Monday, 10 December 2018

The Bells Are Ringing Out

From around mid-November my radio-dial on my car/home stereo/non fruit-based hand-held internet device of choice remains firmly switched to anything but commercial radio.

As anyone will know Christmas advertising is pretty much fair-game from September onwards when the kids go back to school (though I heard my first Christmas 2018 advert back in January - a saving scheme for Christmas), but it's from mid-November that the war of attrition really starts.

You see, it used to be A Thing, for UK music acts of a certain era to release a Christmas song to try and reach that all-important Festive No 1 slot.  It still happens from time to time, but here are a few of the more well known ones:

Merry Christmas Everyone - Shakin' Stevens (how someone doing a fifties rockabilly act at the height of the Punk movement had any hits is a mystery)

Merry Xmas Everyone - Slade.  The ultimate in Glam Rock and bad spelling.  This one would be quite good if it wasn't on in Every Single Place You Go

Simply Having A Wonderful Christmas Time - Paul McCartney.  Some of you may be aware that in
James Joyce's book Ulysses he describes the seven levels of hell.  Well listening to this piece of bubblegum pap is worse than any of them.

Merry Christmas (War Is Over) - John Lennon.  Not content with Macca trying to burn in effergy any last vestige of credit The Beatles had by releasing his above mentioned Christmas missive Lennon brought out this with the annoying children's chorus at the end

Stay - East 17.  A song about a friend dying.  Doesn't mention Christmas once, but has some Christmassy bells

A Spaceman Came Travelling (At Christmas) - Chris DeBurgh - look, Chris, we all knew what the song was about - there was no need to add "at Christmas time at the end" other than to buy that Lady in red a new dress

Can You Stop The Cavalry - Jona Lewie.  In Lewie's defence this was never intended as a Christmas single and is about a bloke fighting in a war and wishing he was home.  The monotonous, repetitive tone makes me want to stick explosives in my ears and light the fuse

And then there is Fairytale Of New York

Fairytale stands alone as a piece of brilliance shining in a dark December night.  A song written by Irish wildboys and rockers The Pogues and featuring the vocal talents of the late, great Kirsty MacColl it's a song about two people living in the worst of conditions, coming to New York and getting lost - it's first line "It was Christmas eve babe/in the drunk-tank" tells you exactly where it's going.  It should be miserable, but it isn't.  Somehow the music and the lyrics transports you....

...but it's a song that's under threat.

In the middle of the song, written in the 1980s, the couple resort to name-calling singing:
You're a bum
You're a punk
You're an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it's our last

cheerful stuff, isn't it? And yet it's gone to the collective hearts of the nation and across the country you will hear people singing along

But in recent years that line about the cheap-lousy tinned sausage has caused controversy and there have been calls to ban the song because of the offence it could cause to the LGBTQ community.  As far as we know no actual offence has been caused.  Shane MacGowan, speaking from behind dark sunglasses and broken teeth, has declared that the line is Irish slang for something else and besides the characters in the story are clearly not nice people and the views and language of the song should reflect that.

But is it ok?

I've always argued that it is - because really if you ban this line of the song then you'd also have to ban most blues songs, any songs that objectify women.  Fairytale is not the only song under threat this year as some stations have refused to play Baby It's Cold Outside in the aftermath of the #metoo movement...

Very few people seem horrified by the line "you're an old slut on junk" (although both were bleeped out a few years ago) - but part of me does wonder if I would feel the same if a) I wasn't such a big Kirsty MacColl fan and b) if it was the "n" word or another minority insult

Sometimes I think there's too much political correctness, too many people worrying that group a, b or c might possibly be offended or even actively looking to be offended...

Anyway, here's the song - happy Christmas y'all

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Three Coins In The Fountain

There are only so many days of the week that you can stand in the local book/stationary shop looking at the motorbike magazines before they start to think you're casing the joint and ask you to either buy something or leave.

This, though, is the problem of lunchtime whilst at work: particularly if you want to save a fortune by bringing your own food: because you can't go and eat it anywhere that sells their own food and the benches in the shopping centres are designed to be just the right side of uncomfortable so as to stop people sitting on them for long and force them back into the shops.

So inevitably you end up eating your sandwiches (or whatever you brought in your Tupperware container today) and mooching between shops, looking at things you have no interest in (motorbike magazines being a prime example) and perusing the shelves of CDs in the hope of finding that rare imprint of Blind Wombat Jones's rare imported second album and coming out having somehow bought the thing that was playing on the tannoy when you went in.

My favourite record store posed exactly this problem: it was on the one hand a veritable Aladdin's cave of treasures and on the other a very dangerous cash black hole where money intended for replacing the fridge would somehow disappear.

I actually no longer work near to this particular shop (where I tell Herself that I am regularly marched into the shop by the assistant and forcibly made to buy something) but always enjoy going back.  I've made several wonderful discoveries there over the years...but then a few years ago the chain of shops ran into financial difficulties (because no one was buying music anymore in physical form) and was threatened with closure.  Somehow, with a change of name and corporate identity, it was able to continue and with the resurgence of interest in vinyl was actually looking very good for the future...

...until around Christmas time it closed again, with practically no warning, and seemed to be gone for good.

This was sad in many ways: largely, of course, for the assistants who would now need new jobs.  For me also it was the end of an era and I found myself looking at my last two purchases there (U2: Songs Of Experience and Bjork: Loopy Bonkers (her album is actually called Utopia - but I think my title is more fitting)) and wondering if I could have done better.

So I'm sure you can imagine that it was with a certain bounce in my step that I dashed out of the house and towards my car when I heard that it had reopened again.  I say dashed, but at my age and state of mind it was more a leisurely stroll; but you get the idea.

I don't know how car parks work in the rest of the world but in England they can be anything from an abandoned patch of land that is rented out to permit holders with security being that if you hide your belonging well enough the local kids might not break your windows to multi-storey concrete edifices that were designed so that the ramps were just tight enough to scrape the paint off the sides of anything bigger than a mini metro.

There are also, generally speaking, two ways of paying when on site: firstly there is the barrier car-park where, as you go in, you get a ticket time-stamped with your arrival that you pay for when you return, thus charging you only for the time you actually stay.  This is my favourite type and is generally speaking a multi-storey park.

Secondly there is the "pay-on-arrival" type where you have to find a space, go to the little ticket machine and then take a guess at how long you think you are going to be so that you don't end up paying too much.  It was to this type of car-park that I was going on this day.

I arrived, parked up and went to the ticket machine: trying to figure out the tariffs.  50p for 1/2 hour - well that was clearly not going to be good enough to walk-past that compilation album three times saying "you don't need it" quietly before finally caving in.  £1 for an hour: well, I would probably be back within an hour: I don't like hanging around too long, but just in case I decided to pay £1.50 for 90 minutes.  Hardly going to break the bank.

And so I dutifully put 50p into the slot.

Nothing happened.  No light flashing, no bleep of acknowledgement.  Not even a clunk of the mechanism as my hard earned cash was swallowed.  And so I pressed the coin-return button

And out popped a £1 coin.

Blimey Charlie, I thought, not quite comprehending.  I stood there and thought for a second and eventually decided that maybe this was the reason my initial coin hadn't succeeded: because of a blockage somewhere.  And so I scrambled around in my wallet for another 50p coin

And this time I got a £2 coin back.

And at this point a person with less scruples with me would have continued to see how ahead of the game they could get.  I, however, meekly went and found another machine.

And so I sashayed forward (I didn't sashay, obviously; only people in Fred Astaire films actually sashay) and duly spent far more money than I should have in the newly-opened shop (an action which I defended as showing Support To A Struggling Venture)

Coming back to the car later I still felt bad about the money I'd somehow made at the car park.  There had, after all, been a parking attendant checking for tickets in windows at another part of the area and I could have offered it to him.

And so I did the only decent thing I could think of: I gave the £2 coin to a homeless person and wished him a good day.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Take Me To Church

I don't sing hymns in church.  Haven't done for nearly 20 years.

Not that the requirement to do so comes up very often - I tend to avoid going through the door at all in case the Heathen Alert goes off and I spontaneously combust.

There are, generally speaking only three times I ever go to church:
1) Christening for the child of a friend/relative
2) Marriage of a friend/relative
3) Funeral of a friend/relative

Of course: any of these can happen in any order, but in general, and as you get older, you start to get slightly more of what lies behind door number three

The last time I sang in church was actually at the funeral of my Nan, nearly 18 years ago.  Although generally speaking I have concerns around partaking in ceremonies that I don't believe in (I don't, for instance, believe that you should have a child christened just because it is a Nice And Expected Thing To Do, nor should you get married in a church because it's Traditional: only do either of the above if you are actually religious and go regularly) - my actual reason for stopping was more straightforward: I can't sing them properly.

The pitch is just wrong for my voice - I either have to come in very low, or slightly too high: and either way it sounds like I'm making fun of the service, which I'm really not (at my Nan's funeral I stopped because I was unintentionally making my brother laugh)

I say this because last Friday I went to a funeral -  a friend of my parents that they had jointly known for 50 years and whose kids we had grown up knowing - and of course I didn't sing.  The service itself was pleasant as it goes, but it reaffirmed my own feeling that instead of some stranger standing up and saying "I never got to meet..." I need to write out something to be said when I pop my clogs (hopefully in the very far away and distant future)

I managed to make it through an entire half-an-hour without anyone pointing at me and yelling "unbeliever!" and we moved on to the wake where it soon became clear that neither of her kids actually recognised me - no real surprise as it had been about 30 years since we last saw them

When I did introduce myself to her daughter she apologized for not having recognised me and said, "You've broadened out, haven't you?" - and then, realizing what she'd said, added, "Of course we all have..." she added - looking down at her stick-thin contours

The Son finally came over and it was an odd experience because he was larger and bald and tattooed he was exactly the same and pretty much how I imagined he would turn out.  When he finally smiled in recognition it was like the kid I had known peered out from behind older eyes

I don't really have a point to this post. If you are religious and enjoy singing hymns then I'm glad that you have that.  If you have recently met with someone who you used to know and find that, underneath all the exterior changes, there is still some of that person in you then think about what you have gained and not what you have lost.  As Paul Simon once said - after changes upon changes we are more or less the same

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Seasons Greetings

It barely seems five minutes ago, but it's now a couple of years since we moved out of hell.

We got lucky in the end: buying a small bungalow on a quiet road with little traffic.  No boy racers tearing up the street (if you don't count the local lads who seem to insist on pulling wheelies on their bikes all the way down the busy bypass two roads away), no 3-day parties with open door policies to everyone in a five mile radius and no 2am fights about who ate the last slice of pizza.

The house itself is not a bad size.  At some point in it's past it had an extension done in a uPVC build that is half-extension, half-conservatory.  There's a small bit of lawn at the back and a pull-in area at the end of the path for a few cars.  We even have a garage - though as it was built in the 60s it's too small for modern cars and has an asbestos roof (fine until you come to move it, so they tell me)

Prior to us the house only had two previous owners: someone who lived there from 1960-61 (approximately), followed by a family who only moved out when they moved into a retirement flat.

Which makes the random Christmas Card all the stranger.  It's to a Mr & Mrs R. White - and as far as we can tell no such person has ever lived here.  It's certainly not the names of our predecessors and none of our neighbours even recognise the name from nearby.  It's always inscribed to an Uncle and Aunt from a family of three and, of course, being a Christmas card there's no return address.

We've had this same card every year that we've lived here and, to be honest, it makes me rather sad.  Firstly it suggests that in the past few years that we've lived here these two sides of the same family have had little or no contact with one another - otherwise surely they would have the correct address.  Secondly because there's little or nothing I can do about it.  I would love to be able to re-unite these family members, if only by returning the card to its sender.

It makes me wonder: not just about the state of their family relationships but of mine as well.  How easy it is in this busy world to lose contact with family members and friends: whether by falling out or simply the process of getting on with the day to day things.  My cousin, for instance, who I love to bits; but it could be a good 15 months since I've seen her and her boys are growing up quickly.  My sister-in-law, that I'd like to be closer to, but who lives so far away.

I sometimes feel frustrated, as I suppose so many people do, that it always feels like it's me that has to make the effort to keep the relationships going: and that no one seems to do the same to me - I don't know how true that is, but I guess that at the end of the day it doesn't really matter as long as someone makes the effort.

There was a famous actor (famous in the UK anyway) who died recently.  Not long before his death he had tried to reach out, not for the first time, to his former acting partner from the sit-com they were both known from.  Back in the 70s Actor #1 had inadvertently told a story to the press about a minor occurrence in Actor #2s life (that, upon hearing his wife was pregnant, Actor #2 had swerved the car and nearly crashed).  Actor #2, who was deeply private, never forgave him and never spoke to him again.

It's simply not worth it.  Whatever has happened in your life, if it's at all possible: reach out and build that bridge before it's too late.

Last year we received a second random Christmas card, this time from Ireland, to a different family - who have also, so far as we can tell, never lived here.  We have not received a second one from them so far.  Let's hope they sorted it all out eh?

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Diminishing Returns

It seems increasingly doubtful that I shall be buying the new Morrissey album.

I know, right?

And I appreciate that there will be those of you reading this post and thinking either:
a) Well, so what? or b) Who?

So: Stephen Patrick Morrissey, erstwhile Miserable of Manchester.  Singer and front-man with 80s icons The Smiths who, despite the lack of mainstream media support, burned brightly and have become one of the most important and influential bands of their time.

And then, at the height of their fame, Morrissey (as he is usually known) and the others in the band fell out and went their separate ways.  Johnny Marr, once tagged as a guitar hero, went on to work with a whole number of bands in all sorts of format: seemingly happy to be just under the surface of fame, whilst the others spent most of the 90s and 2000s sueing each other over rights and payments.

And for a while Morrissey's solo career was promising.  His first couple of albums were a good blend of pop and heartfelt sentiments - but with each passing release he seemed to be trading on former glories, repeating the same complaints and then, bereft of a record contract, he vanished.

Seven years passed and then You Are The Quarry came out - a tour-de-force of a comeback, as vital and energetic as anything from his glory days....

To date it has not been matched.  Frankly I didn't even make it all the way through his last album World Peace Is None Of Your Business and haven't been impressed by the new stuff either...

Why am I telling you this?

Well: I always used to be a bit of a completest: once I liked a band or an artist I would keep following them, buying their latest release and eagerly looking forward to the next.  In this way I have almost every album by the Pet Shop Boys, Manic Street Preachers, New Order and a few others, as well as a good sized back catalogue of early Genesis and Peter Gabriel

But they say that your heroes either die young or live long enough to disappoint you - so I guess the question is: how long should you stay loyal?  How long do you keep buying the new stuff hoping there will be a return to form?

Here's a few examples:
Bjork: she is the musical equivalent of Marmite (a yeast extract spread for toast known to divide opinion) and is, to say the least, eccentric.  Much of her solo stuff is verging on weird and experimental and that's fine as far as it goes - but as of recent her albums have also been lacking anything approaching a tune.  She's still getting rave reviews for her innovation and approach, but would it hurt to do something that I could hum along to?

New Order:
Haven't bought the new album despite the rave reviews.  Peter "Hooky" Hook has left and, despite all the accounts of what a bad person he can be, it's not the same without him fighting his bass guitar to the death

Pet Shop Boys
Haven't bought their last 3 albums as I got bored of listening to daft throwaway tunes like "I'm With Stupid" (I mean, honestly...)

Apparently they have recorded their new album but have held back on releasing it in the wake of Donald Trump on the grounds that they are "no longer sure it says what they wanted it to" - and if the band don't have any confidence in the songs, why should I?

I guess it's the same for people who've owned every I-phone since the start and now feel a morbid need to remain loyal and buy every upgrade.

I guess it's the need to hope: hope that something that was once great can be great again - like maybe through them we can recapture that time when those things seemed to be the centre of our universe?

Maybe it's me then that is the problem: maybe I've moved on from those times when hearing Morrissey reflecting the confusion I was feeling was somehow comforting despite the air of misery and maybe hearing him still trying to pay lip-service to those things is just too much to bear....

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Early One Morning

4am on a Saturday and I'm in that phase just between sleep and wakefulness, my brain turning the old cogs.  There's a snippet of an idea for a song bouncing around in my head and I'm wondering - if I leave it and try and write it in the morning, will it still be there?

The answer, of course, is no.

It's very rare that I sit down with my guitar and think "Right: I'm going to write a song now" and anything useable emerges.  I'm fully aware that there are plenty of people who do precisely this: and probably a few of them earn money from doing so.  Usually these days what will happen is that I will get a fragment - half a lyric and a bit of a tune - whilst doing something else and will make a note of it on my mobile phone.  I'm a bit ruthless with these and if they haven't developed into anything within a week or two I delete them and assume they never will.

On this occasion I'd had two quite similar fragments appear in short succession.  Initially I'd thought that maybe they would be part of the same song, but then the second fragment became a song of it's own and for a while it looked like the first would sit, neglected, on my phone until the next clean-up operation came along.

But somewhere my brain must have been working on the problem; because here I was - awake at 4am and trying to decide what to do. 

Finally, aware that I wouldn't get any sleep with the words roaming around in my head like lost sheep looking to be herded somewhere, I got up and made the short journey to my desk: accompanied by the appropriate amount of stumbling over cats in the dark and reaching for light switches that were not where I remembered them being.

With the words now written down I retired to my bed, switching off lights and trying not to step on the cat, hoping that now I would now get some sleep.

And then the next line came.

Swearing lightly under my breath and trying not to wake Herself I clambered out of bed, danced around the cat, groped for the light-switch and wrote the next bit down.  It was around this point that I realised my fragment fitted in quite nicely to the idea - so I now had a promising intro to a verse, a bit of a chorus and a bridge.

Back to bed.  Close my eyes, aware that it is now 5am and I need to be up at 7 as I have a one day course in Blues Guitar ahead of me: a course that I'd quite like to be awake and sentient for if it's not too much to ask.

Fragment four arrives.  Part of verse one.  This time Herself stirs and asks if everything is ok and in a slightly tense voice I reply that yes it is, it's just inspiration calling at an inopportune moment. She goes back to sleep and this time, over the next 30 mins or so, I pretty much get the rest of the song written, aside from the chords which will have to be worked out at a more sociable hour.

As a result of all the to-ing and fro-ing I'm now awake before the alarm at 6:30am and so I pour myself a bowl of breakfast and switch on my computer.  Once we're through the interminable time it takes for everything to warm up I log into Word and, with a few adjustments, type up the scribble on my piece of paper into something legible without having to go and find a modern equivalent of the Rosetta Stone.

Don't get me wrong - I like being creative and am pleased with the resulting effort, so much so that I resolve to play it at my next appearance at a Folk Club (where it goes down like a lead balloon much to my disappointment) - but I do sometimes wonder how it works.

Terry Pratchett wrote that ideas are like bolts of lightning and that some people are more susceptible to being hit than others and added that the right ideas might not always hit the right heads: which is one of the many reasons you see so many surprised looking cows.  Agatha Christie would answer, when asked, where she got her ideas from, "why Harrods of course; where else?"

I think that a large part of it is believing in the first place that you can be creative and then actively trying to be creative - once you do those two things the ideas will come: some easier than others perhaps, but still come.

As for me well, my ideas may not change the world or, apparently, be suitable for folk club attendees, but sometimes they amuse me and my friends and maybe that's enough

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Cricket Whites And Multi-Coloured Coats

Back in the 80s the Doctor Who convention came to town.

Of course: back then being a science-fiction fan meant something different.  You were, by and large, white, male, pale from reading too many comics and single.  You were also useless at sport, full of acne and obsessed with detail.  Where Patrick Troughton ate his peanut-butter sandwich on day 28 of shooting season 4 was of critical detail.

And equally, of course, pretty much all of the above was just bunk.  Apart from the sandwich: these things matter, you know.

The show had just been cancelled, no longer able to cope against the more expensive and more slick shows coming out of the USA like Star Trek: The Next Generation and The X Files had ended the days where a props man at the BBC could spray-paint a sleeping bag silver and stick two antenna on it and get away with it.

And there was, despite all my denials above, a certain demographic at the conventions: ranging from bluff old men with pipes who could remember watching William Hartnell from behind the sofa to teenagers who could barely remember the "classic" 70s show.

The events were largely affordable: tickets were reasonably priced, autograph sessions were free.  E-bay would see the end of that: the price of a signing shooting up as "celebrities" saw what they were worth and wanted a slice of the pie.

And just occasionally, maybe one out of every five hundred people at the convention, you'd get someone turning up in their home-made Jon Pertwee costume, or wearing the cricket whites of Peter Davidson or, if you were really going to go for it, the garish frock coat of Colin Baker (a costume that even the actor himself said was "the sort of costume that you want to be inside of staring out from").  There were slightly more of these fans at the Star Trek conventions: with Next Generation and then Deep Space Nine in full flow all of a sudden they were everywhere and you could see the corridors of the Albert Hall being filled with people in Star Trek Uniforms: still predominantly male, but a small amount of women now seeping into the crowd - perhaps drawn in by the handsome stars.  At one memorable convention Michael Dorn (famous for playing Klingon officer Worf) asked a German Star Trek fan (who, frankly, looked like he had glued a Cornish pasty to his forehead) "Why do you dress like that?  I used to get paid to do it!"

At some point I slowly trickled away from the world of conventions: they certainly stopped coming to my home town after 3-4 years and as the prices went up and it moved out of the reach of the amateur collector I lost a little bit of interest.  My sci-fi/fantasy going experience became the norm.  All of a sudden it was quite fashionable and ok to be watching Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and those who were fascinated by sci-fi were no longer considered social lepers who lived with their parents and were afraid of direct sunlight (unless they were Twilight fans I guess...)

I was reminded of all of the above today when I went to a nearby arts centre to watch a film (Last Portrait in case you are interested: a slow moving character piece about an artist who finds himself increasingly struggling against his own legend) only to find the corridors of the place festooned with people in costume.

The answer to why was, of course, that there was some comicon event in place in one of the other halls...but in the intervening years something had changed.

First of all: the convention goers were almost uniformly in...uniform.

Secondly: the turn out was probably somewhere around 75-90% women

But most interestingly of all, and despite the costumes, none of the people there were recognisably...a thing.

Back in the 80s I had occasionally joked of going to a Star Trek convention dressed as Kerr Avon -a joke that only a true nerd would get - the point being that those who did go dressed in costume were always Picard or Riker, or a Klingon - or maybe a Borg.  It would always be a Tom Baker scarf draping to the floor...

...But although there were definitely a few Jon Snows and Tirion Lannisters around the main difference was that most of the people there were dressed in costumes as their own creation: people or races inspired by, but not actually of, the universe they were fans of.  There's been a lot of talk of steam-punk in recent years (a thing where you have sci-fi, but with a retro feel - so as if steam engines powered space ships etc) and this seems to have led to people feeling free to express themselves in whatever form they want to: not tied to a specific genre.

I'm not sure what to make of this to be honest: I think on the whole I think it is a good move as programmes, and books, like these should be the start and not the end of imagination...and I like the fact that it's become so mainstream...but...

...I do wonder if the market isn't being saturated now...we're on the fifth re-boot of Batman, the third of Spider-man...every major studio seems to be creating it's own "universe" and if you want to see the new Avengers film then you have to have seen the last three Captain America ones...channels like Netflix are producing their own shows and as for Game Of Thrones can hardly feel a breeze without someone saying "winter's coming" in a heavy northern accent

My fear I guess is that the films are running into the same problems that the comic books did: the "where do you go now" problem where in order to give bigger and better thrills you have to tell bigger and bigger stories

Those in the know will know, of course, that the dying world of comics was at least partially saved back in the 90s by the works of Alan Moore and his like that have gone on to influence the films - but every trend and fashion comes and goes just as swiftly so I hope that the companies have something else in their back pockets for when the fans grow up and put their costumes away.

I couldn't go to a convention now, of course, I'd stand out a mile and wouldn't have a clue what anyone there was supposed to be: maybe that's the way it should be.  After all: not all of us can be Kerr Avon at a Star Trek convention now, can we?

Kerr Avon: a cold-hearted, logical and increasingly paranoid rebel and outlaw fighting against the evil and corrupt Federation...