Friday, May 31, 2013

Sorry, darling, what was that you said?

Now, I'm not a betting man, and I'm certainly no use when it comes to knowing what stocks and shares to invest in. I once had a meeting with a 'personal banker' in which she carried out an 'investment profile' to see what I might be prepared to sink into the stock market. The outcome was that my investment rating was the lowest risk-averse level it is possible to have.

However, if I was to dabble, I would recommend that we all throw as much money as we can into any concern related to orthopaedics and osteopathy. Because if you were to look around any public space right now - the street, the bank queue, the bus, half-time at the football match - you will doubtless see many around you hunched over their smartphones.

We all do it. There's no point denying it. Any spare minute of idle brain time and out comes the phone to check e-mail, the news headlines, Twitter and Facebook status updates (and boy, does it smart when no one has updated anything for at least 10 minutes!!).

So you can see where I'm going with this tip on orthopaedic business. Trust me, there are so many cases of hunched spine waiting to be treated within the next decade or so, you'll be rolling in it if you invest now. Which is a lot more rolling that those actually undergoing the treatment.

Phones and tablet devices have become a mass means of avoiding the rest of the world. It's no surprise, then, that research by healthcare provider Benenden Health found that millions of people in the UK (yes, an island nation and proud of it) are now so averse to engaging strangers in small talk that one in five can go as long as six months without talking to someone they don't know.

Benenden's research suggests that online communication has taken over, and we are more comfortable communicating via social media and electronic communications than having to talk to the face of someone we don't already know.

That said, for the socially maladjusted the mobile phone has become a lifebelt for those who would prefer to avoid social contact. How often do you share an office lift with someone you partially know who only looks up from their CrackBerry to see themselves out through the doors?

At any given moment, on any given railway platform, people will be hunched over their mobile phones. Perhaps understandable above ground, where there is a signal and, who really wants some stranger offering unsolicited jabber as you wait for the delayed 07.40 to Waterloo?

But on underground trains, the situation is different. Reception is patchy to the point of annoyingly frustrating. That doesn't prevent the smartphone from providing welcome relief from the sweat-inducing challenge of Avoiding Eye Contact On The Tube. 

Londoners and New Yorkers will know this. Indeed, on the London Underground, the golden rule is not to engage in conversation with anyone about anything. When warning posters would, during the IRA bombing campaign in the UK, warn of the dangers of packages and bags left unattended, it was possible for the average London commuter to sit next to one of those cartoon-style bombs, with BOMB written on it and a fuse burning away, and carry on reading the Evening Standard on account of the fact it was "nothing to do with me mate".

Today, with London Underground installing subterranean WiFi throughout the Tube system, commuters will be glued even more tightly to their mobiles and tablets. However, since the WiFi trial started last summer on the Tube during the London Olympics, it has already created its own unique problem: anecdotal evidence from Underground staff suggests that there has been a marked increase in the number of mobile devices being dropped onto the Tube tracks, causing inevitable delays to services as they are retrieved. Yes, I thought of "Mind the App" too.

The Victoria Line is even trialling a loudspeaker announcement: "Please ensure you stand well back from the platform edge when using your mobiles and smartphones" and will be "monitoring its impact over the coming months", which is possibly a poor choice of words. I certainly can't remember an epidemic of newspapers and books being dropped onto Underground rails.

However, it is not just workplaces and Tube stations that phone-assisted social avoidance is prevalent: mobile operator O2 recently announced the results of a mobile phone-use study in which it found the average Briton spends 24 minutes every day browsing the Internet on their phone (more than any other activity), with checking social networks coming in at 16 minutes, listening to music - a measly quarter of an hour, and game-playing 13 minutes - surprisingly, the same amount of time as actually using the phone to make a call. 

More alarming of all is that the O2 Mobile Life 2013 report reveals that Britons now spend more time staring at their smartphones than spending quality time with their partners, with average smartphone use totalling almost two hours a day, a opposed to only 97 minutes with a better half. Knowing of some couples who actually communicate with each other via Facebook - and not necessarily in an exchange of sickening "Honey Bunny" messages - this last factoid doesn't come as a great surprise.

All of which begs the question, has digital social connectivity really improved social connectivity overall, or are we just becoming more embedded in our insular always-on LCD screen lives?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

He's in the best-selling show: David Bowie is... at the V&A

When the brain starts wondering about the enormity of the cosmos there gets to a point that you have to give up. Because try as you might, the human brain is just rubbish when trying to figure stuff out like what existed before The Big Bang. And what started it. Or whom.

And as if that doesn't render you cross-eyed, scientists now hint that there may even be more than one universe, and that space and therefore everything we know about it has no boundary. Which only gets worse when you start to contemplate what - if anything - existed before the Big Bang and how we went from bugger all of anything to, well, all of this.

The idea that before The Big Bang there was nothing, some more nothing, lots more nothing, and then something, is a little like life up until January 8 this year, when the world encountered a space oddity of its own. For early in the morning of David Bowie's 66th birthday, an extended period of nothing and more nothing suddenly became:

That surprise was, of course, something arguably more important than the creation of all matter - the totally  unexpected return of Bowie from almost a decade-long exclusion from public life, a period in which many had even contemplated the termination of one of the most talked about, analysed and theorized artistic careers in human history.

That may sound like hyperbole but, with the exception of The Beatles, there really has been no other artist to have been placed under the microscope quite as forensically. Which, I suspect, is partially what he wanted.

In the BBC's epic new documentary Five Years, which made its bow on Saturday night, Bowie is seen in the early 1970s castigating an interviewer for calling him a rock star: "I'm not - I'm not in rock'n'roll", describing elsewhere that "I feel like an actor when I’m on stage, rather than a rock artist." You could almost hear Keith Richards, somewhere, expectorating that bronchial cackle of his, mocking the apparent pretence of such a statement.

But, then, there has never been an artist with such a well-developed sense of identity and understanding of the value of evolving it. Madonna may have reinvented her image countless times, but these have been mere costume changes. Bowie, on the other hand, has repeatedly regenerated as and when the artistic whim has taken him, from frizzy-haired folkie to Ziggy, porcelain-skinned, emaciated cokehead to Philly soulboy, early pioneer of contemplative avant-garde ambience to inventor of New Romanticism - the list goes on.

Myriad books and the handful of Bowie documentaries may have captured these changes, and captured them well, but it has taken the David Bowie is... exhibition at London's Victoria & Albert Museum to curate them into a cohesive narrative.

From the moment you walk in you are presented with a soundbite of Bowie's own self-definition: "I could have been the Cockney Dylan", he is heard saying through the audio headset that accompanies your tour. It's actually some time before you see Bowie himself: at the entrance is a screen showing a black and white TV interview with Gilbert and George, talking opaquely about their art and looking more like a Vic and Bob piss-take than the feted artists themselves. Their appearance - and the lack of the exhibition's subject - is unnerving, but sets the scene that you are clearly not in for the usual rock memorabilia of a couple of cigarette-burned guitars, a knackered drum kit and the obligatory school report.

Instead, you get the story of this most complex of personalities, from his 1947 birthplace and initial childhood home in Stansfield Road, Brixton, to his formative years in leafy Bromley, through his teenage interests in American rock'n'roll, to his admission into the Mod world, hanging out in Soho with friend and fellow (or rival) Mod, Marc Bolan, before taking the obligatory art school path to full adulthood for almost every major British musician of the same generation.

But, as David Bowie is... richly illustrates, what happened next was anything but conventional, as he adhered himself to "using rock'n'roll as a medium", a platform for the characters he would embody as he transformed David Robert Jones into - as the BBC Nationwide reporter Bernard Falk disparagingly referred to him - a "bizarre, self-constructed freak".

Those characters - Ziggy Stardust and numerous variations on the detached alien theme - are all brought together by the V&A's Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, who were given largely unrestricted access to the David Bowie Archive. 

The resulting display is a fascinating array of more than 300 individual items, including original handwritten lyrics to songs like Rock'n'Roll Suicide, or the studio instrument hire order for the Space Oddity session. Though items like these are fairly typical of the music retrospective, the minutiae of detail across such smaller exhibits illustrates the exhaustive thought put in by the V&A team to telling the Bowie story.

The exhibition's highlights are, inevitably, those items most associated with Bowie's numerous images - the Ziggy Stardust bodysuits (including the one worn on Top of the Pops for the groundbreaking performance of Starman), the Union Jack frock coat by Alexander McQueen and worn by Bowie on the Earthling cover, and the Pierrot costume from the Ashes To Ashes video that pretty much launched New Romanticism.

Abstracted from their original context, be it live performances, television appearances or promotional films, they not only lack animation but also the colours that, on TV seemed so vibrant. Shoes and boots look larger than they should be (friends have commented on how relatively small Bowie's feet are). The freakiest show, if you will allow me.

David Bowie is... evolves as the artist himself has, moving through the obsessions and fascinations, concepts - good and bad, the evolution of video as a music medium, the inevitable development of an acting career, and the haircuts. The many, many haircuts.

As you reach its conclusion you arrive in a giant, video-walled chamber showing clips of Ziggy and the Spiders which argue the strong case that behind the performance artist has always been a performer of an inventiveness and charisma matched by few, and even then we're talking stage talents as rare as Jagger or Presley.

And, just as Bowie himself this year reminded us, as you think you've had your lot, there's one more section, a coda to the whole experience, which, via near-silent video footage of a photo session some years ago, shows Bowie strumming a vintage guitar, pulling Gene Vincent and Elvis poses. Singularly, and without costume or accompaniment, he ends the exhibition of his own career with a fascinatingly simple explanation of what the fuss is all about.

David Bowie is... continues at the Victoria & Albert Museum until August 11. Although all advance-booking online tickets have sold out, tickets can be bought at the V&A if you go in person to the ticket desk before 10am each morning. Full details of ticketing can be found on the V&A website.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Eric Clapton live at the Royal Albert Hall: God comes home. Again.

Photo: Ron Kirby
Call him what you like, call him "Clapped-Out", call him Slowhand, even call him the Almighty, Eric Clapton is still at heart a blues guitarist whom, if you're into blues guitar, outshines most others.

Purists will say he's a charlatan because he doesn't use all six strings, or that he sold out when he went country, or that he swapped heroin and booze for Ferrari and Armani and lost his credibility in the process.

But at 68, the somewhat shy superstar who walks on stage at the Royal Albert Hall with the sort of brief, awkward wave you give an unfamiliar neighbour, is still - when he allows himself - as thunderous a player as he was when a cheeky graffitist dawbed "Clapton is God" on a Tube station wall, 45 years ago.

That wave - repeated with equal abbreviation for the encore - is as much crowd interaction as you get with Eric. There are no rambling tales, jokes or orchestrated crowd singalongs; applauding fans get a cursory "thankyew!" after each song and then it's on with the next one. This isn't, by the way, a detached rock legend failing to engage with the faithful: to a certain extent, this is still the diffident Surbiton schoolboy who learned his craft busking, under-age, in the riverside pubs of Kingston-upon-Thames. Before, obviously, becoming the world's most talked about British guitarist.

We are here for the fifth night of his seven-night residency at the Albert Hall, a venue Clapton has played almost 200 times since his debut there in 1964, and a venue that has become regarded as his spiritual home.

It is, though, an odd place for rock deity to ply their trade. Despite being more ornate Victorian wedding cake than rock amphitheatre, with its plush red velvet boxes and debenture seating, its surprisingly low stage and modest 4,000 capacity gives an intimacy that, perhaps, veers closest to the suburban saloon bars Clapton would travel by Green Line bus, from rural Ripley in Surrey, to play.

© Google
It is still an incongruous venue to hear the music of the Mississippi Delta. But it is still a joy to hear it. Clapton has, of course, come a long, long way from churning out Robert Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy songs on his Hoyer acoustic, bought for £2 by his grandmother in Bell Music on the Ewell Road in Tolworth. Which is now a hairdressers and a cafe.

This run at the Albert Hall - part of a tour to promote his enjoyably easy-going album Old Sock and celebrating his 50th year as a professional musician - condenses into one 22-song set the variety of his repertoire: the bluesy ones, the soulful ones, the quiet ones and the sort of fretboard workouts that started all the fuss in the first place with The Yardbirds, John Mayall and Cream.

Tonight, however, the somewhat sedate figure on stage seems a world away from the British Blues demon of the 60s, the 70s rock casualty, or the recovering playboy of the 80s. Throughout all these eras, all five decades of his coin-earning years, Clapton has been a sturdy professional, surrounded by the similarly proficient. Tonight he has with him the superb Paul Carrack - Britain's best white soul voice, bar none - on organ and vocals, longtime supporting keyboard player Chris Stainton, young buck Doyle Bramhall II (a ringer for the frizzy-haired 1967-version Clapton) on guitar (and who takes his fair share of soloing), Greg Leisz on pedal steel, Willie Weeks on bass and Steve Jordan on drums.

For those who go back a while with Clapton's work, the opening number of Hello Old Friend, from 1976's No Reason To Cry, is a bold and refreshingly unexpected beginning to the set.

My Father's Eyes, which follows, is a mere whippersnapper at only 15 years old, but the guitarist stretches back even further with his third track of the night, resurrecting Tell The Truth from the Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs album recorded under the guise of Derek and the Dominos. Those less familiar with Clapton's oldest canon might be fooled into thinking they're listening to new tracks, such is the fresh energy this band applies to such old material.

Gotta Get Over actually sounds like it was first written and recorded in the early 70s, despite being one of two new compositions included on Old Sock, while Black Cat Bone messes completely with chronology - a choppy blues first cut in the mid-80s by Albert Collins, as opposed to those in the set with considerably older heritage.

Then we're back to raid the Dominos era with the uplifting Got To Get Better In A Little While, here given a hefty gospel treatment that allows backing singers Michelle John and Sharon White to open the taps fully.

Carrack gets his first chance of the evening to showcase that voice, taking the lead vocal on the much-covered standard Come Rain Or Come Shine, before handing back to Clapton for the first hair-on-neck 'moment' of the evening: Badge.

The trouble with listening to legends playing the material that first established their legend status is that familiarity - especially for a 45-year-old song like Badge - can inhibit any fresh listening. How can the Stones go through playing Jumpin' Jack Flash and Satisfaction still, or McCartney with Yesterday, after all these years is beyond me (revenue, I suspect, helps), but Clapton still manages to make Badge sound box-fresh. Over the years I must have heard that solo - including trying to play it myself - and the familiar V-IV-II-I-V riff thousands of times. Clapton will have played it even more, and yet he continues to effortlessly put passion through that Stratocaster even now.

It is perfectly understandable, then, that we reach the "Seated" part of the evening. Electrified instruments are swapped for acoustic and chairs are brought on for the band as we cruise through a lengthy, seven-song sequence of gentler, 'unplugged' numbers - starting with the 1940s blues hit Driftin', the venerable Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out and Paul Carrack singing his own composition It Ain't Easy (To Love You).

Photo: Linda Wnek

Layla, which you'll remember is an agitated song about infatuation, is reduced to something of a cabaret shuffle. A shame, really. The MTV Unplugged version was an entertaining novelty but should have been left as a one-off before returning to the full-blooded version.

Tears In Heaven - which must still be a painful song for Clapton to reproduce, given it's inspiration - is given a frivolous Caribbean lilt that defies the tragedy behind it. And then Wonderful Tonight, that contractually-obliged, dewy-eyed wedding reception perennial, is delivered with the only bespoke alteration being Bramhall getting to play the famous slowed down country riff beloved of amateur guitarists and loathed by those violently indifferent to the song's insipidness in fairly equal measure.

Appropriately, as the music stops the chairs are taken away, the band blasts into more vintage fare: Blues Power. A 12-bar boogie from Clapton's eponymous solo debut in 1970, it was recorded in that purple period of rock music between 1967 and 1971 when vitality was at its peak, drugs were a creative spur rather than financial and social millstone they were to soon become, and output was a rich mid-Atlantic soup of blues, country, folk and any other genre that came to mind.

It was during this period that the Rolling Stones made an authentic recording of Robert Johnson's Love In Vain (featuring, I recently discovered, Ry Cooder on guitar). Clapton applied his own authenticity to it on his tribute album Me And Mr. Johnson, but tonight gives it a full R'n'B oomph with the entire band flailing away (later to do the same with another Johnson cover from that album, Little Queen of Spades).

Crossroads, another unavoidable entry in Clapton's live repertoire, emerges at a frantic pace. Such are the different tempos I've heard it played over the years, in my head it sounds like someone messing with the RPM. Moreover, like so many interpretations of classic songs of the Delta, Crossroads has long lost the high-pitched folksiness of the Johnson original, but as a old friend of Clapton's - it's the name he's given both his Antiguan drug recovery centre and the fundraising guitar festival in its honour - it's a song he could play a thousand different ways without losing anything.

Though open to less variation, Cocaine is, at least, more of a crowd singalong than we've had all night. Myriad bar room blues bands have given it a go, but no-one - not even JJ Cale who wrote and recorded it in the first place - has managed to give the song the same crowd-pleasing amplitude.

And that is part of Clapton's enduring appeal: he may never have been the most pioneering songwriter - though his songwriting has, at times, been tragically overlooked by his instrumental prowess - but his true gift is that blues-rooted guitar. Yes, there may even be better contemporary blues guitar players - Rory Gallagher, Albert Lee, even fellow Surrey suburbanite Jeff Beck, but such competition should never detract from how good Clapton has always been, and still is.

I've seen Clapton before, but this was, after many attempts, is the first time I've seen him at the Albert Hall. A venue is just a venue, of course, but within its rotund chamber, Clapton's fluidity as a truly unique guitarist comes through with rich and enveloping clarity. Even if you've never had much interest in the blues, or guitars, or even Clapton himself, you can't help being impressed by true virtuosity which may have improved with age, but must have been mind-blowing when, as an 18-year-old, he first rocked south-west London after joining The Yardbirds in October 1963.

Seeing him at a venue he has likened to playing his front room (I presume for its familiarity rather than opulent expanse) could be a little like going to a West End musical like Les Miserables: it's been going a long time, you more or less know all the tunes, and you know that most of the rest of the audience will be mainly older than you and wearing their smart going out to the theatre togs.

Yes, the audience will be a little bit conventional, notably white, middle class and probably driving Jags, but sooner or later they will loose their English shackles. On this particular evening, it takes the encore to leave everyone standing on their feet for the finale of Sunshine Of Your Love.

Still, to this day, the only psychedelic rock song to feature a riff from Blue Moon, it is dispatched by the Clapton ensemble with hearty relish, much to the crowd's clear glee. Why, there are even a few awkward attempts at air guitar. Thankfully these were few, and rendered ridiculous by the arrival onstage of Gary Clark Jr., the brilliant bluesman-come-actor whom Clapton has had as support act during the Albert Hall residency.

Closing with the old Joe Cocker song High Time We Went, with Carrack again making his presence felt on vocals and Stainton - who co-wrote the song - pumping away at the piano - it draws a warming blanket of comfort over the evening.

Clapton leaves the stage scratching his head as if going indoors for a cup of tea after putting in some bedding plants. It's a saunter, but not one of audience disrespect, just one who has seen it all before. As a guitarist, he still is God. I just would expect him to be rather bored of that tag by now.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Glad it's all over

So that’s it. Done until August. Or July. Or the end of June, depending on where your club sits geographically or hierarchically.

The 2012-2013 football season is, more or less, over, bar a Champions League Final at Wembley between two German teams (so twice as guaranteed to end with penalties), and the Championship Playoff Final two days later at the same venue.

Has it been a vintage nine months? No. Not when its highlight has been the retirements of a manager and the replica shirt salesman who once played for him.

Not when the Premier League is won four weeks early by an in-development Manchester United, with the reigning champions failing to put up much of a fight.

And not when the wooden spoon positions of third and fourth become so critical to clubs' fortunes that they become performance objectives in their own right, fought over like the last grains of rice in a famine.

The 2012-13 season has, to be honest, been pretty mediocre. And that mediocrity hasn't been helped by the recurrence of racism as a core issue, the brief flare-ups of old-school hooliganism, and players and their clubs doing little to protect their reputations from their own behavioural misdemeanors.

Added to that, we've witnessed the sorry, greedy, paranoid state of affairs in which by March, 103 English league managers and coaches had been sacked, resigned or, to use that old chestnut, departed “by mutual consent”. What kind of season is it when onetime European champions Nottingham Forest fire four managers, and that chickens-in-a-basket case Blackburn Rovers end up with their fourth their season since August?

Like a Grand Prix, it is rare these days to end a football season feeling completely satisfied. Tired, yes, out of pocket, certainly, but after the requisite 38 games (or 69 if you're Chelsea...), it's difficult to look back completely objectively and say "that was brilliant from start to finish". Because, short of 20 teams taking it down to the wire at either end of table, seasons tend to be as attritional as a French battlefield in 1917.

So, to formerly shutter this term, What Would David Bowie Do? presents its club-by-club end-of-term opinion on the Barclays Premier League 2012-13, in the process offering no apology whatsoever for the longer rant about Chelsea than anyone else (at least it's spared you a separate post...):

Manchester United (89 points, goal difference +43) Champions

On the opening day of the 1995-1996 season, that football sage Alan Hansen told Match of the Day viewers that "You can't win anything with kids" after a somewhat juvenile Manchester United team went down 3-1 to Aston Villa. That United team went on to win one of the club's 11 league titles under Sir Alex Ferguson.

United looked similarly young this season, and history repeated itself with a defeat, at home on the opening day. It would appear that Hansen's retirement from Match of the Day hasn't come soon enough. But enough about him.

This may not have been a vintage season for Manchester United, but in his customary manner, SAF fixed his one main problem audaciously by bringing in van Persie, and blooded more youngsters in to the extent that the likes of Phil Jones ended the season looking like he'd been a first team regular for years. United's season ultimately prevailed, but you have to wonder what a more spirited title defence from City would have achieved, and what if more teams like Chelsea had gone to Old Trafford and played United at their own game.

I'm not going to add to the already universal lament for Sir Alex, save that despite all we have vituperatively aimed at him from the terraces down the years, his remarkable record at Manchester United does speak for itself. Less so the largely mute savant Paul Scholes - an inspirational midfielder at times, an unguided cluster bomb on occasion - whose eventual retirement deserves recognition. So, too, David Beckham. OK, he hadn't played for United in ten years, spending that time in Spain, Italy, California and France shifting merchandise for Adidas, but it was at Old Trafford under Ferguson that one of football's greatest stars was created, along with a modicum of ability.

Manchester City (78pts, GD +32) 2nd

Chelsea responded to their first league title in fifty years by winning another one in 2006. Manchester City responded to their first league title in 44 years by becoming increasingly dysfunctional, with their much respected manager Roberto Mancini losing his focus (Balotelli) and his political nouse in both the boardroom and the dressing room.

Finishing second is never a bad thing, but as successive managers at Stamford Bridge have found, second is always second best in the eyes of ambitious and success-greedy proprietors who believe that their investments owe them a right.

Getting sacked was an astonishingly cruel outcome for Mancini, but with Manchester United not being as rampant this season as their points and securing the title prematurely might suggest, the 11-point, 11-goal deficit with their neighbours became enough of a gaping chasm to expose a team that could have done much better with the right management approach. To end the season with a management clearout before the final game suggests a poisonous atmosphere

Chelsea (75pts, GD +36) 3rd

If I were to believe the club and it's patronizingly-titled "Interim First Team Coach" for the last seven months, all that Chelsea set out to achieve this season was achieved.

The reality is somewhat different. Winning the one trophy that, at the beginning of the season, wasn't even amongst the seven Chelsea were contending for, is an unnatural victory.

Of course, as a fan, I am delighted they won a consecutive European trophy and joined the small elite of clubs to have won all three of the continent's major silverware. But, still, Chelsea  as ever the masters of dysfunction, what with their handling of the Clattenburg affair, the aftermath of the John Terry racism mess, and the annual managerial switcheroo. Keeping Roberto Di Matteo only long enough to pay lip service to his successes as interim boss (yeah, only the European Cup and FA Cup...) was hardly a shining moment of endearment to the fanbase, which they worsened by hiring the most divisive individual they could have possibly chosen. Rafa Benitez says - with some justification, I'll concede - his appointment has been vindicated. I would say that third place and a second-choice, default trophy only vindicates the decision to make him an interim coach.

Performance-wise, Chelsea regressed this season. Yes, I know, 69 fixtures and all that, but if that stretched the side so much, why did they have virtually a full 11 out on loan, with Romalu Lukaku banging 'em in for fun at West Bromwich Albion and Thibaut Courtois helping Athletico Madrid to the Copa del Rey and third place in La Liga? What, too, was the point of replacing Di Matteo with Benitez when the waiter's record hasn't been fundamentally any better - an identical win ratio of 57% over a similar number of games in charge.

Did Chelsea progress at all over the course of this season? Yes, in spots. Eden Hazard eventually settled in to become a lethal component of an attack, with Juan Mata making himself indispensable and justifiably the club's player of the season. Fernando Torres still spent most of 2012-13 as a grumpy teenager, but despite not scoring in the league between December and last Sunday, a 23-goal haul for the season is not at all bad.

Further back, Chelsea was, at times, a defensively gaping chasm this season. But at least give to Benitez for converting David Luiz to holding midfield, where his discipline improved out of all recognition, and he began to appear destined to become one of the club's big personalities, a latter day Joe Allon, and even a captain in the making.

Mention should also be made of Nathan Ake, the Dutch teenager who not only emulates Ruud Gullitt's former hair-do, he also emulates Gullitt's midfield presence. And finally, hats off to Paolo Ferreira: as loyal a servant as you'll find these days in football, he played out his contract at Chelsea without complaint or going on strike, serving as a true squad player as well as providing invaluable support and mentoring to the club's young Brazilians. Obrigado!

Arsenal (73 pts, GD +35) 4th

There is a scene at the end of the terrific World War II movie The Bridge At Remagen where Robert Vaughan, playing a somewhat sympathetic German officer defending a Rhine crossing from the advancing Allies, is carted off by the SS to be shot. In his final scene, Vaughan's Major Krüger asks an SS goon whether the planes he can hear are German or Allied. "Enemy planes!" comes the curt SS reply, to which Krüger, with a downbeat look on his face mutters, "But who is the enemy...?" before being shot. I mention this only because Arsène Wenger has, at many times this season, carried the same look as Vaughan's in that final scene.

As the season has worn on it has been obvious that Wenger's Arctic-tog Millets sleeping bag-come-overcoat wasn't for keeping out the cold but protecting him from his own side's bullets. He has, on occasion, looked quite forlorn and helpless, the perfect presentation of that line "hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way" from Pink Floyd's Time. The problem is, how much of this has been his own fault? On paper - and certainly if you are a Spurs fan - achieving Champions League football for the 16th consecutive season is a glittering prize, but crucially, it is still the only reward Arsenal can claim after eight dismal years without so much a silver teaspoon in the trophy room. And that just isn't good enough. Arsenal are still a brilliant side led by a brilliant manager, but at times it's like finding Hendrix playing bar room blues in a provincial pub.

This is simply where Arsenal shouldn't be. Two positions higher, they'd be runners up. Three, champions. The 12-points separation between Manchester United and Arsenal isn't such an unassailable gap, but then that only inflames the situation further. What difference would a striker have made to those 12 points? What difference would some flair in midfield have made? Would some better options for creativity have made things better?

"Boring, boring, Arsenal", is how we used to chide visiting Gooners, but more for the disciplined way they got on with being annoyingly more successful than ourselves. Now that 'boring tag' seems to apply to a team that will happily achieve another tilt at the Champions League, taking the nice little welcome package that comes with it, and still do nothing about making one of football's great clubs perform like it.

Only Wenger can really answer these questions. Fourth is no disaster, and no one team actually deserves anything, anyway. But even to this Chelsea fan, the look on my face this season as I've looked across London has been as flummoxed as that on Wenger's. Except that it's his job to fix the problem.

Tottenham Hotspur (72 pts, GD +20) 5th

Much rested on André Villas-Boas's young shoulders this season when he stepped into Harry Redknapp's shoes at White Hart Lane. Clearly, the chemistry at Chelsea had been all wrong - would Spurs be any better? Clearly, yes, and although fifth place and another crack at Europe's second-string competition is not ideal (it was the same result that got Redknapp fired), AVB has restored Spurs to be a genuine top-four challenger this season, as Redknapp had done before his mojo departed in early 2012.

It would be tempting to say this season has been all about Gareth Bale for Tottenham, but it's patently clear that without him, Spurs are lacking somewhat, and can't rely totally on Adebayor and Dempsey, or Parker, for that matter, to create chances. Hanging on to Bale has to be Tottenham's inter-season priority, with a much needed talent refresh elsewhere a close second.

Everton (63 pts, GD +15) 6th

David Moyes has done all he can do for Everton. His appointment as Sir Alex Ferguson's successor is what we all expected - including, apparently, Ferguson himself. As demonstrated at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, Everton - despite their apparent threadbare finances - are no-nonsense grafters in the manner of their manager of 11 years, playing robustly and effectively when consensus would say there's no need. Losing the substantial Fellaini would be a bitter blow, Leighton Baines even worse, but Everton - for all their modesty - have been left in creditable shape by the only possible candidate for the vacancy at Old Trafford.

Liverpool (61 pts, GD +28) 7th

For those still stuck in the era of big hair and bigger moustaches on Merseyside, to end seventh behind Everton but with a greater goal difference must be agony. It must be even harder to accept that in Luis Suarez, despite his headline-grabbing, arm-chewing antics, Liverpool had one of the Premier League's star assets this term. Brendan Rodgers even managed to return Daniel Sturridge to something approaching the quality he should have shown at Chelsea. But those aside, a disappointing season for the mighty Reds. Inconsistent and lacking the kind of strength across the park that Liverpool would have had without question in eras past. On the upside, Jamie Carragher retired, so we'll no longer have to put up with his scally whining.

West Bromwich Albion (49 pts, GD -4) 8th

OK, to be third at the end of October was the sort of start Baggies fans could have only dreamed of. And we have been there before with unfancied sides enjoying the nosebleed reaches of the table within the season's first three months. To end eigth may be disappointing, but put into context, not to be sniffed at either. Steve Clarke is still learning the art of management, and learning how to deal with player fallouts like Peter Odemwingie's ridiculous show-up at QPR (which he must be relieved about now...), which suggested an unhappy dressing room.

Swansea City (46 pts, GD -4) 9th

Roberto Martinez, Brendan Rogers and, this season, Michael Laudrup have made Swansea a team to keep a close eye on. Though never realistically likely to bother the upper echelon - for now - this term Laudrup (and a ball boy) helped them to the League Cup (their first trophy in 101 years) and produced a Top 10 finish. The signing of Michu was a big statement of a club with a very healthy attitude to development and, although the final third of the season didn't bring quite the same momentum of results as the first two-thirds, Laudrup has established himself as yet another Swansea manager with a future, and the club, an even better attacking package than ever before.

West Ham United (46 pts, GD -8) 10th

For a side connected, it would seem, by bungee rope to the Championship, Big Sam has instilled some stability - not to mention restored 'Ammers' customary robustness on their latest return to the Premier League. Tenth place may appear like the mid-table mediocrity Coventry went season-after-season pursuing and securing, but it reflects their solid home form (which took points off the two Manchesters and Chelsea) as well as their somewhat weaker performance on the road. The departure of Carlton Cole might indicate a bigger clearout by Allardyce, but the first priority must be pinning down Andy Carroll.

Norwich City (44 pts, GD -17) 11th

Chris Hughton's dismissal from Newcastle in December 2010 still sticks in the craw of many, so it appeared that his appointment to Norwich, succeeding Paul Lambert, promised to be the sort of "good guy lands good club" story. And so it has proven, sort of, with Norwich pulling off creditable home wins over Manchester United and Arsenal, and, despite some relegation wobbles, coming to a halt in 11th. Norwich fans will want more, of course, or at least less hovering around the Championship trap door that has detracted from their game, but the potential for Norwich to be a top half player is there for their taking.

Fulham (43pts, GD -10) 12th

We all love Martin Jol. Big old Anglophile bear of a manager. We all find his "...and ah think..." interviews endearingly frank, which is no great surprise from a Dutchman. The trouble is, Fulham have hardly progressed under him. His squad has aged and even with Dimitar Berbatov/Andy Garcia in the ranks, Fulham have failed to look anything more than mid-table pedestrians. Jol may pay the price for this, with an unsettled Gus Poyet at Brighton possibly considering the 'other' west Londoners his next career development platform.

Stoke City (42 points, GD -11) 13th

No vintage season for Stoke. Not so long ago they were the Premier League's Awkward Squad, possessing the disruptive ability  to bruise the egos of clubs with bigger purses and bigger reputations. This time around they've looked less than average at times, prompting questions about whether Tony Pulis had taken them as far as he could. Developments, yesterday, at the Britannia Stadium said that they had. Sir Alex Ferguson lasted 26 years at Manchester United, the result of a perfect storm of club, finances, players bought and players brought through. Tony Pulis lasted just seven years by comparison, but even that is a lengthy stay in this day and age, when simply establishing your side as a Premier League fixture isn't enough. Directors want more, and the supporters want even more in the way of team development..

Southampton (41 pts, GD -11) 14th

Much like the Little Britain sketch in which serial ASBO collector Vicky Pollard complained that she didn't have a "brahn baby" like every other girl on her estate, Premier League clubs could be forgiven for missing out on the phenomenon of being taken over by a mad but wealthy foreign owner who promptly goes about creating dysfunctionality like an unwanted outbreak of acne in adulthood. Thus, Southampton acquired their very own sugar daddy, Markus Liebherr, who subsequently established Italian banker Nicola Cortese as club chairman, and then they set about securing Saints' long-term future. Keeping Nigel Adkins in place as manager maintained at least two seasons of stability at the club with renewed ambition, but his generally-deemed unfair sacking in January, suggested another foreign owner gone nuts. But unlike, say, the Di Matteo/Benitez transition, the appointment of Mauricio Pochettino has at least endeared the fans, especially with the team's adoption of attacking football. What won't go down well, inevitably, is a precarious bottom half finish, with that term "safety" being a more acceptable term than "almost".

Aston Villa (41 pts, GD -22) 15th

Villa have had a truly baffling season. From Premier League staples, they started taking on water quite ominously. The 8-0 Christmas defeat to Chelsea - a fixture that normally gives Villa rich pickings and damns the incumbent Chelsea coach to an Abramovich payoff - was a low point from which they only just managed to recover in the nick of time in the final two weeks of the season. That said, Paul Lambert is in the luxurious position of having a club owner who recognises that his manager is trying to build a young new team. It will take time, as the disjointed performances this season have exposed, but in Christian Benteke they have a precocious talent to build around or behind. For now, 2012-13 may simply be a season for Villa to draw a line under and build on.

Up and down the land, the final day of the 2012-13 season was notable for its so-what results, the odd last-minute escape and a handful of retirements. Of them all, none were more poignant than that of Stiliyan 'Stan' Petrov, the Villa captain diagnosed with acute leukaemia - "this crazy thing" as he calls it. Football wishes him every success in continuing to fight it and fight for those who also have it.

Newcastle United (41 pts, GD -23) 16th

How Newcastle ended up 16th (and that could have been a lot worse) from their fifth-place finish last season is an abject lesson in how easily - and quickly - it can all go wrong in the Premier League. No sooner had the club tied itself to Alan Pardew for a six-year contract, than the points started dropping like Christmas tree pine needles on Boxing Day. Another club which hasn't been without its own form of owner meddling-induced madness, Newcastle's bright start almost ended in relegation, the football equivalent of the office lift's cable snapping. The New Year influx of young French talent may have been good news at the time, but their apparent failure to gel appeared to be major factors in the telephone number-score defeats inflicted in the second two-thirds of the season.

Sunderland (39 pts, GD -13) 17th

If this season's verdicts seem to draw mainly on the instability of so many clubs, then it's no accident. Managerial firings well into the season have now become so commonplace that we're pretty blasé about them. The sight of Martin O'Neill - arguably one of the most respected gaffers in the game - struggling to arrest Sunderland's slide with a squad seemingly lacking any of the passion and nuclear reactor-like drive of the Northern Irishman was a pity. So what do they do next? Bring in a manager with no Premier League experience and a historic sympathy towards fascism. Not since the FA bungled their attempted appointment of Luiz Felipe Scolari as England coach has a managerial arrival been such a PR disaster. To his credit, Paolo di Canio kept Sunderland out of relegation - just - but only by coming second in the 'mini league' fighting for Premier League survival in the lower reaches. In the process, it would appear, di Canio has applied his own version of tough love. Time, and next season, will see whether his approach has been the right one. For now, this season has to be marked down as a very poor one for Sunderland.

Wigan Athletic (36 points, GD -26) 18th Relegated

Yes, yes, yes. It was all very Hollywood to see Wigan beat Manchester City in the dying seconds of the FA Cup Final. Yes, yes, yes, we Brits love an underdog. Roberto Martinez is one of football's most likeable and erudite managers, and Dave Whelan, apparently, one of those old school, local-boy-made-good chairman (unlike that porky upstart across the country at Newcastle...). But, romance aside, Wigan left it too little too late to fight themselves out of the drop. Always a good side to watch, always - by reputation - a good side to play for under Martinez, it just didn't go right this term. When they had to dig themselves out of trouble, the response was brilliant. Just too late. If Whelan can keep Martinez, and the core of the squad, they'll be back.

Reading (28pts, GD -30) 19th Relegated 

Have I mentioned dysfunctional clubs already? Oh well, have another one. Same story, promoted, start to flag, didn't invest, replaced the manager with almost a clone of his predecessor, and still found themselves going straight back down to the Championship. Sadly, Reading's Premier League season was simply one of underachievement, and they paid the price.

20th Queens Park Rangers (25 pts, GD -30) 20th Relegated 

Manchester City and Chelsea could easily look down the cliff face that is the Premier League and see QPR losing their grip and plummeting back to the Championship. While QPR's equally minted rivals have an infinitely stronger tenure on their elite league status, QPR's season has served as a stark reminder that, no matter how much money you throw at the problem, and even bringing in Harry Redknapp to work his Houdini magic, if you don't have your playing assets kicking the damn ball in the right manner, you will get sucked out of the top flight as fast as you were blown into it on a gilded magic carpet.

Things were a mess when Redknapp walked into Loftus Road, as Mark Hughes' heals were seen skidding off into the distance. Hughes, yet to truly demonstrate the same managerial form he had running Wales in his first coaching job, left his successor in November with a team who appeared happy to slide inexorably towards the Premier League exit, while continuing to cash Tony Fernandes generous cheques. Jose Boswinga - a flash-in-the-pan right-back at Chelsea - took on the mantle of representing best QPR's mercenary player profile, with his ridiculous refusenik stance showing that Redknapp had, like Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen (and forgive another war movie reference), been handed the worst of the worst.

While it may seem generous not to blame Redknapp, blame for result after lurid result must be placed squarely on the players' shoulders. For once, the accusation that a team gets a club relegated, not the manager, has been proven correct. If Fernandes has the ability to do so, he will let Redknapp rebuild in the Championship, while ruthlessly discarding those who patently don't want to be at QPR, haven't wanted to be there, and shouldn't be there any longer.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Go ahead, Daft Punk, make my day

The 1980s. Never really the fashion high spot of the last century. Jacket sleeves rolled up to the elbows, puffball skirts and massive hair. On everyone.

The decade that gave us these things really wasn't as cool as fashionable ironists today - with their skinny ties and spectacles large enough to moonlight as department store windows - would like us to think.

But then when you are Daft Punk - enigmatic Paris DJs Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, hidden beneath space helmets (think Top Gear's Stig in duplicate) - you have free reign to tap any genre you like.

Which is why Random Access Memories - the duo's spectacularly over-hyped new album - unashamedly sets out to "rediscover" pre-digital dance music, brazenly spending an hour and a bit in Studio 54, circa 1981, indulging themselves in a phalanx of vintage synths and drafting in Chic's Nile Rodgers and his chicka-wah-wah guitar for added authenticity.

The hubbub around RAM has been phenomenal, some caused accidentally by the apparent premature leak of Get Lucky, an unabashed floor-filler featuring Rodgers' distinctive guitar and Pharrell Williams singing about, well, getting lucky.

It doesn't matter whether you're an inveterate frugger or not, or that you haven't set your twinkle toes alight on a dance floor since your last sixth-form 'disco', Get Lucky has all it takes to be a Kool & The Gang's Celebration for wedding receptions for decades to come.

It is a brilliant taste of what RAM has to offer and has justifiably been the biggest hit of the early summer, becoming Daft Punk's first UK No.1 three weeks ago and Spotify reporting it to be the most-streamed new song in its history. Which does load the dice for RAM - released on Monday - which has been given odds of 4/5 on beating Be Here Now by Oasis as the fastest-selling album in British chart history.

So, Get Lucky notwithstanding, is its parent album as good as all the oral foaming suggests? Are the "awe-inspiring" and "most pleasurable dance album of the decade" reviews accurate, or have the critics been left gaping once more at the emperor's new clothes?

Well, yes. Or probably. The trouble is, you need to listen to it a few times to be absolutely sure, especially if you're the sort of cynic like me who refuses to succumb to mob rule. On first listen it is impressive, but you can't help feeling you've been there before - Daft Punk and their vocoder vocals, Rodgers and the funky Stratocaster that made Chic's Everybody Dance, Le Freak and Good Times such classics, and gave something extra to Bowie's Let's Dance and Madonna's Like A Virgin. But as each listen reveals, there are hidden depths to discover and clever subtleties to enjoy.

RAM takes no time at all to get you going: opening track Give Life Back To Music consolidates the soul and funk from the 70s and 80s with Rodgers' exuberant chopping, and before you know it, most extremities have started to twitch. Clearly, if this album is pastiche, its first song suggests that we're in for one hell of a good time in indulging Daft Punk's cheek.

If Give Life Back To Music takes those of a certain age back to their young adulthood, Track 2, The Game Of Love, will remind them of the hardship of adolescent social isolation, rapidly changing the album's mood already from high-spirited groove to melancholic, last-one-left-without-dance-partner ballad. Slowed down and stripped back to mostly wedding band bass and a snappy snare drum, Daft Punk's vocoder grates considerably.

What happens next is both unusual, unexpected and, eventually, quite exhilarating: Giorgio By Moroder begins with the famed Italian disco hit producer himself talking, interview-style, and similar in style and construction to The Orb's Little Fluffy Clouds, with its echoey samples of Ricky Lee Jones recalling childhood under Arizona skies.

It is, though, a two-part, nine-minute colossus, the first half featuring Moroder discussing his craft, explaining how he saw "the synth as the sound of the future" in the late 1970s, going on to discuss the invention of the 'click track' that synchronised banks of Moog synths in hits for Donna Summer, Queen and Phil Oakey. It is brilliant indulgence - a song without lyrics, but a musician discussing his trade as if being interviewed by Keyboard magazine, before letting loose in the track's second half with a thunderous collage of cinematic, epic prog rock-funk.

As if creatively exhausted by the previous track, RAM descends into the forgettable with the wispy ballad Within, a cheesy mid-80s Phil Collins ballad, replete with over-produced piano and DP's vocoder vocal once again stretching tolerance of the instrument. On Instant Crush, the band stay in the realm of 80s culture with the help of The Strokes' Julian Casablancas, a 4/4-beat and the palm-muted, rondo guitar progression we all remember from The Police's Every Breath You Take. It adds little to the album, save for reminding ourselves of how many films appeared 30 years ago featuring actors named Cory wearing bright red leather jackets and driving, inevitably, into the sunset.

As the Moroder track demonstrates, initial concerns that RAM is simply a pastiche album of 30-year-old funk dissipate as you come to appreciate the range of influences Daft Punk tap into. Touch, for example, opens with a lot of spacey bleeps and keyboard sweeps, in much the same vein as Steve Miller's Fly Like An Eagle, before turning into a camper-than-Manilow West End number voiced by the somewhat wizzened-sounding Paul Williams.

Williams is a veteran American singer-songwriter, who now sounds like Tommy Steele affecting an American accent, and who has, amongst many writing credits to his name, Rainbow Connection sung by Kermit The Frog in The Muppet Movie. I kid you not. Here, amid saccharine-imbued Hollywood strings and a child chorus, he warbles "Touch, sweet touch, you've almost convinced me I'm real". From pastiching 80s funk, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo are now having a pop at the Muppets themselves.

Beyond maintains the cinematic interest with its sweeping string straight from a Western, before turning West with a delightful slice of blue-eyed soul in the manner of Michael McDonald's I Keep Forgettin'. The West Coast vibe returns later on Fragments Of Time, which features Todd Edwards (best known as a house producer but as a vocalist wrote and sang on DP's 2001 album Discovery) updating Steely Dan's Hey Nineteen. It, too, has the perfect 80s soundtrack vibe, Cory - again - now driving along Pacific Coast Highway as the opening titles roll.

At risk of suggesting that RAM is simply a collection of imagined soundtracks (you have Hollywood's obsession with glossy music 30 years ago to thank for that), it is hard with tracks like these not to get lost in the obscure section of a video store. Motherboard is another example, with its strings, arpeggiated sax samples and drum pads, this instrumental could be the opening sequence of a long-forgotten Michael Douglas film, or a Miami Vice interlude in which a pissed off Crockett storms off across Miami's Rickenbacker Causeway in his Ferrari. Having taken their helmets off to Georgio Moroder earlier on the album, Motherboard steers it closest to Moroder's Scarface soundtrack. And it is absolutely brilliant.

Somewhere in Daft Punk's influences are The Beach Boys and, while never particularly obvious in the past, Doin' It Right, featuring the Animal Collective's Panda Bear, and a distinctly Carl Wilson-like vocal set to a somewhat underwhelming backing track of more vocoder voices and drum machine handclaps.

As you may now get the picture, Random Access Memories has its ups and downs. Maybe, though, it's just my personal taste or maybe I'm just over-analysing it, but for every breathtaking moment there is one that you'd rather speed past. Which is why the album's finale, Contact, is just so satisfying.

From its somewhat unoriginal opening, reverb-washed samples of astronauts talking to Mission Control about an unexplained sight on the horizon, it erupts into a stereoscopic sunburst of rhythmic, gated drumming from Omar Hakim, building to a celestial crescendo of Man-meets-God enormity. It has instantly installed itself on my list of tracks you should never listen to in the car, which also includes The Who's Won't Get Fooled Again and Wings' Live And Let Die, on account of their ability to either induce furious steering wheel drumming, or dangerously heavy-footed application of the accelerator pedal.

To return to the original question - is it any good? - it undoubtedly is. Is it "awe-inspiring"? In places, yes, but not everywhere. Is it the decade's best dance record? Again, probably. I would have happily shredded back the one or two aggravating tracks, and maybe the further couple of somewhat missable entries, as that would have ended up with a nine- or ten-track album of unbridled enjoyment that will be - and, if not, should be - blaring out of cars between now and the end of September.

In faithfully and openly raiding the disco collection out of genuine homage rather than ironic pastiche (note how I've worked in two French words there...), you need several listens to extract the subtleties that make Random Access Memories more than just respectful irony. Or, indeed, ironic respect.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Desperate times call for desperate measures: Primal Scream's More Light

These are bleak and desperate times, people. We know this because we keep being told they are. As if the sight of increasingly vacant high streets, lengthening dole queues, a largely old Etonian government in Britain (run by “a pair of gay antique dealers”, according to Rich Hall) and Daft Punk recreating 1980s disco (and coming soon to WWDBD?) do not remind us.

Back in the 1980s, when things were last so bleak and desperate (increasingly vacant high streets, dole queues, old Etonian government run by a greengrocer’s daughter, Georgio Moroder blasting out of discos, as "clubs" were known, etc, etc) there were few truly erudite examples of the social and political zeitgeist captured, despite the actual agit-prop spirit of the times.

I would argue – but then I would  - that The Specials’ Ghost Town, White Riot by The Clash or Weller’s Town Called Malice nailed it as good as any, though I still hold a candle for Robert Wyatt’s Shipbuilding (more about the Falklands than Thatcherite blight). There were well meaning protest organizations like Red Wedge, and Live Aid came along in the midst of the decade to shame us into giving up either what money we had, or the grotesque piles of it we were spending on pastel-shaded clothing.

And so it remains today. Thanks to the blandification of entertainment in general, no one is making a stand anymore. Now, this can be viewed as both bad and good. On the bad side, it seems that people seem to be accepting their fate and carrying on watching tripe reality shows featuring fame-hungry charlatans. On the good side, Sting has stopped writing curdled songs about Russian parents and Argentinian victims of human rights abuses, and trying to convince us that he actually gives a damn about coal mines being shut down.

When Bowie's The Next Day came out of the blue to declare that a) The Dame was alive and b) He's been reading the papers a lot, we were presented with his view of an imagined - but increasingly likely - dystopian future. Primal Scream have come along to something similar with their new album More Light, which shines a follow-spot on the dystopia of the present.

However, as with all Primal Scream records, don't expect anything too deep. The lyrical legacies of Dylan and Woody Guthrie, even Springsteen's take on the modern condition, are not under any recognisable threat. As we have grown used to with this band, More Light must be enjoyed at a relatively superficial level, i.e. whatever section of Bobby Gillespie's vinyl record collection he has chosen to plunder this time. The result, by the way, is never bad. You just don't want to get too involved in what he's singing about.

As a lyricist, Gillespie has always been a great ex-drummer. The case for the prosecution stops with Exhibit 1A, m’lud, Rocks: “Dealers keep dealin’/Thieves keep thievin’/Whores keep whorin’/Junkies keep scorin’/Trade is on the meat rack/Strip joints full of hunchbacks/Bitches keep bitchin’/Clap keeps itchin’.”

Things haven't improved much in ten years, if the nine-minute vibeout 2013 which kicks off More Light is anything to go by. It lays into modern Britain with well meaning, if slightly misappropriated venom, though it does make prescient references to the children of Thatcher's heritage: "21st century slaves! A peasant underclass!". Not exactly Shelley, but you get the point.

Removing 2013's lyrical content from the equation, and letting the vocal simply become another instrument, it's an impressive track, spread over an ambitious grandeur that mixes Middle Eastern brass with the chainsaw guitar of My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields. By its end you are left lacking any doubt that you have landed back on Planet Gillespie, in all that entails.

River Of Pain continues in the same dystopic vain, depicting a less than rosy domestic scene in which the drunken 'Johnny' (Gillespie's stock character, you may have noticed...) who treats his lady 'Susan' like a punchbag, with a distinctly trippy sequence midway through the seven minute piece clearly representing a narcotic escape for one of them (replete with Beatle-esque psychedelia, a looped string sequence that reminds me of the intro to the Six Million Dollar Man theme music) before returning to a vibey Delta blues guitar riff and a sultry - and highly addictive - creeping undertrack.

If 2013 risks going down the route of Billy Joel's We Didn't Start The Fire by featuring a long list of cultural references, Culturecide walks even more awkwardly towards an attempted drive-by rapping that  includes mention of the neutron bomb.

Perhaps it's simply that "neutron bomb" scans well and has so many potential rhyming partners, but no two words annoy me more as a lyrical prop. In songs from artists as varied as Pearl Jam and UB40 (who managed to rhyme it with "Pentagon"), it's lyrical inclusion has always made as much sense as anyone in a TV show feverishly hacking away at a computer keyboard when there is a perfectly serviceable mouse on the very same desk.

Anyway, back to the record, and a return to the Mount Florida estates of Gillespie's native Glasgow with Tenement Kid, a bass-driven jazz-dub that paints a non-too-subtle picture of disaffected youth in the urban jungle of 21st century Britain. On Invisible City there's a touch of latter day Bowie, with its grinding guitar intro and brassy chorus, while Sideman could easily have appeared on The Next Day. Indeed, the two albums share many common themes, though, sadly not the same degree of wordsmith dexterity as mastered by Bowie on his release.

If there's one thing about More Light that sets it apart from almost anything else out there it's the disparate directions Primal Scream move about the record in. Goodbye Johnny (yep, him again) bops along with a noirish swing before introducing a delightfully retro-King Curtis saxophone lead.

That the Primals have access to well-thumbed collections of vintage vinyl has never been in doubt, as the obvious Stones nods of Rocks and Country Girl generously demonstrated. More Light does open up the record cabinet a little wider, with Elimination Blues - featuring no less than Robert Plant and black-chick backing vocals - actually sounding like a song Plant might have easily recorded in his exploration of American roots. It's also one of the most satisfying tracks on the album, with its pumping, looping bass and sweaty late night blues.

Be warned, however, when you reach the final track of the 'regular' version of More Light (the deluxe version contains an extra six songs). Because, if you're British, you may be alarmed by the title It's Alright It's OK. Thankfully it is not the theme song to TV's 'light hearted' crime series New Tricks, the one for  which Dennis Waterman "writes da feem toon and sings da feem toon", as Little Britain helpfully pointed out he does tend to do.

Thankfully, too, Primal Scream's It's Alright It's OK is not in the same vein as its chirpy, postman-friendly counterpart. Instead, it is a truly uplifting return to the happy-clappy gospel vibe of Movin' On Up, filching The Faces' "Ooh-la-la" hook in the process to produce a song as reassuringly 'up' as the lyrical premise of 2013 was a dour reminder of just how bleak these times are.

Lyrics aside, More Light is a return to strength for the Primals after their disappointing Beautiful Future five years ago. Produced by David Holmes, the northern Irish DJ responsible for one of my favourite film soundtracks, Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight, there is a warm intimacy to this album than anything Primal Scream have ever produced before. Thanks to Holmes, it is less of a basement recording and more of an upmarket loft apartment of a record. The edge is there (and Shields' guitar plays a large part in that), but so is a more measured cocktail of the band's obvious love of vintage sounds, and a newer, more innovative approach to making music. Just don't listen too deeply to the words...

Saturday, May 11, 2013

What we didn't know already: girls dig guys with guitars

Tony Montana got it all wrong. "You gotta make the money first, then you get the power. And when you get the power, then you get the women," he opines in Scarface

Had he been better informed he could have gone straight to the home plate by acquiring a guitar (though a ukulele would better serve the line "Say hello to my little friend", hem hem...).

Anyway, a team of researchers at the Université de Bretagne-Sud in Brittany have discovered that ownership of a guitar seriously boosts a chap's chances with the ladies. The team sent a plucky 20-year-old actor into a Brittany shopping centre to chat up 300 women aged between 18 and 22. Nice work if you can get it.

The actor approached the first 100 targets holding a sports bag, the second 100 with a guitar case, and went up to the third 100 without any prop at all, just a line about how pretty they looked and would they fancy a date.

All of the women he approached with the case gave up phone numbers, 14% responded positively to charm alone, and only 9% took any interest from the sports bag. In your face, Fit Billy. One qualifying detail, however, is that the actor was, and I quote directly, "previously evaluated as having a high level of physical attractiveness".

This is where my 45-year-old carcass, coupled with my Eric Clapton-signature Fender Stratocaster, may not generate quite the same results. Even wearing a T-shirt with ROCK GOD emblazoned across the stretched chest.

Between the ages of 11 and 13, I lugged a Spanish guitar to and from school every Wednesday. At lunchtime I would put up with my guitar tutor, a useless tool who spent each lesson noisily consuming the nutritious school lunch of sausage, baked beans and chips, while my stubby fingers tried to appropriate something which would, eventually, sound like Segovia on a bad day.

With alarming clarity, I recall that on no particular Wednesday did any women throw themselves at me out of carnal lust. Which is just as well, as it would have been illegal, and we'd have all ended up in in the Daily Mail.

In fact, in 36 years of unblemished guitar ownership, neither guitar or even guitar case have generated anything resembling frisky intent. I've walked through airports carrying guitars and the most recognition ever received was either a request for directions or the look of someone clearly thinking - and on one occasion, actually saying - "Who does that twat think he is?".

David Brent - the exception to the rule
It is clearly me. Because the Brittany research, which was led by a Professor Nicholas Guegen, (whose previous work includes discovering that waitresses can earn better tips if they wear red) and published in Psychology of Music, is borne out by at least five decades of plank-spanking rock gods who - bar a few weirdos interested in learning obscure finger-picking techniques - have routinely declared that they took up the guitar to meet women.

The author, photographed in Israel.
Included in this post by pure coincidence.
A magazine cuttings library could have spared Guegen's team the effort. In fact, his research comes just a year after the Ben Gurion and Tel Aviv universities in Israel jointly conducted a similarly indicative study, in which 100 single women were sent friend requests for Facebook along with the slightly creepy message "Hey, what's up? I like your photo".

Quite why it took two universities to do this is beyond me, but the salient outcome was that three times more women responded to Guitar Dude than Mr. Hands Free.

So now we know what we already suspected: girls dig guys with guitars. What we didn't, perhaps, fully appreciate, is that - according to the Brittany research team - playing a musical instrument is regarded as an indication of intelligence, the ability to learn new skills, and a sign of independent interests. Furthermore, say the researchers, years of rock stars prancing about with guitars have led women to associate a guitar with wealth, status and success.

I would, however, challenge anyone to put this to the test with a kazoo, violin and - sorry, Mumford boys - a banjo. On the other hand, show up with a guitar, saxophone or blues harmonica, or a flute if you're Ron Burgundy, and, well, fill-yer-boots.

So, while there are clearly more valuable academic interests to pursue - like curing cancer for a start - the research does at least put some quantification on what has sent decades of horny teenage boys to guitar shops on a Saturday to hammer out the opening riff of Smoke On The Water or the jangly bit from Stairway To Heaven.

Again, though, it didn't really require such exhaustive studying, though hats off to the mall actor for a job well done. As Cosmopolitan blogger Rose Surnow pointed out this week: "Why do you think all these amazing babes date John Mayer? Because he’s super nice? It’s because he strums an instrument and literally sings, 'Your body is a wonderland'." Surnow's thesis was that guitar-girl attraction had nothing to do with brains but that "we associate guitars with hot bodies, long hair, and a bad attitude."

So, if you don't already own a guitar, it being a Saturday, why not visit your local axe shop, push all those pimply specks out of the way, and audition your own Les Paul, Telecaster or Strat. Once you've found something you like, you will be able to learn one of the ten songs below which, according to Guitar World, will make an instant impression on the opposite sex*.
  1. More Than Words - Extreme
  2. Crash - Dave Matthews Band
  3. Melissa - Allman Brothers Band (you'll know it as the Top Gear theme tune)
  4. Just Like Heaven - The Cure
  5. Name - Goo Goo Dolls
  6. Wonderful Tonight - Eric Clapton
  7. You And Me - Lifehouse
  8. Baby I Love Your Way - Peter Frampton
  9. Your Body Is A Wonderland - John Mayer
  10. Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You - Led Zeppelin
*This author, the publishers and editorial staff of Guitar World, and the artists listed cannot be held responsible for any failure in the use of aforementioned songs in the procurement of female company.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

We knew this day would have to come

And so it has finally happened: a fixture as seemingly irreplaceable, as immovable, and as unequalled as Sir Alex Ferguson has given his notice.

For months he's blown smoke on ideas of retirement. Just four days ago, in his programme notes for the Chelsea game, Fergie dismissed the idea of going anywhere, anytime soon, although he did seed a clue or two:

"This team of champions is not going away - we are here for the long ride. We will get better and if we apply ourselves in our normal fashion I see our 20th league title as nothing but the start of another decade of success."

But he added, crucially: "Whether I will be here to oversee another decade of success remains to be seen, but I certainly don't have any plans at the moment to walk away from what I believe will be something special and worth being around to see."

Walk away. Not walk upstairs, which is what he will do in a new, post-managerial role as a member of the club board. “The decision to retire is one that I have thought a great deal about and one that I have not taken lightly. It is the right time," Fergie declared in the club's official press release.

"It was important to me to leave an organisation in the strongest possible shape and I believe I have done so," he added. "The quality of this league winning squad, and the balance of ages within it, bodes well for continued success at the highest level whilst the structure of the youth set-up will ensure that the long-term future of the club remains a bright one."

Just how comfortable SAF will be up there in the Old Trafford director's box also remains to be seen. Not having him sat in the home dugout, chewing like a somewhat twitchy, ruddy-faced camel, will be odd enough for us, let alone for the irascible Scot himself. His new, lofty eyrie will certainly not be the environment to start waving his watch at refs or administering the Govan hairdryer to players or officials.

There's no point mincing words about Ferguson: he has, at times, been an unbearable bully. To his players and even players of other teams; to managers he doesn't like or to those who commit offence to managers he does; to journalists who've dared cross him and, of course, to officials and the authorities with the temerity to police him.

One can't deny that the bullying and discipline has, like that of a drill sergeant, produced results. Likewise The Sun newspaper was at its sharpest, its funniest, its most relevant and most read when under the shouty editorship of Kelvin Mackenzie (an under-estimatedly clever newspaper editor, not that you could mention such an opinion anywhere on Merseyside). Fergie may not have produced sensationalist newspapers, but in his application of the same tough love he produced two sensational generations of footballers.

This in-your-face swagger has also made Manchester United the club to envy and admire in equal measure. The United chequebook has lavished money on apparently untouchable signings like Paul Ince, Steve Bruce, Roy Keane, Eric Cantona, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo, Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney - all for record amounts to leave us grinding our teeth (complain as you might about the Russian and Middle Eastern money sloshing about elsewhere, Manchester United set the bar high for eye-watering acquisitions).

And here is where we reluctantly, perhaps, cross the red line with Sir Alex. For all his bullying, for all his arrogance, for all the disingenuity, you have to admire him. He is retiring at the end of a staggering 27 years in charge of Manchester United. Compare that with Blackburn Rovers and Nottingham Forest who've managed to have four managers each in just this season alone. More importantly, compare Ferguson's record with that of the Manchester United's peer group: in the time Ferguson has been in charge at Old Trafford, Real Madrid have had 24 managers, Chelsea have had 18, AC Milan have had 13 and Inter Milan 19, and Manchester City, Juventus and Bayern Munich 13 each.

Manchester United's consistent success over the last three decades isn't just down to Ferguson, of course. He has been the integral element of a perfect storm that brought him together with Premier League money and the club's scale to develop young talent that have been blended perfectly with the acquired.

Those around the club have simply lacked all or some of these elements: Arsenal has had the manager, some of the money and some of the players, but the inability to maintain the investment. Manchester City and Chelsea have enjoyed the money via arriviste proprietorship, brought in the players as a result, but have yet to display anywhere near the consistency.

In Chelsea's case, in particular, the continuous managerial upheaval sets them apart from their great northern rival. It's interesting to note that in December 1989, Manchester United were hovering just outside the relegation zone of the old First Division. In today's terms, with the sort of proprietors that exist in the game, Ferguson could have easily found himself out of the door. United - to it's genuine credit - persevered. The club had the vision to recognise they were building something. And so they have continued in the same vein. Big names have come, big names have gone, youngsters have come through, and the club has successfully, and usually somewhat subtly, reinvented itself under Ferguson.

Manchester United haven't always had it all their own way under Sir Alex Ferguson: when Jose Mourinho's Chelsea took the Premier League title off them twice in 2005 and 2006 the chatter began, then, that the end of the Scot's tenure at Old Trafford was in sight. Now it is. The club is as strong as it ever has been. The next manager - be it a Moyes or Mourinho - will have large shoes to fill...and a large mountain of expended chewing gum to sit in front of.

You were made for me, everybody tells me so

Over the last couple of weeks sports journalists have been trying their best to construct the richest analogy to cover the Will he? Won't he? Surely he will...? speculation surrounding Jose Mourinho's supposed or actual return to Chelsea.

Most - actually, all of them - have tried to position coach and club as star-crossed lovers, destined for each other regardless of the more rational arguments as to whether it will be a success second time around.

Whether Chelsea need Mourinho or Mourinho needs Chelsea is not completely clear. We all probably agree that Chelsea need a manager like Mourinho, but is 'sloppy seconds' really wise? What Chelsea do need, however, is someone who will deliver trophies , galvanise the fans and, if everyone can just play together nicely this time, provide consistent success over a longer period of time than the current standard length of service of nine months before Abramovich gives his white cat a stroke and presses the button in front of him marked 'Kill'.

The Mourinho/Chelsea, Chelsea/Mourinho thing may be correctly compared to a showbiz affair between the ill-matched (Rihanna and her charming beau Chris Brown come to mind, but according to The Sun they've just split up) but it is only a part of the wider drama playing out at Stamford Bridge, which does come across as a homo-erotic soap opera:

Roman wanted Carlo, but Carlo wouldn't leave the relationship he was in, so he got Jose instead. Then, after a massive argument caused by Jose showing off too much, Roman kicked Jose out and brought in Avram. Now Avram may have been old and slow and a tad dull, but didn't do too badly. However, he still had to go. In his place came an exotic Brazilian, Luiz Felipe, but that didn't work out at all, and they had to bring in Guus. However, Guus said he would only stay a short while, and so it was back it was back to the drawing board. 

Actually, it was back to Carlo again, who this time said yes, and everything went well, until it stopped going well, and even Carlo had to go. Then came André, who was a lot younger than all the others, but had boundless youthful energy. Except he didn't work out, and Roman had to ask Robbie to take over temporarily, then permanently, and then he was shown the door, to be replaced by an unemployed Spanish waiter with a very high opinion of himself, who will soon be packing his bags to make way for Jose to come back. 

Tonight there will be a further twist when young André comes back, now with his new family, to take revenge on Frank Lampard whom he says "never supported me" and to leave a horse's head or something like it on Roman's pillow.

Plot twists aside, the return of football's self-appointed Special One to Chelsea - despite the press having universally made up its mind that it's a done deal, that Jose is in love with Chelsea, and Chelsea is in love with Jose - is nowhere near clear-cut. 

Expensive release clauses at Real Madrid, the future working relationship with Michael Emenalo, Chelsea's technical director, the desire to play strong, physically imposing players rather than the diminutive but fleet-of-foot forwards currently running rings around defenders, are all possible hurdles to the Second Coming. The relationship between Roman and Jose has, according to those in the know, dramatically thawed, but for Mourinho to come back there will need to be some significant obeisance on both sides.

In the days of hippy free love, Stephen Stills wrote the immortal lines: "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with". In the case of Jose Mourinho, there can be no alternative squeeze. His avowed affection for the English game, not to mention the none-too-subtle eyelid flashing towards his former club in south-west London, might signify that he and Chelsea are so mutually drawn to each other that a reconciled second marriage can be the only outcome. After all, who else would be willing to get drawn into Roman's mayhem?

Which brings me back to press analogies. Let proffer my own: Mourinho and Chelsea are the Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor of football. Or...the Den and Angie of football; the JR and Sue Ellen of football; the Kat and Alfie of football; or the Liam and Noel of...well, you get the idea.