Archive for November, 2010« Older Entries |
Friday, November 26th, 2010
No sniggering; the ex-Oasis singer’s new band feels very 2010
In a week marked by economic disaster, protests across the country, and the onward grind of the cuts agenda, it apparently falls to me to deliver some good news.
No sniggering at the back, please: it involves that great cultural talisman Liam Gallagher, and his new group – or, rather, his old group minus his brother, and with a new, slightly crap name. If you haven’t already heard, the quartet in question are called Beady Eye, and their first two songs are now in the public domain: a free-download A-side titled Bring The Light, and a supporting feature called Sons of the Stage, officially only available on a limited-edition 7-inch single, but now put up on YouTube, so everybody can have a listen. Despite myself, I like them both: whether accidentally or not, they seem to me to chime nicely with the abiding spirit of late 2010, but we’ll come to that in a minute.
As far as the first song is concerned, the revelation hit me last Friday, when I was on my way to the first day of filming for our new Guardian series Anywhere but Westminster. No matter that the Guardian had already previewed Bring the Light to a withering response: a freshly acquired copy of Bring the Light went on the car stereo, and had me and a colleague in fits of delirious laughter. Yes, it had distinct hints of the kind of rudimentary rock’n'roll one associates with, say, Status Quo. Of course, the lyrics were somewhat less than poetic (”I see no point, what you’re thinkin’/I’m goin’ out, I’m takin’ you drinkin’”). But what the hell: with distinct echoes of the Rolling Stones’ Let’s Spend the Night Together, the refreshing absence of Oasis’s old wall-of-sound guitars, and Liam’s standard devil-may-care vocals, we were hooked.
And that B-side! A quick history lesson, if you need it: Sons of the Stage was arguably the best song by a far-flung Mancunian band called World Of Twist, who brimmed with talent, but were crushed by the wheels of the record industry (their singer, Tony Ogden, died suddenly in 2006). The Beady Eye version is largely faithful to the original, but altogether nastier. It has one couplet in particular – “Nothing you can do, cos there is no solution/Got to get down to the noise and confusion” – perfectly suited to the younger Gallagher’s belligerent mewl; and, just maybe, the current condition of the country.
I mean that, I think. In times like these, it strikes me that the ideal role for rock music should be to both embody its time, and simultaneously offer some kind of respite from it. Looking to a 38-year-old multimillionaire with his own clothes range to do that may seem utterly absurd, but what if he – and Beady Eye – can deliver? These two songs hint at the Oasis aesthetic minus the tendency to sentimentality, and with their old menace back in the foreground, which could chime with such a grim, uncertain period; at the same time, the promise is of by-the-book abandon and dumb thrills, which might make people feel that bit better. Simple!
So hats off, I say. One is reminded of a quote from Liam’s estranged brother, with accidental echoes of those scenes in London yesterday: “All the people the kids look up to now are bland, faceless trainee police officers … Liam should be given a knighthood.” He shouldn’t, but I hope you take the point.
Friday, November 19th, 2010
While Ed Miliband has been on paternity leave, the Blairite old guard has been treacherous
The Labour party may have blessed Britain with two weeks of statutory paternity leave, but on this evidence its leader should have wet the baby’s head and headed straight back to work. How the mice have played – not least Alan Johnson, who was given his job as shadow chancellor and “enforcer” so as to steady the shadow cabinet, but apparently transformed into a proper troublemaker.
Over the weekend he used an interview in the Times and a spot on the BBC’s Politics Show to question Ed Miliband’s beliefs in an enduring 50p top-rate of tax and a graduate tax. Yesterday, his voice was among those that cropped up in a hatchet-job run by the Times – titled “the fall of new Labour”, and focused on the supposed illegitimacy of the younger Miliband’s leadership win. This time, Johnson’s words were less than incendiary, and in any case, his people claimed they had been made at a conference dinner, before he got his new job. No matter: his relatively mild contribution took its place among seditious quotes from no end of former New Labour high-ups. Like this one, from Margaret Hodge: “Ed got the job – David won the contest.” Brilliant.
So it is that the coalition gets away with murder. For sure, announcements from Labour drop into my inbox by the score: “Government backtracking on its NHS promises … Labour accuses government of deception over arts cuts … Pupil premium turns out to be a complete con.” Reasonably often, they approximate the righteous ire one feels when witnessing what the government is up to. But they are like lines in search of a song for which no one has even written a chorus: fractured, lacking a coherent thread, and always in danger of neglecting glaring opportunities. On the activists’ website LabourList, a former councillor recently asked a very pertinent question: “What exactly is Labour’s policy towards the axing of the education maintenance allowance? I think we’re opposed to it, but I’ve very little to base that assumption on and there’s certainly no effective Labour-led campaign to save it.” Quite so – but what chance, when Labour guns are still rattling out internal battles?
Ed Miliband’s first seven weeks have seen him doing better than his foes predicted, but he continues to cut a lonely figure: apparently set on a promising kind of modernised social democracy, readying himself for a blank-page policy review, and strafed by hostile fire. The Brownites who once clustered around Ed Balls mistrust him, not just for denying their man the job he wanted, but because his more pluralist instincts and insistence on the importance of civil liberties make him look both exotic and dangerous. The Blairites, as ever, neurotically fear the fabled lurch to the left, and will not go quietly. Exactly what tired old narcissists such as Peter Mandelson and Alan Milburn have to offer is unclear, but that hardly stops them. Meanwhile, the unthinking mass of Labour MPs wait for a sign, as tussling about the immediate future continues.
Those taking a pop at the leadership from the right are sticking to a manual that was outmoded five years ago, and that current conditions render irrelevant. In more benign times the Blair-Brown regime bowed to a crass, illusory idea of the centre-ground: now, with the coalition pushing politics even further to the right, too many Labour politicians seem to be acquiescing in the other side’s world-view. They should go back to some plain facts. At the election the Tories got only 36% of the vote; now they have entered government, the Lib Dems’ poll rating barely scrapes double figures. In a couple of recent polls, Labour has actually been in first place. You never know: with enough thought, perhaps they could oppose the government on the basis of a different vision of the future. More to the point, if they don’t, the question will be screamed: what exactly is Labour for?
When he returns to the office, Miliband needs to hold the more capable, on-message members of the shadow cabinet – Andy Burnham is a good example – even closer. As one former Labour insider told me yesterday, as an interim measure he could also mark the imminent policy review’s halfway mark by formalising half a dozen points that denote where he wants to go – 50p, the graduate tax, a high pay commission – and using the old Blairite trick of putting them to the membership via a plebiscite, so as to issue a succinct “Shut up”.
Above all, he needs to get to grips with a profound gap between a terrifyingly ambitious project to forever re-tilt the balance between public and private, and Labour politicians who only seem able to take one of three options – staying silent, taking issue with the coalition’s plans only on the basis of nitpicking, or making internecine mischief. The first two are a dereliction of duty: the third, surely, borders on madness.
Thursday, November 18th, 2010
Building on my series of films, I’m looking for your views on the impact of political decisions on communities across Britain
With Britain facing its most dramatic social changes for decades, we want to take the country’s temperature – and we need your help. We’re aiming to sideline the generalities and cliches of Westminster, and investigate what’s actually happening in our cities, towns and villages.
For over a year now, I have been making films for the Guardian, with John Domokos, ostensibly about party politics, but more often than not focusing on the UK’s social fabric. From hard times in Cumbria, through the prospects for the “big society” in Stourbridge, and on to the forlorn state of affairs in South Shields, we’ve tried to highlight the gap between what passes for the national debate and nitty-gritty reality – something that has taken on even more urgency as the effects of the downturn linger on and the cuts start to bite.
We think we decisively began to portray the national condition in our film about the south Mancunian suburb of Altrincham, which touched on no end of really topical themes: inequality, long hours, the forlorn state of the built environment, the demise of town centres … you name it. Now, we want to maintain this theme, and really start to flesh out where Britain is going.
Plenty of these films have been guided and influenced by Guardian users – via comment threads, email and Twitter. Now, with your continuing help, we want to document the effects of austerity, but we’re also keen to map the effects of decisions taken by both business and government, and much more. We’re determined to look at social changes that mainstream politicians always seem to understand long after they’ve happened. So, if where you live is changing fast, or stuck in a rut – or, just to maintain a note of optimism, being taken somewhere different by the efforts of people on the ground – we want to know.
We need good stories to base the films around and voices who can tell us them – and we’ll make a point of presenting what they say to both local and national politicians. Later this week, we’ll begin the journey in my adopted hometown of Frome in Somerset – so any intelligence from there or thereabouts would be most welcome. That said, by way of an opening appeal, pointers from all over the UK are what we’re after. So, over to you …
Wednesday, November 17th, 2010
Disparaging remarks about Miliband’s popular 50p tax rate policy show how wedded some New Labour loyalists are to the past
The fact that the Labour party is so unable to barge into the current headlines obviously has its advantages. Thinking about it, so too does the Murdoch paywall – because over the weekend, Alan Johnson committed a striking bit of political mischief via an interview in the Times, and precious few people seemed to notice.
After Labour introduced the new top rate of tax in April 2009, a handful of its big players – including Alistair Darling and Peter Mandelson – effectively apologised, and claimed it was but a temporary measure. During his leadership campaign, by contrast, Ed Miliband fleshed out his plan to revive some of Labour’s better instincts by insisting the move should be permanent, which distanced him from his brother, and undoubtedly played some role in his eventual victory.
Johnson, however, is unimpressed. “I am only backing 50p for the times we are in,” he said. “It is not ideal; five years ago [we] wouldn’t have done it. Our policy has to be based on principles of fairness and what encourages people to do well.” The Times piece also claimed, by way of a paraphrase, that the shadow chancellor is “an instinctive cutter” – and on Sunday, much the same line was peddled again via a spot on the BBC’s Politics Show. There, on both 50p and a graduate tax, Johnson said Labour had to come up with “considered policy” – as against the supposedly overheated stuff of mere leadership campaigns, a point elaborated thus: “You have to separate out what’s going on in a leadership contest, where people say all kinds of things in the cut and thrust of that campaign – and where we stand now.”
This is a rum do indeed: Miliband’s newly appointed “enforcer“, trying to wrest a payback for his services via a clear questioning of his leader’s pitch for the top job, and a step back towards the more outmoded bits of New Labour orthodoxy: tanks-on-lawns stuff, obviously timed to coincide with Miliband’s spell of paternity leave. It proves a whole array of things: among them, that the disaffection that swirled around Manchester in the wake of Ed’s win has not gone away, and there remain real divisions at the party’s commanding heights – essentially, between those who think that Labour’s predicament demands a serious rethink of the party’s approach, and others who apparently believe that defeat was but a blip, the errant Miliband can be brought back to his senses, and all will soon be well.
It also highlights how strange the politics of the Labour right have turned. An array of polling proves that the 50p rate is unanswerably popular: at the time it was introduced, Populus reckoned that 57% of people were in favour, as against only 22% against; and a subsequent poll by YouGov found that keeping the 50p rate would appeal to 88% of uncommitted voters. In the context of such fretful times, the figures point to an obvious enough argument: that with Miliband starting to elaborate on his timely ideas about the “squeezed middle” – let alone the blighted poor – the spectacle of a Labour minister holding fast to the deluded politics of “aspiration” and continuing to buddy-up to extremely high-earners is miserable indeed. Why do it? What part of the zeitgeist is Johnson trying to channel? Moreover, how is this meant to assist Labour’s immediate prospects?
All that said, a leadership slap-down to Johnson has been interpreted – by at least a few people – as proof that the 50p argument has not been resolved: it will remain, says the leader’s office, “for the foreseeable future”, which is supposedly different enough from the summer’s “permanent” line to highlight a tentative shuffle to the right. As far as I can tell, that’s the stuff of overexcited semantics, ignoring the aforementioned differences – which go on, and may yet flare up elsewhere.
Meanwhile, just to underline where the more out-there school of New Labour’s “aspirational” credo ended up, consider this quote, cited by David Laws in his recent account of the coalition negotiations. When presented with the Lib Dems’ plans for a mansion tax, Peter Mandelson allegedly uttered this pearl: “Haven’t the rich suffered enough?”
Saturday, November 13th, 2010
How did the high-rollers’ drug of choice become so widely used that the country now tops the European league tables?
When it comes to the image of the week, there is surely no contest: it’s a slam-dunk for that picture of Cameron, Gove, Osborne and Cable gingerly raising their glasses in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, genuflecting to the towering power of Wen Jiabao and quietly hoping that their travelling companion, Tamara Mellon, might divine a Chinese market for Jimmy Choos. There is poetry here, of a kind: four horsemen of the fiscal apocalypse, so awkward-looking that their image cuts straight to one of the defining features of Con-Dem Britain: a sharp slip in national self-esteem – so steep, in fact, that the belated act of post-imperial rebranding that was Cool Britannia now feels like something that happened aeons ago. By way of further evidence, consider a few other recent news stories: the prospect of aircraft carriers without aircraft, the cuts in aid to our once-beloved creative industries, and England’s “ailing” World Cup bid.
Still, let us acknowledge at least one area in which Britain remains a world leader. According to this week’s annual report from the EU’s Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, we are now top of the European rankings for cocaine use – which includes the minority pastime of crack-smoking, but largely denotes the standard ritual whereby the drug is powdered and shoved up people’s noses. Spain once threatened the UK’s supremacy, but no more: such is our appetite for the stuff that our per-capita experience of the drug now even exceeds that of the US. One in 10 of us have tried it; 15% of 18- to 34 year-olds say they have had some at least once. According to another report from Straight Statistics, each year, nearly a million Britons either give it a go or indulge a regular habit.
Twenty years ago most people understood cocaine as a distant, almost mythical substance – prohibitively expensive and thereby restricted to either metropolitan high-rollers or those in the higher reaches of the entertainment industry: “God’s way of telling you you’re earning too much money,” as Robin Williams once said. I can well recall the first time I was aware of its use: at a 21st birthday party attended by a smattering of young aristocrats, whose possession of such a rarefied substance prompted awe-struck whispers.
For people lower down the social scale, the recreational pharmacoepia revolved around more affordable sources of enjoyment: cannabis, amphetamine sulphate; and, for those who had immersed themselves in Britain’s seemingly unstoppable club culture, ecstasy – an illicit substance whose creation of a kind of delirious sociability arguably did Britain a great deal of good.
Then something happened. In 1990, the average price of a gram of cocaine was about £90; five years later, it was closer to £60. Via such voices as the Gallagher brothers and the early Loaded magazine, it followed a standard enough route from some of the more celebrated parts of the culture into the population. Circa 2003, its price per gram came down to about £40; in 2006, it was reported that Gloucester – Gloucester! – had registered the UK’s lowest street price, at about £30. Now surveys suggest that some 6% of 15- to 16-year-olds have tried it. For someone of my generation, who recalls the acme of teenage experimentation being a weak joint scored from a helpful sixth former, even that relatively small proportion seems mind-boggling: proof of cocaine’s passage from yuppie land to somewhere remarkably close to the bike sheds.
Higher up the age range, this week’s figures point up the blurring of our alcohol and drug cultures, and an underrated aspect of the British fondness for boozy excess. As any cocaine user will tell you, one of its main effects is the increased capacity for drink, which must substantially add to the takings of those great alco-sheds that now dominate our towns. If you read the shock-horror reports of those Friday nights-out that take in incredible volumes of booze and end in A&E, bear in mind that cocaine will often have something to do with it.
By way of shining light on our times, however, the most important point is this. Cocaine is not a drug to plug you into the collective consciousness; instead it leaves you marooned on your own tedious island, little caring about what anyone else has to contribute. Unlike ecstasy, cannabis, or acid, it is not contemplative or mind-expanding. It tends to kill humour and camaraderie and render the collective mood brittle and anxious. All too often it fosters arrogance, anger, and even violence: last year, Greater Manchester Police found that in a sample of 1,000 people arrested for violent offences, of the 500 who tested positive for drugs, 86% had been using cocaine. And stats like that bring the inevitable conclusion: that if the idea of the caring, sharing 90s turned out to be a brief mirage, and we end the current decade more atomised and volatile than ever, the popularity of cocaine speaks volumes, embodying the spirit of our times while also feeding it.
We remain, as Damon Albarn once put it, “a stroppy little island of mixed-up people”, hundreds of thousands of whom are in the habit of frenziedly talking themselves up, while anyone not on the same warped wavelength pays them little attention. Again, one’s mind goes back to those slightly absurd images from China: somewhere in the cocaine experience there may well be an analogy with the entire post-imperial condition.
Hail! Hail! Rock'n'Roll:
The Ultimate Guide to the Music, the Myths and the Madness
"The Dark Side of the Moon":
The Making of the "Pink Floyd" Masterpiece
So Now Who Do We Vote For?
The Last Party:
Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock
Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock
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