Tuesday 31 December 2019

Nineteen in '19: The Three Dimensions of Freedom

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading nineteen books in 2019. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

16/19: The Three Dimensions of Freedom by Billy Bragg

The blurb: At a time when opinion trumps facts and truth is treated as nothing more than another perspective, free speech has become a battleground. While authoritarians and algorithms threaten democracy, we argue over who has the right to speak.

To protect ourselves from encroaching tyranny, we must look beyond this one-dimensional notion of what it means to be free and, by reconnecting liberty to equality and accountability, restore the individual agency engendered by the three dimensions of freedom.

The review: in the 1985 Spitting Image book there was a spoof of Smash Hits magazine, in which fictional lyrics by contemporary artists were printed for comic effect. One featured artist was Billy Bragg, and the biting satire of the day imagined his lyrics to be something like (and this is from memory, I don't have the book any more ) "Kids are good, grown-ups are bad, vote Labour, vote Labour, vote Labour. Vote, vote, vote - Labour!". I know, hilarious, right? But it made a point, of sorts. For Bill, always engaged, always an activist, knew what he felt and knew what was wrong. In his keenness to tell us all, sometimes the message was muddied, or incomplete. I remember going to see him in Brighton in the very early 90s, with The Man Of Cheese. Between songs, Bill would give his views on the rights and wrongs of the political landscape, something he is still inclined to do. But I remember feeling disappointed by it at the time, as it really wasn't that far away from the Spitting Image parody - it was essentially, "Good things are good, bad things are bad and have to change." Truisms without solutions, basically.

The great thing about the Bard of Barking, though, is that he maintains the courage of his convictions, stays true to his roots, and knows that to be active, to be effective, you need to learn about what is going on. To continue the paraphrasing, you need to understand what has led to the good things and bad things. Only by understanding the bad things can you affect change on them. Only by learning how we've got into a sorry mess can we hope to pilot a route out. And Billy has learned, oh yes. It's no accident that he appears regularly on Question Time these days. He is no longer the working man proclaiming simplistic messages - he's the informed voice of the liberal, common man. Nowhere is that more evident that in this short polemic, the first of Faber Social’s new series of political pamphlets.

Billy starts with the famous Tony Benn quote, "If one meets a powerful person, ask them five questions: 'What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?'" (amusingly, he later quotes Danny Dyer on the same theme), before going on to define his three dimensions of freedom as liberty, equality and accountability. There follows a section on each, all of which are effective and one of which works brilliantly.

For where the messages on liberty and equality are, at times, slightly overlapping and prone to occasional thematic repetition, the chapter on accountability really hits the spot. Liberty and equality are very much viewed through the lens of history, whereas in his perspective on accountability, whilst still explored in an historic context, Billy finds much more amiss in the current landscape. Whilst there is nothing to really disagree with in any of the chapters, it is the section on accountability that comes closest to a clarion call, and is all the better for it.

The only real problem with this book is something that Billy recognises himself - our current political and societal landscape is so polarised, so divided, so entrenched in immovable opinion, that this book is unlikely to win anybody over. Indeed, I doubt very much that it will be read by anyone who doesn't already agree with the opinions expressed between its covers. That's a shame, because it's a book that makes you think, that leaves you wondering what you can do to make a difference. Because there are still no solutions ... just more to think about as you try to come to your own conclusions about what needs to be done. That, at least, has to be a good thing, right?

The bottom line: thought-provoking personal political opinion that leads you to the inevitable conclusion that, in the words of the song, there really should be no power without accountability.

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★☆

Sunday 29 December 2019

Sunday shorts: There Is A Place In Hell For Me And My Friends

For the purposes of this series, my perennial New Year's Eve song can come two days early.

Here endeth Sunday Shorts.

Wednesday 25 December 2019

The Twelve Days of Impeachment

Not that I expect anyone to be checking their blogroll today but ... in case you missed it.

Sunday 22 December 2019

Sunday shorts: Imagination

I've written about the album from whence this comes many times before, so if I haven't persuaded you to seek it out yet, I guess I never will.

It is wonderful though. Happy (early) Christmas.

Friday 20 December 2019

Nineteen in '19: How Not To Be a Boy

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading nineteen books in 2019. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

15/19: How Not To Be a Boy by Robert Webb

The blurb: Robert Webb tried to follow the rules for being a man:
Don't cry
Drink beer
Play rough
Don't talk about feelings
Looking back over his life he asks whether these rules are actually any use. To anyone.

The review: on the face of it, this is a memoir about the blond one who played Jez in Peep Show. So if you enjoyed Peep Show, you should read this. There. End of review. Except there's quite a lot more to this book than that. And actually very little about those nine series of that show you enjoyed. So what is it about?

The clue is in the title and, for once, the blurb. For this is really a story of how someone kicked so hard against the stereotypes he didn't conform to that he ended up conforming to them. So here's sensitive, angelic Robert, growing up in rural isolation, doting on his mother, but surrounded by tough-talking, beer-swilling, football-loving, fist-throwing male archetypes. You might imagine this was a recipe for disaster and, in some respects, you'd be right. For here is young Robert, markedly different from his much older brothers, frankly fearful of his father, feeling different from them from an early age and yet navigating a possible path out of it all through selective education and grammar school, where the encouragement of one teacher in particular makes him realise another world is possible. That maybe that other world includes Cambridge, and performance. And then, on the cusp of getting out, the escape tunnel collapses as Robert suffers personal, familial tragedy.

The story might have ended there. Towards the end of the book Webb pauses to consider how different his life almost was; he doesn't use the phrase Jonbar points but that's what he's talking about. But even all this autobiography, and the years that follow - Cambridge, Footlights, meeting David Mitchell, meeting his future wife, Peep Show, Let's Dance for Comic Relief, marriage, parenthood - that's really just the means by which the real point of the book is illustrated. For really, this is a book about gender stereotyping, feminism, mature masculinity (Robert's phrase, not mine), societal conditioning, all that... and the inevitable, damaging effects they have on, well, everyone really. But especially those who don't conform to the stereotypes. They're the ones who are scarred.

So this is an autobiography of sorts, but one with a theme. Webb is two years younger than me, grew up shy and sensitive in a rural nowhere, feeling that he didn't fit, and then found a way out via grammar school and university, so for this reader there was plenty to relate to. But this isn't the sort of autobiography that recounts anecdotes from Peep Show or That Mitchell and Webb Look or Ambassadors or Back or any of the rest of it. Indeed, the only time his career really gets a look in is when something in it illustrates either how messed up he had become or how he found a path out of, in his own words, being a "pompous dick". And he has found that path - no pompous dick would be this open, this honest, this raw about themselves.

What do I make of it all? Simply that this is a book that I think everyone should read, regardless of age and gender. And more than that, I think this is a book that middle-aged men must read. Oh, and if, like me, you used to watch Peep Show then inevitably the first-person narrative of this book will have you hearing Robert's voice in your head, Jez-style. But that's not a bad thing, is it?

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★★

P.S. This is the 900th post on New Amusements. Hooray for me.

Thursday 19 December 2019

That Was The Year That Was: 2019

A Brexit stamp
This is the ninth time I've recapped a year like this (for completists, here are the others), but this time it's going to be brief - just winners, maybe the occasional runner-up. Why? I'm tired and time-poor, and this nonsense doesn't write itself. Plus, you know, I'm no influencer and nobody really gives a monkeys about what I think. Yes, that makes this whole post an exercise in vanity ... but exercise is good for you, right?

Best album

I haven't bought many new albums again this year but, of the few I have, The Modern Age by Sleeper is most worthy of a mention. Everything you want (and expect) from a Sleeper album, after all this time. Who'd have thought? Also brilliant (but a bit of a cheat, being a compilation) was Best Of Billy Bragg At The BBC 1983 - 2019 - something fundamental is wrong with you if you don't love this. Another compilation worth a listen is the Killing Eve, Season One & Two Soundtrack - a brilliant, evocative, eclectic mix. And don't judge me but I enjoyed California Son, by he who shall not be named, more than I expected.

Best song

Ghost by Such Small Hands (aka Melanie Howard, bassist with The Wedding Present) wins here, a slice of ethereal beauty. A runners-up spot here for Pixies, with On Graveyard Hill, which is much more of a blunt instrument but is still tremendously effective.

Best gig

It's been another good year for gigs. Paul Weller in Thetford Forest was pretty special. The Specials, together again, were also pretty ... er ... special. But I've seen The Wedding Present three times this year and they've been brilliant every time, even with the maternity/paternity-enforced new line-up of the most recent gig. Clear winners.

Best book

Best I've read this year? No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy. Best I've read that was published this year? The Sea Inside Me by Sarah Dobbs. Best I've been involved with this year? Oh ... none. Must. Write. More.

Best film

I haven't been to the cinema as often as I might like and, even when I have it has often been to see screenings of old films (Carrie and Misery stand out here). Best new film I've seen this year is Doctor Sleep (spot the King theme emerging), but I must also give a mention to How To Train Your Dragon - The Hidden World which unexpectedly caused me to get something in my eye. Don't ask.

Best television

Usually the most fiercely contended category but this year, an easy choice, with Years and Years getting the nod. Inventive, speculative fiction that seems more prescient with every day that passes.

Best comedy

I was lucky enough to be in the studio audience for a recording of Dave Gorman's new TV show, Terms and Conditions Apply. Paul Merton and Alfie Moore were also both very good.

Best sport

This might be a minority view but the sporting highlights of 2019 for me were Dina Asher-Smith in the World Championships 200m and especially Katarina Johnson-Thompson bringing home gold in the heptathlon at the same meet. Both utterly brilliant. Yes, cricket and Ben Stokes; yes, Lewis Hamilton again. But Dina and Kat were my golden moments.

And that's it for another year. Yes, I know, even fewer categories than in year's gone by. I was going to add a Politics category, and re-introduce the Man/Woman/Tool of the Year categories, but those four all got messed up in my head, and it started to get a bit depressing. And it has been a depressing year. Better, then, just to keep this to the highlights, and hope that 2020 is better.

Monday 16 December 2019

At last, a Christmas #1 campaign I can get behind

As you may have already seen, a campaign has started to get Running the World by Jarvis Cocker to the coveted Christmas number one spot.

You know what it's about. You know the lyrics, or at least their sentiment. It may be a trivial idea in the grand scheme of things (as is the idea that the Christmas number one still matters) but still, it seems a fitting riposte to last week's election news. And even if you don't feel politically motivated, there's still the idea of getting such a fantastically sweary record to the top spot. A win either way, surely?

Enough preaching to the converted. Please, head over to Amazon or iTunes and buy it. It's only 99p. As I write, it's the second best-selling song on Amazon, behind some fluff about sausage rolls. You know what to do.

Sunday 15 December 2019

Sunday shorts: Own Up Time

Play loud, preferably before putting on your twin-tipped Fred Perry, your favourite sta-prest and a parka, jumping on your GS scooter and heading off for a Northern soul all-nighter...

Wednesday 11 December 2019

I'm going to need all your help (aka "What have I done?")

Back in October 2018, I speculated about possibly undertaking a huge physical and mental challenge in eleven months time. Some of you were intrigued in the comments. I was deliberately obtuse, for fear of committing myself, but at the time I wrote:

"...if I were to undertake and achieve this challenge, well, it would be quite something. Something that most people never do. Something to look back on when I'm old(er) and grey(er). Something for my child to remember, with pride and maybe even amazement, when I am gone. I don't know if it would qualify as a life-changing experience, but I can see how it might be in that neighbourhood, a tiny bit."

I didn't do it. Eleven months later (Sept 19) came and went.

But now... now I am signed up. I am doing it in September 2020 [EDIT: postponed because of COVID, I'm now doing it in September 2021!] And "it" is... cycling 980 miles from Land's End to John O'Groats... in nine short days.

I know...what am I thinking?

It's an organised ride, I'm not doing this solo (unlike my "145 miles in one day ride" earlier this year), and I've paid for my place. There's no going back now.

I have a charity place on the ride. Full disclosure - it's cheaper (though still expensive) for me to sign up but I have to commit to a fairly steep fundraising target. I don't have a massive social network, so for me this is going to be as hard as cycling ~109 miles a day, every day, for nine days in a row.

[Pause whilst I absorb that last line again...gulp]

Anyway, I have chosen to fundraise for the Alzheimer's Society. My aunt died recently, and her last years were blighted by this awful disease. Other family and friends have also been affected by it, this wretched condition that steals away our loved ones piece by piece. I think it's a pretty excellent cause, as causes go, and I hope you agree. Because, of course, I also hope that some of you might sponsor me, or have friends and colleagues with corporate charity sums to donate. Any and all contributions will be very gratefully received at www.justgiving.com/fundraising/martin980

Thank you, thank you, thank you. And wish me luck...

Sunday 8 December 2019

Sunday shorts: World View Blue (acoustic version)

From the Loved E.P, the first Blue Aeroplanes record I ever bought, from a stall on the market in 1990.

Friday 6 December 2019

Nineteen in '19: The Sea Inside Me

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading nineteen books in 2019. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

14/19: The Sea Inside Me by Sarah Dobbs

The blurb: In an England ravaged by civil strife and terrorism, Newark-by-the-Sea has trialled the Process – the removal of traumatic memories to eliminate crime and fear from the minds of its citizens. Processing Officer Audrey is instructed to tail Candy, a girl whose memories are inexplicably returning. As the Process is about to be rolled out countrywide, a dark conspiracy coils smoke-like into view. Dobbs’ prose is vivid and emotive, crammed with stark images and disturbing insights into the way we are and where we are heading.

The review: there's a quote that the publishers of this novella, Unthank Books, are using to promote The Sea Inside Me and it's this, from Guy Mankowski: "Evoking Ishiguro and Philip K Dick, this story couldn't be more now." And you know what, he's right. Dobbs's portrayal of a near-future England, familiar yet going to ruin, did put me in mind, at times, of Never Let Me Go. Similarly, her extrapolation of modern life, and its direction of travel, to conjure a realistic and all-too conceivable future world reminded me of Minority Report.

Those are pretty grand comparisons to make, but The Sea Inside Me justifies them as a slice of dystopian science fiction. But that's not all. Like all the best speculative fiction, Sarah's tale uses the prism of an imagined near-future England to shine a light on contemporary issues: gender inequality, trafficking, the commodification of women, worrying developments in the use of technology and, looming large over the whole story, climate change and environmental catastrophe. Those are all heavyweight issues, yet the author lays them all out for us to consider deftly, without them overshadowing the narrative; these themes serve the story, not the other way around.

What's more, Dobb's liquid prose style is a joy to read, even when the subject matter is grim. She has a distinctive voice, conjuring inventive descriptions and using words in unusual ways, that is both exciting and rewarding to read. She is also terrific at evoking a sense of place with great economy, brilliantly describing sensory details that place the reader very firmly in Newark-by-the-Sea. Similarly, there is concise but effective characterisation here - Dobbs provides enough of a character to instantly draw a thumbnail sketch of them, with further tiny details drip-fed as the story progresses, allowing the reader to join the dots. For an author, this is a real skill; for a reader, it is a joy to behold.

I'm keen to avoid spoilers, but I can talk about the Process because it's described in the blurb. It's such an intriguing idea, and it's been on my mind for days since finishing the book. Because if you can blank people, ostensibly to remove traumatic memories from victims, do you also create people to whom anything can be done? That's a pretty scary idea... but then if speculative dystopian SF doesn't scare you a bit, it's not doing its job properly, I'd say... And on that note, I'll leave the last word to Sarah's protagonist, Audrey, who closes The Sea Inside Me with this:

Mostly I wonder about stories. About how, while they might not change the world, they at least let us ask the questions. Don't you think?

The bottom line: brilliantly, beautifully written slice of speculative dystopia, deserving of a wide audience (and a three-part TV adaptation by the BBC, in my book)

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★☆

Tuesday 3 December 2019


It occurs to me that it's nearly Christmas. Once more, I feel disinclined to construct a New Amusements Advent Calendar - sorry about that. They're a lot of work to put together (bah) and finding decent alternative Christmas tunes gets harder every year (humbug). Plus, you know, life has a funny habit of taking the shine off such trivial pursuits... like silver jewellery going black if you don't wear it. Who wants to hear 24 festive indie tunes when old Wotsit-face Tiny-hands is over here for a visit, and our domestic breed of politicians are promising everything in the full knowledge that they cannot deliver it all.

Anyway... the calendars from previous Christmases are all still here for your listening/viewing pleasure, in case you're feeling jollier than I which, let's face it, is quite likely. Knock yourselves out...

Advent 2015   •   Advent 2016   •   Advent 2017

Sunday 1 December 2019

Sunday shorts: Underneath The Bunker

As one of the YouTube commenters correctly observed, this sounds like it ought to be on a Tarantino soundtrack.

Friday 29 November 2019

Gaslighting the nation

My first and, I promise, last post about party politics and the 2019 General Election...

With all apologies to fans of Hugh Jackman
(and for very hurried, Photoshop-less graphics work)
I suppose you have to have some kind of grudging admiration for Johnson and his Tory-boy chums. I mean, they have learned. They have really learned. Not just from their own past campaigns, and from those of New Labour (when did you last hear the phrase "spin doctor", by the way?), but also from the right-wing upstarts of the Brexit Party and, most of all, from the Republicans' Trump campaign. For right now there is nobody, literally nobody better at repackaging a narrative and peddling it as truth than Johnson et al. Or more accurately, because Boris is not actually as clever as some people once thought, Conservative Campaign Headquarters, CCHQ. Someone there is really earning their 30 pieces of silver.

Take last night's climate debate on Channel 4, an event to which all party leaders had been invited and all bar Johnson and Farage showed up. Now it's easy to see why Farage ducked this - the more the general public see of him, the less they like him. Far better for him to concentrate on blowing his dog-whistle to ensure the continued support of those that already back him; he knows he's not going to win anyone over, least of all on the environment. But Johnson? The man who is, lest we forget, still Prime Minister and leader of the largest party in the last Parliament (and the man whose backers have plenty of investment in fossil fuels, and the man who wants to be best buddies with eco-catastrophe Trump...). For him to duck a debate on what should really be the defining issue of our time? Scandalous. And he was rightly called on it. Social media was awash with the scorn being poured on him for ducking this. #ChickenBoris was trending, and CCHQ didn't like it. What was to be done?

And this is where they earned their money, again. Because, uninvited and unexpected by Channel 4, they sent Michael Gove along at the eleventh hour. And to ensure their preferred narrative could be repackaged and peddled to depict the Tories as the aggrieved party, Gove even had his own camera crew with him; his, or rather CCHQ's, perspective could be captured rather than Channel 4's. Because look, here was Michael, all eager, politely asking if he could be allowed to participate in the climate debate because, after all, he had been Environment Secretary, and wasn't it important for the Conservative position to be heard... well yes, Michael, but if it was so important, why not send the party leader to a leader's debate?

Credit to Channel 4, they played it with a straight bat. The production team were consulted. The other party leaders were consulted. And the answer was, rightly in my view, thank you but no. As you may have seen, they empty-chaired Boris and Nigel, replacing them with ice sculptures that symbolically started to melt during the debate.

And so there should be two stories this morning: one, what the attending leaders actually had to say at the debate; and two, the cowardly non-appearance of Conservative party leader, Boris Johnson. But the whole thing has been repackaged by CCHQ and the public is being told no, that's not a fair depiction of what happened, the things you have seen and read with your own eyes are not correct. Look, enviro-Gove attended the debate but nasty old Channel 4 wouldn't let him in. Don't you see, it's Channel 4 and the other party leaders that were the cowards, for refusing to debate Michael. Oh, and look, we sent Boris's dad along too, to say charmingly baffled things about WhatsApp, in the hope that it might evoke a rose-tinted nostalgia for that time when Boris was on HIGNFY a lot, you know, when he was more popular. Don't believe the truth, people, believe our truth. And if that's not gaslighting, I don't know what is.

Of course this repackaged narrative of the Tories as media victims is also quite handy for legitimising a threat to review Channel 4's public service broadcasting remit (and, by inference, funding). This from the party that has also banned the Daily Mirror from their campaign bus. The message is clear. Report us the way we want or else. That sort of thing reminds me of Soviet Russia. Or 1930s Germany.

The underlying message of this whole sorry story though is...you can't trust Boris. More than that, you can't trust the Conservative party. Whilst Johnson might be their notional leader, he's just a figurehead - witness his squirming response on the further cowardice of dodging the Andrew Neil interview ("Other people than me are responsible for those discussions and negotiations" - Christ, man, you're supposed to be the leader!). And you really can't trust him/them on the NHS. How many new hospitals, really? How many new nurses, really? Not up for sale, really?

I almost started this post by saying I don't have a particular political axe to grind. I'm not trying to get you to vote for a particular party. But I guess I have ended up here, imploring you not to vote for a particular party. Don't be conned. Don't be taken in. Don't vote Conservative.

More than that, though. Do vote tactically. Give our country its best chance of not having a Tory majority or Tory-led coalition. There are three main tactical voting guidance sites, so take your pick of these: remainunited.org, www.tactical-vote.uk and tacticalvote.getvoting.org - unhelpfully, they don't always agree, so visit all three and then use your common sense.

EDIT: Oh, and if you think I'm over-reacting to the manipulation and treatment of "dissenting" media by those in power, I've just read that the i newspaper has been bought by the owner of the Daily Mail... good luck to us all.

Thursday 28 November 2019

I used to love how he said "Pracatan"

RIP the marvellous Clive James, an absolute staple of my 80s and early 90s television watching...

And here he is, interviewing another hero, The Shat, because, well, why not?

He wrote some good books too...

Wednesday 27 November 2019


This was on the radio this morning, and it suddenly struck me that this is a song to add to last week's discussion of funeral playlists.

For a start, it's a wonderful Kinks song, and they were a band that was so important to the younger me. Then there's Kirsty's singing - I love the idea of her voice filling the crematorium. And finally, there are these lyrics, that I hope would be uplifting for anyone that shows up:

Thank you for the days, those endless days, those sacred days you gave me.
I’m thinking of the days, I won’t forget a single day believe me.
I bless the light, I bless the light that lights on you believe me.
And though you’re gone you’re with me every single day believe me.

Days I’ll remember all my life. Days when you can’t see wrong from right.
You took my life, but then I knew that very soon you’d leave me.
But it’s alright, now I’m not frightened of this world believe me.

I wish today could be tomorrow.
The night is long, it just brings sorrow, let it wait.

Thank you for the days, those endless days, those sacred days you gave me.
I’m thinking of the days, I won’t forget a single day believe me.

Days I’ll remember all my life. Days when you can’t see wrong from right.
You took my life, but then I knew that very soon you’d leave me.
But it’s alright, now I’m not frightened of this world believe me.


Thank you for the days, those endless days, those sacred days you gave me.
I’m thinking of the days, I won’t forget a single day believe me.
I bless the light, I bless the light that lights on you believe me.
And though you’re gone you’re with me every single day believe me.


There, that's nice, isn't it? A positive message to leave my nearest and dearest. And, as a bonus, the whole thing is over in three minutes. I don't think music played at a funeral should go on too long, do you? Anyway, here's three versions of the song:

Original video

Bonus TOTP performance

Source material...

And as an aside, the Kirsty MacColl website is an amazing resource and something of an Internet rabbit hole, with great detail about every song. Have a look sometime...

Monday 25 November 2019

Down in the tube station at midday

I do love a bit of serendipity. Here's a case in point. I had cause to go to east London at the weekend, and found myself alighting the tube at Leytonstone station. And there, to my surprise, was a whole series of beautiful mosaics celebrating the life and films of Alfred Hitchcock.

I quickly surmised (and Wikipedia confirmed) that Leytonstone was Hitchcock's birth place. These mosaics were commissioned in 1999 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Hitch's birth, and they're fantastic! I didn't photograph them all (tricky amidst the commuter hustle) but here are my favourites:

This is Cary Grant in Suspicion, here bringing his young wife a drink that she suspects to be poisoned. I love how the colour and pose suggest that threat and uncertainty...

Hitch directing Janet Leigh in perhaps his most famous film, Pscyho. Note how Hitchcock is depicted in red, to me foreshadowing the cinematic blood he is about to spill. Leigh is brilliantly rendered here too, but best of all is how the shower curtain divides Norman's face, symbolising his mother/son duality. At least that's how I read it...

Artistically my favourite mosaic, though it depicts a film I've never seen and know little about, The Skin Game. But what a striking image...

Want to know more about these, before you trek off to Leytonstone Gallery Tube? London Walking Tours have this excellent guide.

Sunday 24 November 2019

Sunday shorts: Bonus Track

It might not be true, but I like the idea that the band were asked to come up with a short song to hide as a "bonus track" on a CD. Don't blink...

Wednesday 20 November 2019

Death at one's elbow

I was going to write about the funeral I went to earlier this week; about what it is to have a "good" death, and the not so good; about seeing distant relatives for the first time in a very long time; about fragility and mortality; about how many people might be at my funeral if I live as long as the deceased did (spoiler alert: not very many); and mainly about how I have never really faced death, not really. I am lucky, I know that - I'm in my (very) late forties and have got this far without anyone very close to me dying. The nearest I have been to grief is when my dog died - I was 15, and had a day off school. I have grieved for a lost friendship, but that's a very different thing (from seeing them every day to them being 3,000 miles away, since you ask). Bottom line - I will face it at some point, inevitably, and I don't think I will handle it very well.

I was also going to write about eulogies, who I'd want to read mine, and maybe whether I'd write my own, in advance.

And finally, because this blog itself would probably die without embedded music videos, I was going to write about what music I might want played at my funeral. I used to joke with The Man Of Cheese that I'd like The Last of the Famous International Playboys - how we chuckled. But really, what might I have? Maybe this...

Maybe this, or the more traditional version of it, as a parting message?

Or maybe this, even if it is a funeral cliché...

If there was anyone in attendance, I could bring them down with this:

Although if I chose any Bowie, it would probably be this, for the lyrical conceits of a hand reaching down for me, and the nightmares coming today...

So many songs, so many choices. Hopefully I've got a while yet to work it out. Or I could just say sod it, and plump for this:

If it's not too maudlin, got any thoughts on your funeral tunes?

Sunday 17 November 2019

Sunday shorts: What You Do To Me

Some short songs are so short but so good, you can't help but wish they were a little bit longer. Others are perfectly suited to their length, like this one.

And is it just me, or are there some chord sequences here that are reminiscent of Where I Find My Heaven by The Gigolo Aunts?

Friday 15 November 2019

I'm as old as...

Shamelessly thieved from Rol at My Top Ten but expanded to a top twenty because I couldn't choose. The basic premise, in Rol's words is:

All this got me looking further into famous people who are the same age as me. I made a list and asked myself for each of them: do I really think I'm as old as they are? Are they older than me in my head... or younger? It's an interesting game to play.

I simplified this a bit, and just picked a random selection of (semi-) famous people who were born in the same year as me. And that's calendar year, not school year. Anyway, here goes, numbered but in no particular order:

1. Uma Thurman.

In my head, Uma is younger than me. That's because, in my head, she still looks like she did in Pulp Fiction, or Kill Bill, or Dangerous Liasions. Hmm. Mostly Dangerous Liasions, actually.

2. Matt Damon

Poor old Matt. They really did a number on him in Team America: World Police but if he'd retired after Good Will Hunting, that still would have been a good career, I reckon. And because it's youthful Will I associate Matt with, I thought him younger than me.

3. River Phoenix

Younger, of course. He'll always be younger than everybody, right?

4. Melania Trump

In my head... well, I had no clue, to be honest. I think when there's that much make-up and (allegedly) surgery involved, you can probably forgive me for not being able to form an opinion. And she's got bigger problems, to be honest.

5. Rachel Weisz

In my head, not younger or older than me but just exactly the right age for me... sigh.

6. Ethan Hawke

I used to think he was younger than me, because he played lots of fresh-faced roles. But as he's gotten older, a grizzled quality has emerged that would make me think him older than me. I'm not (too) grizzled yet, I hope.

7. Beck

I thought him younger than me, until I looked up the relatively recent picture of him shown left. Now I would think him older.

8. Vince Vaughn

Another who has made the transition in my mind from younger to older than me. Maybe being charged with drunk driving ages a man...?

9. Andre Agassi

I thought him older, if I'm honest. Maybe that's because he went bald early, but more likely because he was winning tennis grand slams when I still felt like a kid.

10. Louis Theroux

I would have pitched Louis as being pretty much the same age as me, in part because I could imagine him being in the same year at school as me, and us getting along. I am probably not alone in this delusion. Who doesn't like Louis?

11. Samantha Mathis

As a younger man, I had a bit of a thing about Samantha that was based almost exclusively on her role in the rom-com Jack and Sarah, when I thought of her as being about my age. By the time she appeared in American Psycho though, I had started to think of her as older than me.

12. Sadiq Khan

Blimey, the Mayor of London is my age. And I've done what with my life, exactly? If I'm honest, I thought him younger than me but hoped he was older.

13. Glen Medeiros

Something might have changed your love for him now, eh ladies? The 80s crooner has morphed into used-car salesman, by the look of it. I thought him older than me, not least because when he was famous girls my age liked him, so he had to older, right?

14. Claudia Schiffer

A difficult one. When I was young, I thought her older, because in 1989 when she was the Guess jeans girl she looked impossibly wonderful to gawky, gauche, teenage me (who had this poster on his wall). But now, I think of her as younger because (you guessed it) to me she's still the impossibly wonderful Guess jeans girl...

15. Christopher Nolan

I thought him younger than me, if I'm honest. A film-maker who could realise Memento had to be younger, brighter, fresher than me, right? Of course, I forget that when that came out, I was younger, brighter, fresher too. Oh time, you cruel sod.

16. Bernard Butler

If pushed, I probably would have plumped for Bernard being younger than me, solely because when Suede emerged he looked so fresh-faced and fey, so impossibly clean-shaven, that even to the youthful me he seemed young. Pah! What did the youthful me know?

17. Debbie Gibson

Ah, the perennial Electric Youth is not so youthful any more, is she? But for similar reasons to Bernard, I would have thought her younger - when she hit the airwaves, I felt too mature to like her, too grown up for such fluff. I know, I know...

18. Mariah Carey

As with Melania, I can honestly say I had no clue as to whether Mariah was older or younger than me. I think this is because every picture I have seen of her for the last 25 years has been so rigorously airbrushed or Photoshopped (example left is very recent), who could possible know if the subject was 25 or 50? Not this boy, for sure.

19. M. Night Shyamalan

I remember clocking Shyamalan's cameo in Sixth Sense and thinking, "God, he's young (damn him)." And that thought has stuck. Funny how first impressions last, eh?

20. Simon Pegg

I thought Simon the same age as me, not just because all his cultural references align so well with mine but also because, as we have already established, basically I am Simon Pegg, right?

I had fun doing that (cheers, Rol), probably much more fun than you all had reading it (sorry about that). If you have any comments to make that you haven't already made over at Rol's place, fire away...

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly ... news

The good

Jet suit inventor breaks speed record off Brighton beach - innovation, tech and a typical maverick inventor ... what's not to like?

Roger Federer beats Novak Djokovic at 2019 ATP Finals in London - that he can still be this good at 38 should boggle all of our minds.

The bad

Project Nightingale: Google probed over US patient data deal - remember when Google's motto was "Don't be evil"? No, neither do they.

Flooded Venice battles with new tidal surge - Venice is truly wonderful. Go and see it soon because it won't be there in 50 years.

The ugly

A rubbish story: China's mega-dump full 25 years ahead of schedule - there are so many, many ways in which the problems caused by our spiralling global population are manifesting themselves. Awful.

Donald Trump confirms pre-election UK visit - as if we didn't have enough happening on the domestic political scene, without old Tango-face Tiny-Hands rocking up and sticking his oar in. Though would any of the principals welcome an endorsement from this pariah?

Tuesday 5 November 2019

How do you solve a problem like ... Doctor Sleep?

Disclaimer: I'm a Constant Reader and a Kubrick obsessive.

Heeeere's... Danny!
Earlier this week, I went to see Doctor Sleep at the cinema. I don't know how it is doing, box-office-wise, but there were only six other people at the screening I went to, on a rainy Sunday evening. Maybe people aren't liking it; certainly The Guardian doesn't. I admit, I had reservations - after all, how do you follow The Shining? Regular readers of this blog will know that Kubrick's liberal interpretation of King's original story is one of my favourite films, of any genre, of any time. There was scope here, I thought, for cinematic blasphemy.

And then there's the problem of making a sequel that is both true to King's Doctor Sleep and yet also a successor to Kubrick's Shining, given that the latter was famously so very different to King's Shining. I mean, forget the thematic differences between the original book and the original film, what about the practical differences? In King's book, The Overlook Hotel is basically blown up by an exploding boiler and Dick Hallorann walks away; in Kubrick's film, The Overlook is abandoned and poor old Dick... well (spoiler alert), he gets an axe in the chest. So where do you even begin to draw those threads together? Well, I guess the answer is to do what Kubrick did, first time around, and reinterpret the book on which the film is based. And that's basically what director Mike Flanagan has done, except he's stayed closer to the theme and tone of King's novel than Stanley did. King likes this new film, as a result.

I had other reservations too; one is that the Doctor Sleep novel, whilst perfectly serviceable, is not, in my view, King's best. Like many of his more recent works, it starts well, develops an interesting premise, builds tension and then seems to tail off, with a somewhat unsatisfactory denouement. Don't get me wrong, I bought, read and enjoyed it as soon as it came out... but it's not his finest work. Then there's the casting of this new film - could I see Ewan McGregor as Danny Torrance? I wasn't sure that I could. But then I didn't know who I would cast in that role instead.

But enough of the pre-amble. What of the film? Well, Flanagan's Doctor Sleep is not so much a sequel to Kubrick's - at times, it feels more like a paean, such are the nods to, and acknowledgements of, what has gone before. Some are about as subtle as a...well, a baseball bat to the head, perhaps: the most obvious, and consistent, is the soundtrack, from the Berlioz-evoking opening theme right through to closing with Midnight, The Stars and You, and everything in-between. At some point, Flanagan has realised the importance of Kubrick's soundtrack in evoking a certain mood, and has stuck with it to great effect. Equally blatant is the number of overhead shots of cars in transit through desolate landscapes, again evoking Kubrick's opening scene. Slightly more subtle, and wonderfully realised, is a scene in which Danny meets Dr John in the latter's office - on the face of it, this vignette serves no purpose and could easily have ended up on the cutting room floor. But everything about it, from the pacing and conversational back and forth, the office decor, even the weather outside, perfectly echoes Jack's interview for the caretaker's job with Mr Ullman in Kubrick's film. Seen in that context, it becomes a more important scene, a Jonbar point from which Dan's path is changed, just as his father's had been on landing the Overlook job. Such was my delight at this tiny sequence, and its dialogue, if I hadn't been in the cinema I probably would have exclaimed something along the lines of, "Clever, very clever." As it was, it put a smile on my face.

Other nods are genuinely more subtle, and if you're a fan you'll have fun spotting them. Example? Abra's house number is 1980; surely no coincidence, given the year Kubrick's film was released. No doubt there's a list online somewhere detailing all the references, actual and imagined, but don't seek it out - why spoil your fun?

As for the whole "one story as two sequels" dilemma, well, Flanagan handles it well, even if he has to deviate from King's story to do so. He finds a neat way of including the cinematically-dead Dick Hallorann. He finds a neat way of revisiting the Overlook, and manages to give it the ending King had always envisaged. Oh, and the approach to the Overlook is a shot-by-shot recreation of Kubrick's opening but at night, in bad weather. I think my response to that was more Pavlovian than Proustian, but it certainly triggered something. It's not really a spoiler to say that Wendy appears in flashbacks (props to Alex Essoe's vocal coach too, as she gets the voice spot on). Jack also appears, in a way, as do certain other hotel regulars. It's certainly not a spoiler to say the scenes in which Dan walks the hotel corridors filled me with genuine unease. But it may be something of a spoiler to add that, if King ever writes another instalment in the life of Dan Torrance, well, Flanagan has made filming that even trickier.

Rose the Hat
I've noticed that, in this review (if that's what this is), I've basically assumed you know enough about King's and Kubrick's work to render any kind of synopsis unnecessary. If you're wondering what actually happens in the film, IMDB has that covered. In their review, The Grauniad criticised Doctor Sleep for being too long, slow and boring. Stephen King, on the other hand, has been quoted as saying he thinks the film will appeal to fans of Kubrick's film and of Frank Darabont's Shawshank Redemption, because of the unhurried storytelling of the latter. I'm inclined to agree. It's a long film - 152 minutes - but at no point did I look at my watch or wish things were moving along faster. Oh and that same review also laid into Rebecca Ferguson for her portrayal of Rose the Hat, but I thought she was pretty good.

The bottom line, then? If you have any interest whatsoever in King's books or Kubrick's film, you are going to get something out of Flanagan's Doctor Sleep. Is it a great movie? One that will still be shown and discussed at the cinema in nearly 40 years time, like Kubrick's? Well, no. But with all the expectation and baggage it carries with it, is it a good film? Yes, it is. Just about as good as it could be, I think.

EDIT: despite what I said a couple of paragraphs back, it seems a sequel to Doctor Sleep might be on the cards after all...

37 days to go

Just wondering... on the day we commemorate an attempt to blow up Parliament, I'm curious how you're feeling about the election... don't worry, it's anonymous, I have no idea how you're voting.

Oh, and if you need some help deciding, you could try Who Should You Vote For... it was pretty on the money for me.

Sunday 3 November 2019

Sunday shorts: Feelin'

Worth sticking with the poor sound quality for the contemporary video. Beatles guitar motifs to the fore...

Friday 1 November 2019

Clandestine Classic LXI - A-Punk

The sixty-first 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.

There are two Vampire Weekend albums in our house. The first is Contra, bought by my partner on the strength of a broadsheet review. The second is their eponymous debut, bought by me, secondhand, purely to get hold of today's classic. I've listened to both in their entirety once. What I found thereon is perfectly serviceable, if somewhat anodyne; I could see why they were popular, for a while, but they didn't do much for me. I guess I am not, nor have I ever been, their target market.

The exception, of course, is A-Punk, a single that limped to 55 in the UK singles chart. It fared a little better in the US, and made #4 in Rolling Stone's top 100 songs of 2008. You might not know it by name, but you'll probably know it when you hear it... and surely that's a good indicator when seeking to ascribe classic status to a song. Its distinctive intro has made it ripe for commercial re-use in the intervening eleven years, you see - not just for adverts, but also as the kind of song that is used, in instrumental form, as a musical backdrop to all kinds of television programmes. But there's more to A-Punk than commercial ear-wormery.

For starters... well, I don't know what it is exactly, whether it's that infectious, right-up-the-fretboard guitar intro, or the pace of the song, or the vocal delivery, or just the underlying melody, but something in the way the New York four-piece (thanks, Wikipedia) deliver this song reminds me of Blister in the Sun by Violent Femmes (a song whose ad-friendliness I wrote about in 2008, coincidentally). I think we can all agree the Femmes track is excellent, and so is A-Punk, for many of the same reasons.

And then - bear with me here - the "Hey, hey, hey" refrain reminds me more than a little of The Ramones' "Hey! Ho!" in Blitzkrieg Bop. Yes, really! No bad thing, right?

I can't pretend I know what the lyrics are about, who Johanna is or whether turquoise harmonicas are a thing or a euphemism. I can tell you that Sloan Kettering is a renowned cancer care hospital, which may give a clue to a darker story behind the upbeat delivery of these words, as might the fact that one half of the ring mentioned ends up at the bottom of the sea. What I can tell you, for absolute certain, is that this song has the power to make me dance (in the privacy of my kitchen). And inappropriately at that, in the manner of the nutty boy dancing I did in my youth, to the sounds of ska and Two-Tone. And that's the clincher, really - any song that can make me dance, simply for the joy of it, has to be a stone cold classic.

You can buy today's selection on the aforementioned debut album if you like, but as I've already mentioned, it's not all like this. So maybe YouTube is a safer bet - good video too, I reckon. Oh - 41 million views. Maybe not so clandestine. Bollocks. But I wanted to write about it, and it's just a bit too long for a Sunday short, so... my gaff, my rules - enjoy!

Thursday 31 October 2019

For Halloween... The Shinning

I've mentioned this before, nine years ago when only three of you read this... but anyway, it's Halloween. Enough to justify a repeat viewing for this homage. Might not be up for long...

Tuesday 29 October 2019

Your Capricious Soul

Despite the hoo-ha surrounding the 25th anniversary deluxe edition treatment of Monster, this release from Michael Stipe nearly passed me by. It's his first solo work and R.E.M. fans hoping for Everybody Hurts are going to be disappointed. But have a listen. What do you think?

If you pay to download it from his site, all profits got to Extinction Rebellion, so there's that too.

Oh, and if you're thinking back to Monster and recalling it as a Marmite album, this recent interview with Stipe and Mills is worth a read.

Sunday 27 October 2019

Sunday 20 October 2019

Sunday shorts: Song For The Asking

I love that this was the last song on their last studio album together. It feels like Paul saying, "You know what, I'm going to go on and do loads of great stuff on my own. You... maybe not so much."

Friday 18 October 2019

Blue Friday: My Ever Changing Moods (piano version)

Have always preferred this version to the poppier, more upbeat, fuller version that followed later.

So beautiful, so blue.

Tuesday 15 October 2019

Still 0-0 after (a lot of) extra time

In the late 80s and early 90s, a jangly sound emerged from Slough in the ten-legged shape of Thousand Yard Stare. With their own label (the splendidly named Stifled Aardvark), a distribution deal with Polydor and Stephen Street on production duties, the outlook was promising. There was a whole host of EPs, often released (and re-released) in multiple formats (including 10" and coloured vinyl), chasing the mainstream breakthrough. In 1991, they played the Reading Festival; a year later, their debut LP, Hands On, was released. It is really quite good, and musically head and shoulders above a lot of the bands they were often grouped with.

Of course, a crucial 'but...' is coming. The Yardies' jingle-jangle sound and obtuse lyrics were somewhat at odds with the post-Nevermind interest in a heavier sound. Why be a Giles or a Dominic when you could be a Kurt or an Eddie? And so the second album, 93's Mappamundi, failed to live up to commercial expectations and didn't trouble the charts, despite a big push from Polydor. The band called time soon after, and that was that.

Except that is rarely that, these days, not when the reunion market is so lucrative. And so Thousand Yard Stare have reconvened, at first just for a few live shows but now, excitingly, for some recorded material. Here's their new single, It Sparks, in which all TYS hallmarks are present and correct, including vocalist Stephen Barnes's Marmite-delivery.

They even have some new merchandise, in the shape of this works-on-so-many-levels How Soon Is Slough? t-shirt; a Smiths reference, Betjeman and TYS... what's not to like?

Oh, and if you're wondering about the title of this post, it comes from this.

Anyway, here's the band's shiny new website and Twitter feed, if you're interested. You're probably not, it's probably just me... but that's okay.

Sunday 13 October 2019

Sunday shorts: Lock Up Your Mountain Bikes

So many short HMHB tracks to choose from, but this one gets the nod for its opening line...

Friday 11 October 2019

Let Me In

I seem to have featured R.E.M. a lot lately. I make no apology for that. A new remix of Let Me In has emerged, ostensibly to tie in with the 25th anniversary of Monster. Given that it was written in response to Kurt Cobain's suicide, and that yesterday was World Mental Health day, it seems a good time to make some noise about it. The Beeb has a better article than this about the song and it's raison d'être right here.

Basically, this was a song written one night, recorded the next day, with Michael delivering a raw vocal (that is very much more to the fore in this new remix) and Mike strumming along on Kurt's electric guitar. That's it: guitar and voice, Mike and Michael, nothing else.

And I don't know about you but, as lyric videos go, this one takes the biscuit, I think. Imagine if the words and thoughts in your head swirled around like a hurricane, occasionally coalescing into moments of clarity like a murmuration of starlings, before breaking apart again. Imagine that...

Thursday 10 October 2019

Asking for a friend

Is there a way to say that something isn't as good as it used to be, without sounding like the worst kind of terrible old fossil? When there is no empirical evidence, just personal opinion involved?

Asking for a friend.

Tuesday 8 October 2019

T's and C's

Following on from my previous post about going to watch an episode of Dave Gorman's new TV series being filmed, it seem only right to add the news that it starts on Monday 21st October, 10pm, on Dave (the channel, not the comedian).

To prove I haven't made that up, here's the trailer.

Monday 7 October 2019

Nineteen in '19: Starting Over

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading nineteen books in 2019. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

13/19: Starting Over by Tony Parsons

The blurb: This is the story of how we grow old – how we give up the dreams of youth for something better – and how many chances we have to get it right.

George Bailey has been given the gift we all dream of – the chance to live his life again.

After suffering a heart attack at the age of 42, George is given the heart of a 19-year-old – and suddenly everything changes…

He is a friend to his teenage son and daughter – and not a stern Home Secretary, monitoring their every move.

He makes love to his wife all night long - instead of from midnight until about five past. And suddenly he wants to change the world, just as soon as he shakes off his hangover.

But George Bailey discovers that being young again is not all it is cracked up to be – and what he actually wants more than anything in the universe is to have his old life back.

The review: as you will all know already, Parsons' writing career began as a journo for the NME, where he also met, married and later divorced fellow "hip, young gunslinger" Julie Birchill. He wrote a number of books throughout the Seventies and Eighties but only really achieved mainstream success at the tail end of the Nineties, with Man and Boy. In part, I think, this took off as a sort of "blokes want to read too" reaction to the emergence of chick-lit as a thing - lad-lit, maybe, a phenomenon that benefited Parsons and plenty of others (Mike Gayle and John O'Farrell to name but two). Whatever, it sold by the truck load, as did the sequel, and lots of other books with similar covers. The last Parsons I read was My Favourite Wife, probably about ten years ago.

And so to Starting Over, a book I picked up for free at a sort of "bring a book, take a book" swapping initiative. In other words, immediately not a book I would spend money to read, but something I was prepared to take a punt on. And it's alright: a perfectly serviceable story, told at a pace that keeps the pages turning, a bit predictable in places but generally... alright. What stops it being more? Well, I like a story where the author maps out the dots and then leaves the reader to join them up. There are times here when Parsons doesn't just join them up for you, he does it with a Sharpie. It's efficient storytelling, maybe, but is it effective? Not for me.

Oh, and the predictability. I get that it's going to have a feelgood element. A lot of people, even lad-lit readers, want some kind of a happy ending. But even when things are going awry for our hero, at no point did I feel that they would end badly, ultimately. And if you're in any doubt about the Capra-esque nature of this story, or Parsons' efforts to produce something of that ilk, I refer you to the protagonist's name... But for fables to work you need archetypes as the lead characters, not clichés, and there are times when Tony treads the wrong side of that divide.

If I'm sounding too down on this book, let me remedy that by saying that it is far from all bad - Parsons writes about being a father as well as anyone. Here, laying out how it feels to be a dad, and what it's like to watch your kids grow up and move beyond what you know of them, this is where Parsons' somewhat on-the-nose style actually works - he lays it out plain. This is how it feels. But since Man and Boy it does feel somewhat like Tony is recycling those same feelings, just ascribing them to new characters. But anyway...

The bottom line: perfectly serviceable, somewhat predictable, slightly forgettable and too overt... neither evolutionary nor revolutionary but essentially a harmless, throwaway read that moves along at a decent pace.

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★☆☆☆

Sunday 6 October 2019

Sunday shorts: Very Ape

More than a quarter of a century old...

Just let that sink in for a bit, then have a listen.

Saturday 5 October 2019

Clandestine Classic LX - Yes

The sixtieth 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.

Just like last time, here's a song I couldn't believe I hadn't already featured. Back in 1994, Bernard Butler, fresh from leaving Suede, hooked up with ex-Thieves and solo artist David McAlmont, apparently because the latter had a lyric the former felt he could put a riff to. Holing up in a French studio with drummer Mako Sakamoto, engineer Nigel Godrich and co-producer Mike Hedges (production duties shared with Butler, as I think you can tell from the end result), McAlmont and Butler laid down Yes and follow-up single You Do in just three days. I know, I know, back in the early 60s popular beat combos would knock out whole albums in that time, but even so, three days is pretty swift for such great tunes.

Given that haste, that burst of creativity, you might reasonably wonder what the lyric was the Butler thought he could do something for - well, here it is:

So, you wanna know me now? How I've been?
You can't help someone recover, after what you did.
So tell me, am I looking better?
Have you forgot whatever it was that you couldn't stand
About me, about me, about me?
Yes, I do feel better.
Yes I do, I feel alright.
I feel well enough to tell you what you can do with what you've got to offer...

So, Yes is a song about meeting up with someone that once dumped you, breaking your heart in the process, and when faced with that person wanting to be nice sometime down the line, pally, maybe even to rekindle something, having the strength to remind them how they were, and to tell them where they can stick their olive branch. In other words, it's a story that lots of people, no doubt, can identify with. And importantly, it's told as a positive - it's not, "No, you can't be with me again" or "No, I don't want to let you back into my life" but as a positive - "Yes, I do feel better, actually, so much better in fact because I can see you for what you were." And who wouldn't want to face up to past heartbreak like that, with that attitude? I know I would.

Musically, Butler's trademark guitars sounds are all present and correct, as is the slightly Spector-esque, full-on production and orchestral backing he favoured at the time. Add David McAlmont's three-octave range and you have a vocal performance that positively soars; whenever I hear this, I always feel that the vocal and music are almost competing, seeing which can reach the most dizzying height, and we, the listeners, are the beneficiaries of this competition.

I suppose, technically, this classic isn't that clandestine. It peaked at 8 in the UK singles chart, and was critically acclaimed too. But that was 24 long years ago, and not much (the You Do single and parent album The Sound of... McAlmont and Butler aside) followed until much later. There were a few live shows and a dynamic performance on Later... but, apart from that, little else. And so, despite its total and utter brilliance, Yes remains a song of its time - people my age love it, but the band didn't have enough longevity for other generations to be exposed to it. It will fade away, and that is a crying shame; it becomes more clandestine with every day that passes.

You can, and should, pick up Yes on The Sound of... McAlmont and Butler - it's a great album, though nothing else reaches these heights. And here are those heights, courtesy of YouTube...

Bonus live performance from Later..., with excellent guitar wig-out from Bernard towards the end.

Friday 4 October 2019

Blue Friday: True Love Waits

There are lots of versions of this, band and solo Thom, but this is the one that catches my ear most, from A Moon Shaped Pool.

Tuesday 1 October 2019

Nineteen in '19: The Institute

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading nineteen books in 2019. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

12/19: The Institute by Stephen King

The blurb: Deep in the woods of Maine, there is a dark state facility where kids, abducted from across the United States, are incarcerated. In the Institute they are subjected to a series of tests and procedures meant to combine their exceptional gifts - telepathy, telekinesis - for concentrated effect.

Luke Ellis is the latest recruit. He's just a regular 12-year-old, except he's not just smart, he's super-smart. And he has another gift which the Institute wants to use...

Far away in a small town in South Carolina, former cop Tim Jamieson has taken a job working for the local sheriff. He's basically just walking the beat. But he's about to take on the biggest case of his career.

Back in the Institute's downtrodden playground and corridors where posters advertise 'just another day in paradise', Luke, his friend Kalisha and the other kids are in no doubt that they are prisoners, not guests. And there is no hope of escape.

But great events can turn on small hinges and Luke is about to team up with a new, even younger recruit, Avery Dixon, whose ability to read minds is off the scale. While the Institute may want to harness their powers for covert ends, the combined intelligence of Luke and Avery is beyond anything that even those who run the experiments - even the infamous Mrs Sigsby - suspect.

Thrilling, suspenseful, heartbreaking, THE INSTITUTE is a stunning novel of childhood betrayed and hope regained.

The review: long-time readers of this blog will probably know that I am a Stephen King fan, and that I have devoured just about everything he's published. Which, famously, is quite a lot. So naturally I picked up The Institute as soon as it came out, and whistled through it in fairly short order. What can I tell you about it that the blurb doesn't? Well, if you already like King, you'll like, perhaps even love it. For this is almost a King archetype or, maybe more accurately, some kind of greatest hits tribute act, for so many recurrent King themes are revisited. There's the principled but troubled male lead Tim, trying to escape something dark in his past (see also Johnny in The Dead Zone, Danny in Doctor Sleep, Jack in The Shining, Gard in The Tommyknockers, and Thad in The Dark Half for starters, and that's without the short stories). Similarly, there's the preternaturally bright, gifted child hero Luke (see also Jake in the Dark Tower series, Danny in The Shining and Charlie in Firestarter, to name but three). And of course, there's the plucky "band of brothers" grouping that assembles to save the day (see also The Body, The Mist, The Stand, IT, The Dark Tower ... you get the idea). Most importantly, there's the underlying sense of a wrong being righted, an injustice being set straight, a theme that recurs so often in King's body of work that I'm not even going to start listing examples.

And then there's the plot: an unknown agency, presumed governmental, harvests children with telekinetic and/or telepathic powers, enhances those powers through horrible experiments, and uses the kids as a psychic weapon, ostensibly to ensure world peace. Luke is taken... Tim is the white-hat who helps him puts things straight. I can't say much more than that, for fear of spoilers. But this might already be enough for Constant Readers to conceive of The Institute as a spiritual and thematic, if not direct, successor to Firestarter... and they'd be right.

So what if you're not already a fan of Stephen King? Well, this is unlikely to win you over. It's not King by numbers (see the first half of the Nineties for that) but it is very typical King. For me, that's a good, sometimes great thing: the man is a storyteller, almost without equal in contemporary mainstream fiction. And he shifts POV better than almost anyone.

The bottom line: if you're a King fan, or love a good yarn, well told, buckle up - you'll enjoy this. Just don't expect anything too different...

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★☆