Saturday, 31 October 2009

"Life" : Another neglected gem.

I've just finished watching the second, sadly final, series of the rather wonderful "Life". If you've not come across it, this is an American police drama, starring Damian Lewis as Charlie Crews.

At the start of the first season, Crews is released from prison after serving twelve years of a life sentence. He had been wrongfully convicted of a multiple murder, but thanks to the efforts of his lawyer, DNA evidence cleared him of the crime. Having lost his job, his wife, his friends and nearly all contact with the outside world, he emerges from prison enlightened by the philosophy of Zen which has helped sustain him during his sentence. After successfully suing the city of Los Angeles and the LAPD, he is reinstated to the police department and receives about fifty million dollars in compensation.

OK. It all sounds pretty contrived, but there is so much scope within the somewhat peculiar boundaries that the whole thing works.

Each week there's a crime to solve, while the season story arc follows Crews as he tries to discover who was actually behind the murders that put him behind bars.
Throughout the series, Crews calmly navigates a world that has changed while he has been out of circulation. Mind you, even his Zen outlook is shaken by the perplexities of mobile 'phone technology. He's also obsessed with fresh fruit; "See this apple... you couldn't get an apple like this in prison... or any other fresh fruit."

They only made two seasons of "Life", so although I'm disappointed to see it finish, at least it has ended before the inevitable decline of the TV series that is past it's sell-by date.

I got hold of the first season as a boxed DVD set from my local library and as I was carrying it home, Andy from over the road saw it.
"Oh, 'Life'. We watched that when it was on. It's a bit weird though."
"Is it any good?"
"Yeah, but quirky..."
He paused for a moment, then continued, "but you'll like it."

He was right.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Did somebody say, "Let's rock"?

Playing at a venue for the first time is always a bit of a worry, so I was a little apprehensive about last night's gig at "The Old Millstone".
We'd never played there before and to make things slightly more alarming, Dave was on holiday, so we'd drafted in Corin from "Amandla" to play drums.

As is so often the case, I should not have been worried. It was a smashing night out.

The Millstone is probably one of the busiest pubs in Macclesfield and is sufficiently large to allow a band to play to a good size audience while allowing other, less musically inclined, patrons to drink in relative peace and quiet.

It was a bit of a novelty for us to have so much space to set up the gear. Usually with a pub gig, it's a major challenge to shoe-horn the drum-kit, bass stack, keyboard, PA, mixing desk, guitar gubbins, monitors and mic-stands etc. into the corner of a room that the landlord assures you is "where the bands usually set up".
Here we had the space that would normally have been occupied by a couple of pool tables. Luxury! Not only does it make it more fun to play on an adequate stage, but having a sensible amount of space makes it a hell of a lot easier to set up the equipment; you aren't perpetually falling over your band mates and trying to avoid getting poked in the ear with a cymbal stand.

The acoustics of the room were fairly easy to work with, so we didn't have any problems with getting the sound sorted out; we just played the stuff and had a good time. We all played our socks off and this was clearly well received by the crowd, if the enthusiastic applause and demands for an encore are anything to go by.
I'm definitely looking forward to playing there again.

As for any qualms about playing with a 'dep' drummer, I should have known better. Corin was, as always, a joy to play with. So special thanks to him for helping us out. I think he's far too sensible to be a drummer; they're all supposed to be raving bonkers.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Bunker mentality

I've never been terribly interested in History.

I seem to remember enjoying the really early stuff, when it was all about molten lava, dinosaurs and stone-age blokes living in caves and bashing each other with clubs etc. but once the school curriculum got past the Romans (Chariots and fighting) and the Greeks (Galleys and fighting), it just stopped being fun.
As the focus of the subject shifted from whole societies and how the general population lived their lives, to the way the leaders of our country governed the people, I couldn't get excited about it at all.
(I hope that 'Good King Hal' doesn't take this too personally.)

Now, of course, I'm old enough that I've actually lived through quite a lot of historical stuff.
I can remember John F Kennedy being shot; I was still at Junior school, but my mum made me wear a black tie.
I saw the grainy, black and white pictures as Neil Armstrong took 'that' step and yes, I did go out into the garden and look up at the Moon expecting to see something had changed.
I met guys who had fought in the Vietnam War and also guys who had dodged the draft to stay out of it.
What I didn't know I'd lived through, however, was several decades when we had secret nuclear fall-out shelters built in strategic parts of the country.
We went to visit one on Tuesday.

Blight-of-my-life and I had been down to Essex for a party.
My cousin Maureen was celebrating her 80th Birthday and, quite rightly, felt that a bit of a knees-up was required, so we'd trundled down to drink beer and try to recognise various cousins and second cousins that I hadn't seen for many years.
Rather than drive straight back home the following morning, we decided to do the tourist thing for a couple of days. While we were looking for suitable places to visit, we came across a leaflet about "The Secret Nuclear Bunker" at Kelvedon Hatch.

I think it is one of the strangest outings I've ever been on.

The strangeness started well before we got anywhere near the place, when we saw the helpful road-sign, directing us to the "Secret Nuclear Bunker".

Following the directions, we wound our way down a twisting farm road to a large, virtually empty, parking area at the edge of some woods. We left the Land Rover and followed a footpath through the trees until we arrived at a large brick bungalow.
The building looked a bit shabby. There was no sign of a pay kiosk or anybody to take our entry money and apart from a couple of dog-eared signs pointing to an open door in the front of the building, there was little to confirm that we were at the right place.
We went in.

There was still no sign of anywhere to pay, but there was an enormous rack of those audio guide hand-sets that look like oversized mobile 'phones, with a notice instructing all visitors to take one and follow the audio guide instructions. Other signs explained that we should pay at the end of the tour and that although we would not see any staff, we would be constantly monitored by concealed TV cameras.
We smiled for the hidden cameras, picked up our guides and set off down the long concrete passage into the bunker.

We probably spent nearly three hours exploring. The atmosphere of the place is extraordinary. At first we thought that there were no staff in the entire facility, but then we spotted one bloke dusting the exhibits and another who disappeared through a door marked "No Admittance" into a room with a bunch of TV monitors flickering in the gloom.
Even the Cafeteria and Gift Shop at the end of the tour was unstaffed. There was simply a place to return the audio guides, and an 'Honesty Box' to pay for the tour and anything you might buy in the cafe.
We almost had the place to ourselves, as we wandered through rooms filled with generators and air conditioning equipment, the dormitories, communal bathrooms, communications centres, sick bay and mortuary.
The audio guide talked us through the construction and early years of operation in the 1950s, followed by the change of use to a Regional Government HQ that would be used in the event of a nuclear attack on Britain, until it was decommissioned in the 1990s.
It seems extraordinary, but when it was decommissioned, they simply closed the (blast) doors and left all the equipment exactly where it was; desks, phones, waste-bins... the lot.

As well as the original equipment, there are video displays running some fascinating films. Some of these were actual government films that would have been broadcast to the general public, explaining how we were supposed to make our homes secure enough to survive after a nuclear attack, although our hand-held audio guide made it pretty clear that all the filling of sandbags and collecting enough food and water for 14 days per person was probably less about protection and survival, and more about keeping the population busy while the government waited for us to die.

"The Secret Nuclear Bunker" is a seriously interesting place to visit, but it is not Disneyland.
It is very shabby, with an air of threadbare seediness that is somehow entirely appropriate.
To give an impression of how life would have been in the bunker, there are recorded voices and tannoy announcements and a motley collection of mannequins posed in various parts of the facility.
These mannequins are not for the faint-hearted. Often missing limbs, they are slumped behind dead computer terminals or sprawled in dormitory bunks, with their chipped and scabrous faces peering out from beneath hideous, ill-fitting wigs.
There's even a dummy Margaret Thatcher in the BBC Radio Studio; now that is scary.

The place has musty smell, which is not so surprising for a concrete tomb under a hundred feet of Essex hillside. I struggle to imagine what it would have smelt like if it had ever been used in deadly earnest. The thought of 600 traumatized people shut up in a hole in the ground for weeks, waiting for the food and water to run out is not a cheery one.

This particular bunker is one of a whole network of similar installations throughout the UK, so if you get the chance to visit this, or any of the others, I'd strongly recommend it.

"Wouldn't you prefer a nice game of chess?"

Friday, 2 October 2009

Set List

I've just read an email of the set list for the gig we're playing tomorrow night...
No. Wait a minute..., it's tonight.
Writing stuff in the early hours of the morning is always confusing.
So, whenever it is, 'Nightflight' will be playing at "The Hollins" in beautiful downtown Macclesfield and, now that I've got the set list, I know which songs we'll be doing.

When I joined 'Nightflight', four years ago, I was a bit surprised by the set list policy. Every other band that I'd been associated with had tended to have a fixed list of songs which were played in pretty much the same order at every gig. This band never does exactly the same set twice running and to add further uncertainty, the choice of songs is left until the day before the gig.
The main reason for this fuzzy arrangement is the number of songs that we actually know. Dennis and Sue have been playing for decades and have an extensive back catalogue of standard covers as well as a load of original compositions. At every change of line-up, the band's repertoire has been influenced by the differing tastes and styles of the various musicians. As time passes, some songs fall out of favour and new songs take their place but, rather like a comfy pair of old shoes, you can't bear to chuck them away. These songs remain in the repertoire's equivalent of the attic, waiting to be rediscovered, dusted off and perhaps given another outing.

So let's have a look at what we're going to play.
First Set:
  • "Werewolves of London" (Warren Zevon) An unusual song concept, but a comparatively stress-free opener.
  • "Ghost Train" (Nightflight) The first of several songs from the recent CD. It's got a slightly tricky arrangement which nearly caught us out last time we played it at "The Hollins".
  • "It's a start" (Nightflight) A bit of ska.
  • "Don't stop believing" (Journey) This song gained some new fans when it was played during the final episode of "The Sopranos".
  • "One last summer" (Nightflight) Anthemic ballad.
  • "Dancing in the dark" (Bruce Springsteen) We've only recently rediscovered this one and it makes a good opening song. We'll see how it fares in the middle of the first set.
  • "Ton of love" (Nightflight) I've always enjoyed playing this. It was the first original song for which I'd had to create my own bass line.
  • "Parisienne walkways" (Gary Moore) Simply a lovely song.
  • "Go your own way" (Fleetwood Mac) Although I think we do this rather well, I personally don't enjoy playing it; relentlessly fiddly bass line which is a nightmare to recover if you lose your place.
  • "My generation" (The Who) You can't fault the irony of "hope I die before I get old..."
  • "The Chain" (Fleetwood Mac) Another 'bass player's benefit'. Formula 1 Motor Racing fans always like this too.
  • "Auberge" (Chris Rea) A good solid finish to the first half.

Second Set:
  • "Don't forget me" (Nightflight) A bit of reggae with some saxophone from Sue.
  • "Dancing in the streets" (Martha Reeves) We've only been doing this one for a couple of months, so it's pretty lively.
  • "Comfortably numb" (Pink Floyd) This always seems to go down well and I love playing it.
  • "The racers" (Nightflight) This is heads-down-no-nonsense-rock'n'roll, and it's a bit of a killer for me with an almost relentless assault of sixteenths (Many notes in a short space of time). The smell of scorching flesh will be my finger-tips.
  • "Nothing else matters" (Nightflight) This is a beautiful little song that Dennis wrote years ago. We've only gigged it a couple of times and it's still improving.
  • "Sweet home Alabama" (Lynrd Skynrd) Very popular with the punters, but Dennis enjoys it about as much as I like "Go your own way" i.e. not bloody much.
  • "Waltzer song" (Nightflight) I always think that this has a bit of a Dire Straits vibe to it.
  • "A bad case of lovin' you" (Robert Palmer) Crash-Bang-Wallop! Wailing guitar and loads of pointing.
  • "I saw her standing there" (Beatles) We tend to do this slightly faster than 'The Fab Four', so it has a bit of a punk sensibility and so it's even more of a giggle to play.
If anybody wants us to play for a bit longer, we'll probably do "Black night" (Deep Purple) and/or "Whole lotta love" (Led Zeppelin).
There's even an outside chance that we might sneak in "Holding out for a hero" (Bonnie Tyler). It's complete and utter cheese as well as being Dave's least favourite song, so it's always funny trying to cajole him into doing it.

Altogether it should be a fairly silly way spend a Friday evening.
See you there...