Sunday 28 March 2021

Friday 26 March 2021

Blue Friday: Whispers and Stories

It's ten years since I first tried, and failed, to write a blog post about this song, but I was reminded of it after reading some of Rol's recent posts featuring Lori McKenna (here and here) - not musically but thematically. Let's wind the clock back to 2012, then, and imagine we're watching ITV. There's a good chance that, at some point in the proceedings, this advert for the VW Polo would come up:

It has a lovely soundtrack, doesn't it? And a heart-tugging refrain, almost guaranteed to get something in the eye of every dad in the northern hemisphere...

...but at the time, there was a little bit of a controversy. It seems that VW had tried, and failed, to license this track for their ad, Take Care by Beach House:

Having failed, VW did whatever any corporate giant would do and went off to commission a creative agency to produce a soundalike, theme-alike track. The creative agency in question was Sniffy Dog and the track they came up with was Whispers and Stories - it's the 90 second track you can hear in the ad at the top of the page. And here's the thing: whilst I like both tracks, it's the Sniffy Dog song that I like best. I know, I know, it is contrived, a deliberate emulation, born of a corporate exercise rather than an emotional and creative spark... but I borderline love it, and not just because it gets something in my eye.

Here's a longer version that I found on YouTube - I don't know if it's a genuine Sniffy Dog longer version, or even if such a version exists, or whether it's just the creation of an enterprising YouTuber who noted a gap in the market for a longer version. Somehow, given the nature of how the Sniffy Dog track came to be, I guess it doesn't really matter. Here you go: prepare for pre-meditated but nonetheless effective bittersweet sadness.

Monday 22 March 2021

Twenty-one in '21: Jews Don't Count

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 one books in 2021. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

3/21: Jews Don't Count by David Baddiel

The blurb: Jews Don’t Count is a book for people who consider themselves on the right side of history. People fighting the good fight against homophobia, disablism, transphobia and, particularly, racism. People, possibly, like you.

It is the comedian and writer David Baddiel’s contention that one type of racism has been left out of this fight. In his unique combination of close reasoning, polemic, personal experience and jokes, Baddiel argues that those who think of themselves as on the right side of history have often ignored the history of anti-Semitism. He outlines why and how, in a time of intensely heightened awareness of minorities, Jews don’t count as a real minority: and why they should.

The review: I like David Baddiel's writing. I've read most of his adult fiction and, from what I can see of it, his writing for kids is also very good. This is unlike anything he's written before though, unless you count the occasional broadsheet op-ed. For this is a short polemic that seeks to illustrate how and why anti-Semitism is propagated still, even amongst the liberal left and those who might think themselves enlightened in such matters. In Baddiels' own words, this book "is very specifically about progressives; it's not about the mainstream media. And it's written from this point of view, to use a phrase much beloved of progressives, of my lived experience: the lived experience of a Jew who feels as most Jews do that the reaction of progressives, to anti-Semitism, is that it doesn't matter very much."

Baddiel also suggests that, for a long time, only Jews really cared about anti-Semitism. As he goes on to illustrate (with lots of examples) the hierarchy of racism that persists, it quickly becomes apparent that this is pretty much exactly right. Baddiel wonders if an apparent duality in how Jews are perceived as simultaneously having high and low status is a part of the problem, leading to the troubling concept that it's maybe okay to be discriminatory or offensive to someone if they are well off, or so lowly as to not warrant consideration. Which is pretty terrible, when you think about it. And think about it, this book certainly encourages you to do.

What it isn't trying to do is simply demonstrate the no-brainer deplorable nature of racism; rather, as the title suggests, its argument is literally that Jews don't count, that racism against them is somehow less offensive, that the Y-word is somehow not as bad as the N-word. Why is that, David, wonders? Why indeed. After highlighting a tweet by American actor Kevin Walker (that I won't link to, it really doesn't need the oxygen), Baddiel is quick to point out "that this is not a #JewsDontCount example. This is straightforward, active anti-Semitism. The #JewsDontCount side of it is that there was very little progressive calling out of Walker for it." That is the nub of the matter.

Also, be prepared to engage your grey matter, for this is a book that really makes you think: why, for example, anti-Semitism even has its own name, and isn't just called racism; why, for example, some people conflate being Jewish, Israel and Zionism, when it suits them to do so; and why, most of all, when people say something like "we stand against anti-Semitism and all types of racism", however well-intentioned, they are really just illustrating part of the problem.

This is not a lightweight topic, of course, and it's a sign of Baddiel's skill as a writer that he keeps the reader engaged throughout, even managing to raise a few wry grins along the way. It's also a sign, of course, that Baddiel hasn't just picked a side in an argument, but that he's lived the argument.

How to sum up? Well, I like to think I am progressive, that time will reveal me to be on the right side of history. And I'm glad I've read this book. It certainly achieves it aim of illustrating the inequality that exists between anti-Semitism and other forms of racism, the inexcusable ism-schism (trademark me, just now) that really should not exist in these supposedly enlightened times. Is it going to convert any rabid anti-Semites? No, of course not. But might it help to level the playing field, to tear down that hierarchy of racism? I hope so. Oh, and in case you're still not convinced that this is an essential read, ask yourself where the "Jewish" tick-box was on yesterday's census form...

The bottom line: brilliantly argued, thought-provoking and compelling takedown of the ism-schism, that continues to occupy headspace long after the last page

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

Monday long song: Firth of Fifth

I know that picking early Genesis for a Monday long song is like shooting fish in a barrel, but the piano intro of Firth of Fifth is pretty bloody fantastic. I thought I'd featured it here before but a quick search has disabused me of that notion, so here we go...

Friday 19 March 2021

Learning from Apollo 13

One of the few joys of lockdown has been going for a walk and listening to a podcast, something I rarely seemed to have the time to do before. I have particularly enjoyed Louis Theroux's Grounded and, most of all, re-listening to both series of 13 Minutes to the Moon. Everything about the latter is perfect for this listener, from Hans Zimmer and Christian Lundberg's majestic score to Dr Kevin Fong's enthusiastic and knowledgable narration and the wealth of archive material. It's truly an epic listen, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Series 1 covers Apollo 11, the thirteen minutes in question being the time taken for the powered descent from lunar orbit to the Moon's surface. Series 2 covers the ill-fated, but ultimately triumphant, voyage of Apollo 13.

It struck me, listening to the concluding episode of series 2 last night, that we can all learn from Apollo 13, how to deal with and overcome adversity, however challenging. Here's a quote from Fong's closing monologue that really hit home:

There is so much that we might learn from the people who flew and saved that mission, even today, perhaps especially today.

In the face of crisis, no matter how apparently insurmountable, we must act. We must do so urgently and decisively. We must delegate authority, defer to expertise, and understand where in the system that expertise truly lies. We must know when to lead, and when to get out of the way. We must know when to follow, but learn to take full ownership of the tasks that fall to us. We must act together, across whatever distance, so that the whole becomes far greater than the sum of the parts. And we must never, ever give up, no matter how impossible the future might suddenly appear, because within all of that lies a kernel of hope and determination that might grow into something much more.

This is surely all applicable to any great challenge. It's certainly applicable to how humanity might face a pandemic, and how I wish those that lead us could have been more urgent and decisive in recent times, deferred to expertise, all the rest. But more than that, this kind of thinking needs to be applied to how we address climate change. The Apollo programme, for my money, is our greatest achievement, and the safe return of the Apollo 13 crew represents what can be achieved with decisive leadership, a collective will, co-operation, determination and hope. Preventing our planet from burning is going to be hard but has not become impossible... yet. We just need someone like Gene Kranz to take charge of it...

Blue Friday: Small Town

I was going to feature this as a Sunday Short but it's two seconds too long for the two minute rule, so... luckily it's just about blue enough for today, despite being quite funny. Imagine being from the arse-end of nowhere, feeling very different from everyone around you, and unable to get away. That's the gist of Small Town from Songs for Drella, John Cale and Lou Reed's musical tribute to, and biog of, Andy Warhol.

Thursday 11 March 2021

In praise of Lou Ottens

Compact cassette logoLou Ottens has died, at the age of 94.

Lou who, you say?

Lou, the Dutch engineer who, whilst working for Philips in the 1960s, invented the compact cassette tape. Since then, over 100 billion tapes have been sold globally, a fact that may have surprised both Ottens and Philips, since his invention was originally designed for dictation machines. But there were three factors contributing to its success: firstly, collaboration with Sony meant that it could be established as a worldwide standard, rather than having to compete with rival formats (remember how the techincally inferior VHS lost a format war to Betamax?); secondly, and crucially, improvements in fidelity meant it could be used for music, rather than just dictation; and thirdly, the Walkman eventually came along, making it the must-have mobile format.

And then, of course, there were mixtapes. I was going to write a paean to the humble cassette in general, and mixtapes in particular, but then remembered I had already done so, back in the very early days of this blog (2005). It already seems a quaint piece, with talk of burning CDs instead of making a mixtape... when's the last time you burnt a CD? Anyway, you can read the original post here but here's a snippet of what I wrote back then.

Because of the time and effort that went into making a really good compilation tape, giving someone a mix meant something. Making a tape for a friend meant "these are songs that I like - you might like them too because we're mates". Making a tape for a girl meant "I want you to think I'm cool" or "I want to seduce you with music"... or, most often, "look how obvious I'm trying to make it that I like you". And what pleasure could be gained from making a tape for yourself! Sometimes, with careful planning and a stroke of luck, the perfect compilation would emerge, and do sterling service on the car stereo for the next six months.

I still have a number of compilation tapes knocking about. I even keep one particularly good mix in the car "for emergencies", i.e. when I'm sick to death of the CDs in the autochanger. Others are gifts from people that mean so much. I'll never play them again because they're becoming so frail, but I'll never get rid of them. The sight of them with their hand-decorated inlay cards is enough for me to remember the thought that went into them, the emotional investment that was made. But I do recognise them for what they are: relics of a bygone age, the 20th Century. Nowadays the whole product can be done and dusted in minutes, digital inlay artwork included - some homespun discs could even be passed off as commercial products, which makes me a bit sad. I can't argue with the fact that technology has made compilations easier to make and more professional in quality but there's just no fun in it anymore. No more will I spend a blissful weekend planning and recording a perfect C90 and never again will I be able to give someone a compilation that says "this is how much you mean to me".

And because no post these days seems complete without some embeddable content, here's a montage of Rob from High Fidelity, talking about mixtape rules. Thanks, Mr Ottens, and RIP.

Wednesday 10 March 2021

Sense memory

Last time I was able to visit my parents (i.e. some time ago now), I stumbled across a pair of fingerless gloves in what was my old bedroom. They were tucked away in a drawer of a long-forgotten wardrobe. I fished them out and brought them back with me, and then tucked them away in a drawer here. Fast forward to winter, scrabbling around in said drawer for something to keep warm, I actually fished them out and put them on.

At this point, I should make it clear that in every material way these are completely unremarkable: a simple pair of black fingerless gloves. The label inside tells me they were made by Damart, a company that is incredibly still going but at the time I would have dismissed as "makes thermal clothes for old people". But it's that "at the time" that is so important, and why the feeling that putting them on triggered was so visceral. For these gloves were a mainstay of my wardrobe in the late 80s and early 90s - if I was going out and the weather was anything less than clement, than I would either wear the gloves or at the very least have them in my jacket pocket. Putting them on again after thirty years was momentarily transformative, transporting me back to how I dressed, looked and felt back then.

Aside from the fact that I had a lot more hair, no glasses and a smaller waistline, how else did I dress, look and feel for a night out in the late 80s? Well, I would have been wearing jeans with a belt, though no belt was strictly needed. The bottom of each leg would have been folded in on itself to reduce the width, and then folded up into the world's thinnest, sharpest turn-up. Below them would sit a pair of black suede shoes, regularly restained with some kind of weird dye that came in a plastic tube with a sponge applicator on top; this was to maintain maximum blackness, you didn't want to be turning out with grey suede shoes. I probably wore white socks with these, most of the time, for contrast. On top, I would have had a band t-shirt (my Wedding Present George Best shirt and Smiths Hatful of Hollow did particularly sterling service), although other T's that I wore to death featured Diana Rigg (this pic) and Audrey Hepburn (this pic) - I thought myself so cultured, and wanted people (who am I kidding, girls) to see that, but it was all academic because I would immediately have layered a shirt over the t-shirt, though the shirt would have been half-unbuttoned, leaving a V of the t-shirt visible to anyone who was interested. I mean, no-one was interested, but the thought was there. One such shirt was a special favourite, grey with green stitching and tiny white buttons, slightly over-sized but bought cheaply in a little clothes shop called Marcus, just across from the post office in town, a shop that was like Mr Byrite but, can you believe, even cheaper.

To top it all off, I would have had a denim jacket over the shirt, in cooler weather at least, the sleeves of which were long enough to pull down over my hands. The collar wouldn't have been down but neither would it have been fully turned up - hey, this was the 80s, not the 50s, after all. But it would have been sort of half turned up. Similarly, the jacket wouldn't be done up, but then it wouldn't be totally undone either - just the bottom button would be fastened. And finally, the black fingerless gloves. Not full gloves, heavens no, fingerless, mandatory. Quite a look, eh? Calm yourselves, ladies.

Anyway, the reason I know I wore these from the late 80s and not earlier is that the previous pair of fingerless gloves in my wardrobe went onto a post-pub beach bonfire with The Man Of Cheese, when we ran out of anything else to burn. I know, I know, but you made your own fun after a night drinking cheap cider in The Royal Oak, especially when there was nowhere else to go and nothing else to do.

It was a golden time though.

Later, as the 90s got going, the black suede shoes were replaced, first by a battered pair of desert boots with green laces, later by a pair of cherry red 8-hole Doc's. The white socks were replaced with black. Reluctantly, the grey shirt with green stitching got replaced too, as did the denim jacket, both usurped in a bold two-for-one move as I adopted a purple jumper that I wore to death, anywhere, for anything, until it basically fell apart. The jumper/jeans/boots combo became my new outfit, my new uniform, the new version of me.

Putting on those fingerless gloves again, for the first time in more than thirty years, was weird. The world has moved on. I have moved on. In many ways, my time is no longer golden. But just for a moment I was transported back, and instead of being a middle-aged man walking to the shop to buy some milk I was a kid again, '87 maybe, walking with The Man Of Cheese through his home town to meet other school friends in the park, maybe have a sneaky drink from a giant plastic bottle of Strongbow or Woodpecker that we'd pass around, before heading off to a disco in a faded seafront hall, where the big attraction might be a personal appearance by whichever member of Grange Hill had recently outgrown the series and was trying to establish a career for themselves beyond kids' TV. Flirting with girls, circling and being circled by the opposite sex. A time when just kissing one of them would be considered a success worthy of punching the air on the way home. Of sleeping it all off on a Z-bed at The Man Of Cheese's, knowing that you'd be doing it all again in seven days time. It probably sounds very tame to the sixteen year olds of today, but it wasn't, you know, it really wasn't.

All this from pulling on an old pair of gloves ... sigh. A song is in order, I think. This isn't from 1987, nor is it about gloves, but it does seem very appropriate. Plus it's a cracker, and if you don't agree then I'm sorry but you're wrong.

Your favourite shirt is on your bed, do a somersault on your head...

Monday 8 March 2021

Twenty-one in '21: All My Colors

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 one books in 2021. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

2/21: All My Colors by David Quantick

The blurb: From Emmy-award winning author David Quantick, All My Colors is a darkly comic novel about a man who remembers a book that may not exist, with dire consequences. A bizarre, mind-bending story at the intersection of Richard Bachman, Charlie Kaufman and Franz Kafka.

It is March 1979 in DeKalb Illinois. Todd Milstead is a wannabe writer, a serial adulterer, and a jerk, only tolerated by his friends because he throws the best parties with the best booze. During one particular party, Todd is showing off his perfect recall, quoting poetry and literature word for word plucked from his eidetic memory. When he begins quoting from a book no one else seems to know, a novel called All My Colors, Todd is incredulous. He can quote it from cover to cover and yet it doesn’t seem to exist.

With a looming divorce and mounting financial worries, Todd finally tries to write a novel, with the vague idea of making money from his talent. The only problem is he can’t write. But the book – All My Colors – is there in his head. Todd makes a decision: he will “write” this book that nobody but him can remember. After all, if nobody’s heard of it, how can he get into trouble?

As the dire consequences of his actions come home to both Todd and his long-suffering friends, it becomes clear that there is a high – and painful – price to pay for his crime.

The review: This caught me completely on the hop.

Like you, I was familiar with David Quantick largely from his music journalism - he started out with the NME before graduating as reviewer gun-for-hire with Q and Word, to name but two. I was less aware that he wrote comedy for television too, but he has an impressive list of credits there (Spitting Image, The Day Today, Brass Eye, The Thick Of It and TV Burp, to name but a few). But I bought this book on the strength of his music writing, which I always enjoyed, and the intriguing premise, above. And, despite the slightly fantastical nature of that premise, I was expecting either a suspense or a comedy, based on that "how can he get into trouble?" But I should have paid more attention to the blurb. For whilst this is certainly suspenseful, and there is plenty of humour too, the real thrust of this novel is best described in that first line: "the intersection of Richard Bachman, Charlie Kaufman and Franz Kafka." This story has a dark underbelly, an uncanny nature that is not to be found, I'm guessing, in the on-the-face-of-it-similar Richard Curtis film Yesterday. Telling, also, that the publishers reference Richard Bachman in the blurb, rather than Stephen King; they're trying to appeal to genre aficianados. They want readers who are in the know.

It's a good touchstone for this book, especially given that it concerns a writer, his troubles writing, the dark side of the craft. That's a common King trope, as you probably know. Here, Quantick (who himself has written two non-fiction books on being a writer) picks up this theme and really runs with it. This is King material, but King if he'd grown up in Plymouth instead of Maine. And (I say this as a huge King fan) it's King if he was more focused, less prone to over-writing, sharper in the denouement. In short, it's bloody good.

Quantick's dry humour runs throughout the prose, and is especially effective when applied to our (anti-) hero Milstead and Behm, the private investigator he hires (brilliantly, concisely, vividly characterised, by the way). It's an essential element to the storytelling too, the smiles such writing can prompt, as it helps to balance out the darkness... and there is plenty of darkness. Adultery, dependence, mental health issues, death and, let's stop beating about the bush, something both sinister and supernatural going on beyond our protagonist's control... it's all here.

And it's all so readable; I honestly can't remember the last time I read a full novel in less than 24 hours but that's what happened with All My Colors. It's a terrible old cliché, I know, but I really couldn't put it down.

What else? Well, what a reader likes and dislikes in a writer's style is, of course, subjective, but you'll recall from my last review, of Simon Mayo's Knife Edge, that I found some stylistic issues, authorial habits that grated. Well, there are none here at all. It is an utter joy to read, an intriguing premise so satisfyingly realised. It's the sort of book I wish I'd written myself, that's how much I enjoyed it.

The bottom line: dark in tone and humour, this is an impossible-to-put-down tale straight from the Twilight Zone, all wrapped up in perfect late-70s period detail. Very highly recommended.

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

Sunday 7 March 2021

Sunday shorts: The Moneygoround

No, not the Style Council track of the same name but this, from The Kinks' 1970 album Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One. One YouTube commenter nails it in asking "Has there ever been a song that has such an incredible balance between hilarious and absolutely heartbreaking?"

More to the point, has there ever been such a short song with so many lyrics?

Whatever, it's enough to warrant a temporary resurrection of the Sunday shorts theme. Here you go.

Friday 5 March 2021

Blue Friday: Wendell Gee

According to Michael Stipe, "Wendell Gee was a death dream where I was buried in a hollowed out log with this metal mesh kind of lizard skin over the top and I could hear and talk, but all of the alive people could not hear me. Like a ghost. I stole the name from the highway between Athens, Georgia and Jefferson, Georgia, where I would visit with R.A. Miller in the early 80’s. It was one of the few really autobiographic but from dreamworld lyrics that I wrote; shortly after that I barely ever injected real life situations into the songs or lyrics, instead focusing on what I felt was my strong suit as a writer." Specifically, the name that Stipe stole belonged to the former proprietor of Wendell Gee Used Cars, on U.S. Route 129, near Gainesville, Georgia.

...all of which is irrelevant to me reminding myself how much I love IRS-era R.E.M., and that the plaintive chorus and banjo solo in this make it a fine Blue Friday track.

Wednesday 3 March 2021

Twenty-one in '21: Knife Edge

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 one books in 2021. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

1/21: Knife Edge by Simon Mayo

The blurb: 6.45am. A sweltering London rush hour. And in the last 27 minutes, seven people have been murdered.

In a series of coordinated attacks, seven men and women across London have been targeted. For journalist Famie Madden, the horror unfolds as she arrives for the morning shift.

The victims have one thing in common: they make up the investigations team at the news agency where Famie works. The question everyone’s asking: what were they working on that could prompt such brutal devastation?

As Famie starts to receive mysterious messages, she must find out whether she is being warned of the next attack, or being told that she will be the next victim...

The review: I wasn't going to do this again, having missed by target in 2019 and 2020 and with reading time at a premium, but here we are. Perhaps I will have more time to read whilst bike training. Also, this isn't the sort of book I would normally buy, but I was tempted into parting with my hard-earned because I like Simon Mayo. I will listen to any radio show with him at the helm, and have done so since he was the pre-ginger breakfast DJ on Radio 1. His more recent Radio 2 drivetime show was like a balm for the soul, and he even manages to make Mark Kermode more bearable. I was pre-disposed to liking Simon's book, in other words: I wanted to like it.

And I did... ish... mostly. There are plenty of plus points. Mayo uses his knowledge of the media well, especially in the opening chapters, and builds a completely authentic-feeling news agency environment. It also feels like he's done his research when it comes to extremist organisations, and the environment in which they operate. Add to that the fact that his plot - terror attacks targeting journalists in seemingly motiveless, co-ordinated operations - feels very now, if not quite the unusual now of 2020/21. So why do I only like this, ish?

Well, it's the little things. I haven't read any of Mayo's other fiction, but in Knife Edge at least he seems to have a habit of introducing every new character with a literal physical description, as in "Six two, white, mid-fifties, safari suit..." and "a young twenty-six, wild, curly blonde hair and a slender frame." "Five six, gangly and with an eager-to-please smile." I could go on. I get that maybe it's a deliberate stylistic choice, a nod to hardboiled detective fiction perhaps. But every time it happened, it grated with me, because it feels like the sort of writing you get encouraged to do at primary school and then encouraged not to do on creative writing courses. I don't need to know he's exactly 6'2", do I? If he's tall, show me he's tall by having him look down at someone else. If he's mid-fifties, don't tell me that, but show me that he's a bit slower getting up that younger colleagues, or something like that.

The other slightly annoying habit Mayo has, here at least, is dropping into overly sparse prose at moments of high tension, sometimes resorting to a string of isolated verbs. "Slowing. Stopping. Reversing. Parking." I know why he's doing it - change of style = change of pace, staccato prose = heightened tension - but it's done too often, for this reader. It jars, and upsets the flow of an otherwise pleasing, flowing style.

I should say, for clarity, that there is a lot to like here: good research will only take you so far, but on top of that Mayo has a fine plot, and he can undoubtedly write. Not only that, but the story picks up pace as it progresses, and the conclusion fairly rattles along (albeit with a plot twist that's never really satisfactorily explained). It's just that I think this could have been even better. I don't think this book would have been published in this form if the author didn't come with a degree of fame attached, and that's no disrespect to Mayo but more to his editor(s) who, I think, could have wielded their pens a little more and turned this from decent pot-boiler with occasional Dan Brown tendencies into the cracking thriller it clearly aspired to be. Never underestimate the power of a good editor.

The bottom line: good, not great, but timely and well-researched thriller that would have benefited from better editing.

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