OSAMU TEZUKA

26 May 2012

AstroIt is not really well known that Japan has been a major player in the development of cartoons and comic art. I think they deserve more credit; credit where credit is due — take Iwao Takamoto, for example, Iwao worked for Disney on films such as “101 Dalmatians” and “Lady & The Tramp”, but he also created Penelope Pitstop and Scooby-Doo for Hanna Barbera.

Scooby-DooTakamoto was Americanised, and his subjects were western in all respects, but the Japanese nevertheless managed to develop their own spin on things, and this has grown to be a massive market of  Animé (animations) and Manga.

For Animé, we have Studio Ghibli of Tokyo who make full-length animated movies, and are often referred to as the Japanese Disney. My children adore Spirited Away, My Neighbour Tortoro, Pom Poko, Ponyo and Howl’s Moving Castle. In fact, Spirited Away is the only film made outside the English-speaking world to win an Oscar, and it grossed over $274 worldwide.

Studio Ghibli

Manga is often known as BD – a Belgian/ French term “bandes dessinées” which simply means “drawn Strips”. This is considered better than the American term, “Comic”, which carries the implication of being funny or at least not-serious.

There is a long traditional Japanese history in Manga, and is very influential in producing graphic art novels, particularly of a serious or adult nature. Manga stories are often made into Animé, if popular enough.

TezukaThe Golden Age of Manga dates back to just after World War II, and to one man — Osamu Tezuka.

At just 17, Tezuka created his first pieces of work, The Diary of Ma-chan and Shin Takarajima (New Treasure Island). He single-handedly invented the stylistic attributes that makes Manga distinct. He gave Manga its style, particularly the invention of Manga eyes, which have been massively influential on Japanese Manga and Animé.

1989-02-09, Tezuka died of stomach cancer in Tokyo.

As an idea of how highly Tezuka was regarded, the city of Takarazuka, Hyogo, where he grew up, has opened a museum in his memory. Japanese Postage Stamps were issued in his honour in 1997. And, the Japanese toy company Kaiyodo began manufacturing a series of figurines of Tezuka‘s creations in 2003.

Osamu Tezuka is held in high regard all over the world; and rightly so. He is a massive influence on street art, graffiti, and comics.

When I first saw his work, I was amazed that it was from the 40s and 50s. He was so ahead of his time. This is merely my small tribute to a great man. Check him out on the internet — and then spread the word.

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BEGGARING BELIEF

21 April 2012

[Picture of Shaman]Belief is such an interesting word. Everyone believes that two plus two equals four because that’s rational — yet the word is probably more often associated with the irrational.

I have always enjoyed reading philosophy, religion, and magic, and their historical contexts, so much so that my bookshelves groan under the strain. I was moving some books today and spotted my old copy of  “The Golden Bough” by  Sir James Frazer, and a flip through the pages brought back a lot of memories.

In my post on Cthulhu, I stated:

“But I am also a human, and brought up in a fabulous fantasy world of Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. I am interested in the arts, and cannot deny there is something weird going on — it cannot merely be a collective, collaborative delusion entirely. …

“All I’m saying is that — rightly or wrongly — I have intuitive feelings, gut feelings, traits that reveal the irrational, illogical, and impulsive emotional over-rides.

“I respond to music, to paintings, to love, to food — in partaking, participating and creating. Hard to define, but nonetheless real to me.  Amongst these is the Cthulhu.”

I also mentioned that had been affected by the philosophy of mechanism, and this, together with my natural atheism, may well seem at odds with my talk of intuition, love, gut feelings and even the evil I call Cthulhu.

It’s not such a great paradox actually — at least not for me; I can live with it all. However I do get asked about this, so I’ll try to clear it up here.

[Picture of Red Ballet Shoes]I recall the revelation when reading The Golden Bough, back in my late teens, that things influence us and we influence things.  This is clearly true; we have relationships with everyday objects.  We put on shoes, the shoes change our feet  and our feet change the shoes. The shoes also wear the steps and floor as much as they wear out the shoes.

Wear and tear humanises and personalises things, and we can grow fond of items — have “favourites”.  People like to be surrounded by things that are familiar — but also because they embody some personal meaning. They are heirlooms.

[Picture of Guitar Signed by Elvis]Worth and value are tricky words when ascribed to things that have memories and meanings attached. In antiques and auction rooms, items gain considerably from provenance. Meaning doesn’t even have to be personal, for anything worn or owned by Elvis Presley, for example, is worth more just because of that fact.

Now, obviously, this is all airy-fairy rubbish. A guitar played by a dead rock star is still just a guitar, a watch passed down from father to son, is still just a watch. Yet it isn’t, somehow.

If you remove gods from religion, if you dismiss the afterlife and other such irrational beliefs, you are left with rituals.

I find this interesting; there is something in humans that needs ritual for the evidence of it is all over the world and throughout history.

I recall playing with my school friends, and a massive part of my childhood was about inventing and adapting games. We would play by the rules until it got easy or boring, then we would up the ante, until the rules were pretty elaborate. It was probably more about setting rules, defining boundaries, negotiation and dealing with consequences than merely playing games.

Society has rules, too, driving about is commonplace, but the rules and rituals are pretty complex when you think about it. We all know when to start work, what is expected of us, where the boundaries are, what we can and cannot do.

The Big Idea is about being able to repeat the process to get the same end. Reliability depends on doing it the same way every time to get the same result every time.

But this creates a new thing – the system, the process itself becomes a subject of study; the scientific method, and in the workplace even today, we try to refine workflow. We need to know what things  in the chain of events are the ones that matter, so then the procedures are analysed and imposed.

[Diagram of a machine]We are mechanised and do our part in the process. Method Statements and QA are about the stages and steps involved in carrying out a task to get a predictable result.

It’s not just at work either; we practice playing our musical instruments to get better and better in order to play the tune without mistakes. Playing a tune is a process of playing chords or notes one after the other to get the desired result. Sports science is all about refining training to get better results.

All this is so much a part of our lives that we have irrational and personal versions — from trinkets for good luck, to routines to get us to sleep at night.  Everyone has heard of being OCD and how comforting rituals and routines can be for certain groups. Religion has ceremonies and rituals, and I call all of these irrational because they are not analysed and improved, and they are not very good at reliably predicting or producing the desired result.

Voodoo dolls, rain-dancing, wedding vows, Christenings, Ramadan fasts, praying, healing, levitation, horoscopes, exorcisms, witch burning — and many, many more — have a role in culture and in history, yet are ostensibly bizarre and don’t actually work reliably, if at all.  It would seem that they are either used willingly as a comforting ritualistic belief, or else used by the unscrupulous to dominate the gullible for their own ends.

Throughout my life I have met people who have told me that they were healed at Lourdes, by prayer, by reiki, or that they can only play winning golf with that “special” club. I’ve heard miracle stories, and tales of people who can predict the future. And I cannot call any of them liars or delusional because the fact is that they are telling the truth. It’s just that the truth doesn’t prove anything; it could be a lucky break, coincidence, or random chance.

It is somehow very attractive to human beings to believe in a karma connection, to see the mystical and the wonderful. The German word, Geist, means more than ghost. There is the Poltergeist, the Geistlos, the Zeitgeist, the Weltgeist (see Hegel), Geisteskrank, and so on — including the Holy Spirit and Guardian Angels. My favourite is the ghost in the machine, I know well that you can build two machines, two cars, guitars, or whatever — in exactly the same way from the same parts, and they will not be the same at all. Once assembled, they get a life, a personality, and it is that geist with whom you have a relationship.

[Photograph of John Ruskin]I quite liked Ruskin’s idea of allowing artisans creative freedom, that their skill and love in making something could somehow be contained within the resulting artefact, and that a mass-produced (or machine produced) item was “soul-less”.

A lot of people throughout history have been called witches because they have done things that were actually good, kind and helpful for everyone. They didn’t merely pray, they used herbs or some routine that worked reliably, and as such it was neither religion nor science — so it had to be witchcraft.

Witchcraft and magic have religious aspects (irrational rituals, spells/prayers) but also scientific aspects (they can get repeatable results). All that science did was analyse the process and call it medicine.

I have always liked the fact that something is magic until it is understood, then it becomes science.

[Artist's impression of God]This is how I came to understand the term, “God”. In primitive cultures, if crops failed, they claimed it was because of God (or a god), if you do the trick of replacing the word “God” with “The Unknown”, then it is clear that the crops failed because of the unknown. In other words they have no idea why their crops failed, or why the rain didn’t come.

From this, it is clear that as knowledge increases, the less unknowns we have — and that means the less God. This is self-evidently true; we know God didn’t make the crops fail as soon as we know why they failed.

Just like something is magic until we understand it, something is unknown until it is known, and the more we know, the less we have a need to have an intervening God.

I do believe in love-at-first-sight, I do have relationships with buildings, furniture, clothes, and animals. I have gut feelings and intuition. I don’t know everything. I like routine, and have my ways of doing things. I cannot explain them all rationally… and I don’t want to either; part of being human (perhaps the most human part of being human) is irrationality.

This is my attempt to celebrate that aspect of our natures.

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CTHULHU

18 March 2012

[Picture of Cthulhu "coming to get you"]Straight away, I will say that this is a strange one.

I have always pronounced Cthulhu as kloo loo (I don’t know why). However, I have recently heard that it has an “official pronunciation” of  kath who loo (which I think is weird, but anyway).

The Cthulhu is a nightmare creature. A monster, trapped and waiting to get us. It has a tentacled octopus head, a fish-scale body, wings, and is a sort of chimera — part human, dragon, and octopus. A grotesquely malevolent creature. Pure evil. A living gargoyle. An alien.

This THING is from the twisted imagination of HP Lovecraft, and it first appeared in a short story published in 1928, “The Call of Cthulhu”. The Cthulhu is imprisoned in an underwater city in the South Pacific called R’lyeh, and this is a source of constant anxiety for mankind at a subconscious level.

Lovecraft developed the character from this story thereafter, and it has been developed further after his death.

HP Lovecraft reckoned that human beings, with their limited faculties, would never be able to fully understand the universe — particularly as it was meaningless and purposeless, and that humans were unimportant in the grand scheme of things.

Humans have a tendency to try to find meaning or purpose, and to put their existence as special , significant or central. This was my introduction to the philosophy of mechanism –  metaphysical doctrines known as universal mechanism and anthropic mechanism. I was 17 at the time, and the world was a pretty bleak place, with a disastrous outlook for the future.

Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page had been reported to have bought a house in Loch Ness that was once owned by Aleister Crowley, and Crowley was considered the most evil man who ever lived. So there was all sorts of daft articles going about. Even Eric Clapton’s (or rather Derek & The Dominoes’) Layla was connected to Crowley (Leila Waddell). My sister was an avid reader and paperbacks by the likes of Lovecraft and Dennis Wheatley were all around the house. The 70s was a great period of cross-cultivation in cultures, and everything was merging and overlapping at the time.

The science fiction genre spilled into heavy metal music, album covers and book jacket art bled onto biker’s jackets, tattoos and graffiti.  Fantasy novels depended on things like alternative realities, drug trip type experiences, life on alien worlds or set in the future or distant past. Crowley had created his own religion, so why not science fiction writer, L Ron Hubbard (Scientology)?

It was all a bit mind-blowing and overwhelming for me at times back then. I did not understand enough to have confidence in my beliefs to be thought-through cohesively, and although I was searching around for sense in this, I also searched for inspiration, entertainment and amusement.

Occasionally my searching would bring up something that didn’t “sit right”, something that I disliked instinctively. All of that, all of those things, for me, became embodied in the Cthulhu.

To see why, we have to go back to Crowley.

I read Lovecraft and Crowley in the same period of time. Crowley was interesting and amusing for a while — But I liked his concept of True Will for example. This resonated in me at the time. It basically means do what you want, what you really want. And while that sounds a bit like do anything you want, it doesn’t; it ties in your inner will with a destiny aspect — you have to do what you are gifted at or meant to do.  The trick is finding yourself so that you can live a superior moral life according to your True Will. It’s an attractive religious idea, well grounded in the catechism and conscience, but is the cornerstone of his own religion.

  • But then you find out that he was all a bit odd, mixed up in drugs and ritualistic homosexuality, secretive black magic societies, Freemasonry and more — all of which gathered inside me an anxiety and a dread — and that’s the Cthulhu.

Ever since, and throughout my life, when I have suffered really bizarre and dreadful nightmares, I think of the Cthulhu, and wonder if it is any closer to getting free from its shackles under the sea.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not and never have been a follower of The Beast 666, nor have I a real belief in any mythology, Greek, Roman, Norse, Tolkein or Lovecraft. I did get right into the philosophy of mechanism for a long time, and there remains much of that in me to this day.

But I am also a human, and brought up in a fabulous fantasy world of Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. I am interested in the arts, and cannot deny there is something weird going on — it cannot merely be a collective, collaborative delusion entirely.  Perhaps it’s mood-changing chemicals in the brain?  These are weird and wonderful explorations for each of us to take. All I’m saying is that — rightly or wrongly — I have intuitive feelings, gut feelings, traits that reveal the irrational, illogical, and impulsive emotional over-rides.

I respond to music, to paintings, to love, to food — in partaking, participating and creating. Hard to define, but nonetheless real to me.  Amongst these is the Cthulhu.

The Cthulhu is real for me.  I once thought of it as a stomach ulcer in me, I even briefly thought it could be a cancer, but these notions were soon dismissed in favour of the Cthulhu being external to me.

It’s like a sixth sense. When I begin to feel anxious, I am reminded of the threat to my healthy, happy, state is out there — the Cthulhu is waiting, calling, screaming, plotting, scheming. It’s that feeling that someone’s out to get you — for no other reason than badness and pure evil, or immoral self-interest.

It doesn’t have to be directed to me, however. For example, if  I see a photograph of an electric chair or read about the holocaust, that dark churn in the pit of my stomach, that scare, the horror of evil and the sense of its power — that’s the Cthulhu. Dread Full.

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PHILIP K DICK

19 February 2012

[Photograph of Philip K Dick]Throughout my adult life, Philip K Dick’s work has popped up from time to time to delight me. He truly was different.

It’s too easy, I think, to simply put him down as just a SciFi author.

I have nothing against Science Fiction, and his work is closely related to that genre, but Dick does more than set a story in the future and he does more than fantasise about the future, about space and aliens; he gets into the mind and how it works.

It was in 1982 that I heard about Philip K Dick from a pal. Dick had just died, so there were obits and newspaper columns to ignite interest. On top of that was the movie, Blade Runner.

I loved this film, from Vangelis’s soundtrack to the mash-up of the old Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler “hard-boiled gum shoe”, pulp fiction detective novel with the science fiction future of android robots. It was very stylish, beautifully directed, edited and the acting was quality.  It is a film that lives with you afterwards.

Blade Runner was based on Philip K Dick’s short story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? My pal gave me a bunch of his short stories, and I remember that I read, enjoyed and returned them, and that was that. Only it wasn’t.

I couldn’t tell you the names of his stories, nor any one that stood out more than others.  I do, though,  recall being impressed and perhaps somewhat overawed; it is a lot of new ideas all in one go.  Maybe it was too much in one sitting. I must have read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — but all I can recall is Blade Runner. Although this might seem to be more about Hampton Fancher’s screenplay than Dick’s short story, Dick was closely involved in the making of this film with Ridley Scott and Fancher.

The story is genius. In the future android robots are so life-like, it takes detectives and tests to spot the difference, and even the androids don’t know they are not real humans. The story is about what happens when an android does find out he’s not “real” — and that he has an expiry date.  This is a man-made organic machine suddenly faced with mortality.  The robot’s quest is to come to earth, track down his maker and try to avoid death.  That is just a marvellous idea. The small group of androids are being hunted down by a Blade Runner — and that’s the detective part of the story.

I later got a loan of  the amazing The Man in The High Castle — this is  actually recognised as creating an entire literary genre of its own – the alternative history genre. I was quite tickled by the thought of Japan running California, and The Germans own new York. Dick has quite an original imagination, but also the skill to write convincingly. This was a what-if story — and I’d not come across that before either.

I loved Total Recall as soon as I heard it was based on Philip K Dick I got tickets — and again, for me, it was the movie, rather than the short story that stuck in my mind. This would be in the early 1990s and it was billed as an action film first and a science fiction film second. At that time the big deal was action and action heroes — and the rivalry among Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Silvester Stallone (and a few others too).

Total Recall was based on We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, and is also highly original. I would reckon that Dick might have come up with the story simply by trying to remember a holiday.  It’s so true that, not very long after we have returned from a vacation, memories fade — and we end up remembering what was filmed or photographed, the souvenirs and a handful of anecdotes.

Perhaps if we did not have these mementoes, we could forget we went on holiday altogether. When you think about it, people do suffer amnesia and dementia, so what is reality? Could we be hypnotised to believe we had gone on holiday somewhere?

In Blade Runner, the androids were created fully adult, but with pre-programmed memories of a fake childhood, mementoes, cards, photos, diaries, toys and keep-sakes. All fake.  In Total Recall, the concept is a business that offers a cheaper alternative to going on holiday — an implanted memory of the trip and fake keep-sakes and souvenirs. Dick is dealing with the same theme — what is real?

In Total Recall, the story takes this to another level — a man wants a holiday to Mars (it is science fiction after all), but cannot afford it, so he opts for the memories to be implanted — however, it turns out that the chap was a spy who had been to Mars, and the government had erased the memory of his spying and Martian activities, and turned him out with a new identity and life. The attempt to implant the fake Mars trip opened up a can of worms as the erased memories started to come back  — making this man a danger for what he knows. Good stuff, eh.

Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau, and A Scanner Darkly are all fantastic films based on Philip K Dick’s short stories. They are clever, work on different levels and, despite being about the perception of reality, morality, memories and other internalisations, they seem to be extremely cinematic. In the end, the stories are futuristic and therefore good for exploiting special effects. I often wonder if they can operate on a straight action film only level — or if action film fans leave the cinema inspired or in a philosophical mindset.

I remember wondering if the fact that Dick was a twin affected his outlook, and I looked him up once and found that he was married five times — that would certainly affect the mind and sense of deja-vu and mixed up memories!

The themes that Dick brought to my attention are never far from my mind.  So much of what I do for a living depends on virtual reality — I see things built before they are built.

Anyone today can go on Google maps and wander through the streets of any city or town. My phone can track me and help me identify buildings and statues, music and more simply by holding the phone up and pressing a virtual button.  How could Philip K Dick not be far from my mind; we seem to be living in his.

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QUEEN

21 January 2012

[Queen Logo designed by Freddie Mercury]You know, we are all subjected to revisionism in history and manipulation by the media, it’s part and parcel of this brave new world of 24 hour internet, TV and radio.

The odd thing about Queen is that they are never far away. I can honestly say that almost every day I will hear a Queen track somewhere, sometime — and yet this band is  never recognised properly.  It’s a puzzle actually.

It is impossible, for example to speak out against The Beatles (or any of their former members); they are considered sacrosanct.  It has become a religious truth that The Beatles are the best, most successful, most loved band ever in the history of everything. We are always hearing about how they have done everything, won everything and hold the record in everything. And yet I can go for months, if not years, without hearing a Beatles song on TV or radio.

It’s all very odd; by contrast, Queen are not held in the same reverence as The Beatles or [insert favourite  artiste here].  But why are they not revered? I say that they ought to be — and probably moreso than (dare I say it), The Beatles.

For the record, I bought the first Queen album early on.  I cannot claim to have fanatically bought all their albums, or even to have gone to see them in concert, so I’m not a fan per se.  However, I have to stand up and say that Queen are undervalued and under-rated — even by me. I ought to have gone to see them live, but I’ve well-and-truly missed that boat, and, believe me, I regret that a great deal.

OK, so what is the deal with Queen? Well, let’s look at this strange band.  Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon formed the band in the year that The Beatles disbanded, 1970.

Everyone knows that The Rolling Stones played songs by Jagger & Richard, and that The Beatles played Lennon & McCartney songs. Queen were different; they are the only group in which every member has composed more than one chart-topping single — all four members of Queen were inducted into The Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003.

[Famous Queen image - underlit group]Who hasn’t heard of Bohemian Rhapsody? What an impact that song has had!  The video for it, the length of the song, the musicality and scope — all unprecedented. The song has been parodied to death, but it remains so well loved. It is a classic moment in the movie Wayne’s World. This song was voted The UK’s favourite hit of all time in a poll conducted by The Guinness World Records British Hit Singles in 2002, and two years later it was inducted into The Grammy Hall of Fame.

Queen defined stadium rock —  live rock gigs on a huge scale — they didn’t just play at the audience, the audience played a special part — We Will Rock You, and Radio Ga Ga are inspirational in that respect.  A music industry poll ranked Queen’s performance at Live Aid in 1985 as The Best Live Act in History.

But it’s not just live that Queen excelled, there is a very real legacy in tv aderts, in movies, in background muzak, in all sorts of things and in all sorts of ways. For example, in sporting events, Queen are always present with hits like Another One Bites The Dust, We Are The Champions, Don’t Stop Me Now and We Will Rock You. I honestly cannot imagine any competition of any kind where Queen was not involved in some way — these songs capture the emotion perfectly. We Are The Champions was voted The World’s Favourite Song in a global music poll.

[Statue of Freddie Mercury overlooking Lake Geneva]We Are the Champions and We Will Rock You were inducted into The Grammy Hall of Fame. Queen have been inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and were awarded a star on The Hollywood Walk of Fame and on the Rockwalk in LA.There are even statues to Freddie Mercury, most notably overlooking Lake Geneva in Montreux.

Queen have sold a shedload of records over the years as well. The Guinness Book of World Records, stated in 2005 that Queen albums have spent a total of 1322 weeks (twenty-six years) on the UK Album Charts — more time than any other, and since 2006, The Greatest Hits album was the All-Time Best-Selling Album in UK Chart history, with sales over 5.4 million copies. Not only that, but their Greatest Hits II album is the eighth best seller, with sales nearly 4 million!  Some estimates have Queen selling over 300 million records worldwide.

Queen have had a total of 18 number one albums, 18 number one singles, and 10 number one DVDs worldwide.

The are ranked highly in almost every possible list by viewers, listeners, music critics, television channels, polls. Not just the band, but each member individually is recognised as a songwriter or master of their instrument — and all are considered brilliant vocalists.

But it doesn’t stop there; there was a musical called We Will Rock You,  by Ben Elton, Brian May and Roger Taylor, which was produced by Robert De Niro, and has proved to be a record-breaking worldwide hit musical.  There’s even a ballet by Sean Bovim, and a computer game called Queen: The eYe, and they have regularly featured in Guitar Hero and Rockband games and even Karaoke software (Singstar).

The band did the soundtrack for the film, Flash! Featuring their hit, Who Wants To Live Forever?

Their songs are so well-know, yet so varied: Fat Bottomed Girls, The Show Must Go On, Who Wants to Live Forever?, A Kind of Magic, Princes of the Universe, Hammer to Fall, I Want to Break Free, Under Pressure (with David Bowie), Crazy Little Thing Called Love, Bicycle Race, Tie Your Mother Down, Somebody to Love, You’re my Best Friend, Love of My Life, The Prophet’s Song, Seven Seas of Rye, Killer Queen, Keep Yourself Alive, I Want It All, I’m Going Slightly Mad, One Vision, and dozens more.

The odd thing about Queen was that they managed to be heavy metal at the beginning — despite being called Queen and having an outrageously gay front man.  They were forgiven everything for being extremely talented — Freddie’s vocals were in no way run-of-the-mill, he even did a duet with an Opera Diva (Barcelona) — the man could sing. Deacon’s bass lines are just legendary, not merely the obvious ones like Under Pressure, Another One Bites The Dust, but pick a Queen song at random, and you will find a real treat.  Taylor’s extremely high vocal and jazz-class drumming have transformed every single song, and is signature for the band’s sound — along with Brian May’s unique guitar sound and virtuoso playing.

May was — for me– even more brilliant for the intrigue, the air of wonder that he played with an old British sixpenny piece, that his dad made his guitar, Red Special.  This was in no way a band that was cashing in or following any trends or jumping on any bandwagons.  This is probably why they were left alone by the Punks in the ’70s — they were authentic, they were nothing but themselves doing their own thing — and that is perhaps their greatest legacy — the inspiration to create without limitation by manifesto.

Annoyingly, they seemed to do all this effortlessly.  They were self-deprecating, they took the mickey out of themselves. This is so definitively British, that I would hazard to say that there is no more British a band as Queen.

Rhythms, tempo changes, key changes, riffs, melody, harmony, simplicity and complexity — Queen have it all. Originally they shunned synthesisers and sequencers, and relied on overdubbing and production techniques.  They evolved as a band, they grew, and they set the bar. High.

They have been a part of the soundtrack to all our lives since 1972, they have sold, won and done everything. I cannot think of a band that balanced just so — they were bad boys, drinkers and drug-takers, they partied hard, yet everyone loved them. They were respected by hardcore drummers and singers, bassists and guitarists, yet they dressed as women in their promos and Mercury was overtly over the top flamboyantly gay. Genius stuff.

On a personal note, one of the maddest nights I have had was in the Scottish Border town of Annan a decade or more ago, when all the local men in the town dressed up as Freddie Mercury in white vests and false moustaches, to a man carrying floor brooms as mic stands, striking Mercury poses and postures for a charity night at some pub or other.  I had to wipe the tears from my eyes from laughing so hard.

So thus ends my tribute to Queen, unique and mad and very, very, British. The biggest influence on popular music and production anyone could imagine!

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HINDI ZAHRA

21 December 2011

[Picture of Handmade Album cover art ]Handmade is the album I’ve been getting into lately. It’s by French-Moroccan singer, Hindi Zahra, and it’s really good.  Don’t fret; she sings in English most of the time. This album has sold very well in France, Belgium and Sweden, but it has not been marketed here in the UK for some reason.

I find that rather annoying; I really think she’d do well — and what a relief to have something else on the car radio for a change.

From the reviews I’ve read, she’s really good live.  She is a good song-writer and self-taught multi-instrumentalist. She lives in Paris, so she’s pretty cool all-round.

[Picture of Hindi Zahra]Last year it won the Prix Constantin for Best Album, and earlier this year it won the Victoires de la Musique award for the best World music album.

She sings in D major and its relative minor key, B minor as her default key.  Kiss & Thrills and Stand Up are in A minor, and Music (which reminds me of Blur’s Boys who like Girls who like Boys in terms of chord progression) is in G major.

Probably my favourite (apart from Music, is Set Me Free — which is a weird sort of Bluegrass thing. She could easily duet with Richard Hawley on Don’t Forget — or it could be covered by Norah or Corinne; it’s THAT laid-back!

The album works on levels — I have grown fond of the album as background to work or even dinner parties — but as soon as I put on headphones, I experienced all the little twists and nuances she’s put in.

It’s deeper than it at first seems — and she manages to blend Frenchness with Moroccanness, touches of reggae, funk, African, it’s hard to describe, but it is NOT hard to get into; at the end of the day it is pop. Only GOOD pop — not Eurovision and not the crap we’re told to buy here in the UK just now.

Links:

Why not check her out and maybe treat someone to the album for a Christmas gift this year? You can buy it Here.

[Embedded video from Youtube.com of Stand Up by Hindi Zahra]

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HOWARD HUGHES

19 November 2011

[Photograph of Howard Hughes]I was not even a teenager when there was a massive media buzz about an autobiography of the Billionaire recluse Howard Hughes. It was supposed to have been ghost written or co-written by some chap called Irving, but it was a huge hoax. My first media hoax.

It ignited in me an interest in this eccentric man.  Hughes apparently was obsessive about hygiene (as I was, although not to the same degree as Howard Hughes). Legend had it that he walked about with his feet in cardboard boxes! I was not quite as bad as THAT.

A mate of mine at school had loaned me a copy of Harold Robbins’s sixties’ novel, “The Carpetbaggers“, saying that it was really about Howard Hughes, and I was hooked.

Hughes died a few years later — just when I was thinking about my own future and what I might do for a living or might aspire to achieve.  The television and newspapers reflected on the amazing life of this man, and I was impressed.  I will admit that traits attributed to Hughes impressed me enough for me to include them in forming my own adult persona: Hughes was one of my role models even though his was such an alien world, such an impossibly different lifestyle.

Hughes inherited unbelievable wealth at the age of just 19.  He immediately dropped out of university studies and went to Hollywood to make movies.

I could identify with that (I could envy that too) — but the historical aspect was not lost on me; Hollywood was in its infancy, so was aviation and even driving cars.  It reminded me of The Great Gatsby. Hughes had no predecessors in all that he was interested in, from aviation to financial matters. Howard Hughes was a pioneer, a creative, thoughtful and considerate man. These were days before “celebrity”.

The satirists went to town after he died — especially with regard to his Will. All sorts of people, friends, relatives illegit children and whatnot appeared out of the woodwork to claim their right to millions of dollars.  This was mainly because of what happened with Melvin Dummar a petrol station attendant.

What happened was this – in ’67 Melvin found a man lying on the road. The man was dirty, said he was Howard Hughes, and asked for a lift to an hotel. Melvin gave him a lift and a few days later one of Hughes’s men dropped off a manilla envelope containing his Will — in which Hughes left Melvin 156 million dollars! Melvin put the Will in a safe with the Mormon Church in salt Lake City.

There was no profit for the Mormons in the Will, but the Will was rejected after a 7 month court case, and Melvin got nothing, and Howard Hughes was declared to have died without any Will whatsoever. The Billions were carved up later.

A lot of people said Hughes was like that, and more suggested that he’d left them other Wills — and it was all very amusing. Of course, it was not all plain sailing (see what I did there?);  a man walked in front of Hughes’s car and was killed. This was big headlines in its day, as one could imagine; of Hughes’s first four films, three had Oscar nominations, and his second film actually won the Academy Award.

A few years after, in the early 1980s, Hughes’s “Scarface” was remade, and that refreshed interest in Hughes. Just like the character in The Carpetbaggers novel, Hughes designed a bra — for Hollywood A-list pin-up Jane Russell.

Howard Hughes inherited wealth, then made financially successful and critically acclaimed Hollywood big-budget films. He dated all the world’s loveliest women, and designed a bra. Wow – what’s not to admire?

But it doesn’t stop there; Hughes was very interested in aviation.  He was an pilot, and started to win awards for that, setting records and winning races. This was early days for the industry, and Hughes was very interested in engineering and design, and with his funds, his contribution to the development of the airline industry is second to none.

A little detail caught my eye in the obits: in the UK people get recognised with a knighthood, an OBE or an MBE, that sort of thing, but in the USA they get a Congressional Gold Medal. Hughes got a special one – didn’t even bother going to the White House to receive it from the President! In the end President Truman had to pop it in the post.  Brilliant.

This resonates with me; I never go to awards ceremonies, and never will. I respected Woody Allen for never bothering to go to the Oscars.

Hughes had a few near fatal airplane crashes, and was so uncomfortable in his hospital bed that he actually designed a new hospital bed — and even though it was not ready for him to use, it has changed the design of hospital beds to what we have today. I marvelled at this. He also took care of people who helped him — including the man who pulled him from one of his crash wrecks.

Howard Hughes received a lot of satirical press; he was a larger than life character.  He managed to get the US government to fund the world’s most massive flying boat. This was hysterical. It was nicknamed “The Spruce Goose”. It didn’t take off (as they say, and in this case, literally).

It struck me as a teenager that this man did not hunger for fame or recognition. He was a talented pilot and engineer, and very astute with financial dealings.  His non-attention-seeking could be taken as a reclusive trait, but I would suspect that such a lifestyle would corrupt even the most down-to-earth, well-adjusted person.  I imagined everybody doing what you wanted, fawning to please. Everyone would be looking for wealth – who would be a genuine friend?

I could understand Hughes being happiest when working with other engineers on projects, especially as he was very precise and particular.  It must have been a joy to work on projects without the usual design constraints and corner-cutting.  But this allowance would develop into an Obsessive-Compulsive mental disorder as it was never restrained by money nor limited by demands of a client.

I learned from Hughes to trust in my own abilities, follow my own path, and pursue things not for awards or financial gain, but because they fascinate.  I also drift about different types of people, different social groups, even different countries. I can’t really say “incognito” because I’m not rich and famous, but I still do it; it gives me a good perspective on people across a broad social cross-section.  Like Hughes, if I do charity work or help someone, I hide it — and I mean, really hide it. I know Hughes did a lot that will never be recognised fully.

A big lesson from Hughes was to run my own life, always be my own boss, and to compartmentalise. It’s OK to have really diverse interests, just keep then separate and clearly distinct. Have friends, sure, but keep them in distinct groups away from each other, hold privacy as sacred.

Controlling social activity is essential. This Hughes-influenced trait means that I can be reclusive (this lets me get work done), and then I can go out and socialise when I want and on my own terms.  I run my life my way.  I got an answering machine before I got a cooker! I hate the idea of always answering the phone when it rings, or of having an unlocked front door allowing anyone and everyone into my life at all hours!

That’s a big influence, but probably the biggest influence Hughes had on me was in trying to overcome my obsessive-compulsive hygiene issues; I didn’t want to end up like he did!

So, yes, Howard Hughes was a big influence on me at a young age. I like that there is a lot we still do not know, a lot of speculation, intrigue and wonder. I am fed up with skeletons in closets, kiss-and-tells, knowing every single thing – which is the norm for famous people these days.  Hughes was not, for example,  a closet homosexual, he was not a Nazi, nor an evil power-hungry politically motivated dictator. Sure, his power and wealth did corrupt, but it only corrupted him, and only in that he got weird about privacy and hygiene. If you are going to have a role model, you could not get much better than Howard Hughes!

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CARYL CHESSMAN

24 October 2011

[Picture of Chessman]Caryl Chessman’s was the first legal matter to come to my attention as a young man.  His case had a fairly profound effect on me even though he was before my time. For me, his name just keeps cropping up again and again.

It is an unusual name, Caryl Chessman. I’ve always thought that. Maybe this has something to do with why it has stuck? Who knows?

Caryl was an out-and-out bad guy. A petty criminal on a life of petty crime. Let’s be clear, Chessman was a bad guy.

It this not about Caryl himself, but Justice —  and questions about the Death Penalty and the sheer Force of Destiny that make this story.

Here’s what happened: in California USA, back in 1948, Caryl Chessman (aged 27) was arrested and put on trial accused of being “The Red Light Bandit” who robbed couples parked up in lovers’ lanes.

He protested his innocence to the end.

It is weird to realise that California had the death penalty for kidnapping. The next weird thing to note is that it defined kidnapping as taking a person a short walking distance from one car to another.

Chessman was not tried on robbery and / or rape (which would not have got him the death penalty), yep — you guessed it, he was tried and found guilty of kidnapping.

Chessman defended himself in court. He tried to query the distance of 22 feet as not being kidnapping, he then explained that there was not sufficient evidence to show that he was “The Red Light Bandit”, he also suggested that the police questioning was flawed and his statement obtained under coercion or even torture.

Despite his best efforts, he was found guilty and was on death row for 12 years.

During these 12 years he was almost executed 8 times, getting a stay of execution by mere hours! Throughout he protested his innocence and continued to argue his case while in prison, writing letters, essays and books. He won his right to appeal on procedural and technical grounds, but the appeal was lost.

He was taken to be executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin on 2 May 1960. At exactly the same time, the Judge had obtained late some new evidence and asked his secretary to call the warden to stop the execution.  However, the secretary misdialled, and by the time she’d got through to the Warden, the gas had started to be released into the chamber — it was too late!

I am sure you can see why this case sticks in the mind.  It created a worldwide buzz over the 12 years, and gathered a lot of the great and good and the rich and famous to speak out against capital punishment.

Was Chessman a bad guy? – Yes. Was he the “Bandit”?  – Who knows?

Let’s say he was the Bandit and he did those things, does that merit the death penalty?  How does 22 feet equal kidnapping? And even so, ought kidnapping be punishable by death? Is it humane to put a man on death row for 12 years? Is it humane to rescue a man from being killed at the very last minute? And — at the end of the day — he was denied clemency and his chance to survive (and maybe clear his name) by the misfortune of bad timing and a wrong number on the phone!  He was NOT SUPPOSED TO HAVE BEEN KILLED.

He proved to be a remarkable man, with his writings  galvanising the support for the cause against the death penalty in the USA. Whenever I hear arguments about capital punishment, injustice, or the inhumanity of a so-called modern civilised state, I cannot help but think of Caryl Chessman;  it could be you, or me. I’ve had nightmares ever since.

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MIKE MYERS

17 September 2011

[Picture of Mike Myers]On the face of it Mike Myers is a comedian who has done a lot of TV, voice-overs and movies. But saying just that would be doing the man an injustice; Mike Myers is one of the most culturally significant people I can imagine.

It is staggering how much of a cultural influence Myers has had on my life — and all our lives (like it or not). Wayne’s World was the start here in the UK, although he was a TV star in the states on the extremely cool and very famous Saturday Night Live (SNL).  How can one film have so many “catchphrases”? Because of Wayne’s World, people suddenly were “blowing chunks” instead of being sick, girls were “Foxes” and “Babes”, and described as “Hot”. People still say: “Oh yes, it will be mine” in a silly voice — as well as “exsqueeze me!”.  The most infamous linguistic feature was certainly adding “Not” to the end of an assertion to negate it — “She’s a babe (not)”.

[Picture of Wayne from Wayne's World]Wayne’s World changed the world, the everyday world of the early 1990s.  People started speaking that silly Wayne’s speak —  and it remains. Wayne and Garth are archetypes now for middle class teenagers. This rock-loving age group speak in strange ways, repeating in-jokes, memes, catchphrases, stock-phrasing, triggered responses and the like. “Shwing”, and “We’re not worthy!” are context-dependent AND are accompanied with specific gestures and actions.  It is a rich and complex form of social comment and comedy.

Myers’ characters used contrived rituals and language, and referred to a lot of contemporary TV shows and films. These cultural references actually make the characters and the strange world in which they live.  There kids were good with girls, confident, and in an affluent, safe world.

These teenagers were not body-conscious, filled with fear of failure, in poverty, or at odds with authority.  There are no references to acne, masturbation, drugs, drink, bullying, careers, huffy hormonal imbalances, nocturnality, and all the other things that real teenagers are about.

Nevertheless Myers managed to get Wayne & co to come across as genuine, authentic, naïve, likeable, and even aspirational at times.

The film doesn’t date because it taps into time-honoured classic cultural memes and themes, such as Alice Cooper, Stairway To Heaven, Bohemian Rhapsody, Fender Stratocasters, Hockey, Burgers, TV, records and all the things that have targeted teenagers for decades.  Even the fashion is the same — Mackinaws, tee-shorts, jeans, converse shoes, baseball hats.

But Myers did not stop there. He came up with the deliciously mental “So I Married an Axe Murderer” — which is the greatest Scottish movie ever.

His crowning glory might be the voice of Shrek in the Pixar cartoon movies, but for me, it would probably be “Austin Powers“, “Dr Evil” and “Fat Bastard”.

[Pictures of Mike Myers in various guises]

What an influence on our every day culture — “Get out of my swamp!” (in Shrek’s voice), or “Ooo Baby” (in Austin Powers’s voice).

He’s Canadian, but seems to have cornered the market in Britishness (Charlie from So I Married an Axe Murderer, the cartoon ogre, Shrek, and Fat Bastard are all Scottish , Austin Powers and Dr Evil are English).

[Picture of Myers as Fat Bastard]People today impersonate Austin Powers, Dr Evil, Shrek, Fat Bastard, Wayne, Garth routinely — from doing the phrases, and the voices to full costume.

I cannot think of another comedian, or another human being who has had such an influence on popular culture as Mike Myers, and this is my recognition for that and personal tribute to him.

As a footnote, when I was younger, The Bangles were around the charts, and every young lad of my age fancied the pants off Susanna Hoffs. Myers plays in a band with Hoffs called Ming Tea. Myers sings as Austin Powers, Hoffs  is Jillian Shagwell, lead guitar and backing vocals. How cool is THAT?

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AMERICAN TV UPBRINGING

17 August 2011

[Picture of The Fonz from Happy Days]It may seem a strange thing to admit, but I had an American TV upbringing. No question about it.

Of course, I have always been told that British TV is the best in the world, and far superior to what the USA had to offer. However, I have never found any evidence in support of this assertion.

Sure, we’ve produced the odd show or series that has been influential — from Monty Python to The Office, but this is as nothing when compared to the sheer volume of shows from the ‘states — and a lot of them were ground-breaking and phenomenal telly.

Let’s start with the children’s shows – we Brits had weird stuff, a badly translated Calimero and the druggy Magic RoundaboutNoggin the Nog, Pipette, Mr Ben, and Rainbow — all just ODD.

Whereas, the Americans gave us quality entertainment — Top Cat, Tom & Jerry, The Flintstones, Scooby-Doo, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart, Batman, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Addams Family, The Munsters, Hogan’s Heroes, Bonanza, The Virginian, Mission: Impossible, and more, much, much more.

Sesame Street led to The Muppets — and that was MASSIVE here.

I have warm happy memories of the detective shows that my parents loved — good family viewing it was too. Macmillan and Wife, Ironside, Columbo, Banacek, Petrocelli, Kojak, Murder She Wrote, Cannon, The Dukes of Hazzard, The Rockford Files, Hawaii-Five-O, Magnum PI, Cagney & Lacey, Hill Street Blues, The Streets of San Francisco, Barney Miller, and the original ER. Ah, the memories!

Then there were what-we-thought-of-as typical American shows — The Beverley Hill-billies, Love Boat, Fantasy Island, The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie, Highway to Heaven,The Odd Couple, Rhoda, Archie Bunker. I think I first heard canned laughter on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in.

The BIG hits — as far as I am concerned — started with Happy Days. This was a 1950’s nostalgia trip that was reflected in music and films in the 1970s — from Showaddywaddy to Grease. Every kid at my school knew who the Fonz was. Having said that, I guess my elders would say Peyton Place, 77 Sunset Strip, Marcus Welby MD, or maybe Emergency Ward 10.

Next up for me was probably Hill Street Blues — everyone was talking about that show. The unusual hand-held camera techniques and overlapping stories has been a big influence ever since, particularly ER.

I liked off-the-wall stuff like The Twilight Zone which were not discussed as much at school. There was a massive buzz for Ally McBeal, I remember that (although I didn’t watch it), I preferred LA Law and Cheers. This happened later with Friends — I watched it without being a fan.

Everyone watched the massively influential Miami Vice. (Read this fun article: When Men Suddenly Changed)

Letterman was shown here, and I could see how it changed the game. Saturday Night Live was superb when we got it. Massive shows over there, and sporadically slotted into UK channels at odd times happened a LOT; I liked 60 minutes, but it was irregularly shown.

I can recall the HUGE impact Jerry Springer had here — and soon it was all about Oprah. I can remember Roseanne caused a stir too. Garry Shandling was interesting, as was Larry Sanders, and those shows, along with Sienfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm have been incredibly innovative and influential television.

Fame! was HUGE — probably moreso than today’s Glee. Girls started wearing leg-warmers and leotards. Everyone, but everyone watched Kung-Fu with David Carradine (Calling someone “Grasshopper” is standard cultural reference fare thanks to that show). The A-Team, Baywatch and Nightrider were perfect Saturday early evening viewing, better than BJ & The Bear or C.H.I.P.S.

I salute you, American Television. You have been my cultural upbringing.  The good the bad and the ugly Betty, it was all television as it should be.

During this period, I remember seeing the alternatives we put up — Man About The House, The Liver Birds, Butterflies, and The Good Life. Awful stuff – believe me, but not as bad as Songs of Praise, Snooker, Darts, Sheep Dog Trials, Ready Steady Cook or Gardening programmes. Honestly!

I do not watch as much telly now, but I am aware that the innovation and quality continues — with CSI, ER, Dexter, The Sopranos, Desparate Housewives, The Simpsons, and Family Guy.

I need family viewing on Saturday and Sunday evenings, but instead of the quality American stuff I grew up with, all we have is X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, or Strictly Come Dancing.

What a shame!

My son heard a song and asked us recently if it was going to win. I was shocked to realise that he thinks that this is what songs are all about – every song and singer to him is in a competition.

In writing this post, I realise that a lot has changed, we have more channels and the internet, but we have become perversely more parochial. I also realised that it would be impossible to do justice to the impact all this US TV output over all these years has had — I cannot name all of these shows, nor describe how big they were (in general and to me) when we had two or three night time channels. In fact, I keep  remembering more and more great shows, so I hope this sparks memories in my readers.

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