Archive for September, 2012« Older Entries |
Thursday, September 27th, 2012
John Harris asks conference delegates how the Lib Dems can find a sense of direction in time for the 2015 election
Thursday, September 27th, 2012
Fifty years after their first single was released in Britain, John Harris considers which books on the Beatles have stood the test of time – and what to look out for in the future
Modern pop is built on the denial of time. Reunions extend into the distance; the way we now listen to music means that songs from the distant past constantly jostle with songs from the present. With the increasing number of pop veterans, there is an inevitable fondness for nipping and tucking away the signs of their advancing years and inviting audiences into a huge suspension of disbelief – for a moment it can once more be 1956, or 1967, or 1989 …
Now and again, though, an occasion arrives that decisively reminds us how old post-Elvis popular culture now is – 5 October is the 50th birthday of the Beatles’ first single, released back when Harold Macmillan was the PM, and the Cuban missile crisis was only weeks away.
“Love Me Do” sounds like the world in which it was made: tentative, still feeling the pinch of post-war austerity. Ian MacDonald’s wonderful song-by-song history of the group, Revolution in the Head, reckoned that the song’s “modal gauntness” is subtly cunning, serving notice of the Beatles’ “unvarnished honesty”, and – via John Lennon’s wailing harmonica part – the “blunt vitality” of their native Liverpool. In the surviving Beatles’ own account, the huge Anthology, Paul McCartney recalls that the song was meant to sound hard and authentic: “blues” rather than “la de da de la”.
Many Beatles books barely mention “Love Me Do” at all. But there it is: a number 17 hit, long rumoured to have been propelled into the charts thanks to bulk-buying by manager Brian Epstein. If, like me, one of your first experiences of Beatles music was the collection 1962-66 (known as “The Red Album”, as against 1967-70 “The Blue Album”), you will probably have experienced it as a strangely muted opening to a listening experience that quickly flared into spectacular life: a prologue, rather than a first chapter proper.
The Beatles’ second single, “Please Please Me”, was released in January 1963, in the midst of a legendarily biting British winter, to which its giddy sound was an antidote. “Congratulations, Gentlemen, you’ve just made your first number one,” said their producer, George Martin. And he was right. By early the following year, their songs were crowding the US charts, and they were about to play to 73 million Americans on The Ed Sullivan Show. Once again, they were adopted as a panacea for cold and grim times – this time less a matter of the weather than the pall cast by the murder of President Kennedy. Only two years later, they would reach the apex of their fame, chased around the Deep South by fundamentalist Christians outraged by John Lennon’s claim that they were “bigger than Jesus”, while their music took on the textures and expanded horizons traceable – at least in part – to Lennon and George Harrison’s use of LSD.
Such is the remarkable pace of a story that has been told by scores of writers, a story about four young musicians but no end of other things: the cities of Liverpool, Hamburg and London; class, and the shaking of English hierarchies; pop’s transmutation into a global culture; and the western world’s passage from a world still defined by the second world war and its aftermath, to the accelerated modernity we know today. Everything in the tale pulses with significance and drama. It seems barely believable, and in the best Beatles books, it still burns.
Philip Norman’s Shout! was first published in 1981, and remains a glorious example of how to write about music, while also writing about much more. Of the Beatles in the mid-1960s, and their phenomenal success a mere three years or so after “Love Me Do” appeared, he wrote this:
“Only in ancient times, when boy emperors and pharaohs were clothed, even fed with pure gold, had very young men commanded an equivalent adoration, fascination and constant, expectant scrutiny. Nor could anyone suppose that to be thus – to have such youth, and wealth, such clothes and cars and servants and cars – made for any state other than inconceivable happiness. For no one since the boy pharoahs … had known, as the Beatles now knew, how it felt to have felt everything, done everything, tasted everything, had a surfeit of everything; to live on that blinding, deadening, numbing surfeit which made each, on bad days, think he was ageing at twice the usual rate.”
Thanks to an obsession that began when a babysitter played me a Beatles record around the time of my fifth birthday, I own 67 books about the band (before I wrote this article, I counted them). They range from the crass and moronic, via the comically arcane, to the serious and brilliant. Among them, there is an American volume titled The Walrus Was Paul, all about the insane late 60s conspiracy theory in which McCartney had been dead since 1966 and secretly replaced by a doppelganger. If I’m feeling really masochistic, I occasionally pick up The Day John Met Paul, an absurd and thoroughly speculative minute-by-minute account of the day in 1957 when Lennon first encountered McCartney at a church fete.
I treasure an American hardback of The Longest Cocktail Party, the memoir of a long-lost American called Richard DiLello, who worked for the Beatles’ doomed and decadent Apple company as a PR assistant and “house hippy”. And at least once a year, I reread Barry Miles’s Many Years From Now, an account of McCartney’s 60s that, thanks to voluminous input from its subject, reads more like a memoir, and a brittle one at that. Every few pages, McCartney decides to pick a Lennon-McCartney composition, and then specify each of their contributions: “In My Life”, long assumed to be Lennon’s work alone, was “my melody … my guitar riff”; when it comes to “Ticket to Ride”, “because John sang it, you might have to give him 60% of it.”
That book was a transparent response to the posthumous Lennon industry, the most compelling product of which is Lennon Remembers, the full transcript of the 1970 interview he granted to the founder of Rolling Stone magazine, Jann Wenner. Lennon Remembers is defined by the bitterness and candour of a mind trying to make sense of Norman’s “deadening surfeit”, lashing out at former colleagues and associates, and describing the distance between the good clean fun portrayed by just about every newspaper journalist who travelled with them, and what actually happened. “When we hit town, we hit it,” he told Wenner. “We were not pissing about. There’s photographs of me crawling about in Amsterdam on my knees, coming out of whorehouses and things like that. And people saying [cheerfully]: ‘Good morning, John.’”
At the time the interview happened, there were only two Beatles books of any quality. Hunter Davies’s authorised biography was published in 1968, admirably researched and brimming with access – but stymied by his artless prose, and the constraints of being the band’s in-house writer. There was also the Penguin paperback Love Me Do: The Beatles’ Progress, written by the New Yorker Michael Braun through 1963 and early 1964. “That was a true book,” Lennon told Wenner. ”He wrote about how we were, which was bastards … You have to be a bastard to make it, man. That’s a fact, and the Beatles were the biggest bastards on earth.”
Braun was a former assistant to Stanley Kubrick, and a writer whose work appeared in the Observer and the Sunday Times (he died in 1997; one of his obituaries described him as “a penniless flâneur”, drawn to people whose ”personal mythology was not limited by prosaic biographical fact”). Contrary to Lennon’s picture, his book – a tour diary, essentially, which follows them around provincial England, on to Paris and New York – largely offers a close-up of the Beatles as you might expect it: witty, blunt, quickly breaking out of the drab conventions of British showbiz.
He evokes ordinary places witnessing quite extraordinary scenes, in incisively simple terms: in the north-east of England, for example, he keeps the Beatles company in yet another hotel, watching them do a phone interview with a DJ in far-away Melbourne, while a gaggle of fans looks up at the window. “When the call was finished,” Braun wrote, “they turned the lights out and spent a few minutes looking at the girls through a slit in the curtains before going to bed. The next morning as the Beatles left Sunderland several girls were still gathered in front of the hotel, huddling against the winds blowing from the North Sea.” This is what is so compelling about those early treks around provincial theatres and ballrooms: moments of quiet, when the band seemed to marvel at what was happening to them; and the sense of an extended goodbye (by the autumn of 1966, they had stopped touring altogether).
Davies’s book pushed an approved vision of unbroken brotherhood just as the Beatles began to come to grief. There was then a period of publishing quiet, until in the wake of Lennon’s murder in 1980, Hamish Hamilton published Shout!, and thereby planted the seed of serious Beatles biography and commentary – arguably, of serious writing about pop in general. Shout! predated Stanley Booth’s equally accomplished The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones by three years, and Robert Shelton’s flawed Dylan biography No Direction Home by five. Perhaps because its triumph lies less in its evocation of the music than its sure grasp of how amazing the Beatles story was, and how important they were as representatives of their age, it has rather been passed over by music writers – but it is a great book.
A couple of years ago, I spoke to Norman about the task he had faced. “The idea of writing a proper book that happened to be about a pop group … no one had really tried it,” he said. “And it’s a very hard thing to do. You’re dealing with so much dross: you have to say things like: ‘The record went to number three in the charts.’ How do you say that in a literate sentence? Also, relating what happened to a performer to what was happening in the world is difficult to do, without sounding ridiculous. You skate a line between treating your subject-matter seriously, and ridiculously over-seriously. English writers tend to be flippant; American writers can be almost funereal.”
Shout! arrived just as rock’s golden years became distant enough to be properly considered (Norman’s biographies of the Rolling Stones, Elton John and Lennon were to follow). In its wake came a trickle of Beatles books, until another game-changing work appeared in 1994: Revolution in the Head, a triumph of musical and cultural scholarship. MacDonald was an alumnus of the New Musical Express but was no rock hack; he had already published The New Shostakovich.
Revolution in the Head is one of those books that can be reread endlessly. I tend to pick it up at least every couple of months, alight on its analysis of Beatles songs to which I haven’t listened for a while, and then go to the music. Even comparative makeweights are rigorously examined, and so given renewed allure: “Things We Said Today” is built from “strident dramatic contrasts”; “Hey Bulldog” is “menacingly pointed (possibly at McCartney)”; more straightforwardly, Harrison’s “Old Brown Shoe” is praised as “an archetypal B-side from an era when B-sides were worth flipping a single for”. All of it only underlines what a loss MacDonald was to writing: after a long spell of depression, he killed himself in August 2003.
Fortuitously, Revolution in the Head arrived in the first phase of so-called Britpop, when worship of the Beatles became almost compulsory. Books about them began appearing by the dozen – often cheap, nasty and pointless.
There are, thankfully, exceptions. Thanks to a tip from the writer Jon Savage, I now own Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History by the self-styled “independent scholar” from Brooklyn Devin McKinney. Stylistically, it takes its lead from the Rolling Stone writer and pop theorist Greil Marcus. McKinney’s book is often maddening and silly, but when he’s good, he’s very good. Of the Beatles’ output in 1966, he writes: “Virtually every piece of music they put their hands to this year comes out in some way twisted, acerbic, jagged.” That year’s Revolver, he says, was “the first Beatle album to find itself in the dark, not the light”.
When the band covered material by American rock’n'rollers, the key to what made their versions different was this: “They were interested in stripping a song to its parts, exposing its frame, then retooling it with what was theirs: a group dynamic, a oneness of instruments and voices that made four discrete noises into one great noise, a syncopation of chaos; and a driving quality of hysteria.” That captures well the Beatles’ renditions of songs by Little Richard and Chuck Berry, but it also sums up the 100mph brilliance of such watershed records as “She Loves You” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” – all energy and irresistible joy.
Now, two more significant, serious works are on the way: an anthology of John Lennon’s letters, edited by Hunter Davies, and the first of a three-volume biography of the band by Mark Lewisohn, the Beatles expert responsible for two consummate reference books: The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, and the even more exhaustive Complete Beatles Chronicle, a day-by-day account of their career, full of descriptions of their pharaonic lives.
Lewisohn has been working on volume one of his biography for close to a decade: he, his agent and his publisher will say very little about when it will be published, though there are reliable indications that it will appear next year.
Its author, incidentally, is present and correct in Shout!, as a Beatles-fixated eight-year-old in his native Pinner – a reminder that as well as endlessly sparking the intellect, Beatles music works more basic wonders. Page 78 portrays Lewisohn at home in 1967, listening to the album which confirmed that in the five years since the release of “Love Me Do”, the Beatles and their art had been transformed: as Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band blared from indoors, he “stood in the garden as it played, shaking his head wildly while trying not to dislodge the cardboard moustache under his nose”.
Wednesday, September 26th, 2012
The Beatles film Magical Mystery Tour caused outrage in 1967 – and is now being compared to Buñuel and the Pythons. John Harris hears the true story of the shoot from those involved
On Monday 11 September 1967, two hours later than scheduled, a coach pulled out of Allsop Place, just behind Baker Street tube station. Filling 40 of its 43 seats were actors, technicians and camera operators – along with Paul McCartney, and a crowd of friends and associates of the Beatles. John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were soon picked up near their commuter-belt homes in Surrey – whereupon the coach headed for an inconclusive and ill-starred trek around the West Country, ending in the less-than-glamorous environs of Newquay in Cornwall.
Just over three months later, after further filming at a Kent airfield, BBC1 screened the hour-long film the Beatles titled Magical Mystery Tour. It went out on Boxing Day at 8.35pm and 15 million people tuned in – but, presented with a bamboozling melange of unconnected scenes, often shakily shot and seemingly stuck together at random, most were not best pleased. Indeed, history records that the BBC’s so-called reaction index – a number arrived at after quizzing viewers about what they had seen – scored its lowest-ever rating: 23 out of 100.
This rum turn of events, only a few months after the death of Beatles manager Brian Epstein, has long been seen as the Beatles’ one true disaster. “Beatles mystery tour baffles viewers” was the headline in the Mirror, flagging up claims that “by the thousand, viewers protested to the BBC”. The Express called it “tasteless nonsense” and “blatant rubbish”. In the States, NBC cancelled an agreement to show the film on its broadcastleaving a print of it to be passed round US universities; it would not be shown again in Britain for over a decade. Only the Guardian offered any respite, praising “an inspired freewheeling achievement … a kind of fantasy morality play about the grossness, warmth and stupidity of the (Beatles’) audience”.
Anthony Wall, editor of the BBC arts programme Arena since 1985, was in his mid-teens back then. At his home in south London, he sat watching Magical Mystery Tour with his family and some neighbours, whose angry bafflement was of a piece with what would pour forth the next day. “I am that textbook 16-year-old who sat there in the front room, with the indoor aerial in one hand, thinking I was watching something completely wondrous,” he says. “I can remember looking back at my mother and the neighbours, who were saying, ‘Absolutely shocking – outrageous.’”
Wall goes on: “For years, you had to be a bit trepidatious about saying you liked Magical Mystery Tour. It was the same thing as Carry On films and spaghetti westerns being regarded with absolute contempt – whereas they’re now seen as masterpieces. To say you liked Magical Mystery Tour was almost an indication that there was something wrong with you. It’s taken all this time for it to be reassessed.”
Talking me through a film still seen by many as a yawn-inducing mish-mash, Wall reels off some lofty reference points. “There was a sense that anything went. You could have the avant garde of [Michelangelo] Antonioni at one end, where everything would be perfectly orchestrated and fashioned; and, down at the other end, you’ve got Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, or William Burroughs. The big point for me was when I saw Un Chien Andalou, the Buñuel and Dalí film, at much the same time. Magical Mystery Tour is a kind of acid-rock, 1967 version of that.”
This is the essential argument of Magical Mystery Tour Revisited, an Arena programme that will be screened next week, just as a spruced-up version of the film, complete with outtakes and a commentary from McCartney, is released on DVD. Directed by Francis Hanly, director of the acclaimed recent series Jonathan Meades on France, the Arena film will feature McCartney and Starr, along with such appreciative voices as Martin Scorsese and Paul Merton. It puts the film in the context of the cutting-edge company the Beatles kept in bohemian London, and suggests that when their visions collided with a Britain still clinging to sensibilities of the war, there was always going to be trouble.
“Magical Mystery Tour was quite easy to dismiss at the time,” says Hanly, “and it subsequently hasn’t had a great press. I think maybe because people haven’t seen it. The other films, Help! and A Hard Day’s Night, have been knocking around, and they have a degree of professionalism – but to my mind, this is more interesting as a document of the band. It’s got that little bit more edge to it.”
The film remains a challenging viewing experience. When it starts, there are fleeting signs of a conventional, if amateurish comedy: Starr boarding the coach with his irritable Auntie Jessie; a camped-up introduction from a tour guide named Jolly Jimmy Johnson, a role for the grim-faced Scottish poet and humorist Ivor Cutler. But within about five minutes, the film begins leaping around with no regard for narrative sense.
The editing is often awful. None of its early comic threads are developed. Some scenes aren’t just inexplicable, but arm-chewingly tedious. By the end, all that seems to point to redemption are such musical interludes as Lennon’s I Am the Walrus and McCartney’s The Fool on the Hill. But even these aren’t up to snuff: Harrison’s Blue Jay Way, a distracted evocation of staying up late in LA, is notable only for the fact it repeats the line “Don’t be long” 29 times. In that sense, the Arena film and the DVD rerelease might be seen as proof of the revisionism regularly perpetrated by the two surviving Beatles and Apple Records (see also 2003’s Let It Be … Naked, the stripped-down recasting of the Beatles’ worst album).
And yet, and yet. To its devotees, Magical Mystery Tour may be flawed, but it has plenty of merit: if it spurns the imperatives of storytelling and simple coherence, that stands as proof of the Beatles’ creative bravery and their understanding of countercultural cinema. “For me,” says Scorsese in the Arena documentary, “the freedom of the picture was very important.”
Moreover, its key element is an apparent drive to send up an England of decaying authority, bad food and anti-climactic entertainment: the country in which the Beatles had grown up, embodied by the hollering sergeant played by their actor friend Victor Spinetti; the dream sequence in which Lennon serves bucketfuls of vomit-like spaghetti; and the very idea of a mystery tour on a coach. Not for nothing, perhaps, did Harrison claim that the one group who later developed the Beatles’ essential sensibility was Monty Python.
Gavrik Losey, now 74, was Magical Mystery Tour’s assistant producer. The son of the Hollywood film-maker Joseph Losey, who was chased out of the US during the McCarthy era, he came to the film after the crawl around the West Country had ended. “There was nobody there blowing a whistle and stamping their feet and saying, ‘Do this and do that’,” says Losey, who, although not as fulsome in his praise as some, goes along with the idea of the film as a Pythonesque social commentary. “It remains a very interesting observation of English society from the point of view of four very bright guys who had the money to pay for it.” As soon as he began work, he says, the Beatles “kept talking to me about their past experiences, and how it was when they were little”.
Losey has vivid memories of the constant improvisations. “John decided that for the race scene, he wanted six midget wrestlers,” he says. “I got one of the girls who was working for NEMS [the Beatles' management company] out of bed and said, ‘I don’t know how you do this, but have you got some way of producing six midget wrestlers by midday tomorrow?’ And a car arrived with six midget wrestlers in it. They had people on their books who could do these things.”
There were also, he adds, the normal disasters of film-making: “Like when the generators collapsed before the formation dancers had to go home. Bribes had to be produced, and signed pictures. They were Come Dancing dancers, the real thing, brought down from Newcastle, Cardiff and Birmingham. We had about 20 busloads. The Beatles were a great calling card.” The whirling couples appeared in the finale, soundtracked by McCartney’s Your Mother Should Know, along with a posse of female RAF cadets. This section, says Wall, calls to mind a recent all-singing, all-dancing spectacular.
“What the Beatles grew up with was a Britain that has increasingly disappeared,” he says. “But I think we saw a revival of it in the opening of the Olympics, which I thought was like a kind of grand staged version of Magical Mystery Tour. It was full of English things: nurses, policemen, mills, whatever.” He sums up the film as “a softly satirised presentation of the culture they grew up in. They celebrate it but take the piss. All this Come Dancing stuff, the girls in uniforms, and coming down a staircase in white suits is kind of ridiculous, but they’re also revelling in the peculiarity of it.”
And that, he reckons, is the thread that joins the Beatles, Buñuel and Dalí, and the end of the pier. “All light entertainment,” he says, “is only one step away from surrealism.”
• Magical Mystery Tour Revisited is on BBC2, 6 October at 9.45pm, followed by a showing of the film. The DVD is released on 8 October.
Monday, September 24th, 2012
John Harris, John Domokos and Christian Bennett: Lib Dem members gathering in Brighton for their party conference talk about what else they might say sorry for
Friday, September 21st, 2012
Dylan says his brush with a dead Hells Angel has helped him ‘fly above the chaos’. Well, his new album, Tempest, is very, very good
The Oxford English Dictionary defines transfiguration as “a complete transformation into a more beautiful or spiritual state“. It also says that if you put the definite article before the word in question and start it with a capital ‘T’, you’re referring to “Christ’s appearance in radiant glory to three of his disciples”, as described in Matthew 17:2 and Mark 9:2-3, and commemorated by churches on 6 August.
Alternatively, the word can also denote what happens when the soul of a dead Hells Angel killed in a bike smash somehow glues itself into the being of an up-and-coming singer-songwriter who just happens to have the same name, and thus sets him on the path to his own motorcycle accident and rootsy and somewhat biblical musical rebirth two years later.
I’m not sure I get it, either. But in an interview in the current Rolling Stone, that’s pretty much what Bob Dylan (born Robert Zimmerman, of course, which will become relevant in a minute) says happened in 1964. He appears to have come to this conclusion after reading Hell’s Angel, the inventively titled memoir written by Ralph “Sonny” Barger, the infamous founder of the Oakland, California, branch of the cuddly motorcycle club of the same name. Barger makes reference to the death of one Bobby Zimmerman, “one of the early Presidents of the Berdoo Hells Angels”, who was killed in a crash with another Angel. And there we are: Bob’s your uncle. Or rather, he’s two uncles at once, one of whom happens to be dead (or something). And get this: Barger’s book was co-written by Kent Zimmerman and Keith Zimmerman. Weird.
“When you ask some of your questions, you’re asking them to a person who’s long dead,” Dylan goes on to tell his inquisitor, Mikal Gilmore. “But people make that mistake about me all the time. I’ve lived through a lot … Transfiguration is what allows you to crawl out from under the chaos and fly above it. That’s how I can still do what I do and write the songs I sing and just keep on moving.”
Just to make things even stranger, Rolling Stone has established that Zimmerman – the Hells Angel, that is – died in 1961, and passed “within weeks … of the September 1961 New York Times live review that gave Dylan his first big break”. The magazine has also tracked down his brother, who recalls his sibling being “pretty violent – I heard he once took out a guy’s eyeball with a chain”. Little did anyone know that, thanks to a little bit of hocus-pocus in the hereafter, he would soon be helping out with Rimbaud-esque poetry of the highest stripe, as well as inventing folk-rock and hopping on with Joan Baez: more fun, certainly, than taking the Pythagorean option of being reincarnated as a bean.
Seen from a Richard Dawkins-type perspective, Dylan’s sudden belief in this very singular notion of transfiguration is arguably no more or less strange than the apocalyptic model of Christianity he enthusiastically adopted circa 1978. Or his one-time belief in astrology. Or, come to think of it, the idea – apparently advanced in his memoir, Chronicles – that his music underwent a revolution in 1987 when he saw an unnamed club singer in New Orleans and felt “like parts of my psyche were being communicated to by angels”. There again, one also pictures that smirk of mischief breaking out across Dylan’s face once Gilmore had left, and the whole thing amounting to slightly less than it appears.
In the final analysis, little of this actually matters. Dylan’s sporadic interviews are always profoundly strange exercises in dodging any kind of definition and throwing a few new canards to the world, and the main point is this: his new album, Tempest, is very, very good – more intimations of mortality and mystery, voiced via music that evokes America at its most magical and murky. Moreover, though people who know about such things say he probably has no realistic chance, his odds of winning this year’s Nobel prize for literature are put at 10-1, which is not something that is going to happen to, say, him out of the Vaccines.
Still, if only for a laugh, let us take him at his word, accept the “transfiguration” hypothesis, and marvel at Bobby Zimmerman’s posthumous social mobility and self-improvement. From taking out someone’s eyeball with a chain to being tipped for a gong previously given to George Bernard Shaw, Ernest Hemingway and Günter Grass: as the Dylan song goes, Lo and behold!
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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