Monday, 1 May 2017

Blow Off – On The Record with A.J. Taudevin's Music Theatre Timebomb

Watching Blow Off live is a thrilling experience. A.J. Taudevin's relentless piece of self-styled guerilla-gig-theatre rips open the psyche of a feminist activist to lay bare the emotional and psychological drive which has pushed her to the limit to take on the patriarchy that has been doing the pushing.

Accompanied onstage by a live soundtrack performed by composer/musician Kim Moore, aka Wolf, and Susan Bear and Julie Eisenstein, aka nouveau-punk duo Tuff Love, Blow Off is given a fearless momentum, with the music driving Taudevin on, backing her up every every explosive step of the way. With this in mind, it is essential that Blow Off is heard in its own right as much as it is seen.

Soundtrack albums of musical theatre shows are nothing new. It is only logical that an audience member who has enjoyed a show will want to take home some kind of permanent record of their experience, be it a copy of the play itself or an album. But such a record becomes more than a mere souvenir. It becomes an experience in itself, as a radio play or a podcast might.

And it becomes a living archive of a moment which also serves to share that moment with a wider world in a way that might bring in other audiences intrigued by what they hear. Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber (and Robert Stigwood) understood this when they released album versions of both Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita before they were produced for the stage.

When Don't Cry For Me Argentina, as sung by Julie Covington, became a smash hit single in 1976, it was the best trailer Evita could have. The same year, Covington had come to prominence in Rock Follies, a TV drama about a trio of out of work actresses who formed a girl band called The Little Ladies.

Rumoured to have been based on observations of radical feminist rock cabaret troupe the Sadista Sisters, Rock Follies used its cheap budget to its advantage to make a playfully heightened drama set against a back-drop of communes, music business shysters and female self-determinism, and which looked like fringe theatre on prime time telly. The show's stagy aesthetic also featured fantasy sequences and proto pop videos of songs penned by Roxy Music saxophonist Andy Mackay. The first of two Rock Follies soundtrack albums went to number one in the charts.

Without the recordings that exist, the great performances of actors in their prime will have been lost to the future generations who can now hang onto every word of the likes of Lotte Lenya doing Brecht, or Judi Dench and Glenda Jackson doing Shakespeare.

In what used to be called alternative theatre, music has always played a vital part, and while many of the shows have vanished, victims of their own of-the-moment ephemerality, those that were recorded allow the listeners an insight to what the shows might have been like in a live arena.

The late Kevin Coyne's allegedly Moors Murders inspired musical drama, Babble, may only have been performed in concert with Dagmar Krause a handful of times, but on record its suite of songs stand up by themselves remarkably well. What England, England, Coyne's 1977 music theatre collaboration with playwright Snoo Wilson inspired by the Kray twins will have sounded like, however, has disappeared from view.

Music theatre shows that have been captured on record include the jazz plays of Mike and Kate Westbrook, and, later, The Tiger Lillies' recordings of songs from Shockheaded Peter, as well as Pere Ubu's unique take on Alfred Jarry's play that gave the band their name. But who knows how Atlantis, the unproduced musical that Murray Head wrote the songs on his 1975 album, Say It Ain't So, for, might have turned out. Head had played Judas Iscariot on the original album recording of Jesus Christ Superstar, and would later have a hit with One Night in Bangkok in Chess.

Let us not forget that the first production credit by late sonic genius Martin Hannett, then a punkier and more consciously samizdat Martin Zero, was not the Buzzcocks debut EP, Spiral Scratch, released independently on the New Hormones label, or Joy Division's first album, Unknown Pleasures, which would put the equally independent Factory Records on the musical map.

While both of these records would go on to change the musical landscape forever, Hannett would announce himself to the world with an album of songs written and performed by radical left-wing company, the Belt & Braces Roadshow, an offshoot of the 7:84 company formed after a company schism by director and former 7:84 actor, Gavin Richards.

Richards would go on to adapt and play the title role in the first English language translation of Dario Fo's play, Accidental Death of An Anarchist. An umbilical link to this can be seen by the presence of Blow Off in this month's Dancing With Colours, Whipping With Words festival of Dario Fo and a new generation of political theatre makers. The nearest theatrical relatives to Blow Off, after all, are the similarly intense monologues by Fo's life-long partner and theatrical collaborator, Franca Rame.

Beyond Belt & Braces, it is telling that Hannett was the producer and collaborator of performance poet John Cooper-Clarke, providing a musical backdrop to the bard of Salford's social-realist psychodramas. Hannett and pianist Steve Hopkins would become the Invisible Girls, who would co-opt a loose-knit collective of Manchester scene luminaries to provide musical atmosphere and texture to Cooper-Clark's words.

Hannett produced Cooper-Clarke's 1980 masterpiece, Snap, Crackle and Bop, the highlight of which was Beasley Street, an urban grimoir of Thatcher's Britain set to Hannett and the Invisible Girls' noirish underscore. Cooper-Clarke's performance on BBC TV music show The Old Grey Whistle Test of a poem now regarded as the late twentieth century equivalent of T.S. Eliot's the Wasteland, and here backed by a seven-piece version of the Invisible Girls, is a masterclass in how music can make the spoken word an even more powerful means of expression.

More recently, poet Kate Tempest has applied her urgent street-smart narratives of a sub-cultural underclass to a fusion of hip hop beats for Brand New Ancients, an extended piece which in tone comes on like a clubbier descendent of Beasley Street. Like Blow Off, Brand New Ancients was originally seen at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, and works just as well on page, stage and record, morphing into a different but equally crucial beast as it surfs between forms.

So it is with Blow Off, an essential piece of theatre for our times, but one which also needs to be heard beyond the Fringe, on record, on the radio and online as a vital document of a music theatre timebomb whose every layer of meaning can be unearthed with every listen.

October 1st 2016

This was written following a request for a short statement of support for funding from the Performing Rights Society to record an album of Blow Off, the music theatre show written and performed by A.J. Taudevin with Kim Moore, aka Wolf and Susan Bear and Julie Eisenstein, aka Tuff Love. I'd seen the show at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh during the 2016 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and loved it. I only noticed after finishing the above reverie that I had only been asked to do 100 words. I've no idea which bit if any was used, but they got the PRS funding anyway. It strikes me now on reflection six months later that I probably should have mentioned the late George Byatt's plays, Why Does the Pope Not Come to Glasgow? and Workers of the World Confess, both of which featured Edinburgh's premiere incendiary post-punk troupe, Fire Engines, but I forgot.

ends

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