SOTS and Tim Rice

It’s thirty-five minutes into the latest edition of Sounds of the Sixties, presented by Tim Rice in the ongoing absence of our old mate, Brian Matthew. But something’s different. Rice introduced the programme by telling us who he is, but for the first time didn’t mention that he was sitting in. And this far into the show, there hesn’t been a single mention of dear old Brian.

It’s still ‘sits in’ on the SOTS website, but people, I think we’re going to have to prepare ourselves for the inevitable. It’s not the same, and it shouldn’t be Tim Rice if and when the handover becomes permanent, because he’s too stilted and unconvincing, and without Brian, the music’s less involving. But the era is over, I fear.

UPDATE. No mention in the entire programme, just a see you next time at the end. I fear.

The Infinite Jukebox: Mr Bloe’s ‘Groovin’ with Mr Bloe’

Quick! How many times have harmonica instrumentals only been held off no. 1 by the biggest selling record of the year? In any properly ordered Pop universe, the answer should be none, but in this imperfect world, there was one, and this is it.

I have an umbilical connection with ‘Groovin’ with Mr Bloe’, as this is my Official First Single I Ever Bought (meaning that it’s the one I can feel safe in admitting to, given that it’s marginally respectable, as opposed to the Real First Single I Ever Bought, which was ‘The Leavin’ (Durham Town)’ by Roger Whittaker). Though I’d been listening to Radio 1 daily since just before Xmas Day 1969, I never really started to take things in until, being a tidy-minded person and something of an anal-retentive in psychological terms, I started writing down the Top 30 every week. The England World cup Squad’s ‘Back Home’ was just breaking into the charts, and I was allowed to turn over early to BBC1, just the once, before Top of the Pops had ended, to see the dinner-jacketed squad sing it. And, much lower down, this weird instrumental was starting what would prove to be a lengthy chart spell.

I say weird, because I couldn’t work out what was making that sound. There were only four instruments on the disc, and you could hear each of them, clear and separate. A crisp, metronomic drumbeat. A flexible but distinct rubbery bass. Deep bass-register piano chords. And this completely un-pop-like sound twisting and wailing its way through the melody. What the hell was it?

I ended up playing it to my Uncle, whose opinion of pop music mirrored that of my parents. He identified it instantly as a harmonica, which I should have recognised for myself, but had failed to do so because I simply did not associate harmonicas with pop (I had heard no blues up to this point). In those very early days, and based on my parents’ attitude to the music, I kinda thought of all pop music as occupying an insulated cocoon, with no bearing on or from any other kind of more respectable music whatsoever. And never would the twain meet.

But here was this bouncy instrumental, which I loved hearing, and it’s climbing the charts. It’s into the Top 10, it’s actually climbed as high as no 3, I’m considering buying it. It sticks at no 3 for a week. Mungo Jerry’s ‘In the Summertime’ is no 1, and Free’s ‘Alright Now’ has leapt 23 places to no 4. The following week, Mr Bloe goes up to no 2. This is the week when my purchase will be of the greatest strategic use, when it will help push it up that essential one further place to no. 1. I beg the money off my mother and buy it at Sykes’ Records, on Lane End Road.

In this, I am being doubly naive. Firstly, in thinking that a two-bit, hole in the wall local shop like Sykes contributes to the chart returns, and secondly that Mr Bloe is more likely to overtake Mungo Jerry than Free. The following week, I am bitterly disappointed to find that ‘In the Summertime’ is still no. 1, which it will go on to be forever that summer, or for seven weeks, whichever is sooner, and that free and Mr Bloe have swapped places. Neither will break past Mungo Jerry.

‘Groovin’ with Mr Bloe’ falls away. Apparently, there was a live appearance on Top of the Pops which I missed due to the weekly parental ban, though ‘Mr Bloe’, so far as this single is concerned, is a rhythm section assembled by arranger Zack Lawrence (who plays the piano) and a session harmonica played by jazz harmonica veteran Harry Pitch, whose harmonica can otherwise be heard on such diverse items as Frank Ifield’s ‘I Remember You’, and the theme music for Last of the Summer Wine. So, a session outfit, playing an instrumental written and first recorded in America in 1968.

There is a follow-up, ‘Curried Soul’ (on which the piano is played by aspiring sessionman Elton John) which, despite it being the follow-up to a massive hit, Radio 1 is curiously reluctant to play, even as something for the DJs to talk all the way through. A third single, ’74-78 New Oxford’ (the record company’s address) doesn’t even get that exposure. The record company sponsors a tour, with progressive band Hookfoot as Mr Bloe which means, in practice, that they start off my playing ‘Groovin’ with…’ then playing their usual set.

In much later years, when I am married, I occasionally baffle my stepchildren by pointing out that an old record they are listening to with contemporary disbelief actually was a smash hit. They can’t understand why, and I find it hard to believe myself. This never actually applied to ‘Groovin’ with Mr Bloe’, but it would have fit that description perfectly

What I now understand, decades out of date, is that like a lot of improbable and obscure visitors to the Top 30, Mr Bloe was a favourite of the Northern Soul Scene, of which I did not become aware until 1974. It all fits, the hi-energy metronomic beat, the pounded piano, the fizzing bass. The harmonica, the melody that attracted me then and which still tickles my nostalgia, was the least important factor in the track’s success.

So a harmonica instrumental, played by the man whose most widely-recognised piece of music is the Last of the Summer Wine theme came close to being number One in the singles chart, in 1970. If not for Mungo Jerry, damn them (never liked ‘In the Summertime’ anyway).

Deep Space Nine: s04 e01&2- The Way of the Warrior

Season 4 - the new cast
Season 4 – the new cast

And without a pause we roll on into season 4 of the great DS9 rewatch, the midpoint of the show’s run, and it’s all change. Captain Sisko’s shaved his head, there’s a new and slightly fussier credit sequence, Siddig el Fadil is now going by the name Alexander Siddig, which puts him back in the credits so he’s now next to Nana Visitor, his missus (aww!). And, oh yes, enter as Strategic Operations Officer: Lieutenant Commander Worf, played again by Michael Dorn, after a year of inactivity since the end of Next Generation. All change. And a pretty bloody good double-episode of high seriousness, drama and consequence to kick us off with a perfect demonstration of what Deep Space Nine should be like, week-in, week-out.

The open started with what I initially thought was a flashback to last season’s final episode and the station-wide hunt for the Changeling, though the object of the hunt turned out to be Odo, and the whole thing a training exercise. It was an effective re-orientation for viewers after a summer off, but had no relation to the story which suddenly developed. A Klingon ship decloaks off the station, and its Commander, General Martok, requests shore leave for his crew. The Captain readily agrees. Then the rest of the Klingon Fleet decloaks…

There’s something going on. Sisko doesn’t really believe Martok’s claim that they’re only here to defend the Alpha Quadrant against the Dominion, there’s no discernible evidence of any activity at present. Martok’s hiding something so Sisko decides to seek outside help. Enter Worf.

This season was set after the Star Trek: Generations film (the only one I saw in the cinema, and the request of an old friend who didn’t want to go on her own), in which the TNG Enterprise had been destroyed. Worf has been on retreat until summoned to duty: he is seriously considering resigning his commission, in conflict between his natural Klingon beliefs and temperament and his duties – and his honour – as a Starfleet officer.

This is a very Worf-oriented episode, as was only to be expected. The heavily serious, yet uncharacteristically doubting Klingon is the fulcrum through which almost everything moves, with the lighter scenes being used as relief from the wholly serious plot. Into this category comes a scene in which Dax tries to get Kira into a holosuite programme with toyboy Trills giving great massages (I bet they do, I bet they do! Say no more!) which is mainly notable for getting both ladies out of uniform and flashing a bit of flesh: shoulders mainly, and some leg.

For once though, the balance is well-maintained, and even the Quark bits are decently portrayed, and at least in character.

But we are starting off the season with a major geo-political shift that will direct the overall flow of the show throughout the next twenty-six episodes and beyond: the downfall of the Obsidian Order on Cardassia (in s03 e21) has led to the overthrow of the Central Command and the establishment of a Civilian Government (with Gul Dukat as Chief Military Advisor, naturally), and rumours of civil war and uprising.

The Klingon Empire cannot believe that a civil uprising can, on its own, overthrow a military government. It is obvious, to them, that this is a move by the Dominion, that the civil government is led by Changelings. Their plan is simple: to invade, and take over the Cardassian Empire.

The Federation intends, at first, to stand by and not get involved, and that extends to DS9. Sisko cannot stand by: he takes the  Defiant, including Worf on its bridge, to rescue Dukat and the Civilian Council. This involves battle with a number of Klingon vessels.

It also involves the threat of war. Martok’s fleet, joined by Chancellor Gowron, demands the Council be handed over. Sisko refuses. In the past year, DS9 has upgraded its defences immensely. There’s a brilliant sequence of preparation for attack, full of the calm black humour of those facing a deadly situation. Worf has burned his bridges with his people, but he has retained his Honour. The battle is intense, including hand-to-hand combat on the Bridge.

It is all what the Dominion wants. Three of the powers of the Alpha Quadrant turning on each other, weakening each other, making the path to conquest so much easier for the Founders (we can leave the Vulcans and the Romulans out of this, apparently).

In the end, DS9’s resilience, and the imminent arrival of their reinforcement first, forces Gowron to withdraw. But the damage is done. Though they remain mutual enemies to the Dominion, the peace between the Federation and the Klingons is broken. And the Klingons are retaining several of the Cardassian colonies they overran. Like it or not, they are now a factor in the vicinity of the Wormhole.

As for Worf, he still plans to resign, until Sisko’s empathy over the fundamental reasons – the loss of the Enterprise and that crew – persuades him otherwise. Worf transfers from a gold shirt to a red, sets his foot upon the path of command, reorients the dynamic of the cast.

I’m looking forward to season 4.

Men who walked…

Former US Astronaut Eugene Cernan died on Monday, 16 January, aged 82.

He’s not the first death in 2017, and there have already been a couple of big names, too demonstrate that the trend from last year hasn’t necessarily with the change of this final digit, but none of those so far meant enough to me personally for a comment.

Nor should Gene Cernan, since his name was unfamiliar to me until the announcement of his death. But Mr Cernan held a distinction that went unremarked at the time, and that I had never considered. He was the last man to walk upon the Moon. The last man from this planet to stand upon the lunar surface, to stand on another body in the Universe.

It started me thinking. Only twelve men, between 1969 and 1972, did what Gene Cernan did. I remember the tremendous, the terrible sense of loss I felt in 2012, when the death of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon, was announced. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so deeply affected by the death of someone i didn’t personally know.

Armstrong the first and Cernan the last have now died. It is 45 years, almost three quarters of my life, since Gene Cernan stepped away from the Moon’s surface, to return to Apollo 17, to return to Earth. No-one, since then, has done what those twelve men did.

I had to know if he was really the last. it took a surprisingly long time to track down a simple list of those twelve who shared something none of us can ever imagine. Something that may never ever happen again the way things are going on, and not in my lifetime at any rate. But six men who did that are still alive. There are still a half dozen men among us who have stood on the surface of another world.

Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, David Scott, John Young, Charles Duke and Harrison Schmidt. The youngest of them is 81. Buzz Aldrin, who  stood with Neil Armstrong, is 86. We have a survivor from that first mission still.

I could explain something of why this seems to be important to me, if you gave me time enough, and I can tell you all the reasons why not as well. But it is in me, in whatever passes for my soul, to look outwards, to yearn outwards. To say that we must, one day, resume that journey into space. I simply cannot be without wanting that.

Eugene Cernan cannot be the last ever. But he is the last now. And he’s no longer with us. One of our most astounding achievements as a species lies behind us ad it gets ever further away with every minute. Which is why I commemorate the passing of someone whose name I did not know less than an hour ago.

Paying the Penalty

The penalty conceded by Paul Pogba that gave Liverpool the lead at Old Trafford yesterday, for almost an hour, was the most stupid, wasteful, needless and ridiculous I have seen in many a year. In fact, the last time I saw so a penalty so idiotic, I was still at school in the Sixth Form.

I should know. I conceded it.

We were on the bottom pitch, the three-quarter size one immediately in front of the school, defending the left hand end as observed from the Headmaster’s study (not that he was observing, at least, I hope not). The ball was crossed in from the right, and it was coming towards me.

What I was doing in my own penalty area was a mystery. You were far more likely to find me in or near the opposition’s penalty area, sniffing for a chance, alert for an opportunity or, as we called it then, goalhanging.

The other reason it was unusual for me to be where I was was that I was useless. I couldn’t head the ball, I couldn’t trap it, tackle anyone who had it, or muscle anyone out of making contact. I was stood there, in the middle of the box, in space, with the ball coming just above my head and to my left.

So I jumped up and slapped it down with my left hand.

Why did I do that? Sheer devilment. I had never given away a penalty before, I had never given away a deliberate handball, I was incapable of doing anything constructive, so in order to find out what it was like, I did it.

I paid for it almost immediately. My side were disgusted with me, which was nothing new on the pitch. My mate Zak was in goal and, picking up the ball, drop-kicked it upfield. It nearly hit me in the face, but I jerked my head aside, my mouth falling open as the ball whistled past.

Unfortunately, Zak’s violent hoof was violent enough to detach a lump of pitch from the sole of his football boot, at a slightly different trajectory to the ball, one that took it straight into my face. No, not my face: my mouth. The lump of mud and dirt flew into my open mouth without touching the sides, and burst against the roof of my mouth. It tasted exactly like you’re imagining it to taste.

Coughing, spluttering, digging in my fingers to hook out what was hook-outable and being very unsuccessful, I stumbled from the field and raced off to the nearest toilets where I could stick my gob under the tap and wash myself out.

Then back to the field, where the penalty had been duly converted as I stumbled bog-wards, and where I was the subject of much adverse comment, not for giving away the penalty but because I’d abandoned the field of play to wash my face, just because I had gotten mud on it.

In vain, I pointed out that it wasn’t on my face but in my mouth, but such niceties were unimportant at an all boys school. I was called all sorts of names, most of which would, not all that long afterwards, be subsumed in the general title of ‘wimp’, once we’d learned it.

So my stupid, wasteful, idiotic and needless penalty carried with it an instant karma. Only the goal accompanied Pogba’s penalty, but then his karma already has a severe load to bear. I mean, did you look at his hair? At least I’ve never committed an atrocity like that, which makes me infinitely superior.

Uncollected Thoughts: Sherlock series 4, episode 3

Sometimes, no amount of words can be put together to explain a piece of work that you have seen. ‘The Final Problem’ went everywhere and nowhere. It played on fear, love, heartbreak, confusion and the ability of the mind to maintain an ordered account. I found it brilliant beyond my capacity to describe, and will not attempt to explain anything for or to you, when I can’t put it together in a way that does not overwhelm me.

I don’t know how long it will be before, or maybe if, these people can be got together for series 5, but I will do everything I can to live that long.

Uncollected Thoughts: A Series of Unpleasant Events – episode 1

Long ago, in the mists of time, when the world was not as it is today, and the Guardian was still a half-decent paper, so you can tell how long ago we’re talking about (the early 2000s, actually), I read about a series of children’s books with a dark and twisted theme to them that promised to hold a great deal of interest to adults as well. When my then-wife read the feature, she agreed that this sounded perfect for her elder son.

After overcoming the automatic suspicion that any sensible teenager has for anything recommended by adults (it’s going to be good for me, that’s what you think, isn’t it?) he and his siblings settled in to read the series, over and again, and so did their stepfather.

Indeed, I got so heavily into the series that when it came to the last four or five (of thirteen), he didn’t get the new book until I had read it first. Ain’t I a stinker?

That series was, of course, the gloriously morbid, downbeat, dry, didactic, absurd and understatedly hilarious A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket (a pen-name for Daniel Handler), in which the lugubrious Mr Snicket records the awful things that happen to the Beaudelaire orphans, Violet, Klaus and Sunny, after their family mansion burns down, killing their parents and leaving them homeless and friendless.

Doesn’t sound all that enticing, does it? But then, in each book, several times over, the lachrymose Mr Snicket records his obligation with depicting the sad lives of these three innocent, and very intelligent, children whilst simultaneously urging his readers to look away, not to continue, to put the book down and go read something happier.

Meanwhile, the Beaudelaire’s continue their downwards progression from would-be guardian to would-be guardian, perpetually pursued by the evil villain, Count Olaf, a mountebank and a double-dyed baddie who takes in everyone around him whilst being a complete moustache-twirler. Snicket created a bizarre, real, implausible and attentuon-holding world with wonderfully dark comic riffs, such as the continual use of archaic and complex words whose meaning in context is carefully spelled out, and the dedications to the mysterious Beatrice who has already gone on ahead, e.g., from the first book, ‘To Beatrice: dearest, darling, dead’.

The series has been a massive success worldwide, which was down to not merely Handler’s dark imagination but his hyper-detailed approach, extending to control of the book’s packaging as well. Handler even provides gorgeously stylised illustrations under a second, even more elusive pen-name.

Given the film world’s overpowering desire to find a franchise half as popular as the Harry Potter series, A Series of Unfortunate Events was seized upon with gusto, with Jim Carrey talking the role of Count Olaf. The film merged books 1-3 into a single, but episodic story-line, but basically bogged it up almost as badly as The Golden Compass did with Philip Pullman.

However, Netflix have entered the fray, with the release on Friday of an eight-part series, based on books 1-4 (evidently two episodes per book). The screenplays are actually by Daniel Handler so there’s going to be no lack of faithfulness to the books, and Neil Patrick Harris is playing Count Olaf (and looking identical to Carrey in the film, but then both are based on the same very strong, very individual visual characteristics).

Better than that, where Lemony Snicket was no more than a voiceover in the film, here he’s played by Patrick Warburton, tall, dark, substantial, handsome, wandering in and out of the scenes, talking directly to the audience in dry, deadpan tones that are absolutely perfect. It’s a brilliant device and Snicket’s continual interruptions set a tone that then carries on into the formal, dry, didactic language the characters use themselves, establishing a world that exists in parallel to the ‘real world’. There will be nothing natural here, and from the opening moment, the audience is convinced of it.

The child actors are spot on, too. Malina Weissman (who’s actually slightly younger than Violet as she’s still only 13) is a familiar face already from Supergirl, where she plays the young Kara. Louis K Hynes is a very good Klaus, whilst baby Presley Smith plays the two-year-old Sunny, with the aid of a lot of CGI but does put a look wrong.

I was giggling from the outset. The opening episode has captured the tone of the books and creates that slightly-elevated artificiality of look, movement and word that makes every sentence funny. To be critical, the longer the episode (50 minutes) goes on, that constant tickling starts to lose steam, but then again the orphans’ plight gets steadily worse and that is the hardest of balances to maintain. And though Harris inhabits Count Olaf to the point of being completely unrecognisable as Neil Patrick Harris, he’s not yet frightening in thee way he really ought to be.

Still, there are seven more episodes of this series for him to escalate his performance, and I’m sure this is going to get better as the weeks go by.

Weeks? Yes, I know this is a Netflix series, and that all episodes have been released simultaneously, so that the whole thing can be binged through in a flat seven and a half hours, but I’m afraid this blog is having no such truck with new-fangled notions like that and we’ll do this the way Nature ordained, one episode at a time, thank ye kindly.

But don’t let me stop you. This one is bloody good fun.

(Mmm. That bit at the end. With Father and Mother Baudelaire. You mean, they’re not actually dead? What’s that about? Look, is there any more of that stuff in episode 2? Is it too late to start watching…?)