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
.

Old Grey Mayor

You won’t remember this but, instead of weird psychedelia with top bands going ‘gabba gabba’, or gibbering stocky puppet simpletons with screens in their stomachs, kids would happily sit in front of the TV and watch stories about talking animals that had adventures in primarily human settings. One such animal was animated Sunday lunch Larry the Lamb, and when he had exhausted all his mint saucey options he’d go to see the head honcho. “M…M…M…Mr Mayor” he’d say, and a fella in a tricorn hat would sort it all out. Sweet. And decidedly tasty with mashed potatoe

Where do the lambs of Birmingham go when the wool hits the fan? Well at the moment they’ve no Mr or Ms Mayor to trot along to see—but might well have later this year. This is a round about way of saying that on May 3rd this year there’s a referendum in Birmingham to decide if the city gets to elect it’s own mayor in a similar way that London gets to be presided over by Boris Johnson—although we probably won’t have any blond, bumbling, biking, bonking Borises in the running.

A ‘yes’ vote and in November brummies will get to pick their leader, and while we won’t know who’ll stand for a while it’s worth looking at some of the most famous mayors the World has had and see if we can guess what they’d do if we voted them in here.

 

Famous Mayor: Dick Whittington

Mayor of: London, three times.

Would they work in Brum?: Panto fave Richard Whittington was indeed mayor of London three times, and apparently loved his pussy as much as the current incumbent. Dick’s best days are behind him, and once a man has been mayor three times there’s not much chance he has another term in him. Not your turn again, Dick Whittington. We’re one hundred miles from London, puss, and there’s no sign of Dick here. Oh no there isn’t.

 

Famous Mayor: ‘Diamond’ Joe Quimby

Mayor of: Springfield

Would they work in Brum?: Mayor Quimby rules the city where the people are yellow with a rod of wads of notes wrapped in brown envelopes. No method of corruption or mode of bung is too obscure for ‘Diamond’ Joe to have a finger in, even though he only has six. His womanising ways wouldn’t sit well with the Birmingham electorate who are already confused enough by local MP John Hemming’s lovelife. That said, he his modelled on the Kennedy clan so Brummies could be turned by his celebrity connections—after all we’ve only really got Jasper Carrott.

 

Famous Mayor: Mayor McCheese
Mayor of: McDonaldland

Would they work in Brum?: The nuemero uno, the big cheese, of McDonaldland, Mayor McCheese has a beefburger for a head and sports a top hat, a diplomat’s sash, and a pair of pince-nez glases. So far so much like many of the current councillors, and the official McDonaldland Wikipedia page says he is “portrayed as a giggly, bumbling, and somewhat incompetent mayor” so maybe not one we’ll be voting for any time soon. His record on crime (or ‘hamburgling’) is poor.

 

Famous Mayor: The mayor off of 60s batman
Mayor of: The camp version of Gotham City from the 60s TV programme

Would they work in Brum?: You know, in Batman with Adam West there was a white haired old gent who basically stood around looking confused with Commissioner Gordon. His decisions ran like this: there is a problem caused by a supervillan, he’s not really sure what’s going on, Mayor Linseed turns on the bat signal. In Birmingham how would that really work? If an evil genius is draining the canals or turning everyone that touches the canapés in Glynn Purnell’s restaurant to stone, I’m not sure that flicking the switch on a giant lamp its going to do much.

 

 

Famous Mayor: Clint Eastwood

Mayor of: Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

Would they work in Brum?: I don’t think he’s played one on screen, but ol’ Dirty Harry himself was the real life mayor of a tiny place in California—voted in by this fellow movie stars and artists. The town has—seriously—a ban on wearing high heeled shoes without a permit, so we’d like to see him tackle Broad Street on a Friday night with his Smith and Weston. Did he fire six shots or only five? And how many did he fire in Spearmint Rhino?

 

Originally published in Area Magazine, about Birmingham’s Mayoral Referendum.

Redeveloping redevelopment

Last weekend I was lucky enough to have an excuse to stay at Urban Splash’s (responsible for the Rotunda update) recently redeveloped and re-opened Midland Hotel in Morecambe. The Art Deco seaside retreat got a huge amount of publicity on reopening, Guardian features, Culture Show specials, asking the question of whether the redevelopment of the hotel could spark a renaissance for the whole town.

It is stunningly beautiful at first glance, although the view is spoilt by the car park packed with monster trucks that I’m sure Mrs Simpson (of Edward and… fame) didn’t have to put up with. The rooms are also fantastic, and a great deal of time and effort has been spent reflecting the style of the building through nice bits of design. A particular favourite touch of mine was the beer mats in the style of the Marion Dorn rugs that once graced the reception. The spiral staircase just begs you to take photos of it, which I did:
But there’s something a bit wrong. There are already stains and signs of rust on the roof of the rear terrace, there is the odd bit where the floor titles have worked loosed are in need of repair. Some of the doors are marked with signs obviously made with Microsoft Publisher, blu-tac’d on, saying “staff only”. The way to the toilet from the function suite is past a pile of mops and buckets, primed for use with already dirty water in them. Not huge problems, and ones I’d have probably not even noticed if it were not for the 1920s decadent vibe I was trying to buy into.

As far as I can guess there’s no way that buildings can be maintained in the same way now as they were in the 1920s. Labour is much more expensive. It’s right that we can no longer subjugate people into working so hard that they present a sheen of constant shininess to the paying guest. I don’t want some poor worker constantly on call to clean roofs or touch up tilings, I don’t want someone to have to stand in front of doors that we’re not meant to use “helpfully” pointing us in the right direction. But this means that it’s not possible to create a sheen over the real workings of a building, so there has to be another way to do it.

The Rotunda Bar in the hotel, but open to the public, (named for our Rotunda, I don’t know) is another sumptuous, but somehow wrong setting. I expected, no wanted, a Noel Coward-esque piano artiste (he stayed in the hotel for a time, and is one of my heroes) serenading residents with bon-mots and frightfully clever lyrics while we sipped our iced tea. What we got was pumped in chart music, slightly too loud, while people dressed for Morecambe’s sea-front (waterproofs and fleeces, it is Lancashire) drank pints of beer. It’s my problem, I’m a snob I know—but it jars with the idea of the redevelopment.

The second problem with trying to cling to this past is this: exclusivity can only be maintained by price, not by societal “rules”. Attempt to bar entry (to the bar) by lack of tie, or bearing, with result in people demanding their “rights” or (that dreadful word) “respect” –àand since they’re coming in anyway, why not switch the entertainment to lowest-common denominator (and cheapest) stuff anyway.

So, I’m thinking, you can’t really redevelop for the past as it was and an attempt to sit betwixt two eras is doomed to disappoint (well, disappoint me anyway). Again in Morecambe the palatial Winter Gardens are falling down, and in need of £10M of refurbishment (according to a guy from the society trying to save it I chatted to). If they get the money, the only real plan is to make it look how it did in the last century, when Freddie “Parrot Face” Davies and Max Bygraves trod the boards. I can’t see it working, it’s gorgeous now in it’s faded and falling down state – to put back the gilt will be to chocolate box it (they, for some reason, won’t allow photos to be taken, but imagine the theatre at the start of Terry Gilliam’s ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’). If it could be made safe without cleaning it up too much it would look wonderful, but where’s the maverick willing to do that?

So redevelopment for the present or future? It seems that the current trends are for soulessness, identikit bars attempting to price out the lower classes—which is what everybody is assuming that is planned for “Baskerville Wharf” in the stead of the Flapper.
Over a thousand members of the ‘Save the Flapper’ Facebook group, plus supportive articles in the Mail, seem to suggest that a fair number of people think that there must be another way.

If an area is underused, why not make it more accessible with bus routes, friendlier – and safer seeming – with better lighting, why not build some flexible shop units with low rents for creative types, how about housing for families rather than young professionals? How about redevelopment that doesn’t start with ideas of exclusivity, or a scorched earth policy of destroying everything that was there before?

Oh, and if you can find room for a little bar with a witty 20s pianist I’ll be even more happy.

Originally published by The Birmingham Post.

Sweet Surrender

If pop stars were sweets, which ones would they be?

Noddy Holder — Cadbury’s Crème Eggs

Zooming out of Birmingham, wrapped in shiny paper, our Nod is a cultural icon. He is only seen once every year, re-appearing with monotonous regularity before a major religious holiday. (It’s Cerrristmasssssss! ) Can be found all year round in obscure places, dusty old Confectioner / Tobacconist / Newsagents in out-of-the-way suburbs, and for Noddy, musty old independent local radio and obscure satellite TV gameshows. It’s great to be reminded of Slade, but too much swiftly makes you sick.

Lightning Seeds — Mars Bars

No one can remember a time when they weren’t around, solid, sell a vast amount of sweet stuff to the middle aged, and Mars Bars are quite popular too. For some unknown reason they became associated with sport, leading beery thirtysomethings to try to recapture lost youth. Both are a uniquely British experience, difficult to swallow a lot in one go, and are well liked without being anyone’s actual favourite. Also come in king size, or The Beatles are they’re known.

New Order — Kit Kats

Built to be separated into four parts, providing an enjoyable but not satisfying experience. The separate fingers, Hooky, Bernard, cannot produce something as good when apart, leaving you wanting more. Comes in a variety of special editions, ‘True Faith ’98’, mint, and orange, all interesting but without the class of the original. Monaco are of course the Time Out bar, a poor imitation that fills a gap without ever coming close to being essential.

Paul Weller — Wurther’s Originals

The beige, butter sweet could be Weller’s doppelganger, and not just because of its popularity with grandparents. Paul is obsessed with keeping it real and old fashioned and light brown corduroy, tending to evoke the same memories of trees and slow train journeys. He seems to think that he’s passing something important down the generations, but all right-minded people prefer their sweets / music a bit more interesting. The modfather will also have the same problem staying popular as his fans contract Alzheimer’s and forget how to shop.

Happy Mondays — Flake

Stuffed with innuendo, the Mondays are the Flake of the pop world. Inherently sexy but difficult to keep in one piece, they are best taken mixed, with Paul Oakenfold as the vanilla ice cream to stick them in. They are both packaged in an unusual way, dancer Bez being analogous to those twisty bits at the end of the wrapper. Does current reformation indicate that Cadbury’s are launching a Flake with Nuts?

5ive — Penny Chews

Cheaply manufactured and struggling to keep their own identity amongst a glut of similar products, 5ive are sold in Woolworth’s nation wide. They are put together in ‘mix-ups’ (“I’ll have a singer, a rapper, a good looking one and the one with spiky hair, please mister.”) and are far too sugary and bad for you. On closer inspection they are surprisingly old, and have been left on the shelf in unsanitary conditions, but were strangely popular with kids. Far too cheep for solo success.

Oasis —  Space Dust

Explosive in a chemically enhanced and slightly toxic manner, Oasis have got to be the musical equivalent of ‘popping candy’. It all seemed great when you were younger, but had no real content and very little taste. Didn’t have the staying power of a sherbet fountain and now are increasingly difficult to find. Stories abound of their volatile nature and are especially dangerous when mixed with fizzy drink.

John Lydon — Spangles

Johnny Rotten will be forever associated with the seventies, fluorescent colours and acting like you’re on a sugar rush. His commercial potential cannot be ignored amongst the nostalgia generation so he periodically relaunches for financial gain. Despite changes in content, remixed versions or strange packaging neither the Pistols, PiL, nor the sweet can ever hope to capture anything like previous status.

I wrote this back in 1997 or thereabouts for now defunct music weekly Flipside. I discovered it on my laptop the other day along with a few other pieces from the era. 

Beards in Rock

Facial follicles in popular music, is a hairy chin an indication of greatness or does the music deteriorate along with the increasing number and luxuriousness of beards in bands?

George Michael

The only pop star to have patented two styles of facial hair, the designer stubble Wham! look and then his solo half-finished goatee, (beloved of those whose beards won’t grow in a proper circle). The first was more a case of five o’clock shadow, 9am TV appearances, and looking back it’s the hand clapping and skipping antics (akin to Morris dancing) that have become a source of embarrassment. However, the smoother the beard, the cooler the artist and George’s Ming The Merciless look elevated him to celebrity status. But with embarrassing toilet liaisons ensuing, will the beard return?

Bob Dylan

The solo artist is always prone to chin growth, lots of time spent alone creating in basements with few mirrors, personal hygiene can go out of the window. Although Bob has toyed with various degrees of wispy beard throughout his career, the angry peoples’ poet disappeared, as did his lower face, on Infidels. A dull album of Christian rock with all the musical invention of a person who models his face fungus on Brian Blessed. Enjoyed creative revival as soon as someone got him a shaver. (See also Costello, Elvis.)

The Who

The demise of The Who was more due to Pete Townshend auditioning for Planet Of The Apes than his invention of the rock-opera. You’d have to be deaf, dumb and blind, to walk round looking like you’re being attacked by a couple of loose mink. From fresh faced young mods to indulgent prog-rockers in the time it took to grow whiskers that even eight out of ten cats couldn’t prefer. John Entwistle grew one too, looking more like a buffalo than an ox. Thankfully though, Roger Daltrey had used up his hair allocation on top of his head and Keith Moon was too busy learning to drive underwater.

Liam Gallagher

While the smart money was on Noel attempting to be John Lennon, it only took the overnight growth of thatch around Liam’s gob to possess him with the spirit of the great walrus. Within no time at all he’d married a publicity-seeking woman who threatened to split up the band. It must have been catching as well because, despite Liam not writing the songs, all Oasis music since has been self-indulgent shite.

Bee Gees

The toothsome trio have flirted with face fleeces in the same way they flirted with disco. That is smoothed them over and added populist appeal long after fashion has moved on. Giving hope to all men with weird mouths, and harming Victor Kiam’s profits into the bargain. Their current popularity has lead to many pop acts covering their songs, fine as long as they don’t cover their chins at the same time.

U2

The Dublin dad-zone were always going to be prime candidates for confusing serious art with serious beards. The band is at it’s most pompous when Bono’s lost his bic. The Edge can be excused, at least his ‘tache provokes discussion of the Zaptta/Village People variety. When Bono lets his chin pubes get out of control disaster, and looking like Robin Cook, is only an Eno collaboration away. The terrible Passengers album included Pavarotti, a man using a huge expanse of hair to hide his huge expanse of chins.

ZZ Top

Without doubt the most famous rock beards, (and currently challenging Madonna’s breasts for all time top musical appendage). They solved all problems of the band ageing gracefully, since they looked a hundred to start with. It’s a fantastic ploy, there could be anyone under those neck warmers, forget Kraftwerk sending mannequins to gigs, ZZ Top could send Bill Clinton, Richard Whiteley and Cher and no-one would notice. No matter how many times you hear it it’s still hilarious that the clean shaven one is called Frank Beard.

Manic Street Preachers

Not so much beards as a collective decision not to shave very often, the Manics have been rocking the sports casual wino look since the release of Everything Must Go. Less ‘Australia’, more chins that look like a dingo’s backside. It’s worked in terms of record sales however, proving that looking a bit old, fat and scruffy is no barrier to a number one hit (take heart Peter Hook and Monaco). If only they’d thrown away their razors earlier, Richey might still be around.

Barry White

The walrus of lurve’s beard is a classic of sorts, and can be imitated by shaving around a saucer, combining with a thin chinstrap motif. It’s a high-maintenance goatee though, and the many copyists (Huey out of the Fun Lovin’ Criminals for example) haven’t the time or the army of ‘personal assistants’ to carry it off.

I wrote this back in 1997 or thereabouts for now defunct music weekly Flipside. I discovered it on my laptop the other day along with a few other pieces from the era.