Thursday, July 31, 2008

Hail to the chief

From the advertising department of the Bangkok Post:

Dear Sir,

As you are no doubt aware, President George W. Bush and Mrs. Laura Bush will visit Thailand as guests of the Royal Thai Government on August 6 to 7, an event that will commemorate the 175th Anniversary of Thai-US relations.

On August 6, President Bush will meet with Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej at Government House and the prime minister will host a dinner in the president's honour.

On August 7, President Bush will deliver his last major policy speech on Asia before completing his term in January 2009. Afterward, President Bush will visit the Mercy Center, a non-profit organization working for children in Klong Toey.

To mark this important event for Thai-US bilateral relations, we would like to invite you to post your welcome messages to President Bush in a special section of the Bangkok Post which we are arranging for this purpose. It will be an important and timely sign of your organization's own commitment to friendly and mutually beneficial bilaterial relations between our two countries on all levels.

We look forward to discussing our very favourable rates for this opportunity with you at your earliest convenience.

Your faithfully...

Welcome messages, eh?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

That is what it's all about

I've been watching the first episode of Channel 4's Can't Read Can't Write. Can inspirational teacher Phil Beadle teach illiterate adults what years of schooling never managed? You know the deal.

Mr Beadle is a bit of a maverick (not to mention his passing resemblance to the drummer from the Pogues) and clearly has little time for the bureaucracy that tends to stifle the learning experience. It's fair to say that he doesn't see eye to eye with the luckless Diane Hawks, who is in charge of adult literacy at Southwark College. In fact, he describes what he witnesses in a lesson as "horrendous", "depressing" and "incompetent".

We've all learned by now to be deeply wary of anything that smacks of reality TV. So I'll give the benefit of the doubt to Ms Hawks, and leave open the possibility that her words were taken out of context, edited to suit the producers' agenda, or even concocted from sophisticated voice synthesis software and mimed by her android simulacrum. Nevertheless, this is what appeared to come out of her mouth as she defended her staff in the face of Beadle's tongue-lashing:

"My teachers are following the Skills for Life work packs set down by the government and because of doing that we actually get the results at the end of the day because they pass their exams because *that* is what it's all about."

[bangs face slowly and steadily on old school desk, the kind with redundant inkwell, until five decades' worth of compass-scratch graffiti transfers itself to my forehead]

Monday, July 28, 2008

Rainbow chasers

I don't mind cover versions, but I do get pissed off with cover versions of cover versions; when a performer borrows not just the song, but the arrangement, phrasing and instrumentation of a 'definitive' performance. 'Over the Rainbow' is a good example. Judy Garland's performance was etched into the collective consciousness to such an extent that few other people dared attempt it; when they did, it had to be a carbon copy (see Rufus Wainwright for ar ecent example). If anybody had the balls to follow another route, he or she could be guaranteed a pack of feral copycats: so Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's take suffers the indignity of a frontal assault from Cliff Richard; Eva Cassidy gets the Leona Lewis treatment, and a trickledown effect into every karaoke booth on the planet. (An aside, but is there a rule that you have to be safely dead before your version is fair game?)

Fast forward to David McAlmont at the Festival Hall Ballroom on Saturday night. (Yes, I'm on one of my midnight flits to the London fleshpots.) He's doing a selection of songs by Harold Arlen, who's something of a forgotten man in the context of the Great American Songbook, especially when set alongside the Holy Trinity of Porter, Gershwin and Berlin. It's only when you hear his songs all in a row that you realise how good he was: 'Get Happy'; 'It's Only a Paper Moon'; 'Stormy Weather'; 'That Old Black Magic'; 'The Man That Got Away'; 'One For My Baby' as well as the songs for The Wizard of Oz.

And it's in this context that McAlmont finds something new about the song, albeit something that's been staring us in the face for nearly 70 years. Arlen, the son of a Buffalo cantor, had a deep understanding of African-American music; not just the jazz beloved of his songwriting contemporaries, but the sounds of an older, rougher tradition. With his extraordinary range, falsetto swooping down into basso growls, McAlmont could use 'Rainbow' as a showcase for his virtuosity, but he keeps himself in check, and unearths the truth: it's a blues song, as raw and yearning and bitter as anything created by a blind man with a crappy guitar.

Keep an eye out for the cover of the cover at a karaoke night near you.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Weekend 90s revisionism, part 3: Ultrasound

I first saw Ultrasound at a showcase for unsigned bands in about 1997. One of the other outfits on the bill was managed by the drummer from Dodgy, which was enough to recommend the Geordie oddballs by default, even before they'd played a note. They briefly became critical darlings, partly because their singer (Andrew 'Tiny' Wood) was very fat, and nobody wanted to be seen to be sizeist, but eventually their prog tendencies made them uncool, a sin compounded by the immense length (a triple on vinyl) of their sole album, Everything Picture (1999). Maybe they should have gone the Radiohead route, and identified a dance element within their meandering Floydian wibbles.

In this clip, Tiny seems to be auditioning for the lead role in The Sydney Greenstreet Story, although I think they were trying more for a Death In Venice effect. Good tune, though.

Friday, July 25, 2008

All babies want to get borned

Finally got around to seeing Juno. And it's good. Compelling central performance; snappy script, packed with the sort of one-liners that were just born to be the titles of blog posts; and a cracking soundtrack. (Kimya Dawson, Belle & Seb and the Velvets? With this wry indie-folk you are spoiling us!)

And yet (or maybe because of this) it feels ever so slightly hollow. Yeah, it's edgy, if we mean by that that it doesn't spoonfeed the audience, and runs the risk of annoying some of them: pro-choice and pro-life groups alike have attacked it, which I'm sure cost the producers no sleep whatsoever. But it feels like indie-cinema-by-focus-group; it's a Fox Searchlight product (see Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite, Sideways and their ilk) which aims to bring more left-field films to mainstream audiences, but in doing so redefines the precise location of left field. As was the case with 'indie music' after the global success of Nirvana and Radiohead, the critical goalposts aren't so much moved as chopped down for firewood. Which was lovely for a while, but led to all those skinny-trewed 'The' bands playing third on the bill at a festival near you this summer: what Tim Walker identifies as "landfill indie".

A purist argument would be, of course, that there are good films and bad films (records, books, etc) and the removal of any genre distinction is a good thing. Although, for someone to make the decision that this is a Fox Searchlight product, there must still be a mainstream for Juno to be outside. Even if only slightly outside, looking in, chucking out one-liners to a backing track of wry indie-folk.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Nothing will come of nothing

I'm so lazy that I've only just bothered to look at the plans for the 9/11 memorial. And I'm so shallow that the only reason I did that was because I saw a news story informing an awestruck world that Billy Crystal is going to be a director of the fundraising committee, and I thought, crikey, Billy Crystal's 60 years old, I wonder whether Soap has aged better than he has. And I'm so cynical that, when I noticed Robert De Niro was on the same board, I immediately surmised that they're doing it to promote a threequel called Analyze The Other.

Anyway, the memorial will (if Billy and Bob and their slebby pals get their various acts together) go by the name of Reflecting Absence, which is, I suppose, what memorials should do; offer a physical representation not just of those who are no longer around, but of the emptiness and loss that their absence creates. This is the opposite of Baudrillard's analysis of the successive phases of the image; in the third phase, he opines, the image masks the absence of a profound reality. But you knew that. A memorial, by contrast, draws attention to the fact of that absence.

The problem is that nothingness is a difficult thing to represent: you have to create an environment in which one expects presence to make the absence apparent. This is why Cage's 4'33" is not just any old silence; it needs the musicians, the conductor, the audience to remind us what we aren't hearing.

I'm not Stephen Bayley's greatest fan, but I did agree with him that the only way the Millennium Dome might have been redeemed would have been to leave it completely empty (as distinct from vacuous, which is what in the end happened). Coincidentally, of course, the most lasting and successful monument to that great calendrical non-event was a structure that moves but goes precisely nowhere.

Still in London, while I like the various conceptual witticisms that pop up on the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square, I did prefer it in its unadorned state, when you could imagine whatever you liked there, provided it was something that didn't mind getting covered in pigeon shit and Italian exchange students who'd been kicked out of the National Gallery for snogging.

And if you don't mind getting your hands dirty, how's about Kerry Katona's new perfume, Outrageous, as reported in the Liverpool Echo, via No Rock And Roll Fun:

The French-made scent, whose bottle has a spiky black rubber top, aims to reflect the mother-of-four’s personality and the “outrageous” lies about what she has not done.

Untruths about non-events, eh? I'm impressed. Nature, as I vaguely remember from the time before I dropped physics, abhors a vacuum. Art, it would seem, rather likes the idea.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Spare us the cutter

More self-aggrandising nostalgia masquerading as social comment:

And here it comes again. It's senseless, it's depressing, and we all feel powerless to stop it. No, not knife crime; not quite. I mean a far more pervasive social evil; people talking about knife crime, apportioning the blame. It's Thatcher's fault, bark the lefties, because she made everyone selfish and materialistic. No, it's that Roy Jenkins and his damned permissive society, retort the Telegraph readers. Actually, a contrarian declares, it all started when King Arthur took the sword out of the stone, and made blades fashionable. And so on.

But it's not quite that simple. Excuse the apparent digression, but when I was a teenager, I sometimes went on CND marches...

More Greenham commentary here.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Speak and spell

AA Gill on Channel 4's big Islam documentary:

And how annoying to apply the politically correct spelling of Qur’an to show you’re right-on, but still pronounce it Koran because you’re frightened of sounding like a prat.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Weekend 90s revisionism, part 2: The Bigger The God

Coming from the same general direction as Pulp (but they were from Oxford, not Sheffield, and tended to sarongs and melodicas rather than crimplene and Jacko-baiting), TBTG smeared the kitchen sink with mascara to a fairground soundtrack. Here's 'Mum Steals Boyfriend' from 1996.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Axe me, axe me, axe me

Well, I've done it. I've hacked back my blogroll by about half. There was a method of sorts. If a site hadn't been updated for a few months; or if I hadn't visited for the same length of time; or if the joke had gone stale; it was taken round the back and put out of its misery.

Highly unscientific, of course. Just as I was about to dump K-Punk for example, Charles Frith sent me this, which (despite slagging off Paul Morley) still reminds me why the site ended up on my roll in the first place:

All of UK culture tends to the condition of the clip show, in which talking heads – including, of course, Morley - are paid to say what dimwit posh producers have decided that the audience already thinks over footage of what everyone has already seen.

So if you're peeved at your removal, please contact me through the usual channels, and I'll probably make some banal excuse about a slip of the mouse, and you'll know I'm lying and I'll know you know I'm lying and I'll reinstate you and honour will be satisfied and everything's lovely again.

And sorry about all this self-referential meandering in recent weeks. The next post will be about old pop music, secretive Japanese writers, dead Frenchmen who look like Scottish comedians. Something like that.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

New technology baffles pissed old hack

Despite the profoundly annoying name, I've belatedly joined del.ici.ous, which has added a few more column inches to the sprawling mess on the right. I need to edit my blogroll, but I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. Actually, I don't mind hurting anyone's feelings, but I don't want them to show up in the Comments box and express those hurt feelings in front of everyone, forcing me to explain my actions. It's all so terribly un-British.

At first, I was tempted to turn the whole thing into a Blog List (which, for non-Blogger bloggers, is a page element that shows when selected sites have been updated - 9/10ths has got one, between his and his labels), but I thought better of it. Partly because it takes up even more space than a bog-standard blogroll; but also because the bloody thing's become deeply annoying, even before I've installed it. The thing is, I'm using a Technorati feed that tells me when someone else links to my own blog. Now, as people have started including Cultural Snow on their Blog Lists, I get notified several times over every time I've updated my own blog. Which, in the hierarchy of utility, is about as helpful as receiving a txt msg every time I go to the toilet.

And of course I'm worried about hitting the wrong button and deleting the whole blog, or (worse) making it look like a MySpace page.

Gah. When I started this bloggety lark, I thought it would just be like writing a diary. I seem to spend more time twiddling with Twitter and LibraryThing and all the other gubbins than I do actually recording my erudite musings here. Count yourselves lucky.

So why bother? A fear of being left behind? A fear of becoming invisible? A fear of becoming this guy?

(Thanks to Dick Headley for that.)

Monday, July 14, 2008

Orange crush

In which I kick the arses of King Billy and brand consultants simultaneously.

Towards the end of the last century, I worked for the Guinness Book of Records. Then, one day I discovered that I'd stopped working for the Guinness Book of Records, and was working for a shiny new entity called Guinness World Records. It was something to do with expressing the cross-media aspirations of the brand, but my eyes glazed over halfway through the explanation. Not much else changed: we still produced a book with lots of records in, which people still insisted on calling the Guinness Book of Records, even when we asked them not to. Still, the new stationery was nice.

A similar non-event appears to have occurred in Northern Ireland; since last year, the celebrations surrounding the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne have been rebranded as Orangefest. One can imagine the initial reactions from the more dyed-in-the-wool Lodge members...

Ulster says: read the whole thing here.

PS: More rebranding daftness here.

PPS: If anyone wants to rent a nice two-bedroom house in Ealing, please drop me a line.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Savant garde

Small Boo and I had a pot of tea in a hotel foyer yesterday. There were a couple of musicians on duty; piano and violin, not terribly good, but not so bad they were driving people out.

As they bumbled through 'Strangers in the Night', a boy of about eight, evidently with learning difficulties, wandered over to the piano. He began conducting the music, wild and unco-ordinated, but keeping pretty good time. The other guests looked around, slightly nervous about how to react, not wanting to be seen as voyeurs at some sort of freak show. But they soon relaxed; the kid was clearly having a whale of a time, and the pianist was enjoying the visuals as well. After a while, the boy grew tired of being Karajan, and started dancing; then he did a few unsteady handstands for his new fanbase, pausing only to lap up the applause.

The musicians took a break, and the boy edged closer to the keyboard. If this were Hollywood (I'm thinking Laura Linney for the hard-pressed, widowed mother; maybe Hugh Jackman as the playboy businessman who's redeemed by his love for the unlikely pair), he would have serenaded us with a serene Bach variation, or maybe Rachmaninov with all the squiggly bits.

But it's not Hollywood, is it? The youngster thumped the keys aimlessly and atonally for about 10 seconds, before a waitress put down the piano lid, and politely but firmly led him away.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Weekend 90s revisionism, part 1: Tiger

Been watching bits of this year's Glastonbury, and it's a bit depressing. Apart from the entertaining Ting Tings (a Flying Lizards tribute act, but what's wrong with that?) most of the bands were so generic, they may as well have been concocted for an episode of Midsomer Murders, in which John Nettles infiltrates the seedy underworld of provincial indie rock, after an aspiring bass guitarist is found crushed to death under a crate of blank contract forms and hair product.

But I don't want this to turn into a Jeremiad about how horrible pop music has become these days; as Theodore Sturgeon put it, 90% of everything is crud. An equivalent string of clips from the 1997 festival, now fondly remembered by hacks for Radiohead transcending myriad lighting cock-ups blah blah blah (Paul Trynka: "'s been galling to hear the odd person describe it as merely 'a good gig'. It wasn't. It was something far more profound.") would have to include Ocean Colour Scene, Cast, Dodgy, Echobelly, the Longpigs, 60 Ft Dolls, Reef, the Seahorses and Kula Shaker (twice).

The problem is, it's Kula Shaker and the like that come to mind when we recall that era, like an obstinate turd that won't be flushed. This galls me particularly, because Small Boo and I spent much of that time in stinky Camden backrooms, bulking out the audiences for a band she was managing. It was the comedown from Britpop (as depicted in Pulp's This is Hardcore, the best album of the decade), and bands still desperate to be the new Menswe@r rubbed various body parts with acts that had no idea where they were going, and would probably never get there.

It's these Stars That Never Were (how's that for the name of a 90s revival package tour?) that tug the memory strings for me, and once again I'm disobeying my own manifesto, in a new, regular CS feature, to highlight a few decent bands that never sported ironic Union Jacks.

To kick off, here's Tiger, who I first saw at the Camden Crawl in about 1996. Bad name, technically inept, listened to too much Krautrock, came from Princes Risborough and oh, those mullets. But they possessed a certain shambolic charm that was conspicuously absent in some of their more lauded contemporaries.

(If this whets your appetite, here's the band appearing on The Big Breakfast. Not quite as good, but you do get to see Frank Carson shaking his not inconsiderable thang down the front.)

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The truth is in there

Like Nicholson Baker, I love Wikipedia. I know, I know, it's full of mistakes, but that's probably part of the attraction. Here are five things I've learned recently from that vast, sprawling Borg of fact. Unless they turn out not to be facts. Although, in that case, I've still learned them.

1. The Indian football team withdrew from the 1950 World Cup after FIFA insisted that all players must wear boots.

2. TV chef Clarissa Dickson Wright has the middle names Theresa Philomena Aileen Mary Josephine Agnes Elsie Trilby Louise Esmerelda.

3. Among the indigenous people of south-east Queensland, the word 'daughter' refers to women of one's great-grandmother's generation.

4. French rugby league player Puig Aubert was nicknamed Pipette, because of his habit of smoking on the field during matches.

5. Zero is the only number that is both real and imaginary.

This could be a meme, if you're so inclined.

(And if you're not a Wiki-fan, you can always try one of its rivals; perhaps the extraordinary Conservapedia. Here's the entry on atheism. Utterly jawdropping.)

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Funny in the head

When I'm going anywhere for any length of time, I always make sure I have at least two books with me. One of them can usually best be described as literary fiction: which means that it has appeared on a university syllabus somewhere; or a slice of it has graced the pages of Granta or the New York Review of Books or some similar publication; or the author is foreign, or dead, or has preposterous facial hair. I hate to contemplate a scenario in which I have both the inclination to read Don Quixote or Gravity's Rainbow, but don't have the opportunity.

I'm deluding myself, of course; it's the inclination that's the problem. Which is why I also pack something a wee bit easier, a bit less literary. The cover tends to be in brighter colours than that of the literary tome, and the author's name will be shiny, or embossed, or both. There may even be a positive mention from a mid-market tabloid.

Which is how, on my last trip out of town, I came to be carrying Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, with which I seemed to have been stuck at the seven-tenths mark for about six weeks; and The Killing Joke, by Anthony Horowitz.

The latter ticks all those non-literary boxes: garish, glossy cover; "sheer enjoyment," squeals the Daily Mail; and the first few pages establish a scenario (unsuccessful, recently-dumped actor in a bad pub in North London) that seems interchangeable with the plots of Nick Hornby, John O'Farrell, David Nicholls and the like. We are in lad lit territory: a saga of urban bourgeois male disappointment and (one presumes) redemption. The plot kicks off when our not-even-anti-hero wonders where a particular (crass, unfunny) joke comes from; indeed, wonders whether jokes do in fact have origins. So we've got a grail myth of sorts, albeit made bathetic and small and insignificant for our small and insignificant world.

And then things go a bit odd for Guy. Jokes, of the most banal and formulaic kind, come to life around him. He slips on a banana skin, and finds a fly in his soup. He is stalked by an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman, and his fate is determined by an individual's ability to change a lightbulb. On the periphery, a bishop discusses an actress, and a chicken, inevitably, crosses the road. It gets to the point that when you encounter, say, a woman suffering from elephantiasis, or someone else buying salami, you're desperately trying to work out what joke they've sprung from, wondering whether you've missed that particular meme.

This is weird stuff, well beyond the comfort zone of Hornby and his ilk. A couple shag in a hall of mirrors, in a scene that could have come from Pynchon or Vonnegut; the experience of being kept on hold by customer services is communicated by a phonetic transcription of Vivaldi ("DEE DEE DEE DEE DEE DEE DEE DEE / DUM DIDDLY DUM DIDDLY DUM DIDDLY DUM DIDDLY") repeated to cover the bulk of 15 pages, raising the spectre of Douglas Coupland.

And then I realise that Guy's travails in the world of jokes bear more than a passing similarity to the experiences that Ryder, Ishiguro's protagonist, has in The Unconsoled. Joke and dreams, after all, come from the deepest recesses of ourselves; dreams from the subconscious, jokes maybe from the collective unconscious (so there's no favouritism in the Freud/Jung wars, Frasier fans). Damn it, Horowitz and Ishiguro have pretty much written the same book: millennial Kafka; unsympathetic heroes leading lives well beyond our experience, but well within our understanding, even if we have to delve a little into areas we don't want to go. The only real difference between the two books is that I finished the Horowitz in a matter of hours, while the Ishiguro still glares balefully from my bedside table.

To paraphrase a legendary comic, albeit one not as funny as Freud, maybe it's the way they tell 'em.

Sunday, July 06, 2008


"This is my ultimate victory: the destruction of reality itself!"


Now, I could at this point ruin what's left of your weekend with several thousand words about Baudrillard and the deceptive reality of the simulacrum, spiced up with half a dozen Nietzsche-fuelled footnotes. But I'll content myself with pointing out that any apparent breach of paragraphs one and five of my blogging manifesto almost certainly did not take place.

PS: Just watched the front half of Genesis of the Daleks for the first time in years. All respect to RTD, Tennant, etc, but this is the real deal...

Friday, July 04, 2008

BARR ber-ber, BARR ber-ber

Alistair @ unpopular culture draws our attention to the new release from Playpeople, particularly because it lifts a sample from 1984's Scotpop classic 'Since Yesterday' by Alistair's idols Strawberry Switchblade.

Except that the bit they've lifted from 'Since Yesterday' was in fact borrowed from Sibelius's 5th symphony (kicks in at about 1:26), so maybe credit should go instead to the dead Finnish bloke, who penned it as far back as 1915. And, just to confuse the issue even further, the self-same snippet made an appearance in a cheesy Brian Wilson pastiche called 'Beach Baby' (at 3:06), released in 1974 under the group name First Class.

So who takes the credit? Well, Sibelius would seem to be the first person who stuck those notes in that order, although he probably wasn't. The mechanical copyright, which relates to the actual sounds that the new record samples, belongs to Strawberry Switchblade. And shouldn't some kudos go to the faceless hacks behind 'Beach Baby', who were the first to have the idea of crowbarring Sibelius' riff into a pop context?

Or should the giftwrapped cigar go to Playmobile, for acknowledging - possibly unwittingly - that in the 21st century, such notions of authorship and originality are so confused as to become almost meaningless?

PS: On a similar riff, RetroCrush on the history of pop plagiarism.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Language, Timothy!

One reason I maintain my atavistic loyalty to The Guardian is that they don't deploy the prim asterisks that defaced (and made pointless) this story in most other papers:

"Is this a question?" asked the apocryphal philosophy paper. The alpha-plus response, apparently, was "Is this an answer?", which demonstrates, I suppose, that a combination of inspiration, outside-the-box thinking and sheer bloody chutzpah should be worth the same as countless hours of revision and the interminable recital of stock answers to stock questions.

This seems to be Peter Buckroyd's thinking. He is the GCSE examiner who gave two marks to a candidate whose response to the instruction "Describe the room you are sitting in" was "fuck off"...

Its not big, and it's not clever, but there's more of it here.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008


Agony uncle Phillip Hodson on the reason newspaper columnists plunder their domestic lives for copy:

A column is a relentless thing and unless you recycle material it's difficult to come up with new things to write about.

A little more ammo for the blogging/old media war, methinks.

In vaguely related news, the local ban on the blogspot domain, which was temporarily lifted on Sunday, seems to be back on. I'm working through a proxy, which is OK, except that: a) I'm still having trouble posting comments, which makes me feel like - to dredge up a couple more tenuous analogies - Polonius behind a mysteriously soundproof arras, or possibly Rose without a webcam; and b) it can be molar-grindingly slow, like an ironically retro attempt to recreate the glory days of dial-up. So please excuse a slight air of detachment for the foreseeable.

PS: Many thanks to Charles Frith who's directed me to Webwarper. I look forward to popping up in your boxes again. As it were.