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Sunday, 27 November 2011

Imagination versus Reality

It is one of the surreal delights of these re-run shows to witness the glorious spectacle of the Top of the Pops dancers in full flight. In the autumn of 1976 Ruby Flipper still reigned supreme, but the 'new' dancers are just about to be named, as Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart announced the other week. Ed, dressed more like an insurance salesman than a happening DJ, announced that the new name would be chosen by a member of the public, through a proper, old-school ‘answers on a postcard’-type competition. One can only imagine some of the suggestions that must have come in, particularly from the watching dads.
All will be revealed this week, but look away now if you don’t want to know the answer. The new dancers will be called ‘Legs and Co.’ and they will caper and cavort gracefully for some fifteen years.

But now that Legs and Co. are about to be sworn in to perform their sacred duties as the ‘Queen’s own interpreters of pop lyrics and tempos through the medium of dance’, I must admit that I’m missing Ruby Flipper. Not for their dancing, because I’m in no position to say whether their dancing was bad, good or mediocre. When dancers are on TV, I usually just concentrate on the movement of the ones I fancy the most. It’s hardly a sophisticated response, but it does at least allow me to have grounds for stating a preference. When the re-runs started and I was re-introduced to the delights of Ruby Flipper, I found, curiously, that I still liked the one that I used to fancy when I was a lad, all those years ago. That probably means something significant, unless it doesn’t.

When you have a crush on someone at school and you unexpectedly meet up with that person thirty years later, it’s probably fair to say that the odds are against that attraction still being strong. Time will have exacted a toll and it won’t have been cheap. That rule, of course, doesn’t apply in TV land, where a kind of immortality is achieved by those fortunate enough to have been preserved in amber by the magic box. When I was re-acquainted, three decades on, with ‘the Flipper’ (or, more specifically, with Cherry Gillespie), I discovered that the old magic was still there. She still had it going on, in spades.

All of which reminds me of a joke that was popular when I was at school.

A little boy says to his mum: “Mum, are Legs and Co. robots?” to which mum replies: “No, why do you ask that, son?” “Because” says the boy, “daddy said he’d like to screw the arse off one of them.”

To the jaundiced modern eye, the TOTP dancers and their all-too-literal interpretations of pop lyrics look somehow irredeemably naff. Sadly, it’s not just a comedic aspect that is noticeable; now that we’ve become accustomed to simulated sex as a virtual staple of ‘dancing’ in modern pop videos, those old-school routines look so impossibly innocent. It’s hard to imagine that there might have been a time when these routines would have been considered suggestive, perhaps even raunchy. The routines and the costumes were designed to leave some things to the imagination. Imagination, in those days, worked a lot of overtime. Imagination was busy filling in the blanks and embellishing ‘reality’, because reality was obliged to work to a pretty rigid set of rules. Nowadays, when you watch someone like Rihanna performing, imagination is waiting in the wings, twiddling its thumbs, hoping in vain to be called into action. When you observe the leap that ‘reality’ has taken from 1976 to 2011 and consider the probability that the same kind of leap might be taken over the next couple of decades, you can only conclude that imagination is very shortly going to be out of a job.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Is there such a thing as an 'honour killing'?

Uzma Naurin was shot, along with her husband Saif Rehman, three weeks ago near the city of Gujrat in Pakistan. The couple lived in Glasgow, but were on holiday when their car was ambushed by gunmen. Every report I’ve seen, heard or read has used the term ‘honour killing’ in connection with this crime. The BBC website currently reports that: “The former in-laws of a woman killed in Pakistan in a suspected honour killing have been questioned by police.”

One of the frustrating things about the mainstream media (not to mention our abject political class) is that they don’t trust us, the great unwashed, to have grown-up discussions and disagreements about matters of race and culture. In polite company, people -for the most part- are afraid to express anything less than complete approbation for the tenets of multiculturalism, for fear that they might leave themselves open to accusations of racism. I would suggest that if you compel folk to walk on eggshells to that extent, all you will do is build up a store of resentment that, sooner or later, will find an outlet.

This incident should have been named, shamed and condemned as a crime and reported accordingly. When the mainstream media use the term 'honour killing' they give the murder a status it did not deserve. By using the ridiculous nomenclature, they acknowledge that there is a cultural /religious aspect to the killing. They then compound that mistake by disallowing any debate on those cultural /religious aspects for fear of offending those who belong to that culture /religion.

The mainstream media can't have it both ways. If they report stuff like this simply as 'murder,' it can be put in the same file as other horrible crimes of a similar hue.
If, however, they insist on using the term ‘honour killing’ (and it doesn't matter whether or not they put inverted commas around it), they have to be big enough to accept that people will want to talk about the cultural /religious aspects of that term.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

I've got a beard, get me out of here

So the BBC is running old editions of TOTP from 1976. I’ve no idea why they started the re-runs from that particular year. Perhaps it’s something as simple as them not having a complete record from previous years. Or then again, maybe it is something to do with 1976 being perceived in some quarters as pop’s ‘year zero’, the date at which punk -according to legend- revolutionised the music scene. The truth, however, is that punk was mainly an interesting socio-cultural phenomenon, one that paved the way for some interesting music to follow. As a 'movement' however, it didn't produce that much in the way of great songs. There is plenty of music from the period 1976 to 1978 that still sounds fresh and vibrant today (the work of Stevie Wonder and David Bowie springs to mind), but I don't think that is quite the case with the majority of punk's output. Some folk hold it as an article of faith that punk ‘changed everything’, but if changing everything means changing the face of the pop charts, the ‘punk changed everything’ theory doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny, as ten minutes on the intergoogle studying chart statistics will tell you.

Mind you, watching some of the acts from 1976, it’s easy to see why there might have been a musical reaction against what appeared to be the stultifying dominance of middle-of-the-road and cheesy pop. It may have stopped just short of being an actual reign of terror, but the saccharine ranks of MOR and cheese managed, on a regular basis, to dope the charts into a state of torpor. Take for instance the band Liverpool Express, who got to number eleven with ‘You are my love’. As an art statement, this track was -in its own way- pretty extreme, because it took the concept of ‘lightweight middle of the road’ right to the middle of the middle of the road and then knocked some of the edginess off until the sound was gossamer-light. Then they smoothed off any remaining rough edges in the hope of achieving a theoretical state of absolute translucence. Add to that an uber-trite lyric that even Hallmark’s A and R department might have rejected for its excessive vapidity and you’ve got a recipe for musical revolt. Being subjected to this kind of stuff on a regular basis would have made any self-respecting kid hanker for scruffy bands with loud guitars and a working knowledge of, at best, three major chords.

For all their evil genius, Liverpool Express had nowhere near the level of success enjoyed by the Greek singer Demis Roussos, a chart phenomenon who appealed mainly, I suspect, to ladies of a certain age. Demis dressed like a character from an episode of Star Trek, in which Kirk and crew had beamed down to a planet where the dominant species had evolved from a race of fortune tellers and new age therapists. He sometimes appeared on TOTP through the miracle of specially-filmed clips shot in Greece, or at least shot somewhere that was hot, with rocks and sand and electricity that was magically supplied to the various unplugged instruments. He was a handsome big fellow and he did his fair share of smouldering, but that ‘mean and slightly moody’ look was rather at odds with his high-pitched vocal delivery, which often attracted scorn from his critics. He may have sold millions of records, but many folk will remember him for having been disparaged by Mike Leigh in the play ‘Abigail’s Party’, wherein his anodyne music was a deemed to be a risible signifier of the upwardly mobile suburbanite affectations of the main character. It can’t be all that pleasant having a bearded lefty playwright looking down his nose at you, so for that reason alone I’d be inclined to stick up for Demis.

Perhaps one of the reasons he attracted ridicule was that, with song titles like ‘My friend the wind’ and ‘Goodbye my love, goodbye’, (yes, it’s that second ‘goodbye’ that does it), you got the impression that he took himself quite seriously. Maybe someone should have advised him to take ‘down to earth’ lessons from another mid-seventies chart topper, David Essex. Essex, now playing someone’s granddad on Eastenders, was an astonishingly good-looking song-and-dance man who lucked out with a succession of film roles and chart smashes. Watching him the other week perform even a mediocre song like ‘Home’ was a real pleasure, perhaps because he had the look of a man who knew full well that he had pretty much won the lottery and was loving every minute of it. Essex was by no means a great singer, but he had an individual character to his voice, an impish grin and the general air of a man who didn’t appear to take himself too seriously, a man who knew that he had managed to make a little bit of talent go a very long way. A bit like Robbie Williams, but twice as charming, three times as good-looking and nowhere near as needy.

David Essex didn’t invite ridicule in the way that Demis Roussos evidently did. Perhaps folk suspected that Demis, with his quasi-operatic vocal style and his progressive rock background (he was in ‘Aphrodite’s Child’ with keyboard wizard Vangelis), thought that pop music was maybe just a wee bit beneath him. Maybe the hair, the beard, the clothes and the moody demeanour gave out the coded message that he would have been much happier fronting a ‘proper’ progressive rock band and appearing with other bearded blokes on the Old Grey Whistle Test. And maybe then Mike Leigh wouldn’t have been so snotty about him.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

It's 1976 ... it's Top of the Pops!

Anyone who doesn’t watch BBC 4 (and that’s probably about 95% of the viewing public) may be unaware that the station has been running old editions of ‘Top of the Pops’ in sequence, starting from 1976. They’re also scheduling the show in the old TOTP slot on Thursday nights. Unless my arithmetical abilities have undergone a spectacular deterioration, I reckon that means we’ll reach the final edition of the show sometime in 2041. By that time, of course, pop music probably won’t exist. Or, if it does, we’ll all be flying around in jetpacks and ‘music’ will be taken in the form of a pill. Or maybe it will be stored in a virtual cloud that you’ll access by blinking to activate the i-tunes chip that your robot parent will have had fitted in your head as a present on your fourth birthday.

Apart from one aberration when Jonathan King was edited out of a show, each edition of the 1976 TOTP is being shown exactly as it appeared at the time. King’s contribution was cut, presumably because his well-documented crime was deemed by someone at Broadcasting House to have been so heinous as to merit being airbrushed from history. After writing to the BBC, he got a nice apology from Director General Mark Thompson and an assurance that it would not happen again. Let’s see if they can stick to that promise when the time comes to re-run Gary Glitter’s ‘Another Rock ‘n’ roll Christmas’.

Whatever else it did, Top of the Pops represented the 'settled will' of the audience; that is, it played the most popular songs of the day. Whenever we complained about the content (as we certainly used to in our house) we were really complaining about other people's awful musical tastes. And, judging by the fare on offer from 1976, there was plenty to complain about.
I may go into some detail on this topic.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Sir Furious ... 25 and counting.

When football chat turns to the topic of who is the best manager of all time, we don’t always consider the factors that would allow us to tackle this question with a degree of scientific rigour and objectivity. Some of us will talk about the manager that we like the best, or the one we think did the best at the club or country that we support. Football is a competitive sport, so how else should we judge football managers, if not by results? And, when we try to judge, those results should be viewed in some kind of context, with consideration given to the circumstances under which they were achieved. We can argue until the cows come home about which managers we like the best, but the 'best' -by any objective measure- is the person that comes out on top most often.

So … here are five reasons why Sir Alex Ferguson is the best manager of all time.

1. He’s had unprecedented success with an unfashionable club.

Most professional leagues are dominated by a handful of powerful clubs, so anyone who can buck their local trend deserves to be considered an exceptional talent. Perhaps you’d have to live in Scotland to appreciate the scale of what Ferguson achieved at Aberdeen in the early eighties. To break into the Celtic-Rangers duopoly was a monumental achievement; to win a European trophy is simply off the scale. It can be argued that Brian Clough, in terms of over-achieving at unfashionable clubs, has a better record than Ferguson. His feats at Nottingham Forest and, to a lesser extent, Derby, were remarkable, but Clough doesn’t score in the other categories.

2. He’s had success over a sustained period.

Ferguson won promotion with St. Mirren in the mid-seventies and won his first league title with Aberdeen in 1980. 31 years later, he's still winning. Old-timers might mention Bill Struth at Rangers, who managed for 34 years, amassing ten league titles, ten Scottish Cup, two League Cups and various other Glasgow Cups and Merchant Charity Cups. With all due respect, some of these trophies don’t carry a whole lot of weight in historical terms and Struth’s Rangers (like Jock Stein’s all-conquering Celtic in the 60s and 70s) competed in a relatively weak league that is dominated by two teams.

3. He’s had success with different clubs, in different leagues.

Some managers have great success at one club, but fail to replicate that success elsewhere; Don Revie, for instance, was outstanding at Leeds, but did little of note away from Elland Road. It takes truly exceptional talent to achieve great success in more than one job and Ferguson has been a league champion and a European trophy winner with two teams in two countries. Mourinho has succeeded in Portugal, England and Spain, while Huddink, Robson, Trappatoni and Eriksson (and probably a few others) all have very impressive CVs, but none of them score as convincingly in the other categories.

4. He has successfully built a number of winning teams over a prolonged period.

He is now on his fifth or sixth successful team at Man. Utd. Bob Paisley scores highly for his work at Liverpool, as does Jock Stein at Celtic, but again, not to the extent of Sir Furious. Bill Shankly resigned immediately after Liverpool had dismantled Newcastle in an FA Cup final, so Paisley inherited a side that was already very successful. He clearly took the club to another level, but his team-building achievements occurred within the span of a single decade. Jock Stein worked at a club with massive domestic advantages, playing –to all intents and purposes– in a two-team league, wherein any achievements by the old firm have to be viewed in the context of an extremely lop-sided domestic set-up.

5. He’s won the trophies

Nothing in the modern era compares with the haul achieved by Ferguson. He has won twelve league titles at Man. Utd, three at Aberdeen, four major European trophies and god knows how many FA Cups and League Cups. It's a frightening total.
Some have suggested that for a club of Manchester United’s stature to have won the Champions League ‘only’ twice is a tad disappointing. Bob Paisley, after all, won three European Cups in five seasons and, since it is the major trophy in club football, there is a case for saying that he was more successful. But the European Cup in those days (much as it might be difficult for fans of Liverpool, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and Celtic to concede) was a knock-out tournament in which two successful rounds (perhaps against part-time Scandinavian or mediocre Eastern European opposition) took you to the quarter-finals. The European Cup was an easier tournament to be successful in than the current Champions League. That’s why teams like Malmo, Bruges and Partizan Belgrade could make it to the final. That’s why teams like Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and Steau Bucharest could win it.

It has been claimed that Ferguson was lucky to survive at Manchester United after his first three seasons appeared to lack any obvious signs of progress. He inherited what was, in effect, a glamorous social club that played occasional games of football. He recognised quickly that Ron Atkinson had left behind a talented squad, but knew that he’d have to dismantle not only the team, but the whole culture of the club. That was always going to take time and, if the progress at first appeared to be relatively slow, it now seems clear that Ferguson was far too driven and talented not to have succeeded, one way or another.

Some critics have said that he would never have been as successful if he had ended up at, say, a Portsmouth or a Leicester, but all you have to do is look at Aberdeen's record 'pre' and 'post' Ferguson. You don’t need to analyse much more than that. Saying that Alex Ferguson wouldn't have been successful away from Manchester United is a bit like saying Roger Federer would never have won the British Open if he had taken up golf instead of tennis. It's entirely hypothetical and pretty close to being pointless. So here's another hypothesis: Had he left Aberdeen for Wolves or Tottenham when he had opportunities in the mid-eighties, he would have been successful with them and would eventually have moved on, because Alex Ferguson was born to manage Manchester United.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The Law 3, Cheats 0

As expected, former Pakistan cricket captain Salman Butt and fast bowler Mohammad Asif have been found guilty of ‘conspiracy to cheat and conspiracy to accept corrupt payments’. Another bowler, Mohammad Amir, admitted to these charges prior to the trial. All three plotted to deliberately bowl ‘no-balls’ during a test match against England last summer and now face the prospect of going to jail.
Before the trial, some folk made the mistake of trying to underplay the seriousness of these offences, basing their interpretation of events on an erroneous assumption that mere no-balls do not decide cricket matches.
It is clear, however, that if -during the course of a match- a player is motivated by the desire to do anything other than overcome his opponent, the outcome of the game has already been changed.
I can understand why folk might be tempted to believe, for example, that deliberately getting run out (or dropping a catch) is somehow worse than deliberately bowling the odd no ball. But that ignores the main point: you're either a cheat or you're not, in the same way that you are either 'pregnant' or 'not pregnant'.
Whether you are three weeks into a pregnancy or eight months into a pregnancy, you are still pregnant. Whether you deliberately drop a catch or deliberately bowl a no-ball, you're still a cheat. You have betrayed the spirit of the game and you should forfeit the right to be part of that game.