Sunday, April 27, 2014

On the buses

Much like my romantic life, there are plenty of ifs, buts and maybes ahead before anything decisive comes out of the 2013-2014 Barclays Premier League season.

Today's showdown between Liverpool and Chelsea at Anfield had been billed as some sort of title decider, on account of the fact that Merseysiders were rampant, and the Londoners were going to field a weakened side ahead of their Champions League semi-final second leg on Wednesday.

And thus, at first, the game went to plan: Liverpool came out of the traps with their now well established 'shock and awe' blitz, the same approach that allowed them to monster Arsenal in February.  If the frenetic pace of the opening spell was anything to go by, it was likely that Chelsea would have succumbed in much the same manner as Arsenal had.

José Mourinho clearly had other ideas. With a back four comprising César Azpiliqueta, Ashley Cole, Branislav Ivanovic and debutante Tomas Kalas (the Chelsea equivalent of the CD you buy in a spree at HMV, forget, and then discover while rooting around for that obscure Neil Young album you suddenly have an urge for), with the impressive Matic and the usually less than impressive Mikel in front of them, Mourinho arrived with not so much a bus to park in front of goal, as the entire National Express fleet.

"They parked two buses," Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers spat somewhat ungraciously afterwards. "From the first minute they had ten men behind the ball," adding in a lengthy rant about Mourinho's tactics that  "[Liverpool] are a team that tried to win the game in a sporting manner. We tried to initiate play with the ball, but it was just not to be."

Well, I'm sorry. I know there are plenty of armchair experts who spent most of the 90-plus minutes pontificating on Twitter about "anti-football" and generally demonising Chelsea, but when Martin Atkinson blew the final whistle, I couldn't help but noticing that the team in blue had won by a margin of two goals to none from the team in red.

What rule says Chelsea can't defend in strength and then hit Liverpool on the break? Can I counter that by complaining that Liverpool were trying to smother Chelsea from the beginning, putting two - even three defenders - on Ba and Schürrle anytime they got near Mignolet's goal? No, of course not. Chelsea played football. Liverpool played football. The team with more goals won. "Fact", as one former Liverpool manager once said.

Now, granted, Demba Ba's goal was, like many of Chelsea's goals this season, the result of a defensive slip (another way of saying "shocker" by 'King' Stevie), and that Chelsea's second - a simple tap-in after Fernando Torres unselfishly handed the opportunity to Willian - came at the tired end of an exhausting second half, but the objective of putting more goals in the opposition's net was well and properly met by Chelsea, and Liverpool should have no quarrel.

Yes, Chelsea put every resource they had at the back, but then why wouldn't you? Why would you willingly go to an away fixture and not park the bus, especially against Liverpool who have amassed a goal difference of +50 this season? Sunderland did exactly the same at Stamford Bridge a week ago, producing more or less the same result as Chelsea did today at Anfield.

At the end of the day, Liverpool, for all their much vaunted bite in attack - yes Luis Suarez, I of course mean you - along with Sterling and Sturridge forming an impressive triumvirate that had maintained an 11-game winning streak, failed to unlock the Chelsea defence. Indeed, Mark Schwarzer - who redeemed himself and then some after the Sunderland game with a brilliant performance when called upon - went the best part of an hour without having to make a save.

Can you blame Chelsea? Do you really think that they would have sat back and just handed the Premier League title to Liverpool? No.

Like it or not Mourinho's tactics today were spot on. This game, far from being the antipathy of footballing excellence was an enthralling, at times heart-in-the-mouth encounter.

I know this because I only managed to consume two pints from start to finish. That's how much I was glued to the pub's big screen.

The fact that various Chelsea players were leggy and cramp-ridden towards the end said it all about a game in which they sat deep and hit Liverpool on the break, invariably covering dozens of yards in a single burst.

If there is one interminable frustration with Chelsea, it's why they didn't perform like this against Sunderland last week. Or against Crystal Palace or Aston Villa earlier.

Why, even with a somewhat second string on the pitch, they only open the locker and give a display like this when they're up against clubs like Liverpool?

For that, Mourinho needs to ask himself a few questions about motivation. Tactically he is beyond reproach, but when Chelsea have played 'lesser' teams this season, they've looked disinterested, lethargic and mindful of bigger prizes.

The bus-parking may not win the respect of others, but for Chelsea fans, our respect would be earned by seeing a team give 100% every time they wear the blue shirt. Today, they did. Let's hope they do so again on Wednesday night against Atletico.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Like some mythological creature – half man, half desk

Walking down Broadway last Sunday morning I happened across one of New York City’s significant, yet still unassuming landmarks. Just before the corner with 53rd street was a sign hanging from a theatre awning and bearing the distinctive yellow and blue legend: “LATE SHOW with David Letterman”.

For a New York district bound by its reputation for earnest theatricality, not to mention the garish hustle of Times Square at its southern end, this spot on Broadway has, for the last 21 years, been the bunker for an even longer battle and one of the most intense rivalries in entertainment history.

Here, in what he nightly declares as "the greatest city in the world", a lanky, gap-toothed, occasionally obtuse Iowan has commanded the space known universally to American broadcasters and their lucrative advertising accounts as, simply, 'late night'.

Much like Broadway, late night has become a crowded avenue. Whereas once their was just Johnny Carson and Jack Parr, it proliferated in the wake of Letterman and fierce rival Jay Leno taking over the zeitgeist-hugging timeslot, with the likes of Arsenio Hall, Conan O'Brien in the 'late, late' slot, Jon Stewart's Daily Show, and more recently the Jimmys Kimmel and Fallon, not to mention the plethora of talk shows during the daylight shift.

Over the course of his 32 years at the helm of, first Late Night With Letterman and then The Late Show, when he moved from NBC to CBS in 1993 (itself a source of sensitivity as Leno had pipped him to the job as Carson's successor on The Tonight Show), Letterman has, for me, defined the genre, driven by his motto "there is no 'off' position on the genius switch". 

Go anywhere in the world and you will see the desk, the cityscape background and the irreverent host replicated. It has even warranted the equally as funny spoof series, The Larry Sanders Show, in which Garry Shandling brilliantly explored the neuroses of producing a daily talk show (a mantle passed on to Tina Fey's 30 Rock). It also generated the inspired description for all talk show hosts, delivered by Sanders' fictional producer Artie: "like some goddamn mythological creature – half man, half desk."

Letterman didn't invent the format, but he perfected it into a melange of bedtime levity comprising sharp comedy, big-name celebrity interviews - invariably obsequious - stupid pet tricks, street pranks, studio gags and hot music.

There have been serious moments, such as when Letterman returned from bypass surgery, and when he devoted an entire hour in October 2002 to the dying Warren Zevon - a regular stand-in bandleader for Paul Shaffer. The day after Zevon's eventual death, Letterman paid tribute by having Shaffer's house band  play Zevon's songs throughout the night. It was extraordinarily moving.

When America was attacked on 9/11, the late night shows - much like Broadway - fell dark. It took until September 17, 2001, for The Late Show to return, a comedy show unnaturally bearing the flag for an entire nation still raw with pain.

Without its usually lary opening title sequence, the show opened straight on to a clearly emotional Letterman brilliantly and wonderfully trying to ease America back to some semblance of normality.

"This is our first show on the air since New York and Washington were attacked," Letterman began, "and I need to ask your patience and indulgence here because I want to say a few things, and believe me, sadly, I’m not going to be saying anything new, and in the past week others have said what I will be saying here tonight far more eloquently than I'm equipped to do.

"But, if we are going to continue to do shows, I just need to hear myself talk for a couple of minutes, and so that’s what I’m going to do here."

For 20 minutes or more Letterman gave a more impassioned and heartfelt expression of what had happened than I'd seen or read or heard in any speech or newspaper. It remains today one of the most emotionally charged pieces of television I've ever seen. (see Ten Years On).

Letterman nailed it for America that night, but the poignancy was stronger due to the location of the Ed Sullivan Theater, just a four-mile hike down Broadway to Ground Zero. For that night, Letterman shared with Mayor Rudolph Guuiliani the responsibility of wearing New York's heart on their sleeves.

Letterman's announcement, on April 3, that he was to retire from The Late Show sometime in 2015, didn't come as a great surprise, however, to some seasoned late night watchers.

With Leno bowing out last year from The Tonight Show, and the likes of Ellen Degeneres, Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Chelsea Handler, Scotland's own Craig Ferguson and Birmingham-born John Oliver, Kimmel and Fallon all adding fresh impetus to the water cooler-dominating chat show circuit, the buzzards were circling over the late night veteran.

Letterman turned 67 just last Saturday. That still seems to be awfully young in television terms to be retiring. But, then again, Letterman has always done things on his own terms. His gentle on-air ribbing of the CBS network and its president Leslie Moonves, has masked the bitterness with which he lost out, like a sibling losing out on an inheritance, when Carson handed The Tonight Show to Leno.

But now it's Letterman's turn to pass the baton. Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert has been named as  successor when his retirement takes place next year, promising to bring his wry, satirical take on the world to the broader entertainment canvass of late night network television. The shoes he's filling, he won't need reminding, will not be very big indeed.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Good Night Malaysian Three Seven Zero

It is the 39th day of not knowing what happened to MH370, the Malaysian airliner which disappeared on March 8, supposedly somewhere between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing.

In those five weeks we have learned relatively little. In the beginning, we were told, the Boeing 777 could have ended up anywhere within an arc of numerous countries north-west of its point of origin – or an arc fanning out across the vast southern-reaches of the imponderably-deep Indian Ocean.

At one point the search was covering an area of 7.68 million sq km – which is roughly 1.5% of the surface of the Earth. Since then, the search has changed on numerous occasions as satellite images of flotsam and jetsam have caused excitement and then disappointment. To date, not a single piece of debris has been identified or recovered from MH370.

There have pieces of circumstantial information that might be related: that pilot Zaharie Ahmed Shah was close to a Malaysian political activist; that he may have had marital issues; that he had built a 777 simulator in his basement and that files had been deleted from it in the days before he took command of MH370. Then we learn – alarmingly belatedly – that a mobile phone belonging to the younger co-pilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid, connected with cell towers on the ground shortly into 370’s intended flight path, suggesting that the plane was, briefly, at a low enough altitude for the phone to ‘shake hands’ with the network before abruptly leaving it (consistent with a fast-moving jet passing through a cell).

We have been grasping at any straw that passes. 39 days of potentially relevant, possibly interesting things, but nothing anyone could or would call conclusive. For all we still know, the farcical notion that it landed at the remote US airbase on the British dependency of Diego Garcia could be true. Or that the area it is believed to have disappeared in is the polar opposite side of the planet to the Bermuda Triangle, and somehow the Boeing got sucked into that.

Such nonsense aside, the information vacuum surrounding MH370 has meant 239 families from Malaysia, China, Indonesia, Australia, the United States, Canada, India, France, New Zealand, Ukraine, Russia, Taiwan and the Netherlands still do not know what happened to their loved ones.

Even today, the focus is on retrieving the ‘black box’ flight recorder, rather than bodies, as it has become the sole hope of ever finding out what probably happened (and we will never know, I suspect, what actually happened).

Clearly the deployment of unmanned submarines, sonar buoys and oceanographic survey ships in one particular area of the Indian Ocean indicates that the search is most likely to be closing in on its quarry. But still, all that has happened is that the haystack has simply been reduced in size. The needle is still in there.

Despite frankly inappropriate grumbles in the media about the cost of the MH370 operation, I’m sure that, even with the flight recorders’ signal now completely faded, a breakthrough will come soon and we will at least know the plane’s final resting place, even if we don’t discover how it got there.

Perhaps as important – and, even, more important – is what happens next. No, I don’t necessarily mean a salvage operation (it’s likely that the plane is now at a depth that puts it beyond retrieval), but what happens next in the industry.

I’m writing this post at 35,000 feet above the Atlantic, strapped into an Air France Airbus A380 and wondering, what if I suffered the same fate as the passengers on board MH370?

ABIS Chris Beerens  © Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence 
Air crash investigations are grisly affairs, but the fact that the international community has chipped in to support the hunt for 370 is as much to do with finding out what happened and preventing it from happening again as it is to provide closure to the victims of the crash itself.

What will be the lessons learned from MH370? Aggregated technology has already provided clues to 370’s fate, so it is not beyond imagination that technology could be improved further, if not to prevent whatever happened, but at least prevent the agony the families of 370’s passengers and crew have been through. How is it possible that we all carry devices in our pockets that can be traced and tracked, and yet a 209ft-long airliner can disappear into an ocean, seemingly lost forever? I know, two different scales, but you get the point.

What questions will the Malaysian authorities and indeed Malaysian Airlines have to answer? There has been much to criticise in the way they’ve handled this crisis. How does an airliner that big simply turn back on itself, fly fast and low over one of the most militarised regions in the world and not get noticed by at least some form of ground radar? Didn’t 9/11 teach the worlds of civil and military aviation anything?

The chapter on what happened to MH370 may be coming to a close. The chapter that follows will be its legacy...

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Watt's application: Ben Watt - Hendra

Teenage years are, I suspect, for everyone a turgid mix of boredom, agitation, stress and abject horror. School, acne, sexual frustration and hair growing in “the fuzzy area” are enough, for starters, for any teenager to wish to seek solace in some form of opiate.

For me, music was the drug of choice, even though my teenage years coincided with the early 1980s, a period which has traditionally come in for revisionist scorn. There was some truly awful music around, not helped by pop music discovering over-production, the Simmons electric drum kit (yes, EastEnders theme tune, still...), chorused guitars and enough hairspray to burn its own hole on the ozone layer.

But amid the dross there was plenty to keep adolescent spirits alive, one highlight being Everything But The Girl's Eden. Bracketed - I thought unfairly - as part of the cod-jazz revival associated with Sade, The Style Council, Blue Rondo à la Turk and Matt Bianco, Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn’s debut album as a professional (and conjugal) couple was the perfect anecdote to the sugary, ra-ra skirt-wearing crap being peddled in the name of pop music in 1984.

Thorn's torch-song vocals and Watt's languid songwriting, Eden - and the brass riff that launched its opening track and standout hit Each And Everyone - helped deliver me from Keynsian economics, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Hamlet or whatever it was I was trying to grapple with on any given evening of O-level homework.

While EBTG ceased to be a working group in 2000, amazingly it is only now that Ben Watt is releasing Hendra, his first solo album since North Marine Drive 31 years ago. To say that it is an album rooted in the furthest reaches of Watt's vinyl collection might suggest something.

“The musical approach is a return to the folk-rock and electronic influences of my growing up,” he says, citing the era “when Neil Young and Brian Eno were new discoveries.”  There is indeed a little Young and hints of Eno, but the overall tone of Hendra is that of the cheesecloth-and-denim vibe of the LA canyons, with a few – for me in any case – delightful nods to John Martyn and Nick Drake, along with the guiltier pleasures of channeling David Gates, the musical accompaniment of the Liebfraumilch and cubed cheese and pineapple on cocktail sticks so beloved of suburban house parties in the 1970s.

Hendra's title track plays the keynote, opening with analogue synth and acoustic guitar reminiscent of Pink Floyd's Is There Anybody Out There? on The Wall. However, such prog suggestion soon gives way to a gentle but reflective ballad on life.

For a few brief bars, Forget suggests another downbeat contemplation, before breaking into a glorious West Coast workout that, despite the Californian allusions of its electric piano and close harmonies, contains the beautiful line "The Sussex Downs after rainfall is as lovely as it gets". It also brings to the fore Watt's use throughout the album of Suede's Bernard Butler, whose lead guitar regularly adds textured bite to the softer coastal landscape, especially when he lets loose on Nathaniel with the six-stringed snap of Neil Young at his grungiest.

Watt has never been the strongest vocalist in the world - on Eden the tracks he sang on stood out against those of Thorn's - but on Spring its softness actually adds to the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter vibe, with its lyrically simple celebration of the season.

On Golden Ratio Watt is at his most John Martyn-like, doffing a cap to Solid Air with a beautiful rhythmic blend of acoustic guitar, Danny Thompson-like contrabass and electric piano. Like the Martyn's seminal track, it is spaciously infectious, deserving to be played loudly while taking an open-top drive up the Pacific Coast Highway.

Watt says the lyrics on Hendra are “very personal”, prompted in part by the creative process of writing a book about his parents, Romany and Tom, as well as by the death of his half-sister last year. But don't think this an album of cathartic wallowing.

Sure, there is a running theme of contemplative recollection, but much is projected thought. On Matthew Arnold's Field, with its stripped back arrangement of voice and electric piano, tells the story of a man walking through rural Oxfordshire to spread his wife's ashes. On The Gun, Watt comments on American gun control (or lack of) through the perspective of someone who has lost a loved one to the senselessness of a stray bullet in an unspecified gated community.

There's another subtle nod to John Martyn on The Levels, with its sound effects of the great outdoors (Martyn's Small Hours was recorded late at night in the countryside to capture the acoustic ambience). It is, simply, an exquisite track, intimate and yet expansive, relaxed and evocative, an expression of the sheer joy of breathing in fresh country air. Of note is the pedal steel guitar work of David Gilmour. Much hailed for the fluidity of his soloing on Pink Floyd's records and his own, Gilmour's cameo here highlights his virtuosity when adding dreamy textures simply by sliding a metal bar over strings.

Hendra is not an album to rock out to. That's not and, I suspect ever will be, Ben Watt's style anyway, at least this side of his alternative career as a DJ. Over the course of its ten songs, Hendra presents a spectrum of consideration of the middle part of one's life, without it becoming another fiftysomething pop star taking a downbeat view of the first act while making the transition into the second.

It could even be seen as the sequel to North Marine Drive, though Watt didn't envision it being so. What hasn't changed, and certainly hasn't diminished over more than 30 years, is the unpretentious subtlety of his songcraft. Like recent albums from John Mayer and Ethan Johns, it celebrates a certain kind of songwriting from the past ("a folk-rock record in an electronic age", Watt says), mixing it with modern themes and a quintessential Englishness that neither pretends too hard or leaps about saying "look at me". It does, however, say "listen to me". A joy from start to finish.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Time to sharpen the knife

Time to ‘fess up. In a post on this very blog I stated in January 2011 that Chelsea buying Fernando Torres for £50 million was good business. Which shows you how much I know about business.

Since then, Torres has lurched from teenage indifference to occasional bursts of interest and back again, but still his striking skills appear to be suffering from locked-in syndrome.

And so his career as a Chelsea striker reached its nadir on Wednesday night when José Mourinho didn’t even pick him – or any other recognised striker, for that matter – to start against Paris St. Germain in their Champions League quarter-final.

Torres’ lack of a future at Chelsea is probably now a given thing. The club’s patience has apparently reached breaking point and the word is that the Spaniard, currently on £175,000 a week, will leave in the summer, possibly in a cut-price fire-sale to Inter. Was he worth it? No. Should he have gone sooner? Well only if there would have been a club mad enough to take on this tragically broken player.

Before you think otherwise, however, Wednesday's 3-1 defeat in the Parc des Princes hasn’t prompted me to turn on Chelsea. Nor has last Saturday’s league loss to Crystal Palace, allowing Liverpool to leapfrog into the top spot. And if, as the case may be, we end the season without silverware, I won’t complain. Mourinho was right: Chelsea are, this term, still a small horse.

We should – or, at least, I am – be somewhat cautious about Mourinho’s poetic expectation management. When you can afford to lose a playmaker like Juan Mata because you have at your disposal Eden Hazard, Oscar, Willian and André “Don’t Call Me” Schürrle, with Mohamed Salah brought in to boost the wing, things aren’t so bad. A brace of own goals aside, Chelsea still have one of football’s meanest defences, with Terry and Cahill together showing what England will be missing in the summer, and even César Azpilicueta converting to left back with apparent ease to displace Ashley Cole.

The return of Nemanja Matić to Chelsea in January finally (or at least hopefully) saw John Obi Mikel resigned to the bench. I’ve never understood what it was that Chelsea saw in him in the first place, or why they needed to gazump Manchester United to secure his signature. Matić has instantly demonstrated a classier approach to the holding midfield position, and unlike Mikel, doesn’t look like a red card waiting to happen.

So, the nucleus of a great side is there, and if we’re prepared to let this season lie fallow in terms of major honours, the Mourinhoisation of Chelsea in the summer will be very significant, indeed.

Out will most certainly go Torres, Cole and Mikel, with Ba and even Eto’o another possibility. Barcelona’s transfer ban might limit David Luiz’s escape possibilities – though if Mourinho could just get better discipline out of him he could be a very good attacking midfielder.

The club must also do something about its wage bill under UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules, which might also see a judicious pruning of the ludicrous list of players out on loan – including the highly prized Romelu Lukaku and Thibaut Courtois, plus Marko Marin, Victor Moses and the English pair of Ryan Bertrand and Josh McEachran.

Another departure might be the forgotten Gäel Kakuta, the 22-year-old Frenchman whose transfer from Lens led to Chelsea being banned from transfers for a year in September 2009, the player receiving a Eur 780,000 fine for breaking his contract and a four-month ban from playing for his new club. Was it worth it, one might still ask.

Who goes is one thing - who comes in is another entirely. The starting appearance on Wednesday of winger Schürrle in the ‘Number 9’ centre-forward position merely served to highlight Chelsea’s total lack of striking power.

"I'm not happy with my strikers' performances, so I have to try things," Mourinho said of his decision to play the German up front against PSG. "With Andre at least I know we have one more player to have the ball, we have one more player to associate with the other players. "Football is also about scoring goals. That is for strikers, for real strikers. I had to try." Ouch.

This season Torres has again been mostly like a broken pencil – pointless; Eto’o has at least repaid some of the faith in his maturing potency, but he is never going to be a Chelsea lifer; and Demba Ba has continued to be the bit-part player he was, sadly, brought in to be.

If Chelsea can shed the surpluses within its squad and either sell or play its loanees, all effort must go into signing the one type of player Chelsea probably hasn’t had since Kerry Dixon’s days (and yes, I do remember Didier Drogba).

There are plenty Roman Abramovich’s wallet could stretch for - Monaco’s Radamel Falcao, Atletico’s Diego Costa, Corinthians' Pato, currently at Sao Paulo, Milan's exquisitely-bouffant Stephan El Shaarawy, the raving nutjob Mario Balotelli or even one of Chelsea's tormentors in Paris, PSG's Edinson Cavani.

Another option might be to return Lukaku to the fold, but with the Belgian apparently looking to either stay permanently at Everton or move to Tottenham, it's clear that his heart will never be at Chelsea. Which certainly looked the case when I last saw him in a Chelsea shirt.

However Chelsea spend their money, the need for a striker becomes ever more paramount as we reach the end of the season. In the Premier League, the lack of goals to boost both goal difference over the free-scoring Liverpool and Manchester City, and to compensate for any more accidents in front of their own goal, is starting to tell.

For the last four years there hasn't been a single Chelsea player to score more than 15 goals in a Premier League season, whereas in the 2009-10 run Drogba and Frank Lampard struck 29 and 22 times respectively. By comparison, Torres, Eto'o and Ba have just 25 between them in all competitions and just 11 in the Premier League campaign by itself.

Whichever direction Chelsea goes in to look for a new striker, they will be limited by UEFA financial restrictions. That will hopefully mean the Blues don't end up buying another money pit of a lemon as they did with Andriy Shevchenko. And Adrian Mutu. And Alexei Smertin. And Juan Sebastian Veron. And Hernán Crespo. And Nicolas Anelka. I won't go on...