The go-to site for what makes life worth living in and around Petersfield, Hampshire, and some other stuff too. For flaneurs, bon vivants, indeed boulevardiers of every complexion - why go anywhere else?

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Vital: 'Ramones', by Nicholas Rombes

As Nicholas Rombes says in his concluding remarks "like all great albums, it resists interpretation. It rejects the tyranny of meaning, whether imposed by the fan or the critic". And so it does; without wishing to make my own attempt, it is one of those very few albums - offhand I would think about only Elvis's first RCA album, the Velvet Underground & Nico and - maybe - Sgt Pepper standing alongside it - which is so unlike anything which preceded it and so influential on everything that followed that almost any kind of criticism risks seeming trivial and irrelevant. But saying that, Nicholas Rombes gives it a damn good go, taking the album - as is appropriate - entirely seriously and devoting less time to the songs themselves than to the context into which it emerged, its influences (largely from writing, film, photography and other media) and its phenomenal impact on the world around it. Refreshing that he respects the amount of thought and consideration that the Ramones themselves put into the album, dissipating any notion that this was a flash in the pan, an accidental catalyst for the emergence of punk and New Wave. You put this essay down very aware that the Ramones knew exactly what they were doing, both culturally and musically. These were no dumb punks.

Nicholas Rombes writes about punk with the benefit of hindsight, but that's no crime - it allows him a tremendously sharp and pungently delivered perspective. If you like this, try 'A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1974-1982', which provides a similarly acute analysis of the broader canvas of punk and the new wave.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Before he was fab - 'Nowhere Boy'

What an oddly uncertain and ultimately unsatisfying film 'Nowhere Boy' is. Very good in parts - particularly in the psychological tug-of-war between Julia and Mimi for the soul of the nascent Lennon - but powerfully reminiscent elsewhere of those clunky (if still enjoyable) British pop films of the 70s and 80s (the David Essex vehicle 'That'll Be the Day'which covers almost exactly the same timespan, often came to mind, with certain scenes seemingly almost directly transplanted). It veers rather wildly between somewhat heavy-handed psychodrama (particularly in the less than subtly-suggested incestuous feelings between John and Julia) and stodgily conventional 'biopic' ("John, this is Paul, he sure is square but he knows which way up a tune goes and he can play 20 Flight Rock") but - surely crucially - never really makes one believe that the teenager on the screen is actually a young Lennon as opposed to any other troubled youth in the late 1950s.

Excellent performances from all the leads keep 'Nowhere Boy' afloat (though Kristin Scott-Thomas's cheekbones seemed slightly miscast) but it seemed to need something both a bit more coherent and a bit further off the wall to justify the screen time and I'm surprised that Sam Taylor-Wood didn't deliver it. By no means terrible, and will probably work better on the small screen - just a bit, well... ordinary.

Monday, 7 December 2009

The Brooklyn Boy Done Good: Tony Visconti

Has to be said that Tony Visconti is no great prose stylist, but this is a top life all the same, and more than adequately described. I'd never seen any pictures of Visconti and had always imagined him older - more like the cigar-chompers he regularly disparages - but he's very much Bolan's and Bowie's contemporary and provides a compelling view from the front line of pop life in the late 60s and 70s.

There's plenty of stuff from inside the studio, including quite a bit of technical gen (which worked fine for me), providing a new insider angle on many famous names. Of those, it has to be said (meaning no disrespect), that while Bolan's human qualities come a poor second to his musical ability (not the first time I'd heard that), Bowie comes across as a gent throughout and Iggy, contrary to his public image, as a man posessed of a phenomenal work ethic and professionalism.

Tony Visconti, it's fair to say, changed pop music's soundscape, creating music of a depth and resonance which you simply don't hear any more. This book gives you a good idea of how he did that - it's a significant contribution to the history of those fantastic times and a cracking read to boot.

A gem - Lynn Barber's 'An Education'

Some reviewers have described Lynn Barber's 'An Education' as cool and unrevealing, but I have to say it didn't seem that way to me at all. On the contrary, 'An Education' is refreshingly concise, direct and, yes, cool - but in a good way. A beautifully written, crisp memoir, covering in - oh joy! - fewer than 200 pages the life to date that has made her the great writer and interviewer that she is.

The book offers a number of clues to how she came to lead a crowded Fleet Street field - not only is she completely open and frank, with a directness that unfairly earned her the soubriquet 'Demon Barber' but why anyone should want to be otherwise baffles her (the hilarious encounter with Alan Whicker, who tries, and fails, to shame her with her previous life in pornography being a case in point).

Word of warning, though, to anyone who comes to this expecting the book of the film - that episode, though clearly key in her developing outlook on life, takes up less than a quarter of the book. Don't let it put you off though - her adventures at the nascent Penthouse and Independent (and the breadth of spectrum between those two august organs gives a clue to her non-judgemental openness) are equally engaging, warm, funny and, yes, human.

A terrific read and entirely of a piece with her other writing. If you like Lynn Barber at all, you'll love this.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Let it be: Nick Hornby's 'Juliet, Naked'

I really like Nick Hornby. I think he's an astute commentator and critic, I think he has a great take on the modern condition, and for what it's worth I'm pretty sure he's one of the good guys too. We're more or less exactly the same age, we appear to have exactly the same stuff on our iPods (give or take 5% or so either way) we have a similarly enlightened view on the beautiful game... if it wasn't for the fact that he's so far ahead of me on the male pattern baldness scale, I'd wonder if he and I weren't actually separated at birth.

Sadly, I've come to the conclusion that, notwithstanding the decent fist he made of `High Fidelity' (not exactly a great novel, but a damned good read all the same) and most particularly 'About a Boy' (his best fiction to date, and, my guess is, the best he will ever write) he's actually not much of a novelist. Having ploughed my way through `How to be Good' (which worked well in parts and was at least philosophically intriguing), `A Long Way Down', which was just plain awful, and now this, I'm thinking that maybe it's time to give it up and stick to what he's good at - writing funny and perceptive stuff about music, the arts and modern life (which he does better than just about anyone I know). I mean, really - go read `A Long Way Down' and then read `31 Songs' or `The Complete Polysyllabic Spree' and tell me I'm not right.

So here's what I think about `Juliet, Naked `: it's not a bad book and if you picked it up before a flight (assuming the horrible chick-lit-style cover didn`t put you off) it would probably distract you adequately for a few hours. It`s not especially funny, or sad, or emotional, or exciting or really especially anything but it moves along at an adequate pace from page to page, eventually reaching a not especially satisfying conclusion. And, you know, it's only 245 pages, so it's not like a great investment is required from the reader.

It's about music, which Nick knows a lot about - specifically, about Tucker Crowe, former musician and newest addition to Hornby's lengthening gallery of feckless wasters, and the nature of art, creativity and fandom. It addresses unsatisfactory, dysfunctional modern family relationships too, about which perhaps he knows a bit. Quite a lot of it (though not nearly enough, in my opinion) concerns how the internet has changed the way we engage with the world. So far so promising - these are interesting themes - but as a novel it just don't work. The main stories - Tucker vegetating in the US, Annie and Duncan likewise in Gooleness - are kind of flat and dispiriting, the way they're entwined is unconvincing, the characters don't really get off the page more than once or twice, the dialogue is all a bit heightened and artificial, in the end, the multiple threads are tied up and dispatched with indecent haste... you know, in the end it's just not that good (a horrible thought crosses my mind at this point - Dickens is mentioned more than once or twice, for no apparent reason - is it all meant to be Dickensian in style? I really hope not).

It's more than this though. All through 'Juliet, Naked', I couldn't shake my sense of Nick Hornby making it all up. Only a few fleeting pages managed to suspend my disbelief and banish the picture in my mind of the author at his desk, chewing his pencil. I know how stupid that sounds - I know a novel is, by definition, invented - but a good novelist, and a good novel, will quickly let you forget that.

I tried to figure out why this was so, and I in the end I think it's to do with the voice which dominates this book as it does so many other Hornby novels. `Juliet, Naked' has a wide range of characters - too wide, maybe - and his dialogue isn`t so bad, but a great deal of the book is taken up with the internalized thoughts of the characters, and here's the thing - they all think in exactly the same way and in exactly the same voice, and I'm guessing that they all think exactly like Nick Hornby, in that elliptical, analytical, self-effacing and in the end more than mildly irritating way. So what I end up thinking is "you've clearly got interesting things to say in these areas, Nick - why do you feel you need to wrap them up in this stupid story?

Nick Hornby has legions of fans and I'll probably get flamed to death for this review when it appears on Amazon, but to reiterate - I like the guy, his ideas and his writing - I just don't think the novel is the right vehicle for any of them. Maybe it's time to let the form go, and focus on crit.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

When he was King: Elvis Costello's country pop masterpiece

Was inspired by twitterpal Nick_Coombes to reinvestigate Elvis Costello's often overlooked 'King of America' album, giving it my undivided attention on a flight from Helsinki this week.*
When it was released in 1985, my feelings about 'King of America' were mixed. There was no mistaking the quality of the songs, but I was raised on the sturm and drang, the visceral barking rage of his early albums and, particularly coming after the muted and poorly received (though secretly, I quite like it) 'Goodbye Cruel World', it felt to me like some sort of decline was in progress. The further that his remarkable back catalogue stretches into the past, however, the more 'King of America' looks like Costello's finest hour. His passion still burned bright, his gift for a tune was undiminished and musicianship hadn't yet pushed the other two elements into the background. From this point onward, the tunes would indeed start to flatten out and soon he would begin to talk worryingly and introspectively about 'songcraft' to the great and inevitable detriment of his art.

But all that was still to come. 'King of America' is maybe the last album Costello made before he started to look downward and inward; a collection of brilliantly realised and passionately, achingly delivered songs (whatever anyone says, without the mannerisms and vocal tics which would dominate later work, Costello's singing at this time was unique in combining both the fantastically committed and the filigree delicate). It's also thrillingly adult in its material and its approach, walking the edgy tightrope of maturity without tipping over into either MOR or AOR. This is more like Bacharach country, but with the roughage left in... you can see why they rubbed along so well later on.

Highlights? It's easier to pick lowlights - actually it isn't - but as I write this I can't get 'American Without Tears' out of my head, 'Indoor Fireworks' treats marital breakup more movingly than anything this side of George Jones, and the closing 'Suit of Lights' and 'Sleep of the Just' deliver a one-two which leaves me on the canvas every time: musically stunning, emotionally devastating.

'King of America' really delivers on every level; one of maybe a dozen or so pop and rock albums to which the term 'masterpiece' can rightly and without reservation be applied. If you don't have it already, the Hipster suggests that you really should.

*undivided other than the time and effort required to open a couple of bottles of BA's remarkably fine New Zealand Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc that is - the thick end of ten quid in your local Wine Rack yet even the cheap seats get it for free on BA). Truly, world's favourite airline, you are spoiling us...

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Fact or Fiction? - 'The Damned United' and 'Provided You Don't Kiss Me'

When I first read it I thought The Damned United utterly brilliant. The black heart of football, 70s England, Yorkshire and Leeds Utd in particular, presented through a dazzling first-person novelization of Brian Clough's extraordinary 44-day tenure of the Elland Road hotseat. Marvellous. Football seemed to have found its Heart of Darkness (though whether it was looking for one is another question I suppose). My one grievance was that the end didn't quite justify the bravura performance, rushing toward a climax which never quite arrived. But it seemed a fabulous journey all the same...  

Now I'm not quite so sure. Recently, and particulary in the context of the recent (and by all accounts much more soft-centred) film, David Peace has taken to describing 'The Damned United' as 'fiction', which seems like, excuse me, disingenuous bullshit. If you want to write fiction, it's not a good idea to base it around real names and circumstances which create the very strong impression of fact, and expect people (especially friends and family) not to be offended and upset (justifiably for once). Can calling your work 'a fiction' be a defence for any kind of defamation?

I suppose the irony is that no-one who knew Clough would deny that it's a fiction. I gather they would emphatically go along with that. What they object to is it being presented as a version of the facts. However... I can't get away from the fact that I really liked the book. Around the central Clough story it vividly and viscerally expressed some truths about the 1970s in general and football in that period in particular which chimed with my own recollections. But the more I hear David Peace talk about it, the uneasier I am with the way it presents Brian Clough.

On the other hand, Duncan Hamilton's 'Provided You Don't Kiss Me' is just excellent, straightforward sports biography, distinguished by Hamilton's closeness to his subject and the resulting intimacy of the portrait. No tricks, no fiction or imagined scenes, just sensitive writing and informed analysis of the Clough career and of a very different time in British football - a big enough story in its own right to require very little embroidery. 

Hamilton makes no bones about how fortunate he was to be allowed unparalleled access to the force of nature that was Brian Clough. The portrait that emerges seems to come from something for which 'love' is maybe the only appropriate word; it's to his credit that it never seems like obsession as, throughout, he is remarkably clear-eyed about Clough's weaknesses as well as his astonishing triumphs. The excellent and detailed accounts of how Clough took not one but two poor-to-middling English clubs to the heights of European glory (a feat that one struggles to imagine being repeated today) are balanced by an understanding of his very human insecurities and frailties, and by an increasingly dominant subtext - a (literally) sobering account of how low even a character as powerful as Clough could be laid by alcohol.