1. Intro - dreaming of millennia

    I can remember fairly clearly the first time I seriously tried to calculate the future . I was maybe ten years old, lying in bed and re-reading an issue of 2000 AD, and for the first time, I was puzzling over the idea that that title, intentionally and inherently futuristic, represented a real calendar date that would one day arrive, and somehow, calamitously render the name obsolete. I tried to figure out how old I would have to be by the time we reached this epoch, but as I recall, it was beyond my reckoning. It didn’t seem that likely I would live long enough for vengeful androids and routine interstellar travel, and yet even from 1977, the year 2000 seemed countable. And here I am, now, in 2020, A number that looks so impossibly, so implausibly of, from, and for the future my brain isnt really comfortable holding on to it. But first we must put away 2019. Here's my 2019 roundup, in something like 20 paragraphs.

    I rejoined social media:

    2018 I had a year off Twitter, feeling a bit exhausted by it all. It didn't really seem to make much difference. Now the Internet seemed to have invaded, occupied and consumed everything. Surveillance capitalism now so entrenched it was to be a regular part of mainstream think piece commentary. Network effects being what they are, It’s deluded and futile to make even token efforts to keep beyond these tracking networks, the reach is now such that secondary and tertiary associations will just link around you and pull you in anyway. So I bounced back onto Twitter, signed up for Instagram, and even rejoined Facebook-and rectivated Foursquare. I’m not particularly excited by any of them. At best, they represent a low friction way of posting light life updates, and it's nice to get reciprocal insights back about people I know, but don't see regularly. (And now I don't really see anyone regularly, so that’s a thing) It's fine, but we can do better. Ironically 2019 feels like the year everyone started to gently pull back from all this online sharing stuff. Ho hum.

    Gene Wolfe died

    Boo. Probably my favourite author, genre or otherwise. Age 87, which is by any account a splendid innings. A couple of personal resonances last year. I finally finished reading the “solar cycle”, which contains some of my most loved books. I started when I was fifteen, and I was just starting into the final volume when he died. And then the Folio Society issued a fairly exquisite luxury edition of his masterpiece, "The Book of the New Sun", signed, numbered and limited to 750 pieces, and which I somehow managed to discover and purchase before they sold out. I felt pretty decadent, and guilty about spending hundreds of pounds on a fancy copy of a book I already owned, but within weeks people were listing them on eBay for thousands, so maybe it was a wise investment? Anyway, Wolfe is amazing, and-if you havent read him, why not try? Start with the Fifth Head of Cerberus, I would.

    A Haircut:

    Untitled

    by the end of the year, I was bored of the hair, so it's all off again. I suspect the next time it grows back in may well be all white.

    An ASD diagnosis:

    No not me. We've basically known about it for a long time ourselves, and painfully been pursuing a diagnosis through the systems for literally years, but late in the year we obtained a professional diagnosis of ASD for number one child. Shock, relief, and lots to process for everybody, but a powerful sense of progress in a way that feels constructive and enabling, not reductive and labelling.

    Weddings x2:

    Here's a surprise ageing effect. Having got past "peer group wedding” season, and assuming weddings were all done I seem to have hit "generation below hits wedding season" season, and now weddings are a thing again. That's cool, I like weddings. This summer was two, both fancy AF. One in a cathedral, one in Cyprus. The latter was an Orthodox church service, which was quite unlike anything else I have previously experienced. Weddings are a pretty big deal in Cyprus.

    Castles:

    Castles

    Throughout 2019 we held a family membership to English Heritage, and as a result spent a few weekends wading around ancient English castles. There are quite a few spectacular examples In this part of the county, closest to the mainland (we can see France very with the naked eye most days). Dover is particularly astonishing. Pretty middle-aged, I guess. National Trust next?

    Photography:

    I've been getting gently back into using actual cameras for photography. Maybe inspired by instagram? Possibly just because my predilection for "alternative" smartphone operating systems lumbers me with dreadful quality camera software? Regardless, I have been having fun shooting things with real glass - on my much loved power shot GX9-2, which sadly caught some water damage on a recent trip to Malta and is still drying out four months later - but this gave me an excuse to upgrade it to a slightly larger slightly more posh Canon M100, which is more cumbersome and not quite as fun to use, but easily compensates for that in image quality and lower light performance. I don't even muck about with much manual selection, mostly plain automatic shooting, but I really enjoy something about the deliberation, and the ceremony, and having to actively curate, triage and extract the images off the camera in order to use them for anything. Mindfulness? Contrarianism? Whatever, Fun.

    Still in Folkestone:

    Yup. After quitting London to work remotely, we sold the big house, and shifted even further south to Folkestone, where I remain, the most mundane kind of digital nomad imaginable. I like it a lot. I was born by the sea, I grew up by, in and on the sea, and now, once again, I walk, with dog, alongside the actual sea, most days. I've even gone in it to swim. Folkestone is my kind of town really - collapsing Victorian splendour, a harbour, vague touches of bohemia, light gentrification, that isn't trying too hard, and you can clearly see France most days, without effort, and that is something I will never not find mind-bendingly magical.. It does rain a bit too much, mind you.

    Dental surgery:

    2019 Was the year I finally gave up pretending I could largely ignore the pitifully untended state of my teeth. Actually, it was the teeth that made the decision for themselves. I have a pretty strong dental phobia (Maltese dentistry in the 1970's was not great), but by the middle of the year something was painfully not right in an area that had been slightly bothersome for years, and pain was escalating alarmingly. I still couldn't manage the appointment making myself, so thanks to my lovely wife, I ended up enrolled with a local private practice, and with a fairly gruesome diagnosis : -an impacted wisdom tooth had grown down into my jaw and accessed, destroying two molars, and threatening jaw damage. Surgical intervention was required, and due to my panic-stricken inability to co-operate, it was to be done under a still fairly Terrifyingly named process of "conscious sedation". That meant a referral, three months of waiting for a slot at a specialist clinic, and an almost constant diet of pain-killers in the interim (as well as two very uncomfortable, and strictly speaking forbidden, international flights) but eventually I got through it. The conscious sedative was one of the most surprising experiences I have ever had. Strapped into a chair in a small theatre, and attached to a drip, I remember a brief chat about consent, and then the next thing I remember I was in the passenger seat of the car on the way home, a mouth full of wadding, having entirely lost a couple of hours and a couple of teeth! I am left wondering if I was out for the operation, or if I have simply retained no memory of it, and what precisely is the dittoed between those two anyway? I find the very existence of this kind of instant blackout drugs and astonishing and implausible marvel. If It were a plot device in a fiction, I'd have scoffed at how completely unrealistic it was. So now I have a dentist, a treatment plan, no headaches, and two Fewer teeth. Lots more work needed, but it feels achievable. And I’ve experienced time-travel.

    Common [email protected]:

    Love this one. My day job is still working at platform.sh, where we have a home grown container runtime that powers our "cloud" project. Cloud engineering is my team, and literally my first act in the job was to port one of my existing lisp web apps to the runtime as an experiment. Well, it turns out our VP of engineering is also a lisper, and we have ended up extending these experiments to building a couple of internal tools in SBCL, which are of course hosted on the platform. These proved useful enough to keep, and at that point, it started to make sense to productionize the lisp containers, so we can have a first class and maintainable build, rather than shoehorn a lisp install into a capable enough container. At which point there was no reason to not make this publicly available for customer projects, which we announced with a blog post, which was well recieved on the social platforms. I only had a tiny part in all of the above processes, but it is still one of the coolest things I have ever been involved with at work and remains a wonderful reminder that I have a pretty cool job and work with a great team.

    A-Rank in Splatoon!:

    I adore Splatoon, Nintendo’s gloriously styled paint-em-up, online FPS. I’ve been playing it quite regularly since launch on the Wii U, and through into it's subsequent re-packaging as Splatoon 2 on the Switch. I love everything about the game, from the mechanics, which are well-considered and balanced, all the way through to the world-building and the whole skate-tween-punk cartoon fish aesthetic. I mostly play ranked, and although I wouldn't claim to be particularly good, 2019 was the year I finally sneaked A rank after years of trying. And not just once, but in a couple of categories (zones, tower, and rainmaker) Yes I realize this is because fewer people are still playing. What of it. I have a badge.

    TV:

    I watch a lot of TV. and I'm not ashamed of it. I know we're living through peak TV, but for me 2019 was a less than stellar year. Plenty of things, I probably should like, I just didn't. I dont have much appetite for "The Apprentice" anymore, although it can still deliver hilariously awful situations from its contrived casting. “Fleabag” annoyed me almost as much as it charmed. Star Trek regularly sent me to sleep (love the art direction still). The concluding series or Mr Robot was great, I've thoroughly enjoyed that whole run, but it was time to sign off. "Homecoming" wasn't quite so great, but it worked. I think my favorite show from last year would have to be discovering “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” on Netflix (awful title. do try to get past the title) - Super-smart, subversive , unpredictable, bingeable, engaging, and great music. I was already a huge Adam Schlesinger fan, and now I guess I'm a Rachel Bloom fan too. So many earworms. Bring back old Greg!

    Books:

    I suck at reading, these days I know it's a common modern Iffliction. I have been trying to make an effort. I finished the Gene Wolfe Solar books, as I mentioned earlier, but otherwise 2019 was not so great. According to my Goodreads account (doesn't capture everything but it's fairly accurate) , I only managed nineteen books, some of which I can't even remember reading. Aside from Wolfe, I think my high points would have to be "The Peripheral" and "Ingenious Pain" . 2020 we have a sequel to "The Peripheral" due, as well as the final installment of Hilary Mantel's Cromwell books and I'm going to do better. Im trying to do ten minutes entirely focused reading a day this year. Going well so far (2 books finished already)

    Movies:

    I'm still struggling here as well, although we do a weekly family movie night, I still rarely get to the cinema. I did make it to see “Rise of Skywalker" and thus I did manage to see every Star Wars movie on initial cinema release. I'm afraid the most enthusiasm I can find about that is that I’m glad it's done. Similarly, on the other franchise I finally got up to date with Marvel by reaching “Avengers: Endgame" on streaming, and I'm mostly happy to be able to say “OK, this can stop”. The kids got into Harry Potter, having reached that sort of age, and so I also belatedly got to the end of those, and my goodness they're bad. Things, I actively liked- “Lady Bird”, Netflix's "Annihilation" was superb, and my favourite was probably "Sword of Trust". And on Xmas Eve I decided to watch an ancient favourite, "Lair of the White Worm" which I enjoyed revisiting so much, I may make it into a Xmas tradition from now on. Ken Russell(I) is my man.

    A New kitchen:

    Our kitchen seemed to be in relatively good shape when we bought the house, but it had a conservatory attached to where the back door ought to be, which although it made for a lovely sense of light and space was punishingly cold in the winter. So we decided to get a glazed back door fitted between. And then we found rotting wallpaper trapped behind the kitchen units over damp plaster, and decided to get a nicer fitted kitchen while addressing that. And then we discovered a water leak running down the back wall. And then a cascade of horrors, including a lintel-free window, a removed chimney being held up by what looked like a nail through an old chair leg, three layers of wall cladding, and perhaps most excitingly, several rotten joists not doing the greatest job of keeping the upstairs upstairs. Cue months of no kitchen, stripping everything back to brick, jacking up the roof, replacing beams, dry lining everything. and then potting in a kitchen back on top. And now we have a back door. And quite a nice kitchen. And far less money.

    Malta & Cyprus:

    Two Foreign holidays? I already mentioned my friend's magical destination wedding earlier, but by way of attending we got to spend almost a Week, without children, (thanks, Grandma!) in a pretty swanky hotel in Limassol. Cyprus is hot in the summer, and I say that as someone quite used to heat. So I ended up doing something I have never done before, and just hung out poolside, reading, and swimming and being waited on. And that was just great. And Despo came by to visit, which was a lovely coincidence. Then, a couple of months later we all went to hang out in another resort hotel, but this time in Qawra , in a Family oriented holiday complex. That's the first time we've done significant overseas travel as a family, also the first time I've been back in Malta in almost a decade. I enjoyed the opportunity to show the girls a little of the sense of what Malta is like, and I stole away for a poignant solo visit back to my old home town, my last opportunity to do it as a full EU citizen.

    Hal-Balzan 2019

    Softwares:

    I am feeling quite out of love with computers and software, and especially the flipping internet and the incessant noise bubble of the tech industry. At the moment, I'm afraid to say, outside of work (work is cool, as mentioned already) I’m not really indulging in very much computering. A brief spurt of activity on a secret, not yet abandoned, but not yet revisited project, at the start of the year, and then nothing really - a few isolated sessions of hacking on the software for this site which only really focused on infra things and build chains - I guess I have a useable flow for generating 32 bit ARM debs from Common Lisp applications, but that's more bureaucracy and housekeeping than hacking, and even I don’t find it that enthralling. And most of my infrastructure is still a mess after moving. Maybe 2020 I'll find a way to relight the spark. Maybe I'm done ? Seems unlikely, but I’m not inspired.

    I love my new shaver:

    On a more positive technology note, I did fall severely in love with a piece of consumer electronics. I finally lost patience with my Philips rotary head shaver, after years of dissatisfaction and overspending on replacement foils and cutting heads that never really helped much. Not really knowing where to turn to for advice, I tried the wire cutter, something I’m a little wary of trusting and I picked up a Braun series 7 during Black Friday month at amazon.co.uk, and no exaggeration, It has COMPLETELY CHANGED MY LIFE. I am competely astonished at the ease of use, enthralled by the consistency of the result, and enraptured by the sense of considered Germanic engineering that exudes from every aspect. I love this thing and it makes me happy while I am using it.

    No music:

    I am barely listening to anything. Some of it is because I've barely strung my music library infrastructure back together after relocating. Some of it’s because I'm too old and boring and middle aged. Some of it's because I still don't have a subscription to a streaming service, and some of it's just because I think I have just lost the habit of it. I have been playing guitar much more in the past 12 months than in previous years, and l am flirting with writing and recording a little bit more again. 2019 though, is a solid musical wash-out.

    iOS WTF:

    I know! I'm back on (an) iPhone after YEARS away. Actually, I jumped via an iPad first. I’ve been enjoying this fanciful idea of multiple, task-specific devices, and I wondered about splitting the non-coding, computer things away from my laptop and I thought I'd give an iPad mini a try-out as a general-purpose 'personal' computing device; Apps, email, browsing, etc. It was a mixed success- I use it for some things way more than I expected I would, it is basically the only way I do email now, I have used it to write the entirety of this blog post. (by hand, with a pencil, plenty of weird typos!), and a bit less for others (I had a quixotic notion that I'd finally get everything organised into digital calendaring but I still remain a barely calendared human) Overall though, I likes it. It’s very reliable, I’d say it’s a slightly more useful thing than it appears to be on the surface, and a slightly less capable thing than it appears in the advertisements. I'm quite happily onboarded now though, to the point that I feel comfortable treating it as the primary device / silo for certain categories of things. So much so that when I hit a patch of phone trouble with my Sony Xperia 2 running /e/ (This year I have bounced between Lineage, /e/ and SailfishOS in my continuing adventures in alternative phone systems) I decided to dust off an almost dead iPhone 6S and give it a try. And, it's fine. Fine enough that I refurbished the battery myself, which cost fifteen pounds, and was surprisingly straightforward and kept going. Several months on, I'm still using it. Although not all that much. I think one of the side effects of moving more of my "app stuff" over to the iPad is that I'm not really using my phone for anything much these days beyond light social networking, messaging and podcasts. Oh yeah , and Apple Pay everywhere! I love Apple Pay almost as much as I love my electric Shaver. It is quite peaceful not having to care about whether my phone is working or not when I need to take a call.

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  2. The Zombie Song by Stephanie Mabey

    The girls are pretty keen on this one right now. It's pretty catchy, and I have had it lodged in my mind's ear for a few days. It is a few years old, so sorry if it was a big meme and I missed it, what can you do. News travels slow out here on the indieweb.

    The embed is a bandcamp link, you can buy the digital album. You can buy the single track from amazon if you prefer , because supporting artists is awesome.

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  3. Jeremy Corbyn fails to win backing of other UB40

    Satire possibly dead.

    A pro-Corbyn Labour source insisted they were unworried by the 50% endorsement. "We have the backing of the more popular and successful UB40" they said. "Proof that splitters don't prosper".

    They actually tried to make #UB4Corbyn a thing.

    blinks

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  4. I already mentioned in passing, St. Vincent , the band-shaped solo project brand thing of the super-engaging Annie Clark, was by far the best act I saw at Primavera Sound 2014. It was also the act I was most looking forward to seeing going in, it’s always nice when those line up.


    I guess I’m a super-fan. I first spotted Annie playing with Sufjan Stevens ' touring band. I next encountered her playing solo support for the National , touring her first St. Vincent release , upon which occasion I bolted out of the auditorium by the third song, in order to make sure I got a copy of the CD she was plugging from the merch stall before she packed away. I saw another couple of shows in Bristol, with the full band, and bought all the records, including an interesting collaboration with David Byrne .


    Last weekend, while idly browsing the Glastonbury live blog, I noticed that they’d just updated their description of the current iPlayer feeds to include St. Vincent streaming on the iPlayer from the park stage. I’d been avoiding the Glastonbury video feeds due to a combination of not being in the mood, and the dullness of the tv schedules, but I wasn’t going to miss out on this, so I whacked it on the TV. True to form, it was a great set, live, risky, and peppered with amusing crowd-surfing and hat theft . Even with a bit of sound problem, and some streaming glitches I enjoyed myself, and was amused to see my enthusiastic tweeting duly included in the Guardian live feed on the next page refresh.


    That was a really good set ”, I thought to myself, afterwards, “ but it wasn’t nearly as exciting as the Barcelona one. True, that lacked crowd invasions, and nobody lost a hat, but the lighting, and the sound, and the staging, and the lack of daylight, and the crowd being really into it…A pity there’s no TV-broadcast quality stream of that night archived away somewhere ”. 


    Yes, I do really talk to myself like that sometimes. Especially when I’m pretending to transcribe my inner voice for a blog.


    And then, I ran into this on Youtube.


     


    Full set, multiple cameras, properly mixed sound, pretty good video quality. I have not yet watched it enough times to see if I can see myself ( front of house, stage left, VIP pen ) in the crowd, but I expect I will. 

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  5. They actually did it! And amazingly enough, close to my old gaff , down in Bexhill-on-sea, home town of Q, and one of my favourite buildings, the De La Warr Pavilion . In my day, I chiefly associate the De La Warr with local dance and dog shows, ropey touring comics, and humdrum seasonal panto. It seems to have fully reinvented itself in recent years, as an contemporary arts centre  after a face lift from the usual lottery funding raffle committee.


    The story leading here; Ceramic artist Keith Harrison, as part of his residency in London’s V&A museum  last spring, created a "an experimental sculptural sound system” out of a ceramic tile sculpture, and invited Napalm Death to play a high volume live set through it , potentially involving the destruction of the sculpture through sonic assault.


    So far, so awesome... It sold out quickly, and then the museum curators suddenly came to their senses/got cold feet and chickened out, as they realised they were about to stage a grindcore gig at volumes deliberately intended to destroy sculptures in their museum full of fragile objet’s d’Art, many of which are kept in darkened chambers as they’re too fragile to expose to strong light.


    Aboo. So, I felt slightly better about missing out on tickets, and forgot all about it. 


    I subsequently discover with glee, they relocated it to the De La Warr in November, and completed the show without any particular mishaps to life or property. The installation/gig was called Bustleholme, which is the name of a degraded housing estate outside Birmingham. The sculptural components of the installation, through which the band’s amplified output was channelled, were ceramic tile structures loosely based on the dimensions of the estate. In the words of Keith Harrison...



    The Bustleholme estate in West Bromwich was where I was born and lived until I was 8. Located in the Black Country, the heavy industrial centre of the Midlands, three tower blocks depicted overlooked the estate and their vivid blue and yellow ceramic tiles are one of my earliest memories. Despite the subsequent poor reputation of the blocks, at that time in the late sixties and early seventies they symbolised the optimism of a radical approach to social housing rising out of an urban landscape of motorways, canals, polluted rivers and railway lines.



    The quote is taken from a short interview with the sculptor and band over at the vinyl factory  where there is a fascinating short documentary film about the whole event. More of this kind of thing, please.

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  6. In November 1955, Bo Diddley was booked to play live on the Ed Sullivan show, the middle America's favourite TV variety show. As legend has it, he was booked to play a single tune, but he misinterpreted his cue card, which had his name, followed by a song title, launched into his, perhaps slightly racy for the times, eponymous calling card - "Hey, Bo Diddley!", immediately following it with the song he was booked to play, the only slightly more sedate "Sixteen tons". They tore the roof off the house, and got themselves banned from the show. 


    Here's a particularly rocking performance from 1965



    That lady on the second rhythm guitar is known as The Duchess .


    Not many musicians get to name their own beat. And in this case, it's a beat that refuses to die. Not many musicians can play it well, but that hasn't stopped them trying through the years. I put a playlist of the most egregious examples I could find up on spotify . There's some direct lifts, some re-interpretations, some slightly tenuous reaches, and hopefully some surprises. It's an editable playlist, so please feel to add any that you find.



     


    I feel sure there ought to be a Spiritualized song in there, but for the life of me I can't find one from memory.


    Once you get into the habit of spotting them, it's quite an addictive hobby. I find that I often only spot them a while after I've picked out a song as an earworm.

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  7. For the last few weeks I've been utterly immersed in a fairly exlusive relationship with David Bowie. He doesn't know anything about it,unless he makes a habit of checking out people's play counts on last.fm . It's just me and his back catalogue. This relationship is mostly played out in trains. On headphones, music fed from iTunes or Spotify. Complete albums at a time, played through in the correct running order, naturally.  As I listen my eyes are glued to an electronic book. A book about David Bowie and the same songs I'm almost obsessively listening to.


    It began with the book, or perhaps I mean to say it awoke. A few weeks  ago, listening to Word Podcast 188 , I heard about Peter Doggett's latest book . Commissioned as a sequel, or at least inspired by Ian MacDonald's influential song by song Beatles chronology: Revolution In The Head . I thought the idea was sound, if any classic rock canon could bear the load of similar scrutiny, it was probably Bowie. I noted the book on my 'to read' list, and the next time I found myself without an ongoing book, whilst waiting to depart St. Pancras International, having recently ended one book, I  bought the Kindle edition, via "Whispernet". I do most of my book reading on trains. I thought it would probably make an interesting read, despite knowing that I didn't really enjoy listening to Bowie's music.


    It wasn't always that way. At some level I would still identify myself as a Bowie fan; albeit a heavily lapsed one.  We go way back together. His commercial peak as a pop star (  Let's Dance ) neatly coincides with the start of my interest in the pop charts. He still seemed a current, voguish music figure. The promo video was a new central focus of pop culture, and Bowie was of course one of the craftiest, most-prepared of the video pioneers.


    Access to archive media was rare then, and fashion was forward-looking; any consciously retro styles were focused on the '50s.  I remember a classmate at boarding school, with the archetypal 'older brother with record collection' filling me in on the standard mythology. The multiple identities, snatches of song titles and character names and iconography all seemed unimaginable and distant. Fascinated by the scraps, I used my sense of wonder to fill in the gaps.


    I remember the first time I saw a photo of Ziggy Stardust , years later.  It was in a newspaper colour supplement. There was a stock photo collage piece on 'The Many Faces of David Bowie'; probably already a cliche even then. Like anyone, I was knocked out just by the look of it. It was preposterous; somehow ridiculous and cool. A vision from the future, even 15 years out of date.


    Bowie still pops up throughout the rest of the decade. He's still a face. Movie and soundtrack work. Labyrinth . Absolute Beginners . When the Wind Blows . I watch all of these at home on a VCR.


    I pretend to study for 'A' levels, at the local sixth form college. A grim time for chart music, the fag end of the Stock Aitken Waterman years, just running up against the first twinklings of rave culture. There's a jukebox, with actual seven inch singles in. Most of them are by Rick Astley, or Sonia, or Michael Bolton. There's a 'Golden Oldies' section with maybe a dozen  records  over on the far right side. 'Ziggy Stardust' is one of them. I play it once or twice a day for weeks. After this, a little piece of me is always slightly disappointed each time I play an electric guitar and it doesn't sound very much like Ronson .


    Tin Machine are next along, the sheer contrariness of this scheme just delights me; although I never get to hear much of the music, there's a near media embargo on it. As I move through the 90s, with a gradually solidfying income, I fill out my CD collection with all the back catalogue. It gets solidly played until I've commited the bulk of it to heart.


    I'm amused by the negative attitude to 'Drum and Bass Bowie' from the inkies, most of these still in thrall to the last few coughs of Britpop. I like the singles more than most others from that year.


    Then it's spoiled. Glastonbury 2000 kills it. Against my better judgement, I trek down to the pyramid stage to watch Bowie's headline set. Stadium Rock is not my thing. I stand in the mud for a while, and I try to watch on the giant TV screens on the other side of the crowded field. It's too slick, too caberet, I'm completely disengaged and intensely disappointed. I leave them to it after half a dozen songs. Something feels quite broken. After that, I find it hard to listen to the old records in a more than academic way.


    Nonetheless, now I'm reading the book, I put a playlist together that covers all the albums it discusses. I'm mostly reading on the train, and this means I'm mostly listening as I read. It's a peculiarly immersive way to listen to records. I tried it once before, with Scott Tennent's book about Slint's Spiderland . I read that on the Northern Line, with the album on rotation. Eventually it almost felt like I'd been present at those recording sessions.


    It leaks into your ears, ambiently informing your reading. Occasionally mid-passage about the invention or arrangement of a song co-incides with the track playing everything pulls into focus across multiple senses. Berlin-period Bowie plays particularly well with rail transport, with it's stations and trains and mechanical sounds. Listening to Heroes, waiting platformside in the raw concrete trenches of Stratford International .


    The book itself is a solid read. Bowie remains an unsurprisingly opaque presence, and some of the speculative interpretation on lyrics and motivation feels like a stretch. The musical analysis likewise falls falls a little short of the template established by 'Revolution In The Head', occasionally quite gratingly clunky (a 'sustained fourth' chord?). Luckily the framing works just as well. Imposing a narrative upon the chronological order of recordings creates an appreciation of it as one body of work. Considered so forensically, it's an astonishing thing. Much as with the previous book, what stands out just as markedly as the quality of the songs and recordings, is the rate of progress, and the rate of change. Here's a rough calendar of the recording dates of the albums covered within 'The Man Who Sold The World'.



    I still find this list astonishing. Just five years separate the psych-folk/music-hall of Hunky Dory and the ambient alienation and hyper-stylised funk of Low. A further four years between that and the proto-industrial-cum-New Romantic Pop of Scary Monsters. It's a lot of terrain to cover in a decade, banging out over an album a year interspersed with global touring. For the sake of convenience, I have left out the live album releases.


    A couple of other interesting points leapt out at me after reading. I realised my instinctive dating of 'Scary Monsters' is mistakenly late. ' Ashes to Ashes ' has been so convincingly retconned as a New Romantic cornerstone, I have been unconsciously sticking it in the middle somewhere around '82-'83 amidst Culture Club and Duran and the Spandaus, and 'Come on Eileen'. The actual recording date puts it barely out of the 1970s, which means that dense, sound bricolage of such modern sounds was hand-stitched in the most analogue ways. Tony Visconti deserves even more of my respect.


    The second thing I never before realised, was that the 'Art Bowie' period - the less overtly commercial works spanning from 'Station to Station' to 'Scary Monsters' does rather neatly line up with a management dispute. As I understand it, these records were produced under a settlement that meant a significant portion of royalties were due to a now estranged management organisation. Once this lapsed, he abruptly switched to the ultra-commercial, lucrative career arc prefaced by 'Let's Dance'. Which is of course, where we came in.


    A final, unexpected triumph. As a side effect of the book and this entombment in the music. The joy came back. In sounding all the material out new depths, informed by fresh context, and with rested ears refreshed, I've rediscovered my original appreciation for this sequence of records. Pity my poor family.


    The only fault I can find with this technique of marrying immersive listening with a scholarly reading is that it is intrinsically retrospective, and perhaps simply nostalgic, and reductive. It obviously requires you find an artist or a work that's had enough time to embed itself in it's surrounding culture, and can never be forward looking.


    Best album from the set? I change my mind constantly, but think I most often settle upon 'Low'. There isn't a bad one, although I'll never consider 'Pin Ups' to be essential, and I think I might always find 'Lodger' a little underwhelming. Who's next for the treatment? I'm not sure. I notice there's a book about the rise and fall of Spacemen 3 .

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  8. Five LPs I used to frequently listen to when I was a lad, that I frequently listen to now



    1. Green On Red : Here Come The Snakes


    2. Jane's Addiction : Ritual de lo Habitual


    3. Pixies : Bossanova


    4. Metallica : Master Of Puppets


    5. Depeche Mode : Music For The Masses



    Five LPs I used to frequently listen to when I was a lad that I occasionally listen to now



    1. The Sisters Of Mercy : First And Last And Always


    2. Genesis : Nursery Cryme


    3. New Order : Substance


    4. Steve Vai : Passion And Warfare


    5. Frank Zappa : Joe's Garage



    Five LPs I used to frequently listen to when I was a lad that I haven't played in a decade



    1. Marillion : Script for a Jester's Tear


    2. Simple Minds : Live - In The City Of Light


    3. Pink Floyd : The Wall


    4. Madonna : True Blue


    5. Red Hot Chili Peppers : Blood Sugar Sex Magik


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  9. That's 2010 all done then. 2011 said alound still sounds implausibly futuristic to my ears. One more sign that you're an old man.


    The 'holiday season' was surprisingly survivable. The nut roast didn't poison anybody. I doubled up the recipe quantities, and had exactly 50% left after dinner was done. The main problem I had was getting all the vegetables evenly done. There was much shuttling trays in and out of the oven, and from shelf to shelf, but everyone went away fed and uncomplaining, so I'm going to chalk that up as a success.


    It turns out that having a 1 year old daughter is an excellent diversion around this time of year. Most of my time seems to have been spent chaperoning her around various relatives' houses, where she excelled in capturing the centre of attention. She's unsurprisingly done terribly well for presents. Typically, her favourite seems to be something inessential; a tiny gift teddy bear that was part of a seasonal book bundle.


    I have a nice new coffee mug with a picture of Moominpapa on, of which I am already fond. Also notable, a comic strip book that frames the life and work of Bertrand Russell as an analogy to a classical greek tragedy. Better than it sounds, it's quite a fascinating piece.


    2010 has been a pretty good year I'd say. Mostly full of Ada , who has grown from being a rather sickly baby whose inability to keep food onboard, or sleep to rule frazzled nerves, to a largely reflux-free, sleep-friendly and entirely enchanting toddler. I think my Ada high-point of the last year would be when I taught her to high-five people, whenever she was being carried at shoulder height. She's currently showing signs of becoming a precocious chatterbox. Other than that, there's been the career gear-change, moving to work for last.fm , which has been almost entirely awesome. The new job brought a house move to London, which took me through the stages of ambivalence, active dislike of the place, right through to my current state of mind, which is settled back into an easy enjoyment of the appeals of city living. The fly in the ointment there is the lingering unsold Bristol house, dealing with which is going to feature heavily in the new year, I suspect.


    Usually, at this time of year, I'd do some sort of summary of the year in music. 2010 has been a year where I've been kept pretty out of touch, because I've simply been too busy with other things. So most of the new discoveries I've made have been anything but current. Like everyone else, I became briefly overexcited about Janelle in the middle of the year. Standouts would be finally getting around to listening to Spirit Of Eden , and falling for it predictably, discovering The Books and Field Music , and my most unusual acquisition Sia's 'Some people have real problems' album, which I wouldn't have expected to have been my thing, but really captivated me. Luckily last.fm did a chart thing of my annual listening (a subscriber-only feature).


    Having an infant at home has really curtailed the gig-going, so I had to focus on quality, not quantity. I did Primavera again, and I don't seem to be tiring of that yet, I've already bought tickets for 2011. I saw an astonishing Dirty Projectors show at the Barbican, performing ' The Getty Address' completely, accompanied by Alarm Will Sound . I finally got to see the New Pornographers with Neko , which was good enough to keep a stupid grin on my face all the way through the first hour, even though I was coming down with a stupid cold. I think I'll probably get more opportunity to see things in 201, but surprisingly I'm not really complaining.


    Here's to 2011. Still sounds wrong.




    Suggested listening


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  10. The other day at work , prompted by a shoutbox conversation with one of our users , I did a little bit of exploring some of the artist catalogue data. The idea was to find band names that were repeating words, such as ' Talk Talk ' and ' The The '. Coincidentally, I had a freshly installed database server with just this sort of information on it, and needed a good excuse to stress test it a little. PostgreSQL's regular expression support is brilliant , and it was a very trivial exercise to quickly knock up a query that returned promising data. In the process of refining it, I got a chance to play around with the Hadoop cluster. I wrote the whole thing up over on the company blog, if you'd like further details. Fame fame fatal fame, it can play hideous tricks on the brain, as the song goes .

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  11. That A.C. Newman, he has an enviable work ethic. New TNP album is due May 4th! I presume that's a USA release date.

    Rather excitingly, the recording sessions featured St Vincent , Will Sheff , and slightly less excitingly, the Dap-Kings horns , and Zach Condon . The album title is 'Together'.

    The New Pornographers are due to play this year's Primavera Sound, although I suspect I will be giving it a miss this time around.

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  12. Back at the start of the summer, I went back to Barcelona, for a second visit to the very wonderful Primavera Sound festival. I travelled with the rather pregnant Mrs S., and (Uncle) Danny came along for the latter half of the stay, and also joined us for the festival.

    Barcelona is still a marvellous city, and Primavera is still my favourite rock festival. While we were out there, Barcelona FC won the champions league . I can't pretend that I have any sympathy, interest, or even understanding of football, but I really enjoyed the electric city-wide atmosphere on the day; silent, tense and concentrating, as countless viewers watched the televised match, suddenly punctuated by sighs and unison cheers as chances were missed, and goals won; culminating in the riot of celebration erupting from every door and window onto the streets when the final victory was realised.

    The festival was another success. The personal highlight, for me was the chance to finally see Lightning Bolt , unusually for them, an on-stage performance, that was one of the most exhilarating live shows I have ever seen. Shellac , playing again on the same ATP stage as last year, as good value as always, another chance to see Oneida , and sample some of the "heritage" acts, giving it some legend, like Sonic Youth , Throwing Muses , and Neil Young . A suprisingly energetic Michael Nyman band set in the indoor auditori was an unexpected highlight, as were a couple of new-to-me performances from Andrew Bird , and Gang Gang Dance . I was amused by Sunn O))) , but sadly unable to persuade either of my companions to stay and watch more than ten minutes of their set.

    More disappointing were Marnie Stern , who I'd been looking forward to seeing again, seemed to be suffering from terrible sound and equipment problems, Deerhunter transforming a great album into a weak coldplay-lite live experience, an uninspired and frankly routine Art Brut performance, and a generically dull Jarvis set.

    Barcelona '09

    It turns out that I edited and uploaded my photos to flickr shortly after returning to the UK, but what with all the busying and rushing around re-organising and home renovating, I seem to have forgotten to switch the set to public, at least until now.

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  13. I've not posted a gig write up in a long time. One day I might get around to post-documenting some of the backlog. However, here's something very fresh.

    Last night I went to see Fever Ray . Fever Ray is the assumed band name of Karin Dreijer Andersson, one half of the strange and compelling Swedish brother-sister art-electronica duo, The Knife .

    The ticket price for this one was fairly steep. Seventeen pounds is a lot to ask for an debut act, on a Bristol weekday evening. Knowing the Knife to have something of a penchant for staginess and performance statements , I figured that the cost of admission might indicate a more elaborate performance spectacle than the routine Academy show. It wasn't a terribly full crowd, which may have also had something to do with the ticket price. Luckily my expectations of an interesting presentation were met, more than satisfactorily.

    A stage swathed in as much machine-made fog as I've seen since I last watched the Sisters Of Mercy, decades ago. For readers unfamiliar with the Sisters' stage ouevre, let me clarify; this means a lot of fog . The five-piece band only identifiable as bizarre silhouettes suggestive of a dark circus. Improbably tall hats, shadowy pierrot faces, frock coats, hunched shoulders. Karin, stage center shrouded in an enormous cowled cloak , the headress simultaneously suggesting fur and antlers and briar-hedge basketwork, her peculiar outline only really humanised by oversized white gloved hands. During the second song, she cleverly unfurled her cloak a little, a sudden backlight creating a surprising stained-glass panel effect that seemed to shine from inside her.

    The whole performance was a meticulously staged progression, slowly opening up the initial murk. At the start the overhead fog was scissored dramatically by a pair of slow moving laser beams. By the second song, they'd each expanded to a pair of fan shapes. Later on these picked up oscillating movement, and eventually traced out colour shifts in the waves of fog. Within the on-stage gloom, the odd sight of a dozen or so standard-lamps, pulsing away in time to the beats through thick lampshades. I didn't have my camera with me, although I expect it would have struggled to capture any of this well. Quite a few people have submitted photos of previous shows to flickr .

    As the show progressed, the stage was slowly up-lit from the back with soft blue and yellow glows. The cloak was shed, placed on a stand just behind front of stage, it still loomed, like some kind of shadowy spirit-familiar. Gradually we could see a little more of the performers, jigging around, wildly shaking shamanistic totem-sticks, pounding away on congas and toms, yet still the lighting and smoke effects kept them essentially obscured and anonymous.

    The short set stuck solidly to the album, without encores, which was fine by me. My attention didn't wander, nor did I tire of standing in place. My only complaints would be with the slightly murky sound, which isn't that unusual for the Academy, and that the music didn't really connect as terribly live, aside from the vocals; pitch-shifted, yet weirdly still human and very real. I think this was probably down to a combination of the very programmed sounds, and the distancing effect of the theatrics. It was something more like watching a stage-show display set to a musical playback, than a rock music show. I took it as an opportunity to watch something a little out of the ordinary, and enjoyed myself.

    The album is ace, and I recommend it to anyone. You can find it on spotify .

    The video for "Triangle Walks" gives an impression quite close to the live show. There are some other videos available on the band site which give a good sense of the Fever Ray aesthetic.


    <embed>

    Triangle Walks from Fever Ray on Vimeo .



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  14. Eddie Argos , of Art Brut fame, and Mikey Georgeson a.k.a. Mr. Solo a.k.a. Vessel from David Devant and his Spirit Wife have formed themselves a glam rock band - Glam Chops .

    Even better, their first release is a Christmas single : 'Countdown to Christmas / Baby Jesus was the first Glam Rocker' . Better still, they've made it available as a free download 'as an antidote to the credit crunch'. It sounds pretty much like you'd expect, and the first listen brought a seasonal smile to my face.

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  15. I've only just noticed, but the Matador Records sampler disc 'Intended Play: Fall 2008', which they have made available as a free download , has a sample track from A.C. Newman's forthcoming 'Get Guilty'. Unsurprisingly, I like it. There's some good stuff on the rest of the album too, well worth the download cost.

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