Thursday, January 12, 2017

Deep in his decadent period: David Bowie's Golden Years

Part two of my look at the music charts of 1976.

If Queen were entering their imperial phase with Bohemian Rhapsody as 1976 began, then their future collaborator David Bowie, a little lower in the Top Ten with Golden Years, was deep in his decadent period.

As Simon Reynolds' recent excellent glam rock history Shock And Awe relates, 1975-76 was something of a personal (if not creative) nadir for Bowie. Isolated in Los Angeles, greedily synthesising New Age esoteric philosophy, occultism and more in an attempt to make sense of the world, and by his own admission taking a large amount of drugs, he experienced a kind of functional crisis.

The kind of crisis where on the one hand you can still manage to knock out Station To Station, Golden Years' parent album, on the other also claim many years later to have no memory of making it. 

Golden Years itself is a fun but fragile piece of mid-70's pop soul, dragged to some mid-Atlantic latitude by Bowie's theatrical vocal and the sense of estrangement between music and text. While the tune is all sweetness and honey, listen to the lyric, to David desperately trying to persuade his love that things are great, that they will never get better, as long as they keep living (or keep performing) this life of dream cars and adoring audiences.

Watch him lip-syncing his way through the song on Soul Train too, and you'll see a man who either lacks the courage of his song's convictions or is intentionally casting doubt upon their sincerity. It's hard to tell with a man in a functional crisis.

You don't need to think about this to appreciate Golden Years' goodness / oddness, of course. But part of Bowie's enduring appeal, I think, is that his songs often echo a vulnerability in ourselves, our attempts to put a brave face on and face the world. Heroes is like that, as is Space Oddity, Sound and Vision, Quicksand, Rock N Roll Suicide and more

And so is this funny little funky song.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Health-geekery January 2017

It may be a new year, but health certainly hasn't been out of the news, with patients facing record waits in A and E and the British Red Cross describing the situation in hospitals as a 'humanitarian crisis.'

Below the headlines, here's how the think tanks are looking into aspects of the same story.

The King's Fund have timely data on how demand for NHS services continues to rise (and see accompanying blog).

Fourth annual report from Nuffield Trust and the Health Foundation monitoring the quality of health care finds "ongoing pressures on the NHS risk making the health service more vulnerable to serious lapses in care in future, despite impressive achievements in maintaining and improving care quality in important areas."

Northern Ireland GP practices at breaking point

One in six GP practices in Northern Ireland wrote to the Health and Social Care Board in 2016 to raise concerns about workforce pressures ... and NI GP's are now threatening to leave the NHS and charge patients directly (both stories from GP website Pulse) as they do in the Republic.

Sustainability and Transformation Plans

What are leaders in health and local government really thinking about STP's? The Institute of Healthcare Management has asked them and written a report on it.


Carers UK research suggests that if you don't identify as a carer you might not look to access the support available.

Social care

Centre for Health and The Public Interest publishes report with the leading title of The failure of private adult social care in England: what is to be done?

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Scaramouching its way to the top: Bohemian Rhapsody

Part one of my look at the music charts of 1976, the year in which I was born.
When the clocks struck midnight on New Year's Eve 1975, Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody was just over halfway through its nine (nine, people, nine!) weeks at Number One. I doubt I'm spoilering anyone for the rest of my look at the music of 1976 if I say that no other chart-topper that year was as formally ambitious, as preposterous, as emotionally rich or as just plain odd as this one.

Watch the legendary video for Bohemian Rhapsody here.

On the face of it - it shouldn't work. If you describe Bo Rap without playing the actual song -  maybe six song fragments, depending on how you count them, drawing on hard rock, torch balladry, doo wop and light operatic silliness, it sounds like a hot mess of studio cookery.

And yet it works, this pocket symphony. Beautifully assembled by the band and producer Roy Baker, it still sounds great, but what really makes it work is Freddie Mercury's central performance. Freddie is Queen's not so secret weapon - a singer who isn't just outrageously technically gifted, but inhabits the song and grounds it emotionally. Without him, Bohemian Rhapsody would risk being too clever-clever, all surface-no-feeling or just plain comic pastiche.

Another One Bites The Dust aside, all my favourite Queen songs (I Want To Break Free, Somebody To Love, I'm Going Slightly Mad) are the ones where Freddie hits the sweet spot between performance and vulnerability. Even at their most bombastic (We Will Rock You) he locates the human in the mass moment.

Given that he also conceived and wrote Bohemian Rhapsody as a song-suite, then his achievement is clear. He turned a potentially disjoined assemblage into an impressionistic and curiously moving portrait of a man driven to do terrible things, who may repent of his crime but sees no future for himself in this world.

And rather than it remaining a cult curiosity, the British public send this jolt of nihilism to number one for nine weeks! And again for another five weeks in 1991! It's the third best-selling UK single of all time!

Bohemian Rhapsody isn't quite as timeless, as sui generis as it seems from the other side of the millenium, mind you. Queen weren't the only band using improvements in 70's studio technology to try and out-Brian Brian Wilson (hey there 10CC, for example, who were also in this week's top twenty with Art For Art's Sake). And in a sense, 'all' it does is squeeze the classical and theatrical pretensions of their prog rock and glam contemporaries down into a 6-minute single. 

'All' [snort]

What it was in 1976 however, as we'll shortly discover, was something of an anomaly in the singles chart. With most 'serious' rock acts concentrating on albums and single-oriented glam rock on the wane, the field was left clear for soul, pure pop, reggae, disco, even country to shine. Alongside (ahem) our enduring fondness as a nation for nostalgia and novelty records.  

And while there is something of the novelty record about Bohemian Rhapsody, scaramouching it's way to the top as it did, it has a pastiched plastique heart ten times bigger than most contemporary 'authentic' rock. And that's something to celebrate as we head onwards into January.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Introducing the 1976 Project

Canonically speaking, 1976 is the year before punk happened - a year by which all the vital musical movements of the preceding years had spent themselves, leaving listeners in a wilderness of faded glories, novelty pop, nostalgia and kitsch. Or so the story goes.

It's also the year I was born. Friends and family will have heard me maintain in the past that the 1970's is my spiritual decade, both for the music and the fashion. And if that is so, then 1976 has to be my own personal temporal anchor within it.

So, I've decided an interesting exercise in semi-autobiographical history will be to follow the 1976 UK charts in real time through 2017 to see what made it into the top ten and the truth behind the mythology. Look at some classics, maybe pick out some hidden treasures; almost certainly cringe at some of the rubbish that made it in.

We'll be starting this week with the New Year's Top Ten, which by finding a home for Queen, Hot Chocolate, Bowie, Dana, Demis Roussos, Chubby Checker and Laurel & Hardy, seems to simultaneously validate any and all arguments about the condition of music that year.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Top 10 posts of 2016

It's been a (relatively) quiet second half of the year on the blog, so while there's minimal change since August here for the record are the Top 10 posts by page views.

1. Science-fiction as mind bomb
2. If Meta Filter were filk fixated - File 770
3. Science-fiction needs you - join me as a Hugo Awards voter
4. Trouble at the business end of democracy - the #usepens affair
5. Cute title, sad book - Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?
6. Noblesse oblige, Lichfield
7. The shortlist that never was
8. Town and city names in song titles - a non-definitive list
9. YA goes gothic - Frances Hardinge's The Lie Tree
10. In the Lovecraftian mode, but not the Lovecraftian mood - Stephen King's Revival

Or, by topic:

Book reviews - 3
Politics - 2 
Lit criticism (after a fashion) - 3
Website reviews - 1
Random music geekery - 1

The top four posts on the list also made their way into my top ten most-reads, which probably signifies a minimal amount but which is nonetheless gratifying.

Bye bye 2016!

Friday, December 30, 2016

A quick top 10 films of 2016

1. Hunt For The Wilderpeople
2. Sing Street
3. Joy
4. Arrival
5. Spotlight
6. 10 Cloverfield Lane
7. Hell Or High Water
8. The Girl With All The Gifts
9. Ghostbusters
10. Star Trek: Beyond

Honourable mentions: Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, My Feral Heart and Rogue One (displaced from the second iteration of the top 10 as it was pointed out to me I'd forgotten Joy, Spotlight and The Girl With All The Gifts)

Friday, December 23, 2016

Welcome to the House of Links

Welcome to the House of Campaigning and Organising Links... which is not the House of the Rising Sun, not The House of Flying Daggers and particularly not the House of Endorsements. 

I'm in the process of going through e-mails from the eCampaigning Forum I've been saving this year, which is where most of these links come from. Thanks to everyone who shares their wisdom there.

Blogs, talks, reports

Beyond vanity metrics - towards better measurement of member engagement (Colin Holtz, Jackie Mahendra, Michael Silberman)

How do networks of people actually generate the power to change communities? (Esther Foreman, The Social Change Agency)

A miscellany of interesting sites and the resources they hold training resources for facilitation, strategising and organising
Bond theory of change resources (Jenny Ross)
Digital Tribes UK - meetup for people developing online communities
DIY Toolkit - all manner of planning and idea-generating tools
Exposing The Invisible - using social media for investigation - new national platform for community information sharing
Moodle - open source online learning platform
Nextdoor - the private social network for your neighbourhood
New Economics Organisers' Network resources page
Timeline - easy free-to-make timeline tool
Visualising information for advocacy