Monday, August 31, 2009

Paddy Power

Although Prefab Sprout may not quite possess the most ridiculous band name in pop music, at least not when we still have the likes of Half Man Half Biscuit around to entertain us, it is still ironic that a songwriter as gifted as Paddy McAloon decided to burden them with such a clumsy handle. Apparently McAloon came up with the name in homage to the equally foolish band names from his youth. Who cares anyway – what’s in a name? It shouldn’t be important, but I cannot help wondering if the band’s silly name was one of the reasons why they never enjoyed the commercial success that they so richly deserved.

Despite critical acclaim, the band’s creative seedlings never quite sprouted into mainstream hits. Prefab Sprout never bowed to commercialism and although they were relatively successful, they really should have been huge, considering the raft of classic songs released during the 80s and 90s. However, McAloon is clearly a man who has never been concerned with fashion, beyond how to fashion innovative ideas, convoluted melodies and ironic lyrics into the traditional pop formula. Although Prefab Sprout always seemed to stand just outside the times, McAloon showcased an effortless ability to encapsulate feelings into superior tunes.

McAloon once claimed that he was “probably the best writer on the planet” and although his suggestion was tongue-in-cheek, he was not that far off the mark. As an inventive and insightful writer, McAloon’s elegant songcraft has few rivals among his peers and stands comparison with Elvis Costello and Morrissey/Marr (yes, he’s that good). The soulful Geordie is regularly hailed as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation, but his career has been characterised by a determined retreat from the pressures of fame and expectation. In recent years, this has been compounded by serious health problems, including temporary hearing loss and a degenerative eye condition.

"Clothes as obsolete as warships in the Baltic"

He has always come across as an artist with a fear not of failure, but of success – one of the songs on the debut album was even called, “Couldn’t Bear To Be Special”. This self-effacing, near reclusive genius is far removed from today’s publicity-hungry “celebrities”, preferring to let his witty, literate music speak for itself, which is completely understandable when you have authored such a rich songbook.

McAloon was also Prefab Sprout’s lead vocalist with a beautiful voice that could rise from a whisper to a scream. Ethereal backing vocals were provided by Wendy Smith, whose breathy, bittersweet style combined with McAloon’s rougher tone to deliver magical, haunting harmonies. Paddy’s younger brother, Martin McAloon, was responsible for the melodic bass lines, while Neil Conti added the crisp, tasteful drum sound.

"Nancy, let your hair down for me"

Although the music could be contemplative and even dreamlike, it was never as delicate as, say, The Cocteau Twins. No, this was unashamedly slick pop music, though many of the inspirations were steeped in the classics of the 60s like Lennon & McCartney, The Beach Boys and even Burt Bacharach. Indeed, after listening to the rich emotion and intelligence of “Steve McQueen”, one critic was moved to call it the “Pet Sounds” of the 80s and this album is certainly a classic of its generation.

The eclectic nature of the music was one of the attractions. Even if there is a clearly defined 80s sound, notably from the use of synths, the songs exhibit little of the bombast of the time. Sinewy, mannered and knowing, the music is just about as sublime as pop can be, but it’s a broad church also taking in country & western, atmospheric jazz and gospel (among other things). Contemporary comparisons are particularly difficult, but the music is reminiscent of Aztec Camera and Scritti Politti with maybe just a touch of The Style Council thrown in for good measure.

"I'm not looking down on you"

On first listen, Prefab Sprout’s songs are straightforward romantic rock, but they’re multi-layered, sneaking up on you quietly before striking at the most unsuspecting moments. Even McAloon’s ostensibly cheery compositions often have a dark underside, such as “Desire As” where regret is bitterly described, “And all I ever want to be/Is far from the eyes that ask me/In whose bed you're gonna be”. Though the songs don’t hide their cleverness, McAloon never allows his intelligence to dominate his passions and he has this lovely knack of injecting his pop songs with emotion and intellect, so a catchy song like “Appetite” contains smart lines such as: “Here she is with two small problems/And the best part of the blame/Wishing she could call him heartache/But it's not a boy's name”.

These were songs of regret, longing, nostalgia, sexual tension and other emotionally depth-charged insights, but they were also expertly fine-tuned with McAloon singing both from the heart and the head. His records were filled to the brim with wonderful ideas, the sharp emotion counter-balanced with maverick melodies flung about in a surprising, almost offhand manner that never allows a song to be too predictable. This effervescent invention, playfulness and quirkiness created high calibre, complicated songs that built the band’s reputation, but at the same time also limited their success.

"Never trust a spell"

The lyrics primarily deal with the human conditions of loss, regret and redemption with many incredibly romantic lines like, “Life's not complete till your heart's missed a beat” in “Goodbye Lucille #1”, but McAloon’s skill lies in his honesty and humour, which is sometimes oblique, but never difficult to understand: “I swear at you 'cos I believe that sweet talk like candy rots teeth” (“Hallelujah”). Many of the lyrics feel like personal jokes, “I hear you've got a new girlfriend/How's the wife taking it?” (“Moving The River”). There are numerous bewildering and brilliant lyrical turns as McAloon looks at the ups and downs of love in both a literate and emotional way, “I was the fool who always presumed that/I'd wear the shoes and you'd be the doormat” (“Horsin’ Around”). This lyrical dexterity had already been highlighted with Prefab Sprout’s first single, the awe-inspiring “Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone)”, which formed an acronym spelling out Limoges, the French town where McAloon’s girlfriend was staying at the time.

In 1985 Prefab Sprout released “Steve McQueen” and it remains McAloon’s masterpiece, teeming with great lines. It is a lush, dreamy, yet piercingly sincere album of songs dealing with love and heartbreak and is possibly the most succinct expression of McAloon’s skills. One of the defining qualities of the record is its ambition, its willingness to engage with 80s, while resolutely plowing its own musical furrow of gentle, tonal colours.

"Fade to grey"

This album was the Sprouts’ second and it confirmed the immense promise of the previous album “Swoon”. The rich melodies that bubbled beneath the surface of the debut burst forth this time around, but the lyrics were not so impenetrable and the songs did not take so many unexpected twists. McAloon’s innate musical quirkiness was still evident, as was his mischievous wordplay, but this was a more cohesive and accessible set of songs. The album took less than a month to record, which maybe helped in yielding a tighter sound, but much of the credit for the sumptuous production has to go to Thomas Dolby (who also contributed keyboard flourishes). There is a decidedly 80s sheen to Dolby’s deceptively polished production, but the soft synths and drums never get in the way of the rawness of the emotion. Interestingly, the 2006 re-release of the album includes remarkable acoustic interpretations of most of the songs, which are just as strong with only a six-string and McAloon’s more mature voice.

The record flagged McAloon’s fascination with all things American, which was made even more obvious on their next album, “From Langley Park To Memphis”, that included the hit single “Cars And Girls”. He was captivated by American culture and his lyrics often made reference, directly or indirectly, to icons and legends from across the pond. The cover art for Steve McQueen features the band astride a motorcycle very similar to the one commandeered by McQueen in the classic movie, “The Great Escape”. It sounds very much like a homage, but McAloon himself claimed, “I just like the sound of his name. I like playing around with the idea of how people see us … and the LP cover with us on a motorbike is something you’d never associate with Prefab Sprout”. Confusingly, the album was re-titled “Two Wheels Good” in the States after McQueen’s representatives threatened legal action.

At the core of this record is a feeling of romance, but with an articulate, intelligent sense of longing. Yes, there’s a swagger to the lyrics, but there are also moments of deep emotional intensity, even though there’s enough humour and cynicism to stop it being at all schmaltzy: sweet postcards from the fringes of romance, if you will. McAloon’s gift is expressing every emotion like it’s his own, but he’s particularly good at charting the male experience, looking back on stereotypical failings from an older, wiser perspective with painfully accurate observations, like the prodigal son in “Moving The River” trying in vain to please his father, “You must know me, Father it's your son/And I know that you are proud of everything I've done”.

"Field of Dreams"

The full gamut of male emotions is explored in these songs. Initially, “Appetite” focuses on his love life and uncontrollable lust, though even here there’s an awareness that libido has a price, “She will always pay the bills/For the having big fun”, so he does try to live the right way, “If you take, then put back good/If you steal, be Robin Hood”. A logical next stage is infidelity which is discussed in the deceptively cheeky “Horsin’ Around”, as scathing an analysis of the consequences of such thoughtless romanticism as you will find, “The thrill of it - can I call it that? - was cheap/And feeling cheap's the only thing you keep”. You can almost feel the shame, “Lord just blind me/Don't let her innocent eyes remind me”.

Regrets … I’ve had a few. In “Bonny”, McAloon spares little in his post break-up self-flagellation, “I count the hours since you slipped away/I count the hours that I lie awake/I count the minutes and the seconds too/All I stole and I took from you”. The rueful regrets are palpable, but by “Desire As” he’s resigned and embittered, “I've got six things on my mind/You're no longer one of them”. His real sense of mind (and loss) is reflected in the astonishing “When Love Breaks Down” with the heartbreakingly honest admission: “The things you do/To stop the truth from hurting you/The lies we tell/They only serve to fool ourselves”.

As well as wearing his heart on his sleeve, McAloon is not afraid to cite a number of his influences. The upbeat country-style opener “Faron Young” is dedicated to the American C&W artist of the same name, though it’s also a dig at the second-hand versions of this music being played by people in his native north-east England, “You offer infrared instead of sun/You offer paper spoons and bubble gum”. “When The Angels Sing” is apparently a tribute to soul legend Marvin Gaye, while “Hallelujah” references the “songs of Georgie Gershwin”.

"Genius of Love"

“Steve McQueen” is probably the band’s most popular release, but it is only one album in a body of superlative work. I would champion the under-rated, highly idiosyncratic “Swoon” – there’s really nothing quite like it, but it’s the work of a mastermind. Later efforts included the amazing “Jordan: The Comeback”, featuring not one, but two, songs about Jesse James! Or the even more obscure “Andromeda Heights” is a magnificently theatrical album. What really vexes Prefab Sprout fans are the many boxes of unreleased material that is said to be languishing chez McAloon, including concept albums about the life of Michael Jackson (Behind The Veil), the history of the world (Earth: The Story So Far) and a fictional superhero (Zorro The Fox). Next week “Let’s Change The World With Music” will be released from this treasure trove, though it was originally recorded back in 1992. Although that’s great news, you can’t help but mourn the concealment of such a talent.

Paddy McAloon is an uncrowned king of pop, responsible for some of the most beautiful, enduring music ever made. Spine chillingly beautiful, “Steve McQueen” is a perfect example of how the vacuous pop world can occasionally be subverted by a truly gifted songwriter. One of Prefab Sprout’s early singles was called “The Devil Has All The Best Tunes”, but it’s obvious that McAloon kept a few for himself.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

They're Filming Midgets!

Just when you think you’ve seen every variation of the gangster movie, along comes In Bruges, which is as fresh a take on the genre as you could wish for. Director Martin McDonagh described the film as a “black comedy about despair”, which is a perfect summary, but the film is so much more than that. Original and offbeat, the plot twists and turns in unpredictable and exciting directions with enough colourful characters, wonderful lines, absurd situations and laugh-out-loud funny scenes to satisfy the most jaded of palates. There’s plenty of violence and gunplay, mixed in with guilt, betrayal, romance and even a stab at redemption, but interestingly the film shines brightest when it simply focuses on a couple of men sitting around talking about those things.

Two Irish hitmen, Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell), have been sent to Bruges by their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) to keep a low profile after their last job went badly wrong. While the philosophical old pro Ken falls under the spell of Bruges, “the most well-preserved medieval city in Belgium”, his younger partner most definitely does not, “it’s a shithole”. As they tour gothic churches and art museums during their enforced stay, Ray complains, “I hated history. It’s all just a load of stuff that’s already happened”, though he perks up after meeting the sexy Chloe (Clémence Poésy). Ray needs someone or something to take his mind off his disastrous last hit, when he accidentally shot a boy while killing a priest. This is against Harry’s gangland code (“killing the priest was business, but blowing a kid’s head off just isn’t done”), so he orders Ken to kill Ray, but when things don’t go to plan (again), Harry goes to Bruges to take care of things personally.

"Hurry up, Harry"

Incredibly, In Bruges is director Martin McDonagh’s first full-length feature film, though he did win an Oscar in 2006 for his short film Six Shooter, which addressed similar themes. McDonagh has said that he’s inspired by Scorsese and Tarantino, but this remarkable debut also has similarities to House of Games, the first film by David Mamet, who shares a liking for clever, sometimes vulgar dialogue. McDonagh made his name as a playwright with acclaimed productions like The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which maybe explains why his film has such a firm grasp on character, which is explored through dialogue (à la Mike Leigh) as much as action. In Bruges has all the action and flow of a dynamic film, but the pain, drama, humor, and sharp characterisations could only come from someone who’s spent a lifetime writing stories that rely solely on dialogue for emotional content.

Indeed, it’s McDonagh’s gift for language that makes this film a unique pleasure. The natural conversations are a breath of fresh air, chock-full of wonderful lines and a distinctly Irish wit that is robustly obscene. In spite of the visual treats offered by the city of Bruges and some surreal scenes, the dazzling dialogue (and the way it is delivered) is the best thing about the film. The slick, snappy exchanges between Farrell and Gleeson are even funnier and more profane than the interactions between Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction: “Two manky hookers and a racist dwarf. I think I'm heading home.”

"Shot by both sides"

Farrell and Gleeson have a wonderful chemistry together, content to hang out with each other one minute, but bickering like an old married couple the next, “Two weeks? In fucking Bruges? In a room like this? With you? No way.” Ken makes the best of their enforced stay and clearly enjoys the city’s scenic beauty, while Ray is bored stiff by the sightseeing.

Ken: We shall strike a balance between culture and fun.

Ray: Somehow I believe, Ken, that the balance shall tip in the favor of culture, like a big fat fucking retarded fucking black girl on a see-saw opposite... a dwarf.

They make an Odd Couple, but develop a warm, caring relationship with Ken at times acting like a concerned friend and at others like a (disgruntled) parent, essentially baby-sitting Ray for Harry until things cool down. While Ken and Ray exchange barbed remarks, it is clear that they rely on each other like father and son.

Ken: Ray, did we or did we not agree that if I let you go on your date tonight, you'd do the things I wanted to do today?

Ray: We are doing the things you wanted to do today.

Ken: And I would do them without you throwing a fucking moody, like a five year old who's dropped all his sweets.

Ray: We didn't agree to that.

Even though Farrell’s hangdog expression and Gleeson’s girth are reminiscent of a Celtic Laurel and Hardy, McDonagh never lets us lose sight of the fact that Ken and Ray are hard men engaged in an ugly business.

"Handbags and gladrags"

Gleeson excels in his role as the weary gangster pondering the possibilities for his own redemption. Nobody can play a more sympathetic bad guy, making the most of the contradictions between his menacing bulk and gentle eyes. Gleeson brings a noble humanity to Ken, every feature on his tired old boxer’s face accentuating the sadness that he has seen.

But if Gleeson is reliably excellent, Farrell is absolutely superb, confirming his status as a terrific character actor. He hasn’t been this good for ages. There is a cracked soul behind his funny, moody façade (and expressive eyebrows). Ray is violent and destructive, but he’s also a confused kid struggling with the guilt that threatens to consume him. It’s a tribute to McDonagh’s skill that the film remains so funny, while he does justice to the characters’ anguish. In Ray’s case this is through his child-like behaviour, which can be vulnerable and sulky, but can also explode into delight, such as when he first sees the film set,: “They’re filming midgets!”

"When Irish eyes are smiling"

Although there are many melancholy moments and poignant scenes, the film balances this with some hilarious set-pieces. Much of the humour develops out of character and smart observations, but some of the comedy is almost slapstick with vicious jokes about fat people, a racist dwarf and a gay skinhead. It’s not exactly politically correct, but it is enormously funny, though not quite as enormous as the unfortunate obese American tourists, who are heartily insulted by Ray, when planning to climb up Bruges’ famous bell tower:

Overweight Man: Been to the top of the tower?

Ray: Yeah... yeah, it's rubbish.

Overweight Man: It is? The guidebook says it's a must see.

Ray: Well you lot ain't going up there.

Overweight Man: Pardon me? Why?

Ray: I mean, it's all winding stairs. I'm not being funny.

Overweight Man: What exactly are you trying to say?

Ray: What exactly am I trying to say? You’s a bunch of fuckin' elephants.

[overweight man attempts to chase Ray around, but quickly grows tired]

Ray: Come on, leave it fatty!

In fact, our American cousins are on the end of some pretty harsh treatment from both Ray, who beats up a Canadian couple, believing them to be American, for objecting to him smoking (“That’s for John Lennon, you Yankee fuckin’ cunt!”); and Ken, who is rather more restrained, but no less cutting:

Ken: You from the States?

Jimmy: Yeah. But don't hold it against me.

Ken: I'll try not to... Just try not to say anything too loud or crass.

"You're a fucking inanimate object!"

The gallery of supporting characters is equally vivid, leading to a succession of entertaining encounters. Ralph Fiennes in the role of snarling Cockney crime boss Harry is as surprising a piece of casting as Ben Kingsley’s thug in Sexy Beast, but his performance is splendidly sinister, imbued with malice and humour in equal measures. He is calm and contained, clipped in speech, but has the worst temper imaginable and is prone to extreme violence. An old East End villain, he knows what he wants:

An Uzi? I'm not from South Central Los Angeles. I didn't come here to shoot twenty black ten year olds in a drive-by. I want a normal gun for a normal person.

With its banter, bravado and violence, this is a very masculine film, but there is space for a couple of well-written and engaging female characters, namely Chloe, an impossibly saucy Belgian drug dealer, and Marie, the pregnant owner of the hitmen’s hotel, who are far more than diversions. Chloe proves more than a match for Ray on their first date:

Chloe: Okay. So, you've insulted my home town. You were doing really well, Raymond. Why don't you tell me some Belgium jokes while you're at it?

Ray: Don't know any Belgium jokes, and if I did I think I'd have the good sense not to... hang on. Is Belgium with all those child abuse murders lately? I do know a Belgium joke. What's Belgium famous for? Chocolates and child abuse, and they only invented the chocolates to get to the kids.

[Ray sees Chloe's shocked expression]

Ray: What?

Chloe: One of the girls they murdered was a friend of mine.

Ray: [after a long pause, feeling bad] I'm sorry, Chloe.

Chloe: One of the girls they murdered wasn't a friend of mine. I just wanted to make you feel bad. And it worked! Quite well.

On the same movie shoot where Ray meets Chloe, he also makes the acquaintance of Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), an angry, drug-snorting, racist dwarf, whose views are so extreme that Ray eventually fells him with a karate chop to the neck. Pretty sick, you might think, but: (a) it’s hard to fault McDonagh’s for being so funny; and (b) the midget was asking for it.

"Schoolboy error"

You could argue that the beautiful city of Bruges is also a character with its cobbled streets, impressive architecture and canals featuring strongly throughout, but McDonagh does an interesting thing with the city, using it to develop his characters:

Ken: Coming up?

Ray: What's up there?

Ken: The view.

Ray: The view of what? The view of down here? I can see that down here.

Ken: Ray, you are about the worst tourist in the whole world.

Ray: Ken, I grew up in Dublin. I love Dublin. If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me but I didn't, so it doesn't.

Some film buffs have made great play of the evocative use of canals in “the Venice of the North”, comparing In Bruges with the legendary Nic Roeg chiller Don’t Look Now. The reference is made overt when Chloe describes the film within the film: “it’s too strong to call it a homage to Don’t Look Now”. For me, a far better comparison would be Fargo, where you also have bad guys indulging in some really graphic violence, but speaking in a simple, funny dialogue. Or if you want an Irish influence, how about Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot? Except this time Harry turns up.

"Cheer up, it might never happen"

The film also contains some visual references that inform you of McDonagh’s intentions, such as a television scene from Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, which should warn you that the film will move in unexpected directions. Similarly, the use of a Hieronymus Bosch painting of a prisoner being flayed alive suggests that the film will say something about the spectacle of violence. On the other hand, it is also used as an opportunity for a good Spurs joke:

Ken: Purgatory... what's that?

Ray: Purgatory's kind of like the in-betweeny one. You weren't really shit, but you weren't all that great either. Like Tottenham.

Although much of the humour is tasteless, the film is surprisingly thoughtful, supported by compassionate humanity. None of the characters deserve our sympathy, but they are slowly revealed to be not just killing machines, but complex human beings with secrets and regrets. We’re probably not supposed to like Ken and Ray too much, but by the end of the film we feel genuine affection for them. At the very least, we definitely enjoy listening to them talk.

In Bruges is full of contradictions: for a very quiet film, it has some explosive moments. It may be out to shock you, but in its own way it’s also rather moral, as the main characters face up to their demons - a morality lesson taught by immoral men. It’s a thoughtful film that will make you laugh a lot and I can only agree with Chloe on her first date with Ray: “There’s never been a classic movie made in Bruges until now”.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Reasons To Be Cheerful

One of the best things about the punk era was that it gave space to many characters that looked or sounded different. This was great news for Ian Dury, surely one of the most unlikely rock stars of all time, who fitted easily into the 1977 music scene, despite (or maybe because of) his quirky appearance and unglamorous image.

Struck down by polio at the age of seven, Dury was well aware of his unorthodox look and actually seemed to revel in it, “Even good looking people have got a weakness. Mine is so obvious that there’s no point in worrying about it. Luckily I’m quite interesting to look at”. His courage extended to the way that he approached his music, which was uncompromising to say the least. Although he was much older than his punk contemporaries, his influence on other singers is undeniable, most obviously Johnny Rotten, the scene’s pivotal figure, who copied many of Dury’s gestures at the mike stand.

"Stand and deliver"

However, Ian Dury was never really a punk and his band, The Blockheads, were more funky than punky. Even though the opening line of “Plaistow Patricia” was stuffed with expletives (“arseholes, bastards, fucking cunts and pricks”), Dury’s songs were more humorous and often gentler than the angst and rebellion of his punk peers. No, Dury was a true renaissance man, also gaining success in art and the theatre, and his music reflected this eclectic background, being a mixture of pub rock, punk, funk, soul, disco and even music hall. He had an armoury of quite extraordinary songs, ranging from sweetly romantic to outrageously rude, but his boyish charm and irrepressible energy managed to bring together the many diverse styles.

Dury was unique, one of the few true originals of the music scene, successfully combining the energy and excitement of rock with the bawdy humour, wit and homespun philosophy of his native “manor”. He was as English as fish ‘n’ chips and a good cup of tea, an eccentric whose inspired combination of rhyming couplets, clever wordplay and depictions of working class life owed a large debt to music hall. So much so that he was actually supported by Max Wall on one of his early tours. A disarming honesty and endearing roughness shines through his work, because he was singing about the world he knew, making social observations about his people, using the everyday language that he heard around him in London and Essex. All of this was delivered in Dury’s distinctive vocals, half spoken, half sung, which fitted in perfectly with the times. This “diamond geezer” at times sounded like an articulate, intellectual poet.

"Jet black, dead white"

Dury learnt his trade during his stint as front man for Kilburn and the High Roads, who developed a minor cult following on the emerging London pub rock scene in the early 70s. Although the band had some success, Dury was well aware that the Kilburns did not have the musical nous to back-up his smart lyrics, so he moved on, signing to the independent Stiff label, which specialised in artists that did not fit into the conventional music boundaries like Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Wreckless Eric. Dury would later tour with all these bands, stirring up the crowd with his famous “Oi, Oi” greeting.

Signing to Stiff seemed like entering the last chance saloon, especially when the brilliant single “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” did not chart, probably not helped by the BBC deciding to ban it. Nevertheless, the transformation towards commercial success was not long coming with Dury establishing an awesome writing team with (musical director) Chaz Jankel, who created the perfect soundscape for Dury’s lyrics. Their partnership did not get off to an auspicious start with Dury telling Jankel to “fuck off” after a gig, as he thought he was just another hanger-on. The rest of The Blockheads were largely taken from Radio Caroline’s Loving Awareness Band, including the majestic rhythm section of Norman Watt-Roy (bass) and Charley Charles (drums), Mickey Gallagher (keyboards) and John Turnbull (guitar); plus the former Kilburns saxophonist, Davey Payne.

"You're a Blockhead too"

Never mind the music, what about the lyrics? Despite critical acclaim from broadsheet culture columns and other highbrow publications, Dury declared: “I ain’t a poet, I’m a lyricist”. And much of Dury’s enduring appeal lies in his lyrics, which are remarkably clever sketches of British life, delivered with a wry wit and much verbal dexterity. Very few could match the lyrics in a song like “Billericay Dickie”, when recounting this cheeky chappy’s sexual conquests: “Had a love affair with Nina/In the back of my Cortina/A seasoned up hyena/Could not have been more obscener/She took me to the cleaners/And other misdemeanours/But I got right up between her/Rum and her Ribena”. Great stuff.

The band was complete, so all that remained was to produce a classic album, which is exactly what Ian Dury did when he released the exceptional New Boots And Panties in 1977. Written on the back of the album's sleeve below the track list is the quote, “there's nothing wrong with it”, which apparently was the reaction of the musicians on hearing the first playback of their work. You can say that again – the album is a tour de force, starting with the innovative cover, which shows Dury and his six year old son Baxter standing outside a thrift store on the Vauxhall Bridge Road. The album’s title was an allusion to the impoverished singer’s habit of buying his clothes second-hand and refers to the only items that he would insist on buying new.

"Caning it"

The opening track on the album “Wake Up And Make Love With Me” is similarly risqué in its humour: “I come awake/With the gift for womankind/You’re still asleep/But the gift don’t seem to mind”. Although a mischievous compliment to an early riser (oo-er, missus), it’s also a remarkably tender song, which I’ve always believed to be about a long-married couple’s intimacy. In fact, Dury’s romantic side is given plenty of space in the early tracks with the bouncy, horny refrain of “I’m Partial To Your Abracadabra” and “If I Was With A Woman”, which has a much darker and pessimistic take on matters of the heart, “If I was with a woman/I'd offer my indifference/And make quite sure she never understood”, climaxing (stop it now) with a hypnotic, menacing coda, “look at them laughing”.

But Dury is probably best know for his character sketches and he does not disappoint here, introducing us to two of his sharpest characterizations in “Billericay Dickie” and “Clever Trever”, which beautifully showcase his dry wit, sensitivity, humour and way with words. The appalling Dickie is an outrageous Essex Man (before the term was even invented), a real Jack the Lad boasting of his conquests around the county of orange faces and white handbags, “I bought a lot of brandy/When I was courting Sandy/Took eight to make her randy/And all I had was shandy”, but his claims that he’s “not a blooming thicky” and he’s “doing very well” ring hollow. The protagonist of “Clever Trever” is a much more sympathetic figure, though perhaps not that bright, despite his protestations to the country, as he can’t even spell his name correctly. However, Dury was always ready to support the underdog, so he ends up mocking the bullies who label Trevor dim, “Why should I feel bad about something I ain’t ‘ad/Such stupidness is mad”.

"Knock me down with a feather"

Two reflective tributes are included on side one of the LP (in old money). “Sweet Gene Vincent” is a brilliant evocation of one of Dury’s idols, delivered with affection and accuracy. It starts out as a sentimental ballad before breaking into a powerful accolade, all raucous guitars and crashing keyboards, with the compelling chant: “White face, black shirt/White socks, black shoes/Black hair, white strat/Bled white, died black”. It’s a majestic performance worthy of the ultimate rock ‘n’ roller who had died six years earlier (“young and old and gone”). “My Old Man” finds Dury paying poignant testimony to his late father: “My old man was fairly handsome/He smoked too many cigs/Lived in one room in Victoria/He was tidy in his digs/Had to have an operation/When his ulcer got too big”. Floating along on Norman Watt-Roy’s rolling bass line, it’s a touching, infectious song and you really empathise with the sadness and regret: “all the best mate from your son”.

The band bring the album to a rousing close when they finally let loose in the punk spirit with three manic and anarchic tracks. “Blockheads” is a venomous diatribe that rips into lager louts and the like: “You must have seen Blockheads in raucous teams/Dressed up after work/Who screw their poor old Eileens/Get sloshed and go berserk”. The pace is maintained on the profane “Plaistow Patricia” about a “lawless brat from a council flat” who “liked it best, when she went up west”. Finally, the frenzied “Blackmail Man” is an unnerving tirade of Cockney rhyming slang performed at breakneck speed.

"Hit me with your rhythm stick"

The original album ended there, so did not include the hits, as Dury expressed a strong desire for singles not to be included on the LP. The re-release however contains five marvellous bonus tracks, including the aforementioned “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” and the excellent “What A Waste”, featuring some of Dury’s greatest lyrics: “I could be a lawyer with stratagems and ruses/I could be a doctor with poultices and bruises/I could be a writer with a growing reputation/I could be the ticket man at Fulham Broadway Station”. There’s also “Razzle In My Pocket” about a teenager thieving a dirty magazine and a live version of “England’s Glory”: “Nice bit of kipper and Jack the Ripper and Upton Park/Gracie, Cilla, Maxy Miller, Petula Clark/Winkles, Woodbines, Walnut Whips/Vera Lynn and Stafford Cripps/Lady Chatterley, Muffin the Mule/Winston Churchill, Robin Hood/Beatrix Potter, Baden-Powell/Beecham's powders, Yorkshire pud”.

Ian Dury may no longer be with us, having passed away in 2000, but his music lives on. He may have been lewd and rude, but he was the consummate wordsmith, always amusing and frequently hilarious. The issues he wrote about are essentially timeless and have as much relevance today as they did in the 70s (just ask Blur), which is probably why a biopic, inevitably called “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” is due to be released next year, starring Andy Serkis and Ray Winstone (of course). In the meantime, we can content ourselves with New Boots And Panties, a totally unique and classic record. Oi, Oi !!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Back In The Brown Stuff

"The ego has (crash) landed"

Phil Brown’s Hull City have finally managed to win a game, squeezing past their fellow Northern strugglers Bolton Wanderers by one goal to nil. Big deal, but this was only their second victory in twenty-five matches. Hey, Mr. Tangerine Man, play a song for me.

You might think that one win would be no reason for bursting into song, but by the same token you would have not expected the perma-tanned buffoon to grab the mike last May to celebrate the narrowest of escapes from relegation by “serenading” the crowd. The Hull manager’s cringeworthy performance was as off-key as his team’s had been during the last few months of the season, but Brown’s lack of embarrassment knew no bounds. His “Delia Smith” moment only came about because Newcastle and Middlesbrough were even worse than Hull, who only won once in the new year, gaining just eight points in the second half of last season. Never mind – let’s celebrate as if we had won the league, cup and lottery.

"Escaped relegation by the skin of his teeth"

Hull actually started last season very well, but it’s not as if they were the first promoted team to catch others with their guard down in their initial campaign. However, the early success went straight to Brown’s head and his mismanagement of the club over the second half of the season will go down in history as a textbook example of a man believing his own publicity. Hull were perfect “half season wonders” and the manager was no longer “Golden Brown” – except for the David Dickinson complexion, which made you think he’d been soaked in wood stain overnight.

It was obvious that Hull would need to reinforce their squad over the summer, so Brown has spent the last few weeks frantically looking for new faces. This was his top priority - once he had completed months of media work in a vain (pun intended) attempt to boost his profile, including a useless ego trip to China, so that his team could take part in the extremely important Barclays Asia Trophy.

However, it seems like nobody wants to come to Hull, as they have been turned down by (deep breath) Michael Owen, Fraizer Campbell, Marc-Antoine Fortuné, Bobby Zamora, Darren Bent, Daryl Murphy and Alvaro Negredo. To date, they have only managed to pick up non-entities like Jozy Altidore, Seyi Olofinjana and Kamel Ghilas plus the want-away Reading workhorse, Stephen Hunt. Even the Altidore deal was almost screwed up by Brown in a pointless argument with US Soccer, as he complained about the delay caused by the small matter of the USA’s World Cup qualifying match against Mexico.

"Rare example of Phil Brown not showing his face"

How bad a salesman must Phil Brown be? Negredo actually made the trip from Madrid to Humberside, but the deal collapsed once he met Brown face-to-face. I don’t know whether Brown’s reputation had preceded him to Spain, but there is not one footballer in the UK that could fail to be put off by the infamous dressing down Brown handed out to his players on the pitch at Manchester City. The Hull boss acted like a madman that day: a managerial novice who thought he had mastered professional football management to the extent that he could do or say whatever he wanted to his players, including humiliating them in public, and yet still count on their unreserved loyalty and respect.

Brown’s transfer dealings might also stand more chance of success if he would only keep his big mouth shut about his intended targets. He is the only Premier League manager who seems to conduct all of his transfer business via Sky Sports News. He cannot resist the lure of the camera and has given us a blow-by-blow account of each and every transfer dealing that he has attempted: which players he is interested in, whether he has had talks with them, how the talks went, the size of the transfer fee, the wages the player was requesting, what colour suit he was wearing, whether he dunked his biscuit in his cup of tea, etc, etc.

Does he not consider for one moment that his total lack of discretion might actually deter players from signing for Hull? Certainly Michael Owen took a thinly veiled swipe at Hull after signing for Manchester United, “There are some clubs who like to come out and say they want to sign you. It gives the fans a lift that they are going for a player like Michael Owen, but I could have gone to a number of other clubs who were going about things quietly.”

Despite his limited success in the transfer market, Brown informed the world that “we’re by far a stronger team and better equipped”. That boast came before his side’s opening day defeat against Chelsea, after which he blundered his way in front of a microphone (what’s new?) and immediately slaughtered his signings, “We had three or four new players on show who are learning all about Phil Brown and what it is like to play for Hull City”.

"Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away"

Next up were perennial under-achievers Tottenham, who thrashed Hull 5-1 at the KC Stadium. Once again it was all the fault of the players, according to tactical genius, Phil Brown, “There is no excuse for not working hard enough and not working towards the game plan and one or two didn't. We certainly need better players. We need players that are going to do the job for Hull City to the best of their ability and are going to listen to instructions I give before we go out there.” Right, now I understand: if only the players had followed Big Phil’s brilliant coaching, then they would not have been humped. Unless they were better players of course …

You know what you should have done, Phil? You should have marched your players out of the dressing room, so that you could give them a real bollocking in front of the fans. Oh, hang on …

We’ve been here before. Any problems are down to the players and in no way attributable to the Sun (bed) King. Even when apparently owning up to mistakes, Brown somehow manages to deflect the blame towards his squad, “Of course I made mistakes. I think we all did. Maybe the fact that I trusted everyone the same on Christmas Day; hence the reason why we got such a disappointing performance on Boxing Day.”

In the defeat against Spurs, we witnessed a classic Phil Brown “look at me” moment when he substituted his striker, Daniel Cousin, after only twenty minutes. Brown may have thought that this move was somehow reminiscent of the mercurial genius of Brian Clough, but that only brings to mind a memorable exchange during the 1988 United States vice-presidential debate, when Lloyd Bentsen beautifully deflated Dan Quayle with the put-down, “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”. And you Phil Brown are not fit to lace Brian Clough’s boots.

Although Brown is apparently the co-owner of a racehorse called “Gifted Leader”, any evidence of inspirational management appears to have disappeared, which is hardly surprising when you consider that he managed to lose the entire dressing room. When it comes to motivational skills, he is more David Brent than Mr. Motivator – and not just because of the absurd goatee that he occasionally sports. Last week Brown replaced a scheduled training session with a walk to Hull’s derelict old Boothferry Park ground, for once finding the right sound bite for his pals in the media, “The players probably thought I was mental”. Well you said it, big boy. Still, at least the players turned up for this team bonding event, which was more than they did last season after Brent organised a similar touchy-feely session at the races, when most decided that it would be a waste of time.

"Liar, liar, pants on fire"

To be fair, there is one group that Brown appears able to motivate amazingly well: opposing teams. The first example of Tango Man’s words putting unnecessary pressure on his players came in the Championship, when he started talking of “psychological” victories in their tussle with Stoke to secure automatic promotion. All this succeeded in doing was to motivate the Stoke team to secure the result they required. The popular de-motivational speaker (and occasional manager) then let it be known that Sunderland had wasted a huge amount of money on transfers, kindly writing Sunderland manager Ricky Sbragia’s team talk for him: “Motivation-wise it wasn’t a problem, because we just put the stuff on the walls what Phil Brown said about Sunderland Football Club”.

You have to wonder when Brown finds time to coach his team, given that his grinning mug can be seen on television every time you turn on Sky Sports News, whose correspondent must have his own office at the KC. Brown’s love of the television studio has not gone unnoticed by his fellow managers either with Roy Keane comparing their reactions to a good result against Arsenal: “I won’t be on television programmes going on about it like some other managers have been”. Poor results have not stopped Brown giving us the benefit of his views on every TV programme around, culminating in a vomit-inducing appearance on last week’s “Goals on Sunday”, when he sported a pink sweater casually draped over his shoulders like a refugee from The Style Council.

"Shout to the top!"

In his case, the long hot summer has obviously not passed him by, as his tan is now so dark that it looks like we might soon have only the second black manager in the Premier League following Paul Ince’s brief tenure at Blackburn. Brown even made Chris Kamara look pale. Certainly, few men have ever been blessed with such an apt surname. Brown’s transformation into a black man is like watching Michael Jackson’s life in reverse. Hey, Phil, don’t stop ‘til you get enough (tan). Don’t blame me for the cheap gags – he made his (sun) bed, now he’s got to lie in it.

Most managers who had escaped relegation by the skin of their teeth would step out of the limelight and concentrate on managing the team, but not if you have the gigantic ego of the orange one. The players at Hull must feel that they are in fact only bit players in The Phil Brown Show. You get the feeling that if Brown were an ice cream, he would lick himself to death. As a manager, he has not really achieved anything of great note, so he should really shut his big mouth and get on with his job.

Most managers who bring unfashionable clubs into the Premier League and experience a degree of success are usually quite popular with neutrals, but this is simply not the case for Hull City, almost entirely due to their detested manager. The arrogance, the lack of dignity, the Madonna microphone, the ostentatious pitch-side gestures, the perma tan, the references to himself in the third person and the eagerness to talk to every media outlet possible – all of these have put us off.

"You're so vain, you probably think this blog is about you"

It may be that top flight football has simply gone to Brown’s head, as his playing career went no further than Hartlepool, Halifax Town, Bolton Wanderers (where he first came under the ample wing of Fat Sam) and Blackpool. But that cannot be the answer if you consider that many top managers had very limited playing experience, Arsene Wenger and Arrigo Sacchi to name just two. Brown just cannot help placing himself in the same bracket as great managers. In the run-up to last season’s crucial match against Manchester United, he incessantly referred to “Sir Alex”, as if the two were near equals, only separated by the odd trophy or ten. He recently claimed that Hull would soon be playing in Europe: “A European place would be the ultimate aim, either through winning a trophy or by way of standing in the Premier League. How long that would take, I've got my personal ambitions. All I can say is that it will be in the near future”.

At times, I almost feel sorry for Phil Brown, as he appears to be losing his grip on reality. Managing in the Premier League is a very stressful job, so the best advice I could give him would be to take time off and seek medical treatment. Failing that, how about a little humility, some tact and a bit of praise for your players? On the other hand, why not stay exactly as you are, because for a blogger, you really are the gift that keeps on giving.

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