Saturday, December 30, 2017

Top 10 posts of 2017

It's not been the noisiest year on the blog, but here are the top 10 posts of 2017 by page views.

I've decided to leave out the link round-up posts (the Health-Geekery series, mainly) as they don't involve any proper writing and it seems a little like cheating to include them.

1. Paul, the Liverpool South Parkway Cat
2. Notes from a divided kingdom, Part 1
3. The Fisher King of hitmen is back: John Wick, Chapter 2
4. The versatility of Chim Chim Cheree 
5. Sulk: Associates' intense little jewel 
6. 8 short notes on the poo emoji cushion
7. Cliff Richard led astray by sorcery! 
8. Was pop in crisis in 1976?
9. Wonder Woman: a sense of the superhuman 
10. Too good to leave to the critics: Can and I Want More

By category, that's:

Music - 5
Film - 2
Cats - 1
Horror (poo emoji cushions) - 1
Politics - 1

Friday, December 29, 2017

Top 5 films of 2017

Top 5 this year

1. Detroit
2. Wonder Woman
3. The Big Sick
4. God's Own Country
5. The Florida Project

Honourable mentions

Baby Driver
Call Me By Your Name
Guardians Of The Galaxy, Volume 2 
Kong: Skull Island 
The Lego Batman Movie 
Pitch Perfect 3 
Star Wars - The Last Jedi
Their Finest
Thor: Ragnarok

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A technofix for a democratic problem: on e-voting


As i believe all the cool kids are saying.

PS. Here is a link to summary findings from the Electoral Commission's evaluation of 2007 pilot schemes including e-voting. The EC doesn't have a remit to cover the big existential questions like the ones above, but the summary (not written by me, for the record) is still pretty insightful on the issues with the pilots, as well as what would need to happen if Scotland or anyone were determined to give e-voting a credible go.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Golden Age of Post-Modern Roleplaying Pt 1: Introduction and Rifts

Since role-playing is governed more by the Rule of Cool than a sense of appropriate genre boundaries, like computer games it arrived at the post-modern mash-up with more speed and less angst than any number of longer-standing arts.

Without any precedent to guide its creators, the original Dungeons and Dragons, though predominantly swords and sorcery fantasy, was reaching in all directions, bringing in psychics, martial arts and outer-planar horrors to sit alongside the usual warriors and wizards. 

But it was only as the hobby grew beyond a single system in the late 70's and 80's, as companies and creators began developing games for every genre - science-fiction, horror, espionage, superheroes et cetera et cetera - that these genre boundaries became more defined and to some extent more policed.

Inevitably, the desire to blur those edges awoke. Certainly by the time I had a few teenage years of ADnD under my belt, in the early 1990's I was hankering for something different, a little less predictable. A bit less level 8 half-elven wizard crawling the dungeon for loot, if you catch my meaning.

And as if it had divined my wishes, the gaming marketplace was rife at that time with with new settings and rules systems which smashed the three dominant types of RPG - fantasy, science-fction, modern - into each other to see what happened.

Here are some examples from this Golden Age of post-modern roleplaying of which I have (mostly) fond memories: Rifts, Shadowrun and Torg.

Rifts - infinite crises on Earth

What Rifts (Palladium Books, originally released 1990) resembled was nothing so much as one of those baroque, overly complicated attempts by Marvel or DC to accomodate their entire sprawling cast of characters and settings in a single crossover event.

The Stan Lee figure in the story of Rifts is Kevin Siembieda, largely responsible for Palladium's series of role-playing games since the early 80's, taking in fantasy (Palladium Fantasy) giant mecha (Robotech), modern horror (Beyond The Supernatural), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and much more besides. And funnily enough, if you put all of this in a post-apocalyptic blender, Rifts is pretty much what you get: the ultimate crossover story for the Palladium metaverse.

The jumping off point for this is - deep breath - a global nuclear war, which causes enough mass death and destruction to send a surge of power through Earth's ley-lines, reawakening its dormant magic and opening portals (them titular rifts) through which pour the scum and flotsam of a thousand universes.

Civilisation as we know it is over: three hundred years later humanity is clawing its way back from the brink amid new friends and foes, ranging from your classic elves/dwarves through power-suited space aliens to horrors from the Great Beyond. The Earth has changed beyond recognition - Atlantis, for example, returns as an interdimensional entrepôt, slave station and purveyor of regrettable fanservice (check the spectacular but somewhat creepy original cover of the main rulebook for an example).

"Hans, are we the baddies?"

Rifts also took the interesting decision of having the surviving major human states be mainly authoritarian regimes and fascist dictatorships deeply hostile to aliens and magic. This is particularly pronounced in the US/Canadian Coalition States, whose military literally walk round in (lovingly illustrated) death's head uniforms. On special occasions, these thanatoic Nazi fanboys ride a freaking skull-walker on legs. Subtle, they are not.

While the players could play characters from the Coalition military, the setting steered them towards a 'Hans - are we the baddies?' moment where they reject their indoctrination and go AWOL. Alternatively, you could start as a crew of independents and renegades already aligned with friendly non-humans, pursuing a third way between 'Mega City One without the jokes' on the one hand and 'in hock to tentacled demi-gods' on the other. 

The Coalition States were only one of several great flourishes of original material that made Rifts potentially hugely interesting to play. The sourcebook for the Vampire Kingdoms of Mexico was another, hands down some of the best written, most thoughtful gaming fuel I've ever come across.

Two cheers for the post-modern druids 

Despite the global settings and the Japanese influences in the work, there was something essentially American about Rifts. Beyond the post-apocalyptic Western vibes on its home continent, its reliance on the rule of cool and a certain amount of cultural cliche meant the good stuff went hand-in-hand with the embarassing. The sourcebook for England, for example, put out some intriguing ideas about post-modern druids in the service of giant sentient Millenium Trees, only to spoil it with an kitschy interpretation of Arthurian myth. 

There was a fondness too, for page after page of lovingly drawn guns, armour and vehicles, far beyond what the system actually needed. This was a bit of a left-hand/right-hand problem given the effort the game put into critiquing the military-industrial complex, but it also filled up space that could have been spent on scenarios and usable NPCs.

And then there's the rules system. Granted, in the intervening 25 years Palladium may have ironed out some of the bugs, but if you've ever played one of their games you probably know what I'm talking about. It was a shotgun wedding of percentile and d20 mechanics for stats, skills and combat manoeuvres that didn't quite fit together, but more or less managed to be playable with some fudging from the GM.

Now, I don't mind that, because I've never met a rules system I couldn't happily ignore in favour of the story or at least bend until it breaks, but if you like a coherent, holistically designed system, Rifts was not your huckleberry.

Get me that bigger fish

What was finally likely to tip a rules purist over the edge was the sheer power imbalance between starting characters, as well as between those characters and typical NPCs. With cyborgs, warriors in mini-mecha suits, steroid abusers and young dragons to choose from as character or racial classes, pity the player with a wilderness scout or (ahem) 'rogue scholar' who had to mix it up with them. 

But Rifts NPCs had it still worse. Thanks to the system distinguishing betwen normal damage and 'mega damage' even a relatively weak player character with an energy pistol could destroy an unarmoured human with a single shot. Without some careful handling by the GM, Rifts created a world where no-one would risk taking their helmet off for fear of a called shot to the head, where violence was always the solution and where the only solution to rampaging player characters was to summon a bigger fish to keep them a line.

Palladium had sourcebooks full of bigger fish (those tentacled demi-gods again) but for me that's a symptom of the problem, not the cure.

Cosmic ambition

In spite of all of this, it's worth honouring the sheer cosmic ambition of Siembieda and his collaborators and their aspiration towards creating something bigger, more syncretic and certainly more wildly eclectic than had previously been attempted in a role-playing game.  

And Rifts is still going strong today with an updated edition available from Palladium. If you know the rules system will be a deal-breaker for you, you may also be interested to know it's been developed as a setting for Savage Worlds. Certainly I'm considering picking it up. 

[to be continued with a look at Torg and Shadowrun]

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Cigarettes After Sex: comfort listening

Not every album has to blow minds, to change the world.

Sometimes a set of songs can be the sonic equivalent of a much loved T-shirt, perfect for a Sunday morning sofa session. They can be comfortable and familiar and have so many good memories associated with them that you forgive them the fact that they have nothing new to say.

If this sounds like I'm trying to convince myself that this is enough, then it says a lot about how I feel about Cigarettes After Sex's self-titled debut album (listen on Bandcamp here).

It's an undeniably good record, especially if you've ever felt some kind of love for the quieter end of The Velvet Underground or their many, many indie and alt-country descendents.

Musicaly, it's all beautifully spindly guitar ballads as far as the ear can hear, with a dub-like tendency for all but the bass and drums to drop out behind the vocal, giving the songs a quiet-quiet-quiet dynamic. 

And boy, those songs are good! CAS have been going since 2008, and it feels like songwriter-in-chief Greg Gonzalez has waited until he'd accumulated a really good crop before dropping this debut. 

Lyrically we're in bohemian romance territory, of course, with the occasional startling shift like the Fitzcarraldo references of Opera House or the doomsday mutterings of Apocalypse to leaven the sweetness. 

The songs are almost good enough to save Cigarettes After Sex from its main weakness - that of being in thrall to a particular well-trodden post-Velvets style. As it happens, that's a style I love: many of my favourites down the years (Madder Rose, Orange Juice, Low) have built on it.

But this is comfort listening. And much though there's nothing wrong with that, and although this album's on heavy rotation round my way, I keep coming back to the idea that imitation - the reduction of music to an exercise in style is the end of any meaningful artistic progression. 

It doesn't matter if it's a style I like - which in the case of Cigarettes After Sex I very much do - the point still stands, pretentious though it may be. An lovable vintage T-shirt of a record it might be, but we need more than this if we're going to make it through.

Leonardo da Vinci on originality

From an essay by Joseph Bronowski on Leonardo in The Penguin Book Of The Renaissance, quoting a passage in one of his notebooks.

'The painter will produce pictures of little merit if he takes the work of others as his standard; but if he will apply himself to learn from the objects of nature he will produce good results. This we see was the case with the painters who came after the time of the Romans, for they continually imitated each other, and from age to age their art steadily declined... it is safer to go direct to the works of nature than to those who have imitated from her originals with great determination and thereby to accquire a bad method, for he who has access to the fountain does not go to the water-pot.'

I'm not sure I'd subscribe to as thorough-going a naturalism, but I agree with him on the limits of mere imitation of other artists.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017


A psychedelic, spore-like visual effect created by leaving soaked turtle beans to dry on top of a piece of kitchen towel in the fridge overnight.

Monday, November 20, 2017

2017 in books

My favourite first-time reads from 2017. Once and future classics in bold.

Louisa May Alcott -  Little Women
Naomi Alderman - The Power 
Fredrik Backman - A Man Called Ove
Robert Jackson Bennett - City Of Miracles
Italo Calvino - Invisible Cities
Brian Catling - The Vorrh
Jenny Colgan - The Summer Seaside Bakery
Michael Faber - Under The Skin
Eric Flint - 1632 
Andrew Michael Hurley - The Loney
Robin Lane Fox - Alexander The Great
Laura Jane Grace - Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock's Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout
Chris Hadfield - An Astronaut's Guide To Life On Earth
Stuart Heritage - Don't Be A Dick Pete
Dave Hutchinson - Europe In Winter
J M R Higgs - KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money
Lindsey Kelk - Always The Bridesmaid
Mhairi McFarlane - Here's Looking At You; It's Not Me, It's You; Who's That Girl
David Moats - Civil War: A Battle For Gay Marriage 
David Nichols - Us
Ada Palmer - Too Like The Lightning; Seven Surrenders
Laline Paull - The Bees
Charles Stross - Glasshouse
Edmund Wilson - To The Finland Station 
Rob Young - Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Tweeter's Delight

Monday, November 6, 2017

"Look at me, I'm Joseph B..."


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Ooh, Eduard Bernstein!

I've never been a member of the Labour Party - membership of a political party is something I've struggled to reconcile with the various jobs I've held over the years. So I've no personal stake in the direction of the party or the ideological and tactical debates that encircle it. 

Once upon a time, though, I did write my Masters dissertation on a lengthy comparison of Labour and the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), especially the modernising tendencies of the leadership of both parties from the mid 1980's onwards. So I'll admit to a lively measure of curiosity about what's going on now.

I know, I know: it's lazy to compare thirty years ago with the present day - although Jeremy Corbyn doesn't help with this when he appears on stage with (half of) UB40. So I'm not going to play that movie today.

Instead, I want to wind back over 100 years to this chap, who basically invented reformist Marxist socialism, and is someone I think about when I think about the health of democracy from time to time.

Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932) was one of the founders of the modern German SPD and a died-in-the-wool Marxist. But he was also the guy who pointed out that: 

a) The semi-parliamentary democracy of the German Empire was working out pretty well for the SPD, electorally speaking.
b) It gave them a platform to push for universal suffrage and incremental improvements in the condition of the working classes within capitalism, meeting Bismarck's heirs and their own paternalistic social policy halfway.
c) This was on the whole a better thing for everyday people than waiting for capitalism to collapse from its own contradictions, a la Marx.

'Playing the game'

This is almost certainly a monstrous paraphrase of Bernstein's own sophisticated thinking on the subject. But it's also a pretty good illustration of the judgement that all the mainstream social democratic parties of Western Europe reached at some point or other: that it was in their interests and the interests of those they served to 'play the game' and line up behind parliamentary democracy and a mixed public/private economy (which they usually helped to create). 

Typically, the cerebral German SPD did a lot more thinking out loud about saying goodbye to revolution than other parties, with Rosa Luxemburg being the equivalent figure to Bernstein on the other side of the question. In contrast, with only a homeopathic dosage of Marx in its founding fathers, the Labour Party could crack on with a more pragmatic approach right out of the traps.

After some initial qualified success in Britain and Germany, this approach started to pay off in earnest from the 1930's onwards, with the establishment for example in some form or other of the modern welfare state in country after country. All the mainstream parties of the left became in stages explicitly reformist and downplayed if not repudiated their radical heritage.  

Donald Sassoon's 100 Years Of Socialism goes into a lot more detail about this and is highly recommended if you want to geek out about the history of the Left in earnest.

But what game to play in the twenty-first century? Continued in a follow-up post.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Sulk: Associates' intense little jewel

It begins with 3 minutes of what sounds like end credit music for an 80's TV show - perhaps a provincial soap or minority interest sport. Its synthy brass and fussy disco drumming in no way prepares you for what happens next.

Track Two starts with thirty seconds of atmosphere, like the noise from a litter-strewn clearway late at night. Then a piano refrain to a marching beat. A guitar interjects with a sound like a stunned ox.

Finally, two minutes in - the voice starts. Somewhere mid-Atlantic between New York house diva and European cabaret turn, it's a tenor wail singing about ripping one's hair about by the roots and planting them in a garden to wait for Spring.

It's 1982. The voice is that of Billy Mackenzie, the album is Sulk, the band are The Associates, with Arrogance Gave Him Up's instrumental followed by No's tale of obsessive love forming probably one of the oddest opening one-two punches to a successful pop record ever.

But then it escalates further before it calms: Bap De La Bap is yodelled, shrieked electro-funk, barely in control of itself. Gloomy Sunday approrpriates a jazz standard and wallows in glorious pathos. Nude Spoons is goth with a jaw-harp rythym and a lyric about drugs/finding a Roman coin in the River Tay (McKenzie was from Dundee) delivered in a hysteric's falsetto.

Via the palette cleansers of Skipping and It's Better That Way, Associates finally deign to give us the singles, seven tracks in. Party Fears Two - AKA the one that still gets played on the radio - is a great New Romantic 80's pop song, while Club Country is a disco-fuelled outsider's dismissal of the same scene as sneering, selfish and cruel. Another light entertainment instrumental finishes the whole thing off.

Together with Billy's voice and the inventiveness of the backing tracks (kudos to main foil Alan Rankine) this pushme-pullyu attitude to pop is what makes Sulk so great. All the songs on the album are great pop songs, but on their own terms. They can't be reduced to the sound of a single scene; all sonic affiliations are subverted by that voice or by the next instrumental curveball. It's an intense little jewel of a record.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The versatility of Chim Chim Cheree

It's something of a triumph of chutzpah that the official version of Chim Chim Cheree in Mary Poppins works as well as it does. The less said about Dick Van Dyke's accent, the better, but he performs the heck out of the role. And certainly finds the mixture of bravado and sadness that this song requires.

I mean, check this lyric:

Let's face it, Chim Chim Cheree (by songwriters extraordinaire the Sherman Brothers) is a defiant workingman's urban folk number if ever I heard one, even if it started life in musical theatre (and indeed Wikipedia notes similarities to traditional Yiddish folk song Tumbalalaika).

There's this amazing tension (or ambiguity) in the entire song between acknowledging the hardship of the chimney sweep's life and the insistence of the 'lucky sweep' on reaching across social strata to those who might consider themselves his better. 

If you can get past the Van Dyke factor, it's not only a great piece but it's also surprisingly amenable like many folk songs to a variety of different treatments. Here are some of my favourites - there are many more listed on the Wikipedia page for the song.

Joe Pernice (Scud Mountain Boys, Pernice Brothers etc.) is perhaps the best demonstration of Chim Chim Cheree as imagined folk, as he strips the song back to a simple strum.  

Folk fact: the song is also seemingly quite popular with accordion players as well if You Tube is anything to go by.

One of the things I hadn't appreciated either until Wikipedia pointed me in the direction of covers by Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane was the crossover between the golden age of musicals and jazz standards. Both covers couldn't be more different - the one vocal/order/groove and the other instrumental/chaos/fragmentation, but they're both amazing in their own way.

I mean, I never thought I'd have Dick Van Dyke to thank for introducing me to John Coltrane. But here we are.

And from another tradition entirely, how about Chim Chim Cheree as a beautiful Japanese psychedelic rock ballad by Plastic Tree, from an entire compilation of J-Rock Disney covers?

Sadly, no metal version that I'm aware of as yet, but I'm sure it's only a matter of time.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Health-geekery Autumn 2017: season of mists and mellow linkiness

A seasonal, occasionally updated round-up from the depths of my Outlook read folder and my liked Twitter posts.

As ever, being included here doesn't necessarily mean I agree with it, just that it was sufficiently noteworthy to be recorded here.

'We’ve assessed the extent to which services are or are not person-centred. We found that despite 20 years of policy promises, care coordination is still not prioritised, there is a lack of care planning, and involving people in decisions about their care is still poor in the NHS'

Research by Dr Rod Jones - same day stay admissions drive growth, but length of stay is increasing

Social care

Latest Guardian article about social care in crisis but with a) useful opinion research cited and b) links to the work of Future Care Capital on a 'care covenant' for the future.

'Social care meltdown' new survey of social workers by Community Care Magazine, supported by the Care and Support Alliance (plus blog by CSA Board member Robert Morritt on this at Conservative Home)

Disability Benefits Consortium report calls for an urgent review of Personal Independence Payment (PIP)

The problems with universal credit (Nicholas Timmins, Institute for Government)

Care homes

New research from Healthwatch 

Centre for the Modern Family research finds we underestimate the cost of residential care for the elderly significantly (link to FT article)


Lancet article on possible impacts of Brexit on health and health services


Saturday, September 16, 2017

Notes on a divided kingdom, part 1

This post starts with Marx, although he's really only a jumping off point for talking about the present day. It eventually gets to the point, so please do bear with me. :)

No more 'merely human solidarity'

I've been reading an old (1940) but thoughtful book - Edmund Wilson's To The Finland Station: a study in the writing and acting of history. It looks at 'the revolutionary view of society' as expressed by different nineteenth century thinkers, especially Marx and his socialist succcessors. 

Basically, it applies the techniques of literary criticism to political philosophy, which makes for diverting reading even if you don't agree with the conclusions.


What Wilson is very acute on is how Marx and Engels helped to move the radical 19th century Left away from the universal citizenship of 1789 into a far more polarised space based on class. Here is his gloss on the Communist Manifesto.

'All men are no longer brothers; there is no longer any merely human solidarity. The "truly human'" is that which is to be realised when we shall arrived at the society without classes. In the meantime, the elements of society which can alone bring about such a future [...] in proportion as they feel group solidarity among themselves, must cease to feel human solidarity with their antagonists. Their antagonists [...]  have [themselves] irreparably destroyed that solidarity.' (p162)  

In other words - we don't have to talk to our opponents, but when we do we don't have to play nice. We don't have to deal fairly and honestly with them either: any relationship with them is pragmatic at best, rather than founded in common ground or a good faith dialogue.

Oh, and they started it.

Not inherently a left-wing position

Now, what Marx and Engels advocated and what they actually did on a daily basis is a fair way apart. But let's assume for the sake of following this line of thought that they were entirely serious about this redefining of the civic community to exclude members of opposing classes and groups. And let's face it: finding examples of this from Marxist-Leninist parties isn't exactly the hardest task to set a historian.

To avoid the rabbit hole of discussing one hundred and fifty years of history though, let me hastily clarify: I've started with Marx (with an assist from Wilson) because of their candour and clarity of thought on this point, not because they're describing an inherently left-wing position. From broadly the same period, I could have brought up Bismarck's anti-socialist law or the behaviour of the opponents of universal suffrage to make a similar point about the right.

Anyone, it seems, can un-person anyone.

And on that sad reflection, let's switch our attention back to the UK of the present.

Does this feel like 'human solidarity' to you?

Consider discussion of Brexit and its aftermath. Think of the toxic atmosphere that surrounds any conversation on immigration or the internecine warfare that passes for discourse on Twitter. Consider the adoption by some of bad faith arguments and trolling as a political tactic, the sheer difficulty in having a broad-based conversation about class, race, gender or sexuality without these behaviours manifesting.

I'm not singling out actors here from any point on the political spectrum, as that would be counterproductive to what I'm trying to achieve. I'm simply outlining a perceived trend.

Rather my question, channeling Wilson, is this: does this look like universal 'human solidarity' to you?

I thought not.

What it does look like is a willingness to exclude people from the civic community. Or at the very least, to use the languages of exclusion and bad faith, even if only in self-defence.

Wrestling metaphor incoming 

We have to acknowledge it's not all like this. There are organisations advocating for dialogue and social cohesion such as the Jo Cox Foundation, politicians of all parties and administrators at all levels working together and getting on with the job of serving the people. These are some of the things that give me hope for the future.

Yet, if UK democracy were a wrestling ring - which in many ways it is, what with the posturing, silly costumes and heel turns - it still feels to me like we're now jumping the ropes and battering our adversary with the chair way too often.

And that cuts to the heart of the matter. In the long run, a stable democratic society with an effective government depend not only on the willingness of each group, each individual to participate and follow the rules, but also to support everyone else to do so as well. We've known this since at least 1776 - it's old news - even if it's been honoured in the breach on many occasions.

But whether by passion or strategic design, if the current level of rhetoric keeps ratcheting up, if exclusionary behaviour continues to rise, if internal or external exile starts to look like a safer option than participation, then my fear is that UK democracy (or at least its current iteration) will eventually find itself in a crisis it cannot withstand.

"Yeah? That’s just like, your opinion, man"

Two concluding comments and caveats.

First, I'm going to be compiling a postscript to this post with any research or evidence I can find on this subject, whether it supports my reflections or not. This is one of those rare occasions when I'd actually like to be proven wrong.

Second, there's a lot more that could be said (and has been said) about all of this, including the long history of marginalisation on the basis of race, class, gender or sexuality. I've also stopped short of suggesting any action at this point. This sort of small-scale artisanal blogging can only eat the beast one piece at a time, so hopefully you'll bear with me as I go.

And perhaps it goes without saying, given that this blog has a comments section, but all reflections and recommendations are most welcome.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Too good to leave to the critics: Can and I Want More

In the space of nine months, we've lost perhaps rock music's greatest rythym section in Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit, the engine of late 60's/70's German experimenters Can.

The best attempt to explain Can I've ever read (annoyingly I can't remember the writer responsible) basically says this: on paper you'd expect them to be a band only a critic could love, but they're so annoyingly good they're wasted on music nerds.

And as someone at least half-way to music nerdery, I'd agree with that wholeheartedly.

Yes, Can sometimes noodled on for 15 minutes or more in the way that prog rockers often do. Yes, their members included students of avant-garde composer Stockhausen, hardcore jazz musicians and non-singers taking a turn on the mike. Yes, they liked a bit of music concrète.

But from all these influences and their collective talents they jammed out, and then tightly edited, a bunch of short tracks, which if you squint at them a bit funny, are some of the best experimental pop songs of the 70's: Spoon; Vitamin C; I'm So Green; Moonshake and I Want More, their solitary UK hit in 1976. Don't believe me? You Tube is currently streaming latest their singles compilation, so see for yourself.

The longer, more experimental tracks can be great too, but that's an argument for another time.

The other thing that helped Can break down barriers is that they were very, very funky indeed: Jaki Liebezeit stripping down jazz technique down into a series of endlessly unfolding drum loops; Czukay's bass - never two notes where one would do - holding down the groove and creating space for the other players. 

This love of funk and jazz meant they were also unlikely early adopters of disco rythyms on  I Want More (listen here).

Eminently danceable, for three and a half minutes it comes on like the best sort of mutant glam disco. These ears find echoes of War's Me And Baby Brother (a belated UK hit earlier that year), which might just be me, but perhaps also indicates the ballpark Can were aiming for here. By this stage in their career, they didn't have a steady lead vocalist, so I Want More also features all the band chanting the lyrics in unison to slightly sinister effect like a German Funkadelic.

And if you think there's a lot of repetition of the title in the chorus, I direct you to the B-side ...And More, which extends the workout to a full seven minutes, bongos and all. Bliss.

Postscript: I discovered Can when I was out as a foreign language student in Germany, thanks to a fellow student who offered to make me a compilation cassette, which I subsequently wore out exploring the streets of my university town with my Walkman. I'd heard nothing like them before, and to some extent still haven't. So if by some miracle you're reading this, thank you Ralf for this game-changing gift. :)

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Judging Spock, judging you

Unclear whether Spock is standing in front of a red curtain or an 8-bit 3D canyon effect.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Important reminder

You can sing the words 'I Am The Protagonist' to the main melody of Crockett's Theme from Miami Vice.

Important to know.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Fisher King of hitmen is back. John Wick: Chapter 2

To a hammer, all problems look like a nail.

And Maslow's Hammer is pretty much the tragedy of John Wick: Chapter 2, at least I believe that the film would have it so.

Film has adult themes, discussed below the poster.

The film, enjoyable as it is, is essentially the same as its predecessor, only bigger, flashier and more preposterous. Once again, retired hitman John Wick's unresolved grief issues are poked in a raw place; one more time his considered response is to kill everyone responsible for his pain.

I have the strongest feeling that Chapter 2 wants to present this as tragedy, in the classical sense of a great figure being undone by what what makes them 'great'. In this case, the tragedy of a man trained to kill people in a wide variety of ways whose response to personal crisis is to.... well, you get the picture.

Consider that the film goes out of its way to present John Wick as a legend. Leading lights of the criminal underworld and its international league of assassins swap stories of his exploits, indulge him, sometimes even defer to him. He's not just a gangster - he's the grieving Fisher King of hitmen, mourning the death of his wife (and the pup from film one) and now the destruction of his house to boot.

And consider too, that a perfectly cast Keanu Reeves owns this 'still waters run deep' schtick like no-one else in the business. The film is asking you to root for him, just a little, even if only by comparison to everyone else in the film.

The problem with setting him up as a tragic figure in the narrative is that the material can't sustain it. For JW to be some sort of fallen samurai or antihero, there would have to be some element of ethical struggle accompanying his actions.

But, to put it in the language of Dungeons and Dragons alignments, what we have in John Wick: Chapter 2 is a Chaotic Neutral, verging on Chaotic Evil, character taking down a Lawful Evil criminal empire, purely for personal revenge. Even when he's presented with alternative solutions that don't involve killing, he doesn't hesitate to take the direct route. And there's nothing great or tragic about that because there's no inner conflict. At best, it's just pop nihilism.

Chapter 2 is a beautifully shot and choreographed action B-movie, but it overreaches when it tries to portray its protagonist as more than what he is. And that's all I really have to say about it.

Friday, August 18, 2017

What's the Welsh for noticeboard?

It's hysbysfwrdd (thanks, Google Translate)

Because here's what will hopefully become a load of links about charities and campaigning in Wales as an aide-memoire.

The benefits of bilingual marketing by charities in Wales (Welsh Language Commissioner)

The Welsh language and volunteering (same)

A whole load of top-line social services statistics 2014-2015

Cliff Richard led astray by sorcery!

Like a bad sign hanging over me, it seems I can't carry on writing about the charts of 1976 unless I deal with Cliff Richard's Spring top ten hit Devil Woman. So let's attend to the witchy elephant in the room.

Even by the 'anything goes' standards of 1976, Devil Woman is a deeply odd song to have been placed into the hands of noted Christian bachelor Cliff Richard. Now, if you're expecting any cheap shots at the expense of either category, look elsewhere. That's the least interesting thing I could write about here.

But it is true that the preposterous lyric about a young man being seduced against his will by a practioner of the dark arts doesn't, on the face of it, fit with Cliff''s public persona at all. Which in turn makes the song such an object of curiosity.
The fact that it's Cliff - wholesome rollerskates, mistletoe and summer holidaying Cliff - being led astray by sorcery gives Devil Woman a presumably unintentional transgressive energy, making it unlike anything else in his back catalogue. The conflation of evil and female sexuality expressed is bizarrely, wrong-headedly compelling in a way not often seen outside Dracula.

Of course it helps that the song itself is a stonking piece of occult rock boogie, with the funky keys and bass in the intro being worth the price of purchase in their own right.

In short, there's a whole lot of cognitive whiplash goin' on here, wrapped around a proper tune. It's very strange in the way that only really straight stuff can be. And it speaks volumes for the power of the results that the only contemporary I can think probably better suited to sing Devil Woman would be that great doom shaman Ozzy Osbourne.

Don't believe me? Check out this performance, featuring some great intrepretative dance and the politest 'ugh' in rock and roll, which by Mr Richard's standards is practically gonzo.

So, what does all of this say about 1976? Well, for starters and most importantly, it tells us that its tolerance for misogyny was much higher than we would accept these days. Even more so than Sailor's A Glass Of Champagne, Devil Woman's gender politics consign it to being a period piece rather than a tune for the ages. No-one today would get away with it, and quite rightly so.

Culturally, it also reminds us that a lot of 1970's rock was powered by the co-option of the blues (or at least motifs from the blues) - the ethics of which is a whole other conversation - but if Cliff was doing it you can safely assume that by the middle of the decade it had become very mainstream indeed.

It's also a another answer to the recurring question in these posts of whether pop was in crisis in 1976. Pop, fuelled by funk and disco, was doing surprisingly well, thank you very much. But when Cliff freakin' Richard was riffing harder than pretty much anything else in the charts short of Thin Lizzy, it's clear that rock - not pop - needed to take a long hard look at itself.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Summer campaigning links

Bit of a bias towards strategy and planning on this one, as that's where my head is to some extent at today.

Training resources on systems, power, leadership and campaigns from the New Economics Organisers Network.

Design thinking (read: campaign strategy resources) via Beth's blog and the Greenpeace Mobilisation Lab Campaign Accelerator model.

And bucketloads of more planning resources via the DIY Toolkit

Heroes Journey story-mapping ooojimy from the Dancing Fox

Jenny Ross from Bond on theories of change

Collaboration cards toolkit

Campaigning boardgame? Yes please!

8 top tips for planning a march/protest/equivalent event (Hatcher Group)

Article on non-linear planning in Nonprofit: Absolutely Fabulous which is particularly helpful on the catch 22 of data - you need data in order to commit resources to a project but you need the resources to get the data...

My boss Alice Fuller on how our organisation developed its local campaigning strategy (Prezi presentation)

The Powercube - a new way to understand power-relationships.

What does a globally connected, thriving, capacity-building ecosystem for modern advocacy look like? (Report from Greenpeace Mobilisation Lab)

Approaches to Co-creation (Joanna Levitt Cea/Jess Rimington, SSIR)

Civic engagement as a way of life (Kirsten Grimm/Emily Gardner, SSIR)

Huge list of UK politics datasets

Asset mapping - using community's strengths to foster social networks (National Voices)

Presentation from Chris Rose on Why Campaigning Matters which is also a lucid exposition on the Rosean model of campaigning with full speaker's notes.

Hahrie Han bonanza! Full video of talk on 'Organising or mobilising to build power'  plus reflections from Jim Coe, Natasha Adams and Tom Baker.

And it's a bit meta, but here's a link to more summer reading links from Tom Baker at the Thoughtful Campaigner.