Tuesday 29 August 2017

Guest appearances (or, deferring the decline)

Here's a graph of monthly page views recorded for this very blog, for the last 3⅔ years. Look what's been happening.

Until recently, New Amusements was just bumbling along, with a handful of core readers. My December round-ups of the year would provide a tiny bump in the figures, but that was about that. Indeed, 2016's figures suggested a decline from even those low levels. The end might have been in sight...

... but something has happened this year. After 12½ years of plugging away, I have some traffic. There are, I think, many factors in this. I'm now in the blogroll sidebar of a number of far more popular blogs which, if my statistics are to be believed, does actually generate traffic (I will post some other time about the serendipitous joy of blogrolls). On top of my constant readers (step forward The Man Of Cheese, Mark, Rol and a couple of others), I've somehow snagged and retained some new regulars too, one side-effect of which is increased activity in the comments. For me as a blogger, the increase in discussion "below the line" has been a real boost, and gives me what I've always wanted from blogging: the online equivalent of having a chat over a pint.

I think another factor in adding traffic, especially in the last month, has been my attempt at starting a series, in the shape of Fantasy Cover Versions. It's stalled already, of course, but you can still contribute. You should, by the way - your ideas would be excellent, I know it.

Over and above the blogrolls, new constant readers, active comments and series, the other factor that has really helped this year is, slightly counter-intuitively, writing elsewhere. And I'm not talking about my efforts with fiction - that really does continue to decline - but rather writing this kind of thing in other places. I can't recommend this highly enough; it gives the "other place" a chance to write about you, to link to you, and to send new readers your way, some of whom stick around. So far this year, I have these guest appearances under my belt:

  • a Radiohead Imaginary Compilation Album on blogging hero The New Vinyl Villain's site;
  • thrillingly, a reminiscence on the cinemas of my youth on Andrew Collins' new blog, Digging Your Screen. Yes, really. That Andrew Collins, off the telly, The Radio Times and The Guardian;
  • and, maybe as thrilling, I don't know because I haven't seen the end product yet, but a gig reminiscence of mine about The Wedding Present is set to appear, in some shape or form (maybe a line, maybe a paragraph, maybe the whole thing, who knows), in a new book entitled Sometimes These Words Just Don't Have To Be Said. Order your copy now, and see how much/little of the original article makes it in.
So, being elsewhere ... I recommend it. Hey, why not send me your Fantasy Cover Version suggestion and I can write about you...

Thursday 24 August 2017

The Styles council

I heard that Harry Styles solo single on the radio at the weekend. You know the one, where he goes from all gravel-throated Kelly Jones-lite in the verses to helium-powered tenor in the chorus. Sign Of The Times, I think it's called. Anyway, whisper it quietly but I don't mind the Kelly Jones-lite bits. The helium-powered bits about bullets I can leave, if I'm honest.

Thing is, I'm not mentioning Harry in a blatant stab at pulling in readers - I don't think the average Directioner is going to have much time for New Amusements. No, the only reason I even mention this is that, on hearing the song on the radio, I was struck by the feeling that it really, really reminded me of something else ... but I couldn't put my finger on what. And it bugged me for the rest of the day. Do you ever have that feeling when recall is almost within your grasp but it remains just beyond your outstretched fingertips? That's how I felt all day on Saturday.

But then, thank God, it came to me that evening. It's not the whole song that's similar, but there's one particular chord change at the end of the verse that reminds me so much of the end-of-verse chord change in this song... a song which is right up there in my oft-mentioned-but-never-actually-compiled list of favourite songs by anyone, ever.

Whatever you think of Travis, this, my friends, is solid gold.

P.S. If you've been thinking about submitting a Fantasy Cover Version, now's the time to do it as nothing, at present, is scheduled for this Monday. You could jump straight to the front of the queue...

Monday 21 August 2017

Fantasy Cover Version #4 - if John Lennon covered "Yesterday"...

A blog series that you can contribute to...

Here's the gist. I want to hear about your fantasy cover versions. Simply make the case for the cover version that you'd love to hear but, fairly obviously, does not actually exist. And send me that case, here. By case, I mean explain why artist X covering song Y would be good, don't just send me their respective names.

Fourth guest contributor is John who, I think, has had a stroke of genius here. John writes:

Before he bought the farm I would have paid good money to hear Lennon covering "Yesterday".

The case? By the end it was all Lennon could do to keep a civil tongue in his head whenever Macca called - which had grown more and more infrequent.

But, if he'd played it with a straight bat - and at that white piano - then who knows? I for one would bet that sparks would be coming off those ivories.

An intriguing suggestion, I reckon. Although the lyrics to "How Do You Sleep?" suggest John grudgingly admired Paul's song ("The only thing you done was yesterday"), I admit it's hard to imagine (see what I did there?) John ever covering this, even if he hadn't bought the farm. But oh, if he had...

Think you can suggest a fantasy cover version this good? Then please, try your luck. The list of past submissions may inspire you.

Saturday 19 August 2017

A fourth "R"

A lot of headlines relating to the environment, and our seemingly limitless capacity to screw it up, have caught my eye lately. Headlines like these:

All of which made the following more surprising to me. Stunning even. See, I had cause to go to the Science Museum last week. One of their exhibits, towards the far end of the ground floor, had interactive touchscreens, asking visitors to answer questions on the science-related issues of the day. I answered a few (who am I kidding? I answered loads) but this one really struck me - "Do you recycle?" A simple enough question, right? Here's a breakdown of visitor responses for that day:

Only 7% recycle everything they can, and 85% - yes, eighty five percent - don't give a monkey's.

Am I the only person who finds this staggering? And depressing? This, from a sample of visitors to a science museum who, you'd hope, might have a predisposition for rational thought, given their choice of day out.

Obvious disclaimers required. First, this screenshot doesn't show the sample size, so it's hard to claim any kind of statistical significance. And second, for all my lecturing (sorry) I'm not perfect - I had a bottle of diet coke at lunchtime today, when I could have had tea in my inherently reusable mug. So that's another plastic bottle bought, used and disposed of. I am part of the wider problem, just like you. But at least I recycled the bottle.

So what's the fourth "R"? Well, the 3 Rs is a well-established environmental maxim - reduce, re-use, recycle. But now we all need to rethink too - rethink our relationship with plastic. Urgently.

P.S. The Science Museum dishes out plastic straws in all its food outlets...

Wednesday 16 August 2017

More street art - Liz hovers on the dog walk

More street art/graffiti spotted, this time a paste-up on the mean streets of, er, Whitstable. When you're 91, you'll need a hoverboard to take your corgis for a walk too.

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

Monday 14 August 2017

Fantasy Cover Version #3 - if Emiliana Torrini covered "Wild Wood"...

A blog series that you can contribute to...

Here's the gist. I want to hear about your fantasy cover versions. Simply make the case for the cover version that you'd love to hear but, fairly obviously, does not actually exist. And send me that case, here. By case, I mean explain why artist X covering song Y would be good, don't just send me their respective names.

Second guest contributor is C, from the incomparable Sun-dried Sparrows. C has taken this series up a notch here, I think, and demonstrates beautifully why you should all be reading her blog, if you're not already. C writes:

I’d like to hear Emiliana Torrini cover Paul Weller’s "Wild Wood". Members of the jury, I present these facts.

Witness the original, Paul Weller’s fifth single as a solo artist, a classic hit - so well-known and so ingrained that it’s easy to forget how deep its impact was at the time of its release.

But it’s a keeper, really. An exquisite, understated and reflective song that still sounds good no matter how many times you’ve heard it, even if that first flush of intense love has now faded into a comfortable familiarity, so much so that you don’t actively think of playing it any more. However, we could address that and give this song a whole new lease of life, simply by adding something new and distinct without losing touch with its essence. We could incorporate some femininity.

I therefore suggest that we feature the sweetness and purity of the voice of Icelandic singer Emiliana Torrini. As for Emiliana’s own work, there is so much to choose from to demonstrate her vocal style in a way that would be suitable. In order to make it easier to imagine her beauiful, delicate treatment, that slight hint of her Icelandic accent adding a certain na├»ve charm, I present to you:

Emiliana isn’t known for her cover versions, being an incredibly prolific songwriter in her own right, she’s also guested on vocals for other acts such as Thievery Corporation. However, if proof is needed that she can handle another writer’s very different output with ease, I invite you to consider her version of the 1967 Jefferson Airplane hit, "White Rabbit":

Now just imagine a slightly more stripped back version of Wild Wood, the percussion limited but oh so perfectly placed, acoustic guitar to the fore, and Emiliana's delicious, enchanting voice ... "High tide, mid afternoon..."

There is no case against, is there?

Indeed, C. I think any jury would return a unanimous verdict. Terrific choice, and a great introduction to an artist that's new to me and, I suspect, many others.

Think you can suggest a fantasy cover version this good? Then please, try your luck. The list of past submissions may inspire you.

Monday 7 August 2017

Fantasy Cover Version #2 - if Johnny Cash covered "Do You Realise?"...

A blog series that you can contribute to...

Here's the gist. I want to hear about your fantasy cover versions. Simply make the case for the cover version that you'd love to hear but, fairly obviously, does not actually exist. And send me that case, here. By case, I mean explain why artist X covering song Y would be good, don't just send me their respective names.

First guest contributor is Rol, from the always-excellent My Top Ten. Rol writes:

Fantasy Cover Version?

First one that came to me was...

Johnny Cash singing "Do You Realise?" by the Flaming Lips.

Evidence: well, JC's peerless version of "Hurt" by NIN, obviously. Johnny could bring similar graveyard angst to the lyrics of DYR? too.

It'd have to be latter-period Cash, stripped back and produced by Rick Rubin. (Although it'd be interesting to hear a more jaunty Ring Of Fire / Jackson style cover of the same song by a much younger Cash too.)

To be honest though, I'd happily listen to Johnny cover pretty much anything, including Shine by Take That.

A fine selection, Rol. The YouTube additions were all mine, so Rol cannot be blamed for the appearance of Take That on this blog...

Think you can suggest a fantasy cover version this good? Then please, try your luck. The list of past submissions may inspire you.

Wednesday 2 August 2017

The Underappreciated: Limitless

This might turn into an occasional series or it might be a one-off but either way, the purpose of this post is to highlight films that are really underappreciated, and that you might get a kick out of viewing. First up, a 2011 vehicle for then rising star Bradley Cooper: Limitless.

The premise is pretty simple: wannabe-writer but general slacker Eddie (Cooper) bumps into his ex's brother, Vernon. They catch up over a beer, and Eddie spills his woes: how his life's a mess, how he cannot finish his novel, all that kind of stuff. Vernon, apparently a character with a shady past, offers Eddie a pill that will help:

Vernon: They've done clinical trials and it's FDA approved.
Eddie: What's it called?
Vernon: Doesn't have a street name yet, but the boys in the kitchen are calling it NZT-48.
Eddie: The boys in the kitchen? That doesn't sound very FDA approved.

And of course it isn't. But Vernon promises our Edward that NZT will let him access all of his brain, all of this potential. Ed's intrigued. Who wouldn't be? Take a look at what happens the first time he takes NZT. Note Cooper's excellent voice-over narration while you're at it.

Okay, so far, so high-level synopsis. But before you read further, a few spoilers follow. Not too many, but don't say I didn't warn you....

Still here? Then on we go. NZT allows Ed to clean up his life, and not only finish his novel but make it a truly great one. Ed wants more, so returns to see Vernon, only to discover him dead. Ed calls the police but first searches for, and finds, Vern's stash of NZT.

Ed realises that he can work the stock market, with colossal success, but he needs capital, so borrows $100k from violent Russian loanshark Gennady. Ed then turns this money into $2m, an act which brings media attention... and the attention of businessman Carl Van Loon, Robert De Niro in a small role that's big enough for him to prove he can still act after all, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. But as you might imagine, the wheels start to come off. If you come off NZT there are pretty terrible side effects. Ed's supply, though large, is (ironically) limited. The police are interested in him, after Vernon's death, and Gennady wants more than a financial return - he wants NZT. Life gets pretty hectic for Ed, let's put it that way.

And I'll leave it there, shall I, at least in terms of plot. I want you to go away and watch this, after all, not just read my hack synopsis. What I can still add is that Cooper remains completely watchable throughout, you root for his character even when Ed is doing unpleasant things, De Niro simmers enough in his scenes, the voiceover adds a touch of noir to an already dark tale and the supporting cast - notably Abbie Cornish as Ed's girlfriend, Andrew Howard as Gennady and a near-unrecognisable Anna Friel as Ed's ex, Melissa - all add to the uniformly high quality. Special mentions must also go to director Neil Burger and cinematographer Jo Willems, who contrive dazzling yet somehow still subtle visuals to convey the effects of taking NZT and, most memorably, of taking too much (if I call that the street zoom moment, you'll know it when you see it).

Limitless is a brilliant film. It was nominated for awards but didn't win too many, certainly nothing overly prestigious. It did okay at the box office, and ranks okay on sites like IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. So okay, so meh. Except this. It's a film that rewards repeated viewing, and I'm clearly not the only person who has seen it many, many times, as it slowly built up enough of a cult following to warrant a spin-off TV series. It's also the sort of film that crops up a lot on ITV4's late night schedule these days, and I watch it every time - you should too.

A final spoiler, of sorts - the closing scene. I include this because I want to demonstrate Cooper's leading man charisma, and that De Niro still has it.

Now go and watch the damn film!