Saturday, 15 April 2017

A Song On An Album That Should Have Been A Single

The Breeders, Happiness Is A Warm Gun 

I have two Beatles albums, one being The White Album. In 1992 when Breeders released the band’s debut recording Pod, I recognised the track Happiness Is A Warm Gun, written and composed by John Lennon, immediately, and loved what they’d done do it.

The BBC banned the original song for its sexual symbolism. On the other hand, the song is also referred to as metaphor for drug use, specifically heroin. The Breeders version seems to take this interpretation and really gets to the bare bones of the song’s mood: both the glorious melting sensation that comes, as the edge of everything begins to blur (as heroin addicts describe), and the fear, confusion, destructive feelings that motivate addiction. (Heroin addiction was a curse for Kelly Deal of the band, sister of Kim, also known as a significant member of The Pixies.)  Even though she was new to playing guitar her understanding of the depth of feeling, showed in the band’s music.

It would have been interesting to see whether The Breeders version was acceptable for a 1992 BBC Top Of The Pops. There were a lot of guitar bands on TOTP that year: Manic Street Preachers, The Lemonheads, The Charlatans, The Sugarcubes, The Senseless Things… as a single, it may have just slipped through...

On another note Toris Amos’ album Strange Little Girls (2001), which featured covers of tracks written by men, interpreted from the woman's viewpoint, also features Happiness Is A Warm Gun. She had to get permission from Yoko Ono to release it. Toris brings the literal image of a ‘smoking gun’ and the idea of a phallic symbol into the frame. She investigated John Lennon’s death as part of the writing process and discovered that Mark Chapman had seen an escort just before he shot John Lennon: A woman out there, forever silenced, being intimate with a killer and having to carry that around with her all her life. The result is very Kate Bush but not in a ‘should be a single’ way.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Do I pass the Bechdel test?

Reviewing Rogue One from a feminist perspective made me check for the Bechdel test in my own life. 

After seeing my film review of Rogue One in the F Word, I realised there was no reference to a crucial element in feminist analysis of narrative: did it pass the Bechdal test? e.g. do women have private conversations, taking the whole screen space, that don't involve men as the key point of discussion in the movie? 

I do point out women talk to each other formally, as Senators, both leading and contributing to the decision making of important affairs, but don't extend the analysis. Why didn't I? Is it the case that I still have to dance in the margins to remember who I am? 

The TV series Happy Valley (Sally Wainwright, writer, Sarah Lancashire, central figure), easily passed the Bechdel test. When the second series came out at the beginning of 2016, it became a bench mark for representation of women in media. 

For a few months after the series, when watching TV and feeling that my gender was included, realistically, I bothered to check the credits, only to find SW was involved in the writing or directing (in that episode), for example Whitechapel. And I found it easy to teach - as a contracted sessional lecturer - alongside Laura Mulvey and Bell Hooks, for first year undergraduates dipping their toes in media analysis. And therefore instantly making the future of the human race more palatable, probably. 

It still makes a difference - to my behaviour - if media represents the world around me e.g. the 52 per cent of the population. In the absence of good telly for the second half of 2016, and being that my dancing in the margins with women of all ages and interests is nowadays infrequent, I seem to be more isolated, being that I swim in the world of the majority most days.

I'm always aware of what is cultural and what is natural in my behaviour and around me - I like to think. But giving myself a once over with the Bechdel test, however, seems to resonate into everything. Constructively for my professional value, and sometimes in dynamic ways on a personal level. 

If you're in a heterosexual relationship, or a mamma, and especially if your men friends call you "one of the boys" would you clear the Bechdel test? 

As a writer, journalist, friend, mother, teacher, lover am I a living good example of the Bechdel test?  Am I using conversations with my women colleagues and friends to their full potential? 

The importance of representation in quantity, in media and in our daily lives, hit home again when I watched the series Girls Can Code on catch up. Apparently half of video gamers are women but only four per cent work in digital. 

The aim of the project, and programme, was to provide a group of diverse women access to opportunity and information, in order to become digital gurus. The eclectic choice of participants in itself was a glorious statement, e.g. it's hard to say what we want when we're all different. I felt proud it was my eighteen year old daughter who pointed this out immediately. (Earlier on in the evening I had watched her snooze through the Channel 4 News, while I sat in awe and admiration at the professionalism of Cathy Newman and Tzeen Ahmad. In fact, I timed how long it took before a male presenter appeared on screen. Twenty minutes. She was "not bovvered".) 

In the end, it was being surrounded by women in a variety of jobs, a major focus of the Girls Can Code Series, including the presenters (led by Radio 1's Alice Levine), and all the bosses... which seeped in and made the difference. Only one wanted to stay in the digital field, I recall, but all had changed their professional outlook, due to a new found personal confidence. Barely a fella was seen in the mix - the only white male patriarch being the journalist. (Pauses to chuckle knowingly.)

The New Year starts with the return of another recommended crime narrative, No Offence, for a second series (Paul Abbott, writer), featuring three principal women characters (Joanna Scanlan, Elaine Cassidy, and Alexandra Roach). Here's hoping it passes the Bechdel test. More importantly, here's to me staying mindful of the big BT, at all times, right up to the year's end. 

The review

Rogue One: Jyn Erso’s Star Wars herstory

Ngaire Ruth is thrilled about the latest Star Wars instalment, and especially about Jyn Erso, the woman at its heart
, 21 December 2016
Yes, the protagonist is female, and this time she is not a girl, as in last year’s The Force Awakens, but a grown-up woman. That particular heroine (Rey played by Daisy Ridley) was a game changer for the franchise, but Rogue One pushes the envelop further, giving top billing to the character Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones, who finds purpose in joining the Resistance and leading the quest to victory in this spectacular.
Rogue One is promoted as a stand-alone movie in the series but it is, in fact, the prologue to the very first Star Wars, released in 1977: a factor which makes for a canny twist to its ending. The film serves as a bridge between the 2005 Revenge Of The Sith (Episode III) and that first groundbreaking release (Episode IV).
It’s radical and overdue for a company like Disney, with its reputation for basic female stereotypes wearing gender-specific colour-coded outfits that you can’t run in (you’d definitely lose a shoe), to produce characters such as Rey, Maz Kanata (the female Yoda in The Force Awakens) and Jyn. According to the introductory speaker at the UK media London preview I attended, Disney is on a journey and they thank us for being part of it.
In the final battle, the Resistance pilots are equal-ish proportion women to men; camaraderie and mutual goals are the glue in these relationships, never romance
But it’s good to be cautious. It’s only now the mainstream film industry has caught on to the fact that women protagonists sell, a factor that ensured fair pay for the relatively unknown Felicity Jones, for which she has publicly thanked trailblazers Jennifer Lawrence and Patricia Arquette. And look at the promotional image: the enormous face of Jyn, gazing passively into the distance, surrounded by a squad of men, with weapons, ready for action, with Cassian Andor (played by Diego Luna), Jyn’s closest ally in the journey, fulfilling the role played by Han Solo, complete with non-human sidekick, the android K-2SO.
It suggests a narrative based around well-developed characters of heroic men and one stereotypical super-smart, driven woman who has been let into the sacred men’s clan, and reflecting the real life scenario of the woman who ‘made it’, and can’t hear all the other women shouting to be let in. Will it end in romance? Thankfully, no. How refreshing for Felicity Jones to be able to play a character for who romantic relations couldn’t be further from her mind.
This may be a space fantasy with a simple plot, but Rogue One has a more authentic representation of women on the screen, beyond the main characters. Their screen time is brief, unlike Jyn’s feisty squad, but mostly because it’s all about space horizons, space ships, space aliens, outfits and battles in space. In the final battle, the Resistance pilots are equal-ish proportion women to men; camaraderie and mutual goals are the glue in these relationships, never romance.
Around the counsel table of the Resistance, Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Senator Pamlo, a counsel member, opens the scene and the discussion. The leading Senator, and final decision-maker, is also a woman, Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly). Jyn gets the opportunity to make two rousing speeches to boot – in make-up free face and non-hairstyle that rings true for a displaced woman who lives so dangerously.
How can female characters relate to the historical context of the imagined saga, when previous films have habitually marginalised its women characters?
Director Gareth Edwards and his team don’t miss a thing: even down to the dirt under the nails of Jyn, as she holds her dying father’s head in her hands after a drawn out, wholesale destruction of the Imperial base, when a small group of the Resistance break orders to join her in stealing blueprints for the lethal weapon that destroys whole planets, the Death Star.
“We didn’t want to sexualize Jyn… We don’t even see Jyn’s arms!” Felicity Jonestold Glamour magazine. “She’s a survivor, and she has a mission to complete.” Jyn’s backstory, a proper herstory, is pivotal to the plot, most specifically an event in her childhood. It’s the film’s opening scene, but the adventure really begins 15 years later, making sense of all that has gone before.
It’s an interesting feminist pointer. How can female characters relate to the historical context of the imagined saga, when previous films, bar the last, have habitually marginalised its women characters? Rogue One gets closer to answering those questions. One day Lyn’s young life is shattered when the evil Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) arrives to take her father, under duress, to work as a scientist for the Imperial forces.
“Whatever I do, I do to protect you,” whispers her father as he waves her off into the deserted terrain to fend for herself as the intruders loom closer to the family dwelling. But not before she sees her own mother, Lyra, emerge from behind a sand dune to gun down the intruders, and get shot and killed in doing so.
“I love you too, Papa.”
“You know where to go don’t you? Trust The Force.”
Let’s not get too excited. There’s still the predictable subtext, that a woman can only be motivator and maker of meaning when defined by a man who bequeaths her to do so. More than once there’s reference to her being the daughter of Galen (Mads Mikkelson). He is seen as traitor to the Resistance, because he helped build the Death Star, but also as the saviour, with the script referring to him sacrificing himself for the cause.
He includes a hidden weakness in the Death Star’s design which will destroy it and convinces a disillusioned pilot (played by Riz Ahmed) to betray the Imperial forces and defect to the Resistance outpost, carrying a message in hologram form. It’s one of the many nods to the first Star Wars movie, along with the sight of droids C-3PO and R2-D2 as observers in a passing landscape, and the reappearance of Darth Vader, seen near the end for a fleeting killing spree or ten. Inevitably, circumstances lead to Jyn becoming the receiver of this message, and the pilot joins her mission to convince the Resistance to help.
Rogue One is the most thrilling chapter of the saga since The Empire Strikes Back. Never mind the mind-bending settings of starlit nights, floating planets and trashed landscapes, nor K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk (Wreck-It RalphFrozen), with a speciality in witty backchat and a social skills problem, which will endear young and old. The Christmas treat is fun and exciting thanks to the character of Jyn, the believable yet reluctant heroine.
All images © 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Photo: Jonathan Olley (1 and 2) and Giles Keyte (3)
Image description:
1. A young white woman (Rogue One character Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones) is looking off camera to the left, standing in the long tunnel with black walls and neon lights on them. She’s wearing a black uniform and has a long weapon in her backpack.
2. A young white woman (Rogue One character Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones) and a black droid K-2SO are standing against a concrete wall. A woman is wearing black clothes and it seems her hands are handcuffed.
3. A young white woman (Rogue One character Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones) is standing with her legs apart, wielding a black automatic rifle, wearing a black uniform and a black coat. She’s against orange-purple background which may be the reflection of fire. Her clothes, including a hat and black goggles on her head, seem wet, and it seems to be raining.
Ngaire Ruth used to write for the music weekly Melody Maker and more recently worked as live editor at She writes reviews, opinions and essays with a feminist agenda, relating to her interests in music and film and with a view to championing women in the creative arts. She vaguely keeps ablog, as well as writes poems and short stories, which she sometimes performs, and teaches market analysis, feminist and music theory at the UCA. Find her on Twitter @NgaireRuth

Monday, 17 October 2016

Gilli Smyth | The original Riot Grrrl


Gilli Smyth was a poet, performer and teacher, and the co-founder of avant-garde psychedelic assemble Gong (1968-69), with Daevid Allen, formerly of eclectic Soft Machine.

She met Allen in Paris where she was teaching at the Sorbonne. The pair, united by political motivations, performed a guerilla gig at the 1968 student riots, which led to them having to flee the city, and the setting up of the Gong community: musicians, artists, poets, writers.

How bloody exciting: teacher life suddenly turns into not having to get up first thing in the morning, politics, passion, music and word jams, with hot guys and girls.

At the time my record collector boyfriend played me Gong, in the ‘90s, I had just reviewed a Sylvia Juncosa album for the Melody Maker, a woman who received credibility due to her aggressive, heavy guitar playing. Really she couldn’t compete, for me, alongside other current bands of power, like Swans, the Young Gods, but I probably liked the album by nature that it was a woman artist, not just a front woman. (That week Transvision Vamp were the big feature, but the whole page images focused on vocalist Wendy James).

I knew full well that Allen had shouted “Just Do It!” long before punk and was cool, if whacky, but on listening to the Flying Teapot album I quickly grew impatient with his wizardly whisperings, not to mention the synthesizer sounded outdated to my post rave culture. Then Gilli Smyth’s voice melted into the mix…

Not often lonely 
As you see
I’m a cat with a flat cap
Be careful or I might scratch you
Or turn into a witch and fly away on my broomstick 

Witch's Song - I Am Your Pussy, 1973, Gong

Mother Gong, they eventually called her, a title she used to release albums of her own after leaving the group (as Allen also did eventually), after 1974. In the absence of any mother of my own (since the day of my seventh birthday), I adopted her, in my head, as my elder woman role model.

By setting out to trace her written word Nitrogen Dreams Of A Wild Girl (1966), I discovered a fanzine and art sub culture that was pre punk, and this in turn gave me an insight into the history of the underground press, such as Oz.

Gilli Smyth became my secret weapon and I would play her before stomping out on to the concrete streets, in my black DM’s with bright pink laces, baggy band tee shirt and striped tight jeans, heading to the Bull & Gate, Falcon or Sausage Machine for some slacker grunge at a DIY venue.

Sometimes it was fucking weird growing up in the old skool male dominated world of music, not least because women were described according to a typology, and I was expected to like anything by a woman, because I was a woman. I wanted a new sound and a new language that would challenge my creative writing and critical thinking skills. I wanted to avoid generic muso words, like seminal and undulating.

When Gilli Smyth sang sometimes it almost sounded like it was in a different tongue, but nonetheless it was one that I recognized in the pit of my stomach. Aside from this curiosity, there was also humour and playfulness, something that was still missing in most women’s music of the time. (Younger women artists were emerging into the ‘90s decade, and in the “I’m angry and that’s OK “ phase, but Gilli was already on to sarcasm.)

Her poetry was absurd, woven into the tapestry of a Gong mythology created by communal living and too much LSD, but in fact there was deep meaning and bite in her words and performance. Often she would play up to the generic 'type' as witch, girlfriend, whore, with irony and flair. She poked at every subliminal notion of femininity there was, and stayed friends and lovers with the hip guys (like Harry Williamson, her partner after Allen, Robert Wyatt, Robert Calvert).  If only the boy's music could have kept up with her, in terms of  being timely and forward thinking. (See "Robot Woman", below.) Sometimes she took on the character Shakti Yoni, originally created for the Gong album, Caembert Electrique (1971). I was promised I would get stoned just by listening to it.

I still want to be Gilli Smyth when I grow up e.g. live a full, emotionally adventurous life, working in the creative arts, loving learning, and the human race, to a ripe old age. I’ve cried. I’ve pined. She is omnipresent in my thoughts, and I thought she’d never die.

Yoni…Yoni… Where are you? Yoni…
She flies out of the sky with a great swoosh of wings and a flapping of feathers swirling by.
Dissolving dream destroyers who stamp like mice in jackboots on imaginative schemes.

But dreams come through like lighted train windows in the night and the wind whirling in the trees.
Reality thieves shout fear and doubt.
O it's a nightmare nightmare… Sailing in the sky with yoni on high… Yoni…

Thursday, 30 June 2016

That's What She Said | Barbara Nadel, Sophia Walker, Ngaire Ruth

That's What She Said @ The Book Club, London

Taking part in a billing of spoken word at For Book's Sake monthly event, That’s What She Said, is altogether different to reviewing a music gig. I always attach myself to other people's hopes and enthusiasm, now I was partly responsible for providing said quality emotions.

Things are so strange right now host, Paul Forster, has been instructed to remind the audience that this is a safe space.

Barbara Nadel’s  spoken word was in effect her relaxed, and probably many times told story behind the trigger for becoming a crime writer, over 25 good reads at the last count (Quercus Publishing). She was a professional working in a mental health institution, and her words tonight put many things in perspective for this already intelligent and mindful audience; both interesting and unsettling. She started and ended with this nugget, about her beginnings as a writer, in a perfect round-about way with spooky punch line, which now resonates like a good story ending: When someone hears the tale of a gruesome murder and says “They must have been mad to do it." It’s not true. They’re more likely to have been sane.  @BarbaraNadel

Take 2. Sophia Walker has the amble and image of Kate Tempest.

She’s already taking the personal into the political realm, using a dancing combo of joy and anger, something that means she can’t keep still, even though currently lame. It’s proper poet stuff: to have new material written based on current events that have both horrified and touched the world. Orlando is Sophie’s opening theme, the piece still on her phone. She apologises for being unprofessional but in this case, I think it’s honourable – spouting her mouth off about things she’s working out for herself, right there on the stage, always lyrical and looking right at us. This includes her panic about the Labour part split, increased racism, and the whole world’s predictable, yet now more terrifying, impatience with anybody different. If that isn’t enough, she seems to have a lifetime of experiences to share as well: Is she immortal? The background stories to her poetry are mind blowing, because she has worked all over the world in war torn countries. Apparently, when a revolver is pointed into your back, your first thought will be: Wow. That’s warm. @PoetWalker

I like to think I’m real, even though I'm a music critic. In the words of Lisa Simpson: It’s hard work being this fickle. I’ve worked as a lollipop lady, a cleaner, a full time classroom teacher, Lives Editor at the girls are, now teaching undergraduates. I’ve paid to get in to gigs. Helped put a psychopath in prison. Raised a confident, funny young woman. I can tell you what I wrote last week – Fire, Feminism and Fun, Morning Star, 22nd June – but anything for which I’m better known, such as seeing through the 90s at Melody Maker music paper, is a glorious blur. Am I a better writer today? Sure. What am I doing? Having an excellent time dining out on my music journalism days, flexing my performance muscles and indulging in my love of the human race.  Back in the Big Smoke.

This came from the opportunity to contribute to Rejected Unknown’s 101 Albums To Die Before You Hear, an idea and collective put together by the infamous Everett True, former Melody Maker Live Editor. I got the brief from the writer Lucy Cage: What classic albums don’t you like? Why not? No negative rants, at least without flair and facts. Delicious! I wanted to submit things that had previously been “in the trunk”, written with nowhere to go. In the end it was childhood memories of pop music and the rise of the transistor radio, triggered by my pondering over the word 'authenticity', that produced the piece I'm most proud of, and finally shared tonight, Hot Hits Vol. 2.

What I have discovered recently, when reading my writing aloud – which is thanks to 101 Albums To Die Before Your Hear and having a reason to be there - is my sense of humour, or timing, and the joy of performing. It's alot of fun kicking a dead man when he's down; and the sub-text to my complaint is not bad either (Frank Zappa, The Mothers Of Invention, 1973). I have found my voice. (Fifty-five, ladies and gentleman.) It's perfectly OK to stop and enjoy this important personal milestone, but really, I wouldn’t have expected other people to be so willing to join in. @NgaireRuth

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Performance pics @ Loud Women June 2016

Performed one of my contribution's to this newly published book last weekend 

@ Loud Women. 

Photographs courtesy of Keira Anee 2016 

What someone said

"101 Albums… is beautifully illustrated throughout with sharply witty takes on classic album covers by celebrated French artist Vincent Vanoli.
Masterminded and edited by notorious music critic Everett True, the book is a must-have for anyone interested in writing about music as well as those provoked by uncritical, uninspiring praise for the same old rock suspects. Among the victims/subjects of the chapters are Radiohead, Flaming Lips, The Doors, The Fall, Kate Bush, The Police, The Smiths and Frank Zappa. Prepare to have your sacred cows slaughtered.

Rejected Unknown is a community-based, not-for-profit company and will be ploughing any income from the sale of 101 Albums… into future projects, including the publication of Everett True’s Electrical Storm series. It operates as a consciously gender-equal space, so that non-male writers are sought out and given space to express their point of view."
-- Beautiful Freaks, May 27, 2016

When is a band not a band? | Good Sad Happy Bad Interview (formerly Micachu And the Shapes)

Good Sad Happy Bad
Photograph by James Drew Turner for the girls are

Not only has the role of the music journalist changed over the years but the typology of bands too; "being in a band" is taking on new meanings. It's contrary to and contrary about boys or girls and boys together in a gang, with one aim to climb that ladder to the top - all so phallocentric. Here's a link to my recent interview  for the girls are with Good Sad Happy Bad, formerly Micachu And The Shapes, who talk about their constantly evolving relationship, and in the end, even band name. 

Ngaire Ruth TGA Good Sad Happy Bad interview