Friday, 29 February 2008

29th February

Hurrah for 29th February!

You see, I am a ‘Leapling’ and today is my birthday, my first since 2004. I have to say that being born on a day that doesn’t generally exist is a little disconcerting. It feels a bit science-fictiony, like I emanated from a parallel dimension or something that only co-exists with the real world once every four years (and according to the Gregorian calendar, every centenary divisible by 400 for you pedants). Some people would say that actually, it would explain quite a lot. Mystery writers love the concept and even the comic opera ‘Pirates of Penzance’ uses it as a plot device.

Having no actual birth day has its advantages. On a non leap year, I can choose which day my birthday falls – either 28th February or 1st March – depending on which day falls on a weekend, for example, although I believe in legal terms Leapling birthdays are deemed to fall on 28th February. Just to be contrary, I generally opt for 1st March; the logic being that it is the day after the 28th February although I do get people asking me whether I’m Welsh.

Despite their only being a 1 in 1,461 chance of being born a Leapling, I’m not the only one. In fact there were two of us in my year at secondary school and if you look on Wikipedia there is a whole list of Leaplings, although I can’t say I know any of them except for actor Joss Ackland (born 29th Feb 1928) and the composer of the ‘William Tell Overture’, Gioacchino Rossini (born 29th Feb 1792). Other than those two, we are a fairly undistinguished lot.

I am also waiting with baited breath to see whether I get any marriage proposals, as custom allows women to propose to men on 29th February (or is it the whole year, I can never remember?) But I think my wife might have something to say about that these days.

All that remains now is to choose which birthday song I shall play to celebrate this momentous day. Despite being an Altered Images fan, I think I’ll give their ‘Happy Birthday’ a miss and the Smiths’ ‘Unhappy Birthday’, although much better, doesn’t really feel appropriate. So, I may go for The Sugarcubes’ ‘Birthday’, being more fittingly quirky bearing in the mind the slightly supernatural flavour of the occasion. Either that or I’ll go for a full rock out with The Beatles’ ‘Birthday’.

It’s quite fun being a Leapling.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Take That!

Well, well and indeed...well. Take That win ‘Best Live Act’ and ‘Best British Single’ for ‘Shine’ at the 2008 Brit Awards. Who’d have predicted that outcome back in 1990 and all without Godlike Robbie as well? Boy Bands eh? You just can’t get rid of them.

It must be age but in spite of the undoubted fact that we are well into the noughties, to me the nineties don’t really seem that far away yet the beginning of that decade is now 18 years distant. Still it seems like yesterday. It was therefore all the more surprising to relive the musical climate then prevailing whilst watching a TV programme of the Christmas 1994 Top of the Pops. Was it really like that? Did we really drown in a sea of Boy Bands?

The answer is, depressingly, yes. A brief trawl through the detail of the Boy Band genre reveals that most of the 1990s and beyond were awash with collections of spotty teenagers doing ridiculous dance routines and attempting to look like they could all sing. Consider the evidence.

The decade starts with the all-conquering Take That and East 17 (later contracted to E17, a London postcode, as a sort of re-branding exercise to appeal to the mainstream) with Boyzone and the Backstreet Boys close on their delicate heels. As the 90s progress we are treated to 5ive, N Sync and Westlife (Oh God!) and thence on to the late arrivals at the ball, A1, Blue and most peculiarly of all, the opera quartet G4 (thank you Simon Cowell). If I thought hard enough, I’d probably come up with a few more, but hey, life’s too short. And what is the upshot of all this? Ronan Keating and Robbie Williams! Oh, and Take That...again.

But let’s be fair. Recent Take That output hasn’t actually been that bad but perhaps that’s me getting cynical. Certainly ‘Patience’ and ‘Shine’ have been as good as anything currently around which makes you think that maybe Gary Barlow really is the talent everybody said he would be all those years ago – it’s just that he took his time to get around to being a decent songwriter. His next career move will presumably be to turn up on next season’s ‘Strictly Come Dancing’.

So, in summary, we have had to endure a whole decade of pain so that we can get to the point where a few good songs are produced. Not a great return on the investment – and we’ve still got Ronan Keating!

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

The Final Move

And now for something completely different...chess! Those of you who don’t follow the machinations of the chess world will probably not have noticed that Bobby Fischer, former World Champion, recently died of kidney failure aged 64.

This is a matter of great sadness for me as he is the person who was almost solely responsible for sparking my interest in the ancient game. I played for my school team and was invited to play for the second team at St Albans Chess club, but that was about the limit of my competitive career. And it was all down to Bobby. This is his story.

Following World War II, the World Chess Championship was re-started in 1948 and immediately the title was hijacked by the Soviet Union via winner of the 6 player match, Mikhail Botvinnik and it remained in their grasp for 24 long years whilst their own almost interchangeable champions came and went (Tal, Botvinnik again, Petrosian and Spassky).

It was not until 1972 that the young American upstart, Robert J Fischer, a Grandmaster at 15, arrived on the scene to thoroughly upset the applecart and to thrill the young me into taking up chess. At Reykjavik, Iceland, the precocious Fischer took on the might of the Soviet machine and won, thus scoring a direct hit in the cold war and breaking the stranglehold of Soviet domination.

But he didn’t take the easy route. He lost the first game with an horrendous blunder and then forfeit the second by sulking in his hotel room complaining about playing conditions and failing to turn up. Thus after two games it was Spassky 2, Fischer 0. But then he turned it on and won 7 of the next 19 games (lost 1 and drew 11) and thereby the match with a combination of stunning chess and a series of complaints about everything from playing conditions to alleged cheating that had the tour organiser at breaking point. These days it would be called ‘gamesmanship’ but you had to feel sorry for his opponent, Boris Spassky, a likeable player, who was thrashed at the board and worn down by the constant barrage of paranoia from Fischer.

Predictably, Fischer grew more anti-social and more paranoid. He failed to contest the 1975 match against challenger Anatoly Karpov and was stripped of his title, thus handing it back to the Russians for a further 32 years (Karpov then Gary Kasparov and Kramnik) before the Indian Vishy Anand finally won it back last year.

In the meantime, Fischer went on the run, living in any country that would have him whilst spitting bile at the USA and finally ending his days in Iceland – scene of his greatest triumph. A tragic end to one of chess’s tortured yet undisputed geniuses.

Friday, 15 February 2008


The purveyors of technology never tire from telling us that its advancement will save us time/money/energy and that we should embrace it wholeheartedly. But real life shows us that the reverse is almost invariably true. Email, mobile phones and other ‘labour savers’ have actually made our working lives faster, more stressful and given us less leisure time than our fathers and grandfathers. So much for progress.

Having got that out of the way, there is one tiny area of the techno-revolution that has actually saved me time. In my teens, I bought and subsequently taught myself to play an acoustic guitar. For many years after, if I heard a song that I liked I would settle down with my guitar for an hour or two and attempt to work out the chord progressions that underpinned the melody. This was a time consuming exercise that didn’t always yield the expected result but all my labours were recorded in an old exercise book (actually it was my Geology ‘A’ Level book that had only a couple of used pages in it when I left school).

These days, there is no need to do this sort of thing as a few taps on a computer will yield the chords for most songs you care to name so those hours of toil are avoided. Whilst this is very convenient, somehow it is not quite the same as using the product of your own diligence but then in view of the above, who am I to complain?

I don’t often play my guitar these days but I have resolved to do so more in the future thus I did blow the dust off it the other day and gave it a strum. Then I found my old chords book and flicked through the pages and it was there that I found it - a long forgotten song that I have not thought about for a considerable time. It is ‘Barges’ by Ralph McTell.

Poor old Ralph! Forever saddled with the albatross that is ‘Streets of London’. I don’t own any of his music, which is why I’d forgotten all about ‘Barges’ but its rediscovery was very welcome as I do like it a lot. In fact I liked it enough to sit down for an hour or so to work out the chords about 30 years ago.

It’s one of those sounds-like-a-trad-folksong type compositions that just drifts along with easy chord changes and a lilting melody but it is the lyric that is the killer. It paints a wonderfully evocative picture of innocent childhood spent fishing and watching the river traffic which harks back to an age of simple pleasures and unrestricted adventure that would have the health and safety police busting an indignant gut these days.

The very antithesis of our controlled rushing technology driven lifestyle today, in fact.

Can’t find any video of McTell doing 'Barges' on Youtube but this version by Mike from Halifax is just as good.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Pop! What is it Good For (Slight Return)

In a previous post I referred to Paul Morley’s 6 Milestone Singles as revealed during his TV programme, ‘Pop. What is it Good For?’ Well, as promised here are mine.

For those who are new to this concept, these are 6 singles that have specific memories for me as turning points in my own musical journey, rather than just a list of my favourite singles that would probably be a little different albeit with some overlap. So, no ‘Strawberry Fields’ or ‘God Only Knows’ which would appear in my best ever list but in this context have no ‘Milestone’ significance.

So, without further ado, here they are:

‘She Loves You’ – The Beatles
For anyone of my age, it is likely that they will have been influenced by the moptops. This single burst into my life in 1963 and set in motion a lifelong passion almost by force. Even listening to it today after 45 years, when I’m a bit bored by it, it still has a real energy that just bursts out of the speakers at you. Genuinely life changing.

‘Back Street Luv’ – Curved Air
The single that opened up the door to albums irrevocably. After this, the pick ‘n’ mix of the singles chart was no longer enough and the purchase of far too many earnest progrock albums ensued.

‘Your Generation’ – Generation X
Billy Idol and cohorts arrived in the nick of time to blow away the cobwebs from the complacent 1970s corporate rock and suddenly, punk was the lifeline that got my musical interest back on track. I even started buying singles again. The likes of The Stranglers, Adverts, Sex Pistols and many of the punk associates like Siouxsie and XTC followed in a great rush of loud, invigorating, life affirming noise.

‘Scar’- Lush
A 6 track EP (on new-fangled CD) that took my breath away with its harmonic complexity, aural architecture and jagged rhythms. It introduced me to the world of Shoegazeing and to Lush in particular and I was hooked. They are still my favourite band ever despite their lack of success and just about everybody else’s derision.

‘Shine On’ – The House of Love
About as near to a perfect single as I’ve ever heard and it was created in the 1990s, long after the birth of popular music. Everything works, from its hushed verse to its sing-a-long chorus, heady harmonised middle section complete with gut-wrenching key change, beautiful evocative lyric and rampant guitar lines. There are not many songs that have everything. This one does and it helped to demonstrate that perfect pop is not just the preserve of the 1960s as many would have you believe.

‘Patience’ – Take That
A bit of surprise this one, but it has reminded me of the greatest lesson you can learn about pop music - that it can still surprise you, even 50 years on if you keep an open mind (and ears). This is a wonderfully constructed song that gladdens the heart. The fact that it is Take That is absolutely superfluous – never discount anybody in this game or you miss out.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Guilty Pleasures Pt1

Oh Boy! This is going to be ugly. Those of a sensitive disposition may wish to look away now.

Trawling around in some of the more musically orientated blogs, it seems that the flavour of the month is to list out your musical guilty pleasures so that we can either furtively agree or laugh helplessly and roll around on the floor at the sheer bad taste. This confessional entails revealing those artists, bands or individual songs that by common consent are so bad or uncool or both that most people with even a modicum of nous wouldn’t go near them with a conductor’s baton, but which are strangely attractive and may even hold a special place in your record collection. Yikes!

As one to jump on any bandwagon, I thought I would do something similar - but different. So instead of posting a list, I intend to do an occasional series relating to a single song/band/artist each time. In this, part 1, I confess to a sneaking regard for Karen Carpenter. See, I’ve done it now so there’s no going back.

Of course, as most people with any appreciation at all realise, the real problem with the Carpenters was their choice of material. Most of it was unbearably twee and just makes my toes curl to think of it. But a very small sample was different and it is here that I direct your attention. In particular I am thinking of ‘Goodbye to Love’ (obviously), ‘Rainy Days and Mondays’ and the cream of the crop, ‘Superstar’ – all of which were quite wonderful. The rest is unlistenable.

They are wonderful because the songs are half decent and Karen’s voice is at its best and it is at its best when in its lower register. This is the key to a good Carpenters song. When her voice rises into its middle and upper registers it sounds vaguely like most other female singers but in its lower register she is queen. The power, the control! It is a thing of beauty that no-one else can quite match. Just have a listen to ‘Superstar’ to hear how unique she is when the melody plunges down into the depths during the verse. There is no loss of power or volume – the sort of difficulties that afflict most other singers - just a rich reverberating sound that wraps around you and ...well..yes, exactly.

There is an innate sadness in that voice at low frequencies that is massively appealing and this is why tripe like ‘Jambalaya’ sung in her upper register is unbearably smug in the sort of way that campfire songs invariably are. They just scream ‘We’re all having a good time, aren’t we?’ Well, no, actually.

So there you have it. If I can still show my face and summon up the courage, I’ll be back with part 2 sometime in the future. In the meantime just thank God it isn’t you having to do this!

Saturday, 2 February 2008

No Fun

‘We don’t need no educashun!’ sang the Pink Floyd somewhat ungrammatically and looking at their bank balance you felt they had a point.

But does education really have a place in pop music? I can’t help feeling that somewhere along the line pop music has become a little too worthy. I blame LiveAid (1985 for those old enough to remember) for trying to raise the stature of the medium out of the ‘purely for enjoyment’ category into the ‘take us seriously’ category. It seems that everywhere you look and this includes music, everything has to be educational rather than just plain fun. There is something of the intrusion of the Nanny State at work here. You can imagine the scene in Nurseries everywhere:

All together now kiddies…
‘Hey Hey we’re the Anthropoid Apes,
And people say we primate around,
But we’re too busy learning,
To put anybody down.’

Perhaps all music outlets should become a branch of Early Learning then we’d all know where we stand. Toys long ago became instruments of ‘Education’ so that we cannot buy anything for a pre-schooler without it having to teach them something. My own experience reveals that toddlers generally ignore these overpriced teaching aides and continue to play quite happily with cardboard boxes and wrapping paper thus learning a basic British right – to be suspicious of all authority.

Which is why I really can’t get to grips with politics in music, there’s too much preciousness involved and it turns me off. We have that stuff breathing down our necks all the time, the last place I need it is entertainment. But what I really don’t need is some earnest teenager ramming a non-too subtle ‘message’ down my throat. Comment on the state of the union by all means but don’t preach otherwise I’m off to play with the cardboard boxes.

Let’s be clear, I have no quibble with those who make a general observational protest in lyrical form – Nerina Pallot’s ‘Everybody’s Gone to War’ is a good example – but I really don’t want to spend money on a CD that then accuses me directly of creating all the world’s ills. It’s not all my fault, honest! Nor do I take kindly to being told to give money to various causes by rock stars who could probably finance the problem out of existence, personally.

So, where were we? Oh yes…
‘Hey Hey we’re the Monkees,
And people say we Monkee around,
But we’re too busy singing,
To put anybody down.’

Much better.