End of an Era

If you’re younger than around 20, say, or not from these shores, then it’s possibly a little difficult to understand exactly how significant Terry Wogan’s death is to those of us who are.

I was born, and grew up in, the 1970s and, like a significant fraction of the whole country, I would listen to his rich honeyed tones as I got ready for primary school each morning; in my early years at secondary school I’d laugh as Kenny Everett bent his oddly effete microphone on Blankety Blank; in my teens I’d watch his Saturday night chat show; as I was coming to the end of school, the mid-week chat show would be the accompaniment to my homework sessions.  And then you’d see him pop up on Come Dancing, or Children in Need, or, as he did for so long, Eurovision. He was everywhere it seemed sometimes, and certainly one of the defining voices of the BBC.

He wasn’t like the newsreaders: he was warm, funny and erudite, though he wore that erudition very light. He spoke personally, to you. And even if you didn’t care for the music all the time (trust me, that was common on Radio 2 in the 70s and 80s), at least Terry would make you chuckle. I’ve even got a book of his, published back then, Banjaxed, which collects up a bunch of stuff from those shows, including gems like the continuing story of the DG’s vestal virgins on the roof of TV Centre, as well as long running exchanges between himself and the public. The thing to notice about the book is that it marks a real connection between the man and his audience, but on a slightly slower burn  in a the days before the instant response of electronic and social media.  When that came though, in his second breakfast spell, he rolled with it. And it worked.

His passing marks a significant point. Ironically, as an Irishman, Wogan signified and embodied many of the values of the Reithian BBC.  But he was an oddly and gently subversive presence too, as others have said at length. In my head I think of him running slightly parallel to Peel in that way, always ready with the pin, ready to puncture some kind of ridiculous pomposity . I know it’s a bit of a cliché to talk about his loss like losing a family member, but this is someone who was invited into your home almost every day in the formative years of my life.  The reason I laugh at some things the way I do is down to him, as is some of the way I look at the world.  Wogan was a symbol of what the BBC should be in people’s lives: a warm, wise, witty steady influence. The BBC will miss him deeply, and I think we all will too.

Bill Bailey: Limboland



And so the beardy one stops his (now returned) tour bus in Scarborough. This was the first of a two night sojourn by the seaside, the timing of which is a shame because the weather was so shitty; such is life.

The format for a Bill B show is fairly consistent really: beady man comes on stage and talks for a while, playing some musical instruments in between chatty bits. You’ll be pleased to know that he hasn’t really fiddled with the format overly much.

The show has a fairly loose structure, with components you know are pretty much the foundations of the piece. This time there was his family’s trip to see the Northern Lights, and the story of how a starstruck Bill, and his mate, have a disastrous meeting with Paul McCartney. The latter one especially is hysterical. But there are other smart bits, such as the “build your own Moby song”, using samples taken from the audience. This is a thing that can work form venue to venue, but can have nice little twists (like on this occasion having one sample have a tiny giggle at its end, which seems to amuse Bill inordinately)

But the beauty of a performer like Bill is that he can riff off the audience. And when you have an audience like Wednesday’s with some slight strangeness going on, you can tell when he’s getting into it and having some fun. There’s a running theme that developed about the presence of seagulls when fluff/feathers and the like drop down onto him from above.

There are also fun musical moments, as one might expect: a death metal rendition of Postman Pat; the obligatory Scarborough Fair (done à al Rammstein), and some confusion about some of the suggestions for musical accompaniment for walking (including my own heckle of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, which I have actually used for walking, and avoiding the cracks on the pavement).

So, a good night had by all. Can’t ask for more than that.

Hurrah for Harry and Paul!

Harry & Paul: Pre-show

Harry & Paul: Pre-show

Harry and Paul have been around for a long time. According to them, around 25 years, in fact. And with a body of work that big to work from, you’d assume that there’d be a juicy variety of material to put on show on a fairly mild November 5. And you’d be right.

The emphasis is certainly on the older stuff, which means we get to see Lee 7 Lance, Loadsamoney, Stavros and even (the now widowed) Wayne Slob.

Harry & Paul: Interval

Harry & Paul: Interval

But we do get newer stuff too, like Charles and Sheridan, the surgeons; Mr Cholmondely-Warner; Marcus, flogging his tat (“maaaazung) Mwah! Mwah!”). It’s been a while since I saw the Fast Show tour, and this time I was a lot closer to the stage (only half a dozen rows, but thankfully enough to avoid the two bits or audience participation that happened),  What this means is that you can see the performers much more clearly, and can get much more of a feel for pacing and mood than if you’re further back riding the laughter waves and screen-watching.  And this is good, because they were clearly enjoying themselves. They were certainly trying to get each other to corpse earlier in the show, and there are a couple of really good throwaway gags that repeat during the course of proceedings.

The other thing to note is that Johnny Depp is quite right: Whitehouse is utterly phenomenal. His range is something to behold, from the obvious stuff, to my favourite sketch of the evening, the Travelling Salesman and the Pub Landlady, which was a feature of their most recent series. The live version manages to capture some of the rather creepy atmosphere in a fairly clever way, which I won’t spoil.

There are some nice filmed inserts, in particular one for Kevin the Teenager, and things zip along at a nice pace.

It’s nice to see them on the road together. And I got to neck a couple of quick (and perfectly acceptable) hints in the Percy afterwards, which is something I’ve not had chance to do for many a year.


Jean Michel Jarre has not released an album of original material since 2007’s Teo and Tea, an album whose reception was, to say the very least , mixed. Even Jarre himself seems to have mixed feelings about it, thinking of it almost like a mid-life crisis during an intensely turbulent period in his personal affairs.

Now, after nearly five years of work and preparation comes Electronica: vol 1 The Time Machine. Let’s dispense with any contrived sense of suspense immediately: this is a good album. A very good album indeed. The main reason why is that it’s surprising, and takes some creative risks, which is unusual, not to mention refreshing, for an artist at this stage of his career. It also says something about the overdue appraisal he seems to be getting that the list of collaborators on this album are pretty much top league players, with some big names in there, as well as some hip young guns.

For an album like this, perhaps the best way to talk about it is by looking at each track individually. So here goes:

  1. The Time Machine (Boys Noize)
    In all honesty, I don’t know much about Boys Noize, but I do like this track. There are, as in a few other pieces here, subtle (or not so subtle callbacks to earlier Jarre works), so here there are hints of the early parts of Oxygen, Equinoxe and sounds that are faintly reminiscent of Rendezvous’s laser harp.
  2. Glory (M83)
    Glory was the first track to surface when the album was announced. And at the time it felt joyful, but a little slight.  Now, in its rightful place in the running order on the album it sits perfectly. The chanting chorus that hits you is one of the Jarre hallmarks: the killer hook
  3. Close Your Eyes (Air)
    A personal favourite. During interviews Jarre has said that Air, like him, do electronic music in a very French, impressionistic way, coming from the influences of composers like Debussy and Satie. This track confirms that, with its ever so slightly sad piano and a progression of sounds (starting with simple oscillators, to a sound produced by an iPad to close) woven together from the history of electronic music. It’s stately, ethereal and very Air-like. This is the song of the synthesiser, and they articulate its siren call.
  4. Automatic (Parts 1 and 2) (Vince Clarke)

    This track screams “80s!” at me in the best way. It’s really easy to imagine it rendered as an 8bit chip tune, part 1 being used by Ocean as game loading music for a Commodore 64, with part 2 being the actual game soundtrack. Cracking stuff and, as you might expect from two artists who deal in melody, again: killer hooks.
  5. If…! (Little Boots)
    I really like this track. I was aware of Little Boots, but only in a fairly peripheral way. But this is really rather lovely, and reminds me of CHVRCHES too. Her voice is rather delicate on this, especially in the verses, and it works.
  6. Immortals (Fuck Buttons)
    Another favourite. I imagine this on some documentary soundtrack playing behind images of flying over ancient Inca cities, slowly panning over the built of Cuzco, or even the lines of Nazca. It reminds me faintly of 1991’s under-appreciated Globe Trotter, from the Images album, almost feeling like a descendant of that song. But then, I got the steer on Fuck Buttons from earlier things JMJ had said about them. I really like some of their stuff, so I was excited when I heard that this was going to be one the album’s collaborations. And it hasn’t disappointed me.
  7. Suns Have Gone (Moby)
    At the moment, this is probably the one I least like on the album. Which sounds fairly harsh because i do like it, but right now I like others more. There’s lots to like about this. Moby’s goal delivery is ever so slightly detached and understated, which together with the hint of Wendy Carlos/Terry Riley bubbling rhythm under the melody make me think for some reason of Berlin period Bowie, like Low. I may grow to like this more than I already do, but for now other treats appeal more.
  8. Conquistador (Gessafelstein)
    Another quite cinematic piece of music. This one, in a more literal sense makes me think of the Spaniards, landing in North America, trekking across sun-scorched desert and wide plains, looking for gold and people to pass smallpox onto. I actually prefer the JMJ remix version that appeared on the EP released earlier, as it has a more rounded and richer sounding bass. There is quite an epic sweep to things. It’s certainly made me go and look for more of Gessafelstein’s own stuff, which has been illuminating.
  9. Travelator Pt 2 (Pete Townshend)
    For the fans who’ve already heard these tracks, this one has been quite divisive. It’s certainly an acquired taste, but also definitely grower. It deliberately echoes some of the influences Jarre thinks the Who brought, with burbling sequencing sitting underneath Townshend’s rather anguished vocal and a rather excellently thumping dance beat. Batshit bonkers, to be honest, which is exactly why I love it so much. It is apparently the middle part of a trilogy, which may find its way out as an EP later this year.
  10. Zero Gravity (Tangerine Dream)
    Because Edgar Froese died soon after this piece was complete, it turns out that this is the last piece of music by Tangerine Dream. In contrast to French Electronica, Jarre did say that he felt the German style was a bit less organic, and more mechanistic in nature. There are certainly signs of that here; it does feel quite spartan and stripped down in places, but it works very,very well. The minimalism gives it a nice sense of space (pun intended). Of the initial bunch of tracks released tot he public earlier this year, this was the one I liked most at the time. And I still think it’s fitting epitaph for Froese.
  11. Rely On Me (Laurie Anderson)
    Another favourite of mine. This is the their track that JMJ nd Anderson have worked on together. The first was 1984’s Diva, from the album Zoolook (one of the key electronic albums of the 1980s, as far as I’m concerned); the second was on Metamorphoses’ Je Me Souviens.  JMJ has said he loves working with her, and you can see why. This is, in essence, a love song between  a phone and its user. Anderson’s voice is a warm, enveloping, seductive presence. In fact, her voice is so wonderful, I want Apple to ask her to be the voice of Siri.
  12. Stardust (Armin van Buuren)
    It would be easy to dismiss this as a fairly simple banging Eurodance anthem. And yes, it is definitely that, with anthemic stabs, then the breakdown, to be followed by the hands-in-the-air climax. But, as ever, Jarre’s ear for a killer hook works its way in there. And of course it is indicative of one stream of the modern character of electronic music. It certainly got a good reception when AvB debuted it at festival during the summer. And t’s certainly good music to drive to.
  13. Watching You (3D – Robert del Naja)
    Of the tracks that were released earlier in the year, this was the one I liked least at the time. And I’m not sure why, because enow I really like it.  There is as certain fidgety darkness lent to it by 3D, but repeated listening certainly reminds me in places of Moon Machine, a track that didn’t make it onto Zoolook, and ended up as a B-side to Fourth Rendezvous. I think it’s the slightly clattering percussion in the first part of the track that does it.
  14. A Question of Blood (John Carpenter)
    Very Carpenteresque this one. And I’d love to see the movie this would soundtrack! If you’ve listened to any of Carpenter’s music, you’ll know he has a taste for expansive, sweeping keyboards, and a more than slightly Gothic sense of style. This is no exception: dark, brooding, atmospheric. It’s really rather good indeed. It also reminds me of older Jarre work, such as a couple of tracks from Deserted Palace. A treat
  15. The Train and the River (Lang Lang)
    To close the album, something slightly different and perhaps surprising (though perhaps not in the context of the previous tracks). A heady mix of the classical, a little of the jazz inflection of JMJ’s boyhood, and some echoes df recent work like Paris Bourges (which also cropped up in a slightly different form in the 2002 Aero show), and is probably a result of the percussive train rhythm that runs through the track . Yet again, there are little JMJ callbacks, like the spangly RV5 fragments and laser harp, the droning bass notes of Oxygène 5, and the Equinoxe 4 phrases. Then, as things wind down, there’s just the hint of the Band in the Rain at the fade, which is really rather lovely.

All through the album little callbacks and “jokes” are inserted into the flow for the careful listener to notice and smile. It is a fairly eclectic wander through the landscape of electronic music And what is great is that, although JMJ’s imprint is on all of these tracks, they all reflect the character of the collaborators too. And each collaborator fits. They all bring something fresh, interesting and different to the table. Better yet, this is only the first volume. The second volume supposedly has Gary Numan, Yello‘s Boris Blank and possibly Sebastien Tellier in the tank. If this is any indication, I can’t wait.

Michael Palin : Thirty Years


pre-show at the Town Hall

Middlesbrough, Michael Palin once claimed, was a place that had remained univisted in his many travels. Last night that situation was rectified. And seemingly he rather liked it (or at least didn’t break into outright shrinking disgust).

Middlesbrough Towm Hall was pretty much full (of people of a certain age it must be said). Perhaps, he mused, all the younger folk had decided to forego him for the Peace gig at the neighbouring Empire.

I will admit to MP being a bit of a hero of mine. When I launched my abortive teenage bid to assault the bastions of Oxbridge privilege, Brasenose College Oxford was the one I chose, purely on the grounds that it was Palin’s alma mater. and when Peter Ustinov passed away, I submitted a nomination for Palin to be chancellor of Durham University, on the grounds that he was a man of the world (not in the Nudge, Nudge sense, but in the internationalist one). So seeing him alone, after seeing the Pythons last year, seemed an obvious thing to do.

Most of Palin’s schtick, if one can call it that, seems grounded in the idea of him being the ‘nice’ Python, and certainly the one who is most diffident and self-effacing. If anything, this show seems to reinforce that image. There are lots of great stories, some about Python, some of his travels, but all delivered in the beautifully low-key style of a man who really can’t believe his luck that he’s made a living getting paid for things he loved doung, and that he’s got away with it for so long. A key theme always seems to be the self-doubt that, at the start of most projects, anything he does will ever work, matched only by the surprise that it did, and the wonder at how bad he is at predicting it.

The stories are interspersed with clips, taking in early Python, through the movies, Ripping Yarns (time to break out that DVD again, methinks) and memories of worling George Harrison, Spike Milligan and Kevin Kiline among others, as well as being pranked by Cleese while filming in Finland. He is rightly proud of other work, such as his role in GBH, his film American Friends amd his recent role in Remember Me (which comes up in the brief Q&A at the end of the evening).

In fact, when you look back, the 71 year old Palin has had a wide and varied career, but its all related in such a beautifully unprepossessing way that’s its not until you’ve got to the end of proceedings that you realise what a talent he really is, and what a body of work he has

It was a wonderful night: funny, thoughtful and in keeping with the man. I didn’t really want to drag the “National Treasure” cliche out here but, well, he is.

English no more

The latest in an occasional series of doggerel from my own diseased hand.

And, yes, I know that this is “English”, but I’ve just come back to this after finding a fragment I wrote last year, around the time of the IndyRef, so the idea of Englishness was foremost in my mind at the time. Given recent events, the reactionary, brutish part of the British nation seems to be be more English than anything else, so I thought it was appropriate to leave it there.

What’s happened to England?
The tolerant and free
Now you’ll sing when you’re told to
Then dance on TV

You’ll read what they sell you
You’ll watch what you’re told
Then they all cry “press freedom”
And hack people’s phones

So, screw the poor!
Hammer the weak!
These are the habits
the new English keep

The banks took our money
We’ll be paying for years
We’ve mortgaged our future
They’ve preyed on our fears

To the unions they said,
“Boys, you’ve had your day!
How dare you strike
for a fair day’s pay!”

So, screw the poor!
Hammer the weak!
These are the habits
the new English keep

The “poor” are whining
The system’s in tatters
But no one is poor –
at least no one who matters!

You’ll know your place
And bow to your betters
And they’ll try to convince you
“All in it together!”

So, screw the poor!
Hammer the weak!
These are the habits
the new English keep

And then there’s the cripples
Who just won’t shut up
You’re all fit for work, now!
Why don’t you get up?

Never mind if you’re dying
Never mind if you’re dead
You’re all workshy skivers
You’re not worth your bread

So, screw the poor!
Hammer the weak!
These are the habits
the new English keep

England’s full!
There’s no room here!
They’re overrunning us
Year on year

Send ’em all back!
The bombs aren’t that bad!
They’re here for the money
Send them back to Assad!

They’re screwing the poor
And hammering the weak
These are not habits
the English should keep

They are not my people
This is not my land
I am English no more

Stewart Lee: A Room With A Stew

Only a week late, but finally the chance to sit down and write some stuff.

I’ve liked Stewart Lee for a long time, back from the first Fist of Fun episodes I heard on Radio 1 in the early 1990s (I wasn’t really aware of goodies like Lionel Nimrod or their work on On The Hour then), but this was the first time I’d actually managed to see Stew in the flesh. Just a week before I’d seen his erstwhile partner Richard Herring for a third time (very funny as per, incidentally), so was looking forward to a bit of slightly trainspotter-y completism.

This show was all about working up material in half-hour or so chunks for the fourth series of Comedy Vehicle, which is due to air later this year, As a result it differed fairly markedly in pacing and structure from a usual stage show. But in many ways this was not too important. The only real test was: was he funny. Well, yes, Yes he was. Very, very funny indeed.

If you’ve listened to any/much of Lee’s material before, you’ll realise that it’s a fairly complex, dense multi-layered affair. There are several layers of irony and misdirection, starting with who this “Stewart Lee” person is in the first place. Most of the time, he is “the comedian Stewart Lee”, an avatar of all the imagined neuroses and petty prejudices both we and he imagine he lives with. When he puts this carapace on he deals in rhythm and repetition, so that a riff about the infamously splenetic Rod Liddle is strung out into an hysterical list of stains (trust me, it works). At the start of each segment, there’s a brief glance to the watch to check timing, and he’s off, goading the audience at their inability to laugh at the correct jokes at the right times, and missing all the best bits.

Between sequences, he breaks the fourth wall a bit and stops being “the comedian Stewart Lee”, to speak to the audience in more relaxed terms, talking about the last time he was in town (at an open air gig with Jack Whitehall), the theatre space in the Spa complex, and also the jackets in the dressing rooms for Billy Pearce’s summer season. It looks like he’s actually enjoying the experience. The audience certainly is, and is in on the joke of this confrontational persona he creates, constantly telling us it’s not supposed to be funny, and that he doesn’t want laughter, he wants knowing nods and sardonic chuckles to measure his worth. It doesn’t work; we laugh like drains. It’s great to see a true craftsman at work, someone who is properly, properly good at what he does. It’ll be interesting to see how much the finished material differs from what he showed us. I look forward to it.