Sunday, 5 December 2004

Band Aid 20

And so it happened. As predictable as the result of the forthcoming Blunkett inquiry, the charity love-in that is the modern day pop “stars” rendition of Geldof and Ure’s Yuletide guiltfest “Do They Know It’s Christmas” has shot in at number one.

Now I take the charts as seriously as the next brain-dead music hack. Trust me, there are a lot of us about. The top 40 nowadays is more a measure of personality and promotional power than it is a reflection of the quality and popularity of the track or act involved. Why bother writing an original song when you can re-work a classic track and attach a SmashHits-genic face like Will Young or Jamelia to it?

Music the business is now so spineless and unscrupulous that Cowell, Fuller and their money-spinning melody makers will forgo the necessary creative instinct inherent in music to line their pockets with countless tweenagers’ Saturday allowances.

But then, we knew all that already. Pop Idol, as spectacularly crass an excuse for showcasing musical “talent” as it was, did us musical purists a massive favour by lifting the lid on how the music industry has turned from a fight for the best song – promoting creative talent and perfection – to a fight for the most exposure and marketing – pleasing the corporations associating themselves with the likes of Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake.

So why then am I paying so much heed to the fact this poor excuse for a song has sold more copies than the rest of the chart combined? Why is the fact this seasonal sludge has become the best of a bad bunch a cause for celebration?

The truth is simply this - it isn’t. But somehow it warrants a huge chunk of press and TV news attention. This news story exists for one reason only – to make the 300,000 people who bought a copy feel good about themselves. Yes, well done you, you are helping feed a starving child in Sudan.

Well, alright, perhaps you are. I’ve no quarrell with charity, and the success of Live Aid and the original (and miles, miles better) “Do They Know It’s Christmas” is testament to the fact that this method of fundraising is tried, tested and it works. But the innocence and idealism of the original Band Aid is nonexistent in this version.

Why? Because even a charity record nowadays isn’t immune to that promotional and business-like methodology that stalks todays music world.

Bringing together a rag-tag bunch of what are effectively glorified karaoke singers to murder a Chrimbo classic has one direct result.

It’s just another track, another notch on the musical bedpost. When history looks back and judges Will Young, they will note 1) winner of Pop Idol; 2) Number 1 album with “Fridays Child”; 3) Dodgy duets with Gareth Gates; 4) Sang on Band Aid 20.

Leaving the lack of soul to one side, it’s a very naff arrangement of arguably one of the most recognisable Christmas songs ever recorded. The haunting bells that ring and that punching bassline made the song what it was.

I was one of the 17million who were forced to sit through the original airplay of the video whilst waiting for the Simpsons when it went out on about 29 channels a few Thursdays back, and was looking forward to a big, orchestral, Mike Oldfield-style panoramic Dolby Digital stereo tubular bell to start it off.

Instead a creeping, irritating piano that made me ashamed to be a player of the instrument. Add to that a lack of decent harmonising by a mostly bland, similar-sounding cast (can you tell the difference between Chris Martin and that bloke from Keane?); a totally shoe-horned in, unnecessary rap by Dizzee Rascal (sorry Dizzee boyo, but even you should have told them to scrap that idea), and even to my amateur-musician’s ears the quality of the mix leaves a lot to be desired.

The only parts I thought were half-decent were the Dido (Boy George) and Robbie Williams (George Michael) solos at the start and the Joss Stone / Justin “Darkness” Hawkins duet. Even Bono’s hastily re-recorded part was pure pig poo. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it as countless people have spouted over the years. If ever a phrase applied...

This attempt at bringing a mid-80s electro/pop/rock track into the 21st Century sadly / happily (depending on your opinion) fails before it begins. Aside from the Rascal Rap, there’s a part where the beat disappears completely. How the feck are you supposed to dance to that at your office party?

Pleasing the fickle tweenagers who would surely scream their alarmingly increasingly aware little heads off at the prospect of seeing the Darkness and the Sugababes on one track is one thing. Sacrificing musical sanity in the pursuit of a forced compromise is another.

So what is my advice? Go out and buy it, play it once, then see if you can find your vinyl 7-inch copy of the original Band Aid song up in your loft and put the new one next to the old one and forget about it.

And lest us forget, another bloody cover has become number one.

Wednesday, 24 November 2004

Sport's Priority should be Drug-free Competition

Sport. A pastime undertaken for enjoyment and amusement. An activity engaged for purposes of competition. Where a person or team take on another person or team in a physically demanding exercise to determine a winner and a loser. Over time the natural competitive instinct inherent in the human psyche has developed a vast number of games, contests and sports, all of which can be won; and all of which can be cheated at somehow.

Before the age of complex chemistry and readily-available narcotic substances, cheating, bribery and throwing of games was the single most damaging thing in sports. The Chicago White Sox of 1919 for example. However now we live in an age which has whole subcultures dedicated to recreational drugs, and an Olympics Banned Substances list longer than a pharmacists stocklist. It’s become increasingly easy for would-be cheats to get hold of the skank they need to either increase their performance or enhance their mood.

Drugs have been responsible for some of the saddest stories in sport – from the Seoul Olympics and Ben Johnson, to the bizarre, almost tragi-comic saga of the Greek athletes Konstas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou falling off their bike at Athens. From the alcoholism of the best footballer Britain has ever seen – George Best – to the bizarre episode of Rio Ferdinand’s missed drug test. Drugs have been responsible for some of the worst moments in sports history, and their effects range from bans and fines to those which are life-changing.

There are two distinct areas to consider when dealing (if you’ll pardon the pun) with drugs: performance enhancing drugs and recreational drugs. Performance enhancing drugs such as THG, Nandralone and other anabolic steroids boost an athlete’s natural performance in a shorter space of time than training or a healthy diet would do. Several atheletes, despite the stringent testing, are still turning up for Olympics loaded with banned substances. In fact the problem now warrants its own comparative statistic. Olympics’ success are being measured by the number of failed drugs tests. And of course if a drugged-up athelete actually wins a medal, and is then disqualified, it effects the entire story of the games. Switching games for a second, one remembers the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester – where three medals are given out for weightlifting. The Romanian contender won two golds, the Welsh contender one gold and two silvers. The Romanian was found guilty of taking a banned substance, Wales gained two more golds and shot up to sixth overall in the medals table, ahead of Scotland. Thankyou very much! Thankfully most performance enhancing drugs, apart from beefing you up a bit, don’t do lasting damage to the human body.

However the seriousness of recreational drugs such as cannabis and cocaine – probably the two most prevalent to todays’ rich sports star – outweigh any possible enjoyment. Careers have been ruined, and lives irreversibly altered. Alcohol and cigarettes are of course legal drugs, and whilst their effects are considered less dangerous than class A-C drugs, they are still addictive. Paul Merson and George Best immediately spring to mind.

Whatever the evils of corruption and racism, amongst others, no other single thing in sport has the ability to physically, emotionally and mentally ruin a competitive human being.

Saturday, 6 November 2004

Unnerved by Ufton Nervet

Saturday evening, about 8pm, waiting for a train. Something millions of other commuters like myself do every day.

Well, I like to call myself a commuter, I take the train to work. It’s a twenty minute 40 mile-an-hour crawl from Falmouth through the relative obscurity of the Cornish countryside to Truro, but I still like to call it a commute. It likens me to businessmen with briefcases crawling all over the plazas of Charing Cross and Waterloo every Monday morning. Even when I’m wearing a radioactive orange fleece.

Thing is about this occasion, I have heard about the accident at Ufton Nervet. Suddenly, the automated voice reading out “please familiarise yourself with the safety information provided on posters...” doesn’t seem so mundane. The laid back attitude regular travellers have on this tiny branchline has been replaced with a sense of unease. There’s about thirty of us on this last run tonight, and all seem to know. The ones who lie back, feet on seats in front of them listenening contently to their iPods, are now looking out the window at the pinpricks of orange studded against the pitch black of the November night.

As usual no-one gets out at Perranwell, about two at Penryn and then ten or so at Penmere, the privately-owned halt. Every fast burst and every braking moment is causing the pulse to quicken just slightly.

Of course it’s all just a knee-jerk reaction. The chances of anything untoward happening to this train are close to minute. The line is only open to one train at a time, and the speed limit is low.

Of course, the people taking the 17:35 from Paddington on Saturday had no such assurances. This wasn’t a private branch line. Other trains were ahead, and behind, the First Great Western service to Plymouth. Complicated spaghetti-bolognese arrangements of points and red signals had to be negociated. But then, the millions of pounds spent by Railtrack / Network Rail / Association of Train Operating Companies (delete as appropriate) were meant to eliminate all chances of accidents being caused by the circumstances which killed passengers at Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield, Potters Bar, Clapham, Severn Tunnel...

But there’s a new danger. Cars are beginning to find their way onto rail tracks. Selby was a one-off - a stupid, irresponsible driver who didn’t sleep and ended up driving over a bridge. So why did a group of foreign workers die when their van was hit by a train only last year? And why was a suicidal man able to take his, and six other, lives this weekend?

Because it’s far too easy to just park your car on a train track at an unmanned level crossing. Who’s to stop you? I bet you any money there’s unmanned level crossings on freight lines carrying dangerous chemicals and materials. Plays right into the terrorists’ hands doesn’t it? Whoever thought of mixing road and rail was obviously inspired – in principle they work – but failed to realise the full implications.

Two things stood out from Saturday night. How come in such a quiet, uninhabited, expansive area as Ufton Nervet could a tunnel or a bridge not be built under or over the train line? And also, why was a train travelling at 120mph over a level crossing? The mere fact there’s a possiblity that something could block the track is enough incentive for there to be a slower speed limit around level crossings.

Perhaps that’s why we were nervous on Saturday on the Falmouth branch. Not because we expected an accident, but because we were worried about yet another implication of the Tories’ self-interested, misguided, plain stupid policy of de-enfranchising and privatising a tight-knit, interdependent, necessary public transport system. Having maintenence, station and line management, train punctuality and engineering all under one umbrella WORKED – splitting it up DOESN’T.

Yes it encourages competition and yes it’s good for the economy, but a disillusioned student desperate to make it home for Christmas sat for three hours in the damp of Exeter St. Davids waiting for his new Virgin Voyager to turn up doesn’t really give a monkeys about how well the economy’s doing. He or she just cares that when the train leaves the station, it’s going to stay on the rails.

Seven lives have been lost because someone thought it was a good idea to kill themselves in a car on a trainline. Ultimately responsiblity lies with him. But they’ve also been lost because someone thought it was a good idea to have a road run over a trainline. They’ve been lost becuase someone thought it was a good idea to have trains going at 100mph over these level crossings. But they’ve also been lost because someone thought it was a good idea to put profit above safety, and, because money is power, it’s not going to change anytime soon. They’ll just promise to improve safety, then sit on their hands until we have the next semi-regular fatal accident on British railways.

Friday, 6 February 2004

It's Not Unusual - but Maybe That's What It Takes

Alex Parks was the quiet one - the elfin Cornish lass whose shyness and self-effacing attitude won the votes of 56% of the Fame Academy audience. Her voice is similar to both Annie Lennox - deep and rich - and Sinead O'Connor - raw and emotional. Her debut single made number three in the charts. She toured the TV shows, amongst them Friday Night With Jonathan Ross.

Given Ross' reputation for amusingly risqué and sometimes slightly insensitive material, not once did he mention Alex's sexuality. Alex has been a lesbian since she was fourteen.

It seems that every reality TV show nowadays needs to be totally PC with its choice of contestants. Looking back over the plethora of reality TV recently the number of gay, lesbian or bisexual participants is, some would say, over-representative of Britain's LGB population.

Certainly in Big Brother the producers positively discriminated in the hope that it would bring credibility: including as many ethnic, sexual and national minorities as possible. This was seen less and less in 2002/3.

It's interesting to note that Will Young, Brian Dowling and Alex were actual winners of their shows, whilst Anna Nolan was a runner up. Being gay therefore has little or no impact on a person's performance in a particular show. Why therefore does homosexuality seem to be the primary identifier of these talented people?

Remember Will came out to the public only after winning Pop Idol. It's possible this was because the other gay finalist, Korben, was voted out in the first round. Such cynicism is only strengthened by the persistent use of "gay", "lesbian" and "homosexual" in the print media.

The counter argument of this is that sexuality is a strong source of identity, consistent with "Welsh" or "Asian". However homosexuality is still seen largely as a lifestyle choice, similar to being a Christian or a follower of a football team.

The idea that a person is naturally homosexual is increasingly being supported. However this has not yet filtered through into public opinion. This is why the print media focus on it and use it as a primary identifier.

In the case of Alex it is even more so as the words "Cornish," "19-year-old" and "elfin" also apply. Jonathan Ross, in his own non-serious manner, managed to draw attention to these three things. Unfortunately he was the exception to the rule. Heat magazine made sure Alex's sexuality dominated the subject matter. In contrast an interview with Out Northwest magazine was sensitive and only gave a little background information about her sexuality.

The fact remains that homosexuality is one of the last stigmas. Being gay is still seen as abnormal and it is still seen as a lifestyle choice rather than a natural part of a person's character. It's time that "gay", "lesbian" and "bisexual" were moved into the same group as "American", "Chinese", "Asian", "Muslim" and other such identifiers. Like it or not, it's who they are, not who they want to be.