Saturday, April 27, 2013

The FA bares its teeth

For all its obvious shock value, the sight of Luis Suarez snacking on Branislav Ivanovic’s arm like an angry beaver gnawing on a log was actually quite comical.

The fact he then wobbled and feigned heinous injury (presumably he found the Serb’s forearm not to his taste) gave the incident at Anfield last Sunday an Itchy & Scratchy-like cartoon quality. In fact, it reminded me of the closing scene of the second (and best) Pink Panther film, A Shot In The Dark, in which Herbert Lom's Dreyfus finally snaps and lunges, teeth first, for Clouseau’s ankles.

However, in its somewhat angry written explanation yesterday of the ten-match ban meted out to the fangsome Suarez, the FA's Independent Regulatory Commission made the observation: "biting an opponent is alien to football and must remain so". Well, they have a point.

No mitigation can justify Suarez's bite: the niggling between the striker and Ivanovic was no different to the forward-defender rough-and-tumble that takes place on any football field in any league and at any level. It certainly didn't warrant the incisor attack carried out by the dentally-challenged Uruguayan without referee Kevin Friend noticing it. Luckily, much of the Kop saw it, millions of television viewers around the world saw it, and therefore, retroactively, the FA saw it.

And so, Suarez will have ten matches over which to consider his temperament. A lengthy ban is the right punishment - there would have been no point slapping a fine on him. This ten does, of course, follow the seven given to him by the Dutch FA for biting PSV Eindhoven's Otman Bakkal in 2010, and the eight-game ban Suarez served for racially abusing Manchester United's Patrice Evra.

Strangely, though, these and other past misdemeanours were not taken into account by the Commission who, instead looked at the incident in isolation. "Whilst we accepted that Mr Suarez's reputation had been impacted," the panel explained, "these unsavoury pictures would have given a bad image of English football domestically and across the world alike."

The Commission goes on: "All players in the higher level of the game are seen as role models, have the duty to act professionally and responsibly, and set the highest example of good conduct to the rest of the game - especially to young players," and adds: "It is completely unacceptable and such truly disgraceful behaviour"..

Disappointingly, though, Liverpool has closed ranks around Suarez. First out of the trap was managing director Ian Ayre: "Both the club and player are shocked and disappointed at the severity of today's [FA] Independent Regulatory Commission decision."

Manager Brendan Rogers added complained that the FA has punished the man, not the incident  - not really sure of the distinction there, Brend - while Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher argued in his Daily Mail column: "Luis knows he has done something seriously wrong, letting himself down. The way things are now being pitched is that Liverpool have got to do something about the rotten apple in their midst. It is as if Luis is the only player to have represented Liverpool who has ever been embroiled in controversy. That simply isn't the case."

Yes...but. To Ayre's point, what were "club and player" expecting after an incident seen around the world? Did they think a standard three-match ban for violent conduct would suffice? That a lengthy list of past misdemeanours wouldn't be taken into account (even though the FA panel says it hasn't)?

Players earning reputations for being over-physical is nothing new: Billy Bremner, Norman Hunter, and Ron 'Chopper' Harris were there long before, but Suarez' track record goes beyond unreconstructed thuggish behaviour. Whichever anger management counsellor gets assigned to him will have their work carved out, on a giant, open-cast quarry scale of industrial removal. He is, frankly, a nasty piece of work.

"He is an irredeemable moron," was the better assessment of the Evening Standard's Dan Jones, adding "whose talent and goals keep a very average Liverpool side afloat and brighten up the English game. If you want the talent and the goals, you have to accept the moron bit."

Accept, yes, but address when the moronic side outplays the talented side. So, for once, the FA has acted decisively and conclusively. And I don't say that just because the incident occurred in a match between Liverpool and Chelsea, and that Suarez stayed on the pitch to score a dramatic equaliser in the 97th minute. This isn't about years of rivalry between the two clubs. I'd have welcomed the same length of ban if Ivanovic had lost his head and sank his teeth into Suarez's arm like a barbecue guest with a chicken drumstick.

Thus, the FA has, in its own words sent out a "strong message that such deplorable behaviours do not have a place in football". Suarez can't keep doing thing like this, and nor can he simply move to another league to do it again. He has to learn the value of restraint. and now amount of trite apology can make up for the damage done to the reputation of the game, again.

Thankfully the Uruguayan has accepted the ban. Or someone with a good deal more intelligence has advised him to do so. Either way, while we will be bereft of his genuine talents as a forward until October, football will be able to go about its business for a few months without Luis Suarez taking centre stage - yet again - for the wrong reasons.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Spin Cycle

Stop me if you've heard this before (actually, you have - The day to love the smell of vinyl in the morning), but this is the day I get in my annual moan about how things aren't what they used to be, that policemen are getting younger and that it's a travesty that digital downloads are killing off physical music formats.

So here goes: the 2013 Record Store Day has come around again to get us all out there in actual bricks-and-mortar record shops, buying CDs and vinyl and, you know, actually getting more out of the music-purchasing experience than doing so slumped in an armchair, laptop and apple Danish balanced precariously on our laps.

This year's RSD comes at a time of continued attrition in the music retailing business, with streaming services like Spotify now accounting for a fifth of all music acquisition, and sales of physical formats declining by another 5%. Last year, for example, 833 million CDs were sold worldwide - compared with 2.4 billion a decade ago.

According to the IFPI, the worldwide music industry association, it isn't all doom and gloom, at least for those making music. The IFPI's annual Digital Music Report this year announced that global revenue from recorded music was actually up by 0.3% to $16.5 billion, thanks to new digital distribution channels, the first rise since 1999. There is evidence to suggest that Adele has much to do with this.

"Licensed downloads" - i.e. the type the record industry wants you to have - are still canibalising sales of 'physical' formats, with download sales increasing in number by 12% around the world last year, to the extent they represent 70% of all revenue from digital music. Subscription services also leapt in 2012, with a 44% increase, accounting for more than 10% of digital revenues for the first time.

All of which is nice for the artists and record companies, but still not good for the record retailer. What shouldn't be forgotten, however, is that physical formats like the CD and vinyl aren't disappearing, and still account for almost two-thirds of all music sold. Vinyl even grew last year, with its highest sales since 1997, fuelled by a combination of teenager DJs and those of us of a certain age returning to the format via exorbitantly-priced heritage releases.

But, according to some analysts, physical formats have a clear shelf life in the mainstream of music buying. "By the end of the decade, the physical product will be seen as a thing of the past," was the stark prediction given earlier this year by Matt Piner of research agency Conlumino in a CNN interview earlier this year.

Since the last Record Store Day we've seen the collapse of the UK's HMV chain and further high-profile closures such as the Virgin Megastores in France. Analysts say this has much more to do with their business models as any major change in media buying culture. Amazon - with its tax-friendly distribution base - has been steadily eating into over-the-counter record sales, mainly due to the sheer convenience of online shopping, while supermarket checkout-based CD racks have offered consumers a convenient but limited choice of the big-name, family-friendly releases.

Which gives us all the more reason to seek out a Record Store Day-supporting retailer today. To make the experience even more attractive, hundreds of acts have issued special RSD releases which are exclusively available from shops involved in the day.

From a 40th anniversary 7-inch vinyl picture disc of Bowie's Drive-In Saturday to one-off live albums from Mumford and Sons and Robyn Hitchcock, a vinyl re-release of Orange Juice's Rip It Up, a box set of all the single Paul Weller released off Sonik Kicks, all presented in 7-inch form, a rare Sly & The Family Stone album released on 10-inch vinyl, and archive re-releases from The Doors, Deep Purple and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

The White Stripes have also released an RSD-exclusive 10th anniversary edition of Elephant. Jack White is - unsurprisingly - a strong supporter of the whole initiative:

"I think it’s high time the mentors, big brothers, big sisters, parents, Guardians, and neighborhood ne’er do wells, start taking younger people That look up to them To a real record store and show them what an important part of life music really is," he writes on the RSD website with alarming disregard for correct use of capitals.

Wilco's Jeff Tweedy puts it a little less eccentrically when he says: "Nothing beats browsing in your favourite store, listening to music, finding something new or old that you’ve been searching for, all that," and adds: "Without these stores, there’s just no way [we] would still be around."

There's no doubt that those of us who share Tweedy's view are suffering from romanticism. The fact that The Doors and Deep Purple are releasing special vinyl editions on RSD suggests that the vinyl resurgence is being part refuelled by the same instincts that sees Harley-Davidson motorbikes ridden out of bike dealerships by late middle-aged men in bandanas. Some are actively seeking the smell of vinyl in the morning because it associates themselves with a youth they may never have had.

There is, though, certainly something pleasantly redolent in putting an album on a turntable, applying the stylus and listening for that initial crackle. This is also the same psychology at work that makes us apply Instagram to give a vintage wash to an otherwise pristine digital photograph Apple spent a fortune developing high-end iPhone optics for.

Comfort, though it may be, there is pleasure to be had from owning vinyl and listening to it. And not only is there a tactile joy from removing a disc from its dust sleeve and placing the needle gently on Track 1, there is also the cardiovascular benefit of getting off your arse to turn the record over to Side 2.

So, get out there today and find your local Record Store Day retailer. Whether you're an older head into albums, or the restless type who only downloads individual singles, go and buy yourself an actual album or an actual single. And don't tell me you didn't enjoy the packaging.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Art For Art's Sake - a tribute to Storm Thorgerson: 1944-2013

If you were to ask me to make a list of the greatest albums of all time, I could start now and probably never finish. Magazines and radio stations regularly try to give it a go, but rarely come up with a top 10, top 100 or even top 100 that will truly cover things adequately.

You might, however, stand a chance of coming up with a decent list of the greatest albums based on their cover art.

From Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band to London Calling, album covers were an integral part of the record buying experience in the pre-CD era.

With the 2013 Record Store Day taking place throughout the world tomorrow, you won't have to go far to hear old heads - like me - ruing the disappearance of gatefold sleeves, of liner notes and lyrics, and the whole tactility of buying music in a physical format.

As a schoolboy, album art meant as much to me as the music contained within. Dull geography lessons on Upper Volta would pass more meaningfully while recreating band logos in biro on the cover of an exercise book. Entire band back catalogues could be filed and discussed according to their sleeve art, while no adolescent male could resist a sneaky peak at Roxy Music's Country Life while perusing the record racks on a Saturday afternoon.

Some covers - and more pertinently, their designers - became synonymous with the impact of the album's musical content. Barney Bubbles was the creative force behind Stiff Records during the New Wave, while further back, Roger Dean's elaborate fantasyscapes will be forever associated with Yes.

But, perhaps, the most inventive and iconic cover art designer of them all was Storm Thorgerson, who died yesterday from cancer at the age of 69.

He is mostly associated with Pink Floyd, but together with Hipgnosis, the design collective he co-founded in 1968, Thorgerson was responsible for designing covers for 10CC, Muse, Led Zeppelin, Audioslave, The Cranberries, Peter Gabriel, Black Sabbath, Ian Dury, Steve Miller and Genesis.

Growing up in Cambridge, Thorgerson was a childhood friend of eventual Floyd members Syd Barrett, Roger Waters and David Gilmour. "We first met in our early teens," Gilmour wrote yesterday on his website. "We would gather at Sheep's Green, a spot by the river in Cambridge and Storm would always be there holding forth, making the most noise, bursting with ideas and enthusiasm. Nothing has ever really changed. He has been a constant force in my life, both at work and in private, a shoulder to cry on and a great friend."

In 1968 Thorgerson and fellow Cambridge designer Aubrey Powell were asked by the Floyd to design the cover for A Saucer Full Of Secrets. It was to seal Thorgerson's association with the band forever: "The artworks that [Storm] created for Pink Floyd from 1968 to the present day have been an inseparable part of our work," Gilmour added in his online tribute.

In 1973 the band released Dark Side Of The Moon, for which Thorgerson came up with a cover design as iconic as the record itself. It's origins were pretty functional: the band's Rick Wright had suggested Thorgerson produce something simple and straightforward. The outcome is something so straightforward and simple that it has adorned T-shirts and posters for the last 40 years

"No amount of cajoling would get them to consider any other contender, nor endure further explanation of the prism, or how exactly it might look," Thorgerson has explained. "'That's it', they said in unison, we got to get back to real work, and returned forthwith to the [Abbey Road] studio upstairs."

"The refracting glass prism referred to Floyd light shows - consummate use of light in the concert setting. Its outline is triangular and triangles are symbols of ambition, and are redolent of pyramids, both cosmic and mad in equal measure, all these ideas touching on themes in the lyrics. The joining of the spectrum extending round the back cover and across the gatefold inside was seamless like the seguing tracks on the album, whilst the opening heartbeat was represented by a repeating blip in one of the colours."

Throughout Thorgerson's work, artistic influences can be easily identified, from Picasso to Magritte, but also plenty of humour. With the Floyd's Animals, Thorgerson created another icon, with a pig famously flying over Battersea Power Station.

The shot has now passed into lore thanks to the inflatable pig used for the photograph slipping its mooring and drifting off into the incoming flight path for Heathrow Airport.

As the 1970s unfolded, and conceptual cover art became increasingly intertwined with musical narrative, Hipgnosis expanded their client roster to include other bands, and notably those on the artier side of rock, like Genesis and 10CC.

The studio also picked up Black Sabbath's Technical Ecstasy, the cover of which was once described eloquently by Ozzy Osbourne as "two robots screwing on an escalator"

More often than not covers were conceptual interpretations rather than literal representations, eschewing the pop notion that albums should be adverts for the bands, featuring the members themselves.

Through Thorgerson's work with Pink Floyd, however, notable design cues emerged that would appear in his work for other acts. Anonymity played a major part. Even with albums like Floyd's Wish You Were Here, ...And Then There Were Three by Genesis, and jazz-rockers Brand-X's Moroccan Roll (my favourite album title ever), which feature photography of people, they are never in close-up. Faces are never clear and in several cases feature figures with their backs to the camera.

Distance is always significant, something Thorgerson's work shared with Floyd's Roger Waters, who became increasingly obsessed with absence and separation, culminating in the entire narrative of The Wall. Thorgerson returned to Water's feelings with the cover for Is There Anybody Out There?, the box set of the live Wall show, which simply features the four face masks worn by the fake Waters, Gilmour, Wright and Mason at the beginning of the ambitious show.

One dominant cue throughout Thorgerson's projects has been the prominence of flat, green grassy fields in the lower half of the cover, blue sky in the upper half, and a prominent object or objects in the immediate foreground.

Perhaps inspired by Grantchester Meadows in Cambridge (immortalised by Floyd on Ummagumma), Thorgerson returned to this device again and again, on everything from Floyd's Atom Heart Mother and The Division Bell through to Biffy Clyro's single God & Satan and Synrise by obscure Belgian electro band Goose. Along with the setting, Thorgerson's photography would often have an unreal reality about it - rich greens in the grass, bold blues in the skyscapes, and an unnerving clarity of objects in the fore.

"I listen to the music, read the lyrics, speak to the musicians as much as possible," Thorgerson has explained. "I see myself as a kind of translator, translating an audio event – the music – into a visual event – the cover. I like to explore ambiguity and contradiction, to be upsetting but gently so. I use real elements in unreal ways."

As albums have become reduced to bitstreams, and music consumption shifts from having the patience to listen to two or even four sides of vinyl to downloaded singles or Spotify mixes, Thorgerson's artistry is, sadly, diminishing. 

There are still, thankfully, champions of the art of record design, who regard the packaging and presentation of their music as more than just a marketing exercise, and who look to today's multiple formats as an opportunity for renewed design creativity. 

But with Storm Thorgerson's passing, we should mourn the death of an era when the album cover meant more than just the thing that stops your record from getting scratched.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Mac - Ze Knife!

What a difference 40 years makes. In 1973, Steve Hackett played the Bataclan theatre in Paris as a member of the 'classic' line-up of the prog giants Genesis.

Somewhere on YouTube is a clip of the show, featuring the-then Peter Gabriel-fronted band succumbing to snafus such as the 22-year-old Phil Collins missing a drum cue and Gabriel himself fluffing lines because he is busy charging about in a variety of cumbersome stage costumes.

In 2013, however, and a short ride from the Bataclan in the 10th arrondissement to Le Trianon in the 18th, Hackett's biggest problem is a crashed MacBook requiring a reboot.

"How about we play some blues while we sort this out?" asks the convivial guitarist to an audience of invariably paunchy, balding, T-shirt-wearing Frenchmen in their 50s and 60s. Indeed, with scarcely a full head of hair to be seen, it is likely this crowd is enjoying a rare night out and frequently uttering the French for "they don't make songs like this any more".

The frozen Mac is unfortunate, but it happens. In days gone by entire concerts could be wrecked by drunken drummers turning up under the influence (Keith Moon, obviously) or not at all. Tonight, though, it's the opening night of Hackett's European tour, so not ideal timing for the laptop attached to ivory-tinkler Roger King's keyboards to crash. But, then, I'm still amazed that entire gigs are held together by just such a laptop. Which probably explains why you see more Macs than PCs.

But I digress. It is just two songs into the evening. Hackett and band - King, drummer/singer Gary O'Toole, saxophonist and flautist Rob Townsend, bassist Lee Pomeroy, and the flamboyant Swedish vocalist Nad Sylvan - having already dusted off Watcher Of The Skies, from the 1972 Genesis album Foxtrot, and Chamber Of 32 Doors from 1974's Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, the double album that made nods to punk's stirring, and which proved to be Gabriel's final studio record with the band.

That Hackett has resurrected two of his old band's older songs to open the show is no coincidence: his entire tour is a presentation of Genesis Revisited II, a second compilation of new recordings of material Hackett played on as the band's lead guitarist between 1971 and 1977.

This does make it tempting to position Hackett as another rock star on the heritage trail, raiding the back of the sofa for lost coins and errant M&Ms, but this is no Spandau Ballet/Go West package tour digging up the puffball-skirted 1980s just for the nostalgia of it. True, there is clear nostalgic value - as the cast of Cocoon: The Return bopping away in the rows in front of me are clearly indulging - but for a guitarist who left Genesis in 1977 out of creative frustration (his own songwriting wasn't receiving enough consideration from the rest of the band), he is here to remind us all just how fluid and innovative his guitar playing is. Indeed Eddie van Halen and Brian May are said to have picked up their fretboard 'tapping' technique from Hackett, who first used it on 1971's Nursery Cryme.

Performing material from his years with the band in 2013 it sounds surprisingly fresh. Unlike the breath of the bone-domed air drummer sat next to me who manages to sing, out of tune, through most of the show. A few rows further forward, an even older fellow - resplendent in braces holding up his elasticated trousers - spends the evening wigging out as if his nurse dropped something into his pre-show meds.

No wonder the venue is seated for the evening. Even more considerate, the provision of an intermission, presumably to allow some of the more delicately aged members of the audience to empty the bladder (or bag) and be back in their seats for the second half.

But, back to the first half, and what is - thanks to modern technology - still only the third track of the evening.

"Can you tell me where my country lies?", sings the preening Sylvan, who is part Regency dandy, part Robert Plant with his pre-Raphaelite blond curls, and part master scenery eater, as if lifted direct from some We Will Rock You-style tribute show.

At times his theatricality is tediously diverting, but as a singer - with notable vocal similarities to both Gabriel and Collins - he carries off the complexity of this material with aplomb, none more so than on Dancing With A Moonlit Knight, the puntastic opening track of Selling England By The Pound , an early take on Euro-scepticism with such 1973-topical wordplay as "Knights of the Green Shield stamp and shout".

Selling England... remains Hackett's favourite Genesis album, and the reaction to its opening track being performed on this warm April evening, four decades after its originally release, provides a clear watermark for the 119-year-old Pigalle theatre's 1000 or so patrons.

There is more to come with Firth Of Fifth. Always one of the original band's stage favourites, King plays Tony Banks' original arpeggiated piano introduction note perfectly. The song's much-anticipated highlight is its guitar solo. I learned to play it myself as a teenager, and on a Spanish guitar. I was very proud to tell this to Hackett himself when I interviewed him a few years ago. He wasn't that impressed, to tell you the truth. I don't blame him.

For me, Hackett's career in Genesis has existed largely through photographs: having left the band in 1977, before they became mirthsome stalwarts of MTV, and before they became quite the stadium force they became, Hackett playing Firth Of Fifth has, for me, existed largely through a relatively slender number of still photographs, and no live recordings. Not for the first time this week, I am taken back to my youth, though with happier memories than that of a certain prime minister's time in office.

Hackett's last two albums with Genesis, A Trick Of The Tail and Wind And Wuthering, also contained some of his strongest contributions. The earlier albums were often complex tapestries of rock, jazz, folk and even classical music, lyrically wedded to literary influences like Lewis Caroll, Keats and Coleridge.

As the band's sound started to warm up a tad, and their storytelling started to become a little less surreal,   another side of Hackett's guitar playing emerged.

A Trick Of The Tail's Entangled was and remains a beautiful song, and tonight Hackett and band recreate it with pristine arrangement - Hackett's 12-string acoustic guitar picking out the song's pleasing melody, the entire band combining on vocal harmonies which, on the original carried more than just a hint of Crosby, Stills and Nash.

The irony of Hackett leaving Genesis after Wind And Wuthering is that it also contains some of his most expressive work with the band: the intro of Blood On The Rooftops, co-written by Hackett and Collins, was a brief but delightful showcase of this guitarist's accomplished classical playing. He has since recorded entire albums of classical guitar, with interpretations of compositions by Bach. As he plays the ...Rooftops intro, seated and with a nylon-stringed acoustic, I conclude that I could listen to Hackett just playing classical guitar all night long.

There is more pomp and circumstance to come from Wind And Wuthering as the ensemble move on to Unquiet Slumbers For The Sleepers, the first part of an Abbey Road-style melody which continues with the stomping ...In That Quiet Earth, a long-time part of Hackett's live show, and another showcase for Hackett's fretboard dexterity.

After the interval, the band the band kick off Part 2 with A Trick Of The Tail's Dance On A Volcano. A sizeable number of punters are still shuffling back from their comfort break. However, clearly the pause proved to be a useful reviver, as the next song, The Musical Box - the oldest track of the night - leads to a notable rocking sensation in the rows.

The already excitable audience is then thrown into relative paroxysms by Supper's Ready. When recorded in 1972 for the Foxtrot album, it was a collage of several songs, a pick'n'mix of time signatures (one 'bit' being Apocalypse In 9/8 {Co-Starring the Delicious Talents of Gabble Ratchet}), resulting in a 23-minute piece full of loud bits and quiet bits, battles scenes and even ambitious Biblical references, such as the bombastic "take me to the New Jerusalem!" denoument, which sees Sylvan standing at the top of the stage steps, arms stretched out as if being crucified. The giggles from the row behind me - which have been getting louder with each of Sylvan's appearances - are now audible above the PA.

As the band emerges for their encore of the always enjoyable Los Endos, there are shouts of "Ze Knife! ZE KNIFE!!!". Thankfully this doesn't herald an otherwise unnoticed blade-wielding assassin, but a call for a track off the first 'proper' Genesis album, Trespass in 1970, and recorded prior to Hackett and Collins joining the band. It's an admirable shout. Recorded long before the Sex Pistols came along, it would have made an admirable punk song. Which just goes to show that you think you know a music genre, and then you discover that pigeonholing really doesn't mean a thing.

The European continent was always a fertile territory for Genesis in the early days, and progressive rock continues to be alive and indecently healthy in France. Just last month my friend Steven Wilson brought his own tour to Le Trianon, where he met a similarly enthusiastic response from a dedicated crowd of followers. Go to Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy in particular and it is treated with reverence rather than the disdain it meets in Britain.

The stupid thing is that, as Steve Hackett has demonstrated tonight, it's all just musical notes. Whether they're delivered in bursts of three or 30-minute songs, it is only ever about melody and rhythm, rather than the labels attached to them.

Walking into Le Trianon tonight I was somewhat hesitant about what a show, based on such old material of a now defunct band (as opposed to Chic, who were a funk band, hem-hem...) would hold up live under the auspices of their onetime lead guitarist. In actual fact, quite well: Hackett leaves plenty of room for his supporting players to add their part (if, in Sylvan's case, a little too much), while giving him the space and the platform to demonstrate his considerable virtuosity, one which, in the pantheon of guitar heroes, is not recognised anywhere near enough.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Ding-dong - nothing to read here

It is sensible enough advice: if you keep doing something and it hurts, stop doing it.

If you have an irrepressible desire to slap Tom Cruise in the face every time you see that toothy grin, simply avoid his movies. And if you keep waking up with a raging hangover, a strange person in your bed and no recollection of how either state of affairs came to be, stick to soft drinks.

My problem is that I keep visiting Mail Online, the website of Britain's venerable 'heartbeat of Middle England', the Daily Mail. Being an inveterate media rubbernecker, and despite the obvious health risks associated with elevated blood pressure, I can’t help being drawn to the road-strewn offal of the grotesque car crash that is the site.

Like its newspaper parent, the Mail Online is a mix of livid stories about the clearly and overtly Marxist-Leninist BBC, East European immigrants (legal and illegal), Kardashians, weight gains of the famous and a decidedly creepy fascination with LeAnne Rimes.

This week, however, the Mail and its online shadow have elevated themselves to an entirely new altitude of bilious invective and sycophantic obsequiousness with the death of the Baroness Thatcher, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990, former Member of Parliament for North Finchley, and onetime Grantham grocer's daughter.

Her death left the Mail in a state of untogetherness, seemingly not knowing which angle to spew forth on the most, in a state that was somewhere between the extreme outpourings of grief you see in parts of the developing world and a child going mad on sugary drinks too early during a house party. You just know there will be a crash sooner or later.

I won’t pretend I ever admired Thatcher as a politician, or respected her politics, but I offer genuine condolence to her family: a son and daughter have lost a mother, grandchildren have lost a loving grandmother. She was, though, just a politician. A successful one, but a politician nonetheless. And certainly not the deity some media outlets - including the Mail - have contrived to position her as.

As a child growing up in the 1970s, Britain was a grey, strike-paralysed morass, with that decade culminating in the so-called 'Winter of Discontent'. However, I hardly had an opinion on who should lead the country into the 1980s. For a start, I was only 11 when Margaret Thatcher moved into 10 Downing Street on May 4, 1979, and was more concerned with the paint authenticity of my latest Airfix project than matters of such national weight.

But I do remember vividly her arrival speech, borrowed from St Francis of Assisi: "Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”

Within two years, Brixton, Toxteth, Bristol and other cities were ablaze in the worst and bloodiest urban rioting in British history. I don’t even remember what sparked the tinder, but I do know that it was ugly and The Specials’ Ghost Town came out of it. By the time Argentinian forces invaded the Falkland Islands in April 1982, Britain - to the 14-year-old me - seemed to be in as big a mess as it had been at the beginning of 1979.

Thatcher, however, seemed to come out of the Falklands episode stronger and more despotic than ever, propped up by her intransigent dogmatism and a sheer unwillingness to view the downtrodden as anything other than people who should just pull themselves up by the bootstraps. Ironic, considering she'd just gone up against a failing junta in the South Atlantic. Even more so that she would befriend and admire another South American dictator, Augusto Pinochet, responsible for the deaths of 3,000 Chileans and the torture of almost 30,000 more.

From the Falklands we had her battle with the unions, the miner's strike in particular, all waged more in principle than intended outcome. Yes, unions had been crippling British economic development for years, but was the permanent blighting of entire communities really the best outcome?

Picture © The Times
Thatcherism did its worst. Greed became good. The haves had even more, and the have nots had even less. "Loadsamoney" became the national doctrine, as the banks became deregulated...and we all now know how that has ended up.

I could go on, but I won't. I'd rather do something else than dwell too much on her legacy. People are entitled to their opinions, and so am I. Let's agree to disagree.

To return to this week's events, though, I am still disturbed by the press coverage and the slavish canonisation that the British media, and those in many other countries, have been exercising this week. The Mail's seizures, plus the blanket resurgence of that bouffant helmet of blonde hair, and those eyes so brilliantly caricatured by Spitting Image as piercing red lasers, have only brought back memories of a period of British history that has rendered my opinion of politics and politicians scarred forever.

It is not about left or right. It's about a legacy that, when held under scrutiny, did anything but bring harmony, truth, faith and hope.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

All aboard the handbasket - next stop: Hell

As if a jittery world needed any further disquiet – what with a fat kid in North Korea threatening to throw his new toys around  – the BBC has this week delivered the somewhat grim news that Coldplay’s A Rush Of Blood To The Head is the all-time favourite album of listeners to the UK's Radio 2.

I have nothing against the album myself. I even own a copy. What depresses me, somewhat, is that it should be regarded as the album patrons of Radio 2 admire more than any other, along with Keane's Hopes & Fears (at 2), Duran Duran's Rio (3) and Dido's No Angel (5)..

I accept that Radio 2 has never been known for its edginess: in the era when Radio 1 was staffed by groovy youngsters Lee Travis and Simon Bates, Radio 2 was the broadcasting equivalent of your grandad's slippers - DJs like ageing 1950s crooner Jimmy Young and dashing former Jukebox Jury panelist Pete Murray, easing you into the afternoon with the Norrie Paramour Orchestra and the Mike Sammes Singers.

But today, the station represents a sizeable chunk of the British listening public. In January it announced record audience figure of 15.1 million listeners, ranks swollen in recent years by importing presenters like Jo Whiley (who presented the Top 100) and Stuart Maconie, and including Nirvana and Green Day on its playlists.

Being 45 years old and from London's middle class suburbs, I'm probably smack-bang in the middle of Radio 2's desired demographic (if I still lived in the UK, of course). But it pains me to think that my peers would prefer James Blunt's Back To Bedlam, Dire Straits' Brothers In Arms, and ABBA's Arrival over albums lower down the chart like Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, or albums which don't even appear on the list, like London's Calling, New Boots and Panties, Never Mind The Bollocks and Exile On Main Street.

Is British mainstream music taste so unadventurous? It doesn't surprise me to see Coldplay topping this chart. Theirs is a brand of safe, predictable stadium rock, with clever little hooks to go 'woah-oh' to, a social conscience and enough aversion to shaving within the band to get the duster up of older folk who believe The Beatles lost it when they grew their hair.

A Rush Of Blood To The Head, released after 9/11 and influenced by the terror attacks and their aftermath, is actually quite a good album, don't get me wrong. ClocksThe Scientist and God Put A Smile Upon Your Face are perfectly decent songs. Live they are very competent (I last saw them in Arnhem on the day of the July 7 bombings in London, which provided an odd atmosphere to the show).

But, coming back to the central argument here, responsible for the best album? And should it come higher in the Top 10 (well, let's make it the Top 12 so I can include Led Zeppelin IV) than Dark Side Of The Moon and U2's The Joshua Tree and even Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band? And should Pepper have been chosen over Abbey Road or The White Album as the pick of The Beatles albums?

OK, so it's a matter of taste. But, then, the question is begged as to how Celine Dion and Shania Twain ended up on a list of the Top 100 albums released over the last 50 or 60 years. What was the application of taste there?

This chart is, obviously, a representative sample of listeners to one radio station, and was probably created to spark just such discourse as I've engaged in here ("The range of eras and genres exhibited by the chart is typical of the breadth of Radio 2 and its distinctive music policy," said Radio 2 head of music Jeff Smith), but I do worry for the musical health of a country that has lead the world - and continues to do so - in cutting edge music should be spending so much time listening to Adele's 21 or James Blunt's Back To Bedlam.


  1. Coldplay - A Rush Of Blood To The Head
  2. Keane - Hopes & Fears
  3. Duran Duran - Rio
  4. Pink Floyd - The Dark Side Of The Moon
  5. Dido - No Angel
  6. The Rolling Stones - Sticky Fingers
  7. Pet Shop Boys - Actually
  8. The Beatles - Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
  9. U2 - The Joshua Tree
  10. Queen - A Night At The Opera
  11. Fleetwood Mac - Rumours
  12. Led Zeppelin - Led Zeppelin IV
  13. The Police - Synchronicity
  14. Madonna - True Blue
  15. James Blunt - Back To Bedlam
  16. Bruce Springsteen - Born To Run
  17. Adele - 21
  18. Oasis - Definitely Maybe
  19. Simon & Garfunkel - Bridge Over Troubled Water
  20. George Michael - Faith
  21. Dire Straits - Brothers In Arms
  22. Electric Light Orchestra - Out Of The Blue
  23. Meat Loaf - Bat Out Of Hell
  24. Kate Bush - The Kick Inside
  25. Kylie Minogue - Fever
  26. Bob Dylan - Blonde on Blonde
  27. Michael Jackson - Thriller
  28. Paul Simon - Graceland
  29. Billy Joel - An Innocent Man
  30. Kinks - The Kinks
  31. Guns N Roses - Appetite For Destruction
  32. Pulp - Different Class
  33. The Beach Boys - Pet Sounds
  34. Stevie Wonder - Songs In The Key of Life
  35. Take That - Beautiful World
  36. Blondie - Parallel Lines
  37. ABBA - Arrival
  38. Prince - Purple Rain
  39. The Eagles - Hotel California
  40. The Human League - Dare
  41. Supertramp - Breakfast In America
  42. R.E.M. - Automatic For The People
  43. Wings - Band On The Run
  44. Amy Winehouse - Back To Black
  45. Joni Mitchell - Blue
  46. Bon Jovi - Slippery When Wet
  47. Elton John - Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
  48. Robbie Williams - I've Been Expecting You
  49. Marvin Gaye - What's Going On
  50. Neil Young - Harvest
  51. Carole King - Tapestry
  52. The Verve - Urban Hymns
  53. Celine Dion - Falling Into You
  54. The Who - Tommy
  55. Donna Summer - Bad Girls
  56. George Harrison - All Things Must Pass
  57. Maroon 5 - Songs About Jane
  58. Bob Marley & The Wailers - Exodus
  59. Donald Fagen - The Nightfly
  60. Gerry Rafferty - City To City
  61. David Bowie - Let's Dance
  62. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - Déjà Vu
  63. Elvis Costello - My Aim Is True
  64. Roxy Music - Flesh and Blood
  65. Steely Dan - Can't Buy A Thrill
  66. Culture Club - Colour By Numbers
  67. David Gray - White Ladder
  68. Bryan Adams - Reckless
  69. Neil Diamond - Beautiful Noise
  70. Phil Collins - Face Value
  71. Genesis - Invisible Touch
  72. Barbra Streisand - Guilty
  73. Frank Sinatra - Songs for Swingin' Lovers!
  74. Simply Red - Stars
  75. Van Morrison - Avalon Sunset
  76. Rod Stewart - Atlantic Crossing
  77. Sade - Diamond Life
  78. Buddy Holly & The Crickets - The Chirping Crickets
  79. Whitney Houston - Whitney Houston
  80. Michael Bublé - Crazy Love
  81. Shania Twain - Come On Over
  82. Emeli Sandé - Our Version Of Events
  83. Elvis Presley - Moody Blue
  84. Bee Gees - Spirits Having Flown
  85. Eric Clapton - Slowhand
  86. The Pretenders - The Pretenders
  87. Eurythmics - Be Yourself Tonight
  88. The Carpenters - A Song For You
  89. John Lennon - Double Fantasy
  90. Don McLean - American Pie
  91. Chic - C'est Chic
  92. Aretha Franklin - Lady Soul
  93. Daryl Hall & John Oates - Private Eyes
  94. Earth, Wind & Fire - I Am
  95. The Doobie Brothers - Minute by Minute
  96. Lionel Richie - Can't Slow Down
  97. Diana Ross - Diana
  98. Paul McCartney - Pipes Of Peace
  99. Dionne Warwick - Heartbreaker
  100. Cee Lo Green - The Lady Killer

Monday, April 01, 2013

Only a fascist? Well that's OK then.

There's a touch of irony to me being in Italy on the weekend that Sunderland Football Club prematurely launches the first April Fool's Day joke and sacks Martin O'Neill and brings in Paolo Di Canio.

If ever there was a European nation still struggling to rid itself of institutional racism, it's Italy. Not that I'm suggesting that Di Canio is a racist. Oh no. He's said it himself in 2005: "I am a fascist, not a racist."

Well that's alright then. Glad we could clear that up. With Di Canio now managing a first team featuring six black players, plus an Egyptian and a Korean, you would hate there to be any misunderstanding as to where the new boss stood.

Because facism - and forgive me if I've got this wrong - is the belief in a totalitarian nationalist state, that opposes any form of liberalism or socialist principles, regards war and imperialism as the right way to go, and believes in racial superiority for strong nations. Clearly, nothing to be worried about there, then.

Di Canio's appointment is something of a gamble on all fronts by Sunderland. While there's no denying he's done a decent job at Swindon, leading them into the First Division (that's the Third Division, if you're still counting in old money) and to a Championship playoff place, being handed a struggling Premier League team in April is a very big ask indeed, especially when it is only your second managerial role.

And that's before you call into question the temperament of a fiery Roman who snubbed his Celtic summer training camp in 1996 and picked up an 11-match ban for pushing over the lightweight referee Paul Alcock.

"People think they know what to expect," writes respected Italian football journalist Gabriele Marcotti in today's Times. "Workhaholic passion? Yes. Volatility and temper? Maybe." Marcotti, who was Di Canio's biographer, argues that there's a thin line between a Sir Alex Ferguson Hairdryer and Di Canio going off like Vesuvius, saying that when Fergie goes into one we giggle, and "...when Di Canio does it, he's a volatile nut job".

Fair points. But I come back to the two basic questions: 1) Is Di Canio the right man for a club hovering above the Championship trapdoor? And 2) Is Di Canio the right man for a high profile Premier League club at a time when racism is creeping back into the game?

It would be impossible to give definitive answers to either, but to the first question, only time will tell, although it strikes me as being a massive gamble.

Not so, says Jeremy Wray, the former Swindon Town chairman who appointed Di Canio to his previous - and first ever - managerial role. "At the end of our games it was pure box office. It is a great appointment for him and a fantastic appointment for Sunderland."

Wray told BBC Radio 5 Live that Di Canio will strengthen the struggling Wearsiders. "He is passionate; he eats, sleeps and drinks it. He is full on 24 hours a day and will be focused on the last seven games of the season. If you are looking for a catalyst for change he is absolutely the right man."

And to the second question, no one is suggesting that Di Canio is a racist, but his public support for a political doctrine associated with some of the worst abuses of human rights on European soil, makes his appointment at a time when racial issues are once more placing ugly stains on football highly questionable to say the least.

Wray thinks Di Canio's politics should be a non-issue. Others think differently, including David Miliband, who resigned his non-exective directorship of Sunderland to distance himself from Di Canio's supposed political association. "It is a sad knee-jerk response," Wray told the BBC. "I doubt David Miliband knows Paolo. I knew him for two years but we never spoke about politics."

Well it's unlikely that Di Canio would have told him: "Well boss, my intention is to take over Europe," and if he did, I'm sure Wray would have put such a statement down to footballing ambition.

However, if a fascist falls down in the forest and there's no one there to hear him spout off about nationalism, does he make a sound?