Originally written for LeftLion.
Following the success of Sound It Out, which took a fond look at Teesside’s last surviving record shop, Nottingham director’s Jeanie Finlay’s latest documentary, The Great Hip Hop Hoax, is now on general release across the UK. A day before its commercial opening night in Dundee, the original home of its central characters, Broadway hosted a special screening and Q&A, hosted by Sarah Lutton, programme advisor for the London Film Festival.
As Jeanie Finlay explained, the film-making process was littered with obstacles. Its two protagonists were no longer on speaking terms, and securing permission to film their story proved to be a lengthy uphill struggle. Given the breathtaking scale of the deception which the movie documents, this is perhaps scarcely surprising.
Thirteen years ago, Billy Boyd and Gavin Bain were a pair of talented and ambitious hip hop MCs, seeking a foothold in the music industry, but constantly thwarted by the mere fact of their Scottishness. At an audition for Warner Brothers, they were practically laughed out of the room, dismissed as “the rapping Proclaimers.”
However, once Boyd and Bain decided to re-invent themselves as Silibil ‘n Brains – a bratty, hell-raising and downright obnoxious skate-rap duo from Huntington Beach in California – doors that had previously been closed suddenly swung open. Signed up in 2004 by showbiz mogul Jonathan Shalit, manager of the likes of Charlotte Church, Myleene Klass and N-Dubz, they soon found themselves larging it in London on a hefty advance, widely tipped as rap’s Next Big Thing.
Throughout this time, Billy and Gavin – neither of whom had ever visited the USA – played their Silibil ‘n Brains roles to perfection, fooling everyone they met and never letting their meticulously constructed personas slip for a second. Consumed by their alter-egos, they partied hard and behaved atrociously, as Gavin’s obsessively captured video footage demonstrates. The mask only threatened to slip once: backstage at the Brit Awards, as a bemused Daniel Bedingfield perceptively queried Billy’s Californian accent. (“But I thought you were Scottish?”)
If the era of social media had dawned a few years earlier, Silibil ‘n Brains wouldn’t have lasted five minutes; one tweet from a former classmate, and the game would have been up. But as the deception continued unchallenged, the internal tensions grew, ultimately reaching a breaking point which torpedoed Billy and Gavin’s friendship.
Cutting between archive footage, present-day interviews with the chastened and reflective pair (conducted separately, and spread over several years), and Jon Burgerman’s comic animated re-stagings of certain key scenes, the film skilfully tells a story that is by turns funny, shocking, touching and agonising. Having wormed their way into a subculture that sets great store on “keeping it real”, the fakers had unwittingly signed a Faustian pact – and while their downfall might have been inevitable, their failure to foresee it lends them an “innocents abroad” quality that even the worst of their excesses cannot fully smother.
For Jeanie Finlay, “trying to navigate between two known liars” was an immensely challenging process, as she sought to unpick the truth from a pair of unreliable witnesses whose mutual hostility remained undimmed. “I felt like a terrible divorce lawyer”, she confessed, fielding questions after the screening.
The tale does have a happier coda, though. The Great Hip Hop Hoax received its world premiere earlier this year, at the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas, and both Gavin and Billy flew over with Jeanie for the occasion, reunited for the first time since their bust-up. Buoyed the renewed interest, they are now rumoured to be working on a comeback album. Perhaps there’s a loophole in that Faustian pact after all.
Originally published in the Nottingham Post.
He might be known as “Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure”, but John Otway has a knack of coming up trumps. Originally booked into one of Broadway’s smaller screening rooms, unexpectedly high advance sales ensured that Thursday’s one-off screening of Otway The Movie – a home-made, fan-funded documentary, charting his chaotic forty-year career in the music business – was bumped up at the last minute, to the biggest room in the house. On learning the news, his audience cheered him to the rafters.
I had been booked to introduce the film, and to talk with the great man on stage after the screening. Upon arrival, I was led into the main bar, where Otway was already holding court with some of his fans – an uncommonly eager and supportive bunch. We shook hands. An awkward conversational pause ensued. “Have you done this sort of thing before?” he asked. Oh, he’s a sharp one.
John stayed at the back of the room for my preamble, which compared and contrasted the resourcefulness of the Otway fan base – they all but invented crowd-funding, many years ago – with the more limited opportunities on offer to the fans of One Direction – who had an opening night of their own to attend, round the corner at Cineworld.
The movie combined plentiful archive footage- Otway has always been a keen documenter of his own life – with classroom scenes, in which the sixty-year old cult hero instructed a bunch of bemused-looking teenagers on how to make it in the music business.
Coming from someone who had to wait 25 years between his first and second hit singles, this might have seemed a bit rich, but Otway is a born survivor, with an unshakeable belief that all will turn out well in the end.
Otway’s second brush with the charts, thanks to a brilliantly orchestrated campaign that took on the vested interests of the music industry and succeeded against all the odds, was explained in detail. Woolworths, who were still a very big deal back in 2002, had refused to stock his second hit, Bunsen Burner, even when it entered the charts at Number Nine. A few years later, as we were cheerfully reminded, the retail chain went bust, in a stroke of divine justice which brought the biggest cheer of the night.
As the lengthy credits rolled, listing the many hundreds of crowd-funding fans by name, John joined me onstage for a chat and an audience Q&A. He had turned down the offer of a table and chairs (“far too serious”) in favour of perching on the edge of the stage. (“That’s more punk rock, isn’t it?”)
Once in front of an audience, the amiably low-key fellow I’d met earlier transformed into the effortlessly hilarious character that we knew and loved. It felt as if he was coming into his own, and becoming more fully himself. Perhaps that would account for his insatiable appetite for performing; after all, it has been a full twenty years since he celebrated his 2000th show.
Knowing what you know now, asked one fan, would you have rather lived the life of the superstar you never became, or has your chequered career enriched you in ways that success never could? “That’s the most stupid question I’ve ever been asked!” Otway replied. “OF COURSE I’d rather have been a superstar! That’s all I ever wanted!”
John’s other great knack is for inspiring his fans to mobilise and campaign on his behalf. For his fiftieth birthday, they gave him a second hit single. For his sixtieth birthday, they gave him a movie: premiered in Leicester Square, taken to the Cannes Film Festival, and soon to be eligible for a BAFTA. And so it was that I found myself, hypnotised by his spell, bravely launching a campaign to get him onto the main stage at Rock City. (“Who’s in?” I yelled. “We are!” they replied.) Well, many stranger things have happened. DHP, please take note.
When all is said and done, perhaps the wisest words lie in the movie’s subtitle. John Otway isn’t rock and roll’s biggest failure, he isn’t its worst failure, and he most certainly isn’t its most hopeless failure. He is far more than that. He is “Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure” – and for that, we must salute him.
Coming at the end of a landmark month for Nottingham music, which has seen three city acts gain national recognition for their talents, and the first ever chart-topping album for a local artist, the Branch Out Festival offered a perfect opportunity to savour and celebrate the rich diversity of the current scene.
Over the course of ten hours, over fifty acts performed at seven different venues, all for free, leaving punters spoilt for choice as they dashed from venue to venue, programmes in hand.
The day began at Nottingham Contemporary, with a mystery “Blackout” performance in The Space. Guides led us – ten at a time, hands on shoulders like a conga line – into total darkness, with strict instructions to leave phones switched off. As no advance notice was given as to the performers, our ears were our only guides.
Eerie electronics morphed into pounding dance beats, which ebbed away into a field recording from a New York subway station. A male voice – John Sampson of Swimming – sung plaintively over a piano backing. A female voice joined in, and gradually took over, her soulful torch songs flowing into each other without a pause. For many of us, the voice was almost instantly recognisable; this was the wonderful Natalie Duncan, stepping away from her regular set list and delving into her massive stockpile of unrecorded songs. There is something very special about listening to such heartfelt music in the dark; it frees up the emotions, allowing for a very direct connection with the artist. A great start to the day.
From 3pm onwards, other venues started to open their doors. Over at Broadway, acoustic singer-songwriters were the order of the day, kicked off by Frankie Rudolf and Joe Danks, and concluded by Hannah Heartshape and Hhymn, the sole band on the line-up.
In the Basement of Rock City, Parks were an early highlight, delivering a crisp set of tuneful indie rock to an appreciative crowd. Practical Lovers were an altogether darker proposition, with their doomy electro powerfully sung by the vaguely alarming Jack Wiles.
A quick hop around the corner took you to Stealth, and another line-up that focussed mainly on guitar bands. This proved to be the rat-run of choice for rock fans, who could stop off at the Rescue Rooms bar between sets. Those who enjoyed Boots Booklovers, I Am Lono and Pilgrim Fathers were busily spreading the buzz, while one of this reviewer’s personal highlights of the day came from the brilliantly acerbic Sleaford Mods, whose bitter verses decrying their more fame-hungry fellow artists drew mid-song cheers. Meanwhile, the upstairs floor of the club played host to a vast line-up of hip hop MCs, including local legends such as Cappo, Jah Digga, 2 Tone and Karizma.
Offering a more relaxed ambience, the Alley Café provided gentle respite from the mayhem. A similarly easy-going vibe prevailed at Antenna, where spectators could dine at their tables while watching the acts, supper-club style. The Antenna programme was hosted by Dean Jackson, from BBC Radio Nottingham’s The Beat, who interviewed each act before they took to the stage. The superb line-up included Gallery 47, back in the game after a long break with a terrific clutch of new material, as well as the hotly tipped Ady Suleiman and Georgie Rose. Later on, Natalie Duncan stepped in for an absent Liam Bailey, followed by the ever-popular Nina Smith and the sublime Harleighblu, who offered tasters from her forthcoming album.
By 7pm, the crowds were peaking at Stealth and Rock City. There was turbo-charged ska from Breadchasers at Rock City, then a quick dash back to Stealth, now jammed to capacity, for two of the most eagerly anticipated sets of the day from teenage indie-rockers Kappa Gamma and Kagoule. It was a joy to witness how quickly both bands are developing. Once rather static on stage, Kappa Gamma are now firing on all cylinders, the players crashing around the stage and hurtling into each other, without ever sacrificing the complex precision of their material. And if you timed it right, you could also have caught a storming Rock City set from Captain Dangerous, a raucous four-piece backed by a string quartet, like an Anglicised version of The Pogues.
On the other side of the Market Square, the Malt Cross did brisk trade throughout the day, with sets including Chris McDonald, Cecille Grey and Will Jeffery. Topping the bill on the mezzanine stage, We Are Avengers delivered a more peppy, sparky and uplifting set than you might have expected from their more downtempo recorded work. They were followed by Injured Birds, premiering cuts from their just released debut album, and showing us just what could be done with a ukulele as lead instrument.
With sizeable turnouts at all the venues, the scale of the festival felt just right – although a shuttle bus wouldn’t have gone amiss, to relieve the strain on our aching soles. Everywhere you went, you ran into friends, eagerly filling you in on the acts you had missed, all sharing in the excellence of the day. Let’s hope that this becomes a regular fixture in years to come.
PHOTO GALLERY by Martyn Boston >>> (more…)
“Are you here for the binaural?” The respectable looking lady to our right leaned over to us, with a friendly, enquiring smile, before introducing herself as the mother of Swimming’s singer John Sampson, and their drummer Pete. During the conversation which followed, I was hit with a new thought: to fully grasp where the art is coming from, perhaps you need to talk to the mother. For John and Pete’s mum was not only a mine of information – biographical details, key career highlights, the full skinny – but she was also possessed of a keen understanding of the ideas, inspirations and aspirations that have informed John’s songcraft.
And there was nothing that she didn’t know about “binaural” performance methodology, either. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, it’s a method of sound recording that seeks to reproduce the exact sensation of being in the same room as the musicians, by means of microphones which are attached to the ears of the binaural broadcaster.
For this unique performance at Broadway, Swimming were cloistered away in the Lounge, while the rest of us gathered inside the Café Bar, each equipped with a pair of high-specification cordless headphones. Our channeller for the evening was Dallas Simpson, who has been working within this medium for the past ten years. “My ears are your ears”, he told us before the set began, explaining that we were about to be offered “a one-to-one relationship with Swimming”.
Two video displays were activated, each beaming onto a different wall of the bar. On one wall, a fixed camera showed Simpson in the middle of the lounge, slowly moving between the seated players. On the other, a camera attached to Simpson’s head showed us what he was seeing, as he moved this way and that.
As the performance began, introductory sounds of running water were replaced by the music of the band, transmitted from the instruments in the Lounge to the ears of the bar. Indeed, there was no external amplification whatsoever; if you slipped off your cans, all you heard was the rare silence of a packed city centre bar on a Friday night.
What hit you first was the extraordinarily spatial, three-dimensional quality of the sound, which felt as if it existed outside of your head, filling the room. The effect was amplified by a number of long white tubes, which Simpson arranged on the floor of the performance space, occasionally tilting them hither and thither. The tubes acted as speakers, channelling each individual player’s contribution from one corner to another, and increasing the sensation of distinct sonic separation.
By stepping around the performance space, drawing close to different band members in turn, Simpson was able to subtly influence the mix, his physical proximity to any chosen instrument increasing its prominence in our ears. His intent, focussed, acutely “present in the room” demeanour set the mood for the audience, who remained in rapt concentration throughout.
Some closed their eyes and surrendered to the sonics, while others flicked their gaze from one wall to the other, connecting the two pieces of visual information – but all were actively engaged in an exercise of sustained listening, of a nature that was wholly unlike anything that you could have found at a standard rock gig. The communal listening experience was still present, but our responses were freed from the usual influence of the crowd.
The performance differed in other ways, too. Projected high above our heads, there was an Olympian detachment about the players – and yet at the same time, an extraordinarily direct and intimate connection was formed between them and us. In turn, this informed the band’s re-interpretations of their recorded material.
In marked contrast to the closely melded indie-rock production of the records, in which individual parts coalesce into a fuzzed-out whole, this was a performance that invited you to separate out the components of each track. Noisy and pumping on their parent albums, the songs became contemplative and delicate, with sparkling, stripped-down new arrangements. Swimming Unplugged… or was it Swimming Re-wired?
On Sun In The Island, for instance – a song inspired by a search for inner spiritual calm, following a near-miss encounter in a shoot-out on the streets of Sneinton – the pounding synth riff was transferred to a softly tinkling xylophone. It was a beautiful, affecting transformation. At other times, songs dissolved into extended, unstructured, unhurried interludes, before eventually regrouping into recognisable new melodies.
With few clear pauses in the music, and without the physical presence of the players to encourage us, applause only broke out a couple of times before the hour was up. It felt odd, clapping for people who weren’t really there, and who couldn’t hear us clapping anyway. (Binaural is a strictly one-way process, you see.) But as the spell finally broke, and as the lights went up, restoring Friday night normality, the cheers rang out loud and clear. This was a remarkable, bold and brilliant venture, from a band that had pushed itself to new heights of creativity. Much like the rest of us, the mother and her friends beamed from ear to ear with blissed-out joy – and with justified pride, too.