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Saturday, 26 January 2008

Pop On Trial Season, BBC4

Did we like it?
A largely pointless finale to a largely pointless trawl through the history of pop music, but made watchable by the superbly passionate Stuart Maconie who was almost matched by the erudite advocates.

What was good about it?
• We’ve watched most of the programmes in this series not for the wild dissemination of disinformation that has passed the lips of the studio guests analysing each decade but for Stuart Maconie’s excellent presentation. On the 80s programme it was a joy to observe him, as a supposed impartial host, rein in his overflowing adoration of The Smiths, while in this culmination – in which an advocates for each decade from the 50s to the 90s pleaded a case that it was the most influential era – he made the whole rigmarole far more addictive than it actually deserved to be.
• David Quantick’s inept advocacy of the 1970s, during, during which he did more to harm than good through his sprawling monologue that wandered off into the margins of music and squatted there like a recalcitrant child. It was also the funniest. Fortunately for Quantick, the music from the 70s was clearly the most influential – Kraftwerk, reggae, post-punk, birth of hip hop, punk, Bowie, 2 Tone, Led Zeppelin, even ABBA – that pretty much proved it was the birthing pool for all electronic music including techno, electro and hip hop, indie (before the baleful influence of post-1996 Oasis), metal and pop.
• The other advocates also did fine jobs promoting and defending the honour of the decade they represented. Pete Wylie simply repeated that the 50s had to be the best because everything else pop stemmed from there; Eddie Piller fell back on the dull bedrock of the Beatles and the Stones etc etc; and Miranda Sawyer bolstered her shaky assumption that Michael Jackson and Prince were somehow the Karlheinz Stockhausens of the 1980s with Public Enemy, The Smiths and The Specials.
• Meanwhile, Caitlin Moran threw caution to the wind with a skin-stripping maelstrom of reasons to love the 90s, managing to condense an alleged golden age of Top of the Pops, with Blur, Oasis (pre-collapse) and Pulp, into a period of about six weeks when in reality the appearances were probably spread over two years. It was a sanguine half-truth rather than a lie similar to the one that Britpop was founded on – The Verve, for instance, have suffered as the winds of time have blown the gloss off their pompous, slurred contrivances, which made the presence of Bitter Sweet Symphony, the true, gaping nadir of the pedestrianisation of Britain’s streets, at number three in the Radio 2 listeners’ chart for the 90s all the more repugnant.

What was bad about it?
• The jury who had been summoned to pass solemn judgement on this cultural leviathan were two failed pop stars-turned-journalists (Lauren Laverne and Paul Morley), one singer who is still introduced with reference to the only song anyone remembers him by from 13 years ago (David McAlmont), and one singer who fished like a rusty shopping trolley from a quarry lake each Christmas (Noddy Holder).
• After the advocate for each decade from the 50s to the 90s had introduced their argument, the majority of their case was put forward through a shrink-edited rehash of the hour-long programme that had been shown in the last week or so that focused on that particular decade. This meant that if you had watched those shows (as we had) it was simply a case of sitting through a truncated repeat.
• The jury’s interrogation of each advocate was also nebulous and baffling. Each of the four members of the jury would lob a loaded question to the advocate that sought to pick flaws in their case, but rather than precise, incisive enquiries they were: in the case of Noddy Holder ill-thought out prejudices, Lauren Laverne and David McAlmont spouted stuff learned from books, while Paul Morley posited his labyrinthine musical philosophies as though musing to himself on a laptop before stopping and expecting the advocate to have understood a word he’d uttered.
• And the answers each advocate gave sometimes matched the query for vagueness. Paul Wylie eulogised, “Music gave them a whole new attitude. The 50s was when attitude happened.”
• The whole process was undermined by the adjudication by the jury in a little side room. When asked to give their verdicts, Holder voted for the 50s, whether he’d come into this process with that opinion wasn’t clear, but his justification was simply the oft-repeated cliché of Pete Wylie that “it was where everything began”, which suggested he hadn’t over-analysed his choice. Both Morley and Laverne said they would have chosen the 70s before they arrived and that is what both voted for. Only McAlmont altered his preconception of the 70s being the most influential and switched to the 60s, and that was in part due to David Quantick’s rambling advocacy of the decade. So in essence, only one member of the jury was at all moved by the whole process, and what contributed to that change of heart was a poor presentation rendering the whole judgment element of the programme absolutely futile.
• The over-exaggeration of contrition each advocate expressed for the exploitation or ignorance of black music in each decade. Look, we know none of you advocates are racist, far from it, we know that black music has been ruthlessly pillaged for form, melody and inspiration by mostly white record company executives and some ‘recording artists’ since the inception of pop, and we know that MTV had to be coerced to play videos by black singers by Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. But none of it is your fault, so there’s no need for such an earnest, over-egged condemnation – the facts, in these cases, speak for themselves and it doesn’t do any of you credit to use this abuse of black music to ostensibly vie to win a sanctimonious squabble to see who could appear the most disgusted by this neglect, fearful of being branded that most heinous of things in music “a white, middle-class snob”.
• Biffy Clyro, the music world equivalent of a dying lump of lumpen, lumpy, lump-ridden, lump-sodden, luddite lump of granite rock, being asked their opinion. It wouldn’t matter if they were asked what they thought of a piercing, pulchritudinous morning sun, they would still humbly metamorphose it into a five minute diabolical dirge that would numb fingers, lips and toes in a 12 mile radius.
• Kate Nash saying she thought the 70s was the best decade “because of punk”, which is like Margaret Thatcher saying she thought the 40s was the best decade for politics because of the embroidering of the Iron Curtain.
The chart of the ten best songs of each decade was left up to the whim of Radio 2 listeners, which is like trusting the education and tutelage of your firstborn to King Herod. For every Waterloo Sunset, Heroes, Blue Monday, Strawberry Fields, Ghost Town, Unfinished Sympathy, Paranoid Android and Smells Like Teen Spirit there was a Cliff Richard number, She Loves You, Creep, Maggie May, There She Goes, Back For Good and Bitter Sweet Symphony.
• It was during Eddie Piller’s defiance in the face of a bombastic bombardment from Paul Morley that you realised how utterly unnecessary and pointless this whole charade was. Accused that prog-rock was a ponderous, plodding dinosaur that smeared the 60s with creative inertia, Piller dismissed it all on the basis that prog-rock declined only in the 70s and therefore wasn’t his responsibility. And it was because of this encroachment beyond the territories of time for which he had to answer that suddenly enlightened you to as the absurd nature of corralling decades off into ten-year long chunks and then setting them in adversarial conflict. Should The Beatles be lauded or damned for their influence on Oasis 30 years later that in 1997 sent British music into a bleak nuclear winter from which it shows little sign of recovery? Were The Specials of the 70s or 80s? Why was Michael Jackson hailed for his commercial peak in the 80s rather than his creative peak in the 70s, especially as commerciality was (rightly) scorned throughout with the same derision as pigs applying for jobs as air traffic controllers?
• Caitlin Moran giving credence to something Jeremy Clarkson has said, when she’d have been better off taking life lessons from Mein Kampf.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

George Michael: A Different Life, BBC4

What to say if you liked it
An illuminating profile of one of the best singer/songwriters in the history of British music.

What to say if you didn’t like it
The unofficial, risible Pop Idol of 1982 tells his story that only contains the sliver of intrigue because of the previous duplicity over his sexuality.

What was good about it?
• The remarks about George from some of the better contributors weren’t the usual placid, fawning idolatry you may expect. Elton John said he could be “difficult”, and his father Jack remarked: “I always told him he couldn’t sing.” Meanwhile, Boy George was his usual spiteful, provocative self, “We all thought George was in love with Andrew (Ridgeley).”
• George’s striking honesty in the interviews that shaded in the rather blank impressions we retained from the time before he came out, such as hiring his “girlfriend” to star in the I Want Your Sex video. We learned about how his first lover Anselmo, whom he met at a concert in Brazil, died from an Aids-related illness around the same time as Freddie Mercury succumbed to a similar condition. And also about his early doubts he expressed to Shirley during the making of the Club Tropicana video.
• At Wham!’s farewell concert, underachieving Liverpool forward Harry Kewell seemed to be on bass guitar.
• The camaraderie still evident during George and Andrew’s interview, that quickly washed away the traces of awkwardness which were initially apparent.
• While Wag The Dog was no classic, the video at least showed an admirable bravery to stand up to Bush’s mindless tyranny over Iraq and Blair’s embarrassing consent.
George, Pepsi and Shirley still looked suspiciously young. The same could not be said for the weathered, but still very sanguine, Andrew.

What was bad about it?
• The pitiful standard of some of the contributors such as Simon Cowell, Mariah Carey, Geri Halliwell and Paul Gambaccini.
• The appalling Wham! fashion that reached its zenith in the Top Of The Pops appearance for Young Guns (Go For It) – George and Andrew donned slip-on shoes and leather jackets. Plus, the designer stubble that in 1988 caused facial skin rashes to be the second most frequent health complaint among young women.
• Boy George’s intricate, smothering make up around his eyes that typifies his now tiresome, ostentatious and irrelevant persona.
• Some of Wham!’s music sounded horribly dated; most notably Everything She Wants, with its very flabby bass synth, and Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.
• When George gets annoyed his voice, becomes nasal and makes him sound like Simon Cowell.
• The Freedom video, starring “five gorgeous babes”, that helped formulate the great “supermodel” myth of the early 90s where pretty, but hardly astonishingly beautiful, women were elevated to a deification way beyond what they and the fashion industry deserved.
• The video with hundreds of George Michaels reminded us of The Matrix: Reloaded. Not a pleasant memory.
• Noel Gallagher, a man whose career barely lasted 18 months before falling into a catatonic cycle of bland repetition, has the audacity to criticise George for Wag The Dog. Of course, Noel has never snuggled up compliantly in the lap of a politician himself.
• The high priest in charge of brainwashing the public through trivial pop Simon Cowell gave a lousy reason why Wag The Dog was a mistake. “I don’t think someone like George Michael should be making political records. Americans will be offended, and Americans have made him a lot of money.” Americans also have the right to think for themselves, but perhaps after years of sacrificing expression and creativity on the high altar of pap, Simon is oblivious to such a concept.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Luke on TV - Louis Behind Bars, American Idol, Shameless, Never Better


What weird jobs some people have. On our local news the other night there was the usual story about a man who had robbed a bank. They had nicknamed him the Bad Hat Bandit. He is on the run, but rather than focus on the crime he had committed, our local journalist decided to cover the story from a new angle and talk to the person whose job it is to think up names for these wanted criminals.

This man works for the police keeping tabs on the distinctive features of criminals and giving them names that match their descriptions. It turns out this Bad Hat Bandit wears terrible hats when he robs banks. What an odd job, I thought. But then some people in media do have very peculiar jobs and find themselves in situations us normal folk would never come across in everyday life.
Take Louis Theroux, for example. In the past, he has tried his hand at gangsta rap, spoken to Nazis in California and interviewed a rather bitter Keith Harris and Orville (Keith was more bitter than Orville). Theroux's latest BBC2 documentary, Louis Behind Bars, saw Louis at his most out-of-depth yet. He was allowed access to San Quentin prison in San Francisco, a place where the world's big-time criminals (watch out Bad Hat Bandit) serve their time and often end their days.

At the beginning, Theroux resembled a scared and nervous young boy on the first day of school in need of a nice kiss and cuddle from his mother, but strangely, as he got more familiar with prison routines and the prisoners themselves, he began to loosen up. What followed was intimate and also oddly endearing and interesting portrait of prison life. Theroux has a great interviewing style. He never asks too many questions and the prisoners seemed keen to have their stories told. This had a different feel to some of Theroux's previous documentaries and, bizarrely, even though some of those he spoke to were in San Quentin for an infinite amount of years, they didn't come across quite as odd as some of the people he's spoken to in the past.
So the second week of 2008 and I'd learnt from my mistakes the previous week which meant no Moving Wallpaper or Echo Beach and to have lower expectations for new dramas.
American TV is still suffering from a lack of writers but this week saw the return of Fox's savior! All hail the mighty American Idol!. Though in its seventh series, it still gets bigger ratings than the Super Bowl and with very little else to entertain the nation it really has come to the rescue. The problem is that any magic that may have existed has long since died. How much more can we hear Randy Jackson say "Dog", how many times can we see Paula Abdul bouncing off the walls and complimenting the more hopeless contestants on their shoes or earrings, and how much more can we see Simon Cowell looking plainly unimpressed with every note sang?
Whether you enjoy the series or not, there's a morbid need to at least see what the audition sessions drag up and the first part (four hours aired over two consecutive nights) was just what I've come to expect from Idol. A girl covered in glitter who, out of nowhere, verbally attacked Simon Cowell. A man in a very 60s yellow suit whose voice sounded like he had two cottonwool balls lodged in his mouth, and a man with a strange hat who wanted nothing more than to serenade Abdul. The second problem with Idol is that the oddballs know exactly how to get on TV and the man in the yellow suit has since revealed he was an actor desperate to be spotted by a Hollywood talent agency. The "glitter girl", as she's now known, has since been splattered everywhere from the local news to chat shows.
Just like The X Factor, Idol is really only ever as good as the "talent" they uncover and although Kelly Clarkson, Kerry Underwood and Jordan Sparks are still going strong, there's a bigger trail of Idol corpses that need new blood. I normally give up past the audition stage anyway, but this year one two-hour episode was enough.

Now I know it's not as innovative or cutting edge or maybe not even as laugh-out-loud funny as it was in its first three series, but I still love Shameless. Most would agree it was better in the days of Fiona, Steve, Kev and Veronica but now in its fifth series and after some of my favourite characters long gone to pastures new, Shameless is still a must-see.
Only three episode in and this series already seems a vast improvement on last year's more miss than hit run. This third episode centered on Monica's attempts to be a better mother to the Gallagher clan, Mimi's surprise birthday party and policeman Stan (half man, half bowling ball) welcoming his Russian mail order bride. It wasn't a return to the golden years of Shameless, but was a step in the right direction. Of course, anyone like me with a thirst for spoilers knew weeks ago that Monica was pregnant with Frank's ninth child, but it was nice to see a more toned down and caring Monica for a change. She's always been a character I haven't warmed to (I don't know why, she didn't abandon me) and even in this episode she didn't really get me starting a Monica Gallagher Fan Club, but she's winning me over slowly.

Wednesday saw the return of the thought-provoking Grand Designs with a couple building their dream home underground and, fresh from last week's attack on all things poultry, Jamie Oliver returned with Eat To Save Your Life, this time literally dissecting the British diet. Even though it featured the autopsy of a 25-stone man who had "literally eaten himself to death", it didn't reach the shock or interest level of last week's Fowl Dinners. Maybe last week had desensitised me, as the sight of a dead man's fatty heart barely made me wince and although some of the statistics about fat and salt consumption were shocking I felt I'd heard it all before and Eat To Save Your Life was just an extension of something Gillian McKeith might do, even including the essential "lets look at our poo" segment.

I feel for Stephen Mangan since Green Wing ended. He's struggled to find the right showcase for his talents. Most recently Channel 4's Free Agents showed only a little promise and the ITV drama Who Gets The Dog? was dreadful. Now he gets another shot with the new BBC2 comedy series Never Better. It feels like a combination of Saxondale and Lead Balloon and, although the first episode last week fell a little flat, the second episode about a mistakenly sent text message raised the right amount of cringe levels I've come to expect from BBC2 comedy. I do find it hard to believe in Mangan as a dad of two, or as an alcoholic, but this showed some real promise. It won't be remembered as groundbreaking but it really made me smile and cringe in equal measure.
I can't understand why BBC2 would decide to stick this on at 10 and give the highly inferior Little Miss Jocelyn the slot directly after Never Mind the Buzzcocks. This show goes to prove that given a script, Mangan is a comedy genius. With him stealing every scene, you barely notice his supporting cast, perhaps with exception of the lovely Kate Ashfeild who plays his mithered wife Anita. Although at this stage its not likely to be the next Office or even Lead Balloon, it's getting there and I just hope enough people stick with it and give it the time it deserves.

My second CRUMBLETASTIC medal goes to Louis Behind Bars (as he seemed to change from a deer in the headlights to one of the prison's regulars in the space of the 60-minute documentary) and my second BLACK PUDDING to those the folks at Fox for more American Idol! Seven series is more than enough for everyone (unless you happen to benefit from Simon Cowell's bank balance).

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