Friday, 7 November 2014

Where you grew up is probably awesome. Is it as awesome as Ealing?

I grew up in a nondescript terraced house in a nondescript little road in a nondescript part of a relatively nondescript borough. That's how I saw it when I was growing up, it's by and large how it would be seen now. Between Northfields and South Ealing on the Piccadilly line. When people look at Northfields and South Ealing on the blue piccadilly, they don't think to themselves "there is the glamorous centre of the universe!" and they're right not to.

I think fondly of it, but it's hardly a golden wonderland. When growing up, I imagined many more exciting, meaningful places.

Except ... I was wrong. It's turns out Ealing actually is the most significant and amazing place in the world. Who knew?

If you grew up in what you thought was a fairly nondescript place, you might well find out on a little investigation that it's full of secrets and sites of wonder.

Though I've always been a chap interested in acquiring knowledge, I was surprisingly uncurious and unimpressed about the wonders all about me growing up.

If you're a film fan anywhere in the world, you hear the word Ealing, you surely follow it with "Comedies" or "Studios". I knew about Ealing Studios growing up, I knew because they were 10 minutes walk away but I didn't fully appreciate how enormously excellent a place those studios have a place in the history of world cinema, how "Ealing" carries as much cache and inherent meaning as, say,  "spaghetti western", "screwball", "Disney" (well maybe not quite Disney ...) or "film noir".

So I had little excuse for not realising Ealing was a bit marvellous. Even more so as, at my first Ealing home (where we left when I was 5) our nextdoor neighbour, Tony, had collaborated on an actual Top 3 single in the early 80s, which we found terribly exciting. As a child, that was his most exciting feat. When I heard about him also being in bands with oldies with names like Jack Bruce and Jeff Beck, that seemed comparatively small fry. Just the most renowned instrumentalists in the history of rock'n'roll.

Aah, the history of rock'n'roll, that's what little Ealing was really about. When I say little Ealing, I also mean Little Ealing, the specific area where I lived. Who was a former student of the former convent school across the road? Mary O'Brien... who became Dusty Springfield.

And just a bit of a walk away, over towards Ealing Common, around the same time Dusty was growing up, so was Peter Townshend. And just by Ealing Broadway was the Ealing Club, where Jagger and Richards met Jones and the Stones played many of their first gigs, where The Who and Cream and Manfred Mann and Fleetwood Mac were all part of Alexis Korner's scene.

Townshend and Ronnie Wood also went to Ealing Art College. As would Freddie Mercury. I remember going into a pub near me when I was about 19, no longer a Queen fan, and seeing a little bit on the wall about Mercury hanging out there, and thinking how insanely excited that would have made me a few years earlier.

Oh, and look, that's not all. The park just over the road from mine was called Blondin Park, and that's because Charles Blondin, the great daredevil of the 19th century who was the first man to tightrope walk across Niagara Falls, when he decided he needed to chill out a bit, retired and died in Northfields.

And the Brentham club, the scene of many teen cricket matches, was where none other than Fred Perry, master of the polo shirt, learnt his tennis.

There's more, plenty more. That acid jazz thing of the early 90s, Jamiroquai and the Brand New Heavies and what have you, that's Ealing. Hell, there's Sid James and Peter Crouch and Neil Kinnock who I stuck my tongue out at. There's Ho Chi Minh, too ...

Ealing may be a little bit remarkable, i mean, there can't be too many suburbs that can really claim to be the birthplace of British rock'n'roll and not be laughed at, but I bet if you looked into it, you'd find some pretty amazing things about where you're from, things someone told you when you were a kid but you didn't care about, but now are just mindblowing.

All those blue plaques for slightly boring historical figures in the centre of London, but by the 20th century, it was all going on in the suburbs, wasn't it? That's where the early history was made.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Boardwalk Empire - (a non-musical post)

"In the final end, he won the war, after losing every battle ..."

That certainly does not apply to Boardwalk Empire's main character, Nucky Thompson, who dies in the closing scene, but I rather think it applies to the show itself. In the final end, in the final assessment, for all its flaws, Boardwalk's final season, final episode, final scene have earnt it a place as a truly great TV show, rather than just a very good one.

I'm surprised. It begun to great fanfare, not to mention vast budget, with Terence Winter in charge and Scorsese on board, but the first season disappointed just a little. Not only did it take a fair while for the characters to bed in (including the fact that, for me, Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt and Kelly Mcdonald all took a while to convince as leads), but, in truth, not all that much seismic and thrilling happened and there were a few accusations of misogyny, or at least over-masculinity, flying around.

Still, if one looked on the bright side and believed in the show, one could take confidence from the relatively gentle pace of the first series. It's just possible they've got this all figured out ...

And now it's over, of course i'll never know if they had it all figured out or if they made it up as they went along, if the best of it came about by accident, but what's important is that as I watched that closing scene, I felt rewarded, I felt impressed, I felt like I'd been told the full story, I felt like the show had given me everything important it possibly could have done. Boardwalk Empire wasn't just a flashy quasi-historical tale of gangsters and guns, it was the immaculately paced tragedy of Nucky Thompson.

When it was announced, shortly after the end of Season 4, that Season 5 would be the last, I was surprised. Though I've tried, I haven't been able to find out if closure was prematurely forced on the showrunners. I'd felt at that stage that Boardwalk could run and run. Why, we'd only got from 1921 to 1924 after 4 seasons. Prohibition didn't end till 1933. Nucky Johnson (on whom Thompson was, it turns out very loosely, based) didn't die till 1968. How are they going to tie this up?

Then, when Season 5 began with the jump 7 years forward to 1931, it seemed obvious. Building to the end of Prohibition, the downfall of Capone and, most crucially, when the big boys made their play and took over, the guys that dominated American crime for a long, long time -  Luciano and Lansky. Real people, real events. Whatever happened in Boardwalk Empire, these guys had to emerge the winners.

The show's treatment of its most famous characters - besides the likes of Warren Harding, Eddie Cantor, Jack Dempsey and Joe Fitzgerald making occasional appearances - Charlie "Lucky" Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Ben "Bugsy" Siegel  and indeed Al Capone, cemented its mastery for me.

Particularly the first two - from the start, Luciano, as played by Vincent Piazza, was a little unconvincing. Really, this guy? He seemed like a little bit of a dumb small-time hood. His authority and poise grew, but slowly. So, when he made his devastating play in Season 5, Nucky was as surprised as the viewer. "I underestimated you, Charlie ..." as we all had, and suddenly, finally, Luciano looked like a dark overlord, an embodiment of evil.

Lansky had been even more innocuous and inconspicuous, (superbly played by Anatol Yusef) small, composed, watchful, articulate, in just one small scene had he kicked the crap out of someone who slighted him, just to show what must have been there. Apart from that, he was background boy, businessman. Again, the show got it just right. Nucky referred to Luciano as "his boss". Mistake. Lansky's full power is a bit shrouded in mystery - was he really one of the most powerful men in America, or was he more of an accountant, a sideman? We'll probably never know. But we know he lived till the 1980s, so he must have been pretty smart to manage that.

In both cases, Nucky got them wrong, underestimated them. He was a smart guy, but he made some terrible decisions when trying to thwart the tide of history and they contributed to his downfall.

But, as that final season so expertly unravelled, his real downfall lay in one moment, 30 years earlier, one sin which he never recovered from, one decision where ambition turned to evil and crushed decency. He gave up the teenage Gillian Darmody to the horrific Commodore and got what he deserved for it, killed by her teenage grandson, to whom he hadn't been able to show enough kindness to redeem himself.

So, in the end, Nucky's downfall was wrapped up with three generations of Darmody (fictional characters)  more so than Arnold Rothstein, Johnny Torrio, Esther Randolph, Joe Masseria, Nelson Van Alden, Valentin Narcisse, Gyp Rossetti, Al Capone, Harry Daugherty, J Edgar Hoover, George Remus, Waxey Gordon, even than Luciano, Lansky and Siegel, he'd managed to escape from all those enemies with his life still intact and a couple of million in the bank. It was his terrible betrayal of a girl who trusted him as a young man who might still have been good and the course that took him down that destroyed him.

But, still, what a list of enemies! After its steady start, what an extraordinary gallery of memorable characters and memorable performances there were in Boardwalk Empire. What an incredible thing that the one character of unimpeachable moral goodness, the one that everyone was rooting for, whose trials tore at the heartstrings more than any other, was a man who'd killed over 200 people in cold blood. Richard Harrow was just one of many brilliant characters whose impact grew and grew. Van Alden, of course, Chalky White, Gillian, Rothstein, Narcisse, Sally Wheet, Eddie Kessler, Mickey Doyle, the list goes on. And then there was Gyp Rossetti.

Perhaps he was a bit too much, perhaps the show loved him so much that he rather dominated Season 3. But has there ever been a more frightening, nightmarish, memorable villain? I dreaded every time he appeared on screen. Narcisse, a more calculated, chilling evil had almost the same effect on Season 4. His comeuppance in the very last episode seemed well deserved!

Because, of course, the fictional characters, well, most of them, had to die to clear the way for the cold hard history of organised crime in America. From Jimmy Darmody  and the despicable Kaestner to Owen Sleater to Eddie Kessler to Richard Harrow, then on to Season 5, in quick order, Sally, Van Alden, Chalky and finally Nucky himself. Somehow or other Eli's still alive, Gillian (but what kind of life?) and Margaret, shrewd and independent, in the best shape of all of them.

Boardwalk Empire managed to tie up all its loose ends, to give the impression that every scene, every moment had been meticulously planned all along, however untrue that may be.

Finally, a word on Steve Buscemi, who took a while to convince me as a ruthless gangster, but grew, showed more layers to the character, every episode of every season. Perhaps the best thing about the show was how, throughout the early seasons, he allowed other characters to dominate scenes around him, but then, in the end, was able to seize his moment and make Boardwalk Empire his story all along.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

So, you ask, what should have won the Mercury Prize each year?

Strangely, it's a slightly different question from What was the Best British Album of each year since 1992, and it's certainly a bit different from What was my Favourite British Album of each year since 1992.

It's difficult in some years because there are too many great contenders, it's difficult in other years because there's a desert of good British albums (I kind of understand now how Speech Debelle won), it's difficult for me to do this because, who am I kidding, if it was me there'd be about 5 Furries albums, 3 Blur albums, 2 James Yorkston albums, 3 Belle and Sebastian albums and probably a Bob Dylan album for good measure.

Still, I think I've come up with an OK alternative (where alternative is actually required) list, and a few others for some years which would be worthy winners.

But this is a bit unsatisfactory and I acknowledge I'm narrowing the range rather than expanding it. There are a few years where you can safely say they chose an album that didn't go on to great acclaim and success, which looks strange in hindsight, and I can reasonably suggest what would have been a more fitting winner, but there are other years where my alternative choice is a little weak,

I've tried to get it right in terms of the fact that entries are usually July to July or so each year

Year Actual Winner My Winner Alternatives
1992 Screamadelica -Primal Scream
1993 Suede - Suede Suede Tindersticks - Tindersticks, Giant Steps - Boo Radleys, Modern Life is Rubbish - Blur
1994 Elegant Slumming - M People
Parklife - Blur Dog Man Star - Suede
1995 Dummy  - Portishead Dummy The Bends - Radiohead, Definitely Maybe   - Oasis, Maxinquaye - Tricky, Grand Prix - Teenage Fanclub
1996 Different Class - Pulp Tigermilk - Belle and Sebastian Help - War Child, Fuzzy Logic - Super Furry Animals, Different Class - Pulp,  Everything Must Go - Manic Street Preachers, What's the Story … - Oasis
1997 New Forms - Roni Size/Reprazent OK Computer - Radiohead If You're Feeling Sinister - Belle and Sebastian, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space - Spiritualized, Blur - Blur, Radiator - Super Furry Animals
1998 Bring it On - Gomez When I was Born for the 7th Time - Cornershop
Mezzanine - Massive Attack
1999 OK - Talvin Singh Guerrilla - Super Furry Animals (A TRICKY  YEAR!) Surrender - The Chemical Brothers, Come On Die Young - Mogwai
2000 Hour of the Bewilderbeast - Badly Drawn Boy Hour of the Bewilderbeast Doves - Lost Souls, Little Black Numbers - Kathryn Williams
2001 Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea - PJ Harvey Asleep in the Back - Elbow Free All Angels - Ash, Rooty - Basement Jaxx, Kid A - Radiohead, Gorillaz - Gorillaz, Here Be Monsters - Ed Harcourt
2002 A Little Deeper - Miss Dynamite Run Come Save Me - Roots Manuva Original Pirate Material - Streets, Moving Up Country - James Yorkston and the Athletes
2003 Boy in Da Corner - Dizzee Rascal
Boy in Da Corner Hate - The Delgados
2004 Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand Franz Ferdinand A Grand Don't Come For Free - The Streets,  Dear Catastrophe Waitress - Belle and Sebastian
2005 Hope There's Someone - Antony and the Johnsons
Arular - MIA Silent Alarm - Bloc Party
2006 Whatever People Say  I Am … - Arctic Monkeys
Whatever People Say …
2007  Myths of the Near Future -  Klaxons Back to Black - Amy Winehouse
2008 The Seldom Seen Kid - Elbow Midnight Organ Fight - Frightened Rabbit In Rainbows - Radiohead, 22 Dreams - Paul Weller
2009 Speech Therapy - Speech Debelle When the Haar Rolls In - James Yorkston Lungs - Florence and the Machine
2010 xx - The xx The xx Total Life Forever - Foals, I Speak Because I Can - Laura Marling, The Defamation of Strickland Banks - Plan B
2011 Let England Shake - PJ Harvey
Let England Shake
2012 An Awesome Wave - Alt-J An Awesome Wave (PRETTY TERRIBLE YEAR)
Mid Air - Paul Buchanan, Django Django - Django Django, iLL Manors - Plan B
Overgrown - James Blake
AM - Arctic Monkeys
Settle - Disclosure
2014 DEAD - Young Fathers American Interior - Gruff Rhys DEAD - Young Fathers, The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society, LP1 - FKA Twigs