Saturday, 30 January 2016

Spilt Milk and Bad Teeth

Bad teeth are underrated. I've always claimed that a girl's beauty is strongly enhanced by bad teeth. Bad teeth is one of the most explicit symbols of hidden sexuality. Likewise, bad teeth and art have always worked together. The greatest literary stylists of the 20th century, Joyce, Nabokov and Martin Amis, all suffered from having terrible teeth.

So when the camera gave us the first meaningful close-up of Pete Astor doing his new single, "Mr. Music", I knew it would be good. And oh yes, there's also the small matter of Pete Astor being one of the greatest underappreciated songwriters in Britain.

The intimate connection started when I first heard the chorus of "Almost Falling In Love". I was so moved I felt I had to write a short story called "Almost Falling", which I duly did in a matter of two days. Then there was a film about Alan McGee (who signed Astor's first band, The Loft, back in the 80s), a characteristically snide dismissal in Luke Haines's Bad Vibes memoir and, a few years ago, Pete Astor's songwriting masterpiece, Songbox. The album remains a special treat to this day, one that I only play occasionally and almost religiously to rediscover the melodic wit and subtle vocal hooks. The sort of album that does not need a follow-up.

But God knows I'm happy he is back. With vocals that sound like a less whimsical Peter Milton Walsh and with vibes and melodies reminiscent of The Velvets minus perversity. Again, it's the quiet brilliance that proves so endearing.

Pete Astor's new album, Spilt Milk, is never overwhelming and it doesn’t need to be. The very title makes no sense if you live in 2016 and want to recapture some relevance. But Pete is long past recapturing what has always seemed so elusive. Spilt Milk is just a matter of ten new songs. Obviously, these beautiful, unabashedly inconspicuous tunes won't set the world on fire and I feel that Songbox will forever remain his ultimate statement (I still cry when I hear "Mistress Of Song"), but all you need to know is this: Spilt Milk is great songwriting at its purest.

Essential from Pete Astor: 

Saturday, 23 January 2016

8 Films

Norman Mailer said it years ago and said it quite plainly: PC movement will be a disaster. I have to peer through my fingers when I read another article on this year’s Oscars. And I keep asking myself one question: what if Leonardo DiCaprio was black? Would we not be standing in an angry queue, holding pitchforks, raring to lynch the Academy Awards committee for such blatant racism?

The system is rigged, definitely. It always is. It’s a healthy approach to life. It’s sexy. Admit it, were you not just a tiny bit fascinated by the sheer scope of Wall Street fraudulence in The Big Short?

And now Will Smith is boycotting, Mark Ruffalo is indignant and Michael Moore is having a field day. And I’m just thankful for Charlotte Rampling and Michael Caine. The latter may have won his 1999 award for an exceedingly bland and tedious film, but you are in a safe place when Pierce Morgan is not on your side.  

It would probably make it all worth it if they gave in, expanded the list of nominees, added Will Smith to the Best Actor category and gave him the Oscar over DiCaprio. What a perfect story that would be.


There are always people who will treat cinema like literature. They will need a message and a subtle allusion. But cinema is a totally different form of art, which may have been the reason why Nabokov despised it so much. Sometimes you’re just a kid staring at the raging sea, and that’s what I was watching The Revenant. This film is the reason why I care for cinema. Engrossing and visceral. 9/10


Oh God. I’d like to look at the face of whoever it was that thought it would be a good idea to nominate this for the Best Picture. I’m honestly admiring the joke. 7/10


Admittedly I didn’t watch this one sober, but I only say this because I was still able to follow every trial and tribulation. Great storytelling. 9/10


I'm afraid I’m not going to watch a film whose screenplay was written by Nick Hornby.


Sometimes you only have to state the obvious: Bridge Of Spies is a Cold War film directed by Steven Spielberg and scripted by the Coen brothers. It’s all fairly straightforward, but the Coens’ edge is unmistakable. Tom Hanks’s first scene in a restaurant, that whole dialogue, it must have been them. Screenplays or novels – they will teach you to write. 8/10


In the glaring absence of The Forbidden Room, this will have to do. By all accounts, it should be good.


Smug, cynical and utterly pretentious. I guess that scene with Margot Robbie took balls to conceive. But I’m safely under 40 and so I loved this to bits. The filmmaking is both tough and freewheeling. A word of warning though: if you find it annoying, you find it unbearably annoying. 9/10 


In layman terms, Matt Damon is bang average. But this is rather entertaining if you have a couple of hours to burn. 7/10

Thursday, 14 January 2016

A Lad Insane

His trick is you and me, boy

Every post-Soviet party in the early 90s reminded me of the scene in a Moscow restaurant from Master and Margarita. There is not a lot I can remember as I had to be very small at the time, but sweaty waiters with heavy alcohol-filled trays do spring to mind. What else? Dancing women – so remorselessly unattractive and overweight you wanted to scream. Awful sweaters, awful haircuts. And, of course, the music. Scratchy, low-quality mixtapes full of Patricia Kaas, Boney M, Smokie, Paul McCartney and, once upon a time, a tune that sounded vaguely different to a skinny boy of 5 or 6 whose perception of art was so embryonic you could squash it with a tennis racquet.

It’s hard to resist the temptation to overstate the importance of what happened more than twenty years ago. But there it was. One tune. One song on a chewy, murky cassette from the early 90s. I think I recognised it some ten years later, from a strangely seductive music video. The song was called “Ashes To Ashes”. Again, it sounded like a different world. Different planet, something from outer space. And I had no idea who Thomas Jerome Newton was. Christ, I had never heard of Major Tom.

I don’t mind seeing people overreact. If anything, overreaction shows that a person can react in the first place. Something of a trick in these listless, emotionally vapid times. And on the white morning when I found out about David Bowie’s death, I freaked out. One SMS message left me speechless on the snow-covered street in the centre of the city. It happened the day Heath Ledger died, but that’s because death was so fucking absurd that day. It happened the day Amy Winehouse died, but that’s because of the strange circumstances in which I learned about her death. It certainly happened the day Christopher Hitchens died, but then everyone had seen it coming.

With David Bowie, you could never see it coming. Liver cancer? Fuck off. Bowie changed. That was the point of Bowie. Ziggy, Tom, Duke. Bowie changed all the time. Change equals life: Bowie could not die. Bowie had to go on forever. And so I overreacted. More than that, I wanted the whole world to overreact. Get off their fucking social network. Their Twitter accounts, their Facebook posts with cute pictures and dramatic YouTube videos. Like they cared. Like they needed this public display to show that they cared. (I was oddly pleased to check Luke Haines’s Twitter a day later to find out that he wasn’t there with any tributes, he was with his favourite Bowie records; my love for the man has grown some more.) The idea just sounded so pettily narcissistic and so cheap. It still does.  

Favourite Bowie records… They changed as rapidly as Bowie changed. And yet sinking whiskies, playing “Time” for the hundredth time, I realised it must have been that album he did in 1973, in the post Ziggy Stardust craze. Aladdin Sane. The pun in the title was so obvious, so fitting, and the music was quintessential Bowie. Glam-rock Bowie (“Cracked Actor”), theatre Bowie (“Time”), classical avant-garde Bowie (“Aladdin Sane”), generic rock’n’roll Bowie (“The Jean Genie”), unnecessary cover Bowie (“Let’s Spend The Night Together”), even doo-wop Bowie (Drive-in Saturday”). Truly it had everything (well, almost everything). It even had “Lady Grinning Soul”, one of my favourite songs of all time. It wasn’t all right, but then Bowie never had to be. He was the perfect pop outsider, the quintessence of postmodernist expression. His genius was deranged. 

Which is the undertone I must have felt at one of those post-Soviet parties that looked more like a Satanic ball than the actual Satanic ball in Bulgakov’s novel. My perception of music and art must have expanded that day. It did so many more times later on, for there were stories and there were albums to look forward to. Good, bad – that was almost secondary. They were new. Then there was his fear of flying. Those misguided 90s. Him playing Tesla. The overlong hiatus… Death. Only this time, it doesn’t add up. Because however insane and imperfect that world was, I now realise – as the cruel and otherworldly Blackstar spins again and again in the background – that it will no longer give me a new Bowie. Good or bad. There won’t be a single new David Bowie record. I don’t understand this. It is preposterous. It is fucking insane.       

Monday, 11 January 2016

World I Want To Live In

Is a world where on the day that someone dies, someone we all know and care about, nobody writes pathetically inane comments on Twitter, nobody posts songs and pictures on Facebook, nobody writes melodramatic words of sorrow and cringe-worthy devotion.

World where nobody says anything. Where people just reread their favourite stories, rewatch their favourite films, relisten to their favourite songs. Or maybe do none of that. Just think about it for a minute or two, while the cigarette burns. While the crow flies. 

Only then can one truly appreciate what it is that happens in “Blackstar” after the fourth minute. In a world where I want to live. 

Sunday, 10 January 2016

To Pimp A Music Critic

Well, in a nutshell. 

Listening to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly is like being seduced by 329 prostitutes all trying to take you to bed – but you like none of them.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

In Held 'Twas In I

Vestal virgins, light fandango and the rest of it. You’d be a fool to deny what could well be the world’s most seamless blend of classical and pop music. Literally Bach turning cartwheels 'cross the floor. But somewhere in the vicinity of Finchley Road, near the house where Sigmund Freud spent the final year of brilliant and inspired charlatanism, I suddenly realised that all along – it had been a different song.

And since we’ve alluded to “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” for the fourth or fifth time, we’re are not just talking about the greatest song by Procol Harum. We are talking about the 20th century. Which is where “In Held ‘Twas In I” comes in. A revelation that might have occurred on a psychoanalyst couch covered with Persian carpets and surrounded by ancient figurines, on 20 Maresfield Gardens. Back then, however, in 1939, progressive rock was not yet a thing of the past. Rather – it was a thing of distorted, chaotic future.

Or rather – it’s not progressive rock at all. It may have laid the foundation, it may be as grand and complex and pretentious as anything on Selling England By The Pound, but I prefer to view it as a collection of disjointed ideas and great musical thoughts brought together by a band overwrought by creative brilliance.

“In The Autumn Of My Madness…” is of course as good as anything ever written by anybody, but what hit me that day on Finchley Road was how much I was enjoying the whole ride. Maddening, elegiac, overblown. It was easy to admire, yet it was even easier to love. “Held Close By That Which Some Despise…” (note that the first words of each part make up the song title – seriously, not even 1968 could get much more pretentious than that) is almost embarrassing in its borderline treacly classical elegance. But it works, and is then followed by a circus-like section proving that genius and whimsy are often inseparable.

After all, as the smiling Dalai Lama said to the pilgrim: ‘Well my son, life is like a beanstalk, isn’t it?’ 

And from the fabulously far-fetched spoken-word intro to the overwhelming chants of that Wagnerian ending, you get it all. Self-indulgence, definitely, but also ‘glimpses of Nirvana’. Due to the sheer depth and scope or due it all being rooted in classical music or due to the talents of those involved, these glimpses are among the most striking 20th century had to offer. Took me about 10 years to catch most of them, but as any Buddhist will tell you – Nirvana never comes easy. 

But first and foremost - it's all a great and endearing joke. Which is where progressive rock loses, and Procol Harum wins.