Ding Dong, Society is Dead

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Yes, it’s childish and puerile, sexist and disrespectful. And apart from being all of that the Daily Mail is angry. Angry that Ding Dong the Witch is Dead from the Wizard of Oz soundtrack has swung into the charts, by some sort of campaign by ‘the left’.

The song is childish (or at least high-pitched) too, and anyone buying it to make a political point is childish too. They know that and, like booing George Osbourne at the Paralympics, the British public have a remarkable history and humour of childish protest. It works so well as it’s not easy to debate against—we both get covered in jelly and ice cream and the kids like it. I also doubt that being respectful is in the minds of anyone at this point.

And, yes, the use of the gender specific insult is sexist. I don’t like it, it makes me uncomfortable.

Oh and, yes, most people who are buying it are probably to the left of Margaret Thatcher politically—but then most people are.

But, they aren’t doing it en masse by an orchestrated campaign and they aren’t all doing it for the same reason. It’s 1000s (and only that many seeing how few sales it takes to get a song into the charts these days) of different decisions for different reasons. It’s a true meme, evolving as it passes through people’s heads—there are those who wouldn’t have dreamt of supporting it getting pissed off by the pious who would tell them not to and clicking ‘buy’ with abandon. In the full knowledge of how they don’t have the heights of moral ground they could otherwise.

There isn’t a single point where this idea comes from, it’s a simple idea and a very well known song. That’s why it isn’t Shipbuilding, or Tramp the Dirt Down—or any number of better, and more politically correct, choices—a campaign on Elvis Costello’s behalf would have failed, people who didn’t know or like him wouldn’t have bought the track, no matter how cheap or easy. A playground ditty got traction.

Some haven’t thought about the sexism, it’s society’s job—if it still exists—to educate them.

Some don’t have huge encyclopaedic knowledge of music or social history—likewise.

Some, like me don’t agree with the song choice, but agree with the protest. And we’ve bought it because of who it pisses off, we make compromises like that when battling an ideology.

Excuse me if I go a bit Mark Steel for a moment, but the use of the group term ‘The Left” is dangerous. It’s as dangerous as any grouping and labeling of disparate people. The Left—it’s me, Billy Bragg, Caroline Lucas, Castro, Tony Blair, a woman from no 42 who once voted SDP, and Dan Hodges all meeting every Wednesday in the Pig & Whistle on Lug Trout Lane. Seven o’clock, back bar, knock on the side door and ask for ‘Attlee’. I did miss last week’s meeting, I was out picketing the local grocers. The Left decided in my absence to pick a song & campaign on it, sent message of solidarity to striking miners in Guam and shared a bag of pork scratchings.

Castro wanted dry roasted nuts, but he lost the motion on a simple show of hands.

The King and I — my Elvis Marathon.

Pleased to have one less thing in common with the Wonder Stuff, I do love Elvis. I love the hillbilly cat and the jumpsuited entertainer, and to prevent disillusionment I find it fairly easy to avoid watching the films — it’s not as if they are in heavy rotation on our mainstream channels these days. A love for the King is an isolating love these days. Elvis has become a rubber hat and plastic sunglasses, a jumpsuit and a remix opportunity. Elvis has become, like every dead musical artist worth remembering, a tribute and moneymaking sinkhole.

And I’m as much to blame as anybody, I own an officially licensed Blue Hawaii Hawaiian shirt (see what they did there?), an ‘Elvis pig’ (in mitigation, a gift), and book-after-book both scurrilous and fanboy. But I love the King, it’s where me and Chuck D part company (“Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me”) and one of the few touchstones that I’m sure I would have with bum-sex comedian Frank Skinner (who paid silly money for a shirt that may have belonged to EAP).

It’s a love based on the iconography as much as the music, the belts and glasses as much as the sultry vocals, That’s The Way It Is as much as the Carson show and really; ’75 as much as ’56. We’re around the 33rd anniversary of the death of Elvis Aaron Presley, and if there’s anything more undignifying than “dying on the toilet” it’s Elvis Week 2010. A week long excuse to bombard fans with emails for inglorious tat: Jailhouse Rock Flip Flops, the Elvis Hot Sauce Sauce Gift Set (including Elvis Don’t Be Cruel Hot Sauce), the Elvis and Dale Earnhardt Fantasy Race Car Magnetic Guitar Bottle Opener and left over Elvis Week 2009 Golf Balls. But, there’s still the music. In October a new Elvis Complete Masters 30 CD set is being released at the paltry sum of about £573.78 plus shipping, containing all 711 master recordings and a hundred or so rarities — no better way to make sure that it’s the music that matters.

Elvises

I couldn’t justify a pre-order for that, but I could beg and borrow all studio recordings released to date—and I can listen to all six hundred and ninety-eight of them in order. I could do the listening bit as I was ill with a stodgy cold and home alone as my other half was away to visit friends for the weekend—had she have been in situ there would have been no chance of getting through it in a sitting. A ferociously opinionated music fan, Jules has banned many of my favourites from play in her presence, mainly what she calls “wimpy indie music” (The Smiths, Belle and Sebastian, Black Box Recorder amongst them) but my recent obsession with listening only to covers of the Stones’ Satisfaction didn’t go down well either.

So I did, I loaded them all into iTunes, ordered by recording date as best as I could, from 1953’s My Happiness to 1976’s recording of Way Down (a posthumous Number One in the UK in 1977). That’s 1.2 days according to Apple. I started at 1pm on a Saturday, with intentions of attempting it in one go.

I wasn’t actually sure what I was attempting: it had something to do with sorting out my reactions to Elvis, something to do with wanting to make my own mind up on all those film soundtracks and deciding if the early years and the Vegas years were the same guy in anything more than physical body. Also, it was there, er, they were there, a mountain of Memphis to drag myself up with the use of ropes and crampons.

The foothills are easy, and seem so far in the past: the first couple of recordings were self-financed, are scratched beyond repair, and seem odd song choices if they really were presents for the venerated mother Presley. They, and almost all Elvis songs are based on love—romantic love to start with, then there’s the love of God, you sometimes have to look past the hard headed metaphors (cows, lots of cows early on. And moons). It’s not until Old Shep, 53 songs in for me and the King that there’s anything other than the birth of rock and roll. We’ve passed the echoing inventions of Sam Phillips, heard the bass slapped and the snare ratted, we’ve heard Elvis’s voice buckle country music out of recognition and into something dangerous and now it’s time for the dog. I’m a huge fan of epic, maudlin, Elvis whether it’s lost love (ooh loads), society’s ills (In The Ghetto), eternal damnation (all of the gospel recordings by implication) or a dead pooch.

In the fifties we get the templates for almost all of Elvis’s later output, and much of everybody else’s too — there are times, especially in the first big rush of success (Tell Me Why, 61 songs in) in 1957 where the material available to band isn’t anywhere near good enough. The vocals hold it together, and it’s a relief when the gospel recordings start they have a depth and sound less old—by virtue of sounding ancient to start with— than (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear (1957, 76 songs in) et al.

Could anyone of a similar pop standing (not that there is anyone) pull this off today? Could a major star change tack and record such openly religious music? Even 80s Dylan struggled with a Christian phase, maybe a chart-y soul singer could have a go but it’s unlikey that anyone would have the guts. It Is No Secret (What God Can Do) (68 in) has a wonderful oo-ee-oo at exactly 1:39.

It’s a while ’til we hit real movie detritus, but recordings from Jailhouse Rock offer a deathly foreshadowing of that which is to come—poor lyrics and simple melodies. It’ll get worse, but we’re okay for a while. What was Elvis in jail for in Jailhouse Rock, are these the stylings of an innocent man—did he just want to “stick around” to “get [his] kicks”? Forget this for a while, I tried to. Like I tried to forget that I’d made a terrible error at the Asda before starting the marathon and bought sugar-filled Pepsi rather than the similar looking caffeine-and-sweetnered Pepsi Max, a mistake that may well have lead to my dozing off later during a particularly one-note run of soundtrack sounds.

Crawfish from Kid Creole (122 songs in) was, I thought for a while, a new piece of non-metaphoric Presley. Was it the forerunner of the first few Beatles songs to leave that basic love/sex pop fascination—a song as dirty as this about a fish would have been way ahead of its time. Further reading or actual listening to the words revealed the crawfish to be ‘little Elvis’, and I was disappointed. By this stage I was keeping a tally of odd metaphors, three about cows, four moons (three of them blue) but this the first fish. I lost count eventually while looking for Elvis Firsts—and as I was so excited to find the classic ‘Elvis Talky Bit’ so early. Are You Lonesome Tonight (1960, 155) is the one with the “someone said the World’s a stage” line and is the most famous and best time that the King drops out of character, turns directly to you and solves your problems.

It finishes on the line “and then came act two” and that’s a good a point as any to really hit the long dark movie years of the soul.

Everyone knows that Elvis movies start okay, with proof that when given the right roles (young punk singers in the big city, not too much of a stretch) there is acting talent, and songs that mostly wouldn’t sound out of place on ‘proper’ albums. Everyone knows that the  movie business was eventually what killed the King, that Colonel Tom loved the film deals and the art could go hang. Everyone can point to Elvis’s Greatest Shit the in-no-way official compilation of the biggest musical atrocities and say that it’s almost exclusively from the movie years. Song of the Shrimp (Girls! Girls! Girls! 1962, 279) Old MacDonald (Double Trouble 1966, 411), and Dominic (Stay Away Joe 1967, 485)— a song about a shag-shy bullock—prove that.

But everyone is wrong. A bit.

Without exception, unless I was hallucinating on Onion Ring-style corn snacks, every film contains at least one great recording—the single from the album if you will. I started to save details of these lesser spotted flashes of ’56: Black Star (from Flaming Star 1960, 164) is county cowboy Roy Rogers done right, Charro! (Charro! 1968, 489) is the title track from his only non-singing role film and has a Joe Meek-eque production that really works.

In the days of limited media access, it’s frightening to think that the films were the only way you’d glimpse your favourite artist, and the awful soundtrack albums with terrible artwork. There no wonder that a whole pop and rock tradition built up while he was away. I took many an opportunity to pop to the toilet around this time.

The bad-film era does give us the first real batch of those gospel classics—enough to keep me going until the promised land of 1968. The ’68 special is, by some, held up as Elvis Presley’s last great work, but I find it a rehash of stuff that had gone before. Necessary to cleanse the palette perhaps, but nothing new recorded around this time has any great worth, we really do need to wait for the full big band sound to get into place before he becomes great again. I’ve been listening for over 24 hours now (I did drop off, but restarted at last remembered song) and I’m aching for the big sound of the Vegas years.

He can sing anything by this point, it’s all in place—band, producers, strings, horns, the Jordanaires. The only way it can go wrong is the song. When the song is right—I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water (1970, 570)— it’s perfect. When it’s wrong l’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen (1971, 615) it just doesn’t work.

Elvis is making me cry with regularity now, no-one hits a note of drunk self-pity better and even when you’re not inebriated you can remember those pissed moments when the only man that can understand how wronged you are is Elvis Aaron Presley. Well, him and Him. For we get that gospel thread back at this stage.

I spent most of my time at this point musing not on lyrical content, for Elvis is long past hiding behind anything the truth (whoever is writing) is laid bare, but on how Elvis is very much a religious figure. If my experience is coloured by the traditional Irish household I first heard Elvis records in, then perhaps that’s it. I see the EAP, JFK, and the Pope as the parts of a Catholic trinity almost as holy to people in the late seventies as the ‘real’ one. It’s something to to with the redemptive power of song, the way in which Elvis confesses every  sin—all borne through love—powerfully and honestly. Though they are others’ words, it’s Elvis’s truth. The greatest interpreter of song and emotion ever.

It takes Elvis 690 songs before he has a knock at Danny Boy (1976, 690) and it breaks the spell a little. Drawn in to the religiosity and expanse, I’m not buying that sentimental guff and it’s obvious that his heart isn’t in it.

Way Down (1976, 698) picks me up—despite containing the lowest note sung by a human on a recorded release by J.D.Summer— it’s a fitting end. I still love Elvis.

I tweeted throughout the experience at @elvismarathon, an archive of the Tweets is here.

A Spotify playlist of my ‘discoveries’ is here.

Passion Play

If you’ve watched an England game on telly this World Cup, apart from a feeling of ennui matched only it seems by Emile Heskey as he spends another match mostly inhaling the pitch, you’ll have gained two things:

Except that they’re sort of the same thing. One is an ex-player’s easy statement on a team’s failure without having to do such things as explain tactics, the other a Danish lager PR machine’s attempt to associate themselves with football, without having to understand anything about it bar the jingoistic assumptions made by sections of the press.

Passion is an odd thing, it’s the only piece of the gamut of emotional reaction to sport that advertisers and the media will attempt to engage the public over. You’ve seen John Barnes, a player torn apart by the press during his playing career for a perceived lack of it held up as someone to connect over just how much of it he has. If it can be whipped up to involve some cheap nostalgia so much the better. Barnes’s appearance is linked to the current wave of re-imagining the golden era of Italy 1990, there’s even a film out One Night In Turin based around the tournament — with the tears and kisses and penalty misses that do nothing so much as remind me how much the video from only twenty years ago has degraded.

It’s not quite how I remember that World Cup, the headlines were about how bad things were, not how memorable. It existed as one of the great last sorties of English hooliganism abroad, there was constant footage of it raining plastic glasses and plastic chairs in picturesque squares all over Italy. The film is based on a book by Pete Davis called All Played Out (now re-issued as One Night in Turin), which is a fantastic, if depressing, read about how Planet Football is divorced from all reality and the lives of the fans. Davis quotes a distressed Englishman — no doubt dressed in too-small shorts and one of those headache inducing plastic flat-caps we used to have — after a disappointing draw against North African opposition: “fight you bastards” he says “like we fight for you”. Sound familiar? The film doesn’t touch too much on that.

Do players really have less passion now than two decades ago, and if so can that role-call of famous English help. Can a naked-from-the-waist (up, thankfully) Jeff Stelling inspire, does our greatest living World Champion — The Power — chucking a ‘good arra’ mean anything to our current team? I’m not sure it goes far enough, these are media savvy young men who will assume well wishes from the stars of stage and green (and have you noticed Steve Davis CGI’d into recent transmissions?). What they need is inspirational figures alongside them when it really counts.

It’s said that the great Liverpool team of the 80s could afford to play Sammy Lee as they “could have covered for Thora Hird at left back”, never mind a player who’d just been transferred a little above his ability. So with that in mind, can’t the England team cover for the lack of experience or fitness of a sententious Englishman who will lead them in all things passion?

If Beckham can travel without being fit to play, surely the presence of a great who can play (without them being able to really play) is a possibility. And we could stick them on the wing that Gerrard doesn’t seem to be using anyway.

Of the advert crew, we have to excuse Dames Holmes and MacArthur for FIFA are not enlightened enough to allow a female winger, but surely Ian Botham could do a job? Beefy is so English that supposedly preferring the charms of the West Indian dressing room to that of his own team hasn’t dampened his iconic status, and he had a few games for Scunthorpe and Yeovil too.

He can’t do everything of course, but not every game needs so much of the passion and we have a lot of national treasures around. An easy qualifier against the Faroes for example might only need the passion of a Bradley Walsh or a Jonathan Wilkes, a friendly against a local side pre a tournament could be the opportunity to rest the big guns and use a Duncan Norvelle or a Stan Boardman (who pioneer Fat Ron Atkinson used extensively in the build up to big Villa games in the nineties).

A vital qualifier away in Turin might be the time to use Brian Blessed, where you could use a home game to blood David Mitchell, maybe he and Robert Webb could be twin raiding wing-backs.

Roy Race knew all about the power of celebrity, and also blow-driers, when he picked Steve Norman and Martin Kemp of Spandau Ballet for Melchester. Imagine the faces of the opposition when we bring on The Actual Mayor Of London for a corner. And BoJo has experience.

It’s the World Cup and we need to show that passion, so we need to lay every card we have. Princes William and Harry were in the stands on Friday, and the dressing room after — luckily before anyone touching cloth came in to ask to use the bog — why were they not in the room before, kitted and booted, three lions over their royal right-nipples ready for battle. Where their ancestors lead England into the breach, they could be leading Aaron Lennon onto the bench and playing themselves.

Forget Gaddafi’s son somehow making the Libya side (and oddly the squad at Sampadoria), forget Kevin-Prince Boateng. We might just have found a use for our Royal Family, just not Fergie in charge of the sponsorship deals please.

Cultural Birmingham

In the, decidedly non-Birmingham-related, film The Commitments soul music is called “the rhythm of sex. Rhythm of the factory, too”. Sex, maybe, but if any sound has the rhythm of the factory, the hammering, drilling, thumping it’s heavy metal—and Birmingham in the late sixties and seventies was the home of both.

Every few years a politician suggests that Brum’s airport be renamed in honour of Brum’s Ozzy Osbourne in the way that Liverpool airport celebrates John Lennon. And every few years the airport and tourist chiefs dismiss that idea as batty. Birmingham as a city hasn’t served its denim and leather heritage well, until very recently. Local promoters of all sorts of avant garde noise, Capsule produced a huge and popular exhibition—fittingly called Home of Metal—that even featured recreations of the factories where members of bands like Black Sabbath worked; before they clocked off and changed the course of music.

The city seems to be finally spawning a body of new bands comfortable with that heritage. And Capsule are being joined by other rock-focused promoters like It’s Just Noise and the team behind El Ghost Fest, a quarterly festival based at the new Muthers Studio (muthersstudio.co.uk) a surprisingly big venue gritty, heavy, Digbeth.

Julia Ghost-Fest, also keyboardist in post-rock collective Ghosts of Dead Airplanes, rates Them Wolves highly (themwolves.co.uk) “the guitars are dark and crunchy, the vocals are too. It sounds now”. They’re a fixture at the airless, room underneath The Flapper (theflapper.co.uk Cambrian Wharf, down by the canal) where the wood panneling will drip with sweat, and the toilets are awash with other liquid and also The Rainbow (therainbowvenues.co.uk High St, Digbeth). Here bands blast the local surroundings from what was the beer garden but has had to be re-enforced and soundproofed to prevent noise abatement orders.

For the more traditional metal, based on black T-shirts, dark imagery and angular fonts Kataleptic (facebook.com/Kataleptic) are loud and urgent as you like—and voted one of the UK’s top unsigned bands by metal bible Terrorizer.

The factories are all but gone, but the noise remains.

Originally published in The Guardian.

We can win this

When I followed England to the 2006 World Cup in Germany the talk before was of how the England fans would be incarcerated the second they “mentioned the war”. The World Cup was a great success and for England (off the pitch at least) things seemed to go well. It was still with trepidation that I travelled to Berlin this week for a game — would being in the city that was the seat of the Nazi’s power be too much for a certain type of Englishman?

Mentioning or not mentioning the war seems to hold a great power over the English, and not just those you’d think of as hooligans — it’s summed up beautifully by this letter from Viz:

‘Could I take this opportunity to remind the UKTV History channel that a lot of history happened before 1939, and a substantial amount of it has also happened since 1945. Not only that, some of it didn’t happen in Germany.’ A Thackray, Letter to Viz comic

But despite the Great Escape and Dambusters film tunes being a feature of both bars before the game and the England Supporters Band’s badly-played repertoire, I didn’t see any trouble. I also spent an evening in the company of hundreds of German football fans, which was not only trouble-free, but friendly and fun.

One reason for the air of friendship is that the Germans are seemingly full of admiration for England’s footballing history, as exemplified by the banner thanking us for “inventing the beautiful game” (Russell Brand’s take on this is worth a read).

But the main reason is the efforts put in by some England supporters to leave a good impression in the cities and the countries they visit. I hope I’m one, but my good impression normally doesn’t stretch further than being nice to bar staff. The real hard work is done by people like Mark Perryman who organises “The Game before the Game” — where teams of England fans share their common interest with the opposition, by playing them at football.

On the Tuesday before Wednesday’s game I took on the wind and rain of Berlin’s winter and, with only the help of the city’s excellent public transport system, made my way to a suburban sports centre to watch my mate Dan play for England against Germany.

There were two 11-a-side games, Dan played in the first against a team of German supporters (who had apparently won through auditions to take part—the England lads clearly hadn’t), then a team of over 35s took on the team from “The Miracle of Bern”. That might sound like a happy-clappy church, but it’s the highest grossing German film ever—set around the 1954 World Cup.

Another football film gave me my biggest laugh of the trip, sat in the dugout hiding from the rain some of the subs were talking about Escape To Victory: “I’ll be Pelé said one, “I’m Michael Caine” says another, “I’ll be Bobby George”.

The set-up is great: national anthems before, reception afterwards, presentations to dignitaries. The teams were presented to Bert Trautman hero of the 1956 cup final for playing on with a ‘broken neck’ — as a blues fan I felt a little guilty.

These games were followed by a 5-a-side tournament with teams from the British Embassy, Bild, the Berlin Police and a team of ex-pros lead by Fredi Bobic that won comfortably. All played fairly, all watched by groups of English and Germans sharing a beer and a laugh.

All a huge contrast to the traditional view of English football fans abroad, unfortunately one that you struggle to get over to more people than attended these events. There were a lot of German press at the fans’ match, but sadly no English reporters that I could see.

In the bars in the centre of Berlin, however, there were journalists goading the groups of fans to sing. I suspect that they were hoping that the footage they shot could be used to accompany reports of riots after the game. Singing in a bar isn’t an act of aggression, but it depends on how it’s edited. One shot of a few idiots being arrested, interspersed with hundreds singing looks like it’s hundreds causing trouble.

It’s not, there are thousands of English football supporters who are a joy to welcome to your city. It looks like the hard work of people like Mark Perryman will have to change perceptions one game at a time.

Originally published by The Birmingham Post.

Cory Booker: a social mayor

At a conference on the power of the web to deliver change in democracy this weekend in New York (the PDF, Personal Democracy Forum), the two main threads were platforms and tools (some promising, some not) and a desire to discover whether the Internet could “fix” politics  the assumption from many speakers was that trust and mechanism were broken and needed reformation in new ways. However despite a sneering disregard for politicians, the biggest hit was one: Cory Booker.

 

Booker – a mayor of a city in the shadow of a big neighbour, a city of around a million people with a high non-white population, a city often unfairly characterised in the media as dangerous or dull. He’s taken on the might of the media in Conan O’Brien who joked: “The mayor of Newark New Jersey wants to set up a citywide program to improve residents’ health… The health care program would consist of a bus ticket out of Newark”. This strong advocate for a downtrodden area is something that elected mayors have the power to give to a city, and if that description of Newark sounded like I was writing about my own home town of Birmingham, then good — it was meant to, I’ve fully come round to the idea of directly elected mayors.

 

The 2007 documentary Street Fight portrays him as a powerful force, ready for such a stage, but it’s been his groundbreakingly human use of the social web as a force for his city that had 800 of the most cynical people in the World (politically active people who spend a lot of time on the Internet) enrapt.

 

His main weapon is openness and accessibility — every so often he’ll DM a Twitter follower directly about their issue, he’ll also tweet about his caffeine consumption and in almost Ice Cubian honestly he’ll proclaim that ‘today was a good day, no-one had to use their AK’ (or at least that Newark had a murder free month for the first time in 50 years).

 

What it provides is true leadership; yes Booker users his connections to nudge and campaign but what is more important it establishes him as a visible hub in a network, a person whom is both human and responsive. This fosters more political engagement than a hundred expensively advertised, staffed and graphed consultations (again, his messages reach one million plus people on one very easy to manage, free, channel).

 

This isn’t a million miles away from what another conference speaker has done en-route to becoming a multimillionaire and destroying the business models of the local press all around the united states. Craig Newmark is the Craig out of Craigslist, the free online local classified website that has grown from a tiny email list in 1995 to a $150million dollar operation in 2009 to. As soon as there was money and company structure Newmark appointed an experienced businessman to the role of CEO and became the Customer Service Representative, the point of contact for and voice on the side of the customers of the site was its founder and majority shareholder.

 

While that might sound crazy, Newmark answers emails and talks to people across his constituency all day and the company is better for it. This method isn’t without issues of scale, whether you could expect Cameron to address people directly in this way I don’t know — but at city level it can certainly be sustained by a man as charismatic as Booker.

 

Inevitably openness in this way, and to everyone online if they like asks questions of whether it’s acting in the best interests of, the city. On the internet, it’s said that no-one knows you’re a dog and surely a politician entrusted with the wellbeing of a geographical area will be pressured by ‘outside agitators’,organised campaigns and pranksters. Perhaps, not withstanding that it is perfectly possible to mine the data trail we leave for much more powerful signals of real intent these days, voices from outside the city present a gentle pressure to wider interests and a change of cross civic altruism. It also does no harm at all to the image of the city.

 

This is more important for being the one goal that any figurehead can achieve, there is no budgetary or legislative support needed, it costs nothing but the will. With local authority spending no doubt under continuing pressure, it may be the most powerful goal too. If the slack of the state must be taken up by volunteers then they will need engaging, the will need to feel supported, appreciated and listened to. You can’t pay people to engage emotionally, but you can do it and do it at scale online.

 

If an elected major is what our cities need, then the ones I want are to be connected too.

 

You can see the Booker session (a panel also including Tim O’Reilly and Adriana Huffington) here.

Originally published on Labour Uncut.

Here comes bloody everybody

Will the General Election in May 2010 go down as the first ‘internet election’? No. The unusual — if not entirely unexpected — result has seen to that, but it was an election in which people using the social web changed forever the way campaigning works in the UK.

 

Talk before was of which party could “do what Obama did”, that is use the internet to harness support, and to fundraise. Well, no-one really did — and politics in Britain was unlikely to suddenly start to work like that, we’re too conflicted, too cynical and have too many choices. We sometimes have to make decisions about how to place our cross where the local and national aims seem flatly contradictory — it was never going to be a simple case of joining one Facebook Group over another, the web can handle nuance, even if our electoral system can’t.

 

There was significant grassroots activity though, and perhaps the best way to see the difference between us and US is to look at the difference between my.barackobama.com (‘Organising for America’) and mydavidcameron.com (‘Airbrushed for Change’). One is a social network ‘lite’, directed at organising and nudging (very much in line with the theories of Richard Thaler) support, the other a crowdsourced Private Eye, with all the mix of clever satire and fart jokes that that might entail.

 

In the end, Obama won because he was offering something different to a wildly unpopular administration and he made great speeches — that doesn’t sound so unusual when you think about it. But that’s not to say that the web isn’t changing politics.

 

What sites like mydavidcameron did was to facilitate the pub-joker, and the politicised satirist, to help what would have been simple slogans become memes. Meme theory, developed by everyone’s favourite evolutionary geneticist Richard Dawkins, believes that ideas and thoughts can work like genes — that is strive to spread for survival and alter in order to do that. Memes evolve, merge and change beyond all expectation — and in the political arena they survive longer if they have been tuned against the originators, as well as being funny. The best are both, and make serious points at the same time. It’s now a brave move to release a simple to alter poster, and the Tory ones towards the end of the campaign seemed deliberately to be harder to photoshop.

 

Memetics ensured that the spin was quickly countered, that transparency has at least a chance, but did more direct, and orchestrated, online campaigning fail?

 

I didn’t see any great movement from the parties themselves, for every mild success (Labour built a site that made it easy to donate avatar space, changing your profile picture on social networks, for the direct run-up that worked much like putting up a poster in your window) there was a horrible failure (security and social failure from the Tories’  ‘Cash Gordon’ site that not only pulled in tweets indiscriminately without checking for content, but allowed code through that meant it was quickly hacked). Obama’s online team, at least the ones I heard speak at the Personal Democracy Forum this year, talked about the success being in allowing supporters access — I don’t think anyone did that at a party level.

 

But there were pressure groups, petitions and campaigns that operated almost exclusively online —  economically that’s the only way they can reach people.

 

Sky’s Kay Burley seemed sure that they had failed — or should. her “go home… watch it on Sky News” comment to David Babbs of 38 Degrees, sparked howls or outrage online. It couldn’t have seemed more to me a collision between that old politics, where large party donations for advertising and influence on the media favour the right and the rich and a more distributed set of influences in which the left — with its tradition of and roots in community organising — should thrive. Newspapers (and increasingly other forms of media, under Murdoch) are leaning and will lean right, whatever the mood of the nation, whatever the issues, whatever the real good of the country.

 

Here was that simple, quickly organised direct action that the disciples of Shirky have been talking about and the media was uncomfortable with it. Clay Shirky, author of Here Come Everybody, was one of the first to document how it was now possible to “organise without organisations” using the power of the social web to make ad-hoc connections around an aim. Individual protests may not succeed, but a culture of organisation can help keep debate open.

 

Think of the way you voted, was it on a single issue? Or was it on some combination of issues, some you felt strongly about, some not so much. Single issue campaigning will exhaust you and your social capital too, each chain email to your representatives will hold less and less weight. Each Twibbon you add or group you join will mean less, but that doesn’t mean that online organisation can’t work.

 

During the passing of the Digital Economy Act, thousands engaged online with the political process, many for the first time — and sites like 38 Degrees helped organise them into action. They built the databases and contact books like Obama had, and then used them to get a head start in the next single issue — but more than that they were good at making connections.

 

I’ve a hunch that there will be much more campaigning to do over the coming months, over issues big and small, those connections will be crucial.

Originally published by Labour Uncut.

King of Comedy

America had the Rat Pack: Frank, Dean, Sammy, they were friends and confidants of Mafioso and Presidents. They are the Platonic ideal of the all-round entertainer. In Britain we’ve got Bruce Forsyth, not so dangerous perhaps but perfectly able to pull off a song, a dance, some passable acting and arrange to have you wake up to a cranial equine bedfellow.

But Bruce is fading, there will soon be a vacuum at the heart of light entertainment. There’s hope that Paddy McGuinness could learn to dance, or that Michael McIntyre might be granted the powers of acting, dance, organised crime and comedy but we need look no further. The Crown Prince of Variety is here, and he’s going to keep the pound shop open as a sideline.

Angelos Epithemiou is about to embark on another nationwide tour, promising that Angelos Epithemiou and Friends will contain “three jokes, two impressions and one dance, some magic and a big quiz.” There’s no doubt that this will be your last chance to see him in such intimate venues. Judging by the attention his earthily handsome frame drew from Hollywood starlet Thandie Newton on BBC Two’s Shooting Stars we may even lose him to Tinseltown sooner than we think. It’s something Angelos himself has noticed but he’s keen to downplay the rumours: “she’ll have to get in line that one” he says, undistracted from the bigger prize.

Women want him, men want him. It must be a trial for Epithemiou, who admits to no more than “one or two” dalliances with groupies on the current tour “I never reveal me secrets”, “I’m an handsome man” he says in his rich London tones “I could turn a man’s head. I could turn it with me hand”.

“They fling themselves at me, which is right, ‘cos look at me—I’m a looker, so the ladies love me… Last week, y’know now I’m in showbiz, someone asked me to open a supermarket, which was very good. Until they sort of flung the keys at me and said: ‘can you open it up at four o’clock in the morning and let the bakers in ‘cos I’m going on holiday’.”

Scenes reminiscent of A Hard Day’s Night—Epithemioumaina if you will—are following him up and down the country: “Birmingham was the place where I turned up three hours before-hand and there’s five people stood outside in the freezing cold saying ‘can we have your autograph Angelos?’. I thought ‘I like this’…I could start just signing things and slinging them on eBay, make a few quid on the side.”

“It’s ridiculous, I just want to be at home watching me Crimewatch videos.”, but fame “is inevitables.” he says in a reflective moment, perhaps conscious of the bigger stardom to come. “Yeah I’m ready for it, whatever they throw at me I’ll take it. Rip as many people off as I can and then clear off to the Bahamas.”

Attention hasn’t yet driven the performer’s ego over the top, Epithemiou is level-headed even about the traditional touring excess “They’ve got me in the good hotels, and quite right ‘cos I’m a superstar. I’ve been trashing ’em, sometimes I leave the bed unmade, leave the kettle on”. His entourage, or his “carers” as he touchingly refers to them, must have had worse times despite a true star’s insistence on everything being just so. Take his backstage rider: “tea, milk, coffee an egg…it has to be fried, I’m not mucking about with poached or scrambled, orange juice. A breakfast really, just at six o’clock in the evening. Sometimes they’re funny about it”.

It’s a troubled Angelos that is watching his career take off so fast, maybe even out of his control: “I’ve got to do more blinking TV, I’ve got to do more of that ‘Shooting Stars’ with those two chancers, the lucky club members, but after that we’ll see happens I don’t know.” It’s obvious that his heart is in his art: “the quicker I can get back to me pound shop the better as far as I’m concerned. I’ve bought all these wet suits…suits that have been in a flood. Everything is a pound, apart from the stuff which is a tenner. Most of it’s a pound. Apart from the stuff that’s like two pound or three pound or 4 pound. Get out of the touring and back into the pound shop that’s what I need to do.”

Art and commerce, the complete entertainer, the new Sinatra with the humility of Forsyth, Angelos Epithemiou is probably a genius and his career is about to blow up as big as his burger van. Only this time it won’t be by “mysterious forces.”

Originally published in Area Magazine.

Cult Fiction

For Ian Astbury, The Cult has something of the power of a cult; not a homogenising hippy-ish commune, with robes and hidden sexual practices. Although that sounds like a cracking basis for any rock-troupe, I really just mean that he’s seemingly been unable to leave—name changes, two reunions and tens of members later he’s still creating.

The band’s forthcoming tour (Wolverhampton Civic on Jan 26th) gives Midland fans a slim window of opportunity to snatch and re-programme the singer, should you want to, I have a cricket bat you can borrow. But if you’re happy to see the mystic-rock continue for another 25 years, then you don’t need to do anything—except go along and hear the, pretty stunning, new material.

Last time The Cult were playing live it was in support of the remastered Love album, and doing the increasingly fashionable “play the whole of an old album” thing, including a huge show at the Albert Hall with former members turning up for the encore. Fans were ecstatic, but Astbury? Not quite so much: “The Love Live tour was from Billy [Duffy, the other main Cult-ist],…he wanted to do something to celebrate the album and we’d kinda missed the 20th anniversary so it was 25 years. I’m not a fan of nostalgia or anniversaries
so I kinda compromised with him, and all he wanted to do was play the Albert Hall. Then it just grew from there into a World Tour. I’d sort of acquiesced, but it worked out really really well.”

“It was strange… Mark Brzezicki I hadn’t seen since we’d made the record and Jamie [Stewart] usually turns up if we’re playing some shows in the UK but I rarely speak to him. You get to rediscover things, songs feel like old sketches…we’ve been playing ‘White’ from Ceremony—which I don’t think was one of our better records—it’s become a really important part of our set. It has so much more guts.”

Not being a Cult completist, I’d been listening to that back catalogue on Spotify before talking to Ian, I could feel the lineage of that crisp chiming guitar across the albums and Ian’s vocals are never less than the heir to Jim Morrisson that he briefly became. And when they get it all right at once, it’s epic in all the right ways.

All except their short rock opera about the latest news from British Gas, that was shit.

Ian Astbury isn’t a man who the race forward of technology bothers, however. Driving through the early morning on the way to Michigan he’s reading Area on his iPad and planning different ways to do music.

“Pre-internet, pre-new-formats, pre-iTunes, older artists can get entrenched in a way of doing things: tour, album, tour, album. It drives the way you create. Writing a single for the radio? It doesn’t really exist anymore, it’s a dead format.”

“The bands that are really important are what I call the ‘wilderness bands’, it’s happening in the wilderness, in the fringes.”

“Billy and I are from the North West, but we came up through Brixton doing shows, Punk was incredibly important, it touched everybody…but that’s all gone, that’s all gone…maybe we wouldn’t have made the Love album if we’d had computers, there may not have been that need to escape.”

“We came up with the idea of the capsule, something a lot fresher—writing songs and releasing them as we go along. The idea of sitting in a studio for a year and a half chiselling out an album for a commercial market is something we just don’t subscribe to anymore. We don’t even have a record company.”

“The twenty-first century is a level playing field. Here’s the wonderful thing—I’m sitting on a bus driving from Cleveland to Grand Rapids and I’m looking at Area online, being exposed to artists in the Midlands. It doesn’t matter where you are, you have access to information. It’s all down to what you—what creative people—chose to do with it.”

“Tony Iommi [Ian worked on his recent solo album] is rapidly becoming the poster boy for the twenty first century… Black Sabbath were for real. Black Sabbath volume four is one of best pieces of work ever, I’d like to see an exhibit purely to Black Sabbath vol 4… I get excited when I hear it.”

The capsule is a single, of sorts, but more so—each one has a lead track, live and other music and a film, produced by Astbury himself and comes downloadable or in increasingly lavishly packaged CD and collectors editions. It’s making the most of what you’ve got, and the most of the “true fans” that will still pay for music these days.

I get the feeling that Ian Astbury is happy at the way his life and art works at the moment, he’s not only relaxed and enjoying the extra freedom that not being forced to create on schedule provides, but just freedom in general:

“The Cult have been going for years, and we live in such an ageist culture that you’re meant to be irrelevant after the age of 28. But most of my heroes didn’t start producing their best work until their forties…like Mark Rothko… you need that experience to have a broader palette to draw from. As an artist if you don’t exploit that you’re doing yourself and your audience a disservice.”

“I can make films, I can interact with artists from all over the World. When I come off tour I’m going to Tokyo to work with Boris, then I’m going back to California to make another film, as well as being in the studio with the Cult. Maybe more music with UNKLE.”

Doing just what he wants to do seems to agree with him.

Originally published in Area Magazine.

Morrissey and me have history

Morrissey and me have history, or rather I have histories. Rogan’s massive tome on The Smiths of course, but five or six Moz companions of varying degrees of cash raking, muck raking and queer power agendas. But I care only for him. his strong arms and Dino-esque ability to make you feel safe with an aside.

But first, I am to be searched for contraband, suspended above Birmingham on a vat of lard (or whatever it is that’s meant to make Symphony Hall acoustically perfect) and encouraged to watch Doll and the Kicks. Encouraged mainly it has to be said by it being three quid for a bottle of lager.

Doll and the Kicks are the latest in a line of Moz support bands hand-picked by our hero because, theoretically, they’ve got everything. Doll teeters about having forgotten to put her skirt on in a way not seen since Daisy Chainsaw, the Kicks are amphetamine skinny — which takes real work these days, what with there being no decent speed about. Alas they have no tunes, or at least no tunes that also have decent songs attached. They have a tune called “What Goes Around Comes Around”, which is about, like, khama or something.

Led to a darkened stage by torchlight, overlooked by a vast projection of some who may or may not be Reggie Kray, Moz spends the next hour battering his past into various shapes. A breakneck “How Sound Is Now” makes you think about how The Smiths at their most rock, were still sedate, “Cemetry Gates” [sic] pumped by stand-up bass is fast enough to make SPM stumble over the words.

It’s still astonishing that The Greatest Lyricist of his Generation™ gives his words so much space, when there’s nothing to improve on an anguished yodel says more than any number of extra lines. This stands out even more when the set includes — as it does — album tracks from his 22 year solo period. There are words here than only the obsessed know, all the better to bellow with your arms outstretched, and a B-sides collection to flog, to the extent of having a vinyl copy to show us as if he’s on Des O’Connor, there’s ample reason for the obscure tracks.

Where the band are at home, on tracks from “the comeback” recent three albums, the sound is complex and epic. Boz Boorer changes guitars mid-song, the drummer has a gong he’s not afraid to crash, lights pump and Morrissey sings about intimate feelings that fill a room as big as you like. He could throw his arms around Paris, he could hug the world, but so often doesn’t want to.

Moz, Symphony Hall, 23/10/10

Originally published by Area Magazine
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