Sunday, December 07, 2008

Simple Minds - Odyssey Arena, Belfast

Prior to going to see Simple Minds at Belfast’s Odyssey Arena last night, I’d imagined the band’s fans to fall into two distinct categories: those who thrilled to the pre-1982 fusion of electro and funk that championed Simple Minds as princes of the new wave, and those that shook their fists to the lumpen stadium rock that came with later success.

As an older and heavier Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchill arrived on stage to the strains of Waterfront, the fists were raised across the arena and middle-aged dancing commenced. My initial bewilderment soon turned to smug satisfaction as the thunderous aplomb of their 1983 hit gave way to the electronic pulse of 1980’s I Travel and the stadium fans sat down. I’d have danced, but I would have been on my own.

This was the last date on Simple Minds current tour, celebrating thirty years as a live act. I’d come to see their 1982 album, New Gold Dream, which was played in its entirety. As Someone, Somewhere in Summertime segued into Colours Fly and Catherine Wheel, it was as if a completely different band had claimed the stage. Even the bombastic light show shimmered to a cool, sophisticated purple, in harmony with the spectral synth washes and fluid bass lines.

It was a brave move for Simple Minds to incorporate this landmark album into the middle of their performance; at times, it seemed as if they were in danger of losing the audience. A line of stadium fans sitting behind me went to the bar during the sublime Big Sleep and Somebody Up There Likes You.

Normal service was resumed as the Eno and Byrne-inspired King is White and in the Crowd gave way to Up on the Catwalk and Don’t You Forget About Me. The people in the row behind me returned to their seats and it was all fists punching the air again.

Even the cloying sentiment of Belfast Child failed to deter the acolytes. As with Van Morrison’s Gloria, offered by way of a gift earlier in the set, they hooted, stamped their feet and sang along.

“Some day soon, they’re gonna pull the old town down,” Kerr sang, before assuring, “No chance!” The crowd roared its approval. Though, coming in at two hours and twenty minutes, and delivering a performance that would shame bands half their age, I reckon Simple Minds deserved the applause.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Ladytron - Live at The Stiff Kitten, Belfast

If they had been around back in the early 1980s, Ladytron would have been the kind of band you would have fallen in love with on watching them perform their latest hit on Top of the Pops, sandwiched between The Human League and Adam and the Ants.

With their infectious blend of electro-pop and fuzzy post-punk, Ladytron exist in the tradition of those few bands that are best characterised by a string of glittering and perfect pop singles. It’s therefore a shame that none of their songs have so far been able to make any significant impact on the pop charts.

Looking as if they had been styled by a Teutonic Mary Quant, Mira Aroyo and Helen Marnie appeared on the Stiff Kitten stage like parallel universe versions of Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. The hausfrau image sat perfectly alongside the bubbling electronics and squalling guitar. The on-stage roving spotlight that settled on one band member before gliding away to gaze on another cemented the Nuremberg-chic.

We were informed that Mira had broken her ankle that morning, and so remained seated at her keyboard, looking at times as if she was weeping. There would be no blank-faced, Abba-esque back-to-back singing then, which is how I imagined Ladytron would present themselves to a live audience.

Opening with Black Cat the set list mainly concentrated on songs from the last two albums, including Ghosts, Season of Illusions, High Rise, Soft Power, International Dateline, Seventeen and current single, Runaway. The four-members of the band were supplemented by two others, including a live drummer, who provided added punch to the sequenced percussion. At times, the vocals seemed too far back in the mix and much of the top-end sounds were lost amid the thundering bass. It was as if My Bloody Valentine had descended on the sound desk.

Fighting in Built up Areas, with Mira intoning in Bulgarian and Helen on breathy backing vocals, demanded to be immortalised in a stylish horror film, in much the same way that Bauhaus had electrified the opening scenes of Tony Scott’s The Hunger. The spotlight was replaced by a flickering strobe, which sparkled like a million flashbulbs over the attentive audience.

Due, I imagine, to the broken ankle, there was no encore. The performance ended with Ladytron’s best-known single, Destroy Everything You Touch. It’s the sort of song that should have gone to number one and stayed there for weeks; yet, in a world where Top of the Pops has been replaced by the mucky horrors of X-factor song contests, such crimes are to be expected.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Advertising Standards Authority vs Free Presbyterian Church

The Advertising Standards Authority has this week ruled that The Belfast News Letter was in breach of The Committee of Advertising Practice Code Clause 5.1 in publishing a full-page advertisement from Sandown Free Presbyterian Church.

The advertisement, published on 1st August 2008 and headlined 'The Word of God Against Sodomy' was timed to coincide with Belfast's annual gay pride festival and parade. It voiced its disapproval of homosexuality in typical Biblical vitriol.

Seven people complained to the ASA, who initially recommended that the complaints should not be upheld, although noted that a final decision would be taken by its Council.

The Council this week ruled out any consideration that the News Letter or Sandown Free Presbyterian Church acted to incite hatred but instead upheld complaints on the basis of CAP Code Clause 5.1, which notes that "Marketing communications should contain nothing that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence," and "Particular care should be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of race, religion, sex, sexual orientation or disability."

Commenting on the advertisement, Sandown Free Presbyterian Church quoted "God's truth," to mask its homophobia, while the Belfast News Letter noted it felt it appropriate "to express relevant views surrounding the issue, despite the fact that those views may be abhorrent to some," and that a refusal to publish the advertisement would have been "an infringement of freedom of expression on a matter of public interest."

The ASA has recommended that the advert should not appear again in its current form. The ASA has also informed Sandown Free Presbyterian Church to "take more care in future," to avoid causing offence and advised the church to seek a view from the CAP Copy Advice team before publishing future marketing material.

Since the ASA doesn't impose fines and holds no direct powers of legal censure, it seems likely that the Free Presbyterian Church will take little notice of its ruling. However CAP Code 61.8 notes that persistent offenders may be required to have some or all of their marketing communications vetted by the CAP Copy Advice team until the ASA and CAP are satisfied that future communications will comply with the Code.

CAP Code 61.10 goes further. It notes that if marketing communications continue to appear after the ASA Council has ruled against them, the ASA can refer the matter to The Office for Fair Trading for action under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 and the Business Protection from Misleading Marketing Regulations 2008. The OFT can seek an undertaking that the marketing will be stopped from anyone responsible for commissioning, preparing or disseminating it. If that is not given or is not honoured, the OFT can seek an injunction from the Court to prevent its further appearance. Anyone not complying can be found to be in contempt of court and is liable to be penalised accordingly.

This suggests that any further homophobic pamphleteering by Sandown Free Presbyterian Church could be directed back to the ASA, with the possibility of the church ending up in court.

At the very least, a warning shot has been fired. However, one wonders what happened to all those complaints to the police earlier this year, regarding Iris Robinson MLA's outspoken views on lesbian and gay people.

I recently attended a performance of DV8 Physical Theatre's 'To Be Straight With You' at London's National Theatre. During one scene, Robinson's homophobic ranting was played to barn-yard music, while performers in animal heads trotted around the stage. The audience hooted with laughter at the narrow provincialism described by the piece.

Such provincialism is the preserve of the Belfast News Letter. A newspaper of integrity would not have carried such an offensive full-page advertisement. Rather than engage in any significant journalism, the Belfast News Letter colludes with the rhetoric of fundamentalist loathing and echoes the spirit of a faded empire. I see nothing within the pages of that newspaper to convince me otherwise, although I hope it sees fit to print a full-page apology in one of this week's editions, along with a copy of the ASA's final adjudication.

To access the text of the full-page advertisement, as it appeared in the Belfast News Letter, click the image above.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Moron Moments - Corn Market Upgrade

The modernisation work on Belfast city centre's tired pavements is well underway. In the main, the results are impressive.

Yet, I'm surprised that no one thought to relocate the electricity box that stood beside the old bandstand in Corn Market.

Now that the bandstand is gone, the electricity box stands alone and incongrous in the middle of Corn Market, at the approach to the new Victoria Centre.

It would appear that amid the hysteria that surrounded the development of Belfast's flagship shopping centre, someone forgot about the little details.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Lou Reed's Berlin - Belfast Waterfront Hall

The last time I went to the Waterfront Hall in Belfast, I was greeted by a very lacklustre effort from Sinead O’Connor. Although I had higher hopes for Lou Reed, who brought his Berlin tour to the venue last night, I left disappointed by an average performance and bewildered by the audience’s hysterical reaction.

My main gripe was Reed’s tendency to sing the songs according to whatever lyrical phrasing that pleases him. Okay, they’re his songs and he can do what he likes with them, but I’d have preferred them to sound more like they do on the record. Surely that’s the point of presenting an album in its totality, live on stage. Reed’s delivery is generally conversational but I thought his ambling, talking style ruined The Kids and Caroline Says II.

The Berlin album runs for just under fifty minutes. Reed and his band compensated for this by ensuring the closing bars of nearly every song repeated over and over, while Reed and his guitarist engaged in over-bloated guitar jamming.

The mood improved towards the close of the album. The Bed and Sad Song translated beautifully and Reed sang in time to the music, although the refrain of the latter song seemed to go on for an age.

The encore consisted of near-unrecognisable versions of Rock and Roll and Satellite of Love. Reed’s boredom must have been complete by this point, as he didn’t even bother singing most of the words, leaving these duties to his bass player, backing singer and child-choir. Unfortunately, the final song The Power of the Heart was marred by Reed’s guitar sounding distinctly out of tune with the rest of the band, although Reed seemed aware of this, judging by his perplexed scrutiny of said guitar as he continued to play.

It seems standing ovations are commonplace in the Waterfront Hall. Like O’Connor last month, Reed’s audience was quickly on its feet and clapping like mad. Maybe they were on strong drugs, or something. The people in the row in front of me were waving their arms and whooping. I didn’t quite get it, although the sight of middle aged men dancing in the aisle and supplicating themselves, hands outstretched to their hero was somewhat bemusing.

Maybe I was just spoilt by an excellent Leonard Cohen performance in Dublin the week before.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Two Minutes Hate - Iris Robinson

On looking at pictures of the DUP's new ministerial team, I was reminded of Gore Vidal’s assertion that “Politics is show-business for ugly people.” Never has such a horror-show image assailed my eyes.

Absent from said pictures is MP MLA Iris Robinson, who has recently exhibited herself as ugliest of all, with her uncompromising views on lesbian and gay people.

It all started last week, when Mrs Robinson appeared on BBC’s Nolan radio show to praise the efforts of one-time moral crusader, Mary Whitehouse. It wasn’t long before she connected with the DUP homophobic mainframe and used her Christian beliefs to attack the morals – or lack thereof – of lesbian and gay people, although Mrs Robinson used the rather outmoded term, ‘homosexual.’ She spoke with a kind of smug superiority and even chuckled, as if she was sharing a joke.

There was nothing sophisticated or socially responsible about Mrs Robinson’s comments or tone. She seemed unaware of the impact of her words and denied she was fueling the sort of violence that was visited on Stephen Scott, a 27 year-old gay man who was attacked in Newtownabbey the previous evening.

She noted: “I have a lovely psychiatrist who works with me in my offices. I have met people who have turned around and become heterosexual, so it does work. This is a long process. The gentleman, who is a psychiatrist, but more importantly is a born again Christian, has links right across the world. I’m happy to pass on any names to him!”

The “lovely psychiatrist,” is Dr Paul Miller, an honorary clinical lecturer at Queen's University Belfast and senior health advisor to Mrs Robinson. He also came onto the Nolan show to talk about how he was able to turn gays straight. He said he felt compelled to undertake such work after one of his patients, who was struggling with his sexuality, died by suicide. This statement was delivered without insight or irony.

Dr Miller’s views have since been dismissed by the Royal Society of Psychiatrists, whose statement noted: "Such treatments do not work and can actually cause quite a lot of harm. Homosexuality is a state and a sexual orientation and is not a question of behaviour."

You would think that would be the end of the affair, but Mrs Robinson was not to be gagged. A couple of days later, she reappeared on the Nolan show to continue her tirade against lesbian and gay people. One notable exchange focussed on the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of the word ‘Abomination’:

Nolan: Do you think, for example, that homosexuality is disgusting?

Robinson: Absolutely.

Nolan: Do you think that homosexuality should be loathed?

Robinson: Absolutely.

Nolan: Do you think it is right for people to have a physical disgust towards homosexuality?

Robinson: Absolutely.

Nolan: Does it make you nauseous?

Robinson: Yes.

Nolan: Do you think that it is something that is shamefully wicked and vile?

Robinson: Yes, of course it is. It’s an abomination.

Mrs Robinson is now under investigation by the PSNI, following complaints.

You would think that would bring the matter to a close. Not so. Mrs Robinson reappeared soon after, and equated gays with murderers:

"Just as a murderer can be redeemed by the blood of Christ, so can a homosexual. And that’s the message and it’s the word of God and if anyone takes issue they are taking issue with the word of God."

There have been cries from many quarters for Mrs Robinson to apologise, which she refuses to do, and to resign from her post as chair of the Assembly Health Committee. There’s even a Make Iris Robinson History campaign on Bebo.

It will be interesting to see if police action is forthcoming. Article 9 of the Public Order (NI) Order 1987, notes:

"A person who uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, abusive or insulting, is guilty of an offence if :
  • (a) he intends thereby to stir up hatred or arouse fear; or
  • (b) having regard to all the circumstances hatred is likely to be stirred up or fear is likely to be aroused thereby."
Whatever happens, I can’t help but feel that Mrs Robinson’s current media profile may be related to her husband’s elevation to the post of First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly last week. She either has a strong competitive streak and seeks to claim her own place in the limelight, or wishes to somehow undermine her husband’s recent achievement.

However, in considering the religious fundamentalism of Mrs Robinson and her followers, I’m reminded of a speech about the Party’s sexual puritanism, in George Orwell’s 1984:

“Sexual privation induced hysteria, which was desirable because it could be transformed into war-fever and leader-worship… There was a direct intimate connection between chastity and political orthodoxy. For how could the fear, the hatred and the lunatic credulity which the Party needed in its members be kept at the right pitch, except by bottling down some powerful instinct and using it as a driving force?”

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Sinead O'Connor vs The Ulster Orchestra

I wasn’t a fan of Sinead O’Connor before going to see her performance at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall on Monday night, but I was prepared to be won over. After all, the union of a seasoned artist of some notoriety with the Ulster Orchestra would surely be something special. Sadly, it wasn’t.

The orchestra performed splendidly in reinterpreting a selection of O’Connor’s songs. The only problem was the singer herself. For the entire performance, she remained moored within a three-foot radius at one end of the stage, shuffling lazily back and forth with no attempt at communication with the audience. Such was her detachment, that I felt she might as well have situated herself behind one of those plastic noise-reduction screens that stood across the stage.

Towards the end of the performance, O'Connor stated she hadn’t talked because this wasn’t just her gig, but everyone’s. Yeah, but we came to see you Sinead, even if it was for free. Maybe you have to pay to get a glimpse of the energy that tore up the Pope’s picture, riled against imperialism and converted to the priesthood. You could be forgiven for thinking an impostor had been wheeled on stage. At one point, I couldn’t work out if O’Connor was nervous, bewildered, bored or embarrassed. Maybe, she was all of these things.

As for that voice… Well, where was it? She whispered her way through Don’t Cry For Me Argentina and croaked through Nothing Compares 2 U with the occasional yelp echoing former glories.

Yet, perhaps as a testament to O’Connor’s lack of prowess, both these songs were the strongest of the set. The Emperor’s New Clothes seemed to act as an unwitting sub-title to the tone of the evening. Her own material seemed to just amble along, although the reggae influenced Lamb’s Book of Life acted to lift the torpor towards the end of the set. I couldn’t believe she got a standing ovation. I remained firmly rooted in my seat.

“Oh, but she’s all grown up now and has three or four kids,” said an equally nonplussed friend afterwards, seeking to excuse Sinead’s lack of vitality.

Yeah, but so has Madonna, and she was writhing away like a mad thing on the TV the other night.

That’s entertainment!

In The Penal Colony

Last night, BBC Northern Ireland exceeded its usual banal standards and served up a programme entitled 'NI WAGs'.

Narrated by a worryingly over-enthusiastic Christine Bleakley, we were presented with Northern Ireland’s WAGs. WAG is shorthand for Wives And Girlfriends and is a term normally attributed to the android-like empty-heads wedded to premier league footballers. In the Northern Irish sphere, I wasn’t quite sure who these WAGs were associated with, although a couple of lump-faced dopes in fashionable clothes were paraded across the screen to stamp these twittering fools with some sort of questionable credibility.

This peek at the aristocracy of emptiness was delivered without irony and with the apparent aim of showing just how transformed, glam and cosmopolitan the Wee Province has become. I found myself wishing the war would come back as one vapid empty vessel after another squeaked about the importance of hair or style as they shopped on the Lisburn Road, which was laughably described as both “Millionaire’s Mile,” and “Northern Ireland’s Bond Street.” Who were they trying to kid?

“I’ve got shoes in Hollywood and shoes in Dublin,” gushed one of the WAGs in a chiding mill voice.

“A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do,” cheeped another rather ordinary-looking twit. Referring to an associate, she continued, “Lisa has everything. She’s totally high maintenance!”

The camera crew, obviously burdened with more money than sense, followed the faux creatures on a shopping trip to Las Vegas and back to a dull looking awards ceremony at Belfast’s Café Vaudeville. Here was the pinnacle of local WAG life.

“Anyone who’s anyone in Northern Ireland is here tonight,” gasped the breathless Christine Bleakley as the camera roved over a parade of dressed-up nobodies.

I was reminded of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony where criminals are assaulted by a horrendous torture machine that carves the names of their crimes and sentences onto their backs. I feel that such a device should be permanently installed in Café Vaudeville, with the WAGs the first to be thrown onto it, followed by the production team at Waddell Media, who birthed this vile programme, and the shallow dolts at BBC Northern Ireland, who think this kind of nonsense passes for good TV.

Saturday, March 29, 2008


Strange, censorious things have been afoot in the publishing houses of West Belfast this week. I’m reminded of an episode of Doctor Who, where a villainous fiend travelled back in time to rewrite history, so that what you think you remembered never actually happened.

It all started with the recent death of Frank ‘Bap’ McGreevy, a former republican activist who was terrorised and killed by children outside his Lower Falls home. Soon afterwards, The usually loyal Andersonstown News published a harsh attack on Sinn Fein and Gerry Adams in particular, blaming him for failing to take any responsibility for the lawless state of a constituency where much of his electorate live in fear of anti-social elements. The author of the piece, Squinter (AKA Andersonstown News editor, Robin Livingstone) asserted that Adams had failed as a leader and dismissed Sinn Fein as having abandoned the people of the lower Falls “who now fear the night a million times more than they ever feared the Brits or the loyalists.” Strong words.

The article was repeated on Squinter’s website, but don’t go looking for it as it has mysteriously disappeared. And if you take a look at this week’s Andersonstown News, you’ll notice that Squinter’s weekly column has also disappeared.

It would appear that Squinter touched a nerve in vocalising what many in West Belfast have been talking about in private. Instead of treating the matter with any degree of seriousness, Gerry Adams issued a rather wet complaint in which he outlined his disapproval at the tone and timing of the piece before attempting to rally his community to act as one to help secure jobs and make the Falls a better place to live.

The Andersonstown News replied with a sycophantic apology, which is all the more bizarre in that the author of the article in question issued it. Thus, Mr Livingstone has demonstrated himself to be a journalist of little worth, while illustrating that the Andersonstown News is nothing other than a propaganda sheet for Sinn Fein. So much for free speech. It appears that the party once censored by government is now quite happy to censor any voice of dissent emerging from within its former fan base.

Thankfully, Squinter’s article has been preserved over on Slugger O’Toole. However, the dissenting comments from West Belfast residents, which accompanied its original online version, have been wiped away forever. They made interesting reading. One came from a Sinn Fein activist, embarrassed by the truths contained in Squinter’s missive. Another reinterpreted Bobby Sand’s quote “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children,” as an ironic statement on the wayward youth of the lower Falls. Many scorned Sinn Fein for abandoning the likes of Ross Road, the site of Mr McGreevy’s death, for their holiday homes in Donegal.

In publishing his attack on Adams, Squinter had given permission for those in West Belfast who have had enough of Sinn Fein to speak out, which is what makes the disappearance of the article and all accompanying comments, deeply sinister. It’s like locking the stable door after the horse has bolted. Stalin would be proud.

As if to add insult to injury, the headline sitting aside Adam’s complaint on the front page of this week’s Andersonstown News cries: “We Want Bap’s Home Levelled.” It would appear that it’s not enough to blame the police, the Housing Executive, Uncle Tom Cobbley and all. You see, it was the flat that was to blame for all this nonsense and to demolish it will ensure that all anti-social behaviour will also vanish.

There’s a picture of MLA Fra McCann, with a stern faced companion. She’s wearing Reebok and glares at the camera, as if willing the very site of the murder out of existence. Only then will the whitewash be complete, for there will be nothing to remind us that anything actually happened.

Such is the nature of the distraction wheeled out by the party machine as the cracks begin to appear across its once-confident façade.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Pop Britannia

According to Episode Three of BBC4’s Pop Britannia, which I managed to endure most of last night, it was the glamour of Adam Ant and Visage’s Fade to Grey that heralded the arrival of the New Wave scene of the early 1980s.

Perhaps producer Ben Whalley failed to notice that prior to Adam and the Ants’ first chart hit in 1980 and Fade to Grey reaching top-ten status the following year, a whole raft of talent had already laid claim to the post punk scene, although the likes of Depeche Mode, Japan, Ultravox, The Associates and Simple Minds failed to get a mention.

Instead, we got the same weary and well-worn checklist of received wisdom, which this programme acted to reinforce. It went something like this: Glam rock. Check. Rick Wakeman is rubbish. Check. Sex Pistols. Check. Duran Duran on a boat. Check. Frankie gets banned. Check, etc.

Even when trumpeting the ‘British Invasion of America’ in the early 1980s, Soft Cell’s Tainted Love – which topped the charts in 17 countries and stayed in the US charts for a record breaking 43 weeks – was nowhere to be seen. Gary Numan, who was a couple of years ahead of Visage, with Are Friends Electric and Cars – was also absent.

Suddenly, we were transported to the mid-eighties, but we got Mel and Kim instead of The Smiths and The Cure. I managed to switch over, while Thatcher’s poster-boy, Pete Waterman was in mid-flow and before the clichéd Blur vs. Oasis Brit-Pop snooze-a-thon appeared.

Speaking of the series, Whalley said: “The BBC, due to its unique position, is perhaps one of the few places in the world that can attempt to create content of this scope.”

This roughly translates as: “We’ve got all the footage and we can string it together any way we please, to make another facile, dumbed-down clip show to go out on Friday night.”