Category Archives: Reviews

REVIEW: Dare Devil Rides to Jarama

Dare Devil Rides to Jarama dramatizes Clem “Daredevil” Beckett’s life and sacrifice during the Spanish Civil war, and celebrates the 80th anniversary of the creation of the International Brigades.

Clem Beckett lived briefly, but what he made of his 31 years on this earth is quite extraordinary. A proud working class lad born in Oldham in 1906, a blacksmith by trade turned speedway rider during the depression of the 1920s, he was quick to identify the damaging nature of capitalism, leading him to embrace solidarity, anti-fascism and revolutionary socialism. He never shunned fighting the good fight and when the biggest fight of all against fascism in Spain started, he joined the International Brigades and died in 1937 in the battle to stop Franco from reaching Madrid.

Daredevil Rides to Jarama is a wonderful piece of working class theatre, with a brilliant script and an incredibly clever way of using cheap props and lighting to convey time, place, situations and moods. A wooden panel at the back of the stage is a wall of death, a factory gate, a door to a lovenest, a cinema screen, a wall in Spain; some steps are a podium for a political speech and for an award ceremony, a writing table, and a workshop bench. There are no special effects. Musical instruments appear and are played to accompany the singing of fighting ballads. And you never realise how bare and simple the stage is because with just a few props, some poetry, some songs, lighting, and above all an extraordinarily well-crafted script and two seriously talented men create more magic and evoke more reality than you ever thought was possible with so little.

David Heywood brings back to life a brave, determined, compassionate, cheeky and sharp Clem Beckett and leaves everything he’s got on stage. He really empties the tank. Neil Gore, who wrote the play, is everybody else, from the greyhound stadium owner who exploits young riders’ inexperience on deliberately dangerous dirt tracks for sensational shows that cause injury and death, to the landowner who tries to keep ramblers off the land, and many other characters, including Christopher St John Sprigg (aka Cauldwell), the upper middle class writer and poet who became Clem’s unlikely partner and died with him on February 12, 1937 in the Jarama Valley.

Offering inspired, nuanced performances and a genuine connection with the audience, David and Neil are also the stage hands, as they operate the lights and reorganise the stage between the two acts. The play is an intellectual and emotional tour de force through a compassionate life of political commitment in the fight against capitalism and fascism. Clem’s is the story of one of the many heroic men and women who understood what was at stake in Spain and decided that the ultimate sacrifice was not too high a price to pay and joined the International Brigades to fight on the side of the Spanish resistance.

Catch it if you can from January.
http://www.townsendproductions.org.uk/home

For more information about Clem Beckett, go to http://spartacus-educational.com/SPbeckett.htm.

’66 Days’ – Richard O’Rawe’s Review Of New Bobby Sands Movie

This article was first published on  by The Broken Elbow

Former IRA blanketman, H Blocks PRO and author of Blanketmen  & ‘After Lives’, Richard O’Rawe reviews the new film about Bobby Sands, ’66 Days’.

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Drama at the absolute rawest edge it could possibly be,’ was how journalist Fintan O’Toole described the IRA/INLA hunger strike in Brendan Byrne’s new film, Bobby Sands – Sixty-Six Days. No one who was around at that time could argue with him.

I went to the premiere of this film in West Belfast along with my wife, Bernadette. Accompanying us were Dixie Elliott and his wife, Sharon. Dixie, a former cell mate of Sands’, had been interviewed for the film but his contribution did not make the final cut.

Unsurprisingly, the cinema was packed with Sinn Féin members and supporters. Equally unsurprisingly, many of those present cast their eyes into the darkest reaches of the cinema rather than in my direction. The reason why? Because I wrote a book called Blanketmen in which I said that a committee of republicans, led by Gerry Adams, had control of the hunger strike. I also said that, before the fifth hunger striker Joe McDonnell died, this committee rejected an offer from the British government that the prison leadership believed to be acceptable. Consequently, six more hunger strikers died on the fast.

Richard O'Rawe - 'Was it (Sands' death) worth it? It pains me to say that I don’t think it was.'

Richard O’Rawe – ‘Was it (Sands’ death) worth it? It pains me to say that I don’t think it was.’

Notwithstanding the preponderance of Sinn Féin members in attendance at the premiere, this is far from a pro-Sinn Féin film. In fact, one viewer later said to me that he thought Byrne had gone ‘a bit too far’ by using Fintan O’Toole as linkman (O’Toole is not known for his Sinn Féin sympathies).

Byrne also afforded speaking rights to former prison officer, Dessie Butterworth, Tory Cabinet minister, Norman Tebbit, and Margaret Thatcher’s biographer, Charles Moore. As well as that, he did not shirk from raising the despicable IRA murder of a young mother and census collector, Joanne Mathers, two days before the electorate of Fermanagh/South Tyrone went to the polls to elect either Bobby Sands or a Unionist as their M.P. To some of us prisoners, it seemed as if someone wanted to sabotage Sands’ chances of being elected.

I have to say, I found this film challenging. For example: Sands gave an interview to reporter Brendan O’Cathaoir of The Irish Times on the third day of his hunger strike.

Commenting on the interview, O’Cathaoir told Byrne: ‘He spoke fluently about how they felt compelled to start the hunger strike. And he made it pretty clear to me he was likely to die. He talked really in terms of laying down his life for his comrades, and of course I am conscious that his protest was in the tradition of positive resistance, immortalised by Ghandi. His most memorial phrase before we parted was: “If I die, God will understand.”’

I later gave some thought to O’Cathaoir saying that Sands’ fast was ‘in the tradition of positive resistance, immortalised by Ghandi’. Ghandi and Sands certainly had things in common: they shared the same imperial foe, they had a great love of their people, and they had iron will.

But unlike the pacifist Ghandi, Sands was committed to armed struggle and, while both revolutionaries may have used the tactic of hunger strike to achieve a political aim, they were altogether different entities.

Another thing that struck me was Fintan O’Toole saying that, ‘Ultimately Bobby Sands’ life effectively marks the end of the tradition of armed struggle because what he said is: There is no justification or need to kill people.’

This is simply not true. The Bobby Sands with whom I lived for three years on the blanket protest was committed to the armed struggle tradition; he never, during any of his talks with his fellow-prisoners, gave the impression that he viewed constitutional politics as a viable alternative to armed struggle: he was a committed IRA man, with all its attendant violence.

He died believing that his death would enhance the armed struggle, not diminish it.

Moreover, he had absolutely no idea that his death would lead to the peace process. If he had known, I doubt if he would have given his life so freely.

Despite Byrne’s attempt to strike a balance by giving anti-republicans a wide platform, this film is about a republican who died on hunger strike and his testimony. There is skilful use of animation, historical newsreels, and an excreta-covered, H-Block prison cell, complete with two men covered with blankets and lying on dirty mattresses on the floor.

A powerful rendition of Bobby Sands’ hunger strike diary from actor, Martin McCann leaves one with a feeling of utter helplessness, as does Mrs Sands being interviewed beside a van outside Long Kesh where she tells the world that her son is dying and, holding back her tears, appeals for no violence when he dies.

This is a film that people should go and view if for no other reason than that it has very coherent insights into Bobby Sands’ hunger strike, from both sides of the argument. It is also thought-provoking.

And always, at the back of my mind as I was watching this movie, is the question: Was it worth it? It pains me to say that I don’t think it was.

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Beverley: TAL talks to Bev Thompson about film of her life in the 80’s

From the Cass Pennant production team comes the multi-award winning short film Beverley, set in Leicester in 1980. The film begins in the urban city centre where Bev lives with her parents Caroline and Travis, younger sister Jess and autistic brother Carl. This is an economically depressed environment – consistent with The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’ in many ways, although amongst the shuttered empty shops within the network of council housing and their frequent red lights, is a vibrant social multicultural community. Bev feels at home here drifting in and out of houses, listening in to the incessant noise of drinking, socializing and sound systems. All of that changes when her father comes into money and moves the family to middle-class white suburbia…

IMG_2827Beverley Thompson is the real life inspiration for the film. She spoke to TAL’s Choppy about growing up in the 80s; her love of music, especially reggae and 2 Tone ska; and about being a girl involved in football, fashion and fighting.

First of all, how did the Beverley film project come about?

I contributed to ‘Casuals’, a documentary on football terrace fashion. Cass Pennant was the producer and Alex Thomas was the cameraman. I told Cass I had a good idea for a film – my story of being a mixed-race Rude Girl moving from the black community to white suburbia. A year later Cass interviewed me in depth and out of those interviews Alex wrote the script… and the rest is history.

With the film Beverley, what are you trying to convey to the audience?

There’s no single message. We wanted to explore a certain era in social history, the sensitive issues of race, gender and class under the emergence of Thatcherism. The film is also a personal journey of a young person trying to make sense out of the nonsensical. Love, family, politics, loyalty, violence… it’s all in there. It was important to make the film about a mixed-race female, yet everyone can identify with feeling vulnerable and wanting an equal shot in life.

How do you feel about the portrayal of your character in the film, is it difficult to watch yourself being played by an actress?

In real life I was only 12 when the events in the film happened, Laya Lewis plays me as if I was 16. I think Laya is an amazing actress and did a great job with the character. Filming was emotional. It was on location in Leicester, filming on the streets where I used to hang out as a kid. Plus my Dad is dead so it brought back the loss. It was surreal.

How do you view music and culture these days comparing it to the 80’s?Bev1

The music I grew up listening to was either talking about the struggle of the underdog in life or love. Music was a means of expressing emotions anger, sadness and hope. In the early 1980s 2tone and Punk were political and belonged to distinct sub-cultures, it was protest music. Now music is purely about entertainment, it doesn’t make you think about the wider world and how it is self-centred and image driven. The gatekeeper of the music/media industry control what the mainstream are exposed to. Music is censored.

Which five style items and labels define the 80’s for you and why?

There’s leg-warmers and ra-ra skirts that we associated with the mixed up ’80s, but I’d say dreadlocks – they were about as anti-establishment as the punks’ Mohawk – white activists, like black Rastas, grew dreadlocks as a form of defiance. I wore Aquascutum, a British label, more exclusive than Burberry. It made me feel aspirational straight away you knew I had money and money was equated with success. Also the European labels like Benetton, Lacoste, Fila all became massive as we started to travel and appreciate design.Clothes were statements of how ‘cultured’ you were – tennis wear and golf jumpers on a 15-year-old made you feel important, even if you weren’t. Trainers were no longer for PE. We stopped wearing shoes and started wanting the latest footwear. Adidas Gazelles are iconic of the mid 1980s.At the end of the 1980s it was the mobile phone and filofax. I was the first female I knew with a mobile phone, a Motorola. I was 20 years old.

Would you swap growing up in the late 70/80s and all that entailed, for growing up now?

I wouldn’t swap to be young in today’s society – kids are great with technology, but they’ve missed out on the freedoms we had as kids. Big groups of kids could play out from dawn ’til dusk, in tight knit communities, where adults were like extended family. We weren’t allowed to be in the house! There were ‘gangs’ but no guns and knives were carried. If they were, it was for bravado, rarely used and never fatally. My own kids have experienced multiple deaths of their friends and a whole generation are in prison serving long sentences.

Today’s Politics? How do you view the rise of the far-right EDL, UKIP, etc., and how would you tackle it?

Today’s politics are an insult to our intelligence. The UK is a corporation run by puppet masters. The far-right – EDL, UKIP, etc. – are smokescreens created out of ignorance and frustration. Bullying the weak and vulnerable sickens me to the core. Islamophobia has stopped me watching the evening news and reading newspapers. if I had it my way I’d call an international strike until every human being is paid the same rate for their time and energy, ending the massive gap of the 1% and the rest of us. I’d also end world debt and fair trade would be mandatory. I’d get rid of most the laws, replacing them with a vow not to intentionally harm anyone or anything. Government would not exist. I think history has proved that they cause more harm than good – people don’t need governing, we are free! Let’s get rid of the slave masters.

Ska1In the Casuals Documentary you mention it becoming easier to move into the Soccer Casual scene early 80’s after being a Rude Girl, was this down to Leicester City having a multiracial Firm at that time and not having to deal with right wing skins?

Yes, I was in to fashion so the clothes were my ticket in. I was lucky to wear all the latest stuff and compete with the older men in the firm when it came to my garms. The leader of the Baby Squad was a Black guy, which made me confident enough to feel I could stand in a rowdy pub with some tough looking white guys and feel part of the team. We looked forward to teams like Millwall playing Leicester so we could battle with their racist hooligans.

At TAL a few of us were into the Two Tone scene around 1980, it seemed to be around a two year movement surprisingly, would you put that down to the rise of the Football Terrace cultures?

The 2tone bands went off to the USA. By the time they came back it was all New Romantics and Soul to Soul. Some sold out – think FUNBOY3! The music industry wanted cheesy pop. Political music didn’t get radio play, so didn’t feature in the charts or mainstream. it died a lonely death. The football terrace scene reflected Thatcherism – individualism not community, politics was about business not society; people’s values changed and consumerism killed off socialism.

In the tradition of Ska, do you still see that as class, the working class and the need to unite together, rather than separate along racial and religious lines?

Ska2Ska started in Jamaica and came to the UK with the immigrants after WW2. It was a sound for the rebels, before that Jamaicans listened to USA imports or Calypso. Ska was music for the underdog and young people identified, regardless of skin tone. The style represented the ‘working man’ – jeans, work boots and braces and a short haircut called the skinhead.

What would your favourite Ska band be at the time?

2tone (Ska is 1960’s) was the answer to my prayers. I remember seeing The Specials on Top of the Pops – a mixed culture group – with moody Terry and crazy Neville. It was love at first sight for me. They get criticised for all the Prince Buster covers but they gave 1960s Ska to a new audience. I also have loads of respect for Selecter and The Beat.

What would you consider your top five albums to be?

I guess the soundtrack to my life would be CarWash Disco music. The Specials both albums; Sade’s first album; Gregory Isaccs’ Night Nurse; and Skinnyman ‘Council Estate of the Mind’. I like music that makes me want to get up, whether to dance or bang my head against the wall! My favourite song of all time is ‘A Change Is Going To Come’ by Sam Cooke the anthem of the civil rights movement.

Did the Baby Squad have any infiltration by the far-right? I remember Celtic played a friendly against Leicester after a couple heroes of both clubs – Neil Lennon as a player and Martin O’Neil as manager – joined Celtic. That night a few of us had some run–ins with Leicester fans who were definitely far-right in their attitudes and they knew Celtic had a left-wing reputation. Obviously that was not in your era of activity, but was there ever any problems like that when you were around the casual scene?

Leicester was the headquarters of the National Front and is a similar town to Luton where the EDL started – years ago it was aimed at Blacks now its Asians – pure bullying. I never witnessed anything in the Baby Squad. No doubt racism existed, but it certainly wasn’t accepted and would’ve been undercover. BSquad wasn’t political with a big P, it was more about money, reputation and feeling part of a group that was willing to fight a common ‘enemy’. It was the powerless for a few hours playing at being powerful. Now, in 2016, look at our world leaders, same bullshit but their weapons are of mass destruction – we had a Stanley knife and a clenched fist. At worst, you’d ruin your outfit and get a nose bleed!

How was the relationship with any other female peers in other mobs from other teams?Bev2

Ironically there was only one other girl who got close to the action. She was a punk/skinhead – a nutter – we weren’t friends but would hang about waiting for the madness to commence! I hung out with other young lads – too young to play with the big boys – we talked clothes and football battle heroes. Black guys like Cass Pennant from the ICF and Barrington ‘One Eyed Baz’ from the Zulus – Birmingham’s firm – were legends, as Blacks were a minority on the terraces, which were filled with angry white guys full of rage.

For us there’s always been a link between football, music, fashion and politics. Moving into the Casual / Terrace scene in the 80’s which bands influenced you at that time?

The Smiths were big but I’ve always loved black music, reggae and soul. I liked a bit of Madonna, she was fresh, but mainly Gregory Isaccs, Aswad, Lovers Rock – I like sound systems too – Saxon Coxsone. Anything with lyrics and a good bass line will get me dancing tho’ but Reggae is rebel music so that’s where my heart belongs.

You’ve been involved heavily with two, key, iconic, modern English subcultures: 2 Tone and Soccer Casual. A path travelled by many of your generation. How do you compare the two?

There were similarities in that they were passionate, anti-establishment vents of the young. You wanted to aspire to principles of equality – better wages – even if it was only to be a Poser. Socialism wasn’t fashionable and Thatcher’s youth were fickle. The difference showed how time never stands still, it moves in circles; the bust was over and the boom was starting. 2tone was ‘Ghost Town’ and rioting; Casuals was Wham and saving up to get a ticket to watch a game in Porto. It’s like, ‘HANDS UP WHO DON’T WANT MORE MONEY?’ Consumerism took over.

Do you have any regrets about your time in the mob? Or the scenes you were into?

No regrets. Isn’t life an adventure? Mine certainly is, and those days were a big influence on me. I learnt so much about loyalty, justice, strategy, ambition. I learnt to be strong. I gained the tools that made me cope with difficult times in my life. Being a woman in a man’s world is tough, but being a mixed race woman is even tougher- yet I’ve gained respect in places angels fear to tread !

Leicester City BadgeDo you still get to the odd Leicester match? How do you view the modern game? With Leicester flying high in the Premiership, do you think it will be able to maintain its reputation as a local family club, or will big money corrupt it and the working class be priced out of the game by the present success?

I was more interested in what happened before and after the game than the actual football match. Leicester have done amazing though, I’m very proud of the team. I was travelling back to London from Nottingham the day Leicester celebrated winning the Premier League and the train was packed with all races, class and ages; men, women and children wearing LCFC colours – what a celebration of multiculturalism. I hope the club do right by the fans. Leicester is definitely back in the game

We really like the Stone Foundation a mix of soul, funk and a touch of ska, quite refreshing. How does it feel to have a track dedicated to you?

I am very honoured to have inspired the ‘Beverley’ track. I met the guys when they were supporting The Beat we hit it off straight away – They went off and wrote the song in one go and its perfect. I got to watch SF at the jazz cafe on my birthday. They performed the song and everyone was dancing, it was great.

What does the future hold for you? Any other projects in the pipeline?

I’m writing a script based on the early 1990s and the whole war on drugs bullshit. That’sRudeGirl3 an important topic to me as the policing of crack cocaine devastated the black community. There are talks of Beverley becoming a feature film – there’s a lot of support behind the film, as its a powerful concept. It’s like Bob Marley said, “You only know how strong you are when theres no other option but to be strong.” That’s me all over.

The Great Illusion: Elections, Mandates, Democracy

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By Phil Thornton

‘Mandate’ is one of those words that sounds grand but is utterly subjective, however, it’s one that politicians like to use in speeches and interviews.

The dictionary definition states : “ the authority to carry out a policy, regarded as given by the electorate to a party or candidate that wins an election.”

Synonyms: authority, approval, acceptance, ratification, endorsement;

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 12:  British Prime Minister David Cameron hosts the first cabinet meeting with his new cabinet in Downing Street on May 12, 2015 in London, England. Conservative party Prime Minister David Cameron has unveiled his new cabinet after claiming an election victory last week that gave his party an outright majority in parliament, the first time in nearly 20 years.  (Photo by Dan Kitwood - WPA Pool / Getty Images)

The Tories are now embarking on what is likely to be the most extreme right wing policies for a hundred years because they claim they have been given a mandate to do so by the electorate. Yet, only 66% of those eligible to vote did so and of that 66% only 37% voted Tory. Or to put in raw numbers, from an electorate of 46.5 million voters, only 11.3 million voted Tory which was 2 million more than voted Labour, but that’s hardly a mandate by any definition of the word.

There are still Labour MPs, Labour Peers, Labour Councillors, Labour supporters and Labour funders who believe that the party lost the election because the party was ‘too left wing.’  They will try to re-position the party back to the Blairite New Labour days when policy was often to the right of the Tories because this proved successful with three successive victories for the party between 1997 and 2010.

However, the most alarming aspect of the election result for democracy fans is that so many voters felt so disillusioned with all parties that almost half of them didn’t bother voting at all and a large percentage of those who did ended up with an MP and a government they didn’t vote for.

Let’s get it clear, there is no link between the first past the post system and electoral representation. The Proportional Representation pragmatists have always been poo poo’d by the main parties as offering endless coalition governments and unaccountable MPs, yet these same politicians soon jumped into bed with each other when coalition suited their interests in the nauseating Con-Dem pact. That kept Cameron in power for five, long and terrible years.

Mocked-up-Lib-Dem-election-posterThe Lib-Dems paid the price for this treachery and abandonment of their PR ideals at the election and may destroy the party completely, which is fine by me, for there is no centre ground in politics. The centreground is a myth, a lie, a liberal sop to the capitalist elites that demand some kind of allegiance to their political and economic con trick.

Some parties win elections because others lose them. Blair triumphed in 1997 not because he was some kind of messianic father of the Third Way but because people were pissed off with 18 years of Tory rule. He won again in 2001 because after their defeat the Tories imploded much as Labour had done after their defeat in 83. By the time Gordon Brown became leader, it was clear that the New Labour Paradise was just another mirage.

The Tories won in 2010 because many people were utterly disillusioned with thirteen years of Labour rule as they been in 97 after 18 years of the Tories. Yet these margins are still pretty narrow. A few million votes here and there can make a huge difference in the number of seats a party wins. Take 1997, Labour’s landslide for example. They ended up with 418 seats based on 43% of votes whereas the Tories ended up with 165 seats based on 31% of the votes. 12% difference but 253 more seats. Many people vote out of party loyalty whoever their MP is, whoever the leader of the party is and many vote tactically simply to avoid the least worst party in their opinion winning the seat.

When parties are neck and neck a few hundred votes or less can make the difference between victory and defeat. There is no mistaking the connection between the drop off in people voting throughout the past thirty years (down by an average of 20%) and the way in which the political system has become a demographic battle to win over a tiny percentage of swing voters in marginal seats. In this system, it doesn’t really matter about the party’s core supporters who are treated with contempt by the front row and certainly by the spinmasters and PR spivs who mould the leaders to appeal to these marginal king makers.

That’s where Miliband went wrong. He was never slick enough, never had the bottle to take on the right wing media and indeed his own ‘advisors’ who tried and failed to transform him into some kind of Middle English Every Dad. Just as they made Gordon Brown smile awkwardly so they made Ed lean and point. It was cringeworthy and phoney and faced with a press onslaught that had relentlessly ridiculed and demonized him since he became leader, there was no way that Labour would ever win with him at the helm.

So, now here we are, facing another five years of Neo-Con public school boy destruction and Labour is back to the old game of selecting a leader who can ‘connect’ with the voters. Connect with which voters though? The ones who voted Tory or UKIP, the ones who live in safe Labour seats but don’t vote at all, the ones who went over to the SNP, the ones who like their leaders to speak like them, look like them, walk, talk and whine like them?

Hillsborough Disaster 20th Anniversary Memorial at Anfield. Minister Andy Burnham is barracked during his overtly political speech during the Hillsborough memorial inside Anfield
Hillsborough Disaster 20th Anniversary Memorial at Anfield. Minister Andy Burnham is barracked during his overtly political speech during the Hillsborough memorial…

Andy ‘Man Of The People’ Burnham may like to present himself as a down to earth commoner but if you look at his voting record, he is just another careerist from a safe seat who has played a canny game to get to the top, even exploiting his association with the Hillsborough families when it suited his agenda, despite doing nothing for them during 12 years of his party’s time in power.

The whole point of modern politics is to secure power by any means necessary but for what purpose? Labour want to tinker at the edges of the extremes of Tory policy because that’s what keeps the important voters in the marginal happy and fuck everyone else. They played the anti-immigration card during the election, they played the crack down on benefit claimants card during the election, they played the ‘Hard Working Families’ card during the election because they felt this would get them votes. It didn’t.  And yet the puppeteers would have us believe that voters didn’t ‘connect’ with Labour because ‘they were too left wing.’

The media frames every argument in a prism of its own design. Thus, everything from ISIS to UKIP is discussed and analysed with a pre-ordained agenda. There can be no challenge to these orthodoxies that are not treated as the conspiratorial ramblings of cranks and ‘extremists.’

Thus ‘Labour lost because it’s too left wing’ becomes a truth because it is repeated as a mantra in the media and indeed the party, as they too are complicit in the system of evasion and self-denial.

Meanwhile, as they try to figure out a way of ‘re-connecting’,  the Tories are relishing the next five years of destroying the very notion of human rights for non-millionaires and city leeches, who they depend on for their post-political careers.

But that’s OK, they’ve got a MANDATE to do so…

RepublicansAgainstAusterity3

Karaoke Decade Pt.2: Robbie Williams – The Bluecoat Kid

The Karaoke Decade is a series of essays by author and journalist, Phil Thornton. It attempts to analyse the way in which not only popular culture but politics and society in general became simply a second hand regurgitation of previous themes. The word ‘post-modern’ is of course an oxymoron because modernity is always with us, we live in the moment and yet we often feel as if we live in the past and not even a ‘real’ past but a past that has been moulded by myths and the twistings of events. There can never be anything that is post-modern, only a concept of modernity as something rooted in the past. These essays cover music, politics, sport , technology and recipes (OK, maybe not recipes but there again..) and I hope you will find them provocative and funny, if not then funny and provocative.

by Phil Thornton


When I was a kid the ultimate glamour job seemed to be a Pontins ‘Bluecoat.’  These were Fred Pontin’s azure rivals to Billy Butlin’s militaristic ‘Redcoats.’  Essentially both sets of coats were salaried camp entertainers, a collection of piss poor singers, dancers, comics and flannel merchants whose Hollywood dreams had faded to such a degree that a summer season at Brean Sands became their Holy Grail.
Every school class had its extrovert, the lad or girl who wanted to be the next Little Jimmy Osmond or Lena Zavaroni, who went to drama or dance classes after school, the weirdos. In the 70’s many of these kids went on to become Bluecoats. For those destined to become Bluecoats, the rise of the Holiday rep in the 80’s offered them a new, exotic outlet for their ‘skills’ and by the 90’s, the new era of ‘Boy Band/Girl Group’ acts now became the ultimate ambition.
BBs and GGs have been with us for as long as pop music itself, whether that was the Monkees or The Ronettes, the Bay City Rollers or the Bananarama. You could argue that The Sex Pistols were a Boy Band of sorts, cynically orchestrated by a subversive version of Larry Parnes.

Almost all Boy Band impresarios are gay for obvious reasons.  How else can middle-aged flab arses get their mitts on so many taut, teenage bodies other than by offering them fame and fortune? As Larry Parnes, so Nigel Martin-Smith. The boy band explosion in the States during the late 80’s had witnessed a host of poppy hip hop and R&B acts from Blackstreet to New Kids On The Block find chart success and Martin-Smith wanted to find a ‘Hi NRG’ version of these bands that would appeal to a British gay crowd.

The process was the same, the process is always the same. Find me young, ambitious, handsome, working class boys and I will transform them into hunky, knicker/undy wetting icons for young flesh adorers across the world. Thus; take one portly working men’s club crooner, two athletic breakdancers, a cute rent boy type and complete the outfit with a ten bob gurner from Stoke. In any other world, Robbie Williams would have been happy to fuck as many pissed up blondes from Pontefract or Plymouth as he could during an 18-30 bar crawl in Kavos. But Robbie had something deep inside him that needed an outlet, a thing he called ‘talent.’ His arl fellar had been a working men’s club comic and he had inherited his dad’s love of a Norman Wisdom impression.

Take_That_1374058cAs a group, Take That were more than a sum of their parts. Dyed blond singer, Gary Barlow was pure MOR, a boy brought up on Elton John, not Johnny Rotten. He was the most talented as a lyricist and singer, but he was stiff. Barlow moved as if the choreography lessons were a chore but he could keep up…just!

The cute kid, Mark Owen smiled a lot and pulled up his cut off Baby Oil t-shirt to reveal baby abs for the boys/girls. He also sang a bit but was essentially just a bit of paedo-bait for the boys and pre-teen girls who couldn’t make the connections.

Jason Orange and Howard Donald were both fine athletic specimens and superb dancers. That was their primary function, to look rugged and manly in contrast to the pretty boys and create a diversion from the singer. Later, Jason took to playing a guitar in order to give him a bit of gravitas and Howard even got to sing a decent song. But first and foremost they were circus acrobats.

Then there was the other kid, the one who seemed to be taking the RobbieWilliamsTitpiss out of this tawdry charade. It wasn’t exactly clear what Robbie’s role was. He didn’t have Barlow’s vocal range but he could hold a tune well enough. And as a dancer, Robbie was no Fred Astaire or even a Jason Orange, but he was good.  He could do the fancy footwork and even perform a windmill.

If the others just seemed happy to be escaping from the RNA cabaret circuit and The Hit Man And Her, Robbie seemed to be the one who wanted more than what Fuller and his team were offering; single – LP – tour-interview – single –LP – tour –interview – TV special – single – LP- tour- interview – TV Special – Film. It all adds up to dollar dollar bills y’all and there’s your signature on the contract sonny.

That’s the Boy Band/Girl Group way and if you don’t like it, there are plenty more desperate young mouths out there willing to suck dick to get a break. Take That formed in 1990 but their success really began in 93.  And it wasn’t long before a female version, The Spice Girls were created by yet another BB/GG impresario, Simon Fuller.

spice-girlsThey too were globally successful thanks in no small part to the personalities of the northern contingent; Mels B and C aka ‘Scary’ and ‘Sporty’. ‘Baby’ fulfilled the same paedo fantasy role as Little Mark in TT. Both ‘Ginger’ and ‘Posh’ came across as talentless, grasping Home Counties opportunists. Meanwhile Mel B from Leeds and Mel C from Widnes (not Liverpool) were cut from a different cultural cloth. The same cloth in fact as the TT lads, self-deprecating, down-to-earth, funny!

Beatles&EpsteinIt had been the same with The Beatles. Those Cockney groups were always a bit too up themselves, po-faced, aloof. Northerners were chips and gravy people. You could relate to them and they came across well in interviews. Whereas the ‘Indie’ sneerers dismissed them as throwaway and shallow, both Take That and The Spice Girls continued the working class tradition of music hall entertainment, working hard for their money, perfecting their routines day and night, sweating and aching through rehearsal after rehearsal, night after night to put on a ‘show.’

Old fashioned showmanship is where Take That excelled. In many ways they were ahead of the game. Record sales via CDs, especially for singles were on the wane and touring became a more lucrative money spinner both in terms of ticket sales and merchandising. As such TT’s shows became ever more extravagant and required more and more from them as ‘performers.’ This is where, it seems, Robbie lost faith in his deal with the devil.

Unlike Robert Johnson at the crossroads, Robbie’s Faustian pact was not eternal and his soul was not for sale. And so he wandered off into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights where the devil tempted him but Robbie was strong and turned his back on the wages of sin to re-emerge as ‘The Robster.’

Whereas Robbie Williams had been the cheeky, subversive element in Take That’s cartoon show, as a solo performer he wanted to get as far away from the TT model as possible. In the 90s, this could’ve meant producing drill and bass tech-squank with The Aphex Twin but in Robbie’s case, it resulted in teaming up with writer, arranger and producer, Guy Chambers. The problem with Robbie now was that he believed he was that most dreaded of pop creatures, ‘the serious artist’ who had ‘things to say.’

All boy band refuseniks, from John Lennon to George Michael, george-michaelbecome obsessed with their own histories as if we too are as fascinated with their tedious careers as they are. They will belittle their former ‘pop’ selves, have a pop at their former pals, managers and labels, present themselves as freedom fighters, original thinkers, even as philosophers and poets. Williams wasn’t quite that up his own arse, but he truly did believe that he was now free ‘to be himself’ whoever that was. This self-assertion manifested itself a spikey blond hairstyle, an expanded waist band and a voyage into the already parodic musical stylings that became known as ‘Britpop.’

The Robster palled about with New Lad Knuckle Draggers, Oasis andCockyChrisEvans+Camilla sucked up to former Tarzanogram turned TV Pop Kingmaker, Chris Evans. Evans’s own rise was itself a cautionary tale of how far banal ambition could take someone in the 90’s. Like Williams, Evans was from a nondescript industrial town, in his case Warrington and rose to fame via a modicum of talent and whole lot of spiel and chutzpah. They were made for each other, two ‘pussy hounds’ who were ‘Living The Dream’, the dream of frustrated teenage boys the world over; loose women, fast cars, drugs, booze and good times all the time with yer pals, the same pals who will desert you once you check into rehab or the dough dries up.

By the end of the 90s, Robbie had established himself as a ‘serious’ artist, the kind whose LPs were reviewed in the NME and even featured on the covers of underground dance music magazines, the type of artist who played Glastonfuckingbury and wasn’t pelted off stage but cheered by the karaoke sing-along-to-every-word new pop fans.

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Robbie Williams prerforming in Tel Aviv, Israel in 2015. After representing Unicef for many years, Williams shows his true colours by breaking the boycott of the Apartheid state.

Here are some sobering facts :

* Robbie’s first 7 LP’s went to No. 1

* He had 7 No. 1 singles.

* He sold 77 million LP’s and singles

* He sold 1.6 million tickets for his Close Encounters tour in a single day.

* He was awarded 17 Brit Awards and was inducted into the Musical Hall of Fame after being voted ‘Greatest Artist of the 90s.’

* He is worth around £130 million.

Not bad for a Bluecoat eh? If this tells us anything, it’s that the Great British Public ™ were very easily pleased in the 1990’s. Who could blame Robbie for amassing a fortune whilst pulling that smug smirk registering his own amusement at this turn of fate. If Williams was playing a role, one that say Tom Jones and Rod Stewart played in the 60s and 70s, that of the working class lad made good, shagging his way through the world’s beauties whilst slightly taking the piss out of themselves, then maybe I’d go easier on him.

robbiewilliamssingBut no, The Robster began to believe his own publicity. He saw the mass worship of his ersatz showbiz clichés as confirmation of his God given talent. So he did the ‘swing’ thing and he did the ‘hip hop’ thing and he did the repentant sinner bit. He began lecturing people on the ‘disease’ of drug addiction and his own tedious ‘recovery’ from its effects, he moved to LA and tried to convince us he was Big News over in Lala Land. He even settled down and had a kid and shit. The kid from Stoke got Spiritual on our ass.

Gary Barlow could only watch in horror as his own solo career careered from one chart disaster to another. It was he who was supposed to triumph after the inevitable TT split, after all he actually wrote most of the songs, however schmaltzy and pedestrian they were. It was he who had to best voice, however conformist and cabaret it was. It was he who had played the game by the rules, stuck to the no drugs/no girls/no smoking in the lockers laws handed down by the Gods of Pop. And here was Williams rubbing his nose in it, literally. Mocking his squeaky clean image as he snorted away with his new groovy rock n roll pals.

We all know the rest of the story. The Take That re-union, without TakeThatReunionRobbie, with Robbie, without Robbie, without Robbie and Jason. Barlow and Williams made up and Barlow re-launched himself as a born again pop star who got to pal about with the Tory prime minister and even pen songs for The Queen of goddam Englandshire. Then came the tax loophole business and, well, them’s the breaks.

video-undefined-22B2542700000578-222_637x364As for Robbie, well he’s still there somewhere, still knocking out LP’s and turning up to pull faces in charidee TV events. Some people still think he’s talented, an all-rounder, a Sammy Davis Junior for the Britpop Generation and no doubt there will be nostalgia tours lined up and maybe even a TT reunion with all the fellas when times get really tough.

The kid did good. No doubt about it.  He’s still a Bluecoat though.

The mercenary Robbie Williams demonstrates that greed takes precedence over morality as he arrives in Israel.
The mercenary Robbie Williams demonstrates that greed takes precedence over morality as he arrives in Israel.

Searching For Sugarman – Moving, Uplifting and Inspiring…

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Forty-two years ago, the Detroit-born musician Rodriguez, part Mexican part American Indian, released his debut album, Cold Fact. It is one of those albums borne of its time and Rodriguez was obviously affected by what he saw around him in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s; inequality, social upheaval, student protests, hippies and drugs. However, despite the Dylanesque feel of protest to the album and some fine songs to boot, it wasn’t a success. In fact, it bombed, Cold Fact was a total flop… except for one country, South Africa.

Not only was it apartheid South Africa where his music was popular, it was also with a section of society that Rodriguez may not have excepted to affect, white Afrikaans middle-class youth. It is intriguing to note that a generation of young white middle-class Afrikaaner youth were affected by the subversive protest songs of an artist like Rodriguez and those who became devotees of his music also came to hate the apartheid system. They felt cut off from the rest of the world by the oppressive authority and censorship of the apartheid regime. Because of the ‘closed society’ of South Africa his fans were unaware of how far Rodriguez’s fame actually went, they were under the impression that he must be a worldwide superstar on a scale with Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones or The Beatles. It was only post-apartheid that it became apparent that Rodriguez’s star shone only in South Africa (and briefly in Australia, although the documentary doesn’t go into this).

A generation of white South African musicians, journalists and the guy with his own record store, who opposed apartheid, took their inspiration from his music. This film is about them and their search for their idol, a musician about whom they knew nothing other than wild and unsubstantiated rumours. It is a wonderful documentary about a man who, once we are introduced to him, inspires only admiration for the unpretentious, unassuming way that he has lived his life. Although this film does not delve deeply into Sixto Rodgriguez’s political views and activism, it is obvious even from small hints, that this is a man who played a full part in the politics of his community. He is from the working class and proud of it. It was refreshing to hear Americans – particularly his daughters and his workmates from the building sites – talk about being from the working class and taking as much pride in their friend and father’s community activities as they did in his music.

Sixto Rodriguez was discovered in a Detroit bar by two celebrated producers who were struck by his soulful melodies and prophetic lyrics. They recorded an album that they believed was going to secure his reputation as one of the greatest recording artists of his generation. Despite overwhelming critical acclaim, the album bombed and the singer disappeared into obscurity amid rumors of a gruesome on-stage suicide. But a bootleg recording found its way into apartheid South Africa and, over the next two decades, it became a phenomenon. Two South African fans then set out to find out what really happened to their hero. Their investigation led them to a story more extraordinary than any of the existing myths about the artist known as Rodriguez. This is a film about hope, inspiration and the resonating power of music.

Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul’s heartwarming documentary Searching for Sugar Man is now available to buy on DVD