Thursday 19 December 2013

That was the year that was: 2013

A parody too farIt's that time of the year again, the time for pointing out all the things worth remembering 2013 for. I was going to give these awards a name, maybe something based on a humourous acronym, but everything I thought of was puerile. I'll just call them something like the Totally Worthless Annual Trophies, I suppose, and leave the acronyms to other people. Here we go then, eyes down.

Best album

"The Messenger" by Johnny Marr - a stunning return, reminding everybody of the power he and his guitar can bring. Some might argue that lyrics from a certain Steven could add something, and maybe they would, but that's not to lessen the album as it stands. Essential, I would say.

Honourable mentions: "Amok" by Atoms For Peace; "Tooth And Nail" by Billy Bragg; "Antiphon" by Midlake.

Best song

"Handyman Blues" by Billy Bragg - aside from the fine (and semi-star-studded) video, if there's a song from this year that I can identify with more, I haven't heard it. We're all of a certain age, and none of us are men in the same way that our dads were, however you choose to measure.

Honourable mentions: "Barriers" by Suede; "Where You Stand" by Travis . Yes, it's been a quiet year.

Best gig

Another nod here for Johnny Marr whose set at The Waterfront in March was tight, encompassed songs from all periods of his career, delivered some musically perfect Smiths renditions and sent everyone home happy. Who could ask for any more?

Honourable mentions: a covers band! The Smyths were simply fantastic, not least for their comedically accurate "Morrissey"; a surprisingly vital Boomtown Rats at UEA.

Best book

"Joyland" by Stephen King. All the fuss this year has been about Shining sequel "Doctor Sleep" but this is far, far better. The writing is superior, the story is pacier, there's no middle-third slump, and you don't have to be a horror fan to enjoy it. An easy winner.

Honourable mentions: "Let's Kill Love" by Mark Kilner, a debut collection of wonderful (and enviable) consistency and quality; "Autobiography" by Morrissey, in which Salford's finest discovers he can still trouble the charts. The book charts, that is.

Best film

Hands down, this goes to "Gravity" for its ground-breaking depiction of life in orbit. Sure, we can all nit-pick about some of the finer technicalities (though I, for one, would rather see Ms Bullock de-suit to her underwear than to a NASA nappy), and a bit of disbelief suspension is required for the ending, but overall this is an astonishing film. I hope it has the same sort of effect of the youth of today as "2001" had on me many, many moons ago.

Honourable mentions: Ron Howard's typically detailed recreation of 70s Formula 1 in "Rush"; the achingly sad captive orca documentary "Blackfish", essential viewing if you have ever been to, or even thought about going to, Seaworld.

Best television

In this year's most fiercely contended category, the award goes to "The Fall" from the BBC. This serial killer police procedural, set in Northern Ireland, pulled no punches. The shocks and scares were only outnumbered by the fantastic acting performances, chief among which was Gillian Anderson, whose turn as an ice queen Met detective was nothing short of mesmeric. The story messed with your head too, not least in its characterisation of the killer. I won't spoil it by saying more, just go and watch it as soon as you can. Series two next year...

Honourable mentions: it's been a good year for TV, so there are lots. BBC political drama "The Politician's Husband"; French genius (and spookiness) in "The Returned"; the continued brilliance of "The Walking Dead"; scarily plausible "what if?" mockumentary "Blackout"; the serendipitous comic joy of "Gogglebox"; and I've even stuck with series three of "Homeland"...

Best comedy

Easy. "Nina Conti" - not for having gone to my old uni, and not for being eminently watchable in all kinds of ways, but for delivering a ventriloquism act that doesn't pander to its audience, is clever, inventive and beautifully crafted. Not only that, Nina reclaims the honour of vent acts the world over from its Orville-based nadir...

Honourable mentions: "Modern Life Is Goodish", Dave Gorman's endlessly inventive exploration of 21st Century life; the final episode of "The IT Crowd", for reminding everyone how to end a show properly.

Best theatre (new for 2013)

"Black Watch", a show of uncompromising raw power and unique staging. Modern warfare is horrific, especially when the reasons for what you're doing are dubious to say the least, and this searing portrayal of Scottish squadies' Iraq war experience demonstrates that, and then some. Visually arresting and utterly immersive, it's hard to think of a more emotionally affecting theatrical experience than this. See it somewhere if you can.

Honourable mentions: "How Like An Angel", a stunning, atmospheric combination of gymnastics, athleticism, music and movement. The late-night staging in Norwich Cathedral only added to the experience...

Best blogger (new for 2013)

The single thing I have most enjoyed watching this year, whether film, television or online, is Andrew Collins's "Telly Addict" video blog for The Guardian, twelve minutes a week of pithy insight, knowing comedy, informed opinion and knowledgable comment. If you don't already subscribe to this, you should. On top of this, Andrew also writes, for fun, the music blog "Circles Of Life", in which he seeks to dissect his favourite 143 songs of all time. Oh, and the excellent "other" blog, "Never Knowingly Underwhelmed". Andrew is, by some margin, my blogger of the year.

Honourable mentions: "Too Much Apple Pie" from Kippers and Spike; "My Top Ten" from Rol; and the occasionally NSFW, wonderfully acidic pseudo-consumer blog "Bitter Wallet".

And that's it. Agree/disagree? What were your best bits?

Tuesday 17 December 2013

Happy birthday mate

Happy birthday to the Man of Cheese, my kith and kin for more than thirty years and the best mate anyone could ever have. Hopefully this (unlike the present) will be something new to watch!

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Clandestine Classic XXXVI - Made To Last

Feeling Strangely Fine by SemisonicThe thirty-sixth 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 haven't done one of these for a while. Not entirely sure why. Time is always an issue these days (see also the great unfinished novel and the house in a permanent state of ongoing decoration), that's part of it. Also, in fairness to myself, it's getting harder to think of clandestine classics. Look at the definition in the first paragraph - it's simply getting harder to think of songs that you probably haven't heard of that justify a claim of greatness. Especially when you factor in the unwritten rule that I cannot feature an act more than once in this series. But never mind, because a recent surrendipitous trawl through some CDs saw me stumble upon Feeling Strangely Fine by Semisonic. Then my problem changed from having no classics to which one should I choose from a whole album full of them?

So where to start? For those of you unfamiliar with the band, let me tell you that they formed in Minneapolis in 1995. After a couple of early releases and some Stipe-endorsement, Feeling Strangely Fine was their second studio album, released in 1998. It yielded their commercial highpoints on both sides of the Atlantic - Closing Time (#11 in the US) and Secret Smile (#13 in the UK) - along with a plethora of reliably good stuff from which I could have chosen a classic: Singing In My Sleep, DND, Completely Pleased, This Will Be My Year, and more besides. But it's Made To Last that gets the nod, and here are the many reasons why.

It starts very slowly, gently, clearly a downbeat tune with a vocal delivery and delicate acoustic guitar line to match. Or is it? Maybe it's just bittersweet? Maybe defiant too? I'm not sure, even after studying the lyrics. I read it as being a song about a relationship that has ended - singer Dan Wilson sounds gutted about it but at the same time he bears his ex no ill-will. Indeed, he hopes - seemingly without irony - that she carries on as she is for a long, long time, whilst recognising that he didn't know how to make her happy. Or... maybe this is all nonsense. Maybe it's just a meaning that I have conjured and ascribed to the song because, although released in 1998, I didn't get this album until early 2006... and right about then I was a prime candidate for wallowing in bittersweet introspection with no ill-will. It was a perfect moment of musical symbiosis - my interpretation of this song perfectly matched my mood, and as a result it lodged firmer than any of the other tracks on what is a remarkably consistent album.

Aside from the "it's all about me" mumbo-jumbo, what of the music? Well, my best description of Semisonic is that they're what Travis would sound like if they came from Minnesota rather than Glasgow. And that's a good thing, by the way - I'm not ashamed to hold my hand up and admit to liking Travis (the eighth best gig I've ever been to, lest we forget). And with Made To Last, Semisonic pull off several crowd-pleasing tricks: firstly, a song that starts off downbeat morphs into something redemptive and quietly uplifting; secondly, it goes up through the gears (notice the change of pace at 1.44 and again at 3.35); and thirdly, it has a soaring, elegiac chorus that pervades and, given the slightest encouragement, achieves ear-worm status. To do one of these things is a sign of rare quality. To do all three is the mark of a classic.

One more album followed, after which the band as a whole seems to have gone on permanent hiatus. Individual members do their own thing, and Semisonic tracks regularly get picked up for soundtrack use (notably Closing Time, used in Friends With Benefits which, coincidentally, I blogged about last month). There are semi-regular mutterings about doing something more as Semisonic but, for now, muttering is all it is. Guess that means you're going to have to content yourself with a copy of Feeling Strangely Fine and today's classic, courtesy of the daily marvel that is YouTube. Enjoy.

Monday 25 November 2013


No, I haven't seen Friends With Benefits. It looks crap, so why would I? But I did see the DVD case in a shop at the weekend, and couldn't help but wonder. You see, it's basically a film about f***buddies. Of course, being a Hollywood romcom, said buddies fall in love "properly" at the end (so IMDB tells me).

Anyway, sorry to lower the tone and everything, but I was just wondering - given that it's about f***buddies, do you think the handsigns photoshopped onto Justin and Mila are coincidence or intentional?

Or should I just be worried about my subconscious mind? And/or grow up?

Thursday 14 November 2013

Bobby and Marty

Early last year, I made the assertion that Robert De Niro hasn't made a really good film since Cape Fear. I was thinking about this some more last night (whilst watching Cape Fear again - thanks ITV4). And you know what? I might have been a little harsh. I think you can make a case for his portrayal of the monster in 1994's Frankenstein (here's evidence of that, with added Bonham-Carter content) and he puts in a fine shift, albeit in a supporting role, in Sleepers, from 1996 (he makes a fine priest, don't you think?) Oh, and I probably need to watch Casino again before I pass definitive judgement on that.

But now... there's hope for a new entry in the canon. The Family is directed by Luc Besson, exec-produced by Martin Scorsese, and also stars the always-watchable Michelle Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones in the sort of grizzled role he has made his own. The signs are good. I'm a little concerned, of course, that this looks like a comedy, at least in part, and De Niro's comedic touch is sometimes... well, let's move on. Much is being made of the fact that Scorsese is on-board, probably because of the assumption that, even if only as an executive producer, the combination of Bobby and Marty will once more weave its magic.

Here's the trailer, which is probably enough to secure my cinema-going pounds. What do you all think? Am I (for once) being hopelessly optimistic, or might it actually be good?

Monday 4 November 2013

I've lost something...

At the start of American Beauty, in his voiceover introduction, Lester Burnham says:

"Both my wife and daughter think I'm this gigantic loser and they're right, I have lost something. I'm not exactly sure what it is but I know I didn't always feel this... sedated. But you know what? It's never too late to get it back."

It's a great line, in a film that is peppered with them. But is Lester right? Is it never too late?

Until quite recently, I used to think I had my finger, if not on the pulse, well, at least I'd be feeling around in the right area. I knew my way around contemporary music, who was popular and why. Now, if I turn on Radio 1, within moments I am wondering when the mainstream became quite so shit. The Top 40 means virtually nothing to me. It's inexplicably one-dimensional and, almost without exception, crap - when did that happen? And since we're on the subject of such inponderables, why can't a track just be credited to an artist? Why do so many songs have to be by X (featuring Y), or A (vs B), or M (N & O remix)? And it's not just the music, it's the zeitgeist that surrounds popular culture; how, for example, did Nick Grimshaw become successful or famous? (For extra credit, discuss when the latter became more important than the former.) What aspects of his life, personal or professional, merit his current ubiquity? As far as I can tell, he's appalling, little more than a box-ticking generic presenter created in much the same way as Cowell et al create short-lived chart acts except, unlike Cowell, the BBC should surely know better.

As if to confirm to myself that I've somehow got old, take a look at my Songkick gigography - who have I been to see this year? The Boomtown Rats, The Smyths, The Stone Roses, The Selecter and Johnny Marr. All either old men, or in the case of The Smyths (who were brilliant, by the way) designed to appeal to old men. To top it off, I'm going to see The Wedding Present again next month. Oh, and CDs (yes, I still buy physical product, no MP3 downloads for me - QED, right?)... the only album I bought this year by an artist I haven't already known and loved for years is Ritual, Tradition, Habit by The Belle Game.... and I haven't listened to that yet in the two months I've had it.

Physically... well, I dream of waking up one morning without back ache. And I'd love to be able to sleep on my left-hand side without having to contend with a persistent dull ache below the ribs on that side in the morning. I mean, I try to stay fittish - I run, I play football, the bike comes out of the shed on a semi-regular basis. But five years ago I was running half-marathons, and had pace on the pitch. That's all gone now. All of it. Last week, at five-a-side, we were short of players, as were the group on the next pitch, so we ended up playing each other. And okay, yes, I was conceding fifteen years to most of the lads on the other team, but it wasn't even close. It was even worse than watching Norwich City step aside for Man City at the weekend.

My career could, at best, be described as stationary. Others would say it is in gradual decline, and I couldn't disagree. A creative writing sideline, which yielded a degree of critical and commercial early success, is struggling to stay afloat. My best friends are miles away, so what little social time I have, "me" time, is literally that - I sit alone in a darkened cinema. And I have become my father, not least in falling asleep on the sofa most evenings when I am too tired to do anything but also just too tired to get up and go to bed properly. On the rare occasion that I look in the mirror I see a greying, balding man with crows feet at his eyes and more salt than pepper in his beard. My first reaction is usually, who are you?

I'm 43 now, a year older than Lester in his introduction. Apart from that, most of what else he says in this clip is pretty much on the money for me, thematically if not in the detail. I do think that maybe he's wrong at the end though - there does come a point when it's too late to get it back. I know - I've been trying and "it" just keeps getting further away.

I'm guessing that most readers of this blog are within five years of me either way, so what do you all think? Am I alone in feeling like this?

Tuesday 8 October 2013

Assuming no other last minute delays...

...this will surely be one of the year's must-read books?

Finally, Morrissey pens his autobiography

I love the way that, even though it is a completely new book, it is being packaged and marketed as a Penguin Classic. Nice touch.

Anyway, assuming no further publishing wrangles or content disagreements, Mozza's long-awaited autobiography can be yours from October the 17th. Amazon are currently touting it for the bargain price of £5.99 so go on - you'd be a fool not to buy one.

Monday 7 October 2013

Thursday 26 September 2013

Frankly impressive

One of my closest friends once ventured the opinion that my taste in music is parochial. I took umbrage at this, and was quietly hurt. However, she was, of course, correct. I haven't counted but I'd estimate that two thirds of my record collection has one or more of the following names associated with it: Morrissey, Marr, Rossiter, Stipe, Gedge, Weller, Marriott, Townshend, Davies, Smith, Cocker and Yorke. Refined taste, yes. Diverse? Erm...

So what does it take to get me to listen to something beyond those twelve angry men? To be a bit less parochial? Well, it takes something distinctive, something genuine, something engaging. A talent that isn't mass-produced, homogenised, exploited and spun. Something a bit like Nina Baker, maybe?

Nina Baker - yes, I am beguiled [Photo (c) 2012]I've written about Nina before. I interviewed her on this very blog last November, drawing comparisons with early Kate Bush and Tori Amos, amongst others. And I've seen her perform live, and been a tiny bit beguiled by the purity of her voice. All of which is how I came to end up with a preview copy of her forthcoming debut album Quite Frankly sitting on my desk. So, having established that this isn't my usual cup of tea, what do I think?

Quite frankly (see what I did there?), I think it's mightily impressive. I've already mentioned the quality of Nina's voice, and on these thirteen tracks (plus a hidden reprise) it entwines around her piano motifs beautifully. She is ably supported too, with a fuller sound than on previous recordings and when live, augmented as she is here by strings, woodwind, brass and more in addition to her three-piece backing band. There's quite clearly a huge amount of effort made with the (Ronson-influenced) production too, no more so than on lead track Single Bed which seems to have all manner of bells and whistles thrown at it. Make no mistake, it's a standout track and would make an ideal single release, though I personally prefer the simpler version with just Nina and piano. But what do I know, right, haven't we already established that I'm just an old indie-purist curmudgeon?

Even if, like me, you're not Ms Baker's obvious target market, there's still plenty to enjoy here, especially if you pay close attention to the lyrics. If you're the sort of listener who just takes in the overall sound of a record, oblivious to the words, you might think this is an unremittingly upbeat album, seduced by the major key tunes and brightly coloured artwork. But listen closely, and you'll find there's more going on. Most, if not all, of the songs concern relationships - indeed, I have a little theory that if you rearranged the running order slightly you'd have the full story of a relationship from happy beginning, through difficult times, break-up, mourning its passing and finally emerging on the other side, older, wiser and maybe slightly scarred. And on balance, it looks like there were more bad times than good in that relationship - take a look at some of the song titles to see what I mean: Single Bed, Bruising, Little Fibs, Clown, The Price That I Pay, Game You Play, Stupid Mistake... in a relationship context, these are not upbeat titles. I wonder if Nina has been through the wringer at some point?

For me, the standout track here is The Price That I Pay. It's no surprise that this is reprised at the end for the album's hidden track - a hypnotic sojourn into a minor key, here more than ever Nina's voice and piano combine to devastating effect. It's a song that deserves a wide audience. Also worthy of special mention are the Radio 2-friendly balladry of Breaking Every Rule (some lovely strings on here), the Regina Spektor-esque When I'm Not With You, the Ronson-channelling Game You Play and the filmic Stupid Mistake, which surely deserves to be on a soundtrack somewhere, some time.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, you can only admire Nina, whether she's your cup of tea or not. Here's a young girl with genuine talent, singing and playing the piano, writing and co-producing all her own songs, defiantly not chasing the flickering flame offered by X Factor, The Voice and all the rest. She's doing it properly, and the fruits of her labours are there for us all to see and hear on her excellent debut. Bottom line: if you own and like The Kick Inside, there's a good chance there's something for you here too. I don't give star ratings in my reviews, but if I did this would warrant a solid four out of five.

As for me, I'm no less parochial, not really. Those twelve angry men still captivate me like no others. But Nina - yes please. I'll have some of that. And I think there is more, and better, to come too. I just hope she doesn't have to go through the wringer again for inspiration...

Footnote: Nina has been in touch to tell me that Single Bed will be released as a single on the 4th of November, with the album release of Quite Frankly to follow on the 6th of January. It'll be on Resplendent Records, and no doubt available through Amazon, iTunes and the rest. Oh, and since you read this Nina, I hope you appreciated all the tea references...

Monday 2 September 2013

Art imitating art

Having done the decent thing and finished The Office when it was still good, Ricky Gervais has, until recently, only dusted David Brent off on a couple of charity-related occasions. In the last year or so though, he's become slightly less principled about his most famous creation. Perhaps with one eye on how the "Mid-Morning Matters" series of online episodes gave Steve Coogan a way to bring Alan Partridge back to the masses, ultimately yielding a best-selling spoof autobiography and excellent big-screen outing, Gervais released a series of videos on YouTube entitled "Learn guitar with David Brent". Each would feature some fairly standard Brent buffoonery at the start, and end with a toe-curling song performed in earnest fashion by Wernham Hogg's most famous redundant employee. For example, here's the episode that incorporates his paean to Slough ("John Betjeman famously slagged it off. I'd love him to come down and do it to our faces - gets a slap! Not when he's old and in a wheelchair but before that...")

So far, so Gervais. Except now the improbably named Chazwick Bradley Bundick, better known as the hipper-than-thou American act Toro Y Moi, has only gone and recorded a serious cover version of Slough. And it's alright, as long as you tune out the comedy lyrics about being equidistant from London and Reading. Have a listen.

Monday 12 August 2013

'Tis the season... the footy season... yet again

The new Premier League season is about to start, so if you haven't already you'd better be quick and sign up to play the free, official Premier League fantasy football game for 2013/14. 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... crap, isn't it? Am already starting to think I should have bought Aspas rather than Sturridge, would have saved myself a couple of million (how casual I am with fantasy money). But anyway, what do I know about football?

Tuesday 6 August 2013

The Last Crusade...

... in which I pursue the Holy Grail (geddit?)

Getting onto's Top 100 list is a big deal, I reckon. A lot of Kindle owner's check that on a regular basis. I'm not talking about genre-specific lists, I'm talking about the big guns: Amazon's top 100 paid-for Kindle books and the top 100 free.

It's a big deal because once you're on there, lots of downloads follow and, presumably, book sales of other titles too. That's the theory anyway.

I run two titles under Amazon's exclusivity programme KDP Select, namely Turn Around Where Possible and Cold. Periodically, I give these away free. The nearest either has ever got to the top 100 list was when Turn Around... peaked, for a few short hours, at #113. To get that high, more than 2,200 free copies were downloaded.

What's all this building to? Well, I'm going to have one more crack at the Holy Grail, the top 100. I've scheduled for both titles to be free on Amazon, simultaneously and worldwide, on the 31st of August and 1st of September. I've submitted my promotion's details just about everywhere I can think of. I've given plenty of notice to untold Twitter book promotion accounts. I've scheduled a number of promotional tweets myself on a (hopefully not too annoying) regular basis. And now I'm blogging about it.

So I need your help. If you have a Kindle, Kindle app or Kindle for PC, you can download either or both of these short stories. I hope you do. I think you might like them. But also please tell your friends. Maybe flatter me with a retweet when you see me plugging the big push. And if you run or write for a book review website or blog, please let me know and maybe we can do something.

Think of this as an experiment. Can a little known indie author crack the top 100 free list with a self-published short story or two? Let's find out...

Footnote: apologies for this kind of blog cross-pollination. I don't do it often, but I really need the most exposure I can generate for this, so forgive me please. If you want to read more about my writing, you can do so here. As for this blog, I'll get back to writing about music, TV, films and life soon, I promise.

Thursday 1 August 2013

Happiness isn't easy

Back in June I wrote about Alex Quick's book 102 Free Things To Do - inspiring ideas for a better life and how I intended to try the suggestions therein to see if life did indeed get better. Of those 102 things, I previously identified 28 that I had already done, five that I would never do...and the other 69 were up for grabs. Anyway, here's an update - newly done are bold:

  1. Go out and look at the stars
  2. Keep a diary - but only one sentence a day
  3. Meter your energy use with a smart meter
  4. Give up your car
  5. Get up earlier
  6. Sketch your relatives - it's better than photos
  7. Treasure your precious human body
  8. Go on an archeological dig
  9. Write a letter to your future self
  10. Don't confuse affluence with well-being
  11. Memorise a poem
  12. Ask a child for advice
  13. Take part in a police line-up
  14. Give up craving for recognition (and be admired for it)
  15. Notice when things have improved
  16. Go on holiday without leaving your bedroom
  17. Practice random acts of kindness (and, if time permits, senseless acts of beauty)
  18. Climb a mountain
  19. Turn your house into a restaurant
  20. Start a film society
  21. Remember that making mistakes is part of being human
  22. See the sun rise and set on a single summer's day
  23. Get fit without joining a gym
  24. Sit still until you see wildlife emerge
  25. Contact a friend you haven't spoken to for years
  26. Go cloud-spotting
  27. Learn to meditate
  28. Volunteer for something
  29. Spend a day and night in a forest
  30. Cherish older people
  31. Reconsider your career
  32. Enlarge your comfort zone
  33. Achieve your ideal weight
  34. Learn how to talk to strangers in public
  35. Visit Project Gutenberg
  36. Gather a meal from the wild
  37. Learn another language
  38. Invent a language
  39. Pretend you are a valet for humanity
  40. Go busking
  41. Start a book in which to record things that have really, really made you laugh
  42. Go somewhere outdoors that is very silent
  43. Make Christmas presents for your whole family one year
  44. Give something up
  45. Cheer up lonely men in public places
  46. Swap your CDs
  47. Adopt or invent a personal motto
  48. Support your local eccentric
  49. Become a freegan
  50. Swim in the sea
  51. Get to know your neighbours
  1. Act without expecting anything back
  2. Deliver meals on wheels
  3. Look for glue
  4. Send a message in a bottle
  5. Have an eco-friendly bonfire
  6. Attempt a world record
  7. Walk in the rain
  8. Give away free trees
  9. Do a sponsored parachute/bungee jump
  10. Perform
  11. Cycle 100 miles in a day
  12. Serenade someone
  13. Reflect on something you're grateful for
  14. Cook and eat a nine-course meal
  15. Write a love letter
  16. Create a lair
  17. Notice beauty
  18. Let go of emotional pain
  19. Write down your parents' or grandparents' stories
  20. Look at your day-to-day concerns from the point of view of five years from now
  21. Fan the flames of desire
  22. Contemplate imperfection and impermanence as forms of beauty
  23. Join a gardening scheme where only your labour is required
  24. Laugh in the face of death
  25. Train your memory
  26. Accept the full catastrophe
  27. Write the first sentence of a novel
  28. Cherish solitude (Sister Wendy does)
  29. Get your friends to sponsor you to go to Spain and celebrate La Tomatina
  30. Embarrass your children/teenagers
  31. Work a room
  32. Confront people politely
  33. Learn a trick
  34. Be a representative of your country, in your country
  35. Try lucid dreaming
  36. Come to terms with ageing
  37. Be a bookcrosser
  38. Teach a child something fun
  39. Make your gratitude less perfunctory
  40. Give away your superfluous possessions
  41. Grow huge sunflowers
  42. Smile
  43. Go bell-ringing
  44. Form a debating club
  45. Take your shoes off and walk in the dew on a sunny morning
  46. Dress up
  47. Give up your TV
  48. Be 'Lord' for a day
  49. Write fewer emails and more letters
  50. Don't expect that things will be different in Tenerife
  51. Find out what's happening near you and join in

So, now 34 done, five nevers... Am I happier?


Still 63 more things to do though, so what do I expect?

Are you happy? What makes that so?

Friday 12 July 2013

Clandestine Classic XXXV - Once Around The Block

Once Around The BlockThe thirty-fifth 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.

What comes to mind when you think about Badly Drawn Boy? Chances are it's the soundtrack to About A Boy. After all, it was Damon Gough's commercial high point, featuring the relatively successful Something To Talk About and Silent Sigh. And I won't carp about that, because it's a decent album full of music for Hugh Grant's least irritating movie performance. But this is Clandestine Classics... it doesn't deal in commercial high points, or popular ditties endorsed by Nick Hornby. Oh no. For today's classic, we have to go back, back, back, before Badly Drawn Boy were releasing albums, back to when they just had EPs to their name...

Once Around The Block was released in August 1999 and tottered to a dizzy #46 in the UK singles chart. How it didn't get higher I don't know, it's not like the pre-Millennial chart was stuffed with gems. I suppose that's the difference a film association can make... Even when re-released, and pushed harder, a year later it only got to #27... and that's surprising because in many ways, Once Around The Block is very similar to the more successful work that followed: it has the same whistle-ability, the same low-key, lo-fi rhythm, the same trick of a downbeat-yet-upbeat melody. In fact this track, a prototype for the success that was to follow, arguably set a standard that much of Gough's subsequent work struggled to live up to. For me it's the slightly phased, recurrent acoustic guitar riff, the delicate harmonies with self, the shuffling, languorous backbeat... these are the things that make this track special. Memorable, even - I bought this song fourteen years ago and, until today, hadn't played it for at least five years, if not more. And yet it feels like I heard it yesterday, that's how fresh it has remained in my mind.

Then there are the lyrics - deceptively simple, yet all the more memorable for that. The closing lines are a perfect case in point:

Take a left, a sharp left and another left.
Meet me on the corner
And we'll start again
Now that repetition of "left, left, left" shouldn't work, but it does, somehow. In fact, it may even be the reason I bought this in the first place.

Damon Gough is still going into bat for the Badly Drawn Boy first XI, though the law of diminishing returns applies, here as everywhere. I see he recently had to apologise to a gig crowd for being a bit shirty onstage (and that's not the first time either), but hey. Today's classic later appeared on The Hour Of Bewilderbeast, and so of course can be picked up there. And then there's always YouTube, which reveals an utterly charming video (even if the young lady with braces has already-perfect teeth). Here you go.

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Book review time - "Let's Kill Love" by Mark Kilner

Let's Kill Love - great titleStop for a moment and take a look around you, maybe browse a newspaper of two. There is plenty to suggest that modern life can be... well, disturbing, to say the very least. Unsettling, even. Kilner's talent, so ably and repeatedly demonstrated in this book, is to take the small horrors of life in 21st Century Britain and take them a step further...

This collection opens with the excellent short-story-as-introduction "Vanity Search". In it, a fictionalised version of the author is asked whether his work is "horror as in werewolves and goblins or horror as in psychopaths running around with knives?" With a sigh, the author replies, "I hope I don't mean either of those things." It's a nice statement of intent and entirely appropriate, because whilst there are genuine scares, moments of violence and other unpleasantness in these stories, this book is not a blood-soaked's far, far better than that. Kilner deals in the horror of small things, the horror of modern life, the horror of people and the things they do. Prepare to be deeply unsettled by the real reason for the growth in management psychobabble in "Inhuman Resources", small-time crooks and councillors (so alike, in many ways) in "That's The Way To Do It" (after which you'll never think of Punch and Judy in the same way), and the pervasion/invasion of technology in "Superficial Intelligence". Throw in a very clever slice of Ballardian fiction in "Killing Time" and the Grand Guignol novella "Postmortem" and you already have an outstanding debut collection, and that's without the eponymous "Let's Kill Love", a sobering tale for today's relationship-obsessed culture.

Being familiar with Kilner's work already, there are a couple of short stories that I had hoped would also be in this collection (I think "Run Down" and "Dead Flowers" would have sat nicely alongside the other stories here) but I hope this just means the author is holding them in reserve for his next collection, keeping his powder dry. On the evidence of this book, a new and distinctive British voice has emerged, with a talent for engaging, contemporary, psychological horror. I said at the start of this review that Kilner's skill is in taking the horrors of modern life a step further; the beauty of this it that, having read each story, you are left with something to look back on, bigger themes on which to reflect. This is no mean feat to achieve once - to do so repeatedly shows real quality.

If I was the sort of blogger to give star ratings, this would be a 4.5 star review, but whatever the rating, be in no doubt: Mark Kilner deserves to be read. Lucky for you then that "Let's Kill Love" can be snapped up on Amazon right now.

Monday 1 July 2013

More street art - Abracadabra and Britain Wins Gold

More pointed street art/graffiti spotted on the walls of my adopted home town. I do like my paste-ups and stencil art to be a bit political. Anyway... other posts in this series can be found here, here, here, here and here.

Monday 3 June 2013

Happiness is easy...

There are some things in my life that make me happy, indeed some are a source of such joy as I never imagined possible. Equally, there are some aspects of my life that depress me beyond words, taking me to dark places that leave me clinging desperately to the good things as motivation for... well, everything.

I don't propose to list the things that fall into these categories, the causes of my joy and misery - this is just a blog, after all, not therapy (although some might argue it's both). And of course, like most introspective fools I'm prone to mulling over the latter rather than celebrating the former. After all, who doesn't like to scratch a bothersome itch or, more fittingly, pick at a scab?

Also like most introspective fools, at least those that do their introspection properly, by which I mean "like me", I'm quite cynical when it comes to self-help books, CBT and all the rest. If I get to the point of needing help, I'll talk to my mates, thanks. But even so, when I saw a copy of Alex Quick's 102 Free Things To Do - inspiring ideas for a better life in my local library I was intrigued enough to get it out on loan and have a read. Thankfully, it doesn't set out to be a self-help book, or to rid the reader of misery and depression. It simply lists some things the reader can do for free (mostly) that might improve his or her quality of life.

In summary, these are the 102 things:

  1. Go out and look at the stars
  2. Keep a diary - but only one sentence a day
  3. Meter your energy use with a smart meter
  4. Give up your car
  5. Get up earlier
  6. Sketch your relatives - it's better than photos
  7. Treasure your precious human body
  8. Go on an archeological dig
  9. Write a letter to your future self
  10. Don't confuse affluence with well-being
  11. Memorise a poem
  12. Ask a child for advice
  13. Take part in a police line-up
  14. Give up craving for recognition (and be admired for it)
  15. Notice when things have improved
  16. Go on holiday without leaving your bedroom
  17. Practice random acts of kindness (and, if time permits, senseless acts of beauty)
  18. Climb a mountain
  19. Turn your house into a restaurant
  20. Start a film society
  21. Remember that making mistakes is part of being human
  22. See the sun rise and set on a single summer's day
  23. Get fit without joining a gym
  24. Sit still until you see wildlife emerge
  25. Contact a friend you haven't spoken to for years
  26. Go cloud-spotting
  27. Learn to meditate
  28. Volunteer for something
  29. Spend a day and night in a forest
  30. Cherish older people
  31. Reconsider your career
  32. Enlarge your comfort zone
  33. Achieve your ideal weight
  34. Learn how to talk to strangers in public
  35. Visit Project Gutenberg
  36. Gather a meal from the wild
  37. Learn another language
  38. Invent a language
  39. Pretend you are a valet for humanity
  40. Go busking
  41. Start a book in which to record things that have really, really made you laugh
  42. Go somewhere outdoors that is very silent
  43. Make Christmas presents for your whole family one year
  44. Give something up
  45. Cheer up lonely men in public places
  46. Swap your CDs
  47. Adopt or invent a personal motto
  48. Support your local eccentric
  49. Become a freegan
  50. Swim in the sea
  51. Get to know your neighbours
  52. Act without expecting anything back
  53. Deliver meals on wheels
  54. Look for glue
  55. Send a message in a bottle
  56. Have an eco-friendly bonfire
  57. Attempt a world record
  58. Walk in the rain
  59. Give away free trees
  60. Do a sponsored parachute/bungee jump
  61. Perform
  62. Cycle 100 miles in a day
  63. Serenade someone
  64. Reflect on something you're grateful for
  65. Cook and eat a nine-course meal
  66. Write a love letter
  67. Create a lair
  68. Notice beauty
  69. Let go of emotional pain
  70. Write down your parents' or grandparents' stories
  71. Look at your day-to-day concerns from the point of view of five years from now
  72. Fan the flames of desire
  73. Contemplate imperfection and impermanence as forms of beauty
  74. Join a gardening scheme where only your labour is required
  75. Laugh in the face of death
  76. Train your memory
  77. Accept the full catastrophe
  78. Write the first sentence of a novel
  79. Cherish solitude (Sister Wendy does)
  80. Get your friends to sponsor you to go to Spain and celebrate La Tomatina
  81. Embarrass your children/teenagers
  82. Work a room
  83. Confront people politely
  84. Learn a trick
  85. Be a representative of your country, in your country
  86. Try lucid dreaming
  87. Come to terms with ageing
  88. Be a bookcrosser
  89. Teach a child something fun
  90. Make your gratitude less perfunctory
  91. Give away your superfluous possessions
  92. Grow huge sunflowers
  93. Smile
  94. Go bell-ringing
  95. Form a debating club
  96. Take your shoes off and walk in the dew on a sunny morning
  97. Dress up
  98. Give up your TV
  99. Be 'Lord' for a day
  100. Write fewer emails and more letters
  101. Don't expect that things will be different in Tenerife
  102. Find out what's happening near you and join in

Yes, I know. In places this is a bullshit list. It's just the chapter headings, after all. Some things, like "smile" - well clearly you need to read the book to understand what Quick is getting at. But, in general, these are things that sound... fun. Life-enhancing and, who knows, maybe even life-affirming, don't you think?

Some of the 102 I've already done (they're green). Others, I can't imagine I'll ever do - they're red. But the rest are up for grabs. Don't worry, I'm not going to turn this into a blog theme where I religiously post about every task as I tick them off, to the eventual boredom of everyone concerned, no no no. But I might blog about the odd one or two, if any turn out to be stupendous. Bottom line, though, is this - I haven't been that cheerful lately, sorry, but I wanted you to know I'm trying to do something about that.

Now, Constant Reader, if you could add a 103rd task to the list of inspiring ideas for a better life, what would it be?

P.S. +1 kudos points to any readers ID'ing the song from which this blog post takes it title (only 1 for this, as it's easy...)

Wednesday 1 May 2013

Colossal Velocity

Important film news. Personally I quite like "Chap Of Steel" but anyway... The world premiere must surely be in Norwich? Where better than Cinema City?

Friday 26 April 2013

Clandestine Classic XXXIV - Closer

CloserThe thirty-fourth 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.

What comes to mind when you think about Travis? Chances are it's their pajillion-selling and semi-ubiquitous second album The Man Who or maybe it's only marginally less successful third, The Invisible Band. Or maybe you have a festival memory of hoisting an umbrella into the air as the band played their biggest hit, Why Does It Always Rain On Me? What I very much doubt it brings to mind is today's clandestine classic, Closer, a 2007 single from the band's fifth album, The Boy With No Name.

There's a good reason why, of course. Firstly, the band's fourth album 12 Memories had been a little too political, a little too angsty for some. Then drummer Neil Primrose jumped head-first into a shallow swimming pool while on tour in France. Breaking his neck, he almost died due to spinal damage. If not for his bandmates, he also would have drowned. Serious stuff, I'm sure you'll agree, and more than enough reason for the band to drop out of circulation for a while. The trouble is, dropping out of circulation for a while is a bit of a crime these days, and Travis's lazy-hack-muso-journalist title as "the next Radiohead" was snagged away by Coldplay and Keane, both more than capable of shifting product to the Radio 2 crowd.

They did return though, and in 2005 they were drafted in as last-minute replacements for Morrissey at the Isle of Wight festival. In need of a warm-up gig at short notice, and with no album to promote, they played a crowd-pleasing greatest hits set at UEA, and one of the the highlights was a world premiere of a new song, Closer.

All the Travis trademarks were there from the start - Fran's fragile vocal delivery, deceptively simple chords, the solo that almost isn't, the twisted lyrical themes of love (unrequited), loss, heartache. Most of all, of wanting to be loved. In other words, a return to the familiar, non-political territory of albums two and three.

Today's classic is probably the most commercially successful of any that I've featured thus far - it peaked at number ten in the UK singles chart. But it's still clandestine, in my book, just because it's so far down the list you think of when you think about Travis. Besides, it seems like a good time to be talking about them - after an amicable hiatus and solo outing from Fran, the band are back (back! back!) with new material to promote and a new album in the offing.

In the meantime, you can find today's classic on the aforementioned The Boy With No Name, as well as the solid-gold Singles collection. Alternatively, naughty boys and girls may be interested in this, in which case you ain't seen me, right? And then there's always YouTube - I do love a video that steps outside of itself, if you know what I mean? If you don't, you will do after watching this. Cheers.

Footnote: yes, thanks, I'm fully aware that "semi-ubiquitous" is a bit like being a little bit pregnant. Cut me some slack, eh...?

Thursday 18 April 2013

Shooting the Moon

Much as I might like one, I don't have a digital SLR, just a compact camera, or "point'n'shoot". Admittedly, it's quite a good point'n'shoot, but that's all it is. Imagine my pleasure then, when presented with a full Moon and a clear sky a couple of weeks ago, that I was able to shoot this.

It's not a great photo, being a bit fuzzy and still a little distant - it's certainly light years away from the sort of lunar photography my friend Mark produces. But the thing that gets me, and the reason I'm writing this, is just how advanced digital photography is getting. As I mentioned, this was taken with a compact camera, and handheld, not on a tripod or any other mount. Yes, I did tweak the camera's settings slightly - it allows a degree of manual control - but really I didn't do much more than extend the zoom to its fullest limit. And in case you're wondering, the photo hasn't been cropped or digitally post-processed either - all I've done is scale down the size from the original 18MP to something that fits nicer on this here web page. And I think the results speak, not for me as a photographer (I'm a bit run of the mill) but for the camera, because the results are half decent. I mean, you can see Tycho and Copernicus clearly, and the Sea of Tranquility stands out nicely (Mark - fill me in with some more identifiable features!)

I'm now on the lookout for a website that tells me when the Moon is at perigee, so I can dig out a tripod and try again...

Thursday 11 April 2013

Not Film, er, 2009 but a film review anyway: Mésrine Part 1 - Killer Instinct (or, better late than never)

Funny what turns up, isn't it? Scrabbling for something to write on in the side pocket of a sports bag yesterday, I happened upon a little notebook that I hadn't used in some considerable time. It was mostly empty but near the front I had made a few notes and, on the 10th of August 2009, scrawled a just-legible film review for the French gangster epic "Mésrine part 1 - Killer Instinct". Here, unedited, it what I thought back then.

Cassels in double-hard in thisDisillusioned with the army, disappointed in his father, Jacques Mésrine's (Vincente Cassels) path towards his ultimate status as France's public enemy #1 is set when he falls under the wing of small-time crime boss Guido (Gerard Depardieu). It quickly becomes apparent that Mésrine has a talent for all things criminal, and a confidence with the more physical aspects of his career choice (this is a violent film, but not gratuitously so). It also becomes apparent that he puts himself, and the respect and companionship that comes from his work partnerships, ahead of family life, forsaking his wife and child in a literal "us or them" moment.

After leaving a mob associate crippled, Mésrine and Jeanne, his new partner (both romantic and criminal), flee to Canada where they become minor media celebrities after a botched kidnapping. Mésrine in particular likes this brush with fame, and it is difficult not to wonder if this will be a telling factor in part 2 of his story, released next month.

Mésrine's incarceration in a brutal Canadian prison ends with his escape and, incredibly, his later attempt to jailbreak the remaining inmates. By contrast, Jeanne doesn't want to be sprung from prison, and her relationship with Mésrine ends there.

Cassel's performance as the anti-hero Mésrine is compelling - he is on-screen for almost all of the film's two hours. It is a testament to the strength of his performance that, even though his character is a damaged individual with sociopathic tendencies, you root for him - you want him to get away, to escape.

Depardieu's cameo as Guido is also excellent, a suitable compliment being that his performance would sit well in an early Tarantino film.

There, that's it, that's all I wrote. No top and tail, no summary, just a straight synopsis and a few observations. Maybe I planned to wait until I'd seen "Mésrine Part 2 - Public Enemy #1", I can't remember. What I will say is that both films are good, and Part 1 is bordering on terrific. I should also reiterate that these are French films, so if you don't like subtitles, well, maybe that's an issue for you. For everyone else, hustle over to Amazon where, four years later, you can pick up both films on DVD for less than nine quid.

Friday 5 April 2013

Got to love that Internet

Thank you Tim Berners-Lee et al. With the Internet, it is virtually impossible to be bored for long these days. Here are some things I have found online this week that have amused, entertained or otherwise occupied me, and that I really feel duty-bound to share with you.

  • Classless society? Pah! Take the BBC's class test and see it you're one of them or one of us...
  • If you're quick you can get tickets to see comedy god and all-round nice guy Dave Gorman for free! Choice of dates but all in that there London though so, you know, sorry if, like me, you live elsewhere.
  • You know that advert for Galaxy chocolate featuring Audrey Hepburn in her prime? Well, unlike the old beer ad featuring Marilyn Monroe this wasn't achieved with splicing in genuine film footage, this was done with a model (Ellie Burton) who, whilst pretty, doesn't actually look like Audrey that much at all. Cursed/blessed CGI!
  • And best of all, thanks to the usually excellent and always interesting Voices Of East Anglia, this week I discovered the US animated spy spoof "Archer". Set in a seemingly Sixties-styled world but with contemporary references, this Bond/Flint/Powers/Uncle spoof follows international man of mystery Sterling Archer as he debauches his way around the globe. Is debauches a word? Probably not but it should be. Anyway, "Archer" airs on the FX network in the States and has been shown on 5* over here (at least the first three series have). Somehow that passed me by, which is a shame because the compilation video highlights VoEA included had me guffawing like an idiot schoolboy. Yes, of course it's only the "best bits", but it seemed to suggest a programme full of snappy dialogue, knowing parody and genuine laughs. I'll be looking out for the next series on 5*, and suggest you do the same. Here's that video.

Saturday 16 March 2013

"Johnny Marr, he plays guitar"

Johnny at The Waterfront, Norwich, 11th March 2013Johnny Marr is all over the airwaves and interweb lately. Firstly, he picks up a Godlike Genius award from the NME. Then his new album comes out. A rash of YouTube clips appear of him playing riffs from Smiths songs, causing much pant-wetting amongst fanboys and obsessives, no doubt. Then I'll be blowed if he doesn't set off on tour around the UK. Blimey.

Now I've played the guitar since I was about eight. I'm not great, in part because I've always been too lazy to practise. Don't get me wrong, I can play all manner of chords, and do plenty of lightweight stuff like a bit of picking, hammering on, bar chords, all that. The bottom line is that, although I can make a nice enough noise, I'll never be a great guitarist... but I know enough to recognise guitar greatness when I hear it. And to know that if I could magically play like any guitarist there has ever been, I would almost certainly opt to play like Johnny. So, it was with great excitement that I noted his tour was coming to my adopted home town.

I should add that I haven't followed Marr's post-Smiths career with the same dedication I have Morrissey's. I haven't bought it all, in other words. I've got some: an Electronic 7"; a The The CD single blessed with Marr's tunesmithery; albums by Kirsty McColl and Billy Bragg featuring Marr collaborations; a Cribs album; and a Modest Mouse album that I almost certainly wouldn't have bought if not for its Johnny content. But there are plenty of gaps in the collection. I didn't buy the Johnny and the Healers album, for starters. But having got myself a ticket for the gig, I thought I ought to familiarise myself with what I might hear, and so bought a copy of The Messenger. And although it's only March, I think I may already have found my album of the year.

Marr has a definite sound: there are chord progressions, chiming sounds, that whole rhythm-as-lead thing, that are unmistakably him. And they're all there, on The Messenger. But there's a lot more besides. The diversity of his collaborations over the last twenty five years (yes, it really has been that long, Smiths fans) has left its mark, so much so that it's tempting to play "spot the era" with each of The Messenger's twelve tracks. You know, that sounds like Electronic, that's a bit Cribs-y, that could have been on Strangeways... It's tempting, and it's dangerous, because yes, whilst I'd love to know what Morrissey would have sung over the top of The Right Thing Right and, especially, Say Demesne, that is to detract from the lyrics that Marr has penned, and delivers in a pleasantly surprising, strong voice. Whereas so many of the Mozfather's lyrics were introspective, Marr has a broader, outward-looking perspective. In tone and content, this alone should be enough to prevent comparisons between Smiths tracks and those on this new album. So I'll just limit myself to one more, because New Town Velocity is blessed with quintessential Marr chord progressions and shimmering guitar, so much so that I cannot listen to it without imagining Steven Patrick crooning over the top... especially in the last 35 seconds, when the backing vocals are crying out to be sung by Kirsty...

So, the album's brilliant - really, properly outstanding. But can Johnny, the arch collaborator and perennial sideman, cut it as a frontman live?

Taking to the stage looking for all the world like an older, cooler Tony Montana, toting a Fender instead of "his little friend", it quickly became apparent that yes, he can. First off, he can sing. His voice may not be the most distinctive, and he may not have the widest range, but on the night I saw him he was note-perfect for the whole gig, delivering songs old and new with equal gusto and vocal strength throughout. And of course there's the guitar - playing a beautiful Fender Jaguar for most of the gig, and supported by a very able sideman, Johnny faithfully recreated the fret-based complexity of the new album and some older classics too. And what of that back-catalogue? Well, there were two Electronic tracks - Forbidden City and, in a change to the setlist, Getting Away With It. These were well received, but the real crowd delirium was reserved for four Smiths tracks: Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before, an incendiary London, Bigmouth Strikes Again and an encore-closing How Soon Is Now?. Wisely not trying to sing like Moz, Johnny put his own vocal spin on these tracks, all of which worked with the possible exception of a somewhat innocuous "whoo" during London. And here, as my American friends might say, is the thing: successive incarnations of Morrissey's backing band have, at various times, been rightly accused of grievous musical harm to The Smiths' back-catalogue. Kinder critics would call it "a more muscular approach" to the music. Others, less kindly, would call it butchery. The beauty, then, of Marr's Smiths renditions is that musically they are perfect. The guitar parts are played properly, their complexity fully realised live, not bludgeoned through with broad, open chords. Johnny plays them how they're supposed to be played, simple as that. Whisper it quietly but, on the evidence of these four songs at least, Marr performs Smiths tracks better than Morrissey.

And whilst I'm being controversial, let me put one other theory forward - if Johnny had released The Messenger in 1989, I wonder if his career would have eclipsed Morrissey's in the years since? Easy now, I'm just thinking aloud... but the album really is that good. Go and buy it now and catch Johnny live if you can. To get you in the mood, here, courtesy of YouTube, is a radio session version of the aforementioned New Town Velocity, one of the mellower moments on The Messenger.

Footnote: no kudos points for identifying the quote in the title of this post. If you're a regular reader of this blog, there's an 85.7% chance you know and love A Tribe Of Toff's finest work...

Monday 4 March 2013

"Your prize is to read the credits in a style of my choosing..." (aka My Top Ten Car Songs)

The first in what is likely to be a sporadic series of me blogging in the style of another whose blog posts I read and admire, in the hope that you will then go and read their blog too. First up for the "in the style of" treatment is Rol, whose My Top Ten blog will appeal to admirers of good music, insightful writing and list-making. Inevitably this tribute will only ever be a pale imitation but equally, Rol, should you ever require a guest post, here's my audition...

So let's cut to the chase. We're talking cars here - not specific makes and models (otherwise I'd have Billy Bragg's From A Vauxhall Velox in there), nor automotive components and car parts (otherwise Airbag by Radiohead would be threatening the top spot). No, we're just talking cars in general, as an abstract concept. Sorry but my gaff, my rules. Here we go.

10. Gary Numan - Cars

You might have expected this to top the chart but no. I don't think it's aged that well and, after it's advert-based ubiquity a couple of years ago, it only makes it here because it's where Gary feels safest of all. Maybe he had a lots of airbags.

9. Tracy Chapman - Fast Car

This was all over the hall of residence in my first year at uni. What a voice.

8. The Wedding Present - Convertible

I could just have easily have chosen Sports Car from Gedge's auto-themed Mini e.p... but I didn't, because this one has a bit more jingle in its jangle, and that's what we all secretly want from our Weddoes.

7. Rose Royce - Car Wash

Not least because this has such an infectious guitar motif. Oh, and a righteous bass part too.

6. Elastica - Car Song

Every shining bonnet
Makes me think of my back on it...

Justine wants to dent her bodywork with you... well not you, actually, unless your name is Damon or Brett...

5. Adam and the Ants - Car Trouble, parts I and II

You might have seen me very busy at the weekend
Licking and polishing the beep-beeps into shape,
And then it's proudly up the M1, M2, M3
And keep your feet off the upholstery Ronnie!

Pre-fame Ant, and much loved in my house when I was a nipper thanks to my big bro's good taste. Good to see he (Adam, not my brother) has conquered enough demons to be back doing what he does best. Stick with this, there's a very definite change of gear (boom-boom) as Part II kicks in, and it's excellent.

4. The Beatles - Drive My Car

And with that euphoric "beep-beep, beep-beep, yeah!" a thousand radio stations had their traffic jingle.

3. Gene - A Car That Sped

I don't recall the time we spent,
It's hidden in a car that sped
To it's death and to it's rest.
So give up the thoughts that bring you dread
And hide them in the car that sped
Me to my death and to my rest.

Rol might have predicted my inclusion of this.

2. Madness - Driving In My Car

Last week it went round the clock.
I also had a little knock.
I bent in somebody's fender,
He learnt not to park on a bender.
Ha ha ha!

No song better captures what it is to have your first car, a clapped-out jalopy that requires work all the time and eats money, yet you love it all the same because it's yours and gives you freedom. Mine was a 903cc, 4-speed, snot-green Fiat Uno with rust and a minor oil leak. Yours?

1.Radiohead - Killer Cars

The brilliant evocation of the Nutty Boys is only kept off the top spot by the brilliance in every respect of Bends-era Radiohead. Imagine being in a band so good you can let this track go as a B-side (to High And Dry) - that was the luxurious position Thom and the boys found themselves in back then. And whilst many of the songs in this run-down celebrate the joy of driving, young Master Yorke is more concerned that that every time we venture out in our cars we may be killed.

Don't die on the motorway
The moon would freeze, the plants would die
I couldn't cope if you crashed today
All the things I forgot to say
I'm going out for a little drive
And it could be the last time you see me alive
What if the car loses control?
What if there's someone overtaking?
Wrap me up in the back of the trunk
Packed with foam and blind drunk
But they won't ever take me alive
'Cause they all drive killer cars.

Increase the amount of Radiohead in your life here

Woody Guthrie deserves a special mention for his onomatopoeic Car Song, which would have placed at eleven on this chart, and, well, just for being Woody Guthrie, without whom... etc. And if you want to see a car being used as a musical instrument check out the somewhat mind-boggling Needing/Getting by Ok Go. Oh, and bonus points to anyone recognising the source of the quote in this post's title. Beyond that, these are (adopts gravelly Clarkson man-voice) the best car songs... in the world. Unless you can tell me different?

That's it Rol, how did I do?

Friday 1 March 2013

Clandestine Classic XXXIII - Good Fortune

Slow Emotion ReplayThe thirty-third 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.

Picture the scene. I'm sat in my office, running down the clock on another Friday evening. All my colleagues in neighbouring offices have long since departed, so I've got the radio tuned to 6 Music and slightly cranked. The first thing I hear is the tail-end of a song that sounds for all the world like Talk Of The Town-era Chrissie Hynde backed by Berry, Buck and Mills from mid-to-late '80s R.E.M. And God, it sounded good. Just who was this, and how come I'd never heard the song before?

Thinking my DAB radio's scrolling information display would come to the rescue, I gathered that up and had a closer look but again I only caught the tail-end: "rvey". PJ Harvey then, I reckoned. Armed with that supposition and a couple of keywords from the chorus, I was able to fill in the blanks thanks to YouTube. Okay, yes, I could have just looked at the show's playlist on the 6 Music website, but where's the fun/detective work in that? Either way, that's how I discovered that the Hynde/Berry/Buck/Mills hybrid was, in fact, PJ Harvey, 2000 vintage, performing today's clandestine classic, Good Fortune.

I'll be honest, prior to this I was largely unmoved by Polly Harvey. I had one album by her, 2003's To Bring You My Love which I had bought on a "what's the worst that can happen" whim after spotting it for the princely sum of £2. As it turned out, the worst that could happen was that it would sit, mostly unplayed, on a shelf, gathering dust. But hearing Good Fortune on the radio changed that, because it was a song that I couldn't get out of my head: the Hyndesque delivery, the chugging rhythm, the memorable lyrical touches. I sang this in the car, in the shower, on the walk to work... and, once there, I watched the video on YouTube more times than the corporate Internet police would like. In short, I was hooked.

Later that week, I had a few minutes spare in which to browse in a high street record store (I know, how 1990s). On a whim, I flicked through the H's and found precisely one CD by Miss Harvey - Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea from 2000. And there it was, track two: Good Fortune. Outperforming even my previous Harvey-related bargain-hunting, this set me back a ridiculous £1.99. And this time, the worst that could happen is the discovery of a consistently astounding album that has been on almost permanent rotation in the car stereo ever since. I subsequently discovered that it won the 2001 Mercury Prize, so it must have been critically acclaimed at the time - indeed, I wondered how it could have passed me by. I'm making up for lost time now though.

Good Fortune was the first single from the album, and limped to a lowly 41 in the UK single chart. I don't understand this. If you asked me to name 40 better songs from the whole of 2000, I couldn't. I doubt I could name five. Funny lot, the record-buying public. As for Polly, she's still doing her thing, and in fact became the first artist to win the Mercury Prize twice when 2011's Let England Shake took home the cheque gong. She has quite a back-catalogue, and I fully intend to explore it - you probably should too. What am I saying, you probably already have, you discerning devil.

As a minimum, I strongly suggest you scoop up today's clandestine classic by purchasing Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. Yes, you'll pay a bit more than I did, but hey, you didn't go to an actual, physical record shop, did you? So stop your whining! Alternatively, you could just watch the video for Good Fortune on YouTube and, like me, have a second revelation - not only is the song fantastic, Polly herself is a bit, well, there's no other way of putting it, sexy. It's a good job I'm an old man these days, settled in life and love, otherwise PJ is exactly the kind of raven-haired indie-chick that would inspire a bit of a crush in me (see also: Louise from Sleeper, Sonya from Echobelly, Natasha from Bat For Lashes, etc). But where were we - oh yes, YouTube. Enjoy.

Thursday 28 February 2013

The results are in

All this month I've been running a survey in the forlorn hope of getting a better understanding of who reads this blog, why, and whether it warrants me carrying on. The results are in. Here they are.

  • 75% of respondents are male, 25% female. If you think these nice neat figures mean that only four people responded, you'd be right.
  • 100% are in the 40-49 age bracket. Just like me.
  • 100% are from the UK. Just like me.
  • 50% read every post, 25% read most posts and 25% read some posts.

Conclusion? People like me like the things that I like. I know, groundbreaking.

There were lots of nice comments too, but then given that the respondents were all friends, real or virtual, that's probably no surprise. The one comment I want to draw out in particular was from Mark, a friend, former colleague and excellent writer. Mindful that I was pondering the value of writing this blog at all, he offered the following observation when asked if there was anything about this blog that he disliked:

Sometimes dwells too much on how many people are reading and what they're thinking (as this survey proves). If you want to write, then write - and screw what anyone else thinks.

And he's right, of course. PipSpeak will continue, and with no more mournfully introspective surveys. Three cheers all round.

Mark was also the only person to recommend another blog worth reading - the Planetary Society blog - and what a good call that is. Definitely worth a look.

Cheers then Rol, Millie, Mark and The Man Of Cheese. The full survey results, if you find yourselves stricken with insomnia one night, are here. I'll be back soon with a proper post... maybe a clandestine classic.