andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

As Ithers See Us

I suppose I could do this any time, but it seems a particularly odd angle to be viewing recent UK events sitting in a cafe in Salamanca, in the Castilian heart of Spain’s heartland. Like Burns said, ‘Oh would some power the giftie gie us/tae see oursels as ithers see us.’

I make no comment, of course, on the political viewpoint presented in this article:  but it’s interesting to see British politics refracted through the lens of another country’s media (El Pais is a major, slightly left-leaning, Spanish daily). The article’s author is John Carlin, who Wikipedia tells me is half-Scottish, half-Spanish, and has spent his career on both sides of the Hispano- and Anglo-phone world, having been a contributor to El Pais since 1998.

Translated fast and loose, for style rather than pinpoint accuracy: but happy as always to take corrections where I’ve gone too far off-piste.

18th July, 2016

The New British Dictatorship

Theresa May’s Conservative Government has the way clear to do exactly as it pleases

‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold….’

WB Yeats, The Second Coming

You’re afraid to find out what’s happening in the world at the moment. Put the radio on, glance at a mobile screen, the paper or the television and we see that the Brexiteers won, there’s been a terrorist attack in Nice and a military coup in Turkey (1); every day the polls bring more and more credence to the idea of Donald Trump becoming President of the United States.  Newsflash – here’s the latest: the United Kingdom has turned into a one party state.

Yes: the one time exemplar of parliamentary democracy in Britain is no longer so exemplary. The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, is the head of a rightist government with no opposition. The monopoly of power it holds is reminiscent of that of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, or, in the time of Jose Lopez Portillo, of the PRI in Mexico. It’s the opposite of what we see in the young Spanish democracy, a model of multi-party politics (with all the frustrations it creates)(2) in comparison to the most recent version of the ancient Britannic version.

May’s Conservative Government has the way clear to do exactly as it pleases. She has just named the three stooges charged, as ministers, with the most important issue her Government faces: to negotiate the new economic and political terms between the UK and the EU post-Brexit. But the Labour Party, who came second in last year’s elections, hasn’t said a peep. Its members are dedicating all their energy to a fratricidal conflict which threatens to end with the Left out of government for a generation or more.

If the UK is, in general, giving the world an object lesson in how not to govern a country, the labour movement is playing out a farce which should serve as a warning to those in Europe and further afield who think left-wing policies are the solution to growing inequality in a rampant capitalist system, incapable of delivering its eternal promise that prosperity higher up will filter down to those beneath.

The British Left’s problem is not new. In their efforts to be at peace with each other, its supporters forget the practical necessity of delivering a convincing message to the electorate. The particular problem for Labour currently is its messenger, Jeremy Corbyn, party leader since last September. Corbyn is, from all angles, a good man, honest, and irredeemably faithful to his socialist ideals. His weak point is that he opposes, but doesn’t propose: he is against many things, but no one knows what he’s in favour of. For that reason, and because he is also greyer than the London sky, 80% of Labour MPs have said that he is chronically incapable of mounting an effective opposition to the Conservative Government, far less win a General Election.

In 2014, the party changed their leadership election rules, moulding them to the principle of direct democracy which some followers had converted to thanks, in no small part, to the notion promoted with evangelistic zeal on social media that that everyone’s opinions are equally valid, and that the ‘experts,’ as one of the pro-Brexit Conservative leaders said during the campaign, had nothing to teach us. Previously, the votes of the MPs were decisive in the leadership election. Now an MP’s vote counts the same as anyone else’s. The change was to give everyone’s vote an equal weight: to be member you had only to pay £3, currently €3.58.

Three quarters of paid up members are middle class: more than a half have a university degree. They do not offer a true image of the class which Labour, founded in the union movement, is supposed to represent. They are more likely to be Guardian readers, more prosperous than average, highly educated, and full of desire to atone for their guilt at their good fortune. Those were the people who, by a huge margin, chose Corbyn last September, the Labour leadership candidate who represented to the Left the most pure and without sin.

Corbyn, who detests the electoral pragmatism of Tony Blair more than the Tories themselves, is all heart. No one celebrated Corbyn’s victory more than a Guardian journalist who has, now, changed his mind: Seumas Milne continues to write for the newspaper, but is now the Labour Party’s Director of Strategy and Communication. A version in caricature of the typical Guardian reader, Milne comes from a rich family, went to one of the most exclusive private schools in England, studied at Oxford, and currently lives in a house worth €2.5m on the edge of London.

A Guardian columnist published a portrait of Milne this weekend. He recalled that Milne has always been a fervent anti-imperialist, but only as regards US imperialism. Russian Soviet imperialism was another matter. ‘He says he’s a socialist, but he kneels down and doffs his cap to the capitalist kleptocracy of the Putin regime, the columnist wrote. ‘He defended the Communist one party state of Stalin, but now he’s converting Britain into a Tory one party state.’

Of course, Milne, like Corbyn, is an admirer of Chavez’s Venezuela, the disasters of which he hasn’t seen any need to distance himself from. Nor have the majority of party members seen any need to distance themselves from Corbyn, even though he has shown no capacity to inspire the same idolatry amongst the working classes he says he represents. The proof was that the most militant of them voted for Brexit in the referendum with Nigel Farage, leader until recently of the far right party UKIP, than with Corbyn, who favoured remaining in the EU.

Today, the majority of Labour MPs are terrified that they will lose their seats in the next election. For that reason, but also to avoid the only opposition to the Tories being UKIP, they have called for Corbyn to stand down. Corbyn, described by his rivals as a leader of protest, not of government, has refused to do so.

There will soon be further internal Labour Party elections. Thanks to the ideological fortitude of its members, there is every indication that Corbyn will win. No one will celebrate more than Theresa May and the other caudillos of the new Conservative Dictatorship.

 

(1) written before the coup failed. At least at the time of this translation. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.

(2) For a long time a two-party system between the PP (centre right) and PSOE (centre left), Spanish politics seems to have entered a fractured phase with the 2015 election creating no overall majority, and the June 2016 elections still leaving no party with an overall majority between the PP, PSOE, Ciudadanos (centre-left) and Podemos (left-wing, anti-austerity) being the main players, with further regional parties having a small number of seats. The PP’s Mariano Rajoy remains Prime Minister.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The £150 laptop 2: software vs wetware

The story so far: in a change from my usual practice of buying something mid range, I’ve gone for the cheapest laptop in the shop. Will it stand up to my gentle ministrations? Is the guarantee (which, together with the price of Microsoft Office, costs more than the laptop itself) worth the money?

Time was when you bought a computer, it was more or less plug and play. It was a brief and, in retrospect, heady period between you having to basically being your own computer programmer with an intimate knowledge of MS-DOS and today’s ‘everything stripped out so you get the hardware dirt cheap’ epoch, when you went into the shop and bought the whole thing preloaded with the software you actually needed to make it go. Then the Lizard People who rule us all realised this wasn’t optimising their way of keeping the masses down. It coincided, possibly not coincidentally, with that brief, equally heady time when people could publish stuff on the Web their on own and it wasn’t all monetised to death.

Whatever. We are where we are, which in the case of folks of average IT literacy like me is a tense stand off between the software you now have to download to make it go, and you, the wetware. I kind of imagine this as a conversation, like this:

Laptop: Hey, welcome! This is Windows 10, the software you tried on your desktop PC when we tempted you with a free download and it mucked the existing software up so much you had to spend half an hour uninstalling it and fixing lots of problems you hadn’t had before. But this is different. It’s got all sorts of stuff on it, like Trip Advisor – see the wee button there? Amazon, Dropbox…

Me: I’ve already got access to these things. I want to install Firefox, because my brother told me about it about ten years ago as being safer than Internet Explorer, and I’ve stuck doggedly with it ever since.

Laptop: Really? I’ve got OneDrive, which can even make you a cup of tea while you’re browsing all these commercial sites and spending lots of money by ordering stuff online you didn’t even know you needed.

Me: Really. Firefox, please.

Laptop: (shrugging) Ok. There you go. That was easy, wasn’t it? Anything else, you daringly hipster indie type?

Me: No need for sarcasm. AVG free edition, please. It’s kept me virus free for years.

AVG: So, you want the full commercial version?

Me: No, the free version.

AVG: So, you want the full commerical version?

Me (somewhat tersely) No, just the free edition, thank you.

Laptop: There it is downloaded. You want me to install it?

Me: No, I just want it sitting there in Firefox’s downloads folder, a glittering software jewel hanging there unused and untouched like the Koh-I-Noor of anti-virus software.

Laptop: Now who’s being sarky? There you go. Oops, no, it wouldn’t install itself.

Me: What? Why?

Laptop: Dunno. Just didn’t fancy it. You could go to the AVG website and spend a fruitless hour trying to work out why…

Me: No, just leave it. Ok, now –

Laptop: Hey, you know what you need?

Me: What?

Laptop: Adobe Flash Player. You know, that’s that thing that makes websites run and such, and if you don’t have it, the site takes the huff and won’t work properly?

Me: Oh, yeah. I suppose so.

Laptop: Great. Oh, and while I’m at it I’ve installed McAfee anti-virus free trial. And something else you’ll fleetingly see installing itself and never see again. Knew you’d want that, yeah?

Me: NOOOOO!!! I told you, I don’t want McAfee. You put a link to it on the desktop already and I’ve been studiously ignoring it ever since. Couldn’t you take a hint?

Laptop (with a hint of hurt pride): I was only trying to help.

McAfee: computer needs to restart to update McAfee.

McAfee: computer needs to restart to update McAfee.

Me: Go away, McAfee.

McAfee: computer needs to restart to update McAfee.

Me: $£%$%£&^%$!

Laptop: There’s no need to swear.

I haven’t even installed the Microsoft Office I bought yet. I haven’t the mental strength.

HP Stream 11-r050sa 11.6" Laptop - Blue

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Songs in a Scottish Accent 2: the thing with demo versions

Here’s the thing with demo versions: you sometimes batter one out, first take of everything, because you’re so taken with the song that you want to share it with someone. When you share it with another musician, you usually preface it with remarks like, ‘it’s a bit rough, but…’ which is code for ‘I know this is less than perfect, so don’t be telling me I come in late on the second verse, or the guitar could be lower in the mix, because you know I know that already, right?’

This demo’s a case in point. I woke up one morning with the (very simple) melody going through my head. At the breakfast table, I started writing some lyrics; and unlike some of my songs, they came out in a single string. I mean, I couldn’t get them down fast enough. I don’t think I’ve changed more than one or two words since that first draft. They’re not the most literary lyrics I’ll ever do, and they’re not even autobiographical, apart from the last verse, but they get the job done. They’re heartfelt, and while they could be about some place on the Rust Belt Springsteen drove through once, but actually, they’re about my native land of south Fife, in the Scottish Lowlands.

The demo itself is probably my favourite of all time so far, since an earlier version of it’s what got me into the Isaac Brutal band, and I’ve performed the song live with them a couple of times now. It was still one that I filed mentally under ‘needs a bit of work before it’s really useable,’ for some time. I had problems in particular with the drums – Mixcraft’s library is set up primarily for techno and hip hop type stuff, and the gated Eighties style track I’d put on here just to have something to play along to wasn’t to my usual taste. Although probably appropriate for such a Springsteen-influenced number.

However, I went back to it the other day, and decided it had a bit of raw intensity. I particularly liked the organ solo I’d improvised: not quite Al Kooper lucking out on Like a Rolling Stone, but not far away from as good as I can do.

So here it is, pending a final version for the album. It’s a bit rough, mind!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Glenrothes: the case for the defence

A few months ago my sister sent me an article about Glenrothes that had annoyed her, so it could annoy me, too. Written by a Marianne Taylor, its central theme – that the Thatcherite policy of Right to Buy for council houses had had unintended consequences, and mainly bad ones – was actually not anything I could disagree with. Without being too political, Right to Buy released a huge amount of capital out of the public sector into private hands – many of those hands being ordinary, working class people – leaving councils unable (and, frankly, unwilling) to build more houses, and creating the social sector housing shortage we have today.

The annoying bit was the reference (twice) to ‘brutalist’ architecture, and the photos that accompanied the article. The article writer grew up in Macedonia, the precinct that was built in the mid-Sixties, which therefore suffered from that heady time’s architectural mad period when houses were built with flat roofs, as if the average Scottish winter – rain, snow, hail, moderate storm force winds, and then maybe a bit more rain – could cope with flat roofs. The photos consisted of one of Marianne outside her former family home today, a childhood photo of her in the garden, and the main feature photo – a postcard of Glenrothes from 1967, taken from the edge of the Auchmuty area, and showing the town centre in all its boxy glory, with the central image of two massive skyscrapers.

To be fair, I suspect this image wasn’t Marianne’s idea, but rather something the Herald people dug out of the archives because they couldn’t be bothered sending a photographer the forty miles to take a picture of the town as it is today: although if they had taken it of the town centre today, again to be fair, it wouldn’t be any bonnier. The two ‘skyscrapers,’ incidentally, are office blocks, one of which is now demolished. Glenrothes only ever had one multi-storey block of flats, Raeburn Heights. You’ll see it in a minute.

Now, my family have a lot of history with this place, and I could go on about that. I could equally go on at length about the history of the new town itself, the various missed steps and bits of political interference that have crippled the original vision for the place; not to mention the slings and arrows of outrageous economics that it, like the rest of Scotland, has suffered over the years.

Instead, I’ll just tell you one story my Dad (who worked at the Development Corporation, and published three books about the town) told me, and then let you judge for yourself. Like many places in Scotland, Glenrothes had a number of deck-access maisonette flats built – this time in the next precinct up from Macedonia, Tanshall. The reason they were built, my Dad said, was that the Scottish Office at the time was keen to attract a factory that made concrete panels for them to Scotland. So every new town corporation, and every town council, that wanted to borrow money that year to build housing, was told: fine, but you’ll build these maisonettes out of these concrete panels. They were a massive mistake, but again, there was a reason behind them: jobs, although in this case not even in the town itself.

I’ve already gone on longer that I mean to. It’s just that, although I have a complicated relationship with the town I grew up in, I am passionate about it and its future. So, to counteract the misleading impression the photos may have given of Glenrothes, here are some the Redoubtable Mrs F took for me last month. Note the cheeky seagull photobomb in one of the pics of Raeburn Heights!

 

 

 

Pitteuchar

Pitteuchar precinct

Pitteuchar: view up the main road

retirement housing in Pitteuchar

Looking towards Auchmuty

Closer view of the roundabout near Raeburn Heights

Raeburn Heights. Note the cheeky seagull photo bomb

Raeburn Heights

Other side of Glenrothes town centre. Fife House in the distance: across the roundabout, St Columba's church

Looking up into Rimbleton precinct

 

South Parks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Harum Scarum Court Cases: A Whiter Shade of Baroness Hale

I made what many people would think was a strange purchase in a charity shop in Aberdeen at the weekend: the sheet music for ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale,’ the Procol Harum classic. Here it is, suitably styled for photo by the redoubtable Mrs F:

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First reason I bought it was it caught my eye. Nowadays, if you want to work out the chords for a song, you either do it by ear or go online, where there are any number of slightly dodgy sites that will give you the lyrics and chords to songs, and a couple of viruses to boot if you’re not careful. This, on the other hand, is quite pretty to look at: the girl with the hair on the cover, and the music inside, all on a parchment-like piece of paper which, far from being whiter than white is, well, a paler shade of beige!

The second reason was the story behind this particular copy. The copyright attribution suggests it dates from 1974, a whole seven years after the song first appeared as a smash hit that the Beatles and the Stones sat up and listened to in their Rolls Royces. On the front cover, hidden by daisies here for data protection purposes, is a name and address: Ken Sturgeon, of Esslemont Avenue (presumably the Aberdonian street of that name).

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More intriguingly, on the inside in the same distinctive hand, the name of two hymns: ‘King of love my shepherd is,’ and ‘Now thank we all our god’ (Ken’s capitalisations). ‘Whiter Shade…’ was a popular piece of wedding music; the Redoubtable Mrs F had to remind me that the first of the hymns featured at our own nuptials. Was this, then, the wedding music for Ken and the soon to be Mrs Sturgeon? Or was he a church organist, familiar with the hymns but needing the sheet music for this weird hippy thing the happy couple had asked for? Any number of stories could start here. Why did Ken, after all these years, give it away? A man goes into a charity shop, buys a piece of music, and becomes obsessed with tracking down its original owner…

The third thing that tickled me about buying it was that, in doing so, I was buying a bit of contraband. The 1974 attribution is ‘Words and Music by KEITH REID & GARY BROOKER.’ That, of course, is not now legally correct, because in 2009, the House of Lords ruled that Matthew Fisher, the organ player who came up with the distinctive part, should be given a co-writing credit – and a share of the royalties from then on.

It’s nice to think that, given the passage of time, the judges weren’t the stereotypical old farts who had no idea who this popular beat combo were. In fact, Baroness Hale of Richmond was keen to subvert the stereotype, saying in her judgement: ‘As one of those people who do remember the sixties, I am glad that the author of that memorable organ part has at last achieved the recognition he deserves.’ Of course, if she does remember the sixties, she wasn’t really there, man.

Actually, Her Ladyship might have been a square in the Sixties, going to Richmond Ladies’ College, then Cambridge, and being called to the Bar (as we lawyers call it, for some unexplained reason) in 1969. All the same, as one of the Flower Power generation, she’s not done badly in terms of that old glass ceiling, being Britain’s most senior female judge. She’s spoken out frequently on the lack of gender balance in the upper echelons of the legal profession, earning the nickname ‘Ms Diversity,’ from her (probably male) detractors. She also seems to be charmingly self-deprecating about her fear of ‘being found out,’ as an article in the Torygraph outlines.

So respect is due to this square cat, dig?

I’m less sure how I feel about the final judgements in the case (Brooker et al won the earlier round: the House of Lords was then the final court of appeal). Baroness Hale was the only one of the Law Lords to point out that Matthew Fisher was only 20 years old when, in April 1967, he walked into Olympic Studios in London, sat at the Hammond M-102, and came up with the organ part that defines the song (Brenda Hale would, herself, have been 22 then). Previous to that Gary Brooker had composed the basic melody on piano to lyrics that the band’s manager/songwriter, Keith Reid, had come up with after hearing the title phrase at a party.

Fisher was newly in the band. The song, with its descending bassline, had the basis of the melody already. The lyrics – and I’m not even going to go there in terms of what they might mean, but you can if you want: the possibilities appear to involve sex and death – had been written. You could totally do the song without the organ.

But could you? Here’s one of my favourite versions of the song. It’s from 2006, when the lawsuit was already under way. At a music festival in Denmark, Brooker throws everything but the kitchen sink at the song, starting with the Danish National Concert Orchestra doing minor-key variations on the organ part. It’s almost as if he’s saying, ‘sound familiar? A bit like Bach, maybe?’ (Fisher’s contribution, it’s fair to say, sounds quite a bit like Air on a G String).

Then Brooker comes in on piano with the first verse. The orchestra swells behind him. Still no Hammond organ. First chorus. Still no organ. And then, finally …

I was four and a half when the song first came out, and very probably more interested in Captain Scarlett than any old music. The sheet music did trigger other memories though: my sister had the British single – pretty sure the B side was ‘A Salty Dog,’ and the sleeve was in similar shades of beige and cream as the sheet music. It was one of the first ‘pop’ songs I did come to like. And it was the organ part that really made it for me, starting a life long love of Hammond organ sounds.

Who cares who gets the songwriting credits, really? What matters is that, in April, 1967, some musicians got in a room and magic happened. And you can still hear that magic, captured in a bottle that day. Even in the House of Lords.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In Translation: Kula Shaker’s K 2.0 reviewed

This post accomplishes two things: bringing Lucio’s  review of the Kula Shaker album to the anglophone world, and forcing me to do some alternative Spanish homework. Lucio’s views are his own: I don’t necessarily agree with all of them, but they’re interesting. As usual with my translations, it’s pretty fast and loose to try and catch the sense of the thing, rather than be exact.

The return of the band that was never here

Blur, Oasis, Pulp and Suede (BOPS) were, and always will be, the standard bearers of Britpop, artistically and commercially speaking. During the latter two thirds of the Nineties, they showered us with musical jewels that retain their place in the collective memory, and popular culture. Radiohead has always moved in alternate dimensions. Beneath all these, a long list of bands that, for one reason or another, never achieved the popularity or success of BOPS. Supergrass and Kula Shaker shine out on this list.

Mixing traditional Indian music with the voice and guitar of Crispian Mills, Alonza Bevan’s bass, Paul Winterhart’s drums, and Jay Darlington’s psychedelic keyboards, gave Kula Shaker a unique sound: mysticism and hook-laden melodies endowing a specific charm to the formula George Harrison created, 30 years previously, but with a fresh spirit.

K, (1996) their spectacular, dud-free debut, was followed by Peasants, Pigs & Astronauts in 1999, produced by Bob Ezrin. The second album found a band at the peak of their creative powers. Under the protective cloak of Columbia Records, the album was filled with complex orchestrations and backing musicians: it was their most successful album, although it lacked the spontaneity of the first. Then, without anyone expecting it, disenchanted by low sales, the band announced their break up the same year.

In 2004, Mills and Bevan agreed to reform the group, although with Harry Broadbent instead of Darlington at the keyboards. Almost three years passed before the release of Strangefolk (2007), launched with great determination under their own label: the band leaned on this towards more subtle, darker tones; Pilgrims Progress (2010) was more folk-based. Then, sporadic performances with little support, until they announced an indefinite hiatus in 2012.  Thereafter, silence, until:

Recorded in Belgium and produced by Mills and Bevan last autumn, the group revealed more and more about the new album, little by little. Titled K 2.0, its opening track and first single, Infinite Sun, certainly left a good taste in the mouth. On Christmas morning we were told 12th February would be the launch date; they also announced a series of UK tour dates and, in line with the usual rules of publicity, released the video of the single.

It only remained for us to wait and cross our fingers: so, how is this brilliant K 2.0?

We already knew the opening track, with its appealing changes of rhythm: a very Kula Shaker theme. Holy Flame follows. It might sound plain on first hearing: but believe me, it’s one of the highlights of the album. Death of Democracy has this false riff that, it goes without saying, leads to Crispian Mills trying to be Ray Davies: that doesn’t turn out well. The wave of mysticism goes far better than the satirical/social themes. Then a strange thing happens: the song seems to extend for several minutes more: but, surprise! It’s the next track, with an almost identical rhythm.

33 Crows is a pretty, quasi-country melody, countryish, we would say, although little in common with the denizens of London. Oh Mary is typical Kula Shaker from recent years, slowish, with a change of beat half way through which then reverts to the original, but unfortunately with no hooks. High Noon sounds a lot like Strangefolk. The spaghetti-western style guitars don’t help.

Get Right Get Ready is funky and psychedelic, with a Deep Purplish intro, and – what the hell? At this stage you need to be thankful for being out of your comfort zone. There must be some reason that little of this K 2.0 on its first showing sounds like its launch. The album closes with Mountain Lifter, an intricate song with epic ambitions, including a mantra and everything: you know, the trademark brand!

To sum up, a good album that won’t gain extra fans (you’ve only to look at the number of Twitter followers), K2.0 is a sort of sonic compendium of their last two albums, before which there was this experienced band that, from the force of its riffs and energy amazed us with its debut, and left me open-mouthed by its successor.  Sadly, the band has carried on for ten years with this ‘legends’ routine, staying active or reuniting to bring out an album which gives them the excuse to tour, interpreting these classic songs which still give them relevance and prestige. However, in the case of this album, it’s at a much more modest level.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, it’s praiseworthy: it’s well worth you giving this album some minutes of your time. It’s rare to find an album that covers its major themes at the start and finish. The problem is the middle does nothing outstanding to tie it all together.

Since the band announced this new reunion, I was excited by the prospect that, at long last, I might see them live, at least as part of some festival in the autumn. I must remain patient: the time runs quickly from now until September, and fingers crossed that they visit Mexico for the first time.

Finally, I’ve pleasure in saying there’s no need to explain why they called it K 2.0!

If you’re a Kula Shaker fan visiting the site for the first time, welcome! You might like my review of the boys’ brilliant gig in Glasgow a couple of months back. You might also like this tune – probably the closest I’ve got to KS territory…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Living behind the curve: can a 150 quid laptop be any good?

I’ve been neglecting the blog for a bit. There’s a couple of reasons for that, but I do have some more hefty posts coming up soon. In the meantime, I thought I would start what might be a continuing series on my recent acquisition of a cheap laptop, and whether it can be made to work despite my worst misgivings!

I suppose I should start with where I’m coming from as a consumer. Like many people my age (53 at the date of this post) I’m not a natural with the ever-evolving world of technology, but nor am I a complete technophobe. I’m basically interested in what tech can do for me (non-complex word-processing, music recording and editing, and communicating with the great wide world through t’internet, mainly) rather than in the tech itself. I have an ageing desktop at home which acts as my recording studio and principal home work station; I have a mobile phone which, theoretically, could be semi-smart, but I use solely for phoning, texting, and listening to music on.

In between those things, I’ve been looking for a device that’s (reasonably) portable, gives access to the internet, and is simple to use. It will fulfil two main functions: allowing me to spend less time in the upstairs study/recording studio and more with the rest of the family downstairs (while they stare at a tv screen, I can stare at a different screen and be some sort of presence in their lives, I reason) and for holiday use, to load photos on/connect to dubious hotel wi-fi and check on Facebook/Twitter/all that sort of stuff.

I appreciate this may sound like the Dark Ages to some of you. The truth is though, I rarely find the need to check my social media status on the move; it can wait till I get to my next cup of coffee, at least. And yes, I have heard of tablets, thanks – I tried one of those, an Asus, and it fell over within a year.

All of which is by way of explaining why my purchasing decisions generally show me resolutely behind the curve, tech-wise. I tend to think that they should have just about mastered laptops by now: I’m perfectly happy with a proper keyboard firmly attached to the screen. Also, having dabbled with Android, and free-to-download word-processing ware before, I’m not that fussed. I’d rather stick to the tried and tested Microsoft stuff, however expensive and less than perfect it might be.

So, having alienated all the techies in my readership already, what was I looking for, and where? Well, the where round these parts is easy: there are only two shops in twenty miles of my home that actually sell computers now, and they’re both in the same retail park: Currys, and PC World. Even more conveniently, they’re owned by the same people, but in one of those entertaining glitches in the all-encompassing world of global capitalism, they sell a slightly different set of laptops. So it’s worth trekking the few yards between the two, past Toys R Us, Next, and all the other exciting-yet-depressingly-ubiquitous brand names you get in every single retail park in the UK, just to see if the other one’s got something different. I’m sure that’s been carefully thought through by their owners.

And I was glad that I did, because if I hadn’t I might not have seen this little beauty:

HP Stream 11-r050sa 11.6" Laptop - Blue

Isn’t she lovely? OK, so she’s just an HP laptop (technically an HP 11-R050SA), but once I saw her, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. It wasn’t just that she was petite (11.6″) and cheap (£149.99), the way I like my laptops: she was – hot damn it, she was pretty in that colour! The sales assistant warned me she was slow. That was okay: I wasn’t going to do anything beyond basic wordprocessing, maybe the occasional powerpoint for work, and browsing the Web, on her. That seemed to be the main difference between her and the other, much more expensive types, sitting sulkily in rows around her.

Then began the Battle of the Add-Ons. Now, this is normally where I revert to national stereotype, and become incredibly mean about everything; whether it’s being Scottish, or just a bleeding heart liberal’s in-built mistrust of big business, I generally take the narrow-eyed stance that everything they try to sell you after the thing you came in for is to be treated with extreme suspicion. So I usually pass on the extended warranty, the anti-virus software (I’ve pretty much survived on the free version of AVG for years, without any major incident) and, occasionally, even the Microsoft Office (didn’t that used to come as standard? Oh, yes, sir, but now we like to give you the choice).

However, recognising I was pretty much buying the cheapest small laptop in the shop, I decided to change my strategy, although I still held out against the anti-virals, after a nasty experience with McAfee about three devices ago. So here’s how the purchase eventually rang up:

Pretty little laptop:                                                                                                                                   £149.99

Three years’ customer support agreement (paid up front – the other methods too confusing)     £69.00

Microsoft Office Home & Student (the ‘permanent’ one: why would you buy the yearly one?)     £99.99

TOTAL                                                                                                                                                        £319.98

So, just to sum up there, the laptop cost 20 quid less than the sum of the protection money to insure it doesn’t fall over in the first three years, and non-techy software to run on it for basic office functions.

Steal of the century or pig in a poke? Stand by for updates.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Songs in a Scottish Accent 1: Why I came to love Country

I had a strange epiphany on Thursday around 7 am, as I crested the rise before Falkland and saw the Howe of Fife laid out in all its glory, while Lucinda Williams growled in my ear about West Memphis: it was 5 years almost to the day since I began to appreciate country music for the first time.

Growing up in the Seventies, country seemed pretty much for old people, or at least the kind of people that would go along to country and western clubs, and/or learn to do line dancing. The stuff that came out of Nashville was slick, polished, schmaltzy, and seemingly devoid of any rebellious spirit. The only thing I knew about Willie Nelson was he featured in a pretty good joke (the punchline being: ‘well, I don’t know about the other two, but the one in the middle looks like Willie Nelson…’ if you haven’t heard it, don’t ask).

My musical tastes were pretty much guitar based rock, from Dylan and Springsteen through to punk and new wave. Anything with that whiny pedal steel noise just made me think of middle aged folks wearing checked shirts and Stetsons, trying to pretend they were from Louisiana rather than Lenzie.

Then, in 2011, I was lucky enough to get a chance to go to a conference in Nashville. We flew out the day after the last Scottish Parliamentary elections, and had a whale of a time. Seriously, all the good stories you’ve heard about Nashville was true. There was even a Gibson Guitars bus.

Actually, a lot of the stuff I heard in the bars on Lower Broadway was rock, or soul standards, but I heard enough of the real deal to begin to understand what country really was: one of the essential strands of DNA in Americana, that had gone on to influence all the music I had always liked. I read recently Springsteen saying that, before writing the songs that went into the River, he listened to Hank Williams, because he wanted to get that honesty of storytelling into the voice he used for the album. Three chords and the truth, indeed.

Back to that epiphany above Falkland, though. Although I’ve never been a massive fan of Scottish folk music, it did occur to me that it was strange, really, that all of my musical taste is really about American folk music instead – in other words, blues, country, gospel, and all those other DNA strands. Maybe it’s as simple as I consider myself more urban than rural, and Scottish folk seems to me much more rooted in its rural origins – and yes, I understand how Scottish folk has gone into the primordial soup from which Americana’s emerged, having danced a pas-de-basque (the Scottish country dance step all Scottish schoolchildren get taught, as part of an excruciatingly hormonal rite of passage in the school gym – again, if you’re not Scottish, don’t ask) to a bluegrass band when I was in Nashville.

Whatever. What I do know is that artists like Lucinda Williams and, more recently, Jason Isbell, have got me interested in country in a way I wasn’t before. One of the songs we’re doing at the gig on Saturday (Venus + Isaac: FB event here), ‘Death in Venice,’ is definitely country-influenced. I can even imagine a bit of subtle pedal steel on ‘Highway Tonight,’ one of the Venus Carmichael standards.

Of course this may just be that I am now middle aged. It is true that I am often seen wearing a check shirt; and my band leader for the second half of the gig, Mr Brutal, has been recently pictured wearing what could be described as a Stetson. But I’m not expecting any line dancing. Not to the whale song piece, at least.

And no matter how country I get, I’ll be trying my best to sing in a Scottish accent….

 

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Attack of the Killer Drones

Drones have been getting a bad press recently, and rightly so: but don’t worry, this isn’t about the type of drone it’ll soon be economically realistic to buy to send on CIA-style missions against the neighbour’s cat. No sirree Bob. The drones I’m talking about are of the musical variety.

There’s a strong tradition of droning in Scottish music of course: it’s an essential element of the bagpipes, as anyone who’s ever walked past a busker on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile can testify (incidentally, what was up with that on Saturday just past? There were, like, two of them doing a duet next to David Hume, and although I’m no expert, they were properly good? No Flower of Scotland or anything!)

Anyway, when I was starting to put together material for my forthcoming (at some point) solo album/vanity project, ‘Songs in a Scottish Accent,’ there were a few people at the top of my list of potential collaborators, and one of them was Craig ‘Harky’ Harkness. Apart from being – at various points – my unpaid (other than the occasional pint) sound and recording engineer, producer, mentor and provider of fun musical facts, Harky is a greatly underrated (especially by himself) musician and composer of interesting noises. One which I have still on my phone is literally called ‘Harky’s Drone-ilicious Comp’ (I think someone else named it for him, as he was too modest to call it anything, typically) which has featured in a fire safety film made by Fife students and now to be shown more widely.

When we first started batting ideas back and forward, Harky – perhaps because he knew of my liking for Kula Shaker – sent me this short piece which he’d put together on his phone, using a shruti box app and, I think, another synth app. The droning of the shruti box – an Indian instrument – the high, wailing, synth, and the positively hypnotic, weird beat he’d added to it, was intriguing to me, to say the least. I saw it as a perfect length for a short spoken word piece.

My more conventional musical tropes were then brought to bear on it. Layering on guitars and keyboard was easy enough – for those of you that are interested, I used my own, semi-acoustic De Ville for the distorted solo – amazing how a clean acoustic signal can be thoroughly dirtied up with the right software. I added a burst of bagpipe sample at the start, as a sort of hommage to my homeland drone. I also have some decent tabla samples, so I built them into a basic beat that complemented Harky’s original percussion. Then I was ready to put some words on it.

The first piece I’d had in mind, called coincidentally David Hume’s Blues, proved unsuitable. That was partly because I’d had so much fun with the distorted guitars I’d have had to shout half the story: but mainly because I couldn’t get the words right. The words I used instead had a strange provenance.

In April 2014, we went on one of our Spanish expeditions, taking in Granada, Ubeda, and Malaga. It was a great trip, but the experience was coloured by my state of mind at the time: my Dad had passed away in January of that year. The small notepad I’d forced myself to take with me, to write something – anything – for the first time in three months, felt like a burden rather than a source of pleasure. All the same, some disjointed thoughts, observations, and images, made their way in. I was under no illusion that any of it might be useable.

After the holiday, the notebook – one of these fake vintage ones you get, with a faux animal skin cover, and unbleached pages that are very pretty, but difficult to write on, especially in a moving bus – went into the bookcase, unread for a year. When I did dig it out, some of the words then got sewn together loosely: it took another year before I looked at them again, tightened them up, and began to see the patterns in them: the Moroccan street-hawker dodging the cops on the Street of the Catholic Kings; the Moorish ruler of the Alhambra, grieving for his kingdom; and, of course, my own sense of loss. The final version owes much to Jane McKie, my poetic mentor (like Harky, also unpaid).

So that’s how the words and music of ‘Leaving Granada’ came together. Hope you like it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Suck-Ass Aliens and the Single Malt Molotov: a review of 10 Cloverfield Lane

This blog has a convention of not doing snarky reviews. Frankly, there’s enough negativity out there; and as a fellow producer of (some kindly say) creative stuff myself, I don’t really feel it’s either big or clever to tear up someone else’s work for the sake of a few cheap laughs. Better to be positive and say what you liked about an indie band’s/poet’s/performer’s work, and add a little more sunshine (even if it’s slightly dappled) rather than rain on their parade.

However. When a group of highly paid, highly regarded Hollywood producers, directors and writers get together and between them strain to produce the biggest pile of unintentionally hilarious shite I’ve ever had the privilege to witness in a cinema, then the let’s-be-positive convention goes out the window.

(Spoiler alert: if you intend to go and see this movie and enjoy it as its makers intended, don’t read on. I also give away the denouement of Dead Calm, if you’ve never seen that).

10 Cloverfield Lane starts well. In an unspecified US city, the central character, Michelle, (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is clearing out of an apartment, leaving her set of keys and an engagement ring. She’s travelling light: a small valise, a notebook of dress designs and some needles and thread in a box, and a bottle of what looks like single malt whisky, called something like Lagavulin but not actually Lagavulin – presumably the distillery wouldn’t shell for the product placement. Let’s call it Lagavulin, in the interests of getting this over the line.

Actually, the whole need for this bit of back story about dumping her fiance isn’t properly explained: everything else that happens in the movie could’ve happened if she’d gone down to the local deli for a nourishing breakfast of croissants and Eggs Benedict, before driving north for an out of town meeting. I suppose it follows the tenet of starting at the moment of crisis, but it’s really a crisis more or less completely irrelevant to all the other points of the story. So she gets in the car, throwing the Lagavulin into the back seat for later, and drives north through some pleasant wooded areas for a bit. Then, as night falls and the wearisome dumpee, Ben, calls her to try to talk things through, something smashes into her car and it then tumbles, end over end, into a ravine.

A note here on Michelle’s durability here, as during the rest of the film. She comes away from an accident that, in most other movies, would have ended up with the car exploding in a ball of flame and its occupants (East European hitmen, quite possibly) being chargrilled to medium rare, with nothing more than a couple of scratches and a gammy leg that goes away after a couple of days. Is it because she is a woman, and therefore it isn’t so nice to see her splattered with her own gore in the way that a male action hero would be? Not that I felt the lack of it: just saying.

Anyhoo, when you wake up after a car accident in a windowless cell on a mattress, with your gammy leg support chained to the wall, you would tend to think that either something has gone horribly wrong with what remains of Obamacare, or you’ve been abducted by your garden variety abductor/rapist/torturer and, probably after a bit, murderer of attractive young women. John Goodman appears presently (the character does have a name, Howard I think, but really, it’s just John Goodman) and does little to dispel that first impression for quite some time.

However, he does then indicate he might equally be a conspiracy theorist/survivalist nut who thinks the world outside has ended and that’s why he’s brought her to the bunker. Michelle tries to stab him with the pointy end of her crutch, but this doesn’t go to plan. He tells her he rescued the Lagavulin (also amazingly unscathed) from her car wreck but didn’t have time to bring it in from the back of his own before the Bad Stuff started falling from the skies.

Presently, enter character 3, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who gives some credence to John Goodman’s survivalist schtick by confirming that he helped Goodman build the bunker, and in fact fought his own way in to get away from the world ending upstairs. A word on this: given that Emmett’s back story is that he’s basically a slacker dude who funked a uni scholarship, why, and in what capacity, would John Goodman employ him to help build an apocalypse-safe survival shelter? I mean, hasn’t he heard of the Trusted Traders Scheme?

Whatever the thinking behind all that, Emmett’s now part of the dysfunctional family hunkered down in the bunker, and there ensues a somewhat tense evening meal, after which Michelle, who’s still not convinced about John Goodman, panels him across the puss with something hefty and tries to make a break for it. Except when she gets to the airlock, there’s a woman who appears to be melting in the polluted atmosphere. So maybe the big man had a point after all.

After Michelle sews up Goodman’s head wound for him – he’s amazingly trusting of her with sharp objects, given she’s already smacked him upside the head, tried to stab him and nearly set fire to the bunker – life settles down to post-apocalyptic normality. The bunker, incidentally, resembles the interior of a 1970s caravan, right down to the tinned food, bad taste furnishings, and a small selection of popular board games. Goodman may be grumpy, paranoid and more than a little domineering, but he does his share of the washing up, and is soon joining in with the Buckaroo.

However, there are still unresolved issues between the three of them: as anyone who’s ever done it knows, sharing a flat with two other people can be tricky, especially if you begin to think one of them may have abducted and murdered a neighbourhood teenage girl after his wife and daughter left him because of his conspiracy-toting, survivalist ways. Emmett and Michelle conspire to find a way out, but it’s tough to kid a conspiracy nutter inside a 1970s caravan and Goodman rumbles them during a portentous round of Trivial Pursuit, shoots Emmett, and starts to render him down in a handy vat of acid he’s kept aside from his Navy days for such eventualities.

Michelle, meantime, has been using her nascent dressmaking skills to create a bio-hazard suit and gas mask out of little more than a shower curtain, a couple of washing up liquid bottles and lashings of sticky back plastic (ok,ok, so it’s gaffer tape, but UK readers of a certain age will get the reference – Val Singleton would’ve been proud of the girl). Goodman discovers this when he pitches up, grizzly beard shaven off, and a glint in his eye that suggests that Ker-Plunk time is over, and now for some less innocent games of Daddy and Little Princess. Fortunately Michelle is now so adept at attacking him it’s not long before he’s down and seemingly out in half a vat of acid, the bunker’s on fire again, and Michelle is off up the ventilation shaft for a second time, heading for the outside world.

Spare a thought for John Goodman. With precious little dialogue given to Winstead’s character, (who nevertheless does a grand job of acting variously appalled, terrified, deeply uneasy, and sometimes just really, really, pissed off) it’s Goodman who has to carry the film, with his blustering performance as a conspiracy theorist/survivalist/child-murdering/Buckaroo player, and he does so with brio, even as he morphs into his last characterisation as the Unkillable Monster Who You Can’t Take Down With Just Half A Vat of Acid. As he stabs wildly into the ventilation duct, roaring ‘Michelle! Michelle!’ you can’t help wondering whether the building regulations on ventilation ducts shouldn’t be tightened up a bit these days. I mean, the number of times they’re used as a hiding place/escape route/ambush position in the movies, you would think the authorities could’ve made it a bit more convenient for people to move about in them more comfortably.

In any event, Michelle escapes, donning her home-made bio-hazard outfit and heading for Goodman’s SUV, only to find that, unlike every other car owner in every other American movie ever made, the big paranoid eejit hasn’t left his keys in the ignition. Just then, the bunker explodes, sending a plume of missing jigsaw pieces, beige cushion fabric, and tinned marrow fat peas high into the air, attracting the attention of the invading aliens.

Ah, yes. The aliens. Look, I may have been a bit harsh on the movie so far, because the truth is, up to this point, it has been pretty genuinely gripping. Some real jump out of your seat moments (the sudden impact of the car smash, particularly) and some nice building of psychological tension between the three players in the locked-box drama down in the bunker. In fact, this whole review might be a minority report: Kate Muir in the Times gave it four stars; ditto the Telegraph; ditto Benjamin Lee in the Guardian. So I may be out of line here.

But it’s like … do you remember Dead Calm? Sure you do. Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman are on a boat out at sea, when they come across another craft which has been crippled and there’s one confused bloke, Billy Zane, on it. Taut, tense and all other words meaning the same thing thriller: creaking of the ropes and planks on deck cranking up the tension, ratchet by ratchet. Great movie, right up until just about the final frame, when Nicole Kidman shoots Billy Zane in the mouth with a distress flare and you see, through a sail, the flare explode in his head and come out through his ears. I mean, through his ears! Which made it 99.99% great taut, tense etc. thriller, and .001% laugh out loud funny. At least for me.

Thing is, in 10 Cloverfield Lane, we’re only about an hour in and she’s done up John Goodman like a kipper, so we need another half hour at least of Escalating Levels of Peril. Which means the aliens have to get themselves involved.

Now. I’m not one of these, ‘them aliens coming over here, stealing our best scenes of escalating levels of peril,’ kind of people. I wouldn’t build a wall to keep the aliens out, not even the genocidal variety we have here. Or ask them to pay for it. I’m all for a good bit of skiffy in a movie. In fact, some friends who don’t actually pay that much attention to what I write these days, but like to show an interest, still ask how my science fiction stories are coming along.

But. Here’s the thing. I want to believe, but the CGI effects team really have to help me out with that? So, for example, when we first see the alien space craft, it’s touring about above the cornfields, morphing itself into different non-aerodynamic shapes as it goes along, in a showy-offy kind of way that puts the implausibility of our humble bumble-bee’s flight in the shade just a bit. Alerted to the exploding bunker, it dusts the area with some Bad Shit like some sort of off-world crop sprayer, but Michelle manages to escape any effects by slipping on the mask with the washing up liquid bottles and holding her breath for a bit.

In fact, for a superior species that’s just taken out – it would appear – the most heavily armed and militarily advanced nation on earth, these aliens seem frankly a bit rubbish at dealing with one woman tooled up with little more than a zippo and a bottle of single malt (of which more in a minute). With the aliens away again, she tries to get into the melty woman’s car. But – what is it with these people? – melty’s only gone and locked it up as well before frantically trying to get into the bunker in the earlier scene, even taking the precaution of putting the alarm on in the face of approaching Armageddon. This is now triggered, attracting the attention of the patrolling aliens again.

More murky CGI effects ensue. The craft has sent down some sort of ground force, which we only glimpse, with Michelle, through the dusty window of the agricultural shed affair she’s hiding out in. The scouting party seems to be both slithery and scampery, scaly, fast moving and of varying size, but despite quickly sussing out there’s one of these pesky humans still breathing in the agricultural shed affair, it doesn’t think of just opening the door, instead flailing noisily about against the walls and roof. Michelle makes a break for it, to the relative comfort and safety of Goodman’s SUV again.

The alien lollops over, but instead of just using the plainly visible door handles, batters itself against the windows a few times, making scary alien type noises. Then the ship appears above, and everything goes to hell in a low-budget handcart.

Applying some sort of suction force, the ground force alien decides the best way to deal with this recalcitrant subspecies is to haul her, in the SUV, up into the spaceship for a closer look. Except, in the gathering dark, what it appears to be hauling Michelle and her car into is some sort of giant aperture, or orifice. Ok, so it looks like a giant alien arsehole. There, I’ve said it, and I hope it’s not just me that had that held that thought at that moment in the movie. It might be that this is some sort of knowing, post-ironic inversion of the usual alien myth about humans being given an anal probe, but the climax of the movie looks like the heroine heading up the alien spacecraft’s back passage.

Fortunately, there’s still that oft-mentioned bottle of Lagavulin in the back. Michelle stuffs the neck with paper, lights it with the Zippo and, with the accuracy of a Brett Lee return over the top of the stumps from deep fine leg, she lobs the single malt Molotov right up where the sun don’t shine. The ship explodes, conveniently zooming off to crash somewhere other than right on top of her, and the SUV equally conveniently breaks her fall, allowing her to walk off with nary a scratch. Not even sure she had her seatbelt on.

Michelle, having survived the survivalist, is the ultimate survivor now. She heads off in the melty woman’s car, presumably without much of a plan at this point, but setting her jaw in a certain way and beginning to resemble Sarah Connor out of Terminator.   Just then, the radio crackles to life and tells her the humans have fought back, and recaptured the southern seaboard; she turns left for Houston, heading to join them.

Who knows, maybe they’ve also discovered the aliens’ anal Achilles heel as regards flaming Scotch Sambucas  inserted per rectum.

 

 

Footnote: props to Vue Cinema, Edinburgh, for extending the film’s experience beyond the doors of the auditorium by having men’s urinals so small, smelly and tightly packed you began to yearn for John Goodman’s toilet facilities instead. I presume that was a temporary installation: I mean, they can’t be like that all the time, can they?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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