Aidan’s review of Cotton Panic by Jane Horrocks – Why mainstream reviewers got it wrong

Jane Horrocks performing in Cotton Panic

Jane Horrocks performing in Cotton Panic


5-stars

As I understand it, one of the aims of the MIF is to stretch artistic boundaries, to encourage people, both performers and audiences, to move out of their comfort zone, to experiment, take risks and try out new things.

That’s certainly true of Cotton Panic, a unique combination of theatre, music, on-screen projections and sound effects, narrated and performed by Jane Horrocks, created by Jane Horrocks, Nick Vivian and the electronic band Wrangler. The show was fittingly held inside the decaying Upper Campfield Market hall on Deansgate.

I looked at a few reviews in mainstream newspapers and as usual I found them unhelpful, as they didn’t understand the concept and contained petty criticisms.

I decided to write a review myself to give proper credit to this very powerful and inspiring musical-theatrical creation.

In fact, I was so impressed with Cotton Panic I went to see it twice.

So what was it about the show that grabbed me? There are many reasons, many aspects overlooked and ignored by the reviewers.

One of the most striking things is it is self-contradictory, a merging of opposites. It combines modern electronic music and imagery to tell a story that takes place in the mid-19th century. Folk songs are combined with contemporary techno, produced on stage by the three musicians working behind the semi-transparent screen. It was exciting to see an old computer with glowing lights on the left, and a reel to reel tape recorder on the right. What would the people of 1862 have made of these instruments?

A couple of the reviews describe it as ‘gig-theatre’, a term I find condescending. It’s a mixture of music, drama, dance, on-screen imagery presented on a stage in front of a standing audience.

This is a story that’s an important part of the history of Manchester. It’s our history and it’s still relevant today. The cotton famine came about due to the American Civil War. Southern American ports were blockaded by the north. The supply of cotton was stopped, causing the Lancashire cotton industry to grind to a halt. This caused huge poverty. But the workers of Lancashire remained in solidarity with the American president due to his opposition to slavery. This fact is documented in Manchester’s Abraham Lincoln statue, which appears on screen.

The story is told by Jane Horrocks, sometimes singing in her very high voice, sometimes narrating, and occasionally shrieking, against the loud, techno musical backdrop,

The three huge screens, one behind the performers and two on either side, show images projected by industrial size digital projectors. Cotton dust like a snow storm is a constant feature as well as a ghostly female figure that could be called ‘Queen Cotton’.

At other times, we see quotations by authors describing the events of the time and the terrible poverty. We see a gigantic face of Glenda Jackson, reading a dignified description of terrible poverty that’s still shocking after a century and a half.

Later we see a facial close-up of an African-British actor – I’ve not managed to find out his name – delivering more powerful quotations.

It’s always very interesting when new connections and juxtapositions are made. The deafening roar of the factory machines is echoed in the industrial beats of the electronic music. Could it be that Manchester’s electro sound was inspired by its industrial heritage? Maybe. A woman in factory overalls does a traditional clog dance to a contemporary beat. The clogs looked like they are very good quality, I wonder where they were made.

There were many transatlantic echoes. In the early part of the show, the Lancashire cotton towns are read out in time with the music, and later, towns in the southern US states. Jane Horrocks waves a mid-19th century US flag. Later there are contemporary media images of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, interspersed with glimpses of mayhem on the streets, Donald Trump and Brexit.

Jane Horrocks is the lynchpin of the performance, holding it all together from beginning to end. She is a unique actor, a talented singer and a powerful narrator, her voice often amplified with a megaphone. She can transform herself from an angry agitator into a helpless child beggar, emphasised by her very high voice.

In one section, she wanders into the audience, repeating the words ‘Can you help me a bit?’, over and over again, and then then she is lifted up on the shoulders of fellow performers. It was moving – you could see it in the reactions of audience members.

In the reviews I gather that commentators found this and other sections a bit long and perhaps self-indulgent. I totally reject this criticism. The long sections emphasise drudgery and repetitiveness, whether of a 10-hour working day in a cotton mill, or a long day spent begging in the streets for a few pennies. The architecture of the piece is spread out and not curtailed in order to pander to a short attention span.

Hall of the Upper Campfield Market

Hall of the Upper Campfield Market before its conversion for ‘Cotton Panic’

I’ve heard people complain films are too long, like 2001 ‘Oh, it was too long’. No, that’s wrong! Its length is the whole point! It’s like complaining that The Cruel Sea has too much sea in it, or Lawrence of Arabia has too much desert. Cotton Panic has long, repetitive sections that help to tell the story. If they are longer than the three second sound bite editing culture of today, so be it.

What other interesting juxtapositions are there? I loved the use of Slave to the Rhythm by Grace Jones in connection to the rhythm of the cotton spinning machines. In the latter stages of the story, the cotton workers decide to go for a meeting at the Free Trade Hall, which is just around the corner from the venue. She sings the words ‘Anger is an energy’ from the song by Johnny Rotten, co-founder of The Sex Pistols, who performed at an infamous gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976.

I was astonished at the statistics and learned a lot. Whilst there was much poverty, some cotton Lancashire workers earned very high wages, the highest in the country. Seeing Cotton Famine has encouraged me to find out more about this forgotten period in Manchester’s history.

I saw the performance twice – on Thursday 14th and again on Saturday 16th and both times I was captivated. The second time I stood near the front, close to the stage and watched as Jane Horrocks came out into the audience just a few feet away. On both occasions I saw it, it was absorbing and the time flew.

It’s a shame the reviewers failed to appreciate these qualities. I often think that reviews should be mostly written by people who know how to appreciate a piece of music or theatre, rather than those who don’t, or perhaps they were asleep, or thinking about going to the pub afterwards.

This was a show about our city, Manchester, our history, our region, presented using the medium of the music that came out of our city – techno / electronic, presented by artists from around here. It has a clear and simple concept. It was very powerful musically, theatrically and historically and was perfectly in the spirit of the Manchester International Festival. I unreservedly give it a five star rating.

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Review of Kraftwerk live in Brighton, 07.06.2017

Kraftwerk live in Brighton 07.06.2017Kraftwerk are a contradiction. They use synthesisers and computers yet their music is full of expressiveness. They deal with complex themes of modernity and technology, yet their lyrics are often slogans or single words, often in multiple languages. On stage the four band members barely tap their feet to the music, and yet their electronic beat is so infectious, it has been the inspiration for dance genres including Hip-Hop, Techno and House.

I saw Kraftwerk at the Brighton Centre on 7 June, 2017. I travelled 260 miles from Manchester by Megabus and Southern Railway, and it was well worth the journey.

There were queues in front of the hall, which overlooks the sea, and after a long wait while the audience took their seats, the lights went down, the electronic beat started, four men walked onto the stage, each wearing a body suit stamped with a wireframe design. They stood behind four electronic musical instruments, futuristic  lecterns, lit up from inside.

On a huge screen behind them, shapes, patterns and words danced in 3D. We viewed them through stereoscopic glasses provided on entry. Each band member operated his electronic control centre – or was it a keyboard – gently tapping a foot or pressing a hand on a button or key.

The show progressed with dazzling and pulsating beats, patterns and slogans: “Eins zwei drei vier fünf sechs sieben acht.” For people, like me, who understand German, it was great. Kraftwerk make German sound cool.

They performed many of their greatest hits, some instrumental, others with words, sung by co-founder Ralf Hütter, who stood on the left. It was clear that he was actually playing the keyboard and singing live. The versions were quite different from the records and had an improvised feel.

I loved their live version of Autobahn with its computer-generated images of a VW Beetle and classic Mercedes driving on an imagined motorway in Germany some time in the seventies.

Radioaktivität has gained new significance since the seventies. The place names flashed up on screen told their own story: “HIROSHIMA – HARRISBURG – TSCHERNOBYL – SELLAFIELD – FUKUSHIMA”.

Each song and its accompanying graphics was an exploration in sound and graphics. Tour de France, Trans Europe Express show Kraftwerk are not just a German but European phenomenon.

The time went quickly and sadly the curtains closed. But there was a surprise in store, I won’t say what it is because it would be a spoiler! Suffice to say it was intriguing, humorous and typically Kraftwerk!

They returned for an encore, and played long, mesmerising tracks with that infectious, groundbreaking electro beat. Abstract waveforms and patterns flashed hypnotically on the screen above. A few people got up and danced at the front enjoying a mini-rave.

Finally each member went off separately, taking the final bow. Ralf Hütter was the last to depart, and that was the end of the Kraftwerk concert, an experience I won’t forget for a long time.

 

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Review of the Strawberry Studios exhibition at Stockport Museum

Stockport Market Hall and St Mary's Church What’s Stockport famous for? It’s the last stop on the West Coast line from London Euston to Manchester Piccadilly, it’s seven miles south east of the city centre and it’s my home town! But what else is it famous for? Oh yes, it’s the home of a groundbreaking recording studio that existed from 1967 to 1993, Strawberry Studios.

So what made Strawberry Studios different? The first thing is that it wasn’t in London. The music industry has been mostly based in London – it still is. But in the mid-sixties, a visionary group of people wanted to set up a studio in the north.

The driving force was Peter Tattersall and Eric Stewart. It was named after Eric’s favourite song, Strawberry Field, which was released in 1967.

It originally started in another location but moved to an industrial building on Waterloo Road in 1968. Incidentally this is just by the location of the Stockport air disaster of 1967.

They wanted to provide a recording facility to match those in London, but close to Manchester. They offered cheaper rates at night so that local bands could afford to record there. They made full use of the latest recording technology.

Strawberry Studios exhibition

The band 10cc were closely involved in the studios and they recorded many classic songs there, the most famous of which is “I’m Not In Love”, which featured groundbreaking use of tape loops to create rich layered vocals. It was a number one UK hit in 1975 and reached number two in the US. Many other artists recorded at Strawberry, including Paul McCartney, Neil Sedaka, the Bay City Rollers and most notably, Joy Division.

Despite the success of I’m Not In Love, 10cc split in 1976, continuing as two separate entities. The studio sadly closed in 1993, but the name survives both as a legend of music and as the name of the building.

In the seventies I lived just 10 minutes from Strawberry Studios and though I was active in music in the eighties, I never had any involvement there. The achievements of 10cc and Strawberry Studios are a source of local pride in Stockport and so in the year of the 50th anniversary of the setting up of the studio, it was natural that there should be a commemoration and exhibition.

It opened on 27 January, 2017 and though I couldn’t make the opening, I attended in late February. It’s housed in Staircase House in Stockport’s historic Market Place. The house contains exhibits about the history of Stockport on five levels and I can highly recommend it.

For me, the high point of my visit was entering the 10cc exhibition in the basement exhibition area. The two adjoining rooms are packed with many fascinating objects, musical instruments, photographs, videos and audio recordings.

Strawberry Studios exhibition Eric Stewart's Semi acoustic guitar

Eric Stewart’s Gibson ES 335 semi-acoustic guitar is proudly placed in a display cabinet. The guitar was used on all four 10cc albums.

The exhibition is packed with lots more artifacts, including 45 rpm discs, badges, amplifiers, music cassettes, brochures, post cards and the original sound equipment used by producer Martin Hannett.

Strawberry Studios exhibition

I was intrigued to see an original Marshall Time Modulator, and another piece of equipment which had the name ‘Martin Hannett’ inside the case. There was also an example of the ‘gizmo’ a device invented by Kevin Godley and Lol Creme. An electronic copy of the studio bookings diary from 1980 to 1981 contains many famous names.

I was overwhelmed by just how many fascinating items of memorabilia have been crammed into such a relatively small space. I found it all fascinating and absorbing.

I was lucky enough to meet the curator of the exhibition, music historian Peter Wadsworth. He told me that the exhibition was an extension of his PhD thesis, which is on the subject of Strawberry Studios.

For anyone who is interested in the history of music in the Manchester area, this exhibition is a must-see. And if like me, you lived through the Strawberry Studios era, and remember the artists and songs of that time, it will bring back many happy musical memories.

I am in Love – runs from 27th January 2017 until 29th January 2018. Stockport Museum is open Tuesday-Saturday 10am-5pm and Sunday 11am-5pm. Entry to the exhibition is free. Stockport Museum is located at 30 Market Place, Stockport, SK1 1ES.  

Stockport Story / Stockport Museum

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