Sunday, April 30, 2006

You've been Mango'd

Mango Sauce, a site aimed at male expats in Thailand, is closing down because Google (upon which it relies for ad revenue) has decided that its content is a bit too, well, fruity.

At first, I wasn't all that sympathetic. I made a conscious decision when I kicked off Cultural Snow that I would stumble by without any ads, just to avoid similar hassle. It really isn't expensive or time-consuming to run a site, especially somewhere like Thailand. There are, in any case, other sources of revenue (although, see this from Book World); and Google is surely under no statutory or moral obligation to pay for something it doesn't want to be associated with.

B-b-b-but... as you scroll down the story, there are extra layers of hypocrisy and lack of accountability within Google that do make me feel a degree of sympathy for David, the guy behind Mango Sauce. There are still sponsored links, for example, to sites that make MS's lad-mag content seem pretty mild. It's as if a company pulled all its advertising from Loaded, for moral reasons, but continued to appear in Razzle. And the decision appears to have been taken in its entirety by the mysterious 'Scott', because there's no evidence of any coherent rules or guidelines as to what meets Google's criteria for taste and decency and what doesn't. Bukkake OK, ping-pong not OK, apparently.

Add to this Google's ability to tie itself into moral knots, and compromise its entire raison d'être in order to crack the Chinese market (see Rupert Murdoch, the Rolling Stones, et al), and I think there's cause for unease, if not moral outrage. Mango Sauce is/was a cheerful, well-written, often funny site that seemed to be operating from a somewhat pre-feminist mindset; but it contained nothing that hasn't been said in The Londoner on Sukhumvit Road on any Saturday night. Call it Carry On Thailand to get the flavour. If the site closed down, maybe it wouldn't be a major loss to humanity, but it did have thousands of readers who derived pleasure from it, and picked up a lot of information as well. As David points out, it was getting rather more hits than the worthy, dull Tourism Authority of Thailand site ever achieved.

The real question is whether Google's success means that one of the original ideals of the web (freedom from major concentrations of power and influence) can survive. It may not bother you that a site apparently chiefly concerned with hookers and beer might bite the dust; but if Google can pull the plug on Mango Sauce on the basis of such petty, ill-informed quibbles, a few of you might be advised to look over your shoulders.

(And, with apologies to any disconsolate Brummies, phew...)

Friday, April 28, 2006

One step behind

J. Lo's new album will be ska-tinged, according to an interview in Harper's Bazaar.

No it bloody won't. It will sound a bit like Gwen Stefani. Now, sorry if I turn into Mark Lamarr for a moment, but how fucking dare this ludicrous woman presume that the corporate schlock she foists on her simpleton fanbase will have even the vaguest sniff of ska. She cannot sing; she cannot act; she wears more makeup than a Pattaya ladyboy; her sole contribution to human happiness is the suggestion that women with big arses can be attractive, and Carl Malcolm could have told her that already. She has no idea of the quivering joy that people like John Holt, Desmond Dekker, Jackie Mittoo, Toots Hibbert, Jerry Dammers or Pauline Black have brought to so many; she is a witless parasite, not fit to buff up the band on Prince Buster's trilby.

Thank you.

I will now calm down with some virtual bubblewrap, kindly provided by Grammar Puss; chortle merrily at a crazed slab of art history from First Nations, flagged up by the ever-fruitful Patroclus; and attempt to rearrange the words "John", "sex" and "Prescott" to create a phrase that doesn't provoke uncontrollable vomiting.

The strange case of the conceptual potato salad

La Boulange, 2/21 Soi Convent, Silom Road, Bangkok

A while ago, Spinsterella requested more Thai content, specifically food. As her wish is my command, I thought I'd tell you about my favourite haunt in Bangkok. La Boulange's main purpose is to supply authentic French bread and patisserie to shops and hotels in the capital. However, the operation has a parallel identity as a cafe/bistro on the slightly bohemian Soi Convent. As you might infer, it's not a Thai restaurant, although there are numerous stalls on the pavement immediately outside serving such titbits as barbecued pig bowels, if you like that kind of thing.

Not surprisingly, the baked goods are a major draw, whether you want to eat in or take away: fresh, still-warm baguettes and batards; buttery croissants and palmiers; and a revolving cast of gooey chocolatey and/or fruity things, including a distinctly moreish tarte aux pruneaux, the slight sourness of the fruit cutting through the unctuous custard. If you believe in the dictum that you have to finish your main course before you're allowed a pudding, there's a proper bistro menu of delights like salade Niçoise, roast chicken and charcuterie. Portions are generous, ingredients are fresh and it's good value, even by BKK standards. There's excellent coffee or, if the heat gets too much, citron pressé. A decent Bordeaux is usually at hand.

But my favourite thing on the menu is the potato salad with herring, despite the fact I've never tasted it. I love it because I order it every time I go, and it's never available. It's the Godot of potato salads; it's like the vermouth in a bone-dry martini, the slightest hint of potato salad. Maybe it only appears on the menu to instil an atmosphere of disappointment, a frisson of melancholy, a faint echo of Piaf or Brel; its essence being its absence. Hell, it's all pretty damn existential. In fact, I like to think that one day I'll turn up to La Boulange and find Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus discussing the fundamental aloneness of modern man confronted with the non-existence of potato salad, while Guy Debord daubs slogans on a spare tablecloth: SOYEZ RAISONNABLE! DEMANDEZ LA SALADE DE POMMES DE TERRES!!!

The level of service is variable; some of the staff have the typically Thai nervous desire to assist, even if they're not sure what they're doing. Fortunately some of them have cultivated a more quintessentially Parisian shrug that indicates they'll get to you in their own good time, which is much more comforting. None of them appears to speak any French, beyond what appears on the menu. The many French-speaking customers simply accept this - bof!- as a sad, global reality, an attitude not shared by their dear leader, it seems.

Also authentic are the French cartoons on the walls, and the copies of Le Monde, but other key indicators are missing. The ashtrays aren't emblazoned with the Ricard logo; there is no jukebox pumping out Claude François; and there's a distinct absence of teenage girls called Marie-Claude in unfeasibly short shorts, playing le flipper and sneaking drags of Gitanes from their swarthy older boyfriends. Jean-Paul and Albert and Guy are also sorely missed, but I don't think they hang out at Les Deux Magots either, these days.

And all these failings find their redemption across the road, where a Starbucks stands, taking the sins of the world unto itself like a globalised, corporate Jesus. The sheer, almost erotic joy of nursing a heady grand bol de café and a hunk of baguette with sweet, unsalted butter is good enough; but what takes La Boulange into another dimension is being able to flip the finger (bearing the tell-tale, flaky traces of that must-have pain au chocolat) at the witless brand zombies opposite, who've probably paid three times as much for their microwaved pastries and bland, goopy frappucinos.

"Cassez-vous!" we sneer, knowing that they won't be able to hear us over the whine of the tuk-tuks and the sizzle of the pig bowels, and that they wouldn't understand us anyway. Our insults are mere empty gestures. Like the potato salad.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Jesus loves you, but not that way

Small Boo came back from work yesterday, slightly uneasy. It's not unusual in Thailand to have people rolling up at offices selling tacky things at vastly inflated prices for supposedly charitable causes, and she'd had a bunch of teenagers arrive, claiming to be from a Christian group working with children. Christianity, especially Catholicism, is very visible in Bangkok, although the actual number of people purporting to be Christian is tiny. I taught for a few weeks in a Catholic school, and I'm pretty sure the only Catholics on site were about six resident monks - and I'm pretty sure about half of those only took the gig for the opportunity to ponce about in cool white robes.

Anyway, she gave them a few baht, but was still a bit concerned about exactly who they were. "I thought they might have been anti-abortion loonies or something," she said. "But I think they were OK. They said they were from a group called 'The Family.'"

Some deep recess of my slowly sludging memory sparked into life, and I hit Google. Turns out The Family International is the rebranded identity of The Children Of God, founded by David Berg, the kindly patriarch depicted on the left. They were one of the many jolly cults that popped up on the American west coast in the late 60s, but they were distinguished by two things. They purported to be based in Christianity, rather than the variants of Buddhism or Hinduism that underpinned most of the groups; and they pioneered a delightful evangelical technique, known as "flirty fishing". This essentially involved getting the best-looking cult members to walk down the street, chat up lonely-looking 20-somethings, shag them silly, and thus reinforce the idea that the Children Of God was a great place to be. Eventually the whole set up became a seething nest of orgies, incest and endemic herpes. River Phoenix and his siblings were children of Children. Older readers may recall that another noteable convert was dwarfish slide guitar prodigy Jeremy Spencer who, while on tour with Fleetwood Mac in California in the early 70s, went out one morning to buy a paper, and never returned.

So, the organisation that once offered hot, nubile raunch in exchange for your soul, now flogs dishcloths and other tat. And you wonder why baby-boomers all look so fucking smug.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Goo goo g'joob

The organisers of a pay-per-view seance have announced that John Lennon's message to the world is: "Peace."

After 25 years, the man who told us to "give peace a chance," who asked us to believe that "war is over if you want it," who got into bed and a bag for peace, the man for whom, it would appear, peace was quite a big deal... his message to us is, in essence, more of the same.

Well, it's believable, but it ain't exactly news, is it? I mean, if he'd said "Paul was the talented one all along," or maybe "Getting me knob out on the Two Virgins sleeve, that wasn't big and clever was it?" then maybe we might have taken some notice. Or even "'Imagine' is a very cheesy song, and I can't believe so many people like it." But no. "Peace." That's what you get for $10. Next they'll be contacting the hovering shade of John Paul II to clarify his religious affiliations.

And, just when you thought the envelope of taste had been pushed as far as it could go... a horror movie opening in Thailand on Thursday is about a fictional reality game show set in Phnom Penh's S-21 interrogation centre, where the Khmer Rouge murdered about 12,000 people. It stars contestants from Academy Fantasia, the local version of Pop Idol.

For an occidental comparison, imagine a remake of I Know What You Did Last Summer, set in Dachau. Starring Girls Aloud.

English as a foreign language

Ever wondered about the exact process by which unpleasant neologisms make it into the dictionary?

Some creative genius has set up a blog with the express purpose of getting Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary to accept the world 'concept' as a verb. As in, "OK, guys, let's concept these ideas for the Argos campaign." Thanks to Adrants for running this one up the flagpole and seeing who moons it.

On a more cheerful note, go to Tangents and see how it's possible to get Samuel Beckett and early-80's synth-pop into the same, um, concept. (It's OK, it's a noun.) Also, the Chinese army will now be refusing entry not just to junkies, lardies and tattoo freaks, but also to snorers.

On a less cheerful note, I've just discovered that I have seen and enjoyed every single nominee for Best Picture at the MTV Movie Awards. Am I 12 years old or something?

Sunday, April 23, 2006

From our Balkan art-rock correspondent

Well, it's all been a bit rock 'n' roll here at the Cultural Igloo these last few days, what with Mozz and Kent vs Gainsbourg and the Rip It Up brouhaha. Is this entirely a bad thing? I only ask because this blog's been running for nearly six months now, and I'm still not clear what I really want to do with it. Oddly, if anything, it's evolved to fit its own title, as I pontificate grumpily about what I'm reading, watching, listening to, etc etc, rather than doing the diary thing. At the same time, you might have noticed that I've eased off posting so many reviews per se. Where I have done them, the review content tends to be a hook upon which I can hang a bigger theme. Perhaps this is the way to go. I might try to put any straightforward reviews on sites such as Tangents and Culture Wars (or maybe even media that pay money, if that's not too heretical a consideration for a blogger) and restrict the stuff here to more general musings. What do you reckon? (This is called customer feedback, and in the real world, companies pay shedloads for the stuff.)

Anyway, I think I'll lay off the groovy hit parade sounds for the next week or so, if only to impose a little aesthetic self-discipline. It's books and movies and stuff from tomorrow. Just to tidy up, here are a couple of pieces from today's Observer that may amuse: drug-free, 40-something ex-NME/Loaded hack James Brown rediscovers his rock 'n' roll soul, with help from Primal Scream; and Paul Morley on... oh, just read the bugger; some of you know how I feel about the blessed Morley, crass list-TV appearances and poncy music projects notwithstanding.

And for pudding: The Onion may be turning into the revered great-aunt of the online community, but it can still pull it off....

"Franz Ferdinand Frontman Shot By Gavrilo Princip Bassist
GLASGOW, SCOTLAND—Lead singer and guitarist for pop band Franz Ferdinand, Alexander Kapranos, is in critical condition today after being shot by a man identified as the bassist for rock group Gavrilo Princip. 'We ask fans to cooperate with Interpol to find the assailant, and call upon British Sea Power, Snow Patrol, and The Postal Service for help,' drummer Paul Thompson told music magazine NME Monday. 'The suspect had links to The Decemberists and The Libertines, and we are following up on all leads.' It is unclear whether the shooting was linked to The Polyphonic Spree's invasion of Belgium earlier this week."

Friday, April 21, 2006

Simon says...

Simon Reynolds writes:

"I'm a great defender of blogs but your post exemplifies precisely why Proper Journalists are so dismissive of blogging. You haven't actually read the US edition of Rip It Up, or even seen the content's page, but is that going to deter you from having an opinion? Hell no! You take this other reviewer's speculation (which is totally off-base) and then use that as the springboard for a whole raft of hasty assumptions and cultural generalizations.

If you actually wanted to know why certain chapters were cut from the US edition, you (or Diederichsen for that matter) could have contacted me easily enough to find out before opining. The fact is I was contracted to write a book of a certain length, and handed in something that was much, much longer--about 60 percent again. The two publishers reacted differently.

The UK publisher was, like, "no problem". The American publisher, concerned about the book being both too bulky and retailing too expensive, wanted me to get it closer to the original proposed length; we ended up with something in between. Rather than make a lot of small cuts throughout, which would deplete the richness of the whole thing, after much deliberation I decided to remove the three chapters that seemed the ones that an American postpunk afficianado would be least likely to expect or miss: a chapter on Magazine and Subway Sect (both of whom who had little impact in the USA), the chapter on the Some Bizzare milieu/second wave of industrial, and the chapter on SST, which few people on either side of the Atlantic would regard as part of the postpunk story.

There are other differences between the editions, an inevitable byproduct of having two editors. The only really significant ones are that US one is sequenced differently in terms of chapter order (making for a stronger narrative flow) and the chapter on Mutant Disco & Punk Funk isn't an oral history as in the UK, but proper written up historical prose, and to my mind, superior to the UK version of the chapter, which was something of a failed experiment.

I'm certainly glad to hear that Rip It Up became one of your favourite books of the year--it's a pity that someone reading your original review would come away with such an opposite impression. Another example of the dangers of rushing to judgement, perhaps?"

I apologise wholeheartedly to Simon and his publishers for any possible misrepresentation. On the other hand, his dig at blogging seems misplaced, since my original source for the information was legit, analogue media (practitioners of which, it appears, are just as capable of making fuck-ups as bloggers). "Proper Journalists", in fact, and I hope the initial caps signal a certain level of ironic detachment, rather than handbags at dawn. Think you've been in NYC too long, Simon - New Yorker-style full-time fact-checkers are beyond the budget of most of us.

The "rushing to judgement" thing is, I think, also unfair. In any media, old or new, producers of content (books, music, movies, whatever) want coverage to coincide roughly with release/publication. There's not much point in putting resources behind a major PR campaign if a hack is going to cogitate for six months before deigning to review it. It could be in the remainder bin by then! I gave my honest thoughts about Rip It Up after a first reading. The only thing I really regret about the original review was the clumsy comparison with Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces. What I should have said is that Lipstick Traces is better in purely literary terms. As a piece of journalism and serious analysis, it's pretty flawed, and Rip It Up pisses on it. You can quote me on that, Simon.

And as for cultural generalisations - my point was not about American consumers, but about the producers (paymasters, rather than the creatives themselves), who still seem to be operating in a "will it play in Peoria?" frame of reference. I doubt very much that American audiences would have run screaming from cinemas if Bridget Jones had made an ambiguous reference to "big pants", but then I'm not so dependent for my living on their custom these days. At the same time, it does sound as if Simon's US publishers think their readers might be put off by a book that was a] too expensive (perfectly sound commercial judgement) and b] too bulky (which may be a wee bit patronising; short attention spans and all that?).

Anyway, thanks for dropping by, Simon. And do check out a few of the blogs down the right-hand side. They're even more divorced from reality than this one.

Update, April 22: For another example of US publishers having low expectations of their customers, see this story from The Age (Australia). Some of it is (ho-hum) "political-correctness-gone-mad" stuff. But this is just bizarre: "Illustrators have been asked to avoid showing uncut loaves of bread and freestanding wardrobes because they might be unfamiliar to American readers."

Thursday, April 20, 2006


Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 was one of my favourite books of last year (despite the somewhat lukewarm first response I recorded at Tangents), but I was slightly confused to learn that a revised US edition had been published. Not that Americans wouldn't be interested in what happened after J. Lydon asked whether they'd ever had the feeling they'd been cheated; simply that I didn't really understand why they should need any rewrites.

The focus of the original is on the British scene, encompassing the likes of Joy Division, Gang of Four, ABC and Scritti Politti, but there's plenty of space for Talking Heads and Devo as well. When I first heard about the new version, I presumed that Reynolds had been asked to bulk up the Stateside quota. Not so, as Diedrich Diederichsen explains in Bookforum (and I must add that I haven't seen the new edition, so I'm only going on his review). Apparently, the new version actually cuts back on American content, removing material about the SST label, Black Flag and the Minutemen. According the Diederichsen, this is because these bands are considered by American fans to be 'punk'. Therefore, without entering some sordid backstage area of quantum theory, they cannot at the same time be considered 'postpunk'. So they're out.

Let's get this right. Reynolds has had to rewrite his text, not because it contains subject matter or language that will be unfamiliar to American readers, but because his analysis, context and frames of reference will not coincide with theirs. This is doubly strange: wasn't the whole point of punk/postpunk (wherever you put the dividing line) to shake consumers out of their complacent doze, as they stumbled from the aftermath of Watergate, the oil crisis and the three-day week into the maw of Reagan/Thatcherism, to a soundtrack of Peter Frampton and REO Speedwagon? But surely a rigid adherence to the notion that Black Flag is punk, and not even giving shelf space to a book that suggests otherwise, isn't that different from an unblinking conviction that Nixon (or Oliver North or Jonathan Aitken or Dick Cheney) is not a crook, and anyone who suggests otherwise is a Communist?

It's easy to make simplistic generalisations about the blinkered insularity of Americans, and everyone's got a friend of a friend who met some hick who thought Wales was a suburb of Rome. Several years ago, I worked on the North American edition of the Guinness Book of Records, which involved going through the text and excising all references to metric units of measurement. Feet and pounds and Fahrenheit were already there, incidentally; but I was informed by the head of the American office that if we left the metric conversions in as well, "it'll confuse them". Now we've got the bizarre situation where whole scenes of nominally British-set films have to be reshot for the North American versions, so as not to befuddle cineplexers with the notion that word usage might shift a little as it crosses the pond. Thus, Bridget Jones's legendary "big pants" become "panties" for transatlantic consumption. Bridget Jones would never say "panties". Tough. She does now. And why, in the Tim Burton movie, did the very English Charlie announced that he wanted to take his family "on vacation"?

Of course, this doesn't really matter when it concerns the back catalogue of Minor Threat, or what Renée Zellweger wears on her nether regions. And it's equally insignificant when a Boston newspaper publishes a list of the "unsexiest men in the world" (my emphasis) and includes such globally identifiable icons as Gilbert Gottfried, Randy Johnson and Alan Colmes (???) in the top 10.

But when the most powerful nation in the history of the planet simply can't conceive that another country might not want to embrace an off-the-peg rewrite of the American constitution and a Starbucks on every street, because they do things differently over there, it's a problem.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Feeling the pinch

Apparently, smoking bans have provoked an increase in sales of snuff.

Personally, I'm all in favour of this. I remember attempting to kick off a snuff craze when I was at college, offering gobbets of cinnamon-scented powder in the same way that others would pass around their untipped Camels. It was foppish and affected of course, but when the alternative was stealing traffic cones, I'm happy to plead guilty. In any case, I was conclusively outfopped by a dissolute law undergraduate named Harry Dickinson (also perpetrator of the best Anthony Blanche impression I've ever heard) who managed to procure some white peppermint snuff. One lunchtime, he proceeded to snort several lines off it off the tables of the student union bar, with the aid of a £20 note. In those days, even at Exeter, it was regarded as more suspicious if a student was in possession of a twenty...

Monday, April 17, 2006


It was announced at the weekend that Zhang Yimou, director of Raise The Red Lantern, Hero and House Of Flying Daggers (and the less-hyped but truly beautiful The Road Home), will oversee the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Can we expect to see medals awarded for the bamboo pole vault, double-knife-throwing, or pinging beans at drums?

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Bonnie and snide

Nick Kent writes about Serge Gainsbourg in today's Graun. Kent describes the songwriter as "the louche, turtle-eyed genius of la chanson Française", and the article focuses on his later years, when he was spiralling towards a booze-sodden death.

Kent describes an appearance at a film festival they were both judging. "He looked absolutely terrible - his face and body utterly polluted from alcohol abuse, his eyes ugly unfocussed slits, his voice a sneerful rasping whisper." He contrasts the devotion Gainsbourg inspired from his compatriates with his own (Kent's) clearsighted objectivity: "a beloved icon who'd lost all self-control and who was making an ignominious public spectacle of himself over and over again." When a French actress, the target of one of his misogynistic rants, calls him "a disgusting old parasite", Kent applauds her temerity.

But hang on... is this the Nick Kent, famous for stumbling through the 70s in a substance-induced haze, hanging out with such likeminded souls as Keith Richards, Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett and Shane McGowan, wafting into the NME office 20 minutes before deadline and knocking off 3,000-word reviews in longhand and, most notoriously, getting chain-whipped by Sid Vicious? From what elevated position (other than his own survival) is he qualified to put the boot in? And, while we're at it, who's 'turtle-eyed' now?

Friday, April 14, 2006

Haven't had a dream in a long time

Morrissey: Ringleader of the Tormentors (Attack, 2006)

I picked up a copy of Spin magazine the other day. It's not something I tend to do, and I'm not sure why I made an exception, especially since Karen Yeah Yeah Yeah was modelling that blue-bus haircut on the cover. Ewww.

Anyway, as I flipped through it (the mag, not Karen's bad hair) while spooning some not-so-great yaki-soba into my jaded maw, I noticed that British music seems to be making one of its periodic flypasts over the landscape I still like to think of as the Canada-Mexico border. Yes, we know that James Blunt appeals to quantity surveyors on both sides of the Atlantic; and the colonials are even trying to get on the same mental planet as the Arctic Monkeys.

But Spin takes it further. Jonathan Ames goes to a Goth convention in Illinois, and acknowledges there was living death before Marilyn Manson, namechecking Joy Division and Bauhaus. Simon Reynolds looks back to the "Second British Invasion" that dry-humped MTV until about Live Aid, giving us two (two!!!!) pictures of naughty Annabella Lwin, who's now (say it ain't so) 40 years old. Franz Ferdinand and The Darkness get news items, and a 'Definitive Guide To Pop Punk' sources half the top 10 key albums of the genre from the right-hand coast of the Atlantic. (If you're interested, they chose Buzzcocks, Generation X, the Rezillos, the Undertones and, uh, the Vibrators.)

And then there's an interview with Morrissey. Steven's on fine form, hymning the praises of his new Roman home and tipping Billy Crudup to play him in the inevitable Mozopic. He deflects the inevitable sexuality questions ("Sometimes I feel explanations are very unnecessary and really spoil things.") and, yes, he talks about the new album.

And it's a perfectly good Q&A, by Marc Spitz, but the reason I bring it up is that I still think Americans (and an increasing number of Brits) miss the point about Morrissey. Yes, it's lovely to have him back, and he looks spiffy on the cover, in his white tie and tails, and isn't it slightly ironic that this curmudgeonly anachronism tops the British album charts in the first week when downloads count... but... but... but...

There's an 800-pound vegan gorilla in the room that nobody really, explicitly mentions, although Spitz hints hard. No, not that Morrissey's a big poof (although more on that anon). It's this. Morrissey solo is not as good as The Smiths. There. Apart from that mysterious phalanx of Chicanos that Morrissey adopted during his LA sojourn, and the ever-loyal, sexually ambivalent West Ham fans, Moz on his lonesome does not provoke the level of devotion and empathy that was exhibited between 1983 and 1987. And it's not nostalgia, and it's not wistful yearning for the reunion that won't happen, not even for $5 million. And it's certainly not that Morrissey now makes bad music. Ringleader of the Tormentors is a good album. It's just that nothing on it gives you that cerebral judder, half orgasm, half kick in eye, that happened when 'Bigmouth Strikes Again' first struck. Or 'Ask' or 'Reel Around The Fountain'. Or 'Barbarism Begins At Home' or 'Shakespeare's Sister' or 'Suffer Little Children' or 'Handsome Devil' or 'What Difference Does It Make?' or 'Paint A Vulgar Picture' or 'You Just Haven't Earned It Yet Baby' or...

Need I continue?

Right, the album. Yes, it's good stuff. Mozz seems happy in his new home, but this hasn't lost his gift for the cutting bon mot (or mauvais mot in his case). As he says in 'On The Streets I Ran', Morrissey's peculiar talent is for turning "sickness into popular song", and he's still preoccupied with death and failure and loneliness and all that makes life worthwhile. His cultural references have shifted a little, with Shelagh Delaney being replaced by Pasolini and Visconti (Luchino, not Tony), but it's still Moz.

But what's this? "Explosive kegs between my legs"? Morrissey has, you know, organs? And it's not just sex, there's love too. "I live only for you," he trills on 'Life Is A Pigsty'. The pop world's most notorious celibate (Britney couldn't hack it) is not only indulging in moist rudeness, he's yodelling the fact from the spire of St Peter's. "I once was a mess of guilt because of the flesh," he sighs. "It's remarkable what you can learn." Not that all's entirely well, of course. "I would give you my heart," he declares later; "That's if I had one"

So contentment in the boudoir hasn't dulled his caustic drollery. And it sounds great, too. Tony (not Luchino this time) Visconti produces, bringing on the arranging prowess of Ennio Morricone for one track. Anyone yearning to discover what The Smiths would have been if they'd had a real string section can find out here (with all due respect to Orchestrazia Ardwick and the Hated Salford Ensemble). The three guitarists provide a variety of textures and effects, especially on the opener 'I Will See You In Far Off Places' with its cheekily cod-Indian atmospherics (Bengali in plectrums, anyone?). Mikey Farrell offers some fun piano and trumpet twiddles, although the proggy vamping on 'I'll Never Be Anybody's Hero Now' is probably an experiment too far. Mozz yelps in ways he hasn't since 'This Charming Man' and a single Morrissey yelp has more sex ammo than Christina Aguilera frotting the stage anyday.

It seems as if everything is in its right place, as David Cameron's other favourite band puts it. Except for tunes. Despite Johnny Marr's acclaimed axe heroics, it was his tunes that keep The Smiths a couple of steps ahead of even the best of Morrissey's solo material. Just listen to the Live at Earl's Court album, and the gasps from the punters when Morrissey kicks into tunes written before many of them were conceived. It must be deeply frustrating for long-established artists to have their recent stuff dismissed in favour of the stuff from decades ago, but there may be more in the phenomenon than familiarity and laziness. Ron Wood (the Craig Gannon of grandad rock?) is always complaining that he's perceived as a replacement guitarist, despite the fact that he's been with the Stones for about 75% of their recording career. He hasn't quite got it through his comedy mullet that in his stint with the band, they've never come up with anything half as good as 'Paint It, Black' or 'Let's Spend The Night Together'.

So what's the Poet Laureate of the Maladjusted to do? Well, since any formal reunion with Marr and the others is bound to collapse under the weight of frenzied expectations, tensions and unresolved legal and accounting quibbles, he simply has to find another composer that can match Marr's ear for a tune. Which means not Alain Whyte, basically. Or anyone he's worked with in the last 19 years. Brian Wilson? Burt Bacharach? Paul McCartney? All genius tunesmiths who've stumbled a little when it comes to lyrics. Crazier things have occurred. Hell, if you fly on autopilot for long enough, there's always Rick Rubin to help out.

Ach, what does he care? The Hammers fans and South Central Chicanos will still love this, and now the Roman paninari will probably join the club. But the sad sacks who still troop to the door of Salford Lads' Club will play this a few times, and file it under "Oh well, suppose it's better than Southpaw Grammar".

"So if there was a Smiths reformation," says Mozz in the Spin interview, "I don't think there would be gasps around the planet."

Oh Steven, if only you knew.

Boogie with a suitcase

Apologies to those of you (Bob) who have been waiting for the Morrissey review. Will be here soon, honest. In the meantime, Patroclus directs us to a review of every number one single of the millennium in Stylus magazine. If music criticism can be reduced to an essence of laughing at ugly, subnormal people with unpleasant haircuts, then this is definitive stuff. No, I don't remember Tomcraft either.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Lace relations

Adidas has got itself into a spot of bother and/or generated a spot of publicity by releasing the Yellow Series Y1 Huf, which includes a caricature of a 'Chinese' man.

"It's very sad and disturbing that in this day and age, this stereotype is coming from a large and global company like Adidas," said Vincent Pan, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action in San Francisco.

It's probably my age, but I find it a bit more disturbing that someone's prepared to cough up just under 150 quid for a pair of plimsolls.

On the stump

Blimey, everyone's going election crazy.

Not only have we booted out the PM here in Thailand (although Khun Thaksin looks likely to remain something of a backseat driver), we've got Senate elections next week (with 260 people haggling for 18 seats here in the capital).

Meanwhile, in Italy Berlusconi looks to be on his way out; and in dear old Blighty, next month's potentially snoozeworthy local elections suddenly discover a sense of humour when the BNP picks a candidate who looks a bit 'ethnic'.

In this democratic spirit, please vote for me at 3am magazine's poll of the 50 least influential people in publishing.

Thank you, and I did not have sex with that woman.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Charlie Mouse don't surf

That Beelzebub of the book trade, Waterstone's head buyer Scott Pack, has joined The Friday Project, according to This Writing Life. Actually, maybe Keyser Soze is more appropriate; however hard I Google "Scott Pack", the best image I can come up with is this:

It seems an unlikely pairing. Pack, if he does exist, was the man who determined exactly what selection of chick-lit, lad-lit and Whitbread wannabes would be eligible for the 3-for-2 offers that enabled Waterstone's to sodomise countless independent retailers, not to mention the likes of Ottakar's, into whimpering redundancy. The Friday Project, meanwhile, is part of the stable that brought us Hangingday, The Friday Thing and the London News Review, early attempts to make moolah from the interwebformationsupernethighway on the subscription model. My description of their online offerings (essentially literate and politically savvy tittle-tattle that appeared in your inbox at the end of the week) as "Popbitch with A-levels" still haunts the web, like a smartarsed zombie.

Together, Pack and TFP are jumping on the Blooker bandwagon and seeking to turn blogs into hard copy. So, is this an admission that web-based content (other than pop and porn) needs a pair of analogue trousers if it's going to pay its way? I do think that turning a blog into a book means that you just take away a key attraction of the former (interactivity) and replace it with a couple of selling points of the latter (you can read it on top of Snowdon, or during a power cut).

And surely there's nothing inherently wrong, creatively or commercially, with shifting content from one medium to another, even if it's just the equivalent of the CD scam (flogging us something we already own). I love Nicey and Wifey's Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down site, and I later enjoyed the book. Meanwhile, I discovered Tangents after picking up a copy of Alistair's book - in Waterstone's, of course. Thanks, Scott. In any case, is it really any different from me absorbing Dr Who on TV at the age of seven, and then re-absorbing all the same stories in the form of Target paperbacks a few months later? If the content is strong enough, it should be able to survive the leap. Flip back a few days to the response that Richard's idea of Blake the Blogger received...

Last year, Michael Prochak, who writes for MacWorld, had this to say on the obstinate persistence of dead-tree media:

"Behind every effort we put into trying to conceal the formlessness of our own aspirations, there are, as quantum physicist David Bohm observed, many people who think they are thinking when they're really just re-arranging prejudices. And despite all the big dumb bastards, there's such a thing as being smart. Books help us think. But if computers stopped aping the trends set by crap TV and other dumb media, they too could become powerful tools for thought. After all, as the Buddha said, we are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. And with our thoughts, we make the world."

Contra McLuhan, the message is still the message, it seems. And if we're talking about content that transcends its medium... It's not big and it's far from clever and it would certainly have the shades of my past Eng Lit teachers choking on their staffroom cuppas, but I've come to the conclusion that the greatest piece of prose written in the English language in the last 100 years, in any medium, digital or analogue, colour or black and white, is this:

"Bagpuss gave a big yawn, and settled down to sleep. And when Bagpuss goes to sleep, all his friends go to sleep too. The mice are ornaments on the Mouse Organ; Gabriel and Madeleine are just dolls. And Professor Yaffle is just a carved wooden book-end in the shape of a woodpecker. Even Bagpuss himself, once he is asleep, is just an old, saggy cloth cat; baggy and a bit loose at the seams.

But Emily loved him."

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Chopin Liszt

Conductor, pianist and this year's Reith lecturer Daniel Barenboim has lashed out against muzak. He argues that hearing music over which you have no control is "absolutely offensive" and that for music to have any value, "active listening is absolutely essential". It's an ethical thing, he harrumphs.

Leaving aside the tedious pedantry that muzak is a very specific, trademarked commodity, if all instances when we listen to music are to be purely voluntary, most of us will never listen to music at all. To argue otherwise is like suggesting children will become voracious readers even if you don't teach them to read, don't provide them with books and don't tell them where the library is. Music can catch people unawares: Elvira Madigan sold Mozart in the 1960s; a few years later, a strange pairing of Helena Bonham Carter and Paul Gascoigne did the same for Puccini. Apocryphally, when Walt Disney used the Pastoral Symphony in Fantasia, he announced "This'll make Beethoven!"

Ah, but that's a different kind of passive listening isn't? Barenboim (rightly) objects to muzak if you're forced to buy your sun-dried tomatoes to a backdrop of Boyzone's greatest hits played on panpipes and a Linn drum. But if Tesco played his own recordings of Bach and Wagner, would he be so sniffy? Maybe he shouldn't try to make an ethical argument when, deep down, it's really a matter of aesthetics.

P.S. This week, I've been getting equally heated at the Culture Wars site about half-arsed attempts to co-opt Orwell and at Tangents about recorder solos; and hoping that this attempt to sell birth control pills to Thai students is a late April fool stunt.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Dark satanic HTML

Finally tracked down Richard Lloyd Parry from The Times last night. We drank Guinness, we had a disappointingly bland meal (sorry about that, Richard) and talked politics and culture clash and Radiohead and blogs. On the latter, he made two points.

First, that if William Blake were alive today, he would be the world's greatest blogger. The combination of visual and literary imagination, technical savvy, burning desire to communicate, passionate beliefs and, not to put too fine a point on it, madness, would make for some pretty compulsive content.

Richard also said that pretty soon, blogs are going to look as quaint as 17th-century political pamphlets. What's important about them is that they're a stepping-stone, taking us from one mode of communication (dead trees) to another. What's wonderful is that no-one - not Tim Berners-Lee, not Bill Gates, not even Richard's boss Rupert Murdoch - has the faintest idea what that 'another' is going to be.

Pen envy?

Ian Hocking, at his very thoughtful This Writing Life blog, mentions that Haruki Murakami has won the Franz Kafka prize (but not just because he put the word 'Kafka' in the title of his last novel, honest). I'd vaguely heard about this a few weeks ago, but hadn't realised the significance; the two previous winners were Elfriede Jelinek and Harold Pinter, both of whom went on to win the Nobel Prize for literature.

So will HM get the nod? I think it's unlikely. He's become a bit trendy of late, with the likes of Thom Yorke singing his praises. In Japan, his appeal is defiantly middlebrow, a bit like Nick Hornby. But what do I know?

One other thing that may count against him is that admiration for Murakami seems to be a bit of a bloke thing. Not in an Andy McNab sense of course; more like Salinger or Camus, neurotic boy outsiders, yearning from the sidelines (although, as I've said before, there's also an element of fantasy fulfilment in the kooky, pretty girls who always seem to be on hand to offer sympathy handjobs).

This is significant, according to research carried out by Lisa Jardine and Annie Watkins of Queen Mary College, London. They asked 500 men about "the fiction that had changed their lives" and discovered that L'Etranger, The Catcher In The Rye and Slaughterhouse Five topped the list. Hardly a discovery of seismic proportions, but the conclusions drawn by Jardine and Watkins are interesting, and I use the word advisedly.

Contrasting the male list with a comparative study of female reading (which threw up the equally groundbreaking analysis that women prefer the Brontës and Jane Austen), Professor Jardine described it as "angst and Orwell. Sort of puberty reading." She went on to claim that "men do not regard books as a constant companion to their life's journey, as consolers or guides, as women do... they read novels a bit like they read photography manuals."

Not having read a photography manual in my life, I can't really comment. Not that I'd be able to get a word in edgeways, it seems. ""What I find extraordinary is the hold the male cultural establishment has over book prizes like the Booker for instance, and in deciding what is the best," continues Jardine. "This is completely at odds with their lack of interest in fiction. On the other hand, the Orange prize for fiction is still regarded as ephemeral. On the whole, men between the ages of 20 and 50 do not read fiction. This should have some impact on the book trade. There was a moment when car manufacturers realised that it was women who bought the family car, and the whole industry changed. We need fiction publishers - many of whom are women - to go through the same kind of recognition."

Apart from wondering whether the piles of candy-pink chicklit that threaten to engulf me whenever I enter a bookshop are some kind of hallucination, might I hazard the suggestion that Professor Jardine is twisting her findings to suit her own prejudices? From an early age, boys are pressured to believe that reading is 'for girls'. They are as much victims of social conditioning as their female counterparts; as one of Jardine's respondents puts it, "Depending on whether you read Alcott's Little Women or Kafka's Metamorphosis at 15, your reading paths are bound to diverge later on." The fact (if it is a fact) that men don't start reading fiction until middle age is surely an opportunity for the publishing industry to get men reading, rather than to rebrand itself as a women-only club. And doesn't the existence of gender-defined prizes, or other ghetto awards, just offer the Booker judges the excuse to overlook women? We can leave her off the shortlist, they reason; she'll have her chance with the Orange. Sorry, did I mention that the women-only Orange prize is a co-sponsor of Professor Jardine's report? Funny, that.

Yes, sexism still exists, despite decades of feminism, and yes women are paid less than men and the streets aren't safe and there are never enough women's loos at gig venues. Agreed. But what are men supposed to do? Absent themselves from the whole debate? Commit to 150 pages of Middlemarch every day until they're enlightened? Burn the Salinger and Hemingway paperbacks they've clung to since they were teenagers? Stop reading? (Although, according to the good professor, we've done that already.) Stop writing?

Because, despite all the iniquities that women face in modern life, to argue that their preferences are not well served by the fiction publishing industry is - if I might be permitted to appropriate some shamefully gender-specific language - bollocks.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

...the law won

Police have escorted a 24-year-old man off a plane at Durham Tees Valley airport, after a taxi-driver reported that he'd been singing along to a song by The Clash.

"The report was made with the best of intentions and we wouldn't want to discourage people from contacting us with genuine concerns," said a police spokeswoman, without any apparent irony.

The potential for Situationist-type mischief is, of course, immense. Next time I hear someone singing along to, say, James Blunt, I'm calling in armed response. Well, if they can take out people for looking a bit Brazilian...

Specialist subject, the bleeding obvious (slight return)

Doctors at St George's Hospital in south London (where else?) have revealed that a patient took 40,000 ecstasy tablets over nine years. That's about 12 a day. And that doesn't include the cannabis. Or the previous use of acid. And amphetamines, and cocaine. And solvents. Did I mention the heroin? That too.

"The Mini-Mental State Exam revealed disorientation to time, poor concentration, and short-term memory difficulties," they observe, sagely, in George Clooney voices.

That's all well and good (except for him, of course), but what we really want to know is: does he still dance when the microwave beeps?

Update, 8 April: Sam Leith in the Telegraph points out that an equivalent dosage of espressos might have a similar effect, or worse.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Hip to be square-headed

Always nice to be there at a historical moment. About an hour ago, I was in an Irish pub, round the corner from Patpong (where tourists from Wolverhampton go to watch strange things being done to ping-pong balls), listening to a man with a bad combover sing Crowded House songs, and waiting for the man from The Times, who I'd arranged to meet for a Guinness. Then the aforementioned agent of Murdoch phoned.

"Sorry, can't make it," he said, in tones so apologetic and polite that I already feel bad about the Murdoch dig. "Looks like [Prime Minister] Thaksin's just resigned. I think it might be regarded as dereliction of duty if I spent the evening in the pub."

God, journalism's not what it used to be.


shyster uninterested

by 'Ann Arnold'

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(I seem to remember Tunnel of Genitalia supporting Sonic Youth when they played in Germany and Austria in the early 90s.)

On similar lines, go here to generate your own Julie Burchill article.

And on a completely different tack, Major 'Cuth' Adami has died. I never knew him. I'd never even heard of him until just now, although he went to the same school as me. (Not, I hasten to add, Eton.)

But, Christ, he sounds like amusing company.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Music of black origin

Jim Noir: Tower Of Love
(My Dad, 2006)

I'm finding it increasingly difficult to write about music. This is a little disturbing, because I've been doing it 'seriously', whether for payment or not, for over 10 years. (It was a Mojo review of a Pet Shop Boys B-sides compilation in 1995, since you ask. Included 'Your Funny Uncle', which remains my favourite PSBs track. Nice hologram cover too. Think I made about 22 quid.)

You see, writing about pop music is a constant challenge to your critical vocabulary. If you're writing about classical music or jazz, you can usually assume a certain level of musical knowledge on the part of your reader. They'll know what a minor key or a blue note is; if you tell them that something sounds like Haydn or Coltrane, they'll get the rough idea.

The problem with pop - the beauty of pop - is that you can't make these assumptions. Pop can speak to the intellect, but it has to connect with other organs first. It's about instincts and gut feeling. The clarion calls of pop work because they're devoid of coherent meaning: doo-lang doo-lang; gabba gabba hey; awopbopaloobop. Yes, of course you need to communicate what a record sounds like; but that's not the whole story. What's important is not what the music is; it's what it's about. Sweaty grinding on the dance floor? Moody gazing at the bedroom ceiling? Screaming till stray brain tissue backs up in your sinuses? That'll be pop. So the vocabulary is limited to how it feels (which presupposes some kind of empathy between critic and reader) and what other music it sounds like (which presupposes the contents of their iPods overlap at least a little bit).

I need to snap out of this. I'm currently discussing a big new music book project (c. 90,000 words) that will, if it comes off, tie me up for the rest of the year. And I'm partly flattered, partly relishing the chance to go head to head with my pop crit role models, like Morley and Hoskyns; and a whole lot of terrified. (And then there's the side of me - firmly encouraged by Small Boo - that asks if it isn't time I jacked it all in and got myself a real job and a pension and stuff. It's when the thought of teacher training sounds sensible that I want to go and hide under the mattress.)

What I liked about the NME in the olden days, when the above-named gentlemen, and Penman and CSM and Edwin Pouncey and Mat Snow and so on were in the arena, was that they took for granted a certain level of knowledge. If they said that something sounded like Bowie or Love or Lee 'Scratch' Perry or the Velvet Underground or Fela Kuti, the ball was in your court. Go and find out what the buggers sounded like, or suffer in silence. To be honest, lots of us cheated, working out what Can or Captain Beefheart sounded like by listening to The Fall and joining the critical dots. But, to look at the NME now, ver kids don't have to indulge in that level of intellectual effort and/or critical dishonesty.

Oh, bollocks. So, Jim Noir. One-man band, bedsit job. Yes, it sounds like the Beach Boys. Not the big, fat Wrecking Crew sound of 'Darling' or 'Heroes and Villains'; more like those weird little crannies of Brian's monophonic mind. Think 'Vegetables', but Jim crunches his own celery. And there's something loungey about it. Perhaps a few tinges of Neil Hannon, in his less smug moments? The title track is Percy Faith's 'Theme from A Summer Place' after one too many pints of Beamish, surely. Think Badly Drawn Boy, if he'd listened to the Lovin' Spoonful more than Bruce Springsteen. Something churchy about the keyboards. And throw the Kinks in as well. I don't know why, just a sort of deadpan Englishness. And Small Boo's getting into the Kinks. On the other hand, she's just bought a new guitar, and is playing 'Smoke On The Water' to try to drown out our weird next-door neighbour and his Ministry of Sound mixes.

Note that I haven't given you any hyperlinks here. You're on your own. Like Jim Noir. And like I was when I read about the Velvet Underground 23 years ago.

P.S. Go and see Inside Man. Excellent fun. Yeah, so it's just The Usual Suspects meets Dog Day Afternoon; but you say that like it's a bad thing.

P.P.S. There's been an election here today. I'm sorry I haven't really covered it. Several reasons: I doubt if many of you really care much; I never feel entirely qualified to discuss the minutiae of Thai life (it's that old post-colonial guilt thing, even though, as the locals never tire of telling you, the place was never colonised - just don't mention WW2, OK?); and when we get to the point where the ruling party is alleged to have paid smaller parties to run against its own candidates, there's little more that I can add. Do I need to repeat Tom Lehrer's line about Kissinger getting the Nobel Prize? Another time, perhaps. But while we're at it, should I be writing more about Thai stuff? Would that float anybody's canoe? Or would you like more of the touchy-feely domestic stuff, about my darling significant other playing metal classics in the spare room? (This is market research of the blunt-instrument variety, you'll notice.) Just don't ask me to write about Thai pop music. Most of it's rank.

The guy above is Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, by the way. I don't know what the chicken died of.


Nobel laureate and Booker winner VS Naipaul has laid into some of the titans of Eng Lit in this month's Literary Review. Hardy: "an unbearable writer... He can't write. He doesn't know how to compose a paragraph, no gift of narrative." Jane Austen: "Here am I, a grown man reading about this terrible vapid woman... What am I doing with this material? This is for somebody else, really..." Dickens: " much rubbish..." Henry James: "The worst writer in the world..." Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Graham Greene each get a chinning as well. Pinter comes off OK, but he's a mate of Sir Vidia's.

Expect a new book sometime soon. V's Half a Life came out in 2001, at around the same time he startled the book world from its tweedy slumbers by slagging off James Joyce.