Friday, 30 May 2014

A retirement

Yes. And it still works.
That there, is my minidisc recorder. For the technical among you, it is a Sony MZ-B10.

It was given to me by the BBC on the 4 January 2004. I last used it yesterday to record an episode of Amy and Abi's diary for broadcast on BBC Surrey tomorrow.

The latest episode of Amy and Abi's diary is likely to be my minidisc recorder's last professional engagement. Next week I shall be taking delivery of a TASCAM mp3 recorder.

Stuff that works, reliably, durably and unfussily seems to be like gold dust. When you find something that does what it's supposed to do, you hang on to it. Sometimes for more than a decade.

Before I put my minidisc recorder out to pasture, I would like to pay tribute to its usefulness, and the fact it has been my mechanical companion for most of my career as a journalist.

We've had some fun together. I used it to record an interview with a woman who killed her husband (with his permission) and a man who survived the bomb blast at Aldershot barracks in 1972. My minidisc has also recorded conversations I've had with David Cameron, Sir Mick Jagger, Halle Berry, Will Smith, Sir Bob Geldof, Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian Botham, Bruce Willis, Madonna, Eddie Izzard, Christina Aguilera, Nick Cave, Gazza, Simon Le Bon, Jake Gyllenhaal and Keira Knightley among others.

It has never let me down. Every time I press the red button, it starts recording. The recording is always there. Playback is simple. The levels are automatic. The sound quality is good. When I use the external mic the BBC gave me, the sound quality is exceptional.

If I were using it every day I would have got rid of it a long time ago. It can only upload audio in real time. But after 2007, most of the reporting I did was for TV, and when I was at BBC Surrey my main role was as a presenter, so the minidisc was only wheeled out for special occasions. For the last three years it's only really been used at home, to record Amy and Abi's diary.

But it was a good bit of kit, and I will miss it.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Criminals: Caught on Camera - Series 2

I am delighted to tell you I have signed a contract to present a second series of Criminals: Caught on Camera for Channel 5.

We've already put together a one-off which will go out some time over summer, and there are plans for a further seven episodes to go out before the end of the year.

Obviously I can't say too much about the content until nearer the time, but when the press material is ready, I'll get some up here.


I do have a couple of other TV projects I'm working on at the moment which I can't say too much about (save that one is crime-related, and the other is concerned with yet more shoddy goings on at the Post Office), so I'm using the opportunity to have a bit of fun with the top ten albums thing.

I'm also trying to do something useful with the Nick is Not Drinking experiment, which is hosted on a separate blog to this.

My experiences of the last four months along with some of the literature I've been reading are starting to crystallise into a theory about the way we deal with alcohol as a society, and what we need to be doing better.

I'm exploring these ideas with a leading clinician who obviously approaches the subject from a different perspective, but has a lifetime of experience in the field. It's been fascinating to learn about the effect of alcohol on mind, body and brain and the way it makes us perceive our environments.

We'll see what comes of it, but if you want to find out more, and possibly even donate to some very worthy causes, have a read here.

Finally, a reciprocal plug for the inestimable Ian Fraser who is due to publish his book on RBS next month. Ian has been a key chronicler of the worst of the British banking system's excesses and is a fearless journalist. His first book "Shredded: The Rise and Fall of the Royal Bank of Scotland" will no doubt be a rollicking read and I would recommend pre-ordering a copy.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Top Ten Albums: Floodland

Artwork definitely a case of "could do better"

Before this record came out, I was aware the Sisters of Mercy were a band I should like. At the time, there was None More Goth. The mythic persona of Andrew Eldritch, the apocalyptically doom-laden first album First and Last and Always, and a concert video filmed at the Royal Albert Hall (which apparently exhausted Europe's supplies of dry ice) had already cemented the legend.

I was never really a fan of First and Last and Always. But god knows I tried. I liked the track Nine While Nine, but overall it was just too... gloomy.

So when I finally got my hands on a copy of Floodland it was more in hope than expectation.

I have written in the past about the impossibility of hearing new music as a child. As a teenager living in Germany, it hadn't got much easier. Stuck on a military base in the middle of nowhere meant listening to British Forces radio (not great champions of alternative music), watching Top of The Pops a week late on Services Sound and Vision TV or getting the bus into Mönchengladbach to stand, rather lamely, at one of the listening posts which German records shops used to offer.

These brightly-lit, atmosphere-free music marts would often contain two or three turntables behind a glass counter and a pair of headphones. The shop staff would reluctantly put on records at your request whilst you put on the headphones and stood there like a plum.

As a 14 year old boy I could barely speak English without becoming a clammy mess, so attempting to communicate in German to a stranger was a complete non-starter. Yet I was so desperate to hear new music I would steel myself to undergo the horrendous process of taking a record to the counter. The man behind the counter would glare at me for a while, then with a great show of contempt, he would snatch the record from my hands, take it out of its sleeve and put it on. I had to stand there, attempting to evaluate the life-changing desirability or otherwise of my chosen record whilst trying not to overheat with adolescent self-consciousness.

If the other turntables were being used, you could guarantee that within thirty seconds another customer would walk up and stand two yards away, holding the record they wanted to listen to. As you tried to ignore them you would become aware the man behind the counter had acknowledged the customer and was fixing you with his "well-are-you-going-to-buy-this-record-or-not?" stare, to which you both knew the answer was no, as you had just spent your weekly pocket money on the bus fare into town and a McDonalds.

I soon gave up on it.

The only other source of new music was the RAF record library, which I was given special dispensation to join, despite being underage, and not a member of the RAF.

This opened up a new world. Borrowing a record only cost one Deutschmark. On my pocket money I could borrow five albums a week, tape the best of them and come back the following week for five more. Furthermore, once a record had been borrowed twenty times the library would sell it to you for another Deutschmark, so I was able to start building a proper record collection. The growth of the collection accelerated when I got to know the record librarian who would "notice a scratch" on a record I particularly liked and flog it to me even though it had yet to be borrowed twenty times.

So I'd heard about the new Sisters of Mercy release. I'd read a fascinating interview with Andrew Eldritch, all mirror shades and leather jackets, stalking the bars of Hamburg. I'd read the album review, which, being the Melody Maker, didn't mention the music once. I was ready for Floodland to arrive at the RAF Rheindahlen record library. Eventually, it did.

The cover looked like it had been knocked up in five minutes, but the photo on the lyric inlay  was rather lovely.

Who is More Goth? No one. No one is.

As I have mentioned before, my favoured way of listening to new music when I had the time to do this sort of thing, was lying down, lights off, loud as possible.

I nervously put the needle on the record and walked across the room to lie on my bed as that crackling, anticipatory pause built the tension before the opening bars. You have no idea how much I wanted this to be listenable. Good was too much to hope for.

Much to my surprise, and eternal gratitude, Floodland is a cacophanous, thundering juggernaut of a record. If The Cure's Head on the Door is self-involved indie goth, The Cult's Love is metal goth, Floodland is disco goth, and none the worse for that. In fact it is an arch nod towards the dark camp of the dancefloor, the fluid moment when exuberant physical expression gets locked up in desire. It is also stupendously silly in a deliberate, grandiose way.

I love it. Well obviously I do, or it wouldn't be in my top ten albums, but I still listen to certain tracks on it now, weekly, if not daily.

Essentially Floodland is one, maximum two ideas stretched across 45 minutes. But as Adrian Edmondson (yes him! clang!) once said to me "all you ever need in life is one good idea".

The twin peaks of the album are undoubtedly Dominion/Mother Russia and This Corrosion. Both are parked at the beginning of each side, and both are essentially the same song. Between them they take up nearly half the album.

Dominion/Mother Russia was produced by the same bloke who engineered This Corrosion. This Corrosion was produced by Jim Steinman, who made his name producing Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell. As soon as Eldritch had the idea for This Corrosion (over-the-top grand concept goth with stupid lyrics) he did everything he could to get Steinman on board. Makes sense.

Flood I, 1959 and Never Land are fillers of various quality. Flood II, Lucretia My Reflection and Driven Like the Snow are three excellent pop records. The latter also provides a nice link back to First and Last and Always - elegantly returning to the same subject matter covered on Nine While Nine.

Eldritch's boomy baritone isn't for everyone, nor is the relentless clinicism of Doktor Avalanche, the band's famous drum machine, but two amazing and three very good songs on one record doesn't normally happen, and never on an album I was expecting to be a bit of a dirge.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend seeking out Floodland unless you can get hold of the original tracks as put out with their original durations on vinyl. During the remastering process, (presumably through some misguided notion of adding value) original tracks were extended and extra tracks were added. All the extra tracks are terrible and the extended versions of the originals are irritating, unnecessary and actually just ruin perfectly good songs. The overall effect is to further expose the paucity of Eldritch's ideas on the album rather than bolster them. Shame.

Other top ten albums:

The Waterboys - This is the Sea
Duran Duran - Rio

The rationale for doing this. With further rationale at the bottom of the This is the Sea entry too, come to think of it.