Thursday, 29 December 2016

Seeing Doubles: the telly of 2016


It seems appropriate, given the year we've had, that the two best comedies of 2016 were, in fact, bleak as fuck. And both made me cry.

Flowers started with an attempted suicide, and didn't get noticeably cheerier from there. The tale of a dysfunctional family living in the sort of edge-of-the-woods rural setting that you'd normally find in a horror film, there was a whiff of The League Of Gentlemen about Flowers, but with the grotesquery damped down just enough for the characters to seem real (with the exception of egomaniacal supporting character George). Julian Barratt plays Maurice, a once successful children's author who's now failing at pretty much everything; meanwhile, Olivia Colman's Deborah initially appears mumsily chipper, but is clearly putting a brave face on crushing sadness. Their grown-up children still live in the family home, their evident creativity long stifled into bitterness and depression. And when Flowers isn't about broken families and broken dreams, it's about awkward infatuations. I know, proper barrel of laughs, right?

And yet, it still manages to be funny, and a slew of brilliant performances from Barratt, Colman, Daniel Rigby and Sophia Di Martino ensures that you actually care about these characters in a more involved way than you'd expect. Will Sharpe's turn as Shun, Maurice's eternally optimistic illustrator, seems kind of racist until you realise that (the English-Japanese) Sharpe wrote the series - and until the breathtaking revelation of Shun's backstory. That nearly had me in tears, as did a scene in what must be the country's most depressing layby, but in fact it was a simple image, of a father and daughter wearing makeshift hats linked by a tube, that set me off, proof of this series' weirdly alchemical effect. There will, apparently, be a second series, though I wonder whether this might be better left as a one-off bolt of lightning.

Olivia Colman also crops up in Fleabag as a stepmother so brimming with passive-aggressive wickedness that she might be the year's best telly villain, a comment which will probably appear rather blithe when you realise how many of the shows on this list are concerned with sexual abuse.

Fleabag probably shouldn't work. Its titular character, played by creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge who previously played an unpleasant assistant lawyer in the second series of Broadchurch, regularly breaks the fourth wall through sheer narcissism. She's cruel to those around her, staggers boozily between sexual encounters and seems to be utterly shameless. This could have been pretentious and shallow, but Fleabag (real name never uttered, as far as I can recall) is such a fully-realised creation that you can't look away - and the longer you look, the more you see of the character's initially hidden depths. Like Flowers, this is also a portrait of someone who's lost, or is in the process of losing, most of what gave their life meaning. The fact that this is partly their own fault does nothing to lessen the tragedy. More tears filling that barrel of laughs, then. Jesus, what's next, child abduction?


So, yeah, child abduction. Following the success of the book and film adaptation of Room, this was the year telly got well Fritzled.

Thirteen was given the poisoned chalice of being the first BBC3 drama to be available only on iPlayer, while the second series of The Missing was a high profile blockbuster. I'm not going for the standard underdog angle here; The Missing was definitely better. But Thirteen was definitely worth a look too, principally for the performance of Jodie Comer as the now 26-year old who escapes the clutches of the man who abducted her thirteen years previously. For reasons which I can't reveal without getting all spoilery, the parallel character of Alice Webster doesn't get as much airtime on The Missing as Comer's Ivy Moxam, so the latter's portrayal of a young woman trying to cope with her new freedom was the one area where Thirteen could outshine its flashier sibling. Comer perfectly captured the state of arrested development in which Ivy was trapped, playing someone who had effectively stopped maturing at the age of thirteen and who struggled with the way in which all the people she had loved had moved on with their lives while she had been trapped in a fucked up time capsule.

The Missing, though... Ironically, I missed the first series, due mainly to the presence of James Nesbitt. I accept that this is very much my own fault. From what I'm led to believe, though, everything about the second series was bigger and bolder; it certainly seemed so in comparison to its BBC3 counterpart. Where Thirteen's only flashbacks were achieved through the medium of CCTV, The Missing unfolded across four different timelines; Thirteen never left Bristol, while The Missing took place in Germany, France, Switzerland and even Iraq. And while Thirteen had a perfectly good cast, The Missing had Keeley Hawes, David Morrissey, Laura Fraser and Roger Allam, plus the returning Tcheky Karyo as investigator Julien Baptiste, a man so cool he makes a limp look as iconic as any cowboy's strut.

It's nigh on impossible to go into any deeper discussion of The Missing without giving something away. This series is so perfectly assembled, drip feeding facts and hints at just the right rate, that to dwell on any particular events would dilute its power for anyone who hasn't already watched it (and I heartily implore you to do so). There are mysteries beyond the matter of what happened to Alice, and who did it; gaps in our knowledge between events in 2014 and 2016, let alone before then. And, learning from the strengths of the Nordic Noir series it resembles in every sense (even in name - well, the translated versions), the effects of events on all the characters are placed centre stage rather than being steamrollered by police procedural aspects.

Also: no James Nesbitt.


It wasn't just the spectre of an Austrian child abuser darkening screens this year. Operation Yewtree cast a shadow over the third series of Line Of Duty, while Robbie Coltrane bravely portrayed a beloved celebrity brought low by accusations of historic abuse.

As with The Missing, it's difficult to go full-tilt into a discussion of Line Of Duty without dropping massive spoilers, but the events of the first two series fed into the latest installment to unlock a paedophile conspiracy which felt like something out of David Peace's Red Riding novels. At one point, this high profile BBC series even played with fire by using a photo of Jimmy Saville, though his name was never uttered. Too soon to photoshop a character into an old photo with Saville? The jury's out.

What is undeniable, however, is that this series belonged to Craig Parkinson and his performance as TV's shiftiest bent cop, "Dot" Cottan. As events began to spiral out of his control, The Caddy started to crack, and Parkinson was a tour de force throughout. His character developed new depths too, his wooing of Vicky McClure's Kate initially seeming to be just another of his Machiavellian schemes but maybe, just maybe, the actions of a lonely man desperate for a real human connection. McClure, Adrian Dunbar and Martin Compston were all on point as ever. Thankfully, the latter's Steve Arnott was finally allowed to stop ending up in bed with every lady he encountered, a trait which occasionally made the last series seem like a gritty reboot of Brush Strokes, with Jacko turning in his paintbrush to work in a police anti-corruption unit.

Kudos also to the always excellent Daniel Mays, and to Jonas Armstrong, whose turn as a survivor of child abuse - along with his appearance in Ripper Street, of which more later - is evidence that he's better served as a character actor in serious dramas than as the teatime leading man he was in Robin Hood not so long ago. Oh, and - SPOILER - Keeley Hawes reprised her role as Lyndsey Denton, and was no less powerful for not being as central this series.

National Treasure focused on a different side of child abuse. Specifically, on the figure of Paul Finchley, formerly half of a light entertainment comedy duo, now presenting game shows on Channel 4. And now accused of first one, then a string, of rapes in the 80s and 90s.

Fair play to Robbie Coltrane for taking on the role. Even if they have a distinct lack of skeletons in the closet, you'd think that any celebrity would be reluctant to associate themselves with the Yewtree stigma. Of course it's fiction, of course he's playing a role, but even on a subconscious level there's now a link out there. The stills of him arriving at court, flanked by his family, mingle in the mind with real life photos of people - probably in some cases people he knew. The likes of Lee Mack, Robert Webb and Frank Skinner crop up as themselves; Finchley is interviewed by Victoria Derbyshire. This series feels real, and, really, how fucking bold is it to make Yewtree: The Series while all of this is so raw?

Of course, it could have been horrible: disrespectful, lurid, tacky. It wasn't. And you could argue that the alleged victims could have been given more airtime, to show things from their side, although to do so would have risked upending the deliberate sense of ambiguity here. Finchley was a sinner, sure, but was he more sinned against than sinning? This big, blustery, foolish, sometimes quite thespily twattish man - was he capable of the things he was being accused of? As his legal team revealed the secrets of their trade, should we have been hoping they got him off, or horrified that they might? And what of the fates of his wife Marie (a flinty Julie Walters) and recovering drug addict daughter Dee (a frankly revelatory Andrea Riseborough)? Do we hope he gets off because he's innocent, or for their sakes?

National Treasure gave no definitive answer to how we should react when a beloved celebrity is accused of the worst - because there is no definitive answer. But this intelligent series at least encouraged us to think beyond tabloid headlines and consider the lives of those on both sides of the accusations.

I was going to throw in a joke about this being a remake of the Nicolas Cage film, but there really wasn't a good time, was there?


Enough of all this grimness, let's have some spies, yeah? All martinis and sharp suits and sexy liaisons and outlandish supervillains and bikinis and motorboat chases and droll one-liners and that. Yeah, baby!

Er, OK, none of that really applies to Deutschland 83, the best of the foreign language imports Channel 4 sought out this year (Blue Eyes and Spin are also worth a look, btw). Anyway, in musical terms, this isn't Shirley Bassey singing Goldfinger; it's 99 Red Balloons and Two Tribes. A young East German soldier is lured into an undercover mission on the other side of the Berlin Wall by his incredible shady, Stasi-employed aunt, the reward being money to cover a much-needed medical procedure for his mother. Initially, much is made from the culture shock young Martin Rauch experiences as he moves from spartan East Germany into the stacked supermarket shelves of The West. But any fish out of water comedy is balanced by the inevitable tension inherent in any undercover drama, as well as a series of dilemmas which test both Martin's allegiances and morality.

At the crux of the series is real life NATO training exercise Able Archer, which is mistaken by hawkish Soviets as preparation for Nuclear engagement. In this version of events, it falls to Martin to try and convince his superiors that they're mistaken and probably shouldn't press that big red button. So, yeah, stakes are pretty high. And, after the year we've had, the tensions running through the series seem not just historic, but also prescient.

Word is that, This Is England style, Deutschland 83 will return for two more series set at three year intervals (taking us up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, as keen-eyed historians will have calculated). On the strength of this opener, that would be a most welcome move.

The Night Manager was certainly a lot closer to traditional spy territory, as demonstrated when people immediately started talking of Tom Hiddleston as a potential Bond. And he was great in this Le Carre adaptation, as slick and exciting a yarn as we've seen on our screens for some time. The conflict here is no longer nation against nation, but underfunded government agencies against millionaire businessmen. Speaking of which, Hugh Laurie is on fine form as "the worst man in the world", Richard Onslow Roper, while Elizabeth Debicki, Tom Hollander and, of course, Olivia Colman provide stellar support. There was, perhaps, a certain blankness at the heart of this show; Hiddleston's Jonathan Pine wore so many identities that he could be hard to relate to as a central figure. But, really, that's a minor criticism of six of the most gripping hours of telly this year.


These two series are set close enough in time that they could share a crossover episode. Certainly, if Nathan Appleby and Edmund Reid found themselves face to face, they'd have plenty to chinwag about; besides shared interest in psychology and science, they both lost children in bodies of water. The spookiness of this coincidence surely wouldn't be lost on Appleby, a man who spent a series being besieged by the supernatural.

The Living And The Dead was essentially a BBC foray into the world of rural horror, with a side order of time travel, the latter perhaps inevitable given that the series was created by the team behind Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes. Like Jonas Armstrong, leading man Colin Morgan has gone from teatime telly in Merlin to more adult dramas like this and Humans, and his performance was constantly reliable in a series which could be a little lop-sided. While the main story arc was intriguing, the various spooky happenings fit into a Case Of The Week framework that became a little tiresome. If you're a fan of freaked-out country folk blaming inexplicable events on newfangled farm machinery, this Dark Rise To Candleford was very much for you. If you found that a little wearing, the ultimate reveal of what was buried in the field could have seemed like a knowing joke.

Oh yeah, time travel; throughout the series, there are glimpses of a lady in a red coat carrying what looks like an iPad. This was the primary mystery running through The Living And The Dead, and its final episode explanation turned out to be pretty satisfying, in a way reminiscent of The Others. The very last scene, apparently set simultaneously in 1894 and the 1920s, suggests a second series, though I'm not sure if that's been commissioned yet.

There was a certain spookiness afoot in Ripper Street as well - and, just to clarify, as I don't have Amazon Prime, I'm talking here about the fourth series, which aired on the BBC this year. Murderous activities amidst the Jewish community of Whitechapel are being attributed variously to a "golem", or perhaps some sort of supernatural wolf. Reid, happily chatting about coastal defences in Hampton-On-Sea (to which the real Edmund Reid retired, and which no longer exists due to coastal erosion), is called back to Whitechapel by the news that old friend Isaac Bloom is in the frame. He butts heads with Drake, now heading up H Division, but it isn't long before the power trio of Reid, Blake and Jackson are once again fighting crime together in their fancy trousers.

The first series of Ripper Street was another uneven Case Of The Week bonanza, but each subsequent outing has benefited from over-arching story arcs, and so it is here. There may, ultimately, be a Big Bad (to use Buffy parlance), but mostly H Division are rubbing up against varying degrees of villainy, from racist superintendent Constantine (Derek Riddell, also seen in The Missing) to David Threlfall's crooked wharfinger Abel Croker. And, of course, the men of H Division are no angels themselves. Ripper Street continues to depict a dangerous, amoral Victorian East End with aplomb, and with a tragic end to this series, and the apparent return of Joseph Mawle's Obadiah Shine due, the concluding part is going to be unmissable.


Two new genre-based comedy dramas from Channel 4, both of these series shared DNA with Misfits and Chewing Gum. Consequently, they were both sweary, scatalogical fun.

The premise of The Aliens is that, at some point in the past, aliens turned up in Britain and were subsequently quarantined to their own ghetto, only able to leave to work menial jobs in the wider world. For brilliantly unexplained reasons, these aliens are totally humanoid and often seem to have Welsh accents and tracksuits. And they're barely tolerated by humans, who tend to refer to them dismissively as "morks". Oh yeah, and if a human smokes alien hair, they get high, which might give you a clue as to main black market economy operating in this fucked-up mirror image of our world.

So, yeah, the comparisons to the ongoing refugee crisis are pretty clear (hair-smoking aside), but The Aliens is never heavy-handed in its polemic. The main story is of Lewis (Michael Socha), a prejudiced human who discovers that not only is he "half-mork", but his real Dad is a top boy in mork gangland who might hold the key to getting them all to rise up against their oppressors. It's like something out of Shakespeare, or ancient myth, albeit with a subplot about how his mork buddy Dominic (Jim Howick) has a gay crush on him.

Socha puts in a totally winning performance as a naif lost in a situation for which he's entirely unprepared, his face as expressive as femme (possibly) fatale Lilyhot's is inscrutable; as the latter, Michaela Cole comes close to stealing the series. Jim Howick is also brilliant. So that's three incredibly watchable lead characters (plus the excellent Michael Smiley as mork dad) and an intriguing concept with plenty left to explore. So did it get commissioned for a second series? Did it fuck.

Here's hoping Crazyhead fares better. For older readers, I should probably point out that it wasn't a retellling of the story of the late 80s Leicester grebo rockers.

Nope, Crazyhead was almost certainly described somewhere along the pitching process as a British Buffy, albeit with more swears and awkward sexual moments. As with The Aliens, others walk among us, only instead of trackie-wearing aliens, these are demons. Cara Theobold (previously of Downton Abbey, and probably having more fun here) plays Amy, who discovers that she can see these possessed rascals as they really are, and is promptly rescued/befriended by kickass demon hunter Raquel, played by Chewing Gum's Susan Wokoma (undoubtedly the star of the show). Once again, there's a comedy sidekick (Jake, as played by Lewis Reeves) with romantic designs on one of the other leads. And, spookily enough, mixed parentage crops up here, as it did in The Aliens.

As a teen-focused comedy drama, Crazyhead hits all the right notes. Tony Curran has tremendous fun as urbane head demon Callum, while his henchwoman Mercy has to balance demonic duties with being a single mother - cue a fiendish plot interrupted by childcare issues, and a fight using toys as weapons. While the story told in this first series is essentially self-contained, this is clearly a world which could be revisited. Let's hope it will be.

THE 100 and GOTHAM

I don't really have any truck with the concept of guilty pleasures. I mean, sure, if you're talking about Nazi Oi! bands or snuff movies, I get it - you probably should feel guilty about liking those. But otherwise, just enjoy what you want to enjoy.

That said, I wouldn't have predicted after their first series that I'd be recommending these two shows. So the link here isn't that these are guilty pleasures, but that these much-improved programmes are far better than you might think.

After an intermittently involving debut and a brilliant second run, The 100 made it to its third series this year. It's essentially a variation on the Young Adult sci-fi model as perfected by The Hunger Games, only with more explicit violence. Amongst its cast are alumni from Neighbours, Home & Away and, er, Hollyoaks. But before you resolve to never, ever watch it, here are some of the themes explored in Series 3.

The question of whether mass murder can ever be justifiable for the greater good, and what mark it leaves on the person who carries it out; the idea that virtual reality could become a cult, and the dangers inherent in any totalitarian belief system; the pros and cons of choosing between diplomacy and force when trying to end a war; different takes on tribal identity, and how possible it is to slip between them; the random ways in which religions can start, and the speed with which they can become embedded in a society. We're not in Erinsborough any more, Toto.

The world created over these three seasons is now so well-realised that The 100 genuinely rivals its more acclaimed counterparts - and sometimes resembles a mash-up of them. An Earth nuked back into the dark ages can evoke Game Of Thrones, albeit with grimy sci-fi technology; this season's City Of Light disciples become a massed threat to rival the Walking Dead. And The 100 certainly shows a similar willingness to kill off principal characters. It also routinely features female characters in positions of power, and pursues so many narrative threads that this season doesn't have a Big Bad so much as Several Bads of Varying Size. And while this year's real life events have made this seem a little less dystopian fantasy, a little more potential survival guide, it proved weirdly prescient in featuring an election where the winner was a populist candidate with fascist inclinations and brutal intentions. This episode aired in the US in February.

Hmmm... there was also an election in Gotham this year, where a shady businessman with a dark past and an evil plan became Mayor. Maybe the signs were there, in middlebrow TV drama, all along.

Anyway, the first season of Gotham suffered from a case of the Case Of The Week. Don't get me wrong, this structure works perfectly well in the right context; God knows nobody needs, say, Death In Paradise to start constructing series-long plot arcs. But Gotham S1 had too many no-mark bad guys clogging up an episode at a time, while apart from the inevitable "Who killed my parents?" yadda-yadda, the main thrust of the run was a boring gangland turf war. Gotham needed to get freaky; to go, well, batshit (pun only slightly intended).

This second series was divided into two segments: Rise Of The Villains and Wrath Of The Villains. It already sounds more fun, right? And over the course of these 22 episodes, we get much more of the stuff that fuels the Batman mythos: black hearts and outlandish plans, freakish villains and street-level super powers. In fact, what was remarkable about this season was how many different incarnations of the Batworld it managed to evoke, from the gritty feel of the 70s comic book to the goth violence of Tim Burton's movies, while pulling in characters and references from throughout the canon. When Nygma plants a giant bomb in the Gotham Museum of Art, there's even a distinctive whiff of the high camp 60s TV show.

Where the first series had various mobsters and the annoying Fish Mooney, this year the new characters proved much more entertaining. James Frain's Theo Galavan was just the right mixture of unnerving menace and Looney Tunes unpredictability, while BD Wong's Hugo Strange took control in the second half of the season. Of the returning cast, I imagine Robin Lord Taylor's Penguin isn't to everyone's taste, but I enjoy his wheedlingly freakish performance. This season took the character through various phases, from his psychotic desire for revenge against Galavan to his rehabilitation at the hands of Strange, before discovering that Pee Wee Herman was his Dad, a storyline which definitely had a touch of the Burton about it (not to mention, at its conclusion, a certain Shakespearean play). Corey Michael Smith's Ed Nygma also had a great season as the future Riddler succumbed to his demons. David Mazouz, often annoying in the first season as Young Master Bruce, coped well as his character started to hint at the resolve you'd expect from someone who'll eventually become Batman. OK, Ben Mackenzie's Gordon is still a wooden central character, but with all hell breaking loose around him this season was still a blast.

Oh yeah, and this guy.


In March 2013, three new British murder mystery series debuted in the same week: Broadchurch, the now (quite rightly) forgotten Mayday, and Shetland. At the time I pitched an article on the three to a website, who (quite rightly) never published it. Part of the problem was that when I came to write it, I rhapsodised about Broadchurch, tore into Mayday... and basically had nothing to say about Shetland, which despite a likeable cast and breathtaking scenery just seemed like another standard detective show. So, I didn't bother writing about Shetland, and the article never ran, though I remain proud of its title: The Homicides Of March.

It's strange, then to find myself recommending Shetland, but this year's third series moved away from self-contained two-part stories (er, Cases Of the Fortnight, I guess) to explore a conspiracy over a full six episodes. This newfound ambition was reflected both by the plot leaving the isles for Glasgow and by high profile appearances from the likes of Ciaran Hinds, Archie Panjabi and Anna Chancellor, but it was the regular cast that shone. Douglas Henshall's stoic DI Jimmy Perez is the reliable lynchpin of the series, while the 70s threads of Detective Constable Sandy Wilson are filled admirably by genuine Shetland native Steven Robertson. However, it was Alison O'Donnell, as the brilliant DS Tosh, who impressed most, not least due to the sensitive and unsensationalised treatment of a dark plot turn.

In Plain Sight was another Scottish detective series starring Douglas Henshall, this time set in 50s Lanarkshire. To be honest, its inclusion here is a bit of a swizz, as our recording of the first episode was unwatchably glitchy and we haven't got round to watching it on catch-up. But as it stars Martin Compston as Henshall's adversary, I imagine it's much like a gritty reboot of Brush Strokes, with Jacko turning in his paintbrush to go murdering ladies in 1950s Scotland.


WAR & PEACE was a tremendous achievement, condensing the notoriously sprawling novel into a highly watchable six-part adaptation with sterling performances from Paul Dano and James Norton. The second series of HUMANS couldn't compete with its predecessor in terms of mystery, but was a highly convincing rumination on ethics, responsibility and the importance of family. Two documentaries I enjoyed were Don Letts' THE STORY OF SKINHEAD and BACK IN TIME FOR BRIXTON, which was the first time I've managed to sit through a historical re-enactment/social experiment show, let alone one featuring Giles Coren. The Christmas special of INSIDE NO.9 was excellent. Toby Jones appearances for this year were THE SECRET AGENT (a rather dispiriting tale with a tremendous cast) and THE WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, which I'm only halfway through but isn't as engrossing as last year's Yuletide Christie adaptation And Then There Were None, but he'll no doubt be great in Sherlock on New Year's Day. I missed the main run of THE WINDSORS, but the Christmas special was rip-roaringly funny. The last series of PEAKY BLINDERS remains unaccountably unwatched on my Freeview box.

Also, this.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

2000-2003: Journalism

As the year 2000 rolled around just like Pulp said it would, I was less concerned with meeting an old flame by the fountain down the road than I was with doing some more writing about music. It was now several years since my stint on Southampton University music mag The Edge, and the zine myself and Jimmy had been working on was clearly not going to happen by this point.

At work, meanwhile, I'd progressed to a role where I'd chat to reps from record companies on a regular basis. If I'd heard the hot new band they were touting that week, perhaps on Peel or The Evening Session, or maybe if they'd supported someone at The Joiners, I'd give my opinion on what they sounded like - often pre-empting and predicting the official spiel the rep would have on them. It was suggested, therefore, that I should perhaps have a think about writing for the music press.

To this end, I wrote a review of a show I'd been to recently, sent it to a national music magazine and, of course, heard nothing. So I had another go, this time selecting a Joiners gig by Californian melodic hardcore types Gameface. This review is now lost to the mists of time - it was composed on an old word processor and posted to London, as I had no access to a computer, or even an email address, at this point in world history. I do remember being generally positive, while retaining a slight snarkiness about their middle of the road stylings - possibly remarking that their end of hardcore was actually soft enough that you could imagine the cast of Friends getting down to it. Sadly, my review would have had no space for opening band Portiswood.

Well, whatever I said, it worked. At some point in the next week or so, Simon took a call for me, which turned out to be from the live review editor of the magazine. He was, incredibly, up for giving me a go as a reviewer. And his first assignment for me was Sahara Hotnights at The Joiners.

Sahara Hotnights, who apparently still exist, are an all-girl band from Sweden; a few years after this review, frontwoman Maria Andersson would go out with Howlin' Pelle out of The Hives, but for now those heights of stardom would have to wait until they'd performed the thankless task of opening for Animal House, a band featuring former Ride member Mark Gardener. In fairness, according to my review, ver Hotnights had already sold 40,000 records in their own land, a fact which I'd either gleaned from extensive research or the press release I got sent. But cracking the UK is something to which most bands aspire, and if that means facing down a bunch of disinterested Ride diehards, so be it.

Ver Hotnights were too polished to be garage rock and too dirty to be pop, but made a pretty diverting racket somewhere inbetween. I gave them a pretty good, comparison-packed review, and seeing it in print was a genuine thrill, even if it was in an issue with Travis on the cover.

I was next summoned to the offices, not for bad behaviour but to meet the live editor along with a few other recently-acquired hacks, some of whom have gone on to write for some pretty august places, and others who I literally can't remember. The live editor seemed a pretty judgemental character for a man who had recently championed Travis - "No more Gameface!" he advised me, clearly unaware that within eighteen months the mag would be raving about not dissimilar bands when emo belatedly attracted mainstream attention. Then, when answering a question about local bands who might be worthy of attention, I attempted to describe Trophy Girls, and a stray reference to Slint or Tortoise got a makeshift biro crucifix held up at me, as if such sounds were blasphemous in the golden age of Travis we were then enjoying.

Then we went to the pub.

I did have business in London town, however. To make the most of my presence in the smoke, it had been arranged that I should review Derrero, a Welsh band who were opening up for Grandaddy at the Electric Ballroom in Camden. I was pretty chuffed about this - I'd heard their single Radar Intruder on Peel and dug it - so me and Jimmy met up in Camden looking forward to the show. Unfortunately, they turned out to be pretty ordinary - as did my review, which was initially rejected for not being good enough. I can't remember what the issue was exactly, but my second attempt was much better, and successfully made it into print.

A common thread running throughout my time writing about bands for magazines has been a largely doomed attempt to get coverage for DIY punk rock action into the mainstream. In fairness, many underground bands traditionally react to any overtures from the music press not with undying gratitude but with the sort of fury you'd normally reserve for a cold call asking about that accident at work you supposedly had, or a knock on the door from the local UKIP candidate - only with more of a moral high ground.

I did, however, manage to get a review of an STE festival into the national music press - well, OK, just a review of one of the bands performing, the likes of Urko and Imbalance left for the next chapter of this blog. The band in question were Chicago jazzcore proponents Sweep The Leg Johnny, and I got the impression I only got to write about them because their press person had sufficiently ground down the live editor. Still, it was great to big up the STE in (national) print, and Sweep were a thoroughly entertaining mixture of post-hardcore and free jazz - a sign of the varied music that was being dragged into the orbit of both the STE Collective and the punk scene in general back then, never mind the fact that at the exact same time that Sweep were playing The Kellar in Southampton, as mentioned in my review and written about on the very next page of the mag, NOFX and a bunch of similarly-minded Epi-Fat types were entertaining thousands at London's Deconstruction festival.

Also, my review used the word "parping", which Adam enjoyed.

Around this time, I went with assorted Gilamonsters and Winchester types (and The Leper) to see the return of the Bruce Dickinson-fronted Iron Maiden play Earls Court, with Slayer and Entombed in tow. You'll have to wait to hear more about that, though, as it wasn't me who reviewed it, although I did have a piece printed on the same page. And, far from relating the sounds of duelling guitars and the sights of  leather'n'spandex experienced in the capital, my hands had word processed words about Oxfordshire's Whispering Bob.

As I recall, this show was the Southampton leg of a Soton/Oxon gig swap with my old muckers Orko, now rebooted as Black Nielson, about whom more will doubtless be written in these parts. Whispering Bob would themselves change names a little while later, perhaps reasoning that naming yourselves after a still-broadcasting BBC DJ might seem a little twee for a band about to sign to Virgin and therefore rebranding themselves as Goldrush, and while they never quite got the success that my review wished for them, the brothers at their core would go on to indie scene significance via their Truck festival and label. The latter would release Black Nielson's splendid debut album, and I suspect the former will turn up here pretty soon. The Bennetts (for that is they) are still making music as The Dreaming Spires, as well as contributing to stuff by Danny & The Champions Of the World, post-Black Nielson outfit Co-Pilgrim, and solo work by Ride chap Mark Gardener, about whom I was only wittering about a few paragraphs ago. Gosh, it's all connected, isn't it?

So what was the next thing I wrote about? You guessed it: Truck festival, the 2000 edition. I'm pretty sure I was already going, thanks to my friendship with the aforementioned Black Nielson, who were on the bill, but it was lovely to be asked to review it as well. I'm not sure whether it was Black Nielson, or my favourable Whispering Bob review, or the fact that I was reviewing the shebang, that got me a camping spot in the VIP area, but it says a great deal about the sort of festival it was that said area was no more than a cordoned off space inside what you could inaccurately describe as the "main arena", its main perk being that you didn't have to walk the five or so minutes to the campsite for yer average Joes. With catering provided by the Didcot Rotary Club, this was an amusing world away from your Readings and Glastonburys, a state of affairs I gently mocked in my review.

As well as writing on a whopping five bands, I had another job to do onsite: my first interview for the mag, with Shifty Disco-signed one-man band Jack Drag. John Dragonetti, as he was really called, was a mellow charmer, and our conversation, sat on the grass on a lovely July day, was a very pleasant induction into the world of rock star interviews. His band, who played later that same day, were pretty sweet too, all gentle indie psychedelia in the style of Folk Implosion or Flaming Lips.

One of the festival's stand-outs were John Robb's brilliant punk soul brothers Gold Blade. In marked contrast to the general politeness of the proceedings, PVC-trousered Brother John took exception to my long hair (threatening "I wanna shave you" at me from the main stage, which was the back of an old HGV) and then whipping out a comb to run through the hair of Black Nielson member Will. Also on the bill that day, and strongly resembling a John Peel playlist, were the likes of The Rock Of Travolta, The Samurai Seven, Pluto Monkey, KaitO and future Foals The Edmund Fitzgerald. The second stage - by which I mean the cow shed, still smelling of its usual function - was headlined by triple bass post-rockers Rothko, whose gentle sounds drifted pleasantly into the Oxfordshire evening, while Londoners Seafood, then at the top of their alt-rock game, finished the main stage festivities with a clutch of great tunes and - what will the Rotary Club say? - some instrument-smashing.

On the Sunday, the second stage - renamed The Barn That Cannot Be Named in honour of its curators from Oxford club night, yes, The Club That Cannot Be Named - was a metal stage, boasting the likes of Defenestration, Inline Sk8ing Barbies and something called Shouting Myke. Its headliners, however, were the mighty Raging Speedhorn, who blasted away the variable quality of their barn-rocking predecessors with a mighty set of sludge-slinging aggro. Wandering over to the main stage to watch Unbelievable Truth should have been a come-down, but they were long-term favourites of Clare, and an agreeable way to finish the weekend.

Come the end of September, Muse were celebrating what might have been their first cover appearance, but even more significant was the fact that I'd got two live reviews in the one issue, both involving trips to Portsmouth's Wedgewood Rooms. One was of forgettable (and, indeed now-forgotten) indie band Straw, a band I summed up with the phrase "So far, so stright-in-at-Number-27", blissfully unaware that the singles chart would cease to have any relevance whatsoever within a decade or so. The other was a great deal more fun, given that it detailed an encounter with the Supersuckers at what was, in retrospect, their absolute peak. A year or so earlier, they'd released the solid gold album The Evil Powers of Rock'N'Roll, a record which would later lend its name to a zine by members of the excellent You're Smiling Now But We'll All Turn Into Demons, who hail from... Portsmouth. Gosh, it's all connected, isn't it? Anyway, this accurately-named release had followed swiftly on the heels of a greatest hits album. It's a ballsy move to release a greatest hits album when you haven't really had any hits. Particularly when you go and call it How the Supersuckers Became the Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World.

As you may have guessed, while noting that they chose to spell it two different ways on consecutive releases, the Supersuckers played (and, indeed, still play) Rock'N'Roll. They weren't exactly reticent about drawing attention to this either, with perma-Stetsonned frontman Eddie Spaghetti (you heard) pointing out onstage "There ain't no sub-genre for this. This is what we call ROCK! AND! ROLL!"
It's quite mad to think that this lot came out of the same Seattle scene as Pearl Jam.

This was one of my favourite reviews of the time, not least because I wrote it on the train home while quite refreshed, leading to the printed assertion that this was a band who could "incite a whiskey-fuelled knife fight in a monastery".

Within a week or so, there was more rock'n'roll, and indeed, more Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms, when I was despatched to write about The Yo-Yo's. Despite my best intentions, Clare and I only arrived in time for the end of the opening band's set. This was an outfit I'd heard on CD samplers for Swedish label Burning Heart, and I figured that as an underground European punk band they'd be unlikely to make it over to the UK very often. The band in question was The Hives, who in due course would make it much bigger than any of the bands I've actually reviewed in this chapter so far.

Main support that night was the mighty Groop Dogdrill, at that point on their uppers after getting dropped by their label, something which I described as an "injustice". This may have been the last time I got to see them, as history records that they split the following year. More recently, I've seen frontman Pete Spiby at least a couple of times with his current endeavour Black Spiders... who I've recently heard might have split up. It's a shit business.

And so to the Yo-Yo's, one of the many bands on the Wildhearts rock family tree. Formed and fronted by former 'Hearts bassist Danny McCormack, a man whose well-documented drug problems didn't stop him from penning cheery tunes which I compared to "Eddie Cochran joining the Ramones to cover the Grease soundtrack".

Danny threw up into a bucket onstage and opened a beer bottle with his teeth, but he was a shrinking violet compared to Davey Crockett out of, er, The Crocketts, who were my next assignment back at the dear old Joiners. A hyperactive chap who leapt about the stage while speaking in tongues and punching himself in the head, it might read as if he was trying a little too hard. I found him convincing, however, and some of his bands' tunes were genuinely good, drawing on the decadent soul of The Pogues and the scattershot fire of The Clash's live performances. There was one clunker, a tune called On Something which played up the wacky angle a little too much for comfort, but otherwise they were a good night out. I think this was also the evening I met a future colleague, Emma Johnston, who introduced me to Davey after the show. The man in question was charming and gave me a signed copy of a poetry book he'd had published.

The setting was the same, but the music very different, when I went to review Cousteau at the Joiners a couple of weeks later. Black Nielson were the support, and I managed to get them in print with favourable comparisons to Grandaddy and Mercury Rev, while pointing out that they'd signed to Truck Records.

Now, as for Cousteau... This lot were a London outfit, dealing in the same sort of late night bar room croon as Tindersticks. They had one excellent track, The Last Good Day Of The Year, but the bulk of their material was just a bit too MOR, a bit lacking in danger or grit. I duly gave them a gentle drubbing, but experienced for the first time an editor rewriting large chunks of my text, making it way more negative and throwing in a reference to Scott Walker, a comparison I'd deliberately avoided as it had already been attached to Cousteau so often it bordered on cliche. A while later, Cousteau played The Joiners again, and I went on account of Black Nielson getting the call-up to support a second time. I was rather concerned that singer Liam McKahey, a hard-looking fellow, would know who I was and have a go, but luckily I was able to skulk about anonymously.

A few weeks later, I was able to convince the live editor that my old punk rock favourites Avail should get covered in the mag. This I achieved by placing them within the wave of noisy alternative rock which had recently washed up on British shores: At The Drive-In, Queens Of The Stone Age, ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, even Amen, whose cartoonish frontman Casey Chaos would appear on the cover of the issue which contained my review of Avail at the Wedgewood Rooms. As discussed in a previous chapter, my review was consequently rather over-keen to sell Avail to readers who might have been into said bands, but getting them into the mag was still a proud moment.

It appears that at this point I must have had some influence on things, or alternatively that nobody really knew what was going on. Either of these might explain the fact that my next published live review was of local electronic duo Lien, signed to my mate John's Skool Records label and on this occasion performing downstairs at the Rhino Club - quite possibly while DJ Hammy span indie floorfillers in the main room.

I was at pains not to hype them simply because I knew John, so gave them a pretty fair review which threw in comparisons to Boards Of Canada and Sigur Ros while also commenting on their occasional "drift into the territory of wind-powered sound systems". I also couldn't help but mention John himself, who was heckling the band throughout. While this was both good-natured and entirely in keeping with his tricksterish character, one of Lien later told me they'd been pretty fucking annoyed with him.

Next we go to an issue packed with coverage from the magazine's awards show, with the faintly stomach-churning prospect of a Bono/Gallagher brothers love-in on the front cover. Distant from that scene both geographically and spiritually, I was reviewing Pitchshifter at my old stomping ground of Southampton Uni.

I'd been into Pitchshifter since their early years thanks to John Peel; more recently, they'd crossed over to become local rock club dancefloor favourites with the song Genius. Clare's sister Sarah came along with me, and we arrived shortly before the end of the opening band's set. Said band were Lostprophets, about whom it's very hard to write these days without recourse to gallows humour or moral outrage. Between their days opening bills and their eventual implosion, they would make it to festival headliner status, a position sadly beyond the reach of fellow support earthtone9, who played a cracking set at Southampton Uni that night.

To be totally honest, I was less keen on Pitchshifter in 2001 than I had been even a few years previously, but felt that Nottingham's industrial metal veterans deserved a decent notice that night. I duly focused on their plus points and threw in a bunch of on point comparisons (my favourite being "like RATM listening to old  jungle mixtapes"). As I pointed out, they'd just been dumped by Universal, and it turned out that they'd never really reclaim the lost ground that ensued.

Next up was a trip to the Wedgewood Rooms. Orange Goblin were headlining, but my brief was to review the main support - which was OK, because they were the excellent Nebula. (I think this might have been my first time seeing Goblin, but it certainly wouldn't be the last.) Nebula were a breakaway group from Fu Manchu, one of the big cheeses of the stoner rock world, and the power trio I was reviewing in Pompey that night took that sound and added psych and punk overtones to arrive at something not unlike Mudhoney at their most full-throttle. their drummer was also, rather winningly, carting a massive gong about with him just so he could light a beater on fire and smash the fuck out of it at the end of the set. I'm not sure whether this was the first time a quote from one of my reviews was used in advertising, but my description of then forthcoming single Do It Now as "a perfect, primal call to arms" made it onto print ads for its release.

Chris out of The Gilamonsters accompanied me to Portsmouth for the unmissable pairing of Goblin and Nebula, and I remember us chatting to some local types between bands. With prior experience of the Soton/Pompey beef, I was reluctant to open us to hostility, so when asked where we from, I simply replied "the west." Chris went one better, converting his New Forest residency into the perfect reply: "I live in the woods."

With all these reviews to chat about, I've failed to mention that I started seeing Anna at the end of the year 2000, a union which would ultimately lead me to Brighton. Before that permanent move, however, I'd sometimes travel back to her folks' place in Haywards Heath, itself a tantalisingly short distance from the pebbly-beached mecca of debauchery. On such visits, I'd always check out what was going on in the city's live music arena, beginning with a chance to go and review Hood playing a show at The Lift.

Another band who fit this blog's favourite template of underrated bands who never made it, this Leeds lot dealt in post-rock at its most pastoral, with an understatedly nostalgic pull to their music which would make it entirely appropriate to compare their semi-forgotten status to a faded, sepia-tinted photograph of the times. Or, in the spirit of excited revisionism, you could say that they marked a midway point on a continuum of English experimentation that started with Talk Talk, continued through the likes of AR Kane and Bark Psychosis, and probably finds its modern incarnation in the last These New Puritans record or, deeper underground, the New Wyrd Anglicana exhumed by labels like Front & Follow and Exotic Pylon.

At the time, the main story was that Hood's sound had broadened from the fragility of earlier records to dabble in echoes of dub and electronica. In print, I expressed a hope that they might gain broader recognition on the back of then-current mini-album Home Is Where It Hurts. Nope, obviously. Hood continued through to the mid-90s with a couple of fine albums, while members have done stuff under suitably rural-sounding names like Bracken and The Declining Winter. The Lift, meanwhile, has changed names several times but now seems firmly ensconced in Brighton's music scene as The Hope & Ruin - and at the precise time of typing these words, the location of the last show I attended (The Wharves and Slum Of Legs).

Back on then-home turf, my next assignment was to assess the merits of up and coming Aldershot emo types Hundred Reasons at The Joiners. I proved rather sniffy about them, while attempting to bolster my punk rock credentials by pointing readers in the direction of proper emo labels Deep Elm, Jade Tree and DeSoto instead.

The following week, I had two reviews in the magazine. Continuing a tradition of reviewing support bands not headliners, I was despatched to London's Mean Fiddler - previously the LA2, and latterly purchased by Crossrail - to spend an evening in the company of death metal's Great Beasts, Morbid Angel. However, it was the support bands I was there to write about. First up were Norway's Cadaver Inc. Both before and since, they were known simply as Cadaver, but the shtick around their then-current album Discipline was that they were a business offering the essential services of murder scene clean-up and corpse removal. Zyklon, meanwhile, had a genuine crim on hand, namely Emperor guitarist Samoth. It says much about the change in attitudes of this time that a band formed by a church-burning black metal legend was attracting the attention of the mainstream music press. Perhaps not uncoincidentally, John Peel had recently found himself pulled back to extremity, evoking his days spinning grindcore in the late 80s by championing Relapse bands like Nile and Cephalic Carnage, as well as unrelated oddities like Bal-Sagoth. And I'd recently felt the need to dive back into metal's murkier waters, becoming a Terrorizer reader (initially due to the presence of Chris out of The Gilamonsters in their writing team) and filling in the blanks from the years when I'd stopped paying attention.

You can't get much further from Zyklon than Bright Eyes, but that was the other outfit I was reviewing in that week of May 2001. I gently mocked Conor Oberst's angst while giving him/them a decent write-up, singling out the tunes Arienette and The Calendar Hung Itself for praise. The show at the Wedgewood Rooms was in fact a support slot (again), with headliners Arab Strap bringing a fair few of my Southampton buddies across to Portsmouth - many of us having to leave before the end of Arab Strap's set to rush back to Fratton station and the last train home.

My next assignment was at The Brook in Southampton, a venue which at that point rarely put on anything of interest. Anna came with me and as we walked down Portswood Road on the way to the gig we had the unpleasant experience of seeing a cat get run over. At the show, one of the members of the support band, old Gilas mates The Equidistant Sound, helped me comfort Anna, who was particularly shaken by events. Oh yeah, the band I was reviewing were Regular Fries, one of the lynchpins of the short-lived skunk rock scene - essentially a supercharged take on baggy, which steadfastly refused to catch on until, as Jimmy has pointed out, Kasabian took something fairly similar into the Oasis-shaped vacuum of 21st Century indie music. The Fries were a lot of fun that night, though. I concluded my review by confidently stating that "this brilliantly irregular party shows no signs of winding down."

Yeah, they split up that year.

Back to London, and back to only reviewing the support bands next. Cathedral were playing the Underworld in the company of Spirit Caravan and The Dukes Of Nothing. The latter featured members of Iron Monkey, Acrimony and Orange Goblin, as well as future Turbonegro frontman Tony Sylvester; the former were the current band of doom legend Wino, a man who did much to set the modern idea of doom metal in stone with The Obsessed and Saint Vitus. Man, Spirit Caravan were great, a band who proved that doom metal could be soulful while still being heavy as hell (see also: Goatsnake).

At this point, NYC (The Strokes, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, er, ARE Weapons) and Detroit (The White Stripes, The Von Bondies, er, Electric Six) were the coolest places on Earth. Meanwhile, I was reviewing a band from Oxford in Winchester; Meanwhile, Back In Communist Russia was their name, and I dug their Life Without Buildings-esque business.

Then it was back to Brighton, to watch excellent locals Electrelane play in excellent local cinema The Duke Of York's. I noted the band's static solemnity but praised the raggedness around their edges, and I stand by the fact that one of the most enlivening things about their early period was a slightly ramshackle quality all their own.

A weird pairing came my way when I was sent to review Americana types The Pernice Brothers at The Joiners. In support were my chums Black Blue Fish...Very Beautiful, whose Beefheart/Beta Band trance out was in marked contrast to the fun-but-straightforward tunesmithery of the headliners; great to get BBF...VB in the magazine, though.

At some point over the last few paragraphs, 9/11 happened. Not to mention it seems off, but this is clearly not the forum to discuss its impact. Certainly, several million places down the list of things affected by that day was the postponement of one-off travelling metal festival Tattoo The Planet, which myself and my fellow Gilamonsters attended a month or so later than originally planned. My review ticket got me a seat up on the balcony of Wembley Arena, while my mates were free to go buck wild down on the floor (though I think Chris came to sit with me towards that latter stages of the evening).

Brit nu-metal types Defenestration opened the bill - and how incredible it is to think that Defenestration once played Wembley Arena - but my review started with Raging Speedhorn, delivering their usual blast of merry hell. Napalm Death were up next and in rude health, before Biohazard played a set about which you couldn't help but have mixed feelings. On the one hand, you had to admire a band from NYC for refusing to bow to their fears - and unlike headliners Pantera, who pulled out of the tour, members of Biohazard had literally watched 9/11 happen with their own eyes. And on the other, Biohazard are, essentially, a fucking joke. Could have done without the phrase "campest band of the day, by far." being added to my review, though.

Like Napalm, Therapy? were very much old favourites, and even seven years on from Troublegum could still justify a place high up the bill on a day like this. I was quite proud of my observation that their tune Knives condensed everything Slipknot's first album had to say (lyrically) into two minutes. Cradle Of Filth were the penultimate band of the night, and while it's never exactly been hard to have a joke at their expense, their panto black metal was a blast. Though not as much as Slayer, headlining in Pantera's absence and firing on all cylinders, despite Tom Araya seeming a little, well, refreshed. ("This song," he declared blearily at one point, "is from the soundtrack..." He never felt the need to specify which soundtrack, so the band just kicked into the song).

A week later, and once again giving me the option for a comedy segue between metal berzerkers and the rather more sedate sounds of Goldrush, as Whispering Bob were now calling themselves. I was reviewing them at Southampton uni, and I must confess this is the one gig of all of these shows that I honestly cannot remember. Maybe cos I saw Goldrush quite often around this point, I guess. Attempts to verify what happened that evening (for example, were they in fact supporting somebody?) via online searches have led me to a 70s funk cover band called Goldrush, based in Southampton ("but willing to travel!"):

Now I come to think of it, though, I seem to remember seeing Elbow play the uni around this time, and sure enough this was the show at which Goldrush supported. Elbow would have been touring in support of their debut album, Asleep In The Back, which at that point had been out less than six months. I didn't particularly have an opinion on Elbow at this point, but Guy Garvey was an entertaining raconteur, and their songs felt bigger and warmer live than on Steve Lamacq's radio show.

As for Goldrush, the comparisons touted by me in the review were the triple threat of Starsailor, Travis and Coldplay (specifically, they weren't as overwrought as Starsailor, their songs were as catchy as Travis, and a similar lack of an image never stopped Coldplay). Obviously they never made it to be as big as those bands, but I'd rather listen to them now than any of their more famous peers.

Around this time at the magazine, reviews editors changed and work started drying up. And so I didn't do another live review for something like six months, though at least when I was called back into service it was for a splendid show: Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, supported by The (International) Noise Conspiracy and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs at Brixton Academy.

Anna and I had intended to go and see The Yeah Yeah Yeahs at The Freebutt on one of our trips to Brighton. There had been quite a buzz about them so I suggested getting there early, but Anna was having none of it, confident that gigs at The Freebutt rarely sold out. When we got there, the queue stretched round the corner and some way up the road, with the number of people waiting numbering several times the amount who would actually fit into the venue. We ended up going to a 100% Dynamite club night instead.

At Brixton, I got to see the band at last, in a venue many times bigger than The Freebutt. This was definitely one of those times when you see a band early on (they'd released an EP, but Fever To Tell  wouldn't come out for another year) and immediately realise you're in the presence of future stars. Incidentally, I was also in the presence of my friend Leesy, who'd come to the show with me, and who would later be in the bands Help She Can't Swim and Daskinsey4 (amongst others).

As well as rocking out to their anti-capitalist garage punk, I also interviewed The (International) Noise Conspiracy frontman Dennis Lyxzen for a piece on the band. Lyxzen's former (and, at the time of writing, now current again) band Refused had seen their fame grow exponentially after their fractious 1998 split, to the point where nu-metal jokes Crazy Town had covered their biggest tune, New Noise ( (Lyxzen: "For that, someone needs to die"). He was good company: serious about his socialism but also about the need for showmanship, sweat and danger, bigging up both the Black Power moves of the 70s funk scene and the way British pop bands often snuck socio-politics into the charts in the 80s. Onstage his band lived up to this big talk; I didn't review them for the live piece, but in my interview I compared Lyxzen's onstage presence to a cross between Cedric out of At the Drive-In and David Lee Roth.

Spring 2002 didn't, perhaps, find Jon Spencer Blues Explosion at their peak. Their recently released Plastic Fang album felt lightweight compared to its heavy predecessors like Orange or Now I Got Worry. However, even after fired-up sets from two exciting, up-and-coming bands, Blues Explosion didn't disappoint. Through a dedication to performance and sheer force of will, they delivered a barnstorming blast of alt-rockabilly.

A couple of months later, I was back in London on another pretty great assignment: reviewing Le Tigre at the Astoria. And like the JSBX show, this was another excellent line-up, with support from Slumber Party and The Kills. Like The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Kills were an opening band soon to go places, though their star power consisted of a studied cool in marked contrast to the abandon of Karen O. I'd seen singer VV in a previous life, back when she was called Alison Mosshart (a name to which she's since returned) and was playing The Joiners with Florida punks Discount. And guitarist Hotel (or Jamie Hince, a name to which he's since returned) had previously been in Scarfo, a band I really liked who sounded a little like a mod Fugazi. The Kills were markedly different to their previous endeavours, however: a voice, a guitar and a drum machine creating scratchy, minimalist garage blues. I enjoyed them, though I knew that my punk friends who'd been into Discount thought they were terrible.

I can't remember what the Black Nielson lot thought about The Kills, but they were in attendance for Slumber Party, with whom they'd played and become friends with. Slumber Party, who I believe are still in existence, are an all-female band from Detroit, signed to venerable indie label Kill Rock Stars. Less rock'n'roll then The Kills and less danceable than Le Tigre, they provided a sweet mellow spot in the middle of the evening, the memory of which makes me feel slightly lame for never checking out their music again.

Le Tigre were, obviously, ruddy great. From Bikini Kill to The Julie Ruin, via recent-ish documentary The Punk Singer, Kathleen Hanna has long been one of the US alternative scene's most inspirational figures, and Le Tigre, in which she performed with JD Samson and Johanna Fateman, was her mid-career pop high. Like the slightly less successful Chicks On Speed, they eschewed electric guitars and sent up rockist tendencies, importing things like matching costumes and synchronised dance moves from mainstream pop into the alternative scene. Their LGBT-friendly femtronica ramalama was most welcome. The issue my review ran in had Oasis on the cover.

I only had one more review published in the magazine before fading from its pages. And this show was in Bristol, so I rearranged work shifts, got ont eh blower to my old mate Geek Tom, then studying in Brizzle, to arrange company and a place to crash, and headed to the Fleece & Firkin to see Rival Schools.

This time the bill was a little less overwhelming. Magic Dirt opened, a band who, Wikipedia tells me, had already been doing the rounds for over a decade, supporting the great and good of grunge (and Silverchair!) around their native Australia. As far as I can remember, they played pretty decent, fuzzy alt-rock, good enough for me to pick up their album - when I found a promo copy going cheap somewhere. Also on the bill were Little Hell, about whom I can remember the following details: 1) some of them had been in a band with the bassist out of EMF, and 2) they were shit.

Rival Schools were not shit. Not as good as frontman Walter Schreifels' old bands Gorilla biscuits and Quicksand, sure, but not shit. This was the point that emo was threatening to blow up like grunge had a decade earlier - which it would, but only when the MTV-friendly likes of My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy showed up. 2002 was kind of the transitional point for the scene, with bands putting out records on major labels but still connected to punk ethics and history in a way which just wouldn't apply to, say, Panic! At The Disco.

Accordingly, Rival Schools had released their debut full-length on Island, and it was a pretty polished, catchy alt-rock record. Said polish was less evident in a sweaty Fleece, with the band careering through their material at breakneck pace. As with Fugazi and At the Drive-In, some of their slower tunes were delivered live with almost dubby basslines, which made a change from what might otherwise have been a slightly samey set.

Over the next year, I'd write a few bits for a free mag called Logo, including reviews of Raging Speedhorn and Cave In at the Wedgewood Rooms, but it wasn't until moving to Brighton that I got a heads up about another national mag which might be interested in my work. I'll get to that another time, but we're not done with Southampton yet: next time, I'll get onto the punk rock shows of 2000-2003.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

2015: Over and Out

Looking back at previous year-end posts, I've realised that I tend to be pretty gloomy when looking back at the recent past. This year has certainly given us plenty of reasons to be fearful, a long list which I'm not going to go into here. Because it strikes me that celebrating the positive is part of the fight back against those who would deny us hope.

Don't get me wrong, I have utmost respect for those who agitate, protest and stand up against all the shit we have to deal with. And I certainly don't think that burying your head in the sand is an option right now. But when people deliberately aim an attack on those in pursuit of pleasure - going to a show or a football match, or just having a meal - continuing to do those things becomes a form of resistance. And I'm not just talking about Jihadi attacks - there's plenty of twisted ideology governing this country, and in punishing the least well off, those in power are undoubtedly revealed as anti-hope. Anti-joy.

This being positive thing is going well, isn't it?

So, fuck those guys, and celebrate the good things, and the good times. Which for me this year, included getting to celebrate three brilliant couples getting hitched. It was a genuine honour to be present at the weddings of Clare and Rich, Emily and Burton, and Noelle and Adam, all of whose big days were a blast. As a result, Anna and I also got to visit Liverpool and Bath, two wonderful towns we haven't been to in far too long. We also headed to Bridport with Anna's family to go for coastal walks, check out lots of Broadchurch locations, try and find a pub which wasn't a Palmer's pub, enjoy a hat festival, catch up with my folks and, most importantly, spend lots of time with our brilliant little nephew, Rory.

This was also a year for catching up with old friends, with Ross and Laura, and Adam & Di, visiting the UK from America and Australia respectively. November saw a very drunken night in Hitchin for the wonderful Caroline's 40th, attended by a bunch of old skool Southampton faces, some of whom I hadn't seen in nearly two decades. It was also great to catch up with Steeny and Sophie at the Teeth Of The Sea show at the Green Door Store. And Jimmy and the rest of TOTS, natch.

2016 already has two more weddings in store for us (James and Marianne, and Sarah and Duncan), and hopefully a chance to hang out with some of the many people I didn't see this year.

Anyway, onto the tunes and that...


1.Henry Blacker - Summer Tombs

2. Sleater-Kinney - No Cities To Love

3. Bad Guys - Bad Guynaecology

4. Grave Pleasures - Dreamcrash

5. Evil Blizzard - Everybody Come To Church

6. Gallows - Desolation Sounds

7. Teeth Of The Sea - Highly Deadly Black Tarantula

8. Acid King - Middle Of Nowhere, Center Of Everywhere

9. Hey Colossus - Radio Static High

10. Goatsnake - Black Age Blues

11. Beach Slang - The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us

12. Iron Maiden - The Book Of Souls

13. Grey Hairs - Colossal Downer

14. Torche - Restarter

15. You're Smiling Now But We'll All Turn Into Demons -  Population IV

16. Purity Ring - Another Eternity

17. Sunn O))) - Kannon

18. Nai Harvest - Hairball

19. Destruction Unit - Negative Feedback Resistor

20. Brothers Of The Sonic Cloth - Brothers Of The Sonic Cloth


1. Bad Guys - Crime

2. Henry Blacker - Summer Tombs

3. Jamie Woon - Sharpness

4. Stormzy - Know Me From

5. Everything Everything - Regret

6. Gallows - Mystic Death

7. Sleater-Kinney - Price Tag

8. JME - Man Don't Care

9. Bad Guys - Reaper

10. You're Smiling Now But We'll All Turn Into Demons - Seya


Carlton Melton/Wytch Pycknyck @ The Green Door Store
Cuz/Joeyfat/Daniel Wakeford @ Sticky Mike's
Daskinsey4@ The Cowley and The West Hill Hall
Death Angel @ The Concorde
Earth @ The Komedia

11Paranoias/Bad Guys/Broken DC @ The Green Door Store
Give/Cheap Affects @ Sticky Mike's
Gnod @ Sticky Mike's
Harda Tider/Damaged Head/TEEF @ The Cowley 
Duncan Harrison @ The Cowley
Hey Colossus @ Sticky Mike's
Joe Buck Yourself/Viva Le Vox @ The Cowley
Th'Legendary Shack Shakers @ The Haunt
Long Knife @ The Cowley 
Lower Slaughter @ The Cowley and Sticky Mike's (twice!)
Mudhoney @ The Concorde
Prolapse @ The Hope
Daniel Romano @ The Albert
Peggy Seeger @ The Ropetackle
Sheer Mag @ The West Hill Hall

Single Mothers @ The Hope
Slum Of Legs @ The Hope (twice!)
Swervedriver @ The Haunt
Teeth Of The Sea @ The Green Door Store

Therapy? @ The Concorde and The Electric Ballroom
Walk Through Fire/War Wolf @ Bleach
The Wharves @ The Hope


1. No Offence

The trailers for No Offence made it look like a comedy show, but it wasn't, really. I mean, a series whose central plot involves the hunt for a serial rapist and murderer of girls with Down's Syndrome hardly screams "barrel of laughs", does it? Rather than being some sort of police procedural sitcom, No Offence had the balls to leaven the harrowing situations with humour through the presence of several witty characters, not least Joanna Scanlan's turn as DI Viv Deering. Speaking of which, balls might not be the most appropriate word to use for a cop show whose three central characters are all well-written, brilliantly acted women. Apparently, there's going to be a second series, which is good news - although it'll be interesting to see how they handle the fall out from the gruesome conclusion to the first.

2.The Bridge

Just to lay my cards on the table, I'm writing this without watching the last two episodes of The Bridge III. But, let's face it, the chances of them fucking it up seem minimal. I wondered whether this series could maintain its grip on me with the absence of Kim Bodnia's wonderful Martin Rohde. I needn't have worried; I was hooked as soon as the title sequence hit (I suspect that that tune by Choir Of Young Believers will send night time images of Malmö, Copenhagen and the titular Øresund Bridge into my brain for as long as I live). Sofia Helin's portrayal of protagonist Saga Norén remains something to marvel over, with this series dumping more shit on her than ever before, while Thure Lindhart proves a decent replacement for Martin as Henrik Sabroe, a man with his own fair share of secrets. It's hard to talk about the central murder plot without spoilers, but many of the trademarks of the first two series remain: a shadowy killer, a selection of individual sub-plots which only come into focus over time (and which include plenty of red herrings), characters who initially seem crucial to events but who disappear from the screen as soon as their usefulness to the narrative expires. And sex. I was also chuffed to see Nicolas Bro turn up, as I had a soft spot for his turn as Thomas Buch in the second series of The Killing. Though I feel a bit weird mentioning him straight after the word 'sex'.

3. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Supposedly unfilmable, this novel proved a televisual triumph, even if ratings disappointed. The ever-reliable Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan played the eponymous protagonists, with support from an excellent cast. The tone and atmosphere were just right, and (assuming that there is never a sequel to the novel - or an original second series) this was 2015's best and weirdest one-off.

4.The Returned

Viewers left distraught at the vague ending of The Returned's first series were surely missing the point - there was no way this wasn't coming back (which feels like it should be a joke, given the whole rising from the dead theme and that). This second series succeeded in moving the story on, introducing new characters and drip-feeding clues as to what the ruddy hell is going on in this creepy French town. This time round, the finale seemed to bring a sense of closure, although there were still plenty of questions and general weirdness left hanging.

Anyway, here's a picture of Victor in a Skid Row t-shirt.

5. Humans

This one seemed to divide opinion, even as it became Channel 4's most successful drama in years. Folk were quick to point out an apparent lack of originality, and sure, you could see plenty of echoes of things (deep breath...):  The idea of conscious machines being indistinguishable from humans has been explored in plenty of SF fiction, most famously in Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, subsequently adapted as Blade Runner, whose replicants are a clear predecessor of the group of "synths" on the run in Humans. The paranoid tension of this situation recalled the recent Utopia, as did the cast's bringing together of various well-known telly actors (including Utopia's Neil Maskell, so much better in these things than the Brit gangster/hooligan movies he so often winds up in). The tone and subject matter made the series feel like an extended Black Mirror, while the idea of anti-synth sentiment being on the rise was reminsicent of, well, everything that's ever used SF/fantasy to explore allegories of racism/fear of the other. So, OK, Humans wasn't original. And it wasn't as good as Utopia. But it was bloody great drama all the same.

6. Not Safe For Work

Like No Offence, Not Safe From Work was trailed in a way that it made it look like a comedy, a drug-fuelled update of The Office perhaps. Laugh at the funny drug casualties who can't do their jobs! Except, again, it really wasn't a comedy - and what humour there was tended more towards gallows humour. NSFW (yeah, I know, annoying name) saw Zawe Ashton's Katherine, rebounding from both divorce and a miscarriage (there's that barrel of laughs again!), finding her civil service job uprooted from London to Northampton due to cuts. There, she finds a department run by Sacha Dhawan's Danny - a complete mess of a man who spends most of his time getting fucked up with PA Angela. Essentially an extended essay on ennui, NSFW is populated by dysfunctional, lonely, conflicted characters who are barely clinging on. Ashton and Dhawan are both brilliant, the latter's relationship with Angela slowly revealing the mutual neediness that lies behind their drug buddy status. Yes, it is funny at times, but this series is just as interested in the long sigh after the laughter.

7. And The There Were None

I haven't wheeled out the traditional defence for leaving my year-end list so late, so I'll let And There Were None do it for me - shown after Christmas, this tremendously dark-hearted Christie adaptation didn't make it onto any Best of 2015 list, most of which would have been composed a good month before it screened. No Poirot, no Marple, just ten people with dark pasts being bumped off one by one in an atmosphere of paranoia and distrust. Insert Christmas with the family joke here.

8. River

I've never lived in London, but River was one of the few shows to evoke the London I know - not just the landmarks and the West End and the Thames, but the streetlamp-lit streets of kebab shops and taxi firms I've walked through to go back to mates' flats after gigs. Funny,then, that it's central character wasn't played by a Londoner, but yer actual movie star Stellan Skarsgård. It wasn't Hollywood that he brought with him, though, more Nordic Noir, as the classically rumpled detective interacted with visions of dead people, including not just murder victims but also Eddie Marsan as a Victorian killer. (Interestingly, The Bridge had a similar device this year. Although without the Lambeth poisoner). If it seemed reasonably certain that these were products of a mental health issue rather than actual ghosts, it nevertheless made for spooky stuff. The scenes with Skarsgård and potential national treasure Nicola Walker were playful and palpably full of buried desire, while Adeel Akhtar continued his quiet campaign to become recognized as one of the country's most underrated actors. Also, one thing that separated River from Nordic Noir: you're never going to see Saga belting out disco-era karaoke.

9. Poldark

I can't help thinking that a pretty large proportion of the typical audience for a Sunday night period dramas are Tory voters, nostalgic for the olden days and sufficiently well-off to imagine that they'd be the ones living in country houses, not the ones dying of disease in slums and hovels. Poldark must have caused these people some confusion, given that its titular hero was something of a fighter for social justice, agitating for fare wages for miners, breaking a convicted poacher out of prison, helping poor characters steal booty washed onto the picturesque Cornish coast from shipwrecks. As it was a terrific success I can only imagine that, rather than deserting the series, this portion of its viewers simply decided that the dastardly cad George Warleggan was the hero, and were rather cheered to see Poldark arrested for his crimes at the end of the series.

10. Broadchurch

Last time, I wondered aloud how the second series of Broadchurch could possibly live up to its stellar predecessor. Clearly, it didn't. But as everyone seemed to turn on it with a weird sort of disappointed rage, I clung on and found myself enjoying it. Sure, there were misjudgements in the plot and emphasis of the series, but it was still thrilling television with a cast most other shows would kill for.

Doctor Who was as inconsistent as ever, but Peter Capaldi turned in his best performances yet. Ripper Street vindicated its reprieve from the axe with a well-put together third series, developing plot threads from the first series and giving Fred Best a remarkable final scene. Inside No.9 contained some real treats, particularly the Sheridan Smith episode. Brighton-based Bill knock-off Cuffs was terrible but compulsive viewing - at least for people who live in Brighton. The 100 moved up in my estimation with a second series full of moral dilemma and Vietnam analogy. I'm glad Under The Dome is over. Still lying unwatched on our TVR: London Spy, Fargo, This Is England 90, Unforgotten and undoubtedly more that I've , er, forgotten.