Posts from 28th September 2004

28
Sep 04

I am NOT the Beastmaster!

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 214 views

I am NOT the Beastmaster!: back when I was new to the Interweb I read the comics USENET groups. One of the most reliably perceptive writers there was a guy called Marc Singer, and when I stopped reading the newsgroups I… forgot all about him. Until today when I saw his name mentioned somewhere, and found he has a weblog. And it’s good (not all about comics, either.)

David Gill

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David Gill (Man. Utd. Chief Exec) is advocating the re-organisation of the Champions League again (towards the foot of the piece). Fundamentally, what they’re after is a competition in which the largest, richest clubs play each other very regularly. The only way to provide the solution David Gill wants is to have an actual real European Super League, preferably with no promotion and relegation. That’s where the money is, right? That’s where the real (Real) excitement lies?

Except not, obviously. The glory of football, the interest in sport in general, derives from uncertainty, from unpredictable outcomes. A world in which no Brian Cloughs can steer their Nottingham Forests to consecutive European cups, or Mourinho’s Porto can’t earn the right to play in the final of Europe’s biggest cup competition on sporting merit, is a world in which people won’t be interested in soccer. And even if you picked Europe’s top fifteen richest clubs and had them play each other, there’d still be the ones at the foot of the league, there’d still be the meaningless games and the players would be the same anyway (it’s not like the biggest clubs are prevented from buying up any player they want as it stands).

Gill says: “Even Uefa president Lennart Johansson said last season’s final between Porto and Monaco was possibly caused by the impact of the revised format.” I know it’s obvious, but last season’s final was caused by Porto and Monaco beating the other teams to get to the final. It’s hardly the fault of the competition’s design if David Gill’s team, or those he calls “the big clubs” are not actually good enough to beat Porto or Monaco.

That’s why we’re interested.

I’m reminded of speaking to a Fulham-fan friend of mine a couple of years ago, when his lot were in the enviable position Everton are in right now. “We’re leading England!” he said. I looked at him, alarmed at what seemed like uncharacteristic nationalism. “We’re leading England against the multinationals!”

I know what he meant.

Full Circle

FT + New York London Paris MunichPost a comment • 359 views

Full Circle: some of you may remember my top 100 singles of the 90s*, which I put together to stave off the onset of a depressive episode back in Summer 1999 and give myself some self-discipline. It worked, and also got this website up and running, pretty much. Anyway, now ILM is doing its own 90s poll, and I thought I’d post the Top 30 tracks I sent in.

Caveats: you can only pick from what’s been nominated by ILM users, and I left off a couple of old favourites – including my 1999 #1! – because I was sure they’d do well enough without me and I’m a little bit bored of them. I was listening to Anniemal when (rapidly) compiling my list from the longlist of tracks, which might also explain some of the placings. But basically this is a good summary of where my head’s at now w.r.t. “the 90s”.

1 The KLF – “Last Train to Trancentral”
2 The Orb – Little Fluffy Clouds
3 Warren G feat. Nate Dogg – “Regulate”
4 Saint Etienne – “He’s on the Phone”
5 The Future Sound of London – “Papua New Guinea”
6 2Pac feat. Dr. Dre – “California Love”
7 Happy Mondays – “Kinky Afro”
8 My Bloody Valentine – “Soon”
9 New Order – “Regret”
10 Sinead O’Connor – “Nothing Compares 2 U”
11 Utah Saints – “Something Good”
12 De’Lacy – “Hideaway (Deep Dish mix)”
13 Pet Shop Boys – “Can You Forgive Her?”
14 ACEN – “Trip II the Moon (Part III)”
15 New Radicals – “You Get What You Give”
16 Britney Spears – “Baby One More Time”
17 Betty Boo – “Where Are You Baby?”
18 Jay-Z – “Big Pimpin'”
19 SWV – Right Here
20 2 Bad Mice – “Bombscare”
21 Paris Angels – “All On You (Perfume)”
22 Pet Shop Boys – Being Boring
23 The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu – “It’s Grim Up North (Pt 1)”
24 Belvedere Kane – “Never Felt As Good”
25 Aphex Twin – Girl/Boy Song
26 Disco Inferno – “The Last Dance”
27 Geto Boys – “Mind Playing Tricks on Me”
28 Omni Trio – “Renegade Snares (Foul Play VIP Mix)”
29 Massive Attack – “Unfinished Sympathy”
30 Quad City DJs – “C’Mon Ride It (The Train)”

*(the 90s list is not currently on the site, but as soon as we put in place the new method of doing longer articles I’ll make it available again.)

And speaking of lists, Marcello’s Years In Music: 1974 can now be found at his own blog, which he’s started up again.

Greyhounds

Blog 7Post a comment • 358 views

Greyhounds
We all have romantic notions of travel. Often it’s best to keep them this way. Reality can pinprick those dreams. Mine was a Greyhound tour of the States. For years I’d thought about it; the interesting characters I’d meet along the way, a smeary window on America.

Last year, I had to change planes in Atlanta, so I stopped for a week and joined the Greyhound squad. It was hugely lacking in romance. In a country ruled by the car, those who travel by Greyhound do it through necessity. It’s obvious, but my romantic notions didn’t factor in economic reality. The buses are often dirty and late and the terminals are in the scummy part of town, full of tired and irritable folk. I saw a fair amount of aimless aggression.

The redeeming feature of Greyhound travel is Pac-Man. Every terminal has one. I scored 50,000 in Athens, beat it in Augusta and by the time I got to Macon I had a crowd of impressed onlookers. I also had repetitive strain injury.
As for the characters, well it wasn’t what I expected. There’s a kind of social bubble on the journey which you wouldn’t get on our more prissy isle. Much Chatter across aisles and lots of head swiveling as the conversations gain impetus and expand in numbers.

Two people spring to mind. A 19 year old Army kid struck up a conversation. He was proud of his country and wanted to tell me about it. He asked me what currency we used in England. I showed him a five pound note and he recognized the Queen. “Cool.” He was like a blank canvas.

The other memory is Eric. Now, Eric seemed an intelligent man. Our taste in books was similar even if our taste in music was polls apart. What can you say when someone says they like Carcass? We swapped e-mail addresses. I wish I hadn’t. I read the first three thousand word e-mail he wrote about his whole life. But not the second one a day later. Nor the one that started I HATE THE WORLD.

I stopped in Athens, Georgia for a while. I was heading for Savannah, but you can’t get there from here. It was in Athens that I hit the magic ton on Pac-Man and realised I was enjoying the stopovers more than the journeys.

Coming to Club Popular on Thursday?

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Coming to Club Popular on Thursday? Well, now you can sing along!

So if you’ve taken my advice

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 268 views

So if you’ve taken my advice and wandered up to Cork Street in London’s Mayfair to look at the giant jelly babies, please take a few minutes to have a look at the Redfern Gallery. The main show at the moment is a series of very simple work by Linda Karshan. Black charcoal grids on a white background, they have a certain atmosphere but this is art for a palate more refined than mine, I fear.

In the small back room, though, is a show of ten or twelve linocuts by Sybil Andrews. Primarily from the late 20s and early 30s, these pieces are tremendously great. They’re what I would have called deco-inspired until I was told that we’re not supposed to use the term art deco so indiscriminately. Apparently we should say “machine age” these days. Actually, I’m not unhappy about that because there is something decidedly machinic about these pieces, even when the topics are soundly organic (you know, horses jumping over a hedge, that kind of thing): the whole picture is active. They’re jagged skirmishes of shape and colour, like a more humane kind of futurism. I love them.

THINGS I HAVE LEARNED FROM GROWING MY OWN BASIL

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THINGS I HAVE LEARNED FROM GROWING MY OWN BASIL

1. Pinch off the top of your plant after 4 sets of leaves to make it more bushy and less beanpoley
2. If you buy cheapo compost from Poundland, you will get a bonus crop of mushrooms

ANTHEMS

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ANTHEMS (Part 4 of 4)

Continued from New York London Paris Munich

ENVOI

A conclusion to this somewhat forced ramble might better belong somewhere else than here, but there is no political blog as such (or at least not a permanent one) here and I don’t have my own blog for various reasons. But if there is something to be said about my visitation through interpretations and histories and tributes and more to the dead of WWI, it’s that, perhaps obviously (perhaps selfishly?) I found myself also wondering about the current war and how the future might remember what occurs, and who dies.

Not that there is a guarantee they will, not entirely. To give you an example, the Spanish-American War is known in the history books and gets taught as part of American history as such, but the lengthy occupation of the Philippines and the passionate arguments in the US about the appropriateness of such imperial conquest, and its meaning and the goals behind such an action — all have their haunting if not exact similarities to what is happening now, and the result certainly involved death and destruction for both Filipinos and Americans. It’s a conflict that didn’t involve a huge swathe of the population, it was not an organized ‘war’ effort as such at home, it was far away and other things were going on, and in American terms — not Filipino, I’d venture to guess — it’s not known and remarked on much in public discourse or awareness, it’s not a crucial or specific event, it’s not the Civil War or the World Wars, though it did have its important place in terms of America’s conceptions of itself and what it could and should be doing.

What happens in Iraq next is not within the realm of confident prediction. I have my thoughts and others have theirs and so forth, but anyone saying exactly what will happen is lying. We all uncomfortably wait to see the result. And eventually some will choose to reflect on those results with their own histories, their own artworks, their own fictional narratives, their own movies (if Three Kings was the only major American Gulf War movie as such, at least so far, the length of time and the nature of the conflict now suggests that there will be more about this period of time shown in future years…but again, who can truly predict?).

But the dead remain the dead, and that obvious truism still lays bare up the uncomfortable fact. Over a thousand of my fellow citizens are dead now, thousands more Iraqis are as well. As yet, the numbers will continue to increase. Will there be a scarring of the national psyche over this fact in the future? Will there be another black slash in the National Mall to match the Vietnam memorial? Will it have as many names?

Though these are going to be the debates of our time, of our place. As for what I was watching and reading and listening to recently? All Quiet on the Western Front was filmed just over ten years after WWI ended, but everything else I discussed is of a much more recent time, no earlier than the mid-eighties. The imaginative and intellectual (and combined) power of reflection on the horror there lingers strongly and can still produce eloquence and commentary, at the very least good intentions perhaps. Some attempt remains to acknowledge the loss, somehow, a loss part of humanity’s endlessly bloody history.

That which seems important to us now may be just as forgotten in the future as the American and Filipino dead of a hundred years ago are now. All that was lost and all the losses borne by those left behind may not yet receive more than the barest of mentions here and there, the occasional small study and invocation. There may never be “A Life (1984-2004).”

What this means? I cannot say. It gives me no comfort. It solves nothing. It just is, as humanity and history and time progresses, as the wheel grinds on and some stop to consider what has been left behind.

ANTHEMS

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ANTHEMS (Part 3 of 4)

Continued from Do You See?

DURUTTI COLUMN
“Royal Infirmary”

MARK HOLLIS
“A Life (1895-1915)”

PIANO MAGIC
“Artists’ Rifles”

The extent of World War I’s impact in the British popular mind is not something I could spell out completely — I haven’t grown up potentially surrounded by it as living or preserved history — but in reading Tommy, I found myself wanting to listen to Piano Magic’s Artists’ Rifles, something I hadn’t actually listened to in a long while. I vaguely remember people feeling disappointed by it — I had only heard it the once — but the cover art, at least, had always remained powerful with me, stone carvings from a WWI monument worn by pollution and time. The only song that was actually addressing the war as such was the title track, but that in turn made me think of two other songs that either directly or indirectly touched on the same general subject, from Mark Hollis’s one (and presumably final, if all indications stay the same) solo album and from what appears to be the great ‘lost’ Durutti album Circuses and Bread, which for some reason was never rereleased in the mid-nineties with all the other albums (anyone know why? please post in comments, thanks).

Admittedly the Durutti song is the most tenuous of the bunch in terms of a specific connection to WWI. “Royal Infirmary,” like so many other Durutti compositions, is strictly an instrumental. Notably, though, it’s one of Vini Reilly’s non-guitar compositions, as well as being one of his most minimal efforts, consisting only of piano, brief saxophone parts and sound effects. Namely guns, not handguns but cannon and artillery, irregularly firing off in the background behind the piano, not overwhelming the melody but hardly muted either. The effect is one of suggestion and it could just as easily be, say, something from the Crimean War (or the Napoleonic?) on the one hand or from WWII on the other, but the sense rather is one of a basic but unresolved tension between beauty and ugliness looming almost just over the horizon, something semi-permanent, a base hospital not too far away from the front lines, never moving and never really having to move. Holmes speaks of the hospitals and their staff members in Tommy as part of his overall portrait of life on the lines, and how, quite understandably, so many British soldiers wounded and recovering saw them as heaven on earth. But also they were the places where many went to die, saved from battle but too deeply wounded, and “Royal Infirmary” captures that mood well by resisting being pinned down. Elegiac and relaxing and unsettling, the piano slightly echoed and almost sounding like an old upright player piano, like it was a lost tape from past decades somehow preserved, not slow and dreary but not celebratory either, an anchor, something to hold on to as the guns rage and rage and rage, and bodies are buried, and limbs are removed, and lives are ended in the ripping open of stomachs and the stripping of flesh from the face.

Hollis’ aim at something equally elegaic, more overtly so — the war is not directly mentioned but the span of years and the opening word — “Uniform” — pins things down more clearly. Hollis’s intense Christian mysticism is well-suited for such a subject, as there is a sense of sacrifice that is key to the fragmentary words, forming what is essentially a short poem if anything, ending with the sole actual sentence “And here I lay.” It somehow suggests Jesus’s cry to God on the cross about being forsaken, though not quite of course, more a kind of mute…not even an accusation, an observation, a sense of ending that the title specifically indicates and that therefore does not have to be spelled out further. Whoever the life belonged to is unclear and intentionally not clear, it is Hollis’s war poem as such not for one life but many. Woodwinds and low brass herald the start of the album, slightly discordant perhaps but certainly formal nonetheless — the flowing abstractions of late Talk Talk turned even more flowing with O.rang where Hollis took the specific detail further in his direction. There are near silences, the softest of arrangements…where Reilly aimed to portray something near the frontline, Hollis calls to mind something long after the battle has passed. Maybe a body laying on a ruined battleground, smoke drifting across vomited earth, maybe a grave in years after, clean and well-maintained, one of many. The three note piano melody that forms just enough of a core during the midsection of the song is perhaps almost celebratory, a sense of rising up and away…something that would suit the author of “Ascension Day.”

Piano Magic have perhaps the least successful of the three songs I focused in on, or maybe in fact it’s the least comfortable. By drawing a direct parallel between those then and those now — “Young men, as us” (just as easily suggesting a personalized connection to Ian Curtis, actually, though the invocation of the dates of the war force a more straightforward reading) — as the narrator looks through the remnants and remains of a long-dead life (or lives) — letters, souvenirs, “memories” — the sense is less of direct comparison between situations, maybe, as it is simply flat-out acknowledgment that a connection could be made between two different groups at two different historical moments, the more recent facing a hopefully different fate. The Cocteaued acoustic guitar line and Glen Johnson’s breathy, reverbed singing is, though, all right without tugging at the heartstrings so much — the martial drums that kick in after the first verse perhaps simply too obvious a touch. It’s a love song to a lost generation of sorts, the dream of a dead army of young poets, of indeed artists. A charming conceit but obviously not the reality of the situation, but can the conceit hold for the song? Frankly it’s almost halfway to some sort of hyperdramatic emo rather than anything else, I could seen Mr. Oberst cooking up something similar should he so desire, if he hasn’t already. It all gets somewhat richer as heads towards the conclusion of the song, after all the singing is done, works well enough the more it goes on, a blend of textures and tones and clarinet. It’s…something, but it lacks Reilly’s gift of on-point simplicity or Hollis’s aspirational touch.

But it’s still something, it’s a response to what happened through years and years of filters and cliches and approaches and ways to view and review something. And what might happen in future years from now?

(Part four will conclude back on The Brown Wedge)

ANTHEMS

Do You SeePost a comment • 224 views

ANTHEMS (Part 2 of 4)

Continued from The Brown Wedge

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT
Dir. Lewis Milestone

The first version of this story I saw — though I barely remember anything about it, I was only eight at the time and didn’t have a full grasp of the historical setting — was this 1979 TV version. Then there’s the original book, a fine text indeed and one which the TV movie follows more closely, I seem to remember (both book and 1979 movie start in medias res, for instance). But then there’s the 1930 movie version, spectacularly popular, winner of the Oscar for that year, and source for a series of parodies in the years thereafter (clearly the winner has to be the astoundingly wrong So Quiet on the Canine Front). And so with my head full of reading Tommy, I decided the other night to take a break and revisit the film, which I own on DVD.

The first time I saw it, it was screened as an adjunct to the public TV documentary I mentioned in the first part, and I taped as I watched it, figuring I would enjoy it enough to rewatch — which I did, quite extensively, leading me to get the DVD as soon as I had my first player. Having not seen it in a while, though, allowed me to see through fresher eyes that have perhaps been spoiled by so many near-perfect Criterion transfers or restorations. The print Universal has, though not unwatchable by any means, could do with a scrub-up of the visual static, while a more detailed deluxe presentation would be a dream — on the making of the movie, its reception, more about how who came to be cast and why, the reasons why it was made and turned out to be so successful, analyses in general, etc. etc. I’d happily pay again for that if it reflected all the due possible care that could into such a project.

And of course, it’s because the film really is so very, very good. Not perfect, I’d say, no, but to my mind admittedly untrained mind it comes across as an example of how the transition to sound was so rewarding and so readily grasped. That may seem like a strange reason to praise a film in particular but to my mind All Quiet on the Western Front is a film of experimentation, of trying to work with the bounds and possibilities of recorded sound for film images in many different ways. It’s as if the rules, whatever they were, weren’t quite established yet, not like they had been visually for two decades beforehand in a slow accretion of shorthand and conventions. And so the movie takes advantage of its setting — a chaotic war and its interludes — to range from near-silence to some of the most staggering, impact-filled explosions one can hear.

I’m quite serious about that last point. In an era of home digital stereo montrosities giving you wall-to-wall everything, it’s important to realize just how…visceral, I suppose the word is, that the bombardments and attacks throughout the film can be. They’re often incredibly monstrous, certainly complemented by appropriate visuals as needed, but quite often the dominant feature during a sequence. Consider the massive barrage unleashed while the patrol is out on wirework in the early part of the film, or the whistling shell screams and explosions that herald an attack while the camera tracks slowly up a trench full of soldiers waiting, just waiting, for whatever will happen next. Even the muffled bombings heard in the trench dugouts have their own grinding horror, and it’s no surprise that one of the most effective scenes is when the young recruits are coming to grips with the ceaseless pounding, but not entirely succeeding.

Also noteworthy is the near absence of what would seem essential in later years — a score. There’s an opening fanfare with the credits, yes, but from that point on all music is strictly source music, singalongs in pubs and chanting while on drill and the like, but otherwise no music at all, no “Paul’s Theme” or a melody for Kat. I don’t miss it at all — perhaps if there was one I would think differently and couldn’t imagine the film without it, but this breaking of a rule not yet codified turns out to be massively important, perhaps a fluke or perhaps a technical necessity, but for whatever reason quite memorable, strikingly so.

And then the story, and the rough humor and the desperation and the moments of camaraderie amidst the chaos, the slow and the fast times and the eternal grinding down and wearing away until all that is left is Paul, and then he too is gone, following the novel to its bitter end. The bitterest of endings in real wars must always be those who die last, when an end is in sight, when there is not much left to go, either because that’s obvious or because shortly thereafter there is no more war to fight. There’s a story I read years ago about the last American soldier to die in Vietnam that has always stuck with me, and here similarly Paul’s fate is the fictional equivalent of the worst waste of all. It’s structured in a straight beginning to end fashion, unlike the book as I noted earlier, but does not suffer for it, and for an adaptation it keeps most of the characters and many of the incidents. There are changes — Himmelstoss, the sadistic trainer of recruits, in the book eventually goes to fight as well and Paul and he come to be, if not friends, then at least comrades who were both different people years before. In the movie, he gets his ‘just desserts’ in perhaps a particularly American sense, proving to be a coward on the front line, berated and almost killed by Paul in angry frustration, and then shortly thereafter killed in a sudden burst of redemption by charging into the thick of battle, though the movie at least captures again the feeling of it being little more than another loss.

Lew Ayres as Paul is one of those inspired moments of casting where someone who is a beautiful enough young man, and who maybe hasn’t quite got full control of his acting abilities yet, turns out to be the right guy at the right time. There’s a scene where he impulsively prays to God to save a dying friend, and does so with a slow, wounded grace that’s at once shamelessly sentimental and, well, truly heartbreaking — a reminder that the characters are no more than desperate children, clinging yet to hope early on, then to each other and what humanity they can cling to later. Lewis Wolheim as Kat perhaps single-handed invented the cliche of the ugly, rough and hardbitten sarge or NCO with a heart of gold — it’s top notch casting and his gravelly but warm voice is exactly what’s needed.

But it’s Slim Summerville as Tjaden who is perhaps the real revelation — he made his reputation as a Keystone Kop, starred in many sound-era comedies as a character actor with Zasu Pitts and so forth. He definitely shows comedic gifts well — he’s a master at pulling long faces and delivering downbeat lines — but his humor isn’t out of place at all, it’s the humor, partly gallows and partly simply wry, of trying to hold on in the midst of a muddy hell. He too is a sympathetic figure par excellence but is not one to be cheery just for the sake of it, his humor and delivery aim to blunt the blow, ease the sting, release tension or concern somehow — a telling point early on is when he delivers a wry, dismissive line to Paul in response to his earnest question about food. Tjaden’s older comrades laugh bitterly, Paul takes offense, but then Tjaden swiftly explains himself, without apologizing or being mealy-mouthed but still immediately demonstrating sympathy and empathy, enough to assuage Paul’s feelings and give us a good peek into both their characters. It’s a lovely moment of acting, but perhaps the best of Summerville’s many moments comes near the end, when he walks into a shelled house where the remainder of his company is huddled, and initially does nothing but pause at the doorway, visibly sagging and slumping as he comes in. It’s a non-verbal portrait of sheer hopelessness, and confirms quite simply that Summerville was not just a comedian but an actor, a fine one.

Stepping back a touch, perhaps the lack of music in the movie is what then led me to think of something else…

(Part three will continue on New York London Paris Munich)