Saturday, 27 April 2013

All you do is call me, I’ll be anything you need... Sledgehammer

Some songs really capture the imagination and Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer is definitely one of them, it truly is an inspired piece of music, easily one of the best of the 80s. With its incredibly famous video, blatantly suggestive lyrics and some brilliantly original music it is nothing other than exceptional...
1986 was a pretty flooded market when it came to chart toppers, world conquerors and stadium warriors. Bon Jovi’s Slippery when wet, Top Gun Soundtrack, Steve Winwood’s Back in the High Life and Genesis’s Invisible Touch  were all chart topper in this vintage year with some standout cuts to boot but none were quite able to equal the majesty of the song that is the subject of this piece. 

It was probably a surprise to the avant garde Peter Gabriel that he achieved such a hit with Sledgehammer having spent the preceding ten years exploring and pushing as many of the boundaries of rock as he could. Anyone who has listened to ‘Solsbury Hill’, ‘Intruder’, ‘Biko’, ‘Games Without Frontiers’ and ‘Shock The Monkey’ would surely agree that Sledgehammer is out of keeping with his usual fare. But perhaps it was equally maverick of the elder statesman on prog-rock to produce a danceable pop in line with the high hitters of that decade. 

The opening of the song, with its synthesised flutes almost hark to Gabriel’s obsession with WOMAD and its rather tired old brand of world music, but suddenly hits hard with some funky horns and gated drums before giving way to the brilliance of Tony Levin and his unique brand of bass playing - a cross between King Crimson and Alphonso Johnson - contributing to one of the most original rhythm arrangements I have heard in my limited musical life. 

Peter Gabriel himself has a very distinct voice which lends its energy, charisma and bizarre range to the tune, hitting all the right note and showing that he wasn’t just a one trick pony - briefly challenging his former bandmate Phil Collins as the prince of pop in 1986! 

The landmark video is also worth a mention. I first saw it when I was about six on a compilation of Aardman animation’s short films which also  included the fantastic ‘Ident’ (voiced by comedian Arthur Smith) and Next (a pastiche on Shakespeare’s whole repertoire) but the one that really stood out was ‘Sledgehammer’ a landmark mix of stop motion clay animation and live action including a bizarre scene where two supermarket ready chickens dance a waltz (animation by non other than Wallace and Gromit genius Nick Park). Made by the now highly-successful Aardman this was one of their first projects which really brought them to public attention, it is well worth a watch so here is the link:

Taken from the chart-topping album So (1986)  it is in the company of some other cracking tracks including ‘Don’t Give Up’ (with Kate Bush), ‘Big Time’ and ‘Red Rain’ but ‘Sledgehammer’ is truly the jewel in the crown, and therefore I urge you to go out and purchase a copy digital, analog or otherwise as soon as possible! 

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Remember days when we never had a dime - George Benson's 'Give me the night' (1980)

What can you say about an album that ticks all the right boxes for all the wrong reasons? Because that's what I struggle with in this review of George Benson's give me the night, this should be, by all estimations and atrocious album yet it is just brilliant! 

I vividly remember buying it aged 16 at the HMV on Piccadilly Circus on a weekend's leave from school. The album screamed 1980s from the front cover, an affected shot of Benson in a salmon pink jumper grooving to some unknown beat mid finger-click. 

An initial look at the liner notes (written by producer Quincy Jones) and the stellar cast also let's you know that you are in store for an unashamedly groovy experience, leading luminaries like Nathan East, Greg Phillinganes and Steve Gadd are joined by stellar guest stars like Herbie Hancock and Lee Ritenour. Perhaps the biggest credit though should go to Rod Temperton who writes a number of the tracks on the album, this was the very same man who had composed 'Off the Wall' and 'Thriller' for MJ as well as heatwave's 1977 smash 'Boogie Nights'. 

The album has all the right ingredients so far, cheesy cover, incredible musicians, dynamite production and an artist who was reaching his artistic and commercial peak. In a previous post about Chistopher Cross (insert date) I made a bold claim that certain artists had one great album in them on which they created the wave and then sank without a trace. Although benson was never to match the giddy heights that this album flung him to again, he was already an established and widely respected jazz guitarist who had already been recording for almost 20 year - with a few hits and a couple of high charting albums (mainly instrumentals) - so he was no stranger to the industry. However this record was to catapult him aggressively into the mainstream showcasing his talents as an R&B Soulster across the pop airwaves. 

For me, a little like Ian Dury's fantastic 'Do It Yourself' this cut is really evocative of its time, a turnig point if you will, a transition between the 70s and 80s, much of it screams the former but certain production and song structure meanders to the other. 

'Love x Love', the first track, is by far my favourite, where Benson's soaring vocals are backed by his lyrical if slightly dated picked guitar riffs on his trademark Gibson. The start is so summery and you could imagine sitting in a white linen suit, cigar in hand (corona, not too small, not to large) and a vodka rocks in the other as some bikini clad floozy basks by the pool drenched by the warming rays of the sun. 

'On Broadway' is an instrumental that I can put up with, but it ends up sounding like incidental music from Saturday Night Fever, and it must be said is a tad repetitive. Weirdly enough this is one of the critics favourites, and the can keep it. 

Track 3, 'Moody's Mood' is a standard which finds benson at his scatty best, flexing his vocal muscles to deliver a gentle but beautifully rendered tune which is guaranteed to bring a smile to you face, accompanied by a very subtle electric organ and some considerate drumming it's musically one of the album's best!

The title track is next and is probably the best known song on the album with its catchy chorus and hedonistic vibe. The ludicrous video sees benson in his element tan suit and all playing the guitar and roller skating down the Venice Beach promenade simultaneously. It certainly conjures up the image of sunny southern climbs and wild nights at the disco way back when a time when drink, drugs and fast women were the norm  - at least for George Benson that is! 

My other favourite cut on the album closes the first side,'What's on your mind' has Quincy Jones's paw prints all over it, with a powerhouse horn section and some impassioned vocals from Benson. The structure is tight and there's a fantastic guitar riff that bridges the whole thing together in classic . 

Side two is a more ballad heavy affair, opening with breezy instrumental 'Dinorah, Dinorah', which for me is pleasant enough if a little bit throwaway, despite a notable guest performance by Herbie Hancock on keys! 

Thinks then get a little smooth, soulful and illicit with tracks like 'Midnight Love Affair', 'Star of a Story' and 'Turn off the Lamplight' mainly concerning secret trysts and forbidden lovers, it's all highly melodramatic if not very racy in the slightest. 

Of course each of these numbers is well produced and well executed, but this is definitely an album of two halves of which the former is by far the stronger. They are pleasant enough but not particularly earth-shattering and certainly not chart material.

For this slightly lesser side I am going to award 'Give me the night' a respectable 7/10, it's a curate's egg of a record - good in parts! 

Sent from my iPhone

Saturday, 13 April 2013

A little bit of history - time to challenge the 'Consensus'

As a momentous event in our history has recently occured, and being a former student of politics, I thought I would take this moment to throw my thoughts into the ring for whatever worth they might be to you, my readers. 

Over the past couple of days I have watched a large number of eulogies, scathing critiques and in-depth political analyses of someone who it cannot be denied - changed the very fabric of British society, in many ways for the better and in some to its detriment. However there is no denying that, when she assumed office in 1979, the UK was in dire need of a sharp kick up the proverbial arse. 

Listening to dramatic rhetoric from a number of Old Labour stalwarts, like thespo Glenda Jackson (who’s greatest crime has been to portray some of the most boringly pretentious roles in cinematic history) and David Blunkett (who contrary to his carpings about his socialist roots, turned out to be one of the most draconian, right-wing home secretaries of the last fifty years), one would think that the ‘Sceptred Isle’ of which they talked was akin to a Betjeman essay on cream teas, steam locomotives and country churches. This is so far from the truth that it makes me concerned that history is subtly being re-written to imply that we were far better off between 1945 - 1979. 

Ken Loache’s recent film, The Spirit of ’45, worth a watch for its sheer lunacy, adds to this rose-tinted and incorrect assumption. Charles Moore has written a brilliantly scathing review - which, having watched this fantasy film myself I completely agree with - cutting through the dross of a highly partisan and over-lauded director and so I will leave you to draw conclusions on this work from him. 

These so called ‘consensus’ years, so many like to reminisce about, were punctuated by unprecedented and highly damaging swathes of strikes across British industry. throughout the coverage this week, no broadcaster had the courage to highlight some of the appalling industrial action that occurred during the 60s and 70s, episode like the communist infiltration of the Seamens strike in 1966,  the crippling Dagenham Ford Plant Dispute   of 1968-1969 (which has cynically been re-appraised to serve as a key moment in feminist history), the 1972 battle at Saltley coke depot  (which led to the three day week) and the 1976-1978 Grunwick dispute (which even saw the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, inappropriately join the picket). Sadly, there are just a few of many example that show why we were readily given the moniker ‘The sick man of Europe’ by both allies and foes. 

Days lost to stoppage of labour make horrifying reading even for the casual observers, and remain figures that those who idealise the old left’s cause choose to ignore or have never bothered to research before making their grandiose claims of the reserve, dignity and quality of British industry during this period. Just so you don’t think that I am exaggerating my own critique, I will back up my assertions with some government statistics which states that the number of days lost to ‘unofficial’ (spontaneous, undeclared) strikes was 1,857,000. Couple these with ‘Official’ strikes and ‘Partly Official’ strikes and you have the grand total of 2,530,000. A shocking number by any standards. 

These taken from the seminal white paper ‘In Place of Strife’ (which I have an original copy of from the dissertation I wrote on that very document) which so many of the left have been now lamenting the premeditated shelving of. Most of all David Blunkett’s current praise of the document on Question Time seems quite rich, coming from a man who would almost certainly would have balked at the mere idea of such an initiative when it was published in 1969. Even more harrowing was that it was a white paper commissioned by a centrist faction within Labour Government, who had finally realised that the post-war compacts between state and industry had got out of hand! 

Wilson lost in 1970 and having read a number of accounts of this tumultuous period over the years, his failure to deal appropriately with the ever present issue of industrial action was one of the key factors in his loss. Likewise with Ted Heath, who passed the hardline Industrial Relations Act 1971 based on the very proposals he was elected on by a thoroughly fed up British public, fed up of paying extortionate taxes and subsidised high prices for sub-par British products. Would you buy and Austin Allegro?

Of course, as always seemed to happen in these days of conflict-riven cabinets (of which Wilson’s 1966-1970 government was notorious for) where no decisive decision could be taken without committee-like block votes and unanimous consent the Act cost Heath the election when he lost his nerve and allowed unprecedented amounts of strike action to occur without a ‘plan b’. A sick and alzheimer-ish Wilson repealed the Act in 1974, and his arrogant, pompous ‘Union Man’ successor Jim Callaghan complacently let Britain slide deeper into a mire, creating a culture where unions knew that they could hold government over a barrel.  

You only have to read the diaries and memoirs of the various characters who strolled the corridors of power, paced the picket lines or tucked into beer and sandwiches at Number 10 to see this ‘consensus’ time as one of chaos where the basic constructs of state and governance had become hideously muddied, sinking into the quagmire of its own creation.  

Rant over! But it makes me sad when I see so many of those who, like me (I was born in 1987), weren’t even conscious during her time in office, distastefully celebrating her death with some media outlets passively encouraging it. Before out history becomes whitewashed to reflect the dictatorial, sanctimonious and guilt-ridden complex of the Liberal Left, let’s all just take a look back on the last fifty years and realistically evaluate Mrs Thatcher’s legacy in context to the three decades that preceded it. 

Booze, banter & Bourgeoise conversation - an Oliver Reed pub crawl!

‘I have two ambitions in life: one is to drink every pub dry, the other is to sleep with every woman on earth.’

It comes as no surprise that the above were the words of the late, great and outrageous Oliver Reed, a man who undoubtably left his mark wherever he went, and nowhere more so than in SW19, more commonly known as Wimbledon. 

Reed had been brought up in the borough and had gone to school first at Rokeby Prep in neighbouring Kingston (of which I am an old boy) and then onto Ewell Castle near Epsom (of which I am not). Whilst his career took off and he became, for a time, a big star as famous for his acting (sadly for a brief moment) as his wild personal life - punctuated by drunken brawls, drinking bouts with other hellraisers like Lee Marvin and general outrageous behaviour - he never lost his connection with Wimbledon and he would spend lengthy tracts of his life in the area. 

Growing up in Wimbledon, Reed was an ever present character in the pub on a Sunday morning after a vain attempt of one of my parents to get me into a church. With them worn out and enjoying a deserved drink and me - aged 4 - tapping the fruit machine and sipping on a Coca Cola Reed held court in a corner, although this is merely a recollection of my mother and father rather than my own personal memory, I was far more concerned about the fruit machine! 

Anyway, the man has become something of a legend in the neighbourhood and as with all the great characters in history his urban street-cred has grown to such proportions that he has come to be associated with a well known pub crawl which had one simple tenet, based around the then 8 traditional pubs that surrounded Wimbledon Common (now 6 due to the sad demise of The Prince of Denmark and The Brewery Tap). But no matter, we had to make do with the limited resources and, in honour of our shot livers and the great - if unfulfilled - actor we decided to use our Good Friday wisely and embark upon a pub crawl to which he lent his name. 


I fear that I take holidays a little bit to seriously and decided to embark upon the day with a very agreeable Montecristo No. 2 and a pot of strong, dark, viscous coffee - as well as a blog post on Richard O’Sullivan’s Man about the kitchen (my commitment to my art knows no bounds! Barf!) as the picture below illustrates! 

The decided hour was soon upon us and, after a quick sharpner (Scotch & soda) I was out of the door, on my way to an afternoon of self indulgence, semi-witty banter and mild public nuisance in my hometown. 

Pub #1 - The Dog and Fox

The Dog and Fox is ‘supposedly’ the oldest site in Wimbledon village - a point on which one of my companions and I had a very tiresome and inconclusive debate on - and has now been turned into a rather soulless bar come restaurant, was where we started our journey. 

Deciding that we needed to line our stomachs before embarking on this quest, food was ordered to act as a buffer-zone for the carnage that was going to be wrecked on our insides. A tab was set up, an order was place, three rounds were drunk and no food came...

As organiser I felt it my duty to confront the problem head on and duly demanded to know where lunch was, 
‘We’re busy mate.’ Said a languid and nonchalant bar-keep.
‘Well it’s been one-and-a-half hours since we ordered.’ 
‘I’m sure it’s on its way.’
‘Yes, I’m sure.’ 

To be fair the food came, but it was sub-standard, and most of it had come from the deep freeze. Commanding premium prices as they were, I thought it was an outrageous cheek and one which here won’t go unpunished. I warn all readers off the place, a waste of valuable time and certainly an establishment that saw better days when the great Mr. Reed was alive. 

Pub #2 - The Rose and Crown

The second establishment on the tour has to be one of Wimbledon’s most famous pubs. Passing the boutique clothing stores, artisan delicatessens and a Queen Anne period residence, a pub sign bearing the grasping visage of Henry VII and the red rose of Lancashire loom large for now the Rose and Crown comes into play. 

A stalwart for the student drinker back from university - and the hub of Wimbledon tennis workers - off season the place has a local feel with a good pint of Young’s Special being the tipple of choice. The indifferent service and the sprawling nature of the establishment add to its charm.

We all went for a pint of the local wallop and soaked up the atmosphere of a place fast becoming what it’s predecessor on the crawl had become. Of particular interest I had noticed, much to the pub’s detriment, that children were now allowed in the place until 20:00 rather than the previous 18:00...outrageous! 

Pub #3 - The Fox and Grapes

Some of my readers will remember the old Fox and Grapes. A grimy pub by the common, popular with golfers and dog walkers. It was in a lovely old building and due to its location had an almost-if-not-quite country feel. The carpets were beer sodden, the loos stank for miles around and the pervading air of wet canine hung about the joint. From the brass topped tables to the oaken panels it was an old fashioned UK boozer! 

Jump forward and Claude Bosi and his brother bought out the joint, turning it into a gastropub - albeit with incredible food - and sapping the convivial soul out of the establishment. The pale, pastel walls, spot lighting and contemporary bar were a far cry from the informal drinking hole of old. But they still allowed dogs in the place and below you will see a picture of one punter called Jack Russell who seemed to be enjoying his pint! 

Here our tipple was Doom Bar, the once boutique beverage standard now in so many pubs that it would not have seemed uncouth to drink it in ‘Olly’s’ memory. I caused a deal of controversy when I opted to have a cheeky coffee chaser to keep the warming tides of weariness at bay, bitter’s one hell of a drink after all! 

Pub #4 - The Hand in Hand

We now come to my personal favourite, an 18th Century pub with a wonderful smoking courtyard set to one side of Wimbledon Common. Here many of my best ideas and nights out have been formed over a frothing pint. Ordering a few pints of a wonderful local drop, Sambrook’s Junction, some of us decamped outdoors and indulged in a much needed tobacco fix. 

The Villager was welcome treat at this time, although one of my friends commented that - after my morning’s activities - my lungs must be like a metaphorical cheese-grater! The dependable smoothness of the short cig went well against the heavy, oaten taste of the beer. Looking around my surroundings I could see why I liked the pub so much with its mullioned windows, whitewashed walls and tiled roof, it was like something from a Hardy novel transposed to South London. 

Heading back inside a quite half was sunk in a convivial surroundings and we spotted a group of lads and lasses who looked suspiciously like they were on the very same crawl. 

Pub #5 - The Crooked Billet 

There cannot be many pubs in London, let alone the UK, that are directly neighboured to each other, but the Crooked Billet is literally next to the preceding pub and provides a start contrast from the crusty old boozer previously mentioned. 

A family friendly establishment it has screaming children too far into the day, and has few qualms about letting them run amok in the bar area - which would have been very much frowned upon even when I was growing up in the early to mid nineties. 

Here, as is custom with our group, a pint of Directors (or Dictators as we prefer) is supped whilst we expostulate on the many matters of state that seem to concern us. Another toast to the great ‘Olly’ being raised in the same breath as the effectiveness of John Major or the price of pork scratchings was being discussed...

Pub #6 - The Swan

The Ridgeway is now down to one establishment ever since the sad demise of the rough, shabby, violent but quintessentially ‘Wimbledon’ Prince of Denmark ceased to be.

The Swan now holds up the area and offers the locals a small respite from their daily grind through its mix of live sports, real ales, cheap lager and my personal favourite, the IT Box. Some of my readers might be unenlightened, but this machine is a small-change vacuum which preys on the ‘supposed’ general knowledge of all who congregate around it like bees to a honeypot, hoping for a chance at a big win of £1-£3, the big bucks! 

The pints were becoming harder and harder. Certainly I have paraphrased the quantity I consumed compared to my friends, they might have drank more (or less) but I cannot be sure. I know I certainly snuck a couple or few over the course of the day. 

The pub is so generic to the norm at the moment that it doesn’t merit much discussion. Following such revelry one compadre on the tour of watering holes recommended a blisteringly hot curry and I for one - as an easily lead fellow - was taken in by such an idea. 


And so the night ended, as it so often does in SW19, in Ahmed’s curry house (see previous review) with booze, banter and a great sense of drunken remorse! 

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Sketches from a Cigar Smoker’s Album: Uppity uptown

Picture a young, dashing fellow by the name of Henry Rubinstein, wrestling with the harsh snow and ice of London last Saturday, frozen to the bone and looking forward to the prospect of fried chicken – which I had been promised by one half of business whizz kids @MyOwnEconomics – at Mother Cluckers. Sadly it was not meant to be.

After a filthy pint at ‘The John Snow’ which tasted as if the pipes had yet to be cleaned since the pub opened, we traipsed over to this fabled chicken shack only to find a dingy pub filled with the smell of stale oil and cheap lager, not the delicious smells of deep-fried poultry I had been expecting. It was already 14:30 and I was hungry.

‘Sorry mate, we don’t serve on Saturdays’ said the bored looking bartender (it wasn’t the most lively looking place when the chicken was off the menu). We took our leave, determined to find another location to get some grub, but everywhere seemed to the full, people crammed into any warm space they could find.

By now it was 15:00 and like a petulant child, all red-cheeked and indignant, I was starting to loose patience – a virtue my friends have often said I have little time for.

‘Bloody hell,’ I cried as I saw people queuing outside Byron, ‘Don’t these people have better things to do, I am hungry, they are wasting my time.’ My good friend rolled his eyes and in a flash of inspiration found a Cote Brasserie to which we quickly dashed into and had a perfectly adequate steak frites. I felt a bit better, but still unreasonably frustrated that the city seemed to be so crowded on such a miserable day.

I needed something to quell the wrath that was simmering beneath the surface of my chill-bitten visage. Then I espied salvage, a cigar shop, but not just any cigar shop, this one let you smoke inside.

Attached to an associated bar, the rules are simple and stringent at Casa Del Habano (100 Wardour Street, Soho London, W1F 0TN), there can be no alcohol consumed in the cigar room – that is not to say that you cannot drink in the neighbouring bar – and all the cigars consumed must be purchased on the premises. It is in this way they are able to duck, dodge, dive and weave their way around the current laws on smoking inside.

That is not to say we couldn’t have a coffee or two, in fact it was very good coffee, and opt for one of their fine Cuban products. I chose a personal favourite, the Bolivar Belicoso, a torpedoed behemoth with a rich, chocolaty flavour. The one I had that day had been perfectly kept in the humidor and was relatively ‘green’ compared to a number of cigars that I had smoked recently, testament to this was its dark – rather than light – brown colour, this meant a heavy, slow and more laboured smoke, to my mind at least!

But it was delicious and good to shoot the breeze with an old friend who himself had picked an ever agreeable Romeo y Julieta Corona (the Englishman’s favourite!) to complete the agreeable nature of the surroundings.

These were washed down with some excellent cups of coffee, a welcome change to the usual pond-scum or viscous mud served by so many establishments that claim to be experts in coffee based on the mere fact that they own a hulking Gaggia monstrosity! A cigar, all in all, well worth having an a great salve for an afternoon spent in the chill air of the capital!