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Saturday, March 31, 2007

It's not just money

I know a lot of it is down to the historic levels of expectation in this country and the feeling that we really should beat Johnny Foreigner; plus it's not helped by the fact that the FA so clearly did the wrong thing by appointing Maclaren as manager; NONETHELESS, the level of abuse directed at the national side this week betokens something more significant. That's the breakdown of the historic feeling of affection between fans and stars. It's not just the money they earn. Pop stars earn similar sums but people aren't constantly carping on about that. We will tolerate footballing millionaires as long as they perform. The minute they don't we would like them taken out and shot. Footballers used to be regarded as privileged members of the working class who would use their ten high earning years as a free pass into the middle class or run a pub and drink their way into oblivion. Either way nobody minded. But the graceless behaviour of this new generation of super-rich – which has been encouraged by their purported handlers and the brewers, gym pump manufacturers and online gambling companies for whom they actually work – has driven a wedge between them and the people who used to worship them. When this generation retire it's going to be interesting to see what they do with their time and in what kind of affection they're held.

Friday, March 30, 2007

On the iPod this morning...

Emmylou Harris's version of Joni Mitchell's "The Magdalen Laundries" from the not all that good tribute album (Bjork should be shot for what she did to "The Boho Dance".) The song's inspired by the actual Magdalen Laundries, institutions for so called "fallen women" set up by the Catholic Church in Ireland. It's a brilliant, chilling song. Emmylou Harris is always a delight and of course she's high on our steadily diminishing list of older women we've fancied for more than thirty years (along with Helen Mirren, Sissy Spacek, Lulu and I'd have to think). First time I met her was at the Q Awards about 15 years ago. I was standing behind her at the queue for pudding. She winked at me and took two. God bless you ma'am.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

There was an Englishman, an Irishman and a book

At Border's in Islington this morning they were stacking "Evil Empire" at the till points. The sub-title is "100 ways that Britain Ruined The World" (though look on Amazon and it's clear that the authors couldn't decide whether the Welsh and the Scottish were equally complicit in all this world-ruining) and it's written by Penny Rimbaud. Good to see that the anarchists have finally caught up with the Schott's format. What interests me is that somebody has put it on the counter in the hope that customers might feel like lightening their daily round with a little self-abasement. Would a similar book duffing up the national legacy of France or Australia or Iran get the same kind of prominence in their shops? This British habit of Asking For It seems to be a recent invention. I first noticed it during the World Cup in France when the BBC panel commenting on England's progress was made up of a Scotsman, an Irishman and a Frenchman. I can't see anything similar happening elsewhere in the world.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Reasons to be cheerful

It's traditional for Londoners to list every example of graceless behaviour that they come across in the average day. It's important to redress the balance when you can. Came out of the station this evening on my way home and was walking alongside the park. There were about ten teenagers just on the other side of the fence. 15-16, I would say. Probably Cypriot. Half boys, half girls. What was remarkable was that they were rehearsing a dance routine. I couldn't make out whether it was something traditional for a Greek wedding or what my daughter would call "street dance". However it was choreographed and with the setting sun in the background it made a heartening sight.

On the iPod this morning...

....is Dave Alvin's "West Of The West" which seemed to suit the sunny weather. There's almost a heat haze over St Pauls as I write this. Every Alvin solo album I've ever heard has been terrific and this is the best of all. It's all songs from or about California. He does John Stewart's "California Bloodlines" without that hammy tremolo that makes Stewart a bit over-ripe. He does Jackson Browne's "Redneck Friend" (wasn't that supposed to be about Greg Allman?). He does Brian Wilson's "Surfer Girl". He's great. Must get an actual copy of this. I only have it digitally which is not the same.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Or is it Memorex?

Finished Wiliam Boyd's "Restless" last night. It's set against the background (as they always say) of British efforts to stampede America into the war during 1941. I enjoyed it in the belief that he was, if anything exaggerating the extent of the media manipulation that went on in the US at the time. Course, as soon as you've finished it, you start looking up the factual basis and you find that if anything he was underplaying it. I'm never sure how to approach these books that have their roots in actual events. There's a whole chapter about a botched espionage operation in a border town called Prenslo. You can't help wondering whether this is real and if it is should you go and look it up. But if you do and you find it's named after a very similar incident haven't you then broken down the invisible wall between fiction and fact?

Monday, March 26, 2007

"Next!"

I'm doing this Radio Four programme called "Three Minute Education" which is all about things people learn from pop music. Always odd doing things like this for the BBC because before you've even finished it you get rung up by Radio Times to write a piece about it. You feel like saying 'I haven't finished it yet so how can I write about it?' It turns out that there's a programme billing going round the place describing it so it's clearly in existence already. Certainly as far as the BBC is concerned. But then, of course, you say yes, grateful for any publicity. Excellent cover on this week's Radio Times, incidentally. Hugh Laurie snapping on a rubber glove with the word "Next!" Would have put it up here but the BBC employ squadrons of people to ring fence their "content" as much as they can. Don't we pay for all this?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

More rock progeny


This is thebirdandthebee. It's a terrific single from a very good album. She's Inara George, the daughter of Lowell George from Little Feat. One of the most extraordinary shows I ever witnessed was at the Rainbow Theatre on January 19th 1975. It was, bizarrely, a Sunday afternoon and somebody had made the mistake of putting Little Feat on as support for the Doobie Brothers. They did three encores and would have done more if the schedule had allowed. I remember Lowell George looking out at the throng, his hand shading his eyes and saying "You people are crazy." A couple of days earlier I shook his hand at a reception which took place at the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square. He looked like a person who had checked out already. If anybody knows how I can get hold of a recording of that show I'd be grateful.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Clap Your Hands

Tinariwen at the Barbican last night. Sat next to Robert Plant. (It's obligatory at gigs like this.) My son fascinated by the clapping which provides the percussion along with the single drum. It's incredibly spare but you only realise how perfect it is when the audience try to join in and get it wrong. He has an Arab friend who can clap in a way that Europeans can't. The hands remain cupped throughout and the sound produced is unusually loud. Anyway, extraordinary show and their record really is the most playable thing I've heard in ages.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

How to get ahead in show business

Spoke to Neil Finn and Nick Seymour this afternoon. They talked about how difficult it is if you don't have a strong image. Apparently David Byrne's advice to musicians who want to become famous is wear the same thing every day. Interesting idea and there's plenty of cases of it working: The Ramones, Suzi Quatro, Status Quo, ZZ Top...

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

"So, what should I buy?"

I've just had an email from a chap who heard me going on about The Decemberists on Simon Mayo's Radio Five programme a month or so back, decided to look into them, bought The Crane Wife, loved it, went to see them in concert and is now delighted to find that there's a "youngish" band that he quite likes. Funny business, this recommendation thing. It only works if it's done sparingly. In a few cases over the last year I've gone into print with a comment that is frankly aching to be plucked out and used on an ad. I said that Keren Ann's "Nolita" was "pretty much perfect"; in the case of "The Crane Wife" I said "you should buy this" and with Willie Nile's "Streets Of New York", I went so far as to say that if people bought it and didn't like it I'd give them their money back. Nobody made such a request. In fact a few people said how much they'd loved it. Because I once worked in a record shop I have never forgotten the fact that there's a huge difference between the good record you personally love and the good record that it's safe to recommend to nine out of ten cats. I think most people would take to "The Crane Wife" and The Arcade Fire's "Neon Bible" but not everyone would feel the same about, say, Tinariwen's "Aman Iman". What is it that Jack Black says in "High Fidelity"? "I shall now sell three copies of the Beta Band." It's true. There's a certain category of records that people just like. All they need is to be exposed to them in the appropriate circumstances.

The perfect finishing touch?

The Grand Canyon is one of the natural wonders of the world.
It is visible from space.
It has been between five and six million years in the making.
Now somebody's decided they can improve it by adding a "skywalk".
God give us strength.

Are the stars out tonight?

Went to Bristol last night to see the reunited Crowded House play their first gig – on a boat! Great fun. Interesting new numbers. Stayed in the most luxurious hotel; so luxurious, in fact, that Posh and Becks were staying there. Wasn't in the place long enough to see them myself but I was with people who had actually clapped eyes on her. And, you'll never guess what, she's REALLY TINY! After the show two people came up to me simultaneously, one addressing me as David while the other called me Mark. I think we're becoming one person.

Monday, March 19, 2007

God bless the internet (part 32)

Talking last week in the office about how you can't get some of Patrick Hamilton's novels even on Amazon Marketplace. Rob referred me to Abe Books. There they were. Obviously it's a question of how much you want to pay. Ordered a few things on Thursday and this morning look what came! Delivered to my door for £12. I'm now waiting for Richard Hoggart's "The Uses Of Literacy". God, this is fun!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Leave it to the ref

"The technology's there. We must use it." The football pundits who trot out that line week in week out probably haven't been watching the Six Nations Rugby. If they had they'd know that the technology doesn't make the decisions any more likely to be right. It does however ensure that the difficult ones are passed around like fizzing cartoon bombs. We had Jonny Wilkinson's "try" against the Scots. Everybody knew he had a foot in touch. Everybody apart from the TMO in the van. Then last week's game between Wales and Italy was truncated by the TMO calling time. Now we've had France's last minute try which was decided only after the ref asked the TMO "it looks alright to me, can you see anything wrong with it?" Sport used to be run on the basis that you picked an honest official and allowed him to be the sole judge of fact. Having extra pairs of eyes examining and re-examining the action doesn't mean things are going to be any more correct or fair. And can you begin to imagine what it would be like if it was deciding whether somebody stayed in the Premiership or not? We'd have lawyers on the bench within weeks.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Man At His Best


I love my wife and family but, like most middle aged married men, I also like those rare occasions, maybe once a year, when they go somewhere and leave me on my own for a night. We were swapping stories in the office today about the things we do when we're left alone. Mark wanders around the house playing the electric guitar, Keith puts the TV and the radio on, I go in the shower and leave the door open so I can hear the music playing from the other room, Rob goes in the garden to smoke. Here I am, tapping away at this while dinner cooks, switching between Classic FM and Five Live, drinking Pinot Noir, reading a book, a magazine and a paper, enjoying that blessed indecisiveness which is the natural state of the relaxing male. Tonight I shall watch the DVD of Pan's Labyrinth, which I'm told is a bit too violent to watch with the wife. Then I shall go the bed, read for ages and then sleep sideways. In the middle of the night if I wake I'll go and watch TV or catch up with the cricket. When they come back tomorrow I shall be delighted to see them all but they can never fully understand how I've enjoyed the time on my own. What's the name of that song? "How Can I Miss You If You Won't Go Away"?

Product placement and charity

Unworthy I know, but Comic Relief puts me in a bad mood and so I avoid it. I made an exception for last night's Comic Relief Does The Apprentice because I like the show and I'll generally watch things with Danny Baker in them.
Course, that's another hour of my life I won't get back.
The format doesn't work with celebrities. People with the slightest degree of self-effacement just disappear into the background (though I couldn't decided whether Rupert Everett's early resignation because of the TV cameras was evidence of modesty or madness) leaving the foreground to be occupied by Piers Morgan and Trinny Woodall, for whom the word "blowhard" might well have been coined. I'm left with two thoughts:
1. How can Cheryl Cole pretend to be amazed by the huge cheques written by Woodall's rich mates when she's married to a Chelsea footballer who earns getting on for £100,000 a week?
2. Did Red Bull pay to have their products littered around the set, slurped on camera by Morgan and then actually referred to in conversation? And if they did it for charity, is that OK?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

This is why we use Wikipedia

Record companies must spend fortunes every year on having websites built for their acts and they are, almost without exception, unutterably useless:
  • They take hours to load thanks to pointless Flash intros put there to impress the client – who has never actually used a web site in his life – and the artist – who doesn't even have a computer.
  • They play music when you don't want them to.
  • They don't play music when you do want them to.
  • They contain official biographies that have NO FACTS in them.
  • They never have any news on them. Or if they do it's generally weeks after the news has found its way into the public domain.
  • They invite users to sign up to newsletters and then use the mailing list as a cross-marketing tool.
  • They have something they call "a store" through which they try to knock out unsold tour merchandise labelled "extremely limited stock".
  • Like a badly maintained shopping centre suffering from urban blight, the community areas are overrun by nutcases and spammers.
  • They have links to "good causes" that nobody in their right mind would ever visit.
  • The money spent will have been enough to feed a family of five for a year.
I feel this all points to a greater truth about mass communications. Any piece of information which any organisation volunteers about itself is by definition misleading, incomplete or plain wrong.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Dorian Gray Whistle Test

Want to know why Take That are spitting feathers over the plans for a musical featuring a Take That tribute band? a) EMI sold the rights in 2005 when nobody in their right minds would have been a buyer; b) the stage Take That will be younger, buffer and most importantly they'll have a Robbie! This opens up the possibility of a Menudo-style continuation of the brand with older members being regularly shipped out and replaced by younger ones. Hooray for capitalism!

"Come out with your hands up"

So Blue Peter's the latest TV show to point out that, yes, it did once fake a competition winner when its phone lines failed. Ask yourself this. If everybody's suddenly falling over themselves to confess to having done so in the light of the current premium phone lines scandal, how many of them must have done it over the years and are still keeping quiet about it? Live TV runs in a state of barely suppressed panic. They cannot afford anything to go wrong, which is why they take out insurance by fixing things. In my experience the producers of such things, while perfectly pleasant people most of the time, have the morals of Jeffrey Archer the minute they're under the cosh.

Are they bovvered?

So Viacom, owners of MTV, are suing YouTube and Google for "massive copyright infringement".
What's the main component of MTV's output?
Pop videos.
Who owns those videos?
The record companies who spent fortunes on them in the hope of getting them seen by the largest audience possible.
Whose idea was this lawsuit?
Er, let's see.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

They'll never forget what's his name

From time to time you're brought face to face with the fact that the world of media has gone mad. Was rung up today by a Radio Five obituaries programme trying to find somebody to talk about the contribution of Brad Delp. Had I not already read that this was the singer of Boston who had just died, the name would have meant nothing to me – and I have a head full of the names of unknown soldiers. There does seem to be something absurd about Radio Five devoting airtime to a singer who would only be known to a tiny section of the audience through one hit a long time ago and then expecting some pundit to cobble together some theory as to why he was significant. Must be a slow death week. And I surely don't have to add that were Brad Delp alive and on tour the chances of any of the BBC's networks taking the slightest interest in him at all would have been slim. May he rest in peace.

You got to know when to hold 'em

Just heard a wonderful John Humphreys interview with a woman from the ASA talking about how they propose to regulate TV advertising of gambling. The ASA say they're going to regulate it just like they did drinking. It won't be allowed to appeal to any socially irresponsible impulses, apparently. Humphreys makes the not unreasonable point that the impulses which might lead anyone to gamble are essentially irresponsible.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Had a nice weekend?

Always nice to see a few fed-up Frenchmen at Twickenham, particularly when, like Sebastian Chabal, they look like characters out of Asterix.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

God save Helen Mirren

Finally got to see The Queen last night. Things like this usually fail to live up to your Oscar-inflated expectations but I thought it was remarkable. It's just so simple and also over before you know it. I can't believe that Alastair Campbell is quite such a charmless spiv as he's portrayed, that Cherie Blair could be that bad at reading the public mood and I know that her husband has got more substance to him than Michael Sheen manages to suggest (though he has captured the voice perfectly) but they all just melt away next to Helen Mirren who's magnetic. I read an interview where she said that she'd decided that the Queen looked at the world from a long way away, as if she was observing it through a pair of binoculars, and she wanted to play her that way. That's just what she does. There's something particularly brilliant about watching the Queen watching TV. It's also an interesting generation gap film. Both Mirren and Stephen Frears were born in the 40s and as he says in the extras the Queen has been a fact of his life longer than anyone else. That's a unique "relationship" to have with somebody you never meet.

Friday, March 09, 2007

"Condemned by every syllable she utters"

Amazing how many secrets there still are in an area like Covent Garden. Killing time before a meeting this morning I stumbled upon the garden at the back of St Paul's, the Actors Church. Stood in front of the place hundreds of times but never been around the back where all the benches are named for famous theatre people: Beryl Reid, Lady Sinden and so on. Lovely little retreat. I read on their site that the opening scene of My Fair Lady (or at least Pygmalion) was supposed to be set under the portico at the front. So here's the setting for Shaw's great line about it being impossible for one Englishman to open his mouth without another Englishman despising him. After hearing the screeching of iPod deafened teenage girls in Chapel Market earlier this week, I felt the same pain that Professor Higgins complains of in the play when he hears Eliza Dolittle selling her wares. "Why Can't The English Learn How To Speak", the tune this triggers in My Fair Lady, was Neil Tennant's opening shot on "Desert Island Discs" the other week.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

If you can't think of anything nice to say about anyone, come sit by me

Last night a friend heard Donald Sinden delivering an after-dinner speech in which he recorded Noel Coward's reaction to seeing the poster for Michael Redgrave and Dirk Bogarde in The Sea Shall Not Have Them. "Why not? Everybody else has..."

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

I heart a televised scrap

Provided it doesn't inconvenience any members of the public, I heartily approve of football violence. I love the idea of millionaires, hopped up on testosterone and steroids, losing their dignity in a flailing mass of mis-firing biffs and raised chins, like 10 year olds trying to be involved without actually getting hurt. The other night's scrap between Valencia and Inter was a minor classic and I particularly direct your attention to the bit near the end where one player enters the opposition dressing room intending to lay waste to all that get in his way.

"That'll be all, ladies"

I love it when a press release cuts loose its moorings from reality and is seen floating out to sea. Parlophone's statement announcing that they're letting the reformed All Saints go says, "All Saints are excited about moving forward with their career and Parlophone wishes them the best of luck." (You can read that last bit with any intonation you like.) Hate to come on all "wimmin" about this, but this is another educational example of how women in the music business find it easier at the beginning of their careers and a good deal harder at the end. There is always a market for a nubile, attractive up and coming female but, unlike Take That, nobody wishes to see her make a comeback. Brutal.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Boris Johnson, where art thou?

The man organising the campaign to get Liverpool manager Bob Paisley awarded a post-humous knighthood reckons he has the support of lots of MPs because "this isn't just about Bob, this is about Merseyside". What precisely does that mean? Is the actual status of Liverpool any different than, say, Exeter or Edinburgh? Really, the whole city should quit acting as if it's entitled to special treatment. And have any of these clowns lining up to lend their support considered the implications of starting to give out honours post-humously? I think there's a long queue and Paisley's somewhere near the back. Charles Dickens should be up the front but he'd only be keeping a place for William Wilberforce and hundreds of other major contributors to our culture who don't happen to cross the mayfly minds of the media.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Lost in the desert

The most puzzling aspect of the Ethiopian kidnap story is the rumour that whoever abducted these people in Afar destroyed their vehicles. Afar is a good deal more remote than Tigray which I visited a couple of years ago (left) and the one thing you're aware of when you're travelling through all this emptiness is that a car (or, more likely, an off road vehicle) is your only lifeline. If it broke down your only course of action would be to sit there and pray that eventually one of the aid agencies would happen to come by.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Home movies

Took my youngest to see The Feeling and The Fray last night at Hammersmith. It looked as if the entire sixth form of every school in West London was there. Technology offers a stream of new delights for the fan. We bumped into the singer of the Fray and he was happy to pose for a camera phone picture with my daughter. The Feeling's set was preceded by a fantastic montage of YouTube clips of fans miming to their songs projected on a huge sheet. Lovely touch and such a good way of establishing a bond with the fans.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Time Out of Mind

Stephen Merchant in the new issue of Word talking about things to play on the radio. "'One More Cup of Coffee' is from Bob Dylan's later period so people have kind of ignored it." The funny thing here is that 'One More Cup of Coffee' comes from Desire which was recorded in 1975, a mere 13 years after his first record and a substantial 31 years before his most recent one. This would make it, if anything, from his "early period". It's funny how people have trouble distinguishing actual time from career time. The cliched view of Bob Dylan is that his career actually took place in the 60s and everything since has been some kind of aftermath. That's because they can't separate an artist's work from their impact. Bob Dylan was obviously never again going to be as big a story as he was in the 60s but we don't know that posterity won't decide that his high point was Time Out of Mind or Nashville Skyline or even Dylan and The Dead. No, scratch that last one.

New Word Podcast available now

Mark Ellen, David Hepworth and Rob Fitzpatrick on smoking in rock, the questionable reunion of the 'Tangle, the Queen Mother's box and Rob's personal harem of folk wives. Click here to subscribe for nothing at iTunes or try here for xml feed. Or you can copy the XML link above (right-click copy on the link) and paste it into the itunes dialogue box under "Advanced - Subscribe to Podcast..."

Friday, March 02, 2007

Do you take this woman...

I love BBC Three's Wedding Stories. It's a simple idea. Documentary crews use the build-up to a wedding to look inside people's lives, in a way that's nosey without being exploitative. The Big Day provides the climax that normally with these things has to be invented. It reveals the amazing diversity of lives being lived by people in the UK today. Lesbian Goths plighting their troths in South Yorkshire, hugely over-extended families from Essex with millions of bridesmaids, Oxbridge graduates submitting to the scarifyingly traditional roles of a Nigerian wedding ("do not deny him sex"), regular couples putting on their cut-down versions of Jordan and Peter Andre's nuptials ("we have to be able to get the car into the lift"), and most striking of all this week, an attractive born again Christian virgin bride(left) going shopping - with her mother! - for the sexy underwear with which she plans to stun her husband on the wedding night. "Don't worry, dear," says Mum. "He won't notice."