In which everything is progressing as I have foreseen...

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November 2019

Back to making music

What is the point of doing a monthly newsletter about your music if you haven't made any music in living memory? That, for me, has been the elephant in the email inbox for some time. But the answer is twofold: (1.) I enjoy doing it—it's a way to force myself to stay creative in a number of ways—and (2.) it's kind of a statement of intent.  I might not be making music right now, but I intend to as soon as I can.

Well, I think Soon may soon be Now.

I have all but stopped doing my amateur (as in 'for the love of it') music career because of a number of factors. My professional career (music and non-music) took over and gave me less and less time, but even as that was happening there were other reasons. I was just coming to the end of a lot of stuff. And it all ended at pretty much the same time, which coincidentally was around the Brexit referendum. (Or maybe it wasn't coincidence: the cultural impact of Brexit has sapped the fun out of so many of the folkie things that I used to enjoy.)

I dealt with this by trying to start these things up again, but always found that the new effort just didn't take. Also by trying something new instead, only to find that it doesn't quite tick the box I need it to. And after a fair bit of introspection I'm getting the sense that now is one of those times when I need to examine what I actually want on a deep level. I tend to do this every 7 or 8 years or so. At the start it feels like a complete change of direction, but by the end it feels more like getting back on course: it often results in me aiming for the same things I was aiming for in the past, but in a much more focused way.

A big part of this process is unravelling the ol' writers' block, and putting more time into my own music. This will be a slow process, but it has already started, and at the end of it will be albums and gigs, and hopefully a lot more musical collaboration.

So, that said, this month we have the first featured track in a long time.

Admittedly, it's an incredibly clumsy Taylor Swift cover knocked together in a couple of days. But still, it's a start.

Further treats include recommendations and project ideas that are... mainly to do with cinema, now that I look at them. There's a great video by the guy who invented The Black List, the underground poll of great Hollywood scripts that has changed the industry. There's a TED talk made by a very famous actor who has lived for the last few decades in the shadow of a party game.

There's a recommendation for a deeply cheesy Christmas film that critics hate and H & I love. And there's a lot of space wizardry - more on that in a bit.

In fact, there are only two features completely unrelated to cinema. One is a tour of the workspace of someone who is even more obsessed about workflow than I am. And the other is, as far as I'm concerned, the only political commentary that means anything: Anywhere But Westminster


Featured Track

'Love Story' performed with a cold as if by Springsteen's backing band

As part of the gradual move back into doing more music, here is a very silly and typically OTT version of a pop song.

Basically I was tasked with singing this Taylor Swift song for a wedding a few years ago, and then recently asked to sing at another wedding where the bride was a fan of the song. In the process of rehearsing it I came up with a monster riff for it, but didn't actually get the chance to play it at the wedding, so thought I'd record it for posterity.

It was also a bit of an excuse to try out some music production techniques, and I'm slightly in two minds about putting it here: partly because it reminds me how much I hate it when I don't give myself enough time to do a job properly (the singing is bad, the guitar playing is bad, and I wish I had the luxury of a few more days to really make it sound professional), and partly because I feel like the ghost of Ryan Adams's epically misjudged covering of the entire 1989 album still looms very large.

But it's been so long since I've added any music here, and sometimes you do just need to give yourself a kick up the arse. 


It's unbelievably cheesy, unbelievably scripted, and also great

It also has a terrible twist, which I won't spoil. But what matters here is that this is very much a Christmas film in the Love Actually mould. It has no interest in being plausible. Some bits work very much better than others. Some bits don't work at all, unless you've decided to buy into the fun daftness of it, in which case it's not a problem.

Emilia Clarke is fantastic. Henry Goulding is excellent. Critics say Emma Thompson should be called out for playing a refugee from the former Yugoslavia, but I didn't have a problem with that. She wrote the script, and I suspect she wanted to respond to Brexit in the same way that the final speech of Love Actually responded to the War on Terror. She needed to have her character look at television footage of Brexit hatred and say "This is how it starts..."

I remember everyone hating Love Actually at the time. They were wrong then, and they're wrong now.


The secret list behind the films you love

This video is a quick summary of how the famous 'Black List' (a survey of the best Hollywood screenplays, basically) came into being.

But that's really just a basic primer. What I really want to share is this TED talk by Franklin Leonard, the guy who invented it:

He talks in a bit of a monotone (he seems quite nervous), which may not seem encouraging, but it's one of the best TED talks I've ever heard.

His central thesis is that people in industries where they need to view way way more applicants than they can process... tend to rely on conventional wisdom. Such as "Female-driven action movies don't work" or "Films about black people don't sell overseas."

In Hollywood at least, his Black List seems to have proven this wrong.


How organised you need to be to be King of the YouTubers

Casey Neistat is one of, if not the, most influential YouTube filmmakers. His style is imitated by his thousands, and his videos are watched by millions. A former war correspondent and guerrilla filmmaker, he found fame by posting daily vlogs with unheard-of production values for nearly 2 years.

I... can appreciate that a video tour of his work studio is a bit niche. But I have a recording studio of sorts on my boat, and every time I watch this video I just want to go in from top to bottom and label everything.

Incidentally, I'm less enamoured with the idea of being a DIY creator these days, basically because if you're going to do it well, this is how on-it you need to be!



This is an old video, but I only just discovered it

Kevin Bacon starts this TED talk by wondering out loud whether his obituary is going to be more interested in the '6 Degrees' game than in his film output.

Whilst trying to take it in good humour, he was clearly getting more and more upset about the effect it was having on his career.

Then he saw Paul Newman's face on a jar of salad dressing, and had a brainwave...



An elegant weapon, for a more civilised age

As the galaxy descends into civil war, you might well find one of these handy little pieces of engineering by your side. I've always wanted one myself, and... well, I see that Christmas is coming up...



The name 'Anywhere But Westminster' says it all, really

'Anywhere But Westminster' is a video series for the Guardian by former music journalist John Harris and video producer John Domokos. I am generally not a fan of music journalists who move into politics, or of the Guardian, but I find this to be the most best, most insightful source of UK politics news right now.

So much political journalism now is about... sort of soothsaying. Predicting what Jeremy Corbyn is going to say. Predicting what Boris Johnson is going to do. Focusing only on the Great Game of Westminster politics and promising to reveal the 'inside story' to everything, however trivial.

This series is basically just asking people from all over the country how they live, and how that affects their politics. It's always complex, often surprising. And the thing I love most about it is that these two Johns are spectacularly uninterested in political insider status. And they're not interested in selling their political opinions to you (although they do express them). They just want hear voices from... well, anywhere but Westminster.

Projects Which I Would Do If Only There Were 25 Hours In A Day…

The Big Suck

It has been a full 20 seconds since the last turgid British film celebrating someone who, despite a lifetime of privilege, miraculously went on to achieve fame and fortune. It's time that those plucky Brexiteers put their untaxed dollars where their mouths are, and financed the hagiography of a modern British entrepreneur. The English Steve Jobs.

That's right.

It's Sir James Dyson's moment.

I want Tom Hooper to direct (with the same style that baffles and infuriates video essayists like Patrick Willems), with a muddy colour palette of blues and greys, and weird exaggerated camera angles that make it look like a David Lynch dream sequence. I want the dialogue stilted, the storytelling plodding, and I don't want to hear a regional accent in it anywhere.

At the end of it, the Great Man delivers a moving speech to the House of Commons (all these films end with a moving speech delivered to the House of Commons), and is finally able to jet off to Singapore, content in the knowledge that he finally got Brexit done.

[Full disclaimer:
I own more than one Dyson product, because ooow shiny...]

Honourable Mentions

The Muppets: Fury Road

Miss Piggy drives an oil-tanker full of orphans to the Green Place, escorted by damaged gun-for-hire Kermit. They grudgingly form a mutual respect, forged in the hot metal heat of battle. All the other muppets have their own cars. Animal's car has a drum kit in it, and it's shaped like a giant spider.


Now that Disney+ is dropping new Star Wars series left right and centre, I think it's about time they gave one to the greatest animated character in movie history. The hummingbird guy with the big nose. Watto.

Ronan and Hardy

I just want to see a romcom with Saoirse Ronan and Tom Hardy.  Or a film noir.  But I want to see something.

In fact, scratch that. I specifically want to see a film noir with Saoirse Ronan and Tom Hardy. Him as an alcoholic ex-boxer trying to pay off his loan sharks, and her as the mysterious femme fatale who seduces him and ends up shooting him with a tiny pistol that she keeps in her purse.

Local Music Project

I think... I might... actually do some kind of big Local Music Project.

I'm not quite sure what yet.

Probably not music festival-related, as I have always found events organising incredibly stressful.

But something.

Something that connects people. Through music.

I haven't figured it out yet, but I'll keep you posted.

Upcoming Events

Friday 13th December

Every second Friday of the month. Except, yeah, last month...

Dear Diary...

As the nights draw in, the leaves float from the trees and the temperature drops, a man's thoughts inevitably turn to Darth Sidious, the living embodiment of evil who is the chief antagonist of the Star Wars movies.

Also known as galactic Emperor Palpatine (Darth Sidious is his evil space wizard cult name), he doesn't appear in the first two Star Wars films (confusingly, officially numbered Episode 4 and Episode 5). He only appears as we the audience start to have doubts about whether the guy we thought was the villain — Darth Vader — really is.

When we first see Palpatine, as Vader's master, he seems to be at least a hundred years old, cowled in black like Benedictine monk.

And he is totally, spectacularly, utterly evil.

Living. The. Dream.

And that led me to tumble down a deep rabbit hole into this character. How many times have you been promised a terrifying villain, only for them to end up being a bit of a disappointment? Not so 'the Emperor' (as Star Wars fans knew him before the prequels). When he finally gets some extended screen time at the trilogy's climax, he is clearly so much more powerful than the hero, in pretty much every way that power can be measured, that there really seems to be no hope whatsoever. In fact, only then does the hero (Luke Skywalker) realise he has walked into the Emperor's cunning trap.

This rabbit hole reminded me of something I've marvelled at for decades: how actor Ian McDiarmid's performance could be so wildly, deliriously over-the-top and yet seem to be judged so perfectly. McDiarmid is a respected ex-Royal Shakespeare Company actor, and this part does also require some understatement. Darth Sidious (whom Star Wars creator George Lucas has described as basically the Devil) spends much of the Star Wars prequels pretending to be plain old Senator Palpatine, a kindly father figure to the soon-to-be Darth Vader. And that performance is subtle, restrained, full of charm.

To begin with, Palpatine seems like a grounded and genuinely likeable character. Only gradually we see the Machiavellian manipulator he is, and no one makes being wicked look as much fun as McDiarmid does. I've heard both McDiarmid and Lucas suggest in interviews that Palpatine, like all wicked people, doesn't believe that HE is the villain. He just thinks he's doing what's best for law and order in the galaxy. But this is clearly bollocks. He is loving it loving it loving it.

And that, I think, is what is so endlessly fascinating about this character. Fiction is full of anti-heros who audiences root for, even though they know they shouldn't. Hannibal Lecter. Scarlett O'Hara. The Talented Mr Ripley. Bellatrix Lestrange (hot take: a better villain than Voldemort?) But no one cranks the dial up so wildly. No one is SO BIG EVIL. And maybe it's the clear joy in his performance that has made him such a fan favourite.

Anyway, according to the recently-dropped trailer for the impending Star Wars Episode 9, they're bringing Palpatine back. And to me, this just feels unnecessary. His story had such a satisfying arc (metaphorically and, at the end, literally). That said... maybe it's the UK's uncertain political climate, but I'll be very happy to see him back. There's something so reassuring about the Emperor. There's no ambiguity about "whether he might be Prime Minister material". You know where you stand with Palpatine.

Or, perhaps, where you kneel.

Any time I'm feeling down, I just drape a dressing gown over my head and say "Everything is progressing as I have foreseen!" And then laugh maniacally.

Introducing Zora

H & I have also welcomed a new life-form into our galaxy. This is Zora. Whether she gets joy from doing good or from wreaking bloody havoc remains to be determined.

She is, however, a cat. So... that might answer that.


So What Have We Learnt?

Well, personally, I feel that we have finally learnt what the Star Wars saga is really about.

Initially, it seemed to be about a battle between good and evil as experienced by Luke Skywalker, a young farm boy with big dreams, who learns the meaning of heroism, friendship and sacrifice, while we the audience are reminded that even the most 'twisted and evil' can still be redeemed.

Then the prequels came along, and it seemed to be a story about the tragic fall of his father, a young slave boy with big dreams who learns that, despite heroism, friendship and sacrifice, the evils of politics can reduce him to the child-killing henchman of a tyrant.

But now that the Emperor is coming back for Episode 9, I think it's clearer than ever that the moral of the story is in fact...

This is Palpatine. He becomes a disciple of evil, lives for a billion years, becomes ruler of the entire galaxy after having spent decades as a senator on the cushiest planet. His henchman does all the dirty work, while he sits on a gigantic space throne cackling. And when he does eventually die, it is almost instantaneously.  Oh and, by the sounds of it, he's just about to come back to life.

Be like Palpatine.

Ask me things

If you have any questions then seriously, do please drop me a message using one of the pretty social media buttons below. About the recordings. About the gigs. About life. About the universe. About how to use the Force to stop the ones you love from dying. (I mean, I'm not 100% clear on the details, but I'm confident that together we could unravel the mystery...)

  • Click on the images to see the originals. (It just means less admin for me this way.)
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