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Sunday, 4 November 2018

About that FIFA Club World Cup ...

Speaking at the opening of the Asian Football Confederation's new headquarters the other day, FIFA president Gianni Infantino reiterated plans to expand the Club World Cup. He said he wants to make it a "real competition" that "every club in the world can target".

Thank goodness it’s going to be a genuine World Cup for clubs and not, as some had suspected, a ‘let’s get all the big teams playing each other in the middle east and then rake in TV millions’ Cup. Mr Infantino is clearly looking after the interests of the global game and not just building strategic alliances by courting dodgy regimes with big barrels of cash; FIFA’s spotless reputation means that we can trust them to look after the best interests of the sport.

The claim that ‘every club in the world can target’ this new competition is, though, worth a little bit of scrutiny. In what meaningful sense can, say, Ayr United, Bolton Wanderers or Carshalton Athletic ‘target’ the Club World Cup? 

FIFA has 211 member countries; the big, traditional footballing nations have thousands of professional and semi-professional teams (if you want to make a whole morning disappear, go look up the number of teams and leagues in Brazil). Even a small country like Scotland has 276 registered professional and semi-professional teams; England has 480 affiliated divisions with more than 5,000 registered teams. It would not be unreasonable to estimate that, across FIFA’s member countries, there might be an average of, say, 750 professional or semi-professional clubs. If they can all legitimately ‘target’ (i.e. enter) this new competition, the Club World Cup could start with 158,250 entrants. How might that work? 

First, let’s address the question of whether games should be organised on a one-off ‘knockout’ format, or on a ‘home and away’ basis. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that we’ll be going with a straight knock-out format (to avoid the tournament becoming a tad unwieldy).

The observant reader will have noticed that an ‘all-in’ draw featuring 158,250 teams in a knock-out format will, at some point, throw up an odd number of surviving competitors. If all the teams went into the hat for the first round draw (it will have to be a big hat … maybe a barrel would be more appropriate. Or, now that I think about it, a skip; or rather, several skips), by round 5 we’d be left with 9,875 teams; put simply: odd numbers don’t work in cup competitions.   

My guess, therefore, is that FIFA will arrange a preliminary round in which the bottom-seeded 56,416 teams will play each other for the right to enter the full competition. Once that preliminary round has eliminated 28,808 minnows, the first round ‘proper’ will feature 129,792 teams playing 64,896 ties.  

There are one or two practical issues to consider.   

I estimate, based on extensive research (i.e. watching the draw for the quarter-finals of the League Cup on TV the other night), that it takes an average of 38 seconds to draw two numbered balls from a hat or barrel, or skip (or skips).  With 64,896 games to arrange, our first round draw will, therefore, take somewhere between 28 and 29 days to complete. 

I think FIFA should brand this draw as a month-long celebration of football administration. Factoring in time for commercial breaks, celebrity appearances and bringing on substitutes when people collapse from exhaustion, the draw would be a terrific televisual sporting event, a bit like the Super Bowl, but with less Beyonce.   

As a Scottish football fan, I’d love to see our smaller clubs get a chance to compete on the world stage. Imagine the tantalising prospects such a draw might deliver:

Inverurie Loco Works v Fótbóltsfelagið Giza

Whitehill Welfare v Jagiellonia Białystok

Esportiva Guaxupé v Newtongrange Star

(One of the downsides of that last tie would be that, since deregulation, the bus service between Newtongrange and Guaxupé has been shocking; this, combined with kick-off times designed to suit TV channels, might put off some Newtongrange fans from travelling to Brazil).   

Once the matches get underway, they’ll probably be spread over several days in order to maximise TV revenues; by scheduling around 1,000 games per day, the first round could be completed in two months. I won’t go into the logistics of rounds 2 to 14, save to say that by the time we get to round 4, the number of competing teams will have been reduced to 16,224; by round 7, we’d be pretty much down to the ‘elite’ level of 2,028 teams.

Only by round 12 will we have reached the magical number of 64 teams, proven by scientists to be the highest number that football fans easily understand (it’s a bit like the theory that birds can only count up to 5, which makes it OK to steal eggs from their nests if there are 6 or more in it. Or maybe they can count up to 6? Whatever).

If one or two of the smaller teams manage to benefit from kind draws and a bit of luck, there would be an outside chance of some mouth-watering quarter-final games. How about Real Madrid v South Normanton Athletic or Kakamega Homeboyz v Manchester City? The prosaic truth, though, is that the last eight will probably feature world football’s most popular ‘super clubs’, plus Bayern Munich.

With tight scheduling and round-the-clock fixtures, it should be just about possible to complete the entire event within a calendar year (remembering that the first month of each new year would be entirely devoted to making the draw for the first round). And yes, I’m aware that the preliminary round draw must always precede the first round. In a tight footballing calendar, it is therefore possible that we might have to play 28,208 preliminary round ties for ‘year two’ while the tournament for ‘year one’ is still running. Not ideal, I know, but it would at least help FIFA advance their strategic goal for the total football environment, i.e. televised football happening all the time. Everywhere.           

The final will probably be played in Riyadh or Doha on Christmas Eve, kicking off at 3.25am GMT.

Monday, 29 October 2018

Tribute Act blues, part 2.

The release of the Freddie Mercury biopic reminds me that I once had a spell playing with a Queen tribute act.

We played lots of gigs and built up a small but dedicated group of fans who followed us around the country. We got to know some of these fans quite well. One of the most devoted was Tessie, a friend-of-a-friend of our drummer. She was quite a big lady with a lively sense of humour and a fondness for pranks. She enjoyed our gigs but, more than anything else, she loved playing practical jokes on the band, invariably involving some spurious ‘emergency’ about one thing or another. On the way to one show, we got a voicemail message stating that the venue could not provide electricity after 9pm (that turned out to be Tessie). The day before another gig, we got an email asking if we could insert a couple of Abba songs into our set as there was a fan convention taking place in the town in which we were due to play (that turned out to be Tessie). Her pranks were occasionally amusing and usually harmless, but could sometimes be a pain in the neck when we were preparing for a performance.   

I remember one gig at a small town on the Ayrshire coast. We arrived late after our van had broken down on the motorway. Not only did we have no time for a soundcheck, but the manager of the venue proceeded to put us under additional pressure by making an unusual request. Bohemian Rhapsody was normally the closing number in our act, but he asked if we could start the show with it. He felt that, because we would be playing to a ‘difficult’ Friday night crowd, we might need something big to get the inebriated locals onside as quickly as possible. After some awkward negotiations, we reluctantly agreed to open the set with what would normally have been our show-stopper.

The last thing we needed at that point was another complication, but shortly before the gig was due to start, we got a phone call from a woman claiming to be from the local bee-keeping society. She told us that they had been using the venue for a meeting earlier that day and that one of their members had accidentally left a large working hive behind in the 'trap room', immediately underneath the stage.
According to this woman, we wouldn't be able to start our concert until they had removed the hive, as there was a strong possibility that a sudden outbreak of amplified music would send thousands of agitated bees flying up through the floorboards to attack members of the audience.

Despite the suspicion that this might be yet another prank by our number one fan, we agreed to check out the story. Upon entering the trap room, we came across a large wooden structure, which looked like a cross between a wardrobe and a series of stacked boxes with holes in them. None of us were experts. We might well have been looking at something a professional bee-keeper would use, but it could equally have been a stage prop for concealing a large human being.

Mindful of the fact that we were due onstage in a few minutes to start our show with Queen’s most famous tune, I turned to my bandmates and asked the only question that seemed appropriate:

“Is this a real hive? Is this just fat Tessie?”     

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Great news from UEFA

At long last, details have emerged about UEFA’s much-anticipated new ‘third’ club competition, The ‘Equity and Diversity’ Shield, which is due to launch in season 2019-20.

European football’s governing body has decided to move with the times, recognising that the old paradigm of competitive contact sport is perhaps out of sync with modern thinking.  
Unlike the other two major club competitions, participating teams in the ‘Equity and Diversity’ Shield will not be drawn from specific geographical locations, but will –according to a statement on UEFA’s website- be selected from ‘communities of interest’, a move designed to “transcend the outdated notion of tribal boundaries, which are intrinsically decisive and oppressive”.

Under the new format, any ‘goals’ which happen to be scored during a game will be only part of an overall qualitative assessment made by a panel of judges, who will mark each team based on elements like: co-operation, social awareness, sportspersonship and cultural sensitivity.

For example, a team which does not score any ‘goals’ during a game may instead accumulate ‘merit points’ by performing an interpretive dance commemorating the historic achievements of indigenous communities, or perhaps by facilitating a series of workshops on themes like racism, transphobia or patriarchal hegemony. 

Any ‘goals’ conceded will be balanced out by an assessment of the inclusivity of the merit activities undertaken, measured against specific performance criteria focused on Equity and Diversity. Additional merit points will be awarded to teams drawn exclusively from communities or groups facing systemic oppression. Points will be deducted if a team is perceived to have unfairly benefited from privilege (for example, if it was discovered that a member of their squad had previously owned a slave plantation or had an uncle who was in the Gestapo).

The tournament will have no outright winner as such, but 16 qualifiers from the group stages will take part in a celebration of Equity and Diversity to be held at the end of each season. The four most worthy teams (as chosen by the judges) will then be awarded joint custody of the trophy for three months each. 

UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin said:

We must move with the times and accept that concepts like ‘winning’, ‘losing’, ‘scoring’ etc. are becoming increasingly inappropriate in the modern world.
Academic studies suggest that the act of ‘scoring’ a ‘goal’ in a football match can be interpreted as an unconscious celebration of heteronormative penetrative intercourse and that this is not always consensual. Depending on the circumstances, members of the team conceding a goal might then be made to feel like ‘losers’ or even victims of abuse.  
Our new rules are designed merely to take a little bit of the focus away from the problematic activity of ‘goal-scoring’ by recognising that there are many ways to succeed in football. That is why the judges will be considering other performance elements, like good co-operation, social awareness, cultural sensitivity and so on.”    

As an avid football fan, I welcome this news. Some reactionary forces within the game will be hostile to the proposed changes, but we should remember that football was once played without goalposts and crossbars; it was once played without referees; it was once played without red and yellow cards. The introduction of ‘merit points’ is just part of the natural evolution of the game. In time, most fans will get behind the new format and support the drive towards equality of outcome at all levels.  

A spokesperson for the BBC has already announced that they will be bidding for the exclusive broadcasting rights for the new tournament.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

What goes around ...

I have never really wanted to meet any of my creative heroes, mainly because of the worry that, if they turned out to be twerps, it might put me off the very work which drew my admiration in the first place. Accordingly, I usually find it easy to separate the person from the work. If I first had to approve of the personalities or political views of folk whose music or literature I could enjoy, I’d probably need to ditch about 90% of my books and CDs. 

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a more pronounced example of the gulf between ‘how highly I rate someone’s work’ and ‘how unimpressed I am with them as a person’ than the case of Graham Linehan. I loved his writing for the sitcoms ‘Father Ted’ (co-written with Arthur Mathews) and ‘The IT Crowd’.
These shows created surreal worlds wherein events invariably conspired to cock a gentle snook at prevailing orthodoxies, institutions and personality-types. The scripts were often rich in sceptical observations of the kind that could only be made by a thoroughly grounded person. 

At least … that’s what I thought until I started following him on twitter.   

I soon discovered that, on cultural debates, he came across as … well, let’s be polite and say ‘not a very nice person’. His strident right-on persona dispirited me to the extent that I had to ‘unfollow’ him, worried that continued exposure to his shrill pieties might somehow impact on my enjoyment of his creative work. Earlier this year, he disgraced himself by condemning a fellow comedian (Count Dankula) over his now infamous ‘Nazi-pug’ video. 

It seems, however, that Linehan has now fallen prey to the very thing that he practiced: the twitter pile-on. In case you haven’t caught the story, he has been cautioned by the police for dead-naming (no, I didn’t know that was a thing either) Stephanie Hayden, a trans activist. Presumably looking for something to do after solving all of the local crimes, the police sprang into action when Linehan chose, in an online spat, to mention a biological fact: namely, that the person he was arguing with had been born male. 

Let’s, for the moment, put to one side the chilling realisation that the Orwellian nightmare of thoughtcrime has been eagerly embraced by the British police. 

After cultivating a belligerent online persona, Linehan surely can’t have been surprised by the extent to which people were prepared, in tennis parlance, to return his serves with interest? Having, among other things, slandered Brexit supporters as RACISTS (yes, he did use capital letters) he is now being served with a civil court action for being a TRANSPHOBE (capitals appropriate).

His problem is that, even in comfortable middle age, he has yet to grasp a simple truth that, once understood, ought to inform adult political discourse: namely, that the opposite of a good idea is not necessarily a bad idea; it is often just another idea, imagined by someone with different life experiences and different thought processes.
Good ideas not only can, but do (and almost inevitably will) come into conflict. An acknowledgment of this fact should be on the map guiding us through the territory between competing ideologies. Because, to put it simply: how we negotiate that space defines our humanity.

Had Graham Linehan been plotting these misadventures for one of his comedy characters, my hunch would be that the story arc would end with a moment of realisation, after which the chastened hero would be a wiser, more measured, more conciliatory person.  

He must be a smart guy to have written the things he has written.

I hope he has it in him to become as smart as one of his characters.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Tribute Act blues, part 1.

I used to play with a tribute act dedicated to the music of The Steve Miller Band (you may recall hits from the 70s and 80s like ‘The Joker’, ‘Abracadabra’ and ‘Take the Money and Run’). We called ourselves 'The Steve Miller Band' Band.

After gigging for a few months, we noticed that we were getting the liveliest reaction at our shows when we played the songs from Miller's repertoire that were being refused airplay because of what the broadcasting authorities deemed to be 'inappropriate’ language. So popular were these songs in our live set that we eventually decided to ditch all of the mainstream material and concentrate exclusively on Miller’s 'x-rated' stuff.

Accordingly, we changed our name to 'The (banned) Steve Miller Band' Band.

We started to get more bookings and built up quite a following. Things went so well that we started to produce our own range of merchandise to sell at gigs: t-shirts, posters, key-rings etc. One of the most popular items was an encircling strip, made of rubber, which could be worn on the wrist or lower forearm.  

It was, of course, 'The (banned) Steve Miller Band' Band band.

Our gigs were lively affairs. People would often get carried away by the energy of the music, to the extent that inebriated audience members would throw stuff about the place. On a tour of small towns in the north-east of Scotland, we once played a particularly raucous gig at Stonehaven at which a member of the audience had to receive medical treatment after being hit in the eye by a piece of merchandise which had been thrown by an over-enthusiastic fan. We were booked to play at Banff town hall the following weekend, but when the local council heard about this incident, they took immediate action (on the grounds of health and safety), forbidding us from setting up our merchandising stall and selling any of our goods.  Needless to say, the local press picked up on this story and, on the day of our gig at Banff town hall, the North East Weekly ran this headline:

'(Banned) Steve Miller Band’ Band band banned!

Over the next few days, however, news emerged that Banff council had denied issuing any instructions about our merchandise. It was consequently discovered that not only had our manager exaggerated that ‘Stonehaven concert injury’ report, he had also concocted the ‘Banff council outrage’ story in order to generate some publicity for rest of the tour. A spokesperson for the National Union of Booking Agents then revealed that our manager was already serving a suspension for a previous breach of agency rules and actually had no right to be managing any act at this time. After that revelation, this sorry tale came to an undignified end with this dramatic headline in the ‘Inverurie Advertiser’:

Banned band manager planned '(Banned) Steve Miller Band' Band Banff band ban!

Monday, 30 April 2018

Making an album, part 10: Recording with my dad.

In 2014, I started writing about the process of recording some songs with the intention of making an album. The project that I started documenting back then has grown arms and legs and morphed into a multi-headed beast (more about that some other time). I’ve taken several detours along the way, but the one that means the most is about to get a proper release on an actual record label, something I had barely even considered as a possibility when I started out.

My dad was born in 1940. In his early twenties, he was part of the Bob Dylan generation and his devotion to that cause is overwhelmingly reflected in his record collection, but he was also influenced by Scottish folk artists like Hamish Imlach and Matt McGinn. He played guitar and wrote his own songs and it’s clear that my interest and passion for music is inherited from him. He loved playing, but -apart from family parties- he never performed in public. His three kids, at some point or another, all ended up playing in bands, so I suppose we took his musical interests just a little bit further. 

Having worked into his seventies, he had often seemed weighed down in recent years by the responsibilities of looking after our ailing mum. As she became more and more reluctant (and less able) to leave the house, it started to look like dad’s health and well-being would best be served by giving him opportunities to get out and about. From a selfish point of view, that allowed me to re-connect with him through music and our getting 'out and about’ involved taking in shows by the likes of Don McLean, Joan Armatrading, Paul Carrack, Ray Davies, Lucinda Williams and Sheryl Crow.

One night in the spring of 2016, he handed me a CD with some of his own songs on it. It came as a bit of a surprise, because, wrapped up in my own stuff, I had somehow overlooked the possibility that this quiet and unassuming man who looked after my mum might still feel the need to express himself through the medium of song. As a self-absorbed nitwit, it hadn’t occurred to me that dad might still be writing or thinking about music in his mid-70s. I took his CD home. I really, really wanted it to be good, but there was a small, cowardly part of me that dreaded the possibility that it might not be. How could I possibly have responded to that? What could I have said? But that small cowardly part was worrying for no good reason; the rational part of me knew that dad’s stuff would be good. I had, after all, heard him around the house often enough when I was a kid. I knew that he could write songs and he could sing. And, once I started working my way through his CD, I knew that we had to record his songs. We had to make an album together.

Like all great ideas, once it was out there it seemed so obvious that I cursed myself for not thinking of it sooner. When I ran it past him, his first response, as I expected, was to shy away from the possibility of being put in the spotlight. He seemed a bit reluctant and said: “I don’t know if I could do that”. My dad had been a musician since his teenage years, but had never played gigs or made a big deal out of his talent. His public performances extended only to strumming the guitar at gatherings with family and friends and I knew that it would take a bit of persuading to get him into a recording studio. Once he had warmed to the notion, we discussed whether it was going to be a singer-songwriter album, that is, him sitting in front of a microphone strumming his guitar, or whether it was going to be something else. I pushed gently for ‘something else’ because I felt that his songs deserved to sound much bigger and better than any of the home recordings he had made. His original demos had a charm of their own, but I knew that he had material that could comfortably thrive in a grander soundscape. 

While working on the arrangements, I had to keep in mind that we had different tastes in music. I enjoy lush sounding recordings with interesting textures and love discovering hidden details and subtle layers in the mix; by contrast, my dad generally prefers things a bit simpler.  He’s an old-school songwriter and he likes recordings and songs to be about performances but, as a ‘jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none’ kind of musician, I’m almost entirely dependent on studio manipulation and clever editing techniques. I could no more play a decent guitar solo than I could build a car from cutlery, but I’m reasonably au fait with the technology that makes it sound like I am getting away with it. I learned a lot from working on his material. Although some of the songs we recorded are more than fifty years old, the themes are still relevant, perhaps even topical, in 2018: prejudice, legal injustice, the follies of war, love and regret. My dad is a better writer than me in the sense that he’s got a purer sense of what a song is. My songs are often high on artifice, coquettish little creatures that flirt with my various musical influences; by contrast, his stuff goes directly to message central with an emotional heft that I don’t think I can match.

Once the recording process was underway, my brother got involved. Although he lives in London (as does his drum kit), we usually managed to arrange our sessions to coincide with his visits to Glasgow. Other musicians were recruited to the cause as we started to pull the collection together. Two of the songs on the album feature contributions from a man who has written an actual number one hit single. Danny Mitchell wrote ‘If I was’ for Midge Ure, which topped the charts in 1986. My brother knows Danny (who now runs a studio in Glasgow) and told him that we were working on this project. He expressed an interest in getting involved and, within a couple of weeks of being sent some rough mixes, he had recorded some lovely pedal steel guitar and mandolin. Through the miracle of electronic mail, he sent us the parts and we were able to drop his tasteful and appropriate contributions into our recordings.

During the dialogue about which songs we’d be recording for the album, I got used to the idea that my visits to the family house would occasionally feature some little moment when dad would pull an old cassette tape from a drawer and say something like: “do you think we could maybe do something with this one?”

On one such occasion, as the tape hiss gave way to the opening chords of another long-neglected tune, I was instantly returned to my childhood, anticipating the words and melody of something that I hadn’t heard for many years. He had written a song about the disaster that befell the village school at Aberfan and his opening lines summarise the story far better than I could ever do.

21st October 1966
A whole mountain moved, became unfixed
A whole mountain moved, it was made by man
Moved half a mile down on the school at Aberfan.

I hadn’t heard or thought about that song for such a long time, but I knew it entirely, a song that my dad had sung as he sat and strummed his guitar while his three kids probably ran around the house creating merry hell and knocking lumps out of each other. And that’s what made me a singer and a songwriter; my dad modelled that behaviour for me. Years later, I ended up doing the same thing, sitting strumming an acoustic guitar while my own kids painted murals on the furniture, dressed the baby in drag or built an alien ship out of chairs and tables (sometimes all at once). I still write songs and I still get something spiritual and uplifting from the process of making music. That is one of the things I’ve tried to explain as I’ve been writing about recording my own albums; working on music is soul food and, when I do it, I’m doing it for me; except, in this case, that’s only part of the story.  
Towards the end of the recording process, we spoke about how we might promote the work. With typical modesty, dad insisted on not using his own name on the album cover, saying that it was “too much like blowing your own trumpet”. We eventually managed to reach a compromise by using his initials and surname. We also struggled to come up with an appropriate album title until, late in the day, while browsing through some photographs of post-war Glasgow, we came across a picture of two old ladies chatting in the street with the caption: ‘This has been me since yesterday’; we knew there and then that we had hit the jackpot. For those unfamiliar with the Glasgow vernacular, this is a phrase –once quoted in a sketch by Billy Connolly- that was formerly in common usage. It was the kind of line that might be used by two people (usually women) meeting on the street, each comparing notes on how busy they have been. “This has been me since yesterday” one might say, to be countered by “Aye, I’ve not sat down since I got up”.

The phrase tickled my dad and I think it spoke to his sense of being a proud Glaswegian.

During the time we spent recording this album, tragedy and trauma visited our family. After a long period of illness, our mother died in the summer of 2017 and so never got to hear the final fruit of our labours. I’m sure, however, that she would have been quietly pleased that -at the age of 77- dad’s music was finally getting a well-deserved public airing.
Her death had a big impact on him and, in the following weeks and months, we began to suspect that all was not well. Having devoted several years to being mum’s primary carer, it became apparent that the absence of the attendant daily routines had revealed issues with his mental health. No longer anchored by his caring duties, he became prone to lapses that appeared to signal something rather more significant than the forgetfulness one might normally expect from a man of his age. Towards the end of the recording process, it was obvious that he was adrift and that his abilities were diminished. After a number of distressing episodes, we discovered that he was succumbing to Lewy Body Dementia (LBD), a progressive brain disorder which impacts on behaviour, cognition, and movement. LBD presents itself through a range of symptoms, including problems with memory, thinking and visual hallucinations. One of its characteristics is that it can become rapidly debilitating and, just a few weeks after our last recording session in September 2017, he had deteriorated to the point where he required full-time nursing care.

After a few months concentrating on dad’s welfare and other family stuff, I started approaching record companies with a view to gauging interest in what I thought was an excellent album and a great story. How many times, after all, does someone make their recording debut at the age of 77? The fact that this story had an unfortunate sting in the tail made the prospect of an official release all the more poignant. When I told my dad that Ian Green at Greentrax Records had expressed a firm interest in releasing the album, he was chuffed. I know that when we started out, he would happily have settled for running off 30 or so copies to distribute among relatives and friends. He’s still inclined to hide his light under a bushel and I’m sure there is a part of him that can’t quite believe that anyone outside his immediate social circle could be interested in his songs.

My recording journey has been fulfilling and I hope it’s not over, but I doubt that I will find another highlight to match sitting in a recording studio with my dad, polishing up his songs, working out harmonies and considering whether that drum roll going into the second chorus is making too much of a statement.      
He might not be in the best position to enjoy whatever interest will now be generated by his recording debut, but we know at least that our dad had a great time working on his album. It may have been half a century in the making, but some things are worth taking your time over.

‘This has been me since yesterday’ is released by Greentrax Records on 1st May.

You'll find some samples from the album here: