Thursday, December 5, 2013

Review: Roman Empire: Power and People

Roman Empire: Power and People
Roman Empire: Power and People by Dirk Books

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Booms' and Crerar's book isn't a history of the Roman Empire, but rather a story told through the British Museum's artefacts. In this, it has similarities with the book version of A History of the World in 100 Objects, which was a broadcast triumph for the British Museum and Radio 4 a few years ago.

So instead of a narrative history, we get a collection of essays on different aspects of the empire told through discovered objects. As the title suggests, the story is divided between the political dominance of the empire and the lives of ordinary people (although with the emphasis on the rich, because they left far more artefacts).

It's a short book, well-written and highly recommended.

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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Review: Blackmore's Black Death

Autumn Sky by Blackmore's Night, 2010

It's said that Leonardo da Vinci invented the helicopter, the parachute and the robot, all in the 15th Century. If he'd invented the elevator, this album would be playing in it.

Despite being released in 2010, Blackmore's renaissance lift music has the added annoyance of vocals and lumpen production in a 1980s style, with opening track Highland evoking unpleasant memories of Big Country. It all adds to the misery of hearing one of rock's great guitarists wallowing in stickily sentimental ballads or hey-nonny-nonny folk dances to be played in a Tudor theme park that nobody has built. Only 'Song & Dance pt.II' pulls it off with any panache.

The music evokes an era of poverty, plague and the pox, any of which would be preferable to hearing this again.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Review: Contemporary Fiction

Contemporary Fiction
Contemporary Fiction by Robert Eaglestone

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At first I didn't like this book. It's certainly a short introduction, but it didn't seem very simplified. I've got a degree in English (albeit not modern English literature), so I was surprised to find it as difficult as I did. Eaglestone seems to be in awe of Sarah Waters; the attention he gives her in the early chapters seems disproportionate, but thankfully he gives other authors equal attention later on and the book recovers its balance.

Eaglestone makes some bold assertions without feeling the need to back them up. The most glaring of these is that modern people have far more complex and difficult lives than their ancestors. This is arguable, to say the least.

But it's worth persevering. Eaglestone does know his stuff, and the occasions when his political bias intrudes are rare enough to be forgiven. A good critique enables a reader to form an opposite opinion, and his praise for Nicola Barker's Darkmans is enough to convince me that this is a terrible example of up-its-own-backside literature to be avoided at all costs. Elsewhere, his takedown of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer for its use of a child narrator - simplifying and thus avoiding the issues - seems spot-on.

I wasn't convinced till I read the final chapter on criticism, which added something new (to me) and put the rest of the book into proper context.

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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Review: Krautrock: Cosmic Rock and Its Legacy

Krautrock: Cosmic Rock and Its Legacy
Krautrock: Cosmic Rock and Its Legacy by Nikos Kotsopoulos

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Krautrock is one of the most neglected yet important genres in popular music. Without it, 70s rock would have been doomed to keep aping the blues with ever-diminishing marginal returns while everyone else went off to have fun with disco or get stoned to reggae (or, worse, watch as pop music degenerated from 60s Beatles majesty to 70s Brotherhood Of Man irrelevance). The Ramones get the credit for English punk, but Neu! and Can were just as important, and were even more important when it comes to 80s alternative music.

Now, CD re-issues have made Krautrock available to everyone who wondered what Julian Cope, Stereolab, John Lydon, Radiohead and countless others were wittering on about, so the renewed interest makes a definitive book essential. Sadly, this isn't that book.

Content is important, but no reviewer can ignore the glaring flaws in production. Other reviewers have complimented it, but such claims are madness. This book was made by amateurs. I have read praise for the photography, but most of the pictures are mundane and some are unquestionably poor. West Germany in the 1970s wasn't some distant age where photography was unknown; there are far better pictures available than the fuzzy, out-of-focus images that occur too often here, usually with inadequate captions. The main photo of Can has been laid out such that Damo Suzuki is lost in the centre fold; even Klaus Dinger of Neu! suffers the same fate, and Neu! only had two members. Other pictures lose their captions in the same gutter. Clearly whoever was in charge of layout either didn't know that this would be a large, perfect-bound paperback, or simply didn't care. No designer is ignorant of where the centre of the page is. There's no excuse for such sloppiness.

Worse, the font seems to be Courier (or something similar). I'm sure this was chosen to reflect the forward-looking modernism of the music, because this font was designed for computer screens. It's small, faint and not intended for printed narrative, so it's no surprise that I CAN'T READ IT. Even with the main light on, my bedside light on and my glasses on, I CAN'T READ IT. Can I offer a bit of advice to the whizzo - sorry, amateur - designer who chose that font? Mate, you would have done a better job using Comic Sans. This is the worst insult you can pay to a designer, but here it's justified.

Oh, sorry, the content. Since I was given this book as a present towards the end of summer, there were enough bright, sunny days left for me to read it. The biographies of the bands and the main producers, which make up three-quarters of the book, are pretty solid. Some are excellent (Can, Faust, Popol Vuh, both Amon Düüls), although others are so cursory that we learn very little from them (Anima is particularly poor). All of the main bands are there, as well as several more minor luminaries. Even La Dusseldorf, who are probably as much Neue Deutsch Welle as Krautrock, get a look in, but the main interest lies in the first quarter of the book where the contibutors discuss the origins and context of Krautrock.

These are fascinating and are what (for me) earn the book its stars. David Stubbs writes a fine essay on the origins of the genre, ably supported by Ken Hollings and Michael Faber. Stubbs examines the socio-political background; Hollings delves into the history of the avant-garde with important references to Sockhausen; Faber talks about why Germans are baffled by the reverence paid by foreigners to what they see as a minor blip in their country's musical development. He cites Grobschnitt as a typically popular non-Krautrock band, likening them to both Spinal Tap and The Mothers of Invention. This I have to hear.

There are only two let-downs here: one is Stubbs' reference to "the murder of Benno Ohnesorg", which is even worth a photo but is unexplained other than the fact that it was important and it happened in 1967. The other is the the sprawling and irrelevant piece by Erik Davis - his only contribution to the book, even though he seems to get top billing among the contributors - who dribbles on about the cosmic without suggesting any awareness of what the book was about and whose only interesting points were made much better by Hollings. He also doesn't know the difference between 'pare' and 'pair' or 'pore' and 'pour'. Maybe he's a big star, or perhaps there's another reason why his writing was considered not only worthy of inclusion but too important to merit the attentions of an editor who can actually write in English.

I'm aware that I've concentrated on the negative here, but the faults are too glaring to ignore. Nevertheless, this is an interesting book that curates much of the knowledge about a hugely important musical movement. But it could have been so much better.

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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Review: Going to Sea in a Sieve: The Autobiography

Going to Sea in a Sieve: The Autobiography
Going to Sea in a Sieve: The Autobiography by Danny Baker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It took me more than two decades to realise that Danny Baker isn't a chattering imbecile but is in fact a genius. This revelation came through spending an hour a day listening to the gloriously surreal inventiveness of his BBC London radio show.

Despite being co-founder of the legendary punk fanzine Sniffin' Glue and a major writer at New Musical Express in the late 70s and 80s, where conformity to 'correct' opinions was almost Maoist in its intensity, this is a man who has never denied his love for unhip, old music (such as Steely Dan and Anthony Newley) and who was almost lynched when, aged 20, he leapt on stage to berate a punk audience that was cheering at the news that Elvis had just died. More recently he's been railing against the tyranny of 'cool'.

This covers the first 25 years of his life, and what a fascinating life it is. His father was a docker who supplemented his income - as they all did - by taking a cut of Britain's flagging export trade. Baker sold knocked-off records to the Petticoat Lane traders and left school at 15, despite being top of the class, to work in a hip record shop in Soho, where he met all the stars but chucked Queen out for demanding that the shop play their debut album, which he and the manager hated.

Baker's story isn't a tale of triumph in the face of hardship: it's a story of of a happy, trauma-free, working-class upbringing; staying just the right side of poverty by keeping just the wrong side of the law; being happy by spending every penny as it comes; and succeeding by cheek, talent, wit, blarney and outrageous good fortune.

His warmth and utter lack of pretention keeps the book charming, while his comic talent keeps it fun and sometimes hilarious, never more so than in his record-shop days or his japes as receptionist at the NME. He even apologises for calling Kate Bush Chicken Licken.

My only complaint is that, having never given Nick Kent's testicles a moment's thought, I now have an image of them in my mind that can never be erased.

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Sunday, September 22, 2013

Farage, Dulwich and the Hitler Youth songs

My only picture of Farage from school.
It has been reported recently that Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence party, sang "Hitler Youth songs" while in the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) at his school, Dulwich College, in 1981.

I know Farage didn't sing any Hitler Youth songs because we didn't know any. Yes, ‘we’. I was there; Channel 4 News wasn't and nor, for that matter, was Chloe Deakin (the teacher whose letter about Farage was the basis of the stories).

The letter itself was kept by Bob Jope, a teacher I knew well and admired very much, and who was the epitome of what right-wing commentators would describe as a "trendy leftie". His motives in keeping and later publicising the letter will be obvious, but he didn't hear the cadets singing in Sussex because he wouldn't have been seen dead in the CCF. He was still a good teacher though, and one who inspired creative thinking – a much-needed counter-balance to the school's more usual obsessions with Latin and rugby.

Deakin was never a friend of the CCF (and I'm more sympathetic to her view now than I was then), so it's no surprise that her hearsay report to the headmaster, David Emms, was exaggerated. By the time the story appeared in the newspapers this month, it was a report of a report of a letter reporting a report: in other words, the fourth round of Chinese whispers spread over 30 years. 
Bob Jope in November 1981, singing in a school band

The songs we sang were often racist and sexist, but none were Nazi songs. Nobody could sing in German, and anyway, where would you learn the Horst Wessel song in 1981? Look it up on YouTube? They sold some pretty questionable records in Our Price in Croydon (REO Speedwagon anyone?), but I don't remember seeing Lieder aus der Hitler-Jugend in the bargain racks. 

I'm ashamed of the songs we did sing, and I'm disappointed the teachers didn't stop us, but maybe they were consciously not rising to the bait. After all, the point wasn’t to express an opinion; it was to sing something to shock our elders, in the loutish ways adolescent boys often do. It wouldn't have been shocking if we hadn't known that the sentiments were repellent. That's probably why the Red Flag also got the occasional outing (only occasional: we didn't really know the words), because a Communist song was considered just as likely to raise the hackles of the authorities at a public school. Another song celebrated homosexuality in a boys' school where no one would ever admit to being gay. We were almost daring ourselves to shock ourselves as well as the teachers.

Nobody ever expressed these views in normal conversation; after all, we had black, Asian, South Asian and Jewish friends. There were a few racist songs in the canon, but when marching we were more likely to sing something like Yellow Bird - a cheerful song about animal cruelty that provided the title of Kevin Powers' recent novel about the Iraq war, with a rhythm much better suited to marching than Ivor Biggun's Winker's Song.

Did Farage join in with these songs? My (possibly flawed) recollection is that we all did. Did he instigate the singing? Possibly, but I don't recall him doing so, whereas I often did, despite being a left-leaning liberal then and now. Despite our political differences, Farage was a friend of mine and he appeared then as he appears now: nationalistic, right wing on social and economic issues but not a Nazi or a racist.

As an old school friend of mine commented on Facebook this week, "I don't recall him being particularly strident or offensive and I was almost the only Jew in (Dulwich) Village."

The songs we sang are irrelevant because they tell you nothing about our political beliefs now. They don't even tell you about our political beliefs then.

Why am I bringing up actions I'm ashamed of to defend a politician I don't support? Something to do with facts being sacred, I suppose.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Review: Deadlines and Disruption: My Turbulent Path from Print to Digital

Deadlines and Disruption: My Turbulent Path from Print to Digital
Deadlines and Disruption: My Turbulent Path from Print to Digital by Stephen B. Shepard

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Shepard's book promises a look at the changing nature of journalism, but it's more of an autobiography with a few short think-pieces at the end. His account of growing up in New York, falling in love with journalism and becoming the very successful editor of BusinessWeek is interesting without being gripping and personal without being revealing. Throughout the book he is at pains to mention the names of all the big beasts he met (star CEOs and presidents) and the names of all those who helped him along the way, such that at times the book resembles a very long retirement speech. Perhaps that's what it is.

He is good on the ethics of journalism and honest about his mistakes, and there are some interesting anecdotes about some of his struggles with awkward business people and legal battles, but generally the book lacks bite. His insights into the change to digital journalism and the crisis of newspapers are certainly interesting, although there isn't enough depth to justify buying the book for these alone.

All in all, it's a pretty solid three stars.

Quibbles? The fact that you're a star editor doesn't mean you're immune from mistakes. He (or his editor) should know that it's 'card sharp' not 'card shark', and that the plural of 'syllabus' isn't 'syllabi'. And his summary of the articles published in his time at BusinessWeek needed a maths check, unless the average length of stories during those two decades really was 100 words.

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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Review: Thinking, Fast and Slow

Thinking, Fast and Slow
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was pointed to this book after I'd torn apart another piece of self-improvement rubbish. Unlike those self-improvement gurus, Kahnemann has a Nobel Prize to his credit so he deserves some respect, and this book is a summary of his life in psychology. So while there's little here for the hopeless business manager - though some of that does come through in the second half - it's a fascinating summary of a life's work that began as a Jewish child in wartime Paris, when he was picked up and hugged by a homesick SS man and walked home wondering how the human mind can harbour such contradictions.

Central to the book is the discovery of what Kahnemann calls Systems 1&2, which are respectively the thinking fast and slow thought processes of the title. Kahnemann takes us through the ways in which easy thought processes can mislead us, while covering the ways in which we delude ourselves or are open to suggestion, giving an insight how the likes of Derren Brown make a living.

Why do stockbrokers perform no better than monkeys throwing darts? Why do people perform better after their bosses have shouted at them? (It's not why the bosses think.) Why do students who have been exposed to words like 'grey' and 'wrinkled' walk slowly? Why do people exposed to images of money behave selfishly?

At times it's hard going, but Kahnemann is trying to summarise the most recent developments in a notoriously difficult science. For the careful - and slow - reader, this is a wonderful book.

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Friday, July 19, 2013

Review: Autobahn

Autobahn by Neil LaBute

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Understated and subtle, Neil LaBute's Autobahn shoves a series of characters into the confined space of the front seat of a car where the intensity of relationships is inescapable. These duologues tear into the basis of relationships in a quietly comic yet disturbing way. In a sense, it's classic LaBute.

I especially loved the trashy, almost deranged girlfriend whose needy, wheedling attitude manipulates her increasingly uncomfortable college boyfriend into not dumping her ("I'll find work. They have WalMarts all over").

This is comedy of the unsaid, in which the car becomes a prison where characters are forced to have conversations they would rather not have: a mother silently listens as she drives her daughter home from rehab, while the daughter cheerfully announces her intention to get straight back onto drugs; what looks like a father-daughter road trip is revealed as something far more sinister; a man's apology spirals downwards disastrously against the brick wall of his partner's silence.

These are disturbing yet funny vignettes.

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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Review: Ulysses

Ulysses by James Joyce

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Joyce: genius or charlatan? Ulysses: greatest "novel of the 20th Century" (Anthony Burgess) or literary fraud?

You can back up any of these statements, but there is no question that Ulysses is one of the hardest books to read in the English language. At times it defies comprehension, and at times Joyce deliberately makes it more difficult than it needs to be. For instance, the last 60 pages, where Molly Bloom is finally heard giving her side of her husband's story, is rendered in a single, unpunctuated sentence. I can't think of a single justification for that, except to create a barrier between author and reader. This is Joyce getting self-conscious about his own genius.

But Joyce is a genius. It's impossible to write a book like Ulysses without genius. Joyce challenges our idea of narrative, meaning and the purpose of story-telling. The day-long odyssey of Bloom and Daedalus is a celebration of the heroism of the mundane, in an era when the admiration of traditional heroism had led the world into the cataclysm of World War I. Joyce's idea was taken up by a generation of authors, so even if Ulysses isn't a good novel, it's unquestionably a great one.

Oh, but it's hard work. It took Joyce seven years to write Ulysses, and anyone who truly wishes to understand it should take six months and possibly a year to read it. There are passages that defy comprehension, and Joyce challenges the reader to stay with him. Most of us can't. Some of the prose is poetically beautiful and points towards the modernist poetry of especially TS Eliot. In reading it, I felt I learned more about literature than I did about the human condition, and I can't say I enjoyed the experience, but I felt better for understanding it and even a bit sad for realising that I'll never reach those intellectual heights.

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Sunday, July 7, 2013

Review: A Private Little War

A Private Little War
A Private Little War by Jason Sheehan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An infuriating ending knocks one star off what was a grimly humorous steampunk homage to Catch-22, although other readers might feel that the ending is actually an affirmation of humanity that elevates the book to classic status. They're wrong of course, because I'm always right.

The story centres on an illegal war on a distant planet, with a human corporation intervening in a centuries-old conflict in order to grab land rights. The problems of supply and maintenance mean that the pilots are flying souped-up WWI aircraft, but that's fine because the technology level of the 'indigs' is medieval. But the pilots and ground crew are just starting to realise that something is wrong and that victory isn't just taking too long, it isn't going to happen at all. Quite possibly, they are all going to die on this wet, filthy, miserable planet. Appropriately, they are slowly going mad.

Sheehan does the grim humour well, just as Heller did in Catch-22, although he can't match Heller's dark, absurdist philosophy. Each character gets a sympathetic portrayal, even psychotic commander Ted, who, unlike Colonel Cathcart in Catch-22, is stressed to breaking point rather than blinded by his own pompous stupidity.

It's a well-written, well plotted book - I particularly liked the hisses and consonants of the indigs' language described as like "a wet cat being beaten with an abacus" - although it does meander a bit in the middle. It's just a shame about the ending.

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Review: 1966 And All That

1966 And All That
1966 And All That by Craig Brown

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

'1966 And All That' is a homage to the 1930 classic 1066 and All That, which ends with history coming to a full stop in 1918 with America as Top Nation. Brown takes it through the next nine decades with the same sort of absurdist humour, mixing characters (e.g. King George and his son Lloyd) and garbling events in a work of semi-surrealist nonsense.

I can't exactly say why, but I didn't enjoy it as much as the earlier work or as much as I enjoyed the radio version that was broadcast on Radio 4. It's the sort of humour that needs to be taken in small doses, and the nonsensical word-play seems to work better on radio than on the page.

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Review: Speaking in Tongues

Speaking in Tongues
Speaking in Tongues by Andrew Bovell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I didn’t know what to expect from Speaking In Tongues, which is not surprising, given author Andrew Bovell’s comment, “I hate theatre when it is exactly what you are expecting it to be.”

The production I saw promised “a number of separate but interlinked stories … nine parallel lives connected by four infidelities, one missing person and a mysterious stiletto … encounters, confessionals and interrogations that gradually reveal the darker side of human nature.” Oh goody, grab the popcorn.

The play opens with two married couples appearing in separate hotel bedrooms – but the husbands are with the wrong wives. Their conversations interweave and overlap as each tries to come to terms with the guilt of what they may or may not be about to do. This scene is beautifully written and very, very hard to perform as the characters have to say some lines simultaneously in different conversations, with the doubled-up voices giving extra power to such lines as “I just wanted to feel something” and “I wanted to know if I was still attractive.”

The first half follows these four characters as their stories move together and apart in a choreographed dance of dialogue, revealing their frustration, disillusionment, bitterness and guilt.

In the second half, new characters take up the stories alluded to in the first half, and the threads of their stories fray and tangle delightfully. Leon the policeman is the only survivor from the first half: the dark sun around which the other worlds blindly orbit. His subtle emotional dishonesty influences the lives of those around him without their knowledge.

This is a brilliantly written play, which fulfils Bovell’s promise of something unexpected, but it isn’t pretentious or difficult to watch. It has tension, mystery and pathos, but it can also be very funny, with the humour of people who talk without communicating and try to control their own worlds but are blind to the other people and events that shape their lives.

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Monday, June 24, 2013

Review: Intermission

Intermission by Owen Martell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

'Intermission' is a flight of fancy, based on legendary jazz pianist Bill Evans' lost months following the death, in a car crash, of his young bassist Scott LaFaro in June 1961. Martell imagines Evans staying with his brother Harry in New York, and then with his parents Harry Sr and Mary.

Eash of Bill's family in turn watches him and thinks about him and reflects on their own lives. Little is said. Eventually Bill returns to New York to resume his career. And that's about it.

The book is well-written, but there's no real substance. There are no deep revelations about the human condition and no resolution of anything. The character arcs are almost completely flat. The real-life Evans sounds like a fascinating character, but nothing of that comes out in this book. His silence implies a deep grief, but Martell barely scratches the surface, concentrating instead on more mundane introspection of his family members.

This short book seems less like a novel and more like an exercise in novel-writing. One wonders why Martell bothered to write it at all.

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Friday, June 21, 2013

Review: She Rises

She Rises
She Rises by Kate Worsley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The internet is the curse of modern fiction. Why imagine anything when you can Google it? Too many novels are researched to within an inch of their lives, and they aren't better for it. You have to be patient with the early pages of 'She Rises' as Worsley gets her research out of the way, and you can almost see her ticking off the boxes on her 'List of Period Dialect Phrases I've Looked Up' and 'Research Notes on Visiting Harwich'. Once she does, the novel thankfully kicks into gear.

Louise is plucked away from churning butter in the manor house kitchen and into domestic service in Harwich, where she develops a strong bond with her young mistress - one that she doesn't understand but modern readers will, even without the heavy emphasis that's placed on the fact that Worsley was mentored by Sarah Waters.

She is also under orders to find out what happened to her brother Luke. We discover in a parallel narrative that Luke has been press-ganged and is serving on the HMS Essex, on its way to the Caribbean to fight in the War of Jenkins' Ear (which places the novel squarely in the year 1740).

It takes a long time for these narratives to come together (one prospective publisher apparently advised Worsley to slash the first quarter of the book, and I think they were right), but when they do the twist is staggering. (One reviewer said they saw it a mile off, but I'm usually quite good at spotting approaching plot twists and it caught me out.) The way the stories come together sends the novel off in another direction, again suggesting that the opening quarter should have been cut to avoid unbalancing the book, but by this time the reader is so caught up in the story of Luke and Louise that this flaw is easily forgiven. Also, the gradual build-up of tension makes the brief and not very graphic sex scences all the more erotic.

Some authors are one-trick ponies, but I think Kate Worsley might have an even better second book in her.

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Thursday, June 13, 2013

The bands you're forbidden to hate

Everyone loves the Beatles. Everyone acknowledges the genius of Jimi Hendrix. Everyone knows the importance of Elvis Presley. 

Except they don't. 

There's always someone who'll tell you that some grubby New Wave band from Macclesfield, or an Algerian funk group, or perhaps a couple of Germans from Düsseldorf are more important than any of them.

But there are a handful of bands that no one is allowed to criticise. You will never see anything bad written about them in print. Since there's no such thing as perfection in art, this is enough to prove they are over-rated - just don't say so, because these bands are more infallible than the Catholic church, with just as many people who have their entire world view invested in their unquestionable greatness. 

I'm being deliberately contrarian here, concentrating on the negative (I even like some of them). But why not? You've had adulation for these bands shoved down your throat for decades. It's time someone put the case for the prosecution.

The Ramones
Ramones, by Morrissey, 1976
I saw the Ramones at the Reading Festival in 1988. They were fine, but I found myself asking why on earth they were there, or anywhere for that matter. The Ramones are the epitome of punk attitude, but by 1988 they'd been doing their "1-2-3" shtick to trouser-wetting adulation from the NME for a dozen years. That means they were more of a dinosaur band than Yes were when Never Mind The Bollocks was released. They'd become their own tribute band.

It says a lot about the state of music in the mid-70s that the Ramones made such an impact. Just listen to Sheena Is A Punk Rocker or Rock'n'Roll High School: this is American bubblegum pop from the pre-Beatles era, by a band that had modelled their look on James Dean, a teen icon who died in 1955, three months before Heartbreak Hotel was released. Their other big hits were Do You Wanna Dance? (a hit for Cliff Richard in 1962) and Baby I Love You (The Ronettes, 1963).

That this was considered The Way Forward in 1976 says a lot about the loss of self-confidence in music at the time: the only way forward was back. Other singles included Substitute (a cover of a 1966 song by The Who) and Needles And Pins, which couldn't match the success of the version released a year earlier by Smokie - a band that epitomised everything that was vile about mid-70s pop. The cognoscenti of 1977 to 2013 (and counting) could think think of nothing better than to idolise a band that had ignored every development of the most productive decade (1963-72) that popular music had ever known and would ever know.

For the Ramones to mean anything, they had to appear in a howl of aggression and disappear before anyone noticed. They didn't do that. They had nothing new to say after 1977, but they went on, and on, and on, until they became predictable, establishment rock. Was that really what it was all about?

Say what you like about Yes and King Crimson; at least they were testing new boundaries. Even if you think they failed, at least they were trying. The Ramones were a rejection of every boundary that that had been crossed since the Beatles. They are lionised today, forty years after they were the 'new look' that even then was twenty years old. The future was twenty years old in 1976. Today it's nearly sixty years out of date.

At Reading '88, The Ramones were sharing the bill with Starship: the rancid remains of Jefferson Starship, which itself was the rotting remnants of Jefferson Airplane. Seven years earlier, Jefferson Starship had sung, "People say ... 'why don't you sound like you used to / in '65, '69, '75?' / Fuck you, we do what we want." The Ramones were content to sound like they used to in '75, and nobody was going to criticise them for it. They still don't.

You could join the Conservative Party or the GOP. But if you want to be super-conservative - a real reactionary - put on a Ramones t-shirt.

Bob Marley
UB40 didn't need to sanitise reggae to make it radio-friendly. Bob Marley had already done it for them. By the time Marley broke into the mainstream, he was already going soft. Compare anything on Burnin' with No Woman, No Cry. By the time anyone had heard of him, all that was left was some plinky-plinky pop pap. Later he became to Rastafarianism what Cliff Richard was to the Church of England. Rock promoting religion? Bring on Taliban Radio!

The Clash
That's progress: Paul Simonon repeats Pete Townshend's
1966 guitar trick on an album cover that harks back to
Elvis. Sounds gave the album 2 stars

The ultimate over-rated band. Nobody dares say anything bad about the Clash. But they were only a decent punk band who struggled to live up to the expectations of the music press, who saw in them a band who thoroughly espoused the political ideals of journalists who wanted punk to be a left-wing movement but found it sailing a little too close to the wind of football hooliganism and far-right politics. 

The two clung to each other with increasing desperation, with journalists even forgiving the cod-Caribbean accents when Strummer and the boys tried to become a reggae band because it was the only politically pure genre around. It was as borderline racist as the Kinks' Apeman.

I've got the two-disc 'Best Of' compilation and there are half a dozen killer tracks on it. Six good songs is better than most punk bands could manage (go on, name your top three Buzzcocks songs), but the rest is all fairly ordinary. A 40-minute vinyl Best Of The Clash would be a terrific album. Two CDs is seriously scraping the barrel. The Clash were a good punk band who quickly forgot what they were good at.

Never mind the soubriquet of 'the only band that matters' (a slogan concocted in the marketing department of their record company by Captain Beefheart's bassist), they weren't even the best band of their own time, let alone of all time. The Clash were a triumph of marketing over content.

Led Zeppelin
Britain produced three great, world-conquering heavy rock bands in the late 60s: Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Purple were without doubt the most musically diverse, while Sabbath created a gothic vibe and inspired so many bands that they must be one of the most influential bands ever. Lester Bangs called them the first Roman Catholic rock band.

So why do Zeppelin get all the adulation now? Even Deep Purple acknowledged that Zep pioneered the heavy rock sound: white boys playing the blues with heavy drums and the bass turned way up, but forty years later who cares who was first? No one listens to Bill Haley these days, and anyway Cream had already done it. 

True, they had a terrific singer and a fine guitarist, but Jimmy Page wasn't any better than Tony Iommi (Sabbath) or Ritchie Blackmore (Purple), and he was far more prone to pretentious noodling than either of them, which was one reason why the post-punk consensus derided Zeppelin more then the other two. Led Zeppelin provided something for those who missed Cream. If Cream hadn't split up, who would have needed Led Zeppelin? And forty years on, why should anyone care?

Sabbath's gothic influence on later metal makes it understandable why they have heroic status today, even if it took Ozzy appearing on a reality TV show to push them back into the mainstream. Purple were far too interesting and inventive - the crunching riff of Smoke On The Water apart - to be accepted for 21st Century adulation. Led Zeppelin were the epitome of cock-rock: pompous and shallow, with a singer whose main attribute was that he looked and sounded like Roger Daltrey, but without any complex lyrics that would threaten audiences with the peril of thinking.

Despite some great songs, they didn't progress much beyond playing turbo-charged blues and folk, with many of the tunes stolen from earlier artists. Howlin' Wolf had to sue to get royalties for Killing Floor, which Zep renamed the Lemon Song because they'd added a line nicked from Robert Johnson, who by then was too dead to sue. The lovely opening passage of Stairway To Heaven isn't original either, as any fan of Spirit (who Zep supported on their first American tour) will tell you. 

Even by the time of their last good album, Physical Graffiti, they still felt the need to add their own writing credits to In My Time Of Dying, a song that was on Bob Dylan's debut album and was at least thirty years old even then. Maybe living as tax exiles wasn't as lucrative as they'd hoped.

The Kinks
I'm sorry, beyond the horribly racist Apeman mentioned above, I can't think of a bad word to say about the Kinks. Give me time though.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Review: The Victoria System

The Victoria System
The Victoria System by Eric Reinhardt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A quarter of the way through this book, I was ready to throw it across the room. I'm glad I didn't.

The charmless and self-obsessed David pursues Victoria through the streets of Paris for four hours, forgetting about his daughter's birthday party and losing her present along the way. Rather than call the police, Victoria agrees to meet him in London, where they indulge in one of the most tedious conversations ever recorded between two human beings. They discuss architecture and politics, rather than comment on the only remarkable aspect of dinner: the fact that either their table keeps changing size or that Victoria has extendible arms, such that at one moment they can barely touch their fingers across the table and the next Victoria is able to spoon-feed David without leaving her seat.

David talks like a written submission to the general assembly of the Socialist Workers' Party, while Victoria's conversation resembles a press release from the Institute of Directors. David also tells her about his plans for houses on rails, whereby residents will wake up to find their next-door neighbours' barbecue outside their patio door while their lawnmower is now in their other neighbour's garden along with the kids' bicycles and the koi carp. For all her business acumen, Victoria fails to laugh out loud at this idiotic scheme, sealing their relationship.

By the end of dinner, each of them is so smitten at having found someone who can listen to them without chewing their leg off that they repair to David's hotel, where they rut like accountants for four hours.

…and then the story picks up, becoming an existentialist political thriller in the old French style. David's thoroughly dislikeable, self-obsessed, whining neuroticism carries us through a tale of sexual obsession that destroys both characters. It still falls down on the dialogue, which reads like carefully prepared statements, and on the implausibility of Victoria falling so heavily for someone as pompous as David. The running theme of David's corruption by Victoria's capitalist morals underpins the story, but this is balanced by his strange sexual dysfunction: he can't reach orgasm. Victoria represents the alluring corruption of capitalism: David finally achieves release at the moment he completely succumbs morally, and in that moment he becomes unable to save Victoria.

'The Victoria System' represents the dance between opposites in French political life: David is a builder and Victoria a destroyer, and the antagonism between left and right is actually what keeps both alive. In that sense 'The Victoria System' is a political allegory in the best tradition of Sartre and Camus.

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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Review: Valentina

Valentina by Evie Blake

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As publishers rush to get on the Fifty Shades bandwagon, we can expect a lot more like this. Evie Blake seems to be a jobbing author who can turn out stuff to order, but this is a bit better than a standard cash-in. Nonetheless, it's not great.

There's a story of sorts, as Blake weaves together the lives of two women separated by nearly a century. Or she doesn't, as there is nothing to link the two for most of the novel, such that by the time a link is established the reader has mostly lost interest. The book is populated by clichéd, stock characters who offer few surprises, and there are plenty of descriptions that simply don't ring true. For instance, Valentina describes in great detail how she uses an old film camera to photograph the reflection of her face and then her most intimate parts in the water of a canal: a feat that would require gravity-defying contortions beyond what the laws of physics will allow; while forgetting that all she would see in the resulting photographs would be the reflection of the camera itself.

The descriptions of sexual activity - and there are a lot of them - are not inspired but are decent enough and Blake maintains an air of mystery throughout. I found that it stretched plausibility too far, but other readers might be more tolerant. I also found the concept of liberation through sex depended too much on female submission to male desire, which isn't very liberating at all.

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Review: The Mongoliad: Book Three

The Mongoliad: Book Three
The Mongoliad: Book Three by Neal Stephenson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Anyone interested in the historical Mongolian empire should avoid this bilge. Anyone interested in good writing should also beat a hasty retreat. The Mongoliad is as true to the era of Ogodei Khan as Conan the Barbarian is to the age of Attila The Hun.

It's hideously bloated and poorly written, like a parody that someone forgot to make funny. The first two sentences give a taste of the laughable dialogue - "The Shield-Brethren buried Finn on the hill where they had set up camp. 'It is not as grand as one of those burial mounds--the kurgans--we have seen,' Raphael pointed out to Feronantus, 'but it has a view of where we came from, and the sun will always warm the ground.'" - and the thought of wading through another 800 pages of this nonsense made me want to give up there and then. Everyone talks in this mock-heroic, pompous patois except Frederick Hohenstaufen, who throws "goddamn" into every sentence. This is meant to make him sound down-to-earth but just makes him sound American, which is ridiculous for a 13th Century German emperor.

Reading the dialogue is like listening in on a teenage game of dungeons and dragons, and very long game at that. This is the third book in the series, which might explain why the characters spend so much time going over events of the previous books. The non-dialogue writing is better, but there doesn't seem to be any plot; just a parade of groups of characters who spend all their time thinking and talking and doing nothing.

And boy, does it go on. There are seven authors here, all writing with the same breathless adolescent portentousness. The urge to introduce unfamiliar words is never resisted, even when there is no need. For instance, we're told that Haakon has only just learned how to pronounce the Mongol capital Karakorum, though I'm stumped at how else it could be pronounced. Meanwhile, groups of characters wander around and chatter to each other or themselves, but however great the distances not one of them ever seems to stumble on a plot.

I'm sure the writers enjoyed themselves, but it's all very self-indulgent, like fan fiction for a book that nobody has bothered to write.

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Review: Dancing at Lughnasa

Dancing at Lughnasa
Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This play is adapted from a novel, and it shows. Such a process involves losing the narrative of a novel, which then needs to be replaced by something theatrical. Brian Friel hasn't done that. He simply fills in the gaps by having the young boy Michael narrate large chunks of narrative, presumably pasted from the novel itself, without adding anything dramatic.

So, for the first hour we are presented with the five sisters picking at the scabs of their own boredom and frustration. This is exceptionally dull. There is some fine humour in the middle third, especially when the slightly deranged Jack regales the sisters with stories of his time in Uganda, showing himself to have gone native and become virtually pagan, before Michael is awkwardly brought back to tell us the ending of the story long before the end of the play.

From the lyricism of the prose, I suspect that Dancing At Lughnasa is a very good novel. But it's a poor play, constantly struggling against the dramatic genre instead of embracing it.

The pagan spirits of ancient Ireland are evoked, and I can hear the play itself pleading to them, saying, "Please, turn me back into a novel."

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Review: A Conspiracy of Alchemists

A Conspiracy of Alchemists
A Conspiracy of Alchemists by Liesel Schwarz

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It was all very confusing. Eleanor's head swam as Lord Greychester, the man she had known as Marsh but she now preferred to call Hugh, explained how the Warlocks and the Nightwalkers were engaged in a battle with the Alchemists for the control of Pythia the Cybele who could defeat the Alchemists and their own Nightwalker allies, who are like our Nightwalker allies but so much eviller, and that it was now her destiny to become the Cybele, or Pythia, which was the Oracle. All she wanted to do was fly dirigibles. It was all very confusing.

Elle, as she was sometimes known, felt a strange lurch in the pit of her stomach, which was either physical attraction, hunger, indigestion or the start of the metamorphosis from Ella into Pythia or Cybele. If only she could concentrate on what Marsh was saying, but what with her head swimming, her stomach churning, the voices in her head whispering, a stowaway fairy chattering away and Marsh's muscles rippling in a physique that was remarkably well preserved in a man of 210 years old, she found herself reduced to repeating that this was the early 20th century and a woman could do anything a man could do - with the possible exception, she told herself, of taking a woman in his powerful arms and crushing his sandalwood-scented lips against hers in a breath-taking kiss because this isn't going to one of those novels thank you very much, although why she kept thinking of Marsh doing that to her was quite beyond her. It was all very confusing.

Elle was having such strange thoughts since meeting Lord Greychester, and she was confused as to why everyone talked in such a mock-mystical manner and yet threw in curious phrases that she was certain would not come into fashion for at least another eighty years. It all seemed very dodgy. She would have been even more confused if she had heard the Grand Master of the Order of Warlocks, whose conversation normally sounded like someone intoning the inscription on Knight Templar's sarcophagus, describe her father's possible death as "collateral damage" as though he had suddenly morphed into a junior public relations executive (whatever one of those might be). Fortunately Marsh was even ruder to the Grand Master than he was to Eleanor, though the Grand Master didn't respond to insults by lecturing him on early feminist theory or staring at his rippling physique. Hugh found it all very confusing.

And as for her poor, kidnapped father, she had almost forgotten about him. A terrible realisation hit her: the mystifying adventure that had suddenly taken over her life was subtitled The Chronicles Of Light and Shadow. Chronicles. Plural. She faced the horrifying realisation that nothing would be properly resolved by the end of the book and that she would simply be plunged into yet another adventure. She might not see her dear, dear father again till perhaps Book Four, while she was unlikely to settle down with Hugh's rippling physique until Steampunk went out of fashion again (though at least she could use her new-found powers to defeat this ungentlemanly reviewer from revealing that much of the plot). If only she could prevent eminence grise Liesel Schwarz from investing the story with the requisite humour and careful plotting, she might prevent such a sequel. It seemed unlikely.

Something lurched inside her. It might have been fear because it didn't seem to be hunger or indigestion, although she was a bit hazy about internal organs and they all seemed to lurching at one time or another, even when she wasn't peeking at Marsh's rippling physique. It was all very confusing.

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Review: In My View: Personal Reflections on Art by Today's Leading Artists

In My View: Personal Reflections on Art by Today's Leading Artists
In My View: Personal Reflections on Art by Today's Leading Artists by Simon Grant

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book contains brief, concise essays by today's artists on the art of yesteryear. It keeps its focus by getting the artists to concentrate on (usually) one work: the one that knocked them backwards.

In the space of two or three well-illustrated pages, the artist explains their reaction to the art and how it influenced them. This focus prevents the book being shallow or just a coffee-table book of lovely pictures, although it's that too. One could argue that we can't see how the writer was influenced, but it would be difficult to show that without doubling the size of the book, since influences can be quite subtle. I'm happy to concentrate on their inner response.

We can't help wondering how we are "supposed" to respond to art, even though we know it's a foolish question. Here we get the best answer we'll ever get: we see how other artists responded and were inspired. And it's not just painting: Man Ray and William Blake also get a look-in.

Reading a whole book about art can be daunting. This is a perfect book for those who want to dip in, learn something useful and then go away and think.

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Friday, May 31, 2013

Even Guardian readers want gays to shut the fuck up

Apparently they're not really gay
READERS of the Guardian have joined the rest of Britain in asking gay activists to stop whinging about fucking everything.

Nikki Hollis, 28, told, “My gay friends are well-dressed, happy, go on fantastic holidays and are always telling me about the red-hot sex they’re having. But every time I open the Guardian there’s some po-faced activist grumbling about what a shit deal they’ve got. I opposed Clause 28, marched for civil partnerships and signed a petition for gay marriage. What more do they want?”

But Tom Logan, a full-time gay from Shoreditch, said, “I looked on the Guardian’s website last Thursday and there wasn’t a single story about gays on the front page. This is just how Nazi Germany started.”

Wayne Hayes from the Institute For Studies explained, “Gays were oppressed for so long that they’ve forgotten that some things have nothing to do with being persecuted. Stonewall needs to realise that nobody hates them for being gay. People hate them for being pompous, miserable, boring, self-righteous cunts.”

Meanwhile Emma Bradford from Wakefield said, “It’s getting ridiculous. I logged on to for a glimpse of some hot guys and there was just a blank screen with a message saying all the gays had gone to Westminster to demand that Musical Theatre Studies replace Geography on the National Curriculum. I asked my husband to check and he came back five hours later to say that all the lesbian sites were still up. Apparently the girls aren’t really lesbians. Who knew?”

With apologies to the Daily Mash