Wednesday, 29 March 2023

It was thirty years ago today

'Suede' by SuedeSuede's eponymous debut album was released on this day, thirty years ago. Cue mild angst about the passing of time and generally feeling old.

Looking back, I was desperate for it to be released. I had loved the singles that had preceded it but, more than that, I think I was still looking for a group to fill the Smiths-shaped hole in my life. Would Suede be it, I wondered?

Truth be told, I was a little disappointed with the album at first because, much like the debut from that Mancunian quartet that I still so sorely missed, it fell slightly short in a few areas. Firstly, there weren't enough new songs - The Drowners, Metal Mickey and Animal Nitrate had all been released as singles already, which meant only eight new tracks on the album. And then there were the lyrics: I wanted Brett to be the new Morrissey, and he was clearly trying hard. Maybe too hard. But for whatever reason, I felt it wasn't quite enough. Bernard's guitar brilliance won me over though, and it became an album I played an awful lot through '93 and '94. It also became a go-to source for the mix-tapes that I made to send across the pond to my much-missed friend in Philadephia.

I was lucky enough to see Suede live earlier this month. Five songs from the eleven on Suede made it into the nineteen-song setlist, which tells its own story: firstly how much they are adored by the band's fanbase, but also how well they have stood the test of time. Here's one that they played, and I can confirm that it still cooks:

And here's something for the guitarists among us: a fascinating insight from Bernard on how to play it:

I love this, almost as much as I love the fact that he still has all the same kit he recorded it on.

What else? How about a song from the debut album that didn't get played at this month's gig? This was one of my favourites back in '93, mostly for its fizzing intro - Simon's barrelling drum-rolls and Bernard's Gibson flanged-pedalled to within an inch of its life. God, it was an exciting way to start a record in 1993. Still is, in my book.

To end, a quiet, special moment from that gig earlier this month: Brett and Neil gave us The Next Life, the debut album's most delicate moment. It was quite something, only slightly marred (where I was stood) by people having a good old chin-wag all around me. Grrrr! What is it with that? Surely you've come to a gig to hear the music? If you just want to have a chat, some of you even with your back to the stage, piss off to the pub! Christ! Sorry, it gets my goat, as you can tell. Let's restore order and get back to that lovely fragile live rendition.

Happy 30th, Suede. As it turned out, the Smiths-shaped hole only ever came close to being filled when Gene came along, but you still have a special place in my heart. More "on this day in music history" nonsense on Friday.

Monday, 27 March 2023

About (love)cats

If you search YouTube for covers of Lovecats, well, you'll find a shedload. There are some good ones, some bad ones, some interesting ones. Indie pop, rock, ukulele, string quartet, a capella ... anything and everything you could hope for. But none are as good as the original, not even this one, and you know why? It's the voice and the delivery. Any other vocal interpretation of this song just leaves you thinking, "That's not as good as Robert Smith."

So here's Robert and his merry band, just because.

And also just because, here's a love(ly) cat, last week.

Wednesday, 22 March 2023

Nothing like the sun (or more about AI)

Estelle Skornik Thomas Thorne William Shakespeare Bill Gates
What do these four have in common? Nothing, other than all appearing in this post.

As you'll know from my last post, I've been playing with ChatGPT, the better-than-you-might-expect AI chatbot that Microsoft are getting behind (I'm on the waiting list to try Google's Bard AI).

Since yesterday was World Poetry Day, I asked ChatGPT if it could write a sonnet about French actress Estelle Skornik. And if you're thinking that names rings a vague bell, she was briefly famous in the 90s for playing Nicole in those Renault Clio ads. Anyway, here's what the bot wrote, literally in a couple of seconds:

Fair Estelle, with eyes so bright and bold,
A beauty that inspires both awe and grace,
Your presence on the screen is a sight to behold,
A talent that few can ever hope to trace.

With every line you speak, your voice doth flow,
Like honey, sweet and rich and full of life,
Your passion for your craft doth clearly show,
And stirs within us all a yearning strife.

Your beauty, like a rose in full bloom,
Shimmers with a radiance that cannot be ignored,
And captivates us all in its sweet perfume,
A sight that we shall always adore.

So here's to you, Estelle, with love and admiration,
May your star forever shine with such brilliance and dedication.

So what do we think? I mean, yes, technically it is a sonnet - fourteen lines, rhyming, expressing romantic love or infatuation - and it is about Estelle (an Estelle at least, rather than necessarily Mlle Skornik) ... but it's awful, isn't it? I mean, I'm no expert but this feels like the kind of "moon, June and coffee spoons" rhyming that you'd find in a greetings card, or at best something Thomas from Ghosts would write. But is it any better or worse than arguably the most famous sonnet in the English language?

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Yeah, that's better, isn't it? That Shakespeare bloke was alright, wasn't he?

The thing is, though, this AI lark: it's in the kindergarten right now. Think how quickly we went from the Wright brothers to Apollo XI. Think how quickly we went from a Nokia 3310 to the iPhone. Now think how quickly AI will go from Hallmark poetry to Shakespeare...

From one Bill to another. Bill Gates is in the news today, suggesting that AI is the most important tech advance in decades. For what my opinion is worth (nought), I think he's right. And whilst Gates cautions that governments should work with his industry to "limit the risks" of AI, he is broadly optimistic about the benefits of this new tech. I worry more though. For every positive application (research, medicine) I see more negatives: you think algorithms are bad now, just wait 'til some commercial AI thinks it knows you better than you know yourself. And worse than the monetisation will be the militarisation. Gah.

Let's end with a song. The aforementioned Sonnet 130 gave this post its title, but also gave Sting a line for a song and the title for an album in 1987. Now Sting irks a lot of people, almost as much as Bono, but he's done some good stuff, and I'm not just talking about his time in the Rozzers. Anyway, to prove that I don't have a hip bone in my body, other than my pelvis, here's an excellent version of that song, Sister Moon, by Gordon Sumner and his jazzy mates. Until such time as AI can play the drums with the intense joy and precision of Billy Kilson in this, maybe we can rest easy.

Sunday, 19 March 2023

About AI

So, I've finally got to the top of the waiting list to have a go with ChatGPT, the AI chatbot from OpenAI. From my admittedly limited experimentation thus far, I'd say it's scarily good at some things, not so good at others. Examples, you say? Well, I started off with a vaguely work-related question:

Q. Will AI replace data managers?

A. It's unlikely that AI will completely replace data managers in the near future. While AI can automate many tasks related to data management, such as data cleaning, preprocessing, and analysis, human oversight is still necessary for many aspects of the data management process.

For example, data managers play a critical role in defining the data needs of an organization, selecting appropriate data sources, and ensuring the accuracy and quality of the data. They also need to interpret the results of data analyses, communicate findings to stakeholders, and make recommendations for action based on the data.

Furthermore, data management involves many non-technical skills such as communication, problem-solving, and project management, which are difficult for AI to replicate. While AI can assist with some aspects of data management, it is unlikely to replace the need for skilled human professionals in the field.

That's not too bad, is it? On the money, I'd say, if a bit bland. So what about something more taxing? Maybe a question about the future wife, also requiring some creativity, perhaps...?

Q. Can you write a limerick about Kylie Minogue?

A. There once was a pop star named Kylie,
Whose music was loved far and wily,
From "Can't Get You Out of My Head"
To "Spinning Around" instead,
Her fans danced with joy so spryly.

Which I think we can all agree is terrible. However, could any of us do any better, with that brief, and in less than twenty seconds? Not sure I could (and that's being generous to myself). Next up, a question that requires opinion and morality to answer, and has vexed many of us for some time.

Q. Is Morrissey racist?

A. There has been controversy surrounding Morrissey and accusations of racism. Some of his comments and behavior have been criticized by individuals and groups as being insensitive or offensive towards certain racial and ethnic groups.

For example, Morrissey has been known to make comments in interviews that some have interpreted as being anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim. He has also been criticized for wearing a badge with the logo of the far-right political party For Britain during a performance on a US talk show.

However, Morrissey has also denied accusations of racism and has spoken out in support of animal rights, veganism, and the LGBTQ+ community. He has also collaborated with artists from diverse backgrounds and included diverse musical influences in his work.

Overall, the issue of Morrissey and racism is complex and controversial, with differing opinions and interpretations. It is up to individuals to form their own opinions based on the available evidence and their personal values.

Which is more a collection of statements than an answer, and which is as admirably on the fence as even the most die-hard SPM fan.

So, let's do one more, just the one as I know this is getting boring for you. There's a skit in The Simpsons (series 8, episode 6) where Milhouse's parents' marriage is breaking down; playing Pictionary at a dinner party, Milhouse's dad Kirk has to draw a representation of "dignity" and his wife Luann can't guess what it is. Because how do you draw dignity in a doodle? Except when challenged by Kirk, Luann does exactly that, the joke being that we don't get to see the mystery picture. Why have I described the scene, when you could just watch it on YouTube right here? But anyway, that leads me to my final question for ChatGPT, and the one that caused it to think long and hard...

Q. How could you represent dignity in a picture?

A. Dignity can be represented in various ways in a picture, depending on the context and the intended message. Here are some possible ideas:

A portrait of a person who exudes confidence and self-respect. This could be a close-up shot of their face, capturing their expression and body language that conveys a sense of dignity.

A scene of a person standing tall and strong in the face of adversity. This could be a silhouette against a dramatic background, such as a stormy sky or a cityscape.

A group of people holding hands or linking arms, symbolizing solidarity and unity. This could be a diverse group of people from different backgrounds, genders, ages, and cultures, showing that dignity transcends individual differences.

A photo of a majestic animal, such as a lion or an eagle, that represents strength, courage, and nobility. This could be a close-up of the animal's face or a wide shot of it in its natural habitat.

A picture of a grand monument or a majestic landscape that inspires awe and reverence. This could be a panoramic shot of a mountain range, a waterfall, or a cathedral.

A simple, minimalist image that conveys a message of dignity through symbolism. This could be a single flower standing tall amidst a barren landscape, a candle burning brightly in the darkness, or a hand reaching out to help someone in need.

Ultimately, the best way to represent dignity in a picture is to capture the essence of what it means to you and convey that message through visual storytelling.

Which is actually not a bad answer, if a bit clichéd. A noble lion, an eagle, a mountain... It's almost like motivational posters have been designed by AI for years.

Okay, I know I said that was the last question but I'm human, not an AI, so I'm prone to error and changing my mind, so indulge me one last time. This is how I ended my session on ChatGPT.

Q. Is ChatGPT any good?

A. As an AI language model, I am programmed to provide helpful and informative responses to the best of my ability based on the training data that I have been given. However, like any technology, there are limitations to what I can do and areas where I may not be as knowledgeable or accurate. That being said, I strive to provide the best possible answers to your questions and constantly work to improve my capabilities. Ultimately, it is up to you to decide whether or not my responses are helpful and meet your needs.

Which basically translates as "I'm good but I'm modest with it." And that has to be a good thing - the more modest the machines are, the less chance we will all end up in a dystopian wasteland, ruled by mechanical overlords from the Cyberdyne factory. On that note, let's end with a video that is supposed to highlight some of Boston Dynamics' robot fails... except it really just shows us how good they are getting. I'm not sure how I feel about all this, but I'd be interested to know what you all think.

Friday, 17 March 2023

Where spring is sprung

I know it's only mid-March, but I think I've already heard my song of the year. Remind me of that in December if I do a recap.

Others have beaten me to writing about the Fontaines DC cover of Nick Drake's Cello Song: Swiss Adam at the inestimably brilliant Bagging Area and Craig at the always-excellent Plain Or Pan, to name but two. So I'm not going to say much more about it, because you should follow those links and read better, more original write-ups. All I will add is that the guitar during the (long) intro puts me vaguely in mind of Robby Krieger at The Doors' wooziest, the Fontaines dropped the last verse from Nick's original, and that I love it when singers retain their regional accents in song. No generic mid-Atlantic drawl for Grian Chatten, oh no.

Anyway. This is the best new song I have heard in an age, by any objective measure. It manages to feel both dark and uplifting at the same time, and reminds us all of the simple power of music. It's also everything a good cover version should be - identifiable but distinct, a reimagining not a retread. It also came out of my radio earlier in the week, and I can confirm it sounds fantastic cranked up: rich, atmospheric, textured ...

All in all, I bloody love it.

Tuesday, 14 March 2023

Every home should have one IX

No Ides of March nonsense here, just the remediation of a massive and long-standing oversight on my part with regard to the albums that no home should be without. Yes, it's another compilation album, but it's one of the greatest multi-act compilation albums ever released, by anyone, at any time. Buying this on cassette, way back when, was such a significant moment in retrospect, introducing me to a slew of new bands by the weight of association with bands I already loved. And tracks that, in the pre-Internet age of my youth, I might never have heard otherwise. How can I have overlooked This Are Two Tone for quite so long? EHSHO masterlist duly updated.

And because it still sounds fantastic, here's The Selecter with their eponymous B-side:

Sunday, 12 March 2023

Thank you for the days III: Sunday

Let's flog this blog series dead horse, with a third and final batch of posts featuring songs that have a day of the week in the title. Finally, Sunday - it ends here.

What better way to wake up on a Sunday morning than with late-70s Debbie Harry? So of course this is Sunday Girl by Blondie. I've gone for a live video, even though the sound quality is poor, simply because DH is mesmerising in it.

Not much is going to measure up to that, is it. Certainly not Joe Jackson. But here he is anyway, with a jerky guitar line that is vaguely reminiscent of XTC, and some questionable of-their-time lyrics, with Sunday Papers. Redeemed by the harmonica middle eight. Maybe.

To finish, not just this third batch of songs but also the series, one of the greatest pop songs ever written. Take a bow Gerry Goffin and Carole King, for the genius of Pleasant Valley Sunday. But I had The Monkees yesterday, so their original, brilliant though it is, is out. Instead then, here's The Wedding Present's cover, from 1992 when it was the b-side of the fifth single in their Hit Parade series.

There will be no part IV. Part IVs are for Star Wars episodes and Rocky. Don't even try to persuade me.