Three Of My Favourite Albums of 2011

I decided several weeks ago that this year I would not attempt a “Favourite Albums of 2011” series of blogs.

Three reasons:

1. Pretty much every single one of my “favourite bands” has, this year, released an absolutely stunning album of unbelievable quality. Not only would it be utterly exhausting to wax lyrical about each of them, it's also the case that in The King of Limbs, The Whole Love, Mylo Xyloto, Kiss Each Other Clean, Ravedeath 1972, Far Side Virtual, Waves of the Random Sea, Circuital, Lula, Helplessness Blues, Ashes & Fire, Collapse Into Now etc. etc. etc. - well, there seems to be about ninety different contenders for “Album of the Year” - I just couldn't. I just couldn't. “The album” isn't dead. It's so alive that to write about how strong a year this has been for that particular form is just beyond me.

2. My stance with this blog has always been one of reactionary positivity. The result has been a style of writing which comes across as a defence of my love for most things in the face of a world which seems to distrust, scorn and ostracise anybody who dares to suggest that perhaps everything isn't so terrible. This often extends to little more than criticism of criticism – an approach which is horrible to write and – I'm guessing – unbearably tedious to read. Which leads me to:

3. I simply don't enjoy reading or writing about music any more.

Yep, I think I like music far too much to read or write about it any more.

And that is NOT to suggest that all who can write (or read) about music are somehow less passionate am I. Probably it's just the case that they all have thicker skin than me.

Good for them. But, as far as I'm concerned, I started a personal war against the snarks and the cynics and the snarks and the cynics won.

I can't beat them. But I think I'd rather die than join them.

And yet, and yet:

Out of habit – and perhaps as a cleansing means of reminding me of how out of touch I am (which felt strangely comforting) – I have read a lot of end of year lists.

Of course I avoided The Quietus and The Collapse Board like I'd cross the road to avoid a pissed-up shadow-boxing lecherous defamed and deformed porn-star encountered on the street. But – whilst I've enjoyed those I did read like a lapsing junky on the brink of cold turkey might enjoy one last hit – three albums which have, for me, more or less defined 2011 have been notable by their unforgivable absence throughout.

So what will be - for the time-being at least - my final attempt at writing about music is just an effort to redress the balance. These albums are too good to go completely unmentioned. And, even if their only mention is to be found on my small and inconsequential corner of the internet, at least the silence will thus be that little bit less deafening overall.

So, here we go, then. For want of a better introduction, my three favourite albums of the year:

Jonny – Jonny

Norman Blake I acknowledge as one of the most consistent and beloved British songwriters of the past couple of decades. Euros Childs is something of a hero of mine. This year, they got together and recorded an album – apparently the fruits of a historical tour undertaken by Teenage Fanclub and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci. The former are still something of a fringe interest for me. But, with every passing summer, they become that little bit more important. The latter, though, are nothing less than one of the major hubs of my musical landscape around which a lot of other acts orbit.

I think it says a lot about the prolific genius of Euros Childs that he recorded an entire solo album – probably his fourteenth in two years – whilst waiting for the Jonny sessions to begin. It's not quite the case that he can do no wrong, but I've long since realised that everything he does is always, apart from anything else, reliably interesting and really, really fun.

Jonny is therefore interesting and a lot of fun as a matter of course. But – and I'm not above attributing this to the melodic prowess of Norman Blake – it also happens to be beautiful, endearing, marvellous and genuinely warming throughout.

It's generally the case that every album I regard as “essential” didn't really connect with me on the first listen. It's no coincidence that the most enduring of albums only reveal their treasures on repeated listens. However – to judge this album on its own terms – from the outset it was a Goldmine. Every single track has something to recommend about it – be it a timeless melody, an insistent, addictive hook, a surprising middle-eight, a curious and amusing lyrical twist or an extended foray into spaced-out atmospherics.

Yes, some tracks are so short that they could never have clicked immediately, but even on the first listen I can still remember being struck by how – from You Was Me through to Bread – you had an incredible run of five flawless gems of songs – the sort of songs so simple, honest and beautiful that they could have been written by anyone in any year – and yet – at the same time – they simply couldn't have been written by anyone else.

Jonny is sweet, simple, addictive and was probably a lot of fun to make. Which, of course, also makes it a lot of fun to listen to.

Gruff Rhys – Hotel Shampoo

I don't think I've ever heard a song which uses a sample quite like Shark Infested Waters does. It opens with the sound of a radio being detuned. We hear snatches of songs and snippets of melody, but the listener – whose ears we're apparently channelling – can't seem to settle. But eventually we stumble across a very agreeable little rhythm which is so worthy of our attention that it shifts sharply into focus and becomes the song.

And the entire song is built around this little captured iota of another song. And, as song's go, it's perhaps the first since Van Der Graaf Generator's Killer to be sung from the perspective of a hungry shark driven by raw animal instinct. It undulates like waves on the shore and – in an amazing master touch – right at the end order is restored as that insistent rhythm settles back into the gorgeous Burt Bacharach standard from which it was lifted.

This is a song, then, which doesn't try to hide the fact that it exists on the wings of another. This, in conjunction with the detuned radio conceit, creates an overall feel for the album that follows which couldn't be more appropriate – this is music which is so special that it feels like you've stumbled across it by accident whilst idly cycling through the radio waves. I'm terrified to even nudge the dial in case it's lost forever.

And then comes Honey All Over – a more perfect summation of the golden hazy joys of summer has seldom been evoked in sound. Such a title, indeed, goes in a long way to describe the irresistible voice of Gruff Rhys. Even in these bleak winter months it's as soothing as a syrupy hot totty on a frazzled flu-inflected throat and mind.

But all of it I'm afraid just leaves room for the insanely divine – the heaven-sent miracle that is Patterns of Power. I'm never really comfortable with defining entire albums by just one song, but I'm sorry – this lysergic, euphoric, fuzzy life-affirming psychedelic britpop sound is, for me, the sound of happiness itself. No other song this year has succeeded in inspiring anything less than pure unbridled glad-to-be-breathing joy than this mini-masterpiece.

Which by default might make Hotel Shampoo the album of the year.

But, in a year of masterpieces, I cannot and will not go that far.

 British Sea Power – Valhalla Dancehall

Earlier this year, British Sea Power supported The Flaming Lips when they played Jodrell Bank. Originally, Brian Cox was to provide keyboard duties – the idea being, of course, that those long-untapped skills the eminent scientist developed in his time with D:REAM would really add something to the spectral wonder these gentle genii are capable of generating.

It didn't happen in the end. But it always seemed so fitting a union. For many of Valhalla Dancehall's widescreen epics would be perfectly suited for soundtracking those shots which are to be found in all of Bri Bri's shows – those bits where he walks around such panoramic landscapes as resemble alien landscapes looking utterly spellbound.

Which is my long-winded way of saying that Valhalla Dancehall is spellbinding throughout it's lengthy yet still short-lived runtime.

But an album of meandering soundscapes this certainly is not. No, British Sea Power are a rock band, and, like many rock bands, they choose to open their album with an immeasurably satisfying guitar chord which gives way to building, thumping drums and an addictive driving riff in a song which contains a call and response chorus and no small amounts of “Whooo!”. This could be described as “rock by numbers”, and “rock by numbers” could be construed as an almighty slight against them were it not for the fact that a) this just means that it's an energising serum of brilliance and b) few other songs have been so prescient in their defence of libraries and their proclamations of sexy protesting.

Yes. Besides all, this album's relevant.

British Sea Power are one of the finest and most fascinating of bands to ever emerge from anywhere. Like all the best bands, they exude not just a sound, but a feel – and theirs feels like the biting salty air of the British coast; the peaty sting of aged whiskey; the distant cawing of endangered wildfowl.

Long may be their reign.

That's all.


UnChristmassy Things Which Make Me Feel Unaccountably Christmassy

Sufjan Stevens's EPs. Home Alone. The Snowman. The Night Before Christmas. The Nightmare Before Christmas. That Coca-Cola advert. I love Christmas – and some things make me feel Christmassy because they are so damn Christmassy.

Some things, though, induce that Christmassy feel throughout the year – no matter when they're approached – even though they have nothing at all to do with the festive period.

Of course, the reason lies in association. I first encountered these things at Christmas, so they'll always be associated with the most wonderful time of year. It's the same with many, many things.

However, these things aren't just unChristmassy. They're so far removed from what Christmas is and should be about that they're probably powerfully potent in their ability to make some – I'm sure – feel downtroddenly unfestive.

Here, then, are some decidedly unChristmassy things which make me feel unaccountably Christmassy. 


Not the red stuff per se – more the 1997 PC FPS which contains said sangria by the bucket-full – only, the bucket's actually a haemophiliac heart in the middle of a botched transfusion. This game's violent, but not Manhunt violent. It's more Sam Raimi, early-Peter Jackson violent – in that it's so over-the-top vicious as to be ridiculous.

Yes, there are strong satanic overtones, but the tongue's firmly in cheek as you blast your way through pandemonium carnivals, haunted houses, mountains of madness and hospitals using such implements of destruction as voodoo dolls, dynamite and napalm launchers.

Yes, a lot of the levels take place in the snow (or by roaring fires on which chestnuts could comfortably roast), but consider that you can decapitate zombies and use their heads as footballs – and that the eviscerated remains of women tied-under water and left to the mercy of giant piranhas are not uncommon sights – no, it hardly embodies seasonal goodwill.

But it does for me. Sorry.

Mastodon – Blood Mountain

This, the 2006 epic from the hairy, scary genii – is probably generally loathed by the majority of the metal community. As a lot of the vocals are sung rather than screamed (the bastards), it succeeded in attracting a much larger non-metal audience to their enthralling visceral thrills. Like me. Hello!

It's a concept album about a mountaineering jaunt for a crystal skull. It conjures up a foreboding landscape of dark forests, sleeping giants, mortal soil and colonies of Birchmen. And it really does ruddy rock in an almost overwhelmingly technically accomplished way. You can lose yourself in this music – just like our hero does in the landscape on his heroic, none-more-manly quest.

Yes, a lot of Christmas 2006 was spent listening to this on a big pair of headphones as I sat sequestered in the corner.

See? It's not just the brutal content which makes this an unChristmassy Christmassy treat for me. It's also the fact that I made something of an antisocial ne'er-do-well of myself in enjoying it for the first time that cements it's status as a Christmas tradition of questionable festive value.

Day of the Dead

For children, Christmas is very much about the presents. For a lot of adults, it's about the drink. For me, it's mainly about - well, I don't have the space or the time to divulge here exactly what Christmas means to me. Maybe later. Maybe next week.

But a lot of the appeal these days resides in the fact that Christmas presents an ideal opportunity to binge on films. There's always a decent marathon or two broadcast on the terrestrial channels – quality film after quality film – often back-to-back in a merciless “how are we to ever get anything done” solid wall of cinematic magic. Add to this the new DVDs and boxsets with which I and all else are often gifted and it's no wonder that last year I achieved a new record of 14 films watched in the space of three days.

And I enjoyed every single one of them.

They're seldom Christmas films, of course. But that's not the point. They're family films and are thus enjoyed with family. On subsequent viewings I'm therefore reminded of the context in which I first saw them. Christmas! And thus, I feel Christmassy.

But amongst the joy and not unseasonable warmth are a few strands of genuine heart-stopping terror which are more suited to a viewing two months previously. And yet, still I'm reminded of that initial warming festive context. And, like associating chair legs and cockroaches with sexual desire, it ain't right. Ain't natural. Ain't right.

Day of the Dead is such a film. It features possibly the most famous disembowelment in cinematic history – but the bit that really distresses me is the moment where that guy has his head literally pulled off. He screams as it's wrenched away, and in one of the most disturbing moments I've ever witnessed in any film, the pitch of his scream increases as his head is pulled further from his body.

And this atrocity – this bleak, dystopian misanthropic madness – makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

I'm not being funny when I ask – what the hell is wrong with me?


The Great 2011 Film Challenge Part 4

Ooh, get me: challenging myself to watch 150 films I've never seen before over the course of 2011 and writing about those I do watch. No, I don't get out much.

Part One, Part Two, Part Three.

Now, Part Four:

Monster In Law (12/06)

This film shows its hand very early on through showing its hand. I'm talking cards here. Specifically, the tarot. Near the start, somebody does a reading. Films very rarely do the tarot justice (Death hardly ever means death, for instance), but I think that this was the worst on-screen tarot reading I've ever seen. They played it like snap. Now, there might well be a method of reading which does indeed involve throwing down one card after another and, if so, I retract my criticism. But, this being a J Lo vehicle, I doubt they spent any longer than forty-three seconds in their research. Am I judging the entire film by this? Yes. Yes I am.

Secret Window (20/06)

Written by Steven King. Because it was written by Steven King, the protagonist's a writer. And, because the protagonist's a writer, I sort of identify with him. Furthermore, because he's played by Johnny Depp, I really cannot help but like him. However, anybody who's seen any more than one film before will be able to guess the "twist" about ten minutes in. Still, it's quite enjoyable, and his house is boss. And, once things get sinister, things get really sinister. It was written by Steven King, after all. He knows how to write.

Hotel Chevalier (29/06)

A short film which acts as an introduction and a companion to The Darjeeling Ltd, this doesn't make much sense unless you follow it immediately with a viewing of the main feature. That said, it's as engaging and evocative as anything by Wes Anderson, with the added bonus of being the most erotic thing he's ever done, too. 

The Darjeeling Ltd (29/06)

This year Wes Anderson's become so very close to completing my holy trinity of directors. That's right: He's very very nearly in a state to be rated by me alongside David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick asone of my very favourite film-makers. Everything he's done (for I've now seen it all) has been slightly odd but very affecting – and everything looks beautiful. His films are like dog-eared Penguin paperbacks: rough around the edges and a little faded, but crammed full of such things as make life worth living. This one, apart from anything else, made me want to visit India. Hell, it just made me want to travel with monogrammed luggage.

Conspiracy Theory (04/07)

Apparently, people haven't always thought of Mel Gibson as insane. Watching this, though, that's quite hard to understand. Of course, back then people would look at the neurotic gibbering lunatic on-screen and assume that he's just acting. These days, though, it's quite hard to watch without assuming that they've just set up a camera in his flat in order to follow his every move. This hasn't dated too well (it smells like the 90s), but it's nonetheless gripping and features a crazy interrogation scene with such images as have the power of being burned indelibly onto the retinas.

Pitch Black (05/07)

I don't know why, but I often feel sorry for Vin Diesel. Why do I often feel sorry for Vin Diesel? I shouldn't feel sorry for Vin Diesel. Vin Diesel, for one, doesn't feel sorry for Vin Diesel. It's just that, the Chronicles of Riddick came out, and Vin Diesel earnestly insisted that the whole saga would turn out to be this generation's Star Wars. It wasn't to be. I wish it had been, though. Heaven knows we need something to care about. And I think that's why I feel sorry for Vin Diesel. He doesn't quite seem to understand. Pitch Black I quite enjoyed, though. The darkness is so oppressive that it soon makes you forget about just how artificial everything looks when the sun's out. And those monsters are amazing.

Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows pt. 1 (06/07)

Though I've now sat through every Harry Potter film, I've can't admit to having enjoyed very many of them. This one, though, I enjoyed a lot. For the first time since The Prisoner of Azkaban it felt like a faithful adaptation of the book rather than a tired “will this do?”, and often things got brutal and devastating. The scene, at the start, in which Hermione erased herself from her parents' memories was incredibly powerful, as was the slow dance to Nick Cave later on. My faith was almost restored in the series as a whole, but it goes without saying that the books will always, always be better.

Ladies of the House (08/07)

An American made-for-TV affair in which three free-spirited, independent women do up a house for some reason. This leads to montage after montage of the women being free-spirited and independent whilst they strip wallpaper and move furniture. Their husbands are one-dimensional jokes (one's supportive, one's not. One didn't really have any lines) and there was an utterly cretinous bit in which one of the free-spirited, independent women went to a plumbing seminar. “Was that 'monkey wrench' with an O or a U?” she asked, simply because the writer's needed something ostensibly amusing for her to offer at that point. I was just sat there throughout saying “what the hell is this?”

The Ladykillers (08/07)

This was more like it. We're talking creepy Alec Guinness in Ealing rather than Tom Hanks in the deep south. Though I've not seen the remake, I cannot see how it could possibly live-up to this – Coen or no Coen. The sweet old woman is simply adorable – you can see why those crooks found it quite impossible to off her. That they had no difficulty at all in offing each other, though, was hilarious. Mr. Guinness shows his chops here through coming across as genuinely unhinged where many would simply ham it up.

Dark Water (09/07)

Being a remake of a Japanese horror, I was initially wary of this. I can't really abide remakes, because what's the point? This, though, was quite excellent. It wasn't really scary, because mainstream American horrors rarely are. It seems that either directors still think that flashing lights, and sudden noises are scary, or they're contractually obliged by their studios to include such tropes. Viewed as a drama dealing with divorce, motherhood and dark supernatural elements, though, this was really quite good. Apparently it's even better than the original, but on that I can't comment. It does feature Jason C. Reilly, though – so there will always be a place for it in my heart.

Bridesmaids (10/07)

The critical stance on this went full-circle really quickly. It was first identified as a genuinely funny bastion of modern comedy amongst such tired dross as The Hangover Part 2. Some predicted that it would usher-in a brave new era for women in comedy, whilst all seemed to agree that it was very, very good. But then everybody went to see it and everybody agreed that it was good. So, because there can never be such thing as something that's good because everybody thinks it's good, soon the “overrated” remarks began to pile-up to the extent that all seemed to forget something very important – this film is hilarious. Beyond that, though, it bravely, honestly and respectfully charts a woman's fall from grace into depression. It's been pointed out that this doesn't matter, as in true cinematic style, it all works out in the end. But sometimes we audiences need for things to all work out in the end. I certainly needed it that day.

How To Train Your Dragon (10/07)

There are a lot of CGI animated features being released these days. I've no idea why, but my default stance seems to be one of wary contempt. There's so many of them that they must all be bad, right? But then, time and again, I'm made to see the error of my judgement when I actually sit down to watch the things. I even enjoyed The Ant Bully. So when the film in question seems generally regarded to be not just a fine example of animation in general, but a fine example of cinema in general, I'm often overwhelmed. I was quite overwhelmed by this. On initial release a lot of people spoke about the epic scope of the 3D flying sections. Well, I saw in in 2D and on a small-screen, and I was still hooked. That there indicates that here we have an engaging storyline, loveable characters and a great script – you know, the elements that made up a good film before everybody got so hung-up on special effects. The best bit, though, was the dragons. They're basically nothing more than giant cats in their mannerisms and, as such, they're completely adorable.

Grown Ups (11/07)

An Adam Sandler film which didn't really have much of a plot beyond “five childhood friends go on holiday together when they're adults”. They bring their kids, though, and their kids are spoilt nightmares with overwhelming senses of entitlement. They pout and sulk whilst the grown ups have a whale of a time. It comes across, then, as a damning shaky finger pointed at today's video-game fixated generation and, as such, it's pretty sanctimonious. But I couldn't help but agree with these adults as they despaired over their children who seemed wholly adverse to the simple joys of life. And their simple joys were so infectious that it made me pine for such a weekend with my friends.

Wizards (11/07)

Despite the merciless slaughter of cute elfin creatures, the disturbing Nazi imagery, the fact that characters refer to each other variously as “slut” and “son of a bitch”; and, despite the fact that, apart from anything else, the overall message seems to be that sometimes it's necessary to murder siblings using dirty and underhanded means – despite all that – this is supposed to be a kid's film. One of the main characters – a fairy – walks around in a top so revealing that it's a wonder that her gigantic breasts don't escape from the flimsy fabric in which she's contained them – and our hero, Avatar, comes across as a sort of Jerry Garcia/Rodney Dangerfield hybrid. But in saying all of this I'm not complaining. This was incredible stuff. I'm reliably informed that it was all set to smash all box office records. But then Star Wars came out. Imagine how different our world today would have been if an entire generation of filmgoers were defined by this, rather than Star Wars.

Fantastic Planet (12/07)

Stoic and earnest sci-fi which somehow also manages to contain one of the most transcendentally dreamlike and downright strange atmospheres into which I've ever immersed myself. The fantastic planet in question is alien in the purest sense of the word – to find yourself there would be terrifying, but to observe the curious habits and rituals of its inhabitants would be endlessly fascinating. Great soundtrack, too.

Les Escargots (12/07)

A short piece by him what also made Fantastic Planet, this was crazy. After experimenting with such methods as balloons and pulleys, a farmer discovered that his tears could make his crops grow gigantic. But gigantic lettuce attracted gigantic snails -  obviously – who proceeded to terrorise a local town. What was funny was the way the hapless inhabitants of this town still succumbed to the giant molluscs even though they literally moved at a snail's pace – less funny, though, was the somewhat disturbing manner in which the snails consumed or destroyed their prey. It ended ominously and outrageously with our friendly farmer taking a similar approach to his crop of carrots – with similarly horrifying results. Rabbits can run faster than snails.

How Wang-Fo Was Saved (12/07)

A further short film from our Fantastic Planet-creating hero, this one was far less out-there than the previous two. Nonetheless, though, it still had such an otherworldly quality about it to make it feel like a bleary dream. It dealt with a Chinese Emperor whose only respite during his lonely childhood were the transcendentally beautiful paintings of Wang-Fo. When he was finally able to see the world, though, he discovered that nothing was as beautiful in reality as it apparently was in the mind of Wang-Fo. So, being a wholly unreasonable despotic ruler, he condemned the poor painter to death. But how was Wang-Fo saved? Well, let's just say that his abilities to blend the real with the fantastic ultimately proved very useful.

Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Pt. 2 (18/07)

Even though this had the finest opening line of any film, ever (“I need to speak to the goblin”), this was not as good as part one. Whilst my relationship with the books has always been mutually tender and loving, I've never really got along with many of the films. With the exception of The Prisoner of Azkaban and the first part of The Deathly Hallows, each of the films seems to have been made simply for the sake of making a Harry Potter film. By necessity, enough detail is omitted from the films that, often, they just feel like they're going through the motions. This one, unfortunately, felt just like that. They were finishing the series because they had to finish the series. The end felt watered-down, anticlimactic – nothing like the satisfying final mouthful that was the book. And, speaking of which, more-so than ever before, anybody who's not read the book will have difficulty in understanding several parts.

A Town Called Panic (19/07)

It's Horse's birthday. When Cowboy and Indian accidentally order him six-million bricks for his present, it sets off a chain of events which sees them incarcerated in a giant robot penguin, visiting the centre of the earth, shopping at a supermarket at the bottom of the ocean and missing piano lesson after piano lesson. The whole thing operates on a very twisted logic and is, therefore, unmissable.

Mirrormask (20/07)

Written by Neil Gaiman and directed by Dave McKean, this was always going to be special. It looks like an animated version of one of Dave's Sandman covers; it stars Rob Brydon and Steven Fry and features beautifully whimsical music. The plot is deceptively simply and, overall, it comes across as a mid-nineties CBBC serial with particularly high production values. Whilst for some this won't be a good thing, for me it simply means that the whole thing exudes a cosy and comforting atmosphere like a warm living room on a Thursday evening after school – it's lashing down outside, you've recently discovered tea, the worst part of the week is over, it's nearly the weekend and there's something magical on TV.

More to follow? Why not.


Vote Unconsoled!

I just listened to the full-album stream of Lulu.

Lou Reed + Metallica = Loutallica. But, thankfully, this sounds more like a Lou Reed album than a Metallica album. The first song I heard – The View – really didn't bode well: Its furious riffs don't gel with Lou's laid-back drawl, and it ends with James Hetfield screaming that he's a table.

But The View is by no means representative of the rest. The rest is very, very good – thematically similar to Berlin but with a sound more reminiscent of The Blue Mask, Ecstasy and the heavier bits of The Raven.

And ho yes, this is heavy – very heavy – in every sense of the word. Lou's lyrics are brutal like his Rock Minuet – but for perhaps the first time since Sister Ray, the intensity of the music matches that of the libretto.

Can I call the words a libretto? It was, after all, written for the stage.

Ultimately – and I never thought I'd say this, right – it seems that Lou Reed and Metallica were made for each other. Lulu is far better than I ever could have imagined.

But I got to thinking (Carrie Bradshaw I am) – here we have an album of dark intonations backed by the heaviest of heavy metal. Yes, I got to thinking. Specifically, I got to thinking about another band. A band who went their separate ways many years ago; whose sheer creative force set fire to the sky itself and burned a deep trench somewhere near Southport which hasn't stopped burning for almost six years.

Yes: I speak of a little band called The Unconsoled.

The Unconsoled were like a mistake made by God himself. Their time on this planet wasn't very long, but for the duration of their brief and brutal existence, all who looked on sort of winced and said “what the hell is that?”

There were five people in The Unconsoled. Alex “The Doctor” played the drums. Together with Jake's stilt-walking bass, they formed a formidable rhythm section often affectionately referred to as “The Cushions From Kent”.

Two-pronged guitar assault came from “The Bastards of War” - James and Eddie, who perfected a style of playing which owed more to troop movements than it did conventional guitar technique.

It's worth noting that there were originally three layers of distorted mettle. There was once a demigod called David who was so proud of his white Stratocaster that no-one else was ever allowed to even spend time in the same room as it – lest their moisture attack its beautiful sheen. This made rehearsals very difficult, so he later parted from the benevolent fold of The Unconsoled muttering that it was a “stupid name anyway.” He wanted for the band to be called The Edelweiss Pirates.

There was a singer, too – but he couldn't sing. Instead he intoned rhythmically.

The Unconsoled rehearsed in an attic lit by a red-lightbulb in Jake's house on Friday nights. The walls were adorned with pictures of Pete Doherty and Carl Barat. They couldn't afford much in the way of a PA system, and the singer didn't exactly boast a powerhouse voice. The music therefore had to cease completely every time the vocals came in. This led to a unique style which relied upon staccato stabs of metal brutality punctuated by fey sixth-form attempts at hip beat poetry.

Also, nobody in The Unconsoled quite understood music. This led to a style which would later affectionately be described as “flexi-rock”. Flexi-rock allows for the songs to last for as long – or as short -as The Unconsoled desired. Nowhere was this technique better realised than in their magnum opus – the almighty War Bastards – named, of course, after the unholy duo that was the dual-shock guitar line-up – James and Edward.

War Bastards only had two chords, but that's not to say that it had a chord structure. The Bastards of War would furiously thrum a single power-chord whilst the Cushions From Kent chewed over whichever rhythmical improvisations occurred to them. On an occasional signal from The Doctor – a cymbal roll and four strikes of the kick-drum – the music would suddenly halt for a primal scream of “War Bastards!” from all five of The Unconsoled.

Beyond this they had a cover of Napoleon XIV's They're Coming To Take Me Away, Ha Haa – a song chosen because it features nothing at all in the way of music or singing. The drumbeat was easy-enough for them to replicate; and being spoken rather than sung, the vocals were ideal for The Unconsoled. The real challenge was in finding enough for five musicians to do in a cover of a song which features nothing in the way of an arrangement.

So their repertoire never really stretched beyond two songs. But given that one of these songs could, if The Unconsoled so desired, be played for three hours or more, this was never seen as much of a problem. Besides, The Unconsoled never got around to playing a gig anyway. Nor did they ever make any recordings. In fact, the only physical contribution they ever made to anything was in signing a birthday card as “The Unconsoled”. It was cheaper than buying five different cards.

No, for the duration of their short existence, The Unconsoled were defined less by their revolutionary contribution to music and more by their bitter rivalry with ex-guitarist Demigod David. Mistakes were made and harsh-words were exchanged – the rivalry culminating in the penning of a vicious diatribe entitled Vote Unconsoled! It consisted of a litany of slanderous accusations designed to demonise and defame the Demigod. It boasted such marvellous vignettes as “The Demigod quite enjoys setting his hands on fire. Are these the hands you want feeding your children?” It ended with a terrifying screech of “vote Unconsoled!”

It would have made for a malevolent musical maelstrom to match even the merciless tempestuous fury of War Bastards. But sadly, The Unconsoled would never get round to creating an arrangement worthy of the fiery libel they had penned. They were doomed from the start.

Most bands, upon splitting, cite such reasons as “creative differences” for their schism. The Unconsoled, though, must be the only band to have ever existed who could lay claim to being torn apart by shit. Almost literally: The Unconsoled were torn apart by shit.

One night, The Doctor delivered an almighty floater in Jake's toilet – the kind which just wouldn't flush-away. You know the kind. It was, regrettably, discovered by Jake's mum. It being her night-off, she didn't exactly relish the idea of having to bleach the toilet. Especially when she'd already got all-dressed up. She was furious to the extent that she banned  The Unconsoled from ever practising in her attic ever again. And, having lost their rehearsal space, The Unconsoled simply couldn't continue. Their exiled walk on the mean jaundiced streets of Hillside was a dark moment for all. The Demigod had won.

Nobody but The Unconsoled ever heard The Unconsoled play – and they didn't so much “play” as “interrogate”. This is a sad tale of what could have been. They sowed the seeds of metal poetry six years or so before Loutallica. Perhaps when Lou Reed, in 1972, promised to “reap just what you sow”, he was referring to the dark chaos of The Unconsoled.

I'm not accusing him of plagiarism. I'm just saying that when I heard Lulu, I heard The Unconsoled. Specifically, what is Pumping Blood if not a more disciplined version of War Bastards?

The Unconsoled live on in the cold, dead, unfeeling eyes of that dismembered abused mannequin torso which adorns the front of Lulu.

And the dark, clever twist in this tale?

That pretentious and inept vocalist? It was I all along! Aha!

The Unconsoled are dead. Long live The Unconsoled.

If I'm found slumped over my laptop – a trickle of blood oozing from the corner of my mouth – you know to blame The Demigod.

Vote Unconsoled!


Why You Should Boycott Tesco

I created this blog in order to write long and tedious articles about various aspects of film, music and television. My intentions were to create a sort of vein of positivity in the midst of a field in which people seem to score brownie points for cynicism. To that end I've tried my hardest to only write about things I enjoy.

However, evil does exist, and sometimes it just won't do to live and let live. You must allow for me to be serious for a few moments. And though I've written about evil before, when doing so I was still ostensibly writing about music. This time, though, I'm going to have to veer wildly off-topic, as it cannot go unsaid: Tesco are evil.

Or, if they're not evil, then they are, without a doubt, cold and unfeeling hypocrites to be boycotted immediately.

I used to write for Yelp. My position involved writing reviews of businesses and places of interest in the Liverpool and Manchester areas. I readily admit to dishing out scathing one-star reviews of every branch of Tesco I ever encountered. This wasn't pettiness on my part. The whole idea of Yelp is to inform you of what's unique and worth seeing in a city. Tesco, though, will always represent bland corporate homogeneity and, a lot of the time, they seem to exist at the expense of local and independent ventures. They got one-star on principal. They stood against everything Yelp existed to champion.

But then you learn of such initiatives as their Charity of the Year and you start to feel a little guilty. Each year, Tesco raises money and awareness for a specific charity through various fundraising ventures. To be reminded of this having criticised them so heavily – well, it's quite hard not to feel like some kind of dying-internally snivelling armchair critic.

But this year, Tesco's Charity of the Year is The Alzheimer's Society. They're aiming to raise £5 million “build a better future for people with dementia.” According to the website of their partnership, their aims are as follows:

1. For every day of our partnership, we want to help 300 people live better with dementia.

2. We aim to give 100,000 people easy-to-access support and information through the Dementia Community Roadshow.

3. We aim to help 10,000 isolated families get specialist care and advice through our new Dementia Support services.

4. We will also fund two vital dementia research scientists who will conduct groundbreaking research.

Fair enough.

It's just that -

My nan has Alzheimers, but she doesn't shop at Tesco any more.

Want to know why?

Because they banned her.

Why did they ban her?

Essentially, for displaying symptoms of Alzheimers.

If you have ever known anybody with this condition, then you'll know that they're frequently confused and often find themselves with no idea of where they are or what they're doing. So they go through the motions and routine and clutch onto that which is familiar.

So you're walking through a supermarket and you're carrying a bag. Because your brain itself is deteriorating, the action of placing things in your bag is literally absent-minded.

This happened in Sainsbury's. She was caught leaving the store with various unpaid-for items in her bag. When confronted, her confused reaction was such that – coupled with the fact that the staff knew her – it was enough to satisfy anybody that she was not shoplifting. She was just very, very confused on account of her condition.

But Sainsbury's have a business to run. Of course, they can't have people walking round taking stock from their shelves. Dementia or no dementia – if they leave the store without paying, then the store loses money. It's completely understandable that Sainsbury's should take exception to this. But Sainsbury's also happen to be human. They did the right thing: they contacted her family, told us what happened and asked firmly but fairly that should she ever come to their store again, that she does so under our supervision.

See that, Tesco? That's how you should have reacted.

For – yes – the same thing happened in Liverpool's Old Swan branch of Tesco. A small, confused elderly lady – a loyal customer for long enough to have accrued no small amount of points on her Loyalty Card – is caught literally absent-mindedly places several items in her bag.

I cannot stress enough that she simply had no idea what she was doing and would be absolutely mortified were she to suddenly realise what she were doing. Unconscious shoplifing is widely understood to be an unfortunate side-effect of Alzheimers.

But unlike Sainsbury's, when Tesco see this sad and sorry scene, they don't see a sufferer of the very condition they're this year apparently trying to help. No. Instead they apparently saw a cold, hardened criminal and treated her as such. She's marched to the back office where she is reprimanded.

We don't know exactly what happened because she was alone – and that's very important. She was alone. To be in the supermarket alone – even though it was a place familiar to her through years of visit – must have  been confusing and mildly terrifying for her. But to be marched by force to the back office? Even if it was for kind words and a cup of tea, the confusion alone must have been horrifying for her.

But there were no kind words and there was no cup of tea. Instead, they wiped-clean her hard-accrued loyalty points, banned her from the store and – apparently setting out to prove that they really are as bad as everyone secretly suspect – forced her to leave through the back exit. She therefore had humiliation to add to her terror and confusion.

She was so ashamed that she didn't tell us. We only found out when we found a letter from the store in her bag, and she was very reluctant to elaborate. But eventually she did. And the experience was so traumatic that she now very rarely seems to leave the house.

It's been pointed out to me that the manager and security of that particular Tesco may only have been acting in line with their store policy. This would be an acceptable explanation were it not for three things:

1.We have the precedent of Sainsbury's to show us that even big businesses do not necessarily have to act so heartlessly.

2.Their Charity of this Year is The Alzheimer's Society. Would a little bit of sensitivity therefore be too much to ask?

3.Even if they were so determined to make no exceptions for shoplifters – be they intentional or not – was it really so necessary to take away her loyalty points and force her to leave  - most probably sobbing and trembling - through the back exit?

We contacted Tesco to give them a chance to explain themselves. Perhaps these were merely the actions of a loose-cannon manager who plays by his own rules? Surely those who were that very year working to raise funds and awareness for sufferers of dementia would be horrified to learn that a sufferer had been so badly and unfairly mistreated by their own hands?

But they were remorseless. I've not yet seen the letter they sent, but I've been told of its contents. They essentially insisted that, having investigated the matter, they have no problems at all with the manner in which the Old Swan branch acted.

Which suggests that they really do have such stringent policies that they can make no exception for anyone. However,I am told that nowhere in the letter was a simple two syllable word used which would have, at the very least, suggested regret on their part. Not even, I'm reliably informed, a token “we apologise for any misunderstanding”.

What were we expecting? For them to lift the ban? For them to fire or reprimand the jobsworth manager of the Old Swan branch? For them to reinstate her loyalty points, or perhaps send some vouchers as a token of goodwill?

I really think we would have settled for an apology, even if it was followed by a firm “we have a zero-tolerance policy” caveat. I actually naively thought that an apology would be a given. This might be Tesco, but the bad PR that would stem from their behaving so insensitively towards one so vulnerable – a representative, indeed, of their charity of the year – would at the very least be worth an apology. But that was never going to happen. This is Tesco, after all.

So why, then, would an explicit champion of The Alzheimer's Charity be so remorseless in the face of hypocrisy on their part?

You'd think that they'd only started the whole Charity of the Year thing as an empty token gesture or something, wouldn't you? A sort of “look how benevolent we are” which is supposed to make up for every other unethical practice on their part.

To pledge to raise £5 million for any charity is undeniably admirable. But when Tesco itself embodies the very problem they're trying to fix (misunderstanding and mistreatment of dementia sufferers), you really do have to question their motives.

Imagine if they'd secretly funded arms-manufacturers whilst The British Red Cross were their chosen charity. I'm now convinced that the whole Charity of the Year conceit is designed to be one giant arrow pointing the other way.

That alone would be enough for me to vow to boycott. But no.

This time it's personal.


The Great 2011 Film Challenge Part 3

I challenged myself to watch 100 films I've never seen before in 2011. By September 4th, I had achieved this. Hmn.

So now the challenge is to breach 150.

That's doable. Harder, though, will be to write about all those that I've seen by the end of the year.

I shall do it in instalments, sir. Not only does that make it easier to read and write, but it also means that I get more content which should serve to raise my rankings in Google! Everybody wins!

So, here's part one, and part two was incorporated into my post about my afternoon at the BFI Mediateque.

Part three, then:

1. Valerie & Her Week Of Wonders
This one, coveted by those lovely hauntological types, almost defies categorisation. It's essentially a vampiric coming of age tale, but it's more Holy Mountain than Let The Right One In. Yes, it's so full of bleary dialogue, hazy imagery and striking symbolism that, even given its short runtime, watching it feels like sleepwalking. The word “dreamlike” was made for films like this.

2. Persepolis
Rendered in stark black and white so as to echo the graphic novel source material, this one's as humbling as it is inspirational. At one point our hero, having survived revolution in Iran, is driven nearly to the brink after having lost her European boyfriend. There's probably a lesson there – that if we ever feel as though things are bad in the west, well – you have no idea. And yet, it never feels preachy (even though it occasionally preaches) and, despite the weighty subject matter and poignant ending, it somehow manages to be a lot of fun, too.

3. Tropic Thunder
Idiot actors making a film about Vietnam get stuck in a real combat situation and, for a while, don't realise it. A pretty obvious idea, but nonetheless, this film is mental and very, very funny. The “grunt” dialogue is hysterical (“Our asses don't get fragged in this bullshit valley, first thing I'm doin' is payin' my two bucks so I can watch Brooklyn bust his cherry on a sweet little mama son's dinky-down poon-tang!”) and the films-within-films are fantastically realised. Only Tom Cruise's caustic and offensive producer threatens to ruin the fun, but apart from that this is a genuinely funny modern comedy that bears repeat viewings.

4. Step Brothers
At one point, Will Ferrell's character places his ballsack on his step-brother's beloved drumkit. But the testicles you see aren't real. Rather, they're synthetics which cost around $10,000 to make. That alone should give anybody an idea as to what sort of film this is: They take their gross-outs very seriously. That the synthetic balls cost so much entails that nobody can describe the scene as “throwaway”. They'll have you know that a lot of money went into it, thank you very much. Are we to therefore assume that just as much time and effort was dedicated to every other facet of this film? Well, if so, it certainly shows. As modern comedy goes, you can tell which films are doomed to be forever considered as trite and disposable (The Hangover and any recent spoof) and which are worthy to be considered as part of a new classic canon. I would without question place this in the latter category.

5. Romance & Cigarettes
One of these days I'm going to make a list of musicals for people who think they don't like musicals. This would be a strong contender for the top spot. Rather like Flight of the Conchords, the characters only break out into song when they no longer feel able to express themselves otherwise. In the tunes, then, are their secrets, their dreams, their desires. And it doesn't harm, of course, that the songs are such energising standards from the likes of Dusty Springfield, Tom Jones, James Brown, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Presley. Add to this genuinely sympathetic characters, Steve Buscemi, Christopher Walken and a performance from Kate Winslet which can quite literally be described as “hot” and you have something which I found quite impossible not to enjoy.

6. Monster Squad
I wasn't sure whether to include this one. I had most certainly seen it before, but was so young when last I did that I didn't really – if you get what I mean. It had been so forgotten that when I watched it again, though the odd scene invoked a disquieting sense of deja vu, overall it felt like I was watching it with fresh eyes. So it counts, right? Right. Well, any child with even a passing interest in ghosts and ghoulies would be in their element with this one in which Dracula, Frankenstine, a mummy, a werewolf and The Creature basically team up in order to ruin everybody's day. Though ostensibly this is a horror film, it's almost certainly got a young audience in mind. That said, this particular incarnation of Dracula is one of the creepiest – and therefore best – that I've ever seen. The reason it works so well is that he's essentially your stereotypical image of Dracula – all fangs, capes and weirdly arched hair – but played not for camp laughs, but seriously. It works, trust me.


7. The Sea Shall Not Have Them
A World War II propaganda film in which a rescue mission is launched for a lifeboat full of spunky Brits which is floating dangerously close to the coast of occupied France. “But it's dangerous out there!” “Well we're going anyway, for the sea shall not have them!” Yeah, it's propaganda, but if propaganda is to exist, I've less a problem with this sort of stiff-upper-lip-spirit-of-the-blitz-chin-up fare than I have with something like, say, Birth of a Nation, in which the Klan are portrayed as heroes.

8. The Boys In Blue
The sole cinematic endeavour of Cannon and Ball – I've still no idea why I watched this one to the end. Never let it be said that I'm not prepared to suffer for my blog. Who are Cannon and Ball? Well, they're a comedy duo from another time. Some would describe this time as “more innocent”, others as “sadly regrettable”. To get a good idea of the sort of antics they get up to, just try and imagine The Chuckle Brothers if one of them was a sex offender. In this one they're policemen trying to tackle an art-smuggling racket. It ends with them disgraced and losing their job – despite having solved the crime and returned the art – and walking forlornly into the distance on a rainy airfield. I've no doubt that this ending was designed to open up the possibility of a sequel in which the had gained some other form of employment – window cleaners, or something – but seeing as their careers in film ended here, it ends up being quite hopelessly bleak.

9. Follow A Star
This is a Norman Wisdom film. It starts off quite brilliantly – with two sweaty men in vests tensely tackling a monstrous machine which turns out to be a trouser press – but after this things develop/descend into your more standard Wisdom fare. Personally, I've lots of time for the innocent antics of Pitkin, but overall this one's unusually cruel. The plot involves Norman shadowing and later eclipsing the fame of a concert hall singer. Of course it's all played for laughs, but I couldn't help but feel for the poor singer – the look on his face as his world collapsed around him was heartbreaking. If you consider that music hall really was all-but destroyed by the cinema, then this film comes across as quite vindictive – history as written by the winners.


10. Definitely, Maybe
A romantic comedy in which Ryan Reynolds – despite listening to R.E.M, Yo La Tengo and The Flaming Lips, at one point claims total ignorance of Nirvana. How the hell do they expect us to take this stuff seriously if apparently so little thought went into its writing?

That's all for now. Another ten soon. Sure.


...And I Feel Awful - A Tribute To R.E.M

I'm not lacking in perspective. I appreciate that there are much worse things going on in the world right now. But do you know why I listen to music? For the same reason as I read books or watch films and plays and television. I'm of the C.S. Lewis persuasion: It makes me feel less alone.
Yes, like everyone for whom music plays a greater role than merely being part of a lifestyle, music for me is often a coping mechanism. When times are hard (and times are often hard), music makes me feel as though life's worth living.

And, as is the case for all obsessives who harbour a desperate love for music, inevitably there will be groups and artists upon whom I feel I can depend. They'll always be there for me, and they'll always make me feel better.

In short, in losing R.E.M, it's no exaggeration to say that I've now one less reason to be happy; one less reason to get out of bed in the morning.

But how can they be dead when we still have the music? Yeah yeah. Their discography has the potential to keep me occupied to the grave. But there's a real sense of knowing here, and that knowing is crushing. It's the knowing that never again will there be the anticipation and thrill of the new. The knowing that never again will there ever be any opportunity to see them live – to actually share physical space with them – to see them play those treasured songs right there, no more than a hundred metres before me.

The worst thing, though, is that we're now living in the time where cynicism and cowardly anonymity reigns. So far, absolutely every bit of coverage that this devastating news has received has done nothing to satisfy my grief.

And yes, it is grief. How can the sudden loss of something which means so much to you – something on which you thought you would always be able to rely – ever inspire anything other than grief?

But no. Even those that purport to care have been almost gleefully damning. It seems that, some years ago, notes were circulated amongst those who I hate so, so much to the tune that R.E.M just aren't worth caring about. They no longer contribute anything of relevance and anybody who professes a love is just deluded. Obviously. So, clearly it's about time that they split. We're better off without them.

Like hell we are, and like hell did that master baiter mean no malice.

How anybody can speak of a stretch of albums as R.E.M's post 1995 work in anything but glowing terms is beyond me. Just from the very top of my head, on those albums can be found The WakeUp Bomb; Leave; Be Mine; So Fast So Numb; Electrolite; Hope; Walk Unafraid; Airport Man; At My Most Beautiful; All The Way To Reno; Imitation of Life; I'll Take The Rain; Leaving New York; The Final Straw; Electron Blue; Man-Sized Wreath; Supernatural Superserious; Mr. Richards; I'm Gonna DJ; Discoverer; Mine Smell Like Honey -

I could go on. But my point is that there is a body of work which will (I use the modal verb with no hesitancy here) – WILL stand the test of time. As far as I'm concerned, Luke Lewis hasn't heard any of those post-95 albums and is, instead, subscribing to the easiest and laziest course of action – that is, agreeing with the consensus.

Worse, though was Everett True of The Collapse Board. Everett didn't care. You'd think, though, that if he truly didn't care that the worst thing he could do would be nothing. What could be worse, indeed, than saying nothing at all in the face of the disbanding of one of the most beloved and influential groups to ever have existed? The silence would have been deafening in its damnation.

But no. Everett wanted us to know just how much he didn't care. We were to hoist him aloft in praise of his right-on apathy. We were to worship his irreverence. And, in the process, old Everett came across as every bit as narrow-minded and obnoxious as one of those tadpoles who rushes to the comment section of an online obituary only to type “who?” The world must be aware of the extent to which you don't care.

Drowned In Sound almost got it right. It's a shame that their tribute revolved around the same tired old conceit that they've done nothing of value since 1995. But nothing could compare to the pathetic sneering cynicism which hung around the message boards like a bad smell. There I was called a “massive gaylord” for daring to care about something. Yes, I can see the funny side. But forgive me for not wanting to spend a second longer in a world which pours scorn upon those who care.

I couldn't bring myself to read "The Quietus Verdict". I'm sure it was very droll and knowing and superior, though.

No, this is a tribute from somebody who sees no need to put a spin or a position on his assessment. My love of R.E.M knows no bounds. It has no caveat. When I say that I love R.E.M, I am not referring to a specific era with a few exceptions. No. Without a single exception, I love everything they ever released.

Yes. I really like Around The Sun.

I'd wax lyrical about their incredible early-run of albums had they not been praised to high-heaven already. Similarly, I'd give their vastly underrated later albums some much needed love were it not to imply that I somehow favour their later years.

Instead, then, I want to talk about how much I love Collapse Into Now.

See, up until yesterday I saw this album as merely a further entry into an already impeccable body of work. Now, though, all have been forced to view it in a completely different light. Now it's to be forever viewed as their swan song.

That's why this really hurts, you know. I never thought there'd be a time without R.E.M. I thought they'd always be there. Now, though, I'm clutching onto Collapse Into Now like the last gift left by a loved-one.

Imagine if a loved-one were to die moments after handing you a box of matches. You'd treasure this box of matches for the rest of your life. It would languish in a locked box safe and untouched. You might take it out from time to time and smile benignly at the memories it evokes, but it wouldn't necessarily be part of your life.

Imagine, though, if the parting gift from the loved one is an intricate painting which, when hung on your wall, serves to really bring the room together. Generally, you're simply glad that it's there. But to just glance at it is to remind you of the person who is now, sadly, no longer with you. A glance is all that's needed to make you feel better.

But if you're to get up close and study the intricacies of this painting, something occurs to you: This is a very good painting. You could stare at it for hours. You could live in this painting.

Then, six months later, you realise something: You'd love this painting removed from context. You wouldn't hesitate to hang it on your wall even if it didn't have the emotional attachment to a departed friend.

That's exactly how I've come to feel about Collapse Into Now over the past day or so. I've liked the album ever since I first heard it. Now, though, it's become that parting gift. But, like the proverbial painting, I know for a fact that I'd treasure it as part of my life even if it wasn't so representative of something terrible. Hell, I'd treasure it even if it was the debut album of someone yet to change the world.

Essentially, what may have been an also-ran in my list of albums which have shaped my year is now a very strong contender for the number one spot.

Back in spring when I allowed for those wonderful, wonderful songs to soundtrack my walks to and from work, I had no idea just how much those tunes would come to mean to me. They're all testaments to the incredible power that loud, crunching guitar chords can have upon shaping my mood. They're all loaded with such melodies that have the same impact upon me as does the sun slowly emerging from behind a grey, heavy cloud. They are nothing short of the sound of happiness.

And, being R.E.M songs, they're also heavy with some of the most fantastic wordplay this side of anywhere. It will always be a rewarding task to explore these lyrical landscapes, but for now they all serve to put a hand on my shoulder and, with a smile, whisper four words:

“Goodbye. It's been fun.”

How fitting do those triumphant closing moments sound now.

I still don't like the cover, though.


I Really Wish E4 Hadn't Cancelled Friends

I thought it would never happen. E4 have stopped showing Friends.

Big deal? Absolutely. It's such a big deal that I was moved to revisit a piece I wrote in about 2006 in which I argued that reliable TV programming provides an excellent means of building a routine. And routines for some form an invaluable part of their sanity.

I called it "Television CAN Save The World! (or at least your sanity)", and I'm struck by how prescient and darkly prophetic it seems. I am now unemployed and deeply, deeply unhappy. I could really do with something like a daily fix of Friends. It would give me something to hold onto.

So, without further ado, here's some vintage me from 2006. Marvel at my use of ellipsis (which I would never use now), my reference to Mew and my invocation of knowledge gained during my "Introduction to Moral Philosophy" course:


Every day at 17.00 (and again at 20.00) E4 broadcasts a double bill of Friends. You could quite literally set your watch to it: “And at the end of the Appletizer Diamond Promotion advert the time will be 17.00 exact. (Beep, beep, beep)”.  In many ways this marathon of mild, inoffensive comedy from across the pond is the highlight of my day. It’s pure escapism. When Friends is on, life doesn’t bother me at all. It’s not like I can relate to the lives of these rich, young, ridiculously attractive and appallingly shallow New Yorkers; far from it. But for an hour a day I can escape into a world where everything’s ok. Where conflicts are resolved in the space of a half hour cup of coffee, where people pause having spoken to allow for an invisible studio audience to laugh themselves into oblivion.

I’m not for one second claiming that Friends is an example of quality television. It frequently induces cringing. I find myself muting the TV when it’s likely that the audience will scream. A very reliable “heads-up” is when anyone kisses. Out-loud laughter’s infrequent, and many jokes miss the mark completely. And yet…I’m completely addicted. I find myself having withdrawal symptoms if I go without my daily fix.

And I’m sure that it’s exactly the same for many people. In a very post-modern move E4 have started to cringe at their own routine predictability: “Coming up next: More Friends (sigh)”. But they know for a fact that there’d be a right ruckus if they ever dared to change their scheduling. It’s the same with the daily 18.00 showing of The Simpsons, or the soaps that are on at exactly the same time every single night and subsequently repeated in a 2.5 hour endurance tests at the weekend. People have come to rely upon this schedule. It really is nice to know that at a set point every day you’ll have something decent to watch. It gives you something to look forward to. Case in point: Look how many people suddenly feel strangely empty when a series of Big Brother ends. That’s why we’re plagued with so many spin-off shows.

Any freshers who suddenly find themselves hundreds of miles away from home in a strange city surrounded by “frengers” (not quite friends, not quite strangers) can find solace in this sort of television. Once one has a routine it’s far easier for one to settle in. And before you know it, you’re enjoying yourself. I’m a second year now, and it’s fair to say that I’ve only just settled in. It took twelve months. However, I’m confident that had I access to a television set in my first year the process of settling in would only have taken…a week or two. No matter how adamantly we may try to deny it, as humans we are creatures of routine. Imagine a life without routine. You’d go insane very quickly. Aristotle knew it. He said that the virtuous life is filled with “worthwhile activity”. That might as well be a byword for “routine”. Look how bored and depressed the unemployed get. We NEED routine.

I’m all for daring and experimental television. But people should stop complaining about endless repeats. Some of us need those. Like the ozone layer and love, you’d only miss them when they’re gone.


And oh, lord knows how I miss them.


An Afternoon At The BFI Mediateque

With three and a half hours to kill between job interviews, I spent a very enjoyable afternoon delving into the BFI Mediateque at the Derby Quad.

If you ply them with a proof of address, they'll give you a special card which will allow for you to watch as many films as you want for as long as you want. Suddenly, the yawning stretch of time between my appointments didn't seem so tedious. Within moments, I had a world of wonder at my fingertips – and in three hours I barely scratched the surface.

It should be noted, incidentally, that nine of the ten films I watched contribute towards my 2011 Film Challenge target.

I started with a couple of music videos. First came a TV promo by Screaming Lord Sutch for Jack The Ripper. As staunch, static and gaudy as any studio-bound performance of the early-60s, a succession of vaguely-Victorian ladies were mercilessly slaughtered in as camp and tasteless a manner as was possible in the stoic and tasteful wasteland that was television back then.

Next came an attempt to simulate the effects of psychedelic drugs without the use of psychedelic drugs. Called Beyond Image, it was essentially a colourful kaleidoscopic oil-lantern display set to the droning bleeps and repetitive bass jams of The Soft Machine. Watching it on headphones and staring fixedly at the screen, I really did feel something approaching transcendence as my thought patterns achieved synchronism with the mercurial colours.

After this I dipped into their animation archives, in which I could honestly have wallowed for hours. I begun with a cheerful piece called A Short Vision. Comprised mainly of still images with such animation as resembled the movements of puppets cut from paper, it told a story of nuclear apocalypse. Apparently shown on a prime-time slot in America, the footage of a man's eyeballs popping and melting down his face were seemingly enough to inspire the formation of the CND.

Run Wrake's Rabbit I had seen before, but I jumped upon the chance to see it again. Set in a storybook world part Ladybird, part Enid Blyton (everything has a label), it tells the story of two children who find an idol when they cut a rabbit in half with the intention of making a muff. The idol loves plum jam but hates wasps and flies. These pests he zaps with lightning bolts from his fingers and, once zapped, they become jewels and, of course, feathers and jars of ink. Though surreal in the purest sense of the word, this highly disturbing piece also harboured a very important message and a truly horrifying ending.

Then came something which I've wanted to see for ages: The Quay Brothers' Street of Crocodiles which, apart from anything else, served to reassure me that I'm not yet fully desensitised and that, when exposed to certain concepts and imagery, I'm still very much capable of finding myself unnerved. Many such images could be found here: the fading glow of a dying lightbulb-headed man; a museum of bizarre anthropomorphic machinery banging on the glass for mercy; a female-torso fondling its own breasts; living screws dancing to their own beat and, worst of all, a makeover from three utterly freaky eyeless dolls which began with the removal of the head. It wasn't so much the images themselves that freaked me out as the inescapable feeling of familiarity: I've had this exact nightmare before, I just know it.

Fancying something lighter, I opted for an experimental piece from 1955 entitled 13 Cantos From Hell. Subtitled as “thirteen dramatised scenes from Dante's Divine Comedy”, this was the work of sculptor Peter King, who tragically died in a motorcycle accident two years after the film's release. It's comprised exclusively of stark black on white images which owe a lot to elaborate and distorted tribal patterns and the elegant work of shadow puppetry. The images themselves were striking enough, but the real pleasure here was in the remarkable soundtrack. A succession of rhythmic tribal percussion, otherworldly wailing and strange electronic beeps; a lot of the time it reminded me of the creepier and more discordant moments from the Liars' discography. I'm almost certain that they must have watched this one at some point, scribbling furious notes as they did so.

Though by no means tiring of animation, I wanted something a little different next. I opted for a trio of films from the first decade of the twentieth century. The earliest, entitled Undressing Extraordinary (1901), reminded me of those Daffy Duck cartoons in which he's tormented by the sadistic pencil of the animator. A tired traveller attempted to undress for bed, but upon removing one item of clothing another would appear. Hilariously, the traveller began, seemingly without realising, to step into the character of these costumes: He became regal when dressed as a king, stately when dressed as a policeman etc. Eventually he succeeded in stripping but was foiled in going to bed by the sudden appearance of a skeleton. Then the skeleton disappeared. Then it began to snow. Though ostensibly a comedy, apparently contemporary audiences found the concept of the most basic and everyday of tasks being rendered impossible by supernatural forces uncomfortable and disquieting. Undressing Extraordinary, then, is recognised by some as a very early horror film.

I stuck with the horror theme for the remainder of the afternoon. Dreams of Toyland (1908) was probably intended to be charming, enthralling and comedic. However, I found the dreamscape of ultraviolent toys to be nothing short of diabolical. They begun by waving at the camera, but in no time at all they were indulging in such practices that might make even Itchy and Scratchy wince: A wild goose gnawed ravenously on the face of a doll. A lady was tossed, face first, into the deep fat fryer of a passing hot-dog cart. A London bus, driven by an insane monkey, appeared to take great delight in ploughing over all who stood in its way. That this was supposed to be a comedy should give food for thought for those who think that gratuitous violence is a relatively new phenomenon in cinema.

The Man & His Bottle (1908), though, I don't think was ever intended to be taken lightly. A man, either hungover or attempting to kick his alcoholism, found himself tormented by apparitions of devils, white rats and legions of floating bottles. One bottle sprouted arms and legs and began to follow him down the street. His nightmare ended in a beer cellar, where he was at first attacked by strange octopus-like creatures. Then a trio of clowns appeared with “DT” written on their costumes (delirium tremens?) Taking a limb each, they stretched him until he resembled a gaunt rag-doll before stuffing him into a giant bottle and leaving him to die a painfully and ironic death.

In each of these three silent films, equally – if not more so – fascinating than the storylines were the faces staring suspiciously from windows at the camera. It's a feature of a lot of early cinema and photography. The camera must have been a source of marvel and wariness for these people. Scholars could interpret their looks as the past confronting the future. Personally, I'm always reminded of the ghostly faces glimpsed in the back of hearses – late for their own funeral.

Jumping forward some seven decades, my curiosity was piqued by a piece entitled The Universe of Dermot Finn, which I've only just discovered to have been directed by the increasingly-fascinating Philip Ridley. As the brief synopsis insisted, the less you know about this film before watching it, the more you'll enjoy it. I couldn't agree more, and that no images of it seem to exist online may hint at the existence of a sort of clandestine effort to preserve its mystery and wonder for the uninitiated. Suffice to say that it's one of the most successful blends of comedy and horror I've ever seen and that it rivals even David Lynch's Eraserhead in conjuring such images and concepts that will stick with you for life. It's a very British spin on a certain nightmarish scenario, and I would not hesitate to describe it as utterly unmissable.

Saving the longest (if not the best) for last, my afternoon was brought to a close when I finally got a chance to watch the original 1968 Omnibus version of Whistle & I'll Come To You. For my full thoughts on this one, why not head over to Found 0bjects?

I cannot recommend the BFI Mediateque enough. There really is something for everyone. I think my tastes can be roundly surmised as being “acquired”, but even I found enough to keep me enthralled for an entire afternoon, and I just know I'll be making a return visit before long.

It's free to join and, having joined, free to use. It's worth an afternoon of anyone's time. In fact, it's so good, that even if you don't live near I'd advise you to make a pilgrimage. You won't regret it for a moment.