“Foreground Music: A life in 15 gigs” is an autobiographical work by hip popular media Renaissance man / subcultural Zelig, Graham Duff, who is an actor, writer, stand up comic, artist, father, and more. He continues to be moved by music in the semi-obsessional way any reader of this blog will recognise, and describes his life in 15 gigs, going from the formative dross/ life-changing moments, to the recent congratulatory “we’re still here and have it” events where middle-aged men and their slightly better preserved / long-suffering wives see a band reunion from back in the day, and see the same audience as ever, but with more waistline, less hair, and, for some, poorer-fitting fan stigmata. I find seeing my age cohort at gigs an amusing/ charming/ salutary/ alarming/ reassuring sight, and it is the same whether it is “Wire” or “Throbbing Gristle” for Graham Duff, or, in my case, “Hawkwind” and “The Rezillos”.
Graham started his gig-going with a Cliff Richard gospel show, so it could only get better after that. The early punk gigs transported him to another world, and he, being a few years younger than myself, was never tainted by the shame of progressive rock, and got all his “noisy little sod” requirements from post-punk, industrial, and hardcore, so has apparently been able to eschew heavy metal except in it’s artiest / Peeliest manifestations. He sometimes sees bands before and after their heyday, so is able to compare and contrast, and his fandom is that he sometimes sees acts many times, favouring those who are unpredictable enough to make each show “interesting”, appalling, or profoundly inspired; bands like “The Fall”, “Wire”, or “Throbbing Gristle”. He largely eschews rock cabaret with it’s showbiz features, and I must say I am in some ways sympathetic, now finding too many gigs formulaic and predictable, the same sets sometimes having been performed for decades as the bands become their brand. This is probably what distinguishes “art rock” from “rock as mass entertainment”, though Duff understandably cuts David Bowie some slack, as who else, apart from Prince, could merge the eras of Larry Parnes, James Brown (himself no showbiz slouch), and William Burroughs? Duff narrowly avoids falling into the “luscious sonic cathedrals of sound” trap, but it comes close. I am sure this is intentional, as he is a knowing, witty writer.
As Graham moves on from art college from Brighton (where he was VERY 80s Brighton art college, and quite possibly needed a slap at points) he gradually shifts into the performing arts, and then that most rarefied of arts contexts – actually being paid for one’s creativity, and thus having to convince critical minds who control admission to this impossibly closed strata. Graham merges his different worlds, for example, getting Mark E Smith to appear in the show “Ideal”, which Duff wrote. He has also written for Vic Reeves (or “Jim”, as he is to Duff). We are warned to never meet our heroes, and it is generally good advice, though we all think a night on the lash with Mark E Smith and Vic Reeves would show how equally witty and bohemian we were, how exquisite and hip our tastes were, and how much we could keep up with such professional drinkers. Graham has done this and survived, though was not about to seriously try and keep up with the bevvy with the topers, his tastes being more herbal and chemical (as he perhaps injudiciously reminds us at several points). He has also tried to interview Genesis P Orridge whilst under the influence of that early 80s delight, “sweetheart” acid. This, it may come as no surprise, he found a bad idea, but the interview quickly ran into the sand, and thankfully no harm was done. Graham Duff also gives shout-outs to various people from Factory Records, God-amongst-men Mark Gattis (who I am a fan boy of), and other mover-shakers: in a decent world world we would be on their Christmas card lists of such people. Maybe when you work with your heroes and are treated as an equal, rather than a star-struck rube who thinks they know you from a gig and a partial interview in an inkie or blog, decent relationships are possible. Being equally good at what you do as the better-known focused creative who makes a living out of this probably also helps.
Graham Duff’s autobiography is like a wish-fulfilment fantasy for all of us who love music, participated in the various subcultures, consumed the various enhancements of the era, an had to eventuality reconcile the responsibility of maturity such as work, relationships and parenting, and getting paid to be intellectual, creative, and piss about – not that being intellectual, creative and pissing about is easy, as anyone with any sense should appreciate: you think the second or third album is hard? Imagine the 4th series, the commissioned script to bring some inspired pizzaz to a failing comedian, or conducting studies and writing scientific papers for over 30 years. Graham Duff’s book conveys the joys of music, sells to me artists who I sometimes like conceptually (the music not so much), and I am pleased someone has managed to crystalise a “Fever Pitch” for the spirit of a 1981 NME reader. You will empathise with the many archetypal moments described here, even if their Proustian moment was seeing “TigerTailz” on Great Yarmouth Pier rather than “The Strokes” before they were famous.
Length of Read:Medium
Might appeal to people who enjoyed…
Anyone who loves popular music and used to lurk in WH Smiths reading the music papers they didn’t buy, or rushed to buy the new NME on a Wednesday lunchtime in central London.
One thing you’ve learned
A few goths turn up to everything. Some of those interesting creative people you once met at a house party can keep it up and turn it into a means of support decades later. Thankfully, there is still talent coming through; and it has good musical taste.