Monday, November 4, 2013

Remake Remodel

Twenty or so minutes in, centre-stage remains bereft of the main man.

His orchestra (for want of a better term) has gradually assembled – first up was the entrance of a five-man horn section; all neatly done up to the nines in Dinner Jackets and perfectly prepared bow ties along with a double-bass player (who gives the impression of being let out of school for evening) who’s own dickie-bow is being worn almost as an after thought.

There is a guitarist cum banjo-player sporting a moustache that resembles one much favoured by 70’s footballers backed by a veteran drummer hidden away behind an alarmingly sized bass drum, a number of shell-like cow bells and a couple of elderly cymbals.

They’d been toe-tapping out sinuously re-imagined Dixieland arrangements of some of the main man’s main tunes to the cue of the grey-grizzle-haired pianist who doubles as MD for the evening before yet another drummer appears. 

She adjusts her micro-skirt while (carefully) positioning herself behind her own kit centre stage as two backing singers appear in what might be construed as cocktail dresses – although, frankly, I’ve never been to a drinks party where that kind of attire is considered legal. 

They rev up by ooohing, aaaahing and sashaying in simpatico with the massed ranks of clarinets, saxophones, trumpets and trombones; tonight the roaring twenties are being re-positioned way beyond the jazz age. 

Next up is a guitarist who has obviously been studying hard at the Brian Jones school of hairdressing: he looks about sixteen, shoegazes while tuning up his Les Paul and prepares for action so languorously that he gives the impression of someone who’s wandered onto the wrong stage – his nod to more conventional evening attire sported by the rest of the ensemble is a jacket worn with the lapels turned inward. 

The bass player and moustachioed guitar/banjo-picker swap acoustic for electric as the lady drummer counts four to the bar by cracking her sticks together much like pistol-shots sound in an enclosed space… and… all of a sudden, the orchestra is in full swing: it’s a bit like listening to a thoroughbred Maserati change gear.

Within moments, the curtain back stage-right has twitched and… there the main man is, sidling up the microphone in a soft-shoe shuffle like no other; he grips the mic-stand with his right hand, tips it slightly sideways and, with his left hand clicking the time signature behind him, leans into his first vocal of the night.

But… wait a moment… lets go back a bit, in fact to Saturday May 28th 1972. A bank holiday weekend spent in Lincolnshire – or, more specifically, at the Great Western Express Festival; a three day event held near the village of Bardney some ten miles or so away from and more or less due east of the Cathedral. True to bank holiday type, it tipped down for a good proportion of the duration. 


And, after the debacle of trying to get to Glastonbury the year previous – when, after inadvisably partaking of rather too much of my pal Horace’s finest Jamaican stash en route to the West Country we ended up in Wales – we did… eventually… make it to Lincoln this time.

I’ve no recollection of seeing Smith Perkins & Smith, Gnidrolog, Capability Brown or Jade Warrior who played in one of the tents; maybe it blew down – within a matter of hours of tipping up the place was a mud bath and, on the second night my tent was stolen: Saturday and Sunday night were spent huddled up in my Afghan Coat underneath the Mini-Van in which we’d travelled.   

By the end of the weekend my fashionably scrotum-constricting crushed velvet, hugely flared purple loon-pants were ruined. And, inevitably, we broke down on the M1 motorway on the return leg.

Even so, the delights on offer were pretty serious for those of us whose weekly edition of the Melody Maker provided (so we thought) nearly the level of knowledge Moses had acquired after he reappeared clutching his stone tablets: Joe Cocker (who was so refreshed on the night in question that he had to be held upright by one of his backing singers – when he actually sang, his hand and arm-propeller movements kept him more or less erect); the sublime Head Hands & Feet – little did I know that this would be one of their last performances with Albert Lee about to quit and join up with Emmylou Harris; a very young Average White Band and Slade (who I must’ve missed ‘cos I can’t remember anything about them at all).

There was Vinegar Joe who, like HH&F must’ve been close to their own end given the on-stage body language between Robert Palmer and Elkie Brooks; Rory Gallagher – who was six-string-bendingly amazing; The Sutherland Brothers (with or without Quiver – I can’t remember); Stone The Crows with Maggie Bell exorcising the ghost of Les Harvey who’d been electrocuted on stage a few weeks earlier; The Beach Boys – pure class in the rain when the sun shone both physically and metaphorically while the unexpected highlight was Sha Na Na – like stepping into the film of Woodstock but with the benefit of real rain falling.

Opening the proceedings on the Saturday and quite the cure for my too-many Gauloise-smoked/rough Cider-aided hangover was… Roxy Music. One of their first shows and quite possibly their Festival d├ębut – so, whether the 20,000 or so souls gathered in the drizzle were quite ready for Eno in a full on Boa-feathered outfit at his nob-twiddling finest, Andy Mackay’s squawking Sax or Bryan Ferry’s lounge lizard Cole Porter lamenting vocals, its hard to say.

To me… this was like seeing something from outer space. Musically – and just as it was hearing (say) Bob Marley or Miles Davis for the first time – what they did that Saturday lunchtime was other-worldly. Clearly, Roxy didn’t inhabit the same (musical) planet as Marley or Miles; but, they were equally out there… quite where I wasn’t too sure… but, it was certainly somewhere very interesting.

Not long after, my hair has been clipped (a bit) and the crushed velvet has given way to a nicely conservative three piece suit; I’ve joined EMI in the lowest of all low sales reps positions and I’m doing whatever it is I’m meant to be doing in a record shop in Harrow – I can’t remember which one but it might well have been Harlequin. In walks the Island rep. He’s wearing jeans and a confident smile. He fishes a new single out of his bag and plays it to the shop-manager.

While I’m meant to be stocking the shop up on stuff they don’t want – Manuel And The Music Of The Mountains – I can’t but help but hear: he’s playing Roxy Music’s first record, Virginia Plain. Not long after that and despite the fact that EMI distribute Island, I’ve given up my safe pension and the equally safe suit and have joined the Island sales force. St Peters Square feels like home.

So… here we all are at Cambridge Corn Exchange; it is full to the rafters and, six rows back, what’s hitting us straight between the eyes ‘n ears is better than I dared imagine. I mean, one hardly needed the brain of Einstein to know this was going to be a good show but… this good? Nah, I didn’t imagine that.

Obviously, Ferry is aware of his audience; this is a sit down gig for a start. But, that’s the only safety net: his show could have gone one of two ways – play the safe card and trot out the hits (and there are many, very many) which would have left the massed ranks of newly coiffed housewives delirious or… forego the safe option and… in a sense, challenge us as much as challenging himself.  

The arrangements are more than re-arrangements; the re-working of songs is like he’s mining a seam of material that has little nuggets hidden away, previously covered in… stuff. Suddenly, they’re exposed and his songs start to breathe and amass a new life all of their own. The transformation is genuinely remarkable.

It’s as if Ferry has taken his canyon of a catalogue and said to himself… ‘y’know what… I’m going to have a bit of a play with these tunes, have a bit o’ fun.’  The direct opposite of one of the more recent shows I’d seen at the same venue when Steve Winwood had (unfortunately) settled on the safe option being the wise choice. Yes, there is that peerless voice, the superlative playing – that’s all a given with a musician of his calibre… but… ultimately, it was all a bit… the same as the time before… and the time before that.

And Ferry’s reinvention process hasn’t exactly been hindered by some of the best players I’ve seen in years. The lady drummer hits so hard and so accurately that one has the impression she wouldn’t be the first person one’d like to encounter after imbibing nine pints of Scruttocks Old Derisible down a dark alley after closing time.

The interplay between shaven headed sax player #1 (who doubles on keyboards) and shaven headed sax player #2 is astounding – watching their combined eye-trajectory is an abject lesson in eyebrow raising; one twitch of the latter leads to miniscule fills that are so, so subtle yet within the whole are just… right. 

Neither is the bass sax player who doubles on clarinets various a slouch either – he looks like the kind of bloke who’d take on a crumhorn without so much as a second thought.

A quarter of the way through the show and the bass-player’s wrap-around bow-tie has found a new home, directly under his right ear. Ferry’s meantime, just dangles… Bryan is old school – he can tie a tie. Properly.  Oh… and the jacket he wore in the first half – show me a man in the audience who wouldn’t have maxed-out his credit card for that or a wife who’d not have approved of the transaction.

And… the man can dance. He’s downright dangerous – the sort of chap who you really do not want to meet at a wedding… y'know – when the dancing starts and the dads all get up and trudge about embarrassingly somewhat akin to the Hairy Biker on that Strictly dirty (obviously rigged) Dancing BBC programme. Ferry really does have all the moves; he may well be nearer 70 than his Byronesque looks suggest but, trust me – his footwork is something to behold.  


There really isn’t much to complain about – other than… why on earth break the show midway through? There’s really no need for the half-time oranges – although the bar did a roaring trade in Gin and Dubonet, plastic pints of IPA and ice-cream… Ice cream? Yeah, not that rock ’n roll an audience. 

As much as the first part of the show cranked it up toward the break, so the second half had to all over again – meaning momentum was lost; even so, the home run was a delight and finally the good (but staid) burghers of Cambridge actually got up from the safety of their seats and… danced. 

The final section included a heart-stopping Carickfergus, a stellar Jealous Guy that out-Lennon-ed the best Beatle, a scorching Sam ‘n Dave’s Hold On I’m Coming; there was Editions Of You during which Ferry worried a keyboard so much it was like watching a ferret having just grabbed a rabbit by the neck. He closed with a harmonica infused Lets Stick Together and that was pretty much it – he just walked off, nodding his head, clicking his fingers to the beat. Sheer class.  

When the band were introduced, one or two of the names I got, most I didn’t. I inquire of Tiggles B the name of the Brian Jones look-a-like guitarist; he’s been exemplary all night. She’s unsure… ‘Oliver someone or other, I think.’ The house lights come up and it doesn’t look like there will be an encore – the perfectly-coiffed gather up their Barbour jackets en masse and head for the exit. Drat.

Please sir, may I have some more…

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Jess Roden Anthology... Hidden Masters... CD6 (the bonus CD)

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Here is the track listing for The Subs Bench, the bonus CD (6) that will be only ever available with the 1st edition of the Anthology. None of these tracks have ever been released before.

1. Storm And Stone (Shine On Joe). Sourced from the ¼” master and recorded during March 1972 at Basing St during the Rabbit Sessions (for Jess’ first but aborted) solo album. The track features Rabbit (keyboards), Robbie Blunt (guitar), Kellie (drums), Pat Donaldson (bass) and Jess (acoustic guitar)

2. Love Me (The Alan Bown Set). A demo recorded at Pye Studios in London on December 19th 1966. Sourced from the original ¼” tape. 

3. On Your Life. Written by Rabbit and also recorded during the sessions from which, ultimately, only What The Hell became part of Jess’ first solo album. Kellie plays drums with Rabbit mixing Mellotron and Hammond Organ as well as playing bass pedals.  Sourced from the original ¼” master.  As a footnote, the version that Rabbit has in his own archives is different again (indeed, he never knew this version existed until very recently… and was pretty surprised that it did).

4. Desperado (The Jess Roden Band). As a track, it needs no introduction whatsoever. This was recorded live at Leicester University during November 1976 on the Island Mobile and has been sourced from the original 2” multitrack. 

5. Loving In Your Sake.  Also recorded during March ’72 at Basing St this features Gerry Conway, Rabbit and Pat Donaldson and has been sourced from the 2” multitrack. The actual take (there are two) of this demo is a good deal longer but… in the cold light of day… the coda contained way too much ambient noodling (Jess’ phrase) equals it really didn’t work so we extracted the song and… here it is.

6. Special T’anks (Jess Roden / Pete Wood). One of the short instrumental tracks that were to have formed linking passages to the (never recorded) 2nd Rivits album that Jess and Pete were working on at Compass Point while waiting for their riddim section (the mighty Sly ‘n Robbie) to tip up. They were delayed for ‘business’ reasons in Jamaica and… this was one of the tracks recorded at that time… indeed, at the same point that Jess and Island finally parted company.  Sourced from the original 2” multitrack.

7. Surrender To Your Heart (Jess Roden & The Humans). Could be described as a Humans demo… only very recently discovered (by Bob Pridden) and recorded at Quarwood, John Entwhistle’s home studio on the day the actual writing of the tune was completed with Jim Capaldi (drums), Gary Grainger (guitar), Nick Graham (bass) and Steve Winwood (Hammond Organ). Harmonica courtesy the singer of songs.

8. Too Far Gone (The Jess Roden Band).  From the first (recorded) night at The Marquee… sourced from the 2” multitrack.

9. Love Will Grow. A vocal demo (#take 1) from the Summer ’78 Player Not The Game sessions with John Cartwright (bass), Rob Mounsey (Fender Rhodes) Cliff Morris (guitar) and Chris Parker (drums). Jaki Whitren (John’s wife) can also be heard (briefly) on backing vocals. Sourced from the 2” multitracks.  

10. Let Me Make Something In Your Life. This is Jess backed by The Muscle Shoals ‘Swampers’– essentially the main Muscle Shoals rhythm players who later formed the backbone to Traffic at the time of the Low Spark / Shoot Out and On The Road albums – together with the Muscle Shoals Horns… Sourced from the ¼” and recorded in 1974… as a possible contender for Jess’ first solo album.

11. Eight Days On The Road (The Jess Roden Band) Sourced from the 2” multitrack and recorded in September ’76 during the Pinewood Sessions… sessions that, for a number of reasons, were largely unproductive… just prior to the proper recording of the Play It Dirty album.

12. Feelin’ Easy  (The Jess Roden Band). Live at The Marquee (altho’ for those who were actually there or remember JRB perfomances of the time, not all of the band featured on this track when played live) and sourced from the 2” multitrack.  

13. Sweet One. Recorded during October ’72 this, for a while, confused us. How so? Well… it was actually one of the first tunes that we unearthed and, when we listened back (all those many months ago)… all was running along in ship-shape Bristol fashion until… up pops a Soprano Sax. Nothing weird there as you may imagine… The Sax worked perfectly within the context of the tune but… who the heck was the mysterious Sax player? We simply didn’t know. After a bit the song title assumed brackets in which it said: The Mysterious Sax Player edit. Months went by and we still couldn’t work out who it was. Undeterred, we started listing out every Sax player we could think of who might have been around Basing St at the time (some, sadly, no longer with us) and… still… we couldn’t work it out. More months went by. Until (spooky as this is) on the very same day about six months ago there was an exchange of early morning emails that crossed each others incoming path. Jess’ note said: I reckon the sax player is… while mine to him said; d’you think it might be..? And the answer..? It most certainly is John Helliwell.

14. Ain’t No Sunshine. Recorded one late night in March ’73 at Basing St… its just Jess and an acoustic guitar… We found it, unmarked, on a 2” multitrack in amongst a whole heap of ambient studio nothingness… there were two takes… and this is the best of ‘em.  

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Jess Roden Anthology | The Final Countdown

And... here we now are, the countdown has begun. Pre-ordering for the JR Anthology is set to begin at high noon (hey...which bright spark suggested that...?! Its all far too Garry Cooper)... on Monday, November 12th. 

High noon or otherwise, we're underway. Someone (no names, no pack drill) asked the other day, "Bet you're thrilled now?' And was, I think, a bit flumoxed by the response... "Not really, I think I'm more relieved than anything. The thrill bit will probably... hopefully... come a bit later

For why? Well... we inhabited this bizarre nether-world for so long that there were times when it felt like no matter what, this bright idea of three and a bit years ago, conceived as it was in the womb of ideas over Korma heaven, a few Popadums and a couple of Kingfisher beers would result in such a lengthy birth that the chaps from the Guinness Book of Records would be knocking at the door and queuing round the block eager to document the labour pains.  

In any event, now that the log-jams are behind us we can proceed... and proceeding in a straight-ahead fashion we jolly well are. Am I thrilled – yes, whisper it... I am (rather a bit), 'cos there really were moments when this all seemed like it was stuck in a moment we simply couldn't get out of. But, that was then...

First up... I should make mention of the fact that this edition will be limited just as we've said all along plus it will be absolutely exclusive to PledgeMusic. 

And limited means limited... which means we're absolutely not going to be quietly manufacturing another X quantity in the background and then offering those via the back door. Exclusive has the same meaning; this edition is only ever going to be made available via PledgeMusic. 

Why PledgeMusic? Well... when we initially got underway we talked to a number of 'entities' (for want of a better word); they all loved what we were setting out to do but... quite honestly, they were all so steeped in the past that, as much as they liked our ideas, they couldn't see any logical way of making them happen without so many obstructions along the road that made the whole thing not just implausible but impossible. 

But, we were sticking to our guns. And one particular Howitzer in particular. IF we were gonna do this... it had to be as special as we could make it. 

And then... we met with the chaps at PledgeMusic – Malcolm Dunbar (their major-domo) is steeped in the traditions which we all learned at the Island coal-face which begin with thinking outside the box. He got it (in other words what we were planning) in a matter of peco-seconds... not only that, but he and his compadres positively welcomed our A4 sheet of ideas with a foolscap envelope choc-full of their own. You want to do this..? Sure, we can accommodate that.  You want to do that..? Of course... not a problem. And do this in that way? Yeah, we can make that happen too but we can also do this as well. Brilliant. Suddenly, we were able to channel the past by embracing the future and, it felt really rather good. 

Running through Hidden Masters' core (a bit like when you chomp your way through a stick of Brighton rock) – the JR Anthology gave its title to the name of the label by the way – is 'the end-user deserves the best'. 

And that phrase (even tho' the wording is pretty rubbish) applies to absolutely everything we do... so, by linking to the way the PledgeMusic methodology operates, this enables HM to deliver on that promise. 

Am I giving the game away, hinting at what is to come too much? Without furthering the tease any more, ALL of the details on exactly what the singer of songs + self have been beavering away on in the background these last few many-months will be announced very very soon. Promise. Honest injun.

In the meantime... should you wish... you can join the official pre-registration list via this link : > http://www.pledgemusic.com/widgets/5108

Its a very simple process... click on the download link... 























And... hey presto...  another box will pop open... 






















Fill in the required fields... and not only will a free download of one tune from the forthcoming Anthology immediately land, as if by magic, on your desktop but... you'll also get an email alert just upfront of when the actual pre-ordering begins.

The download we've chosen is Song 3 –
virtually the first tune unearthed when all of the archive research began – many, many moons ago! Although, naturally, once it is properly re-mastered, the version included on the actual Anthology is going to sound a whole heap better than an MP3!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Hidden Masters | The Jess Roden Anthology

And... at long last... so it begins

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Octopus’s Garden



After the outstanding Danny Boyle-driven opening ceremony and two weeks of equally astonishing athletic feats across the board, last night we finally arrived at the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympiad.

But… (fairly) closely guarded secret as it was, what would it actually comprise…? Part peculiar comic-book circus or a celebratory carnival of (British) music from the last five or so decades? Would Sir Cliff of Richard make a token appearance, would Dame Kate of Bush come out of hiding and perform live for the first time in more than thirty years? Would the Strolling Bones get the nod or would it be down to Status Quo to provide some invisible-pony-tail Dad-Rock? Would it be more wake than festival? Or, perhaps, it'd be a sum of those and many other parts?

It was and it wasn’t some of the above. Yet again, Britain proved itself a world-beater... in Pantomime.

Starring… The Villains:

The Spice Girls as The Ugly Sisters – the vision of Posh Spice frantically clinging to the ‘elf ‘n safety cage atop her black London taxi, out-of-time miming to ‘Spice Up Your life’ while hurtling around the stadium will live long in the memory… if only the taxi had just driven straight out of the park.

George Michael as The Village (People) Policeman, proving the Olympics can be bought by agreeing to sing one song on the basis that he was allowed to plug his tuneless new song straight after. Horrible. Jacques Rogge – hang your head in shame.

Eric Idle as The Widow Twankey – awkwardly warbling away surrounded by a glee club of high-kicking Roman legionaries, men dressed in Welsh women’s national costume and backed by a chorus by roller-blading nuns. Surreal so long as one’d taken the correct pharmaceuticals.

Jessie J as Cruella de Ville – killing a billion indelicately and indiscriminately with her song(s). A thoroughly unpleasant noise.

Taio Cruz and Tinny Temper as Dennis The Menace and Gnasher; hiding behind their designer-shades, all the bling and crocodile-hide transport couldn’t disguise the ineffectual twaddle proffered. Perfect pee-break / kettle boiling / extra glass of the well-chilled moment.

Madness
as The Tin Men – Suggs really should have opted for the full-mime option; flat as a Shrove Tuesday pancake resonated far beyond Camden Town tube station. Even Lee Thompson's Sax-in-Space moment seemed half-hearted.

Russell Brand as Russell Grant – involving him within the performance in the first place was enough of an own goal; his desecration of I Am The Walrus when he failed to even mime convincingly was pure travesty.

Brian May as The Scarecrow – his three minutes of ear-wrenching six-string pyrotechnics before slugging his way into We Will Rock You like a past-his-sell-by-date heavyweight boxer was more than enough. Being accompanied by Cruella de Ville writhing at his feat (sic) like a recently beheaded snake underneath Roger Taylor’s Barclay’s bank of kettle drums redefined unnecessary.

Annie Lennox as The Cheshire Cat – her entrance on a ghost Galleon was pure and unadulterated theatrical-magic; sadly the performance as underwhelming as soggy toast.

The Household Division Ceremonial State Band as Dick Whittington’s Cat – Blur’s Parklife didn’t translate well as a jerky arrangement for massed ranks of trombones.

Ed Sheeran as a ginger Andy Pandy – thankfully a song as good as that can’t be totally annihilated but, along with Big Ears (the tall bloke form Genesis) and The Classic Car Collector – the only Floyd-ster who could be bothered to show up – this was not a performance at which the Division Bell could come quick enough.

Liam Gallagher as Petulant Postman Pat – take one great song; the brother who wrote it can’t be arsed (for whatever reasons) to perform it with the original band… solution – bring on the other brother as substitute. As exciting as waiting for a letter posted second class.

One Direction as Wishee Washee – and, they were. Utterly pointless.

The Heroes:

Boris Johnson as Baron Hardup – the sight of him doing his Dad Can Dance routine alongside Mr and Mrs Cameroon in the upper-twit tier while Cruella de Ville, Dennis The Menace and Gnasher slaughtered The Bee Gees made one realize just why Barry Gibb stayed at home, pleading a previous hair-washing appointment.

The Set Designer as Sleeping Beauty. It began as a thing of wonderment and evolved into… something else again. Chapeau. It’s a shame that Thomas Heatherwick's spectacular flames had to be extinguished.

The Pet Shop Boys as Tweedledee and Tweedledum – what’s not to cherish when our favourite dead-pan-twosome perform from underneath gigantic conical chapeaus while being pedaled around the stadium clingfilmed inside two rickshaws and covered by fluorescent orange origami.

The Lighting Designer as Buttons. Whoever programmed the lighting throughout the entire show deserves as knighthood as much as Sir Bradley of Wiggins, Lord Mo of Farrah, Dame Jessica of Ennis and Queen Victoria of Pendleton will be (rightly) anointed in the forthcoming didn’t we do ever so well Olympic pat-on-the-back honours list.

The Supermodels as The Wicked Witch(es) Of The West – if looks could kill and they probably will… Games With No Frontiers: take a bow Kate, Naomi and the others… probably the first time you’ve all been in the back of one of Eddie Stobard’s finest for a while.

Ray Davies as Aladin – for igniting the lamp; a billion people singing the Sha La La’s when instructed and pulling one right out of the bag.

Take That as Tinkerbelles – if only for Jason Orange’s running on the spot routine as he waited for Sir Gary of Barlow (hat-tip to courage in light of recent personal events) to morph into the Queen Mother of Song center stage.

The Video-designer as Snow White – the inclusion of Lennon’s face, full-screen, as he (and a children’s choir) sang Imagine was heart-stopping as was Yoko’s unfolding piecemeal design of her husband’s face in repose, like a gigantic death-mask… A dry eye in (Our) House…? Not a chance.

Darcey Bussell as Princess Jasmine, the senior flight attendant air-lifted into impossible Phoenix arising ballet-shapes.

The Who as (the) Genie(s) Of The Lamp – showing Queen, The Kaiser Chiefs and Muse just how to do it with a startling rendition of My Generation… real lyrical irony given that this Olympiad can only inspire this (and future) generations.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Fix You (Babylon Makes The Rules)


Last Friday, a British athlete, holding a corner of the Olympic flag, read the Olympic Oath penned by Baron de Coubertin – using the exact same words as were recited by the Belgian Fencer, Victor Boin at the start of the 1920 Olympiad held in Antwerp.

"In the name of all competitors, I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules that govern them, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honour of our teams."

There was something in the air, the other afternoon on the roadsides around Weston Green, Esher, Kingston, Teddington and Hampton Court… not just a collective feeling of being part of a little Britain inhaling a bit of (British) sporting history. That was celebratory in itself but there was also that indefinable knowing that the absolute best won the day.

The Cycling TT is exactly that, a timed trial over a set distance; the fastest man or woman gets the Gold Medal. It is, as the French like to call it, the race of truth. Man (woman) against machine, wind, rain, road surface and adverse camber or otherwise… it’s dead simple, the fastest wins. And… it’s the Olympics = as blue a ribbon as it gets.

At the end of the men's race, Wiggins and the German, Tony Martin embraced; both had ridden to limits of endurance; one – the World Champion – roundly beaten by the other, the first ever British winner of the Tour de France. It was a poignant moment that epitomised all great sporting achievements; the best on the day won fair and square and the athletes themselves acknowledged it.

OK... so here's the bit I don't get...

Over the last few days, there has been total media (and public) outcry as some of the Eastern nations’ Badminton teams were clearly seen / shown to have thrown games. Reason being, they all wanted an easier draw for the next round… thus losing against an opponent they should have beaten meant an easier passage into that next round.

The public howled; the media growled and the authorities acted – all of those athletes were disqualified.

Yesterday, we had the bizarre sight of not just Britain but also China getting disqualified in the ladies team sprint at the Velodrome. For why? The commissaries (the judges) ruled that both teams had made an illegal move when their sprinter (in Brian’s case this being Queen Vic of Pendleton) went to the front at the start of her charge to the line (and a probable medal) outside the designated limit on the track.

Quoted in today’s Guardian, Pendleton was candid. "It was an illegal change. I came through about a metre too early. We are talking about one hundredth of a second of a mistake there. Jess (Varnish) moved up a fraction too early and I just saw the door and went for it, because that's my cue to try to squeeze underneath her as quickly as possible. We felt we were getting into that gold medal gear. But, now and again, rubbish things happen."

As much as the public booed in the Velodrome, as much as the experts stated it was a stupid rule, as much as it was virtually impossible to see the change over line (especially if you’re haring round a track in excess of 55kph), as much as the public felt cheated at not seeing the world’s best going head to head… Rules are the rules are the rules.

Bit of a bugger, but there you go – I mean, imagine if Usain Bolt gets to the 100 metres final next week and then false-starts..? That’s him done. No one’ll like it, 80,000+ people in the stadium and countless millions round the world viewing on TV will feel somehow cheated… but… that’s Usain B back to the dressing room.

And yet… last night we had the equally bizarre sight of Philip Hindes, the lead-out man for the men’s team sprint, crashing moments into the race. Did he have a mechanical failure..? Had he punctured..? (In which case, the rules state a restart is allowed). No… it seems not. He’d just made a lousy start. And knew it.

Quoted today in The Independent, this is what Hindes said, “We were saying if we have a bad start we need to crash to get a restart. I just crashed, I did it on purpose to get a restart, just to have the fastest ride. I did it. So it was all planned, really."

Maybe I'm just a bit old fashioned but I was brought up to respect (and abide by) the rules.

When I was much younger, I played a lot of Squash… dare I say it, I was pretty good. No, not International material but still darned good. One day, I came up against someone who was much better and was being roundly beaten. I tried a spot of gamesmanship but still got played off the court. A few days later, I mentioned my attempt at gamesmanship to my father thinking he would be pleased by my win-at-all-costs ideal. He was appalled. He told me, “If you’ve played to the utmost level of your skill but are beaten by the better player, no one can ever ask for more. Learn from that… practice harder and one day you’ll be the victor. But never, ever, resort to underhand ways of winning. If you do, the victory will just be a hollow one”

It’s been a principle central to my very being ever since.

I very much admire Sir Chris of Hoy – one of the greatest Olympians of all time regardless of nationality but, I’m really wondering how he feels wearing another Gold around his neck that 'appears' to have been obtained by a degree of stealth?

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

I Can See For Miles (A Day At The Races)

The morning after the Transvision Vamp - a beautifully executed Dark Satanic Mills Ceremony of Mordor night before - has dawned slightly earlier than my weary (yet excited) mind (body) is ready for. The shrill of the ‘phone-alarm reveals its all of 5.45 am; drat. Yet there is a long-awaited appointment with the curb-side of a Surrey lane to be kept.

Tiggles B, having prepared wayside sustenance, pilots me to the train. She, at least, can grab another few hours under the duvet unless the Psycho-Killers’ bloodlust gains momentum. This has seen the body count of late include two medium-sized sparrows, a frog, a baby blackbird, mice various and a full-grown pigeon all deposited (and dealt with, cat-style) in various parts of Bearwood Hall.

How the hell they got a size 10 pigeon through two cat-flaps prior to slaughtering it is beyond me. Maybe one pushed and the other tugged? Sleepily, as we trundle toward the railhead, I wonder if they sell cat-scan-cameras anywhere local?

Incredibly, the 6.49 to the metrop is jam-packed and equal in the incredulous stakes is the inescapable fact the ‘phone-howlers are already out in force. Don’t these people sleep?

The one diagonally opposite takes out her Olympic Aquatic-centre tickets and starts photographing them. “I’ll just put these up on me FaceBook” she loudly and excitedly tells her heavily-tattooed girlfriend, sat next to me. The elderly gentleman across from me looks quizzical; I tend to think he has no Social Network presence. (Or knowledge thereof). And… is probably headed to the Dressage event.

“Hello Mum… Yeah… I’m on the train. What’s that you say, I can’t ‘ear ya… I’m on a train. Yeah… on a TRAIN innit. Ahhh shit, I ain’t got no signal”. I point to the sign on the window that illuminates the fact we’ve all chosen seats in the quiet carriage. “Yeah… so?” hisses the Lady of the Estuary. I just love going through tunnels. And… there are quite a few coming up. Plus, as a just-in-case, I’ve come equipped with industrial-strength noise-abatement headphones.

Overground, underground I Womble free into the bowels of Waterloo, by way of a much required goblet of caffeine, purchase of The Thunderer (The Times of London) and onto Platform One suitably refreshed and energised; destination Leatherhead.

On arrival, Leatherhead was, to all intents and purposes curled up under the blankets but about to get a rude awakening, as thousands upon thousands descended on what is otherwise fairly described as a sleepy market town.

Big screens are being set up, market-stalls are being readied; pubs are opening early and the roads barriered throughout make progress painfully slow along the pavements with room for one only in any direction. Pity the poor mother with a push-chair as whoever had laid out said barriers clearly hadn’t figured on either families attending or the sheer volume that were starting to arrive. The invalid on his mobility-scooter out to collect his Daily Telegraph got stuck; executing a three-point turn became an exercise in minimizing the twists on the handlebars to double-digits.

A gentle one-mile tramp to the south leads on to the main Box Hill circuit. Roadside space is already, even at this early hour, at a premium – the race itself is yet to even begin from The Mall. The scent of coffee from flasks hangs heavy in the air, one man barbecuing breakfast bacon on the verge has drawn a sizeable crowd.

There was a quote I’d found earlier in the week from one of the local councilors who’d queried the anticipated volume of people, wondering ‘What will we do with 250,000 people?’ Well… the answer was becoming obvious. No… this wasn’t a people-deluge aka Woodstock but, if this early-morning influx was replicated around the entire 15k circuit, by high noon the good people who run the Mole Valley District Council were going to have a good half-million on their doorsteps. At least.

Were they ready, ready with the laughing gas?

Turn the corner off the big road and up onto the Old London Road – my heavily Googled and long-planned ‘spot’ is a few hundred metres ahead. But, it seems that I’m not the only one who’s had this bright idea: also walking up the road is a sea of humankind… there are crowds gathering that one’d only otherwise see on Tour de France stages. And… this is Surrey. Home counties, leafy… suburban… Surrey.

The two policemen stationed just beyond this intersection are already and clearly in trouble. Both are on their respective radios urgently asking HQ what to do. Fairly obviously, they’ve not been briefed in how to deal with this volume of people. Plus, they’re trying to stop the hundreds of cyclists going any further; the thin blue line resembles Canute and tide. Ultimately, they see sense, step aside and the river of humanity flows steadily uphill.

Past the pub that’s going to have its busiest weekend since… goodness only knows when… and finally, just below the brow of the hill, on the edge of the dappled shade, underneath a high-brick wall behind which black sheep contentedly graze, the green backpack is heaved to the ground. X marks the spot.

Settle down to wait.

Check Twitter feeds to see where the race is and what’s going on. A break of twelve with some relatively heavy-hitters have scarpered up the road and established a 5 minute plus advantage, the bunch are riding tempo with Team Sky (whoops, GB) on the front and they’re about an hour away. Relay same to fellow spectators within earshot as everyone nearby is eager for news.

Munch sandwich and wait a bit more.

A few moments later, the first of the security posse amble by – two young women police constables. Both are wearing flak jackets… what are they expecting to be assaulted by? Cucumber sandwiches?

Because they’ve been told this is what they have to do (and probably because they have nothing better to do), they ask that we all stand on the pavement. As they move off the request is ignored.

With so many handcuffs and other jangly police-type paraphernalia attached to her belt, the slimmer of the two clanks her way downhill; the other is more amply proportioned, with a posterior encased in black serge that is roughly the diameter of Guatemala. As the disappear from view, sundry Germans, English, Irish, Dutch and a smattering of Italians as well as self meander back into the road. And wait… some more.

Five minutes later, hi-visibility orange-vested security people hove into view. They, too, request everyone to stand on the pavement that, by now, is bulging with people, pushchairs, backpacks and bikes. “Hey, friend... the race is an hour away” says the Dutchman next to me. “Don’t matter, mate. Stand there... on the pavement”, instructs one of the shaven-headed security man. “You’re causing a hazard”.

He moves off, we move out onto the road. Again. And wait. This is just like a Tour stage; camaraderie – no matter nation or creed – all around abounds.

At more or less the appointed hour, the first police 'command vehicle' flashes past, driven by a uniformed officer, his face masked by impenetrable dark glasses quickly followed by another security 4x4 with four occupants… again sporting the obligatory dark glasses. Isn’t this just a tad over-zealous?

(This actually happens on each lap; they’re too obviously serving absolutely no purpose and one can’t help but wonder exactly what the hired thugs are doing in their 4x4 – for example, do they charge by the hour or by the mile? It doesn’t take the brain of Einstein to work out that they are on an serious earner for doing… nothing). The helicopter is chattering overhead; the race is getting closer. Excitement builds all along our stretch of pavement.

The first of the police motorbike outriders is heard below us on the hill; the on-off squawk of their sirens pierces the early lunchtime quiet. They flash by quickly followed by another two and then another pair… Moments later the workman-like leading group ride tempo up the hill. A flash of heavily tanned thighs, a whir of carbon-fibre and they’re over the brow and heading toward the roped-off sections of Box Hill itself.

Ecologically minded as I am, I’m all for saving the rare daffodil, exceptional species of orchid and certain genus of butterfly but why the race has been routed in such a manner whereby sections of the route will be designated as no-go areas for spectators is beyond me.

The assembled throng holds its collective breath for five more minutes and then the main bunch come through, most of the (expected) main protagonists easily recognisable even despite the fact their race colours are unfamiliar (national jerseys and not the more usual trade-team ones). Even so, it’s a little bizarre seeing the Italians more marble-white than Azzura-blue and the Australians in canary-yellow while close up, Team Sky (GB’s) grey-blue outfit is downright horrid.

The hi-visibility orange-vested security people amble back uttering the same, tedious demands. By now, they also look bored; they have little or nothing to do because its quite evident that the crowd do, actually, know what to do when the race comes through. Even those who – probably because they saw it on one of the high-mountain stages – decide to briefly run alongside the riders are hauled off by other spectators. This is a crowd self-policing itself.

The lady PCs amble back and forth and chatter to the crowd, they have no job to do either other than enjoy their day out. The Police outriders who come through give high-speed high-fives to those who choose to extend their hands; other than the orange-vested Orangutang-bullies it’s as good natured as it gets, a real festival on the roadsides of Britain.

Some of us in our little sub-section of the route are timing the gap between break and main group. There are virtually no updates coming from the race itself (generally, there would be an announcers’ car either just ahead of the race itself or in-between break and bunch) but, inexplicably, this is either a detail overlooked or, maybe, just thought unnecessary. Whichever it is, its becoming clearer still that none of the relevant authorities had imagined the size of the crowds assembled.

As the race unfolds, the gap between break and main bunch slowly comes down. And then, the inexplicable happens. The next time up our climb, a second group on the road has formed and they’re rapidly closing in on the break: and, it contains a welter of big names; Gilbert, Sanchez, Cancellara, Phinney, Nibali… big-hitters every one and yet… no British jersey is to be seen.

They roll through on the front of the main group some 70 seconds later… interestingly, Eissel (Cav’s Sky loyal team-mate but, obviously, today in Austrian colours) is sitting second wheel. Even so, the tempo they’re riding is not (perhaps) as hard as it could… or should… be.

Either there is supreme confidence that they’ll bring it all back together or… they’ve felt no need to at least police that second group by placing one of their guys in it (thus forcing other teams to chase) or… they’re stuffed… or they’re riding at a pace that suits Cav and daren’t up it just in case he can’t hang on.

What is clear is that the Plan A – Z (to bring Cav to the line and position him to achieve Britain’s first Gold Medal) as publicly outlined by the boss of Team GB isn’t going to waver come hell or high water; no matter what, there is to be no deviation.

Its only as the race unfolds that the viewers will be able to herald this as being either a tactical master-stroke or… strategic ineptitude akin to the Charge Of The Light Brigade. We’ll see… battle has, by now, been properly joined.

As they all roll on toward another skirmish on Box Hill, its my time to head back down this hill and retrace steps back to Leatherhead. I’ve figured out that, so long as I time it right, I’ll get to see the race once more along the circuit, then catch it at the roundabout on the southern edge of Leatherhead as it heads back into London and still be in plenty of time to make it to the big screen to see the closing stages.

Parts one and two went swimmingly; the crowds had grown to colossal proportions at the entrance to the Old London Road – there, the Cancellara fan-club had staked its place right along the verge, they’d set up a tv screen around which were gathered as many as could see. The Norwegians were next door, the good people of Surrey and every other part of Britain crammed into every other available space.

The helicopter’s over head and Gilbert streaks through, spring-loaded and whippet-like. The break behind has swelled – so obviously the junction was made somewhere out there and Millar leads the chasing bunch through… the gap between front and back of the race is maybe no more than two minutes. Game on. Best foot forward and stride-out to the roundabout.

It’s jammed. Even so, a little hustle and bustle and you can feel the swish of air as the riders hurtle past. The leading group, which feels like it’s about 30 strong now, is bearing down on Gilbert and a minute or so ahead of the main peleton. The race is fast heading for denouement and its my time to make equally rapid foot-fall toward the big screen a mile hence.

There is a path that runs behind a hedge parallel to the main road up which the race and attendant convoy of vehicles has just made its way. Along with many others, I make for it.

Not so fast.

Three security people bar not just my but everyone’s way. “You can’t come through here yet... mate”. Pretty obviously, I'm not his mate but we'll let that go for the moment.
“C'mon... don’t be silly… the race has gone through… we’re all trying to get to the screen in Leatherhead”.
“Sorry… mate... you can’t come past until I say so”.

The security guard inflates his beer-belly and stands there implacable behind his dark-glasses. Its becoming less and less likely that we'll be buying one another a pint at days end.
“Hey chum..." I'm trying my very best to be... chummy. "The race has gone by… why are you holding us all up?”
Clearly, enforced chumminess isn't going to operate any form of thawing mechanism. He and his cohorts stand there, saying nothing, hiding behind their man-sized shades. The minutes tick by as crowd-anger increases.
“Can you let us past please… now! We're going to miss the finish. Please!”
He starts fiddling with his ear-piece. One of his colleagues starts talking animatedly into a cell-‘phone. Still nothing happens. The minutes continue to trickle by. There is visible irritation coming from everywhere. The security guys are pissing everyone off; the roads are silent with all race traffic long since gone that-a-way and, sooner or later, someone is going to march forward and deliver a healthy blow to this bloke’s solar-plexus. We wait for another five minutes.
“What the fuck is the problem?” yells someone in the deep background from amongst the grumbling throng of adults and crying children.
“I’m not allowed to let you through yet. It’s a health and safety issue”.

Five minutes (which feel like fifteen) later, word comes through that we’re no longer a danger to anyone’s health or safety and the over-sized, over-zealous security man steps aside. There is a congenial rush toward Leatherhead central.

Breathless, a whole group of us make it into the main market area of Leatherhead, there’s the big screen and images are coming through but they’re horribly pixilated and Chris Boadman’s co-commentary and race analysis is being transmitted as if by way of a vocoder from outer space operated by an alien. Moments later the screen goes blank.

A howl erupts from the throng all across the pavement; it was a collective moan the like of which I’ve heard just the once before when, watching the screens in Times Square at just the moment Obama walked out to accept his nomination in Chicago for the US Presidential elections… they, too, went dark. A moment of history about to be missed.

Thankfully, there is an Irish couple stood next to me; he has somehow managed to get a radio-feed on his cell ‘phone, my own is dying a slow death by battery-run down. The commentary is intermittent but at least a little information is coming through; the big-screen technicians are struggling with both the equipment and a visibly (and understandably) hostile crowd.

This is not just a race against time but a malfunction which is, in anyone’s book, unacceptable. This is Britain, it’s the technological age and we’re hosting the Olympics. For pity’s sake, don’t fuck up and look like you don’t care or, worse, that you don’t know how to fix it.

Moments later, the screen pixilates back into life; the audio feeds-back but settles whereby Boardman now sounds like he’s being strangled. The sound is so awful that it is impossible to make out what co-commentator Hugh Porter is actually saying. If anything.

The images on the screen swirl to the extent that only someone who’d taken a mouthful of Dr T Leary's most famous substances would have been able to make head or tail of what they were seeing. They could have reached Knightsbridge... equally, they may still be in Richmond Park... that might have been a shot of a deer. Either which way, it was impossible to tell. Twenty seconds later, the screen goes black and the commentary fades away and eventually fizzles out like a slowly released fart.

This is utter bollox. A shambles.

There… look… a pub with a mass of people straining to see something through the window. God-willing, the pub will have their TV hooked up to the transmission.

It does… and yes, they were traversing Knightsbridge. Phew, just in time then.

Those of us piling up against the window get to see someone in a pale blue jersey beat someone wearing predominantly white in a two-up sprint. The word goes quickly around that Vinokourov has out-smarted the Colombian Uran in the final metres along the Mall.

A hectic sprint for third place follows and then another big bunch comes in. It’s just possible to make out Cav being bested for the line and looking decidedly down-faced as he rolls to an ignominious halt; his race run.

Time for the train home.

And the moral of this tale is?

This was (is) The Olympics. This was Britain’s first chance of a Gold Medal – fielding the outright favourite.

And what is abundantly obvious is that the authorities (local, national and international) underestimated this entire event from the get-go.

Why, for example, were there no large-screens at all the obvious places where the crowds would gather?

Why was there no system put in place for the crowds on the roadside to be kept informed of the race’s progress?

Who decided to employ security staff who’d absolutely no idea of the event they were ‘securing’? (And how much public money was flushed down the lavatory in so-doing?)

And… then… when finally being able to watch a re-run of the television coverage, the entire debacle became clearer still.

Consigning TV footage to only two motorbike cameras – when you have a minimum of three in every classics, semi-classic and all Grand Tours – was unpardonable in that immediately all live footage which could be edited for the broadcaster to pass on to the consumer was a third less than for any other major race.

The on-screen information / timing-splits issues that the broadcasters suffered from has been well documented in the mainstream media. But… no one seemed able (or capable) of thinking on the hoof.

For example, how hard was it to establish who was in the first (or second) break by way of collecting the race numbers off the tv footage, correlate that to the start sheet and get those up on screen? The first leaders’ caption came up (unless I’m much mistaken) one hour and forty-seven minutes into the broadcast. That’s not just inexcusable but smacks of a ‘couldn’t care less’ level of incompetence / nah, that’s someone else’s job.

And now we have this party blaming that party who, in turn are blaming someone else who, in their turn are blaming people using Twitter and Facebook, texting their pals back at home and so forth – all in all, saying the mobile networks couldn’t cope.

This is so much bollox as to be beyond incredible – firstly, the telemetry should have been carried on the same protected networks as the video, rather than using a domestic mobile 'phone network and secondly (and perhaps more importantly) this should have been figured out before the fact = long before race day.

LOOSECOG (or whoever really was responsible for the broadcasting) got this unutterably WRONG way, way before the event. And, most probably from when the 'test-tube-event' was run last Summer. After which they (undoubtedly) said... yeah that all ran fairly smoothly... that'll do.

And is anyone going to admit it? Damn right your sweet ass, they won’t.

Because and unhappily its symptomatic of the total denial, the absolute non-acceptance of accountability culture we all inhabit nowadays.

A culture epitomised by the total inability of person X / organization Y to put their hand in the air and say (humbly)… ‘you know what… that was my / our fault… I / we cocked it up’.

But no… So much (so far) with this Olympics – be it the empty seats debacle, the insipid commentary across many events (try the beach volleyball for size) or the televised coverage of the Mens’ Road Race smacks of: Not me guv, it was his fault… no it wasn’t, it was theirs. No, that’s not possible it was them all along.

And so the blame games rumble on.

And will do until someone, some organisation takes it on the chin and says… we fucked up.

Pity the athletes and pity the public who couldn’t get in to see / understand what they wanted to watch.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Get Ready (Get Ready For The Laughing Gas)



Advice offered on the Mole Valley website for those attending the Olympic Road Race this coming weekend is as follows:

If you are planning to make the journey to Mole Valley on 28 or 29 July by car, there are five designated car parks for the race weekend. Four of the car parks are in Leatherhead and Dorking and are owned by Mole Valley District Council and the fifth is a privately owned car park in nearby Tadworth.

That’s it…? FIVE car parks? With a capacity of 3,700 vehicles? Lets say that averages out at 3 people per vehicle. Simple mathematics means they’ve legislated for 11,100 people arriving by car.

Earlier this year, (GetSurrey.com / February 3rd – article penned by Guy Martin) the District Council was reported as saying it was impossible to predict how many people were likely to attend. Estimates had been put forward of 250,000 people but… the council were ‘allowing for 90,000 on each day.’

The District Council – in a report presented to councilors – admitted (then) that transport plans and logistics were complicated by uncertainty over how many people might attend.

The report stated: “It is important for the council to be comfortable with expenditure that may only be experienced by a small section of our community and an unknown number of visitors”.

Mole Valley District Council leader, James Friend stated: “We have tried with [Olympics organising committee] LOCOG and the county council to come up with an estimate. The field of uncertainty is in tens of thousands.”

Councillor Emile Aboud predicted that many more than 90,000 will turn up. “Where on earth are we going to find space for 250,000 people?” he asked.

I’d imagine, right now, its squeaky-bum time down at Mole Valley District Council.

IF… repeat IF… MVDC still believe less than 100,000 people are going to show up then they must be in some form of collective state of denial.

Have none of the local councilors taken note of the acres of space that all of the print media – broadsheets as much as the tabloids – have given over to one of the biggest British sporting achievements of the last millennium? Has not one of them noticed that ITV reported they attracted their highest viewing audience ever for this year’s Tour de France?

Hasn’t anyone computed that that success will guarantee spectators in the millions?

But… as of this week… the advice offered to potential attendees on ALL of the local authority websites suggests that this isn’t going to be that big an event.

Get ready… get ready for the laughing gas good people of Surrey.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Better By You, Better Than Me

In a couple of days and barring a lightning bolt of misfortune from out of the great rain-filled yonder hanging over the motherland like a funeral pall, Britons en masse will celebrate something that has never been previously achieved by anyone from the Sceptered Isle.

A British rider will stand head and shoulders above the rest on the top step of the podium on the Champs Elysees; a British rider will win the 99th edition of the Tour de France.

A pinnacle of extra-ordinary achievement; one of the final sporting bastions breached.

For decades, the top-step-podium-position was the (assumed) right of the French, before opening up to include other European nations until English-speakers became a dominant force as the sport globalised.

This achievement will overshadow that of the Scot, Robert Millar who took to the podium as the polka-dot jersey-wearer signifying his King of the Mountains title in 1984; it will eclipse the brace of 4th places (Wiggins and Millar in ’09 and ’84 respectively), the late Tom Simpson (6th in 1960), and dwarf Millar’s other top twenty finishes with Graham Jones the only other British finisher in the top 20 (1981) in the race’s entire history.

Because on Sunday 22nd July, at about five in the afternoon CET, history will be made by Bradley Wiggins.

Just cause for celebration. Roule Britannia.

And yet, curiously, Wiggins himself is quoted in Richard Williams’ column in today’s Guardian saying, “And even now, no one's actually said, 'Bloody good on you, mate, well done.'"

I wonder why?

Is it because Wiggo knows, in the subterranean depths of his heart, in the deepest part of his soul that only renders purity of thought in the bible-black of the night, that he’s not won as he could or… should: as a great champion… with panache and aplomb.

Because, unquestionably he has not. This has been like watching a machine win.

For sure, it’s a machine that’s been fine-tuned to the absolute n’th degree; the months of selfless training have been well-documented in any publication you care to read; the quantum level of sacrifice that his team-mates have exhibited has been expected. This, after all, was all-for-one from the get-go.

So… what’s not to like?

Well… I find it incredibly hard to get excited about a winner whose lengthy proboscis has not once deviated from his team-mates collective arse throughout the entire race.

A voice crying in the wilderness to be rounded on for not towing the Team Murdoch corporate line? I think not – because, why for example, did L’Equipe publish a front page cartoon this week that showed a dog towing a bike uphill (an unmistakable reference to Wiggins’ uber-domestique Chris Froome who they clearly saw as the strongest man in this year’s Tour).

As another commentator, Lionel Birnie stated this week, writing in CycleSport on-line – In the old days, watching the Tour was like standing back and enjoying the sight of a beautiful painting. Now it is more like looking at a set of architect’s plans. While you can admire the skill and calculation that has gone into producing the drawing, there is something cold and clinical about it. Rather than inspirational or emotive, it is functional and rational.

Very true: yet, there is panache and aplomb a-plenty to be celebrated on Sunday… the exploits of the likes of the Czech Peter Sagan and France’s own Tommy Voeckler (as the rightful victor of this year’s King of the Mountains spoils) as well as Cav's two utterly remarkable sprint wins (anyone betting against him on Sunday?) have animated an otherwise tedious trip around France that, more often than not, resembled a high-speed training ride led by Murdoch’s black-clad storm troopers.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?



Poor old (sic) Gary Barlow… might as well be hung for a sheep as much as a lamb.

Unless his ego really did get in the way, he’d probably have been wiser passing on the offer of curating the music for last evening’s Diamond Jubilee concert in London.

Because... attempting to span the breadth of pop represented throughout HM’s 60 years on the throne was a big ask and GB was on a rank-outsider from the moment the invitation was proposed and the flag dropped.

Even so, it was as if Barlow G had convened a cast of performers while reading from a pop(ular) music health and safety manual. Don’t upset anyone, least of all the ducks in the fountain and the Corgis across the road. Keep it strictly middle of the road. In that respect he succeeded but, crikey, it was mind-numbingly tedious.

Yet it began on a wave of possibilities… Norman Wisdom (in the guise of Robbie Williams) unexpectedly came out of the musical traps like Usain Bolt; thronged by implacable trumpeters from one of the cavalry regiments, he grabbed the occasion by the scruff of the neck and… hit the bulls eye.

That it continued with a whimper like a damp firework is testament to the sheer ordinariness of some of the bill assembled, the manner in which some of the songs chosen were sung and the sheer ineptitude of most of the in-between-acts link–deliverers.

Of course, only a lunatic would have expected a degree of subversion, a hint of radical, a touch of extremism to follow – all being basic staples of rock ‘n roll. Yet, it was if punk… ska… reggae… BritPop… psychedelia… had never happened; as if that vast swathe of music that Britain should be justifiably proud of never existed.

Instead we were treated to the abysmal caterwauling of Jessie J. And, can anyone enlighten me as to the reason Will.I.Am was granted stage-time? Similarly Cheryl who, allegedly, is now such an important personage in the pantheon of pop that she’s disposed of her surname; both of these horrific musical miscues emphasized by their inability to actually hold a tune (what tune?)… in tune – yep, both sang flat as pancakes.

There was the irrelevancy of something called JLS while Ed Sheeran looked like a frightened rabbit startled by headlights. The exceptionally gifted pianist, Lang Lang was on the wrong stage entirely while Alfie Boe and his suit weren’t the only part of his act that failed to fizz. Ruby Turner showed the also-rans how to actually sing but, oh how one longed for the Pet Shop Boys backed by a troupe of Welsh miners; Tennant and Lowe dressed in oil-skins, belting out Go West. Now… that was happy and glorious. And where was Adele or Rumer, Aswad or Coldplay, Eric Clapton or Oasis even…? (the list of non-invitees / attendees is / can be as long as you like).

It was partially saved by… here’s…. Grace; Ms Jones – who’d evidently tipped an economy-sized bottle of baby-oil all over (possibly to aid entrance into her latex sheath-dress) fabulously hoola-hooped all over Slave To The Rhythm which, sadly, so obviously lacked the real grit-rhythm that should have been provided by Sly ‘n Robbie.

Annie Lennox sang with angel-wings and then some; grasping the implausible situation and breathing life into a, by then already dying on its feet, musical corpse. Yet, unlikely as this is, the nation’s favourite posterior totally blew her four minutes centre-stage: oh Kylie… why did you screw up so royally? And frankly, the least said about GB’s decision to allow Rolf Harris to wobble-sing his Two Little Boys to the back of The Mall the better.

Even by now, with the concert cadaver barely breathing, one’d have thought that dear old Sir Tom of Jones and Sir Riff of Pilchard – beat-veterans twain who, in their prime, were rightly touted as Brit-rivals to Elvis’ crown – would have amassed a bit of vocal clout… and excitement… between ‘em.

But no… the former dignified grey but facially orange struggled to engage let alone get out of third gear; the latter proved pink wasn’t a wise choice by his stylist. His hits medley fell at the first like an elderly racehorse who should have been put out to grass long ago. So… why on earth didn’t Sir Cliff perform with Bruce, Brian and Hank – the three remaining Shadows? After all, wasn’t it John Lennon who once said “Before Cliff and The Shadows, there was no music in Britain worth listening to".

A shame – and yet what was equally fascinating was the amount of ‘rockers of yore’ who’d clearly nipped to the chemists in order to purchase age-defying hair-products; indeed, one wonders if Cliff holds shares in the same follicle-aid company that Sir Paul of MacCartney and Sir E John of Weybridge and other compounds clearly do.

And Gary B… he trashed one great idea by over-egging it. The essence of meandering around the Commonwealth and thereby creating a song from so many disparate sources and players was hardly new but nonetheless alive with fascinating possibilities.

But, that’s not dissimilar to creating a mouth-watering sauce from contrasting components – and to quote Michel Roux “You can always add ingredients but its impossible to take them out. The trick is knowing when to stop.”

One had to feel for the remarkable Aboriginal singer / guitar player and the equally gifted strange-stringed-instrument player from Kenya; the extraordinary rhythm kings from the rubbish heaps of South Africa and the young Rasta hand-drummer. All drowned out by the non-sensical – way too early in the mix – inclusion of Gareth Malone and his massed ranks of Military Wives. The incision of a chorus within the tune wouldn’t have harmed it either.

The finale of Madness vertiginously performing Our House atop the roof of the Palace reeked of irony – a remarkable playground for their lighting designer and he (she) justifiably did that opportunity proud; the gently-moving strings-wash of the Irish quartet’s Beautiful Day set to images of Her Majesty through the years purveyed more than a hint of double-irony; Stevie Wonder put a spell on everyone but muddled what the actual occasion was and Sir Paul Of Macca – always the show-closing safest each-way bet – belting out Beatles tunes brought it all to a wonderful… anodyne… finale.

Yeah… it was safe – it was never going to be toxic; it was never really going to even come close to celebrating British music (as it should have done / as it was touted to) over the last 60 years. Nope… this was The Royal Variety Show under another guise; a Diamond Jubilee Concert that was as safe as milk and about as interesting. No harm done because it was as harmless as it gets.

And Gary B will probably earn a knighthood in the next Honours List… for not upsetting anyone. How very British. How very rock ‘n roll.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Last Waltz


My name is Virgil Kane and I served on the Danville Train…

Late-Summer 1968 – There has been quite a noise over the last few weeks in the Melody Maker; their writers have been talking about this new group from America. A few pictures have been posted – the group all seem to wear hats and beards and, according to the scribes to whom I subscribe, the music they make is unutterably glorious: a heady mix of Southern soul and Northern driftwood.

I don’t actually know what this means but, my (nearly) sixteen year old musical mind has started salivating. Nothing but nothing has been played on the radio yet my pocket-money has begun burning a hole in my flared jeans.

My Dad works in Argyll Street, just off Oxford Circus and, one morning, he finally relents to my constant pleas… Locally (this being the backwaters of Hampshire) no record shop I know of stocks this record I've been reading about so, please… please… take my money, all 32 shillings and 6 pence of it (that’s about £1.70 or so / $2.30) and bring home a copy of this album. Please.

That very evening, it arrives. It has been purchased from Harlequin – a record store in Berwick Street (now long defunct). And, the purchaser wasn’t actually my Dad at all; he’d sent his secretary out to affect said transaction. It’s a mono pressing (hell, what did I know, what did I care)… and is contained in a sleeve adorned by what looks suspiciously like a child’s painting. Only its not, it’s by Bob Dylan. There is no wording on the front cover – just this painting. And, on the back not a whole heap of information either– so far, not so terribly good. But, inside… the warmth of the black-vinyl exudes… something.

The needle drops and I’m all expectation. Can this be really as good as has been written about? Forty minutes or so later, having indulged myself in both sides of the vinyl, I’m in quite a state of shock. At this distance, its quite hard to explain in mere words just what an impression that record made. Put simply, up until that point in my life I’d never… ever… heard anything like it.

Its akin, I guess, to someone hearing (say) Miles Davis for the first time; hearing Winwood sing; seeing Hendrix or watching Bob Marley for the first time – this was music from another place. Completely.

Fast forward. It’s the end of June 1983, I’m in New York and traveling with Niall Stokes, the editor of Ireland’s most fortnightly music publication, the much-revered Hot Press. We’re out on the road with the Irish Group; these being the final US dates on this leg of The War Tour… and have tipped up in Manhattan with the venue for the evening being Pier 84 (don’t think they have shows there anymore). It holds about 3,000 people – places like Madison Square Gardens are on the tour itinerary horizon but not booked… just yet.

Late afternoon and there’s a knock on my hotel room door. Stokes’ beaming face is at the entrance.
“Shall we meet in the lobby at 6?” he inquires.
“Bit early, isn’t it?” I suggest.
“Well… yes… but… actually, there’s a bar downtown and I thought we should go there first ‘cos there’s a band playing that would be well worth seeing before the show”. The good Stokes is giving little away and I’m not entirely convinced. Nor am I really of a mindset to go see a bar-band but… to humour him… sure, why not.

At the appointed hour, we meet in the lobby and jump a cab that is propelled downtown by a driver of Eastern European extraction. It appears unlikely that this fella is possessed of a license as red lights are run at a terrifying pace but, eventually, we’re deposited relatively unscathed outside a not-terribly-enticing bar in a particularly seedy part of lower-Manhattan. This isn’t looking that promising but a beer is a beer is a beer – we push our way in and up to the bar.

As Niall does his best to lure the barman over, I start tugging at his coat. There is a band setting up in the corner… keyboards, drums have been placed in position, a bass guitar is on its rack… mic stands are in place. And, there are faces that look extremely familiar along the bar; isn’t that…? That surely can’t be…? I tug again “Niall will ya look for pity’s sake… isn’t that…?” Two pints in hand, he turns round… and says, “Thought you’d fancy this… only found out by chance…"

At that moment, the musicians started to take their places… there is a short drum roll… The first song kicks in, with the bearded drummer easing up to his mic on the off-beat and that familiar voice, straight out of Arkansas, opens with… My name is Virgil Kane and I served on the Danville Train…

There are maybe 75 people in this bar. Stokes is grinning ear to ear; me – my jaw has just dropped to the floor. If there is a musical heaven, then I’ve arrived.

Unhappily, due to our appointment at Pier 84 being at 8pm we have to leave before the end of the show (I later discover that this edition of The Band minus Robbie Roberston were due to play two sets). But, it was… in retrospect… enough. In fact, it was more – it was a true privilege to witness musical magic that close up.

Fast forwards. A few days ago, the news broke that Levon Helm was loosing his battle with throat cancer. This morning, the unwelcome news came through that he’d quietly slipped away, surrounded by friends and family.

This, therefore, is simply to echo all that is being written today across the globe: Levon – for all the music, over the years… thanks.