Saturday, 29 December 2012

Things I enjoyed in 2012


Big Star Third, Barbican, London 

Big Star are my favourite ever band, and I have my dad to thank for getting me into them when I was a teenager. Whilst I love individual songs on #1 Record and Radio City, for me their final album Third/Sister Lovers works best as a complete piece of work, with its surprise mix of rocking pop songs, strange, otherworldly clanging and heart wrenching string and horn arrangements – it's one of those records I used to spend hours listening to in the dark trying to work out how the arrangements fitted together and how all the sounds the record were achieved. In 2008, my dad offered to take me to see their singer, Alex Chilton, at Shepherd's Bush Empire, but I decided to move house that weekend instead. I came to regret this a lot, as Chilton died a year and a half later at the age of 59, of a heart attack, so I never got to see him. When I heard about an event at the Barbican with a guest cast of musicians playing Big Star's third album in its entirety with the original string and horn arrangements, a few weeks after my dad's 50th birthday, therefore, it seemed like the perfect present. We decided to make a day of it in London, but my dad was in an unbelievably grumpy mood and barely spoke to me all day, and I was worried the gig wasn't going to interest him either. I've never seen someone perk up so suddenly, though. The revolving cast of musicians from bands like REM, Yo La Tengo and Teenage Fanclub really worked (with the exception of John Bramwell from I Am Kloot, whose nasal whining was completely out of place) and my dad was on the edge of his seat throughout the gig, smiling broadly – not least when Ray Davies was brought out as a surprise guest to rock the stage at the end. The Barbican concert hall is beautiful too – all wooden inside with really clear acoustics.

Chain and the Gang, Kraak Gallery, Manchester

I went to this gig as all girl punk band Trash Kit, one of my favourite bands of recent years, were on the bill, not knowing anything about headline band Chain and the Gang. In between bands, my friend excitably said 'There's Ian Svenonius, shall we go and have our photo taken with him?', to which I replied 'Who's that?'. Turns out Chain and the Gang singer Ian Svenius is a bit of an indie hero, having played in several cult bands over the years. It suddenly made sense why the audience was noticeably older than the usual crowd at this type of gig, and John Robb jumped up on stage to introduce them (possibly the only time I have ever been at the same gig as John Robb). Whilst Chain and the Gang are indisputably punk rock, their music is classy, stylish, musically slick and, most of all, fun, with front man Svenonius and front woman Katie Alice Greer dancing around the stage and playing off one other. 

Evan Dando and Juliana Hatfield , Academy 2, Manchester

No surprises here – Dando and Hatfield duetted on classic Lemonheads tracks and took it in turn to play their own songs – except I'd never realised what a strong singer, guitarist and songwriter Hatfield is in her own right.

Trust Fund/Two White Cranes, my garden, Manchester

The last gig I'll ever have in my canal-side garden (I'm moving house soon) was a good one: Roxy Brennan, formerly of the Mountain Parade, writes sweet, simple folk songs as Two White Cranes, whilst Ellis Jones, formerly of the Bumblebees, sings falsetto over a Casio keyboard and sparse guitar under the name Trust Fund.

Dan Deacon, Islington Mill, Salford 

I maintain that Dan Deacon provides the most fun you can have at a gig – including dance-offs, a strobe light app for iPhones and making the audience create a tunnel with their hands then run through it to come out outside the building and then do the same again to go back inside. The music – euphoric dance – isn't bad either.

ATP, Minehead

I admit the appeal of ATP isn't really about the music – watching bands is always going to come second to wandering around charity shops, and exploring up and down hills and along the beaches in Minehead itself, interspersed with trips to Butlins' cinema and wave pool, but it was also great to see Minutemen, Young Marble Giants and Apples in Stereo, who were as fun as I'd hoped they would be. 

Wake Up Dead, Wim Wams, Irma Vep, the Hipshakes, Hotspur House, Manchester 

Top floor punk party with a view over the rooftops and train tracks of Manchester, in one of my favourite spaces in the city.

Honourable mentions go also to Francois and the Atlas Mountains, Rozi Plain and Being There, all at the Castle in Manchester.


Jane and Louise Wilson, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester 

The best exhibition I've seen in Manchester in a while, Jane and Louise Wilson's photos, videos and sculptural installations show both the human and environmental impact of the Chernobyl disaster (and, elsewhere in the exhibition, recreate the scene of the murder of a Dubai businessman), in an exhibition that exposes the limits of human planning, surveillance and control. Read my review of the exhibition for Corridor8 here.

Martin Creed, All the Bells

Martin Creed's Work No 1197, a mass artwork which involved trying to get all the bells in the country to ring as loudly and quickly as possible for three minutes as a wake-up call heralding the start of the Olympics, was definitely the event I was most looking forward to during the Olympic year – although I found it frustratingly hard to find other people who shared my enthusiasm for getting up at 8.12am to make a noise. Other towns, villages and cities had organised All the Bells events; Manchester had none, and I had visions of being reduced to standing outside ringing my doorbell by myself for three minutes. However, I borrowed an agogô bell from the samba band I play with just in case, and at the last minute joined up with Alison Kershaw to ring some bells at St Luke's art project in the Longsight suburb of Manchester. St Luke's is based in a modern church on busy Stockport Road – one of the main roads into Manchester – and, it turns out, the church does not have physical bells but uses old cassette recordings of peals which are blasted out ahead of services and events. Calls to worship are on one side of the tape, weddings and funerals on the other; the church would be stuck if it lost the tape, said Alison! Alison had downloaded the special ringtone Martin Creed had created for the event (I couldn't, as it was only available for smartphones), and we stood, smiles on faces, banging away outside the church, church bells ringing in the background, as local residents came to their doors and windows in bewilderment. Admittedly, these were the only bells we we heard in Manchester, and some wags started the Twitter hashtag '#noneofthebells'.

Mark Leckey, Manchester Art Gallery

For this show, Leckey faced off a huge speaker stack against a giant, metallic piece of industrial machinery formerly used in a factory. On the opening night, Leckey's DJing made the room reverberate with sheer, bone-shaking noise, contrasting with the monumental solemnity of the two pieces of redundant equipment during usual exhibition hours, facing each other in silence, and the frantic activity of his youth culture film Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore.

Victoria Lucas, Untitled Gallery, Manchester

The best use of birds in an art gallery since Birds on Guitars (the Barbican, 2010), this simple yet lovely installation transformed tiny Untitled Gallery into an aviary by projecting a film of the gallery, temporarily populated by small, brightly coloured birds, onto the back wall, placing the viewer in a mirror image of the space. Watching the birds fly around the room was strangely captivating in itself, but what really made the film was the accidental presence of a strange figure (supposedly a bird expert) wandering in and out of the frame, failing over and over again to catch the birds with his hands and line them up on a low wire strung across the gallery.

Seven Sites, various locations, Manchester/Salford

Laura Mansfield and Swen Steinhauser's series of artistic interventions into everyday sites across the two cities, from a church to a curry house.

Hans Haacke, Reina Sofia, Madrid 

Fun but thought-provoking installations that make you look again at the art world and art's relationship with power, money and prestige.

Tracy Emin, Turner Contemporary, Margate 

I went to this exhibition expecting to be underwhelmed, but found Emin's personal, confessional drawings on the subject of sex, and her self-portraits, moving and affecting. It's rarely that I feel I can relate to a feminine topic, writer or artist just on the basis that I am a woman and am therefore supposed to have some kind of shared, woman-specific outlook on life, but I did feel a connection with Emin's work and experiences. She may not be the most subtle of artists, but I also thought her tapestries were really quite beautiful. We were there on the opening weekend, when the artist herself was wondering the building amid the crowds gathered to see this solo show in her home-town.

Michael Dean, Henry Moore Institute Leeds

One of several exhibitions I saw in Leeds in 2012, and Henry Moore Institute is another small gallery whose exhibitions always impress. Michael Dean fundamentally transformed the visitor experience, from creating sculptural door handles to carpeting the gallery's floor spaces, placing gallery assistants on the floor and filling the space with huge, tactile objects, some of which were so large they had to be made in situ.

The Humble Market, FACT, Liverpool

Part of Abandon Normal Devices festival, Brazilian/UK theatre collective Zecora Ura led viewers on a group tour through several scenarios, forcing the viewer to reevaulate their relationship to the artworks, as well their relationship with other members of the audience.

I've also really enjoyed all the exhibitions I've seen at Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool, which I feel really punches above its size. The venues impressed more than much of the art at Liverpool Biennial this year – with the exception of John Akomfrah's video installation The Unfinished Conversation at the Bluecoat, which refracted memories through snippets of archive film to explore the ideas and life of Stuart Hall. In a rare (at least in my experience) occurrence for a gallery, members of the public sat still for forty odd minutes to watch the film in its entirety instead of hovering uncertainly at the back or wandering in and out. In Manchester, I enjoyed small solo shows by Daniel Fogarty and Mary Griffiths at Bureau Gallery.


Whilst neither of these books were published in 2012 (or, indeed, recently), they are both among the best books I have ever read and had me engrossed during 2012.

Waterlog, Roger Deakin 

The type of book you wish you could carry with you all the time for inspiration, guidance and a bit of comfort on bad days, Deakin uses a uniquely beautiful turn of words as he swims his way around the country's waterways, evoking the sense of freedom, excitement and spontaneity that swimming al fresco brings.

Our Band Could Be Your Life, Michael Azzerad

I wish I'd read this book, about the bands, record labels and publications that spread the DIY spirit across America, ten years ago: it should be compulsory reading for anyone with ambitions for forming a band, putting gigs on or releasing records (skip the Mudhoney chapter, but the Minor Threat, Minutemen, Sonic Youth, Fugazi and Beat Happening chapters are particularly inspiring amidst the fights, drugs and decadence).


Lawrence of Belgravia 

One of the most honest and least contrived 'rockumentaries' I've ever seen, Lawrence of Belgravia follows Felt/Go-Kart Mozart frontman Lawrence over a period of years in a warts and all, fly on the wall journey into the life of a pop star. Sometimes frustrating but mainly just heartwarming, the film makes you cross your fingers for Lawrence to get his big break, snag Kate Moss, and become an indie superstar. If anyone deserves it, he does.

Make Your Own Damn Art 

A documentary following the life and work of artist Bob and Roberta Smith. I found Smith's ethos, attitude and approach to making art refreshing and inspiring. From creating a gallery in his garden shed (anyone can make a gallery, he suggests) to selling affordable artworks at art car boot fairs and playing in a middle aged punk rock band, if Smith had a manifesto it would be 'Make your own damn art: don't expect me to make it for you', something which resonates with the Shrieking Violet. It's an important message for anyone who's ever wanted to make an artwork, a piece of music or even a zine but not known where to begin, so never quite got round to it.

Utopia London 

Utopia London pays homage to twentieth century town planning and the city in which its director, Tom Cordell, grew up. Comprising interviews with some of the key architects in the rebuilding of a city left ravaged by the Second World War, the film shows the ideals and aspirations of those behind the Modernist movement, demonstrating how they aimed to build a better, more equal world by fusing design with artistic and scientific innovation. Many of the architects are now in their eighties, yet still full of spirit and idealism, and some of the film's most moving movements are when they are taken back to the sites of their buildings to see how they fared. Utopia London is thought-provoking, inspiring and uplifting: a must-see for anyone who has ever looked around and wondered: how did our towns and cities get to be the way they are?

Bata-ville: we are not afraid of the future

On the list of things I want to achieve before I die is making a documentary film. Bata-ville, in which a coach full of (mostly elderly) former employees of paternalistic shoe company Bata is taken by two lively artists on a pilgrimage from Bata's now defunct factory in East Tilbury to the company's Moravian hometown, is surreal, funny and subversive in its attitude towards history and the meaning of memories. Bata-ville is the type of film I would love to be able to call my own.


Whilst I find Iain Sinclair's writing difficult to read, he made for good entertainment in this travelogue with a difference. Swandown follows Sinclair and Andrew Kötting (director of the wonderful, poignant coastal odyssey Gallivant) on an unlikely, intrepid adventure by swan pedalo, which begins with the pair bobbing up and down on the sea off Hastings and culminates inland in the waterways of London, with plenty of laughs along the way as well as opportunities for reflection.

Nostalgia for the Light

Beautifully filmed and soundtracked yet devastatingly sad documentary which intertwines the wonders of Chile's observatory centre in the Atacama desert with the search by groups of women for the remains of loved ones missing, presumed dead, under the Pinochet regime. Nostalgia for the Light captures the grandeur, emptiness and openendedness of both the landscape and human existence, in which there sometimes are no answers, only mysteries.


I know he's a nasty man, but Michael Portillo is still my favourite TV present (his genial nature and colourful outfits make me smile), so I was pleased that the year started with another series of Great British Railway Journeys and ended with a new spin on the concept, Great Continental Railway Journeys, which saw the episodes extended into hour-long explorations of various European destinations.

Also worth a mention is the Jeremy Deller Culture Show special (for roughly the same reasons I enjoyed the Bob and Roberta Smith film).


The Royal Exchange never disappoints, and the costumes and music are always particularly impressive. I saw a swinging production of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and a tense take on Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending there.


2012 was the year in which I finally started listening to 99% Invisible's short podcasts on architecture, urbanism and design; recent highlights have included instalments on Buckminster Fuller, Kowloon Walled City and dazzle ships. As well as covering diverse subjects in a diverse, engaging way, Roman Mars has my favourite voice on the radio.


Anonymous said...

"Sometimes frustrating but mainly just heartwarming, the film makes you cross your fingers for Lawrence to get his big break, snag Kate Moss, and become an indie superstar. If anyone deserves it, he does."

Amen to that. Deeply moving film, and I had the pleasure of meeting Lawrence afterwards.

He was hanging around to sell keyrings but he'd run out of them once we got to the front of the queue. He could have ignored us but instead was really warm and scrabbled around for something to give me in lieu of a keyring and chatting to me about the question I'd fumbled over asking him after the film.

Never meet your heroes? Well I can certainly say that I'll treasure meeting Lawrence.

The Go-Kart Mozart LP was a strong contender for album of the year as well - certainly far more enjoyable than the offering from the reconstituted Swans (which naturally the critics universally loved).

Wonder if Gira would have been so accommodating? I'm not going to rush to find out, much as I love most of the music he's made over the years.

Theresa Stern said...

Okay, so as I deleted the last ramble (and the comment cheered you up), here goes.

I was at Lawrence Of Belgravia too, and enjoyed it just as much. I'm pretty disappointed in The Cornerhouse for not deeming it worthy of a screening. Then again, the setting worked pretty well.

As a massive Lawrence fan, I wasn't disappointed at all. It was moving, funny, and ultimately inspiring, although at the same time it highlighted the injustice in Lawrence's lack of pop success.

The fact he still believes in himself is both bittersweet and inspiring, especially for those with eccentricities that hamper their everyday functioning. It's sad that even somebody so influential can almost slip through the cracks, and shows just how little the world is prepared to accommodate those who refuse to let adversity crush their vision.

I asked him a question and fumbled it a little (partly because Dave Haslam seemingly wasn't able to determine my gender - cheers Dave!). I was mortally embarrassed, but stayed around to buy a keyring afterwards.

My friend and I reached the front of the queue just as the keyrings ran out. Rather than take his money and run, Lawrence was so apologetic that he desperately scrabbled around for something to give me. So okay, all he had was a flyer for the Felt book, but there was a real childlike warmth about the gesture that's all too rare in human beings as a whole, let alone cult indie stars. Maybe he felt sorry for me (I wasn't looking healthy, shall we say, though nor was he), but as much as I can't imagine many other cult figures showing such humanity.

I don't have many heroes and have no real desire to meet the few I have who are still alive.

Lawrence though? Didn't disappoint at all.

Thanks, Lawrence.