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Column #50

Nothing beats a good manifesto to stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood. Mind you, reflected through the modern lens, to “stiffen the sinews” sounds really filthy.

I went to Oxford for the launch of the Dark Mountain project on Friday www.dark-mountain.net.

This is the brainchild of author, activist and former Ecology magazine deputy editor Paul Kingsnorth – who wrote the terrific One No, Many Yeses – and blogger and former BBC journalist Dougald Hines.

Over pints at the Isis Tavern, where the launch was held, and then emails across Britain, they developed a manifesto called Uncivilisation, a document intended for people working in culture, responding to the climate crisis and the economic crash.

Influenced by the now obscure but once celebrated 1930s US poet Robinson Jeffers, Kingsnorth and Hines have put together a fascinating, beautifully constructed work that veers into poetic discourse. Although it feels more esoteric than most manifestos, it fights its corner powerfully.

The authors propose that creative and cultural people should work in the understanding that we’re at the point of fundamental change and that humanity will inevitably recede, instead of working within false assumptions that we will somehow succeed in averting the ecological disaster to come.

More importantly, they argue that a liberal and even environmentalist focus on protecting current civilisation as it is now from whatever disaster looms is a misplaced aim altogether, since our current society is so unbalanced and unjust.

I hope that’s a fair paraphrasing because I like Uncivilisation a lot, even at its most winding and self-absorbed. Some parts of it have an almost Buddhist detachment from humanity.

So although a great deal of care needs to be taken, reading it in the context of tacitly “accepting” future human suffering, it is a deeply positive document.

Then again, I like manifestos. Manifestos are an intense summing up of a viewpoint or position, often laboured and sweated over, that exists within its own point of reality.

A manifesto invites comment, while at the same time being a complete unit around which comment will ultimately just fall unaffecting.

I really enjoyed the launch of Dark Mountain which is an ongoing project, meant to grow out of and respond to the manifesto in a creative way.

In their short presentation to introduce it to a polite, rather civilised crowd, both men managed not to sound defeatist about ecology, instead being stridently positive about the potential for art and culture within their vision.

There was also a measure of cultural resentment in the birthing of the idea. It grew from a feeling that the current clique of leading authors exist within a liberal corporatist mainstream of philosophical and political thought – that the McEwens and Rushdies and Amises and whoever – enjoy indulgent, rarified and trendy lives, while real visionaries such as John Berger, who produce work of equal or greater worth, are culturally isolated because of their commitment to a greater truth.

Of course, that’s a ton of value judgements. But when Kingsnorth and Hines refer to what Geoff Dyer says of Berger – that to take his work seriously is to redraw the maps – they make a vitally important point in a classy way.

They chime strongly with my feelings about the corporate ownership of culture as a whole, although I’ve banged on about that enough in this column to feel I needn’t bother you with it again now.

After a couple of real ales, I tried to pin down Kingsnorth on a more physical understanding of their “plan,” but he wasn’t going to be drawn on – or distracted by – some kind of survivalist strategy. This is about the culture and the making.

Column #49

 

It was an unashamed pleasure this week to see the Guardian go a small way towards nailing some of the stinky demons at the top of the Murdoch nest, by uncovering the scandal of wider mobile phone bugging.

Nobody interesting will go down of course – that would be too much to hope for.

But after shouting about the need for a serious attack on Britain’s deeply damaging right-wing media base a few weeks ago, this feels to me like a great example for anyone thinking of doing some righteous damage for the greater good.

Let’s go digging – they are all dirty. We just need to find it, publish it and down they will fall.

It’s a rare case where nobody involved in the case will pontificate on behalf of a law change, since everyone in journalism knows that privacy and libel laws are already in a dangerous place in Britain, overprotecting the powerful from the public interest.

But that’s no excuse. It’s funny how the current diaspora misdefines the whole concept of investigative journalism, in the name of back slappery. Look at the hay made by the Telegraph in light of their MPs’ expenses scoop. I’ve read several columns by media observers lauding Telegraph staff for “investigative journalism.”

Others, like one desperate twonk at uber-commercialist trade rag Marketing Week, even used the scandal to finesse the idea that print media is not defeated yet. Without doubt, the truth is that the Telegraph just had someone walk in the door with stolen information to sell.

Nobody went out looking for dodgy MPs’ expenses, because everybody knew they’d be impossible to pin down in any detail. It was a leak extraordinaire, not any kind of ace undercover reportage.

Whoever sold the stolen goods didn’t even go to the Telegraph first. The expenses information was initially turned down by somebody senior at the Murdoch empire, which is yet another source of amusement because it must almost certainly have been someone very senior, probably with the M-word surname.

I read this brief but enlightening piece of background in one of the few places where investigative journalism still thrives – Private Eye. Of late, Hislop’s fantastic satirical fortnightly has been digging holes and uncovering skeletons on a completely different level to everybody else. The Eye also pointed out that editors at the Daily Mail were kicking themselves that the expenses scandal fence wasn’t savvy enough to knock on their door instead, because they would’ve paid far more for the same discs than the Telegraph could afford.

Yet again, with the battle between digital and conventional media reaching new heights of daily attrition, and the employment-management thing so strained that strikes are inevitable over the next few months, it’s the content that ultimately let the side down.

It’s not restricted to print media either – this savviness is why digital marketing struggles.

This week, digital trade rag New Media Age included a news item about the company Moonfruit, which hit the top of Twitter’s most mentioned words by running a competition to win a MacBook where you had to mention its name in a tweet to enter the draw. But what NMA didn’t mention was that almost every “entry” mentioning Moonfruit was negative, with thousands of people basically slagging it off at the same moment as entering the competition. I can’t imagine the brand boost has actually worked in any kind of serious, positive way.

Suddenly, real people are too media savvy to dick around with.

This doesn’t mean that mainstream taste has got any better – the market for celebrity sleaze and the London Lite re-imagining of how bad a tabloid should be is still dominant.

But people can’t be sold shit in the same way, and that spells doom. We aren’t fooled by the adverts anymore and without that, what’s left? The answer is rich, quality content. When something is valuable and relevant, as the MPs’ expenses clearly were, we’ll dive in with enthusiasm and – crucially – pay money to learn more.

But when you try to sell us crap on the back of crap, we’re walking like never before.

Column #48

Sculptor Antony Gormley is occupying the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square this year in a very unconventional way, which you’ve probably heard about.

Although he could so easily have plonked yet another cast of his own body up there, perhaps in some kinky balletic pose to provide contrast to his other recent works, instead he’s gone all interactive and zeitgeisty, throwing the plinth open to the great unwashed, as they might say disapprovingly in The Spectator.

In other words, we the people get a chance to stand on the plinth for an hour-long slot, doing whatever the hell we like, as long as it’s legal.

Applicants are being drawn at random by computer lottery, so I immediately applied and then, well, didn’t say anything about it to anyone for ages, reasoning that the fewer people who knew about it, the better my own chance would be of getting the call to clamber up there.

Sadly, both July and August have both been filled without a T-T. And, worse, there seems to be increasing publicity momentum for the project, so I imagine more and more people are signing up.

Sky TV is even providing a live feed to the plinth so we can watch people online. Since the hour-long slots continue 24/7 that’s probably a good idea, because if you’re from Aberdeen and your slot is at 3am, it’s unlikely many friends and family will make it down to see you in the flesh.

Selfishly, I wish they’d organised it on a first-come-first-served basis or at least closed the application process a bit sooner.

But of course that would’ve defeated the object, which is to cast the nets wide, making the pool from which subjects are fished contain as broad a swathe of British society as possible.

The idea is much closer to some of Gormley’s earlier work than his iconic body cast pieces like Angel of the North. In particular, it’s reminiscent of his working method for the extraordinary Field for the British Isles, which is made up of thousands upon thousands of unique clay humanoid figures.

The Field was physically made by local schoolkids, each shaping figurines to resemble the basic model.

It was their rendering – making each piece slightly different – that provided the impact of the overall Field.

Perhaps the plinth piece should be compulsory, like jury service, with folks picked at random from the electoral register to be a work of art for an hour. Except that then we’d have to pay their expenses.

Carter USM singer Jim Bob wrote a novella to accompany his last album Humpty Dumpty Thing which was a story along those lines, whereby all art was created by compulsory victims of a jury type process, while all “voluntary” art was banned.

Ooh, perhaps that’s how they should pick the House of Lords!

A sceptical view of the plinth would be that it’s very cheap and Mr Gormley has avoided actually making any art at all. And that it gives the illusion of empowerment – after your Cowellian moment of pseudo glory, you dutifully climb back down and go back to normal life. Orwellian, Cowellian, only a consonant’s difference.

The plinth speaks to a reality TV generation where the myth of fame, however pointless and short-lived, is more important and vital than any real experience.

Yet I immediately signed up, whereas you’d have to drag me bound and gagged anywhere near an X Factor audition. Am I fooled by the weighty presence of Gormley and the word “art?” Or is there some actual value in standing there?

Initially, I assumed I’d play a solo acoustic gig, if given the chance. A standard self-promotion exercise, tempered by the interest in looking out over Trafalgar Square.

But since then, I’ve actually had the chance to play to a brimful Square, a proper crowd of thousands, for Strangers Into Citizens. A real reason.

So, more and more, I’m thinking what a dull, predictable way it would be to use the time. Even if I’m one of the lucky few, surely by then a whole bucket-load of singers will have taken the opportunity to perform.

Also, I wonder who retains the rights to anything that is “created” while on the plinth. For example, if Bob the inventor has a fantastic idea but he can’t afford a patent, couldn’t he just get up onto the plinth and expound his invention, thereby setting in stone the date of its creation? Or would Sky or Mr Gormley suddenly own it?

The truth method of democratising the fourth plinth – and it’s way too late now – would’ve been to unilaterally climb up there months, years ago, when it was just an empty plinth. And leave your ladder when you’re done.

Democratised art is Banksy or the Mohican on Churchill – for which someone did time – not something achieved with permission and a health-and-safety net.

Anyway, I don’t feel anything like as sceptical as this column may make it appear. I’m hoping with all my heart that I get picked, even if the tagline could be: “You are all David Blaine now.”

Column #47

My love/hate relationship with BBC cultural coverage comes to an inevitable annual tipping point over the summer festival season.

Through the weekend, I sat through the extensive Glastonbury coverage wishing I was there, throwing curses at the TV and, occasionally, thanking them profusely when they got it right.

Of course, it’s easy to forget that the broadcaster is always at the contractual whim of the band involved, while all us punters have different ideas of who should be shown in full.

Already this morning I’ve heard people complaining about The Prodigy and Nick Cave not getting full enough airings, while I was absolutely desperate for a decent Springsteen showing – and got lucky.

Bruce fans were treated to well over an hour in one long stint, which covered pretty much half his entire headline set. At some point, I drunkenly tweeted that I’d love the BBC forever.

Neil Young fans – and I imagine there’s some overlap – weren’t so lucky, with a scant 20 minutes or so split up into short single or two-song bursts.

But with the big names, it’s not the fault of the BBC if a band isn’t seen complete.

It takes direct control of what can be shown. For example, if an act has a live DVD coming out in the near future, it will stop their set being broadcast in one go to forestall potential bootlegging.

I imagine there must be a complex and constant process of negotiation behind the scenes.

Anyway, here’s the simple way I believe the BBC should cover major festival events.

Surely, the public service remit should involve putting out as much material as it can, with as broad a scope as possible within the budget and technical resources, rather than focusing on a few chosen names.

So with Glasto, it needs to use each digital channel to broadcast the entire run of a stage on any given day.

If it started the coverage two or three hours behind “live,” it could cut out the changeovers between bands and bleep the rude words before the watershed.

Gradually, it’d catch up with itself throughout the day, until the headliners are shown live.

Most importantly of all, it shouldn’t repeat a performance. Just don’t. Stop doing it. If you’re thinking: “Ooh, ooh, people will miss stuff,” then that’s what you use highlights shows and the iPlayer archive for, starting the following week.

The amount of looped repeats has become teeth-clenchingly ridiculous and renders the digital channels redundant.

My brain did somersaults at the number of times it repeated the same segment of Kasabian or a mind-numbingly long turn from Crosby, Stills & Nash instead of showing me Art Brut or Broken Family Band or 20 others on the same stages.

And that’s without taking cameras to some of the smaller stages, which it now seems to do even less than in previous years.

For pete’s sake, please just give us a feed into the spirit of the event.

Personally, I’d do away with the presenters for all the channels except one.

So while BBC2 coverage is “presented,” oriented primarily around the largest stage with occasional “cultural forays” around the site, as it currently does – though with less scenester mockney please – BBC3, BBC4 and the Red Button channels would all be completely presenter-free and just beam out pure, unadulterated rich content.

One of the biggest problems for me with the very limited run of acts actually covered is the real danger of the corporation becoming too culturally powerful in what is fundamentally a commercial industry.

Too often, the act described as a “buzz act” at Glasto reaches that status because of the support it has been given by the BBC prior to the festival.

This year’s example of that would be Florence & The Machine. There’s no doubting – I’ve said it before – Florence is a real talent and her band had an exceptional reception.

However, that audience response comes largely from anticipation and excitement nurtured by the media.

Tragically, the buzz is passed from media to audience, rather than the other way around.

I really like Florence & The Machine, but isn’t it worrying that she’s managed by a BBC6 Music DJ and yet has been “broken” first and foremost by the BBC over the past year?

Fundamentally, a BBC employee directly profits from her success. Conversely, I suspect that there’s no chance we would’ve seen any of New Jersey punk-pop band Gaslight Anthem’s set had Springsteen himself not decided to jump onstage with them. Suddenly, they too gained a coveted slot on the TV schedule.

Anyway, I’ll stop moaning. There’s a simple improvement to make. Kill those repeats, and whingers like me will remember that however much we struggle with the BBC coverage, it pisses all over the pathetic results when ITV tries to cover a festival, as with the execrable Isle Of Wight. But that’s another story.

Column #46

Years ago I was going out with an art critic and we used to go to a lot of London gallery press and private views.

She was more serious about the art than me, but we both mainly went to get drunk on free champagne, eat canapes, bicker happily and listen to London art scenesters talking nonsense.

One time in summer 1998, we went to the 100th birthday party of Hans Feibusch, who was the last surviving “degenerate artist.”

He was part of a bunch of German-born artists branded as unacceptable by Hitler and persecuted by the nazis until they’d fled or were imprisoned.

The Third Reich actually ran a national exhibition, the Entartete Kunst, to display these modernist works and explain to the German people why they were evil.

Funnily enough, Feibusch’s work was significantly more conventional and conservative than the others, so he was probably just included because of his Jewish heritage.

Feibusch escaped to Britain, settled here and after the war he forged a successful career as a large-scale church muralist.

The birthday party was a highbrow affair in a suite at the Royal Academy. To mark his centenary, a gallery outside London – in Chichester I think – was holding a major retrospective and displaying his entire studio, which he’d bequeathed them, so it was clear these nobs all held him in very high regard.

Most vividly I remember a huge eye-watering cheeseboard that left the rich odour of posh soft cheese wafting around the RA corridors.

Something in the paintings got me as well, much more than usual. Sacred and epochal, looking at them was like seeing ancient artworks fresh, without the ageing or weathering process.

Various art world luminaries spoke on Feibusch’s importance. However, the artist himself, physically frail under blankets in a wheelchair yet spiritually vital and engaged, started to get annoyed with all the praise and began crying: “Enough! Enough!”

It was a funny, embarrassing moment. Various self-important critics and curators seemed dismayed at having their planned slavish speeches heckled by the subject.

Later in the evening I got to shake his hand.

“Honoured to meet you. These paintings are amazing,” I told him.

“I only came for the booze,” he replied.

Two weeks later I was wandering around Tate Britain on my own when I noticed a small painting of Feibusch’s, hung alone on some wall space in the main hall. I recognised it straight away.

Looking closer, underneath was a small plaque – it had been temporarily hung in memory of him.

It turned out that he’d died, aged 99, a few days after the party and a few days shy of his actual 100th birthday. I can still remember how strong the stomach punch felt.

For me, Feibusch became one of those slippery characters who may only intersect with your life for the briefest moment, yet quietly have a huge effect on it.

Not his work so much, nor the event, but just this fiery little old man who’d lost none of his sharpness and wasn’t having any sycophancy rolled out in his honour.

A year or two later, I tried to look him up online, but something weird happened. Somehow I couldn’t find any reference to him or any of his work.

I searched and searched. I’d split up from the girl and, when I asked her about it, she resolutely failed to remember Feibusch or that particular private view. There had been a lot of them.

Meanwhile, absolutely nothing popped up online. Nobody anywhere had any reference to Feibusch. I genuinely started to believe I’d invented or dreamed the whole thing.

Then months, maybe years later, one day it clicked in my mind and the mystery was solved.

It was the tiniest thing – all the time, I’d been spelling his name “Weibusch” or trying versions like “Veibusch” or “Wiebush” as alternatives. The spelling I’d not tried was “Feibusch.”

Hans Feibusch is all over the internet. He was real. Look him up – he’s no Banksy or Emin, the kids won’t ever wear him on a T-shirt, but his work will always be quietly wonderful.

Column #45

Capitalism almost collapses, causing untold hurt to millions and leaving the government to clumsily pick up the piecees. The global fraud of big business is exposed and in response, voters swing to the right whenever we get near a ballot-box.

Hello?

Sadly, there’s a simple yet heartbreaking explanation for the self-defeating, illogical behaviour by the good people of Europe – the media. And it’s getting dangerous.

I know it’s a liberal comedy staple to attack the Daily Mail and its ilk, giving it almost the sense of a soft target. But I think we need to get seriously, aggressively and directly on their arses, right now.

It is becoming crystal clear that the relationship between these tabloids’ school of morally bankrupt, misinforming, divide-and-rule press and our wider society is not fit for purpose and does little public good.

Let alone their bullying hold over other important institutions such as government, law and the “better” media such as the BBC. Wracked with utterly ludicrous “compliance” issues all around, the situation is having a significant negative effect on Britain’s state of soul.

Hilariously, amid the carnage of Labour’s most desperate ever Cabinet reshuffle, with ministers jumping ashore left, right and centre, Gordon Brown has hired comedy television bogeyman and all-round twit Alan Sugar as an enterprise tsar and announced that the man will get a peerage.

How can news services within the BBC possibly respond objectively to this idiocy, when he is so deeply embedded in the organisation like a successful, high-profile veruca? How can they speak the truth about the inherent myth within the appointment, when they themselves built that myth in the first place, as the kingsize bed for an entertainment show that fetishises a semi-fictional version of him?

The man’s publicly expressed concept of modern business is pure comedy, having absolutely nothing in common with even shallow new Labour lipservice to community and social responsibilities.

It shouldn’t even need to be said, because he’s just the guy from a Brentford high-rise choosing between a bunch of venal freaks on a reality show.

That is, until Brown’s fat-headed policy wonks misread the British peoples’ interest in the show on such fundamental levels that they actually recruited the old goat.

But even thinking along such lowbrow lines, any member of the Dragons’ Den team, for example, would’ve been a weightier, more logical and constructive pick for an enterprise tsar.

They deal with real, varied enterprise and innovation. They offer real entrepreneurial mentorship. And at least their pumped-up acumen has occasional social conscience and Evan Davies to offset the nut-jobs.

Beyond individual examples, beyond even the Telegraph’s strategic triumph on MPs’ expenses, the whole media has become far too politically and socially powerful, at the same time that it has got economically desperate.

In last week’s European elections, only one British party scored a significant increase in the percentage of people voting for it – the Green Party.

This has been barely touched upon in domestic coverage, where the lion’s share of political debate time was spent on self-indulgent faux hand-wringing over the supposed “rise” of the BNP.

Never mind that the racists hardly increased their vote share at all. Nor did UKIP for that matter. Nobody got even 2 per cent more support, except for the Greens. Everyone stayed approximately the same, apart from poor old Labour and its almost 10 per cent collapse in support.

It’s easy to read widely published statistics. However, if your ears are ringing from a thousand correspondents telling a different story, and you’ve been overwhelmingly dis-incentivised to untangle anything for yourself, how are you supposed to filter that out?

I had a conversation today about sex education and discovered that the primary reason decent programmes can’t be implemented in Britain – despite them having proven to be massively successful at reducing young pregnancy in, say, Scandinavia – is the fear of the immoral majority, directed and misinformed by these newspapers and media sources.

This is yet another compliance-style imposition on real lives, disguised as journalism, information sharing or free speech.

Right, so the damage that these outlets are doing is immeasurable and edges towards permanence, even as they simultaneously look more and more precarious.

I seriously propose an all-out assault on the owners of these corporations, after careful strategic planning, using every trick in the current non-violent direct action book.

Anything short of violence is acceptable in this.

I declare war, because it is a war for the very soul of this great country.

We don’t need small-time protest and kneejerk swearing or debate. Those days are gone.

We need every tool in the social media, underground resistance and cultural confrontation toolkit to literally ruin these cruel bastards and take down their empires – before it’s too late.

COLUMN #44

My 44th column was spiked by the Morning Star editor. It was a pro-LSD piece and you can find it on the main blog.

COLUMN #43

Is this what we get as the financial crisis is compounded by the political one? A parliament split between comedy far-right nutters, localised single-issue independents, a few noble Greens and, far more terrifying than the BNP, a clutch of preening celebrities?

Wherever Esther Rantzen goes, she finds enormous street-level support for the possibility of her standing as an independent. Originally, she planned to oppose dodge-pot Labour MP Margaret Moran in the Luton South constituency. However, Moran has decided to cut her losses and leg it, so to speak, leaving Rantzen less sure where – or whether – she will run.

On Radio 4’s Any Questions broadcast from Totnes, where they’re also putting up with an expenses-guzzling MP, the live audience was overwhelmingly, stridently in favour of Rantzen fighting for the seat down there instead.

It has little to do with her personal politics – or lack thereof. She is defined by two things. Her national recognition and what she is opposing. Because the discussion was almost entirely taken up with the issue of expenses, she had little need or opportunity to give any views. The one time she gave an actual opinion, she just puffed up in inane populist defence of the Queen.

Then there is Joanna Lumley’s unlikely rise to become the closest thing we’ve got in Britain to a Barack Obama. Her graceful refusal to dive further into politics herself, coupled with an endorsement of the Greens on Jonathan Ross’s chat show, has given that party a huge boost for Thursday’s elections.

Without proselytising beyond her original cause, Lumley quietly reminded everyone out in mainstream-land that there is a “decent” small party out there not run by neofascist donkeys. And she walked away with her soul intact.

One big problem, yet again, is the myth of meritocracy. It’s far too easy to forget, amid the spin, airbrush and flannel, that famous people aren’t the “best” people just because we’ve heard of them.

Nowadays, they needn’t even be successful at anything at all, since we fetishised the voyeurism of troubled lives and turned that into a career in the public eye.

Worse, the more likely a celeb is to have the spare time or power-hungry inclination to run for Parliament, the more likely they are to be a complete self-serving moron. The famous people who might actually do some good in there are the ones too busy, too humble or too intelligent to go anywhere near it.

In other words, Kerry Katona is more likely to stand than Alain de Botton. With a camera crew in tow, an OK! magazine exclusive and a live mental breakdown halfway through the campaign that she blames on Philip Schofield.

Virtually every celebrity in the modern world, be they a movie star, telly presenter, model-turned-actress or even sports star, owes enormous underlying fealty to the owners and bosses of corporate media for giving them fame in the first place.

So any development of this trend will represent a phenomenal, continuing victory for public relations reality over real reality.

Perhaps the worst problem of all, with the exposing of the MPs’ gross criminality, is that it further empowers this corporate media just at the moment when it is throwing all its own morality and ethics out of the window in desperation at collapsing advert revenues.

Complex relationships of dishonesty and favours have grown up over the years, surrounding the public relations of entertainment, arts and media people, until it is simply impossible to “become known” in the modern world without the use of public relations professionals.

Either that or you have to do something nobody else has done or something properly newsworthy, at which point you still have a PR foisted upon you Max Clifford-style in order to negotiate with the editors and keep at bay any rival papers to whom you haven’t sold your exclusives.

Christ, it’s a horrible reality to have a political collapse in.

One worst-case scenario is that Parliament ends up a bit like rehab for the celebrities – it becomes part of any star’s mythical journey from obscurity to enduring fame. Every boy band, homegrown movie or West End play needs someone involved to have done a stint in the House of Commons, serving the interests of “real people.”

It would be a bit like when TV stars do nature documentaries and save some cute marmosets from deforestation.

More disempowered than ever, we’re distracted from our dispirits by the dog and pony show.

COLUMN #42

This week the Collings and Herrin podcast is coming live to my local arthouse cinema – the Duke Of York’s Picturehouse in Brighton, down the end of my road. I can’t wait.

If you haven’t discovered Collings and Herrin yet, it’s a series of spontaneous conversations between broadcaster and author Andrew Collins and stand-up comedian Richard Herring.

They sort of look at current affairs, like one of those reviewing-the-papers segments on news programmes, except it rapidly descends into random chat, with Herring in particular capable of heroic filth.

It’s brilliant – somewhere between Derek and Clive and Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned, though I don’t imagine they’d appreciate the latter comparison.

Anyway, each time I listen, it strikes me how weirdly the battle for morality is being played out in our culture right now.

Fundamentally, the banal mainstream’s ridiculously warped exploitative sense of status and “values” has been carefully dressed up in politeness and family entertainment, while the enlightened fringes are left to guard a firmly grounded moral core, despite extreme humour and foul mouths.

The stand-ups and satirists are rapidly becoming our last guardians of goodness, even as they are forced to defend themselves from the corporate print media’s faux outrage.

Didn’t somebody say you could mark the beginning of the end from when comedians and news journalists swapped roles? More and more, the most reliable current affairs are found on The Daily Show in the US and in Private Eye in Britain. Only the satirists can be trusted.

Meanwhile, deep in the heart of the morally upright, family-oriented mainstream…

The sleight of hand with which Simon Cowell does his “honest appraisal” or “cruel-to-be-kind” schtick smoothly tricks us into forgetting the simple, ugly reason why he’s able to do it in the first place – power. He owns the place. Of course he can speak truth in it.

It is a parallel to the corporatist vision of the owner not just possessing everything but possessing everyone’s values too and overseeing what is regarded as acceptable.

Who are these employees disguised as colleagues? The grand myth of someone like Piers Morgan ribbing Cowell as a fellow judge is exactly that – a grand myth. Morgan knows exactly where his bread is buttered.

Cowell’s oleaginous ilk have done more damage than we can imagine to the popular arts of this land, not so much in devising their acrid new super-cheap kind of television, which is crippling scripted and acted fiction, but more through the creation of a myth that we know how it all works and it is somehow “fair play.”

In truth, we’re more fooled than ever. The carefully constructed rise and fall of one reality “star” after another is even more laughable when attached to the idea that we somehow “picked them out.”

Worse, even the knowing, media-savvy, neoliberal sophisticates among us still inject vast overdoses of Big Brother, The Apprentice, 10 Years Younger and American Idol. We may mock or claim to watch with irony, but we’re still hopelessly addicted and, essentially, we’re participating in the long, slow fall.

Think I’m exaggerating?

Here’s a one-act parable of moral relativism – the sexy dancer gets a lascivious thumbs-up for shaking her booty, then the gothic circus boy gets personally insulted by judges who feign shock and ignorance of his venerable, if minority interest, vaudeville performance.

An audience who enjoyed him earlier dutifully boos when he reappears at the end, having been taught righteousness by indignant judges, one of whom earlier genuinely said: “I can think of two reasons why you should go through to the final,” referring to the dancer’s breasts.

And in the climactic moments, a crying 10-year-old child is left to take the long walk offstage alone, after being knocked out of the competition in a tense final call from the judges.

Despite hosts Ant and Dec being spare parts at that moment, neither of them saw fit to even accompany her.

Forget the paedos, hoodies or malevolent immigrants that the Express types imagine stalk our streets, there’s your British child abuse, played out in front of millions, with Cowell, Holden and Morgan grinning fatly away in the background.

Just one single episode of the Jabba the Hutt palace quagmire that is Britain’s Got Talent, leaving me ashamed even to be sitting in the same room as the TV.

COLUMN #41

There is a fascinating new twice-yearly collaborative journal being planned by publishing house Faber & Faber and record label Domino.

It’s called Loops and it was launched at last week’s Great Escape conference in Brighton, with a heavyweight editorial advisory board and impressive promised contributions from Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood, John Harris, Nick Cave, the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant and many others.

Loops sounds promising on two levels, both as a physical product and as a repository for insight. It’s looking to connect music and literature, providing a home for adventurous and – get this in today’s pithy hypertextualised world – long-form writing.

Creative artists across all disciplines have had a tough time lately with direct communication.

After a history of tightly controlling and rationing their contact with the audience, suddenly now, with social media soaring, they feel a constant intense expectation to dissect, discuss and digress.

The poor things have to comment on and narrate their journey by blogging, using Twitter or by publishing informal photography and film.

Like a GCSE maths student showing the workings-out, their personal process becomes intrinsic and inseparable from the artwork itself.

Meanwhile the consumer – an ugly stolen word in itself – looks at a sculpture or reads a novel and thinks he or she knows how it’s done.

This is a wholly false intimacy, and has appeared thanks to the constant static of reality TV talent shows, studio diaries and YouTubed works in progress.

When social media exploded, I think an already dangerous process became constant – the focus microscopic, the content unedited and the result a destroyed myth. A technology-fuelled version of how unwise it is to meet your heroes or watch a season finale plot-spoiler.

So although Loops will obviously – and rightly – stand or fall on quality rather than any pre-match hyperbole, its starting point is a noble one, bringing back thoughtful commissioning and editorialising into that voyeurism.

If the mag goes easy on the studio diaries and backstage photoshoots, instead letting the creatives just try out a new discipline, then I’ll be there with my subscription fee.

I keep banging on about low-volume, high-quality artisan product as the only kind of physical artwork with a future.

The fine artists and sculptors were right all along. Once mass media needs no physicality at all, the only physical things people choose to pay for will need to be beautiful and rare in their own right.

Another interesting subtext in the press release for Loops is a quiet but distinct dig at public relations itself, with the publishers at pains to avoid the usual rigmarole of focusing on people only when they have something to promote. That was refreshingly candid to read. It left me wondering if we’re about to see a wider creative industry backlash against the relationship between the press office and the content.

For example, if we could just get the few remaining arts TV shows to stop tying themselves to this week’s hype, we’d drastically enrichen their output.

Cultural public relations may essentially be benign, but still, imagine a world where the different cultural sections and magazines gave free reign to whoever their correspondants really liked, rather than those who’ve been pushed hardest by the pluggers and press officers this week, just because they have an exhibition, album, theatre opening or novel to launch. It’d be lovely.

COLUMN #40

You have got to hand it to Radio 1. Its Big Weekend was a perfect example of how major public bodies should handle culture.

It not only kicked the hell out of most commercial festivals on the same scale, but also laid the groundwork for a future model of large-scale, publicly funded popular arts events.

The Big Weekend is an annual music festival hosted by the radio station. It took place in Swindon this year, with an audience of 40,000.

It’s completely free, although people have to get advance tickets.

The organisers went to some effort to stop reselling as well, with eBay agreeing to take down any attempts to tout the tickets.

The main stage bill is aimed at the heart of the young mainstream – some of the biggest pop, R&B and dance chart stars around.

Obviously, music snobs like me turn our noses up at most of the stuff on that stage. But it is put together skilfully to entertain the young crowd, many of whom have probably never been to a “proper” festival before.

And to nail any cross-cultural beef, there are three more stages, one showcasing alternative rising stars across all genres, one focusing on dance music and hosting the more beats-oriented DJs and a third – Huw Stephens’s fantastic Introducing stage – giving exposure to much newer, unsigned acts building up their first live buzz.

Possibly, the Introducing stage is weighted towards acts from the local area because last year’s Big Weekend was in Kent and ace Tunbridge Wells songwriter Tom Williams got a slot.

I’ve mentioned the brand before because Huw Stephens is the closest thing that the Beeb has to a John Peel these days. Under his stewardship, it is fast becoming a mainstay at a number of bigger commercial festivals.

It has established a reputation for finding acts early, although it’s hard to tell how much of that is true talent-spotting and how much is a good relationship with the high-achieving business managers and labels.

For instance, I’ve always been a little bit suss of the hype surrounding Florence And The Machine, who have been much nurtured within the BBC, knowing they are managed by a BBC6 music DJ.

But you can’t legislate for personal encounters and, beyond anything else, Florence is a real talent.

Anyway, the Big Weekend had blanket coverage on the radio and every show was broadcast live from the event.

This meant that the DJs themselves had a big old jolly despite the hard work.

Even some of the smaller aspects of the Big Weekend showed admirable commitment to placing the entire station into a live space.

There’s a weekly personal and medical advice show on R1 called The Surgery and they had a tent where they interviewed stars about their growing pains, alongside a bunch of smaller healing, first-aid and advice-shop tents.

Once you start thinking about it, the extent to which new music is supported by those pesky BBC DJs, even away from their day jobs, is striking.

For example, the brilliant punk specialist Mike Davies, who runs his late night show from Los Angeles, is currently curating the Lock Up stage for the Reading and Leeds festivals.

And Rob da Bank runs his own acclaimed festival brand Bestival on the Isle Of Wight.

While neither of them have the wide-ranging talent-scout remit of Introducing, they’re both supporting the music that they love within the commercial sphere.

It would be interesting to see the Beeb bring those brands in-house, taking them out of the commercial world.

But I imagine that would involve way too much negotiation.

I’ve ragged on the BBC a lot in columns and blogs over recent years, so it was a huge pleasure to find myself really enjoying so much of the coverage.

Regardless of concerns about patronage and the inevitable link between BBC support for a band and its commercial success, once you’re providing such a high level of entertainment to so many people, free of cost, you’re edging towards something truly noble.

Public service, if you will.

You can still watch a lot of the performances online or on the digital TV red button.

COLUMN #39

One of my first columns almost a year ago looked at problems with mixing cultural performers and social campaigning, in live events.

In other words, I moaned about the left-wing campaigning event organisers and promoters, who are, in my experience, so dedicated to their various causes that they struggle with cold logistics and fail to actually organise their events properly.

Some of those chickens came home to roost recently, when Glastonbury Festival decided not to continue hosting the union-affiliated LeftField Stage, instead, I’m told, using the space to expand Emily Eavis’ personally-curated Park Stage.

I’ve met a few LeftField fans and workers angry about the Park Stage, with one describing it the other day as “a home for Emily’s yuppy it-girl mates”.

Yet the harsh truth is, the LeftField was too often a half-empty space over the past few years, especially during the daytime, while the Park has been very busy since its launch and hosted a strong range of (admittedly often trendy London cocaine scenester) stuff.

This is particularly sad because, when it was successful, LeftField was an immensely potent focus for some real campaigning spirit within Glastonbury. Look at the several thousand people gathered to listen to Tony Benn speak, or the joy of the late night acoustic parties.

Organised properly, in particular stepping away from any recent obsession with mainstream celebrity and taking a fresh look at the kind of debate or performance being hosted, it could still be a major force to be reckoned with. I hope it will.

Most of all, I hope Mr Eavis realises what he’s missing, once that focus for the old-school spirit is gone. But houses do need to be put in order.

Next week, yet a-fucking-gain, I’m advertised to appear at a political event I never agreed to play, because the promoters published the lineup before it was confirmed.

And sorry to say this – because it’s a fantastic cause – but The Jail Guitar Doors showcase at South By Southwest festival in Texas last month was virtually the only event I saw across the entire festival that ran significantly behind schedule, causing one performer to finish his show out on the street, after his set was cut ridiculously short.

Perhaps fresh blood is needed at the logistics and event management level. A couple of recent fundraising and political shows I’ve been involved with have been far better curated and organised than my earlier experiences.

Right now, I’m nervously waiting to do a couple of songs at Trafalgar Square for Strangers Into Citizens and – touch wood – so far the organisation has been absolutely dead on, extremely precise and friendly as well.

I think there must be a younger generation of lefty – or at least concerned – bookers, promoters and managers coming out of the universities with fresh energy and focus. They tend to have better taste too!

And that’s the secret of course, that the show runners have to actually be interested first in organising itself, the craft of running a good event, not just obsessed with raising money or awareness for the cause they support.

There’s another more philosophical parallel question that comes to mind though.

Do we really want to place our political spaces – whether they’re full size stages or just stalls – within larger non-political mainstream events? Is this honestly the best way to raise wider awareness?

Sometimes I feel it’s just the safe option. That phrase again: preaching to the converted.

Perhaps ghetto-ising our campaigning stages and stalls is in fact a long-term strategic error for everyone involved.

For artists it means we don’t get booked for the bigger, separate demonstrations and events. We’ve got our cultural spaces, so unless we’re the hugest names with real commercial clout, we get locked out of the ‘real action’ of rallies and gatherings.

Meanwhile, from the punter’s perspective, placing all the socially aware stuff on one stage, in one tent or on a single line of stalls, surely just makes it easier to avoid?

Oddly, it reminds me of the way the British underperform at sports because (until recently) we didn’t resource or train the youngest talents properly.

A more useful long-term approach would be to support and make it more acceptable for artists with political or social views – especially those away from the soft liberal mainstream – to express those views in their work.

In other words, let us in. Don’t get fooled by the careerists who use a veneer of politicisation to add ‘edge’ and smooth their road to stardom. Instead, eshew celebrity altogether and really nurture ‘your own’ artists.

Think about what you’re actually building. It’s not just someone’s pet lefty corner, it’s a vital home.

COLUMN #38

We’ve eaten twice in a Little Chef in the last few days, which is pretty bad (or good) going. I didn’t risk anything ambitious like their Olympic Breakfast, just something on toast and coffee. But without meaning to sound like an endorsement, the chain has noticeably got a load better since last time I went there.

No denying it’s total rubbish in comparison to independent American diners. But when you’re trapped on that desolate little scrub of Alan Partridge-esque no-man’s-land involving a service station and a cheap hotel that doesn’t do breakfast, it’s a relief to find one.

Sadly, the exception to this improvement is the Little Chef branch in Popham, which was famously overhauled for a television show by Heston Blumenthal and has consequently got much, much worse.

One of the things he got rid of, when he reduced the menu to a few items scrawled on a bit of paper, is any kind of realistic veggie option.

In a normal Little Chef the meat -free alternatives are decent. But in Heston’s Folly, ask for a vegetarian breakfast and they’ll offer you macaronie cheese. I’m not joking. Then they’ll laugh nervously and say “Or steak?”

It is possible, after a bit of healthy consumer moaning, to score some off-menu scrambled eggs at full English breakfast prices. But that’s even more annoying because it’s obviously it means they can do it if they try, they’re just being oppressed by the spectre of the celebrity chefgasm.

Well, fuck you Blumenthal.

I used to like the idea of him very much, til he fell Gordon Ramsey-style for the smelly lure of modern b-list TV stardom.

He was that weirdly endearing combination of eccentric baldy boffin and posh food guru. I especially loved it when his sci-fi kitchen gear outfoxed even the food health people.

The first time around, that is, not more recently when loads of people got ill but nobody knows why.

One time, in one of his earliest telly appearances, Blumenthal collaborated with avant garde electronic musician Matthew Herbert to produce an amazing composition, built from found sounds in his kitchen. Herbert recorded all the noises as Blumenthal  prepared one of those bonkers concoctions and then juggled them into something approaching groovy music.

It’s possible I dreamed that, because it seems with hindsight like impossibly wonderful TV. Perhaps it was a kids’ education programme or something.

But come on, how hard is it to have some Cauldron or Linda Mac veggie bangers in a cupboard? What kind of cock-end doesn’t offer a vegetarian breakfast in a roadside caff in the 21st century?

Really, what is it, with TV chefs and meat? Is it really a testosterone thing that drives rugger bugger alpha males like Ramsey to relentlessly kill cute creatures, preferably onscreen in new and dramatic ways?

The arguments about the relative merits of a meat-free lifestyle are stronger than ever, yet mainstream culture seems to be slipping in the opposite direction. More and more, they make a sexy fetish item out of locally sourced and freerange meat, for the bourgousie to bang on about, while sneakily burgering it up every drunk weekend.

I promise, away from this column, I’m not a veggie ranter at all and have no personal problem with the meaties. I’m surrounded by the buggers, many of my closest friends chopping and grinding and gnawing on bones with the best of them.

But I’m genuinely surprised by the lack of any genuine cultural shift away from dead creatures.

Face it, the worldwide meat trade is one of the single biggest contributors to climate change and the fastest, least invasive way a humble individual can reduce personal emissions (ha!) is to go veggie and place ourselves in a more sustainable position on the food chain.

Admittedly, that’s not where I’m at, going for the veggie option at Little Chef!

COLUMN # 37

TALK about being diddled by your own family after you’re dead. Vladimir Nabokov’s incomplete final “novel” is being published by Penguin later this year, against the author’s last wishes.

Before he croaked in the late 1970s, Russian genius Nabokov wrote his last story The Original Of Laura out by hand on to almost 140 note cards.

But it wasn’t finished and he asked that the notes be destroyed on his death.

No such luck. They sat in a bank vault for a few years, accruing value and mythical status, until Nabokov’s son Dimitry took the “emotional” decision to publish them, renegotiating the back catalogue and scoring, um, reportedly, a six-figure sum. Nice work if you can get it.

Penguin’s excitement over this grave robbery extends beyond the single work. They’re also going to release Nabokov’s letters to his wife and a book of unpublished poetry.

Reminds me of the way that deified singer Jeff Buckley had his incomplete works exploited by his mother after he drowned.

She oversaw the release of a pile of demos and half-done tracks that he’d specifically rejected.

Now his posthumous releases, including bucket-loads of often sub-par live archives and early material, drastically outnumber the single album and couple of singles and EPs that came out during his actual career.

You could also point a sceptical finger at JRR Tolkien’s son Christopher, who seems to have got away with some extraordinarily heavy editing and rejigging of his dad’s more oblique and complex Middle Earth-set works, in order to publish readable – profitable – stuff.

Back in Nabokovland, Penguin plans to publish The Original Of Laura as a luxurious, facsimile hardback for about £25, so you’ll get the original handwritten notes on one side of the page and then a more formally printed – and edited? – version on the opposite page.

If I was Nabokov, I’d come back and haunt the crap out of my descendants for eternity.

Also, if I was ever successful enough that a posthumous scouring through my demos and unpublished laundry notes was remotely fiscally worthwhile, I’d be upstairs in the attic burning everything right now.

But you don’t. You sit on rough ideas and interesting demos, even if they’re 90 per cent rubbish, in case there’s a line or sound or idea that’ll prove useful for later use somewhere else. Surely this is the same for most creatives?

Perhaps fine artists are an exception, because, on telly at least, they’re always destroying their work as soon as it’s done, in a fit of creative or sexual pique, like the soft-porn visionary smackhead on Heroes.

But I know very few authors, poets or songwriters who behave like that, even if we’re super-careful about who hears or reads our stuff.

The illegal filesharing debate reached a climax last week with the jailing in Sweden of the Pirate Bay Four who’d been running a worldwide online system for peer-to-peer downloading of music and film.

In a way, there’s a striking parallel between the battle over copyright issues and the decision to publish by Nabokov’s descendents. It’s not so much about money as control.

The filmmakers who made the recent comic book action movie Wolverine were genuinely devastated when an early cut was illegally distributed, not so much because of worries about income but because it didn’t look finished and “spoiled” the movie.

I know creatives who feel very strongly about this issue from both sides of the argument – some who celebrated the Pirate Bay “guilty” verdict and others who felt that it was an injustice based on outmoded ideas about copyright.

Of what value is any kind of protection, if your estate can overturn your wishes after your death?

As I was finishing this column, the sad death of the wonderful British author JG Ballard was announced. Ballard was a visionary of comparable stature to Nabokov.

Among the selfish feelings of guttedness that I’d never get to meet him, I kept thinking: “I really hope that there are finished, approved works out there to extend his repertoire.”

But if not, equally I hope that his executors don’t discover a pile of dodgy half-baked manuscripts in his Shepperton attic and share them with the world.

COLUMN #36

THE other day, someone asked me if I wished this column was a blog so I could include hypertext web links and write in a less formal way. I was surprised how vehement my negative response was.

Even though I usually prefer reading blogs to columns, there is still something precious in being given the chance to write your opinions and stories in the traditional way for print publication.

I get a ton of pleasure from construction differences between the two, such as how carefully thought-out column-writing is compared with sploshing your ideas or stories onto your blog whenever you feel like it.

Right now, fervent debate continues about the merits of traditional “trained” journalism and the rise of amateur blogging as real reportage. There I find myself firmly on the side of the bloggers.

It begins as an argument about truth. Traditional print media stalwarts feel strongly that the journalistic education process instils a set of values that raise the craft above mere writing and research. In their minds it remains a noble art, even today.

The bloggers argue that immediacy is their strength, as well as sheer numbers. And, really, the bloggers win for two reasons. First, “the truth” died in the mainstream media a long time ago and, second, blogs empower the readers and turn them from passive consumers into active editors of the material they receive.

The recent anniversary of the miners’ strike, filtered through the objectivity of distance, reminds us of the horrific extent to which Fleet Street, the secret services and the Thatcher government colluded to destroy a resistance movement. Imagine if we’d had blogging using YouTube, Facebook and Twitter back then.

If you buy a newspaper or magazine, you’re schooled to assume that you will be told the truth, which means you can only be disappointed when they fall short.

But with blogs, you don’t assume truth from the outset, you have a more equal relationship with the writer or website, instead gradually building up trust for the writers you like over a period of time. They stand or fall because you are the active choice-maker.

Meanwhile, the comments board underneath all respectable blogs is like an instant peer review, allowing all readers to contribute to the process. This immediacy of communication, far from harming information flow, actually destroys myths built by the Establishment.

Anyone following last week’s anti-G20 demonstrations will be sharply aware of this process, as the harsher images avoided by TV became extraordinarily widely viewed on the internet and police press releases were written, then withdrawn. Technology-led witness testimony currently outpaces spin, thank God.

Away from hard news, the fight is if anything fiercer, because we’re dealing entirely with opinion. The arts critic is really all but dead, especially in the US.

Before my recent US tour, we did a small media promotional push for my album to get some coverage in time for the shows. But apart from radio DJs, most of the people we sent a CD or download link to were bloggers.

If you take the 100 most influential blogs, they by far outgun the most important traditional print magazines in terms of breaking – or promoting – a new act.

The culture mags shot themselves in the foot by filling their pages with the same 50 names, month in, month out. What began as a grass-roots alternative has become the dominant force.

The future holds dark, dark days for the old idea of journalism, as the mass media faces the extent of its unsustainability. But there are more positive possible outcomes. If anything, the niches are where survival lies.

In many ways a special-interest – particularly a polemicising – newspaper like the Morning Star has a buffer of protection that a much bigger mainstream rival like The Sun hasn’t.

Its “fanbase” may be smaller, but it’s deeper. Most people who read The Express or The Guardian don’t actually give a toss about the paper. They’re habitual rather than devoted. But if someone makes the initial effort to read a smaller, more specific publication, they’re more likely to care – which is why it’s still precious.

COLUMN #35

I wonder if the explosion in digital technology, which is so fundamentally altering the way that people produce and consume culture, will trigger a new era of noble amateurism in the arts.

Despite the grand traditions of amateurism, most professional art forms have always looked down fiercely upon their amateur counterparts.

So self-publishing has always been scorned by the mainstream publishing world, while amateur dramatics groups get completely overlooked by the theatre world. But watch as those barriers are being broken down by the immense broadening of accessibility.

You can find this momentous change in every area of the arts and in every part of the process.

In filmmaking and music, the most talented DIY amateurs are already an established part of the diaspora, however much this may frighten the suits upstairs. They’re able to create entire movies and albums on their laptops and disseminate them instantly.

The audience, in turn, moves away from assuming that professionalism is necessary for quality and heads towards the glorious mess that is amateurism. The snobbery begins to fade. In the exact same way, the untrained bloggers seem to be replacing the print media.

For five years, I’ve been proud to call myself a professional musician or songwriter or whatever it is I do. It’s been my primary trade since 2003 and I thought of it in exactly those terms – a trade.

By contrast, my friends The Broken Family Band, an acclaimed country-tinged indie outfit from Cambridge, have always stuck out from the crowd by remaining a determinedly amateur band, even as they rose to prominence and were made lucrative offers.

Members of the band have decent mainstream jobs, which they enjoy as well as earn from.

So what temptation is there to quit and “go pro?” They already get to tour and make records, they just do it without any of the fiscal stress that shackles so many.

On top of that, they are able to be supremely uncompromising as a band because they don’t owe any loyalty to anybody but themselves.

Across the ailing music industry, people continue to talk up and experiment with what they call the “360 model,” which involves a single company or organisation investing in and controlling every aspect of an artist’s career. So the company is manager and label, while hiring a distributor, a social media expert, a PR person, a live booking agent and so on is deemed necessary in order to “own” the whole career.

But the myth is burst as soon as someone programmes a bit of computer software to cover all that ground. This may sound facetious but is actually happening within the unfolding complexities of social networking systems.

Artists are being given ever-more powerful tools, not only to make their work but to distribute and market it themselves at a grassroots level. And this is where the most effective future for culture lies.

Even when I hear the scary news stories about lay-offs, I find myself thinking that if it happened to me, at least I’d have memories of these years spent doing something creative rather than having just worked my ass off in an office.

So in the face of the recession, it’s worth beginning to think seriously about whether your talent could find an outlet as an amateur, alongside another career. I suspect that people right across the front-line of the cultural industries are thinking the same thing.

The arts business is suffering as much as any industry in the recession, with the added nightmare of having any business model turned on its head every few weeks because of this rolling earthquake of innovation in digital communication.

But it’s important to separate that struggle from any kind of creative failure. People are more creative than ever, across all art forms and in all genres. Don’t let anyone tell you that there’s a dearth of good art, music, literature or theatre. What they’re basically saying is that they’re too daft to find the good stuff.

The business model has failed, not the art.

For the art, we suddenly realise, can exist almost entirely without the business at all.

COLUMN #34

WE are driving back across the New Mexico desert, after spending the weekend at the South By Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas.

I guess Texas is often seen as a forbiddingly conservative place, unwelcoming of liberal, progressive or contemporary culture. Yet for SXSW, which is an overwhelming arts industry festival, Austin takes extraordinary positive action.

They close several central blocks to traffic and allow venues and bands enough free reign to put on blistering shows, while hosting the business part of the festival in the imposing convention centre.

The central area becomes a temporary pedestrian precinct with PA systems blasting live music while thousands of people wander in and out of venues, checking out every different kind of rock ‘n’ roll.

Further away from the central strip, official and unofficial parties of all sizes unfold in garages, galleries, bars and parking lots right across the city and out into the suburbs.

Whether it’s 1,000 kids dancing to hip hop in a vacant lot or 150 ageing country-rock fans enjoying a grizzled treat in a tiny club, everyone is on board.

This level of support from the community and the authorities, for what is essentially a grimy, loud and stinky rock festival in the middle of their town, is beyond impressive.

One key point is that the music is loud, as God intended music to be. Compare that to our own damp Reading Festival.

Despite being one of Reading’s biggest tourist draws, the noise restrictions are obscene and the amount of control exerted over paying punters by local authorities is ludicrous.

Across Britain, even in the most liberal and progressive areas, contemporary and street-level cultural events take place amid a state of suspicion, careful negotiation or even conflict with local authorities. Snobbery and quangoism are rife among administrators.

Responsibility for putting on the arts is given to far too small a clique of people whose brains are caught up in government bureaucracy and the deranged fetishisation of “health and safety.”

It’s particularly dismaying to see the rules governing live music performance being constantly niggled at and becoming far more complicated and restrictive, even as the industry is squeezed by economic problems.

We’ve tightened up who can perform, when and where. We single out the live music aspect of any event as the toughest bit to get a licence for, which discourages venues and promoters from working with bands. We don’t protect ticket buyers from monopolies or touting. We shut down legal, well-organised events enjoyed by hundreds of people because of a single complaint about noise.

We’ve even got police departments making promoters fill in forms to say what type of music will be played, in an attempt to weed out and restrict the genres they find threatening – yup, racial profiling in disguise.

Getting to be a part of SXSW brought sharply home to me quite how anti-culture and, in particular, anti-music the current Labour government is. Of course, there’s no scope for improvement if Cameron’s dastardly Tories get in.

If it’s not a long-standing festival built around the high arts, you’ve got no chance.

Listen, if a bunch of Texans are happy to allow literally thousands of bands to converge upon their town and rock it to the core, perhaps it shouldn’t be impossible for the home counties.

The best British event modelled on SXSW is Brighton’s Great Escape. We had a superb time playing it last year. But they’re still having to jump through a multitude of hoops to get anything sorted.

We were playing in a venue down on the seafront but couldn’t get the gate opened to transport our equipment along the front.

While several bands struggled to carry their gear by hand to the venue, two fishermen were able to open the same gate to drive their van away.

They had been given access keys, while the organisers of one of Britain’s biggest arts industry events hadn’t.

COLUMN #33

I’M writing this in bed in a friend’s house after a gig in San Francisco and it’s been an intense few days, driving and flying all over the place, culminating in a scary experience with US customs at Los Angeles LAX airport.

Apart from anything else, two or three incidents have left me feeling uncomfortable about the moral ambiguity I usually enjoy in my own – as well as others’ – material.

Before flying to the US, I’d been in Northern Ireland and then on the Isle of Man, playing a few small shows and hooking up with old friends.

Playing in Northern Ireland always forces me to consciously re-examine the core issues in a few of my songs, even at the same moment as I’m singing them.

Most of the inspiration for my political material, especially the terrorism and anti-war stuff, comes from the Middle East or south America, where I’ve never had the chance to play any gigs.

Meanwhile, the much closer to home struggle and eventual peace process in Northern Ireland has barely impinged on me as a cultural influence, growing up in comfortable southern England. The bombs were on TV somewhere far away, just like they are now.

So it’s only when I get to these sweaty little indie clubs in Derry or Belfast that I’m faced with an audience who have a much more direct experience of the implications within some of my lyrics.

What that causes is a rare moment of reaching back inside a song already sung 1,000 times to find the new inflection or angle.

Arriving home a few days later, I felt physically sick, discovering that people had committed murder again there.

I know it’s completely unconnected, but I can’t help but think about singing This Gun Is Not A Gun – a pile of ambiguities – to a crowd of kids who grew up with violence all around them.

The next morning, I accidentally put my brand new passport in the washing machine, running it right through a delicates cycle in the pocket of a hoodie.

Operating in a state of blind panic, I dried it out with pieces of paper between every page to stop them sticking, leaving it with a weight on top to dry it out flat.

Then I took it into the passport office in Victoria where I checked the biometric chip ‘n’ pin thing was still working by running it through one of their machines.

Despite looking bedraggled, my passport worked fine and, with no problems at British end at all, I got on the plane.

However, in Los Angeles, they took one look at this weird worn out passport with a January 09 start date and frogmarched me suspiciously into an isolated, guarded second room.

Glum-faced Virgin Atlantic staff brought my luggage over and suggested I come to see them when I was done, at which point I lost all hope of making it into the country.

I was especially stressed about being put straight on a flight back home, having just spent 11 hours on the plane.

Luckily, the background check proved I was who I said I was and really had just updated my passport, rather than actually being an evil terrorist travelling using forged documents.

This whole incident – and playing in the US at all – triggered similar lyric-based discomforting thoughts about taking an amoral or opaque position when writing about violence.

Like civilians in Belfast, these customs officers are on a real front line against terrorists, regardless of how much sleight of hand there is in the security regulations or where the true political responsibilities lie for terrorism.

These people go to work knowing they might, just might, have to fight off a nutjob with a bomb.

I can’t have my cake and eat it. People are there to be challenged, not patted on the head, so either I’m going to enjoy the moral ambiguity and test the boundaries or I shouldn’t bother. But I can’t get all gooey when I’m face to face with the subject matter.

COLUMN #32

I REALLY love swearing. I also usually find myself thinking slightly less of someone if they are disturbed by swear words.

It’s not deliberate. I’m sure many perfectly nice, gentle people don’t like swearing, but I can’t help it.

Not liking a curse has a whiff of prudery or self-flagellation. But, rather than associating that with a “good” kind of earthy Protestant humility, I tend to associate it with self-indulgent, inward-looking small-mindedness.

The same part of the brain that reacts against swearing is the part that gives birth to homophobia or fear of the people in the next village.

I think the bigot gene and the doesn’t-like-the-F-word gene are identical.

Yet, if we really did rid ourselves of that subtle bigotry and became linguistically enlightened, perhaps the power of those words would vanish.

It’s a magical balance between being able to say a word while allowing it to somehow retain greater potency than it should because of the taboo.

It’s wonderful and if it vanishes conversation won’t be half as fun.

One argument against swearing is that it somehow narrows the vocabulary or makes the user appear less erudite.

Rubbish!

The opposite is obviously true.

Restricting oneself from using certain words is the very definition of narrowing your vocabulary.

People don’t replace other words with swear words. The curse is an insertion into a sentence, not a substitute, except for in the case of what are useless “expansion words” anyway.

Writing this today, I included an F-word in the first sentence. It was excellent to start with such a simple, timeless, foul-mouthed epithet. It was poetic.

But because the piece, by necessity, requires either many swear words or none at all – and I’ve gone with the latter – I had to censor myself, replacing it with the infinitely weaker word “really.”

This, without question, dramatically reduced the sentence’s nuanced power.

Although anti-swearers may argue that calling someone a rude name allows the assailant to avoid explaining how they have been wronged, this is also a misdirection.

Rude names and swear words, despite overlapping, are entirely different parts of language.

By swearing at something or somebody, one flags up the problem. Again, the curse is a preface, not a replacement for language.

What are the people who moan about swearing in the media doing with their time? How about focusing on poverty, injustice or inequality instead?

“Nah, somebody called someone a C-word on the radio. I’m writing an email to complain!”

The only valid argument against cursing that I’ve heard is Kurt Vonnegut’s suggestion that it gives people an excuse not to listen. But those are just tactics, not morals.

Ultimately, being offended is a conscious decision, a kind of emotional fraud.

Of course, people can be stung or hurt by nasty comments or insults.

But that’s different from “taking offence” at a word, regardless of context or intent.

I guess the exception is racist swear words, where the vicious history of prejudice is fresh enough to give those words actual power.

But to be honest, in the quiet of the night, I love some race-based swearing too.

Of course, when you hear the N-word in daily life, it’s shocking and feels utterly wrong.

Yet, when you hear a bunch of people shouting it on a brilliant hip hop record or in a cool movie, it can be exhilarating and empowering. Context is all.

Carol Thatcher is an idiot, Jay-Z is a genius.

Bob Dylan’s navigation of race in Hurricane would’ve been crippled without the racist words – placed firmly in quotation marks.

Layered taboos around those words indicate a gradual, uncomfortable and ongoing process of eradicating prejudice.

But that’s not mere “offence,” it is real hurt with a weight of oppression behind it.

The sheer idiocy of fetishising a word by oppressing it is highlighted by the adoption of fictional swear words on TV programmes, such as “smeghead” in Red Dwarf, “feck!” in Father Ted and more recently the memetic “frak” in Battlestar Galactica.

Every possible F-word combo has been “frakised” for mainstream viewing – “motherfrakker!” is particularly creative – and it’s even caught on in other US TV shows, directly referencing the hit sci-fi series.

So will “frak” gradually become taboo over time because of the context, even though it has never been rooted in a “rude” idea?

That would be hilarious and, unfortunately, it would come as no surprise.

The prudes are probably already there, complaining about an invented word and trying to put the jack back in the box.

COLUMN #31

With a “landmark” new album coming out by one of the world’s biggest bands, the music industry, with painful inevitability, does a particularly daft thing.

It gets all collectively stressed-out, determined to “interpret” the release as some kind of mad cipher for assessing the state of the business as a whole. Without actually listening to it, of course.

So it is with the new U2 record No Line On The Horizon. Producer Brian Eno is a master at making boring music sound so beautiful that you don’t realise how boring it is until it’s too late and you’ve spent your money. Sadly, this is the case here, because the band forgot to write any songs.

My subjective opinion doesn’t matter, though, when we’re on the coalface of the industry’s continued quest to know whether it has a future. Reviews be damned, we get the massive public relations push, leading straight to…

How on earth has the BBC got away with this much U2 coverage? Don’t get me wrong, I like U2 – they’ve made absolutely corking albums and reinvented the live stadium rock show in the early ’90s.

But what we’ve had thrown at us across telly and radio since last week has been too much and surely self-defeating.

Even before overwhelming blanket coverage kicked off across the music programming, they’d used large chunks of the “culture” output to air several identical interviews with the band hosted in their rehearsal studio, where they gave each reporter the same “exclusive” listen to new material played badly in a small room.

On Radio 4’s Front Row, BBC2’s Culture Show and on the BBC arts news website, you could hear Bono often slipping into exactly the same sentences in answer to exactly the same questions.

The first time around, I was at least slightly interested in drummer Larry Mullen’s discomfort with Bono’s political campaigning, although he didn’t give away any specifics or let us know his own opinions. The second and third time around he followed the same path and I was reaching for the off switch.

Meanwhile, snippets of single Get On Your Boots became the soundtrack to various moments of unrelated BBC action a suspiciously stinky number of times.

Then came the real explosion – a dizzying wealth of Bono-shaped excess across the music stations and entertainment programmes. Chris Moyles’s breakfast show and Jo Whiley’s live lounge on Radio 1 and a multitude of others. Friday Night With Jonathan Ross on BBC1. They even played on the roof of broadcasting house in London, getting news coverage as well as more space on the music channels.

They probably showed up in the Night Garden.

At what point does some policy wonk – someone in a position to think about these things – scratch their head and consider whether this is too much coverage to promote one band? As a punter, it honestly made me wonder whether money had changed hands.

By the end of the week, there were three different U2 news stories on the front page of the BBC entertainment news web page, with at least one of them – BBC-related of course – on the front page of the national news.

Now of course, a new U2 album is a key event in the year’s cultural calendar. It’s their first for five years and, more importantly for those industry bods I mentioned earlier, their first since we shifted irrevocably away from punters buying CDs in shops and towards people consuming their music online.

But the idea that this can be seen as a marker to the survival of worldwide CD sales or legal music purchasing or anything else is ridiculous – the global downturn erases any realistic business comparison.

Added to which, U2 are an old band being pushed like mad across the networks that are, at the same time, trying to young-down their audience demographics.

It’s therefore a mistake that could only have come from on high, where the senior boffs have enormous residual love for and connection with this veteran band.

The potential for a counter-productive backlash is obvious – I bet I’m not the only person who went from quite enjoying Get On Your Boots to being thoroughly sick of it popping up in ridiculous corners of the BBC.

Somebody needs to draw a line, before we’re devoting whole columns to them in the Morning Star.

 

COLUMN #30

IT’S interesting how an in-depth interview, particularly on radio, can completely alter the way we view someone.

This contrasts with the more common PR feeding frenzy, where a shallow, carefully controlled layer of information about stars or artists is cast as widely as possible in the name of promotion.

Television interviews, even the good ones, are still more of a performance. We’re looking and they’re promoting, instead of witnessing a real conversation.

This week, two lengthy radio interviews shifted my opinion, in opposite directions, about Morrissey and Little Britain’s David Walliams.

First, Morrissey was off on the promotional hayride again, energetically plugging his Years Of Refusal album and, while the glare of the media spotlight told us nothing new, one interview on Radio 4’s Front Row rubbed the veneer off.

When asked why he lives abroad and avoids Britain, Morrissey responded with an extended moan about taxation. An oddly open and shockingly reactionary response, particularly given all the other things he could’ve mentioned first.

More importantly, while he clearly and categorically denies racism – he’s made donations to Love Music Hate Racism and is in the middle of a legal dispute with NME over the issue – his ill-expressed and unclear views on his own discomfort with modern, by which I mean multicultural, Britain do give considerable pause.

This was no soundbite. He was given ample opportunity to simply state his views, yet I switched off the programme 20 minutes later none the wiser and deeply suspicious.

Actually, the first disconcerting thing about that interview was the sheer surprise of hearing Morrissey’s speaking voice. I realised that I’d never ever heard him speak at normal – ie non-gig – volume before. Cripes.

I had always felt instinctively on his side – that he had every right to remain a silent witness to his own material, allowing the grey areas in his lyrical content to stand alone.

Even in previous controversies where people have had problems with reading his views on race, such as when the band Cornershop challenged him in the early ’90s, I remained unsure.

Partly this was because I share his stance on animal rights and it’s rare enough to have a big name expressing those views. Also, in terms of making great art or writing great songs, it shouldn’t have to be black and white.

But, if you’re going to ride that train, you need to know where to get off. And now, if he can happily whine about taxes, while not being willing to express what are clearly conservative views about immigration and English culture, it seems distinctly weak.

Anyway, his “good-song-per-album” ratio just isn’t high enough to justify the tripe.

Of course, I’m not accusing him of racism. I’m accusing him of having views on immigration that differ from mine and, because of an awareness that the progressive ethical tide isn’t with him, being too damn cowardly to put them out there.

In stark contrast was Walliams’s Desert Island Discs appearance last week.

I have always imagined Walliams as a sexually ambiguous party-boy comic and a bit of a bully.

Little Britain itself often veers into cruelty and his shorter TV interviews are always just prattles.

Yet it only takes one decent radio interview to throw all that out. I realised that I’d been fooled by his characters and the media’s portrayal of him. Instead, we met a complex, thoughtful man whom I rather liked.

His startlingly honest reflections on not finding a girlfriend since he’s been famous rang true and, at the same time, totally jarred with the tabloid view of him as a lothario.

I wonder how different my response would’ve been if Kirsty Young had actually asked him about his views on multiculturalism, taxation or immigration.

For all I know, he’s a right-wing bastard. However, because he wasn’t asked – and was disarmingly honest about everything that he was asked – Walliams came out smelling of roses.

But here’s the real mitigation process and the true reason why I suddenly like Walliams – he had some of the most majestic picks ever for his desert island discs, not only, coincidentally, including a Smiths song but also Nick Cave’s unbearably beautiful Into Your Arms.

As happens so often, music taste wins the day.

COLUMN #29

THOUGHT I was well ahead of the game when I flagged up internet micro-blogging tool Twitter for you a few weeks ago. I thought smugly that perhaps it would gradually catch on over the next few months, eventually making me look prescient and techno-savvy.

Instead, literally a few days later, Twitter exploded into the heart of the unwilling mainstream thanks to the mighty combined cultural weight of keen new users Stephen Fry, Jonathan Ross and Phillip Schofield. Now it’s just annoying.

So I don’t know why I’m doing this but … here’s another one.

It’s called Spotify and it’s a music player that allows you to instantly tap into an almost infinite database of commercially available music. People are calling it God’s iTunes. Spotify puts a user-friendly front end onto streaming tunes, where you can play a track but it is digitally housed somewhere else. It has a design like iTunes, so feels simple, familiar and welcoming to use, yet your “music library” isn’t yours, it’s a common, shared library.

You can then stream any song you like, any whole album you like or build a playlist from this enormous resource.

Currently free to invited users or available with a monthly subscription, Spotify is legal and funds itself – for free users – through advertising. So, if you’ve been listening for a while, you’ll get an advert break, which is slightly odd but currently inoffensive, with ads for the Energy Saving Trust, the Kate Winslett film Revolutionary Road and DEC’s Gaza appeal. I’m not sure I’d feel as enthusiastic if the ads were for the Daily Mail, BP or Celebrity Wife Swap but, until then, they’re getting the benefit of the doubt because, vitally, the system also means that artists like me are actually being paid a royalty when you play our tracks.

Although Spotify currently runs as a beta test version, it has revolutionised how I listen to music because I was already listening mostly through my computer. So now, even if I want to listen to something I already own on CD, I’m more likely to type it into the search box than run upstairs for the disc.

There’s a wider positive point to be made about this kind of system and the need to popularise streaming, rather than downloading. It is arguably nothing less than the light at the end of the digital revolution tunnel, the means by which people will get back into the rhythm of actually paying for their music, film and TV.

For the first time, in my experience at least, it makes streaming a more user-friendly method of playing music than downloading and, as such, makes a massive socialising leap away from personal ownership of the actual digital track. Imagine having access to all existing audiovisual culture just by typing its name into a search engine.

Imagine being able to watch any episode of any television programme or any movie through history this way – and paying for it either by a single national licence like the TV licence, a subscription or by accepting some adverts. As long as the system is easy to use, it will inevitably out-compete the slow, unwieldy illegal downloading systems, such as peer-to-peer bit torrent, that people have been erring towards and, as such, marks a move – thank God! – toward arts-makers getting a fair royalty.

On a political level, it can even work within a truly socialised model, whereby everyone pays for access through taxation and artists are nationally subsidised to provide content.

Obviously, that’s some kind of crazy leftist utopia, but it’s a bloody lovely idea. Right up my street, anyway.

And on a fiscal level, right now I’m getting paid royalities for people listening to my songs again, after a terrifying period where they just downloaded them illegally for nothing.

Optimistic thought for the week.

COLUMN #28

GREG Dyke just did a fascinating report about US subscriber television channel HBO for a recent edition of BBC2’s Culture Show.

Dyke has popped up several times over the last fortnight. He was excellent on Any Questions last week. His PR team must be in overdrive for some reason – perhaps he’s got a new book out soon.

Anyway, Dyke looked at how HBO bosses use their status as a subscriber-only channel to give their creative teams unprecedented – and, most importantly, hands-off – support and freedom. This approach has resulted in some of the most groundbreaking TV, like Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Wire, even Sex And The City. I know what you’re thinking, but it cut some sharp edges when it started. Remember the incredible early episode about the art exhibition full of c-words? Talk about reclaiming a word.

The HBO brand has now become elevated to one of the most revered in the world. HBO has arguably rewritten the language of television itself, in the same way that I always insist The Wire writers David Simon and Ed Burns have had a real, long-term effect on scripting.

It’s not just that HBO has no censorship issues, though that helps. It’s also that it can allow programmes to be a “small” success or define “success” in terms of its own standards of excellence, rather than viewer numbers. The trick is, by funding itself by subscription, it has ruled the advertisers out, which is a rare treat in the uber-corporate US TV model.

According to Dyke, HBO gets £2 billion from its 30 million subscribers, while the BBC gets £3 billion from the British public through the licence fee.

In passing, Dyke imagined a future BBC modelled on HBO. Now this is a fantastic idea, if only in terms of a future relationship between commissioners and individual programme-makers.

As regular readers will know, I’m constantly finding fault with BBC for moral complacency, programming and all sorts of aspects of its work. And yet, so are the idiots on the right, with the corporation under almost constant attack from the kind of bigots, scared wonks and moral regressives who find succour in a Daily Mail or Express kind of “morality.”

Worse, some of that lot have a vested interest in actually bringing the BBC down because they’re technically competitors. So it’s important that we – and they – don’t forget the enormous good that the BBC does, day in, day out, with the World Service, local radio, kids’ programming and the rest. What if certain parts of the future shape of the BBC were to become subscriber-only, but that subscription was included in the licence fee? Suddenly we’d all see the value in the fee, instead of whining about it. For a start, they could make the brilliant computer-based “BBC iPlayer” available worldwide, with a subscription attached.

Then when you buy your TV licence, you get a unique user code that gives you access to the iPlayer anywhere. British licence payers would get worldwide access, such as when we’re on holiday, while other people around the world could subscribe. Surely there’d be a massive foreign take-up for iPlayer at a reasonable subscription fee. Certainly, my US friends are often frustrated that they can’t use it, especially just after Dr Who has been on in Britain.

It’s also the BBC’s single most future-compatible method of broadcast.

The key HBO point, though, is that programme quality is paramount. It has proved that there are immediate and tangible benefits when released from the yoke of the advertisers and sponsors. Take commerce out of the equation, rather than, as so many current solutions for the BBC desperately suggest, putting it back in. Secondarily, I think it would be awesome if, regardless of whatever else happens across the network, the BBC were to trial a separate subscriber channel run on the HBO model, where it could specifically invest in a small number of high-budget, high-quality programmes.

These could still filter through to “free” BBC channels – and eventually syndicate worldwide like any TV show – but, of course, only months after the subscribers had seen them.

Surely it’s worth a try, like BBC4 with money? Perhaps Dyke should run it. Oh, perhaps that’s what’s already going on.

COLUMN #27

“There are family bores and there are football bores. But there’s no bore like a Bruce bore” Julie Burchill

MY all-time musical hero is Bruce Springsteen, who released his latest album Working On A Dream last week.

I’ve loved him since I was small, when my dad made me listen to a live cassette. I stopped wanting to be a spy and started writing songs.

Recently, I’ve been considering how much influence he’s had on my political and social views. Certainly, if Springsteen does something I don’t wholeheartedly approve of, it makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Despite being nearly 60 and, unlike every other rock superstar of that generation still treading the boards, Springsteen’s creativity is at a high point.

His profile is also at a 20-year peak, especially in the States, where he was the half-time entertainment at Sunday’s Superbowl, was a core part of Barack Obama’s inaugural celebrations and just announced a new world tour. He’d turned down the Superbowl gig for 25 years, so it makes me wonder why he felt it was worth doing when he’s already enjoying a fat purple patch.

Last year, Springsteen jumped on board the Obama express quite early on, first with an effusive endorsement and then by playing at massive rallies in the final weeks of campaigning.

He read a prepared speech and did a beautiful rendition of Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land, which was a sharp reminder of how powerful and relevant old-fashioned protest singing can still be, if campaigning people would only let us in the door! That, alongside the inauguration, jumped the Boss right back into the heart of US mainstream attention. Not that he had strayed far.

It’s noteworthy because he had every reason to avoid involvement like the plague, wherever his personal allegiances lay. Until 2004, Springsteen had steered clear of overt party politics, preferring to let the songs tell their own tales.
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Then, when he finally got involved, investing immense effort into the Vote For Change tour with REM in support of John Kerry, well, you know what happened there. So I was surprised he came out so fast and so openly for Obama.

On the other hand, a couple of recent Springsteen moments have been distinctly disconcerting.

His band recently played their first fully sponsored show, a huge gathering for Harley-Davidson. In Springsteen’s defence, he’s obviously a fan and user of Harleys, a US icon, so there’s at least a real relationship there. But it still made me think.

And supermarket chain Wal-Mart has been allowed to release an exclusive best-of. Given Springsteen’s union-supporting connections and worker-friendly history, it’s a particularly odd hook-up. But again, the blow is softened.

Springsteen’s camp didn’t promote or even endorse the product, making it clear it was the record company’s choice. Reacting to fans’ concerns, Springsteen even apologised in the New York Times for allowing the deal to happen.

Loyalty defeats scepticism. Instead of worrying about ethics, it raises questions about an artist of this calibre and experience, still working within the confines of the traditional major record label system at this rejuvenated point in his career. They still need to sell container-loads of CDs (remember them?) in the world of the dodgy download. It will be interesting to see if there’s more to come, to make the more strongly left-leaning Bruce lovers sweat a bit.

But forget all that for now. For fans like me, there’s the chance he’ll headline Glastonbury this summer. Imagine! Two things will make my 2009 – he gets booked and so do I, a two-out-of-two that will be the best thing ever in T-T land.

COLUMN #26

I’ve been invited to play South By Southwest, which is a schmoozy annual music industry festival in Texas in March. It’s well exciting – a big deal for independent artists and a major career-broadening opportunity. For me, it’s a real chance to find a good US agent or publisher. Even better, two or three of the cooler hosts running unofficial showcase parties have also asked me to play, making the four-day trip a valuable chunk of my plan for 2009.

South By Southwest is four days of insane music and partying all rolled into one splurge. There will be bands from all over the world, from new young hypes to established stars, to off-kilter heroes from the more obscure genres.

There will be industry speakers and debates of the highest calibre, thrashing out the dark future of my strange trade. Everyone’s on the make and everyone has a ball.

Mind you, against my better judgement, I went to the PRS Foundation and applied to its “playing abroad” scheme. The PRS is the songwriter royalties collecting society which I belong to and it runs awards bursaries funded by the National Lottery. Of course, it turned me down with a standard letter explaining that there was high demand for the scheme and it was very sorry, but it couldn’t enter into personal correspondence about the reasons for the rejection.

That didn’t stop me sending a bitchy letter back highlighting all the big-selling major label hype acts that it had funded in previous years who hadn’t needed the cash. With the benefit of distance, however, I’m quite relieved that it didn’t stump up and put me in moral hock to the world of public arts funding. I’ve never applied before because I’ve always been too concerned about fitting into someone else’s remit of what my art is.

I did once go on a poetry and music tour promoted by a publicly funded body and the result was exactly as I both expected and feared. It was one of the most comfortable, well-paid tours I’ve done, with great opportunity to collaborate with interesting artists. So, in artistic terms, it was a success. But none of the venues had any pressure to sell tickets or publicise the event, because everybody got paid regardless of how many people showed up.

So, despite a couple of much bigger names than me on board, not many people came. Half the time, venues didn’t even bother with a poster.

I always think that, when we’re making a decision that might involve getting some cash, we have to ask ourselves a question: would we do this if we already had half a million quid sitting in a bank account?

In other words, to what extent is one’s fear of immediate poverty over-ruling the wisdom or otherwise of doing a certain deal, making a certain decision about artistry?

I seem to be constantly on the cusp of this or that lump sum payment for something-or-other that never quite transpires. If one of these comes along and frees me up to not think about cash flow, will that affect how I do my business?

God knows! But I’m still going to Texas.

COLUMN #25
IT’S been fascinating to watch the rise of online social network Twitter during the second half of 2008, especially among politicians, celebrities and artists.

With most Brits still obsessed by Facebook, Twitter hasn’t crossed over to the mainstream or even made much of an impression here yet. However, in the US, it exploded last year, with millions of users, including thousands of powerful or famous people.

If you haven’t tried it, it’s a micro-blogging site. This means that Twitter is most comparable to the “status update” bit of Facebook or MySpace, where you regularly write a short sentence or comment to describe how you feel, what you’re doing or who you want to do it with.

In the world of Twitter, these are called “tweets.”

Sweet. You “follow” people whose comments you want to keep up with and, in turn, people follow you, if you’re interesting enough.

Surely this is where the future of online communication lies, rather than with the unwieldy full-profile sites. It is flexible, fluid and uncommitted by comparison.

There is a profile page, but it’s much simpler, with hardly any information.

I much prefer this to Facebook, where I’ve struggled to keep separate a personal profile for a friends and the commercial need to propagate and communicate through a professional artist profile.

Twitter refined the model, so it doesn’t matter. When you’re both following each other, it quickly becomes a live conversation – like when a long chain of comments builds after a particularly provocative Facebook status update.

The always techno-savvy Stephen Fry has thrived on Twitter, making fantastic use of it and quickly gaining tens of thousands of followers, without it ever becoming a media-spun information source.

He sent GPS co-ordinates of obscure corners of Madagascar while tracking down endangered species to film for a TV series so that we could see exactly where he was on Google Earth. He sent instant photos whenever he spotted a fascinating – or cute – creature and, for that matter, whenever anything vaguely snappable happened.

Fry commented in real time on the beauties and discomforts of his adventures, so we “were there” when the team making the Blackadder documentary delivered him the original golden boobies.

Later, we “were there” again in spectacular fashion when Fry tried to set up a PC (he’s a Mac man through and through) and it didn’t work. His fury was awesome.

During the final three months of ’08, Fry went to New York to be in the audience for Hugh Laurie’s appearance as host of Saturday Night Live, then went on to California and on to New Zealand to continue shooting the nature series.

He only tripped up once, when he got excited about being able to send tweets from mid-air on his flight and announced that he was about an hour out of LAX airport, flying over Vegas. Of course, he was promptly hassled by a pap photographer on landing.

Of course it’s all brilliant commercial promotion. I can’t imagine not watching the endangered animals programme when it airs, having felt almost like a witness to its production.

But there’s a directness to Twitter – and, at the same time, a safe distance – that allows real honest expression of feelings. And anything less than that is pretty boring.

Just in the last few weeks, several major accounts were hacked. But here’s another advantage of the simple system. If your account is broken into, it’s not full of vital information about you like Facebook, hackers can’t suddenly change anything important.

All that happened was Britney Spears, Barack Obama, Apple’s Steve Jobs and several others suddenly tweeted uncharacteristically embarrassing, ridiculous things about themselves – yes, even Britney – and everyone immediately realised that it was a hack.

In other words, it’s social networking that can be taken lightly. If you think about it, on Facebook, you chat and play, but it’s complex and exposing, holding a ton of stuff about you.

Twitter reduces the need to keep that stuff online. Once we’ve “met” people, do we really need to constantly remind them that we’re married, when our birthday is, where we live, who our other friends are? Not in real life.

COLUMN #24
A VERY happy new year to you. I hope that your 2009 is full of joy and adventures and in no way spoiled by the various global catastrophes smacking us in the face.

I spent most of the Christmas period having an extended boxing match with the nasty cold that everyone’s calling “flu.” More accurately, my wife and I played tennis with it, volleying the virus back and forth between us over the whole festive break. It was horrible, but at least we were never both sick at once.

I think that being ill ruins your taste in entertainment and the arts. Just as, when you’re ill, you can’t taste your food properly and everything’s just sour or sickly sweet, it’s the same with your brain, so suddenly the worst films, music and TV all catch your attention.

All you want to do is take your mind off the snot and dizzy spells.

So I could tell you about sitting in a happy daze through all those dismal Christmas movies or finding myself nodding along to 100 Best R&B Songs Of The Year or channel-flicking for hours without finding a reason to stop.

But it got worse this side of the new year. Just when I should’ve started seeking out the finest, most exciting cultural things to dig into in 2009, instead I found myself curled up under a blanket, freebasing Lemsip, allowing Celebrity Big Brother to invade my living room.

It’s defeated me, dear reader, it’s onscreen right now, this very second. They’re dressing up as paparazzi, as the various “challenges” within the house become increasingly self-referential to a mythologised conceit of what “celebrity” entails. Yet, however much I might try to analyse it or justify myself, I can’t switch it off. Not even when they kill the audio for minutes on end, replacing it with background birdsong whenever the crackpot inmates say anything remotely racy or libellous. Especially during the daytime live broadcast.

And what on Earth made Tommy Sheridan get in on it? Surely he’s clever enough – as well as a close enough friend to George Galloway – to have been advised against exposing himself to Channel 4’s merciless editing process?

I’d managed to give up Big Brother after the Preston and Chantelle series and stayed clean of CBB and its evil twin Normal-Person BB for however long it’s been since then – a happy three years, maybe even four.

In fact, for the last couple of seasons, I’d made it right to the very end of each series without even knowing a single contestant’s name, having adopted a policy of averting my gaze from newspaper front pages whenever I was in a newsagent or supermarket.

How swiftly the good work comes undone. Softened up last autumn by becoming unexpectedly entangled in Strictly Come Dancing, now I’m a junky again, well and truly off the wagon.

Strictly may be squeaky clean and full of BBC wholesomeness by comparison, but, like the sneaky spliff that supposedly leads to a crack habit, it opened the door.

My only hope is that I get better – and busier – over the next week or two, so that I simply don’t have enough down time to bother with this daft nonsense.

COLUMN #23

EVEN as Alexandra Burke jumped for joy having won the X Factor final at the weekend, the amusing debate about the programme’s choice of Christmas single reached fever pitch.

Its use of Leonard Cohen’s dark classic Hallelujah has got “real” music fans in a twist, with tens of thousands joining Facebook groups supporting the release of Jeff Buckley’s seminal version to provide a counterpoint.

Despite Burke’s karaoke soul belter being marginally less offensive than the other mind-bendingly bad possibilities on offer, one can totally understand the angst.

Any mainstream TV interpretation of that song can’t but be a brutal assault, primarily because we’re witnessing a clash of clumping me-me-me populism and sublime outsider art.

Simon Cowell, fun though he may be, is the last person in the world to “get” Cohen’s broken masterpiece. He already saw it used and abused in the US on American Idol earlier this year. Again, Buckley’s version was rolled out in opposition and smashed its way to the top of the iTunes chart.

I love Buckley’s version, which is stripped back to sepulchral echoing guitar and that extraordinary vocal. It’s one of the finest pieces of music ever committed to tape. And, funnily enough, even acclaimed versions of Hallelujah rankle with me because of their weediness by comparison.

Rufus Wainwright, for example. Many of those up in arms about X Factor will point to his cover as a great interpretation, yet it’s actually total rubbish and coloured my whole view of Wainwright for years.

He commits an unforgivable sin. Cohen’s original beautifully rhymes “Before I knew ya” with “Hallelujah,” yet Wainwright corrects the word “ya” to “you,” thus ruining the rhyme because he can’t naturally pronounce a “ya.” It’s an unfathomable moment of idiocy.

My favourite Wainwright is Loudon. So there.

Even KD Lang, like Cohen and Wainwright a Canadian outsider artist of real worth and hard experience, couldn’t make it work.

When I was a kid, I got briefly into Harry Connick Jr’s swing music because of the film When Harry Met Sally. Then my dad pointed out that, although Connick’s music is used throughout the film, the soundtrack is Frank Sinatra when the lead characters finally connect at the end.

And that’s how I feel now about the emotional punch of Buckley’s reading of Hallelujah. Do what you like the rest of the time, but you need the real deal for the real moments.

Anyway, one undeniable positive about this whole crapshoot is for Cohen himself.

Despite being in his mid seventies, Cohen had to go back out on tour this year after discovering in 2005 that his manager had misappropriated $5m from his retirement fund along with the publishing rights to his songs. Cohen was left financially ruined and, despite winning the court case, he can’t actually get the money back.

So, regardless of quality, one still feels that he deserves exactly the kind of fiscal break that X Factor’s chart-topping, million-selling use of Hallelujah will provide, especially if Buckley’s cover version sells a load more copies as well.

Oh, there are such conflicts at work here. I may hate X Factor with a passion, but I absolutely love Girls Aloud, Will Young and Leona Lewis, none of whom might have found success without Cowell’s TV talent grind-out.

That’s not really a contradiction though. Despite having OK voices and nothing real to say, Girls Aloud are brilliant thanks to fantastic songs and lush production work. Apart from marketing, the real creative genius behind them and the other “great” pop acts like them is found in the largely anonymous outfits who write and produce hits.

One can easily admire and enjoy that stuff without falling for the rigmarole that decides who will do the preening up front.

And, in terms of watching dreadful TV, we much prefer Strictly Come Dancing in our house on a Saturday night.

COLUMN #22

I’m on the verge of selling my signed copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, maybe putting it up on Ebay or taking it to a dealer, where I might score a couple of hundred quid for it if I’m lucky. Maybe that sounds like sacrilege but, to be honest, the physical book never had any intrinsic precious value to me beyond the poetry contained within, which I could immediately buy again for a fraction of the price.

I never got the chance to meet Ginsberg and certainly didn’t get his signature myself. It was a gift thrust into my hands about 10 years ago by a veteran opera critic who worked in the same office as me. He was clearing out his house. I didn’t want to accept it because the man was a troubled soul at that time. It felt as if he was unloading bits of his self on the people around him. But he insisted and, in a small way, I have treasured it since, as you’re supposed to treasure old books. Paper and glue. So how can I consider selling the fucker now?

I’ve got a small handful of signed or rare books and music that might be worth something, yet it’s never before crossed my mind to flog them. I’m certainly not poorer or more desperate than at other times in my life, the opposite in fact.

So I wonder why I’m suddenly moved to make a small short-term profit from these supposedly life-long valued things?

This week, the iconic original manuscript of Jack Kerouac’s beat uber-classic On The Road has gone on display in Britain for the first time at the Barber Institute in Birmingham. It’s never left the US before and is well worth seeing – Kerouac typed the book in 20 days onto a long homemade roll of paper, which he created by sellotaping together teletype scrolls until he had a single 120-foot-long scroll. The idea was that he wouldn’t have to stop typing to change the sheets in his typewriter. He was terrified of losing his flow of imagination.

This has been romanticised as an offbeat, folksy way of writing. It adds an almost mystical element of craft to the writing of the book and massively increases the value of the original manuscript, which is apparently worth over £1.5 million. Nowadays, it’s also hard to imagine a writer behaving like that without some kind of self-aggrandising self-awareness behind it. But that’s daft. Kerouac did it for convenience. Something that, without context, seems magically old hat was actually stretching towards a future without typewriters.

Today, he wouldn’t even have bothered – there’s no need to bodge a continual role of paper when you can simply type onto your Mac or PC without stopping in a single continuous train of thought.

Anyway, as landmark beat works go, I’ve always much preferred Howl to On The Road. It’s really about something.

You know the problem with On The Road? There’s nothing more annoying than people spinning their drug yarns or banging on about the other night when they drank so much tequila and fell over. It might be pioneering, but, in the greater scheme of things, the world is full of self-mythologising tour blogs. In fact, because for me Howl is the immeasurably greater work, its physical manifestation is proportionally less important. I don’t care about the original manuscript, although, as with any great poem, the annotated versions are fascinating because you witness the development and watch the verse take shape.

This brings us to Ebay and an almost angry resolution. Thinking about the fetishisation of the manuscript, I’ve fallen out of love with possessing this stuff.

I actively don’t want a signed copy, it turns out, or the signed Radiohead promos or even the signed Murakami Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Especially as Christmas is approaching and there are presents and cakes to buy. Travelling light is more and more appealing.

COLUMN #21

THE best art always came out of darker times, personally or societally. That’s one exciting thing about the financial meltdown.

As we’ve got more and more comfortable, through the ’90s and into this millennium, despite occasional fears about the apocalypse of terrorism, our culture has smelled increasingly rotten and looked inward to a distasteful degree.

Sometimes I think that we’re all running around gagging, hunting for a sick bowl, desperate for another bunch of Angry Young Men or punk rock or acid house to give us that anarchic breathing space before getting subsumed again by the same branding exercise as everything else.

Right now, instead of needing to be fundamentally rescued, lifted up and enlightened by our cinema, art, music or television, we have turned it into a mere ritual to plug the gap between indulgences.

You don’t need me to go into details, you see it every day on your TV and hear it every day on your radio. You’re watching Robert Kilroy-Silk in the jungle and hearing relentless samey stage-school indie bands on the radio. For every interesting example, there are a thousand mediocrities to dominate your senses.

And even those of us attempting to make something genuinely artistically worthwhile or comment critically on the world around us have been pushed into shock tactics and broad strokes.

During European touring, we’ve talked a lot on the road about whether the economic downturn could save us from these degradations – as well as discussing what we personally might be left with at the close of play, in terms of career choices.

I guess that this has become a key water-cooler conversation among creatives of all kinds right now and it raises a fundamental question about compassion versus taste. Put simply – which is more important, great art or healthy artists?

Eternally overoptimistic, I think that a lot of popular culture has already started the move to improve, even as the industry sheds jobs and the “great” companies go under. In my field, the gradual shift away from musician as celeb junkie or reality TV sob story, towards something more substantial and content-led, is already evident at the grass roots.

You can hear it in the cult hits and the unhyped popular live successes along the seams, discovered, nurtured and redistributed by newly empowered kids online, which the establishment is then slowly forced to acknowledge.

Art really will get better as the recession bites, no doubt, with real hardship and struggle inspiring creativity.

It’s not just the increased competition weeding out the losers and less-committed. I believe in a shift in audience taste, when its own experience becomes that much more close to the bone. Because, yes, it is actually the overgirthed, richly sauced consumer, not the producer, who drove the neomoronism of recent arts.

The cultural movements poking their heads through in the last few years have been delicate, preening, short-term and unstable. The grand tipping point – the point at which even the bassist can afford cocaine – is reached drastically earlier.

So, of course, at the very moment one faces a personal dilemma about continuing, one exults in the possibility of good art rising to the top again and some of the shit stuff vanishing.

I’m looking at the same recession as everyone else and, inevitably, spending too much time wondering what I need to do to continue. How I need to tighten my operation and broaden my horizons.

Funnily enough, in 2008 my music career shifted up a couple of gears and I’ve felt far more successful in terms of reaching people. The curve definitely steepened in a good way. But it’s still out there, menacingly close.

Throughout history, creating art or entertainment has always been a front-line, hand-to-mouth trade. You were always just as likely to get run out of town as win the hearts of the locals. The idea of artists, musicians and theatre people making life-long fortunes and becoming known across the world for their work is recent and has only ever involved a tiny, tiny proportion of those in the field.

Meanwhile, it was only ever the powerful, the Simon Cowells and Medicis, who made the dough, rather than the lute players, chapel muralists and bad karaoke singers. Great art was long nuanced on the insecure whim of ludicrous, petulant noble patronage.

So we cheer, nervously.

COLUMN #20

IT’S been an eye-opener touring across Europe. Everywhere we play, we’re welcomed by young teams of promoters and gig organisers who are enthusiastic music fans and very well organised.

Each gig has a larger number of people involved in setting up than almost any British show.

We’re fed both dinner and breakfast the morning after playing, on top of enormous plates of fruit, cheese and bread backstage, and put up in a posh local hotel by the promoters. The drinks rider is, in almost every case, just infinite booze.

No sad-looking half-crates of Carling here. I’ve been on the whisky and we’re often force-fed whichever obscure local brew or spirit the staff are proudest of.

We just crossed Switzerland and, up in Lucerne the other night, the venue manager was shoving some kind of scary hot alcoholic broth down our throats with almost aggressive enthusiasm. We left on all fours.

All this hospitality is entirely separate from the fee, which is itself roughly 50 per cent more generous than the equivalent-sized shows in Britain or the US.

Although that can still can get swallowed up by the expense of travel or fluctuating exchange rates, it makes Europe far more approachable than I’d previously realised.

On top of this, there is something much smoother about logistics too. It’s hard to put a finger on, but somehow everything just slips into place on arrival at a show.

For the last four gigs in a row, I’ve been able to park the car by the venue without problems or cost and then the hotel has been a short walk away, making the rest of the evening simple.

I’m driving myself for the first time, with hardly any experience of left-hand-drive cars or right-hand-drive highways and I have almost no idea what any of the road signs mean. So it makes a big difference to me that I don’t have to trek through town between venue, hotel or car park.

You wouldn’t believe how rare that is in Blighty.

And here’s why. Right across Europe, these small music venues, independent promoters and arts centres are supported by their local government.

It is a standard, widespread thing that adds an ability to take risks in the bookings, as well as the degree of personal comfort.

It happens in different ways, but either the gigs are part-funded directly or the venues get a subsidy to survive and pay their staff.

It doesn’t matter what kind of art they’re promoting, whether they’re a tidy old-school culture centre or a scruffy bunch of kids putting on punk rock shows.

There’s another thing I’m particularly enjoying here as a lyrics-oriented solo act.

Obviously, these audiences don’t speak perfect English, so I still get that nervousness walking on stage that they’ll struggle to understand and might disengage from what we’re singing.

But, in my experience, the key thing about European audiences is that they actively want to put that extra effort in.

Regardless of which music scene or age group they’re part of, they are that much more committed at the starting point, which results in quieter listening and louder applause and makes the gigs that much more satisfying.

On the road, we’ve talked a lot about the future of touring live music as the recession bites and promoters increasingly have to cut the very corners that we rely on as artists to make this process survivable.

British shows will either become prohibitively uncomfortable or they will have to learn from the authority-aided Euro model. Otherwise, the only music that will get out there is major label homogenised shit.

This may satisfy a few thousand trendster teens, but it will leave the vast majority of live music’s real audience out in the cold very quickly indeed.

And, funnily enough, among the nicest and most effective promoters in Britain are the few that have managed to score some kind of government help, like the lovely Vocoustics people I work with in Aberdeen, whose hospitality is of a European standard.

Anyway, it’s going to go in one of two directions and I daren’t even think about the latter because it locks artists like me out, unless we have a crossover hit.

COLUMN #19

This is my original version, not the published version. They fucked with it just a little too much.

We’ve given up on the Merlin TV series after about five or six episodes. I stuck it out for a bit because Michelle Ryan was so hot as a gothy sorceress, yet even she – and a halfway decent grumpy performance from Anthony Head as Uther Pendragon – couldn’t save it from the off switch. It’s an eggy, convoluted mess. All the characters over 30 are in a 1980s fantasy melodrama, while all the characters under 30 are refugees from Skins or Hollyoaks.

It’s pretty hard to suspend disbelief and immerse oneself in a myffical world of dragons and witchcraft when all the teenagers keep saying shit like “Aw, you’re doin’ my head in!” and obsessing about whether they fancy eachother. Actually the most enjoyable Merlin-related activity was downloading some audio files of old Victor Meldrew scenes from One Foot In The Grave and then playing them over the top. So whenever Richard Wilson’s hilariously overwrought Gaius character entered the scene, we made him shout “I don’t belieeeeeve it!!”

Frustratingly, though in a different league, House is finally going off the boil as well as season five unfolds. Without giving anything away, the shape and expression of Dr House’s relentless misanthropy has somehow softened, so now he meddles keenly in peoples’ lives, more like the Dr Wilson of earlier seasons. His needling has ceased to be amusingly amoral and warped into some kind of grand search for the soul. It’s as if they became nervous at how potent and edgy a character House was, so deliberately weakened him in the name of mainstream viewing figures. It’s sad because he was unimpeachable when he didn’t give a toss. Moral comeuppance is the last thing the show needs.

 

You can really tell when an American series is about to jump the shark – or wasn’t worth the bother in the first place – when they start including a emotional montage cut to some over-produced soppy pseudo-folk acoustic balladry near the end of each episode. I bet it’s entirely down to one specific firm of music placement specialists getting their feet in all the doors and making a fortune, despite having a roster solely made up of inane pluckers.

 

It mirrors the rise of – and provides too much income for – a generation of ‘nothing balladeers’; the post-Blunt but a bit more credible likes of Teddy Thompson, Sia and Kimya Dawson. Kimya’s plinky plonky nothing-music is so horrible throughout the otherwise wonderful teen pregnancy movie Juno that I’ve almost finished re-editing the entire film on my laptop, replacing as much of her as possible with some decent Bowie and bits of instrumental piano.

Not for commercial distribution obviously but I bet everyone who sees it will prefer my version!

 

I’m dividing blame for the state of TV and film soundtracks between Zach Braff of Scrubs, Michael Andrews, who scored Donnie Darko and that surfdude arsehole Jack Johnson. Between the three of them, they’ve ruined quiet music forever.

Anyway, House isn’t rubbish yet, it’s still excellent drama and Hugh Laurie is still great in it but alarm bells are ringing. Instead, I’m loving Entourage more and more, despite it being – on the surface at least – mere froth. It’s a kind of Desperate Housewives for boys and ten times better written. Jeremy Piven may well be the finest actor working in TV right now and his viciously, vacuously loveable Hollywood agent Ari Gold is my favourite character on any show.

Maybe this is the future. When TV is ace, we can make it more ace around the edges, compiling our own soundtrack albums or building Facebook pages for the characters. And when TV gets lame, instead of just switching off, we can get involved and actually improve it, fixing the bits we hate like like lush graffiti improving an ugly wall. How long is it before the DVD director’s commentary becomes a viewer free-for-all? And how brilliant will that be?

 

It’ll probably always be controversial, just as sampling and overt referencing still are. But screw that, it’s a lot of fun and since intellectual copyright is dying anyway, we might as well tickle it while it bleeds.

 

COLUMN #18

Despite a few weeks of blistering gigs and a fantastic time being had by all, the UK tour I’m on has juddered to an unexpected halt and we’re all gutted.

My band has been hurtling around the country, mainly supporting Frank Turner, just at the point where he’s starting to break through to the mainstream. This has meant sold-out shows and overwhelming audience responses, including for us as support band. Although we only had a short 30-minute set, we’ve been rocking the house each night and we’ve got better and better as time has gone on. Maybe we partied a little too hard, but it didn’t cause any problems.

I’ve been avoiding the folkier, more issues-based songs, instead concentrating on some of the loudest, most driving tunes I’ve got, which worked a treat on Turner’s younger, rock-out savvy crowd.

But on Monday, sadly, the wheels came off. Driving up the M1 headed for Nottingham, we found ourselves stuck in a huge traffic jam because of a multi-car accident up ahead.

Then mobile phones started ringing and we were frantically told that tour manager Graham, who’d been driving up alone in his car, was actually involved in the accident. He was physically unhurt, but his gorgeous purple estate car was a write-off.

After an hour of stop-start and endless frustrating 10-mile-an-hour trundling, we reached the scene, pulled over and waited for the emergency services to finish with him, before packing him safely into our splitter van.

Walking along the hard shoulder past several destroyed cars, a ruined bike and even a badly damaged truck, I was amazed that nobody had died. I’ve never been that close to a serious accident and it looked appalling, yet the police on the scene were confident that even the most seriously injured would recover.

We assumed that that was the day’s drama done with, especially as we still made it to Nottingham Rescue Rooms in time to soundcheck. From there on in, it looked like a normal show, as Graham seemed, at least on the surface, to have come through the terrifying experience only a little shaken. We played a strong set, did some interviews and tucked into our veggie Thai green curry dinner.

But Frank wasn’t looking well either. In fact, he looked a lot worse than Graham. During the day, he’d eaten something extremely dodgy and, although he piled energetically on stage, he’d already thrown up once and was battling hard against the onset of food poisoning.

He made it almost to the end of the main set, then apologised profusely, ran offstage mid-song and decorated the backstage area in a rich new hue of vomit, before collapsing in a heap with the ice bucket doubling as a sick bucket by his head.

There was no way he was standing up, let alone coming back out to finish the set.

It has to be said, the crowd was almost unanimously supportive. There was no booing and, when Frank’s drummer Nigel came back out to break the bad news and promise a rescheduled show, the response was an enormous supportive round of applause. I think people instinctively know that Frank wouldn’t have left the stage unless it was serious. It also says a lot for both how hard he works and how devoted his crowd is that we had no bad atmosphere packing up. I even still sold a healthy pile of Chris T-T CDs from the merch stall.

Up to that point, we’d done something like 13 straight gigs with no nights off, which is fine if you’re healthy and enjoying yourself. But it leaves you with no reserves if you pick up something as aggressive as food poisoning, which is relatively easy on tour, since we’re eating out most of the time and doing so on a budget.

The upshot is, we’ve lost the last few shows while he recovers. It’s a particularly weird ending because we didn’t get to say our thank-yous and goodbyes.

Anyway, I’m disappointedly typing this at home, when I should be somewhere in Ireland right now, driving south-west for the first show in the Irish leg. My band has dispersed and the guitars lean in the corner, waiting impatiently for next time.

COLUMN #17

My friend Thommo is a film artist in Brighton and he’s videotaping a conversation between us as a contribution to a university-run debate about art and war. He has two boxes of Jaffa Cakes with him.

At the university, they’re hosting the Brighton Photo Biennial, which, this year, explores photography from warzones. Titled The War Of Images And Images Of War, it’s a strong bunch of shows around this theme by decent, often brave photographers, curated by Julian Stallabrass.

Wandering around some of it last week, I found a number of the photos very moving and, overall, the artistry – if that’s what it’s called – of capturing a perfect image within chaos was heavily in evidence.

There’s always that whiff of exploitation, though, whenever a photographer is shooting an incident or scenario that begs for more hands-on involvement.

And that’s the point of us talking really. Thommo wants to discuss how art responds to real-world crises and human tragedy. I’m contributing on video because I’ll be on tour when the actual debate takes place.

However, I’m struggling slightly with the broad scope of the ideas and the complex balance of art and what could be called “witness testimony.”

When war photographers are snapping away mid-massacre for media documentation or for the purpose of witnessing an event, bringing it to the wider attention, that’s one thing.

Of course they should drop the camera and weigh in if something happens that they can actually fix, but we accept that their essential position is noble.

It’s more complicated later, once months or years have gone by and the photos are in a retrospective exhibition being viewed and potentially sold as works of art.

We stand in front of them, sipping champagne as if it’s a press view, discussing light and shade and the framing of the image and the photographer’s underlying conceits.

At this point, it’s almost as if the aesthetic and the informational are in some kind of power struggle which, if the aesthetic wins, morally devalues the whole exercise.

But, anyway, I’m struggling and the conversation comes around to the most vividly remembered images of violence of all, the World Trade Centre twin towers burning and falling in 2001.

I’ve mentioned them directly myself in song, so I’m on personal, maybe shaky ground when talking about the artistic “exploitation” of that event.

Director M Night Shyamalan’s new film The Happening contains an extraordinary, potentially devastating early scene along those lines. On the whole, it’s a fairly average film, despite a fascinating basic premise which I can’t tell you because it’d spoil it.

But, early on, he uses a vicious trick of manipulation that cleverly resensitises the viewer, making all that follows more potent.

We’re on a building site in New York and suddenly, one by one, bodies start smacking into the ground all around the horrified construction workers at street level.

Since September 11, a lot of films have overtly referenced or nodded to the attacks. But in The Happening, more than just making reference, Shyamalan is deliberately providing a completion of an image that we didn’t see on that day.

The people who jumped from the towers were some of the most arresting, heartbreaking images from the unfolding tragedy but, of course, we weren’t ever shown anyone hitting the ground. It would’ve been simply too much.

The Happening shows it vividly and brutally, albeit in a supposedly different fictional context. He takes us a step beyond where we ever expected to be, especially now, several years on, simply to enhance his power to shock.

So I get carried away talking about this on camera with Thommo and suddenly find myself positioning the two Jaffa Cake boxes so that they look like the Twin Towers, to illustrate some point or other.

Seconds later, realising what I did and, laughing about it, we take photos of the boxes. They are exactly the right shape to mimic the World Trade Centre. At which point I think we probably crossed the line into ghoulishness.

But, as to whether writing about it also crosses the line, I still have no idea.

Thommo’s video is on Youtube HERE

COLUMN #16

RECENTLY, I’ve been getting into a dangerous habit with this column. I’m supposed to be demoing my next album, but, every time I’m within a hair’s breadth of finishing a track or about to nail a line of lyrics, I’m distracted by something interesting to write about.

The guitar goes in the corner and Microsoft Word gets booted up instead.

The terrifying thought rises from deep in a forbidden corner of consciousness. Perhaps I enjoy pontificating about this stuff as much as doing it.

It would be fascinating to know how many people who write about areas of culture, at least sometimes, find themselves more attached to their commentary than their actual involvement in whatever area they work in.

When I’m writing about culture, I feel somehow aloof, above the fray, superior even. And yet the opposite is really true, because we’re surely at our best when we create rather than critique.

To a certain extent, society has this the wrong way round as well – it often shows greater respect for critics and media voices than those they comment about.

While this may be fine in hard news and current affairs – after all, if a politician or lawmaker behaves like a twit, we all feel the effects – it’s disabling in culture, where nobody’s truly doing “wrong” with their creativity, even if they’re shite.

It could explain, though, why we enjoy the mythically aloof or unbiased or overseeing role of the commentator. It’s almost a relief from the day-to-day struggle of never quite knowing whether the art you make is any good.

And it’s an illusion. There are only two places in the world a musician or composer really wants to be – in the recording studio or on stage. There are only two places a film-maker wants to be – on set or in the editing suite.

But it is a disconcerting feeling.

I’m writing this in a rural recording studio. My friend Jim is working on his new album and I’m on board to play some guitar, piano and throw in production ideas.

Yet, even here, I find myself sitting at the laptop tap-tapping away instead of nailing that solo I should’ve finished half an hour ago, while everyone drinks tea and beer instead of rehearsing.

Jim is, without doubt, one of this country’s finest songwriters and was himself a proper pop star for several years back in the early ’90s.

Yet he’s spent all this year working on a film script after a short story that he wrote was optioned by a US movie production company.

And, funnily enough, apart from being a hilarious treacle-black comedy, his script is an extended commentary on the process of art-making.

It’s going to be one of those films that lets you ponder the nature of creativity without feeling like an arse, which makes me think that maybe he’s only writing the movie so that he can comment on art instead of making it.

Anyway, one of the things making this studio session so enjoyable is that Jim is taking everything quite lightly. He’s partially disinvested, somehow, in the music, because he’s now – in the “mature” period of his career – got previously unimagined other strings to his bow.

I love this conclusion about happiness – that it works, moment by moment, when your situation transcends your wealth or status at that split second.

So, even if I were a multimillionaire or CEO of Shell or president of Swaziland, right now there’s no place I’d rather be in the world than here in this recording studio, typing these words, safe in the knowledge that, some time in the next hour, I’ll be playing very loud guitar in a large empty room.

COLUMN #15

Last month, ASDA removed Jacqueline Wilson’s book My Sister Jodie from its shelves after a single complaint from one customer about the use of the word ‘twat’. Her publisher Random House actually altered the text of the book, changing ‘twat’ to ‘twit’ in all future copies, in response to three complaints.

Best-selling former children’s laureate Wilson used the word in the vocabulary of a bad character to epitomise her rudeness. In one fell swoop, on the basis of four people whinging about a book that has sold over 150,000 copies, the publishers turned that character into a weak caricature, saddling her with a word that no self-respecting bully would ever utter.

I think that ‘twat’ was a particularly clever word to choose in the first place – striking the right balance between vividly painting the villain and still avoiding the true swearwords that such a character would use constantly in the real world.

Meanwhile, over 800 authors have now signed up to the No To Age Banding petition to fight the publishers who plan to print little logos on the back of young people’s books explaining what ages should read them.

And this week, despite having signed up to the petition and stated in no uncertain terms that she opposes age banding, Wilson’s latest book Cookie was banded ‘for 9+’ on the hardback edition.

Apparently, Wilson felt that she couldn’t stop it happening because Random House had manufactured unusual packaging at great expense – the book comes in a biscuit tin – and placed the age banding on before the controversy broke.

She said that she didn’t want to be “mean” or “ungracious” to her publisher. Random House itself said that it would review the situation with Wilson on a book-by-book basis.

Age banding is yet another example of parents and teachers having the responsibility of individual nurture removed from them and placed in the hands of a commercial firm – in this case, the publisher. This is utterly ludicrous, considering that young people develop at such extraordinarily different rates. It also dangerously stigmatises books.

Kids will fetishise the books marked for older readers and take the piss out of people reading the books marked for younger children. How on earth will someone who is young for their age ever make it through to the older stuff?

Worst of all, it says to parents: “You don’t need to check this stuff. Some expert has assessed it for you, you can just buy blind and bung it in little Jenny’s schoolbag.” Such grand standing-down of traditional responsibilities is a core of the problem of youth today, not a solution. If even Wilson is struggling in the fight, we know where the power lies.

Beyond this single issue, I believe that a fundamental US-style battle for freedom of expression is brewing in Britain. It may have started small, far from sexy political front lines, yet it has started and it’s going to be vicious.

There’s a man on trial right now for writing a pornographic rape fantasy about Girls Aloud and publishing it on a porn website. Yes, it’s gross. But it’s the written word, not actions or images – just dirty imagination and a pen.

So, here’s a challenge for every author and reader who has signed up to No To Age Banding. We need a direct action response, not just liberal hand-wringing.

I propose guerilla stickering over the age bands on books. Simply acquire a pile of small rectangular stickers. Any colour you like. Blank or, if you’ve got the resources, printed with some swish message like “You decide, you’re the parent!”

Then troop to Borders and Waterstones and get stickering before it’s too late.

This sounds daft, but we are going to need to defend expression very hard over the next few years, especially if Britain embraces a socially regressive Tory government. And if we’re to win or even survive, the battle will involve prolonged direct action in towns right across the country.

We might as well get practising on the kids’ books.

COLUMN #14

The subs at Morning Star slightly altered my intention in the final sentence of this column, so I’ve added in my original closing sentence underneath. I’m sure they meant nothing by it!

I found myself playing Pacman online the other day on one of those free sites that puts up vintage computer games. Within minutes, I was hopelessly addicted, stuck inside the 1980 maze classic until I’d lost about two hours of work time running away from four bleeping pixelated ghosts.

I’m rubbish at it, though, and always have been. Despite playing countless times over almost two decades, I’ve never risen beyond level seven.

Everyone under 28 is younger than Pacman. It requires such a tiny amount of computer power to run it that you can now play it for free online, listen to Bowie on your iTunes and download last night’s Colbert Report all at once, while your accounts sit ignored on your desktop.

Looking back, it’s almost impossible to imagine or remember quite how huge a step forward it was in terms of early video gaming.

Pacman brought a bunch of previously unimagined concepts to a world that had been entirely built around Space Invaders-style shoot-em-ups.

A couple of days after my marathon Pacman stint, I briefly considered buying the extremely sophisticated new game Spore, which was developed by the team behind The Sims. It involves controlling an entire evolutionary process from a genetic single-cell level right up to building huge civilisations.

And, of course, it can exist in virtual worlds online – what self-respecting computer game doesn’t these days? – so you compete with other real Spore-builders.

It looks and sounds incredible. Yet I held back at the last moment from spending cash that I don’t have, concluding that I already waste too much time on Pacman.

This left me thinking about the economic crisis.

Deep down, we don’t need any more entertainment. By which I don’t mean that we’ll somehow lose our craving for the arts or popular culture – give us bread but give us roses, after all. But, if we find ourselves in a situation of real hand-to-mouth poverty over the next few years, if recession and environmental disasters truly bite, surely we’ll all realise the obvious:

There are perfectly enough films, old telly, old music and old computer games to last anyone a lifetime without forking out for new ones.

This will be especially true if one of the things that we currently take for granted becomes a precious, rationed resource. Energy.

Everything that we consume culturally runs off electricity, for a start.

I hate it when old codgers moan: “They don’t make comedy shows like they used to” or “I won’t listen to any music recorded after 1987.”

But now, if just for reasons of thrift, alongside the lost crafts of repairing broken stuff, sewing and cooking actual food from scratch, we’ll surely rediscover a lost joy in forgotten and, most importantly, cheap art forms.

The very best art, of whatever discipline, really, really lasts. The best films and novels bear repeated consumption and the best albums last a lifetime, regardless of their initial reception or first-month sales. It’s only the crap art, the unart, that leaves an itch unscratched and lets you walk away.

I think that two ends of creative culture survive in times of severity.

First, those absolute undoubted masterpieces. They are cared for and perpetuated regardless of circumstance. Second, the most participatory at ground level, which are cherished because people can join in. They contribute directly and immediately to the building of community.

This is good news for the grass-roots live folk circuit and classic punk albums, but dreadful news for Jeremy Kyle, corporate Nashville and the team at Heat magazine.

If I’m honest, because art to me is so often more important than life, I tend to feel that the faster the collapse comes the better.

I wrote:

And if I’m honest, because art to me is so often more important than life, I tend to feel that the faster the collapse comes the better, not for Socialist reasons but simply because I hate crap telly.

 

COLUMN #13

It’s been a week of poets – or maybe just one – that left me wondering which poets are actually poets at all.

It started with Andrew Motion bemoaning his job as poet laureate, complaining that Her Majesty didn’t give feedback about his commissioned verses. He seemed to imply that having to write poems for royal occasions has caused a half-decade case of writer’s block.

Previous poets laureate served for life, receiving £100 and a vat of wine per year for their trouble. But, in a change to this historic deal, Motion got a generous stipend of £5,000 per year and only served for a decade. I’m not sure whether he still got the wine.

The ungrateful bastard. Imagine being taken on by a high-profile patron just to create what you create, plus occasionally be the posh turn at a party. It’s a dream position, especially when you know that your work will have real significance because you’re embedded at the heart of the Establishment.

How many writers would get their words spoken in Westminster Abbey by Dame Judi Dench and then whinge because the Queen only said thank you?

Since 1999, Motion has held perhaps the highest profile position in “true” poetry in the world, been guaranteed publication and gifted a wide reception for anything that he comes up with. His anti-war poem made the national news. He should’ve turned the position down in the first place, or he should shut the fuck up.
Even the earthenware Ted Hughes, an inappropriate choice on the surface, gave the role dignity and commitment, finding kinship in Prince Charles’s increasingly ruralised heart and producing some incredible work during his stint.

Anyway, this week, by coincidence, I had a drink with another truly great poet, possibly a genius, whose position in the world could not be further from Motion, yet whose actual versification is magnificent by comparison.

Veteran Irish poet Brendan Cleary lives in Brighton and, when he’s not lecturing at a local college, divides his time between Ladbrokes and The Gladstone pub, where I often see him on my way to Budget Car Hire.

Cleary will never “make it big,” thanks largely to his total disinterest in using the internet – or anything else – as a promotional tool.

They all know who he is though. Two years ago, I was a guest on Ian MacMillan’s terrific Radio 3 spoken word show The Verb and, when I mentioned Cleary off-air, MacMillan excitedly praised his poetry and expressed some surprise that he was still alive. With hindsight, I wish that conversation had happened on-air because Cleary is the kind of writer only deified in private.

So when is a poet not a poet? In MacMillan’s case, it’s when he’s a radio presenter or a panellist on Just A Minute. In Cleary’s case, it’s when he’s teaching. He only becomes a poet again when he arrives at the bar, notebook open.

On the live circuit, it’s all stand-up comedy and hip hop. And, less engagingly, even Simon Armitage popped up this week as an uncomfortable commentator on the Mercury Music Prize TV coverage.

The point is this. Given all the jobs out there, poets have to take those which don’t involve actual poetry. The position of Poet Laureate – or poet-in-residence anywhere that isn’t a nasty corporation – is a rare treat and should be cherished. It’s a chance for a poet to be a poet.

Such a job could never go to as uncompromising a soul as Brendan Cleary, yet that’s exactly who should do it. I can’t imagine anyone in the poetry world would even suggest him, though they’ll all quietly think that it’s a brilliant idea.

Meanwhile, this week, Motion absented himself from responsibility for his own work. Is there a worse creative crime? He even declared: “I thought all the poetry had gone, but I feel some of it is still there and may yet return.”

What a tease.

COLUMN #12

With everyone here in Britain finally cottoning on to how brilliant a TV series The Wire really is, maybe it’ll get shown on a proper channel. It’d be a damn shame if the Beeb or C4 didn’t do a Heroes and rescue it from FX, so that it reaches a broad audience.

Already, back in the States, writer-producers Ed Burns and David Simon, who made The Wire, have gone one better with their jaw-dropping war drama Generation Kill. It may be the finest, hardest TV that I’ve ever watched.

It’s a seven-part mini-series, which just finished screening on HBO in the US, documenting the first 40 days of the invasion of Iraq. It’s based on the book by Rolling Stone journalist Evan Wright, who somehow managed to get embedded with a unit of recon marines, driving lightly-armoured Humvees up through Mesopotamia to the suburbs of Baghdad.

If you use file-sharing or buy DVDs internationally – and you’re not too squeamish – I’d urge you to seek out this series because it may well not get shown this side of the pond for a while.

What’s extraordinary is its gross believability. There are so many moments, from the rank command incompetence and the sheer squalor to the breathless gun battles and the casually bored and bigoted language of the military on the move, that feel not merely authentic but vitally true. In their hands, the unspoken intimacies of war are no longer private.

When the relentless gore, cut out of news broadcasts at the time, is presented without flourish, it’s all the more shocking for it.

I can’t praise Generation Kill highly enough. It never once compromises the potency of truthful storytelling to make political points. And in so doing, the points all make themselves. Both creatively and ethically, it’s a monumental piece of work and I imagine that it’ll stay with me for a long time.

Contrast this with, for example, last month’s good-hearted but frustratingly poor BBC2 eco-thriller Burn Up, which pissed away a grand opportunity by leaning on green rhetoric over convincing storytelling.

Hilariously, Burn Up undermined itself by hiring West Wing star Bradley Whitford to play a villainous oil company bruiser. Whitford’s performance was so much more convincing than most of the “good guys” that I ended up falling for his committed polemic and reacting against the conclusions I was “supposed” to draw.

If anything, it showed how tough it is to place your message within nuanced fiction, be it a TV drama, a novel or a song, without messing up the magic. Too many times, polemic overwhelms. I’m as guilty of this as anyone.

So the cultural left – and really anyone who likes TV – can be deeply excited about the long-term prospects of Generation Kill and The Wire’s creative team. Aloof from any Hollywood writers’ room bubble, Burns and Simon came out of Baltimore’s police force, public education system and Sun newspaper, which was the focus of the final season of The Wire.

Simon has often repeated his mantra of “fuck the casual viewer” and the soul of their fiction is deeply subversive.

It’s even fair to suggest that Simon will be a long-term insurrectionist hero of art-making. In viciously anti-Establishment conversation, he is not fooled into pinpointing government solely as the “big evil,” staying equally focused on corporatism’s role in the shape of things.

Meanwhile, in Generation Kill, unit commander Lt Nate Fick is portrayed as an intelligent, sympathetic character. He went on to write his own acclaimed account of his military service life, One Bullet Away.

Last week, Fick spoke briefly at the Democratic National Convention, during the final night’s build-up, as part of a segment featuring “cultural Republicans” who now support Obama.

Despite registering as a Republican at 18, Fick found himself switching sides after his exposure to the war zones of the Bush administration.

File that name away, because Fick may well play a huge role in the future of the US. And so, hopefully, will Simon and Burns. They’re headed for New Orleans next.

COLUMN #11

IT’S fascinating how open-minded people can be when they’re in the role of “audience” – and also how daft many performers are, by contrast, when we struggle to work out who our audience actually is.

Fooled by incessant dumbo celeb culture and the youth-obsessed media, we’re all increasingly guilty of presumptions about people’s capacities to enjoy non-mainstream, cutting-edge art forms.

We drastically underestimate everyday people, basically.

The first assumption is about age and the extent to which performers think they need to quieten, tone down, or bland out their live act for mature audiences. Surely, the “mature” audience is the very one that you can aim “mature” material at?

It’s obvious. People who were in their late teens when punk broke in 1976 are almost 50 now. In theatre, the Look Back In Anger generation are drawing their pensions and the beat crowd are even older. These people are more experienced in the arts, not less so.

We’re focusing far too much energy on a tiny, self-consciously hip, urbanised and digitalised “nu-mainstream” minority that starts scarily young but doesn’t stretch far beyond the early thirties.

It’s also a class and location issue. How ridiculous to become self-conscious about “difficult” material when faced with a rural or upper-class audience or a crowd from a different part of the country to yourself. People aren’t idiots.

The other day, I played a 60th birthday party in a village hall in posh rural Hampshire. I went through an utterly pointless half hour trying to figure out how to censor or, at least, tone down, my content.

Then, sitting in the hall, by the time that the compere and birthday boy had made their way through their 10th F-word and a cover of a Luke Doucet song about heroin, I was cringing at how dumb I’d been to even think along those lines.

If you’re working in an essentially open-armed discipline – not industrial noise, live sex or painful performance art, but pretty much anything else – you should be able to build an audience across all ages and social groups without deradicalising.

Not that you’ll necessarily attract the majority – you can still produce something edgy, demanding and complex that only some people will “get.” If that’s your bag, that’s the nature of art.

But it’s worth remembering that those few people who fall in love with your unique brand of improvised dance or slapstick stand-up can surely be found across the spectrum of human community, not just in whatever boxes that your marketing brain might think to tick.

We really must stop pandering to an imagined blandness, before it’s too late. It’s like, you know, if the wind changes, your face will be stuck like that forever.

Let’s start reaching out to the great neglected crowd, who themselves are drip-fed amateur dramatics and the occasional local appearance by a touring semi-famous comedian or former politician doing an “in conversation with.” Yes, they need us as much as we need them.

Let’s get into what the agents call the B and C market towns, where most people in Britain live, where the inhabitants must be gagging for something proper to put in that shiny new lottery-funded arts centre.

It makes solid business sense. Our live arts industries wrestle with the digital age, the Arts Council disappears up its own arse in the face of the Olympic onslaught and the commercial cultural businesses shrug and jiggle themselves inside-out, trying to keep up with an evolving market place.

Yet we lock out massive sections of audience out of snobbery at the very moment we’re going to need every bum on every seat possible.

I can’t believe that we’ve been fooled into thinking that the only route through the scary world of live arts is to wear tight trousers and mull over our Myspace and Facebook pages 24 hours day.

I can’t believe the boring mantra that TV ads or the Radio 2 playlist are the only answers, which therefore means that shades-of-grey blandism is the only product.

COLUMN #10

I’ve finally finished jury service, after the second case overran by a week. Courtroom dramatics changed the direction of the prosecution, which is why we were stuck there days longer than expected and why, to my great chagrin, I missed out on Cambridge Folk Festival and possibly some gigs with the bloke from The Lemonheads.

It was all about drug dealing and, in both cases, we found people guilty of intent to supply substances deemed illegal by the state.

In the witness box, a police intelligence officer was made to open up a mobile phone belonging to one of the defendants. The police had supposedly already examined this phone, yet, live in court, the officer found a drug dealer’s tick list – a scrap of paper with names and money owed – in the battery compartment.

The cop looked a right prat and it turned everything around. It was heady stuff. Up to that point, the lad had looked innocent.

There was even some actual violence at the end, when one defendant, upon hearing his “guilty” verdict, attempted to beat up another defendant in the dock. If that sounds normal because of TV shows, our usher had been working there 15 years and never seen a fight before.

A week or so later, at Reading Festival, a friend gave me an early birthday present of some LSD, not to take at the time but as a gift for later. I haven’t taken any acid for years, so I’m looking forward to it very much, planning a trippy piano-playing experiment later this week.

But herein lies the problem. What moral authority do I possibly have as a juror to send someone to prison for dealing one illegal drug, when I actively and openly enjoy another illegal drug – I’m really thinking of cannabis here – in my leisure and even creative work time?

And, while, for me, it’s just an occasional hash brownie, for many otherwise law-abiding folks, it’s now cocaine, which is a class A drug and super-serious in the eyes of the law.

Face it, cocaine is everywhere. It’s at the BBC, the police force is full of it, it’s in all the media companies and most bog-standard offices and I’d be massively surprised if there’s not a fair wodge floating around in Parliament right now.

These days, in the white-collar trades and big cities, it’s less socially unacceptable than smoking cigarettes.

If you add in the low-level potheads like me, along with clubbers on ecstasy and its variants, you’ve got a mainstream society drenched in illegality. Just like the legal drugs, the boozing and fagging and unhealthy eating culture, we’re drowning in self-indulgence.

Drug law makes uncaught criminals of so many of us that I think that it makes a total mockery of the concept that a jury is a group of your law-abiding peers. This, to me, is a sure sign that the law needs fixing fast. Hypocrisy and party politicking need booting out.

I’ve never felt more admiring of Peter Tatchell – his attempted citizens’ arrest of Robert Mugabe came close – than when he openly and happily stated that he’s a cannabis user during an edition of Any Questions in the face of relentless fearmongering ignorance from the majority of the panel. It was brave and honest.

Having always been in favour of legalising soft drugs, I walked out of court convinced that all drugs, however nasty and scary they seem, should be legalised and dealt with entirely as a health provision and education issue.

More often than not, it’s the actual illegality of the drug that makes it dangerous. There’s no guarantee of purity, no reliable information and you have to fraternise with crimbos just to get some. The current situation makes liars and hypocrites of lawmakers and educators. It’s fucked.

So, I don’t know about my fellow jurors, but I’ll be spending a small amount of the loss of earnings compensation paid to me by the court on the ingredients for some kick-arse, home-baked hash cakes.

COLUMN #9

I WISH that Stephen Fry didn’t make those television adverts for tea. In the rest of his working life, the man’s a bona fide national institution and, at the same time, an outsider hero – the self-flagellating upper-middle queer genius with a criminal past universally admired by everyone with half a brain.

But Fry is also rich as Croesus. In fact, he was rolling in it barely out of his teens after adapting the 1930s musical Me And My Girl for the West End and he’s constantly in high-powered exotic or exciting work of his choice. Surely, he doesn’t need a chunk of the Twinings promotion budget as well.

Surely, he doesn’t really need to sell us a product and contribute to the grand aspirational hell that is advertising culture, which he himself loathes, at the same time.

Fry gave a brilliant speech recently to a group of leading broadcasters and MPs about the future of the BBC. He rerecorded it in full for his podcast, which means that anyone can hear the concise outline that could easily become one of the clearest clarion defences of the Beeb’s purpose in years to come.

It’s really worth a listen because of his single-minded approach that values the art above the artifice and acknowledges, without getting distracted by, the “needs” of the marketplace.

So, here is a man capable of both fall-on-the-floor filth-tinged hilarity (Jeeves & Wooster, QI) and enough gut-wrenching depth and raw seriousness (Wilde, various TV programmes about depression and HIV) to cause vertigo. Even the ads themselves aren’t that bad, because he’s frantically sending himself up Bristol fashion.

And yet.

This is what the single wisest man of the 20th century – comedian Bill Hicks, obviously – said about people using their fame to do ads.

“Here’s the deal, folks. You do a commercial, you’re off the artistic roll call forever, end of story. There’s a price on your head, everything you say is suspect.

“You know, if you’re young and struggling, OK, I’ll look the other way. Still, you do a commercial, you’re off the artistic roll call forever and that goes for everyone except Willie Nelson.”

So, essentially, Stephen Fry needs to become a monstrously stoned US country rock veteran before he gets forgiven.

Gruff US songwriter Tom Waits has found the best solution to this dilemma. Over the years, he’s become such an essential, distinctive and respected voice that advertisers across the world constantly beg to use his material.

He always refuses and then sues the crap out of them when they use cover versions, employ soundalikes or even mimic his songwriting style. And they do, over and over again.

Waits has made more money from successfully suing the advertising industry than from the sales of even his biggest albums. That’s the way to do it.

Anyway, my two favourite visual artists are Gormley and Banksy for roughly the same reason, which is that they impose their art on the casual viewer without waiting around for our individual permission. Gormley’s imposing sculptures are inevitably the result of some grand public commission, while Banksy’s work is self-commissioned and directly imposed on us by the artist.

Sing their praises, because street art and commissioned public art go hand-in-hand as the sole alternative to the un-art relentlessly glued on our poor walls in the form of whopping great advertising posters selling fear and envy.

And sing damnation upon those artists, in whatever field, who subsume their art for the odious purpose of selling commercial products. It is equally imposed, without anything like equal value.

That is, until the day that some 4×4 SUV company offers me $100,000 for one of my tunes, whereupon I’ll jump the fence as fast as blinking and use the money as a comfort barrier between my comfy life and any need for retrospective self-justification.

COLUMN #8

OVERZEALOUS pseudo health-and-safety nonsense has ruined Reading Festival’s main stage.

I don’t know what to-ing and fro-ing went on behind the scenes between Festival Republic, which organises the event, and the local council. However, the outcome has been a drastic reduction in the volume from the main stage in the last few years, to such a great extent that any real engagement with the music has become impossible.

To give you an idea of how quiet it was, during Friday headliner Rage Against The Machine, we were close enough to the front to be caught in the proper crush of the crowd, yet able to have a conversation at almost normal speaking volume the whole time, while the band riffed away in the background. It was like they were just on a nearby stereo.

Rage were obviously playing an awesome, ruthlessly committed set, but we just caught a whiff of it.

I didn’t pay for a ticket and still felt short-changed, so, if I’d spent the huge amount of money now involved in getting a ticket, not to mention camping, food and travel, for a large-scale festival like this, I would’ve been furious.

It was hugely disappointing and, at those levels, one might as well have stayed home and watched the BBC coverage. And you know what I think of those plonkers.

The organisers have perhaps tried to compensate for whatever horrid noise restrictions have been imposed by setting up extra banks of speakers further down the arena so that the sound is “spread” more evenly.

It’s obviously a well-intentioned idea and a technique that has made the smaller tent stages much better, because they’re often overcrowded for the best bands, yet now you can still hear the music clearly even if you’re stuck outside the tent.

But, for the main stage, it’s utterly pointless and, if you’re going to reduce the volume coming off the stage itself by such a ridiculous amount, extra speakers half a mile down the field won’t help at all.

Let’s face it, Reading town centre ain’t no cultural mecca. Drive through on any Friday night and you’ll hear filthy vacuous thudding clubber shite booming out of every nightclub and bar and enjoy the usual sights of any British drunk mainstream town – the puking and brawling form of escapism that Britain’s “me me me” culture has birthed with aplomb.

Yet, bring a festival of live music into town for a single weekend once a year, with a heritage stretching back to the 1970s, and suddenly it’s all about the noise and not offending the residents.

Were they responding to complaints and, if so, I wonder how many? Tens of thousands of people travel to Reading, the majority of whom primarily come to see the huge international headline acts on the main stage. It’s not like Glasto or Latitude, where people want some kind of lost weekend transcendental experience. Reading is about the music, pure and simple.

And the festival must also bring literally millions of pounds of extra revenue into the town, filling hotels, supermarkets and camping stores, not to mention pubs and restaurants.

Already, informed opinion is that the younger sister festival up in Leeds, which has an identical bill and bands travelling between the two en masse, is the superior event.

The music industry schmoozers and hangers-on don’t bother to make the trip, the site is prettier and more rural and the crowds are looser.

But I’m told that the main stage at Leeds is now a full 50 per cent louder than at Reading.

Perhaps it’s time the organisers went looking for an alternative site in south-east England, where they wouldn’t be so controlled by local bureaucracy. Or perhaps, if they’re having a fight about noise levels, just threatening to make that move might shock the local council – or whichever idiots are causing the problem – to see some sense.

COLUMN #7

ODDLY, I find myself a lot more forgiving of meat-eating in people whose politics I despise.

In other words, if I meet a dyed-in-the-wool Tory or a god botherer who dines upon flesh, it’s easier for me to swallow than the same behaviour from someone on the compassionate open-hearted side of the aisle.

For a start, Tories are so selfish – and the bright ones so pragmatically accepting of their own selfishness – that, in a way, once they’ve admitted it, they have a licence to behave that way in all aspects of their life.

In fact, they almost have a duty to uphold the sacred traditional Nastiness Of The Right, which itself is being tragically eroded by Cameronisation.

But I digress. What I wanted to write was, there are three groups of people who really shouldn’t be allowed to eat meat because its consumption makes such big fat hypocrites of them. They’re all tentatively on “our” side but massively fuck it up come dinner time. They need their faces sellotaping.

The first is Greens. I’m sorry, I don’t care what lightbulbs you’ve got or how effortlessly you’ve switched to a Prius because it makes you feel Californian or even how big your kit-built wormery is, it’s just massively hypocritical to continue to eat meat when we don’t need it to survive and it is such a resource-heavy product.

Methane from the beef industry alone causes more ecological damage than the entire world’s transport.

“Ecologically sound” meat is an illusion too, another sleight-of-hand to avoid actually reducing emissions by cutting back on a non-essential.

“Good” meaties always bang on about their posh locally sourced venison, while somehow neglecting to mention the five-ton kebab they snarfed on the way home from the pub last weekend.

The second group is Reds.

When you compare which industries around the world treat their workers most abominably, the international meat trade is right up there in the column next to sex slavery, with the shady world of restaurant kitchens running up close behind.

In Eric Schlosser’s culture shift-inspiring book Fast Food Nation, he describes the abattoir workers who kill an animal every 11 seconds on their eight-hour shift for minimum wage. And minimum wage is something that a lot of waiters and waitresses only achieve thanks to customer tips, which are stolen by their employers to put towards their salary. Acceptable, comrade?

As I type, there’s a fat bloke sitting near me right now wearing a Stop The War T-shirt but guzzling a massive greasy burger. If I finish this article before he leaves, I’ll try to pluck up the courage to rub his face in it.

Finally, the third group is atheists. The Dawkins brigade, for whom I have a lot of time in many matters, are the pop scientists who taught us that, when we tuck into a nice bit of trout, we’re chewing on a distant cousin.

My main question to them is, without a god to draw a fictional line between species, what moral difference is there between animals and people, particularly those people we happen to be unable to communicate with? How do you draw a line between eating a cute ickle lamb and eating a small child or a foreigner?

Without “species loyalty” embedded in the concept of “soul,” where does our right to eat animals but not people actually come from? Opposable thumbs?

In the ’90s, vegetarianism was on the rise, as people turned away from the cruelty and excess of that industry.

Now, the general trend is cutting down instead of giving up. We’ve compromised en masse and it’s sad to see “enlightened” society clinging to such a thoroughly uncivilised norm.

With a bit of luck, as the global environmental meltdown begins to bite even us in the indulgent West, the decision will be taken out of our hands and we’ll see a forced rekindling of the need to go without the worst part of the human diet. Or else we’ll start eating each other.

COLUMN #6 

 

Why are the bigger left-wing and socially concerned groups so rubbish at organising cultural events? And worse, why is it that socialist or supposedly issue-conscious promoters are so often the shadiest and the quickest to mistreat their artists?

Anyone in my job, at whatever level, wants to play for the Good Guys and promote the causes one agrees with. Yet all-too-often it involves not getting paid what was agreed, or having your slot moved all over the shop at short notice, or, as at Glasto 2005, having my tent stolen by some twits at the Workers’ Beer Company (after being flooded out of their volunteers’ campsite) and never getting it back, leaving me with literally nowhere to sleep on Sunday night in the pouring rain. I ended up in the FutureShorts cinema, crying my eyes out over Casablanca at 5am, before crawling onto a GMB staff coach back to London, knowing full well that one of these hungover volunteer types chattering around me had pinched my canvas.

Whatever you hear in public, you’ll rarely find an artist saying a positive word about this end of the gigging world behind closed doors.

Just this week, a songwriter friend performed at a warm-up gig for a large-scale political music event (one of the biggest of the year). This guy has a devoted live crowd right now, so, despite being promoted as a small part of the night, he was the main draw and contributed majorly to the evening’s success. Yet on arriving, he discovered the event was promoting an entirely different ‘cause’ to the one he’d been expecting. Later, when he tried to get paid, the promoter (one of the biggest names in left-wing live music) had scarpered early with all the cash and wasn’t answering his phone! Now because my friend isn’t daft and wouldn’t accept a future payment date (sadly we’ve all learned to avoid that one the hard way) one of the promoter’s assistants actually had to borrow money from her mates to fulfil their commitments.

And of course, this could so easily end up doing the rounds as a gossipy story criticising the artist for demanding his cash on the night, rather than what it was in truth: drastic unprofessionalism from a campaigning, very politically on-message promoter.

Even when it’s nobody’s fault, messes seem prevalent. One time I drove folks from Love Music Hate Racism up to Manchester for a gig they’d organised at the Labour Party Conference. They wanted me to sing uplifting anthems to some Union old-guard and I’d even learned up a few classics (‘The Internationale’, ‘Power In A Union’ and, gulp, a Bragg cover or two) especially for the occasion. But inevitably there was a cock-up with access passes and I couldn’t get into the building where I was supposed to perform. My set was cancelled and, after hanging out for a bit, I chauffeured a few LMHR dudes down south again.

I didn’t mind that one, because the LMHR crowd are charming and I felt part of some real proper campaign for something, plus we had a nice Chinese dinner. But it was the sheer inevitability of something going awry that strikes me with hindsight. I can almost believe they’d known all along it was a screwed gig but had me drive up anyway because they needed a ferryman. Actually, the heartbreaking bit was, it turned out the guest speaker at the event I was due to sing at was Tony Blair (still PM back then) – and we would’ve been sharing a dressing-room. In fact, the guy who stepped in to replace me scored five minutes alone with Mr Blair talking about racism. I was gutted.

So here’s a plea if you’re running a cultural event with a social – or socialist – agenda. Run the event well, for god’s sake. Promote it properly, schedule it accurately, budget it properly and treat your artists and staff at least as decently as those nasty money-grubbing capitalist promoters do. Then at least we wouldn’t all slag you off behind your backs.

COLUMN #5

Last week, in an Italian café in York, I had my closest encounter with Scientology yet and it left me feeling unexpectedly sympathetic towards the bonkers Hollywood “religion.”

There were four of us eating breakfast. I was with Thomas White from Electric Soft Parade and Brakes, along with two final-year students who’d put us up after a gig the night before.

Over coffee and eggs, once we’d finished telling festival drug stories, we discussed religion in an agreeably scathing way, quickly moving from old-school Pope-bashing to a vicious and unconstrained critique of the Scientology movement.

After a few minutes of this, a grinning middle-aged woman on the next table leaned over and inserted herself into our conversation.

It turned out that she runs the Scientology drop-in and volunteer centre in York, so she felt compelled to counter some of the “untruths” that we were telling.

What followed was a fascinating argument at cross-purposes, where she tried to sell us what she painted as an innocuous business networking club with spiritual and self-improving tendencies. Increasingly confident that we weren’t going to beat her up, she slipped seamlessly from defence to recruitment.

The thing is, we were four hulking great scruffy blokes who’d been vividly dissing her core beliefs.

The simple faith-driven courage that it must’ve taken for her to turn around and engage with us was very impressive, regardless of the drivel that she spouted.

She also clearly believed that this religion had rescued her damaged life. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m in no danger of getting “cleared” and discovering that I believe in space aliens, but it has left me thinking along the following lines.

Why are people so frightened of Scientology specifically? What’s really so bad about it, compared to any other opt-in quasi-religious group or boys’ club?

Given that it grew up within the wider framework of modern Western democracy and law, unlike the older churches that predate, for want of a better word, civility, surely it is essentially relatively harmless?

We talked about the ostracising of people from their community or family if they left the church. Or how converts confess all their secrets, which are then held as ammunition in case they misbehave.

Or the way the “mysticism” only reveals itself at higher “levels,” after phenomenal amounts of time and money have been donated. Or the aggressive way in which the church tackles those who criticise it.

Well, none of this is very nice. However, it’s nothing compared to the behaviour of Catholicism or Islam or any other mainstream big-bucks religion down the years.

It surely can’t be worse to get kicked out of a Beverley Hills golf club than if you were brought up in Alabama or Iran and attempted to declare your atheism – or, god help you, your homosexuality.

Apostasy is still a crime in many corners of the world, as is sex outside marriage. Let’s deal with that shit before we corner John Travolta.

Also, before we critique one sect, don’t we need to critique its grand mothership of free-market imperialism as a whole?

Globalised capitalism itself fulfils just as many “cult criteria” as any offbeat faith group and it was a remarkably cult-like sleight-of-hand – albeit on an overwhelming, worldwide scale – that tricked us all into believing that money was more important than people. And that’s my problem. Yet again, we’re distracted by a lesser evil.

You might be uncomfortable – suspicious, even – with how positive towards Hubbard’s followers this has become, so here are two details that add a gently menacing frisson to the story.

First, I didn’t mention the skinny young fella sitting with the lady in York, who froze still the moment that she turned to talk to us and just waited, patient, robot-like, without moving for the whole half-hour that we talked. He didn’t read or shuffle about, he just sat. I’m not sure that he even blinked.

Second, ever since I blogged the encounter on Myspace, all the advert space on my page has been bought up by Scientologists, who’ve posted endless links saying: “You’ve read the rubbish, now find out the truth!” in a reassuringly mad and scary manner.

They’ve not got me, I promise.

COLUMN #4
Tues 29th July 2008

IT’S obvious now that, with the two exceptions stated below, conventional professional writing is dead or, if not dead, certainly lying comatose in a darkened hospital ward while doctors argue about when to switch off the life support. And the hospital is the one in Scrubs.

Month by month, we watch the world of print media shrink, as advertising revenues dry up, while, at the same time, the rise of amateur writing, blogs and volunteer journalism is inexhaustable.

It must be truly harsh being a qualified professional writer right now, seeing untrained, unchecked bloggers running rampant across what was historically sacred ground.

Last September, Bath’s local paper The Bath Chronicle, published every day for almost a quarter of a millennium, went weekly in response to falling sales.

Only the other day, staff at Brighton’s local paper The Argus, which is owned by US multinational Gannett, so no plucky indie, were told about impending redundancies in editorial – and that’s after the company killed two key cultural magazines and outsourced its pre-press department to India already this year.

Needless to say, they’re not reporting their own turmoil to the local community.

You know that these aren’t isolated incidents. I can’t imagine that similar squeezing isn’t taking place across the country.

Beyond the panicky office culls, there’s a quieter, yet equally momentous pervasion of “free” content provision.

My local paper hasn’t actually paid writers for arts and entertainment reviews for years. And again, I’m sure the same is true nationwide.

Online, the overwhelming presumption – just as in film, television, photography and music – is now one of free peer-to-peer distribution.

Traditionalists would argue, as with the rise of reality TV taking advantage of cheap “real people” instead of paying actors or presenters, that the quality is in a parallel, perilous decline.

But, even where this is true, I think that this era of crap isn’t the future, it’s the death throes of the past.

I’d pitch my favourite arts blogs against the BBC online writers and especially the execrable Daily Mail arts writing.

I keep wondering how culture as a whole will look in a few years, once the games of this turbulent period have played out.

Long term, surely the world will be a vastly better place, once intellectual copyright finally bites the dust through unenforceability and dissemination is returned to the hands of the people.

For me, as a consumer, despite their bad grammar, bias and inaccuracies, 100 first-hand witness reports are far more valuable than one professional journalist account, especially now that “mainstream” news is utterly compromised by its corporate ownership.

Complain about Wikipedia and then watch an hour of Fox. Complain about Youtube and then flick channels on Sky or Freeview.

And, if you think that nobody will make films or music or write articles after the revolution, be reassured. If anything, the movement is towards richer, more inclusive, swappable creativity – almost a new “folk” tradition.

The real people being frozen out are the suits who got between us and our audience or readership in the first place.

Make content of whatever kind available and, if it’s good, in the end, people will pay you directly for more.

We’ll have a direct market-stall-type trade between reader and writer, film-maker and viewer, singer and listener.

One can even imagine a system of cultural exchange that rules out the credit card companies as well – imagine an eBay where I buy a book in return for a few songs. Or get new shoes because the shoemaker wants to be mentioned in my blog. That’s not such a bad future.

The two exceptions that were mentioned in the first paragraph, by the way, are technical writers with a specific expertise and novelists. The techies solve problems directly, so they’re forever needed, like plumbers. The authors have lucked into a product that still has tangible, hold-in-your-hand value. They’re safe, at least until someone develops a genuinely readable digital book.

COLUMN #3
Tues 15 July 2008

Do lefties want arts and entertainment to broadly agree with them politically – or have a social agenda at all – or are they not bothered?

If my occasional experience at the coalface of activist-run events is anything to go by, people would rather just dance, snarf beer and try to get off with each other after a hard day’s issues-based networking.

And fair play to them for that, although it does mean that, counter-intuitively, left-wing audiences at political gigs are often the toughest crowds to perform opinionated material to.

There’s an obvious organic reason why reiterating political content in the evening doesn’t quite work. The audience has already done its bit just by showing up and they don’t want to be preached at when they’re the people already onside. This is especially true if they spent all day discussing injustice or planning a major protest campaign.

But, still, it’s a discouraging thought, when more mainstream, non-partisan audiences are so often surprisingly welcoming to protest content.

A few months ago, venerable US protest singer David Rovics wrote a controversial open letter to the US left begging them to give culture a bigger role in their events.

You can still read it archived on his blog at www.davidrovics.com. He described a situation where the theatre, art, comedy and music of the protest movement is deliberately avoided by organisers or relegated to a side tent role, providing pure entertainment rather than contributing to the soul of the debate.

Here in Britain, I think that we’re much better at incorporating performance and other kinds of cultural contribution into the core part of any movement.

Examples such as Harold Pinter at the huge protest rallies, Ken Loach’s powerful film-making or the success of Love Music Hate Racism show that to be true. It is deemed perfectly appropriate for Tony Benn and songwriter Roy Bailey to merge their two “art forms” into one “performance” and win awards for the result.

Yet, because of choices made by event organisers at the larger events, I’m not sure whether the presence of art, theatre or music currently benefits the discussion of issues themselves or adds any weight to proceedings. We’re increasingly leaning towards bland, liberal cultural performance, rather than anything capable of scything through the bad guys’ ideologies.

Perhaps this is a symptom of the single-issue loose-coalition nature of today’s campaigning. Love Music Hate Racism, for example, despite emerging from a blood-red birthing pool, operates as a non-party political organisation – everyone halfway human is against racism, after all – happy to look for the biggest names that it can co-opt, regardless of their personal politics or lack thereof.

When organisations do this – sign up to the fame game, essentially – the upside is access to the vast, untapped audience of the mainstream. The downside is the relentlessly shit product of the big stars.

In the music world, I give you Joss Stone at Leftfield in 2007. I give you Babyshambles, wherever and whenever they stumble onto a union-sponsored stage and rattle into their inane sub-Shelley drivel. I give you almost everyone at Mandela’s birthday bash. I know we hate racism, but are you sure that we love music?

At which point, the initial question expands to three. When booking a cultural addition to your campaign, would you prefer someone on message, someone actually good or someone who’ll bring the crowds? Because you’ll rarely, if ever, find an act, artist or production that can achieve all three, especially not for £150 and some beers.

Please stop leaning towards the third of those three. Leave the populism to the money-grubbing corporates. It’s fine for spreading the word more thinly across a more numerous, less focused group of people. However, it does nothing to nurture culture itself and nothing to enrich your melting pot of ideas. The arts should be the chilli in your stew, not the water.

COLUMN #2
Tues 8 July 2008

WHAT on earth is going on with BBC arts output? From The Culture Show and Newsnight Review, through their live “major event” coverage and entertainment news streams, right down to Radio 4’s Front Row, we’re no longer learning about fresh new cutting-edge theatre, film, art or music.

Instead, we’re being palmed off with the same dumb bumf that’s already overexposed elsewhere.

I know that it’s uncomfortable attacking the Beeb from any kind of culturally progressive point of view when the organisation comes under such relentless fire from nasty corporates – the demon Murdoch etc – and regressive politicians with a vested interest in toppling or controlling it.

But, to be honest, it’s becoming too bloody annoying to ignore.

With a format that apes Top Gear, the perkily revamped Culture Show exemplifies this phenomenon, seeming to float within a narrow liberal comfort zone, steering clear of anything that might challenge our preconceptions or provoke real thought.

Where have the iconoclasts and revolutionaries gone?

An interview with the writers of Peep Show sits next to a performance by trendy Brazilian pop band CSS, who’ll be on every other music show within a month, while even film critic Mark Kermode’s all too brief interview with Nicholas Roeg and interesting dissection of Don’t Look Now has to be offset with – and time sacrificed for – an utterly pointless pocket review of Prince Caspian.

A recent edition of Newsnight Review had two of Britain’s finest plain-spoken wordsmiths, songwriter Jarvis Cocker and poet Ian Macmillan, wasting their breath on theatre and music that was so clunky, so bereft of linguistic richness, that both were left struggling for anything of positive value to say.

For me, the real problem isn’t the presenters or even the off-kilter approaches that they take, it’s the stuff that they choose to cover.

Consistently, these programmes focus on whatever has been aggressively marketed to them by heavyweight PR firms or multinational distribution companies. It’s all about the budget, as you can tell simply by seeing the same product marketed everywhere else too.

The villains aren’t the PRs themselves, they’re just doing their job and fighting to get their clients precious airtime. The villains are the editors, bookers and producers who can’t be bothered to go find their own virgin subject matter and instead lazily suck up whatever they’re told is this month’s must-have.

This is why Later With Jools Holland has graduated from being the best music show on telly to being instantly turn-offable. Or why most radio coverage from Hay-on-Wye Literature Festival was so teeth-gnashingly formulaic. Or why Glastonbury Festival’s TV broadcast, despite being spread across five channels, avoided any cabaret, comedy, theatre, folk arts or experimental music in favour of the same 10 bands as last year.

One solution would be to roll out the strand known as BBC Introducing across all the arts.

This is a light at the end of the tunnel, a genuine guff-free attempt to nurture new talent by linking the edgiest bits of Radio 1 – the bits that replaced John Peel – with BBC local radio counterparts who have their ears to the ground to bring in bands who are really “undiscovered,” rather than just labelled as such.

In the same way, the entire BBC could and should be out there, finding diverse artists, playwrights and novelists.

What we don’t need is another 100 opinions on the same mess of pies. Equally, what we don’t need is the execs throwing their hands up in the air and calling it quits in the face of YouTube and too many idiot cable stations.

We need the Beeb’s experience and expertise out there, truffling out culture and showing us where to access it, like a publicly funded creativity scout, nosing out the very best of what we haven’t already had thrown in our face by a commercial marketing budget.

That way, there’ll still be some independent arts left in this country come the revolution.

COLUMN #1
Tues 1 July 2008

Hello. I’m Chris and I’ll be writing a column in this spot until I run out of things that grind my gears or they ask me to stop.

I’m a songwriter by trade, living in Brighton. I’ll try not to boff on about the music world too often – especially when there’s so much other culture to roll around in – but I might as well kick off with it and get one bugbear out of the way.

It’s when the interviewer says to me some variation of: “Politics and music don’t mix. Discuss.”

I sigh and launch into a long-winded history of the venerable tradition of protest singing, before stopping myself mid-sentence.
This time, for once, I suddenly think of a different approach. “Can’t anyone just write about anything?” I ask. “Surely, songwriters just write about whatever comes into their head. Limiting that… well, isn’t that fascism?”
But actually, no, we can’t just write about anything and it’s becoming increasingly, frighteningly unclear what the limits are.

Earlier this year, my British record label boss decided not to carry copies of my last EP release into the US, because he was nervous that US customs might have a problem with them. It had never crossed my mind, but he had a good point.

On the CD, there is some gun and gravestone imagery, as well as the lyrics printed inside. And, although they’re not hate-fuelled, they are admittedly complex and what my producer calls “morally cloudy.” Of course, that’s what creativity is about. It’s not tidy.

In Britain, we actually imprisoned self-styled “lyrical terrorist” poet Samina Malik, who wrote her nasty verses about beheading people while working at WH Smith’s Heathrow branch.

Alright, so she’s got some ridiculous views. But, unless she’s building a bomb, you don’t lock her up, you laugh her offstage.

If anything, sticking her in prison will legitimise her work, further radicalise her and certainly blur the boundaries between the creative acts which she’s been criminalised for and any destructive acts in the future.

The war waged last year by Brighton Council and the Green Party on homophobic lyrics in songs – especially the violent “murder music” performed by some reggae and Caribbean dancehall acts – is another example.

They had a local music venue threatened with closure unless it cancelled a gig by Jamaican artist Buju Banton. They then set up a new ASBO-style system whereby police could close down an event in response to even a single complaint about the material being performed.

Today, lyrics by Banton and other acts such as Beenie Man, Elephant Man and Tok are technically “banned” in Brighton and Hove.

For me, this was so casually oppressive, as well as strategically stupid, that I found myself firmly on the other side.

For a start, the one place that homophobic artists should come to is Brighton, where they’d be confronted by gay daily life as a healthy normality as soon as they left the A23.

Moreover, you never weaken an opinion by oppressing its expression. You merely entrench it and potentially encourage a feeling of wronged victimhood among the very people who need their opinions challenged.

One defence was that these artists go beyond hate-speech and actively encourage violence. Well, ignoring the misunderstanding of the way that language is used in a different culture’s lyrics – just as in hip hop – this still moves ominously towards diverting responsibility from the real criminal – the one who raises a hand, rather than a voice.

Homophobes exist, just like racists exist and sexists exist. Should they not create at all? Should they lie in their creativity? If they’re creating, they’re thinking – even if it is, at this point, at a base level.

At some point in the future, there is potential for grace in what they do. Allow them to move through it and they may get there. But oppress them or kick them out of your town and you’re no better than they are.

2 responses to “MS 1-50

  1. #14 – very forgiving of you re the subs. In case you missed it, not everyone is:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/jul/23/mediamonkey

    The whole pitiful saga unfolds here, hilariously I think:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/series/coren

    Love the new single and the excellent remixes, thank you

    Plan to be there Jan 11; sounds a great line-up/benefit,good for mid-winter blues too.
    I think you are approaching my “most gigs by one artist I’ve seen” record, still held by Jarvis/Pulp (9) – hell, we’re off to Shepherd’s Bush in 2 weeks to see him again.
    Keep changing line-ups/being so prolific and radical and you’ll clinch it
    best wishes
    Thurstan Crockett

  2. Well, we can hope. It might not happen, but that would be a great choice for president.

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