Biographies

I am an inveterate reader of biographies. Being (just about) a relative youngster myself, there is something fascinating about being privy to someone’s entire character arc throughout the course of their life. Also seeing how different people handle the various stages and struggles of life is always interesting – I sometimes read through sections of a biography when the protagonist is going through the same kind of scene, if only for motivational purposes! It is always worth remembering that all things have occurred before – this can only reduce any hubris and increase your empathy. (It’s one of the ways that you can always tell people who are well-read, if they read the right books: they have a humane empathy beyond their actual life experiences).

Unfortunately it seems to me there are two kinds of biography: literary, academic biographies, and the bog-standard kind. The former are distinguished (I use the word deliberately) by their intensive footnoting and historian’s evaluation of sources. They are likely to have several hundred footnotes citing sources per chapter, an extensive bibliography, and a critical evaluation of the work of their subject. Proper. Your bog-standard, common-or-garden biographies contrariwise will cite no footnotes, nor cite any sources, and often will rehash commonly told stories or indeed myths. (For example, I must have read a dozen Beatle, Lennon, and McCartney biographies: nearly all state what (if anything) happened between Lennon and Brian Epstein sexually, but not one (not a solitary one!) has ever cited a source for it. And at the bottom of the pile is the clippings job, a hurried book compiled from newspaper sources (“clippings”) rather than interviews or textual research. These are truly the bastard children of the genre.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a great desire to write a biography of John Lennon in his Beatle years (1960-1970), as I don’t think he has yet received the biography he deserves. Ah, if only I had the time – the despairing cry of every half-assed writer to ever live! But wanting to do this has made me try to look at the biographer’s craft more objectively, and to consider which are the cream of the crop.

Wilde: The Biography by Richard Ellman

Hands-down, the best biog I have ever read. The thing about Wilde is that his story is better than most of his written work. To me, only his essays (particularly The Soul of Man Under Socialism), some of his childrens stories (especially The Selfish Giant, which left me awestruck the first time I read it) and The Importance of Being Earnest stand as irrefutable classics. His poems are stews of Hellenic references and overwrought aestheticism (with too many “methinks” for comfort), his other plays successful West End dramas but nothing ultimately memorable. But of course as Wilde said he put his talent into his work and his genius into his life, and the stories of how he conquered London, America, and Paris are rich with wonderful anecdotes and majestic phrases. The drama of his downfall gave Wilde the moral authority to criticise his era no-one else: the 1890s remain the Wilde decade.

This is all captured with magisterial aplomb by Ellman. Magnificently researched, told with acute relish and a gift for  epigram, he tells the story of how Wilde symbolised his age with vast learning and deep humanity.

Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S Burroughs by Ted Morgan

As a rebellious smartarse, I read Naked Lunch (and even The Soft Machine, Junky and Queer) as a teenager. I don’t think any of them are much good these days (though Naked Lunch is the best of them – it has an absolutely ferocious humour), but it has to be said Burroughs lived an absolutely fascinating life. Born in 1914, he studied in Vienna between the wars, lived  in New York (inaugurating the Beats), Texas and Mexico, hunted yage in the Columbian jungle, lived a half-life as a junky in Tangiers, wrote “cut-up” texts with Brion Gysin in Paris, met the demi-monde in London, was feted as a punk precursor in New York then retired, like Dorothy, to Kansas. The salacious content of Burroughs’ life – the William Tell death of his wife, his homosexuality, his drug addiction – is handled with empathy and tact by Morgan, though there are some curious lapses. At one point after Naked Lunch, Burroughs seems to go through some intense heterosexual phase (gasping in a letter that “I must have some cunt”), but what happened to revert things to normal isn’t mentioned. Nor is enough made of “The Yage Letters” to Allen Ginsberg. Despite these, this is a tour-de-force, a fantastic introduction to the Beats, and Burroughs’ central place in the American counterculture.

Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life by Andrew Motion

Larkin’s reputation took a shredding when his biography and Selected Letters came out. Fair enough; he was evidently a racist pisshead, in his latter years anyroads, and his treatment of the women in his life is often unfortunate at best. (Though to be fair he also had a romantic, spiritual side which has been rather occluded in recent years). The interest in this biography is the centrality of Larkin’s writing in his life. Motion as a poet himself understands the way that Larkin’s poetry is formed by and is a response to his experiences, and thus places it in a pivotal position throughout the book, contextualising and explicating with sympathetic insight. So many biographies (the “bog standard” type) fail to put their subject’s work in the context of their life and the broader world – Motion does this with aplomb. Thus, Larkin’s increasingly caustic poetry is seen in the light of Larkin’s deepening gloom, as caused by his fear of death, his painful relation with his mother, his playing two women against each other, and (I would guess) the British post-war decline. All the same, what does emerge is rather a somber portrait – if you read Larkin’s brilliant Selected Letters, you’ll find out that the guy was often deeply hilarious.

Churchill by Roy Jenkins

I am a complete political biography/memoirs nerd. I’m just fascinated by Westminster, the green benches, the bearpit of PMQs,  the battles that echo down the years: the Miners Strike (still in the news); In Place of Strife; Maastricht; the IMF rescue (which turned out to have been unnecessary, didya know?); the Falklands; Thatcher’s routing of the wets; Major’s destruction by the Euroscpetics; Wilson vs Heath, Callaghan vs Thatcher, Blair vs Brown, Benn vs Healey, Thatcher vs Heseltine, Kinnock vs the hard left… they continue to resonate. The best though is Roy Jenkins’ splendid biography of Churchill. Though Jenkins unabashedly admits he hasn’t done any original research, as he says there’s little need, with Churchill’s archive available and all those connected with him who have written about him having had their pieces published. Jenkins writes about Churchill very much through the prism of his own experience, namely as a long-serving member of the House of Commons, a much-stationed Cabinet minister (Churchill became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1924, but it took another 16 years before he went one better to actually lead an administration) and a extraordinarily productive writer and journalist.  Being a privy counsellor and thus with access to Cabinet and civil service papers is an terrific advantage for Jenkins, but he makes full use of them. What is also most pleasing about this book is Jenkins’ readiness to evaluate his sources, especially when they conflict, as often happens with a man of Churchill’s preeminence. The prose style is however somewhat flabby, sentences having too many clauses, and there’s also too many Latin tags for my liking. Nonetheless, the book is a magnificent achievement, one which helps me feel close to Churchill’s overpowering personality, his relish, his vigour and his astonishing verbal prolixity.

Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up by Bob Colacello

This is a tremendous book, a biography of Warhol which primarily focuses on the time Colacello worked with him, from about 1968 to 1981, as a reviewer in and then editor of Warlhol’s magazine Interview (originally inter/VIEW – how 60s!). As well as that it’s a memoir of Colacello’s time with him (and these were plentiful, for Colacello often was as much Warhol’s room-worker in their incredibly hectic and ambitious social life), and a portrait of the disco era, as well as the coming of the Reaganite 1980, not to mention a frank portrait of many celebrities, from Elizabeth Taylor to Jean-Michel Basquiat via Bianca Jagger and Imelda Marcos. It’s ambitious in scope, then.

Fortunately Colacello does not get bogged down in all this, dividing the book episodically, and with great detail and amounts of dialogue (he kept a daily diary, and like Warhol recorded his telephone calls). But this means that Warhol’s early life, and in particular the period of the “Silver Factory”, are covered somewhat cursorily, when this is what Warhol is best known for – the underground films like “Empire” and “Sleep”, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable with the Velvet Underground, and his shooting by Valerie Salonis. This is covered in detail elsewhere, so it was more enlightening to read of Warhol’s 50s period as a successful commercial artist and social misfit, as his trajectory and tactics seem to never have changed – always further in, wanting more and more.

The book really acts as a memoir of Colacello’s time with Warhol, and so is a portrait of his 1970s factory – Fred Hughes, Jed Johnston, Pat Hackett – and businesses, where Interview, Warhol’s art and his commissioned portraits combine, sometimes unfortunately but more often successfully. For this period was when Warhol, having conquered the art world, conquered the social elite that he lusted to join. The world of New York’s fashion elite, with their Parisian and Roman counterparts, are drawn with a satirical eye. Colacello, like Warhol, was an outsider entering this world, much like the reader, and he guides us deftly through a veritable torrent of names. (This is not a book to read at one sitting, for the plethora of passing characters can be slightly confusing over too long a period – a minor fault with the episodic narrative).

Colacello shows us how Warhol was driven to reach the top in the artistic, social, financial and political worlds of the time, while maintaining an indifferent facade. But the cost of this was large. Warhol was a huge control freak and he could never reciprocate in his affairs with people – he could only take, never give anyone any real affection, and consequently was unable to have sex or have any real relationship. This soured and poisoned him inside, which only compounded the problem. So, like a tragedy, just when everything seems to reach a peak, it all starts to fall apart. Not only with Warhol – the price of the drug-fuelled disco era shows, with drug busts, AIDS and other illnesses taking their grim toll. The last few chapters, on Warhol’s life in the 1980s (after Colacello departed Interview), have a kind of ghostliness to them, as though Warhol were waiting to die, or perhaps as though Colacello feels that.

This is a wonderful book, elegantly written, with just the right amount of irony to let the name-dropping pass (like when his date was Estee Lauder), politically and culturally sharp, and funny with it too. Anyone with an interest in Warhol, New York in the 1970s, the fashion elites of the time, or in sexuality pre-AIDS, will enjoy it immensely.

Hitler: A Study In Tyranny by Alan Bullock

Amongst my various interests and obsessions is the Third Reich. That such a collective insanity could take place in a country as developed, educated and civillised as Germany (a country for which I have a great respect and admiration) is – I don’t know any words to sufficiently convey it – grimly fascinating, brutally horrifying, morbidly intriguing. This book might not be the most in-depth or detailed on the life of Hitler, but as an overview into his grotesque yet pitiful mind, his strategic triumphs and military-meddling disasters, his dismal private life and hypernarcissism, it’s tough to beat.

Diaries, Letters and Memoirs:

A Life At The Centre by Roy Jenkins

Given Jenkins’ achievements as a biographer (with Attlee, Gladstone, Churchill, Asquith and Dilke only some of his tomes), it should be no surprise that his own memoirs are an entertaining read. This isn’t entertainment in the crash!bang! tabloid sense, but through wit, irony and elegant prose. Compared with Tony Blair’s The Journey, it is rather more elliptic, but also far more sophisticated. (Oh my, but Blair’s writing style is awful). Jenkins is a big man, a man of real substance, and knows it: but then, as someone who was Chancellor, President of the European Commission (still the only Briton to do so), founder of the SDP, Chancellor of Oxford University, prolific biographer and esteemed historian, he’s got plenty to back that up. This is one of the great books where style and content match – Jenkins gives the sense of being a man of great power, wit, learning, and intelligence.

The Kenneth Williams Diaries

Poor bastard. Poor, poor bastard. I’ve read this book a number of times and increasingly the feeling I have towards Williams is pity: the pathos of someone who refuses to let love into his life is acute. Homosexual but intensely conflicted, intensely narcissistic and equally self-loathing, intellectual and yet famous for films which by the 1970s scraped the barrel of flatulent bawdy “humour”, Williams never found happiness in his professional or personal life. And yet his diaries are testament to a man of great kindness (if matched by acts of astonishing rudeness), compassion, intelligence and sensitivity. Naturally the diaries are also filled with pen portraits of many in the UK entertainment business, from Sid James (whom Williams despised) to Joe Orton to Tony Hancock to Maggie Smith, and behind the scenes gossip (Sid James bellowing “I AM A SERIOUS ACTOR!” when Williams ad-libs is utter quality). But the real story is that if you refuse to let others into your life, you are left with an empty shell of an existence. Poor poor bastard.

The Downing Street Years by Alastair Campbell

Simply put, this is top-level politics in the raw. Unadorned, functional prose suits Campbell’s method – this is governance and policy as an endless series of conflicts which he is Rottweiler-determined to win, each and every one of them.

Many cynical political types and naive socialists blame Campbell for creating “a culture of spin”. As should be obvious to anyone who reads the book, Campbell is simply supremely professional in handling the insane demands of a 24-hour media in which appearance is far more important than policy or governance. (Thus the same papers which decry the loss of independence for Cabinet ministers are the same which shriek up “Cabinet Split!” on any occasion of intimations of disagreement, and the ones which position themselves as serious newspapers are as likely to ask inane questions about the Downing Street cat). Of course, Campbell does take this too far, as is his wont – and there still isn’t, to my mind, a satisfactory explanation for the invasion of Iraq – maybe this was deliberately excised and expunged. Similarly, the references to Gordon Brown must have been severely pruned, for he does not really fully feature – there’s rather more about Robin Cook, for example. Nonetheless, this is a brilliant demonstration of the brutal effectiveness of the New Labour political operation, Tony Blair’s masterful people- and strategic skills and Campbell’s scorching dedication.

Diaries: In Power by Alan Clark

He might be a racist neo-Nazi skirt-chasing snobbish misanthrope, but he does have a wonderful turn of phrase. (To wit, “These Nordic tours are a complete fuckface”). There might be something very vicarious about peering into the life of one so privileged (cars, property, etc), but the good thing about Clark is 1. he knows he’s upper-class, and 2. there’s no agonising about it. This is how they live. So all progressive movements are trendy fripperies, all protests due to resentment and bitterness, all other classes swiftly placed and despised.

Also, his account of being a minister is almost gauchely revealing: no bland niceties here. The vanities, the cruelties, the snobberies (Heseltine mocked for “having to buy his own furniture”; absurd aristocratic attempts to claim Thatcher as one of their own, perhaps the miscegenation of a blueblood affair), the day-to-day practises, the immense pressure on the new minister, the politicking, the treachery (his treatment of Tom King really is quite dreadful, but it’s all in a day’s work) – all are laid bare. Governments like to present themselves as benevolent, almost neutral in highmindedly doing what is right for the country. Balls, of course. Like every other large organisation, governments seethe with intrigue and gossip, powergames and human frailty. Seeing behind the bureaucratic wall is therefore a tremendous chance to gawp.

 

What about you?

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Live! Tonight! Sold Out!

(To borrow a phrase from Nirvana)

I’m not, to be honest, much of a gig-goer. I’ve worked in bars and nightclubs which had live performances, and seen the whole gamut of quality. The nightclub was an underground/alternative kinda place, and often had excellent DJs (Grandmaster Flash, one of the guys from Orbital, brilliant jungle and drum and bass nights), and bands from Napalm Death to local pop-punk that was lapped up by the kids (band sets were open to those 14 and over; staff called it “the paedo shift”). The bar was a bog standard chain lager-burgers-sports venue, and had bands every Friday: even now, eight years later, if I hear “Sweet Home Alabama” or “Brown Eyed Girl”, I get violent. Also, I like to listen to music whilst reading or writing: when you’re at a gig, you’re compelled to seem like your enjoying yourself, rather than being able to discuss what you find interesting or striking about the performance. Yeah, I’m a real chattering classes type (how I hate that derisory phrase, so typical of Britain). The main exception to this is jazz: maybe it’s because the first time I encountered jazz was at a gig when  I just utterly got it immediately: one of those brilliant “Eureka!” moments. But then jazz, even when recorded, is about the performance and enactment of creativity, so there’s less of a dichotomy between records and gigs as there is in rock, say.

While the live video is nowadays mostly filler (compare with the 70s, when bands often made their big breakthroughs on live albums – such as Kiss Alive! or Frampton Comes Alive!), there’s still plenty good ones out there, especially with DVDs capturing the sound better than ever.

1. Guns N’ Roses, New York Ritz, 1988

I struggle to comprehend that this was 24 years ago. I’d only recently bought Appetite For Destruction, and by coincidence BBC2 was having a “Heavy Metal Heaven” season, as presented by Elvira. I dimly remember watching stuff like Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years, and (by the same director) the shockingly raw and disturbing film Suburbia. But they were also kind enough to show this: Guns N’ Roses when they were lean, ferociously hungry and incredibly good. They looked amazing, they were tight as fuck (I always say that Izzy was the best guitarist – Slash is great at soloing, but the riffs are all Izzy’s), and the performance rocked. I must have watched this every day for about a year, and seen it hundreds of times. GNR’s later televised gigs – one in Paris, and the double Live in Japan set – are utterly dreadful. They never really mastered stadium shows, being catapulted from clubs to arenas within one year. This gig is when they were setting the world on fire, and it’s a glorious reminder of how absolutely fucking awesome they were for that brief period.

2. U2, Zoo TV, Sydney 1994

Yeah, yeah, Bono is a wanker. We know… I’m not massive on U2 either: I find their albums pretty hit and miss, with lots of empty emotional posturing, like on “In God’s Country”, or simple banality (pretty much everything after Pop). The albums I do really like are their mid-period postmodernist pieces, Achtung Baby and Zooropa, which are colourful, imaginative, and superbly produced by Brian Eno. Their Zoo TV tour is probably the most jaw-dropping stadium spectacle this side of The Wall: both are ironic meditations of their particular form of performance, too. Zoo TV’s media overload hyper-babble was very prescient, considering it was pre-internet, but the main thing is the spectacle, with video screens, lights, and stage design combining to create a terrific sensory overload.The “unplugged” set practically in the middle of the audience is a terrific counterpoint.

3. Nirvana Unplugged, 1994

On the other hand, simple stark performances are equally effective. With  lilies and candles giving a funereal, sepulchral atmosphere, and the awkward intra-band chat revealing the huge tensions between them, Nirvana somehow manage to give the performance of a lifetime. They’d until then been known for the enormous energy and charisma of their stage shows. This Unplugged took away all that and let the performance speak for itself: rescuing “About A Girl” as the great pop song it is, letting the great Cobain-Grohl harmonies in “All Apologies” and “On A Plain” come to the fore. The six covers are brilliantly chosen, from the unwinding, enigmatic “Plateau” to the bone-chilling primal blues of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?“. It’s heart-rending stuff.

4. Beatles Rooftop Gig, 1969

Nowadays easily downloadable, this is absurdly hard to get a hold of legally. Of course, Let It Be hardly shows the Fabs at their best, but the Rooftop gig is still bloody great. Part of it is the band interaction: with Lennon centre and Macca to his right, they often turn to face each other when harmonising, creating a fascinating mirror image (Macca being a southpaw, of course). George, left of Lennon, doesn’t get much of a look-in, steadfastly keeping an eye on them as he hops from foot to foot to keep rhythm. Lennon’s spindly guitarists’ fingers are noticeable, while Ringo looks happy just to be there. But then of course the music is glorious: “Don’t Let Me Down” has better, more vibrant, harmonies than in the recorded version; “One After 909” is better as a live throwaway than on record; “I’ve Got A Feeling” just pulses with emotion; and “Get Back” shows how well they synch with each other, so long after that Candlestick Park gig.

5. Queen, Live Aid, 1985

Guess I really have to have this here. Freddy Mercury grabs 80,000 people by the scruff of the neck and completely owns them. A performance that is utterly Olympian. Music’s none too shabby either.

6. Michael Jackson doing “Billy Jean”, Motown 25, 1983

With Thriller not long out, this is the moment when Jackson seizes the mantle of the World’s Best Pop Star. Having first performed a medley of Jackson 5 hits with his brothers, Jacko goes on to show why he is indeed the King of Pop. With dance moves beamed in from some futuristic parallel dimension, he does things with his ankles that defy the laws of physiognomy, before clinching it with the unveiling of the moonwalk. I love the way that he was such an aggressive, angry dancer.

Ambient Pleasures

While I like music which is in-your-face, it’s also nice to have something a bit more background. I like to listen to music while writing, and you can’t always be digging hardcore tunes or stuff that requires attention, like Captain Beefheart. Ambient music, nowadays mostly marketed to the post-club smoke-off “chill out” market, with The Orb very much to the fore, is actually a far older subgenre with broad and deep roots. Its very nebulousness allows it to encompass a remarkable range of styles. It’s not just the background listening aspect of ambient music that’s good about it. (Hey, if you want something that’s insipidly undemanding, listen to Coldplay). Ambient music uses techniques that are perhaps not so commonly found elsewhere: giving music space to breathe (Miles Davis and David Gilmour both do this very well), constant repetition, lack of structure (no verse-chorus-verse here), strong visual qualities, and a focus on timbre. Not all of these might be present, but these comprise the general toolbox.

I don’t in any way claim to be any kind of expert: the Wikipedia page on ambient music highlights a whole bunch of acts I haven’t even heard of. Nonetheless, ambient is one of my favourite genres. Here are some of my picks.

1. Spiritualized, “Electric Mainline”
Which I think is a metaphor for smack. Ugh. Regardless, this is a fascinating track. It makes me think of cosmic soup, as though seeing the world, or the cosmos, from such a scale that everything seems a dense stew of cosmological particles. Or something. Nearly eight minutes of inter-weaving loops and drones, it’s a brilliant exercise in texture, atmosphere and control.

2. Aphex Twin, “Lichen”
Richard D. James has two specifically ambient albums, Selected Ambient Works 85-92, and Selected Ambient Works Vol 2. Of these, the former has actual beats and structures, while the latter album is almost entirely ambient textures without tune or form. This is the one I prefer: it’s astonishingly atmospheric in places. This track is called “Lichen”, but actually makes me think of being an eagle floating high above mountains, gliding on thermals and espying the land far below.

3. The Orb, “A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld”
I have a great memory of getting absolutely out my face to this song. The Orb are a bit of a cliche, being popular with students and what you might call the crusty section of society. Still, “Little Fluffy Clouds” and this one are both absolute classics. This track has a relatively insistent beat, but with its spacious production and tingling keyboard, it is a brilliant post-club chillout track to mong out to as the sun comes up.

4. Brian Eno, “1_1”
What’s great is the large amount of space here in between the piano chords, which are left to resonate and breathe. This is the first track from Eno’s Music For Airports (1978), which pretty much inaugurated the ambient genre. It’s so simple, but conceiving the idea and executing it with such conviction (others might have hedged their bets with a mushy orchestral wash or metronomic rhythms) is a stroke of genius.

5. Moby, “Heaven”
Moby’s career pre-Play was pretty hit and miss. He had a big hit with “Go”, but his albums didn’t really take off until Play, and even that took a year. He tried various things: alternative rock, hardcore “rave” (it was the early 90s, man) and his 1993 ambient album. This is actually pretty good: it gets a bit samey, but the second track “Heaven” is terrific. Pulsating with low-key electronic beats glistening with vibrato, it’s a fleeting glimpse of the ineffable.

Albums And What They Mean To Me #6

As might be obvious from my list of favourite bands through time, I have quite an eclectic taste. More than this, as I made my way through adolescence  and young-adulthood, my entire self-conception shifted a few times. This is awkward and annoying, especially when people still regard you as you were, but never mind: the main thing is to grow. For example, at school I was a nerdy good-boy (in Scouts, going to the chess club, having rapt discussions about A Brief History of Time); but I had a few years after graduating where I ran a bit wild. Underground nightclubs, techno, drum n’ bass, jungle, drinking like a bloody fish, smoking pot like it was going out of fashion, ecstasy, LSD, mushrooms, all that. Fun, though very very easy to burn yourself out on it.

I did. Big time. Towards the end of 2000 I had an almost catastrophic event – nothing life-threatening, but totally head-frying. It fucked me up so bad that for a few months afterwards I felt like I was always mildly tripping, and the general after-effects of  defamiliarisation (everything appeared strange and unfamiliar), depersonalisation (like I was watching myself from within) and what I later found was called “Hallucinogen persisting perception disorder” (half-seeing things out of the corner of my eye, and visual snow) lasted about a year. Longer, in fact, in times of stress or hangover-dom. Obviously this was a enormous kick up the arse, and I haven’t really touched drugs since.

This happened when I was working in some tedious and temporary office job in Edinburgh. There’s a nice bit in the “A Smart Cunt” novella in Irvine Welsh’s collection The Acid House, where the protagonist Euan talks about his girlfriend’s friends – they were always talking about what they wanted to be (painters, writers, actors, etc), obscuring the fact that they were office workers, local government officials, sales staff, etc. That was us, alright: everybody used to talk about the postgrads they were going to study, the bands they were in, the books they were wanting to write (though were never writing), the hip Edinburgh bars they were going to go to (though never did), the goals for the future. There is something awesomely depressing about being a new graduate, especially if you’ve studied the Arts or Humanities. Your knowledge of 19th century socialist parties or French existentialist novels isn’t worth donkey shit. The entire merit system to which you are accustomed and in which you have succeeded is replaced by the imperatives of business. No wonder so many wanted to go to graduate school. I, of course, was totally into getting a Masters in English. Then a PhD! I was so worth it! No matter that I was earning 5 quid an hour and barely had enough money to buy food.

Anyways. Naturally this was all rather depressing. I felt cheated out of the grand future I had so blithely imagined for myself. This fuelled my self-destruction, and I had a bit of a mad weekend etc: cut to the chase, head got fried and I was all fucked up. Worse thing was, the temporary job which we’d been told would last until March turned out to be coming to an end in December. The job agency which had recruited us all pretended that they’d “place” us all in new posts: I got offered two not-even-full weeks either side of Xmas. I conceded defeat at this point and moved back to the parental home.

You can imagine my mood. “Bleak” just don’t capture it. Monsters seemed to lurk under the stairs, ready to pounce. Day-to-day functioning was difficult: I kept thinking I was seeing things, and people looking into my eyes gave me the fear. I was as always listening to music, as I had no job and playing Championship Manager was the only other thing occupying my time. The key album (if you’ll forgive so much back story) was Death In Vegas’ Contino Sessions.

The second album by the Glaswegian electronica band, Contino Sessions was a considerable leap from their first, Dead Elvis. It combined the abrasive guitar and drones of Banana Album-era Velvet Underground with the rumbling beats of Rhythm and Stealth-era Leftfield. Which is to say that it was rocky, had dark rhythms, prominent bass, and this crippling sense of foreboding. The best song, “Death Threat”, encapsulates this: an enormous grinding of vast black thunder clouds producing bolts of sheet lightning, it is brooding, portentous and magnificently atmospheric. The electricity is so rich, you can almost smell the ozone.

The Velvet Underground inspiration is obvious in their recurrent use of drones and repetition. (This obviously is a recurrent technique in electronica, too). This often works well – as with “Dirge”, which creates a powerful tension between the repeated vocal line (and, only ever saying “La, la, la”, its implied dispassion), and the surging, powerful, alternative rock.

Sometimes, though, it just gets dreary and monotonous. “Broken Little Sister” is unrelieved by varieties in texture and tone: and the dirgey, grim atmosphere gets tedious without the creativity to illuminate it (this is why Radiohead’s “The National Anthem“, which is even more bleak, is a fucking masterpiece).

It’s not all bleakness, fortunately. There are some nice changes of atmosphere (if not pace – it’s nearly all mid-paced, gradual-accumulation-of-tension frameworks), such as the instrumental tour-de-force “Flying”. Inspired by The Beatles’ instrumental of the same name? Dunno, but both are atmospheric, visual instrumentals.

The Stooges-y “Aisha”, snarled by The Ig himself, is a setpiece in malevolence, though it always seems like a genre exercise. The postmodern video makes this obvious. It’s pretty juvenile, really.

This was obviously a low point for me, and Contino Sessions fit my mood perfectly. It is a great album, one I really believe is one of the best of the 1990s. But it isn’t something I return to often, now. The atmospheres are too evocative.