Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Off to the land of prog...

I’m going to be spending the next couple of weeks attempting to brush the rust off my songwriting skills (such as they are) and embarking on the path of coming up with some new tunes for an old band. The old band I was in about a million years ago, Lahost, to be precise.

I’ll keep you posted when there are demos to hear. Hopefully they’ll be an unpretentious take on progressive rock, though I may well succumb to the temptation to be overblown and ridiculous... ;-)

In other news, I’ve been back in contact with some old pals from back then, notably drummer Brian Devoil of Twelfth Night, who I’ll be working with to see if we can produce a live concert DVD of one of their shows from footage shot back in 1983. Gawd, I bet Emily wasn’t even alive then... ;-)

Friday, March 23, 2007

Am I not a man and a brother?

“He that stealeth a man and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.” - Exodus XXI, 16.
The title of this post was stamped onto coins that all those who wished to express sympathy and fellow-feeling for the Abolitionists would carry about their person. Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings, the TV tie-in to his book on the abolition of the slave trade and the shoddy establishment of colonies by the British in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, airs tonight on BBC2 at 9pm.

During the War of Independence, many slaves were attracted to fighting on the side of King George against the revolutionary forces, due to the fact that British law (by this time) stated that ‘no man could be the property of another’. Eventually, after General Dunmore suffered defeat after defeat and, having to think of something to give the former slaves in return for their service, a hastily dreamt-up colony in Nova Scotia was handed over. Hmm, a freezing cold, boulder-strewn wasteland (apologies to any current residents, but that’s what it was back then), the colony was eventually abandoned and a new, independent state was offered to the former slaves: Sierra Leone, back in Africa. You gotta love how the British felt it was okay to hand around bits of the planet they had decided that they now ‘owned’. Charming lot...

Freetown (the capital of Sierra Leone) was, during the reign of James Clarkson, a place of wondrous novelty. The first occurrence of a white man being whipped legally by a black man, the first place black people were allowed to vote and the first place on planet Earth that women (regardless of colour) were allowed to vote. Bite down hard on that, all you nations who think you’re so terribly progressive...

Sadly, Clarkson’s successors were not cut from similar moral cloth, and their vicissitudes brought the fledgling state of Sierra Leone to its knees, made more bitter and poignant by such a hopeful birth.

Though there is undoubtedly going to be a tidal wave of slavery-related media offerings (quite rightly too), many will be of questionable quality and accuracy. Schama, though capable of being an irksome presenter, is certain to offer many challenges to the perceived caricatures of noble slave, morally righteous abolitionist, sybaritic British governor, benevolent founding father and demonic white slaver. Whether his adopted country of the last 20 years takes kindly to a view of history that doesn’t support vainglorious monuments to overblown historical figures remains to be seen.

There follows an excerpt from John Greenleaf Whittier’s Our Countrymen in Chains, 1834. Apologies for cutting it down to a slightly more manageable size. A quick Googling should reward the persistent reader with the full version, one of many voices raised at the time of a bleak period in our history...
OUR fellow-countrymen in chains!
Slaves, in a land of light and law!
Slaves, crouching on the very plains
Where rolled the storm of Freedom’s war!
A groan from Eutaw’s haunted wood,
A wail where Camden’s martyrs fell,
By every shrine of patriot blood,
From Moultrie’s wall and Jasper’s well!

What, ho! our countrymen in chains!
The whip on woman’s shrinking flesh!
Our soil yet reddening with the stains
Caught from her scourging, warm and fresh!
What! mothers from their children riven!
What! God’s own image bought and sold!
Americans to market driven,
And bartered as the brute for gold!

Shall Belgium feel, and gallant France,
By Vendome’s pile and Schoenbrun’s wall,
And Poland, gasping on her lance,
The impulse of our cheering call?
And shall the slave, beneath our eye,
Clank o’er our fields his hateful chain?
And toss his fettered arms on high,
And groan for Freedom’s gift, in vain?

Oh, say, shall Prussia’s banner be
A refuge for the stricken slave?
And shall the Russian serf go free
By Baikal’s lake and Neva’s wave?
And shall the wintry-bosomed Dane
Relax the iron hand of pride,
And bid his bondmen cast the chain
From fettered soul and limb aside?

Shall every flap of England’s flag
Proclaim that all around are free,
From farthest Ind to each blue crag
That beetles o’er the Western Sea?
And shall we scoff at Europe’s kings,
When Freedom’s fire is dim with us,
And round our country’s altar clings
The damning shade of Slavery’s curse?

Go, let us ask of Constantine
To loose his grasp on Poland’s throat;
And beg the lord of Mahmoud’s line
To spare the struggling Suliote;
Will not the scorching answer come
From turbaned Turk, and scornful Russ
“Go, loose your fettered slaves at home,
Then turn, and ask the like of us!”

Up, then, in Freedom’s manly part,
From graybeard eld to fiery youth,
And on the nation’s naked heart
Scatter the living coals of Truth!
Up! while ye slumber, deeper yet
The shadow of our fame is growing!
Up! while ye pause, our sun may set
In blood, around our altars flowing!

Rise now for Freedom! not in strife
Like that your sterner fathers saw,
The awful waste of human life,
The glory and the guilt of war:
But break the chain, the yoke remove,
And smite to earth Oppression’s rod,
With those mild arms of Truth and Love,
Made mighty through the living God!

Down let the shrine of Moloch sink,
And leave no traces where it stood;
Nor longer let its idol drink
His daily cup of human blood;
But rear another altar there,
To Truth and Love and Mercy given,
And Freedom’s gift, and Freedom’s prayer,
Shall call an answer down from Heaven!

Sobering, yet inspiring stuff.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

What’s stopping you working?

Okay, time to ’fess up.

While sat staring at whatever it is on your computer that you really need to do right now, what is it in the room or in your head that gets in the way of doing it?

For me, it’s the peril of iTunes. I’ve got, let’s see... 16,404 songs (that’s 48.9 days) of music safely tucked away for my auditory wallowing. While typing this, dear readers, the song Mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm by the Crash Test Dummies has come round on Shuffle. Thought you’d like to know.

This wouldn’t be quite as enormous a distraction if I also didn’t have this in the room:
Not that I’m complaining or anything (and there are more of them over the other side of the room), but it doesn’t take much for me to hear something inspirational, take one of them from the rack and start noodling away for an hour or so.

And I wonder why certain jobs take so long! ;-)

So, for me, it’s the combination of unexpected music coming up on iTunes’ Shuffle setting and a pile of musical instruments looking at me as if I don’t love them. Over to you...

Monday, March 19, 2007


In the spirit of recent advice on being generally positive about the world (which I usually am), I’m going to do a spot of pruning of older posts that may have been a little, ahem, vitriolic.

Get a quick read in if you feel like it, they’ll be going offline by the end of the week...

PS. All done now...

Sunday, March 18, 2007

MeadKerr seminar

Went off with Good Dog to “that London” on Saturday to experience Adrian Mead chatting about what steps screenwriters should take to maximise their careers.

An affable and disarming chap, Adrian’s insights into the various aspects of writerdom were presented in densely-packed sessions of a couple of hours across the day, interspersed with coffee-breaks and lunch, all followed by a trip to the Museum Arms pub. As with any one-day course, you often take along pad, pen and sundry other note-taking materials, unsure whether there’ll actually be any point in using them other than to doodle hysterically more complex mandalas (or crude representations of genitalia, depending on one’s artistic preference). I’m glad to say that several sides of A4 were covered in copious notes, as almost every sentence out of Adrian’s mouth either needed copying down verbatim or inspired some jotting regarding one or other of the projects currently on the go.

Adrian, like most of us, has had a career that one might term chequered. Among other jobs, once a hairdresser, also a bouncer (and for a period both at the same time - nice), he had managed to raise finance for his first short film, New York Diary (shot on 35mm in New York and with a UK/US crew) by working every hour there was and not heeding those in his circle of friends that just raised eyebrows when he stated his intentions to be a film-maker. As GD wryly commented, during this period, it was probably not a good idea to have got him to cut your hair late on a Friday afternoon... Though he now confesses that NYD was total “arty bollocks”, it was definitely an assured step in the direction his heart told him to go. He also mentions on the MeadKerr website that it seemed a more practical idea for him than spending three or four years at film school. Fair play. I’ve always learned more “on the job” as ’twere and can entirely see his viewpoint.

Though, by the very nature of the subject matter, plenty of jumping around had to be done to cover ground and to clarify things based on where audience questions took him, Adrian managed to pack a day full of useful, real-world tips and tried and tested techniques for making the most of a writer’s efforts. As he himself says, “it’s not complicated, but it is hard work”.

As GD and I had arrived early that morning, we grabbed an outside table at a nearby cafe and sat with coffee, mulling over the coming day’s activities and wondering whether we’d get away with not having any coloured pens. After about ten minutes, other bloggers that GD knew started turning up. Lucy, Lianne, Lara, Dom and the fragrant and fascinating Potdoll expanded the crowd around our little table and, by the time the day was through, Pillock had made himself known. I’d held forth on why blogging was useful to so many non-bloggers that I was starting to sound like a salesman for Blogger, and copious quantities of cards had been exchanged.

After the day’s do, almost the entire audience shot off the Museum Arms pub for a couple of swifties before heading home. Lara and I had spent a good half hour in some actorly bitching for laughs at the end of the bar, and it seems from dispatches that GD had ended up groping cute Lucy’s butt (but this may have all been incited by Lucy grabbing Lianne’s boob...). Most of the bloggers, on meeting for the first time, are usually surprised by the appearance of the person with whom they’ve been corresponding for possibly months. Luckily for me, virtually no-one over here reads my rantings (or comes near me without a taser close to hand), so I escaped having any preconceptions. Having said that, Mister Sibley, next time you’ve got a free afternoon somewhere near London, let me know and I’ll stump up for lunch! Actually, that stands for any of the bloggers who’ve had the stamina to sit through any of my charming, sophisticated and erudite meanderings over the past whatever-it’s-been. Hey, I’m off to meet up with lots of terribly kind and undoubtedly beautiful people in the second largest country in the world when I go to stay with Caroline in May, so I don’t think London (or anywhere else in Europe for that matter) should be that much of a stretch.

Huge kudos for the whole MeadKerr team who schlepped down to London to put the day’s course on. The only thing I’d suggest they do is a bit of a revamp of their website, to make the courses more prominent!

And Adrian? That photo of you on the website’s fooling no-one. We all know you’re a cheery soul now... And where’s Claire’s pic? Bad boy.

To the bloggers - what an undiluted pleasure you all are. Thanks for playing nice.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Comic Relief

Whether you’re an incorrigible old cynic like the mad resident of this crumbling pile, or a hopelessly optimistic fool, destined to be kidnapped and sold into slavery (or at least turned into a gorgeous pair of shoes), Comic Relief will have impinged in some way on your consciousness.

Irrespective of why exactly Lenny Henry is allowed onto screens, the good work that Comic Relief does is beyond reproach. Saving lives, rescuing communities and restoring basic human dignity around the planet, CR has so far raised over £400 million (that’s real money, none of that foreign rubbish...) which has gone to alleviate suffering on a scale that simply shouldn’t be happening on a civilised planet.

BBC One will have an evening of ‘fun of sometimes questionable merit’, starting at 7pm Empire Time. Amidst the grotesque acts of (often career-destroying) jollity, there will also be short films that show where your money will go. If these films don’t stop you in your tracks and give you pause for thought, you’re dead from the neck up.

So, whether you find any of it funny or not, find some way of donating something to the cause.

Your action undoubtedly will save someone’s life.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Let’s cover an old tune!

Sometimes, the pull of banging through an old tune with bigger, fatter, chunkier, sexier (whatever) sounds gets too much for an artist, and they commit what can be one of the worst sins in music, ie. the cover version.

Now, sometimes they work (see almost anything of Bob Dylan’s done by other people), but most of the time they don’t (Robbie Williams ‘doing’ swing or blaspheming the memory of Saint Freddie by laying a cable on the altar of rock that is We Are The Champions, the Sugababes/Girls Aloud raping of Walk This Way for Comic Relief and so forth). Sometimes they can be funny, sometimes they can add another dimension to a song that you hadn’t previously realised was there and very, very rarely can take your breath away (Eva Cassidy’s breathtaking rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow springs to mind).

“What brings you on to this subject?” I hear the sum total of no-one ask. “Well,” I reply to the corner of my lavishly padded cell, “it was this post by Will D, so blame him.”

Cover versions of films or old TV shows. Not that it hasn’t been done, and probably really well in some places, but maybe it might be an idea to come up with some new ideas. Or am I going to get a kicking for suggesting that? I don’t mean agonising over well-thumbed copies of Joseph Campbell story-analysis or berating oneself for plagiarising things like, ooh, having a story with a beginning, middle and end. If you must take inspiration from an old idea, why no ditch the name and use the basic concept as a launch-pad? I really don’t think that there’s as much cachet in old TV show names as middling marketing executives have told their bosses there is. In order to make their jobs seem, in some small and oleaginous way, worthwhile.

What musos have known for years is that, generally speaking, cover versions rarely hold a candle to the original. This is, in my opinion, to do with the writer/original artist’s intimate knowledge of the truth of the piece. Pretentious as that sounds, give it a moment’s thought. Would you feel the sentiments behind a given tune as well as the writer? There may well be huge chunks of the song that resonate with something that happened in your life at the time you first heard it. It may well lyrically sum up some aspect of your emotional journey through life, or may just have an atmosphere that moves you incredibly (Radiohead’s Fake Plastic Trees has always been able to move me to tears, but the lyrics themselves are a bit on the incomprehensible side).

However, while I may be able to do a bit of investigation of the how and why Thom Yorke arrived at that performance, it’ll all be academic. It won’t turn me into him, and it won’t give me any clues to a way of re-recording the tune and improving it. This would seem to be the point of doing a cover - if you can bring something new and innovative to the table, give it a blast.

This doesn’t mean that several ‘flawed but nonetheless excellent’ covers should be binned because the originals are so good (Tori Amos did a starkly bleak version of Smells Like Teen Spirit which worked, while a UK disco artist Annabel did a version* which was appalling). Peter Gabriel, certainly an individual artist known for pushing the boundaries of production and exploring new sonic territories, was asked to perform John Lennon’s Imagine at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in 2006. Sadly, Big Pete took the tune and proceeded to drop a barge on it. Ugh.

The strangest thing about cover version films is the sheer “you’re kidding, right?” decision-making behind them. The Avengers for example, another bloody old ITC show which had moments of interest (mainly to do with a woman in tight-fitting clothing) was certainly an odd choice for a film aiming at being a worldwide hit, being very, very British in its demeanour. Now there’s talk of a Prisoner film and a ‘big-budget’ new TV show. Dear god, why? A show so incredibly rooted in its time, with visuals and setting straight out of the 60s/John Lennon/Beatles/Floyd/Warhol and a setup familiar to those who were currently living through Vietnam and the mess of the Cold War/Bay of Pigs fiasco. So, a film about the 60s. That’ll work, chasing a new, young audience in 2007/8. Thing is, if it’s not going to have all the 60s stuff in it, why call it The Prisoner? Why not consider the core of the story (a former intelligence operative who angrily retires from the agency. The agency suspects he knows something he shouldn’t, he doesn’t let on whether he does or doesn’t. They kidnap him and somehow place him in a situation in which he can trust no-one and has to rely purely on strength of will and self-belief to resist attempts to break him) and rework it from the ground up?

I realise that may not be the most perfect reading of The Prisoner, but that’s partly the point. I can watch The Prisoner on DVD - I want to see something new. In the modern world, an agency would not waste time dropping a former spy into a cartoony world of quaint, bonkers Englishness. They’d drug him and/or beat the crap out of him until he gave in. Wouldn’t take too long and wouldn’t be all that pretty (or terribly watchable, I imagine). The holier-than-thou US administration are having a jolly time trying this sort of thing out in Gantanamo Bay while the rest of the world sits on its hands, so I can’t see why somewhere like the UK, for example, wouldn’t discreetly lamp a former agent in the face with a two-by-four if they thought he could tell them something of interest. Work the numbers...

Infernal Affairs becoming The Departed is, I’d say, a good example of getting it right. What was it that made the original film so gripping? It’s not the actors or the location - it’s the intrigue, the duplicity, the shifting sands of loyalty and disloyalty. These are the things that got transferred, not stylistic or direct visual riffs. If any were, they’ve been ‘re-rooted’ in US culture, rather than attempting to shoe-horn Hong Kong cultural idiosyncrasies into a US movie. Approaching Infernal Affairs, there were fairly evident ways in which the organised crime in Hong Kong would have echoes in 1970s Boston. A big shout-out should go to William Monahan for his work on adapting the script, I feel.

Perhaps the Avengers film just didn’t go far enough with its adaptation. Personally, I think DMC’s on the right track with the bald fact that having a script might have been a good one to check off the list before cameras rolled.

Still - can’t wait for the three-hour epic re-imagining of Gilligan’s Island or Last of the Summer Wine starring Tom Cruise and featuring the entire universe blowing up. They’ve already made a movie of the Trailer Park Boys, haven’t they? ...snigger...

Any suggestions (and your reasons why they should be done and not left to moulder quietly away) for franchise re-animation should be sent to your humble blogger, so I can maybe make some money out of them and ignore you once I’m weighed down with stupefying amounts of cash...

* Yeah sorry, I recorded and mixed that one for her. My bad.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


Off to spend the rest of the day programming in Flash (gotta pay the rent, lads and lasses) for a healthcare client.

Hopefully, listening to John 5 and some Sturm und Drang classical music in the background will help the day pass quickly.

Damn, gotta sort the road tax for my bike too...

Laters, all.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Tag-O-Tron

Or, Riddley’s Believe It Or Not! (what a shameless rip-off merchant...)

Brian Sibley, who has been moderately revealing (which is, I think, the point) has tagged me to come up with five things that no one (or most people) won’t know and then tag five other bloggers to carry on the game…

Here are my five “Secrets of Spencer Shame”. Or something.


1) Posed nude for a variety of photographers…
My life is finite, and I’m going to try as many things as possible on the way. Why be ashamed of nudity? Too English and repressed for me... ;-)

2) Once took up the euphonium…
It was at school, and everyone else had already had all the good instruments, like the violins, trombones and flutes. By the time I got to “choose” something, I ended up being handed a lump of brass I’d never heard of. Soon abandoned when I discovered “rock” and guitars. Mwaaahhahahahaha...

3) Was the recording engineer on the Chesney Hawkes “I am the one and only” sessions…
I know. I’m sorry. Really I am. I was young, I needed the money...

4) Sung onstage at Wembley Arena...
I was the keyboardist for Kym Mazelle, who was the support act for Alexander O’Neal during his ’90-’91 European tour. She had previously scored a minor hit with a song with Doctor Robert of the Blow Monkeys called “Wait” and, as he was unavailable for the tour, I got to come out from behind the Rick Wakeman-esque tower of synths and sing his part. Excellent fun! By the latter stages of the tour, I was onstage during Mr. O’Neal’s set too!

5) Spent a fabulous evening with Traci Lords…
Who was witty, erudite, charming and disarming. Of course, during dinner, I fell for her completely and couldn’t give a fig for what people may or may not think of her past. ;-) She was absolutely adorable and, having watched the small indie film Chump Change in which she co-stars, is an actor of some note. Check it out.

That’s five quite possibly uninteresting things, and now I’ll tag:

Oh Caroline-ah
Alex Crouzen
Big Will Dixon, Texas Ranger
(apologies if I’ve tagged someone who’s had quite enough of this sort of thing)

So, what FIVE things about you doesn’t anyone know? Tell me if and when you blog details of your secret life and I’ll post a link.

Thanks again to Brian.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Likes & Loathes

Brian Sibley generously passed me the letter ‘L’ and this is what fell out of my head (in no particular order)...

My top 10 L-Likes
1. Life...
Pretty obvious at first glance, but I particularly mean those moments when one feels truly alive, whether that be due to an adrenaline rush of fear or excitement, or just that moment when you look out of the window, see the sun and clear skies, and get the swelling of the chest, deep breath, alive feeling that makes the day skip by in an irresistibly positive way.

2. Literature...
The written word, following in the footsteps of the oral tradition, that gives us such a rich background of human history, struggle, tragedy and hope. The “wisdom hotline from the dead back to the living” as XTC once said.

3. Laughing...
Finding amusement in anything and everything. Sharing a joke or an entire evening of mirth with mates. How great is that?

4. Learning...
The ability to find out about new things that lead you on to other new things that fascinate and captivate.

5. Led Zeppelin...
You know when people say that such-and-such are “arguably” the best rock band in the world? Stop arguing, it’s over. Zeppelin won. Ages ago.

6. Language...
Especially the regular new infusions from outside that are so vital to the survival and improvement of a language. Not to mention things like Engrish, Spanglish, Franglais and all the other comedic bastard offspring of any given couple of tongues (espeially if you can combine it with two countries that don’t get on!).

7. Love...
Which is for poets, apparently.

8. Listening...
Which I rarely indulge in as often as I probably should...

9. Lava lamps...
Are still one of those inventions that prove humanity is just ace.

10. Luthiers..
The people that design and produce custom guitars of exquisite beauty and craftsmanship (John Deacon, Hugh Manson and so forth) as well as the master artisans in the Fender and Gibson Custom shops - love you guys!

My Top 10 L-Loathes
1. Lies...
Whether it’s the “I’ll be there in ten minutes” type, or the full-blown “Of course Saddam’s got WMDs, let’s start a war” example. Hate them. And find it even worse when I resort to them. ☹

2. Laziness...
Procrastination, sitting about on your arse not doing the cleaning or just not bloody caring about anything.

3. Laminectomy...
I’ve had one of these, and they’re really not fun.

4. Lowest common denominator...
Attempts to appeal to a mass-market by removing talent, taste, ability, passion and intellectual challenge. Most game shows, reality shows and a lot of recent drama. Harry Potter also. The scriptwriters of the film Doom (and I was expecting so much...).

5. Loudness...
A button on a stereo system designed to turn a perfectly well-mixed tune into an abortion of too much bass, muddy lower-mids and tinny, screechy top end. Horrible, horrible, horrible...

6. Lottery...
An exercise designed to part the poorest sections of society from their money that works far too well for my liking.

7. Local colour...
This is about reporters descending on a hitherto un-newsworthy region which, sensing its only chance to make a mark on the world stage, rolls out morris dancers, fig-jugglers, bat-sexers, tree-huggers, crystal-worshippers and other “assignable to the asylum” fucktards in a desperate, pitiful attempt to appear something other than committing shameful and degrading acts of self-loathing.

8. List shows...
“And now on Channel 4, the Top 100 All-time best lists of all time Musical Horror Drama Comedy One-off Christmas Special Disaster Chart Successes On Ice Celebrity Heartwarming Tragedy Chef Exposés as voted for by Premium Line Vegetables”. Oh, just fuck off and fuck off now. Even if it is for Comic Relief. You have soured the planet and soiled my TV, you bastards.

9. Littering...
Is there any need to just throw stuff on the ground and walk away? The things you see when you haven’t got your gun... grrrr...

10. Laundry...
When will it ever end?

So there you have it. A seriously rambling and incoherent list of unreasonable likes and irrational loathings. Apply for your very own letter today! ;-)

Thanks to Brian.