TV Review – Edge of Darkness

TV Heaven

(originally published 1/9/03 in TVS Magazine)

Recently, the Radio Times did one of those typically Summer page-filling opinion pieces declaring the best 30 programmes ever made. Whilst it contained the odd bit of gossip-centred controversy (what, no I Claudius?), it was good to acknowledge the presence of perhaps the BBC’s best ever drama: Edge of Darkness, which has recently been made available on DVD (BBC Worldwide).

Not long ago, the BBC made a successful drama called State of Play which naturally drew many comparisons to Edge of Darkness. The BBC – and other TV companies – probably could make ‘em like that again, but it would take a hell of a lot of effort – the sort of effort that TV companies just aren’t willing to make any more.

Edge of Darkness is a six-part drama series centred around Ronald Craven, a Yorkshire detective who is investigating corruption about local miners when his daughter is brutally murdered in front of him. Trying to understand why this has happened, he discovers that she was part of a radical anti-nuclear movement who had broken into a plutonium factory. In an effort to punish those who ordered her murder he undertakes a similar break-in.

That’s the simple way of putting it, and it doesn’t even begin to cover the sheer wrenching emotions the series puts you through. The rain-drenched moment that Craven’s daughter is propelled like a bloody rag doll by a shotgun blast is one of the most genuinely shocking moments British TV has ever served up. And then we get almost an entire episode of Craven’s stoic remorse, as we join him in trying not to crack up.

One of the show’s greatest strengths is that it’s not an adaptation. Troy Kennedy Martin’s script was commissioned and written especially for television and, almost uniquely, it shows. It has the nerve to slow the pace right down, such as during Craven’s tour of grief around his empty house which goes on for a long, long time but never drags. It also has the nerve to rely on purely visual moments, such as Craven kissing his daughter’s vibrator – a stunningly unexpected and moving moment. And, when it wants to, it can move like a bastard, such as the daring cross-cutting between Craven and his CIA pal Darius Jedburgh’s fraught-ridden journey into the mine that houses the plutonium factory, cut with a sedate but very tense Commons Inquiry.

It is also incredibly multi-layered, something that rewards repeated viewings. The characters are all analogues for various legends; Craven is a modern representation of the English myth of the Green Man, who protects the land from ‘unnatural’ enemies. Jedburgh is an old Grail Knight, keeping the secret of eternal life from those who would misuse it. The bad guys also have their equivalents in history. This is a story that takes the personal and daringly expands it to include not just the entire planet but our perceptions of it throughout history.

The presentation of the script is equally well-thought out. The casting of the hawk-like and virtually unknown Bob Peck in the lead role was inspired, as he gives equal measures believability and sympathy as the hard-nosed yet crushed policeman. The rest of the cast also balance this element of the risky with the utterly convincing: Joe Don Baker as brash as they come as the Come Dancing-loving Jedburgh; Joanne Whalley all big brown eyes and earnest belief as Craven’s daughter; Hugh Fraser all wild-eyed restraint as the ultimate bad guy. If the series has a fault it’s Eric Clapton’s horribly dated score, a mess of over-processed if raw guitar and 80’s synths.

Otherwise, Edge of Darkness is still hugely relevant today. It was directly inspired by Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars speech, in which the old loony tried to do away with the Cold War impasse by using the US’s greater nuclear advantage to effectively ‘shoot down’ the opposition’s missiles. This scheme, which would have cost an absolute fortune and was not at all guaranteed to succeed, was a blatant attempt to dominate the world using superior power. Naturally, it has been revived by another loony US president, George W. Bush. What Edge of Darkness posited, and what will be forever relevant, is that if you have enough power you can do anything, and having that power distances you from those you rule. In the series the power is represented by the ruthless British and American owners of the plutonium, who are happy to break long-standing laws regarding the making of such infinitely dangerous weapons simply because they can, and even the Government proves ultimately toothless against such power. It still rules the planet today; the US would not have gone to war against Iraq if they had nuclear weapons, just as they don’t go to war against nuclear-powered Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, despite both these nations’ involvement in terrorist acts. It’s why North Korea and other ‘axis of evil’ nations, since the Iraq War, are now far more likely to want nuclear weapons.

Article – Flyposting

Fly On The Wall

(originally published 1/9/03 in TVS Magazine)

Walk down any street in Liverpool and the chances are that you will come across a poster affixed to an otherwise empty or derelict wall that is advertising something or other.

These are known as ‘flyposts’ and they are, and always have been, illegal. But just as every driver has at some point gone through a red light or parked in a no parking zone, flyposting is in that grey area of illegality that is only acted upon if you do it too often. This year, the City Council have taken the decision that enough is enough and they’ve declared war on flyposting.

Our ersatz mayor Mike Storey led the way. “We will be removing the posters on a daily basis to make the entire idea of sticking posters up in the first place is pointless. Fly posting is becoming a real problem in the city with the situation getting worse all the time.” It’s hard to disagree with some of these sentiments, as the act of flyposting becomes ever more blatant. Most posters are the work of teams of professionals in vans, who are paid by often large companies to turn parts of this city into unwanted advertising hoardings.

The results of the crackdown are there to see. Until recently, Seel Street was the most heavily flyposted area of the city. Abandoned buildings and renovation work have provided plenty of locations in which to plaster every conceivable advertisement known to marketing executives. Nowadays the walls have been stripped bare by the council’s crack team of poster removal men, who use high-powered jets of water to shift these unwanted and unloved posters. This is a good thing, surely?

Well, yes and no. It all rests on councilor Storey’s use of the phrase, “the entire idea of sticking posters up in the first place is pointless.” For many, flyposters are far from pointless even if they only remain up for a day. As anyone who has dipped their toes into the murky waters of the local music scene knows, that unless you do cover versions of ‘classics’ the concept of money is something that will have most promoters falling over laughing. For these people there is simply no other way letting people know about gigs. And considering that flyposting can have a huge effect on the amount of people who go to gigs of this sort, those tatty A4 photocopies are a vital and important way of getting that all-important first step on the road to a half-decent career.

Admittedly most of these posters are hardly works of art designed to brighten up the most lugubrious of city centres. But nobody who puts up these posters is under any illusion that what they are doing is illegal and the likelihood of being caught is ever-present. There is also the problem that the bands who do the most flyposting are generally the worst of their genre; as they try to make up for lack of talent and/or originality by spreading the message as far as possible like a particularly rotten lay preacher. Never mind the ever self-righteous political posters, shouting at us to smash the state or whatever’s occupying Dave Spart’s mind that week. The people behind these posters tend to think they’re on a mission, so the niceties of flyposting are often ignored. In the general scheme of things, it takes a while before anyone flyposts a ‘new’ site (say an empty shop or building work hoarding). Inevitably it’s the political posters who go up first, because they trade in noncomformity.

But even the most persistent of bands and political animals are a relatively small part of the problem. If it was just them defacing the city it’s unlikely that Mike Storey would have taken any action. Most people’s awareness of flyposting is of things far larger than A4 and deliberately eye-catching, not to say gaudy. Most clubs have the resources to afford huge posters and to employ teams of professionals to put them up. Whereas most bands cannot afford to pay for advertising on legal sites, these sort of companies most assuredly can. The reason why they don’t is not just penny pinching; they still continue to advertise illegally long after they’ve established themselves because it’s ‘cool’ to do so. A club advertising in bus shelters can’t be much of a club in most people’s eyes. In clubland, having some kind of attitude is something you must have to appeal to the punters.

When Cream was at its height it was one of the biggest employers in the city and raking in more money than the likes of you and me can comfortably conceive. Yet they still continued to flypost with an impressive ferocity, often occupying certain sites with such tenaciousness that most people assumed (wrongly) that they must have paid for it. All around the country, the growth of the superclubs encouraged similar activities in just about every city. For a long time these clubs enjoyed the hip cachet of flyposting and spent relatively little on advertising.

Some councils tolerated this more than others, but the problems began when other people saw the benefits as well. Clubs may have been relatively well off compared to most bands, but even they looked like paupers compared to the next lot to join the bandwagon. Seeing the credibility acquired by flyposting, the biggest advertisers in the land decided they wanted a piece of the action. If kids responded more to flyposts than billboards, then where better to advertise the latest supposedly cool film or video game or magazine? “Fly-posting is frequently recognised by international, blue-chip companies as the most appealing medium to not only give their brand more street credibility, but to target a very specific audience,” says one of the leading advertising agencies.

This is akin to when the CIA saw all the communist uprisings in the world and thought, “we can do that as well!” Most of these large ‘corporate’ flyposters are made by companies with lots of money, who could (and often do) advertise in more legal ways. They only advertise in this way because of that association with being ‘cool’, and they wouldn’t have that if it weren’t for the smaller flyposters they usually paste right over. Recently, an advertising agency got taken to court for ‘flyposting’ adverts for condoms over posters for Jaguar. If they have no respect for litigious car companies what chance have small gigs got?

With everyone turning any empty space into an advert something had to give. Liverpool is not alone in frowning on the recent explosion in flyposting, but we’re well ahead of everyone in declaring open war on it. The justification is the City of Culture, seemingly oblivious to the fact that most of the small posters they’re referring to are the culture at its most honest and grassroots level. But even the more blatant commercial flyposters look perfectly innocent when compared to the huge adverts which the council have seen fit to allow on the side of St. George’s Hall, or other buildings currently enjoying regeneration.

So who exactly is being targetted? The war against flyposting has not distinguished between the many forms there are, which may be fair enough. But what gets people up in arms is the council introducing loopholes allowing ‘legal’ flyposting on designated sites for a fee. So the large clubs and companies can continue to retain their perceived attitude to what is legal whilst paradoxically sucking on the very teet of comformity, whilst small gigs suffer, unable to pay these sort of fees – the very reason flyposting existed in the first place.

The crackdown isn’t just limited to occasional removal. Some of the venues that the posters are advertising have been brought before the court and heavily fined for activities that some of them had nothing to do with. What venue is going to put on gigs when the likelihood is that the bands they put on will get them a hefty fine simply for wanting people to know about it? Recently, a band was stopped from performing at a venue by the promoters because of their overly exhuberent attitude to flyposting. Whilst the crackdown continues, things are only going to get worse.

However there may be a way round things. It seems that someone on the City Council does have a modicum of sense and have ostensibly targeted fines at posters that remain up long after the gigs they advertise have passed. This weights things in favour of the smaller bands and against clubs, which of course tend to be ongoing. It also favours films and video games, of course, which tend to be for a relatively short period when the product is first released. So if you want to advertise your gig and not get into serious trouble, make sure that the posters are removed before seven days have passed after the gig. This won’t be for everyone of course, and it’ll be interesting to see how many bands quickly grown tired of doing this when they could be smoking groupies or something, but it’s got to be better then being banned from every venue in town.

Article – Unseen Characters in Sitcoms

Absent Friends

(originally published 1/9/03 in TVS Magazine)

A custom of most sitcoms is the character much referred to who never actually appears. The tradition was started almost by accident as there always seemed to be someone who wasn’t there, whether it be the absent mother from Steptoe and Son or Godber’s fiancé Denise from Porridge. In America they did this as well, most famously with Lars Lindstrom from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, a character often described by his wife, played by Chloris Leachman, but never, ever seen; even on a spin-off featuring Leachman’s character. Soon enough, the writers of sitcoms started to realise that these absent characters could be exploited:

Dad’s Army

Perhaps the greatest unseen character of them all appears in perhaps the greatest British sitcom of them all. Captain Mainwaring’s wife Elizabeth managed a whole nine seasons without being seen, despite the obvious hold she had over his life. Famously, a part of her was almost seen once, when Mainwaring was sleeping in the lower bunk of the bomb shelter and Elizabeth’s bum was all that was seen of her presence in the top bunk. The idea of Elizabeth became so strong that she may just have crossed the Atlantic…

Cheers

We are of course talking about Norm’s equally harridous wife Vera, the woman he was always running away from to spend time down at the bar. The irony was that there were plenty of hints that she was a hell of a lot nicer and sexier than Norm painted her, but that’s married life I suppose. Stunningly enough for Americans, who like to reveal everything at some point or other, she never did appear despite the show’s huge longevity. Although there was that episode where she was hit by a custard pie the moment she walked into the bar.

Only Fools and Horses

Whilst Cheers was playing more obvious games, John Sullivan, the writer of Only Fools and Horses, was doing something much subtler. You’ll have to watch closely but there’s barely an episode that doesn’t mention a character who goes by the absurd soubriquet of Monkey Harris. Since John Sullivan had a habit of elevating minor characters such as Boycie and Trigger to major character status, Monkey was someone else he could use as often as possible. He always seemed to be up to the dodgiest of scams, and had at one point been in partnerships with Del, Boycie and Trigger, without ever once being seen.

Minder

Okay, not strictly speaking a sitcom, but it had a situation and lots of comedy so it counts as far as we’re concerned. Whilst the similar Only Fools and Horses was playing subtler tricks, Minder was far more obvious; Arthur Daley’s never seen wife didn’t even have a name, just his charming nickname for her, ’Er Indoors.

Men Behaving Badly

It’s established fairly early on that Martin Clunes’ character Gary has virtually no friends at all. The only ones he does have are whoever’s sharing his flat at the moment – Harry Enfield or Neil Morrissey – and someone called Clive, who by all accounts is worse than Gary. Clive was often referred to but never seen, although the effect was spoiled in the wedding episode when Clive shot the video. His voice was heard and naturally he was voiced by series creator Simon Nye.

Frasier

It was hard to top Vera from Cheers, but the same writers did just that when they went on to this spin-off. Maris, Niles’s wife, was so vividly described you feel you know her but she remained invisible. All we know was that she was a rich, spoilt, incredibly waspish woman who would send Niles into wet puddles of fear just by visiting a particularly expensive fashion designer with his credit card. There should be another spin-off starring her, and she should remain unseen.

Absolutely Fabulous

A show has many ways of going past its sell-by date, or ‘Jumping The Shark’ as our American friends call it (after a certain moment in Happy Days). So the moment when they actually showed us Serge, Edina’s other child, in a recent special was a time when many who are familiar with the concept of absent characters stopped watching. Up ’til then Jennifer Saunders had shown great mastery of the form, with her having him potholing in the Lake District and other Edina annoying activities.

One Foot In The Grave

Perhaps the subtlest use of all. Only one episode refers to this particular unseen character, and we’re not actually sure who he is. But Victor and Margaret talk regretfully about someone called ‘Stuart’; the obvious interpretation of which is that he was their only child who died young. Suddenly we understand why Victor’s a grumpy bastard and she puts up with him. If there’s anyone who still doesn’t think this show was a work of absolute genius let’s have a discussion about it.

Seinfeld

The greatest American sitcom of them all tried its best to have the absent character but it never quite did it, possibly due to the years it went on. Originally, Kramer’s odd friend Newman was supposed to be absent but eventually they decided to give him substance, and then some, in the portly form of Wayne Knight. Earlier episodes, where he appeared in voice only, were later Stalinistically redone for repeats so that Knight could provide his voice.

Father Ted

So what’s the best series of Father Ted then? If you said anything other than the second series then please go to your doctor and tell him that you’re clinically insane. Anyway, what made season two so good may have been the fact that a certain Father Bingley, who seemed to be utterly mad, hideously ugly and full of disgusting habits, was often referred to but never seen.

Friends

Rather than go the Seinfeld route the writers of Friends brought a certain amount of resolution to their unseen character by moving him on. Ugly Naked Guy was a regular throughout the early seasons and at one point was thought to have died until the gang poked him repeatedly with a device made especially for the occasion. Eventually he moved out and Ross took his flat. Sorry, apartment.

Article – Protests

Empty Protestations

(originally published 1/9/03 in TVS Magazine)

So a million people weren’t enough. The general consensus amongst the British people wasn’t enough either. All those pop stars, poets, fashion designers and artistic directors of theatre houses were shouting into the wind all along. We went to war against Iraq anyway.

What has happened to the spirit of protest? Little old ladies from Tunbridge Wells could see that the war against Iraq was going to be, at best, pointless and, at worst, liable to cause a hell of a lot more problems than it was meant to solve. Once upon a time, the Poll Tax was effectively defeated by the spirit of protest (just as it had been the first time it had been introduced in the 14th century), now we can’t even stop a simple war that managed to unite the entire rest of the world, except Spain and those with urgent financial interests.

The fact was that the infamous Poll Tax riots did very little to stop the Poll Tax itself. As Mark Thomas pointed out at the time, those afore-mentioned little old ladies in Tunbridge Wells stopped the Poll Tax, when the middle England-loving government of the time realised that if this group were pissed off about the whole thing a change was swiftly needed. They even managed to get rid of the terminally damaged prime minister. The poll tax rioters themselves were easily ignored, although the anarchy-loving brigade who participated in it were happy to take the credit.

That’s the trouble with hindsight, we can get the wrong idea about things. It is long-believed that the hippies were instrumental in stopping the Vietnam war. If they did, it took a long time for them to get their message across – the Vietnam war finished in 1975, ten years after it began and seven years after the protests were at their height. The thing that actually stopped the war was the inconvenient fact that North Vietnam won.

Perhaps the establishment prefers the idea that someone else brought about the end of the war. They may have been a bunch of drug-addled soap-avoiders, but they were American drug-addled soap-avoiders. The lesson that needs to be learnt here is that to protest effectively you must do so from a position of power. Those little old ladies from Tunbridge Wells may look daft but they held a hell of a sway over the government at the time. If someone similar was protesting during this war then maybe it would have been stopped before it began. Say, spontaneous marches by middle class vicars in Slough. But sadly all the eggs were put into one basket. The million-strong protest earlier in the year was notable for the heavy participation of the sort of people who are always protesting, such as the firebrand left wing crowd who never fail to turn up for any protest.

Just as an episode of Posh and Loaded is the best advertisement ever for radical Marxism, then the sight of a load of scowling students wielding placards that the week before said similarly forceful things about foot and mouth or the fireman’s strike is the best incentive ever to turn your back on politics and let the non-bald person who is currently Prime Minster run the country however he or she sees fit.

The anti-war coalition should have been a lot more powerful, because that’s exactly what it was: a coalition of wildly disparate groups brought together by a justifiably worthy cause. But a nation was already wearied by the self-righteous and inevitably self-plugging nonsense being spouted by all those pop stars; it was unfortunate timing that the run up to the war should coincide with awards season. A week after the Brit Awards Chris Martin was showing similar fury when he was asked questions about Gwyneth.

Our spirit of protest seems to be limited to pointless marches and drunken pop stars at awards ceremonies. What’s needed is different action – instead of one big march, say lots of smaller ones that can get people involved at a local level. This is unlikely because the likes of the SWP like their big gestures. Or how about those afore-mentioned pop stars leading an economic boycott of American goods? Again unlikely, considering their record companies won’t much appreciate it. A genuinely united front from the church against a war would also have considerable force, given the importance Tony Blair places on his Christianity.

The war ultimately went ahead, despite the subsequent justification of no WMD and the slow slaughter of our troops, because most people weren’t willing to be passionate about it; and those that were tend to be just as passionate about much less important things.

Article – 20 Things You Must See On Arriving In Liverpool

(originally published 1/9/03 – updated material in square brackets)

1. Horse’s Bollocks – Church St.

This inexplicable statue, which is even more inexplicably called The Great Escape, has a mightily fine pair of nads with which to embarrass any visiting parents. [Now gone and not looking like returning]

2. Norton For Crap – Parliament St./Chaloner St.

Driving out from town, look out for when the ‘s’ in the last word is covered by a corner. Hours of amusement. [Also gone]

3. Dead Can Dance Graffiti – Mount St.

Who’d have thought that the long-dead (ho-ho) goth band would still have fans, and that they’d announce this on the pavement outside LIPA? [Long gone]

4. Scally Sports and Trackies – St. John’s Market

Two stalls in St. John’s Market whose names are little local markers to let you know exactly where you are.

5. Queen Victoria’s Penis – Derby Square

The large statue of the monarch outside the Law Courts has caused much hilarity for years, because if you look at it from a certain angle it looks like she’s got a dick.

6. Dickie Lewis – Renshaw St.

Talking of dicks, the statue on the corner of Lewis’s is a highly artistic, and highly naked, gentlemen who’s obviously suffering from the cold.

7. Mona Lennon – Lime St.

John Lennon is practically a deity in this city so we shouldn’t be surprised to see him grafted onto a fifty foot Mona Lisa. Look out for the slave ships in the background. Stop Press: this has now gone. Damn.

8. 24 Hour Karaoke People – Cooper’s Pub

Right in the middle of one of the busiest shopping centres is an oasis of complete insanity. No matter what the time, there always seems to be someone belting out Mustang Sally.

9. Any Odds – Bold St./Slater St.

In the field of people begging for money, the chap who stands here and asks everyone who passes if they’ve got ‘any odds’ is a determined flower of persistence. [As is the way with such people, no longer there]

10. Bold Street Trumpeter – Bold St.

It’s nice to see effort, and the guy who’s been learning the trumpet outside Waterstone’s has got plenty of it. We like to think that one day he’ll actually learn the instrument. [Still there, and slightly better]

11. FACT Centre Suicidal Step – Wood St.

How better to welcome visitors to the state of the art media centre than a cunningly disguised step near the entrance that will have you sprawled on the floor in seconds? [All sorts of things have been done to alleviate this]

12. Donkey Grave – Prince’s Park

For some reason there is but one gravestone in lovely Prince’s Park, and for some reason it’s a donkey. Must have been one hell of an ass.

13. Quiggins’ Wind Tunnel – School Lane

It doesn’t matter what the weather, there always seems to be a hurricane blasting down these dark streets, chilling the HMV Punks who gather there. [Still there in Liverpool One, but the HMV Punks have moved to Grand Central]

14. John Lennon Statue – Mathew St.

Thou shalt not make graven images… At least not like this one, a recreation of Lennon’s Rock And Roll sleeve with a disproportionately large head.

15. Dust Graffiti – Opposite the Swan Pub, Wood St.

Opposite the only pub in town where those ‘scary’ biker chaps like to hang out, someone has written in the dust of an unused window, “Bikers Touch Their Mums.” [Seems to have been cleaned]

16. Guy Up Ladder – Berry St.

Another slow-burner this, as it occurs to you that the guy fixing the sign above a shop has been doing it for months. Ha! It was a mannequin all along.

17. Mr. Teddy Bear Head – Church St.

The diseased mind of David Cronenberg couldn’t come up with the guy who wears a teddy bear head and ‘plays’ two animatronic teddys to a musical accompaniment. Disturbing. [Has gone]

18. Creepy Masonic Graves – Percy St.

Considering the property prices on Percy Street it’s a wonder that this eerie graveyard still exists. I wonder if the influential deceaseds had anything to do with it?

19. Unfinished Building – Whitechapel

One of the more visible landmarks in the city, it’s hard to miss what looks like a half-finished building – what you should know is that it’s been like this for nearly three years. [Now, of course, the Met Quarter]

20. Pissheads in Bombed-Out Church – Leece St.

Ever since some genius decided to open a Bargain Booze across the road, the bombed-out church has been a haven for nutters far and wide. Watch out for the stampede at 11pm every night just as Bargain Booze is about to shut.

Top Tens – The Ultimate Guide to Being A Student

(originally published in TVS magazine 1/8/03)

It’s now September and you know what that means. Yes, lots of pimply little snots will be arriving in this fair old city and laying waste to the chippies with their cheque books and strange ways of talking.

Hello student. Thank you for coming here and bringing those chunky student loans with you, for which some of us are quite pathetically grateful. Pitching up in a new city can be quite scary, except that most modern British cities are so homogenised you should be able to guess where all the McDonald’s are without even sniffing the air.

But Liverpool does have its individualities as well. There aren’t that many other places who have built shopping complexes in dockyards, have a radio station half a mile up in the air and have more Irish bars than the whole of Ireland.

You will make embarassing mistakes when you first come here; it’s a fact of life given that you’re a student. To help you, we have assembled a number of points it’s worth remembering as you set on your path to that worthless degree.

Let us enlighten you. Learn from these mistakes and you may yet be able to make wholly original and exciting mistakes of your own.

1. It’s Not A Holiday, It’s A Vacation

You should know now that life is going to be hard and the problem with being a student is that three years of lazing around buying White Stripes singles is not going to prepare you for that. You can approach this in one of two ways: either force yourself to work hard in preparation for the life of toil ahead, or just treat the whole thing as the longest holiday of your life this side of the nursing home. Our recommendation is to go for the latter; you never know, you might luck into some equally easy occupation that will put off proper work for a good few years to come. So try and get involved in promoting student entertainments and, with luck, a cushy career in PR could be yours.

2. Get Angry

Most students are harmless sheep, easily guided by Nat West flyers into opening punitive bank accounts and a lifetime of paying off debts. You may not be able to avoid this, but there’s no need to just roll over and accept it. The history of student life is littered with passionate if largely pointless protests. Organisations like the Socialist Workers Party depend on student participation, which gives the lie to their name. Okay, you’ll be jumping on a bandwagon, but it’s good to use the energy you’ll otherwise be wasting watching daytime TV and you’ll probably meet some interesting people. If slightly fanatical.

3. Respect the Locals

It’s not a good idea to greet the first curly haired tracksuit wearer you meet with the words “calm down!” in a high pitched Scouse accent. Invariably you’ll sound like a prat and someone will hit you. As a first time visitor to the city, the temptation may well prove over-whelming but try at least to wait until you have reached the relative safety of your halls of residence. There is a local public holiday every July where students, captured mid-twatting-about throughout the year, are burned inside huge wicker effigies of Harry Enfield.

4. Move Undetected

It’s important to understand the people you will be living amongst. For instance, ‘Scouser’ and ‘Scally’ are not the same thing. A Scouser is an indigenous resident of the city of Liverpool. A Scally is the crop-headed, track-suit wearing thug who will drag you up a back alley and beat the crap out of you at the sight of the Belle And Sebastian T shirt you’re wearing. Similarly, often you’ll confronted by a barrage of ‘scouse’ – in this case meaning the local lingo, which is redolent with such otherwise meaningless phrases as “like”, “yer wha?”, and “Houllier”. Try to remember that it does originate in English and there’s no need to talk slowly and patronisingly like a holidaymaker in Spain. People will not take kindly to this and you may as well write ‘student’ on your forehead, along with a target.

5. Drink Yourself Over the Table

It is inevitable that you will drink alcohol. Lots and lots of it. It is also inevitable that you will not have the money to do this and still keep most of your health and/or sanity. You will need to procure cheap drinks but you will want to stay clear of the nasty. To keep things simple, if you’re drinking lager stick with the 4% and under stuff and steer clear of anything higher, unless you want to wind up waking up in a soggy mess on a bus somewhere. All cheap vodka is usually three-parts lighter fluid so best avoided, but there are usually some decent offers to be found in the likes of Kwik Save and Home & Bargain. No-one is supposed to clearly remember their years at university, but you don’t want to be suffering agonising flashbacks in the years to come.

6. Beware the Loonies

You know that bloke on the corner pretending to sell the Big Issue when
they’re only clutching onto one copy and asking for 20p for a cup of tea? It’s not really for tea, it’s for heroin! It’s best not to point this out, though, as he may also be mentally instable. The problem with those who see the world not quite as we do is that their actions tend to be unpredictable. They might chuckle at your observation and ruffle your hair in an affectionate way, or you might just get a torrent of unstable abuse. Best err on the side of caution and steer clear.

7. Because The Night Belongs To Us

Sooner or later the Student Union is going to pall; not because it isn’t cheap (it is, usually) and not because it isn’t fun (it is, usually) but because you’re setting out on a great adventure in life and you’ll quickly realise that hanging around the SU is like staying at your parents, only with about 200 people who are exactly like you. So you’ll want to hit the town. To start off it’s worthwhile putting your nervous toe in the student-friendly likes of the Blue Angel, HeeBieJeeBies or the Masque (all Seel Street) or if you fancy journeying further across town try the rather famous Cavern (Mathew Street) or the gay-friendly Garlands (Dale Street). After that you can try more daring places like Nation (Wolstenholme Square), where Bugged Out is, or Le Bateau (Duke Street), which has the city’s best student night in Liquidation. Then if you’re feeling really daring you can try the 051 (Mount Pleasant) or any of the establishments on Slater Street, to get a feel or what a night out in Liverpool is really like.

8. Use Your Student Loan Wisely

Okay, you’re not going to spend money on textbooks or anything daft like that (that’s what libraries are for), so if you want more sensible purchases why not stock up on good honest weird vinyl down at Probe Records (Slater Street), or banging dance music at 3 Beat (next door). Or, if you want a more individual style of dressing, why not check out some of the odder shops in Quiggins (School Lane)? You could do a lot worse than checking out the Palace (Slater Street) or Bulletproof (Hardman Street) for clothes as well. Alternatively, you can blow all your money on a decent haircut, but that’s not what student life is about is it?

9. Get On The Scene, Man

So why did you come to Liverpool then? It can’t just be the cheap drinks and the chance to be assaulted by people you can barely understand. No, you came here because you think it’s cool and you know what? Some of it actually is. There’s the music for a start. Manchester hasn’t produced anything decent for ages and we’ve got The Coral and Ladytron, so ner. Okay, we haven’t got the World’s Best Club (TM) anymore, but there’s still plenty of other stuff going on. Even our art scene is pretty cool although it only seems to enliven when the Biennial swings around (why aren’t there any cool underground exhibition on now? What does the Static Gallery actually do?). So get involved in all of this. No exhibitions? Then open one yourself. Head down to the Bandwagon and nick all their ideas. And if you want to be cool and make some easy money, then start your own club. But you’d better know the scene, dude.

10. The Future’s So Bright…

Okay, you’ve got pissed, you’ve spent all your student loan on Queens of the Stone Age CDs, you’ve inveigled your way into Liverpool society and you’ve started your own pub. What do you do for the next two years? Move out of those student halls for a start, and get yourself a cool pad. Although you’d better be careful – the price of flats in the city centre is skyrocketing at the moment. Once installed, Liverpool is your chunky oyster. Just about the only thing left for you to do is to edit your own magazine. And you can’t have this job matey.

Article – Blondie

Once I Had A Love And It Was A Gas

(originally published 1/9/03 in TVS magazine)

The argument about who is the best band in the world tends to occupy people’s minds to excess. There’s not much that won’t get Noel Gallagher chattering away, but ask him who’s the best band ever and he’ll chew your ear off all night about how great the Beatles are – with Oasis coming in a close second, natch. Similarly, arguments are put forward for the likes of the Stones, the Pistols, Led Zep, U2, Nirvana and all sorts of people who have their fans somewhere. If we take the argument that this is all pop(ular) music, the artform which predates rock ‘n’ roll and is the only musical categorisation that is worth anything, then for my money Blondie are the greatest pop band there’s ever been.

Why? Several reasons. Over the course of a massively productive original stint from 1976 to 1982 they produced six albums – one a year, for those without degrees in maths, and the sort of output that bands simply don’t do anymore. All these albums were stuffed with the most perfect of pop music; the holy grail of anyone with an interest in music who isn’t a sullen outcast who only ever likes bands’ first albums.

As an idea of the sort of pop music we’re talking about here, pick up any of Blondie’s (unfortunately) innumerable Greatest Hits albums and study the tracklisting: Atomic, Call Me, Touched By Your Presence Dear, Rapture, Hanging on the Telephone, Heart of Glass, Sunday Girl… It’s a measure  f how great they are that there are some great tracks, such as One Way Or Another, that aren’t on them simply because there’s no room. Only the Beatles and Stones can claim to make compilation albums as good.

Since the seventies we’ve been blighted by a whole slew of artists who presume they’re making the perfect pop records. The likes of Elvis Costello, Difford and Tilbrook, Neil Finn and Elton John all strive to be craftsmen of their art, emulating a golden era (usually from sometime in the sixties) that only results in them producing bland garbage. Blondie also presumed to make perfect pop, yet they never tried to emulate what went before; they were resolutely of the hear and now, taking the best of punk and New Wave, and adding in such then new elements as reggae, disco and rap whenever they needed. And because they kept things simple and direct they never once sounded embarrassing.

I’ve often heard it said that Blondie’s near contemporaries Abba were the ultimate pop band. But there’s nothing to love about Abba. Sure Benny and Björn were possibly the ultimate in pop music craftsmen, but that’s precisely the reason why they can’t be loved. Pop music isn’t about craft, it’s about directness and impact. Blondie had this in spades and it’s what makes the clanging guitars of Union City Blue so taunting, the pop punk of Hanging on the Telephone so all-embracing and the all-chorus formula of Atomic so mesmerising.

Blondie founder members Debbie Harry (ex-Playboy bunny and former member of hippier-than-thou band The Wind In The Willows) and Chris Stein (guitarist and ex-art student) first met in 1974 and quickly formed a band on their joint love of upbeat pop. In one of pop music’s great romances they’re still together to this day; making them second only to Poison Ivy and Lux Interior of The Cramps as rock’s coolest couple. Other members were recruited, including Clem Burke on drums and Jimmy Destri on keyboards – other members Nigel Harrison (bass) and Frank Infante (guitar) have Stalinistically been wiped from history since the comeback.

They managed to effortlessly ride the spiky New Wave era of bands who played CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City (where Harry worked as a waitress) whilst still producing wonderfully unapologetic pop music. This straddling of two forms was what made their early music so essential, as borne out on the first two albums Blondie and Plastic Letters, which are chock full of songs like Denis and Rip Her To Shreds. The albums Parallel Lines and Eat To The Beat followed soon after and they started having indecent numbers of number one hits, particularly in punk-addled Britain, where they demonstrated how easy it was to achieve true crossover appeal.

In part this was undoubtedly down to Harry herself, the punk years’ main pin-up. Boys across the land would go utterly gooey for her and she wasn’t afraid to play on her sexuality, although in a very classy way – after being a Playboy bunny, taste was the only direction to go. Often, the criticism against Blondie is that they were one beautiful woman and five blurry blokes in the background, but this is to ignore their undoubted genius as songwriters (most songs were written by Harry and Stein, with the others contributing too) and their hugely influential look, which extends down to the White Stripes and the Strokes today.

In 1982 they made their only bad album, The Hunter, and split up soon after, partly because Stein came down with a rare and often fatal genetic condition. Harry, bless her, put a solo career on hold to help nurse him back to health. But you know what’s really great about Blondie? Almost uniquely they made a comeback and didn’t embarrass themselves. The ‘chief’ members – Harry, Stein, Burke and Destri – were all still talking to each other. In 1999 they got back together again with surprising dignity and immediately scored the sort of worldwide number one, Maria, the sort of song they used to produce all the time back in the 70s. They also released a rather good album, No Exit, and toured the world, with nary a sniff of getting-back-together-for-the-cash-but-they-all-still-hate-each-other. In an era when just about every classic band has had a reunion of some sort, Blondie topped every single one by doing it with style, grace and a band who act like they’ve never been away.

Rather disgracefully, the follow up to No Exit was delayed for two years when their record company collapsed. Even more disgracefully, the new album, The Curse of Blondie, hasn’t got a proper distribution deal in this country yet but they’re going to be touring here anyway in November. In an era when long-running bands tend to split up because of the colour of the guitarist’s shoes, it only makes the legend of Blondie all the stronger that they haven’t let these setbacks get to them, particularly for a band who have had to put up with the attention paid to the lead singer all these years.

Blondie are the greatest pop band ever, I’ve no doubt of this. They’re the catchiest, hippest, sexiest, funkiest and most dignified bunch pop has ever seen. Check ’em out and see if you disagree.

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