Friday, 27 May 2016

Billy Bragg and the ridiculously long shot

This is such a long shot, someone had better call Norris McWhirter.

To fill a hole in my gigography, I'm trying to work out when Billy Bragg and the Red Stars played Brighton. I think it was 1992 (might have been a year either side), and I think the venue was The Event (or it may have been Event 2). Any ideas, anyone? It's one of the few gigs I don't seem to have kept the ticket for.

As a bonus, to keep you interested, here's what they sounded like back then. Worth skipping forward to the 46 minute mark for the curio that is a thirteen minute version of Groove Is In The Heart. Yes, really.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

"Why am I here?"

I've been writing this blog for more than eleven years. It's never been wildly successful - I have a few (a very few) regular readers, and that's it. Nothing I've ever written on here has taken off, let alone gone viral. My most popular posts have less than 100 page views. Put another way, I do not have to worry about the comments getting unseemly. So why do I bother?

I don't really know anymore.

Let's look at how the blog has changed over those 11+ years, with a nonsense graph I made up:

Yes, what I write about has changed - fewer opinions and feelings, more music and pop-culture ("other stuff") but still no-one gives a monkey's, not really. And why should they? If you want a music blog, try The (new) Vinyl Villain, My Top Ten, Crying All The Way To The Chip Shop and Circles Of Life. If you want well-reasoned opinions, try Cultural Snow and Never Knowingly Underwhelmed. And if you just want rants, well, the Internet is hardly short of those.

But hang on a minute? If the only people interested in this blog, out of the entire world, can be counted on my fingers, why have I ever bothered?

I used to have a theory about this. Some time ago (eleven years, coincidence fans), for reasons you'll forgive me for not going into, I moved away, geographically, from my family and closest friends. Opportunities to ramble on over a pint with The Man Of Cheese - to "have a life chat", as we used to say - are few and far between. Similarly, I can't think when I last bantered over the green baize or shared a movie night with Cinders. These things, these friendships, matter. So my theory was, I think, that I was blogging to fill that mate-shaped hole: I was throwing my half of the conversation out there, hoping that something would come back. I could still ramble on about whatever had caught my attention, or say "you've got to hear this album/read this book/see this film", and maybe that would soften the impact of my social life going so off piste. And maybe it did.

Now though, despite my trying to be a bit more prolific on here, and even (at times) trying to be a bit more of the moment, heaven help me, readership is at an all time low. Comments likewise. I might still be throwing my half of the conversation out there, but I'm talking to myself.

For old time's sake, I'll offer +1 kudos point for identifying the film quote that has given this post its title. It's tricky, but the only clue I can give makes it very easy. Maybe I should offer +100 kudos points for anyone who actually claims the +1?

The only question left is, how long do I go on talking to myself? Isn't that the first sign of madness?

Monday, 16 May 2016

Music for a man out of time

Tracklisting:

  1. Strangelove - She's Everywhere
  2. Damien Rice - The Blower's Daughter
  3. Maria McKee - If Love Is A Red Dress (Hang Me In Rags)
  4. Elvis Costello - Man Out Of Time
  5. The Smokin' Mojo Filters - Come Together
  6. David Bowie - All The Young Dudes
  7. Morrissey - I'm Not A Man
  8. Gene - Where Are They Now?
  9. The Who - I've Had Enough

If you like the sound of that lot, here's the download.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

In case you missed it ...

... during the celebrations of everyone's favourite non-familial nonagenarian's 90th birthday. Attenborough, the BBC, Aardman - what's not to like?

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Clandestine Classic XLVI - It's Only Life

The forty-sixth 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.

Now I don't know too much about The Feelies, beyond what can be gleaned from Wikipedia. Their entry in that mostly-correct encyclopaedia of our times suggests they grew out of the American post-punk/new wave scene, but that what distinguished them from their peers was the complexity, intricacy and layering of their "shimmering" guitar work. On the evidence of the only record of theirs I've ever heard, 1988 album Only Life, I'd go along with all of that.

There's a little bit of a story, actually, for me and this album, if you'll allow a digression. Back in 1992, in my last days as a full-time student, in that period of drift between the end of exams and graduation, I spent a lot of time in the University library, specifically the tiny record and CD section. I'd fill an enjoyable part of my days taking CDs out of the library and, despite the fact that home taping was still killing music back then, I'd make poor-quality cassette copies with an unbelievably chunky Philips personal CD player and a secondhand Panasonic boombox. I still have the latter, in the loft, and it still gets occasional use; the former, by contrast, didn't last five minutes. I haven't bought anything Philips-branded since. But now I'm digressing from my digression. Back to the story. So there I am, in 1992, unsure of my library choice but subconsciously yearning for Americana as a substitute for une Americaine. Looking back, I rather suspect I chose The Feelies because the name appealed. Now, I've already written about how I have gone back to that university recently, as my new place of work. And I'm frequenting the library CD section again (the vinyl has all gone). Imagine my surprise to see the exact same Feelies CD, sitting there. Naturally, I borrowed it again, 24 years later. I wonder how many others have borrowed it in the interim; from the condition of the booklet and disc itself, I'm guessing not too many. I've ripped it to MP3 this time, allowing my old, oxidised tape copy to retire from service. It's still a half-decent album, even though it still doesn't do quite enough to qualify as great.

Today's classic does, however. It's track one, side one, entitled It's Only Life. What's so good? Well, it has the Wikipedia-endorsed shimmering, layered guitars, and several subtle ear-worm hooks. It also employs the Talking Heads Road To Nowhere trick of being deceptively simple, with only two chords, but despite (or maybe because of) this the song has a slightly hypnotic effect. Soporific, maybe. And then there's the lyrical intent. There's nothing too high-brow here, nothing Morrissey-esque in its cleverness, simply a nice idea, to whit: don't worry about the bad stuff, it's only life. An admirable, if overly simplistic and ultimately naive, sentiment.

You can pick up Only Life on Amazon, though it's not cheap these days. Why not see if your library has a copy? In the meantime, here is today's clandestine classic. Enjoy.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Re-running the Waterloo Bridge Handicap

The old Odeon, now a theatre again

Growing up in small town East Kent, I was spoiled for choice with two cinemas. Two! One, the old Odeon, betrayed its theatrical roots, with a balcony and actual stalls at the rear of the lower tier. It was by far my favourite place to see a film. The first I can remember seeing was the Walt Disney animated version of Robin Hood - I vividly recall being given a poster of the titular fox in the foyer afterwards, which I proudly took home and Blu-tac'ed to my bedroom wall. I also remember another time, going with my school friend Alex's family to see a James Bond film, probably For Your Eyes Only. The film clearly was lost on me. What wasn't lost on me was the fact that my friend's older sister, Denise, on who I had a prototype crush, sat next to me. This may or may not have been a factor in what happened when, during the interval between supporting and main feature, a collection box for the Red Cross was passed around. Now although Alex's family had taken me out, my parents had not wanted me to go empty-handed, or with empty pockets, so had packed me off with a crisp new £1 note. When the collection box came to me, I felt pressured to put something in, just like everyone else - it seemed the right thing to do, the grown-up thing to do. And I had no change. So the whole £1 went in. Had I hoped to impress Denise? Maybe. Was I subsequently unable to buy a Kia-Ora? Definitely.

The old ABC, now the Odeon!

Anyway, whilst the old Odeon (now defunct - the cinema closed and went back to being a proper theatre soon after) was my favourite, it's the ABC I need to talk about today. I didn't like the ABC as much. It felt a bit grubby, a bit tatty. And whereas the Odeon has a circle and stalls, the ABC was just an enormous terrace of seats for its single screen. To give you an idea of how things were, my last visit there was in the Nineties for a late-night screening of Reservoir Dogs. They let the audience sit there for nearly an hour before cancelling and offering refunds because the bulb in their projector had blown and, incredibly, they didn't have a spare.

So, we've established I didn't much like the ABC but in those days, when there was far less choice, you took what you could get. And what I got, one day, was the Waterloo Bridge Handicap.

Now IMDB tells me this film was made in 1978. If I Googled hard enough, I could probably find out what films it was shown as the support feature for in the years that followed. But I'm not too bothered about that; the very fact that I can't remember what the main feature was tells me all I need to know. But The Waterloo Bridge Handicap stuck.

It's a simple tale of commuters, haring over the eponymous river crossing in the style of a horse race, complete with commentary from a young Brough Scott. He's not the only notable name on show either. Leonard Rossiter plays the lead, Charles Barker, whilst Lynda Bellingham, Patricia Hodge, Gordon Kaye and Zoot Money all put in appearances too.

The reason this film stuck, and that I've been thinking about it lately, is that I now have a 10½ minute walk from where I park to my office. Note, 10½. Not 10, not 11. That's how much I've refined the walking leg of my commute. And the thing is, if there's anyone further up the path than me, I try to walk them down. I have a notional finishing line. I even talk to myself about it (in my head, not aloud - don't panic). It becomes a little race for me. I know how that sounds, but when you walk the same 0.8 miles twice a day, every day, well, what would you do to make it interesting?

I'm going to embed the film now, courtesy of YouTube. Even if you think I'm a bit sad with my walk to work, this is worth a watch, partly for its time-capsule illustration of how much things have changed: in film, with the leisurely (pedestrian, you might say) pace of the opening; in London, with buildings and street furniture that are consigned to history; in transport, with British Rail rolling stock; and in people, not only in dress but in technology, with not a mobile phone in sight and people either talking to each other or, at least, looking where they're walking. And if the Thames station ident at the start of the clip doesn't get your nostalgia muscle flexing, nothing will.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Dumbing (Watership) down

Bright Eyes - no longer 'burning like fire', probably now just 'glowing with warmth'.

As I may have said before, Watership Down is just about my favourite book. Certainly it is the book I have read more times (fourteen) than any other and, in the unlikely event that I ever go on Desert Island Discs, it's the book I would choose to take with me. It is terrific.

Imagine my delight, then, to learn that the BBC and Netflix are partnering up to make a new screen adaptation, jam-packed with big names. Again, terrific, not that there's anything wrong with the excellent 1978 film version, jam-packed with John Hurt and Richard Briers.

Imagine my displeasure, though, to discover that the new version will be watered down, sanitised even, all so that it can be more family-friendly and not provoke a wave of protests, as the recent Easter Sunday afternoon screening of the Seventies version apparently did.

As you have probably already guessed, I do not approve of this. Nature is, as Ted Hughes famously observed, "red in tooth and claw". Richard Adams knew this when he wrote the book; there are so many threats to a rabbit in the wild, Adams christened the mythical rabbit El-Ahrairah as "Prince with a Thousand Enemies". If a rabbit is caught in a snare, as happens to Hazel in the book, it is going to be painful, bloody even, and potentially scary for very young viewers. If a farmyard cat corners a rabbit, as happens in the book, well, that rabbit is going to be in trouble: again, potentially scary for very young viewers. And if a rabbit has a dream about the fields being full of blood and the warren being visited by the Black Rabbit of Inlé (a sort of lapine Grim Reaper), as happens in the book, well, that's going to be scary for very young viewers too.

So I guess there are two choices: dumb the whole thing down, so nothing bad ever happens and nature is a sweet, neutered place of buttercups and friendly animals, where no blood is ever shed, and "wild animal" is an oxymoron; or maybe, just maybe, advertise the new programme as containing scenes some young viewers may find upsetting and then leave it to the parents to take an active interest in what their charges are watching. Is that too much to ask?

Apparently, it is.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

I like your manifesto, I'll put it to the test-o

I've been trying, on and off, to write a political post for a long time. So long, in fact, that some of the "things I would do if I was in charge" that were in early drafts of this post have now actually happened or are happening (step forward the carrier bag tax and sugar tax). By dubious inference, and in the manner of politicians for time immemorial, I will claim this as irrefutable evidence that my policies are all sound.

So if I really am the great lost statesman of our time, why have I never finished the "manifesto"?

Well, a small part of the reason it took so long, and never quite got finished, is that the political landscape keeps changing. A bigger part, though, is that I have been reluctant to get it finished; they say that you should never discuss politics or religion with your friends, and so by extension a blogger should never post about those topics for their readers. I don't have a massive readership, and I don't want to alienate any of you. I can only think of one person who agrees with every point I was going to make. And besides, who am I kidding, this is a pop culture blog, not Guido Fawkes ... So why did I even try?

In the run-up to the last general election, I wrote about how hard it is to identify with a specific political party when they've become so blended, so uniform, such similar shades of the same colour. I went on to speculate that maybe this was a factor in the gradual decline in voter turnout, and contrasted this to the high turnout at a single-issue vote like the Scottish referendum on independence, being a simple either/or choice - no shades of grey there.

Now, following the boy least likely to's ascension to Leader of the Opposition, politics is starting to polarise a little more. If what's left of the Liberal Democrats are able to reclaim the, presumably now vacant, centre ground, perhaps we're heading for a return to the 1970s and '80s, when you were either right, left or centre. Perhaps, perhaps...

But more likely not. See, here's the thing: I would suggest that people are, on average, more politically aware, if not engaged, than ever. 24-hour rolling news, the sheer speed of news coverage, the media channels now available to bombard inform the electorate ... it takes a concerted effort to avoid political news coverage. And with the sensationalist reporting of recent non-stories like Corbyn/anthem outrage and Cameron/pork incredulity (snoutrage?), even the red-tops are getting in on the act. And the trouble with such saturation, such coverage of the minutiae, such in-depth analysis, is that the days of being, for example, a Labour man just because you always have been are gone. There really aren't that many default positions any more. So you're left with trying to find the party of best fit. And then maybe you're like me, finding you're a little from column A, a little from column B, and so on.

It really does all come down to policies, then - finding a party with the most policies you can identify with, and/or the fewest policies you abhor. The least worst party, if you like. And so my intention, with the manifesto post, was to outline my thoughts on a number of policy areas. Maybe I thought, naively, that I could influence you, I don't know. Again, who am I kidding, right? On my two-bob blog that nobody reads ... but anyway, since I've gone to the trouble of finding some links for your further reading pleasure, I'll have to content myself with just making these two points:

  • Trident - simply put, we should not renew Trident. Whatever your views on the need for a nuclear deterrent or otherwise, at a time when UK public sector net debt is in excess of £1,500 billion (yes, really) it seems to me to be morally inexcusable to spend between £15bn and £100bn (depending who you believe) on what is effectively a luxury item. When you can't afford beer, you stop drinking cocktails, don't you? And show me someone, anyone, who doesn't agree that money could be better spent on the NHS, or schools. Besides, if large, developed economies like Germany and Japan can manage just fine without nuclear weapons, why can't we?
  • HS2 - the Beeb summarised the pro's and con's of HS2 better than I ever could but the fact that there are counter arguments or disputes over every claimed advantage the scheme is supposed to bring makes me very uncomfortable about spending £70bn to £80bn of tax-payers money on what, some argue, is effectively a vanity project. At the risk of repeating myself, when you can't afford beer ... Also, isn't throwing money at unaffordable prestige infrastructure projects derided in the developing world?

In case you were wondering, I was going to go on to talk about the deployment of British troops in overseas operations, foreign aid, education, public sector maximum wages, pension scheme review for MPs and firefighters, a child benefit cap, a trans-fats ban, cycle helmet legislation, incinerators, neonicotinoids, firefighters striking, EU membership and the global over-population crisis ... and now you can see why I've stopped. There is enough outrage in the bottom half of the internet. However liberal my policies, however well-argued and evidence-led they may be, you will inevitably disagree with some of them. Maybe all of them, and perhaps vehemently. And whilst I think most of my regular readers are pretty balanced individuals, I don't want to incur your ire. Or, more selfishly: I don't have many readers - I can't afford to lose any of you.

Seriously though, Trident renewal? What are they thinking?

Footnote: +1 kudos point on offer here for identifying the source of this post's title.

Great unnoticed headlines of our time - I

A corker from the BBC World News RSS feed:

Here's the story to go with it which, whilst good, can never quite live up to that headline.

Talking of news, the imminent closure of the New Day newspaper, after just nine weeks, should come as no surprise to anyone who's read it. Nice try, but it contains no news...