Living La Covida Loco

So what have you been doing with yourself during lockdown? There’s a show-off side to social media that can make it look like everyone is baking bread and writing King Lear while teaching their kids Chinese, but of course that’s bollocks. If you’re anything like me you’ve just been going crazy working from home, taking walks, drinking more than usual, and shouting at your kids to stop playing video games.

Time feels like Shrödinger’s Cat existing in two states at once at the moment, simultaneously flying by (it’s August!) while it also seems like we’ve been living this way forever. No wonder we all feel discombobulated and in limbo. Chances are I’m going to be working from home until early 2021 so this is life for the forseeable for me. I’m luckier than most in that I have a job but it’s still hard on the brain and the soul, six months is a long time to live like this and I’ve had my moments of depression and cabin fever — not to mention the anger I feel when I think this could have been almost over by now if we had competent leadership.

There’s something about working from home that is way more tiring than going to an office. Maybe it’s the cheap IKEA chair I’m sitting in, but my brain and body are mush by the end of the day and I don’t have the energy to do anything else. It’s taken me two months just to write this blog post. I’m afraid we can’t all be Charli XCX and Taylor Swift who made us all look like slackers by recording entire new albums while stuck at home. I have designed a few new t-shirts, but mostly when I finish working I just want to lay on the couch, close my eyes, and turn my brain off completely. What I really want to do is close my eyes and not wake up until this is all over.

Download: Life During Wartime – The Staple Singers (mp3)


Ever Decreasing Circles

Do you remember other people? I know they could be dickheads but I do miss them. Squeezing in between them on the bus, avoiding eye contact on the train, rubbing shoulders at a concert, sharing a long table at a restaurant, talking drunken bollocks with them in a bar.

The borders of my life are currently reduced to being at home with my wife and two kids and I feel a little like we’re the family in A Quiet Place, a self-contained unit keeping to ourselves for the sake of our survival. I don’t know how I would have dealt with this if I was on my own, probably gone a little potty though it might have been like being a teenager again: spending too much time on my own, listening to music, and a lot of wanking.

Even before all this happened there was a drift toward people doing everything online, even basic things like buying groceries, and I hope that when this is over people might start to appreciate human contact again instead of interacting with the world through a screen. Not putting my house on it though.

Download: These Streets Will Never Look The Same (Ruth Radelet Version) – Chromatics (mp3)

The Screaming Lurgy

Only 20 years in and the 21st century is the gift that just keeps on giving: 9/11, 7/7, Iraq, the financial crash, massive hurricanes and tsunamis, Arctic ice melting, droughts, wild fires, bees dying, bird flu, swine flu, and now COVID-19. I hate to be a Debbie Downer but I worry that this is the track we’re on now, just lurching from one crisis to the next. I guess you could have said the same thing 100 years ago after World War One and the Spanish Flu pandemic, but at least the planet wasn’t fucked up back then. Now the combination of a worldwide plague together with environmental disaster doesn’t seem like something out of a dystopian SF novel.

Being British of an older generation you’re raised to accept that life is often a bit crap and you have to make do and muddle through — I grew up in the 70s with the 3-day week, power cuts, inflation, and the Winter of Discontent — so I usually take things like this on the chin, but I’d be lying if I said that, as a 57-year-old former smoker, this virus doesn’t make me anxious.

At least one thing I don’t have to worry about is my job. I’m very lucky to have one I can do from home, but I know people who work in the restaurant business who aren’t so lucky and have been laid off. Who knows if they’ll ever get those old jobs back? When we all finally leave our houses again and go back to work I’m dreading how many businesses I used to frequent — restaurant, book shop, indie cinema, barbers, comic shop — won’t be there any more.

Still, though it doesn’t come naturally, I guess you have to stay positive and look forward to the day this is all over — and it will be, at least until the next disaster.

And on that happy note…

Download: Infected (12″ Mix) – The The (mp3)

Not What It Used To Be

Originally published May 2013

With all the hand-wringing about how the internet is destroying our attention spans, I also wonder… oh look, cats that look like Hitler!… sorry, where was I? Oh yes… I also wonder if it will screw with our our memories too.

When all human knowledge and culture of the past — from the epochal to the hopelessly trivial — is catalogued for instant call-up at the click of a mouse button it’s almost impossible to forget anything. In the probable future when our brains are literally hard-wired into the web you won’t even need a mouse or keyboard, your subconscious will do a Google search so quickly you’ll “know” something a nanosecond before you’re even aware that you’d forgotten about it. In this world we’re all trivia experts and pub arguments end in the time it takes for someone to whip out their iPhone.

The internet makes it a lot easier to literally own the past too. It used to take a JR Hartley-esque effort to find, but now everything that previously only existed in your foggy memory is there for instant purchase in a vast nostalgia marketplace. I know I’m not the only one who’s used eBay to buy lost items from my youth — records, magazines, Whizzer and Chips annuals — but I find the pleasure of winning an auction doesn’t match up to the thrill of accidentally coming across something in a second-hand record or charity shop because that really does feel like discovering buried treasure, not something you just Googled and bid on.

And what’s sad is the reality of the thing itself rarely matches up to the romanticized image you had in your head either. That old copy of Look-In loses its mystical power the minute you hold it in your hands (or see that old TV show on YouTube) because you have to face the cold, hard truth that it was actually a bit rubbish. Some things are probably best left un-bought and unseen.

So while the internet has enabled nostalgia by allowing us to wallow in every trivial thing we ever enjoyed as kids (and write blogs about it), it’s also killed it a bit by taking away its mystique and that lovely, hazy quality things have when they’re only vaguely half-remembered.

But I’m sure that if you’d described the internet to me thirty years ago I’d have said it sounds like the most wonderful thing ever invented.

Download: Memorabilia – Soft Cell (mp3)

Hands Job

Originally published April 2012

I was going through some old work the other day when I found this photo taken around 1990 at a design consultancy I used to work at in London. I’m the chap centre-right in the white t-shirt beavering away at his desk. My hairstyle isn’t all that different now but almost everything about my job is unrecognizable since the picture was taken.

You might have noticed that there isn’t a computer on my desk, there isn’t a computer on any of the desks in fact, just piles of paper and books. I’m working on a mock-up of a brochure for a client presentation and I’m doing it by hand using coloured paper, photocopies, and rub-down transfers, all painstakingly cut out and stuck together. Back then I often had a case of what we called “designer’s finger” where the tip of my index finger was slightly flat from being accidentally sliced off by a scalpel. Many’s the time I got drops of blood on a pristine sheet of board I was working on.

A lot of designers were already using computers by the end of the 80s but my boss wasn’t convinced of their worth so we were behind the curve at this point, still doing things the way designers had done them for decades. The only computer in the place was the Word Processor our receptionist used to type letters – I remember how amazed we were by it’s cut-and-paste function and that she didn’t need to use Tipp-Ex to delete a word – but apart from that the most sophisticated technology we had was the fax machine and photocopier.

Computers hit the design business like the meteor that supposedly crashed into the earth and killed all the dinosaurs, they not only wiped out entire professional trades and industries like typesetters and artworkers, but completely changed the way designers did their jobs, making redundant a whole world of touchy-feely and mechanical things that were once tools of the trade: Rotring pens, CS10 board, Magic Markers (the smell!), type gauges, 10A scalpel blades (ouch!), Cow Gum, PMT cameras, Pantone paper, Letraset, Grant projectors, French curves, Chinagraph pencils, and those lovely Staedtler plastic erasers which were like perfect little modernist white bricks.

You know I’m often a sentimental fool who gets all romantic about old-timey, analog things but it would be silly of me to pretend that the Mac hasn’t made my job easier in lots of ways. The trade-off is that I’ve lost a lot of the hand skills I used to have, and moving pixels around a screen doesn’t give one quite the same visceral, hands-on satisfaction of cutting things up and sticking them down, there was a real art and craft to it. This is what the camera-ready artwork you sent to the printer used to looked like, and take a look at Peter Saville’s colour mark-up for the sleeve of Power, Corruption & Lies — with their overlays and handwritten instructions they look positively artisanal now. These days I just upload a digital file to the printer over the internet, it’s all very clean with no blood shed anywhere — not literal blood anyway.

Download: Human Hands – Elvis Costello & The Attractions (mp3)

One Love

I hope you saw the One Love Manchester concert yesterday because it was a treat and unexpectedly moving as a demonstration of the positive power of music. Not ashamed to admit that I got a bit choked up several times.

Unlike a lot of these big charity gigs it was very much a Poptimist affair. Ariana, Katy, and Miley gave the proceedings a youthful and female energy that they wouldn’t have if Bono had turned up to sing “Imagine” or Foo Fighters jammed a medley of Beatles songs.

The appearance of Liam Gallagher only underscored this. Credit to the guy for showing up, but his naturally sour demeanor was a bit of a downer compared to the rest of the proceedings. Though I guess the Dads who took their daughters to the show were happy to see him.

The world feels like such an utter shit sandwich at the moment. Motherfuckers killing people on the streets of our cities while we’re led by incompetent arseholes who appeal to the worst instincts of people. In times like this the best thing you can do is go toward the light and shun the darkness which this concert did beautifully. I know that sounds like a cat poster but it’s true.

Ariana Grande has been a favourite in our house since she co-starred in the very funny Nickleodeon show Sam & Cat, and this single of hers from 2014 is a real pop cracker I’ve liked since it came out (though I could do without Iggy Azalea being on it). You go, girl.

Download: Problem – Ariana Grande (mp3)

You Can’t Put Your Arms Around an MP3

Originally published April 2009, before the current vinyl boom I hasten to add.

When I moved to the States I stored all my records in my Dad’s basement and it was 10 long years before I finally had them shipped over. When those battered cardboard boxes landed on my doorstep it was like being reunited with my lost self, as if someone had just dug up the dusty artifacts of a past life that had been fading into the distance after spending a decade in a dark room thousands of miles away. 

As I flipped through those old albums and singles for the first time again I was hit by a flood of memories which were just as much to do with the physical, tactile reality of the records themselves as it was the music they contained. These records had sat on the shelves in all the flats and houses I had lived in over the years, bought from record stores that don’t exist anymore (by a person I wasn’t anymore either), and every scuffed sleeve and worn spine, every scratch on the vinyl, was like an mark left by the past. Here was the album that got covered in beer at a party and I washed under a tap, the 12″ I bought in New York the first time I went to America, the single with a message from an old girlfriend written on the sleeve. Even the faint dark stain left on a sleeve by the peeled-off price sticker was like a ghost trace of where and when it was bought. It wasn’t just the soundtrack of my life, it was the actual concrete evidence of it.

What I felt even more strongly was a pang for what was missing, all the records I’d sold over the years, particularly at one point in the late-90s when I was temporarily back in London flat broke and flogged some of my most valuable ones. It was like several chapters in my life story were missing. Who, I wonder, now has the copy of “You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever” that my first serious girlfriend bought me? And what had happened to Queen’s “Sheer Heart Attack” album? Not the rarest record in the world by any means but it was the first album I ever bought. Surely I wouldn’t have sold that too? That one really bothered me, a big milestone in my life and the evidence is gone.

Records are vulnerable, fragile things, the way they can scratch and warp gives them a human quality that cold, perfect CDs lack, you can feel the patina of age on a vinyl album just as much as you can a human face. But now with even the CD becoming obsolete it seems like music formats are shrinking out of existence, from twelve inches of vinyl to little silver discs to… well, nothing really, a sequence of digital ones and zeroes downloaded off the web with all the tangible reality of a cloud. It’s like music stripped of all the lovely touchy-feely pleasures, there’s no there there and how can you be that emotionally invested in something that doesn’t exist? I have a whopping 45GB of mp3 files on my computer but if they all got deleted tomorrow it would be a pain in the arse but I wouldn’t be all that upset about it because I could just replace them with ones that were literally exactly the same. You can’t say the same about records, I’ve been slowly replacing some of the ones I either sold or lost over the years (the ones that aren’t too expensive anyway) but the “new” copy will never be that one, the one I bought when I was 16 with the scratch on the last track I sometimes still hear in my brain even when I listen to a pristine mp3 of the same song.

So in twenty or thirty years time will someone who is a teenager now relate to their mp3 collection the way I do my records even though it just a track name on a glowing screen, still exactly the same as the day they downloaded it with no physical substance or texture they can hold, feel or smell? Will they get all sentimental about their beaten-up old iPod instead? I have no idea, I’m just one of those sad old gits with an emotional attachment to objects, particularly the circular black plastic kind.

Of course, one drawback of vinyl is that you can’t download it off the internet, it’s too big to fit down the tubes. So an mp3 will have to do.

Download: Some Of Them Are Old – Brian Eno (mp3)
Buy: “Here Come The Warm Jets” (album)

Ten Years of Tears

Many happy returns to this here blog which turns ten years old today. That’s a whole decade of writing bollocks sentimental musings. Who’d have thought it would last this long when I published the first post on December 12th, 2006? Certainly not me.

The idea for all this came about because I’d been reading a lot of elegiac books about Britain like Lost Worlds, The Likes Of Us, The Village That Died For England, and even Bollocks To Alton Towers, that had me feeling wistful about the country of my youth and all the things that had vanished since then. So I decided I wanted to write about that, but not in any cheesy “I Heart The Seventies” way. I didn’t care if anyone else but me was interested in things like what records my mum listened to or who I fancied when I was 12, and had no idea I could get a decade of mileage out of it. The original title was going to be England Made Me but there was already a (now-defunct) blog of that name, but I think the alternative I came up with (in a moment of inspiration on a train to New York) was much better anyway.

A decade is a lifetime in internet years (even longer if you add the three years I did my previous blog The Number One Songs In Heaven — sadly lost in Blogspot limbo somewhere) and things have changed a lot in that time. When I first started, mp3 blogs were the hot new thing and I got mentions in The Guardian, USA Today, Word magazine, and The Boston Globe which often caused a surge in traffic that used up all my monthly bandwidth and took the site down for days (remember that?) But with the warp-speed things move on the internet blogging has lost its youthful buzz. Now all the kidz are Snapchatting, Tumblring, Facetiming, and Instagramming instead, and the web landscape is littered with the ghosts of abandoned blogs. To couch it in terms more relevant to this site, blogging has become the vinyl records of the internet: an obsolete medium superseded by more convenient formats but still beloved by sentimental oldsters.

It’s a shame really, I think the internet has become a less interesting place since it was consumed by social media which has created more of a herd mentality than the individualism which existed before (Facebook might even be bad for democracy). I miss the frontier days when services like Geocities and Tripod (where I first learned HTML) provided a platform for anyone with a hobby or obsession to express themselves — usually with blue type on a purple background and lots of animated gifs. It was often bizarre and amateurish but it was more alive. Blogging was an extension of that, giving exposure to a multitude of new voices and opinions, but now that expression has been reduced to a “Like” button or 140 characters.

I’m no saint, I’m just as bad as anyone at tearing myself away from Twitter and doing something more useful like writing this blog or playing with my kids. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought this place was on it’s last legs and running on fumes, but I still have things to write about so hopefully next year I’ll still be keeping the blog flag flying high, even if it’s not cool anymore. Doubt if I’ll make another ten years though.

Lot of songs I could have picked to go with this post, but Pauline Murray is one of the few artists I’ve written about enough times to earn her own tag.

Download: Time Slipping – Pauline Murray & The Invisible Girls (mp3)

Between now and Christmas I’m going to be republishing some of my favourite posts from the archive. Then hopefully I’ll have my 2016 review written (if I can bear to think about this God-awful year), and then… more of the same I guess.

Anarchy in The UK

Well, this is a fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.

I’m all for people rebelling against the establishment, and I understand the impotent rage people feel against the forces of globalization wrecking their lives, but all the Brexit result will do is hand power from one bunch of rich toffs to another, ones who have since been shown to have lied about their promises and have no plan for what to do next. If voters outside London think those wankers are going to invest in them as much as the EU has they’re in for a rude awakening. I wish I could feel some schadenfreude over that but I’m too fucking angry.

As there seems to be some buyer’s remorse setting in, and with the economic consequences of Brexit already apparent (not to mention the potential break-up of the UK) some think that the next PM will bottle out of going through with it. But that will only enrage the hardcore Leavers and lead to a surge in support for UKIP from them — violence against immigrants is already on the rise. And just when you need a strong opposition to provide an alternative, the fucking Labour Party goes and implodes.

I really don’t see a good way out of this at the moment. Thanks Cameron!

Download: There’ll Always Be An England – Vera Lynn (mp3)

The Bright Side of Life

The world is such a depressing place at the moment. Terrorism, mass shootings, beloved music icons dying, and politics on both sides of the Atlantic becoming a fucked-up mix of circus clown show and Nuremberg rally.

Being English I’m normally a gloomy, glass-half-empty pessimist but I find that having kids is the antidote to that. Sorry if this is a naff greetings card sentiment, but having them in your life (when they’re not complaining anyway) makes the world seem not entirely shitty. Booze helps too.

And music of course. Think I may have posted it before years ago but, what the hell, it’s one of the best extended mixes I have.

Download: I Could Be Happy (12″ mix) – Altered Images (mp3)