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.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The numbers all go to eleven

For the start of my 45th year I am fulfilling Frank Sinatra's desire to wake up in the city that never sleeps, the self-styled "greatest city in the world" - New York. And if that isn't a mark of great pith and moment in its own right, my day of days falls on the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, in the eleventh year which, you've got to admit, in taking place only once every 100 years, is pretty cool.

I have always been justly proud of being born on 11/11 (apparently around 11.11am, although I've never had that verified by anyone who was actually there at the time), being only one of 12 days out of the year with such numerical symmetry. It also lends itself well to a blues lyric: why should Willie Dixon's Hoochie Coochie Man have all the fun because he was born on the seventh hour of the seventh day, of the seventh month, and apparently he's due a lot of luck?

The number 11, in itself, isn't particularly significant, unless you strive for louder guitar amplification. However wonks of all creeds and the chronically apophenic - spooked by the uniquely binary nature of today's palindromic date - are convinced that it means something of great portent, though nobody can pinpoint exactly what will happen.

An online survey recently came to the utterly banal conclusion that 47% believe something good will happen on a global scale today, 40% believe nothing significant will happen at all, and 14% believe something bad will happen. This information is about as useful as the statement that roughly half of us are male, and roughly half are not.

But if you do believe in lay lines and that Stonehenge was an ancient truck stop for passing UFOs, the unique confluence of elevens in the date means your sense of "waaahhhh" will be heightened today. For a start, I wouldn't recommend looking at any news coming out of Europe which, it seems, is being increasingly sucked into an economic depression of biblical proportions.

According to some, the worst that could happen today - and I've got to admit, it would be something of a bummer - is that the world will end. This is due to the comet Elenin, Mercury, Venus and our own planet coming into alignment, which is more than can be said for the leaders of the EU. Well if the planet is going to explode, there's probably no better place to witness it than here in New York. I've seen it happen a hundred times in the movies and it's usually quite spectacular.

For those with a rosier outlook on life, 11.11.11 is the day to do something special like get married or at least propose to a sweetheart,  and although I'm not about to do that myself (mind you, the day is still young here) you've got to raise a hat to the romanticism of such an event. I expect the Empire State Building's elevators will be enjoying brisk business today.

Mysticism and romanticism aside, there is one true and serious significance to today: the anniversary of the 1918 Armistice. At 11am, on November 11, 1918, the guns fell silent after four years of the most senseless, industrial slaughter mankind had inflicted upon itself up until then.

It was called The Great War, though there was nothing great about it at all, and drew 70 million people together in armed conflict, resulting in nine million dead. It's immediate effect was the emaciation of an entire generation of men in Europe, but it went on to overshadow the 20th century itself, creating the conditions which led to World War 2, dictated the outbreak of the Cold War, which eventually unravelled the fault lines of the Balkans, and even today still has a hidden influence on politics in the region.

So, I will celebrate my 44th birthday in style here in New York. Calls have been put in to Leonardo Di Caprio and the newly-single Demi Moore - whose birthdays also fall on this day - to see if they'll join me for a celebratory Guinness at one of the city's fine venues of Irish imbibement. And when we do (I'm confident that my calls will be returned), we will, I hope, raise a glass to those who have paid the absolute sacrifice.

Monday, November 07, 2011

The Return Of The Giant Hogweed and other tales from 1971

There are two musical misconceptions that need to be cleared up, if I may, and this is the week to do so. Firstly, that 1967 - the year of my birth - was the golden year of musical creativity, and that secondly, punk was invented specifically to kill off progressive rock.

To the first question: it's true that 1967 gave the world Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, not to mention Are You Experienced?, the seminal Velvet Underground & Nico and The Doors' eponymous debut. But it was only the year that catalysed a period of experiment and creativity that wouldn't reach its true zenith for another four years.

The second misconception is somewhat more straight-forward to address. When The Ramones set out to offer, in 1973, "some pure, stripped down, no-bullshit rock 'n' roll", it wasn't the culture of prog rock - with its tendency towards lengthy songs, complex time signatures and Tolkienesque mythology - that punk sought to banish. No, it was the bloating of rock music. This was exemplified by the bombastic incorporation of the biggest bands of the day, writhing about in cocaine excesses on the diametric opposite side of the country to where New York's CBGB club spawned deliberate revolt.

Pink Floyd were one of the many bands to draw the ire of punk's angry young men. However, it wasn't that long beforehand that they were being hailed as the vanguard of a new movement. Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, their debut album in - guess what? - 1967, was championed for its psychedelic invention fused with co-founder Syd Barrett's pastoral English sound.

The bloating of rock music, at which punk aimed its richest phlegm, was what gradually unravelled Pink Floyd, as Roger Waters' gradual alienation from his audience reached its nadir with The Wall, preceeded by an ironically punk-like spitting episode during the tour for the Animals album.

Dark Side of the Moon established Pink Floyd as global superstars in 1973. It was their Sgt. Pepper, their Joshua Tree, their Born To Run. It was also, maintains Waters, the beginning of their end. The follow-up - Wish You Were Here (re-released today as part of the band's programme of releasing newly remastered 'experience' packages from their back catalogue) focused on the themes of absence and a creeping cynicsm by Waters towards the music industry and fame.

Wish You Were Here remains today my favourite Floyd album. It is hard to truly explain why, however. Perhaps it's because it was the first Floyd album I heard, but more likely because of it marked the maturity of a band that was still trying to find its voice, despite the success of its predecessor. Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Parts 1-5, introduced me, paradoxically, to blues guitar, thanks to David Gilmour's hypnotic two-note Stratocaster motif which unlocks the haunting 'dawn of time' chords - played on wine glasses - which open the album, and continues with the famous 'clang-clang-clang-clang' guitar riff, dripping in reverb, delay and flange.

Shine On is also famous for the story about Syd Barrett. Sacked some years before for his increasingly erratic, LSD-addled behaviour, he appeared unannounced at Abbey Road Studios during the Shine On sessions, much to the surprise of the band who had no idea who the obese figure with shaved head and shaved eyebrows was, clutching a plastic carrier bag.

Although Shine On wasn't written by Waters specifically about Barrett, his appearance brought a spooky poignancy to the song. Likewise, the album's title track, which opines of separation and alienation ("we're like two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year"). For a band supposedly on its uppers, the jadedness that Waters would take to an extreme with The Wall, was already evident with this 1975 release, and tracks like Welcome To The Machine and Have A Cigar.

The extended blues jam that fills up much of Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Parts 6-9 was typical of the sort of wigouts that Floyd had been indulging in during their live concerts for many years, and first found itself on a Pink Floyd record in 1971 with Echoes, on the album Meddle, which brings me back to the original misconception I addressed in this post.

1971 was the year where 1967's fertility really bore fruit. By the end of it, record collections had been augmented by a sizeable number of albums which are now to be considered classics of the form: the Rolling Stones brought out Sticky Fingers, Bowie gave us Hunky Dory, The Doors shut theirs with LA. Woman, and George Harrison and friends provided the prototype for Live Aid and its brethren with the legendary Concert For Bangladesh. Rock and roll clearly was very alive and kicking, but it was progressive rock - with its obscure lyrics, instrumental virtuosity and intriguing sleeve art - that, through coincidence or intent, set the years musical undercurrent.

The hallmark of many of the albums that spun on turntables in 1971 was that they aimed to tell a longer story: Marvin Gaye released what is today one of the best albums ever made - and one of the shortest - What's Going On, his earnest reflection of a world in trouble, embracing in its arc social inequality, environmentalism (hardly a fashionable cause 40 years ago) and the Vietnam War. Though not apparent, Who's Next - The Who's finest moment and another 1971 release - was another concept, rescued from Pete Townshend's aborted Lifehouse project, but inventing the Internet in the process, as well as giving the world the exhilarating Baba O'Reilly and Won't Get Fooled Again.

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the release of two albums which became part of a series of events and releases which marked 1971 apart. On November 8, 1971, Led Zeppelin released their untitled fourth album, known initially as the 'Four Symbols" album (and now, simply, as IV).

Containing Stairway To Heaven, along with Rock And Roll, the Tolkien-influenced Battle of Evermore, the hippyish Going To California and an adaptation of the Delta Blues original When the Levee Breaks (with its now much-sampled drum intro), it has since become the third best-selling album of all time in the United States.

Four days later, on November 12, 1971, a very different band, but with similar literary interests, released their third album. Nursery Cryme by Genesis marked the debut of what has become regarded as the band's "classic" line-up - Peter Gabriel, Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford and then new recruits Phil Collins on drums and Steve Hackett on guitar.

The album has also become regarded as an exemplary addition to the prog oeuvre, opening with a tale of Victorian sexual deviancy, Musical Box, and including a mix of period whimsy and literary nods with The Return Of The Giant Hogweed, Seven Stones (which bears more than a hint of Coleridge) and the Greek mythology-founded Fountain Of Salmacis nodding more towards the classical public school education enjoyed by Gabriel, Banks and Rutherford at their alma mata, Charterhouse.

Amid the frock-coated yarns, Mellotrons and Hackett's inventive electric guitar work, Nursery Cryme gave a foretaste of the Genesis to come with For Absent Friends.

For a band which became known for its long, complex pieces, For Absent Friends is a short - just under two minutes-long - 12-string guitar-based folk song about remembrance, and is notable for marking Collins' lead vocal debut with the group.

Another short song, Harold The Barrel, nods to Pythonesque humour, recounting the story of a Bognor restaurant owner who goes on the run after serving his own toes up for tea. 24 years later, Blur entered similar territory with Ernold Same on The Great Escape, demonstrating that the art of prototypically English story-songs was alive and well.

Earlier this year Nursery Cryme was voted overwhelmingly the No.1 prog rock album of 1971 by readers of the UK's Classic Rock magazine. It shares prestigious company, including The Yes Album and the same band's Fragile, King Crimson's Islands, ELP's Pictures At An Exhibition, Meddle and Aqualung, the epic concept album by Jethro Tull.

To celebrate its 40th anniversary, Aqualung is being rereleased as a newly remixed album courtesy of my recently reacquainted friend Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree.

Wilson, who has also been retouching King Crimson's back catalogue, says that the key to the purple patch that 1971 appeared to represent is that the record industry had been forced into recognising that rock music was an art form and allowed  - if it was allowed to be so. "There seems to be something leading up to 1971," Wilson told Classic Rock earlier this year, "which is when record labels started to get interested. That's usually when scenes start to die, but I think you can see 1971 as the zenith of creative expression for experimental music. The records were still very ambitious after that, but there's something about the spirit of '71 that was special and the peak of that whole thing."

Although it would be another two years before Pink Floyd would release Dark Side Of The Moon and another three before Genesis would release The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway - two of prog rock's undisputed masterpieces - the congregation of so many legendary albums of the prog rock genre in 1971 can certainly not be attributed to record company conformity.

This was the era of bands releasing albums on a six-monthly basis, touring relentlessly and building their following through hard graft and musicianship. It's unlikely that any of them would be allowed to flourish today. It took Genesis until their 1978 tour before they even broke even as a band, despite almost ten years of critical acclaim and success in Europe and in the US.

They, and all the bands around them, probably have The Beatles - more than anyone else - to thank. Sgt. Pepper had paved the way for albums to be more than just compendia of pop songs. Which, if you think about it, is an immense irony, given that the early Beatle singles averaged at around two minutes in length...

Saturday, November 05, 2011

He's got a lot of Eminence Front

Ever since Dylan went electric, pop music has been riven by a supposed rift between, well, not many people, actually, and those who have a passionate belief that music's life and soul rests not at the top of the charts but deep in the weeds. As much as I personally think that X-Factor and its excremental clan have all the artistic merit of toothpaste, there are those who believe with equal advocacy that music can be only regarded as valid if it is racked in the converted milk crates of an independent record shop or squeezed into the corner of a pub by a progressively-minded landlord pursuing his belief in promoting live music.

Taking at least one foot out of the stirrups of my own high horse, if there is one good thing to both the TV "talent" shows and the continuing existence of independent music outlets, it's that they are both still, in their own way, promoting the idea that becoming a musician is a sound aspiration that you can actually make a living out of.

The fate of the independent record shop comes into sharp focus this week in the UK with the opening of Sound It Out, a documentary by film maker Jeanie Finlay about Sound It Out Records, the very last record shop open in her native Stockton-on-Tees in north-east England.

Premiered earlier this year at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, this "accidental" film, as Finlay calls it, has been acclaimed, both for its depiction of smalltown English life, but also for its championing of the independent vinyl retailer - and the genuine eccentrics you're likely to meet there.

It is, says Finlay, "A distinctive, funny and intimate film about men, obsession and the irreplaceable role music plays in our lives. High Fidelity with a Northern accent." Shops like Sound It Out Records are dying at an alarming rate of 30 a year. This is partly due to the general decline in ownership of music in physical formats, but partly because a loophole in VAT has allowed the big online music retailers to operate offshore, VAT-free and offering cheaper retail prices (and without the overheads of a bricks-and-mortar operation).

"I’ve confirmed what I always suspected," she adds, "it’s so much more than just music and records. Vinyl holds memories and maps the soundtrack of people’s lives. You probably can’t remember when you downloaded an MP3 but I bet you can remember where and when you bought your first single, or the LP you fell in love to. People gravitate to the shop for a number of reasons, for [manager] Tom’s expertise, for the music he stocks and to just simply hang out in a place where they fit in."

Earlier this week, Pete Townshend - The Who's principal songwriter, windmilling guitarist and perennial Mod - delivered the inaugural John Peel Lecture, in itself a tribute to the legendary DJ who was as much a curator of the sort of music you'll find in Sound It Out Reords as radio personality playing it.

Peel, Townshend argued, represented a behaviour under-served today by mainstream radio's reluctance to abandon formula and go off range in the way the late DJ did. Peel played what either intrigued him, amused him, moved him or provided the perverted satisfaction of baffling and challenging the listening audience in equal measure.

"Peel was not a musician," Townshend said. "He was a listener, a patron of the arts, a broadcaster with almost no censorial mandate or agenda. He only played what he thought deserved to be played. I don't think it always mattered that he himself liked it. In China in Chairman Mao's day he might have been sent to prison if only for being the first to play Jesus and Mary Chain, the Undertones or the Proclaimers – all of them were a little bit political, but also radical and outspoken."

The lecture wasn't however, meant to eulogise Peel but to raise the flag - hoisted so often in recent years - about the new digital music culture and its impact on musical income, creativity and the somewhat hippyish ideals of what he called "John Peelism" - i.e. the free love of any form of music without condition. Sounding dangerously Luddite for a musician who has always been fascinated by new technology (the arpeggiated and synthesised organ on The Who's Won't Get Fooled Again was well ahead of its time), Townshend hypothesised that in the iTunes era online music services were simply providing a distribution and royalty collection model which was denying artists essential services.

"Music publishing has always been a form of banking," Townshend argued, "but – in cooperation with record labels – active artists have always received from the music industry banking system more than banking." He said that by essentially acting as nothing more than a brokerage for music, services like iTunes were denying artists the ecosystem that they would have traditionally been a part of, with labels and publishers providing editorial guidance, financial support, creative nurturing, manufacturing, publishing, marketing, distribution and royalty payments.

It is certainly true that with the disappearance of legendary impresarios like Ahmet Ertegun, and the replacement of music-minded record company CEOs with lawyers, investment bankers and similar forms of besuited chinless wonder who might consider Michael Bublé cutting edge, new artists today might lack the patient tutorage their ancestors enjoyed in the pre-digital era.

Today, Townshend said, the iTunes only offered a distribution and royalty collection platform. Taking his banking analogy, you could agree that the High Street bank - where a friendly (or unfriendly) bank manager might offer you a personal approach to managing your finances  - has disappeared, and that banking today revolves around an impersonal experience of ATMs, direct debits and online banking whereby there is little human or emotional involvement.

Hiding behind the semi-fictional persona of "the inner artist", Townshend laid into Steve Jobs (annoyingly and, I suspect, quite deliberately pronouncing his name as the Biblical "Jobes"), branding  iTunes a "digital vampire", a headline-friendly provocation if ever I've seen one.

Apple - and iTunes - came up with a workable model for online content distribution. It may not be entirely equitable to the artists, but I'd vouch that there were never any record labels or music publishers who designed contracts to be philanthropically beneficial to the artist.

This is not the first time, however, that iTunes has come in for criticism from an artist: AC/DC still refuse to distribute their music via the service on the grounds that it caters for people who want to download individual tracks rather than complete albums. One American blues-rock legend I ran into last year complained to me that the process of negotiating a distribution agreement with Apple is frustrating, to the extent he felt that he was being offered one of those "it's this or nothing" deals.

But for others, more pragmatically, they consider it to be an essential distribution mechanism, "a no brainer", another artist recently told me. It's there, people use it, you get money from it. Job done. As Michael Corleone famously told his brother Sonny: "It's not personal. It's strictly business". Pop music has always had its hardball types, and Apple is no different to any record company or music distributor that has come before. You still need to promote an album, you still need to perform live, you still - for the time being - need to have the means to sell CDs via High Street retail outlets.

The worry is that today, the music industry as a whole appears to have forgotten what it was that turned music into the predominant youth culture of the late 20th century. At least Steve Jobs, the archetypal Baby Boomer with his love of The Beatles, got it and did something about it. The music industry, frankly, took too long to embrace the digital age. When labels like EMI were still farting around appointing 'Executive Vice-Presidents of Digital Development' simply to "explore" the potential for digital music distribution, illegal file-sharing services were already in their prime and the horse was so far out of the stable that the stable door hinges had rusted away.

In branding iTunes a vampire, Townshend diminished attention for the more interesting argument of his thesis, that iTunes should do more to promote new artists. In this, I couldn't agree more. If I am to reluctantly give up the Saturday afternoon pleasure of browsing the racks of my local Sound It Out Records for browsing with a mouse (actually, it's now an Apple Trackpad), then at least do something to editorially draw my attention away from the FMCG brands like Coldplay and create attention for the emergent and the interesting. To Townshend's point, iTunes needs its own John Peel, someone who's curatorial mind can see potential whereas others might only see a long haul with limited return. Peel, while he bludgeoned on with patronage of bands like The Fall - such was his whimsy - had also been unafraid of championing the likes of Pink Floyd, The Faces and Roxy Music when they were regarded as either too avant-garde or simply unfashionable in their earlier years.

Rock stars - especially wealthy ones, pontificating over the inequalities of the "Wild West frontier", as Townshend somewhat anachronistically referred to the digital domain - will always appear to be arguing a fairly thin position. Although he "doesn't give a shit about money", as The Who's principal songwriter, his well-appointed mansion in East Twickenham (in a street backing on to where I used to live, if you must know) has been paid for by the likes of me buying original Who albums and then, in moments of weakness, buying them all over again when the box sets and digital remastered versions emerge.

I admire his passion for championing the need for iTunes as another element of the music distribution landscape to do more to keep the wolf from the door of those struggling to get on or up the ladder. But in the outcome, Townshend's lecture came across as no more than another old head bemoaning the march of progress.

Oddly enough, there's a box set containing a remastered Quadrophenia heading for your local record emporium. Just in time for Christmas.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Captain, Leader, Liability?

In just over a month from now John Terry will turn 31, by which time it's possible that the "JT - CAPTAIN, LEADER, LEGEND" banner draped over the Matthew Harding Stand upper tier balcony at Stamford Bridge may have become both tarnished and redundant.

Without prejudging the two official investigations - the FA's and, now, the Metropolitan Police - into Terry's allegedly racist remark to Anton Ferdinand on October 23, the skies have certainly become darker over the Chelsea and England captain.

What is clear is that if either enquiry finds Terry guilty of abusing Ferdinand at Loftus Road - even in the heat of the moment - the Chelsea captain's career will be over.

Before getting into what JT did or didn't say to the QPR defender (who has "very strong feelings on the matter"), the broader issue is that the spotlight has once again fallen awkwardly on a footballer whose ability to attract negative publicity has been historically as accomplished as Uncle Albert Trotter's skill at sinking his own ships.

At this point I must declare my proprietary interest, which should be perfectly obvious but still requires me to hold up a palm and reaffirm my lifelong allegiance to Chelsea. I recognise that what follows here breaches several constitutional laws of fandom, including heresy and the one which states, quite categorically, that you never, ever question your chosen team or its players, no matter how far they transgress the law. However...

John Terry's status as a Chelsea Football Club legend has been built and maintained over 13 years by a number of factors. He is, first and foremost, a formidable central defender, hewn from the same lump of English resilience that attached the 'typifies the bulldog spirit' contractually-obliged qualifier to any mention of Terry Butcher. Terry (John) is a defender not afraid to put his forehead between a striker's boot and the ball on or near the goalmouth, the footballing equivalent of an RAF Spitfire pilot defending Britain in the summer of 1940.

His elevation to first team regularity at Chelsea - and, indeed, the club captaincy - was, by turns, inspired and an almighty risk. By the age of 22 he'd already accumulated an impressive record of off-field misdemeanors which, were it not for his club's relative benevolence would have created a reputation so toxic that he would have been playing non-league football or driving a white delivery van around Basildon by now.

Terry was amongst a group of Chelsea players (Jody Morris, Eidur Gudjohnsen and Frank Lampard) accused of abusing American tourists at a Heathrow Airport hotel shortly after the 9/11 attacks in 2001; having been duly fined by the club for that incident, he was later caught in a late-night hue-and-cry at a London nightclub, in which a bouncer was injured. Terry - arrested and jailed for the night - was later cleared of all charges at a subsequent trial.

But despite these large and early blots on Terry's copy book, an inspirational piece of talent development by the Tinkerman himself, Claudio Ranieri, gave him his chance.

With Marcel Desailly out injured during the 2003-4 season, Terry - already identified as understudy to the French World Cup winner - was promoted to the starting line-up. The following season, Jose Mourinho took over, Desailly retired, and the boy King John was crowned, with Frank Lampard installed as his Lord Lieutenant.

Despite being born closer to Upton Park than Stamford Bridge, Terry has always been regarded (and has positioned himself) unquestionably as Chelsea "through and through", a one-club man. We'll ignore, then, all that nonsense about a lucrative new gig at Manchester City.

Since becoming Chelsea’s captain, he has led the team through the most successful period of its 106-year history, including winning back-to-back Premier League titles in the first two seasons under Mourinho, with Terry commanding the leanest defence in the league. Some might say, though, that Mourinho's partnering of Terry with Ricardo Carvalho, along with Claude Makelele in the holding position, was the real key to that robust defence, masking Terry's only playing weakness - his lack of pace.

But with Chelsea battling criticism that it was a team of foreign mercenaries buying the league title with Abramovich's plundered oil roubles, JT remained the club's pillar, the base of an English spine with Frank Lampard ahead of him in midfield, and the fans behind a team which, was at least English-led. When Mourinho was fired in September 2007, Terry emerged as a more influential figure at the club than simply it's on-the-pitch captain. Increasingly seen as a crown prince, and handsomely rewarded with the Premier League's then highest-ever weekly wage of £135,000 a week, Terry appeared bullet-proof.

No-one is bullet-proof, though, and in the British public eye, wearing body armour is an invitation to take potshots at the famous in all their finest hubris. So when Terry's penalty miss in the 2008 Champions League Final in Moscow condemned Chelsea to more frustration in its pursuit of the one prize it still covets, the world was given notice that he might be impervious after all.

Terry’s armour had been tested earlier in 2008 by the arrest and cautioning of his mother and his then fiancée’s mother on suspicion of shoplifting from a branch of Tesco (embarrassingly one of the official sponsors of the England team). The same month Terry himself caused more embarrassment to club and country by having his car photographed in a disabled motorists' parking bay.

His parents became a source of pride again in November 2009 when his father, Ted, was caught by a Sunday newspaper apparently trying to sell cocaine. Even with that hanging above him, Terry Jr. was dragged back into the spotlight the same month when another newspaper broke the story that the Chelsea captain was offering guided tours of the club's Cobham training ground for cash. Though later explained as a charity initiative, it cast another shadow on his integrity as leader of both his club and his country.

That integrity was stretched to breaking point early in 2010 when the 'super injunction' was lifted that had previously prevented reporting of an affair between the married Terry and Veronica Perroncel, then the girlfriend of his former club teammate Wayne Bridge. Whether this was the straw or not, England coach Fabio Cappello - who would potentially be including Terry and Bridge in the same squad - decided that the camel's back had been snapped, and Terry was stripped of the England captaincy.

Despite this Teflon Terry retained the Chelsea captain's armband amid stoic PR mumblings about "fine servant" this and "inspirational leader" that.

Managers come and managers go, pretty frequently at Chelsea, but Terry has remained rooted at Stamford Bridge, like a 1000-year-old oak that not even hurricanes can dislodge. However, the storm clouds gathering in the wake of the Ferdinand incident may, however, may lead to that tree being upended.

Stamping out racism is a point of principal to football's governing bodies, although the evidence of crowd behaviour in Russia, Spain, Serbia, Germany and Denmark would suggest that there is a long way to go. John Terry appears to have stumbled upon a land mine with a particularly sensitive pressure plate.

I'm going to tread gossamer-thin ice here: before I do, let me state for the record that I do not condone racism in any form: as a regular visitor at Chelsea in 1982 I remember Paul Canoville making his home debut as the club's first ever black player, where his arrival was greeted by obscene monkey chants and bananas being disgracefully lobbed onto the pitch. Today whether a player is black, white, yellow or pink is not an issue.

In football's topsy-turvy sense of morality it seems you can get away with almost anything of dubious personal conduct, but lose your cool in the heat of battle and make reference to another player's skin colour, and all bets are clearly off.

Terry hasn't helped himself, however, with any of his mitigation. If he called Ferdinand "blind" (as one initial explanation is said to have stated), it was still used as an adjective to the sexual epithet that followed, which in itself is offensive enough. If, though, he used the word "black" then clearly a line of stupidity was crossed.

Does it make Terry a racist? No, but then the FA and Metropolitan Police investigations won't be looking to find a KKK hood hanging in Terry's wardrobe - just evidence that proves conclusively that, even if just sledging a fellow player, he was guilty of using a phrase which drew attention to Anton Ferdinand's race, which is just the sort of behaviour football clubs and football authorities do not want to see any player - let alone the captain of a leading club and the national side - engaged in.

I don't believe John Terry is a bigot - but then I don't know him personally. Equally I can't say whether whatever he said to Ferdinand at Loftus Road last month was meant to be racist. It was unbelievably crass, especially in the modern game where high definition television scrutiny strips away any veil of doubt. And the sad fact is that one thing said in the heat of the moment could bring down the curtain of a career which may not have been glittering, but has certainly been full-on.