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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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.

Continue reading "Simian Substitute Site for June 2021: 70th Anniversary Of Kay Bojesen Monkey" »


Simian Substitute Site for May 2021: Hartlepool

HartlepoolMONTH END PROCESSING FOR APRIL 2021

Books: Continuing with the audiobooks at bedtime, we've spent most of April listening to John Cooper Clarke's autobiography, I Wanna Be Yours. It's as ideal a candidate for being read out loud as you'd expect: Clarke's spent a lifetime honing his verbal delivery, so his memoir is a breeze to listen to. It's possible that hearing it rather than reading it makes some of his personal idiosyncrasies stand out a bit more: his tendency to compile his namedrops into huge lists, or his use of multiple catchphrases throughout the book. ("What the - huh?" "Give it a name." "Luxury. Pure, unashamed, luxury.") What's more alarming is the trajectory his life story takes: it starts out as the story of a poet who occasionally dabbles in heroin, and slowly turns into the story of a junkie who does the odd poetry gig. But he's eye-wateringly honest - not to mention bleakly funny - about the ups and downs of his later years, and that honesty keeps his story compelling throughout. Like many autobiographies, the final chapter is effectively a headlong rush through All The Things That Have Happened To Me Since I Got Bored With Writing This Book: perhaps by the end of the year we'll have found one that doesn't end like that.

Internet: Sometimes, it has to be said, a whole audiobook is a bit much to digest. For this reason, we've also recently experimented with a week-long free trial of Blinkist. They take non-fiction books and smash them down into precis form, as both written summaries and fifteen minute audio pamphlets - "the app all CEOs love," says the publicity, which confirms everything you always suspected about CEOs. (Apart from one, he said, realising that he actually quite likes his job right now.) Over the course of the week we listened to, um, 'blinks' of books by David Byrne, Henry Marsh, Chris Hadfield, Brian Krebs, Adam Kay, Richard Wiseman and William E. Paul. Our first one was the Byrne, and I was impressed by how well the summary managed to capture his writing voice. But as we made our way through the other books - notably the Hadfield, which I'd already read in its full-length form - it began to strike me that the blinks were incredibly dumbed down compared to the originals, and the tone of them was invariably simplistic and patronising. (And that's when I realised that 'simplistic and patronising' is the natural tone of David Byrne's writing anyway.) It seems to be a service aimed at people who want to say they've read books, rather than people who want to actually read books. It's possible that a week-long trial is too short to really get the measure of what Blinkist is trying to do, which is hilariously ironic when you think about it. Anyhoo, we're back on the full length audiobooks again now, so watch out for the next exciting instalment in a month's time.

Music: And to make this an entire post full of things you listen to rather than anything else (including the Simian award winner itself), a quick reminder that The Blindboy Podcast is still the single best thing you can ram into your ears on a weekly basis. A recent episode introduced me to the work of Enoch Light, which sounds like the name of a minor English racist but isn't really. Blindboy, in his usual hyperbolic style, insists Light is the equivalent of Giotto in his field: Giotto revolutionised painting by being the first artist to use perspective, while Light was one of the first musicians to use stereo recording. Up until then, people had literally been using recordings of passing trains and table-tennis matches to show off their stereo equipment. Light was a bandleader, and so already had a very specific perspective on how a group of musicians could occupy your field of hearing in two dimensions. His records in the late fifties were gimmicky as hell, with instruments panning wildly from hard left to hard right and back again, but they literally changed the way recorded music was presented after that. And his innovations didn't stop there: his sleeve notes explaining what he was trying to do with the stereo process were so detailed he had to invent the gatefold sleeve to fit them all in, and he also experimented with recording onto 35mm film when magnetic tape turned out not to be high-fidelity enough for him. What a guy! Here, have a listen to five of his earliest stereo albums. (At the very least, try out track 3, which you've probably heard a cover version of at some point.)

Continue reading "Simian Substitute Site for May 2021: Hartlepool" »


Simian Substitute Site for April 2021: Medicine Monkey

Medicine MonkeyMONTH END PROCESSING FOR MARCH 2021

Books: Two months into our audiobook-at-bedtime regime, The Belated Birthday Girl came up with a perfectly valid point: "could we have a female voice for a change?" So after Buxton, Mortimer and Whitehouse, our next book was The Lottery And Other Stories by Shirley Jackson, inspired by that recent film that was kinda sorta about her. Our first attempt at listening to fiction in audio form, and to be honest short stories are perfect for the 20-30 minutes a night we're allocating to the task. Narrator Francine Brody does a decent job of making all these tales distinctive, although inevitably certain voices keep popping up again and again - the buttoned-up housewife, or the whiny teen. As for the stories themselves, they're a fascinatingly diverse selection, ranging from whimsical tales of petty inconvenience to out-and-out psychological horror. Jackson's sense of place is extraordinary - the homes where her characters live inevitably come to define who they are, which is what makes Like Mother Used To Make such a wicked little tale. The fact that she was even prepared to discuss race out loud in the late 1940s is something I wasn't expecting, although the way in which Flower Garden announces itself as a story about race halfway through comes as a jolt these days. The odd little themes and motifs that reoccur throughout these otherwise unconnected stories give the collection an implied throughline, making the whole thing a very satisfying listen. We finished it a couple of weeks ago, and now we're back to non-fiction and men again - but that's a discussion for next month.

Music: March 2021 has been notable for people looking back at their naive predictions of how things were going to pan out after March 2020. Here are mine, if you're interested. (And as we started the first year of this mess with a monkey-themed cartoon from Private Eye, let's start the second year the same way.) Many of these monthly roundups since then have been full of reports on online gigs. We don't do as many of them as we used to, but they're still very much happening. Here's a good one from this month: Kid Carpet, live from the Town Hall in Trowbridge. Alarmingly, it appears to have been almost exactly a decade since we last saw the Kid play a gig for grown-ups: theatre shows and stuff for children have been keeping him occupied since then. Some of the songs from those shows end up in this set, along with a couple of unreleased ones and some old favourites. (He even plays Gordano! Thank you oh Lord and Baby Jesus, as a wise man said in some YouTube comments once.) It's all as ramshackle and entertaining as ever, and it's almost in keeping with the music to have it videoed by a company that normally does weddings. It's part of a whole series of gigs shot in and by Trowbridge Town Hall, because they'd like people to give them some money while they can't put on live shows. Maybe you could consider doing that.

Travel: Last month's posts were all about online film festivals: and next month I'll probably say a bit about online beer festivals too. Is there any kind of festival that can't be held on the internet? Well, if anything was going to test that theory, it was the St Patrick's Day parade in Dublin. Magnificently, this year the parade was replaced by a YouTube-based arts festival that literally occupied a six day weekend. The theory was meant to be that all the video they produced would be taken down a few days after Paddy's Day itself, but it's the beginning of April now and it all still seems to be here. Two highlights stood out for me, both coincidentally involving artists who were on last year's Pick Of The Year compilation. Mary Coughlan contributed A Song And A Chat, a mixture of leisurely interview and greatest hits set, both of which were extremely enjoyable. And Blindboy Boatclub was all over the shop, delivering a set of five nightly short lectures on the subject of Creativity And Mental Health, topping it all off on the final night with a reading of his short story Jo Lee (content warning: contains content). To be honest, those are the only ones that I saw, but there's hours (if not days) of other stuff available, and the big traditional finale live from Whelan's has to be worth a look.

Continue reading "Simian Substitute Site for April 2021: Medicine Monkey" »


Simian Substitute Site for March 2021: RZSS Snow Monkey Cam

RZSS Snow Monkey CamMONTH END PROCESSING FOR FEBRUARY 2021

Books: We’re continuing our nightly ritual for 2021 of doing 20-30 minutes of an audio book before bed. A large chunk of our February was taken up with Gone Fishing, the audio version of the book of the TV show of Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse’s fishing trips. Obviously, it’s a very different beast from what we’ve seen on telly – Gone Fishing is one of the best-looking things on the small screen this decade – but I suspect it’s very different from the printed book as well. We get solo sections written by Bob or Paul about their particular connection to fishing: and we get two-way banter sections that feel like they were transcribed from an earlier conversation and are being re-enacted in a slightly stiff way. On top of that, the audiobook offers sequences where they’re obviously going off-script and just mucking about for a laugh: plus there’s a chapter where they throw all convention out the window and leave the studio for a bit. You could imagine all these tones sitting uncomfortably alongside each other, but it’s still Mortimer and Whitehouse, and the daft charm of their relationship carries you over the awkward transitions.

Music: In more normal times, January and February would be when bands would release their big singles, as a tease for all the new material they had coming later in the year. But these aren’t more normal times. As a result, my first Audio Lair playlist of 2021 is a little too heavy on old and reissued material for my liking. Still, it is what it is, and as usual there are links to YouTube videos for people who don't do audio streaming.

  1. King Rocker, the recently televised documentary about The Nightingales, is as much of a delight as people say it is. The end titles sequence – played over this particular video – is my favourite bit.
  2. There are plenty of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu videos featuring her with monsters, though I believe that this is the first one that depicts her getting all Tony Jaa on their asses.
  3. I don't really know Black Country, New Road - all I can tell you is that this song’s been turning up a lot during the 45 minutes I spend each day listening to the radio, and I still get wrongfooted by its wonky rhythms for its first minute or so.
  4. The Kunts’ attempt at a Christmas number one was doomed to failure, because everyone – including us – was streaming the usual festive nonsense all day on December 25th. Asian Dub Foundation’s push for a New Year’s Day number one was much more successful, as it didn’t have to compete with people’s nostalgia for George Michael.
  5. Binker & Moses are saxophonist Binker Golding (who I don’t know) and drummer Moses Boyd (who I’ve been following with interest since I saw him support Kamasi Washington a couple of years ago), and this is the filthy racket that they make.
  6. The BBG reports that Cathal Coughlan's new stuff sounds a lot like he used to in Microdisney, and that this is A Good Thing. I concur.
  7. The latest round in The KLF’s unexpected re-release of their long-deleted back catalogue, Come Down Dawn is their 1990 ambient album Chill Out with all the uncleared samples removed (except for the huge Pink Floyd one I can hear, or is that just me?).
  8. Bloody hell, Gary Numan appears to still have it, doesn't he?
  9. And he'd be the first to admit that Ultravox are the people he originally got it from. For some reason, it’s been decided that now would finally be a good time to release a live album and video of theirs that’s been on the shelf for 44 years, from an era when they hadn’t quite decided yet what sort of band they were.
  10. A last-minute addition to this playlist, taken from the surprise album that Nick Cave and Warren Ellis suddenly pulled out of their arses last Thursday.
  11. Bonus track! It would have been more useful if Lego had come up with this nine months ago, though, when people were prepared to listen to any old shit while they were working from home.


Telly: There’s no denying that right now, world-class telly is still being made. Some days, though, only garbage will do, which is why I’m talking about History Of Swear Words here. Netflix are selling it as a comedy programme (it’s made by the Funny Or Die people), but it’s a bit short on proper laughs: it’s a mixture of serious analysis by experts in linguistics and social history, and riffs by comedians on why these particular words are funny to say. And it’s all held together by host Nicolas Cage overacting in the style he’s made entirely his own. It’s a mess, but entertaining enough in twenty minute chunks, and has the odd moment of surprising insight. For me, the most interesting episode was the one dedicated to the word ‘damn’, a case study of a word that once was offensive but isn’t any more. Religious taboos don’t mean much these days: and in our lifetimes, the show suggests, our current swears involving sex and excretion will probably go the same way, as these days the most taboo words available are slurs. Nicolas Cage isn’t going to be narrating a light-hearted seminar on the N-word in season two, or any time this decade. In the meantime, we can wait and see if they’ve got any words left to analyse in a second season. I’ve already put a bet on the C-word for the series finale.

Continue reading "Simian Substitute Site for March 2021: RZSS Snow Monkey Cam" »


Simian Substitute Site for February 2021: Miss Monkey's Valentine's Day Problem

Miss Monkey's Valentine's Day ProblemMONTH END PROCESSING FOR JANUARY 2021

Books: For the first time in my life, I own a device that’s capable of purchasing and playing audio books. It’s the Nokia 8.3 5G, a phone so cutting edge that it features in the new James Bond film. (Well, it used to...) So, for 2021 we have a new pre-bedtime routine: listening to 20 or 30 minutes of an audio book per night. Our first one is Ramble Book, a sort of memoir by Adam Buxton. In part, it's a look back at Buxton's childhood in the 1980s, focussing not just on his school and work experiences but also on the films and music that shaped him (the latter augmented with a glorious set of Spotify playlists). But it keeps switching between that period and the present day, looking at his relationship with his father during the last few years of the latter's life. Buxton seems determined to portray himself in as bad a light as possible - a constant theme throughout the book is his frustration at how his schoolmates (notably Joe Cornish and Louis Theroux) are achieving much more than he seems to be. And there's a niggling suspicion that his life isn't quite as interesting as he thinks it is, particularly as the book takes pains to largely avoid the period of time when he was properly famous. But he uses the audiobook format well, bringing his expertise as a podcaster to make it sonically interesting (for example, when he goes outdoors to record the sidebar digressions or 'rambles'). It's an enjoyable bedtime listen, and that's all we were looking for at this early stage in the year. Will we go for more challenging choices as 2021 progresses? Watch this space.

Comedy: As reported here three months ago, we came to Taskmaster ridiculously late, and are currently spending a couple of evenings every week catching up. But now we also have to catch up with a YouTube gameshow called No More Jockeys featuring three Taskmaster alumni: creator Alex Horne, collaborator Tim Key and contestant Mark Watson. The rules are, when you think about it, simple: "On each turn, players name a person plus a category they fall under. That person and category are then eliminated, and subsequent people must not fall under that category. As more categories are added it gets harder, and eventually impossible, to name anyone new." You might just have to watch an episode if that explanation didn't make much sense. As the games progress, the discussions and challenges become more and more digressive - ultimately, Jockeys is more of a bants-generating algorithm than an actual contest. But it's a very good one, with the same delightful edge of silliness to it that Taskmaster has. We've joined it just at the start of the third set, with new matches appearing online every Friday.

Theatre: We've seen a few pre-recorded theatre shows online over the past year or so, and they've been fine. But somehow, watching a play that you know is being performed right this second has more of a dramatic edge to it, and I really can't explain why. Hence my joy at Project Arts Centre's livestream of The Approach a couple of weeks ago. It turns out to be a pretty good play to stage in a pandemic: three characters who only ever appear two at a time, holding conversations at opposite ends of a subtly extended cafe table. Writer/director Mark O'Rowe has been mentioned here before in the context of his 2008 Edinburgh Fringe hit Terminus, and this new play is a similar slow-burner which requires you to hang onto its every word to catch the secrets buried underneath. (Its final revelation turns out to have been there in plain sight since the first scene.) The three actresses involved - Cathy Belton, Derbhle Crotty and Aisling O’Sullivan - play it to perfection, and it's just a shame that you've missed both the livestream and the week-long period after it that a recording was available as video on demand. Sorry.

Continue reading "Simian Substitute Site for February 2021: Miss Monkey's Valentine's Day Problem" »


Simian Substitute Site for January 2021: Year Of The Monkey

Year Of The MonkeyMONTH END PROCESSING FOR DECEMBER 2020
[one-line despatches from a lockdown Christmas]

Comedy: Just the Tonic New Year's Eve Special: the closest thing available to our usual NYE night out, a fine collection of comics both big (Al Murray, Romesh Ranganathan) and small (Daliso Chaponda's only really come to my attention through online gigs like this), with Ivan Brackenbury's hospital radio DJ schtick proving a surprisingly smart choice to lead us into the final countdown. The Bugle Relives 2020: Andy Zaltzman, Alice Frasier, Nish Kumar and Nato Green's overview of the year (livestreamed to a paying audience, available soon as an edited podcast) didn't have the budget of Charlie Brooker's Death To 2020 so had to make do with decent gags instead.

Movies: The Right Stuff: selected from our DVD shelf as a tribute to the late Chuck Yeager, we discovered shortly after viewing that it was recently remade by Disney and National Geographic without the Yeager bits, which seems insane. The Muppet Christmas Carol: it's only when you watch the film with someone who hasn't seen it before (really, she hadn't) that you realise how many things in current Christmas culture reference it nowadays. Soul: I suspect Pixar's newie got a lot of free passes from me thanks to being watched late on Christmas Day under the influence of everything, but sadly we never got to arrange a control group to test that.

Music: Thommo's Christmas Music Show: one of the surprise delights of Christmas Eve, as Mark Thomas made live Zoom calls to loads of his comedy chums and played their favourite Christmas songs - the biggest surprise being that a show that was scheduled to last three hours ended up running for five. United We Stream: the Mancunian charity livestreamers had a couple of epic shows for the festive season: a six-hour recreation of Wigan's Boxing Day fancy dress party, and a twenty-four hour bloody monster from the Hacienda mob covering New Year celebrations in every world timezone.

Telly: Royal Institution Christmas Lectures 2019: shit, what are all those kids doing crammed in that room like that? Royal Institution Christmas Lectures 2020: ah, that's better. The Mandalorian Season 2: still more fun than most things in the modern Star Wars universe, but it'll be interesting to see if it stays that way given how this season ended. The Little Drummer Girl: sitting on our Sky box for over two years until the death of its author spurred us into bingeing it, Park Chan-wook's adaptation has all the sheer narrative drive that I can remember from when I devoured the novel in a single day back in 1984, and makes me wonder why the movie version with Diane Keaton ever seemed like a good idea. Death To 2020: how the hell does a comedy show with eighteen credited writers have so few jokes in it?

Theatre: The Long Goodbye: Riz Ahmed's online-only dry run for his 2021 Manchester International Festival show, taking the themes from his film Mogul Mowgli and brilliantly distilling them into a thirty minute monologue with music. Kid Carpet And The Noisy Animals Totally Normal Christmas Party: we finally got to see one of the Kid's shows for kids, and this crazed fifty-way Zoom call was the perfect blend of inspired daftness with a crafty bit of satire thrown in for the grown-ups.

P.S.: In the half hour between finishing breakfast and starting work on lunch on Christmas Day, I made one of these things - maybe you'll find it useful next year.

P.P.S.: One day after putting the above ridiculously long list of items onto the internet, I suddenly realised that I'd forgotten a couple of other things I'd done over Christmas: specifically, I'd also watched two complete online pantomimes. So. Cinderella And The Beanstalk: the Newcastle branch of the Stand comedy club put on a surprisingly traditional livestreamed affair with a cast of four, some neat use of pre-recorded video and some rather fine jokes (including a reference to Tier 4 a mere half day or so after it was first announced). Jack And The Beer Hops: a rather less traditional panto put on by the Brewgooder brewery in aid of the Theatre Artists Fund, consisting of a beautifully packaged set of four beers delivered to your home, a ten minute video panto featuring characters named after the beers (or vice versa), and a whole Google drive full of activities including colouring in sheets, a quiz, a Spotify playlist of Christmas songs and a video tasting session for the beers.

Continue reading "Simian Substitute Site for January 2021: Year Of The Monkey" »


Simian Substitute Site for December 2020: Christmas Monkey Bread

Christmas Monkey BreadMONTH END PROCESSING FOR NOVEMBER 2020

Comedy: November, predictably, has seen us all locked back in our homes looking for online things to do. Well, I say all: Daniel Kitson, equally predictably, had other ideas. Dot. Dot. Dot. is another one of those Kitson shows built around a slightly ludicrous set of constraints: for the whole of November he toured theatres around the country, performing nightly to empty auditoriums, and broadcasting the results in a series of pay-per-view livestreams where the maximum number of attendees was capped at the capacity of the theatre he was in on that day. It'll come as no surprise that this is a show specifically about the pickle we currently find ourselves in: over the course of 90 minutes, armed only with a huge collection of Post-It notes, Kitson tells a series of stories about how he coped during the first six months of the pandemic. It helps that he's found himself in many of the same situations that we have, though it's slightly distracting that most of his friends are people from the comedy circuit you end up trying to guess from first name references. ("I met up with my old friend Ivor... I haven't known him for that long, he's in his late 60s.") It's a lovely souvenir of a peculiar half-year, and you've missed all the performances on the tour (including a sold-out one at the Union Chapel tonight): hopefully he'll find some way of doing something else with the show, as it deserves to have a wider audience than the usual Kitsonheads.

Food & Drink: Regular readers will know that there are regularly occurring milestones in this site's year, and the one for November is usually Collabfest - the annual binge in which 80-odd BrewDog bars each get together with a local brewer to make a beer, and then as many of those beers as possible are released into all the bars over a single weekend. You'd think that all the bars in England being shut this month would have put a crimp in that plan, but you'd be ignoring the tenacity of BrewDog's management and staff: over a period of five days, they took the kegged Collabfest beers, filled 30,000 cans with them, and sold them all to punters via mail order. The kegs left over were sent to the various bars, who canned them up on demand for delivery to home drinkers by courier. So over Collabfest weekend The Belated Birthday Girl and I sampled 20 beers, and as usual drunkenly documented them on Moblog as we went: follow the links to read about the collaborations with the bars in (deep breath) Brighton, Manchester, Tallinn, Castlegate, Tower Hill, Shepherd's Bush, Brussels, Glasgow, Newcastle, Southampton, Sheffield, Dublin, Nice, Seven Dials, Lothian Road, Old Street, Carlisle, Le Marais, Sodermalm and Swansea. (I'd also recommend that you take a look at the Collabfest online beer tasting, which is possibly the best attempt I've seen at doing one of these things virtually.) We might fit in a few more yet, as there's still some beer left in those kegs in the bars, and they're still delivering. But twenty should do for now, I think.

Music: Let's define 'lockdown gig' as meaning 'a live musical performance filmed in an empty auditorium for subsequent transmission across the internet.' That way, the sweeping statement I'm about to make doesn't need to include Grace Petrie, whose livestream from her house in aid of Bush Hall was the most blissfully energetic online show I've seen this year. Put that aside, and there are three lockdown gigs that have made 2020 that bit more bearable. Nick Cave's Idiot Prayer, featuring him, a piano and nobody else in the middle of a deserted Alexandra Palace: Jarv Is... Live From The Centre Of The Earth, with Cocker and co performing his album from inside a beautifully lit cave: and now, Roisin Murphy's Roisin Machine, a one-off show presented via Mixcloud this month. If Nick and Jarvis were aiming for stylish minimalism in their staging, Roisin has gone completely in the opposite direction: occupying a giant warehouse, her set includes multiple costume changes, massive video screens, a dancer and an excellent four-piece live band. She's a full-on disco diva these days, and the set covers her whole range from a percussion-only version of Jealousy to a surprisingly effective acoustic reworking of Moloko classic Familiar Feeling. Unlike Cave and Cocker, who were planning brief cinema releases of their shows in November before the shit hit the fan again, Murphy has no plans to make this one available in any other form following its one-day-only transmission - "it is what it is," she says - so it's simultaneously disappointing and useful that this link was still working at the time of writing.

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Simian Substitute Site for November 2020: The Long Island Rhesus Monkey Escape

The Long Island Rhesus Monkey EscapeMONTH END PROCESSING FOR OCTOBER 2020

Movies: We were late in joining the Train To Busan train, and I'm not quite sure why. I knew that it was out there in 2016, and even namechecked it at the start of a piece I wrote for MostlyFilm about the London Korean Film Festival - but as that article required me to watch 10 Korean films back to back, maybe I just didn't have time to watch another one. Anyway, thanks to a Blu-ray present from The BBG, we eventually got to see it, and even rode the train ourselves, albeit in the wrong direction. And now there's a follow-up with the slightly unwieldy title Train To Busan Presents: Peninsula, which (like its predecessor) got a quick preview run in UK cinemas for Halloween. Four years after the zombpocalypse depicted in the first film, most of the surviving inhabitants of Korea have fled to other countries like Hong Kong. This film focusses on a group of refugees who've decided to go back to Incheon, as part of a triad operation to recover a van full of cash. As such, it's not a direct sequel at all, more of a standalone story set in the same universe: tonally, it's like going from Alien to Aliens, where the first one is a no-frills horror movie and the second is more of an action thriller. We've got used to the cartoony depiction of massive swarms of zombies in these movies, where they become more of an exercise in fluid dynamics than anything else, as they cascade off high buildings or surge in waves over the ground. If there's a problem with Peninsula, it's that its car stunts - of which there are many - are rendered in CGI with the same lack of realism, with the vehicles bouncing along like they used to in 1920s animated films. But somehow, the breakneck pacing and the story get you over these niggles, and the result is ridiculously entertaining. Peninsula should have been getting a short release in cinemas from November 6th, but I guess that won't be happening now: expect to see it on home video from November 30th.

Music: One thing that I didn't do this month was buy a 24-disc CD box set. In my defence, I already owned 11 of them. Venus, Folly, Cupid And Time: Thirty Years Of The Divine Comedy is, as its name suggests, Neil Hannon's attempt to gather his entire musical career inside six sides of cardboard. The eleven Divine Comedy albums have been remastered and each paired up with a second disc of demos, outtakes, b-sides and other detritus: and then there's a final double disc called Juveneilia with even older and rarer material, including the real first Divine Comedy album Fanfare For The Comic Muse which Hannon subsequently withdrew out of shame. To be honest, there doesn't seem to be enough good material here to justify the cost of the full box set. There are highlights, sure: some lovely instrumental mixes of the band's prettiest backing tracks, a collection of Eurovision classics, and the b-side version of Europe By Train that ended up on a film soundtrack. But the demos and sketches leading up to finished songs just show how much you miss the decorative touches that make a Divine Comedy record what it is. Still, thanks to Spotify, you can fillet out those nine and a half hours of bonus material for your own purposes without paying a fortune for it. Well, I have, anyway.


Telly: If you thought I was late getting onto the Train To Busan train, wait till you hear about me and Taskmaster. Again, I was aware of it: I'd stumbled across the odd episode on Dave while channel-hopping, and I'd actively tracked down a couple of clips from the Norwegian version when I found out that Ylvis had been contestants on it. But I'm old-fashioned enough that it took a move of the show from Dave to Channel 4 before I'd considered actually watching a whole series from beginning to end. Three episodes in, it's become a regular injection of joy into the week, and dammit we all need that right now. It helps that for this tenth season, there's a careful balance of contestants: relative newcomers Daisy May Cooper and Mawaan Rizwan, regular TV favourites Johnny Vegas and Katherine Parkinson, and oldtimer Richard Herring who's utterly transparent in his desire to win the thing. That's the sort of detail that justifies watching a whole series, as you start imposing your own character arcs on the five series regulars and seeing them develop from week to week. I'm in for the duration, anyway.

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Simian Substitute Site for October 2020: The Flying Monkey Movie House and Performance Center

The Flying Monkey Movie House And Performance CenterMONTH END PROCESSING FOR SEPTEMBER 2020

Food and Drink: The last six months have seen lots of real world events pivoting to video, but the staunchly traditional Great British Beer Festival has to be the most unexpected one yet. CAMRA came up with a similar idea to the one BrewDog used for their virtual AGM a few months ago - send them £46, and they'd mail you eleven bottles of beer (a standard set of five British favourites from Drone Valley, Grey Trees, Eyam, XT and Oakham, plus another set of six in a style of your choosing) to be drunk in front of your computer during a weekend of guided Zoom tastings. We decided to subvert the Britishness of the event and went for a secondary set of foreign muck from St Bernardus, Duvel Moortgat, de Molen, Schlenkerla, Hitachino Nest and Früh. Cheryl Cade's international tasting session was a jolly and informative affair, while Roger Protz's British tasting was notable for him getting through all five beers in 35 minutes, alarming the people who'd assumed that you had to drink each bottle dry before starting the next one. In addition we had Q&A sessions with hop and malt suppliers, and an entertaining (but hard) informal pub quiz at the end of the weekend. The event was refreshingly clear of beardy beer bores (we had just one, who inevitably wouldn't turn his mic off during a Zoom session), and the whole event was surprisingly educational - when the main focus isn't just banging ales down your neck, as it tends to be in real-life beer festivals, there's a lot of knowledge being passed around. I'm not sure I'd want the GBBF to be like this every year, but it worked incredibly well in the circumstances.

Movies: Five years ago today, one of the items I reviewed in this bit was the world premiere performance of Max Richter's Sleep, his notorious eight-hour piece of music designed to be listened to literally while you were sleeping. So it only seems fair that today, I throw in a quick review of Max Richter's Sleep, a film by Natalie Johns that's effectively a making-of documentary about the piece. Starting from the basic idea - actually the connection of two independent ideas from Richter and his partner Yulia Mahr, who proves herself to be the conceptual thinker behind a lot of his work - we follow its evolution up to an extraordinary open-air all-night performance in a Los Angeles park, with the audience lying in multiple rows of camp beds. Possibly the least interesting thread in the film is the series of interviews with LA audience members, pretentiously set up as if they're dreaming the interview in the middle of the show. But the most unexpected one is the focus on Max and Yulia's home life, and particularly how they were struggling financially for a large part of it. They come across as a lovely couple, throwing around some big ideas while always staying firmly grounded in the real world. If you're okay with watching a film that takes the rhythm of its editing from a piece of music that's intended to make you doze off, then there's a lot to enjoy here. You've missed Sleep's tiny theatrical run: on the night we saw it, there was one other person in the audience, which counts as a success in social distancing terms. But it's currently available on demand from the likes of Curzon Home Cinema, and you'll be able to get it on physical media from October 12th.

Travel: I never really know which category to use for my writeup of the Japan Matsuri each year. I tend to assume Travel is the safest bet because a) people travel to London to see it, and b) it's a festival that's largely about persuading people that they'd like to travel to Japan sometime. Of course, both of those points are less true in 2020. Still, the transfer of this year's Matsuri to the online Japan Matsuri Presents is certainly a lot less surprising than the GBBF's similar journey. Stretched out from the usual one day to a full weekend, we got the same cavalcade of Japanese culture that we would have got live in Trafalgar Square, but with the added bonus that guests didn't have to be flown in from Japan in order to take part. Certainly some of the quieter elements - for example, the Kakehashi Koto Ensemble's hour-long history of the instrument, complete with several full performances - simply wouldn't have worked in the open air. We didn't have to queue for ages for food, because we got to make our own, with a series of Zoom cookalongs to make our own okonomiyaki and sweet pancakes. For me, the highlight was Ura Ura Lockdown, effectively an hour-long fringe matsuri in the middle of the main one: driven by the anarchic spirit we associate with Frank Chickens (whose founder Kazuko Hohki is one of the organisers), we got everything from Hibiki Ichikawa and D.J. Takaki's mashup of traditional shamisen and modern turntablism, to No Cars and their delightfully daft indie stylings. It's all finished now, of course, but there's still some content lying around in the Matsuri site's Discovery Area: maybe it's time you discovered the joy of Radio Taiso.

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