Friday, June 26, 2009

Steven Wells, R.I.P. -- Music that makes you dumb

Following the massive internet success of the website Books That Make You Dumb comes Music That Makes You Dumb, which has been put together by unscientifically comparing exam results with people's favourite bands as declared on MySpace.
Some of the results are predictable. Classic rock fans fare badly. As do people who listen to gospel (religious belief being an absolute benchmark of stupidity apparently). Others are just, well, wrong. Pop, reggaeton, soca, Aerosmith, jazz, hip-hop and Beyoncé are all towards the non-swotty end of the scale – and perhaps an indicator that MTMYD is a more accurate indicator of social class and race rather than intelligence.
Some of the acts that flourish at the 'clever' end of the chart also baffle. The pop act whose fans have the highest SAT scores is profoundly rubbish Christian acoustic poomonger Sufjan Stevens.
Also scoring highly in the swot stakes are Counting Crows and Radiohead. Now I know this evidence is merely anecdotal, but the two thickest music journalists I have ever met were huge fans of, respectively, Counting Crows and Radiohead. The latter once told me that Thom Yorke never wrote happy songs (easily his biggest failing as an artist) because writing happy songs is easy, while writing songs that make willfully depressed teenagers even more depressed "is incredibly hard". I immediately wrote this down in my notebook as the most profoundly stupid thing anyone had ever said to me.
Thing is, in my experience, the dumbest fans I have ever met (as opposed to the merely daft, cloth-eared, ugly or too sexually smitten to understand that their idol can't sing for shit) are without exception those of reputedly clever bands.
When I was but a nipper, the kids who left school at 16 were all into Slade and Black Sabbath. The kids who stayed on and ended up going to college were into Yes and Genesis, proving that in one way at least they weren't half as smart as the proles. Of course, by the time I reached that age, everyone was into punk rock, especially the really cleverly dumb stuff like the Damned and the Ramones. And thus swot rock died for a pop-generation.
By the time I started writing for the NME, the swots were back with a vengeance. Not one person on the entire staff was capable of not mentioning Nietzsche at least once every 750 words (whatever the subject). One chap went as far as to compare a gang of south-London skinheads partying to Sham 69 records on a Lewisham rooftop unfavourably with the very book-learned industrial band Test Department (who beat on the "found" detritus of an increasingly post-industrial society and, like the skinheads, also dressed in a consciously cartoonish proletarian manner). Test Department would of course later serve as the inspiration for both Stomp and the Blue Man group, which must have broken their postmodern hearts. Or perhaps not. You can never tell with postmodernists.
Later, of course, many of these young intellectuals would literally destroy their minds by trying to write about the then popular form of disco music known as "rave". Sadly, despite (or perhaps because of) their cleverness, they never grasped that there really is nothing clever to say about music that is designed to be twitched to by people who've taken a drug that makes them want to twitch to music that's been designed to be twitched to by people on that drug. Thus, their brains – softened beyond saving by ketamine and ecstasy – literally dribbled out of their ears, leaving them unfit for anything except working as feature writers for Mojo and Word.
Is swot rock alive and well today? Is that what math rock and pronk are? Who knows? Perhaps a young person could write and tell us. Meantime …
How smart are you really?
Take my exclusive pop quiz
• Do you agree that the reason Big Star never made it was because they were basically rubbish?
• Do you honestly – cross your heart and hope to die – not prefer Meatloaf to Springsteen? Really? Seriously?
• It goes without saying that Petula Clarke's Downtown is vastly superior than anything ever recorded by Bob Dylan – right?
• Do you agree that I Kissed a Girl was one of the top five songs of 2008?
• Do you worship Joan Jett as a living god?
• Would you, given a choice, listen to Jet Generation by Guitar Wolf rather than anything by Jacques Brel or Leonard Cohen at any and every opportunity?
• Wouldn't it be great if Radiohead produced an album of happy songs entitled I'm So Full of Sunshine I Make Rainbows When I Cry, featuring upbeat and uplifting songs with titles like Mustn't Grumble; Woah, Dude, I Just Checked My Balance; I Like Cheese and Beer; I Love Love and a cover version of The Nolan Sisters' I'm in the Mood for Dancing?
How did you do?
Yes to all? Damn but you're smart.
No to all? Here is a pointed hat with a big D on it. Go stand in the corner.

Steven Wells, R.I.P. -- America as world champions?

Dear America: you can't be world champions if no one else takes part
After setting fire to the trees on Broad St, pelting brawlers with beer bottles, playing the Rocky theme on bugles, looting a luggage store and flipping over a car and a fire engine (or a police car, versions differ, it might have been both), Philadelphia might still be grinning like a Prozac-dosed priapic dolphin with two dicks and a winning lottery ticket, but it's pretty much got over its World Series victory, the rapture subsumed into the citywide Obama euphoria and the anticipation - good things coming in threes - that next week it's probably going to rain gold.
But 30-year-old Texan-born interior designer and Philly resident Jaime Walters hasn't been entirely happy during this much-vaunted "best coupla weeks for Philly ever". The reason? She winces every time she hears the Philadelphia Phillies referred to as world champions or champions of the world. Which happens. Often. I know what she means. It's as if every TV and radio station unthinkingly referred to Miley Cyrus as "the reincarnation of Jimi Hendrix." It drives you freaking nuts.
"They're not world champions," says Jaime, who says she watches a hell of a lot of baseball for someone who's not a baseball fan. "They haven't even played a fair smattering of international teams. They play, what, one Canadian team? I don't want to rob Phillies fans of their victory because it's fantastic, but Americans calling them world champions is arrogant and ignorant - the two often go together, don't they? It's just an extension of American bravado and, right now, this isn't the time for that. This is the time for a little humility."
She's right. Which is why this blog is making a direct appeal to president-elect Obama.
Dear Mr President, we - the non-USAian people of the world (and Jaime) know this isn't the most urgent issue you'll face when you take office in January. We know you've got to close Gitmo, end the war in Iraq, put Dick Cheney on trial and save the global economy and that. But this "world champions" stuff - it really gets our goat. That roaring sound you hear? That's 6bn foreigners grinding their teeth and groaning. Please make it stop.
You will hear counterarguments. You will be told the reason the NBA, MLB and NFL champs are called world champions is because all the best teams in those sports are USAian.
This is codswallop. England has what is considered by many (well, by the English) to be the world's best soccer league. But its champions would be laughed at if they claimed to be champions of the world.
You will be told that nobody plays baseball to the same level as the USAian teams. But the champions of overwhelmingly British sports like conkers or cheese rolling or bog snorkelling make no claim to be world champions based purely on the assumption that no one conkers, bogsnorkels or cheeserolls quite as well as the Brits. And if these, minor, provincial, globally insignificant little sports were to spread to, say, Japan and a handful of economic colonies, and players from those nations competed in a strictly British teams-only championships, nobody would dream of calling the winners world champions.
To do so would be considered by the rest of the planet to be the very height of unthinking arrogance. And rightly so.
More importantly, the US does have a team that really have been world champions several times - the women's national soccer team. And every time a USAian refers to the winners of a purely national competition as world champions it not only insults these genuine USAian heroines, it diminishes the achievements of all USAians who are real global champions. In short, you're pissing on Michael Phelps' chips, dude. It's not cool.
By lavishing a title on those who haven't earned it, you devalue those who have. It's kinda like when Bill Clinton was called the first black president.
Another similar argument for calling the best NBA/NFL/MLB franchise the world champions is the idea that if there were an international competition, a US national team would win easily. But recent and regular humiliations in international basketball, baseball and women's softball have proven this to be a fallacy.
The one and only time the US national team took part in (an admittedly half-assed) baseball world championship, they lost.
Then there's the argument that because players from 20 other countries play in MLB, this alone legitimises the world champion label. Players from 83 different countries currently play in the Premier League. But this no more makes Manchester United world champions than you being top dog USAian makes you World King Emperor (despite what your predecessor might have thought).
And as for the NFL - no other country plays the sport. No other country ('cept maybe Canada) has a major American football culture. And thus the arguments used in favour of calling, say, the NBA top team world champions fall flat. You can't have it both ways - we're world champs because nobody else plays it AND we're world champs because we've got some players from other countries. Both arguments are utterly specious and entirely contradictory.
Would you not think it absurd and ridiculous if the Australian Rules football champs called themselves world champions? Given than no other nations play the game? And if Australia were the world's dominant economic, cultural and military power - would you not also find it grating, arrogant and offensive? Would you not grimace every time you heard or read it?
On behalf of every non-USAian on the planet, I can tell you that you would.
(Did you know that England are the European Champions of Australian Rules Football, by the way? No, me neither).
One last thing: after an extensive email debate on this topic with a USAian friend (a debate that I won, obviously) she emailed back: "USA is now World Champ of president electing!"
In which respect, of course, she is absolutely right.

Steven Wells, R.I.P. -- On British Surfing

"Banzai, dudes! Grab yerself a frostie and I'll sling another stinking dink on the napalm barbie!"
Why the crazy talk? It's because this week I'm surfing UK! Yes, I'm here sat on my free Nokia® towel on sandy Fistral beach in beautiful Newquay in sunny Cornwall to sort of watch the '03 Ripcurl WGS Boardmasters surf thingy in association with - get this - that chilled, pilled, wildstylin', beatifically smilin', crazy, hazy, laid-back'n'daisy-chained free-sheet of the revo-freakin-lution, the Daily Telegraph®.
1) There are a lot of shit surfing movies. But then there's Apocalypse Now ("Charlie don't surf!") which is the best movie ever - OFFICIAL! While all football films are rubbish.
2) Surfing is the ONLY sport ever to inspire great pop music. That statement will, of course, have hundreds of When Saturday Comes readers choking into their herbal-tea-filled Philosophy Football® mugs.
"What about Some Bunch Of Norwich University Students' epic All I Want For Xmas Is A Smugly Obscure Away Strip!?" they'll shrill.
To which I can only reply -The Beach Boys, The Surfaris, The Ventures, Jan and Dean, The Chantays, The Tornadoes, The Penetrators, Plastic Bertrand and The Ramones. Surfing music isn't just funny. It isn't just good. It bastard ROCKS! In fact it's the third best musical genre ever after rock'n'roll and punk rock (with which it overlaps, obviously).
So how come then that the music they're playing here at the Fosters® surf centre on Fistral beach is winky-wanky, tinkle-tinkle plink-plonk jazz-lite shite for baggy arsed, gurly-haired, goatee-bearded lady-boy E-retards? Eh? We don't want this muzak! We want an hysterically high-pitched "WIPEOUT!" followed by insane Joker-style laughter, followed by The Ramones' awesome cover of the Surfin' Bird, followed by Dick Dale's truly sensational Let's Go Trippin' (as used for the theme music of John Peels Home Truths on Radio 4) - really loud, on a loop tape, 4 EVA!
Like what they're playing in the Garnier Fructis® Style Tent, actually. Last year Garnier's big idea was "bed hair", this year it's "surf hair". And next year they're going for "electric chair hair" and opening a salon in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba - which, by an amazing coincidence, has some fantastic waves. But Abdul don't surf. Least ways not manacled, blindfolded and with a ball-gag strapped over his mouth he don't. ANYWAY.
There'll be more from our sponsors in a moment. But first:
1700: The denizens of the sleepy fishing village of Newquay look at their fantastic beaches with all like massive waves crashing on them and that and scratch their heads while munching rat pasties.
1750: These same denizens accidentally discover that if they build bonfires on the beach then ships will crash onto the nearby rocks and they can blag loads of great free stuff.
1770: Captain Cook "discovers" Australia which the British government promptly stocks with criminals possessed of the latent "good at sports which have yet to be invented" gene. By an amazing coincidence, many of these recidivist scum come from Newquay.
1779: Captain Cook hits Hawaii and is greatly amused by the gaudily-shirted natives who paddle up to his ship to the accompaniment of fantastic, horn-driven theme music. But then, lured onto the beach, the Cap is ambushed from behind by club-wielding assassins on surfboards. Look out, Cookie! THAWAK! THWAK! THWAK! AAAAARGH!
1968: Captain Steve McGarret is appointed the first head of the Honolulu homicide department - 189 years too late.
2003: The denizens of sleepy Newquay accidentally discover that by building a "surfing centre" on their beach and attracting corporate sponsors they can blag loads of great free stuff. They also build a giant, green-painted, white South African theme pub. All this has the delightful side- effect of turning the town, in the words of a local tax driver, into "a sort of shit Ibiza".
The Nokia® sponsored passel of metropolitan hacks arrive at the spectacularly located Headlands hotel and gibber excitedly. Most of them work for monthly fitness mags that are run by neo-Dickensian managements with minute staffs on abysmal wages. This is the first time they've seen the sea for years and years and years and they are quite literally pissing themselves with excitement.
Up the road is RAF Newquay - which serves as a prime nerve centre in the ongoing War Against Brown-skinned Folks Keeping Control Of The Oil. Down on the beach are thousands of lobstered Poms - building sandcastles, harassing crabs, frolicking in the spume and sort of watching the surfing. During WW2 this hotel was a hospital for flak-shocked bomber crews and is apparently haunted. But more on that later.
That night we toddle off to a restaurant in downtown Newquay. We pass hundreds of B&Bs rampacked with literally thousands of surfers, skateboarders and other young folks whose idea of a good time is to develop Basal Cell Carcinoma whilst in the latter stages of severe alcoholic poisoning. On the table next to us in the restaurant, some Australians are recalling the delights of the Munich beer fest. The phrases "lying in his own vomit" and "lying in his own vomit like totally naked" feature regularly. And the restaurant's resident DJ regales us with jazz-funk remixes of David Gray's most soporific hits. Or it could be Craig David's shittest b-sides. Or possibly both.
Still giddy with cabin fever and free Fosters®, the rest of my party decide to head off to Sailors Disco. There they will watch young men who think Triple X is a good movie get hogwhimperingly inebriated, dance badly to crap music and hit each other in order to attract the attention of young women in very short skirts.
I decide to walk back to the hotel. I get lost. On a road with no streetlights. I look up. My God! You can see the stars! And weird lights - flickering and dancing across the sky like a kind of low rent, black-and-white version of the aurora borealis. I apply Ocham's Pencil Sharpener. It's like Ocham's Razor except that instead of deciding that the most likely answer is probably also the true one, Ocham's Pencil Sharpener allows you to jump to the immediate and hysterical conclusion that it's definitely vampire aliens.
Back at the hotel I ask the young Australian lass behind the counter for her opinion.
"Aw, mate!" she says, the corks on her hat dangling mischievously, "it could be that they're doing something weird up at the RAF base!"
"Like testing retro-engineered space ships!" I gibber excitedly.
"Yeah!" rips the Sheila. "But it's most likely the lights from Disco Bertie bouncing off the clouds".
Wow! And that's when the truth hits me - like a diamond between the eyes! Those brain-battered RAF pilots sent here during WW2 were most likely diagnosed as doo-lally 'cos they kept on reporting UFO's - or "foo-fighters" as they were known back then.
But all along all the poor wretches were actually seeing was the lights from Disco Bertie! And it was all hushed up by the Illuminati who didn't want it to leak out that Newquay was in flagrant breach of the black-out regulations in order to test out space-alien inspired disco-lighting that wouldn't be "officially" invented for another 50 years! Or something.
The next day we all had a free surfing lesson and I was rubbish and then we played with our free Daily Telegraph® Frisbees® (I kid you the frick not) and had cream teas with lashings of ginger beer and I was sick on the coach and it was great. And an Australian bloke won the surfing competition.
The end.

Steven Wells, R.I.P. -- on Baseball and steroids

(The) real reason why real baseball fans hate steroids (is) because steroids render the statistics meaningless. And without the stats, baseball becomes mere entertainment. Except that it doesn't. And there's the crunch. Modern baseball is only slightly more exciting that snail racing. To watch baseball live is to watch a sport dying. Huge crowds sit almost comatose, despite the bursts of rock'n'roll hammering out of the PA and the exhortations to 'Make Some Noise' flashed on the scoreboard. Attempts to generate excitement might include a T-shirt catapult, a hot dog cannon or a lottery with a giant bar of chocolate as a prize. But the crowds just sit there - not singing or chanting or cheering - bored catatonic and paying through the nose for the privilege (a family of four can expect to fork out $276 to watch a Boston Red Sox game - and that's not including money for gas).
A typical baseball innings goes something like this. The pitcher stands immobile on his mound, glancing sideways occasionally to check if anyone's trying to steal a base. This goes on for some time. After an eternity he pitches. The batter swings. And nearly always misses. Or he hits the ball behind the diamond. Which doesn't count. Or he whacks the ball, gets caught and is out. This is repeated (very slowly) again and again and again until three batters are out. Which is when a good proportion of the crowd scramble from their seats and try desperately hard to get drunk on $6-a-pop watered-down pseudo-beer.
If ever a sport needed drugs, it's baseball.

Steven Well, R.I.P. -- on US sports fan culture

US sports are ruined by attention-span-wrecking, tacky, plastic, pre-packaged razzmatazz. A while back I went to watch the Philadelphia 76ers. Within a few minutes I was starting to get a feel for the rhythm of live basketball, noting how a little chap called Allen Iverson repeatedly used his brain as much as his body to outfox players who loomed over him. I was thinking what a great soccer midfielder he'd make. A Maradona with hands. Then, suddenly, I wasn't thinking anything at all. I was watching dancing girls.
This set the pattern for the rest of evening. A few minutes of basketball sandwiched between go-go dancers, a Frisbee-catching dog, time-outs, free T-shirts, irritatingly short blasts of music, distracting scoreboard graphics and Hip Hop the Rabbit's amazing guys-in-fat-suits sumo wrestling competition.
The audience, for the most part, sat still and listless. The few fans that did chant were drowned out by the PA system. It was if there was a morbid fear that - if allowed to actually watch the sport - the audience might become bored.
This moronic circus has all but killed fan culture. What's amazing is that it hasn't killed the sports themselves. Watching a game is like watching a great Shakespearean drama dumbed down to the soundbites. The great moments that emerge from fluid, open play and the interplay of fatigue, instinct and technique are lost. And the near-hypnotic state of focused concentration that defines the truly great fan experience is denied the American fan.
But the greatest horror is that, after decades of being treated like sugar-stoned two-year-olds, entire generations of fans have grown up thinking this brain-frying farce is normal.
"Listen, we've got fan culture," an angry NFL fan told me recently. "Every franchise has got its own song."

Steven Wells, R.I.P. -- Swells on redesigning the guitar

From the Guardian Blog, January 2009...

Last year, for the first time ever, computer and video game sales might have outstripped music and DVD sales combined, helped in large part by games like Guitar Hero: World Tour, Rock Band 2, Wii Music, Rock Revolution, Boogie Star, Pop Star Guitar and Ultimate Band.

This has made some in the horny-handed "proper" musician community squeal like stuck pigs. Real rockers who can actually play guitar, like Nickelback's Chad Kroeger, have complained that games like Guitar Hero are rubbish because they're not real. And because hitting buttons on a Guitar Hero guitar is a lot easier than learning to play a real guitar. Which is, apparently, really hard.
As American rocker you've never heard of (and boyfriend of Jennifer Aniston) John Mayer explains: "Guitar Hero was devised to bring the guitar-playing experience to the masses without them having to put anything into it … it makes it easy for untalented people to pretend they are good."
In other words "real" guitarists like Mayer want to keep rock stardom like a sort of medieval guild, where entrance is only granted to those willing to suffer the tedium, frustration and savagely blistered fingers of an arduous apprenticeship – years that could surely be better spent miming songs, dressing up in your mum's clothes and practising some really cool moves in the mirror.
Rather than making Guitar Hero guitars harder or more "realistic", surely the success of Guitar Hero means that the onus is now on the manufacturers of "real" guitars to make them easier (in other words, more like the ones in Guitar Hero).
Why are they still making guitars with "real" strings that are difficult and boring to learn how to play and really make your fingers hurt? What is the point? Do we still slaughter our own cows? Dig our own wells? Work in the turnip fields for 18 hours a day, six days a week? No. Buttons have proven themselves to be much easier and more efficient. Plus, with the button guitar you can still use the instrument for its main purpose – pretending that it's a penis or a machine gun.
This is important because, despite the fact that it is old, smelly and too hard, the guitar has never been successfully replaced as pop's coolest instrument, mainly because the synthesiser makes a poor penis/machine gun substitute.
Richey Edwards killed the grubby, sweaty, stinking hippy shibboleth of musicianship (that allowed boring nerds like Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler to become rock stars) stone cold dead when he became the sexiest and the greatest guitarist in the world with Manic Street Preachers – because (not despite) the fact that he wasn't plugged in.
But pre-Richey, God only knows how many beautiful creative geniuses had given up on rock'n'roll simply because they couldn't be arsed learning to play a ridiculously archaic instrument that hasn't had a major redesign since the middle ages.
And God only knows how much damage has been done to pop music by the sad fact that the vast majority of people who can actually be arsed to learn to play guitar are, by definition, tedious dullards.
Guitar manufacturers – how the hell are we supposed to make the music of the 21st century with the instruments of the 15th?
We demand piece-of-piss-to-play button guitars now. And pre-programmed "hurdy gurdy" guitars that actually play both louder and faster the harder you crank the handle. And living guitars made out of pain-sensitive clone flesh with screaming Jagger-lipped mouths at the end of the necks that vomit a milk-like substance over the first five rows of the baying crowd at the end of each particularly impressive guitar solo.
Oh yeah, baby. That's what I'm talking about. Let's make it happen.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Saturday, June 6, 2009

2009 Ashes

The Ashes
1st Test
8-12 July
England v. Australia
SWALEC Stadium, Cardiff

2nd Test
16-20 July
England v. Australia
Lord's, London

3rd Test
30 July-3 August
England v. Australia
Edgbaston Cricket Ground, Birmingham

4th Test
7-11 August
England v. Australia
Headingley Stadium, Leeds

5th Test
20-24 August
England v. Australia
The Oval, London