Tuesday 30 November 2021

If I ruled the world, et cetera...

Last night, for reasons I won't go into, I went to bed musing on how annoying I find the modern act of people applauding themselves. God, it bugs me. Why do they do it? And when did it start? It certainly wasn't like that in the 70s and 80s, was it? Nor the early 90s, unless I'm misremembering? But how, when and (most of all) why did that start being a thing?

I was still thinking about it when I woke up, but more in the context of this question: if you ruled the world, what trivial, inconsequential aspect of modern life would you do away with? I'm not talking about the big stuff, like Trident or MPs lobbying for their second employers or Brexit or punitive social care reform, or anything like that. No, the trivial stuff that would make no material difference to life, other than to make it better for you. For me, people applauding themselves would have to stop ... and okay, full disclosure, this was triggered by catching a bit of the late-night re-run of Graham Norton's chat show last night. All the guests were at it, so much so that I wondered if they are told to do it by the floor manager, to get the crowd and viewers into a happy-clappy mood. Whatever, it gets my goat, and seems vainglorious. Having said that maybe it is very much in keeping with the "look at me, me, me" age in which we live. Urgh.

Anyway... what trivial aspect of our rubbish modern life winds you up, whilst simultaneously not really mattering one iota? Answers on a postcard to the usual address, i.e. the comments.

Of course, all of this "if I ruled the world" nonsense is really just an excuse to post an excellent live rendition of We Could Be Kings by Gene, from an indecent number of years ago.

Friday 26 November 2021

Worth getting (back) into bed with the House of Mouse for

I've only seen part one of Peter Jackson's Beatles doc Get Back, but even that is enough for me to be able to tell you, it's astonishing.

The premise? In January 1969, The Beatles holed up in a film studio in Twickenham for two weeks to write and record a new album, whilst a film crew captured the entire process. Amazing, and not least because, despite the obvious time pressure, they only worked Monday to Friday - clearly work-life balance was important to them. They started with no songs, gave themselves a fortnight and, on top of that, they planned their first live show for more than two years for the end of the session.

Of course, the wheels came off at times. Much was made of how the original film Let It Be portrayed a dissolving Beatles, full of mutual resentment and animosity, and that's no surprise really - they'd lived, under extreme pressure, in each other's pockets for the best part of a decade, but were no longer four lads putting in a shift on the Reeperbahn, they were the four biggest stars in the world, with wives and lives and interests of their own. You'd be worried if there weren't some tensions, wouldn't you? All of this culminates in a brilliant cliffhanger at the end of part one, when George quits the band; "See you round the clubs," he says, and walks out. The remaining members respond initially by trying to joke it off (John talks of how they will split George's guitars) and how they might continue (John, again, says "We'll get Clapton") but, as the remaining band members and their crew discuss options for the proposed live show, it takes producer George Martin to point out that the show is the least of their problems at the moment, i.e. without George. There's a poignant shot of the page from George's diary that reads something like "Got up. Went to Twickenham, rehearsed until lunchtime - left The Beatles - went home." And there's an even more poignant shot of the three remaining Beatles having a brief group hug at the end of that Friday, as the enormity of how things are derailing hits them - all the more poignant, in fact, because it's not an over-the-top, mindful-of-who's-watching, 21st Century showbiz hug, but a gentle, slow, clustering together. Anyway... the episode concludes with a still of Ringo's house, and a caption telling us that the four, plus Yoko and Linda, met there the following weekend, and that the meeting "did not go well".

Well, spoiler alert, obviously George returned to the fold and things proceeded. But even though I know the basics of what happened next, I can't wait for part two to see how the atmosphere was the next Monday morning in the studio...

It's too much to write a long review pulling out everything that was interesting - as I say, I've only watched (all 157 minutes of) part one thus far, and even that needs describing in minute detail to do it all justice. So instead, I'll just bulletpoint some general observations, in no particular, thus:

  • Even though Paul and John are writing songs separately by this point, they are still very much a team, bouncing ideas of each other. Even George Martin refers to them as "our team"...
  • ...so it's no surprise that George finds it hard to get his songs heard. He demos All Things Must Pass and I Me Mine to his bandmates, and they are ... whelmed, at best.
  • This seems to lead into a repeated theme of George's that he is undervalued. At one point, he says to others, "You need Eric Clapton," to which John replies, quick as a flash, "You need George Harrison."
  • At the start of the process, the band seem almost surprised at the film crew, and are visibly shocked to learn that their conversations are being recorded. A 2021 band would be shocked if they weren't, wouldn't they?
  • John was last to arrive most days, and had Yoko in tow most (but not all) of the time too. One Monday morning, Ringo is last to arrive, and looks a little the worse for wear, like he has had a heavy weekend. We've all been there, right?
  • Linda pops up one day, camera in hand, snapping the band. The film crew capture her and Yoko having a right old chinwag - I'm wondering whether any lip-readers have decoded their conversation yet?
  • Ringo says very little, but just gets his head down and does what the others ask of him.
  • Everyone smokes ... a lot. And whilst there was alcohol on the set, it was limited to the odd glass of wine and a couple of bottled beers. The most visible drink, by far, is cups of tea.
  • Paul seems most focused, most driven, and to have more of an idea of what the band should be aiming for in their limited time. Although a positive, this is also a cause of some of the tension, as others (notably George), don't necessarily have the same vision... but don't really have viable alternatives to put forward either.
  • There's one scene when, seemingly for fun, Yoko gets behind the mic for a song apparently entitled John. That's when you want to put the kettle on, if I'm honest.
  • The band just sit in a tight circle, on wooden chairs, face to face, and create... and it's astonishing. You get to watch as Paul conjures first the riff, then some fledgling words, for Get Back out of the ether. Then he and George bounce it around. Later, we see Paul, George and Ringo working through a more developed version of the song. John arrives from somewhere, picks up his guitar and seamlessly joins in. Here's a band who are still tight, even though they haven't played live together for the longest time - they are still in-tune with each other musically, even if mentally they are starting to go their separate ways.

I could go on and on and on, I really could. I'm not a Beatles obsessive, far from it, but I'm finding this absolutely compelling. And the digital restoration, well - it looks like it could have been filmed yesterday. We have never seen The Beatles like this.

I took out a one month subscription of Disney+ to be able to watch this, and you should too because it really is that good. Yes, it'll cost you eight quid, but that's cheaper than a cinema ticket, right? Just don't forget to cancel again in a month's time, okay? In the meantime, to whet your appetite further, here's the trailer and an extra little clip.

P.S. Don't forget, you can get your "Bassman" t-shirt, inspired by the sticker on Paul's bass throughout Get Back, right here.

Blue Friday: Are The Children Happy?

I wrote a lot about Cathal Smyth's debut solo album when it came out, back in 2015. I made it my album of the year, in fact.

I don't think he's done too much since. In 2017, he announced that he'd had surgery for a brain tumour, followed by radiotherapy. I guess that would give anyone enough to keep them occupied. More recently, he was involved in his former band's autobiographical project Before We Was We.

But this is Blue Friday, so let's revisit that solo album and what, for me, was the highlight, Are The Children Happy? a song that is both beautiful and yet utterly devastating.

Probably also time to remember when I posted my review of his album on Amazon, and he replied. Day made, etc...

Sunday 21 November 2021

Live weekend, part II: renewing an old acquaintance

Another scheduled post, written on Friday night, as I expect to be tired, hoarse and possibly a little hungover this morning (this was why).

Tonight, for part II of the live weekend, The Man of Cheese and I will be renewing a live performance relationship that goes back more than 30 years, as we take in C's favourites (I'll persuade you eventually) and the band I have seen live more times than any other: The Wedding Present. They're touring to celebrate 30 years of Seamonsters and, excitingly, bass player Melanie's solo side project Such Small Hands is the support act. Again, I cannot wait; the pre-Christmas Gedge gig had become something of a ritual for us, that it's nice to be able to resume after having to take last year off.

It's a small venue, so I fully expect to have lost a bit more hearing by this time tomorrow. What's a bit of tinnitus between friends? (Pardon?) Anyway, here's side one, track one from Seamonsters:

And here's Such Small Hands covering Adele because, why not?!

Saturday 20 November 2021

Live weekend, part I: farewell to the Rozzer

This is a scheduled post that I wrote last night, chiefly because, all things being equal, I'm going to be really busy this weekend.

First up, I shall be joining up with The Man of Cheese, whereupon we'll make our way to the Forum in Kentish Town to see the farewell performance by Martin Rossiter. He promises a long set - no support, just him all evening - covering his time in Gene as well as his more recent solo material. It' a gig that was supposed to happen last year, and has been postponed, deferred and rearranged so many times. I originally wrote about it back in August 2019.

So you can understand when I say I am looking forward to this, it's an understatement. But as well as excited, it also makes me sad, for two reasons: firstly, it's his last ever gig; and secondly, even for this swansong, he wouldn't go back on his word and get Gene together one last time. Oh well - it will still be fantastic. Here are some songs, starting with a video for which Martin sat in a walk-in freezer... talk about suffering for your art!

And some Gene - simply the best, and a song I fully expect the close the show.

Friday 19 November 2021

Blue Friday: Heart And Soul

Time to remedy the fact that in sixteen and a half years of occasionally intermittent blogging I somehow haven't featured anything by Joy Divsion.

What I'm not going to do is write about the tragedy of Ian Curtis, as I can't add anything that hasn't been written better elsewhere, by others more informed than I. What I will say is that this is a perfect Blue Friday tune: Barney's repetitive two-chord guitar line becomes oppressive, whilst Stephen's skittering drum beat is unsettling. Throw in a shed-load of reverb and lyrics like this, from the third verse, and you're there.

Existence, well, what does it matter?
I exist on the best terms I can
The past is now part of my future
The present is well out of hand

Think I need "I exist on the best terms I can" on a t-shirt. Anyway, from 1980's Closer, here's Heart And Soul.

Thursday 18 November 2021

Art for (sleeve) art's sake

I had an email today promoting the release of Knebworth 1996, a double CD of Oasis's era-defining live show of 25 years ago. I'm not bothered about it, and I won't be buying it, but have a look at the sleeve art:

Oasis, Knebworth 1996

It's proper crap, isn't it?

By all means tell me if I'm wrong but it looks like something a home-taper would knock up for their recording of the gig off the radio, and run off on their 90s inkjet printer. Or maybe, if you're feeling generous, a bootleg. To me, it just screams how little effort was put into this, all concerned being safe in the knowledge that it will sell well enough anyway.

I knocked up an alternative in ten short minutes, and that included searching for the images. But this feels more in keeping, doesn't it? And meets whatever design brief was presumably given stating that the cover must show Liam but not Noel:

I'm not wild about the title in black with a white drop-shadow, but wanted to keep to the monochrome palette of the photograph. And at least I used the proper logo.

Anyone else want to have a go? Doesn't matter how poor your design and/or IT skills are, whatever you come up with will almost certainly be better than the official sleeve art...

Wednesday 17 November 2021

Imitation, the sincerest form...

Earlier in the year, I had a bit of a sort out, and cleared out quite a few things I had been holding on to for a long time, usually for reasons lost in time (example finds here and here).

Here's another postcard that was loitering in my stationery drawer:

Bridge in the rain; after Hiroshige

It's Bridge in the rain; after Hiroshige by Vincent van Gogh, painted by him in Paris at the tail-end of 1887. You can click the above to enlarge it for a closer view, and you should, because it's wonderful. I bought the postcard from the excellent Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, in 2017.

So, about that "after Hiroshige"... well, here's Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi Bridge and Atake by Utagawa Hiroshige, painted in Japan exactly 30 years earlier, and currently residing in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi Bridge and Atake

So although they were thirty years apart and on opposite sides of the world, van Gogh was sufficiently influenced by Hiroshige's work to have a go at his own interpretation. No mean feat in the 19th Century, pre-Internet, pre-television, pre-long-haul-flights. How did it come to his attention, I wondered? Turns out that like many European artists in the closing decades of the 1800s, van Gogh was inspired by the ukiyo-e woodblock prints which began to flood the West after Japan opened its harbours to foreign merchant ships in 1854. "I envy the Japanese for the enormous clarity that pervades their work," Vincent wrote to his brother Theo in 1888. "They draw a figure with a few well-chosen lines as if it were as effortless as buttoning up one's waistcoat."

Of course, you can follow the chain of influence further back. Here's Sea at Satta, Suruga Province painted by Hiroshige in 1858.

Sea at Satta, Suruga Province

And here's The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai, in 1831.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa

There's nothing new under the sun, is there?

Of all these wonderful paintings, it's van Gogh's dark homage that appeals most to my current state of mind. So here's a rain-themed tune to round things off, from an up-and-coming beat combo who look like they could go far.

Monday 15 November 2021

Monday long song: I Am European

Because I still haven't gotten over Brexit, here's Gavin Osborn, pitched somewhere between Billy Bragg and Mitch Benn, lamenting our national introspection, inversion and lessening.

I am European too.

Friday 12 November 2021

Blue Friday: The End Of The World

As the COP26 circus draws to a close, with an agreement to keep making the right noises but not actually do enough to keep temperature rise under 1.5°C, well, this song chooses itself, doesn't it?

The only issue was which version? I considered Skeeter Davis's original, and the Herman's Hermits cover recently re-popularised by the excellent Queen's Gambit. But in the end, Patti Smith's interpretation best suits my mood. It too has seen soundtrack use, in Darren Aronofsky's Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem-powered Mother!

Monday 8 November 2021

Monday long song: Out Of Control

Remembering that time Barney hooked up with Tom and Ed to craft this dark slice of pre-Millennial dance angst. From 1999's Surrender, here's the full-fat version of Out Of Control.

Sunday 7 November 2021

Sunday shorts: Vic

I have always rather liked Animals That Swim. I saw them live, back in the mid 90s, though I can't remember exactly when, where or who they were supporting. I remember being struck by vocalist Hank Starrs who also played drums - he had a very minimal (three-piece, from memory) kit set up next to his mic stand and played it, standing up, whilst singing. Okay, so I can't remember who that night's headliners were, but I can picture Hank, clear as a bell.

Anyway, here's a short song from debut album Workshy. Considering the vocals don't start until 53 seconds in, it's remarkable that this little short story takes in waiting for a bus on the Uxbridge Rd, a betting shop customer, Vic Chesnutt and Surfin' USA. Oh, and beer - "you know, that brown beer..."

After a stop-start career, Animals That Swim are still a going concern - here's their Bandcamp.

Saturday 6 November 2021

Twenty-one in '21: Airhead

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.

Airhead by Emily Maitlis

16/21: Airhead by Emily Maitlis

The blurb: The news has never been more prominent - but are we getting the full story? Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis gives us a behind-the-scenes look at some of the biggest news stories and interviews of recent years.

In this no holds barred account of life in the seconds before, during and after going on air, Newsnight presenter, leading journalist, and queen of the side eye Emily Maitlis gives us the insider info on what we don't get to see on-screen.

Giving us the inside scoop on her interviews with everyone from Emma Thompson to Russell Brand, and Donald Trump to Tony Blair, as well as covering news stories such as President Clinton's affairs, Boris Johnson's race to PM, Grenfell, #MeToo, and that interview with Prince Andrew.

Airhead is a brilliant exposé of the moments that never make the news.

The review: you've got to love Emily Maitlis, not only for her ability to skewer interviewees but also for her opening and closing monologues on Newsnight. Yes, she's a journalist, and bound by the need for impartiality that the BBC rightly cherishes, but that doesn't stop her judging the public mood, and making the points that we, the viewers, want making. Here's a Newsnight intro on Dominic Cummings as an example.

Of course, the headline attraction for this book is the stellar cast of interviewees that Maitlis has been able to attract over the years, nearly all of whom are identifiable by surname alone: Clinton, Blair, May, Attenborough, the Dalai Lama, Morgan, Brand, Thompson, Bannon, Spicer, Scaramucci, Ramsey, Comey ... Partridge. That the book opens with Donald Trump and closes with Prince Andrew tells you all you need to know: Maitlis is a big hitter, and deservedly so.

Of course the real interest here is what lies behind the interviews. After all, if you just want to rewatch Maitlis at work, well, that's what YouTube is for (for example, Prince Andrew or post-Grenfell May). Indeed, re-watching these interviews after reading the book is fascinating - it is as if an extra dimension has been added. And that's for two reasons: firstly, Emily has provided context, not just for the interview but to the process her team had gone through to secure it; and secondly, there is extra detail about the interviewee, from Emily's perceptions and moments off camera. Indeed, the Theresa May interview that I just linked to is a case in point: Maitlis had helped at Grenfell in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, and this had naturally given her a strong perspective on what was needed from the prime minister of the day. And yet she writes, "...I must ask questions that I imagine every reporter would ask in my shoes. And it is hard because - in truth - I have sympathy for Theresa May, who is in a wretched position amidst a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. The woman looks shattered, sleepless and distraught. I am in no doubt that she has felt this horror deeply but believed it more important to do than to emote. What else would you expect of a vicar's daughter from Eastbourne? It seems completely understandable. " She continues, "But I learnt a very important lesson that evening: I had to do the interview that the moment required." Compare Emily's sentiment and impressions of May to the "Maybot Malfunction" headlines the Daily Mail ran with after this interview.

And that's what makes this book so fascinating - the extra layers to the story that Maitlis adds, the before, during and after, the context, the extra details. That she brings life to heavy subject matter is testament to a fluid prose style; that she makes her interviewees seem even more interesting can only be attributed to her insights, which are rarely less than incisive. What's interesting about those, of course, is that Emily plays them down, often arriving at them in a kind of "I can't believe I hadn't realised it earlier but..." style. It is disarming, and refreshingly honest.

What this book boils down to, of course, is a glimpse behind the curtain of the modern news machine, and lucky for us the person lifting that curtain is a master of her craft. Luckier still is that she has an engaging, often humourous style that keeps the pages turning nicely. I opened this review by saying, "You've got to love Emily Maitlis" - even if you didn't before you read this book, you will by the end of it.

The bottom line: fascinating, funny and very readable account of Maitlis's "greatest hits" that those with an interest in current affairs will devour, but Newsnight virgins should love too.

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

Friday 5 November 2021

What do you call today?

Now revel in the comic brilliance of this rap battle between Che Guevara and Guy Fawkes. Yes, I know, it's what you've always wanted.

Thursday 4 November 2021

More new to NA... The Lanes

I don't know what I like most about this song - the repetitive, jingle-jangle guitar, the lyrics, or something else that I can't put my finger on. But this is the new (debut?) single from The Lanes. A quick peak at their Soundcloud suggests this is rapid progress from their earlier live demo recordings. And what about those lyrics, just how now are they?

Take your time to pass it by
Don’t forget to say goodbye
You’ll regret it over time
When you're missing everything you knew
It’s getting harder to motivate myself
And getting up is still an issue

But there’s a locked up safe
Where I’m feeling good
And no one really cares for any politics
And the nights won’t end
And you say you need me
For once

Hmm, there are a couple of lines there that I can really empathise with. You?

I don't know much else about The Lanes, other than that by applying Holmesian deductive reasoning I'm going to hazard a guess that they met at university, and that they've taken their name from an area of Norwich. Who knows if I'm right? Either way, I quite like this song, even though there's a moment around 2:34 that is crying out for a better producer, in my view. Anyway, see what you think...

Wednesday 3 November 2021

Music Assembly: La Mamma Morta

This might be the last Music Assembly post I do for a while, as my blog stats tell me they're not very popular, and they generate very little discussion in the comments. Not that blogging is a popularity contest (I'd be last if it was) but, you know. Anyway, here goes.

I've mentioned Philadelphia here before, Jonathan Demme's 1993 response to the AIDS crisis. And you all know the story, don't you: when a man with HIV (Tom Hanks, as Andy) is fired by his law firm because of his condition, he hires a homophobic small time lawyer (Denzel Washington, as Joe) as the only willing advocate for a wrongful dismissal suit. It scooped an Oscar for Hanks, and another for Bruce Springsteen's title song.

Anyway, there's a scene two thirds of the way through the film when, after a party, Andy and Joe are prepping for their next day in court. Andy puts on some music and asks Joe, "Do you like opera?" And Joe is me and nearly everyone I hold dear when he hesitantly replies, shaking his head, "I am not that familiar with opera." Whereupon Andy goes on to explain why he loves this piece so much, translating the storyline as he goes and highlighting the musical highpoints ("Oh, that single cello!") Now depending on your view of Hanks, you might think this is a terrific scene in a powerful film, or borderline hammy, or somewhere in-between; either way, you have to admire the lighting with credit, presumably, to cinematographer Tak Fujimoto. I remember thinking, when I first saw it all those years ago, that it was a scene that reinforced the fact that a man with so much to live for was going to die - there would be no happy ending, of course. You might also argue that it's a scene in which straight character Joe is momentarily enraptured by a gay man. But I don't really want to turn this into a film studies class on early 90s cinema. It's the music we're here for. It is, as Andy says, Maria Callas singing an aria from Andrea Chénier by Umberto Giordano. It's La Mamma Morta, literally The Dead Mother - a song of death and sorrow, and misplaced hope. What makes it for me, though, beyond Callas's voice or the story, are the swooping key changes between 2:26 and 2:56 in this film clip. and again from 3:39 onwards. For here it is, in its cinematic context...

...and in full.

Monday 1 November 2021

Misplaced COPtimism

Show your stripes

I'd like to feel optimistic about COP26, I really would. People in high places are making the right noises, after all, with Johnson's "one minute to midnight" soundbite and Charles Charlie-Charles calling for a military-style response to the problem. But people in high places always make the right noises, don't they? And most often before doing exactly what they always wanted, rather than what others need.

The trouble, I guess, is that environmental decision-making is a political issue, and what are elections if not a popularity contest? Taking tough decisions on the environment might win some votes, but raising taxes to pay for them or saying "you can't do these things that you like doing any more" is likely to lose more. Cynical of me to suggest, I know, but I do think a lot of politicians, especially those in high office, are primarily concerned with simply keeping themselves and their mates in power. It's why governments can make lots of noise about climate change and their green credentials whilst continuing to grant licenses for the extraction of fossil fuels.

The obvious choice of song for the end-of-world pessism I feel today would be REM, of course. But why be obvious? Here are four lads from Hull who, by their own admission, were "quite good". I doubt they wrote this about climate change, but it seems to fit nicely.

Greenpeace have written a really excellent précis of COP26 for those that want to know more, which concludes with a call to get involved with local protest on Saturday 6th. Worth a read, I think.