Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Surrey boy with the fringe on top: Jeff Beck at Le Grand Rex, Paris

Picture courtesy of Patrice Guino/Rockerparis
I've long been fascinated by the incredible coincidence that the county of Surrey in England could have produced three of the world's most influential guitarists - Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton, all born within a year of each other at the tail-end of World War II, and growing up within a 20-minute bus ride of each other too.

What's more incredible is that all three of them, at some point, rotated through The Yardbirds, a band regarded by those who know their music as the true source of the Nile as far as rock is concerned.

The one other commonality is that all three of them are rarely at their most comfortable when confronted by the spotlight, even though they've made extraordinarily healthy careers in it.

Which may go to explain how the so-called 'Surrey Delta' (actually, a diagonal line that runs from Clapton's birthplace of Ripley north-west through Page's Epsom to Beck's Wallington) came to be formed.

The post-war years in Britain were an austere and challenging period in the nation's history.  Impoverished and almost broken from almost six years of global conflict, the country took a long time to get back on its feet. The British Empire may have been broadly intact following the outbreak of peace, but it wouldn't be long before bits of it started ebbing away.

The standards of decency, good manners and all that, which had sustained suburban England since Victorian times, were also on the cusp of being defied as final payments from ration books were being made, and rock and roll came along to inspire the nation's youth.

Post-war Surrey wouldn't have been much different from any other part of the country. Satellite towns like Woking, Farnham and Guildford had returned to dispatching the demobbed to dreary accountancy and insurance jobs in the City. Their offspring were left to playing on bomb sites, making do with childhoods of the make-your-entertainment kind.

It was understandable, then, that hearing Elvis Presley for the first time must have been like a third atomic bomb going off. The Beatles' eruption in 1962 would have had an emboldening effect, making it easy to understand how teenagers like Beck, Page and Clapton could see the electric guitar and the blues music of hot, steaming cotton fields thousands of miles away, to be both totemic and inspirational escape tunnels from their latently repressed environs.

Is that what inspired them? Is that what led to the incredible talent that manifested itself with Page becoming one of London's most sought-after session musicians while still in his teens, Clapton becoming a Surrey guitar god at 17 before leaving The Yardbirds, Beck replacing him before Page replacing him and eventually forming Led Zeppelin from the remains.

One shouldn't ignore, either, the role London's suburban art schools - Ealing (Pete Townshend), Dartford (Keith Richards), Kingston (Clapton), Sutton (Page) and Wimbledon (Beck) - played in giving these guitar heroes an outlet for their suburban, adolescent artistic interests as the storm gathered.

Roll on almost five decades, and Clapton is like a Tory grandee, still plying his trade via increasingly gentler blues, while Page has kept himself busy keeping the Zeppelin flame alive as the band's curator-in-chief.

And Beck? He has remained the most musically interesting of the trio. At the elegant Paris theatre Le Grand Rex he demonstrated this with breathtaking vigour, while reminding that for all his fretboard pyrotechnics, he's still something of an awkward Surrey schoolboy: "Bon-jour! Er...that's about it," he just about breathed into a microphone, immediately marking the turf that this wouldn't be a show in which the star engages in jovial banter. Yep, much like Clapton, whose stage dialogue rarely extends beyond "thank you" after songs.

Picture courtesy of Patrice Guino/Rockerparis
The point is that none of these three guitarists need to say anything. Horrendously corny as this statement might be, they really do let their guitars do the talking. In Beck's case, his white signature Stratocaster sings, in a multitude of multiple-personality voices.

He has, previously, said that he's happiest not letting daylight in on magic. Which is why you feel like you're watching a master magician at work. Like the magic show, there are few words spoken in a Jeff Beck show, but that doesn't mean it is any less engrossing.

The thing about Beck is that he is a genuine legend without a canon of hit singles or hit albums. The forgettable (and he would certainly like to forget it) Hi-Ho Silver Lining aside, Beck's catalogue is one of bewilderingly virtuoso instrumentals. And thus his live show resonates to the eclectic and the semi-obscure, a mixture of his own material and covers.

Not having the expectation of crowd-pleasing hits on his shoulders has allowed Beck to generate a live repertoire of purely his own indulgence. And for this tour (as others) he has a high-calibre band behind him, including former Prince alum Rhonda Smith on bass, Swiss-born, British-resident guitar prodigy Nicolas Meier (who supplies one of the evening's songs, Yemin) and the thunderously tight Jonathan Joseph on drums.

Beck is not afraid to avoid familiarity in the set list. Several tracks are new, from a forthcoming album, there are nods to recent releases like Hammerhead, from his last album of original material, Emotion & Commotion, and while older songs, like Jan Hammer's You Know You Know date back to the early 80s (and, to be frank, sound so), Billy Cobham's Stratus, and the Charlie Mingus-written Goodbye Pork Pie Hat (from Beck's George Martin-produced Wired album) from even further back.

While Clapton took the blues route, and Page adapted the blues to his own brand of sorcery, Beck has stretched the envelope of jazz and fusion, with occasional forays into rockabilly (one of his first loves), Memphis soul and blues-driven experimentation. All were delivered tonight.

For those in need of something familiar, there was one of the finest performances I've ever heard of my favourite Jimi Hendrix track, Little Wing, beginning with a shimmying 12-string wash from Meier, and then stretching out with Beck's mesmeric fretwork.

Picture courtesy of Patrice Guino/Rockerparis
Another stage favourite, The Beatles' A Day In The Life was delivered with crowd-pleasing aplomb, though purists might have preferred more of Beck's own material.

Similarly with the Delta blues standard Rollin' And Tumblin', for which French singer-songwriter Sophie Delila wiggled out on six-inch stilettos to provide some powerful lungwork to complement Beck's guitar playing.

As has been the tradition for many years, Beck ended with Cause We've Ended As Lovers, one of the two songs Stevie Wonder wrote for the Blow By Blow album. As an artist devoid of singalong encore hits, this is his epic finale, his Comfortably Numb or Stairway To Heaven, and like those two reference points, equally as sublime, Beck's fluid, lubricated guitar playing oozing through the piece with stunning resonance.

To return to their origins, I find myself frustrated that of the legendary Surrey-born band of brothers, Beck is too often the forgotten one. Clapton can be credited with keeping the blues in the mainstream, Page can be credited with keeping alive the legacy of the greatest rock band to have marauded the planet. But Beck can - if he cares, which I doubt he does - remain reassured that his virtuosity is untouched.

It's not often I would go so far to say such a thing, but this evening in his company was an experience of utter enjoyment and uncompromised satisfaction. Instrumental guitar playing may not be your thing and, to be honest, like the drum solo or, worse, the bass solo, not my thing either.  Beck, however, transcends any of that self-regarding nonsense.

Less than a month before his 70th birthday, the guitarist who clearly inspired Christopher Guest's Nigel Tufnell in This Is Spinal Tap is still one of the most ingenious, mesmerising and fascinating guitarists on Earth.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Show me the money

Yesterday, as I was driving between Paris and London, I had the pleasure of listening to Arsenal legend Charlie George on Colin Murray's TalkSport show discussing a vintage era of football, when football was truly just about football.

He recalled what a perfect gentleman Bobby Moore was, noting how he wiped his hands on a draped banner before shaking hands with the Queen as he accepted the World Cup trophy in 1966.

More amusingly, George regaled how his pre-match nutritional intake was a cup of tea, a nip of brandy and a ciggie smoked on his way to the game.

Yes, the rose-tinted spectacles were well and truly in place, but it was a wonderfully entertaining interview, not the least because George himself is one of the great old school characters of the game.

We football fans may think that the game's traditions and values, upheld by George and his generation, still exist. But really - do they?

Take today's FA Cup Final. It kicks off at 5pm on the middle Saturday in May when there are still more playoffs and indeed the European Cup final - now the Champions League, of course - still to be played.

What happened to 3pm? What happened to Abide With Me at 2.45? What happened to settling down in front of the telly at noon with a crate of beer and your mates to watch three hours of build up, back stories and interviews on Wembley Way with celebrities whom you'd not previously been aware supported one of the two teams taking part (and in one or two cases, neither did they)?

You know where this is going, and I know it ends with the inevitable "old fart" comment, but the FA Cup is all about tradition. It's not the world's oldest club competition by accident. It hasn't been rhapsodised over for its romance for nothing. 

That it starts out in August with clubs you've never heard of (and are unlikely to see going much further than the crawling-from-the-swamp stages of the competition) and builds - from the hallowed third round onwards - to the grand meeting today at Wembley is all about tradition. And not, strangely, about money. Of course, a fourth round replay for lower-league opposition against a Premier League team will deliver a delightful and, no doubt, badly needed "ker-ching!" for the junior club involved, that's not the reason they take part. Just ask anyone except the chairman.

So, does today's Final kicking off at 5 o'clock make a difference? Two hours won't make any (and at least it's not a lunchtime start). But really, this obsession football's ruling bodies have with "broadening the reach" by making the FA Cup Final - already one of the world's most watched sports events - accessible to an even bigger television audience illuminates the Faustian relationship between football and money.

Yes, cash. Moolah. Dosh. I'm talking about money, honey. Because every time you pass through the turnstile to watch a poor quality 12.45pm league kick-off, or have to rearrange your travel and family arrangements because your club's previously advertised Saturday afternoon fixture has been bounced to Monday prime time, you know that football has fallen someway down the list of priorities.

Cash is king, as they say in the business world, and who can deny the beautiful game its right to make a few bob. But there is a limit. 

Unfortunately, that's not a concept regularly understood at FIFA. Yesterday, football's answer to Robert Mugabe, Sepp Blatter, declared that it was a "mistake" to have awarded Qatar the 2022 World Cup, even though the technical report on staging the tournament in the Gulf state clearly said that a summer tournament would be impacted by the heat.

Instead Blatter - who is declaring himself a candidate for re-election as FIFA president for a fifth time - insists that the decision to award 2022 to Qatar was given by "quite a big majority". Yes, and we know what that majority looks like: it is green and made of paper.

If moving the FA Cup kick-off two hours later than is the tradition makes you feel somewhat uncomfortable, the torrent of equine excrement pumping out of FIFA is weapon-strength. Blatter insists that there were no financial inducements from the preposterously wealthy emirate to stage the World Cup there: "I never said was bought," he pleaded yesterday on Swiss television, adding that "it was due to political considerations."

Ah yes, politics. Obviously. Clearly giving 2022 to an 'old world' host like France, Germany or, heavens above, England, would have been politically incorrect when there are emerging nations like Qatar who should be given a go, be welcomed into the international footballing fold (in addition to buying up football clubs) as it will encourage their greater integration, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

No mention though of that integration involving any improvement in the human rights of the immigrant labour Qatar has got building the 2022 stadia under serf-like conditions, not to mention the country's positively arcane attitudes to homosexuality, contradicting all that football is doing to drive greater respect and inclusion.

As with the 5pm Cup Final kick-off, some will say that playing a World Cup in Qatar in the summer (or more likely, moving it to the European winter when it will be cooler and will fantastically bugger up domestic league schedules for a whole month) is a small price to pay for the game's development.

Well, I'm all for developing football. I'm all for making it even better. And I'm not so entrenched in some form of socialist dogma that it shouldn't be allowed to make money.

But when you see some of these decisions being made which so blatantly go against what it is most right-thinking football fans believe in, you have to wonder whether the money is really worth the putrid odour it generates?

Monday, May 12, 2014

Chilled to perfection: The Black Keys - Turn Blue

The last time I was in the company of The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney it was New Year's Eve 2012 in Las Vegas.

That, really, should be the start of a proper rock'n'roll anecdote, so it almost pains me to add that I was amongst 4000-odd other revelers seeing in the New Year at the Keys' show at the Hard Rock Hotel's ironically named venue, The Joint. And to tell you the truth, my hearing has only just recovered now.

Which is why it is a welcome relief that Turn Blue, their eighth album, should open with the gentle wooziness of the nearly-seven minute-long Weight Of My Love. I'm not the first, and I certainly won't be the last to note its similarity to Pink Floyd's Breathe, with its spacey guitar jangle and general sense of resignation, opening out into the sort of instantly accessible soulful track that Auerbach has successfully helped create in the last year or so for Dr. John and the Alabama Shakes.

It feels familiar, vintage even - in the sense of early '70s West Coast guitar rock - but at the same time presents enough to remind you you're listening to a band still in its ascendancy, and still considered ascendantly hip enough to be courted by Robert Plant and the Rolling Stones.

That trajectory is underscored by the confidence of In Time, which takes a hint of Sly & The Family Stone groove, a pinch of funk guitar (you half expect it to turn out to be Nile Rodgers) and, rather than take the cheap coin and turn in a pure retro nod, makes a bold stab at creating something distinct.

The title track, Turn Blue IS, though, unashamedly retro, an infectious slither of late night soul that trades off Auerbach’s noodling on the Alabama Shakes’ Boys & Girls (still one of the best debut albums I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to). Hooked around a pure-Memphis guitar riff, with a vocal by Auerbach closer to the late Frank Reed of The Chi-Lites, than a garage-blues band from Akron, Ohio, the album’s title track makes a suggestive start with an opening line of "In the dead of the night I start to lose control" before adding a suggestion of either guilt or resentment with "but I still carry the weight like I’ve always done before”.

Fever is not, you’ll be relieved to know, a corny cover of the Peggy Lee classic (which has never been bettered, in my view, than Rita Moreno and Animal from the Muppets, plus his wing-like eyebrows), but the deserved radio hit of recent weeks, and one even worthy of consideration as this year’s Get Lucky. It thumps and stomps, cutting its own rug beneath an infectious synth riff and a postman-baiting chorus.

By now you will have gained the distinct impression that Auerbach and Carney are in a psychedelic frame of mind - the least of which being the retina-singeing swirl of the album’s cover - and Fever takes the riff-and-groove of the Keys' previous albums turns into a something  utterly hypnotic. Which, surely, is what a hit record should be about.

Initially Bullet In The Brain takes us back to Floyd territory, albeit with a significantly louder drum sound than Nick Mason ever concocted, but quickly kicks into one of those bassy rockers that you just want to hear played live. Indeed, if I was to be picky, it sounds somewhat anaemic as an album track. Not that its bad - it’s just that its crying out to be the next cause of temporary deafness for punters at the Hard Rock Hotel.

Those with a keen ear for outbreaks of huffiness in the music industry may, over recent years, detected a degree of frost between The Black Keys and their monochromatic opposites, The White Stripes. Perhaps umbrage was taken by the fact that the two acts' basic proposition - garage-blues, singer/guitarist-and-drummer duo - was rather too similar for comfort. It’s Up To You, with its tribal drumming, buzzsaw guitar and brain-burying hook line is most definitely not a counter to Jack White. But it sure as feels like it.

After all that angst, Waiting On Words casts a calming veil over things, adding a summer breeze of an Isley Brothers feel, setting up for the next track, 10 Lovers, arguably the most ‘pop’ in The Black Keys’ 13-year history. Actually, it’s probably the most ‘pop’ I’ve allowed myself to listen to in as many years.

Or so I thought. By the time In Our Prime gets into its stride, you realise that this whole album has been wearing a cheesecloth shirt and sporting outrageous bell-bottom denims all the time. Like a lost Wings track it, and the wholehearted boogie of Gotta Get Away (which took me back to Thursday night editions of Top Of The Pops hosted by Noel Edmonds and featuring curtain-haired youths with their thumbs thrust into belt loops, givin’ it some) which follows provide all the proof you need to realise that Turn Blue is a carefree, carpet-rolled back celebration of the decade that wavered between naff and compelling.

More to the point, the latter of these two has the sort of chorus that will have you jiving away all summer long when the Keys hit the road.

Just as their peers Kings Of Leon did with their Mechanical Bull album, the accessibility and knowing commerciality of Turn Blue may alienate Black Keys fans who prefer their more traditional interpretation of the blues. But to do so denies the right of pop music to exist. On this evidence, I'd rather have this being forced on my ears on Top 40 radio than almost anything else that medium deems appropriate these days for human consumption. And if I ever write anything more middle aged than that again, I may have to be taken out and shot.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The sport of gentlemen: Premier League season 2013-2014 in review

The accepted convention is that you write a review of the domestic football season after all the games have been played. That way, you know who won what, who got relegated, and who came away with a big fat nothing.

But as we entered the very last day of the 2013-2014 Barclays Premier League season, I really couldn't be arsed. We knew that either Manchester City or Liverpool would win it and that Arsenal, who spent 128 days at the top of the league, Chelsea, who blew the chance to stay there with a home defeat to Sunderland, and Manchester United who won it last time and…well…would all be looking back stoically on the games they lost, the opportunities they made a mess of and the decisions that cost them dear.

That City made the inevitable happen and won doesn't deny Liverpool some moral victory. If memory serves, very few pundits were prepared to credit them with a chance of winning the title this season, and yet Brendan Rodgers not only persuaded Luis Suarez to stay as the fulcrum of their attack, but also brought an end to the moribundity that has been Liverpool as potential title contenders for so long. And on that note, I'll come back to Arsenal later.

One thing we can say is that this has been arguably the most nuts Premier League season in the competition's 22-year history. At its outset last August, Manchester United were still revelling in their 20th league title, adjusting to life without Sir Alex Ferguson, and putting their might behind the anointed David Moyes.

38 matches later, United are not even a part of the European qualification, Moyes has already been sacked, and English football's great behemoth is, unusually for them, licking wounds being freshly salted by Manchester City's compelling win. No matter what dash of paint they put on the season at Old Trafford, it has been a disaster.

Moyes' sacking was a sadly inevitable outcome in a game where executive trigger fingers are now impatiently itchy. Personally, I think Moyes would have got there eventually, but today "eventually" is not a concept proprietors have time for. Louis van Gaal - should it be he - will have his work cut out to raise them from the sullen mess.

Before I comment on any other team, I suppose I have to talk about my Chelsea. Their greatest achievement this season has been José Mourinho's expectation management, exemplified by a somewhat Cantonaesque equestrian analogy. The fact remains that with a squad so chock-full of playmakers that even Juan Mata was deemed surplus, not to mention the addition of the most decorated African footballer of all time, Samuel Eto'o, Chelsea should have done a lot better.

In fact with half its squad again out on loan this season, Chelsea have had an embarrassment of riches. They need a couple of decent strikers, that's true. A failure to kill off sides has been part of their undoing. But when this squad loses to Sunderland at home, Palace, Villa and Stoke away, and records life-enhancing results against City, Liverpool and Arsenal, something is wrong in the motivation department. And for that we must look to the team management. Just because Chelsea have ended this season potless should not lead to some illogical campaign to oust Mourinho, or for Ambramovich to sack him as others burst sheets of bubble wrap. But, seriously, next season? Get some motivation, will you, when the title is actually - if unexpectedly - in your grasp.

Speaking of Palace, ending 11th place after a seemingly downward trajectory that removed Ian Holloway and brought in Tony Pulis just proves that a change of management in-season can work. What, then, does that say about Norwich (Chris Hughton, sacked in April), Fulham (Rene Meulensteen, appointed in November to replace the sacked Martin Jol, and then sacked himself in February) and Cardiff (Malky Mackay sacked by the Bond villain-in-the-making Vincent Tan in January) who were all relegated amid the awful bloodbath of managerial sackings, once again, this season.

The one manager that has stuck stubbornly to his job, presumably through some kind of Jedi control over the obvious, is Arsène Wenger. Wenger's maintenance that the gap between Arsenal and the three teams who ended the Premier League season above them is "nothing" and can be overcome next season by graft, rather than expensive acquisitions is now becoming something of a bore.

I do, actually, hope Arsenal win the FA Cup next Saturday, as much as I wished they hadn't in 2002 (look it up). Perhaps it will remind all at the club that success is something fans of all club crave, and just lurching from season to season with lame old excuses disguised as professorial ponderings is not enough.

Arsenal, at the end of the day, have been hampered this season by...Arsenal. Yes, they suffered from injuries. It happens. But they have also suffered from the continual profligacy that meant they lost, vitally, to the top sides, the inverse of the Chelsea situation, which makes it even worse.

"Finally!", we all heaved a sigh, when Wenger got out his cheque book and signed Mezut Özul for £42 million. "And...?" we added when it was clear there would be no one else joining with him. No acquisition can be expected to turn things around in a season, but the signing of Özul gave a brief hint of ambition at Arsenal, which has been ridiculously extinguished in another season that will end with tired explanations.

Moving across North London, you have another football club that is its own worst enemy. When Tottenham Hotspur signed André Vilas-Boas in July 2012, on the other side of London, many Chelsea fans sniggered. Partly out of the hope that Villas-Boas would make a mess of their arch-rivals as he had of Chelsea, and partly out of seeing Spurs make the same mistake as Chelsea in hiring a coach who someone - nobody is quite sure who - had positioned as football's new Messiah. Which he wasn't and clearly still isn't.

That he went just before Christmas says more about the lack of any managerial strategy at the club (although Spurs aren't alone there...). Tim Sherwood has been an OK choice as replacement, but he still has a lot of work to do in developing his executive relationship skills.

There is always a sharp intake of breath when a former player takes over - at a youngish age - the club he played for. One of the reasons I've resisted calls for Gianfranco Zola to become a Chelsea manager is that you just don't want to see someone who commanded such respect and adulation on the pitch dealing with the feral brickbats of life on the touchline. Because when it goes wrong, it goes spectacularly wrong.

And so Spurs' season has ended with another forgettable sixth place. A significant chunk of change was earned from the sale of Bale (I just love writing that), but like a lottery winner blowing it all in a flash on expensive cars and holidays, Tottenham have nothing to show for their windfall.

This crazy football season has been mostly about the title race, but the manic square dance to avoid the drop at the bottom has had its moments. Not least, Sunderland. When they dispensed with the services of Paolo DiCanio and his questionable politics, I was delighted to see Gus Poyet take over...up to a point.

Poyet was a tremendous No.8 in a Chelsea shirt - like Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes, a midfield powerhouse with a tendency to shoot from out in the middle of nowhere and score. He was treated disgracefully at Brighton & Hove Albion, but in joining a somewhat poisoned chalice like Sunderland, there was no guarantee of lasting refuge, especially with Sunderland not so much rooted to the floor of the Premier League, as already drawing up the list of hotels for the team to stay in during the following season in the Championship. Poyet proved the doubters wrong, and Wearside gets to enjoy another season in the top flight.

Boringly (though justifiably), Manuel Pellegrini will no doubt win Manager Of The Season, but if there is any justice, Poyet - along with Pulis and Rodgers - should at least get honourable mentions.

So what, then, can be said about Pellegrini's result of winning the Barclays Premier League in his first season? Quite a lot, actually. For a start, Manchester City have somewhat won it by stealth. At the time Pellegrini was appointed, the news was being dominated by the abdication of King Alex and the installation of the Boy David. Down south, José was returning to Chelsea - apparently because he wasn't going to Manchester United - and declaring himself "The Happy One", a more placid, less confrontational version of his former self. Hence getting a £10,000 fine for saying positive things about referees.

At City, the former lead singer of Pink Floyd [readers - "Are you sure about that?"] took on an unassuming profile, both for himself and his club. But the end result tells a different story. 102 league goals is hardly victory by stealth.

It's the way Pellegrini went about it that deserves as much merit as the players themselves. For a start, the early days of the 2013-14 season were not exactly the most promising for City: despite dominating anyone who visited the Etihad Stadium, their away record was woeful. Indeed, at times it was hard to even consider them title contenders.

But slowly and surely, Pellegrini brought about consistency by applying the pressure where it counts - at the front. The goals fell like raindrops in a squall, and City's defence found in Joe Hart a goal keeper rejuvenated, successfully putting those gaffes behind him.

Unless I've been simply looking elsewhere, City seemed to creep up on the title. While Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool were vying with Liverpool, City seemed to sat there, like some wild animal encroaching on its unsuspecting and more obvious prey. Liverpool were that creature. While they went about their romantic allusion of being in some silverware desert, and English footballing birthright hanging over them that gave them some divine access to a league title they hadn't won since their 18th in 1990 (in other words, they've never won the Premier League), Negredo, Aguero and Dzeko were wreaking havoc in goalmouths up and down the land.

If you ignore, then, some of the self-induced melodramas performed at the clubs that ended Sunday reflecting on a season in which they ended in 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th places, Manchester City have thoroughly deserved it. This may have been Manchester United's season in terms of front page and back page news alike, but across Manchester, the team in blue has done it the way purists and neutrals always love to see a team do it.

As no less a footballing sage as Gary Linker said tonight on Twitter, "Much credit must go to Manuel Pellegrini. Living proof that you can be a gentleman, play attractive attacking football and be a winner!". Take note, José.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Birdwatching: Shearwater - at La Flèche D'Or, Paris

© Simon Poulter 2014

The muso's life is supposed to be about taking chances. Regularly escaping the comfort zone to give a whirl to some band you've never actually heard before, and, on paper, would probably walk a mile to avoid, but on a damp Tuesday evening offers sufficient curiosity value – and a cheap bar - to draw you in.

Paris, like any other metropolis, has no shortage of venues with which you can while away an evening in the company of winsome singer-songwriters, jazz acts, wannabe Springsteens and the usual plethora of indie bands.

In this spirit, WWDBD? has ventured into the far eastern reaches of the French capital to arrive at a brown-brick former railway station building sandwiched between a dingy bar and one of those iffy-looking shops selling phone cards of questionable provenance.

This is La Flèche D'Or, once part of the Gare Charonne, the railway station that linked Paris to London via the Calais line long before Eurostar and the Channel Tunnel came along. For the most part, the venue's mainstays are the obscure, the unknown and the hopeful. But tonight it is hosting a band which, no disrespect intended, should be playing a much bigger room, and to a much bigger crowd: Shearwater.

Formed 13 years ago in the thriving alt.texas.rock petri dish that is Austin, from the remnants of the much-feted Okkervil River, Shearwater is the product of the extraordinarily amiable and much travelled ornithologist Jonathan Meiburg and Okkervil bandmate Will Sheff (who is now back in the Okkervil line-up).

In the years since they have evolved through brilliant albums like Rook, The Golden Archipelago and their most recent set of original material, Animal Joy, plus last years' eclectic covers set, Fellow Travellers, carving a distinct sound anchored in archetypal indie guitar pop. I

t's never fair to make obvious comparisons with better known bands, but to pitch Shearwater correctly, imagine a niche somewhere between Elbow and Snow Patrol. This might also explain their four-night support gig for Coldplay a few years ago, something Meiberg self-effacingly enjoyed for its novelty value ("I yelled 'Hello Las Vegas' and for the only time in my life, 20,000 people went 'Aaaah!'" he has told the blog).

He says that, but you suspect he's happier in more intimate surroundings. Which brings me to Talk Talk, one of the finest bands of the 1980s and masters of creating enthrallingly claustrophobic theatre out of a combination of Mark Hollis's Scott Walker-like timbre and the intensity of songs of rich melodrama. There is no escaping the uncanny vocal similarity between Meiberg and Hollis, and even if I crassly describe Shearwater as the 'new' Talk Talk, I won't apologise. I can't think of a finer reference point, quite frankly.

© Simon Poulter 2014
And so to La Flèche D'Or. Meiburg might be happier in more modest surroundings, but, as he politely comments, this is like playing to his front room. With a crowd size to match. The five-piece touring band - Meiberg, producer-drummer Danny Reich, Abram Shook on bass, Lucas Oswald on guitar and keys, and opening act (and a member of Peter Gabriel's 2010 tour) Jesca Hoop on backing vocals, sundry instruments and the occasional awkward contribution to Meiburg's inter-song banter, this couldn't be any greater antithesis to stadium rock. In fact, the stage is so small it's more of an exercise in ergonomics.

The delicate Hidden Lakes opens the set with its delicate xylophone pattern, before heading into the pounding Animal Life from the Animal Joy album. From the same album, Breaking The Yearlings gives the evening's first blast of the Talk Talk similarity. With its stabbing bass and Manzarekish organ, it showcases both Meiburg's vocal range and the interest in ornithology that has peppered Shearwater's albums with bird references, not to mention the band's name itself. It is short, sweet and to the point.

Being Paris in the springtime, and being a few minutes shy of 9pm, it is still light outside La Flèche D'Or's period station windows, something Meiburg notes for its novelty: "We've spent all out touring lives in a dungeon," he deadpans before launching into Rooks to yelps of delight from the audience of predominantly partisan punters.

Another Rook track, Home Life, reflects on Meiburg's Baltimore upbringing, explaining how it was little like the city depicted on The Wire. The song's sepia tinged nostalgia is enhanced by a gorgeously dreamy ambience, with Reich rolling around his tom-toms with mallets to spooky effect.

This eeriness is maintained by Animal Joy's Insolence, its attritional, percussive progress stretching the noirish verses before soaring, anthemic choruses punch the ceiling. This leads sequentially into the next track on Animal JoyImmaculate, a guitar rocker with a gloriously 80s vibe to it which recounts the story of a police-evading miscreant pursuing the "respectable life".

© Simon Poulter 2014

Last year's Fellow Travellers album found Shearwater attempting a similar song-swap approach as  Peter Gabriel's Scratch My Back project, and with a similarly eclectic profile (a delightfully contrary version of Coldplay's Hurts Like Heaven being the only 'mainstream' contribution to the 10-song selection).

For the live show, Shearwater have selected a trio of Fellow Travellers songs: Dinosaur Jr's unexpected 80s hit Natural One gets a Californian rock-funk stomp treatment, to be followed by Xiu-Xiu's I Luv the Valley OH!, which kicks in with razor-like fuzz guitar an sparks some mild frugging amongst the audience which had hitherto been content with some light foot tapping.

The third of this sequence is Ambiguity, a cover of the song by English musician/poet David Thomas Broughton, and arguably the most challenging of the Shearwater's set, from its bittersweet, jangling guitar beginnings to its ambient ending - replete with recordings of birds on the Falkland Islands, as you do - which provided an unfortunate struggle with microphone feedback for the sound engineer at the back of the room.

Plenty of rock stars have extraneous interests. Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson is a commercial airline pilot, Phil Collins has a recreation of the Alamo in his attic, and Ted Nugent is a gun nut. Jonathan Meiburg's interests are all the more wholesome: his academic studies took him to some of the world's most remote communities, from the Falklands to Baffin Island, and from Tierra del Fuego to an aboriginal settlement, where his encounter with a charismatic aboriginal produced Castaways and its apparent rail at colonialism.

You As You Were from Animal Joy ends the set proper with a pulsing piano and a pounding crescendo before the band make a brief exit - presumably to huddle in what cramped space passes as the venue's dressing room - before returning with the brooding A Wake For The Minotaur, the only track of original Shearwater material on Fellow Travellers. It's an emotive song, with Meiburg supplanting the album version's vocalist, Sharon van Etten, to deliver somewhat vituperative lines such as "The world turns and turns, a tear in the darkness, a hole in the light, I'll breathe in the silence, I'll laugh till I die".

Shearwater end on the uplifting high of Clinic's Tomorrow, completing a 15-song set that, by its end, has the unusual effect of relieving the audience of the sensation of being in a small venue bereft of the larger crowds this band truly deserves to be playing to. Perhaps the choice of such a small room was an aberration on the part of their promoter: in Meiberg's own words, they've played in every kind of venue "from dives in Oklahoma and squats in Slovenia to the Fillmore West, the Bataclan, and the MGM Grand [in Las Vegas as Coldplay's opening act], with a sound that fill the largest of concert halls without any difficulty.

Not that I'm trying to promote stadium rock. Frankly, the smaller the venue, the happier the me. But hopefully the next time I see Shearwater, it will be in a hall to suit the undoubted enormity of both their sound and their brilliance.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Bye-bye BlackBerry

There was a time when all a thrusting young buck of a junior executive craved was the corner office. But that all changed when a Canadian company called Research In Motion came up with the whizzy idea of turning the radio pager, the executive accessory of old, into an electronic manacle for upwardly mobile corporate managers: the device we now know as BlackBerry.

Soon, watercooler gossip became dominated by talk of who had been anointed with one as ownership became as coveted as the executive parking space or the private toilet. Only those deemed essential for out-of-hours e-mail contact could have one. It's exclusivity even went so far in some companies (my previous employer included) that permission to have one had to be first sought from the CFO.

However, like Frodo Baggins' ring, owning a BlackBerry came with a downside, namely that little flashing red light. Once the owner figured out that switching off the ringtones that accompanied a new e-mail - especially the "squelchy" one or the 'clanging chime of doom' - would be conducive to a happier open-plan workplace, the blinking LED took on (and here comes another Tolkien reference) a lethal power, like Sauron's eye drawing the poor sap to his or her handset, desperate to find out what missive requires immediate attention.

We became addicted. The sobriquet 'CrackBerry' was coined. Suburban train stations, bus stops and underground platforms became populated by zombie-like BlackBerry owners hunched over their handsets, rabidly thumbing through their e-mails.

Within time, homelife would be impacted, as über-stressed middle managers reached for their BB the minute that red light flashed. Morning, noon and night. It even led to the social phenomena of 'phubbing', as dates and anniversary dinners became destroyed by furtive and not-so furtive glances at the pocket-sized distraction.

Despite all this executives and managers (and US presidents) have struggled to part company with the thing. BlackBerry maybe today to smartphones what the Sopwith Camel is to the Airbus A380, but we still cannot do without it. Nor can IT departments who swear by its one and only - and original - USP, the encryption of its e-mail service.

The tide, however, has surely turned. For a while, and despite changes of leadership, BlackBerry has remained rooted to the basement of the smartphone league, a financial basket case struggling to keep up with Apple, Samsung, HTC - even Nokia. For its last financial year, RIM reported a net loss of $5.9 billion, even though it claims to be returning to profitability.

For me, it's too little, too late. If the financial viability of a technology company is measured by its reputation and underpinned by the reliability of its products, I can only predict more doom and gloom on the horizon for the Canadian company.

After all those years of executive envy, relationship-straining obsession and blasé ignorance of owning what is still a premium product (or at least was until teenage girls and inner-city riot coordinators got hold of them), I've given up on BlackBerry. I'm going cold turkey.

I've simply had enough. I've swapping my BlackBerry Bold - the third my company has supplied me in as many years - for a Samsung Galaxy. That, by the way, is no endorsement pitch. I've just had it with the BlackBerry's chronic lack of robustness and even worse product design, and the manufacturer's ongoing inability to develop that most basic of smartphone requirements, a decent browser.

TechCrunch blogger John Biggs predicted this moment as long ago as 2011: "BlackBerries aren’t status symbols," he wrote in a post, RIM, You're Done Here. "They’re the real-world equivalent of the thick, heavy IT-department-assigned business laptop. They’re staid, boring, and unwanted but people are used to them and, for email, they are quite capable. But that’s about it." Aye.

The good news about switching to the Samsung is that at least it will be a familiar operating environment, having owned an iPhone these last five years (sorry, patent lawyer humour). I will have to learn my way around Android. Here is likely to be the one saving grace of BlackBerry,  the one thing it got right in the first place: simplicity.

It may have been totally superseded by smartphones that are more palm-sized laptops, but the BlackBerry's e-mail interface and phone capabilities are all many of us want in a business phone. I would gladly trade in all those apps I'll never use for the e-mail client, the calendar and the phone book. But, no. I guess that's not possible.

I will, I'm also sure, come to miss that blinking red light, when I wake, flashing throughout the day and, just as I'm about to go to sleep, give me one last flash as if to say "Go know you want to know who's e-mailing you at this time of night".  And, of course, you check...and discover it's just an American colleague writing "Thanks" in a reply-all.

Well, BlackBerry, I'm done here.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

A Tale Of Two Jeremys

With apologies to anyone called Jeremy (especially the one I know who often reads this nonsense) and, indeed, anyone outside the UK who clearly won't know or, probably, care, this has not been the week to be one. A Jeremy, I mean.

To be more specific, a Jeremy working in the British broadcasting industry. Indeed, one working for the BBC. Actually, let's nail this one down: either of the Jeremys Paxman and Clarkson.

In case you missed the news, Paxman is to step down as main host of the BBC's late night current affairs snoozefest Newsnight (or "the most important agenda-setting news program of the day", depending on your priorities), while Clarkson was "caught" on camera reciting the nursery rhyme 'Eeny, Meenie, Miny, Moe', and apparently suggesting to mumble the 'n' word that we must refer to only as "the N word" (unless you're a bona fide American hip-hop artist - in which case, knock yourself out).

It is a neat coincidence that both Jeremys should have found themselves facing similar degrees of attention this week. Both are Yorkshire-born, which automatically gives them the right to be opinionated, heavy-handed, and over-bearing. Sorry Yorkshire folk, but face facts. 

The public personas of these two Jeremys have, to extent, been self-created, no doubt encouraged by producers and editors who've encouraged them to grow ever-more boorish. Like the Sex Pistols on the Grundy show, challenged to say something rude (on the ridiculous assumption that the viewing audience didn't get the concept of what a punk rocker was), those who supposedly have editorial responsibility for Paxman and Clarkson should accept some blame for the monsters they've created.

For example, it is alleged that the infamous grilling by Paxman of the evasively obsequious Michael Howard, when Home Secretary, in which he was asked the same question 12 times, was in part to pad out the segment. Now, personally, I'm with whoever said that "there is something of the night" about Howard, but still, this is playground bully stuff.

Paxo's retirement, he says, somewhat wearily, is to enjoy going to bed earlier, and that it was a decision he originally took last summer, with the 25th anniversary of him joining Newsnight coming up this year. But seeing as he only recently branded the BBC "smug", not to mention growing a beard as if to say ”I'm really not bothered about what people think", it's no surprise that the new head of BBC News recently gave Paxman a mild rebuke. An exit wasn't long on the cards after that.

And then what about Clarkson? I make no apology for enjoying Top Gear. Ever since it was reinvented as the motoring equivalent of Chris Evans' TGIF, it has been a welcome fixture in the Sunday evening schedules, an exquisitely filmed, mostly entertaining, not-too serious way to end the weekend and start the working week.

Of course it is chronically over-scripted; of course, it sets out to turn Clarkson, Hammond and May into broad caricatures of themselves - the public school show-off who amps up the political incorrectness for effect, the apparently anally retentive fop, and the boyish one with the exaggerated irony. But at least it is no longer presented by sweater-wearing dullards talking about camshafts and Morris Marina restoration projects.

The problem is that, apart from the exquisite photography of Top Gear, and the genuine interplay between the three presenters, the tendency to push the envelope on what is politically correct does grow tiresome. 

Personally, I think PC has gone too far, along with Health & Safety fascism. But what might make for mild ribbing amongst mates in the pub does not make for prime time television in an era when public tolerance of un-PC behaviour has been progressively eroded.

In fact, the issue over Clarkson's poor choice of "humour", which was outed by a Daily Mirror scoop of the offending video clip, is less to do with him being a racist (he's not - "a knob, but not a racist" wrote a friend of mine on Facebook this week, having known Clarkson from his motoring journalism days). He has simply been allowed to go too far too often. 

In Top Gear's otherwise brilliant "Christmas March", filmed in Burma with somewhat jingoistic references to The Bridge On The River Kwai, did they really have to throw in the "slope" joke? The contrived mea culpa that followed the denials and claims of innocence ("we didn't know it was an offensive term" - yeah, right) really demonstrates how poorly out of touch the Top Gear team have become in believing that their humour should have no limits.

Now, following the 'n' word revelations, Clarkson has revealed that the BBC has given him a final warning, and he will be sacked if he makes "one more offensive remark, anywhere, at any time".

If this was you or me being given a disciplinary ultimatum by our employers, we'd be wise to pay attention. Indeed, if this was you or me, we'd have been sacked a long time ago. But then, we probably don't make as much money for our employer as Clarkson does. Just sayin'.

The good news is that Clarkson, who rakes it in for himself through the merchandising and distribution rights to Top Gear, is clearly taking it seriously. Otherwise why would he open his column today in the Sunday Times with witty references to turning up for work with a copy of The Guardian under his arm, a promise not to goose Mary Beard in the BBC lifts, and the obligatory mention of lentils. For someone who pains at the unhealthy obsession the Daily Mail has on him, Clarkson goes out of his way to appeal to the very people who read that odious rag.

Frankly, when Clarkson's 'n' word revelation garnered just 300 complaints there are clearly more serious issues to get hot and bothered about. A controversy-for-the-sake-of-it ex-public schoolboy saying something offensive on television, or Syria, unemployment, the rise of Europe's new right wing, and the possibility of World War III starting in Eastern Ukraine. Know what I mean?

If Richard Keys and Andy Gray should rightly get fired from Sky Sports for making offensively sexist remarks off-camera, there has to a line the sand for Clarkson to either police himself from crossing, or have it policed for him.

Clarkson is no racist, and certainly isn't the messianic populist his media critics like to paint him as being. But when polls of who would make a better prime minister than the incumbent (currently some posh boy called Dave) are made, Clarkson is usually up there with Sir Richard Branson and Boris Johnson. Something to think about, methinks.

A Top Gear without Clarkson would probably be the end of Top Gear. May would go back to fixing motorbikes and writing dry motoring columns in the Daily Telegraph, while Hammond would probably return to local radio and his farm. Together, they have contrived to deliver for the last 12 years one of television's most entertaining formats. Perhaps now, the alpha chief of their little gang will grow up give us less of the back of the classroom joker and more of a genuinely excellent motoring journalist.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Oh. My. God. It’s the one where it all ended.

They say nothing ages faster than comedy, but in the world of situation comedy, some things stand the test of time. I feel certain that, if I'm still riding life's great theme park 31 years from now, I will be able to watch an episode of Dad's Army - a full 100 years after World War II ended - and will still laugh like a drain, as I have since childhood, at the brilliance of its observations about British class and our nation’s underdog character.

Likewise, I could probably spend the rest of my days watching boxes of The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Cheers, Frasier and all twelve episodes of Fawlty Towers repeatedly without tiring of the comedic dexterity with which they were written and performed.

But Friends? In ten years' time, will I still be watching repeats of the show which ended ten years ago this week after a ten-year, ten-'season', 236-episode run? Given that it continues to be shown in syndication around the world, continues to sell box sets by the…um…box set, it’s unlikely the show will ever disappear. One reason for that is that a generation of twentysomethings grew up with it.

On May 6, 2004, Ross (David Schwimmer), Monica (Courteney Cox), Chandler (Matthew Perry), Joey (Matt LeBlanc), Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) and Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow - yep, I don't know, either, why she is always mentioned last) went their (mostly) separate ways after a decade of profoundly white, urban New York japes centred mostly around two SoHo apartments and a coffee shop. Or Studio 24 of the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank, if you want to be pedantic.

Compared with the post-modernism of Seinfeld and its 25-minute observations on modern neuroses (not to mention another notably ethnic minority-free ensemble of New Yorkers), Friends was a gentler comedy that traded on the interplay between its central characters' growing up before our eyes. The original pitch to NBC by creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman read: "It's about sex, love, relationships, careers, a time in your life when everything's possible. And it's about friendship because when you're single and in the city, your friends are your family.”

Thus Rachel went from ditzy, spoiled WASP brat to single mother; Ross, from awkward dinosaur geek to serial divorcee...and awkward dinosaur geek; Monica evolved her role as OCDish chef to become earth mother of the group, turning into the psychologists' dream wife for Chandler, whose weight fluctuations over ten series kept pace with Matthew Perry's own demons. The only constants were Joey and Phoebe, so often the comic stooges, combining Woody from Cheers' dim-wittedness with the Reverend Jim from Taxi's vacancy.

It would be fair to say that none of Friends' main characters were ever fully rounded, but in creating a series about a sextet, as opposed to, say, Will & Grace's titular duo (though both were usually overshadowed by the OTT campness of Karen and Jack), there was always plenty of scope for varying degrees of exposure, week-to-week, to different combinations of the six characters.

What is worthy of note is that, despite the cheesy premise of the show’s I’ll Be There For You theme tune, the six friends provided vehicles for Crane and Kauffman to explore themes of monogamy, gay marriage, motherhood (single and surrogate), divorce and even cross-dressing (still one of the show's greatest gags - Kathleen Turner as Chandler Bing’s dad).

But let's not try to deconstruct Friends too much: the most successful sitcoms are those which don't just become "must-see TV" (a concept, anyway, created by the networks to drive ratings), but which invade popular culture and become part of our vernacular. I'm talking about catchphrases. "Don't panic!", "You plonker!", "Yada, yada, yada", even "ooh Betty!" (non-Brits, that might take explaining…). “Oh my God!” (and its social media-abbreviated "OMG") somehow became adopted as the go-to reaction of young adults all over of the world thanks to Friends, while patented sarcasm became a more prominent part of urban conversation (“Can open - worms everywhere...").

Friends also introduced other cultural phenomena to the world outside ersatz Manhattan. The coffee shop, for example. Before Friends and, therefore, before Starbucks, people in Britain, for example, didn’t ‘hang out’ in coffee shops. They drank tea in cafes, met in pubs and, in a more innocent time, pitched up at what was once known as the “Wimpy bar”. Friends legitimised hanging around on sofas and faux leather armchairs, nursing a bucket of latte and having a seemingly casual attitude to going to work.

Friends gave us the ‘Rachel Haircut’, a style which Aniston reportedly hated and her stylist was, allegedly, stoned out of his head when he created it. That, though, didn’t stop thousands of women in the late 1990s walking into hairdressers and demanding “A Rachel”.

But if there was one standout outcome of Friends, it was letting Matthew Perry’s comic talents loose in prime time. Previously a serial auditionee and cast member of not-to-be picked up, Crane and Kauffman effectively created Chandler as an outlet for Perry’s comic delivery, licensing him to ad-lib his natural predilection for sarcasm and wise-assery. No one will ever know exactly how many times Perry has been asked by journalists: "So, how much of Chandler is you?".

When the show ended in 2004 - watched by a record audience of 50 million in the US -  it did so with an intentional full stop by the writers. The characters went off to live the rest of their lives, while the cast went off to varying fortunes: Aniston become America's rom-com sweetheart; Cox MILFed-up Monica to become the star of the brilliant Cougar Town; LeBlanc blanked out with the ill-advised Friends-spinoff Joey (redeeming himself more recently in the BBC's Episodes); Schwimmer has pursued a successful stage career; Kudrow has branched out into production; and Perry has been  busy associating himself with the prefix "short-lived", with shows like the Hollywood satire Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip and Mr. Sunshine lasting  the course. A pity, given his comic brilliance, though news that he would be appearing in a television remake of The Odd Couple shows promise, despite the "been there before" factor (he and LeBlanc effectively spent ten years playing Felix Unger and Oscar Madison as Friends Chandler and Joey).

Despite repeated rumouring about movie versions, as well as the varying degrees of post-Friends success experienced by the cast, the show stopped for good on May 6, 2004.

Ross and Rachel were ultimately reunited ("We had dicked the audience around for 10 years with their 'will they or won’t they’," David Crane has told Entertainment Weekly, "and we didn’t see any advantage in frustrating them").

Monica and Chandler moved to suburbia to raise their twins. Joey (the spinoff tells us) heads to LA, and Phoebe setles down with Mike.The final scene sees the six hand in their keys (ironic, given that they rarely ever used door keys in the show’s ten-year run), and they close the door to Monica and Rachel’s apartment for the last time, Chandler having the last word (at the suggestion that they all go off for a coffee he snarks: "Sure! Where...?").

The idea of a movie or a reunion show would not make sense. "The essence of the [final] show leads you to an organic conclusion,” said David Crane. "Friends started as the time in your life when your friends are your family, so what's at the heart of the episode is really six friends going off in different directions.”

46-year-old Matt Le Blanc says that he would not want to see "Old Joey", nor does he want to see Monica and Chandler with their now ten-year-old children. "I’d rather imagine that," LeBlanc said recently. "Everyone’s going to have a different vision of what those characters are like, so to have that materialise is going to disappoint most people… It’s better to just let them think."

For those in desperate, caffeine-like need of a fix of Friends, you are unlikely to be far from a rerun on satellite or cable TV, wherever in the world you find yourself. The reruns provide all of us who started watching in our mid-twenties the chance to step back to a time when, probably, we weren’t so concerned with mortgages and negative equity, school fees or garden clearance.

Yes, there were plenty of occasions when it resembled a smug advert for The Gap, but there was a comforting warmth about the genuine friendship of the six characters. Of course, it hardly represented the lives of actual New Yorkers in their twenties - the apartments were far too big for a start - but Friends was, after all, a sitcom, not a crass reality show.

And it was, and still is, funny.

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Thursday, May 01, 2014

This is a high - Damon Albarn: Everyday Robots/Blur: Parklife

A week and twenty years ago, Blur released an album that many place amongst the likes of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Never Mind The Bollocks, We're The Sex Pistols - and any one of a thousand others - as era-defining.

Parklife was the album that coalesced Britpop in the face of grunge (going on sale just four weeks after Kurt Cobain's death, too), embracing the Londoner's whimsy of Ray Davies, the offbeat brilliance of Syd Barrett, The Clash's street smarts and the infused Englishness of prog rock and the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band.

With its mock Eurosdisco hit (Boys And Girls) and the "dahhhnnn to Mar-gate" Mockney knees-up of its title track, Parklife established Blur as a band for art students and kebab shop oiks alike.

Unrelated to this statement, it it was the only album (actually, tape) available on the coach taking myself and fellow Chelsea fans to Bruges for a European Cup Winner's Cup quarter-final in February 1995.

With its somewhat knowing swagger, Parklife was the perfect soundtrack for the trip, for hardcore and arriviste Chelsea fans alike, being drawn to the Hoddle revolution then in progress, and on a day when the British press had predicted a convergence of Europe's worst football hooligans heading for a violent rendezvous in maps reminiscent of the Dad's Army title sequence. And so we made our way to the quaint medieval Belgian city in a convoy of buses leaving Fulham Broadway at the crack of dawn, listening to an an album which, like the joggers it depicts, seemed to go round and around and around....

Roger Waters once said that The Dark Side Of The Moon was the beginning of the end for Pink Floyd. Parklife was the end of the beginning for Damon Albarn, To The End and This Is A Low are the clues. In the 20 years since we have come to appreciate the creative combination of Albarn and Coxon, ranking them up there with Morrissey and Marr, Anderson and Butler, even Lennon and McCartney.

© Damon Albarn/Facebook

What we didn't expect was the eclectic trajectory Albarn would be propelled on, on his own. Anyone hoping for another Boys And Girls or Country House would be sorely baffled by his output in the two decades since Parklife: Gorillaz, The Good, The Bad & The Queen, Mali Music, Afrika Express and the Chinese opera Monkey: Journey To The West, all demonstrating what an annoyingly gifted git he is.

Which is a situation that hardly changes with the release, this week, of Everyday Robots, his very first solo album. Touching loosely on themes of modern life by technology, it is a wonderfully downbeat collection of largely melancholy essays on the absurdities of a world in which we communicate more via our mobile phones than by face-to-face contact.

These are, let's face it, the issues we 46-year-olds deal with. We show no fear of buying the latest gadgets but then catch ourselves ruminating on how they've destroyed the world we grew up in. Here beats the ponderous heart of Everyday Robots, an album which, beneath this seemingly Luddite premise, is actually peeling back the layers of Albarn's life to revisit the Essex and East London of his youth, the suburban sprawl that drifts in and out of concrete jungle and rural idyll.

From the outset - indeed, from the album's cover shot of Albarn slumped on a stool - this is clearly not the yapping puppy of Britpop's adolescence. The title track progresses to a tick-tock tempo drawn by a mournfully beautiful vocal and an infectious violin sample as Albarn considers how our smartphone-dominated lives have turned us into frantically thumbing zombies. Hostiles continues the mournful motif, drawing deep into Albarn's history and, perhaps, of a relationship that ended on failed communication.

Via a claustrophobically intimate groove, Lonely Press Play examines the role technology plays paradoxically in creating communication barriers, arguing - through an enjoyably soulful song - how we live our relationships vicariously through the 'play' button of our devices.

Glossing over the brief instrumental, Parakeet (inspired by the distinctive chirping of the colourful birds that pop up all over London)Albarn steps back into post-modern gloom with The Selfish Giant, a very Bowie-ish (and that's a good thing) study of the relationship between technology and its impact on social engagement ("it's hard to be a lover when the TV's on").

Two years ago, for a one-off (that led to speculation of a more permanent reunion), Blur produced the beautiful Under The Westway, their dystopian view of the London so wonderfully eulogised by The Kinks and The Clash. You And Me seems to return Albarn to the area around the A40 as it snakes north-west out of London and through the city's original melting pot of Notting Hill and West Kensington. With an infusion of steel drum towards the end (and a Robert Fripp-style guitar in its middle), You And Me associates itself with the Westway's street life, but unlike The Clash's raucous take on the area, Albarn appears to be raking up another part of his life, perhaps one alluded to in recent press revelations about his recreational heroin use.

If I have hitherto given the impression that Everyday Robots is a dour album, then I offer no apology. Certainly there are few songs on it that will challenge Pharrell's Happy for pick-me-up ringtones. Hollow Ponds, is definitely not one of them. But like a cold day under grey skies on a beach in northern Scotland, there is an inner beauty to this sepia-tinged retrospective, with a trombone adding a Last Of The Summer Wine-like pathos as Albarn returns to his Leytonstone roots, recalling childhood and the 1976 drought, and more recent developments, such as the arrival of the shopping centre at Lakeside. What is never sure is whether this autobiography is mere nostalgia or an attempt to rake around at the back of Albarn's memory for something distinct.

Taken as a whole, Everyday Robots can be considered in one of two ways: it is either a slit-your-wrists bleating of a polymath musician coming to terms with age and, yes, modern life; or it is an intelligently weighted concept album which successfully demonstrates just how gifted Albarn is in creating brilliantly nuanced music that - even now - still appeals to those whose interests in music range from the superficial to the headphones-attached, notepad-at-the-ready obsessed.

Thankfully, he ends the album on a distinct high: Heavy Seas Of Love. While not exactly in the same league of uplift as, say, Elbow's One Day Like This, it is certainly a more rounded, more accessible and full-resolution than others here, with an emotional warmth perhaps intentionally on the album in general. Joyous, nonetheless.
If Everyday Robots has a blip, or at least an incongruous moment, it is Mr Tembo. Written about a baby elephant that became, bizarrely, the house pet of a Tanzanian family Albarn befriended on a trip, it's gentle Jack Johnson jive might, in another album's context, provide pleasant uplift. Here, it is simply out of place - a pleasing-enough novelty, but just out of synch with the more rewarding introspection of the rest of the album.

Because this is an album designed for - and possibly created out of - those moments when you want to plug the ear buds in, shut out the technically complex world, and listen carefully to how someone else is dealing with it, it is reflective of the now, and strongly influenced by the then. A mid-life crisis by it's author? Not by intent, but clearly Albarn, when presented with the idea of a solo album (and in the process produced some 70-odd songs to pick from) focused it on parts of his past that couldn't or wouldn't be suppressed, and only needed an outlet to be explored.