Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Sleeve art arithmetic

Not too long ago, JC over at the excellent New Vinyl Villain wrote about Product 2378, a Telstar Records indie complilation album from 1990. It was a typically good post about a truly excellent compilation, but JC rightly asked a lot of questions about it, notably how Telstar managed to assemble such an excellent selection of tracks in the first place, how they managed to release it given the paucity of their normal output and, most of all, what the hell was going on with the sleeve art?

Now I had a copy of Product 2378 on cassette, inevitably plucked from the Woolworths bargain bin for 99p. If you've read the track listing on JC's blog post you'll know that was quite a bargain. But still, about that sleeve art. It's always bothered me too.

And then, last week, it all came together for me. Someone, somewhere at Telstar, was a real indie kid. Take the sleeve art from The Chesterfield's 1987 debut album, Kettle:

...add the polychromatic effects (and palette) briefly fashionable following the success of New Order's 1989 album Technique:

...and you get the sleeve for Product 2378.

c + no = p (perhaps) or t(k)=2378 (perhaps not). Feel sorry for me, because this is the sort of thing that pushes my buttons.

Still none the wiser on that title though. Unless "PRODUCT 2378" was supposed to evoke the FAC and FACT numbers of Factory Records output. FACT 250 was Joy Division's Substance, for example. I know, it's not much of a theory but it's the best I've got, and in my mind, at least, fits nicely with the idea of that lone indie kid at Telstar being told to go away and come up with something...

Friday, 27 January 2017

Clandestine Classic XLIX - Ask Johnny Dee

The forty-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.

Last time I did a Clandestine Classic, I bemoaned the fact that the series had fallen into something of a rut, along the lines of always asking, "What do you think about when I say <insert band name here> to you?", after which I'll rattle through the obvious choices for that band and then pull a rabbit out of the hat. I bemoaned it, and then I went ahead and did it again. Shame on me. So it's back to basics, this time, as I try to wrap some personal narrative around the chosen song. Here goes.

We have to dial the clock back for this one, to the latter half of 1988 and the beginning of 1989. I was in the upper sixth of a selective boys' grammar school, and worked at weekends in the lighting department of a now-defunct high street department store. Surprisingly, for someone who had, two years earlier, described the concept of having a girlfriend as "a hypothetical situation" (much to the amusement of my mates), I had not only discovered girls but they too had discovered me. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying I was any kind of gigolo, quite the opposite, I was still painfully shy and socially awkward. But I'd had a couple of girlfriends of varying durations and seriousness. The situation was no longer hypothetical.

And then... then, there was Jay. That's not her real name, by the way; even though only one person who knew me back then reads this blog, I still think it's important to preserve anonymity. Jay was in the lower sixth at the neighbouring (and affiliated) selective girls' grammar school, and worked in the restaurant at the same high street department store. She was also painfully shy but, crucially for bringing us together, she was friends with the girls my mates were going out with. She was also ferociously intelligent, funny and, most attractive of all, just a bit different. For context, this was the age of peak Neighbours, when boys tried to look like Scott and Mike whilst girls tried to look like Charlene and (not so) Plain Jane Super Brain. Jay didn't try to look like anybody. She stood out from her classmates by not trying to emulate fashion, not overdoing the make-up in a horrible 80s way, not slavishly emulating the fashions of the day. She was a fully fledged individual at the age of seventeen which, looking back, was quite something.

Jay also had terrific taste in music. When most of her classmates were interested in standard chart fare, if interested at all, the only chart Jay was interested in was the indie chart. And so it was that, as friends tried to get us together and we edged around actually going out, she introduced me to a band she adored, The Chesterfields. I somehow hadn't heard of them at all at the time and, even now, had to fall back on Wikipedia to remind myself that they came from Somerset and that, although often referred to as a C86 band, they weren't actually on the landmark NME cassette. They were, if memory serves, part of the short-lived "twee" sound; with hindsight, they sounded like a lo-fi hybrid of The Housemartins, The Smiths and early REM, with a West Country accent. Today's Classic is their fourth single and indie chart highpoint (number four!), Ask Johnny Dee, from 1987. It also appeared on their debut album, the splendidly titled Kettle.

You can probably tell from the way I've written this post that there wasn't a happy ending to the story of Jay and I. She really liked me, and I liked her too but, for whatever reason, I didn't appreciate her enough. Actually, "for whatever reason" is not strictly true. I think I was just a typical eighteen year old, one whose mates all had conventionally pretty girlfriends, and I didn't want to commit to Jay in case someone else came along. That's pretty terrible, I know. But not nearly as bad as how I treated Jay at, and immediately after, one particular party - I'll spare you the details (by which I mean I'll spare my own shame) but I was a royal git to her, heartless. She deserved much, much better.

Ten-plus years later, we were once again both working for the same company, this time a US-owned corporate behemoth. We worked at the same (huge) site, but in different divisions - our paths would never normally cross, though I did see her once, from a distance across a large atrium. She looked great, of course, still a bit quirky, a little different to everyone else, but generally great. I don't know whether she saw me or not. Probably not. But she was in the company email address book, so I penned a carefully worded message to gently say hello (our first communication since that party, pretty much) and to start to suggest that I knew I had been a git, and to say sorry. She read the email, I know that much (I put a read receipt on it) but she didn't reply. A year or so later, she left the company, and that was that.

Except last year I spotted her again, in the social media timeline of a mate's wife. Jay's married now, it seems, with kids, and looks the picture of happiness. Still a little quirky, a little different from the crowd, as far as you can tell from a timeline. I thought, very briefly, of sending another message but didn't when I realised that I was in danger of turning into Rob from High Fidelity. I also asked myself whose benefit I would be apologising for, hers or mine? The answer, dear reader, does not reflect well on me. I stepped away for the keyboard.

You can pick up today's Classic on The Chesterfield's exhaustive best of compilation Electric Guitars In Their Heart, if lo-fi 80s twee is your bag. It was my bag too, for a short while a long time ago.

In the meantime, and with all apologies, this one's for Jay.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

The unbearable lightness of social media

Just lately, I have found myself retweeting and sharing all manner of stuff on Twitter and Facebook. I say all manner of stuff, what I mean is "all manner of stuff illustrating how crazy/deplorable/stupid the new President of the United States is". I've been doing this because I feel it's important to get the message out as widely as possible, to spread the word, to minimise the risk of anything being missed, to make sure as many people as possible know as much as possible about the havoc he is wreaking. And yet...

And yet.

What's the point? By definition, my Facebook friends are people I know and like, acquaintances past and present. By inference, there's a good chance we share a lot of common ground, commonalities that extend to include views and belief systems. In other words, my Facebook friends probably already think the same way about Trump that I do. I am preaching to the converted, and cluttering people's timelines in the process. And I say cluttering, because they already know that Trump is a cataclysmically dangerous and destructive oaf, they don't need to read some link I've shared to tell them that. So they just scroll past it. And get used to scrolling past shared links, to the extent that if I did share something that was news to them they'd probably just scroll past that too, on oblivious autopilot.

I much prefer Twitter to Facebook, in general, but for this sort of thing it's even worse. Why? Because your retweets still pass the majority of your like-minded followers by, just like in Facebook, but - and it's a big but - beyond that, it's like hollering in a deaf person's ear. Not all the time, but take the issue of Trump, or Brexit, or even the Scottish referendum. These are such black and white issues, such polar opposites of extreme opinion, I do not believe for one moment that a Trump-loving, Leave-voting Scottish Nationalist is going to change any of his or her views, just because they've seen something I've retweeted. It's whistling in the wind.

Don't get me wrong, there's a value to retweeting, when it shines a light on an issue that is perhaps not widely known or where there are many shades of grey. But when you're banging the drum for one side or the other in a partisan, them-vs-us, black or white debate, where beliefs are so passionately held and diametrically opposed and where (here's the crucial bit) your chances of actually converting someone from the "other side" to your way of thinking are practically zero, well that's when it's time to rein in all but the most essential retweets and shares.

So that's what I'll be doing from today, and hope that it also helps my state of mind, which has been veering towards depression over the last week. I watched The Age Of Stupid two nights ago, and it nearly finished me off. Don't let that stop you though, I consider it absolutely essential viewing. Watch it... and do have nightmares. Then wake up and decide what you want to do about it, besides retweeting. Me, I'm going to join the Green Party for a start. How about you?

Friday, 20 January 2017

How did it come to this?

Today's the day a proportion (though not the majority) of the American electorate get the man they think is going to make their country great again. There he is, on the left, brazenly, blatantly mocking disabled reporter Serge Kovaleski. Of course, he indignantly refutes this allegation, saying he would never mock any disabled person, but you've seen the video, you know the truth. And this is the man that, from today, will be the leader of the free world. Now I'm going out on a limb here, but I'm willing to bet that if you're a regular or even occasional reader of this blog then you won't believe this is a good thing.

I've been trying to marshal my thoughts on the US election and the President-elect for two months now, and I'm no nearer being calm enough to write cogently on the subject.

Instead, I have to content myself with a few bulletpoints summarising what we have learnt about both Trump and the sociopolitical mood that has led to his triumph. In no particular order:

  • Trump is not a smart man. If you were in doubt on this, consider his views on climate change.
  • Trump cannot laugh at himself, if his reaction to Alex Baldwin on SNL is anything to go by.
  • Trump is possibly the least presidential president in history. Twitter gives us all the proof of this we need.
  • Trump has elevated self-aggrandisement to an art form. "I will be the greatest <insert buzzword of the day here> in history..."
  • Trump's picks for high office betray his real interests and motivations...
  • ...and make a mockery of his pre-election pledge to shake up the system.
  • Fake news is apparently only fake news if it disagrees with or undermines you.
  • The rejection of experts, in our post-truth world, is now so complete that the US has a president who has never previously held any elected office. Of any kind. Ever.
  • Russia almost inevitably has some form of dossier on Trump, which may or may not include #Watersportsgate. It's naïve to think otherwise.
  • Pollsters have yet to analyse and quantify the effect of the so-called embarrassed or ashamed voter, hence the inaccurate predictions for the 2015 UK general election, the Brexit vote and now the US election. Seems that the greater the perceived stigma attached to voting a certain way, the greater the inaccuracy in the polls.
  • The presidential handover from Obama to Trump provides dictionaries with a new textbook definition of the phrase "from the sublime to the ridiculous".

I could go on and on, and this would turn into the longest post I have ever written. In case you haven't noticed, I believe Donald's rise to power is a disaster, not just for the US but globally. Not only that, I fear it marks a worrying change in an increasingly stratified society, where the difference in opinion becomes so extreme and the shades of grey in between decrease in number. Next stop, Eloi and Morlocks.

I thought of trying to leave you with something lighter in tone, maybe something mocking Trump (and let's be honest, there's no shortage of material there). Trouble is, it's not mockery that's needed now, as Trump and his ilk rise and rise around the world. What's needed now is resistance, protest, action. Protect the free press. Protect civil liberties. Protect equality. Live the way you want the world to live around you. And, if you are eligible to vote in US elections, get Trump out of office at the earliest opportunity. I pray, for all our sakes, that it won't be too late.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Now that's what I call ... old

At the weekend, as I stood waiting at the checkout queue in Sainsbury's, I picked up a copy of Now 95. Flipping the CD over, I noticed there were 45 tunes spread across the two discs ... and I didn't know any of them. Not one, by title at least. I might recognise some if I heard them, maybe, but by title the only track I had any familiarity with at all was the remix of Is This Love by Bob Marley & The Wailers featuring LVNDSCAPE & Bolier. And I only know that because, like you, I know the original. If I heard the remix, would I be able to say with any certainty that it was the version featuring LVNDSCAPE & Bolier? No, of course not. Don't be ridiculous.

As for the acts featured on 95, yes, I know a lot of them by name, sure. Visually, I could pick maybe a dozen out in a police line-up. But that's as far as my familiarity goes.

The Now series dates back to 1983. My big sister had Now 2 on cassette, for a while. The early entries in the series were advertised with a sunglasses-wearing cartoon pig, and the slogan "Now that's what I call piggin' good." To understand the pig connection, read this.

The funny thing is, if I take a look back at the track listing for Now 1, I find I can have a reasonably good go at singing the choruses of at least 24 of the 30 tracks. It's a similar story with Now 2.

The inescapable conclusion is that when I was a kid, I was down with the kids. Ish. Now I am in the latter half of my forties I'm just old, however much I tell myself otherwise. Piggin' good, eh?