Sunday, 26 February 2017

City Of Spades - Colin MacInnes


Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes comes highly praised and as touted by Paul Weller among others is 'the mod bible' but I'd argue that actually City Of Spades is the superior book. It's slicker, better paced, and less stodgy and so subsequently more engaging.
Apparently, MacInnes spent a lot less time thinking about City Of Spades whilst writing it than he did with Absolute Beginners, and this shows. The names given to the characters, for example, are the kind that might come in a flash of inspiration but if mulled over for too long might be dismissed as being too colourful: Billy Whispers, Jimmy Cannibal, Peter Pay Paul, Ronson Lighter, Karl Marx Bo, Alfy Bongo, Moscow Gentry, Norbert Salt, etc, etc. How could you possibly go wrong with such names?

As for the title, 'Spades' means black people but any suggestion of racism regarding the term is dismissed very early on in the book in an exchange between the two main characters - Johnny Fortune, who is black and Montgomery Pew, who is white. It's Johnny Fortune who uses the term himself when talking about black people, with Montgomery Pew questioning if it's alright to use such a name? Johnny dismisses it as only a name said with some degree of cheekiness and no more insulting than the term 'jumble' that he uses for white people - 'jumble' meaning 'John Bull'.
So, City Of Spades means literally 'city of black people', the city being London. And that's largely what the book is all about: London as lived in and experienced by black people in the 1950s when immigration from Africa and the West Indies was a new thing.

The story is told through the eyes of two people, the aforementioned Johnny Fortune and Montgomery Pew, though the main protagonist is Johnny, fresh from Lagos and arriving in London to study meteorology. Montgomery is a Welfare Officer at a government Colonial Department, employed to give support and advice to immigrants though he's inherently less qualified than those he's meant to be helping
Johnny's journey through London is followed; revealing an almost secret, underground metropolis to not only himself but Montgomery too, who had no idea such a world existed where cultures simultaneously intermingle and clash against a backdrop of music, drugs and the crumbling of Empire.
Johnny's story is of a fall from grace; from pride and enthusiasm to world weariness and imprisonment, as he's battered and bruised by the ghosts from his father's past and the struggle to simply survive in the strange landscape of 1950s Britain.

Why City Of Spades has never been made into a film is anyone's guess. It's there for the making with even a good twist at the end with Johnny about to get on a boat that will take him back home only to be informed that his nemesis Billy Whispers who wishes to see Johnny dead has just got on board also. It was decided instead to make Absolute Beginners into a film and a musical at that, starring Patsy Kensit. It bombed, and deservedly so; it's only saving feature being the Bowie song of the same name - and possibly Ever Had It Blue? by the Style Council.
But I'll say again (and argue against Paul Weller) that City Of Spades is actually the superior book and would make a far better film but then compared to Absolute Beginners as directed by Julian Temple, that wouldn't be too difficult a task.
John Serpico

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Telling Stories - Tim Burgess


What do we want? Sex! What do we want? Drugs! What do we want? Rock'n'roll! When do we want it? Now! What have we got? Telling Stories by Tim Burgess! What do we get? Scrapings from the barrel of a career in pop gone awry!

I was never enamoured by the Charlatans and equally I was never enamoured by Madchester, Baggy, Brit Pop or any of the other genres the Charlatans were associated with. I admit, I liked various songs from those times and (I admit again) I liked the drugs but as scenes I always felt they were too contrived and each overly desperate to be perceived as 'a scene'.
As ever, the music press and the music business seemed to be categorising and labelling a mixture of bands for their own ends; dividing and ruling, building 'em up and knocking 'em down. The Only One I Know by the Charlatans was good as was Polar Bear from their Some Friendly d├ębut album, along with Tim Burgess's collaboration with the Chemical Brothers on the track Life Is Sweet but apart from these I never followed the Charlatans at all.

So why read Burgess's book?

Well, I read an interview with him not long ago - it may have been on the Quietus website? - where he was talking about his love of early Eighties punk rock and naming a bunch of bands that revealed a knowledge of them. In the same interview he said he was also an old Crass fan who used to buy all their records and go to their gigs.
This piqued my interest because I also happen to know that he's had Crass writer Penny Rimbaud reciting a poem on one of the Charlatans' albums and has had Crass artist Gee Vaucher design that same album's sleeve.
Was there another side to Tim Burgess that had been kept hidden by his pop star image, I wondered?

Upon reading Telling Stories, he does indeed tell us about his old punk rock records and how Penis Envy by Crass altered his attitude toward women for the better. He mentions also how as a teenager he would walk around his local village with the words 'Who killed Liddle Towers?' painted on the back of his jacket; which is quite amusing because a lot of kids at that time did exactly the same but with different slogans and messages.
In the Anton Corbijn-directed Joy Division film there's that scene showing Ian Curtis with the word 'Hate' painted on the back of his coat. Nowadays, of course, it's only brand logos that people sport on their clothes - the ubiquitous 'Rockface', as an example. A sign of the times, I think.

All of this, however, is mentioned only very briefly in the book and is almost lost in a blizzard of other musical influences ranging from Kraftwerk to Gram Parson to Bob Dylan. Burgess is a music fan. First and foremost, above anything else.

Burgess comes across as a nice guy without really having a bad word to say about anybody, not even the Charlatans' accountant who fleeced them for £300,000. Enthusing about favourite bands and people, however, doesn't really make for riveting reading which is why it isn't until when Burgess dishes the dirt on Radio 1 DJ Simon Mayo that it starts getting interesting.

Mayo had made The Only One I Know his Single of the Week and had called Burgess to tell him he had to call in to the show at six in the morning for a chit chat on the radio. Burgess declined and Mayo was apparently furious, saying that Billy Joel had called in from New York the week before when he was given Single of the Week. Was Burgess claiming he was bigger than Billy Joel? Or bigger than Simon Mayo?
'You'll never be played on Radio 1 again,' Mayo told him. You've got to laugh, haven't you?

The book peaks with Burgess's confession of his band's penchant for blowing cocaine up each other's arses so as to get a better hit a la Fleetwood Mac's Stevie Nicks. Now, call me old fashioned but doesn't everyone who's serious about their drugs get to a point in their drug career where they're keen to get the most out of their investment?
Most people simply progress to more exotic cocktails of drugs or to the needle or whatever but there's no mention of any of that in the book, and for a northern industrial drug taker such as Burgess was, it seems a bit strange.
Like the scene from Trainspotting when Renton visits his dealer and he's asked if he'd care for a starter and Renton replies 'No thank you, I'll proceed directly to the intravenous injection of hard drugs, please.' Did Burgess simply bypass needles and pipes with a 'No thank you, I'll proceed directly to the cocaine up the arse, please.' Which makes me wonder which method is deemed the most controversial? Intravenous injection or up the arse with a straw and a funnel?

For all this, however, I also wonder if Telling Stories is actually deserving of all the plaudits laid upon it because it's not that good. Near the end of it, Burgess mentions his Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle LP and how he bought it from his pocket money and how it's now signed by Sex Pistols' guitarist Steve Jones who he counts now as a friend. 'He drew a cock on it,' he tells us. Which is rather juvenile, puerile, childishly offensive and immature - but also brilliant! It's exactly what you'd expect and what you'd want from Steve Jones. It's a sort of confirmation of how you perceive someone to be.
It's just a shame that it's probably the best bit in the book...
John Serpico