Friday, 19 December 2014

Humbug-ger

In case I don't post anything else between now and the 25th, this is as close as I will get to glad tidings. Happy Christmas, I suppose.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Stupid girls

Dear slack-jawed yokels. If you are going to be both dumb and crass enough to park your two cars across three parking spaces, please do not get agitated if I roll my eyes at you.

All of which is an excuse for some 90s Shirley...

Friday, 12 December 2014

That was the year that was: 2014

A parody too farIt's mid-December, ergo it must be time for a recap of what's been good this year. NAOTY 2014, if you will (you won't). This is the fourth time I've recapped a year like this (here's 2013, 2012 and 2011) and, taken together, all these reviews really do is demonstrate just how parochial my tastes are (Michelle, in the unlikely event that you're reading this, you were right about that). Anyway, let's get on.

Best album

"Hendra" by Ben Watt - an understated masterpiece, full of beauty and pathos, and tailor-made to appeal to forty-something blokes who have taken to questioning everything, not least their own mortality and that of their loved ones. Features bonus Bernard Butler too.

Honourable mentions: "World Peace Is None Of Your Business" by Morrissey; "Indie Cindy" by Pixies; "Live at Bush Hall" by Martin Rossiter.

Best song

"Silver Snail" by Pixies - it's been so good to have some new material from Black Francis et alia, and I mean it as a compliment when I say this track could comfortably have been from twenty years ago, yet somehow simultaneously shows how the band has moved on. Neat trick.

Honourable mentions: "Heart Is A Drum" by Beck; "I'm Not A Man" by Morrissey.

Best gig

Another nod here for Pixies whose set at Field Day in the summer was almost everything I could have hoped for. Even the undercard was a winner. I wrote (in shorthand) about it at the time.

Honourable mentions: I've had a quiet year, gig-wise, but Ben Watt with Bernard Butler was excellent; Damon Albarn, thunderstruck and lightning-lit at Latitude, will live long in the memory; Morrissey thrilled, despite the enormo-dome setting.

Best book

"Numbskulls" by Mark Kilner. A diverse yet subtly interconnected set of 20 short stories, showcasing the little horrors of modern life: celebrity culture, life alone, Boris Johnson... Here's my longer review from earlier in the year.

Honourable mentions: a bit of a cheat here because it's a couple of years old but I only got around to reading "Dark Matter" by Michelle Paver this year. It's an incredible ghost story, taking isolation to new heights (or depths, perhaps) in the Arctic Circle. I wish I'd written it.

Best film

For a long time I thought "Inside Llewyn Davis" has this nailed on, but the award goes to "Boyhood", Richard Linklater's simple yet incredible document of a boy growing up. Filmed over twelve years, so that all the principals age realistically in front of you, it's a moving tale of modern family life, and all the fractures and disjoints that now involves. At different times this reviewer identified with both the son and the father, which perhaps explains my heightened emotional response. Everyone involved in the making of this film deserves massive credit. Now do yourselves a favour and buy the DVD.

Honourable mentions: as mentioned, the Coen Brothers very nearly scooped this for their incredible meditation on personal failure, "Inside Llewyn Davis"; it takes some absorbing but Richard Ayoade's steampunk reimagining of modern life in Dostoyevsky-adaptation "The Double" is worth persevering with; Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley both shine in the "The Imitation Game", in which triumph is tempered with tragedy; and I thought Rosamunde Pike was terrific in "Gone Girl".

Best television

As last year, the most fiercely contended category. The award goes to "Fargo", a compelling reimagining of the Coen Brothers' icy world, with standout performances from Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, Alison Tollman and Colin Hanks. Not just dark, but dark humour too.

Honourable mentions: it's been another good year for TV, so there are lots. BBC crime drama "Happy Valley" (whose botched kidnap plot owes a nod to the Coens too) was outstanding; series two of "The Fall" is great, if inevitably coming up short against series one; the genuine chills of ghost story "Remember Me" can and should be iPlayered right now; and (sort of but more than) comedies "Rev" and "The Trip To Italy" were both very rewarding.

Best comedy

David Baddiel's "Fame: Not The Musical" scoops the gong here. Its meditation on being famous in general and, specifically, not being as famous as you used to be, is very smart indeed. Stand-up, yes... but there's a lot more going on besides.

Honourable mentions: "Modern Life Is Goodish", in which Dave Gorman continues to show his working as he goes along; Alan Davies' Little Victories tour, not least for his candour in talking of mortality and life-limiting conditions (on his father's dementia: "it's not genetic, but it is inherited, so..."); Punt and Dennis's Ploughing On Regardless tour, whose transition from edgy and out-there to comfortable and nearly mainstream is complete - it's taken twenty years, but at least they haven't sacrificed being funny.

Best theatre

"An Evening With Ray Davies", ostensibly to plug his book, "Americana", but the Q&A reached far beyond that. Part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival and in partnership with the city's Writers' Centre, no-one minded at the end when talk of books was set aside, a guitar appeared, and Ray performed an acoustic "Rock and Roll Cowboys". Got an autograph and shook the guy's hand afterwards too.

Honourable mentions: I'm struggling a bit here, because I haven't seen as much on stage this year as I would have liked, but poet Luke Wright was very good at Latitude, bringing a bit of rock'n'roll swagger to the Poetry Tent.

Best blogger

The only person to retain their title from last year is Andrew Collins, whose "Telly Addict" video blog for The Guardian is twelve minutes a week of essential viewing. On top of this, Andrew also writes, for fun, the music blog "Circles Of Life", in which he seeks to dissect his favourite 143 songs of all time. Oh, and the excellent "other" blog, "Never Knowingly Underwhelmed". Andrew is, once more, my blogger of the year.

Honourable mentions: "Too Much Apple Pie" from Kippers and Spike; "The (New) Vinyl Villain" from JC; "My Top Ten" from Rol; "Is This The Life?" from Rob; and "Cultural Snow" from Tim.

Man of the year (new for 2014)

Richard Ayoade for directing The Double, writing Ayoade on Ayoade, being Gadget Man and, most of all, for his role in what would be my interview of the year, if I had such a category, when Krishnan Guru Murthy invited Richard on Channel 4 News.

Honourable mentions: putting aside any political allegiance I might have elsewhere, Gordon Brown deserves a mention, for going out on a high and reminding everyone of the power a principled and passionate politician can have. In my view, the result of the Scottish referendum was in no small part attributable to his eleventh-hour intervention.

Woman of the year (new for 2014)

Professor Alice Roberts, for bringing science to a wider audience without dumbing it down, for her terrific book The Incredible Unlikeliness Of Being, and mostly for taking an implacable stance on creationism and dealing with (the dangers of) creationists on social media.

Honourable mentions: Sadie Jones for writing Fallout and getting The Outcast finally adapted by the BBC; Keira Knightley for her role in The Imitation Game and for posing topless, un-Photoshopped, to highlight and protest the media's obsession with breasts and digital fakery.

Tool of the year (new for 2014)

David Mellor, for his rant at a taxi driver, in which he conclusively revealed himself to be everything we've all suspected for so long.

Honourable mentions: Nigel Farage whose inherent racism, inflammatory pronouncements and general policy void should really scoop him the award - it's just that I don't want him to win anything (and I'm not linking to him either - here's a link to an equally simplistic but opposing view instead); Russell Brand, who hasn't worked out yet that the best way to beat a system, especially a long-established, entrenched system, is from within... and for spouting nonsense: a sprawling and polysyllabic vocabulary is nothing without an underlying degree of sense and reality. Parklife!

And that's it. Agree/disagree? What have you loved and loathed this year?

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Remember me but forget my fate

Morrissey at the O2 Arena, 29th November 2014.
Elvis impersonator, O2 Arena
I was going to review last Saturday's Morrissey gig at the O2 Arena, but there are so many other reviews out there already, I'm not sure what I can meaningfully add. Maybe this is why blogs are dying left, right and centre. When the world is saturated in opinion, what value does one more have?

Anyway, what I will say is that when Mr Morrissey emerged head to toe in white, my first thought (and that of the annoyingly loud gig-commentator behind me) was that all he needed were a few rhinestones and to dye his quiff. Also, Steven, if you're going to open up with The Queen In Dead and Suedehead, well, you're setting the bar pretty bloody high. Unsustainably high, in fact. Lucky for you that the enormo-dome (too big, in my view - I wish I'd taken binoculars) was stuffed to the gills with devoted fans, most of whom were more than happy to listen to tracks from the latest album rather than a greatest hits set.

What else? Well, it's all covered elsewhere: the Royal-baiting backdrops, the Fuck Harvest Records t-shirts, the venue's meat ban, the almost unbearable video accompaniment to Meat Is Murder, the Dido's Lament (not that Dido) quote that gives this post its title... all of it can be found in other reviews online. And look, I've saved you the time it would take to seek them out. Here's what I'd recommend you read if:

a) You don't like Morrissey - The Independent's half-arsed review

b) You like Morrissey a bit too much - Louder Than War's well-written but ultimately rose-tinted eulogy

c) You like Morrissey and have got your Moz-life balance sorted - The Guardian want to like Mozzer, but just can't help themselves with their critical tendencies

I'll leave you with a video clip (not mine - I would have needed a very long lens) in which you can witness the band's sweary t-shirts, the quote and a beautiful rendition of an old Smiths song. Oh, and that dark blue shirt? Got ripped off and thrown into the crowd one song later. Wonder who got it?

Friday, 28 November 2014

An experience shared is an experience doubled

I'm off to see Morrissey at the O2 tomorrow, in that there London. It'll be the sixth time I've seem Moz live and I'm very excited, because his recent album, World Peace Is None Of Your Business, has some great tracks. Here's the standout (for me), I'm Not A Man. Warning: it's slow burn, and takes until 2 minutes 43 to hit its stride. It's worth the wait though.

The excitement is tempered a little, however, and not (just) because the venue is an enormo-dome and I'm right at the back, up in the gods. No, no. This will be my sixth Mozza pilgrimage, but the first without my oldest, greatest friend, The Man Of Cheese. And however good Steven Patrick might be, it just won't be the same. Mate, if you're reading this, you will certainly be much missed. This old chestnut is for you - hopefully tomorrow's will not be the last songs he will ever sing.

Wanderlust

An old school friend posted his travel map on Facebook. He's well travelled, and I felt inspired to make mine.

I am not well travelled.

Martin’s Travel Map

Martin has been to: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Guernsey, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Jersey, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States, Vatican. Get your own travel map from Matador Network.

Not that it would change how the map looks, but my country count would at least be healthier if they considered England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as separate countries.

Anyway... dear Father Christmas. All I would like this year, please, is three return flights to New Zealand. I have been a good(ish) boy, and will leave a mince pie out for you (plus carrot for Rudolph) in exchange for the aforementioned tickets. Many thanks and keep up the good work, Martin.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Order! Order!

I went to Parliament yesterday for a meeting. No, DC is not suddenly seeking my views on how to win over an increasingly disenfranchised electorate. It was a work thing involving a company who are a Crown supplier and so were able to get sponsorship from an MP to hold their meeting there.

After the meeting had finished, I thought, "Well, how often am I going to be here? Might as well have a look around." After nearly bumping into David Blunkett, I ended up in the queue to sit in the Commons public gallery. Now Wednesday is Opposition Day in the Commons, which means the subjects debated are chosen by the Opposition. The debate I watched was on the performance of the economy, proposed by, amongst others, Edwards Miliband and Balls (though neither put in an appearance, as far as I can tell). In fact, the debate was opened by the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Chris Leslie. The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, Priti Patel, responded on behalf of the Government. So no Osborne either.

Anyway, if you're interested you can watch the debate here and of course the whole thing is written up in Hansard.

So what observations can I add? Well, I joined the debate partway through, by which time the already sparse population of MPs had thinned still further. A good proportion (at least a fifth) of those that remained were on their mobile phones the whole time. I can't be sure (because you're not allowed to take binoculars into the public gallery) but from the way they were mostly stabbing and swiping at the screen, I'd guess that most of them were either checking email or tweeting. In my view, that's pretty slack at best, and disrespectful to those speaking, not to mention those they represent.

Oh, and whilst MPs can batter away at their mobiles in the Commons, the public have to leave their phones outside the gallery. Odd.

What else? Parliament is full of flat-screen TVs. They come in pairs, one with a green screen, one with a red screen. These detail what is going on at that moment in the Commons and Lords respectively. And in the Commons itself, more flat-screens display who is speaking and their constituency, whilst still more display the time and a countdown timer for the speeches (yesterday there was a six minute limit in force on back-bencher speeches).

What I can also tell you is that the whole experience left me wishing I'd been more politically involved as a younger man, because it's probably a bit late now to start trying to be an MP, not least because I'd have to align myself with a mainstream political party, none of which fits me very well.

And if you're concerned that all the above might lead to this blog becoming more political... well, it might. Certainly I've been having internal monologues for some time along the lines of "what I'd do if I ran the country?" And what's that if not a manifesto? But rest assured, I'll try to keep it in check. You might get the manifesto, sometime, but you'll still get the observations, the TV/film/book reviews, the music and the Clandestine Classics. It's just that if I ever enter the world of politics, at any level, you can probably expect to read about it...

P.S. If you can be bothered with going through the security checks, Parliament has a nice café with free wi-fi too.

Friday, 14 November 2014

It's life, Jim, but not as we know it

In our age of Internet memes and instant sharing, I know with certainty that I will not be the first person to make this joke, but presumably this new Coke Life implicitly makes the ordinary red label stuff... Coke Death?

Coke Life. Lower calorie. Not low calorie. It'll still rot your teeth too, kids.
Life. It's got a green label, so it must be good for you.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Book review time - "Numbskulls" by Mark Kilner

Numbskulls. © 2014 Mark KilnerKilner's latest collection picks up nicely where Let's Kill Love left off, in that many of the stories herein deal with similar themes: alienation, isolation and just how messed up life in 21st Century Britain has become. Except I think Numbskulls trumps even the excellence of the previous collection. There's a lot going on here, both in terms of style and content. Rightly or wrongly, it feels like Kilner has grown more confident in his writing, and is even more willing (and he was never reluctant) to try new ideas out for size.

There's humour here ("You Are Boris Johnson" will hit the mark for all those old enough to remember those "choose your own adventure" books of our youth, whilst "Beardface" and "And Now For Something Strangely Familiar" are also highly effective comic pieces), controversy (the Ballardian "Funeral of Princess Diana Considered as a Grand Prix Motor Race" might not be to everyone's taste but is deftly handled), a bit of social commentary ("Killed to Death" and "Rutting Season" are both very good on contemporary celebrity) and outright surrealism ("All The Young Bowies"). As with Let's Kill Love, Kilner also includes a longer story - "Passion" is surprisingly thought-provoking with regard to art, religion, the tabloid press... and a couple called Hugh and Liz.

Best of all though is the story in two parts that bookends the collection, "Single to Kepler-186f" and "Hello Cruel World". These stories epitomise Kilner's style, his preferred subject matter, his dark humour, his inventiveness and his originality. In these tales, our hero, disenchanted with the modern world and deprived of the romantic escape he hopes against hope for, volunteers to journey into deep space to colonise a distant, uninhabited world. But as you might expect from Kilner, things don't quite turn out as expected...

I won't go through all twenty stories here, but I will say this: Numbskulls is a whip-smart collection, with recurrent themes entwined throughout. Working through it, this reader found himself having lightbulb moments on multiple occasions as stories referred back, obliquely, to earlier tales in the book. To borrow a maths analogy, it's like Kilner has shown his working out as he's gone along, which leaves the reader feeling very satisfied on reaching the solution. The quality of the writing alone warrants a five-star review, but that feeling of satisfaction the reader gets, delivered subtly but so, so cleverly, makes this my book of the year. You can, and should, buy it here.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

I'd fire you all

I watched The Apprentice for the first time this series last night. The whole format seems to be a bit laboured now and, if I'm honest, I only watch the task enough to be able to shout at the television when they're all in the boardroom. Shout and roll my eyes in despair, that is, because it does seem like the shortlisting process for applicants, of which there must be hundreds if not thousands, seems to be "Who's the most arrogant? Inept? Opinionated? Ghastly?" In other words, who is most likely to get people like me rolling their eyes and throwing my hands up in the air at the awfulness of them all. Rather than, let's say, who might actually make a good apprentice in Sugar's corporate world.

That's television these days, I guess.

There was a double whammy last night. Robert got canned for hiding during the task but then, stupidly, not hiding in the boardroom. If you're going to hide, stay hidden (like Stephen and Felipe, who seemed invisible all evening). And Scott got fired for being angry and intense - that's me reading between the lines, but it seemed to me that Lord Sugar was just glad to be shot of his aggression. And poor old Scott: I'm not going to do a separated at birth because the similarity was more to do with actions and manners than simple looks, but oh my, he reminded me of a young version of this guy, complete with chest-puff/chin-thrust move:

Mr Mackay in Porridge, confusingly played by Fulton Mackay
Mr Mackay in Porridge, confusingly played by Fulton Mackay

© BBC 2014. Scott McCulloch, an angry man, in typically modest mode
Scott McCulloch, an angry man, in typically modest mode

As the post title suggests, I wouldn't want any of them on my team, but if I had to nail my Apprentice colours to the mast, I'd go for Jemma Bird and Solomon Ahktar. Jemma seems relentlessly optimistic and tries to make the best of every situation, however bad it seems and, as yet, hasn't got involved in rows, back-biting and juvenile squabbles. But then it was only episode two. Solomon actually seems to have good ideas, and appears to be a guy you could actually work with, a criteria that is surely more important than grandiose CV padding. I wish these two well. The rest? You're all fired.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

And they call this progress?

Because I know you all lose sleep over my mobile phone choices, here's an update to the chronology.

Mobile phone chronology

Don't get me wrong, it's brilliant, but this is progress? Why are all manufacturers chasing bigger and bigger screens? For the avoidance of doubt, this is the biggest phone I've had since the late Nineties... yet it is billed as Compact. It far outperforms its predecessor in almost every respect, but how I wish that hadn't become temperamental.

The last time I did this...

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Separated at birth VI - Jude and Mia

Miranda Richardson as Jude in Neil Jordan's "The Crying Game"
Miranda Richardson as Jude in Neil Jordan's "The Crying Game"

Is it just me that wonders if Quentin had watched Miranda Richardson as Jude in The Crying Game before he styled Uma Thurman as Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction?

Uma Thurman as Mia in Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction"
Uma Thurman as Mia Wallace in Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction"

Previous separations at birth

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Clandestine Classic XXXIX - Antiphon

Midlake
The thirty-ninth post in an occasional series that is intended to highlight songs that you might not have heard that I think are excellent - clandestine classics, if you will. Maybe they'll be by bands you've never heard of. Maybe they'll be by more familiar artists, but tracks that were squirelled away on b-sides, unpopular albums, radio sessions or music magazine cover-mounted CDs. Time will, undoubtedly, tell.

There was a time when I would buy, on average, an album on CD every other week. Sometimes more. My shelves groaned under their collected weight. But life changes. Life gets busy with other shit. Time for just sitting and listening to music gets eroded, especially now that I no longer spend an hour in the car commuting every day. And tastes changes too. I was going to write that my tastes have changed but let's be honest here, my tastes have stayed mostly the same and the world has moved on. I've just had a quick look at the current UK top 40 and do you know what? I don't know a single track in it. Not one. I couldn't even hazard a guess, a hum, at any of them. My taste has never been mainstream, but it seems what I like has never been so far removed from what is popular. Or commercial, at least.

I got to wondering recently when this parting of the ways happened. Perhaps these Clandestine Classics would provide a clue, I thought. So I drew up a graph, running from the year I was born to now, and I tallied up the 38 entries in this series thus far to see how they were distributed. This is the result:

Seems 1992 was a much better year for music than I remember! The big surprise here is the shortage of tracks from the early to mid Eighties, but then I guess the "clandestine" criteria for this series means I can't easily include The Jam, The Smiths, and many other bands I listened to a lot back then. I had a big 60s Mod revival thing going on then too - Who, Kinks, Small Faces - again, hard to categorise as clandestine. The consistent level throughout the Nineties is no surprise - I was out a lot, going to lots of gigs (mostly with The Man Of Cheese), avidly reading the music press, exploring new sounds. Then in the Noughties... well, I didn't grow up as such but life moved on around me. Then, in 2007 my life took a right-angle turn and I had time again to indulge, to seek out new bands, to try new things again. Even so, no Clandestine Classics since 2011.... I am not down with the kids.

So lets add a more recent bar to the graph. Midlake are a Texan folk rock band who've been plying their trade since 1999. I'll confess to not being familiar with their history or earlier work. I've since read that in 2012 their lead vocalist and primary songwriter upped sticks and left the band, and that 2013 album Antiphon was their first output without him. And what output! I heard the title track on the radio and was immediately hooked. Antiphon (a Greek word for a specific type of "call and response" religious chant) may be folk rock but it's choral in a way that definitely sounds ecclesiastical...but fear not, it's an entirely secular work. I think. Because the lyrics are a little obtuse at times; they seem to be anti-war, but also talk of the poor kneeling down before He who takes and defiles, and of idols who wore fine wool... so who knows.

What I do know is that the harmonies made by these, the remaining members of Midlake, are incredible, dense, layered. It's the sort of sound other bands would make with a computer. I found these sounds to be transportative, given the right mood. The record buying public disagreed - the album of the same name limped to number 39 in the UK chart, and didn't chart at all in the US. There was no single release which, given the aforementioned state of that chart, is probably no surprise. To get the most uncluttered perspective on those harmonies, have a listen to this live session version first - then head back here and revel in the depth, structure and sheer weight of the album version, here courtesy of YouTube. Oh, and is it just me or does the middle eight sound briefly like early Seventies Genesis?

I'm still not down with the kids, but I'm okay.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

I don't really "do" memes any more but...

I don't go on Facebook much, if I can help it. I don't really "do" memes1 on there either - it all feels a bit 2008 - but since this one is book related and I was nominated by a good friend (not just nominated, Dark Steps made it onto her list) then I thought I'd better do this. Here's the spiel. List ten books that have stayed with you, for whatever reason, then nominate others to do the same. Simple.

I've added an extra rule of my own: only one book by any given author. Anyway, in no specific order, here goes:

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. You think the film is intense? Try the book. Pitch perfect prose too.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Maybe not his greatest work but this is about books that stay with you...at the time in my life I read this, I was pump-primed, ready to be flattened by this book.

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. The book that speaks to me most about being a bloke (and about being a record collector).

Vox by Nicholson Baker. Famously dismissed as a "toenail paring" by Stephen King because of its brevity, Vox is proof that word count is not the be all and end all. Intimate, shocking (still), thought-provoking and very special to me. I almost swapped this choice for The Fermata, by the same author, but since I read Vox first, it (just) gets the nod here.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. An exercise in controlled horror. You've probably only seen the Will Smith vehicle, but wipe that film from your mind and savour the far-superior source material instead.

Skeleton Crew by Stephen King. I nearly chose The Stand. I nearly chose the recent (and brilliant return to form) 11.22.63. I should probably have chosen The Shining, as it's arguably his best work. But I chose this collection of short fiction instead, as it was the first King I ever read. It's probably not even King's best collection (that's Night Shift, I expect) but it does include The Mist and Mrs Todd's Shortcut. Most importantly though, it began a love affair for me that persists to this day.

Oryx And Crake by Margaret Atwood. If there's been a better (and more unnerving) slice of speculative fiction written in the last twenty years, I haven't seen it. Atwood is beyond compare, in my book.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher. Nowadays book shops, real and online, are awash with dystopia - everything is dystopian this and dystopian that. But this book, long out of print but now back in circulation, just pips The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham for proper, old-school dystopia.

The Outcast by Sadie Jones. I thought long and hard about whether to include this. It is a good book, of that there is no doubt. Have I read other, greater books? Yes. But this makes the because it stays with me, more than most others, because of the time in my life and the circumstances in which I read it.

Watership Down by Richard Adams. The book I have read more than any other (14 times, I think). In a book about rabbits, all human life is here.

And now a cheat, to mention a couple more books. Just bubbling under, not making the cut, Spaceship Medic by Harry Harrison, a book from my childhood, and Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke, from a time in my teens when I read an awful lot of science fiction. Oh, and American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis which, I'd wager, stays long in the mind of anyone who reads it.

And that's it - ask me again next week and you'd probably get a different list. I know this isn't Facebook but the whole thing is about books that have stayed with me (me, me, me!) - that makes it personal, hence ideal blog material. No, it doesn't (just) mean I'm too tired to write anything else new. If, by slim chance, we're friends in Zuckerberg's empire, I hope you don't mind the repetition.

1. Is there a verb yet that means "to 'do' a meme"? Answers on a postcard to the usual address (i.e. post a comment). Cheers.

Monday, 8 September 2014

And whilst we're doing lazy photo posts... misplaced hope

I do like the irony of this optimistic message, set against the whitewashed window of a closed-down shop...

(Unless you are the shopkeeper...)

As spotted in a charity shop window...

...in which Asterix, Obelix and the rest take on a rampaging hoard of kohl-eyed, back-combed teens, cutting a doom-soundtracked swathe through Gaul in their ill-fitting black clothes... not that I'm stereotyping, at all.

Asterix and the Goths

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

I love you, Doctor Zaius

I feel quite tempted to watch the news Apes film, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes. I am so impressed with the simian CGI, and filling in the gaps in the Apes timeline is always going to be a better bet than reimagining the original film (ask Tim Burton if you're in doubt).

Trouble is, however good Dawn is, it'll never top this...

Monday, 28 July 2014

Take shelter...

It won't be too many more years before World War II slips from living memory. All the more reason to document things like this, then, as spotted on the wall of a very nice Georgian townhouse in Lord North Street, on a recent trip to the Big Smoke.

Take shelter

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

"Latitude - the Waitrose of festivals"

Damon and an Icelandic trumpet is all it takes for an atmospheric End Of A Century
Much as I'd like to, I can't do the full Latitude experience any more. I went in 2008 and 2009, and found it to be the best of festivals. I really liked the look of the line-up in 2010 but couldn't make it. I did, however, manage a day in 2012, with the mighty Weller headlining. And I managed a day again this year, with a certain Mr Albarn (right) as my excuse to go. Here, then, in the best tradition of my old festival diaries, is what I saw.

Saturday:
  • Teen : i Arena. A long queue getting into the car park meant I missed my first intended port of call, Jack Dee's Help Desk. Instead, I listened to the sweet harmonies and twisty bass of Teen, a female four-piece from Brooklyn. Their band name may be awful, but they sound lush and smooth - an unexpected, plesant surprise.
  • Luke Wright : Poetry Arena. Luke used to be in a band (Dorian Gray) and it shows in his stagecraft and wannabe rockstar swagger. Poetry highlights included The Bastard of Bungay and, especially, Dad Reins, during which I may have got something in my eye. He concluded his set with a poem in a garage style, for which he was joined by musical collaborator Laura Stimson - poetry, comedy and music, all at once!
  • Rag 'n' Bone Man : Lake Stage. From the write-up in the Latitude programme, I was expecting a sort of Seasick Steve, but with a more contemporary backing. Well, the contemporary backing bit was right but The Rag 'n' Bone Man himself, a mountain of a man with a mountainous voice to match, reminded me more of CeeLo Green. The stage felt a bit empty, as he performed with just a drummer and a backing track, and his take on House Of The Rising Sun felt a bit hit and miss but anyway, Rag 'n' Bone Man was very keen to stress that you can download tracks from his album for free at Soundcloud... here's a link so you can make up your own mind.
  • Booker T. Jones : Obelisk Arena. Yes, you read that right, soul legend and multi-instumentalist, Booker T. Jones. Mannish Boy was a highlight, perfectly suited to his now-grizzled bluesman credentials. Of course, he did Green Onions too, from his days with the MGs. He also covered Take Me To The River, introducing it by saying it was written just around the corner from his house by two friends of his, Al Jackson (MGs drummer) and one Al Green. Music history, right there. I was less certain about his cover of Hey Joe, but Booker T's sideman filled the Hendrix shoes, just. He really got the crowd going with Soul Limbo (aka the theme from Test Match Special - yes, really) before closing with Time Is Tight. Peerless stuff, a pleasure and a privilege to see one of the old school still doing his thing.
  • Liam Williams : Cabaret Arena. Just caught a bit of Liam's set in passing. Slightly unusually for stand-up, Liam had a quiet accordion track playing in the background as he delivered his pathos-laden, tragi-comic "anti-lad" routine. His meditation on the value, or otherwise, of Wetherspoons pubs was interesting. His best line though was this: "When I'm 40 my wife won't divorce me, she'll just decide she doesn't love me very much."
  • Mark Thomas : Theatre. The longest queue of the day was to squeeze into the 500-seat Theatre tent to see comedian and activist Mark Thomas perform his new, hour-long solo show Cuckooed. There were plenty of laughs but plenty of seriousness too, as Mark detailed how a personal friend and fellow activist turned out to be a spy, no less, paid (though not even handsomely) by BAE Systems to infiltrate the anti arms trade movement. Despite the weight of the subject (and the stupefying heat of the tent), Mark held the audience rapt, prowling the stage and interacting with interview clips of fellow activist friends. Over the course of the show, the poor guy soaked through his shirt, a dark ring working its way down from his neck to his waist - that's how hot it was. But it was well worth it, another real highlight. And he coined the "Waitrose of festivals" phrase too.
  • Oliver Wilde : Lake Stage. An unintended bonus, purely because my intended next stop - James - had been postponed for a day, owing to missed flights. What can I tell you about Oliver Wilde? Not too much, to be honest. Wilde describes him own sound as "Downer pop? Tinsel rock maybe? Lo-fi glitchtronica?” All of that seems fair enough but, for me, it was a bit bland (possibly because I was still gutted at missing Tim Booth et al), but nevertheless provided an adequate accompaniment to eating churros in the late afternoon sunshine.
  • Mark Watson : Comedy Arena. I've wanted to see Mark live for a long time; he didn't disappoint. Just as well really, as 6.30pm gave me a three-way timetable clash and I forsook seeing First Aid Kit on the main stage and Sheffield's finest in "Pulp: a film about love, death and supermarkets", in favour of the Comedy Arena. Conducting his show from the centre of the crowd, Mark's set (I can't really call it a routine because so much of it was improvised, and therefore far from routine) lasted well over the allotted half an hour but the time whistled by (always a good sign). Riffing on whatever seemed to catch his attention, Mark was equal parts energy and honesty - far from off limits, his past drinking to excess was mined extensively to dark comic effect. He also reprised his Bouncy Castle song, which got a big laugh too. How I wish I could have been at Latitude on Sunday too, for Mark's book reading...
  • Gavin Osborn : The Little House. After grabbing some tea from the smaller Greenpeace tent (top festival tip: charity tents sell cheaper fare than commercial food concessions, and with shorter queues), I popped into the tiny Little House to see Gavin Osborn. He sounded a bit croaky (too much booze and fags, by his own admission) but still did his thing with aplomb. A singer-songwriter in the style of Billy Bragg (witness the self-confessed rip-off homage to (Waiting For) The Great Leap Forwards at the start of the excellent Left Side From My Right), Osborn adds a little more humour than Bragg to the mixture of pop, politics and love songs. The tiny crowd (60 in the Little House and a healthy gaggle crowded outside the open door), myself included, lapped it up.
  • Damon Albarn : Obelisk Arena. The big kahoona, and the main reason I'd stumped up for a day ticket in the first place. I've seen Blur live twice, in '91 and '94, but never in their later years, and although I'd heard a few solo Albarn tracks on TV I haven't heard the whole Everyday Robots album - all in all, I wasn't sure what to expect. Relief then, to see that Damon has lost none of his frontman/showman skills, even if the band behind him (The Heavy Seas) are different. After a concise intro from Steve Lamacq, Damon was off and running and, fair play to him, he even had a woman signing the lyrics in the corner of the big screens (and dancing awkwardly during music-only middle-eights) - a nice touch. But what of the music? Some Gorillaz and The Good, The Bad and The Queen tracks crept in amongst the solo material, but the biggest cheers of the evening were reserved for the Blur tracks. Out Of Time and All Your Life were performed by just Damon at the piano, as was encore-opening End Of A Century (augmented by a lone trumpet solo). Then, as the lightning and storm clouds that had been circling throughout his set finally let rip above the arena, Damon said, "There are some Blur songs I can sing on the piano, but this is one that's impossible to do without the man I wrote it with: Graham Coxon." On walked Graham to join Damon and the band for a joyous, anthemic Tender. The crowd were soaked in less than a minute but I for one didn't care a bit. This felt a bit special. Graham didn't stick around though, or say goodbye - he just hugged Damon and ruffled his hair before exiting stage left. The appearance of rapper Kano during Clint Eastwood felt a bit anti-climatic after that, if I'm honest, as did the full choir on-stage for Mr Tembo. Tender should have been the last track, I reckon, but if it had then those that left early to avoid the downpour (or beat the car-park exit queue) would have missed out. Bottom line though - it must be difficult to compete with one of the most spectacular lightning shows I've ever seen, but Damon did okay. His solo show is definitely worth seeing, should you get the chance. Oh, and there are some good photos of Graham with Damon on the NME website - my pic of them is blurry because of the heavy rain.

And that was that. I had intended to see Robin Ince's late show in the Literary Arena after Damon - experience tells me this would have let the queue of day-trippers exiting the car park clear - but I was soaked to the skin, and Literature, like every other tent, was stuffed to the gills with festival-goers seeking refuge from the rain. So I joined the car park exodus, and over the next hour crawled the 200 yards out of the field... at least the windscreen made a fine picture window onto that incredible (and incredibly sustained) lightning display.

Monday, 14 July 2014

A tie-in too far?

I understand the need for film and TV commercial tie-ins, I really do. I get that it's a sales thing, and it works very well. I'm even going to resist the temptation to take the moral high ground and say it's appalling, simply because if Lego had the Star Wars tie-in back when I was a kid and up to my eyes in space Lego, well, I probably would have melted...

These days, Lego has superhero tie-ins too, and is no discriminator - Marvel and DC characters get equal shelf-space, and sell equally well from what I can see. The comedic Batman in the recent Lego Movie has probably helped shift a few units too.

At what point should there be a cut-off though? Because Lego now have superheroes in their Duplo range, i.e. aimed at pre-school kids. Now in my book (and depending on how old you are), the Joker should look like one of these guys:

Three Jokers. © 2014 First Rule Of Film Club.
Credit to the excellent First Rule Of Film Club blog for making this composite image, thereby saving me the trouble

Except if you are three, and playing with Duplo, the Joker looks like this little chap:

Don't get me wrong, I've got nothing against Lego - quite the opposite, in fact, I could still happily spend all day building things with it, despite being in my mid-forties. And I'm a realist, not a prude, when it comes to the modern reality of how companies seek to maximise sales through commercial tie-ins. But shouldn't there be a limit, especially where toddlers are concerned?

If not, how long before the Lego Technic chainsaw from American Psycho hits the shelves?

Monday, 23 June 2014

Europe. It's like a different country or something... II

Fresh from bringing you evidence of Flemish Belgium's love of crack on toast, behold the majesty of Portugal's equal love of crack.

Bollycao Crack
To your new irresistible snack!

Not pictured: any maturity on my part, or an interesting blog post.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Five a day

Raisin and biscuit Yorkie
Some health food, yesterday

According to the wrapper of my raisin and biscuit Yorkie, 13% of the contents are raisins. 13%! More than an eighth, nearly a seventh of a bar, in other words. Quite a lot, relatively speaking...which got me thinking.

13% of a 53g bar is 6.89g (i.e. 0.13 x 53 = 6.89)

According to the NHS [source], 30g of raisins or other dried fruit equates to one of your five a day.

Now, 30 ÷ 6.89 = 4.354136430

In other words, eat approximately 4⅓ raisin and biscuit Yorkies and you've had one of your five daily portions of fruit and veg.

Nearly 1200 calories, more than 130g of sugar and 33g of saturated fat as well, but hey, it's all about the balanced diet...

Who ever said maths wasn't fun?

Monday, 9 June 2014

Where Is My Mind?

For reasons that will become apparent, I am too tired to blog about yesterday properly. Instead, I will try to tell a tale using embedded content rather than words. Here goes.

Yesterday, I went here:

to see these guys:

Pixies, 2014

do this:

Pixies Setlist Field Day 2014 2014, Indie Cindy Tour

which looked and sounded a bit like this:


My ridiculously long train and coach journey home was full of people (and their parents) who looked like this:

Typical Directioners

and I got to bed at:
3:15

If you haven't bought Indie Cindy yet, you can get it here:

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Clandestine Classic XXXVIII - Levitate Me

Come On Pilgrim
The thirty-eighth post in an occasional series that is intended to highlight songs that you might not have heard that I think are excellent - clandestine classics, if you will. Maybe they'll be by bands you've never heard of. Maybe they'll be by more familiar artists, but tracks that were squirelled away on b-sides, unpopular albums, radio sessions or music magazine cover-mounted CDs. Time will, undoubtedly, tell.

The question, though, is how to choose a clandestine classic by a band as successful, for so long and in so many places, as the Pixies. Knowing my blog's readership as I do, I'd say there's a fair chance you like the Pixies. There's a pretty good chance you own a copy of Doolittle. You might even have had a "Death to the Pixies" t-shirt back in the day. So how am I, with my little series of lesser-known greats, going to sneak a Pixies track by you? Well, chances are I'm not... but, in honour of the fact that I'm going to see the band live this weekend, I am going to try.

Let's go back before Doolittle, back even before first album proper Surfer Rosa, to the Pixies first release, the Come On Pilgrim EP. This in itself was just eight short tracks re-recorded from their demo, the Purple Tape, and weighed in at little more than 20 minutes. But even for a band so much in its infancy, the Pixies were pretty much fully formed. All the trademark sounds were there: Frank Black's vocal range and twisted lyrics, Kim Deal's rumbling bass and deceptively sweet harmonies, Joey Santiago's meandering guitar lines and David Lovering's dynamic percussion. Oh, let's not forget the whole quiet/loud/quiet thing that became a trademark of the band, and was much copied a big influence on many other bands, including such luminaries as Nirvana and Radiohead. In fact, so ready, so complete was the Pixies experience in those early days, even though only eight tracks from The Purple Tape made it onto Surfer Rosa, many others later resurfaced on other albums, even as late as Subbacultcha on Trompe Le Monde. But I digress - what of today's classic?

Well, Levitate Me is pretty much an early archetype. Quiet/loud/quiet? Check. Subterranean bass? Check. Vocal range? Check. Obtuse lyrics, with pop-culture references and possible ominous subtext? Check. It really is all there. Much has been written about the Eraserhead connection, but you don't need to be familiar with that film to enjoy this song, as I can attest. All I know is that the sound of Frank and his band have been embedded deep in my consciousness since my own Elevator Lady introduced me to Come On Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa a barely believable 24 years ago. I've been in her debt ever since, for this and so much more.

You can pick up Come On Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa together here - honestly, I can't think of many better ways to spend seven pounds of your money. For today's classic only there is, of course, YouTube. And if you're off to see the Pixies at this weekend's Field Day festival, who knows, we might walk right by each other...

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Our number's up

If you haven't already seen it, I recommend reading Georges Monbiot's latest online article for The Guardian. Entitled "It's simple. If we can't change our economic system, our number's up", I can't pretend it's a cheery piece but just because it's full of sobering thoughts, doesn't mean you shouldn't read it.

In a single essay, Monbiot touches on so many themes of such import: climate change; biodiversity collapse; the depletion of water, soil, minerals, oil; fracking; deforestation; overpopulation... and then trumps them all with the inherent problems for us all in the relentless pursuit of economic growth. Of course, being powered by fossil fuels this drive for growth is both time- and resource-limited anyway.... but the damage is already done. Over the last 200 years, the West (and, increasingly, the developing world) has undergone a wholesale change from a needs-based to a wants-based economy. And with the global population set to hit 9bn by 2050, it seems inevitable that greater risks, greater conflict and greater ethical compromise will be required to meet ever increasing needs.

Maybe it's an age thing, maybe it's parenthood, but this sort of thing worries me more than at any time in my life. Take time out to read the Monbiot Guardian piece. Take a look at Population Matters. See if you can be inspired to make some changes by consuming mindfully.

And before anyone trots out the old "necessity is the mother of invention" response - mankind is clever and will prevail through technology and innovation - Monbiot makes this observation:

Some people try to solve the impossible equation with the myth of dematerialisation: the claim that as processes become more efficient and gadgets are miniaturised, we use, in aggregate, fewer materials. There is no sign that this is happening. Iron ore production has risen 180% in 10 years. The trade body Forest Industries tells us that "global paper consumption is at a record high level and it will continue to grow". If, in the digital age, we won't reduce even our consumption of paper, what hope is there for other commodities?

I don't mean to bug you, but in case you've looked at the Guardian piece, seen how long it is and thought "hmm, perhaps not", well, maybe I can persuade you. I'm not as eloquent as George but the bottom line is that average global consumption per capita is increasing, as is the global population: in other words, there's a double-whammy of increase in demand. And, with the exception of heat and light from the Sun, the Earth is effectively a closed system: in other words, there's a finite supply. Simple logic dictates that demand will exceed supply - it's not a question of if, but when. It's patently obvious, but seems a truth too harsh to face, and so it remains the elephant in the room. Here's Monbiot's conclusion for you anyway, in which even he is reducing to mild swearing:

Statements of the bleeding obvious, the outcomes of basic arithmetic, are treated as exotic and unpardonable distractions, while the impossible proposition by which we live is regarded as so sane and normal and unremarkable that it isn't worthy of mention. That's how you measure the depth of this problem: by our inability even to discuss it.

I'm guilty, of course. Guilty of being a consumer, just like you, and not always a mindful one either. I try though. And I'm trying to discuss this... maybe you will too.

I'll hush for a bit now. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Four things we have learnt from the Euro elections

No caption necessary
  1. There are an awful lot of voters who would not describe themselves as racist but are perhaps concerned about "national identity". How else do you explain UKIP's record result?
  2. Only 33.8% of those eligible to vote did so, suggesting more people are disenfranchised with democracy in general, and EU democracy in particular, than are concerned about Farage et al holding any kind of authority in their name...which is a criminal shame.
  3. We are not alone. France is suffering too.
  4. Even having an utter tool as your party's deputy chairman won't stop people voting for you.

Of course the most sobering lesson learnt is how much UKIP has changed since it formed in 1997, especially as those changes have corresponded with its move from being a curio to a political force.

Anyway... I've tagged this piece "Opinion", so here's mine - voters of Britain, get your arses in gear at next year's general election. By not voting, you allow buffoons into office by the back door. It's bad enough when they're just snout-first in the EU trough, refusing to vote and quaffing pints in carefully staged photo calls but when it's your representation at Westminster that's at stake....? Come on!

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Mirror in the bathroom

We've just had a new bathroom put in and now, for the first time in our five years in this house, we have a mirrored cabinet above the sink. Not only that but for the first time in my life I have a mirrored cabinet with a hinged door above the sink.

Now if everything that Hollywood has taught me is correct, I suspect it is only a matter of time before I close the cabinet after cleaning my teeth one night to find a psychopath/murderous spouse/supernatural horror behind me. Or, more likely (because teeth-cleaning is less photogenic on-screen) I'll be going in there for some non-specific medication...

Or am I just being a putz?

In other news, one of my other blogs has been DMCA'ed - please read all about it.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Tonight, Matthew...

...I shall mostly be imagining it is the early 90s, as I go to see Ben Watt (EBTG) and Bernard Butler (proper Suede) at an intimate gig at the local arts centre.

This is the sort of thing they'll be playing.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Weller, Weller, Weller.... oh, tell me more, tell me more

Paul Weller has never been backwards in coming forwards when it comes to discussing his influences. Inevitably then, some fans (like me) are a bit sad and look for those influences when they hear something new by him.

In other words, Paul has a new single coming out soon to presage his latest greatest hits compilation, More Modern Classics. The track is called Brand New Toy and, to me, it sounds a bit like what would happen if Ray Davies and Steve Marriott were locked in a 2014 studio together. But do I just think that because I am very familiar with Davies's and Marriott's past works, and know of their influence on Weller? Or does it really sound like them?

Here it is - you decide.

What do you reckon?

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Europe. It's like a different country or something

I guess at some point I ought to grow up.

Until then, however, I will take delight in comedy food packaging from around the world. Here are three examples from a recent trip to Flemish-speaking Belgium.

Half-wit bread
Half wit bread? Probably not brain food...

Plop biscuits
A biscuit called Plop. I find this funny, despite not being of pre-school age.
And my personal favourite...
Crack 'n Toast
...I prefer mine with Marmite.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Clandestine Classic XXXVII - The Truth

The Truth by The Real People
The thirty-seventh post in an occasional series that is intended to highlight songs that you might not have heard that I think are excellent - clandestine classics, if you will. Maybe they'll be by bands you've never heard of. Maybe they'll be by more familiar artists, but tracks that were squirelled away on b-sides, unpopular albums, radio sessions or music magazine cover-mounted CDs. Time will, undoubtedly, tell.

I've been wanting to feature The Real People in this series for a while, but have always stopped short. This is partly because I couldn't decide which tune to feature: Window Pane was a candidate, but is a little bit too much of its time, with that then-ubiquitous baggy backbeat; Begin was also a oft-considered choice, not least because, back in the day, I began so many compilation tapes with it. Its lyrical shortcomings were its undoing though, at least in the clandestine classics stakes. Instead, here I am choosing the Real People track I own most different versions of (including the original 1991 vinyl release, pictured here): The Truth.

Much has been written (not least on their Wikipedia page) about The Real People's influence on Oasis, and the temptation is still to pigeonhole them as a sort of proto-Oasis: a Northern guitar band, led by heavily-eyebrowed brothers, with a penchant for (perhaps inadvertently, perhaps deliberately) channelling late-60s Beatles sounds. Throw in some simplistic rhymey lyrics, to wit the aforementioned Begin, and Bob's your uncle. Except, fortunately, there was a bit more to The Realies than this (and yes, their fans actually called them that).

Forget the Gallagher brothers then. Indeed, if anything try to imagine a Venn diagram showing the intersection of late 80s R.E.M. (Life's Rife Pageant, say) and the as-yet-to-exist Cast. That tiny intersection contained The Real People and The Truth, especially on the original 1991 release. It's all there, honest: take the guitar sound from Fall On Me, add the slightly rhymey lyrics and Scouse delivery of Fine Time and then, because of that penchant for channelling late-60s Beatles, throw in a psychedelic middle eight, complete with backwards cymbals, and again, Bob's your uncle. The result is an upbeat song with a great singalong chorus (particularly good for belting out in the car), coupled with a deceptively downbeat lyric about accepting the meaninglessness of life.

The Real People never quite made it though, despite the excellence of this and other tracks and the repeated remixes and re-releases of their record label. Pretty soon Oasis came along and stole their thunder, and the rest is "what might have been?" Instead, the Griffiths brothers went on to write chart hits for all kinds of acts including (incredibly) Cher, Tunde, Ocean Colour Scene, bb mak and Atomic Kitten. Honest! As for today's classic, you can find it on their eponymous debut album. The slightly dancier but ultimately less satisfying remix is also floating about too but, for me, the original's the one you want, and here it is, courtesy of YouTube.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

This is as good as it gets

Those of you who know me, or have read this blog for some time, might have expected me to have written about this already. The trouble is, contrary to how it may often appear, these posts don't just throw themselves together you know... and for this, I wanted to take the time to write something half decent. So here we go, better late than never: the Gene re-issues.

The Gene re-issues. Copyright © 2014 New Amusements.

First things first, I want to address the obvious issue. If you read Gene's Wikipedia page, this is what the first paragraph has to say:

Gene were an English alternative rock quartet that rose to prominence in the mid-1990s. Formed in 1993, they were popularly labelled as a Britpop band and often drew comparisons to The Smiths because of their Morrissey-esque lead singer, Martin Rossiter. Gene's music was influenced by The Jam, The Small Faces, The Style Council and The Clash.

So... Jam, Small Faces, Style Council, Clash... why is it then that the music press, now and back in the 1990s, could never really see beyond The Smiths? Yes, Gene were a drums/bass/guitar/voice four-piece with a literate, fey singer abnormally blessed with grace, wit and style. But musically? Really far less in common than you might think. Still, the music journo's of the day were so desperate to label someone as "The New Smiths" (see also Suede, The Stone Roses, even Marion) and with the Rozzer seeming a ready-made heir to Mozza... I guess it was all too easy. Back then, I remember reading copyist "proof" being the extra track on the 12" of The Smith's first single. Go on, look it up. More recently, I have seen a Gene track described as being similar to Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others... just because it fades in. Really, you have to laugh...

Anyway, that's my beef over. Though I may revisit this during the course of what follows. For now, twenty years on from their breakthrough, Gene's studio output has warranted a glorious re-issue from Edsel, part of the Demon Music Group, in beautiful casebound CD form. Each album has had a digital "light touch" remastering and comes with a second disc of bonus material, primarily live and session tracks, with a sprinkling of B-sides too. The extras get most interesting on Libertine, but before I get too far ahead of myself, let's review the albums in order.

Get yourself Olympian
Not to oversell it or anything but Olympian, for my money, is one of the finest debut albums of the last twenty years. The muscular opener, Haunted By You, was a real statement of intent. Tracks like Sleep Well Tonight and Olympian ticked the mandatory "anthemic" box with ease, especially when bellowed back at the band by their adoring fans at live shows. And of course songs like Truth, Rest Your Head satisfied everyone who was content to label the band Smiths copyists. Because this is where the problem is rooted: Olympian, more than anything else the band produced during their decade in - well, if not the sun then at least the dappled shade - this is what tattooed The Smiths badge on Gene's collective arm. Nothing they ever did thereafter was enough to act as laser surgery. I mean, just look at that sleeve - conceptually, it's not a million miles away from the artwork for Hand In Glove or This Charming Man. Stylistically, it's reminiscent of the entire Smiths back-catalogue, with that type face and the constrained, over-saturated palette. It looks like The Smiths, ergo they must be Smiths wannabes. QED, right? Well, not really, as I shall explain in the course of the next four reviews. Before I move on, let me just add that the re-issue is topped up with radio session tracks and two live sets, none of which are essential but all of which are soaked in nostalgia for fans of Gene and the era alike.

You need To See The Lights
Of course the whole Smiths debate was not helped by Gene's second album, To See The Lights. Eager not to short-change fans, the band used their next release to collate B-sides, alternate versions, live tracks, radio sessions - basically, it was Hatful Of Hollow... ergo.... QED... again. Except, to follow that argument to an extreme, you might as well say any band that ever released, let's say, a live album was a copyist too. But anyway, what of this album? Well, to me this is an essential purchase because it includes both versions, guitar and piano, of I Can't Help Myself, a song of such beauty (especially in piano-led form) that it ranks among Gene's finest recordings from any album. Actually, the latter is very much in the style of Martin Rossiter's current solo work, and it was nice to see it reprised as such at recent live shows. Even beyond this reviewer's personal affinity with the stand-out track here, any album that opens with the mighty Be My Light, Be My Guide and closes with For The Dead much surely be worth £9 of anyone's money. Throw in the bonus material - a radio session that was very much a signpost for their third album, and a live set from the Phoenix festival - and it's clear that you can't go wrong with Hatful of To See The Lights. What next for the NME's "Best New Act" of 1995?

Surely we are all Drawn To The Deep End?
What came next, after quite a long gestation, was Drawn To The Deep End, for my money their most cohesive album, and so good that I stole its title for my novel-in-progress. Polydor, determined to transform Gene's status as indie darlings, beloved of an enlightened minority, into mainstream success, beloved by everybody, meant that copious amounts of money and studio time were thrown at the traditionally "difficult" third album. And it wasn't all that easy - Gene's cavalier attitude to killer material, scooped up for To See The Lights, had left them a little short on songs, and the temptation to make the most of previously unavailable studio time was understandably hard to resist. Hence album opener New Amusements (a great title for a blog, I should think) which was unlike anything the band had previously released. Fighting Fit also stands out, albeit for sounding like a needy grasp for a hit single. At least it owed more to The Jam than The Smiths. Rossiter's lyrics - always bitter, rarely sweet - reached new heights on DTTDE though. Witness Where Are They Now? and Speak To Me, Someone if you need proof. And then there's the deceptively simple beauty of Long Sleeves For The Summer. Bonus material here includes a swathe of B-sides (covers of REM [Nightswimming], The Jam [Wasteland] and The Small Faces [Autumn Stone] were again indicative of the shortage of original material), the excellent Royal Albert Hall live set and a couple of radio sessions. To my mind, these extras would be worth buying on their own.

Revelations: great album, rubbish artwork
Ironically, Revelations was more or less the final chapter in Gene's association with Polydor, and far more of a "difficult album" than their third. Rossiter's severe new haircut was perhaps visual evidence of the depression he had been diagnosed with, but even if not the signs were there throughout this album: Love Won't Work, The British Disease, The Police Will Never Find You, You'll Never Walk Again... if these sound like bleak songs to you, you'd be right. There were moments of real beauty too though, no more so than on Little Child, penned by new father Rossiter and guaranteed to get something in the eye of any dad who listens to it. Also noteworthy is the contrast in recording methods found here - whereas Polydor had pumped serious resources into DTTDE, in the absence of the hoped-for mainstream breakthrough they subsequently pulled the rug from under Revelations before it even got going, hence a very quick and comparatively cheap recording. Troubles aside though, there were plenty of other highlights, as good as anything in the Gene canon, not least As Good As It Gets, In Love With Love and the aforementioned Love Won't Work. Bonus material here is the most varied of any of the re-issues: the B-sides are, to be honest, of a generally lower standard than those that graced earlier Gene singles. Then there's a contemporary set from Sound City 98 which, though long (16 tracks) is conspicuously light on tracks from Revelations, relying more on past glories. And then there's one more Jam cover, A Town Called Malice.

Libertine - the pick of the litter
All of which brings us nicely to Gene's last album, Libertine. And they really were liberated, free from Polydor - this was recorded on their own label, at their own pace and in their own style. The result, I think, is the band's finest achievement, and one of the great undiscovered albums of the 21st Century. Yes, I know that is high praise - it surprises me too, because I remember not being bowled over when it was first released. Back then, I wanted them to still be the Gene of Olympian... I struggled to let them move on. Seems I wasn't the only one either - despite great reviews, Libertine struggled at the time too, and floundered without Polydor's promotional muscle. However, like DTTDE before it, the band's swansong stands as a wonderfully cohesive piece of work, a fact not lessened by the re-issue embellishment it gets here. Does He Have A Name? contains, in my view, Rossiter's finest Gene lyric. The achingly sad Is It Over? seems terribly prescient too, for the band, whilst delighted with Libertine, would soon all know that the writing was on the wall. A shame for all concerned, because tracks like Somewhere In The World demonstrated that, even though they had changed, Gene were still at the peak of their powers. What's left, in Libertine, is an album that has aged well, and is perhaps more in tune with the ears and tastes of Gene fans now those fans are all 10+ years older. Also, somewhat brilliantly, Libertine's bonus materials are the richest of all: in addition to mopping up the B-sides of the era, there are some comparatively rare tracks (studio versions of Baby I'm Sorry and the excellent Rising For Sunset), plus lots and lots of demo versions. If you judge re-issues on the merits of their bonus materials, this is the one to buy first. What's more, it's the only one available on vinyl (the band, rather than Polydor, own the recording, so all avenues were open with Libertine).

So, some closing thoughts. Edsel have done a beautiful job - the casebound CDs, complete with colour-coded spines that look excellent all in a row on the shelf, are lovely to just hold, let alone listen to. Plus they are stuffed to the gills with old photographs, and excellent liner notes by Terry Saunders. Lewis Slade, who has almost single-handedly kept the Gene flame burning online since the band's demise, undoubtedly deserves some of the credit here too, I suspect. Criminally under-rated guitarist Steve Mason, bassist Kevin Miles and drummer Matt James were all heavily involved in these re-issues as well, contributing extensively to those liner notes and providing archive material. They also all turned up at the launch party in London last month, all of which makes it even more of a shame that Martin Rossiter chose not to be involved at all, beyond wishing the venture well. Not surprising really, given his recent thoughts on a Gene reunion. One other gripe - personally, I would have liked to have seen live album Rising For Sunset also given the casebound, remastered treatment, to complete the set. There's probably a good reason why it wasn't, but I'm blowed if I can think what it might be. Luckily for us all, you can still scoop it up for peanuts here.

The bottom line though is this - right now, I can't think of a better way to spend £45 of your hard-earned than on these re-issues. If you're a Gene fan already, you'll love the sound quality, the bonus tracks, the packaging and of course the inevitable nostalgia... and if you are new to Gene, prepare to be dazzled...

I leave you with this:

Footnote: a new Gene T-shirt has been produced to tie in with the re-issues. Grab that here.