When is a gig not a gig? When it’s a multimedia performance art display…

Viewer / Bastard Structures / Beaumont Hannant – Bar Lane Studios Basement, York, 13th May 2011

The walk through town was hell as I cut my way through drunken weaving tossers in shiny suits and smashed bimbos who’d fled the races in search of more booze, food and amusement. The races might be good for the local economy, but that’s about it. As I headed up Mickelgate through the teaming hoards of plastered fuckwits, I encounter a familiar face. it’s the bearded eccentric techno wizard Tim Wright, one half of York techno should-be legends Viewer.

‘You’re going the wrong way,’ I tell him.

He explains that he needs food and is on a mission, so I wish him luck in his quest and continue onward to the venue. The Bar Lane Studios was, once upon a time, York’s Sony Centre, and I purchased my current stereo, including turntable, from there, back in 1998 or thereabouts. It’s now an art gallery and studio setup, beneath which there’s a basement that’s home to live music, theatre and more. At the door, there’s a cluster of people smoking and chatting, and there emerges a skinny guy with some wicked chops and a bad shirt. it’s AB Johnson, the other half of Viewer. He greets me, but can’t stop: he’s looking a bit vexed, and not without reason. He needs to find Tim to sort an issue with the projectors. Sometimes, there are things even a hundred yards of gaffer tape can’t handle.

I make my way down into the basement, a brilliant space for such an event. It’s a plain and solid rectangle, with bare-brick walls, flagstone floors and not a lot else besides a PA and a temporary bar with four different varieties of Roosters beer on pump. This definitely gets my vote, and by the time I’m halfway down a pint of the Mocha Stout at 4.7% ABV, I’m less concerned about the prospect of one of the projectors stuck to the ceiling falling on my head. There are a fair few people I’m acquainted with present, so I mingle and talk bollocks at them while superstar DJ Beaumont Hannant creates a pleasant ambience.

It’s around 9pm when Tim Wright and his collaborator Theo Burt take up their stations behind their laptops stage right and the venue is plunged into darkness for their Bastard Structures show. It’s not ambient, and nor is it entirely pleasant, and that’s a good thing. Put simply, this is multimedia art at its most absolute: the visuals drive the music, with the shifting shapes actually triggering the sounds, and it’s neatly arranged to alternate between pieces by each artist, interspersed with truly collaborative crossover pieces. Wright’s works are stark and brutal, Merzbow-like walls of noise and dark, penetrative frequencies assailing the aural receptors while harsh strobe effects and black and white images flicker scorch the retinas in the most abrasive, unforgiving fashion. Burt’s pieces contrast well, being lighter, playful even, easier on both eye and ear and more clearly designed for amusement, and the crossover pieces bring the two styles together to dizzying effect. A chap I know later remarked that he enjoyed ‘the fun ones’. Needless to say, I preferred the ones that inflicted pain on my senses and fucked with my head.

Bastard Structures

 

Time for another pint as I’m working my way down the bar and around the people I’m familiar with, and then Viewer are up. The projections – more brain-bending optical shapes that hypnotise in no time and completely suck you in – provide the perfect backdrop to the duo’s sassy, savvy brand of pulsating techno indie pop.

 

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When I say that Viewer are cynical, I don’t mean calculated or contrived: the lyrics, penned by AB, to songs such as ‘Dumb it Down’, ‘White Noise’ and ‘Sunrise’ are sneering swipes at society, at conformity, at, well, take your pic. Johnson’s vocal style – which falls between Mark E. Smith, and, as another reviewer has suggested, Lou Reed – seems as much at odds with the music as his image and lyrics, and it’s precisely because of these contradictions that Viewer are such an interesting proposition. AB is also a great front man who looks entirely at home on stage – again, in complete contrast to Wright, who lurks in the shadows, hunched over his laptop and remains seated. He knows exactly what he’s doing, of course: namely controlling the thumping beats and solid basslines that provide the foil for Johnson’s quirky delivery and showmanship.

 

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All the while the geometric patterns roll endlessly, searing their shapes into the retinas of the onlookers. It’s a groove alright, and by the time they closed the set with a reprise of ‘Suicide Girl’, my senses were tripping in overdrive.

 

Viewer – All the Pretty Young Things

Back up on street level, the world had gone mad, with the racegoing revellers wreaking drunken carnage in a shiny-suited remake of one of Hogarth’s scenes. Somehow, as I weaved through the inebriated shouts and squawks, the men standing in shop doorways pissing over their own snakeskin shoes, and the flashing blue lights of approaching police vans and ambulances, the unsettling juxtaposition of two very different sides of life on the same street seemed perfectly apt.

 

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Tales of Everyday Banality: What’s Your Flava?

    ‘Hey, look what I won, a mug with chocolate things on sticks.’
    His colleague looks up. ‘What’s that?’ she asks.
    ‘It’s a mug, right, and…’ reading the instructions on the chocolate swizzle stick, he explained how ‘you pour boiling milk into the mug and then stir the chocolate thing round on the stick till it melts and you’ve got hot chocolate. Two flavours, mint and bourbon.’
    ‘Bourbon?’
    ‘Yeah. Do you want one? I don’t really want both. I’m keeping the mug though.’
    ‘Yeah? Oh, thanks, yeah.’
    ‘Which d’you fancy?’
    ‘I don’t mind, whichever you don’t want.’
    ‘I think I’d prefer the mint chocolate, so you can have the bourbon,’ he says.
    ‘Ok, cheers. I’d never have thought of making bourbon flavour. that’s really unusual.’
    ‘Innit? Weird. That’s why I’m sticking with the mint. I know what to expect. I can’t really imagine bourbon flavoured hot chocolate.’
    ‘Oh I’m sure it’ll be nice. I like bourbons.’
    ‘Me too, but I’m not sure about the flavour as a drink, y’know?’
    I can take no more.
    ‘Surely it’s bourbon flavour,’ I interject.
    The girl looks as the chocolate swizzle stick she’s been given. ‘No, it says bourbon flavour.’
    ‘Yes,’ I reply, but bourbon and bourbon are spelled the same but are pronounced differently.’
    ‘Really?’
    ‘Yes.’
    ‘Are you sure?’
    ‘Positive. And I’d wager that it’s bourbon whiskey flavoured chocolate rather than biscuit flavoured chocolate.’
    ‘It might be biscuit.’
    ‘But I would expect that it’s probably whiskey.’
    ‘Well I’m going to drink it at the weekend and I’ll let you know if you’re right next week.’

***

    ‘So,’ I begin, trying to suppress a smirk, ‘was it whiskey or biscuit?’
    ‘Sorry?’
    ‘The hot chocolate thing you had. The bourbon / bourbon chocolate on a stick, what flavour was it, whiskey or biscuit?’
    ‘Biscuit,’ she replied.
    ‘No? Really?’ I couldn’t hide my incredulity.
    ‘Yeah. Well I didn’t have it in the end, my friend did, but she couldn’t taste any whiskey. I looked at the ingredients and there was no alcohol in it, so it must have been biscuit.’
    ‘How would you taste biscuit?’
    ‘It mostly just tasted of chocolate, but there was definitely no alcohol. So I was right all along, it was bourbon, and not bourbon.’
    ‘But why would they make biscuit flavoured chocolate?’ I asked, amazed.
    ‘Well they make chocolate flavoured biscuits.’
    There’s no arguing with logic like that.

 

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A Weighty (and Measury) Subject: When the Customer Isn’t King

Earlier this week, I decided to spend my lunch hour in one of the local pubs near the office where I work, and get a spot of writing done. After a pint of Cropton Brewery’s Two Pints, I was on a roll. I was getting tight on time, and didn’t want to go fall asleep at my desk during the afternoon, so opted for a half. The blackboard behind the bar listed the ales priced by the pint. So, at £2.90 a pint, a half should be….
    ‘That’s £1.50 please.’
    Huh? I never was especially strong in mathematics, but I can manage basic mental arithmetic. I didn’t say anything, just handed over the money and returned to my writing. It wasn’t a big deal, after all. Just five measly pence, in fact.
    Back at work, I thought over it some more. And the more I thought, the more it irritated me. In the first instance, why should purchasing half of something cost more than half of the whole? Pubs purchase beer by the barrel (ok, by the firkin or kilderkin); it contains the same amount no matter how the divide it out in terms of units, and the contents will therefore realise the same amount at retail whether the beer is dispatched in whole or half pints, by my reckoning. Granted, a 5p mark-up on each half sold is neither here nor there when it’s a matter of a few drinks, and I understand that many pubs are struggling and need every sale they can get, and if that means an extra 5p here or there, then, well, ok. But… I can’t help but feel that responsible drinkers are being penalised. I mean, I get the deal with supermarkets selling smaller quantities of things at a higher price by weight: there’s the whole issue of shelf space and packaging costs… but a barrel’s the same size. Buying by weight – or volume – should mean that a smaller quantity doesn’t affect the retail price.
    I know this practice isn’t illegal, but it hardly seems consumer friendly, and, moreover, there is legislation in place that states that prices must be clearly displayed. By my reckoning, failing to clearly show on the price list that a half pint costs more than half the price of a pint – by only showing the price per pint – falls foul of this. Ok, so I’m a pedant. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing….
    The next day, on my way home from work, I called by a local greengrocer’s. I was giving myself a night off real cooking and was going to sling a frozen pizza in the oven. Given that the toppings on these things are so meagre, I like to add a few bits. I’m a vegetarian, and I like mushrooms, and in my opinion, no pizza is complete without come mushrooms on top. I didn’t want many, though, so just put a couple in a bag while the shopkeeper reorganised some of the other baskets of vegetables around the shop.
    I then placed the brown paper bag on the counter. And waited. Two minutes elapsed before she stopped rearranging the pears and came to the till.
    ‘What’s in there?’ she asked, picking up the bag.
    ‘Mushrooms,’ I told her.
    As if she didn’t believe me (what else would I have put in one of the paper bags that sit with the mushrooms? A (very small, light) kohlrabi? A light, spongy piece of ginger? Well, it’s possible: much of the produce in this shop is clearly several days old and a little past its freshest best. Something really expensive, like a whole heap of saffron or vanilla pods, that I was trying to sneak out cheaply under the guise of a couple of mushrooms?), she proceeded to unravel the bag and peer inside.
    ‘I can’t just sell you two mushrooms,’ she said. ‘I can’t do business like that.’
    As far as I could tell, she wasn’t doing much business at all. I was the only person in the shop, and it was half an hour before closing. She had a choice: stick the bag on the scales and sell me two mushrooms at the price the scales and her pricing dictated, or not, and have two more mushrooms sitting there, shrivelling away, overnight. She could take my money, or leave it. There are, after all, other greengrocers. I just try to support small independent businesses where I can, especially when they’re conveniently located. Plus, I prefer to but fresh produce loose and by weight, rather than buy a sackload more than I need (which invariably results in needless waste) and put more unnecessary packaging into landfill. 
The point of selling produce by weight is that the consumer is charged according to how much of something they buy (or how large it is); thus, three large onions cost more than three tiny onions. Presumably the retailer purchases produce from the wholesaler by weight, and prices said produce accordingly, in such a way as to make an proportional mark-up on the overall weight of the items they have purchased to then sell on.
    ‘Right.’ I was rather at a loss for words.
    ‘I just can’t,’ she said, tossing the paper bag disdainfully onto the scales. ‘You have to buy quarter of a pound.’
    Right. Just because something is priced by the quarter doesn’t mean it’s not possible to sell part quarters. More to the point, nowhere did it say ‘minimum quantity ¼ lb.’ or anything to that effect, in the way that many shops have a minimum card transaction, and on-line retailers have a minimum order value. However, there’s a reason for this. Potatoes, for example, are generally priced by the pound or kilogram: there’s nothing to say a consumer can’t purchase a half pound of spuds loose (and in season, a half-pound of potatoes will cost less than my two mushrooms… hell, a pound would!). If I wanted a chunk of ginger for a stir-fry, there’s no way I’d be buying more than a fraction of an ounce, around, say, 15 pence worth. I often go to the market on a Saturday and ask for a couple of medium onions, a couple of carrots, and, hell, I’ve even asked for half a dozen sprouts. The traders may smile at me or look at me in a strange or bemused fashion, but they always stick them on the scales then put them into my bag and charge according to the weight of those onions, carrots, sprouts.
    For the record, it isn’t as though I only ever go in and buy two mushrooms every now and again: I often stop in on my way home from work and spend a couple of quid or so, sometimes even five or six. I’ll concede it’s hardly big money, but the thing is, the products greengrocers sell aren’t exactly high value. As a consequence, they must obviously rely on a high volume of small sales rather than a smaller volume of larger ones. No-one goes into a greengrocers and spends thirty quid.
      It isn’t that I can’t see her point: tiny transactions are a pain. But unlike processing a credit card transaction for less than the amount the bank would charge to process it, my two piddly mushrooms weren’t costing her anything to process, and my being there wasn’t preventing anyone else from being served with a more lucrative purchase.
     ‘That’s 22p. But you’ll have to buy a quarter of a pound next time. It’s just not worth my while.’
     ‘Ok.’
     ‘D’you understand?’
     Not content with giving me grief, she had to patronise me too, to speak to me like I was retarded, just to complete the humiliation, just to make her point. I felt thoroughly chastised, and rather embarrassed. I was tempted to proffer the scenario that I might have been buying two very large mushrooms, weighing in at a quarter of a pound each (ok, it’s unlikely, but I’m thinking in purely hypothetical terms): what then? Or, as often happens, there are only a couple of mushrooms left in the box? I was similarly tempted to say ‘fuck you, you can keep your two lousy mushrooms, I’ll take my 22p and spend it in a store that wants it.’
     I didn’t, of course. I’m far too polite and respectful for that. Instead, I handed her the correct change, and hissed, ‘Yes,’ through clenched teeth.
Because she was right. She can’t do business like that. Certainly not with me, because I won’t be going back any time soon.
You see, the customer might no longer be king, but they do have choices. She hasn’t just lost herself another 22p in a few days; she’s lost all of my future custom, and over the years, it could add up. Irritate enough people, and the odd few pence or few quid lost son becomes a big chunk of the takings. So I’ve made my choice, and let’s see how the old bat likes them onions.

 

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Wot a Fine Pear! A Juicy Example of Rebranding for Idiots

I make no bones about the fact I’m rather a pedant, and a stickler for things being correct. The misuse of words (and punctuation) sends me absolutely loopy, with ‘random’ used to mean ‘a bit unusual’ being a particular pet hate of mine.  Not without good reason, I don’t think. I perceive the spread of incorrect use as being emblematic of a wider and deeper issue in society, that the ‘dumbing down’ that’s affected every part of our culture and society is equal parts ‘don’t know’ and ‘don’t care.’ Often, in pointing out that something is misspelled or an incorrect word used, I’m told that ‘it doesn’t matter’ or that ‘no-one will notice’ or that ‘people will get the meaning.’ Maybe they will: maybe they won’t. Why take that chance? Specific words have evolved with specific meaning in order that we can communicate complex concepts with clarity and without ambiguity.

One thing that’s really been grinding my gears recently is the proliferation of rebranded alcoholic beverages made with fermented pear juice. Yes, perry. In order to sell it as a trendy drink for semi-literate bozos, the manufacturers have taken to advertising it as ‘pear cider.’ It’s abundantly clear from both the Brothers and Magners adverts that their target markets are young, cool, ‘irreverent’ and above all stupid. But more than anything, the promotion of ‘pear cider’ annoys the hell out of me simply because it’s wrong! Fermented grapes produce wine, not grape beer or grape cider. Fermented honey produces mead, not honey wine or honey cider. So, perry, being a drunk unto itself is perry.

I despair, and wonder what else could find itself being renamed in order for fuckwits to get a grasp on what it is so they’ll buy it thinking it’s something new and exciting. Perhaps rebranding bitter as ‘dark lager’ is the way forward (and yes, I appreciate that despite having the same basic ingredients, the two are completely different on account of lager typically being brewed using bottom-fermenting yeast strains and bitters using top-fermenting yeasts and being brewed at a higher temperature). How about making pipes fashionable by calling them paperless, filterless, never-ending cigarettes? Could cream become ‘extra-thick milk’? Pavements come to be called ‘foot roads’? How about ‘hand-socks’ in place of gloves? Personally, I think its time to relaunch vinyl as ‘large hard-format MP3 discs.’ The undigital revolution starts here!

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