Thursday, January 22, 2015

It's a cover-up

For the last 44 years, van drivers, men in barbershops and frustrated teenagers desperate for a furtive glimpse of bare breasts have made The Sun their daily destination. Ever since Sir Larry Lamb (not to be confused with the dad from Gavin & Stacey) decided, somewhat randomly in November 1970, to plonk a topless picture of 20-year-old German model Stephanie Rahn over the length and breadth of the tabloid's third page, "Page 3" has virtually become a generic noun for one of the most controversial features in British newspaper history.

In The Sun's mindset - one that is permanently set in the early 1960s, the Carry On Britain where "Miss" remains anachronistic Sun vernacular for all female teachers and snackfood is still referred to routinely in the context of wartime rationing as a "tasty treat" - Page 3 has been "just a bit of fun".

The Sun's view is that Page 3 is something to put a smile on Britain's face each morning. Because, as we all know, a pair of naked norks are absolutely hilarious.

Here in continental Europe, nudity in any form is never an issue. Shower gel commercials on TV don't cover anything up, and you'll never see a newspaper drawing juvenile attention to a "nipslip", much for the same reason that Europeans don't, generally speaking, have quite the same issues with the human body and its functions as we Brits famously have.

I have no particular opinion on the sexual politics of Page 3. Visual sexism appears everywhere - you're either offended by it, or it simply doesn't bother you - but I do think that Page 3 lost any relevance on the day after Lamb introduced Britain to Frau Rahn.

Because Page 3 is, let's face it, a fairly ludicrous newspaper concept: on Page 1 you have your splash headline - 100-point type, with two sentences of the story squeezed underneath; Page 2, a continuation of the story plus a selection of shorts' (usually of global importance) and the weather forecast; and then Page 3, with three columns filled with a picture of "Curvy Cathy" or "Sexy Suzy" and a sunny but vacuous accompanying caption; on Page 4, the rest of the newspaper begins.

So, what purpose does a mildly titillating bridge between pages 2 and 4 serve at all? Do people still buy The Sun because of it? No, and they never did: the TV section always used to be the biggest sales draw, with Mystic Meg's stars and the sports pages in close competition.

Spend any amount of time in The Sun newsroom, and you understand where Page 3 comes from, and why it has remained. Despite its adjacency to more highbrow stablemates like The Sunday Times and The Times, The Sun has always prided itself on being staffed by journalists from similar social backgrounds to its readers. It has always revelled in an egalitarian culture, though it has never sought to play up working class credentials in the same way as the Daily Mirror has, under editors like Kelvin MacKenzie, The Sun enjoyed baiting its loftier peers, part of the occasional boorishness of British tabloid life (and one indulged by both male and female participants).

Page 3 played its part in this. Its models have always been deliberately drawn from the The Sun's very readership, girls from the UK's industrial heartlands, whose dads drunk in pubs that sold bags of peanuts advertised, incongruously, by women in bikinis, and whose mums thought nothing weird about sending in Costa del Sol holiday snaps of their daughters as auditions for "Britain's brightest daily read".

The argument against Page 3 has, for those who defend it, come from those who wouldn't normally read it. The paper has always maintained that The Sun maintains its audience quite nicely, thanks (pre-Internet it would regularly sell four million copies each day and be read by 12 million), and those who don't like it should stick to The Guardian.

And while Page 3's most vociferous opponents have been drawn from the hardcore PC left, a new, more straight-forward opposition has emerged in recent years. One that simply says that, like any movie featuring Robin Askwith and a window cleaner's ladder, Page 3 is ridiculous throwback to a Britain that has long since disappeared, along with Timothy Whites and Green Line buses in the London suburbs.

Sadly, The Sun and, ultimately, its owner Rupert Murdoch, who still calls the shots, hasn't moved on. This week, it was suggested that Page 3 was no more. Or at least the Page 3 Girl would be no more. After a mysterious absence, prompting the media elite to break into fully-blown chatter mode, with even The Times running a piece saying that the daily feature was being "quietly dropped".

Today it returned less than quietly, with The Sun bringing back a topless model to Page 3 -  "Nicole, 22, from Bournemouth" - and even going out its way to goad the anti-page 3 campaign.

"WE'VE HAD A MAMMARY LAPSE", a teaser on the front page facetiously pointed out this morning. Yesterday evening, The Sun's own PR person provocatively tweeted: "I said that it was speculation and not to trust reports by people unconnected to the Sun. A lot of people are about to look very silly ...", a forewarning reminiscent of Saddam Hussein's former Information Minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf - or "Comical Ali" as he was better known - who adopted a similar "you're all going to look like idiots" stance towards the Western media. Thinking about Iraq now, he may well have been right.

As for The Sun, one wonders, then, what Rupert Murdoch himself, thinks about the return of the Page 3 model. He was said to have favoured dropping it for being anachronistic and out of touch with modern public sentiment. It would appear that his own editorial team at The Sun have different ideas.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Monsters ink

To have a parent or older relative suffer from dementia - including its most common form, Alzheimer's disease - means losing a loved one over the cruellest of terms, a slow fade-to-black, a life gradually fading, like Marty McFly running out of time, only permanently.

It is, of course, no more cruel than cancer, heart disease or any of the other scythes that take our closest - and, let's face it, ourselves, eventually - from us. But to witness your own flesh and blood being deleted pixel-by-pixel is hard to take on board.

Perhaps I'm lucky: my father's Alzheimer's is in the early stages, and the progress is relatively slow, which is not to say that it won't speed up down the line, and the degradation of life becomes more apparent. But it will happen, and the soul-searching that will have begun as inevitable murmurs in the mind, will crank themselves up.

Which is what has moved me to reproduce, in full and unedited, this note, Monsters, written by my dear friend Saskia den Hollander and posted on her Facebook page the other day just as she and her family were contemplating the progress of the disease in her own father.

She wrote it for her own benefit, to try and come to terms with the profound sense of loss that comes from seeing a man gradually disappear into themselves. But having read so many things about Alzheimer's - news reports, medical studies, other blog posts - nothing nailed it quite like this did. Nothing has moved me more, either. Thanks Sas. x


You're gone. But you're still here.
You're here. But you have gone to a place where you are fighting. But it's a fight you cannot win. It's a fight we cannot help you win. It's a fight we are losing as well. Where we are losing you.
We are losing you to a vicious monster.
The monster which makes you forget. The monster which is changing you.
Which is changing your personality, your intellect and every other thing you stood for.
A monster which is degenerating your brain to the brain of a child.
A 79 year old child.
I'm trying to console myself with the idea that the one thing we, as grown ups always regret we lost, our child within, you are about to get back.
But who am I kidding.
There's nothing soothing about this monster. No good part nor does it have a better side.
The only resemblance of a child I recognise in you is the part where you behave as a child, because the monster has taken away your ability to express yourself in a different way.
You simply cannot understand anymore why things are happening to you, what is happening around you. What is happening?
So you cry.
Like a child. Like a 7 year old child.
And this monster makes us respond to you as if you are a child. We use our friendly voice. We try to comfort you. We distract you. We dry your tears. We try to make you understand that there's no need to cry.
You're crying but what are you really trying to express?
I understand that you are crying because you feel helpless. Because you do not know what to do.
And so do we. Cry. Feel helpless.
Don't know what to do.
You still know who I am.
But I know that the monster will take this away as well.
I'm trying to stare this monster in the face with all my fears and shouting at it
what are you waiting for?
why don't you take all of him?
You already took away a proud man.
You took away a husband. A father. A granddad.
His ability to remember.
His ability to remember what he wants to say. What he was saying. And why he was saying it.
By now he doesn't remember why he started a conversation, let alone how to finish it.
His ability to do things. Even the simplest things. Play cards. Play games. Play guitar. Do groceries. Cook. Count. Write. How to dress himself, although he fought a very long and a very good fight there.
You took away his memories.
The very short ones flew out of the window like this.
The longer term ones, now, like that too.
You're taking away his definition.
You're taking away his dignity.
You're giving him in return
You are making him feel lost.
It just doesn't matter how hard we try to find him. Try to bring him back. Even if he has to borrow our memory. But we are lost together with him.
If you are not taking him away in one go, please take him to a place where he doesn't have to feel like that anymore. Take him to that void of emptiness where there are no memories of what has been.
Just don't let him hang around like this.
Don't let him be stuck between nothing and something.
An undefinable anything.
Let him please find that place where the sky is blue, clouds are slowly drifting by and where blue birds sing.
Let us know that there is some sort of redemption while losing so much. Show us. Reassure us of his acceptance of his loss. Our loss.
But maybe you just did.
Is that what you tried to show me this evening?
Just before I left to go home and kissed him goodnight?
I acted silly, trying to make him laugh, in the same way as he did when I was a child.
You made him give me, an almost empty look. And you made him ask me, why are you doing this?
I said; "because this is what you thought me dad, you always did this when I was a child."
And you replied: "what has been has been."
And right there I could feel it. I could feel you. More present then ever before. You stared straight into my eyes. My mind. My heart.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Je suis...libre

© Simon Poulter 2015

In the end, it wasn't just about a magazine staffed by prototypical reactionaries, goading religious fanatics to carry out their murderous spree. It wasn't just about three dead police officers. It wasn't just about supermarket shoppers slaughtered while fetching in their shabbat supplies.

This was about ordinary people. Men, women, children, grandparents, babies in high-end buggies, the mildly aggrieved and the permanently enraged, the duffel-coated politicos, some who'd never been to any sort of political event before, and those who turned up just to see what the fuss was about.

It was a family day out, full of bonhomie. There were no tears, or none that I saw. There was no anger, no bile of hatred. Kids' faces were painted with le tricolore. There was communal singing of La Marseillaise. They stood, they clapped, they shuffled their feet when they could, they came to a halt again, they chanted "shar-lee, shar-lee, shar-lee". Some attempted to shove their way along. This was a French event, after all.

© Simon Poulter 2015
There were flags of every country - even, bizarrely, one representing North Korea. Christian, communist, republican, Israeli, Palestinian - name the persuasion, there was a flag evident.

Above us, TV cameras poked out of sixth floor windows overlooking the square, gesticulating reporters desperately trying to fill precious live satellite minutes as the estimated million-plus shuffled past at a tectonic pace. Traditional French impatience was suspended as this enormous tide moved like a mud slick from the rallying point at République on up Avenue de la République, in what ultimate direction, no one really knew. Perhaps it was meant to end at Nation, perhaps at Bastille. Even now I still couldn't say.

"Une journée à nulle autre pareille - ran the caption on one of the local TV channels. A day without parallel. Certainly it wasn't just the end to a weekend that concluded the first working week of January. And, by the way, how did that week go for you? Back to the rigmarole of commuting? Back to the disorientating fog of managerial dysfunction? Back to wasting energy trying to unjam the photocopier, again?

And what about all those tedious meetings? Probably, I suspect, they weren't interrupted by thugs spraying bullets about because of something that appeared on the cover of a magazine.

Almost 48 hours after two-and-a-half days that scared Paris, shocked France and stunned the world, this afternoon felt like the forced awakening from a nightmare. Or at least taking temporary reprieve from it.

© Simon Poulter 2015
It is, though, too soon to make any real sense of what happened last week. Of course, we know what happened - we saw much of it on YouTube, on CNN, on the BBC, on just about every video medium on the planet. Or at least we saw the inevitable, bloody denouement. This afternoon, however, wasn't about trying to solve anything. This was about solidarity and, yes, a public wanting to feel better about itself while sending a message. Because, cynics, believe it or not, behind the carnival spirit and cute kids on their dads' shoulders holding pencils aloft, there was a genuine belief in liberté, egalité, fraternité.

Which is why France may know how what happened did so, but it is still trying to consider why. Why its enshrined right to free speech met the infuriated assault rifle of jihad; why the lesions of social and racial division have been abruptly opened; why festering distrust and lingering anti-semitism has resurfaced and where will it go next; and why an underclass living within the boundary of a city famous for its bejewelled avenues should be compelled to upgrade from petty crime to radicalised mass murder.

Freedom of speech and freedom of expression shouldn't cost a thing, let alone someone's life, the sanctity and preservation of which is the common denominator of all religions, all faiths, all belief systems. It allows me to write this and you to read it. It allows for healthy debate, exchange of ideas and, critically, the ability to offer a counterpoint with the only retribution being disagreement.

Freedom of speech allows anyone to ask if Charlie Hebdo had gone too far, as much as for the magazine to go too far to begin with. And what is too far? Who sets that threshold? Who has the true moral authority to say too far is too far? Certainly not the self-appointed executioner emptying his AK47 at cartoonists exercising their right to free speech with nothing more lethal than felt-tipped pens and pencils.

Charlie Hebdo may well have crossed a line of taste or public sensitivity or even the expression of opinion - albeit in the form of a socially provocative cartoon - but did they cross into territory warranting a lethal response? Of course not.

© Simon Poulter 2015

In response to Wednesday's atrocity, historian Simon Schama wrote in the Financial Times: "Magazines such as Charlie Hebdo are in the business of taking liberties, even outrageous ones, but they exist so that we never take the gift of disrespect for granted."

A fair point. But one that takes a higher level than was needed. The Guardian's cartoonist Steve Bell brought things more appropriately down to earth, telling the BBC: "We’ve got to stand up for the right to take the piss out of these monsters, these idiots, these fools, these posturing maniacs who strut around in their black gear as a kind of death cult trying to frighten us all."

That's what today was about. The greatest defence against those who say "you can't say that" should always be "yes, I can, because I live in a society that allows me to chose what I believe and freely say what I think" - no matter how far you test the elasticity of the principle.You can't place any metric against offence. You are either offended or not offended. And if you are, feel free to complain about it. It's your right.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

2014: the year in music

© Simon Poulter 2015

We weren’t long into 2013 when jaws collectively hit the deck with such a cacophonous thud that the paranoid could have been excused for thinking someone had, in Cold War parlance, dropped ‘the big one’. It was, of course, simply David Bowie, unexpectedly announcing his re-emergence as a recording artist with the appearance of, first, a single, and later an album.

2014 has, however, been conspicuously bereft of such musical incredulity, even with Susan Boyle audaciously releasing an album called Hope, and Barry Manilow recording a collection of duets with, exclusively, dead people.

Live, 2014 brought What Would David Bowie Do? into close proximity with Robert Plant twice, even closer to the Manic Street Preachers, and closer still to the point of a restraining order from Johnny Marr. There was an evening of joyous bouncing around with the Kaiser Chiefs, the breathtakingly enchanting Laura Mvula reminding how talent and a voice is sometimes just enough, or talent and a Stratocaster, in the case of the ridiculously talented blues prodigy Quinn Sullivan or the maestro himself, Popa Chubby, a matter of feet away from me in a Mexican restaurant in California.

But when it comes to this year’s pick of albums, I make no apology for a degree of conservatism. Some might call it predictability. Whatevs. This has been a year for the enjoyment of the melancholy, the thoughtful and the introspective, not to mention the clearly West Coast, Laurel Canyon-influenced, for both gentle guitars and those of a more raucous tone.

Before, however, I give you the lineup, there are two albums worthy of notable mention: firstly, Thom Yorke's Tomorrow's Modern Boxes. I'm sure it's good, but if I could only work out how to download it via BitTorrent, I would have given it a proper listen. And just because it is Thom Yorke doesn't ensure favourable comment. Next time, Thom, stop being difficult and release the bloody thing like a normal artist. I hear even the cassette has made a comeback. At least that would be easier than fannying around trying to convert "packets" into something I can listen too...

Secondly, U2's Songs Of Innocence. Just because it is U2 doesn't mean we all have to kiss its self-annointed feet. And as for ambushing my iTunes account - even if that was a lot easier than trying to get it via BitTorrent, how dare they. I'll decide whether I want an album, free or otherwise. As it turns out, Songs Of Innocence was without doubt the year's biggest disappointment. I don't say that out of grumpiness - it really did come across as lazy and knocked out in a lunch hour. U2 can be magnificent when they try, but they simply weren't with this one. Time to go back to disruptive rock rather than just sprinkling some half-developed ideas with trademark sounds.

So, then, what of the records that were fully developed? Ladies and gentlemen, let me present the What Would David Bowie Do? Top 20 Albums of 2014:

20 Wilko Johnson & Roger Daltrey - Going Back Home
Strictly speaking, this album shouldn't come anywhere near a best-of chart. Listened to via a squinted ear, it's merely a collection of retreads by Johnson and Daltrey, an enjoyable pub rock knees up and that's it. But appreciated with a little more attention and you come to realise how much this album is a celebration of life itself, as Johnson pounds away at his Telecaster in the knowledge that his apparent terminal cancer has been miraculously beaten, and Daltrey - free of the confines of The Who - returns to his roots as Acton Town's chief mod. Best played extremely loud.

19 The Led Zeppelin Reissues
No one, to my knowledge, has ever said that a list of the best albums of a given year has to actually include albums recorded in the year in question. From a purely biased point of view - this is a biog, after all, so get over it - Led Zeppelin's (well, Jimmy Page's) reissues this year of their first five albums has been a musical event of serious note. Whether you view the wallet emptying box sets as  exploitation, or simply cashing in on the middle-aged fan's predilection for nostalgia-induced spending, there was certainly much to savour from Page's lovingly curated box sets, producing alternate takes of songs that in a few cases genuinely questioned their familiarity, along with other extras such as the previously unreleased live recording from October 1969 at L'Olympia in Paris). At risk of sucking up to hype, the reissues of Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II, Led Zeppelin IIILed Zeppelin IV and Houses Of The Holy have been events in their own right.

18 Gary Clark Jr. - Gary Clark Jr. Live
If I can sneak in a cheeky handful of reissues, I can certainly include a live album, and few will suck the breath out of your lungs quite like this double-live from the latest great hope for keeping the blues alive, Gary Clark Jr. Those who pay attention to Eric Clapton's various Crossroads guitar festivals in aid of his Antigua drug rehabilitation centre will have already seen Clark's emergence in 2010 as a Stevie Ray Vaughan for the new millennium, and he's yet to let his build up falter. Some live albums have all the excitement of a bus ride through Leeds on a wet Wednesday afternoon, but this one captures Clark at his rip-roaring best. One also worth playing when the neighbours are out, and at full volume, too.

17 Future Islands - Singles
When a band emerges that has everyone talking about them, I usually run in the opposite direction. This is not due to a contrarian nature as such, or indeed something that would be better worked out via therapy. It's simply that I can't abide hype. Ironic, really, given that I earn a living now in PR. Luckily, in the case of Future Islands and their fourth album Singles, the end-product bore out the industry chatter. Building up their reputation, from garage band in Greenville, North Carolina, Singles is the result of a relentless slog to hone their electro-pop, also being the first album released by their new and major label, 4AD. There is romance and expression here, shades of Depeche Mode even, with a collection of songs that draw you in.

16 Ben Howard - I Forget Where We Were
Record industry dictation of what we should be listening to is nothing new. The Beatles, after all, inspired an entire slew of lookalike and soundalike acts. The cause of the singer-songwriter, however, has ebbed and flowed as if controlled by the tides. Currently, they're in, but thankfully the rush to find the next Jake Bugg-cum-Lonnie Donnegan has been abandoned. In that midst came the sophomore effort from Ben Howard, the Devon-based S-S who 'chose' his record company (Island) based on its heritage with John Martyn and Nick Drake, decent reference points each. There were obvious nods to both those acoustic icons on his 2011 debut Every Kingdom, and they're there again on I Forget Where We Were,  especially Martyn, as Howard explores his craft further. 

15 Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers - Hypnotic Eye
Yes, you read that correctly. Hoary old West Coast rockers (though they're actually from Florida, originally), making an album worthy of inclusion in a year's best-of list. Well, they have, and with a record that drew no greater accolade than me selecting "Album Repeat" on my iPhone and not changing that for a week. This is proper, "meat and potatoes" rock, a brilliant blend of guitars doing what guitars are meant to do, coupled with the 63-year-old Petty applying a healthily caustic view of the world on songs like Burnt Out Town and the opener, American Dream Plan B, as well as the brilliant assessment of life's unfortunates, Forgotten Man.
14 Kaiser Chiefs - Education, Education, Education & War
The last time we saw the Kaisers it was those heady days of the 2012 summer, and they were part of that celebration of Britain, the closing ceremony of London Olympics, charging around the Olympic stadium on Vespa scooters to channel The Who. The Kaiser chief Ricky Wilson went a bit showbiz, as a judge on The Voice, the BBC's attempt to cash in on Saturday night TV wannabedom. Thank God, then, that at some point they graced a recording studio with their presence to produce this, their fifth album. After the lacklustre The Future Is Medieval, Education... has the Kaisers back punching at their correct weight, writing infectious, festival-friendly classics like Ruffians On Parade, mildly political essays like The Factory Gates, and the slightly schmaltzy but nonetheless enjoyable Coming Home. On tour they were effervescent. 

13 Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters - Lullaby and... The Ceaseless Roar
With those who clearly still misunderstand Plant - including, perhaps, Jimmy Page - banging on about another ker-ching Led Zeppelin tour, Plant has admirably ploughed his own furrow. Admittedly, his live shows were peppered with Zepp songs, but the enthusiastic eclecticism with which Plant and his superb Sensational Space Shifters have been approaching both original and old material demonstrated that, like that other refusenik warhorse Peter Gabriel, there is no statute of limitations on what you can still do as one of rock's elder statesmen. Lullaby... refused to even continue the bluegrass theme of Plant's enormous collaboration with Alison Krauss, Raising Sand, instead diving into music, themes and tones from Americana, the Middle East and Africa alike, turning the old on its head with something new (Little Maggie) or rocking up a storm with Pocketful of Golden, which nods slightly to the behemoth Plant once fronted.

12 Johnny Marr - Playland
You wouldn't normally place indie's diminutive guitar icon in the same sentence as Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, but for the purpose of this list, I will, seeing as Playland, like Hypnotic Eye, was another album that went on repeat and didn't come off it until it was really, exhaustively, time to move on. A big improvement on last year's The Messenger, Playland feels more thought through, and more cohesive as a result, a punch cocktail of riffs and sterling reminders of where Manchester's Britpop Ground Zero was centred.  Thus, spiky four-minute wonders like Easy Money, Dynamo and Boys Get Straight put lead in the pencil like few others have done on record this year. Brilliant.

11 Deacon Blue - A New House
Despite earning serious kudos for naming themselves after a Steely Dan song, and with their hit singles Dignity, Real Gone Kid and, today appropriate, Queen Of The New Year, being mainstays of  Top 40 radio well into the 90s, the last 20 years have been something of a critical desert for Ricky Ross & Co, even if their last album, 2012's The Hipsters did at least break the UK Top 20 album chart. However, A New House appeared to creep out, which is a shame, as it has been one of the great surprises of 2014. A New House is engulfed in a renewed zest, the result of the band taking time off and then returning via live performance, something that comes through on every single track. Next time, will you let us know? Ta.

10 Caribou - Our Love
Like Future Islands' Singles, this, too, shouldn't be on this list owing to the amount of tastemaker approval it has received. But after a chance encounter in - where else? - a record shop, this sixth album from Dan Snaith's electronica vehicle had me hooked. Combining electronic hooks that refuse to adhere to any recognisable label with the more personal lyrics of a man approaching his 40s (he's 36), Singles is the non-formist's non-conformist album, by turns fascinating, danceable, baffling and always engaging. Play it in the car with your windows down and wait for the looks you'll get. And not give a rat's arse about them.

9 Jack White - Lazaretto
Speaking of inveterate contrarians, rock's own Tim Burton/Johnny Depp combination turned in one of his most mainstream albums ever, which is in principle his break-up album, and named after a quarantine facility for sailors. Make of that what you will. Inside there is no shortage of White's sonic idiosyncrasy, getting noises out of guitars that very few other artists have the time or the patience to develop, but then layering them into plaintive blues, folk, country and other genres that no doubt come from making Nashville his home base.    

8 Bombay Bicycle Club - So Long, See You Tomorrow
It's only just occurred to me, as I've arrived at this album in the 20, how much Ben Howard reminds me of BBC's Jack Steadman, vocally. There, however, the similarity ends, with Crouch End's finest taking their fourth album into a broader sphere, less guitar-focused and more world music-influenced with heavy samples of Bollywood and sub-continent rhythms peppered throughout. Is it dance? Is it pop? Is it rock? Who cares, it is excellent, and evidence of a band maturing before our eyes. They recently entertained a guest appearance from David Gilmour at their Earls Court show a few weeks ago, a visit from rock royalty to place a regal stamp on this still-impossibly young band's stature. 

7 Paolo Nutini - Caustic Love
Speaking of still young, Nutini may have the voice of a world-weary R&B veteran, but the Scot is still technically of an age when he could be called a "young man". But ignore such fogeyish speak: Caustic Love is a superb piece of soul, not exactly the blue-eyed kind as the bloodshot, blue-eyed kind. Those who may have previously avoided Nutini for being an artist who, despite his chronic hedonist reputation, could so easily evolve into the next Bublé, will be pleasantly surprised by the acreage this album covers, both in terms of impact and invention. Even when threatening to go in a lounge direction, Nutini steers onto paths less travelled, avoiding cliché without abandoning convention.

6 Ben Watt - Hendra
Leonard Cohen and Peter Gabriel have clearly got nothing on Watt when it comes to lengthy gaps between albums, with this glorious summer soundtrack coming some 31 years after Watt released North Marine Drive. It brought Watt back to the folk-rock influences of his youth, with John Martyn and Nick Drake (again) prominent in the 70s singer-songwriter vibe, along with woozy reflections on life and the countryside supported by guest guitarist Bernard Butler and even a cameo from David Gilmour's seminal pedal steel guitar. If you can imagine a hot August afternoon, sitting in the garden reading a good book, warm waves of sunshine washing over your face, then this album is the musical equivalent. Enchanting.

5 The Black Keys - Turn Blue
While El Camino, its predecessor, journeyed the Keys along a heavily blues-influenced thoroughfare, Turn Blue launched Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney into a wicked maelstrom of psych-rock, soul, glam rock, funk and even 70s glitterball wigouts. With the help of producer Danger Mouse, Turn Blue evokes everyone from Floyd to Donna Summer in a typical hook-laden Black Keys jam  that doesn't take itself too seriously, but offers serious entertainment for those of us who like their music to be stained in the past.

4 Ryan Adams - Ryan Adams
I'm always suspicious of any band or solo performer who, some way into their careers, names an album after themselves. It does set off the alarm bells that a creative dry patch has been reached. Mercifully, Ryan Adams' Ryan Adams doesn't present any such disappointment, instead delivering an album of fully-formed, cheesecloth-and-denim wearing West Coast soft-rock that probably doesn't deserve that description. Yes, there are some obvious comparisons to be made to Lindsay Buckingham's contributions to Fleetwood Mac, but that is just a passing observation. For its entirety, this is an album of straight-forward constructs, of heartfelt writing and earnest performances (even, bizarrely, featuring Johnny Depp playing guitar on two tracks, not that he exactly stands out). A perfectly-crafted record, and one that spent the better part of a week on near-constant repeat as I drove from Lake Tahoe to Portland, Oregon, and back down into California again. Rare is the album that feels like comfortable shoes and the shiniest party shirt simultaneously. But Adams pulled off that trick with aplomb.

3 Manic Street Preachers - Futurology
To briefly return to U2 for a second, when you've enjoyed critical acclaim and commercial success over the course of a career spanning more than a couple of decades, expectations are high when you release a record. It's not one that I would even pretend to have any appreciation of, and I don't envy those bands trying to make it work. But unlike U2's highwayman album in September, the Manics' twelfth studio album was just breathtaking in its boldness, in its resolution to not sound like anything the Welsh trio (or quartet, if Richie ever does reappear) had released before. Some call that progressive, others just call it hard graft, not giving into the temptation of retreading a load of angry old stompers, but to invest further in their craft. The result is a simply majestic record.

2 Damon Albarn - Everyday Robots
As we get down to the final two albums of this year's line-up, don't expect perky, don't expect upbeat, and don't expect too much ra-ra. As the cover image of Everyday Robots - Albarn's debut solo album - suggest, this is a wonderfully downbeat collection of largely melancholy essays on the absurdities of a world in which we communicate more via our mobile phones than by face-to-face contact. It's the sort of reflection men of our age (Albarn is just four months my junior) can easily fall into. Here, he peels back the layers of his life to revisit the Essex and East London of his youth and his post-adolescent, pre-fame existence. It is in places dour, sepia-tinged and gloriously melancholy. And utterly, utterly compelling. As my review earlier this year stated, Everyday Robots can be considered as either the slit-your-wrists bleating of a polymath coming to terms with age, or an intelligently weighted concept piece which underlines how how gifted Albarn is in creating brilliantly nuanced music. Stunning.

1 Elbow - The Take Off And Landing Of Everything
The achingly cool, self-appointed who like to decide for us what is in and what isn't might still be waiting to pounce on Elbow as the next Coldplay (and no-one wants that, now do they). The Take Off And Landing Of Everything, however, ensured that Salford’s finest held their heads up with this positively sumptuous collection of expression and just the right hint of melancholy. Written largely on the back of Guy Garvey’s relationship split and subsequent flight to the protective bosom of New York City, it coalesced the decade and a half that Elbow have been writing and recording with an album that had nooks and crannies in every big, open-spaced room on it occupied. Even with the break-up context that could have given Garvey his own Blood On The Tracks or Grace And Danger, it doesn’t wallow, resting - thankfully - in a broad church of self expression, self rediscovery and imperious songwriting. Sam Smith may have produced the year’s most talked about debut focusing on unrequited romance, but no-one seams to apply voice, melody and invention quite like Elbow, and this album blended that triumvirate with majestic excellence.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The one that got away

If you forgive the Irish thing (a handball as heinously committed as that by Maradona), it is with a certain sadness that Thierry Henry has announced his retirement from football.

I say 'a certain' as, firstly, he played for Arsenal; second, he pretty much retired when he moved to the New York Red Bulls; and third, there has been enough tragedy in the world already this week for a wealthy footballer ending his career to pick up the equally lucrative shilling of Sky Sports to really be of any great despondency.

Still, football is the poorer for the exit of one of its greatest modern personalities and the only player I can honestly say has ever induced Arsenal envy in this particular Chelsea fan.

There was a time, before Abramovich, Mourinho and all that "buying the league" nonsense that I used to look at Arsenal and think, "why do they have Thierry Henry and not us?". Even casting an avaricious glance at Manchester United's pricey 90s line-up didn't raise the hackles in me as much as watching Henry gliding through defenders like a warm knife through butter, but with considerably greater art to his craft than such a leaden domestic analogy might suggest.

Henry represented the Arsenal we all wanted to beat but couldn't. My beloved Chelsea may have, this season, created an air of invincibility about them, but Arsenal - then - with Henry as the tip of Wenger's spear, were the real thing. Hard to see currently, given their directionless amble, but Arsenal were unbeatable in every sense, and Henry had much to do with it.

In this age of inflated egos and even more inflated reputations, Henry transcended the simple description "football star". He arrived at Highbury for £10.5 million on the back of France's 1998 World Cup victory and his own receipt of the Golden Boot, along with a distinguished club career at Monaco (which he joined aged 13) and then a so-so season with Juventus. 

That, for plenty others, would have been the pinnacle right there. But at Arsenal he would go on to score 228 goals, be named Footballer of the Year no less than three times, pick up winners medals for two Premier League titles, and two FA Cups, before moving on in 2007 to more success at Barcelona.

The silverware, of course, is much deserved, but it is the individual moments for which Henry established himself you could only just marvel at, regardless of your allegiance. The volleyed goal against Manchester United in 2000, that strike against Spurs in 2002 (now immortalized in the Henry statue outside the Emirates Stadium), moments of sheer magic in the Champions League the following season, and his 48-match run in the 2003-4 'invincible' season.

Henry was a player you craved to see, regardless of whose replica shirt you were squeezed into at the time. There was something mesmeric, enchanting even about him - even when he was doing irreparable, humiliating damage to your own side. Messi and Ronaldo might do something similar now, but neither do so with the same charm, elegance and humour. 

In fact, what made Henry an idol, pure and simple, was his intelligence and charisma. Those two words are not often applied in sport, and rarely in football, but Henry, the player, was a beguiling figure on and off the pitch. Even that 'va-va voom' commercial for Renault showed a personality as rare as hens' teeth in football.

Henry was "the great entertainer", as Paddy Barclay wrote in today's Evening Standard, and in that simple appraisal he is spot-on. Some have even suggested that he's the best player the Premier League has ever seen. I'm certainly not qualified to contest that. 

I will still hold Gianfranco Zola up as the greatest player I've ever seen play football, but then I would. Thierry Henry, then, holds the distinction of being the greatest player I've ever seen play football in anything other than a Chelsea shirt. It's just a shame he never got to wear one.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

When phoney Beatlemania bit the dust: London Calling

Chelsea Football Club has, largely due to its apparently chichi location, long been a celeb magnet. When the Sixties were swinging, Stamford Bridge - the Kings Road’s premier (and, come to think of it, only) football stadium - was the place to be, even drawing, bizarrely, Hollywood stars like Sophia Loren.

In the club's current, Russian-monied era of global megastar players and arriviste prawn sandwich-munchers, it is more common to see the likes of Jeremy Clarkson and Damon Albarn.

Chelsea is not alone, of course. The Gallaghers are life-long Manchester City fans, Robert Plant is a vice-president of Wolverhampton Wanderers, and Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium is positively awash with north London's luvvies. And while there is no doubt that some (including the Tarquins and their crustacean butties) who patronise the sport for its proletariat kudos, there are some whose mere appearance at a game can quite literally take the wind from one’s sails.

In my case, it was turning around from my East Stand Upper seat at the Bridge to see a balding man of late middle age, wearing a blue trenchcoat of non-descript origin and largely resembling an off-duty hotel doorman. Who turned out to be Mick Jones of The Clash. Gob well and truly smacked, a state it remained in for the duration of the game and the remainder of that week.

Right there was proper music royalty. All due respect to other musical giants who venture to the Bridge (yes, Bryan Adams, I mean you), but standing behind me was one of the godfathers of modern rock and pop, co-writer of one of the most fabulously misappropriated songs about a city ever recorded, and a member of the greatest and most enduring band of the entire flash in the pan that was punk.

The Clash's London Calling was released 35 years ago today, just a fortnight after punk's great targets, Pink Floyd, had released their opus to separation and abandonment, The Wall. The contrasts couldn't have been more profound, but there's no need to go down the punk-v-prog route here.

In December 1979 "punk rock", as the fuddy-duddy British media liked to call it, had largely left behind its noisy, granny-scaring minor revolt. In fact, it had already become nothing more than an awful postcard for American tourists in London to send home, a lazy media label used to describe anyone who made their music wearing drainpipes and DMs, rather than with centre-parted hair and silk shirts.

For all its supposed anti-establishment liberation, you can question punk's artistic merits. The Clash were more than that, and London Calling demonstrated how. Their previous album, Give 'Em Enough Rope had suggested a desire to get away from all that three-chord, fuzzboxed anger that much of the punk movement had harnessed. That said, the choice of London's Calling's cover art presented an ambiguity. Pennie Smith's simple, grainy black-and-white image of Paul Simonon smashing his bass guitar into the stage of New York's The Palladium summed up both the movement The Clash had come from, but also what The Clash were doing to punk itself.

London Calling consummated their desire to get away from punk, presenting an engorged melting pot of reggae, soul, R&B and conventional pop-rock, with an added dose of wit and, well, fun. Some of this can be attributed to the controversial choice of Guy Stevens as producer. Against record company objections (Stevens was known to have drink and drug dependencies), Mick Jones was instrumental in bringing in the former Procul Harum and Mott The Hoople producer purely because of the breadth of his chops, an ability to nurture a more soulful Clash sound, but also bring out the band's underlying spirit by nailing a track in only two or three takes, rather than endless, ground-out perfectionism.

The result is an album that sounds spontaneous, bright and thoroughly engaging, 35 years on. That said, the album commences with a punk anthem - the title track London Calling and its dystopian vision. Still favoured - erroneously - by football stadium DJs in the British capital as an unofficial city anthem, London Calling, the song, takes inspiration from the 3-Mile Island "nuclear error" in the March of 1979.

It remains one of the strongest songs of the entire era, marking the transition from the 1970s to the 1980s in the year in which Margaret Thatcher became the most divisive prime minister in British history and the nation's inner cities descended into social dysfunction. Rarely has a title track opened an album so distinctly, either, Jones' guitar chopping away as Joe Strummer rasps "London calling to the faraway towns, now war is declared, and battle come down" (I'm annoyed still as to why that line isn't "battle comes down"...).

One of the most surprising aspects of London Calling is that it's a double-album. Double albums - such as The Wall, released a fortnight previously - were still associated with the excesses of 70s rock. Gargantuan, self-indulgent and bloated. And, yet, The Clash got away with a four-sided, 19-track hour of rare eclecticism for the period.

It's a breezy exercise of a band at play - the cover of Vince Taylor's Brand New Cadillac; Strummer giving vent to his colourful cartoonist side with Jimmy Jazz; Jones bouncing around with the ska-infused Rudie Can't Fail; and even bassist Paul Simonon making his songwriting debut with The Guns Of Brixton.

There is plenty of the insolence that made punk such a source of ruffled conservative feathers three years before - Death Or Glory being the best example - but there is a greater lyrical depth, be it the pop of Train In Vain or the shark contrast of styles of Spanish Bombs, and its allegorical take on the Spanish Civil War and what was going on in Ireland in 1979. And then, with Lost In The Supermarket, Jones and Strummer conspire to produce a masterpiece of downbeat introspection, symbolic of the album's overall maturity.

1979 was the year I started secondary school. It was a year of profound political and social change in Britain, a year that was supposed to herald the end of the 1970s' near-permanently grey-skied gloom. 1980 hardly brought any noticeable improvement, but London Calling stood out in a list of landmark albums - Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures, The Specials's self-titled debut, XTC's Drums & Wires, Bowie's Lodger and even Regatta de Blanc by The Police that suggested that the New Wave was to be as vibrant as the punk movement that preceded it had well and truly shaken the tree.