Thursday, 7 November 2013

1996-1999, Part 5: Zine Creeps

Before we get onto business as usual - Urusei Yatsura at Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms, that sort of thing - I want to announce a slight change of direction for this blog. I've been trying to figure out how to put this, but things round here have gotten a bit... soap opera-y. Which clearly isn't a word.

I suspect that the majority of people reading these blogs do so because they enjoy sharing in a bit of musical nostalgia. Going on about my relationships is therefore something of a double misjudgement - of little interest to people who weren't intimately involved with me, and potentially upsetting to those who were.

Consequently, I've made the informed decision to cut that shit out - and, for good measure, I've also removed several passages from the last few chapters.

Or, as it says on the back of Big Black's Heartbeat 7": "NO LOVEY-DOVEY SHIT!"

So, it's purely for your information that I mention that, as this blog starts somewhere in 1998, I'd split up with Steph and started going out with Clare, with whom I went to go and see, yes, Urusei Yatsura at Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms.

In support that night were the mighty Prolapse. It's worth mentioning at this point that a Google Image search for this lot throws up some pretty horrible images. And as for YouTube...

 I seem to remember someone in the music press comparing the onstage relationship of co-vocalists Scotch Mick and Linda Steelyard to domestic abuse. Now, this was rather over-egging the pudding, as well as making light of a horrible thing, but there was certainly some tension between the tall Scot and the demure Englishwoman. The songs where Mick took lead vocals were Fall-esque rants, while Linda's tunes were more akin to the melodic Krautrock of Stereolab - in the case of single Autocade, so poppy that Mick wouldn't even sing on it. The best of their songs played on this juxtaposition to carve out a sound that was uniquely Prolapse. Perhaps a more suitable comparison for the pair's demeanour would be to the stuff of kitchen sink dramas, not least because Linda looked like she could have starred in one.

These days, Mick works as an archaeologist, while Linda is apparently writing for a Leicester newspaper. Here's a link to her reviewing a breakfast:

On to Urusei Yatsura, then. It's worth mentioning at this point that a Google Image search for this lot throws up an awful lot of manga. And as for YouTube...

The late 90s was the scene of a boom in Scottish music, but over the years Urusei have faded in the public consciousness in comparison to their neighbours Mogwai, Belle & Sebastian, Arab Strap and The Delgados. That's OK, though, as theirs wasn't a sound designed for canons or legacies; it was riot of trashy pop noise which lived in the moment, fuelled by the most bubblegum moments of Sonic Youth and imagining a parallel universe where Sebadoh and early Pavement possessed the irrepressible spirit of Come Out 2Nite-era Kenickie. Somehow, in this universe, the real one, they'd even managed to hit the Top 40 (at No. 40, natch) with their single Hello Tiger. Live, they were as much fun as everything I just wrote would suggest. Maybe even a little bit more.

Sometime in the Autumn of '98, I decided to give Kenickie another chance after their lacklustre set at Reading (see last time). My ex, Sophie, was visiting and met Clare for the first (only?) time at this show in our old stomping ground of Southampton Uni. Kenickie brought a none-more indie bill with them, with Spraydog and Velocette on hand to remind us of the headliners' indie credentials. Maybe this was why they were so much better that night than at Reading... or maybe it was just that, unlike the audience, they already knew they were splitting up at the end of the tour and were determined to go out all guns blazing.

As everyone knows, Lauren Laverne went on to do a single with Mint Royale and then found proper fame as a DJ and TV presenter. Her brother Johnny X pursued a solo career as J Xaverre and has been both member and producer of a clutch of North Eastern bands over the last decade. We'll meet Emmy-Kate Montrose and Marie Du Santiago again before this chapter's done, and Spraydog too...

On to a rather bigger band, then, and one which had certainly been an influence on Kenickie in the past. As previously discussed round here, I'd had an up-and-down relationship with the Manic Street Preachers. Initial interview/photo-based distrust giving way to enjoyment of their sparky glam-punk singles; minor disappointment at the more measured second album; interest re-piqued by the dark achievements of The Holy Bible. Younger than me, this was the point at which Clare and her sister Sarah had discovered the Manics, and through them I realised the real significance of the band. While they influenced kids in the usual ways pop bands do (clothes, haircuts, music tastes etc), they also introduced them to art, literature, politics and philosophy, the quotes adorning their record sleeves amounting to a bibliography ("Libraries gave us power", indeed...) Add the intelligent way with which they dealt with teenager-relevant issues, and it's no wonder that people like Clare and Sarah were so consumed by Manics fandom. And so it was that I ended up going to see a band I'd originally written off as silly sods at Bournemouth International Centre in December '98.

In support were Catatonia, who'd certainly come a long way since I'd met Cerys at the Joiners two and a half years earlier. Second album International Velvet had hit the top spot in the charts in February, something which had initially made me happy. It was, however, a record which seemed to have an in-built obsolescence. Partly this was because its singles were the sort of catchy which becomes irritating after repeated listening, but also because they tended towards Zeitgeisty lyrical references which simply couldn't stand the test of time. Road Rage and, in particular, Mulder & Scully seemed written with a future "I Heart The 90s" show in mind. All that said, Cerys was still an engaging frontwoman, who'd made the leap from small venues to International Centres with ease and charm. After International Velvet, it was all downhill for Catatonia, but - like Lauren Laverne and so many other Britpop refugees -  Cerys parlayed her charisma into a career as a DJ and journalist, while pursuing an intermittent solo career.

The Manics were also in markedly different shape to the band I'd last seen at the Anti-Nazi League festival in '94. Most obviously, they were now a man down, with Richey's disappearance less than a year later. Losing their talismanic (no pun intended) guitarist couldn't help but affect the band's direction. Let's face it, given the band's closeness, as childhood friends whose career had been marked by a more-than-usual "us against the world" demeanour, it couldn't be anything less than shattering, and in many ways it was incredible they were even able to continue. But it was more than just sympathy which made their comeback album Everything Must Go such a success. Classic rock, Phil Spector-era pop and Motown influences made it an incredibly accessible album - almost laughably so in comparison to The Holy Bible - and first single, A Design For Life, was a manifesto delivered with a grace the band had rarely exhibited before (when I first heard it, on Radio 1, Mark Radcliffe and Lard had a conversation about whether it sounded like Def Leppard. It didn't.). They still had their spikier edges - nobody else in Britpop would write about the suicide of a photojournalist, let alone release said song as a single - but Everything Must Go was a sleek, powerful modern rock record.

By the time we saw them in Bournemouth, they'd released another album, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours. Like its title, it was slightly awkward, a band fumbling their success. Commercially, it was a No.1 hit and sold millions of copies, but creatively it was a misstep. Nevertheless, with five albums and no fewer than nineteen Top 40 singles to their name by December '98, any damp squib selections would be outnumbered by bangers. Aside from the later period-friendly She Is Suffering and an acoustic This Is Yesterday, The Holy Bible was under-represented, but given what it surely represented to the remaining trio, that's understandable. A mid-set triple threat of Motown Junk, Motorcycle Emptiness and Stay Beautiful, and a closing You Love Us, proved that the Manics could still carry off the rebel rock of their early days, and I remember telling an aghast Clare that they were actually a better live band now than they had been with Richey.

And so into 1999, a year which would bring my last (at the time of writing, but frankly likely to stay that way) visit to Glastonbury, the formation of my first "proper" band, and bucketloads of the sort of drama I pledged above not to go into anymore. It was also the year in which Jimmy and I decided to write a zine, and call it B'Zurka.

I had some form in this area, having written a zine while still at school - a zine which, in a chilling prophecy of what was to come, ended up unpublished when I realised my mid-teen cashflow wasn't up to the job of actually paying to have the thing printed.

Back then, the bands I chose to interview were largely drawn from the ranks of minor league UK thrash bands who advertised their demo tapes in Kerrang!'s unsigned bands column. The band which stands out in my mind is Amnesia, a band from Barnsley who did a pretty good job of sounding like a band from the Bay Area. Their demo was called The Final Revelation, and I genuinely thought it deserved to find a wider audience. I also got a VHS tape of a set they played in support of their fellow Yorkshiremen Acid Reign. The internet tells me that they released an album a year or so later, but it totally slipped under the radar - 1991, the year of the Black Album and Nevermind, was no year for a thrash band from Barnsley to release a debut album.

Also standing slightly apart from the thrash also-rans I interviewed were the glorious Hellbastard. The only band in my zine who were more from the punk scene than the metal one, they (well, mainman Scruff) was incredibly generous with his time, not only answering my questions but making me a C90 of unreleased tracks, live material and a radio interview they'd done somewhere in Europe, all interspersed with clips of John Peel saying things like "I now tell the children that if they won't brush their teeth, I shall invite Hellbastard round for tea..." I wouldn't actually get to see Hellbastard live for over twenty years, and when I did I decided not to bring up the fact that I'd wasted so much of Scruff's time in 1990, although he did spontaneously shake my hand at the end of their set, which was nice.

Now, nine years later Jimmy and I didn't really have thrash bands in our sights. Rather than specific genres, we just decided to try and cover any music which we thought was hip, though hindsight may reveal that our radar for such things wasn't always strictly accurate. Jimmy was a fan of zines like Bugs N Drugs, and we wanted to achieve some of the scattershot genius of that piece of work, with various musings and collaged graphics complementing interviews with... well, with this lot...

I'm not sure which band we did first, but I think it might have been Spraydog, who were playing an STE show alongside Milky Wimpshake and, much to their amusement, Minute Manifesto. Spraydog were a considerably more indie proposition than you'd normally find at an STE show, their booking revealing the influence of recent STE addition Ross, who was into the DIY indie scene based around labels like Slampt!. We'd seen Spraydog supporting Kenickie at the show mentioned above, and thought their Dinosaur Jr/Sonic Youth-influenced was pretty neat. I'm pretty sure we also interviewed, or at least chatted to, Milky Wimpshake, just cos they were hanging about downstairs in the grotty Joiners "dressing room" as well, while Minute Manifesto soundchecked above us. The latter were great again that night, obviously. Not sure why we never interviewed them...

Speaking of Kenickie, after their split Marie Du Santiago and Emmy-Kate Montrose wasted no time in forming a new band called Rosita, and were back out on the road by April. There was always something, I dunno, heroic about Kenickie, something which meant that even when their music started to get worse you couldn't help cheering them on. And even 50% of Kenickie was better than no Kenickie at all, so we were chuffed that they were cool with us interviewing them after their show (again, at The Joiners). Marie and Emmy-Kate were utterly charming and witty, and I remember them talking about how they preferred Aerosmith to The Smiths (pretty much a heretical viewpoint in the indie scene) and Led Zeppelin (because Steven Tyler didn't sing about fair maidens in Mordor and that sort of thing). The interview broke up when a heavily-pierced member of staff started clearing the room ("I think the scary man wants us to go..."), and sadly Rosita would themselves break up after just two singles. According to the Sunderland Echo, as well as playing with folk band The Cornshed Sisters, Marie is now the University of Sunderland chief executive officer of the Students’ Union.

Ten days or so after chatting to Rosita, we headed over to Portsmouth to interview Add N To (X), or at least their male members (we were pretty jealous of our acquaintance Kueh-Wah, who got to interview foxy synthster Ann Shenton while we were with the boys). They were entertaining chaps, however, and the show as a whole was probably the best of the ones we covered, their kinky retro-futurist electro-schlock a joy to behold. We interviewed opening band Appliance while we were there too, and their kraut/post-rock impressed me enough to end up wearing one of their shirts for many years to come. Perhaps more interesting, however, were Hovercraft. These Seattle residents were on the bill as they shared a label, the venerable Mute, with Add N To (X) and Appliance, but it seemed like most people were only (dimly) aware of them on account of the fact that bassist Beth Liebling was, at the time, Mrs Eddie Vedder. (Random synchronicity alert: her stage name was Sadie 7, which made it sound more like she'd got hitched to Add N To (X) chap Barry 7). Anyway, the Pearl Jam connection was something of a red herring, to put it mildly. Their set was a solid chunk of music with no discernible "songs". My memory fails me as to how long they played, but the nature of theiur freeform experimental instrumental jam was such that I probably couldn't have told you how long they'd played if you'd asked me straight afterwards. Appliance had the t-shirt and Add N To (X) the transgressive sexpop, but Hovercraft were the evening's revelatory experience.

Oh, Add N To (X) also had the naughty videos...

At some point, we also had a chinwag with The Jellys, who Jimmy's band Mondo Diablo were supporting at The Joiners (more on those Winchester Warriors next time, incidentally...) The Britrock scene which briefly flourished around the middle of the decade had, by this point, largely imploded due to shitty drugs, ego trips, bad record deals and all the other tried and tested harbingers of irrelevance, and what remained was a bunch of survivors regrouping in myriad forms to return to toilet circuit ignominy for one last bite of the cherry. It should scarcely be necessary to point out that almost all of these bands featured somebody who'd been in The Wildhearts at one point or another, but The Jellys were able to boast a 66.6% ex-'Hearts population, with CJ (as close as Ginger's ever had to a co-frontman, and also of Honeycrack, Tattooed Love Boys, et al) and drummer Stidi joined by former Wolfsbane bassist Jeff Hateley. CJ was a charmer, but it was Jeff who was the best value, not least for his frank thoughts on how he and his bandmates had been left high and dry when their singer Blaze Bayley got the call-up to replace Bruce Dickinson in Iron Maiden. Today, of course, Bruce is back in Maiden, Blaze is back in Wolfsbane, and the natural order of the world has been restored. Back then, Jeff was hopping mad at the fact that while Blaze had (probably) gone out and bought himself a posh car, the rest of the band had gone to sign on. The Jellys, incidentally, were a pretty good bubblegum pop punk band, albeit without any tunes to match up to Sitting At Home, I Like It Hot or, well, most of The Wildhearts' back catalogue.

Aside from a postal interview (you heard) with my long-term heroine Isabel out of Drugstore, our only other victims were Pist.On. Now, as you've seen, we'd trawled the length and breadth of England seeking out the cream of the crop of bands who happened to be playing in the area, but this was something different: an actual American rock band, from Brooklyn and everything. They were getting reasonable coverage in the metal press at the time, largely thanks to charismatic bassist Val Ium, and their deal with megacorp Atlantic meant that this was the only time we conducted an interview at The Joiners in a plush tour bus rather than in the venue itself. Val and frontman Henry Font were good eggs, and while I remember not one question we asked them, I do know that Henry solemnly intoned his Brooklyn address into my dictaphone so we could send him a copy of the zine. Clearly, they never heard from us again; Henry, in the unlikely event that you've found this blog by googling yourself, I'm very sorry.

The rest of the zine was to be made up of various opinion pieces and weird collages. Jimmy has reminded me of a takedown of Robbie Williams that was due to appear, and there was some sort of diagram where bands and cultural icons were arrayed across a hip/unhip axis (although that might just have been in one of J's notebooks at the time). I also remember clipping a picture of Martine McCutcheon out of a paper, with her singing in a horribly emotive way and looking for all the world like she'd just been shot.

One other thing that was scheduled to go in there was a gonzo-ish report of when I saw some 17 bands in four nights (while working, almost certainly in an increasingly frazzled way, each day inbetween. And watching Eastenders). The first night was the time Rachel Stamp played The Joiners and me and Jimmy decided to go down because a) well, it was something to do and b) our friends in Scarlet Soho were supporting. We had somewhat underestimated the appeal of Rachel Stamp, however, and queued for a while only to find out that they'd only gone and sold the place out. Good old Mint sneaked us in nonetheless, rest his soul, but begging to be allowed in to a Rachel Stamp gig remains one of the lower points in my life. They were pretty ridiculous, and I was pretty drunk, so I heckled the Welsh glam upstarts by reminding them of their predecessors in one word, that word being "TIGERTAILZ!". Frontman David Ryder-Prangley (yup) replied by saying "Fuck you, man. This isn't glam rock, this is a REVOLUTION!" I'm glad he saw the funny side.

The next night was rather different: The Mad Professor turning The Brook into a dubby reggae party and pulling out a bunch of classic tunes to keep us entertained. After that, I spent the next evening and the following afternoon in the company of The STE, as their annual festival took over The Joiners. The first band I saw on the Saturday night were local supergroup Evil Is Never In Fashion, making their debut (and possibly, as far as I can remember, only) appearance. This 'orrible lot featured Clive out of Trophy Girls, Dingo/Matt out of Minute Manifesto, STE personality Ross and a guy I didn't know at the time called Adam, and they were a bunch of fun. Local lynchpins Good Grief and Minute Manifesto followed, before ex-Broccoli types Shon Ben served up some melodic hardcore. Boston (UK) power (violence) trio Urko were next up, rivalling Minute Manifesto for noisiest blighters of the day, before Mancunian riot grrrl/garage trash outfit Bette Davis & The Balconettes put a dampener on proceedings by smashing up their equipment...which wouldn't have been so much of a problem if they hadn't borrowed it from local band DiSoma. Two members of the latter took to the stage to denounce them, and Ross (who would have been the one who booked BD&TB, given his predilection for their Slampt!-style malarkey) had to strongly advise the visitors to fuck out of town immediately. Next up was a spontaneous burning of Bette Davis & The Balconettes records... oh no, hang on, it was Happy Anger, who I described at the time as "plucky, shirtless Frenchmen" who sounded like Fugazi. I'm sure they were ace, but I don't think I've heard a note of their music since. Mind you, having matched each band with a pint (yikes), I was barely capable of anything by this point. The last band of the night was Four Letter Word, but I scarpered.

The next day's STE fun time only lasted between noon and 3.30pm, thanks to a double booking with the band A, whose grasp of DIY punk rock ethics can be deduced from their demands to start soundchecking at a ridiculously early time. Getting down suitably early, I bumped into Nathan, Jimmy's bandmate in Mondo Diablo and Omeriah (again, more of them next time). I asked whether he'd been down the night before, and was told that we'd actually been chatting right before I split. Apparently, we'd been discussing how much punk someone could take, when I'd suddenly announced that I couldn't take any more and abruptly left. Ahem.

Local youths Bland kicked the day off, and were greeted with the following appraisal from me: "they need more practice, but they're diverting enough for a Sunday lunchtime." Careful with those superlatives, boy! The rest of the day - well, half an afternoon - was a splendidly mixed bag: surfy punk from TV21, moody thrash from Scalplock and intricate instrumentals from Trophy Girls, before a blazing finale in the shape of Short Hate Temper, an incredible thrashcore/power violence band from (I think) South America. Their set was almost ridiculously crushing, and it still stands out as one of the highlights from one of my years of STE gig attendance. Adam and I were reminiscing about them just this year, and marvelling that they never really got their due, even amongst aficionados of underground punk/HC/grind.

So, we put a lot of effort into sourcing material for our zine, but Jimmy and I ever get the damn thing out? No, of course not. We started a band instead. Come back next time to hear the sordid tale of The Gilamonsters...

Friday, 10 May 2013

1996-1999, Part 4: In The Fishtank

I'd been a fan of The Fall since 1988, when their reading of The Kinks' Victoria was a number 35 smash in the singles chart. Its brief tenure in the hit parade meant that it wasn't long before I could pick up a cheap copy of the seven-inch in the ex-chart bargain racks in Woolworths. At this point, I didn't know too much about the band (and had never even heard the original version of Victoria), but on the basis of one hearing on the Sunday night chart show, I was drawn into the scrappy, scuzzy sound of this single, so different to most of the other stuff I was hearing in the charts in '88. B-side Tuff Life Boogie was a bit much for me at the time, however.

A year or two later, I started listening to John Peel, only to discover that the strange bunch behind Victoria were his favourite band. Whether or not they had a record out, rare would be the week when The Fall didn't get played at least once on Peel's watch. There was one particularly educational fortnight when Peely went on holiday and, in place of the standard session guests for the two weeks' worth of pre-recorded shows, each programme featured a repeat of a classic Fall session from the 80s. Around the same time, my schoolfriend Andy picked up the band's 458489 compilation, which rounded up their A-sides from what remains their most accessible period.

So, when Mark, one of the most dedicated Fall fans I've ever met, pointed out that they were playing Portsmouth's Wedgewood Rooms in December 1997, I gladly signed up for the show. I can't remember who else came with us - Steve and Theresa maybe? - but I do know that Wayne wasn't going to, as Arab Strap were due to play the Joiners on the same night. The First Big Weekend had been something of an underground hit that year, and the band's booze-fuelled vignettes had struck a chord with my erstwhile housemate. That said, I have it in my head that the Scots might have cancelled, so maybe Wayne did come to Portsmouth after all. We'll check in with Arab Strap later...

Now, obviously going to see The Fall is not like going to see other bands. This is because most other bands aren't fronted by curmudgeonly drunks who spend the set fucking with their bandmates' equipment. These days, I know it's all part of Mark E Smith's "thing", but at the time I found it distracting and dispiriting. Mark loved the show, but I couldn't help feeling let down. Looking at a Fall fansite, it appears that the faithful dug it, even remarking that MES seemed to be in a good mood. Me, I wasn't at all surprised when that incarnation of the band dissolved onstage in New York not long afterwards. I've seen The Fall since - with entirely different line-ups, natch - and have enjoyed them at least twice, but on that cold night at the end of 1997 I was left, ahem, feeling numb.

'98 found me going to a bunch of punk rock shows, all at The Joiners. In March, the STE put on a benefit show for the Zapatistas, featuring three Southern hardcore/thrash bands: Unslug from Brighton, whose co-vocalist Darren would become a friend years later, Southampton's own Minute Manifesto and Surrey band I Confess. A couple months later, I'd see American melodic hardcore types The Marshes supported by Essex melodic hardcore types Travis Cut, and then, on the last day of May, His Hero Is Gone, John Holmes, and, once again, Minute Manifesto.

This show took place on the Sunday night on what had been a very boozy weekend. That afternoon, we'd had friends round for a barbecue and I was already pretty blitzed when we got to The Joiners. I remember, before Minute Manifesto played, shouting drunkenly at guitarist Dingo/Romsey Matt. "Rock me, Matt," I demanded, like a plonker. Matt looked nervous, though to be fair, he often looked nervous.

So, Minute Manifesto played and were great, as always. John Holmes featured people from various North Eastern hardcore bands, including legendary drummer Sned, and were billed as "Manowar-core" on the gig flyer. This was more due to their listening habits than what they actually sounded like, natch; their deal was more of a rock'n'roll take on hardcore, with a dark coolness which marked them out from a lot of other bands around at the time.

And so to one of the biggest regrets of my gigging life: by the time His Hero Is Gone came on, I was so shitfaced that, despite watching the whole set, I have absolutely no recollection of it. HHIG were a super-influential crust band, with members going on to be in the also excellent Tragedy, and this would have been one of their last tours. I got a seven-inch, and it was great. I'm sure if I'd been there in mind as well as body, I'd be discussing this gig as an all-time favourite. But I wasn't, so I can't.

This might have been the night we got home to find people had been putting tins of baked beans on the barbecue and watching them explode, spattering tomato sauce against the side of the house.

Later in the summer, two thirds of this last bill reconvened at the Joiners. Two things were different: Dropdead were the headliners, and there was no stage at the Joiners. The venue was being refurbished, with the stage moving from the left hand wall to the back, and this must have been one of the only shows which took place between one stage going and the next appearing. Minute Manifesto and John Holmes were both storming, again, and I wasn't too hammered to enjoy Dropdead. This lot were/are a super-earnest thrashcore band from the US, playing short, sharp bursts of extreme noise terror, not a million miles away from early Napalm Death or their Japanese comrades S.O.B. The Joiners gig was part of what seemed like a gruelling European tour, and as well as talking about animal rights and other typically punk issues, vocalist Bob Otis talked about how hard it was to be away from home while one of his family members was seriously ill. You could hear a pin drop.

More recently, I kinda figured Dropdead had split up, as I hadn't heard anything since they did a split 7" with Unholy Grave in 2003. However, they popped up again in 2011 with another split (truly, the premier format for grindcore) with Converge. Be nice to see them in the UK again one day.

Around this time, we started hanging out at an indie night called The Fishtank at the insalubrious Southampton bar Lennons. The Fishtank had become a regular Monday night out for our extended group of mates, and while it left a lot to be desired - low turnouts and Hofmeister on tap - the music on offer was based on our then-current favourites like Mogwai, Arab Strap, Belle & Sebastian, The Delgados, Six By Seven and Super Furry Animals (who we saw at the Guildhall sometime around this point), as well as more estabished faves like Pavement, Stereolab and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci. In other words, it was an indie night for people who actually liked indie, as opposed to the by-now culturally bankrupt sounds of Britpop. It was twee as fuck, of course, which didn't stop us defending our turf on an occasion when a group of townies turned up and started trying to intimidate us, picking in particular on Ben due to his rather camp demeanour. I remember them taking the piss when a few of us started dancing to the mellow intro to The Man Don't Give A Fuck, then retreating when the song kicked off and the dancefloor filled. Afterwards, one of them started giving us shit outside and looked ready to punch Steph when she suggested that his homophobia might be a result of his being a closet case. Strength of numbers on our side caused him to slope off, and afterwards me and Wayne both admitted that, despite being generally peaceful fellows, we were gearing up to use our fists if he'd swung for her.

The Fishtank was also where we met a bunch of lads - Will, Mike, Andy and assorted chums - who we nicknamed The Mogwai Shufflers on account of their dancing and taste in music. It turned out that these three, plus their mate Chris, were in a band called Orko, playing electronica and post-rock influenced indie. We started going to see them pretty much every time they played and became good friends.

As well as our Monday nights at The Fishtank, this period saw me going to The Nexus every weekend and dancing up a storm. It sometimes felt like me, Wayne, Jimmy and our workmate Owen Redman were indestructible on that dancefloor, getting drunk and throwing shapes to tunes like Intergalactic by The Beastie Boys. Nearly ten years later, I got a call from Wayne to tell me that Owen had passed away. I still think about him a lot.

Around this time, me, Mark and Ben decided that we could do our own equivalent of The Fishtank, and arranged a weekday slot at The Nexus. It only lasted for that one summer - in all honesty, we weren't getting enough people through the door, although I wish they'd given us until the students came back in the autumn. We went on to DJ at The Dungeon on Saturday nights, which was a massive misjudgement for all concerned. The Dungeon's clientele wanted goth, industrial and nu-metal. We wanted to play whatever we wanted, from Mogwai to drum'n'bass. The owners wanted us to play It's Like That by Run DMC Vs Jason Nevins. It didn't last long.

Never mind. Let's go to the Reading Festival!

The Friday was all about the second (Melody Maker) stage, which boasted a bunch of the aforementioned Fishtank favourites. The Delgados were always a tad shaky live, but they were the sort of band who could turn a bit of nervousness into a positive. Arab Strap were similarly understated, and would leave more of an impression on future encounters. Kenickie, who Steph and I should have seen the year before at the mud-ruined Glastonbury, had by now gone ultra-poppy with their second, inferior, album Get In. They were pretty atrocious at Reading, but their presence at the festival gave us the memory of Jimmy dithering over whether to introduce himself to Lauren Laverne when she was stood near us later in the weekend. By the time he'd made up his mind that he would, she headed off to the non-accessible bit of the backstage area. We'd see Kenickie again, and Jimmy and I would later interview Marie and Emmy-Kate for a fanzine which never happened, but as far as I know he never crossed paths with La Laverne again.

Things got serious next, with Mogwai playing the penultimate set of the evening. This must have been the first time I saw them, and they exceeded the high expectations which their records had built up. With the restrictions of a festival set length, they brought out the big guns, with Mogwai Fear Satan and Like Herod bookending their time on stage with twin eruptions of noise. In between, Helicon 1 and Xmas Steps put in an appearance, alongside a newie called Kappa which would emerge on Come On Die Young the following year. It's fair to say that this performance kicked off a proper obsession with Mogwai. Super Furry Animals headlined the Maker stage that day, cementing the fact that they were then one of the most creative, original bands in the UK, not to mention one of the few who could follow Mogwai.

We were up early the next day to catch Jurassic 5 on the main stage. Their presence there was testament to the fact that, for a band who consciously harked back to hip hop's golden and daisy ages, they were (at least) as popular with indie kids as B-boys. Their debut had hit like a breath of fresh air; at a time when it seemed (to someone who, admittedly, was something of an outside observer) that the genre was split between poppy chart stars and underground keepers of the flame, tunes like Concrete Schoolyard and Jayou reminded us that hip hop could be fun and catchy without relying on the cheesy samples and bling-encrusted boasting which put us off yer Puff Daddys and so forth. At Reading, they proved a fun way to spend a Saturday lunchtime. Somewhat angrier but no less powerful were Asian Dub Foundation, for me one of the best genre-smashing crews of the day. Their debut on Trans-Global Undergound's Nation label, Facts And Fictions, had gone fairly unnoticed, but since then they'd signed to London and smashed into the Top 20 with their strident sophomore release, Rafi's Revenge. As well as the elements of Asian and reggae culture cued up by their name, they used influences from punk and jungle to create some of the angriest party music on offer at the time. Over the years, they settled into a niche fanbase, their progress hampered both by changing fashions and a revolving cast of vocalists, but in August 1998, on the main stage at Reading, songs like Naxalite and Free Satpal Ram sounded like the work of a band ready to take on the world. More dub - though considerably less anger - was on offer later with Lee "Scratch" Perry. His band played for what seemed like ages before Scratch appeared, doing funny dances and spouting gibberish. His production work in reggae's glory days was groundbreaking and retains a semi-mystical power. His live show was more like a stoned Rolf Harris.

It's time to talk about Earl Brutus. While reminiscing about this festival, and their appearance on the third (Doc Martens) stage, it occurred to me that I could dedicate an entire chapter to this band, such was their idiosyncratic brilliance, but instead you're going to have to put up with a bunch of rambling.

Their line-up was pretty much the most unusual bunch of reprobates to band together, a strange mixture of 80s veterans who shouldn't really have been making the sort of music Earl Brutus made. One of their singers was Jamie Fry, brother of the somewhat more successful Martin Fry of 80s New Pop kids ABC. His co-vocalist was Nick Sanderson, who'd previously played drums with Clock DVA, The Drum Club and World Of Twist, whose Gordon King was also along for the ride. Guitarist Rob Marche had been in Subway Sect before forming JoBoxers and becoming an actual, proper pop star hitting No.3 with Boxerbeat in 1983. Fifteen years later, he was playing on the third stage at the Reading Festival, alongside a guy called Shinya Hayashida, who the band seemingly employed to stand onstage headbanging and shouting at the audience like a Japanese version of Avail's Beau Beau.

One of the problems with Britpop, or at least its South Eastern wing and the music press which wrote about it, was that it often felt like the work of people from comfortable backgrounds slumming it, glamorising bedsits and unemployment while safe in the knowledge that for them it was a temporary lifestyle choice rather than a financial necessity. This is surely the only explanation for the fleeting success of the turgid Northern Uproar, and while Pulp's Common People, voted the era's top tune in the NME in the week I'm writing this, was about a specific time in Jarvis's life, it could also be read as an indictment of the scene itself. I've no idea what sort of class backgrounds Earl Brutus came from, but the vision of Britain contained in their songs was pointedly unglamorous, a world of job centres, bingo halls and cheap fags. They conveyed this through seedy glam riffs and terrace chants, repetition and surrealism. I'm not sure anyone remarked on it at the time - and don't let this put you off - but Fat Les's Vindaloo sounded like a dumbed-down rip off of their aesthetic by people who'd actually use the word aesthetic. Brutus were just as much piss-takers, and in their own way just as arty, as Fat Les, but they never seemed like a bunch of patronising fuckwits - their humour was confrontational, not lazy, and while they seemed to possess a certain contempt for everyone, it was closer to genuine misanthropy than an art school pose. With that in mind, two of the most important things about their Reading performance were the floral tribute which spelt out "FUCK OFF", and the way they left Shinya onstage at the end of the set, shouting about steak and kidney pies, for ages.

After Earl Brutus, Nick Sanderson drove trains and drummed for the Jesus & Mary Chain. He died of lung cancer in 2008. RIP.

Meanwhile, the one thing everyone remembers about Reading 1998 was the onstage spat between The Prodigy and The Beastie Boys. The latter had attempted to use their status as Saturday night headliners to demand the former drop Smack My Bitch Up from their set, seemingly oblivious to the lyrics on their first album (lest we forget, nearly called Don't Be A Faggot before a judicious name change to Licensed To Ill). Is Smack My Bitch Up truly a misogynist piece of work? I dunno, I tend to think it's just a dumb sample on an otherwise powerful tune. Would the Beasties have asked the Wu-Tang Clan or Ultramagnetic MCs (from whom the offending line was sampled) to drop sexist lyrics from their live shows? Let's face it, probably not; while I commend their post-Licensed To Ill politics, and am happy to call out misogyny when I see or hear it, this seemed like a battle not worth fighting. The Prodigy played Smack My Bitch Up and used the Beasties' failed attempt at censorship to bolster their punk rock attitude. The Beasties played a fantastic headline set. Neither ultimately had any effect, positive or negative, on the fact that domestic abuse is still a massive problem in the world, and that violence towards women and girls is dominating the news at the time I write this: not just the ongoing revelations from Operation Yewtree, but also the trials of those accused of murdering April Jones and Tia Sharp, and the release of several young women who'd been kept captive for a decade in Ohio.

Back to Reading, and Sunday. Girls Against Boys opened the main stage with a bracing set, before my old muckers Drugstore put in an appearance. Their career had enjoyed a short-term lift thanks to the presence of one Thom Yorke on their recent single El President, which took them into the Top 20 for the first and only time. Thom didn't show up at Reading, of course, but with Isabel in fine form who needed him? Drugstore, not for the first time, made my eyes well up.

With the rest of the main stage bill looking pretty dull, we looked to the rest of the site for our kicks. The Backyard Babies were lively and refreshingly rock'n'roll in the Doc Martens tent; Urusei Yatsura did their fun noise pop thing on the Maker stage, while Royal Trux showed up there with Dave Pajo from Slint in their line-up; and Monkey Mafia did their live big beat thing in the Dance tent. Really, though, we were looking forward to Spiritualized, who were headlining the Maker stage. With their Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space opus having been one of the most acclaimed albums of the previous years, we figured there was gonna be a mighty crush to get in the tent, so turned up a full band early to watch Ultrasound's awkward prog-indie-glam. As it turned out, there was plenty of room for Spiritualized, and I found them a little underwhelming, though perhaps this was a result of the guy who insisted on crowdsurfing over the first few rows - essentially the length of his body - throughout the set, proving something of a distraction.

I was gonna power on through to the end of '98, but I think I've been going on long enough. Next time: love comes, love goes, and me and Jimmy interview a bunch of bands with the intention of writing a fanzine. Which doesn't happen.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

2012 as it appeared in my ears and eyes

So, here's my review of 2012, written a couple of days into 2013. Obviously, magazines tend to publish these around late November, while yer average website will be posting by the middle of December. But I like to leave it until the dust's settled, at least partly because I can't give up on the idea of discovering one last Good Thing before the year shuffles off. Now it's done, I feel able to reveal...

No more splitting into Kerrang!/non-K! lists; with writers' Top 20s only published on the website this year, it seems time to combine my traditional two lists into one...

1. Swans - The Seer

2. ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead - Lost Songs

3. Orbital - Wonky

4. Neurosis - Honor Found In Decay

5. Gallon Drunk - The Road Gets Darker From Here

6. Dragged Into Sunlight - Widowmaker

7.  Hot Chip - In Our Heads

8. Purity Ring - Shrines

9. Why? - Mumps, Etc

10. Earth - Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light II

11. Jon Spencer Blues Explosion - Meat & Bone

12. Kendrick Lamar - Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City

13. Grimes - Visions

14. Black Breath - Sentenced To Life

15. Six Organs Of Admittance - Ascent

16. Gojira - L'Enfant Sauvage

17. Carlton Melton - Photos Of Photos

18. Necro Deathmort - The Colonial Script

19. Torche - Harmonicraft

20. Future Of The Left - The Plot Against Common Sense

TOP 10 TUNES OF 2012

1. Angel Haze - New York

2. Six Organs Of Admittance - Waswasa

3. TNGHT - Higher Ground

4. ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead - Pinhole Cameras

5. Orbital - Beelzedub

6. Neurosis - Casting Of The Ages

7. Hot Chip - Look At Where We Are

8. ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead -Up To Infinity

9. Gallon Drunk - A Thousand Years

10. Necro Deathmort - Endless Vertex

GIGS OF 2012 (alphabetical order)
This list might not make it look like it, but I definitely went to fewer shows in 2013. Just trying to balance my life a bit better, and make sure that Anna doesn't take last billing after gigs, band stuff, writing, work, etc. Seems like DIY punk shows and Colin's TST gigs came off the worst of it, which I shall certainly endeavour to change in 2013. Already plenty to look forward to, with tickets sorted for Metz, Ghost/Gojira, China Drum (!), Swans and Muddy Roots Europe in Belgium, plus a bunch more shows coming up, but before all that... here's a bunch of gigs which, at this rate, you'll be reading about on this blog in about ten years...

Anacondas @ The Hope
 ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead/Maybeshewill @ The Scala

Anthrax @ Download 
Bellowhead @ The Dome 
Broker @ The Hope
Burning Times @ The Green Door Store
Carlton Melton/Working Man Noise Unit/Jungfrau @ The Prince Albert
Crypsis @ The Prince Albert and The Cowley Club
The Dillinger Escape Plan @ The Concorde 2
The Dirt Daubers @ The Prince Albert and The Haunt 
Eagleburner @ The Prince Albert
Earth @ The Haunt 
Faustus @ All Saints Centre, Lewes 
Fucked Up @ The Haunt
Future Of The Left @ The Haunt
Gallon Drunk @ Sticky Mike's Frog Bar
Ginger @ Download
Gnarwolves @ The Hydrant and The Green Door Store 
Gojira @ Islington Academy
Hawk Eyes @ Download
Kraken Mare @ Bar 42, Worthing
Kylesa/Circle Takes The Square/Deafheaven/Ken Mode @ The Haunt
Larry & His Flask @ The Hydrant  
Latterman @ The Green Door Store
Th'Legendary Shack Shakers @ The Haunt 
Lesbian/Manatees/Blackstorm @ The Prince Albert
Meshuggah @ The Concorde 2 
Metallica @ Download
Neurosis/Godflesh @ The Forum
Orbital @ The Corn Exchange
Pettybone/Trieste/State Icons/Witch Cult @ The Green Door Store
Ramesses @ Sticky Mike's Frog Bar
Rolo Tomassi @ The Concorde 2 
The Sadies @ The Hydrant
Sea Bastard @ The Cowley Club, The Haunt and Sticky Mike's Frog Bar
Shearwater @ The Haunt and Sticky Mike's Frog Bar
Sleep Committee @ The Green Door Store and The Hydrant
Sloath @ The Cowley Club
Spiers & Boden @ The Komedia
Touche Amore @ The Hydrant
Devin Townsend @ Download
Turbonegro @ Download
While She Sleeps @ Download




Given that my 2011 telly round-up gave top billing to The Killing, it seems fairly predictable that The Bridge would similarly tickle my fancy for Nordic Noir. But while Scando-gloom has become something of a cliched viewing pleasure for Guardianista types, The Bridge immediately justified any pre-release hype, while displaying as many of its own idiosyncracies as it did similarities with its predecessor. Yes, it was set in Copenhagen... but also in Malmo, the titular construction being the one linking Denmark and Sweden. Yes, it had a socially awkward female protagonist in Saga Noren, with a distinctive mode of dress (leather trousers replacing patterned sweaters, though not, one suspects, on Scandophile Radio Times readers)... but she shared lead duties with burly Danish fella Martin Rohde, an earthy counterpoint to her unworldly character. Martin has a fantastic laugh - not a sound you hear often in The Killing, and a clue to the fact that The Bridge has moments of genuine humour amidst the gloom.

The killing element of The Bridge appears to be a less personal one than in, er, The Killing; as in the latter's second series, we're in serial killer mode here, but in The Bridge each of his atrocities is designed to highlight a different element of society's inequalities. These are fed through journalist Daniel Ferbe, a brilliant portrayal of a talented but arrogant hack; breaking away from The Killing's political characters, the rest of The Bridge's curious array of characters include a social worker (who looks amazingly like a 70s porn star), a homeless woman, Martin's family, a guy Saga picks up on one of her romance-free sex trawls, a dying millionaire and his wife and plenty more. It's not always initially clear how, or whether, these people are related to the case, and when a character's relevance has passed, they simply fade from view. There are long stretches of the first episode which seem to have little to do with the murder case, making it feel more like an arthouse film than another The Killing, but this is another series which tightens its grip slowly. In the Saga/Martin double act, it's also got one of the best non-romantic male-female teams in telly since... jeepers, help me out here!

The Killing also returned for one last round of darkened warehouses, Machiavellian political plotting and tenacious, driven perpetrators. Like the second series, this could have more accurately been called The Killings, as we were once again dealing with a vengeful serial killer. To be honest, when a character got booted off a rooftop with a noose round his neck early on, I was kinda longing for the first series, with its meditations on grief taking precedence over Big Eye-Catching Murder Scenarios. But The Killing III actually held together better than the second series, with the parents of an abducted child providing the human context slightly missing from the middle instalment and a more charismatic bunch of politicos (though I had a soft spot for II's Thomas Buch). And while sticking with the ten-episode formula of the second series, this managed to cram in the most complex plot of all, with the murderer/abductor trying to learn the truth behind a previous abduction/murder...

As the last series, this was also significant as a send off for Sarah Lund. Appropriately, her mother and son are the only other recurring characters (besides amusingly stern-faced top cop Brix), and possibilities are laid throughout for her post-series happiness, with hunky old flame Mathias Borch in the picture and a grandchild on the way. Does she get her happy ending? Does PM Kristian Kamper do the right thing? Does businessman/father of abducted child Robert Zeuthen put his family first in the end? Is justice visited upon the original perpetrator? Well, clearly I'm not going to tell you. You'll just have to wait for the last moments and that distinctive, tense music to sound for the last time...

Oh, and a little bit of trivia: the guy playing the PM's brother/advisor Stoffer is better known in Denmark as a stand-up, which is why I found a picture of him doing this. Crazy guy, right?


Nearly left off this list for the simple reason that it feels like ages since it screened, but Sherlock was in fact on the box in January 2012. The character of Sherlock Holmes is obviously about the place a lot these days - in Guy Ritchie's Downey Jr-starring version and the Jonny Lee Miller US TV incarnation - but it's Miller's Frankenstein co-star Benedict Cumberbatch who's made the character his own, with this second series even better than the first. Lara Pulver (a bit lacking in Spooks, but much more convincing here) and Russell Tovey gave excellent support in the first two episodes, while Martin Freeman's Watson and, especially, Andrew Scott's feverish, dementoid Moriarty, continued to make the strongest of impressions upon the legendary characters they portrayed. The re-tellings of old stories crackled with invention, Holmes' deductions proved ever more brilliant, and the series went out with the sort of cliffhanger designed to stay in people's heads for the eighteen months or so that we'll have had to wait by the time the third series airs later in 2013.


So, last year I gave props to classy, talent-laden Brit crime drama The Shadow Line... and this year I'm doing the same for classy, talent-laden Brit crime drama Line Of Duty. They even share a word in the title, for God's sake... But who cares if I'm becoming predictable; this was a rip-roaring tale of corruption and deceit with fine performances from some of telly's best actors (Lennie James, Vicky McClure and Martin Compston chief amongst them). The heavy-handed allusions to the evils of red tape occasionally grated, but were offset by regular excursions into massively OTT ultraviolence, with throat-slitting and finger removal a speciality. Throughout was a sense of things slipping massively out of control for everyone, but particularly James' Tony Gates, a good cop making some very bad decisions. Line Of Duty was also notable for being just one of the places Gina McKee popped up this year (see also: Secret State, Hebburn), and for the inclusion of a 13-year old character seemingly written to justify every Daily Mail complaint about feral youth.


Bit of a surprise, this one. The first series of The Hour looked great, boasted fine lead turns from the very good-looking triumvirate of Romola Garai, Dominic West and Ben Whishaw, sterling support from the likes of Anna Chancellor, Burn Gorman and Julian Rhind-Tutt and a snappy theme tune... but it still didn't convince. Initially hampered by everyone claiming it was going to be a British Mad Men (spoiler: it wasn't), it turned on a slightly soggy espionage plot which neither convinced nor gripped. Series 2 shifted its attentions to a vice ring and immediately did both. All of the above returned (save Gorman), and were joined by an excellent, scene-stealing Peter Capaldi as well as, bizarrely, people from The Inbetweeners (Hannah Tointon) and Skins (Joe Cole, looking set to corner the market in blank-eyed, baby-faced thugs). With a beefed-up role for Oona Chaplin as West's wife and a greater sense of personal involvement for all concerned, The Hour upped its game to become must-watch telly, its final episode a genuinely tense conclusion to the year's most-improved show.


The link between all the shows on this list is conspiracy, whether political or corporate, in the police or by master criminals, or in the two Nordic examples at the top of the list, a combination of all of the above. So let's end with some knockabout slapstick comedy... or just continue to plough into the darkness with Secret State, which opened with Deputy PM Gabriel Byrne surveying the destruction wreaked upon a Northern town by an industrial accident and only got more oppressive from there. Byrne aside, top turns came from Gina McKee (again), Charles Dance, Rupert Graves and Ruth Negga. One of Byrne's few allies was a drunken conspiracy theorist, but one of the messages you could glean from the narrative was that, actually, those conspiracies are probably true, everyone's out for themselves and a knotty collusion of big business, the banks, military top brass and venal politicians would do whatever it takes to keep their wheels greased and the government in their pocket. Happy New Year!

Oh, and one of Byrne's other allies was his security guard, who was played by Finchy out of The Office. Sadly, at no point in proceedings did he challenge anyone to a shoe-throwing competition over 10 Downing Street.


The first half of Series 7 ultimately proved too hit or miss to merit a Top 5 placing. OK, there were no total stinkers (Dinosaurs On A Spaceship came closest), but the decision to make stand-alone episodes rather than the more typically Moffat story arc didn't pay off. Dinosaurs and A Town Called Mercy didn't expand beyond their remits (Dinosaurs On A Spaceship and Dr Who Goes Western, respectively), despite decent turns from David Bradley as Solomon and Adrian Scarborough as Kahler-Jex. Of the remaining three episodes, The Power Of Three was a clever take on alien invasion, but the opening and closing stories were the clear standouts. Series opener Asylum Of The Daleks afforded us a teasing glimpse of future companion Jenna-Louise Coleman; as if preparing the waters, Moffat gave her all the best lines, with the teasing relationship between her and the Doctor leaving the Ponds in the background. Much of the series seemed to emphasize the Ponds' "normal" life, with the introduction of Mark Williams as Rory's Dad (a good thing, except when riding a triceratops) and their considering the possibility of quitting as the Doctor's companions. By the end of The Angels Take Manhattan - a great period piece, with a noir feel and a bunch of twists - it's clear that this emphasis was there to render their departure as poignant as possible. Yes, as far as I can figure out there are definite loopholes in the conclusion (which I can't discuss without massive spoilers), but after a series where even Moffat occasionally seemed to tire of his beloved Ponds, this was a suitable send-off. And, after what might be the best ever Christmas special  - and the first since The Christmas Invasion introduced David Tennant to feel like a significant part of the ongoing story rather than a guest-starry stand-alone - the second half of Series 7, unravelling the mystery of Jenna-louise Coleman's character(s), looks set to be a massive improvement.

Yeah, I watched, and thoroughly enjoyed THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE-OFF: got a problem with that?  HEBBURN was a sweet-natured sitcom, occasionally predictable but with a rare charm. Only saw one episode of A TOUCH OF CLOTH, but it was a genius, Airplane/Police Squad demolition of modern cop shows. 24 HOURS IN A&E continued to make most other reality TV shows look even more inconsequential than ever, the stories it told making NHS cuts even more unforgivable. To someone like myself who hadn't read the novel, PARADE'S END was faintly incomprehensible throughout, but gave us lots of posh actors acting their ruddy socks off. BIRDSONG was more comprehensible, similarly posh, and pretty great. THE SECRET OF CRICKLEY HALL was a dumb but fun ghost story, almost let down by a couple of really shit bits in the last episode; Suranne Jones was ace, though. Was THE LAST WEEKEND too unpleasant (and too full of unsympathetic characters) to be enjoyable, or was it just unpleasant enough? Still not sure. REVENGE was kinda fun, like a re-booted Dynasty with murderous intent, or 90210 gone evil. Only got half way through it, though. Like some sort of idiot, I totally missed The Thick Of It and Getting On.


Really, what were they thinking? It's impossible even to type the premise of this show without involuntarily raising an eyebrow, but here goes...

All fairy tales are real, and all the characters live in a parallel universe to this one. The evil Queen out of Snow White gets a right cob on about Snow White and Prince Charming looking set to be happy ever after, so she conjures a curse upon the whole kingdom, which results in everyone getting transported to our world - specifically, a made-up town in Maine (called Storybrooke - geddit?). "Snow" and "Charming" get it particularly bad, as their Earthly incarnations are a mimsy school teacher and a dithering idiot (I think we're supposed to be on their side, but I prefer the Queen to these wet losers). Everyone's lost their memory except the Queen, who's now called Regina (geddit??) and is the Mayor of Storybrooke, and Rumplestiltskin, played by Robert Carlyle, who gets to camp the fuck out in his Magic Land incarnation, all scaly skin and saying things like "Everything has a price, dearie" all the time. In Maine, he's an antique dealer/landlord called Mr Gold (geddit???).

Now, Regina has adopted this kid, who is really fucking irritating. He's got a storybook (with some unsuitably adult content, frankly) and has somehow come to the conclusion that the people around him are the displaced characters from Fairy Town. He also reckons that his real mum is the daughter of "Snow" and "Charming", making her the Chosen One, whose arrival in Storybrooke at the age of 28 (oh yeah, time has stood still in Storybrooke for 28 years, nobody except this precocious kid has aged and NOBODY'S FUCKING NOTICED) will break the curse. So he goes to find his mum Emma, who's out living in a proper city, convinces her to take him back to Storybrooke, and so it goes.

I think I read that some people who worked on Lost are behind Once Upon A Time, and if so, they've half-inched the episode structure where events in the present day share viewing time with pertinent flashbacks. So as events in Storybrooke unfold (painfully slowly), we get filled in on the fairy tale backstory. Back in Fantasy Kingdom, everyone dresses like they're in a bad 80s pop video, and the "magical" special effects and make up are like a bad 90s TV series.

So, I watched every episode of this, and I'm still not sure why. Emma, played by Jennifer Morrison (House), is quite a kick-arse heroine - in fact, with Regina, the flashback version of Snow and even, yes, Red Riding Hood, this is a show which prioritizes strong female characters. While not on the ridiculous level of Lost, there's also a tendency to leave mysteries hanging in a rather enticing way, so that you put up with some lame episodes to get to the truth of what's going on. And, occasionally, there's a flash of the darkness that lies behind all fairy tales. There's a second series due. I'll probably watch it.