Tuesday, February 27, 2007

It was twenty years ago today...

Actually, it’s closer to twenty-three, but hey, that far back is all a blur anyway.

I was once part of what was given the delightful monicker of the New Wave of British Progressive Rock in the 80s. NWOBPR really has a ring to it, no? The brief spate of optimistic bands encompassed everything from Marillion’s Genesis-esque musical stylings, through to us (Lahost) who were a sort of poppy, punky version of prog. There were bands with names like Pendragon, Solstice, Gothique, Pallas (who did an album all about Atlantis as I vaguely recall), Galahad and the occasionally transcendent Twelfth Night. The movement also coined the term “neo-progressive”, or “neo-prog”. Vile, huh?

As you can probably deduce, this wasn’t exactly hard-rockin’, in-your-face, working-class music from ‘da streetz’ (location unknown). Plus, due to the fiendishly complex time signatures the songs were often written in, you wouldn’t have been able to dance to it unless you had seven or nine legs and were on drugs. The musicians making up this ‘movement’ were generally college boys, middle-class angst-ridden students and those with a worrying desire to be seen in public wearing cheesecloth shirts and kaftans while playing impenetrably complex music to crowds of a similarly knowing demographic.

Lyrics would rarely be about, you know, relationships, because most of those in the bands didn’t have them and wouldn’t know what they were if they were hit in the face by them. Subject matter tended to be lofty, arty, obscure and (here comes that word again) impenetrable. Some examples:
Men of steel who endured the most
The Father The Son and The Holy Ghost
The butterflies of war flying so high
sick as a pig on American pie
from Pendragon’s World’s End (part 1: the lost children)
The rain auditions at my window, its symphony echoes in my womb
My gaze scans the walls of this apartment
To rectify the confines of my tomb
from Marillion’s The Web
Contemplating hopes and dreams of a new age
All we leave behind is tainted by tears
Our tomorrows lie ahead there in the stars
Reaching for the stars in seven heavens
Into the haven of the night
Formations flying like Geese, we are free
from Pallas’ The Ark of Infinity
(suspiciously referring to a Doctor Who story. Hmmm)
Slow in the slowtime, battered by pride
I can feel myself fall in the falling rain
Smoothing the edges with violence
Flesh on the rocks, another tide
And I’m dreaming, I’m dreaming out loud...
from Lahost’s The Drowning Pool
(a jolly little ditty about patricide...)

So, we can all have a giggle about lyrical and musical pretensions. Quite a loud belly-laugh in some cases. The thing is, some of the bands were actually terribly good. IQ, for example, are still going, most likely due to the fact that they knock out good music and put on a decent live show. Twelfth Night had a certain something that was indefinably better than many of the other bands on the scene, whether you liked the Geoff Mann or Andy Sears eras (a subject of endless conjecture about the merits of either singer), and many of their tunes, though firmly rooted in the complexity of the prog oeuvre (try as I might, I can’t stop being pretentious around this subject...) are still very listenable today.

As the late eighties moved inexorably toward a financial clusterfuck by the UK government and stock market regulators, some bands called it a day, while others downsized for the long winter during which complicated music just wasn’t wanted. Others, notably Twelfth Night, attempted to shift gears into stadium rock. In their case, with producer John L. Waters (who wouldn’t have known “rock” if it had come up and kicked his head off. Which I would have paid to see), it was a commercial disaster and alienated many of their original fans. The radar for potential cases of ‘selling out’ was always hyper-sensitive around the prog market.

So, all consigned to the rubbish bin of history, yes? Not quite, it would seem.

Twelfth Night are now in possession of their original copyrighted masters and have a healthy fan-base buying up the old LPs (remember them?) on CD, IQ re busy touring Europe where possible, and prog festivals hav sprouted up around the world, featuring new bands as well as “old” ones from the brief flare we experienced in the 80s. Marillion continue to explore new ground, Pendragon have recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of the release of one of their albums.


I have a few pet theories, revolving around bands like Radiohead and Blur who, after the initial commercial success of snappy tunes and ‘easy’ melodies, started to wander off into more complex and demanding territory. Muse are so prog it’s not true, and the continued success of “new kids” Dream Theater (only 15 albums? Pah...) means that there’s still an audience out there for something a little left-field. The Police’s Synchronicity album had liberal slatherings of prog to it - unsurprising really, Stewart Copeland had formerly drummed for Curved Air and both Sting and Andy Summers weren’t averse to a bit of jazz. Now and then. It wasn’t something they couldn’t control though... There is also the consideration of the interweb and its magical removal of the need for niche music to need a ‘record deal’ (see how these terms are becoming obsolete?).

Now even we (Lahost) are kicking around the idea of a new album and seeing how writing together after a billion years away from each other would work. Listening through to our old stuff brought back a whole load of happy memories, as well as a lot of wincing at how little ability I had as a singer back then. Still, I did have a rather fetching selection of haircuts which obviously covered for the lack of a decent voice.

There will eventually be a website up featuring all the nostalgia you can eat, and if we actually get around to any new music, you’ll be the first to know. You unlucky people... ;-)

Monday, February 26, 2007

Big Dave versus The Directors

Hmmm, not being what you might call a huge fan of Doctor Who, and having seen enough of the BBC production of Casanova to make me heave, I’ve not been terribly caught up in the current wave of David Tennant-mania that has been sweeping the nation.

With the music of the Smiths (stick with it...), I stayed open to the (admittedly unlikely) possibility that there might be a track at least that took my fancy (in their case, it was How Soon Is Now, right up until Morrissey insisted on opening his whining gob). With Big Dave Ten-Inch, I hoped it was a bad case of Lucas-itis (n: a director with a very particular vision stamps so hard on the abilities of a given actor or actors that they turn into soulless meat puppets).

It would seem, from last night’s showing of Tony Marchant’s Recovery, that it has been just that. David Tennant plays Alan Hamilton, head of a building firm, who sustains a brain injury when he steps out in front of a passing van after going out for a drink with a friend.

The resulting accident leaves him in a deep coma but with remarkably few physical injuries. His wife, Tricia, (played superbly by Sarah Parish) is delighted when he comes round - only to discover that the man she loved has disappeared. His personality is completely different. He’s lost all of his inhibitions and he veers from being violently angry and frustrated to vulnerable and childlike. Tricia longs to find her husband but fears she may have lost him forever.

Tipped off by Mr. Marchant showing some impressive-looking clips and talking through the gestation of the show at the DeMontfort University Scriptwriting day attended by GD and moi, I tuned in to check out the whole show. Though my recent brain-melt had only been minor and thankfully temporary, there was a soupçon of fellow-feeling for the main character’s plight.

The tenor of the NHS’ lack of post-operative care was certainly bang-on. I left hospital ten years ago after spinal surgery with a whole bunch of stitches and staples that should have been removed, barley able to walk more than a few tens of feet and with no organisation or provision of physical therapy whatsoever. This is not the fault of individual nurses or doctors. It is more the case that there is actually so little after-care available in the public health sector per se, that there’s often simply nothing to actually pass you on to. In many cases, the nurses and doctors don’t even know about organisations like Headway, who are able to offer support and information for the families of brain injury patients. The families often have no choice but to become full-time carers of their injured loved ones, putting their lives on permanent hold. This invariably causes anger, bitterness and isolation which leads to divorces and abandonment if not caught in time.

This was masterfully portrayed by both Tennant and Parish as the family fragmented, old grudges with the in-laws resurfaced, family friends drifted away and the focus on the elder son’s college education lost its momentum completely. Tennant had apparently spent time at a group session for brain injury survivors at Headway’s Essex Centre, meeting survivors and staff while doing research for his role.

Though the final denoument brought rays of hope, it didn’t wrap everything up in ribbons and present a world in which people on TV never stay hurt. There was no miracle recovery, no way back for the family to where they were before, yet the place they were now in was somewhere in which they could find a different, yet fulfilling life together. It did have one or two irritating passages of “oh come on!” in which the set-ups stood out a mile, but they were few and far between and definitely more than made up for by the entirety of the piece.

The supporting cast nailed their parts consummately, and the direction was not flag-waving, ooh, look at the ISSUE rubbish, but gentle, thoughtful and above all, respectful. Well photographed too, I thought.

As far as Tony Marchant’s writing goes, I was struck by the fact that it felt very even-handed, neither siding with how awful it was for the injured party, nor how much the family suffered.

After last night’s performance, I now look forward to more of Big Dave’s work, in the hope that other directors, such as Recovery’s Andy DeEmmony, get to work with him and not the Saturday girl they get in on Doctor Poo.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

My brain hurts...

Here’s a thing (and also explains why I’ve not been around for a while).

Consider, if you will, the basic function of linguistic facility. The plain old ability to form words, string them together into sentences, read signs and books and generally jot and scribble ones thoughts down in a coherent form.

It’s an easy one to take for granted. It’s also terrifying to have it taken away from you.

A week or so ago, while enjoying a hearty pile of food for the evening repast and watching the telly with the usual levels of scorn and derision, I felt compelled to voice to my g/f my concerns that the news item on the box was, in some way, unsatisfactorily reported. So, I muttered something in her direction, to which she absent-mindedly nodded back.

The worrying thing was, I hadn’t understood a single word I’d just said. More quietly, I ventured another comment. This was also plainly gibberish. Unsettled, I trotted upstairs to grab a pen and paper and write down a note to my girlfriend that, for some reason, I couldn’t speak properly. Surely I wouldn’t have lost the ability to write?

I felt I’d made a fair fist of a note, even though reading it back seemed a little hard, and hurried back downstairs. As my other half looked uncomprehendingly at the note and then back at me, I suddenly felt very frightened. In fact, “Scared” was the only word I could get out after much trying.

An ambulance-ride later, and with much testing at the hospital (with occasional bursts of near-lucidity), the most unearthly headache hit me, and I had to cover my eyes as any light was incredibly painful. I was admitted, and my poor other half had to go home in a cab.

Consultants buzzed round in the morning, by which time I was back to my normal self, aside from the remnants of the headache. A bit of conjecture here and there and it was decided that it ‘probably wasn’t an aneurysm’. Well, that’s good then. Much more detailed chats with the ward nurses during the day came up with some other contenders - a migraine, a stoppage of bloodflow to the brain or a thing known as a Transient Ischaemic Attack.

The mystery ‘stoppage’ would have to be tracked down, but it was considered an unlikely cause due to the recovery rate. It was generally thought that it would have taken several days if not weeks to settle down after something like that. Plus, finding out what caused it would be tricky (if you can’t diagnose, it’s likely to take quite a bit of testing and tweaking to find out the root cause).

Transient Ischaemic Attacks (TIAs) are stoppages of bloodflow within the brain, usually caused by a small blood clot getting stuck in a narrow blood vessel. A part of the brain is starved of oxygen for a few minutes, then recovers (either the clot breaks up, or other vessels compensate). It seems that the blood clots are generated by atheromas in blood vessels - small fatty deposits on the artery walls. Hmm, guess I’m not the Olympian athlete I thought I was - ahem... The symptoms of a TIA are similar to a stroke (which is what I thought I was having). The nurses called them ‘warnings that a stroke is coming unless you do something about it’. Cheery stuff, eh?The migraine theory rested on a period of tingling and numbness I’d had in my arms previously that evening. Anyone normal should have questioned the tingling thing but, as I had spinal surgery eight years ago and kinda get more than the odd trapped nerve on a regular basis, I just left it to run its course. It also had a lot to do with the recovery rate and a huge blind spot I’d developed before the headache began. And a whole bunch of stuff to do with shining lights into my eyes and asking me the same question over and over again. WTF?

Bear in mind that at this moment I was nowhere near the internet, so couldn’t do any rummaging myself (which would have helped enormously, as it turns out) and trying not to think that some kind of tumour had erupted in my head and I was going to die. I was told a consultant neurologist would be round later to see me and judge whether I needed to be kept in for an immediate scan or treated as an outpatient. Well, my other half came by, having taken the day off work, and stayed at the hospital well into the evening with the neurologist being a no-show. How ridiculous is that? Based at another hospital, sometimes he just ‘didn’t make it round’. Thank fuck I wasn’t having an aneurysm and bleeding out of my eyes then. The dick. Ever heard of the “telephone”, you ass?

During the night, as I was in the Medical Admissions Unit (short stays only and no cabaret or massage), a couple of new people were noisily brought in. One of whom had to use a commode. After much huffing, puffing and moaning. Then her floodgates opened and I decided to try sleeping on a chair down the corridor. It doesn’t take long for you to feel like you’re trapped in an institution...

Still, the next day, eventually, a different neurologist arrived, had a chat with me (by this time, I’m not in the pyjamas any more - I’m back in my own clothes and wanting to go the fuck home) and decided within fifteen minutes that the migraine theory was way out in front and I’d be best treated as an outpatient. This means a three-month waiting-list for a brain-scan (I wonder if they’ll find one?) then whatever follow-up they remember to do.

I must just say that the nurses and junior doctors there were a great laugh and working stupid hours didn’t seem to dull their edge much. Then again, they are all terribly young... ;-) They even put up with me stalking the corridors, muttering that, if this consultant that didn’t show had been an employee of mine, he would have been fired long ago. Bless ’em! And they’d all watched Green Wing, so there was much in-joke hilarity going on at the expense of all the other patients. Hey, I never said I’d become a saint...

Back home I pretty much immediately Googled “migraine speech loss” and “migraine dysphasia”, which immediately took a weight off my mind. Apparently, dysphasia is one of the top five common aura symptoms preceding a migraine, ie. if you’re one of the migraine sufferers who gets an aura, losing the ability to tell anyone that you’ve got a migraine coming is quite high on the list. Handy. You won’t even be able to ask where the painkillers are. Still, a goodly amount of research helped ease what I laughingly call my mind. Though I spent the next week deliberately being calm and sedate, thinking that, if I got a bit angry about something, my head might explode, I gave up in the end.

The pain of not being able to yell abuse at the TV was worse than the headache...