Planet of the Ood.



TV Well, they can’t all be classics. The signs weren’t good for Planet of the Ood, title included. The previews didn’t help – The Guardian Guide were so disinterested they accidentally illustrated their piece with a shot from Pushing Daisies, the TV Cream mail out quoted one former DWM editor as saying it was "the worst since the series returned" before giving away the ending (though weren’t forthcoming with his identity) and Radio Times loved it (which is never a good sign). Personally I couldn’t stand the prospect of spending another forty-five minutes in the company of the Ood; like the Doctor I almost totally ignored them during their first appearance and a certain loathing has crept in during the interim, as their heads – which look from the back like over designed comedy dildos – have appeared in profile on the cover of what seemed like every other issue of Doctor Who Adventures.

Plus it was one of those pre-destined episodes, an occasion when a plot point or idea planted in a previous story was bound to be returned to and expanded upon and as soon as the oppressed Ood shuffled on doing menial tasks, I can’t imagine any fan, considering the propensity for these marching aliens to return wouldn’t have looked at their sad little vomiting spag bol faces and realised that at some point they’d have to sit through a polemic about slavery. Sure enough, Planet of the Ood was two thousand, seven hundred seconds (approx.) of being told that slavery is a very bad thing, punctuated by chasing, running, Homer Simpson impressions, tears and shouting making the mistake which the very worst science fiction makes when it thinks it's doing allegory, of rubbing the consumer’s face in the issue to the point of becoming literal.

If the episode had scheduled properly (ie, later) and I’d had the inclination, I would have made a list of all the scenes I might have expected. Donna questioning an Ood as to why he’s subservient? Tick. Ood being marched around like the concentration camp detainees? Tick. Ood huddled in a cage and darkness and yearning to breathe free? Tick. I didn’t have Ood going stark raving bonkers and gaining the ability to repel bullets but you can’t have everything. This might have been the least subtle allegory since Star Trek’s Let That Be Your Last Battlefield where Frank Gorshin (60s Batman’s The Riddler) had one half of his face covered in black paint, the other half white and we were told as battled someone who looked almost but not exactly like him that racism’s bad. The Wikipedia says that the original concept for that episode had Uhura and McCoy trapped on a planet where white people were slaves and black people were the masters but even they spent three years rewriting the thing so it wouldn’t be quite so on the muzzle.

Planet of the Ood was a Naomi ‘No Logo’ Klien campaign film as science fiction; when the Doctor asked who made the clothes on Donna’s back, her reply, about rubbing her nose in it, was probably the best line in the whole episode because it was exactly how I felt at that stage in my cheap Asda t-shirt drinking (fair trade) coffee from a Starbucks mug. I could just be experiencing back burn from having also watched Spielberg’s Amistad for the first time this week. But at least Amistad had Sir Anthony Hopkins doing a good Spencer Tracy impression and Anna Paquin’s amusingly dodgy Spanish accent to enjoy. Like Amistad, the episode tried to engage our sympathy by presenting the culture of the captured and horrors being inflicted upon them by their masters; but whereas that was an all too graphic demonstration of man’s inhumanity to man, this episode made the mistake of trying to have us feel sorry for an alien even less loveable than a Dalek, an even trickier task when their main claim to fame is carrying their heart-shaped brain around in their gloved hand. Ugh.

To compensate, writer Keith Temple made the corporation harvesting the Ood as dastardly as possible. In Confidential, Russell described Klineman Halpen (anagram Mean Napkin Hell) as a kind of mid-range villain, not attempting to take over the universe but simply trying to make a fast buck on the back of other people’s misery. How dull. How undemanding. How as Russ says, realistic. I can understand why every villain can’t be a Zaroff or Scaroth, but they have to be bean pushers in suits (leaving aside the fact that fashions having changed much in two millennia)? Yes, there’s the argument that the more normal the evil looks and sounds, the creepier it is, but despite Tim McInnerny large performance, I can’t think of a single interesting thing the character said, up to an including his transformation into an Ood. I also felt rather sorry for Solana Mercurio whose gone from playing the Queen of Naboo in Attack of the Clones to herding auditionees for the Gamestation version The Apprentice around the new set for BBC News 24.

Despite Graham Harper’s efforts, the action sequences didn’t seem to work; the best sequences in the series still manage to provide some new bit of plot or reveal something the Doctor didn’t already know. Here they were the kind of padding you might expect from the classic series, substituting the Doctor heading to certain doom strapped to a cart going down a hill with him being chased by a giant CG claw. The realisation of the Ood planet didn’t gel either, with an obvious quarry giving way to matt paintings which lacked the kind of realism we’ve come to expect from the new series and that shot of the Doctor and Donna looking towards the complex seemed unfinished. But the computer graphics overall weren’t great with the white-coated friend of the Ood's expiration in the giant brain harking back to the dissolve of the anti-plastic from the first series. It seems harsh to criticise this work considering the number of man hours which must be engaged, but just now and then these shots look inconsistently cartoony and you can’t help wondering if Mike Tucker and friends couldn’t have produced something more convincing using miniatures.

All of which said, if the episode was at all watchable it was because the central duo, like the greatest Doctor/companion packages, are intensely entertaining even as the rest of the story is crashing about around them. If now and then David seemed to resort to some of his ticks in an attempt to compensate for the deficiencies in the script, Catherine once again impressed with her range, entirely understated in the places where she needs to be and presenting the kind of quiet understanding of tragedy that we’ve seen few actors undertake in the series thus far. The finest scenes of the episode were at the opening and her first experiences of an alien world, rationally returning to the TARDIS to get a coat, clever woman. The influence here must have been Arthur Dent just as he prepared experience the ancient planet of Magrathea: "don't you understand, this is the first time I've actually stood on the surface of another planet ... a whole alien world...! Pity it's such a dump though." Or in this case, cold. She even got to say “That’s what I call a space ship…” as Thunderbird 3 flew overhead.

It's these scenes which make me wonder if I'm just judging it all a bit too harshly and after seeing it again, I'll simply judge it on its own merits. It's clearly not a New Earth after all. But every useful moment seemed underscored by a misstep. Some meagre sympathy for the Ood was generated during that scene were Donna heard their song of captivity and gently weeped -- only to be spoilt by the aforementioned brain reveal (seriously, where do they put it when they sleep?). Also, in places it was difficult to be tell the Ood’s song from some of the incidental music. A more stylish option might have been to have dropped everything but wooden percussive instruments from the score once the Doctor and Donna had entered the complex, making the song even more beautiful and chilling. Instead, composer Murray Gold was in a plonky mood, and much of the action was underscored by track which seemed to be intruding from a LucasArts point and click PC adventure from the mid-nineties.

Finally, and meanwhile back at this month’s arc plot. The lack of bees on planet Earth was repeated very loudly just in case we missed it through Donna’s gasping in the opening episode and the Ood gained a hitherto unseen power of sinister clairvoyance in suggesting that the Doctor’s song would end soon. What, someone’s going to throw a timebomb into the pocket dimension Chancellor Flavia’s singing in from? The good people at the Doctor Who Forum have already got the Doctor killed off or regenerated and David replaced on the strength of this one line. Given the sneaky set reports from the Christmas special and the fact that Dave, Russ and the BBC have already stated he’ll be around for the specials (however many there are), that might be a bit premature – and haven’t we already had a talk about real world programme making politics influencing the extent of internal storylines? No mention of the Shadow Proclamation this time though, but having the Doctor all but say the word Sensorite was good enough for me.

Next Week: “The last time you Sontaran’s attempted something this dastardly was when an operative was nicking scientists back in time from 1973. You remember that don’t you Brigadier?” Possibly.

Mystery Music March in April



Imperial Bedroom -- Elvis Costello and The Attractions

Suggested by Ian Jones of The Digi-Cream Times.

For a long time, for all of my life in fact, I was convinced there was no such thing as a perfect album. One that had no weak links on it whatsoever. One that, if a song were selected at random, or if you played it using the shuffle facility on a CD player, you wouldn't mind what track you heard.

Surely such an album couldn't existed. Surely, on even the so-called
masterpieces of popular music (Revolver, Pet Sounds, Dark Side Of The Moon, What's Going On, OK Computer), there's always one duff moment, one track to be tolerated rather than treasured?

I say I felt that way for all of my life. I should qualify that. What I mean is for all of my life up to about three weeks ago. Because I think I've just found such an album. In fact I know I have. I've owned it for around 10 years, but for some reason only recently realised that, yeah, it doesn't matter where I join it, it's exceptional. It's faultless. All the waythrough. From start to finish.

It is Imperial Bedroom, by Elvis Costello and The Attractions, which is weird because it's not my favourite Costello album (which is Punch The Clock) nor his most consistent (which is Get Happy). Nonetheless it doesn't contain one song that is anything less than stunning and which, in and of themselves, are mini-masterpieces.

I think its secret is its musicality. Costello has always, was always from the beginning, feted for his lyrical dexterity and linguistic acrobatics. Such qualities are in glorious evidence here, all over the place, albeit leavened with a sharpened sense of realism, or scepticism, or perhaps just pessimism:

"Charged with insults and flattery, her body moves with malice;
Do you have to be so cruel to be callous?"
(Beyond Belief)

"Love is always scarpering or cowering or fawning;
You drink yourself insensitive and hate yourself in the morning"
(Man Out Of Time)

"So what if this is a man's world?
I want to be a kid again about it
Give me back my sadness
I couldn't hide it, even if I tried"
(Kid About It)

And especially...

"I'm the town cryer
And everybody knows
I'm a little down
With a lifetime to go"
(Town Cryer)

Never mind even more dizzying rhyme schemes, fit for A Level inspection:

"Little things just seem to undermine her confidence in him;
He was late this time last week.
Who can she turn to when the chance of coincidence is slim?
Because the baby isn't old enough to speak"
(The Long Honeymoon)

All this wordplay and syntactical derring-do, while perhaps looking rather arch and contrived written down, totally comes alive when wedded to the most spirited, imaginative and inspiring of music. There's so much melody and tonality poured into this album. Each track is a case study in how to produce - in all senses, creatively and technically - the perfect pop song. Not a note is superfluous. Words and music work in tandem throughout.

Part of this is due to the Attractions, Costello's band for much of his career, never sounding more resonant and dimensional than on this album. Dashes of instrumental brilliance are flecked all over the record like dabs of gold on a painting. A cheeky drum fill here; a magical bass riff there; keyboard ornamentation nigh-on everywhere - but never to the detriment of the greater whole.

The producer, Geoff Emerick, also had a big role. He was the bloke who engineered all the Beatles records from Revolver onwards, helping to create musical soundscapes - to use a cliché - in which everyday songs of universal sentiments somehow became statements of genius.

Such is the magic wrought here. Beyond Belief, a lament about, or possibly for, the state of the world in 1982, passes through Emerick's hands and ends up a juggernaut of tension and awe. The Long Honeymoon is the sonic equivalent of a film noir. Man Out Of Time is a rainbow of melodic colour and invention. And In Every Home ropes in an entire orchestra. And so on.

You could say it's indulgence. I'll admit the album took some time to
wheedle its way into my affections. What seals it, however, is the fact that on top of everything else, it's just a bloody great record to sing along to. And here's where all that scope and ambition pulls off its greatest coup, by virtue of giving you simply so much to choose from: you can attempt Elvis's main melody, or harmonise, or sing bits of the accompaniment, or mime bits of the arrangements... Anything goes.

Anyway, the fact this album has been sitting variously four inches, two metres and a corridor away from my nose for the last decade and not revealed itself in such a fashion to me until just the other week is a little disarming.

Now it has done, I'm worried about over-analysing it to the point where it ceases to be enjoyable. So I'll shut up and urge you to listen to Imperial Bedroom and let its complex, poignant, stoical but above all very human sentiments worm their way into your heart.

"I make the following findings of fact."

TV Here in all of its glory is the full judgement from the recent Dalek book copyright case. In places the thirty-one page document reads like a esoteric fanzine from the mid-70s as Justice Norris rips into the quality of Nation’s writing, singling out The Chase for his harshest criticism. “I am satisfied that the language and detail on that topic is derived from a memorably bad “Dr Who” series called “The Chase” Clearly a fan.

There are interviews too, with spin-off authors Justin Richards, Steven Cole and Mike Tucker who reveal the process behind writing The Dalek Survival Guide -- “essentially we were buying into an established universe that had already been created” and in other places the ghost of the old non-ironic Matrix Databank from DWM drifts through: “Ms Warman left in the Guide a reference to Zolfian commissioning his chief scientist Yarveling to develop a powerful war machine.”

Other copyright cases obviously do reach into the nitty gritty of a particular franchise or property – see JK Rowling vs. RDR Books (in which the judge has already described the Harry Potter books as jibberish) yet it’s still rather thrilling to see all of these factoids, the obscure minutia of Whonivese mythology, spoken about in the High Court. If The Sontaran Stratagem doesn’t do the job, do you think there’s a chance we could get Justice Norris to rule once and for all on the UNIT Dating controversy?

“Despite Sarah Jane Smith’s contention that she was from 1980 in Pyramids from Mars and Jo Grant’s exclamation in Carnival of Monsters that 1926 is forty years before her own time, the overwhelming evidence in the fashions, the modes of speech and attitude to environmental issues should lead me to the conclusion that the Pertwee UNIT stories were indeed set in the 1970s. I am however swayed by the story Mawdryn Undead which clearly shows Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart having retired in 1976 …”
About Because I've just realised that you can, I've created a last.fm group for you. What are you listening to?
Radio Mitch Benn has a bit of a timing malfunction. [injoke] Which is certainly not something he would have done at school. [/injoke]
Travel Annette underscores beautifully how, for all my ambitions about wanting to visit New York, I'm afraid my illusions will be shattered:
"In many ways the city was less glamorous than I expected. Take the subways, first of all. I thought the stations all smelled like a public restroom. I kept asking my sister why the city didn't clean them or upgrade them, spray them with Clorox occasionally, at least. She shrugged. "Well, they're always open, so I guess they really don't have time for that." Makes sense, but still, in a city with so much money, why can't they come up with some kind of solution? At the same time, street performers perform astoundly professional live music at the subway stations (yes, jazz, but one day I even heard some opera down there). It's strange."
I would like to think that despite my city mentality I'd also still be surprised by how fast people are walking.

Mystery Music March in April



Qui-Gon's Noble End – John Williams

This was unforgivable.

It’s 1999 and a new Star Wars film is about to be released. The hype machine is cranked up and fully in motion, everyone’s excited (well everyone I know anyway) and you can’t go anywhere without seeing the familiar logo and a shot of Darth Maul, baby Anakin or Natalie Portman in unusual make-up. I’ve a video tape from the time, which records much of the pre-television publicity, from the special Omnibus documentary with Ewan McGregger watching and commenting on A New Hope to the news reports of how popular the trailer had been on the internet.

That’s all fine, very exciting and more importantly didn’t tell you too much about the plot.

And then the record company handling John Williams’s score on cd dropped this clanger in the track listing, with a music cue named after a major plot point, ruining some of the experience for any weary fan glancing at the soundtrack in HMV. We didn’t know too much about Liam Neeson’s character Qui-Gon other than he was Obi-Won’s mentor and judging by the trailer that he would sniff out that Anakin was special. But now we also knew that he died and fairly late in the film if the position of track, fifteen, was anything to go by.

Imagine if the soundtrack to Empire Strikes Back had included a track called ‘Vader is Luke’s Father’. Brrrr…. I was in the pub a few nights later and someone shouted at me ‘Do not look at the back of The Phantom Menace box!’ and when I told him I already had we looked at each other blackly. Now we’d be spending most of the film waiting for him to die, the expiration no longer a surprise. We might as well have read the novelisation which also, bizarrely, was published a month in advance of the release date, should there be any fans who couldn’t wait another few weeks to find out what happened.

Film soundtracks are unique in this respect, especially if they feature score rather than songs. After the fact it’s possible to read these track listings and find a pretty accurate synopsis of the story and they do have their uses particularly in remembering exactly what was happening during the film as those trumpets clash in, along with the drums. More often than not they’re fairly careful not to give too much away.

But every now and then, someone does think through exactly who the cd is aimed at and that in fact they’re often put out a few weeks ahead as part of the marketing. Another classic example is The Sixth Sense whose final track (see here if you've see the film) destroyed the one moment of excitement for those of us who didn’t work out what the twist going to be from the bloody trailer. Which I did.

I actually quite liked The Phantom Menace first time around, watching on a tiny screen on the release day at the local multiplex. It was easy to put your fears that it might not be as good as it could been down to the soundtrack spoiler playing on your mind throughout. Being a boy, I still love the lightsaber fight at the end with the Orffian chorus ranking up the tension and being not a typical boy I’m still impressed by the costumes, Padme in particular.

This track is typical of the score, opening with mass trumpets then plenty of bass percussion before breaking into strings when the fateful moment comes. Once Master Qui-Gon’s shuffled off (and not disappeared – still controversial that) we’re back in brass as Obi-Wan gives what for to Darth Maul (denoted by drums). It doesn’t work as a cohesive piece of music (these things rarely do) but it’s still stirring stuff and works well within the body of the whole album.

But I still have to air on the side of comic shop worker Tim from the sitcom Spaced: “You are so blind! You so do not understand! You weren't there at the beginning. You don't know how good it was! How important! This is it for you! This jumped-up firework display of a toy advert! People like you make me sick! What's wrong with you?“

Mystery Music March in April



Losing My Religion – Tori Amos

Tori Amos gave the best interview I ever saw anyone give on any television channel related to sell their new product.

When Richard & Judy were still presenting This Morning from The Albert Dock in Liverpool, Tori’s agent thought it was the perfect place to publicise her new album, the not at all mainstream (at least in those days) Boys For Pele. I’d been waiting for the whole of what’d been a pretty dull show for her appearance and she’d been dropped in with ten minutes to go. Don’t forget this was in the days when R&J were still the housewives choice, despite the odd foray into goolly fondling. Possibly.

In the five minutes she has before playing her new single through the credits which would scroll all too quickly across the bottom of the screen, she eloquently talked about how she seemed to have found personal harmony and a new inner strength within herself, and how her music has reached an equilibrium she is pleased with and how she’d ridden a horse for the first time a few days before and how great it had made her feel. Except Judy had only asked her one question: ‘How are you?’ As you can imagine they were both a bit stunned by the reply. Tori just bats her eyelids as though to say ‘What, you guys had questions?’

I’ve always been impressed with singers who make it their policy to do the unexpected which is probably why I was so disappointed when Nelly Furtado produced the oh-so mainstream Loose or Alanis Morissette marked the tenth anniversary of her rock debut by turning out an acoustic version for sale in Starbucks. Tori Amos has never been like that and although I haven’t been a huge fan of her most recent work (which has perhaps been a ‘concept’ too far, for me at least) the publicity interviews are always fun. Journalists hardly ever know what to make of her, especially when does things like calling her songs her children.

The most unruly of said children are the cover versions. Right from the beginning, rather than simply stocking up the b-sides to her singles with other album tracks or for that matter failed album tracks, in what amounts to musical auterism, Tori would record cover versions of well known tracks and not so well known tracks in her own style, more often than not one girl and her piano, Nirvana, Hendrix, Springsteen even Chas and Dave all torchsonged. It’s a tradition she’s continued to this day and legends speak of even more eclectic juxtapositions live, with a haunting bootleg of Kylie’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head still doing the rounds.

Losing My Religion is a prime example. Recorded for the film soundtrack to the little known (but worth seeing) Higher Learning, Tori tosses out everything but the lyrics, reducing the pace, with to be honest only her vocal suggesting the originally melody. Like the covers only album Strange Little Girls, the song gains a completely different resonance from the female voice; the words are about obsession and being at the end of your tether and whereas Michael Stipes vocal suggests that he’s about the blow his top, Amos is far more reflective, as though she’s looking back at the dark moment. Tori essentially makes it her own and like the best cover versions proves that a great song, is indeed a great song, no matter who’s singing it.

Mystery Music March in April



The Revolution Will Not Be Televised – Gil Scott-Heron

Really Gil? Watching the US presidential race from across the pond, well away from your stomping ground, it certainly looks like the revolution’s being televised and that the White House may have its first black resident. In addition, with twenty-four hour block news coverage, we’re seeing revolutions throughout the world going through the motions. Interestingly though I have detected an inherent bias in some of the coverage of the Democratic Primaries. Hilary Clinton is forever losing elections, but Barack Obama is hardly ever listed as thrashing the opposition. But the fact that two of the historically most oppressed peoples in society are fighting each other to become leader of the free world is surely progress, even if they then have to beat a dandy and a clown.

Gil Scott-Heron’s polemic is best enjoyed in its stripped down ‘Early Version’ as it appears on the album Ghetto Stylee. Here he introduces himself and the band and the bands they’re from before rhythmically launching into the words (‘We’d like to do a poem for you called ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ primarily because it won’t be), his only accompaniment some bongo drums. He largely shouts the lines, it’s not quite rapping and it’s certainly not singing, but it is really, really exciting. Here are those lyrics so you can shout them yourself (tapping on a table should do the trick), and a handy primer.

Scott-Heron is writing about contemporary pop culture and specifically television’s white bias and how it would probably miss the increase in prominence of black people and the culture of black people. Its imports apparently non-threatening marketing slogans and product names and turns them into rather sinister symbols of how white culture has subjugated all else. But it’s a work filled with hope that things can change.

It is just a pity that it hasn't really and we’re still addicted to the same stupid shit now as we were then. Much as I love Baz Luhrman’s The Sunscreen Song, which sounds very much like a late 90s equivalent, it doesn’t make me want to go out and do something in the same way. Other than go back to university again. Or find a girl. Perhaps take in a concert. And wear sunscreen.
Philosophy Gala puts into words one of my life rules:
"I think a good guiding principle, though, is the No Assholes Rule. Crude, I know, but bear with me. What this means is that you make a decision — now — never to deal with or get involved with anyone who is an asshole. (I’m using the term “asshole” as a blanket term to mean anyone who is rude, callous, unprofessional, unethical, vile, disrespectful, etc. You can mix & match terms as you like!) Basically, the less assholes you deal with, the less chance there is that you’ll be tempted to compromise your ethics. Sometimes it can be hard to tell whether someone is cool or not, but trust me when I say that the more you listen to your intuition (your “gut”), the better your asshole radar will become. If your intuition is singing out “No, no, no!”, listen! & then act! A lot of mistakes & potential ugliness can be avoided by engaging this principle."
But how do I know if I'm not the asshole?
TV I didn't watch Pushing Daisies on Saturday night, deciding that I'd wait for the dvd since ITV1 haven't exactly treated imports with much respect in the past. Thank goodness I did, because they're at it again. ITV1 aren't bothering to show the second episode of the series because they say they wouldn't have been able to get all nine episode of the series in before the football starts, which is clearly the way to build viewer loyalty.

Is it any wonder that people in my demographic and younger, exactly the audience they were hoping to attracting by purchasing and putting out the show in this time slot, actively loath them? Don't they suspect that people might want to see every episode, whether they're stand alone or not? They've said they might show it in the future as part of a repeat run or on its own. Don't put yourself out or anything. Idiots.
TV Remember, how whilst reviewing the final episode of Ashes to Ashes I said:
"Again I ask – if this all is in Alex’s head, why do we keep getting scenes from other character’s point of view? At first I thought it was part of some larger scheme, but I’m actually starting to conclude that it’s the producers not really thinking about their concept as much as they should and simply working to the needs of production and giving their cast something to do."
Turns out I was right:
"In terms of all of our theories about whether the world of Ashes is different to Mars, (Ashley Way) particularly noted that they had 'broken the rules' on all scenes having to have Alex in them in Ashes, whereas they didn't with Sam in Mars. [...] I didn't get any sense they have done this for any reason other than it's bloody hard to write a series with a single character in every scene. IE we shouldn't read too much into it."
That is disappointing. I can't help wondering if cleverer writing would have taken advantage of these production issues to make the series more interesting than, like Life on Mars, it transpires it actually is. Am I wrong to be expecting something complex from drama?

Mystery Music March in April



The Rough Guides To World Music

Truth be told, I’m afraid that my sudden interest in classical music isn’t simply going to be a phase. There are some interests which like a friendship or even marriage stay with you and undercut everything else for the rest of your life, something which I hope classical music will be. Otherwise, it’s short flirts and flings, passionate detours which are exciting while they last. Which for me, unfortunately may be world music. For a time, I loved everything about world music, but as in writing this, I’m listening to massed compilations of the stuff and realising that it’s for the first time in years.

The first so-called world music I ever heard, like everyone else, was probably the backing track that Paul Simon used for Graceland. I once lied that it was first album I ever bought, but the truth will always catch up with you and by the end of the night I’d admitted to it being Five Star’s Silk & Steel. Uncool then, uncool now. Anyway, despite hearing these mysterious sounds and being able to sing the lyrics back to front that was as far as my interest in African music went. I was in my teens and had other things on my mind.

Which is a shame because its during the late Eighties that the first great marketing push happened for world music in this country. What I was later amazed to discover is that in the slipstream of the Paul Simon album (which he followed up with Rhythm of the Saints which replaced Africa with the sounds of South America), record companies and shops were looking to take advantage of the interest of the public and in 1987 had what’s now seen as landmark meeting in which they thrashed out exactly what should be included in the genre and what it should be called. The music was out there, but it was so diffuse and varied that it hadn’t naturally developed a label and somewhere for it to go in the racks.

The ‘world music’ genre, then, is a construct, a way of guiding the consumer towards non-Anglophile music that can’t easily otherwise be categorized. It’s as imperfect, idiosyncratic and incoherent as ‘classical music’ and at worst is a ghetto in which the folk sounds of countries as diverse as Japan and the Sudan are thrown in together, along with rap music that happens to be in French or the Soiux language and Aboriginal dance. But it does provide a guide for shoppers and like classical can become a badge of honour for the discerning listener to feel superior.

Fast forward to the early naughties and I’m looking for something to study at Liverpool University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning. Having exhausted all of the creative writing and drama courses I’m glancing over towards music and still having the fragrance of three days in Paris in my lungs and being passionately friends with a Greek girl decide to give ‘World Music’ a try, expecting an investigation into the many years of Eurovision. And some yodeling.

What I discovered, with the help of our tutor Simone, was everything I wrote about in the last two paragraphs but one and so much more. Each lecture would cover a different topic and although it was all but a taster, after a few years in the musical wilderness (it’s true, I had no idea what kind of music I liked) it offered some much needed direction. By the end I was tuning in to Late Junction nightly and hotly awaiting the BBC Radio 2 World Music Awards.

Fortuitously at the same time HMV in the city slashed the price of its Rough Guide To World Music cds which meant that as well as learning all about these sounds that were new to me, I could soundtrack my life with them. Each Monday lunchtime I’d buy a compilation and for the rest of the week that’s all I would listen to, really getting to know whatever tracks had been curated to appear. That’s when I learned that much of the time, you really don’t get to experience music properly unless you simply just listen to it.

The Rough Guide compilations attempt to provide a representative sample of the music of a country or world music sub-genre. It’s an impossible task – what would a similar album about England look like? (Oh) and so cleverly what the compilers tend to do is select music designed to surprise the listener or break their preconceived ideas. The Rough Guide To Australian Aboriginal Music might begin with a didgeridoo but the second track is an acoustic Brown Eyed Girl soundalike and as the album progresses we find Cagean minimalism, R&B and even pop.

That pattern is repeated across the albums, the impression being that although there are certainly indigenous genres, more recently, as with other art forms, there’s been a process of influence and appropriation and regional variations on a theme, that in fact it’s an adoration that Without Reservation should be stuck in the World & Folk > Native American area of the Amazon database they’re not doing anything too different to the likes of Above The Law who’re promoted with the R&B genres. Predictably, probably, I had the most affinity with the European music, the musics of Spain, Scandinavia, Italy and my favourites were French.

Eventually after thirty weeks there courses ended (two of them) and although I carried on listening for at least a year, the impetuous had evaporated. I still listen to some of that European music, but my ears couldn’t be reconfigured to enjoy African or Asian sounds and Bollywood doesn’t move me. I need structure, tonal rather than atonal sounds, something I’ve discover when trying to work out what’s going on in something like Harrison Birtwistle's Panic. But as you do with these things, I still look back fondly and enjoy the nostalgia when one of these tracks pops up randomly on my mp3 player.
Obituary John Wheeler died this morning.
Film Roger Ebert recently retired from reviewing films on television because of his on-going health problems. In this excellent piece for The New York Times, fellow critic A.O. Scott ruminates on what he's accomplished:
"Not that any of us could hope to match his productivity. Nor could we entertain the comforting fantasy that the daunting quantity of the man’s work — four decades of something like six reviews a week, as well as festival reports, learned essays on classic films and the occasional profile — must entail a compromise in quality. As A. J. Liebling said of himself, nobody who writes faster can write better, and nobody better is faster. The evidence is easy enough to find: in the Web archive, in his indispensable annual movie guides and in a dozen other books."
Thanks Annette! Along with Mark Kermode, Ebert's the man I usually listen to in relation to films and a couple of his reviews were the basis for my MA Screen Studies dissertation topic. I so pleased he's still able to continue his written work.

In a similar vein, The Observer's main film writer, Philip French is soon to be honoured by Bafta and here ruminates on his career:
"Cinemas came to be for me what pubs were for boozers, places to celebrate for their character as much as for the quality of the intoxicating fare they provided. The smarter picture houses belonged to the national chains - the Odeons, the Gaumonts and the ABCs. But I came to prefer the small, sometimes insalubrious independent cinemas, often described as 'fleapits', that dotted every town in the country. They offered better value for money and you could always find old flicks, still in distribution in ragged prints after several decades, at these places."
Which is an experience largely lost in a world were dvd is king and cinema runs are largely extended adverts for the home release. Shame.
Technology Another fantastic piece of futurology this time from BBC Music, June 1995:



I don't think there's much more to add, other than that I hardly every use rerecordable cds or dvds. What Barry calls WORMs are so cheap now, even when a recording cocks up it doesn't seem like too much of a loss. Of course if blanks were still £10 a time it would be another matter entirely.

Mystery Music March in April



Once More With Feeling – The Cast of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer

What was I talking about again? Oh. No list (if this is indeed a list) should be complete without a musical and why not the soundtrack to this fifty odd minute classic? To reveal some of my working I’ve wrestled with this choice for a few days as I played through the music from my favourite shows and films. The first musical I heard on vinyl was an original West End cast recording of The Sound of Music, but truth be told it’s the Disneys, The Jungle Book and Mary Poppins I really remember from childhood. The only Lloyd-Webber I get along with is Evita and the only show I’ve seen live more than once is Hair. I did like the film version of RENT but I think that had more to do with the pictures than the melodies. For ages I was as dead set on Sondheim, Into The Woods or Sunday In The Park With George. I could rationalise this further but…

I just love Once More With Feeling. Fans of musical theatre probably look down their nose at it and can see the broad shoulders of the giants it’s balancing on but the only musical I can sing along to from top to bottom and which (and I do think this is important) has an emotional content I can relate to. The problem I often have with musicals is that no matter how good the book, or how much empathy can be generated through the touching emotional break, the songs themselves are meaningless outside of their context. To my ears, songs from musicals tend to only resonate beyond their original framework if the shows they’re from lack such things as a strong plot or structure. Memories is gorgeous but CATS itself is a range of disconnected scenes which become a chore after a while no matter how passionate the performers. I know there are exceptions and there’s going to be a bag of suggestions ('Love, love changes everything...') but for the purposes of the following …

In Once More With Feeling, writer Joss Whedon somehow managed to create songs which fulfill the requirements of the plot arc within the format of the series, but also with a universal appeal. Buffy’s opening lament ‘Going Through The Motions’ is apparently about the newly resurrected slayer trying to cope, we realise in hindsight, with the fact she’s been ripped from heaven by her friends and brought back to reality and is dissatisfied with living her old life. But it also chimes with those of us who’ve been working the same routine for a long time, work, school, whatever, and find themselves on autopilot trying not admit to themselves just how bored they are. ‘Something To Sing About’ continues that theme, although boredom’s drifted into despair. ‘Standing’ in which Giles the Watcher realises that Buffy’s outgrown him, could equally be a father singing about his kidult on the cusp of independence …

But it’s not all doom and gloom. ‘Under Your Spell’ is a passionate love song, from Tara to Willow (which might also be the first time a musical has featured such a thing between lesbians) which is enhanced by Amber Benson’s fantastic vocal (which wrenched the gut out of everyone when they heard it for the first time). In general though, the other reason to appreciate Once More With Feeling is that even though most of the actors aren’t trained singers they all give it a go and in the end produce a sound as good most of us might manage. Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You is most often cited for that quality, but in many cases it was deliberate with Goldie Hawn particularly having to punch under their weight. Nicholas Brandan during 'I’ll Never Tell' is flat, but in a wonderful way, in a very real way.

Only Alyson Hannigan is let off the hook, but Joss still gives her the funniest musical related moment when she realises in the middle of ‘Walk The Through Fire’ that in the midst of the relentless poetry and counterpoint singing that her ‘line’s mostly filler….’, a look of utter disappointment on her face. These kinds of lyrics jokes run right through the episode; Whedon has fun with his concept, that the town of Sunnydale can only express their most ardent sentiments in song even if sometimes you’ve not the words. We see the magic’s effect on other towns people, infecting their daily lives -- a full song and dance number as a man realises that the stains been cleaned from his shirt (‘The got the mustard out…’) or an aria from a woman to a parking attendant (‘I’ve been having a bad, bad day, c’mon won’t you put that pad away?’).

It’s also doing everything you’d expect from a great episode of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. Taking an idea to extremes and exploring it from a range of angles. Whedon apparently postponed the episode after realising that a musical episode of Xena: Warrior Princess was upcoming, and not having seen that I can’t comment, but I can’t imagine it’s as funny and textured as this. There’s a the scene when Buffy’s sister Dawn finally gets her solo only to be snatched mid verse by the bad-guy of the week’s henchmen (although she’d repaid with a dance sequence). And as part of a series, a later episode ‘Selfless’ featured an extended flashback into this episode with time for another song and an explanation for how the mustard stain occurred. And ... I could go on but I just can’t imagine being able to write about any musical which is why this is the musical I’ve decided to write about. Unavoidably.