Sunday, 31 August 2008

In a room with a window in the corner I found truth

SHADOWPLAYERS: Factory Records & Manchester Post-Punk 1978-81

"Shadowplayers" is a two-hour documentary, put together by James Nice and released on DVD through his LTM label. It covers the early years of Factory Records, told through reminiscences from label founder Anthony H. Wilson, designer Peter Saville and the label's more prominent artists such as Peter Hook and Vini Reilly, as well as many other Factory acts including Section 25, Crispy Ambulance and A Certain Ratio. Howard Devoto and Killing Joke also get a look-in, despite having no direct connection with the label.

The film is separated into a series of chapters covering aspects such as the founding of the label and Peter Saville's iconic sleeve designs, as well as key historical events including the death of Ian Curtis and the notorious Joy Division gig in Bury that sparked a riot.

"Shadowplayers" provides a fascinating insight into what was a very exciting period in the UK's musical history, and through its first-person recollections manages both to reinforce and dispel many of the popular myths surrounding the label. Perhaps the most interesting parts are the stories about Martin Hannett from those who worked with him. The popular perception of Hannett is of a great producer who was a real pain to work with, and that is certainly backed up by those whose records he produced. Nobody here pays any heed to the old adage of not speaking ill of the dead; at one point Hooky describes Hannett as childish, but ACR go one step further and even criticse his work. Guitarist/trumpeter Martin Moscrop claims that Hannett's very precise production techniques removed all the feeling from their debut album.

The most amusing scene centres around the mutual bitching between Tony Wilson and Section 25's Cassidy brothers. Wilson states that the brothers would win the award for "whingers of the year"; they then prove his point by complaining about the length of time it took to create the artwork for their first release and having to put the records in the sleeves themselves.

If I have one criticism of this documentary, it's the lack of variety in the way it's presented. For a film about a record label, there is surprisingly little in the way of musical content. It consists almost entirely of "talking head" shots of the contributors sitting at home, in recording studios or, in the case of Vini Reilly, outside slumped against a wall. On a couple of occasions, record sleeves are shown; for example, Section 25 hold up the infamously expensive cover of their debut album. But there are no clips of any of the bands playing. This is most apparent when ACR are talking about their image and the clothes they wore onstage in 1980. This would have been best illustrated by a live clip, or at the very least an old photo of the band.

The film is clearly aimed at those who have a prior knowledge of Factory's music and want to learn more about what went on behind the scenes; on that level it is a great success. For anyone wanting an introudction to some of the bands, a better place to start would be the BBC's documentary "Factory: From Joy Division to Happy Mondays", which has been shown several times and I believe is being repeated on BBC4 later this week. If the BBC were to release this on DVD then it would be the perfect complement to James Nice's film.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

When you get out of the hospital...

SPIRITUALIZED - SONGS IN A&E

Five years since the last Spiritualized release, J. Spaceman returns with the album nobody thought he would live to make. Shortly after he started writing songs for this album, Jason was hospitalised with a serious bout of pneumonia and spent two weeks hooked up to a ventilator. His near-death experience has inspired him out of the rut he had fallen into with the previous two albums, and "Songs in A&E" is the most moving and consistent record he has recorded since 1997's "Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space".

The overall sound of this record is positive and life-affirming, and it sounds as if Jason is in control again rather than just letting things develop around him as he has done on previous albums. His voice is also much more prominent, instead of being hidden behind layers of gospel singing, as on 2003's "Amazing Grace". The gospel choir is still there, but it is used more sparingly now - to emphasise Jason's contributions rather than to mask his lack of ideas as they seemed to be doing on the previous album.

The lyrics are one of the most interesting aspects. Many of the songs seem to deal with themes of mortality but Jason claims to have written them before his spell in hospital. So, did he foresee his own brush with death? I must admit I've always enjoyed the sonic bliss of Spiritualized over the lyrics as Jason does have a tendency to sing about his drug use above everything else, or at least use drug clich├ęs ("getting high", "coming down" etc.) as metaphors for other aspects of his life. As many of you will know, I'm not keen on people who take drugs and boast about it just to fulfil their idea of a rock & roll lifestyle. As I've always enjoyed Spiritualized's music, I usually try either to ignore the lyrics or to come up with alternative interpretations that map onto my own (drug-free) experiences. However, I've spent a lot of time reading the lyrics of "Songs in A&E" and marvelling at the ambiguities, as I wonder whether Jason may now be considering a healthier way of life. He certainly seems to be expressing his love for his family, and maybe even promising to turn his back on drugs, but if you listen to the songs again you start to wonder if the fire inside his soul (from "I Gotta Fire") and the flame that burns in his heart (from "Sitting On Fire") are chemically rather than emotionally stimulated. The latter song in particular made me think of the potential double meaning in Lou Reed's "Perfect Day", which seems at first to be a romantic song about spending a day with a loved one, but anyone who's aware of Lou's history will immediately start to suspect that it's heroin that gets him through the day.

There is further mystery in "You Lie You Cheat", where Jason appears to addressing an old rival and waiting for them to fall. But with the overall positive tone of the rest of the album, I like to think that he's actually speaking to himself, perhaps blaming his former drug-taking self for his recent problems, and telling himself to move on from his past life.

Whatever the intentions behind the lyrics, I hope Jason stays healthy and inspired long enough to bring us another record of this quality.

As with previous albums, "Songs in A&E" is available in a number of unusual formats, including a book, a DVD-style case and (the version that I bought) a rather garish green vinyl edition: