Monday, July 21, 2014

It's like 1989 all over again

When Sky TV launched in 1989, the Murdoch organisation I was then a part of went out of its way to ensure that the Sky News channel was the polished jewel in its otherwise ramshackle crown.

This was helped, in part, by its mass recruitment of producers, journalists and presenters from across the broadcasting spectrum, hiring in talents from the BBC, TV-am as well as various outposts of Rupert Murdoch's media empire.

In 1989, Sky was then a wholly-owned venture of News Corporation, prior to its later merger with BSB, and as such endured plenty of media sniffiness from the non-Murdoch press. This was either on proprietorial grounds - the owners of the Express, Mirror and Mail simply didn't like their rival - or for ideological reasons - Murdoch supported Margaret Thatcher and, two years to the day before Sky launched, a strike at Wapping involving workers of Murdoch's News International newspapers had collapsed amid rioting and the sacking of 6,000 people.

Thus, media snobs revelled in branding Sky News as 'The Sun on TV', Britain's first foray into cheap tabloid television, a tough charge for a nation still wedded to the Reithian vision of public service broadcasting. To its credit, and even when broadcasting from a converted warehouse in a muddy site under the Heathrow flight path, Sky News held its own.

Even before it launched, while still conducting test transmissions, Sky News demonstrated the quality of its proposition by covering the Lockerbie bombing, with scenes eerily prescient of those we've seen in recent days from eastern Ukraine.

In its infancy, and with limited financial resources and the tiniest of audiences, Sky News managed to cover events of global gravity - Nelson Mandela's release from Robben Island, the first Gulf War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the demise of Communism in Europe, and the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, which it covered with justifiable award-winning aplomb. Over time, Sky News even won over all but the most entrenched anti-Murdoch critics. It is done so by hard work and being hard nosed about it. Even for a community such as the cliquey British media (where everybody pretty much knows everyone at every other rival organisation), it won over respect.

That wasn't evident in the early days: in 1990 Channel 4 launched the brilliant Drop The Dead Donkey, a thinly-veiled parody of a brash, upstart news organisation with a pushy proprietor and the typical kind of cynical and, at times, juvenile black humour that is a part of any newsroom. There were very strong suspicions that GlobeLink News was really Sky News.

Those suspicions grew when those of us working for Sky at the time noticed the GlobeLink newsroom's deskphones and drinks dispenser were identical to those we had at Osterley. Even an episode when a drunken argument broke out between rival news teams at an awards dinner seemed spookily close to a similar episode that happened between a Sky table and a rival's at a ceremony at a Mayfair hotel.

Thankfully, though, Sky has never been encumbered by the lawsuit-waiting-to-happen that was GlobeLink's 'daring' field reporter, Damien Day. Day took editorial ethics to their extremes (such as retaking a South American military execution because the firing squad commander smiled at the camera during the first take, or lobbing a hand grenade over a wall to fake a scene of terror in an otherwise placid village during a third world civil war.

Fast-forward 24 years. Sky News reporter Colin Brazier is reporting live from the crash site of Flight MH17 in Donetsk region of Ukraine, where he is seen picking up a set of keys and a toothbrush from the opened suitcase of one of the Malaysian Airlines plane's victims. "We shouldn't really be doing this, I suppose." At least he was good enough to recognise that part.

Apart from tampering with evidence in what is an international crime scene, Brazier - in an act that beggars belief for an award-winning journalist - was also tampering with the privacy of all 298 who were blown out of the sky last Thursday.

Brazier and Sky have both since apologised profusely, though even Sky's apology smacked of spin, saying that Brazier "...reflected on the human tragedy of the event..." by showing the contents of one of the suitcases.

The statement also said that he "...immediately recognised that this was inappropriate and said so on air. Both Colin and Sky News apologise profusely for any offence caused."

Rather than earn the ridicule of the media community, this moment of madness - coming on top of the moment of madness that brought the airliner down to begin with - has attracted the horror and professional embarrassment from other journalists. Respected media professor Joe Watson even went so far as branding it a "horrible moment for journalism".

It was also totally unnecessary. Most people had already seen some of the ghoulish images of guidebooks and children's toys scattered about the field, not to mention blurred and pixelated images of the charred, shrapnel-lacerated bodies of some of the Boeing's passengers.

Everyone makes mistakes. You wouldn't be human if you didn't. But as any responsible journalist should tell you, the moment you pick up that pen, that laptop or that camera, your margin for error narrows. We certainly didn't need one rifling through the possessions of a dead airline passenger, adding to the ghoulish horror of pro-Russian separatists videoed searching bags and pockets for USB memory sticks and, worse, tales of locals looting cash and credit cards from the dead.

Is that how Sky wanted to associate itself when it dispatched Brazier to Ukraine to cover the story? Is that the standard of oversight it expected of its editors, producers and crew on the ground with him?

Frankly, it has set the reputation of Sky News back 25 years, to a time when it was known amongst  London media circles as "tits at teatime". Well, perhaps it still employs at least one.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The reason why I STILL love LA: James Garner, 1928-2014

I first went to California as a nine-year-old, and continued to go back there every Tuesday for the remainder of my childhood. Usually around 7.20pm, before being coaxed up to bed, 50 minutes later.

This weekly introduction to the land of permanent blue skies and seemingly cool cars, came courtesy of The Rockford Files, one of the many US TV imports that added a golden colour to otherwise drab, grey life in 1970s Britain.

There were plenty of detective shows around at the time, but this one owed singular appeal to its star, James Garner, who has died at the age of 86. Garner played Jim Rockford as a compassionate, principled private eye, one who frequently took on cases that put him in more danger than his standard "$200 a day plus expenses" fee would cover, and very often would end up out of pocket completely.

He kept his gun in a cookie jar, seemed to own only one checkered jacket, and lived and worked out of a trailer on a secluded beach  north of Malibu (actually, the very real Paradise Cove)  just off Pacific Coast Highway. Quite how he managed to do most of his work in Los Angeles is still a mystery to me, as it's at least an hour's drive in normal LA traffic from that beach to LAPD headquarters, where he would meet with sometime friend and detective Dennis Becker, or his dodgy former inmate 'Angel' Martin.

However, to the nine-year-old me, Rockford lived the dream. A home on the beach, few - if any - neighbours  and California all around him. No wonder, when I eventually put feet down, properly, on southern Californian soil 15 years later, it was all so familiar to me.

Garner was a much under-rated actor: part of Rockford's appeal was Garner's own laconic ease. Even when confronted by a gun-wieding thug (usually a character actor like Anthony Zerbe), it would be "Look, just put down the gun, will ya?" rather than any gung-ho grappling. Jack Bauer must look like an alien in comparison.

Rockford was, in fact, an intentionally updated version of Garner's first starring role on TV, Brett Maverick, in the late 1950s and early 60s. The light-hearted Western series provided Garner with the perfect platform for his classic Hollywood square-jawed, leading man good looks, which also led to Gerry and Sylvia Anderson basing the puppet of Troy Tempest, their lead character in the puppet sci-fi series Stingray, on him.

Born James Bumgarner on April 7, 1928 in Norman, Oklahoma, Garner dropped out of his Midwestern high school to join the merchant navy, before moving to Los Angeles - where his errant father had gone - to complete his secondary education. Eventually returning to Oklahoma, where he joined the state's National Guard, he was eventually called up to serve in the Korean War, winning a Purple Heart in the process following a friendly fire incident. 

College, after his discharge, didn't work out either, which indirectly led to an old high school friend persuading Garner to work in the theatre. This in turn led to - and helped by his tall frame and charismatic charm - Hollywood calling. 

Settling back in Los Angeles in 1955, Garner, started picking up bit parts In TV shows like Cheyenne. This earned him a modest contract with Warner Brothers, and small parts in film and TV, including that of Marlon Brando's friend in Sayonara, and his first starring spot, in Darby's Rangers (replacing Charlton Heston who'd walked off the picture). It was also around this time that Garner met - at a political rally - and subsequently married Lois Clarke, to whom he remained married until his death, without doubt one of Hollywood's longest-running marriages.

In 1957 the ABC network created Maverick, a deliberate antidote to the traditional Western shows that featured rugged, embittered plains-hardened heroes. Garner played the character as a charmer who would talk his way out of trouble, rather than reaching for his gun. 

On leaving the show in 1960 Garner embarked upon a movie career, successfully exploiting the appeal of his lighter touch in the sort of romantic comedies that Hollywood was developing as star vehicles for their leading ladies and leading men alike. 

But it was in a war caper that Garner would see his movie career take off. In 1963 he took second billing behind Steve McQueen in the all-star ensemble of The Great Escape, the-now British bank holiday TV staple, playing the Canadian RAF officer Hendley - the escape committee's 'scrounger' (a part Garner based on his Korean experiences, he fulfilled much the same role as his unit's unofficial quartermaster). The Great Escape established Garner as a major box office draw, leading to being cast in the hit Doris Day romcoms, The Thrill of It All and Move Over Darling.

When TV producers Roy Huggins and Stephen J. Cannell decided, in 1970, to recreate Maverick as a latter-day gumshoe, they approached the original show's star. Garner had once said of Brett Maverick: “I’m playing me,” explaining that the character was lazy and "...I like being lazy.” In the process, Jim Rockford's appeal was cast too.

It was this same appeal that would sustain his career, post-Rockford. Though he would never again have a role as iconic as the detective (various lawsuits with Universal in the 1980s may have hampered his lust for work, too), he landed gold in an ironic appearance as Mel Gibson's father in Richard Donner's film version of Maverick, Gibson playing Brett Maverick, of course. The appearance seemed to revive Garner's career, with TV roles - including a recurring part in Chicago Hope - following.

In 2000 Garner reunited with occasional [original] Maverick villain Clint Eastwood, along with Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland for the enjoyable veteran astronaut caper Space Cowboys. And then a guest spot on the sitcom 8 Simple Rules turned into a recurring role until the show's cancellation in 2005, while a year before Garner starring in Nick Cassavetes' film adaption of The Notebook playing the older version of Ryan Gosling's character. 

The performance earned Garner a Screen Actors Guild nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role, and Garner actually won the SAG's lifetime achievement award.

For an actor television stardom can be a double-edged sword. As so many other iconic characters have done for the actors portraying them, Jim Rockford put James Garner into people's living rooms every week at the same time for six years. As a result Garner became Rockford, Rockford became Garner. 

Occasionally he would be reunited with the character on made-for-TV movies in the 1980s and 1990s. More recently, the inevitable attempt to reboot Rockford for the big screen, starring Vince Vaughan, struggled to get off the ground. Garner was rumoured to have been given a role in it, but ongoing ill-health following heart surgery and a stroke a few years ago had allegedly led to Garner suffering from depression or at least a progressively decreasing lust for life.

For me, the endless Hollywood remakes of classic TV shows rarely - if ever - recapture what it was that made them classic to begin with. For The Rockford Files - and what made it "must-see TV" before the phrase ever came to be coined - it will always be about James Garner, that trailer on a Malibu beach with the gold Pontiac Firebird parked next to it. Please leave your message after the tone.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

End of the innocents


When terrorists blew up three Tube trains and a London bus on July 7, 2005, it wasn't long before Londoners started discovering the personal connections they had with the commuters who died that morning.

It was surprising how, in a metropolitan area of 13 million people, so many could have a link to the 52 dead and 700 who were injured. I alone had a school and Scouting connection with Robert Webb, brother of 29-year-old Laura Webb, one of the seven murdered when Mohammad Sidique Khan detonated his rucksack bomb on a Circle Line train near Edgware Road. And my brother used to be served by Ciaran Cassidy, 22, in the Chancery Lane stationery shop where he worked before Germaine Lindsay made him one of 26 victims on the Piccadilly Line train blown up between King's Cross and Russell Square.

The numbers of these atrocities become meaningless until you start attaching names, families, careers and lives to the victims: like Behnaz Mozakka, an Iranian-born biomedical officer at Great Ormond Street children's hospital; like 26-year-old New Zealand tour guide Shelley Mather; like Samantha Badham and her partner of 14 years, Lee Harris, who died alongside each other; like Ojara Ikeagwu, a social worker from Nigeria; James Adams, from Peterborough who worked in insurance; Rachelle Chung For Yuen, an accountant from Mauritius; amateur artist Elizabeth Daplin; former policeman Arthur Frederick, 60, who was also a singer from Montserrat; Helen Jones, an accountant from Lockerbie; Susan Levy, 53, a mother and legal secretary from Essex; Anna Brandt, 41, a cleaner from Poland; Gamze Gunoral, a Turkish student; Atique Sharifi, 24, who came from Afghanistan to work as a pizza delivery driver. The 7/7 list goes on.

And now we have 298 new names, lives, careers and families to consider: 192 Dutch nationals, 44 Malaysians, 27 Australians, 12 Indonesians, ten British, four Belgian, four German, three Philippino, one Canadian, one New Zealander, one American and two yet to be identified. 80 of them were children. 80 children.

Already the connections have begun. For a country of just 16 million, the odds are good that my many Dutch friends and former colleagues will have a link. And, sadly, I already know of some.

From the 11 nationalities represented by the MH17 flight manifest, tragic stories are already being told. Such as Kaylene Mann, from Queensland, Australia, who lost her brother and sister-in-law in March when MH17's sister plane, MH370 went down, she is now coming to terms with losing her stepdaughter and her husband in Thursday's attack. There is Cor Pan, the Dutchman who took a photograph of the doomed 777 as it was docked at Schiphol's Gate G3, and posted it on Facebook with the jokey caption "If my flight to Malaysia disappears, this is what it looks like". He died with his girlfriend, Neeljte Tol.

Another to think about - Indonesian pharmaceutical worker Yuli Hastini and her Dutch husband, John Paulisen and their two young children, were on their way to pay their respects to Yuli's mother's grave on Java. There are colleagues of Ninik Yuriani, a 56-year-old Indonesian working in an Eindhoven restaurant, now mourning her loss. She was heading home - with her extended family - to celebrate the end of Ramadan. Even politics didn't escape the slaughter: Dutch senator Willem Witteveen was flying on MH17 with his wife and daughter.

Like all true victims of terror, people just going about their business. Travelling for work, travelling for fun, travelling. A large body of the passengers were on their way to the 20th International Aids Society conference in Australia. Amongst them was Dutch HIV/AIDS expert, Joep Lange. "The movement has truly lost a giant", said the IAS, while others said that such a heavy loss to the HIV/AIDS scientific community could put research back years. Along with Lange was Glenn Thomas, a 49-year-old former BBC producer who was a senior press officer for the World Health Organisation, someone I never met, but with whom I share a professional kinship.

The numerical difference between the 7/7 bodycount and that in the skies above Donetsk on Thursday, or for that matter, the Madrid metro system or even the twin towers, is irrelevant. All were innocent victims of someone else's agenda. And, like 9/11, 7/7 and all the other infamous, abbreviated dates in history, the tail of destruction extends far beyond the scarred streets of Lower Manhattan, London's public transport network, or the sunflower fields of rural Ukraine.

© Simon Poulter 2014

At the World Trade Center Memorial in New York, in the footprint of the towers, there are now two 'eternal' pools of water. Around the rims of the pools are the names of those who died on 9/11. Office workers gathering around the water cooler on a Tuesday morning to discuss the Monday night game. People delivering sandwiches to Morgan Stanley bankers. Entire fire companies, police officers and medics who were first on the scene. All, one way or another, going about their daily lives, until someone decided that they were legitimate collateral in a wider conflagration.

So, as we examine the pictures of an airliner blown apart in mid-air and now strewn across the countryside, and we look at images of children's soft toys that made it to the ground in one piece, while their owners were torn to shreds by missile shrapnel, we start to wonder - who is waiting for that phone call? Whose lives will be irrevocably changed by this momentary act of political or military insanity? How will we look at that empty desk chair, or row of vacant seats at a conference?

Perhaps I'm asking the wrong people. Perhaps I should be asking those who sponsor and prosecute these acts. The governments who provide the weapons, training and logistical ability to carry them out, the governments who directly target children and later claim that they "thought" they were blowing up terrorists on an open beach.

Wars are bloody. But they really are best fought by those who can fight back. Not those who were doing nothing more than settling in for an in-flight film, reading a tourist guidebook, or simply enjoying switching off from the real world and all its nastiness for a few hours, high above the world, and the things men do.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Oh, how I miss those lazy, crazy days of summer

There is a legendary episode of Hancock's Half Hour, Tony Hancock's seminal 1950s radio sitcom, in which Hancock, housemates Sid James, Bill Kerr and Hattie Jacques, plus an annoying neighbour played by Kenneth Williams, endure a dull, wet, Sunday afternoon stuck indoors.

The brilliance of the Sunday Afternoon At Home episode is that, like a Miles Davis song, it's the silences that are the most telling. Being radio, the timing of Hancock's yawns and complaints ("Stone me, what a life!"), Sid James' retorts and Kerr and Jacques' helpful but irrelevant interruptions, add to the wonderful conveyance of a claustrophobic, housebound Sunday in the days before round-the-clock television, shopping or 24/7 anything.

What prompted me to think of this is the silence since last Sunday night, and the ending of the World Cup. Because, after five weeks of total immersion in what was surely the best World Cup of modern times, the silence is as deafening as the noise of a clock ticking in an empty room.

It has been an incredible, euphoric ride: a group stage in which goal-scoring records were broken, goalkeepers became cool again (after having been traditionally the drummer in the group - sat at the back, drunk and going bald), the knockout stage became as exciting for its lack of goals, the Old World fell apart, and the New World became everybody's darling. Even America came to both understand and appreciate what it is we in the rest of this planet have loved all along.

That said, it hasn't been without its pain, most notably mine at having to endure a party of loud Americans on Sunday night in an Italian restaurant asking after every decision, along the lines of: 
American Lady: "Why isn't that a goal? The ball clearly got kicked past the 'goalie'. The dee-fence did nothing to stop it."
Fellow Diner: "It's because it was offside."
AL: "It was off...what....?"
Me: "Good grief... Pass me that steak knife, I have a wrist in need of slashing." 
I jest, of course. And Dempsey, Howard & Co deserve as much credit as possible for their contribution, not least of which, pushing the now-world champions all the way.

And what of the Germans? Never exactly a fashionable pick at the outset, they powered their way through to hold the World Cup trophy aloft in Rio on Sunday. And, yes, they did so with efficiency and utter ruthlessness (just ask Brazil). There's no need for cultural stereotyping or, indeed, cheap jokes about the events of 70-odd years ago, but there's a way the Germans go about most things, and they certainly applied it over the last few weeks.

The 2014 World Cup served up far too much good stuff to contemplate in one simple blog post. Plus, by now, you would have read most of it in the papers' round-ups. Still, all I can hear now is the ticking of that grandfather clock. The good news is that the Premier League kicks off again exactly one month from today. Which means that between now and then I really would be wise to actually get a life. Stone me...

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

WWDBD? goes to Montreux: Laura Mvula/Jamie Cullum

Picture courtesy of Montreux Jazz Festival © 2014 Georges Braunschweig for GM Press

And so, What Would David Bowie Do? takes its final stroll along Quai Edouard-Jaccoud for the final show of its glorious week at the Montreux Jazz Festival and the first to, like, involve jazz. Well, sort of jazz. OK, who really cares what it is. Claude Nobs wouldn't.

Although he created this musical jamboree with "jazz" in its name, the festival has never made itself a slave to category. Genres have sat alongside sub-genres, and categories have intermingled and then been tossed about in the festival's musical stir fry to glorious effect.

In seven days on the Swiss Riviera this year, WWDBD? heard pop-tinged folk (or folk-tinged pop, your choice), countrifed rap, Southern blues, gospel-style, Chicago blues, Moroccan style, Led Zeppelin riffs played on West African violins, melancholy R&B and a wigged-out melange of reggae, dub and trip-hop. Oh, and a 15-year-old humiliating anyone who ever thought they could play the guitar.

All this, I know, is the sort of eclecticism you find at any summer festival, but at Montreux such diverse genres get the space to breathe, the audience's listening appreciation, and the utter professional respect of heavyweight peers. It's like a three week-long edition of Jools Holland's Later..., but with better scenery, obviously.

Perhaps the reason I like Montreux - and, indeed, Holland's show - is its editorial construct. Every night, and each performance across the three main venues, feels like feature pages from an ingeniously well edited music magazine. Of course, the acts are there to sell records, but beyond the obvious entertainment factor, you also get a sense of being informed and enriched with new musical knowledge.

Picture courtesy of Montreux Jazz Festival
© 2014 Georges Braunschweig for GM Press
That sounds a tad pretentious, but let's take the first act of this evening's sort-of-jazz double-bill, Laura Mvula.

A Twitter version of her career story would skimp on details - "classically-trained former receptionist delivers debut album Sing To The Moon and becomes the next big thing" - but that is essentially her journey.

But what such a resume would fail to detail is why Mvula has been feted so, and why in 2013, her breakout year, the 28-year-old wasn't so much showered in awards as had the equivalent of Dolphin Bathrooms' entire stock of fixtures and fittings dumped on her.

On paper we've been there before - and, yes, I am obliged to mention Amy Winehouse, Adele, Corinne Bailey Rae, Joss Stone and even Mica Parris in the long list of British female singers who have taken soul, jazz, nu-soul, nu-jazz, or whatever Radio 2 producers are branding it at the time, and added the influences of Billy Holiday, Nina Simone or Ella Fitzgerald.

But with Mvula there is something different, distinct and decidedly refreshing. The first sign is evident before she has even set foot on the stage of the Auditorium Stravinski: a harp. In time, it's owner, Iona Thomas, will take her place behind it, along with an ensemble including Mvula's sister Dionne on violin and vocals and her brother James on cello and vocals, and Winehouse-veteran musical director and drummer Troy Miller.

Instantly her "chamber orchestra", as she calls them, are in action, with Like The Morning Dew opening the show as it does the album. Immediately the audience is charmed by its spectral blend of strings, close harmonies, military drumming and the variety of shades to Mvula's own voice, including her Fitzgerald-like phrasing.

She is, she says, humbled to be playing at such an "iconic" festival, but this is just the kind of show that Montreux regulars love. As she rattles through her set - the confessional Let Me Fall, the uplifting ballad Sing To The Moon and its tale of unrequited teenage love, and She, with its soulful buildup to a grooving crescendo you'd have to be, frankly, dead not to move to - the audience warms like local gruyere softening up for fondue. Smiles that may have been of the barely-there, quizzical kind at the beginning, are now at their broadest.

Is There Anybody Out There? has a cinematic breadth to it that surely puts Mvula in contention for a Bond theme, if not an entire film soundtrack, with its Disney-esque soundscape generated by Thomas's harp and the Douglas siblings on strings and backing vocals, and Miller's pounding drums thundering away.

Picture courtesy of Montreux Jazz Festival © 2014 FFJM - Lionel Flusin

In a word, Mvula and her band are simply enchanting. That's not a word I've ever previously used in a live review, and given the propensity for acts I normally see, unlikely to be used much in the future. But it really is the only word I can think of that fits. There is a pleasing understatement to Mvula's stage persona (she says she was once crippled by stage fright), genuine and clearly not taking anything for granted.

And if the evening had ended right there and then with the last number, a blissful cover of Michael Jackson's Human Nature, I would have gone home satisfied of my money's worth. But this was only half time.

Picture courtesy of Montreux Jazz Festival
© 2014 FFJM - Lionel Flusin
If Mvula's performing career was threatened before it had even taken off by stage fright, I wouldn't expect Jamie Cullum to be even capable of pronouncing the condition.

At 34 he is something of a veteran, having first caught the attention with an appearance on Michael Parkinson's British chat show which led to his third album, Twentysomething, being made for a major label, which in turn became one of the biggest selling British jazz records of all time.

Except, it wasn't. It may have had standards on it like Singin' In The Rain and What A Difference A Day Makes, and may have inevitably led to Cullum being branded the latest "new" Sinatra, but its crossover credentials included covers of Jimi Hendrix's Wind Cries Mary and Jeff Buckley's Lover, You Should Have Come Over.

Such apparent brazenness, challenging the jazz snobs and the anti-MOR brigade in equal measure, has remained his schtick ever since. And as this show in Montreux demonstrated without question, jazz really is only the part of it.

Bouncing onto the stage like a Springer Spaniel let off the leash in a city park, Cullum is everywhere all at once, hitting things, playing things, jumping onto and off things, more circus performer than musician. Quickly acknowledging that he might be a tad overdressed for the gig in jacket, shirt and tie, he is quickly stripped down to a plain blue t-shirt as he hammers out The Same Things (opening track of his latest album, Momentum) on grand piano that will become his main prop for the night, along with a remarkably versatile band in which the keyboard player also plays sax, and the guitarist also plays trumpet. Or possibly the other way round.

Much has been made of Cullum's height (he is 5ft 5in), not least because he married model Sophie Dahl (6ft), and his tousled hair, prompting a predictable line of "jazz hobbit" and "pixie of jazz" comments. To get the (non-)issue out of the way at the earliest opportunity, Cullum applies his well-trodden self-depreciation, noting how perspirationally tearing around the stage is the basis of a [fictional] forthcoming fitness video, plus plans to launch a new brand of hair product. His comic timing is impeccable, but then timing is a hallmark of musical talent in such bountiful supply.

But back to the music: faithful to his album cover version of it, The Wind Cries Mary soon swings its way into the set, as inventive in its live interpretation as it was 12 years ago on Twentysomething. Next, a trio of songs in tribute to Claude Nobs, including a moodily paired down cover of The Beatles' Blackbird, another track, Save Your Soul, from the last album, then a medley that includes Cullum inventively using the grand piano as a percussive instrument, along with inserting snippets of Snoop Dogg's Pump It Like It's Hard, Pharrell's Happy and his own debut single, Frontin'.

© Simon Poulter 2014
Far from being a jazz show, with a lot of appreciative head nodding, Cullum's show is more like an old soul review, powering through the crowd pleasers with barely time to breath, reaching an encore with When I Get Famous and Twentysomething, as well as another cheeky cover, of Rihanna's Don't Stop The Music.  It's exhilarating stuff.

After a brief break to find the towel that, presumably by a roadie's omission had eluded him earlier when ravines of sweat were pouring off his cheekbones, Cullum is back out on his own, picking out an improvised tribute to Montreux on the piano, before All At SeaSingin' In The Rain and Rihanna's Umbrella add monstrous irony to a week on the Swiss Riviera in which it has, pretty much, pissed down solidly.

Not that I mind. I always come away from Montreux feeling musically nourished. Switzerland is renowned for its provision of wellbeing, typified by the spa hotel I was billeted to, wherein the lake view and a giant swimming pool provided plenty of restorative benefit (though having the colonic irrigation department on my floor presented something of a hazard when returning from an evening's beverage consumption...).

I did see the sun briefly over the first couple of days, before the clouds closed in and took the town dangerously close to the Glastonbury experience (albeit with paved roads and working drainage), but I didn't mind one bit. Because evenings like this one, where the music feeds the soul, are what will bring me back to the Montreux Jazz Festival again and again and again and again.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

WWDBD? goes to Montreux: Banks/Massive Attack

For a brief and somewhat tragic moment when the ticket arrived, I thought this was to be an evening combining the prog rock stylings of classically trained Genesis keyboard player Tony Banks along with the British trip-hop veterans.

I was, of course, startlingly wrong, but at risk of appearing totally befuddled, it wouldn’t have been beyond the realms of possibility, given that Massive Attack deliver stage shows that are in much the same league of spectacular rhythmic vibeouts as many in the prog canon. They - and I - of course know that’s a crass comparison, but it does hold some validity.

In reality, the Banks in question is Jillian Banks, the 26-year-old Los Angelino singer-songwriter being touted for great things. How and why, it must be said, is not entirely clear: her debut album won’t be out until September, and based on this maiden appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival, she still has some ways to go when it comes to stagecraft.

There is, though, some slick work going on to grow her profile. Unlike the Cyrus child and her seemingly anything-goes public persona, Banks is taking - or being taken along - the enigmatic route: word of mouth leading to quizzical features in taste-making magazines that play up her apparent mysteriousness, while achingly hip radio producers add her to ‘Next Big Thing’ lists.

To add to the build-up, she’s now opening for Massive Attack at the Auditorium Stravinski, Montreux’s main venue for the last 21 years and a stage that has hosted some of the world’s biggest acts. And, yet, her music - surely the measure by which to judge a musical artist - is, to quote Pink Floyd, only coming through in waves (perhaps the result of being signed to the Floyd’s old label, Harvest). Despite this, you’re more than welcome to give her a call - her phone number is quite intentionally displayed on her Facebook page. OK, there are clearly publicity ideas still to be invented.

So, back to the Stravinski. Banks sashays out to an audience that is obviously much better in the know than me. Like a considerably less noirish Lana Del Rey, she applies a minimalist approach to R&B, supported by a percussionist thumping heartbeat-paced rhythms on electronic drum pads and a guitarist applying the lightest of touches with jazz-tinged major chords.

© Simon Poulter 2014

If you like, or in my case, tolerate bland R&B, it's pleasant-enough stuff, though to these ears, Banks’ vocals aren't as sharp as they might be, probably the result of poor mixing back through her stage monitor.

Musically there is a dark theme running through Banks' material, a thread that has run through her songwriting since she began at the age of 15 as catharsis following her parents' divorce. Thus, her opening number, Before I Ever Met You and, later, Bedroom Wall, depict teenage hell through the rarified prism of LA familial dysfunction, with others in her set marrying a combination of electronic sparsity with just enough R&B groove to get feet shuffling and signs of a rocking motion in the crowd.

With her album Goddess not due for another two months, it is quite something that Banks is drawing opportunities like this, even if she appears to be somewhat learning on the job.

That, however, cannot be said for the evening's main event, Massive Attack.

Even if their discography representing 26 years' output only shows a paltry five studio albums (though still positively prolific in comparison to the likes of Leonard Cohen or Peter Gabriel), theirs is still one of the most electrifying live shows you are likely to come across.

Electrifying for a variety of reasons. Don't, for example, expect Coldplay-style singalongs, even to the hits. You won't, either, experience a great deal of stage banter with the crowd. Because that's not what Massive Attack are about.

Now built around the core duo of founding members Robert '3D' Del Naja and Grant 'Daddy G' Marshall, they have seemingly made easy the sometimes precarious task of transforming studio-intense recorded material into mesmerisingly brilliant live performances.

I drew reference at the top of this piece to comparisons with the prog school, but even for a band so well rooted in Bristol's trip-hop culture, it's hard not to draw upon how Massive Attack as a live entity deliver the sort of captivating immersions in light-and-sound that the original Pink Floyd (yes, sorry, another mention) grew a reputation for at London's UFO club in the late 60s.

From the opening beats of Beatbox 101, the Massive Attack stage collective, which includes regular vocalists Martina Topley-Bird and dub-reggae singer Horace Andy, deliver a brooding showmanship that opens up the studio's layering to give breadth and cavernous depth to their music. Behind them and throughout the show, pin-sharp LED displays provide a running commentary on what's going on in the world, from newswire slugs declaring the latest news on everything from Gaza to Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes expecting a child.

© Simon Poulter 2014

Sourcing several tracks early on from their last album, 2010's Helgioland, which made a notable return to their more earthier early sounds, we are midway treated to the clinical opening beat of Mezzanine's Teardrop.

© Simon Poulter 2014
This is the track that has become almost too familiar thanks to its overuse on documentary soundtracks and, as the clearly musically well informed, but drunk, Germans standing next to me point out helpfully, "Dr 'Owse!". That, then, explains the T-shirt with Hugh Laurie's mug staring out from it, hanging from a lakeside craft stall.

Safe From Harm casts us back further in time, to the seminal Blue Lines - easily one of the finest British albums of the last 30 years - with Topley-Bird effortlessly substituting for the original's vocals by Shara Nelson.

It's a feat she repeats with undoubted prowess in the encore, with Unfinished Sympathy providing what would have been, when the single first came out, the lighters-aloft moment of the evening.

These days you don't even get electronic cigarettes aloft, not that you could see them amidst the ocean of iPhones and Galaxys being waved in the air for that modern game of cat-and-mouse, the YouTube posting and deletion. Amazing how the world can change in the space of just five albums.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Major Tom's gone to voicemail

Exactly nine days before Neil Armstrong made history by becoming the first human to make physical contact with another planetary object, the man who gives title to this very blog released a single that, 44 years later, came full circle when it was performed in space by the astronaut Chris Hadfield.

What irony, then, that Hadfield's novel cover of David Bowie's Space Oddity should run into that most modern scourge, an argument over digital copyright. Despite Bowie's own intervention, the real-life astronaut's video had to be pulled from YouTube due to its licence expiring. Planet Earth is blue, and there was nothing he could do.

For a song that could have easily been received as a novelty - part inspired by Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and part a satirical stab at the very real space program (along with latter suggestions that heroin played some part in its theming) - Space Oddity was a landmark pop single.

Released on the Philips label 45 years ago today, July 11, 1969, it was described by Melody Maker's Chris Welch as a "Bee Geeian piece of music and poetry," while Disc And Music Echo's Penny Valentine noted how "Mr. Bowie sounds like the Bee Gees on their best record – New York Mining Disaster". Both somewhat ironic comments given that the Bee Gees - who were then producing highly progressive songs - would later go on to be kings of disco cheese.

As Welch's brief review concluded, Space Oddity was "a beautifully written, sung and performed" song, that "could be a hit and escalate Bowie to the top". From the longer-term view, it did.

It was recorded at London's Trident Studios with Rick Wakeman on Mellotron and Herbie Flowers on bass, not only establishing Bowie's recurrent interest in space via Ziggy Stardust, of course, and the character of Major Tom (Ashes To Ashes, Hallo Spaceboy, Gemini Spacecraft), but pretty much launching The Dame himself, having hitherto been simmering away in London's underground music scene, doing cod-Anthony Newley songs.

In essence, Space Oddity was a somewhat bleak song about an astronaut drifting in space to, we assume, his demise. But it was, simply, unlike anything else in the charts in the summer of '69, that season of free love that would culminate with Woodstock, and in a year that would end with Altamont and the decadal change of the pop era to the rock era.

Listening back to the largely acoustic version of Space Oddity on the indispensable Bowie At The Beeb archive compilation (featuring hilariously understated links from John Peel), you get to appreciate just how brilliant a song Space Oddity was, despite its somewhat wiggy storyline.

Developed out of a 12-string guitar riff (the opening chords are E minor and A minor, if you fancy hiring your own space station and a video camera...), it set the tone for the era of prog rock to come (King Crimson, Genesis, Yes and Pink Floyd all released debuts that year), shifting time signatures, jumping from woozy segments to the 'chang-cha-chang, cha-chang, che-chang-chang' guitar and handclaps bit, and back to outer space drift.

And then there was the original's use of the Stylophone, mostly known as a child's toy (and the less said about Rolf Harris's endorsement of it, the better), but cleverly employed by Bowie as the analogue synthesiser it actually is. If you're of an age to have owned, or had siblings who owned a Stylophone, I know you'd be lying through your back teeth if you haven't at least once attempted to play the takeoff bridge from Space Oddity.

In this respect, Space Oddity takes its place in music history as a small but notable cog in the machine of pop's development. 15 years after Elvis Presley changed the world forever with That's Alright Mama and nine years after The Beatles turned the world on its head again with Love Me Do, David Bowie's wry take on extra-terrestrial exploration can be rightly regarded for launching one of the most fascinating and enduring careers popular music has ever seen, one that - thankfully - continues to confound convention.