End of

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So, 2016 then. Everybody begins everything they say now with the prefix “So …”, as if perhaps what they’re about to say is a continuation of a previous statement, but actually isn’t. I can’t be the only person to have noticed this. You hear correspondents doing it when asked to comment on the news. You hear contestants doing it when they’re asked to describe the dish they’re about to prepare on Masterchef. Young people seem unable to start a sentence without it. It’s a tick; more like a punctuation mark than a word – a deep breath if you like. Like “like” it has crept into common verbal usage (you’ll note that nobody uses it in written text) and it means literally nothing, as with so much in contemporary dialogue.

So … it was way back in that prelapsarian age that was the second week in January when Squeeze, a band whose original members are around 60 years old, used a performance on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show to protest against fellow guest, then-Prime Minister David Cameron.

They changed the lyrics of hit Cradle to the Grave to sing the line: “There are some here who are hell bent on the destruction of the welfare state,” with that preening waste of space Cameron watching. Glenn Tilbrook also slipped in the line: “I grew up in council houses, part of what made Britain great.”

It did not bring down the venal Tory government. In fact, the Tory government continued to destroy the welfare state, along with much else when it held a referendum without at any point thinking through what might happen if the British public voted “Non!” to staying in the European Union. Cameron did way more than kill the welfare state, he sleepwalked the electorate into an abyss, and then resigned five minutes after the votes had been counted so that he could spend more time with his money. The political picture has largely been dominated by quitting, and not quitting in the case of Jeremy Corbyn, who is Westminster’s mystery man. They seek him here, they seek him there. I stuck with him for way longer than he deserved, if only to disavow his fellow Labour MPs who sought only to stab him in the back while Rome burned all around them. It has been a shoddy display from them all.

You’ll note that 10 January, the day Squeeze made their valiant protest, is also the day David Bowie died, and with him, the universe. This year has been fucking awful. From Brexit to Trump, via Brietbart, post-truth, alt-right, fake news, black lives not mattering, saying that ice cream is gay, and acts of terror that almost became business as usual amid more unexpected deaths of the supremely talented than any other in living memory, the only response to the passing of 2016 is to say, “Fuck you!”

So, here are my books of the year.

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What was once a refrain has hardened into a truth. Most of my reading happens between the covers of the New Yorker magazine, which has the temerity to arrive on a weekly basis on my doormat (and which feels even more vital since Trump was voted in). However, a nice man at the Mail on Sunday called Neil took it upon himself to send me three books to review in 2016, all of which I enjoyed. They are almost half the books I read. Of the other four, two are by people I know, but both stimulating in their particular fields. And the sixth and seventh are by people who write for the New Yorker, with roots in work they did for the New Yorker: Jeffrey Toobin and Clive James (one of the chapters in the delightful Play All is reprinted verbatim from the New Yorker).

I almost wrote a cover story for Radio Times, but – typically for 2016 – it was rightly superseded by a last-minute tribute to Victoria Wood, who had died. Interestingly, they left Peaky Blinders on the cover in the Midlands, and here it is.

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Which takes us to the best telly. With Telly Addict cancelled by the Guardian in April, and revived by UKTV in June, I have spent a lot of the year watching television professionally. And these have been my personal TV shows of the year. Firstly, in pictures.

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And here they are, in pointless list form.

1. The Crown, Netflix
2. Fleabag, BBC3/BBC Two
3. Versailles, BBC Two
4. Westworld, Sky Atlantic/HBO
5. The Young Pope, Sky Atlantic/HBO
6. Masterchef: The Professionals/Celebrity Masterchef, BBC Two
7. Line of Duty, BBC Two
8. Dickensian, BBC One (cancelled by idiots)
9. Happy Valley, BBC Two
10. The Missing, BBC Two

11. The People Vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, FX/Fox
12. Peaky Blinders, BBC Two
13. Trapped, BBC Four
14. The Great British Bake Off, BBC One
15. Gogglebox/Gogglesprogs, Channel 4
16. The Code, BBC Four/ABC
17. National Treasure, Channel 4
18. First Dates, Channel 4
19. Modern Life is Goodish, Dave
20. The Night Of, Sky Atlantic/HBO

Oh, come on. It’s self-evident from here that these brilliant shows could be in any order:

Game of Thrones, Sky Atlantic/HBO
Thirteen, BBC3/BBC Two
The A Word, BBC Two
The Knick, Sky Atlantic/Cinemax (season two aired at the end of 2015, but early 2016 here)
Deutschland 83, Channel 4
Mr Robot, Universal/Amazon Prime
Planet Earth II, BBC One
Taskmaster, Dave
Grayson Perry: All Man, Channel 4
Billions, Showtime, Sky Atlantic
Ballers, Sky Atlantic/HBO
Hypernormalisation, BBC iPlayer
The Durrells, ITV
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Sky Atlantic/HBO
Hillsborough: The Truth, BBC Two (updated after the inquest verdicts)
Brief Encounters, ITV (cancelled by idiots)
Rillington Place, BBC One
Parks & Recreation, Dave (ended in 2015 in the States, but this year, here)
Victoria, ITV
NW, BBC Two
Ripper Street, Amazon Prime/BBC Two

And a special nod to Escape to The Country (BBC One/BBC Two), the show whose 15 series exist forever on a loop, providing harmless dreams to people in towns and cities. Also, Top of the Pops (BBC Four), whose interrupted loop continues apace, racing through 1981 and 1982 this year, and giving constant pleasure to the musically disillusioned.

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So … from music on TV to the best LPs. Like books, a finite field.

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It’s been a slow year for albums. Once again I’ve relied on 6 Music and Later for information and inspiration, with the added input this year of subscriptions to both Mojo and Uncut, whose compilations have been a source of joy, and helped create this Top 12 in no order. No single album put all the others in the shade, but without C Duncan’s A Midnight Sun (and his previous album Architect, which we only cottoned on to this year; likewise Julia Holter’s Have You In My Wilderness), Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool and Black Star by David Bowie, a few car journeys would have been less enjoyable. Nick Cave’s beautiful, personal, dissonant dirge Skeleton Tree was hard to listen to, and hard to stop listening to. The Kills did it again. And Kate Tempest’s Let Them Eat Chaos has proven impossible to listen to on headphones while simultaneously reading, as it demands your full attention. I like that about it. Dickensian was my favourite TV score LP of the year (the show sadly cancelled), and A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It From Here … comeback the only hip-hop record I’ve listened to from one end to the other.

For self-evident reasons, I spent much of my waking life listening to film scores, old and new, and doing so has brought peace to my soul. If you’re interested in my Top 10 Film Soundtracks of 2016, and my Top 10 Videogame Soundtracks of 2016, click on these Classic FM links.

Now, my other day job: films.

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I’m always torn as to whether or not to put my favourite films in a numbered list. It always seems so arbitrary. My ongoing system is this: I put an asterisk next to every film I see that’s in some way exceptional, and of the 223 films I’ve seen for the first time in 2016 (not all of them films released in 2016), around 80 are starred, although my Top 10 was easy enough to cordon off. The bulk of the films I see as a rule are in English, but the ones that often stand out and stay with me are not. Six out of the Top 10 are English-language (one of them, The Witch, in 17th century English); the others are not. It’s good to see so many unfamiliar names of directors so high up; I don’t believe I had ever typed Grímur Hákonarson, László Nemes or Robert Eggers in previous years, and they made my Top 3 films – and two of those are debuts! Pete Middleton and James Spinney, who co-directed the unique Notes on Blindness, a stunning film, don’t have Wikipedia entries, and neither does their film. I have to say, without Curzon cinemas and, more pertinently, Curzon Home Cinema, this list would be considerably less colourful and varied.

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1. Rams | Grímur Hákonarson (Iceland/Denmark)
2. Son of Saul | László Nemes (Hungary)
3. The Witch | Robert Eggers (US/Canada)
4. Spotlight | Tom McCarthy (US)
5. I, Daniel Blake | Ken Loach (UK/France/Belgium)
6. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story | Gareth Edwards (US)
7. Mustang | Deniz Gamze Ergüven (Turkey)
8. Embrace of the Serpent | Ciro Guerra (Colombia/Venezuela/Argentina)
9. The Clan | Pablo Trapero (Argentina)
10. Notes on Blindness | Pete Middleton, James Spinney (UK)

11. The Childhood of a Leader | Brady Corbet (UK/France)
12. Fire at Sea | Gianfranco Rosi (Italy)
13. Life, Animated | Roger Ross Williams (US)
14. Hail Caesar! | Joel Cohen, Ethan Coen (US)
15. The Survivalist | Stephen Fingleton (UK)
16. Victoria | Sebastian Schipper (Germany)
17. Arrival | Denis Villeneuve (US)
18. I Am Not a Serial Killer | Billy O’Brien (Ireland/UK)
19. Paterson | Jim Jarmusch (US)
20. Chi-Raq | Spike Lee (US)

21. The Revenant | Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu (US)
22. The Hateful Eight | Quentin Tarantino (US)
23. I Am Belfast | Mark Cousins (UK)
24. Wiener-Dog | Todd Solondz (US)
25. Cemetery of Splendour | Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand)
26. Sully | Clint Eastwood (US)
27. Julieta | Pedro Almodóvar (Spain)
28. Green Room | Jeremy Saulnier (US)
29. Things to Come | Mia Hansen-Love (France/Germany)
30. Room | Lenny Abrahamson (Ireland/Canada)

Thanks to my continuing tenure at the helm of Saturday Night at the Movies on Classic FM once again I was lucky enough to speak at length to these people about film music this year.

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It has been a terribly busy year, and I did not get out to art exhibitions. Which makes Georgia O’Keeffe at Tate Modern a rare and thrilling treat. In the perfect pairing below, you can see O’Keeffe’s painting of the same Manhattan view captured in a photograph by her then-husband Alfred Stieglitz, one of the many illuminations in the way the exhibition was laid out.

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I went to the theatre twice and loved both productions I saw.

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Hangmen at the Wyndhams in London’s shittering West End by Martin McDonagh (whose film In Bruges I loved), a terrific black comedy about the last days of hanging, with David Morrissey as Britain’s last hangman, now running a boozer. The cast was further ennobled by Craig Parkinson, Andy Nyman, Johnny Flynn and Sally Rogers, and newcomers Bronwyn James and Josef Davies – not to mention the ingenious set. Because I know David and Craig, I met them for a drink afterwards in a theatre hangout and bathed in the cast’s glow. It must be tough doing the same thing at the same level of intensity every night. Mind you, they may not have any lines to learn, but we must give thanks to the dancers from Matthew Bourne’s company who threw themselves hither and thither in the name of bringing that beloved Powell and Pressburger film-about-a-ballet The Red Shoes to Sadlers Wells and turning it back into a ballet-about-a-ballet. This was our Christmas treat. It may not have been Christmassy – in fact, as you may know, it’s a tragedy – but it lit advent up all the same. I love watching dance. It’s not just the sight, it’s the sound of their physical exertion that makes it so special. Watching it on telly just doesn’t capture it. theredshoessadlers-com

In terms of live entertainment, I was privileged to see Billy Bragg and Joe Henry premiere their Shine A Light album at St Pancras Church in London in August. It’s a fine item to own, but seeing and hearing it essayed up close and personal was a rare pleasure. I’ve hosted a number of panels and Q&As, which means I was lucky to meet a whole host of interesting people in the arts: James Buckley, Paul Kaye, Louise Emerick and Ken Collard from the Dave sitcom Zapped; Maxine Peake and the original stars of The Comic Strip Peter Richardson and Nigel Planer for their latest escapade Red Top, also featuring Stephen Mangan and Eleanor Matsura; plus, the entire cast and crew of Peaky Blinders on two occasions: at the press launch and at the BFI (greedy!), an association with an ongoing show that I’ve loved being an ephemeral part of.

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It was a hell of a year. Enough to turn your hair grey. George Michael, Liz Smith and Carrie Fisher finished off the year in the manner in which it began. I was glancing down the UK “trending” topics late on Christmas Day and felt warm inside when I double-checked that all ten were related to telly programmes, on the telly. No capital cities, no celebrity names, no hashtags that began with #PrayFor. I went to sleep before 11pm satisfied that we’d made it through one day at least without the death knell tolling. I woke up on Boxing Day to the news that George Michael had been found dead, alone, at his home, the previous afternoon.

Feast, if you can, on all the amazing art and culture that was produced by the still-alive in 2016. It has to give us hope that perhaps the human race en masse isn’t hellbent on self-destruction, just a toxic few.

I am slightly fearful of pressing the “PUBLISH” key with three days left to go. But nobody ever won Masterchef that way.

 

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Inevitable Postscript: Debbie Reynolds, died a day after her daughter, on December 28, aged 84.

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Happy holidays

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Today is the shortest day of the year. It was the darkest when you woke up, and it will be the darkest when you go to bed. Dark thoughts propagate in the darkness. I give you Alan the black cat, who was behind Door #18 of the Cats Protection advent calendar. No matter what ailed Alan before he was photographed by the charity – malnutrition, abandonment, cruelty – he’s better now. That’s empirical. Hold that thought.

I entered a shop that sells records at the weekend and purchased a CD, Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the band’s sixteenth. It was always intended to be a stripped-back album about death, but the death of Cave’s 15-year-old son, Arthur, during its recording has clearly influenced some of the more improvised lyrics. When I bought it, the woman working behind the counter told me that the staff had put it on the shop’s PA when it was released in September and their manager begged them to take it off, as it was driving customers out of the shop. I can’t stop playing it.

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I had it on my headphones as I walked across Hungerford Bridge at around 7.30am this morning, on the shortest day, when London was a long way into the process of waking up, the sky fading from black to blue. It comforted me, oddly. This has been another year in which the prospect of spending much time in Central London, or indeed in any major city in Europe, has filled me with dread. The likelihood of being gunned down, or blown up, or deliberately run over, seems to be much higher than it has ever seemed before – and I’ve lived in London for 32 years, I ought to be immune to it by now! But … you go about your business – and most of my trips into Central London are for business – and beat those who seek to harm by not thinking about them. Think instead of Alan, and the profound way his life has been changed by kindness.

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Last night was one of the few guaranteed to bring warmth in my “more selective” social calendar: the annual Word Magazine (2003-2012) reunion, valiantly organised by Nige Tassell, who has much further to travel than most, and is someone I might not have met without Word. Numbers have dwindled since the first such gathering in a pub in Islington, but certain troopers tend to form a quorum: David Hepworth, Fraser Lewry, Andrew Harrison, Mark Hodkinson, John Naughton, Caroline Grimshaw, Steve Yates. It was an oasis of something more meaningful that the ubiquitous modern fallback “banter”: stories told, memories shared, a year of professional and personal updates, craft beer, pizza, winter coats, and all within the sound of the old Word offices. I have to venture that last night’s get-together had an almost imperceptible air of mortality about it – much talk of whether or not certain beloved musicians of the post-punk era had turned 60 yet; the sharing of employment anxieties; actual news of ailments. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, of course.

Nobody is about to get out the violins for a bunch of media operatives, mostly self-employed, in their forties and fifties, bemoaning the paucity of opportunities in a business that once thrived on human interaction and having a desk, but is now run from home, and via email, if at all. (John still works for GQ and confirms that there are no shortage of people gainfully employed in the fashion magazine sector, and Radio Times, too, lines a lot of journalists, editors, designers and sub-editors up with lockable drawers and phone extensions in the cause of producing a content-heavy listings magazine, but a lot of the old certainties are falling away elsewhere.) It’s not just manual work that’s being taken over by machines. The machines have been decimating “old media” for years, and with it, the living human beings who once suckled at its colourful teat.

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I’ve spent a lot of the last two weeks using social media to promote an online auction for Cats Protection, wherein celebrities (and I use that category with caution, as one of them was me) donated customised “paw print” artwork and bids were bid via eBay. The scheme raised a cumulative £1,215 for injured, abandoned, mistreated and poorly cats and kittens: the Alans. (Black cats are a special case, as they are statistically less likely to be rehomed than more colourful cats because it’s harder to read their faces.) I was proud to play my part. The whole thing framed social media in a celestial light. But Twitter and Facebook are increasingly becoming distorted by hate. If 2016 can be said to be characterised by anything, it’s online bile.

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Lena Dunham, a provocative figure with a large audience for someone on HBO, said something inflammatory on her own podcast Women of the Hour on December 15 and the media seem to have discovered it. A fervent supporter of Planned Parenthood (under threat from Trump’s rabid misogynists working under the banner of family values, the sort that meant something under Eisenhower), Dunham said that she had never had an abortion but “wished she had.” Taken in a spirit of understanding and empathy, you can sort of see what she means. But it’s a bit like me saying I wish I’d worked down a Welsh coalmine so that I could more meaningfully offer my solidarity with miners. It sounds silly. And unnecessary. But what she said was that appearing at pro-choice events had implied to some that she, too, had experience of abortion, when in fact she didn’t. She wanted to make this case plain. But in saying she “wished” she’d had an abortion, they courted trouble. And she’s smart enough to know that it would be reported, and likely out of context.

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Glancing through social media this morning to track the story, and to track the outrage, most of it from women, much of it from anti-abortionists, I was dismayed, as ever, by the crudity of the dialogue. People made abortion jokes against her. They joked that she should have been aborted. They called her sitcom an abortion. They attacked her “clothing choices” (this came from a woman, naturally). They called her a “limousine liberal,” which seems to be the US equivalent of “champagne socialist”, and yes, I can see why. But what is just today’s passing storm of outrage reflects horribly on the state of discourse in the social media age. While some are raising money or awareness, others are calling people they’ve never met and will never meet insulting names. And then running away. (I used to observe this – that it’s like knocking on somebody’s front door and running away – but they don’t always run away any more, emboldened as they are by electoral affirmation.)

There is a lot to be concerned about in the world as it is today, rent asunder by military misadventure, religious extremism and the relentless grinding of humanity’s bones by capitalism. I can barely bring myself to read the newspapers or watch the news. But let’s go back to those cats and kittens. Thanks to Joey Essex and Danny Mac and Elaine Paige, money has been directly raised this Christmas for Cats Protection, an organisation reliant on volunteers and donations, and one among hundreds of equally deserving causes. It’s been another year whose atrocities are the names of the cities in which they were perpetrated: Aleppo, Berlin, Ankara, Brussels, Lahore, Istanbul, each briefly prefixed with the hashtag #PrayFor (tough luck expressing keystroke empathy if you don’t have a God to pray to). A presenter on the nightly Press Preview on Sky News struggles to establish what she keeps calling “the narrative” after the latest carve-up of human life. The “narrative” doesn’t change much from one execution to the next: pissed-off young man seeks to find meaning in a meaningless world using blunt instrument.

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’Tis the season to be jolly, but it’s harder than ever this year to block the “other stuff” out. Which is why I return to Alan the cat. He may have no teeth and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, but someone saw him, read his expression amid all that black fur, and took him in. Gather your loved ones around you, whether two-legged, four-legged, three-legged, one-legged or no-legged, and concentrate on what you can do. Unless you work for counter-terrorism, or are harbouring a disaffected young man on a hair trigger, you can’t stop the next terrorist attack, or indeed the next appointment of a women-hating, climate change-denying, Roe Vs. Wade-repealing nutcase to Trump’s cabinet, or the next Daily Express headline howling in the wind about Brexit. But you can be nice to those around you. And those you pass in the street. After all, if Nick Cave can process the unfathomably tragic loss of a 15-year-old son in an accident and turn that tragedy into beautiful music, as he has done, we must cling to the possibility that good can come of bad.

And there are the animals. Be nice to the animals.

 

A great leap forward

Squeeze are a band who were formed in 1974, when I was nine and the eloquent East Midlands firebrand Grace Petrie was around ten years away from being born. They were invited onto BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show last Sunday to perform their splendid song Cradle To The Grave (the theme tune for the splendid BBC comedy of the same name), and a few days before, singer and co-songwriter Glenn Tibrook found out that they were going to be on the same edition as the Prime Minister. But not until ten minutes before the live performance did he decide he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t slip in a new verse. So, without the rest of the band knowing, he did. It was sung, live, to a visible audience of two: Andrew Marr and David Cameron (who’d been on to smarm about how his government’s dismantling of council housing wasn’t that at all, even though it is).

I grew up in council houses
Part of what made Britain great
There are some here who are hell bent
On the destruction of the welfare state

As an act of protest it was calm, collected and heartfelt. You can read Tilbrook’s full account of why he did it here. Even if Cameron wasn’t paying attention, we were. (It was Danny Baker, old pal and co-writer of the series that bears the song’s name, who tweeted about it, and interest among the righteous snowballed from there.) I think the fact that it went a bit viral is due to a broader thirst for protest in the arts. I have loved Squeeze since Cool For Cats, and although their best known songs are beautifully observed social documentary, rather than out and out socialist anthems, a beating heart is always audible, and anyone who had a heart would surely be on the side of people who can’t afford to buy their council houses rather than the side of the developers and landlords who will cash in on their blameless misery.

My blood was stirred by Tilbrook’s stand. It must have been even more exciting to catch it as it went out. What a thrill such subversion provides. If he’d sworn, or thrown down the mic, or stuck two fingers up at Cameron, it would have been less of a moment. To instead attack him with poetry, which is what it is, is poetic. This government will cut the subsidised arts down to the bone if they have their way, as they believe, in the space where their hearts might beat, that if the arts can’t pay for themselves in a free market, they have no place in the public arena.

I tweeted in the heat of the moment about Squeeze, but was defeated in my constant aim of clarity by the 140-character limit, and it didn’t quite come across, which is why I’m expanding upon the fire in my belly here, and will keep typing until I’ve finished! Anyway, out of a self of righteous dismay with the generally apolitical malaise of today’s mainstream pop and rock music, this is what I wrote:

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I called Squeeze “old” because, well, they are. The band itself is 42. Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford are 58 and 61. They have been around. And the truism goes: you get more right wing as you get older. I have personally found this not to be the case, but you do see people’s priorities change when they have children and find themselves inevitably sucked into the system, with less time for the luxury of dissent. (Do you know that quote by literary critic Cyril Connolly? “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”)

I find myself getting angrier and angrier about injustice, cruelty, materialism, privatisation and lack of compassion. Some days I wish I’d calm down. I may not have been on a march since 2003, but this is chiefly because that particular protest’s failure to change the course of history knocked the protesting stuffing out of me. (I even tried writing letters to my MP and to the PM but they had no effect either, and Iraq was duly invaded, as planned long before anybody tried to stop the war.)

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So the sight of a band who’ve been around since the mid-70s seizing the moment on a live political discussion programme and having their say warmed my heart. My tweet was not aimed at “young bands” who are politicised. I’m well aware that a pocket of young artists are as pissed off as I am. I may not know all their names, or be au fait with their politically charged music (as I’ve long since stopped going to gigs on a regular basis), but as Billy Bragg’s official biographer I keep abreast of political music via him. We collaborated on a new chapter to my book only two years ago, and in writing about Billy’s endorsement of Jake Bugg, Grace Petrie and others, I felt a connection with them. Having first heard Grace Petrie through Josie Long when we did a 6 Music radio show together, it gave me enormous pleasure to type “Petrie, Grace” into the updated index of Still Suitable For Miners. (I still wonder to this day why Josie and I were not invited back. We were told that the station had loved what we’d done, but the call never came.)

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Anyway, true to form, my Tweet was read by some as a sweeping generalisation against all “young bands”. It was nothing of the sort. But Twitter can be a cruel interpreter of raw feeling. To me, there is no difference between what Squeeze did and what Petrie, Seán McGowan and Chris TT do. I remembered this dispiriting moment from a 2011 article by Dorian Lynskey in the Guardian. We join Grace Petrie onstage at the University of London:

“You guys at UCL,” she says. “You’re pretty political, right?” A handful of students raise a feeble cheer, and Petrie’s face falls. “That’s not quite what I expected.”

She wins them over in the end, but the message is: it ain’t easy being political. One of her first songs was Goodbye To Welfare, so it’s easy to see the link with Squeeze. My dismay was clearly never with her, or the others who fight the good fight. It was with the general state of pop and rock music made by the young and aimed at the young, but to my ears bereft of struggle or friction. I actually sometimes think that the mobile phone age has bred an intractable complacency. You can’t blame a generation for succumbing to the touch-screen intimacy of the smartphone and taking their eye off the bigger picture – after all, nobody even looks forward when they’re walking along now. Their face is in that little glowing oblong, their ears plugged, their attention all used up. This victory for the system makes political artists all the more rare, and all the more vital.

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Sam Duckworth (formerly Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly), who raises a “Stop Bombing Syria” placard in his Twitter avatar, wrote to me of “the death of the counter culture in the under-30s.” It sort of breaks my heart. In a better world, protest artists would be on television. Maybe not on Andrew Marr, but somewhere on the BBC, with its public service remit (although I guess the BBC has bigger fish to fry, what with the Tories bearing down hard at charter-renewal time). When I was a teenager, we had Something Else on BBC Two, a “youth” magazine show that introduced me to so many things, not just Joy Division live (something it’s now famous for doing), but also political poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson, John Cooper Clarke and Craig Charles. I may be remembering it – and the subsequent Oxford Road Show – through a rose tint, but I was a “youth” and somebody was speaking to me. Also, there was nothing else on and no mobiles, so I went out on my bike and listened to records with my friends, and talked.

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Nothing more boring than a man in his fifties hymning his childhood, but I hold the youth of today to a high standard. I don’t expect Adele (whose music I like) to bring down the government. But I don’t hear any politics in the dreary music of Ellie Goulding or Florence Welch either (and they seemed to come up via 6 Music with a certain degree of credibility), or in any of the acoustic singer-songwriters like Ed Sheeran, or James Bay, or whatever the other ones are called. They’re the worst; they come on like troubadours, one man and a guitar, and they say next to nothing.

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People on Twitter started listing bands and artists who are political for me, and the fact that I’d not heard of many of them tells you a lot. Enter Shikari and the King Blues I’m familiar with, but (and I’ll try and put links in to their websites here) less so Tim OT, Against Me!, Gecko, The Lagan, Josiah Mortimer, Dru Blues, Brigitte Aphrodite, Chas Palmer-Williams, Ducking Punches, Perkie, Colour Me Wednesday, Onsind, Will Varley, Itch (from the King Blues), Grant Sharkey, Beans On Toast (thanks to Seán McGowan for most of those, but others chipped in).

It’s an underground movement, as it has to be. But the very technology that seems to be turning the populace into zombies, unable to communicate verbally or emotionally, also empowers unknown or unsigned artists to get their music out there, often for free, via Soundcloud or Bandcamp. Squeeze are a well-established band from another era of contracts and distribution and copyright and Walkerprints, and for them to make their stand, on live television, in the daytime, on the BBC, puts them in the same boat at Grace Petrie and the others mentioned here.

That’s what I meant.

I’ll end with a self-referential couplet from a song by Billy Bragg written and recorded in 1987 for the Workers’ Playtime LP:

Mixing Pop and Politics, he asks me what the use is
I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses …

Now form a band!*

 

* Sorry, another ancient reference.

2015: the year in music

CarolFoalsWhatWentDownHoneymoonLanaDRsleafordmodskeymarketsRoughnecks+RoustaboutsYoungFatherswhitemenJohn_GrantGreyTicklesBlackPressureKendrickLamarToPimpaButterflyAdele25WolfHallsoundtrackjamiexxBlurMagicWmaccabeesmarkstoproveitSurfaceTensionimageJHotChipWhyMakeSense

Well, I surprise myself. (And at my age, that’s a surprise in itself.) I have a solid 15 albums, all released this year, worthy of compiling into an end-of-year list. I will put them in qualitative order, despite the iniquity of doing so – I purchased three of these albums in the last couple of days, keen to catch up, so while the majority have had a really meaningful run around my head in the car (we drove from London to Cork in October, there and back, and many points inbetween, with a battery of CDs to guide us), on foot and on public transport, Adele, Kendrick Lamar and John Grant have some catching up to do. What the hell. Here goes.

1. Sleaford Mods Key Markets Harbinger
2. Adele 25 XL
3. Young Fathers Black Men Are White Men Too Big Dada
4. Carter Burwell Carol Varese Sarabande
5. Foals What Went Down Transgressive
6. Jamie xx In Colour Young Turks
7. Debbie Wiseman Wolf Hall Silva Screen
8. John Grant Grey Tickles, Black Pressure Bella Union
9. The Maccabees Marks To Prove It Fiction
10. Kendrick Lamar To Pimp A Butterfly Interscope
11. Pete Williams Roughnecks + Roustabouts Basehart
12. Rob St. John Surface Tension Rob St. John
13. Hot Chip Why Make Sense? Domino
14. Lana Del Rey Honeymoon Interscope
15. Blur The Magic Whip Parlophone

Sleaford Mods have been my lifesaver this year. I am at an age where I don’t expect to have my head turned by new artists (or newer artists, if you got there before me, and I rather expect you did). But this pair of East Midlands fortysomethings with their bendy vowels sounded as good as they read on paper. Good to get in at the ground floor with their eighth album – and I promise to dig backwards forthwith – but I’ve found it difficult not to play Key Markets through my ears. The only problem with it is that it demands your full attention. It’s not background music. So I’m reading less on public transport. And hearing the word “coont” a lot more.

I don’t discover music or artistes any more. How could I? I come to them at my own speed, and pay for the pleasure. I am no longer someone record companies or pluggers send records to. Why would they? (Actually, the quality indie reissues house 3Loop do, and I appreciate their loyalty.) This means I have entered a state of grace. I am a 6 Music listener, a Guardian music section reader and viewer of the BBC’s scant musical output (Later … With Jools Holland, Glastonbury, essentially) and these three institutions continue to direct me to a physical record shop on a physical high street. Not every month. Often in mini-binges, to catch up (and the prospect of a driving holiday in Ireland caused a phenomenal influx in late September).

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The big change in listening in 2015 has been Classic FM, who took me on in March. On a weekly basis this year I’ve been helping to curate a two-hour show of orchestral movie music and it’s been an education, as well as an excuse to play scores I already love. I’ve included two new, full scores in my Top 15, Carol and Wolf Hall, as I’ve listened to both as albums and returned to them again and again. The bulk of my iPod year has been taken up with classical music, and my savage breast is all the calmer for it.

And a final note about Kendrick Lamar. It was 6 Music and Alexis Petridis who between them led me to this artist and what turns out to be his third LP, and his second million-seller. Who knew? I bought the album – the “album of the year” for many critics – having only heard two tracks, and while slightly disappointed by the amount of “motherfuckers” on it, it’s clearly a work of uncommon invention and pluralism, and is a friend of jazz. I’ll need to try harder to get into it, as I really don’t like the interludes, but there’s something going on here, I’m just late to the party. As always.

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Oh, and a nice little link between two very disparate LPs: Rob St John’s delightfully immersive multimedia experience Surface Tension is based on recordings taken along the River Lea in London (it’s an elementally London record); Adele’s 25, which may have sold one or two more copies than Rob’s but they’re not really competing for the same audience, contains a lovely, gospelly song called River Lea. You have to look for connections, but they are always there. Buy both.

Whatever | August 2010

Whatever | Guilty pleasures
They’re songs and books. What’s to feel guilty about?

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In May 1933, when the Nationalsozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund decided to collectively haul themselves out of bed before the Third Reich equivalent of Loose Women and organise a nationwide purge of “un-German” literature at universities across Germany, more than 25,000 titles were burned on bonfires which must have smelt powerfully musty. Around that time and under that particular regime in that particular swathe of Europe, if you chose to leaf through a play by Bertolt Brecht in the park, or a novel by Thomas Mann on the tram, or Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front just about anywhere, you were by definition experiencing the illicit thrill of a guilty pleasure.

Similarly, your enjoyment in the old Soviet Union of The Gulag Archipelago, Doctor Zhivago or Nineteen Eighty-Four would have been laced with that bracing buzz of the forbidden, as each might have earned you the bracing buzz of a KGB show trial. In 2008, South Korea’s Ministry of Defence banned the military from reading an armful of “seditious” books, including that well-thumbed squaddies’ standby Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and The Secret History of Capitalism by Cambridge professor Ha-Joon Chang.

Even today, owning a copy of Dianetics by L Ron Hubbard in the new Russia carries a 3,000 rouble fine and a jail term of up to 15 days. (Most of the arch-Thetan’s canon was banned under a recent law, for “undermining the traditional spiritual values of the citizens of the Russian Federation.”) It remains illegal to read The Diary Of Anne Frank, Sophie’s Choice and Schindler’s List in Lebanon, all de-listed by the Sûreté General for portraying Jews, Israel or Zionism “favourably”. And The Da Vinci Code is conspicuous by its absence on the streets of Beirut, too, thanks to lobbying by Lebanon’s Catholic Information Center, who officially have nothing better to do.

Bear all of this in mind when you consider that in May 2010, the Guardian newspaper asked various browsers on a knoll at the Hay Literary Festival to reveal their “literary guilty pleasure”. Their willing responses included Marian Keyes, David Nicholls, Zadie Smith, Alan Bennett, “heavy metal biographies”, and The Kite Runner.

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Why should anyone literate enough to attend a Guardian-sponsored book fair in a country that even Mark Thomas would be hard pushed to call a totalitarian state, feel guilty about reading Zadie Smith, or Marian Keyes, or a heavy metal biography? These answers, like the spurious questionnaire standby itself, may be lightly thrown but they reveal weightier truths about our national neurosis: we are rendered daft by keeping up appearances like a bunch of insecure teenagers. Though we have little to fear from secret police or religious junta, we merrily and self-mockingly go along with the flimsy pretext that some books, films and TV shows can be consumed without guilt, while others must be enjoyed behind locked doors. Such as, apparently, the Celebrity Come Dine With Me of literature, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Hey, people might think you’re reading a book about kites, rather than the rise of the Taliban in the power vacuum after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Incidentally, the popular film was banned in Afghanistan, making the DVD a cinematic guilty pleasure in Kabul.

In 2007, commissioned by the Costa Book Awards, a YouGov poll declared Stephen King “the UK’s favourite literary guilty pleasure.” UK readers also “freely admitted” to feeling a bit self-conscious about whipping out a Rowling, a Grisham or a Pratchett without first slipping it between the covers of a decoy copy of Fiesta or Knave. Expert comment on the coffee chain’s press release came from a contributing editor of The Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures: 1001 Things You Hate To Love, published in hardback in 2006 and described by the Times Literary Supplement as “something of a guilty pleasure.” Its very opportunistic existence flagged up the phrase’s sudden marketability.

That this sado-masochistic concept should still linger in the popular imagination and across so many artforms is, I’m afraid, rock music’s fault, where lines are forever being drawn and redrawn in the dunes of credibility. It was enterprising London DJ Sean Rowley who first trademarked Guilty Pleasures™, which now covers an entire cheeky empire of club nights, compilation albums, SingStar tie-ins, a Fearne Cotton-fronted ITV1 karaoke show, and a mobile disco available for hire at festival tent, arena warm-up, corporate jolly and private function. Rowley was astute in locating the fecund no-man’s land between cool and uncool a few years back and bagging the salvage rights.

WhateverF451Aug2010

I don’t wish to poop the party: the pics on the Guilty Pleasures website suggest a sizable slice of ongoing camp, works-outing fun in nightclubs up and down the land – verily, it is the new School Disco. But in taking the notion so irretrievably overground, gurning wig-outs of allegiance to ELO or Journey or Japanese Boy obviate any need for guilt. We live in a world of pop pluralism and Glee glasnost, where nostalgia packages and tribute bands make everything alright and, for anyone over 30, the last vestiges of embarrassment have been cast aside like a pair of crutches at Lourdes. Now is not the time to transfer our guilt to books.

Among the Guilty Pleasures website’s “celebrity confessionals”, Russell Brand cleverly eschews the obligatory Toto or Wham and plumps for Gary Glitter. “I feel a bit guilty about this,” he declares. “What with him being a convicted paedophile.”

In the same spirit of literalism, three cheers too for Alex, 70, retired, from mid-Wales, the sole Guardian respondent at Hay to break ranks and say, “I don’t feel guilty about reading anything.” Nor should you. Now, where’s my copy of Mein Kampf? I need something to wrap around The Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures on the bus.

Whatever | July 2007

Whatever | Noughties indie
When did the indie bands get so damn greedy?

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It was a standing joke among readers of what used to be called the music press in the mid-80s that Prefab Sprout would reissue the single When Love Breaks Down every six months. They did so in the hope that the Great British Public would finally recognise it for the modern pop classic it so patently was and put it in the bloody charts.

The fast track to overground glory didn’t exist for a critically acclaimed fringe property like Prefab Sprout in those days, when “chart music” had a very specific sound: thunderous, sequenced drums, elephantine keyboards, Pino Palladino. With very few exceptions – Smiths, Depeche Mode, New Order – critical darlings had to be grateful to splash around in the small pond that was the Independent Chart and hope there was no Acid House that week.

Kitchenware, a record label of character and wit, actually only put When Love Breaks Down out three times: first in October 84, when it failed to worry even the Top 75; again in March ’85, politely remixed this time, but still no Woolworths action in a climate of Belouis Some and Go West; and finally, November ’85, when it clawed its way up to number 25 and got them onto Top Of The Pops in time for Christmas. It was all very proprietorial in those days, “us” and “them”, and for one of “ours” to be seen chasing Gallup was frankly unbecoming. Prefab Sprout had banked sufficient goodwill for this willful act of gamesmanship to be filed as a moral victory.

WhateverIndieMunich2

How very different the playing field looks today. As I write, Jamie T, gifted Wimbledon street-poet and darling of the NME, is in the charts with the tremendous Sheila. But wait a minute, wasn’t Sheila in the charts last summer? Yes it was. It reached a healthy number 22 in July 2006. So why release it again? Vanity? Creative bankruptcy? For a laugh? Or might it be that Jamie T and his record company Virgin are greedy, greedy bastards who regard the kids as contemptible idiots? (Oh, sorry, it’s got a new live b-side.)

Nobody in the industry will bat an eyelid that a number 22 hit is being lovelessly reissued less than a year later just in case it can get a bit higher this time. Over the last five years, such craven acts of ideological surrender have become standard practice, with labels treating the Top 40 as a fairground Test Your Strength machine, returning time and again with a slightly bigger hammer.

Newcastle new wavers Maximo Park enjoyed their first hit Apply Some Pressure in March 2005: it reached number 20. Eight months and two further hits later, they re-released it. Same song. Same mix. Live b-side, no doubt. This time, it reached number 17. That’s three places higher. In a single chart that only requires sales of about five thousand to reach such lofty heights. Kasabian reached number 19 with Club Foot in May 2004; a year later, the reissued Club Foot reached … 21. That, ladies and gentlemen of marketing, is three places lower. Why bother?

Am I being horribly old-fashioned and prudish in expecting younger, more idealistic bands in the first flush of success to act with a little more dignity?

WhateverIndieMunich2It was Harry Hill who, in the mid-90s, said, “I like the indie bands. Pulp, Blur and Oasis, they’re the main three, aren’t they?” A decade later and everybody’s an indie band, a bottleneck that leads to desperate measures, and the “firework bands” phenomenon, whereby we see a glut of credible bands who enjoy disproportionate success with their debut album – Hard-Fi, Editors, the Kooks – but may struggle to keep the blue touchpaper lit as younger indie fans, who’ve turned out to be just as fickle as pop fans, wander off. Arctic Monkeys may endure, but then, they have never re-released a single song, ever.

The indie sector first bent over in the early 90s, when great white hopes were signed to majors for sums indexed largely on NME and Melody Maker coverage and then dramatically failed to recoup. Fontana, having paid £400,000 for the House Of Love, managed to secure a Top 20 placing for a reissued Shine On only by putting it out on seven separate formats. Follow-up The Beatles And The Stones came in ten formats. It reached 36. The kids, whom the band’s previous label Creation claimed to be “doing it” for, were not impressed. These days, the kids don’t give a fig for honour or principle.

Hence, aforementioned Birmingham gloom-rockers Editors, whose discography is so engorged with reissues it actually reads like a haiku: Bullets, Munich, Blood, Bullets, Munich, All Sparks, Blood. The reissue of Blood, I hardly need mention, peaked 20 big chart places lower than the original.

Mind you, Editors are signed to Kitchenware.

Published in Word magazine, July 2007

Is this thing on?

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It’s not exactly been radio silence, but since the end of 2012, my voice has been heard only intermittently speaking into a microphone. (Thanks to benevolent producers I’ve known for many years at Front Row and The Film Programme on Radio 4, I have enjoyed occasional short bursts of public address in the interim.) Above is one of the last Zelig photos I had taken for my collection when I was deputising on the 6 Music breakfast show and welcomed my transatlantic friend Harry Shearer onto the air in the latter half of 2012, with Matt Everitt standing by. It was fun while it lasted, but the two-year break has allowed me to indulge my insane ambitions to concentrate on scriptwriting, so I’ve been grateful for that.

ClassicFMlogo

Which is why this is the best birthday present a broadcaster of a certain age could have asked for. I have landed the job of taking over the hosting of Saturday Night At The Movies on Classic FM. This has been brewing since before Christmas, when I first discovered that the station’s eminent composer-in-residence Howard Goodall was giving up the show as he had a lot of actual composing to do – notably, the Bend It Like Beckham musical – and his prime 5-7pm Saturday evening slot was available. (As if to prove how tasteful Classic FM’s more recent appointments have been, the show is sandwiches between Alexander Armstrong and Alex James. I feel rather honoured.)

As someone whose twin loves are and always have been music and cinema, and whose natural way-in to classical music has been through orchestral film soundtracks, this is my dream gig. I’ve listened to the show with Howard at the helm, and its mix of populism and intelligent dissection works a treat. Classic FM is a commercial station (part of the Global group, which also includes Capital, Heart, Smooth and XFM), and it seeks to entertain as well as inform. As a relative layperson when it comes to classical, I often tune into Radio 3 and find it a little forbidding and exclusive. Classic FM is the opposite, and I think I’ve found a perfect new home here.

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The idea of curating and “jocking” some great movie themes and perhaps lesser-known cues and overtures from a century of cinema, and enthusing about them in between, thrills me to the bone. After a sabbatical, even more so. Continuity arrives in the form of John Barry, whose Zulu theme (one of my all-time favourites with its foreboding timpani and wall of brass and strings), used to herald my arrival on 6 Music, by law, and may just feature in my first show for Classic FM, this Saturday at 5pm.

It’s well over ten years since I last joined a new radio station, and the experience of being welcomed into the bosom of the Classic FM “family” has been warm. Having been in and out of the Leicester Square HQ to record some demos during the job-interview process, it was with some awe that I actually collected my electronic “dongle”-style pass yesterday, having been introduced to everybody who works there from the MD to marketing, and taken in to see the great John Suchet while he was playing a record on-air. Having worked predominantly for the BBC over my 20 years in broadcasting, it was a shock, but not an unpleasant one, to be introduced to a dedicated team of people who all seemed to have definable jobs. As I commented to John, as I now call him, it’s all muscle and no flab in commercial radio.

Wish me luck. It’s a big new adventure. There will be no Cud, but there might be some There Will Be Blood. We already have plans, my new producer and I, to rustle up a disaster movie special, and perhaps a show revolving around music from comedy films. I will get Clint Mansell into a future show, too. Along with Eric Rogers and Philip Glass. Maybe in the same show.

And God bless them for using this “classic” picture to advertise my arrival on the Classic FM website. Cue the old joke: who’s that woman with the new presenter of Saturday Night At The Movies?

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