Thursday, February 28, 2013

Bring back the Special One

As every fan knows, the range of tunes on which football chants are based is limited.

You have Go West, the paradoxically camp 70s disco anthem by the Village People which becomes repurposed as "Crap, and you know you are!". There is the traditional hymn, Bread of Heaven ("Are you Tottenham in disguise?!"); a cheesy Italian Eurovision Song Contest entry from 1958 - Volare ("Vialli - wo-oh, Vialli - wo-oh-oh-ohh"); and a Cuban folk song about a saucy señorita from Guantanamo Bay - Guantanamera ("Sacked in the morning, you're getting sacked in the morning").

Frankly, I wish football fans would broaden their base of references. We Chelsea fans, for example, should pay attention to Steely Dan. The arch-70s pedlars of smart arse jazz-rock-soul have within their impressive oeuvre the perfect song on which to base a chant - The Boston Rag, with its chorus "Bring back the Boston rag/Tell all your buddies that it ain't no drag" can easily be restyled as "Bring back the Special One".

Because, let's not kid ourselves, it is José Mário dos Santos Mourinho Félix we want to see back at Chelsea, not some lesser European careerist, or another former Stamford Bridge playing hero who will break our hearts when the inevitable phone call of dismissal comes from Roman's office.

Life was more fun with Jose around. True, the football may not necessarily have been, but no one went wanting for things to talk about. This week we've had a timely reminder of just what made Mourinho so special to begin with: it wasn't his own inflated self-opinion, but his ability to disrupt - in the positive sense.

He's had a difficult season at Real Madrid, but then life at the top clubs in Spain and Italy is rarely easy for anyone. But Real's 3-1 Copa del Rey victory over Barcelona the other night was one to savour, not lest of which for the way it has set up the next El Clásico this Saturday night.

The irony is that it should come in the same week as Rafa Benitez - Mourniho's sparring partner when they were rival managers in England - should emotionally implode once again as journalist bating and fan abuse got to him. But, here, the song should be "Rafa Benitez - we've been here before".

Not for the first time, Benitez allowed emotion to get the better of him when he was interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live last night. "At the end of the season, I will leave," he heaved, adding sarcastically "[The fans] don't need to be worrying about me". To be honest, we weren't. What Chelsea fans are worrying about is who comes in next - and when.

Countering fan hostility is one thing, but then openly criticising Roman Abramovich for naming him "interim first team manager" was downright stupid, and typical of the half-baked bombast Benitez is, sadly, capable of.

So, rather than facing the prospect of looking for a new coach at the end of the season, it is quite likely that Chelsea may be looking to appoint an interim-interim first team coach more immediately. Of note. come Monday it will be exactly a year to the day since Andre Villas Boas was relieved of his duties and Roberto Di Matteo appointed on an interim basis as well. Still following this?

The timing is certainly unfortunate, yet again: with the Blues facing Manchester United next in their defence of the FA Cup, and through to the final eight of the Europa League, not to mention still chasing the cherished top-four league position, the team focus shouldn't be getting distracted by speculation about the next Chelsea manager.

Mourinho - who has expressed a desire to return to English football and is expected to leave Madrid in the summer - is currently odds-on favourite to return to Chelsea, although there is fairly decent betting currently on former Chelsea players like Gus Poyet (currently second favourite) and Gianfranco Zola, David Moyes, Cesare Prendelli, Michael Loudrup, even Avram Grant and Carlo Ancellotti (who could also be replaced at Paris-Saint Germain by Mourinho) getting the job.

The question is, who would be mad enough to take on the game of Russian Roulette that is managing Chelsea? Mourinho could do it with his eyes shut and we fans would love to see the capricious old sod back at the club. But would he want to go through all that personality nonsense with Abramovich again?

There is also the view that, as in life itself, in football you don't go back a second time - "I don't do sloppy seconds", as Gareth Keenan so gracefully put it in The Office. He had a point. Second time around rarely works - there's always a reason why it failed in the first place. So, if Chelsea do bring back the Special One, is it destined to end in tears?

Deep within our hearts, we know it would be right. Jose did become a monster of his own creation. He not only challenged Roman Abramovich's authority but also his place in the pecking order. But, man alive, wouldn't it be fun to have him back? Wasn't football an insanely entertaining circus when Mourinho was patrolling the touchline, sliding to his knees when Chelsea scored, or scowling in the stands under UEFA sanction again?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Italian Football: A Chaos Theory

"Football is chaos" is one of my favourite summaries of the beautiful game. The origin of this somewhat abstract erudition is none other than radio station controller-bating Danny Baker, in what was a dismissal of experts of the game ("and all punditry is bogus").

It was one of Baker's customary declarations that football shouldn't get too far ahead of itself. Which, of course, it does.

Football is at its most chaotic in Italy. It is a chaotic interest in a frankly chaotic country. Today, that chaotic country goes to the polls in another chaotic election, one that may either return to the office of prime minister, the septuagenerian lothario, media magnate, hair-transplanting, tax-dodging, bunga-bunga partying Silvio Berlusconi.

His opponents in this election include a Jeff Lynn-haired comedian by the name of Beppe Grillo. You long for Beppe to be elected, as he would be a delightfully disruptive feature of those dire European summits, you know, those gatherings where the Germans arrive first, the French look flustered, the British would rather not be there at all, and whoever is running Italy that particular week turns up merely to look lasciviously at any skirt on parade. Beppe would be a laugh, and probably wouldn't do too much as general elections in Italy usually come every six months.

Berlusconi, in case you didn't know, is also the owner of AC Milan. Such is Milan's diligent support for the notion that football is chaos, it shares its stadium with its most hated rival, Internazionale. Imagine Celtic and Glasgow Rangers sharing Ibrox, and then double the intensity, treble the amount of gesticulation, and quadruple the noise.

Today Berlusconi's attention, short as it apparently is, will be split between his attempt to become Italian prime minister for the fourth time, and one of the most enduring fixtures in world football - Derby Della Madonnina, the Milan derby between Inter and Milan, Nerrazzuri and Rossoneri. This fixture alone - which takes place this very reason - is one of the reasons I love Italian football. Because it is mad, bad and dangerous to experience.

Italian football is probably or mostly or partially corrupt; yes, it involves players with amazingly bounteous hair in sharp contrast to the 'number-one-all-over' prevalent in the Premier League; and yes, it does involve the most outrageous feigning, diving of a quality the IOC should consider an additional aquatic discipline, and theatricality so ham Kevin Spacey could make a permanent season out of it at the Old Vic. There truly is no football league in the world with quite the same flamboyance about it.

Unfortunately, Serie A has lost some of its lustre in recent years. Like Italy itself - riven with economic woe and a corruption culture throughout public life that constantly threatens this once seat of modern civilisation - the Italian premier league has suffered two match-fixing scandals over the last decade. That, this last week, an associate of a Singaporean businessman currently  "helping with enquiries" about a global match-fixing ring was arrested in Milan may have come as little surprise.

Sleeze aside, Italian football has lost out to its western Mediterranean neighbour, Spain. Barcelona's recent dominance of the European game, coupled with its never-take-your-eyes-off-it rivalry with Real Madrid, plus insane sums of money sloshing about this somewhat impoverished country has made Spain the cool continental league; and coming up, somewhat alarmingly, in the popularity stakes is the German Bundesliga, with its annoyingly self-satisfied, proficient organisation and UEFA-friendly financial stability.

Italian football for me has always been more of an ideal. Des Lynam, Channel 4 and Paul Gascoigne are to blame. Entirely. First, there was Italia '90: another great, glorious English failure, with penalty misses galore and a teared-up Gazza losing it.

In 1990 football was in the doghouse. The bans on English clubs that had resulted from Heysel, plus the Hillsborough and Bradford disasters had made football the pariah of British sport. At middle class dinner parties, mere mention of an interest in footy would produce a reaction similar to admitting running a child slavery business.

On balance, the World Cup in 1990 in Italy was, on balance, one of the worst World Cups on records. Just where poor football. But with rose-tinted spectacles, we look back on it with the sound of Pavarotti wailing Nessun Dorma over the BBC's opening titles for its coverage, for England's brave Cockleshell Heroes struggling through to a semi-final showdown with [West] Germany (guess how that went…), for the 23-year-old Paul Gascoigne being England's most exciting player…before receiving that yellow card in the semi that would have ruled him out of the final, leaving the lad bawling his eyes out for all the world to see.

It was pure melodrama. Rubbish football though. Perhaps that depicted Italy at its best? The tournament provided Italian tourism with its greatest advertising campaign. Around every game, idyllic scenes of ornate fountains, piazzas and flare-lighting headcases dressed in head-to-toe Kappa were introducing football fans around the world to Italy's second biggest religion.

On the back of it, there was a minor invasion of Serie A from within England's Italia 90 squad: Gazza joined Lazio, David Platt moved to Juventus and, later, Sampdoria where Des Walker had been since 1992, and in 1995, Paul Ince left Manchester United to join Inter. Like a Checkpoint Charlie spy-swap, Italian players came in the other direction. Glenn Hoddle's continental revolution at Chelsea brought in Gianfranco Zola and the European Cup-winning Juventus skipper, Gianluca Vialli. All of a sudden, footballers were eschewing tacky nightclubs for fashionable Italian restaurants in Knightsbridge.

For the rest of us it was clear that Italy and its football had something intrinsically cool to latch on to. It was bloke and girlfriend-friendly and by the mid-90s, there was a distinct Italianate atmosphere around the game: British men were, all of a sudden, wearing tan brogues and matching belts with their dark blue suits. The V-neck sweater - previously the preserve of your dad and panelists on Question of Sport - were finding their way onto young men to be worn under the aforementioned navy suit.

However, ultimate credit for making Italian football - and Italy itself - socially acceptable should not lie with any actual footballer. No, hats must darken the skies for one James Richardson.

While the BBC, ITV and the nascent Sky were fighting it out for TV rights to the brand new Premier League in 1992, Channel 4 - the station that had brought American Football and the SuperBowl to a bewildered Britain - took over the rights to Serie A coverage in the UK from the defunct BSB, which Sky had 'merged' with.

Knowing that the league held British interest, and with the post-Italia 90 storia d'amore still intact, it made a Sunday afternoon 'destination' for the dishless footy fan. 90 minutes of weekly Italian league chaos and a lot of coloured smoke. Channel 4's Football Italia strand also included a Saturday morning magazine, Gazzetta Football Italia.

Occupying a slot other channels reserved for corny kids jokes and puppets, it was hosted by Richardson, then a young, apparently Italian-fluent English journalist who gave the impression that he was simply living the dream.

Presenting each edition from some piazza somewhere, a steaming cappuccino and some form of towering Italian dessert delicacy in front of him, Richardson ran a wry tour through the week's Italian media, pointing out melodramatic headlines about the latest Serie A manager under threat or which player was heading for a lucrative contract in the English Premier League.

Gazzetta was required viewing, not least of which for Richardson's decidedly un-sports presenter-like delivery (closer in dry humour to John Peel's Top Of The Pops stints than Elton Welsby and other perma-smurking, cliche-ridden football hosts).

"It probably helped that I didn't grow up watching a lot of football television," Richardson told online football magazine When Saturday Comes. "I don't get off massively on Saint & Greavsie, for example. So there wasn't much danger of me falling into that trap. When I did my first week's work out here, I was told to do a screen test, doing whatever felt most natural. So I stood there on a terrace above Genoa, my arms going like windmills, and started talking and walking. I don't know why, but I find my mouth moves better if the rest of my limbs are going in conjunction. I'd have been in real trouble if they'd said, 'No, don't do it like that.' That's all I could have done, really - either that or else be very, very stilted."

Richardson's knowledgeability of Italian football and his skill at not taking it all too seriously became required viewing from 1992 until 2002. Shopping trips, DIY projects and other Saturday morning male pursuits were put on hold while chaps tuned in for Channel 4's unique take on Italian life, taken through the prism of la calcio.

What did for Gazetta, however, was the economic collapse of Italian football itself. As global television grew bored of the Italian game, and the major clubs themselves - including the two Milan teams, Lazio and Roma, Parma and Fiorentina - all found themselves earning less as a result, Gazetta and Richardson found themselves bouncing from Channel 4 to the backwaters of satellite television, where Football Italia had begun.

Milan go into tonight's Derby Della Madonnina on the back of that remarkable - and unexpected - midweek win over Barcelona in the Champions League. To add to the spice of an already spicy tie,  Inter sit just a point behind them in Serie A with Lazio and goal difference separating them.

Whatever the state of Italian football, this is still a top-four clash, with bragging rights amongst the Milanese as much the prize as a shot at winning a scudetto. But, perhaps, only in Italy could this match be taking place on the same day as an Italian parliamentary election, and one in which the most controversial of candidates is also the owner of one of the two teams playing tonight in the San Siro Stadium. And that is why football is chaos, and Italian football, a brand of chaos all on its own.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Now would do nicely

It is, perhaps, not surprising that the 43-year-old Ethan Johns maintains a foot or even all ten toes in the era of music his father played such an instrumental, if not obvious, role in.

As the son of Glyn Johns, producer of such seminal rock-era albums as Who's Next, The Faces' A Nod's As Good As A Wink To A Blind Horse and Eric Clapton's Slowhand, Ethan has had some extraordinary influences around him. And just for good measure, his uncle, Andy, engineered Led Zeppelin's entire studio canon, along with the Rolling Stones' output during the early '70s.

Quite some pedigree. But today, Johns Jr. is, in his own right, a much-respected musical polymath, producing, mixing, engineering, writing and master of numerous instruments, with an amazing list of credits including work with Kings of Leon, Laura Marling, Rufus Wainwright, Ryan Adams, Crowded House and Crosby, Stills and Nash, and the Best British Producer award at last year's Brits.

You could claim that such is the quality of Johns' behind-the-scenes work that coming front-of-cloth might be considered a tad greedy. But such is the sheer richness of his debut solo album, If Not Now Then When, there should be no complaints at all.

For a lad born in the London Borough of Merton, Johns has the canyons and valleys of Los Angeles in his veins. If Not Now Then When is an ear-warming channeling of the era of easy-going folk rock, a time when singer-songwriter albums came about through mandatory beard growing, wearing head-to-toe denim, and gatherings of like-minded heads in secluded cottages somewhere between LA's Laurel Canyon and Mulholland Drive.

The result is a gentle, stroll through folk, blues and acoustic rock, steered by father Glyn at the mixing desk, and with encouragement in the early stages from Marling.

Initial tracks were written and tested while Johns was touring with Ray LaMontagne: "I just thought, 'Well, wow, maybe these things don't have to live on the shelf at my studio anymore," Johns explains. "Maybe I can roll these out. Because it's so much fun.'"

The outcome is a mellow melange of folk, rock, folk-rock and blues - or combinations thereof - that opens with the line "Goodbye cruel world, hello sunshine..." above the sparse entrance of the opening track, which builds from gentle acoustic to electric guitar, single to multi-track vocal, and from a tight intimacy to a cinematic roadtrip.

Morning Blues is a noirish swamp stomp, with much of the stomp provided by powerhouse drummer Jeremy Stacey (the Droog-attired go-to sticksman I last saw pounding the skins for Noel Gallagher). As Seasick Steve has proven, the beauty of blues music is often its simplicity. Likewise Red Rooster Blue, with its sunny and strummable bluegrass disposition, digging roots-deep into the folksy origin of music Americana.

If I were to describe Elijah as "Beatley" I would be committing one of the cardinal sins of music reviews. It is one of the most overworked descriptions of all, especially given that it refers to a band that began as greased-up rockers and ended as midwives to prog rock. But as a descriptor of anything with a melodic familiarity that your granny could hum or your four-year-old can wail along to from the backseat of the car, Beatley covers most of the Neil Finn oeuvre, that of Jeff Lynn (almost by default) and. now, John's Elijah, standing out for its delightful, perfectly formed Abbey Road-era piano, Ringo drum fills, and a vocal that could easily have found its way onto Let It Be.

This is an album of expressed freedom. If that sounds a little hippy-dippy, then it probably is. John's low, close-to-the-mic vocal (similar to that of Mark 'E' Everett of Eels) pulls you into his stripped-down domain, all acoustic guitars and bare feet on the floorboards. Thus the likes of Willow offer a personal, soul-bearing charm while The Turning finds a reflective Johns considering the march of time, something we all get to sooner or later after our 40th summer.

Mixed by dad Glyn, and with other collaborations from Danny Thompson (John Martyn's legendary bassist and - literally - sparring partner), Marling and Adams - all of whom turn up on the gloriously mellow Whip-Poor-Will, If Not Now Then When is a delight, a record you feel you've been listening to for years, but with more than enough about it to feel new. Yes, it harks back to a Californian lifestyle from over 40 years ago, but there's enough here to warm the most complicated of modern days.

Indeed, having recently spent a couple of days enjoying the top-down joys of that stretch of Pacific Coast Highway between Santa Monica and Malibu, this is the album I would like to have had while driving. Gentle, introspective, intimate and soulful all at once and individually.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

iWatch, iWonder

News this week that Apple is apparently developing an 'iWatch' has sent the blogosphere - or at least that part which devours everything and anything that comes out of the Cupertino, California, company - into a right tiz.

Not content with getting worked up about the next iPhone(s) and iPad(s), Applewatchers have been handed a tasty teaser of the possibility of a wrist-borne 'i' device. According to the New York Times, Apple is believed to be developing a digital watch which uses a special, flexible glass that would enable the device to wrap around the wrist, much like the Nike+ FuelBand device does today.

The FuelBand tracks the physical activity of its owner, uploading the information wirelessly into a smartphone. It's an extension of the training shoe-fitted Nike+ sensor device that Nike and Apple launched a few years ago that synced information with iPod Nanos.

It's not a stretch, then, that Apple could be combining features of their fourth-generation Nano - the square one with the touchscreen - with the FuelBand concept. For a start, that Nano could be easily turned into a wrist accessory by just adding a dedicated strap and case combo. Nanos, going back to the original, have been highly popular with joggers and fitness fanatics, and there have been plenty of sweat-proof Neoprene cases and armwraps to go with them.

What remains to be seen is whether the iWatch will also include a phone. For years, technology dreamers have talked about 'wearable' electronics, with phone-watches regarded as the Holy Grail. While the idea of walking around like Dick Tracy with your wrist clamped to your ear may have been exciting in the 1930s, the practicalities are somewhat different.

A phone in a device the size of a wristwatch is technically possible, but before we get too carried away, remember the debacle over the iPhone 4? Apple's siting of the internal antenna was the root of that problem, improved partially by the addition of $1 rubber bumpers, and solved altogether in the iPhone 4S and 5.

For it to work in a Nano-sized device would require an effective antenna - which would require Apple's miniaturisation experts to put in some extra hours of developing it.

Then there is the fashion statement it would make: we quite rightly accused early adopters of housebrick-sized mobile phones of being utter tools for lugging those things around (though their saving grace was that their batteries didn't last long enough for any lasting damage to credibility. A wristwatch phone would be a different matter.

For now, however, the sensible expectation is that an iWatch will simply be a sports watch extension of the iPod family, that combines the Nano and FuelBand in a single device, with either Bluetooth connectivity or a simple audio jack for headphones.

Will it sell? Sounds like a gamble to me, but there have been signs coming out of Cupertino that new Apple CEO Tim Cook holds an interest in developing health and wellbeing devices or, at the very least, apps for the iPad and iPhone that can play a greater part in consumers taking better care of themselves.

The odd thing is that with the core (ho-ho) of Apple's strategy being the mobile 'i' devices like the iPhone and iPad - designed to consolidate as many applications as possible on a single platform - it will be interesting to see how Apple would go about selling a device with such a relatively narrow scope as an iWatch. But then, Apple have been able to sell snow to the eskimo before, so why not something else no one really needs, but will go and buy in any case?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Stroll on down electric avenue

With the Clan Mumford continuing their waistcoated march across the western world - like a band of marauding Pa Larkins armed with ukes and mandolins - the grand pappy of British folk-rock, Richard Thompson has stormed back this week with Electric, his 22nd album since leaving Fairport Convention.

I must confess, Thompson is one of those staples of British music I've managed to avoid. Not deliberately, mind, but light prejudice and shameful cliches involving beards, Aran sweaters and rural inflection may have been involved. Where I have lent folkwards, it has been in the direction of Nick Drake and, of course, my uber-hero, John Martyn, or towards the Appalachian charms of American roots.

For Thompson, however, Fairport Convention and all that early-70s hurdy-gurdy is a long way behind. Electric is a barnstorming affair, as it's title might suggest, dictated to by Thompson's Stratocaster mastery. It's a finger-picking virtuosity to rival Mark Knopfler, with whom Thompson shares a close musical affinity, stylistically, lyrically and tonally.

Recorded at the Nashville home studio of Robert Plant-collaborator Buddy Miller, Electric weaves in and out of Celtic-tinged rock, honky-tonk and bluegrass with a lyrical spectrum spanning the acerbic and the solemn.

To those familiar with Thompson's output in recent years, Electric may, simply, feel familiar. Like Knopfler, settling in to a sound and a groove. But that would be to unfairly suggest that Thompson turned up, plugged in and went home again.

Stony Ground kicks it off with ribald tale of an ageing lothario lusting after the widow across the street, essentially a bluesy jive about someone not that dissimilar to Open All Hours' Arkright ("Silly old man with his teeth all gone/Poking his nose where it don't belong/She's a rose all right but she's got thorns....").

The title of Salford Sunday provides the premise of a dreary tale about a dreary Sunday in a dreary Manchester suburb, but it's gently shuffling bluegrass (with Allison Krauss on backing vocals) is less another dour Northern tale as one of slight regret at leaving behind a particularly entertaining Saturday night, if you know what I mean.

While list compilers have largely focused on the Claptons, Gilmours and Becks in their compilations of great British guitarists, Thompson has probably never been given the recognition he deserves.

Perhaps its the folk association, but Stuck On The Treadmill provides a snappy showcase of just how gifted - and varied - a guitarist he is, applying a bluesy, bassy edge to opine the cause of the workin' man.

There is more familiar folkiness in The Snow Goose, another somewhat regretful, even mournful tale of a Northern lass, and in Saving The Good Stuff For You, which picks the tone up a notch with the help of fiddles and gee-tars.

Electric may not be the album to change your view of the world, but if you enjoy your Saturday night bar room entertainment guitar-flavoured, you won't be disappointed, from the tankard-swinging ballad Another Small Thing In Her Favour to the honky-tonk funk of Straight And Narrow.

Compared to, say, last year's Locked Down by Dr John, I'll admit that Electric hasn't turned me over in a sweating, heaving wreck of spooky roots blues; but it is pleasantly blessed in the manner that only American folk - as Plant and Krauss themselves demonstrated so admirably with Raising Sand - can do, providing a highly likeable soundtrack to either a night down the pub, or a cross-country trek across Appalachia.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

In A Spin

Tonight, this afternoon, or tomorrow morning, depending on where you sit in the world, the music industry will amass at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles to celebrate what is boldly tagged "Music's Biggest Night" - the Grammy Awards

Like all televised American awards shows, it will be a glittering, glamourous affair. A red carpet roll-up for the photographers. Artists - those appearing, performing, presenting or simply sitting in the front row - have been issued with explicit instructions on how they should dress. In an attempt to prevent anything too rock'n'roll at the music industry's equivalent of the Oscars, an e-mail is alleged to have been sent out warning:

"Please be sure that buttocks and female breasts are adequately covered. Thong type costumes are problematic. Please avoid exposing bare fleshy under curves of the buttocks and buttock crack. Bare sides or under curvature of the breasts is also problematic. Please avoid sheer see-through clothing that could possibly expose female breast nipples. Please be sure the genital region is adequately covered so that there is no visible 'puffy' bare skin exposure."

It's possible that 'puffy' might refer to the dress Jennifer Lopez wore to accompany P Diddy to the 2000 Grammys. Anyway, I digress. At the end of the day, the Grammys represent the suited, still-or-sparkling-sir? business end of the music business, as far removed from guitars turned up to 11 in suburban garages as it's possible to be.

British interests this year are solidly represented by the usual suspects: Adele, Adele and Adele, as well as newcomers like Ed Sheeran, plus Muse, Mumford & Sons and the venerable McCartney.

Even my friend Steven Wilson - criminally overlooked elsewhere by the British music press despite being one of the industry's most industrious artists - is in with a shout for his Surround Sound production work on his own musical collaboration, Storm Corrosion, with Mikael Åkerfeldt of Swedish prog-metalists Opeth. It's his third Grammy nomination, the previous both for his production work on his band, Porcupine Tree's Fear Of A Blank Planet and his debut solo album, The Incident.

Eight miles and a fifteen-minute burst up the Hollywood Freeway from the Nokia Theater is one of the last vestiges of what probably got a good two-thirds of the audience at the Grammys into music in the first place: LA's last big record store: Amoeba Records.

With the demise of Tower Records and the Virgin chain, both of which had prominent outlets not far away on Sunset Boulevard, Amoeba is something of an anomaly. A vast but funky record and video retailer, with its own underground car park and spillover parking lot around the back, it is clearly the place where Hollywood - the geographic neighbourhood, rather than the showbusiness idiom - comes for its Saturday afternoon fix of physical media.

And long may it stay that way. Browsing around Amoeba's new and second-hand racks one Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago felt like a copious, beer-fuelled, riotous reunion with an old friend. One of those record stores with endless potential for serious credit card damage: out-of-stock CD specialities, budget-priced vinyl rarities, DVDs and even VHS tapes. And given its location, you never know quite who you might run into. Certainly no shortage of 'in the business types', if anecdotal testimony from both LA-resident and visiting musicians is anything to go by.

You could, though, hardly say that Amoeba, and it's Californian sister branches in San Francisco and Berkeley, are thriving. Busy, yes, successfully surviving, even, but the world beyond their front doors is cruel and getting worse.

In recent weeks we've the brand-franchised Virgin Megastore chain has announced its closure in France, including their delightfully massive branch on the Champs-Élysées; and, of course, there is the ongoing disassembly of HMV in Britain. All are the latest victims of the same epidemic: people are falling out of love with physical media, and if they do, they're buying from Amazon or at the supermarket. Or simply avoiding physical formats altogether.

Which means we, IKEA 'Billy' bookcase-attached, CD and, perversely, retro-vinyl collection-building media junkies are becoming a shrinking minority. As much as we pretend to ignore the obvious, our supply line is drying up.

This afternoon, Virgin in Paris was thriving, likewise its near-neighbour FNAC. But if you looked closely at what the locals and tourists were buying, it was heavily discounted sale items - DVDs for a handful of Euros, '4 for €20' CD deals, Blu-ray releases for €15 and half-price box sets.

Amoeba, back in December, was just as busy, but it was hard to separate those shopping in the nearly-new budget aisles and those browsing the brand new. Still, if this was an expiring patient, the 20 checkouts in constant use were vital signs of a pulse.

Sadly, the prognosis is not good: new figures from the BPI, the British music industry body, say that now almost one-in-five consumers (19.6%) prefers downloads to physical media formats. In 2012 well over a quarter of all music was bought either as a dowload from an online store like iTunes, or streamed via Spotify or YouTube.

It would, though, be wrong to assume that the record shop is in terminal decline, however. Yes, digital will continue to grow and, yes, sadly more record chains will close. But the idea that they will disappear altogether is ill-founded.

"We must do all we can to serve music fans who love CDs and vinyl," promises Geoff Taylor, CEO of the BPI. That remains to be seen: a third of HMV's 239 UK's outlets are to close in the next two months, which, while no fatal blow, will still deprive cities like Blackburn, Durham, Luton, Watford, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Wrexham of a mainstream music and video retailer.

HMV's decline will no doubt push more people onto services like Spotify and iTunes. And Amazon will continue to benefit as well as, depressingly, the supermarkets. But anyone who thinks that clicking on a website and then waiting for a package to drop onto the doormat, or picking up a CD from a tiny selection of Top 10 offal, while doing the weekly shop, is not music buying - even if both the mail order giant and the supermarkets can offer whopping discounts.

Graham Jones, author of Last Shop Standing: Whatever Happened to Record Shops? - ironically, for sale at for a discounted £11.66 - claims the independent record stores are even getting better terms from record shops, especially as the fading chains, download sites and mail order companies fail to serve smaller record labels.

Independents like Kingston's Banquet Records (in my teenage years, Beggars Banquet) remain the last haunt of the vinyl junkie, or the CD junkie, for that matter. People still want to touch, inspect, examine and appreciate their records, even those now old enough to need reading glasses to study the sleeve notes on a CD. And for those who really care, there is the return of vinyl - even if you now pay double for a 12-inch piece of crackly plastic.

Rather than decline like the big chains, the independent are finding their own place in the market. Spencer Hickman, co-organiser of the annual Record Store Day initiative says that there are even new independent shops opening up: "It shows that there are still music lovers who want to buy physical music from people who are just as enthusiastic as they are. There are lots of people who still want music as an art form not just a download."

"When I wrote Last Shop Standing," adds Graham Jones, "I thought I was writing the obituary for the independent record store. It turns out that may have been premature."

The Grammys may be a world away from stores like Banquet in Kingston: but while the music industry comes together tonight to gorge itself on the meagre pickings it claims it is raking in from selling its whares, I hope the assembled suits raise a glass of San Pellegrino to the retailers still doing their bit to make buying music as enjoyable as taking home your purchase and actually listening to it.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Lamps on, Lamps off?

“Should I stay or should I go now? If I go there will be trouble. And if I stay it will be double. So come and let me know.” (Headon/Jones/Simonon/Strummer)

Plenty in life baffles me. Like, why it is that, at the slightest outbreak of anti-American snippiness, freshly-minted US flags are set alight in market squares througout the West-hating world. What efficient supply chain ensures this? Is it un-advertised inventory of the Mailboxes Etc. chain? Does every branch keep folded, fresh and flammable Stars & Stripes flags under the counter, next to the porn, just in case someone comes for a protest?

Then there's Frank Lampard. What is it about one of the most successful, prolific and naturally gifted midfielders England has ever produced that draws scorn from opposing fans and blinds his own club management to the value he can still bring to the game, even four months shy of his 35th birthday?

Is it is Lampard, himself? Perhaps each morning, on his 40-minute drive down the A3 from Kensington to Chelsea's Cobham training ground, he is playing The Clash's Should I Stay Or Should I Go? over and over again on his Ferrari's 1000-watt JBL sound system.

The vexed truth of the matter is, no one seems to know. In any given week for the last several months, at least one newspaper has claimed, exclusively, that Lampard may sign an extension to his Chelsea contract, while in the same week, at least one newspaper has claimed, exclusively, that there will be no extension and Lampard will be free to take his current superb form elsewhere at the end of the season.

In January, Steve Kutner, Lampard's agent, made it clear that Chelsea had told him his contract would not be extended under any circumstances. Last week, Kutner was saying that there had been no change in the situation. And still, the claims of an Abramovich U-turn go on.

Depending on who you read or who you believe, it's either Lampard's fault for wanting, allegedly, a two-year extension, or Chelsea's fault for wanting to prune it's expensive roster of over-30s. Take another view, and he's been offered a one-year extension, like Ashley Cole (who accepted), but has rejected it wanting the 24 months.

Either way - and who am I? - there should be some grown-upness injected into these proceedings. Lampard's strike against Brazil on Wednesday was no fluke, but an example of the sublime quality Lampard has been demonstrating for Chelsea in recent weeks, a goal-scoring form that has only been undermined, seriously, by the general malaise surrounding the club under Rafa Benitez.

A couple of months ago, Daniel Finkelstein, The Times' political leader writer and hobbyist football statman, calculated that Lampard was, de facto, the Premier League Player of the Decade. His methodology, which involved  correlating various parameters of in-game performance, calculated a league table of individual players, based on their contributions to the games they figured in. Cutting a long - and, admittedly, mind-boggling story short - Finkelstein's conclusion was that, ahead of players of positional consistency (led by the base of Chelsea's spine, Petr Čech), or points generated for each minute they were on the field of play (Cristiano Ronaldo), general excellence (Steven Gerrard) or game-changing impact (yes, Darren Bent), there could be only one 'Fink Tank' Premier League Player of the Decade: Frank Lampard.

There is only one Frank Lampard. There is only one player who is just five strikes away from equalling Chelsea's club record of 202 goals, currently held by Bobby Tambling. And this is a midfielder we're talking about, not some prolific, hits-'em-in-for-fun show-pony striker.

Equally baffling, and frustratingly so, is the treatment Lampard receives from England fans. It's to be expected that West Ham fans, in their own little world of bile and steam, still consider it necessary to boo and hiss Lamps 12 years after he moved to Chelsea. But whatever cretinously petty issue exists behind this pantomime animosity, (and it is, sadly, as cretinously petty as the fact that he dared quit the club as it was taking one of its regular exits through the Premier League trap door), Lampard has gone on to be the most consistently effective midfield player in world football for more than a decade.

Yes, some of his England performances - with or without the Gerrard combination conundrum - have been disappointing, but his 94 caps have been totally justified. His goal against Brazil on Wednesday was his 27th in national colours, itself an achievement of prolific endeavour. And he has more to offer: "I understand where I am in my career," he said after the Brazil game, "but if I can continue playing for Chelsea then I am getting nearer to 100 [England caps]. It's certainly a target for me and, yes, I will try to keep playing at a good enough level to get there."

Which raises questions about where he plays next. David Beckham has demonstrated that a move to LA Galaxy, and a move to the US MLS, is the equivalent of dropping a couple of divisions in terms of quality, although it would probably be the equivalent of going up two in terms of wages.

The difference between Beckham and Lampard, however, is that Beckham has been able to build the 'brand' to maintain his profile. How else would a 37-year-old whose best years are long behind him manage to sign for Paris Saint-Germain in a blaze of publicity that managed to eclipse PSG's signing of Zlatan Ibrahimović not so long ago?

Frank Lampard has built a profile to fit Frank Lampard. He's an eloquent, intelligent footballer. Never the nightclub jockey, and now with a celebrity girlfriend who appears to have successfully mastered the art of being a glamourous WAG and girl-next-door TV sweetheart at the same time.  

Privately educated, thanks to father Frank Sr.'s desire for Frank Jr. to have a good foundation, this has been matched by Lampard's dedication to the game. While still a West Ham apprentice, Lampard was known to take extra training sessions, largely because of the discipline drummed into him by his father, and largely because he felt that with Frank Sr.'s brother-in-law Harry Redknapp in charge of the club, he had more to prove that he wasn't there through nepotism.

Even today, Lampard Jr. continues to put the hours in on the training pitch. It's an effort that kept him off the treatment table for successive seasons, a record that has only really started to unravel in recent years as age has inevitably started to catch up. And it is why I've never understood the 'Fat Frank' barbs: for a football crowd whose diet consists mostly of pies to call Lampard "Fat" is like Kim Kardashian raising questions about Paris Hilton's career aspirations.

Lampard insisted that he retains the fitness and drive to play at the highest level for another two or three years, suggesting he is not yet ready to accept a lucrative quiet life in America or the Far East. Publically, he has repeatedly stated his desire to end his career at Stamford Bridge. Privately, he may have accepted that if he can't have the deal he wants at Chelsea, he'll get the deal he wants at another club. And there certainly won't be a shortage of offers, be it LA Galaxy, PSG, China or - swallows something hard and jagged - even Manchester United.

"I’m not the kind of player to see out my time and sit with my bum on the bench too much," Lampard has said recently. "I want to be involved. That’s my character. I will keep trying to do that, whatever the circumstances."

Which comes back to the Chelsea question. I get the point that with rules on club finances coming in, you've got to tighten the belt accordingly. And a £160k a week for a player in his mid-30s is a lot of money. But then so is spending £50m on Fernando Torres, and how's that working out?

If Ryan Giggs at 39 is young enough for Manchester United, a relative whippersnapper like Lampard should - and obviously does - have a lot to still give Chelsea. Current form and history combined, it really would be madness to let him go. But, then, when has sanity played any part in the revolving door of managers at Chelsea under Roman Abramovich, let alone players coming and going?