Saturday, October 27, 2012

We've been expecting you - Skyfall reviewed

I shouldn't have been, at my age, but I was giddy. Like a child on Christmas morning. I was even queuing an hour before kickoff, but then when I saw what passes for queuing in Paris, I was wise to be early.

A packed cinema served to remind, if a reminder was needed, that this wasn't just an opening night screening but part of a global event involving a cinema marque as magnetic, as universally understood, and as powerful as any of the brands who pay handsomely to have their wares displayed within.

11 months since a London press conference confirmed the production of 'Bond 23', I found myself in an aggressive scrum anxiously squeezing through the single set of doors of a Champs-Élysées auditorium for, what is appropriately named in French, a séance of Skyfall.

In principle, a 23rd of anything doesn't sound good. 23rd helping of tiramisu? 23rd series of Celebrity Big Brother? Now That's What I Call Music 23? You wouldn't willingly stand in line to watch a 23rd outing of Police Academy or the Twilight franchises, none of which should ever be allowed out of the single digits.

Bond has, however, proven the exception to the rule, quite rightly reaching 23 instalments in half a century by doing 'Bond' better than anyone or anything else, on average earning more than $500 million a film. Something it is still doing after 50 years.

Bond has seen off the imitations like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Matt Helm, and spoofs like Get SmartAustin Powers and Johnny English. While no imitations, the first three adaptations of Len Deighton's Harry Palmer novels, starring Michael Caine as Harry Palmer, provided an antidote to Bond, while Jason Bourne has, since, come along to inform Bond how he should appear in the post-9/11 age.

Bond has proven indestructible, onscreen and off. Not even the MGM studio's serious financial troubles proved fatal. But when 'Bond 23' was announced just 51 weeks ago, the talk was of what a Bond directed by a 'serious' actors' director like Sam Mendes would end up like. The suggestion was that it could be a dour, thesp-fest, restrained by both budget limitations and a director not known for action on the scale (both in terms of expectation and execution) of 007.

When producers later announced the title, Skyfall, there was further consternation, mixed with curiosity. If the film stank, critics and headline writers would be gifted variations on "Awfull". And with a cast bringing Daniel Craig and Dame Judi Dench together with Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney, and the ever-so slight disappointment of Quantum Of Solace in the not-too distant past, a lot would be resting on Mendes' shoulders. An awful lot.

Quantum was, scriptwise, a blip. But despite its lack of narrative, and an over-reliance on the Vesper Lynd revenge arc, it was still a good Bond, and a great, modern spy thriller (and there are others in the series that you could aim harsher criticism at - Die Another Day comes straight to mind...).

So, Skyfall. It is good. Exceptionally good. It has been talked of as the best yet. Maybe. But it is very good. In fact, the last time I came out of a cinema that exhilarated I'd just seen Christian Bale and Heath Ledger pitted against each other in The Dark Knight. Yes, that good.

Without revealing anything you haven't read already, there is so much to admire in this film. Stuff that just puts a smile on your face in near-incredulity at moments you've just seen. Firstly, Skyfall feels like a new kind of Bond film, and that has everything to do with Mendes.

'New' usually unnerves Bond fans - remember when the idea of a blond Bond had the fanboys up in arms? The Daniel Craig era has been notably different from its predecessors - mostly bereft of gadgets and an avoidance of epic final battle scenes in hollowed-out volcanos and submarine-swallowing oil tankers.

Skyfall seems scaled down: the "exotic" locations are still there - like Istanbul and Shanghai  - but  plot-pivotal scenes in Scotland and, for probably the first time in 50 years, a London-centricity, the story has more to do with Bond and M's respective histories than carousing gratuitously from destination to destination.

There is, as a result, a strong parallel to The Bourne Ultimatum, and not just the appearance of Albert Finney. Amid the action, Skyfall takes us into M and Bond's past, with ultra-camp villain Javier Bardem as the tour's brilliant guide. It's tempting to compare his Silva to Heath Ledger's Joker, though for pure psychopathic terror, the latter would win on points.

Mendes has a wonderful sense of photography. His Road To Perdition won an Oscar for its cinematography, and it is noticeable how rich the imagery in Skyfall is, using colour, light and artistic composition in a manner you don't expect in an action movie. Scenes in Shanghai, for example, reminded me of Wong Kar-wai's My Blueberry Nights. Not the normal reference point for some camp old spy dust-up.

But, don't worry. This is still a Bond film. The opening scene is breathtaking, probably the best Bond opening scene ever. At its end, as the screen fades into the title sequence and Adele's dreary theme song (the only real disappointment of the film), I actually felt that I'd just seen an entire film in its own right. I could understand how this scene took two months to shoot in Istanbul. It is simply stunning.

There was something oddly theatre-like about Skyfall, in so far as you felt you were watching a series of filmed acts from a play, such was the temptation to applaud certain scenes at their conclusion. Indeed, the appearance of Bond's Aston Martin DB5 prompted spontaneous applause from my fellow Parisian patrons. A lovely moment.

Skyfall fulfills every expectation. Daniel Craig has warmed into the Bond role nicely. This his third. Remember Connery in Goldfinger. While Craig will never have Connery's balance of charm and brawn, but he is still miles above most of the other Bond actors, and Skyfall

"Men want to be him, women want to be with him" runs the usual journalistic cliche. Craig displays more vulnerability than any previous Bond but, that aside, the formula has changed all that much. The haircuts, tailoring, cars and budgets may have changed over the last 50 years, but fundamentally James Bond on screen is still the same character who first appeared two weeks before the Cuban missile crisis  erupted.

Around him, the supporting cast has been allowed to evolve. Dame Judi Dench continues to play M with stern dryness befitting of the character's seniority, though the humour between M and Bond is cleverer by far than in the days of Bernard Lee and the three Bonds who served under him (Connery, Lazenby and Moore).

Indeed, the jokes in Skyfall are, rather than the sometime crass affairs of Bonds past, delightfully weighted. Encounters between Bond and Q have always been the main source of laughs, and in Skyfall, the first meeting between Craig and his Q (Ben Whishaw) is superbly unforced, like a number of knowing gags throughout the entire film, suitably self-depreciating in the manner we Brits revel in.

When you audit Skyfall it checks more or less all Bond boxes. There are gadgets, there are girls (the excellent Naomie Harris and Bérénice Marlohe returning 007 to the traditionally un-PC habits of being somewhat discarding of his conquests) and there is villainy and suspense. Listed like that, I know, could be the formulaic description of any action franchise produced to order by studio marketing executives.

Bond may be like be a simple, anyone-can-do-it recipe - like Spaghetti Bolognese (onions, garlic, celery, carrots minced beef, can of tomatoes, oregano, salt and pepper served over spaghetti), but there is finesse in the cooking process that makes a Terence Young Bond subtly different from a John Glen Bond. This Sam Mendes Bond is different once again. And it is utterly, utterly brilliant. And worth queuing up for a second time. At the very least.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A big deal - in celebration of James Bond theme music

When you're a child everything lacks the correct perspective. That is why Marge Simpson has a huge blue ceiling-dusting beehive: because to The Simpsons' creator Matt Groening that's what his mother's hair looked like from the floor-height perspective of being a small boy.

When I was a child, small deals were big deals. Like, for example, the mother of the bass player in Mud worked in my local Sainsbury's. Or that Sally James from Tiswas lived in the area (just Google her...). The Eurovision Song Contest was another big deal, along with who won It's A Knockout and its mad continental cousin, Jeux Sans Frontières.

Doctor Who was - and, I believe, still is - a very big deal indeed. The 'appointment' of a new Doctor (yes, pedants, I know he's "regenerated", but let's live in the real world, eh?") was an enormous deal. But for me, the grand daddio of big deals is, was and always will be Bond, James Bond.

From the first time I saw clips of the Live And Let Die boat chase on Michael Rodd's groundbreaking movie quiz Screen Test, I knew Bond was going to be a big deal for me.

It was, though, a while before I actually saw a Bond film all the way through. This was the era when children actually went to bed at bedtime, and not just slope off to watch TV on their own set (in our house "the television" referred to just that - a single, living room television).

Today Bond films are available to watch at anytime on DVD or Blu-ray Disc, but then, the premiere of a Bond movie on TV was an event, and an evening event at that. As a result, I'd be lucky to watch up until the first ad break before being dispatched upstairs. My, them '70s were harsh...

Thus, the first Bond movie I saw at the cinema was The Spy Who Loved Me in July 1977. This was my tenth year, and with Star Wars also coming out that summer, it was my first immersion in proper cinema (for the record, school holiday visits to see Disney's Bedknobs & Broomsticks and Herbie Rides Again did not constitute the all-senses assault cinematic experience).

Being PI (pre-Internet), too, cinematic big deals were different. Films were marketed by tie-in toys and special edition cereal packets. Movie 'buzz' was something within the film industry, not gossip inside any old Starbucks. The Bond films, however, were - to me at least - a breed apart (and still are). Their original producers, Albert "Cubby" Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, developed their own formula for hyping up a new Bond film, and it was built around creating the same expectation each time - starting with the film before ("James Bond will return in...").

Firstly, fans would get excited about the film's opening scene. Since Dr No, released 50 years ago, a Bond movie must have it's opening 'gag', a scene that either informs the remainder of the film, or at least gets it underway with a spectacular stunt.

In the case of The Spy Who Loved Me, it was Bond being chased off a mountain by Russians angry that he'd just been shagging Ringo Starr's wife (long story). This culminated in one of the most famous stunts in film history, the ski jump by stuntman Rick Sylvester (filling in for Roger Moore) who releases a Union Jack parachute and lands to safety.

Secondly, the opening gag must dissolve into an oblique title sequence by Maurice Binder, in which silhouettes of naked women float about like cruising mermaids around the apparent silhouette of a dinner-suited man carrying a gun, which he fires, wiping into the first actual scene of the movie.

That Binder more or less repeated the same sequence each time is eclipsed by the third most vital element, one which overshadows everything else at this stage of the film and, to be honest, continues to fire debate and open argument still, 50 years after the first time you heard the words "the name's Bond, James Bond".

I am, of course, talking about The Bond Song. It is so famous, so redolent, so important, that it even has its own proper noun. Because The Bond Song is a big deal. And it began with The Bond Theme, Monty Norman's fabulous string and brass arrangement first heard over the opening credits of Dr No and featuring one of the most famous guitar riffs in history, played by Worcester Park, Surrey-born session musician Vic Flick. With his Paragon Deluxe guitar plugged into a Vox AC15 amp, Flick allowed the sound to bleed into adjacent, open microphones, creating that distinct, reverbed twang. He  received a one-off fee of £6 in the summer of 1962 for the session.

Since then, the Bond song has evolved, and has become a genre in its own right. That distinctive chord progression of the string section can be performed anywhere on its own, and people will still instantly think 'Bond'. Over the years, composer John Barry (and more recently, his 'heir' David Arnold) have, mostly, kept the Bond theme within certain parameters - sweeping strings and a strong feeling of glamour, excitement and danger.

Then there's the choice of performer. This IS a big deal. The early, Sean Connery films not only benefitted from great, detail- and style-minded directors like Terence Young, Guy Hamilton and Lewis Gilbert, but also their choice of theme songs and their singers: Matt Monro (From Russia With Love), Shirley Bassey (Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever), Tom Jones (Thunderball) or Nancy Sinatra (You Only Live Twice).

These remain - for me, at least - the quintessential Bond theme songs. With Roger Moore taking over the title role from Connery (via George Lazenby), the Bond franchise welcomed the 1970s with a change of musical direction, and Paul McCartney and Wings'  Live And Let Die. It's still a great song, with its switching of tempos from reggae to rock making it a nightmare to drive to. But then it was the first time the Bond people took a contemporary approach - something that hasn't always been a success since.

"Writing a James Bond song is a tough assignment, I should know - I've co-written one," says Sean Hannam, who when not working as a journalist is a DJ and musician. Sean is a passionate Bond fan, but equally passionate about the traditions of Bond - especially its music.

"Four years ago, after watching Quantum of Solace, I and my singer/songwriter friend Matt Hill, who records as Quiet Loner, decided to embark on a mission," Sean recalls. Together with arranger and studio wizard Will Dobson ("our very own Q!"), they set about writing their own contribution to the canon of Bond themes.

Sean explains that they'd been bitterly disappointed by the number of poor songs in recent Bond movies: "Like, for example, Jack White and Alicia Keys' blustering and bluesy Another Way To Die, which played over the opening credits of Quantum. We thought we could do much better."

Sean Hannam, Matt Hill and their studio 'Q', Will Dobson
"We went back to Ian Fleming for our inspiration - always a good place to start," Sean recalls. "Firstly, we chose the title, The Property of a Lady, from a [Ian] Fleming short story of the same name. Matt and I were attracted to the various connotations of the title: who is the lady? Could it be the Queen, could it be 'M', as portrayed by Dame Judi Dench, or could it refer to Bond himself, being the property of a lady?

"With this in mind, I penned a suitable lyric. I wanted to capture the feel of an old Bond song like Goldfinger - which is still the best Bond song by far -  but to also make it sound relevant to [Daniel] Craig's new era of 007. I thought my words should mix the camp rhymes of Goldfinger's lyricists Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, but with a touch of darkness and revenge."

The end result incorporated classic Bond song words like "danger" and "stranger'", as well as references to the deaths of Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale and Bond's new bride Tracy in On Her Majesty's Secret Service ("...those that he's loved have all withered and died...").

"If that wasn't enough to please Bond fans," Sean adds, "I also threw in some classic 007 imagery and themes –  exotic locations, girls, fire, revenge, death and destruction."

Hannam and Hill took the view that even when a new Bond actor takes over, or a new director joins the franchise, they should bring something fresh, but also tip a trilby to the past. "Judging by the reviews of Skyfall [which opens tomorrow] it manages to do this very well," Sean feels. "It pays homage to the iconic 007 films of the '60s, but also manages to play around with the formula, subverting the audience's expectations, but, ultimately, creating a very modern movie that's dark, exciting and daring, but that still captures the best of Bond."

That, Sean feels, should apply to the music as well. "It's a difficult trick to pull off. Adele's Skyfall song just sounds like one of her bland, dinner party background ballads that's been swathed in moody strings and big brass to give it some added drama. It simply isn't sexy or dangerous enough to be a Bond song. It so dearly wants to be considered as a classic, Bassey-style Bond anthem,  but, instead, it's as if someone's dressed up 007 in a cheap tuxedo from Primark."

Tough words indeed, but indicative of just how precious a film franchise Bond is. Remember when they announced Daniel Craig? Outcry that 007 - the quintessential tall, dark and handsome action hero - would be played by a shortish blond Liverpudlian. Most people now consider him to be the best Bond since Sean Connery...

When David Arnold took over from the late John Barry to score Tomorrow Never Dies, the self-confessed Bond fan had already shown form with his theme song featuring Björk for the thriller Play Dead, as well as his excellent compilation Shaken And Stirred, featuring covers of Bond themes by David McAlmont, Pulp, Propellerheads and others. It was clear that Arnold already had the formula.

And yet, the Bond producers have continued to tamper. "Madonna's Die Another Day attempted to drag Bond onto the dance floor, but ended up as a clunky orchestral-techno hybrid monstrosity," says Sean Hannam. All in all, Die Another Day was not 007's finest moment, given the CGI horror that it largely was.

The trouble with Bond theme songs is that, when poor, they act as a lightning rod of criticism for the film itself. Sheryl Crow's Tomorrow Never Dies was the wrong voice on the right song in a mostly forgettable Bond outing. Ditto Garbage on The World Is Not Enough. You have to go back to Goldeneye - written by U2's Bono and The Edge, and sung by Tina Turner - to get a half-decent, on-formula Bond theme.

Sean comments that while Soundgarden's Chris Cornell's You Know My Name from Casino Royale tried to toughen up the Bond sound to coincide with newcomer Daniel Craig's portrayal of 007, it also failed. "Failed miserably," says Sean. "It's an instantly forgettable soft rock song that lacks style, charm or excitement."

As we now know, Sean and Matt's Bond lost out to Adele for Skyfall. "If only we'd had the budget to be able to afford a full orchestra," he says. "Matt's vocals were definitely channeling crooner Matt Monro, who sang the theme to From Russia With Love  - my favourite Bond film."

Adele was a strong early choice for Skyfall. Love her or loathe her, her melodramatic balladeering, not to mention the phenomenal global success of her 19 and 21 albums more or less made her a shoe-in. There have been precedents: Lulu recorded The Man With The Golden Gun at the height of her 70s fame, while Carly Simon's Marvin Hamlisch/Carole Bayer Sager-penned Nobody Does It Better came out while she was the darling of the LA music scene. It's also a brilliant Bond song, fitting for the flared trousered, eyebrow-raising, scenery chewing lounge lizard era of Roger Moore.

So, who for Bond 24? Let me offer a surprise choice: Liam Gallagher. Just listen to I'm Outta Time from the final Oasis album Dig Out Your Soul. Written by the junior Gallagher, it had all the hallmarks of a classic Bond theme, even if from the last person you'd associate with anything about Bond.

Then there is Muse. "Forget them," says Sean bluntly. "They seem to be the popular choice with the general public at the moment, but their histrionic, prog-rock shrieking is far too over-the-top and cringe-worthy." I fully agree.

And so a suggestion Sean and I also agree upon wholeheartedly: Richard Hawley. "He’d be a dead cert to compose a heartbreaking ballad to rival Louis Armstrong's We Have All The Time In The World from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service," says Sean, who could see the Yorkshire crooner produce something dark, moody and dramatic to go with the Craig-era Bond. "What if he partnered with fellow Sheffielder Alex Turner, whose Arctic Monkeys side project, Last Shadow Puppets, are perfect at crafting swooning, cinematic soundtracks with twangy guitars and lush, orchestral backing?"

The name that comes back again and again, however, is the singer who has sung on three Bond songs and is probably the most associated with the form: Shirley Bassey. "For Skyfall," says Sean, "I think Shirley Bassey should have been invited back to belt out a new song, ideally penned by composer and arranger David Arnold and veteran lyricist Don Black.

"An Arnold, Black and Bassey collaboration would've been a fitting tribute to the 50th anniversary of the 007 movies," adds Sean, "and to John Barry, who created the Bond sound, but, sadly, died in 2011. Black once said in a TV interview that he thought Shirley should sing all the Bond songs. He's got a point. When it comes to Bond songs, nobody does it better!"

Monday, October 22, 2012

Say it isn't So - Gabriel's landmark turns 25(ish)

Such is Peter Gabriel's habitual delinquency that even his 25th anniversary release of So has slipped by a year.

He has a good excuse. Well, good excuses - namely the tale end of his New Blood project, along with the usual disparate interests and causes that have a habit of slowing his progress like weeds dragging a boat.

But, finally, So 25 is here, in a number of commemorative forms, from the basic CD reissued through a treasure chest of a box set, more of which in a moment.

Let's first consider the original form, released in the late spring of 1986, just as I was taking my A-levels. It was an album that turned Gabriel into a superstar, transforming him from that bloke who'd had slightly eccentric hits like Solsbury HillGames Without Frontiers and Shock The Monkey, and who, further back, had worn a variety of bizarre costumes as lead singer of Genesis Mark I.

The path to So had taken many forms. His first four title-free solo albums (later named by their Hipgnosis cover art to help confused Americans), were each like pieces of molten metal being banged into shape by a master blacksmith, perpetually hammering to find the optimum form.

The first ('Car'), released two years after leaving Genesis, was the freedom album, symbolised by Solsbury Hill (about leaving Genesis, the band he'd formed at school) and its sibling Excuse Me, a cod-barbership number which begins: "Excuse me/You're wearing out my joie de vie/Grabbing those good years again/I want to be alone".

The second ('Scratch') in 1978 had an edgier feel, thanks to Robert Fripp's production and staffing by predominantly American musicians, including Bruce Springsteen's keyboard player Roy Bittan, which fused an odd hybrid of punk and West Coast rock. For the third ('Melt'), Gabriel changed direction once more as he embraced his own version of synth-rock New Wave with guest spots by Kate Bush, Paul Weller (guitar on And Through The Wire) and former bandmate Phil Collins on cymbals-free drums (thus giving birth to the gated reverb sound that would become his signature as a superstar in his own right).

This third album, more experimental and slightly less accessible than the first two ended with Biko, the fist-pumping anthem about South African civil rights leader Steve Biko, and arguably the first example of a western rock star embracing what we now call "world music". This continued on Gabriel's fourth solo album ('Security'), which opened with the tribal drumming of The Rhythm Of The Heat and contained the story of Native American mysticism, San Jacinto (beautifully rearranged for orchestra on New Blood, Gabriel's recent symphonic retread).

Three years, a live album of the fourth album's tour, and the soundtrack to Alan Parker's Birdy had elapsed by the time Gabriel started work on So. Incredibly he'd been a recording artist for almost 20 years, having cut his first album with Genesis while at Charterhouse as he still harboured ambitions of being a drummer and soul singer (he was a passionate Otis Redding fan, a feature that lay largely publicly suppressed until So came along with the obvious Stax pastiche, Sledgehammer).

The years separating So from its predecessors may have been decades. With the assistance of Daniel Lanois, the Canadian who'd just produced U2's Under A Blood Red Sky with Brian Eno, Gabriel and an eclectic cast (including Stewart Copeland, Otis Redding's trumpeter Wayne Jackson and other members of The Memphis Horns, Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour, Simple Minds' Jim Kerr, performance artist Laurie Anderson and Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers), Gabriel stepped out of the artistically-worthy but commercially flimsy shadows to become a proper, breakfast telly-patronising star, especially in America.

So wasn't, however, some crude attempt to go pop. It was an album made, still, on Gabriel's trademark awkward terms, but musically it took the singer further towards layered songwriting and recording than he'd ever attempted before.

Armed with new toys like the Fairlight CMI sampling keyboard, Gabriel indulged his laborious passion for texturing and, in particular, rhythm, which dated back to his schoolboy soul band drumming. Coupled to a voracious appetite for (and consumption of) oddballstories, the more obscure the better, and you had the makings of the most multi-dimensional album Peter Gabriel had recorded to date.

So's opener, Red Rain depicted a vision of vulnerability, though many have wrongly assumed it's a direct comment on the ecology. 26 years on, it is still powerful, even more so live, and its recent orchestral treatment by Gabriel for the New Blood project gave it an even greater sense of the epic.

For an album written and recorded in 1985, amid yuppies and the decadent red braces and puffball skirts of Thatcher's supposedly loadsamoney Britain, Don't Give Up was as caustic a song about Thatcherism's cause and effect as Elvis Costello's Shipbuilding had been about the leaderene's Falklands adventure. Featuring Kate Bush - whose memorable embrace with Gabriel for the song's video led to tabloid rumours of the two being an item - Don't Give Up had been inspired by the Great Depression, hence the 1930s gospel feel. It is said people contemplating suicide changed their minds thanks to the song's sentiment. Its poignancy touches still, today.

Big Time was an oddly prescient swipe at rock superstar egotism, caricaturing pop success on an album that would turn Gabriel into a major star himself. So, he has said, "was the end of the idea of me being a sort of cult artist at the fringes of the mainstream, especially in America. There wasn’t an option to go and hide in the shadows any more."

The album reached number one in seven countries including the UK, and went on to sell five million copies in the US alone. It regularly shows up in lists of the best albums of all time. Part of this success is down to one song in particular.

Even he'd wanted to, Sledgehammer would ensure his place in pop history forever. With its unreservedly simplistic Memphis soul sound, and borderline BBC ban-sexuality (remember, the BBC were still blacklisting records in 1986 for the slightest hint of deviance. Shame they weren't applying the same prurience to their presenters....) Sledgehammer blasted Gabriel onto charts around the world.

It gave Gabriel his first ever US No.1 single (which was, ironically, later knocked off the top by his old band's Invisible Touch), helped significantly by the stop-frame promo made by a then-unknown animator from Bristol called Nick Park. Today, Sledgehammer is still the most-screened video in MTV history.

Sledgehammer and Big Time may have been the album's tempo tracks, but Gabriel's interest in the obscure was never far away. Mercy Street took So into a colder space than Sledgehammer and Big Time, focusing on the story of troubled poet Anne Sexton, and her struggles against depression and suicide. We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37), in a similar vein, recounted the controversial electro-shock obedience experiments by Yale scientist Stanley Milgram, while This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds), a collaboration between Gabriel and performance artist Laurie Anderson, took the album into Gabriel's occasionally abstruse areas of departure.

For the most part, however, everything about So seemed to say "different" and "new". Even the choice of a simple, black and white cover shot by Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn suggested a clean approach for the 36-year-old Gabriel. As his old band Genesis had found, making the transition from mythical creatures and Victorian whimsy to saying "I love you" in a song hadn't been easy for these former English public schoolboys and their somewhat repressed backgrounds that had been liberated by The Beatles, the Stones and Motown.

Having seemingly avoided emotion on any of his previous works, Gabriel ended So with one of the 1980s' most uplifting songs about romance, In Your Eyes. Combining jaunty, danceable African rhythms with a backing chorus featuring Youssou N'Dour, it coincided with Paul Simon's Graceland (released just three months after So) as one of the first mainstream pop records to reach into Africa for inspiration - and be a hit. Gabriel had been involved in the burgeoning World Music scene for some time, having launched WOMAD in 1982 (nearly bankrupting him in the process) to provide a showcase for music from the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America.

In Your Eyes became a bigger hit thanks to Cameron Crowe's rom-com Say Anything. During a pivotal scene, in which John Cusack holds up a boombox to Ione Skye's bedroom, he plays In Your Eyes. In America, at least, it remains a song to fall in love to.

A couple of weeks ago, Gabriel's Back To Front tour of the US to celebrate So's anniversary came to the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, during which the performance of In Your Eyes prompted a cameo from Cusack...and his music machine...

What makes So remarkable, 27 years after it was written and recorded, is just how timeless it sounds. So much from the 1980s has dated; rock songs with over-chorused guitars, dance songs with fake brass as if played on a My First Botempi keyboard, and the sheer party streamer fakery of it all. Sledgehammer had real, Stax horns on it; Don't Give Up had a genuinely supportive warmth to it; and In Your Eyes remains, to this day, a song to lift the spirits.

So why re-release it? Good question. With record sales in terminal decline, rock's biggest stars are plundering their libraries and exploiting the heritage appetite left-right-and-centre. Hardly a classic album can pass a major milestone anniversary without it being re-packaged, re-boxed and re-toured.

For So's slightly belated anniversary, Gabriel has produced a similar choice of packages as Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones and others have done with their reissues, offering a choice of remastered version of the original album, a three-CD pack containing the original plus a double live album from the So tour, or, for the über fan, the So 'immersion' box set, comprised of the remastered album, the So DNA CD - a "unique insight" into So's creation featuring bits of tracks while they were still in development, the Live in Athens 1987 DVD executive produced by Martin Scorsese, the So - Classic Albums DVD documentary, along with a high quality vinyl version of the album, a 12-inch disc containing unreleased songs, a high-definition digital download and a luxury book about the album.

The ideal Christmas gift? Maybe not for some people. Blogger Paul Sinclair recently wrote an open letter to Gabriel to complain about the lack of 5.1-channel mixes of So, amongst other absent format choices. Gabriel wrote back, at length, ending: "While I accept we may not have made all the right decisions, I do resent any implication that this is a cynical or exploitative project."

Gabriel concluded by writing: "It's something that all of us involved are proud of, and I really hope will be appreciated for what it is".

While you can debate the merits of artists going to such elaborate lengths to repackage such epoch-making albums, there is certainly something to celebrate about So. An '80s album that was of its time but hasn't aged one bit. Now, how is that so?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

CP company - Keane, live in Paris:

Picture: Keane/Facebook
Let's face it, as rock music instruments go, the piano just isn't sexy.

Sorry if you were put through hell as a child to achieve your Grade 6 piano certificate, but it really is just a piece of noisy furniture.

No attempt to make it more interesting has ever worked. Chris Martin dawbing his Sunday school upright in right-on graffiti didn't do it either.

And, as for bone-domed Jan Hammer, poncing about on TV with a keyboard strapped to him like a guitar while performing the Miami Vice theme, this was about as far removed "rock god" as it is possible to be.

The guitar, on the other hand, is rock and roll itself; for its leading practitioners, it's an appendage, an extension and in some cases the distinction of themselves. BB King's vibrato is the most recognisable guitar technique in guitar history, and I would wager that most people would identify Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, David Gilmour and U2’s The Edge simply from a snippet of their guitar sound.

Keane, however have quite stubbornly ignored all of this. At the elegant but cavernous L'Olympia in Paris on Wednesday night, the only appearance of a guitar was the red Telecaster singer Tom Chaplin strummed along to Neon River, off their latest album Strangeland.

From the outset of their career, Keane have built their entire musical proposition around the piano of principal songwriter and keyboard player Tim Rice-Oxley, and one piano in particular. And here, forgive me a brief diversion into the realms of trivia. For, I strongly suspect, there is another band, who also started out in the somewhat blue-blooded environs of southern England, to thank for the Keane signature sound.

Banks of keyboards. Ho and, indeed, ho.
In the middle of their transformation from progressive rock giants to American FM, Genesis made an album called Duke. Marking the acquisition of a more pop-rock sensibility than their former extensive forays into the ethereal, Duke - released in 1980 also marked the abandonment by keyboard player Tony Banks of the grand pianos, Moogs synths, Mellotrons and Hammond organs that had marked their territory and, essentially, defined prog rock in the 1970s.

On an album of notably shorter, poppier songs, Banks made liberal use of the Yamaha CP70 electric piano. You may not know or even care about the CP70. But it became one of the most important tools of the trade in the 1980s, it's distinctive "tinkly" sound turning up everywhere (think Alive & Kicking by Simple Minds or Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes).

With this change of tone, Genesis started noticing women at their concerts. And hit singles. Their albums sold in the millions, and then in the multi-millions, the result of adopting bright, breezy English pop-rock. Rice-Oxley was clearly listening. Because the CP70 has been Rice-Oxley's - and, therefore, Keane's - principal instrument and defining sound.

Traces of Duke-era Genesis DNA can be found throughout their earlier albums, including Hopes & Fears, widely hailed as one of the best debut albums by a British band in decades and containing the likes of Somewhere Only We Know and Bedshaped.

Picture: Keane/Facebook
Live, Keane are a pleasant anomaly. The somewhat gauche, public schoolboyish intensity that characterised their public emergence when Hopes & Fears took off in 2004 is still there.

The lanky Rice-Oxley is hunched over his CP70, stabbing away at its keys like Lucy's brother Schroeder in the Peanuts cartoons. "Cherubic" (contractually-obliged description) vocalist Tom Chaplin is still a mixture of polite choirboy and energetic rocker. Drummer Richard Hughes just gets on with drumming without superfluous percussive pyrotechnics, and bass player Jesse Quin does what most bass players do - keep pace at the back and try not to draw too much attention to themselves.

Keane are still in a hard to define area of rock. Or pop. Or pop-rock. Warming the audience up with Bruce Springsteen's Dancing In the Dark unfortunately conditioned the expectation. Springsteen has, on occasion, veered away from his trademark time card-punchin' denim-clad rock'n'prole with songs like that. With Keane you sometimes wish they veer away from songs like that and grow a pair. I mean that kindly.

They could rockout, but I suspect they don't because their audience just adores the rock-pop/pop-rock they stick to. Their live show isn't a great deal more raucous than their album work, but whereas their albums make perfectly pleasant living room listening, their relatively sparse, drums-bass-piano-vocals structure fills out the space of a venue as spacious as L'Olympia.

Neither anthemic Coldplay pomp nor vacuous Euro clapalong pop, Keane more than satisfied the enthusiastic French audience with a string of energetic renderings of You Are YoungMeet Me In The Morning, and Is it Any Wonder, the latter building around its circuitous rhythm, with Chaplin adopting that theatrical semi-lunge into the mic stand of his, giving him the appearance of a slightly fey-looking Damon Albarn from a distance.

Picture: Keane/Facebook
At various moments of the evening Chaplin declared Keane's love for France, which was inevitably rewarded enthusiastically by the partisan crowd, which included a set of parents with toddler in toe. You can interpret this either as a sign of Keane's unthreatening nature, or an apparent dearth of babysitters in the Paris area. She seemed to enjoy herself, nevertheless.

It's unlikely that you'll find Keane stretching into extended live versions of their hits. The likes of Everybody's Changing, This Is The Last Time, Bedshaped and Somewhere Only We Know lasted the length of the album version, albeit with passionate audience participation. Some bands, when they stick resolutely to recreating their album versions, do so with sterility.

Keane could easily just phone in their hits - and with a set of some 16 songs, you realise just how much they've produced in the 15 years since their formation, but live they put heart and soul into every note. And yet you still get the feeling that this is a band that is just getting going. Coldplay, the band to which Keane probably get compared to more than most, came together just a year before, and yet have already given us the impression that they've outlasted their welcome. On this evidence, Keane have got plenty left in the tank.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Well that's another fine mess....

Should anyone be mad enough to turn my rag-and-bone cart of a life into a TV sitcom, prospective writers are welcome to use the following as my onscreen catchphrase: "What a mess...!".

To provide some artistic direction, it should be exclaimed with an exaggerated, exasperated sigh in the manner of Tony Hancock's "Stone me!".

Granted, "What a mess...!" would not be as memorable as Captain Mainwaring's "You stupid boy!" in Dad's Army, "I shall zay zis only once..." from Allo Allo, or Diff'rent Strokes' "Whatchu talkin' about Willis?!" - diamonds in the rough all. But it does at least conform to the basic rule of sitcom catchphrases, that they occur regularly enough to satisfy audience expectation, and, with a suitable pause beforehand, you can see them coming a mile off.

My character's repeated use of "What a mess...!" for comic effect would at least be a faithful example of art imitating life. Because, for the last 12 months, I have been noted to exclaim - on average, twice daily - "What a mess...!" in response to the John Terry-Anton Ferdinand saga.

As this blog has noted regularly in the year since it all began, the story refuses to go away, springing up when least expected like a jack-in-a-box with a faulty clasp. And then, when you think no one could make it any worse (and the original antagonists haven't created enough brouhaha of their own), Ashley Cole - who must have missed out on this year's Nobel peace prize by the thinnest of margins - goes and discovers Twitter. "What a mess...!" indeed.

However, as the story nears its first anniversary, it has been kicked into touch by the British media's voracious pursuit of another story that can easily be characterised by "What a mess...!" - the matter of a now-dead stalwart of Saturday night family entertainment and his allegedly wandering hands.

It would be childish to suggest that Jim posthumously fixed it for Terry, Ferdinand and Cole to disappear from the media for a week or two, but the footballers have much to thank Sir Jimmy Savile for. And it is a mess. A right mess.

What began as one or two women coming forward to claim that, when they were in their teens, Savile acted inappropriately in his Top Of The Pops dressing room, has turned into a paedophile scandal on similar national scale to the lurid tales that have escaped from Belgium and various geographies of the Catholic church.

We're now learning that Savile may have been abusing children as far back as the 1950s when he was a northern nightclub DJ and professional wrestler, long before he joined the BBC, and long before his celebrity created access to what is appearing to be questionable-looking voluntary work at hospitals like Broadmoor and Stoke Mandeville. What a mess. What an absolute mess.

Who knew what? Did people at the BBC turn a blind eye to all this? Did the BBC itself turn a blind eye to this? Were others complicit in his actions? How could such an apparent scale of abuse be perpetrated by one individual who, even if weirdly private, was still one of the most identifiable stars in British entertainment, made more identifiable by his latter choice of gold lamé tracksuits and 10-inch cigars.

The Daily Mail, the newspaper with a habit of fizzing like dentures in Steradent over even the slightest misdemeanour by the BBC, is now feasting on an apparent "culture" of loose morality at the corporation. BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten even handed the Mail the perfect gift by referring to the Savile affair as a "cesspit". Other British newspapers are making claims that other former Radio 1 DJs had a tendency to grope anything in a skirt.

I'm not saying it's not possible, and I'm not saying that it is, but having spent a bit of time in and around showbiz people in my time, especially TV presenters, you can certainly say there was never any shortage of people with a 'tactile' approach to engagement. The issue, then, is at what point does a bit of over-familiar luvviness become a matter of sexual abuse?

However, the Mail stretched its moral high ground a little too far last week when it suggested that the Fleet Street phone hacking scandal was "...utterly deplorable, but a footling matter" when "compared to the molestation and rape of 13-year-old girls." Really? Is there now a points system for rating how far off course a moral compass has taken you? The Mail - indeed any newspaper - would be wise to steer clear of making any comparison between phone hacking and anything, let alone the behaviour of television personalities.

But back to Savile: the BBC's reputation has certainly now been stained by the revelations about him. That he was regarded as a fixture of both the BBC's television and radio 'brand' long before such a phrase was ever applied to it merely makes the allegations worse.

Savile's BBC career took off with Top Of The Pops. He launched the program on New Year's Day, 1964, in which it was broadcast from a chilly Manchester church, of all places. It went on to become a British TV institution, charting the pop explosion of the 60s right through to its cancellation 42 year later.

Although TOTP would draw other presenters from the BBC Radio pool, Savile was, in its heyday at least, the defining host. It will now be impossible to watch an old edition of the show, with Savile or any of the other DJs who presented it, with their arms draped over the shoulders of female audience members without wondering "Oh yeah? What else?".

But then you have to remember that, in the first decade or two of Top Of The Pops, the presenters were rock stars in their own right. And like rock stars, I'm sure they got away with whatever they could get away with. If the bad boys of rock were doing it (and you only have to read the various biographies about Led Zeppelin and their ilk to note that the ages of groupies was never particularly well policed...), then the somewhat naughty boys of pop radio were going to have fun too.

The difference being that these presenters were more likely to be opening your local supermarket, or guesting at your local nightclub, than rock stars, putting them in easy reach of fans, and impressionable fans in easy reach of them.

Savile and his colleagues were big business. And Savile, in particular, seemed biggest of them all, with his "As it 'appens" and "Guys and Gals" catchphrases, and his eccentric tracksuits (which appear now to have a more nefarious purpose than simply running charity marathons...).

By the time I was watching Top Of The Pops as a small child, Thursday nights at 7pm on BBC1 was the only fixture in my life, school and six-monthly dental check-ups not withstanding. Each week Savile and cohorts would be flanked by slightly awkward looking schoolgirls. When I first went to see a Top Of The Pops being recorded for myself (courtesy of my father, who was a BBC cameraman), floor managers would meticulously pick the best looking women to stand alongside the presenter for each link. Again, this doesn't seem so innocent now.

With the launch of Jim'll Fix It, Savile's Saturday teatime show devoted to make kids' dreams happen (though always within the BBC's budget: "Dear Jim, please could you make it possible for me to fly on Concorde" would end up with a visit to Concorde parked at Heathrow...), he became an avuncular children's figure, rather than the slightly weird (i.e. "eccentric") old bloke introducing Kajagoogoo on the "Pops".

Now there has been the inevitable revelation that amongst Savile's alleged victims was a Cub Scout who visited Jim'll Fix It as part of a pack outing. As someone who also, as a Cub, went to at least two recordings of the show, my skin - which had hitherto been mildly irritated - has now started to crawl. And thankfully, I didn't get any closer to Savile than my row of the bleacher seating.

So, with government enquiries, and Prime Ministerial declarations, promises of root-and-branch investigations at the BBC and still more frothing - understandable frothing, I have to say - in the British tabloids, the posthumous disgrace of Sir Jimmy Savile, and the increasing nudges and winks about his Top Of The Pops contemporaries, it's clear this story isn't going to disappear any time soon.

The saddest thing of all is that, while never a personal hero of mine, he was a part of my childhood.  And now we're discovering that he ruined so many other childhoods privately. What a mess.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Please would you all join together as we sing...

Planning one's own funeral may sound like the height of morbidity, but it does ensure that, above all else, you go out according to your own playlist.

Peter Sellers famously hated Glenn Miller's In The Mood so, as his final act, he included it in his will to be played as a joke at his funeral. For the rest of us, sadly, unless we've had a moment of creativity in preparing for our own finale, it will be determined by a well-meaning loved one.

Co-Op Funerals: role of hot air
balloon not known
According to the Co-Op, who used to own supermarkets and run milk floats when I were a lad, but evidently also do burials, pop music has replaced hymns and classical pieces at two-thirds of British funerals.

Which means a lot of people going out to Sinatra's My Way, Dolly Parton/Willie Nelson/Whitney Houston warbling I Will Always Love You, and even - and wholly inappropriately - You Raise Me Up by Westlife.

Irony hasn't lost it's place, as some funerals resonate to somewhat awkward giggling as Monty Python's Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life is played, or another of Eric Idle's chucklesome numbers, the theme song from One Foot In The Grave.

Others, strangely, choose The Ying Tong Song by The Goons and featuring Sellers along with Spike Milligan, whose delightfully funereal sense of humour extended to having "I told you I was ill" requested to be inscribed on his own gravestone.

Reflecting Britain's increasing secular nature, the Co-Op's Top 20 of ultimate music playlists features My Way at number one, for the seventh year running, apparently. So, the full list of 20 is as follows:
  1. Frank Sinatra – My Way
  2. Sarah Brightman/Andrea Bocelli – Time To Say Goodbye
  3. Bette Midler – Wind Beneath My Wings
  4. Eva Cassidy – Over the Rainbow
  5. Robbie Williams – Angels
  6. Westlife – You Raise Me Up
  7. Gerry & The Pacemakers – You’ll Never Walk Alone
  8. Vera Lynn – We’ll Meet Again
  9. Celine Dion – My Heart Will Go On
  10. Nat King Cole – Unforgettable
  11. Tina Turner – Simply The Best
  12. Whitney Houston/Dolly Parton – I Will Always Love You
  13. Monty Python – Always Look On The Bright Side of Life
  14. Luther Vandross – Dance With My Father
  15. Louis Armstrong – Wonderful World
  16. Daniel O'Donnell – Danny Boy
  17. Eva Cassidy – Fields of Gold
  18. Righteous Brothers (and others) – Unchained Melody
  19. Westlife – Flying Without Wings
  20. Eva Cassidy – Songbird
Adele, whose tear-jerking warbles about losing boyfriends, blast out of every shop and restaurant these days, is surprisingly not as popular for funerals as you'd think, falling just aside this Top 20. Equally, Queen's upper lip-stiffening The Show Must Go On doesn't feature at all, while it is noted that John Lennon's Imagine has a habit of being rejected by vicars and 'funeralists', as I believe the profession if known, on account of the Beatle's line "Imagine there's no heaven...".

Given this last point, it seems only appropriate that What Would David Bowie Do? compiles its own Top 10 of totally inappropriate songs to be played at a funeral:
  1. David Bowie (obviously) - Ashes To Ashes
  2. The Doors - The End
  3. Meatloaf - Bat Out Of Hell
  4. The Jam - Going Underground
  5. Elton John - Funeral For A Friend
  6. The Platters - Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
  7. Deacon BlueReal Gone Kid
  8. Status Quo - Down, Down
  9. The Rolling Stones - The Last Time
  10. Black Lace - Agadoo*
*Should not be played publicly anywhere under any circumstances

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Richard Hawley: Guitar Hero

Picture courtesy of Sophie Jarry
La Pigalle, for those who've lived a sheltered existence, is the saucy bit of Paris. It is where high kickin' dancing girls still can-can away in their frillies at the Moulin Rouge. And it continues to draw busloads of tourists to gawp at its sex shops and peer, embarrassingly and embarassed, into seedy-looking doorways in which alluringly-clad women attempt to entice inwards the feckless and the gullible.

Like London's Soho in the 60s, seediness sits alongside artistry in Pigalle. Toulouse-Letrec, Van Gogh and Picasso were all once residents there, but today, however, its second main attraction are the myriad guitar shops lining the conjoined length of les rues de Douai and Victor Massé.

So it was appropriate that, given the choice of venues in Paris, Richard Hawley chose to play to a warming audience at La Cigale, one of the grand old 19th century theatres along Boulevard de Rochechouart and just 200 yards from Pigalle Métro (where, quite randomly, I ran into his mate Jarvis Cocker earlier this year).

Picture: Richard Hawley/Facebook

A fittingly vintage venue for a fittingly vintage performer. Hawley is not only a gifted guitarist, but so clearly a consummate guitar fan, whose Facebook page regularly features near gynaecological close-ups of classic guitars and gear.

To the uninitiated, a guitar's a guitar. To the semi-initiated, you can tell the difference between the sound of a Stratocaster and that of a Telecaster, as my neighbours will, by now, readily testify, me being the owner of one of each.

To a connoisseur like Hawley, every guitar has its own feel, its own sound texture, its own personality. Which might explain why the busiest man in La Cigale on Wednesday night was Hawley's guitar tech Gordon, who yo-yoed off and on stage to swap out a never ceasing carousel of Gibsons, Gretchs, Rickenbackers, Danelectros and other six-stringed antique esoterica.

Until the release, earlier this year, of the unrelentingly brilliant, Mercury Prize-nominated Standing At The Sky's Edge - Hawley's previous, acclaimed albums, had been showcases for his love of gentle, late night 50s croons evoking the ballads of Elvis Presley, Jim Reeves, Ricky Nelson and Pat Boone, and each bringing out the luscious timbre of his Sheffield-scraped voice.

He has, however, been for the last 25 years the bridesmaid but rarely the bride. As a writer and sideman-for-hire to the likes of All Saints, Robbie Williams, Lisa-Marie Presley, Elbow and, most famously, a member of Pulp, Hawley has developed a reputation for being someone you either know or don't know. Fatuous as that sounds, if X-Factor provides your musical direction, you will not have heard of him.

I have to admit, until Standing At The Sky's Edge was released in May this year, I'd hardly heard of him either. My interest in 50s pastiche acts ended somewhere in the middle of Chris Isaak's career. And then a friend of mine recommended that I listened to Edge..., and Hawley was, for me, no longer a Brylcreemed throwback, but an artist of rare balance, a peddler of the sort of vibe music I have loved ever since I first caught a snatch of Floyd's Shine On You Crazy Diamond as the backing of a Richard Burton-narrated radio broadcast of The Rhyme Of The Ancient Mariner in an English class 33 years ago.

Edge... marked a particular departure for Hawley: his previous albums had contained much gentle balladry; this album presented a more visceral sound, an outlet for Hawley to rage at modern Britain via his guitars, echo boxes and overdrive pedals, producing, in the process, a stunning collection of psychedelic power rock that seemed to tie 1951 with 1969 in one great loop of reverb.

Thus, the album formed a large part of his Paris set on Wednesday, which opened with the title track and Hawley playing a Gibson Les Paul gold top (yes, sadly, I was keeping note). It built slowly to the unleashing of a wall of electrified colour, a thundersome application of guitars plugged into tweed amplifiers, distortion stomp boxes and canyon-deep echo.

The anger and aural evisceration of Edge... soon evapourated as Hawley broke into his gentle, dry Yorkshire humour to explain the backstory of Don't Stare At The Sun, the dreamy song about a kyte-flying trip with his son. And a trip it was - literally -  having made the error of judgement of dropping acid shortly before. A brief but funny anecdote, and one that Radio 2 might want to gloss over when they play the track which, live, found Hawley pouring heart and soul in equal measure into the microphone and his delay-drenched Rickenbacker.

Hawley's wonderfully dry humour provides a relaxing feed for the songs he sings. He has natural comic timing, which he uses to good effect, either to introduce the twinkling old dancehall smooch of Hotel Room with a funny tale of how he broke his leg in Barcelona last year, or to simply rage at the "wankers" running the world.

It's old-school ire, but thankfully not the eccentric variety of dotty old Morrissey, who Hawley resembles vocally on the jangling Tonight The Streets Are Ours, which sounds more like the closing title music of a Doris Day movie.

Edge... may have taken an edgier tone on its predecessors, but it still contains its tender moments. The single Seek It loses nothing live, and Hawley's band even make a song, which sounds compact and pretty when listened through headphones on a train, expand into the faded glory of La Cigale's old ballroom space. It's a sumptuous song. Performed, I believe, by Hawley on a Danelectro. Sorry.

I mentioned earlier how Pink Floyd introduced me to vibe, and you wouldn't expect a repeat mention of the prog behemoth in a review of an artist based so faithfully on the music of even longer ago. But in Hawley's "quietest song" - Soldier On - in which he successfully shuts up the incessant concert chatterers we all loathe by politely asking them to observe pin-drop silence - he evokes the sort of tune-out wooze that Floyd did so well in the early years of David Gilmour's growing influence.

With drummer Dean Beresford working his way around his kit using the palms of his hands to produce a restrained pulse, and guitarist Shez Sheridan working a lap steel with an exquisite touch, Hawley and band threw a comforting blanket of vibe over the audience for a song of breathtaking subtlety, layer and spine-tingling effect.

Picture courtesy of Sophie Jarry
These are the moments that in the hands of nightclub singers - with whom Hawley inevitably shares a vocal parallel - would have been accompanied by swaying hands and ignited cigarette lighters. With Hawley, no such cheese, just the respect of an audience that becomes overwhelmingly drawn into his endearing nature. It allows him to swing from ballad to boom, such as the thundering Leave Your Body Behind You, or Down In The Woods, which is a clanging song on the album, but clangs even harder live, reminding me, bizarrely, of Motorhead's Ace Of Spades. You probably had to be there.

There is also something cinematic about Hawley's touch: given the curmudgeon in some quarters over the choice of Adele for the latest Bond theme, Open Up The Door carries a decidedly John Barry-style expanse, with a string flourish, I suspect, deliberately apeing the You Only Live Twice theme. Remorse Code, on the other hand, will surely turn up as the bed music for a dreamy holiday programme, with its shimmery, delightfully trippy tremolo solo.

Live, Hawley pulls off a neat trick. His performances are pristine, faithful replications of the original tracks on his albums. But whereas this can often render the artist excessively antiseptic, Hawley - whether overdriving the heavier songs from Standing At The Sky's Edge or crooning the more bucolic numbers from Truelove's Gutter and its predecessors - makes them fit every nook and antiquated cranny of a venue like La Cigale. I expected a good show. I just didn't expect to be as musically nourished, and as sonically satisfied as I was on Wednesday night. Just brilliant.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Oktoberfest: a simple tale of beer, blondes and boobs

If there is one group of workers I don't envy - and there are many to choose from - it would be employees of the Munich department of public works, around about now. 

For the last two weeks they've had the no-doubt thankless task of each day flushing the Bavarian capital's streets of a variety of man-made and man-evacuated detritus, including the obvious, as tides of inebriated visitors have poured through the city.

For just over a fortnight every year, Munich pulses. Six million visitors trebling its population, and all with more or less the same thing on their mind. There's no need to dress it up in with cultural importance or sociological depth. This city hums with people for the most rudimentary of reasons - to drain large, jugfulls of beer, and devour a variety of dead animals accompanied by some form of simple carbohydrate.

If this was the UK the press would be apoplectic with indignation, citing another shameful episode of "BINGE-DRINK BRITAIN" and the social and moral decay associated with it. But for Munich, Oktoberfest is a festival, a party, and as much a part of city life as Carnival is to Rio de Janeiro or Mardis Gras is to New Orleans. Likewise it attracts tourists - beer tourists - from bemused Japanese confronted by small mountains of cooked meat, to tree trunk-necked Englishmen, beering themselves into aggressive stupors (oxymoronic, quite deliberately).

There are also plenty of families joining in the lagery fun. A clink of glasses and a shout of "prost!" and Vater, Mutter und die Kinder raising a Maß to nature's goodness, just as fresh supplies arrive.

Impressively, these supplies are invariably delivered by just the single pair of hands of an impossibly proportioned waitress, spilling over the top of her traditional dirndl dress, looking like she's also carrying both Fairbrass brothers from Right Said Fred down there. 

If, by the way, that comes across as a leering, lascivious comment, then mea culpa: it was a female friend who - before any other observation - warned me in advance of my arrival in Munich that I could expect to see an awful lot of bosom and blonde hair. I wasn't disappointed (speaking from the point of view of expectation, of course).

The dirndl isn't, by the way, a fancy dress affectation: it is worn around Munich like a Bavarian Mao Suit. And very pretty they look too. Equally creditable, though slightly questionable in this day and age, is the ubiquity of lederhosen amongst male visitors to Oktoberfest, worn over a blue or red checked shirt. 

Young and old, skinny and, well, Bavarian - they're all wearing it. Designed to aid hard work in the fields, they are worn around these parts, so to speak, because they allow freedom of movement and durability while toiling. And for maximum worker efficiency out in the fields, lederhosen have a buttoned flap at the front. For access, obviously. 

Oktoberfest lends itself readily to cultural stereotype. Germans have a reputation for being, shall we just say, forthright. Pour litre after litre of lager into the males of the species, and boorishness surfaces with all the subtlety of a German death metal band.

Which means that, to the sober, Munich's streets on any given afternoon or evening, or even the following morning, are an unruly cavalcade of slurred singing, punctuated occasionally by the unmistakeable noise of curried wurst being wretched all over the pavement.

It would be grossly unfair, though, to attribute this only to the locals. There is no shortage of nationalities, also dressing up for the occasion, all swigging away on beer. However, and I apologise for straying into stereotype once more, the most committed are the locals, who somehow manage to get to the bierhallen by 7am to bag themselves a table. 

Yes, this is the same methodology that secures sunbeds around the Mediterranean each summer. The only difference between Munich in late September and Majorca in mid-August is that while the sunbed and its towel will not be touched further during the day, the trestle tables and benches claimed at the crack of dawn in the name of fatherland will remain occupied for the remainder of the day.

Such dedication is admirable, but it does mean that by mid-afternoon Munich is 'flowing'. Sozzled carcasses - "Bierleichen" - slump everywhere, giving tables that, first thing, had a row of upright participants, the appearance of an old man's mouth with teeth missing.

All that lager has to go somewhere, too. It's perfectly natural and biological normal. That's until people find inventive and not so discreet ways to take care of breached bladders, such as the gentlemen we saw entertaining gridlocked traffic by urinating from the central reservation of a main road, much to the horror of a family in a Peugeot in closest proximity, to the ignorance of the police barely 100 metres away, and to the semi-amusement of a group of American seniors who had clearly seen Oktoberfest's earthier excesses before.

Oktoberfest is the perfect example of something relatively innocent getting drunkenly out of hand. Despite giving the impression of a peasant festivity around since time immemorial, it actually goes back only as far as the early 19th century.

On October 12, 1810, the William and Kate of their day - Crown Prince Ludwig (who became King Ludwig I) and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen - got hitched, prompting the good burghers of Munich to hold a right royal knees-up. And a horse race, as you do.

Everyone had such a good time that they decided to do it all again the following year, throwing in an agricultural show for good measure. By the end of the decade, the festival had grown dramatically, adding in a few rudimentary fairground rides.

If only they'd stopped there. Today, there are a mass of wild rides which seemingly contradict the basics of a beer festival, but back in the early 19th century, the laws of centrifugal force were only just being understood.

Beer in those early years was also consumed in relatively genteel quantities, served from small stands.

But as these grew in number, a more organised, German-scale of delivery came about and, in 1896, the first beer halls were constructed by the major breweries.

And thus we have the Oktoberfest of today, generating around 1.1 billion Euros for the Munich economy, due in part to the eight million litres of beer that will be consumed along with, conversely, 245,000 litres of tea and coffee, as well as the 119 cows, half a million chickens and 120,000 pairs of sausages that will be served up over the two weeks. Do the maths there and you'll notice that not an awful lot of food is being eaten in proportion to the staggering amounts of beer...

Now I've finally sampled Oktoberfest for myself, after many years of talking about it, I can reassure the binge-drinking Brits who spend their weekend evenings staggering up and down Essex high streets, that they really have got nothing on Der Münchner. On the other hand, it is a mostly good-natured event, even the conspicuous public drunkeness.

That said, with an amusing malapropism the organisers describe Oktoberfest as "a romping place" for pickpockets who take advantage of individuals already relieved of their senses by relieving them of wallets, cameras and other valuables, although judging by the 4000 items that turned up in Oktoberfest lost property last year (including 260 pairs of glasses, 200 mobile phones, wedding rings, and even 500 crutches), much misfortune is inevitably self-inflicted.

Munich during Oktoberfest is a sight to behold. For the other 50 weeks of the year this city - Germany's third largest - resembles a large, quaint Bavarian village. Come the end of September it turns into something resembling an Asian tsunami - with houses, cars and other fixtures swept along streets in a deluge of seawater replaced by a flood of people in varying states of wear and tear. All, however, share the same interest - drinking, enjoying drinking, celebrating drinking.

It really is that straight forward.

Friday, October 05, 2012

James Bond: A universal export

It was a Sunday, October 14th to be precise, in 1962, when a U-2 spy plane piloted by one Major Richard Heyser took more than 900 pictures of construction work taking place at San Cristóbal in western Cuba.

The following day, analysts at the CIA poured over the photographs and discovered what they believed to be ballistic missiles. The kind of missiles that could reach - and annihilate - cities as far west as San Francisco and as far north as Washington DC, New York and Boston.

And so, the world was plunged into a 13-day crisis that it didn't know it would come out of alive. It was only 17 years before that America had ended one world war by using nuclear bombs for the first time; it was now possible that human history itself could come to an abrupt end by the appropriately constructed acronym MAD - Mutually Assured Destruction - as Washington and Moscow squared up in a game of nuclear brinkmanship. It was the closest the Cold War ever came to becoming a decidedly hot one, then or since.

11 days before Heyser's U-2 took off, a movie made its premiere, introducing a character who, over the next 50 years, would come close on many occasions to preventing the sort of global catastrophe that almost happened for real that October. The film was Dr. No and the character was Bond, James Bond.

When Dr. No premiered on October 5, 1962, Bond had appeared in 10 novels by Ian Fleming, an Eton and Sandhurst-educated writer who had worked in British naval intelligence during World War II and knew a thing or two about the high life and the low life. His Bond books - he'd go on to publish five more - became best sellers.

However, it was the film series that would turn Bond into one of cinema's most iconic characters and an icon for Great Britain, with Dr. No being followed by 22 official sequels, an unofficial sequel, one official spoof and countless other parodies, rivals and homages, plus a starring role in the London Olympics.

Today there will be little you and I don't know about Bond. He's been a part of our upbringing, his films seeped so deeply into our collective consciousness that the character is as familiar as our own family members. In the days before satellite television and DVD, Christmas and bank holidays revolved around the TV premiere of a Bond movie.

We may not remember each individual plot, but the 22 'official' films released to date have each contained standout moments that we all will associate with: Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder emerging from the Caribbean in Dr. No, Goldfinger's Aston Martin DB5 with its ejector seat and machine guns, the Union Flag-unfirling ski jump in The Spy Who Loved Me, John Barry's dreamy theme tune to You Only Live Twice, and countless stunts involving rocket packs, boats, mini submarines and even space shuttles.

When you look back over the 50 years of James Bond as an undoubted screen symbol, the formula has rarely changed. And yet as enjoyably predictable as each Bond has been - there will be corny seductions, there will be underwater scenes, Bond will visit the Caribbean at least once per film, M will get frosty with his/her star agent - we have always wanted and expected more.

Unlike no other movie series, the legend "James Bond will return in…" in the closing credits has been enough to keep the appetite whetted for whatever length it takes to bring the character back to the screen. And even though the original canon of Fleming novels and short stories has long been exhausted, for the most part, the story creativity has been maintained to a very high standard.

The Bond series has been maintained by expectation. There are few - if any - other franchises (how I loathe that inappropriately applied plop of marketingspeak…) that can draw excitement merely by being announced as a production. You're unlikely to hear someone exclaiming "They're going to make another American Pie!", and trailers for a further instalment of Resident Evil will, I assure you, illicit nothing but groans when played in a cinema.

But Bond? When 'Bond 23' - which we now know is Skyfall - was announced in November last year, its premiere was marked in more diaries than just those of the Bond geeks and film nerds. A Bond premiere is an event. Actually, it's a royal event, the tradition being that Bond movies make their debut in London with a charity premiere attended by members of the British royal family. One wonders whether the Queen herself will attend Skyfall's premiere, now she's on parachuting terms with 007…

However, let's turn the clock back 50 years for a moment. Before this day in 1962 there had been films and film heroes that featured international intrigue and daring, be it Casablanca or The Third Man, North By Northwest, The 39 Steps and Hitchcock's two versions of The Man Who Knew Too MuchDr. No introduced something else. And for that, credit must go to producers Albert 'Cubby' Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, and their choice of director, Terence Young.

Hollywood had flirted with putting Bond on the cinema screen some years before Broccoli and Saltzman acquired the rights to Fleming's books (with the exception, bizarrely, of Casino Royale - later to be made into a semi-comic film starring David Niven and Woody Allen). Hollywood seemed to hard to convince: Bond's playboy lifestyle wasn't exactly compatible with chaste American tastes - this was the early 60s after all, and the sight of Doris Day's ankle was almost too much to bear, And there was the British factor - would American audiences care for a secret agent hailing from that little island in the North Sea that, barely a decade and a half before, Uncle Sam had saved from Hitler?

Eventually a distributor - United Artists - was found, and Dr. No was picked to be the first Bond story proper to be transferred to cinema. After staging a beauty contest to find their James Bond, Broccoli and Saltzman - now under the auspices of Eon Productions - selected a 32-year-old unknown Scottish actor, former Edinburgh milkman and body builder, Sean Connery, having considered more well known candidates like Cary Grant. Grant, being British by birth (one Archie Leach of Bristol), had offered both suaveness and Hollywood bankability. However, with Eon optioning Fleming's Bond books, they wanted their star to commit to a series, which Grant would not do.

Connery, on the other hand, was an actor of little note. But he had a roughness which the producers liked. With David Niven another early candidate, Broccoli and Saltzman - together with Fleming's input - decided that their screen Bond should be tough and debonair, and not just an aristocratic playboy with a gun.

Most Bond fans, in fact most people, would now agree wholeheartedly that Sean Connery made Bond. Roger Moore, oddly, was another early candidate, and although he played the character longer than any other actor - too long for some - Connery shaped the role. The spoofs and spinoffs have all been based on Sean Connery. And his eyebrow.

Connery may have made Bond, but Connery's Bond was largely made by director Terence Young. Young's fastidious approach to colour, to set design and clothing - even down to the cut of Bond's suits (he felt that a Savile Row suit could not be spoiled by the silhouette of a gun carried in a shoulder holster, so Connery's jackets were made just a little too big for him) - created a film unlike any others in 1962.

The world was a somewhat gloomy place on October 5, 1962, but Dr. No with its opening of a colonial MI6 agent being gunned down in Jamaica by three blind assassins, not only launched James Bond into the world in the brightly colourful, turquoise-skied setting of his literary author's adopted home island, but set the slightly off-kilter tone that would come back again and again with characters like Oddjob, Rosa Klebb and the camp duo of Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd.

50 years on, Dr. No might seem a little wooden, but compared with the convoluted CGI mess of Die Another Day many years later, it was a compelling prototype. From Russia With Love, which followed, developed the Bond concept further, introducing Q and his exploding briefcase, but not veering Bond away from the fact he was a spy first, action hero and ladykiller second.

Some might say, and I wouldn't disagree, that the Daniel Craig era of Bond owes more to From Russia With Love than any other film in the series, being slightly darker - greyer, then - and more claustrophobic.

After their misgivings at the casting of a short, blond Liverpudlian, Bond fans have rightly warmed to Craig. His Casino Royale - the first 'proper' film adaptation of Fleming's first Bond book - was a brilliantly balanced 007 outing.

Yes, there were some preposterous elements of modern film-making - not least the overt product placement from Sony, Richard Branson appearing in a Miami airport scanner to plug Virgin Atlantic, and Bond driving a Ford Mondeo, God help us. But the movie, and Craig in particular, very quickly brought the character into tight alignment with the edge created by Sean Connery in the very first Bond film of all.

Dr. No made its debut on an auspicious day and at the beginning of an auspicious period for Britain. That same day, October 5, The Beatles released Love Me Do, launching a global phenomenon that would match Bond. After decades of war and economic austerity caused by war, the 1960s started to swing. London in 1962 had already seen the Rolling Stones make their live debut. Music was emerging from the underground.

There was an awakening of youth culture. Teenagers were finding their voice and learning to play guitars.  And with James Bond, amid the spy stuff and crazed bald villains threatening world domination or world destruction (Kruschev, anyone?) from beneath volcanic craters, cinema created the perfect icon for an era acquiring glamour. Bond joined the jet set on behalf of everyone else: via Bond, those of us who couldn't afford exotic holiday destinations flew to them first class thanks to the British taxpayer. We have visited parts of the world we could only dream of, places that, even now, represent glamour and intrigue combined.

Bond has also been one of Britain's best exports. It took two distinctly American film producers to turn him into one, mind. He's been through a lot over the last 50 years, from being sliced in two by a diamond-cutting laser to the studio MGM going bankrupt and, potentially ending the entire series forever. As with all of his scrapes, Bond survived to fight another day. That day being October 23. When Bond will return...