Friday, 30 November 2007


As a confirmed no-Sky television viewer, I never did get to see ‘Angel’s’ final Season 5 as none of the Freeview/Terrestial channels picked it up. So, tired of waiting, I bought the whole thing on DVD and watched all 22 episodes over 4 days in an orgy of suspense, awe, laughter and yes, tears (‘Angel’ does that to you) and what a fantastic watch it was.

Following the demise of ‘Buffy’, creator Joss Whedon re-took the reigns of ‘Angel’ for its final season and his signature is all over it. The emotional punch, the surprises, the sparky dialogue are all present and correct. He seems to be the only one around that understands that the emotional content of people relationships is what makes a good story and the setting is almost irrelevant. The fact that it is fantasy merely releases the bounds of possible storylines from the restraints of reality. But it is people that matter.

His writing has a very British undertone in its use of undercutting humour in dialogue, the character driven plots and the competent use of British slang when writing for English characters.

But the other facet of this season that struck me was the gobsmackingly good acting of Amy Acker, initially as Fred and then Illyria which peaks during the episode ‘The Girl in Question’ where she flips from the speech patterns and mannerisms of one character to the other with such ease that you are totally convinced that she is two separate people. It’s wonderful stuff and it is times like this that makes me mad that people look down their nose at actors in fantasy and sci-fi shows as if they were second-class citizens.

It seems to me that acting in these sorts of show is far more demanding than, say, your average soap opera where actors are basically confined to real life. In fantasy, actors are often called upon to act many parts as their characters are routinely possessed by other entities, swapped with other characters and given all manner of otherworldly situations to grapple with. This, in my view demands far more versatility than most other genres – but when was the last time you saw an actor from a fantasy genre show (especially TV) win a major acting award?

It’s a tragedy of demonic proportions.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Double Trouble

Funny how reading other people’s blogs makes you reassess your own views, isn’t it? I’ve just been having a browse through Beckysisland where there is a whole section on the band Chicago with a wonderfully considered review on each of their multitude of albums – all called ‘Chicago’ funnily enough.

I’ll admit here and now to being a fully paid up member of the Chicago fan club, at least for those albums between 1969 and 1972 (I to V), as I love the melting pot of rampant guitar rock, brassy jazz and singalong pop they invoke on those early albums. Becky comes to the conclusion that the album ‘Chicago V’ is the best - their ‘Sgt. Pepper’ - and whilst my original assessment, made some thirty years ago, is that it is very good indeed, I wasn’t sure about this, so I ditched my distorted vinyl copy, bought it on remastered CD and re-listened to it. And you know what, she could be right? It is filled with immaculate playing, inventive, varied songs and compulsive rhythms.

BUT…whilst all the above is undoubtedly true, I can’t help hankering for the sprawling unpredictability of their first three double albums where ideas were allowed to over-reach themselves in all sorts of peculiar ways. ‘Chicago V’ is, unusually for them at that time, a single album and there is an overall feeling of compression and restriction about it. In some respects this is good as it distils ideas down to a concentrated nugget, but in other respects I can’t help feeling that guitarist Terry Kath was getting more and more frustrated as the album progressed that he wasn’t allowed to rampage around with one of those endlessly liquid solos. Or that what they really needed was a string quartet interlude.

This then got me thinking about, what in the days of vinyl, we called ‘double albums’. These were a breed of musical product that were universally derided as over-indulgent (especially if they were the dreaded live recording) and often described as a good single album with padding. But somehow, this doesn’t apply to the first three Chicago albums. It is as if the rule here should be reversed and that where Chicago is concerned, they should only produce double albums lest they be derided for chickening out with a measly single. Somehow, they just need the space, after all there were seven of them. That’s not to say that ‘V’ is not a great album, because it is, but I’d put it on a par with ‘II’, my first love, where at least three of the four sides are essential.

Am I allowed two CDs on my desert island?

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

To Hit, or not to Hit?

I think I need a bit of help here, guys. It’s these infernal ‘Best Of’ compilations and I don’t know what to do about it and it’s driving me nuts!

But let’s start at the beginning. To my eternal shame, I own no albums by those purveyors of quintessential English whimsy, The Kinks, except a late 1970s vinyl copy of, oh dear, I can hardly bear to say it…20 Golden Greats on the Ronco label (now there’s a great 70s brand for you). But I’d like to replace it with a CD, and what I’ve been toying with recently is not buying a replacement ‘Best Of’ but a copy of their 1967 effort, ‘Something Else by the Kinks’ as it contains their best ever single ‘Waterloo Sunset’ and is recommended heartily by those who review it (not always a good indicator but let’s go with it for the moment).

But here’s the problem. On the one hand, whilst original albums (without those annoying ‘Bonus’ tracks), have a certain completeness about them, which means that the content works as a collective whole - a piece of art reflecting a given moment in time, they don’t have all the hits on them, do they? What they do have is a period consistency, which means that listening to them makes sense. You have an understanding of the time and place of their creation and each track has a relationship with every other. The downside is that there is bound to be a variation of quality otherwise every track would end up on a ‘Best Of’.

On the other hand, ‘Hits’ compilations do have all the hits on them but they always feel like a disjointed mess and I don’t tend to play them very often. Even if the tracks are ordered chronologically (which many aren’t) there is no sense of ‘creation’ about it. Hearing a couple of tracks from say, Sgt Pepper, jostling for position with other earlier or later works on a Beatles compilation does not give you a clear sense of 1960s psychedelia as expressed by the original album, does it? I’m sorry, I’m not expressing myself very well here, but I hope you understand what I mean?

I suppose what it comes down to is this: do I buy a hits collection or a period piece?

Really, I’d like all the hits as well as the period pieces but do not intend to buy the entire Kinks’ back catalogue to achieve it. In fact, this would not work in practice, as in the 60s singles did not always appear on albums. Which brings us back to the ‘Best Of’. Oh God! Perhaps I’ll just buy both.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

First Album Blues

The other day, I indulged in something that I haven’t done for many years. I set my record deck to revolve at 45 rpm and played some of my 12” vinyl EPs that date mainly from the late 70s and 80s. But whilst I was wallowing in a warm bath of nostalgia, I noticed two examples that show how good a band’s early work can be and how it all goes a bit pear-shaped when they make it into a grown up studio.

The first example is those breast baring reggae punks, the Slits, and the vinyl in question, the ‘Peel Session’ EP. On this disc there is a mesmerising version of ‘New Town’ which starts as a swaying paean to drug addiction and accelerates into death wish cacophony. Contrast this with the ‘proper’ version on their debut album ‘Cut’ and you can see how it all went a bit wrong. Despite the inclusion of yet-to-be-a-Banshee Budgie on drums, the reconstituted ‘New Town’ is not a patch on the Peel session take. Somehow the improved instrumental playing and polished production has knocked the stuffing out of it. And this is not the only instance I found.

Example number two is Ghost Dance, a short lived late 1980s goth band formed by ex-Sister of Mercy guitarist, Gary Marx and ex-Skeletal Family, chanteuse Anne-Marie Hurst. I first discovered this lot through their single, ‘The Grip of Love’ which appeared on an Indie compilation in 1986. I saw them play live a couple of times and thought they were very good indeed.

The EP I refer to here is their ‘A Word to the Wise’ which appeared on the independent Karbon label and comprises 4 songs of compelling urgency and beauty and which corresponded exactly with the band I had seen live. Unfortunately, after releasing a few well-received vinyl singles and a mop up album, ‘Gathering Dust’, they were then snapped up by Chrysalis and produced a proper debut album (CD, no less!) ‘Stop the World’ in 1989 but it just wasn’t the same. The songs sound flat and a bit lifeless as if, in the rush to commercial success, the production has squeezed their very being to a pulp.

So what happens when a promising new band record their first album? Clearly most survive but a small percentage fall by the wayside and I can only think it is because their style is incompatible with the process and discipline of a major label product. There is obviously a fine line between nurturing a new sound and destroying it completely - however accidentally. The Slits survived, just, but Ghost Dance didn’t.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Forever Young

‘I am a child, you know’, says Harold Skimpole in Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’, and is accordingly painted as one of the most objectionable of fictional characters as a direct consequence of this trait.

Throughout history and right up to the not too distant past, children became young adults during adolescence and left behind childish things very rapidly indeed. Going to work at 14 probably had something to do with it. Childhood and everything that went with it was forgotten, never to be revisited. But today, rather than abandoning childhood like old clothes we have grown out of, we are now actively encouraged to be the children we once were as the commercial world is now completely geared up to selling your childhood back to you.

Today, it does not take very much effort to reconstruct your own childhood around you like it was yesterday. I can buy virtually every toy I ever owned in the 1960s through eBay (and probably in better condition than my originals), every comic I read (copies of 1950s/1960s Dan Dare stories are now available in hardback, as are collections of Silver Age Superhero comics from DC and Marvel), every TV programme I ever watched is available on DVD and even FriendsReunited threatens to put me in touch with all my erstwhile classmates. Specialist companies make old sweets (but not at old prices) and fashionable clothes shops can kit me out in genuine 60s gear (man).

I can even pay for school discipline, if I was that way inclined.

The question remains why? What is it that all these companies have identified that leads them to hound us with all this stuff? Perhaps they have realised that this is the Age of the Child. Unlike in Dickens’ day when to be a child was to be a pawn in an adult world, today it is virtually the reverse where the adult world fawns over the child in every aspect of life. Youth is the elixir of existence and to be young is so precious it must be preserved at all costs.

Children have rights and power. They have power over their teachers in school and their parents at home. They have social lives and mobility, purchasing power and the right to veto. All adult authority has been legislated away and anyone over 20 now stands on the sidelines rueing their own lack of youth.

Rather ironic in an age when life expectancy is increasing and the national demographic is moving upwards. Perhaps selling you your childhood is the final solution to staying within the parameters of being forever young?

Friday, 2 November 2007

What's in a Name?

Have you ever had sleepless nights worrying about what to call your brand new, state-of-the-art, cutting edge band? No, me neither, but some people obviously have.

There was a recent article in the Times, no less, claiming that new bands were having the most awful difficulty thinking up new names, moaning that all the best ones were taken. I mean, what’s the matter with them? Can’t they even come up with obvious monikers – like ‘The Electric Prunes’ or ‘Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band’? Kids today eh?

If they mean boring names like ‘Blue’ then they’re right as there must be about 10,062 bands with this label already, but I really can’t believe that the cupboard is that bare. It just needs a bit of imagination. Let’s see. How about ‘The Names’, or ‘No Name’? Hmm…unfortunately both of these have already been bagged, so perhaps it’s not so silly after all.

Of course, brand names can become quite valuable and you often see very unseemly squabbles over who really owns a band name when there is a personnel split. The spat between Messrs Waters and Gilmour over who really ‘owned’ the Pink Floyd name was a case in point. So it is clearly important to choose a memorable name, as it can become a real asset if the band is successful. And this is the nub, I think. What these potential stars of tomorrow are really saying is that all the memorable names have been taken. No one wants the ‘Warty Toads’ or ‘Yellow Sick Bowl’. (No doubt someone will now tell me that they have a band with one or other of these names and how dare I…etc.)

You would’ve thought that in our brave new green, re-cycling conscious world, bands would be looking to re-use names when they become available at the termination of employment rather than just confining them to the great musical landfill. I understand that ‘The Beatles’ is already 50% available as is ‘The Who’. I’m sure that there are many that have fallen into disuse and could be put to better employment. How about ‘The Bay City Rollers’? No, perhaps not.

The difficulty with this wheeze is that the former incumbents may suddenly re-appear, like Marley’s ghost, complaining that they haven’t quite finished with it yet so I recommend staying away from ‘The Spice Girls’ or ‘The Police’ unless you have a very good lawyer indeed.