Monday, 9 September 2013

Breaking Bad Theory - a quantum leap

Spoiler alert: I wrote this after viewing episode 13 of series 5 of Breaking Bad. To be on the safe side, do not read on unless you've got that far. For those who haven't seen the show at all, there'll be very little here that is meaningful.

One of the best things about this show - and in particular about this final set of eight episodes - is that one cannot help but ask "How is it going to end?" Every time the credits pop up we are recalibrating our expectations: Hank on the toilet seat; Jesse with the petrol can; Neo-Nazi desert shoot-out. Each week we think we've got some idea about how this story is going to play out, and each week something happens that we never saw coming. Our plans are scuppered almost as badly as they are for the characters themselves.

Though my hit rate for guessing what's going to happen next is as low as it can be, it never stops me from plotting the rest of the series out in my head. I'm going to give myself a fighting chance here by making only broad strokes.

My latest (and perhaps final) outlandish prediction is that Vince Gilligan's show that is famously about turning Mr Chips into Scarface will attempt to change the audience's mind about Walter White again - he'll try to make us empathise with this ex-chemitry teacher once more.

By the time of the flash forward to Walt celebrating his 52nd birthday, he will have lost everything - Skyler, Walt Jr, Holly, his home, even the car wash. His potential allies (Saul, Jesse, Hank, Lydia, whoever) are either dead, dead against him, or otherwise totally ambivalent to Walt's fate.

He will have realised that whilst he was pursuing financial security for his family, he has lost what makes a good family in the first place - trust, integrity, safety from harm, love. He will still have his money, but no one to give it to. So what does he do? We already know what this man does when faced with the fear of losing his life and leaving his family destitute. What will he do when he's already lost everything, including that family?

He will be tracking down the Neo Nazis and offing them. And he'll not be stopping there. He'll be acting as a bounty hunter, killing drug dealers and manufacturers before the cancer takes him. With any luck, he'll be able to tell himself before he dies that he is a good man, and that the world (or at least new Mexico) was better off for having him in it for a little over 52 years.

In his vain attempt to put right what he had made wrong, he'll be like an ultra-tragic Sam Beckett from Quantum Leap. He'll be travelling around, using his massive brain for good by killing those in the industry he was once a part of. He'll convince himself that he's tying up loose ends, like he always has been.

He'll still be Walt, his own worst enemy. He'll still be a victim of his own hubris, thinking that he has the right answer for every situation. But along with the arrogance there will be at least some humility. He will carry on trying to make up for his past transgressions, but will know that, like Quantum Leap's Sam, he can never return home. All he can do with his little time left is try to make things a little less bad.

One mini-prediction: Walt doesn't die. How fitting it would be that a character so acutely aware of their own mortality, in a show so filled with death, should survive, only to have a thoroughly empty existence. A tragic end, to be sure. But we all knew at least that much from the very start, didn't we? This was not going to end well.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

A response to ‘10 reasons it’s OK to use your mobile at a gig'

I like a good argument. So when I saw this article's headline, I leapt at it. I was ready to have my ideas challenged. Surely, the only reason it’s OK to use a mobile at a gig is to call the emergency services (perhaps after someone has been assaulted for using their phone at a gig).
As I read Wendy Fonarow’s list, it struck me how well it consolidated my reasons for why it is not OK to use your phone at a concert of any kind. I don’t think I’ve read a piece that has convinced me of the opposite view as much as this piece.

Let’s look at her reasons.

1. Things are supposed to be distracting

Fonarow argues that distraction is the reason to go to a gig - to be dazzled by one aural-visual delight after another, each spectacle more brain-frazzling than the last. That sea of backlit screens in front of you makes the distraction more frequent and more frenetic, and therefore better.

No. Gigs are supposed to be the exact opposite. Not distracting, but absorbing. I want to be hypnotised, focused, taken away from my all-too-usually mundane life. I want to be part of a crowd that is being pulled along in the same direction. A mobile-user being absorbed in anything other than themselves are likely to hear the distinctive clink of their head on the inside of their self-imposed bubble.

2. There are worse ways to watch a show

Fonarow attempts to defend the oft-repeated criticism that there is little to be gained from watching a show pixelated through a tiny screen by saying there are worse ways to watch, such as relying on the big screens obsessed with closeups of “singers and females in the audience”. How an iPhone at the back of a field is going to get anything better is beyond me. I’m all for attacking the obsession with frontmen and encouraging more screen time for the drummer, but filming the backs of heads doesn’t forward the cause. And if the venue is at fault for not making it easy to see the band, maybe you should go to Sheffield Arena less, and the Leadmill more.

3. It’s not about making a great recording of the event

“Some people think that if they didn’t take a photo, it didn’t happen.” As special as you might think it is, U2 doing a third encore isn’t Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. Perhaps a reliance on mobile phones to “actuate experiences” is a problem solved by not using your phone so much. Arguing that mobiles at gigs should be encouraged because people need status-enhancing content is like saying that my addiction to fatty, salty foods can be aided by bigger bags of crisps.

4. It’s a way of communicating with friends

Apparently, people “just want to let their current network of friends know what they are doing.” A tenner says your current network of friends can wait an hour and a bit before you dazzle them with your latest dispatches from the field.

“Before mobile phones you could not leave your friends at a festival or concert.” Yes, you could! Two of my favourite Glastonbury memories involve deliberately going off on my own for a bit. A friend and I parted so he could see the Flaming Lips and I could see Leftfield. When we reunited we talked into the night about how good a time we’d had. To this day we still debate about which might have been better. The other time was skipping out on my friends because they weren’t massive fans of Radiohead. I wanted to be up front, surrounded by my own kind, not listening to a cacophony of philistines moan about the lack of guitars. “When are they gonna play Creep?” Never, if we’re lucky.

5. Wish you were here?

Ah, yes. Fomo, or ‘fear of missing out’. A more prevalent and corrosive social phenomenon is ‘fear of appearing like you wish you were elsewhere’ (the acronym won’t catch on, alas). Take a look at that posse posing for the camera, doing their best happy gurns. Within seconds of the phone being put away, they’re back to moaning about their legs hurting and wondering when they can ditch the guy who’s been hanging around since Jools Holland. Be happy where you are, or go somewhere else. Don’t worry about convincing others that they’re having a worse time than you.

6. It’s sometimes the only way to make yourself heard

Texting at gigs to the person next to you? Really? Going to loud gigs is one of the few places we can just shut up for a minutes and listen. And as for bar orders by text, if you get me Jack Daniel’s, or Coke, or a Shirley Temple, or Budweiser (dear me!), don’t expect to get a text from me telling you where I’m standing now.

7. Phone use makes the musicians step it up

Who has ever judged a band on shaky footage taken on smartphones? The people who watch these things are people who were there and are checking whether they’re in the videos themselves, or those who couldn’t make it who are desperately searching for decent clips. Both ambitions are wildly optimistic. It’s the sound quality of the recordings, not the performances, that make people turn off before the end.

8. We all get to have a conversation

Have your conversations in cafes and pubs, not at gigs. If something can’t wait, go to the back of the room. If you want to watch a hashtag develop for an event, save your money and don’t go to the gig - just watch your screen somewhere else.

9. It alleviates boredom

Our need for continuous networking needs to be interrupted, not pandered to. Perhaps, if you put that thing down for more than a minute you might notice that there is more to what you’ve paid to see than the mere surface. This network that people are so fond of wants the clicks, not the attention. It’s in the interests of sites like Facebook for us to not pay attention to any of the content too much. The more clicks made, the more advertising finds its target. The band, on the other hand, want nothing other than your attention. If you can’t do that, get out of the way of people who can.

10. It might annoy the band to be filmed on a phone

If you don’t like the band and you want to annoy them, you’d be better off not going to the gig at all. There’s nothing worse for a band than an audience failing to acknowledge their inflated sense of self. I’m sure the mobile users can relate to that, at least.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Breaking Bad Poem 1

Hank putting on Jesse’s seatbelt.
Hank telling Marie that Jesse was a little ‘keyed-up’.
Jesse looking at the picture of Walt dressed as Father Christmas.
Jesse perusing the shelves at Hank and Marie’s.
Picking up a book on the Dutch.
Jesse spitting out ‘Mr White’.

In order to avoid spoiling Breaking Bad for those that have not seen the latest episode (Series 5, episode 12), I am putting my poem here instead of on Twitter.


Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The King of Limbs: the 15th impression

This is a Radiohead record.

Not as obvious as it sounds, especially as there's been much noise about how The King Of Limbs has a lot in common with Thom Yorke's solo record, The Eraser. But the more I listen to this new record, the less it resembles that old one. Where The Eraser had a clean feel, this has a murky one. It's like looking into a body of water and thinking you can see the bottom, but then realising that what you are focusing on is nothing more than a cloud of silt that's been kicked up by some unseen, unknown creature.

This first struck me when listening to 'Morning Mr Magpie' for the 15th time (good ol' iTunes and its play counter, eh?). What initially attracted me to this, my favourite one of the eight tracks, was the shuffling and persistent drumming. But I now find myself getting lost in all those scary little sounds that start deep down before billowing to the surface (around 1m34s).

The first impression of the entire album was dominated by the drums. My favourites were those that did more than just nod to a relatively recent influence, Flying Lotus, with their almost undulating percussiveness. The aforementioned 'Morning Mr Magpie' and opener 'Bloom' did bode well. If the whole album is like this, I thought, I will be very pleased indeed. A whole Radiohead album made up of similar sounding tracks? Ha!

On the second half of the record we have 'Codex' and 'Give Up The Ghost'. Little or no percussion at all! To the bottom of the pile they went. And it's taken a while to come to like them. I started to notice things. The subtle horns toward the end of 'Codex' make the song. It makes the track swell and then come to rest in a very satisfying manner. The previously unnoticed Neil Youngish sound of 'Give Up The Ghost' makes me listen to the song in a new, more appreciative way. And, like every other track on the record, there's more going on than one might perceive on the first couple of listens: there is at least a second guitar, and maybe a bass in there too; there are the backing vocals; there is the smacking of the acoustic guitar; there are the strings (like the horns on 'Codex', they do little but more than enough); and finally there is Yorke's voice, an instrument that hasn't been utilised in such a way since his emoting days on The Bends and OK Computer. I rarely listen to either of those records these days, finding that they remind me of those Radiohead fans that bemoan the band's adoption of new instruments and sounds at the expense of rocking guitars and falsetto vocals. I'd left that sound behind, preferring by far the new directions the band went in. But hearing Yorke's voice again like this is nothing less than a simple joy.

A track that seems to annoy many posters on fansites is 'Feral'. Just over three minutes of glitch-like electronica with no lyrics or melody. A non-song. It's the kind of track that Radiohead have done before - 'Fitter Happier' on OK Computer; 'Treefingers' on Kid A; 'Hunting Bears' on Amnesiac. I like these tracks. I like how they help pace the albums they're on. I also like them in themselves, how their sound is like nothing else on their respective longplayers - indeed how they sound little like anything else in their discography, yet still fit. 'Feral' perhaps sits easier on The King Of Limbs than these previous tracks do on their records. But it still has that samba-like rhythm. Nothing like they've done before, yet it still sounds like them.

There are so many other things that make this unmistakably a Radiohead record - the great song order and album structure and how all the songs slot so perfectly together, the nature of the release, the musicality of the album title, the artwork - that I don't know how I could have not heard it for what it was sooner. I was not disappointed when I first heard the record, but I was wondering if there was another record where all five members were so evidently present. I was wrong. They're all there on this record, but you just have to listen carefully. Fortunately, it's as easy to listen carefully to a new Radiohead record as it has ever been.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

New Year Resolution

At the new year, in the hope of making a change that I could manage to fulfil satisfactorily, I decided to resolve to do something I love more often. Sure, I'll try to be more healthy, move more, eat less, do the housework more regularly. But 'm not going to embarrass myself or let myself down by making it a resolution to do any of those things throughout the year like some kind of decent human being.

The resolution is to see more live music, with a gig a week as the rough target.

I saw no live music last week, so I've already got failure out of the way. Time to relax and get on with it. Back on track next week with two gigs in one week.

In the first week I went to see Comet Gain at the Lexington on 5th January with Andy.
They were supported by Veronica Falls and The Loft.

I'm not that familiar with Comet Gain. Andy is quite keen on their music, so it was on his recommendation that I chose to go. A band one has to know, it seems to me. They played well enough and I remember enjoying it. But any further impression they made at the time has been lost in ten days.
The Loft were fairly good, but they were another band that made no lasting impression on me. An 80s band with 80s fans who'd been waiting decades to hear their favourite b-side. They sounded like b-sides.

But the opening act, Veronica Falls, were something. I've seen them a couple of times before. This was the best time. A simple sound that was demonstrated perfectly on a lovingly faithful cover of the Velvet Underground's What Goes On. Tambourine resting on the floor tom. Guitarist with fringe over her eyes. Bassist at the dark right of the stage.

I'd gladly see all bands again. But only the Veronica Falls with baited breath.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Back to Back to the Future

For those who have not seen, spoiler alert (shame on you)

I took the afternoon off to watch Back To The Future today. My local cinema tried to keep me away by only showing it during work hours so it could keep its sole screen free in the evening to show The Social Network (modern film about modern things - boo!), but I have a very understanding boss. It being the half term holiday I was a little worried loads of screaming kids to be in to see it (a poor prejudice), but there were only two child tickets sold, according to box office man. The rest of the audience was what you might call 'older children'. Like me, I guess.

I've seen the film countless times, so know the story as good as anybody in my generation. I wasn't old enough to appreciate it in 1985, but being the youngest of lots of siblings meant that it (along with the Star Wars films, Indiana Jones and Clint Eastwood's entire career) was a major part of my cultural education. Despite my familiarity with the film, I was struck by how clever and how funny it is. Cleverer and funnier than I could remember. When I was growing up, I was probably more impressed with the cool set pieces (the skateboarding, the guitar playing, etc) than with the comic drama being played out by the central characters Marty, his parents and Biff the school bully.

It's a comedy! I never realised! Obviously, I laughed at certain bits when I was younger, but always regarded it as a cool adventure film about time travel. It is, but that's not the important bit. It's a comedy. And like all good comedies it is about the main characters being stuck or trapped somewhere. Marty McFly is stuck with a family not fully in charge of their own destiny, with a father who's incessantly pushed around by Biff. And it seems to be heriditary, with Marty being written off as a 'slacker' by his teacher, just like his old man.

I often regard my English teacher as the man who introduced to me the magic of irony (yes, it is magic. Anything calling itself irony that isn't even slightly magical is usually something unpleasant, like sarcasm or plain old lying). But watching Back To The Future today has made me realise that in getting all those jokes in the film meant I understood what irony is, I just didn't know it yet. If the writing wasn't so sharp and neat and lean in this film, all the coincidences would come across as corny or stupid. But each one is met by a laugh or a wry smile of recognition from the viewer. There is nothing superfluous in the script. And there is nothing left out. It is perfect.

In the past I have argued that the two sequels are just as good as the first film, but now I am not so sure. They are entertaining romps, no doubt, but the stories are not so neat. I suspect that the coincidences will come across to me as a little corny and maybe a little stupid. The thing that will carry them through will be the warm performances of the central characters, a warmth just as prevalent in the original.

One thing I've always regarded as a plus for the second film is its darkness: I've argued that this darkness makes it a more interesting film. Wrong. It is an interesting film that happens to be very dark. Also, what that opinion implies is that the first film is without darkness. Wrong again. His mother fancies him! Doc Brown frequently refuses to listen to Marty's warnings about his terrible fate! Biff almost molests (or worse) Lorraine! The dance band smoke weed! How much darkness do you want?

Compare and contrast this with Star Wars. The Empire Strikes Back is widely regarded as a better film than its predecessor. This has nothing to do with darkness and everything to do with writing. The first film is a corny matinee movie; blockbuster nonsense. There is nothing inherently wrong with that; it has its place. But Empire has plot. It has better drawn characters. It has a major twist. It has genuine tension and suspense. The first film is a mildly entertaining firework display. In comparison, Empire is a fucking bonfire. It has magnificent glowing embers.

Anyway, back to Back to the Future. If you've seen it a thousand times, see it again. On the big screen. Walking up to the cinema, I thought to myself: what am I doing? Paying to see a film I've seen so many times before? When I could be a work, earning a living? I know this film like the back of my hand!

I came out dazed. It truly felt like I was looking at the back of my hand for the first time. It is a magnificent back of the hand. It really is.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Sorting my record collection

I recently sorted my record collection, both vinyl and CDs, back into a simple alphabetical order (then chronological by release within artist). i've been meaning to do it since I moved a while a ago. A long while ago. I've since moved once more.

I am sometimes tempted to sort them into subcategories, but have always resisted or managed to convince myself that too many records would sit uncomfortably in two or more different categories, or most comfortably outside all groups together. Besides, I get a little perverse kick out of seeing my box set of Petula Clark sit between Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and London Calling by the Clash. And for the Cs to carry on through Clogs, Clouddead, Jarvis Cocker, the Congos and Ry Cooder. Other times you have things nestled together quite happily, like Aidan Moffat and Mogwai.

I bristle at that bit in High Fidelity when the idea of an alphabetised collection is scoffed at; it is then revealed that he is sorting them into autobiographical order. Clearly the actions of a man having a breakdown. In my teens i tried doing that and failed. I had just twenty or so CDs at the time.

The CDs fit happily into six wine crates stacked like bricks against the living room wall. I would need more crates, were it that there's a fair few stored under the bed, but let's not talk about those. I'm not sure if my CD collection will grow much more. They are dying, if not already dead. I'm a little sad - in my youth I dreamed of walls lined with shelves rammed full of them. But I can use their demise as an excuse to concentrate on the vinyl. I cannot envisage falling out of love with the physical artefact enough to be content with my hard drive storing zeros and ones of sound, with nothing but short, cold text and a tiny image of the cover to identify it.

Record collections are documents - personal anthologies of love and luck. I could hear almost any piece of music I care to think of right now by taking a few short seconds of my time to find it on the web. But the music I spend time with is stacked in the corner, waiting. And I suspect it will always wait. And will always follow me from building to building, from room to room. Just as I searched from store to store, from market to charity shop.