longstanding classic of the genre, and based on this I’m now even more excited by the rumoured prospect of Denis Villeneuve directing a new version of Frank Herbert’s Dune.

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