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Greg Wilson - 01 May 2020
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My mix is included from the last festival in question, at WOMADelaide in March, the centrepiece of the tour and a magical evening, especially cherished given subsequent events...

I’d originally intended to post this on my blog at the same time as I uploaded the mix from Adelaide (outlined below), but having made a start, I found it difficult to fully apply myself, continually catching myself procrastinating, so I put the mix up on its own a few weeks ago, and gave myself until the end of the month to finish this. It’s not just the writing, as I’ve since discovered has also been the case with numerous others at this time I’ve found it difficult to apply myself to anything connected with my work – my only blog posts in tribute to recently departed black music icons Manu Dibango, Bill Withers and Hamilton Bohannon.

I suppose that this is where all my archiving comes into play, saved online for a rainy day. Over the past decade I’ve uploaded more than 150 mixes to SoundCloud, and then there’s all the stuff on Mixcloud, including the entire ‘Random Influences’, ‘Time Capsule’ and ‘Early-‘80s Floorfillers’ series. There are also the written pieces at my blog and on the electrofunkroots website. So, all in all there’s a lot to dig into if you’re at a loose end, and during the coming months I’ll post links to various content, both audio and written, via Facebook and Twitter. If you wish to explore yourself you can access all of this and more via the hub page:
www.gregwilson.co.uk

It’s somewhat ironic that the last time I wrote a blog post on the back of an Australian tour was in 2012 – a piece called ‘Slowing Down Time’ in which I mulled over the dilemma of not enough hours in the day, given the breakneck speed of life I felt I’d got myself caught up in. It now feels like we’ve been left with no option but to stop, press reboot and wait to see what happens when the screen opens up again, wondering what kind of world is on the other end – what type of ‘new normal’ this is to be.

 

A little over a month ago I was arriving back in the UK from Perth, having toured in Australia. I was extremely relieved to be on home soil given the unfolding situation with coronavirus, as lockdown measures started to be introduced more widely and Australia began to roll out its own restrictions the day prior to my departure. A week beforehand I’d just arrived in Adelaide for the centrepiece of my short tour, the WOMADelaide Festival, having landed in Australia 2 days beforehand – this was my 3rdgig in 3 days in 3 cities, having played at OneSixOne in Melbourne the night I arrived in the country and Harpoon Harry in Sydney the following day.

WOMADelaide began as a bi-yearly event way back in 1992, held in early March as part of The Adelaide Festival Of Arts (which was celebrating its 60th anniversary this year), making its home the city’s impressive Botanic Park, an inspired location, and becoming an annual festival in 2003. Close on 100,000 people attend over its 4 days and it’s now very much a part of Adelaide’s cultural landscape, along with the Adelaide Fringe (again in its 60th year), which attracts over 3 million people between mid-Feb and mid-March and is vaunted to be 2nd only to Edinburgh as the largest Fringe in the world.

As the name would suggest it’s part of WOMAD (World of Music Art and Dance), founded by musician Peter Gabriel amongst others back in 1980, its first event held at Shepton Mallet in the UK in 1982. The organisation has since put on festivals all over the world, their annual UK gathering taking place in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, having previously been in Reading between 1990-2006. Featuring acts from literally all over the globe, it presents unique combinations of diverse artists, from the well-known to the obscure, its emphasis on the authentic and the ethical.

I’ve previously played WOMAD in the UK in 2014, which was a special experience, but here in Adelaide, given the surrounding circumstances, there was something deeper and more personal. For starters, my older sister has lived there for many years and came along with a whole mob of family members spanning the generations – it was remarkably the first time she’s ever seen me DJ. There was also the nagging feeling. which was crystallised during the following days, that with the way things were heading with COVID-19, this could be the last festival I play for a good while.

It turned out a pretty much a perfect gig for me, I was closing Stage 7, a large open air arena in a corner of the site flanked by an array of bat-filled trees (they made a hell of a racket when the music finished – hopefully in approval), and what must be said is that the WOMAD stage crew and artist liaison is probably the most professional outfit I’ve ever come across, the whole thing running like clockwork, but in lovely relaxed manner. The sound and monitoring was spot-on and I couldn’t have been set up better, I was able to fully settle and enjoy a spectacular 2 hours in the Botanic night.

The recording is now available to stream / download via SoundCloud – a jamboree of some old favourites alongside more recent releases / re-edits. There’s a strong Aussie representation, with tracks by Tame Impala, Confidence Man and Owl Eyes – a great new remix of ‘You And I’ by Late Nite Tuff Guy, who also provides, along with Dr Packer, a number of reworks (during my last tour there in 2018 I played a trio of Credit To The Edit dates with LNTG and Dr P). There were also a few reworks I played with my sister in mind, by Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, the Detroit Spinners and The Temptations – tracks that would have taken her back to younger days when she, as well as my brother, were bringing these magical 7” Soul singles into our home during the late-‘60s, providing the foundation of my own musical direction and love of black music. The Jesse Jackson speech I drop in at the beginning was in tribute to Andrew Weatherall, who had unexpectedly died the previous month (Weatherall first sampling this on the epic ‘Come Together’ by Primal Scream).

 

I was already nervous about the developing situation when I left the UK on March 4th, coronavirus had announced its arrival in Europe with Italy just passing 100 deaths, and as I was leaving, although there were no UK deaths at that point (and only 2 in Spain), the first case in my own locality had just been reported, which obviously brought things closer to home. I had no qualms about travelling as such, despite connections in South-East Asia (where I felt, it now appears correctly, they would have a better handle on the outbreak) – I figured that with Europe quickly becoming the epicentre I was just as likely to get it working in the UK as I was in Australia, despite its proximity to China, but my big concern was that if I was unlucky and came down with the virus whilst I was over there I’d have to, at the very least, be quarantined for a few weeks. As the days passed and the issues multiplied, it became more apparent that flights would be cancelled and borders closed, adding to my anxiety to stay well so I could get back home safely to family and friends, whilst praying there’d be no hitches with the flights.

I’ve since heard about numerous people who were caught out in the wrong place at the wrong time, some still unable to find flight paths that will bring them home, having often paid extortionate prices for routes then cancelled, sometimes twice and 3 times over. You don’t want to be stuck far away from home during a pandemic.

Since I’d arrived in Melbourne, my first port of call, on March 6th, coronavirus had been a constant topic of conversation, it was certainly on everyone’s mind out there – the club community beginning to grasp the implications for the industry should this take a hold, whilst tours were already being cancelled. Before I’d left I’d arranged to hook-up with Arthur Baker in Perth as we both happened to be playing there the same night – he was flying out the following week, but would wisely decide against travel, as was the case with a number of DJs and musicians from overseas. Already reeling from the recent bushfires, which led to the cancellation of a number of festivals, Australia’s entertainment industry was about to receive a further, even more devastating blow, which, as elsewhere in the world, where lockdown measures have been introduced, has resulted in a total wipe out of live events.

But this was yet to come, and on March 7th I flew to Sydney and a ram-packed gig at Harpoon Harry. It was one of those nights where the condensation was running down the walls, and if I was to have caught the virus while I was in Australia, this would have been the most likely source. I was just about squeezed into the makeshift booth placed in a window bay, practically sealed in once I’d set my Revox up, with the audience pretty much right up on top of me, which is something I enjoy, enabling me to soak in the atmosphere up close and personal, and soaked I was – it was like playing a 2 hour gig in a sauna! A brilliant night though, which concluded with Primal Scream’s ‘Loaded’ – this again, of course, in memory of Andrew Weatherall (Carly Roberts, who promoted the night, had booked Weatherall for many years, and was obviously stunned by his passing).

A couple of days after I’d left for Adelaide the news came through that actor Tom Hanks and his wife had contracted the virus in Sydney, the story providing a major wake up call for sectors of the Australian public. I was obviously keeping a close eye on what was happening in the UK, which seemed to be a few days behind events in Australia – for example, the stockpiling of toilet paper was originally an Aussie news story, to be mirrored back home in the UK a few days on.

It certainly felt from a distance that the UK’s reaction was not as decisive as it should have been. I was shocked from afar to see that 3,000 Atletico Madrid fans were allowed into Liverpool for the Champions League match on March 11th given that the virus had already begun to take a hold in Spain, and especially Madrid, where it had been announced that football would be played behind closed doors to prevent contagion. Then there was that week’s Cheltenham Festival, four days of horse racing drawing a quarter of a million people, and very much an establishment favourite – I had a hunch the government would wait to get that out of the way before enforcing crowd restrictions, which turned out to be exactly the case, the new measures announced on Cheltenham’s final day as almost 70,000 people sardined in for a final flutter at the track. There has since been major concerns that both of these sporting events are likely to have spread the virus in ways that could and should have been avoided.

The impact on my own ability to continue working came sharply into focus with the growing realisation that festival season in the UK could be completely obliterated if things got much worse, fears that have now proved to be founded. Not only that, but all club dates have obviously had to be cancelled / postponed too.

At present, many DJs are continuing to connect via online streaming. Internet events, like The Haçienda House Party and Defected’s Virtual Festival were quick to respond and have done a great job, being eagerly embraced by housebound clubbers, with countless individual DJs also streaming their own live sets. Whilst I’m all for this approach by those who’ve chosen it, it’s not something that appeals to me personally, so I’ve passed on getting involved. It’s the reciprocal exchange between DJ and audience that is fundamental for me, and whilst live streaming is the best situation on offer at present, ain’t nothing like the real thing – playing in a busy space, feeling the direct energy of the crowd and responding to the atmosphere is what it’s all about. Never say never, we don’t know how long this is going to go on for, but, as I feel at the moment, the next time I DJ is when I’m able once again to share a physical space with other people, their presence tangible.

Truth be told, I’ve had scant inclination, outside of Classical stuff, to even listen to music of late. I’m still very much pondering the gravity of the situation, both the macrocosm of how this affects the wider world, with big changes obviously set to abound, as well as the microcosm of my own circumstance and the fact that I’m unable to peddle my wares for the foreseeable future, with the financial implication this creates. It is what it is though, and save a change of direction / career, as with so many other DJs, musicians and entertainers, there’s nothing that can be done but wait, hope and get on with life as best we can in the meantime. A quote from Alan Moore’s ‘Watchmen’ sums it up for me, and keeps popping into my head to remind me of the futility of dwelling too much on my own problems – it’s when Sally Jupiter, the older Silk Spectre is talking to her daughter Laurie (Silk Spectre II) about the impending nuclear holocaust, and paraphrases the biblical passage (Matthew 5:45), ‘Things are tough all over, cupcake, an’ it rains on the just an’ the unjust alike’

Then there’s the famous line from the film ‘Casablanca’, about their own problems not amounting ‘to a hill of beans in this crazy world’. When it all boils down to it, despite my personal woes, I’m in a far better position than so many – within my own profession I think of the DJs and musicians who’d been pushing for a breakthrough and were finally making ground, only to see all their momentum grind to a sudden halt. Now, rather than looking forward to the gigs ahead, basic survival has kicked in with food still needing to be put on the table and rent paid. Live streams might raise profile, but they can’t compensate the monetary hit from the total loss of bookings and, given the twilight world of the DJ / musician, many haven’t the requisite tax accounts to be eligible for a self-employment grant.

But then you consider the people most severely affected, those who’ve tragically died and their families who mourn them, and all the health and care workers who’ve put themselves in personal danger in order to curb the loss of life and look after people in their final hours. All of a sudden a whole swathe of the country has woken up to the importance of the NHS after years of under-funding and neglect, with the nurses and doctors having had to somehow deal with the chaos they’ve been confronted with, whilst trying to keep themselves safe (often without suitable PPE). Now politicians (including many who thought they were only worth a 1% pay rise just a few years ago) praise their heroics and appropriate them as ‘our NHS’, and an appreciative populace steps out of their front doors every Thursday evening to gratefully applaud their efforts and sacrifice, whilst street artists up and down the country create murals in their honour.

Their efforts have been quite rightly lauded, but it’s had to come to this before their underpinning role in our society has been properly recognised – the health service already stretched beyond the limit before the pandemic struck. Furthermore, this has been a multicultural effort with people born all over the world – many of whom I’m sure have been told to go back to where they came from given the recent Brexit-incited social divide – not only fight on the frontline to save lives, but in an alarming number of cases have lost their own in the process – with a disproportionate amount of hospital staff categorised in government statistics as BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) laying down their lives in the line of duty.

This all takes me back to a conversation I had in Ibiza around a decade ago, at Space of all places. I was talking to a fellow DJ’s wife and asked her what she did for a living. She told me she was a nurse and I said ‘nice one’ asking her more about her role, but she went quiet and gave me a cynical stare before replying ‘are you taking the piss?’ I found it really sad that she felt so under-appreciated that she’d mistake someone showing interest in what she did for patronising her.

Maybe we will all reflect and re-order what we feel is fundamental to our lives. A strong / well-funded health care system would seem to be primary, with the people who work in this sector made to feel that their role is valued via our continued gratitude, not only when we need them most, both in terms of the respect they’re accorded and within their weekly wage package. As a DJ I’m well rewarded for what I do, and this is because people are prepared to pay out money for tickets to see me play, but those within the NHS aren’t visible in their work (at least not until this unprecedented situation), so are left to struggle away in often dire circumstances, hidden from our view until we might find ourselves in the unfortunate situation of being in hospital or visiting a loved one there. What they do is as serious as it gets – we’re just entertainers, or artists if you want to be high-brow about it, trying to raise people’s spirits via the music we provide, whereas they are concerned with our very mortality, focused on keeping us well and able to continue to experience those uplifted spirits. That their lives are now in jeopardy on entering the workplace is a terrible burden for someone already having to summon super-effort to save others (at time of writing, over 100 staff on this frontline already taken).

Having spent a few days with my sister, following my departure from Adelaide, my final date on the tour was at Bar1 in Perth – the fact it fell on Friday 13th proving ominous, for this was the day Australia began to roll out its restrictions, immediately impacting the clubs, which (as with all venues) were limited to 500 capacity as a first step that weekend. Bar1 wasn’t at its busiest, a lot of people spooked to staying in following the earlier announcement about crowded spaces, but the people who did turn out were fully committed, the underlying feeling being that this was something of a last chance to dance before the impending lockdown. It was good to see Greg (Dr) Packer whilst I was in Perth, his home base – he was to have been touring Europe in the summer, things then quieter in Australia, it being their winter, but all that’s by the by.

I received an email while I was in Perth which made me shudder – it was from the airline about my flight the following day marked ‘important information’. My big fear by this point was that the flight may be cancelled, so I breathed a huge sigh of relief when the contents revealed all was fine – the purpose of the email being to tell passengers that if they were displaying any coronavirus symptoms that they must seek medical advice where they are to confirm they’re fit to fly before trying to check in at the airport. Thankfully I’d stayed well throughout the trip, although looking back I recall the weird feeling of losing my sense of smell for a couple of days – something I’ve since learned is symptomatic of COVID-19. Without widespread testing we don’t know how many people have had a mild form of the virus, so I’ll have to wait in that long line to find out for sure if there was anything in this. I’m glad to know that none of the people I was with have subsequently experienced any symptoms.

I left Australia in the nick of time, just a few days later they were ramping up measures so that people coming into the country were required to self-isolate for 2 weeks, whilst flights were being increasingly cancelled. All the airports I travelled through were noticeably quieter than usual, but Perth was eerily quiet the day I left. The journey home went without problem though and just under a day later, greatly relieved to be back, I’d arrived at Manchester airport and I headed straight home to immediately isolate (this was a week before lockdown began in the UK).

With initial talk of herd immunity, rather callously letting the virus take its course despite the fact that this would clearly cull a great many people, it seemed that the UK was taking this duty of care for its citizens somewhat less seriously than on the side of the world I’d just come from. It makes me wonder what the human cost of this was when I now see that the death figures in the borough in which I live (population approximately 320,000) are almost twice as high as the whole of Australia (population approximately 25 million as well as being the country that attracts the largest amount of Chinese tourists). To put it in even more stark terms, at the current rate around 250 people are dying in this country for every single death in Australia (and this is without the care home figures, where widespread devastation has been reported). With all the numerical analysis we’re bombarded with its sometimes easy to forget that behind all these statistics are real people, greatly valued by those close to them.

With regards to face masks, it would seem logical that these would provide some level of protection, even in a minor way, otherwise why would they be seen as essential items for medical staff? I remember when I first went to Japan in 2008 and was fascinated by the amount of people wearing surgical masks, so much so that I even bought a box to bring back home as a novelty. This was on the back of the then recent SARS and bird flu panics, although face masks have apparently been worn in the country since a major flu outbreak in the 1930s. The masks are a perfect illustration of Japan’s obsession with social courtesy – people with a minor cough or cold symptoms wear them to avoid transmitting their germs to others, the mask not so much for their own protection, but more for the protection of those around them. It’s the same with many Asian counties – when my Australian flights connected in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur the majority of people in the terminals adorned face masks and some disposable gloves.

I’ve seen very few people here wearing masks or facial coverings on my excursions outside during lockdown – I’ve certainly been in the minority in this respect. That said, I expect a change of attitude as we move along, same with disposable gloves, as people begin to understand that this is a threat that won’t disappear anytime soon. There’s also a psychological aspect to this, as if you see someone wearing a mask / gloves it sends a message that they’re taking things seriously – there comes a tipping point when the ones who don’t wear any covering may be viewed as reckless with regards not only to their own health, but more selfishly the health of others. I can accept that the WHO might have felt it necessary to downplay public use of masks, in order to safeguard supplies to the medical services in case there was a panic rush on stock, but otherwise their advice seems non-sensical.

Strange and disturbing times for sure – as has been said, it’s like we’re living through a Black Mirror episode. I suppose in a way it’s par for the course – so far the 21st Century hasn’t been pretty, especially from British perspective, the millennium bug may have been a false alarm, but just look what’s followed. To set things in motion there was 9/11 and Al-Qaeda to wrap our heads around, before terrorism struck at home with 7/7. There were no weapons of mass destruction but a succession of further wars in the Middle East still resulted. There was a financial crisis where the banks were bailed out, but everyone else was told to pull in their belts and suffer austerity. MPs fiddled their expenses and newspapers were hacking phones. There were riots in London and knife crime has rocketed in this city and others. Savile was posthumously exposed as a serial paedophile hiding in plain sight, whilst vile grooming gangs also exploited the young and vulnerable, again while blind eyes turned. ISIS arrived out of seemingly nowhere plunging the Middle East into a whole new level of brutality, the internet spreading the horror, before providing the warped inspiration for further terror attacks here, most notoriously at the Manchester Arena. And if all that wasn’t enough we’ve had the nightmare of Grenfell Tower, the scandal of Windrush and, to put the tin hat on it, the social divisions exploited and exposed by Brexit.

As for the US, when I see armed civilian militia in the streets of certain cities protesting against lockdown, and the President, who despite contradicting his own governments recommendations, seemingly agreeing with and encouraging their actions, whilst, just a few days later putting forward the possibility (later dismissed as sarcasm) of injecting disinfectant to destroy the virus, I can’t help but feel perturbed when I wonder where this all might be heading. The footage of the woman dressed in stars and stripes hanging out of her car in Denver to shout at the medical worker who, with his female colleague, was bravely stood before a line of traffic illustrated the absurdity of the situation. This roadblock protest against lockdown was also stopping medical vehicles from bringing in patients, yet there she was accusing this conscientious individual, only concerned with saving lives, of being a communist who should go to live in China. Worryingly, so many people seem to be upside down in their logic – their precious freedoms to live the way they want, no matter what, perhaps the passport to their own death certificate. The more absurd things become the more dangerous they become.

12 years-ago the first black president was elected, the message was ‘Hope’, and many believed that this was a new dawn, ushering in a time where a now multicultural western world would fully embrace this diversity in moving forward. The feeling was amplified here in the UK with London’s 2012 Olympics, where our triumphant athletes would highlight this multiculturalism. But then came the backlash, with the majority in the US, as well as the UK, voting in a more insular / nationalistic agenda. Parallel to all this we have all the man-made environmental and ecological issues, which have been continually swept under the carpet, but constitute a whole urgent mess of their own. And now this virus.

‘It rains on the just and the unjust like’, and while it all comes down hard upon us it would be wise to keep remembering that our personal issues resulting from this, be it our finances, our mental health or just our personal frustrations with the general disruption, are on one scale, but if we look at the bigger picture, with the UK one of the worst hit countries on the globe, we need to count our blessings that we’re not in a hospital ward fighting for our own lives, or seeing our relatives and friends succumb to this scourge. Until this desperate situation is properly under control, and a vaccine is found to stop further waves, crowds gathering to listen or dance to music is going to be amongst the very last of the restrictions lifted, and with this in mind I’m braced for 2020 being a total write-off with regards to clubs and other live events.

So, let’s look to that next festival whenever that might be, for it’s bound be quite an occasion. We’ll have finally come through the worst of all this, so the very experience of sharing a field or a tent in close proximity with others will take on a whole new dimension for us all – dancer and DJ alike. Things we’ve taken for granted are no longer such sureties, so perhaps this will bring us to value them all the more

Take care and keep safe out there.

WOMADelaide Wikipedia:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WOMADelaide

NHS Wikipedia:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Health_Service

Worldometer – Covid-19:
https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus

 

1 Comments

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Neil Thornton

Greg on point as always !

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