Haring vs Basquiat

Following last week’s “compare & contrast” entry, another similar exercise this week, between artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the subject of the NGV’s summer blockbuster exhibition.

Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Other artists: “Untitled (Symphony No. 1)” c. 1980-83 [image sourced from NGV website]

Given their friendship, collaborations and mutual connections to the New York scene of the 1980s, it was only natural that the NGV went for this double-header retrospective. Since they both gained early recognition for their street art and graffiti-based work, and their images crossed over into the worlds of music, fashion and clubbing, they had a lot in common. They were as likely to be featured in style magazines such as The Face as they were to be found in the arts section (or society pages) of the New York Times.

Both died relatively young, and it’s as if they somehow knew they each had limited time, such is the intense pace at which they worked, as evidenced by their prolific output. If there is one element that really links them is their inner drive – they had to produce art, there was no choice for them, and they threw everything into it.

They each developed their own distinctive visual styles, much imitated and appropriated throughout popular culture, graphic design, video and advertising. Haring is known for his dog motif and cartoon-like figures, Basquiat for his iconic crown and text-based work. They also placed great emphasis on issues of identity, gender, sexuality and broader sociopolitical themes.

Where they perhaps differ is that Haring relied on more simplistic imagery (albeit loaded with meaning and context), using mainly primary colours, flat perspective (no shading or depth), and strong repetition. On the other hand, Basquiat’s paintings reveal confident mark-making, bold colour choices (not always successful), and an implied love of semiotics (even more so than Haring’s almost ubiquitous iconography).

Of course, we’ll never know how their respective work would have developed over the past 30 years – maybe what we now see is all there was ever going to be? As a consequence, there is perhaps a sense that they plowed a relatively narrow field, that they did not develop artistically once they became gallery artists. I’m not suggesting their work is shallow or one-dimensional (even though it can simply be viewed and appreciated “on the surface”), but it would have been interesting to see where their work took them.

Finally, we are still very close to the era in which they were active, and in that regard their true legacy will be in the influence they cast on late 20th century art and beyond.

Next week: Hicks vs Papapetrou

 

Steam Radio in the Digital Age

A few years ago, I wrote a blog on how radio had come of age in the era of social media. And despite podcasts and streaming services making significant inroads into our listening behaviour, radio is still with us. Plus it now gets distributed via additional media: digital radio (DAB), internet streaming, mobile apps and digital TV.

Image sourced from flickr

Most mornings I get my first information hit from the radio. Likewise, the midnight radio news bulletin is usually the last update of the day. When I’m on my way to or from the office I’m either catching up on a podcast or streaming radio, via TuneIn or dedicated station apps.

I particularly enjoy the BBC’s catalogue of on-demand content – both contemporary material, and archive programmes. There’s something inexplicable about the appeal of listening to 50-60 year old recordings, themselves being dramatisations of books and plays first published 100 years or more earlier.

The main reason I turn to these relics of steam radio is because I can curate what I want to listen to, when I want to listen. These programmes are also an antidote to much of what gets broadcast on commercial radio stations, which I find is mostly noise and no substance. (Blame it on my age, combined with being a self-confessed music snob.)

Most of these archive radio recordings still work because of two things: the calibre of the material; and the high production values. The former benefits from tight script editing and strict programme lengths. The latter is evident from both the engineering standards and the sound design.

One of the paradoxes of modern technology is that as the costs of equipment, bandwidth and data come down (along with the barriers to access), so the amount of content increases (because the means of production is much cheaper) – yet the quality inevitably declines. And since in the internet era, consumers increasingly think that all online content should be “free”, there is less and less money to invest in the production.

The importance of having a high level of quality control is inextricably linked to the continued support and funding for public broadcasting. With it, hopefully, comes impartiality, objectivity, diversity and risk-taking – much of which is missing in commercial radio. Not that I listen very often to the latter these days, but it feels that this format is destined to increased narrowcasting (by demographic), and parochialism.

In this era of fake news and misinformation (much of it perpetrated and perpetuated by media outlets that are controlled or manipulated by malign vested interests), and at a time of increased nationalism, divisive sectarianism and social segregation, it’s worth remembering the motto of the BBC:

“Nation shall speak peace unto nation”

Notwithstanding some of the self-inflicted damage that the BBC has endured in recent years, and the trend for nationalistic propaganda from many state-owned news media and broadcasters, the need for robust and objective public broadcasting services seems more relevant than ever.

Next week: Craft vs Creativity

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Musical Memories – Of Time and Place

Although sound is supposed to be the weakest sensory trigger for recalling memories, I suspect most of us can readily associate a song or a piece of music with a significant time, event or place we heard it. Indeed, music is often more evocative of our emotional response than either smell or taste, which at a primal level are readily connected with survival and self-preservation. (Music cannot kill or harm us, but poisonous or rancid food can.)

This thought occurred to me recently when I was on a weekend trip to the country with a group of friends. Sitting round the log fire under a starlit sky, The Doors’ “Riders on the storm” came on the streaming playlist. At that particular moment, it seemed an ideal setting to hear this track. Even though I have heard the song many times before, this latest airing has now created a new memory association – the time, the setting, the people I was with, the food and drink we enjoyed.

Of course, in this particular context, it also reminded me of the first time I consciously heard the record. As a young teenager in the mid-seventies, I used to fall asleep listening to my transistor radio, usually tuned into the original UK pirate station, Radio Caroline. Caroline mostly broadcast classic and progressive rock – often playing a whole album without interruption. It introduced me to a lot of bands and music I did not hear on Top 40 or daytime radio – so it was an important part of my musical education.

Road trips seem particularly adept at forming musical associations: in my case, a drive to the Yorkshire coast accompanied by a bootleg tape of the Beach Boy’s “Smile” sessions; a night time journey through the Anza-Borrego Desert, with the roof down, listening to Primal Scream’s “Screamadelica”; and just a couple of months ago, hearing the Pink Floyd song “Wish You Were Here” while touring part of the Croatian coast. Even though I was very familiar with those records before these particular journeys, the specific context of those trips means the music will forever be linked to the events.

I suspect this memory association is largely because our response to, and engagement with music is often dependent on our mood. If we are more alert to and in tune with our surroundings, this receptive state of mind leads us to make mental and emotional links via the accompanying musical soundtrack. These triggers mean that we are more able to recall or even replicate that mood via the use of the associated songs.

All this as The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” celebrates its 50th anniversary. As a child, this was the first Beatles album we had in our home. We already owned a number of their singles, which had a huge impact on my early listening adventures. But “Abbey Road” was probably the first album I really engaged with. Even now, there are large sections I can replay in my head. The song order is likewise entrenched, thanks to the format of the vinyl LP in the pre-shuffle and pre-streaming era. The cathartic extended coda of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” at the end of side 1, that gives way to the upbeat and optimistic “Here Comes The Sun” at the start of side 2. I have every expectation that when I next listen to “Abbey Road”, it will still trigger memories of my childhood and listening to the record with my older sisters.

Next week: School Reunion

 

 

 

 

 

Top Gigs – Favourite Venues

Continuing the recent theme, here are some of my preferred music venues from over the years:

Fairfield Halls – Croydon

I can’t say this is a particularly favourite venue (its early 1960s brutalist architecture doesn’t help), and it’s more than 40 years since I was last there. But it’s where my gig-going all began, and I recall the acoustics were excellent. It’s where I saw two of my first gigs – 10cc (at the height of their mid-70s success) and Procul Harum (not quite past their best, but hardly troubling the charts in those days).

Electric Ballroom – Camden

Without doubt, this is a venerable institution, starting as a ballroom in the 1930s, and operating under its current name since 1978. The venue for two of my favourite gigs: Joy Division supported by Scritti Politti, Monochrome Set and A Certain Ratio; and Talking Heads supported by OMD and U2. Hopefully the facilities have been upgraded since then.

F-Club – Leeds

Not so much a venue, as a club residency at various locations across the city centre. It was a regular destination while I was a student at Leeds University. It was where I saw U2 play to about 50 people in late 1980 – Bono doing the same “I can’t believe I am smoking this cigarette I bummed off someone in the audience” routine he did when I saw him the previous year. F-Club was also where I saw New Order on one of their first gigs, in early 1981. The list of bands I saw there include Teardrop Explodes, Echo & the Bunnymen, Orange Juice, Josef K, Aztec Camera, Thompson Twins, Wah! Heat, Blue Orchids, Nico, Frantic Elevators (Mick Hucknall’s band before Simply Red), Rip Rig & Panic, Gang Of Four, Delta 5, The Three Johns, Mekons, Sisters of Mercy, A Certain Ratio… Glorious times.

Clarendon Ballroom – Hammersmith

Beginning as a pub in the 1860s (my great uncle recalled going to dances there in his youth), by the 1980s it was a noted venue for seeing punk and new wave bands who weren’t quite big enough to play at the nearby Palais or Odeon. In the mid-1980s it played a significant role in bringing the so-called Paisley Underground to London, where I saw Rain Parade, Green on Red, True West and Long Ryders in quick succession.

Town & Country Club – Kentish Town

For most of the 1980s and early 1990s, the T&C was the favoured North London venue for bands who had outgrown the pub and club circuit, but didn’t qualify (or desire) to play the characterless stadium arenas. It’s where I saw the likes of Pixies and Nick Cave, plus numerous UK-indie bands of the era. The added bonus was Friday nights, when Wendy May’s Locomotion continued the music, dancing and drinking after the bands had packed up, and before London’s 24-hour drinking culture….

Lyceum Ballroom – Strand

For a short period in 1980, the Lyceum appeared to be a key venue for the post-punk and new wave era. Within a few weeks of each other I saw three concerts there, the sort of multi-band bills that you don’t see these days outside of 80s revival package tours: Joy Division, Killing Joke, Section 25 and A Certain Ratio; Psychedelic Furs, Echo & The Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes, A Certain Ratio, Manicured Noise, Eric Random; Magazine, DAF, Bauhaus. That don’t make ’em like that any more.

The Corner Hotel – Richmond

Conveniently located within spitting distance of where I currently live, The Corner Hotel has provided the setting for a number of memorable gigs over the past 15 years or more. For a relatively small venue, it manages to draw some big international names in independent music, among them Mogwai, Low, Tindersticks, Wire, Gang of Four, Michael Rother, The Pop Group, Tortoise, Wooden Shjips, Gang Gang Dance, Mouse on Mars and Ariel Pink. Notable Australian bands that I have seen at The Corner include: Severed Heads, Black Cab, Underground Lovers and Machine Translation. And the rooftop bar and restaurant does a mean chicken parma – what more could you want?

The Refectory – Leeds University

This is not your usual student venue (and not the only gig facility on the campus, which in my day also included the Riley-Smith Hall, and the Tartan Bar – all with subsidised student union beer on tap). Concerts at The Refectory were typically organised by a full-time Entertainments Officer – sometimes a stepping stone to a career in music and broadcasting. Apart from Elvis Costello (twice) and The Cure, I saw a stream of early 80s chart acts play at The Refectory, such as Rezillos, Undertones, Altered Images, Bow Wow Wow, Haircut 100…. and Kajagoogoo.

The Forum – Melbourne

Featuring a proscenium arch combining design elements inspired by the Roman Empire and Victorian Gothic, The Forum is probably my favourite large venue in Melbourne. It has a sloping auditorium and a wide vista giving excellent views of the stage. I saw LCD Soundsystem play an amazing gig here, as well as Tortoise, Faust and Mulatu Astatke. It also boasts a smaller auditorium and cinema space upstairs, which is a key part of the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Brixton Academy

Parts of the The Forum in Melbourne resemble London’s Brixton Academy – similar proscenium arch design, and wide-vision perspective of the stage. Since the mid-1980s, Nick Cave has made the Academy a regular fixture on his UK tours – no doubt it’s the Gothic influence….

Next week: Startup Vic’s Secret Pitch Night