Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Uneasy Rider

This month I've been learning to ride a bicycle.

I'll sit back a second while you digest that information.

I know you thought you were reading the blog of a middle-aged- professional on the fringes of the music industry, rather than that of a six-year-old removing his stabilisers but there you have it. I never learned when I was younger and now I have to suffer the ignominy of having strangers gawp at me as I wobble around the parks of Coventry. This in itself is not unusual as strangers seem to stare at me generally and at present I always wobble - hence the bike training.

I'm not quite sure why I never learned in childhood; a combination of disinterest and relative poverty I s'pose with a heavy bias towards the former. I wasn't a sporty child so that may have had some bearing even though I still spent more time outdoors than children today seem to.

I'm now forced into it, being unable to run and finding swimming about as entertaining as daytime TV, I needed another form of cardio exercise. Cycling isn't as easy as it looks though, I'm still having trouble with a few things - steering, speed, braking, gears, perineal discomfort (y'know) and knowing where to put my massive feet on the tiny pedals.


Aside from the stares I get whilst trying to learn (the ones that make me feel like I've grown a second, even uglier head), the worst thing is that other people make it look effortless. At least with running I knew that I was doing something that few others had the inclination or ability to do, with cycling it appears that everyone from the very young to the very old can already do it.

When you tell people you're learning they at first look at you as if you're simple, and then go onto tell you that it's easy, conveniently forgetting that they learned a long time ago when their brains were more porous and their sense of fear less pronounced. I'm getting over the latter. At least now I don't feel like I'm going to maim or kill myself every time I go out, although a couple of pensioners and some small dogs might want to renew their insurance policies before they come across me.

The other problem is that there's no-one to teach you how to do it; no-one to run behind you holding the seat. My kids are very proficient but they seem rather unwilling to accompany their old man on a bike ride. The obvious shame of being seen with an adult who can't ride a bike is clearly too much for them, particularly as the adult is me. My daughter finds many excuses from staying in bed, catching up on episodes of the Bill or even doing homework. Being 12 I guess she has a highly developed sense of embarrassment and social standing. Since I have neither of those things I can career around the park with only the density of my bones and my skull to worry about.

I also have yet to find a cycling proficiency course for 44 year olds. Even if I did, I'm not sure I'd want to go. I think I'd feel like I'd slipped down the evolutionary ladder, somewhere around amoeba. There are enough opportunities in every week for my self-esteem to take a battering without joining a bunch of people who are all attempting to do stuff they should've learned years ago.

I am getting better - I'm now using four gears, so only another seventeen to go. I also now seem to be able to stay in the saddle for 10 mins at a time. Eventually I want to do that standing up pedalling thing that I see everyone else doing, and to be confident enough riding on the road to go out and buy myself a helmet. For now though not embarrassing the children would be sufficient.

The Hand Of... Oh God, Not Again!

Being British I can bear a grudge with the best of them. I like nothing better than to nurture some perceived grievance and to slowly plot some revenge I will probably never enact. It's a national pastime, probably up there with whinging and moaning, we clearly all love to hold grudges.

This said, even I know where to draw a line. Time is usually a great healer, is there any point in wanting to piss on the grave of a school bully when you haven't seen that oaf in almost 30 years? Similarly one might think that English sports writers could move beyond the shadow of the war whenever we face Germany in any fixture. Guys, it ended 60 years ago and war is not the basis for puns. Not now, not ever.

Naturally we enjoy the schadenfreude (tactical use of Deutsch word, use the link to look it up if you need to) of some enemy or other coming to grief, even when we played no part in it. We also seem to relish the downfall of the famous or fatuous thanks to our build 'em up, knock 'em down mentality. Thus, there is Maradona. One-time king of football, latterly known for his drug problems and carrying enough blubber that he looked like he had two baby elephants wrestling in his tracksuit.

It's a fact that Maradona was one of the most gifted footballers to grace the grass of many a pitch, but you'll rarely read about that in England. Instead, I can guarantee, that accompanying any text about him will be some reference (usually in the headline) about the World Cup Goal he scored against 'us' using his hand. Since he then referred to it 'tactically' (if not tactfully) as the 'hand of God' this will usually, if not always, feature in the article.

Picking, at random, Tuesday's edition of The Times there was a mention of 'the hand' on the back page followed by two articles inside which also referred to it. Three mentions within three pages. All papers have also carried quotes from Terry Butcher, one of England's 'defenders' that day, who says he'll never forgive Maradona for that goal.

You might think that Butcher would be happy about the nature of the infamous goal, generally because it obscures the memory of Maradona and his cohorts running rings around the England defence and Butcher in particular. Yes, it was cheating and it caused some pain at the time, but those of us who go to football on a regular basis see similar injustice every week and England have had dubious penalties and other decisions go in their favour on a random basis before and since then.

The main problem about the 'hand' goal, apart from its ongoing repetition in the press and the stain on Maradona's ability, is that it frequently allows us to forget about Maradona's other goal in that game - one of the best you'll see in any match, World Cup or otherwise.

MARADONNA - BEST GOAL IN HISTORY (YOUTUBE)

Can we please remember Maradona the genius, skipping at least six challenges as he picks up the ball in his own half and dances through the England defence before escaping the desperate lunge of Butcher himself to slot the ball home? This is a moment of football history we should all rejoice in, despite the fact that it was against England.

Sadly, we're not that magnanimous. On You Tube vids of the 'hand of God' goal have been viewed over a million times, but the better goal (above) has been seen on a far less frequent basis. How ridiculous is that?

In case you didn't know, the 'hand of God' goal was scored in 1986. 22 years ago, the common thread between Argentina and Germany is of course that we've been to war with them both. We have one Remembrance Day per year for real heroes and genuine hardship, but it seems that there are many more opportunities to dredge up ill-feeling and petty grievances.

Brand Punk

I went to see Rancid at the Academy the other night. They were great, in case you were interested. I suspect it's slightly more likely that you've never heard of them, which is a great shame - but it doesn't seem to hold them back. For the uninitiated they're an American punk band formed in San Francisco in 1991 who've released six albums and never really troubled the UK chart much. To quantify this statement I should note that their biggest album hit in this country was in 2003 and reached 29 on the chart.

On that basis and your relative and understandable lack of knowledge of them, you'd probably wonder how they manage to successfully tour the UK, playing 13 nights in Academy-sized (2k) venues. Is this further evidence that the live music industry is thriving while recorded music goes down the pan?

Maybe it is, but more fundamental to their 'success' is probably the fact that they understand their fanbase and they're consistent - they don't deviate and they've never really compromised their art for commercial purposes.

The major sea-change in the music industry over the last five to ten years has been that acts can have a more direct relationship with their fans than ever before. They can communicate with them through websites they own themselves or blogs and e-mails that they write themselves. They have, to an extent, cut out the middle-men and profiteers and subsequently they can more easily turn their art into a direct lower-cost sell, they also receive direct feedback more instantly.

Clearly the 'bigger' the act becomes the harder it is to achieve this, one-to-one communication is the first sacrifice, but they can still be seen to have a more direct relationship than ever before - and this alone will be the key to success for more and more acts in future.

I've read a lot lately about how commercial brands (not bands!) need to be more in touch with what their customers want, but it's very hard to achieve. Your washing powder may be used by millions of people, but do they really want to talk to you about it? I doubt it; they have better things to do with their time.

This is where the music industry has a 'head-start' on the commercial world, a lot of people define themselves by their musical tastes and would be only to keen to develop a 'relationship' with their favourite artistes. It has kudos and a sheen of celebrity attached - but not too much because the latter instance is why a lot of new bands fail.

Artists are too ready to seek the instant fame and revenue potential that they think is attached to having a big record deal. The big deals are all gone of course, a thing of the past, and whilst I can see that there's a benefit to having someone else pick up the bills it isn't the only route to market. These days you're likely to have more success in music by having ideals and demonstrating them clearly - by being principled and sticking to them.

Rancid, and their ilk, haven't all gone the Radiohead route of 'choose what you pay' downloads, but they all maintain a healthy fan-base by upholding their punk principles. The original onset of punk opened the doors for a lot of initiative - independent record labels, promoters and the like. It was refreshing to see on Tuesday that even old punks can still blaze the trail, they can still make it happen and still find an audience. They can even teach the new boys a few tricks - keep it real.

Contains Mild Peril

I'm not sure if you've noticed but Cinema classifications have become works of comic genius. We've come a long way since the board of censors just scraped a random ranking on each film without any indication of why it was given; now every film has a little description of why you might (or might not) want to go and see it. More often than not the descriptions are becoming almost as compelling as the films.

I'd like to share a few favourites with you before I reveal the absolute classic of all film rankings. My most recent update from Odeon Cinemas told me that a film I'd never heard of (and rated PG, for all ages essentially) contained 'mild language and sexy dancing'. I was tempted if only to find out what censors think sexy dancing actually looks like - I suspect it was nothing like the image I had conjured up in my filthy mind.

Another film on show that week, 'The Edge of Love', contained 'strong language and bloody injury detail' which probably tells you all you need to know - just the one detail mind. Similarly 'Taken' is described as having 'strong violence and scene of torture' in which I'm not sure whether they've left out a definitive 'a' to nominate one scene or a plural 's' for many. Or possibly the censors are either illiterate or having typographical problems, it happens to us all.

Frequently you may be forced to wonder whether you favour strong language or violence, it's a hard choice made no easier by the classifications of 'Death Race' and 'Righteous Kill'. The former contains 'strong violence and language' whilst the latter has 'strong language and violence'. I hate to be petty (that's a lie btw) but does this mean that the language is stronger than the violence in one and vice versa in the other? I think we should be told.

Sometimes the descriptions are quite precise - 'contains hard drug references, bleeped strong language and sex references' or 'contains infrequent moderate sex references and language' (infrequent and moderate? Forget it). Occasionally they might make the film sound more interesting than it is, for instance 'Mamma Mia' contains 'mild language and sexual references' which sounds a damn sight more enticing than saying 'contains Meryl Streep, lots of Abba songs and is primarily for women and gays' but obviously a lot less accurate.

The daddy of all film classifications has to be the one given to Beowulf. Where most films have a sentence at most, Beowulf's specifically worded classification was four paragraphs long - it was practically a book and almost certainly better than the film itself. I am compelled to share the highlights of this epic classification:

Bloody disembowelling
Repeated monster eyeball stabbing
Monster's heart ripped from chest
Monsters ripping people in 2
(not sure why the use of number rather than word)

And of course my favourite of all time -

Sung references to masturbation and fellation

Frankly with a review like that, who wouldn't want to see it?

It was so amazing that I actually took a photo of the printed note on the door of the theatre. I'm only sad that I couldn't capture the whole page (and that it's not a better pic). I include it here only because you may not otherwise believe me.

Should you wish to research this matter further the following site will be of interest:

http://www.bbfc.co.uk/recent/index.php?media=film

This one is even better since it also reveals the latest 'adult' features to find their way onto video: http://www.bbfc.co.uk/recent/index.php?media=film

The Brand and Ross Perspective

I'm rapidly reaching the conclusion that one of the most important attributes to possess is a sense of perspective. I wasn't going to comment on the Ross/Brand/Sachs affair but since it's still running out of control like a herd of bulls being stung by wasps in a china storage warehouse, I feel the need to call for calm. Storm, meet teacup.

As I sit here writing there have been 30,000 complaints to the BBC about a broadcast aired almost three weeks ago. That's 30,000 people with nothing better to do, but get on their high-horse and comment on something they didn't actually hear, something they've only read about. Something they have no need or cause to be offended by.

So, a presenter used a swear word. Get over it; it was after 10pm at night. So they might have offended an old man who used to be on TV. They apologised and he's forgiven them, get a grip. They may also have offended a 23 year old woman. I suspect that since she's in a burlesque group called 'The Satanic Sluts', she is not offended easily. She may only have been aggrieved that she wasn't in the Country early enough to take advantage of the resulting publicity. Yep, that's cynical but she has employed Max Clifford and it is 2008. I wonder if Sachs was more embarrassed/outraged by Ross & Brand than he is by his own granddaughter spilling all the gory detail in The Sun.

I've worked in radio for over 20 years and during that entire period I don't think the stations I've worked for would've collectively received 30,000 complaints. In the eight years I spent broadcasting for the BBC (WM), I doubt that I had a cumulative of 30,000 listeners. Thirty thousand is a lot of people, a lot of complaints - but what exactly are they moaning about?


Given that the issue has now reached fever pitch, been in every newspaper and TV bulletin and even discussed in parliament it has moved a long way from the original broadcast and the original issue of offence. I suspect that people are now complaining for one of five reasons:

1. This shouldn't happen on the BBC, because they're an institution to whom we have to pay a license fee
2. They don't like Brand, or Ross, or both
3. They like complaining
4. They like being angry
5. They believe too much of what they read in the Daily Heil Mail

Point 3 is a very important one. I read a lot of letters in various papers describing Ross & Brand as talentless. More than 30,000 people would have to disagree with that, otherwise the BBC wouldn't be employing these incredibly talented people in the first instance. It may be a large number of complaints but it's still a small percentage of the population. The larger number who listen to both clearly can't be bothered to complain about complainers.

This is 30,000 people with too much time on their hands, complaining about not much really. The people who heard the programme were those tuning into Radio 2 specifically to hear Russell Brand, they know what to expect and wouldn't have been offended. Those people might have only complained because it wasn't actually funny or offensive enough. There are a lot of those people which is why Brand was employed by the BBC.

It's become a circus, one with too many clowns and a ton of elephant shit. The complaints escalated from 1,500 to 30,000 within three days; all because of the media coverage, not because it was all so offensive.

The worst thing is that there are more important and urgent atrocities going on in the world for people to complain about. Sadly none of these issues would inflame 30,000 people enough to put pen to paper or finger to phone. Normally these people are too apathetic, which is a very sad state of affairs.

I am beside myself over the tens of billions in profits made by BP & Shell in the last quarter. Yes, I know they're businesses and exist to profit. I also know that BP is a British one paying taxes to our Government so I should be happy. I'm not. BP was a former nationalised industry so previously we'd have seen all of those profits. So, even though I'm not a communist per se I'm still pissed off that during the start of this recession, at the time I was paying over £1.20 for a litre of diesel, the petroleum companies were bathing in our cash.

If I had more time I might write a letter. 'Dear BBC.....'

A non-runner's guide to irony, greenery, Motown and Jamie Oliver

I've become nervous about using the word 'ironic'. I blame Ed Byrne. Since he famously trashed the Alanis Morrisette song of the same name it has put the fear in me. What if I get it wrong?

In case you may be in the minority of people who've never seen it, then please join me in this celebration: "It's called ironic but it's written and sung by a woman who doesn't understand irony"

IRONY - ED BYRNE (YOUTUBE)

Anyway, to take the risk, it was the Coventry Half-Marathon last weekend. I've run it for the previous two years and last year was my best ever time over that distance. Even weirder, considering it's 13 miles of slog, I really enjoyed it. Sadly I'm now banned from running - on a surgeon's advice, and that tends to be the kind of advice I take. It seems that I've destroyed part of the cartilage in my left knee and now if I run I'm just banging bone against bone which isn't advisable, apparently.

When I did run I wore Asics trainers, not particularly easy to find in my size, 14. A few wks ago Asics opened their first European store, it happens to be on a street down which I walk whenever I have to work in London - which is frequently. Is that ironic?

Join me now in this tenuous link. Gordon Ramsey runs marathons, his fellow celeb-chef Jamie Oliver does not. I have grown to like Jamie though; he tends not to take the easy option. It'd be easy to go on telly with a cookery prog - God knows there are enough of them. Jamie's last few TV series have had a message and a cultural impact, for this alone he should be praised. His school dinners programme made a difference, he achieved something - could you say the same of Ainsley Harriott?

His latest TV excursion, Ministry of Food, has been criticised for 'chav-baiting'. I may be simplifying the issue but I think you get the point. Heaven forbid that someone should go on TV and point out that there is a gulf between rich and poor and that has an impact upon education and diet. For this we should praise Jamie - he didn't have to do it, he could've sat at home and pocketed the Sainsbury's dollar (more of this below) but he clearly feels he has a responsibility.

No irony here perhaps. Until you reflect that the whole notion of the 'MOF' prog is to get people cooking, to share recipes. He's based it on a pyramid format where every one person he teaches passes it onto four people who in turn each pass it onto another four. Very clever, and it's aimed at people who have more time on their hands than money. It seems a shame then that the book of the series retails for £25. Would his publishers mind if we took photocopies and shared them around? I suspect they would.

As regular readers know I recently stopped shopping at 'Britain's biggest discounter'. Not for their crimes against English, but for other moral reasons. I have since been using Jamie's mates or, as I've recently seen them advertised, 'Britain's greenest supermarket'.

Does it seem green to you that 200g of Kenco coffee is more expensive than buying 2 jars of 100g? I presume there's more glass used in two jars than one, there's also considerably more glass in either of them than there is in the 200g refill pouch that is also on sale at a higher price than the 200g jar. It's probably unfair to take them to task on a single non-green issue but as it's something I purchase I can take the risk, I can also take the photos which is a very weird thing to do.

I guess I was protecting myself against legal action whilst obviously hoping that Sainsbury's are less litigious than Britain's biggest dicks-counter, as that was one of the reasons I'd stopped going there.

Once upon a time I didn't understand Motown. I thought it was music for weddings. A few acts turned my opinion. The Four Tops were one of them. Who can fail to appreciate the drama in their songs and the precise and powerful delivery of it? Levi Stubbs, rest in peace: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/18/arts/music/18stubbs.html

For more Jamie Oliver 'backlash', this is also worthwhile: http://jamiegohome.com/

It's A Free World (Baby)

I love the internet. I also hate it. I have no idea how we managed without it. It's a bloody time vacuum though, isn't it? The time you're spending reading this could probably be spent more productively, as could the time I'm spending typing it. This is me thinking direct to print, if it was a podcast I'd be thinking aloud, both of which are equally dangerous for all concerned.

The net seems to put so much at our fingertips - with every keystroke I feel like I'm either on the edge of some great revelation or equally likely to fall off the precipice into a porn explosion. Accidentally of course, the purveyors of porn have cornered the market in search engine optimisation, google anything and you'll get a porn option at some point or other. Or maybe that's just the things I search for.......

Sadly we don't seem to be too willing to pay for what we get online. We use it to find stuff cheaper or, preferably, free. You aren't paying to read this and I'm not getting paid to write it - is this the future of journalism, the uneducated spouting off for the pleasure of the illiterate? I mean no offence but if I wasn't a fame-junkie who needs the ego-boost of having his name in 'print' then neither of us would be here now. You wouldn't be having your time wasted by me - it'd probably be someone else instead.

The music industry was first to feel the impact of global data transfer and a recent report stated that '95% of downloaded music is illegal' (source; IFPI Digital Music Report 2008). The upshot of this is that a whole generation is emerging, a generation who believe that everything is meant to be free - from information to music. The long-term impact of this is a world of entertainment with no obvious means of funding itself. Do we not all believe in a fair wage for a service provided?

What the new generation term 'dead-tree-media' is in serious decline, all news media has a surfeit of competition - instant or otherwise. All old media has invested in new media outlets with no real idea of when one will eventually replace the other, and even if the new can survive as an independent entity.

As the global markets head for recession, we may all find ourselves in a position where bartering of a service is the only worthwhile currency. In this market do I have anything you'd pay for? I don't have any practical talents as such and the editors of the Mercury may be paying the right price for these musings. Could I really feed my children with my knowledge of the UK live music industry and a large slice of media experience? It's already tough out there; perhaps I need to think about starting an allotment.

I don't want to worry you, but in the cold light of economic collapse you may want to analyse what you're worth. I've started to wonder, and it's bloody scary. All contributions to the Paul Flower preservation fund (PFPF) welcomed - I clearly can't trust any banks so send me your pledges and I'll advise on the appropriate transfer method.

Give 'Em Enough Rope

"Don't have any heroes, they're all useless."
John Lydon, 1976

What becomes of the broken artist? When all your credibility is cast into the wind where do you go? On a nostalgia trip obviously - but when the catalogue cash cow is milked dry and the horse well and truly flogged then perhaps you can rent your former notoriety to commercial enterprise. Thus we see the one-time enemy of the establishment, John Lydon, selling butter, it clearly wouldn't melt.

John Lydon - Countrylife Commercial (YouTube)

It probably seems archaic that we once expected more of our rock stars. Young people today might be surprised that we once held them up to be figureheads, role-models and icons. What an incredibly stupid thing to have done.

I guess The Pistols were a flash-in-the-pan, over before they began, but for a while they were an incandescent ball of fury - a H bomb at the heart of the entertainment industry. I was too young to be a punk, still at school with an adolescent love of heavy metal, but I could appreciate the spirit and enjoy the energy of it all. It clearly had an impact and led to some great music, opening the door for artists and labels in a frenzy of creativity.

Long after it all fell flat, in death and dishonour; we should perhaps admire John Lydon's tenacity - his brazen-faced attitude and the delight he seems to have in being an irritant. Where once he wound up the powers that be, now he annoys those who believed in him, having becoming a cartoon caricature of his reputation. At the very least he is occasionally entertaining, some never reach those heights.

In the end does everyone sell-out? People probably had greater expectations of The Clash, radical-chic with global punk sensibilities. As John Lydon filled our TV screens in tartan last wk, so The Clash released three 'new' products - one of which, a coffee table biog with glossy photos, must surely be ironic. A punk coffee-table book?

In the future there will probably be no credibility, just good & bad. Already the boundaries are very blurred - people seem to have much broader taste in music and reject any ridicule that would once have been attached. Cheese is embraced, pop is no longer parodied but celebrated, and celebrity is all.

Currently there are still those who haven't sold their soul, Radiohead spring readily to mind, but artists trying to break-through in 2009 will find themselves facing the choice of whether to appear on advertising-funded free-music-sites or keep their songs to themselves. Do you give in or do you take every available route to the 'market'?

It's hard to be an ethical musical force, in the future you'll have to take the money before you can run - then just hope you can get far enough away if you eventually become rich. What would Radiohead do today, stick to their beliefs and risk ruin or join myspacemusic with the rest of the hopefuls and be funded by ads? In the end all artists will be working for 'the man'. It seems a long, long time since 1977 - how far we've come since punk.

"Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"
John Lydon, San Francisco Winterland, 1978

Monday, November 17, 2008

Political Aliens

The British political conference season is upon us. Brummies who may have tried to walk through what they previously considered to be their own public square will be more than aware of this. The security lockdown for a conference by a party not even in power does seem on the wrong side of excessive. We can only hope that all those well-protected Tories are out using their discount vouchers in our clubs, restaurants & bars so that we do see a positive balance to our local economy.

Other than this visible intrusion there's barely a ripple of excitement caused by the conference or anything else in British politics, it is relentlessly dull. I suppose politics isn't really built for stimulation, even the arguments and petty jibes are yawn-inducing, and used so repetitively that they become ineffective.

The fact that politics touches all of our lives should make it relevant, important even. The presence of politicians essentially makes it quite the opposite. Politics is essentially practiced by people with no grasp on reality, people who've lived their entire lives within institutions - from higher education to the Houses of Parliament. These people have no idea how to engage with us, even when they've been repeatedly schooled in the practice. They are the essential proof that there is a massive difference between theory and reality.

Essentially now it's about leaders. Do we buy into the over-educated Etonian in love with his own soundbites or the principled but dour Scot who says one thing and often does something else entirely. Do we really have anything in common with these power-obsessed individuals?

I always vote but the very concept of casting favour in the direction of those who are so desperately needy for it seems alien to me. They may pretend to want to help you but really they're ego-driven-power-crazed aliens who want to be top 'man'.

Perhaps Dave could at least try to humanise himself by spending some time with me whilst he's in the area. We could take a brisk jog away from the sanitised areas of Broad Street. Head away from brindleyplace on the canal towpaths, away from the over-priced and under-sold luxury apartments, run under the Dudley Road and past all the disused industrial buildings, the scrap-yards and into the heart of what used to be a manufacturing industry before Thatcher.

Failing that we could just go to The Wellington on Bennetts Hill, have a few pints of Pig on the Wall and talk shite. Then we'll stroll down to catch the train from New Street and laugh at how run-down the station is, perhaps we'll also wonder how trains that are advertised on the trainline website can suddenly disappear. Or even muse about why the pre-recorded voices of the announcements weren't given phonetic pronunciations of some of the local place-names.

I doubt we'll have that much time, so maybe he can just come down the baggies with me. He can probably still afford to buy me a pint in the ground before the match, as I'm certainly not paying the £3 they want for it these days. Maybe after a few stellas he might agree to buy my Bradford and Bingley shares. Probably not though, he doesn't look quite that stupid.

Metalic k.o. - What do you want from live?

Sometimes it's hard to feel sorry for international mega-stars, they have fame, adulation and money - but sometimes they also catch an unnecessary crock of criticism.

Witness Metallica, they took the unfortunate stance of opposing Napster & music-file-sharing at a time when everyone began to steal music and they've been whipping boys ever since. Whatever your opinion on this issue and the point that it's led us to in the decline of recorded music sales, surely they deserve a second-chance?

They're currently under fire (again) for two reasons and I have sympathy for them on one of these. Frontman James Hetfield took the time during their O2 gig (£5 entry and proceeds to charity remember) to ask people to put down their phones and just enjoy themselves. His comment was that "a 2 second blurb of shitty Metallica on youtube is not gonna make you famous". Naturally it ended up on youtube:

YOUTUBE

Obviously I believe in free will and free choice but this is one of those things that also irritate the hell out of me. Why is it that so many people feel the need to take photos or video when they're at a gig? Is it not enough to be there and to enjoy it? Do you really have to prove you were there? Do you really have to record a clip of video that shows nothing but some flashing lights and poor audio to remind you of a minute or two of a song that you missed because you were too busy f**king about with your 'phone?

I went to see Nickelback at the NEC (or is it LG Arena?) last week - at the behest of my 12 yr old daughter. It was just the same there. The band had barely walked on-stage before hundreds of brightly-lit screens appeared above people's heads. Those people presumably now have photo and video of some shadows, bangs and flashes - there was a lot of pyro - and a loud song-intro they'll barely be able to deceipher. That'll be something to show the grandchildren.

I blame the growth of the so-called 'social media', in some ways it's restricting our actual sociability. Instead of actually socialising we are too busy creating a profile or image of ourselves that shows how sociable we are. We're too busy trying to record a vision or write a message about the experience, instead of just experiencing it. I don't need a Large Hadron Collider to prove that a different universe exists; it's all around me - people not living but trying to demonstrate that they lived. They were nearly in the moment, but that moment passed them by.

As for Metallica, it seems all is lost. They are now seen as the flag-bearers of the old system, 21st Century Luddites. Lest we forget that they changed metal/rock forever and are one of the World's best live bands. Their 2nd crime last week was to be release a great new album, but on CD version that is clearly over-compressed and consequently sounds crap. Ironically, one of the reasons that this has become obvious is that there's also a game version of the same recording - for Guitar Hero - which sounds much better. This is a crime I can't exonerate them from; frankly they should be ashamed of themselves.

It could be an argument for what are apparently termed - 'audiophiles' - people who can recognise when something sounds wrong. I'm not sure what's wrong with being one of those. The decline of recorded music - be it CD or MP3 - in my mind is partially due to bad technique at the mastering stage of CDs. Old folk like me can hear the difference and the difference is not good.

This is potentially the subject of a wider argument, which I may return to at some stage. In the interim there are some links below which give the jist of the situation, please pursue them if you're interested.

I'm constantly told that the live sector is flourishing. Perhaps it's because live now sounds much better than CD or MP3. Or perhaps it's because people need content for their youtube and facebook pages.........

http://blog.wired.com/music/2008/09/does-metallicas.html

http://blog.wired.com/music/2008/09/universal-cance.html

http://mastering-media.blogspot.com/2008/09/metallica-death-magnetic-sounds-better.html

http://blog.wired.com/music/2008/05/will-metallica.html

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=clqfjh_TeSU

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LlNZ6aDkAHM&feature=related

http://mastering-media.blogspot.com/2008/09/metallica-death-magnetic-stop-loudness.html

Art? For Art's Sake...

I don't really understand 'art'. This may not come as a great surprise to you; possibly you already have me typecast as the archetypal black-country-bloke. I'm not about to burst that bubble at the altar of modern art, or any art from any era come to think of it. Or any altar.

This is not to say that I don't appreciate art, I recently stood in awe at the base of 'The Angel Of The North' and consider most of Gormley's work to be quite brilliant. I suspect that - like music - the concept of what we individually consider to be 'great art' is a hugely personal decision. And then there's the other stuff.

Every week or month there is some example of the 'other stuff' to inflame or amuse us, even when rational common sense demands that we should simply ignore it. This week it comes courtesy of Andy Savage and his lightswitches at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol.

In case you missed this story, Andy's 'art' is two normal light switches, one on the ground floor and one on the first floor at the gallery. The unpretentiously titled 'switch' has a twist - as the ground floor switch controls the lights on the first floor and the first floor switch obviously controls the lights on the ground. Genius.

I know a lot of people in new-build houses who'll be ecstatic to discover that what they'd originally considered to be an electrical design fault is actually a priceless work of art. Or possibly it only counts as art if it features in a gallery and was installed by someone who might have attended Art College.

I suspect this is the crux of our argument with 'art'. Can it only be called by the correct terminology if it has a scruffy but pretentious tosser applying some deep & hidden meaning to it? Witness Damien Hirst's work, a pickled shark in formaldehyde? That'll be 'The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living' of course.

I generally like Hirst although I wouldn't pay to see his work; I think he's earned enough. I don't have a problem with anyone's perception of what art might be. I figure that quite a few people are probably more culturally liberated than I am. I suspect my problem is related to what I consider to be the 'emperor's new clothes' - an unmade bed being 'art' because Tracey Emin put hers in a gallery.

If art is truly something that appeals to the emotions, above all other senses then we choose the art that we love. I consider the song 'God Only Knows' by The Beach Boys to be a work of art. On the basis of charging for modern art would it be the case that if Brian Wilson had only made one recording of the song and sold it to the highest bidder he'd have earned more than the £70.5m that Damien Hirst trousered last week?

On the other hand there is Banksy. That his stencils earn lots of money might be dubious but the fact that his work is greatly accessible, often has a point to make and pops up in random locations is reaching the masses in a way that most galleries never will. What's not to love?

That this argument is cyclical and ever recurring is obvious. However, I was surprised to find that people were making the same points over a century ago:

"To say that a work of art is good, but incomprehensible to the majority of men, is the same as saying of some kind of food that it is very good but that most people can't eat it."
Leo Tolstoy, What Is Art? (1898)

I can't argue with that.

The Wrong Mercury

The Mercury Music Prize is a weird thing, I'm not sure anyone can adequately explain why it really exists. Their website has a reasonable stab at it: 'The prize exists solely to champion UK music by promoting the 12 albums of the year by British or Irish artists'. Given this I'm not quite sure how the American Alison Kraus sneaked in this year, possibly under Robert Plant's greatcoat or behind Mark Lanegan, another American collaborator who was found on last year's list. I mention him as he's superb, around 6ft 6in tall and has the deepest voice on earth.

Anyway, back to the Mercury. It started 17 years ago as a sort of reaction to The BRITs which were considered 'too mainstream' - something The Mercurys could never be accused of. However, when you consider this as your rationale then having any pop albums in the shortlist seems something of a contradiction. In 1997 The Spice Girls' 'Spice' was on the shortlist which was surely an anomaly in every sense of the term.

I always figure that if I own or have at least heard around a third of the albums on the shortlist then I can probably still consider myself as contemporary or eclectic; every year I just about squeak by. This year I've heard five and probably still listen to three of them - so that's probably a result. Here's the list for your own analysis -

Adele 19
British Sea Power Do You Like Rock Music?
Burial Untrue
Elbow The Seldom Seen Kid
Estelle Shine
Last Shadow Puppets The Age of the Understatement
Laura Marling Alas I Cannot Swim
Neon Neon Stainless Style
Portico Quartet Knee Deep in the North Sea
Radiohead In Rainbows
Rachel Unthank & The Winterset The Bairns
Robert Plant & Alison Kraus Raising Sand

To further complicate matters the prize itself is named after a sponsor that no longer exists, Mercury having once been a telecoms firm. Hence all subsequent sponsors get to add their brand to one that went bust. Having a generic title gives you free rein of course and the website helpfully informs us that 'All genres of music are eligible and all albums are treated equally'.

It's hard to argue against a winner like Elbow when the judging criteria are so open. Musical taste is a subjective matter, it is tricky to evaluate the comparative merits of artists work within the same genre - so how do you decide fairly between dubstep (Burial) and folk (Laura/Rachel) or jazz (Portico)?

The formula for the shortlist seems simplistic enough: 3 x pop, 3 x indie, 2 x urban, 2 x folk and 2 x artists that no-one has ever heard of. For The Portico Quartet this year, try Zoe Rahman in 06 or Susheela Raman in 01, Thomas Ades in 99, John Tavener in 97, etc. I love the fact that it gives a spotlight to albums in an age where single-track or selective-track downloads would appear to be the future, but with only 12 they could at least all be fairly accessible?

Some artists seem to drop on the shortlist just by virtue of releasing an album - both of Arctic Monkeys releases to date (and their frontman's side-project this year), both of Amy Winehouse's but no winners, Radiohead have four appearances on 17 shortlists (five if you count Thom Yorke's solo album, on 2006's shortlist) but no winners and PJ Harvey had three until she won it in 2001, since which nada.

The classical artists may be happy to share a shortlist with their pop & rock contemporaries but none has yet lifted the trophy. Perhaps more bizarre in the year of Britpop's peak (1994) there were at least a couple of more-likely winners than M People who actually took it home.

For this reason it has always seemed a wilfully obscure award. For example they picked Badly Drawn Boy in 2000 ahead of clearly better albums by Doves & Death In Vegas. Or going with a drum n bass frenzy in 1997 picking the admittedly great Roni Size; but suggesting that 'New Forms' was better than Radiohead's 'OK Computer' or The Prodigy's 'Fat Of The Land' may have been a mistake.

If the best thing we can say about the Mercury is that it's unpredictable is that a solid enough basis for a ceremony? It throws a spotlight on a wide variety of musical titles, which is a great thing but how many of us are now inspired to go and listen to The Portico Quartet or Rachel Unthank? Sadly, me neither.

What we really need is The Sunday Mercury Music Prize. I may compile a shortlist by walking blindfolded around HMV in the Pavilions and picking up whatever CDs I knock to the floor. You can then choose the winners by drawing raffle tickets, or rolling a dice to match the number I've randomly given to each of the discs. I have a feeling it could easily be as valid as the real thing. I expect Channel 4 to commission the TV documentary shortly.

Is English Football Doomed?

As one of my favourite bands once said, 'let's get this straight from the start': I'm not a sports commentator, I'm just a fan. I actually tried commentating once, for clubcall, I was useless. All you had to do (at the time) was update every 15 minutes and whenever a goal was scored. I think I was covering Shrewsbury vs Scunthorpe and it didn't help that one of the teams scored three goals in close succession - I couldn't update the phoneline quick enough, as I was concentrating on reporting the last goal another one would go in. I haven't tried to do it since - to be fair they haven't asked me.

Now there's almost too much coverage; too many media owners and sponsors pitching for the same slice of the same pie. Consequently the clubs get greedier and the price of admission gets harder to afford. We've seen this process escalating for a number of years now; just when you think it can't get any more ridiculous it does just that.

One of the ongoing debates has been whether the cost of football will eventually become beyond the man-in-the-street. To an extent this has already happened, my last football-related blog mentioned that the average fan had become both older and richer, the football spectator has gone from working to middle-class. With the credit crunch now starting to bite the cost of being a fan will soon be beyond most of us. If I hadn't already bought my season ticket there's no way I'd be stumping up £40 for a category A game at the Hawthorns. Cup matches have been the first to suffer, at all grounds these fixtures have been sparsely attended and they will become ever more so.

Currently I'm choosing to actively spectate rather than passively support, my money goes on the physical participation of attending the game and not the sedentary satellite subscription. One can see that the top clubs are thinking only in terms of the latter, with an increasing number of foreign owners flooding into the sport it's one of the only ways that they'll get to see what they own. In sport as in life, as the rich get richer the poor will eventually get shafted.

It is usually the job of the football fan to hate their club's owners of course and Mike Ashley at Newcastle has become this season's pantomime villain, with Dennis Wise as his evil-dwarf and an Icelandic ugly-sister from West Ham thrown in to keep a tight rein on the purse-strings.


Should we really be vilifying these people for trying to balance budgets? This is what normal businesses do. None of us can afford to employ bungling comedic managers, even if they are folk-heroes, and not many of us can sustain over-spending if the raw materials we buy don't make the end-product any more successful. I'm aware that I'm over-stretching this comparative analogy to manufacturing businesses but I think it's worthy of consideration, because without it we all invite our clubs to be the playthings of disinterested playboys.

We may consider that Manchester City have caught a lucky break, exchanging one potentially dubious owner for a considerably richer version, but the knock-on effect could destroy all clubs as we currently know them. Rich men competing with each other to prove the size of their wallets will be an ego-fest to fill the back pages, and may give us all some amusing 'david and goliath' moments, but we will all feel the knock-on as normal clubs struggle to compete.

It's been a long time since football clubs made their living from hard-working, locally-raised players - even the smaller premiership squads are overflowing with foreign talent. This is in no way a xenophobic thought, but it seems very odd that we may be supporting a process by which our national game will be played out by American/Saudi-owned teams managed by Spaniards composed of non-English-players sponsored by global corporations for the benefit of worldwide TV audiences on channels owned by Australians and Irishmen........oops, I think we already are.

Things change and progress is not always obviously beneficial to all, this may be considered as the survival of the fittest. Our club-sides already succeed on an international stage where the national side has ceased to do so. When the European Super League is eventually ushered in, as it inevitably will be, we may be forced to wonder where it all went wrong. Will all Man City fans really then be seeing it as the time when it all went right?

Brands on the Run


I am interested in the psychology of marketing. I'm not proud of it, but a man's got to be interested in something (other than football & women) and it's better than stamp-collecting, train-spotting or morris-dancing. Although in its defence I understand now that morris-dancing is all about the beer; it's an excuse to go on day-long pub-crawls with your mates. Apparently wives don't mind as they know their morris-dancing spouses have no chance of pulling whilst wearing silly clothes, bells on their ankles and carrying sticks. They might want to consider the shame of having their loved-ones seen publicly in this pursuit though.

I digress. I can defend my interest in the mechanics of marketing as it's a by-product of my work. I have had cause to work alongside marketing-folk in promoting events or radio stations or the like. It comes to mind now as one of my key clients, Virgin Radio is in the process of changing its name. Consequently some of my friends and colleagues have spent many hours in, and out of, over-illuminated boardrooms agonising over whether the brand means more than its name.

Of course it does, but sometimes there is scant evidence to support this. Let's take some popular current media campaigns. You may have seen the Aryan-type racing a car around Germanic landmarks with Wagner blasting in the background, or the supporting press ads featuring the Eagle made of car-parts. You might possibly have been able to correctly recognise that this ad is for Citroen, or more likely that it was some French car-maker claiming to have learned something from the Teutonic race. Personally I feel that the possible reason that some people buy Citroen is that they're not German. They're buying them for their non-Deutsche features. Presumably if you wanted a car with German efficiency and features then you'd buy a VW or a BMW, or whatever. Why would you want to buy fake German?

My main worry (as someone interested in the psychology) would be that Citroen are undermining their brand. Are they suggesting that up to this point the cars they made were basically crap? That they needed to nick ideas from their European neighbours? Do Citroen play these ads in their increasingly-patriotic homeland? I doubt it.

By contrast the Germans seem to be on the run; the last BMW ad I saw seemed to be so similar to the recent Honda ads that I'd think they could be sued for plagiarism. The French want to be German but the German's know that drivers now think in Japanese.

Another, more subtle, example is Gordon's Gin. No doubt you've seen the billboards and press-ads. You may not remember them, because essentially it's just another picture of Gordon Ramsay with a slogan and a bottle. You see the link obviously, Gordon Ramsay - Gordon's Gin. Except, of course, it isn't Ramsay's gin - it's Alexander Gordon's gin, and was invented hundreds of years before Ramsay was even born.

I don't drink gin, and the presence of a potty-mouthed celebrity-chef wouldn't change that habit even if I do like him on TV. I guess they're playing on the concept that it's something to do with 'taste' - both Gordon's have it. To the untrained eye though I would suspect it just makes it look like Ramsay owns it. I suspect that he's also linked to a lot of other products, in and out of the kitchen. Consequently his impact is diminished and the brand is devalued.

What's in a name? When Virgin Megastores became Zavvi their profits actually increased, even though that looks like a crap name. Marathon became Snickers to align with its European branding which sort of makes sense, I didn't stop buying them. Now it's going back to being called Marathon which is slightly more perplexing as a whole generation will have grown up with Snickers!

Within a month when Virgin Radio definitively and decisively becomes Absolute Radio it will still have a similar music policy and key-presenters and the new owners will want to improve and promote if anything. Do people listen to a radio station because of its name? Fortunately the research says no. Like many Virgin-named brands, it hasn't been Branson-owned in many years, the name is licensed, and the new owners don't see the point in investing in a brand which they can never properly own. Many things in marketing confuse me, but this seems to make great sense. For the sake of my business I hope that everyone else agrees.

Football Unfocused

My friend Chris lives in New York. He sent me a message on facebook yesterday; it said "full of gloom yet?" I needed no further explanation. I knew exactly what he meant. As fans of West Bromwich Albion this is the state in which we live three quarters of each year, every year, wherever we're living.

I didn't miss the football season. At all. I was happy to enjoy the European Championships and appreciate the style and craft of the combatants without thinking about any misplaced patriotism. I had no emotional investment; I could experience it on a purely passive level - a voyeur, if you like.

If I try to think back to a time when I really enjoyed going to the match on a regular basis it would probably scare me. It may be that this time was actually 30 years ago. Certainly this would be true if I were thinking of success and attractive performances in the top league; it was also the time that I started actively going to 'the match'.

For a few years I was watching a great team, skilful players who played with a great spirit and didn't need to kiss their badges to prove their loyalty. I was amongst people who I considered to be like me, born of the Black Country and proud to stand and sing for their team. Last week I read that the average football fan is middle-class, male and in his forties. I once considered this to be special, now I've become average.


This is my main hobby, although I'd consider it more likely to be called an obsession. I use my leisure time to do it and frequently have to negotiate and arrange other responsibilities around it. It's time that I could be spending relaxing, but I never emerge from a match in a relaxed state. At best I leave exhilarated, at worst suicidal, but most frequently I'm just disappointed. Fed up that they don't do what I expect of them.

The thing is that I expect very little, perhaps only for them to try harder......or to not capitulate quite so easily to hoofers and cloggers, to fight fire with fire. I don't even expect them to win, often.

My default position is pessimistic. I have endured too many defeats snatched from the jaws of victory to even contemplate celebrating victory before 85 minutes. And even then we'd need to be three goals clear.

Frequently I ask myself why I bother; there have been times when I've given it up completely. I refused to go during the Ron Saunders years, a time in which we betrayed our philosophies - if such a word can ever be true of a football team. The directors made a bad appointment and Ron consigned us to years in the wilderness. At least that's how it seemed and still seems.

I guess I started going again as a social experiment! It was one of the few ways to see a lot of my friends in the same place, but once the terraces came down it was never really been the place it once was.

Now I find that if I'm not there the anxiety about how they're doing eats away at me, consumes my mind at the time that they're playing and if, as is usually the case, we've done badly then it'll frequently ruin my day completely. I know it's ridiculous to feel this way about something I can have no effect upon but even though I'm a relatively intelligent middle-aged man in my forties, this is what happens. I think I need help. My relationship with the Albion is dysfunctional at best.

I don't even do the 'banter'. I work on the basis that if you can't take it then you shouldn't dish it out. I definitely can't take it. I don't agree that it's more important than life or death, it sometimes feels that way though - and during the games themselves it is all consuming.

So, why bother? It's one of the few 'real' communities I belong to. There are frequent displays of wit and humour & a continual sense of a shared belonging, a real crowd mentality. Equally I sometimes hate some or all of them and I'm sure they hate me too. It's a social club that I'll never be able to leave. The football provides rare moments of intense pleasure and longer term bouts of sheer frustration. It goes with the territory and it seems that I'm stuck there. Boing boing, indeed.

Festivals - Part II

Once upon a time the outdoor rock festival was attended by one type of music fan. Usually male, unusually scruffy (one set of clothes for the entire weekend), long-haired and generally into rock.

Things have changed. Thankfully. Festivals are now a major social gathering, as much about the experience as the music - possibly much more about the experience in all honesty. But, what kind of experience is it?

Thanks to being a V Festival regular and present at Hylands Park last weekend for the third year running, I'm able to give you a guided tour - of sorts. At a festival normal human behaviour is abandoned in favour of the communal survival instinct.

Patrons/fans/billies (rhyming slang): It's a mixed-crowd these days. The fashions are incredibly varied, although the welly plus denim mini-skirt is still a perennial, particularly amongst the men. There were so many pairs of wellingtons out that the oil industry should consider sponsoring British festivals. You may consider this an odd link but wellies are made from PVC, a by-product of petroleum. Until I began to write this I thought they were all made of rubber, how wrong I was!

Anyway back to the festival-fashion show. Hats are still very popular; they tend to fall into certain sectors. Quite why so many people want to wander around with wide-brimmed straw creations on their heads is beyond me - it's like a thousand Crocodile Dundees have invaded the country. Thankfully the 'trilby' as popularised by Pete Doherty seems to have faded from view but the gay cowboy (multi-coloured & sequined) is still around. As for the crusty-mountaineers, woolly and generally striped with ear-flaps and pom-poms, the less said the better.

Fancy-dress: You're away for the weekend, with limited clothing in unpredictable weather. Naturally you want to spend that time dressed as spider-man. Or as a ballerina-fairy; again I'm referring entirely to the men.

Food: In times gone by you might have been lucky to see a chip van at a festival, these days it's much more varied, a selection of fast food to shame the centre of most towns. It's still a fair bet though that a concession named 'Hamburger Heaven' may be only 50% accurate at best.

Over the weekend period a large amount of this food will find its way onto the floor, which finally gives those wellies something to repel if it deigned not to rain in that time.

People taking photos on mobile phones: Blame Facebook. These days you can't go to any gig without seeing vast numbers of people taking pics on their mobiles. It's clearly not enough to have the experience; you also have to prove you've had it. I wouldn't mind but most pictures taken on mobile phones are crap. I have a 2mb camera on mine and this is the kind of result I get.

There are no prizes but if you can work out who it is I'll praise you highly.

Musical variety: At some festivals the music is an irrelevance, and rightly so. I tend to use the opportunity to see as many acts in a short-space of time as possible. By doing this I've worked out what makes a good set. Sing-a-long hits. There's a simple reason for this, in a wide open space with a limited speaker volume and those pesky weather conditions, your music will only project so far. If the crowd are also singing the songs then you have a better chance. On Sunday morning I saw The Stranglers (possibly for the first time in 20 years), 30 minutes and I knew every song - perfect. I strolled across to see The Rifles who I'd heard good things about and they were also pretty good, but not quite the same. Returning from their stage I went to look at Squeeze - perfect festival set.

Lenny Kravitz got this tragically wrong on Sunday (in my opinion), too much musicianship - great for your own gigs but not at festivals. In contrast Amy Winehouse almost got it right - your performance may not be up to much but if the crowd know all the words and want to support you then you can't lose.

Scheduling tragedies: You can see a lot of acts at festivals, including some you wouldn't cross the road to see for free in normal circumstances. The major tragedy of V for me was Muse being on at the same time as The Prodigy. I have a great belief that Muse are all show and few songs, so it had to be The Prodigy on home-turf and I made the right choice. The crowd went mental.

Walking in straight lines: Impossible at festivals. If you're not avoiding the mud or discarded food, you're dodging the fact that people will lie and sit anywhere - sometimes nowhere near a stage and in the middle of what is a clear walkway for thousands of people. Someone will sit there. There's also the problem of avoiding people walking in the same or opposite directions, none of whom are walking in a straight line.

Tired and emotional people: Until recently I was aware of this euphemism for drunks but had rarely seen it so vividly demonstrated. Clearly a lack of sleep on the camp-site plus a large quantity of alcohol contributes to people getting in this way. The number of people I saw crying was only equalled by the vast number of folk arguing on their mobile-phones with their other halves. Often this may have been due to them being separated in the crowds. They probably needed a fishing rod with wombles stuck to the top.

Fishing poles & wombles: Flag-poles have become a mainstay. OK, you get seen on the tv pictures and it helps others to find you. People have taken this to new extremes at both ends of the spectrum - from a helium balloon tied to a twig to a pair of cuddly toys on the end of very long fishing-poles, it's all the rage.

Male urinals: These have become an unusual but regular site of late. They are basically a line of giant moulded plastic buckets where men stand in the open-air and do the necessary. Frankly they become superfluous after a while as it's well known that men will urinate against any upright surface - natural or man-made. I even witnessed one woman doing this on Saturday night.

Now you probably have more than you need to know about the festival experience, no doubt some of you could add more points. I look forward to them.

Festooned, in a field

I had so many potential things to write about this week (Olympics, age-discrimination, Jade Goody, the start of the football season) that I became paralysed thinking about them all, and consequently wrote nothing. Part of the reason for this was that I spent my weekend in a park in Chelmsford.

Chelmsford is a place I've visited for around 3 to 4 days every year, in August. I wouldn't go there for any other reason but the V Festival. I have no idea what the town's like as I never spend any time in it, instead I spend 72ish hours in a park or a hotel bar and a very short time in bed, asleep.

I first went to a festival when I was very young in the early 80's - 1980 to be precise with the very first Monsters Of Rock event, headlined by Rainbow. I graduated to camping events a little later. Thanks to the interweb, I can now clarify this as the 1982 Reading Festival. My abiding memories are of sleeping badly in a small tent and buying home-made cider in 2 litre jerry cans - musically it was all about heavy rock. I can now see that Iron Maiden played it but I don't remember their set. I have clearer memories of Budgie, Diamond Head and the fact that they had two stages - next to each other. I vividly recall Dave Edmunds stopping his set mid-song as the two sets of audience were hurling bottles and toilet roll at each other and obviously not listening to him. He stopped to ask who was winning.

I effectively gave up camping and weekend events after going to Glastonbury in 1985. Wikipedia refers to a very wet event with mud and slurry (liquefied cow dung in fact) in front of the pyramid stage - I have some other recollections. Arriving on the Friday my mate Tony chucked a burger wrapper at me, having not anticipated this act I took no defensive action and it hit me in the eye knocking out one of my contact lenses. As I'd brought no glasses and have very bad eyesight, I spent the rest of the weekend in a bit of a blur.

Consequently I lost my mates on the Saturday night, my only memory of which was hearing The Style Council start their set. I was in the stinking toilets at the top of the hill at this time. I was badly equipped for the rain with no wellies (I have size 14 feet) and not much in the way of waterproofs; I seem to recall we slept in Tony's car.

It was also a real eye-opener (pun intended, sorry) in terms of the quantity of drug use - substances of all kinds were on very open sale. Along the main walkway to the Pyramid stage you could buy anything and I watched as a guy bought a hit from a man burning a lump of cannabis resin - he was holding it in tongs whilst the 'buyer' inhaled through a bottle with the bottom cut out. Since they've more than cleaned up the festival since then I'm aware of how unbelievable this story will sound.

From this point on and for a long time after, I limited my festival-going to one-day events like the Monsters Of Rock festival at Donington Park. This would later become the first festival that I worked on, having started working in live music by then. By the time it ended its first long run in 1996 I had become the show's press officer managing all international press at the event. Those memories may be saved for another day, and I will return very shortly with my thoughts on this year's V - the ones I'd originally intended to write when I sat down today!

Cruise Control

I'm back. This is probably as much of a relief to you as it is to me - not at all.

Given that you can now work from anywhere it's possible that I don't need to be back at all. I try convincing my many employers of this detail. It rarely works.

I was able to prove the flexibility of the technological age whilst viewing the wonders of the ancient one as I was on a cruise ship around the Greek islands.

Sending e-mails from the middle of the ocean is a bizarre revelation, but the novelty wears thin when the signal drops out due to unseen geographical phenomena.

Telling someone you've been on a cruise seems to age you instantly.

You seem to wither before their eyes like a Hammer Horror vampire in a shaft of sunlight.

Even people older than me don't get it. Cruising seems unable to shake its perception as being the preserve of wealthier OAPs.

It doesn't help that I was with the people who 'do cruises for people who don't do cruises'.

A flawed concept as, by the time you book, you have instantly become a person who does do cruises because you've paid to go on one.

It's a bizarre slogan anyway, one which reinforces a negative perception.

Instantly you have the mental image of having to elbow octogenarians to the ground in order to get to the pool, in fact I only had to do this twice.

They should concentrate on the positives. Most of the facilities on a ship are much better than ones you could get in a foreign hotel, unless you're very rich, of course.

You can also wake up each day in a new destination.

This is a major selling point to someone like me with the attention span of the average ADHD child. I also can't sit in the sun too long or I start to fry, talking of which ......

The food, the unlimited access to food.

The scale of food production on a ship is simply staggering, almost industrial. I've worked on festivals where they feed hundreds of crew in shifts, but that's nothing in comparison to this.

The quantity, variety and excellence of the cuisine was breath-taking. Or it would have been had anyone bothered to take a breath between shovelling enormous portions into their already overworked gullets.

They suggest you can gain 2lbs in weight every day on a cruise. For some people I'd think this was possible in each of the three-hour sittings for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

If eating ever becomes an Olympic sport I think I've found the venue - and some of the competitors.

The facilities are so good that despite the fact that the cruise called on some of the most historic and beautiful places in the World, some people didn't seem to leave the ship at all.

This is judging by the fact that they'd marked their territory in the usual holiday fashion by leaving towels on all the sun-beds. If we think this is stereotypical of another nationality, we need to think again.

I was, however, pleased to have escaped that blight of most modern holidays - not once did I hear someone boast about how cheaply or how last second they'd obtained their holiday online or on teletext.

That was some relief. Perhaps then it's the cruise for people who don't spend their lives on teletext, or the cruise for people who don't do diets. I'll eat to that.

Holidays - Who'd Have Them

I'm on holiday. I don't hesitate to share this with you because, even if you know where I live, I have an alarm and a house-sitter.

I also have a pack of ferocious Rottweilers who'll no doubt be starving by now as the 83 year-old house-sitter will have forgotten to feed them.

Some of this last sentence is untrue, although I do have a highly-trained attack guinea pig.

I'm not sure what holidays conjure up for you - probably a mixture of sun, sand, rest, culture, relaxation and laughter. For me it's usually sunburn, sunstroke and an opportunity to embarrass myself in a foreign country.

Once, in Turkey, I combined two of these misfortunes by managing to obtain a pure white handprint on an otherwise sunburned belly.

To this day I have no idea how I did this, and I unfortunately have very big hands.

The local restaurant which we'd attended on a regular basis (why do British people pick one bar or restaurant and stick with it?) recommended Greek yoghurt for sunburn.

They'd previously advised the same remedy for diarrhoea, with similar success.

Possibly I was eating it or rubbing it on for the opposing symptoms, however I figure that if I lived and worked in a holiday resort I might be similarly inclined to take the p**s out of the tourists.

As someone who has worked in sales at various points in my life, you'd imagine that I'd be good at that other holiday pursuit, haggling. Sadly this is not so. I think I once mortally offended an OAP selling belts on a Portuguese market stall by offering her less than the ticket price.

She looked mightily unimpressed as she snatched it from my hands. Naturally I tried the trick of turning my back and walking away, and ended up with no new belt.

I'm never really sure why we're encouraged to haggle when abroad. It's not as if we can usually speak the language that well, or at all.

Like most English people I speak one language, badly. I feel pretty guilty about this, but generally fail to do much about it.

When I'm on holiday I try to learn the right words for 'hello', 'thank you' and 'beer'. It can frequently take me the best part of two weeks to learn these and I can often get them mixed up. Asking for two thank-yous in a bar doesn't usually work too well.

Once, in Austria, I decided to test my impeccable knowledge of Japanese on some other tourists.

Unfortunately my impeccable knowledge of Japanese had been learned from my Cheap Trick At Budokan album (yellow vinyl, possibly slightly racist in retrospect?).

What I thought was 'hello' (dom arigato - phonetically anyway) was actually 'thank you very much'. They laughed. They may well have been Chinese anyway.

I was also fond of amusing the residents of Germany.

At the time I was trying to impress my partner (used here because I can't remember if it was before or after we got married) with my sub-standard secondary-school Deutsch. The bulb in our bathroom had blown and as I eloquently explained to the staff: 'Das lamp in die badenzimmer ist kaputt'.
I'm still reasonable confident that this is roughly correct, however they looked at me like I'd gone out - rather than the bulb. It was never changed.

Possibly - as in most UK hotels - the staff were from somewhere else entirely. German is a terrible language to learn, though. I really wish we'd learned something more useful at school.

English perhaps.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Why I'm Boycotting Tesco

I've been boycotting Tesco. Unfortunately I'm not sure they've noticed.

My boycott is almost three months old and whilst I possibly wasn't spending excessive amounts there (£6,500 a year's a lot to me) I still thought they might've spotted that I'm not aimlessly wandering around their aisles.

I once interviewed the guy behind Clubcard and he told me that if someone stopped shopping with them they would know 'within three weeks'. Perhaps they now make so much money that they just don't care?

For over 10 years I've used Tesco almost exclusively as my main supermarket, my retailer of choice. I have some affection for their layout, for their range of goods and for their prices.

As someone interested in marketing, I'm even a huge fan of the Clubcard - up to £4 return for every £100 spent and discount vouchers for stuff you buy? Who could resist that, even if it does mean that they know you better than your mum does and have a better record of your shopping habits than even you do?

I've even used Tesco although it's a mile further away than my nearest supermarket. I previously had an aversion to the nearest one (Sainsbury's) because their owner put so much money in Tory party coffers. Possibly I put too much thought into my choice of supermarket.

In truth it's now hard to avoid Tesco.

They have eight shops in an easily accessible range from my house and they sell everything. I'm still beholden to them for contact lenses and car insurance, for example. They're a British company doing very well in the world markets. They have a lot they can be proud of.

Unfortunately, their treatment of journalists is not one of those things.

In Thailand, Tesco has been criticised for aggressively pursuing their critics. A writer and former MP, Jit Siratranont, is facing up to two years in jail and a £16.4 million libel damages claim for saying that Tesco was expanding aggressively at the expense of small local retailers.

Tesco helpfully responded by serving him with writs for criminal defamation and civil libel.

I didn't stand up for local food producers when they complained of Tesco pressure, or even local retailers threatened by Tesco's relentless expansion policies. I didn't stand up for residents who didn't want another major supermarket in their backyard or green campaigners moaning about their transport hubs.

But there's always a point when it gets too close to home - and pursuing writers or journalists was the final straw for me.

Tesco are also pursuing a case against The Guardian, who had claimed they were involved in a complicated process to avoid tax - the newspaper's mistake was in suggesting it was the wrong kind of tax they were avoiding.

Let's face it, we'd all avoid punitive taxation if we could find a legal way of doing so. In Tesco's case the sums of money involved are probably astronomical - they make a big difference to the bottom line.

But that's not the issue.

The issue is the aggressive way they appear to be fighting to hide the facts, rather than facing them in the open. When you enter the legal arena, everyone's ability to discuss the issues gets wrapped up in legalese and red tape.

I'm sure it's valuable to them that people are now too scared to criticise. To me it represents the action of a bully and I can't really condone spending so much of my money with a bullying corporation.

The actions of one person are probably irrelevant to a company that makes £2 billion in profit each year.

But, as they continually say, every little helps.

The Waiting Game

I went to the hospital today. Nothing serious, I'm sure you'll all be uninterested to hear. I'm actually just trying to get on a waiting list.

A few years back I was told I had a torn cartilage. It took about 14 months and a scan to reach this conclusion, but as it wasn't bothering me much at the time it was decided to leave it alone.

Eventually, I was informed, it would probably give me some grief and I'd need it sorted.

A few years of running (or in my case advanced strolling and wheezing) and a couple of half-marathons later it has started to become somewhat more problematic.

So, I had to be re-referred to the original specialist who'd presumably put me back on a list to have the op.

What I hadn't taken into account was that I'd wait a few weeks after seeing a doctor, get sent two passwords in order to make an appointment (which random identity thief would want to steal my appointment?), see the specialist and then get another appointment for a pre-admission test, which was today.

Everyone has an NHS horror story in their closet, born usually from the expectation of such and from an over-reliance on a system that frequently has unrealistic demands placed upon it.

I'd chosen an early appointment, working on the theory that they wouldn't have built up a backlog by that time, and rolled up slightly early for it.


Coventry has a brand new hospital on the grounds of it's old one, which takes you a little by surprise if you haven't been for a while. You turn a corner onto the site and exclaim 'Sh*t, where did it go?'

Being a new building with plenty of signage I was slightly bewildered to find no directions to where I needed to be, thankfully this was easily solved by waiting at the front desk and asking the right questions.

This was 'where is the pre-admissions centre' rather than 'why is the pre-admissions centre not listed on those two long boards which have every other ward and department listed comprehensively, individually and alphabetically'? Sometimes you have to know when to ask the right thing.

I then proceeded to an empty reception desk in an alarmingly busy waiting room, and waited. By the time a small queue formed and I was directed to a seat, I was in a slight rage caused by the fact that the person behind me had her letter placed on top of mine (it's always the little things in these scenarios) as I was of course ahead of her.

I counted to ten (silently of course) and started to read a book, you should always have one with you in these circumstances - though I'm not sure an Auschwitz memoir was a great choice - whilst trying to ignore the ailments of those around me.

A pre-admissions test eventually transpired to be a form; four pages and 51 questions about my health.

My favourite of these was 'Do you hold your breath during sleep'. I was unable to call anyone to clarify this, and not aware of it myself (as I'm usually asleep at the time) so I ticked no and I hope for the best.

The final question was the curiously worded, and I quote: 'Tick if you are take any of the following'. Even my PC is aware that this is grammatically awkward.

Following the form was a height, weight and blood pressure check - all of which I could probably have done without bothering to go near a hospital, because let's face it who really wants to go near one, new or otherwise?

If I never go to Dudley Road/City Hospital in Birmingham ever again it'll be a major relief to me, I live in great fear of that place and its close resemblance to a Victorian asylum.

So, my hospital visit was over in less than 20 minutes. I still had to pay a three pound parking fee for the privilege as they have no short-stay option, a fact that always makes you think you're going to be there for a hefty duration.

I left with a photocopied leaflet about the anaesthetic: 12 pages stapled together in the wrong order and worded as if it's written for a child. I particularly enjoyed the list of side-effects and complications which could occur - including under 'rare or very rare complications', Damage to the eyes, nerve damage, death and equipment failure.

I'm still not sure why death is hiding above equipment failure or if the equipment referred to is theirs or mine.

Obviously talking about the NHS, hospitals or ailments is really the preserve of the old, and a clear sign that I'm on my way there. So here's a photo of my knee, taken at an ungodly hour of the morning in a Prague hotel-room after I'd fallen on it (the knee, not the hotel room).

Btw - it doesn't always look like this.

Fashion Unconscious

"Music was my first love, and it will be my last". So sang John Miles at some point in the 70's and whilst I don't have much time for the song I can't disagree with the sentiment. I've worked on the fringes of the music industry for over 20 years and what was an obsession has become a profession, I'm fortunate to make a living from something that started as a pleasure. Consequently it means a lot to me; three decades from when I bought my first record I'm still seeking out the pleasures of music.

One of the industry commentators I read regularly, Bob Lefsetz , has many opinions on the future of the music business and has often claimed that you can no longer tell what's really popular from the CD sales charts. Obviously he's right, given the decline in sales and how people really obtain music, but where he strays from the point is in the statement that you can really tell what's popular from the band T-shirts you see on the street. Clearly he hasn't spent much time in England of late.

I started as an interested observer of the rock t-shirt as fashion item boom, amused that so many young people would wear the colours of dated old rockers from the 70's and particularly the 80's metal phase. It was also a good time for me as I found myself having lots of fashionable items in my wardrobe for a change, by accident rather than design.

Unfortunately my amusement soon faded when one day working at BRMB and sporting a Ramones shirt, I bumped into a feckless pop duo who'd achieved some popularity by being on pap-idol. When one half of the witless wonders told me that he had the same T-shirt I was barely able to restrain my glee. After passing some similarly sarcastic comment in his direction I vowed never to wear it again, how could I be seen in the same shirt as some fool from reality TV?

My anger was compounded this time last year when I went on holiday and found myself sitting on a plane next to a man around my age. He was wearing an AC/DC T-shirt. They were the first band I ever saw live (at Birmingham Odeon) so I naturally complimented him on his taste. 'I don't know their stuff' he replied, 'I just liked the shirt'. It was a long flight but no further word passed between us, so deep was my contempt.

I guess it works like this: I am quite happy to see music create a fashion - tribes become easier to identify and music is so important to me that I like to see it playing a part in the lifestyle of others. Band T-shirts as fashion items is something else entirely. Music is a part of life, fashion seems vacuous in comparison - it's barely an accessory.

I know some people possibly feel equally strongly in the opposite camp, but they're wrong. I have always believed that to wear a band T-shirt is to almost advertise the magnificence of that act to others; it's a mark of ownership - a sign of your taste. How could you wear the shirt of a band without knowing much about them? Would my 'friend' on the plane have happily worn a Village People T-Shirt if the font was attractive and the design bold?

I suspect pop-boy knew nothing of the long history of The Ramones or their far more valuable input to music than his blip of fame. For all he knew The Ramones could've been rampant homophobes with far-right leanings who relished the thought of murdering young pop singers. For the record, they weren't, they didn't and they probably wish they could've.


It's not fashion, it's a statement. Don't wear it if you don't know anything about it. Or if you're going to wear it then at least do some research and make sure you're not looking like more of a fool than you clearly are. Finally, buy an official shirt - a lot of those bands could probably use the cash. Whether some of them should make any more records is another matter of course.


Disclaimer: The models/actresses gratuitously used in these photos may be huge fans of the bands whose shirts they are wearing and possibly not representative of this text, but I think you get the point.

Suburban Absurdia

When I was asked to consider writing these blogs (I know it's improbable that someone wanted me to do this, but bear with me) I thought it would be appropriate to give them a theme.

All the popular blogs seem to have some kind of theme, whether it's a home-worker railing against their multiple employers and cold-calling salesmen or something like a 'diary of a call girl'
Obviously these things can often be fiction, not actually written by either prostitutes or, even, girls - rather by unpublished authors looking for the newest marketing gimmick.

Whilst brainstorming (in my own brain, by myself) an intended 'theme' I thought I should also have a title, which I'd imagined might be 'Suburban Tales'.

This title also had an explanatory subtitle, 'locating the absurd in the apparently everyday'.

Before you see fit to comment, I already know that I clearly need to get out more, or think a lot less. In any case I abandoned the title idea, partly because I thought it might be too limiting - I might not see something absurd every week - and also that the length of the subtitle might actually exceed the content of the piece.

Having said all of this, and possibly already tested your patience, I am able to give you an idea of the kind of content I'd originally considered appropriately absurd.

I have cause to travel to London on a regular basis. This cause is 'work' or to give it a more vulgar but accurate form, 'money'.

As you might have heard, the new Mayor of London made a snap decision to ban the consumption of alcohol on the tube-lines which make travel in the capital such a joy.
Maybe it's the alcohol that made them a joy; this has yet to be determined. This ban came into effect on June 1st and Londoners obviously marked its imminent arrival with a night of partying on the underground.

As with many unofficial parties, the 'last night of drinking on the tube' descended into chaos and saw some stations closed by the police.

Nothing surprising there you might think, and indeed you'd be right until you fast-forward to the Monday after the event and my arrival at one of the tube stations that was closed.

My descent into Euston Station was rather more colourful than usual, because the entire arrivals concourse has been re-branded by an advertiser.

You currently find yourself surrounded by beautiful scenery across all the walls. These rolling hills and mountains can only advertise one thing - vodka.

So, on the day after the ban which was appropriately the morning after the 'morning after' the party, the entirety of a station which was closed by 'yobbish drunks' (© the tabloids) is now dedicated to advertising alcohol - a substance you're forbidden from using in the vicinity of the ad.

It is possible that the people responsible for the ad are revelling in the irony of the situation, and celebrating their cleverness in taking advantage of the resulting profile. I suspect not though, I imagine (knowing how long such campaigns take to plan) that it was a huge accident. A mistake.

The images are very pleasant, though. They are meant to conjure up the purity of the spirit they're advertising; huge pastoral scenes - the biggest of which is a picture of a giant Finnish lake.

Lovely, except that in the very centre of the lake, affixed by blu-tack, is a white A4 photocopied bulletin from the metropolitan police. The poster is seeking witnesses to a sexual assault that took place at the station. It sort of ruins the effect. *

In conclusion you may like to savour the slogan that accompanies the ads: 'vodka from a purer place'. Really, you couldn't make it up.

It may not be suburban, but it is certainly absurd and possibly inappropriate. These are characteristics I frequently embody, as you'll discover if you stick with me for a few weeks.

*It may seem even harder to believe but the agency responsible for the ad has a picture of the wrap on their website. The image they use is exactly the one I'm referring to The police notice is to the right of the red sign.

To Blog or Not to Blog? That is the question

Dave doesn't blog. He reckons he's too old.

By definition, since we were in the same school year, this means that I am also.

I try not to be ageist - at my age it'd be somewhat self-defeating. I also wonder if I should be taking maturity advice from someone who runs a comic shop.

In his defence it is the largest comic and sci-fi emporium in the whole of Birmingham, so he deserves some respect. He has risen to the top of his retail game.

Dave also had a comic published last year. This effectively means that more people have paid more money to read his work than they ever have mine.

I used to write a column in a free music magazine. When eventually I graduated to grown-up newspapers I can't kid myself that anyone coughed up the cover-price for my work alone.

Not even my mum. She had it delivered every night regardless.

I don't have creative envy. Again, it'd be self-defeating.

In the same school year as me and Dave was Rob, who went on to draw the 'Flanimals' in Ricky Gervais's children's books.

Another of our contemporaries was the best artist of them all and now creates fantasy figurines for retailers. I have no artistic ability, so I'm not fit to judge.

My abiding memory of art at school was when Mr Jackson crafted a sculpture of Jesus on the cross.

Unfortunately, when it left the kiln, Jesus' stomach had exploded - something to do with air bubbles in the clay. Possibly he was trying to teach us something biblical via allegory, but I doubt it.

He didn't look best pleased.

From the achievements of my classmates you might think I'm referring to a private college for the artistically gifted rather than some bog-standard comprehensive.

In truth it was probably below bog-standard. My school would never have topped any Ofsted rankings.

Fortunately schools were not graded that way back then. I think the school points system worked something like this: 10 points if 70% of the children turned up regularly, 20 points if 70% of the teachers did the same, 30 points if the school survived all vandalism and arson attacks during the term.

People tend to glorify their school days.

The best years of your life apparently, if you survive the bullies, knife-crime, teacher-apathy and the rigorous testing.

What did I learn from school? Perhaps that only the strong survive.

I learned eventually to become independent, to be self-sufficient. In a sense self-determination is the central to the development of all online activity.

People can do so much more by themselves and for themselves, even creating different identities should they wish. The advancement of computers and the dawn of the internet have led us here.

Thus, if I want to write a blog and Dave doesn't then we are entirely justified and currently able to do so.

Finding people to read it, or even think about paying for it is a different matter. Free speech and freedom of information seem to have no currency. It's a free world baby.

Only the strong survive. Unfortunately this moment of realisation dawned long after I'd escaped the confines of educational establishments.

Almost the whole of internet activity is based around an amplification of the self, interaction and social networking compels you to be involved and exaggerate elements of your real personality.
It will become one of the great philosophical questions of our time: 'If I'm not online do I really exist?' Or as a fellow Sunday Mercury blogger put it: 'I surf, therefore I am'.

So many sites seem like an exercise in 'showing off' whether they're Friends Disunited, Farcebook or the next one to explode, Twit-ter.

Similarly I have the writer's curse - the overwhelming desire to see my work in print.
These days print would seem to mean a screen of electronic type, but it's all the same to those of us who regularly need our ego inflated. My appearance here is possibly to satisfy my self-worth.

If a blog falls in cyber-space and there's no-one there to read it, does it make any sense?

The other question remains unanswered: are bloggers self-possessed or self-obsessed? Most are one or the other, and some are both. It all begins as an extension of your diary and develops from there.

Eventually you realise that your opinions are as valid as most others - perhaps even more so than some.

Of course, you might think this because you're mostly just interacting with yourself. It's self-validation or auto-flagellation perhaps.

Maybe Dave is right. Be sure to let me know or I'll think I'm on my own out here.