17 May 2017

Thomas Frederick Duck

Aircraft fuselage fabric design from a 156 Squadron Pathfinder Force Lancaster bomber with a predominantly New Zealand crew. They flew over 60 missions over Europe, and brought Mr Duck with them when they returned home safely. Exhibit on display at the Air Force Museum at Wigram, Christchurch, photographed 14 April 2017.

08 May 2017

When John Peel met JFK

The following day [in 1961], the Kennedy/Johnson parade followed the same route [in Dallas], with the same cadets and the same majorettes. There seemed to be more people on the pavements and it seemed they were in a sombre mood. Although Lyndon Johnson was obviously one of them, Kennedy definitely was not. He was a Yankee, a Catholic and, it was universally agreed, a smartarse, and folks had, to a degree, turned out to hate him. At one stage, low on the hill that ran up Main Street from the area where Kennedy was, a couple of years later, to die, the motorcade came to a standstill opposite me. Seizing the moment, I ran forward to shake JFK's hand. 'Good luck, Mr Kennedy,' I said. 'Hey, you're from England,' he replied. When I told him that this was so, he asked me where from exactly, why I was in Texas, whether I liked it and whether I planned to stay. I was amazed, as we talked, that a man running for President of the USA could be interested in what I had to tell him. Hell, I couldn't even vote for him. Then he noticed the camera in my hand. 'Are you going to take a photo?' the future President asked, and when I said I'd like to, he suggested I should go back a few steps then, when I was ready, shout and he'd grin at me. So I stepped back three or four feet, raised the camera and yelled, 'Hey, Mr Kennedy.' He smiled and I pressed the button before going back to the side of the still stationary car to thank him. 'What are you going to do if that doesn't come out?' he asked. 'Why don't you take another one over the windscreen of the car? Then you can get Mr Johnson in as well.' So I moved to the front of the car, leaned on the bonnet and took another photograph. When I ran back to speak to John Kennedy again, someone else was talking to him, but he still found time to nod and suggest that I went to the other side of the car to meet LBJ. This I did before hurrying back to work. 

This is a story I've told, I'm afraid, hundreds of times, and each time have watched as my audiences have grown more incredulous. I have often imagined them wanting to ask whether there were Martians present at the events I described or whether I heard choirs of angels singing 'Hosanna!' as we spoke, and have wished that I finish by saying, reaching into my back pocket as I do, 'and here are the photographs'

- John Peel, Margrave of the Marshes, London, 2005, p.148-9.

[As luck would have it, the Peel JFK photos did in fact survive the destructive urges of Peel's first wife, and appear in Peel's autobiography.]

30 April 2017

Iago, unrepentant

Haakon Smestad in last night's Pop-up Globe production of Othello, a most pluvial affair on an Auckland autumn evening.

21 April 2017

In vino juventute

The narrator of Nutshell, an as-yet-unborn baby, discusses his precocious fondness for a tasty tipple:

"I like to share a glass with my mother. You may never have experienced, or you will have forgotten, a good burgundy (her favourite) or a good Sancerre (also her favourite) decanted through a healthy placenta. Even before the wine arrives - tonight, a Jean-Max Roger Sancerre - at the sound of a drawn cork, I feel it on my face like the caress of a summer breeze. I know that alcohol will lower my intelligence. But oh, a joyous, blushful Pinot Noir, or a gooseberried Sauvignon, sets me turning and tumbling across my secret sea, reeling off the walls of my castle, the bouncy castle that is my home. Or so it did when I had more space. Now I take my pleasures sedately, and by the second glass my speculations bloom with that licence whose name is poetry. My thoughts unspool in well-sprung pentameters, end-stopped and run-on lines in pleasing variation. But she never takes a third, and it wounds me.

'I have to think of baby,' I hear her say as she covers her glass with a priggish hand. That's when I have it in mind to reach for my oily cord, as one might a velvet rope in a well-staffed country house, and pull sharply for service. What ho! Another round here for us friends!"

- Ian McEwan, Nutshell, London, 2016, p.6-7.

19 April 2017

Even birds of a feather find it hard to fly

It's a little bizarre to think that I've been following Aimee Mann now for 24 whole years, ever since I read Elvis Costello's heartfelt praise of her lyrical solo debut album Whatever ('Today's the 4th of July / Another June has gone by / And when they light up our town I just think / What a waste of gunpowder and sky'). She released her latest album, Mental Illness, a couple of weeks ago and it's her strongest work in years. Here she is on the Late Show with a beautiful arrangement of the single Goose Snow Cone. Love her distinctive voice, and was so lucky to see her perform in London in 2007.

See also:
Music: Waiting for the gift of sound & vision, 16 January 2016
Music: Lawrence Arabia, 24 October 2015
Music: Pajama Club, 4 December 2011
MusicThe Girls Guitar Club, 2 September 2009
MusicHere & Now 80s Tour, 19 May 2008
MusicGrant-Lee Phillips, 29 April 2008

16 April 2017

Blondie & Cyndi Lauper

Blondie & Cyndi Lauper
Horncastle Arena, Christchurch
15 April 2017

It's always been my ambition to see Blondie live - after all, Debbie Harry was, for quite a few years, simply one of the coolest people on the planet, and collectively the band produced singles and albums that were amongst the best of the vibrant late-'70s and early '80s music scene. So when an Easter break in Lyttelton coincided with a tour announcement for the Horncastle Arena, and with no Wellington gig on the horizon, there was only one possible outcome: a gig ticket simply had to be acquired. As it turned out, the gig was a double billing with '80s pop veteran Cyndi Lauper, whose 1983 album She's So Unusual remains a favourite.

The Canterbury crowd was a mix of a few boisterous women in their 30s and 40s dressed as Lauper-alikes, plus a great majority of dourly-attired middle-aged gig-goers. Confounding my expectations, the first act in the double-billing was Blondie. This came as a surprise because I had presumed Blondie were far and away more popular in New Zealand than Lauper. But it turns out I know nothing, with Blondie enjoying eight top 40 charting singles in New Zealand to Lauper's 12. Perhaps the answer came in the relative ages and energy levels of the performers: Debbie Harry is a stately 71 while Lauper is a more sprightly and nimble 63. In any case, Blondie's vintage didn't hinder the band's performance. The three original members, Harry, guitarist Chris Stein and drummer Clem Burke have a combined age of 199 and have been delivering these era-defining pop gems for decades, so their performance skills are mature like a refined wine. 

There’s no setlist posted online for this half of the gig, but there is for the Auckland Vector Arena performance two days later, and this seems consistent with other recent Blondie gigs. Interspersed with electrifying new wave pop hits of yore like One Way Or Another and Hanging on the Telephone, Blondie introduced new material written with collaborators Johnny Marr and Charli XCX, and in a perfect alignment of musical rebellion they mated the groundbreaking cadences of Rapture with the fuck-you outburst of the fellow New Yorkers the Beastie Boys’ Fight For Your Right To Party.

Debbie Harry’s performance was solid, if not touching the highest vocal ranges - but in any case vocal gymnastics was never her style. New material including tracks from the imminent album Pollinator - it’s about the plight of the honey bee, apparently - were perfectly agreeable, but it was the legendary singles performed by the original bandmembers that the audience had come to see. It was an absolute thrill to hear Chris Stein’s guitar on a raucous Atomic, Clem Burke drumming up a storm on a booming Heart of Glass, and Debbie Harry’s iconic rapping on Rapture. Harry reminded the audience that their last gig in the city was the day before the 2011 earthquake, and congratulated Cantabrians on their spirited recovery since then.

After the 75-minute Blondie set and a lengthy stage turnover it was time for Cyndi Lauper’s first New Zealand gig (I think). Her career has been bolstered in the US by the success of her Broadway musical adaptation of the 2005 film Kinky Boots, but in New Zealand Lauper’s fame rests securely on the success of her 1983 album She’s So Unusual, which for a time saw Lauper rivalling Madonna for zesty female solo artist world domination. Concerns were initially raised by the western-themed stage backdrop and opening with a Wanda Jackson cover, Funnel of Love - and indeed Lauper did reveal that like many US artists, she had gone a bit country. Nevertheless, this and the Patsy Cline and Skeeter Davis covers didn’t undermine the pop focus of the evening, because ‘80s hit singles were prudently strewn through the setlist, commencing with the killer combo of She Bop and I Drove All Night directly after the opener. Throughout, Lauper entertained the crowd with her marvelous New York accent and a series of rambling anecdotes that didn't amount to much, but which added to the whimsical atmosphere. 

On She Bop, Debbie Harry emerged from stage left to sing guest vocals, with Lauper having done the same on an earlier non-canonical Blondie number. Entertainingly, Harry relied on a bright white sheet of A4 with printed lyrics to bluff her way through a song she clearly didn’t know well - but admittedly the chorus (‘She bop, he bop and we bop, I bop, you bop and they bop’) is rather like a Latin grammar lesson.

After the first encore of the peerless Time After Time and a nicely disguised intro to a mammoth version of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Lauper returned for a solo second encore of True Colours. The Canterbury crowd emerged into the clear autumn evening, having been treated to an excellent night of veteran pop professionals.