Doctor Who’s Twelfth Night (originally published on GuySpy, Aug 6 2013)

Doctor Who’s Twelfth Night

Something incredible happened on British television on Sunday tonight. We all thought we were going to witness the unveiling of the next actor to star in Doctor Who, but instead we were party to the rebirth of something altogether more momentous. Welcome back, Light Entertainment: it’s been such a long time.

I mean really. Let’s say you’re in charge of whatever BBC department gets the responsibility for this sort of thing. Quite a big job in fact – Doctor Who arguably being the corporation’s most important show. Sold around the world, wins awards, goes to Comic-Con. Big. So what do you do?

Well, on the evidence of “Doctor Who Live: The Next Doctor,” you nip off down to the canteen and see who happens to be in to record a spot on “Book at Bedtime” for Radio 4 and ask them if they are perchance free on Sunday night.

This is the only plausible explanation I can think of for ten minutes of remarkably inane banter between Zoe Ball, Liza Tarbuck and Rufus Hound. Hostess Ball at least had the decency to look a bit embarrassed throughout (I swear she mouthed “I’m sorry” to camera at one point), but this ghastly trinity basically just sat there shrugging, aside from that hilarious moment when Rufus got his names mixed up and almost let the cat out of the bag twenty minutes early.

When the silence got too uncomfortable they simply switched to a video clip of d-list celebrities wittering on about something they clearly couldn’t give a crap about. Now, I like a talking head as much as the next person but you have to worry about the executive whose thought process segues directly from “I’ve got the the biggest TV exclusive of the year!” to “I must get Bruno Tonioli’s opinion!” It literally makes NO sense.

The whole thing was mortifying, from the cheap set to the “specially invited” audience (whoever was in Forbidden Planet when the Beeb’s runner dropped in). It reeked of a cheapness not seen since light entertainment’s seventies heyday (though obviously “Tonight’s the Night with John Barrowman” had a jolly good try – but part of me is still convinced that was a hallucination and not an actual programme). The only thing missing was a half-time musical appearance from Elkie Brooks.

really felt for Peter Capaldi. Is this a man who often wears the grimace of someone who would rather be anywhere else on the planet than where he is right now – but to be fair to him he managed to rise above the wretchedness of it all and be touching and funny and sweet and humble. He will, I think, make for a great Doctor. But for the sake of the show’s integrity he must absolutely put his foot down and refuse to do any more tat like this – and someone at the BBC must learn that just because Jo Whiley is available it doesn’t mean she should be booked.

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We Need to Talk About Cher (originally published on GuySpy, July 23 2013)

We Need To Talk About Cher

Anticipation is great, isn’t it? The act of looking forward to something is one of life’s great pleasures, even though it often leads to mild or crushing disappointment (case in point: “MDNA,” right kids?)

Sometimes, though, you wait for something for so long that you inevitably lose all interest. I’m already there with GaGa’s “ARTPOP”, the gestation of which has been teased for so long that when it does eventually appear I will barely be able to lift my head from my desk to cock a snook at the artwork. Though obviously I reserve the right to change my opinion if it turns out to be fabulous.

And then there’s Cher. She last released a proper album in 2001, the a-bit-rubbish-apart-from-Song-For-The-Lonely “Living Proof,” and I think it’s fair to say that no-one has been clamouring for a follow-up for quite some time. What on earth has she been doing in this twelve year interval? By my reckoning, she made “Burlesque,” a film so gloriously bad it makes “Coyote Ugly” look like “Schindler’s List,” and she discovered Twitter. Cher is as prolific on Twitter as Madonna is on Instagram, and it’s not necessarily a good thing for either of them. She has a nasty tendency to communicate almost exclusively in capital letters, which makes anyone look mental. Only this week she posted this gem (reproduced here exactly as published): DEAR KANYE, THANK U, 4 TRASHING THOSE LOATHSOME PARASITES WHO STEAL OUR MOST PRECIOUS GIFTS, “TIME & PRIVACY”WE CAN NEVER GET THOSE BACK!

Mental. One of the great things about famous people used to be that you were forced to imagine what their private lives were like. Now we know for certain that Cher spends most of her time hunched over a Blackberry, typing out every thought she has, while a thousand feral cats prowl her house for discarded food. Probably.

Anyhow, I digress. It appears that Cher has found some time in her insanity schedule to actually make a new record. It is out on September 24th and it is called “Closer to the Truth,” presumably because Cher is ALL about conspiracy theories these days. Seriously, the woman thinks everyone is out to get her. They’re not. So far all we’ve heard is the lead single “Woman’s World,” which manages to sound both a) rubbish and b) like the title of a weekly magazine from the seventies. Cher – for so long the mistress of reinvention – is now trapped in a dance vortex of diminishing returns. Lady GaGa has apparently vetoed the inclusion of their duet on the album (and boy was Cher pissed on Twitter about that) – which leaves us only Jake Shears and Pink collaborations as a source of hope.

It is, of course, a woman’s world these days. But by the looks of it, that woman is no longer Cher.

Destiny’s Children: The Return Of Mutya, Keisha & Siobhan (originally published on GuySpy, July 6 2013)

Destiny’s Children: The Return Of Mutya, Keisha & Siobhan

Nature, as we all know, abhors a vacuum. So when Girls Aloud carelessly split earlier this year and the Saturdays resolutely failed to win over our hearts (pick ONE of them out in a line-up and I’ll call you a liar,) an urgent pop vacancy was created. And now, after a few tense months without any decent harmonies, it has been filled by – blow me down – Mutya, Keisha and Siobhan!

No-one is more surprised than me. When the original Sugababes announced their return with their new name-based moniker (or, as I prefer to think of it “Try leaving the group this time, bitch,”) I had low expectations that a) they’d actually put anything out and b) it would be any cop. And as the months dragged on with scarcely more than the occasional tweet to confirm how much the girls love each other these days, I suspected I was right.

But then, on Thursday July 4th 2013, “Flatline” arrived, and it is wonderful –  and definitely the best single ever made by two surly girls who look handy in a fight and one who tends to bolt at the first sign of trouble. Paying no attention to current pop trends whatsoever, it has its first moment of greatness at precisely seven seconds when the first Shakatak-y piano note hits. At this point you’re thinking, “oh this is slightly sinister and would sound good at sunset in a ritzy nightspot” and then you start imagining what the video would look like – probably the girls speeding around Stockholm in the back of open-topped sports cars at midnight – and then the chorus arrives and Mutya, Keisha and Siobhan’s vocals blend so perfectly that you burst into tears because you didn’t realise how much you’d missed them. And also because the line “I can feel a flatline, there ought to be a wave” is pretty heartbreaking.

Isn’t kismet great? Call it destiny, call it fate, call it a really good A&R person, but against all odds, “Flatline” is both the greatest single and comeback of 2013. As such, this should never be tried again (please take note, Nadine Coyle.) Welcome/welcome back, ladies. Until you spectacularly fall out again and Siobhan climbs out of another toilet window.

Total Eclipse of the Art (originally published on GuySpy, May 14 2013)

Eurovision Guyd: Total Eclipse of the Art

Britain, obviously, is great. We even have “Great” in our name – show me one other country that has that and I’ll call you a liar. We’re brilliant at lots of things; sport, acting, inventing things, conquering countries, nay continents. We’re also (Geri Halliwell notwithstanding) amazing at making music. So why – and this is the big question – are we so rubbish at winning the Eurovision Song Contest?

The short answer is that much of Europe hates us, and if they don’t hate us they feel a bit sorry for us because we pasteurise everything. But it’s slightly more complicated than that.

Eurovision is a particularly tough nut to crack. We Brits may be able to broker a fabulous peace treaty, but in 57 years we’ve only managed to win five times, and frankly it’s not looking good for the 58th. In days of yore we took choosing our entry quite seriously. First by a jury of respected industry movers and shakers, and latterly by throwing open the process to the nation. This is where we first got into trouble really, as in a battle for telephone votes between Middle England and gay men you are never going to get a result that’s likely to succeed. When the gays win we get Scooch, when Middle England wins we get Andy Abraham.

To this day, the rest of Europe tries a lot harder. Most countries still hold exciting sub-contests called exciting names like “Melodifestivalen” and send their top talent to the front, much as a general sends his best troops into battle. It’s almost as if they actually care about the result. Nowadays, our entrant appears to be selected from a pile of CDs in a BBC executive’s glove compartment. Luckily for Bonnie Tyler, hers must have been at the top of the pile this year when said executive was rummaging about for a wine gum. One quick phone call later: “Hello, has Bonnie got anything knocking about that might do for Malmo?” and the matter is decided. Now, Bonnie is obviously amazing, but no-one would seriously argue that she’s still culturally relevant or has quite the same set of lungs she had on her in her 1980s heyday. Supposedly she’s still huge in Europe, but this was the same defence put forward to justify Englebert Humperdinck last year, and he came 25th. The truth is: Bonnie is available, Bonnie is cheap, Bonnie is willing to film the video on a cold beach in East Sussex, and Bonnie doesn’t stand a chance of winning. She satisfies the BBC’s new mantra of “putting quality first,” by which they clearly mean low quality.

All this is completely transparent to the rest of the members of the European Broadcasting Union. Anyone with the slightest investment in the outcome of Eurovision knows that the UK treats it like a joke, so they’re not about to vote for us even if we sent a supergroup comprising half of Girls Aloud, a Saturday and Pippa Middleton. What they fail to understand is that it’s the BBC who has fostered this perception. The people in Britain who love Eurovision really really want us to win, to the point where we find ourselves actively rooting for the spectacularly awful Jemini in 2003, even though their nul points were richly deserved. Perhaps it’s time we gave Eurovision to a commerical broadcaster who might actually make a decent fist of it and begin the process of regaining our position at the top of that immensely complicated leaderboard.

In the meantime, we will do what British people do best. We will root for Bonnie Tyler, we will be outraged when she comes next to last, vow to boycott the contest for the rest of time and then do it all again next year when we wheel out Lulu for another stab at it. Plus ça change.

Now Thatcher I Call Music Vol.2 (originally published on GuySpy, Apr 16 2013)

As the eighties wore on, pop got a bit more sophisticated and shiny. Mrs Thatcher did too.  At the same time unions crumbled, AIDS loomed, things that were publicly owned were privatised (see “Shopping” by Pet Shop Boys for an arch take on this) and an awful lot of people bought their council house. And money flowed, for some. But the pop fight continued, albeit dressed to reflect the times. Consider the blue-eyed soul of the Blow Monkey’s 1987 album “She Was Only a Grocer’s Daughter” – the title a direct hit in itself, but the contents (most notably “(Celebrate) The Day After You”) delivering a polished anti-Thatcher message designed to slip comfortably into the CD players of Dire Straits lovers everywhere.

1987 saw Wet Wet Wet bring back a little of Wham’s rough and ready approach with their debut hit “Wishing I Was Lucky” – another cry from disaffected youth dressed up in a killer tune. Harmless enough, but if you were a teacher and a pupil wrote “I lie kicking in the gutter and wishing I was lucky, it’s the only life I know” as a poem, you’d be phoning social services wouldn’t you? It’s an astonishingly effective précis of just how many people felt excluded from Thatcher’s capitalist boom. Of course, Wet Wet Wet are actually a terrific example of Thatcherism in action as they pulled themselves up from nothing and made shedloads of money before – and pay attention here pop aspirants – imploding in a blizzard of cocaine and mediocrity.

There are dozens of much more angry, much more direct examples – Billy Bragg, Heaven 17, Elvis Costello, and everything by Chumbawamba. But in terms of the charts, it seems that the resistance had rather run out of steam. The Communards fought the good fight longer than most, issuing a pair of singles in 1988. The first, “For a Friend,” was and is a genuinely heartbreaking expression of personal loss, and also fury at the government’s slow response to the onslaught of AIDS (“Another man has lost a friend, I bet he feels the way I do….tears have turned from anger to contempt.”) Given the subject matter it’s a miracle it made it all the way to no.28.  The second, “There’s More To Love,” was a pointed, almost nursery rhyme-like reminder that (to paraphrase the lady herself) children do have an inalienable right to be gay. It was a direct response to Section 28 (which had just passed into law) prohibiting the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools as a normal way of life. The government’s earlier message of “Don’t Die of Ignorance” now felt like it came with an implicit “but do die” tacked on at the end especially for us. “There’s More to Love” made it to no.20, but it was pretty much the last hurrah for political pop in terms of chart performance.

The Iron Lady wasn’t, however, done with influencing the charts. By 1987 (and for the remainder of the decade,) much of the top 40 starts to look like it’s been privatised. Apart from occasional stealth raids by The Communards and Morrissey, it’s all songs about having a good time and getting (or not getting) what you want, with the occasional charity record thrown in to make us feel like we we’re giving something back. I won’t hear a word said against Stock Aitken and Waterman tunes, but it’s hard to argue that their all-conquering “Sound of a Bright Young Britain” wasn’t the sound of a brainless young Britain enjoying the short term pleasures that Mrs Thatcher brought. They took the her vision of a classless society and applied it to pop, turning checkout girls into stars and ultimately succeeding where she failed. Mel and Kim probably summed it up best, chanting “Fun! Love! Money!” on 1987′s hit “F.L.M.” What else was there?

Well, as history has shown us, lots. Time was running out for Mrs T, and in her place we’ve had a succession of leaders who have never quite got the hang of annoying the youth of today to the level where they make themselves into pop stars in order to make a point. It’s that sense of being voiceless, of being wronged, of wanting to get off the dole that gave rise to some of the best and most affecting music of the decade. Famously, Bananarama made their first Top of the Pops appearance while still signing on – I doubt you’d catch The Saturdays attempting the same trick. Perhaps we need a bit less “Viva la Vida” and a bit more “Viva Hate” (god bless Morrissey). Anyway – in a roundabout sort of a way – we have something to thank Margaret Thatcher for after all. Well I never.

Now Thatcher I Call Music Vol.1

Now Thatcher I Call Music Vol. 1

In death, Margaret Thatcher is proving as divisive as she was in her long, long life. Judging by the quite spectacular spats currently playing out on Facebook and Twitter, it would appear mass culls are about to take place on a scale not seen since King Herod got the hump with the baby Jesus.

Saint or sinner, messiah or monster? These arguments will play out over the decades to come, but her huge contribution to the cultural landscape of Britain throughout the eighties is possibly the only aspect of her legacy that isn’t up for debateNot that she showered funding on the arts or anything so forward thinking, oh no. Instead she inspired a generation to rise up and express their frustrations through the foremost artistic medium of the day: pop music. Hitherto, the standard for protest song was either folkish whimsy or angry punk – designed to make a point, and effectively at that – but rarely delivered squarely to millions of viewers on Top of the Pops on a Thursday night.

The Specials fired off the first salvo in the mainstream pop war, with the super-bleak, politically charged (and absolutely fantastic) “Ghost Town” hitting No. 1 in the UK just weeks after parts of the country had exploded into riots. Sandwiched between chart toppers by Michael Jackson and Shakin’ Stevens, it took the class divide out of the broadsheets and emphatically into school playgrounds, the singles wall in Woolworths and nightclubs around the country. Just a few months later in February 1982 The Jam arrived in the top spot with the fiercely angry “A Town Called Malice” – sample lyric: “To either cut down on beer or the kids’ new gear, it’s a big decision in a town called Malice.”  Thunderously exciting, it had us kids going mental at school discos as we flicked our Paul Weller fringes (well, the girls did,) and while we may not have known exactly what they were on about, the teachers did.

Brilliantly, Wham! started out as anti-establishment oiks, larking about on telly in June of ’82 with the deceptively sharp “Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do),” turning the by now familiar-to-millions humiliation of standing in the dole queue into a winningly obstinate two-fingered salute to the government: “Wham, bam, I am a man, job or no job you can’t tell me that I’m not. Do you enjoy what you do? If not, just stop, don’t stay there and rot.” Of course within a few months George and Andrew were poolside, extolling the virtues of free cocktails at Club Tropicana, but that’s Thatcherism for you, right kids?

By 1985 pop had even organised itself into an army of sorts, with the formation of Red Wedge – a collective featuring some of the biggest names of the day, specifically designed to engage “the kids” in politics and oust Thatcher from power in the 1987 general election. Led by the trinity of Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and Jimmy Somerville, Red Wedge mobilised The Smiths, Bananarama, Madness, Prefab Sprout, Sade and many more in a bid to get Labour back into power. Whether this rattled Mrs Thatcher or not isn’t recorded, but it’s interesting to note that around the the time of the Wedge’s greatest activity she consented to an interview with Smash Hits and an appearance on the BBC’s kids’ show “Saturday Superstore” (where she reviewed Pepsi and Shirlie’s “Heartache,” noting quite correctly that it didn’t sound very much like actual heartache.)

Can you imagine any of this happening today? The best we can manage seems to be the protest download, which is about the most passive thing you can do other than doing nothing. Sending “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead!” into the UK top ten (as seems likely to happen this week,) isnot making a political statement, it’s bandwaggoning (and cruel at that,) conducted mostly by people who probably weren’t even born when Thatcher was ousted in 1990.

In part two: sophistication and capitalist pop – the end of the decade.

Girls Aloud – A Warning from History (originally published on GuySpy, Mar 22 2013)

 Girls Aloud – A Warning From History

Yes pop fans, it’s true. Girls Aloud are no more. And as endings go it was a bit of a funny one, all things considered. Given that we all assumed they’d split up in 2009 it was in retrospect slightly tragic that they felt it necessary to come back for all of five minutes, release an under-performing Greatest Hits and fairly dodgy new single only to then end it all via Twitter. Still, at least we have that valedictory tour and “Ten” merchandise to remember them by, eh?

Being one of life’s givers, I’ve set up my very own “OH NO GIRLS ALOUD HAVE SPLIT WHAT AM I TO DO?” helpline (1-800 NO NO NO), and while it hasn’t so far been inundated with suicidal music lovers, any eventual callers will be treated to a recorded message calmly stating “Please transfer your allegiances to The Saturdays with immediate effect” followed by a particularly harsh dead tone.

Such is life and such is pop. Let us remember Girls Aloud for what they were, right up until “Untouchable” – namely, the greatest British girl group of all time, possibly with the exception of Bananarama (but possibly not). Against insurmountable odds they survived formation on the blunt tool (I’m looking at you, Geri Halliwell) that was “Popstars: The Rivals,” roared out of the gates with the absolutely bonkers “Sound of the Underground” and proceeded to form a relationship with writers/producers Xenomania that remains peerless in terms of pop symbiosis. They had, to put it simply, Chemistry. And for that matter, “Biology” is possibly the only single in existence to consist of three choruses, and each one of them a belter.

“Love Machine” was, of course, the turning point. Helped along by a contemporaneous Arctic Monkeys cover that only served to highlight the original’s brilliance, it gave the ‘loud the kind of reviews never usually handed out to pop bands. Even more unusually, they then managed to combine commercial popularity with critical respect – and all while Sarah was falling out of cabs, Nicola was fannying around with make up, Nadeeuyun was hanging out in LA, Cheryl was conquering prime-time and Kimberley… what was Kimberley doing?

“Call the Shots” added yet another stone cold classic to their repertoire, even if no-one could really work out what is was about. Then came “Can’t Speak French,” a record brave enough to feature an accordion solo, and after a bit “The Promise” – glorious, campy proof that a big song is always improved by big hair. And then – AND THEN – they followed it with the sublime “The Loving Kind;” the best, saddest and slightly creepy-but-in-a-good-way Girls Aloud song.

As is always the way though, a break was needed. The temptation to try different things, release solo albums, do a spot of acting, is a strong one. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from years of pop study, it’s that a break is rarely a good thing (so far only Rihanna seems to have cottoned on to this.)

Basically, pop groups of the future need to learn one simple lesson: be as fabulous as you can be for as long as you can, until you absolutely cannot stand each other, and then stop. That’s it. Just stop. You are the sum of your parts, and like an exploded Rubik’s Cube you can never be put back together in quite the same way. Your audience is fickle, and while you may have satisfied your need for self-expression in the meantime, when you come back most of us will be acting like a cat that’s been left on its own too long. We’ll come round eventually, but the trust is gone.

Had Girls Aloud officially split in 2009 we would, by 2013, just about have gotten over the fact that “Untouchable” only got to number 11 in the UK. Now we have to deal with the fact that their final single “Beautiful ‘Cause You Love Me,” was a number 97 bomb. It’s such an unnecessary end to an otherwise exemplary chart career. Remember this, popstrels of tomorrow, remember. Don’t let this happen to YOU.