Saturday, April 19, 2014

Peace summits

Pieter Hugo's portrait photos may be simple but they tell extraordinary stories - of reconciliations between perpetrators and survivors of the Rwandan genocide. The generosity of spirit that the latter show in offering forgiveness for unspeakable acts is remarkable, even if (quite understandably) they can't quite forget.

(Thanks to Helen for the link.)

Know Your Enemy

"I’m forever near a stereo saying, ‘What the fuck is this garbage?’ And the answer is always the Red Hot Chili Peppers."

Nick Cave's scathing comment is just one of Flavorwire's top thirty harshest musician-on-musician insults in history, which features a number of absolute gems.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Snap unhappy

I'm certainly no fan of Paul Weller, but credit to him for taking on the evil might of the Daily Heil and winning. The former Jam frontman was unhappy about the Heil Online's publication of a paparazzo's photos of him out shopping with his wife and kids in LA. The amount won in damages - just £10,000 - isn't the issue, but the ruling is. As the Heil's parent company Associated Newspapers commented, "This judgement has serious and wide-ranging consequences". Yes, hopefully it does - much of the photo content which appears on the site could equally aptly be described as "plainly voyeuristic" and not remotely in the public interest. Maybe Weller will help to take the site down faster than we can by sharing its stories...

Open access to the past

Talk about a valuable resource: British Pathe has uploaded its entire collection of moving images, digitised in 2002, to YouTube. As a result, 3,500 hours of footage - covering everything from the Chernobyl disaster to a prototype robot called George from 1950 - are now freely accessible to anyone with an internet connection. There goes my plan to be constructive today...

For those who will continue to rock, we salute you

In honour of AC/DC deciding to soldier on despite founding guitarist Angus Young's stroke, I'm currently listening to 'Back In Black' loud. It's only right.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Quote of the day

"My relationship with my muse is a delicate one at the best of times and I feel that it is my duty to protect her from influences that may offend her fragile nature. She comes to me with the gift of song and in return I treat her with the respect I feel she deserves - in this case this means not subjecting her to the indignities of judgement and competition. My muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race and if indeed she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel - this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes. My muse may spook! May bolt! May abandon me completely!"

Nick Cave rejects his nomination for Best Male Artist at the 1996 MTV Awards in style, in a missive featured on the ever-excellent Letters Of Note.

(Thanks to Miranda for the link.)

Beard today, gone tomorrow

Have we reached "peak beard"? Is that even possible? But if so, then perhaps I should keep my current stubble (the product of laziness rather than an attempt at being fashionable) to avoid looking like a hipster and having to come up with "plausible beard exit strategies".

(Thanks to Tim for the links.)

Red, red whine

When it comes to naming bands whose music is so loud it alters heart rhythms and makes fans' ears bleed, you'd probably plump for someone like Motorhead or Swans - not UB40.

(Thanks to Dave for the link.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Spreading the word

Somehow I doubt that celebrated linguist, academic and author David Crystal OBE is an avid viewer of Channel 4's 8 Out Of 10 Cats. But if he were, he might have been pleasantly surprised by a recent installment during which Jimmy Carr revealed that, when asked to name the nation's most significant contribution to the world, a whopping 60% of the Great British Public plumped for the English language.

You see, as Crystal explained in a talk as part of last month's Oxford Literary Festival, his latest book Wordsmiths And Warriors: An English-Language Tourist's Guide To Britain (written in partnership with his wife Hilary) finds him regularly despairing at the fact that our mother tongue, and key moments in its evolution, are all too often disrespected rather than celebrated. Take the arrival on these shores of the first Anglo-Saxons, at Pegwell Bay in 449, for instance - an event that marked the very birth of English, and yet that fact is neglected on all the signage there today. Or William Caxton's printing press and bookshop - there's now nothing where the building once stood, in Westminster, not even a memorial to commemorate its existence.

Key figures too are rarely afforded the official recognition they deserve, Crystal only uncovering two or three blue plaques in honour of those instrumental to the development of English (one of which is in Oxford itself, for the founder of the Oxford English Dictionary, James Murray).

Perhaps, though, the stat from 8 Out Of 10 Cats would make Crystal even more aggrieved - why is it that the general public can acknowledge the importance of English and yet the powers-that-be can't?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A sense of perspective

We're all used to seeing photos of famous landmarks at close quarters - which is what makes seeing them set within their immediate geographical context so fascinating. The surroundings in which the Taj Mahal and the Great Pyramids of Giza find themselves detract from their splendour, whereas the likes of the Arc de Triomphe and the Parthenon look even more stunning from a distance.

(Thanks to Raoul for the link.)

Come as you are - unless your name's not down

Hang on a minute, where was my invite?! With J Mascis in for Lorde and a 250-capacity venue, this sounds significantly better than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame show.

(Thanks to Alison for the link.)

That joke's not funny anymore still funny

The internet: it may have its critics, but you've surely got to love anything that helps to popularise a joke about a mongoose that appeared in a local Yorkshire paper 98 years ago...

Monday, April 14, 2014

On location

A twist on the Sleeveface phenomenon: classic album covers overlaid on Google Street View images of their actual locations. The Beatles' Abbey Road inevitably features, but so too do Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP and PJ Harvey's Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea.

On a related note, a Flickr user called Harvezt has posted a series of pictures called Dark Side Of The Cover in which he or she imagines what iconic album covers might look like from a different (often the opposite) perspective. Abbey Road features again, but the Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie and Kraftwerk covers are all better.

Know Your Enemy

"The game is an occult tool that opens up young people to influence or possession by demons."

Jon Quigley of the Lakeview Full Gospel Fellowship, speaking in 1985 about Dungeons & Dragons. Yes, seriously. Read more on the extraordinary moral panic the game provoked here.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Reasons To Be Cheerful Part II

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

#13 - Oxford Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum

These two museums, both free to visit, are essentially chalk and cheese.

The Oxford Museum of Natural History is home to a rich array of exhibits - as well it might be, given that it was founded to showcase the university's collections. The towering dinosaur and elephant skeletons are the most obviously visually impressive, but the smaller exhibits are no less worth perusing. Indeed Stan's favourite, on his first ever visit this week, seemed to be Mandy the stuffed Shetland pony, narrowly ahead of the model crocodile, a fox and some of the statues of famous scientists which adorn the stone pillars.

The museum - a slightly foreboding Victorian neo-Gothic edifice from the outside - is spacious, airy and light inside thanks to its high glass roof, which is supported by cast iron columns, and the exhibits are well arranged and accompanied by clear, informative text. While (thankfully) it doesn't pander to the modern museum fashion for interactive gimmickry, neither is it old-fashionedly stuffy or formal - for instance, there are a range of exhibits, including a 230-million-year-old piece of petrified tree trunk, that visitors are actively encouraged to touch.

The Pitt Rivers Museum, accessible through a doorway at the back of the Museum of Natural History, is very different. Much more anthropological in focus, it features glass cases crammed full of items from around the world, with labelling patchy and inconsistent. You feel much more like you're immersed in the dimly lit private collection of a Victorian eccentric, as you try to take in all the artifacts and trinkets he's amassed on his travels. That certainly has its own charm and appeal, even if the scalps and shrunken heads on display don't...

I get the feeling I've been cheated

Confession time: I passed up the opportunity to see Therapy? on their recent Troublegum anniversary tour in either Wolverhampton or Nottingham. Let's just say that the reports from friends who did catch them have left me kicking myself particularly hard...

An elevated sense of humour

So you're called Schindler. I guess it's a bit of a no-brainer to go into the business of making lifts...

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Feel good hits of the 12th April

1. 'Try To Explain' - The Flaming Lips
A haunting digital ballad from The Terror, an album I've fallen for in a big way. The direct and personal nature of the lyrics is striking, no doubt influenced by Wayne Coyne's split with his long-term partner, and they're at productive odds with the experimental feel of the music (if not its minimalism). Incomprehension can have rarely sounded so beautiful.

2. 'Graffiti' - Maximo Park
A definite highlight of their recent Oxford gig, and a portal to a trip down Memory Lane for yours truly. A Certain Trigger remains a fine album.

3. 'Kveikur' - Sigur Ros
Never mind the fact that it's all too often a marketing cliche unsubstantiated by the evidence - Kveikur is a real return to form, its menacing title track in particular.

4. 'Possessed' - Eagulls
It's hard to imagine any band clearly heavily influenced by Iceage securing themselves any kind of mainstream exposure in this country, let alone in the US - so Leeds quintet Eagulls could be forgiven for wondering what the hell's going on. David Letterman seemed to approve, though.

5. 'Backwaters' - Drenge
The Smiths gone grunge.

6. 'Strong Hand' - Chvrches
A bonus track from debut album The Bones Of What You Believe (and the song that actually includes the album title in the lyrics). Not only is it as good as anything that made it into the official tracklisting, the fan-made video was declared "the best thing I have seen all day. Maybe ever" on the band's Twitter.

7. 'Le Prieur Rockets' - Kid Kin
An unfamiliar name from the line-up for this year's Punt, who actually turn out to be (a) extremely good in an electronica/post-rock kind of way and (b) the nom de plume of my former work colleague and current 5-a-side team-mate Pete.

8. 'Seasons (Waiting On You)' - Future Islands
Another Letterman performance - and this really is a performance. I'm wasn't impressed by them at the ATP Nightmare Before Christmas in 2011 (review still in the pipeline, ahem), I'm not particularly keen on this song, and I fail to understand all the positive press they've been getting around new album Singles, out on 4AD -  but I can't deny that Samuel T. Herring's vocal delivery and stage manner are remarkable. It does all remind of this, though...

9. 'Nowhere To Land New' - The Cult Of Dom Keller
Thanks to Dave for introducing me to a charming bunch who, on this evidence, drag 60s garage through psychedelia and krautrock to very productive effect. May be on nodding terms with narcotic substances.

10. 'Peaceable Child' - Inventions
Along roughly similar lines as Kid Kin, though more ambient. Also, Inventions are a duo - a collaboration between Explosions In The Sky guitarist Mark T. Smith and Eluvium's Matthew Cooper, whose debut album has been put out by tastemaking label Temporary Residence.

About a girl - well, a few girls

So it turns out that when St Vincent covered 'Lithium' in Chicago, she was actually rehearsing for Nirvana's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where she performed the song again with the backing of Krist Novoselic, Pat Smear and Dave Grohl. And she wasn't the only guest vocalist the trio invited to fill Kurt Cobain's shoes for the evening - Lorde contributed to 'All Apologies', Kim Gordon to 'Aneurysm' and (best of all) Joan Jett to 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'.

Incidentally, Gordon's Instagram has been ranked among the fifteen best by Vogue. Worth a look for some vintage photos of her from the Sonic Youth days, as well as pics that indicate she's as much of a starstruck fan as those who meet her - the snap of her with Stevie Nicks taken at the Hall of Fame ceremony is captioned: "Oh my god!! Finally met the ultimate rock goddess?".

Know Your Enemy

"If you put the most important cultural elements in society into the hands of commercial people who want to make a profit they will bring it down to the lowest common denominator."

Richard Hoggart, the father of cultural studies and a stout defender of D H Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover at the book's obscenity trial, who has died at the age of 95.

Friday, April 11, 2014

"You see, I CAN write jokes - I just choose not to"

So that's the third series of Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle done, then. There wasn't much in the way of surprises, to the extent that it featured his usual trademarks: toying with or mock-aggressively ridiculing the audience, both present at the recording and watching at home; spending as much time dissecting comedy as dissecting politics (remember kids - not everything featuring animals is satire); savaging other comics (on the menu this time around were Lee Mack, Jimmy Carr, Jason Manford and the Mock The Week crew); liberally lobbing out sharp, pithy phrases that stick in the memory (his description of Twitter as being "the Stasi for the Angry Birds generation" was particularly good); holding imaginary phone conversations (the "But I'd know it was you" line in the first episode absolutely killed me); and concluding in the final episode (an attempt to write half an hour's worth of material on the conventional stand-up subject of marriage) with a brilliant pseudo-breakdown.

If there was any disappointment, it stemmed from the fact that - contrary to my expectations - Chris Morris didn't make as incisive or funny a "hostile interrogator" as Armando Iannucci did on previous series. Plus, as much as I was laughing, I can't share his hatred for dogs.

Still, minor quibbles - and easily overlooked in light of the series' greatest achievement: putting Shilbottle firmly on the map. I wonder how many times the signs have been graffitied since that episode aired?

Mistaken identity

Lorde or Kurt Vile?: a simple question, but not so simple to answer...

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Trust issues

Last month, David Babbs of influential campaigning community 38 Degrees appeared before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, currently investigating what can be done to ensure citizens feel engaged with rather than divorced from the political process. Watching the video footage, I wasn't convinced that he'd made his points particularly well, coming across as a little vague, flustered and childish at times. However, one of the key issues under discussion was the broadly negative public perception of politicians, which Babbs rightly explained with reference to the issue of trust, pointing to broken electoral pledges and the extent of the expenses scandal (only to be harangued by more than one committee member accusing him of seeking to tar all MPs with the same brush). If only his appearance before the committee could have come a month later - he could have simply said: "Maria Miller - I rest my case"...

Miller has now finally resigned as Culture Secretary, belatedly doing the decent thing following intensive pressure from both the public and the media (the latter perhaps pursuing a bit of a personal vendetta, given Miller's implementation of some of the recommendations of the Leveson Report...). But the whole sorry affair just exemplifies exactly what Babbs was talking about.

First, of course, there was her improper expenses claim. Then, when it was exposed, the independent parliamentary commissioner for standards advised that she should reimburse the taxpayer to the tune of £45,000 and took the unusual step of criticising her "lack of cooperation" and attempts to "discredit" the investigation. And yet despite her arrogant and willfully obstructive behaviour, the Commons Standards Committee (comprised of MPs, naturally) subsequently showed extraordinary clemency in obliging her to pay back only £5,800. Miller's apology to Parliament - just 71 words uttered in 32 seconds - seemed remarkably unapologetic, but David Cameron stood by her until the clamour for her resignation grew so loud he had to have a little chat with her, after which she came to the decision to step down (entirely voluntarily, of course).

Cameron has been left to blather on about "good and honest MPs", while Ed Miliband has seized the opportunity to land some punches, savaging the PM's "terrible error of judgement" and stressing that the nation has been "absolutely appalled" by the Tories' response to the scandal - a response which worsened with the sacking of Boris Johnson lite Michael Fabricant for daring to suggest that Miller's resignation was overdue. Unfortunately for Miliband, though, the Commons Standards Committee is a cross-party group, so there's a broader responsibility for letting Miller get away lightly. For that reason, it's hardly surprising that Babbs and many thousands if not millions of others remain suspicious and mistrustful of politicians in general.

What can be done to rectify the situation, then? For a start, the make-up of the Commons Standards Committee should be changed. According to Labour MP John Mann, who sparked the inquiry into Miller's expenses in the first place, "self-regulation of MPs by MPs is now well and truly dead. The committee should only exist to look at how parliament can improve standards in public life. Instead the independent commissioner should make decisions on MPs with appeals to the independent advisers. And the electorate needs to be give the right of recall for serious offences". Ironic, really, that Miller helped to ensure that the media could no longer police itself but then benefited from MPs doing exactly the same thing...

Lunar eclipse

Anyone worried that the Flaming Lips' recent love-ins with Miley Cyrus might indicate they're turning their backs on the leftfield can rest easy. The band's latest genius/crackpot career move is to follow up their 2009 cover (with friends) of the entirety of Dark Side Of The Moon with a new album designed to be played at the same time as Pink Floyd's masterpiece. Flaming Side Of The Moon will also apparently be "carefully crafted to sync up perfectly with the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz", just for good measure.

In truth, this isn't a completely new concept for the band - their 1997 album Zaireeka comprised of four separate CDs intended to be played on four different stereo systems simultaneously.

In other Lips news, drummer Kliph Scurlock has departed - perhaps to spend more time chastising his parents for causing him the hassle of having to repeatedly spell out his first name...

Rich stuff

It's official, then: nearly thirty years after the release of the original film, The Goonies 2 will happen. Three thoughts spring immediately to mind:

1. Can it hope to be anywhere near as good as the first film?

2. Will I be able to develop a drinking game that's anywhere near as good as the one I created for the first film?

3. Given that John Matuszak, who played Sloth, is no longer with us, will his part go to the person who can submit the best sellotape selfie?

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Go East: Part 4 - Bangkok

(Parts 1, 2 and 3 here, here and here respectively.)

Saturday 19th November

* The journey from Suvarnahbumi Airport once again testifies to the fact that football is an international lingua franca, my mention of Newcastle eliciting the Pavlovian response "Alan Shearer!" again. We travel along scooter-free freeways, past massive billboards and skyscraping towers - this is by far the most modern city we've visited yet, though it still has the gaudy temples and spirit houses familiar from Cambodia. Upon arrival at our hotel, the taxi driver has a special present for us as honeymooners: a knitted hat and scarf. For use back home, we presume, given that the day is already well on its way to a humid 35 degrees...

* The hotel is new and there's construction work continuing above us, but the room itself is comfortable and well appointed (if not quite answering to the description of "boutique", the word overused in the promotional literature) and there's the bonus of an outdoor pool.


* Our first port of call simply has to be the Grand Palace - a stunning collection of buildings that easily out-blings anything we saw in Cambodia, glittering in the bright sunlight of the roasting hot day as wind chimes gently tinkle in the breeze. With their elaborate facades, statues, coloured mosaic tiles and mirrors, the temples ostentatiously compete with each other like WAGs on Ladies' Day at Ascot. At the centre is Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), which, like those temples surrounding it, is regularly restored to ensure its spectacular grandeur never becomes tarnished. Thailand may be some way removed from Cambodia in terms of economics and development, but it clearly has greater similarity with Cambodia than Vietnam when it comes to the value placed on royalty and religion.


* Here not only are there pedestrian crossings, but the signals are actually obeyed. There are also proper tuk-tuks (not just trailers attached to mopeds) and prices given next to goods on the market stalls (which mainly seem to be manned - if you'll pardon the pun - by ladyboys). Evidence of the recent flooding is everywhere - the stacks of sandbags, the hastily constructed concrete breeze-block flood defence walls, the water pooled on the ground in the market area. We're pestered to go on a boat trip on the river, which has now been deemed safe - clearly the operators have had no income for weeks and are desperate for business.


* Khao San Road is pedestrianised to all intents and purposes, clogged up by tanned year-outers, racks of cheap clothes and street food stalls, and lined with budget bars and hostels. To be honest, it's not really somewhere I'd choose to go to be fitted up with a bespoke tailored suit, as I have to tell one cheerily persistent salesman apparently determined to make a sale.


* We eat at Green Bar and Restaurant off Samsen Soi, where the chef-cum-waitress' friendly, chatty demeanour means we're happy to overlook the fact they've run out of much of what is on the menu. A medium spicy massamam curry sets the lips a-tingling - a reminder that food here is significantly hotter than in either Cambodia or Vietnam.

* What better way to end a brilliant holiday than with the disappointment of watching Newcastle fall to their first defeat of the season? I catch the game against Man City at a bar on a street parallel to Khao San Road, where life is a lot calmer and a bit cooler. A couple of bars down, the house band play 'Wonderwall' as if in tribute to City's victory. I shake my head, drain the last of my Chang and call it a night.

 Sunday 20th November

* The construction work proves to be a handy alarm clock, starting at 8.30am precisely. There's no time for a pre-breakfast dip in the pool, but we do get to enjoy a fantastic spread including particularly delicious potato rosti before dashing off to the airport at breakneck speed.

* Smurfs The Movie, Barry Manilow in concert and a documentary about pickling eggs, all while seated next to a British bloke with verbal diarrhoea who informs me that his Thai very-definitely-now-ex-girlfriend shredded all his clothes and shoes except those he's wearing after a blazing row, before smashing up his laptop and camera. Now I know the true meaning of the phrase "long-haul flight". Landing back in Blighty can't come soon enough.

And that's that. Farewell to the land(s) of mindblowing food, utterly insane traffic, tortured history, tuk-tuks, orange-robed monks, gilded temples, delicious cooking lager, liberal public urination, free-range cows and dogs, smiling service and charmingly garbled English. We're honeymooned out.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Gone but not forgotten

Blimey. Yesterday marked the twentieth anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death. I may no longer be the complete fanboy of yore, but in honour of the man whose band did more than any other to shape my musical tastes, here are six moments from the Nirvana canon always guaranteed to get the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end:

1. 'School', 0:01. The swell of feedback providing a platform for the central riff of an anthem for petulant, disaffected teenagers everywhere - their first, but not their last...

2. 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', 0:01. The iconic riff that never fails to thrill, no matter how times I hear it. Cliched and corny as it might be, this is what really lit the blue touch paper for me.

3. 'Territorial Pissings', 2:13. The way Kurt's voice breaks down at just the point his words give way to screams.

4. 'Stay Away', 3:04. The total collapse of the song into a droning thrum. Dave Grohl's drumming is extraordinary.

5. 'Scentless Apprentice', 0:01. That thumping, utterly distinctive, Albini-recorded drumbeat.

6. 'Where Did You Sleep Last Night?', 4:40. One of the most unbearably pained and emotionally powerful moments in music, no arguments.

My friends Paul and Danny are paying tribute to Kurt in a rather different way this coming Friday: making their debut as Elvana, an Elvis impersonator-fronted Nirvana covers band. Gutted I can't be there - it's bound to be far more respectful than Courtney Love's proposed musical of his life...

Being economical with the truth

Want to economise on printing costs? Use Garamond. That's the conclusion of a study by Suvir Mirchandani, who has estimated that switching to Garamond from Times New Roman for all publications would shave a staggering $136m off the US government's annual $467m ink budget. Impressive work for a 14-year-old...

(Thanks to Rea for the link.)

Breast behaviour

Amazing to think, isn't it, that we have Janet Jackson's momentarily exposed nipple to thank for the existence of both YouTube and Facebook?

(Thanks to Matt for the link.)

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Know Your Enemy

"Miley Cyrus makes being dumb look so easy. You have to admire calculated stupidity to a certain degree."

Rufus Wainwright, clearly not enamoured with the Flaming Lips' new best friend.

In the same interview, Wainwright rather improbably describes the experience of coming out as "a nightmare" as his parents "reacted horrifically". You'd have thought coming out would have been unnecessary - as he himself admits, growing up surrounded by women "I was pretty gay from a young age – into cut-out dolls, Judy Garland, dressing up".