Thursday, 28 December 2017

Do the Wham Limbo

The rule is simple; starting on the first of December, you have to avoid hearing “Last Christmas” by Wham.  A colleague’s daughter thought she had lost but, to her relief, had only heard a cover version.  My own daughter lasted until the 21st of December but her simple ploy was to come straight home from school and play Fallout 4.  Walking into a shop, or switching on a mainstream radio station, could easily lose you the game.

It’s not a song I have any real problem with – it’s from the days when George Michael still wrote tunes rather than dirges or resorted to samples – but it does show up one thing: a lack of Christmas songs.

Christmas music has been boiled down to no more than twenty songs that probably fit onto one CD.  Imagine you work in a shop: you will have this hour of music repeated and repeated all through your working day over the distended season in the run up to Christmas.  If you actually do work in a shop, you may have already chewed your left hand off.  I know the companies have a deal with the PRS, but some bright spark did invent the MP3 player a while back; it doesn’t always have to be the same hour of music, in the same order.

I wouldn’t mind if it weren’t the musical equivalent to turkey or sprouts; some people might like it if it’s done right, some people never will, but few ever dare complain.  Spotify, or an indie radio station, may try to come up with alternatives but your local supermarket is not going to put on St Etienne just for you, so dream on.

So what is this limited canon of Christmas songs?

First of all, forget anything religious, despite the fact that you know the tunes and probably the words too.

Merry Xmas Everybody just repeats the same few bars again and again to drag itself out to full length, but is always played until the end because of the “it’s Christmas” shout at the finish.  Slade wrote better songs than that.  I prefer a lot of Roy Wood songs over I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day, but at least it knows how to keep my interest for four minutes.

When did Santa Baby become a thing?  It just horridly panders to every stereotype about gold-digging women.

Fairytale of New York is the band for people who pretend to be Irish singing a song for people who pretend to hate Christmas.  That’s one hell of a Venn diagram.

Shakin’ Stevens may have made his name as a rockabilly revival act but, oddly, his pension seems to be riding on Merry Christmas Everyone.  He’d be coining it even more if he had written it.

So much of what you hear is a cluster of songs from about 1973/74 with another peak around 1984/85, on a never-ending loop.  The Pogues and Mariah Carey are as recent as it gets.  Some things appear to be falling out of fashion.  Anything from Phil Spector’s Christmas Gift… album has been pushed aside, which is a shame.  Last time I looked, The Ronettes weren’t gun nuts serving a prison sentence for killing someone.  I hear the John Lennon/Yoko Ono song less each year (this might be the Phil Spector effect again.)  Relative oddities like Merry Christmas by The Waitresses seem to have had their day, too.

Is there a Christmas song you’d want added?  Please remember to think of anyone less fortunate than yourself at Christmas, such as anyone paid minimum wage who has to endure this stuff for two months.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Born on the Twelfth of July

Charlie may be a Catholic, but he’s my best mate”, said the man on the garden path. “Bugger”, I thought to myself, “nobody told me that I was moving to Belfast rather than Paisley”. I knew my neighbour Charlie helped out at mass; he'd been through a lot in his life and his faith has helped him through it. Emmeline was asleep in the carry cot next to me. She had been born the week before and, although not technically premature, was still a few weeks before her due date and slightly jaundiced, and the advice was that sunlight would help clear this up. Flower beds don’t dig themselves, either. Our visitor put a pound coin on the new baby’s carry cot – still a big tradition in Paisley, it appears – and then went to ring on Charlie’s doorbell.

Although I’ve lived in Paisley and now Glasgow for over twenty years, I’ve never understood why sectarianism still persists here like a bad smell. Yes, I was raised a Protestant and some of my Liverpool ancestors may have made a big deal of this, but that was then and this is now. Any casual appetite I had for football was also killed stone dead, now that I knew it would come with a hefty side helping of tribal nonsense. Between the endless tacky songs about the IRA on the train, and the tinny flute music coming out of the windows of passing white vans, I am puzzled as to why Celtic and Rangers fans think any of this is relevant to a fun Saturday afternoon out. Glasgow is not in Ireland and 2017 is not in 1690.
My second daughter managed to go one better than her sister, by being born a lot closer to her due date: to be exact, the 12th of July 2000. Of all the dates to be born on!

So Alison’s treat for her sixteenth birthday last year was to see Cats* at the Liverpool Empire. As we stood outside the theatre’s front door on Lime Street waiting to be let in, the Orange Walk clattered uphill and turned to its left to pass in front of St George’s Hall.

Alison asked “what’s that?”

Try explaining the Orange Lodge in thirty seconds. Go on, try.

All I could come up with was that it’s an organisation that waves two fingers at the Catholic Church, for want of something better to do. I think I’m old enough to tell patriotism and jingoism apart; there are many beautiful and positive things you could celebrate about Britain, like its culture and its quest for knowledge. To not bother with that and simply state how much you dislike other people is both lazy and counter-productive. Put it this way, “File Transfer Protocol” isn’t the big thing it was twenty years ago, but some people think FTP stands for something even more antiquated.

It’s not about the flag either. No, the police aren’t going to arrest anyone for flying a Union flag, although your local council may want a word if you’ve put in a flagpole without planning permission. It’s just that there is such a thing as trying too hard, and I fear that any secret wish I have of looking like this:
will turn out more like this:
The difference between Liverpool and Glasgow was the lack of numbers in Liverpool. I’ve heard the old tales about firebrand preachers at the Pier Head, and the fight that always happened when the Lodge came back from its annual beery outing in Southport and was met by a crowd of Catholics at the railway station**. But now the parades are practically a museum exhibit. Liverpool has outgrown sectarianism. When will Glasgow do so too?

*Many people moan about Andrew Lloyd Webber, although his politics may be as much to do with this as his music. I’ve just concluded that he’s not for me, but my wife and daughters like him. Cats is based around a religious allegory that even C S Lewis would have felt was a bit obvious, and if you think “Memory” is a good tune, then cherish it, as it’s the only one you’ll hear all evening.

**Old hat now, as the modernisation of Liverpool’s railways in the 1970s demolished Exchange station, the terminus that served Southport, and replaced it with a through service that passes beneath the city centre and out the other side.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

How to talk about art without scaring the horses

As I was born in 1970, and had seen the 1960s mythologised all through my youth, I sometimes asked my parents about them. I knew my limits, though, as they were from the more (socially) conservative era that many now pretend never existed. So Beeching or Harold Wilson (the local MP, for what that’s worth) were okay, but Bob Dylan and Syd Barrett weren’t. I was pleasantly surprised by how much they could tell me about The Kinks, Scott Walker and Tariq Ali. (Generation Wikipedia will wonder what all the fuss was about).

The Beatles were the stuff of contention, though. They had bought nearly every record until a very exact cut-off point of “Rubber Soul”. I was young, I could hear music that I liked and I wanted to know more, and what they had to tell me stopped halfway through. BBC2 and the local library eventually gave me the rest.

One day, when my parents were visiting me in Newcastle towards the end of my student years , Dad asked me what Yoko Ono actually did. Yes, I could have replied “well, father, she’s a conceptual artist”, but I knew exactly what the next question would have been if I had. Mum and dad came from a world where painters painted and some loose-living beatniks might have dabbled in sculpture, but conceptual art? What’s that about? In other words, art was another subject with a barrier halfway through.

“That’s a good question, Dad”, I replied.

Now my daughter wants to be an artist. I have tried talking her out of it, believe me. So I've now changed tack and am giving her my moral support, but this comes with a message: if you want to pay the bills with this stuff, you have to start treating it like a career and not as a hobby.

I'm encouraging her to go to as many shows as possible; that way she can take on board some ideas and have something to talk about when the interviews start. So there we were at the Glasgow School of Art's graduate shows last June. In among the sitting rooms filled with cuddly bananas and jokeshop dog turds and the poorly-shot videos of people dressed as nuns climbing over fences in country fields (I'm making NONE of this up) was the work of this student:

"I want to go to art school so I can paint like that", said my daughter. The best of luck to her, and Georgina Clapham for that matter.  Tellingly, her exhibition had run out of business cards - most of the others had plenty left over - and one of her paintings was on the posters advertising the show. Most professions have a "no bullshit" clause; if you try pulling a fast one in my field, you're found out very quickly indeed. Art has no such backup.

I wonder if Marcel Duchamp ever regretted those urinals.

Saturday, 12 November 2016


I don’t want to get bogged down in American politics. The USA is, after all, a foreign country, and one which dumped a load of perfectly good tea into the harbour over the ability to decide things for itself. Americans are grown-ups and don’t need the likes of me telling them how to vote, so I don’t bother.

Looking past the media, which does pay attention to the USA at the expense of even home politics, and I start to worry. It’s not just Trump; groups like Alternative für Deutschland and the French Front National are gaining a share of the vote. If the UKIP can keep Nigel Farage, who seems to be the only party member who can walk and talk at the same time, its success will continue. After the Labour MP Jo Cox was stabbed to death by a man with links to Britain First and other far-right groups, a Guardian article talked about Britain’s political class being under attack.

Of course it is, even if Jo Cox was not a member of it.

It’s ridiculous that Britain, the USA, or anywhere that isn’t an absolute monarchy still has a political class. But inertia, and a sense of entitlement that borders on freemasonry, has kept one there. Now there’s talk of making Michelle Obama the Democratic candidate for president in 2020; time would be better spent not offering more of the same if it no longer works. Labour took an almighty gamble putting Jeremy Corbyn in charge, but at least he’s not another clone of either Tony Blair or Gordon Brown.

Every day at work I pass a poster for the Ashok Kumar Fellowship. Ashok Kumar was a Labour MP for Middlesborough from 1997 and the only chemical engineer to be an MP at the time. After his death in 2010, the Institution of Chemical Engineers has run the fellowship in his memory. Maybe the institution is onto something. Nurses, architects, sailors, schoolteachers and farmers may feel that they too have been short-changed. What if political parties recruited from a true spectrum of our society, with all the different careers and social backgrounds it has, rather than the rather tight profile of accountants* and lawyers currently on offer? Perhaps frustrated voters will be tempted away from random demagogues.

* - I was at school and university with someone who is now prominent in the Conservative party. Even if he were to represent a party that I would vote for, I would not go near him as his only qualification is in politics, and his short career in accountancy is largely there to pursuade voters that he is something other than a "party animal". After testing him out in a constituency where he stood no chance of being elected - a common Conservative method of hardening its candidates - he is now MP in one of their safest seats.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Record Bore Day

Did I queue up for hours yesterday to buy a picture disc of “Histoire de Melody Nelson” the colour of a nicotine stain? Or a 78 of “Anarchy in the UK” fashioned from compressed bogies? This may disappoint a few people, but no I did not.

I agree that record shops are an endangered species. Just as with post offices and libraries, our culture will lose something if the physical place where people hear music and talk about it, rather than merely buy it, disappears. Let’s separate the myth from real life, though; those places painted in black to hide the dope stains were always spoken of highly because they were rare. For every Probe or Volume or Missing, the sort of places Nick Hornby wrote “High Fidelity” about, there were numerous greeting card shops that had record racks. People who moan about the supermarkets selling CDs don’t remember, or choose not to remember, how clueless WH Smiths and Boots were about music when it used to be sold in their branches.

It’s a very urban phenomenon, anyway; if you lived in the country or a rather unequipped suburb, you just had to buy things by mail order. Even if rural internet speeds aren’t so good, things are now so much better.

Unfortunately, gamely supporting your local record shop (if you ever had one in the first place) has been confused with records, as in the vinyl format. I’m exactly the right age for this argument, so here goes:

When I started off (Mirror Man by the Human League on 12 inch, by the way*, from The Music Shop in Belle Vale shopping centre**) vinyl was the only real way to do it. CDs were still a millionaire’s plaything, and cassettes, although priced the same as records after years of being priced higher, were flimsy things with crushed, tiny artwork. There were times when tape came in handy – bootlegs, catching things off the radio, portable players, making mixtapes – and recording onto blank cassettes allowed you to miss out the drum solo, but pre-recorded tapes were awful. It was records, records, records.

When I started taking interest in older acts, the likes of Kraftwerk, David Bowie, Can or The Doors were well served because their labels kept a good back catalogue. Re-issue labels did their best to fill in the gaps for other bands whose labels had disappeared – like The Kinks. As CDs grew in popularity, the reissuers had a choice; should they divide their rather marginal market up by making things available as records, cassettes and CDs, or do they choose one format and stick to it? By focussing on CDs, they could then do a much better job of making older music available to new listeners.

So my own music collection grew as a CD collection from the early 1990s onwards. If I bought anything while abroad, Spain was still good for vinyl but France had gone all-CD. I kept buying new records until the bad quality of pressings put me off. Was the drop in quality control a symptom of a struggling business, or a sneaky trick by The Man to make me buy the more profitable CDs? Please send your answer in on a postcard. I don’t moan about the sound quality – my turntable, CD player, amplifier and speakers all came to roughly the same price and, if you look after the discs, they sound as good as each other. Putting a FLAC or a high-bitrate MP3 through the same set-up sounds just as good as well.

So I still play records, but the revival of the format as an object of desire just strikes me as a hipster gimmick. Some foolish youngsters don’t even play them!

As Record Store Day is always Saturday, the same morning as Radio 2 broadcasts “Sound of the Sixties”, I check if Brian Matthew ever mentions vinyl reissues of listeners’ favourite tunes from their youth.

He doesn’t.

* I’m usually Mr Metric, but I always still say “12 inch single”.  I know that countries elsewhere in Europe call them “Maxi-Singles” because they don’t use that system of weights and measures. This is all a bit “Pulp Fiction”, isn’t it?

** Somewhere that sold stationery and greetings cards as well, when I started going there, in a circa-1970 concrete shopping parade next to an outlying group of Liverpool council estates 45 minutes walk from home. Huyton, strangely, didn’t have a record shop!

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Paris (version française)

Je me suis réveillé ce matin et je trouve plusieurs mises à jour sur Facebook qui demandent pourquoi les attentats de Paris reçoivent autant d'attention quand les choses semblables se passent ailleurs avec une fréquence choquante. La vie humaine n'est pas soumis à une sorte de taux de change entre les pays, mais je ne pense pas honnêtement que cela est le sentiment que l'on veut exprimer.  En fait, ce sentiment est la chose qui motivent ces attaquants - un désir de faire descendre le monde entier au même niveau effroyable, comme si ça preuve un principe.

La France est un pays que j'adore. Oui, de temps en temps je pense qu'elle est peuplé entièrement par des gens difficiles mais je l'habitais, j'ai visité un certain nombre de ses régions souvent et j'admire la façon dont elle a produit une société culturellement riche et diversifiée qui valorise les libertés des individus . Elle a parfois fait cela d'une manière différente de mon propre pays, mais ça marche en tous les deux. Aucun d'entre eux est parfait (où est le pays parfait?) et elles ont des histoires ensanglantes qui ne doivent pas être passé sous silence, mais le moins que nous puissions faire (le jour de l'Armistice a été juste la semaine dernière) est chérir la paix et la stabilité qui est maintenant en place.

La France est un pays qui incarne la civilisation, et l'Etat Islamique déteste ce fait. Si cela est affaiblie, il n'y a aucun espoir pour les pays comme le Liban et le Yémen, car ils ont rien à viser.


I've woken up to find a number of Facebook updates that ask why the Paris attacks are receiving so much attention when similar things happen elsewhere with sickening frequency.  Human life is not subject to some kind of exchange rate between countries, but I don't honestly think that is what is intended.  In fact, that is one of the very things that motivate these attackers - a desire to drag everywhere down to the same appalling level, as if to prove a point.

France is a country I love.  Yes, there are times when I think it is populated by a sixty-million member awkward squad but I have lived there, visited a number of its regions frequent times and admire how it has produced a culturally rich and diverse society that values individuals' freedoms.  It has sometimes done this in a different way to my own country, but they both work.  Neither of them are perfect (where is?) and have bloodied histories that should not be glossed over, but the least we can do (Armistice Day was only last week) is treasure the peace and stability that is now in place.

France is a country that exemplifies civilisation, and that is what ISIL despise.  If that is undermined, then there is no hope for the likes of Lebanon and Yemen, because they have nothing to aim for.