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Monday, 22 August 2016

The Scottish Cup: plus ça change

You may have noticed that this season's Scottish Cup has already started. There's something great about the cup, particularly if -like me- you’re not a fan of the Old Firm. In fact, the phrase ‘not a fan’ does not do justice to my Old Firm antipathy. I’m more like the opposite of a fan; an unfan, if you will. For unfans of the Old Firm, the best thing about the Cup is that, unlike the League Championship, in which no club from outside Glasgow has triumphed since 1985, it gives us a decent chance of witnessing some other team lifting the trophy. Once the competition starts, we live in reasonable hope that one of the so-called ‘provincial’ sides will overcome the odds to triumph in the final. In recent years, I’ve attended finals won by Inverness Caledonian Thistle, St.Johnstone and Hearts.  

When the draw for the first round was made a few weeks ago, there were several romantic-sounding names in the hat, like St. Cuthbert Wanderers, Burntisland Shipyards and Bonnyrigg Rose. Perhaps the least romantic name -but the most interesting story- belonged to Edusport Academy. Edusport is the first independent football academy to be allowed to enter the old competition. The company was set up by the former professional footballer Chris Ewing in 2011, with the idea of modelling an academy on the American scholarship system in order to provide young people with a sports-based life experience. Based in Glasgow and Edinburgh, Edusport is a business and therefore designed to make a profit. This, along with the fact that it has recruited most of its students from Europe, appears to have annoyed some conservative elements within the football community.  

In the first preliminary round, they were drawn against Colville Park, who had qualified by winning the Scottish Amateur Cup, which is the Wagner’s Ring Cycle of lower level football, with hundreds of entrants each year and seemingly dozens of rounds. On Saturday, I went along with my youngest son to see the replay, the teams having drawn 2-2 the week before. The venue was New Tinto Park (home of Benburb Juniors), chosen because Colville Park’s ground did not meet SFA requirements. I have no idea what those requirements are, but –given the basic amenities available at New Tinto- I can only imagine what isn’t available at Colville’s home ground. It was a fiver to get in and I estimated the crowd at somewhere between 60 and 70. It was odd to think that a low-key occasion like this would, in nine months or so, lead to a major final played in front of 52,000 fans at the National Stadium, with live coverage on television. If I was writing for the Daily Record, this is where I would use the phrase: “the magic of the Scottish Cup”. 

It felt mildly surreal to watch a team comprised mostly of young French, Swiss and Belgian players playing in a meaty Scottish Cup tie against a group of guys who looked, well … more or less what you’d expect an amateur football team from Lanarkshire to look like. In the early exchanges, it looked like there was going to be a clash of styles. Edusport set out to play in what some pundits insist on calling ‘the right way’ i.e. by passing the ball, a lot, to people wearing the same colour of shirts as them. Colville Park were by no means up-and-at-em-hoof-the-feckin-ball-up-the-park merchants (stop me if this gets too technical); once they got into their stride, they played some decent football, although it would be fair to say that their goalie would not quite satisfy the ‘sweeper-keeper’ requirements of Mr Guardiola at Manchester City. 

Once they took the lead, Colville looked likely to add to their tally. Edusport suffered an injustice when one of their players was sent off for an innocuous bit of shirt-pulling. The referee (‘card happy’, according to one sage behind me) may have been technically correct, but –in the context of the game- his decision looked fussy and pedantic, particularly as the ‘victim’ of the shirt-pulling appeared to be giving as much as he got. In the first half, one or two of the Edusport lads demonstrated a neat line in handsome Southern European indignation whenever a pass didn’t land where they wanted or when they were rudely tackled by opponents, but the half-time team talk brought about a change in attitude. Perhaps it was the sense of grievance at having lost a player, but, with one man down, their performance actually improved. 

The Scottish Cup is said to be the oldest surviving national trophy in world football and here we were witnessing something new, with this team of lads, most of whom were foreign, adapting to the muscular demands of the Scottish game. When I was my son’s age, it would have seemed absurd or outlandish to have had a team of players from France, Belgium and Switzerland playing in the Scottish Cup; stuff like that could only ever happen in comic books. My boy lives in a different Scotland to the one that I grew up in and he is all the richer for it, but –for all this newness, this ability to be comfortable with what would once have seemed exotic- if he wants to watch Scottish football as much as I have done over the years, there are some things he’ll just have to get used to.

Saturday's tie was taking place at the same time as Rangers -barely half a mile up the road- were entertaining Motherwell in a league game. Tinto Park is close enough to Ibrox Stadium to be able to hear the roar of the crowd. Having been informed that Rangers were a goal down at half-time, I surprised my son (I won’t say impressed, because use of that word would imply something altogether less tragic than what occurred) when, hearing a roar from the direction of Ibrox around twenty past four, I turned to him and said: “Equaliser … Harry Forrester”. My boy checked his phone and found that Forrester had indeed got an equalising goal. Around half an hour later, as Edusport pressed in vain for a late equaliser and Colville Park started to dream about further Cup adventures, another huge roar came from the direction of Ibrox. I turned to my son once more and said: “Last-minute winner … Kenny Miller”. 

He checked his phone and, sure enough, old Yoda had once again named the correct scorer.

My boy may have thought otherwise, but guessing who had scored for Rangers wasn’t all that difficult. What I know –and what he will learn- is that decades of observation lead you to understand that certain things (particularly in Scottish football) happen again and again and again. My speculations were merely educated guesses based on observable evidence. 

Colville Park held out for a 1-0 win and, although they'll now face a tricky tie against the mighty Girvan on September 3rd, they will continue to dream about a long run in the Scottish Cup. I’m sure there are going to be some great stories along the way to Hampden, but, having had an unusually glorious run of four provincial winners in five years, we unfans may now have to prepare ourselves for a return to the old order. Hearing that roar from along the road at Ibrox, I wondered if there was anyone at our game who would bet against Celtic and Rangers meeting in the final next May.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Let’s not jump to conclusions (unless we feel like it).

A lot of the mainstream media and many commentators on social networks are busily and scrupulously pointing out that it is wrong to jump to conclusions about the ‘motivation’ of the madman responsible for the carnage in Nice. According to this point of view, there is no link to be made between this latest outrage and any religious, political or cultural grouping and it is, at the very least, morally dubious to draw any conclusions from the ethnicity or religious affiliations of such a deranged individual.

Fair enough. I can see why that seems like a reasonable line to take. Just because the adherents of a certain politico-religious movement -in the cause of furthering some clearly delineated global ambitions- behave like mediaevalist savages doesn’t mean that everyone who follows a certain religion should be tarred by association.

I accept that premise, although I do struggle to understand why some folk will deny that such a link could possibly exist, even when the perpetrators of attacks make explicit claims about their motivations. To ignore or repudiate the avowed aims of these perpetrators (in effect, to deny them agency), requires quite an intellectual leap on the part of those doing the repudiating. Some might put it down to arrogance, but I’m not convinced that this is necessarily the case. I’d be more inclined to the view that it represents a conscious reaction to a sub-conscious wound; terrorism wins, not when it blows people up, but because -when it blows people up- it forces some otherwise rational minds to rebrand ‘fear’ as ‘conscience’.  

As someone who generally tries to form my opinions around rational interpretations of the available evidence, I’d agree that it’s usually unwise to jump to conclusions from a base of flimsy evidence. But over the last few weeks, I have gathered the distinct impression that jumping to conclusions has become all the rage; some of the very same people and news organisations urging caution and restraint over Nice have been doing quite the opposite over the binary choice faced by the British electorate at the recent EU referendum. 

First there was the disgraceful citation of the murderous actions of a mentally ill individual as ‘evidence’ that the Leave campaign had somehow unleashed dark and powerful forces. It was depressing to witness seemingly rational people choosing to interpret a psychotic episode in a way that satisfied their own prejudices. Since the vote, various attempts have been made to suggest, for example, that relatively minor examples of stupidity and nastiness (like someone posting anti-immigration graffiti) represent evidence of a gathering tidal wave of racist enmity in the UK. Anyone who can argue, on the one hand, that some racist idiot shouting ‘Paki go home’ (disgraceful as that undoubtedly is) is evidence of malicious intent among 15 million voters while, on the other, suggesting that the latest in a very long line of atrocities has got ‘nothing to do’ with Islam is, intellectually speaking, unlikely to pass go and unlikely to collect £200.  

It is either acceptable to jump to conclusions from little available evidence, or it is unacceptable to jump to conclusions from little available evidence. Whichever side you’re on, you can’t pick one of those options when it suits your own particular prejudices and then pick the other option when it doesn’t.

Although … now that I think about, it’s obvious that some people can do just exactly that.

Which people? 

The kind that you shouldn't take seriously.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Let's blame the old bastards.

Given the amount of propaganda spewed out in the EU referendum campaign, it is hardly surprising that some folk reacted to the result in a way that would more appropriate to, say, an invasion of the earth by hostile aliens. Within our increasingly large over-reaction community, it would appear that losing an election is not something that is considered to be a legitimate part of the democratic process. 
On the morning after the vote –admittedly a difficult time for any losing side- I listened to interviews with Anna Soubry, Caroline Lucas and Tim Farron which would have been quite funny, but only if they had they been scripted as comedic parodies designed to illustrate the attitude of the political class towards the electorate. Each interview was marked by a complete absence of grace, seasoned with a toxic sprinkling of weapons-grade disdain. 

Ms Soubry, a Tory junior minister who has clearly been promoted beyond her abilities, expressed her sheer ‘horror’ at the result, claiming that it was one of the ‘worst days’ in her life. She talked of voters being ‘horrid’ to her when she had been out campaigning in the racist swamplands of the East Midlands (where I understand that lynch mobs still roam the countryside) and claimed that many Leave voters had probably never encountered an immigrant.  
Caroline Lucas of the Greens was ‘devastated’ that her vision of ‘a generous and outward looking country’ committed to ‘making the world a better place’ had been rejected by the electorate. By inference, the Leave side must have been committed to establishing a mean-spirited, inward looking country, determined to make things worse for everyone. Ms Lucas said that we had to ‘find ways to heal our broken democracy’, evidently oblivious to the fact that we had just participated in the most extraordinary democratic exercise. If the result had gone the other way, my guess would be that Ms Lucas wouldn’t have been up for too much healing with the beaten Leave side. Call it a hunch.    

Tim Farron, leader of the Lib-Dems, resorted shamefully to blatant age-ism, claiming that young voters had been ‘betrayed’ by the older electorate. In assuming that all young people had voted Remain, perhaps he had concluded that they would regard the youth unemployment rates across the continent as just a feature of the system. I wonder if anyone has asked the unemployed kids in Spain, Greece and Italy how the EU is working out for them? The corollary of Mr Farron’s line of thinking is that some votes should be worth more than others. Perhaps he’d favour the introduction of a sliding scale for elections. I'd suggest something like this:  

Age group 18 – 30: two votes per person.  
Age group 31 – 45: three votes per person.  
Age group 46 -70: one vote per person.  
Age group 70 and above: These votes could be lumped together. Maybe twenty or thirty of them from like, a nursing home or whatever, could get one vote to represent the views of their group.  

Perhaps it hasn’t occurred to Mr Farron that society is a covenant between those currently living, those who lived before us and those who are yet to be born. The voter in her mid-80s has the same rights as the voter in her teens. That woman in her 80s helped shape the country we now live in, being part of the generation that made the sacrifices necessary to create the free and prosperous world we are lucky enough to inhabit. She will have worked, paid taxes, raised children and grandchildren and –something that ageists don’t seem to understand- she will have thought about the world she wants her children and grandchildren to inherit. Being in her twilight years does not mean that she has no stake in our future, so shame on anyone who is prepared to dismiss her opinion on the basis of age; shame on anyone who is willing to exploit generational differences to bolster their grubby political arguments. 

Rather than look down their nose at people, perhaps professional politicians should have a think about why there was such an anti-establishment vote. There are many reasons why Leave prevailed (personally, I think Eddie Izzard’s hectoring drag act on Question Time might just have tipped the scales), but it is clear that Labour’s abandonment of its core vote was a significant factor. Labour’s old working class voters helped deliver this result and they delivered it because their perception is that ‘progressive’ politics has -for some time- held them in contempt, regarding them as stupid, dangerous, racist and probably a bit smelly, certainly not to be trusted on anything important.

All of the reactive guff about being ‘ashamed’ of the result illustrates, among other things, a failure to understand that in a democratic system, the taxi-driver really does have the same voting rights as the college lecturer. Like a maiden aunt in some Victorian melodrama getting an attack of the vapours at the sight of a swarthy, uncouth gardener, the people who get all giddy and upset about politics red in tooth and claw really need to get over themselves. If you can’t accept that people who don’t see the world the way that you see it can ‘care’ every bit as much as you, then you’ve got a problem; if you believe that someone who doesn’t agree with you is simply ‘misinformed’ by their sources (in a way that you evidently don’t think you have been misinformed by your no-doubt-impeccable sources), then you’ve got a problem.

When you pitch your tent on the moral high ground, you’ll invariably look down on other people, but if you’re inclined to condemn millions of voters as racists, idiots or selfish old fools, then there is something you really ought to know.

That ‘shame’ you feel about the electorate?
It’s your problem, not theirs.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Democracy 1, Everything Else 0.

Through the vicissitudes of the referendum campaign, at least one thing has remained constant: the insistence of some folk on conflating the EU with Europe. I’m never sure whether it is done through sheer ignorance or whether it represents an attempt to make some political point about those supporting the Leave campaign. Whatever the case, it is always worth reminding people that the EU is not Europe; the EU is a political project designed to run Europe from a centralised source. Being ‘anti-EU’ is not the same as being ‘anti-Europe’.

As Tony Benn once put it:
 "How can one be anti-European when one is born in Europe? It is like saying that one is anti-British if one does not agree with the Chancellor of the Exchequer."

The main issues in this referendum have been the economy, immigration and the democratic deficit (or, as some would have it, sovereignty).

Anyone who tells you that they know what will happen to the economy if we stay or if we leave is either lying or hasn’t yet worked out that his or her guesswork doesn’t amount to much more than a hill of beans. Perhaps you can remember all of the clever folk who predicted the dotcom bubble crash, the sub-prime mortgage fiasco in the US or the Eurozone crisis? No, me neither. 

Immigration -whether we like it or not- is a huge issue, particularly in the poorest areas where folk have to compete with immigrants for jobs and housing. The consistent failure of the political class to address legitimate concerns within these communities turned this into a bigger issue than it ever had to be. There was a perfect little illustration of this failure last year, when the Labour MP Emily Thornberry posted her notorious ‘flag of St. George’ tweet. Ms Thornberry not only outed herself as an elitist snob with no understanding of -or sympathy for- the suckers she expected to vote for her; she articulated an entitled, insulated disdain that many folk now believe is endemic among our political class.  

But for all of the concerns about the economy and immigration, it is democracy that exercises my mind when considering how to cast my vote.

In 1973, the European Economic Community (known colloquially as the Common Market) was sold to the electorate on the basis that we were joining a trading block. When it was rebranded as the European Union in 1993, some critics pointed out (and were duly shouted down) that the direction of travel had been reset, away from a mere ‘Common Market’ and towards a federal European state. It is perfectly legitimate to believe in the establishment of a United States of Europe, but if you believe in it, you must be prepared to argue your case and you must get the permission of the electorate before you seek to impose it. Nobody, alas, has ever done this. We should judge institutions not by what they say; we should pay attention instead to what they do. The EU has consistently demonstrated that it acquires its powers by stealth, through treaties that nobody understands. In that sense, it is not just undemocratic; it is anti-democratic.

Accordingly, for all that there are good things and bad things about EU membership, I’ll be voting ‘out’ because my belief in the democratic process trumps everything else. As Tony Benn (yes, him again) put it, faced with the choice between a good king and a bad parliament, our belief in democracy should compel us to choose the bad parliament.

Although my mind is made up, there are four observations I’d make in advance of the vote:

1. The Remain campaign should win. Apart from the having the weight of the establishment behind it, evidence indicates that the status quo normally prevails in a referendum. That’s because people are more conservative than is generally acknowledged and ‘Remain’ is clearly the ‘risk-averse’ choice.   

2. In the unlikely event of a ‘Leave’ vote, Cameron (or whoever else is in charge) will merely take it as a cue to ‘negotiate’ what they’ll call a ‘better deal’ for the UK. Their hope would be that the uneducated electorate will get the right answer next time.

3. If the Leave vote prevails, the EU itself will find a way to work around it. Why do I say that? Because all of the available evidence tells us that that is how it operates. The drivers of the EU project are in too deep to give up now; there are too many vested interests with too much at stake to allow voters to mess things up. Impervious to anything as vulgar as public opinion, the EU leaders have gradually immunised themselves against the virus of democratic accountability. The best indicator of future behaviour is past behaviour; just ask residents of Denmark, Holland, France and Greece, all of whom gave the wrong answers in referenda and were ‘asked’ to reconsider.

4. My gut feeling is that none of this matters anyway. That is not because I doubt the importance of expressing our views through the ballot box. Rather, it is because, in the end, reality will intrude; it always does. I believe that the EU -as we know it- will collapse within the lifetime of most folk reading this article. All previous attempts at 'unifying' Europe have failed and this one will as well. History tells us that when people can’t change things via the ballot box, they find other ways to express their political will. When the mere casting of votes means so very little to the drivers of the EU project, the likelihood increases that they will eventually be deflected from their purpose by forces that might be somewhat less civilised than those we’d encounter in the average election.

Good luck, whichever way you decide to vote on Thursday.

If you are still undecided, I’d urge you to read this:

Tony Benn's speech to the House of Commons on 20th November 1991.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

The pedal bin in my kitchen sounds uncannily like The Move

The Move had a hit in 1971 with a song called 'Chinatown'. The track started with a gong, followed by some gentle wind chimes, before Bev Bevan’s thunderous drum roll kicked in. Every time I use the pedal bin in my kitchen, I am reminded of this song.

Let me explain how this happens.   

Rubbish in hand, I place one foot on the pedal in order to open the lid, which allows me to deposit some domestic waste. Once I remove my foot from the pedal, the lid closes, causing the bin to issue a metallic clang that sounds uncannily like the opening gong from ‘Chinatown’. Once that faux gong rings out, I am then compelled to mimic the thunderous drum roll and sing (with my internal voice) the first lines of the song: 

Bury a jar of shaoxing
When the girl is born
Surely you know the wine will age
Till she's fully grown

You may or may not be aware that these lines allude to a tradition of the Shaoxing province in China, in which a bottle of wine is buried underground whenever a daughter is born and is only dug up for her wedding banquet. It was quite an achievement for The Move to celebrate this tradition in song and get to number 23 in the British charts.    

That thing with the pedal bin is not the only aural cue that inserts itself, uninvited, into my daily routine. Whenever I power down my laptop, it issues a series of little notes, the first four of which are exactly the same as the introduction to Radiohead’s ‘Everything in its right place’ (from the album Kid A … or maybe Kid B; I always get those two mixed up). You may remember the song from the soundtrack to the film ‘Vanilla Sky’. It gets played when the Tom Cruise character is driving down a wide city boulevard early one morning when nobody –as in nobody- else is around. I think it’s because the character is dreaming or he’s on drugs, or he’s possibly dead; or perhaps it’s a metaphor for his state of mind. Whatever.   

The PC that I use at work (another sly machine), in the process of powering down, plays the opening two notes to Colin Blunstone’s 1972 hit ‘Say you don’t mind’. It’s a string quartet that plays on the track, but the PC does a decent job of imitating it. The song was written by Denny Laine, by the way; he was in Wings (the band that The Beatles could have been).     
It’s not just things in my house and at work that insist on playing pop songs. A few years ago, I was a regular shopper at a certain supermarket chain. Whenever they made an in-store announcement about special offers and so on, the first two notes of the electronic clarion preceding each notice resembled the coda to Tubeway Army’s 1979 number 1 hit, ‘Are ‘friends’ electric?’ Every time the store manager updated the customers on the "roast chickens now reduced in our rotisserie", I was compelled to follow that phantom coda, drifting off in an electric dream. ‘Together in Electric Dreams’ was a top 3 hit in 1985 for Phil Oakey and Georgio Moroder. The story goes that Oakey, thinking it was just a rehearsal, recorded the vocal in one take.   

Everything reminds me of music. And, once I’m reminded of a piece of music, it sticks in my head until I’m able to distract myself by inserting something else in its place. On the train into work the other day, I couldn’t shake off 'Ai no corrida', a Quincy Jones hit from the early 80s. I neither own nor particularly like this tune and I can’t even remember how it got into my head, but it took me most of the day to expunge it.  

And while we’re on the subject, I’d like someone to explain this to me: How come you can ‘hear’ music in your head? The act of hearing, surely, involves the primary auditory cortex receiving auditory input? But nobody was playing ‘Ai no corrida’ on the train that morning; if I wasn’t ‘hearing’ it, what exactly was going on?

This is not just about old songs; some modern stuff is catchy too. Lukas Graham’s ‘Seven years old’ (225 million hits and counting on Spotify) has recently taken up residence in my brain, demanding attention. He’s Danish, you know. I can’t, off the top of my head, think of any other Danish pop stars, although John Grant’s ‘Queen of Denmark’ was a beautiful album from 2010, featuring not only a song about a sweetshop but one about feeling like Sigourney Weaver in ‘Aliens’

And I feel just like Sigourney Weaver
When she had to kill those aliens.
And one guy tried to get them back to the Earth.
And she couldn't believe her ears.

John, clearly, isn’t that big on rhyming.  
There is no escape from this sort of thing. It extends to everyday conversations and close encounters at work. I was talking recently to a colleague about how to keep oneself amused during particularly boring meetings (not, if anyone from work is reading, that I ever have to attend boring meetings). My answer was that I play my favourite albums in my head, or, alternatively, take my musical cues from the conversation.

If anyone ever says: “What’s it all about?” my internal rejoinder has to be ‘Alfie’.

If someone starts a sentence with “To cut a long story short”, I have to sing (internal voice, again) ‘I lost my mind’.

If anyone asks “Who knows?” my response has to be: ‘not me; we never lost control’. 

And, if someone –perhaps at the end of a tricky piece of negotiation- says: “Where do we go from here?”, there is only one fitting reply:  

Is it down to the lake I fear?
Aye aye aye aye aye aye
Aye aye aye aye aye aye 
Here we go.

(If you were not born an embarrassingly long time ago, you may need to look some of those references up).

A friend once suggested to me that this insistence on ‘hearing’ music was probably due to a ‘condition’, perhaps some form of musical autism. In the immortal words of Otto Harbach (music by Jerome Kern):

I chaffed them, and I gaily laughed

The desire to ascribe ‘condition’ status or to concoct some phoney-baloney diagnosis for perfectly normal human activity is a modern phenomenon that I’m convinced will both amuse and mystify our grandchildren. My guess is that most people who love music (and particularly musicians) have music in their head most of the time. If that is the case, then the ability to ‘hear’ it in everything is neither a gift nor an affliction; it’s more of a predilection, like a disposition to gardening, spotting trains or binge-watching zombie films.

The Zombies had a huge hit in 1969 with ‘Time of the Season’ and I’ve got an unusual version of the song on an album by the Japanese pop outfit Ippu Do. Their front man, Masami Tsuchiya, joined the English band Japan for their final tour in 1982, wherein his guitar pyrotechnics enlivened a largely electronic oeuvre. I caught one of the gigs on that tour, which was recorded for the live double album ‘Oil on Canvas’. 

Oh … and Colin Blunstone, who lives inside the PC in my office, was also in The Zombies. 

Monday, 2 May 2016

Hitler the Zionist?

I always assume that the hard left's willingness to demonise Israel is never just about how the Israeli government behaves; I believe it to be an anti-American, anti-capitalist thing. Consequently, I had never considered anti-Semitism to be that big an issue, but some things I’ve read and heard recently have changed my mind. Certain cynical alliances have altered the political landscape, to the extent that the ‘anti-West’ thing may indeed have morphed into something uglier. The hard left, for political reasons, decided some time ago to court the Muslim vote; it is, sadly, axiomatic that these votes would come with a generous side-serving of anti-Semitism.

I have no idea whether or not Ken Livingstone is an anti-Semite, but he supports Hamas and Hezbollah and I know what they think of Jews. Although I would generally regard him as a self-serving, publicity-hungry buffoon, his recent description of Hitler’s initial policy as ‘Zionist’ seemed like something more sinister than mere buffoonery; it sounded like a grubby attempt to conflate Israel and National Socialist Germany.

One might be able to argue –as his supporters have done- that Mr Livingstone is technically correct. At the time of the so-called Haavara Agreement (August 1933), the National Socialists wanted the Jews out of Germany and so appeared to support the creation of a Jewish state. But Hitler only supported that putative state because, at the time, it was not politically viable for him to start killing Jews; he’d get the power to do that later. Mr Livingstone’s supporters may be right to claim that some folk in the Labour Party are using this issue to undermine the current leader (who has a track record of consorting with unsavoury characters), but that’s a separate point. They are arguing (somewhat feebly) that Mr Livingstone is technically correct, but it is not possible to argue that he is morally correct.

Hitler ‘supported’ the rights of Jews to form a Jewish state in the same way that I would now ‘support’ Ken Livingstone’s right to go forth and multiply.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Making an album, part 9: Does your granny always tell you that the old songs are the best?

When I was a lad, it was quite the thing for people to sing at family gatherings. I had relatives who would regularly ‘do a turn’ and entertain the company with a song or two. At the time, I was too young and self-conscious or, later, too cool for school to appreciate any of this. I didn’t really know much at the time and had a slightly patronising view of folk who could (and would) get up and do a song at parties; it all seemed a bit passé to me. Now that I can usually tell the difference between my arse and a hole in the ground, I know that singing is a fun thing to do and that it is also good for you. I’m sure there have been studies carried out which can prove this scientifically (or at least pseudo-scientifically) but all I can present is anecdotal evidence, carried out by a sample of one, i.e. me. I feel better when I’m singing. I believe that when I’m singing, it’s not just my vocal chords that are being exercised; I believe that I’m taking my soul for a walk.

I wish I had known all this back then; I wish I could have been relaxed and confident enough to join in with all that singing. I get the impression that not as many folk sing at parties these days, although it’s possibly just the case that I don’t get invited to the parties at which people sing (although, come to think of it, I don’t get invited to parties, full stop).

The generation that sang at social gatherings was, in at least one respect, richer than their children and grand-children. They didn’t have the gadgets, the disposable income, the satellite TV or the foreign holidays, but they were familiar with songs that could be sung from start to finish without embarrassment or, indeed, embellishment. And that lack of any need for embellishment was a testament to the quality of the words and melodies of songs that were written to be sung. The wonder of the popular song resides, as Clive James put it, in “the way a colloquial phrase can be multiplied in its energy by how it sits on a row of musical notes.” Some may think these examples a bit cheesy, but old songs like ‘And I love you so’, ‘Spanish Eyes’ or ‘The way we were’ can be sung from start to finish by anyone. The melodies are simple and memorable, the lyrics evocative and universal; these are songs which do not rely on elaborate musical backdrops to sound convincing. Their energy and pathos are, indeed, generated by the skilful placement of colloquial phrases on rows of musical notes. We might not know exactly how this magic works, but when we listen to a piece of recorded music we make an unconscious assessment of at least one (and probably more) of these components: melody, chords, words, rhythm, sound and context. Our unique responses to these stimuli lead us to subjective conclusions about the ‘quality’ of the song. 

If it is true that there is not as much unembellished singing going on today, then perhaps it’s the case that there are simply fewer contemporary songs that are fit to be sung (beyond the realms of karaoke). I’d suggest that advances in recording technology have altered the balance between form and content within the popular song, to the extent that the sound of the recording has usurped melody as the defining characteristic. Beyonce’s ‘Crazy in Love’ is a really dynamic piece of music, but it’s not exactly rich in melody. And try singing along with these number one hits without karaoke accompaniment: ‘Professional Widow’ by Tori Amos, ‘Firestarter’ by The Prodigy or ‘Two Tribes’ by Frankie goes to Hollywood. 

If the sound of recorded music has improved (and not everyone would agree that it has), has that improvement been matched by improvements in song-writing? I generally don’t listen to chart radio, so I’m not aware of how much rubbish and how much good stuff is around just now, but I’d hazard a guess that it’s more or less the same amount of rubbish and good stuff as has always been in the charts; every era has its share of great songs, good songs, mediocre songs and bad songs. But how can we tell what is rubbish and what is good? Without some objective measurement of quality, all we can really offer is opinion. We know that if a song is popular it must be liked by large numbers of people, but we could all name examples of terrible songs that were big hits and great songs that never made the charts. 

Longevity, I’d suggest, is a reasonable indicator of quality.

To take one example, Stevie Wonder’s ‘My Cherie Amour’ was a top ten hit in the UK in August 1969, yet that song is still sung (and is still familiar) in a way that other successful tunes from that era are not. These songs were all in the top ten at the same time: ‘Baby make it soon’ by Marmalade, ‘Early in the morning’ by Vanity Fare, 'Goodnight Midnight' by Clodah Rodgers, 'Wet Dream' by Maz Romeo, ‘Make me an island’ by Joe Dolan and ‘Conversations’ by Cilla Black. These songs all performed well in the charts, they probably got played many times on the radio and were bought by lots of people, but how many of them would be recognised or sung by anyone today?
(Mind you, looking at that same chart, I’d imagine that lots of folk could probably sing along with ‘Give peace a chance’ by the Plastic Ono Band, despite it being a dreadful song).

Although that chart from 1969 was probably typical with regard to quality, I’d be willing to come off the relativistic fence for a moment to suggest that, if we took an average pop chart from the mid-to-late sixties and compared it to an average pop chart from the 21st century, we’d observe that the popular song is now painted from a somewhat diminished palette. By that, I mean that it has lost some of its rhythmic variation (the 4/4 rhythm now seems more or less ubiquitous), it has fewer chords (and fewer interesting chords; yes, that’s a judgement), the structures have simplified and the subject matter (indeed, the vocabulary of pop) has narrowed. Songs used to be written to be sung, but -with less of a focus on melody and words- it seems that many of them are now made to be listened to. This is partly about who is making music, partly about why they are making it and partly about the tools they use, but it’s also a socio-cultural development and one that someone else should write up for their PhD.

In suggesting that the songs of forty to fifty years ago might have been generally ‘better’ because they had more emphasis on melody, I’m perfectly aware that I’m:

a) Stating an entirely subjective viewpoint
b) Ignoring Paul Simon’s wise words about every generation throwing ‘a hero up the pop charts’
and c) Sounding like an old fart. 

But when an old fart claims that such-and-such is a great song because people are still singing it fifty years after it was recorded, he has a point. The fact that people are singing it means something. Lots of modern songs may turn out to be great and timeless pieces, but we don’t yet know if people will be singing them fifty years hence.    
All of which leads me to reflect on my own efforts.

As well as being limited by ability and imagination, my song-writing efforts are generally filtered through subjective judgement criteria for melody, chords, words, rhythm and sound which were set many years ago, when I listened to music on the radio or on the family record player. In other words, I like my stuff to sound like other stuff that I believe to be good. One of the reasons I’ve been talking about old songs is because the piece I’m linking to below is something of an homage to a certain type of old song, one that I have fond memories of.
I’ve stated in previous instalments of this ‘recording-an-album’ saga that I often find musical inspiration easier to access than lyrical inspiration. I’m more equipped to emulate than innovate, so will often have a particular feel in mind whenever I start composing; this ‘feel’ will sometimes be based on something I’ve heard and admired before. The trick is then to disguise the source material as the piece develops, but in this case I was inclined to be faithful to the germ of the idea. The song started out as a doodle on the piano and I knew, as soon as I stumbled upon the descending chord sequence of the verse, that I was about to write something which would owe a debt of gratitude to The Kinks, (by way of The Beatles and ELO).

Although I could quickly imagine how the recording would sound, I had nothing in the way of lyrical content. As the structure developed, however, it occurred to me that the ambience I wanted to create would best be served by a direct lyric, a ‘story’ as opposed to an impressionistic poem. Once I came up with the title, the story fell into place. The end result -‘Mr McIntosh has left the building’- is about a man experiencing his last day in employment. Having spent all of his working life in the same office job, he reflects upon the speed with which the whole thing seems to have passed him by. I love the sly humour of Ray Davies and the way he creates believable characters to inhabit his evocative urban vignettes. But there is also an undercurrent of melancholy in his work (in ‘Autumn Almanac’, for example) and I wanted my song to have a touch of that.

‘Forty years have come and gone; he’s been there man and boy and now he’ll leave without a fuss to catch that evening omnibus’.

Having decided upon the direction of travel, the deliberate use of the archaic ‘omnibus’ was designed to place the piece in a sixties context, as was the deployment of brass (splendidly played by Dave Webster). In the chorus, the bass sits in E under the first four chords, a device I’m much more likely to use when writing on the piano. It creates a bit of tension, which -in this case- aids the purpose of lyrical exposition. 
The character reflects that it ‘seems like two blinks of an eye’ since he started the job; he realises, with a sense of numb bewilderment, that decades of graft have amounted to not very much at all.

‘All the stories he could tell: they could fill a book, but there’s one thing that is guaranteed: no-one else would want to read it’.

I don’t like songs that sneer at the ordinary lives of ordinary folk and I hope that the lyric doesn’t sound like I’ve tried to do that here. The aim was merely to say something about the fleetingness of a life spent in gainful employment and to capture the feelings of a man about to leave work for the last time.

I was talking about the process of song-writing to a friend recently (now you know why I don’t get invited to parties) and he related a lovely quote from Leonard Cohen concerning the elusive and frustrating nature of inspiration. The old boy said: “If I knew where the songs came from, I'd go there more often.” 
 How that simple observation resonates! I would happily slice off and eat my left arm to be able to write a truly popular song; by that, I mean one that lots of people would like, buy and want to sing along with.

But, if nobody wants to sing along with this song, I’ve cunningly included a bit of whistling on the final chorus. To paraphrase Robert Duvall's Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore in 'Apocalypse Now':

I love the sound of whistling on a record. There’s nothing like it. It sounds like … victory.”