Thursday, 19 December 2013

Soft Rock Follies... a love of the laid back and righteous

There was a brilliant series published on YouTube a few years ago called Yacht Rock. This dramatic saga parodied the heady days of the late 70s and the early 80s when an oft forgotten genre call Soft Rock ruled the airwaves. Emanating from the sounds of Steely Dan and Boz Scaggs this genre was firmly planted in West Coast America where bearded stoners in Hawaiian shirts and stone wash jeans made great pop-rock tunes with a large emphasis on clean production and quality of music (over quality of lyrics). 

Many of the main players of the genre had already established a career as prolific session musicians, looking for some limelight of their own, others were young upstarts keen to make a name for themselves in the hotbed of the LA music scene laced with alcohol, drugs and casual sex. One would think that such an environment would produce the aggressive music of The Doors or perhaps the biting insistency of Motley Crue yet it was the mellow vein that seemed to captivate artists between 1976 - 1981 and to my mind, so much the better. 

As I have reiterated in many a previous post, my friends are often sick to death of some of the music I insist on playing them, so insipid do they find it! Yet I still love it, for me it is timeless,  enjoying it so much as to repeat play it on my stereo system as on stations like Magic and Smooth! Here is my pick of my top five albums from the genre (in no particular order): 

Minute by Minute (1978) - Doobie Brothers: Probably the quintessential album of ‘Soft Rock’ released in the wake of the genre’s zenith, it is rightly regarded as a classic and one of the strongest outings in the band’s catalogue. By this stage former frontman Tom Johnston had been replaced by Michael Macdonald (with his idiosyncratic vocals) and it shows in the more romantic songwriting and the slicker production. Coming to the Doobie Brothers from the Steely Dan session stable a few before, Macdonald really stamps his mark on the group with instant classics such as the insistent ‘What Fools Believe’ (a Grammy winning track, co-written with Kenny Loggins) and the lilting Minute by Minute’. The album cover featuring the whole band in ‘LA’ mode is another classic with a number of the group living up to their suggestive name. 

Red Cab To Manhattan (1980) - Stephen Bishop: Most people will never heard of Stephen Bishop but I can guarantee that they will, at some stage, have seen him. He has a very prominent cameo as a folk singer in ‘Animal House’ whose guitar is smashed to pieces by John Belushi’s ‘Bluto’, a gig he secure from being the then boyfriend of Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’). Although laced with soft rock sensibilities this bittersweet record was made during their break-up and many of the songs focus on classic soft rock material such as: longing, reflection and romance with a good dose of cynicism thrown in. Bishop was and is a sporadic artist and his music is always of interesting bursting out at different tangents every so often. It makes for a slightly inconsistent listen but when he hits, he hits hard. Tracks like ‘Send a little love my way’, ‘Story of a boy in love’ and the title track are top-notch. 

Christopher Cross (1979) - Christopher Cross: I have already written about Christopher Cross in another post so I will make do with an extract from that brilliant analysis of his Grammy award winning record: I know I must sound incredibly gushing about this album but it really is one that, for me at least, has not one dud cut on it - very rare for a soft rock album. It also has one of the most impressive groups of musicians who Cross called upon to help create it: Don Henley, Jay Graydon, J D Souther, Larry Carlton, Victor Feldman, Nicolette Larson and the aforementioned Michael McDonald. But let us not forget Cross, who has a unique and very engaging vocal talent as well and an incredibly good hand when it came to writing pop music and gauging the popular mood at the turn of the 1970s. If I am right this was one of the last albums to be released in 1979 and serves as an exceptional and truly awesome end to the decade.’ 

Rumours (1977) - Fleetwood Mac - What more can one add about this heroin-drench, smash hit album? Probably the greatest soft rock triumph of all time, with people wearing out record-after-record from its release in 1977 to present day this is the stuff of legends right from the initially fraught recording sessions, the grueling touring through to the behind the scenes hedonism which saw some of the greatest excesses in music history come to the fore...(breath)... this is such a treat for the first time listener from the opening chords of Second Hand News to the sombre Daddy. Then there are the hits, now classics of contemporary music: Don’t Stop, Go Your Own Way, You Make Lovin’ Fun and The Chain. The whole album works, each track is worth a listen and just goes to shows the irony of a band who in reality were on the very edge but were one of the musically cohesive acts of their time. If you buy one album from this list then make it this one!

Cat in the Hat (1980) - Bobby Caldwell - What would one of these reviews be without a mention of one of my favourite albums, the one that I bore you all to death with! Again, like Cross I have already waxed lyrical so I will direct you to an extract and a shamelessly place link: ‘Each track is a meticulously played, meticulously produced and has real passion. Funky and soulful, Caldwell had already dazzled with his debut album and the smash (and oft sampled) 'What you won't do for love'. This album was different, very slick and soulful lacking the harder edge and resonating chords of Cat in the Hat. Nowhere on the record is this more apparent than on the most famous and sampled track 'Open your Eyes' an oft overlooked 80s pop classic with echoed vocals and rollocking piano chords descending into a dirty guitar riff which will imprint itself on your mind for hours after listening to it.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Taipan II - Freefall

I apologise for the delay in submitting this, the next part of my trip to Honkers, I know that some of you, dear readers, were positively champing at the bit to find out what had happened to me after I left you on that cliffhanger, the eve of my 26th birthday. Well here goes…

I woke up on the morning of 10th November, definitely a few beans short of a full tin. The night before had been heavy, memories of power ballads and crap American beer swirled around my mind. It seemed as if this city was one giant party without much respite. My host was also feeling slightly the worst for wares but we had a very de rigeur brunch planned to which we needed to get to and it would not wait. So, donning a very stylish pink and white striped shirt and some well appointed navy blue cords it was up and at ‘em. 

Zuma is slap bang in the Central district and, as I was assured, was THE place to be seen on a Sunday – especially at ‘Brunchtime’. Some of my more ‘trendy’ readers will have heard of the London outlet of this ultra-modern purveyor of Japanese cuisine already so will be well aware of the offerings available. For those not familiar, here was the form. 

For roughly £50 - £60 per person, you were treated to a two-hour feast of sushi and Champagne, something you would never see at the London branch! After being ushered to our table and having had our first (of many) Bellinis (Champagne and peach juice) poured for us, we were directed to a gargantuan smorgasbord of sushi and other delicacies from the sea including oysters on the half shell, bone-fresh salmon and tuna sashimi, delicate raw prawn nigiri and of course their famed fried soft shell crab nori rolls, just to name a few of the unbeatable eatables that we stuffed our faces with. Of course the Bellinis were continuously refilled by a clock-watching waiter who wanted to make sure that we didn’t outstay the two-hour limit on our table. 

As it was my birthday and I was feeling in somewhat of a ‘devil may care’ mood I decided that I would indulge in a flask of chilled sake. It slipped down easily, far too easily, but I was yet to feel the wine’s effects. 

Brunch marched on and we were hassled by the waiter when they saw we had ½ hour before our table needed to be turned around and yet more ravenous guests took our place. After a quick order we were given some delicious plates of sirloin steak and seared salmon, so fresh, so delicious, over in but a moment… soon the tetchy waiter returned and following a quick pudding of fruit and ice cream (gimmicky, served on ice blocks) we decided that we had finally come to the end of our welcome at this establishment. 

Next it was time to realise one of the few ambitions that I had for my trip, ‘The Captain’s Bar’ at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, the place for poseurs like me to be seen ordering cocktails and exuding a general air of pomposity. 

If you’ve not been into the ‘Captain’s Bar’ then I would certainly urge you to earmark it if you ever happen to find yourself in Hong Kong. Yes, you could take the view that, once you have seen one luxurious hotel bar you’ve seen them all, but there is a fantastic, rarefied atmosphere punctuated by chesterfield sofas and a bizarre smattering of brass and frosted glass with chess board motif. Although they nostalgically serve beer in metal tankards (not a drinking medium of which I am overly fond) I was here for their expertly made cocktails. Still, I was quite happy and foolish to base this cocktail madness on a solid grounding of Canadian Club on crushed ice, after which followed an onslaught of two potent, expertly-made Negronis (a heady mix of gin, Campari and red vermouth over ice with a twist of orange peel) of which my drinking companions (there were three of us in total) were happy to join in on followed by a punchy and quite challenging Bullshot (A healthy measure of vodka on ice, topped up with beef bouillon and seasoned much in the same way as a Bloody Mary). The conversation was fast, expert and erudite… at least that’s what I thought by the fourth drink – sushi, although being delicious, provides a terrible basis for hard drinking! 

The night, like the one previously then spiralled into a mixture of bars, outlandish claims, resolutions that would never happen, tumbling off bar stools and generally causing mayhem as only a pint-sized, drunken tourist knows how. But what a birthday... and one to which I am entirely indebted to Q--- for both his generosity and hospitality (quite possibly the best yet… but don’t tell him that!). Let’s just say that the evening turned into a hazy blur as my metabolism attempted to deal with the various wines, whiskies and spirits which sloshed around my system. 


This cycle couldn’t continue though, after all, I was no longer a fresher. Both Q--- and I could stand it no longer and, deciding that I was much in need of some exercise and a glimpse of HK beyond the bounds of the central district, my host decided that we should go on a hike to clear the system of all the ‘free radicals’ that we had subjected ourselves to over the course of the weekend. After all, I was 26 now and as such I should really start behaving as such holiday or no holiday! 

One of my only gripes was the route that we took, a route which, on most days would have encompassed something that I would have been gagging to do. The wet market is quite a site, if you’ve not seen one before it is an assault on the olfactory senses and certainly not something for the faint hearted. 

The pungent whiff of dried fish maws, buckets full of entrails, half formed chickens eggs and fermented cabbage combine to make a veritably vile combination of sensory displeasure that feels five times worse when combined with the mother-of-all hangovers. We made a beeline through alleyway after alleyway of these exotic and highly unpleasant sights an smells as locals haggled with chattering butchers, gleefully lopping of the heads of live chickens or slicing delicately through a still gasping fish. Certainly not a place for any Greenpeace activist to find kindred spirits. Traders were pushing carts at breakneck speed down the crowded, sloping streets, declaiming jokes and witty anecdotes loudly for all and sundry to register and laugh loudly at… although, not speaking the language, it was somewhat lost on me! 

Next came the tram, an overhang of times gone past but a popular one, we were packed in like sardines and I came over rather grumpy as this relic of a bygone age shunted along through the congested highroads of Hong Kong at a snails pace. Yet it gave us a chance to take in the city in all its majesty, full of the hustle and bustle of daily life drinking in the eccentric, eclectic range of shops selling everything from furniture to prawn Foo Yong. 

This gentle ride was soon at an end and we found ourselves in a rather more uninspiring district – the name of which escapes me now – full of high rise tower blocks and drab colours, the gateway to our walk. As we walked the route became more and more industrial and the grey skies above loomed more ominously. Soon we were at a forbidding concrete monolith, the city graveyard, it was like something out of a fantasy, a rising wall of tombs stretching out in terraces most of the way up the mountain. With the strong wind and the close clouds it was a gloomy, quiet place intermittently punctuated by the sound of intense building work and the lonely caw of carrion birds. 

Step followed step, followed step followed step as we made our ascent of this still graveyard up the slope, reaching heavenwards with eerie, concrete-laden grandeur – a real juxtaposition from the hustle and bustle of Soho and Central. We were hungover and the stillness was somewhat oppressive, the start of this walk seemed nowhere to be found, each stairway taken, each meander of the road followed seemed to yield more concrete terraces and more elaborate graves. The smell of incense wafted lightly in the breeze, burning away in a spooky, brutalist mausoleum when we realised we had been bearing in quite the wrong direction. 

After a short series of swear words, a little deft backtracking and negotiating our way around a cement mixer we finally found the track on which I was informed by Q--- that I shouldn’t be afraid of the numerous large spiders and snakes that ‘could’ be encounter en route.  ‘Gulp’ I thought to myself as I braced myself for the steep climb on what was promised to be a short walk. The beads of sweat started to drip down my face in the humidity of the jungle line as I realised how unfit that I was, it was clear that I needed some exercise of the limbs as opposed to the internal organs by the time I got home!

It was a relatively gentle walk and by goodness was it breathtaking! After breaking through the jungle canopy we were walking above the tree-line on the ridge of the most marvellous mountains, The Dragon’s Back a dramatic ridge overlooking the Eastern edge of Hong Kong Island, out across to sea. It was extremely windy up there and we were occasionally afeard that we would be blown by a sudden gust over the cliff and out to sea, trim and slight fellows as we were. It was all very striking but after 2 hours of this combined with my shit, hungover banter we reached the end of the trek and caught a bus back into town to grab a bite to eat and see if we could just about manage a very tentative beer

The evening passed with quiet reflection of the weekend’s excesses over a very tasty Thai meal and some chilled Singha beers followed by and early night to prime ourselves for the second half of this hedonistic trip, more of which will be revealed in part III…

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Taipan I - Hong Kong & I

A trip to Hong Kong was on the cards, much for the fact that a friend of mine lived there, as much for the fact that I had never visited. An adventure was in mind and an adventure I was to have! 

As I boarded the bus fresh from work, after the pre-holiday treat of an M&S can of scotch and dry ginger, I was in jubilant spirits. There is nothing quite like the feeling of embarking into the unknown, a slight thrill of anticipation, a sense of the bizarre, definitely a positive feeling of seeing an old friend and experiencing something new.

Airport time. A bad mood throughout security was allayed by a very admiral steak and chips in the terminal followed by a stocking up of cabin necessaries: Rennie, travel toothbrush and Rowntree's Fruit Gums (although I'm disappointed to add - for my Facebook readers - there were very few greens in this pack!). 

The flight was so-so, passing as all flights do with a mixture of boredom, films and regretting that the air hostess is not some shaggable beauty! But such is life and while I came to terms with this unfortunate fact we landed early in the evening. Soon I was off the plane and making my way to Hong Kong Central. 


It sounds crazy but I had no idea what to expect from Q-. He had been very keen to ask me what I wanted to do before I arrived and part of me drew a blank. I was going to be staying with someone who knew the city well and was happy to be led around as much of the sites and sounds as my host was prepared to show me.

Following a quick shower and fresh set of clothes we set off into the night, for an evening of debaucherous behaviour - as only Hong Kong (HK) knows how to deliver...

Pop went the cork of a champagne bottle as I was poured a chilled glass of Veuve Clicquot, a sign the that holiday had truly started. And it was in this merry fashion that I started my birthday weekend. We were at one of Q-'s chums flats, a HK local and a very hospitable one at that, the drink flowed freely and I guzzled back the icy bubbles with gusto. Glug, glug, glug it slipped down the little red lane until I felt decidedly perky. Admirable considering my long flight. 

Aware that I was basing my drinking merely on a filthy bowl of congee from the flight, Q- thought that it was best that we get some grub to soak up the booze. My first taste of HK was to be an uber-trendy Vietnamese restaurant in the Soho district. plates of deliciously cooked chicken wings, succulent cubes of rare steak and fragrant pork kebabs were paired with refreshing salads and sticky rice, all of which was washed down with a couple of cold beers and lashings of fiery chilli sauce (not that sweet rubbish you get with frozen Thai fishcakes). 

Following dinner, in which we caught up on all sorts of gossip about the UK, old friends and mutual enemies we decamped to a stylish rooftop bar called Blackbird, here a jolly group of people and a - some might say foolish - decision to bypass my jet-lag with a night of heavy drink meant that following a few double Canadian Clubs I found myself in the main 'party' district called Lan Kwai Fong at 02:00 in the morning with the party very much in full swing. My memories are foggy of the evening but through a haze of lager and Jagermeister faces from the past seemed to drift by, passing through this gateway to the East, providing fleeting entertainment to me in my blotto'ed state. 

It was 07:15 when I staggered back into Q-'s apartment, semi-intelligible and reeking of cheap alcohol before crashing out on the sofa! 

Thus endeth the first day... 

I peeled my face off the bed and looked at my watch 15:30!!?!??! I had slept through the entire morning and most of the afternoon on literally my first day in Honkers. What a shocker! As I got to my feet a huge rush went to my head and I suddenly felt quite weary, I realised that I wasn’t quite as young as I used to be. Donning a very swish pink linen jacket and a fake pair of Wayfarer I made for the door and out into the humid Hong Kong evening.

The first port of call was a few drinks at a non-descript bar, it took a few beers to get me back into the general flow of things. But with the euphoric, hedonistic vibe of expats enjoying themselves surrounding me it wasn’t long before I had rallied and was ready for another night of electric excitement that only this city knows how to offer. There was plenty of time before the excesses caught up and a bite to eat was in order. 

We pitched up at a very non-descript door down a Soho street, and entered into a well appointed Sichuan restaurant, the name of which escapes me. Q- warned me against the fiery ‘Black Chicken’ (wings topped with a sauce that sounded like it was made predominantly of pungent dried chilli) so instead I opted for something a little more esoteric. My request for the eels in chili sauce made the eyes of the proprietor light up and he made a beeline to the kitchen to make my order a reality. It was beautifully fresh, with that slightly muddy flavour that only those who like these slippery little customers appreciate. This was accompanied by beautifully cooked pork and watercress dumplings with a spiky rice vinegar sauce and burning hot chili oil. Of course it was all washed down with lashings of beer and China tea. 

The night was still young and it was still an hour or two before the bars started to get crowded, so we decided to go and kill some time and set the world to rights with a fine cigar. Lily & Bloom is a stylish bar full of sophisti-cats in downtown Hong Kong. It’s one of those places where suited, open collared players drink martinis and chat to curvaceous beauties whilst a nodding DJ pumps out remixed bossa nova and swing classics. Heads turned as we two scruff-bags walked in and made for an unassuming door with a boar’s head on it, this was the smoking room. 

On entering we were greeted with a thick haze deliciously scented smoke, a sign that some good Cubans were being consumed on site! The entranceway to the room was piled high with boxes and boxes of the finest cigars, presided over by a rather overbearing gentleman looking to make a big sale on a prized box of Cohibas. As I am not a fan of this brand I was having none of it, and told him emphatically that I was not looking to sample one of his extra special ‘Behikes’ even if they ‘were’ one of the ‘best cigars in the world’. With a slightly dissapointed air he handed me a very admirable Bolivar Petit Belicosos and Q a Montecristo Petit Edmundo. We went and sat in an elegant, low lit room where our only other companions were a couple quietly enjoying the mellow notes and tones of whatever they were smoking. Settling down into our Chesterfields we ordered some of the hard stuff, a double Canadian Club on crushed ice for me a bucket of gin and tonic for him. It was a fantastic smoke, great setting and of course the conversation, perfected over 22 years of friendship was as usual, sparkling. 

Time passed so quickly that before we knew it the cigars were finished and we were on to our next destination, McSorley’s, a British pub in the heart of Soho to catch the second half of the rather uninspiring England vs Argentina match. Following a few more pints a decision had yet to be made on what entertainment would be provided for a Saturday night in Hong Kong, until one member of the group we had met up with declared that no holiday in this eastern city would be complete without a trip to a karaoke bar. I am sure that any one of you who has been to one of these locations can guess what happened next. Take a room full of twenty drunken people, buckets full of ice cold beer and a dubious playlist comprising of 80s classics, boy band cheese and 90s hip hop/R&B and you have a recipe for a great night and a number of strained vocal cords. Don’t ask me the name of the establishment as the night somewhat blurs into oblivion.

Before I knew it I was waking up back at Q-’s flat on the morning of the 10th November, my Birthday! My trip to Hong Kong had begun in style! 

Later in the week I will publish the second part of my trip, but for now...

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Kiev us a break - my recipe for the perfect Chicken Kiev

Ahhh... the good old Chicken Kiev, that parcel of processed chicken hiding a pocket full of sickly butter rich in stale herbs and raw garlic all wrapped in an ersatz-orange crumb (which would look more comfortable on a fish finger)... I am sure that many of us remember it with some fondness, in the same way that some people call M&S Food ‘St. Michaels’ as it was once known. How we marvelled when children at how, when the Kiev was cut, the buttery filling spilled over the plate tainting everything it touched! Those were the days... 

Let us also not forget its hideously more-ish offspring, the ‘mini kiev’, a mainstay of the Great British drinks party since the 1970s? Conjuring up images of a convivial room reeking of cheap white wine and thick with garlicky fumes. The number of Christmas parties I have been where these little critters have caused a cacophony of recurrent belching amongst guests doesn’t bear thinking about. 

This indeed is a sorry state of affairs and, although in recent years a number of suppliers and supermarkets have started to ‘sex-up’ their Kiev lines by using whole chicken breast rather than reconstituted meat, the sickly butter still remains to ensure that this is not a meal you cook if you a) happen to be going out or b) are entertaining someone you want to impress (romantically or socially). Must the Kiev be confined to the doldrums of solo dining?

I think not! For one thing, they are incredibly easy to make (if time consuming), offering an impressive dish which will make guests go wow. Additionally it is a fantastic meal to prepare for a date or romantic liaison, deliciously seductive... ;-)

My recommendation would be to serve your Kievs with some steamed long grain rice and a punchy green salad with a vinegary dressing with plenty of dijon mustard added. To drink a chilled, crisp Gavi de Gavi or Pinot Gris would be perfect to this rich and luxurious dish

Ingredients - Serves 4

4 large chicken breasts 
250ml Groundnut oil

For the filling

1 pack unsalted butter
large handful of finely chopped parsley, tarragon, thyme and chives
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper, to taste

For the coating 

Plain flour for dredging 
4 eggs beaten 
500g dried breadcrumbs 
sea salt

  1. Prepare the filling by thoroughly mixing the butter, herbs, mustard, salt and pepper together in a bowl. Form into a loaf shape and leave to chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.
  2. Prepare the chicken by removing the mini-fillet on the underside of the breast then, using a sharp knife, carefully create a horizontal pocket in the side, making sure not to pierce through the flesh.
  3. remove the butter from the fridge and slice into four portions which must then be stuffed into each cavity, pursing down the pocket entrance and using some of the egg for the coating to seal the gap. 
  4. dredge the chicken in flour, dip in the egg and roll thoroughly in the bread crumbs until thoroughly coated.
  5. Place on a tray and put into the freezer for 15 minutes, then repeat step 4 once more. 
  6. cover the Kievs with a tea towel and place in the fridge for 30 minutes or until ready to use. 
  7. pre-heat the oven to 220°C.
  8. Heat the groundnut oil in a heavy based sauté pan until hot enough to shallow fry.
  9. Using two forks, carefully brown each Kiev in turn until the sides turn golden. 
  10. Place each kiev on an oiled baking tray and cook in the oven for 20-25 minutes. 
  11. Serve straight from oven with rice and a crisp green salad. 

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Sketches from a Cigar Smoker's Album IX (Part 2): Autumn Reflection...

The second part of a moody collection of sketches, written after the style of my favourite writer and hero Ivan Turgenev...

The muddy river and steel grey sky provided an ominous setting for a smoke on the banks of the Thames. On this occasion I had nothing to write home about, half a tin of Cafe Creme Blues to amuse myself with as I ambled aimlessly along the South Bank.

It was a proper Autumn day and the cold, damp air whipped wearily, scattering a few dead leaves hither and thither, creating ripples on the surface a river which had once seen great fleets pour down its estuary to fight wars in Northern Europe, set up trading posts in far flung reaches or discover new lands. If the depths could talk I'm sure they would throw up more than just a few lampreys and a couple of Salmon.  

Leaning over the strudy railings of the embankment, under the imposing gaze of the Hungerford Footbridge, I listended to the industrial sounds of trains shunting in and out of Charing Cross and became somewhat pensive...

Had it really only been a week or there about? A week of what? one might ask... of good news and bad, that you can be sure of, but not things to be shared in the gentle text of this sketch. 

I turned my back to the clammy breeze and cracked open the tin of these all too familiar cigarillos, deftly shaking one out, placing it between cold, dry lips and lighting up. 

A billow of cheap smoke went heavenwards but nobody seemed much to notice, so busy were they continuing on with their lives, wrapped up in moments which I was not supposed to share. As I puffed away, pigeons scrambled for scraps of food, young miscreants risked life and limb in an urban skatepark and chain restaurants were doing a roaring trade. But even with all this hubbub happening around me it seemed that I was in perfect isolation, alone in the crowd. Autumn has that effect, a transitional limbo between summer and winter where life seems to place itself into perspective and long put-off decisions have to be made.

I chuckled to myself as I lit another cheap cigar. I was meant to be meeting some people a little later on but there's a time for socialising, drinking and gambling and then there's a time for the simplicity of smoking, introspection and quiet pondering. It was in this mode that I could be found, blue tweed jacket against a slate backdrop in which the light was fast-fading and the buzz/hum of sodium lights was starting to kick in. 

It was on days like this that you just couldn't beat London, with its indomitable spirit, splendid reserve and its multitude of places to quietly reflect in the day's gloaming...

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Sketches from a Cigar Smoker’s Album IX - Rushmere and other pond-side tales

Rushmere is an iconic feature of the borough of SW19, a pond occupying some of the open space of on the South West end of the Common, adjacent to Wimbledon Village. Originally dug out in in medieval times (according to the Wimbledon Common website) it is a most ancient of ponds, there are certainly records dating back to the Tudors. Even in times of severe droughts it has not been known to dry out, providing one of the few constants in this ever changing patch of South London. Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter it sits placidly as a home for all sorts of migrating birds and a rugged feature of the landscape for locals and visitors to enjoy in turn. 

Gone are those heady days of the Empire when Victorian/Edwardian pleasure seekers would dip their toes in these waters on a rare day of blazing sunshine. In turn, the council’s stringent health and safety policy has now meant that it is no longer possible to ice skate on this body when has frozen over, as I was sometimes wont to do as a child. Now it is the reserve of Golden Retrievers and Weimaraners, those once great hunting dogs, now reduced to the angry shouts of their owners as they naughtily frolic in the bracing waters. 

I write this as I sit looking over this majestic mainstay of my hometown, an old friend who has offered a welcome place to reflect when deep thought was needed. My cup of strong black coffee steamed away under the watchful eye of the mild, October sun as I took a bench facing away from the encroaching presence of period houses and out the the wooded slopes which stretch down as far as the Vale of Putney. One can picture the youthful Henry VIII chasing a hart across this expanse with his barons and a pack of loyal talbots on a grand hunt, the likes of which we will never see again. 

Those woods... I like to imagine a mysterious, and once wild area, the reserve of mushroom pickers, poachers, robbers and bandits. A place pock-marked with dank taverns and mysterious old caves housing zealots and hermits; dark, quiet spaces full of the smell of horse chestnuts and rotting leaves... I probably romanticise, but that is the effect that a gentle pondering by Rushmere with a mellow Jose L.Piedra Nacionale has.

Purchased from a newsagent with a well placed humidor (something that all vendors should well consider purchasing to encourage my custom), Piedra are not in the top flight of the great cigar producing houses, but they provide a very pleasant and protracted smoke. Not too heavy and not too light, like Baby Bear’s porridge, it was just right. A perfect accompaniment to a cup of coffee it is also admirably matched with spirits such as blended whisky, eau de vie and chilled vodka.

I smoked away, ever drawing looks from disapproving parents who weren’t content that I was smoking in one of the most open spaces in London well out of the way of sensitive nostrils. But no matter, I became lost in my thoughts as the smoke pleasingly curled up and dissipated into the wider atmosphere. 

Like one of my heroes, the novelist Turgenev, I pondered a myriad of problems both social and personal: heartache, longing, work, the socio-political situation of the United Kingdom... in my mind it was all very profound, yet I am sure that others would find fault with my contemplation. Like ‘The Wanderer’ in Caspar David Friedrich’s seminal painting of the early 19th Century (another favourite of mine) I surveyed an area of land integral to my development and one which had changed little in the last 26 years.The clink of scaffolding rang out in the distance as the autumn fun fair was being set up, conjuring in the mind a mythical tradition of an annual gathering on the common akin to something out of a Thomas Hardy novel... complete conjecture but a pleasant idea all the same. 

As the cigar burned down further, releasing some richer, wood-like notes and my coffee was on it’s last dregs, I sighed at how fleeting everything was as a lone House Martin swooped over Rushmere’s stillness, supposedly to grab an insect from the spindly rushes that line the banks. Would Rushmere be around in 100 years? I hope so, and I hope that there will also be someone else sitting by its banks, cigar in hand, trying in their own way to set their world to rights in a paradoxical world of love, loss, success and above all hope. We all need our places to hideaway and enjoy our own company (even, ironically, in wide open spaces) and I do hope that everyone has a Rushmere of their own. 

Friday, 11 October 2013

They might, break and they might fall... ‘Duck Rock’ (1983) - Malcolm McLaren

Occasionally there comes an album that breaks all the rules. One which is marketed by the cocksure impresario who put it together as the panacea to the doldrums of modern music. This is Duck Rock... an unimpressive sounding album I’ll grant you, but one that has afforded a massive amount of listening pleasure throughout the years. A true aural experience in every sense of the word, it combines some of the great electronic, hip hop and world musicians of a generation to create a collage of the music that was emerging in the early 80’s. 
First, let’s establish the late Malcolm McLaren, a man known mainly for his involvement with ‘alternative music’ and the punk scene, notably through his association with The Sex Pistols and his former girlfriend, fashion legend Vivienne Westwood. A highly creative ‘fellow’, following the collapse of the fad-ish punk and the emergence of new cultural streams like new wave, electronic, hip hop and dance this ginger-headed genius decided to put his thinking cap on and come up with something that would really capture the imaginations of a generations, a project that would be as ambitious as it was (it turned out) prolific. 

The blueprints of the recording are shrouded in a sense of legend, mystery and a whole bunch of bullshit but one thing is certain, McLaren was able to put an album together, and with some of the best names in the business. Step in the dynamite combination of crack producer Trevor Horn (ABC, Yes, Grace Jones, Seal) and a two top-flight engineers: Anne Dudley and J J Jeznalick (Art of Noise) without whom this album would not have come together. For anyone interested in music production and studio work, this album is a must because it is so complex, textured and layered; choc full of samples it is an odyssey through the power of a good ear and a good mixing desk. 

In addition, the masterful production is supported by both the Soweto Zulu Choir, a South African group who give a harmonious and bravura performance on so many of the tracks. This is in direct opposition to The World Famous Supreme Team (WFST), a radio based rap troupe who MC the whole album, provide the continuity and occasionally rap where appropriate to McLaren. When all is said and done, this is definitely an album of the 80s but punctuated by the beat of tribal drums and African guitars, and it is at this juncture that I think we should take a closer look at the album: 

Oblata: One of my least favourite tracks on the album, this is an odd mix of Zulu drum beats and ambient music which might appeal to some. Certainly at the time it was probably quite revolutionary as I am sure that no one had ever heard an opening like it but... it’s not for me. 

Buffalo Gals: Everyone who has ever listened to Eminem with have heard his homage to this song on his smash his ‘Without Me’, but this is the original, a pioneering track that apparently helped bring hip-hop to the mainstream. Drenched in drum machines and samples it is a great song with Malcolm McLaren stamping his mark with the signature refrain as well as a short but sweet rap by the WFST.

Double Dutch: There are few songs that could be based on a skipping craze but this one is. Preceded with some recordings from the WFST’s radio show it descends into a gospel infused dance track incorporating a healthy amount of South African sounds to create a hugely uplifting and thoroughly groovy track to get down low to... all I’ll say is Skip they do's the double dutch, that's them dancing. 

El San Juanera: This is an intermission of sorts, a short skit from the WFST on the back of their cult radio show. Not much to say about this but a nice cultural snippet. 

Merengue: Definitely a homage to latin music, with McLaren adopting a camp tone and singing in Spanish to the intense beat of South American drums and aggresive backing vocals. It rises to something of a climax and, production-wise, has Trevor Horn’s stamp all over it. Not my favourite. 

Punk it Up: One of the flagship tunes on the album and a tribute to the people that McLaren met in Soweto as well as his association with The Sex Pistols this could not be further from the awfulness of the aforementioned band in its glorious, uplifting spirit. A joyful but ‘anarchic’ track! 

Legba: Another weird ambient interlude, punctuated by percussion, it is in these moments that you see the birth of another band which would rise from the ashes of this project: ‘The Art of Noise’. This has the bands blueprints written all over it. 

Jive My Baby: If I every had a daughter this is the track I can imagine dancing embarrassingly to at her wedding (if this was on the DJ’s playlist)! It is one of my favourite tracks on the album and one which brings a smile to the face through its sheer exuberance, all I can say is ‘Set alight the lights, jive my baby!!’. 

Song for Chango: An intense track of pure tribal music from South Africa, this seems to break up the continuity of the album until it slips into a bizarre soundscape of keyboards and synthesizers and then reverts to the original... just bizarre, but strangely pleasing. 

Living on the Road to Soweto: A protest song of sorts, giving at one moment the bleak picture of the fraught township at the centre of South African politics in the 1980s and also a song of hope and joy celebrating the culture, dance and music of the country. 

World’s Famous: My favourite track on the album comes as a highly incongruous and woefully short piece which pits the legendary Anne Dudley and the WFST in an incredible meeting of minds (which should have been an album in itself). This is Art of Noise meets rap, a funky, electronic exercise that suits many a late night drinking session for it’s wonderful signing of quality... it should have closed the album. 

Duck For the Oyster: Just shit... a terrible end to a fantastic, innovative album! 


Wednesday, 25 September 2013

No Mint Juleps required... Dining at the Colonel's table

We all have our own, specific guilty pleasures in life. Mine include a large mug of Nescafe Gold Blend and such horrors from the vault as the collected works of Hale & Pace, ‘Invisible Touch’ by Genesis, Ed McBain cop thrillers and the 1989 film Tango and Cash; but is in the realm of food that it seems the worst and scurrilous culprits lie.

I was flicking through another deliciously guilty secret, the Mail Online, this evening when I spotted a malicious, gleefully reported story about St Micheal’s cookbook doyenne, the bottled chutney making, baking legend Mary Berry and the audacity that she displayed in purchasing a pre-made brownie tray-bake from her local supermarket. ‘Hold the front page someone! She doesn’t bake all the time!’ I can hear the lifestyle editor splutter as the news comes across the wire from the Buckinghamshire office. If anything this absurd story rather inspired me to write this post. I thought it was a somewhat harsh criticism of Mary Berry, at least she has never had the sanctimony to look down on those purchasing food for convenience (unlike wot I ‘ave!... read my article on the scourge of ready-made stock here). 

‘Good grief...’ one might say, echoing that famous catch-phrase of Charlie Brown - haven’t we all got a little too snobby about our food? Are we not allowed to every so often indulge in something that we know to be absolutely devoid of nutritional value yet gives us a momentary fix of pleasure? Goodness knows we need things like that in the scary landscape of the modern world. Having raised both barrels at the ‘Brown Bread Brigade’ before over the subject of the might white sliced I am rather minded to do so again, this time to rub some salt in the wounds I previously inflicted focusing on a fantastic trip I took the other night to my favourite outlet of forbidden food, Kentucky Fried Chicken. 

Let me set the scene...

It was Saturday afternoon. 16:00. The sky was gun-metal grey and the streets of Fulham were alive with  the thronging masses of Chelsea fans on their way to the terraces. In the air was a sense of excitement for an afternoon of sport. I was off to the pub to meet two stalwart friends for a bit of a chinwag over a few frothing ales. ‘Mine’s a Ghost Ship’ I said to the girl behind the bar as nonchalantly as possible. Surveying the surrounding punters it was a rather mild collection of civilised supporters, tourists and locals. This was the Sporting Pageboy, a rather sober establishment full of good ales and good times. One could imagine chasing with a nip of Laphroaig rather than a bourbon or in the case of a bar brawl a jar of japanese rice crackers or smoked almonds being used instead of a pool cue. Of course the match was on but this was a genteel crowd, far removed from the sordid fleshpots and drunken denizens of Fulham Broadway.

Fellows were well met, the drink flowed. Probably a bit too much in my case. I waxed lyrical, I made wild statements, outlandish claims and self-important declarations, easily blamed at the time, in my mind, on a rogue rusty pint. Friends departed off into the night on the way to their own adventure, I for my part had an appointment to make at 81-83 The Broadway, Wimbledon. 

Rolling out of the main station I walked down a busy thoroughfare full of sound and fury. Cheap, lager fuelled caterwauling and shouts went up from those heading to the seedy dives that populated this main drag adding to the sense that I was going somewhere the foodies and fashionistas (so fond of Brixton based Wishbone) would give a second glance. After short time, I was greeted by the smiling, jovial countenance of a man who dealt in southern friend chicken. It was the anemic portrait of Colonel Sanders himself. 

The hopes and dreams of my journey between the pub and KFC had culminated in this moment, to hell with the chicken snobs, to hell with the health police and bring it on! It was an easy choice, the brand new ‘Mighty Bucket for One’ seemed to be calling to me like some vile - but momentarily seductive - temptress.Two wings, two breast fillets and two pieces of original recipe chicken it was like a mini-banquet, a showcase of the emporium’s wares - it was an easy sell. One the side? Coke and fries... need I say more on these distractions? 

Let’s park them and turn to the chicken. I could not tell you the provenance, the breed and such like, I just knew at the time as I tore into crisp, savoury and scalding hot bits of chicken that I was experiencing a very fleeting and slightly drunken moment of culinary glory - made even more delicious by the fact that I knew I’d feel a little cheap and sordid following its consumption. The wings went down quickly, a little chili heat lingering on the tongue. Next the breast fillets, a yielding palette for crispy skin which baptises the tongue with scalding heat. Finally the main attraction, the climax, the original recipe pieces packed full of that special, secret recipe of 12 herbs and spices... it tasted so good at the time.

If it had been up to me, a good bottle of chilled Champagne or a bourbon on the rocks would have been nice. I think hell will freeze over before the Colonel countenances such laxity of abstinence in his establishments, although I’ve heard tell he was partial to a Mint Julep. 

Like so many fleeting pleasures this one was short-lived, it felt that as soon as I had started it was over and was facing a sobering was home. The effects of the alcohol wearing off and with a belly full of battered chicken I was feeling decidedly sorry for myself as I waddled home, my burden sloshing around in my stomach all the while... but here’s the thing, I’d do it again as, you know what, I like Kentucky Fried Chicken!’ 

After such a shock announcement, I am sure many of my foodie followers will be deserting in droves. I remain unrepentant and like KFC I will keep enjoying Hale & Pace, Genesis, Kurt Russell films and trashy cop thrillers. I hope that Mary Berry will take a leaf out of my book and continue to buy her brownie tray-bake, surely if she likes it that’s all that matters! 

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Winging it - a bloody awful performance by the Lib Dems

Having once been to the Liberal Democrat party conference - in the capacity of an events organiser for a political magazine - I can attest to its eccentricities. The beards, the white socks and sandals, ill-fitting worsted jackets, severe fringes and coke-bottle glasses are all there in some shape or form. I was manning a stand on the exhibition floor so I got to see it all, as well as a refreshing level of activism not seen at either of the other two parties. Here it seemed that visitors were genuinely interested in debating policy and would  even engage a two-bit salesman like me in political discussion given half the chance. It was an interesting and quite enjoyable experience, not quite dominated by unions (Labour) and public affairs officers (Conservatives). 

That was only two years ago, but I have been careful to follow all the party conferences on the gogglebox and monitor the development of the respective parties in a turbulent time. As king makers the liberal democrats find themselves, mid-term in a very difficult position with two options: to sink into obscurity (the polls predict they will loose at least half their seats) or enter into another coalition government (another hung parliament looks increasingly likely). 

For party senior management the former is, quite obviously, unthinkable; The latter opens up a deep divide within the party distinctly separating the liberals wing from the SDP - the question of who to go into coalition with has real potential to destabilise the Liberal Democrats be it the Conservatives or Labour. For the meantime, like it or not they are mid-term through a coalition with the blues and it was in this setting that the party found itself on the banks of the Clyde.

Eyes were on Nick today. Vince ‘Jeremiah’ Cable (delusional egoist), Danny ‘Osborne’ Alexander (pragmatic) et al gave it their all in Glasgow to the assembled masses. The platform was there for some credible policy, some great speech full of gravitas and yet... yet it all descended into an exercise of back slapping and point scoring (not, I’m sure that the other two won’t have their fair share). 

Don’t get me wrong, I personally like having the Liberal Democrats around, they metre the loony fringes of my party (The Conservatives) with some loony fringes of their own creating a balance that was decidedly lacking in the Conservative governments of old. However, this union is one of convenience for most and a constant source of policy tension as much as it is one of policy agreement... deeply unpopular with some, lauded by others. 

I quite understand each side trying to snatch as much credit they can from any success from this partnership but listening to Nick Clegg this afternoon trot out his list of thwarted policy decisions at the Conservative’s expense took the biscuit, how easily he forgets his days as Leon Brittan’s advisor. The most galling moment was when he decided to bask in the glory of his disastrous decision to destroy the boundary review which will cause the demise of his own party and potentially let the ‘Reds under the bed’ back into power. Bravo Nick!

Having made a strong speech in comparison to his fellow senior colleagues, Nick can bask in some temporary glory. As he stood on that platform and made a wholly negative speech in which he deluded himself and delegates that his party were the only ones who came up with good policies he struck me as being wholly disingenuous. His lack of willingness to take responsibility for  the unpopular policies goes to show why he is just Deputy Prime Minister. 

What did that matter today? Gone for the moment is that moping, front bench pout from a man who cannot appreciate his good fortune. The Liberal Democrats might now be applauding his tough stance but it won’t change the fact that he has allowed his parliamentary party to both seriously hinder growth and stifle some very important policies. We shall wait and see what happens at the ballot box but I don’t reckon he’ll be quite so cocky as he was today!