meera-syal-headshot-2013Meera Syal appeared in a short play on BBC Radio 4 recently. Syal, a versatile actor and writer of Indian extraction, was playing a (presumably white) police liason officer called Jackie Hartwell in this mini-drama. She did a great job as usual, her ethnic background was neither here nor there. It made me wonder; are we entering a new post-racial era for actors, on the radio at least?

To some some extent we are seeing racial and gender lines disappearing across the arts. We have recently seen Maxine Peake playing Hamlet at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. idris-elba-as-james-bond
Then there were those rumours about Idris Elba taking over as James Bond. Why not? his fans enthused – Idris has the charisma, machismo and sex appeal required to play 007. Did Ian Fleming ever mention anything about his character’s race? And would it matter if he had? Eventually Tom Hiddleston was named as the new Bond, but the fact that Elba was mooted for the role shows that things are shifting.

In JK Rowling’s latest addition to the Harry Potter saga, the play Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, Noma Dumezweni, originally from Swaziland, takes the role of Hermione – heartily endorsed by JK Rowling might I add. 812Dumezweni was considered the best person for the role, but her casting is not merely irrelevant to the part, it is an exiting signal. There is a radicalism in opening out a franchise that so exemplifies the white middle class mileu (albeit with the addition of wands and talking hats). Admittedly, this has only happened on the stage, a world away from the risk-averse conditions of the film-industry, but it is a bold move.

So are we looking at a rainbow utopia where anyone can play a character of any cultural background? The answer is no. This cultural tide will only go in one direction, and for understandable reasons. In popular entertainment’s depictions of race, the shadow of ‘blacking up’ and minstrelsy still looms large. White people imitating black people, in stereotyped and clownish ways, continued on British TV up until 1978. For many years, the only black actors in film played nannies and ‘savages’, and black contributions to the moving image continue to go unrecognised. At this year’s Oscars, the lack of black nominees became such a hot potato that it threatened to derail the awards ceremony.

In the UK, the employment options for black actors are arguably worse, with many leaving to seek work in the US. Idris Elba himself took this route, eventually breaking through with his role in The Wire.

jrnarNon-white actors still need all the high profile parts they can get, which is why the instances of white actors playing people of colour is still so controversial. Ridley Scott’s 2014 biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings attracted flak for featuring a cast of white actors considerably ‘darkened’ to play their middle-eastern roles.

Of course, in an ideal world none of this would be a problem. All acting is inhabiting somebody else; attempting to understand the emotions and motivations of a (usually fictional) person who has nothing to do with you. It is a practice requiring the highest form of empathy, an empathy capable of crossing the boundaries of class, age, sex and yes race. You would usually want to make yourself look more like your character too. In purely artistic terms there should be no barriers to inhabiting the persona of another human being.

In societal terms, however, we still see structural discrimination in all areas of life. And until there is parity of opportunity and power regardless of race (and sex for that matter) then screen-based depictions of life will be part of an attempt to redress the balance. It’s not just about the art, it’s more complicated than that. It may be some time before a white actor gets to play Othello again.

Today BBC 6 music is making a big fuss about the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album because it was released exactly fifty years ago. Well, how astounding. What a perfect opportunity to celebrate a seminal work of popular culture, apart from the fact that Brian Wilson’s alleged masterwork sounds exactly the same as it did in 2015. And I can assure you that next year the notes will all still be in the same place.

The rock industry, like all aspects of mass-market culture – including books, films and wars – now relies almost exclusively on anniversaries to flog its wares to us.

The Beatles industry similarly kicks up a fuss about Sgt Pepper every ten years, provoking a frenzy of fake nostalgia for the ‘summer of love’ as if the whole nation was floating around on acid in 1967. Sure, the album was a hit but middle-of-the-road crooner Jim Reeves actually sold more records that year. The truth is that these albums accrue cultural value gradually, rather than landing like cultural meteorites.

A while back Iggy Pop re-released the Raw Power album (remastered and fucked-about-with no doubt) to celebrate the fact that it was forty years old, as if its original release had been some kind of great cultural moment – far from it, The Stooges were virtually unknown during their early career and Raw Power was one of a clutch of recordings that existed virtually underground, gaining a reputation over time.

All this wayward historiography would not be such a bad thing if it didn’t grab all the attention that could be available to current musicians.

These days it’s not uncommon to walk past a rack of music magazines in the supermarket and see a line of exclusively dead faces pouting at you. How depressing that pop journalists, lovers of an art form that can embody the present-day zeitgeist like no other should find themselves writing for what are essentially history magazines.

David Hepworth, the ex-Whistle Test anchorman, embodies this tendency of backward looking rock journalism. He has just published 1971- Never a Dull Moment, a misty-eyed eulogy to the cheesecloth generation, wherein he celebrates a year that produced enduring classics such as Led Zeppelin 4, Sticky Fingers and Tapestry. I’m sure it’s a great read but if he really wanted to cash in he should surely have waited until 2021…

Anyway, it has been decreed that today we must have a double collective orgasm because not only is this the anniversary of Pet Sounds, but also Bob Dylan’s album Blonde on Blonde was also released exactly 50 years ago. How amazing!

Blonde on Blonde is a great collection of music, but to me it sounds the same (and is equally as good as) his previous albums Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing it all Back Home. They all feature his mid-sixties persona of the acid-beatnick, musically featuring a ramshackle mix of epic folky ballads, mind-blowing lyrics and spiky rock’n’roll. It’s all great stuff, but personally I can’t fit a Rizla paper between those albums. Hang on though, Blonde on Blonde’s a double album – it must be a classic…

Humankind’s first steps into space inspired a rash of pop songs. In the wake of the first moon landing in 1969, songwriters started to imagine what space travel might mean for matters of the heart, and a mini-genre was born. Future-tastic sound effects, weightless melodies and tin foil in the videos all contributed to the kitschy glamour, as these mini-melodramas played out against the background of the cosmos. Set the controls for the heart of the fun – it’s time to find your inner space cadet…

  1. – David Bowie – Space Oddity (1969). The song that kicked off this trend (if we don’t count The Byrds’ Mr Spaceman) Bowie’s classic song features ‘lift-off’ sound effects and a general zero-gravity vibe, perfectly capturing the zeitgeist when it was first released, just before the Apollo 11 moon shot (this is the original lesser-known recording and video)

2. Elton John – Rocket Man (1972).

Perhaps a touch po-faced for this list, but the lyrics and ascending guitar motif place this track firmly in our spacey genre.

3. The Carpenters – Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (1977).

The slightly disturbing brother and sister duo join the space party.

4. Shelia B Devotion – Spacer (1979).

Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards from Chic add a touch of class to this sci-fi disco stomper.

5. Sarah Brightman and Hot Gossip – I Lost My Heart To a Starship Trooper (1979).

“Tell me captain strange, do you feel my devotion? Or are you like a droid, devoid of emotion?” sings saucy Sarah. A double clip with lashings of glitter and dry ice.

6. The Police – Walking on The Moon (1979)

This song is not about walking on the actual moon, but rather the semi-weightless feeling of being in love, but it earns its place in our list with a low-gravity arrangement featuring Andy Summers’ spacious, ambient guitar chords.

7. Rah Band – Clouds Across the Moon (1985)

Based around a lovelorn phone call, this would a great song in any genre, but in this case the two lovers are seperated by interplanetary space. A great video bursting with low-budget sci-fi camp.

bob and..

It could only happen in America. I can just picture hundreds of thousands of psychedelic beach chairs, picnic hampers and parasols spread out on the ‘Empire polo field’ (that famous rock’n’roll venue…) as Bob Dylan, the Stones, Paul McCartney, The Who, Roger Waters and Neil Young perform at a mega-gig in Indio, California this October.

The organisers of Coachella festival have persuaded these fading legends with more wrinkles between them than the Grand Canyon to unite for a three day mega-gig, for an estimated fee of £1000,000 per act.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with celebrating music history, but old legends banding together like this for a quick buck underlines the rift that exists between the older generation and today’s talented musicians. Now that record companies don’t put time and money into developing new artists, musicians are swept up and down on waves of hype, easily disappearing without trace if they don’t make quick returns. If they do get noticed, will their fans actually buy their music or simply play it on youtube, or Spotify where the royalty rates for artists are so pathetic?

This gig will be another easy earner for already-rich performers whose careers blossomed during a ‘golden era’ of huge record sales and music industry largesse. Their generation still have a dependable audience – many of whom are well off enough to afford what are sure to be obscene ticket prices.

It will be like a psychedelic Glyndebourne, glasses raised to the spirits of the past, without the risk of any new blood to spoil the orgy of nostalgia.

This is just another reminder that the music industry is dead on its feet. With no new acts being developed, where are the future elder-statesmen and women waiting in the wings? And there’s another point –  this assemblage of musos is the last gathering of the original rock brotherhood, time-travellers from an era when virtually the only important musicians were male. How dated that looks now.

Don’t they feel uncomfortable turning the stage into a retirement home without any sort of organic connection to what is going on in today? An event like this could easily have included some support acts, I would have thought Neil Young might feel this, or Pete Townsend, or indeed Jagger – who always likes to appear aware of what goes on outside his bubble, at least.

It’s great when old-timers headline Glastonbury; often they can whip the asses of their younger comrades in terms of stagecraft. But sealing themselves off like this is unhealthy. It stinks of greed, complacency and theme-park culture.

You can call him Al…

In the seventies there was a slew of tracks that blended folky balladry and rock textures and, although not neccesarily sounding like Dylan, they were clearly in debt to his epic style of songwriting. A long and winding melody would be combined with tasteful instrumentation and cryptic, poetic lyrics that were sometimes comprehensible, sometimes not.

Typical examples include American Pie, Hotel California and Sultans of Swing, and at the louder end Born To Run, Stairway To Heaven and Bat Out of Hell. The long-form song was nurtured by the album culture but these tracks were also catchy as hell and often big hit singles – that fact that I don’t need to mention the artists here attests to their iconic status the songs achieved in their own right.

Here’s a gentler example of the species – Al Stewart’s Year of The Cat. As seventies as cheesecloth and homebrew, and featuring a gorgeous alto sax break. Enjoy.

Remember this from David Bowie’s penultimate album The Next Day? It’s a perfect psychedelic pop melody; indeed it could easily have been written in 1965. Maybe it was, and he just kept it in his back pocket for some infathomable Bowie-ish reason. But no; the lyrics point a more contemporary subject; this is no romantic ditty but a song about a high school massacre.

Bowie’s Valentine is an alienated kid with a list of targets:“Valentine told me who’s to go…The teachers and the football stars “. As well as sketching a horrific, and common, aspect of American life today, Bowie is referencing the 1929 “St Valentine’s Day massacre” in gangland Chicago.

A jarring contrast between music and message is always a winning formula in pop/rock. This is the only song I can think of about a high school massacre since The Boomtown Rats’ “I Don’t Like Mondays”.

(Sorry this is not a very heart-warming post – blame Mr Bowie! 😉 )


I remember when I set up my facebook account in 2009. I uploaded some photos to my profile, as you do, and sent out some friend requests. And then I saw a status update that has always stuck in my mind. It was by a female musician who was in a prominent band at the time; a very cool, cutting-edge type band. She was a cool, cutting-edge-type girl – someone I respected. And this is what she had decided to tell the world:

“I’ve just done a poo”

I don’t normally take much interest in other peoples’ bowel movements, but if this was what facebook was all about I figured I had to get with the program. So like several other of her friends (or sycophants) I approved of this earth-shattering revelation by clicking the ‘like’ button.

There was no going back. I had joined the facebook community – a transnational network devoted to the momentary study of slightly interesting things. Millions of people vaguely curious about the minutiae of each others’ lives; briefly intrigued by dancing parrots, and mildly outraged by political issues – just enough to click on an internet petition. I was destined to become a soulless scroller, lost in the flashing lights of competing content.

Now I don’t deny the value of social media for organising events, staying in touch with loved ones, and the sharing of thought-provoking content. And I like my funnies too; cats in boxes should be prescribed on the NHS as a stress-buster. The problem with facebook is that it all happens in the same place; this has become the platform through which many of us work and play, organise and socialise. For the home-working facebook addict, finding a period of focus is like grasping a bar of soap in the bath, their newsfeed crowded with infinite distractions that would destroy the attention span of the Buddha.

I hadn’t felt the need of a digital detox before. I don’t have a clever phone, so when I leave the house I re-enter the 1990s. It’s a simpler place. Snapchat has yet to suffer any of my bus stop selfies and when I need to find my way around an unfamiliar part of the city I just…fail.

But a recent period of hermithood made me feel that I was on a slippery slope. Staying at home most days meant that my intervals between logging on shrank dramatically. The first thing I would do when I got out of the shower was check for notifications, and I would regularly stop a film or video to look for those little red numbers.

I started to worry that I would never again be fully engaged in a piece of culture or an object of study because I would be forever picking at the facebook buffet; constantly grazing but never digesting. So, one Sunday I decided that the following week would be facebook-free.

What was it like, you ask? What happens to a moderately reclusive cultural activist when he avoids a certain blue-coloured website for seven days? Well, I read a whole lot more, finished a song I was stuck on, and discovered something called housework. I also played a strange gig in a deserted library and discussed naturism in a Wine Bar.

But the most interesting thing? BOREDOM

Remember boredom? It’s what used to happen occasionally when we had gaps between things.  There used to be special places designed to nurture it, like dentists’ waiting rooms and churches; but nowadays as soon as someone is required to sit down and do nothing, the phone is whipped out.

We are encouraged to think that what benefits us most is a life of interrupted mental stimulus, but it’s not true. Our feelings of boredom are just withdrawal symptoms from the addictive stimuli of modern life, which are largely marketing. Gaps between stimulus are actually vital for our wellbeing. Don’t ask me for the medical studies to back this up, leafing through back issues of the Lancet is just so tedious.

But really – boredom leads to daydreams; and studies have recently shown that it is vital for childrens’ development. It’s a launchpad to fantasy, dressing up and games. And boredom is also a key driver of much youthful creativity; Iggy Pop and The Buzzcocks both wrote songs about it. Without boredom there would be no punk rock!

The mid-70s were rich in boredom. Groups like Pink Floyd and The Carpenters played a vital part in giving the kids the urge to create something more exiting. Sure, the unemployment, power cuts and grey concrete tower blocks also helped, but popular culture needs periods of stagnant tedium in order for new generations to burst through and rejuvenate artforms – I’m serious, I think!

Getting lost is another aspect of life that is becoming eliminated by smartphones; and its extinction could prove disastrous for cultureFrom Homer’s Odyssey to Finding Nemo, struggling to find your way home is one of the eternal themes. These days Odysseus would be onto google maps in seconds, then easyjet’s site, and have a pizza ordered for when he got home; it would all be far too easy.

Boredom and being lost (in whatever sense) are part of the texture of human experience, and they can ultimately lead to growth, but they are getting squeezed out by the idea that we can never have enough convenience or entertainment. “Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death” was the satirical title of a Dead Kennedys album from 1987; but in our modern scenario, we may ultimately find that unlimited convenience is in fact spiritual death.

Of course I missed facebook. As the weekend loomed I felt I’d run out of productive things to do. I didn’t want to be productive any more, I was curious to find out what everyone was up to. But I held out for the full week, and aim to repeat the experience regularly – who knows, it may even make feel like going out and being sociable in the ‘real’ world again.

Or I could just stay home and tell you about my poos.



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