Sunday, July 28, 2013

...and we're back

The British press have been referring to the recent period of hot weather - which you or I might otherwise call "summer" - as the longest heatwave last one.

Some might say, cynically, that a few days of oppressive heat and prematurely melting ice creams does not a summer make, but here in Paris - where it has been simply "hot" - there has been a noticeably extended period of sleepless, sweaty nights, the odd stray mosquito strafing like a disorientated Luftwaffe pilot over Kent in 1940, and a tendency for crankiness first thing in the office.

But that's it. The French roads haven't melted. There are no  hosepipe bans in force. In Britain, the "Level 3 Heat Health Alerts" has now been upgraded to a "Level 3 Flood Alerts" as storms move in (with The Sun actually putting the emphasis on France being their origin, as if it is the fault of the French).

It is worth noting, however, that whatever the impending calamity in Britain - be it excess sunshine, rainfall, plagues of locusts or frogs - the threat level is always "3". Never lower, never higher. No need for any kind of Nigel Tufnell excess here then.

However, all this is to say that the extended heatwave that has locked Britain into seven weeks of perspiration and knotted handkerchief wearing has also coincided with what has seemed like an eternal closed period between football seasons.

With this summer lacking by serious tournament, the period since the Barclays Premier League kicked its last on May 19, and Bayern Munich decided the Champions League a few days later, seems like an eternity.

Of course, for us success-starved Brits, we've had Andy Murray, Chris Froome and the England cricketers to cheer over, but - and, sorry, those of you who care deeply about tennis, cycling or cricket - but life as we know it will only get back to normal once the football season proper gets under way.

There have been glimpses, sweet, sweet glimpses, like a flash of Victorian ankle: the transfer sagas of Bale, Rooney and Fabregas have kept the Fleet Street rumour mill turning, and there have been the requisite number of shirt-selling foreign tours by the elite to hint at what is to come under the teams of Moyes, Pellegrino, Mourinho, Wenger and co. But really, it ain't enough.

That said, WWDBD? had taken a leave of abstinence from football commentary for these last few weeks. There have been days of temptation. Days when giving in almost became too easy. This has reminded me, somewhat worryingly when thinking about it, of one the funniest Seinfeld episodes  - The Contest.

Like all 179 other episodes in the show's nine-year run, The Contest revolved around a single topic. But, where the others made fun out of the very ordinary - buying a car, dealing with dry cleaners, soup or male genital shrinkage - this episdode tested the boundaries of prime-time televisual taste by concerning itself with "self-gratification".

If you've seen it, you'll recall that Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer challenge themselves to see who could abstain the longest from onanistic pleasure, to be "master of my own domain" (along with many other euphemisms used to avoid actual use of the 'M' word). Kramer - being Kramer - caved first (and quickly), crashing into Jerry's kitchen and slapping down his wager declaring "Well I'm out!"

And thus I've managed to get almost to the end of July before committing fingers to keyboard on The Beautiful Game ™. But today I'm caving. "I'm out!". Because it's back. Football is back. Almost properly.

Actually, it's been back a while - first qualifying round matches for the Champions League were played as far back as July 2 between Armenia's Shirak and San Marino's culinary-sounding Tre Penne (Shirak won the two legs 3-1 on aggregate) and FC Lusitanos of Andorra getting hammered 3-7 on aggregate by EB/Streymur, who play in the Faroe Islands Premier League. Yes, you read that correctly.

Since then we've had, inevitably, the second qualifying round, which brought some seniority to proceedings with European footbal evergreens such as Steaua Bucureșt, Celtic and Maccabi Tel Aviv entering the fray.

This Tuesday night - hence all the excitement, we reach the third qualifying round for the 2013-14 Champions League, adding a load more European titans with the word "Dinamo" in their names, along with previous members of the awkward squad for English teams like the shoutily-accronymned APOEL of Cyprus and Zenit Saint Petersburg, along with the excessively caffeinated Red Bull Salzburg,  French talent pool Lyon and PSV Eindhoven.

Even though I have yet to apply toe to sun-kissed sand yet, the idea of the Champions League already reaching such a crucial stage has my appetite whetted. Believe it or not, there's more to come this week:  the UEFA Europa League also enters its third qualifying round on Thursday (good luck Swansea!) and then on Friday night, the gambling addiction-inducing Sky Bet Championship - once known innocently as the Football League, launches the British domestic season. On August 2. Sheffield United and Notts County will have a lot to live up to. Welcome back football. We really have missed you.

Friday, July 19, 2013

What's it like where you are?

What Would David Bowie Do? finds itself in sultry Atlanta, Georgia, for the wedding of the genial Chip Bates and his lovely fiancée Ali Mattson. The temperature here today is expected to reach a high of 88F or, in new money, around 31C.

So far, however, I haven't seen any alarm. The National Guard is not out on the street, President Obama has not so far addressed the nation, and the National Weather Service isn't reporting anything more alarming than: "Severe weather will be possible as a cold front begins to move out of Canada towards the East Coast. The Storm Prediction Center has highlighted an area of Slight Risk from the Midwest to New England. The primary risk with any severe weather will be damaging wind gusts as storms develop into a line feature along and ahead of the front. Hail and tornadoes will be also be possible with some storms."

In Britain, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are riding through the nation's shires. The mercury has been reaching into the 30s, people are complaining on social media that it"hot" and what are we going to do about it.

The Met Office has issued a "Level 3 Heatwave Alert", which is the weather forecaster equivalent of DefCon 2 (we're talking Cuban Missile Crisis here people). Everyone is getting, well, hot under the collar about getting hot under the collar. In Cornwall, a seaside branch of Tescos has put up a sign asking shoppers to stay clothed to avoid causing offence: “In stores such as this one which are close to the beach, we ask that customers wear a T-shirt and shoes." What, and nothing else? Euggghhhh....

We Brits do not do extremes of weather well. We're an island nation, predisposed to repel all attacks - whether from Vikings, the French or from unnatural weather we normally associate with foreign parts. We happily spend two weeks a year on a beach in the Med, gradually turning a cross between the Polish flag and lobster thermidor, and put up with it being "quite toasty" (seeking shelter in a pub offering Full English and Sky Sports), and yet when the sun stays out for longer than two days on the home front we declare a national emergency.

In winter, when it is supposed to get cold, we complain bitterly if it snows. And then, when summer jumps us from behind, because, thanks to global warming, we didn't get a spring this year, we are outraged, and jam the Daily Mail's switchboard to complain.

The odd thing is that summer is actually quite predictable, usually forming in the northern hemisphere in the middle of the year, and being associated with more sunshine. Yes, even in the UK. So maybe we've listened to all those cruel taunts by foreigners - especially American tourists - that we don't expect the sun in the summer. Maybe all those gags about the rain have affected our ability to enjoy the sunshine at home?

Nah. It really doesn't matter what the weather is, we'd still find something to complain about. It's what defines us as British.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Great Summer Of Shows™ - what we have learned

Way back at the end of May, What Would David Bowie Do? came to the stark realisation that it was going to be an amazing summer of live music, kicking off with Eric Clapton at his surrogate home, London's Royal Albert Hall, before setting up camp in Paris with the Stone Roses, Rodriguez, Depeche Mode, Mark Knopfler, The Who, Bruce Springsteen and Hugh Laurie, ending at the Montreux Jazz Festival with Prince.

Though we're only at the midpoint of July, it is safe to say that it has been a Great Summer Of Shows™. It has also been an education. Here's what we have learned:

The Merchandise Stand

Just because, when you first walk in, you see a caged-off 'shop' of sorts selling merchandise doesn't mean you have to cause a minor riot for your "exclusive" all-black XL tour T-shirt, which your other half will eventually purge from your collection. Nor does it mean wearing the thing over the clothes you came out for the evening in (especially if you just came straight from the office) or draping round your shoulders like you've just looted it from a branch of Top Man during a riot. This thing called the Internet has just been invented and you can use it to buy stuff from bands and their "websites"

Banned Items

Patrons of stadium gigs should refrain from bringing in the following items:
  1. Binoculars (because you don't want to look a total prat), 
  2. Inflatable beach toys (because they're designed for the beach, not for annoying 50,000 irritable people who've been drinking in the sun since lunchtime)
  3. Bra-less girlfriends who want to be carried on your shoulders (because they will be ogled at as soon as they appear on the big screen and you will end up taking the week off work due to your back giving out).
Picture  © Simon Poulter 2013

The Mexican Wave

If you are at a stadium gig it is seriously not cool to start a Mexican Wave. It was amusing once, during the 1986 World Cup, which was held in Mexico. It is not amusing in the 21st century at a football stadium in the north of England.

The Support Act

The support act may be completely unknown to you, they may have a weedy voice and a total lack of charisma, but that doesn't mean you should talk all the way through their act. The person you've really come to see believes in this frail singer-songwriter/angst-ridden balladeer/quirky-looking pretty boy your girlfriend suddenly takes interest in and it's just damn rude to yack away during their 30-minute set. Bugger off to the bar instead.

Learn How It Works #1

The act you've come to see will get on stage when they're good and ready. No measure of slow-hand clapping, whistling or stamping of feet will advance the situation.

Picture  © Simon Poulter 2013

You're Not HBO

If you must video the show, first buy a television station or DVD company, negotiate with the artist for video rights, and then record the event using professional cameras and the ubiquitous Louma crane. Do not spend the entire night holding your iPhone in the air to the annoyance of all standing behind you.


If you feel compelled to sing along to the hits, take a few singing lessons first. Nobody wants to deal with the band not properly lip-synced with the video screen and your drastically off-key caterwauling. Especially if your breath stinks of Hades because you decided to have a cheeky curry before the show.

Recognise That You're Not In The Photographers' Pit

If you must take photographs, learn how to use your camera or smartphone first. Some poor drone at the consumer electronics company who made your fantastic new compact super-zoom spent time and effort translating the Japanese instruction manual into your native language. At least have the courtesy to learn how to switch off the annoying BEEP-BEEP that will drive your fellow punters to kill if it happens every time there's a quiet bit. 

Picture  © Simon Poulter 2013

The Stage Lighting Is There For A Reason

And while you're at it, learn how flash guns work on compact cameras. If you have the flash on, all you will be doing is illuminating the row of bald heads immediately in front of you, not the stage which - by the way - is already lit up by lots of lovely coloured lights. So you don't have to.

Sit Down, Dickhead #1

If you do take photographs, take only a few as souvenirs. Recognise that there are people behind you who weren't so successful in getting seats near the stage, and will not appreciate spending all that money to watch Mr. or Ms. Big Time through the LCD screen of your camera.

Sit Down, Dickhead #2

If I see that iPad appear above your head one more time...

Sit Down, Dickhead #3

Yes, we know it's cool that your lifelong idol is just in front of you, in the flesh, and close enough to touch, should you actually be that close, but that's no reason to stand up like a giddy child forcing every single person in every single row behind you to do the same. There are people who've paid good money for a seat, and are ruddy-well going to use it without having your lard arse block the view.

Picture  © Simon Poulter 2013

Stop Tweeting

Yes, it's cool for your followers to know you're at a concert, but do you need to give a running commentary? Do you need to miss the show because you're hunched over your Facebook page giving song-by-song updates? Do we need to see your face lit up like Indiana Jones in front of the Lost Ark because you're trying to redefine the zeitgeist in 140 characters or less?

Avoid The Clap

Everyone likes to clap. Pop concerts are the one venue outside gospel churches where communal rhythmic clapping in public is acceptable. Except that in a gospel church it will be rhythmic. And in time. Unlike your uncoordinated attempt to catch a particularly agile fly.

Learn How It Works #2

The act will go off towards the end, your less informed fellow punters will clap/whistle/stomp, the act will reappear for an encore. When they're good and ready.

Give It A Whistle

Actually, don't. The bluesman Blind Willie McTell may have started the practice of whistling during concerts as a means of getting audiences to join in with him, but he did not intend for ear drums to suffer permanent damage because the middle-aged adolescent next to you is trying to show off by sticking two fingers between his teeth and blowing. Not big. Not clever. Just painful.

Picture  © Simon Poulter 2013

Lighters Aloft

In the era when people smoked at concerts (and I mean regular cigarettes as well as those sweet-smelling roll-ups people still think it subversively cool to take a puff on), it was considered to be an appropriate indication of togetherness to hold a cigarette lighter in the air during an emotionally-wrought song to create the "ooh-aah" effect of hundreds of flickering flames. Where this practice began, no-one quite knows. Some say it was at Woodstock, when such hippy soppiness would have been contextually acceptable. Others claim it was at a Neil Diamond concert in the early '70s, and happened by random accident. Either way, it should have stopped by now, and certainly should not have been succeeded by cretins who have amusingly loaded a flickering lighter app on to their iPhone and are now holding it aloft during the 'slow one', right in front of you.

Learn How It Works #3

When 'the big lights' come up, that's your cue to head for the door. By the time you've stopped clapping/whistling/stomping the band will already be in a limo heading for the, erm, 'aftershow refreshment'. Go home. Or go home with someone. Or go next door to the pub. Or what-ev-ah. Those fat blokes on stage in Iron Maiden T-shirts coiling up microphone cables are roadies packing up Mr/Ms. Big Time's gear for the next gig, where all the above rituals will be played out once more.

Party over, oops, out of time: Prince at the Montreux Jazz Festival

And so What Would David Bowie Do?'s Great Summer Of Shows™ draws to a somewhat high-end conclusion.

It has taken the TGV from Paris to Montreux in Switzerland, enjoying a life-affirming journey through rolling fields in full summer bloom before cutting through alpine gorges on the approaches to Geneva, and then hugging the sun-kissed shores that curl around Lake Geneva's pristine waters to arrive at Montreux at its northern end.

Even at Geneva's central station, where you change trains, it is so peaceful, you can hear birds chirping as near silent trains glide through in the dappled sunlight. Not a yurt or any traces of mud, vegetarian hot dogs or surf shorts being worn age-inappropriately in sight.

Of all the summer music festivals, Montreux has always been the most exclusive, the most elegantly-located and in many aspects, the coolest.

There are few others I'm aware of where you can watch the evening's headline act on stage one minute and then an hour later be hanging out with across the road at Harry's Bar, watching Quincy Jones holding court in a corner while George Benson props up the bar next to you.

Exclusivity like this doesn't come cheap - it was once described as "the Rolls-Royce of music festivals" - but just because there is a degree of elitism about Montreux it would be wrong to see it as the antipathy of Glastonbury's hippy idealism. Both festivals were born in the same era, Montreux's the result of Swiss tourism executive Claude Nobs' enthusiasm for both the Vaud canton and his passion for good live music.

Nobs tragically died earlier this year, but it's clear that he left the festival in good hands, with it this year staging 18 days of music from headliners like Leonard Cohen, Sting, Bobby Womack, ZZ Top, George Thorogood & The Destroyers, Bonnie Raitt, Ben Harper, Gregory Porter, Oleta Adams and Charles Bradley, festival regulars like Randy Crawford and Joe Sample, George Benson, Joe Cocker and Deep Purple, plus Montreux newcomers like Jake Bugg.

Whoever draws you in to Montreux, and whether you stay for one or all 18 nights (which, with eye-watering hotel rates and even more eye-watering ticket prices, must be for the extraordinarily well-healed), the common denominator is that the quality of music curated by Nobs and his organisation is always of the highest. Which is how WWDBD? has found itself on a train to the Swiss Riviera.

With reassuring Swiss efficiency, the festival's program is normally announced on the third Thursday of every April, prompting a frenzy to snap up both show tickets and one of the town's relatively few hotel rooms. However, this year, there was an early surprise, when it was announced in February that Prince would headline three nights at the Stravinsky Auditorium, the Festival's 3500-capacity main venue. Despite the exorbitant ticket price (though nothing to get Mick Jagger's accountant worked up about), it still took a frantic half hour's hitting the 'refresh' button to be amongst the lucky 10,000 or so to book themselves a spot in the hall.

This is how Prince rolls. An enigma in pop's soup of enigmatic figures, his visibility is one of its most guarded, his image its most carefully controlled. Ever since that contretemps with his record company, and the adoption of a squiggle as a means of saying "up yours" to them, the Purple One has gone about his business very sparingly.

Not that he's withdrawn to his Paisley Park complex to reclusively count his collection of exotic girlfriends. Instead he has been copiously adding to The Vault, the supposed mass of unreleased songs that are piled high like gold bars in the US Federal Reserve. Unshackled by record company hegemony, he releases what he wants, when he wants to on an ever-changing array of websites, each devoted to the latest pet project. Prince is, without doubt, one of the true pioneers of putting music out over the Internet, and employs his considerable legal might to police any transgressors of his online oeuvre.

With hardly a hit single, let alone a hit album to draw on, he doesn't have to worry about what anyone thinks, though I doubt public opinion has ever swayed him. And thus, after the New Power Generation ensemble, infused by lead guitarist Donna Grantis and drummer Hannah Ford from his latest project 3rdEyeGirl, bursting into life with the obscure big brass number, Strays Of The World, the diminutive 55-year-old bounds on stage, sporting an afro that takes a little getting used to on his minimal, black-suited frame. For the next two hours we are treated to a non-stop, cramp-inducing, foot-stomping, relentless funk, 3500 now intimately acquainted people sweatily frugging like there's no tomorrow.

Claude would have loved this: for the first time in 46 years he wasn't standing at the side of the stage, grinning wildly at the musical marvel he had persuaded to come and play at his little shindig on the northern shores of Lake Geneva, not that he ever needed to do much real persuading. Artists love playing here, loving the intimacy. They like playing a set inside what amounts to a large private club.

Prince is clearly in his element. Rumour has it that he offered to play Montreux and didn't have to be asked. Throughput the show he grins and smirks, having an inordinate amount of fun with the massed ranks of the NPG.

Indeed, the only people not having any fun, it would appear, are the over-zealous stewards entrusted with protecting Prince's image. Throughout the evening they manically leap up and down waving torches in the faces of anyone caught with a smartphone or camera aloft. One - a particularly odious Gary Neville lookalike - wages a noticeably losing battle: as fast as he rises above the crowd to flap torchlight at an offender, another iPhone is thrust upwards. He has even developed the charades gesture for a movie, anyone filming gets the flapping torch, the movie motion and the universal 'no' finger waggle popular with dissenting footballers. It's hilarious, actually, in a counter-establishment way, akin to wartime ARP wardens screaming "put that light out" during The Blitz.

But back to the music. This is not meant to be a hits jukebox (1999 is the fourth song and almost appears to be in the set early enough to get it out of the way). For the rest, we are treated to an exhaustive trawl through the Prince album collection - both his own work and the work of others, including Chaka Khan's Ain't Nobody, Aretha Franklin's I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) and James Brown's I Don't Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open Up The Door, I'll Get It Myself). Indeed it is Brown's legendary stage performances that Prince draws most upon, as he conducts the NPG like latter-day JB All Stars, carefully orchestrated and equally well choreographed routines stretching songs into eight-minute extended funk workouts.

Breathlessly the band lurch from song-to-song, throwing in the most recent Prince release - Ain't Gonna Miss U When U're Gone - amongst old album tracks like Dark from the Come album, Something In The Water (Does Not Compute) from 1999 and the online-only single F.U.N.K.

Somewhere close to the two-hour mark - I wasn't really counting, to be honest - Prince and the NPG troop offstage. There's a lengthy pause, to the consternation of impatient punters clearly not appreciating that getting so many people back on stage takes as long as it took them to get off, before the stage fills up again and The Impressions' We're A Winner gets dusted off at the start of an eight-song encore that includes Sign O' The Times'  Housequake. A cover of Sheila E's The Glamourous Life closes the sequence and the band troop off. part of the crowd expecting that to be that and head off for a much needed livened in the bar. Of course, that isn't that. And a second encore beckons with Musicology and Extraloveable forcing weary feet to frug some more, knackered arms to punch the sky a little longer.

With that, the house lights come up and the Stravinsky Auditorium starts to empty to universal signs of exhausted satisfaction and bewilderment. But wait. There is more. A four-minute, slowed down version of Purple Rain. How very Prince. How unpredictable. How it should be done. How Funky Claude would have wanted it done.

Friday, July 12, 2013

A perfectly British problem

Just over a year ago the world was painted red, white and blue. You couldn't move for Union Jacks (sorry, pedants, I know you'd prefer "Union Flag"…) on anything from T-shirts to armchairs. Britain was cool again. The most memorable Olympic Games in history saw to that. And this was despite the idiot ravings of American presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who rather boldly wrote of America's "special friend":
"England is just a small island. Its roads and houses are small. With few exceptions, it doesn't make things that people in the rest of the world want to buy. And if it hadn't been separated from the continent by water, it almost certainly would have been lost to Hitler's ambitions. Yet only two lifetimes ago, Britain ruled the largest and wealthiest empire in the history of humankind. Britain controlled a quarter of the earth's land and a quarter of the earth's population."
As geography students from the age of 5 will tell you, England is not an island. It is the lower two-thirds of an island, with Scotland occupying the top half. And it is connected politically to a province at the northern end of another island, Ireland. So forgive me, Mitt, if I sound a tad relieved that you didn't become the Most Powerful Man On Eart h ®, in charge of a $550 billion defence budget, when you don't know an island from a non-island.

Last Sunday, however, many of us non-islanders couldn't tell the difference between Scotland and Great Britain. For, as Andy Murray was being crowned 2013 Men's Singles Champion at Wimbledon (which sounds like a speed-dating competition), we were confused as to whether he should be branded a Scot or a Brit. Of course, he was British because he'd won something. If he'd lost - as millions of unoriginal tweets suggested - he would have simply been a Scot. Or "Scottish twat". Or numerous permutations thereof.

All this is, I'm afraid, linked to the permanent British insecurity, the chip on our shoulder we carry on account of the fact we are an island nation. And one increasingly impotent in many things we used to be good at, like being the seat of an empire, starting the Industrial Revolution, and having a navy that constituted more than just a couple of pedalos on the Serpentine.

The motoring industry is another example. In 1950, Britain exported more cars than any other car-producing nation on Earth. By 1972, Britain was producing almost two million cars a year.

And then the rest of the 1970s happened. The sky turned a permanent shade of grey (except for the summer of '76), and the car industry spent the rest of the decade standing around blazing dustbins wearing donkey jackets.

By 1982, car manufacturing had dropped to 888,000. Things started to look up in the '80s as Japanese manufacturers like Toyota, Honda and Nissan moved in, but this was somewhat countered in the '90s as British manufacturers began to be taken over by foreign owners - Rover to BMW, Rolls-Royce and Bentley to Volkswagen, Jaguar/Land Rover to Ford who then sold it to India's Tata, and so on. Even the Mini, that icon of British car design (despite being created by a Greek immigrant) was reinvented by BMW and is now available as a 4x4 that even Dr. Frankenstein would regard as poor taste.

However, if, today, you did want to buy a purely British car (and I don't mean Lotus - owned by the Malaysian Proton, or Aston Martin - one-third owned by an Italian investment house) you'd be stuck for options: it would either be a McLaren, which costs as much as a very expensive house, or a Morgan, in which you would look stupid.

So, back to Andy Murray. Evidently, we British have a problem with identity. We manufacture one of the world's finest automobiles - the Range Rover - and yet we feel uncomfortable that Jaguar/Land Rover is now owned by an Indian conglomerate. Thus, we finally have a Wimbledon winner - the first in the era of short trousers - and yet we have mixed feelings because he's Scottish, trains in Florida and lives the rest of the year in Surrey. Which is in England, Mitt.

So it's no great shock to discover arms being raised over who provides British police with their vehicles. According to the motoring magazine Auto Express, only one in five of the police cars and vans screaming about Britain's streets have been made on the island. Given the choice of British manufacturers, it's hardly a shock.

With help from the Freedom Of Information Act, the magazine found that 80% of all vehicles being driven by Plod in Essex - that great bastion of Englishness - were from Germany's BMW, Volkswagen and Mercedes. Furthermore, not a single police car in Dorset was home built. In Greater London, just 32% of the cars driven by the Metropolitan Police originated in the UK.

Of the 21 police authorities Auto Express looked at, the best for driving the flag was Thames Valley Police, of whose fleet, 74% was British-made. Indeed, out of all the authorities canvassed, just 22 per cent of all police cars were 'British' - Vauxhall Astras (made by the American-owned General Motors in Ellesmere Port), the odd Honda (made by the Japanese-owned Honda in Swindon) and Ford Transits (made by the American-owned Ford in Southampton). There a few Jaguars and a number of Range Rovers (Tata, Birmingham) on the road in police use, but that's about it.

There isn't, however, any compulsion amongst British police forces to buy any particular nationality. Choice of vehicle is based on budgets and specifications, especially for handling characteristics. This doesn't, though, seem to bother police in other countries. Here in France, for example, the majority of cars driven by les flics are from Renault, Peugeot or Citroen, even though you wouldn't automatically regard the Renault Megane Scenic as a performance pursuit vehicle. And as for Peugeot and Citroen...

In Germany it's a no-brainer: Die Polizei get to drive Mercedes and BMWs of the kind only managing directors and golf club captains in the UK own. In the US the choice is almost always American, American or American. For years, everywhere you went there, you'd see Ford Crown Victoria Interceptors, muscled-up versions of the Crown Vics popular with little old ladies and taxi drivers. Ford began phasing it out in 2011, replacing it with an Interceptor version of the Ford Taurus, which is, in essence, a Ford Mondeo. Which much make British police drivers feel a little better when driving around in not-so-cool Vauxhalls, Hyundais and Skodas.

In recent years there have been attempts to sex up the whole business of police cars. Lamborghinis and Ferraris have appeared for motor show stunts in Metropolitan Police colours, while some forces around the world have actually adopted exotic wheels for PR effect - I've seen Mustangs, Camaros and even a Porsche 911 in California Highway Patrol colours. Italian police, conscious of both their national sense of style and their national reputation for eye candy cars, have regularly driven Lambos, though this may have ended after a Gallardo was driven into parked cars in Cremona causing some rather expensive body damage.
Back in Blighty, it's actually actually quite cool to see police in the UK at the wheels of upmarket cars. As a child I was permanently embarrassed to see beat bobbies - when they were upgraded from bicycles, of course - driving around in two-door 'panda cars' like Ford Escorts, Morris Minors and even Hillman Imps. Rural policemen would turn up in Mini vans, the car's solitary blue lamp on top almost as big as the car itself. When you first travelled abroad, and saw foreign police not only carrying guns, but also driving VW Golfs and Alfa-Romeos, even British traffic cops in their British Leyland-built Rovers seemed hopelessly at a disadvantage.

Television didn't help: even watching Regan and Carter in The Sweeney tear about London in Jags and later Ford Granadas, or The Professionals' Bodie in his Ford Capri and partner Doyle in his Escort RS2000, didn't seem a match for Starsky & Hutch in their Gran Torino, or even Jim Rockford in his bronze Pontiac Firebird Esprit (though he was a private detective, so that doesn't really count).

Today, though, the financial constraints that mean British police when I was younger were confined to lumps of Midlands metal seem to have disappeared as forces around the country compete with Premier League footballers to see who can have the most

What this goes to show is that we British don't just have an insecurity or even an identity problem. No, our problem is an inferiority complex. And it's not really helped by right-wing American politicians drawing attention to the fact that we really were something as a nation. Once...

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Let the good times roll: Hugh Laurie live at Le Grand Rex, Paris

With all this faux folk at the moment - in which you can't walk into a muddy festival field without encountering a group of posh boys with asymmetrical haircuts, wielding mandolins and thumping out celtic-tinged good times - it makes a change to encounter a somewhat posh (Eton, Cambridge) actor with thinning grey hair thumping out early 20th century blues.

For Hugh Laurie and The Copper Bottom Band are, if nothing else, a jolly good time. There is, though, little point trying to deny you're in the audience for anything other than one of two reasons: 1) you're British and know Laurie best for a 30-year career in TV comedy (collaborations with Stephen Fry, goggle-eyed Blackadder characters etc); and 2) you're French and know him mostly from "Doctor 'ouse".

Looking around Le Grand Rex, the exquisitely art deco Paris theatre, I am in the clear minority as a Brit. Therefore it is quite prudent to assume that shouting out references to lost socks or the more Wodehousean "Tally-ho, pip-pip and Bernard's your uncle" will be lost.

Plus, there is little need. Laurie bursts on stage as if still president of the Cambridge Footlights Revue. "I used to be an actor," he introduces himself, purposely, like an addict declaring in 12-step session "Hi, my name is Hugh and I'm an alcoholic' to supportive applause.

To the many, somewhat scary Laurie devotees in the audience, including a group of ladies wearing T-shirts with "I Love House" and his picture on the front (Kathy Bates in Misery does come to mind...), such a statement might be an issue. Laurie has said previously, that House's success became a "gilded cage" and that he "had some pretty bleak times, dark days when it seemed like there was no escape from the attention".

But here he is, clamouring for it. With a second album - Didn't It Rain - to promote ("I can't believe I've just said 'this is from my first album' he aw-shucks later in the set), Laurie, a very accomplished musician, has brought his love of early blues and jazz to Paris along with highly competent band. With it, a full-on display of the self-effacement and comic foppishness that the English upper middle class do so well. Well, we English in general, actually.

There is something more than a hobby about Laurie's show: it is more musical theatre than, say, a band doing a gig, but that has more to do with Laurie's own entertainingly vaudevillian delivery.

This isn't, however, a travelling version of Jersey Boys. Laurie and his Copper Bottom Band are, as they say in rock circles, a tight act, universally enjoying the repertoire of songs by historic blues figures like W.C. Handy, Bessie Smith and Kansas Joe McCoy. Nor is this a vanity project - the idea of recording an album was presented to him by a record executive who'd seen him demonstrate his chops in an episode of House.

Englishmen from relatively comfortable backgrounds have been performing blues songs since the 1960s, of course. They have never claimed affinity with the music's originators, simply a love of a musical form that, when it gets you, it gets you. But whereas most have trawled the Mississippi Delta for the sort of bottleneck blues that got Beale Street jumping in the Depression, Laurie's authentic passion spreads across a wider range of American roots music.

Thus we run from the New Orleans standard Iko Iko and the much-covered Let The Good Times Roll (man alive, even Joe Strummer did a version of it), to Ray Charles' What Kind Of Man Are You, Lead Belly's infectious You Don't Know My Mind and even Mystery Train, made famous by Elvis Presley, despite being a 1955 B-side (Laurie, once more, self-effacingly apologises for performing a song by "the most famous man to ever walk the planet" without any need, as it's actually done very well).

Indeed they're all done well. Laurie needn't have remained in character so much. As a performer he's a better pianist than singer (he produces an excellent rendition of Nina Simone's I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel - best known to British TV viewers as the theme to the BBC's Barry Norman/Jonathan Ross weekly 'Film...' programme).

What Laurie lacks as a singer is made up for by the two starkly contrasting vocalists the Copper Bottom Band has in its midst: 'Sister' Jean McClain - who sometimes goes by the name of Pepper Mashay - is a journeywoman backing singer, with the kind of gospel voice that pins the lugholes back without apology. Taking lead vocal on Send Me To The Electric Chair, she soon has the audience swayin' and hollerin' as if attending Sunday morning chapel.

While much of the evening follows the course of the Mississippi from Chicago to New Orleans, Laurie and band head even further south with Kiss Of Fire, an Argentinian tango that brings young Guatemalan backing vocalist Gaby Moreno to center stage for a breathless rendition of the turn-of-century pot boiler, once covered by Louis Armstrong. Here, Moreno applies a noirish vibrato to her vocal parts, sung in Spanish, while Laurie contributes the counter melody in English.

We have, at this point, landed firmly in the territory of West End period musical. For a more conventional blues act, it would have been an eccentric choice at best, but with Laurie rarely stepping out of character, it merely adds to the Good Old Days variety of the show.

Laurie may never shake off the actor tag. To some, he may forever be Gregory House or Bertie Wooster. His persistent, very English self-effacement throughout the show certainly won't rid him of the latter association. But you cannot fault his earnestness. His knowledge of this music being played is encyclopedic, and his lifelong passion for it comes through with every song - all the way through to the finale.

Changes - the Alan Price song I always associate with an 1980s TV commercial for the Abbey National bank - is played with full-on New Orleans trad jazz gusto, a ripe trombone leading out a Mardis Gras procession in full flow before abandoning the Crescent City for Chicago and Chuck Berry's You Never Can Tell. Well known for its 'role' in Pulp Fiction, Laurie's 12-bar piano boogie and brisk accompaniment from the seven musicians brings the encore to a sprightly conclusion.

I could have probably left it there. But there is a crowd-pleasing coda to the evening: the Disney Jungle Book singalong I Wanna Be Like You. Having started the evening with Iko Iko, and wandered our way through the hinterlands of blues and traditional jazz, we end with a song from the collective childhood of almost everyone in the theatre.

This finale may have an air of self-indulgence about it. It was an enjoyable novelty when I used to hear it on Junior Choice on a Saturday morning, for Laurie a light-hearted piece of big band fun. Clearly, he's enjoying himself. How very unlike a certain doctor I could mention.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Crisis? What crisis?

If you are the writer of an amusing BBC sitcom about comfortable suburban families, or you have been tasked by a Hollywood studio to create a motion picture about a man - for it is usually he - coming to terms with being at the equator of life, the prevailing direction for your penmanship to take is that of the mid-life crisis.

Ever since a Canadian psychologist in the mid-1960s first drew attention to adults of a certain age suddenly becoming aware of their own mortality and deciding - often abruptly - that a change of direction is needed, the mid-life crisis has been a comic staple.

Thus, in your urban sitcom/adult rights-of-passage movie, He will get a hair transplant, buy a Porsche, ditch the faithful wife of 20 years and shack up with a yoga teacher half his age called Naomi, while She will chop off her hair (or grow her hair) and dye it blonde/black/strawberry blonde, trade the people carrier for a drop-head convertible, dump the dolt of a husband of 20 years and shack up with a tennis coach half her age. Of either gender.

So, apart from these clichés, how do you know when you're going through a mid-life crisis of your own? A recent poll of 1,000 people by the hair transplant people Crown Clinic (thought: why not 'Thatch of the Day'?) revealed a list of 40 symptoms to watch out for. Strangely, none involved either a hair transplant or buying a Harley.

More alarmingly are the number of symptoms that I identify with:
  • I have started listening regularly to BBC 6 Music
  • I am professionally and privately tech-savvy
  • I yearn for a simpler life
  • I have realised that paying off the mortgage may never happen
  • I am a social media junkie
  • I reminisce excessively about my childhood
  • I take no pleasure in my friends' successes
  • I want to leave the world a better place than I found it
  • I dread calls at unexpected times from members of my family
  • I go to reunion tours of my favourite bands from the 70s and 80s (check and check)
  • I do notice that politicians and business leaders are getting younger and more successful than me
  • I cannot envisage a time when I won't be able to afford to retire
  • I dream of packing in working for a living but know I can never afford to
  • I worry about being worse off in retirement than my parents
  • I am a 'cyberchondriac', obsessively looking up medical symptoms online
  • I find that I am very easily distracted and I…
  • I have realised that I only ever read books on holiday
  • And most disturbing of all, I read newspaper obituaries with far greater interest, especially if it details how the subject went
These are just those of the poll's 40 symptoms I recognise - there are plenty more to come: for now, I have no desire to visit any kind of music festival that doesn't have its own Tube station. I don't (and cannot) flirt embarrassingly with people 20 years my junior. I can't be bothered with checking out old girlfriends on Facebook. And as for constantly trying to compare my career with those of my friends, I don't as they are all infinitely more successful than me to begin with.

Lame sitcom plots aside, the mid-life crisis isn't always as extravagant as trading the Renault Espace for a Ferrari California (though, yes please). Even the name "mid-life crisis" has become too much of a well-worn joke for the reality.

Mental health professionals don't even like to call it a crisis at all. Inevitably, they prefer to term it a "transition", as in "sorry dear, I'm leaving you for the receptionist from work. I'm going through a transition". At any other time, informing your partner you were going through a transition might render thoughts of corrective gender realignment.

There is another view that, rather than being a somewhat manic episode that could even mean the onset of a more serious depression, the mid-life transition can also represent a time of personal growth, a shedding of the skin, if you will.

The Ferrari-buying stereotype may be more of a media invention, but there is certainly evidence to suggest that men, in particular, suddenly find themselves facing an acute need to prove themselves at something, whether it is learning to play drums and forming a band, or giving up work to backpack through Nepal.

The trigger is almost always a life-changing event from the mid-30s onwards, such as the death of a parent, a child graduating from college, turning 50, or simply the first grey hair. And, according to the survey, the average onset of full-on mid-life crises is getting earlier - 43 for men, 44 for women - with the duration anywhere from three to ten years for the chaps, and two to five years for the ladies.

The difference between men and women, however, is what they evaluate: men, experts say, are more likely to evaluate their professional achievements and economic status, whereas women are more likely to stop and evaluate their performance as a partner or as a mother, or both.

Psychologists also point out that there is nothing wrong with getting to a certain point in life and re-evaluating, like half-time in in football match. Perhaps there is some value in playing life's final 45 minutes differently to the first 45? Just as long as you remember that it doesn't have to mean dressing like a 25 year-old slacker and making a complete prat of yourself in front of The Pyramid Stage.

Andrew Allcock/Glastonbury Festival 2013

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Modz still rool: The Who, Palais Ominsports de Paris Bercy

© Simon Poulter 2013
Remember the concept album? There was a time when you couldn't walk into a record shop without tripping over the latest elaborately illustrated, double gatefold-sleeved musical opus spread over four sides of vinyl.

Frank Sinatra is claimed to have started it with In The Wee Small Hours, The Beach Boys took it further with Pet Sounds and then The Beatles perfected it with Sgt. Pepper. From then on in everyone was at it - The Kinks, Bowie, the Floyd, Jethro Tull, Genesis...even the Stones' Exile On Main Street is built loosely around a concept, though good luck asking Keith Richards what it was.

Today, however, the idea of a concept album by a mainstream artist is unimaginable. For a start, today's musical tastes cater, it would seem, to people with the attention span of a goldfish with ADHD, which means getting anyone to listen to a single side of an album in one go is enough of a challenge, let alone asking them to follow a story spanning more than 80 minutes of music.

For The Who, this was never an issue. In 1966 Pete Townshend penned their "mini opera" A Quick One, While He's Away. Three years later he came along with the band's full-blown "rock opera" Tommy, before writing the aborted Lifehouse story that would eventually provide the thread to Who's Next in 1971.

In 1973 Townshend produced The Who's most ambitious concept, Quadrophenia. "It's not a story, more a series of impressions of memories," he told the NME's Charles Shaar Murray in November 1973. It's also an album of subtly dark recesses - it's title partly referring to the-then new-fangled quadraphonic audio and partly to the quartet of characters who made up The Who in 1973, but also to the schizophrenic personalities of the story's central figure, Jimmy.

From a writing standpoint it was and is Townshend's favourite Who album, but with a checkered live history. When the band first took it on the road, the live show was beset with problems as they tried to synchronise their performance with tapes, a four-piece band trying to replicate an album with extensive brass and synthesiser orchestration. Given that Keith Moon once took an elephant tranquilizer before a show and required an adrenalin shot administered by a roadie to get him back in time again, this approach was always going to be difficult.

© Simon Poulter 2013

Now, sadly The Who are just two - Townshend and Roger Daltrey. Always an odd couple, a more fractious fraternity than Mick and Keef, the diminutive singer Acton street fighter alongside the stroppy cerebral one from Chiswick. With Keith Moon lost to his own devices in 1978, and John Entwhistle lost to his vices in a Las Vegas hotel room in 2002, Daltrey and Townshend have been keeping The Who's flame flickering ever since, touring Tommy, their greatest hits and Quadrophenia, long before it became fashionable to perform a classic album in its entirety on the heritage trail.

Trotted out for its 40th anniversary, Daltrey - as the show's creative director - and Townshend have clearly breathed new life into the album. For a band whose surviving principal members are at the tail end of their 60s (Daltrey turns 70 next March, Townshend is now 68), there is energy in this performance, augmented by an excellent video show that, at various moments through the story, depicts scenes of recent British history that must prove baffling to a foreign audience like this one.

But then the biggest challenge in front of any audience is satisfying the inevitable expectation of mining the entire back catalogue. With a performing heritage just a year shy of the Rolling Stones and The Beatles, The Who have plenty of singles in their history to pull off an evening of hits: in performing an entire double album, with 17 tracks of varying topography like Quadrophenia, it takes something to retain the interest of an audience that might only be there to hear My Generation one last time. But, from I Am the Sea all the way through to Love, Reign O'er Me, the ensemble brilliantly maintains the original album's breadth and depth.

© Simon Poulter 2013
There is, though, little doubt that this is a Daltrey/Townshend show we've come to see.

But then there is still so much to see. Daltrey's voice is still strong, despite various health issues in recent years with his throat.

He is still one of rock's most enduring front men, still capable of swinging his microphone this way and that, like a circus performer instinctively hitting his mark each and every time.

© Simon Poulter 2013
And of Townshend, the sometimes troubled, angry young mod, who often gives the impression of sharp intellect conflicting with inner demons, he is still windmilling his way through elaborate guitar work of an intricacy few of his contemporaries have or will ever be able to match.

There is a noticeable softening of their relationship onstage. Their camaraderie, even their brotherly love - despite years of off/on differences - comes through as should schoolfriends of such lengthy acquaintance.

For all their genuine partnership, it's still difficult not to feel their loss of Moon, in 1978, and Entwhistle 11 years ago. As an impressive coda to 5.15, stand-in drummer Scott Devours (replacing the injured Zak Starkey, Ringo's boy) pounds the skins along to a video of The Ox performing the mazy bass runs he made his signature. In another band, this might be one of those head-to-the-bar moments - a drum and bass duet.

The sight of Entwhistle, often an unrecognised part of The Who, is genuinely moving. As, too, is the ghost of Keith Moon, resurrected via audio tapes played during Bell Boy, the song he sang on the album and, during the original tour, looned his way through each night. One of rock's greatest tragedies, Moonie was also one its greatest characters, as the hilariously manic photo montage of him demonstrated.

With Quadrophenia's finale, Love, Reign O'er Me, the show reaches a majestic, triumphal end. Every sinew in Daltrey's vocal apparatus is strained, Townshend's descending guitar riff played with visible passion  - or visible anger - representing the suicidal conundrum faced by the character of Jimmy in Quadrophenia's arc. It is a breathtaking end to a breathtaking performance.

© Simon Poulter 2013

However, we're not quite done: the chugga-chugga synth of Who Are You? - made universally famous by the CSI TV franchise - introduces a semi-surprise add-on to the evening, and a chance for Daltrey to apply more of that street swagger as gets to shout "Who the fuck are YOU!" in the chorus. Baba O'Reilly brings the audience to its feet, that bassy riff waking up a few air drummers in the audience, and the incongruous sound of 17,000 mostly late middle-aged punters singing "Teenage wasteland - it's only teenage wasteland".

Without any introduction needed, Townshend strums a guitar intro rivalled only by the Stones' Satisfaction - as Pinball Wizard sends Bercy into a flailing mass of invisible guitar playing. It is intoxicatingly good fun. As, of course, is Won't Get Fooled Again. I don't know who is currently retained as Roger Daltrey's throat doctor, but as the singer lets out that famous primal scream at the end of it, you imagined that one of Harley Street's finest must be being paid handsomely.

© Simon Poulter 2013
There is, though, no My Generation. Perhaps it has become something of a millstone around Daltrey and Townshend's necks to have a song released 48 years ago containing the line "Hope I die before I get old" still in the repertoire. Instead, with the band having evacuated the stage, it is left to the two old West London mods. the pugilist behind blue eyes and his loftier mate, to sing Tea And Theatre, the touching, bittersweet closing song on The Who's final concept album Endless Wire.

As Townshend picks out the song's chords on an acoustic guitar, Daltrey, theatrically holding a tea mug, concludes the evening with the age-catching-up reflection of "All of us sad/All of us free/Before we walk from the stage/Two of us/Will you have some tea?/Will you have some tea/At the theatre with me?".

You just about hear the collective 'gulp' underneath the applause. This may be a melancholy end to a performance by a band who were once rock's angriest young men. The anger may have faded, the volume may have been turned down, but The Who are still capable of giving it maximum R'n'B.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

What has Roman ever done for us?

Apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, if you're a Chelsea fan, the Romans - well, one in particular - have actually done quite a lot.

On June 30, 2003, Chelsea was a struggling club with a somewhat great history but an uncertain future. 24 hours later, a newly-minted 36-year-old Russian billionaire by the name of Roman Arkadyevich Abramovich handed over £60 million for a 29.5% stake in the club, and at a stroke changed its direction and, arguably, English league football.

By the start of the 2003-2004 football season, Abramovich had successfully bought up the remaining stock and took the club into private hands. The Roman Revolution had begun. The Roman Empire had expanded. It didn't take long for such puns to appear on the back pages, along with the sneers. Chelski. Yes, that was a good one.

Ten years on, foreign ownership, in one way, shape or form, is no longer that new. Before Roman there was Mohamed Al-Fayed at Fulham and that was just about it. Football proprietors were still, largely local. Today it's almost uncool not to have a Russian, Qatari or American oil baron owning your club.

What, understandably, left people suspicious of Abramovich - and continues to do so - is his secrecy. In ten years he's given one interview that revealed nothing, instead relying on acolytes like club chairman Bruce Buck and chief executives Peter Kenyon and Ron Gourlay to speak for the club. This has notably had mixed results, especially as the club's managerial merry-go-round has frequently left fans struggling to understand the club's strategy, especially when it comes to firings (such as Ray Wilkins' departure for, allegedly, looking at Roman the wrong way) and hirings (Rafa Benitez...WWDBD? passim...). Amid all these situations, Abramovich maintained his silence, that slightly childlike half-smile on his face, while the buck was literally passed to Buck and others to burble about direction this and ambition that.

In the main, though, the Chelsea fan has stoically accepted that this is how it is. Would we accept yet another managerial firing if it meant finally winning the Champions League? You betcha! Would we be indifferent to the club wasting a shedload of cash for damaged goods like Schevchenko, Torres and Ballack when it meant having true gems like Cech, Drogba, Makele and, when not crocked, Robben? Obviously.

As confusing and regularly frustrating as the Rule of Roman has often been, the bigger picture takes precedent. In hiring José Mourinho to replace "dead man walking" Claudio Ranieri after Mourinho had just won the Champions League with Porto, he added one of the most exciting, controversial and, let's face it, entertaining managers since Brian Clough, who took the club to its first league title in 50 years, and repeated the same feat a season later.

After José's 2007 implosion, Avram Grant took the club to its first ever Champions League final. Meanwhile, the FA Cups kept coming. In Carlo Ancelotti - supposedly Roman's original target when he first took over the club - he had a manager who won the Premier League at the first time of asking. And then there was the Champions League itself, an accidental trophy perhaps, but still the European Cup secured under Roberto Di Matteo, before the hapless Benitez came along and somehow contrived the Europa League title.

Of course, on circumstantial argument, it looks like Abramovich's Chelsea  have bought titles, especially when the European wins give the impression they were more fluke than the result of tactical endeavour. But do we care? No!

Ask any football fan (apart from the odd pathetic fundamentalist) and they will take silverware over all else for their clubs. That's the success they crave, those are the events they desire, when the beer flows and grown men bear hug each in pubs where, on any other night of the week, such behaviour would be the launch pad for flying glassware.

These last 48 hours, with newspapers running the rule over Roman's rule, it's been fun to have seen the colossal, £683.75 million expense of the last ten years' player movements appraised. For every Drogba, Mata, Hazard, Makelele, Carvalho and Luiz there have been duds like Schevchenko, Torres (let's be honest), Veron, Kežman, Wright-Philips, Sturridge, and others who made even more fleeting appearances at the club.

The 'plan' since Day 1 has been to get the company financially self-sufficient. The UEFA Fair Play rules are making that even more imperative. The mega splurges of the early Abramovich years have been replaced by more prudent, self-financing acquisition programs. The club is, now, on the way to being somewhat financially sound, with the recent £300 million, 15-year adidas kit supply extension going a long way to help.

But there is - as it has been since the beginning - still a sense of unease: the constant shredding of managers has left every fan sceptical that anyone will last more than a season. Even Mourinho's return has rendered much of the Chelsea faithful of the opinion that they should enjoy it while it lasts, and it won't last long. We can't help looking enviously at the almost 27-year stability Manchester United enjoyed under Sir Alex Ferguson, during which they still managed to maintain an annual haul of silverware in some form..

And then there is the question of Chelsea's long-term legacy. English football had been irreparably changed forever long before Abramovich came along: Sky had seen to that with in revolutionising how the sport is televised and financed. Abramovich, however, bent English football's DNA further, like one of those plastics newspapers like to panic about getting into the food supply.

Italian and Spanish football may have been perfectly happy with money-no-object signings, but English football had been used to signing players at 14, nurturing them to adulthood and then blooding them into the first team. Chelsea's preference for buying fully-formed first-team players while picking up attractive baubles of youth potential that are immediately put out on loan has at times looked more like an investment strategy than a development approach.

There is also the somewhat ridiculous argument pushed yesterday by Ray Wilkins - a club hero whom I've always admired, but... - who informed the Daily Mail that he thought Abramovich's ten-year tenure was "for the worse". "Unfortunately the influx of foreign players...has been such that our young players are not getting an opportunity," Wilkins said. And it's true, but is that Abramovich's fault?

The hiring of foreign players wasn't an Abramovich invention - Erland Johnsson, Ruud Gullitt, Gianluca Viallia, Gianfranco Zola, Tore Andre Flo, Roberto Di Matteo...even Petar Borota in 1979 all pre-dated Abramovich's money. Foreign players have long been in the English leagues, going right back to the formation of association football itself.

But I don't disagree with the general notion that the widespread adoption of non-English players has had an adverse affect on the national team, and in particular, the Under-21s. It would be insane to blame England's recent abject failure at the UEFA Under 21s in Israel on Chelsea, but the sight of young English players whom you know will struggle to break into the first teams of the Premier League elite served a timely reminder that England's future should be in the hands of England's clubs. But isn't.

Is this the fault of foreign owners like Abramovich? Yes, probably. But here I come back to the fans' dilemma. We Chelsea fans have had a decade of unprecedented and, let's be honest, unaccustomed success under Abramovich. And we brazenly dodge the moral question - "At what cost?"

Monday, July 01, 2013

All for show: Bruce Springsteen at the Stade de France, Paris

© Simon Poulter 2013
The French have gone from being one of Europe's most contented nationalities to one of its gloomiest. A recent survey of the nation française revealed the national spirit is at an all-time low, gloom has set it amongst the Galls. Though not all of them.

The 75,000 who piled into the Stade de France on Saturday night screaming "Brooooooooooooce!!!" were clearly in the mood to have a good time. And a royally good time they had.

This was a night of consumate showmanship on both sides of the English Channel, a contrasting tale of two cities - one made of light, the other built of tents. 

In Paris, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were giving the sort of industrious performance for which they've become reknown, an exhaustive 42-year compendium of the American heartland, of cars, Saturday night sweethearts, screen doors and auto shop grease, all to an infectious stomp that barely stopped from start to finish.

442 kilometres away (or 275 miles, if you care about such things), in an unexpectedly dry Somerset field, The Greatest Rock And Roll Band In The World™ were working their way through a half-century repertoire of interpreted Chicago Blues, music steeped just as equally in American toil, but which had worked its way up the Mississippi River from the sweat-riven cotton fields of the South.

The Stones are, still, a force to be reckoned with. In Mick Jagger - who turns 70 in four weeks' time - they have a leader who prepared for Glastonbury with, according to The Times, a "gruelling" fitness regime of running, kickboxing, cycling, gym work and ballet. And in Keith Richards, the beating heart of what it is to be a Rolling Stone, they have a guitarist whose Glasto preparations were "making sure all my lighters have been filled".

At just 63, Bruce Springsteen is still the young pretender, but if the Rolling Stones have, over 50 years, set the bar high, Springsteen is clearly capable of leaping even higher over it. "Le Boss" gave a masterclass in entertainment on the largest of scales. Three hours and 20 minutes of it, to be precise. Springsteen and his stage-filling, 17-strong 'family' providing an utterly compelling demonstration of how to do this stadium thing properly - straight-forward, old-fashioned rock performance at its very best.

© Simon Poulter 2013

A band of seasoned performers, who have been touring the globe since 1972 like a giant circus troupe, each member with their own distinctive act. You had Stevie van Zandt, who'd just flown back from James Gandolfini's funeral, a semi-comedic Richards to Springsteen's Jagger, with his manic Keith Moon eyebrows and protruding bottom lip amusingly out of sync with the video screen to the extent that he actually looked like the The Sopranos' dream sequence fish. 

And in Nils Lofgren we had an equally gifted guitarist, whose extended sideburns, diminutive stature and stunted stovepipe hat gave him the appearance of a rock'n'roll leprechaun. At the back behind the drumkit for almost the show's entirety was Max Weinburg, looking more like a New York lawyer rocking out as a weekend hobby, but barely raising a sweat as he held everything together, much like his English countpart Charlie Watts over at Glastonbury.

The E Street Band are a tight crew. The deaths, in 2008 of keyboard player Danny Federici and, in 2011, of legendary saxophonist Clarence Clemons, have perhaps made them tighter, as they would any family, and especially a travelling family such as this. Thus, the sight of Clemons' nephew, Jake on saxophone raised as big a cheer as any of the other leading members of the band. 

© Simon Poulter 2013
This was my first ever experience of Springsteen live. I knew of his reputation, of stamina-testing shows and of superlative stagecraft, but nothing could have prepared me for the non-stop enjoyment. Anyone mad enough to have been watching me rather than the show would have seen the same stupid grin from start to finish. It was so good I just couldn't stop smiling. Or stamping my right foot.

Opening with Badlands from Darkness On The Edge Of Town, the crowd may have been at risk of peaking their excitement early. The River's Out In The Street followed, prompting the first outbreak of mass participation (there would be many more), before the ensemble on stage snapped into an energetic cover of Little Richard's Lucille - the first number of the night to be selected by Springsteen from hand-written requests held aloft on bits of cardboard by hardcore fans down the front.

On Wrecking Ball Springsteen convulsed through his latest album's title track and its commentary on the times: "I was raised out of steel here in the swamps of Jersey, some misty years ago. Through the mud and the beer, and the blood and the cheers, I've seen champions come and go", before adding the album's vitriolic Death to My Hometown to the evening, his face contorted like Schwarzenegger's in the Martian scenes of Total Recall as he rasped out the song's sharp commentary on American heartland decay.

© Simon Poulter 2013

After restoring the party spirit somewhat with a rousing Cadillac Ranch, Springsteen then announced - in, apparently, perfect French - that the band would work its way through the Born In The USA album in its entirety. 

Plenty of bands on the heritage trail have done this, sort of thing of course, but for the Paris crowd it was an unheralded surprise. It was, Bruce told them, 28 years to the day that he'd brought the original Born In The USA tour to Paris and that the band wanted to commemorate that special night in 1985. 

Even after this many years of being hijacked by idiotically misinformed politicans, the vituperative anger of "BARN in the yoo-ess-ay" still cracks like a pounding wound as Springsteen unleashed the first verse and those lines: "The first kick I took was when I hit the ground/You end up like a dog that's been beat too much/Till you spend half your life just covering up". The mood shifted with a positively beautiful I’m On Fire, a darkly passionate love song that just shouldnt have rendered a concrete bagel like the Stade de France to silence, but it did. 

More they followed - No Surrender, Bobby Jean, the singalongaspringsteen Glory Days, and then Dancing in the Dark. Last week I heard it given the bluegrass treatment by Ruth Moody, Mark Knopfler's support act, so it was odd so soon to hear the original performed by its originator. We all know it to be a song with a questionable history - that video, with a young Courteney Cox being plucked from the audience by a jiving Springsteen - being generally regarded as one of the horrors of the MTV era. Here it turns the stadium expanse into a giant high school prom, Bruce inevitably picking incredulous fans from the front row to frug with him onstage.

After that, we all needed a rest. My Hometown, the moodily bittersweet recollection of a segregated '60s America cut poignancy through the perfect summer's evening in Paris, a dark azure falling over the floodlit stadium as Springsteen intoned to an imagined son: "take a good look around - this is your hometown".

The emergence of Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers, and their cod Celtic jiggery has raised the duster of critics who find it all a bit faux 'Oirish. There's no denying that such music, when cranked up, can be dangerously infectious, however, but the Mumfords and their lind are, alas, late to this particular céilidh. Listen to Springsteen'swonderful  Live In Dublin album from 2007 and you'll hear it all done properly, by a New Jersey native of Dutch, Irish and Italian heritage. 

© Simon Poulter 2013

And thus, on the last day of June, Paris turned into the 17th day of March, as Pay Me My Money Down and Shackled and Drawn prompted arms to be linked and strangers to dance merrily about. It was as entertaining a spectacle to watch as, I suspect, it was to participate on the pitch below.

By this stage we were still only two-thirds of the way through the show - 21 songs in, to be precise. It was at this point that Springsteen refocused attention on an event that changed the world forever, an event that impacted the very people of his own New Jersey community, his neighbours and his schoolfriends: 9/11. 

Springsteen was in the midst of writing the album that would eventually become The Rising when New York was attacked, just across the Hudson from his Jersey Shore home. He recalls seeing the pall of smoke coming from the site of the Twin Towers.

As such, Waiting On A Sunny Day wasn't actually written about the attacks, but like the rest of the album, it took on a different meaning in their wake, it's bouncy hook speaking of the simpler world we all enjoyed before the dreadfiul events in 2001. To underline the pre-9/11 innocence a young girl is pulled out of the crowd and handed a microphone to sing the chorus which she does, totally unfazed by  the Enormodome audience before her.  Call it a hammy moment if you want, brand it ever-so-slightly corny, but the collective "Ahhhhh.......!" from the audience tellingly informed that in a beleaguered world that might otherwise find such a moment cynical, there is still enough humanity left regard it genuinely cute.

© Simon Poulter 2013
From the potentially sachrine to the actually moving: The RisingWith planes taking off behind Stade De France from Charles De Gaulle Airport - a powerful metaphor for that horrendous Tuesday morning more than a decade ago - a song about a fireman fatefully heading back up one of the towers.

The Rising has become an emotionally charged, but resiliently uplifting anthem, no less for Springsteen himself who pumped his Telecaster like an angry blacksmith hammering away at molten iron.

Three hours in it is time for that love it/hate it moment of pantomime where the band goes off for "light refreshment" to retun to a foot-stomping, wolf-whistling, frantically clapping audience for one last hurrah. In the case of the E Street Band, their departure is both understandable - given the hour - but brief: after what must have the most momentary of towel-downs, back out they came to the appropriatelty-titled We Are Alive, Wrecking Ball's homage to those who gave their lives in the construction of America.

Then, with barely a second for anyone - especially the audience - to catch its breath, the massed guitars of the E Street Band are thunking out the opening riff of Born To Run, the song from the album that transformed Springsteen from scruffy struggler to producer Jon Landau's claim that he'd seen "rock'n'roll's future - and it's name is Bruce Springsteen." 

There isore poignancy as Jake Clemons blasts out his uncle's sax solo with relish before Springsteen recovers the baton to scream: "The highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive". Never before has stadium rock sounded so big or so appropriately staged. And somewhere in the middle of it all, New York-born, Paris-dwelling rocker Elliott Murphy makes an appearance, much to the locals' delight.

© Simon Poulter 2013
Ramrod, next, gives Springsteen's comic theatricality a joyous outlet, as he and Van Zandt goof around, mugging for the cameras like a Three Stooges tribute act missing a critical third. However, if there was any doubt about it, it's clear that all 18 people on stage are having as much fun as the audience.

The party storms on with Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, the story of how the E Street Band formed in the first place, the LED video screens fittingly filling with the huge image of the band's deceased sax player, just as Springsteen delivers the line "...the Big Man joined the band", to rapturous (and even tearful) applause.

© Simon Poulter 2013
It almost seems too much. It isn't, of course. Like a party you leave not realising how late it is because you were having that good a time, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band finish up, fittingly on the Saturday before July 4, with American Land. It's the unashamed Stars-and-Stripes-waving Wrecking Ball track which reminds us that, for all its ills, America has not only drawn all and sundry to its shores, but has welcomed them.

"They come across the water," Springsteen sings, "a thousand miles from home, with nothing in their bellies but the fire down below". It is one last opportunity of the night for the crowd to jig about, link arms with strangers and soak up the spirit of "There's treasure for the taking, for any hard-working man...". 

At its close, one hard-working American man applauds his band off stage, one-by-one slapping them on the back as they disappear down a tunnel after a truly awe-inspiring spectacle, one I'd imagined, even expected, but had little real understanding of without experiencing it first hand.

With the E Street Band gone, it is left to Springsteen, alone, to strap on an acoustic guitar and affix a harmonica brace around his neck. There have been goose-pimple moments, but not quite like this one. He strums, he breathes into the harmonica, and then.... "And the screen door slams, Mary's dress sways. Like a vision she dances, across the porch." Yes, Thunder Road

This is the America of romantic ideal, which may or not have existed for real, and may or may not exist still today. This is Springsteen's America, of sweethearts in the moonlight and the skeletons of burned-out Chevrolets. And it is a moment to savour.

The end is palpable. As if we have both - artist and audience - arrived at the same conclusion. Exhausted but elated, as if we've all been on an epic journey of our own, from Badlands to Thunder Road, highway heroes all, on a last-chance power drive.


© Simon Poulter 2013