Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 - The Year In Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 30, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Age inappropriate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 09, 2013

'Twas the nightmare before Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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