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Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Rage against the Christmas number 1

It’s quite a big deal to get the Christmas number one slot in the UK pop charts. Over the years, lots of major artists have had a go at writing something specifically for the Christmas market and no office party is complete unless it’s had a blast of some the classic seasonal tracks by the likes of Wizzard, Slade, Elton John or Wham.

For the best part of a decade, the Christmas top spot has been more or less the property of the winning act from the X-Factor. The show is cunningly planned to climax just before Christmas, leaving just enough time to announce the result, press a few million copies of the winner’s debut single and then line up a series of media opportunities designed to push the ‘cash-in’ product over the finishing line. It is almost impossible for any other recording artist to compete with the massive level of exposure experienced by the X-Factor winner in the run-up to Christmas. Not since the Spice Girls’ reign of terror in the mid-nineties has such a stronghold been exerted on the festive chart.

In recent years, some folk have managed tried to prevent the Lord of Darkness (a.k.a. Simon Cowell) from pushing his latest 15-minute superstar to the top of the charts; last year, a charity record by the choir ensemble 'Military Wives' managed to foil his evil plans. In 2009, some really bright people on facebook ran a successful campaign to get the American rap metal band Rage Against the Machine to number one. Their plan to reclaim the chart for the people worked brilliantly; they managed to stop one Sony BMG act from getting to number one and, instead, put an entirely different Sony BMG act at the top of charts. Now that’s what I call sticking it to the man.

A day or two before the Christmas chart was announced, I heard ‘the Rage’ on Radio Five’s breakfast show promoting their song. The presenters of the show informed us that they had agreed to do a live version of the track, minus the unsavoury language so that folk could make up their own minds about it.

During the interview, they came across as a rather dim and unpleasant bunch of spoiled brats. Their song, if memory serves, was called something like ‘Fuck you mom, I’m not going to tidy my room’. One of them said something about it being a more ‘worthy’ number one because it was "written in an industrial slum", while X-factor winner Joe McElderry’s track was written by "overpaid professional songwriters". So much for solidarity among the musical fraternity; presumably the Rage thought that the labours of mere industry hacks who write for singers like Joe McElderry should not have the same market value as the labours of rock dudes in their forties who dress like teenagers and write their songs in ‘industrial slums’.

After the interview, the Rage launched into their song with some gusto; in fact, rather too much gusto, because the producer of the breakfast show had to cut them off after a couple of minutes because, in spite of a pre-interview agreement to tone down the language, those crazy guys in the Rage started swearing anyway.

I suppose they were making the point that they were like, TOTALLY FUCKING CRAZY ART TERRORISTS who were, like, out to bring the whole shitty music industry TOTALLY CRASHING DOWN with the AWESOME POWER of their music and swearing.

After hearing this performance, I went straight out and bought ten copies of the Joe McElderry single to give to friends and relatives as presents. The behaviour of the Rage had achieved something that I thought would have been impossible; by dint of their sheer buffoonery, they had forced me into the arms of Simon Cowell and his forces of darkness. But sadly, even my last-minute intervention could not stop ‘Fuck you mom, I’m not going to tidy my room’ from becoming the Christmas number one.

This year’s big attempt to derail the X-factor juggernaut is again focused on a charity single, with the Justice Collective tipped to claim the top spot with their cover of 'He ain't heavy (he's my brother)'. With all proceeds going towards supporting families involved in the Hillsborough disaster, the track has an impressive cast list that includes Sir Paul McCartney, Robbie Williams, Gary Barlow, Mel C, Holly Johnson and Gerry Marsden. It's hard to see how it can fail.

And, as far as I know, it hasn’t got any swearing in it.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Song of the Week - 'Gathering Dust'

This track is lifted from the second Eisenhowers album.  Musically, it is heavily influenced by great British pop, specifically the Kinks and XTC.  The rhythm section – Ross Morgan and Fraser Sneddon- is solid throughout, with Ross also providing some nifty percussion work.  Emma Jane’s chirpy backing vocals contrast nicely with the rather caustic tone of the lyric.   

The song dwells on cynicism and self-regard, inspired by an ugly conversation held at a party in the wee small hours of the morning.  The central character is a person who has become so cynical and jaded that he has all but ceased to engage with the world.  He’s the kind of guy who creeps around Facebook hoping to find that his former friends and acquaintances are now divorced, bankrupt and selling the Big Issue.   
You might well conclude that the moral of the story is that you shouldn’t get involved in late-night conversations with miserable singer-songwriters.  Not unless, that is, you have no problem with your drunken remarks being woven into songs that literally quite a few people might hear.    

Gathering Dust

Monday, 10 December 2012

Someone Keeps Moving My Chair

There are several rock and pop artists who have been hailed by critics as ‘great’ lyricists.  Dylan is often quoted, as are Costello, Morrissey and one or two others.  Talented as these writers may be, I’d suggest that none of them can match the genius of John Flansburgh and John Linnell of They Might Be Giants.  A deeply intellectual and philosophical strand runs through their work and, in their many splendid releases since their formation in 1982, they have tackled most of the big issues of the day with songs like ‘Why did you grow a beard?’, ‘Bastard wants to hit me’, ‘I am a grocery bag’ and ‘Where do they make balloons?’
Like many great writers, such is the clarity of their vision that they can encapsulate complex notions in ostensibly simple lines. My own favourite couplet is from the magnificent 'Someone keeps moving my chair', where they somehow, within two brief lines, manage to distill the existential crisis of urban alienated post-industrial liberal atheist humankind:

"Do you mind if we balance this glass of milk
where your visiting friend accidentally was killed?"

On first reading, the lyric might appear to suggest that anything is permitted, appealing to our sense of the absurd; but -if not read in a frivolous sense- it can be interpreted either as an outburst of relief or of joy, or perhaps even as a bitter acknowledgment of a metaphysical fact.  The fact -or to be more accurate, the ‘fact’- is actually a tenuous certainty of the absence of God, represented in this case by the 'glass of milk'.  In that sense, the balancing of this ‘glass of milk’ somehow gives a meaning to our lives that far surpasses mere existential joy in the ability to behave as truly free beings, that is, without fear of consequence or judgement.  Echoing Kant, Flansburgh and Linnell argue that moral principles are simply the products of reason.  The incorporation, therefore, of the consequences for ‘balancing’ this ‘glass of milk’ into their moral deliberations would be deeply flawed, since it would deny the necessity of practical maxims in governing the working of the will. They ask the question ‘Do you mind if we balance this glass of milk?’ when they already know the answer.  
But, in order to 'balance' our hypothetical glass with impunity, we must first have accepted John Stuart Mill’s qualitative account of happiness, wherein utility is to be conceived in relation to humanity as a “progressive being", one possessed of, and capable of exercising, truly rational capacities.  And yet, in this technological age, these rational capacities incapacitate us through the dilemma of almost limitless choice.  If the choice was just about the ‘glass of milk’, it would not be hard to make; but there is, of course, no real choice worth making.  The 'glass of milk' does not, in fact, liberate us; it binds us.  In the absence of ‘God’, it does not authorize our actions.  Yes, the song seems to suggest, we are permitted to balance our 'glass of milk', but what has become of our 'visiting friend'?

Sunday, 2 December 2012

'The Map and the Territory' by Michel Houellebecq

This starts off reading like a satire of the contemporary art world, but then turns into something of a mystery thriller. Like some of Houellebecq’s previous work, it is set in the near future but addresses the concerns of the present. France is recovering after a major financial crisis and has become almost totally dependent on tourism and, once again, agriculture. We follow the career of the artist Jed Martin as he pursues his life’s work "to give an objective description of the world."
Single-minded, somewhat naïve, but completely focused on his work, he wins international acclaim through various projects, before his painting starts to bring him incredible wealth. When he decides to paint the famous writer 'Michel Houellebecq', we are treated to a comic and self-deprecating portrait of a reclusive and world-weary man who, we are told, "smells bad, but less bad than a corpse".

As one would expect, there are extended riffs on a variety of topics –France and the French, euthanasia, socialism, art and commerce- but when the fictional 'Houellebecq' exits stage left (I won’t tell you how that happens, but it isn’t pretty), the novel seems to lose some momentum as it starts to follow a police investigation into the ‘Houellebecq’ case and also the final, introspective phase of Jed's career. Having spent much of his artistic life focusing on human labour (his most famous painting is called 'Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology: The Conversation at Palo Alto') Jed becomes a recluse and spends decades making films celebrating the triumph of vegetation over industrial objects. His work suggests that, in spite of all this human endeavour, plants and vegetation will endure to reclaim the world from humankind.

Houellebecq has been described as French literature's JG Ballard and it's probably fair to say that his key themes are existential ennui and the decline of the liberal west. He is at his best when he goes off on one and his forensic cynicism can be quite intoxicating; this, however, is probably his most mainstream work and not at all likely to scare the horses. 'The Map and the Territory' makes you think about the nature and purpose of work; Jed Martin's career is presented as an ideal and noble pursuit, a route to personal identity and fulfillment much more rewarding than travel, consumerism, love or parenthood. Other opinions, as they say, are available.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Song of the Week - 'South of Love'

As we approach the festive season, this might qualify as rather a topical song.  It's a jaunty little acoustic number that pokes fun at the guy who leaves the office party with a swagger in his step, believing his aftershave aroma to be rather more impressive than it actually is.  We’d probably want to avoid this guy, perhaps because –in the wrong circumstances- we might well be this guy.  Listen out for a modest little Beatles homage at the end.  Let’s hope Yoko and her lawyers aren’t listening.

South of Love

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Will democracy hit the wall?

In the wake of Barack Obama’s victory in the US election, there has been a fair amount of knee-jerk analysis of the demographics of the vote and the possible implications for future campaigns. Many commentators have stated that the Republicans simply have to change (that is, move closer to the so-called centre ground) in order to have any chance of ever winning the presidency again. But, for a party that was perceived by many to have been too extreme to be electable, to have gathered 48.3% of the popular vote doesn’t look like a bad return.

In the rush to suggest what the Republicans should, or shouldn't, do to become 'electable', nobody seems to have considered the possibility that the most important thing in politics might be to have principles and to stick to them. We have become accustomed to the notion that serious or 'winning' political parties must be ruthless, focus-group driven, vote-gathering machines, designed to hoover up everyone on the so-called 'middle ground'. It isn’t just that nobody wants to fall out over political ideas anymore, it’s almost as if nobody even wants to have much in the way of political differences. The so-called ‘third way’ has become the only way. Given the declining turnout at successive elections, I’d be surprised if that many folk genuinely believed that this arrangement was going well for the liberal democracies.

At any given point in history, there will be certain ideas and philosophies that will be deemed unelectable, but that is not to say that such situations will always prevail. We have no idea of what might happen in the next five minutes or the next five years; we have no way accurately to predict the impact of what Harold McMillan famously called "events, dear boy, events."
It is possible that the middle ground might move. It is possible that conditions may one day prevail in which a political party might be able to stand and win on a set of policies and principles that have not been watered down and hopelessly compromised by focus-group fudging and slavish sensitivity to opinion polls. It would be refreshing to encounter a party with the courage to say: “These are the things we stand for. This is what we plan to do if we get elected. If you don’t like it, don’t vote for us.”

Unfortunately, we appear to be lumbered with a professional political class, ever-willing to adjust its ‘principles’ to appeal to as many pressure groups, minority interests, ethnic factions and voting blocks as possible. It seems that no party can gain power without first bribing the electorate to vote for it. Unless we can break this cycle of electoral sweeteners, the prediction made by the 19th century political writer Alexis de Tocqueville is likely to come true:

“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship.”

If anyone thinks I am over-egging this particular pudding, I will remind you that there are currently two EU member countries being governed by groups of unelected technocrats. Who would bet against that number increasing at some point in the next eighteen months?

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Cock-up or conspiracy?

A few weeks ago, it emerged that the flagship BBC news and current affairs show 'Newsnight' had declined to run a story alleging that one of the Beeb’s leading stars had been a long-term predatory paedophile; the reason given for pulling the transmission was that there was a lack of evidence. Considering the number of Jimmy Saville stories that are now in the public domain, that seems like quite a remarkable claim.
Then, last Friday, having endured a great deal of criticism in the wake of that decision, someone at the BBC thought that it would be a good idea to run a Newsnight programme alleging that another privileged and powerful man had, over several years, sexually abused a number of vulnerable children. Standards for journalistic rigour had evidently slipped a little after the Saville cancellation, because it was decided that this latest edition could run without the bothersome requirement to accumulate anything resembling a body of evidence.

These grim developments made the resignation of Director General George Entwhistle inevitable; anyone who heard his interview on Saturday morning would have realised that he was already a dead man walking.
But how could so many things have gone wrong in the first place? How could so many reporting guidelines have been ignored? There are very clear rules on what should happen when serious allegations are going to be made against any individual. Given that the Lord McAlpine story was all over the internet at least ten hours before Newsnight went on air on Friday 2nd November, it is truly mind-boggling to discover that a 'right of reply' call wasn't made to the man at the centre of the allegations.

In their haste to run with the story, Newsnight forgot the basic requirement to check the facts. Steve Messham, the man who made the accusations, was not even shown a picture of McAlpine and asked the simple question: “Do you think this is the man who abused you?” Now that he has seen a picture, Mr Messham has stated that McAlpine was definitely not the alleged abuser.

Most commentators have put this mess down to monumental incompetence, but is there just a possibility that there is something more significant at play? The BBC is under fire; it has long-term political opponents who claim that it is ripe for radical reform. It is currently confronted with allegations that it allowed a senior employee -despite persistent rumours and allegations- to not only get away with various sexual offences, but granted him a flagship light entertainment show that allowed guaranteed, continuous access to children.

As the revelations and the resultant media attacks accumulate, anyone inclined to conspiracy theories might suggest that somehow floating the idea that “everyone was at it back then” could be seen as a legitimate part of any defence strategy. Dragging major government figures into the mire might help paint a picture of a pre-PC ‘anything-goes’ culture in which pop stars, politicians and actors could, so long as they were relatively discreet, pursue their somewhat unusual tastes. In the context of such a permissive culture, the BBC's indulgence of Saville and his chums might appear to be just that little bit less heinous.
In mounting this counter-offensive, it would also be in the BBC’s interests to impugn its putative opponents, thereby damaging the credibility of their arguments. Perhaps it is not entirely insignificant that the man at the centre of the unsubstantiated Newsnight allegations, Lord McAlpine, was a senior Tory from the Thatcher era.

So -by default or by design- the debate over the future of the BBC may have taken an unexpected twist. The Director General has gone and it is likely that one or two journalistic heads will also roll, but some might consider that a small price to pay if the institution itself manages to survive the coming storm.
All you have to do is spend a few minutes online and check out any number of discussion boards to realise that, for a significant number of folk, the idea that Margaret Thatcher's cabinet was probably riddled with child molesters is germinating quite nicely. For a beleaguered BBC, faced with implacable opponents threatening root and branch reform of its entire operation, that might turn out to be rather a useful card to play.

But sadly, for whatever else it has achieved, this wretched affair has done nothing to help the cause of any victims of abuse.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Song of the Week - 'Falling through cracks'

This track is taken from Gum’s second album ‘Seven Feeble Alibis’.  Although the fine detail in the production was often the key element of Gum’s sound, the playing on this cut demonstrates that the musicians could also cut it as a ‘kick ass’ ensemble.  So many aspects of the Gum sound are represented here; the verses are moody, the choruses dazzle you with harmony and the coda is like Garbage paying tribute to Burt Bacharach by way of a James Bond theme.  One reviewer observed that the contrapuntal vocals on the chorus made this song more complicated than it had to be.  Lovers of straight lines and simplicity would probably prefer that Leigh’s vocals stood alone, but I’m rather fond of the interplay between the lines.    

The somewhat dark lyric explores the idea of watching someone you care about go downhill, fast.    

Gum - Falling through cracks

Saturday, 27 October 2012

What makes you Scottish?

Now that the deal is done, some aspects of the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence remain puzzling. I suspect that Mister Salmond thinks he has won a major concession by including young people under 18 in the vote; he’s a pragmatic operator and will no doubt fancy his chances of persuading younger voters of the benefits of independence.

Lowering the voting age is quite an innovation for a party which, not so long ago, raised –from 16 to 18- the age that cigarettes could legally be bought and would like to raise the legal age for buying alcohol from 18 to 21. The Scottish government appears not to see (or chooses to disregard) any contradiction between granting these young folk a say in the most important political issue of the last 300 years, but not allowing them to have a fag while they think about how to cast their vote. And, at the very least, it seems something of an oddity that a kid of 16 or 17 will be able to vote in the referendum but not in a general election. I've yet to hear a convincing explanation as to how that makes sense.

Another troubling aspect of this referendum is that any British, Commonwealth or EU citizen will get to vote, as long as they are resident in Scotland. A Frenchman working in the oil industry and living in Aberdeen, for example, will get the chance to determine Scotland’s future, but a Scotswoman who has moved as far south as Durham will have no say.

I know that if I moved to Manchester tomorrow, I wouldn’t presume to describe myself as a Mancunian and wouldn’t expect to have much of a considered opinion on issues pertaining to political life in Manchester; my roots would remain in Scotland and I’d still consider myself Scottish. According to estimates, there are around 800,000 Scots living in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It would not be unreasonable to guess that a high proportion of these exiles might think like me and would wish to have a stake in the future of their country but, in the 2014 referendum, they will be disenfranchised. What exactly would be difficult about arranging a postal vote for these exiled Scots? Perhaps the main ‘difficulty’ is that Mr Salmond has calculated that people who have moved south for economic reasons might be more inclined to vote in favour of the union.

One of the big arguments being put forward is that the independence issue shouldn't hinge on our ethnicity. The ‘Scotland’ that will vote is merely the diverse community of peoples who happen to be registered to vote here in 2014. I have no particular difficulty with the argument that the cultural or ethnic background of the voters isn’t that important, but surely you can’t have it both ways?
If 'Scottishness' is not about your ethnicity, but is mainly about your post code, what exactly is the point in going to all this fuss to break up a partnership that has worked for more than 300 years? If someone can move a few miles up the road from Carlisle to Langholm and instantly become ‘Scottish’, what’s the big deal about national identity?
What exactly is the point of 'Scottishness' if there is no ethnic component to it? And if there is an ethnic component, why are we denying 800,000 Scots the right to vote?