Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Like Punk never 'appened

Yes, I know. I've begged forgiveness for the obiturist nature of past What Would David Bowie Do? posts and sought to rectify this a couple of weeks ago by offering thoughts on rock stars retiring ('What will David Bowie do now?'). However, I must return to the funereal theme with the question: "Is rock music really dead?"

Earlier this year the UK's perennially with-it newspaper The Guardian lobbed this particular editorial hand grenade into the fray when it ran a whole stream of leaden pieces under the banner 'RIP, Rock'n'Roll. The paper surmised that with the number of "rock" songs reaching an all-time low for appearances on the UK singles chart (less than 3%) of all entries, rock'n'roll had gone the way of just about every individual who has sat on a Spinal Tap drum stool.

My view is that rock's supposed demise - much like Mark Twain and Paul McCartney's - has been greatly exaggerated. While there's a 13-year-old somewhere in the world badgering a parent to buy an electric guitar, there will be rock in some form.

That, however, didn't stop Paul Gambaccini, the self-styled sage of pop, to perform the last rites on the genre by declaring: "It is the end of the rock era. It's over, in the same way the jazz era is over." "Amazing", I thought when I read that. News travels fast from the 1920s.

Gambo's point, to be fair, was to say that rock, having defined popular music culture for the last 50 years, had given way to other genres. Record companies - or what's left of them - have been moving away from bands and focusing their investment on short-term opportunities plundered from the effluence of TV talent shows. I'm not so sure. There is still plenty of gas in that particular tank. Just look at the storming performances given by Muse, Elbow and others at last weekend's Reading Festival.

I recognise that my perspective is shaped (or mishapen) by my personal preference for acts who play instruments, often with them actually plugged in, and who have some understanding that a quaver isn't a cheesy snack that melts in your mouth, but a musical note. So I like it loud? Nowt wrong with that.

Album and single sales may have dwindled to an all-time low, but live music remains in the rudest of health - for those happy to pack a club or, worse, fork out ridiculous amounts of money to crane their necks at a stadium. Television, for many, is the preferred medium. The problem is, the medium is bereft of decent programmes to showcase live music.

With the exception of Jools Holland's eclectic and ever-dependable Later..., options have been limited, on British TV at least, to live specials or the rare (and I mean hen's teeth-rare) occasions a band performs live on a chat show.

Elton John - who, despite a somewhat grandmotherly image these days, is one of the world's greatest music enthusiasts (he still has HMV package up four copies of every major CD release each week and send them to each of his four homes around the world) - complained some months back that there was a dearth of TV outlets for live music.

Reg was speaking at the revival - of sorts - of a British music institution - the Old Grey Whistle Test. Hoary old heads will recall the early days of Whistle Test, fronted by Richard Williams and 'Whispering' Bob Harris - both ex-music hacks (replicated in later seasons by the likes of Mark Ellen and David Hepworth). Between it's inception in 1971 until its 1987 finale, Whistle Test captured the mood as psychedelia gave way to blues-rock, prog rock gave way to corporate rock, punk gave way to new wave, all until the late 80s brought the show to a jangling, jacket sleeves rolled up end.

The BBC is celebrating Whistle Test's 40th anniversary by having Bob Harris present a sixteen-part radio series featuring performances from the TV show's archive.

And it's a bountiful archive:  I recently dived into the Whistle Test DVD box set and was richly rewarded by gems such as Bowie's Oh! You Pretty Things, Talking Heads, Curtis Mayfield, The Ramones, Ottway & Barrett, The Jam, early Springsteen, Randy Newman, Bill Withers and Blondie, as well as the downright nuts, such as yodelling Dutch loonballs Focus, and the overblown, over-the-top nonsense that was Edgar Winter's Frankenstein.

While the Old Grey Whistle Test may have lent itself best to an era when music fans were A) male B) single and C) wore army surplus greatcoats buttoned up to their beards, there is nothing any longer on TV to match its musical spirit, if not its musical earnestness.

But let's not get too maudlin. Pop music may now be little more than a ringtone (evidence suggests that teenage music consumption is today restricted to mobile phone downloads and video game soundtracks), but that's not to say that the good times won't roll again.

"Music is a cyclical business," the NME's Paul Stokes told The Guardian in their 'rock is dead' piece. "We've been told rock was dead before, in the late 80s, late 90s, but it came back."

And if rock comes back, rock TV might too. Nice....

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Desperate Times, Desperate Measures

During these austere times we are regularly informed of the “private concerns” of top British military 'brass' on the inadequacy of the country’s armed forces to operate.

The usual form is that Admiral Dave This or General Sir Jock That will, via the thundering columns of the Daily Telegraph, unleash withering invective on Her Majesty's Treasury for reducing the RAF to a squadron of box kites, and the Army to fighting the Taliban with shelled peas fired from elastic bands attached to classroom rulers.

Ironic, then, that the football team known as The Gunners finds itself in the same position. Yesterday, Arsenal Football Club sought to rectify the abject misery of Sunday's capitulative 8-2 defeat by Manchester United by offering rail ticket refunds for the poor fans who watched the wretched display at Old Trafford. Needless to say, Twitter and message boards were awash with comments along the lines of "We need Arsenal to spend cash on new players, not PR stunts". And they are right.

Arsenal fans have been amazingly tolerant of Arséne Wenger's profligacy, although his dogmatic refusal to break the club's wage ceiling has been equally admirable. Insisting on buying youth over more bloatedly overpriced experience has been genuinely refreshing, even for this Chelsea fan whose club has, at times, spent money like a Lottery-winning chav with a reluctance to take professional financial advice.

Sadly, however, the game has moved on. Worthy as Wenger’s stance may be, the Premier League’s elite has accelerated ahead in firepower. The pace has always been set by Manchester United. But with Manchester City spending like it’s going out of fashion - and clearly reaping the rewards - Arsenal has been left looking like a dilapidated high street, populated only by pound stores and charity shops while the supermarkets have moved out to ‘big box’ retail parks.

Sunday’s annihilation by United just didn’t seem like Arsenal. We’ve had some incredible encounters between these two teams down the years – the infamous photograph of Martin Keown monstering Ruud van Nistelrooy after the striker’s 2003 penalty miss capturing the rivalry vividly.

On Sunday, Arsenal looked broken. I’m sure there is many a Gooner who would have left Old Trafford satisfied – relatively speaking – by a 3-2 defeat. But no professional football team – least of all a club of Arsenal’s standing - should go down to a score closer to rugby union than football.

"There are much lesser teams with much less talent than Arsenal who will come to Old Trafford this season and make it doubly as difficult as they did today," observed Paul Merson on Sky Sports. 

"You have got to have tactics," Merson added. "You can’t just have a Plan A, you have to have a plan B. The way Wenger set up wasn’t good enough. You can’t put teams out all the time and just say ‘go and play the Arsenal way’ – that isn’t fair on the players."

David Seaman took a typically more blunt, Yorkshireman's view: "When I played for Arsenal," he wrote on Twitter, "we were expected to win trophies - this is not good enough."

So what now? Inevitably, with 48 hours to go before the summer transfer window closes, Arsenal has being linked with every Tom, Dick and Harry (or Thomas, Richard and Hervé). Wenger is sitting on a cash pile of £65 from the sale of Fabregas and Nasri.

So far this summer Arsenal has spent £26 million on Jenkinson, Gervinho and the exotically-named Oxlade-Chamberlain (a nightmare for the club shop’s replica shirt printers). The Manchesters have, by comparison, spent more than that on individual players.

As insane as that might be – and this coming from someone who thought Trevor Francis was overpriced at a million – the market price for quality has simply gone up. And Arsenal needs to match it. Desperately.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

What will David Bowie do now?

In a recent posting to this whoopee cushion of laughs I call What Would David Bowie Do? I begged allowance for the regularity with which dead musicians get laid out on the mortuary slab of editorial examination.

So to change the mood a little, let's discuss retirement: earlier this week it was reported that the man who lends his name to this very blog "may" have reached for the pipe and slippers.

This isn't, generally, in the script. Rock stars are meant to die before they get old, or rock on until they drop.

Nowhere does it say that they should, at a certain moment, chuck it all in for a gold carriage clock and the chance to work on their allotments, or to take up Crown Green Bowls.

However, it can't be ignored that our rock stars are getting on a bit. The Rolling Stones now have a combined age of 264. Mick Jagger, at 68, is still prancing around like someone a third his age (or, roughly speaking, the same age as Ronnie Wood's latest girlfriend), while Keith Richards (67) continues to defy all known terrestrial medical science by simply being alive. There have been rumours for a while that the Stones might be planning one last hurrah of a tour to celebrate their 50th anniversary, but so far nothing.

Retirement was, nevertheless, an option pursued by 60-year-old Phil Collins, who announced earlier this year that he’d hung up his drumsticks for good. This was partly because of a chronic back problem which meant he could no longer hold his drumsticks without having them taped to his fingers (which probably means he's off Chinese food now too). Collins also wanted to focus on bringing up his two young sons, while at the same time spending more time with his model trains and bizarre obsession with the Alamo (the battle, not the car rental company). All fine, I suppose, but it shouldn't be forgotten that drummers generally don't retire. As Spinal Tap once explained, drummers expire in bizarre gardening accidents or on-stage explosions. Or in the case of Keith Moon and John Bonham, caning it.

So what about David Bowie? According to Paul Trynka, author of this year's excellent biography Starman, The Dame might not record again. “My heart says he’ll come back,” Trynka told Spinner, “but my head says he’s likely not to.  I think he would only come back if he thinks he could deliver something that will be seismic. It would be a bit of a miracle if he comes back, but miracles do happen."

Bowie certainly hasn’t released any new material since Reality in 2003, with the exception of an unofficial 'lost' album, Toy, which was leaked on the Internet earlier this year. At the end of Bowie's 2004 tour he underwent an emergency angioplasty for a blocked artery. While hardly a career-ending procedure, his public appearances have been sporadic and few ever since, and there has been no sign of his Thin White Dukeness visiting a recording studio.

If, at 64, Bowie has scaled things down, he will certainly be living comfortably off the royalties of his considerable back catalogue. This is the rock star's pension plan. Long after you've decided to leave behind the touring, the 48-hour studio sessions and the cocaine lifestyle, you can at least be assured of royalty cheques dropping through the letter box from record sales and radio airplay in far-flung places.

Perhaps ironically, one of the few public performances David Bowie has made since 2004 was to join David Gilmour on stage at London's Royal Albert Hall in 2007 for a performance of Pink Floyd's Arnold Layne. It was a tribute to Syd Barrett, who'd written the song and had passed away the previous year. Long after the madcap Barrett's sad reclusion from society, Gilmour - who had replaced him in Pink Floyd - continued to ensure he received his royalty cheques at his semi-detached suburban Cambridge home. Legend has it that they had gone uncashed for a number of years.

For the rest of us, unfortunately, we don't have such a lucrative legacy to draw from in our dotage. Indeed, the idea of retirement is an increasingly distant one, thanks to the global financial turmoil which is squeezing private and national pension plans. Inevitably, many of us from the baby boom and post-baby boom will be expected to work, like seaside donkeys, well beyond current statutory retirement age. Unless we are lucky enough to have 43 years of albums to sustain us - which pretty easily answers the question: what would David Bowie do?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Where it's Shark Week every week

© Shark Trust
There aren't many true certainties in life, but if nothing else, we can be sure to be never more than a few weeks away from another Shark Week.

What sounds like an annual event seems to happen with alarming regularity, as good patrons of the Discovery Channel will know: a seven-day festival of hefty, triangular-toothed fish zig-zagging ominously through the brine, launching themselves like piscine missiles at unsuspecting seals, or chewing away on scraps of tuna lobbed into the sea by "experts" to drum up business for the cameras.

Sharks are amongst the majestic of all apex predators - perhaps the most incredible creatures in Earth's vast and open menagerie. For all their menace and undeserved reputation, they are also one of the greatest pieces of design in both the animate and inanimate worlds.

Cars should look like sharks - most fighter jets already do, and surely boys (let's face it, we chaps are more likely to give a crap about this sort of thing) wouldn't we all want our cars to look like fighter jets?

The shark is an incredible survivor. It has managed to stay at the top of the food chain for millennia, just getting on with being the biggest beastie on the block with the Don't [expletive deleted] With Me attitude.

Being the European landlubber I am, I've yet to see a proper shark up close. I've seen lemon and baby leopard sharks at the excellent Museum of Sciences in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park and the Monterey Aquarium, but never one of the real monsters we, Peter Benchley and Shark Weeks passim have been guilty of demonising. I've driven up and down California's Pacific Coast Highway in the vain hope of seeing a large dorsal fin break the surface, but alas, nothing. And that unconvincing lump of animatronic rubber at Universal Studios certainly doesn't count.

All this points to one, simple realisation. Sharks live where they do, we live where we do. Just as I'd be surprised to be sat opposite a Great White in the Paris Metro tomorrow morning, I'm sure Jaws would be equally curious to find me swimming around his back garden.

Which brings me to this week's tragedy in the Seychelles, in which British honeymooner Ian Redmond was fatally attacked by - according to local  authorities - a "rogue shark". The perpetrator - most likely a bad-tempered Bull Shark - is now being hunted down in case it turns out to be the shark responsible for killing a French diver in the same area earlier this month.

Bull sharks are notoriously aggressive, prone to foraging in shallow water, and have even been known to swim into freshwater inlets and rivers. Admittedly, that does change the odds a bit, but you still stand more chance of getting knocked down crossing the street than you do being attacked by a shark - even in shark habitats.

© Shark Trust
Sadly, the Seychellois authorities need to hunt down Ian Redmond's killer, not out of revenge, but to remove a threat to the Seychelles' vital tourist economy.

With shark numbers being heavily eroded by the savage practice of chopping off their fins to make soup, leaving these animals to bleed to death, taking another out for having made the mistake of targeting one of us is unfortunate.

As tragic as it is for Ian's now widowed bride and their families, a shark attacking a human is no more rogue behaviour than your pet cat biting your finger. If we humans put ourselves in someone else's environment - especially when that someone else is a perfectly evolved predator weighing anything up to 700 pounds and over 11 feet long - we must play the odds.

It's the same as putting ourselves - and, specifically, our schoolchildren - on an Arctic ice flow, in an area known to be inhabited by polar bears. These are probably the ultimate apex predators, which means that one whiff of human to a creature starved by shrinking habitat is only going to end badly.

When Steven Spielberg's Jaws came out, the film was justifiably hailed for its tremendous suspense. It was, ultimately, a sophisticated slasher movie, with the chief antagonist being a shark rather than a lunatic in a hockey mask. Sadly, it cast a shadow over an animal that has been hard to lose. We should respect sharks and respect their habitats. And yes, sadly, we will continue to have tragic encounters with them, but not without remembering that we humans run into them where they live, not the other way around.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Normality returns

In the memorable words of John Fogerty, "Here we are and here we are and here we go, all aboard and we're hittin' the road, here we go". Now I know what you're thinking: it was "ver" Quo who gave us Rocking All Over The World, but you would be wrong. It was Fogerty, and with his following stanza, "well giddy up and giddy up and get away", we doff a welcoming cap to the 20th Barclays Premier League season.

Finally, after several weeks of finding something more meaningful to do on a Saturday or Sunday - like talking to loved ones, for example - the real thing is upon us. And it's downhill from here.

After the first eight games, we know this: QPR, after an expensive 0-4 lesson by Bolton are as good as relegated (source: most people); Joey Barton has guaranteed himself pantomime villain-in-chief status for the remaining weeks of the transfer window until Newcastle offloads him; and Arsenal have continued in the manner to which they've become accustomed under Le Professeur, i.e. a lot of attractive thrashing about but no result. You can make up erectile dysfunction jokes about that comment in your own time.

Liverpool, allegedly revived under 'King Kenny', failed to deliver more than a point from their home encounter with Sunderland, while football's very own Charlie Bucket, Andreas Villas-Boas, celebrated his first competitive outing in charge of the Wonka chocolate factory by delivering a 0-0 draw against Stoke with a Chelsea side which didn't look all that different from the last Chelsea side to be coached by Jose Mourinho. Four years and four managers ago.

Unlike Arsenal, some things are reassuringly unchanged: Manchester United got straight back into their annoying habit of nicking winning goals in the closing stages of a game, after West Brom had held them at 1-1 for the best part of 45 minutes. Throw into the mix the fact that Alan Hansen hasn't come up with any new insight or analysis on Match of the Day (viz: "they lack pace", "they've got strength and depth", "the have fantastic pace", "they lack any strength or depth" - apply to the team of your choosing).

So the opening weekend of the Premier League has come and gone with the most remarkable stat being that no home side recorded a win in any of the fixtures played. Spurs-Everton will wait for another day, thanks to a group of morons in hoodies, so we only have Manchester City's band of mercenaries tomorrow night to give us a home win as they take on Prem new boys Swansea at Eastlands.

You would expect this encounter will follow the script. If it doesn't, two things will happen: firstly, there will be one or two beads of sweat rolling down temples within the well appointed court of Sheikh Mansour. Second, a large percentage of us who follow the beautiful game will yawn, tediously, in acceptance of the reality that we are now in the Phoney War of the Premier League, echoing that period between September 1939 and the spring of 1940 when nothing much happened between anyone, save Hitler's occupation of Poland, and various diplomats writing very cross letters indeed.

This having been the opening weekend of the 2011-12 Premier League, we have already been provided with the most irrelevant thing since the book of Italian motoring etiquette was published - the first league table of the season. I'm sure, right now, Bolton fans are positively beside themselves at being top of the league on alphabetical grounds, and that there are young lads in Lancashire who will cherish this moment until their dying days. I'm sure they will pay little attention to the binary nature of the points table after Game One. But, what the hey - when every pundit to a man (and the odd woman) is predicting another Man U, Chelsea, Man City, Liverpool/Arsenal final four - or any combination therein - optimism over Bolton's current position is as misplaced as predicting a Lib-Dem landslide at 8pm on election night. Sorry son - it ain't gonna happen.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Don't shoot the Messenger

At the end of a week in which Neanderthal instincts came to the fore in Tottenham, Clapham, Croydon and other parts of England, we are told that the human brain may have reached the limit of its development, and may even be genetically starting to shrink. 

Being the energy hog that it is (you'll have burned five calories just reading this post), scientists believe that our brains are finding ways to conserve energy, and shrinking - perhaps to the size of our early ancestors' brains - is a possibility. 

This follows another recent piece of neurological research which suggested that computers and the Internet are causing us to use our memories less, as we use the likes of Wikipedia and Google more as a form of 'offline' storage. With most of us now online and more people carrying smartphones around, information is instantly available - so why waste our own storage capacity when someone's cloud server can take the burden?

Blaming technological progress has always been too easy. Caxton's printing press opened up the spread of knowledge, but was also demonised in fundamentalist quarters. The Internet has faced a similar gauntlet. 

The World Wide Web - which, coincidentally celebrated its 20th birthday this week - has, along with most other forms of information and communications technology, revolutionised life and transformed everything from education, commerce and travel, to government, economic development and social interaction. The list of things we just did differently before Tim Berners-Lee came up with his interconnected network is endless.

But just because a group of hooded miscreants, who've bought into BlackBerry's marketing of BBM to non-business users, started lobbing wheelie bins through the windows of Currys and Foot Locker, we end up with politicians calling for smartphones, Facebook and Twitter to be curbed.

Weren't we, earlier this year, praising these very same tools for their role in transforming the political and social landscape in Egypt, Tunisia and other parts of the Middle East? Didn't Twitter provide a vital lifeline to the victims of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami?

No sooner had popular revolution in one part of the world become popular revolt in another, than the politicians were leaping on the technology involved in it. Don't shoot the messenger.

Whether the orchestrators of this week's mayhem used BBM, SMS or World War One carrier pigeons to marshall the looting, it wouldn't have made a difference. Those bent on theft and arson would have caused it anyway.

People who have been quick to apportion blame have been equally quick to forget that it was Facebook, Twitter and, we assume, BlackBerry and other smartphones, who galvanised the community response. When 200 people take part in a riot, and 500 come together via a social network to clean it up, I think it's safe to say who the winner is.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

England. August 2011.

England. Late 1983.

The Clash - This Is England (Strummer/Rhodes)

I hear a gang fire on a human factory farm
Are they howling out or doing somebody harm
On a catwalk jungle somebody grabbed my arm
A voice spoke so cold it matched the weapon in her palm

This is England
This knife of Sheffield steel
This is England
This is how we feel

Time on his hands freezing in those clothes
He won't go for the carrot
They beat him by the pole
Some sunny day confronted by his soul
He's out at sea, too far off, he can't go home

This is England
What we're supposed to die for
This is England
And we're never gonna cry no more

Black shadow of the Vincent
Falls on a Triumph line
I got my motorcycle jacket
But I'm walking all the time
South Atlantic wind blows
Ice from a dying creed
I see no glory
When will we be free

This is England
We can chain you to the rail
This is England
We can kill you in a jail

Those British boots go kick Bengali in the head
Police sit watchin'
The newspapers been read
Who cares to protest
After the attacker fled
Out came the batons and
The British warned themselves

This is England
The land of illegal dances
This is England
Land of a thousand stances
This is England
This knife of Sheffield steel
This is England
This is how we feel
This is England
This is England

Monday, August 08, 2011

Slipped Discs

The word portmanteau has a French origin, which is ironic as whoever first coined the frankly crap portmanteau "staycation" was unaware that the French have been holidaying at home for generations. And with 3,500 kilometres of coastline to call their own, you can't blame them.

Being August, Paris has cleared out. It's not quite I Am Legend empty - plenty of tourists are still taking on waiters in the locally popular game of 'I Know He Knows I Can See Him...But I'm Still Not Getting Served'. Parking is a treat, too. The spaces along the avenues are now large enough to actually park a car in them. My office is considerably more sparse. Like the Marie Celeste. Most of my colleagues have disappeared south - for the entire month - to jostle elbow-to-elbow with each other for a square metre of sand to call their own.

In their absence, I'm getting things done. Catching up. Stealing a march on the To Do list that will only intensify again in September. And, it would appear, Her Majesty's Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is doing much the same thing.

Amid last week's news of another global financial meltdown came word that HMG is to end the arcane and, frankly, useless laws which govern digital copyright. Until now, if you have ripped a CD to your iPod or compressed a DVD for your laptop, you should by rights be currently trading tobacco in the exercise yard of one of Her Majesty's other noble establishments.

More than a quarter of the British population owns an MP3 player today, PC ownership is more than three-quarters of UK households, and 55% of Britons have admitted to copying CDs onto their PCs, so the country's prisons should be bursting at the seams with digital pirates. But in a rare outbreak of political common sense, the British government has agreed to implement a number of proposals from the Hargreaves Review on digital copyright. Amongst them is the legalisation of 'format shifting' CDs and DVDs on to portable devices, on which we can continue to enjoy our legally-bought purchases in more convenient locations.

"This move will bring copyright law into line with the real world, and with consumers’ reasonable expectations,” said Vince Cable, the UK minister for business who might also now be entitled to use 'HDMI' as his middle nameWhile this is hardly the repeal of the Corn Laws, it is a small victory for libertarians, and an equally small victory for those of us who always considered the digital copyright law - which is rooted in an Act of Parliament first passed in 1709 - utterly irrelevant in the 21st Century.

"The [Hargreaves] review pointed out that if you have a situation where 90% of your population is doing something, then it's not really a very good law," Simon Levine, head of the intellectual property and technology group at DLA Piper told the BBC. This argument is reminiscent of the immovable digital force which made a mockery of Ryan Giggs' super-injunction some weeks back. All of which also highlights the somewhat lawless frontier that digital technology has opened up.

Encouragingly, the proposals have been blessed by UK Music, the industry association headed up by former Undertone Feargal Sharkey. "The music industry has no problem with private copying or format-shifting, so long as it doesn’t put UK artists and composers at a disadvantage to the rest of Europe," UK Music said in a statement on its website. "Our quarrel is not with consumers. They should be free to enjoy the CDs they bought on the devices they own."

Progress, then. During the 1980s, UK Music's fellow industry body, the BPI, staged a Kanute-like campaign which had the dust sleeves of vinyl records emblazoned with a cassette-and-crossbones logo and the alarmist legend HOME TAPING IS KILLING MUSIC. It wasn't.

The music industry fought bravely to stop what it felt was a popular practice that was denying artists profits and, presumably, impacting the cocaine habits of hundreds of record company executives. Guess what? The music industry carried on making money by the sackload.

Unfortunately, today it is not. Digital and physical album sales fell by 7% in 2010, with CD sales dropping by by 12.4% - the sixth consecutive year music sales have declined. Sales and rentals of DVDs fell by a similar figure. Bricks-and-mortar record and video shops are closing hand-over-fist - HMV is planning to sell or close 60 of its outlets in the course of this year.

Even car manufacturers are acknowledging that music is more likely to be found these days on a flash memory card or a USB stick, and are providing inputs for both in vehicles. Ford has even rung the death knell of the in-car CD by announcing that it will drop line-fit disc players from its cars. So, now that it's legal to create an MP3-CD to play in the car, you soon won't be able to.

As magnanimous a gesture of common sense as the legalisation of format shifting is, it has clearly come on the downslope of the optical disc format. A technology first conceived by a Philips researcher in 1969 is on its way out. Apart from the last huzzah that is Blu-ray Disc, ownership of physical media just isn't popular anymore. True, there are still Luddites like me attached to the tactile experience of opening up a jewel case and reading the sleeve notes but - as What Would David Bowie Do? documented last October - even I've embraced online distribution and downsized my disc library.

I now have a fast, 100-gigabyte, fibre-optic Internet connection. I rarely use a car these days. All the TV and movies I could ever watch at home are available to download  easily and quickly, and straight on to my laptop, iPad or phone. Which means that if I do ever take a holiday this year, I'll be taking my entertainment with me legally. Not that it ever bothered me before...

Friday, August 05, 2011

Any Given Sunday...or Friday, or Saturday or Monday...

For those of us of a footballing persuasion early August is like early December for children. The expectation is the same, as is the restless excitement.

So, while most fans are only just at the lobster pink stage of their summer tans, league football is back (if you're reading this in Scotland, it's been back for two weeks. Don't ask).

A whole two months have passed since the end of the 2010-2011 season, although for the desperate, the European Under-21s in June provided some respite, and for those truly desperate to break the void last month, there was the Women's World Cup.

Tonight, in England, the dynamically-named npower Championship (League Division Two in very old money) will kick off, closely followed on Sunday by The Traditional Curtain Raiser™ - the Charity/Community/Sponsorsnameinhere Shield between the Manchesters City and United.

The following weekend will see the Barclays Premier League heave to expensively-seated, excessively-rewarded, Bentley GT-driving life. And that's when the trouble will start. You see, already-high expectations build pretty quickly as the season ramps up. In recent weeks, many of us football obsessives have kept a cheeky eye on the pre-season program, that ritual in which clubs patronise the fans of lesser teams by turning out showcase XIs in friendles, while the game's elite traipse off to joke tournaments in exotic climes, essentially to sell more shirts and TV subscriptions under the auspices of pre-season match experience. However, that has only served to raise expectations further.

The first two or three games proper will, of course, be pointless processions in the sense that they will say absolutely nothing about how the next 35 games will play out. That's not to say there won't be anything to watch. Over the next few weeks, teams in all leagues will be keenly showing off their exorbitant new purchases, and nervous managers will be summoning up Wellingtonesque bombast and bravado to defend their summer outlay (or lack of). There will be thrills, spills and bellyache (which sums up 90 minutes of Didier Drogba alone). But it will lack a certain...fizz.

For a start, despite being phenomenally fit by yours or my standard (especially mine), two weeks off with Mrs WAG in Sardinia, Cap d'Antibes, Centerparcs or wherever is in vogue for footballer wages this year will have taken their toll on sharpness and match smarts. We will blindly make a certain allowance for this. That's OK for August, but by September, through October and into November, when the first of the season's managerial firing squads are lining up their sights, we'll be expecting a different pace. And woe betide any of them if, from then until March, these richly rewarded princes of the park are still not earning the dubbin for their boots, we'll be rightfully caterwauling like the grumpy sods we fans can be.

Money is the root of the gripe. The football fan will deftfully sidestep the moralilty of football players earning more in one day than a qualified nurse earns in a year. But once they start to see their own hard-earned going to waste, different matter.

Some years back, when Chelsea was gleefully turning into a retirement home for Serie A and La Liga players with expensive wage demands and knackered legs, a Dutchman by the name of Winston Bogarde joined the club.

Apparently, then-manager Claudio Ranieri knew nothing about the acquisition, and subsequently tried to have Bogarde offloaded. Having been signed for 40 grand a week – which ten years ago was considered high – Bogarde ended up languishing in the reserves.

Legend has it that he would eventually fly in each morning from his home in Amsterdam to Chelsea’s training ground near Heathrow Airport, train on his own and then fly back to Schiphol in time for a biertje overlooking the Amstel.

"They should get the same as teachers get," is the regular comment of the non-believer. True, it is mad that a 21-year-old who left the education system at the age of 17 to kick an inflated sack of leather about for a living, should end up earning more in one year than the annual budget of the average primary school.

Yes. Mad. You can't argue with the free market. Well you can, but that involves growing a beard and not showering very much. Truthfully, trying to compare the relative pay of worthy public servants with overpaid athletes is a rabbit hole anyone with a sense of the shortness of life should avoid. It certainly wasn’t a healthy pursuit when MTV Cribs consisted exclusively of the homes of excessively-salaried basketball stars showing off their South Beach condos to cameras held at wonky angles.

What a football player earns is not the issue. Whether he deserves it is another discussion. In the current financial climate, you’d wonder whether club owners and chairmen have really got a foot in reality with the way player remuneration has been set up. All clubs and even individual players’ contracts have a variety of incentivisation methods like win and appearance bonuses. But one sometimes wonders whether these are worth the paper their written on.

In a recent article in The Times, the former Millwall, Aston Villa and Chelsea striker Tony Cascarino argued that clubs would do well to install pay-as-you play deals, especially for older players. In his piece, Cascarino cited the wage policy at relegated West Ham as an example of how clubs can get it wrong, with Kieron Dyer his example: a transfer fee of £6 million from Newcastle, a £65,000-a-week deal and only 35 appearances in four years, many as a sub. There are similar horrors in West Ham’s recent history, which may go some way to explain their disappearance through the Premier League trap door, yet again.

Cascarino’s point was that putting players on appearance bonuses first and foremost, rather than salaries which required no effort to maintain, would sharpen output. He referred to Alan Curbishley’s tenure of Charlton Athletic, a period during which the club enjoyed relatively consistent success, while paying its players well in appearance money and bonuses, but lower base salaries.

The problem with all this, of course, is that it’s a seller’s market. While the transfer window stays open for the remainder of August, it will be the agents and their craft that will set the pace, not the clubs eager for their clients’ signatures. The merry-go-round of big money moves will continue to turn, and with it, the monied elite will be adding to their ranks players who can command a modest fee, but whose salaries will only add to football’s own spiraling debt crisis. Taxi for Señor Torres?