The Various pieces for Uncut, Melody Maker, NME, The Guardian, from the 90s and Noughties, ranging from music to film to comedy, then back to music. And film. And comedy.

Saturday, May 8th, 2004

Stan And Ollie

For an absurdly paltry  £150, you can now acquire The Laurel & Hardy Collection. This comprises 21 DVDs, 68 hours worth of material covering Stan and Ollie’s classic period, circa 1929-1939. They first made their reputation in the silent era but were among the few comedians of that era who actually benefitted from the awkward transition into talkies. Although they were quite effective in the medium of cranked-up slapstick, especially when involved in mutual bouts of wanton demolition with James Finlayson (who uttered the first “Doh!” decades before The Simpsons), their comedic relationship came into its own via the (albeit not exactly quickfire) dialogue of H M Walker.

There are many comedians whom I admire, a tiny handful whom I love. I’m not alone in loving Laurel & Hardy, who inspire a unique and lingering affection. Much as their characters were generally treated with indifference, even cruelty by a cold, Thirties world, so during their lifetimes and posthumously, they’ve not always been afforded the respect and due care they deserve. Summarily dismissed by Hal Roach in the late Thirties, they spent their remaining years shunted from studio to studio, none of whom were sensitive to the chemistry between the pair. Hence a slew of films made during the Forties which you simply wish had never been made, especially Atoll K in which Stan Laurel looks conspicuously and desperately unwell.

By the Fifties, Stan and Ollie enjoyed a revival when their 20 minute shorts were screened on the emerging new medium of television. They even made a forced and reluctant appearance on This Is Your Life. However, by this time the pair were too ill to properly to enjoy or take advantage of a retrospective wave of adulation.

Oliver Hardy died in 1957, aged just 62, in unmerciful circumstances – ironically, he weighed just 120 pounds when he expired. Stan Laurel passed in 1965 after a similarly protracted and painful illness. Although their comedies have been frequently repeated and televised since their deaths, broadcasts and reissues have either been uninterrupted or unsatisfactory. In the Eighties, a dispute over copyright involving a German company meant that it became impossible to show Laurel & Hardy repeats for some years. They were also the victims of colourisation, a ghastly concept introduced when some executive halfwit panicked and market research which suggested that younger Americans tended to click right past anything black and white when channel surfing. The colourised versions are extraneously available on this DVD reissue – one of the extras consists of a TV “tribute” hosted by Dom DeLuise, uses entirely colourised clips. They are unnaturally awful, sacrilegious, like daubing the face of a corpse in an open coffin pink. Laurel & Hardy were always meant to be black and white, harlequins who didn’t even belong to their own times, yet alone subsequent decades (yet who transcend all geographical and temporal boundaries). Stan especially belongs to some ethereal species of holy fools.

Furthermore, Laurel & Hardy have not always enjoyed the greatest of critical reputations among the superior nibs, who tend to follow the Woody Allen line that The Marx Brothers represent the apex of early 20th century comedy. (And there’s another Reaper, already up, by the way). Certainly, the sheer, tumblefire rapidity of Duck Soup, etc, lends a hipster air to their comedy, suggested that they were thinking twenty blocks ahead of everyone else. Laurel & Hardy’s comedy, by contrast, appears innocent, often painfully slow. Indeed, Stan Laurel, on viewing some of those old Thirties shorts shortly before he died, was appalled at the lethargic pace at which they proceeded, the lengthy pauses in between gags. There was, it turns out, a reason for that – it was to leave time for audiences who were busy rolling in the aisles to recover themselves for the next joke.

However, the slow, almost courtly pace of Laurel & Hardy has other benefits, that far outlive and outweigh perishable puns on “sanity clause”. There’s often the sense that in each new comedy they’re formally enduring a Sisyphus-type ritual of human futility (The Music Box, c’mon!). Stan and Ollie are often vagrants, victims of the depression, in Laughing Gravy, for instance. Just as often, however, they’re regularly prosperous middle class types and in one short, Ollie is on the point of marrying into a wealthy oil family. No matter. Whatever milieu, aspiration or caper they happen to be in, their fortunes systematically unravel over the 20 or so minutes they spend in it. there’s often the sense that it’s the same characters enduring the same fate in a whole series of parallel universes and circumstances.

They set forth in each new short with apparently no idea that they are so inevitably accident prone. In one short, Mae Busch’s character explains to them that her boyfriend has accidentally fallen and locked himself into a trunk. The boys look bemused at how such a bizarre accident might befall anyone before Stan philosophically observes, “It could happen”. There are many things at which the sceptic could cavil in Laurel & Hardyland. The editing, as I’ve mentioned, seems shoddy and naive. Dialogue, especially as delivered by the supporting cast, is often wooden as a spoon, a too clunking reminder of the infancy of the talkies. The verbal gags aren’t always out of the top drawer (I have one friend who quotes the exchange “What are you going to cook? I’m going to cook his goose!” as damning evidence of L&H’s unworthiness). Furthermore, the climactic visual gags, such as Stan falling asleep at the car wheel at the end of “County Hospital” against an obvious screen backdrop might have been the height of SFX in the Thirties but are unsatisfactory nowadays.

No matter. You’re never looking for Laurel & Hardy to top themselves with some bigger comedic spectacular set piece. Whenever you watch them, you’re actually looking to revisit the same things, the same people, the same accidents and failures and punctures, blank looks and exasperation. Much as Christ supposedly suffered and died for our sins, so in a (very) funny kind of way, Ollie goes through his inevitable physical privations for us, as a demonstration of what life’s about; grand folly, puffed up dreams and ambitions of self-betterment brought ever crashing down. There’s where some of the love resides. What is more affecting in all of comedy than those lingering, to-camera glances Ollie delivers as he sits there on his ample backside laid low by adversity or the idiocy of poor Stan, scratching his head or twiddling his thumbs? Those glances count for so much, speak so directly to audiences several decades down the line, to decades of fans as yet unborn. They say, “what are we lumbered with?” and, as one ardent fan recently remarked in discussing her love of Laurel & Hardy, “Yeah, I know how you feel, mate.” Who doesn’t? And to whom are Stan and Ollie not truly mates in the way that Buster, Charlie, Groucho, W.C. never were?

Stan Laurel devised the gags, was the “brains” behind Laurel & Hardy despite his magnificently vacant, dumbcluck persona and this has sometimes prompted a downgrading of Ollie’s contribution, like those people who hiply see The Beatles as consisting in John Lennon alone. The South Bank Show once devoted an entire edition to Stan Laurel, as if to imply that he was the valid, auteur half of the partnership. The myth is that Ollie was a jobbing actor who once the work was done disappeared to the golf course. However, Oliver is so much the better player onscreen, so infinitely subtle and elegant and fastidious in his body language (the more to emphasise his pratfalls) that he commands at least equal respect, as well as dominating the screen time. Biographer Simon Louvish makes much of Oliver Hardy’s Southern backgrounds and even asserts that his elaborate politeness in the L&H shorts, as well as his wounded looks when that politeness is abruptly shunned, carried in it seeds of the hurt suffered by the South when it was shunted by the Yankees in the civil war. That strikes me as a little far fetched but certainly there’s a poignancy in the harshness with which L&H are treated by those whom they come across, how hard their attempts simply to make a modest stake in the world are coldly rebuffed, how they must fall back forever on their own peculiar dependency on one another (indeed, although Oliver is generally seen to be carrying Stan – literally, in The Music Box, you sometimes get the impression that as well as being no less dumb than Stan, Ollie is a little more dependent on him than vice versa).

The accusation of misogyny is often levelled against Stan and Ollie – their wives are generally appalling battleaxes and this admittedly feeds into the fiction perpetuated by tradcom that Western societies are matriarchal. Nonsense, of course. However, in Laurel & Hardy’s case, the oppressiveness of their spouses only serves to emphasise how much the world is against them. There’s a further suggestion, skimming the surface for evidence that Laurel & Hardy are a gay couple. To bluster in denial isn’t to be to be reflexively homophobic. It’s just that, that wasn’t the point. Sure, they shared a bed, a la Morecambe & Wise. There’s actually a prosaic reason for this, as my friend and colleague Chris Bohn observed – this was the Thirties, it was very probably that sharing beds in cheap b&b lodgings like those depicted in Laughing Gravy wasn’t uncommon among itinerent, luckless men roving the country in search of work.

Still, their pathetic, touching relationship is more profound than any mooted (non existent) sexual connotation. It’s about two people in a state of collective loneliness against an America, which in the Thirties especially, presented a hostile climate but which still speaks to anybody trying to walk unconfidently into the cold outdoors and make their modest claim to a small piece of the world. To depict this as a single person would have been too, too sad (Charlie Chaplin is potentially such a person but he compensates by being immensely resourceful in a way L&H are not). As for three – now, you’re in Stooges territory.

What’s most wonderful, most piercingly moving is the way L&H are saddled with each other. They’re opposite in every respect and it’s hard to divine what original contract brought them together (actually, this is explained in an early silent, where Stan turns up in a kilt in America). Ollie’s bulbous, puffed up, a creature of some deeply American tradition of manners which has been brusquely swept aside in the modern age (all right, maybe Louvish does have a point), Stan’s a clueless, skinny immigrant who, unlike most American immigrants has retained the blankness of identity he had when he first landed up on the shores of the USA, has somehow had nothing of that country inscribed on him through experience. Ollie bullies Stan because that’s the privilege of the second least powerful citizen in America (Ollie) to exercise against the least powerful (Stan). Yet, you sometimes suspect that when Stan neglectfully visits on Ollie the slapstick misery of tumbling down rooftops or chimneys, being hoisted out of hospital windows, being poked in the eye, dumped in a full bath, dislodged from a ladder or squeezed into a tiny car, that despite his whimpers of “Well, I couldn’t help it!” Stan subconsciously is exercising a passive-aggressive revenge against his pompous and overbearing companion, a suspicion intensified when he openly revolts against him.

Anyway, you’d be an absolute mug not to buy this sucker (although if you wait a few months they might mark it down to under  £99.99). As for me, I’m going to be, ahem, 68 hours late for work tomorrow . . .

*NB. In July 2010, this boxed set was available on Amazon for £32.77.

Monday, March 8th, 2004

Rock Musicals

(This piece first appeared in The Guardian in March 2004)

It seems that Elvis Presley Enterprises, who own the rights to “Jailhouse Rock” have refused the makers of a musical based on Presley’s life permission to use the song in their show. This news has warmed my cockles, which were in danger of freezing and dropping off altogether. That the producers intend to press ahead with said musical anyway, entitled, er, Jailhouse Rock, speaks megatonnes about the ghastly shamelessness of West End profiteers bent on reducing rock’s legacy to that most loathsome form of mass entertainment, one which makes bear-baiting and dwarf-hurling seem cultivated by comparison – the musical.

The rise of rock musicals has been unremitting, from Abba’s Mamma Mia to Madness’s Our House, to the hellspawn of the reptilian Ben Elton – We Will Rock You and the Rod Stewart-inspired Tonight’s The Night. Cultural weathermen predict a couple more decades of this toxic drizzle, probably involving the same handful of productions, gleefully celebrating British pop’s non-multi-ethnic heritage. What’s baffling about musicals about music is their tautologousness – it’s like baking a pie pie. Worse, however, is that everything that might have been good about original rock/pop subject matter – its fleeting, perfectly glistening moments – is obliterated in these mercenary productions, these Trocaderofications of rock, in which the glorious past becomes the cheap and waxen perma-present.

What’s sad is how many artists, from Suggs to Rod Stewart, are prepared to collaborate in the ruin of their own often already dubious reputations. Have you ever been to a Ben Elton musical? I have. It wasn’t just bad, it was traumatising. I was carrying my jaw around between my knees for days afterwards. I know other critics who have reluctantly attended Elton musicals so that you don’t have including one who, tragically, had to see We Will Rock You twice. No one should have to do that. It’s like sending a shellshocked vet on a second tour of ‘Nam.

What’s so psychologically damaging about witnessing a musical like We Will Rock You is that it shakes your fundamental, anti-Hitlerian belief that people are basically equal. There are droves of fellow human beings paying to watch this rancid baloney – the “plot” is sewn together from old Queen songtitles, involving a Killer Queen from whom the populace are Under Pressure to Break Free, etc. This makes you contemplate whether mankind does indeed contain with its ranks a sub-species, ie those who attend Ben Elton musicals and buy balloons to advertise the fact afterwards. With their hackneyed and retarded notion of the “fabulous”, musicals are vile, chronic, soul-sucking organisms. That they have become the black hole into which rock is now disappearing, in this hideous new era of shifting demographics and cynicism is a matter for universal concern.

Arguably, a musical sinner like Rod Stewart deserves no better fate than Tonight’s The Night. All the same, no one, not even Peter Sutcliffe, deserves to have his life reduced to a musical. Elvis Presley Enterprises, thank for trying to stop the rot.

Wednesday, August 13th, 2003

The American Song-Poem Anthology

(This first appeared in The Guardian in 2003)

So you think it’s only since the rise of manufactured pop, with its endless boy and girl bands, each a more faded and insipid photocopy of the last, that the music biz has degenerated into a hive of hype and shoddy product, leeching on the hopes and dreams of the masses? That scamsters and cynicism are a recent invention? Wrong. For one particular music industry rip-off has been parting the starry-eyed and gullible with their money for over 100 years. That rip-off is the “Song Poem” industry, which reached its zenith during the halcyon, wide-eyed decades of the Sixties and Seventies. It’s commemorated on The American Song Poem Anthology CD, released this week.

Here’s how it worked. Ads in supermarket mags like National Inquirer urged budding songwriters to send in their “song-poems” for a “free appraisal”. The music companies used the phrase “song-poems” in these ads because they didn’t believe that the wordsmiths they sought were quite wordy enough to understand what “lyrics” meant. Once you’d sent in your “song-poem”, you’d receive by return of post a letter, from no less a personage than the company president himself, happily confirming that your verses had passed the appraisal with flying colours. Whereupon, for a fee (up to $400) the company would make a “magnificent recording” of your words, to a “beautiful musical setting” of your choice, be it soul, country & western, or “spiritual”. This was pressed up in limited editions, which the company solemnly pledged to circulate among major labels on your behalf, the quaint blurb of their brochures assuring you that your song had a fighting chance of topping the Billboard charts.

Of course, as anyone fool enough to believe them discovered, the companies’ involvement in your quest for stardom ceased the moment they’d cashed your cheque. No one ever got a hit through the “song-poem” scheme, though this didn’t deter successive generations of sanguine suckers born on a per-minute basis from giving it a try.

Churned out by session musicians at the rate of a dozen tunes per session, there was a reason why these “song-poems”, their atrocious lyrics gamely squeezed into ill-fitting, off-the-peg musical arrangements, didn’t trouble the hit parade. Yet, today, these demos are sought-after curios, feted by the likes of Matt Groening, even covered by artists like Yo La Tengo. The American Song-Poem Anthology showcases not just their inadvertent hilarity but their strangely persistent charm.

Memorable moments abound. Take “City’s Hospital Patients”, in which, with a sass and gusto reminiscent of Patti Labelle, Teri Summers & The Librettos deliver a paean to the efficacy of hospital staff. “They’ll do x-rays, all for your sake/They’ll soon found out what makes you ache . . .you’ll receive flowers with the finest smell.”. Or “The Moon Men”, a tribute to the astronauts whereon John Muir delivers in epic tones lines like “In quarantine they’ll have to stay a spell/Improving their health mighty well”, as if reciting Dangerous Dan McGrew.

There’s a salute to President Nixon, orated to the stirring accompaniment of military drums. “God in his infinite wisdom put Richard Nixon on this earth/To bring us his heritage/One of priceless worth,” opines the song-poet, via Rod & The MSR singers. This heritage, apparently, consists not of napalm and Watergate but “the rapture of music and melody/of culture and of love”. More “with-it” is “How Long Are You Staying” whose author, with an eye for the main commercial chance, throws the phrase “disco, disco disco” randomly into a non-sequiturial saga of cake-baking and mental illness. The instructive “All You Need Is A Fertile Mind”, meanwhile, performed mechanically by Gene Marshall, rejects pornography, encouraging the listener to – ahem – fall back on their own devices to “build up that sexual impetus”. “You don’t need a woman like Venus,” continues the author, heroically resisting the obvious rhyme as he extols the benefits of auto-eroticism. “Feel great, proud and unwind”.

The history of dreadful poetry as a means for the creatively frustrated to gratify themselves, if no one else, is long. The calling card of William MacGonagall, Victorian purveyor of clumsy doggerel boasted he was “successor to Shakespeare”,  adding, “Poetry executed on the shortest notice.” Another Victorian favourite of mine is self-appointed “Canadian poet Laureate” James Gay, responsible for, among others, self-published efforts like The Elephant And The Flea (“Between the two there’s a great contrast/The elephant is slow, the flea very fast.”) and What About This Egyptian Affair? wherein he advocates the wholesale slaughter of this heathen population for refusing to be civilised by their colonial invaders. (“It seems they are a wicked race/The British flag they don’t embrace”).

Had Gay and MacGonagall lived longer, they might have availed of the song-poem industry. “Love’s Sweet Dawn” (those initials. Hmmm . . .) was written by one Amelia Baker and published by the ill-named Success Music Co in 1901. The first major song-poem scamster was John T Hall, who bilked numerous writers with a spurious scheme to publish their work for a fee, on the promise of having won a “Popular Songwriter’s Contest”. He was prosecuted in 1914 but his victims had to endure the indignity of their efforts “keeping the court in fits of convulsive laughter” when read aloud during the trial. World War II saw an upsurge in firms like the Nordyke Publishing Company who took advantage of patriotic versemongers anxious to have self-penned odes like “The Man In The Moon’s An American” solicited at their own expense.

The rise of the song-poem scam horrified many and efforts were made to warn the public against the “songsharks”, with even Superman conscripted to combat them. All to no avail – the industry continued to flourish. While these recordings have afforded hours of amusement for flea-market sleuths as well as we who merely enjoy mocking our inferiors, consider the poor sods – struggling or has-been musicians – forced to record the stuff. Most tragic was Rodd Keith, whose versatility is evinced on American Song-Poem Anthology on the sleazy, jazz-marinated “I’m Just The Other Woman”, in which he records the part of the (female) narrator in a wailing falsetto. Never able to make it as a “legitimate” musician he turned to drugs and died in 1976, aged 37.

One song-poet has achieved immortality, however – John Trubee, a prankster who wondered, if even the legendary “song-poet” the tireless, syntactically challenged Thomas J, Guygax Sr could get his work recorded (sample lyric; “Although by the also to have differed with yearly and all known dearly/Throughout and among, we use preferred”), how bad would you have to be to be rejected by these people? Hence, he submitted to a Nashville company “Peace And Love”, a disjointed account of an acid trip which contained this epiphany; “Stevie Wonder’s penis is erect/Because he is blind.” This revoltingly inappropriate and inaccurate sentiment was, Trubee recalled, “invented out of sheer boredom and homicidal frustration as I laboured as a cashier in a convenience store in 1975”. To his amazement the song was accepted, with even lines like “Ramona’s titties died in hell/And the Nazis want to kill everyone” scrupulously rendered by vocalist Ramsay Kearney, a snapshot of whom shows an upstanding looking feller in a butterfly print polyester shirt. One change; the Stevie Wonder references were replaced by the words “A blind man” and, years later, the song was unearthed and re-pressed under its new name, “A Blind Man’s Penis”, which is how it’s listed on this Anthology.

The American Song-Poem Anthology is risible – yet there’s also the occasional waft of nostalgia for the old school of one-shot studio recording, faint reminders of Gil Scott-Heron, Captain Beefheart, even, as these session musos steadfastly try to animate the dead verbal tissue of verses like “I Like Yellow Things”. Happily, they can’t. Happily because the cynicism or our own era means we’re fobbed off with bland, technical efficiency, denying us not just truly magnificent pop but also the truly awful. Here, however, you’ll find it in droves. God bless America.

Sunday, July 27th, 2003

Britpop Hubris

This piece first appeared in The Guide in 2003

There are many reasons to see Live Forever, the new documentary about the Nineties Britpop years. Mostly they involve Noel Gallagher and Damn Albarn being funny, the former intentionally, the latter unintentionally. They also include Liam Gallagher reminiscing on his scallywag days when he used to steal lawnmowers from gardens and sell them on to interested parties, which begs all sorts of questions we shan’t go into here.

However, it’s also a reminder of the gormlessly patriotic hubris which swept the pop nation during those years, a Falklands-style dementia in which it became unironically fashionable to flaunt the Union Jack at every opportunity. This was Britpop and all those who experienced that bizarre rush of blood to the head should not be looking back fondly on the episode but wincing with bowel-curdling shame.

The thesis of Live Forever is that, following an early Nineties period when music was in “the doldrums” (Radiohead, Suede, Massive Attack, My Bloody Valentine, rubbish like that), British pride was reasserted, Albion reawakened with the emergence of those Colchester cockney cocksparrers Blur and those mad for it mad bastards from Madchester Oasis. Now music was great again (Sleeper, Menswear, Now Way Sis). Key to this transformation was Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994. This was not an entirely unfortunate event because it meant British music could emerge from the regime of transatlantic dominance over which the hollow-eyed grungemeister unwittingly presided. With Cobain dead, American music went into decline. Now it was the Yanks’ turn to look on with helpless passivity from the sidelines, like those superfluous CIA agents in James Bond films, as Britain strode to the fore and did its bit. Sadly, explains the film, the death of Princess Diana had a direct knock-on effect on Britpop – otherwise, the likes of Louise Wener would surely have gone on to become world superstars.

It’s possible that the causes and effects of Britpop weren’t quite as outlined by the makers of Live Forever. Britpop did, however, surge on a crest of super-confidence as, following the nadir of the 1992 ERM debacle, the UK economy picked up and suddenly Johnny Brit had a couple of quid in his pocket and a spring in his step. There was a new, lagerish, Laddish, lairiness in the air. Numerous things conflated – Loaded, Gazza, Chris Evans, Euro ’96, Trainspotting. Keith Allen seemed to feature a lot, in a host of minor but noisy roles. Americans might have thought that their overwhelming dominance of the global market share gave them a certain edge but how wrong they were. When Michael Jackson came over for the Brit Awards, Jarvis Cocker usurped him, leaping onstage and flapping the bottom of his corduroy jacket at him. We showed them.

Looking back, one’s depressed at the retro-reactionary air of it all. It wasn’t so far off the world conjured up by Mike Myers (a Liverpudlian by birth who in the grand tradition of that town, got the fuck out of it the moment he could) in the Austin Powers movies. It was as if we all wanted to be bit players in The Italian Job, a Sixties world not of peace, love and counter-culture but dollybirds and cheery chancers like Michael “The Dog’s Bollocks” Caine. It was the world of The Kinks! The Moptops! Guitar bands with tunes the milkman could whistle! Memories of 1966 and Jules Rimet still gleaming! Blokes shouting “Oi”! Hardly any black people! (Sadly, in what purports to be a wide-ranging survey of Nineties British culture, only two black faces feature in Live Forever – designer Ozwald Boateng and the kid from S Club Juniors.). Indeed, you could ascribe the entire success of Oasis to a collective subconscious desire to agree upon the one band “we” all gathered together and got hysterical about, the way “we” used to about The Beatles.

Brit-pride was by no means confined to Damon Albarn ranting against “Americanisation” leading to his local pub being stripped of its horse brasses and photos of the village cricket team circa 1902 to make way for themed bars. Each year, the presenters of BBC Breakfast News would smilingly abandon their neutrality and urge viewers to “keep your fingers crossed for Emma Thompson at the Oscars tomorrow night.” To which my personal response was not to cross my fingers but form them into a “v” shape and flick vigorously and repeatedly at the screen.

Tony Blair, meanwhile, played the “Cool Britannia” card. He sensed a mood for change among young people, an end to the Tory years of dismal public services, fat cats licking up all the cream and a Government sycophantically following the American lead in wars in the Gulf. As a Melody Maker journo, I made some vaguely positive remarks about Blair prior to the 1997 election. I was immediately contacted by a Labour Party insider who noted my sympathy to the “leadership” and suggested a meet to take advantage of my presumably intimate Britpop contacts. These, he sadly overestimated – anyway, my assistance was hardly required. Accepting a Brit award, Noel Gallagher dedicated it to the handful of individuals giving hope to young people in Britain. These included himself, the rest of the band, including Bonehead, naturally, manager Alan McGee and, finally, Tony Blair.

Then there was Euro ’96, mooted as a retro retread of the 1966 World Cup, with an England team under the aegis of chirpy Sixties geezer El Tel in that blazing Summer. The forces of Britcom and Britpop combined to galvanise the nation – Baddiel, Skinner, Ian Broudie. 30 years of hurt about to be put right. Duly, we smote the Scots! Demolished the Dutch! Drew with the mighty Swiss! Such were the days. And today, one marvels at the quaintness of that over-sanguine era, its hip belief that we were on the cusp of showing the US a thing or two, of putting the “Great” back into Britain (strange conceit, that. France and Sweden’s self esteem doesn’t depend on calling themselves Fabulous France or Super Sweden). Sure enough, it all went arse-shaped. In Euro ’96, the abiding memory of England’s demise isn’t Gareth Southgate’s penalty miss but during Golden Goals, when a sluggish, lager-bloated Paul Gascoigne failed to connect with a cross which would have defeated Germany and put England in the final. Loser. Ginger goon Chris Evans, wankerish symbol of the mad-for-it era, went to America with a view to meeting and greeting his brother in iconoclasm, Shock Jock Howard Stern. When Evans burst in on him in his studio, Stern remarked, “Who the fuck is this guy?” Later, when Stern appeared on TFI Friday, he visibly destroyed Evans with a couple of caustic cracks about Evans’ ex-wife. Tosser.

Oasis and Blur laughingly attempted to “conquer” America but neither made Shea Stadium. Eventually, Blur did land a hit over there but was it with one of their jellied eels, mockney anthems? No. It was with “Song 2” a craven slice of cod-Yankee grunge. Capitulators. It’s doubtful the Americans even noticed how easily they repelled Cool Britannia’s challenge, any more than they noticed that their “soccer” team equalled England in the2002 World Cup – both reached the quarter finals. Whereas the English went into a month-long, St George flag-waving paroxysm of deluded optimism, the Yanks were unaware a tournament was taking place. Today, Blair is nestled uncritically down the back of George Bush’s trousers. Robbie Williams has to beg the American public to find it on their hearts to make him a superstar in order to recoup his absurdly generous EMI advance. Fat chance. The Billboard top 100 is nowadays a Brit-free zone. Eminem, Britney, J-Lo, Avril, The Strokes, Beyonce trounce Will Young and The Sugababes, home and away. Cross our fingers all we like for Catherine Zeta Jones, Renee Zellweger gets the Oscar and the lead in Bridget Jones. We don’t rule. And that’s good. Ruling doesn’t become us. Rueful perspective and modesty does.

Sunday, July 13th, 2003

Music Licence Laws

(This piece first appeared in The Guardian in 2003 and met with a considerable amount of justified indignation)

On July 3, the House Of Lords failed to block Government moves to introduce a new law requiring pubs, clubs and cafes to apply for costly new licences if they wish to provide live entertainment. The measures will, reported The Guardian, “act as a powerful deterrent to small venues wishing to host live groups”. As organisations like the Musicians Union protest, the dangers this new legislation proposes to curb such as overcrowding and unruly behaviour are already covered by existing law. Loopholes allow for the exemption of, for example, morris dancers and pubs with wide-screen TV – musicians who us amplified instruments are being scapegoated. These new laws are flawed, vindictive, inconsistent and I, along with every sane person I know, back them to the hilt.

Let’s be clear about who’s hit hardest by this legislation – talentless, timewasting pub bands. Amateurs. White blues combos from Peterborough with podgy, moustached stand-up bassists, drowning the works of Howlin’ Wolf in their own sweat and phlegm. Trad jazz bands, all beards, sandals and trombones, playing “When The Saints Go Marching In” (Yeah? Well, one more peep out of that clarinet and it’ll be the police who go marching in, suckers). Bands with the word “Rockin'” in their names, who reduce rock to raucous, untreated sewage. Legions of uninspired, unashamed, unsolicited no-hopers who, even within a music industry benevolent enough to indulge The Thrills, can’t get signed and therefore resort to ruining the lives of innocent drinkers with their relentlessly, drearily competent blatherings. Bands who can’t get arrested – well, they will be now, thank Christ.

No serious lover of music seeks out pubs with blackboards boasting LIVE ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT, much as no serious lover of wine seeks out bottles with party balloons on their label. It could be argued that these excremental pub outfits constitute the manure from which the roses of tomorrow’s talent will bloom. Unlikely – most new talent is hatched in back bedrooms on iMacs and tiny black software nowadays, not in back bars. Even it were, however, better that this vast swill of pestilential conversation-drowners be suppressed and, though we be denied the New Coral, punters have their peace restored. These bands are flogging us the rancid dead horsemeat of long-dead genres. Jazz. Blues (Very dead). Rock (Recently dead). So it’s intensely galling that efforts to throw out this legislation has resulted in the delaying of the overall Licensing Bill, liberalising opening hours in line with Civilisation as a whole, which would otherwise have been law by now. When I think of the convivial occasions I’ve recently enjoyed interrupted just as they were getting going by some aproned minion barking “time, gentlemen, please!”, of how such premature ejection is down to liberal hand-wringing over the rights of Bonnie Tyler-wannabes to inflict their renditions of “I Will Always Love You” on undeserving patrons, I want to firebomb the offices of the Musicians’ Union. History may forgive you over Iraq, Mr Blair, but only because you’ve bequeathed us this wonderful legislation. Thank you, sir.