Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 - The Year In Music

I'll be honest. 2013 peaked too soon. The return of His Dameness on January 8 set the bar preposterously high for anything and everyone else.

David Bowie's brilliant, enigmatic reappearance early that Tuesday morning - his 66th birthday - with social networks spluttering noisily to life like old-fashioned newswire printers, announced to the world that he was anything but dead. And to prove it he gave us the beautiful, melancholic, nostalgic Where Are We Now, setting the keynote for my year in music.

Now, to set things straight, just because this steaming carcass of a blog features Bowie in its title doesn't make it his unwavering lapdog. But there was, I'm glad to say, universal welcome to Bowie's first single in nearly 10 years.

That welcome extended itself at the beginning of March when The Next Day, the album Bowie had been working on in unfathomable secret for the Web age, appeared to relief and delight. Relief that Bowie hadn't taken the route of so many of his contemporaries and cheaply knocked off a covers album for his comeback, or a lazily compiled reworking of old hits. And delight that it was actual Bowie, proper Bowie, original Bowie, doing what everyone who's had the faintest degree of appreciation for him would recognise as being what they have liked about his material since forever.

So in order to get it out of the way, let me declare The Next Day What Would David Bowie Do?'s Album of the Year, 2013, suck up the brickbats, and move on to the rest of what made this a year in music to remember.

While I'm at it, let me also declare Bowie Artist Of The Year, purely for orchestrating pop's most compelling and well executed comeback. Even the Victoria & Albert Museum's stunningly curated retrospective, David Bowie Is, appeared with equal enigma (was he behind it or not?), uniquely turning out to be both one of the year's cultural highlights and tourist draws (Eurostar have even cited it as a reason for their record passenger numbers this year).

In this vein of transparency, I must also confess another proprietary interest. My friend Steven Wilson - who has been writing and recording since he was teenager, for goodness sake - took his burgeoning solo career a massive step further with his third solo album The Raven That Refused To Sing (and other stories).

Recorded the previous summer with Dark Side Of The Moon engineer Allan Parsons in assistance, The Raven... provided a healthy outlet for Steven's love of the macabre, combining Poe-ish ghost stories and tales of the supernatural with a broadening fusion of melodic rock and jazz sensibilities.

In the title track (and Jess Cope and Simon Cartwright's stunning video) along with the ballad Drive Home, Steven delivered two of my musical highlights in one album. And, in gigs in Paris and at London's Royal Albert Hall, two of the live moments of the year as well.

The 1980s, when my musical interest really engaged gear, gave plenty to condemn. All that over-production, chorused guitars and drums with the gated reverb turned up to 11. But as in every era the wheat is easy to separate from the chaff, with the decade producing some of my favourite and most enduring pop acts, some of whom made welcome returns in 2013.

Lloyd Cole is one. After years as a Massachusetts-based folk singer, the 52-year-old former jingle-jangle bedsit mainstay emerged with Standards, a crowd-sourced album staffed by hand-picked sessioneers that produced a motherlode strike at Cole's rich seam of melodic and lyrical dexterity, resulting in gems like California Earthquake, Women's Studies, Myrtle and Rose and Silver Lake.

Robyn Hitchcock, another constantly overlooked national musical treasure, also produced one of his strongest post-Egyptians albums to date, Love From London.

As a self-confessed devotee of Syd Barrett's form of surrealism and occasional swirls of Lewis Carroll-like whimsy, in Love From London Hitchcock marked the arrival of his 60th year with an angrier fist shake at the modern age, launching fuzzboxed barbs at bankers and the financial crisis they caused, along with a laundry list of other modern social ills. A compelling record.

Edwyn Collins, once of Orange Juice, continued the rehabilitation from the massive brain haemorrhage that nearly killed him in 2005 with the highly rated Understated. For someone who, just a few years ago was rendered unable to say more than four words, Understated is a typically eloquent   example of Collins' ability to pack a lot of meaning into generous dollops of guitar pop, his signature croon only partially impaired by his condition.

Once of Barking, now of England's southern coastal shires, Billy Bragg has continued to plough a sturdy but lone farrow of Pete Seegerish folk infused with his trademark singing voice which, to be polite, will never be the sweetest, but is at least sincere. And in some respects, it's what made Bragg's Tooth & Nail such an enjoyment, showing all the bluegrass newcomers and wannabes clogging up summer festival fields how to be 100% English and still be authentically country without resorting to rhinestone underwear.

But for all the 80s acts to emerge or reappear this year, pride of place must go to Elvis Costello for his stunning collaboration with The Roots, Wise Up Ghost And Other Songs. No one - not even the mercurial, shape-shifting Peter Gabriel - has managed to cover as breadth in their careers as Costello. From angry young member of the Stiff Records vanguard of New Wave to a musician of unique diversity, every new Costello release - and they come thick and fast - continues to deserve attention. Wise Up Ghost could have been a disaster - riled-up English singer-songwriter meets hip New York rap outfit? - but it wasn't. Relevant and dynamic in equal measure, Wise Up Ghost comes closer to The Next Day as album of the year than any other.

The principle joy of being a music consumer is not always the satisfaction of buying something on spec and knowing you were right, but buying something on spec and being pleasantly surprised. Laura Marling delivered just such an outcome this year. Impervious as I am to hype - indeed Superman has been corrupted with greater ease than I've given in to excessive popular opinion - I'd remained indifferent to all the fuss about Marling. But then one throwaway comparison to John Martyn in a review of Once I Was An Eagle, and my interest was purchased. A fourth album at just 23, Eagle rings of emboldened maturity, recounting a doomed love with the sort of aching intimacy that was indeed Martyn's trademark.

Speaking of which, and though this should, in principle, be a roundup of the year's best new music, an honorary mention must go to Martyn's 17-CD opus The Island Years. Probably the most lovingly collated collection of original studio albums (all for the Island label), live recordings, outtakes and miscellany, it also takes the prize for the heaviest music release of the year, requiring the lavishly packaged collection to be brought back from the post office atop my right shoulder like a brick hod.

Marling's polymath producer, Ethan Johns (son of legendary producer Glyn, nephew of another legendary producer Andy, who passed away in April) also wandered into the darker world of roots music with his superb If Not Now Then When?, proving that you can be too talented and not have it become either a millstone or a detriment. Exploring a corridor of the many shades of Americana and a darker shade of blues, Johns produced one of the year's outstanding mood setters. Amazing he had the time to fit it in, quite frankly.

On a stubbornly wet, drizzly Sunday drive from London back to Paris, just a few weeks ago, I came across the next two badge winners in the year's best. A brace of albums bought on past reputation alone, and to my pleasant surprise, exceeding expectation in large amounts.

Goldfrapp's Tales Of Us found Allison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory exploring a more ethereal line than their previous 80s glitterball efforts. Now I know that saying an album is perfect for a Sunday excursion sounds like the musical equivalent of string-backed driving gloves, but here was a joyous return to their earlier dabbles in ambient EDM, creating a warming, autumnal blanket of a delightfully dour nature.

Ejecting Tales Of Us from the CD deck, I managed to single-handedly wrestle Stereophonics' Graffiti On A Train from its packaging. The effort, and clear case of driving without due care and attention, was worth it. The Welshmen continue to sit in an awkward-to-place position in the pantheon of maturing Britpop acts. And yet for all the plaudits Noel Gallagher deservedly earns for his continued ability to lead audiences on football terrace singalong rock, the Phonics' Kelly Jones consistently misses out on attention. Despite some indifferent reviews, Graffiti On A Train - their eighth studio album - elegantly lifts the Stereophonics into an older plane, one of ponderous blues and a darker mood without abandoning Jones' gift for melody and hook, and their respectful nods towards guitar rock of decades past.

The transition from critical acclaim, and being a unique addition to pop's great universe, to establishment and the conveyor belt of commercial progress is a rubicon that only the few cross with ease. There are, even now, (very) old heads who complain that Dylan lost it when he went electric. But in this age when album consumption is, it seems, only for those with patience and the attention span to endure sitting and listening to a record from start to finish, The Arctic Monkeys' passage from choppy Northern guitar rockers to Glastonbury-headlining A-listers was confirmed with their stunning AM. For a start, Alex Turner and gang conspicuously avoided the safe and the predictable with it, combining Beatlesque melody with hip-hop, scratchy guitars with thundering riffs. Their fifth, their best.

Earlier in this review I mentioned my deep anathema towards hype. Sometimes, however, it is warranted. One such example - and the final selection of WWDBD?'s Albums Of The Year - is Daft Punk's Random Access Memories.

The cynic in me was fully prepared to dismiss it as derivative irony, like a camp, 70s theme night at a provincial pub, all puffball skirts and men who should know better dressed as The Simpsons' Disco Stu. And, yes, to some extent, it is that, but with so, so much more intelligence and knowing.

Hiring Nile Rodgers and Pharell was a masterstroke. Bringing in Georgio Moroder to reminisce like Dark Side Of The Moon's Roger The Hat was a brazen piece of musical nerd-dom. You can intellectualise - or groan - as much as you like about Random Access Memories, but there are times when trying to get too deep about a record really isn't worth the energy. This is an album that can simply be enjoyed from start to finish. And if open car windows are still blaring Get Lucky at high volume as they cruise your street next summer, so be it. At least it means a change from Will Smith's Summertime...

I Am Kloot at close quarters © Simon Poulter 2013
I couldn't conclude this tiptoe through the tuneful tulips of 2013 without giving some thought to the extraordinary number of gigs I've packed in to the calendar. Ticket stubs have been retained for the mighty Popa ChubbyI Am Kloot (whose Let It All In deserves a mention in dispatches in the year's best albums) and Roger Waters, with his final tour of The Wall show.

The Stone Roses came to Paris and the insane intimacy of a small theatre packed to the gills with pogoing, adidas and Carhartt-clad ex-pats in their mid-40s. In equally close-quartered experience, Prince induced foot and calf cramps with his exhausting but utterly mesmerising show in Montreux, while Depeche Mode surprised me with their rock chops at the Stade De France. The Eagles told their story at New York's Madison Square Garden while The Who pitched up in Paris with Quadrophenia pristinely reproduced with a degree of passion that belied the advancing years of its surviving founders, Daltrey and Townshend.

© Simon Poulter 2013
But, by a country mile, the accolade of What Would David Bowie Do?'s Gig Of The Year must go to Bruce Springsteen.

From every angle you regard his July 2 show in Paris, Springsteen demonstrated that no one - not even U2 - can hold a candle, a cigarette lighter held aloft, or an iPhone's torch app, to him as the most engrossing and infectious live performer in the business today.

Of course, any self-respecting music fan shouldn't have any truck for a stadium show, least of all one performed in the elephantine arena that is the Stade De France.

But Springsteen - as his reputation dictates - turned a 81,000-strong mostly French audience into a Messianic gathering, holding them all in the palm of his hand for almost four hours with a comprehensive barrage of American music at its very best. If anyone is likely to come close in 2014, let me know now. The calendar is wide open.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Short but sweet: ZZ Top at Hard Rock Live, Hollywood, Florida

© Simon Poulter 2013
Before they retired from touring, a typical show by The Beatles lasted just 30 minutes. Famously, an American businessman, Charles O. Finley, paid Brian Epstein $150,000 to have them play an exclusive gig in Kansas City in 1964.

Having paid $100,000 more than his opening offer for their services, Finley then tried to persuade John Lennon to play for 35 minutes. Finley offered $5,000 (which, in 1964, would buy you two Ferrari 250 GTOs - one recently sold for $52 million). Finley raised his offer to $50,000. Lennon continued to reject his money. A 30-minute set it remained.

In contrast Bruce Springsteen played non-stop for almost four hours at the Stade De France this summer. Some have stupidly tried to explain this as blue collar ethic agenda. It’s not. It’s just what Bruce does.

Somewhere in between these extremes, though clearly closer to the former, are ZZ Top, who played for just over an hour and a quarter on Saturday night at Hard Rock Live, a school gym-sized arena within a Vegas-style casino "resort" 40-minutes' drive north of Miami.

For a band that's been going almost 45 years, and with a back catalogue voluminous enough to have generated 15 studio albums, a 75-minute performance comprising 17 songs - two of which were covers - seems a meagre return on the price of my ticket. Or maybe I’m just being greedy, after feasting so substantially on the super-sized bargain bucket that was Springsteen.

The thing about the Top is what you see is what you get. For a start, every song is played as if straight from the record. Little embellishment, a merciful lack of drum solos, bass solos, or meandering guitar solos. But then their album material is simple to begin with - three or four-minute songs constructed from the simplest of verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus traditions.

© Simon Poulter
Thus, it would be totally fair to say that ZZ Top are a music brand as simple as their name, their Texas blues-boogie and, indeed, their compositions. "Same three guys…same three chords,” guitarist (and a much under-rated one, too) and principle songwriter Billy Gibbons deadpans midway through the show.

The stage setting is simple, too: the lighting is basic, the background comprised of two LED displays that look like the sort of portable projector screens salesmen used to hawk their slideshow pitches on.

With a pair of smallish amps either side of the screens, drummer Frank Beard in the middle (helpfully identified as “the one without the beard”), and rock’s most famous pair of hirsute gonks, bassist Dusty Hill to the left and Gibbons to his right.

With no bombastic showbiz introduction, and no support band either, the Top appear, Gibbons and Hill sporting matching purple outfits and matching purple guitars, launching straight into Got Me Under Pressure

It’s the start of a set that they whip through with military efficiency. The set list for this tour has been, more or less, the same every night. 17 songs, in the same order, with the same two encores. Inevitably it brings a few boos as it ends with a somewhat unspectacular cover of Jailhouse Rock, as it probably has done for every single performance.

But that appears to be how these tres hombres roll. It’s probably how they’ve rolled since the beginning, like every other bar room blues band: turn up, set up, perform, break down, back in the van, back on the road to the next town.

The set list meanders across their canon, from the deliciously southern blues-infused Waitin’ For The Bus and Jesus Just Left Chicago from their 1973 album Tres Hombres to the hits that made them MTV stalwarts in the mid-1980s. But it’s on the 40-year-old Waitin' that you see more than four decades as a trio have bonded Gibbons, Hill and Beard into an unrelentingly syncopated trio, guitarist and bassist perfectly synchronized as they simultaneously swing into their microphones to growl "Have mercy…".

For those who’ve only known ZZ Top as Muppet-like stars of of-their-era promos featuring babes and hot rods (a type of car, before you complain), the early blues material challenges any notion of ZZ Top being a rock novelty act, a rival to Kiss with long beards instead of long tongues. They have, for a long time, been jobbing blues-rockers, their early material testament to a more earnest era of American rock.

© Simon Poulter 2013
Not that their MTV heyday was necessarily bad: I bought the single of Gimme All Your Lovin’ purely on its opening drum riff after I heard Annie Nightingale play it on Radio 1. Singles aren’t generally bought on account of their opening bar. But then that’s how roll. Subsequently, Gimme All Your Lovin’, shifts the gears somewhat in Hollywood, Florida, as the fourth track in, an early treat for those who’ve come for the hits. Perhaps due to lousy sound engineering, or perhaps as a way of masking Gibbons’ rasping voice, it comes across as more of an instrumental than an 80s pop hit, any recognisable lyrics obscured by over-exuberant bass and guitar levels.

As the beards and fluffy sheepskin guitars clearly underline, humour plays a big part in the ZZ Top oeuvre, as demonstrated by the more audible words to Pincushion, a chart hit from 1994’s Antenna: "I'm a pincushion, gotta face the facts, I'm just a pincushion, do everything she asks. I'm getting pricked around and punctureated. I let my ya ya down, I got penetrated." I’m not entirely sure what happens when you get "punctureated", but it sounds both painful and funny.

If you were to have seen, in advance, this show’s set list, and had missed the release of 2012’s Rick Rubin-produced album La Futura, you would have sworn I Gots'ta Get Paid would turn out to be an updated old Delta blues number. Instead it actually turns out to be based on an obscure, drugs trade-referencing song, 25 Lighters, by Houston rappers DJ DMD Feat Lil Keke & Fat Pat. Gibbons heard the line “I got 25 lighters on my dresser, yessir, I gotsta get paid” and it stuck, and ended up as the quirky, jolting opening track of an album that ended a near-nine-year dearth of new ZZ Top material.

Whether due to Rubin’s influence or not (which has recently been working its magic on Jake Bugg’s sophomore effort), La Futura reconnected the trio with the sort of creative sass that made Eliminator and Afterburner fertile hit albums almost 30 years ago, an entertaining cocktail of blues, infectious riffs and an unpretentious side salsa of Gibbons’ trademark, double entendre-infested humour. The album rendered ZZ Top, as one critic put it, finally sounding "like themselves again”.

© Simon Poulter 2013
After another track from La Futura, Flyin’ High, (to my disappointment, not the Stamford Bridge terrace favourite based on the socialist anthem Keep The Red Flag Flying High), ZZ Top head back in time, stopping first with the foot-twitching Certified Blues from 1971’s blissfully simply-titled ZZ Top’s First Album, before - indulging a riotous cover of Jimi Hendrix’s Foxy Lady, accompanied by a still image of Hendrix on the display screens.

It’s hard to tell whether this is knowing homage or an authentic hats off to the legend, but given that Moving Sidewalks, Gibbons’ band before forming ZZ Top, opened for Hendrix in 1968, the respect paid is genuine.

With that, another dip into La Futura with the bright Chartreuse (and a line open to all kinds of interpretation: "You got the colour that turns me loose - Chartreuse”) before setting off the '80s MTV heads in the audience with Sharp Dressed Man and Legs.

© Simon Poulter 2013
Political correctness, and the thankful retirement of David Lee Roth from promotional video making, have rendered such songs somewhat anachronistic. But no one’s complaining, thank goodness.

Questionable intent notwithstanding, this is prime ZZ Top hit territory, something not lost on the somewhat generously proportioned lady three rows in front of me, who manages to eclipse our stage view by persistently leaping from her seat to wave her hands enthusiastically in the air throughout both frug-friendly songs.

With that, the briefest of interludes before the trio return to delve into their history for two of their most popular classic rock radio hits, the John Lee Hooker-influenced La Grange and Tush, two songs that respectively and best represent the Texas blues and the lightly ribald humour that runs through ZZ Top’s entire career.

At this point I couldn’t have been the only member of the audience wondering what had happened to the likes of Cheap Sunglasses, the dodgy duo of Tube Steak Boogie and Pearl Necklace or even Viva Las Vegas. With a fifteen album catalogue to draw from their four and a half decades of material, a library of efficiently capped three and four minute marvels, I’m sure they could have gone on for another hour at least.

Instead, and to some disappointment (though not to my surprise, as I’d done my homework), the evening ends conveniently early for those with baby sitters, and that Jailhouse Rock cover. Unlike its origin as one of Elvis Presley’s signature songs and, indeed, the bouncing closing number of The Blues Brothers movie, ZZ Top’s treatment makes it a forced, almost parodic version, and somewhat anticlimactic, too, ending this breathless run through what could be politely termed a “selection” of the band’s history.

Gibbons, Hill and Beard - a trio of names that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Mad Men-style advertising agency - take care of the goodnights and traipse off stage, mostly to rapturous, appreciative applause, but a few booing dissenters feeling short changed.

I’m somewhere in the middle of this sentiment. Pre-gig due diligence had warned me of a short and, potentially, unsatisfying show. The Beatles played half-hour shows because that’s what you did in 1964 when you had thousands of screaming teenage girls drowning you out and, let’s face it, that’s about all they could manage before bladder control gave out. In 2013, a premium-priced arena show by one of rock’s most enduring bands should, probably, last longer than an episode of VH1’s Behind The Music.

Either way, this show has at least reached the inconsequential achievement of completing a unique personal ‘double’ for me. Because, you see, this was the first Saturday night of my latest visit to the United States. On the first Saturday night of my last visit I went to see The Eagles. These two utterly irrelevant facts are betrothed by the fact that I took both bands’ complete studio recordings sets on my Route 66 drive in August. And, it would seem, both bands are going through the same process of presenting somewhat dispassionate jukebox trawls through their back catalogues. That said - and not wishing to sound stoic - I can, at least, now tick ZZ Top off the bucket list of rock’s venerated hall of fame. And, to be fair, it was quite fun doing so.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Age inappropriate

A thought occurred to me last week, as the British Chancellor, George Osborne, suggested in his 'Autumn Statement' that those entering the job market now in young adulthood might have to retire at 70. 

The thought in question was: "how will they?". Once hips and knees need replacing, bladder-related dashes to the office toilet become more treacherous. And what about accommodating all those days off for checkups on a variety of ailments and failing body parts?

Osborne also said that "people should expect to spend up to a third of their adult life in retirement", which is an interesting measure. Because, unlike my parents' generation - who grew up in or just after the war, went out to work for 30 or 40 years before retiring in their 60s - my post-baby boom generation will be working well into their late 60s at least, only to retire with barely enough time to take up bridge, bowls or ballroom dancing before an unpleasant age-related condition takes them down. That's assuming they haven't already stroked out on the job or been "respectfully let go".

It's all very depressing, I know, and apologies for this post not exactly fizzing with WWDBD?'s customary Woodhousean jamboree. But today, a special summit of the G8 opened in London to discuss one of the less than pleasant prospects for those entering the winter of their lives: dementia.

Once glibly regarded as 'part of getting old', dementia - and its most common form, Alzheimer's Disease - is a large, dirty time bomb. But as its ticks get ever louder, scientists are still struggling to understand the basic biology of dementia, let alone able to cure it.

The global cost of dementia is already more than $600 billion - around 1% of global GDP. "And not only is it costly," World Health Organisation Director-General Margaret Chan said today, "it is a heartbreaking disease." No kidding. And a disease that will impact 44 million families globally this year, and will impact twice that number by 2050.

One of those families is my own. My dad is 84. Next year he will celebrate 25 years of retirement. Not that he can remember much about his three or four decades in the television industry. Or what he did yesterday. Or earlier today. 

Some, though, might consider him fortunate. He has Alzheimer's in its early stages - enough for his memory to be like Swiss cheese, with progressively larger holes - but the progression is slow. Life is a predictable and increasingly immobile daily cycle of waking, breakfast, dozing, lunch, watching television, dozing, dinner, watching more television, and then sleeping. 

When he remembers to do so, he will still go around the house at night to check the windows and doors. It's a nightly ritual for as long as I can remember. Whether he can remember why he does it still, who's to say. But while his dementia gradually degrades the software in his head, there are still hard-wired lines of code that fire with impervious regularity. The windows and doors things is one of them. It's a ritual to cling to, a familiarity, a guide rope helping him find his way out of the increasingly smoke-filled room that is his brain.

Just like the author Sir Terry Pratchett (whom, by pure coincidence, is sat right opposite me as I write this), my dad's dementia is at the dawn of its progression. It will get worse, we don't know when. And what "worse" is, we can only imagine. When we get to that stage we will, as a family, face decisions about how best to proceed. The biggest wrench will be persuading the head of our household that he has to leave his home, the home he bought and paid for by working hard for the better part of 40 years, the home he still considers the family's foundation.

While sad for him, and worrying for us, the saddest part of this is that it will be a familiar story to those millions of other families around the world, who will be watching their family elders disappear into their own mental decay, the world around painfully closing off slowly.

We are, we're told, capable of preventing or postponing the dementia timebomb, or at least reducing the blast radius. The key is, apparently, to take better care of ourselves in middle age. Adopt the Mediterranean diet, exercise for 30 minutes every day, and limit ourselves to the one glass of red wine with dinner rather than the first of two bottles.

All very well, but for many, this is neither logistically or economically viable. Simply telling people to get off their sofas, eat salad and join a gym isn't going to solve the problem. According to the Alzheimer's Society, by 2050 - when the timebomb will have gone off - 71% of those 135 million people around the world expected to have the condition will be in poor or middle income brackets. 

For those in some countries with a reasonable degree of dementia care, their terminal decline will be comforted to some degree. But with dementia costing more than half a trillion dollars worldwide to manage today, the World Health Organization and similar bodies are growing increasingly worried that some countries just won't be able to cope.

Managing dementia is one thing: preventing its spread or even curing it is another thing entirely. Today, eight times more money is spent on cancer research than dementia. Pratchett himself - who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2008 - has been speaking to the media this week ahead of the G8 summit to highlight the financial disparity between dementia research and other causes, telling the BBC's Newsnight that it was "a Cinderella issue". 

"I've been saying for a long time, it doesn't get noticed," he told Jeremy Paxman. "It does need a lot more money put in. It needs more people trying to see what they can do.”

The noises being made this week by the G8 are an encouraging start. But with almost eight million new dementia cases being added every year globally, we need more than just governments and world bodies saying, to borrow from Father Ted, "down with this sort of thing", and then doing nothing meaningful about it.

Inappropriate though it may be, PR haridan Bobbi Flekman in This Is Spinal Tap said it best when she said: "Money talks, and bullshit walks". Quite.

Monday, December 09, 2013

'Twas the nightmare before Christmas

A couple of Sundays ago I was at Stamford Bridge for Chelsea's first game of December thought to myself, "thank God November's over". 

Apart from the fact that the Blues beat Southampton 3-1 (but not without going behind within the first 13 seconds), I realized - by the number of people suddenly noticing their faces exposed to the raw elements - that we had reached the end of that now slightly stupid charade (albeit for an utterly worthy cause) in which people grow moustaches for 'Movember'.

As the son of a prostate cancer sufferer, and therefore at high risk from the disease myself, I can't question the motive behind the campaign. But seeing people young enough to know better looking like pale imitations of either Frank Zappa or Dad's Army's Private Walker (a difference largely dependent on upper lip fertility) has meant November has become a little tiresome. 

Like The Office's David Brent getting childishly over-excited when Children In Need night comes around with its annual opportunity to sit in a bathtub of baked beans, the novelty of seeing men, once a year, growing a 'tache for just a single month, has not so much worn off as fallen off and is now all over the floor requiring a broom.

My view: if you're going to grow a moustache, grow one and keep it. Commit yourself to facial hursuitness. Make it your signature, like Freddie Mercury, Tom Selleck or Sir Trevor McDonald. If it's gong to end up looking like a Christmas cracker plastic novelty, don't bother.

Now, where was I. Oh yes, Chelsea and November. As WWDBD? has previously noted, the Blues have traditionally come out of Halloween in the midst of a terrifying hoodoo that has seen them through to their next managerial sacking, usually around February.

This year, however, the club hung on, recording so-so results but at least remaining unbeaten. And then the home tie, on December 2, with the lively Southampton, justifiably sitting in fifth on the morning they met Chelsea. Scoring even as the Southampton staff were getting seated in the away benches, you couldn't help feeling that November had merely been dozing and that the Autumn abomination was about to catch up.

That Chelsea won 3-1 in the end was pleasantly reassuring. That they managed to do the same two days later against Sunderland, albeit in a "seven-goal thriller" (apparently the only way newspapers can describe such results), appeared to suggest that the traditional post-Halloween hex being kept at bay by some spell or other concocted by José Mourinho.

And then, on Saturday, the third in Chelsea's trio of 'S' fixtures, a horror against Stoke City, in which former Chelsea striker and boyhood fan Mark Hughes pulled off the somewhat unlikely upset by beating the Blues 3-2

It couldn't have been lost on Sparky that the direct descendent of his role at Chelsea is a choice of whippet-like attacking midfielders - Oscar, Hazard, Mata and William. This is like an RAF Tornado squadron being decommissioned and later reprised as a motorcycle despatch unit. Which is probably what is happening at the moment in the Royal Air Force.

This hasn't been completely lost on Mourinho, either. Having set out this season with customary braggadocio applied to denying that he needed any new strikers, before adding Samuel Eto'o out of nowhere. All this has masked the fact that for all his creditable huff and puff Fernando Torres is still struggling with the old cow's backside/banjo conundrum, and Demba Ba is struggling with recognising opportunities to impress.

With Eto'o now out injured, and Torres only just coming back from injury, Chelsea's lack of striking options is becoming dramatically evident. Look back over the last few games and you see the prevalence of midfielders on the scoresheet. Even central defenders John Terry and Gary Cahill added their names to the tally against Southampton.

I was always brought up to believe that strikers scored the goals and everyone else just played their part. Perhaps that's a little naive, but if that's the case, exactly what are Torres and Ba being paid to do? Stand around watching Oscar, Hazard and Lampard do their job for them?

At least one Chelsea striker is proving productive: Romalu Lukaku. He may have stank the place out whenever he's worn a Chelsea shirt, but the minute he's sent out on loan again, he's popping them in for fun. This could be a new tactic we haven't encountered before: buy a player and have him play for everyone except yourself, while you put in a series of mediocre performances with everyone - and In include the reserve goalkeeper, the matchday stewards, pre-match mascots and the lady working on the tea kiosk - getting a taste of scoring goals.

‘I’m happy that [Lukaku]'s scoring goals against our direct rivals," said Mourniho recently, "and he doesn’t score against us because he can’t play. It’s phenomenal that you have a player that, even not playing for you, is scoring goals against your opponents."

This was, it must be said, mentioned by Mourninho in the midst of a somewhat Fergusonesque comment about Lukaku being a bit of a cheeky lad for suggesting that he'll be in charge of deciding where to play next season.

Chelsea do, however, have an almighty headache ahead of them when it comes to Lukaku. Unconvincing when he plays for Chelsea, mostly prolific when he plays for Everton and previously West Brom. Indeed the most telling fact is that Lukaku has, this season, scored more goals than Chelsea's remaining recognised strikers between them.

Lukaku's case can't prevent one from thinking that Chelsea's acquisition strategy is indeed about denying other clubs access to top talent. How many much-admired players have they bought and then immediately farmed out? Admittedly, Petr Čech's form is inevitably keeping Thibaut Courtois at Athlético Madrid longer than may have been invisaged when Chelsea signed the keeper, but looking around Europe there are Chelsea loanees dotted about like KGB sleeper agents.

To go back to Chelsea's traditional Halloween nightmare, it shouldn't be forgotten that this period of frustration usually extends itself right through the Christmas period. For the next month or so Chelsea will be playing more or less every three days, starting with a home tie on Wednesday to Steaua Bucherest in the Champions  League, an up-for-it Crystal Palace on Saturday in the Premier League, Sunderland (again) in the Capital One Cup on the 17th, Arsenal away on the eve of Christmas Eve, Swansea on Boxing Day and Liverpool the 28th.

That's quite a load when you look at the individual teams involved. And even with the size of squad at Mourinho's disposal, you expect some strife. If, like Stoke on Saturday, Sunderland for most of last Tuesday's match, and Southampton throughout the entire first half the other Sunday, these teams play to frustrate Chelsea, it could be a very unfestive festive season.

The solution? I'm sure José knows best, but his reliance on playing a single striker up front with his line of talented attacking midfielders behind may need to change. Against Southampton Chelsea looked more potent with Torres and Ba upfront and Mata behind them. It was a simple change that paid instant dividends. 

Perhaps it's time for Mourinho to swallow his defensive principles and double-up up front more often. It may just make the (goal) difference in one of the most open seasons in living memory when it comes to dishing out Champions League places come next May.

And it may just preserve some semblance of the season of goodwill from those of us up in the stands who should be loving every minute of Mourinho's return to Stamford Bridge. Not that we'd have it any other way...

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Prince Will.I.Am - livin' the dream

His mother frugged regularly to Queen, Duran Duran and George Michael, while his father talked to plants. And, during the 1980s no mid-summer Wembley Stadium concert by any of rock's royalty seemed complete without the Prince and Princess of Wales waving somewhat awkwardly from the Royal Box.

And while his father would inevitably look as if he'd rather be at the opera, Mama would be in her element, Mama not only being the People's Princess (© A. Blair) but also the Pop Princess (as opposed to Kylie, who clearly is the Princess of Pop. Fact.)

So we should not be too shocked to see HRH The Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and second in line to the throne of the United Kingdom, rocking out with Jon Bon Jovi and someone called Taylor Swift this week at the first karaoke party of the Christmas season. Actually, it was a charity concert at Kensington Palace, but same difference.

As you might imagine, it all looked a tad awkward: a future monarch, suited-and-booted in a crisp by-royal appointment tux, leaning in on the diminutive JBJ and giving it the full "Take one's hand, we'll make it I swear...." as they belted out that Cheese-o-Rama classic, Livin' On A Prayer.

What did David Bowie do....?

In one go, Wills nailed his street smarts to the wall: eldest son of the People's Princess joining in on a solidly blue collar song about the working folk of New Jersey making it through a downturn. And ending it with a high five. Well, at least the evening' charity cause was the homeless.

William's performance, we are informed by royal lickspittles, was entirely "off the cuff". But as anyone who has ever joined an office outing to a karaoke bar knows, there's always one shrew-like colleague who, given the spotlight and an open microphone will burst forth with lungs like an industrial-strength Dyson vacuum cleaner, catching everyone off-guard with their rendition of I Will Survive.

Tuesday evening wasn't the first time William has done this, either. He is known to have given a solo performance of the Bon Jovi hit at the 2011 wedding of his cousin Zara Phillips to rugbyist Mike Tindall.

But fair play to JBJ for putting up with his stage interloper this time, being one of the most pleasantly down to earth rock stars I've ever met (even if he did once say of his album New Jersey: "New Jersey isn't a place, it's an attitude").

And let's not get too snotty about Wills, either. Together with his, let's face it, cooler brother, and his posh but pleasantly normal wife, he is the top-selling line of a new hip(ish), sub-brand of the House of Windsor. When not steadying RAF search helicopters over the Irish Sea (so he could have chosen the Stones' Emotional Rescue then), William is taking the GLW out to the pictures on a Friday night, 'disguised' in a baseball hat.

As a threesome, they were the combined face of last year's London Olympics. And with Harry living the dream, flying attack helicopters and hanging out at Las Vegas pool parties, you couldn't get a better branding of the next generation of British royals.

So, if I was the PR department of either Sony's PlayStation or Microsoft's Xbox, and was in an enterprising frame of mind, I'd be shipping one of their latest PlayBoxes and the hottest karaoke game round to Ken Palace in time for Christmas. Because I'm sure there's nothing young Prince George will enjoy more on Christmas morning than his dad and Uncle H cranking up the sound system with a megamix of festive karaoke staples. "So 'ere it is Merry Christmas, everybody's 'avin' fun...!".

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Intrepid once, but no more

"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, President of the United States of America, September 12, 1962

There was a time when anything seemed possible. When scale and ambition, and the scale of ambition, seemed limitless. When Kennedy made his speech 51 years ago, promising to put boots on the moon, the world was emerging from its World War economic hangover. After a first half dominated by the tectonic shifting of old empires, the second half of the 20th Century was to be dominated by technological possibility.

In America, the impossible was being embraced firmly as the possible. Fuelled by the ideological pissing contest that dominated our lives for the better part of four decades, the Americans and Russians threw stuff into space because they could. And then it seemed to stop, an a major scale at least.

This fell into perspective during my recent visit to the USS Intrepid, the aircraft carrier-come-floating museum moored permanently on the Hudson in New York. Perched on the stern-end of its flight deck is the Space Shuttle Enterprise, the first of NASA's 'orbiter' spacecraft that were designed to travel into space with the relative regularity that an Eddie Stobart truck ventures down Britain's M1 motorway.

 © Simon Poulter 2013
Science fiction special effects designers have led us to believe that space travel involves vast vessels, but the first thing you notice about the Shuttle is how small it is. I'm sure there are bigger SUVs in the US. And yet there was the simplicity of its 'launch-like-a-rocket, land-like-a-plane' principle, having the same shape and dimensions as a small airliner. But despite this relative normality, seeing it up close - an actual space ship - merely grinds away at the imagination, and how we're no longer using it.

© Simon Poulter 2013
Although Enterprise - unlike its television namesake - never went anywhere bolder than being hauled around on a Boeing 747 to test its design, it still represents a major sum of human capability.

133 Shuttle missions - including two tragic disasters - may not sound much compared with the 90,000 commercial aviation flights that take off and land every day - but none of them challenge gravity as the NASA shuttles did, even if George Clooney's character in Gravity- the film - is of the opinion that flying them "is not rocket science".

Sir Richard Branson's sub-orbital Virgin Galactic venture might be at least one worthy attempt to keep manned spaceflight going, but the abandonment of the Shuttle programme, and very little intent from anyone else to put people into space, means that we, as a species, have done no more than stepped outside the door, sniffed the air and gone inside to watch Homes Under The Hammer with a packet of Hobnobs.

One deck below the Enterprise on the Intrepid is evidence of when space was shiny and new, and Kennedy's belief in doing things, not because they were easy, but because they were hard and made "the best of our energies and skills".

© Simon Poulter 2013
In Intrepid's main hangar is a replica of the capsule that took Scott Carpenter into space in May 1962 as part of the Mercury missions, NASA's program to test manned spaceflight as a precursor to, ultimately, the Apollo moon landings itself.

The capsule is tiny, resembling the cap of a large toothpaste tube, with an interior space about the same size as the cockpit of a small family car. What it lacks in transporter rooms, a spacious bridge and photon torpedoes it more than makes up for in terms of human advancement.

So, where is the Mercury mission of 2013? Why could we choose to go the moon in the 1960s but, 50 years on, can only um and agh about returning there, let alone committing to a mission to Mars.

It's not, however, just space where we appear to have lost our ambition. Parked next to the Intrepid is one of British Airways' decommissioned Concordes. Another product of an era when governments had something to prove and were prepared to sink millions of taxpayers' money into doing so, Concorde is still a source of wonderment, an icon of a now dwindled era of envelopes being pushed.

© Simon Poulter 2013

Concorde might have been, ultimately, a political folly - a final act of two colonial powers (Britain and France) to demonstrate their aviation virility - but what a stunning folly it was. And practical. Three-and-a-half hours between New York's JFK airport and London (one record-setting flight did it in two hours and 55 minutes), it literally shrunk the world. It enabled celebrities like David Frost to work from London and New York almost simultaneously, and famously allowed Phil Collins to perform at Live Aid twice.

In service, Concorde was the most beautiful sight in the sky: growing up under its flight path into and out of Heathrow, a sighting was a minor event in its own right. Planes might take off or land every two minutes at Heathrow, but nothing - then or now - could replicate the appearance in the West London sky of that distinctive white arrow. Nor could anything replicate the aspiration it represented. As commercial air travel became ever-more accessible to the masses, Concorde remained deliciously out of reach, delightfully anachronistic in representing the era of luxury trans-Atlantic travel. It was a plane that people still dreamed of travelling on.

It wasn't, however, quite the luxury liner of the skies that Concorde tickets might have suggested: 100 passengers squeezed into an aluminium dart just over two and half metres wide, travelling at twice the speed of sound. Today's business class sections offer considerably more comfort. But not the convenience.

Crammed into a Boeing 757 for my trip to New York earlier this month, I couldn't help feeling how passenger aviation had regressed. Business models - like those of Ryanair and EasyJet - may have put air travel in reach of millions - but their planes are little more than flying buses. Airbuses, indeed.

Seeing a Concorde sat, incongruously, next to a World War 2-built aircraft carrier with a Space Shuttle on its deck, seemed to reduce Mankind's greatest air and space achievements to a novelty, a Ripley's Believe It Or Not! freakshow for the winged. I couldn't also, help noting the irony that a plane New Yorkers once tried to ban for being too noisy was now parked on the western end of their own 44th Street...

© Simon Poulter 2013

Yesterday, November 26, marked the tenth anniversary of the last commercial flight of a Concorde. Ten years of nothing. What a tragedy. Instead of going faster, we have gone further but slower, lumbering through the air in technologically superior Airbus A380s and the cursed Dreamliner, but slower and with less wonder.

"It was probably more advanced than Apollo 11, which put the first men on the Moon," Jock Lowe, Concorde's longest-serving pilot recently told BBC reporter Richard Westcott. "No military plane came anywhere close. It was so manoeuvrable and there was so much spare power, even ex-fighter pilots weren't used to it."

Despite its negative image as a fuel-guzzling über noise polluter, Concorde was also one of the most technically advanced planes developed in the 1960s and 1970s, with innovations like fly-by-wire technology long before it became Airbus's big thing. Maintaining such complexity was given as one of the reasons British Airways and Air France withdrew their Concord fleets.

Profitability, however, was never an issue: despite plenty of harrumphing about the exorbitant sums of development money pumped into Concorde by the British and French governments, it didn't do too badly for making money, earning more than £500 million over its operational lifetime.

This is something Sir Richard Branson is acutely aware of. At the time British Airways halted flights of their Concordes, Branson offered to buy them. BA turned him down. Branson lobbied then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, claiming it to be "a scandal" that the taxpayer-funded plane was being axed when there was "a company" - Virgin Atlantic - willing to keep flying.

© Simon Poulter 2013

"As well as losing a uniquely beautiful and capable aircraft, it seemed like human ingenuity and technological innovation and had taken a backward step," Branson wrote recently on his blog. "We actually fought hard at Virgin to keep Concorde flying. I still have a wonderful desk model of the plane in full Virgin Atlantic livery but despite offering one million pounds for each aircraft (they were originally sold to BA by the British Government for a pound), sadly our friends at British Airways were having none of it and decommissioned the planes in a way that makes any chance of them flying again an unlikely prospect."

Despite campaigns to get at least one Concorde airborne as a 'heritage flight' - much like the Royal Air Force's Battle Of Britain flight so popular of air shows and royal events - the Anglo-French marvel remains grounded, rooted to the spot like the French Concorde on display at Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport, or the British Concorde at the Intrepid.

"We firmly believe that the technical and safety challenges of returning a Concorde to the skies are absolutely prohibitive," says a spokesperson for BA. Others, though, disagree. The Save Concorde Group believes that £20 million is all it would take to get one flying again. That's roughly what Johnny Depp got paid for the last Pirates Of The Caribbean instalment. And I know what I'd rather see flying...

For now we must be resigned to the fact that air travel will not be getting any quicker or, for the majority of us, more luxurious. The mega plane deals being struck last week at the Dubai Airshow were for the latest behemoths from Boeing and Airbus, lightweight, carbon-fibre giants like the 777x designed to move as many people from one place to another as fuel-efficiently and cost effectively as possible. Which means being crammed in, ironically, as Concorde passengers once were. Except without the champagne.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Flogging a dead parrot?

"Comedy is the new rock and roll", much like "brown is the new black" and "70 is the new 50" is one of those pointless throwaways that media folk spit out like flavour-evaporated chewing gum. It might make sense at the time, but it just adds to the clutter of other people's discarded, not-for-digestion confection.

And thus, whenever it is announced that Britain's jester du jour is to headline their own rock venue show (and we go back as far The Mary Whitehouse Experience cast on this, not forgetting more recent inductees like Eddie Izzard, Michael McIntyre, John Bishop and Russell Brand), there is an audible rush to the typewriters to declare C is the new R and R.

The announcement, then, that the surviving members of the Monty Python team are to stage not one - as previously announced - but five shows next July at London's O2 Arena is about as rock and roll as it is possible to get in comedy. After all, Led Zeppelin only managed one reunion show at the O2, and yet the Pythons - somewhat validly described last week by Eddie Izzard as "The Beatles of comedy" - are to go four nights further, with a hint of more to come.

To their credit, they are mostly transparent as to the motivation: money. Terry Jones says he wants to pay off his mortgage, John Cleese wants to pay off his latest and most eye-wateringly savage divorce settlement. And why shouldn't they. If the schedules of rock's grand-papas can be bulging with coffer-stuffing greatest hits tours, why not the closest thing comedy has got to the expansive creativity that music went through in the late 1960s and early 1970s?

As their musical counterparts drew on the influences of '50s rock'n'roll, blues and R&B, so the Pythons drew upon The Goon Show, the still brilliantly surrealist and jaw-achingly funny radio show that turned Peter Sellers into a star, Harry Secombe into a British national institution, and came close to putting the genius Spike Milligan in a British national institution.

But, like the superannuated rock bands from the British invasion who are still minting it today, the Pythons face a similar dilemma of relevance. And if we stretch the musical comparison further, the benchmark they will have to meet will not be the arena-filling likes of Bishop, Brand or Gervais, but the stadium-packing Rolling Stones and the McCartneys of this world.

At least they won't be matching the Stones for hard currency, with tickets for the Pythons' O2 shows priced between £27.50 and £90 (or, as Eric Idle caustically put it, "only £300 less than the Stones"). But if Mick, Keef, Charlie and Ron can still turn a decent coin and maintain their justifiable status as the world's greatest rock band (with Mick now a great-grandfather, God help him), playing songs first recorded almost 50 years ago, the Pythons will have the unenviable task of trying to pull off comedy routines that were funny - though not always obviously so - in 1971.

I can, today, listen to a Goon Show and laugh like a drain for long after. But that's down to Spike Milligan's brilliance at writing for radio ("It's all in the mind, you know"). The Pythons face the struggle of overfamiliar material (there wasn't a sixth form common room in the early 1970s that couldn't do The Dead Parrot Sketch verbatim) and somewhat dated humour (Terry Jones in drag speaking in a high voice? A comedy staple from Dick Emery to Little Britain).

So why, then, have the Pythons' O2 shows sold out as fast as Led Zepp's one-off? For, presumably, much the same reason as the Led Zepp one-off: nostalgia. And there's nothing wrong with that. I would gladly hand over my hard-earned to see again any of the bands that were the foundation of my original love of music, even if they offer nothing more than a greatest hits show in the process. Why? Because it's what they do best.

But with comedians, and especially television comedians, I'm not so sure the vibe will be quite the same. What made Monty Python's Flying Circus so unique at the time (but somewhat patchy now, the "hits" not withstanding) was the use of television as a medium. The non-sequitur style, and studio sketches morphing into filmed sequences which morphed into Terry Gilliam's cock-eyed animations, was a virtue of the format...and the BBC's willingness to let it go out. Not involving ballroom dancing, naff singing, cooking, house buying or antique owning, I doubt the Pythons would get on to the BBC now.

So, more than 30 years after their last stage performance, the Pythons will get the chance to expand their television-dimensioned mirth in the huge space that is the O2. And it will be like a great band reforming. But before we get too hyperbolic about the O2 run, comedy has been there before. The Pythons themselves played at the 17,000-seat Hollywood Bowl, 33 years ago. And during his time as a breakthrough comedian, Steve Martin played many shows at arenas such as Colorado's Red Rocks Ampitheater with his "wild and crazy guy" routine and King Tut novelty hit.

When Genesis came out of retirement in 2007 to stage their Turn It On Again tour, it was deliberately an opportunity to say goodbye to as many people in as short a space of time. 47 shows in Europe and North America, starting in Helsinki and ending in Los Angeles, all at large outdoors stadia. The Pythons - who, incidentally, toured with Genesis in the 1970s on the famous Charisma Records package tours - may not be saying farewell yet, but the pack'em-in approach is understandable - 100,000 paying punters during the O2 run alone.

The one big difference between the Pythons and a rock band comeback is that with the latter, anything is possible as long as the lead singer can still sing and read an autocue, and the lead guitarist is suitably past need for rehab to get those classic licks right. The Monty Python five (minus the actually dead Graham Chapman, of course), who have a combined age of 357 years, plus their somewhat unreconstructed female stooge Carol Cleveland, will be reviving sketches written in the era of black and white TV, when Britain's currency was pounds, shillings and pence, when cross-dressing lumberjacks could be considered a source of joviality, rather than a lifestyle choice.

The last time I watched Monty Python's Flying Circus I was left somewhat underwhelmed. Even for a Goon Show fan like me, much of the Pythons' television work was dating badly, perennial gems like The Spanish Inquisition, The Four Yorkshiremen, The Argument Clinic and Silly Upper Class Twit Of The Year not withstanding.

Oddly, though, their films haven't. Monty Python & The Holy Grail and Life Of Brian should both be enshrined in even the most basic of movie collections, if only for the creatively derogative representation of the French in the first, and the fantastically infantile "Biggus Dickus" gag in the second (like the baked beans scene of Blazing Saddles, I defy anyone not to watch this bit of Brian and not want to have a...er...giggle...).

The Pythons live at the O2 next summer will, naturally, be somewhere between the rock band reunion and the world's largest out-of-season pantomime. As you get at any arena gig, there will be the complete tool next to you reciting all the sketches along with the performers; but the biggest challenge will be the Arena itself.

As Bruce Dessau, The Guardian's respected comedy critic noted earlier this year: "Appearing at the O2 might be good for business, in other words, but it's not necessarily good for comedy. I'm not entirely against massive gigs, but they are simply not what stand-up should be about. Comedy should be all about communication and intimacy. At the O2 Arena it is more about bombast, hot dogs and those darn video screens."

The Monty Python gang are clearly not stand-up comedians, but comedy is an intimate medium. It won't provide the same groove as a rock concert, even if the scale of both the act and venue is. Standup is best when performed in a back-of-the-pub room, though it's not the worst entertainment you can stage in an arena. But, let's face it, you may as well stay at home with the comedian's latest DVD.

And so that might prove to be the case with the Pythons. A spectacular rock show at the O2 - as I witnessed last month with Peter Gabriel - works because of the sound, light and star power filling the hall. Five septuagenarians reviving comedy material devised for television more than four decades ago in a 20,000-seat cavern may stretch the sides of comedy, but might not split the sides of the audience.

But let's not dismiss the prospect too soon. Aristotle once said "The secret to humor is surprise", and as he was the philosopher who was "very much the man in form" in Monty Python's Greek Philosophers-versus-German Footballers sketch from 1972, we should take his word for it.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Walk The Line

© Simon Poulter 2013
For a city so seemingly welded to mechanised transportation, one of the true joys of New York is its walkability.

With its traffic-choked streets packed tightly into a 23-square mile mesh, and the subway providing an edgy, but quick, means of getting around only if you're prepared to travel in vertical lines, your own feet are often the quickest form of transport here.

Which makes The High Line a very logical development in urban wellbeing. It's a public park and walkway created from a disused, elevated railway line built in 1934 to carry freight 30 feet above New York's West Side.

(Facebook/The High Line)
In 1999, with the then out-of-commission line due to be demolished, a group of local residents started campaigning to turn the track into a unique urban park. The outcome was the formation of a not-for-profit organisation that would managed the exhaustive effort to raise the substantial amount of money needed to transfom the former railway line, and then maintain and run the park on an ongoing basis.

Ten years later the first section opened, running from the junction of Gansevoort Street and Washington Street in the Meatpacking District to West 20th. A second section followed two years ago taking the trail a further ten blocks to West 30th, just west of 10th Avenue.

Currently running for just a mile and a half, The High Line is hardly America's most strenuous hiking trail. There are even elevators at each end for those who can't use the various staircases accessing the trail along the way. But this isn't a trail designed for those hearty types who are happiest stomping through the wilderness. This is a walk through the urban jungle.

For its duration, The High Line provides fascinating glimpse of the Manhattan you would never see if you only stuck to Times Square and Broadway. Yes, there are stunning views of the Empire State Building poking the skyline, and lofty views of New York's cross streets, stretching up an over Manhattan's bony spine. But there are also abandoned factories, warehouses, even the former site of Bell Labs, now part of the company I work for. Interspersed with the trees and plants are pieces of abstract art and scultpure, and tunnels coursing through the supports of buildings, as the original High Line track would have carried freight into the heart of the city.

© Simon Poulter 2013
The High Line is a fantastic oasis of calm, snaking in and out of some of New York's oldest industrial buildings and some of its sleekest steel and glass office complexes. Along the way, it's carefully-tended flora - which on my visit was in full autumnal colour - adds to the sense of relaxation.

© Simon Poulter 2013
© Simon Poulter 2013
There's more to come, too: last night the High Line organisation unveiled plans for a third section, The Spur, that will extend beyond West 30th Street and into a wide open area adjacent to 10th Avenue that will create New York's newest park, a wide, wooded space in what were originally railway yards. The aim is to have the $76 million extension open later next year, with funding coming from a combination of private philanthropy and some public funds.

Picture courtesy of The High Line Org.
Walking is one of the surprising attractions of New York, a city whose yellow cabs are as prominent a representative symbol as any of its fixed attractions. Apart from anything else, its estimated 8,000 miles of streets are the easiest form of mass transit. From a Midtown hotel you can be in the East Village, TriBeCa, SoHo or Central Park in the space of half an hour - often the time it takes to walk to and into a subway station and wait for the right train - or get through traffic.

What makes The High Line, however, one of New York's simplest but greatest treasures is that you can't help but feeling becalmed after taking a stroll along it. Arriving, if walking north-to-south, in the Meatpacking District, you then have the West Village, TriBeCa and SoHo beyond it, before walking into the hectic concrete canyons of the Financial District.

For a mile and a half, then, The High Line is the perfect antidote to the city that never sleeps, not that you would wish New York to be any different. New York is the city you come to as a visitor because you want the hustle and bustle. The High Line is, though, an innovation borne of innovation. To some it might just be a footpath on a disused railway track, but to this tourist, it's a half hour-injection (or an hour, or two hours or however long you want to take) of tranquility.

© Simon Poulter 2013

For further information about The High Line visit http://www.thehighline.org/

Sunday, November 10, 2013

In A New York Minute - the Eagles live at Madison Square Garden

© Simon Poulter 2013
We've all done it. We've all wondered what it must be like to have lived in a different era. For me, it's a very specific time and a very specific location: the canyons that stream north into the Hollywood Hills from Sunset Boulevard, around 1970.

For there, amid a haze of strangely sweet-smelling smoke and all manner of bed-hopping, was a music scene that mainly wore denim and hung out in shacks, huts and ramshackle houses in Laurel Canyon and on various semi-rural stretches of Mulholland Drive.

At the time, Los Angeles was taking on both New York (then the traditional HQ of America's music industry) and London for the title of Music Capital of the World. As the West Coast has always done, it had drawn musical gold diggers to its sunshine and casual vibe, generating a post-Beach Boys LA cocktail of rock, folk and country, and bands like The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and their offspring Crosby, Stills & Nash (and Young), The Flying Burrito Brothers and Poco.

Night after night, the legendary Troubador club on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood would host various combinations of these bands and their associates, like Linda Ronstadt and Joni Mitchell. 

It was beautiful and it was groovy, and just a short, battered Porsche drive down the twisting, turning, thrill-seek that is Laurel Canyon Boulevard, before heading back to whichever bed was in use that night.

In the middle of all this, a confident young man from Detroit, Michigan - Glenn Frey - was sleeping on the floor of a room rented by a young songwriter by the name of Jackson Browne. Frey would later be introduced - by Ronstadt - to a wry Texan called Don Henley. Together, these two aspirational  immigrants to the Golden State would form, in 1971, one of the bands that would define West Coast FM radio-friendly soft rock for the exact duration of the 1970s before imploding acrimoniously in 1980, with Henley avowing to reform "when Hell froze over". I am, of course, talking about the Eagles.

Speed forward 14 years and the Devil himself had clearly begun ice skating to the office. For in 1994, at the tail-end of the MTV Unplugged era, Henley and Frey, together with Joe Walsh, Timothy B. Schmidt and Don Felder got together to do a live show, Hell Freezes Over. Sense of humour clearly reconstructed. But this being the Eagles meant that it wouldn't be long before more strife, with the gifted guitarist Felder (it is he and Walsh who perform the legendary guitar duet on Hotel California) being fired in 2001 and then it all turning sour with lawsuits over royalties.

Fast forward again to 2013 and the Eagles are keen to tell their story. Their DVD/Blu-ray Disc documentary History Of The Eagles is doing boffo business, being a warts'n'all (albeit carefully so) account of their 42-year story. Which has brought them out on the road to tell their story, including three nights at New York's Madison Square Garden, the ludicrously enormous host of boxing fights, ice hockey and basketball games, where in front of my seat in the first row of my tier, there are TV monitors. Presumably for the myopic who can't quite see what's happening on the floor below. Or, for those easily bored and need something else to watch. Occasionally it hosts rock concerts, though just how Ed Sheehan managed to sell it out a few nights earlier baffles me now.

However, for almost the next three hours, however, it would be hard to be bored. Logging in at 27 songs, this show by the Eagles is a deliberately exhaustive greatest hits trail. Last summer, as I was driving from Chicago to LA on Route 66, I was listening to a box set of the six albums the band made between 1972 and 1979. Six albums. Seven years.

© Simon Poulter 2013
And its that canon that they run through tonight. Kicking off with a folksy set of early songs like Saturday NightTrain Leaves Here This Morning and Peaceful Easy Feeling, Frey, Henley, Schmidt and Walsh are perched on top of amps and flight cases, slightly contrivedly recreating how they used to jam and write in the early days. Delightfully, they are joined by Bernie Leadon, the former Flying Burrito Brother who was their lead guitarist (and banjo player long before hipsters made it fashionable....) until leaving in 1975 as a result of musical disillusionment.

Gradually, the set cranks up, Witchy Woman from their debut album and Doolin-Dalton from the Western-themed Desperado album that followed it, running through the sanguine Tequila Sunrise, and the evening's first singalongs, The Best of My Love and Lyin' Eyes. There's no escaping the fact that, at this point in the Eagles' career, they had quickly established themselves as the sound of LA that suited LA at the time.

Other bands, like Led Zeppelin, for example, may have turned LA into their playground, but the Eagles - along with Steely Dan and, perhaps the post-blues Fleetwood Mac - came to exemplify a form of music that wasn't quite rock, wasn't quite country, wasn't quite blues and wasn't quite soul.

© Simon Poulter 2013
But did sound good while driving up Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu on a sultry evening. One of These Nights is the song that captures that mood perfectly, and here at the MSG (which obviously shares its acronym with a key ingredient of Chinese food) it swings with a laid-back vigour, Henley demonstrating the remarkable and unique art of singing and drumming (an exclusive club populated by the likes of Micky Dolenz, Dave Clark, Karen Carpenter, The Bangles' Debbi Peterson, Meg White and Phil Collins).

Indeed throughout the show Henley demonstrates his musical virtuosity, switching between lead vocals, drums, guitar and backing percussion, dressed in a voluminous check shirt that gives him the air of a hardware store owner. His vocals are spot on, that slightly higher register of his defying the gruff, deep and dry Texan accent of his spoken voice. Indeed vocal duties are shared out equally - Frey, who always looks to be in the deepest pain when he sings, scrunching his entire face up, passing the vocal baton to the ever-so delicate-looking Schmidt, who provides an even higher register. Along with CS&N, the Eagles always were one of the great close-harmony vocal bands, something Frey explains later comes from their love of The Beach Boys.

Even 42 years after they formed, the Eagles still sound exactly as they did when you first heard them on the radio. But that doesn't mean that their performance is bland. Far from it. But after a 20-minute interval ("some members of the band need to use the bathroom," Frey quips at the end of Take It To The Limit), they return with an additional vigour. Joe Walsh, to be exact.

© Simon Poulter 2013
Walsh was already regarded as one of the best session guitarists in the business when he joined the Eagles in 1976 after Leadon had left. And his arrival marked a harder, bluesier edge to the band, with him making his recorded debut on the Hotel California album.

The second half of the Eagles set, however, starts off with a Walsh song from that album that had neither much to do with his guitar prowess or the band's country-rock back story: Pretty Maids All in a Row.

With its piano and synth backing, it was a new sound entirely for the Eagles, adding, in Walsh's own words, "a melancholy reflection on my life so far...and a valid statement for people from our generation."

Any band is a collection of personalities. And the Eagles are no exception. Frey is sharp-witted but contains a mid-western steel; Henley, ascerbic, Texan, and you just never know whether or not he's pissed off about something); Schmidt is the more accessible member, who replaced the ailing Randy Meisner and considers himself the "newcomer"; Walsh, however, is the rock star. He gets to be the class clown, the unpredictable whack-job who adds the sort of craziness to a relatively dry band  in the way Ilie Năstase used to make tennis matches more entertaining. Only not as annoying, thankfully.

On his own composition In the City he demonstrates some of the best bottleneck slide guitar you'll ever here, while on the ironic Life's Been Good, he larks around with all the seriousness expected of a song that
self-deprecatingly took a shot at the rock star lifestle. The James Gang's Funk #49, provides Walsh and the entire band with another solid workout, leading up to Life In the Fast Lane, another Walsh contribution to the rockier Hotel California album.

The first encore begins with the distinctive, jangling 12-string arpeggio, played tonight by long-serving support guitarist Steuert Smith. "On a long desert highway," blasts Henley as he pounds the equally familiar reggae-ish rhythm on his tom-toms, and the crowd, perhaps for the first time tonight, goes proper wild. The trouble with Hotel California - the song - is that it has become over-familiar. Almost four decades of constant play on myriad genres of radio stations have almost turned it into rock's equivalent of Monty Python's Dead Parrot Sketch, you know the jokes before they've come out.

© Simon Poulter 2013
Thus, Hotel California is performed with supreme precision, but with something lacking. Perhaps the band know it's their contractual obligation to play it.

The famed guitar duet - here played by Walsh and Smith - is performed with unwavering accuracy, it's complex interplay and 'human overdubbing' showing little variation from the studio original - but oddly, for the signature song of a band which represents pristine FM rock - it's the first time tonight that the Eagles have sounded so clinical.

Perhaps relieved to have gotten that song out of the way, and after another quick shimmy offstage, the Eagles return with the number which launched their career: Taking It Easy. I have a particular affinity with this song. 23 years ago I was working in an office of creative people, and to make the day more creative, we managed to acquire an office stereo. Unfortunately, we had a limited choice of music to listen to, largely the result of a boss who insisted on playing The Best of Eagles daily. Which meant the twanging, countrified guitar into - 'dang-dang-der-danga-danga-dang' is etched in my brain, along with that opening line "Well, I'm running down the road tryin' to loosen my load, I've got seven women on my mind".

© Simon Poulter 2013
It is, however, the second verse that would, like a terrorist sleeper cell, animate itself much later on in life: "Well, I'm a standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, and such a fine sight to see. It's a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford slowin' down to take a look at me," is so specific a destination that, while driving Route 66 I couldn't help but visiting Winslow, Arizona where, at the corner of 2nd Street and Kingsley Avenue - there is a park dedicated to just this song.

Together with a gift shop pumping out Eagles songs (see From Holbrook, AZ to Lake Havasu City, AZ - Takin' It Easy). Obviously. 2,256 miles away, the song has taken on a rousing singalong value, turning MSG into a 20,000-seat country bar on a Saturday night, minus the cowboy boots, stetsons and fist fights.

With the crowd now having a good time, Walsh returns to the spotlight for Rocky Mountain Way, that blues-rock avalanche featuring the blond guitarist managing to play two Les Pauls at once, while singing - or playing? I never know which - into that plastic tube doobry that he, Pete Frampton and Floyd's David Gilmour managed to use to create a weir mash-up between voice and electric guitar.

And with that, there is just one more shuffle offstage before the Eagles - the harmonious, wise-cracking, self-depreciating, happy to trawl back through their history, 2013 edition - return to the stage and the piano introduction of Desperado, the sweeping, soft-rock anthem that was the title of what was meant to be a concept album about cowboys. Them 1970s, eh?

This has, however, been an exhaustive journey back through the Eagles' history. A 27-song set is an impressive achievement by any band, even more impressive for a band that has only released seven studio albums. There are acts with a considerably longer back catalogue who wouldn't invest in anywhere near as much stage time.

Like so many bands of the West Coast, soft-rock era, there is always room for people to sneer about the Eagles, that it was unadventurous music made for unadventurous music fans. But this show tonight has, if partly due to the grandiose scale of the venue, successfully amplified a band who were always about the songwriting. Walsh maybe their token showoff - and always entertaining he is too - but the Eagles were never about rock pyrotechnics and Lurex-clad mayhem. They were always about the LA lifestyle, the laid-back coastal vibe, the sun-dappled living of the Hollywood hills. And they managed to bring a taste of that to the chilly streets of Manhattan on a cold November night...and still render this fan dreaming of life in the not-so fast lane, 43 years ago.

© Simon Poulter 2013