Simian Substitute Site for January 2022: Crafty Apes


Comedy: Happy New Year, everyone. Most years, as regular readers will know, we tend to spend the evening of December 31st in one of London’s finer comedy clubs. This time, for the second year running, we compromised with an online comedy night courtesy of Siôn James and his Collywobblers Comedy Club. Apparently James has been running Zoom gigs throughout the pandemic, and it shows in the sharp organisation of this show with a remote audience of over 60 attending: four fine acts (Patrick Monahan, Fiona Allen, Miss Mo' Real and the tireless Marcel Lucont, the latter doing his fourth gig of the night), a bit of musical silliness from Tony Ukulele to take us up to midnight, and then a rather lovely kitchen disco to follow, made all the more fun by the punters who left their cameras running (us included). And unlike Hampstead Comedy in 2018-19 and Good Ship Comedy in 2019-20, Collywobblers' DJ actually played some Janelle Monae when we asked, giving them a massive head start as our Best Comedy Club Of 2022 So Far. Ivor: Ben: the bar has been set.

Telly: Our Christmas was a mixture of being out and about for part of it, and locking ourselves in at home for the rest. For the second year running, we took out a one-month subscription to Disney+, the plan being to binge watch all the interesting stuff that’s been released there over the last twelve months and then cancel before they can take any more of our money. We had several Marvel series in there, inevitably. WandaVision plays wonderfully with your expectations, starting from the basic premise of two Avengers characters living in a 1950s sitcom and taking some ingenious detours along the way: it’s a shame that in the end, it all builds to the usual zappy explodey bollocks. Hawkeye does the same to some degree, but the charm of the leads and the relatively small scale of the explodey bollocks help it go down nicely. Meanwhile, M.O.D.O.K. (created with the help of the Robot Chicken people) rudely sends up the whole genre while obviously still being totally in love with it. In non-Marvel programming, the big new release is Get Back, in which Peter Jackson reedits the footage from the Let It Be sessions to make the Beatles look less like arseholes (though he doesn’t quite succeed with Lennon). There’s definitely enough terrific material in here to justify Jackson tearing up his original plan to make a two hour film, but not really enough to justify an eight hour series: at this length, it’s more for Beatles obsessives than a general audience. Finally, Steve Martin’s Only Murders In The Building is a delight for anyone who found that Knives Out left them with a particular itch that needed scratching. Yes, I know that The Book Of Boba Fett has just launched as well, but that’ll have to wait till next year’s one month sub now.

Travel: As for the out and about bits of Christmas, for the second year running we booked ourselves into a central London hotel for a few days. Last year, thanks to the late announcement of lockdown, we had to postpone our stay at the Resident Soho: this year, I’m pleased to report that our stay at its relative in Covent Garden went as planned. We’ve had several London Christmases before, but this was my first one in the centre of town, and it’s fascinating to see what stayed open on the day. Short answer: all the tourist eateries – steak houses, Cafes Concerto and the like – plus lots in Chinatown and virtually nothing in Soho. Oh, and all those money laundering joints that pretend to sell American sweets apparently never close, ever. The biggest surprise was finding the Cineworld Leicester Square open on Christmas Day, possibly the only cinema in London doing so. So we ended up spending three hours of the day being disappointed by The Matrix Resurrections, though to be fair that’s what we were expecting to happen. We got in a couple of bits of Christmas live entertainment too, despite everything. The more traditional one was Carols By Candlelight at Cadogan Hall, with a full orchestra in Mozart wigs and Peter Davison reading from Dickens: the less traditional was Two Turtle Doves at the Crazy Coqs, a cabaret of Christmas songs performed by Barb Jungr (who has a lovely festive song in her back catalogue already) and Dillie Keane (who doesn’t). Add in three very nice dinners (at J Sheekey, Kutir and 28-50), one decent brunch (at Madera), a fun exhibition about the Beano and some fancy cocktails adjacent to the Crazy Coqs at Bar Americain, and that seems like a pretty good three days for a city that’s largely shut on Christmas Day.

Continue reading "Simian Substitute Site for January 2022: Crafty Apes" »

Simian Substitute Site for December 2021: A Monkey Christmas


Books: Those of you who’ve been on the edge of your seats since last month, wondering which of our shortlist of five audiobooks we ultimately chose: you can relax now. At first glance (or whatever the sonic equivalent of glance is), I’d assumed that Stanley Tucci’s Taste would be a similar mashup of memoir and food writing to Grace Dent’s Hungry (which we enjoyed earlier this year), but with more of an actorly bent. That’s not quite what it is, though. Dent is using memories of meals as a literary device to connect her past with her current role as a restaurant critic. With Tucci, though, you feel like food is an inseparable component of his existence: every major event in his life is associated with something he ate or drank at the time. Frequently, we get recipes - which, to be honest, is where the audiobook format loses out over the printed page. The compensation for this is Tucci’s warm and wry reading of the text, even if he is a little too pleased with his own jokes sometimes. Still, one of those jokes looks like it’s going to be joining the lexicon at Château Belated-Monkey: his insistence that meatless meatballs should be referred to simply as ‘balls’.

Music: A new Covid variant's doing the rounds, and at the time of writing people still can't quite agree on whether we're just as doomed as before or even more doomed. The perfect time for us to see three crowded gigs in the space of a fortnight, then. Jarvis Cocker started us off at the Albert Hall in Manchester, for reasons to be clarified later this month. Technically it was a long delayed promotional show for last year’s Jarv Is... album, but he covered all the other bases of his career too: some Pulp deep cuts, a few solo favourites (people do enjoy singing along to Running The World for some reason), and even a couple of French classics from his current oddity Chansons d’Ennui Tip-Top. The following week saw a similarly delayed show finally happen after two postponements and a change of venue – Mary Coughlan at Islington Assembly Hall, also mixing up her new-at-the-time-the-gig-was-originally-scheduled record with plenty of older material, including a hefty chunk of her 35-year-old debut. Finally, the gig where we took the biggest chance was a show at the London Jazz Festival featuring percussionist Sarathy Korwar, who we only went to see because one of his many collaborators on the night was cellist Abel Selaocoe, star of our favourite/only Prom this year. Korwar turned out to be a terrific bandleader, as well as our gateway into a few of his other bandmates, such as poet Zia Ahmed and Melt Yourself Down vocalist Kushal Gaya, who brought the house down at the end by coming on stage carrying his sleeping toddler, compete with massive ear protectors.

Theatre: Mind you, that delay of over a year to see Mary C pales against the two years plus we’ve been waiting for The Shark Is Broken. First mentioned on these pages in August 2019, it was one of the hits of that year’s Edinburgh Fringe, and as such had pretty much sold out by the time we got there. A London transfer was always on the cards, but that pesky pandemic has delayed it until now. It’s set in 1974, as three actors – Robert Shaw (Ian Shaw), Roy Scheider (Demetri Goritsas) and Richard Dreyfuss (Liam Murray Scott) – sit in a boat while the film they’re working on together hits yet another delay, because Bruce the mechanical shark has malfunctioned again. Guy Masterson's production has acquired a few production curlicues since its run in Edinburgh - I'm pretty sure Nina Dunn's astonishing video backdrop wouldn't fit into Assembly George Square Studio 3 - but it's still basically a showcase for a study of three personalities clashing under pressure, all of them blurring the line between the stars themselves and the roles they played in Jaws. You could argue that the play's a little too keen to shoehorn in old movie set anecdotes (a flaw it shares with the novelisation of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood), and some of its ironic foreshadowing is aggressively on the nose. But it's all carried off by the wit of the script, co-written by Joseph Nixon and Ian Shaw, with the added gawp value of the latter playing his dad on stage. On the night we saw it, though, Shaw was replaced by his understudy Will Harrison-Wallace, who did a spectacular job in the circumstances: particularly when it gradually dawns on you what the final scene's going to be, and how difficult it must be to perform even with Shaw's genetic advantage, never mind without it.

Continue reading "Simian Substitute Site for December 2021: A Monkey Christmas" »

Simian Substitute Site for November 2021: MONKEYSEXPLOSION


Books: We’re in between books in our current Audiobook At Bedtime experiment: so rather than a review of a full one this month, here are five whose free previews we’ve listened to while working out what to buy next. Animal by Sara Pascoe: an interesting mix of tones, alternating between standup act and serious study of gender politics, and from the sample it’s hard to tell which will ultimately predominate. Taste by Stanley Tucci: a kind of Hollywood variation on that Grace Dent book we listened to a few months ago, with Tucci charmingly telling the story of his life in terms of food. Sidesplitter by Phil Wang: another comedian’s book with an agenda – looking at the impact being mixed race has had on his life – but this one feels more like a standup act on paper. Rememberings by Sinead O’Connor: she’s quite open from the beginning about the areas of her life this book is going to cover, but she does it with sufficient reassurance that it won’t be a humourlessly grim retelling. Windswept And Interesting by Billy Connolly: the voice is a bit croakier than it used to be, but he’s lived the life and kept the stories, and on this evidence seems to be trying to tell them all as quickly as possible. Which one will we choose? I’ll let you know. The main lesson we’ve learned from this exercise is that comedians are happy to have free previews for their books that can last the best part of an hour, but actors and musicians are a bit stingier.

Food and Drink: I was given a lovely present for Christmas 2019, and this month I finally got to open it, in a manner of speaking. When I first received my voucher for a one-day beer-making workshop at London Beer Lab, I assumed that I’d be using it not too long after the post-Christmas Dry Veganuary that we’d already planned for the start of 2020. Three lockdowns and one actual case of Covid later, The BBG and I got to visit Brixton and get our voucher’s worth. The setup’s simple: upstairs from the LBL taproom is a brewing area with half a dozen small kits, each capable of brewing around forty pints. You pick a recipe from a selection offered to you, and over the next five hours or so you're helped through the process of making a beer using it. To be honest, when we did all those brewery tours back in 2016 and got to the bit where they explained to you how brewing worked, I always tended to glaze over a little bit. It turns out that getting hands-on experience in the process makes it a doddle to understand: who knew? There are quite a few points during the five hours where not much is happening, and LBL craftily fill these gaps with some beer tastings and an extended opportunity to taste and smell some of the basic ingredients, so it all makes for a gloriously enjoyable afternoon. When it's all over, your beer is left to ferment for a couple of weeks, and if it turns out to be non-poisonous they'll put it on sale in their taproom. So keep an eye on London Beer Lab's Untappd listing from around the middle of November, and see if a black double IPA turns up on the taps. Hopefully it should be obvious if it's ours.

Movies: October was all about the London Film Festival here, and if you weren’t already aware of that you’ve got some catching up to do. On our final day, one of the highlights was Train Again, an experimental short film by Peter Tscherkassky, which I described at the time as  “a whole archive’s worth of footage of trains from the Lumiere brothers onwards, layered on top of each other and intercut at stroboscopic rates, accompanied by an industrial soundtrack of railway noise and climaxing in a montage of crashes.” So naturally, afterwards we were keen to find out if there was any more of this stuff available: and just one week later we found ourselves in Dalston's fashionable Cafe Oto watching a whole programme of Tscherkassky's films. The nice thing about Cafe Oto is, it's a performance space that isn't in the least bit designed for film screenings: which meant that the audience had a huge 35mm projector in the room with them, giving a weird illicit feel to the whole evening, like you were watching stag films or spy footage of a villain's secret lair. Having the films on 35mm turns out to be important. You could watch shorts like Outer Space and Instructions For A Sound And Light Machine on YouTube blown up onto a big screen, but when you're dealing with movies constructed out of single-frame edits, they have to be on celluloid or they look like a huge glitchy mess. For my money, Tscherkassky's latest (the aforementioned Train Again) is his best work, but the four earlier films in this programme show you how he built up his process over the space of two decades. Your chances of seeing these films again in a cinema are vanishingly small, but you can always compensate by purchasing the just-released album of Dirk Schaefer's pulverising soundtracks.

Continue reading "Simian Substitute Site for November 2021: MONKEYSEXPLOSION" »

Simian Substitute Site for October 2021: Hit-Monkey


Art: If you're like me, and someone told you that there was a Noel Coward exhibition in town, you'd probably assume that it would just be a series of rooms full of fancy dressing gowns. And I suspect the curators of Noel Coward: Art And Style are trolling us a little bit by making sure that the first thing you see when you walk into the gallery is an actual dressing gown. Thankfully, there's a lot more to the exhibition than that. Coward had a huge collection of collaborators to ensure that his productions had a visual wit that matched his verbal and musical one, and we get to see plenty of examples of their work, from Cecil Beaton and Norman Hartwell to a woman who insisted on only being addressed as Gluck. (I'd never appreciated before today that every photo you see of a 1920s theatre production is in black and white, which makes the colour design sketches on display rather special.) The exhibition covers the whole of his life, from his suburban upbringing to his years of tax exile in Jamaica (which may have done us out of some revenue, but at least inspired some rather charming paintings). It's a delightful way to spend an afternoon - you can catch it at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London until Christmas.

Books: After giving Once Upon A Time In Hollywood much more attention than it deserved - and to be fair, Quentin Tarantino deserves some sort of credit for his decision to novelise a movie by removing the plot from it - we're having a much nicer time in the company of Bob Mortimer, in the second audiobook of his we've listened to this year. And Away... is his autobiography, although he admits up front that at least part of it is lies (to satisfy the people who've enjoyed his tall stories on Would I Lie To You?). It's nice to hear Bob reading his own words, although he's been miked up in some peculiar way that seems to emphasise his breathing when you least expect it. As we've listened to a few autobiographical audiobooks this year, maybe I'm more sensitive to the cliches than usual, but it seems to me that Bob's story has been crudely beaten into shape by an editor who's decided that as his triple bypass operation is the key moment of his life, the early part of the book should be largely taken up with that, intercut with the flashbacks to his early life that we're really here for. But the stories, when they come, are as hilarious and surreal as you'd hope, with little bursts of Mortimerian verbal genius every minute or two.  

Music: it's about time for another one of these, I reckon (with the usual YouTube links for the Spotify haters). 

  1. Everyone keeps talking about the film Annette as being the Sparks musical: to be honest, it's more of a Sparks opera, given how much of the music is repetitive recitative, and how little of it is properly structured songs. With the notable exception of this opener, of course. (To be honest, the biggest problem with Annette is that it's directed by Leos Carax, meaning it's a collection of interesting images that fail to gel into a coherent whole.)
  2. Not sure what we're to make of the video for Kyary Pamyu Pamyu's latest single. Is the giant bow she's trying to outrun symbolic of her kawaii past, and suggesting that after a decade of making cutesy pop she's keen to move into something more grown-up? There's a new album coming in October, so I guess we'll find out then.
  3. When the film Jazz On A Summer's Day - it's lovely, check it out on Curzon Home Cinema - got its one-day theatrical release over the August Bank Holiday, it was accompanied by a short film featuring present-day British jazzers looking back at their 1958 American counterparts. Emma-Jean Thackray was one of them, and this ultimately led me to her rather fine album, along with this particular blend of tricksy time signature and goofy backing vocals.
  4. Presenting the most Jim Bob-esque title for a Jim Bob song released this century: Song For The Unsung (You're So Modest You'll Never Think This Song Is About You).
  5. Somehow, it's been 25 years since JJ Jeczalik left Art Of Noise for his own cheekily-named project Art Of Silence, and their only album has just been re-released off the back of that anniversary (along with a second collection of sweepings off the studio floor). Anyone familiar with the division of labour in AoN won't be surprised to hear that this record's light on tunes and heavy on grooves, but this particular groove kicks off like a bastard halfway through.
  6. Hip-hop with overly bombastic orchestral accompaniment? Yes please, Little Simz.
  7. I'm always up for a bit of Max Richter: on his latest album, he's collaborating with the Baltic Sea Philharmonic, conducted by Kristjan Järvi. Which presumably explains a Spotify recommendation I had hurled at me a couple of months after Richter's album was released (see 10 below).
  8. I mentioned last time that bands seem to be doing a lot of cover versions at the moment, and bang on cue The Specials have released a covers album of their own, the Ronseally titled Protest Songs 1924-2012. I like how for this song, a simple lyric change ('give or take a night or two') takes one of Laughing Len's dodgier insults and makes it more gender-inclusive in its offensiveness.
  9. I guess tribute albums count as cover versions too, and The Wanderer: A Tribute To Jackie Leven has a fine all-star cast. Nevertheless, the main thing it did for me was send me back to the originals: in particular, a 2004 live set (released posthumously in 2013) which confirms that nobody could sing these songs the way that Leven did.
  10. It's the Baltic Sea Philharmonic again, this time playing one of conductor Kristjan Järvi's own compositions (with the assistance of Mari Meentalo on Estonian bagpipes, which are genuinely a thing). This feels like it should be the soundtrack to something enormous, and probably at some point in the future it will be.

Continue reading "Simian Substitute Site for October 2021: Hit-Monkey" »

Simian Substitute Site for September 2021: Monkey 47


Books: I'm not gonna lie to you, this month's audiobook has been hard work, and I suspected it was going to be like that all along. But be honest: when Quentin Tarantino announces that he's publishing a tie-in novelisation of this film from two years ago, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, don't you feel just a little twinge of curiosity about whether he can write prose or not? Let me answer that one for you quickly: nah. Most of the time, when he's putting sentences in between lines of dialogue, they struggle to meet the level of Stewart Lee's fragment of parody Dan Brown, "the famous man looked at the red cup". To pump up what was basically a mood piece into several hundred pages, he's crammed insane amounts of detail that nobody was asking for: ludicrously, the tatty Western pilot that Rick Dalton's shooting appears to have more unspoken backstory to it than most feature films. It's not a complete writeoff, though: when he's dealing with a mostly silent action setpiece like the initiation rite to join the Manson family, he manages to sustain tension admirably. And he's having fun playing with the expectations of those of us who've already seen the film. But even the enjoyably arch narration of Jennifer Jason Leigh can't stop chunks of Hollywood being dull. We've currently put our nighttime listening on hiatus because of Edinburgh and the Paralympics - hopefully we can pick it up again when the latter is over.

Music: In the middle of all the other cultural stuff we did this month in Edinburgh - did you hear we've been to Edinburgh, by the way? - we caught a Prom featuring African cellist Abel Selaocoe. (In case you need help pronouncing the name, I've been thinking of it in terms of property speculation with London Underground stations. "Buy Tooting Bec! Sell Archway!") For the most part, the concert's a collaboration between Selaocoe and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and the programme lives up to its billing of 'Africa meets Europe', with some of the cellist's own compositions mixed in with others. But the whole thing takes flight towards the end with the addition of a trio of rockin' Moroccans, led by Simo Lagnawi on the three string lute. What makes the climax so thrilling - especially if you can see it, which you can't, sorry - is that rather than the music being led by the orchestra, it's being led by the Africans at the front of the stage. Conductor Clark Rundell is literally watching them for visual cues, and then bringing the orchestra in and demanding they keep up. Even if you can't see all that, you should be able to feel it, and at the time of writing it should be online for another month and a bit.

Travel: Here's an update you may or may not have been waiting for. We spent Christmas 2006 in Brighton, and stayed in a relatively new and gloriously fancy joint called Hotel Una. We had a very, very nice time there, and noted that "with their plans for the future - combining some of those 'OK' rooms into larger suites, opening the restaurant up for evening meals - it can only get better." And we kept an eye out to see if that restaurant ever opened. But it didn't. So fourteen and a half years later, we said fuckit and paid a return visit to Una anyway. The receptionist on the day wasn't around back in 2006, but was rather touched by the story of our first stay there. The promise to rejig the rooms was fulfilled, with our duplex from last time - the Quaile - now upgraded to a full blown presidential suite, with a home cinema room added. This time round we went for one of the smaller rooms, the Vedea, and it suited us just fine. They may not have a restaurant still, but that's not a problem, as our major restaurant discovery from that Christmas trip - the magnificent Due South - has come back to its original beachside location after a decade of not being there. On your way back to the hotel, you should pop into new craft beer joint The Hole In The Wall, but be sure to leave room for a cheeky cocktail at the hotel bar after that. The line "we danced like Englishmen and drank like Serbs" nearly came true again that night.

Continue reading "Simian Substitute Site for September 2021: Monkey 47" »

Simian Substitute Site for August 2021: Giant Golden Monkey


Art: To quote myself from two months ago: "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 here we are: some art, though you'll have to go to Manchester to see it (it's at the Science and Industry Museum until January 3rd 2022). Use Hearing Protection tells the story of the early years of Factory Records, from 1978 to 1982. It begins with an overview of the people and events that led up to the formation of the label, where the key tenets of its philosophy quickly become apparent. Produce the best-looking products possible: use local talent and industry at all stages of production: and never worry too much about the financial side of things. (That last one would come back to haunt them, of course.) The main part of the exhibition showcases the first fifty items in the Factory catalogue along with the stories behind them: the label gave numbers not just to records, but to posters, events, videos, company notepaper and a menstrual egg timer by the artist Linder. To justify this being in a science museum, there are a couple of interactive displays where you can play with a synthesizer and a mixing desk (bring your own headphones, and wipe all surfaces clean afterwards). It all finishes off with a lovely 40 minute loop of videos of Factory acts in performance, where the highlight for me was some vintage Durutti Column footage. If you're a fan of the music, you'll have a terrific time: even if you're not, it's a fascinating portrait of Manchester life in the late seventies.

Books: To quote myself from one month ago: "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." So you've probably been wondering for the past month, which audiobook did The BBG find so alarming that we had to alternate chapters of it with chapters of Bill Bryson? The answer is I, Partridge: We Need To Talk About Alan, the 2011 autobiography of Alan Partridge (written, it says here, "with" Rob and Neil Gibbons, Steve Coogan and Armando Iannucci). My listening companion assumed that spending too much time cringeing before bed would be bad for her sleep: myself, I think it's a much more complicated book than that. For a start, there's the sheer technical achievement of taking all the various strands of Partridge lore from On The Hour, The Day Today, Knowing Me Knowing You, I'm Alan Partridge and Mid-Morning Matters and knotting them into a single coherent life story. Then there's the various levels of reality to negotiate with: Partridge is the mother of all unreliable narrators, presenting everything entirely from his point of view, in some cases directly contradicting the 'facts' that we've already seen in the TV shows. But for me, it's also that Partridge has become less of a cringey character over the last dozen or so years, which I suspect is a direct consequence of the Gibbons brothers showrunning his life: they're not afraid to show some sympathy for him, and even let him occasionally win a confrontation in somewhere other than his own head. Finally, we have to acknowledge that this is our first audiobook that's an actual performance, and Coogan - who, by this time, had inhabited the character for close on two decades - gives it everything. Back of the net!

Movies: To quote myself from around April 1974: "Did you see that band on Top Of The Pops last night? That man with the high voice and the other one that looked like Hitler? No, I couldn't work out that bit of the maths homework, either." It's possible that the band Sparks were tied to a specific generation: if you were capable of listening to music in 1974 and heard those early singles, you were hooked. If Edgar Wright's film The Sparks Brothers is to be believed, if you weren't there in the seventies or you're not a musician now, you'll have no idea who Ron and Russell Mael are: his documentary is his attempt to convert the rest of the world. In the course of their half century in the biz, Sparks have had many ups and downs, and Wright's approach is to allocate screen time to every period equally, whether they're filling concert halls across the UK or waiting several years for a film project to come out of development hell. It helps the Mael brothers are fabulously entertaining as interviewees, but the several million other people Wright interviews all have interesting things to say as well. The film's in cinemas now: it may be a little too niche to be in there for long, so hurry.

Continue reading "Simian Substitute Site for August 2021: Giant Golden Monkey" »

Simian Substitute Site for July 2021: Northern Monkey


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?  

Continue reading "Simian Substitute Site for July 2021: Northern Monkey" »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Simian Substitute Site for May 2021: Hartlepool


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.)

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Simian Substitute Site for April 2021: Medicine Monkey


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.

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