My Top Ten Albums of 2011

December 18, 2011

Here’s what has become my yearly rundown on my favorite new stuff this year. I hope you hear something you like.

Here’s a Spotify playlist of all the tracks.

I’m not going to bother with reviews and just let the music speak for itself.

Fujiya and Miyagi – Ventriloquizzing

This band should be much bigger – particularly with an album as high quality as this.

Battles – Gloss Drop

Dutch Uncles – Cadenza

tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L

Wire – Red Barked Tree

Album can be heard here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/musicblog/2011/jan/04/wire-red-barked-tree

Rival Sons – Pressure and Time

Seen these guys at High Voltage – twice. They’re terrific and, while there’s nothing original in their retro rock sound, it’s addictive stuff.

Blitzen Trapper – American Goldwing

A good companion to the Rival Sons album. They’ve given up on the electronic elements that gave their Wild Mountain Nation album a Beck-ish sound.

Liturgy – Aesthetica

An anti-death metal death metal album. The cover is white, the font is Helvetica black and the band don’t wear panstick.

Dope Body – Nupping

This is insane.

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds

There are no surprises on this record other than this being the best thing he’s done in years. The Death of You and Me is, in my humble opinion the best song he’s done since the Morning Glory album.

Notable tracks

And finally here’s some great tracks that were released this year.

Field Music – (I Keep Thinking About) A New Thing

https://player.soundcloud.com/player.swf?url=http%3A%2F%2Fapi.soundcloud.com%2Ftracks%2F26357005&secret_token=s-2eVk9&

Eugene McGuinness – Lion

The Scaramanga Six – Trouble

Hella – Headless

Swallow and the Workshop – Snakes in the Grass

Pyyramids – That Aint Right


London Riots: Feeling Sick

August 9, 2011

The riots are currently in the minds of all Londoners. It’s left me with mixed emotions and more than a few questions which I’ll quickly share here.

I live in Holloway. It’s not a glamorous area but I’m rather fond of it. It’s certainly one of the poorer areas in the borough of Islington.

I’ve seen my high street change in the ten years I’ve lived here. The shopping centre has gone from a fairly useful area where you could, at a push buy last minute presents, to somewhere that only provides the core products of our consumerist culture: mobile phones and trainers. I think this is a shame.

These shops haven’t been looted yet. But who knows…

Speaking of looting: Some people have pointed to the wide spread presence of looting as proof that this is not protest, it is criminality. I’m not so sure. A lot of what I see in youth culture today shows an unhealthy preoccupation with brands. People define themselves not by what they do, but what they like. In those circumstances it’s unsurprising that a shallow youth culture that can only express itself with the acquisition of branded goods would steal the brands they like. If they’ve acquired those goods in a style they feel approximates an LA gangster, then all the better (I think they’d be fooling themselves in this regard).

So I look at Holloway in light of these riots. I see my local high street is full of products aimed at young people yet the local youth have no money (or credit) to buy them with. Looting seems kind of inevitable.

I can’t lie. I have always resented the invasion of the the trainer and mobile phone shops into my local area. I have felt that invasion exposes the lie of capitalism: you do not get more choice, just more of the same. So when I see trainer shops get raided on TV I experience some Schadenfreude. I know: I suck. It’s not the “right” way to feel but I can’t help it.

And then there are the Police.

Let’s go over recent events that led us to this unhappy situation. A man was shot in Tottenham. This may have been because the police bodged an armed operation. The man’s death is protested in Tottenham. The protest turns into a riot. This may have been because the police got heavy-handed with a young girl. This prompts looting in Wood Green. Which prompts looting and rioting in other parts of London over successive nights. The police find it hard to cope because they are under-resourced. In short it’s possible the police made some terrible mistakes that had major outcomes.

Some police have been keen to point out that proposing cuts to the police force in the current climate is insanity. They tell us they need more resources, not fewer.

I have sympathy with this view. Who wouldn’t?

But in the back of my mind is this other thought.

This is the same police force that kept very cosy relations with the tabloid press. Gave them the heads-up on the forthcoming arrests of celebrities. Turned the other way when voicemail hacking was endemic. And what did the Police get in return for this? Stories that helped their case. Whenever they wanted more funding or there was talk of cuts they could rely on their mates in the press to put a good word out there for them. And very often it worked.

I can’t help but feel resentful. I shouldn’t feel this way but I start to see the whole thing as some kind of scuzzy protection racket: “‘ello, ‘ello, ‘ello. Nice city you got here, be a shame if something ‘appened to it. How ’bout you leave a few million on that table over there and I’ll see it get’s looked after.”

Am I sick for thinking these things? Or is this a sick country that makes such thoughts possible in the minds of reasonable people?

Just one final thing.

I’m old enough to remember the Brixton riots although I was only eight at the time. My most enduring memory was a simple one.

I didn’t live in Brixton. I lived in Kilburn. Kilburn was quite a few miles away and on the other side of the river. Unlike Brixton it was predominately white but, like Brixton, predominately working class.

After the riots, almost overnight, every shop on Kilburn High Road had big metal shutters. We don’t even think of this now – of course shops have shutters. And yet it wasn’t always so. Without noticing, our high streets changed.

What will happen to our city after this week? Will more shutters go up? Will “security” change the face of our city?


Film Reviews: Rango, The Other Guys, Another Year and others

March 6, 2011

I caught up with some film viewing this weekend

Rango

The film starts with an unnamed lizard who lives in a glass case and fancies himself as an actor, using toys in place of a full cast. The poor little chap is clearly a bit lonely and struggling with his identity. Before long his glass case falls out the back of a moving car and he finds himself dumped unceremoniously in the desert. From here he finds himself in a small wild west town filled with other small critters. They don’t much like outsiders so he pretends to be a gunslinger called Rango. From here he quickly finds himself being central to the towns efforts to save itself from various problems.

The film is, unsurprisingly, dotted with references to all sorts of other westerns, and even Three Amigos. There’s also a plot line that seems to draw parallels with everyones favourite obsession of our time: the banking crisis.

Johnny Depp provides one of his more enjoyable performances in recent years and clearly enjoys playing a ham. The animation is beautifully done and the design is great. Hans Zimmer does a brilliant job of taking every western soundtrack and incorporating them, as well as a fantastic Dick Dale rip-off on the end credits.

Mostly though, the jokes are great, and there are enough surprises to stop things getting boring.

As a sidenote to anyone thinking of taking their kids: I saw this in a cinema filled with children and I think kids less than nine are going to struggle with this movie. It seems too long to hold their attention, most of the jokes will just fly past them and some of the scenes will completely confuse them.

The Other Guys

The Other Guys is yet another vehicle for Andy McKay and Will Ferrell. This time the plot is that New Yorks best cops have died in a bizarre accident so now two loser cops look to take their place. And that’s basically as much plot as you’re going to get.

I think this film is a warning to Ferrell and McKay that their relationship has finally run out of steam. I really liked Anchorman, Talledega Nights was pretty good (although largely because of Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance) and Step Brothers was a cobbled together, hit and miss mess. The Other Guys represents a further drop in quality.

Firstly Mark Wahlberg doesn’t belong in this movie. Either he was badly directed or he can’t do comedy for shit. He should be playing a purely straight man role (much like James Caan in Elf) but instead he’s playing a weird combination of straight man and wacko and the poor bastard just can’t make it work.

Secondly this film is a criminal waste of comic talent. Steve Coogan plays a Nick Leeson like character who makes losses in the stock market and then hides them in other investments. He doesn’t get a laugh in the entire movie. Even more insulting is they give a running gag to Michael Keaton that is one of the most pathetic attempts at a gag you’ll ever hear from professional writers.

Finally, the jokes in the first half an hour are pretty good but then the whole thing falls of a cliff, the energy dies and the film starts to feel like a chore.

The film this most readily resembles is Ben Stiller’s and Owen Wilson’s Starsky and Hutch. So, if you think that someone should have made a lower quality sequel to Starsky and Hutch then your luck is in.

Oh, one last thing. The end credits are taken up with infographics about the US bank bailout. Seriously.

Another Year

Here we have a Mike Leigh film that revolves around Tom and Jerry, a couple who are approaching their retirement. But while they are the centre of the film the main stories come from their friends who drift in and out of their lives.

In this respect the film has a similar structure to Mike Leigh’s earlier film, High Hopes – and shares most of the same cast.

The main character is Mary who is middle-aged, single and rather fond of wine.

There’s surprisingly little drama in Another Year, no big revelations or conflicts. It becomes apparent that this is because all the drama has already happened, the damage has been done and now we see the fallout.

Another one of the odd things about this film is that it is ultimately about Mary but doesn’t centre around her. It’s as if she’s an incidental character in her own life – and ultimately that’s the saddest thing about her.

If you’ve liked Mike Leigh films previously then this is a must-see. Highly recommended.

44 Inch Chest

This movie has five of Britain’s greatest actors playing a bunch of gangsters. They kidnap a waiter from a restaurant because he’s having an affair with Ray Winstone’s wife (note: never have an affair with Ray Winstone’s wife). They drag the poor bastard to an abandoned house and then try to work out what to do with him. And that’s it really.

The film feels a bit theatrical because it pretty much happens on one set plus the dialogue is in no way realistic. But, that criticism to one side, this is a very entertaining bit of old nonsense with the superb performances covering a multitude of sins. Make sure you catch it on telly.

The Yes Men Fix the World

And finally a documentary about The Yes Men, a pair of guys who play pranks on corporate America. It’s about time someone did.

I do feel that the prankster-ish element that has crept into public protest is very welcome – it would be awful to revive the prudish, po-faced protesting of the eighties.

So if you want to protest (and there’s so much to protest these days) this film offers inspiration.


Jazz Odyssey: My Attempt to “Dig” Jazz

February 19, 2011

I’ve long felt like I should like jazz but, despite the occasional half-arsed effort, it’s never quite clicked with me. And this bothers me a little. Many of the artists I love wear their jazz influences on their sleeves. Steely Dan’s love of jazz isn’t so much on their sleeve as constituting an entire appendage. XTC has always managed to work a bit of jazz in to their work here and there. Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa were more beatniks than hippies and consequently jazz was their keystone.

It left me feeling like I was only happy with the watered down, less authentic version of the music. And that seems like a shame to me.

So what’s kept me away from jazz? Well, It seems alien, with it’s own language and rules that seem utterly bizarre to any outsiders.

I think this clip from The Fast Show sums up most peoples feelings about jazz pretty well:

Sure, it’s a joke (and one I love) but the details seem pretty much on the nail. Note the presenter listing the bands personnel, all of whom have rather odd names, and assuming that this will mean something to us. He then goes on to explain the structure of the music in technical detail as if this is helpful to the viewer. This is not natural territory for your average rock fan – even someone with my slightly odd and obsessive tastes. When the music starts it’s absolute chaos. Oddly the audience seem unbothered by the spectacle before them and the presenter even seems to be enjoying it.

Of course The Fast Show specialised in presenting us with incomprehensible people such as the Channel 9 presenters and Rowley Birkin QC so it was inevitable that the jargon of jazz would find a home there.

I’m not interested in the jargon myself, I just want to get into the music. But even that seems quite difficult if you don’t know where to start.

Now, it could be argued that if you have to work to get into it then it’s not worth getting into. This is an attractive idea but any music fan has an album that they love today that they were indifferent to when they first heard it. In fact I often miss the old days when buying a record was a big event because this was a purchase I was going to have to live with. I’d save my hard earned cash to buy an album and then I’d have to keep listening to it all the way through even if I wasn’t entirely convinced that I liked it. If I’d invested my money well it would start to click. I figure the same might be true with jazz.

In fact I recently came across an interview with Harvey Pekar (the American Splendor guy) who was an obsessive jazz fan. He was asked how he got into jazz and this is what he said:

I was 16 years old and I was just flailing around, looking for an interest. I heard, you know, these jazz records. They were modern records, at the time in the ’50s, and I realized that I didn’t fully get what was going on. But I liked a lot of what I heard. What I felt was, if I listen to this stuff enough, I could train my ear so I could hear what was going on. I kept on buying records and listening to them. Finally, I was able to hear the relationship between the jazz improvisers’ solos and the underlying structure that it’s based on, the chord progression. That was pretty easy to do in the swing era, y’know, when jazz was, like, pop music, you know. It had made the charts and everything like that.

I want to work this stuff out too.

So I’ve started going on Spotify and trawling through possible records. I’ve tried to live with them for a bit and I’ve been working out what I like and what I don’t like. I thought I might start posting some reviews of jazz albums on this blog (under the banner Jazz Odyssey after the dismal Spinal Tap jazz workout). There aren’t many jazz primers out there for the rock fan so maybe this will help anyone out there that’s interested.

If you are interested then stay tuned daddio.


My Top Ten Albums of 2010

December 28, 2010

One of the few regular features of this blog: a list of my favorite albums of the year! Here they are starting with the bestest of the best and working downwards.

Field Music – Measure

A few years ago the brothers Brewis decided to split up and go their separate ways. Boo!
But then they both came out with two rather different but equally brilliant albums. Yay, twice as much music!
But then they decided to get back together again as Field Music. Boo, less music!
They released Measure, a double CD, 20 track album. Yay! Everyone wins!

For those who don’t know, Field Music make a wonderful amalgam of seventies style pop with the quirkiness, complexity and inventiveness (if not the length) of prog rock. Think of Todd Rundgren at his most inventive.

Twenty tracks is a lot and there is a danger that releasing so much material might result in poor quality control, but there’s no evidence of that here. The first disk certainly contains the more traditional songs while the second disk feels more like a continuous piece. For a similar idea hear the second half of Kate Bush’s Hound’s of Love album.

My advice to newcomers is to put the first ten tracks on heavy rotation and get used to them before moving on to the next ten.

The New Pornographers – Together

Ahhh, The New Pornographers. They seem incapable of making a bad album.

One of the dangers with power pop bands is that they can settle into sameyness all too easily. And refreshingly every album has a different tone that sets it very slightly apart from the last.

On this album there is a more of a heavy orchestral sound that slightly recalls ELO. In any case everything sounds bigger.

The result is an album that maybe my favourite of theirs so far. Certainly the first three songs of this album are some of the finest they’ve recorded.

Shining – Blackjazz

In short this is the unholy love child of King Crimson and Ministry. An easy comparison to make because they’ve adeptly covered songs by both bands.

There’s a jazz influence – though you may need to listen hard to notice. There’s a prog influence that’s never far away. And finally the whole lot is dipped in industrial metal.

I find it a very seductive combination but some may balk: too heavy for proggers, too weird for metallers and too much of both for anyone else.

The Posies – Blood/Candy

And now back to another power pop album.

The Posies are an odd pair and while they always make interesting records you can never be quite sure which way they’ll go.

With this album it’s as if they decided they were going to make a straight up, honest to goodness, pop record. There’s very little here that’s as maudlin or spikey as some of their previous efforts. This record jumps styles but never looses focus.

I sincerely think this may be the best album they’ve done.

OK Go – Of the Blue Colour of the Sky

The biggest cliché you can possibly say about OK Go is: They do great videos but their songs are shit. Yuk! Yuk! Yuk! Yuk!

I think the truth behind this comment is that power pop is not widely popular with the general public and the audience for their videos has gone much wider than the tiny circle of power pop aficionados.

Weirdly I think the whole thing with the videos puts certain people off OK Go and that’s a terrible shame.

This is a bold, bright album that improves with every listen.

Wavves – King of the Beach

It was terribly sad to hear of Jay Reatard’s death at such a young age, and while no-one could ever fill his shoes, Wavves is probably as close as we could hope for this year. A big punky psychedelic mess of vibrant pop stupidity. I saw them live this year, featuring Reatard’s former band “mates” and they were fantastic.

These New Puritans – Hidden

I often find myself drawn to strange combinations and this is a weird combination that works beautifully. Dramatic strings and industrial style electronics. If your ears are jaded this might lift their spirits.

C.W. Stoneking – Jungle Blues

Clearly Stoneking doesn’t have much time for modern music. And by modern I mean anything recorded in the last sixty years. His tunes are a combination of styles that recalls Cab Colloway and old school blues and jazz. The man himself looks like a chubby white bank clerk but sounds like a 100 year old black man recalling his hallucinatory past from his porch. The danger with any project that recalls the past in this fashion is it can end up being a hollow pastiche but Stoneking brings enough charm and lopsided humour to make it all crackle like an old 78.

Hans Zimmer – Inception

I don’t often listen to soundtrack albums but Inception is an exception. A film that won over millions and annoyed a few doubters also has a soundtrack that easily holds it’s own. Johnny Marr makes an incredible contribution with his distinctive guitar sound that really lifts the whole album. It’s also nice when you get little details like this:

Peter Gabriel – Scratch My Back

Well this was an odd one. Gabriel, who produces very few records at best, decides to do a covers album. This is often a bad sign that an artist is in decline (Annie Lennox, Erasure and Duran Duran have all struggled since their cover albums). But Gabriel decided to make things hard for himself and record without drums and guitars, just piano and strings. The results were quirky in the extreme with a failure for every victory. For example, his version of Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” is probably one of the best interpretations of a much-covered song; but then things go very wrong with a ghastly cover of Radiohead’s Street Spirit that is brave but misconceived.

I went to see this album performed live, half expecting a night of tedium, but it turned out to be a triumph and a very special night. It was a thrilling experience with both cheers from the crowd and heckles.

Is this really one of the greatest albums of the year? Perhaps not but it’s one of the bravest and most exciting. It’s incredible to see an old warhorse like Peter Gabriel challenging himself (and sometimes failing) in such a public way. You don’t see Phil Collins doing this kind of thing.

Finally

Just a few other albums I liked this year:

– Bellowhead – Hedonism

– School of Seven Bells – Disconnect From Desire

– LoneLady – Nerve Up

– Screaming Females – Castle Talk

Finally, I notice that my top ten hardly resembles anyone elses. All I can say is that I love a good pop song, I have no need to appear cool, and I don’t read the music press. Contrary to what you may assume, I have heard many of these fashionable albums (at least briefly) and they left me cold. I genuinely like the stuff I’ve listed and I hope you might check it out.

Happy new year.


Vetting My Veterinarian

August 29, 2010

Yesterday we took our cat to the vet for a check up. She’d been off her food for a few days which is what prompted us to take her in, but she’d recovered and had gone back to her usual healthy appetite. Still, it doesn’t hurt to get our little, furry chum checked out.

We could only get a nine AM appointment which was earlier than I would have liked and neither me or my wife’s brain was operating at full power. Carrying a howling cat carrier on public transport didn’t help either.

So we turned up at the vet’s a little frazzled and keen to get home.

Every time we go to this vet’s office we get a different vet. This time we got the most extraordinary vet I’ve ever encountered. He literally spoke like the wedding planner in Father of the Bride (here’s a clip). In tribute, I’m going to call him Fronk.

Our cat is called Poppy and as usual we got props for her excellent condition and the fact she’s the ideal weight (about 90% of cats are obese).

He asked us what we feed Poppy (probably looking for a hot tip on how we keep our cat so healthy). Wifey told him it was Iams. He looked very worried and then said “Ah-aaams iz naht verwy guuud. Wah wakamand zi-ance daah-t.” Ah, Science Diet – vets always recommend Science Diet. Well we felt a bit guilty what with Poppy’s recent stomach upset and so we bought a great big bag of Science Diet. He then recommended a bag of TD which is a feed to prevent tartar build up and said we should give her five or six kibbles of it per day.

And then we got to the next issue. Apparently our cat is mental. Now, I kind of assume that all cat’s are mental in that same way that all dogs are a bit stupid and goldfish are a bit forgetful. Well our cat is over grooming and so her tummy is a bit bald – this is apparently the equivalent of teenagers cutting themselves.

Great, our cat’s an emo.

Fronk said “We sull a daffooza thot waal-eesez farra-moons thot well colm ah dahhhn.” In other words they sell a diffuser that sprays pheromones that will calm her down.

Pheromones is a word I don’t like very much. They certainly exist but they get attached to so much bullshit that it sets my spider senses tingling. We clearly didn’t look keen on the £30 device and so he gave us a leaflet about the diffuser and we left it there.

In the end Fronk had sold us £35 in cat food and was also keen to sell us a £30 pheromone device. That’s a big wad of cash.

So here’s a question: was Fronk (unwittingly or otherwise) bullshitting us?

Let’s see.

Are Pheromones Effective?

Let’s do this one first. The device we were offered was the Feliway.

Here’s their description of their product:

Feliway® is a synthetic copy of the feline facial pheromone, used by cats to mark their territory as safe and secure.

By mimicking the cat’s natural facial pheromones, Feliway® creates a state of familiarity and security in the cat’s local environment.

As a result, Feliway® can be used to help comfort and reassure cats, while they cope with a challenging situation and/or help prevent or reduce the stress caused to a cat during a change in their environment.

Now I’m immediately struck by something in relation to my cat. My cat is an emo, she licks her fur off; she doesn’t piss in my slippers. Is this product really appropriate? I’m not convinced it is. This product is about reassuring a cat that the territory is their own so I can understand it being useful for cats that have moved home or are constantly weeing everywhere. My cat hasn’t moved home in six years, has never pissed anywhere other than her litter tray and, other than over-grooming, is a perfectly happy cat.

But let’s put my suspicions to one side. Is it effective?

If you start Googling this stuff you will find many happy users of Feliway and similar products. But that’s not good enough: there are many people who will happily recommend homeopathy for pets too and that’s clearly bullshit.

So where’s the evidence?

The only useful thing I could find was on a blog called SkepVet in an article titled Pheromone Therapy for Dogs and Cats–What’s the Evidence?. They refer to a systematic review of existing trials. It’s worth reading but I’ll summarise: the trials are of poor quality but out of seven cat trials none of them provided any evidence of a benefit. That’s the best evidence we have to go on and that’s good enough for me.

Was Fronk right to recommend the Feliway?

No. There’s no evidence that the device was an appropriate treatment even of it worked. And there appears to be no scientific evidence that it works for it’s intended purpose either.

The Science Diet: Better than Iams?

Looking around the web, this is clearly an emotive subject. One person says they feed their cat Iams and someone else will surely pipe up “that’s like feeding your children on Doritos every day!” Won’t someone think of the cat children?!?! Of course, nevermind that cat’s diets are not comparable to human diets or that cats now live longer than ever.

Is Iams the very best quality food possible? Probably not. I’m sure my cat would be delighted to be fed cooked chicken every day, but that aint gonna happen. I’m convinced that Iams is decent quality – after all, my cat has been eating nothing else for ten years and she’s fitter than you are, you slob.

There’s also the question of animal cruelty in relation to Iams testing practices. I haven’t looked into this although maybe I should in future.

But here’s the thing: we were told specifically that Science Diet is a better cat food than Iams.

Is that true?

I don’t think it is. I’ve now compared the ingredients of both products and I think it’s notable that Science Diet’s top ingredient is cereals, while Iams top ingredient is chicken. The nutritional values look broadly the same with Iams having the edge.

Seriously, next time you’re looking at dry cat food in a supermarket have a look at the ingredients list and you’ll see they’re all pretty much the same: most have corn or cereals as the top ingredient; a couple like Iams and Purina have meat at the top. Science Diet is basically the same as all of those supermarket ones, the only difference is it’s sold in pet stores and vets offices.

Am I saying that Science Diet is bad? Not at all, but I don’t see any reason to change from Iams as SD is clearly no better. My cat likes Iams, so why change?

Finally, here’s an article about the Science Diet from a dog care website in the US: The Science Diet Scam. Make of that what you will.

Anyway, I think Fronk has got it wrong again. Ho-hum.

In conclusion

I think vets are very good at cutting open your pet and and putting it back together again, I’m just not convinced they know jack shit when it comes to other stuff like nutrition and behavioural problems.

At the very least I have learnt the following:

  • Don’t buy anything from your vet that you can’t buy yourself elsewhere.
  • Do your research and don’t let yourself be guilt tripped into buying quick and easy solutions
  • If your vet makes an assertion then question it rather than accepting it at face value
  • Don’t let your cat listen to Fall Out Boy

ToneCheck: Language, Technology and Philip K Dick

July 25, 2010

There’s this product that checks the tone of your e-mails: ToneCheck

An example on the home page shows us how it suggests to the user to change “it has been annoying me for some time” to “it has been concerning me for some time”. Somehow that’s an improvement. Is concern really the same thing as annoyance? When we’re at work, are we only allowed to be annoyed as long as we bury that annoyance deep in our hearts where it’s likely to cause a coronary?

It reminds me of The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick. In this alternate history, the Japanese have taken over America after the second world war and citizens must remain polite at all times. The upshot is that civility is enforced so sarcasm and passive aggression are utilised instead.

I often feel that this is what businesses do to us now. They don’t expressly ban words or ways of talking, but it’s often implied that there is a correct way to talk and you won’t have much of a future if you don’t do the same.

As an example, I was recently asked to write a document that laid out for staff what they could and could not do. It was returned to me and I was asked to modify it so it was less “negative.” It had the word “not” in it a few times where I had listed what they couldn’t do. I think it’s worth noting that the criticism wasn’t that the document was inaccurate or hard to understand; the problem was it was too clear by far. The things I said we did not do, we did not do – I just wasn’t allowed to say so (or at least not in a direct and honest way).

And people wonder why the language of business is unclear and hard to understand. We can’t be direct because speaking directly is the enemy of PR and we’re all PR people now.

Anyway, back to ToneCheck and what I feared was the coming apocalypse of business language. Quite honestly I needn’t have worried.

I installed the application and ran it through a few tests. I tried :

You’ve got to be having a laugh.

Apparently that’s OK and is no way aggressive or impolite. But then maybe that’s a colloquialism and is an unfair test. So I tired:

You are a joke

That’s fine too. I tried this:

I’m going to come over there and cut you up!

That’s fine as well. In tribute to the Jessi Slaughter debacle I tried this:

I’m going to put a glock in your mouth and make a brain slushy!

That’s fine too. How about this:

I slept with your mother last night. Her rates are very reasonable.

Fine and dandy. At this point I was wondering if the plugin was working at all so I just went straight out and said it:

Fuck off!

Ah, apparently that’s angry.

tonecheck angry.png

OK fine, let’s try something trully appaling that would make a viking blush:

I’m going to burn your house down and rape your children

That sets off the filter but not for the reasons you might expect: the tone of that sentence is Sad

tonecheck sad.png

I’m probably being unfair. This is a product aimed at business people not Mel Gibson.

But what if the product worked as intended. Could we look forward to this sort of thing monitoring what we put in our word processors? Is this what business desires?

It’s not hard to imagine a company using such an application to monitor their staffs outgoing mail. Their staff would be scored for tone and anybody who scored high for aggression could expect a meeting with their manager to explain themselves.

A chilling idea worthy of Dilbert or Office Space.

Let’s hope the technology remains totally useless.


Memories of Live Aid

July 22, 2010

So I was watching a BBC documentary about Live Aid the other day.  It was really rather good and a lot of fun.
But it makes me feel a little bit sad too.

Let me explain.  At that time I was about 11 and I was as crazy about music then as I am now.  Live Aid was a culturally significant event, but more importantly to me, a musically significant event.  I knew I had to watch it and I was very excited about it.

It was a fantastically hot day.  The telly went on and I remember having the schedule for the days events printed in that day’s Daily Mirror in front of me.  As I was doing so my dad told me we would be going to a wedding reception in a few hours and I shouldn’t get too excited.

This was the first I’d heard of it and it didn’t go down well with me at all.  Who’s wedding reception?  Why?  What sort of idiot would get married on a day like this?  (I didn’t realise at the time that most people spend more time arranging their wedding than Bob Geldof spent arranging Live Aid – 12 weeks apparently).  I begged.  I bargained.  I got nowhere.  I was going to miss the biggest gig the world had ever seen.

When I watched the documentary last night, various talking heads spoke about how it was like the Jubilee.  How the streets were empty.  How every television set was tuned to Live Aid and every window was open blasting out the greatest show on earth.  I honestly have no idea if it was like that.  I was stuck in a church hall, sitting on an orange plastic chair drinking lemonade watching a load of happy people being happy.  Humpf!

I hadn’t thought about this Live Aid debacle in a long time but after this documentary it suddenly struck me.  My parents never went to wedding receptions.  The couple in question weren’t close friends of my parents.  While watching this documentary I suddenly realised why we went to a wedding reception.  The couple in question were regulars in my dad’s local pub who probably realised with mounting horror that their wedding day was going to be usurped by Geldof’s big day.  They probably had images in their minds of a church hall that was empty and a wedding cake that now seemed bigger than necessary.

I guess people in the pub rallied around.  And because of this there was a good turn out and people seemed to enjoy themselves.  And we still gave money to Live Aid like everybody else.

Thanks to my parents (and others) a nice couple got to enjoy a jolly wedding reception.

My parents are nothing if not lovely.

But I still hate them!  Are you reading this mum and dad!  I hate you! Hate you! Hate you!  You destroyed my life that day!  Destroyed it!!!


Eulogy – A Magazine About Death

July 10, 2010

I was in Waitrose looking at the magazine racks when I saw something weird and unexpected wedged between The Lady and Fortean Times. A magazine called Eulogy. The front cover had the brightly embalmed face of Molly Parkin on it. Ms Parkin had barely crossed my mind until this moment so I had assumed she’d passed on; her face on the cover of a magazine about death would seem to confirm this, however they’ve interviewed her without the use of a medium so I guess she’s alive after all.

Eulogy Magazine Cover

The strap line of Eulogy is “To celebrate life and death”. When your main advertisers are Co-operative Funeral Care and Interflora it’s pretty obvious which part of that equation you fall on. Although there’s also an advert for vodka so I guess they do spirits too.

Inside we have celebrity interviews. They ask Mark Strong “what kind of funeral he would like to have” (as it turns out he favours cremation because he doesn’t like worms). Boy George talks about a dead friend. Mark Williams of The Fast Show talks about funerals. And an “empress of electro-pop” called Viktoria Modesta (no, me neither) talks about her favourite dead thing: her polar bear skin rug.

There are photos from Kensal Green cemetery of which this is my favourite:
Eulogy Stone
When I die I also want to be forever remembered as I am when I’ve just woken up and I’m trying to clear the mind-fog with a restorative cup of tea.

The aforementioned interview with Molly Parkin does feature a pull quote you might not expect to see in such a sober periodical as this:
I can ride into dawn on an orgasm
More tea vicar?

She also reveals that James Robertson-Justice sometimes visits her back garden in the form of a blackbird and pecks on her window. I would imagine if James Robertson-Justice was to visit anyone in avian form he’d be an owl beating on the door loudly with his wing demanding a bloody brandy right bloody now so he can wash the taste of field mouse out of his mouth.
JRJ Owl.png

If all of this is too emotional for you then at least there’s an article about The Samaritans with their helpline number displayed prominently.

And you’ll probably need it when you read about the book written for children so they can understand the death of a relative: it’s called “Someone Has Died Suddenly.” I find the “suddenly” part that title strangely specific. Does this indicate there will be a serious of “Someone Has Died…” books explaining confusing deaths to children. No doubt “..on the Toilet”, “…Alone, Owing Mummy a Huge Amount of Maintenance” and “..Mysteriously In Michael Barrymore’s Swimming Pool” are soon to follow.

I shouldn’t really trivialise the problems of dealing with bereaved children. But look at what they illustrate the article with:
Eulogy Bears.png
Bleugh! Where’s Goldilock’s? Sharpening her knife in preparation for a nice bear skin rug?

Anyway, the magazine is glossy and well designed. It’s probably about as tasteful as you could expect such a thing to be. But I really don’t understand who this magazine is aimed at other than the casual ghoul like me. I can’t help but think of Blanche from Coronation Street who made a habit of going to strangers funerals and reviewing them in the Rovers Return as if they were theatrical productions with catering. Of course the actress playing Blanche sadly died a few months ago so that’s one less reader.

If anyone knows who this is aimed at (particularly if the publishers have sent you a media pack!) I’d love to hear from you.


Adam Ant at The Scala: 30th April 2010

May 2, 2010

A few weeks ago I was surprised to see that Adam Ant was doing a gig. And it wasn’t some huge venue but at the Scala which only holds about 500 people. The main surprise was that Adam was doing a gig at all; the last time he announced some big live shows it was on the Here and Now eighties package tour. Within a few weeks of that announcement he was arrested for waving a starters pistol at some guys who’d mocked his clothing choices. That put paid to his tour and it seemed the end of his already stalled music career.

Consequently he went public with his mental health problems which he said had been exacerbated by drinking.

Now, out of the blue and to little fanfare, he announced he was doing this tiny gig. The show was going to be a Pirate Metal Extravaganza. Other than that, details were non-existent. Was he going to do new material? Old material? Covers? I had no idea.

The Support

The first band on was Spitfire. A three-piece who looked young enough to be my own bastard offspring. They were fantastically exuberant, bouncing around the stage while the female drummer walloped the almighty crap out of the drum kit. Their songs were a bit average but if they can sort that out they should have a great future.

Next up was Dead Sensation. They looked like Motley Crue and their singer managed to inspire instant hatred; he looked the part with long black hair in a wife beater and leather trousers but had all the false bonhomie and singing ability of an accountant at a Christmas party. There seems something terribly wrong about a singer who wears his own band merch and then announces we should all go to their MySpace page after the first terrible song. During the second song Adam Ant appeared with a big smile on his face holding a can of Strongbow. He danced across the stage to big cheers from the crowd. And then he danced backwards into the lead guitarist. Ooops!

They limped through a few more songs and before long the singer-accountant asked us if we’d heard of The Rolling Stones. I assumed this was a joke to introduce a mauling of a classic song. I needn’t have worried; they played Angie. They played it horribly out of tune; the rhythm guitarist had a comically confused expression on his face throughout as if a tone-deaf ghost was responsible for the horrible noise he was making. Then to rub salt in the wound, Adam came out again to soak up more cheers from the crowd.

They soldiered on through the rest of their set but they didn’t stand a chance.

To my surprise it became clear that yet another band was setting up. They looked like lesbian time-travellers from the eighties, brandishing brass instruments. This did not bode well. As it happens they were called The Cesarians and they were superb. Their singer was like a lounge lizard ranting at a bus stop – some sort of unholy alliance of Bryan Ferry and Mark E Smith. Their music took me back to that rather odd period in the mid-nineties when bands like The Divine Comedy and My Life Story suddenly became popular with big dramatic arrangements.

And then, another band starts setting up! At this point I was wondering if Adam Ant would ever get on stage. Ah well, I guess we’ll just have to endure whoever it is.

The band hit the stage and my jaw hit the floor. I was amazed to see Youth (of Killing Joke) and Zodiac Mindwarp. Me and the missus would happily pay money to see Zodiac so this was a big deal for us. Even more impressive was that he looked in excellent health. I’ve seen Zodiac a few times and he’s appeared to be getting fatter and wheezier every time. The last time I’d seen him he was in a pub after his gig at Underworld. The famously lecherous Mindwarp was sitting next to two young blondes who seemed very pleased to be in his company. I could tell something was seriously awry when he finally turned to the young ladies, said “not tonight girls” and shuffled out of the pub. Tonight he was wearing a three-piece suit, trousers held up with a studded belt, and somehow he’d forgotten to put on a shirt. He prowled the stage looking like the filthy old bastard he used to be. Youth on the other hand, in a stove pipe hat and red faced, looked like a fifty year old Artful Dodger who was winded after a brisk run from the rozzers. The music was just basic blues-rock jams, but Zodiac is always good value for money.

When they’d finished Zodiac said “Adam ya fat cunt, you’re next”

At Long Last, Adam Ant

When the band hit the stage the first noticeable thing was that there was a lot of them: ten including Mr Ant. The second noticeable thing was that four of them were women – which might go to prove that Adam likes the ladies and the ladies like Adam. Finally I noticed the bassist was the lead singer of Rachel Stamp, who’s a great front man in his own right.

Adam seemed very talkative from the start. He announced that the band was called Adam Ant’s Pirate Metal Extravaganza and they hadn’t really rehearsed. This last fact was fairly apparent. They went into a couple of covers including Bolan’s Get It On.

As Adam rabbited in between songs it became obvious that the band was nervous. They clearly didn’t have a set list and didn’t know what they’d be doing next. It was also apparent that Adam was a bit the worse for drink and was likely to say pretty much anything, sometimes at length.

Maybe the band should be called Adam and the Rants (yes, that was a joke. You can keep it).

So at this point I was wondering if this was going to be a night of covers. Then the band did an Adam Ant song and it was fantastic. Adam’s performances of his own material sometimes seemed a bit dismissive, and the band was a bit ramshackle. Adam’s loose cannon behaviour gave the evening a strong feeling of unpredictability. All of this combined to make a performance of covers and old material edgy and exciting. It really was quite incredible.

After an encore of Stand and Deliver Adam decided to come back and treat us to something special. He was going to read to us from a book. For this he wanted complete silence from the audience. As you might imagine, expecting a room of over excited, drunk people to stay silent is a bit challenging.

He started reading. There was some talking in the audience. Adam stopped and said that we hadn’t paid all that much for the show so could we all just shut up for a few minutes.

He started again. A few sentences in a woman shouted out “Adam, I’ve been following you for twenty-nine years!” “So have I love” he responded “Now could you shut up so I can read this out”

He started again. This time someone was talking at the back of the stage. “Can you shut up!” he shouted behind him.

He started again. He got interrupted again. At this point I think the audience realised that this might never end and so silence was maintained long enough to get to the end.

What was he reading that was so important? It was a couple of pages from Lemmy’s autobiography. I still have no fucking clue what that was about.

And so a remarkable evening ended. It’s fantastic to see one of pop music’s greatest eccentrics back in the spotlight being his brilliant, bizarre and difficult self.

Let’s hope he doesn’t stay away from the stage so long again.