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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Shaun Keefe ‘Guitart’ book – Available on iBooks.

EYEWITNESS 2015 blog by Aidan O'Rourke - Manchester, Liverpool, North West, photography, art, travel, local interest

EYEWITNESS 2015 blog by Aidan O’Rourke – Manchester, Liverpool, North West, photography, art, travel, local interest


guitart

Earlier this year I featured Shaun Keefe who has developed a highly individual style of art. It’s guitar art or guitart for short. He takes high quality photographs of classic guitars, prints them out and then adds colour in the form of paint, to turn them into striking artworks. Now he has released a book of his guitart on the iTunes bookstore. It’s full of these sumptuously coloured and lovingly crafted images of guitars, along with explanatory text and a foreword by Rupert Hine, musician, songwriter and record producer.

With their rich, saturated tones and detailed patterns and textures, these images come across particularly well on a computer screen. As you flip through the pages, the images fade or slide in and out, adding to the effect of an on-screen presentation, but it has the look and feel of a book that you could pick up and browse.

The price of Shaun’s book is £3.99 and you can sample and purchase it on the iBooks store:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/id1060017759

Shaun Keefe produced the excellent image of Eric Bell’s guitar which appears alongside my photomontage of the Thin Lizzy co-founder. The images are used on the cover of his 2015/2016 album ‘Exile’.

Exile album front and back imagery

Here’s the audio slide show I did in early 2015 featuring Shaun Keefe’s images of guitars.

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In His Own Words: Shaun Keefe Audio Slide Show

One of the biggest influences on me was a neighbour who was also a school friend. He was into pop art and illustration.

One day he asked me if I wanted to see the film of The Monterey Pop Festival at the Odeon cinema, Union, St Oldham, way back in 1972.

The film was great, but for me, the big thing was the support film, the farewell concert at the Albert Hall by my all time favourite band, Cream.

This film had a massive impact on me.

I bought a guitar, or should I say, my mum and dad bought a guitar for me, from Woolworths. It was an electric guitar and at the age of 12, it meant the world to me. It had a battery powered amp so I didn’t electrocute myself!
And so the love affair with music began.

Shaun Keefe Guitart Union Jack
I took a few really basic lessons from a guitar teacher, I think was called John Nuttall.

I ended up together with a few school mates and I tried to thrash out ‘Alright now’ – as people did back in 1974.

At this time my interest and ability in art began to take shape, mainly due to a great art teacher, Mr Gallagher.
One of the next big influences on me was when I went off to art college in 1978. There were gigs every weekend, clubs, festivals. I had an awesome time.

GUITART by Shaun Keefe

After art school I pursued a career in advertising, so I’ve never been too far away from the excitement of the creative process.

Since 2010 I’ve been a full time artist, combining painting and photography.

And as I say, I’ve been playing the guitar for years, so music has always been a massive passion.
I got great inspiration and influences from Cream, Hendrix and Zeppelin to The Stone Roses and Oasis.

So all of this seemed like a good and enjoyable theme for the art that I produce today, which I call GUITART that’s G-U-I-T-A-R-T that’s all one word.

Shaun Keefe Guitart - Ibanez

In a list of design icons of the second half of the twentieth century, the electric guitar would be close to the top.

And the people who love electric guitars are not just the people who play them.

The whole world loves electric guitars.

Everybody has their own favourite piece of music that remind them of a certain time, and the guitar plays its part in peoples’ memories.

I want to plug in to this affection that people have with guitars. I try to combine the beauty, colour and style of guitars with my original paintings.

The large canvases are a mixture of hessian, cotton, gauze and sharp sand. And for the paint medium, I use acrylics, with oils, pastels, emulsions, spray paint and inks. It’s a form of art that’s truly mixed media.

Shaun Keefe Guitart Norman and John

The finished canvases are then placed with various guitars in situ, photographed and treated in a range of photo effects.
The images are then printed onto textured stock paper weighing 400 gsm. All are limited edition signed prints.

In some ways I still behave like I did when I was 17, but without the same energy or hair!

I’m just as interested in new bands like Chris King Robinson as well as classic performers such as Eric Clapton, and that continues to inspire the art I do today.

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James Atkin ‘Unbelievable’ Audio Feature

 
Audio Part One: Introduction by Aidan O’Rourke

‘Unbelievable’ by EMF is one of the iconic songs of the Madchester scene, the music and dance movement that came out of Manchester in the late 80s and early 90s.

Madchester is associated with the Hacienda night club, the bands New Order, the Happy Mondays, the Stone Roses and others, but most of all with Manchester, the city from where so many famous music acts originated.

But, the band EMF and their lead singer James Atkin did not come from Manchester but the Forest of Dean, a remote area in Gloucester around 150 miles to the south.

Route Cinderford-to Manchester

The 150 mile route from Cinderford, Forest of Dean to Manchester

So how did a band from ‘the sticks’ come to create one of the defining records of its era?

James was born in Birmingham and he moved with his family to the Forest of Dean when he was eleven. At school he met the other band members, and they started to rehearse together.

They were booked to play a gig and needed some original material so they wrote ten songs, all of which were included on their album, ‘Schubert Dip’.

They played gigs, built up a fan base of school friends and before long, the London record labels started to become interested in them.

Only a small number of international artists have reached number one in the US singles chart with their first ever release.

Within months, and without even sending a demo tape, they achieved the thing most aspiring musicians dream of: They secured a record deal. They were signed to EMI, who chose ‘Unbelievable’ to release as a single, and as they say, the rest is history.

It reached number 3 in the UK Singles Chart and was a number one hit on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Only a small number of international artists have reached number one in the US singles chart with their first ever release, so James is in a very exclusive club. He was also nominated for an Ivor Novello award for his songwriting.

The album ‘Schubert Dip’ reached number 3 in the UK Albums Chart.

In 1991 James moved to London. He lived in Camden and got to know the London music scene with its different styles in different parts of the city. EMF then went on world tours.

After EMF folded, he played with Bentley Rhythm Ace, a dance band. He toured the world with them as keyboard player, visiting Japan and Australia.

Later in the nineties he had a deal with Polydor, doing break beat dance music. He released music, though not under his own name. During this time, he developed his production skills to a high standard, and in the early 2000s went back to university to train as a teacher.

James Atkin of EMF

James Atkin of EMF photographed on Spear St Northern Quarter

James moved with his family to the Yorkshire Dales and became a teacher of music technology.

In 2014 he began to write songs again and recorded his first album in many years. It’s called ‘A Country Mile’ and the songs are in the electronic genre with strong vocals in his unique vocal style.

They tell the story of his journey from the music scene in London to the remoteness of the Yorkshire Dales.

I met up with James in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. First of all I asked him was what are his feelings about the Manchester scene in the late 80s and what does he remember about that time?

‘Unbelievable’ by EMF is one of the iconic songs of the Madchester scene, the music and dance movement that came out of Manchester in the late 80s and early 90s.

Madchester is associated with the Hacienda night club, the bands New Order, the Happy Mondays, the Stone Roses and others, and most of all with Manchester.

But, the band EMF and their lead singer James Atkin did not come from Manchester but the Forest of Dean, a remote area around 150 miles south of Manchester.

So how did a band from ‘the sticks’ come to create one of the defining records of its era?

James was born in Birmingham and he moved with his family to the Forest of Dean when he was eleven. At school he met the other band members, and they started to rehearse together.

They were booked to play a gig and needed some original material so they wrote ten songs, all of which were included on their album, ‘Schubert Dip’.

They played gigs, built up a fanbase of school friends and before long, the London record labels started to become interested in them.

Within months, and without even sending a demo tape, they achieved the thing most aspiring musicians dream of: They secured a record deal. They were signed to EMI, who chose ‘Unbelievable’ to release as a single, and as they say, the rest is history.

It reached number 3 in the UK Singles Chart and was a number one hit on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Only a small number of artists have reached number one in the US singles chart with their first ever release, so James is in a very exclusive club. He was also nominated for an Ivor Novello award for his songwriting.

The album ‘Schubert Dip’ reached number 3 in the UK Albums Chart.

In 1991 James moved to London. He lived in Camden and got to know the London music scene with its different styles in different parts of the city. EMF then went on world tours.

After EMF folded, he played with Bentley Rhythm Ace, a dance band. He toured the world with them as keyboard player, visiting Japan and Australia.

Later in the nineties he had a deal with Polydor, doing break beat dance music. He released music, though not under his own name. During this time, he honed his production skills and in the early 2000s went back to university to train as a teacher.

James moved with his family to the Yorkshire Dales and became a teacher of music technology.

In 2014 he began to write songs again and recorded his first album in many years. It’s called ‘A Country Mile’ and the songs are in the electronic genre with strong vocals in his unique vocal style.

They tell the story of his journey from the music scene in London to the remoteness of the Yorkshire Dales.

I met up with James in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. First thing I asked him was what are his feelings about the Manchester scene in the late 80s and what does he remember about that time?

Audio Part Two: James Atkin talks about Manchester

James: I guess we were living in a small village or a small area called the Forest of Dean, so the city we looked towards was always Manchester. And Manchester’s always had a great culture of music, especially mid eighties, late eighties and going into the early nineties.

My original band, EMF, actually got their name from a Manchester band, New Order. There was an interview by the journalist David Quantick in the NME that mentioned New Order’s travelling fans as ‘Epsom Mad Funkers’ and we thought ‘Wow, that’s good, we’ll use that!’ so that’s where EMF came from.

And do you know, the mid-eighties for us was all about The Smiths and later on as dance music came in, we were, kind of, looking at New Order, looking at all the bands that were happening at that time: the Happy Mondays and Stone Roses, and those were a massive influence on us.

My first TV appearance, Top of the Pops, the first person I met was Clint Boon, a good Manchester lad, and he, kind of, took me under his wing, we kind of hung out in the studio together. We went to the BBC cafe, bumped into Shaun Ryder, and I was thinking ‘Wow, there’s all these kind of Manchester legends and they were all a bit scary to me, to be honest with you!

Years later, playing here, I got friendly with Noel Gallagher. I had some downtime after a gig and he took me round, showed me the sights. This was before Noel was in his band (Oasis), so I seem to remember back then he was getting lots of respect off people. You could see where it was going with Noel Gallagher. We made it to the Hacienda, it was quite quiet. Manchester has been the centre of the world musically for me for a long time.

And if you do look at my record collection, it’s littered with Manchester late eighties, early nineties bands.

Aidan: And what about Manchester as a music city today?

James: Well you know, I only live up the road now, so, when I need a dose of civilisation, Manchester is the city I come to. And it looks great, it’s vibrant! We go round the Northern Quarter, and we’re looking at these venues. We played Matt and Phreds, went down there, and that was a great venue, the Deaf Institute. (There’s) great stuff going on. It seems people are on it here.

Aidan: And tell me about the gig on Friday

James: On Friday we’re playing the Ruby Lounge. I’ve got some great bands playing with me. And I think it’s going to be… I’m going to play songs from my new album, I might put a few little classics in there. I was kind of thinking whether to or not to, but I think it would probably be quite rude if I didn’t if I didn’t put a few old EMF tunes in there, so that’s going to be quite exciting for me as well because I haven’t done that for a long while, but I think it’s going to be a great night. It’s only the second gig of the solo album tour, and the band sounds great, so we’re going to have a really good time.

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