This week, quite rightly, the media has been buzzing with news of the return of David Bowie. His first new material in a decade was released, quite unexpectedly, on Tuesday; his 66th birthday. The song – Where Are We Now? – is a lovely, melancholy meditation on lost youth. Filled with references to Berlin, where Bowie himself spent several years in the 1970s, it was produced by Tony Visconti who – along with Bowie and Brian Eno – formed the Holy Trinity responsible for the three late-70s albums that (in my personal opinion) represent the pinnacle of Bowie’s creative output. I know that sounds like I’m saying he “peaked” with “Heroes”, Low and Lodger and then went into decline. But that’s not how I see it. Yes, there was something of a trough in the 1980s, but 1.Outside in the mid-90s saw him once again climb creative heights rarely visited by others and of the four 90s / early noughties albums that followed, only Hours was less than brilliant (both Earthling and Heathen are grossly underrated and Reality has some stonking songs on it though you might argue there’s some filler there too).
The new single is to be followed by an album in March (called The Next Day) which I am eagerly anticipating. And while well-publicised health problems suggest he may not tour the new songs, we can still hope against hope. Right? As well as the inevitable cooing from die-hard fans (of which I am one and for which I make no apology) there have been other responses. Thanks to the internet, you can read the views of the cynics and the compulsive denigrators just as easily as the views of the die-hard fans. Which is fine. If people genuinely don’t like Bowie, or genuinely find the new song lacking in some way then they are just as entitled to express that opinion as people like myself who are excited about it. Mind you, a lot of the criticism I’ve encountered smacks somewhat of deliberate contrarianism. It comes from the same sort of people who tell you The Beatles never wrote a good tune, Citizen Kane is overrated and insist they don’t understand the phrase “best thing since sliced bread” because frankly sliced bread is shit.
And you know what, those folk are also just as entitled to express their opinion. I find it a little sad that people actively seek the sensation of jadedness – something I seem to spend a whole lot of time battling – but I don’t have to live their lives so let them at it… I’m not looking for repressive legislation on the matter.
Anyway, here’s the new single (along with the odd video). If you’ve not already heard it, I hope you like it as much as I do. I found myself humming it after just one listen and yet I’d still describe it as “a grower” because I’m enjoying it more and more with each new hearing.
The other David B
In my personal musical universe there’s probably only one other person who rivals David Bowie for the top spot (luckily my musical universe is polytheistic in nature, so they don’t need to fight it out). And that’s David Byrne. Like Bowie, David Byrne’s finest hour was quite a while ago – and perhaps not at all coincidentally – also involved Brian Eno. I’m speaking of course about Remain In Light, the greatest album ever recorded.
Also like Bowie, however, that didn’t represent a “peak” from which there was only a long decline ahead. No, like Bowie’s Low, Remain In Light was simply the tallest tree in a forest of redwoods. His career since Talking Heads has been generally overlooked by the mainstream (with the occasional exception… his Oscar for The Last Emperor soundtrack being one such exception) but is no less because of it. So when I read a review of last year’s Love This Giant (a collaboration with St. Vincent) that described the album as “a return to form” I was genuinely mystified. You can’t return to something you never left, and Byrne has been “on form” pretty much since 1977. Whether it was his work with Talking Heads, his solo stuff, his collaborations (with Eno, Fat Boy Slim, St. Vincent and others) or his many books, films and installations; Byrne has consistently brought joy, light, wonder and a great rhythm section to my life.
Love This Giant is another wonderful record. The heavy use of “heavy brass” gives it quite a distinctive sound, setting it apart from most of his other work (excluding, of course, his album of brass band compositions – Music For The Knee Plays). In fact it contains a song (I Should Watch TV) that rocketed straight into my top 10 Byrne tracks and which I listen to regularly. How pleasing, therefore, that it appears on the short live concert by Byrne and St. Vincent that’s just been released by NPR. I recommend the entire gig as it showcases a genuinely wonderful album while throwing in a couple of older tracks. But if you’ve only got a few minutes, then skip ahead to 24:40 and listen to the glorious I Should Watch TV.
I’ve just read a couple of articles which got me thinking about the ethics of downloading (this one by Emily White attempting to justify her massive music collection – none of which she paid for; and this one by David Lowery in response). It’s a subject I’ve thought about quite a lot over the years… I remember the first incarnation of Napster, and prior to that I can even recall swapping rare tracks person-to-person across the IRC network. So I was there right at the start of digital downloads. Before that, I put together plenty of mix-CDs for friends. I remember, for example, sometime in the 90s putting together a David Byrne compilation CD complete with a fairly lengthy companion ‘zine containing lyrics, facts about the songs and personal observations. It was a proper labour of love. And back even before that, I vividly recall spending hours making the perfect mix-tape… an often lengthy process for the music-obsessed.
And it’s fair to say that over the years I received my share of such mix tapes and CDs. They were an important part of my life. Sharing music with friends was hugely significant to me. Notably however, my circle of friends all had very large record (and later, CD) collections. I can’t speak for others, but in my case music probably represented my single largest financial outlay. Even back in the days when I was working in industry and earning a fair chunk of change, I was probably spending more on music than on rent, or food, or any other single thing.
In that respect, the sharing of music that I and my friends engaged in was – in a very real sense – promoting the spending of money on music. When my friend P gave me that C90 of Talking Heads songs back in the mid-80s, there’s no sense in which David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz or Jerry Harrison lost out. Since that day I have bought the band’s entire catalogue three times (first on vinyl, then on CD, then on the digitally remastered CDs). I’ve also bought everything Byrne has released as a solo artist (including all the mail-order only stuff); I’ve bought the Tom Tom Club records; I’ve bought tickets to see Byrne perform live on every European tour he’s done since the early 1990s; I’ve bought a t-shirt at almost all of those gigs; I’ve bought his books; I’ve bought his DVDs.
And all of that was triggered by that first technically-illegal mix-tape. “Home Taping Is Killing Music” indeed!
In fact when I first started downloading music through IRC or Napster or Limewire, it was only to get hold of tracks that couldn’t be purchased from the artist. A live bootleg of David Byrne performing Sympathy for The Devil… an unreleased studio out-take from Bowie’s Low… an early Legendary Pink Dots track from an out-of-print EP only available on long-deleted cassette… a The The b-side that was impossible to track down in physical form (and believe me, I searched… I was one of those slightly mad looking blokes in long black coats who would attend record fairs). Whatever you may feel about the ethics of downloading music for free, in those cases I just don’t see the problem. I’d already bought most (if not all) of the recorded output of those artists – including that 10″ version of ‘The Beat(en) Generation’ in the cardboard box with the postcards and badge. I’d rush down to my local record store on the day of release, in the hope of getting my hands on the red vinyl pressing of a Siouxsie and The Banshees single I would buy on standard black vinyl anyway. Hell I even used to scour those endless lists in small-print in Record Collector magazine and excitedly write a £30 cheque for a Japanese import of an album I already owned because it had a different sleeve and an extra track.
Sad. Sad. Sad.
So yes, when music began to appear for free on the internet I didn’t have a huge ethical issue with grabbing that live bootleg, or this rare b-side. It wasn’t that I felt the artist or record company owed me anything for my years of devotion and financial outlay… I just didn’t think they’d begrudge me (of all people!) the opportunity to get hold of those rare tracks.
Then however, things started to change. Broadband replaced dial-up and suddenly it was possible to grab entire albums for free. Today, a person can type “The Beatles” into a torrent search and download the entire back catalogue in a matter of minutes. And yes, I admit, there was a short period of time when I too found myself caught up in this madness. I’d already paid for about half of Bob Marley’s albums, why not just grab the other half? What could it hurt? And then… well I really like that one track off that one album by that bloke… let’s download his entire recorded output.
And then I thought… hang on a minute. What the hell am I doing? I still don’t see anything wrong with finding that rare deleted single and grabbing it if it’s not available on iTunes – though that’s an increasingly rare occurrence with so much stuff being available from legitimate online stores these days. And I still don’t think sending a compilation CD – or even a copy of some especially great new album – to a friend is a bad thing. It doesn’t happen that often any more, but when it does I honestly see it as an important form of promotion for the artist(s) in question… just like that Talking Heads C90 back in the day. Where possible I try to purchase directly from the artist’s website rather than iTunes of course (no need to give a cut to Apple if you can give it all to the artist) and I still like to browse the few remaining record shops and buy something physical – throwback that I am.
But the notion of downloading entire back catalogues is just wrong. There’s no sense in which that can possibly help the artist. They will never receive any compensation from you for whatever they’ve added to your life. And enough people are doing it now that it’s having a genuinely negative effect on the prospect of many artists. I’m not going to quote numbers or statistics, but I suggest you read David Lowery’s excellent article to set yourself straight if you’re one of those people who believe mass downloading is having no impact on artists.
Besides, I want to pay for the good stuff because it means the artist is more likely to make more of it. No, I don’t want to pay for the bad stuff… but I don’t even want to listen to that, so why download it? There’s a case to be made for “try before you buy”… just like the long-lamented listening posts in record shops (or even better, the local record store where you knew the guy behind the counter and he’d gladly play whatever record you wanted to hear over the speaker system). But YouTube fulfils that function these days – perhaps to the annoyance of some artists – but there you have it. Want to know whether the new Kate Bush record is a return to form… listen to a couple of tracks on YouTube and then buy the record from her website if you like them (album available as a high bitrate lossless download, or as a lovely crafted package if you’re old-school). There’s no actual need to download the entire album for free just to check it out. If you don’t think you’d like it, then why do that anyway? And if you do think it will enrich your life, doesn’t the artist deserve to be able to make a living?
So yes, I did go through a brief phase of mass downloading. And I’m not proud of it. But ultimately I realised my actions were fundamentally unethical (and in my defence, I’d already paid my dues as far as music-purchasing was concerned, so maybe I can be forgiven my temporary lapse). More worrying though is not my generation – many of whom I suspect could tell very similar stories to mine – no, it’s the new generation of music-lovers who never experienced the genuine joy of buying that slice of wonderfully packaged vinyl and rushing home to be delighted by it. Even the CD didn’t kill that experience (though it was never quite as good). But the digital download? It just doesn’t feel like an “artefact” (because let’s face it, it’s not). As such, it’s difficult to place as much value on it. If limitless quantities of the finest champagne was available in every home on tap, for free, how long before it seemed vaguely worthless?
And that’s what’s happening to music. Even hardcore music fans of the current generation can’t help but hold the art-form in considerably lower esteem than those of us who had no option but to buy it. And who got something physical – something we could feel and pore over – in return for our money. The loss of that tactile experience is, I believe, directly related to the loss of value that seems to have beset the musical output of even the greatest artists. I know I sound terribly old-fashioned when I say that, but I do think it’s true. And no, I don’t know how to solve the problem. But I do feel it is a problem, and it’s one that needs to be solved if we want our artists to continue creating great music.
I finally got around to watching Takeshis’, the first of Takeshi Kitano’s anti-mainstream trilogy (and I do mean anti-mainstream as opposed to merely non-mainstream… there’s a whole bunch of deliberate subversion and outright mocking of mainstream movie tropes going on). The story goes, that after his mainstream international success with Zatoichi, Kitano became disillusioned and frustrated with himself. He’d become too safe. Too predictable, in his own eyes. And while I personally thoroughly enjoyed Zatoichi, it’s definitely a million miles from the existential meditations of Dolls, Hana-bi or even the earlier Sonatine.
And so, he set out to make a trilogy of films that would quite deliberately alienate the wider audience he’d garnered via his samurai action movie. Films that abandoned all notions of traditional narrative; that made no concessions to accessibility… instead placing a priority on artistic integrity. He would gather up all that existential angst, dream-logic and plain weirdness that passes through his mind as he’s lying in the twilight between sleep and wakefulness; and he’d dump it onto the screen with no explanation.
Take that mainstream audiences!
The result is mesmerising and more than a little startling. Certainly not a film for anyone who needs such trifles as “plot” or “sense” to hold their hand for an hour and a half while they watch a screen. At the heart of the film are two characters, both played by Takeshi Kitano. The first is “Beat Takeshi”, a successful actor and film-maker who specialises in gangster / yakuza movies. The second is “Mr. Kitano”, a convenience store clerk and failed actor who spends his days daydreaming about living the life of his idol – Beat Takeshi – when he’s not being rejected at auditions.
Early in the film, there’s a chance meeting between the two Takeshis and Beat Takeshi signs an autograph for Mr. Kitano. Afterwards, we watch as Mr. Kitano walks home to his small apartment above a mechanic’s shop and falls asleep. From then on, the viewer never knows whether the scene they are watching is a dream being had by one of the two Takeshis, or a convenience store clerk’s fantasy of being a successful actor, or a successful film-maker wondering what it would be like to live the life of a failed actor. Or indeed, a successful film-maker imagining what the fantasies of a failed actor about being a successful film-maker would be like. It’s no surprise that the original title of the film was Fractals.
Characters from the director’s previous films show up in incongruous situations and it definitely helps the viewer if they’re familiar with Takeshi Kitano’s past work. There’s a huge amount of self-referentiality in the movie… scenes from previous films (most notably Sonatine and Hana-bi, but pretty much every movie he’s done gets a look in) are revisited in unexpected ways, with characters crossing over from one to the other. Indeed whole sections of Takeshis’ appear to be deliberate “self-iconoclasm”, with some of the most haunting and affecting scenes he’s ever shot being savagely undercut and turned into absurd parodies – most notably the final beach scene from Hana-bi (in my view, one of the most beautiful scenes in the history of cinema) is suddenly transformed into a bizarre action-film caricature with Kitano machine-gunning a whole range of characters from his past films (along with about 500 riot police).
There’s a great deal of wit in Takeshis’ and while it only made me laugh out loud a couple of times, I spent much of the film with a wry smile on my face. As with all of his films the humour veers from the ridiculously slapstick to the almost-too-cerebral, with plenty in between. And as ever, music plays a large role. Traditional Japanese folk music cuts brutally into high-tempo electronica and back again. Also, the tap-dancing interlude goes on for quite a bit longer than you’d expect.
It’s like a very weird remix of his past films, and at no point have you any idea who or what you’ll be seeing next on the screen. Personally I absolutely loved it and am looking forward to watching Glory to the Filmmaker! (the second film in the trilogy). But I suspect plenty of people who see Takeshis’ will hate it, and no small percentage will fail to reach the end. But for fans of the obscure, the odd and the original, Takeshis’ provides an absolute feast for the senses. And the imagination.
As I’m sure you’re aware by now, Whitney Houston has just died at the age of 48. I personally wouldn’t have been the biggest fan of her music, but her ubiquity for several years means that she did weave herself into the soundtrack of my life, whether I liked it or not. And I admit, there were times when it was very much “not”. Back in the winter of 1992 it was just impossible to escape her massive hit, I Will Always Love You. You’d walk into shops and where you’d expect to hear Christmas music over the speaker system, there’d be that bloody song again. The radio-waves were saturated with the damn thing and music television was in cahoots.
All the same though, that was a pretty good period in my life. I was a young undergraduate and thoroughly enjoying my party years in North London. So despite the fact that I really hated that song by the springtime of 1993, and despite the fact that I would never in a million years voluntarily listen to it, I found myself smiling with a wistful nostalgia when I heard it being played yesterday as a tribute. That overplayed – and overwrought – tune brought back a bunch of good memories with it.
As well as that, Whitney Houston was also – indirectly – responsible for a particularly lovely moment a few years back. I generally do my best to see David Byrne whenever he tours. His music is genuinely important to me and he’s one of the very few people I’ll travel distances to see live these days. Anyway, a few years back he played London and I naturally went along. The gig was – as ever – wonderful and it was a fantastic evening. By the time the encore came around I’d pretty much worked out that we’d be hearing Psycho Killer as it hadn’t appeared earlier in the set. And we weren’t disappointed; that dark and brooding bassline conjuring up all the right kinds of sinister. It’s still such a thrill to hear that song loud and live in a darkened venue.
Then, however, after Byrne had finished urging us to run, run away… the lights brightened and the strings kicked in with an oddly familiar tune. I couldn’t place it at first. Up-tempo and the complete opposite of Psycho Killer. “Maybe something from Uh Oh“, I thought, “I’ve not listened to that album in a while”. But almost immediately I’d thought that, I suddenly realised what the song was…
It was infectious, bouncy and genuinely joyous. Byrne was more than capable of putting a dark spin on the track; subtly subverting it and turning it into something strange and unsettling. But he didn’t. Instead he played it completely straight. No hint of irony. And it worked so well. Everyone danced. Everyone looked at the person next to them with a broad grin on their face. And everyone left the gig feeling slightly euphoric.
So I’d like to thank Whitney Houston (via Mr. Byrne) for that small gift. Rest in peace.
I assumed from the #BBC4 hashtag that there was some 80s music documentary being broadcast, but taken at face value (obvious comedy hyperbole aside) I realised I wasn’t entirely sure whether I’d be up before that firing squad or not. If asked to name a favourite decade, musically speaking, my immediate reaction would be to say “the 70s”. But when I gave it a bit more thought (probably considerably more than @J___Williamson meant her tweet to be subjected to) I realised that – assuming we start “the 80s” in 1980 – rather than 1981 as some are wont to do – then it’s fair to say that my favourite album of all time is an 80s album (Remain in Light by Talking Heads). In fact, a huge amount of my favourite music was released during the 1980s.
1980 also saw the release of Joy Division’s Closer. It was the year of Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, of Autoamerican and of Heartattack And Vine. And the decade that followed saw the entire career of The Smiths and Dexy’s Midnight Runners. It saw Tom Waits move from good to great and on into godlike. The 80s saw Prince at his peak. And what a peak that was. There are moments on Sign ‘O’ The Times that still send shivers down my spine despite the familiarity of 25 years of regular play. It was the decade that brought us the best of The Cure, of The The, of Kate Bush and of The Cocteau Twins. And it was the decade that kicked off the careers of Nick Cave, The Legendary Pink Dots and World Party.
And you know what…? I’ve not even begun to do the 80s justice. Byrne and Eno’s My Life in The Bush of Ghosts, Peter Gabriel’s So, Paul Simon’s Graceland and Julian Cope’s Fried all helped make the decade what it was. There were seminal records from Siouxsie and the Banshees, R.E.M., and I’m even prepared to put in a good word for The Joshua Tree which – for all its over-earnest breast-beating – contains some cracking tunes. Sure it was a low point for David Bowie, but elsewhere good music was thriving.
But of course, I could make a similar case for the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1990s and even the noughties; though I would probably find that more difficult as I’ve discovered less new music in the past ten years. Probably a result of advancing age as well as having an already extremely extensive record collection that does its best to crowd out new releases (there are, after all, only so many hours in the day). Actually, it’s not ten years… looking at my media player, it appears that my discovery of new albums tapers off somewhat in 2007. There’s still a handful each year after that, but nothing like as many as there once was.
As it happens, I have a theory that music has become less culturally important in the past few years and – as a result – there’s less great stuff being produced (“less” not “none”). I’m not sure that theory stands up to scrutiny… though it’d be a good discussion to have over a few pints of Guinness.
Then, as I began to mentally put together the case for the 1970s, it struck me just how arbitrary the “decade” distinction is. It’s a cultural shorthand that extends far beyond music of course, but it tends to be used most frequently in that arena. Most albums released in 1989 have far more in common with the music of 1992 than they do with the music of 1982. There are records from 1979 and from 1991 that – to all intents and purposes – qualify as 80s music. And there are records from the early 80s that tend to be seen as part of the 1970s. The same is true for all decades. The Beatles were a 1960s band even if Let It Be was released in 1970. Hell, I think of The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan as being “of the sixties” even though the majority of their output – quantitatively speaking – came afterwards. And I don’t know where the hell Van Morrison fits in. Astral Weeks (“best album ever recorded except when Remain In Light is” tm) was released in 1968, but is essentially timeless, and damn near everything else he did came post-1970.
On top of that, there’s the fact that the truly great music of every decade… of every year… is massively outweighed in terms of sheer volume, by the truly awful. Or the merely uninteresting. For every I’m Your Man or Lovesexy there are a dozen of Hold Me in Your Arms and Kylie. Two dozen.
So does it even make sense to talk about whether the music of the 90s is better than the music of the 80s? Certainly Bone Machine and Henry’s Dream are better albums than White Feathers and Blackout. But you could just as easily choose Wet Wet Wet and Bryan Adams as your representatives of the 1990s, and… well… they’re no Prince or The Smiths.
In fact, you just have to compare Prince to… er… Prince. The 80s really come out of that one smiling.
In the end, I came to the conclusion that – when all’s said and done – there’s a pretty simple way to identify precisely when music was at its very best. Ask yourself the following question… “When was my 21st birthday?” Now, take the five years before that. Take the five years after. Add them together and you have the best decade for music. See? Simple. And no firing squads required.
As a quick glimpse at my Last.fm artist chart demonstrates, I’m a bit of a Bowie fan. So, on the occasion of his 65th birthday (just imagine Bowie’s bus pass! I bet it’s a specially designed one made out of that crazy folding metal stuff that they got off the UFO that crashed at Roswell), I was going to write something about how important his music has been to me down through the years. How he sound-tracked some of the defining moments of my teens and twenties and lit up the darkness right when I needed it most. I was maybe going to throw some brief reviews of some of my favourite Bowie albums (in no particular order… Low, “Heroes”, Lodger, Diamond Dogs, Heathen, Ziggy Stardust, Station to Station, Scary Monsters, 1.Outside, Earthling, The Man Who Sold The World, Hours, The Buddha of Suburbia… er, pretty much all of them really with the possible exception of the 80s stuff, but even then the singles were great; Loving The Alien, anyone? Let’s Dance? China Girl?) I might have related the tale of the epic cross-country hitch with my mate Justin, to see Bowie play in Exeter during the 1.Outside tour… easily one of the weirdest weekends of my life (and that’s saying something… I had a lot of weird weekends during my twenties). Perhaps I’d even describe the recurring nightmare I had for much of the 90s and into the early noughties in which I wandered through an eerily deserted London city until I reached the Tate Gallery within which I discovered a deranged David Bowie slashing his own wrists while whispering the lyrics to some of his songs; after which diseased and disfigured angels began to fall dead from the sky. Yeah… bit of a screwed-up dream that, but pretty appropriate for where my head was, at the time.
But in the end, all of that would just be a roundabout way of saying that David Bowie has had a far greater impact on my life than is strictly sensible for someone I’ve never met personally. And though he’ll never read this, I’d like to thank him for his wonderful contribution to my world, and wish him a very happy birthday, and many many happy returns.
Ultimately it makes more sense to share some Bowie, than just share some thoughts about him…
or look, just go to YouTube and type in David Bowie. You’re guaranteed a great time.
Greetings dear reader, and welcome to 2012. I hope your journey through 2011 wasn’t too arduous and you managed to avoid the worst of the nastiness it contained. It wasn’t all nasty of course. Far from it. But the continuing financial crisis certainly made it feel that way at times. Incidentally, I’m trying to come up with a better phrase than “financial crisis” with which to label the ongoing state of affairs. Something that better encapsulates the wholesale transfer of public wealth into the coffers of a small number of private corporations and institutions currently being sanctioned by our governments. Because despite the political sloganeering that claims “we’re all in this together” and speaks of “sharing the pain”, an examination of the facts would suggest that the “financial crisis” isn’t actually happening to the powerful or wealthy. In fact, with a few exceptions, they seem to be doing rather well out of it.
Perhaps “the return to feudalism” might be a better label than “the financial crisis”? It conveys both the huge increase in inequality that’s underway. along with the complete loss of democratic accountability. Though perhaps it’s a little abstract for the general public. After all, we’re talking about populations who consume reality television in massive doses while electing right wing governments without exception. And yes, even those populations who elect nominally “centre left” governments are in fact electing right wing governments; the centre has shifted so far to the right that even the leftist fringes have given up talking about large-scale nationalisation and content themselves with demanding relatively minor changes to the taxation regime and slightly stricter regulation of the financial sector. Don’t get me wrong… that’s better than the status quo but it’s not exactly the million miles from the status quo that we should be moving with all haste.
Anyway, enough of that for now. I have a new post brewing on the subject of Ireland withdrawing from the euro in which I’ll be discussing the return to feudalism (nah, it doesn’t trip easily enough off the tongue… I welcome suggestions for a better label) in greater depth. For now, sit back and enjoy a brief round-up of the highlights – from my perspective – of 2011. There were a few hidden among the carnage.
From a purely personal standpoint, I continued to share my life with a wonderful woman. The lovely Citizen S remains the best thing in my world and I can’t thank her enough for putting up with my many foibles. I also became an uncle and godfather for the first time, which was groovy. Financially things could have been better (hint: job offers welcome!) but we didn’t go hungry, had a roof over our heads and managed to pay the bills. We even had a little left over to visit Serbia a couple of times, have a short break in Kerry and generally enjoy life. So whatever else might have happened in 2011, here in the Bliss household, it didn’t suck.
Sporting highlights of 2011
With each passing year I find myself becoming more and more intrigued by sporting events. I’m not sure if this is a symptom of growing old or just that I’ve found myself spending more time with sports fans and gaining an appreciation through them. Either way, I was delighted when Dublin won the All-Ireland Gaelic Football Final for the first time since 1995, in what even the losing fans agreed was one of the most exciting matches in living memory. As fine an advertisement for amateur sports as you’re likely to see. The image to the right shows the moment – deep into stoppage time – that Dublin goalkeeper, Stephen Cluxton, kicked the winning point. Truly a “leap into the air whooping” moment if ever there was one. Apologies to readers from Kerry, but despite your loss I’m sure you’ll agree it was a wonderful match, objectively speaking.
Elsewhere in sport, Ireland had a somewhat disappointing tournament in the rugby world cup in what was probably the last chance for the so-called ‘Golden Generation’ to win the competition. It’s a shame really… players as supremely talented as Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara and the rest were good enough to have retired with a World Cup Winner’s Medal around their necks; they just never managed to find their best performances when it really mattered. However, our soccer team managed to qualify for the European Championships next year, the first time we’ve qualified for a major tournament in over a decade, which almost makes up for the unjust manner in which we missed out on the 2010 World Cup (I don’t think the Irish nation has yet forgiven Thierry Henry).
In golf, Irishmen (albeit Northern Irishmen) had the world at their feet. Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke each won one of the four Major Championships. The previous year, Graeme McDowell also won a Major. And that came only a couple of years after Dublin man, Padraig Harrington, won three Majors in two years. Lately we’ve been punching above our weight for a small island. Long may it continue.
Last year I also followed tennis for the first time. Serbia’s Novak Djokovic became world number one and had one of the game’s greatest years ever, completely dominating the sport by winning three of the Grand Slam tournaments and a whole bunch of other competitions. All of this on the back of leading Serbia to its first ever Davis Cup win. Oh how we cheered in the Bliss household.
Also Tottenham Hotspur, the only premiership team worth watching, have had a wonderful 2011. So that’s nice.
Musical highlights of 2011
I wish I could say that 2011 saw lots of great new albums, films and TV shows. But it didn’t. I got into Brian Eno’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea in a big way in 2011, but that was actually released in 2010 so doesn’t really count I suppose. Still, get hold of it if you’ve not already as it’s really rather good. I seem to be a year behind with Eno and have yet to get hold of his 2011 album, Drums Between The Bells, but from past experience, I suspect I’ll enjoy it when I do.
The two albums released in 2011 that I have got hold of (though only very recently) and which I heartily recommend are Uf! by the astonishingly wonderful Serbian band, Disciplin a Kitschme and In Love With Oblivion by Crystal Stilts. The Crystal Stilts album continues their Joy Division meets Jesus and Mary Chain vibe, though this time it seems to be passed through a late-60s psychedelia filter rather than the Americana of the first album… there are definitely shades of The Doors and The Velvet Underground hidden within the fuzzy guitars and echoing vocals, though with the occasional return to their earlier sound as on the excellent Alien Rivers. Best track (in my view) is the album closer, Prometheus at Large. An altogether wonderful noise.
Perhaps even more wonderful is the driving bass and drums of Disciplin a Kitschme. The new album is probably the most commercial thing they’ve done, but don’t let that worry you, they are still a long long way from the mainstream. The excellent single, Ako ti je glasno… (“If it’s loud…”) is about as mainstream as they get. It’s a grinding four minute kickass tune, cut down from the nine minute heaviness of the album version, which kicks off Uf! and heralds the onset of a really great record. One I’ll be listening to for many years to come and – from my perspective – the best release of 2011. Despite digging the band’s vocals, my personal favourite tracks – though it’s genuinely difficult to pick – would probably be the two long instrumentals; Nimulid Rok and the weird Manitu VI which veers perilously close to jazz and has a didgeridoo, yet still manages to sound awesome. For some reason, those YouTube uploads truncate the tracks, which should be nearly 6 and 10 minutes respectively.
Ako ti je glasno…
Aside from that, there was little that really grabbed me musically in 2011. The X-Factor continued to chip away at the collective soul of humanity while Adele, Lady Gaga and Jay-Z continued to sell records by the pallet-load. Clearly lots of people enjoy that stuff, but it doesn’t float my boat. In fact, it actively threatens to torpedo my boat and machine-gun any survivors who make it to the life-rafts. Bastards!
Movie highlights of 2011
I have to admit, I didn’t see many of 2011′s crop of new movies. I saw a few of the blockbuster releases, not one of which impressed me very much. I’m not sure whether big budget spectaculars have gotten worse in the past few years, or whether I’ve just become jaded (I’d like to think it’s the former, because I’ve always loved the whole roller-coaster-ride aspect of Hollywood spectaculars and would hate to think I’ve lost that sense of childlike wonder when it comes to shiny things moving at high speed and then exploding). So whether it was Thor or X-Men: First Class or the frankly risible Super-8 (an ET / Godzilla mash-up might sound great at 2am after some fine skunk, but it’s the kind of idea that should really be forgotten the next morning) there was a lot of “being underwhelmed” going on. Slightly better were Limitless and The Adjustment Bureau, both of which suffered from the same problem… a fantastic first half hour followed by an increasingly frustrating descent into nonsense and cliché. In particular I was annoyed by Limitless which – like Inception the previous year – took a glorious premise and completely squandered it.
Another notch up the ladder were Unknown and Battle: Los Angeles. Unknown did the same thing as the previous two films, but took longer to become crap, so at least the viewer has a good thriller for more than an hour before realising it’s going to end badly. Battle: Los Angeles, on the other hand, never promises more than it can deliver, even though it doesn’t promise much. A bunch of stereotypical Hollywood soldiers fight a running gun battle with technologically advanced aliens on the streets of Los Angeles. For two hours. Exciting while it’s directly in front of you and instantly forgettable. But at least it doesn’t leave you with a sense of wasted potential.
Much much better was the Simon Pegg and Nick Frost science fiction road movie, Paul. The critics may have dismissed it as lightweight, but frankly I consider any film that can have me laughing from start to finish a more than worthy accomplishment. It’s easily one of the best comedies of the past few years and just because comedies tend not to win awards doesn’t actually make them any less important. I highly recommend Paul to anyone who hasn’t seen it yet. If you’re not a science fiction fan you will miss quite a few of the references, but I suspect you’ll still find plenty to laugh at.
About as far from Paul as it’s possible to get was the excellent The Sunset Limited which slipped under the radar somewhat but was no worse for it. Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones discuss religion and faith in a small room for an hour and a half. That’s pretty much it. It’s based on a Cormac McCarthy play and kept me rivetted to the screen for the duration despite the simple premise and basic setting. Just as Limitless provides an object-lesson in the damage that can be wreaked by bad writers, so The Sunset Limited demonstrates the power of good writing.
There are several of 2011′s most talked-about movies that I’ve yet to get around to seeing, so I completely accept that it may have been a far better year – filmically speaking – than I’m currently aware of. I’m really looking forward to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (I thought the original film was excellent and usually hate American remakes of European films… but, well, it’s David Fincher isn’t it?) I also suspect I’ll enjoy John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard (starring Brendan Gleeson), Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and low-budget British science-fiction flick, Attack The Block when I get around to them.
Television highlights of 2011
As regular readers will know, I have a very high opinion of good television programmes. I think TV can be just as good as cinema, and – culturally speaking – more important. But only when done properly. Unfortunately it’s almost never done properly and the number of shows that make the grade, in my view, is absolutely tiny. As with every year, 2011 contained a couple of flashes of brilliance amidst an ocean of pure shit. 99% of television is soul-destroying and it’s very difficult to justify the existence of the medium even by pointing to the good bits. But 2011 did have the occasional good bit.
Probably the best thing broadcast last year was the glorious Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon dialogue, The Trip. From start to finish it was pure excellence and veered from the sublime to the pleasantly ridiculous without ever feeling forced. I enjoyed every moment of The Trip and will definitely be rewatching it before too long. Part of me hopes they make more, but part of me sees it as a perfect little gem that could be sullied by trying to stretch the idea any further.
As far from The Trip as The Sunset Limited is from Paul was the epic Game of Thrones. This HBO spectacular is based on a series of swords’n'sorcery novels that I’ve not read, but I was nevertheless engrossed by the twisty plot, the sumptuous production values, the fine scripting and the wonderful characters. I’m looking forward to Season 2, though I’m a little concerned that they may not be able to sustain the sense of dread that hovers over the whole affair.
I was going to include the amazing BBC update of Conan Doyle, Sherlock until I realised it was actually broadcast in 2010… where the hell has the time gone!? So instead I’ll just remind you all what a great show it is and point out that the second season has just begun (Sunday nights, BBC1 and on iPlayer if you can access it). Best thing on TV right now.
Beyond that, 2011 didn’t have anything new to offer, televisually. I’m told The Killing was rather good but I missed it. New seasons of old shows were either as good as ever (Breaking Bad and Community) or a bit of a disappointment (Bored to Death… still better than 99% of what’s out there, but failing to scale the dizzy heights of the first two seasons). Black Mirror was apparently fantastic, but I’ve yet to see it – though I intend to.
So yeah, not a great year for TV. But it never is, sadly.
Literary highlights of 2011
Errr… I’m well behind on my reading, so I can’t really do a decent “best books of 2011″ bit. William Gibson’s Zero History was wonderful, but was published at the end of 2010 so doesn’t count. The same is true of Ken MacLeod’s The Restoration Game which was enjoyable though not quite as good as his previous chilling novel, The Execution Channel which was a brilliant dissection of The War Against Terror and the sinister places it might lead us.
In fact, I’m struggling to think of a single book published in 2011 that I’ve read. I would say that’s terrible, but it’s simply a function of the size of the “book queue” I have to get through. Unless something very very special comes out (a new one by Pynchon perhaps) books tend not to skip the queue. So I suspect I’ll get around to 2011′s crop of new ones early in 2013. So many books, not enough time. However, I will list a random selection of other books I read last year and which I’d recommend (the first five that pop into my head). None of which were published in 2011.
Well, I don’t want to stray too much into politics or economics in this entry as they tend to be the subject of most of my posts and I’d like to keep this one a little bit lighter. Still, there are a few things worth mentioning, but I’ll keep it brief. Firstly – and most obviously – we had the overthrow of despots in a few countries in North Africa (Egypt, Tunisia and Libya). This is unquestionably a good thing, but I still feel it’ll be a while before we know the full ramifications of the Arab revolutions. Let us hope for a better future for the people of those countries… they’re not there yet.
In Ireland the General Election demonstrated that the population really doesn’t know what’s good for it, but at least we elected Michael D. Higgins as President. Yes, it’s a largely ceremonial position and no, he wasn’t my first choice. But the fact that we didn’t elect Seán Gallagher – as it looked as though we might – means that the nation isn’t entirely off its head.
I guess the fact that the global economy didn’t completely implode can be seen as a bit of a highlight of 2011. Personally I’m hoping for a more gradual, orderly powerdown than the total collapse that threatens to occur thanks to the criminally irresponsible actions of those in power. But we shall see.
There were no major new wars, things didn’t get dramatically worse in the already war-torn and famine-struck regions of the world (even if they didn’t get substantially better) and nobody nuked anybody. All of which shouldn’t be considered highlights, but in these troubled times we’ll take what we can get.
And so there we have it. 2011 has done its worst and we’re still standing. There were high points as well as the much-publicised low ones. And overall, I’m damn glad I lived to see it all and look forward to saying the same in 12 months time. I’m often confused by how terrible the world can seem, because pretty much all the people I know personally are kind, decent, thoughtful and just want to make the world a better place. I guess it boils down to that line from Nietzsche, Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule. All the same, maybe if the kind, decent, thoughtful folks raise their voices a little louder this year, we might just drag the rest of the world to a better place. Have a wondrous 2012, dear reader.
A couple of days ago, Brian Eno released a new album, Small Craft on a Milk Sea. I’ve not actually heard it yet, but the three preview tracks available on his website are excellent and the reviews I’ve read have been very favourable indeed. I’ve got pretty much everything he’s released, including the various mail-order-only stuff, and he’s never really disappointed. So when people start talking about this being his “best album in years”, it’s obviously quite exciting.
To coincide with the album’s release, Eno agreed to an interview with Dick Flash of ‘Pork’ magazine. It’s well worth a watch…
They’re about to make a film of your life and want you to provide the soundtrack. Using the random play function on your music player, find 20 songs to fit the following categories:
Opening Credits, Birth, Waking Up, First Day At School, Falling In Love, Losing Virginity, Fight Song, Prom, Last Day of School, First Day at Work, Beginning of Adult Life, Mental Breakdown, Obligatory Flashback, Getting Back Together, Wedding, Birth of Child, Final Battle, Death Scene, Funeral Song, End Credits.
You’re supposed to just list the first twenty that get played in chronological order. I’m going to try to be a wee bit more creative and, while I will take the first 20 that emerge from the player (skipping spoken word pieces and using only one track per artist), I’m going to try to match each one to a scene. So if the first song that comes out is more appropriate for the “Falling in Love” scene than the “Opening Credits”, then that’s where I’ll put it. Though obviously some will still remain inappropriate. I’ll link to a song where possible.
Can’t go wrong with a bit of Christy Moore. Ireland’s finest folk singer (which is saying something). Always righteous, always passionate. This particular song was written by Shane McGowan and while I love The Pogues, I think the simple voice and guitar treatment suits Aisling better than their full band version. Enjoy.