Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Stars Die - Review of the Year (part 4)

There's so much I'd like to talk about this year, but I'm big enough and ugly enough to realise that some things just can't be discussed in a public forum; not if you want to have a better 2010.

2009 has been dominated, for me, by two things - the deaths of many friends and acquaintances and my own miserably bad health.

Death visited no less than 5 times; four times it struck people who were close to me and the 5th time it struck someone who was close to people I felt close to. The oldest of these was 56; the youngest 42. As I type this, another long time acquaintance of mine and good friend of my brother-in-law, is fighting just to be able to see a glimmer of 2010. That's the problem when you get older, people around you shuffle off; but I sort of expected that to happen when I was about 70 (and be one of the first so I didn't have to put up with all the others), not before I marked even my 50th year.

Obviously, self-pity has been big on my agenda this last year. I started the year with a really bad cold... in fact, if you look at my 2009 desk diary, you'd be hard pressed not to make a case for me being put down.

The weird thing was that from about March to August, I could well have been transported back to the 1980s, a time where my memories are so fragmented (from all the drugs!) that I'm not totally sure I was there. I actually went to work through March, April and half of May before everything just got on top of me. I think, actually I'm convinced, that if Therese hadn't suggested I go home on the day I finally went off sick, I probably would have cracked up, broken down and fallen apart... It was, in fact, the drugs that were causing it. Yeah, the constant pain was a bummer, but the uber-strong painkillers I was prescribed actually fucked me up considerably more - hence not being able to remember much from that period - apart from the emotionally charged moments.

This blog covered a lot of the pain my shoulder gave me; the hassles and the frustration and with hindsight, I have to say, I could do with never revisiting a period like that ever again. I think I summed it best up when a colleague said, with an element of disdain in his/her voice, 'but you've had the whole summer off!' and I replied, "Tell you what. I'll swap you your summer for mine, right now - no strings attached!'

Of course, I now doubt that it was all 100% successful, but I also have to take into consideration that I also have arthritis in my shoulders; so I can't really expect it ever to be 'as right as rain' again.

Like I said, there are elements of my life that are just not for repeating here; but the hassles with work seemed to get resolved, eventually and I go into 2010 with a lot of enthusiasm and a little bit of trepidation - my new project needs to succeed.

I got fucked about a lot by friends this year. I ended up giving money to some of them - lending is just too stupid a term to use when you know damn well that the person you're 'lending' the money to has no way on earth of actually paying it back. I witnessed other friends willingly exchange their happiness for commercial and materialistic wants; which, I have to say, really made me question the journey that human nature is taking in the 21st century.

I got used. I got abused. I got threatened. I got attacked (albeit by a friendly dog, but I did still almost break my nose). I got insulted. I got a new car. I had my ego massaged. I had some fucking awesome sex and learned how to be really crap at poker. I had my integrity questioned... actually, that was one of the few things I didn't have happen... I made some new friends, I remained alienated from some old friends (and as time flies, I see no bad thing in this any longer) and I identified a human being that I would gladly like to see suffer for the rest of his life - a life that would have to be long, so he could suffer for longer than your average cuntbag.

But the year, to be fair, has been dominated by ill health and a year that I'd like to forget. I said, I kicked off 2009 with a stinking cold; I'm hurtling out of the year with a stinking cold. The kind of cold that leaves you shaking your head in disbelief. On December the 18th, I woke up with a really snotty nostril - singular - so blocked, I couldn't breathe through it. It stayed like this until the following Saturday when it opened like the floodgates of a dam. By the Tuesday it had sunk down to my chest, leaving my nostrils free to breathe again, but not my lungs. By Christmas Eve, I was hacking, coughing and had a splitting headache. Yet, by Bank Holiday Monday my chest was clearing and my throat was now red raw. It seems that for 10 days my cold couldn't decide on a plan of assault, so it just threw some feelers out. This morning, I believe the results of the experiment were processed and it was decided that I should NOW have all of the symptoms at once, rather than in handy little bite sized chunks.
So, I'm writing this with snot dripping from the end of my nose, a raging sore throat, a chesty cough, a stinking headache and I'm cold! I fucking hate this!!!

I'm not about to make an New Year's resolutions, but I am seriously considering taking a break from smoking for a month or two; just to repair some of the damage. The worst thing about the chest infection has been the obvious mirror image of what I'll be like - every day - by the time I'm 65, if I don't do something to improve my health. I'm sure that some wag will show some correlation between my arthritis and bone problems to my smoking; but the fact I've had FOUR colds in a 12 month period, suggests to me that I'm going to be the first to die if we have a massive flu pandemic...

If health was the motif for 2009, then my lack of achievement in 2009 has been its understudy. I was off work for 3½ months and all I seemed to do during that time was play Texas Hold'em, Farkle or Scrabble. Because I couldn't sit at a keyboard for long, nothing got done. I didn't write; I didn't imagine; I didn't do much at all. It's far easier to sit around and feel sorry for yourself than it is to try and do something; I failed, because I didn't really try.

Now, the end is near and 2009 faces the final curtain. I've had some pretty shitty years in the last 11; deaths of family members, the advent of arthritis, upheavals and major life changing events; but overall 2009 will probably be the nadir of bad...

That is until 2010; when England don't win the World Cup; Liverpool scrape into 4th place, breaking the hearts of Spurs, Man City and Villa fans; the Tories will be back in power; the council taxes will go through the roof, the weather will be shit again; friends or family will die or become seriously ill. 2010 offers so much, but will probably only deliver a percentage of goodness, the rest will be sheer misery.

Happy? New Year!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Stars Die - Review of the Year (part 3)

FILMS!

The Good

1. Up
Blew me away. Great story, lovely animation, crazy dogs!

2. 9
Far better than the critics reckoned; a simple tale beautifully rendered.

3. District 9
Much maligned - everyone missed the point.

4. Monsters Versus Aliens
A film that made it clear it didn't like Americans.

5. Zombieland
Caught me by surprise.

6. Star Trek
Wasn't brilliant, had moments I hated, 'Bones' was brilliant!

The Bad and the Ugly
1. Franklyn
Utter bollocks, predictable and quite stupid.

2. Watchmen
Everything was perfect until they changed the story.

3. Drag me to Hell
About as scary as a Yorkshire terrier.

4. Knowing
Unbelievable rubbish.

5. The Spirit
Lasted 5 minutes. The reason why superhero films can be a really bad idea.

There were other films I saw in 2009, many of which never lasted on my radar for more than seconds. I can't actually remember anything about Wolverine, probably because it was poo, There were also a number of films from 2008 I caught on DVD, but nothing sticks in my mind.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Stars Die - Review of the Year (part 2)

I was going to talk about TV, but frankly I'm not going too that much. 2009 has been a bit of a let down in many respects - only saved by a serial killer.

Battlestar Galactica was actually a lot of old bollocks. Forget all the Iraq war analogies and the terrorism and the angst; it was a load of religious mumbo jumbo and actually became hard work to watch. It was the TV equivalent of a long Leonard Cohen song. It wasn't actually that good. Critically acclaimed and bigged up by almost every one that watched it, including me, it was actually just a one-trick-pony that didn't outstay its welcome.

True Blood was quite astounding in its d├ębut season; it suffered a little from some tiresome characters, but in general it was a revelation - a real shot of blood, ahem... But season 2 seemed to forget all about the 'human' aspect of this series and substituted substance for style. Did Alan Ball just decide to see how many people he could shock seeing as he had a hit on his hands? Yes, there were some interesting developments and sub plots in this season, but over all I was glad to see it finish and hope that season 3 gets back on track.

Heroes proves quite categorically that the only people who should write superhero stories are people who understand superhero stories. This programme has always had its faults, but this season they are just polarised big time. Being frank, this series is a pile of shit and its only redeeming feature has been the Cheerleader's soul searching over her own sexual preferences and her need to break away from her cloying and fucked up family. Hayden Panettierre is obviously struggling with late adolescence in real life and she seems to be piling weight on like its on sale - it might be that the writers have actually given her character some thought; shame they didn't do it with the others. You just don't give a shit about any of them any more, even Sylar is something of a joke.

Flash Forward did huge things in its first episode and has done fuck all ever since. This is another series that you just don't give a fuck about the characters and Joe Fiennes's Yank accent is a bit of a joke. Apparently the show is headed for a bit of rethink.

Lost was actually on this year, but ended way back in the spring, so we're all entitled to forget about it. This is a show that has only got better since its audience ran away. I wouldn't even like to suggest what is going to happen in the final season (starting in February), but if it ends up being as mad, fucked up and brilliant as season 5 then it will be 17 weeks of pure joy!

Being Human is a British series about a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost. It feels like Man About the House and is quite, quite extraordinary. We aspire to do SF, fantasy and drama as well as the US; but they would be advised to look at this series because it is quite brilliant and you care about the three main characters. Really.

Fringe is the X Files meets Frankenstein meets Charlie Jade. It has been one of the real gems in the TV crown for me this year. Not only does it have the gorgeous Anna Torv - who any hot blooded male would - but it also has the quite magnificent John Noble playing the delightfully mad Walter Bishop, who makes his mad scientist seem like a tragic figure from a lost Shakespeare play. Fringe is essentially X Files but 10 years on. The FBI knows that there is something trying to get into our world and its up to the Fringe team to try and stop it. If you excuse the occasional naff filler episode, this is bonzer TV.

Doctor Who is an institution; I just hope Steven Moffat forgets that and turns it back into a rollicking good TV show again, because Russell T Davies, for all his skill, is a bit shit. The same has to be said for Torchwood which ended with a big cop out; such a clever little idea ruined.

Stargate Universe is complete and utter rancid cow's bum juice. However the last episode before the mid season break came so far out of left field that I'm still not sure it happened.

Smallville is pants. Don't watch it.

The Vampire Diaries was the shock of the year. Its a Kevin Williamson programme, so that should have us running for the hills in stark terror. Yet, despite being a little like Smallville with teeth, it went from a really crappy idea into a very good idea almost overnight. I was ready to give up on it as derivative vampire nonsense created to cash in on Twilight and then at the end of the 3rd episode it all got a little Buffy. Subsequently the last 7 episodes have been really inventive and quite clever.

But the winner by a country mile in the stakes for best TV series of the year, possibly of all time, is a bloke that is married with 3 kids, works for his local police force and in his spare time chops perps up with a big knife and industrial tools. Dexter has already been one of the most consistently brilliant TV series since it started and every series seems to have gone one better than the previous. Season 4 of Dexter is no exception. In fact, season 4 of Dexter could become the greatest single season of a TV series EVER! This season is just a brilliant rollercoaster of a ride that even in the quiet moments fills you with the feeling that this is not going to work out the way it was planned. In the end, the series goes out with an episode that, in my humble opinion, rates as one of the most shocking and stunning episodes of a TV show EVER EVER. You had no idea where the twists and turns were going to happen next in this series and in the end they went to such dark places that my jaw was left dangling on the floor with its conclusion. TV has never been this good.

I'm sure there were other things that I watched and enjoyed; such as Eureka, Armstrong & Miller, Harry & Paul, Qi, Buzzcocks, Skins and Top Gear, but overall, my TV consumption has dropped by almost 4 hours a week since 2008 (and that includes the fact that I've watched a few box sets this year).

Next time I'm covering the rest of everything.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Passion of Lovers (Part 4)

A sports newspaper or radio show should hire me!

Here are some quotes from August:
Manchester City - money does buy you trophies - just ask Roman - but does Mark Hughes have the ability to turn Citeh into a force or are we, like so many times in the past, going to be laughing into our beer as they struggle to beat Port Vale in the cup and lose to Burnley at Eastlands? Mark Hughes might not be favourite for the sack, but I'm betting that if Citeh ain't in the top 4 at Christmas, he's going to be spending the early part of 2010 with his feet up...
I might not have got the specifics right, but is that the bee's knees of a prediction. But so is this:
Liverpool - whenever I'm feeling down, I think about the Fat Spanish Waiter and how Liverpool fans believe he's some kind of brilliant tactician and mindgame specialist, when all he is, is a petulant bad sport who it appears has already laid the foundation for this coming season's failure by saying that all the best players have chosen money over the Red Shite. I have serious doubts about a title challenge; they've lost several players and do not have the strength in depth that the top two have.
Now, that wasn't as predictable as the first one, based on previous seasons. This was also almost predictable:
Arse-nal - write Wenger's boys off at your peril.
They'll be 2nd if they win their game in hand. This also slightly had good odds, but I'm still quite proud of it:
Villa are a key team in this season's shake up. If they have what it takes they'll need to improve on their dismal record against the Sky Four; if they can do that and beat the teams around them, they are likeliest to break into the Champions League.
They currently occupy 4th spot, 2 points ahead of my beloved Spurs. This was a good one, in my humble opinion:
Portsmouth - this year's Bar Codes? This could be an embarrassment waiting to happen and the new boys will be hoping that Pompey self-destruct without any of their regular players. Expect the rest of the best to be gone by September and the owner cited for tax evasion and the first Premier League club to go into administration.
I know their then owner was as dodgy as fuck, but, until today they really looked dead and buried.

I'd just like to remind people of this:
Wigan, however, are about as inspiring as mud.
and then say, 9-1 9-1 9-1 9-1 9-1 ad infinitum...

The 'how right was I' tally goes up with this:
Stoke City - last year's 90s styled bruisers with a long throw rather than a long ball. Too many teams were caught out last season; most, with the exception of Spurs, will have learned their lessons.
Spurs, when faced with the chance of going 3rd, conspired to lose 1-0 at White Hart Lane and finish the game with multiple injuries. And speaking of my team:
Tottenham Hotspur - guaranteed to drop points against all three teams that will be relegated; will put together great runs, but lose matches they should win.
See the above excerpt, the 1-0 home defeat against Wolves and we're not even at Christmas yet!

Speaking of Christmas; there's people who'd like to see a winter break and the current weather adds weight to that argument (except you can never guess when the cold snaps are going to happen), but seasons' are made or broken because of this 2 week period of intense game play followed by the fun of the FA Cup. My team usually do a very good impression of Christmas decorations and come down pretty quickly once Christmas has bitten the dust. However, Boxing Day's fixtures could leave me in the unenviable position of condemning the wife's team to being well adrift at the bottom of the table - a place they could end up being tomorrow afternoon if Chelsea beat them. But, that said, West Ham are a relegation threatened side, so Spurs will probably struggle against them as they always do. Hammers fans should hope for a Spurs win, because we always lose to 2 of the 3 relegated teams and Wolves have already taken 3 points off of us.

The sacking of Mark Hughes, while forecast, is still a pretty despicable thing. Citeh are 6th and in a good position in a year when just about anyone in the top 8 could realistically get a top 4 position if they string a 15 match unbeaten run together between now and Easter. I hope Mancini struggles and Citeh plummet. They did it to Sven when they didn't have to and now Hughesy. Citeh should crash and burn, if there's any justice!

Mark Hughes could suddenly become a major and unexpected contender for Liverpool's manager; he might be the sort of manager the Red Shite need; they seem to have lost their way with foreign managers, perhaps having a Welshman at the helm might steady the ship.

I stood on Sandbanks in the late summer and looked over Poole harbour at the stretch of land on which Harry Redknapp lives - the most expensive in the country. Today we discover he is being charged with some kind of tax problem. I do hope this doesn't fuck up another season.

My predictions for the rest of the season for a bit of fun are pretty boring. I think the top 5 will be the top 5 at the end of the season. I think Citeh and Liverpool will fight it out for 6th and 7th, while Fulham and Birmingham could be playing in their own mini-mini-league. Downstairs, Sunderland will finish top of the lower league and I really wouldn't like to pick any team: Burnley, Blackburn, Wigan, Everton, Hull, Bolton, Wolves, West Ham and Portsmouth - the season has been so topsy turvy already; sense says that Everton will rake themselves clear, but it might take a while and it won't be pretty. Sentimentality says that West Ham should avoid the drop, but they are dogged by bad luck and still technically qualify as a yo-yo team. Portsmouth under Avram Grant could achieve the great escape and Blackburn should be okay, by virtue of the fact they should beat their rivals. I'll stick my neck out and say - Wolves, Bolton and Wigan, with the Hammers scraping through with a week to spare.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Y Fenni Batter

Apologies for blogging too much; I have too much on my mind at the moment.

I've always regarded myself as an ex member of the press, despite my actual involvement being peripheral and pretty much specialised, so when the press tend to bandwagon jump, I tend to get a knee-jerk reaction.

An aside, but you'll get the drift. Many years ago, I hated Steve Davis - the snooker player. Snooker was big business for colour television and it was the kind of sport that appealed to television in the 80s. Steve 'interesting' Davis was the target of all of my hate. I wanted anyone to win a tournament, but not him. When Stephen Hendry came onto the scene, he made Steve Davis seem positively electric and with a personality as big as a small communist country. When he started to win everything, I started to root for the guy I saw as the underdog - Steve Davis.

Now, this is an irrational thing that I've had for years. I hated Man Utd for years; they started to look fallible, suddenly I found I had more respect for them than ever before - still don't like them, but you have to be objective, even as a football fan. Fallen idols seem to be embraced more in the last 30 years than ever before.

The only real exception to the rule has been Tiger Woods. When the master golfer came onto the scene, he was so good that to dislike him was irrationality at its most extreme. He shook up golf, made a really difficult game look easy and allowed golf to become less staid and more modern. He was also mixed race so that made the stuffed shirts of modern golf sit up and listen - golf was not a middle class white boy's preference any more.

I'm not a huge fan of adultery, but its something that happens, quite a bit and its a fact of life. I can honestly say I've never known that many people who have indulged in it and regardless of how you view it, it didn't really change the people involved. Tiger Woods 'infidelity' as he is himself now referring to it, has been trumped up by the world press as something so earth-shatteringly awful that you'd think the poor bastard had been found with an 8-year-old boy on the end of his cock!

However, the fact that he has publicly come out and apologised, not just to his wife and children, but also to the massed world population, actually makes my blood boil. Frankly, it's his business and maybe to a certain degree all the companies that sponsor him; other than that, there is no one he has to answer to. I don't think he owes anything to his fans and followers; its his bloody life, he has enough money and intelligence to do with it as he wants. Yes, there's a lot of debris; his wife is probably distraught (at the prospect of gaining half of his vast fortune if she files for divorce) and its not fair on the kids or the other family members. But, other than that, its no ones business. I really couldn't care less what he does with his penis; I just want to see him making mincemeat of golf courses and making the game less boring than cricket to watch.

My respect for Woods has waned a little. Not necessarily because of what he's done (and from reports he done quite a few!), but because of the way he's been pulled into this world view of peoples private lives and pandered to it. For fuck's sake, if I had this guy's money, the first thing I'd be saying to the first reporter shoving a mic in my face would be, "Why don't you fuck off and cover some real news you bone-picking cunt", very loudly, then ask the reporter how he's going to show that on Fox news?

However, if you read some of the 'other' reports of this incident, you'll see that Elin Nordegren, Mrs T. Woods, is actually a raving psychopath with a penchant for using the same equipment as Tiger, but as a weapon of facial destruction than for knocking balls around - although I'm pretty sure she'd do that as well. She might be strikingly fit and gorgeous, but she's also got a temper on her the size of Woods' bank balance and reports suggest that she is anything but easy to live with. I'm not condoning Tiger, what he did was stupid on a lot of levels, but none that warranted a public apology, or the acres of column inches dedicated to what a black golfer did with his knob and who with.

The bottom line is the guy's wife should be more interested in being happy rather than worrying about losing her comfortable life and that's what I'm seeing. I'm seeing a woman who knows that her husband has been sleeping around and is prepared to accept it because of the commercial benefits from it. It's like WAGs - why the fuck would half of them want to be with stupid brain dead dorks - because that's what most footballers are and a fair few are as ugly as slapped arses. As much as I disliked the Mrs Merton Show, the best question of the last decade - the 1990s - was when she asked Debbie Magee what she saw in the millionaire Paul Daniels.

It's never been something I've been able to get my head around. Why some people stay with partners who are so obviously the biggest most disrespectful cunts alive. But then you start to realise that some people are just unbelievably shallow and that's a real shame, because you only get one chance at life and it seems a great waste of a life to throw it away for the sake of a nice house, fast car or foreign holidays. Not something I'll even pretend to understand. Since when did love, affection and commitment became less important than materialistic nonsense?

I just hope the above scenario doesn't apply to any of my friends, because that would be really sad and they'd deserve to spend the rest of their lives miserable and unhappy!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Stars Die - Review of the Year (part 1)

I'm sitting here listening to an old song by Porcupine Tree and wishing there was a band about at the moment who could replicate the sound and feel of PT circa 1994. But that's only because Porcupine Tree don't produce a sound comparable to then, despite having grown and, in some peoples eyes, progressed.

The thing is Steven Wilson and his projects have been my major discovery of the first decade of the 21st Century. Yes, the 'noughties' introduced me to such pleasures as The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, Elbow, Mark Gardner, Hidria Space Folk, Taipuva Luotisuora, Mescalito, Serena Maneesh, Hybrid, Mew, the Secret Machines, Maxxess, Sigur Ros, Blow Up Hollywood and old stuff like Mazzy Star, Cradle, Lone Star, Propaganda, The Sundays, Traffic and my usual stock of old faves that regularly get wheeled out and played. This last ten years have been exciting for music in my life.

But the last 12 months have been quite remarkable, Amplifier, Pineapple Thief, Charlie Barnes, Fuck Buttons, Ladytron, Pure Reason Revolution, Riverside, Oceansize, School of Seven Bells, to name just a handful of artists that have found their way onto my radar and have stuck. There's much more, but I really can't be arsed to go trawling through my enormous record collection for obscurities that have already lost some of their sheen.

The Internet has improved my music collection and broadened my tastes. I really don't think there has been a better time for discovering diversity and real enthusiasm. I might not really understand the attraction of some of the current crop of shite, but if it's rated on drive, energy and ambition then you can't fault it.

My album of the year was not released in 2009, it came out in 2005, but I only discovered it in April. The band had such an effect on me that I broke a 24 year hoodoo and went to a festival, just to see them play live (as I discovered their music just a few weeks after they finished their small UK tour in Leicester...). The band is called Amplifier and I've been bigging them up continuously since I first heard them. They also, for me, took the best gig of the year award, because the sun came out on the worst July day imaginable and shone while they performed an almost perfect 55 minute set, before the heavens opened again and pissed all over Fightstar!

Amplifier pushed all the rock buttons on my console. Someone I discovered because of them pushed all the right buttons in another genre. The progressive torch song and intricate layered solo performances by Charlie Barnes meant that I saw him twice and the lad hasn't even got a record deal. I hope to put him on in Northampton next year, because, quite simply, he deserves to be fucking huge. To see him live is to see a future star in action. He also comes across as a thoroughly decent chap (and he's only 20!)

Pineapple Thief, who have been around for 10 years, but are barely even on the radar, are a band I discovered who seemed to fill the gap between Radiohead, Coldplay and Porcupine Tree. There's nothing anal or cheesy about them, they do good honest songs (of which some of them are 25 minutes long!). Live they are accomplished and should, if progressive pop rock was the in-thing, be bigger than they are.

Fuck Buttons came from nowhere and infiltrated my psyche almost completely. Best summed up by old gits as quite uncategorisable, the FB's produce dance music with a touch of metal nous. It's music but not like you've ever heard it, Jim. Probably can only get more commercial.

While The Secret Machines dropped down my faves chart, they were replaced by the completely different School of Seven Bells, which features an ex Machine as the driving musical force. They sound like Elizabeth Frazer on acid, or the Cocteau Twins put through a beat box - they should have been better received.

A special mention has to go to my friend Steve Messina, who's band Blow Up Hollywood have been quiet for a few years. I was really lucky to receive a 12 track 'sample' of what to expect from the new album(s) in the New Year and it was a most enjoyable way to end a year of music. The new tracks range from prog rock to Floydian stylings to simple piano and voice to Cage-esque soundscapes and modern jazz. It sounds like a mish-mash, but take it out of its 12 track context and you have some of the best music this guy and his band have ever produced. 2010 deserves to be the year they succeed and I'll do what I can to make sure us Brits hear them.

Other notable albums in the last 12 months have included the quite brilliant Porcupine Tree's The Incident; a return to form for a band who seemed to be losing their way in a miasma of heavy metal riffs. Head Porcupine Steven Wilson also released Insurgents, which was the best Porcupine Tree album for 9 years.

There have been more and I'm sure I'll mention them before the end of the month. But next time... TV.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Whispering Grass

Or maybe, Theme for Not-So Great Cities...

In the last week I have done 4 cities, all of which make Northampton look like a small town with a lot of housing. To be fair, none of the cities that I've been to, with the exception possibly of Leicester, are real cities, although, at least, Wolverhampton isn't an amalgamation of everywhere in a radius. I'm sure Leicester was nothing more than a place with a lot of other places tagged on, but today it at least feels like a city when you drive around it. It seems to take an age to get from the signpost on the A6, north of Market Harborough, which says 'Welcome to Leicester City' and the corresponding sign on the same road as you head towards Nottingham and Derby. Leicester has districts that merge seamlessly. Steer clear if you don't understand multi-cultural or cosmopolitan.

Peterborough is a big town with a lot of smaller places linked together by new development and roads. Peterborough is, on the face of it, a new city and while its city centre puts Northampton's to shame and the general expanse of the place seemingly dwarfs my town; it only feels like a city because they make a big deal out of it. Unlike Leicester, Peterborough doesn't have an imposing skyline. Beware if you have a fear of the word 'Orton'.

Stoke on Trent is actually 3 towns - Newcastle, Hanley and Stoke. It's a shit hole and every time I've ever been there its pissed down with rain. It's industrial and grubby; it feels like 3 towns stuck together with higher rates. I'm amazed its there. People say 'Macar' as opposed to 'My car' far more pronounced than people from Nottingham.

Wolverhampton still has signs up all over the place with the legend 'Town Centre' on them. It feels like a mini-city. Some of the architecture is impressive, and it feels like a big town that's made the step up. It has a city centre that, while not in Leicester's league, makes Northampton look like a big village. It might be apocryphal that people are called 'Moxy' there.

And then there's the great pretender... Northampton. Forget all the historical reasons why Northampton could never be a city and just try to imagine it if you've never been here. It feels like a city when you approach it, yet, it doesn't. It is, in fact, the largest town in the UK, yet it has an infrastructure that could quite easily collapse if there was a major problem. You drive into any of the major cities in this country and there's at least half a dozen major roads taking you to the centre; Northampton's most major road actually manages to miss the town centre by about a mile and a half; the feeder roads into the centre are all single carriageway; congestion is a given; parking is a nightmare; shopping is limited. In fact, unless you are a chav, have a drink problem or are like many of the inhabitants of this town, completely fucking stupid, you'd want to avoid the place like a neighbour with swine flu. It has a small town mentality and it doesn't matter how big it spreads and how much it engulfs in its quest to become a new city, this will never change.

*************

I'm suddenly devoid of inspiration...

Monday, December 07, 2009

Gig Guide 5: Porcupine Tree at Wolverhampton Civic Hall, December 6

They've only been in existence 20 odd years, yet tonight they played possibly their biggest date in the UK ever. Upgraded from the poxy little Wulfrun Hall to the main Civic Centre, because of demand, Porcupine Tree provided two sets to delight the fans and even looked like they were enjoying themselves - Steven Wilson in particular.

My enjoyment of gigs nowadays depends on whether or not my back will hold out for the duration and it always seems to struggle when a band plays a track I'm not that enamoured with. Despite excellent sound and an almost faultless set, this was probably the least enjoyable of the 3 PT gigs I've been to, and that 'despite' is taking into account that tonight they played 'The Incident' in it's entirety and last year, when I saw them twice, they played Fear of a Blank Planet and I think that is the weakest album they have done, compared to the latest which is one of the better efforts.

The problem tonight was 'The Incident' was excellent and the highlight of the evening was Time Flies; but after the break, the band returned to the stage and by my estimations only managed to play 3 songs that pre-dated Deadwing, plus 2 of the encores were from In Absentia. Rumours of a revival of Stars Die was unfounded and too much emphasis was placed on FoaBP and Nil Recurring (the mini album of stuff that didn't make it to FoaBP). I suppose that is to be expected as the last two albums are the reason PT were upgraded to the bigger venue; but I was only saying before the gig how Wilson seems to like to drag up a couple of old classics from the deep past, to please the die hard fans, and yet tonight, despite his cheery disposition, nada. It was like the 20th century didn't exist.

Special mention to Gavin Harrison who possibly made a claim for best drummer in the world at the moment. Colin Edwin was his usual odd self on bass (never knew he was an Aussie) and Barbieri looks like the band's music teacher. Wesley was adequate as Wilson's deputy and the man himself was, as noted, in a good mood and immaculately turned out in a sort of polished nerd sort of way. Musically it was more accomplished than last night's gig, these guys have been doing it longer; but the pandering to the nu metal heads made me wish I'd seen them in the 90s when no one had heard of them and they could noodle away on Post-Floyd type tracks until the cows came home.

Don't get me wrong, it was a good gig, but it was also just a little soulless.

6½/10

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Gig Guide 4: Pineapple Thief at The Musician, Leicester

The P weekend! Peterborough Friday for the best pub in the world; Pineapple Thief in Leicester on Saturday and the mighty Porcupine Tree in Wolverhampton on Sunday. My Christmas presents to myself in many respects.

The Musician is a great venue and the sound is surprisingly good considering it isn't much bigger than a conventional middle of the road pub. They also have splendid beer; last night we were treated to Pretoria by the Allgate Ale Company - a very nice accompaniment to a very accomplished set.

Pineapple Thief are like a prog-pop version of Radiohead. Roger, who came with me to the gig called them 'Radiohead with toons' and he's very right. My knowledge of the band doesn't stretch far beyond their albums, which I possess and have had periods where I play them to death. But for a band that have been going for 10 years and have a very appreciative following, you'd have thought that the set would have had more than just 4 songs from old albums - 3 of which were from the last, Tightly Unwound, CD. The rest of the set was made up with new stuff and while it all sounds very good; it wasn't what I'd gone to see them for.

My companions seemed to have a good time and to be fair so did I, but at points during the gig I found myself more interested in the waif with the incredibly small waist standing next to me than the new songs. It's always good too see some young and nubile flesh at a concert largely made up of people over 35 - shame she seemed as interested in the gig as I get at the thought of being spit-roasted by 6 burly gay bikers.

But, that said, I'd do it again - go to see PT that is. Perhaps when the new album has come out and I'm familiar with the songs.

6/10 (Next stop Wolverhampton!)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Second Life Syndrome

The first thing on tonight bile-fuelled agenda are Americans. Americans have been lucky since Barry Obama was elected; they sort of went up in peoples' estimations on account that a majority of them showed a semblance of intelligence in voting for a black democrat with a largely peaceful and slightly reforming agenda. I still reckon someone will take a potshot at him at some point - he's far too good a man to survive two terms in office. However, as good as Barry is, he got involved in one of those great USA traditions and spared the life of a turkey on Thanksgiving...

Whoop-de-do.

Despite a lot of people outside of North America understanding the reasons behind Thanksgiving, it is one of those peculiarities of the United States - something they do that no one else does.

For the ignorant, Thanksgiving is the celebration of the arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers to the North American shores and the first meal they shared with the native Americans (incidentally, corn and eels, not turkey). On the face of it, it is an honourable day to celebrate and one that you would imagine a God-fearing, ultra religious bunch of Yanks would embrace. And embrace it they do, so wholeheartedly that it now overshadows Christmas (and probably has done for many years). The Americans, because they have to be so bloody unique, have essentially made the arrival of a bunch of Brits from Plymouth to their shores as religiously more important than the supposed birth of Christ.

In the USA you get Thanksgiving weekend, which is essentially 4 days - Thursday, Friday and the weekend, where it is a national holiday and you are allowed to take time off without being made to feel guilty. Christmas, however, is a one day holiday and I'm pretty sure that if it falls on a weekend then only the most benevolent employers give time off in lieu.

Christmas is such commercial big business now that Thanksgiving has effectively usurped it as the premier family holiday. Yet part of me wants to believe that Thanksgiving has been made to be this big massive holiday purely and simply because it is unique to the USA. Christmas is shared by too many people. This is so typical of the bloody Yanks - they couldn't comprehend the basic rules of rugby, cricket or rounders so invented American Football and Baseball instead. A country that believed for 50 years that it was without equal the supplier of the world's greatest golfers, so they limited non-Americans on their tour even more stringently when the few non- Americans began to win all the time (this has stopped some what, but still happens) and because football (soccer) can end in a draw or be dull at times, they've decided it is essentially a sport for women, despite the rest of the world acknowledging it as the most important sport on the planet.

Quite a contrary bunch those Americans (yet they love to accuse us of being the contrary ones)...

Anyhow, this is a pointless ramble considering what I feel about most religious holidays and the rampant commercialism that has devalued these festivals. Yes, I know I'm an atheist, but I'm a relatively spiritual atheist and I feel that Christmas should be a time for reflection, a time of peace and goodwill and one where we should give thanks or lament the previous 12 months. It should not be what it has become.

*******

I've been wading through each season of Smallville for the last few weeks. Why? Well, once upon a time, I was something of a Superman fan. I hated the character as a kid, but as I got older and the story telling for the Man of Steel got more sophisticated, the more hooked I became. In fact, my Superman comic collection was pretty impressive when I sold them all off.

So watching Smallville, which I had avoided like the plague for 8 years, just seemed like the logical thing to do when I needed an uncomplicated superhero fix without the burden of comics. While watching one episode, the character of Aquaman was introduced to the cast and because I was bored and not ready for bed, I did a wiki on Aquaman to read about the aborted spin-off TV series and ended up reading about the most recent reincarnation of Aquaman in DC Comics. Which led me to references to Infinite Crisis, Countdown to Final Crisis, Final Crisis, Ultimate Final Infinite Crisis, Carry on Crisis, and various other derivatives of the original, groundbreaking and seemingly sequel-proof Crisis on Infinite Earths. This led me to asking some questions and I finally decided that comics have lost any soul it might once of had...

Spandex comics are essentially all about timeless adventure and every so often something would happen to shake the very foundations of a comic. Like in the best loved TV shows, the death of a central character was always something pretty major. There were also somethings that seemed fixed in the unseen calendar of comics continuity. Let me explain; the recent Dr Who special was about immutable time; something fixed in the calendar that can't be changed. In the mid-1980s, DC did something remarkable; they effectively killed every single universe that inhabited the company's comic book history. They commissioned a story that involved tying up all the convoluted continuity bollocks that had been pretty much responsible for DC's falling right behind Marvel as top dogs in comics.

Now, some of the most major events in recent US comics' history have been deaths. Yet, despite the ephemeral nature of comics and the rotating audience; new writers and editors seem to think that the best way of stimulating sales isn't to come up with new and developing stories and plots; but to dig up some old character, come up with some laudable reason why they're still alive and try to relive old glories, but instead just alienate the old timers and thoroughly confuse the possible newcomers. Nobody dies forever in comics.

So, when I saw all these references to follow up series for this incredibly important comics series DC launched in the 80s, all I could think was that if there isn't a new idea under the sun then its about time for looked somewhere else for ideas, because comics have finally sold out. This is worse than sequels in many respects, because while they can't even come up with something original, comics of this nature just feed off the narrow-minded 'expertise' of editors, who rather than push boundaries, just think that by retreading old ground again and again they're going to make themselves famous. I have no idea what these 'sequels' are like. I have no intention of buying them or even reading them. I would have thought, that as a huge fan of the original, I would have been one of the key stats in their demographics - one of the people most likely to buy it. If that's the case, they were wrong.

*******

Poland is back in my mind again - this time thanks to a prog rock band called Riverside. I downloaded them by accident and was remarkably impressed with what I heard. You'd hate them though.

*******

Busy weekend coming up. Peterborough on Friday to visit possibly the finest ale house in the region - The Brewery Tap. Saturday up to Leicester to see Pineapple Thief and Sunday way over to Wolverhampton to see Porcupine Tree (thanks to some whizzo ticket dealing by Roger). Monday sees Stoke on Trent coming onto my radar. All this excitement will help me take my mind off of things that I'm managing to keep a lid on, just.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Passion of Lovers (Part 3)

Blah blah blah football blah blah blah

A lot of England football fans will tell you that FIFA has something against the England team, whether it's through dodgy qualifying draws, bad refereeing decisions, or just the fact that most of us think Sepp Blatter just doesn't like the fact that England invented the game.

However, this last month has seen a different face to FIFA - obvious bias and obvious corruption and thankfully England was not involved (well, almost not). The first hint of commercialism over fair play appeared when FIFA moved the goalposts for the 8 best placed runners up in the qualifying groups. Instead of the promised straight knockout, football's governing body opted instead to seed the 4 'highest ranked' [read: more lucrative] footballing nations. This meant that the Republic of Ireland, Slovenia, Bosnia and Ukraine all had potentially more difficult opposition, rather than just letting fate decide the 4 matches by drawing the balls out like the FA Cup.

The new improved FIFA fate decided that Ireland would get the toughest draw of the lot - France. Arguably the team that FIFA wanted more in South Africa than any of the other 7. The Irish coach Trappatoni made his feelings clear before and after the 'draw' and despite a fighting chance in the 2nd leg, the hand of Thierry landed the devastating blow. 3 of the 4 preferred teams made it to South Africa and Slovenia provided the human interest by knocking out the Russians, of which only the Russians and one Dutch bloke will be overly concerned. (Hiddink for the Red Shite any one?)

It was unfair. It was a low blow. And it stunk of FIFA getting its own way, by any means, especially if those means mean not changing the game to make it fairer and more just. The Irish government can complain until the Kerrygold cows come home, FIFA will not sanction a replay on the grounds of one small incident in a 120 minute long game of football - the precedent would be too horrendous to contemplate. But, something good might come out of this, even if it means the likes of Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and Shay Given will probably not now get the chance to grace the world stage again (Giggs never has, so its not uncommon). You see, the Irish ain't England; they carry a lot of respect in world football - a one time perennial over achieving side, that still 9 times out of 10 is in the shake up for major competition qualification. Their fans are a pleasure to be with; the players are modest and self-effacing and they're currently managed by one of the most respected elder statesmen of football... I was only saying last week that something will happen that will force FIFA's hand into using some form of technology to prevent incidents like this ever happening again.

Steve Claridge made a very good point on Radio 5 last week, when he said that if you look at the amount of time it takes for a referee to placate a heated contention of a decision - despite every single one of those footballers knowing that once a decision is made it takes a miracle of biblical proportions for the ref to overturn it - a 5th match official could be sitting watching the monitors of the television coverage (every major game now is covered), who could make a far more accurate and informed decision and relay it to the pitch ref via head phones. This happens in cricket, tennis and rugby in recent years and oddly enough it hasn't changed those games; in fact, it's made them a damn sight fairer. Yes, there are still some dodgy decisions, but so few as they tend to slip under the wire or cause minutes of debate rather than months.

Something like this could make the game a damned sight more honest than its become. Plus, it would stop wankers like Ferguson and Benitez from bleating about referees' and their 'bad' decisions.

Speaking of SAF, football's most famous timekeeper would probably be dead against this idea. How about a rugby league styled clock system rather than the referee's watch? The clock gets stopped for any unnatural pause in the game - a booking or sending off, an injury, penalty or a substitution. It would continue running for throw-ins, corners, free and goal-kicks. It would mean there would never be any complaints about too much or too little injury time being played and the fans might not feel as cheated, especially when some games the ball is actually in play for less than 35 minutes in a 45+ minute half!

But neither FIFA or UEFA would adopt that policy; it's too prone to not be in favour of the favoured teams. But football's two biggest governing bodies don't like anything that makes the game a more level playing field. A few years ago, the Japanese developed a microchip that weighed something like a tenth of a gram. It was so small and flexible it could literally be sewn into the fabric of a football - it had 100 times less effect on the flight of a ball than mud from a heavy pitch would have, yet FIFA threw the idea into touch solely on the grounds of tampering with the integrity of the match ball.

If FIFA really wants to have a world cup that features just the top teams in the world, then why don't they be blatant about it? They have the laughable Confederations cup every two years, which, to be fair, could disappear into the either and only Brazil would be bothered. They could replace it with a bi-annual World Championship of Football, where the top 8 or even 16 ranked teams in the world play each other in a straight knockout competition. Heck, you could even keep the teams seeded and play 1 v 16, 2 v 15, 3 v 14 and so on until you get to 7 v 8 - just like how Wimbledon is structured to work. At least that way you'd be guaranteed a massive world wide audience every two years and the incentive of the 3000 teams ranked lower than 16 or 8 is that the only way they can appear in this lucrative competition is by improving their national teams and challenging for the competition. But, of course, for this to work, there would have to be a much fairer ranking system and to change the current system is yet another thing football's dictators would never consider doing.

The irony about the Irish result is that neither teams were likely - on current form - to qualify from the group stages in South Africa (unless of course France now get handed a group consisting of New Zealand, North Korea and Honduras) and the French under Raymond Domeneque are a bit like England under Steve McLaren - pretty much a load of shit considering the talent at his disposal. There's also a good chance that Ireland might have had more of a fight in them, so its a shame that they didn't make it.

The thing that is killing true football is the commercialisation of the game by TV companies and the billions of pounds being offered, of which UEFA and FIFA just have dinner plate eyes for. The Europa league is already a joke for many of the teams, especially the British teams, because staying in their respective Premier leagues is considerably more important than playing in a competition where, if you win 19 games, half a Premier League season, you get the Mickey Mouse Champions League trophy and a tenth of what a CL semi-finalist will receive in prize money alone. So, suddenly, the euphoria of getting into Europe is chastened by the realisation that to qualify from the now considerably more difficult group stage, you are going to be playing the pick of the youth team, the fringe players and the tea lady, to stand a chance of getting a point against Wolves the following Sunday.

The Europa League is a joke and frankly if Spurs are 4th, 5th or 6th come the end of April I'm going to be praying that we either win all our games or lose them all. If we can't be there in the shake up for a Champions League place, then I don't really want to be in the Europa league unless we've got a squad that can hack it. Harry Rednapp said recently that he thought the Europa League would do well to return to the old UEFA cup format.
A 128 team knockout competition, with seeding only for the first 3 rounds - the last 16 would just go into a pot and destiny would guide the hands of the ball drawers - now that would maybe interest more neutrals and would probably appease the money grabbing bigger clubs, because they'd be at least guaranteed a quarter final berth. Of course, the drawback to this is the 3rd place teams in the Champions League group stages; they'd just either be eliminated from Europe for another year, or if UEFA want to milk it, they could have a sort of European Vase, where the 3rd and 4th place teams in group stages play each other in a knockout until there's one winner, who gets a trophy and automatic entry into one of the next season's competitions if they fail to qualify by league position.

I also think that the Premier league needs to sort its act out if FIFA isn't willing to move the game forward. The EPL is probably one of the most powerful bodies in football today, purely based on the amount of revenue it generates. But, the EPL is weak and doesn't like change; it has members that are terrified of not being in the EPL and there is a general feeling from fans that it might not need fixing, but it does need cleaning up and polishing.

Despite UEFA requesting we reduce the EPL to 16 or 18 teams (can't quite remember) by the turn of the century, that's never happened and isn't likely to while there is a massive gap in revenue between the EPL and the Football League Championship. Phil Gartside, Bolton's chairman and his idea of a two-tier EPL might sound like him feathering his own nest because his club haven't got the resources to ever be much more than a struggling mid-table team, but the idea isn't without merit, depending on whether or not they made it a closed shop or not. Two leagues of 18 teams, with two up and down from the top league and one down, one up from the Football League, which would be split into 3 regional leagues with play-offs between the winners and the team that finished 18th in EPL2, with a final, and the winner getting into, or staying in EPL2.

The three regional FL leagues would each have 20 teams in, meaning there would be 96 clubs in the league; this would allow 4 teams from the conference to come up and the remaining teams and their two lower leagues would also become regional conferences with promotion to the FL.

The League Cup would change because of this and I think I'd give up the UEFA place in favour of another EPL1 qualifier. Plus 96 teams allows for a totally easy way of organising it. The first round would be 64 teams - the 60 from the FL and the 4 lowest ranked teams in EPL2. The 32 qualifiers would then be put in a draw with the 32 other teams; no ranking or seeding, no exemption because of European commitments - with no Euro qualification hanging on it, the major teams would have to play the majority of their fringe - it could be mandatory that EPL1 teams have to play at least 8 players who have to be under 23.

The FA Cup could be rejuvenated by increasing the prize money, possibly even giving the incentive of a CL place by playing off against the 4th place team in the EPL, especially if they want to piss off fans, but if rugby union can have champions that aren't actually champions, then why can't football deprive the 4th most consistent team of the year a place in football's golden handshake for the sake of a money-spinning one-off?

Anyhow, that's what I'd do if I was in charge of football.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

White Elephant Coat

General observations:

I am no longer young enough to sleep in places that aren't my bed.
I don't care what others think, my eclectic music taste is a good thing.*
I have not willingly drunk a cup of tea for 6 years.
I need a chainsaw.
I'm not sure what I did, but it didn't have a happy outcome.
I'm totally baffled how people can prefer autumn and winter over spring and summer - have you looked outside recently?
I positively urge people to take more care of their backs.
I'm sure a member of Hanson just walked by my house.

3 Minute Filler:

* Personally, I don't think I have that bad a music taste; yes, it is very eclectic and one day you'll find me listening to prog, the next indie, maybe a bit of house, trance or progressive break beats and then I'll rock out to something a little too young for my aching bones... Yes, there are some genres that I avoid like the plague - hip hop (but not trip hop), grime, garage and RnB (all the modern versions). I personally think black music has lost its way; where once the scene was responsible for everything from Otis Redding to Living Color thru Aretha, Dionne, James Brown to Smokey Robinson. Nowadays, if 50 Cent or Kanye West or Dizzee fucking Rascal are the best we can expect from black music then I'm glad I keep it well away from my deteriorating ears! But, as usual, I'm digressing.

The last few years have been a good one for discovering new music - something that still gives me a thrill - and while many people around me look in horror and dismay at some of the stuff I've found, I can only presume that they are not versed enough in the aesthetics of eclecticism!
It's the beauty of the Internet that allows you to be able to listen (or in some cases illegally download) to someone you fancy trying out - the idea of try it first, buy it later has finally been embraced by some of the music industry. To be honest, I'd rather do that than buy something on spec and hate it, regardless of what the artist gets from it. You can't take a record back to a shop on the strength that its a load of shit.

Fortunately, I am a fairly honest bloke and if I really like a band or an artist then I'll make sure I have proper copies of albums, etc. Which is why bands like Blow Up Hollywood, Amplifier, Pineapple Thief and Porcupine Tree, plus artists like Charlie Barnes, Maxxess and Mark Gardner have profited from me. These are just some examples of music which I would probably, in all honesty, completely overlooked without the net. Every day I'm discovering something new or something different - many of which won't ever become permanent fixtures in my collection, but at least it's expanding my horizons.

Myco-crazy

Yep, it's official, 2009 has been the year of the failed mushroom crop! It's the middle of November and I've just started to find the odd edible mushroom amidst what appears to be a flourish of inedible fruiting bodies, getting as much pumped out before the bad frosts hit. It's a shame that most of the really good eaters have well passed their optimum growing period.
Today, however, I found some more parasol mushrooms - good ones - so I'm a little happier about an atrocious year and the lack of really good free mycelial goodness! Yeah, I know, little things, etc...

***********

I'm counting down the days to the end of the year. 2009 can't end soon enough. One bloody horrendous month after another, with very few high points. Constant setbacks, constant pain and constant inconsistency... The problem is I know what's going to happen; I'm going to enter 2010 with another bout of unjustified optimism and as soon as the wheels drop off of something, it's just going to set the tone for the rest of the year.

Just remember; life is going to get considerably more shit and there's going to be very few people carrying rolls of Andrex to mop it up!

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Gig Guide 3: Charlie Barnes - The Wireless, Watford

Back in July, during my first correspondence with Charlie Barnes, we were discussing our mutual appreciation for the band, Amplifier. Yet, you listen to Charlie's set and you wonder how the hell the two entities ended up sharing a tour, studio space and friendship. The latter can be explained away by Charlie's totally affable and humble demeanour, and it seems the first two can be attributed to what my dad used to called, 'having a lot of neck'. Well Charlie Barnes needs a lot of neck, because he has a voice that soars higher than the sun. That aside, he probably wouldn't have been doing this gig if he hadn't walked up to the guys in Amplifier, handed them a demo tape and asked if he could support them on their forthcoming tour. I don't care how big a band is, it takes some nerve to do what he did and all credit to Amplifier for possibly uncovering a new star.

Charlie's voice was the thing that impressed me when I saw him at the 2000 Trees festival and the reason I ventured down to crappy little Watford for a gig, in a splendid venue. I'd likened Charlie to a one-man Sigur Ros with balls, but my opinion has changed slightly now I've seen him again. While the Icelanders' are pretty much post rock geniuses (at times), Mssr Barnes is more European and to compare the two is like trying to compare Sweden with Greece). Both create an ambitious, sometimes ambient, back drop to their music, but Barnes does this using just a couple of things - his own unique voice and a computer.

This is another of the things that impresses me about Charlie. He is a one man band, but he could use lots of backing tapes and shit like that, but instead he creates his own backing tracks in a wonderful way that makes the songs seem to come alive; like watching and listening to something being created specifically for you. It's like watching someone weave fabric, except he does it mimicking beatboxes, drums, and his screeches and howls are somehow transformed into the perfect accompaniment. Charlie cites French pop as one of his influences and there's definitely something French about the way he hits the high note, sustains what seem unfeasibly long notes and uses space to create a slightly detached, almost Piaf-like, feel to his songs. He is an absolute joy to watch even if you can't penetrate his music.

His 45 minute set went down extremely well with the small crowd (and the likable little dog that got very excited about Geekk) and Charlie declared that the venue was one of top 5 he'd ever played in. The striking thing about the place was its acoustics; considering the complexity of a Barnes performance, there wasn't the hint of feedback and the sound was crystal clear.

During our first conversations, Charlie told me that he felt that his chums in Amplifier, as well as being totally swell chaps with a great love for live music, were unlikely to become rock megastars and stadium fillers because of the kind of rock music they play. My personal jury is still out on this, but that could be because I rate Amplifier very highly. But my point it, however brilliant I believe Charlie Barnes to be, I wonder if he's not just a little too avante garde to become a star. Like Amplifier, I believe he deserves to be, but I'm not an A&R man and I have a tendency to like an awful lot of shite as well as a lot of good stuff.

Tracks like This Boy Blind prove that he can write a commercially gorgeous song, Geekk is the kind of song Tom Chaplin would love to be able to master, while Oradour is anything but a prog song, but it just shows that Charlie loves his prog, even if he can transform it into something like a Torch Song. There have been comparisons with Thom Yorke, yet as much as I like Radiohead, I think Charlie has a better voice than Yorke. If I was describing him as a wine, I'd agree with his website and say there's some Scott Walker in there; a splash of Marc Almond. A bit of Matt Hales and a dash of an 80s band I used to like called In Embrace. Charlie also has something else going for thim though, a lot of himself.

If you're following him on MySpace or Facebook you'll see he's been busy in the studio. If his debut album has anything like the power and impact of one of his live shows then he deserves to make a shitload of money from this business.

8/10

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Merde du Jour

What a shit, shit week! Caught a virus, did my back in, lost money, discovered another old friend has cancer - that just about sums it up. Oh and the clocks went back, which officially makes today the shittiest of them all.

I hate GMT, it's stupid and outdated. I really don't give a shit that it doesn't get light until 9am in the morning, if it doesn't get dark until 5pm, that's a damned sight better than 4pm. If I had kids I'd rather they came home from school in the light rather than in the dark. Kids are going somewhere in the morning - school, so whether its dark or not is immaterial. Kids are meandering lost souls after school who can wander about aimlessly and take an hour to do a 15 minute journey. I'd rather they meandered in the light or twilight. Plus it's so fucking depressing and we don't get an extra hour in bed, we wake up an hour earlier! If we have to put the clocks back, lets do it it in December and put them forward again in January. That way the proper Christmas season can be all warm and snuggly and grim, like wot it was like in Victorian times...

I've been itching to write a column about social networking sites, but it really is a can of worms and continues to grow exponentially and, more importantly, I don't know if I can do it justice, especially as the areas of my invective are pretty much marginalised anyhow. However, that didn't stop me from jotting down some things wot I thought...

Facebook is something of a phenomenon, and I, like many others, have been swept up by its charmless mish-mash of applications, updates and self-importantisms*. It was started by Friends Reunited, which, of course, became more famous for elevating school romances into the realm of adulterous affairs than it did for how much it was sold for. FR was essentially a hag or shag site - were the girls/boys you used to know at school hags or shags? FB is far more sophisticated and was developed by Yanks, but it's still essentially a free form of dating site.

The concept of FB could be applied to other rip off sites, a short list of which I have compiled:
Hatebook - you don't make friends with people, you hate them. If the hate is mutual even better! Your status update is insults and all the applications are shoot'em ups.
Firstbook - a small selective SNG; you just become friends with the first person you had sex with, no one else. The interesting thing about this seeing how many other people had sex for the first time with the person you did!
Pervbook - got a perversion? Hook up with like-minded people and post photos of your own mutilated genitalia.
Arsebook - an SNG dedicated to pictures of your arse - this one's a winner! (There are obvious spin-offs from this; cockbook, cuntbook, boobbook, tonsilbook, elbowbook, nosebook... the list could almost be endless)

The other thing about SNGs (and virtual worlds, of which I have ventured nowhere near) that has me perplexed is this 'currency' that is creeping in. Recently in the Guardian there was an article about the economy of virtual worlds and how people use real money to buy virtual money to buy people virtual presents... I'm sorry, perhaps this is just me, but is that the most fucking stupid idea ever, ever? What did you get for your birthday then? Oh, I got some virtual flowers and a virtual box of virtual chocolates!

One of my current favourites is Zynga's Texas Hold'em Poker on FB. It's waaaay more popular than virtually any other application and its a free game playing with free chips. But, you can buy tokens to allow you to buy back into games which don't have actual prizes. Let me make this clear: There's a weekly poker tournament where you get 1000 virtual dollars; the aim is to stay in the tournament until the following Sunday night and accumulate the most chips. If you win V$1,000,000 by the end of the week, I get that V$1million plus a bonus of about 10%, so I get V$100k. The only place you can use these virtual dollars is in Zynga's poker game and as stakes or to buy more virtual gifts. If I get knocked out at any point during that week, I can pay $1.95 - actual money - to buy V$1k of chips to re-enter the tournament to try and win nothing! Zynga, allegedly, makes over $100k a year from this feature alone. Is this complete and utter insanity?

Another great one is FB's birthday gifts. You get half a dozen free ones and then the rest increase in cost. These are all NOT REAL and yet they want you to pay $5 for a bottle of virtual champagne!!!! You can buy Facebook credits to allow you to buy Facebook virtual gifts... perhaps Facebook should have been called GullibleTwatBook?

Anyhow, if people have no sense and enough disposable income they want to do this kind of unmitigated nonsense, then I can't stop them, but I know what they are and how to call them.

But, saying that, I remember when FB decided to change its entire look. Over a million people complained about the new look and begged for the old look to come back. I said at the time they can bleat and whine all they want, nothing will happen and guess what? Nothing happened and if anything the new Facebook is riddled with stuff that once upon a time would have had people fleeing for alternatives.

The internet is changing and if people want to fulfil the self-fulfilling prophecy that one day they would spend more time in cyberspace than on terra firma, then it's entirely up to them. Personally, I'd rather own real estate than unreal estate; I'd rather have sex with a real person than have a glorified wank in front of a monitor and most of all, I'd like to buy someone something they can hold in their hands - love it or hate it - rather than buy them a virtual gift that is utterly worthless because it doesn't exist.

Moving on...

Overheard in Tesco about an hour ago: "Oh, I'll be so happy when Halloween is out of the way; then it's just Bonfire Night and Christmas!" This is a woman who should have been sealed up pre-puberty!!! For fuck's sake, and this means you, Halloween is a purely American invention, created not in the spirit (if you'll excuse the pun) but to make MONEY out of YOU!!! It has little or nothing to do with Britain and if a kid knocks on my door next Saturday trick or treating, I will explain to him that doorstep begging died out during the Victorian era when it was made illegal, so if they don't get off my property I'll set the fucking dogs on them!

I came up with a perfect way of celebrating Christmas! Change the date to February 29th and celebrate it every 4 years! That way it would become special again and would give us all four years to forget just how awful it is and how we intend to enjoy ourselves, but always end up spending it with all the people we'd rather lock in the cellar of a flood compromised housing estate.

Did I mention I was having a bad week?


* I am aware this is a made up word

Sunday, October 18, 2009

SQUONK!!

Walking home that night
The sack across my back, the sound of sobbing on my shoulder.
When suddenly it stopped,
I opened up the sack, all that I had
A pool of bubbles and tears - Just a pool of tears.
October 16th, 1989. So many people who came to the opening of Squonk!! are no longer with us and that's the saddest part of having an anniversary like this...
SQUONK!!

It was a song written by mssrs Collins, Rutherford, Banks and Hackett in 1975. It opened the Trick of the Tail album, the first post-Gabriel. It isn't even my favourite track on the album, yet in the face of having to call my greatest business venture 'The Comics Hall', this left field suggestion was always going to be a winner.

Comic books and Genesis were the two things of my youth. I even attempted to launch a prog fanzine off the back of my comics fanzine, back in the 1970s, called Squonk Images. So when I mentioned this, everyone in the room seemed to think this was the perfect name for a comics shop; and I know I'm biased, but I still think it's in the Top One of comic shop names, even today...

Squonk!! (the exclamation marks were important and caused the bank all kinds of problems printing my cheque books) was a very half-arsed retail venture. I have to be honest, because with hindsight, I'm amazed I didn't die of embarrassment; it was as slick as a penny farthing and looked like it had been conceived, built and painted by a group of intellectually challenged goldfish.

I took £317.58 on the opening day (I still have all my takings books) and for the first time in my life felt as though I was in charge of my own destiny. That day began with a song called 'Big New Beginning' by The Big Dish and the first customer didn't walk through the door until 11.12am.

I had little or no idea how to run a shop and I made huge swathes of mistakes during the first 12 months and yet, miraculously I managed to stay on top of things, despite interest rates going through the roof and me struggling to stock much else other than comics. Comics were still very much big business in 1990 and I was approached by an investor, who, at the time was buying into a viable business, but by the time he was £8k lighter in his pocket, his stake was worth about half of that. My second business partner bought out my first and let me run the business the way I'd begun to learn how and by March 1991 it was in the black.

Suddenly, I had a small success on my hands. The bank was no longer a worry; I'd saved a couple of hundred quid in monthly bank charges and suddenly the black figures were growing larger. It was a glorious 6 weeks and then the shit hit the fan. Wellingborough Council, bless their hearts, decided to shut the street Squonk!! was situated on; the dramatic loss in passing trade was quite astonishing. By 1991, I needed to take £1100 a week to pay my bills, myself and keep the bank balance stable, anything more than that - woohoo - anything less, then time begins to run out.

Within two weeks of the planned 3 month closure, my takings had dropped by 50%, fortunately for me so had most other shops. By week six, when the council reopened the road, I had plunged to over £2000 in the red - worse than I had ever been in the previous two years - but the reopening didn't bring a flood of customers; in fact some I never saw again - they had bought their monthlies somewhere else and decided to stay (Eternity in MK did okay out of me).

By September 1991, I was in dire straits and only a massive sale at a London comic mart, which generated the £2000 I needed to ward off the wolves, saved out skins. We were all right for a while, but we needed to generate more business; we plunged into mail order, did more comics fairs and marts and I began to not pay Peter to pay Paul.

The shop started to really stagger in the March of 1992. Interest rates were 16%; I was two months in arrears with my rent and three months with my rates. The only people being paid were Diamond and they were helpful in some ways and a massive hindrance in others. Another massive sale in London generated less than £500 and at a subsequent one in Leeds, I came home with £100. It was barely enough to keep myself afloat.

In the May, with no sublet shops, no new comics, no likelihood of any form of cash injection and after a long 3-way conversation with Dez Skinn and Mike Conroy, I decided to pull the plug. Squonk!! shut around the 25th of May; it took more money on its last day than it did on its first...

Without Squonk!! I would never have ended up working for Comics International for 11 years; I would never have ended up working with the homeless and with young offenders; I wouldn't have created Borderline quite as successfully as I did.

20 years on... the wife is still here; so is Colin Theobald - the designer of the Squonk!! logo, that sits in my shed. Neil McOnie, Matt DeMonti, Luan 'Mammary Lass' Jones - all paid staff are still family/friends; Glynn is no longer with us... Scott Goodman, the world's scariest Saturday lad is still as large as life and he and Jay Eales remain two of my best friends. Dez - the bloke who ran the Head shops and Roger, the bloke who did my accounts - are still my closest friends. An ex-customer of mine even plumbed in our new bathroom for us last year and I worked with his girlfriend! Just last week, brother Ron was at a comic mart, up north, and he met a guy who was one of my customers during the last days of its life. He was pretty sure this bloke must of had me confused with someone else because of the unbelievably wonderful picture he painted of his brother. Squonk!! haunts me in a good way...

The first ever email address I ever had and still the used, most often, today is a squonk address. The name of our quiz team is Squonk and its also the name of my fantasy football team... It's never been a password to anything! It resonates throughout my life and I'll probably have it engraved on my tombstone, just to make people in 200 years wonder... There are things about my past I'd gladly change right now if I could, but the only thing I would have changed out my Squonk!! years would be the location. If I'd been patient and waited, I might still be doing it today...

It was 20 years ago... so much has been lost, so much has been found.