Saturday, December 31, 2011

Annus mirabilis or annus terribilis?

It was no less a sage than Carrie Bradshaw who once mused in Sex And The City: "Maybe the past is like an anchor holding us back. Maybe, you have to let go of who you were to become who you will be." It is perfectly true that looking back, rather than the other direction, only relives troubling memories or revisits those we'd rather resign to the dark coffers of history. That said, the adage that knowing where you've come from helps where you're going also rings true.

The point of all this cod philosophy is that, this being New Year's Eve and all, I feel compelled to cast one final glance over the shoulder of a year which, on a personal level, could at the very least be described as 'odd', and on a global level, be described as relentless. I won't dwell here on the personal stuff, save to say that if 2011's emotional dips, peaks, twists and turns were to be turned into a theme park ride, Health & Safety would close it down in an instant.

The list of world events, however, warrants some reflection. Keeping pace with 'big' news this year has been the current affairs equivalent of running a long, punishing marathon with only a few stops for water and the odd embarrassing Paula Radcliffe roadside evacuation along the way.

In the year in which the world welcomed its seven billionth inhabitant, major news stories seemed to be bigger and more impactful: perhaps it was the way they were reported by the media that engorged them, but from the Arab Awakening and the Fukushima earthquake to Europe's economic disaster, the deaths of Steve Jobs and Osama Bin Laden to the deranged rampage of Anders Brevik, Charlie Sheen's very public meltdown and Amy Winehouse's somewhat inevitable demise to the bizarre case of Dominic Strauss-Kahn, England's summer riots and the Anglo-Saxon media's self-ingestion over phone hacking, there was a never-ending parade of news which just seemed that much bigger than usual.

Of all of them, it is the events that will continue into 2012 that deserve the most attention. Biggest of these is the revolution that swept the Middle East and North Africa. It actually began last December with the self-emoliation of a 26-year-old Tunisian fruit and vegetable seller, Mohammed Bouazizi. His act of fatal desperation lit the fuse of a conflagration that is burning still in Syria and smoldering elsewhere.

If the Vietnam War had been the first television war, the revolution that took hold in Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Libya and other countries in the region was the first to be initiated by and spread via social networking. The smartphone, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook became more powerful than any pitchfork or Molatov cocktail in the history of popular uprising, channels for disobedience, for liberty and retribution, conveying both brutal injustice as well as the brutal dispatch of an insane monster like Muammar Gaddafi.

Social networking tools evolved from frivolous platforms for sharing pictures of drunken nights out, commencing and ending relationships and posting inconsequential videos of cats playing musical instruments to outlets for freedom and ingenuity. People found a voice they either didn't have before, or were denied their right to exercise it in the first place.

At the arrival of 2012 nothing is more certain than it was one year ago. Europe continues to heave and groan amid the seismic contractions of its politically complex economy, and the Middle East continues to be a source of social unrest and even the resurgence of the sort of nuclear tension that kept an entire generation awake at night not so long ago.

To add to the uncertainty we have Iran rattling its sabre over oil and its own atomic ambitions and a North Korea run by, it would appear, a pudgy video gamer who has swapped his Xbox controls for a large red button labelled Use only if you wish to hold south-east Asia to ransom. Given that the Mayan calendar doesn't have a lot planned for 2013, there is much to be nervous about as we send fireworks into the night sky tonight.

Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A high-definition Christmas

By this time next week it will be all over. I’m not talking about the world, however, as that is not due to expire until next year.

No, by next Thursday Christmas will already be a fading memory and life will be returning to some semblance of normality after the annual orgy of food and wrapping paper.

I know it's all meant to be about the Nativity, but let’s face it, thanks to the consumer insurgency we all buy into, it has become a desperately anti-climactic festival of spending. Right now many of us are in a state of belligerent defiance mixed with blind panic, but in a few days from now, all that preparation and the weeks spent agonizing over the perfect gift which you then wrap with the precision of a master bomb maker, will have dissolved into a flurry of ripped paper amid fleeting hope passing rapidly into barely disguised disappointment.

In case any members of my family or diminishing circle of friends are reading this hokum (and apologies to regular WWDBD viewers for the apparent break in service – November appeared to have exhausted my writing mojo), all I want for Christmas this year is shiny, circular, measures about 12cm across, and can rightfully be described as the last physical media format I will ever own: Blu-ray Disc.

Despite having played a part in the launch of Blu-ray Disc in a former life - and the format itself being on the market since 2006 - I have hitherto resisted its charms. DVD, for the most part, has been a perfectly adequate format to enjoy movies and TV series in fantastic quality at home. The arrival of high-definition digital TV services and even the availability of HD movies via iTunes has also dented any urge to start building up more shelf-swamping content in a new physical form.

I know I’m not alone in this view – Blu-ray clearly has yet to become the true high-definition successor to DVD it was touted to be. I have happily embraced renting movies online as a means of ensuring my film collection doesn't end up occupuing another post code. In fact this time last year I was completing a significant rationalisation of both my CD and DVD collections, and I’ve maintained a notable abstinence this year in building the pile back up. Dangerously, perhaps, iTunes has made it easier to buy film and music on-spec that I probably wouldn't have bought had I gone to a shop. That said, in the process I’ve come across some gems.

So what tipped me over the edge and dragged me into my local FNAC to buy a Blu-ray Disc player? There were two factors: firstly, my ageing DVD/SACD player was suffering from wear-and-tear, and it was time to buy a replacement. The good people of a particular Japanese consumer electronics brand were helpfully put on the market a Blu-ray player that also played SACDs, so my investment in that format wouldn’t be forfeited. Secondly, the price of even a decent Blu-ray player has commoditised so sharply in the last five years that it was a steal.

There was a third factor: Mad Men. Walking through one of the few remaining HMV stores in London recently I saw a box set of the first four Mad Men seasons going for an absolute song. Knowing that amongst the many things Mad Men had been hailed for was its vivid, Technicolor art direction, it seemed a perfect match for the high-definition richness of Blu-ray Disc. I plunged in.

I wasn’t disappointed. It did, however, dawn on me, as I gorged on the glorious depiction of amorality in a 1960s Madison Avenue ad agency, that it created a paradox: here I was watching a TV show in pristine high-definition picture quality which is set in an era when television was a largely grey, fuzzy and intermittent affair. Then it didn’t have so much as an ‘interactive red button’, programmes didn’t communicate via Twitter, and changing channels involved getting off your arse and turning a dial.

The other irony about Mad Men is that I doubt if any of the characters would actually be alive today. For a start, no scene seems to be possible without everyone lighting up a cigarette, pouring a large measure of scotch or both, which means that most of the employees of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce would have dropped dead long ago from some variety of cancer – lung or oesophagal, take your pick. Mad Men’s Olympian levels of smoking was established early on. Indeed Page 1 of the script of the very first episode starts thus:

Alone in a red corner booth is DON DRAPER, early 30's, handsome, conservative, and despite his third old fashioned, he is apparently sober. He is doodling on a cocktail napkin.

He crosses something out, puts down his fountain pen, and taps a cigarette out of a pack of 'Lucky Strike'.

The BUSBOY, a middle-aged black man, too old for his tight uniform, approaches.

BUSBOY: Finished, sir?

DON: Yeah. Got a light?

The busboy pulls out a pack of matches from the back of his 'Old Gold’s' and lights Don's cigarette.

DON: Ah, an 'Old Gold' man.


'Lucky Strike', here.
Man Men’s high consumption of tobacco and Johnny Walker’s is matched only by the number of notches on the bedposts of the principle characters. There is more shagging going on at SCDP than even the members of Fleetwood Mac entertained with each other during the 70s and 80s. Most – if not all – of the agency’s male staff would have succumbed to some unpleasant disease of the genital district long before AIDS came along.

But I digress. Blu-ray Disc is having to co-exist with television and the Internet unlike any other format before it. In principle, it wins hands-down on the quality front, something film director Ridley Scott recently put forward in a blog article he wrote for the Huffington Post.

"Technology will need to make many more huge leaps before one can ever view films with the level of picture and sound quality many film lovers demand without having to slide a disc into a player," Scott wrote. "The technically sophisticated Blu-ray Disc, of which I've been a supporter since its inception, is the closest we've come to replicating the best theatrical viewing experience.”

The director of Alien and Blade Runner maintains that, while iPads and smartphones have become as much a part of personal theater as the big screen TV, we must continue to maintain shelf space for Blu-ray Disc and DVD box sets.

“Physical media has years of life left," says Scott, "and must be preserved because there is no better alternative."

I’m not so sure: as Internet bandwidth improves all the time, and video technology continues to be refined further and further, it’s only a matter of time when the quality of Blu-ray Disc will be completely superceded by something which doesn’t require packaging and shelf space. And actually having to get off your fat arse to change discs when gorging on a whole season of Mad Men in one go, as that’s what WiFi is for.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Do not worry: rabbits, chickens and princes will save the planet

As the European economy continues its irrevocable slide back to the Middle Ages, a seemingly lesser event crept in under radar last week and set up camp in South Africa: the 17th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Mercifully abbreviated to ‘COP17’ (which fits better on a T-shirt) the conference is the latest attempt by Planet Earth to save itself by limiting greenhouse gas emissions. If you've hitherto been unaware of this event, do not be embarassed. Global attention has been elsewhere.

However, as COP17 enters its second week, there is a chance that the start of what is traditionally known as the 'higher level talks' might draw a bit more attention to the conference, which draws together over 10,000 delegates from 194 countries, and includes the world's leading climate change experts, scientists and campaigners, as well as governments.

Despite the scant coverage in the media, this year's conference represents a critical moment in the effort to agree binding global targets for greenhouse gas emissions. It has been an exhaustive process, ever since COP3 in 1994 produced the treaty named after the conference's host city - the Kyoto Protocol On Climate Change. Then, 37 nations committed themselves to reducing their emissions of the four main greenhouse gases (which include the two we're all guilty of - carbon dioxide and methane...) by 5.2%, the benchmarked "potential" for future climate warming, by 2012. However, the United States (which contributes the world's second-largest output of CO2) - along with Australia - refused to ratify the treaty on the grounds that it didn't encourage the world's poorest polluters to step up as well (the Aussies have, however, since signed their ratification. The United States still hasn't). With the Kyoto Protocol due to expire next year, all subsequent UNFCCC events have concerned themselves with continued negotiations, arguments, posturing and brave attempts to come up with a successor.

In 2004 the climate change circus pitched up on the extremely agreeable island of Bali to map out the steps to a new agreement. The following year it was the somewhat less temperate environment of Poznan in Poland. With these two events meant to, respectively, prepare the roadmap and then fill in the blanks, COP15 in Copenhagen two years ago was supposed to have presented the new global agreement. Some felt it was a slam-dunk, requiring no more than the signatures of world leaders to make it happen.

Disastrously, it didn't. Despite the high-profile presence of presidents and prime ministers, it failed to produce any kind of binding agreement, merely producing a flimsy 'look-we've-come-all-this-way-so-we-need-to-sign-something' document which paid little more than lip service to getting anything done.

Not being a particular expert on climate change, the politics surrounding it, or the diplomacy required to get governments to do something about it, I have my own theory as to why COP15 in Copenhagen failed to deliver: crap logistics. I can offer this viewpoint from personal experience.

I arrived in Copenhagen in a blizzard. The first thing I noticed was that, unlike other some places I've lived in, where the merest hint of a snowflake sends people mad and preparing for a 1000-year nuclear winter, Danes have got it down to a fine art. An airport runway that had been covered in thick snow barely half an hour before my plane landed had been cleared and was operating with all the normality of a summer's day.

That was, however, the last time that day that I encountered anything resembling efficiency. Arriving at Copenhagen's Bella Center I encountered an already lengthy queue for accreditation. Being British, I was, initially, as happy as a clam to queue stoically and politely, while scanning the peripherery for any potential bad-mannered interlopers.

Unfortunately I hadn't banked on the UN's own imported police force who were administrating the accreditation process. For five-and-a-half hours I queued ankle-deep in freezing snow, weathering wind chill of -20. Climate change and global warming were two distant concepts as I stood there, shuffling from one foot to the other, cursing (the first sign of hypothermia) for being shod in officewear and not the pelts of two wolves.
Artist impression of the rabbit

Advancing at a pace only time-lapse photography could faithfully record, and with the only comfort coming from cups of coffee handed out by the Danish Army, I watched two grown human beings dressed, respectively, as a chicken and a rabbit embroiled in a punch-up.

Artist impression of the chicken
From what I could gather - and do bear in mind that I may have been hallucinating at this point - the contretemps between the bunny and the bird appeared to be a territorial dispute over the optimum spot from which to stage their protests against global warming. The morning had taken on a profoundly surreal element at this point.

By the third hour of queuing I was entertaining irrational fears of succumbing to frostbite and, like Ranulph Fiennes, having to saw off my own toes with a tool fashioned from of a reindeer's antler. By the fifth hour I'd had enough, having been up since 4.30am for my flight to Copenhagen (yes, I know, I should have chartered a more carbon-friendly pack of sled dogs). Just as I was planning to make a break for it I noticed that ahead of me in the queue was a representation from a Native American tribe. Oh, the irony that my eyes had been watering for most of the morning.

Their skills of endurance, hewn no doubt on the high plains, we're clearly more developed than mine. Annoyed, cold and resentful from having spent a long morning standing still in the actual land of ice and snow, I hobbled off on my frost-bitten, close-to-amputation feet in search of a hotel, several cold (but not too cold) beers and an open fire-heated bar.

Reanimated by the loving toastiness of the hotel, and by the fact a colleague had provided me with the pass I should have had in the first place, I returned to the Bella Center where, several hours after I’d left it, I discovered the Indian tribe to be still just in front of me. Twin Peaks had now been uprooted and moved to a Scandinavian exhibition centre.

As it transpired, the process to get into COP15 was almost as arduous as it was for the conference to get any agreement out of it. The Prince of Wales was addressing the opening session of what is called the "high-level talks". My presence was due to the fact that my then-employer was a significant member of the Corporate Leaders Group, an organisation set up by the Prince to bring enterprises together to apply more pressure on governments to do something about climate change.

Charles was there to apply his passion for the environment by imploring the great-and-the-good assembled to, effectively, pull their fingers out and reach an agreement. "The inescapable conclusion," he told delegates, "is that a partial solution to climate change is no solution at all. Crucially, it must be embraced by the public, private and NGO sectors, as well as by local communities and indigenous people, while also encouraging individual responsibility."

While many think of Charles as either a well-meaning eccentric or a do-gooder who should stay out of politics, his ability to command the attention of a large conference chamber was impressive, and his commitment to the cause can never be faulted. Alas, the failure of COP15 to reach any kind of conclusive agreement was more the result of everyone else in Copenhagen to make a commitment.

The following year the conference took to the blisteringly warm Mexican beach resort of Cançun, better known for American college students indulging in the drunken debauchery of Spring Break. COP16 was meant to be a more low-key affair, attended by a more functional profile of delegates who, according to the roadmap, would have been tasked with outlining the implementation of whatever Copenhagen the year before had agreed. The presidents and prime ministers stayed away, leaving their experts to pick up the baton. Apart from a few token pieces of legislation, and a lot of huffing and puffing about the critical need to do something, the outcome was limp.

So, what of this year? Despite the lack of media attention, COP17 is the last-chance saloon to replace Kyoto. Whatever your view on climate change, the planet's ice caps are thinning at an alarming rate, and the seas are heating up to the extent that America's hurricane season is growing longer and more intense. These can't be random developments.

Critics of the climate change discussions say that they are hampered by too much self interest. Surely, though, self-interest should be the reason for getting an agreement. After all, London, Paris and New York won't be much fun to live in when they're under water.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

It's still here

One Saturday, 24 years ago, a magazine editor, in his wisdom, dispatched me to the English market town of Hereford to ask locals about their sexual habits.

It was an assignment fraught with danger. Firstly, Hereford is the world-famous home of the SAS, Britain's elite special forces. They are not know for their openness to strangers asking questions. About anything.

Secondly, the objective of my mission was to test national attitudes towards HIV/AIDS which, in 1987, was seen almost exclusively as a "gay plague", helped no end by unenlightened newspaper headlines along those lines.

Dodging threatening looks and accusations ("You some sort of pervert?") and the inevitable and progressively unfunny 'jokes' ("Practice safe sex? Absolutely - last time we 'ad it off in the car we almost crashed." Ho and, can I add, ho), I waded through the crowded provincial town centre. This particular 'vox pop' required nerves of steel and, I discovered relatively early on, a decent pair of trainers.

At the beginning of 1987 the government had delivered a leaflet to every home in Britain inscribed "AIDS: Don't die of ignorance". It was a slogan born of the age of Katherine Hamnett's famous white FRANKIE SAYS... T-shirts, and formed part of a £20 million advertising campaign which also included two iconic TV commercials, in which a large iceberg in one, and a tombstone in the other, loomed into view to John Hurt's voiceover cheerily warning of "a deadly disease and there is no known cure".

Amid the inevitable hostility towards my questions, my afternoon in Hereford produced some interesting results. Firstly, it was clear that a large number of people under the age of 20 hadn't seen the government's leaflet at all. Of those that had, less than half had found it useful, only a similar number said that the advertising campaign had made them change their sexual habits, and even a sixth said they hadn't even thought about it.

There was plenty of indifference and, indeed, ignorance in Hereford that afternoon, reactions that replicated themselves across the country as the same investigation was carried out by my colleagues in London, Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds and other cities and towns. Things weren't helped by the positively Victorian thundering of James Anderton, who was then-Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, who talked about AIDS victims "...swirling in a human cesspit of their own making".

Today is World Aids Day. It is also 30 years since scientists at the United States' Centers for Disease Control first flagged up a new virus with an alarmingly high mortality rate. Although human infection by the HIV virus has since been traced back to the early 20th Century, and the origins of its development into a pandemic even now unclear, 'full blown' AIDS became the sort of bogeyman that communism and 'Reds under the bed' had been in the 1950s and 60s. Much of this had to do with the gay stigma attached to the disease. As I found in Hereford, few people understood, or were prepared to understand that HIV contamination could affect both heterosexuals as well as needle-sharing drug users.

As deaths soared - and the deaths of figures from the arts and entertainment world like Rock Hudson, previously regarded as the all-American hearthrob whose homosexuality had been kept an unusual secret in pre-Internet Hollywood - public opinion continued to focus on issues of morality surrounding the disease.

In 1985 the story of Indiana schoolboy Ryan White caught media and celebrity attention. White was a hemophiliac who, in 1984, was diagnosed with pneumonia and was subsequently discovered to have AIDS. When it was learned that he'd contracted the HIV virus from a contaminated batch of transfused blood, White and his family entered a protracted dispute with the local education authority who wanted to keep him away from school. White's case drew celebrity attention, with everyone from Elton John and Michael Jackson to Ronald and Nancy Reagan supporting his cause and, in the process, doing much to destigmatise AIDS and the real ignorance that existed around it.

When AIDS first reached the public consciousness there was much talk of it becoming a pandemic that could even impact world population numbers. Today its global death toll stands at 22 million with HIV infections at 60 million. Effective treatments have turned it into a manageable, chronic condition which has kept it off the front pages. While people still die from the disease, the fact that those dying aren't actors and rock stars has stopped it becoming news. There is also the complacent belief that HIV/AIDS is on the decline. Certainly in places like south-east Asia there has been a marked decline in new infections and deaths thanks to preventative education and treatment programmes in countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

In truth, however, HIV/AIDS is anything but disappeared. It is estimated that 33.4 million people live today with the HIV virus, and two-thirds of those are in sub-Saharan Africa. In Zimbabwe, Botswana and Swaziland around a third of the population lives with the virus. There have been significant signs of progress in Africa, but it is still a basket case by world standards.

Not that things are necessarily rosy in the developed world. New HIV infections in the UK, for example, have continued to grow over the last ten years as complacency towards practicing safe sex has crept in. In the United States HIV infection rates amongst African-Americans overtook those within the gay community in 2000, and today the disease continues to ravage parts of the country's southern states, where mortality rates are markedly the highest and the majority of people who have HIV or AIDS are black. Significantly, six of the ten American states with the highest number of women with AIDS are in the South.

Sexual health is still a topic of extreme sensitivity, and the stigma attached to AIDS in every part of the world - and every community where it resides - is still the biggest barrier to achieving a World Health Organisation target of zero new HIV infections and deaths from AIDS by 2015.

The second biggest barrier is, inevitably, money. Scientists claim they are achingly close to developing an HIV/AIDS vaccine, but cuts in funding are threatening to arrest that development. Still, World Aids Day today - and on December 1 for the next four years - will focus on the zero infections target.

The blight of AIDS has, in recent years at least, been blighted itself by a combination of indifference, ignorance and cynicsm. Being straight, I've been part of a community that regarded it as someone else's risk; being European, it was someone else's problem; not being a drug user, someone else's stupidity. Other causes have come along to claim attention for our charity and our lifestyles. But 24 or 25 years ago, while we were still more worried about the Russians turning our capital cities into irradiated wasteland, a new disease came along to wipe the post-Free Love Generation smiles off our faces. And it's still with us today.

Monday, November 28, 2011

When even having it all doesn't seem to help

With frightening prescience, 24 hours before Gary Speed was found dead yesterday morning by his wife Louise, fellow footballer Stan Collymore wrote the following blog post:
"Suicidal thoughts. 
Thankfully i've not got to that part yet,and in my last 10 years only once or twice has this practical reality entered my head,and practicality its is,unpalatable the thought may be to many.
Why a practicality? Well,if your mind is empty,your brain ceases to function,your body is pinned to the bed,the future is a dark room,with no light,and this is your reality,it takes a massive leap of faith to know that this time next week,life could be running again,smiling,my world big and my brain back as it should be.So what do some do? They don't take the leap of faith,they address a practical problem with a practical solution to them,and that is taking their own life.And sadly,too many take that route out of this hell."
Collymore - much pilloried for his sexual demons - had to endure even more mockery from his own manager when he announced, 12 years ago, that he suffered from depression: "How can you be depressed when you're on £20,000 a week?", was the apparent voice of support.

The trouble is depression is far too often dismissed in much the same way, especially for men. "Get a grip", they are told. It is a tragic fact in its own right that, while women are statistically more likely to seek treatment for depression, men are more than three times as likely to take their own lives, often for a condition only they know they are dealing with.

We may never know, nor should we want to know what it was that took Gary Speed to take his own life. What we can know was that, at 42 and with an exemplary playing career behind him, a promising managerial career unfolding before him, a beautiful wife, two healthy teenage sons, and the requisite footballer's comfortable lifestyle, he was - on the outside at least - an unlikely candidate to commit suicide.

Even on Saturday - shortly before he died - Speed had appeared on the BBC's Football Focus as a studio pundit, demonstrating his solid knowledgeability of the game alongside former Leeds United teammate Gary McAllister. 

Dan Walker, the show's host, spent a few hours with Speed throughout the day and, amongst all the many comments posted online about the Welshman's suicide some hours later, had as much reason as any to be shocked by what happened.

"After Focus we recorded a 10-minute piece with Gary talking about Wales' qualifying campaign for the next World Cup," Walker wrote on his BBC blog. "He spoke with passion about the fixtures and desire to see success. His hope was that the upturn in form would see his team playing in front of full stadia again. He joked about Team GB and how Scotland would be an easy game, McAllister giggled. Those words and hopes for the future seem so poignant now. There was certainly no hint of any troubles or any indication of what was going to happen a few hours later."

As is the modern way when tragedy strikes, Twitter becomes, perhaps, an over-inflated barometer of grief. The avalanche of tributes tweeted yesterday came from across the worlds of sport, showbusiness stars and even politics. 

Few of the posts reflected any deep personal relationship with Gary Speed, but the volume of largely unqualified sentiment reflected the utter  shock of news that a young football manager, who seemingly had everything going for him, could choose to exit this world so suddenly. 

The sight of Aston Villa goalkeeper Shay Given, a close friend and former teammate of Speed's, unable to compose himself before his match yesterday against Swansea City, summed up the genuine, wrenching disbelief that was felt across football.

In fact, not just football. The vast majority of tributes commented on Speed's professionalism and the bewilderment over what had happened, highlighting the apparent contentment of his life, his lifestyle and his career.

Stan Collymore's earlier post underlined the fact that depression is a prison cell with few visitors. In so many people, but especially men, it goes unspoken for the very fear of mockery, of loss of respect at work, even the risk of it undermining personal relationships.

Without wishing to trivialize the condition, many mental health professionals praised the depiction of fictional Mob boss Tony Soprano's depression in The Sopranos as a pivotal story arc in the show. Dr. Glen Gabbard of Baylor College of Medicine in Texas wrote in his book The Psychology of the Sopranos: "I can't tell you how many of my colleagues have told me, that a man has come to their office seeking therapy because if a big, tough guy like Tony Soprano can get something out of it, maybe he can." The fact is, yes you can. 

The tragedy, however, of Gary Speed's death reminded me of the often misquoted comment by legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly - "Football's not a matter of life and death, it's more important than that". In reality, Shankly used the line in a TV interview when asked about his dedication to the game: "I regret [its impact on my family] very much. Somebody said: 'Football's a matter of life and death to you'. I said, 'Listen it's more important than that.' And my family's suffered. They've been neglected."

Yesterday we learned that football is not a matter of life and death at all. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Topping up the pension plan

Frightening, as it may be, there is only a month to go until Christmas. However, take pity - if you can in these embittered, embattled, credit-downgraded, Wall Street-occupying times - on those who run any sort of enterprise, as they will be currently engaged in the annual freakout that is "Q4". If you are unfamiliar with - or simply don't care about - corporate jargon, this is the final 'quarter' of the financial year, in which Brer Loman and his kin pound the proverbial streets of commerce in a last-ditch push to load the corporate coffer before quill-and-ink monkeys close up the fiscal books on December 31.

Entertainment executives have traditionally pinned their hopes and, presumably, their following 12 months' narcotics budget on these final few weeks of the year. The 'holiday season' has traditionally been a bonanza opportunity to shift "units" (in English: CDs and DVDs), with record labels in particular banking on big releases from their most dependable acts to swell the cash flow.

To compensate for digital downloading cutting into profit margins, the music industry's suits have been increasingly turning to the 'mega package' to roll a coin. This has meant raiding the proverbial attics and basements of rock's dusty past to carton up classic albums replete with remastered CDs, vinyl LPs, Blu-ray Discs, DVDs, SACDs, live extras, outtakes, demos, bootlegs, postcards, badges, T-shirts and, probably, the pencil shavings from the original writing sessions. In the Champs-Élysées Virgin Megastore in Paris there is an entire island devoted to these box sets, each aiming to separate the nostalgic from their hard-earned Euros.

Along with U2's "über-deluxe" 20th anniversary package of Achtung Baby (a snip at 320 Euros!) I came across The Beach Boys' Smile Sessions. Though Brian Wilson only released a new version of the largely experimental Smile album three years ago, out comes a new and positively bulging box - as big as a board game - offering a cast array of CDs, different mixes and paraphernalia. There is even, in the US only, one suspects, a version available which includes a Beach Boys Smile-emblazoned surf board - for an eye-watering $5999.

For some artists, these repackages are exercises in loving detail. Jimmy Page personally oversaw the remastering of Led Zeppelin's back catalogue, and Pete Townshend - a feverish curator of The Who's archives - has now done the same with Quadrophenia, the band's legendary 1973 double-album.

It was, Townshend recently declared, the "last great album" the band produced. "I would say we only made three landmark records - Tommy, Who's Next and Quadrophenia," Townshend told fans at a recent question-and-answer session in London. "I've always felt Quadrophenia was the last definitive Who album. I've always regarded it as a very ambitious album, but what got away was the story."

That story, of course, was one of Townshend revisiting the Mod culture of early 60s Britain, and recalling many of the societal cues of his own youth in south-west London.

Unlike Tommy, which invariably got lost in the pretentiousness of trying to be a 'rock opera', Quadrophenia was indeed a tighter record, with a definite sense of The Who at their powerful peak, even despite the ever-present tensions between Townshend and Roger Daltrey, and drummer Keith Moon treading a thin line between eccentric lunacy and drug-addled rock casualty.

Now, in releasing Quadrophenia: The Director's Cut, Townshend has dived deeper into his art to package together the original double album remastered, along with  two whole CDs of previously unreleased material.

While not cheap, the complete set puts into a wider context the Quadrophenia story as well as a band channeling its own individual personalities through their self-styled brand of "maximum R'n'B". The extras - especially the demos and rough cuts - demonstrate a story in development, a voice, a tone and an attitude trying to find an outlet. Sonically, the remastering is fantastic, and if you haven't heard the album for a while, you will experience a new depth to it all.

Digital remastering may have enabled bands to milk their back catalogues, but it has also enabled them to bring out nuances that clunky 1970s analogue technology lost. When the Rolling Stones reissued many of their early 60s ABKCO releases a few years ago with new digital technology applied, a remarkable new clarity came through.

The Stones have always had a very astute approach to business. Mick Jagger's recent endorsement of the EMI takeover by Universal was spoken as a businessman first, and artist a distant second. "Mick likes to run a pretty tight ship," Keith Richards once said of his fellow Glimmer Twin, and it is true that the London School of Economics-educated Jagger is as much the band's CEO as he is its lead singer.

With the Stones - like U2 - running their financial affairs out of the Netherlands, thanks to a generous corporate tax system (subsidized by the Dutch taxpayer, of course), each year they meet at the sumptuous Amstel hotel in Amsterdam for formal board meetings. Their business acumen has inevitably seen them mining their own musical archives for nuggets of green from their almost 50-year recording career.

Following last year's reissue of Exile On Main Street as a box set laden with extras and a price tag to match, their 1978 album Some Girls has now followed suit. Originally appearing at the tale end of punk and the height of the disco era, Some Girls projected much of the Stones' tax-exile, rock star playboys status, like a Jackie Collins novel with electric guitars, playing up their abandonment of gloomy, strike-bound, supertaxed Britain for the playgrounds of New York, Los Angeles and the Caribbean.
The Some Girls package contains the requisite goodies - remixed original CD and another disc of overmatter, a DVD of the album performed live in Texas, plus a vinyl single, hardback book, a set of postcards (surely the clincher...!), a poster and a set of Helmut Newton prints. Like Quadrophenia, it'll liberate around 70 quid from your wallet, which is a lot for what is essentially the double CD you're really buying.

Like most Stones albums, Some Girls lacks a centre, a groove to define the piece, but instead builds up a raft of blues riffs which extend into songs, and have lyrics added to them. Beast Of Burden is one such example, apparently representing a personal 'thank you' note from Richards to Jagger for putting up with him being out of it for much of the time due to being the original human laboratory.

The indulgence of the times frequently comes through Some Girls, channeling the prevalent louche behaviour into what is now regarded - rightfully - as the last great Rolling Stones album.

It's a sparky, tight album, and the first to feature Ronnie Wood as a permanent member of the band. Already, you can hear the empathetic guitar interplay between Keith Richards and Wood on the album, an understanding that, for all the headlines these two have generated (and still do), they are still ashamedly underestimated as guitarists.

On the downside, there is Miss You, which opens the album. A worthy hit, I'll grudgingly accept (though I'll never forgive any breakfast time DJ for playing it as its refrain will not leave your head all day), even if it does feature the embarrassing cod-disco feel Rod Stewart was also striving for around the same time. It also features Jagger's ear-grinding appropriation of Harlem patois: "What's the matter wich yo' boy?". Jagger, it is worth remembering, comes from Dartford in Kent.

The Some Girls sessions garnered a bountiful harvest of new songs - more than 50, apparently - which would later surface on the Emotional Rescue and Tattoo You albums. To make up the second CD of the box set are 12 of the unreleased tracks which are good enough to have been easily released as an album in their own right. Amongst them are gems like the country cover You Win Again, featuring some great slide guitar from Wood, and a clear nod to Richards' great hero Muddy Waters on the rocking blues When You're Gone.

There is no denying that these box sets are brazen, some might say, cynical attempts to bleed the music fan further. I'm sure the majority of baby boomers buying them will have little or no use for postcards, posters and all the other bundled bumph. As discretionary purchases go, there is probably little artistic interest in listening to a bunch of outtakes and demos, any more than watching the 'deleted scenes' section of a DVD will add anything the plot you've just seen unfold. But in the case of Some Girls at least, the two-CD 'deluxe' edition of the album's reissue, with the CD of unreleased tracks makes genuine sense to revive a great album 33 years on. And that might just be the reason the Rolling Stones are such astute businessmen.

Monday, November 21, 2011

God Save The Queen

If ever you needed convincing that showbusiness is just that - show - something will come along to convince you.

Punk, we were told, was supposed to blast away at the gargantuans of rock and pop, and yet there is the fabled - and possible apocryphal - story of Topper Headon, drummer in The Clash, rushing up to Phil Collins at an airport to declare: "The other guys would kill me if they knew I was saying this, but I love your music."

On January 20, 1978 - two days after the Sex Pistols played their final show - Kate Bush released her debut single, a song as counter to the-then New Wave as it was possible to be.

After its tinkly, autumn leaves-a-fallin' piano intro came the opening line: "Out on the wiley, windy moors we'd roll and fold in green." This was clearly a different proposition to "I am an anti-Christ, I am an anarchist."

That single was Wuthering Heights. Inspired by the Emily Brontë novel, it launched one of the most extraordinary, idiosyncratic and artistically compelling careers in pop music, one which more than 30 years later has still only generated 10 studio albums - including the stunning 50 Words For Snow, which is released today.

With Adele blaring out of just about every shopping mall, Starbucks and, I discovered recently, North American restaurant, the idea of a gifted 19-year-old female singer-songwriter crashing the charts is today nothing new. In 1978, Kate Bush was alone. Six weeks after it was released Wuthering Heights went to No.1 in the UK, the first time a female singer had reached the top with a self-written song.

For a musician with such a frugal output and an even more reclusive profile, Bush was, for many years, the mainstay of womanhood in British rock music. For what seemed like an embarrassingly lengthy period, she was a semi-permanent nominee in the annual Brit Awards, battling yearly with Annie Lennox for the 'Best British Female' gong, only to be bothered occasionally by an Alison Moyet here and a Toyah Wilcox there. One year the award went to Tracey Ullman, who is an actress. Another year it went to Randy Crawford. Who is American. Not that there was anything wrong with either Bush or Lennox being rewarded so frequently. After all, their canon has deserved it.

So when, next February, the 2012 Brits are unveiled, it would be an extremely risk-averse individual who would bet against Bush and 50 Words For Snow featuring prominently. It is, without doubt, a high-watermark return for an artistry and eccentrically unfashionable approach to writing an album for popular consumption.

Comprising just seven songs, which vary in length from just under seven to 13 minutes, it is unlike anything else you'll hear this year. Including anything from Florence Welch.

Dare anyone else say it, but it's a concept album in principle, an album about winter. In that, it is a brave subject matter. Winter albums are usually Christmas tie-ins, made by cheesy game show hosts wearing Yule-themed knitwear, and containing a grisly assortment of the likes of Baby It's Cold Outside and Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree.

Then again, there is Walking In The Air from The Snowman50 Words For Snow probably comes closest to this. "I'd had this idea for some while to do a wintry album," Bush recently told The Independent's Andy Gill. "Pretty soon after I started writing for it, I homed in to the idea of snow," Bush told Gill. "It just seemed such a fascinating subject that it was very easy to think of so many ways of writing about it. It's such extraordinary stuff, isn't it? Even a single snowflake, when you look at it under a microscope, is such an incredibly beautiful thing. And apparently they are all different."

Take away thoughts of Mistletoe And Wine, or George Michael, Andrew Ridgeley, Pepsi and Shirley in a log cabin, and winter is indeed a very evocative season, and it lends itself well to Bush's signature Nymanesque, ambient piano which glistens throughout this album.

It is a gentle record, reflecting, perhaps, a 53-year-old mother of a growing boy. This continues a theme, commenced by her album The Kick Inside and continued on her last studio outing, Aerial, which was written primarily about living an ordinary, domesticated life in rural England with her teenage son Bertie and guitarist husband Danny McIntosh.

As an artist who has only toured once, her songs, her videos, her TV appearances have always trodden the boards of theatricality rather than the rock stage, and 50 Words For Snow is, arguably, Bush's most theatrical album, more the product of a dance studio, than the recording studio. Indeed, much of it feels like it had been written for choreography by Bush's hero, Lindsay Kemp.

Snowflake opens the album, with a dark, brooding piano motif and features young Bertie as narrator. It leads on to Lake Tahoe which, at eleven minutes long, is one that probably only Bush could attempt and succeed with, binding her sparse piano with a choral vocal arrangement in an apparent Victorian ghost story. You might want to read all that a second time to take it in. Having visited the real Lake Tahoe many times, in the deepest of wintry depths, I can now imagine this song as a haunting soundtrack to a moonlit walk along the lake's Californian shoreline.

The piano has often been disregarded as a jazz instrument, but when the late Richard Wright explained that the sonorous chord changes on Pink Floyd's Great Gig In The Sky were inspired by Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue, it all suddenly fell into better perspective for me. Thus on Misty - the album's thirteen-minute centerpiece - Bush builds a fleeting love story about a snowman (who are, let's face it, 'somewhat here today, gone tomorrow' cads), accompanied by the most warming of jazz vibes from contrabassist Danny Thompson (John Martyn's legendary sparring partner) and seasoned session drummer Steve Gadd.

Kate Bush's periodic visits to the avante garde neighborhoods of pop have been rightfully compared with those of Peter Gabriel, with whom she sang on his Games Without Frontiers, No Self Control and, of course, his prescient tale of 80s unemployment, Don't Give Up.

Though never romantically linked, it was that single's video which cemented in the minds of many that Gabriel and Bush were indeed a couple. They certainly are kindred spirits. Which is why, perhaps, it's no surprise to find Elton John - a long-time mentor - duetting with Bush on Snowed At Wheeler Street. This is Bush at her campest and downright belligerent.

Wheeler Street's story, should it matter, is of two star-crossed lovers who only ever meet at critical moments in world history. It is a song that, I imagine, Gabriel could have returned Bush the favour of Don't Give Up, but in picking up the story's male protagonist mantle, John delivers one of the best vocals of his recent career.

That, however, is it's best point. The story strains at the leash of credibility, just a tad, and does make you wonder whether Gabriel should have been at home, if and whether Bush had called. John's vocal performance - as good as it is here - reminds you why he's currently packing them in nightly in Las Vegas. Even for Bush and her trobairitz nature, it's a showtune wrapped in a bizarre cod-classical concept.

As if needing to chill out - no pun intended - after soaring dramas like Wheeler Street, there are more understated tracks on the album, such as the single, Wild Man, and the somewhat bizarre - even by a Kate Bush album's standards - title track. Bedded by a muted Latin drum rhythm reminiscent of Bush's 1981 hit Sat In Your Lap, it features the First Lord of Twitter himself, Stephen Fry, rattling off 50 words for, er, snow.

The track 50 Words For Snow is, I'm convinced, largely a joke based on Fry's polymathic quiz mastery on TV's Q.I., in which he (and, I suspect, a small battalion of researchers) bids to impress with a seemingly Poseidon-depth knowledge of trivia. Fry's mellifluous intonation recalls Viv Stanshall introducing the instruments on Tubular Bells, and in character - that of a Dr Joseph Yupik - adds another fatherly eccentric to Bush's writing (remember Cloudbusting, about cloudbusting scientist Wilhelm Reich, the video for which starred Donald Sutherland no less).

Ignoring the release, earlier this year of The Director's Cut (a somewhat inexplicable cut-and-shunt of Bush's Sensual World and The Red Shoes albums), the six-year wait since Aerial has been worth it. While such languid industry is easily eclipsed by the ten-year gaps between studio albums from Gabriel, and even longer from Leonard Cohen, there was always a fear amongst fans, on hearing about the wintry concept of 50 Words For Snow, that it would be a Christmas hits album, knocked out in time for Advent.

But that, frankly, wouldn't be Kate Bush. She denies being a perfectionist, and even earlier this year admitted annoyance at her apparent indolent output. "It's very frustrating the albums take as long as they do. I wish there weren't such big gaps between them."

In the periods between her ten albums, Queen Kate has seen plenty of pretenders come along to challenge her throne, whether it be Bjork for eccentricity, Tori Amos for trying too hard to be her, or Florence + The Machine for actually coming closest. In the end, though, there is only one Queen, only one monarch of a brand of pop music that nods a Victorian stovepipe hat to ballet, to musical theatre, to leather-bound tomes gathering dust on book shelves, a brand which will forever be intrinsically English.

She is, let's be honest,  a national treasure. Some years ago, as Bush was being presented with a lifetime achievement trophy at the Q Magazine Awards, even Liam Gallagher took to his feet to hail her. On stage, presenting the award was that spitting prince of punk, John Lydon. Engaged in an unexpected gush of mutual appreciation, he turns, half to the audience and says: "You know what Kate? We are worthy. Your music is fucking brilliant." Lydon's praise was no affectation. He even, once, wrote a song for Bush. About parrots. To date, she hasn't recorded it, though it must only be a matter of time.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Stop the clocks

British politicians have been arguing for more than 100 years over the pros and cons of putting the clocks forward an hour in the spring, and bringing them back an hour in the autumn.

Those in favour have claimed it improves national productivity during the lighter summer months, adding to the economy as people shop and dine out later in the evening, while saving on electricity used for lighting in the process. There are even claims that remaining permanently in line with continental European hours will reduce childhood obesity (I guess through more outdoor exercise, rather than later ice cream van patrols), as well as improving road safety.

One person who will probably appreciate some stability in the British clock is Roman Abramovich. Much like a vampire nearing sunrise, the Russian zillionaire must dread the onset of winter in Britain. For every time the clocks go back, Chelsea seem to fall into a mid-season slump from which they don't recover until the last of the Christmas cards are being put out for recycling.

One year ago, Chelsea spun into a November nightmare, starting with a 2-0 defeat away to Liverpool, followed by a limp 1-0 home win over Fulham and then a 3-0 kicking at the same venue from Sunderland, with not even a glimmer of weak, winter sunshine until a 7-0 fillip over Ipswich in the FA Cup in January restored confidence. By which time Carlo Ancelotti had already been marked as the next Chelsea manager to get the trademark Abramovich double-tap to the head.

Roll on 12 months and it's all looking worryingly familiar: yesterday's 2-1 loss at home to, yes, Liverpool, came too soon after that 3-5 humiliation to Arsenal at Stamford Bridge at the end of October, and the anaemic 1-1 draw against Genk (who they?) in the Champions League just three days later.

The difference is that this time around Chelsea aren't being managed by a veteran coach who had won the Scudetto, the Champions League twice and the Coppa Italia with Milan before winning the Premier League at the first time of asking with the Blues. Before getting fired, of course, for not winning it the second time.

No, this time Chelsea are managed by something of an experiment. André Villas-Boas, the 34-year-old Portuguese lad who, prior to becoming the club's seventh manager under Abramovich's patronage, had been, ahem, manager of the British Virgin Islands, Académica de Coimbra and FC Porto, winning with the latter Portugal's Primeira Liga, the Portugeuse FA Cup, and the UEFA Europa League Cup in his one and only season at the club.

As What Would David Bowie Do? remarked at the start of the season, it would appear that Charlie Buckett had unexpectedly won the entire Wonka industrial empire when the ginger-haired youngster was appointed to manage a side which contained players barely younger than himself.

So what's made the difference between this November and last? You could argue that Chelsea's slump last year had a lot to do with the summary dismissal of Ray Wilkins. No one has ever been certain of Wilkins' tactical nouse - good egg and media-friendly Chelsea old boy though he is - but his departure seemed to uncannily coincide with a loss of form that ultimately cost them a title they were due to win for a second time by coming out of the traps in August with all guns blazing.

This time there has been no behind-the-scenes politicking. All that could be blamed is the ongoing nonsense involving captain John Terry's alleged racist remarks to Anton Ferdinand in the game that arguably started the clocks-going-back slump, against QPR on October 23. It is entirely possible that the latest scandal to cast a long shadow over Terry's integrity is interfering with team unity, given the racial mix of the Chelsea squad. But the likelier culprit is the defense around which Terry is pivotal. Their vulnerability was self-evident yesterday against Liverpool, as had been savagely so against Arsenal and, bafflingly, against Genk - as toothless a side to have ever made it passed the Champions League qualification round.

For all the talk about Fernando Torres not scoring, Daniel Sturridge has proven to be a potent striker this season for the Blues, but for all the good he's doing up front, it is the backline that is letting things down.

Terry, for one, is a ghost of his former self, the invincible, never-say-die centre half. David Luiz, the frizz-haired Brazilian, when played next to him has been more of a liability than a help (Gary Neville - in a moment of unusual erudition - suggested that Luiz was playing like he was being controlled by a 10-year-old playing on his Sony PlayStation...). Even Branislav Ivanovic, who was becoming a dependable partner to Terry, has looked untidy and susceptible to oncoming strikers, while the unsettled Alex hasn't been much use to the centre of defence either.

And to complete the misery, Ashley Cole - in theory, still the finest left back in the world - has found himself too easily turned by strikers, with his right-sided counterpart Jose Boswinga looking just as faint when it comes to providing defensive cover up and down the length of the pitch. Even goalkeeper Petr Cech has been looking a worry, with doubts creeping in about his eminence, depute having been universally regarded as the best keeper in the world not so long ago.

It is only November 21st, and, as under-fire football managers are want to say, there is a long season still to come. "We need to organise ourselves a little bit better," Villas-Boas bravely tried to say at the post-match press conference yesterday. A little better? Now there's understatement. "We are a team that does not concede a lot of opportunities but the opponent has found the efficiency that we haven't found yet."

Even allowing for the fact that English is not his native tongue, effectively saying that opponents are simply being more efficient is a sniff of hubris AVB's mentor and compatriot Jose Mourinho would have raised a titfer to. The fact remains that, for the second November in a row - and not for the first time in their recent history, either - Chelsea are struggling as they face the pre-Christmas phase with tough fixtures ahead: Leverkusen in Europe, Liverpool again in the League Cup, a resurgent Newcastle away in the league, and then Manchester City at Stamford Bridge. With every chance that Spurs will, tonight, win over Aston Villa, the boys from SW6 will be down to 5th in the league.

"It is not impossible to turn it around," said Villas-Boas. "It doesn't look good 12 points behind a strong leader but the December fixtures give us hope and we have to make the most of them." We've heard all that before, and with a single again Guus Hiddink back on the market (managerially speaking - and not to be confused with Demi Moore by any stretch of the imagination), Villas-Boas better watch out that Abramovich isn't dusting off his Tokarev 9mm with screw-in silencer. For it was just after yet another winter slump that the World Cup-winning Luiz Felipe "Big Phil" Scolari was dispatched, to be replaced temporarily by Hiddink.

Confidently, Villas-Boas believes he's bullet-proof: "The owner didn't pay 15 million Euros to get me here from Porto only to pay another fortune to get me out," he said yesterday. Perhaps, but he shouldn't forget that Scolari was sacked after four losses in 25 league games, and Villas-Boas has managed to lose as many in just 12. Mourinho was sacked after winning the league back-to-back, while Ancelotti - the most successful coach to come to Chelsea - was sacked at the end of only his second season in charge.

True, the season isn't over yet, but to see Chelsea battling for fourth place takes me back to the pre-Abramovich era, when every season seemed to be a struggle for sixth-place mediocrity. Ironically, it was a Chelsea win over Liverpool which elevated them into fourth place and Europe in 2003 which made Abramovich's mind up to buy Chelsea and not Liverpool.

It's this time of year when he might well be wondering whether he made the right choice...

The history of Chelsea's mid-season Premier League slumps

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash

At the end of the same week that Paul Weller, when asked if he would ever reform The Jam, said: "Hopefully I'll never be skint enough", there were two announcements which seem to be indicative of each other.

Firstly, it was revealed that the legendary but beleaguered record company EMI was to be split into two, with the theme parks-to-film studios entertainment giant Universal taking over one part, and Sony taking over another. Then it was announced that hoary old metalheads Black Sabbath were to get back together again, presumably while they could still remember their own names.

At various points in its 114-year history, EMI had the likes of The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Coldplay, Robbie Williams and Radiohead on its books, with Frank Sinatra signed to its US subsidiary, Capitol. Its disappearance reflects the growing consolidation of an industry which appears to be collapsing in on itself like a dark star, largely the result of behaving like King Canute in ignoring the oncoming binary tide of digital downloads.

It's sad, of course, to see a famous name like EMI disappear, especially one synonymous with a golden age of music - an age which made Britain the epicentre of musical culture. We are to blame. Our reluctance to keep on buying overpriced CDs because downloads - legal and illegal - make much better sense, means that your average rock star is down to his or her last few millions.

In New York, still considered the capital city of the American music industry, it is significant that you have to travel far and wide to actually buy a CD. Tower Records has closed its nationwide chain, the Virgin Megastore on Times Square has disappeared, books, music and video retailer Borders shuttered its final two Manhattan outlets earlier this year, which means the electrical retailer J&R to be one of the few mainstream outlets in the city left to sell you a CD. And on the Saturday afternoon I visited it, the lack of clientele was telling. Contrast that with Paris, where the Virgin chain continues to do a roaring business in CDs and even vinyl LPs. The question is, for how long? Are the French really more attached to physical media for their entertainment?

Nostalgia may well be the only source of revenue the music industry can draw on. Pink Floyd, one of EMI's most lucrative acts, is currently re-releasing its back catalogue in various packages and box sets.

The 'Immersion' package of Dark Side Of The Moon will set you back $140 but will offer you a remastered CD of the original album, a CD of the entire album being performed live in 1974, a multichannel version of the album, a DVD containing various concert films, a Blu-ray Disc version of various concert films, a CD containing demos and rarities, and a load of merchandising paraphernalia.

The same approach is being applied to other albums in the band's history. If you don't fancy all that, you can buy the Discovery box set, priced at around $240 in the US, and which contains all 16 Pink Floyd CDs, remastered, of course. Presumably if you'd bought the previous two box sets - Shine On and Oh, By The Way, only the most cash-rich completist would consider another.

As good, sonically, as the remastering and repackaging of classic old albums might be, the cold hard truth is that the consumer appetite for buying them is on the wane. Whether we mourn for the gatefold album cover, with its Hipgnosis or Roger Dean artwork, or  the experience of removing that 12-inch circle of vinyl from its sleeve, those days of tactile enjoyment have disappeared. Although there has been a fashionable resurgence of vinyl sales - up by 40 per cent, year on year - it is not going to reverse the overall decline in sales of "physical media".

Perhaps, then, the old heads who mourn the loss of such experiences are keeping the rock heritage trail open. Black Sabbath's reformation - they will record a new album, their first as the original four-piece lineup in 33 years, and embark on a world tour next year - smacks of desperation. Ozzie Osbourne and his brood may have earned a new fanbase thanks to his reinvention as a self-parody ten years ago with MTV's fly-on-the-wall series, but one wonders whether watching four old headbangers with a combined age of almost 250 cranking out Paranoid and Iron Man in 2012 will be anything to moisten the eye.

It is, let's be honest, about one thing: asked recently what it would take to reform the 'classic' Genesis lineup, Peter Gabriel - who left the band in 1975 - quipped "A large brown envelope". Jokes aside, Gabriel admitted that reforming for a one-off was an interesting idea, citing Led Zeppelin's reunion show in 2007 as an example of how to do it right.

The trouble is, do it once, and the expectation is that you'll do it more, until eventually you satisfy the demand of a listening public clamoring to recapture its youth. Led Zeppelin, to their credit, have refused to embark upon a lucrative reunion tour. "[The show] was an amazing evening," Robert Plant told Rolling Stone earlier this year. "But I've gone so far somewhere else that I almost can't relate to it. I know people care, but think about it from my angle - soon, I'm going to need help crossing the street." Plant's reluctance - or indifference - has been suggested as the reason the three surviving members of the band, plus John Bonham's drummer son Jason, have not followed up the show at London's O2 arena with more performances. "Playing at the O2, that was our reunion," Jimmy Page has said, adding: "if you're going to do a reunion, you need four members."

Pink Floyd have taken a similar approach to reforming. The appearance of Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Nick Mason and Rick Wright as the finale of Live8 in 2005 was widely hailed - and inevitably sent the rumour mill into a frenzy about a full reunion. Given the decades of acrimony, especially between Waters and Gilmour, getting the four of them on a stage together was a minor miracle in 2005. While their feuding has thawed - Gilmour appeared at Waters' London performance of The Wall earlier this year, sending the crowd wild by playing on Comfortably Numb - he has also suggested that things between the two of them are still not perfect. "I played on Roger's Wall show here (in London)," Gilmour said in an interview in September, "and I haven't heard a word from him since." That said, Gilmour hasn't exactly enthused over doing more work with his former bandmates. "I understand how other people want that sort of thing [a reunion] to happen, but I'm entirely selfish in thinking that I want to enjoy my declining years exactly the way that I want to... And that wouldn't be part of it."

The Eagles, once, were equally reluctant to reform, with Don Henley famously being quoted in 1980, when they broke up, that the ageing country rockers would get back together "when Hell freezes over." In 1994 they reformed for an MTV Unplugged show. The subsequent album and DVD was named Hell Freezes Over. Cute. But it's not just the venerable, however, who embark upon comebacks. Barely two years since Noel Gallagher walked out on Oasis, effectively breaking up the group, brother Liam has confidently predicted that they'll be back together in 2015 for a 20th anniversary tour of (What's The Story) Morning Glory.

In October, The Stone Roses broke new records for ticket sales by announcing that they would be reforming. Tickets for two outdoor shows next year in Manchester sold out in just 14 minutes, being snapped up by fans of one of the most iconic acts of the Ecstasy-enhanced 90s. For a band that fell apart like an IKEA wardrobe hell together by PostIt notes, their fervour to reform and possibly even record again smacks of money-making - with estimates that the band would earn £10 million from their shows at Manchester's Heaton Park next summer.

In recent years we've seen reunions by the likes of Take That, Pulp and, briefly, Blur, with the summer festival season proving to be particularly attractive opportunity to dust off the back catalogue.

"Money talks," Paul Weller said this week in his interview with, when asked about the Stone Roses getting back together again. "We live in that age, though, don’t we? It’s either bands reforming, bands playing their classic album or tribute bands."

"I find the whole nostalgia thing very strange, right across the board," Weller added. "I also think it doesn’t help new bands. Don’t get me wrong — there aren’t a lot of great new bands, and there’s a lot of shit about. But it hurts new bands coming up because nobody’s looking out for anything new. It’s just tried and tested old music, and it’s weird to me. I think it’s a phase."

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Standing up for Mr. Thicky McThick

Idiocy comes in varying shapes and sizes. On a large scale, you have the Italian electorate, who chose Silvio Berlusconi as their prime minister. Three times. 

On a different scale you have Karl Pilkington, the sometime radio "producer" whom Ricky Gervais turned into a media phenomenon by providing the opportunity to display his apparent imbecility in the very funny Ricky Gervais Podcast series.

There is, however, a difference between exploiting the simplistic prism with which Pilkington views the world, and the outright mocking of the afflicted that takes place with An Idiot Abroad. This series of fish-out-of-water documentaries - which should have been named A Gag Stretched Too Far - finds Pilkington tossed into unfamiliar situations. "With hilarious results", of course.

Then there is the more sympathetic representation of idiocy represented by the scene in City Slickers where Billy Crystal attempts to explain to Daniel Stern how a video recorder works. It's a modern classic, even if now somewhat dated by technological progress. Advancement has always meant making life easier or more convenient. But no matter how much easier it makes complex tasks simpler or removes tedium from repetitive chores, there will always be those who get left behind. The elderly for example. And me.

With this in mind, What Would David Bowie Do? comes to you today from 38,000 feet up in the sky. I have no idea how I got up here.

Well I do, sort of: I took a taxi to the airport, checked in, sat around in an Air France lounge getting bored, and then boarded my plane - the sixth Airbus A380 in the airline's fleet.

The 380 is an enormous aircraft. I've travelled on plenty of large airliners before, but despite being the same length as the big Boeings, its proportions just seem huge. It is so big that to get on board its upper story, I had to take an escalator at the departure gate itself. It is, basically, a double-decker bus with wings. It is designed to move as many people as possible across oceans and continents in one go. And thus it does: my flight is full, with some 500 passengers on board, which is roughly the same number on board a single car ferry crossing the English Channel. Getting us all on is the easy part of the equation to understand. Getting us up here is not. 

I am, it should be said, a fairly frequent flyer, and over the last 30 years have flown in pretty much every type of commercial aircraft, from ghastly puddle-hoppers - aircraft which seem barely evolved from the Sopwith Camel - plying their trade between America's regional hub airports, to the big engined, wide-bodied flying limos that criss-cross continents and oceans. For the most part, they work, and without dwelling too much on the obvious, they only don't work when freak conditions weigh in, mechanical failures occur, or nutters with explosive underpants succeed in getting away with their nefarious intentions.

So why, then, after three decades of air travel do I still not get it? How the hell do they get up, stay up, and in theory and, mostly, in practice, come down again? Many have tried to explain it to me, dumbing it down to an insultingly condescending level of simplicity. But still, I remain a retard when it comes to understanding the principles of flight, which come as natural to almost every winged creature except the penguin, and which Orville and Wilbur Wright got down with a few lengths of balsa wood and a rubber band.

Before anyone takes it upon themselves to send me Flying For Dummies (it must exist), or directs me to Barney The Dinosaur explaining how planes work on YouTube, don't bother. I have come to the conclusion that this is just my blind spot.

No matter how often you tell me, I won't understand that what gets several tons of metal, flesh and matching luggage from one side of the planet to the other is air being forced over a wing to create a difference in air pressure with the air flowing under the wing. As it creates lift. Obviously.

Frankly, I'm still convinced that the brothers Wright carried out some form of sorcery at Kittyhawk. The takeoff in this A380 didn't seem to happen at all. We pushed back from the gate and trundled slowly along the taxiway for a few minutes - the entire journey presented for us on our seatback TV screens thanks to a forward-looking camera on the tailfin. Then we started moving a little quicker...and that was it, we were airborne. 

There was no lurching pelt down the runway, no sensation of acceleration, or being pushed back into your seat. For a plane so logic-defyingly huge, it floated down the runway like a ballerina before lifting into the air with the gentlest of angles.

Of course, once airborne it is no different from any other airliner you've ever been on. After all, the 380 is basically a Boeing 747 with an extended hump. But that doesn't help you overcome the irrational fear that comes with in-flight turbulence, which I hate with a passion. Until 15 years ago, I would step onto any plane with boyish glee, caught up in an anachronistic, 1950s 'jet set' wonderment of it all. I still do consider flying to be something of a luxury*, even though I spend so much of my time doing it out of necessity.
*This obviously doesn't relate in any way, shape or form to any journey undertaken with Ryanair.

But then I was on a plane from London to Eindhoven. Actually, it wasn't a plane, more of a converted A4 envelope that someone had strapped a couple of propellers to, crammed us in and painted sky blue with 'KLM' in big bold letters on the side. On the night Geri Spice almost burst out of her Union Jack costume at the 1997 Brit awards, my fellow passengers and I were treated to the tail end of a near hurricane-strength storm. For much of the flight, the journalist sat next to me dug her nails into my right hand, causing bleeding that I didn't even notice until we had safely repaired to the hotel bar later that evening.

A month after 9/11 I flew to New York from San Francisco for a meeting. The mood on the half-full plane wasn't made any better by the fact that somewhere over the Midwest we flew into the kind of storm that, when you look out of the window, makes the wings flap like a bird's. This, I've been shown, is meant to happen. At the Boeing factory in Everett, Washington, they will demonstrate the wings of the giant 777 being put through a stress test in which they are bent through as much as 13 feet before anything really bad happens.

I was still unimpressed by the storm. And then I discovered Channel 9 - the service on then-United Airlines flights by which you could listen to the pilots talking to air traffic controllers up and down the country. It was the closest thing to actually looking out of the cockpit window, and very reassuring it was too. Even as we were being heaved around, listening to the pilots talking to other captains further ahead, hearing them requesting a higher or lower altitude to optimise the air flow, managed to make this back seat driver feel much better.

On the A380, the cameras do it for you. The ability to see straight ahead - especially when air turbulence is such a completely invisible force - was unbelievably calming. I'm not sure why no one has thought about it before - especially Richard Branson. Unlike the on-board cameras of Formula 1 cars, which capture the excitement of speeding along tarmac at almost 200 miles an hour, watching yourself travelling three times that speed, seven miles up, but apparently hardly making any progress at all over the clouds beneath you, is as hypnotic an experience as any I can think of.

The downside to cameras and having a pilot's-eye view of the journey is that if something were to happen - mid-air collision, UFO encounter, Ryanair publicity stunt - your final seconds will probably be spent watching yourself getting even closer to God.

And on that theological note, I'll return to enjoying the ride, even if I don't have a clue how I got up here. Which I don't. Still.

Coming into land at New York's John F Kennedy Airport.