Monday, July 13, 2015

Out of Africa - the 30th anniversary of Live Aid

I won't ever profess to having a particularly brilliant understanding of science. I can't even programme my cooker. But if I've grasped one thing from no less a scientific figure than Albert Einstein, it's that time is relative (as opposed to time is a relative, which would make it, like, an aunt, or a nephew, or a third cousin twice removed. Ho and, can I add, ho).

Einstein's theory may go some way to explain how Live Aid - which took place 30 years ago today - might be closer in years to Woodstock, 16 years beforehand, but even now somehow still seems much more recent.

Perhaps it's just the contrasting photography: the event at Max Yasgur's Catskills farm in August 1969 seems framed exclusively by black and white pictures of unclothed hippies of (almost) indeterminable gender wiggling about to Jimi Hendrix or Richie Havens. Live Aid, on the other hand, leaps from the memory as a blaze of gaudy, mid-80s colour - from Sade's crimson lipstick to the abomination that was Mick Jagger's pistachio silk shirt in that Dancing In The Street video with The Dame, more or less everything being worn on the day by Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran, George Michael’s vibrant yellow shirt in the Wembley finale, and Madonna's paisley-and-lace outfit.

Comparing Woodstock and Live Aid is like comparing the two world wars, which had a similar gap between them and yet marked the difference between the Sopwith Camel and the jet engine. And just as those conflicts bore many commonalities, so there were common artists to the two music events - Santana, Joan Baez, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and even The Who, who've only just headlined the closing night of this year's Glastonbury. CS&Y and Neil Young are still touring and recording (David Crosby today looks little different to how he looked on stage at Max Yasgur's Catskills farm, though there may be mitigating reasons for that...), and Paul McCartney, who led the Wembley finale of Live Aid, is still out on the road. As I said, time really is relative.

To the 17-year-old me, Live Aid was an impressional, day-long televised version of Smash Hits, the ultimate summer special postermag - 16 hours of live music from more than 60 individual artists.

And all I wanted afterwards was to get a pair of Bass Weejun loafers like Paul Weller had worn sockless, and to look as annoyingly cool as Sting had done in his baggy white grandad shirt (I still have designs on owning an all-black '79 Fender Stratocaster with a maple neck like that on which he played Roxanne and Driven to Tears that day).

In fact, now I think of it, the Wembley Live Aid concert definitely had the edge over it's Philadelphia counterpart in terms of sartorial excellence. No one at the US show came close to Bryan Ferry, immaculate as ever in white buttoned-up shirt with the cuffs undone, and, of course, Bowie, in a blue-grey suit and floral tie, with a quiff that I later tried to replicate without success.

There was an unwitting rivalry between Wembley and Philadelphia on the day, mainly dictated to by touring schedules. Thus, Wembley was a predominantly British affair: Status Quo, the Style Council, the Boomtown Rats, Adam Ant, Ultravox, Spandau Ballet, Elvis Costello, Nik Kershaw, Sade, Sting, Phil Collins, Howard Jones, Bryan Ferry, Paul Young and Alison Moyet, U2, Dire Straits, Queen, David Bowie, The Who, Elton John and Wham, Paul McCartney. Philadelphia was dominated by US artists, but a few British stragglers like Simple Minds, Duran Duran and Eric Clapton, who were on tour at the time, plus Phil Collins, who'd famously taken Concorde across the Atlantic after his Wembley set to do it all over again ("I was in England this afternoon. Funny old world, innit?").

Collins was also involved in one of the day's few disappointments: five years after the death of John Bonham, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones agreed to reform Led Zeppelin for the day, bringing in both Chic/Power Station drummer Tony Thompson and Collins. Unrehearsed and unprepared, according to Collins, "Robert was happy to see me, but Jimmy wasn't". And so, performances of Rock And Roll, Whole Lotta Love and Stairway To Heaven were less than stellar. "If I could have walked off, I would have done," Collins told Q magazine last year. "But then we'd all be talking about why Phil Collins walked off Live Aid - so I just stuck it out. It was a disaster, really. Robert wasn't match-fit with his voice and Jimmy was out of it, dribbling. It wasn't my fault it was crap."

Still, even if the semi-planned reunion of the greatest heavy rock band in history was something of a car crash, it was never going to overshadow the almost impossible-to-contemplate magnitude of the line-up, and the legacy it left behind.

Live Aid was never the first charity concert - George Harrison's Concert For Bangladesh and Amnesty International's Secret Policeman's Ball shows arguably set that blueprint - but the enormity of all, with 72,000 at Wembley, 100,000 at the JFK stadium in Philadelphia, and anything up to two billion people across the world watching on TV set this apart as an event that went way beyond simply a cultural landmark.

According to Bob Geldof, it had been Boy George's idea. After the Band Aid recording the previous November, George had more or less suggested that, since all of those artists had come together to record a single record, why not get them all together to do a show. That, though, clearly snowballed.

Fuelled by Geldof's belligerent hectoring of artists to perform, and the concert know-how of promoters Harvey Goldsmith and Bill Graham, the 'show' turned into a logistical challenge on a scale never attempted before, and never quite the same since, although Farm Aid, the Prince's Trust gigs and even Live8 have stepped valiantly in Live Aid's footsteps.

With the Vietnam War as a backdrop, Woodstock brought about the beginning of the end of the 1960s rock and pop revolution with the far-out idealism of its time. Live Aid could be viewed similarly, but unlike the peace-and-love movement, it did at least achieve something meaningful. Live Aid raised more than $200 million was raised for Africa on the day, which can be sniffed at cynically (and has also been questioned legally), but not ignored.

Geldof's famous "give us your money - NOW!!" expletive-ridden outburst on live TV that Saturday afternoon is said to have increased the cash being pledged by £300 per second.

The collective conscience was pricked again during David Bowie's set (which had featured a defining performance of Heroes), when he gave up one of the songs in his allotted 20 minutes to play a genuinely moving video of sick and starving children in Ethiopia, set to The Cars' Drive.

It is, of course, very easy to accuse the stars who performed at Live Aid of arch piety - especially given the riches Live Aid brought to bands like Queen through exposure (though brilliantly compiled) to their back catalogues. And there is still something not quite right about coked-out rock stars chorusing about "snow in Africa"...

But no one should deny the intention of Live Aid, nor its standout moments: the opening notes of the Coldstream Guards' fanfare as Charles and Diana entered the Royal Box at Wembley; Richard Skinner's “It’s 12 noon in London, 7am in Philadelphia - and around the world it’s time for Live Aid!" announcement before Status Quo brilliantly kicked off the day with Rockin' All Over The World; Geldof's contractually-obligated performance, with The Boomtown Rats, of I Don't Like Mondays - with his wonderfully OTT pregnant pause after "...and the lesson today is how to die!"; Jack Nicholson in the US introducing U2 in London via satellite, who then went on to challenge Queen for the day's best set; the 18-year-old busker from Miami, Bernard Watson, who persuaded Bill Graham, producer of the Philadelphia show, to let him open the US event, right through to the Philadelphia finale of We Are The World, orchestrated by Lionel Richie, himself only just fresh from a 'living legend' appearance at Glasto.

Live Aid achieved the seemingly impossible. The Who weren't supposed to be on speaking terms in 1985, and yet Geldof had somehow convinced them otherwise; Led Zepp had said no more after Bonzo's death, but there they were, sort of; others chartered jets and rearranged tours to be in London or Philadelphia. There were, though, some notable absentees: the surviving Beatles (despite McCartney's appearance in London) didn't reform, Michael Jackson was absent and Prince appeared only in a video. Bruce Springsteen is said to have underestimated the enormity of the show and turned down an appearance, which he now regrets, while even Culture Club, then one of the world's biggest pop groups and whose lead singer had even been the first to suggest such a show, didn't play.

Woodstock might have captured the times, but Live Aid went beyond. Its altruism not withstanding - and more than 60 of the biggest music stars of 1985 playing for free to help the starving in Africa - it has to be regarded now, in complete terms, as the greatest event in the history of rock and pop. Could it ever be staged again? I doubt it.

Even if the McCartneys, The Whos and the Rolling Stones of this world are still going in their sixth decades as performers, bridging the Woodstock, Live Aid and current eras in the process, music has changed out of all proportion over the last 30 years. And it's not, either, about the Internet age versus the pre-Internet age.

Live Aid was the greatest rock and roll show ever. It could never be repeated and never beaten. For all its 1980s vibrancy, it drew heavily on the generation that attended Woodstock or were turned on to music by Woodstock, or even went out of their way to react against Woodstock.

As Live8 did, ten years ago, you could put together the ultimate charity concert with all the same trimmings, and even some of the same artists, but - and this may be a generational thing - it just wouldn't be the same.

Geldof called it "the global jukebox", a remarkable day in history, that seemed perfect for its time. Time, of course, being relative.

Friday, July 10, 2015

As Lucca would have it: Paolo Nutini and Alabama Shakes

© Simon Poulter 2015

During the sweltering daytime, the labyrinth of narrow streets enclosed within Lucca's imposing ramparts throng with tourists being led in long, wilting crocodiles by tour guides waving numbered ping-pong bats.

To a party - which appear mostly to be American (indicated by the fact many are reading loudly from guide books as they trudge along) - there are sprightly pensioners mixed in with insolent-looking teenagers truculently looking at their iPhones, only just avoiding the handlebars of bicycle-riding locals doing the same in the opposite direction.

In the heat of the day, Lucca's maze of tiny, high-sided thoroughfares provides some respite from the relentless summer temperatures. During the sweltering evening, however, these same streets act like the sound ducts of expensive high-end loudspeakers, piping music from the annual Lucca Summer Festival, which, most July nights, sweatily crams 3,000 people into the Tuscan town's Piazza Napoleone.

Lucca has long been one of the best-kept secrets amongst European festivals, but being in close logistical and calendar proximity to others like Montreux, it has consistently attracted on-tour big names. Bob Dylan was Lucca's inaugural attraction, in 1998, and he was back here last week. Since that first show the festival has expanded considerably to occupy much of July. Elton John will headline here on Saturday night, Mark Knopfler, Robbie Williams, Lenny Kravitz and, bizarrely, a double-header featuring Snoop Dogg and jazz bassist Marcus Miller to come before the month is out - all drawn to the unparalleled charm of playing to such an intimate and immediate setting.

© Simon Poulter 2015

In past years Montreux itself has drawn WWDBD? for its summer music fix, but this year it was swung by the prospect of Paolo Nutini supported by Alabama Shakes...with the headliner merely a bonus.

There have been very few debuts quite like that which introduced the world to the band from Athens,  Alabama. Their Dan Auerbach-produced Boys & Girls landed like a prizefighter's sucker punch in 2012, unleashing a searing form of swamp R'n'B fronted by the huge, Joplin-like vocals of Brittany Howard.

If the album was one thing, live performances were something else, generating a must-see reputation that manifested itself at 2012’s SXSW, a show captured by podcast on America's NPR radio network, and which is probably now one of my favourite live recordings ever. This, however, meant there was a high risk that seeing them in the flesh for the first time might disappoint. Last night, after just the second song, I not only knew that wouldn't be the case, but that I was experiencing one of the best gigs ever. I exaggerate not.

These things are, of course, highly subjective. There were plenty in the stifling heat around me who were plainly more interested in catching a gust of air than the raw southern soul that poured off the stage before them. As for me, I was in my element. Sometimes you attend a show that for even the tiniest reason will live with you forever. My previous was just last year at Montreux, where Laura Mvula charmed the pants off everyone with endearing enchantment. This had a more visceral appeal, one that made concerns about expiring in the Tuscan humidity a waste of time. Alabama Shakes were still, in principle, just the warm-up act, a redundant task given that it was still north of 30 degrees by 9.30pm when Howard, Zac Cockrell, Heath Fogg, Ben Tanner and Steve Johnson strolled on stage.

© Simon Poulter

Perhaps it was the temperature, or perhaps it was for effect, but the opening choice of Dunes lulled the crowd into the set, with its woozyslow-tempo, before hitting them with the utterly joyous, Creedence-like Hang Loose, with its gearing rhythm guitar and an early showcase for Howard's remarkable vocal scope.

© Simon Poulter
As I’ve alluded, she has endured inevitable comparison to Janis Joplin, but her extraordinary range - given full vent on Rise To The Sun - is something to behold: Memphis one minute, Muscle Shoals the next.

It isn’t all about Howard, of course, and indeed throughout the ten-song set it’s clear how much of perfect equilibrium the five-piece are in, bridging soul and R'n'B vintage (Always Alright had a delightful Stax vibe to it) while also touching on the brand of southern grunge Kings of Leon started out doing.

But, with Nutini’s 10.30 stage time approaching, the Shakes started to build towards an epic end to their 45-minute set, with Gimme All Your Love alternating Saturday night drive-in doo-wop with a slamming chorus before closing with a flourish of southern Baptist communion.

To close, Don’t Wanna Fight, erupted like a summer storm that comes out of nowhere, the gentleness of its pizzicato opening contrasted by the body of a song which, cliche though it is, can only be described as being one of raw emotion, draining every last drop with a thunderous coda that closed the set.

I could have easily returned to my hotel then, a musically nourished and happy individual. But that would have involved fighting my way through 3,000 hot and seemingly soldered together people, who, in the traditions of outdoor concert protocol, were unwilling to concede so much as a square inch of concrete to anyone else for fear of giving up optimum line-of-sight (which these days means cutting through the forest of smartphones and selfie-sticks).

And so, Part 2: Paolo Nutini. The headliner. Accompanied by a huge band (a significant upgrade from the time I saw him six years ago in Amsterdam's tiny Paradiso), for more than an hour and half that took the show well beyond midnight (take note, Hyde Park and Westminster Council), Nutini delivered by the truckload. Let’s even convolute the metaphor by talking about a convoy of trucks - like the procession of big dumpers that the scenery-chewing Jeremy Irons had stealing bullion in Die Hard: With A Vengeance.

© Simon Poulter 2015

From the moment he shuffled on stage - like a cross between James Brown and Hugh Laurie's Dr. House - walking in front of the band spanning the stage's entire width, the audience was exclusively Nutini's. Not that there was ever going to be a chance that it wouldn't be.

© Simon Poulter 2015
Many had come for his roguish, stoner charm, and others for a voice that dares comparison with the greatest soul singers. And then there was, too, his ‘local appeal' - Nutini's father Alfredo comes from the commune of Barga, less than 40 kilometres due north of Lucca.

Perhaps with such overwhelming support from the crowd Nutini didn't have to indulge in any chattiness. He is known for spending most of a show with his eyes closed, but even allowing for such intensity, crowd engagement was sparing to say the least.

No one seemed to be bothered: he only had to utter “buonasera” to send the audience nuts. All this adulation aside, underpinning of Nutini's appeal is his possession of the finest white soul voice since Joe Cocker, one that encompasses the best of Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke. As Daily Telegraph  music critic Neil McCormick wrote in January, following Nutini's show at London’s O2 Arena, “the best British soul singer this century”. Few could disagree.

When he first appeared in 2006 with the album These Streets and a frilly hit single (Jenny Don’t Be Hasty), the then-19 year-old Nutini looked like he was threatening the sort of housewives’ appeal of a Jamie Cullum or Michael Bublé. I know that’s a casually sexist thing to say, there can be no ignoring the fact that was from where his fanbase was built, despite his roguish stoner image (and more than a hint of fondness for herbal refreshment didn’t seem to harm, either).

On Wednesday night's evidence, however, and a third album, Caustic Love released last year, Nutini has added so much more to his repertoire. It’s opening track, Scream (Funk My Life Up), was the logical choice to get things going in Lucca, instigating a mass, cramp-defying frug amongst the crowd, many of whom had started to fade in the interval between sets.

From there, Nutini rattled through an hour and a half of accomplished brilliance, drawing on temperature-appropriate hints of reggae with Let Me Down Easy, the plaintive Alloway Grove, and then giving that first hit, Jenny Don’t Be Hasty, a slowed-down, psychedelic groove, with wigged out swirly projections on the main screen, before segwaying into an infectious few bars of his other early bouncy early hit, New Shoes.

© Simon Poulter 2015

Better Man, about his mother, induced a mass swoon amongst the more sentimental audience members, prompting a rare lighters-aloft moment in modern concertgoing (yep, outdoors, smoking permitted). Shorn of his band, with just an acoustic guitar to accompany him, it brought out the light and shade of Nutini's vocal texture.

Paolo Giovanni Nutini may have an Italian name and an Italian father, but he grew up in Paisley, just outside of Glasgow. Which until this point in the evening had not really been apparent, such is his lack of conversational interaction with the audience. But for These Streets he adopted a notable Scottish accent, not quite Kenneth McKellar but not far off, to tell the story of hometown life “...wandering around with a half pack of cigarettes, searching for the change that I've lost somehow.”

Diana came next, a big stadium number almost incongruous to the small medieval square it was being performed in, before drifting into the old-style soul review of One Day. With the crowd now fully pumped up, Nutini unleashed his biggest gun yet, Cherry Blossom, a full-on stomp that made use of just about every member of the band on stage and the palette they had spread across its width.

© Simon Poulter 2015

With Iron Sky drawing on old cinema sound clips and footage of Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, the set appeared to drift to a slowburn close. But this was just a tease: “One more”, the singer breathed, and the crowd went nuts again for Tricks Of The Trade, prompting a very un-self conscious audience clap-along. At this point, Nutini could do no wrong, which is why he crooned Guarda Che Luna, an apparently old Italian love song (Fred Buscaglione, anyone?) replete with Godfather-like trumpet accompaniment.

"Italiano?" asked a middle-aged gent near me, clearly not expecting a song in his own language. When a fellow local affirmed that it was, he looked genuinely impressed. It may have been pandering, but the nods of approval and coos of "bellissima" around me said otherwise.

Nutini could have brought on the Pope at this stage and not elevated his regard in the Piazza Napoleone any higher. "The charm of Paolo Nutini stokes the summer crowd" wrote the local newspaper, La Gazzetta della Lucca, clearly proud of "the handsome Scot who has origins not very far from the stage on which he performed", adding "un bel regalo" - a beautiful gift - of his Italian performance.

There was time for just one more, Candy, with Nutini strumming his acoustic guitar, and intoning, saucily, "lay down beside me". The predominantly female half of the audience gladly would at that stage, but it being ten past midnight, a warm but simple "Grazie" followed by "thank you" brings down the curtain, proverbially speaking, on an extraordinary evening.

The crowd attempt to draw Nutini back out by chanting "ole, ole-ole-ole, Paolo" football style, but he has gone. The end of a glorious evening of street theatre on a grand scale, a summer music event mercifully bereft of craft beer and veggie food concessions. Just as simple and as in-your-face intimate as Italy gets.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Grazie, Jeremy Clarkson, grazie

© Simon Poulter 2015

It's more than likely that when people think of an Italian car it will be a Maranello-born, Pininfarina-designed work of automotive art in the Devil's own shade of rosso that first comes to mind.

Then again, for those who grew up in the 70s playing Top Trumps, it might be another marque, the [now] Volkswagen-owned company that designs garishly coloured Batmobiles for posers in Dubai and parts of Kensington. And those of a more romantic persuasion (or, simply, a petrolhead) might, first, think of a cute two-seat 'Spider', created, it would appear, exclusively for open-top drives along the Amalfi coast.

The irony of this, I suppose, is that you hardly ever - or in fact, never - see Ferraris, Lamborghinis or drop-head Alfas on Italian roads. This is because they are the most impractical cars to own in Italy: there's nowhere to park anything that large, nor would you for fear of getting it perpetually dinged. Furthermore, you can't manoeuvre them around small hill villages and they cost the Greek national debt to run. That's if you can afford to buy one to begin with.

Top Gear goes to Luca

Most Italians - on visual evidence at least - instead seem perfectly happy flitting about in small Fiats that can be parked, can pass other cars in a city street without requiring the application of butter, and are, ultimately, cheap to run. More importantly, I have noticed, you don't need a zillion horses under the bonnet in Italy to overtake on the wrong side of a mountainside road when a large pair of balls and an engine not much bigger than a lawnmower's will do just as well.

Car ownership in Southern Europe has always struck me as being more about practicality and need, rather than status and one-upmanship. Southern Europeans don’t appear to suffer from the license plate envy that plagues the north, where the brand and the newness of the vehicle is forced on everyone else as a sign of affluence.

Although I wouldn't actually tell a local this, small is actually beautiful. Or beautiful enough. No one thinks any less of someone bombing past in a Panda, especially when the hair, the dangling cigarette, the mobile phone and the sunglasses are all cocktailed just right. And I'm speaking, of course, of both genders.

For all of Southern Europe's economic and political complexities, simplicity reigns when it comes to getting around. Which is why I now have to go off at something of a tangent here and lay into Jeremy Clarkson. I realise that I won't be the first to do so (and I'm adding myself to a list that includes senior BBC executives, one junior BBC producer, caravan owners, truck drivers, Argentina, Mexico, Burma and the man who designed the Vauxhall Vectra), but damn him.

Because I had been planning to use my mini visit to Italy this week to write about a car which, in its own small way, exemplifies - or at least was intended to - what happens when Italian design, simplicity, practicality and personality come together.

So what does Clarkson go and do? Write a magnificently funny review in this week's Sunday Times of the new and exhaustingly named Fiat 500X MultiAir Cross, that's what.

It had me trumped, not that I am Jeremy Clarkson, nor this The Sunday Times. But to save you some of my blah-blah, Clarkson noted how Fiat has allowed the 'new' 500 to evolve from a respectful pastiche of the original 1957-introduced 500's cute, bubble-like charm, into an exercise in over-inflated marketing.

In case you haven't been noticing, or in case you simply haven't cared, since Fiat introduced the modern 500 it has spawned several versions, including the maddeningly bulked up MultiAir Cross, which has had so much added to it, it reminds me of OJ Simpson in The Naked Gun 2½ accessorising a small pistol to the extent it turns into a piece of anti-aircraft artillery.

These variations come on top of the myriad colour and trim options that Fiat offers on the base model with the intention of having new purchasers customise their 500, less car as fashion accessory. Just this last week, Fiat announced a range refresh for 2016, with new interiors and a few other extras to keep turnover going until the current design and chassis comes to the end of its planned lifetime.

Millions of 500s have been sold around the world, including the United States, where it reintroduced the Fiat brand as well as capturing the wallets of revisionist, fashion-conscious Californians ditching their gas-guzzlers for, even, electric versions of the car. The sight of Fiat 500s about on LA's freeways is puzzling. Because unlike the hefty BMW Mini that has also found favour amongst Angelinos, the 500 is not a motorway car at all.

This I have found driving one around in its homeland. Which it isn't all that suited to either. Indeed, the 500 may be, like its celebrated ancestor, excellent for zipping about city centres shouting "Ciao!" at strangers, but take it out on the autostrade and you may as well be riding a Roman chariot pulled by Eyeore. My 1.2 litre rental has a larger engine than my own very first car, a Fiesta - which managed motorways quite adequately - but is hopeless at doing the two most essential tasks on Italian roads - accelerating ahead of tailgaters and getting up hills.

Come off the motorways, however, and indulge the winding roads that Tuscany seemed to have been invented for, and the Fiat 500 becomes quite enjoyable. It'll never break speed records, and on even the mildest of inclines, if you drop your speed you have to start off again in first to gain any traction (much to the "amusement" of the driver immediately on your back bumper), but it is flighty and, dare I say it, fun.

It is also effortlessly chic, like one of those chain store secrets fashion writers like to praise to show they actually have the common touch. And that might be where Fiat began with the concept behind this car, the concept so infuriatingly amusingly written about by Clarkson on Sunday. The 500 isn't for people who are bothered by cheap plastic interiors, switchgear and trim of the quality of toys found in cheap crackers bought on Christmas Eve from the corner shop.

© Simon Poulter 2015

The 500 is also not for pedants like me who can't live with cars where there are menus for everything - one menu button for the stereo, another menu which doesn't seem to do anything at all, and a third menu just to change a beeped speed warning. Which is redundant, because this is Italy.

Don't, either, buy a 500 if you plan to transport luggage. Or children. Or deliver pizzas. Because the boot is no bigger than a clutch purse, and the back seats were designed to accommodate only Ant-Man*.
*Topical cinema reference

But if you can excuse the plasticky cheapness of it all, and the luggage capacity of a charity donation envelope, as a holiday rental car, the 500 is ideal. It reminds me of my first ever holiday hire - an original Renault Twingo, which once had me bombing about a Balearic island like a supercharged go-kart. I loved that car and, even now, have a fondness for the simplicity and proportional efficiency of the first generation Twingo, attributes I can see in the Fiat.

If I may, then, somewhat tenuously return to Jeremy Clarkson, four years ago he and his Top Gear wingmen Richard Hammond and James May pitched up in the maze-like Tuscan city of Lucca, where I am today, for one of the show's challenges.

Starting out in the elliptical Piazza del'Anfiteatro, they had to drive three hot hatches - a Citroën DS3 Racing, a Renault Sport Clio 200 Cup and the Abarth C version of the Fiat 500 - out of the walled city's labyrinthine streets.

Hammond made a complete mess of the exercise, abandoning the car and setting off on foot, where he then managed to get further lost. May, as I recall, ended up on the city's wall ramparts, which was funny, but unlikely seeing as the entrance ramps are quite comprehensively bollarded. Clarkson, as usual, won the test.

Having navigated my way through Lucca yesterday, they could have completed the exercise in three minutes and by simply turning right out of the entrance to the square they came through. But Top Gear was Top Gear and that wouldn't have been anywhere near as funny.

I can, though, concur that Lucca is not car friendly or logical. One-way signs take you this way and that, and don't even think about using GPS, such are the narrow streets of this medieval town. But despite all this, the 500 was, in fact, the perfect companion, turning tight corners with ease, not scraping bicycles or pedestrians, and managing to keep me cool in the process, despite the temperature getting silly. That, on reflection, is the essence of Italian driving.

The Fiat 500 may not be the best made car in the world, or the fastest, but in a world of Smarts, the Volkswagen UP!, the Ford Ka and Lancia Ypsilon (which share the same chassis as the Fiat), and the many other fashion-orientated city cars that all manufacturers now seem required to sell, if you're going to want to drive around a city, especially a very old, seasonally hot, Tuscan city, the 500 is probably the one for you.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Living the dream, kind of

© Simon Poulter 2015

It is hot. Very hot. Past-the-point-of-caring-about-continuously-sweating hot.

I have taken leave of my senses, and taken leave from Paris, where it is also stupidly hot, to come to Tuscany. Where it is hot. Sorry if I've already told you, but it's possible that, in the second it has taken me to think about this next sentence, I have suffered acute heat stroke, or even an actual stroke, and am now rendered unable to remember what I typed less than a minute ago.

So, you may be interested to know that it is ridiculously hot. Officially, though, it is not as hot as it was in Paris last Wednesday when the temperature reached 38 degrees in new money. But despite the Yahoo! digital weather vane informing me that it is currently a mere 32 degrees, the ravine of perspiration cascading South down my spine and into the unknown lends me to think that it is actually hotter here than the apparently hotter Paris. I've been lied to. In fact I would complain, but I really can't be arsed. It is that hot.

I have a weird relationship with Italy. I love it, its people, its culture, its history, its art, its food [obvs], its wine, much of its football, some of its cars but few of its motorists, none of its politics, and I'm saying nothing about "those friends of ours" and what they do to blight ordinary lives in too many places.

As a rule I try and avoid coming to Italy when it is so hot you can't wiggle your big toe without needing another shower and change of clothes. But then sometimes you can't avoid it, and even when you do your utmost to dodge the warm season, human impact on the climate means that if you're visiting in October, when it should be autumnal, it is still feral hot.

Of course, I am being utterly useless and, indeed, utterly British. Lucca - where I will be for the next three days - is like any other urbanity on the Italian peninsular, populated by people who are clearly genetically disposed to coping with the temperature.

© Simon Poulter 2015
Lucca is also a stunningly beautiful, medieval walled town, with a labyrinth of narrow streets, and in its interior, charming, shaded restaurants where the wine is exquisitely chilled and accompanied by agua minerale frizzante so refreshing it looks like sparkling jewels in the glass. Yeah, try not getting poetic over a glass of bubbly water when you're here.

There are other clear signs you're in Italy. The heat, clearly (have I mentioned that yet?), but also the usual abundance of callow youths going about their business on motorini, and the veritable jukebox of ringtones that people seem to load up their phones with.

Italy has given the world great innovations - from inventing the ambulance to discovering heart disease - and yet somewhere in the midst of this creative gene pool is an incurable need to communicate and organise how communications must be received. Italians love their mobile phones, and on the evidence of my lunch today, no social encounter between two people seems complete without both of them nattering away on mobiles to other, vacant parties while sat in front of each other.

And there is the crux of Italian life: the noise, the expression, the engagement. Brits might consider a Saturday night out at their local trattoria the pinnacle of their weekly social calendar, but then spend it in silence prodding away at their iPhones, or Candy Crush or whatever it is we do to avoid eye contact and conversation.

But, strangely, when Brits come to Tuscany, they make a lot of noise. But that's only because they are invariably middle-aged investment bankers from Hampstead who've driven down in the family Jag - straw Panama on the back parcel shelf, of course - to spend a couple of weeks in Chiantishire barking haughtily at the offspring, almost exclusively named Toby and Arabella.

If you come here for peace and quiet for your holiday, forget it. Amongst the locals, even a simple Monday lunch is a riot of noise and hand-waving. And I love that. As all Italophiles know, that's where the beating heart of Italy lies. It's not in the food, or the art in the Uffizi, but in the disorder and wonderful chaos of Italy, that thigh-length boot of paradoxes and contradictions, cultural highs and socio-economic lows, Da Vinci and Berlusconi, and coffee that smacks you in the throat.

Oh, and summer heat. Searing summer heat. My God, it's hot here...

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Television: don’t stream it's over

News this week that the BBC is to make 1000 managers redundant will not come as a shock to many, not least of whom some of the very wonks in the corporation's myriad middle-management layers who are about to be shown the door.

But, before you worry that this is about to become a Daily Mail-style assault on dear old Auntie (an institution that provided a more than 30 years of employment to my father), let me assure you that it is not. Because, some of those those departees will no doubt be from the strategy departments who would have seen writing on the wall a long time ago.

The redundancy round is the result of the BBC facing a shortfall of £150 million in its funding, largely the result of dwindling numbers of people paying for a TV licence, the BBC's main means of revenue since 1946 when it was introduced to get the corporation's nascent TV service back up and running after World War II.

However, it is today well accepted that ‘traditional' TV viewing is falling, as tablets, smartphones, gaming consoles, PCs and the streaming services accessed via them increasingly eat into the eyeball hours of established broadcasting.

Crucially, more and  more people - especially under the age of 50 - are just not bothering to pay for a TV licence on the grounds that they’re not using broadcast television anymore, while numbers for younger viewers between 16 and 24 are dropping off completely, as they get what they want from streaming services.

This trend is being led, inevitably, but the US, where online video streaming leapt by 60% in the final quarter of last year. The Nielsen ratings bureau found that Americans still consumed more than four hours of television a day, but even that is starting to fall by about 4% per month, while streaming video viewing is now up to about 11 hours a month (and could be more as devices like Roku plug-ins, PlayStations and smartphones aren’t included in the figures).

By far the biggest group consuming streaming services like Netflix now are those between 18 and 49, traditionally the sweetspot for advertisers, which presents a major problem for commercial TV companies and their traditionally big-spending clients, who are at risk of being denied the attention of their most lucrative demographics.

All of which makes the prospect of Messrs Clarkson, Hammond and May resurfacing on Netflix with a reinvention of Top Gear look all the more intriguing. Netflix has already demonstrated via House Of Cards that it, too can offer ‘appointment TV’ as much as being a surrogate video store, but with the refreshing recognition that people do and will consume such high quality shows in a binge. Some critics have argued that this change to watching series television is more a reflection of the 'want it, and want it now' generation, that we lack the patience to wait a whole week for a next instalment to follow. But you only have to ask those who've watched entire seasons of 24 in a weekend via DVD, whether the weekly cliffhanger is workable any more.

However, if speculation about the former Top Gear heads moving to the streaming service bears out - and it is a perfectly logical idea - it could be seen as a major turning point in how we watch television. Gripping thrillers are one thing, but a magazine programme featuring three badly dressed, middle-aged berks larking around in cars is a different prospect. Either way, it's a sign that broadcasters now have to accept that they are sharing space with a totally different television model.

That even Sky launched a dedicated channel for TV box sets demonstrates the instantaneous nature of our viewing habits. In many households as it is, the idea of an evening of varied light entertainment and informative current affairs has eroded completely, as smart TVs dial up YouTube marathons of cats playing pianos, and others succumb to ‘just one more’  Boardwalk Empire before closing down the Blu-ray Disc player at 2am.

Just like “pop will eat itself”, the famous NME interview that spawned the phrase (and the band) a long time ago, TV is in danger of doing the same. Mainstream television in any country now is so formulaic and homogenous that it truly has become a mildly opiate leaf for people to chew mindlessly on.

No wonder people are choosing to gorge on the brilliant and absorbing writing of Breaking Bad, Game Of Thrones and even cracking comedy like The Big Bang Theory. It’s still television, of course, but its availability across a multitude of the screens we all now possess means that getting a hit off something good is no longer dependent on schedulers or ad breaks.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Strike it lucky: Falcao and the curse of the No.9 shirt

While there are weightier issues in the world today, the one troubling me the most is the arrival of Radamel Falcao to Chelsea on a season-long loan. Because despite Chelsea's assertion that it has signed "one of Europe’s most feared strikers", recent evidence has suggested otherwise.

And we've been there before. In fact we've been there for an awful long time: the search for a potent striker, capable of banging 'em in week-in, week-out, over more than one season.

In Diego Costa, Chelsea more or less found one, but then injury and temperament conspired last term to render him more out than in during the season's final third. But with Didier Drogba on his last legs and now gone, and Loic Remy seemingly unable to convince José Mourinho that he is Costa's nailed-on understudy (or the possibility to be a strike partner in a resolutely 4-3-3-1 system), Chelsea's seemingly constant search for striking options has continued.

Despite promising options in the youth and reserve squads (Dominic Solanke and loanee Patrick Bamford - who excelled for Middlesbrough last season), Chelsea's pursuit of Falcao has seemingly gone against the grain of both conventional wisdom and the club's own commitments to financial fair play, given that his extremely expensive loan from Monaco to Manchester United last season (£6 million loan fee, £285,000 a week in wages plus bonuses) resulted in just 26 Premier League appearances and only four goals (with none further for five months).


Mourinho has said he would be able to get the best out of Falcao: "It hurts me that people in England think that the real Falcao is the one we saw at Manchester United. If I can help Falcao reach his level again, I will do it". But it shouldn't be forgotten how that was also the task that Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Di Matteo, Rafa Benítez and indeed Mourinho were all challenged to do with Fernando Torres, that dormant Sleeping Beauty who spent three and half seasons failing to deliver any return on the £50 million Chelsea paid for him on reputation (even if Mourinho somewhat jokingly - and desperately - described him as "not really" being worth £50 million - "maybe it is twenty and a half").

Torres wasn't Chelsea's first expensive striker flop, of course: step forward Andrei Schevchenko. Relentlessly pursued by Roman Abramovich as he tried to turn Chelsea into Milan - and therefore champions of Europe at the beginning of his ownership of the club, the Ukrainian never recreated the form that made him fifth top goalscorer of all time in all European competitions, a position he still holds. And after Schevchenko there was Argentinian wunderkind Franco Di Santo, who didn't even score once for the club.

Then there was Chris Sutton, bought from Blackburn on the back of their relegation and a record of 50 goals in 131 appearances, he only managed one goal in 28 Premier League appearances for the Blues. In Pierluigi Casiraghi, Chelsea signed some Monza-born Italian class, only for it to be bruised by a lack of goals ( and then brutally ruptured by a cruciate ligament injury following a collision with West Ham's then-keeper Shaka Hislop. Chelsea's run continued with Adrian Mutu, one of the first major signings of the Abramovich era, which turned out to be a disaster, with the Romanian falling out with Mourinho, and then failing a drugs test for cocaine. In the same period, Hernan Crespo looked like being another addition of European pedigree...only to find him surplus to requirements when Didier Drogba came along.

At a time when Abramovich and Mourinho seemed to be buying strikers wholesale from Costco, the next to arrive was Mateja Kezman, himself on the back of a successful three years at PSV Eindhoven. Needless to say, the move to Chelsea proved less than successful: seven goals from 40 appearances, despite the reignition of his successful Eindhoven partnership with the gravitationally-challenged Arjen Robben.

Go back further, to the time when that scurrilous old rogue Ken Bates was in charge, and the club broke its then record for a transfer fee by bringing in Scotsman Robert Fleck, just before the start of the inaugural Premier League season (prior to signing for Chelsea he'd threatened to go on strike at Norwich over their refusal to accept the London club's offer). In the end, Fleck scored just four times out of 48 appearances, and didn't even figure in the squad for the disastrous 1994 FA Cup Final, a 4-0 rout by Manchester United that I am still bitter about 21 years on (yes, David Elleray, you are the source of that...).

One might even be tempted to suggest that the centre-forward role at Chelsea is cursed. Even Kerry Dixon - the club's third highest goalscorer of all time (and, to date, only player ever to resemble the two blokes in Bucks Fizz) - has just been jailed for nine months for assaulting a pub customer who called him "fatty". Signing for Chelsea as its principle striker appears to be as safe as getting hired by Spinal Tap as its drummer.

Even with pre-season rumours of Diego Costa being unsettled, bringing in Radamel Falcao on loan from Monaco represents a huge gamble by Chelsea. The player was, quite simply, a massive mistake last season at Manchester United - and it serves them right for having the hubris to go out and throw money at their previous management's problems - and to add to it, his enormous wage bill only served to inflate a reputation that wasn't, quite simply, worth it.

Though financial details have been revealed, I can't imagine Chelsea, with its own huge wage bill, will accept anywhere near the amount Manchester United agreed for Falcao, who is probably lucky to be playing anywhere at the apex of European football at the moment.

It is, however, not just about the money. Or even about the money at all. I've lost interest in the what-players-earn debate, because it extended beyond the bounds of reality a long time ago. What concerns me more is that Falcao joined United last season as a key part of Louis van Gaal's much-vaunted rejuvenation of the club, only scoring four golas and completing a full 90 minutes on just six occasions. That, under a no-nonsense manager like van Gaal speaks volumes.

At Chelsea, with Mourinho's sometimes capricious approach to player selections (he didn't even start with a recognised striker against Arsenal back in April), there is no guarantee that Falcao will get the opportunity to play at all, even without Costa maintaining his fitness and discipline next season.

Chelsea long ago dispensed with the 4-4-2 formation, which means that any second striker - whether expensive European bauble or home-grown whizkid - will have to sit out their frustration on the bench. Should Loic Remy exercise his over a lack of appearances - plus, now, Falcao coming in - by moving on, Chelsea will still have the headache of finding another understudy for Costa prepared for little immediate chance of competitive playing time. And that might put off the likes of Charlie Austin and Christian Benteke, who are said to be in Mourinho's sights.

For now we wait with bated breath as Falcao is sized up for his No.9 shirt. Expect it to have extra padding in the shoulder area, just to absorb the weight of expectation...