Monday, April 28, 2014

"Now if they ever made a comeback together what a day that'd be..."

A little bit skiffle, licks and flecks of country, dollops of music hall and barrels of rock(ney)’n’roll – those expert and epic musicians Chas’n’Dave do do it all.

The recent announcement that this there duo were about to hit the road with Status Quo seemed an ironic comment on feverishly hipsterish 20th-anniversary Britpop celebrations/condemnations.
Why, back then the integral battle between Blur and Oasis was framed by some – including some of the central participants – as rehashed Chas’n’Dave (er, -Blur) vs Status Quo-asis.

Yet if, with Kinks-ish "Country House" over the workaday "Roll With It", Blur won the battle, then Oasis won the war – then, thanks to Damon Albarn’s meanderings over Noel Gallagher’s stagnating, Blur won the peace.
And yet. And yet. Let’s head back a bit. Well, why not?

Best to sit and set alongside, in London’s classic rock-writer lineage, amid Blur’s voyeuristic park-life and the Kinks’ village green preservation society, the quotidien capital details of Chas’n’Dave and their Ponders End allotment club.
(‘It’s everybody’s local pub...’)

This city’s larger-than-life sights may be central but its spirit rests most organically - if diversely - in the many sprawling suburbs and their different interests specific yet also unifyingly general.

Damon Albarn’s milk of human kindness curdled over the course of Blur’s London 'Life' trilogy, between the warm-heartedness despite the name of Modern Life Is Rubbish and the characterful yet chilled The Great Escape.

Chas’n’Dave might often appear unimpressed by much of the rest of the world’s, well, frippery - and yet their songs do tend to remain affectionate about their subjects.

Even on those three most famous hits - "Ain’t No Pleasin’ You", "Rabbit" and familial teaser "Gertcha" - the over-riding sense is one of fondness, albeit tested.

And the barbs of the beautiful "I Wonder In Whose Arms" are all the more affecting and empathetic for being so transparently, emphatically envious and defensive.

For a supposedly ‘comic’ act so tempting to mimic - for example, the Two Ronnies’ well-delivered yet oddly-jokefree pastiche - Chas’n’Dave’s lyrical wit can be surprisingly subtle.

And yet their emotional tributes sound startlingly tender, even if invariably involving the sonic equivalent of a nudge or nod to the camera - as with (the also-sadly-unplayed-live) "Wish I Could Write A Love Song".

‘If I give in to my emotions then I might get hurt,
If one day you run away ... with my Uncle Bert...’

Perhaps the song was a little too downbeat to play on that roisteringly feelgood Friday night just past, no matter how endearing overall otherwise.

The first half of that gig was dominated by covers of the sort of acts dominating the lyrics of "That’s What I Like", from "Midnight Special" to "Railroad Bill" and other nostalgic classics revisited on their latest LP.
To wit, the historic namechecks for Little Richard and Jerry Lee, banjo-pickin’ Bill Keith and, of course, Lonnie D - the latter fondly re-covered several times over.
(To quote Bob Stanley's enviably-knowledgeable and lyrical music bio, "Yeah Yeah Yeah", on that there Lonnie D and his "scrunched-up tinfoil" sound: "It's one of the unlikelier facts of history that a song about illegally transporting pig iron is British pop's fountainhead.")

Chas’n’Dave have been backed live mostly by merely their drummer Mick - as immortalised by, well, "Give It Some Stick, Mick" (and he usually did) - but now they’re backed by the relentless thudding of Chas’s own son, er, Nik.

He bashes away with admirable relentlessness - like pounding on blocks of wood, the excitingly ‘dull’ rhythmics like listening to Ringo Starr on speed. (That's meant in a good way, honest.)

Yet it was a surprise to see and hear further augmentation this time - that is, four saxophonists, wielding what would otherwise sound like the devil’s own instrument yet, joined joyously together, came across cheerily.

Chas always plays any keys like a barrelling piano but it felt refreshing to have these songs orchestrated, adorned, not by synths but viewable, hearable people.

Not that the tunes themselves couldn’t stand alone. Just that this seemed an extra-special occasion.

That central duo, nevertheless, are not only expert musicians but also expert music historians, with key CV references stretching back a half-century or so - and millions of gigs’ and sessions’ experience an' all.

The pair could doubtless turn their duelling banjos’/basses’/those old pianos’ hands to any song at all, yet manage to remain the right side of Ukelele Orchestra-esque twee.

That is, the right place to be. The bolshy way to stay. The gutsy location to remain.

This is no novelty pop, mind – despite the patronising instincts of Nick Owen and Selina Scott back in those early eighties, wonderingly asking whether our heroic duo really spoke like that and why they wore those braces.

(Back came of course the instinctive rejoinder, in bemused unison: “To keep me trousies up.”)

Never mind the b*llocks: Chas’n’Dave are, indoor shades aside, authenticity incarnate, from their Edmonton Green upbringing – celebrated, of course, in one song – to their Ponders End hanging-about to their Tottenham proper Tottenham proper p*ssed-off-itude.
Why, this reporter had a chat with Chas way back when in 2001 as Spurs prepared to take on Arsenal in an Old Trafford FA Cup semi-final that ended up the most comprehensive 2-1 thrashing any Spurs side can have suffered.

Yet he spoke optimistically, while Dave drove, about the all-new FA Cup final song they had long since written and had ready to release at any time, just whenever Spurs eventually deigned to re-reach such an event.
Sadly, it still hasn’t yet happened, meaning no successor – so far – to that "London Girls" rewrite of 1991, “When The Year Ends In One”.

Those Spurs-specific lyrics came to mind, and instinctively to the lips, as the actual old original “London Girls” got played out the other night, a saxophone foursome adding ballast and a thousands-strong audience linking arms and lustily bawling along.

The Albert Hall's Muppet Show-esque setting felt especially incongruous for the Friday-night-out knees-up we all enjoyed, and yet the apparent majesty of the surroundings brought out all the more of the best in the performers.
Having previously heard Chas, Dave and a drummer do their stuff in such unglamorous surroundings as, well, the Wyllyotts Centre in Potters Bar and also the Worthing Pavilion, this here did seem like something unusually special.
And, of course, they stepped up a gear by expanding beyond a threesome to a ninesome – those four saxophonists, but also a few extras plucking a double-bass or sucking on a harmonica.
Apparent finale "Ain't No Pleasin' You" could bear any - or no - augmentation, yet had the whole Albert Hall audience on their feet with arms reaching towards the roof. Making the very most while presuming that majestic musical complaint would be, well, the end.
And yet, even as the final plangent chord rang out and Dave summed it all up by saying, “We’ve had a good time tonight”, the pair couldn’t help but pre-empt encore calls and lurch into one last singalong: “The Sideboard Song”.
And then that really was that.
No further teasing, just lights-up again and their own recorded songs on the all-surrounding stereo.
The trilling piano, that sauntering bass, those chirping harmonies - live, or otherwise, it's a sound that gladly keeps on rock(ney)-and-rolling.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Tony Blair's Syria intervention seems more measured than his scarred record suggests

Yet a vociferous earthbound verdict on his record has greeted with brickbats – if potentially tainted with confusion – his latest intervention on, well, intervention.

Instinctive cries of ‘war criminal’, understandable as they may be to many, threaten to mask what at heart was a surprisingly conciliatory if unsurprisingly pragmatic speech on Wednesday morning.

Far from outright urging Britain and others to drop bombs on or arm rebel fighters in the likes of Syria, Iran or – even more, anyway – Libya, his encouragement of mere ‘engagement’ was strikingly vaguer.

Why, he might even have startled sympathisers and critics alike by recommending at least some acceptance, if not necessarily appeasement, of ruling regimes in Iran and Syria.

Bashar al-Assad’s too-durable reign in Syria – strengthened by recent skirmishes and likely to be enhanced by newly-called elections – looks a realpolitik reality for the time being at least, Mr Blair suggested.

Yet he did seem to also scorn the Tory-Lib Dem coalition for threatening dire consequences for Assad and his allies, and hinting at support for rebel fighters, while providing little action accompanying those words.

Of course, David Cameron and his own backers can – and will – point the finger at Ed Miliband, among those whose stated concerns about military strikes helped see them struck down in Parliament.

And yet the prime minister’s immediate response, a disavowal of even considering any similar action, felt counter-productively melodramatic and not what even Labour’s Syria doves were expecting.

Mr Blair’s apparent acceptance of not only Assad’s ongoing rule but also those of Iran’s dubiously-progressive Rouhani and Egypt’s military coup-hoisted SIsi contrast with previous hurtles towards toppling Afghan and Iraqi regimes.

Both wars, however devoutly and sincerely he felt the causes, have unleashed hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of deaths, many more life-transforming injuries while leaving both nations suffering further, if different, miseries.

Yet such Western intervention was more warmly welcomed in the Nineties in the Balkans, when atrocities such as Srebrenica cast shame on the complacency – or corruption – of those most eager to look away.

Mr Blair remains a hero to many in Sierra Leone, where schools are named in his honour when his Britain finally, if belatedly, backed Nigerian-led African Union forces in helping end a 11-year civil war.

Personal travels in Syria last autumn found many tormented refugees desperately pleading for Western-led military action aimed at ousting Assad, anguished at being seemingly teased by recedingly-hawkish Britain, Barack Obama and the United Nations.

Why, even in Zimbabwe when reporting undercover in the midst of the hyper-inflation and cholera crisis of 2008, brave opponents of Robert Mugabe were disappointed to hear his feverish forecasts of British invasion were outlandish.

Yet while Assad – and his Russian and Chinese loyalists – have played a canny game in stalling peace talks while making chemical weapons the central issue and concession, his regime goes on punishing his people with conventional rockets and bombs and arrests and torture.

Targeted airstrikes at any remaining chemical depots would now be so long-delayed as to be ineffective, while no-fly-zones pose problems in enforcing.

Yet even without sending in troops, tanks or bomber-planes, the international community has settled for the hot air of a Blair without direct effects such as sanctions or – most grievously – secure and entire access for aid agencies.

Our former prime minister’s speech today was more measured than much of the critical reaction.

Yet the wait goes on for some useful space to be found between jaw-jaw and war-war.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Afghanistan in limbo looks like suffering even more as time in limelight fades away

afghan3 - 60-year-old Niaz Bibi has no sight in her right eye (Picture: Shaista Chishty)
Kabul refugee camp inhabitant Niaz Bibi, 60, has no sight in her right eye after a Nato bombing (Picture: Shaista Chishty)

Thirteen (years), unlucky for some? For one, the 447 dead British troops - and their families - and the thousands more now living with life-changing injuries.

For another, the literally countless hordes more Afghans also killed.

And not forgetting - even if many will or have - the multitudes left surviving rather than thriving in a so-long-benighted nation, staging Western-waged war since 2001, plenty more conflicts during preceding centuries, and sure to be haunted for generations to come.

Metro recently undertook Afghan travels, witnessing the country’s travails, from increasingly-insecure capital Kabul to spectacular, still anxious, mountain setting Bamyan to drug-addled Uzbek-facing border province Balkh.
Abdarahim Mutar, main character in heroin addiction story To go with feature by Aidan Radnedge MUST CREDIT:  Shaista Chishty
Recovering addict: Abdurahim Mutar sold his sister to pay for his drugs habit (Picture: Shaista Chishty)

Afghanistan may no longer feel like some promised land, but promised aid is already notably shrinking even as the middle-sized-city-shaped bases at Camp Bastion and Kandahar begin to be dismantled.

United Nations donations for the country have slipped from £542million in 2011 to £308million last year and £246million this time around.

The phrase ‘cut-and-run’ may feel insubstantial for what has actually been a drainingly long-drawn-out retreat, but Barack Obama’s apparent eagerness to put the whole Afghan thing behind him risks more than merely brief embarrassment.

Modern-day Afghanistan may benefit from a fair few more schools open for all, some stability in the hotels and palaces of the Kabul elite, and literal bridges built in Helmand by the British army’s handiest soldier-workmen and women.

And yet, as Islamic Relief UK’s study published last week put it, the country remains ‘in limbo’ ahead of presidential elections next month and a full Allied military pull-out promised by the end of this year.

On average, there are 16,000 Afghans to every one doctor, 101 children for each qualified primary schoolteacher, 1.5million nomads among a 27million-strong population and 36 per cent people living below the poverty line.
eight-year-old daughter Farida To go with feature by Aidan Radnedge MUST CREDIT:  Shaista Chishty
Sold by her family: An eight- year-old girl who was traded in Kabul to feed her father's drug habit(Picture: Shaista Chishty)

And Kabul, like the rest of Afghanistan, remains dangerous: a Lebanese restaurant was blown up, killing 21 in January, while a British-Swedish journalist was shot dead when visiting there this month and an AFP reporter and his family were shot dead last week by Taliban intruders somehow infiltrating a smart hotel.

The typically-uninhibited Taliban have vowed throughout to do all they could to disrupt what will surely prove disputed elections for quite some time beyond polling-day itself.

The very deliberateness of the Western pull-out seems certain to provoke at the very least a scattergun flurry, as in Iraq where the British forces’ last days in Basra were pockmarked by nightly rather than weekly or even monthly rocket-fire raids.

Well, why not, while you still can, and your enemies are – just about – still in the vicinity?

Picturesque images can still linger - snow spattering over Kabul, United Nations helicopters soaring into the skies and scything through snow-streaked mountain slopes - yet few Western intruders feel much wiser nor assured about controlling those sprawling, eclectically-isolated areas.

Toddlers firing toy pistols, newly-literate mothers passing on embroidery and entrepreneurial tips, or damaged former mujahedeen fighters now reduced to picking up scraps – this country feels like it should feel safe by now, and yet few folk here do.

No thanks, in part, to our dragged-out yet still-limited and strange sort of Western security.

Which, now approaching its end, could leave an already-accursed country left largely alone.