Simian Substitute Site for March 2023: Wales Ape & Monkey Sanctuary

Wales Ape & Monkey SanctuaryMONTH END PROCESSING FOR FEBRUARY 2023

Books: It was a surprise to look through the new release audiobooks this month and find that one of them was With Nails: The Film Diaries Of Richard E Grant, read by the author. It’s a surprise because I bought that book almost three decades ago, and it’s taken Grant that long to finally sit down in a studio and read it out loud. I’m assuming that his recent experience of recording the audiobook of his 2022 memoir A Pocketful Of Happiness gave him a taste for the medium. I had a memory of the book being a good fun read when it first came out in the nineties, and for large parts of it that’s true: we follow Grant from his debut in Withnail & I to Pret A Porter a decade later, as he marvels at his good fortune while still being detached enough to have a wryly cynical view of the movie business. However, I’d totally forgotten about the darker passages in his diaries: the story of the stillbirth of his first child is astonishingly intense (his emotional reading is a large part of that), and it takes a while for the book to get back to the amusing on-set anecdotes. But as a document of the first decade of a film actor’s career, it can’t be beat: although the thirty year gap between publication and recording must have given an awkward edge to him reading his tales of hanging out with Kevin Spacey.

Telly: I mentioned while we were in Edinburgh last year that The BBG and I had become fans of the New Zealand version of Taskmaster, which copies the framework and design of the UK show but has slowly developed its own distinct personality over the course of three seasons. As a result, we’ve become a lot more aware of the New Zealand comedy circuit, and the ridiculously small number of people in it. As proof of this, there’s currently a primetime show on NZ’s channel Three called Guy Montgomery’s Guy Mont Spelling Bee, whose cast appears to be made up almost entirely of Taskmaster NZ alumni (plus at least one person we saw at the Edinburgh improv show Snort). Like our own No More Jockeys, it originated as an online game that a bunch of comedians used during lockdown to amuse themselves and anyone else watching. Unlike Jockeys, though, Montgomery has managed to turn it into a working format for an entertaining TV show, even though its premise is literally ‘watching comedians trying to spell difficult words’. Elsewhere in the Antipodes, they’re a few episodes into the first ever season of Taskmaster Australia. It’s still at the bedding-in stage: Taskmaster Tom Gleeson is a little too Light Entertainment for the role, assistant Tom Cashman is enjoying himself a bit too much, and the audience laugh track has been doctored to sound positively inhuman. But some of the tasks have been absolute corkers, to the extent that – as with New Zealand – we can probably expect a few of them to be stolen for the UK version in a year or two.

Theatre: The first time I saw Richard Hawley, I wasn’t entirely impressed, but I warmed to him hugely over time. So as soon as I heard about Standing At The Sky’s Edge – a musical based around Hawley’s songs – I leapt at the chance to see it. Somehow, it wasn’t until a day or two before my visit to the National Theatre that a horrifying thought struck me: what if it turns out to be Mamma Mia! but with added references to Henderson’s Relish? Happily, this isn’t one of those jukebox shows where the plotting is jerry-built out of random lines from the songs, as long as you don’t count the scene where Open Up Your Door is sung by someone standing outside a door. Chris Bush’s book is generally a lot smarter than that, brilliantly structured around a single flat in Sheffield’s Park Hill estate, and interweaving the stories of three sets of people who’ve lived in it at different times. The young couple who moved in in the sixties, convinced that the steel industry would keep them going through thick and thin: the family of Liberian refugees who came over in the late eighties: and the newly-single woman taking advantage of the estate's 21st century gentrification. So it’s definitely not Mamma Mia!, but what we get instead is two shows battling it out for space on the same stage. An Our Friends In The North-style social history of Britain from 1960 to 2020, with some lovely echoes across its three timelines: and what amounts to a Richard Hawley ballet, with his songs proving surprisingly amenable to a Broadway-style makeover, and Lynne Page's spectacular choreography frequently involving the entire 21-strong cast. The frustrating thing is that both of these shows are great, but it just feels like we’re constantly flipping between one and the other: if the two could have fitted together better, this could have been magnificent. Still, I’m happy to settle for great. It’s running at the National until March 25th.

Continue reading "Simian Substitute Site for March 2023: Wales Ape & Monkey Sanctuary" »

Simian Substitute Site for February 2023: Monkey Valentine


Books: Our first new audiobook of 2023 is one that we’ve been thinking about buying for a while now – since August 25th last year, to be precise. That was when we saw Oliver Bullough being interviewed by Ian Rankin on stage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, in an event which you can still watch on a pay-what-you-like basis on their website. Watch it now, and see if it makes you as keen to read/hear Butler To The World as it did us. Bullough has a simple question he wants to answer: how did Britain go from being a dominating superpower to become the place where the rest of the world goes to launder its money? He takes a forensic approach to the history of modern British corruption, taking the Suez debacle as his starting point, and tracing from there how Britain’s USP transitioned from Owning An Empire to Fannying Around With The Monetary System. I suspect Bullough has broadcast journalism somewhere in his background, because he reads this splendidly in the audiobook edition, keeping the whole thing thoroughly engaging even as he delves into the complexities of international finance and the long-term impact of deregulation. Having said that, if you go for the just-published paperback edition instead, you’ll get a bonus chapter looking at how the Ukraine situation has changed things in the year since the book’s original publication. Your call.

Music: Here’s a set of simple instructions for you. 1: go to the page on this site for my 2022 Pick Of The Year music compilation, Take The Drums Out, and scroll down to the bottom of the page to read the competition, which was first published at around noon on Christmas Day. 2: scroll back up to the top of the page and read the mouseover text on the cover image. 3: page through the posts I wrote on this site in 2022 to see which one was the first to feature that cover image – there were only 52, it won’t take too long. 4: having located the post, read the text around the picture and work out which of the locations mentioned may have featured lots of people dancing to a Viking thrashing at a drumkit. 5: look up the location by name on Google Maps. 6: right click on the location and make a note of the first set of numbers that appear in the popup. Depending where on the marker you click, they should be something like 64.14741053278492, -21.937786882702298, the co-ordinates for the bar Lemmy in Reykjavik where that photo was taken. Oh, I’m sorry, was that too difficult a competition for you? Tell it to Dave, who sent me his answer at 7.13pm on Christmas Frickin’ Day. He wins again. Everyone else, at least try to make an effort next year.

Telly: Another Christmas tradition that seems to have sprung up in recent years is our taking out a Disney+ subscription for a month, bingewatching anything good that’s been added to their catalogue since we last subscribed, and then cancelling it before they can charge us for a second month. Putting aside the Guardians Of The Galaxy Holiday Special (45 minutes of pure James-Gunn-in-kid-friendly-mode delight) and Star Wars: Andor (in which absolutely nothing had happened by the end of episode 2, so fuck that noise), there are two series which hooked us this time around, neither of which should come as any sort of surprise. All too often, streaming shows work for one complete season and then run out of ideas second time around. This may explain why I’ve particularly warmed to Only Murders In The Building, which had the brass-balled audacity to set up the plot for its second season in the opening minutes of its first: creators Steve Martin and John Hoffman (and their writing team) know exactly where they’re going. The balance between new characters and returning old favourites is maintained beautifully, as is the balance between a twisty murder mystery and the joy of watching some old mates mucking about. Meanwhile, if unbalanced is what you want, how about a Korean drama with Takashi Miike in the director’s chair? Based on a web series, Connect tells the story of a young musician who falls victim to an organ harvesting gang, but manages to escape with only one eye missing. Unfortunately, in certain situations he can still see stuff through his missing eye, which has now been transplanted into someone else’s head. Even more unfortunately, the recipient of his eye is a serial killer. And I still haven’t told you the most ridiculous aspect of the plot yet. It’s six episodes of overblown violent insanity, and Miike turns out to be the ideal person to bring it to the screen. In very different ways, Murders and Connect are surprisingly addictive, which is why we’re still watching them at the time of writing and have had to let our Disney+ subscription roll over into a second month. Damn you, Mouse!

Continue reading "Simian Substitute Site for February 2023: Monkey Valentine" »

Simian Substitute Site for January 2023: Monkey Climber Magazine


Books: Our last audiobook of 2022 is a welcome return to showbiz fluff. Trevor Horn says as much in the opening sentences of Adventures In Modern Recording, making it clear that the family tragedies that have been a major part of his life this century won’t be covered here. Instead, this is a memoir focused on his life in the music business. Horn’s professional career started as a bass player precisely at the time when big bands like the one he was in were falling out of fashion, to be replaced by beat groups. He eventually made it onto Top Of The Pops as frontman of The Buggles, but gradually realised he was better suited as a producer than a performer. The book breaks down neatly into individual chapters looking at the stories behind specific records he worked on: the chapter on Duck Rock is one of the wildest, as Horn and Malcolm McLaren wander round Africa and America recording everything they hear without having the faintest idea what sort of record they want to make. Truth be told, Horn isn’t an especially elegant writer, but he’s at his best coming up with neat verbal illustrations of his processes: like programming a precisely calibrated bass and drum track, getting the band to play along with it, and then taking the programmed bits away, which he describes as being like using tracing to come up with a picture of your own. (Except for Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax, where he threw away the tracing paper instead. But that’s another story.)

Theatre: I mentioned in my review of 2022’s Edinburgh Festival that we were a bit short on theatre events, and to be honest that’s been true for the last 12 months. Happily, with just a couple of days left in the year, I finally got to see something that counts as a theatrical highlight. The Wife Of Willesden is Zadie Smith’s reworking of Chaucer’s The Wife Of Bath, transplanted to present day north-west London – it’s running at Kilburn’s Kiln theatre until February 11th. Smith keeps Chaucer’s original structure from The Canterbury Tales, with more time dedicated to our introduction to the narrator than to the actual tale she tells. Alvita (Clare Perkins) has been married five times and survived them all, so when she says she has a story about how men and women relate to each other, you need to listen. Robert Jones’ gloriously immersive pub set – pay the extra few quid to sit at one of the tables, you won’t regret it – is the perfect setting for Indhu Rubasingham’s energetic production, with a smallish cast juggling multiple roles superbly. God knows what they’ll make of it in Brooklyn when it transfers there in April, but hopefully they’ll know a good time when they see it.

Travel: Well, not travel as such. For the second year in a row, The Belated Birthday Girl and I decided to stay in a central London hotel over Christmas and let them do all the work. (Malmaison London, since you ask.) Still, along the way we got to pretend to be tourists on a couple of occasions. One was a visit to Lift 109, the newly-opened elevator ride up one of the chimneys in Battersea Power Station. Aside from disappointment at one of London’s most iconic buildings being converted into another fucking shopping centre, the main potential cause of disappointment is not being aware that even though your ticket pays for a 45 minute ‘experience’, only 8 of those minutes will be spent admiring the view at the top of the chimney – the rest of the time will be spent queuing, or interacting with low quality video displays. Go in expecting that, and you’ll have a fine time - the view from the top is lovely, especially on a clear night. But for more low-tech, longer-lasting thrills, go to the Postal Museum and its history of Britain’s world-leading post service, because your ticket price includes a 15 minute ride on the little underground train they used to use to ferry mail from one side of London to the other. The ticket gives you unlimited access to the non-rail bits of the museum for 12 months, which isn’t that terrific a deal unless you’re particularly interested in their temporary exhibits (to be fair, the current one about postcodes is pretty cool, though it's only sticking around until January 8th). But one ride on the train and a look around the exhibits is well worth fifteen quid, particularly if you check out their collection of GPO films.

Continue reading "Simian Substitute Site for January 2023: Monkey Climber Magazine" »

Simian Substitute Site for December 2022: Exotic Monkey Christmas Tree Decoration

Exotic Monkey Christmas Tree DecorationMONTH END PROCESSING FOR NOVEMBER 2022

Books: Probably the biggest artistic thing I did this month was serve my first ever term of jury service. Not because of any drama in the courtroom itself – although there was definitely some of that – but because jury service involves a lot of sitting around waiting for things to happen, and the official advice you’re given is to bring a good book with you. I ended up getting through two and a half books in the various bits of downtime spread across the fortnight, so for once this section is a review of some ebooks rather than audiobooks. How To Be Perfect, a guide to moral philosophy by Michael Schur, takes all of the research he did into the subject for The Good Place and converts it into an enjoyable history of the approaches we’ve taken as a species to differentiate right from wrong. (It seemed appropriate at the time.) Meantime is Frankie Boyle’s attempt at jumping on the Famous People Writing Crime Novels bandwagon, but fails in two key aspects: all the characters speak in his voice, and they’re all prone to long rants about the state of things that have Author’s Message stamped all over them. Still, you’re at least guaranteed the odd bracing line, like his description of nepotism as ‘incest for cowards'. Currently I’m halfway through Alan Moore’s short story collection Illuminations, and absolutely bloody loving it: if anything, it reminds me of a more literary version of the short Future Shocks tales Moore used to tell in 2000AD, because of their devotion to messing with time and your narrative expectations. And you can tell Moore is designed for writing short stories, because his last lines are always fucking perfect.

Internet: Even if you’re not seeing any of the newly enabled Nazis being pumped directly into your timeline, there’s no denying that Twitter has become a lot less fun than it used to be. So what do you do? The general consensus appears to be, you go to Mastadon. There are plenty of blogposts out there to walk you through the process, but here’s a short personal summary (partly assisted by this one). The first complication is that you can't just join Mastodon, you have to join one of its instances: part of what sets it apart from Apartheid Clyde's domain is that it's decentralised and not just managed from a single location. The trick is to avoid the large ones - obvious instances like have become massively overloaded over the last couple of weeks and grind like a bastard - but watch out for small ones with limited support and a high risk of future collapse. For better or worse, I've thrown in my lot with newish Mancunian instance, which has a good name and appears to be run by nice people who like beer. Then you need to work out which program you use to access Mastodon, bearing in mind that their own client is by all accounts bobbins. Like many Android users, I've gone with Tusky, and it seems to work just fine. Finally, once you're in there you'll need to recreate your list of people you follow from scratch, and I think this is the biggest aspect of migrating from Twitter - everyone's conscious of what mistakes they made when they built their Twitter following list, and is keen not to make them again. With all that in mind, you'll find me there at - it'd be lovely to see you there, so I could post stuff that's a little more ambitious than this.

Telly: Because I'm posting this late while still a bit drunk (my first Christmas party of 2022 happened today), by now you've just missed the grand finale of season 14 of Taskmaster. Hopefully this means that the verbal NDA I agreed to several months ago no longer applies, and so I can talk about how The BBG and I went to the taping of an episode of this series last April. Getting tickets isn’t particularly hard – visit SRO Audiences, go to the Taskmaster page, sign up and wait for them to announce a new series. Obviously demand is quite high, so you’ll need to leap into action as soon as they’re announced. A block of ten shows gets recorded over five consecutive weekdays, one in the afternoon and one in the evening, and generally the afternoon ones are easier to get into. Of course, this is assuming you can travel to the taping site at Pinewood Studios, which is impossible to get to by public transport and takes a ten minute taxi ride from Slough station. To make things even more complicated, they ask you to arrive early because they overallocate the (free) tickets, so even if you've got one in hand they can't guarantee you'll get in. We turned up an hour and a half before the scheduled time, which may have been overkill, but we weren't the first there. Once you're inside, it takes about three hours to record a forty minute episode, even though a good half of it is pre-taped tasks: there's a very baggy feel to the banter in the studio, and it's fascinating to observe how that gets hacked down for TV broadcast. The episode we saw being filmed was S14E03, and the spectacular reveal that takes place just before the first ad break was even more fun experienced live as it was on telly. But if you're curious about what you missed by not being there, this package of outtakes may help (from about 16 minutes in, and yes, that improv section was as excruciating in person as it is on YouTube).

Continue reading "Simian Substitute Site for December 2022: Exotic Monkey Christmas Tree Decoration" »

Simian Substitute Site for November 2022: Timkey The Monkey And His Magic Flute

Timkey The Monkey And His Magic FluteMONTH END PROCESSING FOR OCTOBER 2022

Books: I think that The Belated Birthday Girl has changed the way I think about the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and I kinda like it. In the past, I'd go specifically to see authors: these days, we tend to book for talks on subjects that attract our interest. Maybe it's a general move from fiction to non-fiction that's triggered this? Anyway, one of the highlights of the festival this year was a talk by two paleontologists, and one of their books is currently our audiobook at bedtime. Otherlands by Thomas Halliday is a speculative history of our planet told in a beautiful way: each chapter is a detailed pen portrait of what Earth would look and feel like at various points over the last 500 million years or so. Halliday's masterstroke is to tell the story backwards - chapter 1 is 50,000 years ago, chapter 2 is 2 million years, and so on - which stops human development becoming the main focus of the narrative: by the start of chapter 3 we're out of the picture as a species, so we can concentrate on all the other fascinating stuff going on. As an audiobook (read by Adetomiwa Edun), it's more of a meditative experience than a compendium of hard science fact, but Halliday's rich imagery gives you plenty of lovely ideas to stuff into your head before bedtime.

Food & Drink: As Twitter enters what everyone assumes is going to be its death spiral, let’s take a moment or two to think about another social media platform that really should be considered dead by now. Moblog was incredibly fashionable when I joined back in 2004: a website where you could share pictures you’d taken on your phone, with text attached? Who else is doing that? Eventually, the answer to that question became ‘loads of people, especially Twitter and Twitpic’, and Moblog dwindled into irrelevance. But when Twitpic crashed and burned several years ago because of an earlier bout of Twitter’s arseholism, and I needed a mobile miniblogging platform that I could easily post to while drunk, Moblog started looking enticing all over again. So since 2014 I’ve been using it specifically for posting live reports on the beers in BrewDog’s annual Collabfest. It’s quite possible that nobody else is using Moblog these days - when you look through the last thirty days of posts, it's hard to find anything that hasn't been posted by some sort of bot - so I'm nervous that one of these days I'll go there and find it gone, and have to move over to bleedin' Instagram or some such nonsense. Until then, here's my on-the-spot report from Collabfest 2022, pages 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 and a coda to finish off.

Music: Two songs into ABBA Voyage, and Bjorn is running towards the front of the stage and clapping in time. Inevitably, all of us start clapping along with him. It’s about four seconds before I say “wait a minute, why am I clapping along with you? You’re not here, you’re a computer generated hologram being projected onto the stage. Actually, you’re not even that, you’re just a high resolution animation on a massive telly. Come to think of it, why am I even talking to you?” The most astonishing thing about ABBA's much hyped virtual show is that you don't spend every minute of it thinking something like this. A huge amount of technical effort has been put into combining real and virtual elements in such a way that the boundary between the two is invisible. The physical lights in the arena have been synced up to match the lighting of the fake ABBA members 'on stage': the live ten-piece backing band keeps precisely in time with the pre-recorded vocals, in a rare example of arse-backwards karaoke: there are video interludes covering the pauses for costume changes that aren't actually happening. Everything is done with the aim of convincing you that you're at a real gig, and they've nailed it (apart from the lack of queues for the bars and cloakroom being totally unrealistic). If this was an event put together to showcase a bunch of average songs, it would be pretty special already. Except it's showcasing a bunch of ABBA songs, which lift the whole thing to stratospheric levels. No, we don't get a hairy Viking on drums like I was hoping for, but it's still one hell of a night out.

Continue reading "Simian Substitute Site for November 2022: Timkey The Monkey And His Magic Flute" »

Simian Substitute Site for October 2022: Missing Pictures Episode 3: The Monkey Wrench Gang

Missing Pictures Episode 3: The Monkey Wrench GangMONTH END PROCESSING FOR SEPTEMBER 2022

Comedy:Nearly done now.” Imagine what it must have been like for the Greenwich Comedy Festival, organising a five-day binge of big laffs and then having the Queen die before it, resulting in a ten-day period of national mourning which overlaps it perfectly. Imagine their delight when they realised the final show of their festival would take place the day before the funeral, and that it would have to preceded by a one-minute silence. How do you start off a show in those circumstances? It turns out that the approach of compere Daniel Kitson – sighing deeply and saying in a reassuring fashion “nearly done now” – was the right one. For all the insistence that there was to be No Laughing during those ten days, the audience in the grounds of the National Maritime Museum seemed to be enjoying things just fine. And the big news of the week wasn’t considered off limits, with Tim Key having a couple of royal funeral poems all ready to go. Lower down the bill, Sarah Keyworth and Tadiwa Mahlunge both acquit themselves just fine: it’s headliner Dylan Moran who’s the more awkward proposition. He comes on stage drunk, divorced and bearing a keyboard that he admits he doesn’t know how to play, but spends most of the next half hour trying to anyway. The sheer tension in the room (well, courtyard) as he lets whole minutes roll by without a joke – and deliberately, too – is fascinating, and one of those things I hadn't realised I'd missed in two and a half years of limited access to live comedy. Unfortunately, he's too unfocussed to find a way to release that tension at the end, leaving the audience nursing the comedy equivalent of blue balls, and Kitson on stage yelling at us to run for the exits because Moran’s rambling has blown out the curfew by a good ten minutes. I hope he sorts out what he’s doing soon, one way or another.

Telly: For reasons that’ll become more apparent as this paragraph progresses, I’ve just been combing through the comics section of this site to track down an old review of The Sandman, only to find that it’s spent the last 14 years in Books rather than Comics. As far back as 2003, there was active speculation as to how it could be translated to moving images: two decades later, instead of the film we thought we were going to get, The Sandman is now a TV show on Netflix. It makes sense: after all, Neil Gaiman wrote it for comics in serialised form, with each issue having a wildly different feel from the previous one. That was especially the case for the early issues which make up what everyone is hoping is just the first season. If anything, it’s a little too keen to stick to the comics as a blueprint, though not as much as Gaiman's adaptation of Good Omens, which seemed terrified to drop a single word of his and Terry Pratchett’s writing. At least Sandman isn't afraid to chop and reshuffle things occasionally to keep it flowing as a series. There are a few individual episodes that stand out by a country mile from the rest – inevitably, they're the ones based around the issues that stood out in the comics run (24 Hours and The Sound Of Her Wings in particular). Tom Sturridge gets just the right amount of underplayed weirdness into his portrayal of the title character, and there are plenty of fun surprises in the casting overall (including at least three Taskmaster contestants). On the whole, they've done the comics justice, and I’d be happy to see more of this.

Theatre: You know me, I’m a sucker for a one-sentence pitch that makes you want to drop everything and see a show immediately. Here’s one: “a Japanese kabuki adaptation of Romeo And Juliet with music by Queen.” This is a genuinely accurate description of A Night At The Kabuki, Hideki Noda’s reworking of Shakespeare into something with a surface resemblance to traditional Japanese theatre. To be honest, the one element that doesn’t quite work is the use of songs from A Night At The Opera throughout - or more accurately, short snatches of those songs used mostly as underscore or to cover scene transitions, with no relevance attached to their lyrics. On the few occasions that a scene's allowed to play out across the bulk of a track, it works really well: you don't want to push that idea too far or you get Mamma Mia, but a bit more of that would be welcome. Maybe the main reason for the Queen connection is to act as a hook to lure you into a wild postmodern take on the play, in which the star-crossed lovers have stayed alive but forcibly separated for thirty years after their initial tryst. The main narrative thrust involves old Romeo and Juliet going back to the start of the story to try and persuade young Romeo and Juliet to make better life choices. Tonally, it's all over the place - several scenes in the first half are virtually pitched as panto - but it's a splendid ride from beginning to end. You've missed its London run by now, but hopefully it'll come back some day.

Continue reading "Simian Substitute Site for October 2022: Missing Pictures Episode 3: The Monkey Wrench Gang" »

Simian Substitute Site for September 2022: Rocket Monkey Roastery


Books: I was about five minutes into the audiobook of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy Of Dunces when I remembered exactly when and where I first read it. I was on a trip to New Orleans for work back in 2000, and given that it's widely accepted as one of the best novels set in the Big Easy, it seemed appropriate for reading on the plane. Walking the streets and seeing locations I'd just read about was rather terrific. 22 years later, I'm finally getting to revisit it courtesy of Reginald D Hunter's audiobook reading. The BBG isn't enjoying it so much because every character in it is terrible: and the worst of them all is our hero Ignatius J Reilly, who thinks he's superior to everyone he encounters when he's really the Dunning-Kruger effect in a fatsuit. I don't have as much of an issue with a story where the protagonist is being held up to deserved ridicule, though I'll admit some aspects of Dunces haven't aged well, notably its handling of race. (Really not sure it needs the po-faced 'attitudes of the time' warning that this audiobook opens with, though.) Still, Hunter's a pretty good fit for the text, and he gets the tone of Reilly exactly the way it's sounded in my head since I read it.

Food And Drink: We're currently running through a cycle of Things That We Did Regularly Up Until The End Of 2019 And Are Just Beginning To Start Doing Again. The biggest one for August was, of course, Edinburgh: the second biggest was probably the Great British Beer Festival, back at its Olympia home after the occasional experimental attempt at going online. A couple of things have changed in the last three years, some of them presumably because of the pandemic (all transactions are now cashless, with a quaintly archaic token system for people who don't believe in plastic), some of them less obviously so (the door price ramped up to £20, but throwing in a beer glass, a programme and two halves of beer as part of the deal). Still, being in a big room full of happy drinking people is a nice thing to be doing again. For the record, our final tally (all in shared halves, and not a duff one in the set) was Mad Squirrel's Sumo, Runaway's Summer Saison, Bowland's Bumble, Castle Rock's Preservation, Gorilla's Vanilla Gorilla, Nightjar's Kaleidoscope World, Twisted Wheel's Speed Wobble, XT's XT8, and finishing with Puhaste's Muda from the Dangerous Foreign Muck stall. Bonus points for the entertainment on the night: we were all set to take the piss out of Swallow for advertising themselves as Reading's Best Classic Rock Covers Band, but they were exactly right for the occasion.

Music: Public Service Broadcasting is a band that specialises in building music around samples of archive speech recordings. The BBC is an organisation that's 100 years old this year, has lots of archive speech recordings from that period, and runs a major music festival called the Proms. It's pretty obvious how this was going to pan out. PSB's very own Prom concert featured an hour-long commission called This New Noise, a suite of numbers built around audio from the early years of British broadcasting. As a piece, it's got a very similar structure to their earlier album The Race For Space - both of them focus intensely on the early pioneering years, either of the BBC or of space travel, and end with a downbeat coda asking 'so, what now?' If I have one qualm about This New Noise, it's that it sometimes forgets that PSB are at their best when they're being a rock band: this piece sometimes lacks the intensity of their best work, coasting on the easy grandeur you have to hand when the BBC Symphony Orchestra are on stage with you. But there's still plenty of beauty, power and wit in there. You can listen to it on BBC Sounds if you like, but if you're reading this early enough you can catch it on telly on BBC Four at 8pm on Friday September 2nd, and then on the iPlayer for a month after that. It's worth seeing: PSB have always had a knack for arresting visuals, and the projections used throughout are excellent, along with some surprisingly moving bits of stagecraft.

Continue reading "Simian Substitute Site for September 2022: Rocket Monkey Roastery" »

Simian Substitute Site for August 2022: Spanking The Monkey: The Etymology of Onanistic Euphemisms

Spanking The Monkey: The Etymology of Onanistic EuphemismsMONTH END PROCESSING FOR JULY 2022

Books: We finally wrapped up the audiobook of Janelle Monae’s The Memory Librarian – the last story is basically an Afrofuturist remix of A Christmas Carol, if that sort of thing’s your bag – and moved straight on to another book by a pop star. Good Pop, Bad Pop is a sort of memoir by Jarvis Cocker, inspired by a clearout of his attic: he goes through its contents item by item, talks a bit about how they featured in his life, and decides whether they’re worth keeping or binning. Sure, it’s an arch literary device, and the multimedia curlicues added for the audiobook edition make it feel even more so – there’s a full Foley track so we hear each of the objects as they’re being handled or chucked in the bin, and an accompanying PDF of pictures. You know Cocker, so you can imagine what an enjoyable experience this is: the easy conversational tone of his reading, the self-deprecating wit, the expert handling of a good anecdote. At the same time, he’s happy to reveal just enough of what’s going on under that ironic surface: in particular, it’s astonishing to hear about the school exercise books in which he documented his plan to become a pop star and change the course of music. The book ends a bit before Pulp really started to enter the public consciousness, so perhaps there’s a second attic he’ll write about in a few years.

Food & Drink: Think back to about seven years ago, when I posted this piece to announce that I was moving out of Walthamstow after living there for some three decades. Irritatingly, since I left they’ve opened half a dozen breweries within walking distance of the former Spank Towers. They’ve called them the Blackhorse Beer Mile, with an obvious nod to its Bermondsey equivalent. However, the breweries have been careful enough to create an official Blackhorse Beer Mile website, and not made Bermondsey's mistake of letting some chancers set up an unofficial one. Anyway, like the old days of Bermondsey, we currently have just six venues situated within a one-mile stretch of industrial estate, so it’s possible to have one beer in each without causing yourself permanent damage. They’re all very different, too. Truman’s don’t brew on site, so have tons of room for you to explore and drink in: Signature Brew use their connections with the music biz to run formal and informal live events: Exale is the most delightful thanks to its courtyard: Beerblefish is the closest to an old-fashioned pub (cask ales and a piano with the Tom Lehrer songbook on top of it): Wild Card are quietly cementing their position as the OGs of Walthamstow craft beer: and Hackney has the most interesting range of things to drink. The first three have decent food made on site, while the last three have a delivery arrangement with Yard Sale Pizza down the road - so purely on the level of being able to eat while you're crawling, Blackhorse has the edge over Bermondsey.

Music: Time for another one of these ten-track thingummies, I guess. Use the Spotify playlist below or try the individual YouTube (with one exception) links.

  1. Aside from the oddness of KAF x MIYAVI being the collaboration of a virtual computer-generated vocalist and a real-life guitar legend, the most bizarre thing about their song Beyond META is that if you search for it in Google, it assumes you’re a dyslexic looking for vegetarian burgers.
  2. Not really enjoying Kendrick Lamar's new album all that much, which is a surprise because this non-album single that preceded it is an absolute corker. This may be in part to the string line constantly reminding me of the theme from Department S.
  3. Hey, Regina Spektor’s back! And, um, she’s gone a bit weird, which is fine by me.
  4. I’m still trying to get my head around the filthy racket that black midi are currently making: once people started making comparisons with The Cardiacs, it made a bit more sense.
  5. There's no YouTube video for Evan Ziporyn’s lovely performance of Philip Glass’ clarinet trio, but you can stream it on Bandcamp from that link back there, and even buy the EP if you enjoy it enough. (Its second track is literally the first one played one-third slower.)
  6. Hey, Young Fathers are back! And, um, they’re much the same as they were before, which is fine by me.
  7. Not quite sure about GoGo Penguin, to be honest: I loved the first album I heard of theirs, but everything I've listened to since (whether made before or after that) appears to be just more of the same. Still, I’ll keep on listening just in case.
  8. The recent passing of Cathal Coughlan has made it apparent why in the last couple of years he was putting out new music like there was, um, no tomorrow. We’re now getting the last few recordings from his Telefís project with Jacknife Lee, and it’s sad to realise there won’t be any more after this.
  9. It’s been a common dodge during the pandemic for bands to remix old stuff and put it out again with the current year added to the title. At this stage in history there’s no real reason for Underworld to give us Juanita 2022, other than the fact that it still sounds great.
  10. In the weeks leading up to our Iceland trip, The BBG and I stayed away from public gatherings to reduce the risk of our holiday getting trashed by a Covid infection. My main regret from this was missing the London gig by xPropaganda, in which the two ladies from Propaganda came back after a 37 year absence and did all the old songs along with some new ones like this.

Continue reading "Simian Substitute Site for August 2022: Spanking The Monkey: The Etymology of Onanistic Euphemisms" »

Simian Substitute Site for July 2022: Brass Monkey Graphic Design

Brass Monkey Graphic DesignMONTH END PROCESSING FOR JUNE 2022

Books: I know, we really should have finished listening to Janelle Monae's The Memory Librarian by now. You'll recall that this time last month, we'd made it through two of the five stories in the audiobook, and were feeling a little dissatisfied with it all. We drifted away from the night-time audiobook routine for about two weeks, and if you've been paying attention you'll probably have worked out why that is. But we've now heard the third and fourth stories, and they're a big improvement on the first two. For a start, they're shorter, and much more story-driven: for another, they both add an interesting wrinkle to Monae's dystopia by considering how memory - the major theme of the book - is all a matter of perception, and how time can alter that perception in unexpected ways. In Timebox (co-written with Eve L. Ewing), a couple discovers an unusual feature of their new apartment, and it threatens to tear them apart: in Save Changes (co-written with Yohanca Delgado), two sisters trapped in their flat with their renegade mother experiment with ways of escaping their situation. With all the backstory out of the way, these two tales can relax and present some smart science fiction ideas along with characters you seriously care about. I'm slightly disappointed by the bait-and-switch of having Monae herself only read the first story, though: Bahni Turpin's reading style for the rest of them is a downgrade by comparison, though she calms down a bit as the book progresses. I may report on the final story next month, or I may have moved on to something else by then.

Radio: Oooh, now there's a category that rarely gets used around these parts. Although a couple of months ago, we listened to an audiobook that was just a repackaged old Radio 4 comedy series, Hordes Of The Things. I haven't experienced much radio comedy in the last couple of decades, which is surprising given how much of it I used to consume as a teenager. (Mind you, you could say the same thing about Birds Eye Steaklets.) So for me, there's a nostalgic tinge to settling down in front of the wireless to listen to Damned Andrew, a four-part sitcom co-written by and starring comedian Andrew O'Neill. It's safe to say that nobody else could have created a show like this: the story of a non-binary vegan metalhead who accidentally opens up a portal to the underworld while drunk and has to somehow close it again. It sticks closely to the Hitch-Hiker/Hordes fantasy comedy template, with complex sound design and a narrator tying the scenes together (although you feel that Alan Moore - yes, that one - could have been given a bit more to do in the role). We're halfway through the series at the time of writing, and I'm finding the pacing a bit off-putting - sequences where there's too much happening crash into other sequences where there's not much going on at all. You feel that the story (surreal diversions and all) is taking priority over the jokes: there are jokes, with at least a couple of great big laughs per episode, but the show could use a few more. Still, it's a series with a voice all of its own, and I'm keen to see how it develops over the rest of the run.

Video: Actually, the idea of 'video' as a category for a review feels almost as obsolete as 'radio' these days. But I can't be bothered setting up a new category for Things You Watch At Home On Streaming, so it stays. Beyond The Infinite Two Minutes is a Japanese film released in the UK by the good people at Third Window, whose last big hit was One Cut Of The Dead - a low-budget bit of silliness built around a huge sequence shot in a single take. So you can see why they snapped up Two Minutes, an even lower budget bit of silliness that's entirely shot in a single take (or so it looks, anyway). The premise of Junta Yamaguchi's film is simplicity itself: the owner of a cafe discovers one day that the monitor in his upstairs room is showing events happening in the downstairs cafe - not live, but what will happen two minutes into the future. You could imagine a decent little sketch being whipped up from that idea, but Makoto Ueda's script gets a full 70 minutes of inventive joy out of it, adding more and more complications as characters try to work out how this glitch can be exploited. You can enjoy it as a story, and simultaneously marvel at the feats of split-second timing required by cast and crew to make it all work. Coincidentally (or not), Third Window are releasing an older film this Monday with another Makoto Ueda script, entitled Summer Time Machine Blues. I think we can see a theme developing here.

Continue reading "Simian Substitute Site for July 2022: Brass Monkey Graphic Design" »

Simian Substitute Site for June 2022: Monkeys


Books: You've heard the album, you've seen the "emotion picture," now read the book. Or, in our case, listen to it. The Memory Librarian, And Other Stories Of Dirty Computer is Janelle Monae's latest excursion into her own personal sci-fi universe: a dystopia in which people's memories are erased to remove all traces of deviation, where deviating from the traditional gender binary is possibly the worst crime of all. For the book version, Monae's collaborated with five other authors to produce five stories set in her world. We're two stories into the audiobook so far, and neither of them has quite worked. The Memory Librarian itself (co-written with Alaya Dawn Johnson) opens the book, and is so crammed full of worldbuilding that it doesn't leave enough room for anything much to happen. Monae reads it nicely, though, something you don't appreciate until Nevermind (co-written with Danny Lore). Set on a retreat where a group of renegade women are hiding out, there's plenty of incident and character to go around. But it's read by Bahni Turpin in a curiously over-emphatic style, which makes you feel like you're being read this gender-progressive Afrofuturist fable because it's good for you. "Did you see, children? Neer is using non-binary pronouns." Still, the multi-author, multi-narrator anthology format means that anything could happen in the remaining three stories, so hopefully I can report back next month on how the rest of the book plays out.

Music: It's the textbook definition of a superspreader event: two and a quarter thousand people in the London Palladium, and The Divine Comedy are about to launch into the chorus of National Express. I'm afraid that by now you've missed their 2022 European tour shows, ruthlessly built around the recent Charmed Life compilation: as Neil Hannon described it, "no weird stuff, just the... [long pause, dramatic air quotes] ...'hits'." So rather than bang on about how predictably brilliant a show it was (other than to show you a cheeky video of Perfect Lovesong, featuring the best sight gag of the night), let's talk about Super Extra Bonus Album, which I tangentially referred to here two months ago. It's a traditional dodge that when a band releases a greatest hits album, they add at least one new song to it, to force the long-term fans who already have all the records to buy it anyway. Charmed Life takes this even further, adding an entire limited edition ten-track CD, made up of discarded sweepings from the cutting room floor. Which makes it all the more galling that it's the most consistent set of songs Hannon has released in years, with the first (I'll Take What I Can Get) and last (Those Pesky Kids) being particular highlights. It's an all-killer-no-filler set constructed from actual filler, and if you've got Spotify you can listen to it right here.

Telly: It's always struck me that Brooklyn Nine-Nine is underrated as sitcoms go. Its sit may have been a bit standard - a New York police precinct has wacky adventures - but the rock-solid ensemble cast was always its secret weapon. They came together as a perfectly well-oiled machine from episode one, and stayed that way for seven years. But just after the end of season seven, George Floyd got murdered, and all of a sudden an American police force became a tricky subject to make fluffy jokes about. Two years later, the eighth - and final - season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine has made it on to E4 over here, and we can now see how the writers had to rip up their original business-as-usual plans and come up with a new approach. To be honest, I wasn't sure they could pull it off, and even had the hashtag #DeFunThePolice all ready to go on Twitter. But after a tonally awkward opening episode, where the squad is hit by Covid, Black Lives Matter and a resignation in rapid succession, it quickly settles into an elegant two-pronged approach. One is to directly address the unease with current American policing, with the introduction of John C McGinley as a police union boss representing the morally compromised side of the force: the other is to have entire episodes set completely away from the precinct, sending the characters off on road trips and odd side projects. Somehow, it all still works, and there are a good few laugh-out-loud moments per episode. If they can sustain it for the series finale in a couple of weeks, it'll be quite an achievement.

Continue reading "Simian Substitute Site for June 2022: Monkeys" »