Wednesday, 2 October 2013

An open letter to Apple

Hey Apple,

I don't understand. Why would you take an OS that looks great, feels great, and has become as identifiable and inimitable as your Mac OS.... and redesign it to look like Android? I thought they were your rivals, not your heroes.

Anyone who wants Android will buy Android, because it's cheaper and they have more choice about which hardware to run it on. If they're spending dollah on Apple, it's because they really like what you do. Like me. I love the iPhone. I went Mac in 2006 and never looked back, and since you put out the iPhone each iOS has been a phenomenal piece of design. Glassy, liquid, futuristic, beautiful. You managed to take a flat surface and give it the illusion of tactility. Amazing! I've liked every iOS you've put out - until this one.

Now, the thing is, I haven't upgraded. And I'm not going to.

My boyfriend has iOS 7. All my colleagues have it. Some of my friends have it. I have to deal with it as part of my job. I've had a good play with it... I've seen friends wail as iOS7 inexplicably deleted their favourite albums (not the others, not the whole lot, just their favourites..!) from Music... or all of their contacts (only to then return them again an hour later)... and don't get me started on the battery issues.

But, shallow as this'll sound, the thing that really bites is the way it looks. Bugs can be fixed, performance issues improved. But once we upgrade to iOS 7 we're stuck with those plinky-plonky, flat little buttons, and that horrible pre-school, aggressively pastel screen glare. It's like how someone would draw an iPhone OS if they'd never seen an iPhone - a cheap, ill-informed imitation. Nope - I'm not going near it. I. Don't. Want. An. Android. Phone. Especially not with the prices and hardware/software restrictions that come with the Apple lifestyle. And if the time comes that I have no choice but to upgrade to iOS 7 (or a future iOS that looks like it), I'll accept that I've had my time with Apple, and retire unhappily to dull, anonymous Android-world with at least a little more change in my pocket.

Please redesign iOS7. Please reclaim the iconic design that everyone loved. Please. 7 blows. We hate it. PLEASE.

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Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Sex and Jeff Buckley

I went rummaging in my father’s record collection on Sunday evening. And there, nestled erroneously between his records, was my 180g reissue of Jeff Buckley’s Grace. I’m listening to it now and, while thinking of those I know who hate him, his voice, his style, his legacy, I’m thinking about how misinterpreted he is.

He's bound to his reputation as a tragic troubadour, heir to his father's mantle, an angelic-voiced crooner who sang woebegone, sad songs in his unearthly falsetto before departing, via the Mississippi, for indisputable heavenly climes.

It’s bollocks.

How can anyone listen to this record and hear anything less than filth in it? Buckley’s alchemy was in the soiled, sinful humanity of his music, shockingly deployed through that seemingly pure voice. That falsetto isn’t employed to sing virginal songs. Even the song titles he writes or chooses give away his motives - Lover, You Should Have Come Over.... Mojo Pin.... Lilac Wine. From the first song, he sings about sex, cravings, deprivation, revenge, morosity, drunkenness, hallucination, himself as slave and seducer, woman as madonna and dominatrix and witch - "Send whips of opinion down my back, give me more".

If he had lived, he would have had ample time to build a more nuanced and fleshed out reputation as a man and an artist, but as is often the case with the youthfully lost, an ill-fitting martyr's halo has been forced over his head, and as DJs play his songs over the radio, they opine blandly about the beauty of his voice, their insincere devotion to the towering idea of him blinding them to the shit-hot awesomeness of what he actually put on record.

Listen to Last Goodbye. "Kiss me, please kiss me / But kiss me out of desire, babe, and not consolation..." That’s not a song about some well-mannered chinless wonder sadly bidding adieu to his lady as she leaves (probably for altogether more experienced climes). Listen to that bump-ba-dump rhythm, all hips and sideways glances, frustration and slyness and thrust. It translates the ecstasy of urgency, the farewell fuck, physical need even through the blinding fog of impending loss. Even as he expresses heartbreak, he’s still inviting his muse into bed. The melodrama, which would be unbearable if that were all there was, is grounded by earthy sexual desire. We’ve all ached for someone, not just because we loved them or lost them, but because we wanted them, felt an almost enraged need for them to satisfy us. That’s why that song works, not because it’s terribly delicate and sad.

It’s a bitter, if unthwartable, insult to his memory that those who march under his banner are the sexless, acoustic-toting “singer-songwriters” (did ever two words strike more fear into the heart of the discerning listener?) who sit on their stools and make earnest faces over their guitars as they sing serious songs about absolutely fucking nothing at all. This isn’t a sparse, folky record; it’s lush and indulgent, the guitars buried among flickering, suggestive percussion, fat organs and strings that swell and recede like tides. Nor is it a pompous shrine to the singer's own boring observations and experiences; three of the ten songs are still-startling covers, and Buckley's own songs are like weird dreams, by turns arresting and eerie, absurd, immediate and then suddenly intangible. They are, primarily, about desire and sensation.

The construction, the production and the intent owe as much to Prince as to any white singer-songwriter (check out that impish Prince “waah!” towards the end of Lover, You Should Have Come Over). The guitars don't thrum respectfully, they swerve and growl and wail. The eponymous track is rumbling and rhythmic from the start, his voice swinging back and forth, first inviting, then terrible and uncontrollable. And it means that when he does stray into terribly Catholic territory, there's something subversive and almost obscene about it; the professed innocence overlaying something tainted and experienced. It's no coincidence that his take on the Corpus Christi Carol is succeeded by the iconoclastic Eternal Life, smashing a contemptuous path through religion in all its organised guises - and again, a syncopated rhythm snaking through it, weaving left and right as if to corrupt all it can reach.

It maddens me that many who now come to Jeff Buckley will come via his inadequate acolytes, expecting to encounter the godhead of passionless, strumming earnestness. Grace gets held up as a sophisticated rock record, a benchmark for a certain kind of indie, and it's so misleading, because through and through, it's a soul record, a rhythm 'n' blues record in the original sense - and, as it happens, a magnificent one.

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Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Philippa Gregory and the betrayal of a genre



Philippa Gregory, you make me so mad.

Her approach to the historical novel has provoked my ire for some time now. I won't comment on her academic grasp of history, save to say that it doesn't seem to make any contact with her final manuscripts. Her female characters, with not much more depth to them than the kind of gal you'd find in a pink-and-white covered, boyfriends 'n' shopping read, adopt not just clumsily modern modes of speech, but attitudes and behaviours that I don't for a moment believe would have come into play 600 years ago. (That's not to say women were all meek little creatures, but her characters' expressions of rebellion are from the twentieth century, not the fifteenth.) It's fashionable now for historical novelists to substitute the theeing and thouing for more identifiable conversation patterns. While I bristle a little at the notion we can't cope with a modicum of that, I appreciate wanting to broaden the appeal. It doesn't present any problems if you're the peerless Hilary Mantel, and can persuade a reader that such modern expressions are merely a demonstration of a character's matter of fact nature. But Philippa Gregory doesn't display that kind of skill or imagination, so the result is unnatural, unconvincing and completely lacking in historical integrity.

But now the Beeb is showing The White Queen, a confused and rather sketchy televisual splodging-together of three of her books about the War of the Roses. If you thought her books were clumsy, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Is there a reason that English-born Elizabeth Woodville frets, flirts and simpers her way through the role with an inadequately disguised Swedish accent while her mother, Jacquetta, is as homespun as they come, despite growing up as a Luxembourg heiress? Rebecca Ferguson as Elizabeth is unbearable in the role. Seeming to revere the part rather than live in it, she's at her worst when she attempts something resembling womanly medieval dignity; she wears it like a badly fitting corset, constantly trying to settle herself comfortably; she only convinces in the bits where she's allowed to overact (reactions to death, rage, snogging, that sort of thing). The king's wee bruv Richard (later to be Richard III) looks like Randall "Pink" Floyd from Dazed & Confused, and Janet McTeer's Jacquetta is unendurably smug as a placid, sage, mum-knows-best matriarch, rather than the ambitious, paranoid schemer whose relentless pushing of her daughter reportedly bore out in Elizabeth's approach to parenting her own daughters.

And when you watch it on iPlayer, right there by the player window is a quote from Philippa herself - "It looks exactly like how I imagined". Really? Is this as high as she aimed? Even if you like her books, this seems far-fetched, given how many liberties have been taken with the chronology and motivations of the characters. The series seems hastily pinned together; so either her standards are worse than we thought, or she takes the audience for idiots.

I rant and hiss because I grew up on this kind of literature, and hold it close to my heart, and a truly great TV adaptation is a rare and precious thing (see: Pillars of the Earth; though it takes place in a fictional setting, it skates very close to a recognisable world-gone-by and was richly, intelligently produced by all involved). It'd be glorious to see a really thoughtful, detailed adaptation of a book or series that was great in the first place, but as long as Gregory sets the standard for historical fiction that doesn't seem too likely.

I may have bookshelves stuffed with Orwell, Hamilton, Berendt and Waugh, but as something of a history nerd my true literary hero is Rosemary Hawley Jarman, a woman so frighteningly obsessed with her subject matter that I nearly believe she lives her day to day life as though in waiting for the coming again of Richard III. When she wrote about Katherine de Valois and Henry V and Owen Tudor, about Richard III and Richard Neville, Elizabeth Woodville and the sinister Jacquetta, she had me transfixed. Every sentence is flooded with colour; her descriptions dispense altogether with cliche and instead find ingenious little routes to meaning; her "villains" have human motives, identifiable power cravings, imagined and real slights that mutate into recognisable vendettas and grudges. Her books are immense tomes, straining with detail, yet in six words she can cut immediately to the core, ensuring you not only understand her, but believe her. She doesn't cut conveniently to the sensational bits - she includes the in-between, the mundane, the tortuous, and makes it compelling. In her hands, historical fiction is demanding, engrossing and enriching; the end of a novel leaves you bereft, thrown out of a world you had begun to inhabit, and desperate to know more, to study the characters, read around them - in short, to expand your knowledge. She makes you feel like she must feel as she writes the novel, as she births and murders the characters she so obviously loves. That, surely, is true skill.

And now the toast of the genre is a writer whose approach to her subjects seems so cavalier as to be alienating. Actually, it probably isn't cavalier; Gregory and others like her have turned a genre that, I suppose, was probably regarded as a bit fusty and outdated, into blockbuster beach reads. I'm sure financially she's done very well out of it. In the eyes of her publishers, she has a winning formula and had sure as shit better not mess with it. I've bought a few of her books; I admit that historical fiction (a curious kind of fiction which, more than most, demands a solid grounding in fact) is something of an addiction for me. I want to know more, discover more people I didn't know existed, and find out what parts they played in the lives of those I'm already aware of. Who plotted against whom, the human behaviour demanded by the politics of the day, family relationships, alliances and enmities... these are the things I hope to discover every time I open a new story, and every unfamiliar book cover lures me toward it like a baby towards a bauble.

Unfortunately, with Philippa Gregory, you just get shortcuts, quick fades, cardboard characters and the kind of agenda that gets historical fiction written off as girly. She never writes in detail about the motivations of male characters, and her writing of the strange and much maligned/romanticised Richard III (in The Kingmaker's Daughter) is so flat and picturebook as to be offensive. She writes him like a prince/villain in a children's story, not the reputedly complex and antisocial man who has by turns been regarded as a compassionate and politically astute, betrayed leader and a conspiring, unstable murderer who did away with not only his nephews but his elder brother.

The women in her books seem to be built to tap into the idea of showing women from any age as strong, self-reliant, possessed of the same emotions we experience several centuries later - but they don't, because she doesn't write about what they really dealt with, or how they really coped with it; she thinks like someone newly emerged from the Tardis and handed a costume, not a woman born and brought up in the aggressively patriarchal world of medieval England. I don't think she writes thusly out of any feminist lean, I think she just wants to make the characters appealing. But in trying so hard and straying so far, she makes them contemptible and fictitious. It's not good enough to write it off as dumb supermarket fiction; if you're going to bother to do even half the research required to write a historical novel to completion (let alone to adequacy), then you can do better - and now similarly bad writers get stickers on their books with supposedly complimentary boasts like "better than Philippa Gregory". I want to read a story woven around how things were and what it really felt like, not a version of life if modern chicks and chaps with post-suffrage attitudes happened to wear surcoats and wimples and hose and sleeves with points. You can't learn anything from that, except how not to write.

Historical drama doesn't need to be a niche genre. The escapism that comes from exploring a world completely different to your own, yet peopled by human characters with recognisable motivations, anguishes and fears is a broadly held pleasure. And the desire to understand history, to comprehend what came before us and how our lives compare to theirs, how politics, power, money and survival influence human behaviour, isn't exactly subversive. People are interested in it; look at the success of fantasy books/TV shows like Game of Thrones, which subjects that genre to the rigorous mise-en-scene of historical drama. Or the Tudors (fruity and frothy, but certainly pretty popular), or the reliable success of historically-inspired cinema. The blood-and-guts aesthetic that has coloured it in recent years (with the brutality of battle, poverty and execution played out in all its grim, gory murk) has put paid to notions that it's a exclusively feminine genre for frumpy old misses. It sells. So it doesn't have to be completely dumbed down. It's okay to challenge us. We're not idiots. We'll cope. Philippa Gregory angers me because she takes a genre that people cling to despite sneering looks and now-decades of dismissal, and instead of rewarding their loyalty, her "will this do?" approach insults her audience. And when her Fisher-Price fiction gets adapted, badly, for the small screen and plumbs greater cultural lows, she endorses it.

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Tuesday, 18 June 2013

"9am is too early for tits."

The New Statesman’s website chucked out an old 2010 Laurie Penny blog today, and it’s lost none of its relevance; it reminds us that every time a feminist, or a mother or father, or a sexual assault victim, or a woman who’s sick of feeling like society appraises her based on her sexual worth above all else, or merely a person who’s sick of having anonymous tits thrust at them – every time anyone says they don’t want to be confronted with sexually suggestive imagery in public every day, someone accuses them of taking it too seriously.

Here’s a few of the common responses:

- “You wouldn’t be so up in arms if it was men who’re being objectified”.
- “The female form is natural - it’s prudish and anti-feminist to be ashamed of it and want to hide it”
- “The women that work in this industry are empowered, not victims”


“You wouldn’t be so up in arms if it was men who’re being objectified.”
But that’s part of the point. It’s NOT. You get the odd male chest here and there, but people don’t walk into their newsagent with their children for a pint of milk and see a man bent double, airing his butt-cheeks at the world. Male genitalia does not pepper the inside of phoneboxes (and end up on the pavement – see Euston Road on any given morning) or the inside of a so-called “family paper”. Those who protest against constant female objectification are complaining about the landscape they live in, not some theoretical world.

That landscape is the surface of a society that has existed for hundreds and hundreds of years in this country. It’s a society in which women have been regarded first as chattel and the sexual property of men, then more recently as deserving of a political and literary voice as long as they accept the boundaries of such “freedom” and respect men’s ultimate superiority… and now as supposed equals, as long as they’re willing to put up with lower pay, economic disposability during recession and the task of ensuring that, from adolescence to late middle-age, they fit in the uncomfortably small acceptable domain between appearing sexually pliant and morally infallible.

Whether or not ordinary men (who’ve grown up with the idea of treating women as equals) really want them to fit in that paradoxical identity bracket is brushed aside; the mainstream media screams relentlessly that they should, from Page 3 and lads’ mags to the high-falutin’ morals of the Daily Mail vs its online column of shame, via the salivating, scandalous headlines announced on TV ads for tabloid mags and the music videos, shown on rotation, that show nearly-naked women catering to suited and booted men or washing their cars for them.

That’s what women in our society live with. It’s not the worst possible situation in the world right now for women but that doesn’t mean it’s okay. And every time we encounter another image that we didn’t go looking for, an identikit, plastic, willing image that tells men, women and children, “This is ideal womanhood – men, here is what you should desire and expect - women, here is your role model”, we are reminded of it. No fucking surprise we’re angry.


“The human body is natural and beautiful - it’s prudish and anti-feminist to be ashamed of it and want to hide it”
Yeah, it is natural and beautiful and interesting in all its variety. But there’s a difference between showing it as something other than a sexual receptacle, in all its varied and valid forms, and the same relentless image of tits and arse, tits and arse, always perfectly round, airbrushed or painted flawless, the same homogenous honey colour regardless of racial origin, the same sexual poses that say “don’t ask me what I think, just ask me what I can do for you”. If the prevailing thought is that it’s healthy for our culture to be populated with naked women, then little girls could in theory grow up seeing different images of the adult female body, flat breasts, pendulous ones, straight waists and flat ones and wobbly ones, androgynous shapes and bodies that are all hills and valleys, and think “I wonder what I’ll look like when I’m grown up – which of those many forms will my body tend towards?”

But they don’t. They see the same character, often surgically enhanced to the cost of thousands of pounds, which most mainstream glamour models strive to portray, and they worry when their emerging breasts don’t take that shape. Their favourite pop stars endorse that shape. They learn to treat their body hair as something disgusting, rather than something they have an equal choice over keeping, reducing or removing. They learn body dysmorphia, not feminine pride. Their natural sexual appetites are coloured by other people’s perceptions; what girls’ and women’s magazines tell them they should be thinking/feeling/doing (a general message of “only when you’re ready” undermined by constant examination of what everyone else is up to, devaluing the positive sex education they could be helping with), and what the teenage boys in their lives are learning about women, from the freely available imagery around them – from the implied notion that sex means getting to sleep with girls who look like that, who are put here for their pleasure.

There are so many factors in how boys and girls grow up relating to each other that it’d be naive and unhelpful to pin the blame for negative attitudes on one source. But Page 3 and “lads” mags, with their constant reminders that girls are for sex, not conversation or human relationships, sure as shit ain’t helping.


“The women that work in this industry are empowered, not victims”
Some of them are. Some of them have proper workplaces with fair rules and pay, or they freelance with legitimate companies and get paid properly for it, and they make a living doing something that, at worst, they are willing to do, and at best, they enjoy and take pride in. That’s fine. Anyone trying to shut down the sex industry is facing a futile and Sisyphian task – as long as there have been sexual appetites, there have been ways of commoditising them, from the suggestive to the actual; and if one consenting adult wants to give another one their pants’ desires in exchange for cash, I’ve personally no problem with that. I don’t object to porn (though it’d be nice to see the playing field levelled a bit), or safely run brothels, or strip clubs where the employees are treated respectfully, or sex chat lines. But when people sell something which is for adult consumption only, its availability should be restricted to exclusively adult spaces.

And some of them aren’t empowered, but exploited, abused, frightened and hurt. What about the sexual slave trade, which is alive and well? What about women forced to have sex for money they don’t even get to keep, whether it’s girls brought in from other countries (let’s not forget dear, cuddly old Roberto Berlusconi’s comments about cracking down on the Romanian/Italian sex trade – except for the pretty girls) or vulnerable British teenagers preyed on by adults in their own communities? What about those that blur the lines, expecting the girls they know to take part in the rituals of an industry they are NOT a part of? For a slice of this, see the ongoing discussion about domestic violence and sexual exploitation in teen relationships, about girls who end up on YouTube against their consent, because some boy they were going out with decided to film them and humiliate them on the internet? “Media” is not just men in suits who own newspapers now. We all make it, we all contribute, and we are all responsible for what we consume.

Either way, this isn’t just about the girls in the pictures. They’re only half the story. What about everyone that sees the pictures? The point is we don’t have a choice. Unless you decide not to turn on your TV, walk into a newsagent or get on public transport where you might encounter a reader of Britain’s most prevalent newspaper, you can’t avoid the imagery. The problem is not the nakedness, the problem is the constant pushing of the sexual agenda behind it, in the least sexual environments and situations. Is it prudish to want a choice in whether you see a random woman bent over in nothing but a g-string or squeezing her tits together solicitously? What if you’re 11? Is it prudish then? Kids that age should be getting some understanding of how their bodies are starting to change from child to adult; let them process that first, without having to deal at the same time with what kind of sexual identity the commercial media will offer them and what they'll do with it. And the rest of us? Most of us past puberty like thinking about, and having, sex some of the time. Not ALL of the time. Not when we’re busy focusing on non-sexy things, like the whole of the rest of our lives, and, frankly, are not in the fucking mood. We’re not all slaves to a 24 hour libido.

And still, in this culture of ever-present boobs, I hear people make disgusted sounds in public when they see a woman raise part of her shirt to feed her child. Because breasts and their natural function are shocking and repugnant unless wrapped safely in the sanitising, now-familiar cloak of sexual availability.


“Trying to ban page 3 and lads’ magazines is censorship.”
Well, yes and no. I don’t personally think lads’ magazines should be banned. I do think that any form of media that insists on showing naked imagery for the purpose of sexual titillation or arousal, male or female (okay, fine, we’ll pretend for the sake of argument that there’s much in the non-adult mainstream on the male side), should be treated as adult media. If you want to call The Sun a family paper and sell it on the same shelf as the Daily Mail or the Guardian or the Times or the Mirror, it’s got to lose the naked offerings, as should any paper that wants to share that shelf space, and I hope the #nomorepage3 campaign succeeds in its goal. Supermarkets have taken the step of putting lads' mags on the top shelf – but their top shelves are not quite the same as the porn shelf in a newsagent so that’s a little disingenuous (last I checked, you don’t usually get Hustler in Sainsburys). If “lads”(never teenage boys or young men, always “lads”, again with the stereotypical demographic that young men are encouraged to identify with - see UniLAD for more of this) want to buy a magazine whose chief attraction is the pictures of hot girls with not much on, they can pick them up from the same place as they’d pick up Playboy. There’s no shame in it, right? You’re a grown man, you want to look at some grown women who’ve taken their clothes off. So why do the rest of us have to cushion your infantile and outdated embarrassment by nestling the naked chicks safely among the car magazines?

We who oppose this phenomenon want a choice about how, and when, and where, we consume sexual content in the media. It’s time to grow up; allow people to satisfy adult appetites in adult spaces and let children and teenagers grow up without the constant presence of unrealistic body ideals and loaded sexual imagery that tells them what they're meant to be before they've even worked out who they are.

Title quote: Josie Long

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Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Live review: Teeth Of The Sea @ Babble.Jar - 09.05.13

Teeth of the Sea are playing a birthday party.

I plead ignorance. I don't know who the birthday celebrant is, and I sure as shit can't see a cake. I'm standing in a mainly empty basement room at the foot of Stamford Hill, watching the best live band in London play, in their words or thereabouts, their 'worst gig in ages'.

It all falls apart somewhere around the third song. What went wrong? Sonically, fuck knows. One minute, they were thundering out the jawdropping psych[otic]-rock battlesound that's steadily drawn people to their standard since they emerged a few years ago. Next minute, they were still doing it, but guitarist Jimmy was on the floor trying to perform emergency surgery on a vast and apparently truculent pedalboard for nearly a whole song. No sign of the soundman. They played one more, and abandoned the stage in disgust. We can only assume the operation was a failure.

The thing is, you can watch a hundred bands a night in this city, and all their sets will go as planned. How many will do anything memorable? Four or five if you're lucky. IF you're lucky. When you watch a gang of musicians royally fuck it up, and still sound better than any of their competitors, it rather puts things in contrast.

Where other bands attempt and imitate and try to start scenes, TOTS actually convince. Teenage and twenty-something boys and girls are out there writing manifestos about what they're going to do, merely beginning to determine their influences, playing with possibilities, and that's as it should be - God forbid we encourage a creaking landscape of decrepit know-it-alls, where no-one's noticed or taken seriously til they've earned their stripes through decades of bitter slog and respectful library-building. Kids are the ones who should be making punk rock and reducing even younger kids to jelly, flinging stinkbombs and shrapnel at aged naysayers, and it wouldn't be awesome to see someone who's slaved at the coalface finally, finally break through and win everything they've ever dreamed of if that were the natural order of things, like some dutiful accountant collecting his company watch at the end of 25 years of service. But Teeth of the Sea walk it like their juniors can only talk it.

They'll release their third record soon enough, and the sound they have built these last few years is complex, giddy, wisely paced and heavy as hell. It's Giorgio Moroder clinging to the back of the behemoth, it's a troupe of mariachis summoning the valkyries... it's heraldic trumpets and thrashing stand-up drums, it's a guitarist who shreds like it's all he's ever been good for, it's a beckoning call from the off-world colonies; it's Doctor Who sound effects, comet swoops and sci-fi flashes. It's baffling. It's absolutely barmy. It's FUN. It's really, really fucking fun.

Over and above and laid down beneath it all, woven in and out of it, they create a groove into which every species of portentous idiocy/brilliance is successively, and successfully, installed. It snakes through the whole, focusing it and transforming even the creepiest sounds and most disconnected samples into a dance party. No irony here, no snarky references to the self-consciously uncool. The intent is real, smashed out with violence and conviction, unanchored drums trying to creep away unseen from the monstrous onslaught above them as they inch across the floor.

Too many bands have treated instruments and equivalent gear as toys, looking merely for a quirky sound, a wonk-footed stance, the cutely off-kilter. The time for this nonsense is done - death to twee, may it bleed out under a shower of knives. Teeth of the Sea have the guts to take this shit seriously, attacking with scope and creativity and malign, mesmerising force. They're not children, they know their references and have built sturdily upon them; I reckon between them these four dudes own thousands and thousands of records. But the old-time heroes and influences have the decency to know their place, to sit on their hands in the back row and let this quartet's own ideas and ambition command your attention. And when one thing goes wrong, integral as it is, the density of this sound betrays nothing until they do.

A couple of months ago, they had the Lexington in the palm of their hand, a sell-out crowd meeting their efforts with righteous praise. Now, on an off-chance, they're in a basement and it's all gone terribly wrong, but it's still magnificent - because they're magnificent. If you're in a band, go and see them, and see what you're doing wrong. If you think you're bored of music, go and see them, and see what you've been missing.

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Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Don't Look Back

I’m as guilty as the next person. Tonight I’m going to see Six By Seven at the Bull and Gate, beer-stained backdrop to my early adulthood (it closes this week, so a fond farewell ‘n’ that). A grinding drillbit of a band who I loved with every living fibre for their fury, their grating dissatisfaction and disgust and despair. A band who struggled and strained and tried and failed, a towering singer who terrorised interviewers and other bands, and then staggered and slurred drunkenly atop the stage of the venue I helped run a few years later, before splitting up in much acrimony and some ignominy.

They have reformed, whether because they never felt they made their point, or because Chris Olley isn’t done and will never be done, or because it’s what bands do now. In my heart I feel that the last reason is the least likely, but I have to admit that I’m doing the thing that everyone does now, which makes me mad as hell; paying money to see a band get some, fuck off for a bit and go again, rather than watching the bright explosion of something new. This is the age of reformation - every band now gets a second shot. Reunions are the new encores – inevitable and bullshit.

The PR juggernaut wasn't rumbled out for this one, Six By Seven just quietly started booking shows again, and Six By Seven, unjustifiably, never seemed to make a penny, so a moneyspinner it isn't. But how did we arrive at this point, where we’re not even questioning the music’s motivations, or the reason a band has formed to make this music, but the authenticity of their continued existence?

In the same week, Neutral Milk Hotel have announced that they’re going to play some reform shows, and the collective indie consciousness heralded the second coming, because nothing like this has ever happened before. I like their first and second records, and the second one, the one everyone cacks their keks over, is a brave, often brilliant, occasionally questionable, strange, funny and beautiful record. It was then and still is – it still exists, the original document, not some grim anniversary edition (please, please, no.) Ain’t that enough? Why do they need to reform?

Am I wrong to demand a degree of brutality? Line it up, take your shot, make your mark then fuck off out of the way, let the young blood step up for their turn. Demand that they in turn match their predecessors, soar above their achievements, and get to work in an industry that actually makes it worth them trying. The life cycle of the band now includes a new grace period before death; when a band say they’re splitting up - irreconcilable musical differences, pressures of life on the road, ill health, inability to write anything of worth anymore, whatever – what they now mean is they’re going into cryogenic stasis. They will be deep-frozen by their record label until such time as they can tolerate each other’s company again, at which point they will be reinjected into their tourbus and sent out to earn their keep again. It’s like when you break up with that sociopath who has ruined your life, slept with all your friends, emptied your bank account and run away with your dog – and your parents cluck and say, “I’m sure in time you two will figure things out and fix it.” It’s depressing and it’s wrong – and if you go back it says that you prefer the stifling comfort of the familiar to the possibility (you know, the one that got you here in the first place) of an adventure.

Bands! Have some self-recocking-spect. If you hate those bastards, if you ran your course, if you can't find another vital record in you – by which I mean, the kind of NEED TO BE MADE future maybe-masterpiece that made you take up musical arms in the first place - do us, and yourselves, a fucking favour. Don’t reform. Don’t reboot. Don’t play Koko or the Hammersmith Apollo or Brixton Academy. Don’t dutifully collect the cash for your label so they can rely on their alumni rather than the untapped talent they should be developing. Don’t take the handout and tell yourself it’s artistically justifiable. Take a stand instead. There are some abysmal young bands out there, and they need telling they’re abysmal so they can either stop being shit or do something else with their lives. There are also some couldbegood, potentially great, already staggering young bands who deserve not just a shot at the title, but the gestation period to grow worthy of it, to be that band who can inspire growing devotion and desperation from fans over six records, not just one premature indebted blurt of a debut. If you already bowed out, don’t backpedal just to set yourself up in competition against the young’uns – it’s just not fucking decent, man. You still wanna make music? Create something, find some new playmates, surprise us, give us revelation, not the fucking reunion show. Remember that feeling?

Because otherwise, you might as well just admit you don’t think there’s any more music to be made; you’ve got nothing fresh to say, and the gangs of young hopefuls with ideas to impart – all those thousands of kids in garages and bedrooms, attempting to make sense of the world in their own way rather than just absorbing yours, aren’t worth a damn, certainly not the record company’s money and time. And if that’s what you think, then you don’t deserve the fans that’ll pay to see you second time around.

There are exceptions. MBV are allowed to do it, because they never actually split up, Kevin Shields just went away for a very very long think, as is his wont, and what he came back with justified the wait. Faith No More are allowed because between their implosion and resurrection Mike Patton went and did all sorts of shit that ranged from the brilliant to the brilliantly baffling, and their live show does actually feel like a unabashed “class of 1992” reunion party, not a weakly justified attempt at defibrillating their careers. But fuck off Soundgarden, Neutral Milk Hotel (yeah, you heard), At the Drive In, Afghan Whigs (it hurts me to write that but rules is rules), Suede, The Postal Service (they can fuck off the first time round too). Fuck off Elastica, before you even think of reattempting it – actually, I liked your second record, and admittedly you were ahead of the present curve on the whole reunion game. But you’ve had your turn once and again, so don’t you dare come back for a third round. Fuck off Don’t Look Back, the ATP banner that has had a lot to do with this bad legacy, brought us to this musical “end of history” point, fans burbling excitedly about this week's reunion rather than new records or some unknown band in a back room in Putney who handed them their arses the night before. All of these bands; stop. Your industry is a false one, designed to wring more money out of a photocopy when, if you are artists at all, you should be writing the unwritten.

Oh, but the live show – bands you never got to see, finally playing for your delight like well-paid dancing monkeys – tough shit. That’s half the game, aching for bands just slightly before your time, waiting for your own turn, your own generation of heroes and invention, falling passionately upon the bands that arrive to set your imagination on fire, to the disgust of the olds who talk about who they’ve ripped off. You love 'em, right? See them while you can, and accept that nothing does or should last forever, least of all the quixotic and unstable union of a handful of kids with songs in their heads and urgency in their hearts.

I’ve paid my money to see some of these shows, and some were great, and some were a pointless endeavour that left me feeling as stupid as I absolutely should have done, because either way I was pissing away money on a dumb revival when I could have been buying records from the first time round or seeing a new group of adventurers take their first steps, fuck up, figure it out, all the thrilling shit that makes you follow young musicians in the first place, the ‘will they make it’ game, the hope you invest in your new idols and the bitterness if they fail (or worse, if they succeed but lose the spark of brilliance along the way). This is the story that we music fans all engage with, and the reunion culture makes an ugly mockery of it.

Don’t Look Back? You’re damn right. 

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Thursday, 31 January 2013

Paint me evil, paint me cruel

A woman boarded the Northern Line at Balham one evening, and settled into her seat. As the train rumbled toward central London, she pulled out her makeup bag and, peering into a small mirror, began to pat foundation onto her skin. One by one, as her skin absorbed the colour she applied, the men around her began to convulse, arrest and drop down dead beneath their seats. The woman stepped off the train at Camden Town, radiant, leaving a pile of dead bodies in her wake.

A friend of a friend opined on Facebook today that few things offend him more than women putting on their make-up on the train. I've heard this before (and it seems to be men that it annoys, rather than other women) and so this morning I canvassed some opinions on it. What is it about it that winds people up so much though? Unless it's something pongy like nail polish, surely it doesn't actually affect anyone other than the cosmetic-wearer herself? Yet it seems to provoke such ire, and it confuses the hell out of me.

Some put it down to an old-fashioned sense that one should just do one's grooming at home; that there's something inherently vulgar and indiscreet about making one's preparations in public. To that, I'd retort that if that's the most vulgar thing people are likely to see all day, they're doing bloody well; I can't see how it even compares to men (or women!) weeing in doorways or people getting fuckeyed and hurling across the street or the tube platform. I see those things every week in London, and I rarely hear many folks actually complaining about it - yet there seems to be something about the public application of concealer that really needles people. If someone's plucking their eyebrows (or nose hair...!) or clipping their nails in public, they'll be leaving residue about the place, and that's just not cricket - no-one wants to park their arse in a pile of fingernail clippings. But unless she has the hand-eye co-ordination of a toddler on a trampoline, make-up leaves no trace except on the wearer.

Another popular whinge is 'she should have gotten up earlier and done it before she left the house' - this hot indignation that someone has chosen to manage their time in such a way that they can sneak 15 minutes extra in bed, and do their final prep on the train before appearing at work looking fresh and composed. Jealousy, is it? It seems to me absolutely no-one else's business how anyone manages their time, unless it actually affects the people around them. I'll react sharply to anyone impertinent enough to suggest that I should have left more time at home to do it; maybe I'm coming straight from work. Maybe the electricity failed at home and there's no light. Maybe a giant panda ate my house before starting on next door. Maybe......it's none of your business and I don't owe anyone else excuses.

Or perhaps it has more to do with the notion that a woman should ensure she's presentable before she leaves the house and inflicts herself on the world. Why? Will men turn to stone or projectile vomit at the sight of a woman without a protective layer of slap hiding her pores? Or is there something unsettling for some folks, seeing women apply that layer in front of them?

I think this latter suggestion is closer to the truth. The kind of men that are honestly offended by it don't want to see women demystified before their eyes. We are, apparently to some, still meant to be pretty, flawless (blow-up) dolls. But it has no basis in logic. Chaps! Have you ever had a girlfriend? Have you ever sat and enjoyed a cup of tea while, beside you, she puts on her make-up for the day? So...you know what she looks like without make-up then? Here's a secret: lots of women look like that without make-up. Women don't have a duty to be beautiful in the first place; in this here century we don't have to preserve our reputations by winching in our real figures with girdles and corsets any longer, unless we want to, and nor do we have to wear make-up at all (funny how it's gone from the being regarded as whores' facepaint to something the media pushes us to wear for dignity's sake) - we get the choice to present ourselves however we wish, much to the noisy chagrin of misogynists, magazine editors and pre-feminist dinosaurs everywhere. Many do choose to wear it, and the world keeps turning. Love and romance and attraction and all the hokey shit that makes people have babies and carry on this argumentative species won't grind to a halt if men see how women make themselves prettier. We aren't goddesses, and this isn't illusive Oz; a woman darkening her eyelashes on a train is just that, no more or less.

There's a lot of talk at the moment about the fetishisation of women's looks (from the ugly furore that surrounded Mary Beard recently, to the Onion's razor-tongued skit on the objectification of women - Teenage Girl Blossoming Into Beautiful Object) and frankly we can't win; we're either wild-haired, unpresentable toads or stupid sluts who'll get what's coming to them. This bitter logic forgets that, actually, we can look however we goddamn want to - and we'll go about our business regardless of the hateful comments of small-minded mouth-breathers who let down awesome men everywhere. Dudes who loudly demand that women sport the "natural look" are plying a special brand of bullshit, because they don't really want to see a girl's spots, they want a perfect girl-next-door cliché. You don't want a woman to stop wasting her time wearing make-up, you just don't want her to apply it on your time. Tough tits - your time and our time have nothing to do with each other, because if you're whinging about a woman on a train she's probably someone you have nothing to do with. We aren't illusions or Athena poster girls, we're people who sometimes run out of time getting ready to go out, and if we can manage to apply a well-practised straight line across our eyelids on a moving train, I don't see what business it is of anyone else's. When was the last time a woman spilled a full bottle of foundation across your lap on the 38 bus?

There's nothing disgusting or offensive about a woman applying make up in public. If it offends you that much, divert your attention elsewhere - she'd probably rather you weren't staring at her in the first place.

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Thursday, 24 January 2013

Who's afraid of Mary Beard?

One thing strikes me amongst all of this arguing about the misogyny directed towards Professor Mary Beard and her strident and composed response to it; everyone's got so het up about the internet abuse that followed her QT appearance, that no-one's talking about what she actually said on Question Time.

Which is exactly what the bullies want.

Isn't the whole point of shouting someone down, abusing their looks or character and trying to hurt them, to shut them up? To shut down a discussion they don't like? You beat someone back into their corner in the hope that they won't be pert or strong enough to spring back up and continue to assert their thoughts. You see it in the playground as a child, and across Twitter on a daily basis, and in extreme scenarios like women who are subjected to physical violence to keep them in their place, be they wives in any country in the world with abusive husbands, or Malala Yousefzai, whose bullies were so scared of a child defending her beliefs that they thought shooting her in the head was a proportionate way to deal with the situation.

This week's trolls didn't like what Mary Beard had to say. But instead of combating it with fair argument and reasoned responses, they opted for "Well, NER, you're ugly, so there" sophistication and sexual threats (baffling, considering their stance on her looks, but let's remember, rape [real or threatened] is about power, not attraction - moreover, these people are idiots). In the wake of that, some have praised her for standing up to them, while others (women, no less!) have, missing the point somewhat, suggested that she's letting herself down by whinging about it something as insignificant as violent verbal misogny.

I'm immensely pleased that Mary has had the grace and guts to defend herself in the manner that she has. Her combination of personal unflappability and a frank refusal to accept that women should face such misogyny is exactly what the situation merited. I refuse to accept that the kind of verbal abuse she has faced should be the inevitable consequence of an intelligent woman expressing her views on a television show, and the fastest way to stop it is for women to stand up for themselves when they encounter misogyny, and for the men in their lives to support them in doing so.

But let's take a moment to recall the points she actually made; her opinion was as valid as anyone else's on that show, and for it to disappear under the mire of internet trolling and insults that had absolutely nothing to do with the televised discussion is wrong.

On the subject of a new ruling to allow Romanians and Bulgarians free movement within the EU, she spoke about a report by by Boston Borough Council on economic migration in the area, and said that it was a myth that the economic migrants in Boston, Lincolnshire, were overrunning the town. She suggested that they were actually benefiting the borough, and that local public services could cope with the incoming migrants.

And just so it's clear; in reposting what she said, I'm not registering my agreement or disagreement. My point is simply that, as an invited guest, she had as much right to contribute to the discussion, because unlike what her bullies loudly suggested, her looks have, again, absolutely nothing to do with the televised discussion.

Oh - and for what it's worth, I don't see anything wrong with Mary Beard's looks. Maybe it's irrelevant and even counter-productive to state that, but some of the defences I've seen for her have been, essentially, "she has the right to be ugly". That she does. But she isn't.

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Monday, 17 December 2012

In postscript to my last post...

Some thought-provoking writing and responses here - NYR Blog - Our Moloch, by Garry Wills.

After a commenter drew parallels between those who seek gun regulation and those who seek freedom of choice for women on the abortion issue, accusing them of hypocrisy, another poster's response was so brilliant that I'd like to reproduce it here in full:

Interesting analogy you choose. Let's explore this further.

1) If given a choice between saving a refrigerator full of Petri dishes with frozen embryos or a 5-year-old, which would you choose? Remember -- if, as the anti-choicers say, life begins at conception, you cannot make any distinction between the two, so I hope you wouldn't let all the Petri babies die to save one other life that, by the very terms of the anti-choicers, is no more valuable than theirs.

2) Since pro-gun advocates always say that you cannot prevent anyone who really wants to get their hands on a weapon and therefore it is folly to regulate them, I presume we can apply this reasoning to the abortion debate (remember, abortion is still constitutionally protected under Roe v. Wade) and end the constant string of regulations that exist only to shame women, lie to them (i.e., bills that require telling women that they risk breast cancer or infertility through terminating pregnancies -- neither of which is true), etc. We definitely know that any woman who really wants to get an abortion will do it, so why make it illegal?

3) Since you say you respect life, may I assume you are working against the death penalty?"


On that note, I'd like to make a suggestion; while I know that in the US women are as free to buy and use guns as men are, and (I daresay) exercise that right, it seems to me that guns have historically been regarded as a typically male domain. Once, it was men that went to war and defended the homestead. Going out hunting (in the deerstalking, rather than the fox-hunting sense) still seems to be treated as a peculiarly male pastime (the rite of passage of a father taking his son hunting etc, or 'the guys' getting away for the weekend). And I can't help but feel part the defence for guns goes back to a sense of preserving an old-fashioned sense of masculinity - as though taking away a man's gun unmans him somehow. Do NRA members all imagine they're John Wayne?

Abortion and contraception, as we know, are treated as a women's issue, though they have huge ramifications for relationships and entire families. If these facts were reversed, I wonder what the political responses would be, particularly from the right. Would the American constitutional right to an abortion be so vehemently attacked if it was seen more as a men's issue, rather than a loose and over-generous freedom for all those slutty women? What if gun-toting had traditionally been more associated with women - would the right to bear arms be treated so reverentially?

Maybe I'm way off the mark with this but the thought's bothered me all day and the responses to this article brought it up again.

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Saturday, 15 December 2012

"From our cold dead hands"

It is staggering to me that, as 26 children and adults lie dead following another school shooting in the US, the response from some seems to be either that this might not have happened if teachers had been armed as well (!!). Or that the reason for this tragedy, according to Bryan Fischer, was not that the perpetrator was potentially deeply messed up in the head and fully able to acquire a gun to inflict his rage with, but that there's not enough focus on God in American schools. Brilliant.

If you're pro-gun-ownership, if you believe it should remain the constitutional right of every American to bear arms, and that this right outweighs the other laws of your constitution, you're entitled to your opinion. But in the immediate wake of these needless and irredeemable deaths, now is not the time to air this belief. Your opinion on this matter does not trump the grief of those who have lost, and the trauma of those who have witnessed so many deaths, fully unprepared for such horror. Rather, it insults everyone who is struggling to understand why, yet again, it has been possible for this to happen. There have been at least 62 mass shootings in America in the last three decades.

Gun ownership in the US is actually on the decrease, and long may that continue. As much as pro-ownership folks might like to claim otherwise, it seems obvious to me that the harder it is to access a gun, the less likely it is that these crimes will happen at such volume. The stats that chronicle mass shootings in the US are shocking. How about this: 24 in the last seven years.

"People who want guns will get them illegally if they can't get them legally", some cry. No - some people will. Others won't, because not every violent crime is a planned attack. So many are impulse crimes, motivated by fury or shock or jealousy or sheer mental breakdown, and if a gun isn't there to be reached for, the damage inflicted is likely to be so much less. Others might stop at the planning stage if getting a gun proves to be difficult enough. Not all, but the majority of guns used in these mass shootings were legally owned.

On the same tack, teenagers should not have access to guns. An acquaintance of mine told of his childhood at a US school, where there was a shooting range.

I was taught how to shoot guns in my liberal Oregon high school as a kid. The shooting range was underneath the school stage and the NRA handed out awards to all the kids like candy. One of those kids, Ken Janowski went on to shoot/kill his parents a year later. My senior year I had a gun pointed at me from a drunk pissed off kid within a 1/4 mile of the school. I have never seen a gun here in the UK other than on a few cops.

Kenneth Janowski was released in March 2012 after nearly 30 years in prison for the murders. He was 18 when he shot his parents, using a rifle obtained from a friend.

What teenager needs to be able to shoot or get a gun? If they wish to enter the army and use guns in defence of their country, they will be taught those skills when they enlist. Again, I'd suggest that a young man or woman who shoots up a school full of children potentially has something very psychiatrically wrong with them, which requires medical help. How can any pro-gun lobbyist argue that society and the constitution should make it anything but harder for someone so unstable to get hold of a gun?

Equally, those arguing that godlessness in schools is the problem are missing the point entirely. Hasn't thousands of years of history, including our bloody present times, shown us that religion doesn't defend against human violence? More often, it's used by the power-hungry as a political tool to control people and perpetrate and prolong violence, in the name of a 'higher purpose'. (Adam Curtis' The Power of Nightmares series is instructive on this point.) Religion should be preserved as a personal right, for those who feel strengthened and guided by it. But it should not be the framework around which our countries are governed or our children educated. And it certainly will not prevent someone in a murderous rage from obliterating those around him if the tools are close at hand to enable it.

It should be illegal to carry a gun unless your job requires that you do so. A gun should always, always be cause for alarm, because it's a machine that, at the click of a button, allows you to punch a hole through another human body from a distance. If you want to carry a gun to show that you can defend yourself or those you love, to show that you won't be bullied, then learn to fight and defend yourself using your hands and feet, not a machine that with one click can cause such senseless destruction.

Carrying a gun won't stop you getting shot, it won't stop a bullet in transit - it'll just mean you can shoot back. The more guns in circulation, the higher the death toll rises. The clearest way to bring gun crime down is to get as few people owning and using guns as possible, while addressing the social, personal or economic causes of these crimes.

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