Sunday, 31 August 2008

Get The Fire Brigade

Back in the mists of time there was once an invention that promised to revolutionise motoring. It was based on the premise that hands-free music could be enjoyed by employing a cartridge with an endless tape, but it failed abysmally and will be forever remembered in withering terms as the 8-Track Cartridge. A school friend of mine once installed a brand new 8-Track player in his decrepit Morris Traveller (wooden frame version, natch) in the vain hope that it would act as a girl-magnet. It didn’t. Also, what he forgot was that displaying his shiny new equipment was not enough, you needed cartridges to play in it, so one evening he picked up two titles at a garage along with a couple of gallons of 4-star (romance is not dead, eh?).

One was a complete disaster. What he thought was a Jimi Hendrix ‘Best Of’ turned out to be Hendrix hits played by a tribute band called ‘Purple Haze’ or ‘Purple Fox’ or something and pretty dire is was too. The second was a compilation of hits by The Move which whilst infinitely superior didn’t really fall into the ‘girl-magnet’ category either. Truthfully, he should have gone with Cat Stevens or similar but then he wouldn’t have seen the rest of us for dust. And thus it came to pass that The Move was generally played on lads’ journeys to the pub for the next few months.

Interestingly, I own none of the Move’s output and I now wonder whether this period in my life is largely responsible for this state of affairs. However, in a nostalgic frame of mind I tracked down a few videos on the ever-present YouTube and have rediscovered the early works of Roy Wood, and what a body of work it is.

‘I Can Hear the Grass Grow’, ‘Flowers in the Rain’, ‘Fire Brigade’, ‘Blackberry Way’ - Oh God! I can hear us singing them in the back of that Morris Traveller even now. But they are wonderful slices of classic late 1960s throwaway pop which have been largely overshadowed by the appalling excesses of Roy’s next project, Wizzard. Don’t even get me started on Wizzard. I hated them then and I still try not to think about them too much now. I remember a snotty-nosed kid interviewed on TV being asked whether he liked the Beatles. ‘No’ he said. He was subsequently asked who he thought was the greatest ever band and produced the answer, ‘Wizzard’. My case rests m’lud.

So, in order to put all this behind me and make my peace with Roy Wood I am going to look into purchasing some old Move songs, just for old times’ sake. Just don’t expect me to buy an old Morris Traveller and an 8-track player. Or like Wizzard. Nostalgia only extends so far, you know.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Olympian Effort

What’s all this then? Team GB winning a shed load of medals at the Olympic Games and finishing fourth in the medal table? Whatever next? What happened to the usual noble-in-defeat attitude and ‘I’m just pleased to be here’ platitudes? What has turned us into a nation of contenders? It could be the lottery money pumped into sports so that athletes can pay the bills whilst learning their trade or it could be the hiring of proper coaching and technical staff or it could even be the public school ethos of competition in sport (heaven forbid!) But I think it is more than that.

I reckon that the real reason for all this success is down to the weather! I’ve touched on this before in my previous Cricket post, but climate is so important to the Brits, after all, 50% of conversation in this country revolves around it. Without a bit of weather to contend with, we are nothing - look at the evidence. For once, a major sporting event has been held in a country where the climate suits the average Brit. We have won countless medals for sailing in atrocious conditions with howling winds and 2 metre swells – just like the Solent on an August Bank Holiday. The road cycling was conducted in stair-rodding rain, lethally slippery roads and less that brilliant visibility - ditto. Mercifully, the temperatures have been on the chilly side, the rain has fallen with not a swelteringly hot clear blue sky and lack-of-oxygen-due-to-altitude day in sight. Just how we like it.

I have always thought that the UK’s lack of sporting prowess has always been due to a lack of proper weather. Major sporting events are always held in countries where it is consistently hot, humid and windless. Where’s the fun in that? Where’s the challenge? Brits need to battle the elements more that they need to battle their opponents. It is why we are at heart an exploring, sea-faring nation.

Most of the UK’s premier sport, football, is played in freezing, rain-drenched conditions that are prevalent in our winter. If the Football World Cup was played at Scunthorpe on a miserably wet, muddy November day rather than a humid latin summer’s day when it’s 35C in the shade, we would win hands-down. I’d love to see the Brazilians play their silky skills game in those conditions.

So, an end to all boring hot, dry venues please. All international sporting events should now be held in countries where the weather is extreme and unpredictable. That would even up the chances a bit!

As a postscript, I note that some things never change. Post-event interviews with competitors from most of the major nations comprise a tediously well-rehearsed, almost robotic stream of PR speak. Brits on the other hand, waffle on about all sorts of things in a daze of ‘Gosh, have I really won something’ giddiness. Somehow, it is wonderfully reassuring that there’s a real person in there somewhere rather that a trained-to-the-point-of-oblivion android. You can’t have it both ways.

Friday, 22 August 2008


Time capsules – those old biscuit tins crammed with stuff representative of a way of life that are buried for future generations to find and marvel at their datedness - are a bit of a strange concept. . Some posts ago, I talked about my exercise book filled with what I considered to be popular songs that, in my youth, I had spent hours deconstructing in order to find the chord sequences so that I could play them myself. This book is, in its own way, a time capsule of that particular time in my life and looking at it now reveals my musical world in microcosm.

Even then, I had peculiar tastes as few of the songs in it are truly ‘popular’ and most would be unknown to anyone finding it today. I notice that one song in the book is Neil Sedaka’s ‘Superbird’ from about 1972. This is a strange one as I cannot seem to find out anything about it. It wasn’t a hit as it doesn’t appear in any chart records, nor can I find an album which includes it so quite where I picked it up I cannot say. The only clue I can recall is that I was chasing a particular girl during that period and one of her favourite artists was Neil Sedaka, so it’s probably odds on that it came from her.

What I can say about it is that I was attracted to it by its baroque tune and its left-field lyric which is, on the face of it a bit silly, but which reveals itself in the final verse to hold a deeper meaning of sorts. The narrative follows the writer’s recollection that, as a child, he could fly and became a ‘superbird’.
‘I used to flap my arms and fly around the bed’
However, he is ridiculed for claiming to be a bird and is forced to curtail his flying activities until eventually, upon entering adulthood, he loses the ability.
‘I cried myself to sleep and never tried again.’
However, the final verse sees him glimpsing his own child doing exactly the same thing and becoming a superbird.
‘There at the doorway, you’ll never guess what I heard
Zoom, zoom, zoom, superbird.’

It is an allegory of how childhood ambition which is originally unfettered in scope by its naivety inevitably becomes crushed by reality upon attaining adulthood. However, what I like about the lyric is the glimmer of hope at the end that his unbridled ambition has lived on in his own child. My guess is that this lyric was actually written by Howard Greenfield, Sedaka’s lyricist up until about 1973 but nonetheless, it is a curiously uplifting tale despite its apparent childishness and rather belies Neil’s somewhat lightweight reputation at that time.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Lost Cat

One of the more endearing qualities of the MP3 player, be it Ipod or other, is the random shuffle facility where the machine picks tracks randomly from the entire content like a demented DJ. Assuming you are able to transfer a sizeable chunk of your CD collection to these devices, this particular mode becomes a wake up call to the owner and a voice to all those albums that were bought, listened to once and filed in short order.

Pre-Ipod, music collection owners could bask in the ignorance of their own possessions forever without a second thought and I freely admit that there are many albums that I have not touched for decades since purchase. But now, assuming we all have the willingness to give it a try, we can rediscover many lost gems without having to trail through countless substandard LP/CDs.

I very rarely delve into unknown territory these days for the simple reason that with a young family, the time available for me to sit in front of a stereo in a quiet room is virtually nil. When I do get the opportunity, I like to hear something that I know I’m going to like, rather than speculate on stuff that may be the worst album I ever bought. It’s a fact of life that we listen to that which will bring us pleasure. So for the rest of the time it’s the MP3 player – naff quality and all.

So to spice things up there is the decision to select shuffle mode and there is almost a sense of adventure in doing so as it reveals long ago forgotten songs, many of which I could’ve sworn I never owned, and offers them up for reappraisal. How many times have I had to look at the display to ascertain, “What the bloody hell’s this?” It’s a bit humbling really.

One such song that came up by random chance the other day was ‘Lost Cat’ from the 1996 album ‘Way Beyond Blue’ by those welsh rockers, Catatonia (ok, not that old but I’m making a general point here). I was sufficiently enthused by this to go back and listen to the whole album, which in retrospect, is not half as bad as I remember. In fact it rather puts ‘International Velvet’ with its knowing ‘Mulder and Scully’ in its place. And it certainly outshines the lacklustre ‘Equally Cursed and Blessed’.

Another welcome listen was ‘Nightshift’ by Siouxsie and the Banshees, a track that I played regularly in the mid 1980s but have since banished to the life of a catalogue item in my ever-growing collection. Listening to shuffle mode is a bit like buying a new album but without spending the money and with a growing family draining my precious CD budget annually, this is a welcome respite.

Now that’s what I call music!

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Small Screen Rules

Hurrah for television! Why is it that when I am asked to fill in surveys or self-profiles (and Google is no different) I am always asked about my favourite films. The trouble is: I don’t really have any. Sure, there are some films that I like but they are few and far between and what DVD has taught me is that I far prefer television, especially vintage television. And it’s so much cheaper – I can buy a whole season of most American series (22-odd episodes) for the cost of an overblown film or two.

I think there are several reasons for my preference for the small screen. One of them is to do with violence and language. On TV there are certain boundaries to be observed, given that the audience is largely unknown and language and violence is tempered accordingly. Having secured an ‘18’ certificate, a film has virtually no boundaries and can be filled with bad language and horrific violence; most of it entirely gratuitous, at the expense of important things, like plot, nuance and atmosphere. The current fury over the British censors giving Batman’s ‘The Dark Knight’ a 12a rating despite the film’s glorification of extreme sadism and knife crime just underscores the attitude towards film making. It is most clearly seen when a successful TV programme is transferred to the big screen. Suddenly the language deteriorates and the plot becomes seedier to the extent where the original premise is almost unrecognisable. Watch the Steptoe and Son or Rising Damp films to see how this works in practice.

I dread to think what a new ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ film would be like with Buffy swearing and cussing her way through 90 odd minutes of graphically gory slaying. Yet the scripts for the Buffy TV series are probably some of the most inventive to grace the small screen, full of energy, wit and unbridled language invention and for the very reason that they are confined by convention. It would be criminal to mess with them.

Another reason why I like TV is that there is an enforced budget constraint that doesn’t usually apply to films. Lack of budget equals invention of necessity and this means making the most of what you’ve got. Often this translates into better scripts and tighter plotting. You can’t wrap up a poor screenplay in bank-busting special effects in TV land; there just isn’t the money.

So until somebody can convince me that films are better, I shall be watching episodes of Buffy, Dr Who, Moonlighting, The World at War, Sherlock Holmes, The X Files, Bleak House, Morse, The Avengers, Sapphire & Steel, Thunderbirds, Upstairs Downstairs, Survivors, Waking the Dead, Star Trek…

Yeah, you can keep films.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Kim Wilde - Never Say Never

‘WE’RE THE KIDS IN AMERICA..WHOAH!’ God, was it really 1981 that blonde-next-door Kim Wilde (nee Smith – no wonder she took her father’s stage name) first burst into our consciousness? Since then we have been treated to some classic teenage pop (‘View from a Bridge’), great covers (‘You Just Keep Me Hanging On’) and some infectious 1980s synth-rock (‘Never Trust a Stranger’) but then it all ran out of steam in the mid-1990s.

In fact it seemed to be all over when she retired to tend her garden – and write a book. But now, following the squillionth ‘Best Of’ compilation release in 2001, Kim Wilde is back – but not in the UK. ‘Oh fame, fame, fickle fame’ quoth the Moz and his words reverberate with meaning for Kim as her 2006 comeback album, ‘Never Say Never’ was released in virtually all European countries and Japan but not in her homeland and it probably won’t be as the UK audience has never really taken to her in the same way that our European cousins did. Her last few recent single releases all charted in various European countries, Germany especially, but if any UK resident actually heard one played in the media, I’d be surprised.

I eventually had to buy a copy of ‘Never Say Never’ imported from Germany to get to hear it and for a woman staring down the barrel of her half-century, it is surprisingly youthful. The opener, ‘Perfect Girl’, is a classic slice of Blondie dance/rock and is certainly no worse than any of Kylie’s last few efforts, so what’s the problem? The album is an aggregation of new material, sounding a bit like Avril Lavigne’s more talented aunt, and re-makes of old material , including a duet with Nena (who is German – good PR move or what?) and a cracking version of 'You Came' which are certainly no worse and in a few cases better than the originals.

The new stuff is generally excellent, real rock-chick guitars and hummable tunes –‘Perfect Girl’ now sits at the top of my iPod playlist - so check out the video at the end of this post. If this is the new (well, older) Kim, I want more!

Final thought. What all this suggests to me in big neon signs is that Kim is a perfect candidate for representing the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest. Let’s face it, no one is ever going to vote for the UK these days as voting for quality songs is unheard of and has been replaced with political block voting and we have no political allies in Europe at all. Thus we are doomed to come bottom of the pile with Norway every year. So, rather than try to gain a vote for the UK, why not try for a vote for Kim – she’s obviously very popular abroad. Just a thought.

Read more about Kim in my book 'Memoirs of a Music Obsessive'.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Nobody Does it Better

Just what is it about Bond themes that compels me to listen when I hear one – well, some of them, anyway? There is definitely something in their musical make up that leaves a hook in your brain that never leaves.

There may be some truth in the contention that, at least in the early days, all Bond themes had parts of the original ‘007’ theme injected into them, which gave them a certain family resemblance. It also meant that the great chromatic chord sequence that typifies Bond is always lurking ready to grab you by the throat. My particular favourite by a considerable margin is ‘You Only Live Twice’, written in 1967 by the incomparable John Barry and it still gives me goose bumps, even now.

It just seems to ooze ‘1960s’ from every note and although it is not brilliantly sung by Nancy Sinatra (it’s a bit wobbly in places, Nancy was very nervous apparently) it has an inescapable aura of its time, which is alluringly attractive. Perhaps it’s just my age, but the sixties still have a very powerful pull – whether it be music, fashion, or culture generally. It is the decade that has aged gracefully and although it shows its wrinkles it still has class - unlike let’s say the tasteless 1970s or even the brash 1980s.

Nothing can diminish the splendour of ’You Only Live Twice’, even Robbie Williams lifting the main string figure for his song, ‘Millennium’. Its languid, melt-in-the-mouth highly ‘vertical’ melody rises and falls with ultimate precision over that unforgettable riff played, unusually for an orchestral score, by one of those new fangled electric guitars and typifies the old-meets-new philosophy of the 1950s and 1960s.

In this respect, Bond themes were actually a good barometer of what was happening at the time they were fashioned. They start with the great crooners and divas of the post war period (Matt Monro, Shirley Bassey) and end with the pop icons of the 1980s and 1990s (Madonna, Tina Turner, Gladys Knight).

Although my vote goes wholeheartedly with ‘YOLT’ as the best theme, there is no doubt who embodies the Bond spirit and it can only be Dame Shirley Bassey. She was born to sing Bond themes, as her overblown, dramatic renditions of ‘Goldfinger’ and ‘Diamonds are Forever’ testify. They suit the overblown, dramatic movies to a tee. In fact the latter tune would be a good second in my list of best Bond Themes Ever for its sheer exuberance alone but ‘YOLT’ still wins by a mile.

Any other votes?