Sunday, 31 May 2009

Slow train a comin'

Watching a train trundle past at a level crossing today I was briefly spurred to anger by the sight of first class carriages. This and the arrival of blisteringly hot summer days brought back memories of being cooped up standing in standard while there would be seats in first class. Sometimes I'd go in and sit down and occasionally get turfed out by the guard. This is possibly the most blood boiling thing that can happen on a commute but faced with a fine I'd meekly slope back into standard. I am, after all, English. According to a few news stories I've read over the years train fares in the UK are pretty much the highest in the world and by quite some margin. For this I don't think it's too much to expect a seat, or failing that to have space to stand without four people squashed right into me. When this has been achieved maybe then the rail companies might be allowed to dedicate carriage space to the type of people who need to travel first class. Bah!

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Phasers to shun

I've just seen the new Star Trek film and was surprised, having read only favourable reviews, to find myself realising about an hour in that I wasn't really enjoying it that much. I am by no means a Star Trek fanatic, I've never really bothered with the Next Generation, Deep Space 9, Babylon 5 and the one where Captain Jane Somebody is lost in space. But I am a fan of the original series, I've got them all on DVD anyway. And one of my most prized possessions is a mug from the surface of which Kirk, Spock and McCoy dematerialize when you pour the hot water in. So, nothing too serious, I've never dressed up or learned Klingon or anything.

So, what went wrong? For starters the time line disruption. I like time travel stories and I also like the fact that the Star Trek universe is big enough to take a fair bit of discontinuity. But Vulcan being swallowed by a black hole? No more Amok Time? I'm sure there are other repercussions but that's bad enough for me. And Spock's mum copping it. Is this the only way modern films can think of to give characters a bit of emotional depth and motivation? Spock was singled out for praise in most of the reviews I read. I know he's meant to be a kind of junior Spock but I found him altogether too emotional, the reliance on Uhura was especially jarring, and the overall vibe coming off him was angry. He had some good lines but they were delivered with a touch too much spleen. And Spock's catchphrase, "Fascinating", usually uttered in the aftermath of some gruesome display is wasted here on a spaceship chair that spins around all on its own.

The baddie Nero was boring, his evil outfitters had made absolutely no effort. I found his look very unRomulan and it was annoying that the mystery of the Romulans' kinship with Vulcans, which is important in an episode in the original series, is casually tossed away here. We needed a madman set on destroying the Earth and Nero is lazily levered into position. And I'm no astrophysicist but the elder Spock's plan to save Romulus from a supernova by positioning a black hole in its path? If it's going to gobble up a supernova wasn't Romulus always next on the menu? As well as any real character Nero was totally denied a big death scene - Kirk's line at the end was reminiscent of George Bush's response to Osama Bin Laden's comment on never being taken alive, lending proceedings a whiff of US persecution complex bravado that was pleasantly lacking from the original series.

The good news: the Enterprise looked nice but that was it. All the other technological stuff was pretty bland. Actually I did like the speed cop's bike, and his addressing the young Kirk by the title of citizen gave a hint of the utopia that Earth society is meant to have evolved into. The original series may have looked impressive effects-wise in its day and now at the very least it's got a kitsch charm. I can't see people thinking the same about this. One thing that was unexpectedly good was Simon Pegg's turn as Scotty. He's got a lot of goodwill for Spaced but prior to this I don't think he's ever really pulled off a big screen appearance.

Overall I'd say the main problem was a tendency towards the generic. The look of things, the plot, even the opening theme music. The old series music might not have been appropriate but they could at least have come up with something with a bit of swish, got John Barry or John Williams on the case.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Westward Kew!

Where better to spend a beautiful hot sunny day than in Kew Gardens. To the left there is a picture of the pagoda. Sadly it's no longer open to the public. They did let people in for a few days a while back but I didn't know and so missed out. Luckily though I can still indulge my fear of heights on the nearby tree walk.

Whatever west London lacks (for not being north or south London apparently) it more than makes up for in fantastic parks. Kew of course is world famous and pretty much a manicured garden of Eden. Richmond Park is very big and full of deer (previously hunted by kings and almost certain to survive long after the fall of the monarchy). I used to think it was a bit boring - just a load of scrub land for the deer to graze but recently I've been making inroads into its vastness and finding loads of interesting bits. The same applies to Bushy Park - on the face of it even less going on than in Richmond Park and visitors are more likely to go to the (admittedly brilliant) Hampton Court across the road. But the plantations here are possibly the most beautiful surroundings I've ever wandered about in. My profile picture was taken there last summer, you can't see much of the flora but I look happy don't I?

The most naturally blissed out I've ever been though was in Marble Hill Park. Not a very big park at all situated in St Margarets. A few summers back I set off through it to walk along the river to Richmond and it was as though I'd stepped into Pepperland. Kids were running about playing and flying kites, happy adults chatting to each other and eating ice creams, everyone seemed to be wearing bright, bold clothing, an orchestra was tuning up and then playing snippets of popular songs, little boats sailed past on the Thames the occupants waving to the people in the park. Magic. Also, nearby is the occasionally excellent Orleans House art gallery (really good outsider art exhibition there a bit back - I'd just seen a documentry about Henry Darger and about a week later this popped up including three of his pictures, unfortunately not very interesting ones. The best thing I came away with was having seen some things by Nick Blinko). And next to Orleans House is York House. I'd been there a few times already before I went to a cinema screening of the Michael Caine version of Alfie and I realised that the building had been used as the sanatorium he goes to. Not only that but the train station at which Millicent Martin meets her husband is St Margarets.

Friday, 22 May 2009

See the little goblin

Due to some appalling drunken behaviour on my part on New Year's Eve I'd given up drinking. My intention was to give up forever, but failing that for as long as possible. As it happens I lasted three months and then, at the beginning of April I was in the pub, surrounded by old friends, on my birthday and I just thought, "This is ridiculous" and had a few drinks. Nevertheless, I think New Year's Eve was a watershed and I can't see myself drinking like that ever again.

Anyway, yesterday I met up with an old school friend for a drink. Drinking in London, while on one hand (due to the vast number and variety of bars and pubs) is an absolute pleasure, but on the other it does present problems. The sheer size of the place means that you can't just pop into a pub on the off chance and expect to find your friends in there - everything has to be planned with military precision. And again the size of the place usually means that everyone lives miles from each other and so evenings tend to end earlier just so that people can get home. I've always had a morbid fear of the dreaded nightbus and as a result only ever caught it once. Funnily enough that occasion was one on which I had by chance bumped into someone I'd known at college. I hadn't seen him for about ten years and we were only really friends of friends but one thing led to another and we had a fairly mental night. I've caught the last train out of Waterloo loads of times and there's normally a really good atmosphere - too many people (or witnesses if you like) for there to be any real trouble. The nightbus in comparison was, I thought, strangely muted, but on reflection it made sense - everyone on it was absolutely hammered.

And now, my top five London pubs:

The Cittie of Yorke
Sam Smiths so dead cheap and, like its spelling, a bit medieval looking. Great little booths to sit in.

The Lamb, Lambs Conduit St
Where I was headed last night and where I seem to have most of my central non-work related drinks. Just very cosy.

The White Cross, Richmond
It's always nice to be able to see a river from the window. Added bonus: when the tide's in you are legitimately marooned in this pub.

The Intrepid Fox
I'm not now nor have I ever been a rocker but this pub (when it was on Wardour St) was an early refuge. Perhaps what appealed to me was that it was a Soho pub but terminally unhip. Oh, and it had pool tables.

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, Fleet St
I like pubs to be dimly lit and this is the darkest most subterranean place I've ever drunk in. Samuel Johnson used to drink in here apparently.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Kool for Kats

The Kinks are for me the high point of English pop. I doubt that there's anybody who owns even just one of their original studio albums that doesn't own a greatest hits type album. They're that kind of band. "The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society" is often cited as their best album and was rereleased a few years ago to general acclaim and so possibly may be some people's sole Kinks album. I like it a lot but saying it's their best is like saying Sgt Pepper is The Beatles' best album. It's not. Just two concept albums that aren't really concept albums.

When I started to look out for their albums it was all a bit mysterious; in the days before the internet I didn't even know what some of them were called. My favourite is probably "Something Else" - though it feels as though it's been broken up and asset stripped with "David Watts", "Death of a Clown" and "Waterloo Sunset" all such firm fixtures on so many of the greatest hits collections. The quality of these songs led me to believe that whichever album they came from would be worth checking out in its entirety. Finding it one afternoon in a tiny little record shop, at the very bottom of a pile of records that was as high as my chest was quite a buzz.

Album songs such as "Two Sisters", "Afternoon Tea", "End of the Season" and "Harry Rag" are all very good, (I would say it's their most consistent album) but maybe overdo the Englishness. And I'm not always sure about the music hall touches to some of their songs: "Berkley Mews" and "Mr Pleasant" are very much in that vein featuring a high, tinkling piano but they work. Others that don't? "All of My Friends Were There" - brilliant lyrics but let down by a faintly ridiculous jaunty backing track. I do like it but it's just not right. I think what really makes The Kinks seem more English than their contemporaries is the sardonic detachment. "Shangri La" was my favourite for a while but it's perhaps too focussed on the minutiae of suburbia and wears too much of a sneer. Maybe by this time they'd become too self-conscious about it all. Utter irrelevance sets in at about 1970, their last album that I bothered with being Lola vs Powerman of that year which is good only for the singles "Lola" and "Apeman". Their best track all round has to be "Sunny Afternoon", the way Ray Davies wearily croons the lines, an oddly restrained harmonica piping along in the background. It's still in my top ten of songs.

And finally, a not altogether unimportant point: for at least as long as it took to take a few photos they were the sharpest dressed band in the Sixties. They totally had the Edwardian vampire look down.

Friday, 15 May 2009


As soon as I’d done the Pebbles post below with the two embedded tracks I thought of doing a post on Zaireeka. I was mighty intrigued when I first heard about this album and, after some prolonged pondering, I made the purchase. I hadn’t heard much by the Flaming Lips and what I had I thought was merely okay. I’m not a big fan of Wayne Coyne’s vocals. But I think that this is such a good idea that it just has to be tried out.

I could have a go at playing it through various bits and bobs (when the ipod docking station comes back from the repair shop anyway) but they’re all of relatively low quality. And besides, one of the most appealing elements to the album is the coming together of people (and their stereo systems) to play it. Eventually I’m sure I’ll get together with a couple of my more audiophiliac friends and we’ll have the whole thing on four proper separate stereos. In the meantime I thought this was worth a pop.

This set up, coming out of just one set of speakers, is not to hear it as its creator intended. Also, unless you know a magical way of setting off the players below simultaneously, you’ll not have the cueing that he’s fairly insistent on. Not sure why about that bit – if the songs are never meant to sound the same.

The track above is "March Of The Rotten Vegetables" and this is what the liner notes say about it:

I envisioned this as music for a cartoon about a group of determined vegetables who feel like the place where they're growing good. So they uproot and head for better soil..encountering hardship and heroism along the they parade through Meatville they are BOOed, then they are attacked by bats, but eventually, before they rot, they must find better No.1 plays the main theme. Cd No.3 takes over during the "here come the bats" part and all the cds join in as the bats"attack". You may hear this as a freakish drum solo.

I've just had a go and you can synch them up within a few seconds as you go along. It actually works quite well.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Tony Benn

Just seen Tony Benn on Newsnight. I think, generally, that he's lost it, but quietly delighted to see that he's wearing one of those black plastic Casio watches.

Hair are your aerials

Had my bi-monthly (every two months) haircut today. I find it a bit of an ordeal. As usual I sat in the chair, looked in the mirror, and thought "What am I doing? My hair looks great". But it has to be done. There are broadly two types of hair cutting establishment - old school barbers (in the minority) and shiny salons. I alternate between the two but don't feel comfortable in either. Barbers will ask me about football and my job - two subjects I loathe. And in salons they ask me where I go clubbing (I don't). Also in salons they've normally got the radio tuned to a station playing back to back techno so loudly that the speakers are buzzing. The reading matter in both types of place usually consists of an FHM type magazine and/or The Sun. The papers capture it actually. These places are either reactionary tabloid or glossy sleaze. What I want is more of a Guardian hairdressers. Why don't such places exist?

Friday, 8 May 2009

Be a caveman

I honestly don't remember which of these albums I bought first (I've got about six) or who suggested it to me but the Pebbles compilations have provided some of my most enduring favourites. Possibly what makes a lot of these songs so good is that it was often the bands' one and only chance to record anything, in withering contrast to the career rockers of now. I'm not a fan of lo-fi just for the sake of it and some tracks with better production would cross from good to amazing ("Love at Psychedelic Velocity" and "Suzy Creamcheese" for two). I suppose people who don't like this music and describe it as amateur are saying that the bands can't play their guitars very well. I think that that is missing the point and in the case of songs such as "Going All the Way", "Good Times" and "Hate" (by The Stoics, my absolute favourite) the playing is awesome.

The cover here spoke to me sartorially, tonsorially, I even had a pair of those boots. I'm not sure I quite lived up to the primitive ethos (my girlfriends of the time might disagree). One of my then friends on the other hand really did live and look like a caveman. Too wasted once to walk home from a party on the other side of town he broke into a car and slept on the back seat. It was chilly the next morning so he tore a furry car seat cover off and wore it as a top. For weeks. The caveman look went out when he discovered he had lice and shaved all his hair off. The new skinhead called for a change of jacket and was matched with a belted black leather carcoat. Now he looked like a fascist. It was always a laugh going clubbing with him. God knows where he is now.

You can find the whole thing over at Snap, Crackle & Pop but I've put one of my favourites below. And that Left Banke track I was talking about the other day.

The Haunted: 1-2-5

The Haunted did actually have a bit of a career. I bought one of their albums excited at the prospect of more tracks of the calibre of 1-2-5 but it was poor. The best track was a Hendrix cover "Vapeur Mauve" (they were from Quebec) which is more interesting than it is rocking.

The Left Banke: Evening Gown

Thursday, 7 May 2009

In the land of Shinar

This thing used to freak me out when I was a little kid. Even now I find just looking at the picture a bit unsettling. Probably because of the starkness against the landscape. It's like an alien citadel. When I see a tower I often feel a compulsion to travel to its base to see where it meets the ground.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

The little dog laugh'd to see such Craft

I keep spending all my lunch money in the Oxfam near where I work. Last week: 26 copies of the Flying Saucer Review for only £5.99. They date from 1958 to 1963 and they're such a weird little slice of history. The reports of sightings and other articles ("Mars and Venus Inhabited? Famous Russian scientist admits possibility") are impossibly earnest and endearingly quaint. I have to keep reminding myself that they were all published years before the moon landings. I've just read a rather desolate article from 1961 about a Swiss amateur radio enthusiast picking up a transmission that seems to be the dying words of a stranded cosmonaut. You can't get much more Cold War than that.

For the record I don't really believe in flying saucers, not ones piloted by aliens anyway. I think I used to up until about the age of fifteen or sixteen, but I remember reading a comment by Patrick Moore saying that in all his years of stargazing he'd never once spotted a UFO. Mad old badger though he is I found this more persuasive than any reported sightings.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Going for a song

A very sunny day shortly after pay day with no plans so I visited two of my favourite record shops today: Intoxica and Honest Jon's. I'd forgotten what a nightmare Portobello Road is but as well as the record shops I was also in the market for a kurta (in anticipation of a blazing hot summer), but no luck on that score. Intoxica is an Aladdin's Cave but very expensive, overpriced even: "Cruisin' with Ruben and The Jets" for £100? Honest Jon's was full of far more realistic propositions, it also seems to have diversified a bit, or maybe I have. I picked up a couple of records anyway. I've been circling "Hear, O Israel" for a while now and when I saw it here on vinyl for a tenner I swooped. I love the cover art for this LP, which is a big reason to buy it on vinyl rather than cd. Otherwise an odd choice for an atheist jazz-hater you might think. But whereas I find a lot of jazz harsh and jarring this is very mellow. On the religion front - I'm not Jewish but I find judaic imagery comforting. My theory about this is that it's because I lived in Manchester for the first five years of my life.

The other thing was a compilation featuring the track "Seed" by Magpahi. The short sample of this track that's the only digital availability has been driving me mad for a few months now, so it's good to finally be able to listen to it all the way through.

After Notting Hill I doubled back into central London and got the Kuniyoshi catalogue I promised myself after seeing the exhibition. And that's it for spends this month I think. On a proper record buying binge I'd have headed for Berwick Street in Soho but I'm watching the pennies and also Selectadisc has apparently shut down. If true then that's the recession for you - I used to have to fight to get to the counter in that place.

Thurston Moore

I've just seen Sonic Youth playing "Teenage Riot" on the telly. By my reckoning Thurston Moore is 51 years old. Unbelievable. He must be drinking virgin's blood or something.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Queen of the Harpies

Considering how much I like a drink and how much I like flipping through racks of old vinyl it's surprising I've not spent more time in record shops drunk. One occasion on which I was saw me purchase the album "Sisters of Suave" by Thee Headcoatees. The bloke in the shop (Forever Changes) was the model of professionalism: "Are you sure? You seem er...", but I was smitten, mainly by the tune "Davy Crocket". Anyway, "Sisters of Suave" is an excellent record but its real importance to me is that it served as a gateway to the music of the most successfully solo Headcoatee: Holly Golightly. I think she's great and her greatest album has to be "God Don't Like It" (so far, she's incredibly prolific and I admit I'm a couple of albums behind). Possibly condemned as a revivalist by the wider public "God Don't Like It" is undeniably retro featuring such things as a double bass, echoey vocals and admirably direct lyrics. To my ears every single song is a winner, but the stand out is her version of Bill Withers' "Use Me". Bill Withers is a fine performer but predictably I prefer the folk garage version found here. The vocals, the playing, the lyrics, the production, even the artwork - it's an all round, bona fide, top quality pop artefact. And how many albums can you honestly say that about?

I think I heard once that she still holds down a day job at Hackney Council, that's pretty cool if it's true but she deserves to be better known. I don't know how many copies of "Elephant" the White Stripes sold but her guest slot on "It's True That We Love One Another", the worst song on the album, can't have intrigued many potential fans. The forced "jolly good" and "cup of tea" comments at the end are a shocking lapse and make me want to smash my teeth in.

She's a distinctive-looking woman and I'm sure I saw her once in a Neal's Yard shop. I could have jogged home and grabbed my LPs and asked her to sign them, but I don't understand why people do that.