Sunday, 28 June 2015

Kanye West & Gemma Cairney: The Moronic Glastonbury Experience

One of the reasons I always enjoy watching Glastonbury is that it introduces me to music I wouldn't normally listen to. Friday night, I settled down and watched the BBC2 late night show, not knowing what I was going to see but unsurprised that I found so much to like. Though they're not a band I've ever listened to except, perhaps, at a previous Glastonbury, Florence and the Machines surprised me with a fantastic set. It might have been a bit happy clappy for my tastes and all that nonsense about grabbing the person next to them sounded like the prelude to charges of public groping but, as headlining acts go, it was impressive. Florence earned an extra fan on that performance alone and should clearly be promoted to a proper headline slot at a future festival.

Even more impressive, to my ears, were the bands that came after. Wolf Alice really seriously impressed me with their thick grungy sound. I then found myself doing a Google search for Sharon Van Etten after a good solo performance on the BBC stage. Hot Chip were good but I'm not sure I'd go out of my way to buy an album but the opposite is true of the Kasai Allstars. The Allstars were sublime and precisely the kind of thing that sticks in my mind as being the very best of Glastonbury. Not sure what it says about Glastonbury being a music festival when they performed to a relative small crowd but they made a fantastic sound and conveyed real passion for their music that transcended language. Definitely a highlight of the festival so far.

Not performing to a small crowd last night was Kanye West. I'd read somewhere that Ron Mael (of Sparks and currently FFS) said that he was a fan of West. I couldn't tell if Ron was serious or not but I thought this was a chance for me to see what West is about. I went into it not knowing a thing about West except that he's married to a Kardashian about whom I know even less except for the 'break in the internet' photo of last year. I have never ever heard Kanye West's music. I don't know his back story except that I know that he has a high opinion of himself and some people have protested his invite to Glastonbury.

I watched the entire Kanye set and, I confess, it was a struggle. The person I was watching it with even had to leave the room after I said I'd like to see it through to the end. The performance was making her so angry. I shared the sentiment but I knew I wanted to write something about it today and it seemed only fair to watch the entire thing before making a judgement.

It began well. Visually the single figure of West under the bank of lights was striking. West's backing tapes (no sign of any musicians in any of this) were catchy but that was true throughout. Perhaps I'm not postmodern enough to appreciate this but I'm not entirely sure you can claim to be a musical genius when the best parts of your act are samples ripped from catchy songs of the past.

After a strong beginning, the performance settled into a pattern and really didn't develop. The lights would change occasionally but the whole thing was either a muffled rap or a middle of the road soulful croon. The crooning was better than the rapping but I wish I could say something about the lyrics which were largely incomprehensible to me and hard on the ears. Nearly everything was pushed through some kind of vocoder, which too often made him sound like a dolphin farting in a bathtub. Occasional phrases stuck out but it was usually the word which caused Jeremy Clarkson no end of trouble when he was thought to have barely muttered it a year or so ago. Last night, the BBC delighted in the fact the word was broadcast a few hundred times and at one point was being chanted by the crowd. It's a point that's not always picked up and I do wonder if critics are right when they argue that West is given a far easier time by a largely white press who are so desperate to emphasis their liberal credentials they won't condemn a performer who is crass, disrespectful of his audience, and utterly unworthy of praise.

Not that bad language bothers me and I've heard much worse. Yet what really bothered me was the sheer banality of the performance. The worst thing you can do as a Glastonbury headlining act is be boring but Kanye West was precisely that. I've never been so bored watching a so-called 'superstar'. Perhaps I'm just old but I doubt if that's it. I like difficult sounds. I embrace challenging music. This wasn't even that. It was just bad music and far below the standards of Glastonbury, which elsewhere is a serious music festival for people serious about their music.

One other point: I've never seen such a grumpy person in the business of entertaining people. He stopped songs perhaps two or three times, occasionally muttering rebukes to his team. He seemed constantly unhappy yet at the same time believing that he really is the 'the greatest living rock star on the planet'. I hope to God he was saying that with his tongue firmly in his cheek because, in truth, he wasn't even the greatest living rock star at Glastonbury. I'm not even sure he was the greatest living rock star on that stage.

The whole evening was perhaps best summed up when the gawping fool Gemma Cairney came back on screen and was breathless with praise for what we'd just watched. She praised him for being unpredictable (being hoisted into the air on a cherry picker being an example of that) but what I saw was a performance only remarkable because it was completely unremarkable. If you want stage presence and invention, go watch the last song of the Kasai Allstars' set as they all mount an invisible motorbike and dance off the stage.

I've written before about Cairney being the most high profile representative of a new brainless BBC but her performances at Glastonbury usually sets a new standard for being witless. I'm sure she has equally witless defenders inside the corporation who believe she appeals to an important demographic but any demographic that identifies with Cairney is a demographic that needs immediate remedial help and checking for brain leaches. She splutters and gasps and groans in the place where you'd hope for words and each appearance makes you seriously wonder if the BBC aren't suffering an outbreak of the living dead. If you do a Google search for her videos, you come up with her playing 'Innuendo Bingo' on Radio One, which I'd not seen before but pretty much sums up this lamentable side of Aunty Beeb's attempts to appeal to 'yoof'. It involves two people, mouths filled with water, poised over a dustbin. The presenter then plays clips from shows containing filthy double entendres and the point of the game is to avoid laughing. Of course, the player who doesn't laugh will get the other person's mouthful of water spat into their face.

Spitting water in somebody's face is about the level of Gemma Cairney's skills as a presenter. She might be ideally suited (and, indeed, I think she is) to children's TV, but anybody over the age of 13 must get slightly pissed off at her infantile style. 'Gormless' is the phrase that keeps coming to mind when she speaks. She has a wide eyed passion for everything, as though seeing everything for the first time, but it quickly turns into a spluttering inarticulate shower of stupidity and I find it hard not to turn it off.

She's the worst aspect of the BBC's otherwise superlative coverage. They don't cover any event with quite the same brilliance as they do Glastonbury. They have presenters like Jo Whiley, Mark Radcliffe and Lauren Laverne who are simply stunningly good at their job because they match their knowledge of music with genuine wit and a relaxed presenting style. Yet the whole thing is brought to its knees by Cairney who seems to be there only because the BBC are desperate to get the affirmation of the dumbest segment of its audience. If the BBC ever lose the license fee, it will because people like Cairney have radically undermined what the BBC should represent. The license fee can only be justified if it's a tax we pay to produce a cultural product that sets a higher standard for thought and action than would be possible when striving to be competitive in the commercial marketplace. Cairney doesn't even aspire to a mediocre standard for thought and action. She makes you resent putting money in her pocket. Her inverted donkey laughter is like the death knell of the BBC. It leaves you wondering how much the BBC pay this fool and how we can demand a portion of our license fee back.

Now, I'm off to finish watching today's set by Patti Smith. So far she's been everything that Kanye West wasn't last night.

Monday, 22 June 2015

ABC's New Series of Battlebots: Reviewed Through English Eyes

I geeked myself out tonight, though I had to scour the web to do it in a way that was probably a little bit wrong. I got to glimpse the first episode of Battlebots, the returning ABC show that will probably never get shown here in the UK. From what I've seen, they have four fifths of a remarkable show and one fifth of something that deserves to be dumped somewhere mid-Atlantic.

The great four fifths are the robots, the robot builders, the crowd, and the arena. Look closely and these are people who love robots and the technology behind robots. I say with a note of pride that these people are geeks. They're the kids who didn't fit in at school because they were in love with servo motors and engineering schematics. These are the kids who organized their own tournaments and then went home to watch Mythbusters and other shows made specifically for them. They are, in other words, my kind of people. They're the people that the website Tested is built for and it was over at Tested that I first learned about the new series of Battlebots. I'd watched Norman Chan's interviews with all the builders and I was as excited to see the first episode as I was also frustrated to know that I might not see it.

Thankfully, in the dark corners of the web, ghosts of these shows persist long enough that non-Americans can see them if we look hard enough and, like I said, I loved four fifths of what I saw.

Yet that leaves one fifth of the show I've not mentioned. That one fifth is the presenters and they really do bring the whole thing down.

I don't understand why a show aimed at geeks and powered by geeks should be hosted by what, in the American vernacular, are 'jocks'. These are the most anodyne of American TV presenters, more bull than brains. They are drivel-spouting cliches of the worst kind. One (Kenny Florian) is an 'MMA Star', whatever the hell that means but I'm guess it means that he beats people up for a living. Not very 'geek' at all. Another is Chris Rose, apparently a professional sports presenter, which explains why he's so big, loud and grating. He only needed to say 'they've poured blood, sweat and gears into this' before I wanted to attack my own forehead with an electric drill.

This for me is the sad part of what could be a great show. The first episode had the robot Plan 9, built by Lisa Winter who I remember from robot battles of the past when she was a precocious young gear-head driving a bug shaped robot. Since then, Lisa has grown up. Her hair has turned pink and she's now covered by tattoos. So, okay, I'm not a fan of tattoos myself but I can sometimes make an exception when it's part of that West Coat hipster vibe. I don't like tattoos on anybody but I like people who are themselves and unique. Even if you could argue that the hipster look is itself now derivative, the people who have it tend to be interesting, articulate, and intelligent. Winter is no different. When she speaks, she does so without resorting to scripted banalities. She is a great representative of the culture from which battling robots has emerged. It's one of the parts of the America I love. It's the good bit of a sometimes terrifying and depressing nation.

Sadly, that erudite, witty, individual culture is here being enveloped by something that's utterly mainstream and as ugly as hell. The main host is Molly McGrath who is as far from Lisa Winter as you could get. McGrath is toned and tanned to TV perfection. She's got a great smile and legs that go well past her knees. She articulates her phrases unlike anything you hear in real life. She knows how to stand in the highest high heels and her dress is slightly transparent so you can really see how far those leg go. She's a geek's dream girl, stunning yet in a totally artificial way you've seen a thousand times before and which means that, really, she isn't stunning at all. Lisa Winter is stunning because Lisa Winter is individual and creative and representative of a younger generation doing their own thing in the outlands beyond the mainstream.

And that's what I take from the first episode of Battlebots. It's a geek festival being taken over and ruined by the professional athletes and the professional presenters, who were the very people the geeks of the world wanted to escape back when they went off to do their own thing in high school. Even more than the sound of metal upon metal, the most grating thing about Battlebots is that somebody somewhere thought we needed those meatheads to justify the competition. It's the corporate mainstream glitz and misguided 'professionalism' that actually brings Battlebots down from the lofty heights it might have reached had it a little self-awareness. Perhaps it's just because I'm English that I'm particularly sensitive to this kind of overly produced American TV but had Battlebots been on the BBC, with the same people and the same production values, it might not have had quite so many flashing lights and braying asses for hosts. It might have had a few more wits and, like Top Gear, it might have taken over the globe and List Winter would rightly be its star. I'll definitely try to catch the rest of the series but, geek though I am to the last fibre of my being, a lot of this is really not for me.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Celebrating Uwe Boll Day

I'm celebrating World Uwe Boll Day but perhaps you don't recognise the festival. Perhaps you don't even recognise Uwe Boll.

Boll is a film director who is widely regarded as one of the worst in the business.

Of course, that's a lazy assumption to make simply because it's such a popular assumption. Very few people who actually criticise Boll have probably seen a Boll movie. Yet they say he's bad and laugh at him because that's currently very much in vogue.

Yet even if Boll deserves his reputation, I sometimes suspect he might actually be quite a good director but other reasons make his films so bad. Possibly one reason is his ego. He makes low budget movies despite having ambitions that match those of James Cameron. Boll has tended to make films where he's somehow managed to snag the rights to a popular video game, meaning that audiences recognise the title of their much beloved game and then wonder how the hell the results could turn out so bad. 'Alone in the Dark' was a great series of computer games but Boll's 'Alone in the Dark' the movie is something else entirely. He made the film version of the notorious video game, 'Postal', a nasty little game in which you play the role of a postman going 'postal'. However, the film version is supposedly a dark satire on modern culture and some people rate it.

The thing is: when a film is as low budget as Boll's films tend, it isn't really all that significant when they get low scores like 3 and 4 on IMDB. Most low budget films do. They simple can't compete with Hollywood. The significant thing is when they actually get scores around 6 or above.

Yet the question of Boll's talent are often set aside because Boll is something more than just a film maker. He's an internet meme. He's a symbol of something that the masses can mock without mercy. He is the struggling hack or artist (the distinctions are sometimes hard to see) whose efforts can easily be ridiculed. This is largely down to Boll's character. Boll is very vocal and that ego I mentioned has no qualms about attacking his critics. He famously challenged any critic to a round of boxing a few years back. He's also notorious for his regular attacks on the Hollywood machine.

Now, even though I've never sat through a Boll film, I do have some sympathy for the guy because he genuinely seems to love what he does. His ego is a hardened bulwark against which the world's critics smash themselves with delighted fury. Uwe Boll is the easy target and, in that sense, I even admire him for being so solid despite the attacks. I don't know what the ratio is of critics to creators but I should imagine it's pretty high. The world is full of critics.

Yesterday, I saw the videos that Boll has recorded in response to his latest Kickstarter attempt to get funding for a new film.  The thing is: people laugh at Boll and mock him but, I think, what Boll is expressing should be familiar to anybody who struggles to get recognition for their work. Hell, it's how I feel most days as I put long hours into what I believe are genuinely worthwhile projects. Perhaps it wasn't wise of Boll to say those things on camera but that lack of restraint is the very reason why Boll has become notorious. These videos will further enhance his reputation as a person worthy of people's scorn. To me, however, they make me feel sorry for Boll because I feel sorry for anybody who tries to be creative hard in this world and is routinely turned on (or simply ignored) by the masses who have never once tried to be creative.

As we're seeing across the Middle East, it takes only a moment to destroy something that has taken another person a lifetime to create. It seems to very unfair and terribly one sided. It actually makes me thankful that Uwe Boll is there as an example of resilience and self-belief. Don't get me wrong: he's wrong about a lot of things. He was just dumb to single out George Clooney who, despite the media's obsessions with his good looks, is actually turning into a very fine writer and director. Where Boll isn't wrong, however, is in being passionate. In a world of cynics, naysayers, and general indifference, we probably need a few more Uwe Bolls to stand up and say they believe in what they're doing. The alternative is a bland singularity of corporate messages and rehashed franchises.




Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Did somebody forget about Sir Barry Humphries?

So it's confirmed. It's going to be Sir Lenny Henry.

Oh, give me a break! If Henry is worthy of a knighthood then I guess the Chuckle Brothers get peerages.

Seriously: the worst comedian in the UK gets one of the highest honours? Put that into context: Armando Iannucci has an OBE but Lenny Henry will soon have a knighthood. The man who brought us 'The Thick of It' and 'Alan Partridge' is less acclaimed by the (supposed) nation than quite possibly the most derisible comedian we've seen since the heyday of crap comedians back in the 1970s.

What about the truly great comedians we have eligible for that award? Barry Humphries only got a CBE in 2007 when he deserves a hell of a lot more. I mean: it's BARRY HUMPHRIES, for Christ's sake!

Poor Spike Milligan (one of our truly great comedians) had to hit 82 before they knighted him. And what about the Pythons? Any one of them is more worthy, though I hear that Cleese once turned down a peerage. What about making Terry Gilliam a 'Sir' for services to cinema, comedy and the general state of the nation's mental health?

I won't be calling Lenny Henry a 'sir' any time soon. It's almost as ridiculous as 'Dame' Joan Collins.

It reminds me why I'm really glad to have quit public blogging. The British public clearly have different tastes to me.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Were my readers ever real?

Over the past few months, I noticed certain trends on this blog. I notice certain 'people' visiting regularly and it gave me a reassuring sense that some of you were real. Of course, I never heard from many of those 'regulars'. I'd just look at my stats and think 'oh, that person from Eastern Europe is visiting again' or 'it's the reader in Paris' or 'the Ukraine'.

I decided to move to a private blog hoping that those regulars would come visit and become new regulars over there. A couple have but not that many. Certainly, not enough to justify the existence of this blog but enough to justify the existence of that other blog, which is written solely for real people to enjoy. I'd rather entertain one person I know that a 1000 people who might be specters of the web, robots, spiders, web scrapers...

What's odd is that despite not blogging here for days, I still see the hits coming from those 'regulars', which makes me wonder if they really ever existed. Might they just be machines, programmed to hit the blog, for reasons unknown? It's like they have a routine which doesn't adapt to my disappearance.

On days when my private blog is quiet, I miss having those regular hits but, the truth is that I don't miss having fake regulars. I don't want to be speaking only to machines. I wanted people who actually thought this blog was worth reading.

I suppose I always wrote this blog out of a sense of despair, even loneliness. I genuinely relish having human contact with intelligent people. I want to share the things I do with real people of a similar mind. Well, sod it. I've issued an invite and anybody who asked, got the password to the new blog. The thing is, you specters of the web: I really am blogging privately. Everything that used to go here for all is now behind a wall. Knock on the door if you're real. Otherwise, I refuse to believe that you even exist.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Blogging is fun again...

... but I'm not blogging here. If you're a regular and still wonder where I am, I'm elsewhere. My invite is still open to regulars who want to drop in but I need to send you a password to allow you past the snarling guard dogs. Email me. Introduce yourself if I don't know you already.