Monday, 30 March 2009

Raving I'm Raving

Some photos I took on my recent sojourn up north. Not only is Brisbane's big wheel (it's not an eye - it's a big wheel, stop calling them eyes...) in a nice place, but it also works. I like these pictures. They look like a 1991 rave music video...

I took this one in the bathroom at the art gallery. They were throwing everyone out at the end of the day and I needed to go. I'm sure some will find the idea of taking pictures in a lavatory a bit unsavoury but it was amazing - a bit like the video for The Universal by Blur. My picture doesn't quite capture how white the place was but I still like how it came out...

Friday, 27 March 2009

Always a pleasure...

Some lovely news - Daniel Kitson has just announced himself as a last minute addition to the Melbourne Comedy Festival shenanigans. Doing what he describes as “work in progress towards a new stand up show later in the year,” he’ll be performing in the Performance Space at RRR in East Brunswick from Sunday to Thursday at 6.30pm throughout the Festival which starts on April 1st.

Tickets to see Daniel are available through Polyester Records in both the city and Fitzroy shops for a mere $12.50 (plus booking fee) of your Australian dollars. Mr Kitson also has plans for three live radio shows on RRR on which he will be “introducing comedians from the comedy festival, musicians and playing records and pre-recorded bits and pieces.” I thought I should share this with you so you can have a bit of the smile it gave me.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Television "Not Always Rubbish" Shocker

I’m not sure when I joined the ranks of people who watch telly and then talk about it all the time. I’ve always liked ploughing through comedy shows and quite enjoy finding things that make me laugh other than fart gags, but very rarely proper telly – you know, with plots and actors and the like. Yet having recently over-enthusiastically discussed at least two of these proper TV shows with work colleagues, friends and random strangers I have realised that I’m now part of that boring group of people who wank on about how good telly is these days.

I should share a couple of things. Firstly, apart from the news, I don’t watch regular telly. Adverts on Australian television are beyond a joke; some shows can get interrupted for up to 4 minutes some five times an hour and it drives me crazy. Quite how the writers and directors feel about seeing their shows ripped to pieces is beyond me. I tried watching Heroes on cable and I’d have been better off watching it on You Tube than in the five minute chunks I was served. So mostly I’m watching shows on DVD long after the hoo-hah. This actually suits me, because I can avoid finding things out from other people before they happen.

Secondly, I have watched almost none of the ‘must-see-TV’ of the past two decades. Despite being implored by friends and colleagues with myriad tastes and levels of televisual sophistication, I have never seen a single episode of (deep breath) the West Wing, Alias, Desperate Housewives, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (or Angel), the OC, Beverly Hills 90210, LA Law, ER, the Sopranos, Prime Suspect, Ally McBeal, the Wire, Inspector Morse, NCIS, CSI, Grey’s Anatomy, Six Feet Under, 24, Sex and the City or any science fiction shows since Star Trek the Next Generation finished in 1994. I’m sure there are many others but I’ve probably just never heard of them. I have seen one episode each of Friends and the X-Files and, after being literally forced to sit in front of the telly I have now watched the first few episodes of Lost. All things considered this may be why I’m crap at trivia quizzes these days.

The observant among you will note that most of the programs I have mentioned are American. This might suggest that maybe I just don’t like American TV. After all, I’ve sat through hours of Eastenders and the Bill and despite their dowdy charms even I know that some of the above series are probably better shows. Maybe my expat tastes are tragically and parochially anchored in the United Kingdom, quality be damned. I don’t think so though because my favourite TV show ever is Twin Peaks and despite its qualities it wouldn’t have been quite the same show had it been set in, say, Birmingham.

Others will note that my non-list contains lots of police dramas, science fiction and the TV equivalent of chick-lit. Maybe I just don’t like certain genres? Well, maybe, but I did nerd-out on Star Trek as a youth and I’ve spent many hours watching the revamped Dr Who so I’m not immune to a sci-fi show – just seemingly the new crop of American ones. As for cops and robbers, I would probably agree that it’s not my thing, although I did love the original Manchester-based Life on Mars. All the more interesting then that of the two shows that have so floated my boat of late, both are American and one is so cops and robbers that the hero is serial-killer-catching serial killer who works for the police.

I am of course talking about Dexter, Jeff Lindsay’s “neat little monster” played with charm and the right amount of faux-naivety by Michael C Hall. From the first time I saw the opening credits montage of Dexter Morgan’s morning shower, shit, shave and breakfast routine portrayed as a murderous ritual I was hooked. I can’t deny the possibility that maybe it’s because I’ve avoided all the other cop shows that I love Dexter so much. I don’t know any of the clichés of police drama, and Dexter might be riddled with them but I wouldn’t know. I do know that every episode of seasons one and two left me almost sick with nerves and anticipation that Dexter might be five seconds away from being caught and exposed to his trusting and unknowing colleagues, including his doting sister Deborah, not to mention his slightly insipid girlfriend, Rita. I do know that Dexter made me want to go to Miami and drink tequila and eat lobster on the beach at night whilst people salsa around me. I do know that Dexter got me hooked on Chopin. I do know that there was no need for a season three, despite Jimmy Smits’ rewarding turn.

I doubt I’ll be so enthusiastic about season four. But Dexter has proved to be my gateway to a brave new television world. As I enthused about the show and encouraged others to watch however they could, I heard echoing calls of ‘oh you like Dexter? You’ll love this’ or ‘you should try so-and-so.’ And apart from the West Wing, which everyone seems to love, everyone had a different recommendation. It made me realise the possibility that - for a short while- you could probably get addicted to just about any show on Earth if you had the time. Watching TV shows in isolation, either on DVD or downloaded from Bit Torrent sites, with the ability to zoom through a season at your own pace, can make you feel like you’re in on some marvellous secret. If you venture online you’ll find hoards of people just like you, all obsessing about the important minutiae of their chosen shows as if they’d discovered the cure for cancer but didn’t want anyone to know. I’d like to think that I’m above all that, of course. It’s not the secret addiction aspect of watching Dexter that makes me watch more. Is it? It’s just damn fine TV. Isn’t it? I was happy to believe that Dexter was a one-off in television history, a show that knowing people will refer to knowingly in 20 years time like an early Coen Brothers movie.

Only then I discovered Mad Men, a show so clever and grown up it makes Dexter look like early evening light entertainment (with knives and chainsaws, of course). Gazing dreamily at the picture perfect sets, the sculpted hairdos and tailored outfits, listening to the snappy one liners and settling into the somnambulant pace (the first time I noticed that something had actually happened I was midway through the second season) I realised I was addicted again. My secret obsession had moved from modern day Miami to early 1960’s New York, but still I wanted to know everything about my new show.

Now, I’m prepared to go out on a limb here and say that Mad Men is special. I’ll probably never watch any of the shows I mentioned earlier but I just have a feeling that Mad Men is better than any of them. The acting is perfect across the board; the characters deep as the Marianas Trench. Each of them is as distinct and isolated as each other, all of their time yet on the verge of a 1960s which will change the world beyond even their creative imaginations. Feminism, multiculturalism, civil rights, gay rights, technology and globalisation are all just around the corner from where we are observing them.

The show is unashamedly smart too; the dialogue bristles with clever lines and observations that make you realise that some of the characters will do better than others as the sixties unfold. Secretary-turned-junior-copywriter Peggy Olsen’s dual with her own sense of morality, as projected through a young and passionate Catholic priest, is as vibrant an examination of the beginning of the end of religion’s grip on everyday youth as you’ll read in any textbook. Coupled with lead man Don Draper’s existential internal battle spelt out through the words of New York poet and writer Frank O'Hara, you see a show unafraid to wear its brain on its sleeve.

Mad Men lives against but not for the big moments in American history. The historic nature of the Kennedy v Nixon election is portrayed as another day’s work for those working on the campaign, most indifferent to the possible winner. Staff in the office are equally affected by the Cuban Missile Crisis and the death of Marilyn Monroe depending on what they’re into – like people who were more interested in the life and death of Jade Goody than the collapse of the world economy.

The show looks like a dream; Lynchian retro yet as alive as a beat poem in a late night Manhattan bar. The costumes and hairstyles are so wonderful that it makes you feel rather dowdy just watching it, and yet they never shy away from the reality of maintaining such a look (in one wonderful scene, office siren Joan – known for her pert wiggle and gravity-defying bosom is shown undressing at home, tenderly rubbing her shoulders where her industrial strength bra has almost sliced grooves into her perfect porcelain skin). January Jones’ Betty looks like a movie star as she sashays around her suburban home (they cut to the chase with everyman and his dog telling her she looks like Grace Kelly) but you know that she’s not doing the cleaning in those skirts.

There are so many articles out there right now about Mad Men and why it’s so good that it’s pointless to go on (my favourite is this one from last year by Chicago Tribune journalist Mo Ryan) other than to reinforce my already apparent enthusiasm. But in the context of my hopeless addiction and wrapped up in the excitement of someone who has basically caught up to the rest of the world and realised that in front of the television can be a nice place to be sometimes, my advice is twofold and simple: be who you is, and watch Mad Men. It’s ace. Now, where’s that Desperate Housewives box set…

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

What Happens in Vegas

I’ve just been away for three days for a work conference. Being new to the world of lectures and finger food I wasn’t familiar with conference clichés. I was surprised to hear more than one person jokingly refer to the concept of ‘what happens on the conference stays on the conference’ – something you hear more associated with buck’s night and hen’s dos than work junkets. Naïve me... apparently conferences are full of people at it like middle-aged bunnies, revelling in the freedom from spouses and children in work-funded four star hotels.

That said, I have a shocking admission to reveal – one that I should have left on the conference but the guilt is too strong and I have to come clean. I am ashamed dear world, for I have fallen off the cheese wagon.

As with all weak-willed junkies of excess I could of course lay the blame with the fiends who stuck a cheese slice in my egg buttie without telling me until it had melted into the eggie-goodness. I could also state that the chilli prawn pizza I ordered on Friday night did not list cheese as an ingredient on the menu. I could have done that. I could also have lied, dear reader, but this is not the Mint Custard way. So I stand before you and I look you in the pixelated eye and say “Yes. Cheesy goodness has crossed my lips. And it was good. And cheesy. And I’m sorry.”

I shall complete my fromage-free March (after all there’s only 8 days to go) but just like Little Miss Muffet, I’ve learnt a very big lesson. Don’t f*ck with curds and whey.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Only Missing Out Can Break Your Heart

Sometimes I hate being so far from Europe. Saint Etienne have announced gigs in May this year where they’ll be performing Fox Base Alpha from start to finish. How ace would that be? They’re only playing Glasgow, Sheffield and London. I wonder how I could persuade them to come to Melbourne. They can all stay at my house for free. I’d promise I wouldn’t stare.
Pending their arrival on our shores (I know, it’s never gonna happen) I’m off to dance around the room to So Tough in my Sarah wig and Jean Shrimpton mini-dress. Again. for more...

From tiny seeds – tiny things grow…

I’ve been tending to my veggie pots for three months now and despite drought and temperatures of up to 46 degrees things have gone quite well. I’ve loved pottering around in the garden with the radio on and am confident that one day I will make an excellent pensioner.

With this being my first attempt at growing things I’ve been a little bit sentimental about it all, treating each seed and seedling with love and admiration that they managed to grow at all. I clearly let my emotions get the better of me. Just about every packet of seeds tells you to thin to the strongest two or three seedlings, the idea being that there won’t be room for everyone to grow. This is like asking which of your children you’d like to send to Michael Jackson’s house for a holiday.

The consequence of my inability to be ruthless has been the world’s tiniest vegetables, displayed below for you as a warning. All were perfectly edible and quite delicious; just not very plate-filling.

Like all second-time parents I’ve been far less precious about my next offspring and have already started ruthlessly plucking out the stragglers from my new autumn sowings. The result might not be as cute but it might fill my belly a bit better.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Cheesy Challenge – Half Time Report

So I’m almost two weeks into my fromage-free March and here’s what I know:

  • As with all good addictions, the third day is the hardest. It’s a good job we cleared the fridge or I’d have been off the wagon
  • Pizza without cheese still works, as long as you make it yourself. Sour cream and avocado are the bomb on a pizza and so, surprisingly, is balsamic vinegar and mushrooms. La di da me…
  • There is no replacement for cheese and tomato toasties after a hang over. You just have to suffer
  • People don’t like it when you give things up – even for a short while - and will try all sorts of techniques to make you stop
  • Cafes lie about what is in their food. I’ve now bought two ostensibly cheese free salads only to find furtively placed bits of feta looking up at me from under a leaf going ‘you know you want to.’
  • Thai noodle salad is lush. It’s like tangy cold spaghetti, which is nicer than I’ve made it sound
  • I’m always hungry. Clearly cheese had permeated my system to such an extent that every nook and cranny had been filled to overflowing. These nooks now cry out into the night for their dairy cavity insulation
  • Pasta without parmesan is rubbish. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. I’d rather eat that dried parmesan sawdust that smells of sick than go without.
  • I declare April to be cheese-only month…

Must go, my belly is rumbling again…

Friday, 6 March 2009

Play and Record

It’s just over a month since I bought my Macbook. It’s both my first Mac and my first laptop, so playing around with it has been doubly fun. The novelty of indulging in nerdy pastimes whilst wandering around the house instead of being stuck in our cold spare room has yet to wear off.

I won’t harp on about the user-friendliness and general cuteness of Macs; you’ll either know already or won’t care, but one of the gadgets worth a mention is GarageBand. For the uninitiated it’s an audio recording program which most people use to create their own music to the extent that ‘laptop electronica’ has almost become a genre in itself. I have no rhythm or musical ability to speak of but it’s scarily easy to use and has built in functions for recording podcasts which is right up my ten-foot. However, for the moment I’ve been using GarageBand to digitise all my old cassette tapes. This is something I’ve tried before on my PC using Audacity, but for some reason Vista and Audacity never seemed to be good friends on my computer. Thankfully GarageBand is a bit easier to work and I’ve been happily trawling through my old c90’s.

I dumped most of my pre-recorded cassettes when I moved. I’ve since picked most of them up on CD for a dollar or two. However I have a special stash of tapes that have travelled with me that aren’t likely to appear on CD unless I make it happen.

I was a reasonably obsessive compilation maker in the day. I’d borrow friends’ tapes, CDs and records to make my own collections which I’d dutifully label and create artwork for. I’ve made a few tapes for mates and would-be-girlfriends over the years but mostly I just made them for me. I still have most of them. Some are almost 20 years old and have been with me through thick and thin, played on every walkman I’ve ever owned. Their track listings and orders are as familiar to me as any ‘proper’ album. Some songs are forever welded together, one always destined to follow another. Putting on these compilations is the closest thing I’ll ever come to time travel. The songs still have life in isolation, but strung together on these tapes they form an aural tapestry, dragging places and events back to life from somewhere in my head.

Listening to them recently, my favourite is still the Enormous Sigh, a compilation of songs that are so sad they never fail to make me feel happy. Things like Download by Super Furry Animals, I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine by Beth Orton, Aren’t you Glad by Spirit, Black Boys on Mopeds by Sinead O’Connor and That’s My Desire by Hadda Brooks are all still worthy of anyone’s two-bob on the heartbreak jukey.

I have a nice collection of tapes given away free with various magazines through the ages, especially the NME and Select. Most magazines these days seem incomplete without a free CD, but free music on magazines was a relatively rare occurrence in the nineties. Many of them were terrible; a couple of live tracks or remixes by big name acts, a couple of up and comers and a few that were never to be. However, short of cash and devoid of decent record shops, these tapes would occasionally offer up gems that I would tape to tape onto one of my own compilations where they would breathe new life. My favourite find in my stash was a long lost copy of Kylie’s Got a Crush on Us by Teenage Fanclub, given away on a 1992 tape celebrating the best of pre-Oasis Creation Records. It was all downhill for the Fannies from there…

Another notable was Beat up the NME, a 1997 Fatboy Slim mix tape that heralded a whole new era in genre hopping and spawned hundreds of cash-ins from the likes of Ministry of Sound. I literally wore this tape out listening to it, because at the time it was guaranteed to bring a smile to my face. I think it was the first place I ever heard Psyche Rock, Mr Cook’s remix of an old Pierre Henry song that got ripped off by the theme tune of Futurama. But I digress.

Beat up the NME was a nice and digestible reflection of a world being broadcast nightly on late night BBC Radio 1, and specifically on the shows hosted by Annie Nightingale and Mary Anne Hobbs, and whose shows make up the remainder of my tape collection. The latter’s Breezeblock was like a dirty aural cocktail resulting in the type of soundtrack they now play on the Bill to signify that an estate is a bit dodgy. Hobbs seamlessly mixed hip hop, rap, rock, big beat, electronica, funk, dub, soul, space rock, krautrock, post rock, jungle, drum and bass and punk. It was a world where Jason Spaceman was the saviour of the universe; where Bentley Rhythm Ace were treated with as much reverence as Chuck D; where Stax and Motown were equal partners with Wall of Sound and Skint; where the Private Psychedelic Reel could fade into the skuzzy intro of I Wanna Be Your Dog. It was a world where you could hear exclusive DJ sets by Suicide, the Beastie Boys, Avalanches, Radiohead, Mogwai, the Beta Band, Primal Scream, David Holmes, DJ Shadow and even comedian Chris Morris. It opened up the old to the young and the new to the old. What’s more, in a period where you could define subcultures and genres by their poisons, the Breezeblock wasn't about bifta or pills or booze or speed; it was about bringing them all into the same space and saying let's go fucking ape. On the radio.

I treasure the shows that I still have on tape. Even when there was no special guest the music was ace. The shows still sound fresh, different and Mary Anne’s passions and obsessions are easy to share. If you look around online you’ll find a lot of the Breezeblock sessions and mixes – whether DJ sets or live sessions from Maida Vale. I’d suggest most would be worth a listen. One that isn’t up anywhere as far as I know is the first Breezeblock session by the Lo Fidelity Allstars. When I realised that GarageBand could convert my record my tapes to MP3, this was the first tape that went in the machine. I can vaguely recall sleeping on a friend’s floor after a night out and remembering that the Lo Fis were in session. I begged her for a tape to use and she managed to find one for me but the tabs were snapped off so we had to fold up some paper and fill the holes so it would be recordable again. It was worth it; I’m not sure if the Lo Fi’s were ever that good again. It was the start of a journey for them, before the hype and before they had to go back and change all their songs because they’d stolen all the samples. The versions of Battleflag, Disco Machine Gun and Vision Incision (‘dedicated to Jason Space-man. I’ll see you in space...’) were blistering, chaotic, irreverent, indecent, funky, naïve, epic and beautiful – everything that the Breezeblock was about. Every other version I heard of those songs seemed watered down afterwards. I have no idea what the legal ramifications are but if anyone wants a copy, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.

Despite this nostalgia tapes were, of course, shite. Mix tapes were a cute thing to get – I think I still have every tape that anyone ever made me and they mean far more than the CDs that people have ripped me from i-tunes. But let’s be honest, they were cumbersome, could chew and destroy themselves in any player they went into, they were a pain to rewind and fast forward and had none of the appeal of vinyl, with their tiny covers and plastic cases that broke easily. That said I’ll probably still keep all my tapes when they’re all converted. It’s been 20 years after all and who knows what horrors might befall my hard drive over the next 20.

Post-Script Random Fact: the French commonly refer to tapes as K7’s (the letter K is pronounced ‘Ka’ and ‘7’ is pronounced as ‘sette.’ Em-pay-trois (MP3) isn’t quite as cute.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Some news that will likely slip under the world’s radar (indeed I only found out several weeks after the event) but apparently the Beautiful South have reformed - sort of. Two years after their official split and twenty years after their first incarnation was unleashed on the world, some of Hull’s second finest have decided that enough wasn’t enough and have become (wait for it) the New Beautiful South. I say some, because technically the only original members will be drummer Dave Stead and Dave Hemingway, singer and erstwhile second drummer of the Housemartins. They will be joined by Alison Wheeler, the last of the South’s three female vocalists (the one who never sang on any of their hits). So, there’s no Jacqui Abbott, no Sean Welch on bass, no Dave Rotheray on guitar and no Paul Heaton; the groups eccentric leader and, with Rotheray, chief songwriter.
It’s a path well-trod by many other bands - including cabaret circuit versions of Motown bands (checkout the website for the Drifters – precisely no original members!), glam stompers (Slade II - all Dave, no Noddy!) and ska revivalists (especially Neville Staples’ Specials - though it should be noted that the current ‘official’ Terry-Hall-included Specials doesn’t feature Jerry Dammers). Other higher profile car-crashes include the reality TV horrors undertaken by iNXS (I see that JD Fortune recently got the boot… poor love) and, lest we forget the original grave robbers, Queen. However, the New Beautiful South are unique in that they fulfill a prophecy created at their inception.
The Beautiful South circa 1989

Tired of the attention given to him as lead singer of the Housemartins, Heaton quite liked the idea of having more than one singer to front the Beautiful South. As well as offering some musical diversity, having three singers (theoretically at least) took some of the focus off him. On several occasions he half-joked that he saw the band as a franchise that he would leave when established. As Paul told NME spin-off Vox Magazine in 1992, “I was hoping to gradually wean myself out of the band, but I don't think they're ready for that - and it doesn't look like they will be for a while". Well, it only took 20 years and a
second try at a solo career by Heaton but it looks like the kids are ready to flee the nest.

To be fair to Dave Hemingway, he has a great voice, and the South had plenty of good songs that didn’t feature Heaton. In fact for a while it was a bit of joke that any song featuring Paul on lead vocal would flop, evidenced by their biggest hit – A Little Time – being a #1 duet between Dave and Brianna Corrigan, followed up by Paul’s autobiographical My Book, getting to number 43. To be honest, what else are they going to do after 20 years in the same band? Said Hemmingway: "Dave, Alison and I wanted to continue. We've been twiddling our thumbs for a while, but this is what we do best." That cabaret circuit just got a little fuller.

the Welly Club in Hull on 29 March 2009.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Hold the Cheese

I love cheese. Honestly, I really do. Look at my user profile; it’s writ large. Actually, look at my belly; it’s writ even larger. You know those adverts for chocolate where people look vaguely aroused after eating a Flake or the giggling Japanese actress cum food taster on Iron Chef who likes everything and makes sure everyone knows about it? Well I’m a bit like that with all things cheesy.

So as a fromage-ophile of some repute (apparently the proper word is turophile, from the Greek ‘tyros’ for cheese… but that’s a bit boring so I’ll stick to my own made-up words) I’ve taken the somewhat stupid decision not to eat any for a month.

At the risk of sounding like Edmund Blackadder’s puritan aunt and uncle, needlessly denying myself pleasure to atone for years of dairy substance abuse, I should state that I’m undertaking this mostly pointless act for reasons unrelated to Lent. I don’t recall ever giving up anything for Lent – I’m pretty sure that self-denial in all areas isn’t something that would be condoned by any higher presence and was probably just invented by Catholics to create more things to feel guilty about.

No, my cheesy abstinence is more secular in instigation. Mostly I’d like to see if I still possess any self-control whatsoever. I do have a reasonable track record in this area; it’s been three years since I went stopped the ciggies and over six since I last ate meat. However, despite their pleasures, eating meat and smoking both made me feel sick afterwards so they were relatively easy to give up. However, since I can’t actually see my arteries and I have several holes left in my belt, I can’t see any genuine downside to eating cheese so it may prove a harder beast to tame.

I’m also genuinely interested to see what I’ll eat if I can’t eat cheese. When I gave up meat I divided my mealtimes between gorging on Indian food, eating yet more cheese and (especially when eating out) experimenting with seafood. Pescetarian (or fishetarian if you prefer) living saw me raiding the ocean for all manner of exotic creatures, including swordfish, Balmain Bugs, crab, oysters, mussels and of course, fish fingers. Through eating Thai food I also broke my lifelong aversion to broccoli and discovered that I really like all manner of Asian greens. I don’t think I’d ever have gone there if I’d still been eating meat.

Whilst I don’t anticipate any Trainspotting-style cold turkey scenes with me clamouring at a locked fridge in the dead of night whilst cows with rotating udders walk upside on the kitchen ceiling, it’ll be interesting finding out where my cheese denied palate takes me. So remember, even if I turn up at your door screaming for crumbs of Roquefort or some melted Tasty on toast, just say no kids, just say no.