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Monday, 27 August 2012

My enemy’s enemy is my friend

Granted asylum by Ecuador, Julian Assange remains a house guest -albeit one with very limited options- at their embassy in London. As the arguments continue about the rights and wrongs of his case, one is tempted to paraphrase that Norwegian football commentator: “John Pilger, George Galloway, Tony Benn, Michael Moore, Oliver Stone … your boy took a hell of a beating.”
Only, to these prominent leftists, their boy hasn’t, shouldn’t and -if they get their way- won’t take a beating. Rather than accept the obvious truth that serious allegations have been made and that there is a case to answer, they are hiding behind insinuations of dark conspiracies to ‘get’ Julian Assange. The folk who are out to get him include the American, British and Swedish governments, various secret services and god knows who else.

Let’s make one thing clear: I don’t know if Julian Assange is a rapist and neither do you. But neither do George Galloway, John Pilger and Naomi Klein, all of whom have weighed in with their own brands of idiocy and hypocrisy. Among the most unfortunate of a number of unfortunate contributions to the debate was this remark from Tony Benn, who said: “The charges are that it was a non-consensual relationship. Well, that’s very different from rape.” I can’t be alone in being intrigued by Tony’s ability to draw what he clearly thinks is a distinct line between the second thing (which, presumably, he thinks is quite serious) and the first thing (which, presumably, he thinks is not).

One of the most nauseating aspects of this tawdry show of solidarity is that we know that had the allegations against Assange been levelled at a premiership footballer or a Tory MP or (best of all) a rich banker, Galloway et al would have wanted the alleged miscreant hung, drawn and quartered. The sad truth is that their visceral hatred of the United States has blinded them to the faults of a fellow traveller, to the extent that their judgement is seriously impaired; they think that Assange’s strike rate against the Great Satan puts him somehow above the law.
What makes it worse is that their belief in the Wikileaks cause allows them to be comfortable with the notion of belittling the rape allegations, which in turn belittles the crime of rape itself and –effectively- smears the two women who have made the allegations. The result is a defence that has been, at times, about as sophisticated as saying: Who cares about a couple of chicks out to make a ‘kiss-and-tell’ buck? They are probably on the CIA payroll, anyway.

There are those who would argue that Julian Assange is a special case and it is certainly true that his political activities tell us a lot about him. Wikileaks wields significant power without having to worry about anything as tedious as democratic accountability. It has also broken various national laws on espionage; had these laws been broken by you or I, we would have been put in jail for a very long time. Assange has made a big name for himself as the self-appointed arbiter of when to disclose classified information in ‘the public interest’. In disclosing this information, he has taken no consideration of the possibility of dangerous repercussions, no consideration of any possible sensitivity with respect to national and international security issues.

The request for his extradition has been passed by three independent UK courts. Assange may be an unusually significant person, but if you believe that every person, significant or insignificant, is equally answerable to the rule of law, there is no convincing argument against him being compelled to go to Sweden to defend himself. There is, of course, some irony in the fact that the extradition request comes from a country that is generally held up as an exemplar by so-called political ‘progressives’.

I know, from his actions, that Julian Assange is a hypocrite who believes that the rule of law should not apply to him in the same way that it applies to ordinary people. But I don’t know whether or not he is a rapist. The only people who know that are Assange himself and the two women making the allegations.

This matter is for the Swedish authorities and, if necessary, a Swedish court to decide.

Sunday, 26 August 2012


Neil Armstrong has died.  The dignity and courage shown by him and his fellow astronauts represented something of the very best that we can be.  His name is likely to be remembered long after that of any other person from the 20th century. 
This track from The Eisenhowers uses the tale of an attempted seduction to look at why the optimism generated by the space race of the sixties appears to have been lost.  The video was put together by Ed MacArthur of Stealth Studios. 

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Elton John vs Pnau

The Australian dance duo Pnau (no, I’ve no idea how to pronounce it either) have been supported by Sir Elton of John for several years, so when the old boy was looking for someone to rework some of his material, he had enough trust in them to allow unlimited access to various master tapes. The bulk of the sampling on this project comes from work recorded between 1970 and 1976, said by those in the know to have been his creative peak. The result is 'Good morning to the Night', an album that is far from being an off-the-shelf collection of dance remixes; it’s what folk are calling a ‘re-imagining’ of the original tracks.

I like Elton’s work, but don’t know that much beyond his greatest hits, so my enjoyment of this record is not in any way hampered by previous knowledge of the source material; I had no particular notions about what the reworkings should or shouldn’t sound like. The whole thing is very well done and, given that some of the pieces are assembled from 8 or 9 source tracks, it’s astonishingly clever how this all hangs together. The Pnau boys have probably taken some major liberties with the source material, but have been smart enough to steer clear of the big hits (although I did notice a guitar lick from 'Philadelphia Freedom').

These pieces work as songs with identifiable verses and choruses, while Elton’s vocals -albeit digitally manipulated- sound great on what is a charming and seductive record. 'Sad’, with its mellow Balearic groove and cool chords, has already been a hit, while ‘Telegraph to the Afterlife’ is chilled, gloomy and introspective, like Pink Floyd hanging out with Air. ‘Karmatron’ is a bizarre, electrifying triumph. It starts out like Mark Ronson scoring a spoof spy movie by way of Johnny Harris, before exploding into a chorus that the Chemical Brothers would have donated a kidney to have been able to write.
In describing this album, I’ve heard folk use terms like ‘trance’, ‘club anthems’, ‘chilled Ibiza grooves’ etc. Whatever the labels, it just sounds like great pop music. If your collection features the likes of Groove Armada, Air and William Orbit, you’ll find much to enjoy here. It also makes you realise just how much of Elton's early 70s output must have been absorbed by Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters.

The success of this project probably means that we’ll hear more of this kind of thing. I wonder which other major artists would benefit from a re-imagining of their work?

Friday, 17 August 2012

There is no such thing as musical 'guilty pleasures' #1

I heard a radio presenter the other night describing a track by the Bee Gees as ‘a bit of a guilty pleasure’.  The track in question –Stayin’ Alive- is probably one of the finest pop records ever made.  How on earth, I wondered, did this babbling oaf get the idea that he had the right to allocate ‘cool’ or ‘uncool’ status to any bit of music, let alone such a mighty piece of work?  It should be obvious to anyone who hasn’t suffered a massive blow to the head that it’s wrong to believe that you should feel ‘guilty’ about liking a piece of music and ‘not guilty’ (I presume) about liking another. 

But as I tried to imagine just how much joy I could get from administering a small, but potent, electrical charge to the genitals of the presenter every time he used that horrible phrase, it occurred to me that I have not always been quite so firm in my beliefs. 

Many years ago, I was in a major record shop in the centre of Glasgow, armed with a few bob that I had managed to save up.  I wanted to purchase a copy of Olivia Newton-John’s latest single ‘A little more love’.  Being a daft teenager and hung up on notions of what was and what wasn’t ‘cool’, I knew that I couldn’t simply just go in and buy that single.  In order to make my purchase look more respectable, I had to disguise it, in much the same way that a man buying a top-shelf porn mag will hide his grubby purchase by slipping it inside a copy of Camping and Caravanning Monthly.  Before I snuck up to the counter with Olivia’s single, I had selected my own equivalent of Camping and Caravanning Monthly; my not-so-cunning ploy was to protect my street cred by also purchasing a copy of ‘Tommy Gun’ by the Clash.  I was never much of a fan of their work, but I thought that their perceived gravitas would somehow balance with my Olivia purchase and so maintain what I imagined to be my hipster credentials.  It pains me to recall just how na├»ve I must have been to think that I was somehow conveying a nuanced message with what might have seemed like an unusual purchasing juxtaposition.  Yes OK, I do have a bit of a weakness for the occasional slice of girly pop’ was the coded message, ‘but I’m actually down with Sir Joe Strummer and his merry band of counter-cultural rebels.  The Clash is really where my head is at, man. 

I left the shop thinking I had got away with it, but the only message conveyed, of course, was that I was a complete idiot who couldn’t bear the thought that a shop assistant might look down his or her nose at my choice of music.  What on earth was I afraid of?  That some bored student grinding out another shift at HMV would think that I had betrayed ‘proper’ music by forcing the Clash single to share the same polythene bag as something by that Aussie bird out of Grease? 
I can’t see what could have been done to punish me.  As I recall, the law at that time did not allow the NME Indie Taliban to stone people to death for buying pop music that had not been approved by the Central Committee for Hipness and Street Cred.  

Sadly, it took me many years to shake off my abject mentality and to learn that there are only two kinds of music: the music you like and the music you don’t. 
When you buy into the concept of the musical ‘guilty pleasure’, you’re buying into a notion that is at once adolescent, dishonest and, worst of all, repressively orthodox. Unless you are suffering from some kind of arrested development, once you are a proper grown-up, you should be able to avoid succumbing to groupthink and peer pressure.  As adults, aren’t we supposed to teach our kids to resist that kind of thing?

So remember, people … just like whatever music you like and don’t worry about the stuff that you don’t.
I’ll have more on this topic soon.  In the meantime, here is a link to that single by Olivia.  And yes, it’s still about a thousand times better than anything by The Clash.      

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Compulsory competitive sport in schools

The state-funded Team GB is generally perceived to have done exceedingly well at the Olympics. Perhaps hoping to surf on this wave of good vibes and optimism, the government is said to be considering announcing that competitive sports will be made compulsory for children.
The state-funded Team Australia, meanwhile, is generally reckoned to have performed rather poorly at the Olympics. Perhaps hoping to be seen to be doing something about a national ‘problem’, some of their politicians have called for competitive sports to be made compulsory for children.

Two issues, one the exact mirror image of the other, and yet they’ve come up with exactly the same method of ‘solving’ the ‘problem’:

1. Our athletes were brilliant, therefore we need more state activity. We need more compulsion in education.
2. Our athletes were rubbish, therefore we need more state activity. We need more compulsion in education.

For the professional political class, there is simply no problem to which the answer is not: let’s have some more state activity. It’s almost as if they have a vested interest, or something.

Only an idiot would argue that exercise isn’t a good thing, but whenever anyone proposes compulsory activities for children that are deemed to be healthy, wholesome and for their own good, I think we should tread very carefully. It’s not that difficult to take a cynical view of this desire to direct physical education in schools, because history provides numerous examples of governments exploiting exercise and sport for propagandistic purposes.

Let’s be clear about this: Achieving a great tally of gold medals at an Olympic games doesn’t make you a great nation. Several horrible political regimes in the twentieth century (the USSR and East Germany, to name but two) were not only very keen on promoting exercise and fitness, but fetishized their public image -as expressed through the medium of international sport- to the extent that they were prepared to bankroll industrial-scale programmes of drug cheating in order to ensure that their athletes would win more medals and, presumably, reflect further glory upon the nation.

Or maybe I’m reading far too much into all of this. Maybe we shouldn’t worry about the economy, jobs, education and all that boring stuff. Perhaps winning a few gold medals every four years makes everything just peachy.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Morrissey v The Olympics

It would appear that Morrissey is attracting quite a degree of flak for his observations on the London Olympics. In a recent post to his ‘True To You’ fan club, the singer wrote:

I am unable to watch the Olympics due to the blustering jingoism that drenches the event. Has England ever been quite so foul with patriotism? The 'dazzling royals' have, quite naturally, hi-jacked the Olympics for their own empirical needs and no oppositional voice is allowed in the free press. It is lethal to witness. Although the spirit of 1939 Germany now pervades throughout media-brand Britain, the 2013 grotesque inevitability of Lord and Lady Beckham (with Sir Jamie Horrible close at heel) is, believe me, a fate worse than life. WAKE UP, WAKE UP."

Now, much as I like some of his music, I don’t think there are many topics on which I’d take Morrissey’s opinion seriously. He is still in the same intellectual groove he occupied when he was a frustrated student penning furious letters and reviews to the NME back in the early eighties. But it’s not just Morrissey; when it comes to matters of culture and politics, I pay about as much attention to the opinions of rock stars and actors as I do to the views of taxi-drivers, moody adolescents and anyone who has just suffered a massive blow to the head.

However … he may just have a point here. Let’s put to one side the various feats of sporting excellence. Let’s concede that it’s a good thing that Team GB is performing very well indeed. With that out of the way, it seems to me that there are several things about these Olympics that might entitle some of us to feel at least a little bit uneasy.

There’s the fact that huge amounts of lottery money were sucked into the cavernous maw of London 2012. Most of this money would normally have gone to voluntary organisations and charitable causes up and down the country, yet none of them were consulted about whether or not it was a good idea to bankroll the games with lottery money.

There’s the fact that the International Olympic Committee is corrupt on a scale that would embarrass the average African dictator. I’ve read various stories in the blogosphere from Londoners who are not completely thrilled at the fact that their city has been set up for the convenience of an invading army of officious bureaucrats on a dream junket. You’ve got to admire the chutzpah of whoever came up with that grotesque concept of ‘Olympic lanes for the Olympic family’. If an ordinary citizen strays into the wrong lane at the wrong time, he or she will cop an instant fine of £130. Didn’t the mafia advocate the idea of the extended, connected, privileged ‘family’? Or perhaps that is a tad uncharitable; the notion is more likely to have been cooked up by Leonid Brezhnev and his fellow politburo members, sometime around 1971.

There’s the fact that the state broadcaster has sunk every available resource into its breathless coverage of the games, to the extent that no other news qualifies as ‘news’ during the event. Given that there is a decent proportion of the population with no real interest in competitive sport, I would have thought it a tad unfair to expect them to accept this without a grumble. Driving home from work the other night, I felt like listening to some chat that wasn’t about the Olympics. Radio Five-Live does unremittingly gushing 24/7 Olympic coverage, so that was to be avoided; Radio 4 was in the middle of an extended feature on how many medals Team GB has won, so I switched to Radio Scotland only to find that they were glorying in Chris Hoy’s latest triumph. I gave up on chat and opted to listen to some music on Radio 2. I got about a minute and a half of the O’Jays before the presenter went over for a special report to –guess where- Olympic Park. If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard the words “amazing … unbelievable … I’ve never seen anything like it” over the last couple of weeks, I’d have £273 by now. For the BBC, there is no alternative.

There’s the fact that drug-cheating allegations get to the heart of one of the big problems with the Olympics. Whether these allegations are baseless or not, I can’t be alone in simply not trusting (and therefore not caring about) some Olympic victories any more. The wider the winning margin, the more remarkable the improvement in ‘personal best’ performances, the more likely we are to distrust them. But of course, when ‘our’ folk use sharp practice to gain advantage (like the cyclist Philip Hindes deliberately going down in order to have his race restarted) it is clever tactics. When ‘they’ do it (like those nasty South Koreans and Chinese badminton players) it’s cheating.

Morrissey, much as I consider him to be something of a buffoon, is actually holding up a great British tradition: namely, the right to dissent, the right to be an outsider, the right to make disparaging, cynical, side-of-the-mouth remarks while the head teacher is addressing the school assembly.

He is probably a daft, pampered and irrelevant old curmudgeon, but -as the saying goes- even a stopped clock is right at least twice a day.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

A 'fix-it' of Savilles

I was at Headingley over the weekend, for days three and four of the test match between England and South Africa. It was a treat to witness Kevin Pietersen’s remarkable innings of 149; his effort put England in a position to at least consider the possibility of a positive result, something that didn’t seem possible after South Africa’s first innings.

The ground was full on Saturday, with the so-called ‘Barmy Army’ in particularly boisterous mode. There are those within the game who lament the rise of this loose affiliation of supporters, believing that -for all of their undoubted enthusiasm- their beer-fuelled antics are downmarket, often disruptive and, frankly, more suited to a sport like football. A large number of ‘Army’ members sported fancy dress. In between overs, I spotted a phalanx of Wally’s, an assortment of super heroes, a handful of mutant ninja turtles and a troop of Mounties. Also on display were various members of the clergy, some Mexican bandits and others in general drag, complete with over-sized, gravity-defying comedy breasts. One group came dressed as the cast of the old TV show ‘Rainbow’ and it was amusing (at least it was the first time) to hear Bungle and Zippy being implored to behave in ways which would certainly have been deemed inappropriate on pre-watershed television.

Towards the end of the day, several folk in the raucous West Stand got a bit animated; I’m no expert, but it just might have been something to do with the amount of beer they had consumed. They got into a bit of a fracas with some stewards, who then tried to persuade them that it would be in their best interests to leave the stadium. Words were exchanged, there was some pushing and jostling and it all threatened to get a bit spicy. As this was developing, it was interesting to note the reaction among some folk in the crowd: they got their mobile phones out and recorded the incident, presumably in the hope that it might develop into something that would be worth uploading to youtube later on. If it had really kicked off, no doubt the protagonists would be internet sensations by now.

In the fancy dress stakes, the top prize went to some fifteen merry souls dressed as identical Jimmy Savilles, sporting red track suits, peroxide wigs, copious amounts of bling and the trademark big cigar. Now then (guys and gals), I wondered what the collective noun would be for a group of Jimmy Saville look-a-likes? A ‘gaggle’ of Savilles perhaps? Or maybe a ‘track suit’ of Savilles? I’m tempted to go for a ‘bling’ of Savilles, but I’m not sure that that word was in use when Jimmy was at the height of his fame. I think that a ‘fix-it’ of Savilles is appropriate, in acknowledgment of his long-running Saturday night show on BBC 1. ‘Jim’ll Fix it’, for those too young to recall, was a show designed to make dreams come true for young viewers who would write in with specific requests. Those dreams might have involved meeting a pop star, or appearing on a TV show with a favourite actor. One girl might have asked to get tennis lessons from a Wimbledon champion, while another boy would write: “Dear Jim, could you fix it for me to go skydiving?” There was one group which, memorably, wanted to eat a meal while riding the rollercoaster on Blackpool’s Pleasure Beach. Jim, of course, fixed it for all of them. On Saturday, the Headingley fix-it of Savilles was raising money for charity, in the same week that the late DJ's personal possessions had been auctioned off to help support some of his favourite causes.
It occurred to me that some of the activities we take for granted in 2012 would once have merited a letter to Jimmy Saville. Three or four decades ago, advanced technology belonged in a sacred domain, a magical, arcane world serviced by elite professionals deploying extraordinarily expensive machines and gadgets. Now, if you want to make your own pop record, film and edit your own video, or speak to your cousin in Australia, you can do it all from the comfort of your own bedroom.

We have everyday access to technologies which once belonged in the realms of fantasy, but -far from manufacturing dreams- we’re more likely to capture images of drunk folk misbehaving and then share those images with the world, allowing those drunk folk to enjoy a minor, anonymous, ephemeral notoriety. Jim could have fixed that back in the seventies, although I’m not really sure he would have wanted to.