Tuesday 22 December 2009

If there was any justice...

...this would be the Christmas number 1. Forget Raging Against something. Forget Joe somebody. Enjoy Sir Bob of Dylanshire instead, and happy Christmas...

Friday 18 December 2009

Springfield, so much to answer for

It's a busy time of year, and I'm tired on so many levels, so don't come round here expecting an original post or any new thought, sorry. Instead, let me just point you at a couple of articles that caught my eye this week, since they both deal with things that have been important to me for a long time.

The first is an interesting article on The Simpsons and why it no longer matters. Now don't get me wrong, I like The Simpsons, and I love the early years, but the edge has long gone. For me, the problems started ten or more years ago, when a big chunk of the writing team upped sticks and went to work for King of the Hill. As someone in the next paragraph might once have said, that joke isn't (so) funny anymore.

So. Morrissey. He writes a lovely big long statement, almost a end-of-year address to his fans, and gives it to the True To You fansite. You can read it here. And the bit that everyone picks up on, the angle that is re-reported everywhere else, is that Mozza is "apologising" for his album, Swords. Well, that's as maybe. He does make an interesting point about the price and how it was marketed though. Whatever. I for one still hope it'll be in my stocking this Christmas, apology or no.

Thursday 10 December 2009

Wild horses

A lot has been written about Susan Boyle (précis: 1 - she can sing a bit; 2 - she's plain to look at; 3 - her album is selling like hotcakes because people can't believe that 1 and 2 can possibly go together). I could go on to talk about how Simon Cowell is killing music in the UK, or how Boyle's fragile state and spinster life have in no way prepared her for fame, but I won't - others have already done that. I will say that I'm glad her album is going to make Boyle a tidy sum, because I expect she'll be forgotten in a couple of years. The sun is shining, and she's making hay - good luck to her, I suppose.

The real reason for this post though is to draw attention to The Sundays. Boyle's cover of Wild Horses is getting a lot of radio play, and that's fine, but back in 1992 The Sundays covered it too... and their version is so much better. Unscrupulous downloaders may luxuriate in the unique voice of Harriet Wheeler and layered guitars of Dave Gavurin here.

Britain really does have talent - it's just that you're unlikely to find it on anything Cowell is involved with. Sorry to break it to you like that.

Wednesday 9 December 2009

The last of the Big Smoke

Regular readers of this blog (there must be one or two) will know that I like to take myself off to London a couple of times a year for weekends of culture - art, theatre, music, chilling on the Southbank, that kind of thing. It's lovely - you should try it. Anyway, at the weekend I took what might be, for reasons I don't intend to go into here, the last such trip for a while. We drove down on Friday afternoon and took up residence in an excellent little apartment in Hammersmith (I'm not going to tell you exactly where, because it is excellent, and if I spread the word too far and wide then next time I do get down to the Big Smoke I won't be able to stay there because it'll be fully booked, with you in it!). But I digress. After a brief bout of Christmas shopping in Muji at Covent Garden, we had an excellent dinner in 32 Great Queen Street, before heading to the New London Theatre on Drury Lane to see War Horse. And what a show that is - a true theatrical experience. Based on Michael Morpurgo's children's book of the same name, War Horse tells the tale of a boy and his horse and their experiences in the run-up to, and during, the First World War. In case you're wondering how they bring horses to life on stage, well, it's done with the most amazing puppets (right) I've ever seen - full-size horse puppets that are so well animated (right down to twitching ears) that you soon forget the puppeteers and become wholly engaged by the character of the horse. The show also provides a very vivid evocation of the horrors of WWI: the madness of cavalry charges into machine-gun fire, the lunacy of going "over the top", the terrible futility of trench warfare. Yes, it's a children's book, and yes, you have to suspend your disbelief a little bit to swallow the redemptive ending, but War Horse is a truly astonishing show, and genuinely moving to boot. I'd see it while you can if I were you.

The next day we headed over to the Southbank, where our first stop was the Christmas market. If I'm honest, this was a bit disappointing. Don't get me wrong, the stalls that were there were great, and suitably Christmassy, but they were nearly all food outlets. This is fine in that it gives the market a lovely smell, and gets the tastebuds in the Christmas spirit, but I would have liked to have seen more stalls selling unusual gifts. Yes, there were some... but there weren't enough. That wasn't the only disappointment though, because we headed up to the Tate Modern next, specifically to see the Pop Life exhibition... and, to be honest, that was a bit of a disappointment too. Yes, I accept that a key aim of the exhibition is to celebrate the growth of commercialism in art, but that grates a little with me - I prefer the idea of art for art's sake, rather than churning something out just because you know it will sell. I did like Keith Haring's "Pop Shop" (his style is illustrated on the left), and Tracey Emin's work, love it or loathe it, at least feels very real and personal, but some of the rest? Jeff Koon's work with Ilona Staller (aka La Cicciolina) is exhibited behind closed doors because of its adult nature, and that's no surprise given that it's basically just giant close-ups, in different media, of them having sex. There's nothing wrong with this... except that when you read that Koons contacted Staller after seeing her in porn mags, engaged her to work on this with him, married her, posed the pair of them in increasing explicit works, and that in later works the Koons figure was beefed up and better groomed... well, it just feels like wish-fulfilment for the artist, rather than art for art's sake. Koons might like to dress this up as portraying a modern-day Adam and Eve, but really it's just self-indulgent, self-gratifying sexploitation. (This is where I should append "IMHO" but I just can't bring myself to indulge in such a linguistic transgression, sorry.)

What else? Well, talking of sexploitation, Richard Prince's original "Spiritual America" has been removed from display - this features a naked, 10-year old Brooke Shields, heavily made up and slicked down. It's been replaced by "Spiritual America IV", which shows an adult Shields recreating the pose in a bikini, ironically less heavily made up and without having been quite so vigorously baby-lotioned. If you believe the Tate, this replacement of the original picture with the more recent update was at the artist's request. If you believe the BBC News website, the change was made after a visit from the police... And now I know I'm going to sound pious and old-fashioned but Andrea Fraser's exhibit left me cold. She basically asked a gallery to find her a collector that would be willing to be filmed having sex with her for an hour, given that the collector would then pay a not insignificant sum to own the first copy of the resultant film. Is this art or is this, oh let's say, not too far removed from very clever prostitution? Is this art or has Fraser, like Koons, dressed porn up as art and hidden behind the shock factor? In the words of many (too many) a reality show, you decide. At least the exhibition ended on a high note though, with McG's video of Kirsten Dunst performing a pleasingly-faithful cover of the old Vapors track "Turning Japanese" whilst prancing around the streets of Tokyo, dressed in a colourful costume that seemed (to this boy, at least) to owe a lot to Manga and animé (right). I watched this all the way through... twice... Oh, and I did like Damien Hirst's "Ingo, Torsen" but that may be because I found watching twins knitting in front of Hirst spot paintings strangely hypnotic...

A mixed-bag at the Tate then, but a generally enjoyable (and genuinely thought-provoking) trip to London. And as if that wasn't enough, it also gives the perfect excuse to wheel out The Vapors themselves... enjoy.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

Mopping up

None of these stories quite deserve a post in their own right, but they are all worth sharing with you, so here goes - a bulletpoint apiece.
  • Someone has complained that the new Marks and Spencer Christmas TV ad is sexist. Oh, for God's sake! Watch it (it's the one entitled "Christmas Ad", rather than the Wallace & Gromit one) and decide for yourself that it isn't. Frankly, who doesn't want to see a pretty girl prancing around in her underwear over the holiday period or, indeed, at any other time? Or am I now being sexist?
  • Tesco paid nearly £1 million for six bicycles. Yes, push-bikes. Ordinary push-bikes. Stupid Evil Empire...
  • For those of you who prefer over-hyped music stars to overpaid sports stars, you can now ditch Fantasy Football and create your own Fantasy Festival instead, and compete to win money-can't-buy type prizes in the process. Here's the line-up for the (admittedly unimaginatively entitled) Pipstock...
  • When The Muppets perform Bohemian Rhapsody, it's satisfyingly funny.

Friday 20 November 2009

So, who is number one?

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the campaign to get The Who a number one single. Well, this week is buying week and, as I write, you have about 33 hours left in which to buy a download of "Baba O'Riley", and so help the cause.

Sadly, the eXecrable Factor finalists are releasing their group single this week... which is a Michael Jackson cover... and a charity record... so the chances of actually getting The Who to number one are as good as nil. I mean, they were pretty slim anyway, but now...

Oh well. Baba O'Riley is a great record and you really ought to have it in your MP3 collection. Go and buy it. Quickly!

Tuesday 17 November 2009

What do you call a man with three wooden heads?

Edward Woodward, obviously. Woodward died yesterday, at the age of 79. For many people, he will be famous for the inestimable Wicker Man (a genuinely unsettling film, in the unlikely event that you haven't seen it), whilst for others he will always be The Equalizer. These were both great roles, supremely executed by this fine actor. For me though, the high point of Woodward's resumé will always be Callan, even though I am too young to remember much about the original TV series. I base this preference purely on Edward's performance in the 1974 film, which is ace from start to finish.

I scoured YouTube this morning, because I really wanted to show you the sequence in which he uses a Range Rover to prevent his quarry leaving their house but guess what? Not for the first time, YouTube let me down. Yes, I know there are plenty of grainy clips from the old TV series, but the only clip I could find from the film is this. Enjoy, and RIP, Ewar Woowar.

Random trivia: Woodward was married to Michele Dotrice, of Some Mothers Do 'Ave Em renown, whilst the theme music for The Equalizer was written and performed by none other than Stewart Copeland, drummer with The Police.

Thursday 12 November 2009


Hooray for Sting!

I loved The Police, and he's churned out some great solo work too (especially this), and let's not forget he was the Ace Face in Quadrophenia. And now, bless him, he's let rip on the X Factor (that's X for execrable, obviously). It won't make a blind bit of difference to the success of this appalling show, but Sting says everything I want to say on the subject, and more, and he says it here. Go read, and inwardly cheer.

Thursday 5 November 2009

Remember, remember...

YouTube is awash with old public information films, and of course all the fireworks ones are very popular right now, what with it being Guy Fawkes' Night tonight. This is the one that I remember from my childhood.

And remember kids, doing this is neither big nor clever...

Wednesday 4 November 2009


When I first had a Palm Pilot (this one), back in 1999 or thereabouts, I got quite hooked on Sokoban. I spent hours dragging the stylus across my Palm's greyscale screen - countless boring meetings were spent that way. The great thing about Sokoban is that it proves the old adage that a game can be as simple as anything, yet still be compelling.

Now I've discovered Obechi... I've only played it three times, yet already don't want to stop. It is a sure-fire way to get RSI though...

Friday 23 October 2009

Let the man hang himself

Countless millions will, no doubt, have watched Nick Griffin on Question Time last night. I was one of those millions. Was the BBC right to give Griffin, leader of the BNP, a platform? Well, how could they deny him it when his party, incredibly, polled more than a million votes nationwide in the last Euro and local elections. So they had to have him on there, eventually. Fortunately for us all then, he was pulled apart, by the crowd, the rest of the panel (carefully chosen, it would appear) and the always-excellent David Dimbleby.

Unbelievably, whilst Griffin confirmed that he is no longer a Holocaust denier, he could not say why he had changed his mind, or what he now believed. Equally unbelievably, he literally laughed off some of the criticism that came his way in the form of his own quotes from the past, coming back to haunt him. He declared that "skin colour is not an issue" when answering a question on his party's policy of repatriation - this from the leader of a party which, until the Equalities Commission forced it to change last week, had a "whites only" membership policy! And that's not all: he lambasted the Islamic faith (relying on a skewed interpretation of the Qu'ran to do so), admitted sharing a platform with the Klu Klux Klan, and more besides - he really did live up to the old aphorism that if you give a man enough rope...

Naturally my hope is that the Great British public will have watched Griffin last night and realised how appalling he and his party are, how the political posturings of the BNP are nothing but an attempt to pull a cloak of respectability over an organisation with vile, racist motives. My fear though is that the sort of people that watch Question Time know this already, whilst those that are tempted to vote for the BNP probably don't watch Question Time. So what can we do? Well, a very vocal group demonstrated outside the BBC yesterday, shouting, screaming and bemoaning Griffin and his ilk. But you don't beat hate with hate, and name-calling just brings you down to the lowest common denominator. If the BNP are going to try to use politics to acquire power, and implement their awful policies, then the way to defeat them is through politics too. It's important to remember that the number of votes the BNP polled at the last Euro and local elections didn't rise significantly, but their proportion of the vote rose because overall voter turn-out was very low. So we - you, me and everyone we know - needs to get involved. It doesn't matter whether your political views are red, blue, yellow, green, purple or Monster Raving Loony, you need to get engaged with the political process, and you need to vote.

That just leaves time, then, to offer kudos to Bonnie Greer for keeping her back turned on Griffin for virtually the entire show, and to close with a short message from your old Uncle Bill...

Tuesday 20 October 2009

Live by the sword, die by the sword

Remember the Daily Mail stoking up the fire of complaints and controversy surrounding the whole Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross/Andrew Sachs affair? Well, the "Wail" doesn't like it quite so much when the shoe is on the other foot, does it?

I was going to add my vitriol to the torrent that is currently swamping the Mail, and its columnist, Jan Moir, but I won't. This is mainly because I don't feel I have much to add to the comments of the always excellent Charlie Brooker and Dave Gorman, both of which are worth a few moments of your time.

I do seem to recall making the point, during the Brand/Ross/Sachs epsiode, that people were complaining about something they hadn't actually experienced, and I wonder if that's happening again. So to make sure you know what has triggered all this, read the original article... albeit with a sanitised, less offensive headline. Then bemoan the crass, offensive, stupid and insensitive drivel that Moir has spouted...

Wednesday 7 October 2009

Thursday 10 September 2009

Let's get The Who to number 1!

A campaign has begun to get The Who to number 1 in the UK singles chart, a feat they have never achieved in a career spanning five decades.

The premise is simple - in the week commencing 16th November 2009 as many people as possible (that means you, me and all our friends) need to buy an MP3 download of The Who's classic track "Baba O'Riley" (found on the thoroughly excellent, if not spectacularly titled, album "Who's Next"). If the campaign gets up enough steam, and enough support from people willing to shell out 79p - 99p to add this classic song to their MP3 libraries, then we get The Who back in the charts and hopefully to number one.

There are lots of good reasons to do this. Firstly, The Who have never had a number 1, so this is a great opportunity to right that wrong (and necessitate an update to a music round pub quiz question). Secondly, "Baba O'Riley" is a truly great song and deserves to be brought to the attention of a wider, younger audience - a kind of rock public service, if you will. Next, this kind of grass-roots web campaign could, potentially, highlight people-power in modern music sales, and illustrate how few sales are needed to trouble the charts these days. Also, this can be seen as an experiment in the power of social networking - can we do this? And lastly, wouldn't it be nice to have a proper song topping the charts for a change, even if only for one week? Maybe it's just me and maybe I'm getting old, but don't the charts seem to be, well, just a bit rubbish lately? Here's a chance to do something about that, even if only temporarily.

So, join the campaign and tell all your friends about it too. So far, the campaign has a website, Facebook group, MySpace page and a Twitter feed where you can find out more... join up now and prepare, in ten weeks time, to flex your chart muscle!

Tuesday 1 September 2009

There is a light that never goes out

So it seems that conventional 100W light bulbs will no longer be sold in the UK from today. An EU directive requires that these are phased out, and that only low-energy equivalents are sold. Some complain that low-energy bulbs cause migraines and eczema, whilst other bemoan that fact that they take a few seconds to warm up and give a decent light. The Daily Wail, in a typical fit of outrage, even gave away 25,000 conventional light bulbs in protest (for which, read cheap trick to increase circulation) at "further European intervention in British affairs". People have been stockpiling. Yes, really.

The fact remains though that the average energy-saving bulb uses 80% less electricity than an incandescent bulb, and could save the average household £590 in energy over its lifetime of eight to ten years. What's more, if all traditional bulbs across the country were replaced, the carbon saving could be the equivalent of taking 70,000 cars off the road. This is pretty substantial, wouldn't you say?

They're not even expensive any more either. I was in Homebase over the weekend, and they were selling low-energy bulbs for 99p each or, incredibly, three for £1. Who, given this offer, would only buy one?

Anyway, bye-bye incandescent light bulbs, you won't really be missed. Except by the Daily Wail.

Footnote: the title of this post? A song of sublime beauty by The Smiths.

Tuesday 25 August 2009

More than pleasantly surprised by U2

I saw U2 at the weekend, on the last date of the European leg of their 360° tour. I have to be honest, I was prepared to be a little disappointed. I'd read mixed reviews of the show, and I wondered how material from No Line On The Horizon would stand up live next to older, more familiar tracks. As one dear friend memorably put it, I wondered if U2 were about to "jump the shark".

I needn't have worried.

On a warm Cardiff night, I had three genuine goosebump-inducing moments - take a look at the setlist and see if you can guess which three songs had the hairs standing up on the back of my neck?*

And for a show of such size, with such an enormous crowd, the band's 360° set-up really works, especially with the giant (and mind-boggling) circular screen that hangs above the stage from a giant tetrapod. We were sat (yes, sat! Not standing for hours as close to the stage as we could, but sat) in the first tier of Cardiff's mightily impressive Millennium Stadium... and still we had a brilliant view, as Bono et al laid out a varied set for an enthusiastic crowd. And, for the most part, the newer material held it's own (City of Blinding Lights being a slight exception).

Yes, there was Bono's usual ego, as giant as the stadium, but surely that's what you need to stand up and sing your heart out in front of 70,000 people, however much they love you. And yes, there were the usual socio-political messages, and a bit of self-righteousness thrown in, but when the causes are as worthy as these, that's no bad thing, is it?

U2 in 360 degrees then... way better than expected, and the first time I've had goosebumps at a gig for I don't know how long. Yes, an immediate new entry in the oft-discussed but (as yet) unpublished Top 5 Gigs list...

* Okay, they were: I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For (intro'ed with a 70,000-strong singalong that drowned out even U2's PA), Sunday Bloody Sunday and With Or Without You...

Tuesday 11 August 2009

'Tis the season... the football season

The start of the new Premier League season is just days away, so surely there's never been a better time to sign up to play the free, official Premier League fantasy football game for 2009/10? To enter, simply register for free here.

I'm in a private league too, that comprises mostly music bloggers and their readers, as organised by the excellent Too Much Apple Pie blog - I'm sure they wouldn't mind me extending the invitiation to join their league. To do so, once you've registered and selected your squad of fifteen players, click on "Leagues" in the left hand menu; then simply click "Join", and enter the following code in the "Join private league" box:
Et voila! Your team will now be enrolled in the fourth annual "Group of Death". Hope to see you there! For reasons shrouded in the mists of time, my team is called Breadman FC... and here it is...

Friday 7 August 2009

"Life moves pretty fast. You don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

Film director and writer John Hughes has died at the young age of 59. He wrote and/or directed a slew of quintessentially American films in the 1980s and 90s, including The Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink, Some Kind Of Wonderful, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Home Alone, Weird Science, Uncle Buck, and a whole lot more besides.

For me, the film that tops the lot is, of course, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, from which this post's title is a quote. Is there a better film about teen friendship? Is there a better film about about getting out of somewhere you don't want to be and doing something less boring instead? Is there a better film depiction of an inept headmaster than Mr Rooney? (And, brilliant though Election is, if Matthew Broderick lives to be 150, will he ever top Bueller?)

More than twenty years later, Bueller et al would still feature in any list of favourite film comedies I might ever compile. In recognition of that, and the mightily impressive body of work Hughes leaves behind, let me point you to a little musical tribute: The Dream Academy's take on "Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want". Originally by The Smiths, the Academy's instrumental version was used to great effect in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Go and have a listen, and remember some great films.

Thursday 6 August 2009

Harry Patch (In Memory Of)

Today's the day of Harry Patch's funeral. In case you're wondering who Harry Patch was, until his death a couple of weeks ago he was (briefly) Europe's oldest man, at 111, but more significantly he was the last surviving British veteran of World War I.

Harry served in the trenches for four months in 1917 and fought in the battle of Passchendaele, an awful engagement that lasted four months and left more than 800,000 Allied and German troops dead or wounded.

Back in 2005, Harry was interviewed by Radio 4 about his life. He spoke about the "disastrous battle" of Passchendaele, before going on to speak of the waste and futility of war. He added:
"If two government's cannot agree, give them a rifle each and let them fight it out. Don't waste 20,000 men. It isn't worth it."
These words, and others from that interview, have inspired the inestimable Radiohead to record and release a song entitled "Harry Patch (In Memory Of)". Not only is it a quietly moving, haunting track, it's for a good cause too - all profits go to the Royal British Legion.

You can buy the song here - it only costs £1, so you have no excuse not to. And rest in peace, Mr Patch.

Tuesday 4 August 2009

Random factor, like a tractor, part 2

This is a bit of a lazy post, but I like to blog early every month (otherwise there's no page for that month), so in the interests of getting something written, here goes. I'm too tired to write anything original or thought-provoking, and I'm questioning my ability to write anything creative or new... so I'll fall back on firing up the MP3 Walkman, hitting "shuffle" and documenting the first five tracks it plays for me...
  • "Hole In The River" by Crowded House, from Farewell To The World - meandering live music outing for Neil Finn's peerless tunesmithery.
  • "Hey Girl" by The Small Faces, from The Autumn Stone - the mod's mods. Hard to overstate how important this band were to the teenage me. This album's title track is beautiful.
  • "All The Right Friends" by R.E.M., from And I Feel Fine - rare-ish out-take from former label IRS's barrel-scraping exercise. Feels unfinished and under-rehearsed, probably because it was.
  • "Song To The Siren" by The Chemical Brothers, from Singles: 93-03 - this is okay, I guess. Bought the album purely to get a copy of "Chemical Beats".
  • "Grounds For Divorce" by Elbow, from The Seldom Seen Kid - I wonder if this, their breakthrough after twenty years, can be attibuted to bitter 30-/40-somethings wanting to listen to music about divorce?
And there we go. Does any of this help you understand me? No. Know more about me? Probably not. Serve a purpose? Well, you tell me, you're reading this...

Footnote: in case you're wondering, yes, obviously I have done this before - here's Part 1.

Thursday 30 July 2009

The good, the bad and the ugly

No, I'm not going to write about Clint Eastwood films, or Sergio Leone. Instead, there are three unrelated matters that I want to draw to your attention, for very different reasons.

The good
A young lady by the name of Annelie Simmons is taking part in the Mongol Derby, officially recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the longest, toughest horse race in the world. She'll be riding 1,000km in under two weeks, on semi-wild Mongolian horses with no marked course, no roads to follow and no back-up, support or assistance. Why? Well quite apart from the massive achievement this would represent for anyone, let alone a 27-yr old PA from London who, by her own admission, has an "appalling ability to navigate and [an] alarming efficiency at losing things", Annelie is also raising money for charity. The event's official charity is Mercy Corps, and Annelie's personal chosen charity is Help For Heroes. What I would do if I were you is read the feature on Annelie in Sport Magazine, then read more about this remarkable woman on her Mongol Derby "Adventurists" profile page, then head over to Just Giving to sponsor her.

The bad
I wrote about how bad an idea the government's national ID card scheme is some time ago, and I don't really want to repeat it all again. But I've got to, to an extent; the look and content of the proposed card are in the news today. It's going to be trialled in the Greater Manchester area soon. But then - and this is the really bad bit - when the card is introduced nationwide, it will not be compulsory. Now admittedly I'm starting from the perspective that the whole idea is terrible, but surely even the scheme's staunchest supporters must admit that the claimed benefits to national security will be zilch if you don't have to have one? What's the point in having a new, biometric and (supposedly) hard to forge single source of common identification if it isn't common? A very bad idea just got a whole lot worse, and really should be scrapped before more money disappears into this cavernous black hole.

The ugly
Now I like The Guardian; it's my newspaper of choice, generally. So I was more than a little disappointed to read their "new offenders of standup comedy" article earlier this week. Yes, it was lazy journalism but it also drew conclusions from decontextualised generalisations, was ill-conceived and, most of all, was just plain wrong. According to the article, respected, award-winning comedian Richard Herring "argues that racists have a point." No, he doesn't. Don't be so bloody ridiculous. What Herring does is begin a segment of his current show with a rhetorical question along the lines of "let's suppose that racists have a point" before going on to shoot any such point down in well-observed, carefully thought out, logical, rational (and still comedic) flames. I've never met the guy, but I'll happily tell you and anyone else that will listen that Richard Herring is not a racist. And I'll also tell you that Brian Logan, the journo/hack who threw this ugly article together, needs to go home and take a good, long look in the mirror and see if he's proud of himself.

Friday 24 July 2009

Back of the net

Not sure I'll get much chance to blog over the weeks and months ahead, so will nip in quickly now, whilst I can.

I'm not a huge football obsessive - it's depressing to be that way when your team's languishing in Division Three (sorry, League One). But I do enjoy the rib-endangeringly funny satirical football blog written by comedian Mark Watson and his brother, Back of the Net News (aka Extravagant Nonsense). It's properly funny - go on, have a look, see what I mean. And don't worry, you don't have to be a football obsessive to enjoy it either - all you need is the kind of passing familiarity with the footy world that you get from the occasional cursory glance at the back pages of the tabloids.

I know, just when you were enjoying a couple of footy-free months...

Tuesday 21 July 2009

Latitude and epiphany

After going to the Latitude Festival last year, I came home and wrote a little summary of everything I'd seen, and it proved to be the most popular post I'd ever 'blogged. Since I've just been to this year's, let's see if I can repeat the trick - here's my 2009 Latitude diary...

  • Queued for ages to get in.
  • Put up the tent in scorching sunshine.
  • Having seen the weather forecast, drove back home.
  • Slept safe and warm in my own bed whilst thunderstorms and torrential rain battered the festival. Yes, I know this is not in the festival spirit, but there really is very little on at the first night of Latitude (except a recording of the always-excellent Now Show that would have been impossible to get into), and I saw no sense in getting pre-drenched for the start of the festival proper on Friday. Yes, I am getting old.
  • Amazing Baby : Obelisk Arena. Amazingly ordinary, I have to say. Too small for such a big stage.
  • The Temper Trap : Uncut Arena. Really very good Aussie rockers who deserve your ear.
  • Watson & Oliver : Cabaret Arena. Intriguing sketch-based double-act. Their Boris Becker/Steffi Graf skit was properly funny.
  • Phil Nichol : Comedy Arena. One trick pony? Only his "Only Gay Eskimo" song raised proper laughs.
  • Tim Vine : Comedy Arena. Tried very hard to be Tommy Cooper. Failed. Not to everyone's taste, by any means.
  • Ladyhawke : Obelisk Arena. Made a nice noise and impressed lots of people (like me) who were mainly there waiting for the Pretenders to come on.
  • Pretenders: Obelisk Arena. After a couple of newer songs, quickly opted for a crowd-pleasing greatest hits set, with the incredible Chrissie Hynde acknowledging that we didn't "want to hear that shit." Amazing voice too. Best of all, for me at least, they even played "Talk Of The Town", which was the first proper record I ever bought for myself.
  • We Have Band : Lake Stage. Great name. Band... not so great. We Have Noise would have been more accurate.
  • Little Boots : Sunrise Arena. Why, oh why, was this pop pixie squirrelled away on such a small stage? She would have been better served by Amazing Baby's slot on the main stage earlier in the day. Excellent. All Kylie comparisons seemingly justified.
  • Pet Shop Boys : Obelisk Arena. Despite not being the biggest fan, I was impressed by their show. Lights, dancers, visuals, theatre... and again, lots of their bigger hits to wow the crowd. "Jealousy" was the highpoint for me, in no small part thanks to the dramatic choreography of a couple of dancers, acting out the turbulence of a couple's relationship. "West End Girls" closed the set, and reminded me how much I love that song.
  • Tim Turnbull : Poetry Arena. A great voice for delivering poems, and rhyming couplets are always seductive.
  • Hannah Walker : Poetry Arena. A late replacement for the advertised act, Hannah did well.
  • Marnie Stern : Uncut Arena. Apparently voted the world's greatest female guitar. Well she can play a bit but she can't sing. Shouty. Repetitive. Boring. Screechy. Loud. Avoid at all costs.
  • St Vincent: Uncut Arena. Better but still nothing to write home about.
  • Pick of the Pleasance - 6.0: How Heap And Pebble Took On The World And Won : Theatre Arena. A play that started out very humorously, but the environmental message wasn't always clear, plus it went on too long.
  • Mika : Uncut Arena. After a trio of disappointing acts, Mika restored Saturday. With a stripped-down band and playing acoustically, Mika really got the crowd going and put on a great show, all sparkling ticker tape and giant, Prisoner-esque balloons. Again, might have been better on the main stage, though the claustrophobia of a rammed Uncut Arena probably helped pump the atmosphere up still further.
  • Vivenne Westwood : Literary Arena. Expecting this to be a bit bonkers, I wasn't disappointed. Not sure she knew what she, or her supporting cast, were doing. Some kind of grand unifying theory of life, Westwood-style. Odd.
  • Doves : Obelisk Arena. Brilliant. Great tunes, good interaction with the crowd, "Pounding", "Kingdom Of Rust", "Black And White Town" and, best of all for this boy, all topped off with "There Goes The Fear". Excellent.
  • Newton Faulkner : Uncut Arena. Just him and his guitar. Newton wins the non-existent award for best crowd participation. The good vibes were radiating out of the Uncut tent by the end of his set.
  • Danny Wallace : Literary Arena. I couldn't face watching a 60-year old Grace Jones in a thong (it happened, really). Much better to watch the likeable and funny Danny read from his latest book, and talk about what it is to "grow up" (i.e. turn 30 and own display cushions).
  • Robin Ince's Book Club - Crazed Preachers & Weird Religious Nutjobs : Literary Arena. The beauty of this is that religious fundamentalists surrendipitously write all the material for you. Robin Ince: hardest working man at Latitude.
  • Marcus Brigstocke presents The Early Edition : Comedy Arena. Fun spin-off version of Marcus's Late Edition radio show. Lots of people left before the end though, because they all wanted to see...
  • Thom Yorke : Obelisk Arena. For me, the highlight of the whole festival. Advertised as a solo slot, it really was just that - no backing band at all, Thom did it all himself, occasionally looping a guitar or bass part and then playing over it. Beautiful, fragile songs, including plenty of Radiohead material, delivered to an appreciative, almost reverential crowd, it was the perfect performance for noon on Sunday. If they came out alright (and if I get time), I'll post photos and a video clip of Thom on here in the week ahead.
  • Frank Skinner in conversation with Sylvia Patterson : Literary Arena. You've got to love Frank Skinner. He's funny, genuinely quick-witted and his autobiography is as searingly honest as any you'll ever read. Met him afterwards and had a brief chat - a good guy. Let's start a campaign to bring back his chat show!
  • Brendon Burns : Comedy Arena. A bit strong for some tastes but very funny nonetheless. Amongst all the comedy, made some surprisingly subtle and well-observed points about racism too. And roasted Michael Barrymore. No, not in that way, you perv.
  • Molly Nyman & Harry Escott and the Samphire Band: Film & Music Arena. Caught just a little bit of this lovely orchestral work. That's the beauty of Latitude - you can go from the in-your-face comedy of Burns to sublime classical music by taking a few short steps from one tent to another.
  • BBC Poetry Season short film : Film & Music Arena. Okay, I was killing time a bit but the BBC's poetry season is worthy of support, so no harm done.
  • Robin Ince's Book Club - Love Sunday : Literary Arena. An afternoon of Mills & Boon, and an example of bad literary sex courtesy of a reading from one of Alan Titchmarsh's books.
  • Afternoon Tea with Stuart Maconie and guests Jonathan Coe and Mark Billingham : Literary Arena. I missed out on the free biscuits, but this was an interesting discussion on what represents, and is represented by, Middle England.
  • 9 Bach : Lake Stage. A late, and therefore unnoted, addition to the programme. 9 Bach are a Welsh band whose music can best be described as haunting, ethereal and, er, Welsh. Alright though.
  • Tom Stade : Comedy Arena. Started very slowly, his brash comedy struggling to win over a crowd largely just waiting for Jo Brand to come on. He got there in the end though.
  • Jo Brand : Comedy Arena. Refreshing in that Jo's comedy doesn't really target anybody - it's not at anyone's expense (except, perhaps, for her husband and herself). A real crowd pleaser, as evidenced by the fact that this was the most squashed tent I was in all festival.
  • St Etienne : Uncut Arena. Any chance to hear the glorious Sarah Cracknell cannot be missed. Also, the sight of Fox Base Alpha placards in the crowd made me reminisce (for which, read "feel my age").
  • Editors : Obelisk Arena. Musically excellent, with the front of the crowd going crazy and the 60-something directly in front of me keeping time by beating along with the snare drum on his wife's bottom. Such a shame the band couldn't find it in themselves to interact with the crowd though.
  • Magazine : Uncut Arena. Having seen Buzzcocks here last year, it was pleasing to mop up Howard Devoto's other band this time around.
  • Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds : Obelisk Arena. I try and try to get into Nick Cave, I really do. I even took lovely hot chips along in an attempt to get me in a better mood for this. But all to no avail - apart from "Dig, Lazarus, Dig!", this just doesn't work for me (sorry). I gave up after half an hour and went to watch...
  • Nathan Filer : Poetry Arena. One of an increasing number of poets at Latitude (and in general, actually) who clearly think they are stand-up comedians. Listen carefully - you're not. Accept it.
  • Ross Sutherland : Poetry Arena. Duetted "Silent Pylons" with that poem's author, Chris Hicks, but why, oh why, can't Ross pull his trousers up properly? He's 28, for god's sake, not 16.
  • Lenny Beige & The Fickle Hand Of Fate : Cabaret Arena. What better way to end the festival than with a cabaret recap of the musical highlights of the weekend? Lenny and his band performed tracks by the Pet Shop Boys, Squeeze, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, and more. Good fun and a positive note on which to head back to the tent.
So, Latitude... brilliant again. You probably won't see me there next year though, at least not for the whole thing, for reasons I won't go into here. You should go though - it's the best festival you will find.

And what was the epiphany, you ask? That sources of happiness and unhappiness can be exactly the same thing. Don't ask.

Tuesday 14 July 2009

Rain, rain, go away...

On Saturday, I got up at 2.30am to drive to the airport to catch a flight to Dublin with ConAir (aka Ryanair). I did this with the express intention of going to day 2 of the Oxegen festival. And I did that with the express intention of seeing Kings of Leon.

A shame, then, that the weather should get the better of us. Yes, we took waterproofs and hats. Yes, one of us (not me) had the foresight to take wellies. And no, neither of us are averse to a bit of rain...

But a bit of rain is one thing. The deluge that fell on Punchestown Racecourse on Saturday is another - it had Noah scrabbling for his carpentry gear. After a couple of hours of torrential rain, biting wind and pissed-up kiddies kicking/throwing mud around at complete strangers, we'd had enough and bailed out. Yes, we saw a bit of James Morrison. Yes, we saw The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. But no Kings of Leon for us. At least we were able to redeem the trip with a couple of nice days in Dublin.

We're off to Latitude later this week. The forecast for that doesn't look stunning either. Bollocks.

Tuesday 7 July 2009

Never trust a man who, when left alone in a room with a tea cozy, doesn't try it on

Some time ago, I wrote about the brilliance of tea, and pointed you towards a couple of tea-related websites. Well, now I can point you towards one more - Great Tea is a slow-burn endeavour to capture good and/or unusual (preferably both) tea shops that the author encounters. It's worth a look if you like a decent cuppa in interesting surroundings... and, frankly, who doesn't?

Footnote: the title of this post? A quote attributed to Billy Connolly, of course...

Monday 15 June 2009

Rendered immobile by having too many choices

Continuing last week's theme of writing about trivial nonsense rather than what's really occupying my head, today I present to you... mobile phones!

These are the five mobile phones I have had. Though the picture's not life-size, it is to scale. No surprise to see that, for the most part, phones have got smaller. Actually, this head-on photo doesn't really convey how tiny the T10 in the middle was: so thin, and with a bevelled back, it was minute. It weighed something ridiculous like 78g too. But then the trend switched from miniaturisation towards feature-richness... colour screens, cameras, MP3 players, video....

I've had my current camera, the K750i, for three and a half years now. It's been faultless. I chose it back then for it's excellent camera which, for me, still outperforms many newer phones that are, on paper at least, technically superior. And it's well made too. After more than 1,200 days of heavy use, it still feels solid - no creaks, no wobbles, no keypad wear. Battery life is excellent too, still. So why am I even thinking about changing?

Well, it's a little on the bulky side - it really is a phone in my pocket, I'm not just pleased to see you. And after three and a half years of sharing a pocket with keys and coins, the case of Old Faithful is starting to look a bit scratched and tatty. Plus, I'll be honest, I see the bells and whistles on some of my friends' phones and I get gadget envy...

Since I have no desire to change networks, I find my choice of phones is limited to what my current provider offers. From that, I've narrowed it down to two: the Sony Ericsson K770 (left) and the Nokia 6220 (right). The first of these is familiar (I've only ever had Ericsson and SE phones) and is notionally the replacement for my current phone but... but the camera has no zoom, unless you downscale to VGA mode. My old phone has 4x zoom, even in 2MP mode, though admittedly you need a vice-like grip to get good, steady results like that. So I'm very attracted to the Nokia 6220, with its 5MP camera that zooms at all resolutions but... but I tried one in the shop and it just feels like it's made from recycled plastic cups. The battery cover was so loose it wobbled from side to side and felt like it would come off if you breathed on it. And the keypad? It creaked and groaned like an arthritic hip when doing something as simple as sending a text. This was on a brand new phone, don't forget - what's it going to be like in three and a half months time, let alone three and a half years?

So I either choose one of these phones, both of which are flawed, or I hang on to Old Faithful until it does what modern electronic gadgets always do in the end, and gives up the ghost. If this blog actually has any readers (a fact I often doubt, despite web stats to the contrary), do any of you have thoughts on, or experience of, either the K770 or the 6220? Care to share them if so?

Maybe I should just wait in the hope that my network will eventually offer the phone I really like the look of, the Sony Ericsson C510. Choices, choices...

Friday 12 June 2009

I get a kick out of you

There are lots of things I could write about today. Firstly, there are the news story that beggar belief - you know the sort, how a footballer can be worth £80million, how MPs stretch the truth to breaking point and beyond on their expenses, how Big Brother is somehow back on our nation's screens (a story I will not dignify with a link). And then there are the appalling news stories - a female nursery worker arrested for various forms of child abuse (I suppose I should add "alleged" somewhere here), children being killed in knife attacks, husbands disposing of wives in wheelie bins... I could go on and on, the list of bad news stories is endless.

I have opinions, strong ones, about all of these stories, what they say about society in the UK, and a lot more besides but...

...but it's a beautiful sunny day, I have cause for some moderate optimism in my life and, for now, my world is a predominantly good, positive place. So I don't want to rant and rave, don't want to moan, don't want (for once) to think about all the bad things we have to contend with every day in 21st Century Britain. Instead, I want to talk about something cool. It's called SongKick.

SongKick is, I suppose, sort of like a social network but unlike Bacefook, MyArse, Twatter and the rest it's a network with a purpose, that purpose being to track your gig-going habits and (potentially) link you with people who went to the same gigs. An ever expanding, user-contributed archive of gigs with photos, reviews, posters, support acts and set lists is available, from which you can select to proudly declare "I was there!" As someone who keeps all his gig tickets in an old Oxo tin, I have to say I think that this is a brilliant idea.

As with any new website, there are teething troubles. Firstly, there seem to be a few errors, with gigs listed under more than one entry, or headliners listed as support and vice-versa. And the same venue is listed more than once but with slightly different wording... but these aren't problems that can't be resolved. I’m still working my way through my gig list (I'm between houses right now and the aforementioned Oxo tin is buried in a box somewhere, and my memory's only so good when it comes to dates...) but why not start your own gig history? Go on - you know you want to... and, if nothing else, it beats "poking" people or writing banalities like "thanks for the add"...

Tuesday 9 June 2009

Hired and fired

On the basis of having watched one episode, I wrote back in April about The Apprentice, and who I thought would win it. To save you reading that post (though April was a good month for blogging, you could do a lot worse, really you could), I predicted Kate would win. Now I haven't seen the final yet - I'm going to iPlayer it when I get a chance - but as it turns out, I was wrong. Though she made the final Kate ended the show as the runner-up; Sir Alan picked Yasmina to be his apprentice. Good for her.

Just goes to show how little I know then, right? Well maybe, though I did back Roger Federer to win the French Open (which he duly did) so I did okay there, more than doubling the admittedly small amount I had staked...

...so maybe all it goes to show (and I'm writing this with my blog-tongue firmly in my blog-cheek, before anyone complains) is that a good brunette will always beat a good blonde...

Saturday 6 June 2009

More than meets the eye

Much has been written about Natalie Suliman, the young model who appears on the new Marks and Spencer billboard advertisements. If the tabloids are to be believed, people are almost crashing their cars as drivers cannot take their eyes off Natalie's assets which, those self-same tabloids are quick to report, measure 32E.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm a heterosexual bloke and I like a nice pair of breasts as much as the next man (and I cannot emphasise enough that "nice" doesn't have to equal "big" and "big" certainly doesn't always equal "nice", at least in my book). Natalie's ad turns heads for obvious reasons. But the full ad, which you can get a slightly better look at by clicking the thumbnail to the left, well, that just shows her torso - it's even worse than the 90s "Hello boys" Wonderbra ad featuring Eva Herzigova - at least that showed the model's face, as well as the contents of her bra.

So to restore a bit of balance in her coverage (and uncoverage), here's a picture of Natalie, right, that shows that she has a pretty face too and, like all the most beautiful women, she's a brunette. She's not just a pair of breasts. Again, you can click the thumbnail to the right for a closer look.

You can find more pictures and a biog of Natalie on her profile page at Elite.

Tuesday 26 May 2009

Browser wars

Logic dictates that, since I find this interesting, somebody else in the world might too. The graph below shows the browser by which the last 500 visitors to this site made that trip.

Exciting, no? Alright then, no... but good to see a few mobile device browsers creeping into the charts at least...

Thursday 21 May 2009

Francesca Woodman

Last weekend, I had the good fortune to be in Edinburgh. Quite apart from the joy of climbing Arthur's Seat, one of the highlights of my time there was a visit to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, an excellent endeavour and a short stroll from the heart of the city along the beautiful Water of Leith footpath.

Anyway, at present the ground floor of the gallery is taken up with an exhibition called Artist Rooms, which includes a lot of Damien Hirst (including a sheep in formaldehyde). This was great, but the room that affected me most was that given over to the photographs of Francesca Woodman. Her black and white photography in the late 70s and early 80s was simple but effective, powerful and evocative - often, she would use blurring or movement in her pictures to make the audience work harder. Certainly there was plenty of symbolism in her photographs, and surrealism too. I say "was" - sadly, Francesca committed suicide aged just 22.

Doing a quick Google image search for Francesca's work will provide a rich bounty. Go and have a look, it's worth it.

Friday 8 May 2009

Sleep with me

Not quite the first, but one of the earliest gigs I went to was Billy Bragg, back in 1990. It was quite a night, and remains in my mental "top five greatest gigs" list to this day. Uncle Bill was mesmerising, just him and his guitar and a barrel full of amazing songs.

Support came, according to the gig poster which I still have, from The Cole Porters. Not credited on the poster though was the support act I want to mention here, one Caroline Trettine. She went on first, just her and her acoustic guitar, and sang with beauty beyond words. I maybe fell in love, a little, for the spellbinding 20 minutes or so that she was onstage. I certainly bought her debut album, the sublime Be A Devil, on CD from the merchandise stall straight after her set, no small commitment given that this was back in the day of student poverty and means-tested grants (no loans back then). I still have the CD, of course, and it is still a favourite.

So why am I writing about this? No, not to herald a post in which I finally count down that oft-mentioned "top five greatest gigs" list, no (though I will do that someday). Just that this morning, quite by chance, I happened upon Caroline's MySpace. And on her profile, the first song that displays in the list of playable tracks is the highpoint of that debut album, the haunting, passionate ballad that is Sleep With Me. Go on over there and have a listen, right now. You'll be glad you did. See if you maybe fall in love, a little, too...

Friday 24 April 2009

Farewell Geocities - a dinosaur of the early Web becomes a fossil. Oh crap...

In case you haven't already read the story, Yahoo have announced that they will be canning Geocities later in the year. This makes me very sad. Yes, I know it is naff and irredeemably uncool to have a free Geocities-hosted website. I know they stick that annoying sidebar down the side of the page. And I know they have tight diskspace and bandwidth limits. But they've been around almost forever, in World Wide Web terms. They have handy features, and have had since day one. They support Server Side Includes. They have good uptime and helpful support on the odd occasion that things go wrong (and I can only count two such occasions for me in over twelve years of using them). In short, they're nice. But that's not enough, anymore. Geocities' strength was that it allowed the world and his wife to get online easily, to have a web presence. But these days, with social networking sites like Bacefook and MyArse, and specialist blogging (and micro-blogging) outfits everywhere you look, not so many people want to take the time to build a site from scratch, not when they can just set up a blog with a couple of mouse clicks. And so Geocities' days are numbered.

Of course I appreciate the irony of writing this from a blog. But it's a blog I write manually and integrate, myself, within my own site on Geocities. I hand-code my RSS feed. This is a labour of love, not some wizard-based, template-driven instant web presence.

In total, I write four websites - this and one other are on Geocities. Yahoo have announced that before the year is out, Geocities will be gone, so I have to move this and the other one somewhere new. On the plus side, this gives me the opportunity to integrate them together in one new site, with more file storage space. On the downside, all the effort I put in to getting these sites to feature prominently in search engine results will be lost, despite the efforts I'll undoubtedly make with redirection pages between now and Yahoo turning out the light.

So farewell then, Geocities - the behemoth of pre-Web 1.0 has had its day... and I have a lot of coding to do.

Thursday 23 April 2009

Who will win The Apprentice

Not a question but an assertion.

I watched The Apprentice for the first time this series last night. And surely there can only be one winner? For whilst half the contestants come across as argumentative children who surely have never held a proper job in the real world for very long (estate agent Philip, that would be you, for starters), and the other half seem almost religiously intent on either saying nothing at all (Noorul), too much (Lorraine), or simply abandoning all common sense in the pursuit of point-scoring with Margaret and Nick (James), the only person who seems to have her head screwed on is Kate. She can make a decision, fairly, keeps calm, leads a team effectively, has common sense, and most of all... most of all, she seems like someone you could have confidence in if they were working for you, and that you could get on and work effectively with if you were working alongside them.

The Apprentice, then, is surely all wrapped up? If I can find somewhere offering odds on who'll win, I might have a bet...

Wednesday 22 April 2009

The joy of YouTube: from The Marriage of Figaro to a talking daffodil in two moves

The first car I can really remember properly from my childhood was a 3-dr metallic blue Fiat 127 Special that we had from 1978 to 1981. Hard as it is to believe in these days of two- and three-car families, this was our only car for a family of five. Anyway, it looked almost exactly like the one in the bottom left of this picture. Normally, we would have kept the car for longer than three years but it was rear-ended at speed in a contraflow on the A1 and, although repaired under insurance, it was never really the same again. That's how my parents came to be in the market for a new car in 1981.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), I was a pushy and curiously influential child who had quite fallen in love with the humble Fiat range. I was particularly taken with the X1/9 but since that was a two-seater coupé, I turned my attention - and, by my inherent child's skill of badgering, the attention of my parents - to Fiat's newest model, the Strada. This was quietly revolutionary at the time, from the use of computer-aided design by Fiat's draughtsmen right through to the degree of automation in the construction process. Much was made of this in the advert shown below, courtesy of YouTube - the ad cost a fortune to make, was only shown a handful of time (four, maybe?) on British TV, and pre-dated lots of subsequent car ad's by being soundtracked with opera. I was sufficiently impressed and, by proxy, so were my parents - we ended up with a 1.3 litre 65L in a beautiful shade of blue (Rhodes Blue, it was called in the brochure). This was the car that, some years later, I learnt to drive in (thanks Mum). Anyway, the car has long since expired, but the advert remains a classic, as you can see...

Of course the "handbuilt by robots" tagline was seized upon by comedy-writers of the day. One favourite was to show a car crashing with the subtitle "built by robots, driven by Italians". Hey, I said it was seized on by comedy-writers, I didn't say good comedy writers! But I digress... I much preferred the parody created by the Not The Nine O'Clock News team, below, with its obvious, but nonetheless funny, pun...

And having watched the above on YouTube, I was then offered the following NTNOCN sketch which remains, for me, one of the funniest things they ever did. Enjoy.