Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Bye-bye (b)adman

I've ranted posted before about how unhappy I get when a song I love gets co-opted for an advert (Pixies and Violent Femmes sadly inspiring those past posts). You'll be unsurprised to learn it's happened again.

The McPunk girl

Whilst on a long journey at the weekend, I was station-surfing in the car and chanced upon What Do I Get? by Buzzcocks, blaring out of Radio X. I'll have some of that, I thought. But my musical happiness, like so many forms of happiness these days, was crushingly short-lived. For the band's second single proper, and 1978 chart debut, has been appropriated by corporate American cow-pedlars McDonald's! Yes, Mc-sodding-Donald's! Pete Shelley's 2½ minute punk paean to loneliness is soundtracking a TV ad, and associated radio spot, in which a callow youth goes to the drive-thru and falls for a McDonald's girl who is an ad-man's idea of alternative, i.e. she has subtle, non-specific tattoos, wears slightly more eye make-up than might be considered average and dyes what little of the hair you can see beneath her uniform baseball cap. You can imagine the scene as a gaggle of modern-day Don Drapers mull over what music says alternative, and yearning, and can be tied in with having to choose which of our new wraps to get at the drive-thru. Of course! 40-year old punk! And we can make the in-store signage and associated press graphics look a bit like the cover for Never Mind The Bollocks, yellow and pink with cut type lettering, even though that's a different band entirely, because kids today won't know, will they? It's all punk, right? And we're so punk!

All of which leaves a bad taste in my mouth, like an unwanted gherkin or a dollop of special sauce. I prefer to reclaim the song, so put all thoughts of garlic mayo wraps from your mind and watch this instead:

And a bonus for you. Remember in 2014 when the cow-pedlars were "celebrating" 40 years in the UK, by allowing users to create their own "40 Together" memory with an online poster generator? Well, I had a McDonald's memory from the 70s and, although it was quite hard to capture the whole story within the prescribed word limit, this is what I came up with. Curiously, it was quickly taken down from their website, but not before I screen-capped it...

Friday, 21 July 2017

Abide with me...

A couple of years ago, I managed to get enough people to pledge to buy a ticket to stage a screening of Pulp Fiction at my local art house cinema. It was in lieu of a birthday party, and seemed like a good way of bringing people from different walks of my life together without the pressure of actually having a party. And it was pretty good! So much so that I'm going to try again this year. Here's how it works.

OurScreen is an initiative that basically lets your crowdsource cinema screenings. You pick a film (from their list - you can't just have anything), select a participating cinema, pick a date and time and pledge to buy the first ticket. Then you advertise it like hell to all your mates, colleagues, family, social media acquaintances, passing strangers, anyone. They can all pledge to buy tickets too. And if the cinema's ticket threshold is reached before a certain deadline, everyone's pledges get taken and the film is screened.

I've learnt a bit about the sort of film I need to choose to get ticket pledges, from a couple of unsuccessful screening attempts, and so this year will be pitching Coen brothers masterpiece The Big Lebowski for your consideration. To reserve your seat, you need to head, pronto, to And remember, the Dude abides.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Getting old, Latin, spoofs and serendipity

I had an email today from the alumni association of the university I studied for my first degree at. This was the header:

It's 25 years since you left

Thanks. Thanks a lot. Way to make me feel old. And thanks especially for the 18pt semi-bold, hot-pink font to emphasise the fact.

This did set a train of thought in motion, however. It started with me wondering whether the Latin alma mater applied only to the first uni studied at, or last, or any/all. So I did what everyone does these days and Googled the phrase. Here, you can too, in case you're doubting me when I say that the phrase is defined as "the university, school, or college that one formerly attended." On that basis, it can be used to described any former seat of learning. And that should have been that. Except...

...except over in the right sidebar of the Google search results page was a suggested related search for "Alma Mater Europaea (university). Number of students: 1,300. President: Felix Unger." And that was what shunted the train of thought onto a branch line. That had to be a spoof, right, some sort of pseudo-university or dodgy certificates-for-cash scam, surely, because Felix Unger was the name of one half of The Odd Couple in Neil Simon's famous play starring Jack Lemmon and Walther Landau, and later made into a TV series with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman! So there surely wasn't a seat of learning with Felix Unger as president, was there? Except of course there is: Austrian Felix Unger is one of the world's leading cardiac surgeons, and performed Europe's first artificial heart transplant in 1986.

Okay, I was content with this quirk of coincidence - that's not the serendipity of this post's title. By now, I was rather more concerned with The Odd Couple - not the film, though that's great. Rather the TV series, which was often repeated during the school holidays of my teens. I used to love it and, curious to see how well it had aged, I hopped over to YouTube and found this. Aside from still being funny, who else should I discover in this clip (from 1974) than one Al Molinaro as a police officer - better known to us all as "Big Al" Delvecchio from Happy Days! No real surprise there though - his was a recurring role. No, no, the real serendipity here was the discovery of a pre-fame, pre-Close Encounters Teri Garr as the insurance clerk. Here, take a look, about 25 seconds in.

And that's not the end of the chance discoveries. Perusing Teri's credits on IMDB, I discovered that in 1969 TV Series It Takes A Thief, Teri played a character called Maggie Philbin! Presumably not this one, from '80s Tomorrow's World:

And that was when the train of thought completely derailed. Feeling rather like Ouroboros, I closed the browser.

Monday, 3 July 2017

It's not quite Judgement Day

You may have read about Inspirobot already. If not, a potted summary would be something like: it's an online artificial intelligence (AI) program that is designed solely to generate the sort of motivational quote-and-image combinations that swamp us at every turn these days. You know the sort of thing, you see them everywhere from conference room walls to social media timelines. A few are good. Most are inane. Some, annoyingly, as just truisms. And some are just plain annoying.

But now, Inspirobot takes things to a new level. One click is all is takes to generate a motivational poster, with a short, snappy phrase and a filtered, 'shopped image to reinforce the message. AI is great, right? The future has arrived, right?

Except AI, at least as implemented here, is all about the "A" and not so much about the "I". Either that or Inspirobot has had some form of existential crisis. Because I had a little play with the AI, and here's what I got back (you can click all the pictures for a full-size view):

Things started off okay... ish. I mean, boring ideas aren't great, are they? So it's okay, if a little too on the nose:

Things took a slight left turn after that. I mean, I imagine a pretty face and a tea would help, but they are far from all you need, surely?

Next up, things took a darker turn, with Inspirobot suggesting crime pays. Or at least is rewarded with cake! All reinforced with a nice light, frothy picture.

And then... Inspirobot then went to a much darker place. All you can say is that it would have been even darker if the two phrases had been the other way around. The picture doesn't help either, raising the question of whether the guy with his hands in his pockets had been disposing of the bodies in that lake...

I stopped at this point. And I'd hesitate to call this AI. It's just a random poster generator, surely? For if this is what passes for AI in 2017, to the extent that someone is proud enough of it to put it online for the world to see, we can safely say we are some way away from being enslaved by Skynet.

Anyhoo... if you're bored and have five minutes, why not give Inspirobot a go yourself? You might get something unintentionally funny. Or you might get something a little more sinister...

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Monday, 26 June 2017

A rare find

I was a bit late to the party with Detectorists. It's a comedy drama (or dramedy, or whatever the latest buzzwordy contraction might be) written by, and starring, Mackenzie Crook. Yes, him - forever Gareth from The Office. I'm paraphrasing Wikipedia now, but Detectorists is set in small fictional Essex town of Danebury and concerns the lives, loves and detecting ambitions of Andy and Lance, and the Danebury Metal Detecting Club (or DMDC, as it is known). First shown on BBC4 in 2014, the third and final series is imminent - in readiness, the Beeb are repeating the first two series on Tuesdays, still on BBC4. They've worked through the first series already (though you can still watch two thirds of that on the iPlayer) and series two episode one is on tomorrow.

So why watch, you ask? It's a low-key "drama that leans towards comedy" (Crook's own words), with no laugh track, is ostensibly about metal detecting obsessives ("detectorists!") and is, presumably, tucked away on BBC4 for a reason, right? Wrong! This is a rare blend of gentle, well-observed comedy and precise pathos, which would ordinarily be enough to recommend it on its own. But there's more, because fundamentally the show is about friendship and, in particular, the inverted, forever-young, own-language landscape of best mates. Metal detecting is incidental - the show could equally well be about a chess club or a five-a-side team or motorcycle enthusiasts or old school friends, or anything, just as long as there is something to bring the protagonists together and provide a common bond. For that bond, that special friendship, where you would lie down in traffic for your mate if he asked you to, is what the show is really about, and what elevates it to a higher level. Andy and Lance are best mates, and we get to ride the bow wave of their friendship, and think about our own best mates too.

Here's an example of just why I love this show so much, and it'll also work as a barometer for you: if you like the reason for, and execution of, the fist-bump moment about nineteen seconds into this clip, from series one episode two, then there's a very good chance you'll enjoy the programme as a whole and you'd best get over to the iPlayer quick smart before more episodes expire. If you don't, well, maybe this isn't for you. Either way, there are +4 kudos points on offer if you can ID the source of that lie down in traffic quote I misquoted in the last para without Googling it (clue: it's not from Detectorists).

Thursday, 22 June 2017

(Re)Turning Japanese

I went to a gig on Saturday night. Like most of the (ever-decreasing number) of gigs I go to these days, the crowd was mostly full of people of a certain age. But that's okay, I'm thirty years too old for being down with the kids.

As you may have guessed from the title of this post, I went to see The Vapors. Yes, The Vapors, who many of you will remember as the band behind worldwide hit Turning Japanese. Chances are you don't remember much else about them, as nothing else they did achieved the same level of success. So let me fill you in.

Spotted playing in a pub by Bruce Foxton, the Jam bassist and Jam manager John Weller quickly signed the Guildford four-piece, got them a record deal and even got Jam producer Vic Coppersmith-Heaven on-board to produce the debut album. And it was no surprise when The Vapors supported Woking's finest on their Setting Sons tour in 1979... so you can see why the "Jam-lite" tag stuck, albeit unfairly in my view.

Their first single, Prisoners, sunk without trace, but Dave Fenton (vocals and guitar), Ed Bazalgette (lead guitar), Steve Smith (bass) and Howard Smith (drums, no relation to Steve) regrouped and came up with Turning Japanese, a top ten hit in the UK (#3 when Going Underground was #1), Canada, New Zealand and Australia (where it hit #1). It even broke into the US top 40, something their manager's band hadn't managed to do. On the back of that, the debut album New Clear Days managed a reasonable showing but - and here's the thing - it should have been so much higher. Because, in my view, it's an absolute classic of the age and genre, a new wave masterpiece, stuffed full of hook-filled, rhythmic early 80s tunes with singalong-able lyrics; songs about love sat alongside songs about the Cold War and nuclear threats (as the punning title suggests), but instead of this creating friction the album is remarkably cohesive, in part due to crisp, consistent production but more because the band themselves were properly tight. I know this is a minority view, but for me New Clear Days remains an essential 80s album, as chock-full of memorable songs that I can still sing along to, word perfectly, as any by The Jam and more so than almost any other band from the first half of that decade.

So you can imagine that I was pretty excited to read that three quarters of the original band had regrouped for a few dates last year (Michael Bowes has replaced Howard Smith on drums) and were touring this year. And even more excited to learn that the tour would bring them within my reach. I had to go. And what can I tell you? The band still seem tight. Dave (a lawyer for the Musicians' Union for most of this century) and Ed (a TV producer whose credits include Doctor Who) have worn well - Ed in particular makes a fine, conversational front-man. Steve looks a bit more like what he is - someone's middle-aged dad - but let's not forget this is a reunion nearly 40 years after the band formed, so what do you expect? What I didn't really expect, but was pleasantly surprised to find, is that the two- and three-part harmonies that characterised many of the tracks from New Clear Days were still present and correct. In fact, the whole band sound live was very pleasingly close to their studio sound - they can still cut it, in other words. And Michael Bowes looked as happy as anyone, smiling non-stop as he pounded away at those drums on a sweltering night.

I repeat, I know I am in the minority with my views on The Vapors. And for the record I am not trying to suggest they should have climbed out of The Jam's shadow, because for my money The Jam eclipse almost everybody. But what I am trying to say is that, with New Clear Days, The Vapors got everything right. It's a near-perfect slice of early 80s new wave, and I urge you to get a copy.

In the meantime, I recorded a couple of videos at the gig. Most people in the crowd whipped their phones out for Turning Japanese but not me - instead, here are two other tracks from New Clear Days, Sixty Second Interval and America. Things to note from these videos: (1) for a venue with so many lights, so few of them were on the band; (2) when Ed says "nothing change does it, really" at the start of America, he's just finished making a comparison between 80s Reagan and contemporary Trump; and (3), check out the 50-something with the snow-white mullet who bounces into view, bottom left, about 40 seconds into America - he was so energetic, and so into every song, he deserves our respect... and not just for maintaining that hair... Anyway, enough rambling from me. To the videos!

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

More street art - Adam and Eve get sponsored

More street art/graffiti spotted on the walls of my adopted home town, this time critiquing our corporate-sponsored, modern life. How many logos can you spot?

Other street art posts can be found here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

More street art - make June the end of May

Post-election-inspired street art/graffiti spotted on the walls of my adopted home town. Other street art posts can be found here, here, here, here, here and here.