Kate Bush NME review on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme

Charles Shaar Murray gets his damning review of Kate Bush read back to him on BBC radio, as Kate embarks on 22-gig concert dates.

Following tonight’s imminent premiere of the first Kate Bush live show in 35 years, preceded by yr humble’s appearance on Radio 4’s PM to discuss it, requests have been received for a post of the text of the 1979 NME review of which the PM team made such a delicious four-course dinner.

So by, as Aswad used to sing, SPESHAL REQUESS AN A PUBLICK DEMAHN, and gracelessly but gratefully nicked from Rock’s Back Pages — here it is. Enjoy already.

And Ms Bush – break a leg.

Kate Bush: The Palladium, London
Charles Shaar Murray, New Musical Express, 28 April 1979

TWO MEMORIES: recalled first are the days when rock and roll was swamped with failed classical pianists and violinists who knew that they could make it in rock and roll because certain strata of the rock audience have an inferiority complex about Real Culture and no standards by which to judge it.

Recalled second are all the unpleasant aspects of David Bowie in the Mainman era. Successfully shoved under the cerebral carpet by the passing of time and the ghosts of all those dynamite gigs, it only takes a whiff of Kate Bush’s tour programme and the haughty condescension of the little notes from the Kate Bush Club that you find on your seat when you arrive to bring it all back.

No photographers. Stay in your seats and worship, you dumb bastards!

The Kate Bush show that’s been wowin’ ’em (as in “Wow, wow, wow, wow, we think you’re unbearable”) all over the country is a tribute to hard work, lots of money and the old-style ideology that defines the relationship between artist and audience as purely that between worshipper and worshipped. Described (elsewhere, natch) as some kind of apex in the mating of rock and theatre, it is simply the most complicated and expensive extant collision between theatrics (there is a difference between ‘theatre’ and ‘theatrics’, but if Kate Bush is aware of it, she certainly isn’t letting on) and MOR pop.

An endless stream of sets, costumes, pantomine-conjuring special effects, back projections sound effects (ranging from wind and rain to her brother’s awful crypto-poetry read in a portentous, echoing elocution-competition voice to audible sniggering from people who hadn’t paid the statutory fiver for their tickets) and things that would be described as ‘gimmicks’ if they occurred in the course of a performance with less lofty ambitions as this one, the KATE BUSH (she prefers capitals) experience is an exercise in the time-honoured art of battering an audience to death and making them like it.

Ms Bush herself is the evident product of an awful lot of strenuous self-improvement. One can only imagine all those years of ballet training, mime classes, piano lessons…she is Supergirl: the range of her skills aspires to be breathtaking and the end result is that she is capable of doing enough things passably to convince large numbers of people (only a few of whom are equipped to know better) that she is doing them brilliantly.

Her piano playing is competent but characterless: unlike Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell – whose work she evidently admires – the style is neither distinctive nor expressive. Her songwriting hints that it means more than it says and in fact means less: she hints at mystery and uses it as a cloak whereas true mysteries always stand naked. Her singing is at least unusual: her shrill, self-satisfied whine is unmistakable.

Altogether, a lightweight talent with one good song (‘Wuthering Heights’) to her credit.

Her dancing is more perspiration than inspiration: completely lacking in sensuality or funk, it relies instead on a supple, well-exercised frame and enough ballet moves to impress people who know nothing about ballet just as the Emersons and Wakepersons of yesteryear were able to bullshit people who knew nothing about classical music.

Her mime is elegant sham: great mime expresses everything, good mime expressessomething and bad mime expresses nothing other than somebody’s been to mime classes.

Backed by a cast of a dozen (seven musicians, two dancers, two singers and the real star of the show, illusionist Simon Gray), Bush twirled and skittered and trilled her way through a series of tableaux vivants which almost disguised that if it had actually been performed and staged as a straight concert it would have been tedious in the extreme.

For the climax – centred around ‘James And The Cold Gun’ – she dressed up in cowboy togs and methodically shot Gray and the two dancers, complete with fake blood, rimshots and dry ice, before retreating to the stylised womb at the back of the stage from which she had originally emerged, shooting at the audience. It was the first time that she played direct to the crowd and the only emotion expressed was hatred.

It has been pointed out that she’s terribly young and oh, so talented. She certainly works hard: the show runs over two hours and except for when she’s seated at the white piano, she’s in constant motion, using a radio mike on a kind of telephonist’s headset so that she can move freely the whole time. The trouble is that she’s completely entranced with the idea of her own stardom and the concept of presenting an almost superhuman facade.

Tony DeFries would’ve loved you seven years ago, Kate, and seven years ago maybe I would’ve too. But these days I’m past the stage of admiring people desperate to dazzle and bemuse, and I wish you were past the stage of trying those tricks yourself.

Sure, what you do takes talent, but it ain’t the kind of talent I respect.

Enjoy your success.

© Charles Shaar Murray, 1979

Charles Shaar Murray’s next Hothouse Project writing course starts Tuesday 30th September in West Hampstead.

Sunday lunch with Wilko Johnson

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Charles Shaar Murray does Sunday lunch with Wilko Johnson and Team Wilko in Southend

After a delightful visit to Wilko Johnson — who, leave us not forget, stared death in the face and saw death back down — I dashed off a quick Facebook post, which went sort of like this:

“Yesterday: a lovely Sunday afternoon by the seaside … to be precise, hanging out with Wilko Johnson and a bunch of his mates, including the inimitable Norman Watt-Roy, Wilk’s manager Lisa Climie, his saviour cancer specialist/ace photographer Charlie Chan (yep, that really is his name and yep, he’s heard ALL the jokes at least 100 times each so he doesn’t need to hear any of them again, ever), the splendiferous Anna Chen and several other lovely peeps.

“Festivities included an epic Chinese meal, during which everybody ate until it hurt and everybody who wasn’t driving drank until their back teeth floated. Wilk’s still in the comparatively early stages of recovery from his MASSIVE life-saving surgery, but he’s in good spirits (though he’s no longer drinking any), working hard to rebuild strength and stamina, itching to resume maltreating Telecasters in public and even speculating on returning to Game of Thrones once Ser Ilyn Payne is no longer ill in pain and he’s strong enough to wield the Big Sword once more. And he thanks all y’all for the good vibes.”

Imagine my surprise (and I’ll imagine yours) when THIS suddenly showed up in the Daily Express We noted with some amusement that my offhand reference to ‘the seaside’ somehow ended up in Express-ese as a visit to the beach. Which it wasn’t – we convened chez Wilk and then decamped en masse to the raththah mahvellus Zen City for the Big Eat.

Gad sir, will these meejah vulchaz stop at nothing?

Pix by Team Wilko member Micky Fawcett

Charles Shaar Murray’s next Hothouse Project “Journalism as Craft and Art” writing course starts Tuesday 30th September in West Hampstead NW6. More info here.

Wilko Johnson, Yuriko, Charles Shaar Murray, Lisa Climie, Anna Chen, Micky Fawcett,

Charles Shaar Murray and Bex Marshall visit the Ozarks

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… that’s Ozark Guitars, not the celebrated US mountain range after which the brand of exquisite acoustic guitars is named. Mi sistah-in-blues, the awesomely talented Bex Marshall, is a major user of these fine instruments and since she was about to pay a visit to the headquarters of Stentor, Ozark’s parent company, to get a couple of her road-battered Ozark resonator electros given a good seeing-to, she very kindly invited me to tag along and get some minor damage to my own beloved Ozark 3515 BTEG repaired.

Such is Bex’s status amongst Ozark users that we got this work done personally by the company’s genial head honcho and chief designer David Carroll … and a fun afternoon was had by all. Megathanx to Bex, and to David. Needless to say, there is no bigger bang (or twang) for your resonator buckage available anywhere in this time zone (a word to the wise guy or gal)… and we couldn’t wait to get home and play our freshly rejuvenated ‘Zarks … and fall in love with them all over again.

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A few thoughts about rock criticism

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… written in the early 1990s under circumstances I can no longer recall (hence the references to Guns ‘N Roses and Ice-T — then cutting-edge but now Old Folks Music and barely familiar to anyone under the age of 35 — and Frank Zappa as a living person existing in the present tense).*  Nevertheless, I still stand by it, and I still tell my Hothouse Project students much of this stuff today — alongside, of course, much more.

Goes something like THIS:

Notes On Dancing About Architecture

1. It may or may not have been Frank Zappa who dismissed rock criticism by suggesting that ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’ (perhaps it was Prince Charles, who himself has had many and merry a dance about architecture); but it was certainly Zappa who claimed that rock journalism is ‘people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.’ Zappa himself talks better than most rock musicians; he’s certainly been interviewed by many people (some of whom can actually write), and presumably the only rock fans whom he thinks can read are those who buy his own records; but he undoubtedly represents the views of a great many musicians. Any practicing rockcrit can quote examples of musicians who considered writers to be persons of vast acuity, immense musical knowledge and almost terrifying personal integrity as long as those writers were publishing favourable judgements on the recorded products in question. As soon as the critic registers a negative viewpoint on the artist’s work, (s)he is magically transformed into a deaf, ignorant reptile with no other agenda than the ruthless destruction of their betters. Certainly, there is considerable confusion about exactly what rock criticism is; and the first step to resolving that confusion is to discuss two of the things it isn’t.

2. The first thing that rock criticism isn’t is reviewing (except when Robert Christgau does it). Reviewing is a simple advisory service for consumers; letting them know what records are in the stores (or which tours are about to pass through which localities), and making recommendations as to which artefacts represent a sensible use of the rocking-dollar portion of the reader’s disposable income. The reviewer thus becomes a knowledgeable head waiter, prepared to tell the prospective diner what’s nice today – and what’s ‘off.’ This presupposes that the reviewer is either able to conceal their idiosycrasies and prejudices to a sufficient extent to serve as a neutral conduit for information, or else to make said quirks sufficiently obvious for the reader to make his/her consumption decisions whether in agreement with the reviewer or not.

3. The second thing that rock criticism isn’t is reportage. Description, colour, you-are-there: this is all good stuff, and it’s something that anybody who calls themself a writer – of any description – should be able to do. A sharp eye and ear for character, setting and nuance never did anybody any harm; at its best this kind of stuff is the sort of sketch-writing on which Charles Dickens honed his skills; at its worst it’s the kind of bland celebrity journalism which currently dominates all cultural discourse. The demand thus placed on the artist is to become a ‘character’: to have interesting drug habits, diet tips, tattoos and working methods, or to cultivate controversial opinions, beat up photographers and undress in public.

4. None of the above should imply that there is anything negligible about being a competent, knowledgeable reviewer, sympathetic (and/or confrontational) interviewer or snappy, perceptive descriptive writer. No-one who has not cultivated these skills is liable to last very long as a cultural journalist, unless they are appallingly well-connected within their chosen industry and are in a position to deliver ‘exclusives’ on a regular basis. (As a rule of thumb, anybody whose by-line appears regularly in important periodicals on stories about major entertainers despite style-free prose and inconvenience-free questioning probably falls into this category.) Nevertheless, this isn’t criticism.

5. So, what is? Criticism implies perspective: it means having a clear and precise vision (and not just an additood, dooooood) of where the work of the artist under discussion at any given moment fits into the history and current state of the art-form, how that art-form fits into the general state of popular culture, and what popular culture itself represents in view of the social and political realities of the time. A new record by Ice-T or Guns N’ Roses or anybody else is, to the reviewer, a state-of-the-art example of rap, hard-rock or whatever; and it may or may not be better or worse consumer-value than the last record by that artist or the latest by a comparable artist whose work could be considered better. To the celeb-journo, Ice-T and Axl Rose are controversial public figures guaranteed to toss out a few good quotes which can be pulled out of the feature and splashed acoss the page in 72-point type. To the critic, Axl and Ice-T may be exemplars of a crisis in masculinity among insecure adolescents; they may be symptoms of a decline in popular culture since the days of Sly Stone or Jim Morrison; they could be the result of a moral failure on the part of ‘responsible’ rockers since they both use the N-word about blacks and the B-word about women; they could be great popular entertainers who articulate the needs and concerns of the communities who support their work; one of them could be a brainless thug while the other is a great poet … and so on.

6. It doesn’t matter what the ‘line’ of any individual critic might be as long as there is one. What matters is the quality of the argument, and the resources that the critic brings to bear to back it up. While the reviewer counsels your cultural investments on a bang-for-the-buck basis and the celeb-journo describes the public (or private, or second-level-public disguised as ‘private’) face of a phenomenon, the critic does all of that … and then more.

7. On a good day, anyway.

* My friend Dave Rimmer reminds me, “I commissioned that piece for the Berlin Independence Days catalogue 1992. As part of the deal you were also on a panel with Swells, Chris Bohn, Diedrich Diedrichson and others I can’t recall, moderated by moi.”

Aha — it’s all coming back to me now …

Read more about Charles Shaar Murray’s Hothouse Project “Journalism as Craft and Art” writing course.