Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Right To Reply #5: Election Special

(If you’re wondering what this is all about, click here.)

The participants:
Ben - your host
Jez - likes Stereolab, dislikes Margaret Thatcher
Jonathan of Assistant
Jonny B of Jonny B’s Private Secret Diary
LMT of Between The City And The Deep Blue Sea
Lol - likes the high seas, dislikes last orders
Mike of Troubled Diva
Paul of 1000 Shades Of Grey
Pete of The Whole Wide World Of Fat Buddha
Phill of Danger! High Postage

Part Two: Choice

To what extent is there a real choice between different options or alternatives for voters?

Mike: There's more of a choice than some pissed-off former Labour voters would have you believe.

Jez: Yes there are real alternatives, each party is keen to stress differences and it’s not too difficult to find them. It’s lazy to suggest otherwise.

Ben: The concept of real choice is predicated upon the existence of a range of different credible alternatives from which to choose, otherwise it’s meaningless. Rightly or wrongly (and I do think wrongly), many British people – mostly, but by no means all, young – feel the choice offered to them on a ballot form is artificial and illusory.

Jonny B: Perhaps there's less choice than there was through much of the 20th century due to this rush for the middle ground. Politics is terribly safe now, isn't it? But was a choice between a Labour Party run by Michael Foot and a Conservative Party run by Margaret Thatcher really any more representative of our opinions? There is still choice – it's just different choice.

Jonathan: There’s far less choice than you’d hope for, but then we always have a choice of two parties who broadly occupy the centre, at least during elections which are close. This time that choice is further to the right than normal, unfortunately.

Pete: I really don't think voters have much of a choice. I think there are real and fundamental differences between the Labour and Tory parties but the differences are becoming harder to differentiate. In any case, even if there was massive gulf between them, you would still be left with little choice.

Jonathan: There’s a massive difference between Labour and Tory, but that doesn’t imply we should be happy settling with the former.

Mike: I absolutely refute the line which says there's no real difference between Labour and Tory, so why bother voting for either. Despite all the frightful things which Labour have done, a Conservative government would be vastly more frightful.

Lol: British politics is nowadays contested within very narrow parameters (for example, the Tories want to spend 42% of GDP whereas Labour 43.5% and all parties recognise the need for immigration control, albeit the Tories want a quota system whereas Labour advocate tougher general controls etc etc) The philosopher Alain de Botton said on Radio 4 (Wednesday) that the reason why people are not as passionate or participative in politics these days is because the big ideological battles of the past have all been won. We have broadly settled on a general consensus of how we want to live and there are no significant issues left that require revolution. I endorse de Botton’s argument to a certain extent as this is evident by the lack of radical politics – there are no politicians advocating getting rid of our cars to save the planet, diverting food (40% of which is binned) to save the third world or scrapping schools and making one parent stay at home to teach their kids. However, within the margins of the “acceptable society” I do believe that there is a genuine ideological difference between the parties and therefore some (albeit limited) choice on 5 May.

Phill: There are single issues parties like Green and UKIP but they are more suited for local and European elections and a system of proportional representation. The main parties are pretty similar on many issues – there are no ideological poles.

Ben: Our “first past the post” system means there is little chance for smaller parties with genuinely radical proposals to make political headway in terms of parliamentary seats.

Pete: [We have] a very flawed system of democracy which leaves millions of people, effectively, with no choice, as their individual votes will count for nothing, unless they live in a marginal seat.

Phill: In the current political system it is pretty pointless voting for any other party outside the top three. In Scotland and Wales then the SNP and Plaid Cymru are a factor. Most seats are safe and are unlikely to change hands. In mine (West Bromwich East), Labour will win whatever happens.

Jonathan: In a perverse way, there’s more choice because people are increasingly unlikely to be swayed by voting traditions.

Ben: While I don’t subscribe to the idea that there’s barely a hair’s breadth separating the two main parties, they are in close enough ideological and political proximity for it to make for an exciting election. Whereas in the past many people had longstanding loyalties to one or the other, now they are floating voters, prepared to be persuaded and change their minds and allegiances on polling day, which I think ensures that the outcome is far less predictable. At least that keeps the politicians on their toes and makes them work to try and win your vote rather than complacently counting on it.

Paul: Labour strike me as more and more like the Tories of old, and it’ll be a cold day in hell before I vote blue. Unfortunately I just can’t see Kennedy as being electable, which is a shame because at least the Lib Dems are offering alternatives to the status quo.

Jonathan: I never had a choice about how to vote before (or never felt that I did) but this time I’m rather enjoying deciding between Labour, the Liberals and the Greens. That’s a rather facetious answer, isn’t it?

Phill: I consider myself a pro-European socialist, but there is no party for me to vote for. Parties like Socialist Alliance and Socialist Labour are both stuck in the past and rabidly anti-Europe. The Respect Coaliation is a good idea in theory, but it's a bit of a mess and also decidedly anti-Europe. Who am I supposed to vote for?

Ben: When people perceive there to be a lack of choice, they often resort not to endorsing one party’s campaign but to voting tactically to deny another party power. It’s depressing that for so many voters putting their cross in a particular box is not a positive seal of approval but a cynical if understandable ploy.

Pete: The reality is that we vote for one or the other and we end up choosing between the lesser of two evils. I vote against the Tories rather than for Labour – my vote is a negative rather than a positive thing.

LMT: Although I really like my local Lib Dem candidate I am considering the unthinkable: voting Conservative. My theory is this. At the moment there is a political stalemate. An over-comfortable Labour majority in the House of Commons, and an impotent opposition. This is not healthy for democracy. It’s democracy I care about, no one political party, and a stronger Tory opposition would in my eyes be better for democracy. I may vote purely on this basis.

Jonny B: The Labour / Conservative consensus to marginalise the Lib Dems as a “wasted vote” is pathetic, cynical and encapsulates everything I detest about politicians. A vote against Robert Mugabe was also wasted if one follows that logic. People should vote for who they believe in, full stop. Otherwise there will never be change.

Tomorrow’s topic: Issues

Links (courtesy of Mike):

Political Survey 2005 - "This is the only internet survey of political views based on real opinion poll data. We can tell you not only where your views lie, but how they compare to the views of the rest of the British population."

The Public Whip - "Choose how you feel about each of these issues. We'll tell you how your ex-MP and each party voted on them in parliament over the last 4 years."
Hail to the ale

I paid my first trip to recently-opened Wellington on Friday night, the only (to my knowledge) real ale pub in the city centre, and was thrilled to discover it seemed to be playing host to a Pork Scratchings Convention - the place was packed full of paunchy bearded men chomping on God's own pig-based bar snack.

I didn't indulge myself, though I did plump for a pint of the intriguingly named Pig On The Wall dark ale. Awaiting the company of Vicky, I enjoyed the excellent company of Kenny and Andy (yes, OK, it was a blogmeet, if you must...), all three of us feeling twenty years younger thanks to the time- and ale-ravaged features of the aforementioned paunchy bearded men surrounding us.

Vicky arrived with her friend James, who pronounced himself to be an Aston Villa fan, a fact I regarded with scepticism given his cheery demeanour. They'd been at the Kaiser Chiefs gig - thankfully Vicky didn't hold it against me for suggesting earlier, when it looked as though she wouldn't get a ticket, that it wouldn't matter as seeing the Chiefs in the live environment would probably be less pleasant than drinking someone else's sick.

We left Kenny finishing off his pint in the Wellington and before the night ended we had managed to pay £10 to get into the wrong gay club, lost James on arrival in the right gay club and sat around chatting about early 90s indie bands.

Whatever you do, though, don't believe Kenny's account of the evening. I would never be seen dead in a "rather fetching cowboy outfit". SOOOOO last year, darling.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Right To Reply #5: Election Special

This week on SWSL has been officially designated Politics Week (yes, we’re not short of pomposity round these parts, you know) – which basically means a special extended Right To Reply discussion feature about the forthcoming General Election. Each day for the next five days will see a different issue debated by a crack team of blogging and non-blogging friends:

Ben - your host
Jez - likes Stereolab, dislikes Margaret Thatcher
Jonathan of Assistant
Jonny B of Jonny B’s Private Secret Diary
LMT of Between The City And The Deep Blue Sea
Lol - likes the high seas, dislikes last orders
Mike of Troubled Diva
Paul of 1000 Shades Of Grey
Pete of The Whole Wide World Of Fat Buddha
Phill of Danger! High Postage

Part One: Campaigning

What have you made of the campaigning so far?

Paul: Obviously the parties only officially began campaigning once Parliament had been dissolved, but then almost everything a party does is designed to appeal to the masses in some way.

Jonathan: To be honest, I think the pre-election campaign was more heated than the events of the last week or two, which have been fairly tame stuff.

Pete: So far, campaigning has lived down to expectations. Perhaps I have watched too many Preston Sturges films but I wish for once, someone would come out and try to inspire me; move me and make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and set my bottom lip aquiver. It ain't gonna happen though. The main parties no longer seem to have a distinct ideology, other than to get themselves elected, so their campaigning consists mainly of dissing their rivals, rather than promoting themselves. It's as though they are scared of their own opinions or do not have the courage of their convictions, such as they are. There is very little positive about it; it's all negative and quite depressing.

Ben: For each party – Labour and Conservatives in particular – there seems to be a greater emphasis on rubbishing and mocking the policies of rival parties as and when they’re announced than there is on the exposition, explanation and promotion of their own.

Lol: So far we have seen a predominantly negative campaign, focusing on leaders’ trust (or lack of) and track record. Generally the main parties are trying to fill any policy gaps left by their rivals whilst appealing to their ‘core’ supporters at the same time. One example is tuition fees. Labour are committed to introducing the fees with help for poorer students, the Lib Dems will scrap them altogether by increasing taxes for the well-off. The Tories would also scrap them but charge a commercial rate on student loans (poorer kids who wouldn’t be able to pay off their loan quickly and would need to borrow more to go to university would bear the brunt of the cost). All the parties agree that universities need more money but typically there is no consensus of the method for collection; rather they have seen a political opportunity, and developed proposals that play broadly within their own ideology.

Jez: So far it’s been pretty interesting, if only to watch the Conservatives’ tactics.

Jonny B: The Conservatives seem to have a “shit or bust” strategy - with one eye, I'd guess, on defining the ground for the NEXT election.

Phill: [The] Tories are playing dirty.

Jez: Their previous successes have historically been based on the economy. There’s very little they can do here to criticise the government (what would they have done differently?). So they are having to up the ante with their politics of fear campaign. If you believed their manifesto you wouldn’t step into the street unless you were a British version of Snake Pliskin - Escape From Newark anyone? Also their core voters seem to find the nationalism of UKIP appealing. The Tories are being attacked from all sides, an unusual experience for them if you discount the previous campaigns by the snarling (and barking) BNP.

Ben: The Tory campaign, partly focused on exposing the untrustworthiness of Blair and his government, has already seen its credibility torpedoed three times – by Howard Flight’s comments, by Ed Matts’s doctored photo of himself and Ann Widdecombe and by the exaggerated claim on campaign posters about the MRSA “superbug”.

Jonathan: I think for a time, when the Tories were pressing immigration to the forefront of the debate, it seemed that they had a chance, and it got everybody’s blood up. Since the Howard Flight debacle, which reminded everyone just how useless the Tories are, campaigning seems to have lost its urgency, with people more concerned about Blair and Brown and the great succession issue.

Jonny B: Labour's been fun – watching them suddenly realise that perhaps they're not a shoo-in after all.

Phill: Labour are trying to have as little debate as possible, so their policies don't get picked apart.

Mike: I will grudgingly conceded that Blair is playing a cannily judged game. He has picked his interviews well: a matey chat about prog-rock and The Stones with his former band-mate Mark Ellen in Word magazine, and an impressive front-cover interview about gay issues in Attitude magazine. He's busily covering as many bases as he can, in that all-things-to-all-people style of his. Then there was the ‘Tony and Gordon’ party election broadcast, which addresses the perceived division in the partnership that Bono helpfully dubbed the “Lennon and MacCartney of British politics”. It was simultaneously cringe-making and almost - ALMOST - convincing.

Ben: Blair and Brown’s old pals act is (hopefully) fooling no-one. As an attempt to save face and allay any suspicions that there’s a split between the two most important people in the Labour party, it’s about as convincing as Newcastle Utd’s recent PR efforts to convince fans that all’s well behind the scenes – a parallel not lost on certain "with it" Tory MPs.

Phill: The Lib Dems should capitalise but I'm not sure they will.

Jonny B: The Lib Dems constantly frustrate with their inability to communicate.

Ben: That’s the disappointing thing. The Lib Dems are styling themselves as “the real alternative”, and their policies are to my mind impressively honest (not least over tax) and progressive, but they really need to go out and get the message across to a public broadly disillusioned with the two main parties. There’s the potential for a left-leaning party to make real headway this election, and it’s frustrating to think that the Lib Dems might not realise that potential.

Mike: I've steered clear of most of the campaigning, as there is little information which I seek to gain from it. I know how I'm going to vote, and why, and there is nothing that can be said to me at this stage that will make any difference.

Phill: I'm not really interested in any campaigning at all, apart from when someone throws eggs at Kilroy - that always cheers me up.

How big a role has political opportunism or populism played in the campaigning?

Jonny B: “Populism”? Probably better to ask: “How big a role has sensible debate played?”

Pete: Populism and opportunism are the bench marks, which is no way for a mature democracy to behave.

Mike: So far as opportunism / populism goes, Blair's carefully maintained “respectful” line towards opponents of the invasion of Iraq has never wavered. He knows he has to keep them on-side, and prevent them from casting protest votes for other parties. Kennedy's recent fatherhood might have given him a useful populist angle, but little has come of it; an expert like Blair would have extracted every last scrap of PR potential from the situation.

Paul: The Tories in particular seem keen to jump on bandwagons, particularly with their comments on the collapse of Rover lately. However Labour’s Jamie-Oliver-inspired school dinners campaigning did rather stick in the throat.

Mike: But the most shameless populists this time round have to be the Conservatives, with their bizarrely disjointed shopping-list of causes which they think will appeal most to the knee-jerk brigade. Credit where it's due: “Are you thinking what we're thinking?” is a horribly effective slogan. A sly, conspiratorial nudge-and-wink that speaks to the individual rather than the collective mindset.

Ben: It’s been simple and crude lowest denominator stuff from the Tories so far, designed to play upon fears and inflate emotive issues – particularly immigration, crime and health. My concern is that this sort of tactic could prove quite effective, though the opinion polls don’t bear this concern out just yet.

Jonathan: As for opportunism, the Tories have stuck to a relentlessly unpleasant line which doesn’t seem to have done them the trick. They’ve drawn the racists out with their rhetoric, and you can’t help thinking that as nasty as it is to be confronted with such a volume of casually racist people in the electorate, there doesn’t seem to be enough of them to actually change this government, or take us back to the dark ages.

Tomorrow’s topic: Choice.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Blogwatch

Welcome...

The Mighty Love
Paranoid Prom Queen
Long Suffering Wife

(Thanks to The Long Lost Lonely Lagomorph and Paul for the links.)

Meanwhile...

Owing to an ill-advised boozing session last Thurday I was unable (incapable) of attending Mish's gathering in celebration of the wedding of Charles and Camilla / in honour of the late John Paul II. Thankfully, Mish and Mike have reported on what I missed, including a "lewd act" in the garden, and there are even some photos, though thankfully not of the aforementioned act...

Elsewhere...

Pete and He Who Cannot Be Named record their verdicts on Interpol's Brixton Academy gig;

Swiss Toni runs through the finer points of the Tory Party manifesto - "Every citizen to have the right to kill anyone they don't recognise in their village after nightfall, as long as they use a halberd";

Vaughan is rather less than impressed by the standard of service delivered by "Parcelfarce";

LMT's first experience of gigging in London proves to be a fraught one beset by equipment difficulties, but he and the band struggle through;

Andrew is bemused by the revelation that the Sun have smuggled a "fake bomb" into Buckingham Palace;

N advocates confusing people in the park with the help of a radio control handset and some seagulls.

And finally...

A public service announcement: Danger! High Postage is "a general personal blog of no specific waterways relevance". Phill is naturally hell-bent on rectifying this sorry state of affairs, and will henceforth be posting weekly updates about canals.
Decision-making made easy

Who Should You Vote For? is an excellent site that assesses your answers to a set of political statements and shows which party has the policies which most closely match them.

As Phill has said, though, every blogger who gives it a go seems to have revealed themselves to be a Lib Dem supporter, and I'm no different - is it a conspiracy? The Tories fared as badly as I imagined (-41). The positive result for UKIP was a bit mystifying, albeit only +5, but there you go.

(Thanks to Jonathan, Skif and Mike, amongst others, for the link.)
Under the Radar

Thanks to Ian's review for alerting me to the fact that The Radar Brothers have a new album out.

Their second, 1999's The Singing Hatchet, is excellent - slow-motion country with sweet vocals over the top, simple but effective. I haven't got their third record, And The Surrounding Mountains, and Ian's not overly convinced by The Fallen Leaf Pages, but it's good just to know they haven't disappeared off the map.

Back in the mists of time I sat in on an interview with them conducted by He Who Cannot Be Named in a Highbury pub - they were due to play the Garage that night, a warm-up show for the Mogwai-curated All Tomorrow's Parties where we saw them again. Unassuming and amiable blokes, although frontman Jim Putnam was a bit dazed by jetlag and utterly bemused by the sight of "soccer" on the TV rather than baseball.

Also on Stylus: Hope Zabriskie's Top Ten Knee-Jerk Reaction Songs.
The Tories: officially cool

On yesterday evening's 'Question Time' Tory party co-chairman Dr Liam Fox likened Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to Lee Bowyer and Kieron Dyer because they feud and then engage in a suspicious and very public show of unity.

This was a very clever way for Dr Fox to demonstrate that his party are "down" with the people, showing solidarity with an entire country united in finding my beloved Newcastle Utd a laughing stock.

Well, you can certainly count on my vote on the strength of that particular witticism.
Lyttle at large

Yesterday someone arrived at SWSL searching for "jason lyttle address".

Now, for all I know, it could just have been perfectly innocent - just someone eager to send the frontman of Grandaddy (a poor man's Flaming Lips) a belated Christmas card or something.

But I couldn't shake the image from my head of it being an obsessive fan intent on stalking Lyttle, rummaging around in his bins for beard trimmings and vaulting over the fence into the back garden in a bid to steal a pair of his Y-fronts from the washing line.

Or perhaps it was the FBI, engaged in an operation to pinpoint the location of indie-rock musicians across the US. After all, three fifths of Grandaddy have beards, and are thus terrorists who want to kill our children.

Anyway, at least I can rest safe in the knowledge I won't be aiding and abetting such activities, as I don't have Jason Lyttle's address.

However, if you ever feel like tracking down the keyboard player from The Shins, or paying Rilo Kiley's drummer a housecall, you know where to come.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Reasons for silence

From Glasgow comes the sad news that, after five albums, The Delgados have decided to call it a day.

And just when smiles seem to have broken out on their faces for the first time in their career, too.

Apparently the split is amicable: "The reason has been put down to the departure of their bass player Stewart Henderson who informed the band in the New Year that he did not wish to make another album. The Delgados have always been known as uniquely collaborative songwriters and as such, it was decided that the band could not continue without all of its original members."

The four will continue to run their label Chemikal Underground, but without the flagship names of The Delgados and Mogwai, who defected some time ago under not entirely friendly terms, where they go from here is unclear, though in terms of music-making Alun Woodward and Emma Pollock have solo projects to work on.

The band statement ends: "Don't be too upset everyone ... get a massive carry out, turn the stereo up and play your albums at full volume". Fair enough, but they've quit not when they were ahead but when they were still very much undeservedly ignored, and for that reason I'll be crying into a bottle of Buckie at their demise.

(Thanks to Kenny, Ian and Largehearted Boy for all being the bearers of bad tidings. And, above all, thanks to Jez for showing me the light.)
The death of the author

The American novelist Saul Bellow, a true heavyweight of twentieth century literature, died a week ago today, on 5th April, at the age of 89.

Only a couple of months ago I finished Bellow's 1953 classic 'The Adventures of Augie March', a fast-paced yarn which continually and unexpectedly changes direction and which exhibits an extraordinary authorial gift for creating memorable characters - even those on the periphery of the narrative, those who appear only fleetingly for a few pages, are expertly realised and rendered in a wealth of minute detail. The first half at least is a Dickensian portrait of the author's city - in Bellow's case, Chicago - and the reader is set squarely in the action, life rushing before your eyes. (My thoughts on the novel can be read in full here.)

By all means, take a look at the Guardian obituary. Read the reflections of Christopher Hitchens, who wrote an introduction to a recent Penguin Classics edition of '... Augie March', and Ian McEwan, who took a passage from 'Herzog' as the epigraph for his latest novel 'Saturday': "Saul Bellow started publishing in the 40s, and his work spreads across the century he helped to define. He also re-defined the novel, broadened it, liberated it, made it warm with human sense and wit and grand purpose ... We are saying farewell to a mind of unrivalled quality. He opened our universe a little more. We owe him everything".

But don't neglect He Who Cannot Be Named's personal tribute to his favourite author: "While making my way through the supposed pick of mid-twentieth century American fiction this month, I realised why I loved his novels so much compared to the stolid, depressing gruel that was so often served up again and again by a bunch of deadbeat beatniks or social realists with truncheons inserted high up their anuses. He's breathless, frantic, knowledgeable, fast; he's everything".

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Quote of the day

"Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you’ve got to say, and say it hot."

D H Lawrence offers his own personal take on Benjamin Franklin's virtue of silence.
Know Your Enemy #56

"As for Brooksy, in the manner of Mel Gibson saying he would like his Frank Rich's intestines on a stick, I can think of nothing better than his severed head on a pike stuck on top of the Eiffel Tower. Hopefully many birds will feast on it, though they may be disappointed by the unusual deficiency of grey matter."

He Who Cannot Be Named - someone who seems to live by Lawrence's dictum (see above) - takes, ahem, issue with "speccy twatbox" David Brooks and his response to the death of Saul Bellow printed in the New York Times.

In his piece Brooks smugly asserts America's dominance over a Europe he sees as culturally moribund. Americans really do do sweeping and profoundly ignorant generalisations better than anyone else, don't they?
The bill

The Glastonbury line-up was announced yesterday, and to no-one's great surprise the headliners are Coldplay, The White Stripes and Kylie. Perhaps not the strongest bill of recent years, but there's plenty of interest on the Other Stage and newly renamed John Peel Stage.

A selection of bands / artists I will be prepared to wade through waist-deep mud for (and assuming there are no unfortunate clashes):

The Coral
The Futureheads
The White Stripes
Elvis Costello
Bloc Party
Brian Wilson
Interpol
Bright Eyes
Maximo Park
Rilo Kiley
New Order

A selection of bands / artists I will be keen to check out:

M83
The Dears
Art Brut
The Rakes
Hard Fi
Willy Mason
Tom Vek
The Bravery
The Broken Family Band
Nine Black Alps
Dresden Dolls
The Go Team

A selection of bands / artists I will be avoiding like I will be avoiding beanburgers, jugglers and the toilets:

Thirteen Senses
Athlete
Kasabian
Ian Brown

A selection of bands / artists upon whom I promise to pour scorn / urine if I have the misfortune to encounter them:

Jools Holland
The Levellers
Just what the doctor ordered

Medication is the new MP3 blog from the folks behind the Icarus Line affiliated Buddyhead site, principally the ever-opinionated Travis Keller. Those guys certainly know what they don't like, and this is a showcase of - or gateway to - what they do. Currently on the main page are links to tracks by The Jesus & Mary Chain (a Bo Diddley cover from the Barbed Wire Kisses B-sides LP), Spiritualized, Wolf Eyes, Dead Meadow, The Duke Spirit, New Order and Stevie Wonder - impeccable taste indeed.

(Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the link.)

Friday, April 08, 2005

This week on Stylus

Ian's right in labelling William B Swygart's latest effort the best Staff Top 10 ever to appear on Stylus: Top Ten Things About 'Rasputin' By Boney M - "'Rasputin', you would think, has some clever hidden context to it. It’s about love in some way, no? Well, though he does repeatedly get referred to as 'Russia’s Greatest Love Machine', there doesn’t appear to be any kind of a context beyond that at all. It’s the story of Rasputin. The authorities didn’t like him. He was quite good at sex. Women enjoyed this. The authorities attempted to poison him. They failed. So they shot him, and he died. And that’s about it. No metaphors, nothing like that, just the ultra-ultra-ultra abbreviated summary of Rasputin’s life and sexual prowess. With disco double handclaps. From Belgium".

There's also a fine crop of reviews...

Todd Hutlock is full of praise for British Sea Power's Open Season - "So what did British Sea Power deliver here then? Room On Fire? No, thankfully, more like The Jesus & Mary Chain’s Darklands. Like JAMC, BSP have given their sound a good scrubbing and waxing and the results reveal a shiny new Jag in the driveway where once there was a filthy pickup truck. Or perhaps more appropriately, they have come out of the damp, dirty sonic basement to embrace the sunshine and work on their tans. It suits them well.". I wasn't bowled over by the first album's songs in a live context, but this review and that by Jonathan on his blog) has convinced me it's time I gave them a proper try.

Derek Miller welcomes the return of Beck and makes his new LP Guero the Stylus Album Of The Week - "Even with Guero’s myriad sounds and seeming career-tracking, it’s far too facile to write it off as geriatric-chic, a final desperate wheeze for relevance. I fear many will bemoan the record’s relative familiarity as the death of one of our generation’s true studio showmen. Guero is nothing of the sort. With this, his eighth proper album, Beck has shed himself of Sea Change’s need to shelter himself in his songs. We have our urban craftsman back, to stir the dust in sampled record grooves and unearth for us, again and again, the new in the old and vice versa. Post-every-post, we have Beck".

The latest offering from Mike Patton's Fantomas, Suspended Animation, impresses Scott McKeating with its inventive integration of metal and cartoon sound effects - "Kicking off several times with big hairy riffs, only to brake sharply into piano lulls, ['04/06/05' Wednesday]it drains of colour before hitting a Jack-in-the-Box crazy lunatic wave and ending on a 'Last Post toy trumpet eulogy. Try asking for that from your favourite meat and potato rock band".

Mike Powell is nonplussed by Hot Hot Heat's second long-player, Elevator.

Mike has also kicked off quite a debate in his reassessment of The Fiery Furnaces' Blueberry Boat.
Blogwatch: in brief

So, Pope John Paul II is dead. Thankfully, not everyone is sympathetic. Like Willie Lupin of Musings From Middle England, for instance - "OK, enough pussyfooting around. This isn't a column in the Guardian. I hate the Catholic Church. I hated the late Pope. I hate the enormous contribution that the Catholic Church and the Pope have made to the sum of human misery in this world" (thanks to Troubled Diva for the link).

Elsewhere:

Phill gets to meet Lord Of Knitwear Daniel O'Donnell, who turns out to be a bit of a misery-guts and isn't even wearing any knitwear;

Mike's latest competition comes to a close with an affirmation that he is indeed the best at being himself;

Jonathan endures the traumas of the annual family Easter egg-painting competition;

Jonny B is a bit exasperated by how long it takes the LTLP to make a move in a game of Scrabble - "I glanced out of the window. By this point the village was full of futuristic buildings and the world was being ruled by giant ants".

And finally: Sarah gives us a list of twelve things she likes - "11. The self-rule of Danish colonies".
A backhanded compliment

"Iconic" and "courageous": two adjectives used by a complete stranger last night to describe my current laissez-faire hair"style". Apparently she had been transfixed by it for much of the evening. Not sure whether her comments were complimentary, but that's how I'm choosing to interpret them, OK?

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Huh?

It's snowing. In April. What the fuck?
Reasons To Be Cheerful #9

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

Pork scratchings

McCoys, peanuts, Cheesy Moments, Scampi Fries. All perfectly adequate, but there's one pub snack food that towers over them all like Darth Vader at an Ewok convention - pork scratchings.

Call them what you will - "pig in a bag" is my favourite - but pork scratchings laud it over anything else you care to name.

And most packets originate from the West Midlands. Look at the address on your packet and invariably it'll have a B or WV postcode. Walk into any cornershop here and you'll be faced with a veritable array of different bags to choose from, not just the small white packets found in (most) good pubs.

Spotting quality product is easy - if it's in a see-through bag and weighs at least 100g, then you should be parting with your cash. And don't listen to the naysayers - the hairier the better.

There's usually a warning on the packet: "Only recommended for people with strong healthy teeth". I don't know about you, but I take that as something of a challenge. It's one I'm yet to back down from, or lose.

Of course, finishing a packet is like banging another nail into your coffin - but you've only got one life, and you've got to enjoy it, right?
"A very, very important tool in terms of freedom of expression"

A reminder that blogging is about more than just writing about a seemingly insatiable appetite for pork scratchings.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Swings and roundabouts

Quite an eventful weekend, all told - humiliated by my football team once again on Saturday, but, like Phill, on Sunday the proud owner of a virtual ticket for The Glastonbury Festival Of Contemporary Performing Arts. It's strange the elation you can experience at the knowledge that you've just paid well over £100 to stay in a very probably muddy field in the middle of Somerset.

In truth, I didn't actually buy the ticket myself - I'm indebted to J for that. Thankfully, though, the whole procedure seemed to progress far more smoothly than it did last year, when the site kept crashing and the phone lines were jammed. It's good to know that Michael Eavis and Vince Power have taken the nightmarish experience on board and changed the system for the better this year, not least by putting tickets on sale on a weekend for the benefit of those who couldn't stay up all night on a weeknight last year hoping to get through.

Of course, this means I'll get to see a whole host of bands and drink near-fatal quantities of the local scrumpy, and you'll have to suffer another SWSL Glastonbury review - just console yourselves with the fact that there won't be one next June, when Eavis gives the site a year off for rest and recuperation.
Editorial decision

Thanks to Tracy, who's requested to put my review of January's Editors gig up on her fansite. If they continue at the level they were at that night, she can count on getting a lot of visitors over the next few months.
Flight attendant

Bing bong! Pete's blog Expecting To Fly has a new URL and design. Please make your way over there in an orderly fashion. Thank you.
Text message of the day

"Do you know anyone needing a bulletproof golf buggy? One going cheap on eBay!"

Friday, April 01, 2005

What’s Hot On The SWSL Stereo: April 2005

(Update: The links are all fixed now - something to do with having written the post in Word first, I think. Also, apologies to Ian - I've linked to your Low and Six By Seven reviews at the bottom of the post. Responses to specific comments are in the comments box.)

Just think of it as the scrawny upstart cousin of Parallax View’s Album Review Compendium…

Low – The Great Destroyer

Most of my thoughts on this album can be found in the review of February’s gig in Wolverhampton, but lavishing a few more words on it wouldn’t be amiss.

After scattered hints of a gathering storm over recent records, that storm has finally appeared in the shape of these meditations on time, age and death (religion for once taking a back seat). The Duluth trio have succeeded in raising the volume levels without compromising their trademark poise, resonance and deftness of touch – it’s the glorious blossoming of a delicate bud. Nevertheless it’s the quietest track on the album, Alan Sparhawk’s ‘Death Of A Salesman’, that probably weighs most heavily on the memory.

Far and away the best record I’ve heard this year. Fuck the naysayers.

The Concretes – The Concretes

For the most part, Concretes songs seem so slight as to be in danger of blowing away – soporific (in a good sense) shuffles in pursuit of swooning choruses that recall 60s pop and The Velvet Underground at their most languid. Victoria Bergsman, the Swedish group’s vocalist, has a particularly distinctive style, sounding as though she hardly opens her mouth to sing.

Every now and again there are genuine surprises – skronking horns, the militaristic drumming of ‘Diana Ross’, the Spanish gypsy feel of ‘Warm Heart’.

The singles ‘Say Something New’ and especially the brilliant ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ (Bergsman makes the chorus sound like "You came home alone…") are probably the stand-out tracks, and there’s only one duff track, the irritatingly chirpy ‘Seems Fine’, which is reminiscent of Belle & Sebastian – very definitely not a good thing round these parts.

An unexpected delight.

The Delgados – Universal Audio

Crack out the Buckfast! Glaswegian miserabilists The Delgados appear to have cheered up! By the standards of their last LP Hate, which featured a song called ‘Child Killers’ and a jaunty single entitled ‘All You Need Is Hate’, Universal Audio is a positive ray of sunshine for soothing brows and gladdening hearts. Everything’s relative, of course - don’t look too closely at the lyrics, though, because as always there’s a chance you might get bitten.

The other major difference from Hate is the absence of strings, which comes to seem like a deliberate ploy, a challenge to themselves to produce similarly swelling and buoyant melodies with fewer resources. It’s a challenge they’ve risen to admirably and if at first I was slightly bewildered by the levity of some of the tracks, I soon grew to love them all the same.

…And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead – Worlds Apart

… And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead are a band going through a period of transition, on record and messily. It’s a bit of a car crash of an LP, truth be told - gruesome in parts, but you can't quite take your eyes (or, in this case, ears) off it.

Their first album without bassist Neil Busch, Worlds Apart marks a dramatic shift away from the bile and fury of their early recordings, of which we are helpfully reminded by the two bonus tracks, ‘Aged Dolls’ from 1999’s Madonna and ‘Richter Scale Madness’ from their debut LP which has to be one of the most aptly titled songs ever.

Only ‘Caterwaul’ and ‘Will You Smile Again’ recall that sort of intensity, and it’s the more measured “proper” rock songs, heirs of Source Tags & Codes’ ‘Relative Ways’, that really impress - ‘The Rest Will Follow’ and ‘Let It Dive’ are particularly good in this vein.

Otherwise it’s a bizarrely uneven and unfocused record. Lyrically the title track is a po-faced and extremely embittered Sixth Form tirade and ‘The Summer Of ‘91’ a lazy bit of indie navel-gazing through rose-tinted spectacles. But it’s towards the end that things get REALLY strange. ‘To Russia My Homeland’ is, as the name might suggest, a snippet of Russian folk. ‘All White’ follows, a prime slice of vintage 70s Bowie bombast (and as such the album’s most radical departure from the template) that could potentially have been the crowning glory were it not for the fact that it lasts less than two minutes. Then ‘The Best’ kicks off with a barnstorming riff, only to subside inexplicably and without warning into pointlessness and clichéd irony.

Perhaps it’s best to look on Worlds Apart as a signpost to where the band are headed and it’ll all make more sense in hindsight once we know where they ended up. Or perhaps it’s just borne of genuine creative confusion. Either way, I’ve played it to death and I still can’t fathom it out.

Idlewild – Warnings / Promises

Like … Trail Of Dead, Idlewild have lost a bassist (Bob Fairfoull), gained two replacements (Gavin Fox and Allan Stewart) and reappeared with a record that puts more distance between them and their origins, the noisily unhinged mini-LP Captain. The gap was widened by 2002’s The Remote Part, but it’s now very much a gulf.

Warnings / Promises lacks the bite of its predecessor – there’s nothing as exhilaratingly supercharged as ‘Stay The Same’, ‘Out Of Routine’ and ‘A Modern Way Of Letting Go’. Only ‘Too Long Awake’ threatens to break out into a squall but is symbolically brought to a close by the plug being pulled, followed by one of the softest tracks (‘Not Just Sometimes But Always’) and reprised acoustically as a hidden track.

Instead, the album takes ‘American English’, ‘Live In A Hiding Place’ and ‘Tell Me Ten Words’ as its blueprint for a more restrained – mature and pedestrian, if you want – sound. If the prospect of the ubiquitous ghost of REM doesn’t set your pulse racing, then you’re advised to give it a miss. Idlewild have been tamed by prolonged exposure to the music industry.

Yes, He Who Cannot Be Named, maybe now – at last – I’m prepared to concede that they’ve “plateaued”. It’s still a very listenable record, though – just not terribly exciting.

(And what is it with Roddy Woomble and self-reflexive lyrics about words?! Does the finest named man in rock think about anything else?)

The Mars Volta – Frances The Mute

“Listenable” and “very” are not the first two words that spring to mind when contemplating The Mars Volta’s latest offering.

It seems churlish to complain about the new heights of pretentiousness Cedric Bixler, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez et al have scaled this time around. After all, you don’t buy a McDonalds meal and then complain about it being greasy and fattening. With The Mars Volta, you gets what you pays for.

But Jesus fuck is Frances The Mute pretentious. Electronic noodlings, passages of guitar wankery, mariachi horns, snatches of Spanish…

It’s like someone I ultimately want to admire, respect and like but currently find a bit obnoxious. Bearing in mind it took countless rotations for me to warm to and then adore its predecessor De-Loused In The Comatorium, it may still happen if I can make myself persevere long enough. But at present it seems like a step too far.

The Kaiser Chiefs – Employment

A gift rather than a purchase – there, that’s my excuse in nice and early.

The singles ‘I Predict A Riot’ and ‘Oh My God’ aren’t bad, and ‘Na Na Na Na Naa’ (I Should Coco era Supergrass) is infuriatingly infectious enough to take resident in your head and refuse to leave.

But mostly it’s very poor fare from five people for whom I suspect “Britpop” is very far from being the dirtiest word imaginable. The reasons for Franz Ferdinand’s continued patronage of this band escape me.

Six By Seven – 04

(For Ian – who says I don’t do requests?)

A bit of a duty buy, this one. Me and Six By Seven have a lot of history, after all.

Yet another band who’ve lost their bassist since last putting out an album (in this case Paul Douglas), Six By Seven have also been dropped by Mantra. Even for a group accustomed to setbacks, these must have come as heavy blows. How would the trio of Chris Olley, James Flower and Chris Davis respond?

04 – originally scheduled to be called Down Here On The Ground – is (duh) their fourth LP, and the first on their own Saturday Night Sunday Morning label. It starts off full of promise, too. If ‘Sometimes I Feel Like…’ is classic Six By Seven, complete with THAT drumbeat and one of the most explosive guitar breaks they’ve ever done, the pulsing beat of “Untitled” seems to hint at a subtle new direction and ‘Ready For You Now’ is keyboard-heavy, dense and hypnotic. The anger that typified The Closer You Get and The Way I Feel Today is conspicuous by its absence.

But then it all starts to go wrong, only the excellent single ‘Bochum (Light Up My Life)’ living up to the standard of the opening three tracks. By contrast, ‘Ocean’ and ‘Catch The Rain’ are dull indie-by-numbers, their lyrics clichéd, ‘There’s A Ghost’ is shrouded in too much proggy reverb and ‘Say That You Want Me’ is (its characteristic Six By Seven title and chorus aside) a disappointingly transparent pastiche of buddies Spiritualized, right down to the fuzzed narcotic garage riff, harmonica and references to Jesus Christ. Although ‘Hours’ is an intriguing Stars Of The Lid style experiment, the other electronic “interludes” are pointless doodlings and the directionless ten-minute ‘Leave Me Alone’ a magnificent example of why it can sometimes be good to have record label execs other than yourself to answer to.

So, by no means a disaster, but not the longed-for triumphant and defiant two fingers up to the music industry that spat them out either.

Links:

Vanity Project review of Low’s The Great Destroyer.

Stylus review of Low's The Great Destroyer.

University Radio Nottingham interview with The Concretes.

Stylus review of The Delgados' Universal Audio.

Stylus review of ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead's Worlds Apart.

Stylus review of The Mars Volta’s Frances The Mute.

Stylus review of The Kaiser Chiefs' Employment.

Stylus review of Six By Seven's 04.

Vanity Project review of Six By Seven's 'Ocean' / 'Clouds' single.
Prescient or what?

I'm having to come to terms with the fact that J may in fact be some kind of psychic genius. Remember Wednesday's post about the possibility of a biopic being made of Kenzie of Blazin Squad? Well, I thought it was remote, and that even to suggest such a thing was ludicrous.

And then what do I learn yesterday but that he's bringing out an autobiography? The title alone - 'Kenzie: My Life' - is suggestive of the almost superhuman amount of effort that has been expended upon the project. It also implies that Kenzie is himself psychic, able to see into the future to see how his life pans out when he progresses beyond his teens.

Not only is he bringing out an autobiography, though, but he's making an appearance at the Birmingham branch of Borders to promote it. Can my life get any more exciting? Perhaps I should write a book about it.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

"Comes over one an absolute desire to move"

(Apologies if this is just a note to myself - hopefully it might be of wider interest, though.)

Geoff Dyer recently reviewed, with some enthusiasm, my supervisor's new biography of D H Lawrence for the Daily Telegraph, and so it's with a certain neat circularity that I offer some thoughts on his own book about Lawrence, 'Out Of Sheer Rage'.

To call it a biography would be wrong. As the subtitle - 'In The Shadow Of D H Lawrence' - would suggest, Dyer never emerges into the sunlight long enough to give us much of a glimpse of the book's ostensible subject. Dyer recounts his travels around the globe visiting the places Lawrence lived, all with the aim of eventually writing a biography of his own, but what the reader is presented with is a curious book which is actually about NOT writing a biography of Lawrence, or at least trying and failing to do so. It is telling that at one point he recalls very nearly being distracted from visiting the D H Lawrence Birthplace Museum in Eastwood by the sight of an IKEA when en route for Nottinghamshire. This is, as he freely concedes, "a book full of irrelevancies".

Indeed, 'Out Of Sheer Rage' could more properly be called an autobiography, offering as it does a portrait of its author's life. The rambling passages relating his procrastination, especially those at the beginning of the book, can begin to become a little wearisome and there's also an unnerving candour to his self-analysis, but nevertheless Dyer reveals himself to be, like Lawrence, an endearingly grumpy old man at his happiest (or at least his best) when venting his spleen on seemingly anything and everything. His admission "What I like most about Lawrence is his temper" could have gone without saying.

It goes without saying that this is an utterly unscholarly book, something which Dyer openly flaunts. Indeed, much of his ire is directed squarely at academia. He is particularly and memorably scathing about a volume of essays edited by Peter Widdowson: "How could these people with no feeling for literature have ended up teaching it, writing about it? ... I kept looking at this group of wankers huddled in a circle, backs turned to the world so that no one would see them pulling each other off ... Walk around a university campus and there is an almost palpable smell of death about the place because academics are busy killing everything they touch". Harsh words indeed, and ones with which I'm inclined to argue, not least to point out that in this very book he writes about giving an academic paper himself.

But when Dyer takes a break from amusing anecdotes and rants of which Lawrence would be proud, stems the flow of words in the service of little more than filling the pages, and actually gets down to the matter at hand, he is unerringly accurate (almost in spite of himself) about what it is that makes Lawrence such an engaging writer.

On his critical writings: "Each of them is an electrical storm of ideas! Hit and miss, illuminating even when hopelessly wide of the mark ('the judgement may be all wrong: but this was the impression I got'). Bang! Crash! Lightning flash after lightning flash, searing, unpredictable, dangerous".

On the powerful allure of Lawrence's letters and manuscripts: "The finished works serve as a prologue to the jottings: the published book becomes a stage to be passed through - a draft - en route to the definitive pleasure of the notes, the fleeting impressions, the sketches, in which it had its origins".

On the letters: "The endless fascination of the letters lies in his bottomless capacity for change - from blazing anger to good humour in the space of a few hours or minutes - his capacity to recover from any setback, to always give life, to always give himself, one more chance".

Dyer is particularly good at communicating the reasons behind his estimation of the travel book 'Sea And Sardinia' as Lawrence's best work, dwelling upon the simple beauty of its opening line, "Comes over one an absolute desire to move", and continuing: "The experience is created in the writing rather than re-created from notes. Reading it, you are drenched in a spray of ideas that never lets up. Impressions are experienced as ideas, ideas are glimpsed like fields through a train window, one after another. Opinions erupt into ideas, argument is conveyed as sensation, sensations are felt as argument. This immediacy is inscribed in the writing of the book".

Dyer isn't blind to Lawrence's faults, nor is he defensive in every aspect of his life or work. He mocks his paintings, and claims that certain of his weightier novels hold no interest whatsoever, preferring the more prosaic detail of the letters: "The fact that Lawrence wrote 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' means next to nothing to me; what matters is that he paid his way, settled his debts, made nice jam and marmalade, and put up shelves".

Towards the end of the book Dyer paraphrases Lawrence in saying he is writing it as a means of shedding his interest in the man himself. The Telegraph review suggests the project wasn't a complete success from this perspective, but no matter. What 'Out Of Sheer Rage' does, in its own perverse and idiosyncratic way, is the precise opposite - it rouses interest, it illuminates, it vivifies. In other words, Dyer's book proves wrong the very claim it contains, that you "can't write any kind of book about Lawrence without betraying him totally".

Links (aka The Shameless Self-Promotion Corner):

My BBC Nottingham feature on Lawrence.

Guest Blogging Dream Team: D H Lawrence (via Troubled Diva).

Andrew Motion reviews 'D H Lawrence: The Life Of An Outsider' in the Guardian - predictably he thinks more attention could have been devoted to the poetry.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

A ticking off

As excuses go, it's up there with the best.

Today (Wednesday) I managed to be late meeting a friend for lunch because of the clocks going forwards. On Saturday.

How exactly did I manage that, I hear you ask? Well, it all stemmed from being sat in front of a university-networked computer for which - for some bizarre reason unknown to me - the clock hadn't changed.

So there I was, blissfully typing away, safe in the knowledge that I had plenty of time to spare, only for a phone call to reveal that in fact I hadn't.

Oh dear.

Arriving at the designated meeting point flustered and 25 minutes late, I found myself trotting out the truth, when it would probably have been less embarrassing just to have pretended the rendez-vous had slipped my mind.

So, next time someone claims their homework has been eaten by their granddad or it's their dog's funeral, trust in their naive honesty and believe them, rather than dismissing it as lame bullshit. You never know.
The follow-up

If you happened to be intrigued by Friday's revelation that He Who Cannot Be Named spotted bona fide rock legend Jimmy Page eating a KFC meal, and you're desperate for more details - what he was wearing, what he selected from the fast food emporium's mouthwatering menu, the manner in which he consumed said meal - then you can satisfy your (frankly freakish) curiosity here.

For another tale of celebrities interacting with the real world, check out this entry on Richard Herring's blog Warming Up. Turns out that, on the very day we saw him in Kings Heath talking about yoghurt and over-intrusive checkout assistants, he had had had another bad experience in Sainsbury's. Very odd.

Nottingham residents might also like to read this post, written the day of a gig at the Lakeside Arts Centre, in which he reflects on The Tales Of Robin Hood - "I was slightly scared to be in Nottingham, which has recently acquired a reputation for being a crime hot spot, with assaults with weapons on the increase. So it was reassuring to be sleeping so close to a tourist attraction which reminded us of a simpler more peaceful Nottingham, where a gang of outlaws who lived in the forest used to spend most of their time stealing stuff and shooting people with arrows".

Incidentally, thanks in part to Herring but in main to Phill, I'm now hooked on Internet Scrabble. I took a while to settle in and get used to the etiquette and lingo ("Hang on, what the fuck does THAT mean?!"), but now I'm cooking on gas. Annoyingly - but probably mercifully for the sake of cred - my internet connection seems intent on sabotaging my efforts by repeatedly breaking down in the midst of games. Oh well.
Unlucky for none

The latest issue of Skif's fanzine Vanity Project is available now - issue #13 it might be, but you'll not be cursing your luck for procuring yourself a copy, stuffed full to the brim with goodness as it is. Inside, you'll find the following (alongside the usual championing of well-deserving but lesser-known bands and labels):

Interviews: The Scaramanga Six, Akira The Don, Snap Ant

Label profiles: Suilven, My Secret Garden

Album reviews: Low, Hot Water Music, Lucky Pierre, The Fiery Furnaces, The Arcade Fire, Magoo, The (International) Noise Conspiracy, Scritti Politti, The Others, Milky Wimpshake

Single reviews: The Kaiser Chiefs, Six By Seven, Snap Ant, Ambulance LTD, Athlete

Live reviews: The Radio Dept, The Magic Numbers, The Kills, Kimya Dawson, The Go Team!

If you want to read anything featured in the current issue, you can access it online here, but if, like me, you prefer a paper copy - on this occasion nearly as thick as a slice of bread - you can get one free of charge by getting in touch with Skif via the address or email on the VP website. What you waitin' for, huh?
Eggheads

Imagine my amusement when a momentarily confused J asked me whether I'd like to go and see the film 'Kenzie'. An easy mistake to make, considering that he, like his near-namesake Dr Alfred Kinsey, regards himself as something of a "sexpert".

Frankly, the likelihood of a Hollywood biopic about the Blazin Squad and 'Celebrity Big Brother' star seems far-fetched, but if Geri Halliwell can publish two different autobiographies (or is it three?), then it's certainly not beyond the bounds of possibility. Presumably it would feature fewer revelations about the pioneering work of a courageous American scientist and more dicking about in a giant egg costume with Bez and John McCririck.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Feel good hits of the 29th March

1. 'Caterwaul' - ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead
2. 'Love Steals Us From Loneliness' - Idlewild
3. 'Life On Mars?' - David Bowie
4. 'Sometimes I Feel Like...' - Six By Seven
5. 'Hanging On The Telephone' - Blondie
6. 'This One's For You' - The Concretes
7. 'Silver Rider' - Low
8. 'E-PRO' - Beck
9. 'Save Us SOS' - Hot Hot Heat
10. 'The Widow' - The Mars Volta

Coming up on SWSL this week: an assortment of album reviews. Yes, I know - real proper music writing! I can hardly believe it either...

Friday, March 25, 2005

Blogwatch

Hurrah! Real genuine new content on Excuse Me For Laughing - lots of it! And it's ace too! He Who Cannot Be Named offers his views on recent gigs by indie-darlings-from-across-the-pond Rilo Kiley and The Arcade Fire, as well as on Jean-Luc Godard's 'Weekend':

"I urge you to watch 'Weekend'. Watch it, because none of your friends will have and you just have to tell them about a certain mad as a bag of ferrets French film that likes fucking about with the medium and likes barking Marxist philisophy in your face while decrying the crumbling moral body of the Western world. The problem is that modern film has evolved a grammar that is staid and all too audience pleasing. Sometimes, we need de-education. Sometimes we need to grubby our hands in the basic nutrients of cinema and get in touch with our Iron Age-equivalent cinemagoer. Old films have ways of surprising precisely because the common garden viewer has left it so far behind. Still, I preferred 'Pierrot Le Fou'. That's the one for Godard virgins. The sun, you see, it's always the sun, spraying its rays on a diamond sea. That and Anna Karina stabbing someone in the head with scissors. Lovely, so very lovely".

Elsewhere...

Inspector Sands takes the Tories, Rebekah Wade and Paul Dacre to task for "gypsy-bashing", while Jonathan takes a more general look at political opportunism and the success of recent campaigns in bringing pressure to bear upon our elected representatives and shaping policy decisions;

Kenny reviews another stack of novels, including Haruki Murakami's 'Kafka On The Shore', Michael Chabon's 'The Final Solution', Ian McEwan's 'Saturday' and Kazuo Ishiguro's 'Never Let Me Go';

Del writes about Woody Allen and his heroes - "It occurs to me that many of my heroes are those who refuse to shy away from the harshness of existence, but strive to present it honestly, change it, and most of all, laugh about it: the absurdity of life on earth";

Thanks to Phill aka Mr Fixit, Mike's BBC Radio Nottingham interview is now up online.

And finally...

Amidst all the festivities for St Patrick's Day (otherwise known as Guinness Aid), Sarah celebrates St Cuthbert's Day. What do you mean, you didn't know it was the 20th March? Or that he's the patron saint of Northumberland?
This week on Stylus

Ian Mathers is left disappointed by Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band's new LP, Horses In The Sky - "If this is your first experience of the band, you might still find it fresh, but personally I’m beginning to feel radicalism fatigue. Maybe someday the left will be able to express anger effectively, use it to accomplish and convince rather than falling into the twin traps of rancid bitterness and (seemingly) baseless rage".

I admit to not being greatly appreciative of their last offering, 'This Is Our Punk-Rock', Thee Rusted Satellites Gather + Sing, but 2001's Born Into Trouble As The Sparks Fly Upwards is a tremendous record, and its closing track 'The Triumph Of Our Tired Eyes' trumps anything Godspeed You! Black Emperor have ever done.

Talking of whom... Ian's penned a fantastic appraisal of their EP Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada on his blog - Godspeed's finest hour?

Elsewhere:

Bjorn Randolph reviews Queens Of The Stone Age's Lullabies To Paralyze - "Without the radical studio experiments of Rated R or the goofy radio-dial concept of Songs For The Deaf, the whole affair seems a bit directionless. Even the hypnotic motorik rhythms of the debut, while now a familiar sound for the band, were pretty intriguing at the time. Next to those past triumphs, the new album comes off as a well-crafted holding pattern, a collection of good songs without any strong or new ideas behind them. Call it the Queens' Ill Communication, if you like".

The UK Singles Jukebox featuring 50 Cent, Erasure, Roots Manuva, Tom Vek and British Sea Power amongst others. Mike is now a regular contributor, and by all accounts loving every minute of being able to write at length about music without being made to feel guilty by a section of his readership...
Quote of the day

"Once again, we're being told that home taping (in the form of ripping and burning) is killing music. But it's not: it simply exists as a nod to the true love and ego involved in sharing music with friends and lovers. Trying to control music sharing - by shutting down P2P sites or MP3 blogs or BitTorrent or whatever other technology comes along - is like trying to control an affair of the heart. Nothing will stop it."

Thurston Moore writing in Wired about the joys of mixtapes. Speaking of which, I really ought to look into downloading Mike's Bloggers' Disco MP3 files...

(Thanks to David for the link.)
White band man

So, Tony Blair's been sporting a white Make Poverty History wristband. Quite telling that he got given it rather than shelling out the £1 it would have cost him, but at least he's wearing it I suppose. Whether he's doing so in all sincerity is another matter, of course.

Perhaps it's just another ruse cooked up by election campaign strategists: "Yeah, Tone, wear it and then you'll come across all concerned and compassionate to all those pesky people who plague you with emails, without necessarily having to do or commit to anything. The public outward show of support and conviction is what matters. Plus you'll be down with the kids. Youth demographic - very important. And you'll make Gordon look even more out of touch."

Make Poverty History
Text message of the day

"Wow. I just watched jimmy page eat a kfc. My life is complete."

Thanks for that, He Who Cannot Be Named. Our lives are now complete too.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

"No more than the ordinary lactose tolerant person"

RICHARD HERRING / TOM BINNS / GARY BELL / RHODRI RHYS, 22ND MARCH 2005, CHEEKY MONKEY COMEDY CLUB, KINGS HEATH

Tonight's compere Dave recalls a heckler labelling him "Ronnie O'Sullivan ... in a hall of mirrors". Harsh but fair. My first thought is of an even fatter Mickey Quinn (former Portsmouth and Newcastle hero, for those of you not acquainted with one of football's more colourful characters). Either way, he's rotund and jovial, warming things up nicely for the arrival of the first act.

Rhodri Rhys is a well-spoken Welshman (no, really, how did you guess?) who claims the Vikings took one look at the women when they got to the Welsh border and opted to stick to pillaging alone. Perhaps overly confident given the strength of his material, he nevertheless raises a few laughs.

Second act Gary Bell is a more unlikely success. A barrister by day, he's dressed soberly in jumper and shirt and, together with his slightly unkempt squall of hair, he looks every bit like Boris Johnson's cousin. This ten-minute slot is only his sixth gig, but he's a remarkably assured performer with a nice line in dry satirical comment: Camilla Parker-Bowles is, he claims, "the most offensive thing I've seen on the arm of a royal prince". He also suggests we should just tell David Blunkett we've introduced ID cards, and if he asks to see them we can just produce our Blockbuster cards...

Tom Binns starts very promisingly indeed, with a segment based on a hospital radio DJ that owes something to Peter Kay and Steve Coogan: "That was Whitney Houston with 'Where Do Broken Hearts Go' - well, there's a furnace out the back..." He then mentions a song request for a self-harmer: Rod Stewart's 'The First Cut Is The Deepest'. It's just a shame that Binns - a contributing writer for 'Trigger Happy TV' and Kerrang! radio DJ who used to present 'RI:SE' and also appeared in 'Fist Of Fun' and Partridge's 'Knowing Me Knowing Yule' - loses his way quite so dramatically after this and it fizzles out into something of a damp squib.

As strange as it was seeing Stewart Lee in the small upstairs room of a pub in Sutton Coldfield, it's even stranger seeing his former partner Richard Herring in the small back room of a pub in Kings Heath, performing on a low stage in front of an ill-hung curtain and an assortment of horse-brasses. Herring is, after all, a comedy legend, as Dave helpfully reminds us before announcing the final act's arrival on stage.

To be fair, Herring has cut his cloth accordingly, and looks every bit the sort of comic who should be performing in the small back rooms of pubs in Kings Heath on low stages in front of ill-hung curtains and assortments of horse-brasses - his hair is long, his jacket is of black leather and, most important of all, his shirt is loud.

Herring might begin with the fairly standard stand-up fare of graffiti - and, more specifically, graffiti in toilets - but it's what he does with it that marks him out as a cut above the other performers. Breezing through some fine material vaguely familiar from old installments of Warming Up, he arrives at his tale of being mistaken for some kind of perverted yoghurt fetishist by a supermarket checkout assistant who, upon seeing the contents of his shopping basket, announced "Someone likes yoghurt".

Indeed, yoghurt-related material makes up almost the entire remainder of the set, as he laughs off the idea that he goes around different supermarkets buying nine yoghurts in each "so as not to arouse suspicion" and insists he's never once filled a bath full of yoghurt and rubbed it into his "anal cleft". It's testimony to his talents that he can turn this most trivial of incidents into comedy gold, and keep an audience half expecting a cascade of knob gags laughing hard throughout.

If there's one disappointment, it's the short duration of his set. I could have listened to him go on about dairy-based desserts for at least another half hour.

(Incidentally, full marks to the DJ who, during one of the intervals, saw fit to subject the audience to Ciccone Youth's 'Into The Groove(y)'. Good work, sir.)

Link:

Cheeky Monkey Comedy Club. The site includes a link to an extraordinarily comprehensive list of comedians' biogs - a very handy resource.
"Why do people keep going on about yoghurt?"

Following last night's gig I contacted Richard Herring, and here, in the first interview to appear on SWSL (hopefully not the last), he talks about stand-up, his latest show 'The Twelve Tasks Of Hercules Terrace', his blog Warming Up, 'Little Britain', online Scrabble and, of course, yoghurt...

What do you like most and least about doing stand-up? Making complete strangers laugh is a pretty unusual way to make a living...

"I love the immediacy of going on stage and doing your stuff and finding out whether people laugh or not. I also like the fact that generally in stand-up I am playing to a group of people who don’t know who I am, so if I can make them laugh then I must be funny (as opposed to fans who have paid to see just me and I know will probably find me funny). Dealing with a crowd is exciting and rewarding and the fact that people can join in and shout stuff out also gives the experience an edge (even though they usually shout out rubbish). I don’t like how tiring it is doing all the travelling and worry about it eating into my writing time. And I don’t like it when I die on my arse, but that doesn’t happen so much these days!"

'The Twelve Tasks Of Hercules Terrace' features a reference to writing on the face of a dead baby with a biro. Do you ever wonder "How do I get away with saying things like that to an audience of strangers"?

"Not really. I think I know why I get away with it. Because people understand it is a joke and see what I am getting at. Comedy should act as a release valve and sometimes it is funny to be offensive with someone that you trust, exploring an unpleasant theme without really meaning what you are saying. I hope people trust me and something like this joke, once in context, is so extreme that it can only be taken as being funny. Occasionally people don’t get stuff like this and complain, but I have thought carefully about it. I am not trying to actually offend anyone, and believe that joking about the most horrible and unpleasant things helps us deal with them in some way and often takes away their power over us."

Your current stand-up routine centres on material about a supermarket checkout assistant looking in your basket and saying to you "Someone likes yoghurts". Does this come from a desire to challenge and test the patience of the audience? Or is it more a challenge for you to keep their interest and keep them laughing while only using the most (initially) mundane and unpromising of anecdotes?

"It started from thinking that this was a funny incident and once I’d written about it in Warming Up I realised it was something that people identified with – it’s horrible when you are judged by something like this by a stranger and oddly unsettling. It has developed into a bit of a challenge because I have noticed that a section of the audience doesn’t find it funny or isn’t expecting someone to talk about this – but then that is, I suppose, a lot of what makes it funny. I haven’t really thought about it that much. It’s developing organically. I wanted to do stuff that is about attitude or me as a person rather than just being about jokes and what’s nice about this routine is that it gives me the chance to discuss this, as well as what makes people have different senses of humour. You’ll have to work it out for yourself."

In the FAQ section of your website, you say: "Personally I am quite glad to leave the 'Herring' character from Lee and Herring behind. It was a sort of parody of myself at 18, which would seem a strange thing still to be doing at 40." But 'The Twelve Tasks Of Hercules Terrace' starts off with you talking about how you don't really feel like you've grown up. Does performing comedy keep you young?

"I think it possibly can keep you being immature in not always a good way. It allows you to get away with being young and self-indulgent for longer. But I think no-one really starts to feel old. I remember my gran always saying she still felt like she was 20 even when she was 80. Ageing is a difficult thing to take on board for any of us, but most people don’t have the flexibility to behave like an arse like a comedian does. Also though I hope that because I think about life and stuff in so much detail with my job, that in some ways it makes me more mature."

You talk about "the 'Herring' character", but your material often seems very personal - 'The Twelve Tasks Of Hercules Terrace' obviously started out as something of a personal crusade and happened to become a new show. How much of yourself do you reveal onstage, and how much of it is a mask?

"I think the stuff I did in Lee and Herring was more of a character, but still with recognisable aspects of the real me – which is why it amused us to talk of ourselves as 'characters', because sometimes it was true or an extension of the truth. The 'Hercules' show is probably the most true version of myself (or of what I was like at a specific time) that I’ve ever revealed (Warming Up is often exaggerated for comic effect or goes into the realms of fantasy). In 'Hercules' I am looking at a real version of an extreme time in my life. But it’s never going to be the exact real me as I chose specific things to talk about and I am presenting a personal view of myself."

Consecutive Number Plate Spotting and online Scrabble - would you say you have a nerdish streak and an obsessive and addictive personality? How easy is it to laugh about these aspects of yourself in front of people?

"Yes and yes. I exaggerate my nerdishness a little, but I think everyone has these secret obsessions and that’s why they can readily laugh at me. Comedy is mainly about being truthful and then hoping other people recognise themselves in what you’re saying. I have no problems with people thinking I am a nerd. I don’t see why obsessively liking pop music is any cooler than obsessively liking Scrabble. Well maybe a bit."

Do you see yourself still performing stand-up in ten years’ time?

"Yes, I hope so. I hope to be performing stand-up until I die and I hope that is more than a decade away."

How much has Warming Up helped get the creative juices flowing for other writing? Does blogging ever feel like a chore?

"It’s helped a bit in that I have a huge store of material to draw on for new projects, but often it’s the only thing I’ve written in a day. Some days it is very hard to think of anything to write about and I sit for an hour or two with nothing occurring to me. But often this will lead to one of the more imaginative entries as I suddenly recall some trivial incident. It’s good to force myself to be funny about things that aren’t obviously amusing. The yoghurt thing would never have occurred to me otherwise."

What ideas / projects are you working on at the moment?

"A Scrabble sit-com 'Word Nerds' and possibly a running sit-com set in a running club. 'Little Britain' script editing / writing, lots of little quizzes and panel games, writing new stand up material for my gigs and Edinburgh show, possibly writing a book of the 'Hercules' show. Lots of other things."

How have you gone about turning Warming Up into a radio series?

"It is a mixture of monologue and dramatisation, but I’ve essentially started at the beginning and chosen the best entries and then re-written them slightly. I need to do another draft and then we’re pitching it to the powers that be."

You've written on Warming Up about having meetings with the BBC lately. What’s it like to pitch ideas to a commissioning editor? It must be disheartening to pitch things you think are great to someone who has no sense of humour or who just isn't interested.

"It depends on the person you’re pitching to. Generally if I get as far as meeting them then they probably already like me a bit and are supportive. This long into my career I am aware that the chances of a meeting leading to an actual on air programme are fairly slim so I don’t go in with massive expectations."

I noticed on Warming Up that you’d been asked to write a sketch for ‘Little Britain’. How did that come about?

"I was asked to script edit as David and Matt both know me and like my work. Then I had an idea of how to adapt one of their new sketches and they agreed that I could have a go at it. It might well not be on the final show."

What’s the best word / highest points score you’ve ever got in online Scrabble? Did your opponent understand the expression 'Cheg on'?

"'Jinglet' was the most satisfying word, for the risk value. I have not used that expression online so don’t know. I would guess not."

Which of the twelve tasks are you most proud of?

"Winning the false boat race probably. But the Marathon and 50 dates were also pretty cool. And parachute jumping!"

What's your favourite flavour of yoghurt? What flavour of yoghurt would you like to invent?

"I don’t like yoghurt that much, OK? Why do people keep going on about yoghurt? I only like it as much as a normal person. Certainly not enough to invent a new flavour. Though I would like to see a commercially available 'yoghurt of every flavour mixed together' yoghurt to save me having to concoct my own… Not that I do that. Because I don’t."

Many thanks to Richard for his time. Hopefully we'll be able to refer to him as "Richard Herring from off of the telly" again very soon.

Links:

Richard Herring's website.

The SWSL review of 'The Twelve Tasks Of Hercules Terrace' at the MAC last month.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Super Sunday

Just when exactly did Sunday evening TV get good? It always used to be an arid plain of 'Keeping Up Appearances', 'Monarch Of The Glen', 'Heartbeat' and 'Last Of The Summer Wine'. OK, so the latter two are still there, immovable monstrosities in the schedule, but there seems to be an awful lot of good stuff on to compensate.

Take BBC2's 'Help' for instance, the new vehicle for Paul Whitehouse. The show's co-writer Chris Langham plays a psychotherapist while Whitehouse undergoes radical transformations to play all of the patients. Where 'Happiness' was hit-and-miss, 'Help' is gentle, well-observed and genuinely funny. It's just a shame there are only two episodes left in the current series - surely it'll get recommissioned?

And immediately afterwards there's 'Outlaws', which, like many of BBC2's best recent offerings, started off life on BBC3. I never thought I'd be able to forgive Phil Daniels for 'Sunniside Farm' and his arsing about in 'Parklife', but he's excellent in this legal drama-cum-comedy. Good lawyer, bad lawyer - so far, so meh. But the script is superb and each episode I've seen has been very watchable indeed. So, another series would be nice, this time with hour-long episodes rather than the half-hour installments that seem to fly by too quickly, please.
The downward spiral

You know those moments that make you fear and despair for the future of the human race?

Well, I had one on Saturday, when, returning from town, I walked past the Academy, where nearly 100 youths had accumulated in the drizzle in salivatory anticipation of catching a brief glimpse of the band that would be headlining the venue later that evening.

The object of such adoration and adulation?

Good fucking Charlotte.

Hell in a handbasket, my friends, hell in a handbasket.

Monday, March 21, 2005

"Pork-loving couple say 'pie do'"

Yes, it's Spot The Sun Headline on the BBC website again today.

After Friday's marvellous tale of swanicide comes an item about a couple of pork-pie fetishists who decided to have a three-tier "wedding growler" at their nuptials rather than the more traditional cake.

You don't know what a relief it is to know that there's already a Pork Pie Appreciation Society. I was thinking that's something else I'd have to do... Now all I need to know is how to become a member. And then how to join the campaign against that yellow jelly stuff that threaten to spoil many an excellent crusty pork pie.
'(Is This The Way To) The Woolpack?'

Following hard on the heels of the news that Sir Ian McKellen is to star alongside the likes of Bradley Walsh and Keith Duffy in 'Coronation Street' (no, not the pantomime production you were thinking of...) comes the revelation that wrinkly chart-topper Tony Christie is to make a guest appearance in 'Emmerdale'. Unlike McKellen, he'll be playing himself.

How long before Vincent Jones, Eric Hall or Terry Venables turn up in Walford?
Top of the blogs

In the wake of a recent short-lived attempt to come up with a chart for the top blogs, Britblog have weighed in with their own. Another good feature on what is already an excellent site for discovering new blogs of interest.

(Thanks to New Links for the, er, link.)