Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Christmas Greetings

A couple of days late, perhaps, but salutations of the season to all dear blog readers and their families, friends, pets, et cetera.

Personally, yer actual Keith Telly Topping had a very nice Christmas Day. However, probably as a combination of too much rich food, half-a-bottle of Bailey's Irish Cream and some germs, he then spent most of Boxing Day either in bed or on the Stately Telly Topping Manor lavatory shatting up his innards.

It really wasn't very pleasant.

This blogger is still feeling rather fragile and a touch poorly today as a consequence.

Still, The Runaway Bride was good!

Have a safe and gastro-enteritis-free New Year, kids.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Everywhere I Go, Kids Wanna ... Pop

Here's yet another article from The Files. This article - based on a non-specific request from a fanzine editor to yer actual Keith Telly Topping to 'write something about your ten favourite LPs of all time' was first published in a British magazine in the mid-1990s: Some of it still stands up quite well, I think. Some of it, however, is pseudo music-journo crap of the worst kind, so be warned in advance.
New York, London, Paris, Munich...

Rock and Roll (or "pop music", to give it it's proper name) is the saxophone intro to Van Morrison's 'Moondance'. It's Steve Craddock's chiming jingle-jangle-morning guitars on Ocean Colour Scene's 'Yesterday Today'. It's the BIFF!-BANG!-POW! drumming of John Maher on a slew of Buzzcocks Forty Fives. It's the strut of The Clash, the menace of Killing Joke, the theatre of The Rolling Stones, the sweaty power of James Brown, the scream of (mid-period) Siouxsie &The Banshess. It's Julian Cope slitting his stomach open on stage at The Hammersmith Odean. It's the charm of 'This Ol' Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You)' or 'Heatwave' or 'Nowhere To Run ' or 'Back In My Arms Again'.

Pop music is Motown. Stax. Decca. Parlophone. Rough Trade. Polydor.

You know what they say - "if you want to know what it's all about, just read the label..."

Pop music is Keith Richards' dramatic intro to 'Gimme Shelter', the lyrics of 'Belsen Was A Gas', the vocals on 'Ball & Chain', the bassline on 'Release The Bats', the drums on 'Won't Get Fooled Again.'

What pop music is not is bloody Knoffler or Collins or Mercury or Sting or any of those other mortgage sensible, middle-aged, middle-class, middle-bloody-everything going-bald bastards who prostitute their youth in the name of being "the acceptable face of rock and roll". They are whores to their art and should be shafted up the arse with a big loud guitar until they cry for their mummy.

Pop music is the deftness of The Trash Can Sinatra's 'White Horses', the rockabilly-skank of The Motorcycle Boy's 'Big Rock Candy Mountain', Mick Ronson's guitar on Bowie's Seventies work, the word-play of Edwyn Collins or Smokey Robinson or Elvis Costello. If pop music has a manifesto, it's the lyrics of Noel Gallagher's 'Rock & Roll Star.' Pop music is The Undertones and The Ramones, Slade and Oasis, music that is loud, young, daft, spotty and stupid. The stuff that fourteen year olds play very loud in their bedrooms and their mothers have to tell them to turn down.

Pop music survives by constantly re-inventing itself. This has always been so, since a young, white country singer, Elvis Presley used a coffee-break at Sun Studios in Memphis to sing 'That's Alright Mama', a song he had been taught by a old black man, inventing rock and roll in the process.

When David Quantick in the NME in 1986, wrote a seminal piece of rock and roll journalism on the rise of do-it-yourself indieism, he called it Pop Will Eat Itself. The title not only gave a bunch of Black Country Grebo's a fantastic band name, it also served to define the self-references of the latest generation of hungry offspring.

When I talk about the music that inspires me, it is usually singles. Many of the most important music statements in the history of modern culture were originally designed to inhabit the grooves of seven inches of black vinyl. And it's this outmoded format that still gives rise to many of those moments that you want to live and die for. Unfortunately singles are an uneconomic way to listen to music and so, the entire Motown single-collection and the work of noted singles bands such as The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Clash, Buzzcocks, New Order, The Ruts, The Fall and David Bowie will not find a place in those records that I would chose to take with me into exile.

The LP - not, and never 'the album' - is the purist listening experience. Between thirty and forty five (or, in the case of the Grateful Dead, two hundred and forty) minutes of one sound. It makes a mockery of the single by exposing all of the glaring possibilities of judging a band by one song only (how many people love 'Say Hello, Wave Goodbye' or 'Don't Talk To Me About Love', but have nothing else by Soft Cell or Altered Images in their collection?) The LP survives (as the CD), because it presents value for money, a collective experience and the presentation of images and content under one banner.

I am not, and never have been, a great lover of people who pigeon-hole music. I was born in 1963 and grew up listening to what my two, older, brothers were listening too. Some of this has stuck with me (The Byrds, The Beatles, Bob Dylan), whilst some of the more outrageous excesses of the era (ELP), make me a lifelong appreciation of death-by-hippy. When I was ten I discovered Glam Rock (I'm not ashamed to admit I wore a Star Jumper and Oxford Bags). When I was fourteen, I became a punk, had my nose broken at a Clash concert, queued for hours for tickets to see Buzzcocks and fell in love for the first time listening to 'Pretty Vacant' at The John Boste Youth Club in 1978. Yet I still listened to Motown and Stax, was aware of folk-rock and The Velvet Underground and The Doors,spent Christmas 1979 discovering the Led Zeppelin, The Pink Floyd and Hawkwind were, actually, not all bad and when asked, stated that my favourite band was The Jam, a group that straddled the images and sounds of 1960s beat and 970s aggression.

The Jam were a band who relied for their impact upon an implicit anger in the socio-political enviroment of England. From 'Sounds From The Streets' and 'I Got By in Time' on their debut LP, through the shaky This is the Modern World period, to the triumphant return to form of All Mod Cons, Paul Weller's songs raged against a system that simultaneously patronised him (as an 'angry young man') and yet refused to allow him a lighter, more introspective side ('Fly' on All Mods Cons comes closest to understanding the mellower side of Weller's dichotomy). In 1979, fresh from a trio of outstanding singles ('Down In The Tube Station At Midnight', 'Strange Town'/'The Butterfly Collector' and 'When You're Young') they produced Setting Sons - the last great LP of the 1970s (it came out two weeks after London Calling, calm down traditionalists).

Setting Sons has a - more-or-less - continuous narrative. Put simply, the LP contains a number of songs written around a single theme; the effect of the passage of time, and of changing attitudes, on relationships. This was something that Weller had always been interested in ('I Got By in Time', written as an eighteen year old proves this), but on songs such as 'Thick As Thieves', 'The Eton Rifles' and, especially, 'Burning Sky', the singer honed his world-view from out of the straight-jacket of realpolitik and into another field altogether. Other songs like the caustic 'Saturday's Kids' ('Saturday's kids live in council houses/wear v-necked shirts and baggy trousers'), the harrowing 'Private Hell' and the bitter anti-war tirade 'Little Boy Soldiers' (written three years before The Falklands conflict which it, with horrible irony, seemed to predict), are fragments, snapshots of life in 1979. Although Weller later expressed reservations about Setting Sons, the LP's elegance under the microscope remains. In many ways it was the culmination of the first part of The Jam's career. After their next single, 'Going Underground', made number one they were, though frequently brilliant, never quite the same band again.

Weller, when he was preparing The Jam's next LP (Sound Affects), was quoted as saying that he had been listening a great deal to The Beatles 1966 masterpiece Revolver for inspiration and even cheekily pinched the bass-riff from George Harrison's Taxman for Start. Revolver is a remarkable work. It is easily the best, most coherent and most well-aged of all of The Beatles canon (though Rubber Soul pushes it close). It pisses on the horrendously overblown Sgt Peppers' from a great height. Revolver is swingin' London personified. It was probably the last time that democracy, of any sort, existed within the Abbey Road set-up and is a record that everyone in the world should own.

Revolver exists in its own, unique, twilight demi-monde world of evocative memories and kitsch nostalgia. Like watching an episode of The War Machines or The Avengers, it instantly transports you, without specific references, to another, better, time. One in which England were the World Cup holders and all the girls were beautiful and had long hair and mini-skirts. Wistful and melancholy ballads like 'Eleanor Rigby', 'For No One' and 'Here There And Everywhere' (three of the most perfect songs ever written and penned when their author, Paul McCartney, was just twenty three years of age) battle for prominence alongside some of The Fabs most brilliant power-pop songs ('And You Bird Can Sing', 'She Said, She Said', 'Got To Get You Into My Life') and, amid the mood trappings and the period charm, the first signs of Lennon's emergent weirdness with the psychedelic flirtations of 'I'm Only Sleeping' and 'Tomorrow Never Knows'. And just to prove that it shouldn't be taken too seriously, there's 'Yellow Submarine' as well.

If the 1960s were represented, on the one hand, by the growing-up-in-public development of the English rock scene, and on the other by the West Coast freedom and experimentation (fuelled by an overdose of happy sugar), that Monterey and Woodstock stand for, then off at some tangent, and completely divorced from the aesthetics of the age was The Velvet Underground, a group of New York art students who, thanks to their attachment to Andy Warhol's Factory gained a huge notoriety late in the decade. They never played live outside America (we'll ignore the Lou-less 1972 UK tour, pedants) and never had a hit record worthy of the name, and yet The Velvet Undergroud would become the biggest single influence of two entirely different youth movements a decade and a half later.

Most who seek inspiration (notably the punks) went straight to the bands début LP (recorded with the German singer Nico), but for the purist it is The Velvet Underground, their eponymous third LP, and the first without the talent of John Cale, that is the definitive product. The Velvet Underground is the point at which the then twenty four year-old Lou Reed, suddenly discovered the beauty of love. For The Velvet Underground is an LP of love songs the like of which nobody has ever equalled, or probably ever will. 'Pale Blue Eyes', 'Jesus', 'Beginning To See The Light' and the extraordinary early funk experiments of 'What Goes On', breath life into a tired and cynical genre and highlight the darkness and frustration of bondage to convention, and, significantly, offer no solution. The Velvet Underground mocks its imitators with breath-taking verve. It is fifteen years ahead of its time and, recently seems to have been accepted as the final text on the first band to wear black. Without The Velvet Underground there would have been no Orange Juice, Aztec Camera, Primal Scream, The Jesus & Mary Chain, The Sex Pistols or, possibly, no David Bowie. Think about it.

When The Jesus & Mary Chain arrived like a gang of rabid dogs in 1985 they were described as 'The Velvet Underground if they'd been produced by Phil Spector.' They were loud and spotty, wore leather, sang songs about drugs and sex and lied hideously about their age. Their first LP, Psychocandy, followed a string of extraordinary singles, and, like them, was dominated by feedback, wailing siren guitars, droned vocals and lyrics which, frankly, beggared belief. 'In a Hole' states, 'How can something crawl within/My rubber-holy baked-bean tin?' It is audacious and, at the same time, laughable. At times it sounds like an advert for dental drills and yet, amid the chaos, there are also tunes. Beautiful tunes. 'My Little Underground', 'Never Understand' or the fragile 'Just Like Honey'. If you have a reality-disorder then this is the LP for you. It resotres your faith in 'Cash From Chaos' and works, largely, on the strength of its hype. Don't buy it, steal it.
The mythical link between The Jesus & Mary Chain and The Sex Pistols is tenuous at best. While the brothers Reid hummed and harred about their anti-everythingness, The Pistols actually meant it (mannn). At least that is what Malcolm MacLaren would have everyone believe. The Sex Pistols were, in fact, pure theatre. In another age, they would have been underclass rabble rousers, stirring up the crowds and then nipping off into the night before the bother started. MacLaren's trick was to use the media to create a climate in which four loud-mouthed youths actually could cause outrage. This was the 1970s, after all, an era when mainstream television was dominated by sex and violence. With 'Anarchy In The UK', Rotten, Matlock, Jones and Cook, basically, ripped-off The New Yorks Dolls sound,with a healthy side order of Hawkwind. They did it very well, and the song remains what it always was, a piece of classic rock and roll with a cynical sneer on its face. But what they achieved with one 'what a fuckin' rotter' on live television was much, much more important. They became the first band since The Rolling Stones to actually divide an entire nation.

Never Mind The Bollocks ... Here's The Sex Pistols is a great LP, although, if you're looking for the definitive Pistols' product, you'd be better advised to get the Kiss This! CD which includes all of the songs from Bollocks plus several b-sides and out-takes and Sid doing what only Sid could to 'My Way'. All of the good stuff is there; the Johnny Thunders-baiting 'New York', the great Pistols pop single 'Pretty Vacant', the one-note bass on 'Submission', the powerhouse introduction to 'God Save The Queen', the sick-funny antics of 'Bodies'. This is remarkable music, made all the more so by the means with which it was presented to the public. The medium is the message. Rite on. Never trust a hippy.

If pop music continues by re-inventing itself, then there is no finer example of this than eponymous début by Manchester's The Smiths. The Smiths, in 1984, took the musical backdrop of The Byrds and The Velvet Underground, with the dexterous guitar work of Johnny Marr, as a form over which Stephen Morrissey could paint his - vulgar - poetic images. In 'Still Ill', Marr's jingle-jangle-morning guitar lines run into words which mean nothing and yet everything, highlighting Morrissey's twin obsessions: outrageous existentialism and wistful nostalgia for a loss of innocence. Yet 'Still Ill' represents only the merest fraction of the sweeping visions on offer on The Smiths. 'The Hand That Rocks The Cradle' is a Byron poem with a Rickenbacker soundtrack, 'Reel Around The Fountain' a tortured plea for self-fulfilment, 'Suffer Little Children' a chilling and angry evocation of abuse and death and 'Hand In Glove' one of the last great love songs in an age of crass and cosmetic emotions.

Retrospectively, after Meat is Murder and The Queen is Dead had cemented The Smiths' standing as articulate, intelligent and above all funny readers of 1980s aesthetics, doubts began to surface about The Smiths as an LP. It was badly produced, the naysayers claimed. The piano frills on 'Reel Around The Fountain' and 'I Don't Owe You Anything' were needless, the singing was flat and emotionless. Marr was having an off-day. There's no bass. And so on. Sometimes, to know genius, you have to have it rammed down your throat until your in danger of choking on it. Okay, so the American version includes 'This Charming Man' as a bonus. Buy that if it makes you happy. It probably will.

The first great movement post-punk (aside from the somewhat esoteric Sheffield 'industrial' scene) came via third generation Merseybeat. 1980 was the year and Echo & The Bunnymen, Wah! Heat and The Teardrop Explodes were the bands. Interestingly, as with many movements, the Liverpool sound of the era was produced in an atmosphere of apparent incest. It was the same fifteen or so names that kept on cropping up in bands across the next few years. The Teardrops begat The Wild Swans (producers of the best single of 1982, 'Revolutionary Spirit') who begat The Lotus Eaters, who were blood-related to China Crisis, who had former members of Wah! and The Bunnymen and The Teardrops, blah, blah, blah...

Julian Cope, Ian McCulloch and Peter Wylie all began in the same band; The Crucial Three, who then became A Shallow Madness after Wylie left to form Wah! and then The Teardrop Explodes when McCulloch zoomed off with Will Sergeant to The Bunnymen. This left Julian Cope as the sole inheritor of The Teardrops curious mixture of influences (The Doors, The Pink Floyd, The Monkees, The Clash, Pere Ubu, Thirteenth Floor Elevators, 1960s bubblegum et cetera). The Teardrop Explodes (named after a line in an issue of Daredevil), recorded four stunning singles for the Liverpool label Zoo before being snapped up by Mercury and recording the, almost, perfect pop LP, Kilimanjaro.

Kilimanjaro is how all pop music ought to sound. Joyously displaying its influences openly: rebellious, irreverent and just a touch insane. It is the sound of youth, alive and being pop stars. Once Alan Gill left to reform Dalek I, The Teardrops had a hit single ( the glorious 'Reward', available on the latest reissues of Kilimanjaro), then fell apart under the strain of the tension between Cope and keyboard player David Balfe. Their second LP, Wilder is really the work of a different band altogether and, although its weird brilliance is still beloved by many, myself included, The Teardrop Explodes lost their pop audience almost overnight. This is not to suggest that Kilimanjaro does not feature moments of extreme nonsense; Cope's aping of Syd Barrett on 'Went Crazy', the sly re-working of psychedelia of 'Poppies (In The Fields)', the over-the-top lunacy of 'Sleeping Gas', Cope's first tentative steps towards his Jesus Christ obsessions which remain with the writer to this day, on 'Bouncing Babies' and the extraordinary sensual love song 'The Thief Of Bagdhad' mark out the LP as something to be treasured.

Having split up during the making of a third LP (posthumously released as the brilliantly titled Everybody Wants To Shag The Teardrop Explodes; which proved that, among their other achievements, Cope, Balfe and Gary Dwyer invented acid-house eight years before S-Express), Cope took his 'floored genius' off to an eccentric, sometimes erratic, but often brilliant solo career of remarkable recordings (Fried, Skellington, Saint Julian, Peggy Suicide, jehovahkill - the latter managing to get the singer sacked by Island records). Cope remains a great, if unhinged, talent and the world is a better place for having him around.

The link between Cope and The Monkees might, at first, appear to be slim. Both were mocked and derided in their time, only to emerge years later from the madness with their triumphs intact. Both suffered from a plethora of serious doubters who chose to ignore innovation and cry 'Emperor's New Clothes'.

The Monkees were The Stone Roses of their era. Over-hyped, over-paid and over-here. Everyone knows that they were a manufactured copy of The Beatles, put together by American television. All of that is irrelevant. The Monkees produced in three years (1966-68) some of the most outstanding pop music of the era. The fact that their first two LP's had precious little to do with the band, having been put together by musical advisor Don Kirshner (later responsible for the, even more suspect, The Archies) and songwriters like Boyce and Hart, Goffin and King and Neil Diamond doesn't enter into it. Serious musicians Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith were, obviously, somewhat pissed off by their relegation to roles as dogs who would be occasionally thrown a scrap of meat that hadn't been gobbled up by The Monkees more photogenic stars Jones and Dolenz. So they rebelled and, after a heated meeting at which Nesmith punched a hole in the wall of Kirshner's office with the comment 'that could have been your head', the band were given sole control of their recordings. And here is where the story really begins.

The Monkees third and fourth LPs Headquarters (April 1967) and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, Jones Ltd (August 1967) are remarkable, quasi-garage-band thrash LP's, not a million miles removed from the early effects of punk rock ten years later. Pisces especially, offers, housed within it's Revolver-influenced cover, much that is surprising. The hit single 'Pleasant Valley Sunday' (a remarkably cheerless Gerry Goffin and Carole King song about small town suburban conformity) should have told the listener what to expect, but this only scratches the surface of the wit and punning social comment on songs like Nesmith's 'Salesman', 'The Door Into Summer' and 'Don't Call On Me', which mixed with the perfect pop of 'She Hangs Out', 'What Am I Doin' Hangin' Round?' and Harry Neilson's 'Cuddly Toy'. But it is for its extrodinary climax, 'Star Collector' that Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, Jones Ltd will be most remembered. A Goffin and King song about groupies - sung by Davy Jones - that was a decade ahead of its time and didn't wish to hide its misanthropy, 'Star Collector' is also one of the first songs to use the moog synthasizer (Mike Dolenz owned the third moog ever made). The effects and trickery that producer Chip Douglas had deliberately kept off Headquarters bursts forth here in a flowering of studio technique that puts much of Sgt. Pepper's to shame. After this madness, it's only a short step to the Bob Raefelson/Jack Nicholoson collaberation on Head and the resulting spiral into (in Tork's case) bankruptcy and jail. That's rock and roll for you.

The great live LP is something that bands have tried for years to perfect. The Rolling Stones Get Yer Ya Ya's Out is satanically good in places but is ruined by a suspicion that some of the guitars have been overdubbed in the studio (and by that whiny-voiced bird shouting 'Paint It Black, you devils!'). Other albatros-like gigantic messes of live presentation like Zeppelin's Song Remains the Same, remind us of 1970s excess and should be avoided like the plague. I remember once listening to Queen's Live Killers. For all of the horrible pompous pretension of the recording the band remain, pointlessly, tuneful. There's even a drum solo. If I'd been there on the night, I'd have thrown things at them.

The 'great' live LP is rare and, to date that has only been one that has eclipsed a bands studio output. This is One Man Clapping by james, recorded at The Moles Club in Bath in front of an audience of around six hundred. This is the only way to capture a band, and especially this band, live. There is something about the electricity between james and the audience that is difficult to describe to the uninitiated. To cut a long story very short, Manchester's james gained a small, but vocal cult following during the mid-80s with their series of remarkable singles on Factory ('What's The World', 'Hymn From A Village') and Sire ('Chain Mail', 'What For?'). Their first LP, Stutter gained critical acclaim although today it sounds a mite hurried and frustrating, as though the band knew what they wanted to do but couldn't quite summon up the energy or the bottle to try. After a second LP, the enigmatic Strip Mine was held up for almost a year by Sire's reluctance to release it, the band found themselves living on thirty quid a week, unable to tour by Sire's financial restrictions (placed on them and other recent signings, allegedly, because the company had poured all of their money into Madonna's True Blue tour and couldn't afford anything else). Having managed to extract themselves from Sire, james staged what was at the time, designed as a farewell concert at Moles with drummer Gavan Whelan leaving because, in his own words 'I'd be better off on the dole'. Hence One Man Clapping, an LP full of definitive versions of the bands best material ('Chain Mail', 'Sandman', 'Why So Close?', 'Johnny Yen', 'Are You Ready?', 'Scarecrow') together with three new songs. 'Whoops' took the bands manic energy to an extraordinary level, as did the set closer 'Stutter', a heavy-metal nightmare of a song in which Jim Glennie and Larry Gott, basically race to see who is going to get finished first.

If Tim Booth's intention was, as stated to finished like The Singing Detective and go whistling off into the sunset with a classic 'fuck you' to the music biz, then 'Stutter' was the perfect vehicle. However it was the second-to-last song of the set, 'Burned' which caused the most attention. 'Burned' is a (not-even-thinly) veiled attack on Sire: as bitter and vicious as any song ever written by anyone about anything: 'If you don't look cool/they won't look at you' sang Booth on the opening line. There are those who were at Moles that night who cried openly. It was the end of an era but, just as is often the case, the story didn't end there. One Man Clapping was designed to make james some money to pay off their debts but, typically, Sire claimed three quarters of the royalties in lieu of monies owed to the company from the band's days with them. james carried on, found a new home at Fontana, and, suddenly with the Gold Mother LP and an expanded line-up, found themselves actually selling records. 'How Was It For You?' and 'Come Home' were small hits, the anthemic 'Sit Down' a vast hit and, suddenly, they were pop stars. Now it has become unfashionable to like them since the recent LP Seven showed a disturbing trend towards stadium rock. Me, I will love them until the day I die. Great bands don't become bad bands overnight. Well, except possibly in the case of The POlice.

The development of REM's following through ten years of superb LP's and singles is, like james, the tale of triumph over adversity. Coming from the unfashionable deep south of the states, initially pigeon-holed as leaders of some mythical 'stateside invasion' of US guitar bands, raised on a diet of 1960s beat and 1970s punk (whose number also included Green On Red, Wall Of Voodoo and The Long Ryders), Stipe, Buck, Berry and Mills were in reality the most original and most intelligent band of their time.

The early Chronic Town ( notably 'Carnival of Sorts'), Murmer and Reckoning display a band whose discovery of the Rickenbacker sound is tangible and whose joy in confusing their audience with semi-inaudible vocals and murmered lyrics spoke volume's for where their priorities lay. They had a shaky spell mid-1980s when they seemed in danger of turning into an AMERICAN ROCK band (and all of the shite that entails), but by 1989's Green they had rediscovered their weirdness and, in the process, found themselves a huge US college rock audience who were looking for something vaguely 'alternative' or 'indie' (and all of the shite that entails). A similar case could be given for the reason why The Smiths, five years after their demise are suddenly the biggest-selling English band in America.

In 1991 REM released Out of Time, their most coherent and consciously pop LP to date. Staggeringly, given the bands understanding of their audience's pivotal role in their legend, they chose not to tour with the LP and, instead, spent the year doing low-key acoustic gigs and secret appearances, dragging back some mystique from the pop-star glam that their sudden, new-found fame had created for them. Out Of Time is close to being the greatest LP ever released by anyone. Certainly it is an audacious, lyrically breath-taking, stylistically daring LP. The rumour that REM had done a dance-track (cos, like, 'we've always had this dance element to our music'), brought groans from many sections of their audience in 1990, but 'Radio Song', with input from rapper KRS-1, became an hymn of dissatisfaction that, in some ways, predicted the LA riots. Songs about radio conformity from Elvis Costello's 'Radio, Radio' to The Smiths' 'Panic' have used the idea that radio is in control of people's lives. Here Stipe takes the opposite route. Radio is out of control, dive-bombing helplessly without any motivation.

'Losing My Religion' has many champions as the song of the 90s; a howl of fear from the singer that he is in danger of following the listeners of 'Radio Song' into the abyss. If, as has been suggested, the song is about Mark Chapman, then this makes the decent into personal madness and the solutionless end to the song even more poignant. After this, and the anguish of 'Low' (one of REM's most important and understated songs) it comes as a positive relief when the next songs deliver to the listener the feeling that life can be worth living (notably the ludicrously jangly 'Shiny Happy People'). Then it starts to get morbid again, through 'Texarkana' and the downright weird 'Country Feedback', songs which seem to wish to say 'NO' to life, but, again, the effect is destroyed by the closing song, 'Me In Honey', a thing of poetry and beauty.

If Out of Time had in companion-piece when released it was the eponymous debut LP by Liverpool's The La's. The La's four-years in the making and, upon release, disowned by its creator singer/guitarist Lee Mayers, is nevertheless the great lost Beatles LP (recorded somewhere between Help! and Rubber Soul), with all the cynicism one could imagine and more besides. The La's had already scored notable hits with 'Timeless Melody' and the classic 'There She Goes' when they took their live set into the studio. The La's sounds like it is, raw, brutal, funny, sexy, dangerous. From the opening rocker 'Son Of A Gun' to the closing chimes of the eight minute epic 'Looking Glass', The La's, like another of its contemporaries The Stone Roses (another LP with an eight minute closer), revels in discovery. The punning 'Doledrum', the cynical wordplay of 'Way Out', and the simple rock and roll love song 'Feelin'', are just three of the twelve perfect slabs of Merseybeat, 1990s style. The La's, the LP to fall in love to that summer.

So far, most of the material that I'd take with me has been pop music played by young white men on electric guitars. That's to be expected, firstly because dance music works at its best in the club and on a seven inch single. However, since I'm planning on taking a multi-deck stereo with me that will allow me to use tapes, I intend to cheat and slip into my life-jacket pocket that oh so important c120 tape featuring selected Temptations, Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Otis Redding and other gems from the Motown back catalogue on one side and twenty of my favourite disco, funk, house and rave singles mixed into a continuous sixty minute loop on the other.

Actually, since I'm taking something to dance to, I'd better include The Shamen's In Gorbachev We Trust. Here, Colin and Will, after they'd given up wanting to be Pink Floyd and before Will went and died (in a bizarre and very Spinal Tap 'drowning accident') and Colin turned himself into a comic-strip parody of himself, managed to produce their perfect synthasis of style and content. 'Synergy' is a song to die for. An absolute gem of a song, mixing drug-speak with Star Trek samples and thrashy guitars. Everybody in the western world should be made to listen to this song at least once a day (possibly twice). After that, even the funky-wibbling of 'Raspberry Infundibulum', 'Jesus Loves Amerika', and 'Transcendental' sound tame. Also, In Gorbachev We Trust includes a new twist on that old standby, the drug song, 'Adam Strange'.

And so we come to the finale: One last LP to take. Well, since I'm taking my favourite LP's of 'all time' and since 'all time' is 'any time' and there being no time like the present, there is nothing that excites, amuses or pleases me more than Denim. For those who don't know, Denim are the bastard offspring of the 1970s, formed by Lawrence Felt with various ex-members of The Glitter Band. Denim sing songs about the Seventies in a way you've never heard before. Back In Denim is a seriously funny record. I mean, any band who can have the nerve to record 'Theme From Robin's Nest' as a b-side have got to be worth a laugh, right? The opening song, 'Back In Denim' informs us that 'Denim put the soul in your rock and roll', which is the greatest piece of self deification since 'Hey, Bo Diddley'. In 'Middle Of The Road', Lawrence produces a literary of all of the music he hates before telling the listener that, if they are looking for him, he'll be found 'in the middle of the road.' There is better to come as the LP progresses through its centre piece, 'The Osmonds'.

'The Osmonds' is the most important song ever written about the 1970s. Whether tongue in cheek or completely serious, 'The Osmonds' tells it how it is, or rather was. The song name-checks every facet of the era, from Love thy Neighbour and Chopper bikes to Derby County and Oxford bags. 'American Rock' is the best Lou Reed song that Lou Reed never wrote, concerning two guys called Jake and Bill and a girl called Jane. It's affectionate and witty and also rockin'. Back In Denim ends with Lawrence's most personal song, 'I'm Against The Eighties' in which the singer tells us why he's hated the last ten years so much. It's interesting that from the nostalgic distance of two decades away, even The Osmonds can look pretty groovy. Let all the children boogie.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

A Right Bastard

I see that naughty old rapscallion Augusto Pinochet has finally kicked the bucket. At the age of ninety one in his own bed of 'old age.'

What a real shame it wasn't, you know, 'at fifty one, with a bullet in the skull in The Santiago Stadium after having suffered unbelievable torture from his Goon Squads like so many of the desaparecidos in the sick and venal climate of the Chile he ruled.'

Genuinely sad, that.

Still, hopefully the despicable old shit is currently roasting in Hell for eternity.

That's for Victor Jara and Salvador Allende and all of the other people you had murdered, Augusto.


Saturday, December 09, 2006

A Winter's Tale

Quick round-up of recent activities, dear blog reader.
Firstly just a note that the 4 December Book Club show is now available on Radio Newcastle's Listen Again feature:
The books featured on the show are:
1. John Fisher - Tommy Cooper: Always Leave Them Laughing (HarperCollins)
2. Carol Clerk - Pogue Mahone: The Story Of The Pogues (Omnibus)
3. Rodney Hinds - Black Lions (Sports Books)
4. Elizabeth Chadwick - The Scarlet Lion (Little/Brown)
5. Brian May, Patrick Moore & Chris Lintott - Bang! The Complete History Of The Universe (Carlton Books)
The original plan was also to feature David Freemantle's Rats, Bats & Strange Toilets (Zymurgy Publishing). But, sadly it had to be dropped at the last moment due to time restrictions (I talked too much about Tommy Cooper and The Pogues, basically!).

Next month, I'll include a full list of the various other books I've received recently along with the January Book Club details - the programme will be on 8 January as the previous Monday is a Bank Holiday.

I've also been very busy doing a lot of work for Visual Imagination recently:
I particularly draw readers attentions to TV Zone issues 209 and 210 and Xposé issue 100 and Special 31 all of which feature loads of me. But, you know, don't let that put you off.

I'm currently covering Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, Torchwood and The State Within for TV Zone and there's yet another "no-honestly-this-is the-last-Buffy-article-I'm-ever-writing" coming up in a forthcoming issue. As somebody noted recently, "I keep trying to get out and they keep pulling me back in!"

Oh, and finally, an answer to one of the questions I posed in an earlier posting - "whatever happened to Arthur Two-Stroke and the Chart Commandos"? My good mate Malcolm Holt, author of the excellent Magpies Memories and More Magpie Memories (Breedon Books) rang me this morning to note that he'd recently attended the opening night of a rather excellent looking Thirtieth Anniversary Of Punk retrospective, PUNK76!, at Newcastle's Discovery Museum which runs from early December to late January 2007 (I'm going to have to get along to that myself at some stage). Anyway, Malcolm mentioned that at the event he'd bumped into not only Old Stroke-y himsen but, also, one of his Commandos. I was really pleased to hear that. Reminded me of seeing the band at the Allendale Community Centre in about 1979. Until you've heard their version of 'The Theme From Hawaii 5-0', you have never lived.
Next week on "whatever the hell happened too...?", whatever the hell happened to David Baird, singer of the mighty 'Friday Neet (Gannin T'The Toon)'? And, where the hell can I find a copy on CD? I really want to put in on my MP3 Player!
And is there anyone out there who has a copy of 'Is There Anyone Out There?' by Mighty Mighty on CD? Another one from my vinyl collection that deserves a place being digitised!

Recently viewed:
Casino Royale - excellent but half-an-hour too long.

Recently Read:
James Owen - A Serpent In Eden (Abacus)
Catrine Clay - King, Kaiser, Tsar (John Murray Publishing)
Brian Southall & Rupert Perry - Northern Songs: The True Story Of The Beatles' Song Publishing Empire (Omnibus Press)
At least a couple of which will be featured in the January Book Club.

Keep your Mincers Peeled For...:
A good next couple of months on TV both in the UK (Waking The Dead, Life On Mars, Steven Moffat's Jekyll) and the US (24, Lost, Veronica Mars, BSG).

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Craig Hinton

On Sunday evening, just before Torchwood, Keith Telly Topping heard the horrible news that an old colleague and friend from the Virgin New/Missing Adventures days, Craig Hinton, had died at the appallingly young age of just forty two.

This stunned me in a way that even the death of a close relative hasn’t always in the past. Possibly it was the completely unexpected nature of the news that so upset me. He was a lovely, lovely man and if there was one person that one could never in a million years imagine dying young, it was Craig Hinton. Not when he had so much humour, passion, energy and fun left in him. I knew Craig for nearly twenty years off and on and in all that time, I don't think that there was anybody who better represented all of the genuinely good things about Doctor Who fandom.

The deaths of people I know, even if only casually, always leave me feeling sad - I'd like to think that's true of anyone with a heart beating in their chest. It's seldom that the death of someone I knew has left me both sad and angry at the seemingly arbitrary nature of life and death. I'm still finding it incredibly difficult to form a coherent sentence on the subject.

But, here goes…

I first met Craig at the initial Fictionmeet (basically a house party held by Ian Atkins over a long weekend in Wimbledon in 1986 and attended by twenty or twenty five fan-fiction writers). I didn't know him as well as some of his contemporaries in fandom (Andy Lane and Justin Richards, for example, went to Warwick University with Craig in the early 1980s – they must, along with many others, be feeling like they’ve lost a brother at the moment) but he was someone whom I used to see quite often during trips to London for Fitzroy Tavern nights, or to Virgin writers events or conventions. He was always someone that I looked forward to catching up with.

We shared a fair few pints and daft jokes at the Fitzroy over the years and I will, at least, be able to cherish spending quite a bit of time with Craig at the two Gallifrey One Conventions he attended in Los Angeles in 2001 and 2005. In particular, I can recall a wonderful evening with him and Tony and Jane Kenealy and a bunch of other conventioneers at a Sizzler's restaurant in Van Nuys when he kept us all effortlessly entertained for three hours or more.

Shortly after getting back from the event this year, I e-mailed Craig and told him about the new hotel and how he'd love the little Thai place we’d found round the corner. His reply, as his replies always were, was swift, witty and genuine. Craig had been really enthusiastic in 2005 about a new direction in his life – he was just about to start teacher-training. We’d had quite a bit of online contact during the couple of years previous to that but this year, as both of us started on new paths in our life, we sadly fell out of touch and I last spoke to him by e-mail in May 2006. That’s something I now bitterly regret.

Craig was one of the most articulate, instantly likeable, witty, gregarious, violently - and endearingly - bitchy(!) and genuinely warm people I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. He wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination and he could hold a grudge for a long time if he felt it was warrented. But there wasn't so much as an ounce of maliciousness in the guy. He was a proudly “out” gay man who championed openness and freedom of expression for the individual and he was a very good and very under-rated writer.

He wrote several Virgin novels and a couple for the BBC as well as – something he was always very keen to mention in conversation with strangers! – three erotica novels for Virgin’s “Black Lace” imprint. He was also a regular contributor to a number of the genre magaziness and it was in his role as the columnist of Shelf Life, the book review section in the Doctor Who Magazine (or the Doctor Who Monthly as it still was then back) that he first used the word 'Fanwank' in a critique.

Whether Craig actually 'invented' this word or not is still the subject of some debate. But, he was certainly one of the first to popularise its use - and use it in print - and it has now become a very widespread term, particularly in the online communities of in both SF and general TV fandoms. The irony is that many uses of the word these days are in a wholly negative context – it's become a stick to beat individual writers with if a reader or viewer doesn't like a particular continuity reference in the text. However Craig initial meaning of the term was much warmer and more quirky - “a continuity reference thrown into a story and having little relevance to the plot, but there purely as a device to please fans.” Afterall, as Craig noted "who doesn't enjoy a wank every now and then?!" Craig, himself, often used exactly those kinds of references in his own stories (particularly in 2001’s Quantum Archangel – a sequel to the Jon Pertwee story The Time Monster which was a particular favourite of his) and he even celebrated his status in this regard among fandom by wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed him FANWANK GOD! at the 2005 Gallifrey One convention.

Craig's most recent published work was as one of my fellow reviewers for Shaun Lyon's Second-Flight - - and, as with most of his work, his passion for the subject of Doctor Who is there for all to see. The audience for The Runaway Bride at Christmas will be a poorer one without Craig's raucous laughter and perceptive commentary of the episode's highs and lows.

Daniel Blythe, another Virgin colleague of ours, noted that there's something delightful in the Memorial Thread to Craig currently running on Outpost Gallifrey. Something that actually gives both of us a bit of hope for fandom - that out of this occasionally seething cauldron of poison, spitefulness and bitter divisionism we can, collectively, have the capacity for acts of great compassion. Much of the thread - often comments from people who had never met Craig personally but whose lives had been touched by his work or by his online presence - terrifically moved me and, I hope, will give some comfort to Craig’s family and his many, many friends. Particularly, I have to say, I was touched by my friend Martin Day's posting which managed to articulate so many of the things that I myself wanted to say but couldn't, quite, find a way of saying without them sounding crass or obvious.

Craig was, as I've said above, a good bloke and a good mate. He was talented, he was sympathetic, he was genuine. But, most of all, he was ONE OF US and I still can't believe he's gone. But, the beat goes on and we, however reluctantly, have to go on with it. Besides, Craig, of all people, probably wouldn’t have wanted all this fuss. As my mate Jon Arnold noted, he’d quite probably have made a number of really tasteless (but VERY funny) jokes about the subject instead. So, as a final tribute to Craig, I’ll hopefully leave you with a quick chortle by retelling my favourite story concerning him. There's a few different versions of this floating around, but this is the one he told me:

In the mid-1980s during the "let's make something up and see if we can get DWB to print it"-era, Craig along with, I believe, Andy Lane, Justin Richard and Peter Anghelides decided to write a fake script which was, supposedly, one of several that Terry Nation had written for a proposed Dalek spin-off series in the USA. They wrote it as a Nation script so, it included all of the stock traits like a character called Tarrent et cetera. Then, when they’d finished, they photocopied it several times, stained it with coffee cups and generally aged up the document so that it looked like something that had been written in 1967.

When writing it, however, they started putting in-jokes into the thing so that, if you knew what you were looking for it was obviously a hoax: Like three characters called John, Scott and Martin, for example. They also decided that they wanted to include the title of every Doctor Who (and, I think Blakes Seven) episode that Nation had written somewhere in the dialogue and divvied them up between them. Craig, inevitably, got lumbered with the hardest of the lot, The Keys Of Marinus.

So, he wrote a scene in which someone describes how there is a vicious creature on Skaro called the Keysof. There are, it turns out, two types of this creature, a land-based version (the Keysof Landus) and the one that lives in water (the Keysof Marinus)! It was, apparently, only when he got to that point in reading the script that Jeremy Bentham realised this was a huge con!

We lost a star these last few days.

Craig, I’ll miss ya, fellah.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Sequelitis – You Get What You Pay For!

Here's another one from The Files: This article first appeared in an issue of an American magazine in early 2004. Given that Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest has been, gone and, ultimately done the business (on several levels) some of this may seem to be perceptively brilliant with hindsight! Although, the failure of Serenity to pull in any kind of audience at all, thus making the chance of any sequels as remote as the Pitcairn Islands should destroy my almost Nostradamus-like appearance in one fell swoop.
One of my favourite panels at this year's Gallifrey One convention was Home Sick With Sequelitis on which a few of us talked about what were our favourite sequels to movies and which films did we think could stand up to the sequel treatment but that, thus far, hadn't got one. My own nomination for the latter, I'm proud to say, was Yellow Submarine 2: Back To Pepperland – and, if that ever happens, rest assured that I’ll be ringing up Neil, at Apple, and asking him to ask Sir Paul, Ringo MBE, Yoko and Olivia if I can have my ten million quid “development fee” in small, easy to carry, bills.

The questions asked during the panel were simple. Do we really need a ‘part two’, ever? What’s the allure of the sequel, of a continuing narrative, and why are there so many being made?

These days, of course, a sequel is almost guaranteed if a film does reasonably well at the box office. Sometimes, sequels are pretty good (Die Hard 2’s a case in point). Sometimes, they're thoroughly rotten (Speed 2). Sometimes a series just hits the ground running and never looks back – the Bond movies (probably the best example yet – thirty years, twnety movies, still going strong), the Indiana Jones movies (fourth one due into production soon, according to John Rhys Davies) and the Star Wars movies (back on track after that shaky Phantom Menace malarkey). Sometimes, it takes a while for a series of movies to get all the required elements right, with a resulting fluctuating quality over several films – the Star Trek franchise is a textbook example. Sometimes, a film seems set-up for a sequel and never gets one, thus, curiously, increasing the magic of the movie (The Italian Job). On other occasions, a movie so perfect, so absolutely of its moment, subsequently has its memories sullied by a coda that just wasn't needed (Highlander and Highlander 2). And then, there are those occasions when a great film is made, followed by an even better sequel, followed, twenty years later, by an 'oh, I really wish they hadn't done that' sequel to the sequel (The Godfather, Parts I, II and III).

We know there’s going to be another Pirates Of The Caribbean movie next year and, those of us who loved the first film are looking forward to it but, sadly, we've all got our fingers crossed that it’s going to be Aliens rather than Alien: Resurrection, or, Terminator 2 rather than Terminator 3. But that's always the problem, isn't it? The Matrix was fantastic but we knew (deep down) that the sequels were going to be an example of diminishing returns, both conceptually and in terms of actual audience. Ditto Jurassic Park. Ditto Batman. I have to break ranks with accepted wisdom concerning the latter series, however. I might be in a minority of one, here, but I don’t think Batman & Robin is anywhere near as bad as a lot of people made out. It’s got Alicia Silverstone in a schoolgirl outfit. What’s not to love?

The news that Joss Whedon is planning a series of Firefly movies if Serenity is successful, as a fan, is delightful, but also slightly worrying. Not because Joss wrote Alien: Resurrection – the man’s paid his debt to society for that – but because I have a horrible feeling that three years down the line his mind's going to be on something else and that it might be a case of “Jeez, do I really have to knock out another Firefly script in the next three weeks?” That’s why I’m glad Chris Carter is doing what he once promised he would, an X-Files movie every couple of years. That’s why I’m glad that Shaft 2's been put on the back burner for a while. That’s why I'm delighted that the once-rumoured Almost Famous II, hasn't happened and, hopefully, never will. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

Of course, if Scooby Doo II is the hit this summer that most media analysts reckon it’s going to be then all bets are off. With the dollar signs flashing in the eyeballs of every studio exec in Hollywood, welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to a world of nothing but sequels. It is the business of the future to be dangerous!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Bemoan, Baby, The Life Of A Freelancer...

The South Shields-born scriptwriter and novellist James Mitchell - creator of Callan and When the Boat Comes In and author of some excellent Avengers episodes amongst many other credits - is one of yer actual Keith Telly Topping's heroes (for both literary reasons and geographical ones too).

He once said something that has directly affected this blogger's life and which I think of, often, in my day-to-day dealings with publishers. "Being a professional writer" he once noted in a piece in Radio Times "means that you deliver the goods on time, to the best of your ability and skill, for money. Craftsmanship and honesty are the key words. It's my family tradition. My father was a skilled man who took pride in his craft. So am I." Mitchell's father, incidentally, was a shipyard fitter, union activist and self-taught intellectual who eventually became Mayor of South Shields shortly after the last war.

Okay, it's not quite as catchy as Douglas Adams's infamous observation "being a writer means gazing at a computer screen until your forehead bleeds" but it's got a certain honesty to it that I really like.

I always like to think that I've tried to follow James Mitchell's advice in this particular regard in my own career. Like his father, mine was a skilled man (a shipyard riveter and then, subsequently, a silica furnaceman) who worked in back-breaking conditions for much of his life and never really had anything like the rewards that his toil should have entitled him to. Compared to him I - and, this blogger freely acknowledges this - am nowt but a soft limp-wristed nancy-boy who's had it easy. For that reason, if nothing else, I like to believe that - at least when it comes to the job that I've chosen to do - I have a certain work-ethic that continues the family's noble tradition.

But, remember the last bit of James Mitchell's definition of the writer's work-ethic. 'For money' he said. And, that's the truth of it. In the end, no matter what we do or where we are, or how much we enjoy it, we all work for money pure and simple.

That old whore money. It's the root of all evil, they reckon. 'Money is our madness.' 'Money doesn't talk, it swears.' Et cetera. Et cetera.

Now here, I have to put down on-screen what should be blindingly obvious to everyone with half-a-brain. I love doing what I do for a living. I am pathetically grateful to any diety that might be listening that I'm a full-time freelance writer and not still working nine-to-five (or, in my case usually eight-to-about-quarter-past-four) in an employment office in Newcastle as I used to. I long ago accepted the fact that I'm never going to be rich through writing. Just having enough work to let me pay my rent and my other bills, get the weekly food in and have a bit to one side to have a nice holiday once a year and to buy a few DVDs is pretty much going to be my ceiling for the rest of my life ... unless something weird happens like I win the National Lottery. Which is unlikely, frankly since I don't do it.

Added to which, of course, is the perpetual problem of being a freelance writer in the first place. Not only does one have to find the companies to work with but one is then entirely at the mercy of said companies in terms of when, or indeed, if, they pay you.

I have, I must say, been very lucky in my freelance life. Most - indeed, I should probably say almost all - of the people that I've worked for have, by and large, played the game. Including, I feel it necessary to add at this early point, the people whom I'm about to have a damn good moan about in this following piece. This is not, trust me, a specific game of point-the-finger at any individuals or even any collective organisation. What follows is, merely, a howl of frustration at one aspect of the life I lead and a warning to the curious that if you go down this road, there's a few things you should know in advance.

Read on...

Whenever one agrees to freelance for a publisher one usually does so under certain obligations; delivery of the work to an acceptable standard, to the terms and conditions under which it was commissioned, to an agreed word-count and by a specific deadline. See James Mitchell's comments above, basically.

And that's all totally groovy and, you know, 'tastic. I'm a professional scribbler, that's the field I operate in. Carpenters have, essentially, the same sort of deal with the people that hire them. "I want that coffee table eight-by-four and painted blue and I want it by next Friday."

The hirer, of course, has only - really - one condition to fulfill and it's usually tucked away at something like number seven on the list of terms and conditions in the contract of employment. It normally runs along the lines of: "Payment terms: To an agreed amount, within a maximum of thirty days from receipt of invoice." What that basically means is that you do some work for somebody, you send them a bit of paper that says "please pay me X amount of money for the job that I did for you as per our agreement of X date" and, sometime in the next thirty days, you'll get a cheque or a Bank Credit Transfer from them. And everybody's happy over a job well done.

What could possibly be simpler?

Of course, there are two small problems with this.

Firstly, companies never (or, at least, very seldom) pay within thirty days. On the contrary, they pay at thirty days. They wait until the absolute last day possible and then send the cheque. Now, given that most publishers are based in or around London, they'll stick it in the internal post mid-afternoon and confidently expect that the Royal Mail will get the cheque to its intended destination by 10am the next morning. And, it never does.

The other problem occurs when it never does (which it always never does, if you're following this). What, exactly, does the freelancer do then?

Does he or she wait for a day just in case there's been a hold up in the mail? In practice, yes, that's usually what you do end up doing. The main reason is that you don't want to piss off your employers by badgering them about something which - to them - will seem really trivial and unimportant.

But, hang on a minute, let's get this straight. You are not badgering them at all are you? You're simply asking for something that is yours by right and that you should have received according to the conditions of a legally binding document, before you had to go to the trouble of badgering them. It is the company who are in breach of contract. Not only is one within ones rights to badger them like Bill the Badger, one is within ones rights to sue their arses into the middle of next week. Like ... somebody called Sue the Suer. Probably.

But, of course, nobody ever does that. It's financially prohibitive for a kick-off but there's a much bigger reason. It's stupid! It would almost certainly mean that the company (or, more likely, the company's lawyers) will say to you "fair enough bonny lad, here's the money we owe you. Now, please kindly sod-off and never darken our door again." It's counter-productive, in other words.

Nevertheless, the frustration can build and tie a knot in your stomach and you start to imagine all sorts of paranoid delusions in which the company have deliberately engineered this exact scenario just so that you will lose your temper and say something in anger that they will be able to use as excuse to get rid of you. (My mother actually asked exactly that question this morning - "do you think they've done this deliberately?" - and if there's one person whom you'd never expect to be into conspiracy theories in a million years, it's yer actual Keith Telly Topping's dear old mam!)

Idiotic, of course. Large companies of this kind simply don't have the time or the inclination to indulge in those sort of head-games. If they want rid of somebody they will simply tell them that they're fired and have done with it. But ... nevertheless, such feeling still crops up every now and then.

Okay then, I can tell that you're waiting to hear specifics and I fully intend to give them to you. I will preface this, however, by saying that the company involved in this particular case, whom I have absolutely no intention of naming (for obvious reasons and some less than obvious ones), have always, in the past, and on most levels played very fair with me. They sought me out to do a specific job for them which I'm doing and thoroughly enjoying. I like the work and I like the commissions they give me which allow me to use my brain a bit more than some of the more straightforward and one-dimensional things I occasionally get asked to do by other employers. They've got no problems with me continuing with my BBC work or with the other freelancing I do. And, here's the most important thing I actually like them. In my meetings with them and in my occasional phone and e-mail contacts they seem nice, friendly and likeable people. There's just one problem, they seem to have a blind-spot when it comes to paying people on time.

For the last two accounting periods (which are four-weekly, roughly), my payments have been late. The first one was due to an invoice having gone missing somewhere between one desk and another in Company Central. It was only discovered when, two weeks after it was due, I queried it.

Fine, these things happen. Nobody's perfect and a bit of paper in an office that size can easily go astray. And that one was only a very small payment anyway. No harm done.

A month later the next cheque didn't arrive on the due date which was a Friday. Since leaving this for a day and then nothing turning up would have meant a whole weekend would have gone by before anything could actually be done, I e-mailed the finance department to find out if there was a problem and was told that the person who signs the cheques was off that week and would be back on Monday, would it be okay if it was sent then?

Again, I said yes that was fine. After all, what else could I say other than "I don't care if he's in the Galapogos Islands, I was due payment today and if I don't get it today I'm going to sue you?" Which, for reasons explained above (plus the fact that it's a hideous over-reaction) I didn't want to do. So, I bit my tongue and replied in the positive and, sure enough the cheque did, indeed, turn up. Eventually. On the following Wednesday. Because, as previously noted, virtually anything posted in London on a particular day will not make it to Newcastle by the following day.

It is, after all two hundred and seventy miles away. (The usual reason given by the Post Office for non-arrival of Newcastle-based post, incidentally, is that the carrier-snail employed to take an envelope towards its destination has had a blow-out on the M1.)

Which brings us to this month.

Now, here we hit a slight problem. This week, of all weeks, is one where I really couldn't afford not to have been paid (if you see what I mean). It was one of those weeks that you get, maybe once every eighteen months where literally everything, in terms of payment, is due at once within the space of something like four or five days: Rent, gas, electric, telephone bill, national insurance contributions, passport renewal, VISA, council tax, you name it, it's due and it's due this week.

That's the way it happens sometimes and, luckily, on the Friday before this week there was this cheque for eight hundred and forty quid due to me for work that I carried out in September and October. Marvellous timing.

Except that, of course, the cheque didn't arrive on Friday.

You just knew that was coming, right? I kind of expected it myself, if truth be told.

I e-mailed the finance department and was told that it had definitely gone out on Thursday. So, I thanked them and waited. It didn't arrive on Saturday either. Nowt much I could do about it so I spent the weekend planning out the fourteen visits that I would make on Monday after having cashed the cheque. Rent office first, then the post office then...

Monday morning. 8:45am. Knock on the door. It's my hard-worked postie with a couple of packages, a copy of Pirates Of The Caribbean 2 on DVD (nice!) and a couple of bits of junk mail.

But no cheque.

Was I angry? Actually, no I wasn't (which surprised me as much as, I suspect, it's surprising you,dear blog reader). I was actually ... upset. I'm mean, genuinely, upset. Because, like many people I suspect I really hate chasing people for money that I'm owed. A mate of mine makes a very good living out of it - he's a credit controller - but I loathe it. I find it embarrassing. I find it degrading and humiliating to have to go cap in hand to people and say in a Michael-Palin-doing-Arthur-Pwety-voice "excuse me, I'm very sorry to trouble you but that money which you owe me still hasn't arrived and..."

Like many people with little or no backbone, I will then find myself being pathetically grateful when said money eventually does turn up (late) and often end up apologising to those who've kept me waiting for my own gasping nature when what I should, actually, be saying is "it was YOUR BLOODY FAULT that I ended up having to make three phone calls/e-mails querying this, why the hell should I feel bad about it?"

Again, though, all of that paranoid stuff goes through ones head; has this been deliberately engineered to try and send me a message? At what point, exactly, should I bring out the "legal and binding contract" bit that'll almost certainly see me unemployed next month but will, hopefully, at least get this invoice cleared? Do I, and here's something that really does have potentially far-reaching implications, withhold my labour until the debt has been paid? Do I, in effect, say to the company, "yeah, I'll do the two articles to want from me this week. I'll do them just as soon as that payment's gone into my bank account"?

Dangerous ground.

Anyway, the long and the short of it was that yesterday afternoon I got a reply from the finance office saying .. well, saying "it's been sent" again essentially. That was pretty much it. Ball's now in my court, seemingly.

Tuesday morning. No post. I mean, not a sausage.

This time, I'd had enough. I e-mailed the company and informed them that this is now "beyond a joke" (I used those exact words, which I regret with hindsight as they seem flippant when what I really wanted to say was "look, I'm a fair guy, a reasonable but there's only so much of this crap I can take and you're testing my patience to the limit"), that the payment I was due to receive by - at the absolute latest - last Friday is now five days overdue and that they are in "active breach of contract." I stopped well, well, well short of threatening any legal action but I did explain to them that this is the third month in a row that my payment has not arrived on time and that I am,frankly, 'a bit narked by this malarkey'.

Concluding I asked, politely, if it would be possible for them to put a stop on the cheque that they claim to have sent on Thursday. (Now, I use to words "claim to have", I should add, not because I don't believe that they did send I but, until such times as the envelope arrives containing a postmark stating "16 November" I have no positive proof one way or t'other) And I further requested that they instead place the money into my account by Bank Credit Transfer. This, I did realise, would mean that even if they could do this today (which, it turned out they could), the payment would take a maximum of four working days to actually enter my account so that it could well be as late as Friday (or, if I'm really unlucky - and given my luck these last few days who would bet against it - next Monday) before I'm able to draw on it.

Several hours later I received a, frankly rather terse, e-mail stating that this had now been done. It also noted several suggestions re future invoices that involved Bank Credit Transfers instead of cheques (fine by me), having invoices in by certain days so that payment can be made ON certain days (again, fine by me) and one or two other bits and pieces. The impression that I got from the tone of the e-mail was that they were not best pleased that I'd been pestering their finance department for three days when they, clearly, had more important things to do. As I, kind of, always expected their attitude would be. After all, what's eight hundred and forty knicker to a multi-million-pound company? Understandable, I guess, if a bit predictable.

It was even suggested that the tone of my e-mails to them had upset them. Sadly, the one thing that the e-mail didn't include was one line that I had expected even if it wasn't meant. "We are sorry for any inconvenience that you've been caused."[*] Which one would, perhaps, have expected to have been the most common of courtesies. I replied, with extreme brevity agreeing to the proposals made. I didn't - and I'm proud of myself here - waffle on, apologise for having taken up their time, or express any gratitude for the BCT having been done today.

In the meantime, of course, I'm still carrying on working for this company and, indeed, was commissioned for a couple more pieces on Monday evening, right in the middle of all this.

I did I have to confess, for about five seconds, think about replying to this e-mail of commission from the editor with a note that said "yes, I'll do these but It might be oh, I dunno, four or five days late in delivering. You know what the postal system is like these days..." But again, that would have been childish and idiotic.

I'm a professional and one (should) always act in a professional manner when it comes to dealing with commissions. If someone has been kind enough to ask one to do something for them (and they are doing me a favour as much as I'm doing them one) then one should do what I've been asked to do, to the best of ones ability. To agreed specifications. On time. For money.

James Mitchell, his dad, my dad and, hopefully, every other freelancer that's even laid fingers on a keyboard(and, their various dads), would be proud.

[*] Just a quick footnote to add that shortly after writing all this up I did, indeed, receive a further e-mail from the company apologising for any inconvenience. And, I like to think (and I mean this genuinely) that they did that because they actually meant it and not because I had expressed surprise in my previous e-mail to them that they hadn't done so already.

Anyway, for any budding freelance writers out there. You have days like this, it's part of the life. You accept it, you make your point, sometimes (if you're lucky, as in this case), you agree to differ, kiss and make up and move on. It's a perpetual process though it's one that, unless you're really thick-skinned you never, quite, get used to.

But, if you want the life, you take the stuff that goes with it.

You didn't mention that, James Mitchell, you Godlike genius, you...

Current reading:
Carol Clerk: Pogue Mahone: The Story OfTthe Pogues
Terry Jones: Chaucer's Knight
John Fisher: The Tommy Cooper Story

Current listening:
The Pogues: Rum Sodomy & The Lash
Paris Angels: Sundew
Noel Gallagher & Gem: Live In Toronto (radio broadcast)
PIL: Metal Box
Goodbye Mr McKenzie: Good Deeds & Dirty Rags

Still waiting to receive from
The new Who CD (haven't got a clue what the hold-up is there)

And, finally, a quick shout-out to Clay and Kim in LA. Get well soon, kids (Kim more than Clay but, hey, if you can do two at once, why not?!)

Monday, November 06, 2006

November Spawned A Monster

Details of the October and November Book Club shows the former of which can be found at the following site (the November show will probably follow suit and be up on the page in about a week's time):
Also, for the next twenty four hours (ie until around 7pm GMT on Tuesday 7 November), the November Book Club is available on the station's standard Listen Again feature. Simply go here: Click Listen Again, scroll down to Jon Harle and click there. The Book Club starts approximately two hours and thirty five(ish) minutes into the show.

Show Eleven (2 October)
1. Bernard Cornwall - Sharpe's Fury (HarperCollins)
2. CJ Sansom - Sovereign (MacMillan)
3. Hunter Davies - The Beatles, Football & Me (Headline)
4. Douglas Kennedy - Temptation (Random House)
5. Simon Garfield - Private Battles: How The War Almost Defeated Us (Ebury Press)
6. Richard Carman - Johnny Marr: The Smiths & The Art Of Gunslinging (IMP)
7. Jennifer Westoowd & Jacqueline Simpson - The Lore Of The Land: An Illustrated Guide To England's Legends From King Arthur To Dick Turpin (Penguin)

Show Twelve(6 November)
1. Michael Palin - Diaries: The Python Years 1969-79 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
2. James Herbert - The Secret Of Crackley Hall (Macmillam)
3. Neil Gaiman - Fragile Things (Headline Review)
4. Carol Smith - Without Warning (Little/Brown)
5. John Lloyd and John Mitchinson - Qi: The Book Of General Ignorance (Faber & Faber)
6. Margaret Potts and Dave Thomas - Harry Potts: Margaret's Story (Sports Books)
7. Chris Salewicz - Redemption Song: The Definitive Biography of Joe Strummer (HarperCollins)

Also received in September, October and November:
Carol Clerk - Pogue Mahone (Omnibus)
David Miles - The Tribes Of Britain (Phoenix Books)
The Unpublished Spike Milligan (Fourth Estate)
Peter Hennesey - Having It So Good: Britain In The 1950s (Allen Lane)
Dominic Sandbrook - White Heat: A History Of Britain In The Swinging Sixties (Little Brown)
Howard Sounes - Seventies: The Sights, Sounds & Ideas Of A Decade (Simon & Shuster)
Tommy Steele - Bermondsay Boy (Michael Jospeh)
David Goldblatt - The Ball Is Round (Viking)
AN Wilson - Betjeman (Hutchinson)
Derren Brown - Tricks Of The Mind (Channel 4 Books)
Lloyd Clark - Anzio: The Fraction Of War (Headline Review)
John Williams - Back To The Badlands: Crime Writing In The USA (Serpent's Tail)
Carolyn Souter - Dave Allen: The Biography (Orion)
Robert Lacey - Great Tales From English History 1690-1953 (Little Brown)
Bob Wilson - Googlies, Nutmegs & Bogeys: The Origins Of Sporting Lingo (Icon Books)
David Rose - They Call Me Naughty Lola (Profile)
Malcolm Burgess - Five Hundred Reasons Why ... I Hate The Office (Icon Books)
Rupert Smith - Service Wash (Serpent's Tail)
Robin Cooper - Return Of The Timewaster Letters (Sphere)
Jean-Patrick Manchette - The Prone Gunman (Serpant's Tail)
Diane Setterfield - The Thirteenth Tale (Orion)
David Stone - Fighting For the Fatherland (Conway Books)
Josephine Hart - Catching Life By the Throat (Virago Books)
Rohan Candappa - Viva Chaz! (Profile)
Juan Carlos Onetti - The Shipyard (Serpent's Tail)
Brian Lavery - Churchill's Navy (Conway Books)

All are highly recommended (some of these may well feature in fuller reviews in the December Book Club which will be broadcast on the fourth of next month)

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Roman Holiday

Here's another article from The Files - a, somewhat verbose 'what I did on my holidays this year' piece which was first published in a magazine in the US in 2004. Since this was published, this blogger has been back to Italy - for four days in Rome last year. My favourite country, by far. Mind you, I was last there during the coldest November on record so ignore the bit about it being 'too hot.'

This is a disgraceful boast I know, and I apologise to readers in advance for that. I chalked up another country on my growing dipstick of intercontinental travel this summer. Italy. It's a fantastic place. Vibrant, cosmopolitan, exciting … and bloody hot too. Eddie Izzard does a wonderful piece in Glorious where he’s talking about the fact that the Italians were the world's first fascists – Mussolini in 1921, of course. Yeah, he notes, but most of them probably just went along with that because Italians, by and large, are into football and life, and they like driving around on scooters saying 'Ciao!' a lot (yes, that’s where that joke in Angel comes from). He's dead right, you know, they do. My God, the number of Lambrettas and Vespas this blogger spotted speeding along the twisting side-streets of Sorrento and Capri and Rome were… incalculable. So, I didn't try.
The Isle of Capri was brilliant - you need a ferry to get there. We managed to get into and out of The Blue Grotto (the latter was much harder!) and I was slightly startled to find the place absolutely FULL of Americans – all of them desperately trying to convince anyone that would listen that they didn't vote for Bush. Twice.
Rome, as a contrast, was chock-full of American teenagers. All talking loudly in cafes about the latest movies that they'd seen. I was about to venture forth and ask a few if they liked Buffy but I bottled out because (a) I'd probably look like a pervert and (b) I'm really not sure what's "in" any more with regard to teenagers and there was, therefore, the potential to be sniggered at and called 'granddad.'
Highlight of visit, I must say, was a trip to MonteCassino. For those unfamiliar with the place it's a monastery on top of a very large hill that has existed, in one form or another, since the 600s. It's been destroyed a few times – once by an earthquake, once by invading Saracens – but it always gets rebuilt. The last time it was destroyed was in 1944, flattened in just three hours by a mesmeric 'shock and awe' airstrike by the US Air Force after numerous German, Italian, British and Commonwealth (New Zealand and Indian, chiefly), Polish and French forces had spent over six months blowing the crap out of each other as they inched up and down the hill trying to gain the upper hand. (If you're at all interested, I can highly recommend a superb book on the subject: Matthew Parker's MonteCassino published in 2004 on Headline). Once again, post-war, the monastery was rebuilt and it now looks as good as ever, an imposing monument to both the Catholic faith and the human spirit that won't let war or natural disaster spoil a thing of outstanding beauty.

After visiting the monastery, the party I was with drove down to the British War Cemetery at the foot of the hill – an impressively cool and tranquil place on a blazing hot day with austere marble monuments and a fountain in the centre of a garden of roses and poppies. I thought of Eric Bogle’s tone-poem 'The Green Fields of France' whilst I was there. I really wouldn't mind ending up in a place like that myself. Then we all went to a pub and watched the England versus Croatia football match with a group of Italian locals occasionally shouting out 'Wayne Rooney!' to our considerable amusement.
So, anyway, I know most of you are Anglophiles but if you’re coming to Europe there are much nicer places to visit than London. Trust me, given a choice between the beautiful cities of mainland Europe - Paris, Milan, Prague, Amsterdam – and anywhere in England, I’d chose the former any day.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

He's A Complicated Man, And No-One Understands Him But His Woman...

This blogger has just taken one of those online "personality test" things. The results are, either, scarily accurate in a Twilight Zone-style or the biggest load of old cock yer actual Keith Telly Topping has ever read.

Personality Test Results
Neuroticism 94
Extraversion 32
Openness To Experience 58
Agreeableness 1
Conscientiousness 17

It then breaks down the results as follows:
"You are" it suggests "neither a subdued loner nor a jovial chatterbox. You enjoy time with others but also time alone. You can be very easily upset, even by what most people consider the normal demands of living. People consider you to be extremely sensitive and emotional. A desire for tradition does not prevent you from trying new things. Your thinking is neither simple nor complex. To others you appear to be a well-educated person but not an intellectual. People see you as tough, critical, and uncompromising and you have less concern with others' needs than with your own. You like to live for the moment and do what feels good now. Your work tends to be careless and disorganized."

This report compares you to other men between the ages of forty one and sixty in United Kingdom. It analyses you based on each of the five broad personality domains of the Five-Factor Model (Goldberg, L R. 1999), and the six sub domains at each level.

Overall Score 94
Anxiety 93
Anger 99
Depression 95
Self-Consciousness 15
Immoderation 57
Vulnerability 99

You feel tense, jittery, and nervous and often feel like something dangerous is about to happen. [Yes, cos it usually is] You may be afraid of specific situations or be just generally fearful. You feel enraged when things do not go your way. You are sensitive about being treated fairly and feel resentful and bitter if you think you are being cheated. You tend to lack energy and have difficult initiating activities. You do not feel nervous in social situations, and have a good impression of what others think of you. You often resist any cravings or urges that you have, but sometimes you give in. You experience panic, confusion, and helplessness when under pressure or stress.

Overall Score 32
Friendliness 57
Gregariousness 11
Assertiveness 60
Activity Level 97
Excitement-Seeking 12
Cheerfulness 0
[Can't tell ya how cheerful that last one makes me!!!!]

You generally make friends easily enough although you mostly don't go out of your way to demonstrate positive feelings toward others. You tend to feel overwhelmed by, and therefore actively avoid, large crowds. You often need privacy and time for yourself. You are an active group participant but usually prefer to let someone else be the group leader. You lead a fast-paced and busy life. You move about quickly, energetically, and vigorously and are involved in many activities. You get overwhelmed by too much noise and commotion and do not like thrill-seeking activities. You are not prone to spells of energetic high spirits.

Openness To Experience
Overall Score 58
Imagination 95
Artistic Interests 43
Emotionality 64
Adventurousness 8
Intellect 56
Liberalism 58

Often you find the real world is too plain and ordinary for your liking, and you use fantasy as a way of creating a richer, more interesting world for yourself. You are reasonably interested in the arts but are not totally absorbed by them. Generally you are not considered to be an emotional person, however you are aware of and in touch with your emotions. You prefer familiar routines and for things to stay the same. You can tend to feel uncomfortable with change. You enjoy a certain amount of debate or intellectual thought, but sometimes get bored with too much. You like the security of tradition, but sometimes have a desire to bend the rules and challenge conventional thinking.

Overall Score 1
Trust 4
Morality 1
Altruism 30
Cooperation 1
Modesty 12
Sympathy 1

[So, this blogger is, according to this, more modest than he is moral and just about as unsympathetic as it's possible to be ... Hmmm ... there might be something in this, you know.]

You generally see others as selfish, devious, and sometimes potentially dangerous. You believe that a certain amount of deception in social relationships is necessary. You are guarded in new relationships and less willing to openly reveal the whole truth about yourself. You do not particularly like helping other people. Requests for help feel like an imposition on your time. You are not adverse to confrontation and will sometimes even intimidate others to get your own way. You feel superior to those around you and sometimes tend to be seen as arrogant by other people. You are not affected strongly by human suffering, priding yourself on making objective judgments based on reason. You are more concerned with truth and impartial justice than with mercy.

Overall Score 17
Self-Efficacy 46
Orderliness 71
Dutifulness 1
Achievement-Striving 21
Self-Discipline 9
Cautiousness 11

You are moderately confident that you can achieve the goals you set yourself. You are well-organized and like to live according to routines and schedules. Often you will keep lists and make plans. You find contracts, rules, and regulations overly confining and are sometimes seen as unreliable or even irresponsible by others. You are content to get by with a minimal amount of work, and might be seen by others as lazy. You find yourself procrastinating and show poor follow-through on tasks. Often you fail to complete tasks - even tasks that you want very much to complete. You often say or do the first thing that comes to mind without deliberating alternatives and the probable consequences of those alternatives.

Yer actual Keith Telly topping doesn't, honestly, think that he is that neurotic, although I have my off days. And if there's one thing his work isn't it's 'careless and disorganised.' Quite the opposite, in fact. To the point of obsession.

I do like the amount of 'agreeableness' Keith Telly Topping is alleged to possess, though - that sounds absolutely right.

To test yourself, go here: