Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Top Ten Posts of 2014

Despite the bots, views are still the only objective means I have of working out which blog posts have reach beyond my regular readers (hello - if you're out there).

So, for the record, here's the top ten most read posts of 2014 from the blog. 

There's not much of a common denominator. But its worth noting that the first two posts combined have more views than the other eight, largely because they got linked elsewhere on the internet. The rest relied directly on my own networks on social media and e-mail for transmission.

If you want to talk (and listen), come away from the walls and into the centre of the room. If you don't want only the loudest and angriest voices to be heard, speak up.

Why does much bad science-fiction (and its kissing cousin, bad fantasy) considers the mass death of unnamed characters to be an essential part of the drama?

Varg's racist ideology is so inherent to his music that you can't write an article about 'why he matters' and fudge the issue by not mentioning it at all , and then expect to be taken seriously.

Every time people fall out over ways of working, don't welcome someone properly at a meeting, don't listen to each other, or fail to establish relationships of trust, Wheaton's Law isn't being followed. We're too busy, too focused, perhaps, to be good sports.

Pssst? Wanna try a new training workshop? 

Here's one we made earlier.

Science-fiction is a literature of ideas – even if some of it is in the business of recycling old tropes – so gamifying science-fiction story-building makes a lot of sense. 

"The Soft Pink Truth hereby abjures black metal homophobes, racists, and Nazis categorically and absolutely: MAY THIS CURSE BIND! Remember Magne Andreassen!"

At the time, I wanted to do great things, I didn’t want to compromise, I wanted to know what life is and I wanted to know everything. Readers, I have no progress to report whatsoever; I still aspire to these things but perhaps a little less blatantly and a little less forcibly than when I first adopted it as my personal mantra. On will live with me forever.

This new, potentially mind-bending experience accompanied me not to a dusty cottage with friends armed with handfuls of mushrooms, or an altering experience in woodlands waiting for the LSD to kick in, but to a Walkman whilst in my room on holiday with my mum and dad.

To call Shine and its offspring the definitive artefact of the Britpop years is on the face of it laughable. But the fact that they were compiled with no regard for anything other than what would make the best Halls of Residence party makes them much better at managing the continuity and contradiction of the music than your average journalistic or historical narrative.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Doors - catharsis in tight leather trousers

Over this holiday period, I've been listening to The Doors, as I realised I've never given them serious consideration before (possibly because I skipped the intense black-clad teenage phase). Having made it as far as album #3 (Waiting For The Sun) here are my thoughts.

The main difficulty with The Doors is listening past the legend. Even if you haven't seen the 1991 biopic, the status of Jim Morrison threatens to overshadow their actual music. After all, this is the man who helped to create the rock hero archetype others have sought to fill since then.

But you can't review stars while they're standing on their pedestal. You can worship them, as any One Direction fan will demonstrate, but to properly appreciate them you need to bring them back to earth. This is doubly difficult when, as Jim Morrison did as a lyricist and performer, musicians help create their own mythology.

So let's start by naming those demons to tame them: 

Rock 'n' Roll Shaman. 

American Poet. 

(Ahem) Lizard King

If you think this is all rather ridiculous, you'd be spot on. Ridiculousness is a big part of listening to The Doors in the twenty-first century. Their best-known (and generally best) songs - Light My Fire, Break On Through, Riders On The Storm, particularly The Endare pyrrhic victories for musical deftness over lyrical daftness. 

"We chased our pleasures here 
Dug our treasures there 
But can you still recall 
The time we cried 
Break on through to the other side"

Break On Through

"Can you picture what will be, so limitless and free 
Desperately in need, of some, stranger's hand 

In a, desperate land" 

The End

But you can't have the earnest hedonism and striving towards transcendence that powers those tunes without the willingness to also appear ridiculous. The two are sides of the same coin, and a hipster dismissal of Morrison and Co is as limiting a position as an unquestioning acceptance of their beatnik shtick.  

Remember also that the self-titled debut by The Doors came out in January 1967, five months after Revolver and five months before Sergeant Pepper. If ever there was a time to unironically preach love, drugs and emotional catharsis in tight leather trousers and sell a lot of records in the process, it was probably around that sea-change in music and society

Shorn of its contemporary context and resonance, The Doors is for me still half a good album. Side A in old money is where all the gems are, including Light My Fire (Ray Manzarek = organ hero), Break On Through and their Brecht/Weill cover, Alabama Song. The references points are as much jazz and blues as rock and roll, like the lyrics and the attitude anticipating the progressive years to follow.

Side B is filler, plus The End, a sprawling eleven-minute eastern blues full of Morrison's terrible end/friend, old/cold, snake/lake ad libs. It might have inspired other bands to surpass the three and a half minute mark, but hopefully only because they felt they could do better. It's no Patti Smith killing it on Birdland, believe me.

But the key musical weakness of early Doors is that it's really easy to imagine Austin Powers frugging away to them at the Electric Psychedelic Pussycat Swingers Club. And no track epitomises that better than the fun, harmless but unintentionally hilarious Twentieth Century Fox, a song which is about what you think it's about. 

But for all that the first album is of its time, it grabs your attention and offers at least one track up for the ages in Light My Fire. The next two can make no such claims.

Strange Days and Waiting For The Sun are each merely alright psychedelic albums with one good pop single each (People Are Strange and Hello, I Love You). After Waiting For The Sun, I had to go listen to Riders On The Storm a few times to remind myself of the critical wisdom that The Doors get their act together again a few albums later.

But .. even on Waiting For The Sun, comfortably the more ordinary of the two, there are still flashes of the vitality, focus and risk-taking ridiculousness of the debut. As evidence, let's leave you this chanted spoken-word blues, My Wild Love - it's as great as any song with the lyric 'My wild love is crazy / She screams like a bird / She moans like a cat / When she wants to be heard' can possibly be. 

Sunday, December 28, 2014

2014 cultural roll-call

Not a best of list, as such, but a taste of what I've most enjoyed in art and culture in 2014


Max Klee at the Tate Modern


This is a year when I've returned to my roots and mainly been reading SF. 

John Brunner - Stand On Zanzibar
Thomas M Disch - Camp Concentration
Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross - The Rapture Of The Nerds
Kameron Hurley - Infidel
Anne Leckie - Ancillary Justice
Kim Newman - Anno Dracula: The Bloody Red Baron
John Scalzi - Redshirts
Olaf Stapledon - Last And First Men


Caitlin Moran on her reading tour of How To Build A Girl at The Alex, Birmingham
Dead Dog In a Suitcase by Kneehigh at the Old Vic, Bristol
Frank Turner at the Capital FM Arena in Nottingham
Josh Record at Brighton Library for The Great Escape, and then again at Rochdale Library
Kaiser Chiefs at The Great Escape Festival
Once the Musical at the Phoenix, London
Pet Shop Boys at Bingley Festival (the first band I saw when I was 16)


Arctic Monkeys - AM
Bohren Und Der Club Of Gore - Sunset Mission
Crooked Necks - Alright Is Exactly What It Isn't 
Joni Mitchell - Blue
Panopticon - Kentucky
Ulver - Kveldsanger

Film & TV

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (eventually, once it got going)
Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes
Don't Tell The Bride (what?)
Guardians Of The Galaxy
Sonic Highways
Sound City
Sleepy Hollow season 1
Turtle Power - The Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (yes indeed)

Monday, December 22, 2014

Walt Whitman - an art to make elections irrelevant

This quote from Greil Marcus on art and politics in his amazing book about rock and roll Mystery Train is beyond brilliant.

Walt Whitman once wrote that he didn't want an art that could decide presidential elections; he wanted an art to make them irrelevant. He was interested in an artist's ability to determine the feel of American experience; to become a part of the instinctive response of the people to events; to affect the costs and the quality of everyday life.

[...] He thought that his work might affect whether his country would grow, and die, and start over again; whether his country would, at the margins of change, maintain a soul and a vitality that could be recognised, loved, and feared more easily than it could be defined.

[...] Whitman thought that limits were undemocratic. As good democrats, we fight it out within the limits of his ambition.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Christmas cooking link library

A link library of ideas for vegetarian, nut free, mushroom-free Christmas dinner ideas.

Thanks to everyone who suggested ideas via Facebook or Twitter, especially but certainly not limited to Anna, Beatrice, Brenda, Carol, Jan, Kiran, Mel, Niall, Nick, Owen, Rach and Sarah.

Thanks even to those who suggested steak and kidney pie (ah, no), cheese (ahem) and the Linda McCartney Celebration Roast (not to diss Linda, but this wasn't quite what I had in mind).

What we're seriously considering

Souffle (if we can find a dish in the next few days)

Things I like the sound of and might cook over the break anyway


Filing away for future reference

Parsnip pudding (sounds curious!)
Goats Cheese And Spinach Pie
Cheese And Leek Pie
Stuffed Aubergine
Choux Pastry Ring
Puy Lentil And Vintage Cheddar Loaf (or, on a similar note, Lentil And Cider Loaf)
Vegetarian haggis with roast vegetables
Foil-baked feta

Useful links

Minimalist Baker (not sure how Christmassy it is, but I love this site so thanks to Mel for suggesting it anyway!)

Oh... and here's a rather nice recipe for German Christmas Biscuits (Lebkuchen) I put into practice this Christmas.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Once owned by elite warriors

Not your common or garden spear carriers, you'll note.

Elite warriors.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Pirate post

Spotted late one November evening on Dudley Street in Birmingham city centre - turns out it's an exhibition about the equally notorious and celebrated hacker collective, the Chaos Computer Club.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Totally unofficial Friends of the Earth playlist

So, after our staff away-day - well, technically all-staff-in-our-London-office-day, but who's quibbling - when some of us had adjourned to a nearby pub, I asked my colleagues two questions:

What have you been listening to a lot lately?
Or, what's the last thing you listened to?

The results have been added to a Spotify playlist, but here's a breakdown of what we get down to when we're resting and celebrating after fighting the good fight. Nearly all of musical life is here - from top ten hits present and past tense to treasured obscurities, from soul and funk to punk and metal. Names have been omitted to protect the guilty and preserve the innocent,

Idina Menzel - Let It Go (the only song to be nominated twice, by fathers of young children)
Gillian Welch - Scarlet Town
Metallica - Battery
Offspring - Come Out And Play
FKA Twigs - Video Girl

Anais Mitchell - Young Man In America
AC/DC - Skies on Fire (sadly Spotify not rock and roll enough for AC/DC, so not on playlist)
L'Orchestra Cinematique - The Theme From True Detective
Lau - Far From Portland
We Shall Not Be Moved (no version specified, we went with the marvellous Mavis Staples for the civil rights connection)

Jay Electronica - Better In Tune With The Infinite (available here but not on Spotify)
Radio 4 or Radio 3 when annoyed by Radio 4 (not Spotifiable - Radio 4 the band not deemed suitable replacement)
Salt n Pepa - Push It
Cat Power - Lived In Bars
Ed Sheeran - Sing

Bob Marley & The Wailers - Three Little Birds
Saint Motel - My Type
Kenny Rogers & The First Edition - Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)
Squeeze - Pulling Mussels (From The Shell)
St Lucia - Elevate

Jamie T - Limits Lie
Chris Malinchak - So Good To Me
George Ezra - Did You Hear The Rain
Dan Croll - Compliment Your Soul
Two White Cranes, Walls

Baba Yetu - aka the theme from Civilisation IV (a version by Peter Hollens and Malukah Fenix was the one we ended up using)
Le Tigre - Deceptacon
Jason Isbell - Elephant
Mae gen i dipyn o dŷ bach twt (a Welsh children's song - was worried we wouldn't find this one but Dafydd Ian and Edward came up with the goods)
Frankie Valli - December '63 (Oh What A Night)

And last, but by no means least - Elvis Presley - All Shook Up

NB Where albums or artists were mentioned, I exercised editorial fiat and picked particular tracks. Where a song wasn't available, I went for something from the same artist. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Raedarum publicarum Statio

Wallsend Metro Station, Tyne and Wear, honouring its historical  beginnings as a Roman fort at the end of Hadrian's Wall (full explanation of why the Latin here).