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Saturday, 31 December 2011

'Things I know now that I didn’t know then', part 154

In the dual time zone of 1976 /2011, Johnny Mathis has recently knocked Showaddywaddy’s ‘Under the Moon of Love’ from the top of the charts.

Mathis had a distinctive crooning style (said to be based on the desire, during his formative years, to emulate his favourite female vocalists) and his song was an obvious candidate for the Christmas number one; hell, it even had a schmaltzy spoken part designed to bring a tear to your glass eye. It would have been hard to compete against something that seasonal (not to mention well-executed) and poor old Showaddywaddy capitulated after three weeks at the top. Although they were denied the glory of being crowned Kings of the Christmas countdown, they are worth more than a passing mention because, now that the concept of ‘shame’ has largely disappeared from the showbiz lexicon, it’s difficult to think of a modern-day equivalent of Showaddywaddy.

Hailing from Leicester, a city that has never really been acknowledged as one of Britain’s rock and roll capitals, this phalanx of pretend Teddy Boys occupied a special place in my teenage consciousness. When I was at school, they were the sheer, living embodiment of naff. In fact, the style police would have considered ‘naff’ a disgracefully lenient judgement on their schtick, because Showaddywaddy were the colossi of anti-cool; they were as far from the concept of ‘cool’ as it was possible to get. Like a massive black hole in the distant galaxy of Ultra-Naff Major, they exerted a gravitational pull so powerful that the slightest exposure to their work had the potential to suck you down into unimaginable depths of oblivion, shame and ostracism.

Their nickname among the cognoscenti was Sho-fannypaddy. The alliterative word play around their name, the inferred link between their musical prowess and menstrual discharge was not, whichever way you might try to spin it, much of a compliment. To admit to admiring their music might have impressed people, but only in the same way that talking to yourself on the bus would have impressed people. There was a bloke in my class who admitted to liking them and, rather than take this at face value, even the kindest among us interpreted this predilection as an embarrassing lapse in taste, never to be mentioned in polite company. Harsher critics considered it a symptom of his simple-mindedness.

Now that I’m middle-aged and more or less impervious to the whims of fashion, Showaddywaddy look like they would be a good night out. Their material was a tad lightweight, but that’s a charge you could level at most pop acts. They had a dress code, but still allowed individual characters to express a little bit of personality. Best of all, they had an engaging front man in Dave Bartram. He sported one of those big, sexy mouths that would lead you to think that he must have been at least a distant cousin of the Tyler showbiz clan. His movements were just graceful enough to be ‘pop star’ appropriate, without appearing to be too posy or contrived. If you’d like to see a visual demonstration of ‘posy and contrived’, look up Rod Stewart performing ‘The Killing of Georgie’ on Top of the Pops. To say that Rod camped it up outrageously would be something of an understatement.

Bartram had a certain easy charm with the camera and was also comfortable enough to get in among the audience when the mood was right. He looked like a bloke who just happened to be a singer in a band and it’s really hard not to like him, even if you’re thinking that the whole Teddy Boy look is just so déclassé. And remember that, in 1976, the members of Showaddywaddy were aping a look that had been dead for the best part of twenty years. To a teenager, that seemed like the most hideous crime imaginable, but Dave Bartram and Showaddywaddy didn’t seem to mind. They just looked like they were enjoying themselves and trying to entertain people.

I wish I’d been simple-minded enough to have known that at the time.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

You can say what you like, except you can't

Congratulations to the Scottish government for yet another act of buffoonery.
Following the debacle of their ill-considered 'let's make alcohol harder to buy' legislation, in which they demonstrated that they weren’t even smart enough to anticipate (and therefore prepare for) even the most glaring loopholes in their cunning plan, they have now acted to ‘solve’ the problem of sectarianism in Scotland.
The new legislation, according to Community Safety Minister Roseanna Cunningham, is designed to catch any songs that create or risk public disorder. In cases where the chants or songs might fall short of the ‘public disorder’ benchmark, it will be up to individual police officers to decide whether the chants and songs are offensive enough to incite wider disorder.

So, to summarise: What you’re singing at a football match might be likely to get you thrown into jail. Or it might not. It all depends upon who is on duty at the time.

The very idea of this legislation makes some big statements about how the political class view the people they purport to represent. They have placed us all on a continuum that has name-calling at one end and attempted murder at the other. We are not, in their eyes, a nation of rational or resilient individuals; rather, we are a collection of fragile, damaged, volatile morons in need -above all else- of protection from ourselves.

They will see this legislation as being necessary because they believe that we are all either potential victims or potential perpetrators; we’ll either suffer psychological damage by being called a fenian or a hun, or we’ll be the kind of person who will start by using those words and then take a few tiny steps along the continuum to the point where we’ll start sending parcel bombs to celebrities.

There might well be a connection between shouting something inappropriate at a football match and sending someone a parcel bomb, but it's the same kind of connection that exists between having a knife in your kitchen drawer and actually stabbing someone.

Sadly, Scotland is now a country where teenagers -as recent examples have shown- can be jailed for singing a song or for posting an idiotic opinion online. We shouldn’t be inclined to trust governments at the best of times, but we should never, ever trust any government that would seek to outlaw the expression of socially /politically /culturally 'awkward' opinions.
In any sane and civilised society, the kind of people who would author legislation like this would be allocated, at best, a job looking after the coloured pencils.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

It's going to get worse before it gets worse

It would appear that the tide of opinion on the EU might have taken a significant turn (unless, that is, you work for the BBC). Significant change in public opinion has been rather slow to arrive, perhaps because –up until now- the pro-EU faction had very successfully skewed the debate to the extent that anything 'anti-EU' was seen as anti-European, anti-progress, xenophobic ‘little Englander’ nonsense. That was, at best, an intellectually feeble tactic, because it’s clear that one can be in favour of increased co-operation, trade, labour movement and so on without being in favour of central planning and big, unaccountable government.

Let's be absolutely clear about this: the EU is not Europe. The EU is a concerted attempt to run Europe from a central source. And what’s worse is that this concerted attempt is fuelled by a chilling determination not to allow anything as inconvenient as ‘democracy’ to get in the way. Just ask voters in Denmark, Ireland, France and The Netherlands; how many referenda on the constitution did the EU bigwigs ignore? What was it about the word 'no' that they didn't understand? And don't even bother asking voters in Greece and Italy anymore, because they now have their very own 'appointed' governments.

It has been clear for some time that there is a political and bureaucratic elite that is absolutely determined to establish a 'united states' of Europe. The drift towards fiscal (to be followed, inevitably, by political) union among Eurozone members continues apace, with no indication that the electorate in any of these countries will get to have a say. They won’t get a say because the architects and drivers of this project do not trust us, the great unwashed, to do the right thing. They have, effectively, placed a firewall between themselves and the people they purport to represent. Impervious to anything as vulgar as public opinion, the EU leaders believe themselves to be protected from the ‘virus’ of democratic accountability.

Their disdain is what should alarm us most. History tells us that when people can’t change things via the ballot box, they find other ways to change things. When the mere casting of votes means so very little to the drivers of the EU project, the likelihood increases that they will only be deflected from their purpose by something that might turn out to be altogether less pleasant than the average election.

All previous attempts at 'unifying' Europe have ended in tears; this one will as well.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

In praise of ugliness

One of the charming things about watching these TotP re-runs is that you can’t help but notice that you didn’t have to be all that good-looking to be a pop star in 1976. You could be riding high in the charts with average songs and below-average looks; or, in certain cases, you could get away with being plug-ugly. Take, for instance, the Kursaal Flyers. Their hit song ‘Little does she know’ was pleasant enough, but blimey, those lads had faces that only a mother could love. The singer looked like he’d come straight from running the waltzer franchise at a fairground in Skegness, sporting the peacock hairstyle and spiv moustache of a man not unfamiliar with the company of what used to be called ‘jailbait’.
His dental regime truly was a sight to behold. Imagine, if you will, that the average mouthful of teeth is something that is routinely installed by respectable construction companies, operating under licence and to strict professional guidelines. Not so, alas, for your man from the Kursaals. His gob looked like several cowboy builders, each determined to pre-empt a messy legal case over property rights, had gone ahead and started work without the necessary planning permission. In fact, each rogue firm, in its desire to get the job done and move on to the next act of civic vandalism, had gone ahead without any ‘planning’ at all. His upper east side bore no aesthetic or proportional relationship to his lower south, while his menacing lower east side could best be described as ‘untamed’. Nowadays, the only kind of pop singer who might conceivably get away with that sort of dental regime would be the kind that turned up in the early auditions for X-Factor, probably accompanied by a social worker.

The Kursaal’s bass player, who didn’t look like he had skipped many meals in pursuit of his craft, had the look of drunk rotary club member on a package holiday, invited up onto the stage at the end of the night by the house band. His dancing was every bit as good as you’d expect from a drunk 54-year old man with no sense of rhythm and an overwhelming need to visit the toilet. To be fair, the song was pretty good and any band that was willing to perform in front of a row of washing machines, as they did, must have had a sense of humour. And not many folk write lyrics like these anymore:

When she finished her laundry, she was all in a quandary, and made for the street like a hare. Her escape was so urgent, she forgot her detergent, and dropped all her clean underwear.
Little does she know that I know that she knows that I know she’s two-timing me.

In spite of having some nice, middle-of-the-road (and, frankly, a bit bland) songs, Doctor Hook took the ugliness deal to an altogether more menacing level. They had somehow mastered the art of sounding like a bunch of big girl’s blouses, but looking like a crowd of ruffians. The best way to describe them would be to imagine a film in which a young pair of city slickers on their honeymoon get into trouble somewhere in the southern states. There will be a scene in which the twenty-something, clean-shaven, city-dude husband and his pretty young schoolteacher wife will go into a bar in Ratchetsville, Missouri (population 137) to try and get help after their car has broken down. Well, the guys who will beat the husband up and abduct the pretty young wife will be Doctor Hook.

In the dual time zone 1976 /2011, a German band called Pussycat has just been removed from the number one slot after several weeks at the top with a song called ‘Mississippi’. Catching their act 35 years on, one can’t help but be impressed by the fact that they had also mastered a ‘Doctor Hook’ style image paradox. Even as they sat on the very top of the showbiz pile, Pussycat managed to look like a jaded, middle-of-the-road covers band. In their own way, they may well have been quite excited about being number one, but their enervated demeanour was illustrative of a band that was either:

a) performing their third set of the night at the Spratlington North Miners Welfare Club, or
b) under the influence of some pre-gig ‘herbal’ cigarettes.

Like the bloke in the Kursaal Flyers, the lead singer in Pussycat had a somewhat relaxed attitude to dental excellence. Had she ever been unfortunate enough to have had her jaw wired up after an accident, she would have been consoled by the fact that she sported a gap in her front teeth that would comfortably have allowed her to have been fed through a very large straw. I wouldn’t swear to it, but such was the gap that she might even have been able to cope with a bar of toblerone.

Last week’s episode also featured Legs and Co dancing to ‘Maid in Heaven’ by Be-Bop Deluxe. It’s a song I know very well and, according to Jimmy Saville, it was working its way up the charts from the rather modest position of 36, with a bullet. Well, if not quite a bullet, then maybe something fired from a pea-shooter. Given the embarrassment of riches throughout the rest of the top 40, one wonders why the dancers picked this particular song to interpret. I guess someone somewhere at the BBC must have liked Be-Bop Deluxe, because the song evidently wasn’t picked because the dance routine bore any significant relationship to the lyrical content or, indeed, the rhythm track. In fact, you might have got an equally valid interpretation of the song from watching a monkey on a bicycle, towing a fridge on wheels. The monkey would have been funnier, but perhaps not quite as pleasing on the eye.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Taking offence

Jeremy Clarkson is a man who says controversial things and gets paid for it. Nice work, if you can get it. I’m sure he earns a beautiful dollar, what with his TV appearances, his books, his DVDs and all the rest of it. In the run up to Christmas, I’d wager that he’ll be looking for opportunities to promote those products.
Last week, Clarkson said something on TV about the public sector strike and duly sent the electronic lynch mob into a frenzy of righteous indignation. Twitter, by all accounts, was in uproar. Some 20,000 viewers are said to have complained to the BBC, ‘offended’ by his remarks about shooting the strikers. Ed Miliband claimed that Clarkson's words were "disgraceful and disgusting." To be fair, Clarkson probably reminds poor Ed of the bad boys who used to throw his satchel up on to the roof of the school shed. UNISON, at one point, threatened legal action. The union, according to sources, was “considering reporting the Top Gear presenter to the police over comments made on The One Show.”

Oh dear. A man cracks a not very funny joke on TV and union leaders want to go the police. Is this the level to which our political discourse has sunk? If you say “I am offended by that” do you somehow qualify for a special set of rights and privileges that allow you to stamp your little feet and sulk on the moral high ground until you get your way? Does being ‘offended’ entitle you to seek and expect punishment for a man who was, let’s remember, doing his job by attempting to make a series of humorous remarks? What an extraordinary state of affairs.

I am by no means a fan of Mr Clarkson’s work. If however, I had to choose between supporting, on the one hand, a moderately amusing blowhard polemicist and, on the other, those who would seek to use their sense of outrage to silence the expression of ‘unpalatable’ opinions … well, I know which side of the barricades I’d want to be on.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

If only we'd known

Jacques Delors, former president of the European Commission and one of the architects of the European project, has admitted that the Eurozone is “flawed” and that "a fault in execution" meant that the present crisis was “inevitable.”

That’s more or less the equivalent of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the deceased Libyan leader, admitting that the recent unrest had “not gone quite as well as his family might have hoped” and that perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, you could see that it was likely that 40-odd years of brutal tyranny might have led to “a degree of dissatisfaction among some sections of the population.”