Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Monday, 26 June 2017

A rare find

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

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

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

Thursday, 22 June 2017

(Re)Turning Japanese

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

More street art - Adam and Eve get sponsored

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

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

More street art - make June the end of May

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

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Wanderlust... still

I did this once before, and can now offer a tiny incremental update.

Still no sign of those tickets to New Zealand though. Or Russia. Or Antarctica. Or Patagonia. Or... or... or...

MP’s Travel Map

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

Bottom line? Still not travelled enough.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Feelin' groovy

A proper election fall-out post will follow soon, when I'm not too tired to string a coherent sentence together (that's what you get for staying up all night at my age).

In the meantime, the events of the last 24 hours have left me feeling upbeat, in a way that is very different to the morning after the EU referendum. The post title might lead you to suspect I was about to post some Simon and Garfunkel, but no - instead, here's a well known, incredibly groovy song that always makes me want to dance like I was still young. Play loud, voters! Deee-lovely!

And yes - I may well have had a crush on Lady Miss Kier back in the day...

Thursday, 8 June 2017

X marks the spot

As we speak, polling stations around the country are opening their doors, ready to receive your vote, ready for you to do your duty.

And it is a duty. You don't need me to tell you how politics, and more specifically the political decisions and policy making of whoever gets elected, affects almost every aspect of your daily life. So leave for work a bit early, take an umbrella so the rain can't deter you, and vote.

If you're still unsure of who to vote for (I don't blame you - in my experience, no-one agrees with all the policies of their preferred party), you might be interested in a website that asks you lots of questions and then identifies your party of best fit. There are plenty of these website quizzes out there - I've tried lots and have found isidewith.com to be especially good, and as detailed as you want it to be.

Also, if you live in a constituency where tactical voting might be a factor, and you want to get into some of that, you should definitely take a look at tactical2017.com

Most of all though, please just make sure you vote. If you don't, you abdicate your right to bitch about anything for the next five years... and what will our social media timelines be full of then?

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Mixing pop and politics

You might know Andrew Collins from his music and television journalism (NME, The Word, The Guardian), or his excellent biography of Billy Bragg, Still Suitable For Miners. Or, most likely, as that bloke who appeared on TV as a "talking head" a lot in the Nineties and Noughties.

You might not know that he is also a terrific blogger, so much so that he scoops the blogger of the year award in my annual round-ups pretty much every year.

Well now, on his personal blog Never Knowingly Underwhelmed, he's written an important think-piece on the imminent general election. Whatever the colour of your rosette (and especially if you're undecided and/or a first-time, newly registered voter), I urge you to have a read.

And while we're on the subject of the general election, in the unlikely event that you're the one person who hasn't already seen it, here's Cassetteboy vs Theresa May. Enjoy, albeit as a black comedy.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Clandestine Classic LII - Wonderful Woman (live)

The fifty-second 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.

Continuing my quest to feature the most influential, most pivotal, most important acts in my personal musical history, today I tackle the big one: how to present a clandestine classic from The Smiths? Not only are the majority of my readers already very well acquainted with this particular Salford lads' club but here's a band whose output has been bootlegged, anthologised, re-issued and repackaged to within an inch of its life. Simply, there isn't much out there left to discover. But there are some tracks that get played less than others. And there are some intriguing live versions out of those lesser played tracks, so that's the card I'm playing - stick with me.

Wonderful Woman originally surfaced as the second B-side on the 12" version of the band's second single, This Charming Man. What we didn't know at the time is that it had been first recorded during the aborted sessions for their debut album (and as such would later appear on the Troy Tate Sessions boot). For whatever reason, it didn't make the cut for the eventual, re-recorded eponymous debut album, which is a shame as it would have fit right in.

But what of the song? I seem to recall reading a theory somewhere once that this song is about Morrissey's mother, but I find that unlikely indeed (and I can't find a source for this theory anywhere online). A more straightforward interpretation is that wonderful is sarcastic, since this seems to be about a thoroughly unpleasant woman who has "ice water for blood, neither heart nor spine" and implores Moz, "I’m starved of mirth, let’s go and trip a dwarf." Or maybe she's wonderfully, terribly beguiling, because Morrissey adds "when she calls me, I do not walk, I run." I don't know about you but I can identify with that - she's bad for him, he knows it, but still he can't resist. Steven, I hear you.

Musically, this is cut from the same cloth as Suffer Little Children, with a deceptively simple repeating guitar motif from Johnny over a steady-as-she-goes rhythm section. Oh, and a whisper of plaintive harmonica. Morrissey's vocal delivery is typical of the earlier recordings, in that it's perfectly serviceable yet lacks the confidence of subsequent songs. So why a classic, I hear you ask? Well, there's something uncanny about the end of each chorus, as Johnny changes up, the harmonica kicks in, and Morrissey repeats "her, her, her." It's not hypnotic but it's certainly an ear-worm - you could quite easily loop that little section and leave it playing in the background all evening and get no complaints from me.

You can pick up Wonderful Woman, as it appeared on the B-side of This Charming Man, on the fairly comprehensive The Sound Of The Smiths (deluxe edition) and you can read more about the Troy Tate demos over at the excellent Passions Just Like Mine. But, to paraphrase Chris Tarrant, I don't want to give you those. To maximise the clandestine value of today's classic, instead let's go for a live recording from a gig at The Hacienda dating back to 4th February, 1983. I read somewhere that this was The Smiths' third gig proper, and the first for which a recording exists (albeit with pretty poor sound quality). Also the first as a four-piece (they'd had James Maker on-stage as a dancer prior to this). The night this was recorded I was twelve and a half and didn't know Morrissey existed. Little did I know how much The Smiths would mean to me over the next 30+ years. In a week when Morrissey has taken a lot of flack for comments that even I, a past apologist, struggle to explain away1, I choose instead to remember some music from a band that, for me, was, is and always shall be life-changing.


1. What did Morrissey say about the Manchester bombing? Here. Martin Rossiter's response? Here. For contrast, Moz's subsequent critique of Tory plans to reverse the fox hunting ban, here.