Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Top Ten Albums: Rio

This latest entry has been prompted by the discovery that a production office in the Docklands has decided to put my list of also-ran albums on Spotify and go through them one-by-one, no doubt gleefully critiquing my musical taste in the process. Quite an unnerving thought. Anyway - Duran Duran's Rio.

This is very possibly one of the most perfect and perfectly-timed pop albums ever.  Even now I know every lyric, note, production flange and sequencer squiggle on every single song on this record. There was a time when I could probably take you, shot by shot, through every single video made for this album, had you but asked.

Yes I know Simon Le Bon is a terrible lyricist. A really terrible lyricist. Who can't sing. But whilst George Michael was writing boooooring stuff about gurls and relationships and love, Simon Le Bon was spouting monumental bollocks in a way that sounded perfectly adequate to a nine year old boy. Which, funnily enough, is exactly how old I was when I first heard this record.

It has many faults.

It is not fashionable to like it (if, nowadays, anyone has actually heard of it).

I thought re-visiting Rio, track-by-track, after a ten year break, would be disappointing.

It was not.

My main criticism is that Rio, as a strictly musical endeavour, does not bear too much scrutiny. This subsequently makes it hard to explain in any detail why I like it. Everything that made it huge - the band's videos, image and status is etched on the memory of anyone who lived through the early eighties.

Everything has faded now. All we are left with is the music. And that stunning cover.

Yet the record holds up. Rio is still special. It's partly down to the production and engineering, but is also, undeniably, down to the band, who happened to have written, assembled and learned how to perform nine strikingly good songs.

Uniquely with Duran Duran, and particularly on this album, the guitar and synth parts remain on an equal footing throughout. This is put to great effect on Hungry Like the Wolf where the guitar's metallic edge is mixed down into the guts of the song, adding energy and bounce to the poppy, bubbly, melody-driven rythmic synth sequence which jerks and jiggers all over the place. The opening bars are the distilled essence of pop excitement. A girl laughs, an overdriven guitar runs down the fretboard and we're off.

I'm listening to that synth line again on Spotify now. It's just as exciting and just as fresh as it was 32 years ago. Try it for yourself - but close your eyes - the video hasn't aged well:

It's the same for the rest of the album. Compared to most pop songs of the time each guitar riff, bass part and synth sequence on Rio sounds like it was crafted meticulously, line-by-line, section-by-section - and then played without a care in the world by the people who wrote it. The constituent parts are as creative as they can be without detracting from the coherency of each song. It's a very difficult trick to pull off.

I've never thought of Duran Duran as musicians. They were a band, a brand, an image and five individual media personalities within a pop cultural phenomenon. Their songs were the stepping off point for what a generation of people wanted to project back onto them (and this is where the vacuity of the lyrics actually helped).

For a couple of years in the eighties, Duran Duran held up a mirror to every screaming teenager, music fan, journalist, fashionista and factory worker in the country. The tabloid-reading, Smash Hits-devouring, television-watching public saw something of themselves in them, wanted a piece of them or defined themselves against them. The music was almost incidental.

But on Rio, if you shut out all the blether, there is a sense of a creative unit still young, feted, successful and pigheaded enough to believe in their own ability. The result is an extraordinary record which is limited by but achieves greatness through its authors' unique sensibilities.


The whole of Lonely in your Nightmare
The sequencer on Hungry Like the Wolf
The opening synth riff to and chorus of Save a Prayer
The bass playing on New Religion
The chilling, oddball sound to The Chauffeur, perfectly placed at the end of the album
The songwriting
The cover
The energy
The unbelievable good looks of John Taylor


The drumming
The lyrics, particularly the goddawful second verse to Hold Back the Rain which was never in the original vinyl version of the album, but was on the version of the b-side to Save a Prayer and has subsequently found its way into every bloody version of the main album since. Le Bon is obviously proud of it because he still sings it live. It's terrible.

But the album is good. Go on. Have a listen.


Original top ten albums post
First top ten album - This is the Sea  (these are being added in no particular order)

Monday, 21 April 2014

Britain's Crime Capitals: Birmingham

Mother of Charlene Ellis
Beverley Thomas by the grave of her daughter
The second episode of Britain's Crime Capitals goes out tonight at 9pm on Channel 5 (and, obviously at 10pm on C5+1). This episode focuses on Birmingham's gang culture and the steps being taken to change it.

I met Beverley Thomas, whose daughter Charlene was shot dead in 2003. We spoke at Charlene's grave. As we walked back to the car she pointed out the graves of at least four other young people whose lives had been cut short by street violence.

On another occasion I met an interesting character who was subjected to a sustained machete attack by a group of people he took to be his friends. They left him for dead by a park in Handsworth. We took him back there for the first time since it happened. The resultant interview is worth watching.

I hope you can spare the time to catch the programme tonight, or view it after transmission on Demand 5.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Top Ten Albums: This is the Sea

I was given this album on tape by a boy two years older than me at school. Mackey. His surname was Maclean, so we called him Mackey. He didn't like me very much.

One day he handed me a cassette. "You'll like this." he said. "Ignore the trumpety shit at the beginning. It's good."

Because the album had been copied, I assumed the "trumpety shit" was something that had been imperfectly taped over.

I took the cassette out of his hand. "Why the trumpets?" I asked nervously, for something to say.

"How the fuck should I know!" he bellowed.

"Er, okay. Thanks." I said, as he stormed off, muttering.

That night, I lay on my bed and put my walkman on. When I was a kid I always listened to as much new music as I possibly could prone, and in the dark. Especially new stuff. No distractions.

There is quite a lot of trumpety stuff at the beginning. One minute, twenty-seven seconds in all (I've just timed it).

What follows is the most thrilling guitar riff ever. That first time, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. I lay, rigid, my arms by my side, my feet stretched out in front of me and my eyes staring straight up at the ceiling frozen in a kind of goonish ecstasy. What a fucking beautiful sound. How was it even possible to make that screeching, grinding, melodic, electrifying... noise? Sweet Mary mother of Jesus - how good is this?

The brilliance of the opening track (Don't Bang The Drum) isn't matched in sonic terms by the rest of the album, but there were enough gems in there to elevate This Is The Sea and The Waterboys to (nearly) favourite band status for a good few years.

If you have never come across This is the Sea before, here's a quick tour:

Be My Enemy and Medicine Bow are two straight-up roister-doistering this-is-who-we-are-and-this-is-what-we-do pop songs. The music is uncomplicated celtic-soul-rock, made outstanding by arrangement, production and performance. Listening back, the lyrics seem genetically engineered to appeal to fourteen year old boys, which is, funnily enough, exactly how old I was when I first heard them.

Medicine Bow is about going on an epic journey to somewhere epic, whenceforth everything will be significantly better than it has been before:

There's a black wind blowing
A typhoon on the rise
Pummelin' rain
Murderous skies

I'm gonna take my boots
I'm gonna wear my coat
I'm gonna find my scarf
And wrap it around my throat

And you can come with me
Through the driving snow
We gonna ride on up to 
Medicine Bow

Be My Enemy is a fantasy about tracking down someone who is being an almost biblical pain in the arse, and duffing them up. 

I've got goons on my landing
Thieves on my trail
Nazis on my telephone
Willing me to fail
And they were all sent by someone
Obviously you


Now from the slime on your tongue to the nails on your toes
From the scales on your skin to the stains on your clothes
You're gonna make me have to do something, I do not want to do
But if you will be my enemy, I'll be your enemy too.

Every line is thoughtfully metred and measured, and the result is almost cartoon-ishly spot on. This is an exercise in lyrical rhetoric, and it is up there with the very best.

My hands are tied, nailed to the floor,
Feel like I'm knocking on unknown doors.
Gun at my back, blade at my throat, 
I keep on finding hatemail in the pockets of my coat,

Oh I've been, trying to grow
I have been, cooling my heels
I have been, working on the treadmill
I've been, working in the fields...

And I, can't get to sleep...

And I, can't catch my breath...

I can't stop talking and I look like death,

But I will put right this disgrace.


('Cos if you'll be my enemy, I'll be your enemy too).

Love it. Trumpets I can take or leave, and I was never that sold on Old England or The Whole of the Moon, but The Pan Within is kind of groovy, and This Is The Sea is a perfect album ender - 12-string guitars and we're-all-flowing-downstream-through-life-and-then-we-reach-the-sea-which-is-when-we-die-but-it's-great-because-we're-all-one-intermingling-of-celestial-energy lyrical gubbins.

As someone who had already happily consumed The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and most of CS Lewis, the album's celtic-leaning spirituality and Yeatsian imagery was perfect fodder at the perfect time.

Once I'd acquired This Is The Sea on vinyl (Mackey wanted his tape back) I dug out the first two Waterboys albums. They weren't as good, but they didn't disappoint. The title track of A Pagan Place is still my favourite Waterboys song, but I don't think anyone would deny This is the Sea marks the band's creative high point, and it just scrapes into my top ten albums ever.



When I started this project, Max Velody, top TV producer, made the following comment on Facebook:

"A question. Will your top 10 albums be, the albums you think are the best, or, the albums you play the most, or, are they one and the same for you? I ask because whenever I mentally draw up these lists, I am aware that the two don't always match and I wonder, should they. For instance - I don't think Iggy Pop's Lust For Life would make it into my list of the top 10 albums ever, however, I have played it a few times each and every year since it came out, 37 years ago, and I don't think that's true of any other album I own. So maybe it should be in my top 10, maybe it should be number one. I just don't know....."

Which obviously got me thinking. Am I really writing up my top ten albums at all? I rarely listen to This is the Sea nowadays, and certainly haven't at any time over the last 5 years. Musically and lyrically, I've kinda moved on. It is a great album, but it is something of a period piece.

This is the Sea is in the top ten because it meant so much to me at the time. But there are plenty of albums like that. What is the difference between those which meant a lot when I was younger and made it into the list and those that didn't?

The Damned's Phantasmagoria changed my relationship to music overnight. It created a step-shift in my aesthetic at a time when I was frankly floundering and set me off on a journey of discovery which basically opened up The Cure, The Cult,  The Cocteau Twins, The Sisters of Mercy, all of punk, The Smiths, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Mission etc to me. But I was thirteen and it is a terrible album. I'm embarrassed I ever liked it and you don't need to hear it.

So I will admit, part of the reason for presenting you a top ten album list is in the hope you will have a listen to them, and this has inevitably had an impact on what they are.

If I had to do a top ten album list based on how much particular records may have meant to me at particular stages of my life, it would be a pretty stringy list. It would also not be a true reflection of what I consider to the ten best albums I've ever heard.

But if I took out all the ropey albums which meant such a colossal amount to me at the time and tried to look objectively at everything I've ever listened to, the result would be even more pointless than it is already because the albums on the list would be there for technical or cultural reasons, rather than personal ones.

So in answer to your question Max, my top ten consists of:

- some albums which meant a lot to me at the time, but in retrospect, aren't objectively that good, or ones I particularly listen to now, but have something in them which is worth sharing.

- some albums I genuinely love but don't really listen to any more.

- some albums I still listen to a lot and seem to be getting closer to as we grow old together.

It doesn't contain some albums which meant more to me at the time than many of the records in my top ten, but which are nowhere near as good as I thought they were, and aren't worth sharing.

If you think this is getting over-thought, wait until we get onto the subject of compilations.

If you have no idea why I'm writing this, please read my introductory piece.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Britain's Crime Capitals

Always nice to get a photo listing in the Radio Times
At 9pm on Monday 14 April, you can see the first programme in a new series I'm presenting for Channel 5. It's made by twofour productions - responsible for The Hotel Inspector, Educating Yorkshire and Splash, among many other fine shows.

The first episode focuses on Liverpool. Over the course of the series, we also visit Birmingham, Glasgow and Manchester. Each city has its own problems and its own way of dealing with them.

In the armoury
On Monday we visit a police ballistics facility (above) somewhere in England. I was allowed to fire a Glock handgun, using the same hollow point bullets Oscar Pistorious used to kill his girlfriend. 

To demonstrate the damage one of these bullets can do, I fire one into a block of custom-made "ballistics soap", designed to have the same consistency as human muscle. 

Even in a sterile and controlled environment, it's possible to get a sense of the catastrophic injuries these weapons are capable of inflicting on their targets.

I hope you can spare the time to watch or record Britain's Crime Capitals on Monday, or stream it on Demand 5 after transmission.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

The England Football Shirt

is worth what people will pay for it.

There appears to be a small child trying to escape from Wayne Rooney's abdomen
The pricing point is aspirational. Not for the manufacturer, but the buyer. When you are dealing with something as ubiquitous and easy to produce as a polyester t-shirt, only a fraction of the value lies in the physical artefact. The drivel about  "engineered mesh" and "laser cut side panels" is just dismal marketing screed. It's made from recycled plastic bottles, same as the cheapo unbranded top I wear to the gym.

Most of the value of the product is bound up in the price. The higher the price, the more people aspire to own it, the more valuable it becomes.

There is, of course, a cut-off point at which a majority of potential customers will walk away, and this is where it gets clever. Ninety pounds for an England shirt is most likely well above that cut-off point. But who is actually going to pay the full amount?

Only the rich and stupid will be ordering them full price from the Nike website. No retailer is going to be buying these shirts in at £45 per unit, giving them huge scope for discounting. Many thousands of people this summer will be wearing official £90 football shirts they picked up from a discount retailer for closer to £60, believing they have won themselves a bargain in the process.

Ninety quid for the 2014 England Football Shirt is nothing to do with profit margins and everything to do with marketing and PR. Given the likely minuscule manufacturing cost, it barely matters to Nike's accountants whether they sell a million shirts at ninety quid or two million at forty-five. Announcing  the new England shirt at an essentially unaffordable price is a strategic decision made in order generate acres and acres of publicity.

And it's worked. The new rip-off England shirt is now part of the national conversation. The media is happy because it's got something to talk about, the politicians are happy because they can position themselves as being on the side of the poor football fan, incapable of not buying a new shirt every time it comes out. The fans are happy because they've got something to moan about. The retailers are cock-a-hoop because they've got so much scope for discount, yet can still preserve their margins.

The manufacturers are happy because any lingering idea that Umbro made England's shirts (which they did for more than 50 years) is being swiftly blown away. The Nike and England brands are in the process of being indelibly associated with each other.

And of course, everyone knows there is a new England shirt out. When we see it on sale for £60 at our local retail shed, we will at least go and have a look to see what the fuss is about. Ker-ching.

Yes it is another example of multi-national conglomerates turning powerful notions of identity, pride and common national experience, into a grubby, exclusionary, commercial process. Yes the whole sordid charade strips another shred from the twitching corpse of uncommodified social experience. Yes by explicitly introducing the concept of first ("match") and second ("stadium") class supporters the manufacturers are suggesting those who can't afford the top dollar shirts are not fit to wear them. Yes the wholesale capture of sport by capitalism is a degrading and dehumanising thing.

But we keep going back for more, don't we?

So who's the sucker?