Friday, September 24, 2010

Today's show is brought to you by the letter B - for boob

Run for your lives, people. For Hell has opened up and all its demonic residents running amok: cartoon popstrel Katy Perry has appeared on Sesame Street with Elmo in a low-cut dress (Perry, that is. Not Elmo).

Apparently, the sight of La Perry's d├ęcolletage as she performs Hot N Cold alongside the gangly red Muppet has sent the conservative American parental lobby mental, prompting a "barrage" of complaints (which usually means just a handful) which, in turn, forced producers to yank the clip from repeat screenings.

Commenting, the show's producers gave the following, somewhat non sequitur explanation: "Sesame Street has always been written on two levels, for the child and adult. We use parodies and celebrity segments to interest adults in the show because we know that a child learns best when co-viewing with a parent or care-giver."

It's always good to see broadcasters exercise such good judgement after they've recorded a programme, especially as, in this case, Perry is unlikely to have turned up on the Sesame Street set in the dress without someone first judging whether it was suitable for children. Clearly it was. (Ironic that Perry's paramour is Russell Brand, himself the subject of post-broadcast judgement in what inevitably became known as 'Sachsgate').

It's hard to know what is going to corrupt a child more: the sight of Perry's embonpoint squeezed into a yellow bustier dress, or a bunch of right-wing puritans frothing at the mouth over a childlike pop star performing a fun song with a puppet. For a start, children are usually pretty much accustomed to the chest area already; secondly, by Perry's standards, this was a tasteful outfit, and thirdly, it could have been worse: Lady Gaga.

Judge for yourself:

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Kicking The Tyres: The Risks Of Buying Retreads

What does a rock star do when he's run out of ideas? When writer's block or contractual obligations hinder creativity, your average legend falls back on the dreaded covers album, explained blandly as: "It's been something I've been wanting to do for ages, but never found the time." This is a statement hewn from the same block as "It's part of a musical trilogy I'm working on in D-minor, which is the saddest of all keys", which, all fans of 'ver Tap' will know, is Nigel Tufnel's pre-amble to announcing Lick My Love Pump.

Covers have been with us since Moses was in short trousers: who hasn't started out in a garage trying to navigate stubby fingers around someone else's chords? Even The Beatles were ripping off Chuck Berry when they began. Some bring something new - Otis Redding's cover of Satisfaction, or the totally different approach of Joe Cocker's A Little Help From My Friends. Then there are the novelties: Rolf Harris covering Stairway To Heaven was a clear nadir in a litany of atrocities, although David Lee Roth's California Girls comes close. Entire albums of cover versions, on the other hand, have more nefarious connotations.

No matter how much justice is done, covers albums are rarely a good thing. Most are exercises in laziness, others, outlets for vanity. This month we get two contrasting examples of the genre: Phil Collins' Going Back - a retread of soul classics - and Robert Plant's Band of Joy, a compilation of obscurities drawn not so much from the American Songbook, as brought down from a dusty attic and hand-written on parchment.

Taking pot-shots at Collins has been something of a media spectator sport over the last 30 years. I admit (puts reputation on the line here) to being something of an apologist for the bloke who rarely gets credit for being a unique drummer. Rather than a unique singer. Despite the wry giggle we had when he took You Can't Hurry Love to No.1 with its ironic video (multiple Phils wearing bum-freezer suits and Wayfarers), the prospect of a 60-year-old from Hounslow recreating the 40-year-old Motown sound for, apparently, his own indulgence is, as vanity projects go, dangerously close to pub band territory. Let's leave it there before I say something I'll regret.

The covers album, however, doesn't have to represent a complete abandonment of credibility: Robert Plant has, since his multi-Grammy-winning Raising Sand with Alison Krauss, and his brief return to Led Zeppellin, cemented himself as the elder statesman who can do no wrong (we'll forget Now And Zen...). In teaming up with a collective of Nashville musicians, Plant builds on Raising Sand with a rich, varied and intriguing trek through Americana. From blues (Lightnin' Hopkins' Central Two-O-Nine) to Appalachian folk, Plant immerses himself into a love of backwoods music which belies his West Bromwich origins and, disappointing for some, takes him even further away from the lucrative lure of a full Zep reunion.

One man's loving homage is another's rank laziness. Paul Weller lost serious cred with his knocked-out-in-an-hour-so-he-could-hit-the-coffee-shops-of-Amsterdam covers album Studio 150. Writer's block offers little real excuse.  Doffing a cap to heritage is, in Plant's case, it would appear, OK.

Eric Clapton has made it his stock-in-trade in recent years, returning repeatedly to the Robert Johnson/Delta Blues oeuvre in deference to doing anything new. But when you've reached your sixties as a fabulously wealthy rock star, there's probably not much point discussing retiring to a cottage by the sea. Plant and Clapton, to their credit, don't make any bones about doing what they do for artistic progression. It's about celebrating the music they love, while growing old with some degree of grace.

Which brings me to, arguably, one of the most innovative covers albums, from someone who never fails to immerse himself with such iconoclastic zeal each time he knocks on the studio door. Peter Gabriel's Scratch My Back epitomises his relentless approach to Doing Things Differently Ans Awkwardly.

On his third album, he instructed his drummers (including Collins) to abandon cymbals, ridding his rhythm section of the punctuation of a crash after every phrase. In the process, Gabriel inadvertently helped create a You Tube gorilla phenomenon and a generation of bar room air drummers. On his fourth album, Gabriel applied more and more of the world music he has consistently championed, in his own work and in helping establish WOMAD, introducing Middle Eastern and Asian instrumentation and rhythmic influences to the 'western' notion of rock music.

Scratch My Back is, unashamedly, a covers album. Typically, it has the Gabriel twist: a collection of covers, performed orchestrally, of some of Gabriel's personal favourites - an eclectic mix spanning the likes of Arcade Fire, Paul Simon, Radiohead, Elbow, David Bowie, Lou Reed and Neil Young. The twist, in case you were still wondering, is that each of the covered artists will reciprocate with an equally different cover of one of Gabriel's canon (well, some of them - rumour has it that Radiohead got snippy about the reworking of Street Spirit). For all its novel approach, Scratch My Back and its eventual mirror, I'll Scratch Yours, is simply another way of avoiding writing anything new. But given Gabriel's legendary gestation of new material (10 years between his Us and Up albums), it might be overdoing it to expect the now sexagenarian Gabriel to repeat his relatively herculean effort in recording Us a mere six years after the hit-spawning So in 1986).

Gabriel has proven that, when bereft of any genuine originality, creativity doesn't have to be completely abandoned. Retreading the back catalogues of others can be a refreshing experience, especially when - as Gabriel has done - he removes any well-lit pathways to comfortable recognition. His painfully sparse version of Paul Simon's Boy In The Bubble, and his string-heavy interpretation of Heroes - it's chugging spine removed - are almost unnerving, challenging the listener by taking away all but the scantest traces of the familiarity bred by countless Top 40 radio plays.

But alas. Christmas is a-coming. And that means that, inevitably, record company press offices (not sure if they even still exist) will be drafting a new batch of press releases bearing the words "...his own, personal interpretation of classic songs...", a phrase which conjures all the dread and fear of an afternoon toasting marshmallows with Beelzebub himself. Which means, kids, when choosing this year's stocking fillers, you have choices. Real choices. Choose wisely.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Nine-Year Itch

Nine years ago today I woke up in my Californian apartment to strange news: at 6am I was up early to get ready for a trip to Amsterdam. I switched on CNN to see what was happening in the world, and was intrigued by reports of a plane - probably a light plane - hitting a building in New York. As I sat, eating my breakfast, I found myself being sucked into a story that would consume me for not only the following 12 hours, but would consume the world for the following decade.

I recall watching a ball of confusion roll itself tighter. Eyewitness accounts being relayed via television news anchors failed to clarify what kind of plane had hit what kind of building. In New York itself, however, the grim reality had already taken place. By the time I had woken up and switched on CNN, American Airlines Flight 11 had already crashed into the World Trade Center's North Tower (at 8.46am EST), followed by United Airlines' Flight 175, crashing into the South Tower 17 minutes later.

Unsatisfied with CNN's lack of information on what was still being regarded as a "small plane" crashing into a building. I began to flip around the main networks, hoping the breakfast news shows of NBC, CBS and ABC could shed some light. Everyone was speculating, but in that first hour, the consensus seemed to be that it was probably still just a light plane, or one of the tourist sight-seeing flights that criss-cross Manhattan like flies. What was unfolding was a fog of war as thick as any peasouper that had ever been. The confusion fuelled the intensity of my interest in the story.

That remained the pattern for the rest of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. For more or less 12 hours straight, I remained glued to the TV, fixated by a tragedy of unprecedented brutality.

Somewhere in that first hour I received a call from my boss in New York, who worked in one of the towers of the Rockerfeller Center, saying that they had been ordered to immediately evacuate, and that henceforth I would become the point of contact for all calls coming into our North American corporate headquarters. Without any time to explain, that was it. Click. There was no chance of ringing back to have it clarified, either, as mobile phone networks in Manhattan had descended into meltdown.

The horrific possibility that the plane crash in New York was in fact two, and that both were airliners, was just becoming apparent on the news when, at 9.37am EST, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. Within half-an-hour or so, rumours were circulating that a fourth plane was unaccounted for. United Flight 93.

Even though today we know the exact chronology of that morning, it still doesn't play out in real time in my mind. I've now seen the footage of the planes hitting the World Trade Center, and of the twin towers collapsing, so many times that I can't remember whether I watched it live or not. All I remember was, getting to around 6pm in the evening, having spent exactly half the day channel-surfing, and deciding it was time to get out of my pyjamas and get some fresh air. It was that kind of day. I had been flipping from channel to channel, hoping that each different TV station would carry better or more information than the previous. Time, frankly, became irrelevant. Every TV channel had suspended normal programming, and all were running 'zip strips' along the bottom of the screen to provide what information - if any - was known.

I got dressed, got into my car and drove north. I didn't have any real idea where I was going, I just needed to get out of the house and get some perspective on the day. As I drove up Highway 101 towards San Francisco, I was struck by two things: firstly, the Californian blue sky seemed strangely reminiscent of the sky in New York that had been so savagely penetrated earlier in the day by burning kerosene and falling steel. The second thing was how quiet it was. The San Francisco Bay Area is served by three large airports - San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose - and the daily soundtrack in the region is of planes flying overhead. But now - there was none. People were still going about their business, but there were fewer cars on the road, even though it was now what should have been the thick of the evening commute. Thinking about this silence, I drove to a spot in San Bruno overlooking San Francisco International Airport: it looked like a child's playset that had been abandoned for dinner - motionless planes seemed to be scattered all over the airport's taxiways, aprons and dispersal points, halted before they could reach the sky by the fact American airspace had been closed.

It was such a peaceful, placid scene: a complete contrast to the carnage on the streets of lower Manhattan and Washington, and in a Pennsylvania field. And the carnage that has since followed. In Afghanistan. In Iraq. On the London Underground. In Madrid.

9/11 changed the world in so many ways. For America, it represented something of a loss of innocence, that terror could be exported there. Travel, would never be the same again: the apparent freedom with which air travel in the US resembled getting on and off a bus would come to an end. The inconvenience, however, of having to go through increased airport security, will always be relative.

Nine years on, the events of the day seem no less brutal. The 3000 people who died that day, no less tragic than the tens of thousands who have since died in the 'war on terror'.  But to me, every time I look up into the azure sky on a sunny September morning, it's impossible for me not to think of that Tuesday morning in 2001.