Tuesday, October 31, 2006

government win iraq vote

A depressing result just in on the Iraq vote in the House of Commons - the government won by 25 votes so there'll be no enquiry yet; thoroughly depressing to see those bastards on the Labour front bench with smiles on their faces. Ah well - they'll keep.

currently listening to...

1. Art Brut - Nag Nag Nag Nag (where Art Brut have retained the dominant, droll lyrics but done much to beef up their sound; a brilliant single.)
2. The Good, The Bad and the Queen - 80s Life (almost impossible to pick a song from their forthcoming album which doesn't merit a mention, but this is the song that's stuck in my head this week, particularly the lyric, "I don't want to live with war that's got no end in our time").
3. Field Music - In Context (wherein Field Music, if such a thing is possible, get snappier and poppier and more brilliant. Can't wait for the album).
4. Joe Jackson - Fools In Love ("gently tear each other limb from limb")
5. Jarvis Cocker - Don't Let Him Waste Your Time (Jarvis' best song in ages? Got to be! Romantic, yearning, tuneful, funny - excellent)
6. Graham Coxon - What Ya Gonna Do Now? (a hilarious, brilliant, nutty Clash-like rant: enormous fun)
7. Jarvis Cocker - Black Magic (a bit brit-pop-tastic this list, isn't it? Well, another good track from the new Jarvis record - a kind of aggressive Motown stomp with a big wall of voices, and quite ace too)
8. Subtle - The Mercury Craze (enjoying this a lot, mainly by virtue of it being the most insane hip hop record I've come across for a while - it reminds me of Gold Chains, whose 'Rock The Parti' I absolutely obsessed over a few years back)

Friday, October 27, 2006

the fool-king of soho

What are the odds on this being the most enjoyable to read book published in 2007? Just noted, via Dezz at Blur Central, that Alex James is down to publish his autobiography, 'Bit of a Blur' in January '07. The synopsis follows: as well as being an eccentric genius, Alex James has always been a good writer, all Wodehousian gags and an evident joy with language. Here's the synopsis:

'I was the Fool-king of Soho and the number one slag in the Groucho Club, the second drunkest member of the world's drunkest band. This was no disaster, though. It was a dream coming true. I lived in the best house in Covent Garden. I had everyone's number, a rocket going to Mars, two aeroplanes and a Damien Hirst taxi. Ten years later, everything has changed. I don't drink, don't take drugs and I'm married. I live on a farm in the Cotswolds. I've sold the aeroplanes because I've landed. This is a voyage-and-return autobiography. It's the story of a rock- and-roll poster boy's journey from dreams of having everything to getting everything and wanting more. It's a stroll through the lush scenery of the high life and the low life of the 90s. It's about growing up bigger than I imagined. It starts where I was born and finishes here, when my son arrives.'

Some more Alex James shenanigans, again via Dezz.
- A Year is a Long Time in Rock (2004)
- My London (2002)
- A Life Less Orderly (1999)
- Oh Dear Diary, Or Am I Unwell? (1995)

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Dan asks "Whose News?"

Over the last few weeks I have had access to Sky Television and, being a complete news junkie, I have had my eyes widened by the presence of around 10 rolling news channels, about nine more than I am used to. Among these are of course BBC News, CNN, Indian CNN, Euro News, Sky News, Chinese state International Television (appropriately called CCTV) and the often unbelievable Murdoch owned Fox News.

Now, so much comment has been expended on or about Fox News that I guess I can offer very little in the way of new observations here. It enjoys great viewing figures globally, but particularly in the US - whose flag, since the outbreak of the second gulf war, it has flown in the top-left-hand corner of the screen. It is US based and, as would be expected, mostly US-centric. Yet its editorial style is that of a tabloid newspaper. Imagine, if you will, Daily Mail TV, and you are perhaps someway there.

News casters often give their personal opinions on the stories they have just reported on, and trade often inane and inappropriate chat between items. One programme in particular, ‘The O’Reilly Factor’, is a particular affront to the notion of unbiased journalism. To be fair, it doesn’t actually purport to be unbiased, but with its litany of guests, many of whom seem to be old friends of the host from his days on talk radio, the viewer isn’t exactly presented with a broad spectrum of viewpoints. Instead there is just a weary “as I suspected” attitude prevailing over a programme where coverage normally levitates around illegal Mexican workers, non-apologetic views on American foreign policy and ‘war on terror’ updates (complete with sound effects and glossy graphics whooshing across the screen indicating the current degree to which Americans should be terrified).

I’ve watched Mr O’Reilly’s show a number of times over these past weeks. Quite recently he challenged Michael Moore to appear to discuss current affairs. Moore agreed, I suspect begrudgingly, yet was clearly unprepared and was disarmed by the extent of preperation which O’Reilly had clearly undertaken in advance. Moore, despite raising some uncomfortable points for the host to contend with, was left repeating the rather silly mantra of asking whether Mr O’Reilly would send his son to Iraq to fight.

On another occasion there was outrage over a film by Channel Four (UK) which purports to depict the assassination of George Bush (at some point in the near future) and which was premiering at a Canadian film festival. It is evidentlty a broadcasting taboo on a grand scale in the US to show the assassination of a sitting president. Fox, and in particular Mr O’Reilly, was outraged. It was ‘abhorrently tasteless’, they proclaimed, to not only show this but to show it so close to the anniversary of the September 11th attacks. A Fox reporter was bought in with what seemed like the sole purpose of confirming Mr O’Reilly’s suspicions. Their conversation went something like this:

- O’Reilly: What do these people have to say for themselves?
- Reporter: Well, British TV station Channel Four say…
- O’Reilly: Is this BBC Channel 4?
- Reporter: er… yes Bob I believe it is..
- O’Reilly: As I suspected.

(Mr O’Reilly has a near pathological dislike of the BBC as can be seen here)

- Reporter: Well, they say that the scene featuring the assassination happens right at the beginning and should be set in context of the rest of the programme, which explores the United States’ actions throughout its war on terror. It does not seek to glorify in any sense violence or the assassination.
- O’Reilly: Well I bet the White House will have something to say! What about the totally tasteless timing of when this will be shown?
- Reporter: Well, Channel 4 says that they didn’t schedule it and that it was up to the people at the film festival when it was to be shown there.
- O’Reilly: Unbelievable...
- Reporter: Yes, Bob.

I’ve watched very little of Fox News but enough to make an impression on me. I’m sure some American readers can add much more about this news outlet than I am able to do. On the web, YouTube has many clips of Fox either BBC-bashing or lampooning liberals and there are many websites devoted to its eccentricities. The Channel celebrates its 10th birthday this week and is apparently going strong.

I guess like most things in America it’s a market driven thing. The market for news coverage is competitive, with players relying on commercial revenue, so niches have to be carved out. Ten years ago, perhaps, the Fox Corporation spotted a hole in the market for news with a patriotic, right wing twist and decided to go for it.

Is television news coverage in the US like newspaper coverage here? With the consumer buying into the product that most suits his or her lifestyle and aspirations? I fail to see the point of a person receiving their news from somewhere that does not give due attention to the facts and is unbiased in its coverage - allowing the viewer to make up his or her own mind. Otherwise all that is left is a form of entertainment. Is this what Fox News is? The Fox Corporation itself is too wide and varied to be represented by this news channel and I wouldn’t claim for a second that a figure such as Rupert Murdoch has any editorial control over it. This still doesn’t fully explain its agenda, however.

I don’t think the same could happen on this side of the Atlantic. I hope that there are broadcasting guidelines against it. However, the standard of mainstream News broadcasting, I believe, has hit a low over the last few years. The BBC and ITN’s main early evening fare is a classic case of style over any substance. The dumb format of having two newscasters, one male, one female is now fully established, as is the tradition that each reads a line of the autocue in turn, as if indulging in some inane and headache-inducing game of verbal ping pong before they go live to a reporter ‘in the field’ (outside the Houses of Parliament for politics, or in an actual field for something about agriculture) for one minute’s basic facts which could have far more easily just been telephoned or emailed into the studio. Then time to stand up and walk a bit because it’s the ‘Special Report’ on something like school dinners. Traditionally, the special report, which often isn’t something very newsworthy at all, lasts a little bit longer than the coverage of major news stories.

I am always left feeling sorry for the poor Middle East correspondent who is tasked with fitting the often complex story surrounding some latest atrocity into a minute and a half long gap in the schedule. His or her eyes seem to plead for more time and recognition of the long years spent in the field, the expertise he or she has accumulated, but no, it’s always cut short by a “thank you very much, we must leave it there… and now to our special report on kid’s pack lunches”.

The BBC and ITN are still able to excel and often do with programmes such as Channel 4 News and Newsnight, which (and I myself may be biased) remain towering colossuses of longstanding journalistic values, impartiality and insight. Especially when seen in comparison with the young and opinionated upstart that is Fox News.

[Blogging by Dan]

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

k'naan live at the komedia, brighton

I know that barely a day goes by at the moment without a gig review, so just a quick appraisal of another recently attended show - I saw K'naan play at Brighton's Komedia last week, a crimally underpromoted show by a very underrated rapper. In fact, I only found out about the show a few hours before it began, and given K'naan's rising reputation (his two performances at Womad this summer were widely described as the highlight of the festival) I was very surprised to find that tickets were still available.

Given the brilliance of those Womad shows, where K'naan lifted spirits in the Berkshire rain with an awesome set of lilting African drums, wordy rhyming and electric backing tracks, I knew how good the show would be beforehand, and was far from disappointed. Since K'naan's adoption by Charlie Gillett (not literally) and the World Music community, he seems to have built on the seam of African phrasing and instrumentation evident on last year's 'Dusty Foot Philosopher', which often found him switching between a hard, Eminem-style hip hop production and songs more informed by his Somalian background (he moved to Canada as a teenager). So the first half of his Brighton show saw him eschewing backing tracks in favour of a pared down, minimalist sound consisting of powerful African drumming and acoustic guitar. Even straight hip hop tracks like 'What's Hardcore?', a highlight on the album, got the acoustic treatment, giving even more space to K'naan's wonderful rhymes, which bear repeating:

"We begin our day by the weight of the gun,
rocket propelled grenades blow you away if you front,
We got no police, ambulance or fire fighters,
we start riots by burning car tyres.
They lootin', and everybody start shootin',
Bullshit politicians talking about solutions,
but it's all talk..."

Despite reverting (very effectively) to backing tracks for the middle section of the set, it's the acoustic track, 'Be Free' which is once again, as at Womad, the stand out track. It's neither world music, hip hop, folk or blues, but something new involving hints of all those sounds and more. Weirdly, the song reminds me most of Billy Bragg, something about the prominence and idealism of the lyrics and the simplicity - but beauty - of the music. As always, the song inspires, during its 'la la la la' chorus, a bit of a mass sing along and moments of something close to reverence during the acapella verses. The stand out lyric remains "Muslims, jews and christians war 'til no-one's left to praise the lord", but there are some lovely lines elsewhere, too:

"Then I saw the stars faint,
falling 'dem with heart ache.
Then I felt the earth shake,
trembling for God's sake.
It's like when her voice breaks..."

Really, K'naan has the lot, and it'll be interesting which path he chooses to follow; he's obviously marvellously adept at making memorable, straight down the line hip hop, and increasingly comfortable ploughing his own unique furrow, too. Introducing himself at the Brighton gig he explained that "making music has never been about having fun for me", so I suspect he won't follow the path of least resistence. Equally, I'm pretty sure that whatever he does will be fantastic.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Good, The Bad and the Queen at the Cavern Club, Exeter

A couple of days have passed since me and Vic travelled along to Exeter to watch Damon Albarn's new band, The Good, The Bad and the Queen (comprising himself, the incredible Nigerian drummer Tony Allen, Simon Tong and The Clash's legendary Paul Simonen), and I'm still feeling elated, to be honest. The gig - ostensibly a warm up for the band's 'official' live debut at the Camden Roundhouse on Thursday - completely exceeded my expectations. The songs, only one of which I'd heard before, were low-key and dark, dominated by awesome, delicate arrangements (guitars, hammonds, saxes dropping in and dropping out) rathepr than big choruses, but everything was so thrillingly vibrant and full of feeling. Damon was predictably into it, cheerful and proud, and Paul was literally throbbing with a mixture of malice and cool; he is an enormous presence on stage. Tony Allen's drumming, meanwhile, was far from showy but rather jaw-droppingly precise, understated, serene, but always imaginative.

In terms of sounds the songs reminded me of a dubby take on the wistful, yearning stuff on Blur's '13', but where much of that record was a mess of pro-tools trickery, everything in the set feels as if it is in its proper place, nothing unnecessary or uneven. Without knowing the songs well it's hard to tell whether the project is destined to replicate the global appeal of Gorillaz as well as well as garner hyperbolic reviews (like this one), but a few times in the set Damon's phrasing, way with a lyric or ear for melody lifts the tunes well beyond anything his contemporaries are capable of. In 'Green Fields', meanwhile, Damon has written a song which - for the first time in a few years - is as catchy as Parklife-era Blur. What's perhaps most pleasing about the set is the fact that Albarn, who has increasing used his voice as an instrument in recent years, is singing clearly and soulfully again.

Can't remember many more specifics, as by thirty seconds in, pretty much, I was quite unable to hold on to my objectivity or presence of mind. There can't have been more than 100 people in the venue, and everyone seemed to feel the same, inhabited and overwhelmed by the songs.

It was, of course, amazing to grab a moment with Damon afterwards, especially as the room was pulled inward by his short walk from the stage door to the exit. Paul Simonen made a point of making himself available too, sat contentedly in the middle of a group of fans, all of whom appeared to want little more than to sit around him, as if they were children sat round for Jackanory. Shaking hands with him was obviously an immense pleasure. Added to that, Tony Allen was incredibly friendly and conscientous, chatting away with fans and doling out autographs. He signed my ticket and didn't know how to spell my name, but went to pains to get it right - a small gesture much appreciated.

Predictable of me to say so, I know - not much impartiality when it comes to Damon Albarn - but this new project, The Good, The Bad and The Queen, is quite deliriously good. My friends will soon be very, very, very bored of me talking about it, and of my showing them the photos below, taken by Vic - as good a gig companion and chronicler of my hero-worship as can be found...

me and damon

me and tony allen

Sunday, October 22, 2006

struck by lightning. struck!

I met a really cool girl today, I thought I'd mention wistfully, but not someone I was organised or bold enough to get the number of, nor someone I'm likely to bump into again. Ho hum. She was really cool - slightly geeky? check. Interest in obscure indie rock? yes. Obsessed with books? yes. Interest in art? yes. A bit shy? yes. Unfortunately I have never been able to ask people out, or get numbers, or transmit in any sense that I would like to get to know them better. Bah.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Steel Pulse at Womad '07

Ah, here's a bit of news about next year's Womad - rather dissapointingly, as I had all but booked my night's bed and breakfast and Dan's parents house again for next year, the festival will be moving out of Reading next time around, and they've just announced the new destination - Wiltshire's rather lovely looking Charlton Park.

According to the email I just received:

"Charlton Park presents an opportunity to experience the festival in a truly green, pleasant and spacious environment. The festival will feature new stages and workshop areas, a children's village, new activities and installations set in the idyllic environment of Charlton's arboretum, open lawns and rolling fields.

Home to The Earl of Suffolk and Berkshire, Charlton Park is located just outside the historic abbey town of Malmesbury in North Wiltshire. Easily accessible by road and rail, the festival site is just seven miles from Junction 17 of the M4, only one hundred miles due west of London, and less than thirty miles away from Bath, Bristol and Swindon. See travel pages for directions and information on public transport."

Blah blah. It looks nice, but here's the more important news:

"The initial line-up details and site information will be announced in January 2007, but as a little taster of things to come we can confirm that Baaba Maal, Steel Pulse, Bill Cobham, Sam Tshabalala and The Dhol Foundation will all be performing!"

Steel Pulse! I'm there.

Tickets are on sale now.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

write a comedy next time

it's a sign of how bloody woeful 'extras' is that when the final episode of the second series ends and they announce that next week they'll be screening the new series of the Catherine Tate show, you think, 'Ooh! Catherine Tate'. Jesus.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

postscript: british sea power

Oh, and a quick update on another gig I saw recently - me and Anne-So went to see British Sea Power debuting a raft of new material at The Pressure Point last week; and witnessed a really tremendously satisfying set by a band that seem to delight in provoking contrasting feelings in me - I've seen them six or seven times now and I tend to love them one time and feel really disappointed the next. This was definitely one of the former occasions, the band sensibly dropping most of their last album - which I initially really rated, incidentally - to concentrate on the more agressive, frantic stylings of their first, and a bunch of new songs which, tellingly, hark back to their early stuff too.

That's not to say that they've fallen into the trap of recycling old material, but they've perhaps realised that when they're playing their hard, dark and fast stuff they sound like one of the best bands on the planet, whereas the rest of the time they sound like an average indie band. So the new stuff, much of it led by Hamilton's endearingly thin voice, utilises pounding rhythms, speedy basslines and razor sharp guitar sounds, and is - frankly - brilliant, and bodes well for an excellent third album. If they can just eradicate their occasional propensity for duff live shows then they might just fulfill all that early promise and fascinating imagery.

younger knives

I saw The Young Knives for the third time this year last night - another cracking gig, and quite amazing to see how their appeal has broadened into the intervening months. The first time I saw them - at the Ocean Rooms - they were tremendous, but the audience was small and a long way from being groomed or stylish (myself particularly, I admit). At Audio a couple of months later there was a bit more of a buzz but it was still pretty sedate. Last night, however, I realised how quickly they've come on (and how poor the Concorde 2 is at checking its customers' ID) - the growd was a riot of youthful, dressy, slanty-haired teens with cloudbursts of mascara and low-slung belts. They danced arhythmically and clutched glowsticks (the DJ, noticing the mood, cued up Shitdisco and The Klaxons) before the band came on.

And then they leapt and moshed and sashayed their way through the YK set, singing along with every word. Was surprised and amused and pleased. I would never have said, before, as much as I wanted it to happen, that the Knives would really breakthrough into the mainstream. I think I might have been wrong, though.

The band, as brilliant as ever, seemed to recognise this, too - regularly sharing raised eyebrows as the crowd before them threw themselves around with naive abandon. Unfortunately, an album-heavy set clearly focused on raising the temperature meant there were no airings of 'Guess The Baby's Weight', 'Worcestershire Madman' nor the brilliant 'Current of The River'. But riotous run throughs of 'Kramer Vs Kramer', 'She's Attracted To' and 'Elaine' more than made up for that. Best of all was a lovely, slight - and rather rare - attempt at 'Tailors' - during which I marvelled at the ingenuity of a young crowd so enthusiastic that when Henry sang "Tailors are the best, see them running with their brollies" a whole subsection of the mosh pit stopped swaying and mimed the opening of a dozen imaginary umbrellas. Awesome.

the drumbeat of hysteria

Couldn't agree more with Jonathan Freedland's comment article in the Guardian today:

Right now, we're getting it badly wrong - bombarding Muslims with pressure and prejudice, laying one social problem after another at their door. I try to imagine how I would feel if this rainstorm of headlines substituted the word "Jew" for "Muslim": Jews creating apartheid, Jews whose strange customs and costume should be banned. I wouldn't just feel frightened. I would be looking for my passport.
And as much as I take Andrew Brown's point when he asks "How and when do we start debates on difficult issues? If we worry (overly) about how our concerns will be interpreted doesn't that create as many problems as it solves?", I have to admit that I find myself nodding in agreement with a letter in the paper, too.

Politicians have pitched in with their views about veils, what the Muslim community should do to improve relations with the rest of the population, and so on. I am not a Muslim, but perhaps a period of silence would be a more positive contribution to community relations.
Richard Dargan
Old Coulsdon, Surrey
Andrew, incidentally, makes some very good points about the integration row here:

Every day that I go to work I walk from Whitechapel to near Old Street and see lots of women wearing the niqab. I'm not bothered by that in the slightest (perhaps because I spent some of my childhood growing up in places where that form of dress was quite common, or perhaps because I'm only passing through).

However, there is something on that trip that does bother me.

My walk takes me past three schools; two appear to have pupils from almost entirely South Eastern Asian origin, while the other educates almost entirely white kids. I know absolutely nothing about the schools other than that observation, but it strikes me that this segregation in education is more worrying than what people wear as they walk down the street.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Pointless Politicking

It’s been a couple of weeks since the Conservative party convened on the south coast at Bournemouth for their party conference, presumably choosing the town for their venue so that party members would only have to roll down the wheelchair ramps at their nearby nursing homes, wheel down the road and along the sea front for 5 minutes before arriving at the conference hall and a nice cup of tea.

What greeted them there this year, however, was actually very different to what I think they are used to. Since the Cameron-isation of the Conservatives into a neo ‘third way’, firmly centre ground, all inclusive, all pleasing, blue, green and even a hint of red party, they may have been forgiven, Boris aside, for thinking that they have turned up at a conference aimed at finding excellence in middle-management.

The Tories, sorry, Conservatives are undergoing an image change which has seen them attempt to successfully re-brand themselves. The burning torch, their symbol for many years, which was only recently re-drawn so that it included a muscled arm holding it (ready presumably to wallop any nearby EU Commissioners, lefties or drug dealing, tax avoiding pregnant teenage illegal immigrants) has gone and has been replaced by an Oak Tree.

Introduced to embody the party’s new direction and to emphasis their new enthusiam for green policies - yet remaining presumably a strong British symbol - the new logo must have the Tory blue-rinse brigade thinking they had gone full circle and are back at the care home, such is the cosy similarity to care-home embelems up and down the country.

David Cameron, since becoming leader, has set about realigning the party, with his logo change recalling the way that Labour’s red flag turned into a red rose, and has done so, surprisingly, with far less noise and fuss. He has come to realise that if you want power in a modern prosperous, non-ideological Britain then you’d better play safe and be everyone’s friend in the centre. He has, then, declared no policies, and that there will be no policies for the forseeable future. His opening speech, by way of example, was calculated to be entirely devoid of intent and merely to set a bright and breezy tone. Is that what we can assume the party has become? A mood? “Oh, I’m in a light blue mood today. Maybe then I’ll choose the Conservatives to manage me this time around”…

Is that not what British politics now is? Choosing a form of management and a set of managers? We are assured that if the Conservatives do win the next election, presumably with a small majority of votes from a small majority of those entitled to vote, we won’t see much real change if how we are governed. Even if the Liberal Democrats win, we can safely assume that, having been able to win, we won’t see any change through them either.

Politics has hit the comfort zone and the banality of the centre because people don’t care about party politics anymore. And why don’t people care? Many reasons abound but mostly because in this day and age, in stable wealthy democracies, the system and policies of party politics is having less and less effect on everyday life for many people. People today are connected to ideas and individuals around the world almost instantly, many of us have travelled and made connections the world over, lived in other countries or know and live with people from all parts of the world on a scale unimaginable to our parents’ generation.

We are all atomised in our thoughts and act as in such a way that it would be foolish for us to pin all of our ideals onto a set of policies put forward by a group of loosely affiliated people in one particular country. This isn’t the 1930s or even the 1980s, where people - for the actual sake of their health, education or livelihood - were willing to strongly adhere to an ideology in the hope that it would bring them prosperity and happiness.

There’s no need. It seems that the solution all along was to be found somewhere in the middle, and all that remains is to join up and integrate our governing systems so that we can begin to address the most pressing issues of our time - namely the vast inequalities of wealth resources and access to education afflicting the world.

People, especially in the developed world, are doing this more and more. They are withdrawing from the national debate on many issues and from the parties which they find they cannot wholly empathise with and are becoming involved in international civil societies. I am a member of one of the largest of these International Non-Governmental Organisations, namely Oxfam. I consider it to be actually more politicised than many political parties at the moment. It allows me the opportunity to lobby on specific issues where I feel change should be affected and it’s pro-active rather than reactive - as I consider many political parties in Britain to be. Like other NGOs it is able to lobby on behalf of people in developing countries right up to the highest echelons of both British and foreign governments, and is able to induce change. Other groups the world over highlight causes, discuss them internally and externally, and co-operate in alliances with like minded groups on a global level - all with the clear objective of effecting change for the better.

With more and more people from more and more parts of the world connecting in this trans-national political sphere, the call for regulation and assembly grows ever louder. This, it is believed by many, is finally the first concrete foundations of a global government. It is yet to be seen what form it takes, whether at an existing institution such as the United Nations (where global civil society is already given prominent voice) or via some other method.

This global engagement is happening on a vast scale and is I believe largely very positive and to be welcomed. It does however feel at present a million miles away from Bournemouth.

[Blogging by Dan]

blind in more ways than one

Sorry, I know I've not posted much recently - have been short on time and lax; Natalia tells me, however, that she is getting sick of seeing my Lemonheads post every time she checks the blog, and I am scared of her; so in the absence of time I'll try to get a few links and quotes and things up in the next couple of days, as well as some excellent postage from Dan.

First off, I've thoroughly enjoyed reading David Blunkett's diary stuff again recently, mainly because it's such a refreshing change to hear a Labour politician doing something other than just sounding off about Muslims (the Labour Party appears to feel much the same way about Muslims as the Tories do about foxes). Blunkett actually comes across as rather likeable in a way and yet deeply flawed, a kind of, as Sam Wollaston points out, Lear figure.

One scene stands out. We're in 1998 and Blunkett, then education secretary, has been having a go at incompetent teachers and trying to improve standards of numeracy. We see a clip of him being interviewed by a reporter.

"Do you know your times table?" she asks.

"I do know my times table," he replies, confidently. "I had to learn it rote fashion when I was a child. And it stayed with me ever since. So 'seven sevens are 49' comes quite naturally."

"And nine eights?"

"Nine eights ... [there's a little pause] ... nine eights ... [big laugh] ... nine eights ... [another laugh] ... 72."

He gets there eventually. But to anyone watching, this is a man desperately procrastinating and trying to fill in time, any way he can, while he works out what nine times eight is. He's probably doing it on his fingers, out of sight of the camera.

Then we hear his diary entry: "An ITN reporter asked me what nine times eight were. Fortunately, I was able to give an immediate and accurate answer." It may seem like a small thing, but I think it's important. It shows that The Blunkett Tapes are very much The Blunkett Takes and someone else may see the same events in a very different way (he edited them, too - it would be interesting for someone else to go through the material to see what they came up with). The funny thing is, I think he could listen to that news interview again and still maintain that he gave an "an immediate and accurate answer" - because he comes over as someone who never considers he may be wrong about something, who is unable to see his own weaknesses, who is blind in more ways than one.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Lemonheads

How do we escape the ghosts of the 16 year old us-es? There's no way. I could read a million brilliant books and none would do what London Fields did to the teenage me. No film will recapture the magic summoned up by Quadrophenia or Withnail and I. I could obsessively follow the music scene and listen to as many remarkable new bands as possible. But nothing would halt the heart-shimmy provoked by hearing, I dunno, Pavement's 'Summer Babe' or Mercury Rev's 'Car Wash Hair'. I'm past making huge emotional links between myself and my favourite bands. But it still hurts when Sleater-Kinney split up, when I think of Blur onstage without Graham Coxon. It's like I kept the 16 year old me stored up, ready to pounce.

He sent me scurrying down to the record shop last week to snatch up a ticket to the Lemonheads date at the Brighton Concorde, which I went to last night. It was a birthday present from the 16 year old me. But it wasthe Lemonheads. What do the Lemonheads have to do with the 29 year old me, what do they have to do with 2006? Only the fact that my insides still lurch when I hear the opening chords to 'It's A Shame About Ray' or the chorus to 'Hannah and Gabi' and I wonder if it's the 16 year old me kicking to get out. The Lemonheads I thought I'd forgotten, and then I saw they'd reformed. Whoomph.

My on-off love affair with The Lemonheads started in 1992, when I was actually preoccupied with cooler, artier or more fashionable bands. What did I need with Evan Dando's short, romantic pop songs when Dinosaur Jr were creating epic, soaring noise or Pavement alternately jarring and melodic art rock? Except that I did listen to The Lemonheads, or more specifically their 29 minute long classic 'It's A Shame About Ray', and for all that Nirvana or Sonic Youth were blisteringly singular, I kept - and keep - coming back to the astonishingly consistent, bright and tuneful rock songs on '...Ray', songs which combined Dando's love of the tuneful Australian rock of the Triffids, the Go-Betweens and Smudge with the punk metal sounds of hardcore and grunge.

Although things tailed off after 'Ray, and after nearly ten years out of sight, Dando's comeback record, 'The Lemonheads', created with the backing of The Descendents and - gloiously, albeit briefly - J Mascis, is the best pop record I've bought in 2006. And last night was one of the best gigs I've ever seen. A few songs in Dando noted, "this song came out in 1990. I'm an old man". Perhaps, although judging by the ecstatic reception he was afforded at the Concorde 2 (and the fact that, old or not, while in England this week - and at pretty much any other time - he's probably the best looking man in a radius of 500 miles) his talent, always lazy and always underappreciated, is as luminous as ever.

Dando is one of those musicians who has always been known for his sense of (wayward) fun and his willingness to connect with his audience whenever they ask. To that end, he was effortlessly charming as ever, fronting a stripped down power trio and infecting every guitar lick with enjoyment. The set, which consisted of more than 30 short, effervescent songs, was delightfully ramshackle and simple, Dando ignoring pretty much every opportunity to solo and sticking to bright, poppy riffs - although he took the opportunity, during a storming 'Confetti', to unleash a guitar solo that J Mascis would be proud of. It's a typical Dando trait which some find infuriating; bothering only once or twice to break sweat, but it's enormously endearing.

The songs, naturally, were heartbreakingly good. How perfectly, for example, does 'Confetti' distill Evan Dando's slacker romantic streak?; "He kinda shoulda sorta woulda loved her if he coulda", Dando croons. 'It's a Shame About Ray' is the prettiest song of the 1990s and hasn't aged a day. The sheer amount of memorable tunes on '...Ray' (played pretty much in its entirety last night) is incredible, the ultra tuneful 'The Turnpike Down', 'Alison's Starting to Happen' and 'Bit Part' all gorgeous live. More interestingly, the new songs, particularly 'Let's Just Laugh' and the lovely new single 'Become The Enemy' fit in seamlessly. The latter is classic Lemonheads, right down to that opening lyric, "It's my fault / That I never earned a trade / So I just scrape all day", before dissecting the breakdown of a relationship and accepting the blame.

That's a recurring theme for Dando. Even 'Baby's Home', one of the sludgiest songs on the new record, is lovely tonight, enlivened by Dando's massive grin and more slight, lovelorn lyrics, ("When a horse breaks its leg / then it's best to shoot it / cause it's quick and it eases the pain"). The set takes on new life, meanwhile, when most bands would be packing up for the night, when Dando's bandmates leave the stage and leave him to play a delightful acoustic interlude, stripping his songs down to their folky, observational bones. He even plays a rapturously received 'Frank Mills', which I never expected to see. 'The Outdoor Type' and 'Being Around' are sung word for word by the audience, and are interrupted by shouts of "we love you" and "you're brilliant".

The return of the full band for the final two songs provokes stronger reactions still. 'My Drug Buddy' is surely one of the most beautiful songs ever spun out of dependence. Again, the audience bellows every line, often drowning out Dando's deep whisper. I join in, crying "She's coming over / we'll go out walking / make a call on the way / She's in the phone booth now / I'm looking in / There comes a smile on her face". Not many of Dando's peers - and plenty went down a similar route; smack - managed to combine their tales of withdrawal and nausea with such an observation of beauty. Where the stoned Kurt Cobain saw only pain, Dando was able to note "We have to laugh to look at each other / we have to laugh, cause we're not alone/ As the cars fly down Kings Street, it's enough to startle us". Beside me I'm horrified to see a couple around my age standing with their teenage daughter, which reminds me how old I am. The daughter is wearing a Queens of The Stone Age t-shirt, and is more horrified still to see her mother singing along and shouting "I love my drug buddy".

Finally, inevitably, is 'Rudderless' the Lemonheads' classic, their 'Freak Scene' or 'Teen Spirit'. The intro sparks mass hugging. When Evan cries "Waiting for something to break / left my heart out to bake" the whole venue seems to swoon as one. 'Rudderless' is the best indie rock song of the 1990s, I decide, experiencing a moment of euphoria.

Of course, the band are hauled back out for an encore, but it is cut short when someone informs the band that - over an hour and a half into their set - they've run out of time. "Sorry guys", Dando shrugs, "there's a curfew". Everyone groans as the DJ puts on a record and begins to bring up the lights. "I mean, I don't care", Dando continues, "I'll play through it", and grabs his acoustic, leading us through an inevitable and lusty 'Big Gay Heart'. The second he finishes the house lights are snapped on immediately and we start getting ushered out. "Fuck off", Dando snarls, launching immediately into 'Into Your Arms'. There's a lovely moment, a moment of uncertainty when everyone wonders what will happen. The lights are dimmed again and he's allowed, again drowned out by voices, to carry us to the end of the song.

It's a delightful conclusion, and utterly in keeping with the spirit of one of the best, brightest, most fun and least understood rock groups of the last twenty years. Absolutely brilliant stuff, all told.

I like it so much I buy a t-shirt. Or at least, the 16 year old me does.

Friday, October 06, 2006

straw on veils

I’ve spent a lot of today thinking about Jack Straw’s comments on the wearing of veils and the fact that he has, for the last year or so, requested that they be removed when he is visited by Muslim women in his constituency surgery. He has gone to considerable lengths to make clear that he asks rather than demands, and is certainly not in favour of any prescriptive legislation, yet believes that the niqab makes "better, positive relations between the two communities more difficult", being as it is "such a visible statement of separation and of difference".

Generally speaking, I think that Straw’s article is well-argued and I don't doubt his sincerity - it was perhaps the best and most measured contribution to this debate from an anti-niqab perspective I've seen, and I’m pleased that he has done it fairly sensitively. He describes a conversation he had recently with a Muslim lady once she was unveiled.

"We … had a really interesting debate about veil wearing. This itself contained some surprises. It became absolutely clear to me that the husband had played no part in her decision. She explained she had read some books and thought about the issue. She felt more comfortable wearing her veil when out. People bothered her less."

Straw ended the interview promising that he would think about what she said, but asked her to do the same and bear in mind his argument, that he wanted British Muslims to think about the impact that their style of dress had upon the community and upon interaction with their fellow Britons. I think that making this point was very fair and he seems to have done so in a sensitive manner.

However, as much as I want to believe that Straw – a good constituency MP – is publicising this approach now because he feels that – those dread words – a full and frank public debate is neccesary, I remain concerned that he's made the statement now for political reasons, trying to echo the appalling John Reid and ramp up the 'harsh on terror' stuff. And I wonder if despite his good intentions he may have misread the 'relief' with which women remove their headscarves during his consultations and not understood that in making the request from a position of considerable power (the women are there to ask for his help, after all) he may be making a request that his visitors feel unable to refuse.

More pertinently, of course, what the fuck business is it of his what his constituents are wearing. He says, "Above all, it was because I felt uncomfortable about talking to someone “face-to-face” who I could not see". Well, again, I sympathise and suspect that I would feel rather the same. Then again, this would be my problem. I’m guessing that in many cases the lady he is speaking to would be uncomfortable removing the veil. Where do we go from here? As an experienced servent of a constituency with a high Muslim population (one who, until Iraq, and perhaps still, held him in pretty high regard) I would expect Straw to find his own solution to this discomfort he feels. Nevertheless, he is within his rights to ask and I appreciate his candour in describing the awkwardness he feels.

There is, though, one more aspect to this which makes me wish, for all his good intentions, that he hadn’t written the article which he has. It does not take long to note that as soon as Straw’s measured comments are published, two conflicting but equally extreme reactions subsume and bury the subtleties of his argument and the debate is reduced to little but a fiery to-and-fro. It certainly did not take long for the Muslim Council of Britain to denounce Straw’s words as ‘blatant Muslim-bashing’, nor for George Galloway to call for his resignation. Nor did it take long for the Daily Telegraph to pen a leader praising Straw for singling out

"another example of the damage done by multiculturalism to the cause of real integration. Mr Straw is to be commended for brushing aside the politically correct nostrums that have inhibited such discussion among senior politicians."

Straw ends his article by saying that there is a need for a debate. Certainly a debate is desirable. But can such a debate be started by a member of a government with such a bloody record in the Middle East? And if the debate is so swiftly taken over by people who distort the debate, what should we do?