Playgrounds Will Laugh If You Try To Ask "Is It Cool?"

Here's a thing I said on July 14th, 2020: "Now I guess I've got 365 days to find a better song with the number 23 in the title."

Well, anyone who's ever owned the Jackie Brown soundtrack album probably saw this one coming. Although the YouTube video linked to in the previous sentence gets the title wrong, which is understandable when the phrase 'strawberry letter 22' occurs twice in the lyrics. In case you hadn't worked it out, the song itself is the Strawberry Letter 23 of the title. Aaaaahh.

Anyway, for those of you who don't know what's going on here: The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey first appeared on the internet 23 years ago today, on July 14th, 1998. Happy birthday to me, and thanks to all of you who've put up with this nonsense for any length of time during that period.

Next year should be easier, I think. In the meantime, thank yourselves lucky I didn't go for one of the musical settings of the 23rd Psalm. (Okay, there's one that could have worked, but nobody seems to have put the final scene of The Wicker Man on YouTube.)

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At Home We're A Tourist (part 2 of 2)

Us, underneath the i360, Brighton beach, 16th June 2021. (pretty sure we're in there somewhere)This story is about...

Well, it's part travel guide for visitors to London. It's part historical record of a city coming slowly back to life after months of lockdown. It's part review of a week's worth of culture in June 2021. And it's part pharmacological study, as we hurl everything we can at two people who've had two doses of AstraZeneca to see what we can get away with in public places.

It's part two (part one's over here) of my report on what The Belated Birthday Girl and I did around London on the week of our twentieth anniversary as an item. Awkwardly, it doesn't start in London.

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Simian Substitute Site for July 2021: Northern Monkey

Northern MonkeyMONTH END PROCESSING FOR JUNE 2021

Books: June is the month when our Audiobook At Bedtime initiative went a little bit odd. We started one book, and after a couple of days The BBG announced that she couldn't quite cope with listening to that particular author night after night. So, as a compromise, we're alternating evenings of that book (which I'll tell you about next month) with evenings of another, unrelated book - Neither Here Nor There, Bill Bryson's journal of his travels across Europe. It's a book that I first read when it originally came out thirty years ago, and it turns out it hasn't aged all that well. What Bryson's good at is the abstract joy of travelling - the process of rolling up somewhere you haven't been before and getting to grips with it. Whenever he's in a place he likes, it's that joy that comes across, more strongly than any liking for the place itself. But when he's in a place he doesn't like, he'll cram an entire chapter full of lazy cheap shots, and the gags don't land as strongly now as they might have in the nineties. (In his reading here, he also has an infuriating habit of chuckling at his own jokes. By coincidence, the author of the other book we're listening to this month does the same, but there's a reason why it works in his case.) The big difference between me reading Neither Here Nor There in 1991 and me having it read to me now is that in the intervening 30 years, I've actually had first-hand experience of several of the places he talks about here. I think what I'm trying to say is, if you're going to badmouth Naples you can fuck right off with that.

Movies: We spent a weekend in Sheffield in 2019 for Sheffield Doc/Fest 2019, and enjoyed it enough to want to go back. But by the time Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020 came around, the world had changed. Because people still hadn't quite worked out how pandemicky film festivals should operate, they threw an entire festfull of documentaries online for a month for a bargain price, and we binged on them like crazy. Sheffield Doc/Fest 2021, however, used the model first introduced by last year's London Film Festival - online screenings drip-fed across the duration of the festival, only made available for a 2-3 day window, and accompanied by selected cinema screenings across the country. As a result, our Doc/Fest this year was a little low-key. Online, we saw Men Who Sing (a charming little tale of the director's father's lifelong membership of a Welsh male voice choir) and the shorts programme Some Magic To Fight Oppression (featuring four ethnographic studies that all monkeyed around with the documentary form to some degree or other). And thanks to BFI Southbank, we also saw one of the Doc/Fest films in a cinema, and that was the Opening Gala Summer Of Soul. Back in 1969, around the same time as Woodstock, there was a series of concerts called the Harlem Music Festival, featuring a ridiculously great lineup of acts in their prime - Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and many more. Over forty hours of concert video was shot, which then sat in a basement for almost half a century because no TV network could be arsed to show it. Director Ahmir Thompson (better known as Questlove from The Roots) gets the balance exactly right between presenting these performances uninterrupted, and giving historical context to why this was such an important festival. Summer Of Soul is out in UK cinemas from July 16th, and streaming on Disney+ from July 30th, so try to catch it one way or the other.

Music: Coming at some point this month - the concluding part of At Home We're A Tourist, which covers pretty much everything else The Belated Birthday Girl and I did in June, during the week-long celebration of our twentieth anniversary. You're all culturally savvy people, so you've probably worked out that the title's a reference to the song At Home He's A Tourist by Gang Of Four. It was in turn inspired by the recent release of The Problem Of Leisure: A Celebration Of Andy Gill And Gang Of Four, an album of cover versions of GOF songs by today's top popsters. I know I was grumbling only last month about how many people are falling back on releasing covers at the moment, but this is a pretty great collection, giving you a new appreciation of both the original songs and the artists who've dared to take them on. Case in point is the opening track, in which Idles get into a fight with Damaged Goods: it's finally become apparent to me that my main problem with Idles is their crummy songwriting, because when they have a decent tune to play with they're utterly ferocious. In an unusual move, some of the songs are covered more than once, with Not Great Men turning up here in three different versions - but the multiple perspectives are very welcome indeed. If I have one complaint, it's that there's one GOF classic that doesn't turn up on here at all. Guess which one it is?  

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At Home We're A Tourist (part 1 of 2)

Us, north west London, 20th April 2013. (not to scale)This site has never shied away from celebrating big anniversaries. And this, to be frank, is probably the biggest. Because in June 2021, The Belated Birthday Girl and I are marking twenty years of doing that thing we do. I know, I know.

For some time now, we've been trying to work out: how would we commemorate our twentieth anniversary? For a while, we were considering a return visit to Hong Kong, winner of the Funnest Place On Earth award for the years 1993 to 2017 inclusive. Sadly, it's not really in the running for that award at the moment. Then, when our plans for our nineteenth anniversary fell through for covidular reasons, we realised that we could roll those plans forward a year to give us a rather spectacular setting for our twentieth. Those covidular reasons still remain, as you'd imagine, and we're currently planning to make that the setting for our twenty-first. Third time lucky, as they say.

In the end, it was a rollover booking from an entirely different holiday that helped us come to our decision: we'd spend our twentieth anniversary almost entirely in London. Because June 2021 in London had all sorts of interesting possibilities - the possible transition from the last stage of lockdown to a totally opened up city, leading to the various cultural hotspots of the capital slowly waking up again after many months of hibernation. We could take a week off work, and actually be part of that waking up process.

Over a ten night period, we may have taken that idea a little too far. Put it this way, this page is just going to be about the first five nights...

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Simian Substitute Site for June 2021: 70th Anniversary Of Kay Bojesen Monkey

70th Anniversary Of Kay Bojesen MonkeyMONTH END PROCESSING FOR MAY 2021

Books: So it looks like for the foreseeable future, these monthly roundups will regularly start off with whichever audiobook has been soundtracking our bedtime hot drinks. (Until we manage to get out and see some Art, I suppose.) And for May, it's been Hungry by Grace Dent, apparently subtitled The Highly Anticipated Memoir from One of the Greatest Food Writers of All Time, which is a bit alarming. I mean, we enjoy Dent's restaurant reviews in the Saturday Guardian, sure, but that's pushing it. Apart from a blink-and-you'll-miss-it prologue (or whatever the sound equivalent of that would be), it's a straightforward chronological retelling of her life: growing up in a working-class home in Carlisle, discovering an unexpected family secret in her teenage years, moving to London with a vague plan to get into journalism, actually getting into journalism at a time in the 1990s when ridiculous sums of money were being flung at it, and ascending the ladder from Marie Claire to the Grauniad food pages. The changes in her lifestyle are mirrored by the changes in her palate, and she's sharp and funny on how food becomes a sort of alternative soundtrack to our lives. Although it seems like a heartless quibble on my part, I think that the narrative thread relating to her father's illness - which, to be fair, is literally foreshadowed in that prologue I mentioned - is a little too reminiscent of the way that one-hour Edinburgh stand-up shows now have to feature an injection of personal tragedy at the forty minute mark to be considered meaningful. It makes for a very uneven tone, as Dent still feels the need to keep the jokes coming throughout the darker final quarter of the book. These days, I think, we're all looking for something a little lighter before we go to bed.

Movies: Back in December, we went to the cinema to see Crock Of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan, Julien Temple's documentary about one of my favourite songwriters and alcoholics. Shortly after that, they closed down all the cinemas in Britain for five months. I'm assuming that the two events weren't related. They re-opened the picturehouses on May 17th, and in the two weeks since then we've been out to see five new films - all of which have been watchable online throughout lockdown, it's true, but we'd made the decision to save them for the big screen. Briefly, here's how that went for us. Minari: it's almost like someone spent several years reverse-engineering an Oscarbait film from all the tried and tested ingredients - immigrants chasing the American Dream, the dignity of agriculture, cute kids, dementia-riddled grandparents - and then twelve months ago suddenly realised 'hey, this year's winner had Koreans in it, can we get Koreans?' Godzilla Vs Kong: it's blindingly stupid, obviously, but if you see it on an IMAX screen it's the best and most entertaining kind of blindingly stupid. Judas And The Black Messiah: this, on the other hand, is an unironically great piece of work, with stellar performances by Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield, along with stylish direction from Shaka King. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom: some more top-notch acting, and obviously it's tragic that we'll get no more Chadwick Boseman, but even he can't get over the complete failure to turn August Wilson's stage play into a piece of cinema - as The BBG noted, the script hardly has any dialogue, it's all speeches, and somehow the few cutaways to the world outside the building where all the action occurs make it seem even more stagey. Sound Of Metal: I've no desire whatsoever to see The Father, so I'm just going to assume that Riz Ahmed was robbed of the Best Actor Oscar this year, with his emotional performance as a drummer losing his hearing getting a turbo boost from a brilliantly subjective sound mix (which did win an Oscar).

Music: With five months of 2021 behind us, what are the musical trends of the year so far? The latest Spank's Audio Lair playlist of Recent Tunes Of Interest has a couple of hot takes on that subject. Links to videos included below, for those of you who don't believe in Spotify.

  1. Sons Of Kemet have appeared on my radar thanks to Hustle, their excellent collaboration with Kojey Radical. But there are plenty of other collaborations of note on their new album, such as this one with Joshua Idehen.
  2. First trend to note: this year's seen the release of several albums full of cover versions. Always a popular approach for an act that's taking stock, although that's possibly not what eighty-year-old Tom Jones is doing here.
  3. That might be what Soil&"Pimp"Sessions are doing here, however. And this is also an illustration of the second trend to note: a growing tendency to let individual tracks stretch out to ten minutes or so.
  4. This is an odd choice for a Pet Shop Boys single, isn't it? Sure, they've released tunes that you couldn't really dance to before, but a ten minute mini-opera is new territory for them.
  5. By comparison, the sheer brevity of this is refreshing. And I do like the idea of a pop star being called Billy Nomates, particularly if you pronounce her name like you'd pronounce Socrates, in a reverse Bill and Ted style.
  6. Max Richter's 2020 album Voices had some lovely music on it: his 2021 album Voices 2 feels suspiciously like a collection of material that wasn't good enough for the first one, though this one's pretty and atmospheric.
  7. Another covers album, but an odd one - Folktonic sees Estonian electropop guy Noep taking on some of his home country's traditional folk songs with the help of a series of guest singers. Sadly, it doesn't work as an album because he hammers every tune flat with the same four-on-the-floor beat, but the individual tracks are just fine.
  8. This is sort of a covers record, too: Marianne Faithfull reading out classic Romantic poetry over a Warren Ellis backing. I could have included her epic reading of The Lady Of Shallot here to bolster my ten-minute-tracks thesis, but unfortunately I studied that poem for O Level English Literature and don't particularly care for it as a result.
  9. One more ten minute take for you, as yet another New Order live album features the full length version of one of my favourite singles of theirs. They've come a long way since the 1980s, when they were responsible for some of the most slipshod live shows I've ever seen in my life.
  10. And one more covers album, as The Polyphonic Spree - remember them? - apply their everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach to other people's songs, but spend far too much time making them sound like carbon copies of the originals. This underrated gem from the Monkees comes out of the deal pretty well, though.

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