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