Historically, the Renaissance of the 15th-17th centuries was followed by the philosophical advances of the Age of Enlightenment. Now that the council’s troubled Medway Renaissance regeneration board has been dissolved, what can be learnt from the failure to deliver its ambitious aims for Medway?
The Medway Renaissance set out a masterplan to transform the area over a period of twenty years, with new homes, new jobs, new public spaces and improvements to the local transport infrastructure and retail culture.
The plans spread from Strood to Gillingham, centring on the flagship Rochester Riverside development site and the regeneration of Chatham. Public infrastructures aside, the plans for Medway were broadly market-driven, tailored to create attractive and profitable conditions for housing developers, retailers and businesses.
The process of masterplanning, that is creating detailed, large–scale, deterministic plans for the regeneration of an area, is intimately linked to this market-driven approach. Embedded within the idea of market-friendly regeneration is the notion of ‘trickle-down’ free market economics, the belief that by attracting private capital and investment, some of this money will ‘trickle down’ to poorer and more deprived elements of the community.
The building of monumental, flagship developments also applies this logic, in the belief that the creation of iconic buildings and newly created retail and social spaces will re-energise the more depressed areas surrounding them.
The market fails
But what happens when the market fails? The global financial crisis, with its roots in the credit crunch of 2007, has, perhaps inevitably, had a stymieing effect on the regeneration of Medway.
Economic conditions are no longer as favourable for developers as they were at the inception of Medway Renaissance in 2006, which has led to a lack of takers for key sites, as well as a breakdown in negotiations between the board for Rochester Riverside and the site’s developer, Crest. Cuts in local government funding and uncertainty over grants from the government and local development agencies add to the obstacles for regeneration in Medway.
You could call it bad luck, or bad timing, but by their very nature, Medway Renaissance’s plans were vulnerable to market conditions. In order to return value on the money invested in redevelopment, there had to be demand from developers for land and from businesses and house buyers for property. In the meantime, the lack of interest from buyers and investors has thrown many of the flawed and much-criticised aspects of Medway’s regeneration into stark relief.
The Aveling and Porter building, the last physical reminder of Strood’s former status as a major producer of then-revolutionary traction and steam engines, was demolished in March 2009, as part of the clearance of the former Medway Council Civic Centre.
The cost to the tax payer of the demolition was estimated at £700,000. The justification for demolishing one of Strood’s last remaining historical buildings of note, in the face of fierce public opposition, was that the Aveling and Porter building would reduce the value of its associated site and consequently, its attractiveness to developers.
This was a decision taken by the council in late 2009, in the middle of a serious and well documented collapse in the housing market. A year down the line and Medway Council has yet to find a developer for the Strood riverside site. In the Aveling and Porter building’s stead, there now stands a carpark.
Public consternation over the Aveling and Porter building’s demolition was mirrored in the lead-up to the construction of Chatham’s new bus station. A lack of proper public consultation on plans for the bus station, a running theme in the activities of the Medway Renaissance board, was cited, as an outcry went up over the destruction of trees in the Paddock, one of Chatham’s best loved public spaces.
The rushing through of plans by the council’s cabinet was criticised, as they struggled to meet a government deadline for funding for the new station. Bus operators questioned its design and placement.
Now Chatham’s new bus station is in trouble with deadlines again. Construction has progressed sufficiently slowly to be in danger of missing a government deadline for completion, with Medway’s Council tax payers at risk of footing the bill if the bus station is not finished by March this year. The same deadline has led to a speed-up in the program of roadworks linked to Medway Renaissance’s plans.
The negative impact on Chatham’s high-street traders has been well documented, as poor access to their shops caused a slump in sales over Christmas.
Medway’s regeneration is suffering at the hands of a huge economic downturn. Some of the smaller scale decisions which attracted criticism and dissent in the preceding years are beginning to look even more questionable. But the fact remains that a commitment was made by Medway Council and its regeneration partners to redevelop the area, to bring new prosperity and pride to the Medway Towns. Each town had its own masterplan, documenting the changes and improvements to be made over a period of fifteen to twenty years.
One of the major criticisms of development masterplans, their top-down market-driven nature notwithstanding, is their inherent inflexibility. Masterplans only work if they are followed through to their conclusion. In this respect, they thrive on certainty, and flounder when circumstances change, whether they be practical, economic or political.
There are a variety of ways to respond to these challenges. One is to cut back regeneration projects and to sit and wait until the market recovers. In some instances, this seems to have been the path that Medway Council have followed.
The advice from The Credit Crunch and Regeneration: Impact and Implications, a government-commissioned independent report, is that ‘Regeneration is a long haul business. There is every reason and need to continue with it. The motto for all partners, especially government, must be ‘maintain the commitment’.’
It would seem then, that the expert advice is for local authorities to continue their commitment to regeneration, in spite of the difficult circumstances. This was not the line taken by the Rochester Riverside board when negotiating with their development partner Crest. No agreement was reached and Crest is no longer involved in plans for the site.
Crest’s group board director, Chris Tinker explains: “Despite the economics of the development, Crest was prepared to commence development of both the open market and affordable housing components of the project in the spring and to share the associated risks with the Council. Whilst the commercial returns were sub optimum for all parties, it is to be regretted that this strategy was not ultimately acceptable to the Rochester Riverside Board.”
It appears then, that the hatches are being battened down and that important parts of the Medway Renaissance plan for regeneration are either on hold, compromised, or will not come to fruition. The Renaissance has bombed. We have gained two glossy tower blocks, a multiplex and a shopping mall at Chatham Dockside. We will, one day, and possibly at some personal cost, see the completion of Chatham bus station. But what have we lost?
The Aveling and Porter building. A huge part of the Paddock and its trees. Time, money and patience with the chaotic state of road improvements. Faith in our views being heard, or counted, in the council’s plans for Medway.
Despite these traumas, though, regeneration is necessary for Medway. In an area still recovering from the lingering effects of the closure of Chatham docks as a working dockyard, energy and investment will need to be injected in order to progress, both through the current tough economic times, and then beyond them. But market-led, masterplan-driven regeneration needn’t be the way to do it.
One different approach, with significance to Medway’s array of historic buildings, 19th century housing and social deprivation, is heritage-led regeneration; that is ‘improvement of disadvantaged people or places through the delivery of a heritage focused project’. Although less directly profitable than market-led regeneration, the heritage approach does have the distinct advantage of creating positive changes in social conditions and local pride, without resorting to the hope that such benefits will ‘trickle down’ from high-status developments.
As the Architectural Heritage Fund’s report puts it: ‘These projects tend to be more active in creating links with a community, and therefore go a long way towards boosting civic pride and changing the way people feel about the place they live or work in, and therefore their own lives and aspirations’.
More generally, the Sustainable Cities Research Institute calls for a move away from masterplan-led regeneration in cities to a more organic, ongoing process of renewal, with community engagement at its heart. The Institute calls for a move away from one-off, high impact interventions, in favour of ‘flexible structure plans that include economic and social qualities and deal with a process rather than rigid and static products of masterplans’.
The regeneration of Medway has reached an impasse, one which will provide a tough challenge to the council and its development partners in the years to come. With luck, lessons will be learned from Medway Renaissance’s fall. After all, if the renaissance is over, it seems only reasonable to hope that an age of enlightenment will follow it.
Los Salvadores’ Incredible Shrinking Man EP follows the traditional EP format of providing a shot across the musical bows, a statement of ‘where we are now’ before moving onto bigger things. Surprisingly for a folk band, that’s the most traditional thing about the Kent band’s latest release.
Whether it’s their unconventional guitar/French horn/violin set-up, or a healthy disdain for genre boundaries and traditional song structure, Los Salvadores seem determined to do things their own way and on their own terms.
The band’s recent live shows have showcased a growing assurance in their freewheeling, free-spirited approach to folk music and, lyrically, the EP seems pre-occupied with change, transition, renewal and breaking with the past.
While many of their songs document Kentish folklore and legend, those on the Incredible Shrinking Man are more suggestive and associative, from ‘The Plunderer’s’ rebellion and parting shots, to the obsessive, destructive side-show love affair of ‘The Mistress of Distress…’
The dark tone of the songs is leavened by the theatricality of the arrangements, which recall Bellowhead’s rollicking, carnivalesque approach to folk. Guitar and French horn chase each other around like fox and hare in ‘The Plunderer’, ‘The Last Soiree’ captures some of The Unthanks’ choral atmospherics, while ‘The Mistress of Distress…’ sees some nice vocal interplay between singers Gareth and Vicky.
Mistress of Distress and The Incredible Shrinking Man by Los Salvadores
The title track captures the band’s recent approach in a nutshell: fleet-footed shifts in tempo and dynamics, shifting narrative perspectives and a bold approach to lyrics that moves away from traditional folk approaches of ‘telling it like it is’ to a feverish collage of images and suggestions that leaves the listener to draw their own conclusions.
It’s a neat trick, and coupled with Los Salvadores’ dramatic playing, breathes an air of depth and mystery into their songs. At times it’s like watching a zoetrope: magical and intriguing, in part because you have to stare hard to see what’s going on through the gaps and the flashes of light and dark.
If the lyrical content is dark and ambiguous, the music on the album is always engaging, taking rousing Levellers or Pogues-style folk-punk as a starting point, before running the songs through a kaleidoscope of tones, time signatures and genres. It’s recognisable as folk, but only in the same way that The Naked Lunch was recognisable as a novel, or Jackson Pollock’s work was recognisable as painting.
Perhaps the most respectful thing you can do with folk music, to paraphrase Martin Carthy, is to mess around with it and make it something new. There are a new generation of British folk bands and artists coming through who are doing just that. For all that it’s only a brief three track EP, The Incredible Shrinking Man leaves a heavy hint that Los Salvadores might one day be up there with the best of them.
Photograph (c) Richard Reader
A couple of months ago, The Medway News carried an interview with John Terry, owner of the Tap ‘n’ Tin in Chatham. In it he pronounced the Medway music scene well and truly dead. The “right” bands were no longer interested in his venue and therefore there was no local music to be heard in Medway.
He couldn’t, of course, have been more wrong: as events like the fourth annual Oxfam music festival ably demonstrate. It’s called Medway Happenings, and it’s happening right here outside the Command House, Chatham.
This small, free celebration of song boasts an impressive selection of Medway’s finest: the Flowing, Frau Pouch and Theatre Royal are just three of the bands on the line up. In fact the eleven bands and artists on today’s bill represent just some of the many, many, many musicians currently playing fantastic original music in this northern corner of Kent.
But it’s not just the musicians who are putting on a good show today. For all the great singing, strumming and bashing on stage, the heavens are doing their level best to literally dampen the mood with a series of downpours. And when it’s not raining, huge gusts of wind come along and send the gazebo sheltering the sound equipment flying several feet to the steps of the pub.
Not that the rain will put either performers or the crowd off. We’re made of tougher stuff than that. And so we’re more than happy to huddle beneath the giant umbrellas while Cry Baby Special sings and plays on the mercifully en-roofed stage.
And when the music stops and the technical bods arrange the arrival and departure of artists, we can happily toddle up the steps into the warm, dryness of the bar where, rumour has it, they serve alcohol.
There’s a rich assortment of music to be had here. All of it rather special and wonderful Cry Baby Special (aka Jason Stafford) offers us Dylan inspired acoustic folk rock – he even obliges with a cover of “It ain’t me, Babe” – and a voice recalling Brian Molko. It’s beautiful and impassioned, recalling the sound of Lupen Crook, also of this parish.
At the end of his set, Stafford hands his guitar and the stage over to Porlie Eidolon. Eidolon is another local musical hero in these parts. Didi Bergman (up later) recalls going to see him play gigs when she was but a wee small lass.
Today Eidolon pounds out an intense grinding, Nick Cave-ish song. Is that really the same guitar he’s playing that Cry Baby Special played?
There’s plenty of folk tinged singing and song writing to be found here today. Simon Bunyan opened the event (amid the promise of showers) with his one man and a guitar routine. And later Didi Bergman will take to the stage with her tender songs that are at once beautiful and fragile.
Nestled somewhere between them is The Flowing, or, at least, Dave Pickett of The Flowing. As with Cry Baby Special, the comparisons with Dylan as yardstick are inevitable. “Hold On” has something of a whiff of “Blowing in the Wind” about it.
As you might expect, the lyrics revolve around the poignant. Snatches of lines gleaned today include “she lay there dying from her wounds” and “better to be half way up than half way down”. Here are songs for the battered and world weary.
Midway through his set, Pickett is joined on stage by John Whittaker on trumpet. It won’t be the only time you’ll catch sight of Mr. Whittaker today. His muted trumpet brings a further delicate touch to the proceedings – the sound of restraint hiding an torrent of emotion.
The Medway sound
Medway is becoming something of a trailblazer for this kind of acoustic contemporary folk. But that’s not the only Medway sound doing the rounds at the moment. Elsewhere (and much on display today), is a more retro-sound. It’s a sound you’ll find in evidence here in the form of Groovy Uncle, Theatre Royal, the Len Price 3 and The Galileo 7.
Groovy Uncle might just have been frozen in time in 1964, like some Adam Adamant figure, defrosted just in time for the 2012 Olympics. The song (and title track from Groovy Uncle’s album) “Play Something We Know” has the most appropriate of names. Though totally original, it sounds like we’ve all known it for years.
Groovy Uncle’s music is bouncy, bubble gum pop owing as much to The Small Faces as early Beatles. It is, in fact, rather groovy. So groovy in fact, that it’s sent the rain away for at least 20 minutes.
Later, The Galileo 7 appear on stage to treat us to another case of nostalgia, this time with their eyes firmly on The Who. They open with “Never Go Back”, a sneering, snarling, psychedelic sounding song if ever there was one.
Plus the keyboardist bounces around in her all purple ensemble with a mad dance that’s nothing if not impressive. It’s high on energy and just a little bit fun too.
One band who seem more than a little bit surprised to be here are Frau Pouch. The potty mouthed noise merchants are not used to playing family friendly shows. Their 2.30pm billing may be the earliest they’ve ever played their post-watershed songs.
And John, the guitarist and singer, seems more than a little worried about the reaction they’re going to get. “We’ve written some alternative lyrics,” he explains. “But we apologise in advance just in case we forget to change the words.” This could be interesting.
Of course, it’s not just interesting. It’s fantastic. Frau Pouch’s sound is a stripped back, noise-fest: an intense, thrashing lo-fi rock beast – all shouting and angular…melodies. For want of a better word.
And rather than provoking a barrage of unwanted questions of what such and such means, the under 10s in attendance are loving it. They’re bouncing up and down like nobody’s business. Maybe Frau Pouch should do a guest slot of In The Night Garden some time.
Stuart Turner and the Flat Earth Society offer noise of a different variety again. This time it comes at us from somewhere near the Mississippi.
Turner’s opening gambit is a glorious, heavy blues number (as they’ll all be), complete with John Whittaker (him again) on trumpet to complete Turner’s distinctive gravely vocals. This time there’s no mute. And chaos is unleashed. Wonderful, joyous, cacophonous chaos. Absolutely marvellous.
The set features songs from the excellent EP, Weekend Heart (available on sale under a heavily secured gazebo tent) and “Murder on Gaslight Street”, Turner’s offering on last year’s ME2 album.
Since the recording, it’s been spruced up with Tex-Mex trumpeteering, giving the song about misery in Medway a distinctly dirty, murky, Latino feel. It’s rather gorgeous.
With such a rich array of sound, it’s easy to forget the rain and the wind. Soundman Jay might not find forgetting the weather as easy as he wipes off the rain from his sound equipment. But for the rest of us, the sun might as well have been out all day.
From the gentle acoustica of Didi Bergman and The Flowing through to the gleeful noise of Frau Pouch and Stuart Turner and the Flat Earth Society, this has been an excellent day of music.
Same again next year?
Photograph (c) Phil Dillon
Cropping up around Medway lately are shops, restaurants and coffee shops that are making the place resemble a lightweight version of Brighton’s North Laine. The fact all these funky places seem to stay empty baffled me until my wife (who has better eyesight and has done less drugs than me and is firmly in touch with reality) pointed out that these new places were not real.
Obviously I disbelieved her and tried to enter an empty restaurant that had opened in the location of another restaurant that had closed years earlier. Upon trying to enter, I crashed into the glass like a helpless bird that flies into the window of a conservatory. I realised my wife was right; these places are not real, but huge, carefully designed vinyl stickers designed to make empty and probably borderline-derelict buildings look like they have been occupied.
Okay, so the intro was slightly fictitious. I realised at once that these places were fake. I’m not so detached from reality that I was fooled by these gigantic conceptual fibs. I have to say, and I know some people might find this slightly controversial, I quite like them.
I should state, for the sake of what Hunter S Thompson referred to as the ‘Permanent Record’ that I’m not the Medway Towns’ biggest fan. So brightening up a slowly withering and aesthetically depressing town can only be a good thing, right?
Obviously, having real shops and funky cafes instead of fake ones would be better. As mentioned before, the Lanes in Brighton is a great example of groovy non-monoculturally branded boutiques, with places that offer food that’s slightly more nourishing than that on offer at a Subway.
But for whatever reason, the buildings remain vacant and empty and the Medway towns start to look increasingly more and more like a ghost town. So why stop there? Part of me thinks every shop should have these vinyl stickers.
Who cares what new lines are available in Peacocks? I’d rather someone covered it with a sticker of a shop that sells nothing but lava lamps. Instead of all those mobile phone shops, vinyl stickers of a place that sells only gramophones…
Then we could go surreal. Instead of just fake shops, throw the whole thing open. Document the insides of many houses in Medway: happy families watching TV, or a junkie lying on a bare mattress throwing up into a stolen handbag.
Or have a competition for the many talented photographers around the towns, let us see what they’d like to see. Or, instead of just putting fake stickers over closed shops, why don’t we just build a fake front for every shop, like in Blazing Saddles? Make the entire high street from Rochester to Chatham look like a town from the Wild West or just make it look really bland, like Maidstone’s Fremlin Walk.
Or instead of vinyl, let local graffiti artists go crazy. Since Medway is in danger of looking like a some of the scarier parts of an American ghetto, let the buildings be covered in enormous stylised murals from the spray paint cans of true artists.
One day, maybe, that might happen. But I’ve strayed away from my main point again: I like these vinyl shop fronts, which is probably not an opinion shared by many people. But as good as they are, they just aren’t real shops. Or even interesting fake ones.
Photograph (c) Richard Reader
A vicious cull of dead wood within the squad saw numbers heavily reduced, the ever elusive Mark McCammon was finally banished, along with the hapless Josh Gowling and both goalkeepers. Manager Andy Hessenthaler showed there was no room for sentiment as the club’s longest serving player Mark Bentley was also released.
News of a reduced playing budget left most fans fearing the worst, with a threadbare squad and no funds to rebuild, Gills fans could only look on in envy as League Two new-boys Crawley threw money around like it was going out of fashion. Of the players offered new deals, only Joe Martin agreed an extension, the rest deciding that a pay cut wasn’t what they were looking for.
Adebayo Akinfenwa bolted back to Northampton while utility-man Chris Palmer returned to his Midlands base with Burton Albion. Winger Andy Barcham did attain promotion of sorts with a move to League One Scunthorpe while Kevin Maher seemed happy to keep his options open.
Several weeks after the season-ending defeat at Chesterfield and Gills fans were growing increasingly despondent. Alleged targets had moved to other “lesser” sides, and aside from a rapidly growing pre-season fixture list, the club were staying resolutely silent. June came and went with no new arrivals and just when it seemed fan patience was beginning to evaporate entirely, the floodgates opened.
With the addition of prolific Dover striker Adam Birchall, Gills have registered eight new players in just two weeks. Of these, four required transfer fees to be paid before their services were secured, a situation not entirely consistent with the Gills’ reduced budget.
In goal, replacing the departed Cronin and Julian, comes Dover’s Ross Flitney (free). At present he is being touted as the club’s main keeper, but with ongoing rumours of a return for Jason Brown plus Argentine triallist Paolo Gazzaniga playing a part in pre-season, this is by no means a foregone conclusion. With certain sections of the Gills’ support becoming notorious for abusing players they deem lacking in ability, Flitney will need a solid start if he is chosen as Number One.
At the back, the third of the Dover triumvirate to have arrived is Matt Fish (free). Formerly of Crystal Palace, the youngster has been given another crack at the Football League and will be vying with club captain Barry Fuller for the right back spot. Andy Frampton (free from Millwall) may also prove to be an astute signing in defence, able to play both centrally or on the left. He brings some much needed steel and experience to a previously porous back four.
The revamped midfield is the strongest it has been for years. The return of Peterborough duo, Charlie Lee and Chris Whelpdale (undisclosed fees) is rightly being touted as something of a coup for Gillingham, both players being more than capable of playing at a far higher level than League Two. Lewis Montrose (free) from Wycombe Wanderers also looks to be a very decent signing at this level, with many Chairboys fans disappointed their club chose to release him.
Up front, the two new boys notched over 70 goals between them last season, albeit at non-league level. Whether they can translate this to the professional game remains to be seen, but Messrs Kedwell (undisclosed but thought to be around £120k) and Birchall (undisclosed but thought to be £50-75k) are an infinitely sharper goal-scoring threat than Dennis Oli will ever be.
Danny Kedwell also has a head-start when it comes to winning fans over, by actually being one of them. His post-arrival interviews will surely have earned him an army of admirers; admitting he used to stand on the Rainham End terrace and belt out songs alongside his fellow supporters.
Optimism is rife amongst the more fickle Gills’ supporters, and even those hardened cynics amongst us have cracked a smile at the quality of new signings. Surely a push for promotion is a must with the talent at Hessenthaler’s disposal, but that’s not to say it will be easy, we’re not alone in having remodelled our squad this season.
In terms of League Two’s most likely contenders; Crawley, Oxford and Northampton have spent freely on both fees and wages, while Paolo Di Canio’s Swindon (*spit*) have brought in some interesting, but conspicuously foreign talent. Whether they will be able to cope with the rigors of a cold Tuesday night in Accrington remains to be seen. If Plymouth Argyle can resolve their precarious financial issues before the start of the season, they too could well be in with a shout.
With just over two weeks until the start of season 2011-12, Gills are seemingly in a stronger position than they have been in quite some time.
Photograph (c) Steve Daniels
ME5 Records is a Medway based dubstep, drum & bass, hip-hop and grime based label, run by producers Matthew Boyce (Boycey/80yc3y) and Stephen Perry (Pez).
Boycey started out as a DJ and found his feet whilst spinning records on pirate radio, alongside his close friend Jim Cadman. A short slot on Reason FM began an addiction to music which led to a Friday night slot on Medway’s Urban Heights radio station, headlined by dubstep pioneer MC Rod Azlan. Alongside his Dj slots, Boycey began making music with ME5 co-producer Stephen Perry.
Perry spent the early part of his career studying at the Alchemea College of Audio Engineering (London) before landing a job at Grand Central Sound Studios and finding himself involved in the post production for Nike’s Write the Future World Cup advertising campaign. The pair would work through the night at Perry’s home studio, which became known as ‘The Greenhouse’ due to the San Pedro cactuses on the windowsill and the studio’s bass-traumatised pet tarantula .
It was during these long night shifts that the pair decided they needed a vocalist to bring out the best in the tracks they had produced. Boycey and Perry approached local singer/songwriter Farli to add vocals to classic 90′s R&B-influenced track ‘Truly Loved’. The recording that ensued was a success and the producers set about sending the track to Jacob Rickard’s BBC Kent Introducing show. Following the airplay on BBC Kent, ‘Truly Loved’ was also well received by Adam Dowling at KMFM, who commented on the overwhelmingly positive response to the song from the station’s listeners.
Farli – ‘Truly Loved’ on BBC Radio Kent Introducing
Working together, Boycey and Perry developed a versatile production style, drawing on a strong interest in a wide variety of musical genres, but focusing primarily on their love ofdrum & bass, dubstep and hip-hop. Their skill as producers led to them attracting the attention of influential grime/hip-hop artist Nolay, who recorded new track ‘Broken Home’ with the duo.
The end of 2010 saw Perry and Boycey start production on dubstep/drum & bass track ‘ Hero’, with a mix distorted sub-bass, jittering rhythms and euphoric electronica that echoes the work of Magnetic Man and Chase & Status . After a chance meeting at Luton Airport between Boycey and dubstep heavyweight Benga the song could be set for bigger things. Between working on various remixes, including a remix of Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Sirens’, Boycey and Pez have their sights set on reworking Eat More Cake’s ‘Underwater’, as well as working on Chatham-born M.C S.Kalibre’s ‘Empty Streets’ and releasing ME5 Records’ Hard Times E.P.
Poet and translator Lucien Stryk suggested that the best poet will find nature anywhere. The same might apply to a painter, but this can be a tall order on some streets. Sometimes there’s little besides brick and concrete, a weed here, a weed there. So if an artist has come to find inspiration in nature, how does she then learn to read an entirely new landscape?
In “Blurred Vision” at Nucleus Art Centre, Marissa Mardon may be addressing this question, drawing on her inspiration from the Medway area. Using three separate palettes—realist, black and white, and a spectrum of rich blue hues, viewers take in Victoria park’s bandstand, a Rochester sunset, the Rochester castle and a variety of urban scenes. Some of these images might occur anywhere, but many on exhibit at NAC remain particular to Medway.
Originally from the highlands of Scotland, Mardon does actually seem to find inspiration through nature here, sometimes even in manmade structures. She views these formations like the beams in “Look Up”, “Feathered” and “Above Blue Boar Creek” almost with the lackadaisical lens of a child staring up at an array of branches from the ground. There is wonder here, especially in “Riveted”, perhaps one of the most skillfully rendered pieces. Here Mardon leans toward abstraction yet still captures the boxy reality of a port town.
“Wheel”, also painted in the gorgeous blues of most of the steel structures in the show, is similarly well-executed, offering complexity in the shapes cut by the steel beams, perhaps inviting viewers to consider the possibility of sky as broad canvas. In “Feathered”, there seems to be something almost cellular in the steel formation of the wheel.
“Under the Bridge” depicts another ethereal blue scene with streetlights blurred in the distance not so unlike Whistler’s fuzzy lights in his Nocturnes. In making sense of our environments, we go by what we know, sometimes overlapping, placing one familiar element next to the new. A steel structure is to tree as wheel is to …? And where does grass fit in with the castle? One can sort of feel Mardon working it out.
Mardon’s abstraction in pieces like “Riveted” versus the pastoral paintings like “Rochester Sundown” and “Riverside Sunset” offer an interesting contrast. A few primarily red paintings (“Pants on Fire”, “Cocktail Bar” & “Fire Orbs”) may represent the more outrageous elements of Medway life.
The Rochester realist scenes portray what might arguably be some of the most appealing sights in Medway, and Mardon takes little to no artistic liberty here, as the river, sky and castle require no embellishment. Often, as Medway residents go about our days, these glimpses are private, incidental, but here Mardon connects all of us who’ve been taken by the sights, confirming their stunning qualities.
In “Bandstand”, the gazebo-like structure in Chatham’s Victoria Park is painted in mostly grey with perhaps just the slightest hint of blue, the black and white replacing what would be otherwise be verdant, achieving a dreamlike vision. The grey is soft, misty, and quite blurred on the right half of the painting.
The slender, elegant pillars of the bandstand might be the striking legs of a swift-moving, gently-grazing savanna creature—a gazelle perhaps. Or, the bandstand might just float off like a jellyfish fashioned by the rain. The mist, the grey, the rain—all of it blur our vision, which Mardon seems to suggest, might offer new possibilities rather than obscure them.
There’s not so much fog or blur in the similarly black and white “Castle Through the Grass”, but rather bright spots of light and wispy clouds in the sky. Grasses edge the front of the scene, the tops of the cathedral and castle behind. We can hear the wind here, maybe a gull, perhaps the soft rustling of the grasses. The inclination is to head down to the buildings, to take part in whatever one might find there.
This is the part of the story where the hero finds him or herself on the edge of the next chapter, the next set of challenges. Anticipation, excitement almost, brims in the very tips of other buildings sticking out of the horizon like new shoots in spring.
Drawing the beauty out
“Laying on the Lines” and “New Road Mist” capture l’heure bleue, that surreal, deep blue right before dark. This is night at its finest, the incipient night, and Mardon knows it. The bare tree branches and what could be harsh streetlights appear chilling in “New Road”, but there’s a beauty to the starkness, especially revealed here as is.
Mardon doesn’t seem to want to alter her landscape so much as dig to find the essence of it and to then draw that beauty out. In some streets, more digging may be required than on others. Mardon’s sight is keen, though, and she doesn’t seem to edit her field of vision.
Mardon has clearly studied her craft and her subjects. In works like “Wharf View”, featuring exquisitely rendered individual blades of grass, viewers discover that each blade warrants close observation, close consideration, and then some. Each tells a story in expressive angles, each bathed in its own tale of light and shadow.
Hints of Mardon’s personal story make an appearance as well, in “Shadow at Shorne”, where a silhouette stands in the center of a wood. The shadow suggests that perhaps a part of the artist always inhabits a place in the woods, a black and white space with winter trees and the absence of anything manmade.
In “See the Light”, a woman stands with arms outstretched in a triumphant fashion, over deep green hills that could be the Darland Banks, or a number of other valleys, with a clear shot of the sun as it works its way back down between the folds of the valley.
The woman, who, once again, may represent an aspect or aspects of the artist, seems to be connected to the scene, to the light and to the land. The position of the arms and body suggest a climb, an effort or struggle, now achieved, or the woman now perhaps after a time in the dark, now greeting the light.
Photograph (c) Marissa Mardon
So, where do I start? The Singing Loins are indeed legends in their own lifetimes. I am still amazed by how little is known outside the mainstream, or even outisde of Medway, about this band. Even when the writing and singing talents of Chris Broderick, armed with all the charm and nous of a streetwise brawler, coupled with the intellect and intuition of a screen-writer graduate of the school of life, paint epic and simple pictures in the mind through sharp, witty lyrics. Even when these stories of the poor, weak, downtrodden and the quietly mad, are set to great tunes by guitarist Chris Allen, whose understated and finely honed harmonies contrast with a hard and frantic playing style.
The Loins’ early sound reminds me of music to set a bar room brawl to on the one hand and delicate and beautiful songs and ballads on the other, showing the versatility of Broderick’s vocal and Allen’s guitar work to both assail and sooth at either extreme . Starting off in 1990, Chris Broderick and Chris “Arf” Allen began punking up the senile folk with their ballsy raucous folk based songs, which were always more to do with performance rather than being sterile studio products. Their first album was Songs For The Organ. Its first track ‘Hauling in the Slack’ set the tone and standard for what was to come. Those standards were very high.
A couple of albums were bashed out in Billy Childish’s bog and via other lo-fi methods, but the music was such that it didn’t need too much production. In fact it was far better to keep the rawness of live performance in the recorded product. From 1991 to 1996, two vinyl and two cassette albums were produced, as well as some live performances with Billy Childish. Thrust into the local limelight with the classic, ‘Chatham Girls’, the Loins’ profile grew larger, particularly in Medway.
The last full album of Singing Loins songs of this period was released in 1996. Though they continued doing the rounds, bad feelings came to the fore one night in 1999 when Broderick and Allen exchanged glances and expletives, as well as punches, and like one of their performances, they split up with a bang. This night went down in Loins legend. I’d love to hear the full story from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, sometime. I wasn’t there, but I am informed by someone who was there, that glitter may have been involved. (No, not Gary).
The Loins were not singing much until it was time to give it another go. In 2005 they reformed and added the talented Rob Sheppard to the line-up and produced what may have been their best album so far: Songs To Hear Before You Die. Thanks to Rob’s excellent and fresh contribution to the song-writing, along with the genius that is Chris “Arf” Allen and the lyrics of Chris Broderick, the album was released to widespread critical acclaim. The band toured again and the fans dusted their hobnails and braces off and flocked to their banner.
Drowned Man Resuscitator
The Drowned Man Resuscitator album followed Songs To Hear Before You Die in 2007 with the same song-writing team of Allen, Sheppard and Broderick, recreating the classic combination of well crafted songs and production featured on their preceding album.
Songs To Hear Before You Die and Drowned Man Resuscitator were both slightly more polished than the Singing Loins’ earlier lo-fi albums, but still retained the edge and power of their live performance, from the rough and ready ‘Skinners Rats’ and ‘Topless Twins of Allhallows on Sea’ to the calm beauty of ‘Low November Sun’. The songs seem even bigger now, more mature and finely crafted than previously. This may of course also have been a result of the studio’s production influence, or the addition of the very talented Rob Sheppard’s contribution and many years the Loins spent honing their craft.
Unravelling England, the next studio album released in 2009, saw another slight change in the songs’ structure and style. This was created by the Allen/Sheppard/Broderick writing trio, who combined to produce a more mature, sophisticated sound. The Loins also added a semi-permanent member, John Forrester on double bass. Unravelling England produced some of the most perceptive lyrics the Loins have written , ‘So Sophisticated’ and ‘Psycho Hippy’ in particular, sum up perfectly the hypocrisy of modern characters, situations and life in general, with the wry tongue-in-cheek slant that only Broderick can give. Probably my joint favourite Loins song ‘Ferry Lane’ is also on here.
The Loins have never ever given a lacklustre performance in all the times I have seen them. In fact the songs wouldn’t permit it. They require the performers’ full commitment to carry them off, so every Loins performance is a powerful and full-on experience. They slide effortlessly from the steam train-like delivery of ‘Hauling in the Slack’, to the thought-provoking beauty of ‘Valerie’. During the dramatic music-hall performance of ‘Please Take My Scissors Away’, Brod takes on the persona of the frustrated and slightly affected Victorian silhouette cutter, armed with scissors for dramatic effect. The Loins have the ability to roll three part plays into a single song, as in the ‘Fat Boy of Peckham’, which showcases the story-based lyrics of Chris Broderick. He effortlessly fits a wealth of detail into a simple narrative, which is where his talents as a screen writer and author cross over into his music.
Folk of Medway
Documenting the doings of everyday folk of Medway, the Loins’ body of work is not only musical genius, but a historical document of our times. Songs about those on the periphery of society, the mad, the bad and the downtrodden, all make interesting subjects for great lyrics and wonderful tunes. The band has always underplayed their greatness. Humble and low key, they have never really promoted themselves too much, tending to concentrate on what they are doing it for: love, rather than fortune and fame. In a way, they are still ‘our’ band and we like them that way. The release of the new album Stuff is imminent and it is sure to be up to the usual high Singing Loins standards. I personally love the band to bits. I get to all the shows I am able to via shanks’ pony, which isn’t always easy. I never tire of their music, nor watching them live. They are as close to perfect as I reckon it is possible to get.
But be careful not to let on; the Singing Loins might end up getting famous and playing the Shepherds Bush empire or the O2 arena. Rob may become the face of Armani, or Arf may be whisked off to New York for the next big Rolling Stone cover shoot. Brod might resort to refusing to perform unless the rider includes beer flavoured jelly babies. That just wouldn’t do would it?
The Singing Loins are still our band, very much alive and creating still. This is not a retrospective. So in the immortal words of the band, ‘shut your mouth’ and listen up.
Photograph (c) Alex Turner
The Medway Broadside will be launching in November 2010. Anyone in Medway can write for the Broadside – it’s a volunteer run, community focused publication and we’d love to hear from you if you have anything to contribute. If you are interested in writing for the paper, or have an idea for a story please see our Facebook group or contact The Medway Broadside.
A single muted guitar announces ‘Victory’, the first song on Garden Of England, the debut album by The Flowing. Then comes a hopeful declaration: ‘I am now marching to the beat of a drum. We must question every answer on the edge of a loaded gun’. Then in come more guitars chiming like droplets of light. And so it goes for three verses until something extraordinary happens. Dave Pickett’s vocal is met with multi-layered harmonies from French artist Agathe Peyrat which build gently into close, Disneyesque intervals. Suddenly we’re listening in Technicolor.
A word of explanation is required at this point. The Flowing can be configured in many ways. Sometimes it’s just Dave. Sometimes it’s Dave with Dan on guitar and Rich on Bass. On the album, and at more recent gigs, we also have Sophie on vocals, John on trumpet and Pete on flute and harmonica. Agathe appears on three songs courtesy of the freedom and flexibility the internet affords like-minded artists, and this brings us to the actual recording of the album. It’s a home-made affair and it shows, but in a good way.
Rather than being recorded in an unfamiliar studio environment, the album has clearly been recorded in different places (you can hear this in the disparity of EQ at times, but only just) and allowed to evolve at its own pace without constraint or too much production. Roses in the back yard don’t grow if you don’t put in the time, you know.
Back to the music. The songs are new but their roots are old, stemming from the blues and folk traditions. They are more often than not built on a foundation of Dave’s solid and studied finger picking skills, which make him very much a guitarist’s guitarist for rendering the complex as though it were almost effortless.
Such is the link with tradition that in this reviewer’s imagined parallel universe, Bob Dylan has stepped outside of time, heard ‘All Your Love’ (track 4) and covered it on ‘World Gone Wrong’. That said, The Flowing sound completely contemporary at the same time as all of this. The music has arrived in Medway via a youth spent listening to Bob Marley, or so it seems, yet has unquestionably been brewed with water from the River Medway itself.
There are a number of stand out songs on Garden Of England, and ‘Cast Out’ is one of them. What begins as a ringing, swinging, Spanish tinged full-blown affair melts away at its halfway point into a beautiful refrain that one can imagine an audience singing and swaying to long after the band has left the stage. It is probably this song that showcases Sophie’s backing vocals to the greatest effect, as they cushion Dave’s lead whilst cleverly matching every nuance of his vowel sounds, rather like Cara Tivey’s work with Billy Bragg.
Moving through ‘Ghosts’, with its hint of a Grapefruit Moon and perhaps a desire to grow from its current two and a half minute instrumental form into something bigger, and ‘Cm’, a live favourite and a modern fable (‘I know you well and I can tell’) set to a galloping, widescreen spaghetti western backdrop with delicious trumpets and notes of flute, we arrive at what might be the centrepiece of the album.
‘Hold On’ is a piece of craftsmanlike songwriting, and we find it at what, in old money, would be the end of side 1 or the beginning of side 2. Certainly, it’s the point where something changes and the album intensifies. Hold on indeed, as Agathe’s harmonies return and tell of “… the fading glory of an English town … from blood and stone she is made” in a way that crystallises perfectly the time and place from which this album originates.
The foreboding and funereal ‘Black Friday’ follows, and gives way to another live favourite, ‘From Here’. A glorious accordion leads into a campfire song sung at the end of long, shared journey. Dave and Sophie sound like an old couple who have shared such a journey. Simple and beautiful.
Lions is next. The pretty guitar, a jazzy variation on elements of ‘Greensleaves’, ‘Scarborough Fair’ and ‘Silent Night’ at first, gives way to a haunting, crackling orchestration that sounds half a century old. The listener has just two minutes to assimilate all of this before they can relax into ‘Tori’, which begins in the Bay of Naples and follows its marble skinned subject in a flamenco dress from the distance of memory and loss.
This is one of the most adventurous arrangements on the album, building gracefully from a single acoustic guitar, through raindrops of Fender Rhodes piano to a swelling crescendo of slightly manic plucked strings, wind and brass. Then follows another short allegorical piece, ‘Seaship’, in which Agathe’s harmonies evoke the Trio Bulgarka and sound like the song of the siren. You’ll be putting that one on repeat play at some point.
It’s getting very near the end now, and when title track Garden of England begins with its upbeat tempo and reassuringly familiar chord progression with playful disingenuity, the listener could be forgiven for thinking the ride home is going to be an easy one. There’s “…nothing peculiar here. Just smoke without fire”. Hmm. So people drowning in a lake and crawling back out and cathedrals lit like circuses aren’t at all peculiar. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe this is the album’s centrepiece.
The track fades out and you could be forgiven for thinking that’s it. But then comes ‘In My Longing’. At first it feels like a bonus track, or like it’s in the wrong place, but it isn’t. Firstly, that accordion deserved another outing and it’s a joy to hear. More importantly, an album which began with hope is now ending with a song about not being afraid to die, and the listener is left wondering what visions are shared in some the album’s more difficult allegories.
This is a transcendental album that at times immerses the listener in the darkest and most beautiful of folk stories. It sounds like nobody else, has enough beauty and depth to last the listener a lifetime and every home should have one. You can download it from CD Baby or iTunes or buy a CD at a gig. I strongly recommend that you do one or the other.
Photograph (c) Phil Dillon