Thursday, June 18, 2009

Balgay Hill: A play about Dundee, Billy MacKenzie, The Associates, about heroes, fame and home

History is (mostly) straightforward. Events happen, are recorded by a number of eyewitnesses, whether written down or carried in the minds of those who experience it. These become the definitive 'facts' which give us our sense of identity, our sense of who we are, the sense that we are the product of a long line of Others - that we are here today because of their actions. We impose upon it a beginning, a middle and an end. And because we are a perverse species we mostly like to insist on a happy ending.

Even music is prone to such gross simplification. Not so 'Balgay Hill' a play which reflects the inter-connectedness between home, our sense of belonging and the memories which become (formalised as) our histories.

"Neither James (Brining, Director) nor I wanted to write a straightforward bio because nothing about Billy or his story is straightforward. He is an amazing character full of contradictions trailing a litany of legends in his wake. He is a different kind of hero blessed with an extraordinary voice" (Simon Macullum, Writer).

Balgay Hill is (loosely) the story of Billy Mackenzie, maverick and magnificent singer with The Associates, told through the interwoven lives of four individuals from Dundee, where Billy was born and now rests close to the titular Balgay Hill. At first I was uncertain as to how this could be accomplished without seeming forced in terms of incorporating Billy's (larger than) life into the lives of mere mortals (so to speak), however it was very sensitively done, with the main framing device being a video that one of the characters was making about Billy's life as, they quite rightly said, there is no real, lasting memorial to him. Only fragments of a life that was lived for the briefest of moments in the spotlight; the seminal being when Billy shimmered onto the Top of the Pops stage - wearing a black beret and raincoat, seemingly trying not to laugh at Alan Rankine and the chopsticks stuck in his hair - rightly identified as a key moment (as beautifully described by Simon Reynolds in 'Rip it up and start again'). Such fragments can be misleading - how much do we really know about someone like Billy?

"To think you learned to know someone and find / That you don't know, don't know them at all." (Club County, The Associates)

Whilst Billy's life provided the structure for the events (the details of which would be familiar to anyone with more than a passing interest in The Associates, they cannot help but attract big stories to them), there was always some blurring between what belonged to the life of the character, and what belonged in the life of Billy. This was effective in that it created a real sense of how memories operate, they are often jumbled and incoherent, hard to fathom as to their time and place until we place them into a narrative. These memories were not existing as something given, but we had to piece them together, to give them meaning.

"I found a coin and washed away the silt / I found a shiny coin / A coin whose head was slightly to the tilt / Who'd leave it there in silt / guilt?" (Nude Spoons, The Associates)

Whilst it seems ironic that going by his singing voice you could have thought that Billy Mackenzie was as likely to have come from Saturn than from Dundee, also poignant was the emphasis within the play, in the words of writer Simon Macallum, "our relationship with the place of our birth". And although Billy himself left Dundee several times he always came back. Two of the characters in the play had never left, one never really belonged there, and the last only returned (as was implied) to die there, according to the Japanese saying. Sadly this was the same for Billy, who was found in his father's garden shed in 1997 having taken a fatal overdose. The closing of the play on Balgay Hill, close to Billy's final resting place, no happy ending, no tying of the ends reflects (for me) the reality of memory, there is no end, and with there being no end the memories will live on, gathering their own momentum; not Billy-as-he-was but Billy-as-he-is-remembered which will necessarily be different depending upon who is doing the remembering. Yet this is the nature of memories, they are idiosyncratic, highly personal and indisputable, the perfect foil to the 'boring old history' that we are forced to learn because someone tells us it is important. But it got me thinking, why do some memories endure more than others? Which memories of Billy will endure and which will fade? All in all it was more than a curiosity piece, it was a thoughtful and engaging work which deserves a lot of success. Now I wonder if Take That the Musical will have the same effect....

"So what if this party fears two? / The alcohol loves you whilst turning you blue / View it from here, from closer to near / Awake me!" (Party Fears Two - The Associates)

Some pictures....

Looking across to The Law from Balgay Hill

Looking across to the 'Silvery Tay' from the cemetery on Balgay Hill

The Dundee Rep Theatre

The best record shop I have visited in ages, Groucho's in Dundee

NB All quotes from Simon Macallum are from the 'Balgay Hill' programme; song lyrics from The Associates album 'Sulk'

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Crystal Stilts - Alight of the Night

The name Crystal Stilts sounds like one of those magical objects found only in European fairytales; like Baba Yaga's house that spins on chicken legs, the nettle shirts that Elisa must knit for her doomed brothers or the singing ringing tree that restores the morally bankrupt Princess to goodness.  Likewise the sounds constructed by the Stilts are somewhat vague and ethereal, with a tinge of the typical English weather.  If drizzle and mist could sing, rather than whisper with eerie precision in your ears, 'Alight of the night' might be the consequence.  Singer Brad sounds like he is enveloped in the stuff, his melancholic drawl subsumed beneath the weight of the ponderous production, recalling the wooziness of sinusitis, or that early sensation of numbness when operating on little sleep.  The world becomes cocoon-ed, perhaps a little indifferent, a little detached; its rather reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine and Shoegaze bands, but without the excruciating  ear-bleed.  Whatever - the results are beguiling, particularly songs 'The Dazzling' and 'Departure' which set a simple repetitive rift against bass-lines that chog along almost jovially alongside the mournful (and unfathomable) vocals, the slight melodies weaving in and out.  The power of the rhythms rise above the murk and prevent this album sinking into its own navel, creating an oddly uplifting experience.