Friday, July 01, 2016


Bella and I are trying to rewatch a load of horror movies with a view to trying to determine our favourites. As a way of jogging my memory, I am going to try to jot a few notes down of films that are notable.

First up, Andrzej Zulawski's Possession (1981)

Mark comes back from a trip to find that his wife, Anna, wants to leave him. She is acting strange and he is distraught. Eventually, the reason for this is revealed and they are both caught up in a terrible nightmare.

OK, that synopsis does not even begin to describe the movie. It is quite mad in a variety of ways. However, there is a lot to commend it. The performances (especially Isabelle Adjani) are awesome. Check out the subway scene. The supporting characters are very good. The tension is palpable. In all, a very enjoyable watch and it is easy to see why this film is highly regarded.

However, is it likely to make a list of favourites? No, it leaves too many unanswered questions. I don't mind this so much, and it certainly wouldn't stop me from recommending it, but when compared with other greats, which are more coherent within themselves, I am not sure it will stand up.

Somewhat arbitrary overall rating: 8/10

Memorability: 9/10

Performances: 10/10

Scary: 6/10

It all adds up: 5/10

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Case Against The Case Against Pop Music

Popping up on my facebook feed lately have been several comments and critiques of pop music. The general point is that pop music is terrible and that this may presage the coming of the apocalypse, or something. As a general defender of pop music both past and present, this has been causing some rankling and I have been feeling an increasing urge to respond. But no, I should let it go - some battles just aren't worth fighting...

And then, I came across a video so insensible that it has been dogging my thoughts. Whether in the shower or driving to work, the various arguments won't leave me alone. It doesn't help that the person in the video, Paul Joseph Watson, is utterly insufferable. His argumentation is mind-numbingly awful, and this is compounded by a voice half-shouted, half-announced, all annoying. His voice is the aural equivalent of Katie Hopkin's face. He is also a contributor to Infowars, which indicates high levels of batshit craziness. Nonetheless, he has compiled in one place all of the typical arguments I hear so often. This is fair service; I ought to thank him. I won't though.

So, over the following paragraphs, I will attempt to respond to these arguments and ultimately offer a defence of pop music. Not necessarily all pop music, mind - I will never deny the contention that some pop music is bad. Of course it is. I might even allow that most is bad. But essentially, what I want to defend is that there is nothing inherently bad about the current state of pop music.

Argument #1 - It all sounds the same

Watson wants to claim that his arguments are scientific and objective, which is a laudable aim. As such he straight away refers to a study that emerged that year that Top 40 pop music is becoming more homogenised. this means that the dynamic range of the music, in terms of chord progression, instrumentation etc. is narrowing. Well, let's take this at face value and allow that it is true.

Firstly, to note the narrowing of range is not to claim that all pop music is identical, which Watson proposes. Thinking of the people that are highlighted within the video; Beyonce, Rihanna, Kanye, Kesha, Taylor Swift; I would hold that we can readily differentiate between their records. Part of this will be a product of their differing vocal styles, part will be the context of their music - they are not all doing the same thing. I'll grant that, Kanye excluded, the instrumentation is similar. There have been plenty of musical styles that have been similar to the point of being largely indistinguishable to the unintitiated. Reggae in the 70s and 80s is coming to mind, where producers would often use the same rhythms ('riddims') to record various singers or MCs. Certainly if we were to survey the productions of Prince Jammy, we might consider that the similarities are more striking than the dissimilarities, leading someone to conclude that they were all more or less the same. Of course, an aficionado of these artists might object; but then, so would a 14 year old girl regarding Taylor Swift.

Secondly, what Watson does not address is why this tendency is present. The report noted that this convergence was a common tendency within genres, not wholly unlike natural selection. The sound that is indicative of that genre, what it is that has become popular in the first place, is homed in on by record buyers and the songs draw closer together. So this process is not an exclusively cynical move by record producers, but is a symbiotic process between producer and customer. And of course, in the same way as we have seen repeatedly in the past, at some point an outlier will emerge that will act as a game changer.

Argument #2 - The lyrics are dumber than ever

Watson refers to a study conducted by data analyst AndrewPowell-Morse that confirms a ten year trend that pop music lyrics are increasingly simple, such that an average 8 year old would understand them. However, what Watson neglects is Powell-Morse's own conclusions that this should in no way be understood as a condemnation. All it measures is the word complexity of the lyrics and it wholly ignores things such as nuance. Furthermore, as a ten-year study it fails to consider the complexity of pop music from other eras. The Beatles' early work, for instance, is no better. And what should we make of The Kingsmen's incomprehensible 'Louie Louie' or The Crystal's 'Da Do Ron Ron' or The Dixie Cups 'Iko Iko'?

Ultimately, is the lyrical complexity of pop music even important? There is a place, of course, for lyrically complex songs. We can admire Dylan et al., but this is not, in the purest sense pop music. Pop music has a far less cerebral purpose - it is operating on a physical/emotional level. Does it make you want to dance? Yes, then fine. Does it make you happy? Cool. And so on. Whatever music Watson likes, that's fine, but it is clear that he has missed the point as to what pop music is.

Argument #3 - It's artificially loud

This is quickly despatched. While it is true, it is not particular at all to pop music. If you read reviews from audiophiles and obsessives (which is not to deny them their point), you will hear this complaint about all styles of music, not only pop.

Argument #4 - It's all written by the same people

Watson notes that a great deal of pop music stems from a small number of writers; Dr. Luke, Max Martin, Cathy Dennis, Linda Perry. This is true. In the first instance, so what? Again, this is hardly new. Look back to the 60s and you will see a similar list of names surfacing again and again and again; Bacharach/David, Goffin/King, Mann/Weill, Holland/Dozier/Holland. Once more, you will see a similar number of producers putting their stamp upon the records they produced, such that they are all fundamentally similar; Phil Spector, for example.

The problem here is the inference that these modern pop artists are nothing but puppets with no input into their music, and are thus talentless. Would anyone suggest that Dusty Springfield's 'Dusty in Memphis' which has no songs written by her, reveals zero talent? The first Stones LP has no written input from Jagger and Richards. so apparently they only developed their talent later, when they stopping ripping off the songs of old bluesmen. Watson has the audacity to single out Taylor Swift, who is well known to have been a pretty prolific songwriter, even if she has let some other writers play a bigger role on '1989'. Finally, how exactly is Watson, or anyone for that matter, to know exactly how much input is to be attributed by the named artist, so as to be so confident that that input is zero?

Argument #5 - Its all about sex

This is amongst the silliest arguments Watson proposes and it is unworthy of my dead puritanical grandmother. When exactly was pop music not about sex? Elvis wasn't nicknamed 'the pelvis' for his remarkable bone-structure. Pop music was about sex all the way back to the 40s (and no doubt before, if the folk traditions are to be believed). When John Lee Hooker sang that he's a Boogie Man, he wasn't talking about dancing.

Argument #6 - It's not really about anything

This is an extention of the previous point, really. In the first place, this is not true. Even Beyoncé's 'Single Ladies', which is highlighted for lyrical vacuousness elsewhere, is about something (self-empowerment). Her self-titled album from 2014, critically lauded no less, raises themes of feminism, equality and identity.

Secondly, who cares? Music doesn't have to be about anything. When I listen to The Meters first few albums (all instrumental funk), am I sitting there thinking about what its about? What important message is being conveyed by 'Look-Ka Py Py'? None; not a bit. But does it groove? Does it make me want to dance or tap my feet? Yes? Cool - turn it up.

Argument #7 - It is talentless

For anyone other than Watson, whose conspiratorial leanings we will leave for argument #8, this is often the key point. Real musicians play their instruments; real musicians write their own material; real musicians write songs that matter, man... Watson replays the admittedly amusing youtube clip of Kanye West vs. Freddie Mercury, in a particularly spurious bit of argumentation.

Freddie is a great singer, Kanye isn't. But this straw man shouldn't fool anyone. Kanye never claimed to be a great singer. However, what he is, is a great producer and a decent enough rapper/lyricist. Every album Kanye has produced has shown a great sense of texture and mood. Even his use of autotune is an intentional devise to create distance and a sense of alienation is his music. Sure, his instruments are different to Mercury's, and that's OK. All music is simply the manipulation of sound waves in fashions that are interesting or appealing to the listener insofar as they evoke something. It doesn't matter at all whether the instrument is a piano, a guitar, a keyboard, a sampler, or a pile of rocks. If the musician is capable of evoking something to the listener, they are talented. To say otherwise is to reveal a prejudice that lacks justification. Furthermore, any serious listen to West's work will reveal an artist closely attuned to the musical dynamics of his craft within his specific genre. It is not coincidental that Kanye has won a bucketload of accolades from a wide array of serious music magazines and websites.

Argument #8 - It is only popular because of repetition

Being a full-blooded conspiracy theorist, this is where Watson jumps off the crazy end. He refers to the fact that record companies use complex algorithms to predict future trends and thus saturate all media streams, creating, as he puts it (admittedly nicely), a musical Stockholm Syndrome.

I've no doubt that there is some truth to this. But there is a defect to his argument - what about the more serious music listener, who a) listens to, and enjoys, a wide array of music beyond pop music; and b) isn't so exposed to the various media streams. For instance, I don't listen to music radio or spotify. I only listen to music that I physically buy, and I buy a wide range of music. Right now, I am listening to Can's 'Future Days' - decidedly not pop music. I buy music on the basis of recommendations and reviews, and predictably, some I like and some I dislike. In the last year or so, I have bought several albums from the artists that Watson disparages; Beyoncé (self-titled, awesome), Taylor Swift ('1989', alright), Rihanna ('Anti', pretty good), Kanye ('The Life of Pablo', mostly alright, occasionally excellent), Nicki Minaj ('The Pinkprint', mostly meh, occasionally alright). Now, why do I like some of them but not others? And just as importantly given earlier arguments, how can I tell them apart?

Why is it that I continue to go back to, say, Beyoncé's album, when I have so many other albums available that Watson would approve of? The simple answer is that they do something that the Smiths, or Pink Floyd, or The Beatles don't do. They make me feel different things. As such, they have a place in my heart and my record collection. Modern pop music occupies a place in the musical palette that is distinct and has the same capacity to be exciting and thrilling as any other genre of music. As such, it deserves to be treated as seriously as anything else. 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Renaldo Domino

Having done my Top 40 songs the other day, I thought I'd pop a few of the lesser known songs up - just in case you're interested. This is a soul rarity from Chicago's Twinight Records.

Renaldo's quite the crooner, but what sets it apart for me is the deep bass backing vocals and the violin driven middle-eight. You don't get that too often...

Top 40 Songs

Mandi on Facebook challenged me to knock up a list of my Top 40 songs. Since we all like a list, I figured I'd share it here too... Not my most considered list, but such a list is always going to exist like the wind...Nonetheless, here goes... (in no particular order)

Adam & the Ants - Physical (You're So)
African Head Charge - Off the Beaten Track
Aretha Franklin - I Say a Little Prayer
Barrington Levy - Here I Come
Beatles - A Day in the Life
Black Sabbath - Faeries Wear Boots
Blondie - Picture This
Bob Dylan - One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)
Bonnie Prince Billy - I See a Darkness
Chic - I Want Your Love
The Cramps - Can't Find My Mind
David Bowie - Young Americans
Dion - (I Was) Born to Cry
Donna Summer - I Feel Love
Dr. Alimantado - I Killed the Barber
Dr. John - Gris Gris Gumbo Ya Ya
The Flying Burrito Brothers - Sin City
Fred Neil - Everybody's Talkin'
Funkadelic - Music For My Mother
The Handsome Family - Weightless Again
J.J. Barnes - Everytime I See You I Go Wild
Japan - Visions of China
Junior Walker and the Allstars - Shotgun
Kool and the Gang - Jungle Boogie
Minnie Riperton - I am the Black Gold of the Sun
Otis Redding - I've Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)
R. Kelly - Ignition (Remix)
Renaldo Domino - Not Too Cool To Cry
Roberta Flack - Compared to What
Roxy Music - Mother of Pearl
Scott Walker - The Old Man's Back Again
Siouxsie and the Banshees - Spellbound
Sisters of Mercy - Some Kind of Stranger
The Smiths - Suffer Little Children
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles - Tracks of My tears
Sweeney's Men - Dreams For Me
Tammi Terrell - All I Do IS Think About You
Velvet Underground - Venus in Furs
The Viscounts - Who Put the Bomp (In the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp)
The Walker Brothers - The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore

What's yours?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Groupies - Primitive

Some things require little introduction or comment. Here is Blaze Starr burlesque dancing to The Groupies (later covered by the Cramps). That's all the reason you need to watch...

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Trying to Remember (Part One of Who-Knows-How-Many)

I don't really want to begin this by getting all philosophical, but I will allow myself this slight indulgence. The philosopher David Hume suggested that what we call personal identity, a sense of unified self, is an illusion. Instead we are mostly a 'bundle of perceptions'. Think about yourself right now - you are perceiving a multitude of things (the screen, words, cold, perhaps even breathing) but there is nothing that could really be understood as your self - an identity holding it all together. Anyway, I say this as a means of introduction and a rationale. When I look back on my teenage years - or almost any years beyond the most recent - all I have a bundle of largely fragmented memories, but nothing that quite holds it together beyond the fact that I have them. There are huge gaps - gaps not only of the mundane, but also of people, events, places.

And this bothers me. I have recently joined a Facebook group populated by people that I was very close to for a couple of years. Names and photographs are appearing and I am struggling to unearth their significance. I feel bad about this. People have done me the service of remembering me. I have not done the same. Not out of malice or disregard (not consciously anyway), but those memories have simply deteriorated. So I thought that I would write what I remember down. Perhaps once I have done so, others, if they are interested and kind enough, might be able to fill in a few of the gaps - do a little excavation work. I am certain that hidden in my mind are the people, events and places that were all so incredibly important to me for a time.

As I set out on this task I am very aware that this will not be very interesting to anyone, perhaps even myself. Maybe one or two people will read it out of sheer boredom. So why do it? I figure that the only way to properly unearth these memories is to approach them systematically. It is only by going into the nooks and crannies of what I do remember, that I will remember more. If I rely on my occasional ruminations then it is unlikely that much will come, and that which does will fade away as soon as it emerges.

Aside from potentially boring people to tears, I want to apologise in advance for all the people that I have forgotten, or have failed to give a proper place to. Should anyone read these and feel slighted, I ask that you prompt me - take me to task. Again, I am confident that it is all in there - all that is needed is the appropriate stimuli.

So, to begin....

My teenage years begin properly in the months leading up to 5th July 1986, while I was still 15. I will skip any long introduction to this period at this point. As and when it is required, I may digress, but for the time-being it will suffice to note that my birthday is in October, so at this point I was 15. I grew up in the posh end of Garston, but had lived for a time in New Zealand and London between the ages of 9-11. I went to New Heys Comprehensive School. My family were quite religious...

If there is a hero of the piece (or villain if you happen to be my Grandmother), that honour goes to Justina Heslop. Through a church youth group in Aigburth, I had met Justina somewhere around 83-84. In that clumsy pre-teenage fashion we had gone out for about six months. For reasons that are utterly lost, and probably worthless even then, we broke up and lost contact. Life went on. Somewhere towards the end of 1985 or beginning or 1986, I realised that I had left something important at Justina's house and I wanted it back. It was a Frisbee and accompanied by Ian Webster, a friend from school, I went to her house to retrieve it. Her mother answered the door, greeted me and invited us in. She called up the stairs to Justina, who stuck her head over the bannisters to see what the matter was. What I saw was a shock of black and white.

In the time since I had seen her last, Justina had become a goth. I did not really know what this was or what it entailed, but it evoked a significant change. She invited us upstairs and we sat in her room for a little while before claiming the Frisbee and moving on. Before we left, however, we spoke about the clutch of records that littered her room. I had been into music since early childhood, but these were bands I did not know at all and I was intrigued. There were albums by Bauhaus, The Cramps, The Cult etc. Justina played me odd tracks by some of these - most notably 'Rose Garden Funeral of Sores' from Bauhaus' 'Press the Eject'.

My own tastes, while nowhere near so refined, were fairly broad and had left me receptive to new things. Of course, I had a general appreciation of the pop music of the period but there was plenty beyond it. Through my childhood, I was a fan of Blondie and New Wave bands in general. Thanks to my uncle, who was at that time a big fan NWBHM, I had been exposed to a variety of metal bands. While he preferred the more technically proficient end of the spectrum, I gravitated towards Black Sabbath and Motorhead. Thanks to my parents, classic 60s and 70s rock and soul were covered. I had recently developed a particular fascination with Jimi Hendrix. Beyond this, I had begun to be aware of music beyond these parameters; I had fallen in love with the aesthetic of Strawberry Switchblade, and, not unrelated, had found myself oddly drawn to 'Swimming Horses' by Siouxsie and the Banshees. Even though I had little notion about what these hairstyles related to, I was intrigued.

So when I heard these records of Justina's, I was hooked. I quickly got back in touch with her again. She kindly arranged for her boyfriend of the time, some older kid called Gary from the Wirral, to do me some tapes. Over the course of the following weeks, the following albums were acquired, either by tape from Gary or by going to the WHSmiths on Allerton Road and seeing what was in the budget pile:

Alien Sex Fiend - Acid Bath
Bauhaus - Press the Eject and Give Me The Tape
Cabaret Voltaire - Red Mecca
Elvis Costello - King of America
The Cramps - Off the Bone
The Cure - Boys Don't Cry
The Cult - Love
The Damned - Phantasmagoria
Red Lorry Yellow Lorry - Paint Your Wagon
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Audience Participation Version)

These albums formed the starting point of a new chapter of my life. But the real point of change occurred when Justina rang me a few weeks later to tell me of an upcoming Peter Murphy gig at the Liverpool Royal Court Theatre.

Up next? Parallel developments with Helen, Christine, Lins and Carl or the gig itself...

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Things That Made Me Happy in 2014


She really does get more wonderful and beautiful every day. It is a very peculiar phenomena - some scientist should investigate. She gives me a reason to get up in the morning and a reason to come home at night. I know that it is wrong to project perfection on anyone, but aside from too much Candy Crush and Pocket Planes, there is very little she can do to improve...

My friends

I have so many good people in my life. Of course, there are my very close friends that I see daily - David and Sathyai. Aside from Bella, no-one puts up with my shit as much as them. Their patience and generosity is boundless. I could say the same about Paul, Graham, Bob except that they all have the good sense to live slightly further away from me and so their burden is lighter.

Beyond these parameters, there is a long list of people that have made me happier this year; Phil, Katy, Peter, Amber to name a few. Special acknowledgement is needed for my past and present work-colleagues; Dermot, Debra, Duncan, Elaine (again, amongst others) who have first hand knowledge of my incompetence and yet still support me and offer me kindness.

I also need to mention people from further afield. It has been amazing to see James and Carol again this year. I could write pages about James and the friendship he has offered me. If I was draw up a list of reasons why I should emigrate, they would figure highly. Of course, there have been many people that I have connected with primarily electronically this year; it has been great to be back in touch with Simon. I have also valued many of my old students that have kept in touch. This is not merely because it is nice to know what people are up to, but they have also fed to me lots of interesting thoughts and ideas.


Of all the things that make me happy, chief among them is music. I have been buying much less new (i.e. current) music these days. However, there remains a steady inflow. Primarily soul music. I have taken the opportunity to properly investigate Aretha Franklin and Al Green this year, and that has paid dividends. Of the few 'new' LPs I have bought, Run the Jewels 2, The Bug's 'Angels and Demons' and Lee Fields' 'Emma Jean' have all stood out. The jury is still out on D'Angelo's 'Black Messiah'.

Steve at Polar Bear has continued to furnish me with amazing CDs. They have rarely failed to contribute to my general happiness this year. Probably the biggest single event this year was the Numero Pop-Up Store in September. The Wonderful Bella allowed me to massively over-indulge myself. Given that I spent best part of £250 and walked away with a whole box of CDs, there were hardly any disappointments. I have only just finished working my way through the box.

Finally, and this is lame, but it did make me happy: I finished writing up that 'my favourite albums' list. It is a great pleasure to revisit so many albums that shaped my life.


On balance, work has probably contributed more grumbles than anything else this year. However, there are a few things to be grateful for: good results this year, positive observations, MUN. One of the things that keeps me positive is the fantastic relationships that I have with my students. Aside from showing an interest in a subject that I love, they are often funny, kind and generous.

Television and Film

I have seen a few good shows and movies this year, and they are worth a note. True Detective was the TV event of the year for me, eclipsing Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, which were themselves both excellent. We finally watched the whole of the US Office, which made us both happy. I have been slowly digesting and massively enjoying Peter Cook's little show from the 90s 'A Life in Pieces'.

As for movies I was most taken by 'The Babadook' - a tasty little Australian horror movie that should certainly become a classic. Other movies that have stayed with me are The Killers, Gone Girl, and Simon, King of the Witches. Special mention should be made of a film that Bella forced me to watch: The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Despite the premise, which filled me with dread, I enjoyed it more than almost anything this year.

General Stuff

I have been reading more this year. Having had a few years of reading bits and pieces, I have read several whole books this year (standouts include Peter Guralnick's Sweet Soul Music and Joe Hill's 'Heart Shaped Box' [thanks, Sathyai]). I am looking to forego distractions like Facebook and Reddit (beyond the cursory) and seek to set aside time to read more seriously. On a similar level, I have managed to write a few bits and pieces this year. I hope to expand on this.

Not unrelated, one of my favourite things, and things that have made me most happy, are good arguments. I often feel that I am imposing myself on people when I argue, but there have been some great discussions and debates and I am grateful for these - and the patience of my friends who put up with them.

Teddy and Wednesday have enriched my world this year. Kittens are awesome.

Despite that I write this full of cold, I am grateful that I continue to have good health. My lifestyle makes me unworthy of such a blessing, but nonetheless, it is good to generally fit and strong.

I have had some lovely food this year. Of course, much of this has come from the lovely hand of Bella, but various restaurants and take out joints have contributed. My favourite meal out was courtesy of Mimmo La Bufala in Hampstead.

Lots of things have made me happy this year. Of course, there are the things I have mentioned, but there is a very long list of things and people that I have not mentioned. I often give the impression of being grumpy and complainy, but that is primarily because grumpiness and complaints amuse me. Even my gripes make me happy. Life is good.