Wednesday, 5 August 2009
Thursday, 16 July 2009
So, to kick off the new era ... a good old-fashioned, well-out-of-date, 'look what I did yesterday' post.
That's because what I did yesterday was to go and watch Friendly Fires at the Roundhouse. Last minute free tickets (life is good). Positioned upstairs in the seating area with the executive set (life is distinctly mediocre). Coursing with jealousy because I'm not fronting a successful band yet (life is short).
Frontman Ed Macfarlane is a gem, cavorting all over the stage like one of the greats. It's said that Twitter harbours a Eureka! moment - the instant when it all becomes clear and you become a hooked, slavering addict. From then on, you might as well sellotape your iPhone to your forehead. Last night was the night when, for me, Friendly Fires' brand of synthesised dance-pop suddenly made sense. Music like this is what Franz Ferdinand were thinking of when they said they wanted to 'make music for girls to dance to', and kicked off the latest wave of guitar music. Because, believe me, the girls were dancing.
Afterwards, in the pub toilets, I happened across a sheet of poems nailed (blu-tacked) to the toilet wall. I haven't been so moved since the end of Forrest Gump. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you My Pet Fish by That Perfect Fumble:
My pet fish
Had no friends
My pet fish
Set no trends
My pet fish
Had odd lusts
My pet fish
Liked small busts
My pet fish
Touched some babies
My pet fish
Got shot in the face,
in the woods, by the
villagers, like a dog
They strung him up
And burnt his corpse
And with eyes of red
into my face of sad,
They told me to think
of another name for
Utterly brilliant. That Perfect Fumble, aka Keir Mills, can be found on Myspace here.
Tuesday, 14 April 2009
Thursday, 9 April 2009
On top of that, it's a blog of a newspaper article about blogs saying that blogs are better than newspapers - is that a first?
Don't write off the bloggers
As debate surrounding the GMG board’s decision to recall its satellite north-west titles to central Manchester intensifies, it's important not to let righteous fury over job losses obscure several wider truths about the mismatch between printed and online media. Properly harnessed, the internet is more suitable for news distribution than the traditional media on almost every count. Shutdowns to fund the stuttering nationals are a shame for local journalists and readers alike, because regional newsrooms are the only places where a face-to-face contact with the target audience is still absolutely pivotal. That said, I don't believe that the lost titles are necessarily irreplacable or even (despite the view expressed in the Guardian's editorial last week) that they will take very long to replace.
A year ago last month, the BBC's Manchester Blog Project drew to a dignified close, having made minor stars of several writers and contributed hugely to the growth of a now-prolific blogging community. As a model for the inclusion of reader-generated content by a mainstream media organisation, the experiment was quietly revolutionary. Two coordinating journalists agreed to follow a select pool of writers – “one or two participants in each each of the ten boroughs of Manchester” – writing on pre-established third-party blogs; periodically, they would swoop to gather relevant activity into summary posts bristling with hyperlinks. In return, the affiliated bloggers benefited from bespoke tutorials, staff mentoring and, of course, the massive surges in traffic which followed a mention on the mother blog.
So far, so what? Well - as news corporations everywhere curl up to protect themselves, they leave an information vacuum into which a generation of citizen journalists might feasibly step. With Manchester’s boroughs starved of real local coverage, my guess is that this online community could be about to re-emerge with their old Beeb-issue weaponry. It makes sense. When the GMG closures were announced, Jenny Maddox of the NUJ said: “Places like Rochdale, Stockport and Salford are losing the distinct voice they were given by their locally based papers.” The qualities that are most crucial, according to these desperate, cliff-edge laments – distinctive, localised, democratic – are precisely the ones that bloggers possesses in abundance. Readers in the north west who find themselves suddenly distrusting their weekly generic Arts/Ents pullout wrapped in region-specific PR rewrites could do worse than look to the Manchizzle or The Marple Leaf, which both perform a 'collect' service for local writing, events and information. And if the model works in Manchester, there's no reason it can’t work elsewhere. It’s already reached the Isle of Wight.
Newsblog networks, including commentary, reviews, listings and local interest stories written by amateur journalists – say, “one or two participants from each of the ten boroughs of Manchester” – would be greener, quicker to adapt to criticism and more likely to deal with residents' real concerns. The web’s informal nature might even suit local journalism better. Unlike the printed news-sheet, the blogpost is not jealous: gossipy and hyperactive, it thrives through its relationship with other blogs, choosing not to hide – as newspapers sometimes do – the fact that it is engaged in a reciprocal give-and-take with a variety of other sources. On one hand, it is postmodern. On the other, it embodies the oldest information network known to local communities: word of mouth. “Basically”, wrote the MBP's coordinators in their signing-off post, “we did what bloggers do through their blogs and comments and links - we had a conversation.”
Newspapers, which once facilitated and amplified public conversation, now run the risk of being drowned out by the web's million babbling voices – especially if their talk is all leftwing. Raymond Williams wasn't the first to point out that the political skew to the right in the mainstream British press is entirely logical. Real revolutionary voices struggle to find an outlet in print because, simply put, no intelligent profit-seeking corporation wants to advertise to those who are sceptical about capitalism. Since blogging rarely pays, compromising oneself is rarely a problem: in fact, the blogosphere represents the only sustainable arena for local and national hard-left reportage precisely because it's the place where comment, and speech, are free.
Over on the Organ Grinder Blog, Sarah Philips asks: “Are there any sites out there already successfully nurturing a sense of community?” The answer is yes. Sad though it is, readers in places such as Rochdale, Stockport and Salford may soon not need “locally based papers” to give them the “distinct voice” they crave. With unparalleled local knowledge, a bit of borrowed editorial savvy and a sophisticated information network already in existence, the bloggers of Greater Manchester might be about to prove a harsh business decision on the part of GMG also a foolish one. They could even change things for the better.
Sunday, 15 March 2009
A Salford-based academic claimed this week he had found the funniest whoopee cushion noise after more than 30,000 people voted in an online poll.
Are we seriously expected to believe that - one week after the 25th anniversary of the miners' strikes and days before two of British football's most decorated (and most Northern) teams, meet at Old Trafford in a top-of-the-table clash - this story is the most pressing issue on the Northern news agenda? Or is it simply another embarrassing misjudgement on the part of a publication keen to maintain superficial contact with its socialist origins?
As Raymond Williams pointed out, the British press is highly unusual in that it is one of the most metropolitan in the developed world. The giants of the mainstream American media, such as the New York Times or the Washington Post, do not even attempt to disguise their own regional provenance, or bias. At the same time at least one emerging media power, India, provides a healthy counter-example in that the country's three largest newspapers - The Times of India, The Hindu and the Telegraph - are published 1000 miles apart in New Delhi, Chennai and Kolkata respectively.
Britain's newspapers have ignored both of these devolutionary possibilities. No mainstream daily beside the Scotsman has operated outside the capital since 1964 when the Manchester Guardian moved south. At the same time, no plan to regionalise any title - to call the Times, for instance, the Times of London, as it is known abroad - is ever seriously mooted.
The implications of this run far deeper than you might imagine, and are at the same time far cruder. 'Oirish' imitations are out but the Gallaghers labour under routine stereotyping. Do they really say 'fookin' instead of fucking, when large portions of the population utter vowels in different ways? Isn't the very concept of a caricaturing a regional dialect logically at fault in a national publication, written in theory by people from all over the country, for people all over the country? Or, at least, shouldn't all accents be technically as imitable? The covert, and therefore dangerous, assumption at work here is that a home counties accent is normative - that old chestnut. A regional point of view is dressed up and passed off as a national one, made to represent the population at large.
The BBC - so long guilty of confusing 'England' with 'London' - is attempting to remedy this by relocating to Manchester. But the print media big-hitters will never follow the Corporation beyond the M25. Newspapers rely increasingly on advertising to survive, and as they move onto the web within the next decade, advertising will become the sole source of income for what, for many, is the sole source of information. In order to compete in financial terms, a media heavyweight needs to be operating in the national centre of consumption, leisure, banking, advertising ... in the capital of capital. It needs to target the most affluent of the population, the biggest spendthrifts, the biggest savers.
Just one other reason why the Guardian's tokenistic namechecking of its regional socialist roots - see, in addition to the Northener, the 'Comment is free' piffle and culture of C. P. Scott memorabilia - is so offensive. The Guardian has not, for a long time, been a newspaper which caters particularly well for the demands of the non-metropolitan news consumer. At the same time, it is no longer aimed at the committed anti-capitalist. True socialist newspapers, as Williams again points out, are now impossible - because who wants to advertise to those opposed to consumerism? As the excellent MediaLens blog has it:
We did not expect the Soviet Communist Party's newspaper Pravda to tell the truth about the Communist Party, so why should we expect the corporate press to tell the truth about corporate power?
Tuesday, 3 March 2009
2009 marks the 40th anniversary of rock's weirdest record. So how has it aged?
Come on, admit it. It’s still on the to-do list, right? Everybody knows that, deep in the late 60s, a lunatic called Captain Beefheart locked himself in a country mansion with four friends and came out with a fish on his head. Or something. Cue whoops of wonder from those in the know, subsiding over forty years into a quiet kind of respect. At parties you nod sagely. Trout Mask Replica? Mindblowing. Great album, great man.
Now don't get me wrong. I will listen to other Beefheart releases until my girlfriend is blue in the face. The Magic Band’s thumping debut, Safe as Milk, is my soundtrack to 2003, and my very own summer of love between high school and university - no other collection of songs I know is as good for staggering red-eyed around a smoke-filled bedroom. But I’m going to come right out and say it: has anyone ever actually listened to the whale that is Trout Mask Replica in its entirety? No you haven’t. No you haven’t because it’s impossible. Beefheart’s monstrous masterpiece is assured its place in the rock and roll Hall of Fame because nobody, not even the janitor, dares to go near it, for fear of losing their hand.
That is where I come in. I have braved this swill of tepid hippie vomit on the shore of Don Van Vliet's engorged psyche, and I have done so purely in the name of journalistic curiosity and money. Plus I needed to give the Hall of Fame the once over. The Man wants to find a plinth for Leo Sayer.
So to my task. Within the first minute of pressing play, I’m hunting for facts on the web to quell my rising panic. (Did you know it was billed on its release as ‘music from Venus’?) The album's opener, Frownland, is barely music. Jagged, atonal riffs march all over the Captain’s chunnering surrealisms. The drummer sounds like he learned to play immediately prior to recording on a whack-a-mole machine. The guitarist … is there a guitarist? A human one? Oh. The only thing that maintains my interest is Van Vliet’s remarkable voice, but even that quickly deteriorates into repetitiveness and inaudibility. Try as I might, I can’t keep my hand away from the ‘skip’ button.
Perhaps I simply lack an imaginative connection with the past.
Let’s try and historicise this record. 1969 was a grim year for the hippie ideal, with Hendrix arrested narcotics and Brian Jones found dead in his pool one month after Jagger forced him out of the Stones being too ‘free’ with his rehearsal attendance. Over at Apple, the world’s greatest band was tearing itself apart a row over business management. The
Against this backdrop, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band (‘Zoot Horn Rollo’, ‘Rockette Morton’, ‘Drumbo’ and ‘Antennae Jimmy Semens’) retreated to Van Vliet’s LA house and practised fourteen hours a day for eight months. That’s 3,400 hours playing time - astronomical whatever planet you're on. By the time they reached the studio, the band knew Beefheart’s space-jazz set so well that they cut the record more or less live. What at first, then, seems to be random self-indulgence, the kind of rambling jam that should never have been committed to vinyl, is in fact a scrupulously choreographed opera, designed to be heard in its sprawling, headache-prompting entirety.
Is this the greatest antidote to the three-minute pop song ever set down? I hastened again to my CD player, hovering over song nine (Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish): the furthest I’d managed to get without skipping. I pressed play and waited. That song spent itself noisily in a flurry of word-associations (‘…Squirmin' serum 'n semen 'n syrup 'n semen 'n serum/ Stirrupped in syrup…’) and still I waited, until, out of nowhere, came a sort-of riff and a set of lyrics of which I could make both head and tail. China Pig begins:
A man's gotta live
A man's gotta eat
A man's gotta have shoes to walk out on the street
I don't wanna kill my china pig.
And suddenly things are starting to make sense.
Is China Pig an anti-capitalist parable using the motif of a piggy bank? I haven’t a fucking clue. But that, I think, is what’s important. What I may have figured out is that, amid the death throes of the longhair dream, Don Van Vliet attempted a one-man crusade against accessibility, against the consolidation of music and commercialism, and thus against a future world where, thumbs poised above the iPod ‘skip’ button, listeners would manifest their dwindling attention spans daily in a million Nick and Norah’s infinite playlists. After all, 1969 was also the year in which Brotherhood of Man, chirping madly, took their first in-sync steps towards Eurovision stardom.
Jean Cocteau once wrote that ‘Critics judge the artwork and are not aware that the artwork judges them’. Rather than Trout Mask Replica seeming dated, I think it’s me who is showing my age – an age, that is, in which albums have become singles collections - a shorter, snappier and easier litter of songs destined to be wrenched apart forever in cyberspace. Well, I won’t get fooled again. Don Van Vliet, you're weird - your velvet jacket is covered in dust, and the fish on your head smells like Satan's flip-flop - but you might just have a point. The Man won’t like it, but you continue to remind us that there’s far more to life, and to music, than accessibility.