Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Why Cant I Be You?: Morrissey

Steven Patrick Overcoat Bulbous Salutation Chips For Tea Morrissey. What is there to say that hasn't been already over the past thirty plus years?

"Morrissey is three pounds of some bees in a big coat off to the new shop"

There, that's quite different. But really, there's no point me coming along here with my trousers and imagination to offer an opinion about Morrissey, a man who has released some very good records and some very average ones. Its also hard to think of any particularly original jokes about him, with those same thirty plus years featuring some brilliant homages, put-downs and complete character assassinations. Thinking up Moz gags put all of Collins, Maconie and Quantick's children through college. Whether they wanted it or not.

So, in the first of what will hopefully become a regular feature on this blog, here's some of my favourite parodies and pastiches of The Smiths and Morrissey himself throughout the years.

The first national spoof of any kind I can trace would be from Radio 4's long running series "Radio Active", perhaps the best radio comedy of the 80s and the launchpad for the careers of all its cast including Angus Deayton, the much missed Geoffrey Perkins and musical director Phil Pope who was by the mid-eighties in high demand thanks to his TV work on the great "Spitting Image" and the also on "Who Dares Wins" (of which more in a second.) With the premise of the show being a faux commercial radio station, almost every episode of Radio Active would feature a musical parody written by Pope or Steve Brown (equally prolific as a musical parodist and later to become better known as Alan Partridge's bandleader Glenn Ponder) and The Smiths got theirs in series five ("Episode 7: Music Festival") first broadcast on the 16th August 1985, six months after the album mentioned in Mike Flex (Perkins)'s surprisingly harsh introduction reached the top of the charts:

"Morrissey of The Smiths whose hit LP is called "Meat Is Murder"...has just announced the group wont play no more live concerts in front of their fans as they can no longer condone cruelty to vegetables."

What follows is "A Way With Words", possibly the shortest Radio Active spoof ever at around 25 seconds with Phil Pope extending every word as long as possible. And thats it.

Its not just Moz who cops for it that episode when Pope tears apart Malcolm McLaren's pop career as "Malcolm McConman" talks over a backing track, much like the real one's "Madam Butterfly (Un bel di vedremo)" from the previous year, about his lack of actual musicianship and general ripping off of anyone he can.

Pope would take another crack at The Smiths on TV in the largely dreadful "Who Dares Wins" in 1986 with the catchy "Life Isn't Fair", a proper song but bar the "woe is me" lyrics about shoes not really sounding very much like The Smiths. I mean they have synthesizers for god's sake!

1987, the final year of The Smiths' relatively short existence, finds two very different takes on the band with fellow Mancunian comedians. Along with other student night favourites "Love Will Tear Us Apart", "How I Wrote Elastic Man" and "Take The Skinheads Bowling", "Bigmouth Strikes Again" becomes "Little Frank Strikes Again" briefly in the joyful "Indie Medley" by Frank Sidebottom recorded for a flexi disc from issue 4 of the little remembered "Blah Blah Blah" magazine.

Sidebottom would return to the Smiths for the 1993 single "Panic" which shares a name and several words with Morrissey and Marr's poison pen letter to Steve Wright and his ilk but is otherwise a brilliant tall tale of the filming for the title sequence for his "Fantastic Shed Show" being disrupted by a "freak blustery windy thingy" which angered the producer ("because it spoiled the continuity") leading to the crew going for an early lunch in a pub with no music but cassettes of "presenters illegally taped off Radio 1" including Anne the DJ who is of course still clinging on there at 1am on a Wednesday night.  Bonus points for the names of the versions featured which include "Ace Mix", "Fantastic Mix", "Top Mix", "Bobbins Mix" and "Thingy Mix".

Coming from a decidedly different generation is this sketch from "The Last Resort with Jonathan Ross" which has filled more than a few comment boxes since YouTube reared its head a decade ago as Bernard Manning pays tribute to the recently split The Smiths...

Now I'm no fan of the late Manning's brand of humour which was calculated to cause as much offense without especially representing the comic's own opinions but you have to applaud him giving this sketch the enthusiasm it deserves and going along with the joke.

Moving along to the 21st April 1989 and the third edition of Radio 1's hip and edgy new comedy series "The Mary Whitehouse Experience" which at that point had more of a mix of contributors including Jo Brand, Mark Thomas and comedy musical duo Skint Video (Steve Gribbin and Brian Mulligan) do more "Morrissey is depressing" jokes, equating him to a "wet weekend in Grimsby" with a voice like "Clement Freud on Mogadon".

Ironically this is probably more studenty and obvious than the subject parodies being slightly naughty in that way that isn't really but sounds rude if you're with your Nan. And as this fascinating footage from Glastonbury 1984 shows, it wasn't their first attempt at parodying the bequiffed one...

By the nineties, the cult of Morrissey was slowly starting to build in America, eventually, particularly in South America, becoming the safety blanket for his unsigned and unwanted years. The fourth series of I'm-told-its-great-but-I've-never-really-sort-it-sorry comic commentary over bad films series "Mystery Science Theater 3000" invited the singer (Actually head writer and later host Michael J. Nelson) to perform his new single "Hairdresser In A Coma" in 1992. Spoilers: he is quite depressed.

You know Bill Nye, the bloke with the bow-tie who crops up in memes about science you don't quite understand? Well, he became beloved in America thanks to his long running US kids series "Bill Nye The Science Guy" which humourously explained various scientific topics with sketches, experiences and parodies of mostly recent chart songs. Thus momentum was described in November 1994 by "Momentisey" and "The Faster You Push Me", which I'm fairly sure is just using the backing of "The More You Ignore Me", Moz's biggest US hit from the February of that same year.

The same song would feature in Armando Iannucci's Radio 1 series in January 1994 as Rebecca Front plays the alarmingly real victim of Moz's increasingly unhinged adoration, also featuring Richard Herring as her boyfriend, Peter Baynham as a policeman and Armando as a judge rightly putting him away for the rest of his dirty Morrissey life. Click here to go straight to that clip.

Moving swiftly past Dana Gould's "Clown Fucker", many comedy fans of a certain age will fondly remember Harry Hill's 1999 turn performing "This Charming Man" on a "Stars In Their Eyes" Celebrity Special when he was still a relatively cult comic on Channel 4, a decade and a half before he would briefly become the host of a 2015 revival of the series. He didn't win (he was beaten by newsreader Kirsty Young as Peggy Lee.) And yes, Morrissey allegedly HATED it.

Not quite parodies but affectionately nodding that direction in subject and sound are Mitch Benn's "Never Went Through A Smiths Phase" and MJ Hibbett & The Validators' "The Lesson Of The Smiths", both initially quite dismissive of the group but going in opposite directions by the conclusion. Benn can be quite hard work when doing brief topical stuff on the radio but there are some great lines in this particular track that nail the "fan" experience solidly ("A peculiar voice sang with Mancunian twang / About how he was miserable then / I sat through the song as he droned on and on / Like some pale intellectual outlaw / And when he was done I thought "That wasn't much fun / That feller wants to get out more")

Likewise MJ Hibbett has an even more painfully real experience as a fan as he sings "You see, I didn't have that great a time in my later years at school / I didn't really like anyone / least of all the kids who were cool / I had to hate their music / and therefore / The Smiths became the epitome of all that I abhorred". As the song continues he realises that it doesn't actually matter who likes what and we should all just enjoy the things we want, even Take That if we must. Although that was when Gary Barlow still paid his tax of course...

I'm reaching the end of this particular mix of Morrissey adoration and acrimony but before I do I couldn't not mention undoubtedly the strangest of the lot. "Foster's Home For Imaginary Friends" was a sweet and colourful cartoon from 2004 to 2009 about exactly as the title suggests, the place where all sorts of mad imaginary creatures reside including a Morse code machine with a black quiff and an ever so familiar twang...

Finally, one which sadly no longer has the video online it but is as joyful as everything else on the series when Horrible Histories sang all about Charles Dickens, a rather pale, intellectual and unhappy chap. Now, who does that remind us of?

Got someone in mind you'd like me to cover in a future "Why Can't I Be You"? Or spot any Moz-mocking that I've missed. Let me know on Twitter @ThatBenBaker or in the comments box below.

No idea who this idiot is, mind....

Friday, 27 January 2017

Ten Forgotten Number One UK Box Office Films Of The 90s

Well would you look at that? There's a new Trainspotting film out at the cinema! Yes, Renton, Sick Boy, Hamble, Big Ted and Hamish Macbeth are back back back! When we think back to "90s cinema", Trainspotting is probably one of the films that stands out from the decade as a truly iconic, huge movie that swiftly entered the national consciousness regardless of whether you'd seen it or not, much like Reservoir Dogs, The Matrix or Fight Club.

Those slightly older readers will remember the utter disarray that was attending a cinema in the 1990s before the modern chains for better worse took over. Video shops were decimating the audiences who were put off by the prices, sticky carpets and poor regional distribution with London getting premieres often months before the North. And those films that did get through? Yeesh, its fair to say that while there's always been bad movies, the British film industry was at a real low point throughout much of the decade. Say what you like about "Nativity" or "The Inbetweeners Movie", they're no "Ladder of Swords"...

There's the opening trailers out of the way, time for the main feature. Here are ten films that were once genuinely big deals, reaching number one in the UK box office that are now forgotten by the nation as a whole. (That's my get out if you read one and say "I remember that!", alright?)

10. Waking Ned (19/03/99)

It would be fair for anyone wishing to argue that the British film industry was alright in the nineties thanks to the heart-warming and undoubtedly BRITISH likes of Brassed Off and The Full Monty. Small scale stories with great ensemble casts that America lapped up. Added to that list would be "Waking Ned" (extended to "Waking Ned Devine" in the US bafflingly, thus spoiling the rhyming slang gag), a gentle comedy set in Ireland about the entirely inhabitants of a small village covering up the fact that the Lottery has been won by a dead man. Britain loved it but the huge buzz was undoubtedly because America took to it so strongly in a typical example of "Well, if the Yanks like it, it must be alright..." ITV showed it as a big New Years Day film two years later after which...nothing really. Repeats have been few and far between and director Kirk Jones, once feted as the next big thing, wouldn't have a film reach cinemas until 2005's "Nanny McPhee", his last feature to date being "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2". Perhaps "Waking Ned" is so laid back and sweet as to not leave much of a mark on the national conscience but this is definitely worth reawakening.

A: Bristol.

9. Dead Again (25/10/91)

Speaking of Nanny McPhee, here's Emma Thompson with ex-husband 'Chuckles' Kenneth Branagh from the era where the two were seen as inseparable (going as far as a Spitting Image sketch where Ken couldn’t eat something because Em wasn’t in it) in an intriguing thriller about past lives and regression. (You know the past bits are in the past because its black and white.) Its an enjoyable bit of fluff which will involve you getting past the AMERICAWN accents both main actors use but coming mere months after the genre-defining Silence Of The Lambs, its hard to think of it as anything more.

8. Jack and Sarah (02/06/95)

Despite a decade of solid work with appearances in "LA Story", "Bram Stoker's Dracula" and "Prêt-à-Porter", critics and fans always seemed to feel that Richard E Grant's star had never quite risen sufficiently after the tour-de-force that was and remains "Withnail and I". Looking at the state of the film industry in this country at the time and the relative failure of his second feature with Withnail's writer / director Bruce Robinson "How To Get Ahead In Advertising", its easy to see why Grant took second banana work in the US rather than stay and headline something British. "Jack and Sarah" briefly changed all that with Grant starring in an occasionally dark and moving but ultimately uplifting comedy about a grieving father bonding with his newborn daughter. Not that looking at the cover would tell you that with its bleedin' Friends-esque posing and thin non capitalized fonts. Growl. (Oh and spoilers: see her there, she's not Sarah...)

Oh and there's a baby in it. 
7. Quigley Down Under (05/04/91)

Regularly one of my comedy go to names for utterly forgotten fare, this comic Western released a year before Clint Eastwood refined the genre with "Unforgiven" was one Tom Selleck's last starring roles (anyone remember "Mr Baseball"?) in a big budget film. Alan Rickman plays Naughtyman McBadness (or near enough) who employs Selleck's Quigley to shoot Aborigines. As we know rule two is no mistreatment of the Abbos so Quiggles refuses and becomes enemy number one. Its a perfectly serviceable Western that my granddad would've loved but I was always confused by the title which feels like the second or third in a series. "Oh that Quigley! Where's he off now? The Australias?? Now this I gotta see!"

Speaking of Friends things from the mid 90s...
6. Black Rain (26/01/90)

A huge film at the time, directed by Ridley Scott and featuring the still very much in prime Michael Douglas as a cop chasing a Yakuza member through the "Japanese underworld" (Copyright Cinema Alan's Big Book Of Movie Writing Shortcuts), its strange how forgotten "Black Rain" has become. It could be that none-more-generic title that gives little about the plot away - then again what’s a "Blade Runner" when its at home? More likely is the fact its just a fine but forgettable run around, occasionally shoot someone and pout action movie of the sort that were ten a penny seemingly back then. And frequently involved Steven Seagal...

5. Out For Justice (04/10/91)

Oh bollocks, I had to go and invoke the spirit of facekickingness past, didn’t I? From the sweet spot period where Seagal had climbed up through the VHS rental mountain to become an indicator of brainless but enjoyable big screen tut which the self-respecting action fan could happily spend a few quid on without fear of being ripped off ("How many killings?", as Henry and Ally from The League Of Gentlemen might say.)  but before everyone realised he was bat shit crazy and nobody wanted to work with him. That said, with an impressive seven films under in his belt in 2016 alone, somebody must still be watching his stuff. Just not at the cinema...

4. What About Bob? (15/11/91)

Weirdly, as I was putting this article together, NBC announced it was going ahead with a TV spin-off from this fun but occasionally quite unpleasant Frank Oz-directed comedy where Bill Murray (in his pre-walking deity on Earth days) plays a psychiatric patient who annoys his therapist (Richard Dreyfuss) on holiday to the point of insanity, but with the added twist that this time the Bill Murray one will be a woman called Barb. Nothing like jumping on a property when its hot, eh?

BONUS ANECDOTE FROM MY FRIEND TIM: "I once saw Drop Dead Fred and What About Bob next to each other on a hoarding at a time where Freddie Mercury and Robert Maxwell had literally just died." Ouch.

3. Memphis Belle (07/09/90)

Now this bastard. If there's any film on this list you've gone "OH YEAHHHHHHH" to, it'll probably be this based-on-a-true-story-but-not-really yarn of annoyingly handsome US army boys with unique but endearing quirks and their flight in the titular plane. This was absolutely everywhere at the time of release with the cast cropping up on TV - Harry Connick Jnr in particular crooning his guts out wherever permitted - and in the still not-deemed-only-for-girls-yet magazines TV Hits and Big! I recall our excitement of finally getting a copy at the video shop only to be bored rigid within about half an hour and longing for a crash.

I mean, there's a bleedin' dog for god's sake...
2. Shooting Fish (17/10/97)

Before I talk about this one, here's the trailer for Shooting Fish:

Gadgets! Cons! Swish camera angles! Yes, its Britpop "Hackers"!

Thankfully, "Shooting Fish" is thankfully a slower and all together nicer film than the trailer would have you assume. Two orphans scam the rich and clueless to live out their dream of owning a mansion before one of those GIRLS gets involved and both fall for her. It is twisty and turny in places and indeed does have a wonderfully Britpop soundtrack with The Divine Comedy, Space, Dubstar and The Wannadies among others but feels at home with the Ealing capers that were a regular sight on UK television on a Saturday afternoon. Why its disappeared is anyone's guess as its far from terrible and features a series of familiar British actors including Annette Crosbie and a wonderfully slimy Peter Capaldi. The director and co-writer Stefan Schwartz didn't trouble the big screen much after this but is seemingly in big demand on TV with recent gigs on The Americans, Fear The Walking Dead and Dexter.

1. Curly Sue (27/12/91)

Few things have ever kicked me in the gut as a movie fan than after years of slagging off this thin, horrendously sentimental treacly old bollocks about a pre-teen con artist than finding out it was written and directed by John Hughes. Just a year after his magnificent script for Home Alone and now iconic 80s favourites "Sixteen Candles", "The Breakfast Club", "Weird Science" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off". And that's not even mentioning "Uncle Buck", "Planes Trains And Automobiles" or the "Vacation" films. But this shower of saccharine shite, whilst a hit both here and America, was the last he ever directed for the big screen and while it'd be wrong of me to suggest its because of this violently eye-soaping, gut-emptying hollow spew-barrel of Jim Belushi headlining family guff, it is truly a hateful cotton candy made out of hair and tears that no right human should ever have to sit through from start to finish. Hughes would write many more films (including the solid if equally toothless "Flubber", "Dennis", "Beethoven" and "Baby's Day Out") before his death at the tragically young age of 59.

Still, Curly Sue (or rather her actress Alisan Porter) won America's version of The Voice last year so that's...an ending? ....Right?

"Now they're going from the poorhouse to the penthouse..." Oh FUCK OFF.

So, did I just ruin your favourite film or is there something burning inside you that you need to share? Should I instead have featured other forgotten No.1 box office hits if the 90s? Is Dick Tracy forgotten enough? Did anyone go see Circle Of Friends, A Walk In The Clouds, Six Days Seven Nights or Practical Magic at the cinema? And did I actually honestly pay to see Forces of Nature and The Jackal? Let me know via Twitter @ThatBenBaker or in the comments below.

And remember: Jim Belushi is just a fictional character. He can't hurt you now.


Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Watching Russia Closely (Or "Putin The Telly On")

To say Russia has been in the news a lot recently would be something something funny joke about this being an obvious thing because of truth. Yes, there was all the things linking them with Trump and his newly ruined role but most importantly for many people - they leaked an episode of "Oh That Sherlock!" before BBC One had put in on the telly proper and you could download it and everything and it ruined it (for some reason)!!!!

Bah! What do the Russians even know about telly anyway? I bet all they show is 23 hours of Putin's face and an hour of recipes involving beetroot. Well, maybe before the fall of the Soviet Union but looking into (and indeed looking at via streaming sites) TV from the top Russian networks finds...well, much the same as the rest of the world. Police procedurals, Saturday night shiny floor entertainment shows, medical dramas and talk shows all appear on a daily basis in prime time. But is it really so normal under the surface? Or is Old Ian Putin secretly broadcasting the word "OBEY" under the programming like that Rowdy Roddy Piper film*?????? (*Hell Comes To Frogtown)

I'm going to don my best Шерлок Холмс deerstalker and investigate an average day on Russia's biggest TV channel. I wondered what strange and enchanting new thing from another world would be the first thing I see when I turned on the channel. What new delights would be offered. What exotic...


...um, oh. Right. Moving on...

The most successful channel for audience share right now is Channel One Russia, an entertainment station in the vein of ITV1 which is co-owned by a mixture of Government divisions, private conglomerates and yes, of course, Roman Abramovich.

"Hello I'm Ian Suit and its FUCKING SNOWING!"

Daytime TV starts with "Good Morning!", which follows the pattern of our own morning tv programmes with a mix of rolling news, "real people" and celebrity bollocks presented by whatever these two below are meant to be. I'm sure there was some powerful and hard hitting news in there but the most I got seemed to be "Fuck! There's fucking loads of snow! Look!"

Dana and A Boo Radley - together at then! 

9:50am finds the desperate sounding "Life Is Great!" although "Live Healthy" is probably a more accurate translation as a group of cheery looking medical individuals drag people out of the audience into the insanely bright set to be lectured on all matters health with the help of comedy oversized props. There was also a lengthy cooking slot where they seemed to be making grey food.

"This is of course your stopcock..."

Next up is "Fashion Sentence", a makeover programme that reminded me of a very short lived BBC1 series called "Style Trial" in the early 90s. And nobody needs reminding of that. Looking at the show's page on the channel website, the makeovers seem to be one step short of threats with previous episodes featuring the descriptions "Colleague accuses a colleague that she breaks the cardinal rule of female stunt - look feminine.", "My husband has threatened to drive his wife out of the house if she did not get rid of Balakhonov (big baggy clothes traditionally worn by pregnant women) in the wardrobe", "The man blames his civil wife in that it does not correspond to his ideal and a brighter future" and perhaps most alarmingly, "The point about why special girl dreams of becoming normal". Normal? We've marched for less...

A typically low key Russian TV set today.

The panellists make their choice for what that episode's poor unfortunate should wear whilst attempting to please their master - Bobby Moynihan pretending to be Cyril Fletcher as the Devil.

Less Drunk Uncle and more Funk Uncle. As in "funking hell, thats a lot of red!"

After some news, "Alone With All" which is less the bleak call to self-harm it seems, rather a one on one talk show with notable Russian celebrities. The talk continues with the surprisingly hard news-led "Time Will Tell", a programme which is sadly not one of David Bowie's few good singles of the late 80s but a forum "to discuss what matters to all of us, citizens of Russia in the discussion attended by experts - politicians, political scientists, journalists, businessmen and simply indifferent Russians". Which is a nice way of saying ignorant bastards I suppose.

At 4pm its a triple bill of "Mind The Baby Mr Bean" and...oh no, wait...apparently its "Male / Female", another chat show although with a slightly more Jeremy Kyle edge this time. Followed at 5pm by "Lets Get Married" which is less "Blind Date" and more "Desperate Meat Market" as a contestant is given three potential partners which they must whittle down with the help of family and friends. Today "restaurateur with rich experience 38-year-old Artem is looking for a woman with a good education, bright eyes and a beautiful posture." I bet they give him an illiterate bozz-eyed one with a hump!!!!!

I'll choose "HEALTH & HAPPINESS", computer...

6pm is "First Studio" time and guess what - its more political debate! Imagine if Question Time took away the chairs, added some IKEA furniture, more shouting and stuck it on the set of every Channel 4 programme from 1982-1992 ever. And yes that is the Zapruder film playing happily in the background at teatime...

Not pictured: a bear. But I bet they've thought about it. 

A change of mood at 8pm with...oh come on, another bloody talk show - "Let Them Talk" - which looks bloody identical to "Male / Female" earlier only with a host that appears to be played by Patrick Barlow in the 80s.

Good game. The game it is good. 

I'm tired now, tell me what you're supposed to be already...

"ABOUT THE PROJECT: They say that "the word will not help", but the program "Let Them Talk" is refuted. The real, true stories of people hurt more than the pretentious reasoning on general topics, because, introducing the discussion of private individual problem, a separate family, we talk about what excites everyone. Contact the program can be edited in the mail: 1tv.pustgovorat@gmail.com"

Wogan 2000 EXTREEM

So they've hacked the world's elections but still use gmail for their prime time television shows. Smashing.

Translation: "Pondfallers"

After some more lovely news, its finally time for some scripted television and Russia likes to strip their programmes Monday-Thursday so all this week at 9:35pm is "Greek". Not the American teen drama series but more "Howards Way done in some unfinished offices". According to the guide, it is a "melodrama about an unequal marriage, willpower and overcome. History of a simple girl from the provinces, to prove their right to be part of a wealthy family of the capital, will not leave anyone indifferent. The more melodramatic series in doing stunt they had to portray the paralyzed man and Why participate in the filming of the stud dog came up with a woman's name". Look, Google translate doesn't always make sense, alright?


At the same time as this, Channel One's chief rivals seemed to be showing something that looked almost identical with the same stark lighting and blueish tint, only one was set in a hospital and the other in some more unfurnished offices. Only this one has a flag.

Cunk on Romanian Diplomacy will not be shown due to boring.

After some more smashing news, the TV schedule gave me the following information...

"City Slickers." Premiere. "The Bureau". 6th Series"

They made City Slickers into a series? And they opened up a bureau!?? Well, no. I've no idea where the hell the title of Billy Crystal's fourth most alright movie fits in but this is a dub of French political thriller The Bureau. Which has so far had two series so we'll assume this is instead the sixth episode. Other imported TV programmes shown by Channel One include Lost (Translated title: "To Stay Alive"), Boardwalk Empire ("The Underground Empire") and Ray Donovan ("Ray Donovan") Oh and Sherlock which is absolutely everywhere on their official website. Its almost like they want you to know something...

And that's a day of TV from Russia's most popular station. Little changes at the weekend with Friday replacing "Let Them Talk" with the trouser-moisteningly exciting sounding "Man and Law with Alexei Pimanovym" and "Field Of Dreams", their version of Wheel of Fortune but with more singing. Oh and every episode is themed, such as...um...

Saturday has fun for all the family with favourites such as "Play, Accordion favorite!" and child intelligence game "Good and Clever" mixing with much the same as we get over here, including cookery with "Gusto" (This week: "the singer and the composer Dmitry Malikov with daughter Stephanie will share their favorite family recipes, including "Devil's paste" and "Not steamed chicken"), house renovations in "A Perfect Repair" and "10 Years Younger" which is um.."10 Years Younger" off of Channel 4. The imported formats continue with identical looking versions of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" and "The Voice".

Bet they still managed to pay their tax, mind...  

So maybe we aren't so different when you get down to it. We still eat, we still sleep and we still have a load of old shite on the telly.  Yes, I think things are going to be alright after all....

The horse, ironically, is named Barack Obama The Horse.
We're doomed.

BONUS: In 2012, myself and my friend Phil Catterall recorded a podcast where we went through that month's most popular Russian TV programmes. Here is a reduced edit of that show:


Thursday, 19 January 2017

You Don't Know How Much I Love You: Reclaiming Kenickie's "Get In"

Has there ever been an opening line in a top 40 single as quietly devastating as "I'm in pieces / does no-one see it?"

Outside of their media-friendly former front-woman, Kenickie are probably best, if at all, remembered as air-punching, glam stomping, pint-swigging mouthy teenage BFF girls (Lauren Laverne, Emmy-Kate Montrose and Marie du Santiago or Lauren Gofton, Emma Jackson and Marie Nixon at home) who were hilarious in interviews. Press and TV loved it because they had an instant angle and didn't have to do any real work. The début album went top ten. Bombing down the street, its a laugh. So what happens next?

"Oh great, we're getting a band together...lets get all yer mates. And then you find yer mates cant play..."

The sixties influence running through the album even made it to the artwork, as baffingly generic as it is.

There's a definitive mood that holds together Kenickie's second album "Get In" only hinted at briefly by that confusingly damning sample from BBC2's magnificent video diary "In Bed With Chris Needham" as the opening seconds of "Stay In The Sun" punch through your speakers. Thankfully it isn't quite as relentless as the single mix but has a simple summer-friendly chorus that should have seen its sunny - even funky - indie dance beats push further up the chart than its profoundly disappointing No.43 peak in August 1998.

Despite this, "Stay In The Sun" is a defiantly arms-aloft POP! record that sounded magnificent the few days it was played on daytime radio. There seems to be no reason for its lack of Radio 1 support, it just was the right song for the wrong summer. These were strange times for indie bands though with many who had thrived just a year earlier (The Supernaturals, Ash, Babybird and Symposium to name a few) now struggling to get anywhere near to the lofty positions they'd previously reached.  July and August 1998's top ten is the playground of SERIOUS boy bands (Boyzone, Savage Garden, Another Level) and ridiculous novelties (Ace of Base, Aqua, Alda) plus a lot of dance music as befits a summer chart, the best of the bunch undoubtedly being Stardust's "Music Sounds Better With You".

Besides, Kenickie might have sounded like they wanted to have fun in the sun and yet to avid fans of their earlier music, something felt a little hollow in their insistence. The giddy passion of "Punka" and "Stay Out 2Nite" replaced by hearts and keyboards. And did Lauren really just sing "I'm so weakened / We feel bloated / I feel sick"? Is...is everything okay?

Several months later, we learned the answer. Kenickie were to split. Second album syndrome, some said. With a chart peak of 32 after the top ten highs of the first LP you could well believe it. But had Kenickie really fallen into such an obvious trap? Had they shed too many fans of their original rambunctious punk pop sound with a new pop image? Or was it the public that got it wrong, giving up on a band just as it was becoming something much more interesting?

Track two on "Get In", "Lunch At Lassiters" gives little time to assess, coming on like the title sequence to perhaps not a Bond film but one of those shit-in-a-field knock-offs that were prevalent in the 1960s. Its a decade that looms large over this record, despite the group's youth, with the hippy themes of romance and having fun, joined by a N‭ixon (Richard, not Marie) era paranoia and fear. The production is much smarter than to just attempt a sixties love in with a lightness of touch and almost hip-hop take on percussion from main producer and drummer Johnny X (Pete Gofton). This runs right through the record and is perhaps most successful on magnificent first single, "I Would Fix You", home to the line at the start of this article, which takes a John Barry-style orchestral approach to a gorgeous, shimmering but desperately fragile record that has encapsulates the feel of the whole record much more succinctly than "Stay In The Sun". Its a punch-drunk boxer standing up in the third round despite all that’s been thrown at them. A sunflower fighting through the concrete. Something has gone very wrong indeed.

[CHARMING SIDE NOTE: "I Would Fix You" was one of the songs pastiched by Smack The Pony in its exceptionally funny first series (March/April 1999), along with The Corrs, Republica, Steps, All Saints, B*Witched and weirdly, Velocette. Becoming "Colours" by "Kinkee", the track is not especially funny lyrically, with the comedy coming from the cast being annoyed by butterflies and fannying about on wires, but absolutely dead on in both music and visuals as a parody with lead vocals from the always superb Doon Mackichan. Quite how many people got the reference at the time is hard to say but it was very much appreciated by me regardless.]

This thinly-veiled anger and sadness continues with "60s Bitch" clinging hopelessly to a relationship already over, whilst getting its claws into high street shops diving on the easy listening revival too late. ("You don't want her / She's got a waistcoat / She shops in Mark One / She's not strong enough / She's known in New Look / She's got a card there...") There's been drugs. There's been a lot of alcohol. But is there a way through it all? No answers are forthcoming in the much more lively "Run Me Over", which would fit comfortably on "At The Club", although barely hidden under the surface is the lyric "I hate it when you talk about me" suggesting somebody (Lauren Laverne? the band?) is approaching a limit.

This feeling of emptiness continues on track six "And That's Why", an achingly fragile piece that removes the regular band in favour of strings and minimal brass with Lauren seemingly looking down from above on a person nobody wants and wondering why. Of course, you don’t have to be Ian Q. Psychologies to work out that its the narrator who is truly hurting, a theme that continues on album stand-out, the initially sparse and dramatic "Weeknights" in which Laverne tackles the increase in drinking she seems to be doing as "a broken mind breaks out of me". The resigned sound of someone proudly marching over the cliff.

Between those tracks however comes something of a mood change as the keyboard-drenched dance number "Magnatron" featuring Marie on vocals and writing duty finds a bouncing disco beat reminding us that drinking and going out can still be the vicarious pleasure it seemed on the first album - the song even starts with someone pouring out a drink. But look deeper and there's talk of vomiting, sleeping it off and the slightly chilling "she'll be alright / but it's a long way down". On another planet this was a top five hit, here its just a slightly ill-fitting mid album track.

From a purely musical level, "Psychic Defence" is probably the album's catchiest track with a full chorus of harmonic "do do do"s (and occasional "ba ba ba"s) accompanying a simple glockenspiel melody which again leads into some beautifully arranged strings. With lines like the acidic "here's a reason for all the heavy hearts to stay / your mates don't really like you / and neither do I" throughout though, the happiness may all be as surface as the sounds. Marie's second vocal (and one of two songs solely written by her, with two other co-writes) comes on "5AM", a Kenix take on the pop RnB ballad doing big business for the likes of All Saints and Honeyz at the time that doesn't really divert, although the lyric "So much hard to go home / came in someone else's car / shiver in your night time clothes / you don't know where you are" seems to deliberately try and cast the darker side of earlier singles "In Your Car" and "Nightlife".

Marie and Lauren. They were really exceptionally good, you know...
"411 (La La La)" is perhaps, outside of "I Would Fix You", the most positive song Laverne contributes to the album. The words of loneliness and feeling lost are still there but joined with an optimistic belief that things could actually change. "Come to me / let me be kind", sings Lauren and you hope more than anything that this time she really was singing to herself.

After all the sadness and self-searching throughout the previous forty two minutes, you could easily be mistaken for seeing the final track's title - "Something's Got To Give" - and thinking this is the knife against skin moment, the pressure point released and yet what follows is a charming, played straight big band showstopper with Marie again on lyrics and lead vocals. Its fun, simple and a much needed reminder of Kenickie's scampish playful side which despite the overall themes, still twinkles throughout the album.

A flop on release, it feels like "Get In"'s only real crime was being so different from the easier pleasures of their début, trapped between pop megastardom and underground cliché. And while the band members have gone on to much happier futures, the music remains and it is always good to know someone, at some point, was out there feeling as lost as you. Repay the favour and lose yourself in "Get In" today.


Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Strong Without Finish - The Enduring Rubbishness Of Popeye

Who of us over the age of 805 can honestly say they don't remember where they were when they first saw Popeye the Sailor Man, who appeared for the first time on this day in 1929 on E.C. Segar's long running "Thimble Theatre" newspaper comic strip saying his classic catchphrase "Ah'll skerbidge umper doodoo skiddlypom wise guy huh?" which the American states of America soon rang with in every school yard, shopping centre and horse reclaiment centre for miles.

That first classic strip. Other oft quoted comic strip pearls of the time included "Hello wife! I'm home. Where is sandwich?" (The Husband and Wife), "Buggeroon!" (Captain Cap'n and The Katzenjammer Geese) and "Fuck off you" (Mentally Disturbed Cat). This was a golden age for the newspaper funnies.
For me as a kid in the 1980s though, Popeye was strictly an animated character, popping up frequently as scratchy TV filler or badly traced on the front cover of those "an hour of kiddies favourites cartoons!" VHS tapes along with the equally out of copyright likes of Mighty Mouse, Heckle and Jeckle, Betty Boop and Bugs Bunny cartoons that were seemingly drawn on a potato and filmed through an arse. Later as I acquired more interest in the history of animation, I could appreciate how well done many of these cartoons were, in particular those made by Fleischer Studios who were extremely quick to transition Popeye to the big screen, less than four years after his first Thimble Theatre appearance and was nothing short of a phenomenon, taking over from a censorship-hit Betty Boop as the top animated franchise, a popularity equal in the modern day to something like The Great British Bake Off, Drake or being sick in the road outside a Wetherspoons.

Some alarmingly real Popeye cover art from the 80s. 

Back in the eighties, Popeye was just baffling to my telly obsessed pre-teen mind. The original black and white cartoons were odd and surprisingly violent, unlike the Disney and Hanna Barbera I'd grown up with and the plot was seemingly the same every time:

1. Popeye and Olive Oyl would be doing a thing,
2. Bluto would steal Olive Oyl as if that's a reasonable thing to do,
3. Popeye would get the piss kicked out of him,
4. Popeye would open a tin of spinach in an extravagant fashion which made you question his need for it in the first place,
5. Popeye would get stronger and punch the living fuck out of Bluto,
6. Ends.

What the sod even was spinach? We didn't have it in our local Morrisons I can be fairly sure. To confuse matters further, BBC One would desperately fill up its kiddie slots (stop that) with cheapo imported cartoons including "The All-New Popeye Show", a title as unoriginal as it was frequently lies. A chopped up syndicated version of what had been an hour long slot in America, these shows would usually involve some standard Popeye scrapes followed by a back-up 'extended universe' series featuring some 'big concept' like Olive Oyl in the army or a caveman version of Popeye that seemed to completely contradict what happened in the main cartoon. I'd only just got used to the idea of the Muppets as babies, I couldn't be dealing with all these multiple Popeye continuities!

Then as if to kick further gravel in my childhood craving for order an entirely new and TOTALLY!!! UPDATED!!!! FOR!!! THE!!! 80s!!!! version of Popeye was spat into our face on October 9th 1988 with "Popeye and Son" as part of BBC2's Sunday morning "Now On Two" strand. This unsurprisingly featured the spinach-spitting sailor in the modern day (we know this as he wears a very Magnum PI-style Hawaiian shirt) with now-wife Olive (always clad in a Roy and Renee-style pink tracksuit) and a Scrappy Doo-ish son called...um...Popeye Junior. At almost the exact same time Popeye was fertilising his wife with his ejaculate, Bluto was similarly penetrating his partner, leading to a child the same age called Tank. (Whether this was the same Tank who frequently espoused admiration for Walkers Crisps is as yet unsubstantiated.)

This mania for adding kids to existing Hanna Barbera properties had begun the previous year in the US with the correctly forgotten Flintstone Kids which reduced the ages of the original stone age favourites for...reasons. The same series also featured the in universe show "Captain Caveman and Son" which...oh, you know.

And all this isn't even thinking about the mid 60s cartoons where Bluto is renamed as Brutus for some reason. What the hell was I meant to do with that information? Next you'll be telling me Boss Cat isn't actually called Boss Cat!

As the eighties turned into the day-glo Twist N Squeeze-sippin', Hammer-non hurtin', hard poggin' decade of the 1990s, Popeye seemed to fade away from the collected world consciousness. And yet looking at the TV schedules on BBC Genome, repeats of the now deeply ironic "All New Popeye Show" continued on terrestrial Children's BBC as late as 2004. Its probably on some ridiculously high Sky channel as we speak. So until the inevitable CGI big screen reboot, happy birthday Popeye, 88 years young and liked by nobody I have ever met ever.

All together now: He's strong to the fammich cos he ate a sammich, he's Pobbay the Sailor Type. Toot toot!


Monday, 16 January 2017

Welcome All (Tommy Cannon, Bobby Ball)

In this modern world of 3D horses, printed flatbreads and The Peter Kay's Comedy Shuffle, its easy to get lost with something new on the crowded internet. Regardless though, over the next weeks and months, I'm going to try and lure you anyway with my tales of pop culture ephemera, both new and old, broken and yellowed around the edges.

If there's one thing the British are fantastic at, its looking back at things in the past and mainly complaining about it not being as good as they used to be. This might be chocolate ("A Chomp used to be big as fifty houses when I were a sperms!"), comics ("Why is Desperate Dan enjoyable and not boring old cowboy shite that has remained the same since 1937?") or TV, which as we all know peaked on Christmas Day 197something when Morecambe and Wise did the charleston on Mike Yarwood's face and then Dana shat the National Anthem. "37 billion viewers they say!"

This blog will aim at writing about subjects such as TV, music, film, radio, comics etc. without trying on the Google Rose Tinted GlassesTM or, worse still, falling prostrate on that terrible phrase "THEY SHOULD BRING IT BACK". I just want to write honestly and openly about the things that interest me, good or bad. So, um...I will. Hope you'll come join me too.

Ben Baker,
January 2017