Monday, March 26, 2012

Trip Advice

1968 was the year things went totally mad. Like Syd Barrett, for example. Stanley Kubrick released 2001: A Space Odyssey, an Emperor's New Clothes if ever there was one - two-and-a-half hours of preposterously overblown quasi-religious hokum about foraging Neanderthals, homicidal computers, apes and monolithic objects appearing from nowhere. Mad.

1968 was the year the film industry thought the world needed a movie called She-Devils On Wheels. It didn't. It was also the year The Byrds were Eight Miles High (nudge-nudge, wink-wink) and The Doors recorded a series of poems over a 25-minute piece of music called Celebration Of The Lizard

1968 was also the year that The Monkees over-extended their fan appeal by making Head, a totally bonkers film co-scripted by Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson, who had created the band in the first place. For all its pretend tripping and, frankly, unintelligible surrealism, it included some of the Fabricated Four's best music, including Porpoise Song, written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin. And it's not that bad.

Paul Weller was ten-years old in 1968 and clearly had his ears wide open. Of all the many goofy things that emerged that year, it's possible that one album made its mark on the young Surrey schoolboy more than any other: Ogdens Nut Gone Flake. The Small Faces' 40 minutes of madness contained Steve Marriott's gawblimeycockerneesparrer novelty Lazy Sunday ("'Ello Mrs Jones, 'ows your Burt's lumbago?"), the big rocker Afterglow (Of Your Love), and a lot of very daft "hello trees, hello clouds, hello sky" psychedelic wigout material interlinked by the bizarre English language-mangling comedy act Stanley Unwin. Thankfully, Weller has never tried to ape ONGF too literally.

When Weller formed The Jam at Woking's Sheerwater School in 1974, it wasn't to the prog rock of the time that the teenage Modfather turned, but to The Small Faces, The Kinks, The Who and the harder edges of R'n'B from the decade before. The Jam then rolled Mod and Punk ethics into a tight ball of social conscience, which was the only element carried through to the sockless, Weejun-wearing, pastel sweater-draped effete of The Style Council, which took Weller on a soul and R'n'B-infused seven-year run of anti-Thatcherist bile.

When he returned in 1990 with his criminally overlooked and self-titled debut solo album, Weller drew on some of those musical eccentricities from his youth, mixing in with the sounds of the latest Summer of Love and the woozier elements of his more recent past, such as The Style Council's radio hit The Long Hot Summer (listen to that closely followed by Above The Clouds to see what I mean).

(Dean Farrell)
Now, 22 years into his solo career, Paul Weller is still building his magpie's nest with influences from the here, the now and the then. Sonik Kicks is Weller's 11th studio album and his third in four years (Why? "Well, you have to, at my age," he recently quipped to The Times). It's an output few of his peers seem capable of or are willing to replicate.

A third installment in his journey of free-spirited expression, following the pastoral England of 22 Dreams and the boppier Wake Up The Nation, Weller doesn't fall back on ceremony with Sonik Kicks. In short its probably his best-ever solo album when taken on the sum of its parts. 

At 53 it would have been easy for Weller to knock out another Wild Wood or Stanley Road, full of crowd-pleasing rockers and lush acoustic ballads. But like few others in his peer group - and perhaps even only Elvis Costello fits this description - Weller continues to rummage around his musical box of Lego bricks to see what else he can come up with that is meaty, beaty, big and bouncy, and which dips either a toe or both feet in the 60s without resorting to Austin Powers pastiche. 

Sonik Kicks finds Weller carefree and stridently upbeat at work. Happily dismissing contemporary chart influences, he tastes from as diverse a reference set as Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, the polite Englishness of Nick Drake and the eccentric Englishness of Pink Floyd's See Emily Play.

From the off, the trancing, psychedelic funk of Green and its metronomic electronic pulse chugs like Weller's From The Floorboards Up on As Is Now, instantly defying anyone of Weller's age group to put Sonik Kicks on as dinner party background. Because that would be a waste of good ears.

Sonik Kicks deserves attention for its sheer variety and self-assured maturity. It's an album that one moment is about jangly two-minute pop songs like The Attic (featuring Graham Coxon and Noel Gallagher) and That Dangerous Age (a tongue-in-cheek swipe at men of a similar age to Weller himself), and next the frantic ska of Kling I Klang, a sub-conscious essay about strife in the Middle East, which somehow manages to hark back to Jacques Brel and Scott Walker's Jacky in the process.

There is more psychedelia with Drifters, which takes a turn down Tarantino Boulevard with a crazy thrash of Dick Dale reverb, a flamenco rhythm and wiggy strings along with synthesised beeps and  whoops like those used for sound effects in Brains' laboratory in Thunderbirds. There's more of that on Sleep Of The Serene, a short link between Kling I Klang and By The Waters, one of those dreamy acoustic guitar numbers Weller does so well.

For all his mod-punk sensibilities, Weller is sometimes at his best writing songs like You Do Something To MeYou're The Best Thing and Wild Wood, and By The Waters deserves to join them in Weller's perennial soundtrack to English riverside picnics, warm summer sun finding its way through blades of long grass. The Style Council's Long Hot Summer was another one of those humid August afternoon classics, and Weller returns to that vibe with Study In Blue. It starts out as a slightly gooey soul duet with Weller's new wife Hannah Andrews (sounding eerily like former partner Dee C. Lee) before oozing into a dubby trip that, were it not for the fact Weller has declared himself cleaner than a hospital door handle, would have you swearing that it had been written with a little help from nature's herb garden.

It's quite possible that the twentysomething Andrews and their infant twins John Paul and Bowie (hats off!) have given Weller a new confidence. Or maybe the adventure with which he goes about Sonik Kicks stems from the sort of trip you only get during the opening months of a new relationship, or of becoming a parent. But like the dopey romantic running along the road shouting "I'm in love!" to passing strangers, Weller jumps blindly from bold to brassy with each track. Dragonfly is one of the best songs he's written in years, another trippy track built up from a wall of noise that would be the perfect companion to Gallagher's AKA... What A Life! (indeed Sonik Kicks and Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds share many tonal similarities).

Its here you realise that for all that nonsense a few years ago between Blur and Oasis for Britpop supremacy, there was already someone sat on that particular throne. Odd, then, that echoes of both bands (as well as personnel) ring through on Sonik Kicks, such as the Beetlebum-like Paperchase and When Your Garden's Overgrown, another stroll through Blur country (End Of The Century anyone?).

In 35 years as a fan I can honestly say I've never seen Paul Weller smile. Look back at any photograph over his career and you'll see that same, mildly batey look. It's not an angry expression, just one you'd call stony-faced, like Robert De Niro.

Sonik Kicks IS Weller smiling. It is even Weller content. It is certainly Weller laid more emotionally bare - and comfortably so - than at any time in his career.

Which brings me to the closing track of Sonik Kicks, Be Happy Children. Opening with a synth line straight from Zoom by Fat Larry's Band, it is perhaps the most conventional track on an otherwise unconventional album. It's a big, Motowny ballad, featuring two of Weller's seven children - Leah on vocals and a soundbite of seven-year-old Mac - and pays tribute to his late father, John. Weller Senior died in 2009 from pneumonia, having nurtured his son's career from the beginning - an origin that began with the young John Weller (before changing his name to Paul) getting an electric guitar for Christmas 1970.

Be Happy Children draws the 'regular' version of Sonik Kicks to an end, but if you shell out for the 'deluxe' edition, there is a coda worth the extra money alone: Devotion. Written for a BBC film last year about the Munich air crash that killed Manchester United's 'Busby Babes', its original version was suitably melancholy.

On Sonik Kicks, however, it draws on the album's warmth, rearranged around a 'travelling' guitar rhythm and very similar to Gordon Lightfoot's Early Morning Rain (which Weller himself covered on his Studio 150 collection). Here, Weller gives Devotion a happier, clappier Harry Nielsson vibe and a gentle, Laurel Canyon golden glow. While it may have been deemed surplus to the 'regular' version of Sonik Kicks, it is the perfect finale to an album that tests expectations without straying too far. Which is a sign of composed maturity in itself.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The real Great Escape

Only we Brits - and, specifically, the English - could choose the title music from a film about a wartime failure as a means of bolstering support for our frequently beleaguered national football team.

But whenever England play, there they are, up in the stands with their big bass drum, tuba and trumpets, 'entertaining' fellow supporters with their oh-so ironic rendition of Elmer Bernstein's theme from The Great Escape.

You'd have thought - or, at least, hoped - that by now someone would have tapped the self-proclaimed 'Official England Supporters Band' on the collective shoulder and reminded them that the music they are playing comes from a movie about the attempted mass exodus by 200 downed Allied airmen from a seemingly escape-proof German prisoner-of-war camp, which ended pretty badly for all but three escapees.

The other aspect of this well-intentioned but witless irony is that England's performances, especially in tournaments, are as predictable as the fact that when there's a bank holiday in Britain one of the broadcasters will trot out John Sturges' 1963 film. Is there any living person in the United Kingdom today who has never seen it? I somehow doubt it.

The Great Escape, like The Dambusters, 633 Squadron and countless others, is a stirring tale of wartime derring-do and stiff upper lips, of the kind Britain took great pleasure in glorying to ensure no one ever forgets that without such lantern-jawed bravery, Harry Hun would never have been defeated and Europe would be still under the jackboot's murderous grip today. On top of all that, The Great Escape formed a barrage of war movies in the 1960s and 70s - like The Dirty Dozen and the brilliant crime caper Kelly's Heroes - which brimmed with the biggest Hollywood stars of the day.

Here, Steve McQueen headlined as the über-cool Hilts (who can't keep himself out of the solitary confinement 'Cooler') along with James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Coburn, Donald Pleasence and, naturally, Charles Bronson in his usual role of humourless Pole.

Although based on a book by Paul Brickhill, an Australian Spitfire pilot who had been a prisoner at Stalag Luft III, The Great Escape bears very little resemblance to the actual events which took place on the night of March 24-25, 1944. For a start, there were no Americans involved in the real escape. This is something of a handicap when you're trying to get backing for a Hollywood movie losely adapted from real events. And at no time did any of the Stalag Luft III PoWs attempt to ride their way to Swiss neutrality by vaulting a motorbike over a barbed-wire frontier fence. Not that Hilts actually succeeds in doing so.

In reality, the real escape was an even more daring challenge. Stalag Luft III was regarded by the German hierarchy as a state-of-the art facility. Built under Luftwaffe chief Herman Göring's direction, it was located near the town of Sagan, in what is now Poland, on the basis that the ground underneath it would be unsuitable for tunneling. Such was the Germans' hubris about keeping prisoners locked in that the camp enjoyed a relatively convivial atmosphere, run by the German air force, rather than other more brutal environments controlled by German army units. The guards were mostly older conscripts or injured combatants, and prisoners enjoyed reasonably good treatment, from food to accommodation. However, this 'soft' reputation didn't make it any less a prison, or diminish the intentions of those incarcerated within it to break out.

In the spring of 1943, an RAF officer, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell (who became Richard Attenborough's Roger Bartlett in the movie) called together an escape committee and determined that "Three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels" should be built in the hope of freeing as many Allied pilots back into the war effort.

For almost a year the prisoners dug their tunnels 30 feet below the ground - deeper than escape tunnels in other camps - finding novel ways of making the excavated earth disappear throughout the camp grounds. That didn't stop the Germans from rumbling that something was up, but they never found out exactly what. Even deporting suspected ringleaders to other camps didn't to deter the nightly digging.

With German suspicions growing at the beginning of 1944, as soon as the final tunnel was ready and a moon-free night would be on offer to provide cover, 200 selected prisoners out of the 600 involved in the tunneling made their break for freedom.

In the end 76 actually made their way successfully out of the tunnels, a 77th prisoner being spotted by guards who raised the alarm. By then, the others were already on their way through snow on one of the coldest nights in that part of Europe for more than three decades. Panic stations raised,  the Germans dispatched all available forces to recapture the escapees. Three did, however, get away - two Norwegians and a Dutchman. But such was the bruise left by the other 73 breaking free that Hitler ordered each of the recaptured prisoners to executed, despite protestations from senior officers reminding him of the Geneva Convention. In the end, 50 were shot as a punishment and a warning to other Allied PoWs.

The repercussions from the real Great Escape were felt long after the war ended in 1945. German officers involved in the 50 executions were eventually called to account during the Nuremberg war crimes trials. The harsh reality is that this event will just be one of thousands of incidents that took place during World War Two that have never and will never be immortalised in film.

Not that you can really think of The Great Escape as the immortalisation of actual events. It's an entertaining two-and-a-half hours of Boy's Own hokum with which to fill up a dreary Easter Monday afternoon. And it made a superstar out of Steve McQueen, forever associating his name and reputation with the essence of 'cool'.

The real events, however, on March 24, 1944, were certainly less than cool - part desperation, part heroic, part stupidity. All of which is easy to say as someone who has rarely been in a pub lock-in, let alone incarceration.

Monday, March 19, 2012

A game of two halves (and other clichés)

When the final reckoning comes it is likely - and one of my sincerest hopes - that the accolade of 'Greatest English Footballer Ever' will be bestowed upon Jimmy Greaves.

In 157 appearances for Chelsea between 1957 and 1961 he scored 124 times, scoring on his debut for the club in 1957 and going on to achieve an as-yet unbeated club record of 41 league goals in the 1960-61 season. He then went to AC Milan, where he scored nine times in 12 appearances before coming back to London and finding the net a whopping 220 times in 321 outings with Spurs. On top of that, he is the third-highest goalscorer for England, with 44 goals in 57 appearances - a total which infamously excludes the 1966 World Cup Final, which Greaves missed.

Apologies for that statfest, but it allows me to tee up one further notable point about Greaves – that he has been the chief proponent (if not, possibly, originator) of football's greatest cliché: "It's a funny old game".

This five-word banality really doesn’t say anything at all, but at the same time says everything about how absurd football can be. Because – as a footballer will say - “at the end of the day” – football is a funny old game. 22 people kicking an inflated leather sphere up and down a pitch for 90 minutes before declaring one of the following – “We’re over the moon”, “We’re sick as a parrot” or “We came for a point and we’re going home with a point”.

I was musing on just how absurdly irrelevant football really is on Saturday evening as Fabrice Muamba lay in intensive care in a north London hospital.

Hours earlier he had suddenly slumped to the floor in Bolton Wanderers’ FA Cup Quarter-Final against Tottenham at White Hart Lane.

Now, this 23-year-old father of one, a child refugee from the bloodshed in his Zairean homeland, who arrived in England unable to speak English but applied himself academically and athletically to excellence, who became a hugely popular – if not technically gifted – footballer at Arsenal, Bolton and the England Under-21s, was fighting for his life (and, as I write, still is).

To exacerbate football’s absurdity further, as Muamba continued his brave battle yesterday afternoon, Chelsea sent out Fernando Torres to lead the attack in their own FA Cup Quarter-Final against Leicester City at Stamford Bridge.

Torres, you’ll recall, had cost Chelsea a ridiculous £50 million when they bought him from Liverpool in January 2011. You’ll also recall that Torres had not scored a goal, professionally, in 151 days (or more than 25 hours spent on a football pitch) - not the expected return on a striker, least of all one commanding such a price.

So when the blond one known in his native Madrid as El Niño, mostly dribbled the ball past the hapless Kasper Schmeichel on 67 minutes, it was understandable that Stamford Bridge – which had, an hour earlier, warmly applauded Muamba in sympathetic unity – rose to its feet in raptures as if they had witnessed a Biblical miracle.

A second was to follow almost 20 minutes later, causing those of a religious persuasion in the stands to immediately abandon any plans to visit Lourdes and stay rooted in London SW6.

Which led to me thinking about that other noble footballing cliché – “a game of two halves”. Because it really is a game of division, between those work hard to become great and those who have greatness thrust upon them, and then have struggle to live up that greatness.

Torres demonstrated at Athletico Madrid and at Liverpool what a lethal striker he is. Whether the two goals he scored for Chelsea yesterday finally unleash the demons that were preventing him extending that reputation for lethality remain to be seen.

And even if he now goes on to exceed Jimmy Greaves’ club record of league goals in a single season (not impossible, of course, but even if Chelsea face opposition comprised entirely of multiple amputees in their remaining fixtures this season, it’s as likely as Rafa Benitez becoming the next secretary of the Chelsea Supporters Club), Chelsea fans will naturally be beyond elation. But right now, the only thing that matters in this beautiful game is that one particular 23-year-old, who has united the entire world of football behind him, pulls through and makes it to his 24th birthday three weeks from now.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

It's an offer you can never refuse

The discovery that you are truly your father's son is decidedly unnerving. For some, the revelation is instant.

For others, it unfolds gradually, building towards the inevitable "My God...I'm him!".

For me, it revealed itself initially one Sunday lunchtime while I was engaged in a pre-middle aged rant about people mindlessly dawdling around supermarkets.

On suggesting that Sainsbury's should put brake lights on their shopping trolleys, my father chimed in by declaring: "I was just saying the same thing to your mother the other day". My shudder must have been detected by seismologists.

Since then other traits have appeared as further layers of the hereditary onion have peeled away. One, of note, has been a highly selective compulsive obsessive disorder: my father can never pass up an opportunity to watch The Cruel Sea, the 1953 film adaptation of Nicholas Monsarrat's wartime yarn starring Jack Hawkins as a British navy officer battling U-boats. An impending broadcast will prompt my father to spend several days walking around the house muttering "It's the war, No.1" as grimly dispatched by Hawkins to his trusty lieutenant, Donald Sinden. The airing itself is a televisual event, like The Queen's Speech, and in the pre-digital days of the video recorder, my dad would even re-record over previous recordings of the film.

I can't mock. Well, not any more. For I have my own Cruel Sea - one of the finest films ever made: The Godfather.

Nominated for ten Oscars and winning three including Best Picture and Best Actor (Marlon Brando), Francis Ford Coppola's stunning dramatisation of Mario Puzo's somewhat trashy Mafia novel has, since its release 40 years ago this week, consistently appeared at or near the top of just about every list of the all-time greatest films ever made.

Wherever I am in the world - and regardless of the language it is being shown in - I will watch it, even though I possess just about every home video format Paramount has ever released it in.

"It's like a drug," Alec Baldwin says in one of the extras on the recent Blu-ray Disc release. "It takes away your free will. You're going to watch it whether you planned on it or not." And he's right.

I have, genuinely, lost count of how many times I've watched The Godfather, but each time there is something new to discover. A nuance in the wedding scene, a line by Al Pacino in the Sicilian sequence, even a reaction by Marlon Brando in a performance that still divides critics (i.e. those who thought it one of the greatest character turns of all time, and those who felt the by-then highly capricious actor had mostly delivered his performance by phone).

You could argue - and there are plenty who have tried - that The Godfather is just a gangster film, no more than a 1970s take on Angels With Dirty Faces or the original Scarface. But we all know that it is closer to Greek tragedy or Shakespeare - a King Lear with double-breasted suits. 

In the 40 years since its release, The Godfather has not only aged perfectly, but it has evolved far beyond its literary origin, becoming a cultural institution. People who have never seen it can still quote "I made him an offer he couldn't refuse," even mumbling it with a nasal drawl and protruded jaw.

The Godfather also holds the dubious distinction of leading a pack of films (that must surely 
include Apocalypse Now!, The Blues Brothers and Withnail & I) that men - and, I stress, exclusively men - can recite vast tracts of dialogue from without hesitation. Who hasn't had a Christmas festivity 'hilariously' livened up by the amusing uncle telling his young nephew: "Never tell anyone outside the family what you are thinking again"? 

"So Luca Brasi held a gun to his head, and my father assured him that either his brains or his signature would be on the contract. 

That's a true story, Kay, that's a true story."

The Godfather has found itself referenced in more places than any film, ranging from Peter Sellers in The Revenge Of The Pink Panther to Hannah Montana (thanks, IMDB, for that one...). The mere mention of sleeping with fishes, severed horse heads or the briefest 11-note extract from Nino Rota's iconic Godfather Waltz is enough for a joke to work. 

It even found its way with deliciously audacious irony into The Sopranos - the Bada-Bing! strip club named after Sonny Corleone's assassination advice to Michael ("You've gotta get up close like this and bada-bing! You blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit."); in the pilot, Soprano crew members Christopher Moltisanti and 'Big Pussy' Bompansero engage in a discussion about which was best out of "One" or "Two" while they knock off a truckload of DVD players; and it's probably no coincidence that The Sopranos' matriarch Carmela was named after Vito Corleone's wife.

Unlike any of its peers, The Godfather has been examined every which way in countless books, articles, documentaries, college dissertations and film club musings. Much has been made of its place in the canon of Hollywood's remarkable collection of Roman talent, including Coppola's other masterpiece Apocalypse Now!,  at least Goodfellas from the Scorcese oeuvre and Brian De Palma's Scarface. This trio of Italian-Americans were an essential part of the 'bigger' 1970s cinema - the American Dream imagined by Italian-American auteurs, delivered by Italian-American actors, and filtered through the prism of the Italian-American criminal mythology.

Over-examining The Godfather is an utterly self-serving exercise. There is too much to dine on, of course, such as the casting for a start.

We've all heard about Paramount's preference of Robert Redford, Warren Beatty or Ryan O'Neal over the-then unknown Al Pacino for the role of Michael Corleone, and that Coppola had to fight like mad to convince Paramount that Pacino was Michael Corleone. An inspired choice, in the end, not least because, unlike any of his challengers, Pacino is of Italian stock (his maternal grandparents even come from the very real Corleone in Sicily...).

But the best way to evaluate The Godfather is to strip away all the paraphernalia that has built around it over the last 40 years - the poor-quality impersonations, the lame sitcom references, the atrocious commercials for frozen pizza and awful puns such as fish and chips shops called "The Codfather" - to just revel at a true magnum opus.

The Godfather, together with its acclaimed first sequel - one of the few to win equal quantities of accolades - as well as the second sequel (which we will politely describe as being not as acclaimed as the first two parts of the trilogy) is the foundation of a fascinating depiction of 20th Century America.

The Godfather is a sumptuous examination of revenge, betrayal, sibling rivalry, family politics, corruption and, above all, the power of money in post-war America, all the elements that power the rise of the monster mobster that is Michael Corleone - the naif, college boy and hero Marine captain who becomes the emperor of all he surveys, morally ambiguous and, eventually, morally abandoned.

It is a film that begs to be watched endlessly. And I get the feeling that it will...

I understand. You found paradise in America, had a good trade, made a good living. The police protected you, and there were courts of law. And you didn't need a friend of me. 

But now you come to me and you say: "Don Corleone - give me justice." But you don't ask with respect. You don't offer friendship; you don't even think to call me 'Godfather'. 

Instead, you come into my house on the day my daughter is to be married, and you ask me to do murder, for money. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

We knew it was him

If you had only ever watched the same handful of American TV shows from the 1970s – let’s say Columbo, The Rockford Files, Charlie’s Angels, Quincy and CHiPs, just for starters – it is likely that you will have seen countless pop-up performances from an equally small group of character actors, such as Leslie Nielsen, Charles Napier, John Vernon and Anthony Zerbe.

The 1970s film industry employed a similar repertory company for myriad generic roles, people like Robert Vaughan, Harry Dean Stanton, Burt Young and, again, the prolific John Vernon turning up in support of or as foils to the real stars of the era, like Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood and, of course, arguably the two greatest actors of their generation, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.

While Pacino and De Niro have, to date, knocked up almost 130 movies between them, one of the most significant actors who appeared with both of them only made five films in his entire career - The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon and The Deer Hunter, all of which were either nominated for or  won the Oscar for Best Picture. The actor's name was John Cazale, and he died 34 years ago today aged just 42. And he was probably the greatest actor you’ve never known.

Born in Boston in 1935, Cazale built his career in theatre, running into Pacino in the process (although they actually met for the first time while working in menial jobs at Standard Oil in New York, in between parts). Their careers – and their friendship – remained inextricably linked until Cazale’s death. "When I first saw John, I instantly thought he was so interesting," recalled Pacino in an Entertainment Weekly interview in 2003. "Everybody was always around him because he had a very congenial way of expressing himself."

It was playing the good-hearted but “weak and stupid” Fredo Corleone that shifted Cazale’s career from solid theatre performer to the ‘almost’-movie star he became. Fredo set him up to play similar characters in Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon (the jumpy Sal Naturile opposite Pacino's first-time bank robber, Sonny Wortzik) and the shrew-like Stan in The Conversation (filmed almost concurrently with The Godfather Part II and also directed by Francis Ford Coppola).

"He had all the qualities I had hoped for in Fredo, and there was no hesitation to cast him," Coppola recalled in the 2010 HBO documentary, I Knew It Was You. As the weakest of Vito and Carmela Corleone's offspring, Fredo becomes ballast between the headstrong Sonny and the apparently naieve Michael in the wake of their father's failed assasination in New York, a position underpinned by his failure to get a shot off after the Don's would-be assassins. Cazale stole the assassination scene entirely, sitting on the Little Italy curbside, weeping.

In an expanded role in Part II, Fredo is the older but resentful Corleone sibling. Although Michael's underboss, through a favour of a favour he is working for the family in Las Vegas - where he ends up betraying his younger brother. In the role, Cazale turned Fredo from the drunken loser of the first film into a sleazy Vegas playboy - whose weakness for women (and Mob vulnerability to hinted-at homesexuality) leads to his exploited betrayal of the clan - and his eventual murder on a Lake Tahoe fishing boat. It is this, pivotal, plotline that leads to Michael's heavy fratricidal guilt for the remainder of the epic trilogy.

In 1977 Cazale was cast alongside Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino’s epic rites-of-passage saga of a group of small town Pennsylvania steelworkers who are shipped off to fight in Vietnam and return to indifference.

As filming began, Cazale had been diagnosed with terminal bone cancer. Cimino rescheduled the actor’s scenes so that they would be filmed first, a morbid but necessary measure to ensure that the one of Hollywood’s greatest ‘nearly’ men would have his final performance on screen. Cazale completed his scenes but, sadly, didn’t live to see the film’s premiere in 1978.

“I learned so more about acting from John than anybody,” Pacino said in the 2010 HBO documentary I Knew It Was You. Generous actorspeak, you might say, but there were plenty of lead actors who owed their performances to Cazale’s acting behind them. Gene Hackman, on the other hand, found Cazale’s shadow in The Conversation a little intimidating and “extremely intense” – probably one of the reasons Coppola had cast him following his experiences with the actor in The Godfather Part II, even writing the role of Stan especially for him.

The documentary also afforded Streep a rare opportunity to open up about her relationship with Cazale, with whom she was dating at the time of his death (and was at his bedside on March 12, 1978 when he passed away).

“We would talk about the acting process endlessly,” Streep said in the programme.

“He was monomaniacal about the work. I think I was more glib and ready to pick the first idea that came to me. He would say, ‘There are a lot of other possibilities.’ That was a real lesson. I took that to heart. I always think about it.”

Streep’s relationship with Cazale was a mixture of romantic love and professional appreciation, Pacino’s bond was similiarly profound: “All I wanted to do was work with John for the rest of my life,'' Pacino revealed in I Knew It Was You. ''He was my acting partner”.

Perhaps it was fate that brought Pacino together with Cazale, in turn bringing him to the attention of Lumet and Coppola, and made him a ‘must-have’ for The Deer Hunter, one of the seminal star vehicles of the ‘70s.

But whatever it was, for five brilliant films and the final six years of his life, John Cazale played an integral part in the gathering reputations of a group of actors who are still, today, at the top of their game. Their success owes more than a little to the character actor with the mournful eyes and pallid complexion, the spindly appearance and the receding hairline who was every bit the star himself.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The angry man of pop turns 60

We’ve grown so used to old rockers reaching their 60th birthday – with The Sun making unfunny remarks about Johnny Rockstar being old enough to claim his free bus pass – that it tends not to garner comment any more.

But today we should celebrate the 60th birthday of one particular British musical institution – the one which launched my media career: the New Musical Express.

First published on March 7, 1952, the NME became, during the late '70s and '80s part of a quintet weeklies with its two main broadsheet rivals, Melody Maker and Sounds, Record Mirror and Disc (not to mention the frothy Smash Hits - a pure pop tome that had started life a postermag).

Pop music was a rather genteel affair when the NME first went to press. The No.1 that week was Al Martino's Here In My Heart). But as rock'n'roll took off over the following decade, the paper became a more crucial barometer of popular taste, chronicling the rise of Beatles and Stones, of the Merseybeat and British Blues Boom, not to mention pitching the rivalries that made the era so easy to write for.

As pop morphed into rock as the '60s evolved, and chirpsome two-and-a-half minute hits gave way to gargantuan wigouts, the NME transformed further into a more serious organ for the more serious punter. Gigs at London's Rainbow Theatre and The Marquee would be populated by bearded, earnest young men in army surplus greatcoats, clutching copies of the NME and the latest album of whomever they were there to see, frantically scribbling down meaningful observations about the 20-minute guitar solos they were then being subjected to.

The '70s became the NME's golden era: it was a decade that began awash with denim and ended with the almost illogical event of Pink Floyd's Another Brick In The Wall Part 2 topping the UK charts, giving rise to the oft-used phrase "Like punk never 'appened". The '70s was also the decade that British music journalism found its editorial feet, leaving behind the somewhat convivial relationship it had with the 'press agents' of major acts in the previous decade, and developing a voice of its own...with an attitude.

NME writers like Charles Shaar Murray and Nick Kent took on the cultural zeitgeist of the day, becoming 'names' in their own right. There is an apocryphal tale about Kent being asked for his autograph as he sat down for lunch with David Bowie and Lou Reed in a Manhattan restaurant, though this had less to do with his writing prowess reaching New York and more to do with the fact he looked more like a rock star than most rock stars. It was a time where rock journalists enjoyed a different type of relationship with the artists they were covering, and the NME reveled in this coseyness (and a shared enjoyment of certain substances).

Punk was arguably the NME's zenith. It became the maypole around which the paper's most pungent legends danced, be it stories of journalists overdosing or having proper office punch-ups. As the mainstay bands of the British music press focused on their seemingly endless American stadium tours in 1974 and 1975, it became clear that something was stirring in the clubs of New York. Soon something was stirring in London, too, and the NME threw out the challenge for a pair of "hip young gunslingers" to join the editorial team and report on the burgeoning punk scene. The successful applicants were Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill. Under pioneering magazine legend Nick Logan as editor, Parsons and Burchill (then still a schoolgirl from Bristol) sunk themselves into the music scene at a raw pitch.

"I was just a kid from Billericay," Parsons remembers in The History of the NME: High Times and Low Lives at the World's Most Famous Music Magazine, Pat Long's excellent book chronicling the NME's 60 years to date. "[I was] 22 years-old, probably a young 22 years-old, and there were people who spent the weekend not just taking heroin but taking heroin with Keith Richards. Not just smoking dope but smoking dope with Bob Marley. It was like joining bohemia. This was '76: post-Pill, pre-AIDS. It was pretty wild."

Parsons' style of decidedly unsycophantic writing was exactly what the NME was about: " When my feelings about music were changing in the eaely ’70s NME seemed to articulate that," he tells Long. "I was a David Bowie fan and I took my first girlfriend to see him at Earl’s Court on the Aladdin Sane tour and it was a horrible experience. There were people everywhere being drunk and vomiting and the bouncers were very rough and Bowie was disengaged – probably coked out of his mind – and it was not that intimate inclusive experience that the music was to me. Nick Kent wrote a very vicious bitchy review in the NME and I just thought ‘that’s exactly how I feel'."

As I found myself - writing my first live review for the NME while still at school - the paper was open to younger journalists, cultivating a justifiable reputation for tapping into the street, rather than an elevated view of the street. It was with this sprit that Parsons and Burchill heralded in the next generation of star writers, the likes of Paul Morley, Barney Hoskyns and former fanzine writer Danny Baker (who joined originally as the paper's receptionist at it is legendary Carnaby Street offices).

The NME was, though, at times an intimidating newspaper to write for, thanks to the establishment of unassailable reputations and rock star-sized egos to match. "The NME was hard work, especially on the editorial side," former editor Neil Spencer recently recalled. "The writers had more of a demented ride. They'd go off and take drugs with musicians in exotic locations and enjoy themselves, and then come back and write their pieces overnight and deliver them by hand. It was crazy, but ultimately you've got to have somebody signing off pages and writing headlines, and it was very tough at times, especially when writers flaked out as they did. What do you do on Tuesday afternoon at the printers with half a cover story on Boy George? It still annoys me."

Before the NME moved to corporate IPC Magazines offices near Waterloo Station (and, at one point, High Holborn), it had been based in London's Carnaby Street. The street had long since abandoned its Mary Quant 'swinging sixties' cool and had become a rather depressing thoroughfare of crap tourist-mugging shops. The NME office was, according to Spencer, "a bear pit." He recalls: "Everyone had very abrupt opinions on who should be on the cover and how many words everybody should have and who was going to write the lead review and so on. There was a lot of turf being fought over, so a big part of my job as editor was to balance the factions in the paper."


Margaret Thatcher winning the 1979 general election changed so much about the UK. A country that had seemed grey and dull, but livened up by the sheer audacity of punk in 1976, suddenly became a colder, more fearful place. Amid the post-punk musical backdrop of acts like Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, Nick Lowe, Ian Dury & The Blockheads and Squeeze, not to mention the resurgence of ska and the Mod revival, came a new political sensibility that pulled the NME into another new editorial direction - and arguably marked the start of the decline in the music press being the force of influence it once was.

Internally the NME's journalists became embroiled in the sort of arguments about direction that the artists they were supposed to be covering got into. As the pop of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet chided with the emerging hip-hop scene, factions developed between those who felt the NME should cast a wider net of the entire cultural universe, and those who felt it should maintain its denim dependency and write only about rock.

On the bright side, the NME opened itself up to women, both as readers but also as writers. Julie Burchill had challenged the paper as a bastion of testosterone-fuelled rock, and in her wake - and, ironically, shadowing the rise of Thatcher - the paper became more inclusive of women on the staff and female acts appearing on the newsprint itself. There are those who don't look back on the early 80s in Britain with the same lens of doom and gloom. Margaret Thatcher may have made the UK a fearful and hope-free place to be young, but music, nevertheless, provided the release. Amid race riots and anti-nuclear protests, the NME ploughed on, undergoing further transformation from earnest rock fan to all-round cultural observer.

"Music and politics became inextricably entwined," wrote Neil Spencer in The Observer in 2005. "As ever, there was plenty of escapism - it's one of pop's jobs to provide Durans and Hayzee Fantayzees - but there was also idealism, anger, and artistic adventure. There was, for sure, a surfeit of earnest young men with George Orwell haircuts posing disconsolately in the shells of dead factories, one response to the 'No Future' we had been warned of by the Pistols."

Looking back, however, the '80s weren't so kind to the NME, and not just because yours truly posted possibly its first and last Phil Collins live review. It didn’t just struggle to choose between music genre, it struggled to choose between being a music magazine and a watchtower for the socio-political cultures of the time. The rise of CND, the miners strike and movements like the Labour Party-supported Red Wedge came along (with Paul Weller and Billy Bragg as its standard bearers) appeared to pull the paper in the direction of becoming a student agit-prop magazine with added album reviews, a seriousness that clashed with the brighter moments of the decade which Smash Hits covered with delight.

The arrival of Britpop in the '90s gave the NME second wind. As Oasis and their breed unashamedly raided their parents' record collections to recreate, if nothing else, the pulse and vibe of the '60s - whether the Gallaghers' Beatle fixation or Blur's flirtation with the psychedelic whimsy of Syd Barrett - the NME took a ringside seat as the likes of Pulp, Elastica, Suede et al bridged Indy cred with mainstream acceptability.

The rivalry between Oasis and Blur was a boon to the press in general, but to the NME in particular. On August 12, 1995, the paper ran its famous 'Blur v Oasis' front cover.

"It was the cover that defined my editorship," Steve Sutherland, who was at the NME's helm at the time, told The Guardian recently. "It also defined my era and it put NME back on the map as central to what was going on in Britain culturally at the time. And it made us famous for a brief period, so it was all very good."

"Noel Gallagher was saying things such as: 'Blur are a bunch of middle-class wankers trying to play hardball with working-class heroes'," says Sutherland. "It was brilliantly fuelled by both bands' cocaine input. They were both at the top of their game and both very competitive."

The rivalry - one which went way beyond the rough-and-tumble of the Beatles/Stones era - ratcheted up a notch after the NME's news team learned that Blur and Oasis were scheduled to release their new singles - Country House and Roll With It - on the same day. "We decided to have a bit of fun with this and make some mischief," says Sutherland. "We created this front cover with Damon Albarn on the left looking very arrogant and Liam Gallagher on the right looking very combative, and we modelled it on an old Ali v Fraser boxing poster. We set it up as a proper sporting event."

Blur eventually won the chart bout. "It was a soap opera," Sutherland said in The Guardian. "Soap operas are great for people who work on newspapers and magazines because you can become part of the story and it never really ends. We sold a lot of copies off the back of it, and the NME became famous again, and it became synonymous with the glory years of Britpop."

While Britpop was gurgling away like an overactive child that had been overdoing the sugar, 'upstairs' at the NME its publishers IPC Magazines were scratching their heads trying to work out what the new-fangled Internet meant for the increasingly expensive publishing industry. As hikes in raw newsprint prices continued, and magazines started shedding editorial staff left right and center, the NME and its brethren were facing an uncertain future. In 1996 the NME launched an online edition, getting ahead of the curve with its core readership who were soon to start abandoning physical media altogether for their music consumption.

"There are two types of music, good and bad, and genre doesn't come into that."
Today, 60 years-old, the NME is still going, abeit no longer a "music paper" but a decidedly more populist glossy magazine. And, shock-horror, since September 2009 it has been edited by a woman, Krissi Murison, who took over the reigns at the age of 28.

"One of the main challenges I faced when I took over the NME was making a 60-year-old music magazine as relevant today as it always has been," Murison told The Guardian.

"Added to that, I'm not just editing the print version, it's the website as well, and now a lot of people get their daily NME fix via Twitter and Facebook, so managing all those strands is a big challenge."

Perhaps unconsciously drawing reference to the internecine editorial wars of her prededecessors, Murison appears to maintain a clear head when it comes to what the magazine - in all its forms - has to cover: "People always say to me that such-and-such is an NME band but that doesn't mean much to me. There are two types of music, good and bad, and genre doesn't come into that."

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

A touch of class

There are some artists who will forever be associated with a certain geography, no matter where they end up. The Eagles will be forever southern California, largely because they were formed in Los Angeles, they all had beards, and their most famous hit was called Hotel California. Similarly, Liverpool and The Beatles will always be intertwined (even though they were all living in Surrey within three years of Love Me Do becoming a hit) while Manchester and New Order, the Stone Roses and Oasis are virtually interchangeable.

London also has its associated haunts: think Muswell Hill and The Kinks; Camden Town and Madness; Barking's very own 'Big Nosed Bard', Billy Bragg; Basildon and Depeche Mode; and without The Clash, Notting Hill would just be a West London neighborhood populated by people called Tristram who speak in a cod-patois and whose families own Lincolnshire.

People have made locational misassociations, too: Steely Dan were often considered the archetype West Coast group, even though songs like Hey Nineteen and Show Biz Kids - which had a Californian groove and were about LA themes - were written in New York's celebrated Brill Building.

Other locales go without association: Ripley is a post card-charming, sleepy English village in the county of Surrey. It bears little resemblance to the steaming cotton fields of Tennessee and Mississippi, and yet it is where the young Eric Clapton taught himself the blues of the American South, learning and ingraining himself in its poverty and woe. Ironically Paul Weller - who hates being compared to Clapton (and I mean, really hates being compared) has his recording studio in Ripley, a short drive away from the town of Woking where he grew up, absorbing all that it meant to be a working class mod in the 60s and early 70s.

Even so, you'd be hard pressed to associate either Clapton or Weller with a discernible 'Surrey sound'. Likewise, you'd struggle to see either as badge-wearing representatives of the English working class. Both would argue that class is how you carry yourself, rather than the logo on a shirt you wear.

Bruce Springsteen, on the other hand, is seen as nothing other than a working man's man. Cut him open and you'll find performance-grade STP motor oil coursing through his veins, his flesh made from pure denim. He is the very ideal of jeans-clad, workboot-wearing, plaid-shirted man of the people. And, in particular, a son of New Jersey.

Ever since his 1973 breakthrough, Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ, Springsteen has assumed the mantle of the American everyman, a stirling representative of the industrial north-eastern seaboard of America channelling the spirit of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger through tub-thumping, rousing songs about the real America, full of real Americans living real American lives.

New Jersey, for those who've never passed through it, isn't one giant steel plant. The Garden State is, in fact, a very pretty landmass fanning north and west and south from the Atlantic, with the Jersey side of New York City in one corner, and thousands upon sprawling thousands of acres of farmland radiating outwards. To the north-west of Newark lies the real Sopranos country around Orange County and towns like Montclair, while to the south are the hilly, Rockwellesque, white picketed communities of Essex, Somerset and Monmouth counties, stretching away from the hectic metropolitan. Springsteen himself now lives in the comfortable Jersey town of Colts Neck, a farming community where much of the farmland has been turned into golf courses, but is still just over ten miles away from coastal Long Branch where he was born and grew up, along with Asbury Park where his music career began in the slightly rough-and-ready Stone Pony pub.

This is, however, what makes Springsteen, Springsteen. Americans take him to heart because he is one of them. He is, as they are prone to stating, "meat and potatoes" - 'what-you-see-is-what-you-get'. He looks like them, dresses like them, talks like them. Whereas Eric Clapton, at one point, disappeared into a variety of fashion addictions including Armani suits, Versace shirts and hairstyles that were oddly bouffant for a man of middle age, Springsteen has steadfastly remained of his roots (and I'm not still talking about hair).

He has mostly transcended the cynicism associated with Bono for coining it in while singing about the human condition. That streak of avoidance is set to continue with the release this week of Springsteen's 17th studio album, Wrecking Ball, which extends a post-9/11 reflective state that began with The Rising, the 2002 album inspired by the events observed from across the Hudson that sunny September day the year before.

Wrecking Ball is the Springsteen album for the age of Occupy, and it is no surprise that he has cited the protests as a major ingredient to the album. It opens with the rowsing We Take Care Of Our Own, an uncompromising stadium stomp which largely does what it says on the tin - sentiments such as "We take care of our own/Wherever this flag's flown" and "From Chicago to New Orleans/From the muscle to the bone/From the shotgun shack to the Superdome." It's the sort of song that will at some point in the future, I'm sure, either be the soundtrack for an American political campaign or a recruiting ad for the US Marine Corps.

Easy Money might sound like a big ol' barnyard bluegrass hoedown, but there lies a deeper anger aimed at "...all them fat cats.." still creaming it in on Wall Street while "your whole world comes tumbling down". There is the strong suggestion that on the "far shore" of the Hudson (i.e. southern Manhattan...) the song's protagonist is likely to pitch up amongst the bankers with "...a Smith & Wesson 38..." with an account to settle. The American Way.

Like Peter Gabriel's bittersweet Don't Give Up, Springsteen's Jack Of All Trades adopts the same 'I'll do anything I can to keep the wolf from my door' approach, using a slow waltz and mournful brass to mount another scathing observation that American workers have been reduced to the self-sufficiency of clearing their own gutters and repairing their own cars, overstating that "the banker man grows fat, while the working man grows thin". In its lyrical simplicity - and clear homage to Guthrie's Depression-era songs - it holds another violent reference to having a gun "and shooting the bastards on sight", which is not the most responsible advice, given the propensity with which Americans scale clock towers armed with high-powered rifles when the going gets tough.

This downtrodden theme continues with Death To My Hometown, with its Celtic pipes and drums unashamedly drawing the north-eastern blue collar vote with a tale of urban blight, followed by This Depression, a sonic boom of of a song with a David Gilmour-style pitch-pedal guitar solo, a cold edge to its sound but a sympathetic warmth to its vocal.

The highlight of Wrecking Ball is its title track: arguably the most traditional 'Springsteen' song on the album, it reminds the listener, mid-way through, that the record is deliberately painting the bigger picture of 2012 America, that here is your humble rock star, "raised outta steel here in the swamps of Jersey", and that the rest of the set is his national perspective from this north-eastern enclave. As a good Springsteen song should, it has all the hallmarks of a great concert finale - all big brass (including, significantly, the final performance on a Springsteen album by the late Clarence Clemons) and woah-woah-woah choruses, the kind that fans will be singing long into the night as they crawl out of the stadium parking garage in their SUVs.

To return to the Springsteen look for a second, he has rarely changed his appearance, or his musical tone. He may have ranged from bombastic, Spector-style stage fillers to acoustic mountain folk, but the range of variation has never been shocking. There have been the occasional moments of pop, such as Dancing In the Dark (with that embarassing video featuring The Boss, sans-guitar and dressed as if a stylist attacked him a dark alley, plucking a rather gauche pre-Friends Courtney Cox from the audience to 'groove' into the evening with her).

The title track marks a turning point in the album, as if marking an intentional interval before things take what sounds like an experimental turn. Rocky Ground opens with samples and a drum machine before opening up into a feel-good slice of Gospel. Unfortunately it feels less satisfying, sounding more like a high school stage production that has pursuaded Bruce Springsteen to phone in a few lines.

Land Of Hope And Dream returns to something more Bruce-like, big drums and big theatre (and an undercurrent of Curtis Mayfield's People Get Ready), before We Are Alive blows dust off the Great American Songbook with a campfire singalong from somewhere along the frontier trail, borrowing, I suspect, from Johnny Cash's Ring Of Fire as well as a pinch of Marriachi. All very rootsy.

I've always been amazed by the ignorance with people have misappropriated Springsteen's Born In The USA as flag-waving patriotic bombast when anyone with half a brain would know that it was about the toxicity with which soldiers felt on returning to their homeland from Vietnam. It's unlikely that Springsteen sought to redress this with American Land, the closing track of Wrecking Ball, but I'm sure it will do the job nicely. It springs about to an Irish jig, capturing the spirit of Gangs Of New York and the New World hope of Ellis Island and what a jolly old place it is with "diamonds in the sidewalk, the gutter's lined in song/Dear, I hear that beer flows through the faucets all night long". It may not knock The Pogues' Fairytale Of New York off the shamrock charts, but with St. Paddy's night coming up in a couple of weeks, it would certainly make the Guinness flow with just a little more swing than The Best of Enya.

Odd, then, that this treatise of a Bruce Springsteen album should end up in almost cartoon "Begorrah, begorrah!" territory. Springsteen has Irish blood in him, along with the Dutch of his father's name and a mix of Italian from his mother, These are qualifications that, from one side of the American Dream, cast him as an American thoroughbred, with more right than any to look upon his country with a mixture or pride and disdain.

There are, then, many symbols of America, the country which invented branding. You could say that the White House, the New York skyline, Mount Rushmoor, the Lincoln Memorial, the beaches of LA, the deserts of Arizona, the art deco of South Beach, the steel factories of Pittsburgh - I could go on - all symbolise perfectly what America is about.

But at its simplest, Bruce Springsteen is America. America is Bruce Springsteen. Meat and potatoes. A denim-clad toiler, pumping away at a blond Fender Esquire, singing "There's treasure there for the taking, for any hard working man, who will make his home in the American Land."

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Real Gone Kid

OK, hands up who had nine months? Come on, someone must have had André Villas-Boas getting fired after nine months in the betting pool, surely?

It was hardly the most difficult prediction to make, given that Chelsea managers are usually fired in January or February, unless they're extremely unlucky and fatally piss Roman Abramovich off in September, as Jose Mourinho did.

It's actually become quite boring to be referring to Chelsea's managers as dead men walking so soon into their tenure; the history of Abramovich's patience wearing thin has become such a well trodden path there's not much point retracing it again now that AVB has inevitably bitten the dust.

The question is what does Chelsea do next? If Champions League and World Cup-winning managers aren't going to last, then Chelsea could just keep going through a never-ending list of people until, probably, they end up with me, and still not find the satisfaction the club is looking for.

Was Villas-Boas the right man for the job? Who knows? Nine months to turn a team built around an ageing spine of powerful egos, with the promise of blooding younger players and importing others, doesn't seem long.

AVB was an almighty gamble when he was hired last June, following the briefest of ascendance in the Portuguese league, with an admittedly intriguing success in landing the national title in Portugal and the Europa League with Porto at the first attempt. But should he have been immediately imported into the Premier League and a club like Chelsea with a trap door so poorly disguised Indiana Jones would swerve around it with ill-concealed contempt?

We are now playing with hindsight. If Chelsea were currently flying away with the league and chugging into the final 16 of the Champions League barely out of third gear, Villas-Boas would be being hailed as a boy genius, football's equivalent of a precocious teenager who has outwitted the cream of academia to win Mastermind.

The reality is that Chelsea are in no such position. A barely contained fifth place in the league, not helped by another anaemic performance, with a resugent West Bromwich Albion recording their first victory over Chelsea since Christopher Reeve made his screen debut as Superman. Next up will be an unnecessary FA Cup replay against Birmingham City, followed by an always-tricky home league fixture with Stoke. And then, on March 14, will be the potential home banana skin against Napoli, as Chelsea attempt to reverse a two-goal deficit against the potent Italian street fighters.

It's all depressingly familiar. Aren't we exactly where we were a year ago? Then we were only to Carlo Ancelotti's second season as Chelsea boss (his first ending with a league and cup double at his first time of asking) and in turn four years since they'd won the league twice on the run under Jose Mourinho. Factor in FA Cup wins and Champions League semi-final and final appearances, and Chelsea's record hasn't been too bad since Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003. I'm sure there are Arsenal fans who would take a recent history like that quite happily.

So why has such a track record been regarded so indifferently by Abramovich? Is it really as simple as the fact he expects success without question, and no matter who he puts in charge? If Chelsea won the quadruple every season with Dale Winton as manager and a selection from the cast of Glee as his team, would he really not mind as long as the silverware was stacking up?

Somehow I doubt it. Which begs the question, does Abramovich and his coterie of acolytes running Chelsea really know what they're doing? Were Mourinho, Ancelotti, Scolari and even Avram Grant really doing that badly when they were fired? Was Andre Villas-Boas, at 33 and with no comparable experience of football management at this level really the only option open to a club of Chelsea's wealth and stature? What was this ridiculous three-year "project" they kept talking about?

The thing that winds me up more than anything else about Chelsea is the sheer waste - of money, of time, of resources, of reputation, of people. Chelsea's executives really do give the impression that they don't have a clue. They quite happily spend £50 million on a useless pup like Fernando Torres, or blow £13 million on buying an inexperienced young manager out of his club contract in an inferior league, and nine months later wonder where it all went wrong.

So, for the seventh time since Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea we're about go through the guessing game of who will be the next mug to fail to live up to expectation. Will it be Barcelona's Pep Guardiola who, despite creating one of the most exciting and invincible teams in the history of club football in any country, is starting to show signs of weariness (though it shouldn't be forgotten that he, too, was a novice when he became Barca manager in 2008)? Or will it be Mourinho, again? Or maybe one of a number of exotic sounding managers currently plying their trade in the Spanish or Italian leagues who, on paper at least, might tick the box marked Exotic, but once embroiled in the rough-and-tumble of the English Premier League soon find themselves unprepared for the sort of combat that more seasoned home-grown managers take for granted.

And what if Chelsea took the domestic approach, of bringing in a David Moyes or even gazumping Harry Redknapp from under the noses of the FA? Would they fair any better? Would Abramovich's expectations of European glory without question and with style still prove too much?

The point is, no one really knows. For the next 48 hours, at least, the back pages will be filled with speculation and, probably, names you or I haven't ever heard of before, but which make you wonder just where Abromovich's people are doing their talent scouting.

Years ago, on arriving at Brussels Airport, I jumped in a taxi and asked to be taken to the airport Hilton, only to be informed by the driver - who, bizarrely, was British - that it was right next to the hotel, and promptly got out the other side of the cab. I only thought such gags happened in comedies, but it happened for me in real life. I've since realised that it also happens on an annual basis at Stamford Bridge.  And with the revolving door still spinning from the last departure, Andre Villas-Boas is coming out of the 'In' door almost as fast as he entered, another pointless experiment in the branch of Muppet Labs that Dr Bunsen Honeydew-Abramovich seems to be administering in his quest for who knows what.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Management expectation

There has been an awkward vibe around football this week: with André Villas-Boas clinging by the last layer of fingertip flesh to his job at Chelsea, his compatriot and mentor Jose Mourinho reappears in London to meet an estate agent.

Given Mourinho's penchant for the theatrical, The Sun’s blurry snap of his meeting all but lacked the Portuguese conspiratorially twirling his moustache like a silent movie villain, a tinkling piano signaling impending doom for some young damsel tied to a railway track. Which is how Villas-Boas must feel right now.

In another part of the capital, however, a 49-year-old Sex Pistols fan who goes by the name of 'Psycho' was preparing to lead out the England team in a somewhat pointless friendly against the Netherlands. You could be forgiven for thinking that the Stuart Pearce had won the one-off chance to manage England in a competition on Blue Peter, such is the unlikelihood of him being anything more than a temporary appointment while the Football Association works out how to get Harry Redknapp out of Spurs.

For all Pearce’s status as a minor national treasure for his unbridled patriotism – his sinew-stretching pre-match singing of the national anthem and that fist-pumping, post-penalty elation that he shared with the entire country after the England-Spain shootout during Euro’96 – few England fans would say he has the credentials to take England into and beyond the 2012 European championships. It is something that Pearce humbly and characteristically suggested before last night’s game, that he “didn’t have the CV” to become the permanent England manager, a point he then repeated after the 2-3 home defeat to the Dutch. "The full-time manager of England at this moment in time is probably somebody else, not me," he reflected.

While it would be tempting to feel a little sorry for Pearce, having been given the chance to manage the senior team for one game, but his brief spells in club management were less than stellar (although compared with Villas-Boas, Pearce is positively weighed down with experience). His ongoing management of the England Under-21 squad, while positive, hasn’t given the impression that, charged with the next generation of England player, he would be lifting silverware any time soon.

In the end, the sobriquet ‘caretaker’ was more than appropriately applied to Pearce. Although he effectively suited up for the night, adopting the Italian/Spanish style of dark suit, dark tie, tan shoes, tan belt, the end result for England was less than spectacular. It wasn’t bad. Just not good. As caretaker, Pearce stood on the touchline, waving his arms in the manner managers are meant to wave their arms, even though it rarely does anything to make the team perform any differently. Meanwhile, we watched on trying to work out what the plan was. There didn’t seem to be one, although if it was “contain Robben”, it had clearly been forgotten.

I don’t wish to knock Pearce, and he certainly won’t brook any sympathy. If he wants the England job full-time, dressing smartly for the press isn’t really the most important requirement. The trouble is, no one really knows what is required to be the new England manager. If it is managing the egos of a group of ageing stars, then Capello was your man, until his fit of pique over John Terry saw him flounce off.

If it is about bringing through a new generation of players, motivating them and making them want to play for themselves as a team, not for their own individual reputations, then there would be no one better than Redknapp. True, Redknapp’s trophy record at club level hasn’t exactly been remarkable either, but most fans would agree that he’s the best option left untried in the never-ending search for an end to English expectation.

When Three Lions replaced God Save The Queen (the original version) as the temporary national anthem in 1996, “30 years of hurt” seemed a long time then for England to go without a tournament trophy. “46 years of hurt” in 2012 not only doesn’t scan (so please, anyone considering re-recording that song before this summer bear that in mind…), it is also a perilous reminder of the length of time with which the country which founded association football has been potless.

We all know that, however. No need to remind us. No need to drag up the fact that every four years we talk of another ‘golden generation’ who flatter to deceive and fail to deliver. No need to recall how often we’ve heard the phrase “If this team can’t win the tournament, then none of them can”.

The World Cup in 2010 was supposed to be the opportunity for England: a sharp team, playing at the highest level of the Premier League, under one of the most respected managers in football. And yet it ended in durge and another early departure.

Perhaps our expectations are too high? Perhaps 1966 was the fluke Germans still claim it was? Perhaps England – despite being the home of arguably the most tactically exciting domestic league in world football – just can’t cut it as a national side. Perhaps England is the mirror reverse of the Netherlands, which has some of the most dire domestic football and yet consistently puts out incredible national teams, albeit frequently self-destructive teams.

But back to the job of England manager, because no matter what, he will bear the heaviest weight of expectation of all. Which is funny, because the parallel between that position, and the manager’s job at Chelsea is starkly similar. Both are the most poisoned of chalices; both have, over the last few years, been the subject of experiments (be it the shot in the dark that is Villas-Boas and was Steve McClaren; the boutique appointments that were Sven Goran-Ericsson and Fabio Capello; or the “inspired” appointments of Mourinho, Ancelotti or Scolari which ended in acrimony); and both seem to be appointed without any clear plan, just a ‘let’s see if this works’.

The FA is, according to Sir Trevor Brooking, in no immediate hurry to appoint a permanent successor to Capello, even though we're now just over three months away from the kick off of Euro 2012. Perhaps it will be Harry Redknapp or perhaps it will be a complete surprise. Perhaps the FA will do what the BBC did when Angus Deayton was sacked as host of Have I Got News For You, and there's a guest manager for each game England plays. Surely you'd eventually find someone who could win something...