Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The one that got away

If you forgive the Irish thing (a handball as heinously committed as that by Maradona), it is with a certain sadness that Thierry Henry has announced his retirement from football.

I say 'a certain' as, firstly, he played for Arsenal; second, he pretty much retired when he moved to the New York Red Bulls; and third, there has been enough tragedy in the world already this week for a wealthy footballer ending his career to pick up the equally lucrative shilling of Sky Sports to really be of any great despondency.

Still, football is the poorer for the exit of one of its greatest modern personalities and the only player I can honestly say has ever induced Arsenal envy in this particular Chelsea fan.

There was a time, before Abramovich, Mourinho and all that "buying the league" nonsense that I used to look at Arsenal and think, "why do they have Thierry Henry and not us?". Even casting an avaricious glance at Manchester United's pricey 90s line-up didn't raise the hackles in me as much as watching Henry gliding through defenders like a warm knife through butter, but with considerably greater art to his craft than such a leaden domestic analogy might suggest.

Henry represented the Arsenal we all wanted to beat but couldn't. My beloved Chelsea may have, this season, created an air of invincibility about them, but Arsenal - then - with Henry as the tip of Wenger's spear, were the real thing. Hard to see currently, given their directionless amble, but Arsenal were unbeatable in every sense, and Henry had much to do with it.

In this age of inflated egos and even more inflated reputations, Henry transcended the simple description "football star". He arrived at Highbury for £10.5 million on the back of France's 1998 World Cup victory and his own receipt of the Golden Boot, along with a distinguished club career at Monaco (which he joined aged 13) and then a so-so season with Juventus. 

That, for plenty others, would have been the pinnacle right there. But at Arsenal he would go on to score 228 goals, be named Footballer of the Year no less than three times, pick up winners medals for two Premier League titles, and two FA Cups, before moving on in 2007 to more success at Barcelona.

The silverware, of course, is much deserved, but it is the individual moments for which Henry established himself you could only just marvel at, regardless of your allegiance. The volleyed goal against Manchester United in 2000, that strike against Spurs in 2002 (now immortalized in the Henry statue outside the Emirates Stadium), moments of sheer magic in the Champions League the following season, and his 48-match run in the 2003-4 'invincible' season.

Henry was a player you craved to see, regardless of whose replica shirt you were squeezed into at the time. There was something mesmeric, enchanting even about him - even when he was doing irreparable, humiliating damage to your own side. Messi and Ronaldo might do something similar now, but neither do so with the same charm, elegance and humour. 

In fact, what made Henry an idol, pure and simple, was his intelligence and charisma. Those two words are not often applied in sport, and rarely in football, but Henry, the player, was a beguiling figure on and off the pitch. Even that 'va-va voom' commercial for Renault showed a personality as rare as hens' teeth in football.

Henry was "the great entertainer", as Paddy Barclay wrote in today's Evening Standard, and in that simple appraisal he is spot-on. Some have even suggested that he's the best player the Premier League has ever seen. I'm certainly not qualified to contest that. 

I will still hold Gianfranco Zola up as the greatest player I've ever seen play football, but then I would. Thierry Henry, then, holds the distinction of being the greatest player I've ever seen play football in anything other than a Chelsea shirt. It's just a shame he never got to wear one.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

When phoney Beatlemania bit the dust: London Calling

Chelsea Football Club has, largely due to its apparently chichi location, long been a celeb magnet. When the Sixties were swinging, Stamford Bridge - the Kings Road’s premier (and, come to think of it, only) football stadium - was the place to be, even drawing, bizarrely, Hollywood stars like Sophia Loren.

In the club's current, Russian-monied era of global megastar players and arriviste prawn sandwich-munchers, it is more common to see the likes of Jeremy Clarkson and Damon Albarn.

Chelsea is not alone, of course. The Gallaghers are life-long Manchester City fans, Robert Plant is a vice-president of Wolverhampton Wanderers, and Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium is positively awash with north London's luvvies. And while there is no doubt that some (including the Tarquins and their crustacean butties) who patronise the sport for its proletariat kudos, there are some whose mere appearance at a game can quite literally take the wind from one’s sails.

In my case, it was turning around from my East Stand Upper seat at the Bridge to see a balding man of late middle age, wearing a blue trenchcoat of non-descript origin and largely resembling an off-duty hotel doorman. Who turned out to be Mick Jones of The Clash. Gob well and truly smacked, a state it remained in for the duration of the game and the remainder of that week.

Right there was proper music royalty. All due respect to other musical giants who venture to the Bridge (yes, Bryan Adams, I mean you), but standing behind me was one of the godfathers of modern rock and pop, co-writer of one of the most fabulously misappropriated songs about a city ever recorded, and a member of the greatest and most enduring band of the entire flash in the pan that was punk.

The Clash's London Calling was released 35 years ago today, just a fortnight after punk's great targets, Pink Floyd, had released their opus to separation and abandonment, The Wall. The contrasts couldn't have been more profound, but there's no need to go down the punk-v-prog route here.

In December 1979 "punk rock", as the fuddy-duddy British media liked to call it, had largely left behind its noisy, granny-scaring minor revolt. In fact, it had already become nothing more than an awful postcard for American tourists in London to send home, a lazy media label used to describe anyone who made their music wearing drainpipes and DMs, rather than with centre-parted hair and silk shirts.

For all its supposed anti-establishment liberation, you can question punk's artistic merits. The Clash were more than that, and London Calling demonstrated how. Their previous album, Give 'Em Enough Rope had suggested a desire to get away from all that three-chord, fuzzboxed anger that much of the punk movement had harnessed. That said, the choice of London's Calling's cover art presented an ambiguity. Pennie Smith's simple, grainy black-and-white image of Paul Simonon smashing his bass guitar into the stage of New York's The Palladium summed up both the movement The Clash had come from, but also what The Clash were doing to punk itself.

London Calling consummated their desire to get away from punk, presenting an engorged melting pot of reggae, soul, R&B and conventional pop-rock, with an added dose of wit and, well, fun. Some of this can be attributed to the controversial choice of Guy Stevens as producer. Against record company objections (Stevens was known to have drink and drug dependencies), Mick Jones was instrumental in bringing in the former Procul Harum and Mott The Hoople producer purely because of the breadth of his chops, an ability to nurture a more soulful Clash sound, but also bring out the band's underlying spirit by nailing a track in only two or three takes, rather than endless, ground-out perfectionism.

The result is an album that sounds spontaneous, bright and thoroughly engaging, 35 years on. That said, the album commences with a punk anthem - the title track London Calling and its dystopian vision. Still favoured - erroneously - by football stadium DJs in the British capital as an unofficial city anthem, London Calling, the song, takes inspiration from the 3-Mile Island "nuclear error" in the March of 1979.

It remains one of the strongest songs of the entire era, marking the transition from the 1970s to the 1980s in the year in which Margaret Thatcher became the most divisive prime minister in British history and the nation's inner cities descended into social dysfunction. Rarely has a title track opened an album so distinctly, either, Jones' guitar chopping away as Joe Strummer rasps "London calling to the faraway towns, now war is declared, and battle come down" (I'm annoyed still as to why that line isn't "battle comes down"...).

One of the most surprising aspects of London Calling is that it's a double-album. Double albums - such as The Wall, released a fortnight previously - were still associated with the excesses of 70s rock. Gargantuan, self-indulgent and bloated. And, yet, The Clash got away with a four-sided, 19-track hour of rare eclecticism for the period.

It's a breezy exercise of a band at play - the cover of Vince Taylor's Brand New Cadillac; Strummer giving vent to his colourful cartoonist side with Jimmy Jazz; Jones bouncing around with the ska-infused Rudie Can't Fail; and even bassist Paul Simonon making his songwriting debut with The Guns Of Brixton.

There is plenty of the insolence that made punk such a source of ruffled conservative feathers three years before - Death Or Glory being the best example - but there is a greater lyrical depth, be it the pop of Train In Vain or the shark contrast of styles of Spanish Bombs, and its allegorical take on the Spanish Civil War and what was going on in Ireland in 1979. And then, with Lost In The Supermarket, Jones and Strummer conspire to produce a masterpiece of downbeat introspection, symbolic of the album's overall maturity.

1979 was the year I started secondary school. It was a year of profound political and social change in Britain, a year that was supposed to herald the end of the 1970s' near-permanently grey-skied gloom. 1980 hardly brought any noticeable improvement, but London Calling stood out in a list of landmark albums - Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures, The Specials's self-titled debut, XTC's Drums & Wires, Bowie's Lodger and even Regatta de Blanc by The Police that suggested that the New Wave was to be as vibrant as the punk movement that preceded it had well and truly shaken the tree.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

SPECTRE: We've been expecting you

For a supposed secret agent, 007 has been living firmly in the spotlight for the last 52 years of his film career. Through 23 'official' films we have gladly suspended disbelief as the world's most successful, enduring and - let's just agree on this now - coolest movie character has introduced himself as "Bond, James Bond", Notably, not one of those he's confronted has replied "Yeah, I know. I've seen your poster."

But let's avoid letting daylight in on magic: ever since Albert 'Cubby' Broccoli and Harry S. Saltzman formed Eon Productions in 1961 to make Dr. No, everything to do with Bond as a cinematic 'product' has been a slick, well-oiled operation.

Today's efficient, if brief, launch event of the 24th film - to be called SPECTRE - was a perfect example of the power of the Bond brand, and the efficient process to get the films up and running.

It has become standard operating procedure for Eon - now run by Barbara Broccoli and her half-brother Michael G. Wilson - to launch the new Bond film with a press conference, setting the clock ticking on its eventual release ten months later (October 23 in the UK, November 6 in the US and elsewhere), with seven months' photography starting immediately (next Monday, in SPECTRE's case), and with editing and post-production finalised according to a schedule as sharp as Bond's perfectly cut Brioni suits.

So, what do we actually know about SPECTRE from today's press event? Well, not a lot. Just enough to whet the appetite without knowing much more. Daniel Craig will return for his fourth outing as 007; Ralph Fiennes will make his full debut as the new 'M'; Naomie Harris returns to play the decidedly unsecretarial Eve Moneypenny, along with Ben Whishaw as the geeky Q, and Rory Kinnear as Tanner.

To no-one’s surprise, and everyone’s delight, Cristoph Waltz will apparently play a character called Oberhauser. Curiously, in Bond's back story, the Austrian ski instructor Hans Oberhauser was his mentor and a sort of father figure at Fettes School...until he mysteriously disappeared. Inevitably such ambiguity has led to rumours than this is a cover for Waltz reprising the character of Bond's ultimate villain, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Naming the film after Bond's traditional nemesis organisation doesn't help quell the speculation, either. But after Blofelds past (Telly Savalas, Charles Gray and Donald Pleasance) have been so brilliantly lampooned, especially by Mike Myers in the Austin Powers films (something Craig has willingly acknowledged), Waltz as a bald, cat-stroking, Nehru-suited Blofeld might be a credibility stretch, even for a Bond film.

There were other surprises in Sam Mendes' fleeting press launch this morning at Pinewood Studios. First, he unveiled the "non-human" star of SPECTRE - the new Aston Martin DB10. Most new cars' 'reveal' moments occur at motor shows, but such is the strength of Bond's association with the marque, today's unveiling at the SPECTRE launch was an inspired piece of product placement.

Mendes also introduced cast members who weren't on the horizon of the Bond rumour sites, including Irish actor Andrew Scott - hitherto the brilliantly unhinged Moriarty to Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes; the splendidly vampish Italian actress Monica Bellucci; and rising French star Léa Seydoux, who already has a number of major titles under her 29-year-old belt, including Inglourious Basterds (opposite Waltz), Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and a Palme d'Or-winning appearance in the acclaimed Blue Is the Warmest Colour.

Behind the camera, SPECTRE will have Skyfall writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, along with John Logan, linking up with Mendes, who turned Skyfall into a modern classic in the Bond series. Dutch-Swedish cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema - fresh from Christopher Nolan's Interstellar takes over from Skyfall's Roger Deakins.

As much as this morning's SPECTRE press conference went some way to satisfy Bond fans' excitement about the 24th film, plenty of gaps were quite deliberately left open, especially the plot. Even piecing together bits of information, such as known filming locations (sets have been seen being constructed in Obertilliach in Austria, while Mendes confirmed shoots in London, Rome, Mexico City and Tangier, as well as on the 007 soundstage of Pinewood Studios in the UK) gives us little more than scraps of circumstantial information..

From a story point of view, Daniel Craig has, himself, suggested in an interview with MI6 Confidential magazine that "If Blofeld turned up again, it wouldn't be a bad thing", but also hinted that the page is attractively blank - the 24th film doesn't need to complete a story arc from Skyfall in the way Quantum Of Solace kind of completed the Casino Royale story.

"The world's weird," Craig said, "and there's plenty we can start mining and taking out." Perhaps they might like to start with cybersecurity: online wags have suggested that a hack of the computer network of Sony Pictures, which distributes the Bond films, was possibly carried out by North Korea in retaliation of an as yet-to-be-released Sony film, The Interview. Surely that's a mission for 007, right there?