Friday, October 02, 2015

Walking on sunshine: Squeeze - Cradle To The Grave

One of the solid gold joys of my recent sojourn to the Med was the opportunity to devour the first two volumes of the riotously funny memoir by Danny Baker, whose abridged newspaper handle usually goes something like "DJ and TFI Friday writer", occasionally a reference to late night kebabs, Chris Evans and Gazza, or at their laziest, "that bloke off the DAZ ads" (though why never the tremendous mid-morning jewel that was Win, Lose Or Draw, I have no idea).

Baker is one of Britain's finest masters of the radio medium. His Saturday morning show on the BBC's 5Live is required listening, both for Baker's own non-stop banter, as well as the range of anecdote he elicits from Joe Public on topics as varied as "Don't Talk To Me About Combs!" and "Glove Compartment Archeology".

Baker is - if I may say so myself, and attempt to bask in a tiny bit of reflected glory - a kindred spirit. We share a love of Steely Dan, prog rock and football, and we both got a rung on the journalism ladder through the NME, though he went on to interview Michael Jackson, while I escalated the dizzy heights of reviewing Phil Collins and Sade concerts, though to this day I maintain that you've got to start somewhere, and at 16 years of age, that was plenty.

Going To Sea In A Sieve, the first installment of Baker's autobiography, charts the period from childhood to his arrival on national television, richly describing life in the bosom of his working class Bermondsey family and the rollicking wit and wisdom of his dad, Fred 'Spud' Baker (and the Only Fools And Horses-like greyness of the perks of being a dock union convener). And, through Deptford schooldays and his first job at the age of 15 in a fashionable West End record shop (encountering the likes of Marc Bolan, Elton John and members of Queen), Baker regails in his fortunes as punk fanzine scribe and his emergence at the NME, in the shadows of legends like Nick Kent, Charles Shaar-Murray, Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill.

Both Going To Sea In A Sieve and the equally hilarious follow-up, Going Off Alarming - which follows Baker through his television and soap-ad fame in the 80s and 90s - are warm and unapolagetically devoid of anything approaching either the reality of an upbringing in one of London less salubrious areas. Baker deliberately eschews the celebrity confessional, defying the convention of autobiographies exposing the grim episodes of youth. He had a ball, and it comes across as such. As he frequently says, without resorting to English modesty, he was a popular kid who became the life and soul. Even his 2010 announcement of throat cancer was delivered with whimsical good humour.

Father and son: Kay and Baker

I mention all this because whimsical good humour is the stock in trade of Cradle To Grave, the BBC TV adaptation of Going To Sea In A Sieve, with Peter Kay cast as Pa Baker, and which provided the inspiration for Cradle To The Grave, the first album of new songs from Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford in 17 years.

Picture: Rob O'Connor
Coming from Greenwich, a few railway sidings away from the Deptford council estate Baker grew up in, the pair share a similar outlook on 1970s south-east London (Difford and Baker both attended West Greenwich Secondary Boys School).

In Going To Sea In A Sieve Tilbrook saw the prospect of new music celebrating this shared heritage and, having known Baker since his days on the Sniffin' Glue fanzine (which shared an office with Squeeze's first record label, Deptford Fun City), offered to provide the music for the series, which was duly accepted.

"I read Danny’s book [Going To Sea In A Sieve ] four years ago," Tilbrook told Uncut magazine, "and thought for the first time that this might be a project Chris and I could work on." That, in itself, is quite an important statement. Tilbrook and Difford's relationship underwent considerable strain during a 'lost period' when personal problems - including substance addiction - came between them.

"We’ve grown up a lot in the last few years, musically," Difford says of their reformation of Squeeze in 2007. "We still love and own our past, but as musicians we needed to grow," resulting in the new material of Cradle To The Grave.

I doubt Tilbrook and Difford would warm to such a description as "national treasures": but given their place in the post-punk New Wave, and a catalogue of utter gems like Take Me I’m Yours, Pulling Mussels (From the Shell), Labelled With Love, the quintessential student singalong Cool For Cats, and Tempted, featuring the vocals of Britain's greatest white soul singer, Paul Carrack, Cradle To The Grave is, in the words of Tilbrook himself, "the most cohesive Squeeze record we’ve made".

It is, certainly, one of the most effortlessly enjoyable records I have listened to this year, a comforting, autumnal blanket combining Difford's lyrical wit and Tilbrook's classic English pop melodicism - not to mention their familiar octave-separated vocal harmonies - with a magpie's pilfering of different styles from here and from there.

Picture: Rob O'Connor

Sunny's Eleanor Rigby string intro touches on the first flushes of teenage lust and emergence into young adulthood, with its swirling synths recreating the hormonal maelstrom of adolescence, while Happy Days is a country-twinged Down To Margate celebration of a lads holiday (before the notion became stained by the vomit of Shagaluf disgrace) out of London and down to the English south coast, a gospel choir chorus adding to the rays of sunshine that burst forth.

Though the album wasn't written as the TV show's defacto soundtrack, its compositions complement the narrative with perfection: Top Of The Form clearly gets into the Baker school years, setting the scene of confrontation with a High Noon twang, while Nirvana's light nostalgia and hint of social commentary blends with the knowing irony of the song's sunny cod disco and its examination of Empty Nest Syndrome ("He quibbled with ambition, she fell into a rut").

The 'standard' version of Cradle To The Grave ends with Snap, Crackle And Pop, an unfailingly uplifting burst of energy that declares "God-willing I'm going to love this day!", emulating the relentless positivity of Baker's memoir, not to mention Baker himself.

But stick with the 'deluxe' edition: on four additional tracks, Squeeze open up with a rootsish, Wilco-esque country edge. The Nashville-noir Hangin 'Round, sung by Difford, a lively cover of the 1968 Jeannie C. Riley hit Harper Valley PTA, the delightfully woozy pysch-country vibe of Strange Effect, and the throwabout defiance of modernity that it is I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.

Perhaps because Cool For Cats, with its pop culture references, was seen as a bit of a novelty, or because Up The Junction was dismissed for its "Smash Hits soap opera" social commentary, Squeeze have never been given a fair crack of the whip. New Wave contemporaries, like Elvis Costello, Paul Weller and Ian Dury were lauded for their eclectism and their cool. But, along with another contemporary, XTC, Squeeze have contributed more to the roots and soul of Britpop than they get credit for.

Listen back to early Squeeze and then listen to Parklife, Different Class or I Should Coco, or more recently anything by Kaiser Chiefs. Difford and Tilbrook will be in there. Theirs is a songwriting enriched by their environment and its life.

There was something decidedly serendipitous about, first Danny Baker writing his memoirs (a third intalment will be out next year), and then Difford and Tilbrook deciding to get the Squeeze mojo going again. Because, forged in the chip shops and railway arches of London SE16, Cradle To The Grave marks a welcome return to one of Britain's finest groups, inspired by one of Britain's finest broadcasters. It's a pleasure to have you back chaps.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

What did I miss at Chelsea? Nothing, apparently.

Twitter/Chelsea FC

The arrangement we had was this: I would go away on holiday for a couple of weeks, recharge the batteries, reconnect with reality and all that, and Chelsea would do something about their form. Thus, a 4-0 win over Maccabi Tel-Aviv, a 2-0 win over Arsenal, and a 4-1 win over Walsall were recorded.

And then the day before I get on the plane home, a 2-2 draw against Newcastle. OK, perhaps a warnng. And then last night, 48 hours after I'd returned to my adopted Parisian soil, Chelsea lost to Porto. Coincidence?

Well, right now, I'll take any explanation. Whatever confidence and mental strength returned to José's team while I was soaking up the Sicilian sunshine had evaporated by last night, and with much the same rapidity as my tan is fading. The most perturbing thing of all is that Mourinho, for all the sports press's conciliatory acknowledgement of his proven brilliance as a manager, currently appears to be moving in the opposite direction of the plot. Why else would he have moved on from blaming errant doctors for his team's ills, to singling out individual players...and not exactly the right ones?

Before last night's game there was talk him that no Chelsea player was 'untouchable', with up to six players at risk of being dropped for the Champions League group game against his old club. Noticeably, John Terry sat the entire game out on the substitutes' bench, with last season's PFA Players' Player of the Year and FWA Footballer of the Year, Eden Hazard, suffering a similar penance until 20 minutes from the end.

Granted, Terry's pace has increasingly been a question (face facts - he'll never be Esher's answer to Usain Bolt, which explains his choice of disabled bays to park outside chip shops...) when the faster, younger Kurt Zouma is available, but even then the 34-year-old's lionine spirit has carried Chelsea through many a European fixture.

Hazard's starting absence was more baffling: true, he hasn't been the player he was last season, but he's still one of the quickest and most inventive forwards in the game. Loic Remy, Oscar and Radamel Falcao didn't even get on the plane to Portugal, suggesting they were being made to atone for their lack of success in front of and around goal. But has Costa really been any better? Oscar does, it must be said, blow hot and cold, which might explain why Mourinho chose the on-fire Willian, plus Pedro and Ramires to start in the attacking midfield roles.

However, one of the real villains of the piece, Branislav Ivanovic, continues to play and, in Terry's absence, captains the side. He has consistently been the worst element in a chronically ineffective defence so far this season, and yet for apparently spurious reasons, Mourinho seems to prefer him over Azpiliqueta playing at right-back, with newboy Baba Rahman coming in on the left.

Even when it is obvious to the most comprehension-challenged individual like me that Ivanovic has gone missing too often - last night he lost Brahimi, which eventually lead to André André (so good they named him twice) scoring on the rebound just before half time - something seems to be perilously wrong about his apparently untouchable inclusion.

And if the answer to Matic undeperforming in the holding position is to bring in John Obi Mikel - whose ever-presence in the team for the last nine seasons has baffled everyone - you can be easily tempted to think that Mourinho is now writing his teamsheets in green crayon.

On the one hand he defends his selections as not being personal ("No punishment, just a decision" - an explanation not far from Michael Corleone's "its strictly business"...) and then in the same breath denounce the woeful defending ("It makes me really angry because the easiest thing to do is to defend set-pieces"), which may have been improved by not having the worst defender out on the pitch.

There is, too, some valid argument from Rio Ferdinand last night on BT Sport that Chelsea lack leadership on the pitch. Ivanovic - the club's vice-captain - is nowhere near Terry in this regard. In fact, despite Terry being regarded by most non-Chelsea fans to be as reprehensible an individual as it's possible to be, short of beng a practising pedarist or Donald Trump, he is by far one of the greatest leaders on the pitch English football has produced in a generation.

And, yet, when his leadership is needed most, he's on the bench, starting at the tracksuit stitching on the assistant coach sat in front of him.

There is something foul and ragged about Chelsea right now. As WWDBD? wrote a couple of weeks ago, the mentality of the side which so imperiously won the Premier League title last season has disappeared. It's down to the manager to fix it, but will he if players are being arbitrarily dropped?

Mourinho appears to have tried most tricks in his Special One playbook: in the course of the last six weeks of competitive play, Chelsea have suffered five defeats. During this time, he has attempted to deflect attention (casualty: Dr. E Carneiro), he has been beguilingly nice about his under-performing players, he has cranked up the criticism and maid veiled threats, and then gone and dropped players which, frankly, could have been useful.

Of the players that have responded, only Begovic (who had a mighty wobble during pre-season) has shone, with Willian and, as a sub, Ramires demonstrating any kind of fight of the kind Terry himself wouid and has exhibited in the past.

Fight is not a word you would readily choose to use with Diego Costa, and when he's not trying to start one, or suspended from causing one, is at least a threat. Still, he himself questioned the mentality of the players around him: "We are all united. It's not a good moment now. We must do more," he said, presumably through an interpreter on the club website. "We have a good squad with a great deal of quality. We have maybe lost some confidence in three or four games."

There is no maybe or some confidence about it. The mindset at Chelsea right now is all wrong. It's up to the manager to fix it. And maybe, just maybe, the application of tough love isn't the way to do it.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Island Life - holidaying in Montalbano’s back yard

© Simon Poulter 2015

Let’s just agree on this, right away: there is no right or wrong when it comes to holidays. One person’s Andean hillwalking is another’s brass-rubbing in Norfolk. Equally, you are more than entitled to spend two weeks at some Mediterranean drum doing nothing more demanding than reading Grisham while turning a darker shade of mahogany. 

Holidaymakers are welcome to their Maldive scuba-ing, their Andalusian basket-weaving, their Phuket beach bumming, their Cornish "chillaxing" or even their Disneyland/world adrenalin rushing and endless queuing. All these are fine by me. Because a holiday is what you make it, right? It’s your day off or long weekend or week or three-month sabbatical to do whatever makes you feel good, rested and better. 

Me, I start out with good intentions. I’ll say to myself that this year I’ll satisfy myself just by loafing about poolside, with sleeping the primary meat in a sandwich of the outbound and return flights. However, it rarely - if ever - ends up that way. 

I have, previously, chosen a week at an ersatz boutique hotel in Los Angeles, under the false expectation of getting papped on the rooftop terrace amongst the enfamed and glamorous, in the hope of it leading to a career in film/television and impossible riches beyond. Alas, while my man boobs may have provided momentary interest to an idle and, frankly, myopic photographer, I soon realised just how far out of my league I was in the LA hotel narcissism stakes and spent the rest of that holiday stuck in traffic listening to classic rock radio.

© Simon Poulter 2015

This year, and from where I write, I’ve returned to Sicily. Again, with the sworn intention of doing nothing except alternating sleeping with dips in the pool, eating, and reducing my accumulation of rock and roll biographies. But, as Nostradamus himself could have predicted without so much as batting an eyelid, the hire car keys have proven too much of a temptation to simply leave in the hotel safe. Because, so it would seem, I am a restless soul when confronted by beauty.

This is my fourth visit to Sicily, the first being 1997 when I arrived on the day of Princess Diana’s funeral, in what turned out to be a blessed escape from hearing Elton John singing “Goodbye English rose…” for the billionth time that week. Some have politely “questioned” (i.e. made thinly-veiled criticism) my return to somewhere I’ve been to before: yes, I know there’s a world out there, and that Asia, Australia and New Zealand, South America, the Middle East and even parts of both my home country and [current] adopted nation offer destinations I could have seen for the very first time. There are even a few of Uncle Sam’s 50 states in which I’ve yet to breathe the local air, something that might come as a surprise to my kith and kin.

So sue me, then, if I’ve shown no ambition by coming back to this giant Dorito perched off Italy’s big toe. Quite why I love Sicily so, however, has only really occurred to me on this trip, and that is the realisation that it is a feast for all senses so gargantuan that you wish you could just ask for a doggy bag with which to consume more of it when you get back home. 

There are plenty of places that deliver what Sicily does - perfect weather, pristine beaches, stunning scenery, fascinating history, dribblingly-good food and wonderful people - but few that deliver all of it so nonchalantly, almost to the point of lacking any ambition to do so. And that’s the part I like.

© Simon Poulter 2015

Sicily - as a land - isn’t knowingly pretty. It’s not one of those Gwyneth Paltrow-perfect places that, if it didn’t live and breathe, you would swear was a tourist authority construct. But nor is its beauty just skin-deep.

We Brits and our Yankee cousins, in particular, can bang on about Tuscany, for example, with contractually-obliged references to undulating hills, chianti, and your pick of Florence, Sienna or Lucca (and don’t get me wrong, but these are cities and a region I adore), but Sicily delivers graduated degrees of visual exhilaration and geographic intoxication in an enticingly different manner, and, in my view, in more substantial quantities.

First of all, Sicily isn’t Italy. It’s Sicily. An island fought over by X, Y, and Z and several more in between over the course of ancient and modern history. Today it might enjoy semi-autonomy from whichever government is this week running the country, but it is no more “Italy” than Russia is a part of either Europe or Asia. 

It’s this individualism that makes Sicily such a perfect pace for the Italianophile to spend a couple of weeks: you get to enjoy the bits of Italy you like - mad driving, breathtaking architecture and insanely ornate places of worship, food and drink you would wallow in like Gina Lollobrigida in the Trevi fountain if you could - while consciously turning a blind eye towards the things you don’t like. That, ashamedly, are the obvious signs of poverty that remain in Italy’s less than prosperous Mezzogiorno, and the husks of suspiciously incomplete buildings that dot the countryside in the most incongruous manner - multi-story commercial buildings in the middle of nowhere and miles from any urban centre, that have been started and then abandoned. 

Some will hint at criminal involvement, others corruption in both high and low places, while others will simply be resigned to it being what it is, much like the filth of fly-tipped rubbish that piles up uncollected alongside roads (as do prostitutes who ply their trade openly on bizarrely remote stretches of highway, like lay-by fruit sellers, so to speak).

© Simon Poulter 2015

Intense summer heat and the genetic makeup of myriad invading peoples have made Sicilians a hardy breed. In towns that cling to hills like limpet colonies, neighbours live on top of, underneath and right beside each other. Proximity is not a social drawback here as it is to us repressed Brits. Thus a Sicilian will stand on your heels in a queue, or attach themselves to your rear bumper without once considering the imposition it causes. Being close is just their way.

Speaking of Sicilian roads, they are worthy of their own guidebook alone [*makes note to call publisher next week*]. If you take the Italian reputation for cavalier driving and then crank it up past 11, you will come close to the motoring experience here. 

Overtaking on stretches of highway where it is obviously unadvisable is as much a part of the way of life as the nuclear-strength coffee which, now I think of it, probably contributes to the driving culture. There’s no point in harrumphing when you see a car coming towards you on your side of the road here - it knows what it is doing, as does everyone else…even if a head-on collision of the most dramatic and calamitous kind is clearly about to happen. But never does.

In mitigation, there is a cause: apart from the three main autostrada - between Palermo and Catania, Messina and Syracusa, and Syracusa and Gela (except it doesn't get that far) - driving anywhere in Sicily can be an exercise in extreme patience as all the roads are single carriageway. Which means on weekdays you will get stuck behind a procession of tectonically slow trucks belching out acrid diesel smoke, while a hotshot in an Alfa impatiently sits on your tail waiting to accelerate past. In a no-passing zone, obviously. 

Like other crazy car cultures - Paris and cities in south-east Asia spring immediately to mind - there is something intuitive about motoring in Sicily. It shouldn't work but it just does, like ant colonies. Miraculously, no-one ever seems to get in anyone else’s way, regardless of the obvious risks taken.

What Sicily lacks, quite deliberately it would seem, in major automotive infrastructure it makes up for in roads that edge their way around the magnificent Sicilian interior, hugging hillsides and coursing through hilltop towns high enough to feel like you're flying, before twisting and turning down into deep valleys

Sicily can be a driver’s paradise. While there are plenty of places where it is patently not - Palermo being one, trying to park in most of the other urban attractions being another - the island is criss-crossed with gloriously rolling roads where you can ivariably be the only human being for several kilometres in any which direction. 

Some of these roads are awful, pothole-infested disasters, but many others allow the time to meander the breathtaking Sicilian interior, its seismic history having carved out in great, fertile valleys and mountains with towns nestling in them like something out of Mordor.

At its eastern end, it is impossible to go anywhere without seeing the enormous, classically conical outline of Mount Etna looming in the haze. No wonder it inspired Greek legends. With its ever-present puffs of sulphuric smoke, and occasional up-spits of lava and rock, it's an awe-inspiring sight that looms over Catania like an imperious guard. Indeed, Etna’s reoccurring prominence is such that you see it from everywhere and in everything - rather like Roy Neary, Richard Dreyfuss’s Devil’s Tower-obsessed telephone engineer in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

© Simon Poulter 2015

Indeed so much of Sicily is cinematic, and, yes, as you travel through it, it’s hard not to have Nino Rota’s music from that Coppola epic in your head. Many a tourist will head for the very real Corleone, not just for its literary and cinematic connection (including being, ironically, birthplace of Al Pacino’s maternal grandparents), but because of its genuinely grim history. It is, though, a pretty, if functional town and, presumably, well used to tourists traipsing through it. 

© Simon Poulter 2015
Pacino’s scenes in The Godfather as the young Michael Corleone, on the lam after shooting the murderous Sollozzo and his corrupt police ally McCluskey in New York, were filmed at the eastern end of the island, in and around Etna and Taormina. It is well worth the pilgrimage to the altitudinal town of Savoca to see Bar Vitelli, where he asks for the owner’s daughter’s hand in marriage, later leading to her death and his return to America. The current proprietors are not as accommodating, but they are extraordinarily nice people, the drinks are cold, the ice cream is exquisite, and it provides a very welcome refuge from the intense midday heat,

During my first visit to Sicily I was asked by a close relative, who will remain nameless, how conspicuous the Mafia were here, as if expecting to confirm men in black suited men on street corners flipping coins like George Raft. They’re not, but that said, organised crime's presence here is well documented. 

The Sicilian economy - indeed the economy of the entire 'Mezzogiorno' south of Italy - seems unable to escape the fingers of mafia groups, though Sicily’s Cosa Nostra has been eclipsed in recent years by the more powerful ‛Ndrangheta operating from across the Straits of Messina in Calabria, and by the Napoli-based Camorra. Barely a night goes by without television news reporting a capo's arrest or a racket being broken up. Still, you have more chance of encountering a shark than a mafioso, and as we all know, the odds of bumping into Jaws himself is pretty slim to begin with.

But if there is one criminal influence that is bringing tourists to the island, it is the fictional police inspector Salvo Montalbano of Andrea Camilleri’s Il Commissario Montalbano novels and the 26 brilliantly engaging, feature-length TV films made by Italy’s RAI since 1999.

© Simon Poulter 2015
Camilleri set his books in the fictional southern Sicilian town of Vigàta, imagined to be in the area of south-western Sicily where he grew up. The TV films, however, were filmed around the historic south-eastern towns of Ragusa, Scicli, Modica and Noto, as well as the picturesque seaside resorts of Punta Secca (where you can find la casa di Montalbano - now a fully functioning B&B) and Donnalucata, the latter of which I have spent the last two weeks.

Quite rightly, the Montalbano films (and, more recently, the prequel series Il Giovane Montalbano - ‘The Young Montalbano’), have worked like no regional advertising campaign ever could. They have elevated the Baroque beauty and sleepy sandstone of these towns via complex and invariably surprising whodunnits, and their cast of regulars - Luca Zingaretti (with whom I share a birthday - I mention apropos of nothing) as the elder Montalbano, the preening deputy Mimi Augello, Fazio his loyal understudy, and the clownish Catarella, the station receptionist (played by Angelo Russo, a native of Ragusa itself). I implore you to buy the Montalbano box set. Clichéd as it sounds, each of the almost two-hour films have the magical ability to transport you to this sub-drenched corner of Sicily.

Getting here for real, however, has become somewhat easier. On my last visit, three years ago, the only option was to fly in to Catania’s Fontanarossa airport and then endure a lengthy drive through the baking countryside to the coast. In 2013, however, the former Cold War airbase at Comiso (the American nuclear cruise missile bunkers are still visible next to the runway…) was opened up to serve commercial airlines, with Ryanair - yes, I’m sorry - becoming the first to fly and out from various parts of Europe (though at least, for once, Comiso is actually close to where you might intend to stay...). Alitalia have since added a scheduled daily service, while charter carriers fly in during the main summer season. It should only be a matter of time before others cotton on to the appeal of this region of Sicily.

Because even if you only come here on a Montalbano pilgrimage, you will be rewarded and then some. Not for nothing has the Val di Noto been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site for the architectural glories of the seven towns within it, many the result of remarkable rebuilding work after an earthquake in 1693.

To return to my opening argument, you can, if you want, come to Sicily and plonk yourself down on one if its southern coast’s pristine beaches for two weeks and never even bother walking up the steps of a cathedral. But if, like me, you are possessed with a mildly inquisitive nature, or even a fully restless spirit, you can have both the beach time and the exploration time on this island and still feel rested and nourished. 

You can live like a king for relatively little, dining out on all manner of aquatic fauna (the pesce spada alla griglia - grilled swordfish - is to be recommended) and indulging the deliciously zesty local wines. You can indulge history or simply soak up the sun. Holiday life, to borrow from Talk Talk, is truly what you make it.

© Simon Poulter 2015

Friday, September 25, 2015

Some actual Bowie news!

What Would David Bowie Do? has never idled for too long on The Dame himself, as that was never its purpose. But today it enjoys no end of pleasure to declare that, being September 25, it is not only [KLAXON!] exactly three months to Christmas Day, or that it is the day that New Order release their hugely anticipated new album Music Complete, but that it is also one of those hens teeth-rare days when there is some actual, proper Bowie news.

I say "some", but don't go off too half-cocked: the day didn't begin, as it did on Bowie's birthday in 2013, with - gasp! - a new single and - gasp again! - a new album forthcoming (although it is believed that there could be plenty more to come in the middle distance).  

No, today's bounty is the release of David Bowie: Five Years - 1969-1973, the first of a series of career-spanning box sets, and which contains the first six original studio albums, including newly remastered versions of David Bowie AKA Space OddityThe Man Who Sold The WorldHunky Dory and Pin Ups, and a remix of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars previously only available as part of that album's 40th anniversary package. On top of that there is Re:Call 1, a two-disc compilation of non-album singles, single versions and B-sides, and two live albums - the brilliant (and once only available as a bootleg) Live Santa Monica '72, along with Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture Soundtrack. 

Enough? No, there's even more: a previously unreleased single edit of All The Madmen that was never issued, as planned, for the US, and Holy Holy, a 1971 single for Mercury that has never been available since. Add to the package a "lavish" (aren't they always?) colour booklet featuring a considered introduction by head Kink, Ray Davies, and notes from long-time producer Tony Visconti. All of this is available in a choice of either a 12-CD package or a 13-disc vinyl set, all pressed in 180g, which could present a transportation challenge to Shoreditch hipsters on their vintage bicycles.

Box sets of this kind are, of course, for prosperous completists and the wealthily curious (the CD package comes in at £98 while the vinyl set runs to an eye-watering £185), but there is enormous merit to such indulgence, as this particular collection charts the formation of the David Bowie character we have come to worship today.

The David Bowie album, with Space Oddity at its outset, presents an artist moving on from anonymous flirtation with R&B and the theatricality of Anthony Newley and Jacques Briel, to grasp the zeitgeist of 1969's new toy, outer space, drafting in the talents of then-Strawb Rick Wakeman, Mick Wayne, Visconti and Herbie Flowers, amongst others to construct this musical world that was neither in the psychedelic camp of the day, or the prog rock and folk rock camps that were to be set up in the subsequent years.

But even that album was just a sharpening of the stick for the incredible run that would follow, starting with The Man Who Sold The World - the dress rehearsal for Ziggy and the Spiders (with Bowie working with Mick Ronson and 'Woody' Woodmansey for the first time) - taking more familiar form with Hunky Dory (an assault of ready classics like Changes, Oh! You Pretty Things, the astonishing Life on Mars, Andy Warhol and Queen Bitch) followed by Ziggy and Aladdin Sane (which met a lukewarm response on release, but still contains giants like Drive-In Saturday, Panic in Detroit and The Jean Genie), and only wobbling slightly with the disappointingly executed covers album, Pin Ups (Sorrow being its only real highlight).

With Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, the 'drug years' and the Berlin trilogy to be chronicled in the next box sets or sets, Five Years, together with all the accessories that accompany the first six albums within it, establishes the artistic enormity and audaciousness of David Bowie's prolific first decade as a serious performer. Even if that art tailed off in the 1980s, the 13-year period from Space Oddity to Let's Dance is one unrivalled by any other musician I can think of. Its first act, chronicled here, can only be - and should be - marvelled at.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Comfortable? Yes. Numb? Not quite…: David Gilmour - Rattle That Lock

As qualified students of This Is Spinal Tap know only too well, solo projects can be torturous, laboured exercises in vanity imbued with a touch of petulance.

Some, though, unleash talents hitherto hidden by stronger forces in the mother band. A case in point is George Harrison who, having accepted his place amid the creative river of molten magma that was L&M, erupted through a fissure with his own release of tectonic pressure, the extraordinary three-disc All Things Must Pass.

Though he was to never, really, hit such highs again in his solo career, when playing the Fab fan's parlour game of choice - Which Beatle Had The Best Solo Career - Harrison's full first album on his own usually edges the McCartney catalogue for brilliance, while McCartney generally edges Lennon for consistency. Ringo also made a few, apparently.

I only raise this since David Gilmour has just released Rattle That Lock, his fourth solo album in 37 years, the slackard, and in the wake of declaring Pink Floyd formally over with the release of The Endless River, last year's collection of unused Division Bell material, embellished and released, rather like a "pre-owned" BMW as 'nearly new'.

Gilmour's self-titled solo debut appeared in 1978 amid the widening Floyd power struggle between himself and Roger Waters, and it showed. Though lacking any of the obvious spite that Lennon and McCartney traded in their post-Beatle releases, it was patchy and unfocused and seemed more of an exercise, like The Endless River, of emptying the proverbial store cupboard of odds and sods that hadn't been deemed usable by the band.

Rattle That Lock, however, appears some 21 years after that last Floyd album proper and indeed a full ten years since Gilmour's own last studio album, On An Island. With only an extensive tour of that record and a few guest appearances (as disparate as The Orb and Ben Watt) to show for his time in clover, Rattle That Lock should represent a dam wall's breach of inspiration. In fairness, it isn't, but that doesn't mean it's a bad album at all.

Compared with its predecessor, there is more frivolity, both musically and lyrically (Gilmour's wife, the novelist Polly Samson, continues to provide words, writing for five of the album's seven non-instrumental tracks). No more is this so than the title track. On the one hand, Rattle That Lock is a Chris Rea-ish dad dance of a song: Gilmour himself admits that its rhythmic foundation was the frilly "berling-bling-bah-da" jingle that heralds announcements at French railway stations (he'd heard it at Aix-en-Provence station and sampled it on his iPhone) and that it had "made him want to dance".

On the other hand, and as its lyrics (inspired by Book 2 of Milton’s Paradise Lost) do say, "rattle that lock, lose those chains”, Gilmour does seem to be loosening himself from the legacy of Pink Floyd’s tendency towards the melancholy and to live a little. "It’s quite late in life to start finding one's feet, I must admit," he told Uncut magazine recently. "Or at least, to find them again." That even means a remix by Youth, no less, on the album's ‘deluxe edition’. Fancy that - a remix of "Pink Floyd's Dave Gilmour". He'll be 70 next year, and with his whispy white hair and beard starting to resemble Ernest Hemingway in his dotage. You can allow him some overdue indulgence.

There is a loose concept behind the album - that of an unnamed man's day. OK, not the most outré premise, but it provides a rough canvas from which to start with the familiar territory of the instrumental 5am. Ironically, perhaps, Roger Waters' first post-Floyd album, The Pros And Cons Of Hitchhiking, was built around the real-time period of a man in mid-life crisis dreaming between, precisely, 4:30:18 and 5:12am.

Gilmour’s 5am provides, possibly, via the intention of its sequencing, a sonorous reminder of its author being ‘the guitar of Pink Floyd’, with its Shine On You Crazy Diamond, 'dawn of time' synth wash and "haunting"™ two-note guitar motif. The album ends with another instrumental, And Then... which tumultuous orchestration adding texture, rather than any bombast, to an appropriate bookend to complement the opening.

The folkish, acoustic Faces Of Stone - which sort of recalls John Lennon’s Working Class Hero in its bucolic pace - digs at age-driven reflection, with Gilmour recalling in his own words how “We sat on the roof, the night overflowed/No more was said but I learned all I needed to know.” Nostalgia reappears in the cod jazz of The Girl In The Yellow Dress, a hat-tip, perhaps, to the music of his childhood home, before he discovered the rock and the roll. It is harmlessly charming, with Jools Holland’s ivories supplying slowed down woogie sans boogie, if a little contrived, as if to defy those expecting an album of soaring Comfortably Numb guitar solos.

Gilmour’s bluesy fluidity has quite rightly been hailed down the years, and from a technical point of view, I’ve always been amazed that his playing has never elevated him higher in the lists that guitar enthusiast magazines frequently generate. What should, though, not be forgotten is that Gilmour continues, at 69, to possess one of the most under-rated voices in rock music.

In Pink Floyd, his mellifluous falsetto often poured oil on the vinegar of Water’s nasal, somewhat manic voice. Here, Gilmour’s voice is wonderfully honeyed. On the beautiful A Boat Lies Waiting it is augmented - and perfectly so - in close harmony by Graham Nash and David Crosby (who sang on the On An Island title track).

The track is a warm tribute to Rick Wright - often and correctly regarded as the Floyd’s George Harrison, and whose keyboards added so much to its legacy - who died of cancer in 2008 having completed the full tour for On An Island, even while ill. While far from being mawkish, A Boat Lies Waiting is a tender farewell - "What I lost was an ocean/Now I'm drifting through without you/In this sad barcarolle", with Wright himself making a ghostly spoken appearance via an audio clip much like that of Floyd roadie Roger "The Hat" Manifold on The Dark Side Of The Moon’s Us And Them, which Wright wrote, of course.

The Guardian somewhat sniffily described Rattle That Lock as being "weighed down by its own opulence", and while there is some validity to that charge, the review's concluding snark of too much "muso virtuosity" was way off the mark. Gilmour's guitar playing has always been part of - as he says himself - the "palette" that defines him. A zillion record sales in almost 50 years says that this hasn't been disregarded, and given the expanse that he covered with Pink Floyd in that band’s history, it would be insanely counter-intuitive for him to have handed in an album of cautious restraint and obtuse, obscure instrumentation.

For some Floyd heads, it will take a long time to accept the band’s end, even if they ceased to be a creative force a long, long time ago. I doubt, though, that Gilmour is all that interested in trying to attract a new following, but in his fourth outing as a solo artist, he has edged ever-so vaguely away from the place in which he forged his reputation, and, as he prepares for his eighth decade, has rattled the locks that tied him to it.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

It's only rock and roll: Keith Richards - Crosseyed Heart

So let's get the obvious out of the way, right now: rock's Pirate King has never, ever, been blessed with a singing voice. Guitar chops, obviously, and in vast abundance on this, only his third solo album. But singing, no. 

That said, whatever satanic cocktail Keith Richards has so enthusiastically consumed over the course of his 71 years has turned his voice into an extension of his self-drawn caricature - gnarled, roguish, bourbon-soured, tobacco-stained.

And that, to be honest, is a huge part of Crosseyed Heart's tremendous appeal. Richards has long been anointed as the cool Stone, the vagabond-hearted half of The Glimmer Twins, the one with the avuncular, bronchial cackle who has become, alarmingly, far too much like John Sessions' brilliant Stellar Street take on him.

Sessions and Phil Cornwell's inspired imagining of Mick and Keef as Surbiton shopkeepers was, of course, a hilarious reinvention of the structured, ambitious, business brain of the operation (Jagger) and the louche, Jack Daniel's-slooshed reprobate (Richards), an image the latter's wonderful autobiography, Life, did little to dispel, either. But with the Stones continuing to coin it in from their 50th anniversary tour (which began almost three years ago), and now knowing how, once, what it took to bring them all into the same room, let alone the same stadium, it's fair to say that the brains of the Rolling Stones are spread pretty evenly.

Where their creative core is, is another matter. While Jagger has never been a shrinking violet when it comes to songwriting (case in point: Miss You - though credited to Jagger/Richards - was actually co-written by the generously-lipped one with Ronnie Wood), it has always been clear where the Stones' energy comes from. Because it is here, on Crosseyed Heart.

Richards' virtuosity as a guitarist rarely gets mentioned by a press more concerned with his apparent chemical imperiousness. And, as with all musicians of his vintage (which is considerable), critics will always hark on about how far back you have to go to find the high points (no pun intended). Of course, Let It Bleed, Exile On Main Street and Sticky Fingers were incredible, Some Girls still good, and those that followed patchy, but there is little in the Stones' canon that you would regard as truly bad (including, yes, Bridges To Babyon).

You can argue, too, as much as you like that everything the Stones have done since 1968 has been self-derivative, and if you wanted to be gimlet-eyed about it, Crosseyed Heart, doesn't do much to change any of that. But that, to be honest, would be to deny Richards (whom, we all suspect, genuinely doesn't give a proverbial) the satisfaction of producing easily the best of his three solo albums to date.

Indeed, Richards is gloriously laid back on this album - not musically, just in how relaxed he appears to be, from the cover shot to the generous wealth of material - 15 tracks in all. Richards might stray rarely from the blues - the title track opens the album with an exquisite slice of acoustic Delta which fizzles out with the Richards opining "that's all I've got" before launching into Heartstopper with the grinding, Telecaster familiarity of the guitarist's more famous gig crunching deliciously through.

There is plenty of variety - Richard's love of Caribbean climes beams through on a spirited cover of Gregory Isaacs’ Love Overdue - and autobiography, too, with the self-depreciating Amnesia recalling his appropriately Keith-esque fall from a coconut tree ("Knocked on my head, everything went blank. I didn't even know, the Titanic sank") and the Latin-tinged Robbed Blind alluding to the criminal disappearance of illicit pharmacological supplies. 

On that score, ho-ho, Richards drifts in and out of warm, sepia throughout the album, that voice sitting somewhere between Tom Waits and Willie Nelson as he reflects on the sublime Nothing On Me about how he has dealt with the sling and arrows - and live bullets - that have come his way, or his relationship with challenge on Trouble (”Baby, trouble is your middle name. The trouble is that that's your game.").

With collaborations from Norah Jones, the Stones' late saxophonist Bobby Keys (much loved by Richards and the source of one his biggest falling-outs with Jagger) and various members of his X-Pensive Winos side outfit, Crosseyed Heart is almost a companion piece to the Life book. Part confessional, part trivial, part celebration, it is as fulfilling an album as any you could expect to listen to from a rock star who, after more than 50 years at the very apex of the game, is still right up there.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Minds over matters - the mental state of José's strugglers

I'm sitting in a cafe at Milan-Linate airport, people watching. I agree that in some countries that could qualify as a misdemeanor, but here in Italy, it is positively go-with-the-flow. 

Around me, the impeccably shod and effortlessly chic are going about their own. Small clusters of excitable locals are windmilling at each other with that entirely proprietary Italian form of sign language. It's quite possible that the topic of conversation is tonight's Milan Derby. This is a fixture that traditionally suggests more portent than it actually delivers, but then derbies often do. 

The difference, of course, is that Internazionale and Milan share the San Siro stadium, a model of local accommodation that Chelsea and Tottenham might adopt if they both move into Wembley while their respective grounds are rebuilt.

Inter was, of course, José Mourinho's first club after he walked out of Chelsea on September 20, 2007 "by mutual consent", following an indifferent start to the season that had, two days before, seen the then-defending Premier League champions draw 1-1 with Rosenborg in the Champions League in front of a Stamford Bridge crowd of just 24,973. 

It was their third successive game without a win, having previously been beaten 2-0 by Aston Villa in the domestic league and drawing 0-0 with Blackburn Rovers. Amid credible rumours of a breakdown in Mourinho's relationship with Roman Abramovich, his departure left Chelsea fifth in the table.

Today, following a similarly indifferent start to the season, Chelsea are fifth from bottom. Let's read that again: the reigning Premier League champions are, five games into the season, fifth from bottom. That's two places above the relegation zone. By tomorrow evening, they could be in the bottom three.

To add to the alarming circularity of Chelsea's situation today and that of eight years ago, I was five days into a holiday in Sicily, walking up Cefalù's La Rocca, when I received a text message saying that Mourinho had left Chelsea, a few weeks into his third season in charge. Today I'm on my way back to Sicily. Perhaps I might just switch my phone off completely for the next few days.

After yesterday's 3-1 defeat at Everton, Chelsea are in crisis. No two ways about it. And yet Mourinho's apparent serenity is a worrying reflection of the lack of any notable team improvement since the first game of the season. They have now lost three of their first five league games, with a win and a draw apiece. The worst start to a season since 1986. Put another way, by the comedian Ian Stone on Twitter: "So we have a left-wing Labour leader and Chelsea are shit. Ladies and gentlemen - welcome to the 70s."

“I am not feeling any pressure,” Mourinho, said after yesterday's game at Goodison Park, where Everton's Steven Naismith scored a hat-trick in return for the single consolation goal by Nemanja Matic. “The results are the worst results ever in my career. I am not happy but I am coping well with the situation. The priority is to keep doing what we are doing, the players are feeling enough sadness.” What about the fans?

Bluntly speaking, Mourinho's priority absolutely shouldn't be to keep on keeping on. There are no excuses to draw on, noconspiracies to blame. Chelsea's defenders are being beaten too easily, its forwards are painfully lacking confidence in front of goal, the midfield is not creating. 

Opponents have, over the last two seasons since Mourinho's return, figured Chelsea out. Defenders know what to expect of Costa and Hazard, attackers know that Ivanovich, Terry, Cahill, Azpiliqueta and even the formerly imperious Matic can be stretched. The midfield can't create. Chelsea need new tactics and a new mindset. Or, perish the thought, a new manager.

I won't buy, any more, the charge that they are tired and jaded from last season's exertions and a lack of preparation in pre-season. Not at all. Physical improvement can be worked on. It's what the club's expensively assembled Cobham training ground is for.

But the mental side of things requires a different regime, and for me it's the area that needs the most work. Because the spark plugs in Chelsea's game are just not firing properly. The win-at-all-costs mentality that won them the league back in May is painfully and starkly invisible. And it will only get worse.

"Confidence is low," Mourinho said yesterday. "It looks like everything is more difficult. The biggest concern is everything is going against us. We know we are making mistakes and every mistake, we are punished.

Football fans in general want to see action being taken, not excuses or cod philosophy. Mourinho might be a master of mind games and diversionary tactics, but now is not the time for his brand of mangled doublethink ("I am champion, the players are the champions. I don’t blame my players and I don’t blame myself. I don’t accept the results, I am responsible for the team, I am not happy with the situation and I am not happy with myself").

And yet he is defiantly sanguine. "The results are the worst in my career," Mourinho said yesterday. "They are not adapted to my quality, my status, but I am coping well with the situation. I am not feeling pressure," to which he added: "I think the refugees are under big pressure." Well deflected. Draw attention to something else.

No one, not even the most ardent fan of Bill Shankly's oft-quoted maxim, will regard the results of a football team as anything remotely close to the plight of the unfortunates fleeing Syria's living hell. But at least they have the singular determination to abandon all that they have and know to reach their objectives.

Even allowing for Mourinho's suspect English (in which "moment" has a multitude of uses), some of his proclamations recently have not instilled much confidence in anyone that his charges are being sent out with the right stuff.

"Chelsea can win the next match against Arsenal for sure," he said yesterday. "The title? I don’t know. It depends on us to improve a lot and also depends on other clubs that are at the top of us to lose matches."

Really? Five games in and we're getting the "it's out of our hands now" concession? How positively Wengeresque! In fact, the further Arsenal move above Chelsea, the more Mourinho sounds like the Frenchman.

That is not what Chelsea's players, let alone its fans, want to hear. Comments like "Even if we win every game between now and the end of season, we still depend on other results [to win the title] may be the reality, but with 33 more games to go, Chelsea need to play every game like their last, to have a winning mentality, no matter what to be, basically, who they were last term.

"I am the man for the job," Mourinho proclaimed yesterday as the first slashes of credibility lowered the odds on him getting the sack. Again. "I don't think there is better man who could come and do my job." Maybe not. But if he can't satisfy Abramovich a second time around, and after endless changes of manager since his 2007 departure, then I don't know who can. 

The man for the job Chelsea needs right now must be a supreme motivator. There's no questioning Mourinho's skills as a tactician, and certainly none as a wind-up merchant. But today there is a big question hanging over his capabilities to prepare the heads of his players, let alone their feet.

Ever since that ridiculous episode with the club doctor and physio on the opening day of the season, there has been something unsettled and niggly about Mourinho. He even cited, jokingly I think, that the laptop didn't work during yesterday's pre-match team briefing. That is not a winning mentality.

Any manager - regardless of whether they've just been promoted or have just been crowned Premier League Champions - will say that it is still early days. But for Chelsea - this Chelsea - to be on the verge of dropping into the relegation zone is nothing short of eye-watering calamity. We all agree that no one has a divine right to being in the top flight, let alone the top half of it. But even the most gnarled and acidic Chelsea hater must conceal their glee and be genuinely alarmed at how a team that won at a canter last season, should be nose-diving so abruptly as they are right now. 

"The trouble for José is that he’s never managed a losing team,” Harry Redknapp said last night. We'll he has, and we all know what happened when he did.