Wednesday, 22 October 2014

EL TREN FANTASMA - For Your Halloween Listening Pleasure

If you like your Samhain to be a little more chilled and respectful than the norm can I recommend my musical discovery of the year...

Essentially a guy making audio recordings on his holiday in Mexico, it is actually a beautifully produced audio record of the last journey on a rail system about to be scrapped and lost forever.
If gentle train noises make you a little hypnotic, or you just loved those old BBC sound effects records, you need to get this, which even when you've fought through London transport is a soothing and slightly creepy trip into an alternative dimension

(courtesy of Stu Maconie's freakzone - as usual)

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

"A somewhat unconventional unit"

Finally caught up with Rough Riders..

In the dark days before HBO....John Milius, half mad writer of Apocalypse Now and first two Dirty Harry films (and dir of The Big Wednesday) 

ends his directing career making a way over budget 4 hour mini-series for Ted Turner's TNT

 about the insanity of the first American invasion of Cuba - where over-keen future president Theodore Roosevelt (Tom Berenger) leads an army of cowboys and boater wearing gentleman volunteers to save Cuba from the dastardly Spanish

its up here

you'll be surprised how good this is. A strange hybrid western/period war film with enough crazy detail about this era to make it quite believable. Starts with a well written but typically Reaganist tone, ending would be almost within eyeshot of Peter Richardson's classic Charge of The Light Brigade (in that both cover totally amateurish 19thc military fiascoes) if it wasn't a ringside seat to the birth of American imperialism 

Gary Busey as a sozzled ex-confederate cavalry general is a highlight

"We got them damn yankees on the run!"
"The Spanish sir - we've got the Spanish on the run"

The excellent Hardcore History podcast of the same historical insanity is up here

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Devon is great for Agoraphobes

London is lethal for walkers

Hey visitors to London! Did you know
"Last year, pedestrians accounted for 51% of all fatalities and 37% of all serious injuries on London’s roads. That’s more than double the number of cyclists, motorcyclists or car occupants killed or injured in the same period."

Is it because crossing times have been reduced across the city?

Just a selection of some of the pavement views seen this year

A favourite : I've dodging traffic on this corner for at least two years

Another favourite : pavement blobked on the left by building work and on the right by crap advertising

Pop Should Lay Off the Fast Food and Eat Itself : Manic Street Preachers and Kelis need attention

Unused artwork from Bloodlines album cover
Good music of established artists is forgotten to promote the new.
Manics and Kelis are good to march to work to in the summer

Biggest music disappointment for me this year, other than one of my favourite organisations - ATP - acting like crooked Keystone Cops,  was investing in latest new La Roux album. The aching Soft Cell tragedies of her classic first release are replaced with what I can only describe as bad Wham! Of course the increasingly moribund music industry exploded all over it, despite it being essentially an 80s revival album.

For me the disappointment of that album is highlighted by recent albums by two established artists, both of which were so good they prompted me to explore their back catalog.

While walking across London to work I've been buried in Kelis and the Manic Street Preachers for months. I'm quite surprised to find that both acts can put out great new albums, that sound new and inventive and yet build on their previous work. I'm even more surprised to a find a similar career trajectory for both - Initial breakthrough - mainstream acceptance - loss of media interest - experimentation - current renaissance. I'm even more surprised to find their neglected middle period work is as good as anything they did in their breakthough, prompting the thought that the fallow middle period has less to do with the artists and more to do with the industry and marketing around them just losing interest.

I was working in London at Forbidden planet when the Manic Street Preachers were playing their first shows at the Marquee just down Charing Cross road. I couldn't get anyone interested in seeing them at the time as they weren't related to either Sisters of Mercy of Skate Punk. Anyway I did what many did with the Manics, loved their initial punk period and then lost interest slowly after Everything Must Go. They never stopped being good, they just looked like they were trying to hard.

Intrigued by some talk on 6music I purchased the Manic Street Preachers album of summer 2014, Futurology, and I shouldn't have been surprised at how good it is. First draft of this post actually compared it to Achtung Baby/Zooropa and any further comparison with that band would would be cruel and unfair, but it has a similar euro inventiveness and daring. The "Trying to hard" pontificating is now bitter snarkiness and it suits them. The lyrics thankfully have slowly climbed down off the cross and it the usual great tunes of the Manics, and when I mean the usual I mean it, because this band is fantastically consistent in this area.

The real shock, and the real point of this post is that when I investigated the back catalog this band I'd previously ignored I found it was nearly as good as their new stuff.
Case in point : Bloodlines, the 2003 Manics album. At the time it was taken as such a creative nadir that their next release was called as a comeback album. Produced by frequent Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti, Bloodlines is definitely a change of pace to something much slower and moodier. The standout track, 'To Repel Ghosts', sounds more like something from the last Bowie Album or good early Snow Patrol album.

It is almost as if having a back catalog of good music is a handicap - If you released Bloodlines now under another band's name I'm convinced it would be a success but as it is labelled 'just another Manic Street Preachers album' it is filed away and forgotten.

It is perhaps telling of they way that the Welshmen's career and talent has been developed that Lipstick Traces, their B-sides collection, now sounds better than the band's own official greatest hits album.. more inventive, more daring and catchier. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that this is a band for another perhaps harsher, more politically engaged era. Or that someone did a really lousy job of promoting them.

Supporting that is the realisation that that both their B-sides and their A-sides are by some distance more inventive and smarter than more lauded contemporaries.  I think Oasis's later albums are similarly underrated but given what I've been hearing recently it is pretty shocking to compare the relative cultural importance given to Oasis vs Manics. Oasis's soundtrack contributions to Snatch deserved a BAFTA nomination but their general level of success is embarrassing  in retrospect, they were the British Brian Jonestown Massacre at best.

The original draft again wandered off into a long rant about novelty Mancunians.. but I'll drag this back into the positive by including the other back catalog discovery of the summer. It a similar manner to Futurology, Kelis's new Food album opened up a whole artists life of good albums.

Again this shouldn't have been a surprise as I've been waiting to go through a Kelis Period for ages, but I was still knocked out by how good forgotten albums can be. So much so that I'm shocked to hear the first Kelis album now, Kaleidoscpe, because it is so boring compared to her later work.
Kaleidoscope is still seems to a feature of every woman's CD collection in Britain

It is nearly always the only Kelis they have, and this is a crime as she gets a lot more interesting. This is why I never got into Kelis in the first place, Kaleidoscope was dull sub-Aaliyah RnB promoted at the time as a kind of Cosmic Dee-lite.

2014's Food, is an absolutely balsy and brilliant concept album about cooking which is daring mostly because plays it safe - it goes from afrobeat to outer space in usual Kelis style but maximses her great voice by generally orbiting sultry 70s retro by way of Marvin Gaye. Try keeping any part of your body sensible to 'Fish Fry'.

How did Food some right out of left field to surprise us? I immediately bought her previous, Flesh Tones, and initially it is a catastrophic scifi disco inferno. A complete embarrassment at first listen, like the release it seems to be clumsily replicated from, Madonna's Confessions on a Dance Floor, it is a a slow but unstoppable grower. (Example : the track 'Home' is great to march out onto a road straight in front a London taxi). Taking Flesh Tones too seriously is a huge mistake, once you can exercise to it and smile at the same time it becomes a big brassy robot you can love. It is the Metal Mickey of RnB albums, a big budget remake of "I Lost My Heart To a Starship Trooper", too daft and "cool" to realise how loveably dorky it is

Before Flesh Tones, Kelis Was Here is a Prince inflected boiling stew of invention (try standout tracks Till them Wheel's Fall Off and Like You). She is never too far from including a guest male vocal from some identikit RnB scumbag but is consistently unpredictable and I'll be buying her music or recipe books from now on.

What kind of industry creates and throw's away talent like this? I've never worked in or with the music industry. (About all I do know is they seem to love male identikit RnB scumbags).

I used to think the sudden collapse of the British motorcycle industry was scary. It was the leading British export at the end of the 1960s, and yet was totally extinct a decade later.  It is a real business horror story but bad as they were its not as if Triumph, Norton BSA etc were bringing out a new inferior model every week and teaching a new generation of buyers via talent shows that home builders could do the same if not better,,,

Friday, 10 October 2014

The Underwood/Urqhart Easter (House of Cards US and UK versions compared)

<I'm about to start a Masters course so I'm uploading all the blogposts written but not posted for various reasons. The first of these didn't get posted last Easter.>

"I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient...It's true. I was looking at Kevin Spacey thinking, 'this guy's getting a lot of stuff done'"
Barack Obama on the second series of HOUSE OF CARDS 

Stuck for something to do over Easter? I can't recommend it for family viewing but I was up until 2am recently watching to the end of S2 of House of Cards - US version. I've binge watched S1+S2 over the last week. As everyone says it is perfect 'boxed set' watching, it slides down very very easy, like port. (And like port you feel faintly unpleasant afterwards)

I was up until 2am watching to the end of S2 of House of Cards - US version. I've binge watched S1+S2 over the last week. It looks sensational, every inch a David Fincher (Fight Club, Social Network, The Game) production, eventually becoming a gripping White House drama like the West Wing, but more realistic in every depiction of US government - except the level of achievement. 

The power couple in charge, played by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, both hypnotic, grow within the sheen of Fincher's camera to look more and more like the vampires in Tony Scott's The Hunger. A scene were they seduce their own secret service bodyguard is creepier than anything in Tony Scott's horror movie.

Even weeks later I could not get the music and opening titles of House of Cards out of my head, and again it is one of those US shows where even though you've seen five episodes in a row you still watch the titles. The camera glides around an empty twilight Washington as if it were a cyberpunk Transylvania, complete with lifeless figurines and giant mausoleums,  masterfully suggesting the seductive and ultimately toxic nature of the setting.

I'm left  at the end of S2, realising that Spacey  as in Se7en has an inexorable plan coming to fruition, just as I have an inexorable need to eat the southern fried ribs from Freddy's BBQ joint. As brilliantly played by Reg E. Cathey, watching Freddy getting dragged into the Washington cesspit is a subplot worthy of a movie itself.

Thankfully there is enough of a conscience within me to hope the US series of House of Cards ends with with Frank Underwood being revealed a a puppet of Leslie Knope (from Parks and Recreation, something else I've indulged in recently).

Next Easter I may well watch the whole thing again, perhaps with ribs.

BBC's House of Cards (watched after the US version)

Watched immediately after the US version, the BBC version of House of Cards looks as cheap and tacky as Open All Hours. Comparing the opening titles and music between US and UK versions is particular painful.

The hideous 80s / 90s women's fashions don't help. I went through a stage in the 80s when dungarees were the sexiest thing a woman could wear. One look some of the colourlessness bagging poor Mattie Storin is forced to parade around in and you can see why dungarees seemed like the black suspenders of the decade, Susannah Harker was awarded a deserved BAFTA for the role and I hope it was worth the embarrassment,

Once you have adjusted to the horror of looking at that era you realise it has a stack more charm than the deadly cold US version, which is more "Veep for Vampires"  rather than the often repeated "West Wing For Werewolves". Before you reach the end dated nature of the BBC series has actually become a big positive.

I have not read the Andrew Davies books on which these series are based, I suspect they contain a lot more detail on how the Urqharts/Underwood's work as a married couple - which is fleshed out more in the US version thanks to the broader scope and budget. I remember the books were nauseatingly trendy among the chattering classes in the late 80s and quickly fell out of favour after 'distasteful' speculation about events post the death of Mrs Thatcher (which history finally caught up with recently). These decades of passed time gives the the UK House of Cards a whole new perspective. If the original House of Cards now looks initially like a cheesy prototype for the current US version, watched from a 21st century perspective the original series eventually becomes gripping alternative history :  -namely what if the mild. bland successor to Thatcher, John Major, was Richard III?

Though the first of the BBC series will be familiar from watching the US version, the much maligned (at the time) second series, dealing with FU's management of the new King will seem quite fresh. There is what appears to be informed detail about the Monarchy and what was once treasonous fantasy about the inner workings of government after the breakup of Charles and Diana's marriage now looks quite insightful.

It must have scared the hell out of the royals and the mutual contempt between royals for the press is laid bare throughout House of Cards second season.

As Davies was a close Thatcherite insider it is difficult not to see it all as historical confession on the attitudes and ruthlessness of the whole era. Sadly, for all it's tastelessness predicting the death of Mrs Thatcher and the current Queen, the real world hounding to death of Diana at the hands of the press was too depressing a plot even for the mind of Andrew Davies and Francis Urqhart to imagine.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

2014 : the year I got jerked around and ultimately didn't care

This year isn't over yet and I've already had two of my favourite contracts and met some great people. Life has settled well and I consider myself very lucky. Despite that I have had some fairly minor but consistent irritations which have not stopped me writing, but have stopped me posting to the blog. Here are my excuses. (Blogpost backlog will follow).

How not to visit someone
Easter 2014. Following the end of my Telegraph contract I ended up taking off six weeks to accomodate Easter and big visits from friends and family. Visits didn't happen for various reasons including neighours cats needing feeding.

How not to hire someone
Spent a fairly idyllic summer working for Camelot which ended, apparently, with a job offer from Google!
While handling exciting offers and interviews from several other companies, one agency, Identify Networks, arranges a mysterious interview with a company called Arris, heavily hinting that their client is Google - but they can't confirm it. I attend the interview, which keeps me waiting for half an hour (not a good sign in retrospect) but seems to go very well. Within 24 hours I'm told that I have got the role and only a few details need to be confirmed - among those the name of the mysterious client. Time to celebrate!
Following morning I'm called by the agency who tells me right off - the client is Google! and...  the rate is way below what I was led to expect at the interview. But I can't turn down Google right?
I did (I was angry).
When they returned with a slightly improved offer, still well below what got me to the interview, I declined again.
Finally they came back with the original figure. I accepted! Only a few details need to be confirmed. Time to celebrate!
Next day I was told their figures had been wrong and - unless I accepted their rate this time the chance to work for Google was gone for good.
I told them to stick it. Would I like to talk it through with the manager at Arris who I'd got on so well at interview?
No. I was too angry.
By now I didn't believe the agency and I contacted the manager I met at interview via LinkedIn and Google+. He convinced me that the work  was long term and he couldn't afford the rate mentioned at interview. OK I said. We'll talk after the weekend. On the Monday.
And on the Tuesday the agency told me (via email) the role had been given to someone else!

How not to inspire someone
I had one big music festival holiday booked for 2014 and a week before it started the promoters were still telling all it would sell out - then it was cancelled with three days to go. Luckily WorldCon came to the rescue.

How not to enlist someone
I attended a taster session for a Masters degree in Cyber Security in July. I found myself inspired by the first words of the course organiser  "the situation is catastrophic" he said "we need everyone".

Two months later in October, two days before the course starts, I'm still not 100% I'll be on the course despite months of trying. I've had to apply twice, write a pleading letter and almost beg over the phone. I was told I'd get a career development loan to finance this (July), then I wouldn't (August), then I would (September) then I finally found that I wouldn't.... by driving 200+ miles to the address I told the loan company NOT to send the letter. They've just sent their final reply back to that same address despite endless phonecalls emails and a written note because "It's the only address we're allowed on the system".
I ask you - if cyber terrorists were able to interfere that process - would we notice?

Even the usual North Devon complications couldn't ruin the surf this year
Like I say, it all ended well perhaps because silver linings make everything much shinier. I got an idyllic Indian summer spent in Devon ending with an exciting new long term contract way more interesting than "Google" (Having been interviewed in the lobby of a hotel I never actually saw any evidence of Google).

Anyway - if you cared why it went quiet - that's why.

Lesson of 2014 is the lesson I learned from the road trip - If you start relying on others for your life don't expect to live it

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