ubermanoeuvre: proof that ayn rand was retarded

Last night I went to see the debut album launch of Loz’s band Ubermanoeuvre.

They are a remarkable group in lots of ways. They are hard to classify in terms of normal musical genres (imagine a very political rap-metal group but with lots of mad synth noises/occasional bursts of bluesy piano, and a complete disregard for traditional song structures). They also have a knack for gimmicks – no uber show is really complete without the waving of glowsticks and drinking of chodka, a dangerous cocktail of cherryade and vodka designed to get you drunk and e-number-hyperactive at the same time. Which is almost exactly the right condition to be listening to the music in.

But the thing that strikes me most about them is the complete lack of egoism in the group. Loz drew my attention to this himself in Edinburgh last summer, when he was comparing his experience of being in Ubermanoeuvre to the experience of putting together a comedy show. But he’s right – Ubermanoeuvre are a perfect example of a band who all work for each other, and each get something greater for themselves out of it as a result. Music quite frequently needs this kind of enlightened egoism (as opposed to the raw, destructive egoism that seeks to take power or credit for oneself at the expense of others); it’s a collaborative demonstration of what can be achieved when everyone crushes, or at least keeps a check on, their own ego for the sake of a bigger piece of art.

But for most people this is a huge struggle. It always was for me when I was in bands as a teenager; I always had to be in control or I’d get very frustrated. The last real band I was in, I quit because – and remember, I was very young so don’t judge me for this – I wasn’t the main singer so I wanted to write all the songs instead. There’s still a part of me that still thinks I wasn’t wrong, that my songs were brilliant and if they’d let me tell them all exactly what to do then we’d have been rock gods and not ended up trawling the Northampton pub circuit doing Oasis covers. But I hadn’t been a founder member of the band, even if I had been I’d have had no right to tell them what to do, and I had to quit. Stand-up suits me better – I might be better at writing songs than jokes but at least I have complete control over the jokes.

Anyway. Ubermanoeuvre have something I don’t have, which is the seemingly effortless ability to work together without a struggle for attention or power, and it means that they have become an incredibly tight group who all contribute to the sound of the thing. I thought the same thing the other day listening to Radiohead – a group I have no doubt have their own conflicts of egos – but in the songs, they are all so focussed on the overall product that no one instrument dominates the songs. Even Thom Yorke’s voice is…well, let’s say that if Sinatra tried to make his voice sound like a trumpet, Yorke’s voice frequently sounds more like a string section, floating above the music and adding an extra dimension to the feel of it rather than dictating its direction.

Which is not to say that egoism doesn’t work in music – of course it does, and I’m sure you can come up with your own examples – but it must be, to an extent, disciplined in order to work collaboratively with others. Even Bob Dylan prefers playing with a band. This isn’t an argument for communism, of course, or to claim that it is good that individuals be subsumed by the whole – but it is an argument that much of the great things we produce as humans require the right balance of ambition and collaboration.

My point is, Ubermanoeuvre – whatever egoistic personality issues they may have between them, and I know nothing about that – give the impression on stage that they love what they are doing so much that they find it incredibly easy to find that balance by simply letting the music smash the principium individuationis. And that is very impressive.

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As a postscript to this, I should add that something else unusual happened at the gig, which is that someone opened a conversation with “Hello. You don’t know me but I like your blog.” Which was a little unnerving, but she was very lovely and seemed like exactly the kind of person that I hoped would be reading it. Hooray!

Again, that hasn’t really helped me with my own egoism, though…

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how it is

I came to see it for the second time today: How It Is by Miroslaw Balka at the Tate Modern. If you haven’t seen it, you haven’t lived. Or at least, you’ve lived but you haven’t had the chance to really understand it.

It’s – and I’m going to try explain what it is in a way that hopefully won’t put you off seeing it, and with as little hyperbole as possible – the single most interesting work of art, literature and demonstrative political philosophy I have seen in a long time.

Except ‘seen’ isn’t quite the right word. I mean, you see it from the outside (it’s a terrifyingly huge steel box that basically fills one end of the Turbine Hall); but when you go into it, it is complete blackness. You can’t see anything. You stumble around, not quite knowing what you’re doing, trying to work out if you’re about to walk into something or someone. Eventually you reach the back wall and you turn around, and you can see the light and the windows at the other end where you came in, and the silhouettes of people who are a little further back than you, themselves stumbling cautiously around trying to find their way.

Your eyes become accustomed to the dark and you can watch them: couples clinging to each other; children either panicking or enjoying the chaos; young men trying to prove their bravery by marching off away from their friends (only to slow right down and hold their hands out disorientatedly as soon as they are away from the pack); french girls reaching the back wall, shrugging nonchalently and saying, ‘ah, c’est le mur…’ as if it really means something…

Every person’s experience is different, everyone interprets that experience differently, the darkness is liberating and the freedom is oppressive, and you never quite know what’s going on until it’s pretty much time to leave. It is how it is.

But the amazing thing is that it reveals how incredibly blinkered many of us are to the obvious difficulties of sharing a space we don’t understand with others we struggle to acknowledge. At one point, as I sat in the corner, a woman tripped over me.

“Oh, sorry,” she said. “I didn’t see you there.”

Well, duh.

tonight’s scurvy

Scurvy Wednesdays is a beautiful gig.

It was quiet tonight – very, very quiet, in fact there were only seven proper audience members – but those seven (all regulars) were so lovely that the night went really well.

I didn’t perform; I was too tired from the trip up north, I’d just got back to London, I hadn’t written anything, and everyone in the room has heard all my standard stuff before, so it wouldn’t have been a good idea. But for the first time there, I really enjoyed just watching the show.

In particular, I have to say, I really enjoyed watching Steven Hill. In front of an audience so small it would have been tempting to underplay it; but Steven went for the full screaming, slightly demented energy and it really injected something into the room. He is – in a bunch of ways – someone who, every time I see him, and I think without ever intending to, sets goals that I’d like to emulate but never can.

At the very least, he – and all the other acts – deserved a bigger audience. Knowing how these things go, the 3rd March show (which I can’t do) will probably be packed…

musical meaning revisited

So I did really quite well at ‘Beat The Frog’ last night. I did, at least, pretty convincingly do the time with good laughs throughout and one quite big applause break; and when the time ran out at the end I felt like I was just getting going.

(Perhaps if I had just got going a bit before that, I would even have won the night – as it is I came second behind a young fellow whose name was, I think, Peter Brush, and who seemed something of an oddball but a very funny oddball. For the purposes of concluding yesterday‘s discussion, yes his act was deeply functional with some very well-crafted pullback-and-reveals, and the Manchester audience loved him. As well they should have).

But anyway, what I wanted to write about was not that I did well, but that the music of the show was so well chosen. It’s an odd thing to notice, but I couldn’t help but feel it really set the mood of the night. Seeing as how it’s a gong show, and I was so nervous before the show started, it seemed a little distasteful at the time that they played Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’, but looking back it seems perfectly appropriate.

They played ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’ as acts came onstage; if they stayed funny for five minutes they played the ‘Frog Chorus’, and if they didn’t they had to leave the stage to the sound of Beck’s ‘Loser’. It was all so carefully thought about that I couldn’t help admiring it. Timmy Manners (who, for the record, also ‘beat the frog’) suggested it would be quite a funny idea to go out and say something like, “This is a lose-lose situation for me – I really want to do well, but I also have an irrational fear of Paul McCartney.”

It’s peculiar, though, how certain songs fit situations perfectly, and how they attach themselves to thoughts of people and places. Naturally I’ve been listening to The Smiths all the way around Manchester, and now I’ll always associate the Frog Chorus not with Rupert Bear but with last night’s gig.

But it doesn’t always make quite such perfect sense. For example: out of boredom with Manchester (again, see yesterday’s blog), I ended up getting a train over to York today to say hello to my friend Mariel, and she was talking about how these associations can be reset with new hearings of a song. She’s right to an extent, and I guess essentially she was just repeating what the awesome Lawrence Kramer says in his smashing book about the perpetual re-readings and re-applications of music with imagetext.

But there are some associations that seem to wedge themselves into the consciousness and stay there, and then keep reappearing in the most uncanny way. For example, I didn’t mention this to Mariel at the time, but I always associate the irritatingly catchy Black Eyed Peas song ‘I Gotta Feeling’ with her (I mainly didn’t mention it because I have no idea whether she’ll approve of this, or even if she likes the song or not; but I don’t think she reads this blog so I’ll probably get away with saying it here). Anyway, it always seems to pop up shortly before or after I speak to her. I’ve written this off as being an entirely ridiculous coincidence and just a reflection of the silly amount that it was played in public places last year. Its popularity has waned now, of course, and I hardly ever hear it at all; but I’m still consistently reminded of Mariel when I do.

Anyway, then we chatted about this and that and about half-an-hour ago I said goodbye and got on the train back to Manchester. Within about a minute of sitting down on the train, the phone of the kid on the seat behind me went off. Then it went off again. And again.

The ringtone was – obviously – that Black Eyed Peas song.

Uncanny.

what puts the ‘man’ in manchester

So I’ve come to Manchester for a few days.

Ostensibly the main reason for this is that I am going to be competing in ‘Beat The Frog’ tonight, which is a gong show I’ve heard it’s useful to do well in for getting other gigs in the north-west. But I’m also here because I have a few friends living in Manchester that I’m hoping to catch up with.

Either way, I’m expecting to be a little hungover tomorrow.

I’ve never known quite what to make of Manchester. The people are generally nice and I’ve had some of my best EVER nights out here – the place seems to have a public drinking/drug culture that is genuinely built around music (while I’ve often felt like in London, and in many other places, it is the other way round).

But on the other hand, I can never quite get my head round how incredibly ugly the place is. Not the people so much – I mean, some of the locals aren’t exactly lookers but there’s enough students and cool young people to balance that out. It’s the architecture around the centre of the city. It’s all brick-and-concrete boxes, all so deliberately and claustrophobically functional.

I mean, it’s honest, I suppose – and perhaps the image of the ‘straight-talking’ Mancunian originates from this honesty – but it is a city that once said, look, we only need humans to be instrumental parts in our industrial machine. And we will mill and manufacture and produce with them, in great numbers, until they die. It is quantity and utility that interest us, even in humans.

And this is what Lowry painted and it’s why I hate his paintings – not because he painted badly but because he painted in quantities; massive numbers of people and buildings, without the detail that captures and discloses the intrinsic worth of a thing…perhaps this was his point, but it still doesn’t make his art – or Manchester – very much fun to look at.

And, perhaps at risk of stereotyping, it could be said that these are male criteria, that numbers and functionality are male interests and male needs. Manchester is probably a great place to be if you are, or are interested in, men and masculinity. It is without grace, without cunning and guile, without intrinsic beauty…perhaps even the name of the place is no accident.

None of which I will be mentioning in my set tonight. I think that would probably be unwise.

But I will be expecting the most functional, most set-up/punchliney performers and routines to get the best responses.

We’ll see if I’m right.

critique of (early) judgment

I always judge gigs too quickly.

Tonight’s shows, at the ‘London Comedy Club’ (quite an ambitious name, if technically accurate in the sense that it is a comedy club in London), seemed at first like they might be awful. The early show had about forty people in, but they were forty VERY quiet people; and the later one only had six.

But then both shows turned out to be very pleasant. The second show in particular was surprisingly nice under the circumstances: it’s the smallest audience I’ve played to in a while, but it was made up of some very upbeat gents, a truly delightful couple, and a friendly young Asian man who came in partway through. And while I’ve known some rooms of 100 spoiled by one or two idiots, this little bunch made it really nice. It was also good seeing Dylan Bray headlining, clearly a different and more confidently self-deprecating and truly stronger act than he was when I last gigged with him a few years ago (if there’s one thing I love about stand-up, it’s seeing acts develop. But that’s for another blog).

My point is, any pre-judgment I seem to make about gigs almost always turns out to be wrong. I remember doing a gig outside London a while back – I won’t say where – which was possibly the world’s most perfect room for comedy, the promoters had given careful thought to the night, and by showtime the place was packed. And then pretty much every act struggled to get laughs.

The other interesting thing about tonight is that it is the first gig in a little while where the E-word was hardly mentioned at all. Edinburgh is not till August, but now is the time when decisions need to be made, and as a result it’s a pretty common topic of discussion amongst acts: Are you going? Are you doing a full run? What kind of show are you doing? Who are you doing it with? Have you sorted out accommodation yet?

I don’t quite know the answers to these questions. I do know I have an idea of what I’d like to do. But if that doesn’t work out it’s better not to really tell too many people that it was what you were planning. You know…in case things go differently.

Basically, you don’t want to be making judgments too early.

well, that was brilliant

So having arrived back in London again, I can safely say that this weekend was pretty much perfect.

I woke up this morning feeling massively hungover, which is probably a good sign that yesterday was fun; not only did the show go really well – if anything, even better than the night before – but the whole day had been pretty nice. Fraser persuaded me to try out going to a Tanning Salon (which I never thought I’d do but which was AWESOME. It’s like being out in the sunshine for a few minutes and then you come out feeling really happy!); I had one of the nicest cappuccinos I’ve ever had in the Crumblin’ Cookie, (the venue where the show is, and which is run by some properly lovely people); we had dinner in Nando’s… And then the show had such an enthusiastic audience that it was impossible not to feel good after that.

And then we all went out and got trolleyed again.

If anything now, though, it makes it a little strange and sad being back home. Comedy festivals take you so far out of normal reality that suddenly being back at home in in my little room in Finsbury Park, on a Sunday night, thinking about going to work tomorrow and trying to book some more gigs for later in the week, is a little weird.

It’s been especially weird not speaking to Nan since she flew out on Friday – she is, more than anything else, my closest friend and the idea of not being able to really call her or talk to her for the next few months is a sobering thought.

It’s going to be a sobering week, perhaps.