Thursday, 24 February 2011

The best of Brits - and based in Bath

One of these is me, the other four are Stranglers

The best of Brits – based in Bath
At last week's Brits, many groups old and new were rewarded for their contributions to the country's important and highly-successful music scene.
But, once more, one band – who spend as much time in Bath as any other place so probably deserve to be called an honorary 'local' one now – were ignored yet again.

For, despite having more than 40 top 40 records in a near 40 year career The Stranglers were nowhere to be seen at the annual Brits love-in.

They are, however, very much likely to be seen in and around the city at the moment. For the two main songwriters of the iconic rock outfit – bass guitarist JJ Burnel and guitarist Baz Warne – are currently busy writing new material from a rented house in Bath while also rehearsing with the rest of the group in a nearby village in advance of their 'Black & Blue' tour.

The band have found the Bath area to be an inspiring place to conduct their activities and as Baz explained in a blog on the Stranglers' official website – – the city is a good place as any to get up to all things 'strangled'.

"It's a lovely place and very conducive to work which is just as well because we have masses to do," he explained.

"Bath is a great place to drink and eat and the view of the city from the top of the hill where we are is breathtaking. I even went to the rugby too – not my thing but a great day out."

The band have centred themselves in Bath to be close to their long-time base at a farm near Norton St Philip where they are now putting the finishing touches to their set for another lengthy British tour which includes a visit to Bristol's O2 Academy on Thursday, March 24.

Speaking to the Chronicle JJ, the only member of the band to play every single concert in their long history, said that he and his fellow Stranglers had lost none of their enthusiasm despite the fact that they are now in their 37th year as a hardworking outfit.

Indeed, the band have no actual 'product' to sell on this tour – they are simply doing it because they love to play live and they are enjoying seeing their audience grow in both size and enthusiasm.

"I still see The Stranglers as being on a mission," he said.

"I think you get the audience you deserve – and we've got a great audience. If people have filtered through all the prejudice and negative speaking about The Stranglers in the past and still want to come and see us, even though we're never on the TV or the radio these days, then that says an awful lot about those people.

"We love playing live and I want people to see that and leave a venue thinking 'that was awesome'."

The Stranglers' history has been one of massive ups and sometimes spectacular downs but even the fact that they are not as commercially successful now as in their heyday when they had huge top ten hits like Golden Brown, Peaches and No More Heroes, is actually regarded in a positive light as JJ explained …

"I don't want The Stranglers to be dictated to by the commercial big cats. Of course there's a commercial element to what we do but I think more now about The Stranglers' legacy which helps to keep us focused and interested.

"It's great that we no longer have to be rushed into making new records to please a record label – it means we can exercise quality control and only release material when we are really happy with it".

As a result of this belief in only releasing new music when the band think it is good enough (rather than the market demanding it), the band have already said that they won't release a new studio album until 2012. Several new songs were written in Bath last year and the vast majority have already been ruthlessly discarded as not being up to the required standard.

Now, newer, stronger material has been written and, somewhat unusually for the band, they intend to incorporate some of it on their forthcoming live shows.

"It will be interesting putting together our set list for this new tour, '' said JJ.

"This is not just a 'greatest hits tour' although there will be a few of those songs in there because they're important to the people who come along. What we also want to do though is play some of our older material that we haven't been able to do in the past for various technical reasons and also drop in some new songs to gauge the audience reaction.

"It's great for us having so much material to choose from. We can really enthuse ourselves sorting out a set from all our material – it prevents a bunch of old geezers like us from going stale".

Baz is also looking forward to giving fans a chance to hear new songs they have never encountered before. He says: "It's an oft-forgotten process, playing new songs before they're recorded, and we're keen to develop some of the stuff in the good old fashioned way by road testing it. It keeps you on your toes".

The excitement the band still clearly feel about getting on the road again is perhaps remarkable considering how long they have been together.

The three original remaining members of the band – JJ, keyboard player Dave Greenfield and drummer Jet Black – have been together since the early 1970s and even the 'new kid on the block', Baz, has now sailed past his ten year anniversary. So, after all that time, do they ever get fed up with each other?

"It never happens,'' said JJ. "Baz and I have built up a really good song writing partnership and we enjoy each other's company socially. The whole vibe of the band is so much better now – Jet is so funny and Dave's a lovely guy – and we get on really well and I think it does show on stage.

"It's all really good – akin to how it was in the old days".

To book tickets visit .

Loving reading - and loving Henry VIII!

Over the next couple of weeks Bath is due to go book crazy. And, as an unashamed bookworm I, for one, absolutely love it.

Next Thursday, for instance, there will there be a huge amount of events in schools and beyond to celebrate World Book Day. But before then, from Saturday onwards, the city will be awash with authors and book lovers galore as the Bath Literature Festival begins eight days of lively, varied events.

This year, as well as seeing lots of top class writers mooching around you will also see literally dozens of Bath Chronicle reviewers as well. A couple of months ago we put an appeal in our paper for people to review one of the many events and we were deluged by would-be reviewers who will all be toodling along on our, and your, behalf to give the people’s view of LitFest 2011.

I too will be among the ‘team’ and I’m due to kick off my reviewing stint at the first official event – Dr David Starkey’s talk about Henry VIII on Saturday morning at the Central United Reformed church.Dr Starkey is well known for his TV history but it is his study of old Henry which has given him his most talked about shows. And that is because we, as a nation, are utterly fascinated by Henry VIII.

There have been dozens of monarchs between old Harry and our current queen but none have captured the imagination as much as the portly man who when faced with two of his wives whom he really couldn’t stand was able to shout “off with their heads”. So keen are we on everything Tudor that I can remember one academic complaining that the only things that children are taught about in school in history these days are the two H’s – Henry and Hitler.

As an example, only a few weeks ago the book club we have here in the office focused on another writer who specialises in Mr Six Wives, – Phillipa Gregory. We looked at her book The Other Boleyn Girl which is about the intriguing love triangle between Anne Boleyn, her sister Mary and the King himself. Having already seen the very entertaining film – partly filmed near the village of Holt at Great Chalfield – I was intrigued to read the book and like all of my fellow club members I thoroughly enjoyed it. But we still spent as long talking about Henry and the women that almost literally threw themselves in front of his broad canvas as the book itself.

So I’m very much looking forward to Dr Starkey’s speech on Saturday morning just as much as I’m sure many of you are for the wide variety of other shows that make up this year’s Bath Literature Festival.We are indeed very fortunate to be able to live in a city that has so many festivals and I believe the literature one – and its excellent junior version the Bath Children’s Literature Festival – is particularly important as a way of reminding people that you can really delve into the imagination and learn so much about life, the universe and everything without ever switching on a computer.

Look out in the next two Chronicle’s to see our army of reviewers’ opinions on the big shows and, if all else fails, just curl up with a good book this weekend.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

We built this city (Bath) on rock and roll....

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am, to put it mildly, something of a fan of modern music.

For much of my tender 46 years I’ve loved listening to music and attending live concerts and in many ways my love of rock music (in most of its shades) has been one of the most consistent, grounding facts of my life.

And that is why I was particularly thrilled this week to see the formation of a new group – Bath Music Plus – whose intention is to try to put the city on the rock map once again by bringing a number of high-profile concerts to The Forum and beyond.

The first announcement – that Queen guitarist Brian May is to appear at the venue and also that the much-loved Bootleg Beatles are to play an open air free concert on the day of the Royal Wedding – are an intriguing first course for what we hope will be a sumptuous banquet of music that will put Bath back in the minds of those who promote major rock and pop events.

As the organisers have said, this is the city that has already hosted bands such as The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Who and Led Zeppelin and so why shouldn’t we once again start thinking big in terms of which acts we can bring to the city in the future?

That is not to say however that since those early ’70s halcyon days at The Pavilion that we haven’t had some great shows in the city, and if you doubt that then can I suggest you head to the website of our precious Moles to see who they have put on in recent years.

Massive indie rock groups such as Radiohead, The Cure, The Smiths, The Killers, James and Snow Patrol have all successfully trod the boards at Moles and probably the biggest commercial band of the ’90s, Oasis, also did one of their formative gigs there (receiving the princely sum of £150 for doing so I am led to believe).

And, for those who saw The Brits on Tuesday and wondered who this band were called Mumford & Sons who won the best album of the year award, well, you could have caught them at Moles not too long ago when they were first developing their now famous set.

With The Pavilion still putting on interesting concerts and Komedia also being able to stage decent size rock/jazz bands, all that we’ve really been missing locally is that slightly bigger venue for those who are probably beyond the audience base that Moles can handle but are not yet up to O2 status. And The Forum is a perfect venue to bridge this gap.

It is a lovely central venue where you can watch music in comfortable surroundings and is close enough to the bus and train links to ensure it can attract those from outside the city as well as music-hungry locals.

Therefore I really wish Bath Music Plus every success in attracting the sort of acts who can remind the wider rock and pop scene that Bath is a place that can cope with everything from Mozart to Motorhead.Bath is a great city of music. This is an opportunity to show the world it is open to all possible genres.

Rock on Bath.

Up the Brits! Up the English! Up the EU?

This appeared in the Bath Chronicle on Thursday, February 10

Last week as I got ready to watch the annual war we call “The England versus Wales rugby fixture” I had another attack of my national identity crisis.

As I watched the build-up and saw the Welsh team and fans steadily getting themselves into a frenzy about facing the “old enemy”, I suddenly asked myself “hey, aren’t; these my fellow compatriots?”

For no, I am not Welsh – but I am British and yet here were my fellow Brits choking back the tears at the thought of trying to batter us, their fellow Britons. For yes, we are forced at events like this to ask ourselves once again – are we British or are we nglish/Scottish/Welsh/Northern Irish? And the answer appears to be – whatever suits us at the time.

As a rather naughty example, I am afraid I have a terrible problem with “our” tennis hero Andy Murray. Try as I might I just can’t find anything about the guy that inspires me to, err, like him. I don’t know what it is – perhaps it’s his charmless arrogance, the way that in the final of the Australian Open he looked as though he had thrown on his scruffy five-a-side football kit instead of a decent tennis outfit, or the fact that when he smiles it looks like an ironic gesture – but he just seems as warm and loveable as six-day-old Ready Brek. And yet he is a “Brit” so I should support him, yes? Well , up to a very simple point. As my colleagues have heard all too often (my sports editor even had a ‘sweep’ about how long it would take me to mention it when he lost the last final) when Andy Murray wins he is “Britain’s Andy Murray”. And when he loses he is “Scotland’s Andy Murray”. Silly, I know but I can’t help it. I mean, would it kill him to smile?

My national identity confusion isn’t helped by the fact that at times “our” team wears the red and white flag and at others it’s the Union Jack. Thus my English pride is very strong in sports such as football, rugby and cricket where “my” team is called England and comes all wrapped up with motifs of bulldogs, roses and lions. (Incidentally, all that “three lions on a shirt” stuff – why on earth does an African lion represent the land of my (English) fathers? Does the Tanzania footy team have a grey squirrel on its tops? I think not).

And yet, come the Olympic Games, my English flag goes back in the drawer and out comes the Union Jack. In that event, I don’t care if the athlete is from Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff or Clyde – I love them all equally. For they are Brits representing Britain. And I am Brit cheering on Britain – England no longer matters.

But of course it doesn’t end there. Every two years even the most fierce UKIP-ite can suddenly becomes pro-European when our continent takes on the USA at the Ryder Cup. The Union Jack goes out of the window and it is bonjour to the blue European one. Our allegiance is changed again.

Ah well, let us just hope one day we can discover intelligent life on another planet and we can all join forces to support a World Team.

I’d still probably back an alien against Andy Murray though.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Stat's the way...I don't like it

This may sound a little bit weird coming from someone in the communication business but I really am suffering from information overload at the moment.

There is just so much stuff out there to deal with and the difficult job seems to be deciding what you do need to know about – and what you don’t.

Take this week. As you will have seen in every newspaper we have become a nation of crime-spotters this week. For, on Tuesday, the police launched a website where you can see exactly how many crimes have occurred in your street, estate, village or town. The idea provoked such interest that the website received 75,000 hits a minute and the computers nearly blew up as a result. It was like the Take That tour all over again.

But, I don’t really understand why we need to know all this stuff. Sure, in the newspapers I work for we like to report on trends and it’s important to know, roughly speaking, if you live in a benign area or Beruit. But to take it down to the detail of how many crimes are actually on your street without any real context as to their seriousness will just leave us all convinced that the crime situation is far, far worse than it really is.

I checked the post code for example for my very pleasant area and discovered that in December there were no robberies (hoorah!) but quite a lot of examples of anti-social behaviour. I haven’t seen any, hadn’t heard about any but now I am worried that I’ve accidentally moved to The Bronx. So what was the point of all that palaver then?

It’s the same with school league tables. Yes we report them in our titles because some parents do like to study the figures but the fact that ‘School A’ does better at maths than ‘School B’ doesn’t mean that School B is a worse place to send your child. The ‘A-C passes’ say nothing about the friendliness of the teachers, the standard of the school meals or the levels of bullying and yet in the era where ‘info is king’ the stats are all what some people really care about.

And nowadays as well as finding stats about local crime and local school tables, you can, with just a few clicks of the mouse, find out whether you live in an area where people drink a lot, whether your neighbours exercise enough, how old you might be when you die if you stay there etc. etc. etc ad nauseaum. Why? And why should we care?

Oh and, it’s also worth noting that as you trawl the internet to find out the answers to these and other questions, that there are lies, damned lies and internet statistics. For instance I just ‘self-Googled’ and was delighted to see that the phrase ‘Sam Holliday’ yielded 935,000 results. I suddenly thought I was far more important and well known than I could ever have dreamed of – until I saw the third entry which referred to the fact that ‘I’ was apparently a former director of Stability Studies at the US Army War College.

Ah well I at least got the top two spots in 'my' list – but something tells me I won’t have got the 900,000th . . .

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Cleese, Python, Marmite - and Selwyn Froggitt

The news that one of Bath’s newest residents – John Cleese – is to have a five-night stint at the Theatre Royal as part of his 'Alimony Tour' is a real joy for all those local fans of this remarkable and enduring character.

For many people, John Cleese will be remembered mainly as the amazing Basil Fawlty but for still more – and I suspect mainly male people of a certain age – he will be forever truly immortalised because he was one of the leading lights of the fantastic Monty Python team.

Monty Python as an entity is something which truly divides people in the way so often ascribed to Marmite – ie, you either love it or hate it. The Pythons were alternative comedy before alternative comedy actually existed and, like 'alt-com' it had the had the ability to have one person in convulsions of laughter as they sat next to another whose face looked like granite.

Put simply with Python, you either got it or you didn’t. But if you got it, you usually really did get it. Indeed, it was once almost regarded for example as the 11th Commandment that: “It is written that where several sixth form boys are gathered together, at some point one of the number will beginneth the Four Yorkshiremen or Dead Parrot sketches and behold the others wouldst duly complete it.”
I certainly fitted into that bill and it is ironic that as a teenager I saw the Python team as being a real “kick in the establishment’s wotsits”, when in reality most of the team’s back- grounds actually made them the establishment.

Tally ho to the revolution!

Looking at it all again, you can see that some of the Python’s early TV work was, shall we say, “patchy” and is now a bit dated but when they were good, boy oh boy, were they good. In some ways you could argue that their best work was confined to the big screen – the films The Holy Grail and Life of Brian are quite simply two of the funniest ever made – but even their sometimes confused and confusing TV series produced dozens of classic moments which, as aforementioned, livened up many a dreary sixth form or office.

And still, I can vouch, they still do now - only last week I re-acquainted colleagues to Arthur Two Sheds Jackson and Eddie Baby. Both are very silly - but both are beautifully so.

And to be fair, although some of their comedy is a tad dated, the vast majority has lasted the test of time well – and not everything can claim to be the same. In the 1970s you may have laughed hysterically at On The Buses, Mind Your Language or Man About The House, but try watching them now on the ‘UK-Any-Old- Hoary-Programme-You Can Find’ station and I suspect you will laugh far more at the fashion and the moustaches than any of the “jokes”. And, if you are unlucky enough to come across Oh No, It’s Selwyn Froggitt, that is what you should shout when you see it in the schedule rather than watch it.

So, as Mr Cleese, who we’re all very proud to have as a citizen of this city, steps on to the boards in the spring, it will be a good way for us all to learn more about the man behind some of the best comedy creations of the last 40-odd years.

You don’t have to ask what have the Pythons ever done for us because it’s all there in glorious colours on the DVD racks and so I hope the Theatre Royal is packed to salute the knight who says 'ni'. Oh, and don’t mention the war.