Monday 22 January 2024

When did everything become so dull?

When was the last time you got really excited about something new? When was the last time you heard of something really exciting happening and thought "I've got to get involved with that". I'm not talking about watching a sports club, or a band you've followed for 30 years announcing a tour. I am talking about getting a sniff that 'something is going on'. When was the last time you booked a holiday, to visit a city not knowing what was going there, but knowing if you went, there would all manner of amazing things to discover?

Last night, I watched a documentary on the Apple TV channel about The Velvet Underground, a band many cite as the first punk band. I am a big fan of the band and have been since my eldest brother Laurie lent me their first album in 1977, with the words "If you want to know where Punk started listen to this".

I have been fascinated with the band ever since, but this blog is not about them. As I watched the documentary and the clips of the New York arts scene in the 1960's and the evolution of the band, I started to reflect on the city of New York. When I was a teenager, New York seemed to be an impossibly exciting city. To my mind, it was the Capital of the World. The Velvet Underground were followed by The New York Dolls, The Ramones, Television and Blondie, who became the heart of the proto punk scene, based at CBGB's and Max's Kansas City. 

As I watched the documentary, I got very nostalgic. As a teenager, New York was the top of the list of places that I'd visit if I ever had enough money. Transatlantic travel was expensive at the time and was out of reach for me. But I dreamed of visiting CBGB's, of staying at the Chelesa Hotel, of visiting the Museum of Modern Art. I was also fascinated by the Empire State Building, the arts scene, Andy Warhol, etc. Just about every decent cop show was set in New York. The best gangster films, such as The Godfather were as well. It was glamourous and unattainable. My Dad hs visited New York in 1942 as he was being transported by the RAF from Australia to the Uk to fly bombers. He painted a picture of a city of the most exciting clubs and shows. 

I also dreamed of visiting West Berlin.It ws divided and an island in East Germany. It seemed edgy and exciting. Bowie went there and produced two of his greatest albums, Low and Heroes. How can a city with a wall, that you get shot if you try and cross, not be exciting? I determined that The False Dots would record an album in Berlin, on the basis that "If it's good enough for Bowie, it's good enough for us".

When you watch music documentaries from the time, everyone is smoking, everyone is drinking, everyone is thin and everyone looks amazing. Bands would sometimes only last six months or a year, but produce a whole raft of amazing music, often on equipment that we'd view as beyond primitive right now. PA systems were awful, and when you saw a band, it wasn't for sound quality, it was for excitement and energy. 

As for the TV channels. In London in the 70's, we had three channels. If you missed something good, that was that. You'd missed it. All your mates would be talking about it. As a muso, I'd watch Top of The Pops, The Old Grey Whistle Test, So it Goes and Supersonic, if I could and if no one else was watching the telly. If Dad was watching a Test match, I was scuppered. I'd run up the road to the Malone's, bang on the door and see what they were watching. Mrs Malone was very kind to me and would often turn over the telly to let me watch what I wanted, bringing a cup of tea and a biscuit. I can still recall the sheer excitement of watching the first episode of Scooby Doo there. Dale Malone had told me that there was a new cartoon on and invited me up. It was worth the wait.

If you met a girl and she gave you her number, then you treasured it with your life, as if you lost it, then there was no way to google her, or look her up on Facebook. Often, you'd have to arrange to call a phonebox at a set time and hope she'd be on the other end at the appointed time. The worst thing was when you rang and it was engaged. Was it out of order, was she there, waiting outside. I can remember the excitement of ringing one, only for a proper cockney geezer to say "ello". I was taken aback. I said  "Oh, is Susan there?". He replied "There's a bird outside, I'll ask her". Then I hear "Are you Susan?", I vaguely here a "Yes" and he says "Call back in five minutes, she was behind me in the queue". I did just that and she never picked up. I never saw Susan again, I wondered if the geezer had whisked her off for a life of bliss. My dreams melted, but I'll never forget the excitement of the moment.

Then there was buying a new album by a band. You knew it was coming out and on it's release day, you'd visit your local record shop. If they didn't have it, I'd take a 113 bus o Oxford St and buy it at HMV. I'd read the sleeve notes on the label on the bus home. By the time I got home, I'd be in a state of frenzy. I can long recall putting "Another music in a different kitchen" by the Buzzcocks on. I was in heaven, that evening John Peel played 8 tracks from the record on his show, and played the other three the next night. The John Peel show was thrilling. I heard Stiff Little Fingers, The UK Subs, The Yatchs, The Fall and The Cure for the first time on his show. He then got more into reggae, and opened up a whole new world, with Black Slate, Culture, etc. It was exciting. You never knew what he'd play, but every show seemed to have a golden nugget. 

Then there was the New Musical Express, AKA the NME. I'd buy it on a Thursday and scour for gigs to attend. Often, I'd see bands on the strength of hearing a track on the John Peel show. I'd read interviews of gigs I'd been to a couple of weeks before and formed strong opinions of reviewers who slagged off gigs that I'd seen that were great (most notably when Tony Parsons slagged off the Ramones at The Rainbow at New Year 1977). It seemed important at the time. I'd hang on every word of artists I like. Between about 1977 and 1981, I bought every edition and read just about every article, every London gig listing and every advert. I'd pick it up on the way to school and read in the breaks, sometimes the lessons. I recall once, reading it in physics at FCHS. Our rather wonderful physics teacher, John Shuttler, saw me and confiscated it. He said "You can collect it from me at the end of the day". I was furious. When the final bell went, I went to his room at the back of the Physics lab. I knocked and he beckoned me in. He was reading an article about Joni Mitchell. He made me a cup of tea and a biscuit, and we spent an hour discussing music. He then said "Look, I'd encourage you to read the NME, but not in lessons". He then asked if he could have the article on Joni Mitchell when I'd finised with it. He also encouraged me to listen to her music, which I did. I've loved her work ever since, even though it was not punk rock. A couple of days later, I gave him the issue. He read it and returned it, as he knew I collected the paper. It was important and he got it. 

Fast forward 47 years. It is all so dull.

I asked my kids during lockdown where they wanted to visit. It was all places with nice beaches, activities, swimming. Would they be interested in going to New York? They wouldn't mind going, but had no real interest. Whereas when I was a teenager it was an edgy, happening place, now it is seen as a safe place to go shopping, eat and watch a few shows. Berlin? The wall came down and it is now another German city, nothing special there. I can't remember the last time any great art featured Berlin. Across both of these great city's, no one is smoking and people are more interested in being healthy than the counter culture.

The proliferation of TV channels and streaming services mean that you never need watch anything for fear of missing it. Many people I know only really like to watch things when they can binge watch the whole lot. There is no anticipation. There are no cliffhangers, where you wait a week to see the outcome, where everyone talks about what will happen and who done it. 

When you date, you don't meet random people and hit it off, exchanging telephone numbers and waiting by the telephone box, in eager anticipation for the call, with a stack of 5p's so you can talk for an hour. By the time you've met them, you've read their profile and heaven forbid that you get a surprise!

As for music, it is all segmented. If you like Rock, you listen to the Rock channel and if you like Rap, you listen to the Rap channel. If you see a band, you don't go eagerly hoping to be the first one of your friends to hear the new album, you get the hump if they play the old hits. The most exciting thing any band can do is exactly what they did 40 years ago, but with a better sound system and some flashy lights. The concept of going to a gig and being blown away by a brand new track is something that is as quaint an idea as writing a letter with a quill. It's all very enjoyable, but is it exciting?

As to gigs, when you have a free slot in your diary, you google to see who is on, then you book the tickets online. The printed version of the NME and it's listings page is long gone. The idea of reading reviews of bands you've never heard of, to get some clues as to who might be worth watching seems like the obsession of a lunatic. You only want to see bands that you already know the catalogue of.  And when you go to gigs, what do you do? You wait until they play your favourite song and then you ruin it for yourself and everyone behind you by trying to take a video of it, rather than being in the moment. Just in case anyone around you may actually be a fan of the band, who is interested in the new material, you talk loudly through all of the songs you haven't heard before and make sure they have a thoroughly miserable night. You then go home and complain of Facebook that the band bored you with new material, that you'd not bothered to listen to. 

I love music, I love gigs, I love being an artist but I despair at the behaviour of many people who go to gigs and other events. There is not only a lack of respect for the artists but a complete disregard for everyone else.  

In short we have created a brave new world, where everything is dull, not least us. We can't stand surprises, we are selfish, vain and boring. There are a proliferation of 'review sites', where the most despicable people are able to put the boot in to people doing their best to run restaurants, put on gigs, run hotels and stage events. The comments drip with self entitlement and mock outrage. What does this do? It means no one takes chances. No one tries to break the dull conformity of life in the year 2024. 

I spoke to a work colleague a few years back. They asked me what my perfect holiday would be. I said I'd like six months where I started by walking down the road and getting the first train from Mill Hill, getting off where the mood took me (probably St Pancras International) and then getting the first train from there to wherever. A whole six months of not having a clue what the day held in store, six months where everywhere I went, everything I did was a surprise. Back in 1987, I went on an Interrail holiday with Clare for three weeks and we did just that. Everywhere we went we decided more or less on the day. We ate where people we spoke to recommended, we made casual friends and went along to where they recommended. In 1993, I did the same thing when I did a road trip around New York state with friends. When they went home, I spent a week doing that on my own around the City. I just about caught the tail end of New York before the gentrification ruined it. It was exciting, at time scary and the best holiday ever. When I got home and developed the pictures I took, I was surprised how much of it I'd already forgotten, as we were living in the moment and then on to the next adventure. 

It seems to me that small venues such as the Dublin Castle are the last bastion of sanity, holding out against the dullness that seems to envelope and strangle us. Small bands, small venues, small theatre companies, family run restaurants are struggling to survive in a sea of mediocrity. People would rather have something bland and average, rather than take a risk. I don't know when everything became so dull, but unless we work at it, it will strangle us. 

In truth, my loathing of dullness is why I play in a band. When we do a gig at The Dublin Castle, I have no idea who will come, how it will go, whether it will be a great night or a disaster will befall us, although generally it is a great night. I have no idea who the other bands are or what they will be like. I always listen to as much of them as I can. It is a pleasure and an honour to play such a wonderful venue and it is a joy to be part of it. If you love dullness and prefer to bored and comfortable rather than excited and edgy, then make yourself a nice cup of Nescafe and watch the repeats on one of the satellite channels of something that you found funny three decades ago. If you fancy something different, something that might rouse you from your slumber, then get out, go and see something new. Start the evening with a bite to eat in an independent restaurant. If you want a suggestion, come and see my band, The False Dots, on Saturday 3rd February at The Dublin Castle it is usually a really good night out. The support band, Inbetween Honey are coming over from Dublin to play, they are being touted as the next big thing from Ireland. And if you want dinner before, check out Anima e Cuore, a wonderful Italian restaurant in Camden, a tad shabby but a proper restaurant in every sense of the word, if you like great food. You can get tickets to see us here >>>>>

This will give you some idea of what to expect when you get there!

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