Saturday, July 04, 2015

Television: don’t stream it's over


News this week that the BBC is to make 1000 managers redundant will not come as a shock to many, not least of whom some of the very wonks in the corporation's myriad middle-management layers who are about to be shown the door.

But, before you worry that this is about to become a Daily Mail-style assault on dear old Auntie (an institution that provided a more than 30 years of employment to my father), let me assure you that it is not. Because, some of those those departees will no doubt be from the strategy departments who would have seen writing on the wall a long time ago.

The redundancy round is the result of the BBC facing a shortfall of £150 million in its funding, largely the result of dwindling numbers of people paying for a TV licence, the BBC's main means of revenue since 1946 when it was introduced to get the corporation's nascent TV service back up and running after World War II.

However, it is today well accepted that ‘traditional' TV viewing is falling, as tablets, smartphones, gaming consoles, PCs and the streaming services accessed via them increasingly eat into the eyeball hours of established broadcasting.

Crucially, more and  more people - especially under the age of 50 - are just not bothering to pay for a TV licence on the grounds that they’re not using broadcast television anymore, while numbers for younger viewers between 16 and 24 are dropping off completely, as they get what they want from streaming services.

This trend is being led, inevitably, but the US, where online video streaming leapt by 60% in the final quarter of last year. The Nielsen ratings bureau found that Americans still consumed more than four hours of television a day, but even that is starting to fall by about 4% per month, while streaming video viewing is now up to about 11 hours a month (and could be more as devices like Roku plug-ins, PlayStations and smartphones aren’t included in the figures).

By far the biggest group consuming streaming services like Netflix now are those between 18 and 49, traditionally the sweetspot for advertisers, which presents a major problem for commercial TV companies and their traditionally big-spending clients, who are at risk of being denied the attention of their most lucrative demographics.



All of which makes the prospect of Messrs Clarkson, Hammond and May resurfacing on Netflix with a reinvention of Top Gear look all the more intriguing. Netflix has already demonstrated via House Of Cards that it, too can offer ‘appointment TV’ as much as being a surrogate video store, but with the refreshing recognition that people do and will consume such high quality shows in a binge. Some critics have argued that this change to watching series television is more a reflection of the 'want it, and want it now' generation, that we lack the patience to wait a whole week for a next instalment to follow. But you only have to ask those who've watched entire seasons of 24 in a weekend via DVD, whether the weekly cliffhanger is workable any more.

However, if speculation about the former Top Gear heads moving to the streaming service bears out - and it is a perfectly logical idea - it could be seen as a major turning point in how we watch television. Gripping thrillers are one thing, but a magazine programme featuring three badly dressed, middle-aged berks larking around in cars is a different prospect. Either way, it's a sign that broadcasters now have to accept that they are sharing space with a totally different television model.



That even Sky launched a dedicated channel for TV box sets demonstrates the instantaneous nature of our viewing habits. In many households as it is, the idea of an evening of varied light entertainment and informative current affairs has eroded completely, as smart TVs dial up YouTube marathons of cats playing pianos, and others succumb to ‘just one more’  Boardwalk Empire before closing down the Blu-ray Disc player at 2am.

Just like “pop will eat itself”, the famous NME interview that spawned the phrase (and the band) a long time ago, TV is in danger of doing the same. Mainstream television in any country now is so formulaic and homogenous that it truly has become a mildly opiate leaf for people to chew mindlessly on.

No wonder people are choosing to gorge on the brilliant and absorbing writing of Breaking Bad, Game Of Thrones and even cracking comedy like The Big Bang Theory. It’s still television, of course, but its availability across a multitude of the screens we all now possess means that getting a hit off something good is no longer dependent on schedulers or ad breaks.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Strike it lucky: Falcao and the curse of the No.9 shirt



While there are weightier issues in the world today, the one troubling me the most is the arrival of Radamel Falcao to Chelsea on a season-long loan. Because despite Chelsea's assertion that it has signed "one of Europe’s most feared strikers", recent evidence has suggested otherwise.

And we've been there before. In fact we've been there for an awful long time: the search for a potent striker, capable of banging 'em in week-in, week-out, over more than one season.

In Diego Costa, Chelsea more or less found one, but then injury and temperament conspired last term to render him more out than in during the season's final third. But with Didier Drogba on his last legs and now gone, and Loic Remy seemingly unable to convince José Mourinho that he is Costa's nailed-on understudy (or the possibility to be a strike partner in a resolutely 4-3-3-1 system), Chelsea's seemingly constant search for striking options has continued.

Despite promising options in the youth and reserve squads (Dominic Solanke and loanee Patrick Bamford - who excelled for Middlesbrough last season), Chelsea's pursuit of Falcao has seemingly gone against the grain of both conventional wisdom and the club's own commitments to financial fair play, given that his extremely expensive loan from Monaco to Manchester United last season (£6 million loan fee, £285,000 a week in wages plus bonuses) resulted in just 26 Premier League appearances and only four goals (with none further for five months).

@ChelseaFC/Twitter

Mourinho has said he would be able to get the best out of Falcao: "It hurts me that people in England think that the real Falcao is the one we saw at Manchester United. If I can help Falcao reach his level again, I will do it". But it shouldn't be forgotten how that was also the task that Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Di Matteo, Rafa Benítez and indeed Mourinho were all challenged to do with Fernando Torres, that dormant Sleeping Beauty who spent three and half seasons failing to deliver any return on the £50 million Chelsea paid for him on reputation (even if Mourinho somewhat jokingly - and desperately - described him as "not really" being worth £50 million - "maybe it is twenty and a half").

Torres wasn't Chelsea's first expensive striker flop, of course: step forward Andrei Schevchenko. Relentlessly pursued by Roman Abramovich as he tried to turn Chelsea into Milan - and therefore champions of Europe at the beginning of his ownership of the club, the Ukrainian never recreated the form that made him fifth top goalscorer of all time in all European competitions, a position he still holds. And after Schevchenko there was Argentinian wunderkind Franco Di Santo, who didn't even score once for the club.

Then there was Chris Sutton, bought from Blackburn on the back of their relegation and a record of 50 goals in 131 appearances, he only managed one goal in 28 Premier League appearances for the Blues. In Pierluigi Casiraghi, Chelsea signed some Monza-born Italian class, only for it to be bruised by a lack of goals (er...one) and then brutally ruptured by a cruciate ligament injury following a collision with West Ham's then-keeper Shaka Hislop. Chelsea's run continued with Adrian Mutu, one of the first major signings of the Abramovich era, which turned out to be a disaster, with the Romanian falling out with Mourinho, and then failing a drugs test for cocaine. In the same period, Hernan Crespo looked like being another addition of European pedigree...only to find him surplus to requirements when Didier Drogba came along.

At a time when Abramovich and Mourinho seemed to be buying strikers wholesale from Costco, the next to arrive was Mateja Kezman, himself on the back of a successful three years at PSV Eindhoven. Needless to say, the move to Chelsea proved less than successful: seven goals from 40 appearances, despite the reignition of his successful Eindhoven partnership with the gravitationally-challenged Arjen Robben.

Go back further, to the time when that scurrilous old rogue Ken Bates was in charge, and the club broke its then record for a transfer fee by bringing in Scotsman Robert Fleck, just before the start of the inaugural Premier League season (prior to signing for Chelsea he'd threatened to go on strike at Norwich over their refusal to accept the London club's offer). In the end, Fleck scored just four times out of 48 appearances, and didn't even figure in the squad for the disastrous 1994 FA Cup Final, a 4-0 rout by Manchester United that I am still bitter about 21 years on (yes, David Elleray, you are the source of that...).

One might even be tempted to suggest that the centre-forward role at Chelsea is cursed. Even Kerry Dixon - the club's third highest goalscorer of all time (and, to date, only player ever to resemble the two blokes in Bucks Fizz) - has just been jailed for nine months for assaulting a pub customer who called him "fatty". Signing for Chelsea as its principle striker appears to be as safe as getting hired by Spinal Tap as its drummer.

Even with pre-season rumours of Diego Costa being unsettled, bringing in Radamel Falcao on loan from Monaco represents a huge gamble by Chelsea. The player was, quite simply, a massive mistake last season at Manchester United - and it serves them right for having the hubris to go out and throw money at their previous management's problems - and to add to it, his enormous wage bill only served to inflate a reputation that wasn't, quite simply, worth it.

Though financial details have been revealed, I can't imagine Chelsea, with its own huge wage bill, will accept anywhere near the amount Manchester United agreed for Falcao, who is probably lucky to be playing anywhere at the apex of European football at the moment.

It is, however, not just about the money. Or even about the money at all. I've lost interest in the what-players-earn debate, because it extended beyond the bounds of reality a long time ago. What concerns me more is that Falcao joined United last season as a key part of Louis van Gaal's much-vaunted rejuvenation of the club, only scoring four golas and completing a full 90 minutes on just six occasions. That, under a no-nonsense manager like van Gaal speaks volumes.

At Chelsea, with Mourinho's sometimes capricious approach to player selections (he didn't even start with a recognised striker against Arsenal back in April), there is no guarantee that Falcao will get the opportunity to play at all, even without Costa maintaining his fitness and discipline next season.

Chelsea long ago dispensed with the 4-4-2 formation, which means that any second striker - whether expensive European bauble or home-grown whizkid - will have to sit out their frustration on the bench. Should Loic Remy exercise his over a lack of appearances - plus, now, Falcao coming in - by moving on, Chelsea will still have the headache of finding another understudy for Costa prepared for little immediate chance of competitive playing time. And that might put off the likes of Charlie Austin and Christian Benteke, who are said to be in Mourinho's sights.

For now we wait with bated breath as Falcao is sized up for his No.9 shirt. Expect it to have extra padding in the shoulder area, just to absorb the weight of expectation...

Friday, June 12, 2015

All we need is music, sweet music. There'll be music everywhere.

Picture: Apple

A recent Saturday afternoon visit to one of the last remaining proper record shops in Paris brought me to a startling and disturbing reality: I was surrounded by, well, me.

To a man (and I mean that literally: this was an exclusively XY environment) almost every other punter appeared to be displaying identical physical and social attributes: ill-advised ponytails, paunches (yeah, guilty), fading tour T-shirts, age-inappropriate board shorts (guilty again) and footwear (yup, as charged). This was a parade of the pallid and the varyingly socially inadequate, approaching, in or past their fifth decades, and in one or two cases, getting out only once a week for an intense trawl through the racks of CD and resurgent vinyl.

This is - and I suppose I should accept that I'm a member - a dying breed. Like gatherings of D-Day veterans, its number grows thinner with each year (unlike our midsections). Proud, resillient, stubborn old heads who treat music fairs like archaeological digs, Record Store Day like a religious festival, and dusty, dingy, Championship Vinyl-like emporia for their companionship and matching obsessiveness.

Contrasting with this diasporic scene, earlier this week Apple promised to change "forever" the way we experience music. And they pledged to do so by doing what Apple does best: cloning and apparently improving on other people's ideas.

Monday's opening keynote of the 2015 Apple Worldwide Developers Conference provided a degree of self-serving entertainment for Apple fanboys who enjoy lengthy presentations of "really great" (ad nauseum) and "cool" new features for Macs, iPhones and iPads. On a certain level, it was impressive - there isn't another company in any industry I can think of who can get millions of people to tune in to a webcast to hear about new tech that won't be available for some months yet. More importantly, it demonstrated the might that it can bring to bear on just how we consume our music.


As the finale to the keynote, CEO Tim Cook and his dad-dancing lieutenants (many of whom are in the same age group as the record shop brethren) presented Apple's big new music play, Apple Music, breaking with the Jobs the tradition of  'i'-prefixed things, and also bringing to an end the name iTunes which has been part and parcel of Apple's journey in sound and vision.

In its place came breakthroughs such as...er...24-hour radio, music streaming and an "ecosystem" allowing musicians to communicate directly with their fans. All of which we've seen and heard before (including, in the case of the latter, from Apple themselves - iTunes Ping failed to really take off).

Being Apple, however, it will all be fabulous. This was underlined by the scale of resources it brought to bear to say so - a slickly-produced promo film, endorsements from Trent Reznor, Jimmy Iovine and Drake, and the hiring of former BBC Radio 1 'name' DJ, Zane Lowe. But as last September's similar smoke-and-mirrors production for the new iPhone demonstrated (and surreptitiously snuck a new U2 album into our iTunes accounts), Apple can overstretch the normally unquestioning loyalty of its fanbase. Apple Music may be the tipping point. After all, iTunes couldn't get any worse.

It is true that Apple has enjoyed a long relationship with the music industry. Until 2001, that relationship had manifested itself discreetly as Macs in recording studios (and they're still the computer of choice for musicians in the studio and on tour - hardly a tour goes by where you won't see that illuminated Apple logo shining out from keyboards and mixing desks). But the launch of iTunes on January 9, 2001 changed the relationship altogether between Apple, the music industry and us consumers.

1998's iMac 'Appleized' the concept of a digital home hub and iTunes provided those iMac owners with an easy to use means of organising all those ripped CDs and less then legal downloads; the iPod, launched the following October, formally launched Apple into the world of consumer electronics, eventually leading to the iPhone and subsequently the company becoming the most valuable enterprise in human history.

But in doing so, the constant retooling of iTunes has made it something Apple consumers put up with, rather than love, even though owning Apple hardware is, partly, an emotional communion, a joyous embrace of stunning industrial design and intuitive simplicity. This is no sycophancy: iMacs and iPhones just work. iTunes, increasingly less so.
Picture Apple

In trying to make it work across and serve different hardware platforms and devices, while adding in the nightmare of digital rights management, iTunes has become, to quote one reporter this week, "a bloated mess". Once, you plugged in your iPod and dragged-and-dropped music onto it. Now, you don't know where to find your music, or how to transfer it, or even how to order it (see Mashable's The 6 Worst Things About iTunes).

In a way, iTunes' evolution from problem-solving simplicity to bloated mess is indicative of Apple's efforts to manage the entertainment industry without actually being in it. The iTunes Store turned music management software for computers into a serious threat to the way the music, film and television industries sell and distribute their wares. Apple - without being a player in content (Steve Jobs got out of that when he sold Pixar to Disney) became agent provocateur, embracing the music and film business while at the same time challenging and even provoking it.

The trouble is that, with music in particular, Apple is simply trying too hard. It's one thing for Jimmy Iovine to call the current state of music "a fragmented mess", and for Trent Reznor to say the world needs "a place where music can be treated less like digital bits and more like the art it is, with a sense of respect and discovery", but it wasn't always this way.

In simpler times, you went to a record shop and bought your music on vinyl, cassette, CD or whatever format was in vogue at the time. You created and curated your collection, enjoying it as much for the tactility of ownership as the self-gratitude of building up a library to reflect and project you.

I agree that squeezing all of that onto cloud servers and hard drives has brought immeasurable convenience, not to mention reducing domestic harmony-threatening "bloke clutter". But that still, to me, feels like closing down a library to make way for a park.


But let's park middle-aged obsession with physical media for now and focus on whether Apple will make any meaningful contribution to the music experience with their new approach, or whether they are just repackaging existing technology - again - and tying it with a bright, shiny bow.

Monday's renaming of all Apple music products under the banner Apple Music, which also launched the long-awaited streaming service to rival Spotify (and finally make use of its acquisition of Dr Dre's Beats Music), plus the radio station and Connect, met with a mixed response.

Internet radio has been in existence for well over 15 years, and premium streaming services have become well established. Spotify now has 20 million people paying $9.99 to access its 30 million-plus library of music, even if very little of that money ends up in the pockets of the artists supplying the music.

After a three-month free trial, Apple Music will come at the same price as Spotify, with much the same size of library, and much the same level of accessibility across different devices and platforms. $9.99 does represent decent value - indeed, a CD a month. Where one might find reason to gripe is that the 9.99 price point applies in all markets - even if that means Britons end up paying $5 more at current exchange rates, and Europeans an extra dollar. But Apple Music's connectivity with social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube is a nice, if not exactly essential fan feature, but one notional improvement over Spotify.

Spotify, on the other hand, offers its advertising-supported 'free' service, which is currently the preference of some 55 million subscribers. For casual users, that is more preferable to getting locked in to Apple Music after its 'try before you buy' three-month trial. There are also concerns that Apple Music will offer inferior sound quality to Spotify, and that in customary Apple fashion, it will be the default music system on all iOS devices, opening the door to more U2 stunts. But to this Luddite, the biggest concern is that Apple driving its market weight behind its own streaming service will cannibalise sales of physical-media albums even further.

Time will tell whether Apple's apparent schmoozing of the record industry over the last 15 years will pay off by attracting artists to its Music world who had previously rejected Spotify or given Tidal a swerve. The extent and breadth of artist agreements Apple can win over its competition will stand it in greater stead with the coin-paying public, which means its claim of offering "the largest and most diverse collection of music on the planet" had better stand up.

I know I'm tilting at windmills over records, films and even books becoming digitised and compressed into slim digital devices, and I know the difference between listening, watching or reading digitally versus the old 'analogue' way is marginal. But what price progress?

Back at the record shop, vinyl is doing well. The old heads are buying it again, hipsters - with their fashion victim sense of irony - are buying them probably for the first time, along with their Klondike miner beards and Penny Farthings.

Vinyl is clearly making a welcome comeback. Thanks, in part, to the annual Record Store Day events, and canny positioning by retailers like HMV in the UK, and its counterparts in other countries, the format is booming. Vinyl sales increased by more than 200% in 2014, and is expected to grow by sales of 2 million units in 2015, with numbers growing amongst 18-to-35 year olds, the so-called sweet spot of consumerism.

Picture: AFP

In the small Czech Republic village of Lodenice, an equally small local company, GZ Media, is cleaning up having held on to old vinyl-pressing machines. Now, it is pressing millions of vinyl records for the global market. "We pressed around 14 million records last year, the most in the world," sales and marketing director Michal Nemec told the AFP news agency. "Despite the CD boom in the 1980s and 90s, someone with foresight decided to save the old vinyl record presses and store them in a warehouse. A good decision."

Vinyl still represents a fraction of music sales - just 2% - but it's worth noting that few bands these days release new albums without including vinyl in their plans. And it is truly heartwarming to hear how this is holding up. Because even if old heads like me only represent 2%, or whatever percentage of the music-buying public still choosing packaged tunes over streamed bits, it means there are still places in the world where the browsing, choosing, handling and buying of records on a Saturday afternoon as much a part of the reward as getting them home and listening to them.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

So much more than a monster: Sir Christopher Lee - 1922-2015

Getty Images
There are actors, and then there are actors that make you stand back and simply admire. But not for their Shakespearean delivery, or their interpretation of the Stanislavski Method. No, these are actors who, through luck, design, a bit of both, and some other elements besides, inhabit their characters and brand them their own.

Sir Christopher Lee was one such actor. He was, of course, best known for his turns as fiendish monsters - Hammer's Dracula, Saruman in the Lord Of The Rings, Count Dooku of the Star Wars universe, Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, and Francisco Scaramanga in The Man With The Golden Gun. And while these will never place him in the same regard as Britain's more celebrated thespian knights, or indeed the greats of American cinema, Lee was one of the grandest character actors to have ever graced celluloid. And much of that has to do with Lee, himself and his background.

To contextualise the career of an actor who made more than 200 films in his lifetime by just these roles alone should not be sneered at. True, like John Wayne, Robert Mitchum or even Michael Caine, you could say he played the same character - himself - over and over again. But it wouldn't be a slur to say so, because in all of the lordly villains Lee portrayed, he applied his own rich heritage to incredible effect. That and his deep, sonorous voice and imposing 6ft 4in height.

Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was born into semi-aristocracy on May 27 May, 1922, the son of a British army officer and an Italian noblewoman, Contessa Estelle Marie Carandini di Sarzano. Echoing the childhood of James Bond - the creation of his step-cousin Ian Fleming - Lee grew up in Switzerland with his mother following the collapse of his parents' marriage.

During the Second World War he served in military intelligence - like Fleming - reportedly carrying out special operations behind enemy lines. After the war, Lee became an actor, using connections on the Italian side of his family to land a movie contract with Rank. After several years of bit parts, Lee signed to the studio with which he would make his name - Hammer Films, appearing first opposite his friend Peter Cushing in The Curse of Frankenstein, and then in 1958 making his debut in his seminal role: Count Dracula.

All would agree that Hammer put the ham in horror, but as camp as Lee's nine appearances as the Transylvanian bloodsucker were, he set the mould for every characterisation and caricature thereafter, from Sesame Street's Count right through to Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula.


If Live and Let Die, with the appointment of Roger Moore and his eyebrows as Sean Connery's replacement, reinvented the James Bond franchise as a hipper, camper, flared trousers-and-wide-lapelled version affair, its follow-up, The Man With The Golden Gun provided Christopher Lee with an opportunity to shed the cape and fangs of his most famous character (despite having been rejected for the role of Dr. No in the very first Bond film 12 years before).

The literary Scaramanga was typical of Fleming's characters with a richly detailed back story: Catalonian circus child, trick-shot artist, hitman for the Naples mafia and, latterly, Fidel Castro. Lee, with his upbringing and war background, added enigma of his own to the screen version - the world's highest-paid assassin, with KGB kills to his name, and a reputation for dispatching his victims with custom-made golden bullets.

Living on his own Tracy Island somewhere in the South China Sea, and served by the diminutive Nick-Nack, Lee brought a brutish and under-stated charm to the role, playing Scaramanga as urbane and lacking the more freakish traits of Bond villains thus far (though three nipples was a character trait never again repeated until Friends' Chandler Bing came along). Even his duel with Bond in the house of mirrors carried a ring of gentlemanly arts, and none of the pyrotechnics for which the 007 films had become renown.

By the late 70s, Lee moved to Los Angeles in the hope of shedding his villainous reputation. Character parts in episodes of Charlie's Angels, sci-fi and fantasy series, however, hardly removed him from the shadow of typecasting. Even playing Prince Philip in the dreadful 1982 TV movie Charles & Diana: A Royal Love Story didn't improve things. Still, he remained solidly in work, averaging four or five films a year throughout the 80s and 90s.

Prince meets Knight
In 2001, Peter Jackson cast Lee in his 176th film role - Saruman, the malignant wizard doing the dark lord Sauron's bidding in The Lord Of The Rings. Despite having hankered to play Gandalf for years, Lee played Saruman to malevolent perfection throughout the first two LOTR films (controversially being left out of the third) and then returned in Jackson's first instalment of The Hobbit.

In the same year as his first appearance as Saruman, Lee played another duplicitous patrician. Count Dooku in George Lucas's second and third Star Wars chapters, Attack Of The Clones and Revenge Of The Sith. Though "Count Dooku" wasn't meant to be a joke reference to Count Dracula (there was, let's face it, little amusement at all in the first three Star Wars prequels) there was a serendipitous nature to playing such similar super villains in the same year.

Lord Of The Rings and Star Wars didn't so much revive Christopher Lee's career - it didn't need reviving - as reminded cinema audiences what a towering presence he could still give to a film. And, remarkably, continued to do so, right up until his death on Sunday at the age of 93 (his final film, the comedy-drama Angels In Notting Hill is due for release later this year).

Long after many of his acting peers had either retired or dropped off this mortal coil altogether, Lee developed an unlikely second career as a recording artist. Not only that, a heavy metal act. Having once supplemented acting jobs after the war by putting his distinctive baritone to good use as a singer (he even sang on the soundtrack to The Wicker Man), at the age of 88 - insanely - Lee recorded the concept album Charlemagne: By the Sword And The Cross, which even received a 'Spirit of Metal' in Metal Hammer's 2010 Golden Gods awards.

This was no ironic, eccentric one-off. Three years later he followed it up with Charlemagne: The Omens of Death, and even recorded heavy metal Christmas EPs for 2012 and 2013! "He’s amazing. He’s incredible. He’s got this incredible charisma," complemented Rob Halford, the lead singer of Judas Priest, whose  guitarist Richie Faulkner actually recorded music for Lee's albums, saying "He’s a very metal guy, he embodies the whole spirit of metal." Last year, at the age of 92, he released another EP, this time of covers of standards set to heavy metal.

And that is why we must take our hats off to Sir Christopher Lee. He may have been best known for portraying malevolence, but there was something truly amazing about him, his Boy's Own heritage and his incredible work ethic, right up until the end. Aristocratic, secret agent, film star supreme, quintessential baddie, heavy metal icon.  You couldn't make it up. RIP.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Wizards of Oz: The Church - Further/Deeper

The very first fleet of British convicts sent to Australia to populate the first penal colonies took around 250 days to sail there. Today, a modern cruise liner will take just 25 days, though the overwhelming majority of Europeans travelling Down Under will fly there in just under 24 hours.

I mention this largely irrelevant travel-related trivia for no other reason than to point out that it has taken a whole seven months for Further/Deeper, the 21st album proper from The Church, one of Oceania's most loved, but most inconsistently recognised bands, to reach European shores.

At least, though, in the months since its October 17 release in Australia, appetites have been well and truly whetted by the positive reviews garnered by the album in its homeland and in the United States (where it was released as "recently" as February).

If you are not familiar with The Church, you probably weren't alive or paying much attention to music in the late 1980s. Because if you had been, you would have been drawn like moths to the proverbial flame by the band's shimmering indie rock - a combination of ethereal guitars, singer/bassist Steve Kilbey's sonorous baritone and a stream of wonderfully melifluous music.

Formed in Australia in the early 80s, The Church emerged during a purple patch for Southern Cross bands - think the Divinyls, Icehouse, The Anyones, Split Enz/Crowded House, INXS and Midnight Oil - each showing bold individualism while still managing to draw influence from the post-punk and post-rock movements. The Church shared much with other purveyors of New Wave janglynes: Kilbey's vocals were frequently compared with Ian McCulloch and Talk Talk's Mark Hollis, while the heavily delayed and chorused guitars of Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper fitted the period's production values with perfection.

© Simon Poulter 2015
An Arista Records original freebie
But it was, arguably, The Church's fifth album - 1988's Starfish - that built their following globally, largely thanks to the singles Under The Milky Way (which found it's way into a 1989 episode of Miami Vice and eventually onto the Donnie Darko soundtrack) and Reptile, both still firm crowd-pleasers live.

Starfish was my lasting introduction, thanks to a generous Arista Records press office who included it in a bundle of review albums that also featured an awful gospel LP by Aretha Franklin (sorry, HRH QoS) and the debut of Taylor Dane. Yes, me neither. Perhaps, then, it was the intention of Arista's PR people to package Starfish with some genuine dross. It certainly stood out.

28 years on, incredibly, and The Church have been through plenty. The 60-year-old, Welwyn Garden City-born Kilbey, in particular. He has, he told the Sydney Morning Herald last October, been through an "...insular, confused, sulky stage, which preceded my arrogant and blasé stage, which gave way to my junkie phase [a ten-year heroin addiction], which in turn begat my eccentric uncle phase – the one I'm currently in."

That appears to manifest itself as an enthusiasm for Mother Nature's more interesting herbs (the effects of which were in plentiful evidence last week at The Church's gig in Paris, witnessed by WWDBD?). But despite that, or in spite of that, Kilbey's creativity has not dimmed.

He is, after all, a musician who can claim to have penned and registered over 750 songs. Nor has the band suffered the long term effects of personnel ups and downs, the most recent of which being Willson-Piper moving on, to Stockholm apparently, to be replaced by Ian Haug, a onetime teenage Church fan, now promoted to lead guitarist.

© Simon Poulter 2015
Framed by their latest line-up, Further/Deeper delivers, quite simply, unlimited magic. Kilbey's voice may have lost some rigidity, but in doing so, it has taken on a more haunting, Syd Barrett/See Emily Play quality, also being mixed further back and blended into layers of guitar from Haug and Peter Koppes.

For that, a hats-off must go to the collective band production effort. It feels like a band collaborating, no one person trying to outshine the other, and the overall effect being that every member acts like a musical instrument in their own right. And, yet, it sounds so reassuringly familiar, like an album by The Church should.

Many often confuse this with a absence of invention and hoary old jokes about Status Quo's lack of chords. But sometimes you want a band to sound like it should always sound. The Church is such a band. And, in that, Further/Deeper is unmistakably a Church album, and all the better for it.

Though it may sound comfortingly familiar, this album is far from predictable. It opens with Vanishing Man, a track as quizzical as its title suggests. It carries an immediate sense of foreboding,  borne of guitars that grind and glisten in equal measure, and confirmed by Kilbey's demonic introductory line: "Sinister bastard, your casket groans from sins". The second track, Delirious demonstrates this further, bringing together chord changes reminiscent of Radiohead's Street Spirit (Fade Out) with a chorus that comes somewhere between manic and choppy-pop at its best.

Perhaps the thing fans of The Church - including this one - like so much is a non-conformism that doesn't resort to contrarianism. Take Pride Before A Fall, an intransigently slower piece that somehow reminded me of John Lennon's #9 Dream for its ethereality. Released as a single, and competing with all the Auto-Tune crap clogging up radio stations, I can't imagine it fared that well, but, frankly, that's not what you will buy and listen to Church music for.

No, you listen for the dark vaudeville of Toy Head ("When you take off your head/But the darkness prevails/And they loosen the screws/But that remedy fails), the sunshine-infused Laurel Canyon and the pristine combination of melody and melodic guitar on Old Coast Road.

Indeed, there is a great deal of expanse, space and top-down, open road freedom on Further/Deeper, coming from improvised band wigouts, but also through lyrical references to exploration and something few Aussies can avoid in their culture, the sea.

That manifests itself most strongly on the album's undisputed highlight, Miami, which is the final track of the regular release. Running at almost eight and a half minutes, it is epic and cinematic, descriptions that, perhaps, Kilbey & Co might baulk at, but should acknowledge and take pride in.

Closing tracks (even if followed by a slew of extras...) should be like this - distinct and journeyed. When I first started listening to albums, when they were originally 12 inches in diameter and made of black, two-sided vinyl, I always believed that an album's last song would be a curtain-lowering finale. By its end, you should have reached emotional elevation and closure, and the certain knowledge that it would be your lot until they went into the studio again. Or maybe didn't.

Here I think of The Who's Won't Get Fooled Again on Who's Next, or Telegraph Road, which opened Dire Straits' Love Over Gold - and should have ended it. All of which is a long-winded way of charging hats aloft for Miami, which traverses regret and reform, references Humphrey Bogart, Janet Leigh and the long-defunct airline BOAC, and through its breadth and depth, does for a city (one I've only recently come to enjoy) what Michael Mann does with his celluloid cityscapes (watch Manhunter, Heat, Collateral and both the TV and film versions of Miami Vice. Look how Mann shoots Miami and LA). It's something only he can. Thus The Church's Miami sounds like something only they can. A story told through their signature weave of voice, guitar and vibe.

I've never been to Australia. It's on the list, of course (though any country boasting the world's ten deadliest of anything does lose some points for appeal). But there's something about the country's uninhabited enormity that appeals to me. I've stood in and on the edge of the great American deserts knowing that, once you've traversed their arid expanse, you'll eventually come across another outcrop of high-rise skyscrapers and fast food chains.

Australia - and, in fact, Australians themselves - has always represented an unbroken horizon, an extreme of distance, a vastness, an expanse, a wilderness that excites, inspires and strikes fear all at the same time. And that's The Church right there.


Wednesday, June 03, 2015

You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need


There are streamers hanging from lampstands, lipstick-stained wine glasses in the sink, beer cans in the laundry hamper and cigarette butts....well, you don't want to know where there are cigarette butts.

It's the morning after the night before, a night when, like all those cuddly ewoks in Return of the Jedi, we danced merrily around bonfires as the evil empire imploded in spectacular fashion with the news that Sepp Blatter had, just days after being re-elected as FIFA president, announced his resignation.

It might be trivial to liken FIFA to the Star Wars universe, but parallels between Blatter's grip on power and the malignant Palpatine (the politician who is really Darth Sidious, and who engineers the creation of the evil galactic Empire...) are just too close to ignore.

Blatter's reign has been anything but trivial, and the new mire FIFA has found itself in over the last seven days (on top of the foul stench that has hung over it for years) has exposed just how ethically degenerate football's world governing body has allowed itself to become, and despite protestations, undeniably on Blatter's 17-year watch.

Of course, charges and indictments are one thing, convictions are another. But the wealth of evidence, painstakingly and rigourously gathered by investigative journalists like Andrew Jennings, the BBC's Panorama, and The Sunday TimesInsight team, and, now, the FBI as well, has left absolutely no one in any doubt as to the depth and breadth of the prevailing ethics culture within FIFA.

"Follow the money", was the suggestion Deep Throat made to Woodward and Bernstein in All The President's Men, and that is precisely how FIFA stands on a precipice, overlooking rivers of the stuff disappearing into 'development projects'. These, then, turn out to be the offshore accounts of the Blatter accolytes who have been able to get away with it through a crooked combination of ignorance, tolerance and governance which at best could be described as lax.

And now, the body that oversees the world's most popular sport, and which managed the process to award multi-billion dollar-generating World Cups in that paragon of virtue, Russia, and that footballing giant, Qatar, is lacking leadership and has lost what little respect it was still hanging on to. Football executives - multiple - should not be appearing on Interpol wanted posters. But they are, and Sepp Blatter must accept his responsibility for allowing it to come to this.




The very apex of football is now under the scrutiny of criminal investigators, with US reports suggesting that Blatter himself may be subject to investigations by the FBI and federal prosecutors. This is, clearly, a step in the right direction to satisfy what appears to be the near-unanimous view of most commentators on the beautiful game, that Blatter's exit hasn't come soon enough.

That said, he hasn't gone yet. Inevitably, in a bureaucracy as gargantuan as FIFA, it will be some months before he actually packs up his desk in the $250 million palace in Zurich that is FIFA HQ. Yesterday Blatter said he would remain as president until a new vote can be held between December and next March. That might depend upon the G-men, but it's also not impossible that Blatter could stand again. Surely, though, not even the most dead-eyed, deluded despot would consider themselves eligible now?

Before FIFA can organise a new vote, however, we will have to endure a parade of contenders - including more Blatters - staking their claim on the presidency. These will no doubt include, UEFA president Michel Platini. A gifted footballer in his day, and as politically ambitious as he was a determined attacking midfielder, it was Platini, of course, who tried to persuade his "friend" Blatter to stand down last week, before the vote, and described his subsequent resignation as "a difficult decision, a brave decision, and the right decision". Clearly.

Whomever comes in needs to have the support and trust of the entire world of football, and not just its gravy train-riding senators who've benefited from the five-star travel and hospitality, not to mention whatever else besides. FIFA's next president simply be a politically expedient force of unification who will merely paper over the fissures that the corruption scandal and Blatter himself have created.

No, he or she needs to be someone willing and capable of rebuilding and even relaunching FIFA as an organisation built on, first and foremost, the highest standard of ethical behaviour, transparency and accountability. And that must, inevitably, mean re-examining the World Cups in Russia and, especially, Qatar.

Neither can go ahead when there is so much suspicion and actual evidence of shady behaviour surrounding them. And in Qatar - where 4,000 migrant workers, enduring slave-like conditions in one of the most intolerant countries on Earth, may die building stadia before a ball has even been kicked - there is absolutely no justification for a newly-ethical FIFA to proceed. Its slogan "For the good of the game, For the good of the world" would be rendered a joke. More than it is at present.

FIFA has 209 member organisations - fifteen more than member states of the United Nations. Nothing, upon nothing, brings the world together like a World Cup (a fact worth pointing out to the smartarse American 'comic' Bill Maher who acidly tweeted that we Europeans "have to admit that as bad as the FIFA scandal is, it's still more interesting than the sport". Twat).

There's a reason for football's enormous global engagement, and its ability to bridge cultures and social divisions. And it needs to be understood by those who govern the sport...and those who have sought to sully its name for their own personal gain.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Going her own way: Florence & The Machine's How Big How Blue How Beautiful

One of the undoubted cultural events of 2014 was the surprise re-emergence of Kate Bush for a record-breaking residence at the Hammersmith Odeon, or whatever it is called this week.

The music press, of course, loved the comeback. Those of a certain age (i.e. me) were happy that such a progressive musician had outlived the short-term eruption of punk and was still prepared to do things on her terms, while generating sufficient artistic interest from a new and, notably, younger audience.

No article, however, could advance too many paragraphs without mentioning Florence Welch, she of Florence + The Machine. In the acres of newsprint devoted to the reclusive Bush (oh, how I wish that phrase could be applied to American politics...), it was almost impossible to avoid references to the 28-year-old.

Then again, such has been the dearth of truly interesting female British musical talent over the last thirty years - and not for want of there actually being plenty out there - that such mentions were as predictable as Bush herself being nominated for BRIT awards over successive years without much in the way of albums to show for it.

The comparisons, though, have never borne much validity: there is certainly theatricality about Welch, and, yes, from certain angles she shares a small degree of the apparent eccentricity Bush has woven into the fabric of her career. But it hardly warrants the label 'art rock', that lazy descriptive throwback to the era when journalists simply didn't know how to pigeonhole Bowie and Bolan, Roxy Music, the Floyd, David Byrne, Peter Gabriel and other flagrant contrarians.

On the evidence of Welch's alarmingly comma-free third album How Big How Blue How Beautiful, released this week, there is even less to justify art rock as a tag.

Like its compelling predecessors - 2009's Lungs and 2011's Ceremonials - it possesses plenty of big, ballsy, bombast, thanks to Welch's strident vocals and multi-tracked choruses awash with reverb so cavernous it has hardcore potholing expeditions crawling through it.

But strip away the studio production and focus on the songwriting and you arrive at the revelation that Welch isn't so much channelling Kate Bush as Stevie Nicks and the equally resurgent Fleetwood Mac. Like the Mac, whose strongest second era songs were inspired by the bed-hopping that went on amongst the band itself (and the fallout that resulted), Welch addresses - or at least hints at - some of her own romantic travails. Nowhere is this more than the exceedingly 80s-vintage Nicks/Mac What Kind Of Man ("You do such damage, how do you manage?/To have me crawling back for more").

While How Big How Blue How Beautiful does draw plentifully on the West Coast vibe (the storming opening track Ship To Wreck marries a Go Your Own Way pace to a Johnny Marr jangle, throwing in references to great white sharks and killer whales), the scope is much broader than yet another artist doffing the proverbial to cheesecloth, chambray, denim and the Laurel Canyon scene.

That said, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, the title track (mercifully with punctuation properly installed) is an energetic tribute to Los Angeles, that city much maligned by those who live there, and yet, when you're not tailgating on the Hollywood Freeway, offers so many emphatic vistas. Inspired by a show at the Hollywood Bowl, Welch intertwines imagery of lovers indulging the LA skyline ("Between a crucifix and the Hollywood sign") with an orchestral underscoring that builds to an enormous brass and woodwind crescendo.

Queen of Peace, which follows, reverses the emotional polarity, telling the story of a royal couple dealing with tragedy via a sweeping expanse of torch drama, aided by a killer bass line running right through it. Various Storms & Saints is a further reflection on a failed relationship, building to a subdued chorus of apparent hope - "You'll find a rooftop to sing from/Or find a hallway to dance/You don't need no edge to cling from/Your heart is there, it's in your hands" accompanied by an absolutely gorgeous shimmering guitar. There's a similar vibe to Long & Lost, on which Welch reigns in the vocal volume and applies an Elizabeth Fraser-like vocal over a muted, bluesy guitar and an ambient backdrop.

If Lungs didn't generate attention for Welch six years ago, the breakout single - a simply stunning cover of Candi Staton's You've Got The Love - did. On this new album, Delilah - thankfully not a retread of the swingalong Tom Jones number - goes in the same direction, with a Tamla rhythm giving it an arena-sized bounce.

Caught took a number of listens, and not because of its Adele-meets-Sam Smith-meets-Tammy Wynette cuteness, but because it appeared to have an annoying buzz throughout. Repeated, forensic examination later revealed it to be some sort of keyboard effect, rather than a crap download or, worse, defective listening equipment (i.e. ears), but had the effect of rendering the track the weakest on the record.

By the time you've reached Mother, the final track of the 'regular' release of How Big How Blue How Beautiful (a deluxe edition offers bonus tracks), you suddenly realise how much variety you've actually heard. Producer Markus Dravs has coaxed out of Welch a bigger spectrum than Lungs or Ceremonials. The irony of this is that Mother, the most distinctly different track on the album, was produced by Paul Epworth (McCartney, U2, Adele, Coldplay, myriad other A-listers), and takes Welch into uproarious psych-rock territory, of the "soaring guitars™" kind.

It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it works perfectly for me, conforming to my notion of what a last track should be: an epic, bombastic signature statement that provides satisfying closure. OK, I recognise how much of an old vinyl head's perspective that is, but go with me on this.


Picture: Facebook/Florence + The Machine