Thursday 22 December 2011

Clandestine Classic XXI - Between John & Yoko

Magic SeedThe 21st 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.

It's Christmastime, there's no need to be afraid. Because whilst I did consider featuring a festive clandestine classic, I figured my last post covered that, so let's crack on with a conventional choice. Actually, being conventional seems slightly at odds with also being clandestine, but let's not get ourselves sidetracked with semantics.

I don't know much about Easy, other than that they hailed from Sweden. In the early 90s I picked a Mute compilation album (International, it was called) out of the bargain bin and today's classic, Between John & Yoko by Easy, was on it. Far and away the best track on the compilation, I played it to death and immediately set about tracking down the album from which Between John & Yoko was taken. That album, pictured left, was called Magic Seed, a title that might suggest psychedelia (particularly when accompanied by that fractal cover). However, the album is actually a far rockier affair than you might expect, featuring (and I'm quoting Documentary Evidence here) "hypnotic vocals, grinding bass, oceans of melodic guitars and solid drumming". Poor drummer - just solid...

But anyway. Magic Seed was released in 1990, and is a uniformly good album. Not spectacular, but definitely good. Between John & Yoko is the stand-out track though, by some margin. Listening to it again for this post, I find that yes, I can tick off the hypnotic vocals, grinding bass, melodic guitar and even the solid drumming. But there's more going on too. Wilfully obtuse lyrics - 21 years later, I'm still not entirely sure what they're about. Danceability (okay, yes, admittedly only danceable for the sort of indie-kid who bounces about at club nights with names like Popscene). And too many influences to count: I think I spot some early REM sounds in there; I imagine I can hear some Marr-esque rhythm-guitar-as-lead touches; the singer has listenend to some Robert Smith too, I fancy; and so it goes on.

I think Magic Seed was Easy's only album, which is a bit of a shame. Luckily, you can still find it on Amazon, so I suggest you go and buy it now. Like last month's Furniture track, I didn't expect to find too much for the file sharers amongst you, and again I wasn't wrong. But YouTube at least lets you listen to this clandestine classic, and sample a flavour of an incredible album.

Friday 9 December 2011

Alternative Christmas tunes... choose your mood!

Don't know about you but I'm sick to death with the X-Factor procession that is the modern Christmas chart. I've also heard enough of Slade, Wizzard, Mud et al to last a hundred Yules. Wouldn't you rather hear some less well-known seasonal tunes? Ones to suit your prevailing views on the Christmas season...? I know I would.

All that's left, then, is to answer the following question:

Christmas makes me feel... Sentimental | Upbeat | Maudlin | All of these

Wednesday 7 December 2011

It's all about meme

Stolen (post title an' all) from Sunset Over Slawit, who in turn stole it from Sunday Stealing...

  1. If the whole world were listening to you right now, what would you say?
    Buy my book.
  2. If you could meet anyone on this earth, who would it be?
    God. Only question 2 and I'm already starting to remember why I have quite such an intense dislike for memes like this. I mean, come on - that's a ridiculously hard question, like saying "what's the best film ever?" or "who's your favourite band?" The options are near limitless and every day would result in a different answer! Argh! But today, for now, I'll say Morrissey. Why not?
  3. You just got a free plane ticket to anywhere. You have to depart right now. Where are you gonna go?
    Annapolis. First class?
  4. What do you think about most?
    Missed opportunities.
  5. You have the opportunity to spend a romantic night with the music celebrity of your choice. Who would it be?
    Oh, for Christ's sake! Do I have to answer this? Oh, alright then... I used to have a bit of thing about Louise Wener out of Sleeper.
  6. You can erase any horrible experience from your past. What will it be?
    Easy... but not something I'm prepared to reveal here.
  7. What's your strangest talent?
    Missing opportunities.
  8. What would be a question you'd be afraid to tell the truth on?
    I refer the honourable gentleman to the answer I gave earlier... two questions earlier, to be exact.
  9. Ever had a poem or song written about you?
    Of course not. But some feel tailor-made.
  10. When is the last time you played the air guitar?
    I don't know but I played real guitar last Friday.
  11. Do you have any strange phobias?
    Memephobia. This is therapy.
  12. What's your religion?
  13. What is your current desktop picture?
    My partner, Ms Pip.
  14. When you are outside, what are you most likely doing?
    This month, raking up sodding leaves.
  15. What's the last song you listened to?
    Smithers-Jones by The Jam
  16. Simple but extremely complex. Favorite band?
    See! Bloody memes with their unanswerable questions! Smiths? Jam? Weddoes? Gene? Let's say Gene. Where are they now?
  17. What was the last lie you told?
    "I will answer every question in this meme fully and honestly."
  18. Do you believe in karma?
    Only as a type of chameleon.
  19. What is a saying you say a lot?
    "Yes, I'll rake those leaves up today."
  20. What is your greatest weakness; your greatest strength?
    a) I miss opportunities. b) Self-awareness.
  21. Who is your celebrity crush?
    Define celebrity - its meaning seems to have been diluted recently.
  22. Give me the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word: heart.
  23. How do you vent your anger?
    With a roar to the heavens when I belt another shot into Row Z.
  24. Do you have a collection of anything?
    Music. CDs, tape, vinyl.
  25. What is your favorite word?
    Meme (insert string of wink-faced emoticons here, laugh like a loon, clap self on back heartily, etc)

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Clandestine Classic XX - She Gets Out The Scrapbook

The Wrong People - an album you need to ownThe twentieth 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.

I wanted to feature something a little bit extra-special for the twentieth post in the Clandestine Classic series. So what have I gone for? A band that you probably don't remember. An album that you probably don't own. And an album track, rather than the accompanying hit single. See? Extra special.

The band in question were Furniture. Formed in 1979, various line-ups recorded a couple of early mini-LPs, but it wasn't until the mid-80s when the line-up settled down and the band signed to Stiff Records that things started to happen (you already know this isn't going to end well, don't you?). The band's third album, The Wrong People, featuring new tracks and re-recorded highlights from the first two mini-LPs, was released in 1986. Lead-off single Brilliant Mind hit the Top 30 and, I think (though I may well have misremembered) garnered Furniture an appearance on Terry Wogan's thrice-weekly TV chat show. Things were promising. But... there's always a but, isn't there? Stiff Records had liquidity problems, and couldn't produce any more copies of the album after the initial pressing of 30,000 copies sold out (which happened quickly, on the back of Brilliant Mind). No CD copies were produced at all, and this was 1986, when the CD was really starting to take off - the new-fangled digital format was tailor-made for the rich musical tapestries that Furniture were weaving, yet the two never came together. This was a travesty, really, because the songs on the album are complex affairs, marrying restrained jazz inflections with honed pop sensibilities and distinctive vocals.

But never mind though. I bought a copy of the album on cassette so, unlike you, I know how good every single sodding track on it is. Sadly, cassette tape doesn't age well, and my Wrong People is oxidising at an alarming rate. Better hurry up and share something from it with you then, eh?

Choosing today's classic was hard, because there are so many outstanding tracks on the album. I could have chosen Brilliant Mind, but you've possibly (probably, if you listen to 6Music much) heard that already. I could have chosen the agenda-setting opener, Shake Like Judy Does, the up-tempo next single Love Your Shoes, the angry ode to jealousy that is Make Believe I'm Him or the heartbreaking paean to lost love, I Miss You. In fact, you could argue that the first six tracks of The Wrong People are as strong an opening as you are likely to find anywhere. Now if you were counting you'll have noticed I've only mentioned five tracks so far... which brings us nicely to today's offering, track four on side one of The Wrong People: She Gets Out The Scrapbook.

Yes, it's long (around six minutes). Yes, it's downbeat (but then it does chart the unravelling and eventual painful end of a relationship). But it also has skilfully crafted lyrics (this really is a piece of flash fiction set to music), a layered vocal performance, a beautiful piano line and a total change of direction after about two and a half minutes. All in all, this is my kind of love song. Maybe it's yours too. Love lost is still love, after all.

It took Furniture three years or so to extricate themselves from Stiff. They signed to Arista, recorded the Food, Sex and Paranoia album (which I also have on disintegrating cassette) and gave it another go. Singles were released but flopped - all momentum had been lost. Two fifths of the band went on to form, and have more success with, Transglobal Underground. All that was left of Furniture was a memory of what might have been and the PRS cheques that Brilliant Mind will always deliver.

But then, finally... Cherry Red records picked up The Wrong People, repackaged it with some bonus tracks (B-sides and demos, mostly) and gave it the CD release it has always deserved. Now I know I eulogise about every song in the Clandestine Classics series, but if you don't own this album already I really can't emphasise enough how much your life will improve if you do. So go and buy it now while you still can.

I didn't really expect to find too much for the naughty downloaders amongst you, and I wasn't wrong. But YouTube at least lets you listen to this incredible song, and sample a flavour of an incredible album. And no, incredible is not an word I use often, which hopefully tells its own story. Enjoy.

Friday 18 November 2011

I need to travel more

How can I have got into my fifth decade without visiting South America? Or Africa? Or anywhere in Asia other than Singapore airport?

I hereby resolve, with you as my witness, to remedy at least one (if not two or three) of those omissions by the time my fifth decade ends (2020). If I'm still blogging then, remind me I said this.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Can you have Too Much Sex and Violence?

Too Much Sex and Violence - surely a (partial) oxymoron?Questions to which the answers must surely be no and yes, respectively.

There. That's dealt with the (intentionally) obvious pun that the title of this latest independent comic project, from Rol Hirst, demands. Now I have a confession to make - although I read a lot, I don't tend to read comic books that often. If at all. But in this case I was happy to make an exception. Rol is an engaging writer, both in his fiction and at his always-entertaining blog. So when a copy of TMSAV, as I shall henceforth acronymise it, dropped into my inbox, I was more than happy to have a read. And yes, I do know that acronymise isn't a word... but it should be, okay?

Back to TMSAV. This isn't Rol's first foray into the world of indie comics. His previous, People Just Ain't No Good, was essentially of a collection of distinct stories with a common theme (that being, people can be horrible). Artwork for PJANG (Rol acronymises too) was by various artists and, as Rol explains in the intro to TMSAV, there are many reasons for this. Artists are collaborating and offering their services for free - expecting them to draw for an entire series of comic books would be a bit much really. But where TMSAV differs from PJANG is that the story is a continuing work, rather than anthological. Yes, there are numerous sub-plots, as befits a story with a large cast, but effectively TMSAV is an ongoing tale.

And what a tale it is shaping up to be! Too Much (I'm getting a bit tired of acronyms now) is set in the fictional seaside town of Fathomsby, home to a litany of misfits, ne'er-do-wells, creatures of the night and all-manner of mutants. It's a weird old place, four parts League of Gentleman, one part Marvel comics and two parts Stephen King short story. Oh, and with a dash of Hot Fuzz too, in the shape of our hero (I think?), an honest copper transferred to this small, weird place. An intriguing combination, I'm sure you'll agree.

This, the opening instalment, is necessarily introductory. We meet our hero, the cop. We meet a shape-shifting old guy who's had enough of the neighbourhood kids. We meet a woman with telepathy that seems to limit itself to, or at least be dominated by, sexual fantasies. We meet a vampiric, though classically cheesy, local radio DJ. And a whole host of others. And through necessity, each episode in the comic book (rightly or wrongly, I came to think of them as chapters) is drawn by a different artist. This, for the most part, works surpringly well. My initial concern that the change in styles would jar (and there are a variety of styles here) proved mostly unfounded. Instead, I found that the different styles actually suited their "chapters" very well - I particularly enjoyed Andrew Cheverton's art for the "angry old man confronts local kids" episode, and Nigel Lowrey's seemed perfect for the "sex-empath" episode. I do wonder how the different artists approach will work with future issues though - once you've got used to seeing a character drawn a certain way, how will you react when you encounter him drawn completely differently? Time, I guess, will tell.

So, Too Much Sex And Violence. This isn't the kind of review that ends with a star rating, oh no. But what I can say is that I enjoyed TMSAV very much, and that I quickly forgot I was reading a comic. I was simply reading something well written and expertly put together - there's a lot of talent contained within these 28 pages. Will you enjoy reading it? Well, I'd like to think that if you're the sort of person that is reading this blog then there's a good chance you will. My advice would be to go and buy a copy and find out - I don't think you'll regret it.

You can buy TMSAV from Rol here - it’s only £2.50 for the print copy and £0.99 for a PDF, which strikes me as a bit of a bargain. What are you waiting for?

Monday 31 October 2011

Halloween and all that - Mourir Auprès De Toi (To Die By Your Side)

I'm sorry to be a humbug but I can't abide Halloween. At least, not in its current form. To me, Halloween should be about parties for kids (not adults, are you listening?), doing apple-bobbing, listening to ghost stories and, if there's any dressing up involved, it should be limited to cutting out triangles of white cardboard to stick under your top lip and, at a push, making a cape out of one of your mum's or big sister's old skirts. That's it. That's what kids do. What it definitely shouldn't be is supermarkets having whole aisles of costumes to buy. Nor should it be anything to do with trick or treating. I blame Spielberg for introducing that over here.

But since today is All Hallow's Eve, I suppose I could share this with you. It's a beautiful little stop-motion short film from Spike Jonze, entitled Mourir Auprès De Toi. Smiths fans will be delighted to learn that this translates as "to die by your side". It's not scary, but it does have an otherworldly feel, dead characters, many literary references and a cracking piece of music to soundtrack the credits. Above all that though, it's lovely to watch... even if you're a Halloween humbug like me.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Clandestine Classic XIX - Popscene (live at Peel Acres) #keepingitpeel

#keepingitpeelThe nineteenth 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.

Is it possible for there to be a clandestine classic from a band as wildly successful as Blur? After all, they bestrode the music scene like cheeky Southern Britpop gods, didn't they? And it was ever thus. Wasn't it? Well, not really. And without today's classic, there's a good chance they would only be remembered now, if at all, as indie also-rans with just one hit song still bringing in the PRS cheques.

Early Blur had a minor hit with first single She's So High but things took off for them with their next release, There's No Other Way. With Graham's instantly memorable guitar hook, Damon's slightly flowered-up delivery, and a shuffling rhythm from Alex and Dave that owed a lot to the so-called Madchester scene that Blur were never really part of, it was a massive hit. And also something of a millstone around their collective neck. Debut album Leisure just didn't measure up. And it wasn't the sound of Blur either - it was the sound of a band chasing a scene. By the time they released the last single from Leisure, Bang, all was not well in camp Blur. I picked Bang on 12" vinyl out of Woolworths' bargain bin within a couple of weeks of its release. I don't think the chicken cover art helped much. When I saw Blur live for the first time, in 1992, Damon introduced There's No Other Way by saying "You're gonna think this is shit." And it was, but then I guess that's what happens when a band is both pissed and pissed off.

So what happened between Bang and the release of classic album Modern Life Is Rubbish in May 1993 (the band's highpoint in my view), an album that fused Blur's danceable indie with story-telling songs in the tradition of The Kinks and XTC? What happened was simple: Blur re-invented themselves. A complete re-think, re-boot, re-imagining, re-everything. And the first product of this re-invention was Popscene. Pseudo-Madchester beats? Gone. Hippy-trippy vocals? Gone. Flared trousers? Gone. In their place were frantic, buzzing guitars, a brass section, cherry-red DM boots. And lyrics that were observational and loaded with humour - with the line "In the absence of a way of life, I'll repeat this again and again... and again" Blur were perhaps even parodying the bandwagon they had so recently tried to jump on. Popscene was a massive step into the dark for Blur - if I can cut and paste from Wikipedia for a second... "We felt 'Popscene' was a big departure; a very, very English record," Albarn told the NME in 1993, "But that annoyed a lot of people... We put ourselves out on a limb to pursue this English ideal and no-one was interested." In fact there was so little interest that Popscene stalled at 32 in the singles chart. Ironic that a song that would later lend its name to so many indie club nights across the country should have performed so poorly.

But the change in tone was set, and Popscene paved the way for all that was to follow, from the Britpop triumvirate of Modern Life, Parklife and The Great Escape, right through to the punkier, dirtier, more experimental Blur, 13 and Think Tank. And as Blur became the biggest band in the country (sorry Gallagher bros), suddenly Popscene became "the great lost single" and very sought after. Copies began changing hands on e-bay for silly money. And the fact that it just wasn't on any album fuelled its desirability. It was even omitted from their first Best Of compilation. So people like me had to make do with the version I feature here today, that the band recorded live in John Peel's garden for Radio 1. I seem to recall taping this off the radio. Yes, tape, kids. My neatly written inlay card tells me the sesion, which became known as "Live at Peel Acres" was broadcast on the 5th of May 1997. And since today is Keeping It Peel day, I champion the Peel Acres version of Popscene in honour of the late, great John Peel. I seem to recall John saying that his daughter and her mates had bunked off school to stay home and see Blur. Well, you would, wouldn't you?

The Peel Acres Popscene eventually turned up the B-side of On Your Own, and then on afterthought live/remix compilation Bustin' and Dronin'. The original studio version of the song finally made it onto an album with the recent release of the Midlife compilation but, since today is Keeping It Peel day let's stick with the Peel Acres version. You can read more about the whole session courtesy of the always-excellent Vinyl Villain. If downloading is your thing you can probably find an interesting file here. Alternatively, there's always YouTube... here you go.

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Separated at birth III

I've done a couple of "separated at birth" posts before (here and here) but today's is a bit different, because it is based not on visual similarity but instead on voices. These two are vocal-a-likes, if you will. My evidence is below: the first is a video of Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove, being interviewed on Channel 4 news; the second features Gerald the Gorilla, giving his only known televised interview. Close your eyes and listen to the voices - uncanny, isn't it?

Thursday 6 October 2011

Steve Jobs, I Hardly Knew Ye

Apple announced the sad death of Steve Jobs yesterday. Now whatever you think of the man and his products, whether you're a Mac-devotee or anti-Apple, I hope you can see Steve's passing for what it is - the loss of someone who achieved a great deal in his chosen field and, by daring to be different, someone who fostered a creative competition with the MS/IBM empire, a competition that gave rise to revolutionary, visionary products. The Guardian has a decent obituary for Steve.

Today is National Poetry Day, so the hack poet in me has come out of retirement with a tribute to Mr Jobs.

Steve Jobs, I Hardly Knew Ye

Steve Jobs, I hardly knew ye.
I've never owned a Mac,
An iPod or an iPad.
I took my Newton back.

The Luke to Gates's Vader,
The guy in the white hat,
The underdog, the mouse that roared,
The PC saw to that.

You polarised the IT world,
Evangelical - touch the screen!
If you'd teamed up with IBM
Who knows what might have been?

You ended on a high note,
A monopoly of your own.
With an app for everything it seems
The world loves their iPhone.

Monday 3 October 2011

Clandestine Classic XVIII - Davy Chase

This Is Not A Song cover artThe eighteenth 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.

I'm starting to notice something of a pattern emerging in these Clandestine Classics - I seem to feature a lot of nearly men. You know, bands that almost make it big but stumble just when they're on the cusp. Once they stumble, quite a lot of these nearly men implode, but I'm pleased to say that wasn't the case with today's featured artists, The Frank And Walters. It's easy to forget (I had, until I started researching this post) that in their early days The Frank And Walters were supported by the likes of Radiohead and Suede - what ever became of them? (Oh, how I would "lol" if I could, but a love of the English language prevents me). Not only that but one Noel Gallagher had a brief spell on their road crew as a guitar tech. So how come The Franks were eclipsed? Why were they not bigger?

Part of the problem, I think, is that in those very early years quite a lot of their songs sounded the same. They certainly all had variations on the same post-Roses, pre-Britpop shuffly drum beat that you'll hear on today's Classic. And the thing is, there isn't necessarily a problem with all your songs sounding the same as long as enough people like how they sound... but that was where The Franks came unstuck. A core, loyal, diehard following loved how they sounded, but that core never really grew.

Let's look at this in more detail. The band were formed in Cork in 1990 by Paul Linehan (vocals/bass), his brother Niall (guitar) and Ashley Keating (drums). Wikipedia tells us that they took the band's name in honour of two eccentric Cork characters. Their debut single, Happy Busman, peaked at UK #49. Their next effort, This Is Not A Song, similarly stalled at UK #46. Their commercial peak came with the third single, the slightly more romantic After All, which climbed to the dizzy heights of UK #11 around Christmas of the same year. But after that they were back to the more conventional Franks' sound with Fashion Crisis Hits New York (UK #42) and that, I believe, was the last time they troubled the singles chart.

As the group progressesd and grew, band members changed and their sound evolved far beyond the rapid jingle-jangle of their early releases. Over time, this perhaps yielded a slightly wider (though probably less passionate) fan-base. As for me, well, I still prefer those early releases - I'm just a sucker for rapid jingle-jangle! Indeed, perhaps my most treasured Franks' recording is one I made myself, taping a live performance off the radio (back in the days before illegal downloading it was home-taping that was killing music, kids). Part of Sound City 93 in Sheffield, the Linehan brothers did a short acoustic set that, for me, was better than anything studio-based of theirs that I owned. But I haven't got around to digitising that old tape yet, so instead you'll have to make do with the excellent Davy Chase for today's Clandestine Classic, a B-side from the CD single release of This Is Not A Song. The Frank And Walters continued to ply their trade, happily, and have a couple of "best of" compilations on Amazon (this and this), neither of which feature today's Classic. I couldn't find a download for you either, so you'll just have to make do with YouTube. Here 'tis.

Thursday 1 September 2011

Writers write, right?

I write. More than just this blog, I mean. I write fiction, or try to at least. After a very long break from doing so, I picked up the pen again (or rather, rebooted the laptop) in 2007. Since then I've kidded myself about the varying level of seriousness with which I've been writing. Sure, I got a story published in a book. And a couple in online literary journals. Great. Exciting even, especially the book thing. But not enough.

So I tried to ramp it up. Finding writing time in amongst hectic work and personal lives is difficult, so I hit upon a scheme where I would try to write an instalment of a novel-length work every week and publish it, raw and unedited, online for comment. And whilst life has meant that inevitably I have missed a few weeks, that's still going. Great. But still not enough (and I wish I got more comments there too).

What to do, then, with my other short stories... I know they're not all great. I've had some of them bounced back from enough competitions to know that. But I couldn't shake off the feeling that I ought to do something. And then, as a Kindle owner, I suddenly realised that the answer was in my hands. Yes, self-publishing. I know what you're thinking - I've always felt the same. Vanity press, right? But when it comes to e-books, everyone's doing it. The Kindle bookstore is awash with a lot of cheap tat, some of which is written by people who cannot punctuate or proof-read, let alone string an interesting sentence together. Surely I could do better than that?

So I had a go, and bundled seven short stories together with an extract from the aforementioned novel-length work, jumped through all the Kindle formatting hoops (really not too hard) and published it. Ta and indeed da! It's called Dark Steps and is available from these fine Amazon channels:

Of course as soon as you get set up on Amazon as a Kindle digital publisher, you get an author page - here's mine. And I thought if I was going to have one of those, and give this writing lark a proper punt, I'd better set up a website specifically and solely for my writing endeavours, so I did.

Then I started getting emails from people saying they wanted to buy Dark Steps (blimey), but they didn't have Kindles so could I make it available elsewhere. Luckily, I had a Lulu account gathering dust in the depths of my bookmarks, so after really very little work I was able to make a real paperback version available too. And that was inevitably followed by "I have a different e-reader, what can you do for me?" So the book is now on Smashwords as well.

Reality check time. As I mentioned before, the e-book market is awash with cheap tat. It's becoming rapidly and increasingly difficult to break out from under that. Some might argue all I've done is add to it. And deep down, I know it's just self-publishing, the vanity press - my only redemption there is that at least I didn't have to pay to self-publish. And the book itself is just a throwaway little bundle of so-so short fiction. It's not going to take off and sell tens of thousands of copies. I'm not going to be able to give up my day job.

But writers write, right? I've got a few words to share, and this is my stab at sharing them. So what if nothing comes of it? I've enjoyed having a go and someone, somewhere, enjoyed the results enough to give me a four-star review on I may not be the next Stephen King but at least I can proof-read.

Tuesday 30 August 2011

Clandestine Classic XVII - Purple Love Balloon

Purple Love Balloon cover artThe seventeenth 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.

You know the trouble with reputations? That good ones are hard to earn and bad ones are hard to lose? Well, that was always Cud's problem in my view. For though I must stop short of calling them "Leeds' finest" (that soubriquet belongs to The Wedding Present), here is a band that emerged at the tail-end of the 80s, became beloved of a certain John Peel, and released a succession of excellent albums in the early nineties. And yet...? Why were they not bigger? Why did Carl Puttnam and his merry band not achieve more?

Part of the problem, I think, is that they became perceived as being a bit jokey - not quite a comedy band but in some ways not too far from it. Having song titles like Only (A Prawn In Whitby) probably didn't help matters much. Nor did songs like today's Clandestine Classic either, from August 1992 the critically overlooked Purple Love Balloon. For a start, there's the euphemistic title and sleeve art, a sleeve which also, lest we forget, included the following instructions for caring for your very own Purple Love Balloon: "Use from early spring to late winter with any suitable equipment. Transplant careully, while under the influence, into package and store at 18-21C (65-70F). Remove any side shoots and use 14 times a day. Feed regularly and provide plenty of liquids especially in hot weather, a dry atmosphere and warm conditions. Can also be used outdoors, in gardens, in parks or in the shelter of a sunny wall. Start using once inflated, fully formed and as soon as it has reached an acceptable size."

So, what do we have, here, really? Post-C86, pre-Britpop, indie-boy guitar-pop, yes? Well, yes, to an extent. But the secret to a lots of Cud's success, such as it was, and certainly to the success of today's Classic, is that these indie boys could get a bit funky. I mean, really, properly. Listen to that bassline. And that jangly guitar motif. These boys could play. Okay, so over all that musical loveliness you've got some bloke intoning in an unrepentant Northern bark (and I like that it's unrepentant) that he wants to take you high, in his purple love balloon. So yes, the lyrics might be described as a bit silly. But then this is Cud, after all...

Rightly or wrongly (which itself sounds like a Cud song title), Purple Love Balloon shifted 50,000 copies and made it to a heady number 27 in the charts. I know, quite an indictment of today's chart and its requisite sales figures, but anyway. You can find Purple Love Balloon on the remastered Asquarius or, better still, on their double-CD anthology Rich and Strange. Or here it is:

And what would a Clandestine Classic post be without a bonus video from YouTube? Well, luckily for us all Cud briefly reconvened in 2008 for a couple of gigs in that there London, so here's a live rendition of Purple Love Balloon. Not sure you should still be wearing those trousers though Carl...

Friday 19 August 2011

Finally, a blogroll

In case you hadn't noticed, this blog isn't on Blogger or Wordpress or Tumblr or Posterous or any of the others. It's lovingly (sometimes grudgingly) hand-coded by yours truly and, I like to think, all the better for it. And whilst I manage to fashion reasonable approximations of most "proper" blog features, like RSS feeds, commenting, permalinks and so on, the one omission that has always irked me is the absence of a blogroll on here. I read a number of blogs regularly - they're good, and I want to share them with you.

In the past, I've experimented with all manner of third-party solutions to this, mostly Javascripts, but none of them ever did everything I wanted. Specifically, I wanted to: combine posts from multiple blogs into one feed; only pull back the newest post from each of those blogs; display the blog name, post title and beginning of the post; display an icon for each entry in the feed; sort the feed in descending date order; and have the feed "widget" scroll. Not too much to ask, is it? Well obviosuly it was, because no third-party solution I tried could do all of that to my satisfaction (I'm hard to please).

So... I suddenly remembered I'm an IT guy by trade, and made my own solution. First off, I used the quite excellent Yahoo Pipes to combine the 20 feeds I want to share with you, take the latest post from each and sort them appropriately. One of the output options in Pipes is RSS, so I then took that and punted it into Surfing Waves' excellent, free and highly customisable feed widget. This gave me a Javascript that I could embed in my blog and that, after a few tweaks of my own to make the sizing work better, Bob's your uncle. Okay, so the sizing still isn't great in Internet Explorer because IE (up to version 8 at least) isn't properly standards compliant. I guess I could have written some "if this browser then this resizing code else that resizing code" into the Javascript but, to be honest, I don't really have the time. Besides, I was trying to keep the Javascript short and sweet.

I know, unless you're a techie or a web-designer none of the above is very interesting. But I'll tell you what is interesting: all the blogs on the right-hand side of this page, that's what. Go and read them!

Thursday 11 August 2011

'Tis the season... the footy season

The start of the new Premier League season is (riots permitting) 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 2011/12? To enter, simply register for free here. Et voila!

Here's my team, Jack Of Ball Trades, as it is for the start of the season... wonder how many of these players I'll still have come May?

Jack Of Ball Trades - perennial nearly-men

Wednesday 10 August 2011

"In the absence of human touch"

Yes, I know that the embedded video without context is a heinous blog crime. I know. But since wanton criminality seems to be the order of the day just now, bollocks to it. After all, this song has plenty of context in my head, and that's all this blog is ever really about, isn't it? Me, me, me.

Monday 1 August 2011

The 15 Movie Questions Meme

Shamelessly pinched from the always-excellent Too Much Apple Pie, who in turn pinched it from Rol at Sunset Over Slawit, who in turn got it from Sunday Stealing, and so the list goes on. I try to maintain a healthy meme-aversion but since this is all about films, I'll let this one slide. Ask me these questions again in a week's time and you'll get several different answers, undoubtedly, but for now here goes.

  1. Movie you love with a passion.
    Easy. The Graduate. Made before I was born, this still speaks to me about how I felt about my life when I was a graduate. Except, you know, I didn't sleep with a family friend's wife and then run off with the daughter.
  2. Movie you vow to never watch.
    Not so easy. I usually vow never to watch a film again, having suffered it once. But just on principle, I intend never to watch anything with Transformers in the title.
  3. Movie that literally left you speechless.
    Lars von Trier's Antichrist. And no, it wasn't that self-mutilation scene that tipped this film over the edge for me but the opening two minutes. I can't think of anything I've found as hard to watch. So speechless, but not in a good way.
  4. Movie you always recommend.
    Most films by Stanley Kubrick, but most of all 2001: A Space Odyssey. I've banged on enough about this in the past so I'll just say that it makes space travel look how I want it to be, and has a breadth and scale that is unsurpassed even now, more than 40 years later.
  5. Actor/actress you always watch, no matter how crappy the movie.
    Not that he's made too many crappy ones, but Robert De Niro. People rightly talk about Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, both astounding, but God, have you seen Cape Fear too? The guy is bloody amazing.
  6. Actor/actress you don’t get the appeal for.
    I don't really understand why teenage girls the world over get their collective knickers in a knot over Daniel Radcliffe but I guess that's because I'm neither teenage nor a girl.
  7. Actor/actress, living or dead, you’d love to meet.
    I'm not sure it's such a great idea to meet your heroes - how can they do anything other than disappoint? So I won't say Dustin Hoffman or Robert De Niro or anyone else who I might feel let down by, but instead Tim Robbins. I think he'd be interesting to talk to without even discussing his many excellent films.
  8. Sexiest actor/actress you’ve seen. (Picture required!)
    Well, I couldn't choose so here's two and you can decide for yourself!
    Natalie Portman... and no, it's not a Star Wars thing.   Audrey Tautou... and yes, it probably is an Amelie thing.
  9. Dream cast.
    Well, obviously Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Natalie Portman and Audrey Tautou, for starters. Now I just need to work on a pitch to bring them together...
  10. Favorite actor pairing.
    John Gordon Sinclair and Clare Grogan in Gregory's Girl. If you were a secondary school boy in the 80s, you know why.
  11. Favorite movie setting.
    I'm with Rol on this one. The Overlook Hotel, the setting for King and Kubrick's spectacular collision.
  12. Favorite decade for movies.
    I'm guessing this will be an unpopular choice but the 70s. Lots of gritty movies like Midnight Cowboy and Marathon Man, some great pre-Lucas sci-fi like Logan's Run and Westworld, the rise of Spielberg (Jaws, Duel, Close Encounters)... what's not to love?
  13. Chick flick or action movie?
    Action movie if I'm on my todd, chick flick if watching with my significant other. I'm no fool.
  14. Hero, villain or anti-hero?
    Sometimes hero, occasionally villain but mostly anti-hero.
  15. Black and white or color?
    Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.

Tuesday 26 July 2011

Daisy, Daisy...

Carey Mulligan - English rose, not American DaisyI've just finished reading The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I know, how have I managed to get through 40 years of life without reading the great American novel? Well, I think part of the reason why is exactly that - at some level, part of me thought "why should I read this just because it's supposed to be so good?" But a friend of mine, whose opinion on all things literary I greatly respect, often cites Gatsby to demonstrate techniques of characterisation, pacing, plot development, and so on. So I finally gave it a go. And you know what? It is good. A genuinely evocative period piece, with compelling characters. So there. I've given my verdict on an accepted classic. Next week I'll deliver my views on Shakespeare (not bad - could do with more quotable lines).

Maggie Gyllenhall - surely a better choice for Daisy Buchanan?The thing is, to me the most intriguing of all the characters in Gatsby isn't the eponymous anti-hero, nor is it Mr Carraway, the narrator, but Daisy Buchanan, a character I've just read described on one website as a "manipulative jazz-age socialite", an epithet that seems about right to me. And I've also just read that in the forthcoming Baz Luhrmann adaptation, Daisy will be played by Carey Mulligan (left). And this is where my problem lies. Don't get me wrong, I think Mulligan is great, and especially terrific in An Education. But I don't look at her and think she's right for Daisy. The two just don't go together in my head. But then looking down the proposed cast list, I don't envisage Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby either, and I certainly can't reconcile the idea of Isla Fisher as Myrtle Wilson. In fact, the only bit of casting that feels right is Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway. Beyond that though, my biggest problem is Carey as Daisy - she just seems too sweet, too nice to be able to convey that manipulative, exploitative streak that Daisy shows increasingly as the story progresses. I guess Miss Mulligan will just have to act her socks off.

The trouble is, I then tried to think who I would cast as Daisy. And you know what - I couldn't decide. The nearest I could come up with that started to feel right was Maggie Gyllenhaal (right), and even then, well, I couldn't really see Daisy in her. So what do you think? Any suggestions?

Monday 4 July 2011

Clandestine Classic XVI - The Brink

Sky At night cover artThe sixteenth 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.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the sort of music I buy these days, especially in comparison to what I bought, say, fifteen or twenty years ago. The most obvious difference is that I buy a lot less now, partly becuase I (hope I) am more discerning but mostly because I just don't have the same disposable income - life has put paid to that. But this train of thought led me to think what the outstanding albums of the 21st Century have been so far, for me at least. Don't worry, I'm working up a list for that as a future blog post. In the meantime, today's Clandestine Classic comes from an album that will be on that list - but for now, what better way to celebrate American Independence Day than with the singularly British sound of I Am Kloot and The Brink, from their 2010 masterpeice Sky At Night.

I could have picked just about any of the ten tracks on this album - it really is that good - but I've gone for The Brink for the way it invades my mind: I hear it, and then for hours, days or sometimes weeks after this most croon-worthy of melodies will wrap itself round whatever part of my cerebral cortex processes sound, and squeeze...

What's the song about? Well, singer Johnny Bramwell often introduces this song by describing it as concerning "romance, drinking and despair", a combination that we surely have all been able to relate to at some point in our lives. Further, in the preamble to this live acoustic rendition, Johnny explains that he wrote the song after watching Edith Piaf biopic La Vie En Rose, so maybe that adds a layer of understanding to the mood of the song. He certainly seems to recommend the film ("it's brilliant").

Over and above the song's beautiful orchestration and the simple yet effective guitar playing, the other secret (so many secrets!) to this track's success is Bramwell's vocal delivery. His is a voice that sounds permanently on the edge of cracking, yet never does. It soars to enviable heights, yet all the while remains a voice that has lived, and is lived in: the years Johnny spent busking on the streets of Paris are evident. And most precious of all, it has that rarest of commodities - it is genuinely distinctive. I find it hard to think of anyone who sounds like him, and that can only be a good thing, right?

I Am Kloot have been plugging away for years, but it's not until some of fellow Mancs Elbow got involved with the production of Sky At Night that they've been able to add a smattering of commercial success to the critical acclaim they've long received. About time too, I reckon. As seems to always be the case, YouTube provides a raft of live acoustic performances, of which the aforementioned is probably the best. For once I couldn't find a dubious copy of The Brink to point you towards but do you know what, that's to your advantage because what you really want is to buy the whole album, you won't regret it. Oh, and if you're going to this year's Latitude Festival, well, firstly you're very lucky (and I'm very jealous) but secondly be sure to catch I Am Kloot whilst you're there. To get you in the mood, here's a straight studio rendition of today's Clandestine Classic, The Brink, for your listening pleasure.

Thursday 30 June 2011

It seems hard to believe now but...

A griffon vulture, cicrling above us on the ascent from Petit Pimené to Pimené...this time last week I was in the Pyrénées with three mates, enjoying a walking holiday, away from the stresses and other attendant pains of work. In fact, at exactly this time last week we were a couple of hours into climbing up a mountain called Pimené, which we topped out (2,801 metres) at around lunchtime. It was a pretty hard walk in places, on a very hot day (and check out the steep, zig-zagging sections of our route), but entirely worth it. Yes, even the last stretch when the path just sort of stopped and you had to climb, almost on all fours, up a steep ridge lined with razor-sharp rocks and with a sheer fall on either side.

For the latter stages of the ascent, we were joined by a few griffon vultures (gyps fulvus, if that's your thing) who circled above in the forlorn hope that we would perhaps fall off or just lay down and die. Now I can't afford the sort of camera I'd like, but I did manage to capture one of the vultures as it soared over at little more than head height (left) - an awesome sight. It was a pretty amazing feeling topping out Pimené too; I don't think I've been higher on foot.

I'm not going to bore you with untold reams of scenic photography, partly because my camera isn't good enough to justify it but mostly because you can do a Google image search if you're that desperate for shots of Pyrénéan gorgeousness. Nor will I tell you about the place we ended up the next day which, I think, is possibly the most naturally beautiful place I've ever been in my life... because if word gets out, more people will go and it will only get spoiled.

What I will say is that, having been back at work all this week, it's sad that the events of seven short days past feel so long ago and far away. It's a sobering feeling, recognising yourself as a wage slave... but at least there is the consolation that being a wage slave for twelve thirteenths of the year pays for such pleasures as the lads' jaunt to the mountains. Oh, and this weekend's ticket to see Morrissey too.

Quite often, life can be pretty bad. But I try to keep telling myself that, as griffon vultures and Morrissey prove, it isn't always so.

Wednesday 29 June 2011

Yesterday was Tau Day

What's that, you say - Tau Day? All is revealed below.

In my younger day I used to be quite handy at maths, and this seems a reasonably compelling argument to me. What do you all think?

Monday 13 June 2011

Clandestine Classic XV - The Lovecats (cover)

Those Futurehead boysThe fifteenth 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.

Today, and for the first time in the Clandestine Classics series, a cover version. I know, it's a risk - covers nearly always generate one of two reactions: either it's not as good as the original ("musical heresy" and all that kind of thing); or, this is okay but so-and-so's cover of this song is much better. To be fair, more often than not these reactions are perfectly warranted but occasionally a cover comes along that really does reinterpret the song, where the band really do make it unmistakably their own. Today's offering is one such cover: from 2009, I give you The Lovecats by The Futureheads.

What, I hear you cry - am I mad? Musical heresy, et cetera. Who would blaspheme over Robert Smith and his merry band's commercial highpoint? Who would dare to mess with the original's double-bass line and jinking piano motif? I mean, come on, The Cure had milk bottles being knocked over and cats miaowing in their definitive version - how are you going to improve on that?

Well, a good question, but the fact is a good cover doesn't necessarily have to improve on the original (though some do). No. Surely it's more important just to try to do something a bit different, reimagine some aspect of the song, make a part of it your own. What's the point in makng a note-for-note facsimile - you might just as well play the original.

Of course The Futureheads have form for creative cover versions - their chart highpoint was a pretty fine cover version of the inestimable Kate Bush's Hounds Of Love. I guess that once they'd covered dogs, they might as well move on to cats... So when the NME were compiling a freebie CD of Cure cover versions in the early months of 2009, to celebrate Smith's band receiving the magazine's "Godlike geniuses" award, this is what The Futureheads came up with. Now to be fair, the whole CD, cover-mounted in February of that year, is pretty good, although quite a lot of the tributes fall foul of doing straight reproductions of the original songs. The Futurehead's cover stands out though, first of all by being excellent but mostly by it becoming a Futureheads song rather than a Cure cover. First of all, they up the tempo - the original strolls along at a leisurely feline pace, whilst this cover barrels along in short explosive blasts, like a cheetah. Then, they dispense with the milk-bottle, cat sound effects and, perhaps most crucially, that deep stand-up bass sound. Finally, they pull off what must be a very difficult masterstroke - they completely change the emphasis and intonation in the vocal. Witness that first line, with its stresses on "tigers" and "closer", as opposed to Robert Smith's "move" and "couldn't". How hard must this be to do, when you have grown up listening to, and are steeped in, the original?

I'll be honest, Lovecats is far from my favourite Cure song - I know a lot of people love it but to me, well, it hardly feels like proper Cure. It just feels as if someone challenged Smith to have a big chart hit, and this is what he came up with. Don't get me wrong, I don't hate it, far from it - I'll still hum along and parts of my body will move when it comes on the radio. But The Futurehead's version, I love. That ba-da-daa-da chant they've used to replace the bassline, it gets in your head. Sorry to be a heretic, but I'm now at the point of preferring this to the original. Perhaps you'll feel the same after a couple of listens. You might find the NME cover-mounted CD on ebay (at the time of writing, I couldn't), though if it's just this song you're after try this. This Clandestine Classic's video delights, as ever, are courtesy of YouTube - for comparative purposes, you can watch Robert Smith and chums do the original here but what I really want you to listen to is The Futurehead's cover version, below. There's nothing much to see, sorry, but just close your eyes and listen. Altogether now, ba-da-daa-da...

Tuesday 7 June 2011

The danger of EPG

If, like me, you watch your TV through a set-top box, Sky receiver or relatively new television, you'll no doubt have access to an Electronic Programme Guide, or EPG. You know the thing, it tells you a bit about whatever's on, and what's on next. It's generally quite handy... but every now and then, it bowls a bouncer, and even when there are signs to tell you what's coming it can still take your head off.

Take last night, for example. I came home from wherever it was I'd been and, shamefully looking to the TV for a source of relaxation, starting scrolling through the EPG. This is, more or less verbatim, what caught my eye:

ITV2. Rumor Has It 2100-2245
Offbeat rom-com starring Jennifer Aniston and Kevin Costner.
A bride-to-be seeks the truth abouth whether her parents inspired the classic movie The Graduate.

But this is what I should have read:

A Channel You Never Normally Watch (for a reason). A Film With Dubious American Spelling In The Title 2100-2245
An overplayed genre movie starring an actress who never seems to find the right role and an actor who hasn't made a decent film since, ooh, let's say "JFK".
A bride-to-be...etc.

Because that's what I really think. I never watch ITV2 and, whilst I have no ill feeling towards either, those are my genuine feelings about those two actors. But the EPG got me anyway, because of The Graduate. It's one of my favourite films of any genre, one that I've seen more times than is healthy. And yes, I'm familiar with the rumour that the tale of Benjamin, Elaine and Mrs Robinson was based on a true story. So, despite all the red flags that should have been waving, I was lured in by the EPG by what, to me, was an intriguing premise. To be fair, Rumor Has It started well enough, with some party scenes even seeming to pay a little homage to the party Ben's parents throw for him at the start of The Graduate. But from then on, it was all downhill. I kept watching, in the vain hope that there would be more Graduate references thrown in, but as soon as Kev appeared, I might just as well have turned off and had an early night.

So what I really want to know is... how do I get those 105 minutes of my life back?

Tuesday 31 May 2011

The Out-Of-Print Book Review I - "Black Evening" by David Morrell

Or, the first in what's likely to be an exceptionally occasional series that is intended to highlight out-of-print books that I've only just got around to reading...

'Black Evening' cover art, at least for the edition I have

I just recently finished reading Black Evening by David Morrell. It's a collection of, well, if not horror stories per sé then certainly unsettling stories. No, that's not the genre by which Morrell pays the bills - he's a thriller writer, most famous for writing First Blood. You get the impression from reading some of the author's notes in Black Evening that he isn't wildly keen on what Hollywood and Stallone did to his story but let's not digress. I'm here to talk about Black Evening.

I'll confess I hadn't even heard of David Morrell until a friend of mine, Mark, mentioned one of the stories from Black Evening in a blog post. That story was the excellent "Orange Is For Anguish, Blue Is For Insanity". Mark described that story very neatly, so I hope he won't mind me reproducing his précis - an art historian sees a whole swarm of hideous faces hiding in the paintings of the tortured artist - rather than spewing my own inferior version.

"Orange Is For Anguish..." is an excellent short story, and is among the stand-out efforts in Black Evening. That's saying something too, for although this collection presents its stories in chronological order, so that you can watch Morrell hone his writing technique (as well as seeing the effect events in his personal life had on his storytelling), the standard here is uniformly high. For that reason alone, I don't want to pick out or describe too many of the stories therein... but I do want to give two a special mention.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am an aspiring writer, and that most of the efforts with which I've had some meagre success are short stories of the sort that Morrell includes in Black Evening. No, I am not trying to compare myself to this multi-million selling master of the craft. I'm just trying to illustrate that I try to write what I like to read. And, after reading "The Storm" in Black Evening, I had a genuine I wish I'd written that moment. The story is simple: whilst on holiday, our protagonist comments to his son that a native American's rain dance is hokey and just for show, for the cynical benefit of tourists. Cue a curse on our narrator, who is then followed wherever he goes by a torrential storm. Of course he manages to get the curse lifted, but there's a twist in the tale. Isn't there always? Anyway... okay, yes, the premise reminds me a bit of Thinner by Richard Bachman (I'd have to do some research to find out which was written first) but c'mon, there's nothing new under the sun, after all. And that shouldn't detract from the fact that this story is beautifully, sparsely written, utterly absorbing and, despite the otherworldy content, made entirely plausible.

And then there's "Mumbo Jumbo", a tale of a US high school sports team mascot and the effect it has on the players. Now I didn't go to a US high school and the idea of American football is anathema to me... but that doesn't matter. Morrell weaves a tale that drags you in, takes you back to whatever your school days were and lets you reinhabit the mind of the person you were then. It's a beautifully told tale (with a little twist in the tale, naturally) and, like many of the stories in Black Evening, would make a fine story for The Twilight Zone. Or, if you're English, like me, an excellent Tale Of The Unexpected.

So, Black Evening... it's out of print, of course, but thanks to Amazon, I have an ex-library hardback in pretty good condition that only cost 1p (plus postage and packing), so there's a bargain to be had here. I recommend it to you unreservedly - if you're the sort of person who enjoys Stephen King's short stories (or just well-told short stories in general, as long as you're not averse to being creeped out now and again) then this is a book for you. Go, seek it out.

Wednesday 18 May 2011

Clandestine Classic XIV - What Took You So Long?

'What Took You So Long?' sleeve art

The fourteenth 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.

I started writing this post again thinking that I'd show you I was down with the kids, showcasing a contemporary song by a contemporary artist. Then I realised the song is three years old already. At least the band in question are still going strong(ish). Whilst I can't claim that today's offering is by one of Manchester's finest (Manchester has produced a lot of amazing bands, after all), they are at least well clear of the metophorical relegation zone... today's clandestine classic is What Took You So Long?, a single from the summer of 2008 by The Courteeners.

In the initial hype-storm that surrounded their first album, the band attracted a lot of attention for being from Manchester and having a frontman by the name of Liam. This led to inevitable lazy (and inaccurate) Oasis comparisons. However, these were fortunately dismissed relatively quickly, and The Courteeners could be judged on their own merits. I bought their first album, St Jude, on the strength of a good review in a weekend broadsheet and an endorsement from Morrissey, no less. It's pretty good actually, with lots of quietly infectious, guitar-led chunks of indie rock. They have tunes! That said, the album was starting to fall out of my regular rotation by the time the band were due to play my adopted home-town. I bought a ticket anyway but must have been the only person to do so who wasn't subsequently notified when the gig was cancelled - I arrived at the venue to find a closed door with a piece of hastily-scrawled A4 sellotaped to it. Oh well. A year later, whilst on a business trip to Edinburgh, I saw that The Courteeners were playing The Picture House. I trooped along, hoping to pick up a ticket on the door, but they were all sold out. Gutted.

But not to worry. Although I kept missing them live, and had shelved the album, one song from St Jude was imprinted firmly in my brain. Why? For the unlikely reason that the DCSF (Department for Children, Schools and Families) were running their 'Science and Maths' campaign, aimed at showcasing the interesting and exciting jobs those subjects could lead the youth of today to. They had a quite neat advert that was played to death at my local multiplex, and that advert was soundtracked by the distinctive intro and guitar line of What Took You So Long. You can see why - it's the da-DA-da-DA-da-DA-da-DA-da-DA-da-DA-da-DA-da-DA guitar line that hooks you in, completely and utterly. But there is more to the song than this - not only does it build in a way that compels your body to jump about, it's lyrically very snappy and is, quite possibly, the only song in the Western world to namecheck both Morrissey and Stagecoach buses. Not to be sniffed at. If this song was a film, it could be genre-pigeonholed as social realism or, more likely, kitchen sink drama. Witness those lyrics - "What took you so long? Was there a queue at the post office?" So yes, decidedly English too. These, in case you were wondering, are all good characteristics. Oh, and it's got a catchy, singalong chorus too.

As a single, I think today's classic peaked at number 20 and, as I've already said, you can also find it on the band's debut album. Alternatively, the unscrupulous among you might find something of interest here but you didn't hear that from me, okay? If you want to read more about The Courteeners you can do so at their Wikipedia page and, as ever, there's YouTube, where you can watch the DCSF ad or, like I did, find the original promo and tout it around (below). Enjoy.

Thursday 5 May 2011

So what's the score with all those lazy blog posts?

You might have noticed that during March and April nearly everything I blogged was a "lazy blog post" You might have wondered why. Well, I wasn't just being lazy - there was a reason. Let me explain.

I read a fair few blogs. Don't get me wrong, I don't fritter away my days constantly refreshing feeds in my RSS reader of choice, no no. But I do subscribe to a number of feeds and check them regularly. Now some of these blogs are very good - come on, why would I be reading them otherwise? But sometimes, almost inevitably, you come across a blog that is not so hot. And the more blogs I read, the more patterns I see, and the more I realise that there are certain blog tropes that strike me as, first and foremost, just plain lazy and, secondly, seem destined to turn me off from reading the blog in the future. So I tried to highlight a few of these lazy blog post types over the last two months, specifically:

  • The "humourous" photo - the vast majority of hilarious photos on the Internet are, it seems to me, not actually that funny, and those that might be are typically more of the "a ha ha" type than rib-shattering. The blogger might as well just write I'VE TAKEN A PHOTO OF A CAT DOING SOMETHING SILLY AND MY MUM LIKES IT!
  • The embedded video without context - we've all done it: embed some YouTube content when we're short of blogging ideas. But come on people, at least add some context, some opinion, maybe some original ideas to the post too. It's just a thought but why else should I be reading your post? I mean, if I just want to watch videos I'll go straight to the source, thanks.
  • The redirecting link - now I don't have a problem with blog posts that exist purely to draw attention to something else - another website, a Twitter feed of note, a please-sponsor-me page. But COME ON - tell me why it's worth clicking! Express your thoughts on the website/Twitter feed/please-sponsor-me page. And do so in a way that makes me want to read to the end of the sentence. Don't just say it's really good. Tell me why it's good, what makes it worth clicking the link.
  • Whimsy - well-written whimsy can be okay sometimes, imbuing a kind of collective, misty-eyed nostalgia. That's alright. I don't mind a bit of that now and again, and I suspect you don't either. But the sort of whimsy that trades exclusively in "things aren't what they used to be and I feel so old" probably isn't that well-written. I don't want to sound like a snob or anything, I'm just saying, that's all.
  • The old chestnut - most often typified by the embedded video without context. If your blog consists of nothing but old TV and film clips that I have seen a dozen or more times before, I'm going to get tired, however KWALITY or KRAZY those clips might be. And I won't be alone.
  • Bandwagoneering - the number one crime in the interminable chart of lazy blog post crimes is Zeitgeist-chasing, or simply blogging about something because it's in the news and you want to get a few extra hits. Have you got something new, original or insightful to say about the Royal Wedding? No? Then leave the subject well alone. Something incisive, searing or inventive to say about the Obama/Osama grudge match? No? Then why are you regurgitating banalities about it and calling it a blog post?

Don't get me wrong, I may sound a bit preachy but I'm not so wholesome - this is my 256th blog post here, and I've fallen into all the traps mentioned above at times. We all have, I'm sure - no-one's perfect, and sometimes we simply don't have time to craft the perfect post, especially those of us who do this as a hobby rather than as a form of employment. But I try to keep the lazy blog posts to a minimum. The blogs I read regularly do too.

I'll stop sounding like a crazy ranting fool now.

Thursday 28 April 2011

Lazy blog post no. 1 - bandwagoneering

Luke Wright is a rather fine poet. He's written a fairly atypical poem loosely about the Royal Wedding but less loosely about class, wealth and poverty. On the eve of Waity-Katie's nuptials to Bill Wales, let me jump on the bandwagon and reproduce Luke's poem for you here. I hope he won't mind, especially if I link back to his website and the original post with the poem in it.

The Squeezed Middletons

Oh no, cried Papa Middleton on opening his Times,
the Pound has shed its value and we’re set for steeper climes.
They’re going to freeze my salary, inflation’s just increased
we’ll have to sell the horses, well a few of them at least.

Oh blow, chimed Mother Middleton, oh what a darned palaver
I’ll cut down on the champers, but I shan’t resort to cava!
What’s this?!
Young Monty Middleton let loose a stroppy roar,
no quail’s eggs for breakfast? Why Mother, are we poor?

My Darling, cried his anxious Ma, some how we’ll muddle through
but if Pa sells the chopper, well, I’m not sure what we’ll do.

But then solution came to Pa, a thought so stray and wild:
Now mother am I right to think we have another child?

Why yes, my dear your daughter Kate, we made her in the eighties
the year you did that deal with those dubious Kuwaitis.
Of course,
the red-cheeked fellow barked, the answer dear’s a cinch
we’ll peddle Monty’s sister to a emerald-laden prince!

So Kate was fetched and telegrams sent forth into the world
and soon a queue of inbred boys arrived to see the girl.
A deal was struck and cards were swiped, a son-in-law was gained
and after that the Middletons were never squeezed again.

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Lazy blog post no. 8 - the old chestnut

Included here for no other reason than this - many years ago, my brother and I used to recreate this sketch for the amusement of our parents, often in the car on long journeys. Feels like a long time ago now. I miss those simpler times.

Friday 1 April 2011

Lazy blog post no. 9 - whimsy

A week or so ago, the cook in my works canteen had the day off, so I had occasion to walk to a cornershop in the village to buy something for lunch. Since it is only a cornershop, I settled for a sandwich and a packet of crisps - Frazzles, to be precise.

Now I haven't had proper Frazzles for a good long time, probably nearly twenty years (supermarket own-brand imitations do not count). After wolfing them down in a riot of MSG and a Mexican-wave of nostalgia, I glanced at the back of the packet. And read the following:

Did you know your favourite Frazzles have been around since 1975 and these crispy, crunchy bacon flavour bites are as delicious now as they have always been!

1975?! That's not old! That isn't long enough ago to be dressed up as heritage! I mean, 1975, that was the year I started primary school... so if Frazzles are officially old then I must be...

As if that wasn't bad enough, Smith's Crisps, the purveyors of this salted snack antique, are now nothing more than a division of Walker's. Wasn't like that when I were a lad, etc...

Monday 21 March 2011

Lazy blog post no. 15 - the redirecting link

This week is Climate Week and it's, like, a really good thing so you should, like, check it out. Or somethin'.

Friday 11 March 2011

Lazy blog post no. 41 - embedded videos without context

Because if you can't think of anything original to write, you can always chase the Zeitgeist, right? Grab any old video from YouTube that is vaguely current affairs-ish and bang it in your blog. No need to add any thought or insight of your own, so no worries! And embedding equals fun, right? Makes your website "pop", right?