Monday 30 November 2020

Do you have another opinion?

Much has been written about the trustworthiness, or otherwise, of Amazon reviews. I've certainly been offered incentives from resellers to leave five-star reviews for products (relax, I didn't), so hopefully everyone knows to treat reviews online with caution.

But beyond that, things like this film review don't help much either:

So which is it, five-star or crap? Or is it just really exemplary crap, worthy of five stars?

Anyway... you might have read the title of this post and thought I was going to post a Pixies track. Well, I don't like to disappoint, so here's a demo version of a glorious slice of noise.

Wednesday 25 November 2020

There's a really decent album in there somewhere...

Back in the day, I had this - both albums together, in their entirety

The Jam's first studio album, In The City, was released on 20th May 1977. It did okay, surfing in the wake of punk and the single of the same name, and reached a highpoint of number 20 in the album chart. In 32 minutes and two seconds, Paul, Bruce and Rick's debut offering was a short, sharp statement of intent, with ten Weller original compositions and a couple of covers.

Their follow-up, This Is The Modern World, was released a barely credible (by today's standards) 182 days later, on 18th November 1977. It followed much the same format - twelve tracks, Vic Coppersmith-Heaven and Chris Parry on production duties, a short running time (31:19) and preceded by a lead-out single of the same name - and had similar chart success, reaching number 22 and eventually selling enough to be certified silver. There were some differences though, certainly being more Mod-revival than (post-)punk. And the songs - two Foxton efforts, a cover and nine original Weller compositions (one of those was co-written with Dave Waller). More than that, though, this was an album on which the band were trying to reach a bit further ... and coming up short.

It's no surprise, then, that This Is The Modern World got quite a critical mauling, silver disc or not, to the extent that the band's third album, November '78's All Mod Cons, really was seen as a last chance to get things right. Luckily for us all, that turned out more than alright. But imagine if it hadn't? The Jam might have become a footnote in musical history and, far from his revered Modfather status, it might have been more a case of "Paul who?"

But here's the thing: take these two short albums, released six short months apart, and put them together, cherry-picking the best bits, and you have one cracker!

Let's pull apart In The City first:

  1. Art School - an absolute statement of intent and philosophy - STAYS
  2. I've Changed My Address - maximum R&B elevated further by pop art guitar after 1m30 - STAYS
  3. Slow Down - a lively, well-chosen cover version but should have been kept for a single B-side - GOES
  4. I Got By In Time - a decent song but doesn't really go anywhere - GOES
  5. Away From The Numbers - in which The Jam sound starts to crystallise, and a recurrent theme emerges - STAYS
  6. Batman theme - yes, it's fun, but there's no place for covering a TV theme here - GOES
  7. In The City - dynamic single and calling card, essential - STAYS
  8. Sounds From The Street - another decent song (spoiler - they all are) but I can live without the falsetto bit - GOES
  9. Non-Stop Dancing - I imagine this played well at early live shows but it doesn't aim high enough - GOES
  10. Time For Truth - musically, if not lyrically, the most mature song on the debut album - STAYS
  11. Takin' My Love - important to showcase the power of the band on a debut album and this rattles along - STAYS
  12. Bricks And Mortar - wearing his social conscience on his sleeve from day one, and imagine a house costing 40 grand... - STAYS

Now let's do the same for This Is The Modern World:

  1. The Modern World - can't not be included, can it? - STAYS
  2. London Traffic - "London traffic, going nowhere, London traffic, polluting the air", etc. Sorry Bruce - GOES
  3. Standards - too rudimentary, feels like they weren't trying - GOES
  4. Life From A Window - you know what I was saying about a band trying to reach a bit further...? - STAYS
  5. The Combine - signposts what was to come on All Mod Cons and with a nice guitar motif late on - STAYS
  6. Don't Tell Them You're Sane - a better effort from Bruce but suffers by comparison - GOES
  7. In The Street, Today - nearly a great early Jam song ... but only nearly - GOES
  8. London Girl - a really interesting lyric from one so young - STAYS
  9. I Need You (For Someone) - but look, he could write Beatley love songs too - STAYS
  10. Here Comes The Weekend - bit hard to remember, in middle age, but the weekend was looked forward to once, wasn't it? - STAYS
  11. Tonight At Noon - one of the best songs on the second album - STAYS
  12. In The Midnight Hour - a decent cover and early live-set staple but no, keep it for a B-side - GOES

So what are we left with? The eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted that I've chosen fourteen tracks rather than twelve, because the album needs to be a bit longer (and filling more of one side of a C90 - kids, look it up). So that's seven tracks from each album (and all Weller compositions, make of that what you will) - now all I need is a running order. And, without explanation (though there is one, of course, but this post is already getting too long), here's what I've come up with for what could, and perhaps should, have been The Jam's debut album:

  1. In The City (2:19)
  2. Art School (2:02)
  3. London Girl (2:40)
  4. I Need You (For Someone) (2:41)
  5. Takin' My Love (2:15)
  6. Bricks And Mortar (2:37)
  7. Away From The Numbers (4:03)
  1. The Modern World (2:31)
  2. I've Changed My Address (3:31)
  3. Life From A Window (2:52)
  4. The Combine (2:20)
  5. Time For Truth (3:10)
  6. Here Comes The Weekend (3:30)
  7. Tonight At Noon (3:01)

I don't do Spotify, so I can't playlist it for you that way... but I can with YouTube, so without further ado, let me introduce it by saying that, much as I love both the original albums, I think this would have been even better. Ladies and gentleman, I give you This Is The City.

Tuesday 24 November 2020

The Unewsual VI - the monolith

From BBC News: Metal monolith found by helicopter crew in Utah desert... For what it's worth, this clearly isn't a 2001-style monolith; readers of Clarke's novel will know that the monolith's proportions have a ratio 1:4:9, i.e. the squares of the first three ordinal numbers. Come on, art pranksters, if you're going to stick a monolith in the desert for a laugh, at least do it right...

Thursday 12 November 2020

The Underappreciated: The First Great Train Robbery

A very occasional series, the purpose of which is to highlight films that are really underappreciated, and that you might get a kick out of viewing. Today, a late Seventies offering from the late Sean Connery.

I've been meaning to write about this film, as part of my Underappreciated series, for a long time, but just haven't got around to it. Well now Sean Connery has died, I really had better get myself in gear. Not that I would imagine for one minute he was waiting for me to write about him...

But anyway, in the wake of his passing it would be all too easy to write about Connery as Bond, his Oscar-winning turn in The Untouchables, The Man Who Would Be King, all the rest... I don't think I've seen anyone mention The First Great Train Robbery in their tributes though, and that's a real shame because it is an absolute cracker!

Connery plays Edward Pierce, charismatic man about London town and master thief. He plans to steal a shipment of gold meant to finance the Crimean War effort... from a moving train. But Pierce, much like Charlie Croker, Danny Ocean and countless others, needs a team to carry this off. His mistress Miriam, wonderfully played by Lesley-Anne Down, is first on-board, swiftly followed by master pickpocket and screwsman Agar (Donald Sutherland). Pierce's chauffeur is also in on the deal, and a train guard is bribed too. Essential to the plot is the recruitment of "Clean" Willy, played by a young Wayne Sleep - Willy is a snakesman, a cat burglar basically. He meets a sticky end too, but that's bordering on a spoiler, so I'll shut up and show you the very-much-of-its-time trailer:

So what makes this so good? What, apart from the starry cast, boys' own plot, crisp script (written and directed by Michael Crichton), Jerry Goldsmith's cracking score and a wonderful cinematic evocation of Victorian London? Aside from all that, you mean? It's even a Dino De Laurentis production, for goodness' sake, and if that doesn't give you a Proustian rush I don't know what will.

But more than that, I get a sense from this film that no-one put a foot wrong making it; everyone, from Connery right down to the minor players, is on form. I also get a sense that the cast had fun making this, and why not? This is a script shot through with humour, and with plenty of opportunity to make the most, in comic asides, of Victorian versions of modern tropes (like the 100mph Club, rather than the Mile High Club). Oh, and playboy Pierce gets to play innuendo bingo, in a scene that could be right out of Carry On:

And whilst this film is, like any good caper, primarily terrific fun, there are darker moments too... so sod spoilers, here's that moment when Clean Willy gets his comeuppance for turning snitch on Pierce and his well-tailored crew:

And there's so much more! Lesley-Anne Down's Miriam adopting multiple personae, Donald Sutherland's turn in a coffin, Clean Willy's jailbreak, the acquisition of the safe keys (one of which features the longest 75 seconds in cinematic history!), the robbery itself, the denouement... I could go on. But I won't, other than to say if you're a bit fed up with Lockdown II (The Corona Strikes Back) and have exhausted your box-sets, well, do yourself a favour, put the heating on, get comfy in your favourite chair and watch this instead - it's terrific! It's on Netflix and Prime Video for starters. I saw one reviewer call this the best Sean Connery film you've never seen, and he's right... but you can remedy your oversight right now...

Separated at birth IX - Lee Cain and Blofeld

No 10's suddenly-departed former Commuincations Officer Lee Cain
No 10's suddenly-departed former Commuincations Officer Lee Cain

I was not surprised to read that Lee Cain had quit working for Boris. No doubt he realised that rather than working with wannabe-Bond villains like Johnson and Dominic Cummings, he might as well set up his own hollowed-out volcano...

Thorn in Bond's side Ernst Stavro Blofeld
Thorn in Bond's side Ernst Stavro Blofeld

Previous separations at birth

Size is everything

It's four years and two months since I last changed my mobile phone. I'm only changing now because the battery in my old one doesn't hold a charge properly anymore, and is not replaceable. So... the battle to find a small, i.e. pocket-friendly phone was rejoined. And boy, it was hard. Seems that now, more than ever, bigger is seen as better when it comes to smartphones. Annoying... but time to update the mobile timeline, regardless. Here it is:

The most compact phone I could find, with the spec I require, is 8mm taller than the phone it has replaced. Oh well.

Because these photographs are inexplicably popular (in web searches, at least) they have their own label so, for completists (!) here are the previous posts in the series.

Monday 2 November 2020

Twenty in '20: The Psychology of Time Travel

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 twenty books in 2020. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

11/20: The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas

The blurb: 1967. Four female scientists invent a time travel machine. But then one of them suffers a breakdown and puts the whole project in peril...

2017. Ruby knows her Granny Bee was the scientist who went mad, but they never talk about it. Until they receive a message from the future, warning of an elderly woman's violent death...

2018. Odette found the dead women at work – shot in the head, door bolted from the inside. Now she can't get her out of her mind. Who was she? And why is everyone determined to cover up her murder?

The review: I'm a sucker for a well-written or inventive time travel tale, and that's what led me to read a story by an author with whom I was unfamiliar. But maybe I'm in the minority in this respect, because if you just made your purchasing decision based on the blurb, you'd think that this was primarily a murder mystery tale, wouldn't you? Albeit one with a twist.

The thing is, whilst the whodunnit works well enough, without being outstanding, what does stand out in Mascharenas's novel is the inventiveness of imagining a world in which time travel has become routine, a commercial activity, governed with rules and organisations - a world in which "time traveller" is a career choice, a vocation with its own slang, initiation rites, protocols and faux pas. This aspect of the novel is very well realised, not least through the inclusion of two appendices, one a glossary of time travelling terminology and another detailing the psychometric tests that time travellers have to go through.

So, I said I was a sucker for a well-written or inventive time travel tale, and this is certainly inventive ... but is it well written too? Well ... for the most part, yes, it's pretty fair. Having said that, Mascarenhas is a little too prone to making bald statements - she tells, rather than shows. And maybe I just didn't notice it at the start, but it seemed to me that this overt storytelling increased as the novel progressed. It was almost like either the author or her editor got tired of making the subtle changes that would be necessary to remedy the problem (and it did become problematic, at times, for me).

Another point of note with The Psychology of Time Travel is that just about every protagonist is female - I'm trying to think of one significant male character, and am failing. This stands out, and is welcome, though it did make for little variation in the romantic and sexual sub-plots. It is refreshing ... but it feels like it's pushing at the bounds of credulity. Of course I accept that I'm a middle-aged man, with a whole host of subconscious preconceptions and biases ... but I do think that an invention of such global impact and significance, made by four women in the 1960s, would almost certainly have been subsumed by the patriarchy by 2018, sadly...

The bottom line: a decent book that describes a time-travelling world in a very satisfying way, with a serviceable if unremarkable murder-mystery tagged on.

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