Thursday, May 31, 2012

Let's get Ziggy with it

Before anyone thinks that what you're about to read is an attempted suggestion that I'm older and more musically erudite than I really am, let me declare that I didn't own a David Bowie record until 1973.

That might still be in itself eminently cool, given that it means I joined the ranks of the Bowie-owning classes at the age of six. However, it is only right and proper to point out that the record in question was The Laughing Gnome. First released in 1967 this Anthony Newley-style novelty was the product of Bowie's inaugural metamorphosis from Bromley pop wannabe David Jones to the legendary rock changeling we now know him for.

In 1973 the re-release of The Laughing Gnome was completely out of place with the singer's career. He'd already had a breakthrough hit with Space Oddity, a modicum of success with The Man Who Sold The World, and his fourth album, Hunky Dory, released in 1971, had been critically acclaimed, if not particularly successful commercially.

The apparently incongruous reissue of the novelty record was no accident, however, but a somewhat cynical effort by Deram, the 'hip' offshoot of Decca and the singer's first record company, to cash in on the success of an album - released the year before - that ultimately turned David Bowie into one of the most talked about, perennially fascinating and constantly evolving artists of all time - The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars.

If there was one word which, if you were to Google "David Bowie" and carry out a word search of the results, would come up again and again, it is "chameleon". It's a lazy description, since chameleons change their colour to blend in. Bowie has been about anything but.

Hunky Dory marked the singer's evolution from the bag of musical variety tricks lacking a centre that had hallmarked his early career, another art school upstart finding his way through the confluence of London's music, art and fashion 'scene'. It contained the singles Changes and Life On Mars - neither of which bothered the charts at the time, surprisingly, as well as Queen Bitch, the song which vented Bowie's love of the Velvet Underground and which certainly acted as a prototype for the album that was to follow.

On June 6, 1972, Bowie's fortunes changed forever with the release of Ziggy Stardust. It would go on to spend the following four years in the album charts, and remain one of the albums that shaped the rock era. Next week it is being re-released in celebration of its 40th anniversary, joining reassemblies of classic albums like Born To Run, Exile On Main Street and Dark Side Of The Moon to tease coinage from the nostalgic and the curious (and me, obviously) with a choice of formats - including an all-you-can-eat bumper package comprising the vinyl LP, a newly-remastered DVD of the Ziggy Stardust stage show, and 5.1 and stereo mixes of the CD.

OK, so that's the commercial over - so is it any good? Why, of all the other great albums released in 1972 - Harvest, Deep Purple's heavy metal blueprint, Machine Head, Nick Drake's Pink Moon, Exile On Main Street, Elton John's Honky Chateau or Steely Dan's Can't By A Thrill - does the mere mention of Ziggy Stardust now make grown men and women swoon so?

Anchored by Starman, Suffragette City, Rock'n'Roll Suicide and the eponymous title track, Ziggy Stardust was a concept album before the term had been stigmatised. The Who had already introduced the idea of a arcing, single narrative album with Tommy and Who's Next (built out of Pete Townshend's abandoned Life House story), with Sergeant Pepper, The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and even Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads in 1940 before them.

Ziggy Stardust was a complete immersion in character, image and song, delving deeply into Bowie's interests in the avante garde while continuing his relationship with space, an apparently subconscious interest that predated Space Oddity and went back as far as his love of Telstar, the 1961 hit by The Tornados. It would, of course, return with Nic Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth, and the songs Life On Mars and even the much later I Took a Trip (On a Gemini Spaceship) and Hello Spaceboy.

It seems to be a common thread amongst rock stars that once they acquire celebrity they feel compelled to write about its pitfalls. Roger Waters cathartically took this on via the character of Pink with The Wall, while Peter Gabriel assumed the guise of Puerto Rican street tough Rael, seeking freedom and an identity in New York on the 1974 Genesis concept album The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. Though Bowie had yet to ascend the height of his fame, Ziggy Stardust became his comment on fame's Messianic nature, seen through the guise of an alien rock star who comes to earth in search of all that sex and drugs and rock-and-roll has to offer, only to find that achieving fame and promiscuous good fortune, he ultimately becomes shunned by the very fans he'd hoped to acquire.

For the era of somewhat self-indulgent double albums enclosed in luxuriantly-designed double-gatefold sleeves, Ziggy Stardust was relatively brief at just under 40 minutes long - 20 minutes per side. But like so many classic, short albums (A Hard Day's Night, What's Going On and Transformer amongst them) it delivered much more by lacking the excess of its contemporaries.

It is, at essence, a pop-rock album recorded by the most basic of constructs - singer (Bowie), guitarist (Mick Ronson), bassist (Tony Bolder) and drums (Mick 'Woody' Woodmansey). All songs - bar one - were written by Bowie himself, who also co-produced with Tony Visconti the sessions at London's Trident Studios over the course of a few weeks between the September and November of 1971. Compare that with the three years it took the Rolling Stones to record Exile On Main Street.

The lack of complexity translates into a musical immediacy apparent from the opening bars of Five Hours, with its shuffling drums and swinging bass intro, introducing the story that hints at the demise of Earthly civilisation. Two tracks later, Moonage Daydream and the ensemble lets rip, a precursor of the camped-up crunch to come with Suffragette City ("Ahhhhhh - wham-bam, thankyou M'am!"), and the album's glam rock torch song finale, Rock'n'Roll Suicide.

The alien narrative of Ziggy Stardust is hardly a perfect arc, coming and going at the Bowie's pleasure, on songs like Star examining "the wild mutation of a rock and roll star" who would "come on like a regular superstar" by sending "a photograph to my honey". The theme of rock star narcisssism - of which Bowie had been regarded as a prime practitioner during his 'ultra' Mod period in the mid-60s - came out strongly with Lady Stardust which, it is widely believed, was a comment on Marc Bolan, with whom Bowie enjoyed a strong fraternal relationship, with its opening line "People stared at the makeup on his face, Laughed at his long black hair, his animal grace.

Bowie's barbs for the trappings of success that he'd craved from the moment he started courting fame in suburban combos in Bromley and Beckenham are reserved for the album's mildly vituperative title track and its swipe at the rock star beast, channeled through the album's eponymous hero, "Making love with his ego" and the killer line "Like a leper Messiah".

No pun intended, by Starman is the standout of Ziggy Stardust. On one level it's a brilliant pop song, replicable by whistling postman as much as stadium-filling rock gods. In the mix is Ronson's delightfully sleazy guitar riff - a clever Marc Bolan pastiche (Bowie's early career had, allegedly, plundered many a riff from contemporaries like Pete Townshend, prompting The Who guitarist, during an early backstage encounter, to remark: "Shit, was that one of my songs you just played?" after hearing something which sounded distinctly like Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere).

A month after Ziggy Stardust was released, Bowie/Ziggy and the Spiders appeared on Top Of The Pops to perform Starman in what was to become one of the signature television appearances of the 1970s.

Starman became Bowie's first hit single since Space Oddity, and the sight of Bowie cosying up to Ronson to share a microphone, and Trevor Bolder's bizarre grey muttonchops gave the home audience a glimpse of the sheer theatricality of the Ziggy Stardust stage show about to go on the road. 

Touring a complete album has become the norm these days, as artists hit the heritage trail with their biggest hit, but in 1972 it was unusual. It also afforded Bowie the opportunity to give Ziggy a shelf life before moving onto his next persona, which he did once the legendary Ziggy Stardust stage show came to an end on July 3, 1973 with its final performance in London.

The show's origins, though, had been less salubrious: the very first "official" performance came on February 3, 1972, in the unlikely setting of the Toby Jug pub in Tolworth, Surrey, barely a mile from where I was growing up. The show itself would have been unremarkable if it wasn't for the fact that Bowie had created for himself media interest that transcended the music he was creating. 

The music was only half the story: the other half was the persona Bowie adopted. Sporting bright orange mullet, he presented the most dramatic change of image to date, a trait he would continue doing for the remainder of his career.

Ziggy wasn't just a haircut - he was the representation of a deliberate androgyny. For 1972 - long before Boy George, remember - this was guaranteed to make headlines. And yet Bowie wasn't being intentionally camp or ambiguous. Ziggy was simply the image the character had arrived at. But not camp. "David had to become what Ziggy was – he had to believe in him," guitarist Mick Ronson has said in an interview. "Ziggy affected his personality, but he affected Ziggy's personality. They lived off each other." And thus Ziggy became Bowie's host for shocking, gaining infamy during the Ziggy Stardust tour when, in Oxford, he appeared to relate Mick Ronson's guitar on stage. Pop stars, eh?

"I understand the camp thing," Bowie himself told the NME's Charles Shaar Murray in July 1972. "Once upon a time it was, I think, put down in the category of 'entertainer' but since the departure of good old-fashioned entertainers the re-emergence of somebody who wants to be an entertainer has unfortunately become a synonym for camp. I don’t think I’m camper than any other person who felt at home on stage, and felt more at home on stage than he did offstage."

That said, Bowie had earlier declared himself bisexual in an interview with Melody Maker in January 1972. As shocking a declaration for a mainstream pop star to make then, it would become regarded by many - and possibly Bowie himself - as one of those remarks pop stars in their ascendancy say when attention is within their grasp. Think Lennon and his Jesus comment, or the Gallagher brothers and almost anything they've said to a journalist. Ever. "I suppose it's the best thing that ever happened to me," Bowie told Playboy in 1976, later stating that it was also the biggest mistake he'd ever make.

Either way, at the beginning of 1972, Bowie was the man. The declaration in Melody Maker may have been a cute piece of shock PR, but it became integral to the entire Ziggy persona, and helped start the album earning long before it had even reached a pressing plant.

Just as most early Beatles fans were interested in screaming at the Fab Four rather than appreciating their melodic genius, Ziggy Stardust nevertheless generated as much shock value for what Bowie looked like as to what he and his band - the Spiders From Mars, of course - sounded like.

Ziggy - the character - has become part of pop iconography. Like a waxwork line-up of Elvis, The Beatles, Sinatra and probably even 1982 Boy George, too, Bowie/Ziggy is instantly recognisable, and instantly memorable. At the time, though, there were mixed feelings from a music press unsure whether Ziggy was a gimmick or artistic statement. "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust... personifies Bowie's new image as the intended messiah of Teenage Wasteland," wrote Nick Kent in Oz magazine, before commenting, first, on the Ziggy image ("an almost grotesque parody of early Elvis Presley complete with outrageously tasteless costume, butch hairstyle and calculated effeminate gestures") before noting the album as "quite superb".

If, as Kent argued, Ziggy was simply a vehicle for attention, Bowie succeeded. But in The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, he created an album that pushed the envelope of what rock and artistic expression could do. 40 years on, it still is.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

It may be another day in paradise for me, but what of the 108 in Houla?

The front page of today's edition of The Times bears the image you see above. In any other place, perhaps in any other newspaper, it might just be a picture of a young child asleep in its cot, oblivious to the world around it. But the sad truth is that without even reading any supporting context, you and I both know the setting and the circumstances. For beneath the picture in The Times is the simple caption:
Houla, Syria.
One of the 49
We know now that this child is dead - not the result of accident, its own misadventure or illness, but systematic murder, one of 49 children executed by bullet or knife. Other pictures have emerged showing children of all ages missing pieces of skull, clear evidence of rounds administered at close range, the same way a pest controller might exterminate vermin. Except that these are children, the most innocent of victims of crimes that belie comprehension by people of rational mind.

The Times carries details - and, mercifully, no more photographs - of more grisly scenes from Houla, each more gruesome than the last, many suggesting unfathomable brutality, and all as perplexingly incomprehensible.

War is ugly. Anyone who thinks that the use of real bullets against real human bodies is like an episode of The A-Team, in which gunfire is plentiful but nobody spills a drop of blood, would be wrong. But real war, where the combatants have a point to prove, have uniforms to define them, and at least the weapons with which to engage each other equally, may be morally debatable, but explainable.

The atrocity in Houla warrants no explanation. There is no rationalization anyone can offer that will elucidate the strategic, military or political logic for slicing the arm off a young girl, or tying a young boy's hands together before shooting him at point blank range, rendering his skull and its contents asunder.

The United Nations is of no doubt who was responsible, stating categorically that the massacre was the work of Bashar al-Assad's civilian shabiha thugs. In addition to the 49 children, a further 30 or 40 adult civilians were also murdered, in much the same manner.

The UN also claims that 20 civilians were killed by shelling, probably by tanks. Think about that for a second: tanks shells are constructed using a explosive charge shaped like a fist to 'punch' through solid armour - i.e. other tanks. Nowhere in the tank instruction manual does it recommend using tank shells on the flesh of unarmoured, unprotected and innocent human beings.

Obviously, the Assad regime is claiming innocence, blaming "armed terrorists" hell-bent on destroying what flimsy chances of peace exist in Syria. But with every bankrupt statement from Damascus, the nose of the Syrian government grows ever longer, Pinnochio-style, as more innocent children are murdered in their beds.

Perhaps now the world will act. It takes a desperate tipping point like Houla for governments elsewhere to take action. The images coming out of Syria may galvanise support for foreign military intervention, until now an unpalatable notion for fear that it might spark wider conflagration in the Middle East, especially with Israel champing at the bit to attack Syria's neighbour, Iran, and sectarian violence threatening to unhinge the restoration of Lebanon as the Middle East's recreational jewel.

Massacres against civilians became international turning points in the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. Images of emaciated prisoners, victims of ethnic cleansing, created uncomfortable echoes of Auschwitz, Belsen and Treblinka, Hells-on-Earth that were unimaginable in the 20th Century until they were discovered, and considered unimaginable ever again until history started repeating itself in the former Yugoslavia. Here, though, NATO dealt with its guilt and took action.

Likewise, up to a point, NATO - or at least France and the UK - dealt with its guilt in Libya, believing that it could no longer countenance its past courtship of a dictator when he was now brutally suppressing opposition. History will be the better judge of whether further human abhorrence was prevented in Libya, seeing as sectarianism is continuing. As in Iraq, removing the snake's head is sometimes only a partial remedy.

I won't begin to suggest that I have any profound intellectual understanding of the complexities of the Middle East. I just about grasp the suggestion that taking full military action against Syria would be too difficult to launch. But then they said the same in 1991, when "complexities" balanced the first Gulf War on a knife-edge of regional diplomacy. And I dare say that launching D-Day in 1944 was hardly the military equivalent of pulling on a Nike T-shirt bearing the "Just Do It" slogan.

Waking up this morning in the Florida sunshine to the picture you see at the top of this post brought on a pang of white man's guilt. But as I commence another day in one paradise, there are 108 Syrians waking up in their own paradise. And maybe they are asking at what point the rest of the world can stand by while a government carries out acts of unimaginable depravity against children, as occurred in Houla.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Reality bites

The trouble with having too much time on your hands during long-distance air travel is that boredom and - in my case, an inability to sleep - inevitably finds you creeping around the choice of television channels on offer.

On these occasions one of my many complexities comes to bear: there is usually, out of a choice of plenty, only one brand new film that I'll want to watch, and maybe one or two if I'm lucky that I'd want to watch again.

That means only four hours or so can be ticked off by Hollywood. I know there are plenty of other things I could do to fill the void of sitting in a cramped seat for longer than I would normally spend at work in a day - read a book, for example, or ask for the children's pack and do some colouring. But no.

On this most recent flight I succumbed to the dizzying choice of channels which, no matter who you fly with, and to which destination, you can guarantee will include episodes of Friends, 30 Rock, Everybody Loves Raymond and Mr. Bean. So, in desperation of wanting something slightly more nourishing for the brain (not that 30 Rock and Friends aren't exhaustingly funny), you turn to the Documentaries channel. And here depression sets in.

Because for 'Documentary' read Manly Individuals Doing Manly things: my choice was a thing featuring someone called Bear Grylls.

That's right, he's called Bear. And he sounds like a place: ("Drive on another 30 miles until you reach Bear Grylls. What's it named for? Well there was this old grizzly we called Cyclops, 'cos he only had one eye and....").

Bear is, however, English, which was a shock, as I could have sworn that the only people called Bear are large American gentlemen who ride motorcycles.

Bear isn't, thankfully, Bear's real name. His real name is Edward, but somewhere along the way he had the chutzpah to man-up and rename himself Bear. This particular Bear has generally done a lot of crazy things, like been a member of the SAS, climbed Everest, walked the Himalaya and spent entire days in rivers.

So, already feeling inadequate watching Bear do stupid things in a jungle in the interests of 'entertainment', I switched to a contemporary of his, Ray Mears. Although permanently clad in army fatigue-green, Mears isn't as interested in walking across the backs of crocodiles or arm wrestling piranha up the Orinoco.

Ray's speciality is survival. Handy skills to have, you might argue. Except the last thing you really want to be doing at 36,000 feet is watching a documentary about surviving in the wilderness after a plane crash.

Don't get me wrong: it is truly impressive to see Ray fashion a four-bedroom house with running water and sanitation out of bamboo using just his pocket knife, but it does serve as a timely reminder that worrying about air travel doesn't just involve the take-off and landing bit, but what you fly over.

Eager to find something of relative interest to my destination, I discovered a program called Swamp People. Tempting, as it was, to expect a program about dentally-challenged banjo players, it turned out to be a show about dentally-chalenged Louisiana hunters, whose passion, it would appear, is catching alligators.

Now we're talking. Given that the south-eastern states of America are teaming with around five million alligators, from the wetlands of North Carolina down to the mouth of the Mississippi, here was a nature documentary I could get my teeth into, so to speak.

Thus I discovered that these incredible creatures - who descended from the animals that survived whatever killed off the dinosaurs, whose bite can equate the same pressure of being crushed by a truck, and who can grow, on average, up to 11 feet in length - are also dumb enough to get caught, shot and piled up like fish on these hunters' boats. Or is that these hunters are dumb enough to spend their days wrestling these magnificent creatures into their boats?

Armed with a new-found respect for Wally and his brethren (that's Mr. Gator, rather than the swamp dudes), and being the restless holidaymaker that I am, I drove out of Miami and into the Everglades National Park, keen to experience one of the endless sources of natural wonder that America has nestling alongside its most densely populated and urbanised regions.

Over a million square miles of swamp, marsh and sawgrass, the Everglades represent the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, and it is home to one of the most incredible biodiversities on the planet.

Famously, most tourists - or at least those not interested in sport fishing - come in the hope of seeing an alligator and nothing else. It is quite reassuring to see helpful signs next to lagoons instructing you on what to do if you do encounter one of the creatures.

Firstly, you are advised not to venture any closer than five metres. OK, I'm cool with that. Secondly, if they open their mouths in your direction they may just be yawning, but it could also be the gator equivalent of drawing a finger across one's throat, pirate-style. Check that one. And thirdly, if they start hissing at you, run. None of that stand-still-and-pretend-you're-dead nonsense you're supposed to adhere to if you meet a bear in Yosemite. No, plain and simple: leg it.

Throughout my day in the Everglades I was somewhat disappointed to only see one alligator, and from a distance, its eyes breaking the water in a stream alarmingly next to a main road. Walking through dense vegetation at one point, there were other things to be conscious of. The Everglades are home to the Florida Panther, a relatively shy big cat and a close cousin to the mountain lions that exist on the West Coast, including suburban parts of California. There are also American crocodiles, another endangered species, along with other exotic reptilians. I was particularly wary of snakes, but apart from seeing the tale of one disappearing into the undergrowth, there were not going to be any Indiana Jones-style encounters for me.

That said, one piece of information did make me somewhat nervous: in the last ten years there has been an explosion in the Everglades in the population of non-native Burmese pythons.

Like the plot of a particularly cheesy horror movie, these snakes have proliferated as a result of urban owners keeping them as pets and then releasing them into the wild when they become too much. These are large animals and have been known to attack some of the Everglades' largest fellow predators, causing concern amongst park officials about the area's natural ecosystem being changed as a result.

Alligators, crocodiles, panthers, snakes - the stuff of your worst nightmares. However, these threats not withstanding, I was relatively happy trail-walking by myself. Bring the beasties on, I said to myself. I've seen this stuff on TV - Bear Grylls would just stare a monster constrictor down, tie it into a bow and present it to his momma for Christmas.

I could be like that. Hell, I was being like that - no fear that around every corner lurked teeth, fangs and other instruments of death. What I hadn't banked on, unfortunately - and here my delusion of alpha malehood reaches its nadir - is the mosquito.

In Africa, mozzies are a serious pest, transmitting malaria and causes the deaths of more than half a million people every year, with Africa bearing the brunt - 91% - of all global deaths from the disease.

In south Florida, I discovered to my cost, the mozzies are the size of small birds, hunt in swarms reminiscent of the marauding beasts in Aliens, and no amount of repellent, Kevlar and windmilling, Pete Townshend-style, will prevent your body from looking like the top of a LEGO brick.

I thought I'd taken all the right precautions in minimising exposed skin, but just a 15-minute encounter with the world outside my sealed, air-conditioned car was enough to render parts of me that I didn't know could be exposed resembling a relief map of the Pyrenees.

One uncomfortable night later, I have abandoned thoughts of becoming the next Bear Grylls. Rarely do you see the television adventurer complaining about insect bites the size of anteater mounds. Filming of an encounter with something large and snappy has never stopped to administer more cream. The conclusion, then, is that I'm not the outdoorsy wannabe alpha male I thought I was, but a cityfied comfort junky who, when confronted by a simple insect, is sent scurrying back to the city for a chilled mojito and a large cigar.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The e-Hell of e-travel

So I'm on holiday. Florida, since you ask, Miami should you care. More of which to come in the days ahead.

Anyway, as I was commencing my journey yesterday, enduring all the trauma that comes with long-distance travel in the post-9/11 era (e.g. being able to take a bottle of water onto your plane in Paris, but not being able to transfer it to your next flight in London. What could I honestly have done to it between cities?), I was struck by how modernity has complicated the holiday experience.

This then prompted one of those discussions common in the inner conversation of the forty-four year-old - how much easier things were "in the olden days".

For example, milk. In Britain, it was delivered to your doorstop by a jolly, whistling fellow who was partly dressed as a scientist (white lab coat), partly as a sailor (captain's hat) and partly as an early metrosexual (black leather man bag strapped across his front). The milk, itself, was delivered in glass bottles which were taken away to be reused when empty. I believe they call it now "recycling". However, today milk has to be bought from a supermarket, which many people go to by car (whereas the milkman drove an electric cart) and it comes in cartons which end up in landfill degrading with a slower half-life than used plutonium.

Holidays were simpler when I was a child. For a start, my dad booked them, and my mum did the packing. I just had to be out of bed at four in the morning because, apparently, Wales is further from south-west London than the Moon, the Severn Bridge is a nightmare if you get to it after nine (in 1976) and Saturday mornings in Abergavenny will slow our journey even further.

Today, however, heading on holiday is the tenth circle of Hell that Dante clearly couldn't bring himself to describe. Firstly, you have to pay for it yourself. Secondly you have to spend hours online taking care of your flights, hotel, hire car, taxi transfers, insurance, extra insurance for the hire car and medical insurance in case your travel insurance won't cover anything more than a plaster.

Because this is 2012, and not 1976, and you are flying to your week or two of stress-free indulgence, you must check in an hour before you were told to check in because you simply don't trust the "wait times" for security your airline 'advised'. And thus you are proven right. Because there, between you and your window seat is an experience that makes Monty Python's version of the Spanish Inquisition - replete with comfy cushions - infinitely more agreeable than the real thing.

This is because you must now rid yourself of anything and everything that could be used as a bomb. Shoes, belts, chewing gum, pens, watches, jackets, underwear...all so you can walk through an X-ray machine that will mentally undress you in any case. Mark my words: there will be a noticeable uptick soon in the number of compensation claims from traumatised airport workers "forced to see things no human should be exposed to".

If you're a frequent traveller you will have a partially stoic attitude to all this malarkey. You will be savvy enough to be holding your belt, jacket, laptop, iPad, "outer garment" and shoes in your hands before you reach the X-ray conveyor belt.

For the most part, your stoicism will accommodate the infrequent flyers who have no idea why doing all this will help your fellow travellers, but may be stretched to breaking point when a small arsenal of liquids are removed from hand luggage along with items like nail clippers (which reminds me of Robin Williams on this topic: "What can you do with nail clippers? Is there a terrorist planning to bring down a plane screaming: 'Do as you're told or the bitch loses a cuticle!'?").

Eventually you will reach your boarding gate. Here, your airline has prepared one last humiliation: the e-ticket. Because no-one has actual airline tickets anymore, there's a chance you won't have been given a boarding pass. No, it has been sent to your smartphone. And so, at the point of departure, you and every other travelling tech-head has to go through the ritual of trying to flip over an iPhone without it auto zooming or changing orientation in order for your electronic boarding pass to be read. Flipping pancakes is a lot easier.

Assume, then, that you have surpassed departure stage, endured the flight and all its inhumanity (including - as happened yesterday with British Airways - running out of the meal choice by row 14 of a Boeing 747), and have landed at your chosen destination. Then what?

The first priority of any holidaymaker getting away from it all is to immediately reconnect with home. In the olden days, this meant a postcard for those who mattered a small amount, and queuing up at a phone box clutching a handful of pesetas to inform those who mattered that much more. At the other end of the phone will be a clearly indifferent loved one who will, through gritted teeth, feign delight that you've landed safely and have bothered to call at almost midnight to inform them of such.

Today, there is a different scramble, as I heard yesterday at Miami International Airport from, surprisingly, a late-middle aged couple: "I can't get a bloody 3G signal on my BlackBerry - how am I going to update my Facebook status to say we've landed?".

Here we must recognise how social media is both blessing and curse. Facebook has seen off the postcard, though you would never have dreamed of sending a stream of postcards giving incremental updates:  "Simon...has landed...and it's bloody hot!!"; "Simon...has arrived at the hotel....and it's bloody hot!!"; and then, ad nauseum for the remainder of the holiday, reports that Simon " at the cathedral - and it's bloody hot!!", " the beach....bloody hot!!", "...Turkish steam room...bloody hot!!", "...volcano's edge...bloody hot!!". I think you get the pattern.

Twitter might serve you better if you wish to offer footstep-by-footstep coverage of the queuing process for that big theme park attraction - a painful-enough experience if you're in one of those parks where you wait for two-and-a-half hours for a 30-second ride.

For the shutterbug, there's Instagram and Hipstamatic, which spare us all from the once annual torture of an evening in front of a projector watching Dave's "hilarious" holiday slides ("Here's the one where Sheila's bikini almost came off, ha, ha, ha, ho, ho, had to be there...."). And then there is the beautiful-looking Path, which limits you to 150 contacts and seems to exist purely for the purpose of creating a photographic timeline of your travels.

All this is, indeed, marvelous, but their flaw is that you need the Internet to make use of them. And with roaming charges for smartphones something close to a Mafia shakedown, and hotels gouging horrendous charges for WiFi reception so poor it would be easier to connect via a dial-up modem, you're stuck. You could try finding a shop to sell you a pre-paid SIM card for your mobile phone, but what's the point in losing precious hours of your holiday so you can connect with the very place you've just gotten way from?

Maybe the postcard wasn't a bad invention after all. Even if it did arrive two weeks after you got back...

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Who let the Drog out?

There can be no more fearsome sight in football than Didier Yves Drogba Tébily, head bowed, charging down a defender like an enraged stallion. It looked ferocious enough from the East Stand Upper Section at Stamford Bridge, where I sit, so God only knows what it must be like at pitch level with the Ivorian coming at you.

Drogba has been a formidable centre-forward for Chelsea these last eight seasons. Putting aside his ridiculous histrionics, his handbags-aloft huffing, puffing and sudden, life-threatening twinges when games have started to go against him, and, of course, his at-times comical diving talents, there hasn't been a player to wear the No.11 shirt quite like him - at Chelsea or any other team for that matter.

And now he is off, confirming this evening in a statement: "It has been a very difficult decision for me to make and I am very proud of what we have achieved, but the time is right for a new challenge for me."

Saturday night's Champions League triumph has, as expected, lowered the curtain on eight seasons of high-octane entertainment, when part of the fun of watching Chelsea has been wondering which Didier Drogba runs out onto the pitch.

"As a team we have accomplished so much," said Drogba's statement, "and have won every single trophy possible. Saturday was a very special moment for everyone at the club and for all the fans. I am very proud to have played my part in bringing many trophies to this club, which has been my home for the last eight years."

Drogba's statement was intended to hose down speculation - and confusion. Smart money is that he will join former Chelsea teammate Nicolas Anelka at Shanghai Shenhua in China, although his agents were still maintaining yesterday that a deal could be struck with Brer Abramovich and his team of shadowy advisers.

However, if Drogba accepts Zhu Jun's generous bag of silver, he will not only be lining the pockets of his family's future prosperity, but that of his foundation. This institution has become an increasingly important part of Drogba's life as he reaches the early stages of twilight in his playing career (he donated his £3 million endorsement fee for a Pepsi commercial to building a hospital in his hometown Abidjan, the Ivory Coast capital).

If Drogba had remained at Chelsea for another season, age should not have been an issue. He is only 34, and injuries not withstanding, in excellent condition. Age has clearly not been a factor in Ryan Giggs' continued timeshare ownership of Manchester United's left flank, either, and he will be 39 in November (as long as he stays out of trouble in the bedroom...). Paul Scholes, exactly 12 months younger, has also proven that old dogs don't always lie around, drooling on the carpet (although the lateness of some of his tackles this season might suggest a certain age-related decline in his mental faculties...).

Wherever Drogba plies his trade next, evidence from the last few weeks has demonstrated that he is far from the knackers yard yet. His potency in front of goal, his love of the big stages - especially Wembley - and his tremendous work rate (when in the right frame of mind) have been exceptional in Chelsea's amazing, unlikely last few weeks, continually showing the sulky Fernando Torres what it's all about.

The Didier Drogba I've enjoyed more than any other at Chelsea has been the Drogba holding up opposition defenders one minute, scoring with a deft twist and a powerful volley, and then popping up as an auxiliary central defender in front of his own goalmouth minutes later. Few critics seem to recognise that side of him, such is their usual rush to leap on his obvious diving tendencies.

My spectacles aren't, though, so blue-tinted that I can ignore the theatrical aspects of Drogba's game. And we've seen as much of that side of him this season as any other: his continual rolling around, like a B-movie actor getting shot every three pages of script, may have successfully disrupted the home leg of the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona, but it was bloody annoying to watch.

Not surprisingly, we've let it go, but don't ever think that the mood in the stands is approving. We have regularly screamed ourselves hoarse for the upright Drogba, the Attack Drog and the Guard Drog, to perpetuate the awful back page headline puns. This is Didier - Team Player, the Drogba who, in the Champions League semi-final at Camp Nou was a powerful presence in the nine-man wall Chelsea erected in front of Petr Čech. Although the occasionally necessary forays back into his own penalty area haven't always been helpful (he conceded two penalties in consecutive European games in virtually the same circumstances each time), no one has ever been able to fault his team ethic.

Opposition fans, neutrals and defenders will be glad to see the back of Drogba but for us fans who've endured both the good and the bad of the club for most of our lives, we will be saying farewell to a remarkable workhorse.

We will be saying farewell to a striker who is Chelsea's 4th all-time scorer, ahead, even, of the legendary Peter Osgood - the King of Stamford Bridge. Drogba's 157 goals in all competitions, including more than 100 in the Premier League itself, have been capitalised further by his simply towering personality on the pitch, geeing up the fans when support has been felt to be lacking in a game. Drogba is a showman, and while not in the same league of all-round charisma as Gianfranco Zola or Thierry Henry, he has been - when on form - a player worthy of the entry ticket price alone.

I'm sure, as he leaves, there will be plenty of platitudes from within the club about Drogba having been "Chelsea through and through" (indeed he has said himself: "Chelsea is in my heart. My blood is blue and my heart even more so"), even if, like Patrick Viera, rumours of a departure have surfaced almost every summer since he joined from Marseille in 2004. But whatever loyalty Drogba has been able to summon in his eight seasons at the club, his legacy is assured.

If it hadn't been assured before, the last four weeks have locked it in tight. Drogba's remarkable history at Wembley, with seven goals in finals and semi-finals, has been augmented by that stunner against Tottenham in this season's FA Cup Semi-Final which led to a 5-1 rout. Then, just three days later, he delivered another blessed strike in the home leg of the Barcelona fixture. Back to Wembley again, the winner against Liverpool to win Chelsea the FA Cup itself.

Fittingly, poetically, romantically, even predictably, Drogba was centre-stage again in Chelsea's greatest night, it's greatest triumph.

His injury-time equaliser will go down in club history right up there next to Zola coming off the bench and scoring 20 seconds later to beat Stuttgart in the 1998 European Cup Winners Final. And while we're at it, Dennis Wise's unlikely equaliser in the San Siro against Milan in 1996.

The difference is that the equaliser in Munich on Saturday, just a couple of minutes after the hosts had taken the lead, was classic Drogba: timely, dramatic, game changing.

That he also scored the winning penalty in the inevitable shootout was possibly the work of an overactive Hollywood creative. Even now I'm suspicious of what I saw, but then so much has been an odd whirl since Saturday night, my head amongst them.

Now we know that Champions League Final was Didier Drogba's final game for Chelsea, and that fifth penalty his last kick in a blue shirt. Contrived or not, I'll take that as his sign off and happily walk  away from one of the greatest - and often most infuriating - player to have ever worn the blue shirt.

Monday, May 21, 2012

It's still raining in Tinseltown

I'm not a betting man, but I'd waver a small purse on the fact that Paul Buchanan will never catch up with Rihanna's energetic work rate.

Unlike the Barbadian minx, who has released six studio albums in the space of seven years, Buchanan has produced just four records in 30 years with his band The Blue Nile.

Over the giddy course of their four releases - the last, and most probably their lastappearing in 2004 - the Scottish trio garnered copious praise from music's cognoscenti, holding them in the highest of regard as 'musicians' musicians.

Bracketed along with other earnest, serious synth-pop bands like Talk Talk, along with Scotia contemporaries like Hue And Cry and Hipsway, The Blue Nile were nevertheless a band apart.

Listening back to those four albums - the beautiful, haunting A Walk Across The Rooftops, the beautiful, haunting Hats, the beautiful, haunting Peace At Last, and, haunting High - it's not hard to see what earned them acclaim and collaborative requests from Annie Lennox, Texas and a lengthy list of other serious musicians seeking to tap into the same "beautiful, haunting" soundscapes.

But with The Blue Nile now on permanent hiatus, Buchanan has returned - eight years since High - with his debut solo album, Mid Air. Anyone expecting the sort of grown-up, soulful rock of Tinseltown In The Rain or  The Downtown Lights will be disappointed. This is an album as cold and as sparse as a Scottish moor in winter; extremely intimate and even claustrophobic at times, sounding - in its contemplative vacancy - as if it was recorded at three in the morning in Buchanan's spare room, hoping not to wake anyone else sleeping in the house. Which, it turns out, is exactly how it was recorded.

Just 36 minutes in length, Mid Air skips from track-to-track, Buchanan's achingly mournful voice applied simply over a piano, sometime hardly even registering above it, providing ample evidence why the singer is often referenced in the same breaths as Stephen Bishop or John Martyn for heart-on-sleeve, emotionally-draining singer-songwriter artisanship. The voice-and-piano combination forces you to listen to the lyrics, listen to the phrasing. It's a powerful combination when you have a voice like Buchanan's, but then the same applies to Tom Waits or Peter Gabriel (a case in point is his stripped down version of Here Comes The Flood, something of a prototype for Buchanan here). 

It is not, Buchanan says, intended to be a downer, but Mid Air's sparsity is the result of the singer simply not trying to make a group album:  “I think if I’d tried to make a record that sounds like the band I’d be quite nervous," Buchanan says in his publicity blurb, adding that the songs are "quite small in stature and the songs are very brief."

As a result, the 56-year-old Buchanan channels the highs and lows of getting older, of relationships changing and even loss. “When I was making the record, a close friend of mine died”, Buchanan says. “Peter was very moral, but not for any religious reason – he just loved people. He was also an excellent and hilarious guy, and he would have taunted me relentlessly if I’d made a requiem for him. The record’s very hushed, but it’s not mournful – it’s quite celebratory.”

Mid Air does take two or three listens to distinguish between many of its 14 songs, their plaintive four-in-the-morning angst appearing very similar on first listen, as if Buchanan has taken From A Late Night Train from the Hats album and tried to rewrite it several times over. He does, in fact, admit that he is “continually re-writing the same song”, chipping away at the themes that have absorbed him from day one, but then so have people like Roger Waters and Pete Townshend in their return to themes and, in Waters' case, the wartime death of his father as his writing muse.

Buchanan says the album came about, not through commercial necessity or contractual obligation, but because he found himself, indeed, at a piano staring out of the window in the middle of the night. "At no point did I think I was making a record," he recently told The Guardian. "It never occurred to me that anybody else would listen to it. Looking back, that was a great thing. That unselfconscious quality becomes more elusive as you go on making music, so it's nice to be brought back to that very simple expectation. It was almost like starting out again. I wasn't deliberately making a record of fulfilling a contract. There's a joy and innocence in that."

The result is a minimalist simplicity, an album that could soundtrack Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, were that piece of art to be depicting a Glasgow cafe and not a Manhattan diner at night. The sotto voce treatment, especially of the piano, gives it a Michael Nyman quality, especially on songs like Tuesday and Fin de Siecle. But in losing the warmth that made The Blue Nile's material such joys to curl up to, Buchanan hasn't lost the ability to make music to erect the hairs on your neck, drawing you in to hear the Scot considering life's transit ("Life goes by and you learn how to watch your bridges burn" he opines on After Dark, or "Far above the chimney tops, take me where the bus don’t stop," he reminisces on On My True Country).

Dare I say it, but Mid Air is both beautiful and haunting. It won't liven up dinner parties, nor make your treadmill workout any more vigorous. But if you like listening to contemplative, raw emotion on a record - and better still, through headphones in the middle of the night - this will be an album, much like the four Buchanan made with The Blue Nile, that you will periodically return to and wonder why you haven't listened to it more often.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Are two doctors better than one?

Along with better sanitation, medicine, education, irrigation, public health, roads, fresh water, baths and public order, another thing the Romans did for us was invent the doctor joke. I kid you not.

For the last couple of years experts on such things have been studying 256 side-splitters, written in Greek on a 3rd Century Roman manuscript, which includes this belter: "A doctor was talking to a patient. 'Doctor,' the patient says, 'Whenever I get up after a sleep, I feel dizzy. For half an hour, then I'm all right.' To which the doctor replies, 'Then wait for half an hour before getting up'. Ha, and, if I may, ha.

What history doesn't show is that it took another 700 years before the great Tommy Cooper improved upon this mirth with this gem: "Woman tells her doctor, 'I've got a bad back.' Doctor says, 'It's old age.' The woman says, 'I want a second opinion.' The doctor says: 'Okay - you're ugly as well.'" Fankuverymuch.

Unlike medical-themed comedy, music has found itself in the rudest of health in recent months. We've had - in no particular order of excellence - The Alabama Shakes' Boys And Girls, The Black Keys' storming El Camino, the return of Dodgy with Stand Upright In A Cool Place, Jack White's BlunderbussBruce Springsteen's Wrecking BallPaul Weller's Sonik Kicks, Lana Del Rey's Born To Die and the truly stunning Standing At The Sky's Edge from Richard Hawley.

Such has been the volume of great albums coming out in recent weeks that it's taken a month to commit thoughts to blog on a brace of stunners from a pair of musical sawbones, Dr Robert and Dr John, but if you find yourself perusing your preferred music emporium this weekend - virtual or bricks and mortar - give one or all of these a try.

A year and a recent visit to a Spanish cardiovascular unit on from the release of The Blow Monkeys' exceptional Staring At The Sea, Bruce Robert Howard - the good Dr Robert to you and me - is back with an welcome blast of Mediterranean sunshine, Flutes And Bones (actually, and at risk of making awful political commentary about overworked doctors, Robert has actually brought out two solo albums - more of which in a moment).

Howard is one of Britain's most under-rated songwriters. It has baffled me for a long time why his profile isn't higher, or has been maintained to the heights he enjoyed in the 80s hey-days of The Blow Monkeys, the pop-soul-funk outfit who were a core of the white soul movement led by The Style Council and Animal Nightlife, as well as other popstrels like Curiosity Killed The Cat and Johnny Hates Jazz.

Hits like Digging Your Scene and It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way wrapped atypically mid-80s social and political commentary into beguiling pop, exemplified by their third album, She Was Only A Grocer’s Daughter - a delightful titular dig at Margaret Thatcher which even featured a collaboration with the legendary Curtis Mayfield.

With the deade's revival of agit-prop and CND, not to mention the establishment of protest camps at  the Greenham Common airbase by hardy-looking women, The Blow Monkeys joined in the soulful protest movement of the time. Alongside Paul Weller, Billy Bragg and Ken Livinstone at Red Wedge concerts, they endeavoured to ensure their music said something. Whoops! There Goes The Neighbourhood in 1989 took a hefty stance on many issues, including apartheid, while still staying on the funky side of soulful with songs like Wait featuring Kym Mazelle.

A split in the 90s saw Howard write and record with Weller, contributing to his self-titled solo debut as well as the Wild Wood and Stanley Road albums. In 2002, Robert moved his life to a village near Granada in Spain for a change of pace. For someone whose pop star image had been achingly cool, this was a befitting destination.

Put the pop star away, however, and you get Dr Robert, the gifted songwriter, velvet-smooth singer and a none-too-shabby guitarist, either. In between Blow Monkeys projects he has produced a steady stream of well received solo albums, including Five In The Afternoon, his 2007 project with soul singer P.P. Arnold which deserves to be played at least once a day, every day during the summer months.

To that summer playlist, add Flutes And Bones. Normally "more of the same" would suggest a lack of creative adventure, but in this case, it is just what the doctor ordered - a life-enhancing dose of exquisitely produced white soul with heavy traces of funk, blues and relaxing, siesta-sleepiness of Andalucian village life.

It's a top-down, cabriolet car car ride through bucolic hillside communities, inspired almost exclusively by the remote mountain village near where Robert now lives. Its title comes from a poem by Spanish laureate Federico Garcia Lorca about the death of a bullfighter, but the album itself is a far more genteel affair, capturing dozing whitewashed streets on track after track, from the looping acoustic guitar of Steal The Silver, to the lyrically more obvious Place In The Sun, the easy-going Face In The Rock and the album's closing title track, a pretty three-minute instrumental that will no doubt turn up on Spanish travel documentaries at some point. And if it doesn't, it should.

Flutes And Bones frequently offers Robert a platform to show off his impressive acoustic and electric guitar chops - particularly the single release, Coldheart, with its haunting and docile rhythm, Fools Gold-style double-tracked, echo-heavy vocal and woozy-bluesy soloing. But to appreciate his guitar playing further, Robert has simultaneously released Acoustic Blow Monkeys, a collection of ten tracks from his band's 31-year catalogue, 're-imagined' for a stripped down, man-and-guitar approach.

It is an album for fans, but if you were to come across The Blow Monkeys for the first time via this record, you wouldn't feel disappointed.

Some songs take on a new note: Digging Your Scene, for example, a once-sprightly 80s pop song takes on jazzier feel, with just a wah-wah pedal to funk it up a step, although the addition of electic guitar to the acoustic fills out the track further.

It Doesn't Have To Be This Way, on the other hand is the least different from the original. The Monkey's biggest hit, it makes an effortless transition here from the light pop of the original to the sparse, acoustic jazz without losing any familiarity.

Some - like Wait and Slaves No More sound, unsurprisingly, like different songs when removed from their 80s dance setting, but then that should be the expectation of an album which, on paper sounds like a solo singer-songwriter strumming away on his own in a Spanish hotel bar, but in reality feels well filled out by Howard's acoustic and electric guitars, and a 52-year-old voice that sounds deeper than it did almost three decades ago.

Fans of The Muppet Show will be familiar with Animal, the Venus Flytrap-eyebrowed drummer of indeterminate species, who flailed away at the back of the Electric Mayhem Band in a felt hybrid of Keith Moon, Cozy Powell, Carl Palmer and just about every showboating rock drummer to ever sit at a drum stool.

Often forgotten, sadly, is the band's spindly leader and ivory-tinkler, Dr Teeth - he of the crooked stovepipe hat and brick wall of teeth interrupted by a solitary gold one, long before Madonna made such accoutrements fashionable.

Teeth's characterisation as a slightly wonky keyboard player was no accident: Jim Henson himself based the character on legendary New Orleans voodoo-blues, funk and jazz pianist Dr John.

Born Mac Rebbennack - a name better suited to an Elmore Leonard novel, perhaps - Dr John has been one of the most acclaimed and enigmatic exponents of both boogie and woogie since emerging in the late 60s as a distinctive flavour of those creatively expressive times. His entry to piano playing might well have come out of one of Leonard's stories too: originally a guitar player, Rebbenack was playing guitar at 21 until losing part of a finger through gunfire while trying to protect a friend from getting pistol-whipped.

After several years of authentic New Orleans jazz albums - many, since Hurricane Katrina did her worst in 2005, in support of efforts to restore The Big Easy (and a fine job, too, as WWDBD? discovered last September), the 'Night Tripper' himself has returned to his early sound with what is, for me, one of the albums of 2012 - Locked Down.

Produced by The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach - doing the sort of career reboot that T-Bone Burnett and Rick Rubin have done for others, and a deliberate measure by Auerbach to get John's profile up - Locked Down is a delicious, Louisiana stew of vintage R'n'B and the jazz-tinged groove.

From the off, the title track's Lalo Schifrin-meets-Sergio Leone off-kilter groove sets the expectation level high for something special.

Locked Down is not just an opportunity for the 71-year-old Rebbennack to dust off his old electric piano chops, but dig into contemporary themes that have been burning him up.

Revolution takes a swipe at the political climate at a toe-tapping Stax pace, while Big Shot takes on pomposity with the sort of urban urgency that have made The Roots such a compelling band to listen to and watch (and what they're doing as the house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon baffles still).

Of all the deliberately retro twists, Ice Age takes the biscuit for its rigid African funk groove - one you suspect could easily be jammed out all night long - and laded with John's gumbo-grizzled growl gurgling over the top in an attack on societal ills like Crack and supposed conspiracy theories involving the "CIA, KKK - all playing in the same game".

Auerbach's influence on this album is more than just cheerleading a legend back to prominence (although his apparent offer to "produce the best record you've made in a long time" was a pretty compelling proposition). Hand-picking the musicians, Auerbach has enabled John to delve deeply into funk's past, with tracks like Kingdom Of Izzness and Eleggua applying the sort of liveliness that Curtis Mayfield and Issaac Hayes made classic blaxploitation movies like Foxy Brown and Shaft ease on down the road so entertainingly.

To close Locked Down, John walks down the aisle of swinging gospel funk with God Sure Good, a redemptive, spiritual acknowledgement of, perhaps, some higher purpose. John has enjoyed a colourful existence, and the impact of Katrina on New Orleans has clearly had its impact on him: "God been good to me/Better than me to myself/Pick me up, open the gates of hell/Made me well, told me a lesson/Brought me blessing/God don't be resting".

One of the most refreshing aspects of Locked Down is that it allows Dr John to stray from his 'Professional' Louisianan persona, his Crescent City version of the Pearly King, all swamp blues, zydeco and creole. It's delicious brew of old and new - an allegory itself for the New Orleans emerging from its recent travails -  disassociates John from the Lousiana voodoo his career has largely been associated with (an affectation of the Dr John character, as opposed to Jimmy Page's alleged private dabbling in the black arts of Aleister Crowley).

It wouldn't be right to see this as another reboot, good as some of the work that Rubin and Burnett have done elsewhere. Auberach has reached into Dr John's beating heart and found a musical essence to add into a swirling cauldron of the finest funk, rhythm and blues and soul that you'll hear this year, and maybe next too.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Princess of Darkness

Her father went from rural Tupelo, Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee, to find his fortune, and then, with the exception of a brief stint soldiering for Uncle Sam in Germany, appeared to spend the rest of his career shuttling between Graceland and Las Vegas.

Lisa Marie Presley has taken a more leisurely route, helped not inconsiderably by inheriting papa's estate at the age of 25. But blessed - or cursed - with being the King of Rock and Roll's only offspring and sole heir, La Presley has, like most offspring of the incalculably famous, endured the spotlight all of her life - and long before she sought fame herself with her debut album.

That record, To Whom It May Concern, released in 2003, earned surprising plaudits - surprising in that being Elvis Presley's daughter was too much of an unfairly loaded dice for Presley herself, given that she will always be compared with the incomparable.

Its follow-up, Now What, faired less favourably, largely due to its choice of AOR durge, such as a dreadful cover of Don Henley's Dirty Laundry. Mind you, coming on the back of her failed third marriage (to Nicolas Cage), Presley was probably looking to blow off some steam.

Seven years later, the 44-year-old has returned with Storm & Grace, an album that draws strength from a combination of the go-to American roots producer du jour, T-Bone Burnett, and - incongruously - the unlikely influence of the cities of Sheffield, Glasgow and the London suburb of Wimbledon. Yes, let me read that back to you again - producer T-Bone Burnett, Sheffield, Glasgow and Wimbledon.

Burnett's knack of bringing new life to venerable artists like Tony Bennett and the late Roy Orbison, and raising the profile of bluegrass with his soundtrack work on O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss blockbuster Raising Sand, is clearly a perfect fit for Lisa Marie Presley, drawing together different strands of modern music's DNA, one way or another.

What is less obvious, but a masterstroke in my opinion, is Presley's choice of working with Britain's Richard Hawley (whose incredible new album Standing At The Sky's Edge came out last week - and reviewed here), along with south London's very own Ed Harcourt and Fran Healy from Travis. Like her father, Presley has canny management (Simon Fuller - svengali to the Beckhams, all the Spices and pop star-turned-pop stars' writer, Cathy Dennis), which enables you to stand back and admire Storm & Grace as a brilliantly crafted package - star, star producer, star writers.

Thankfully, the star ingredients have been turned into something edible (a relief as too often dream team combinations are considerably less the sum of their parts). Over Me - one of the tracks co-written by Presley and Harcourt - sets a tone of grown-up 'non-country' country-folk, lots of tremolo-shimmering guitar, a sound that continues onto You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, which finds Presley drawling, confrontationally, lines like "You can think that I'm evil and I'm off the rails - you ain't seen nothing yet, thatI'm a bit transgressive and suppressive as well." Alrighty then.

Without even needing to look up the sleeve notes, Weary is quintessential Richard Hawley. With Presley crooning, kd lang-style, a torch song of failed love ("I would have been your Priestess but I tripped on my robe"), echoey guitars shimmer in the background. Likewise on How Do I Fly This Plane?, the title track itself and the penultimate number, I Was Wrong. Achingly beautiful songs which, simply, underline why Hawley is one of the best British songwriters to emerge in the last couple of decades. The partnership between Presley and Hawley dates back to 2009, when they first performed Weary on stage together. Hawley then set out to help relaunch her career, and of the tracks on Storm & Grace, his are probably the best. Perhaps a dedicated album from the pair wouldn't be out of the question?

And, maybe, T-Bone Burnett would produce it. After recent production stints on albums like the Crazy Heart soundtrack, John Mellencamp's last three records, Elvis Costello's National Ransom and the underrated Elton John/Leon Russell collaboration, The Union, it can be a challenge to work out what it is Burnett brings to his projects. All are good, don't get me wrong, but it's with this album by Lisa Marie Presley that I've finally recognized that Burnett has a unique way of making American roots music moody. So Long is the perfect example - a darkly jaunty song, and another about farewells, it could so easily have been another Achy Breaky Heart in others' hands. Under Burnett, it lacks gloss - and that's just perfect.

As its principle lyricist, Presley treads the time-honoured tradition of using the album as part-confessional, part-exorcism for old ghosts. The death of second husband Michael Jackson can't be ruled out as one influence, but it seems that, now happily married for a fourth time with children running around, the contemplation Storm & Grace provides is to expunge all the other detritus life gathers as you reach your forties - and in Presley's case, a famous childhood included.

"In the past, I was terrified," she recently told an American newspaper. "I’d be nervous and worried about comparisons [to Elvis]”. On this record, I was starting from zero. But I soon realized I was going to be OK. I found a proper bed for my voice and songwriting to lie in."

That voice is a relatively low register, well suited to the sombre quality of this album. There are, however, tracks like Sticks And Stones that might have been better suited to a Jewel or Sheryl Crow (and, unfortunately, makes her sound a little too much Cher...). Then there are songs like Un-break which stray too far from the dark folk elsewhere, offering instead flat pop-rock with a few bits of Beatley psychedelia going on. So Long, goes for a poppier, jangly groove, but lacks the shadow that the rest of the album - and especially the Hawley and Harcourt co-composed tracks reside in to their credit.

Surprisingly, however, Lisa Marie - Rock'n'Roll's first and only princess (and certainly the only rock child I know of with a jet named after her) - spends half the year living in Britain - rural Kent, the garden of England, to be precise, which might explain her exposure to the UK's songwriting talent.

That she spends the other half of the year divided between Los Angeles and Memphis might explain the cultural split that defines the patchwork that exists on Storm & Grace.

That's not flag-waving sentiment - it's just that the rootsier end of the American songbook represented on this album seems to emanate, strangely, from Sheffield's Hawley and London's Harcourt, whose writing crops up twice more Soften The Blows, a more traditional, lap steel-infused country ballad, and the shuffle Storm Of Nails.

And what of Fran Healy? The Berlin-based Glaswegian provides the music to one track, Heartless. Given that Healy has been acclaimed for opening the doors, musically, to Coldplay and Keane, amongst other melodic "bed wetters" (to quote Alan McGhee...), his contribution here doesn't tug the emotions as much as the album's more haunting tracks do. And in that category, you must include the closing song Just A Dream, written entirely by Lisa Marie herself.

On the tailfins of both private jets now permanently parked at Graceland in Memphis - the Corvair 880 named Lisa Marie and the smaller Jetstar used by Elvis - is the lighting flash logo and initials TCB: Taking Care of Business. This became Presley's signature, but it would appear that his daughter has decided to do the same with Storm & Grace. After one good and one take-it-or-leave-it AOR effort, her third visit to the recording studio has been worth it.

It's not perfect, but in skipping the two or three tracks out of eleven that don't work, you're still left with an album well worthy of the numerous talents behind it.

Monday, May 14, 2012

They think it's all over...and it is. Almost.

Since Christmas, Britain has experienced snow, April showers and autumnal winds. In March temperatures reached the 20s, prompting people to "flock to the beaches" (i.e. publicity-seeking, bikini-clad nubiles braving Brighton's pebbles for The Sun). In May, the coats, scarves and hats have come out again, while there has been a drought in the midst of torrential rains. Peversely, non-greenists continue to maintain that nothing is wrong with the climate.

Another group of perennial dismissers are those who run football. Pompous suits, all. You can hear them trumpet away on topics such as all-seat stadia ("No, no, no! No need!"...until a Hillsborough or Heysel comes along) or goal-line technology ("No, no, no! No need!" everyone says it's a good thing and FIFA's 'leadership' agree that it should be 'investigated').

The same breed of besuited mandarins is also responsible for ensuring the final weeks of the domestic football season in England plays out like the local weather. Last weekend the FA Cup Final took place - as much the season's finale as The Community Shield is the "Traditional Season Opener™".  However, no sooner had Chelsea lifted the trophy they were following a dejected Liverpool up the motorway to play them again just three days later in a league fixture originally scheduled for the lunchtime of Cup Final Saturday.

Normally Cup Final Saturday is so sacrosanct that nothing, not even weddings, funerals, Papal coronations or Simon Cowell, would schedule against it, let alone other football matches. That didn't seem to bother those in charge who thought it OK to sneak in a lunchtime fixture for TV viewers in Malaysia, pushing the Cup Final to the positively unholy kick-off time of 5.15pm so that ITV could get a bigger audience for the only show with an alleged title, Britain's Got Talent.

Order, I'm pleased to say, was restored over this last weekend. With officially the final Barclays Premier League matches kicking off simultaneously at 3pm on Sunday, there was one more afternoon of nail biting before settlement of what has been, on balance, a good season. Since last August we have watched two parts of Manchester jostle for the top spot -  old money versus new, a wily Scot versus a scarf-wearing Italian, a team mixing the very young with the exceedingly old against a group of apparent mercenaries with a fireworking-launching lunatic amongst them.

I'm glad Manchester City won it. It helps to shake the tree every now and again. Over the years, Leeds, Blackburn, Newcastle and Chelsea have disrupted the patterns of dominance by Manchester United and Arsenal. It's good for the game for a team to wipe hubris off the face of the incumbent.

City have endured a lot over the years, not least of which having a neighbour like United, a team who have 'bought' the title so often simply by being bloody good, having - annoyingly - the best manager of all time, and generating money to bring in the best players as well as develop them.

Manchester City - like Chelsea - have applied their newly-minted wealth but, as we all know, you can have all the money in the world but that doesn't buy you a team,  or team spirit. Roberto Mancini has achieved that, against the odds perhaps. What he has to do now is prevent any implosion. Don't forget, Blackburn Rovers won the Premier League in 1995, buoyed by the money of steel magnate Jack Walker. Today they are contemplating life in the Championship next season. Despite being now bankrolled by a group of Indian poulterers.

If you're looking for further evidence of a great season, however, I wouldn't bother looking below the two Manchesters. With the exception of Newcastle, Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea have staged pretty dismal seasons - taking everything into account - in their pursuit of a third or fourth place and a tilt at next year's Champions League. Arsenal have dribbled (in the baby/elderly chap sense) their way through another potless season, coming third. Perhaps Arsenal should consider themselves proud to finish ahead of Spurs and Chelsea, but...well, really. Do bronze medalists ever get remembered?

Their London rivals can hardly look proud, either. Tottenham were doing alright until their manager's head was turned by an England job he didn't get, while Chelsea's season only really took off when the manager's job was taken away from him.

But let's not forget Newcastle. Hats should be darkening the skies of Tyneside for Alan Pardew's side this season.

A team built with a fraction of the money Roberto Mancini had to spend at Manchester City, they just got on with it, demonstrating resilience and a delightful propensity to entertain, usually against the traffic.

Despite three relatively poor final games, to end fifth and to have come as close as they have to an even higher finish - including a spot in the Champions League next season - deserves a lot of credit, and Pardew in particular, the LMA Manager of the Season award.

Same goes to Everton, yet again. Season in, season out, David Moyes seems to perform the footballing equivalent of a Biblical miracle by keeping Everton in the top half of the table, despite being, by Premier League standards, the proverbial church mouse in the fiscal standings. But not only did Moyes lead them to seventh, but they finished above the case of irritable bowel syndrome that Liverpool were this season.

These are dark days at Anfield, and you get the sense that the night of the long knives - which has claimed director of football Damien Comolli and PR chief Ian Cotton - may not be over as Kenny Dalglish and his No.2 Steve Clark head to Boston to explain to the club's owners what went wrong this term.

The claim about Season 2011-12 does have some credence, of course, and not just because of the Manchester head-to-head. Fulham, West Brom under new England manager Roy Hodgson, Swansea under rising star Brendan Rodgers (who managed to take Liverpool's scalp on the final day of the season...), the remarkable, promoted Norwich, Martin O'Neill's recovering Sunderland and perennial battlers Stoke all produced spunky performances to regularly test the mettle of the big boys up top.

Down at the other end lie the inevitable casualties. Blackburn just weren't in it all season, with the unpopular Steve Kean undermined by a hateful crowd and irrelevant ownership. Wolves just lost the plot - but they'll be back, they usually do -  and Bolton, sadly, simply weren't contenders. Yes, Fabrice Muamba's recovery was nothing short of miraculous, but that was the only marvel in an otherwise underwhelming and underperforming run of games that ends 11 straight years in the top flight.

And what of those teams who hovered over the trap door? Aston Villa, that proud and noble Birmingham institution, slid execrably almost out of the top flight, recording just 10 wins all season-long. Alex McLeish has now paid the price. True, he had the fans against him from the moment he arrived at Villa Park from the other side of Birmingham, but then he knew he'd have his work cut out, and give supporters something to get behind. He didn't.

QPR can consider themselves lucky, on the other hand. For all the money they've been given, 17th position is an abject outcome.

Mark Hughes is a good manager, even if his teams are a little rough around the edges, but he has sailed close to nonchalance this season, apparently unworried by everything, even as descent back into the Championship loomed nearer.

Perhaps his preparations for next season will commence with a revision on the wisdom of granting the captain's armband to the self-appointed Plato of Twitter, Joey Barton. On the last day of the season he revealed his true colors as a player unnaturally blessed in the dark arts of the psychopath. Time for a rethink there on both sides.

So, yes, on balance it has been a good season. A new name on the trophy and another reason for Liam Gallagher to be insufferable.

And what about Chelsea? I know, I haven't mentioned their league performance at all. Frankly it only really started on March 4 when Roberto Di Matteo took over from Andre Villas-Boas. They deserve to come sixth. I know they've transformed under Di Matteo, and I know they could have finished fourth or higher as a result, but then that would be a joke. No, sixth is the right outcome for this season.

As for their fortunes in the Champions League - different story. Being the superstitious football fan that I am, I'm not going to tempt fate by calling Saturday's final in Munich. But maybe - just maybe - things might go well against a demoralized Bayern Munich, trounced 5-2 in the German Cup Final on Saturday in what was - please note - the final game of the season. As it should be...

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

There's one in every town

In most municipalities you will find, rolling a ciggie outside a pub, an unwavering and authentic throwback, a walking museum and lifestyle rolled into one. "White face, black shirt/White socks, black shoes", as Ian Dury sang in his tribute to Gene Vincent - "There's one in every town".

Sheffield has one. His name is Richard Hawley. Amid the South Yorkshire city's other music luminaries - Joe Cocker, ABC, Heaven 17, Def Leppard, Human League, Arctic Monkeys and Pulp - Hawley stands out like a Wednesday shirt in the home end of Bramall Lane, residing in a unique niche of British pop music.

Over several acclaimed albums like Lady's Bridge and the ethereal Truelove's Guitar - named after parts of the Steel City - the bequiffed Hawley has attached his distinctively swoonsome 50s croon to melodic guitar rock, rockabilly, introspective country ballads and sweeping, strings-ahoy epics.

RIchard Hawley is blessed with a voice of sumptuous timbre, evocative of Jim Reeves, Johnny Cash and Matt Munro in its ease, and resonant of Morrissey, Nick Cave and Ian McCulloch in its bass. Add a prodigious family talent for music and, in his specific case, a talent for guitar (which has earned Hawley work with his friend and fellow Sheffielder, Jarvis Cocker, as well as a spot in the Pulp touring band, an appearance on Robbie Williams' debut solo album and the solo on All Saints' cover of Under The Bridge - plus diverse collaborations with Elbow, Nancy Sinatra, Paul Weller, and even guitarist-über-alles, Hank Marvin.

In spite of - or despite of - he remains something of an enigma, comfortable in his 'appy-to-be-in-the-corner-with-me-Guinness demeanor, extolling the melodic simplicity of the musical era his vocal talent was clearly designed to indulge. Don't, however, be mistaken into thinking the retro image - greased-back hair and vintage guitars - is the affectation of pastiche, of a tribute act lacking the desire to go the whole hog in a sequined jumpsuit.

"I'm a cheesy fucker," he told Uncut more than ten years ago. "All those influences [Reeves, Cash, etc]  are just in there. It's not that I'm against aggression and fast beats, but I'm convinced that when you reveal a more vulnerable side, it takes more bravery than shouting."

Ten years on, Hawley is still not shouting, but his latest - Standing By The Sky's Edge - finds the 45-year-old shaking a fist at a troubled world, and he does so with an album that may come as a shock to a fan base used to the gently-tempered ballads of past releases.

From the beginning, Standing By The Sky's Edge is an unexpectedly energetic explosion of psychedelia, huge power chords and reverb so cavernous it only stops when it meets Dante's ice cream van somewhere near the bottom. Wherever that might be.

She Brings The Sunlight, with it's Beatley opening and Eastern flavor, contains the darkly feelgood soundstage of a Gallagher festival pleaser, pushing its vocal into the back line amplification where it waits for a couple of trippy guitar solos to kick in mid-way through.

Clearly impressed with what you can do with echo and feedback, Standing At The Sky's Edge's title track starts like a Morricone score, half expecting Jon Bon Jovi to start singing "I'm wanted dead or alive". Such a song title might suggest a huge vista for contemplating life, Hawley's own version of Grand Canyon (Lawrence Kasdan's saccharine tale of Los Angelinos trying to discover their bigger purpose in front of the superlative scale of the Arizonan wonder). But no. Instead it is an uncompromising reflection of urban blight, set in yet another Sheffield location (Skye Edge), a notorious district where so many and so much has been denied.

Time Will Bring You Winter takes the tone of Standing At The Sky's Edge into even more unlit territory, Hawley's effect-filtered voice pushing itself up out of another enormous dollop of distorted, reverb-treated guitars before Down In The Woods chugs away with a further humungous saga of thundering bass and guitar amps turned up way past 11 and already on their way to 20.

After the aural assault of the first four songs Hawley treads a gentler path with Seek It, a quirkily beautiful love song built over a strangely familiar jangly guitar motif. Hawley would probably hate to be compared to Chris Isaak, but Seek It highlights just how similar the two singers are, and not because of a shared love of hair product and Gretsch semi-acoustics. Isaak may be more Hollywood, and Hawley more Hollyoaks, but their enjoyably nourish sound befits both a David Lynch soundtrack and a northern bedsit in equal measure.

From such gentility, Hawley returns with another five-minute epic, Don't Stare At The Sun. Commencing with a gently airy shuffle, and gradually building to a crescendo redolent of John Barry, the song is, however, about nothing more dramatic than Hawley taking his son to nearby fields to fly a kite. It's dark tonality, though, hints at something else, a warning, perhaps, that the innocence of childhood is fast becoming too fragile in today's world.

Standing At Sky's Edge has dark, it has shade, and it has light. Breathtaking and then surprising by turns, at times it drags you by the scruff of the neck while at others it leads you by the hand.

There are also times when you're just not so sure what it's doing, which is just fine. That is Hawley's gift, but beware - the look doesn't paint the complete picture of what Sheffield's very own Gene Vincent is about.

One thing is so - Standing At Sky's Edge may just be 56 of the most invigorating musical minutes you will enjoy this year. Simply, a stunning record.