Y is for Neil Young and the troubled eighties

Thursday 10th April

Generally Music was crap in the Eighties; compared to the Sixties and the Seventies where innovations leap-frogged each other, and singers, songwriters and bands developed constantly.  I have long suspected that this relative decline coincided with the rise of the synthesizer and more sophisticated recording techniques.  Artists now spent months recording ten songs that sounded flat and boring.  No wonder; the life had been driven out of them.  Neil Young had a superb seventies, with albums such as ‘On the Beach’, ‘Zuma’ and ‘American Stars and Bars’ continuing his strong run of early albums.  But in the Eighties like Dylan and so many others he stumbled.  He seemed to doubt his muse, to look around for new styles, new sounds and produced ‘Trans’ where the songs were all sung through a vocoder (actually I really like it even though it was universally slated) ‘Everybody’s Rockin’ a sort of buesy rocker but lacking real warmth, ‘Landing on Water’ should have been called ‘Treading on Water’ and yet even among this there was the brilliant ‘Old Ways’ – a country album with beautiful songs on it and ‘This Notes For You’ a real bluesy album that feels heartfelt.  It felt like he was looking for himself and couldn’t quite find him.

Neil ended the Eighties with ‘recorded live’ albums ‘Freedom’ and ‘Ragged Glory’ with Crazy Horse, full of long jamming guitars and repeated but plaintive vocals.  They felt as if the songs had been made up on the spot, and maybe they were.  Neil seemed at last to have put his troubles and addictions behind him and found his most comfortable style.

The nineties and beyond have been even better….

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The Calm Before The Storm

Wednesday 9th April

Despite the recent debate between Clegg and Farage, and the on-going scandal around the expenses of Maria Miller, politics has gone really quite quiet.  There is an election in the offing too, or rather many as it is again local election time.  I suspect that the Tories are braced for losses, and would rather not actually remind people that there is an a chance to vote at all.  And Labour aren’t really that excited about them either; no matter how well they do the Press will say it was a poor performance, and besides a year out it is still a bit too early.  We are in a new untried situation.  One of the things the Tories did was a constitutional change; instead of the end of a parliament being in the gift of the Prime Minister unless he goes full-term from now and in the future the General Election will be every five years.  I am not sure of the advantage, except that the usual Press speculation as to the date has gone away.  Another effect, of course is that as there is a far-distant starting pistol and no-one is suddenly going to pull out a pistol and fire it when no-one is looking Politics is much more measured and less feverish.

In years gone by the Opposition were always a bit jumpy, in case the PM surprised them with a snap-election, and so were far more active, constantly unveiling policies and trying to keep in the public eye.  Now, as the election is just over a year away things have gone quiet; there is no need to be so active, better to save it all for the six or three months prior to the known date.  One other thought, what would happen if a Government had a slender majority which gradually crumbled long before the five years were up and was facing a possible vote of no confidence?  Would the then PM have no option to call an election himself, would he have to wait for a vote of no confidence to be lost before it would trigger an election?  And would that be a good thing or not?   The iidea of the fixed term was supposed to mean strong Government, but it could just have the opposite effect, as they run out of ideas and are just hanging on.  Mind you many say that that was just what Gordon Brown did under the old system.

Political Resignations

Tuesday 8th April

We haven’t seen many at all this Parliament.  David Laws, the ludicrous Dr. Fox and his “travelling” companion and Andrew Mitchell, who was probably a victim of circumstances rather than a deserved retiree.  Last week we had the “apology” from the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, which was short and the very minimum required and as such felt by all and sundry to be totally inadequate.  And of course the Prime Minister stood by her.  This has now become the signal (the firing of the starter pistol if you like) for the Press to try to get her to resign.  There are many aspects of the Press that are disgraceful; their private ownership and right-wing bias, their illegality, their invasion of the privacy of ordinary people and their worship of the cult of celebrity, but they do also play an important role, that of holding Politicians to account.

There has been a weekend of it; even the Mail and Telegraph have come out against her.  And whatever the legal niceties of her “defence”, there is little doubt that she pushed the boundaries; not only of how much she could claim but also of her credibility.  And after all the furore a few years ago about MPs expenses it is still crazy that a recommendation from the independent Commissioner can be watered down so blatantly by a committee of MPs themselves.  Augean stables or what?

I imagine that either by the time you are reading this or very soon after she will resign.  The Tories “bounce” from the Busget is already fading and Cameron, if he has any sense, will not want this to drag on and on.    Whether she jumps or is pushed, she is standing on the very edge of the precipice and is very unlikely to find a safe way back.

Y is for Neil Young – the Early Years

Monday 7th April

Neil Young is such a legend that it is hard to think back to how it all started.  For me I first saw him on BBC2 In Concert, a hunched up shy, raggedy-jeaned, long-haired singer songwriter with a high thin voice.  But he sang such plaintive and honest songs that I knew straightaway he was a genius.  And he was not alone, there was Joni, Leonard, James Taylor, Carole King and all of them writing great songs.  I had heard of Crosby, Stills Nash and Young though I didnt have any of their records, and I didnt click at first that this Neil Young was part of them too.  It must have been 1970, because he was singing songs from his breakthrough album ‘After the Gold Rush’ which I went straight out and bought.  I have bought almost everything else since.

He actually started out in his native Canada in a couple of local groups, and still only in his teens drove to Los Angeles, where he met up with an acquaintance Stephen Stills, they immediately formed Buffalo Springfield and made a couple of albums.  Mildly famous in L. A. Neil split the band up.  This is a habit he has had over the years.  He has no hesitation in dropping friends and collaborators, especially when they are have just achieved something brilliant.  He went off and made a solo album.  Then he joined up with a band called Crazy Horse, who he has returned to, toured with sporadically and recorded with now and then.  And somehow he found time to record with CSNY as well. He doesnt seem to like being tied down at all; and almost always follows a brilliant album with something, well a bit less brilliant.  Though with Neil, a bit less brilliant is still bloody good.

He never leaves it long between albums either and has recorded and released about 40 albums, and is now embarked on releasing a whole series of live recordings too.   But there is something special about those first four records.  ‘Neil Young’ is sparse and delicate and rambling, ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ is vibrant and heavy with guitars and has almost his best songs ever on it.  ‘After The Goldrush’ is languid and laid back and sounds effortless and ‘Harvest’ almost alone defined the West Coast sound.

This quartet laid the foundation of his career and would have been enough on their own to guarantee him a place in the firmament, but this was Neil Young and that was never his intention.  His intention was to follow the muse…..(to be continued).

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The Greatest Mistake

Sunday 6th April

Is to put things off, leave it till tomorrow, put it on the back burner, turn a blind eye to it, sweep it under the carpet, and worst of all to speak in clichés.  If you avoid tackling something that is important you often never actually get round to sorting it out.  Which may seem a solution in itself, but the problem is that these things don’t actually go away – or only very rarely.  Maybe you are the sort of person who can blithely accept a muddled existence, bills unpaid, shelves wonky, carpets un-hoovered, life un-sorted, but I cannot.  Things play on my mind, they nag and keep recurring in my little brain until I sort them out.

And it is the same at work.  I still like to prepare a list, even if it is simply routine stuff.  If a Vat return is due at the end of the month I like to prepare for it early, not on the last day possible.  There is an old mantra – do what you can daily then the weekly task is made easier, do what you can weekly and month-end is a doddle, and complete everything every month and at year-end you have very little to do.

But part of me longs to just let everything slide, who cares if things aren’t done.  A lawn that is un-mown will still be there next week, an unmade bed will still be unmade tomorrow morning etc:  and sometimes, very rarely I have a completely slobby day, I let the dishes pile up, the clutter collect, and still I am unhappy.  Even if I let things go I cannot stop my mind from telling me I really should do them.

And the greatest mistake of all is to think that none of it matters.  Of course, in the grand scheme (if there ever is one) of the Universe nothing really matters, whole galaxies will form and die and what happens on a little planet will mean diddly-squat.  But in another way everything we do, or don’t do matters; every action has a reaction and affects someone else, and even if you subscribe to the former view you still have to live in this world, on this planet, in this time, so just get off the sofa and do it.

Expenses Again

Saturday 5th April

It seems that this is the problem that just won’t go away.  This time it is Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary, who apart from this incident seemed quite reasonable.  The issue is that she was claiming mortgage and other expenses on a second home in which her parents were actually living, though Ms Miller had bought the house before they moved in.  Her argument is that they are living with her, and she is effectively their carer, but it doesn’t disguise the fact that she was hauled up before the Parliamentary Commissioners who said that she was actually guilty.   They were particularly frustrated by her refusal to answer questions or provide information and actually said she was unco-operative and had ade their job very difficult.  Unfortunately their report was then examined by a committee of MPs who watered it down and reduced the amount she was to repay by an enormous amount, and said that she wasn’t actually in the wrong, but had failed to take note of changes in the interest rate.  She was however forced to apologise to the House.

But the story now gets murky, as there have been threats to journalists investigating the whole story and linking it to the Leveson proposals (still not fully resolved, but part of her remit) and as is the nature of these things the story now won’t go away.  We will see how things develop, but at least one other MP was forced to pay back all his expenses claimed in a very similar case.  Is it a cover-up?  Who knows, though I think that this story will dribble on and on.   Besides which Ms Miller has the full support of Mr. Cameron….hahaha.

So, come the next re-shuffle and Ms Miller will be demoted, though Cameron has already been heavily criticized for the low number of women in his cabinet, so she may just be moved down a bit.  The trouble with Prime Ministers is that they always fully support their colleagues and this is a red flag to the press who love nothing more than forcing a Cabinet Minister to resign.  We will see.

Three Headlines

Friday 4th April

City A.M., my bête noire of a newspaper carried three stories on its front page yesterday.

The first was about the disparity between the increase in house prices in London compared to the rest of the country.  Prices here are now double the rest of the U.K.  Everyone apparently wants to live here, and yet those born here cannot afford to buy here without parental help.  But it is far worse than that, the truth is that the main purpose of buying a house now is to make money rather than have a roof over ones head.  Whole blocks of flats are being sold ‘off-plan’ in Russia and China, simply as investment vehicles for rich foreigners.  Everything is being sucked into London, and even though only about an eighth of the population lives here I imagine a far higher proportion of wealth resides here.  The disconnect felt in other towns and cities can only make the cohesion of the country worse.  What sort of madness is this?

Second story was that UK Coal, which was handed the UK coal mining industry for a song and has received huge Government grants is to close two of its last three remaining deep coal mines.  A once great industry is almost gone, destroyed by greed and market forces.  During the eighties and nineties coal was too expensive and gas was cheap so our short-term market closed coal power stations and opened gas-fired ones.  And pits closed.  Now that coal is again cheap and gas expensive coal mines do not make any profit so pits will close.   And we are hostage now to countries like Russia producing gas. What sort of madness is this?

Story number three was that Sports Direct shareholders have rejected a 70 million pound bonus for the majority shareholder Mike Ashley.  What greed?  The man is already a multi-millionaire, he owns Newcastle football club among other assets.  The very fact that he thought that the sum of seventy million might in his wildest dreams be acceptable is amazing.  While most of us can only imagine a salary of 70, 000, this man thinks he should be paid one thousand times that much.  The disparity between rich and poor is growing at a pace and nobody has any idea how to stop it.  If anyone suggests taxing the rich there are howls of anguish and declarations that they would all decamp to some other place to live.  Meanwhile the penny-pinching of the poor continues as the cuts dig deeper.  What sort of madness is this?

A Nation of Crooks

Thursday 3rd April

Growing up I was taught that in Britain we were honest; at least Gentlemen were, criminals were almost exclusively confined to the lower working classes, ruffians, villains and crooks abounded in the warrens and slums, especially of that wicked city London.  Watching Oliver Twist on TV only re-enforced this image.

I ran away to London, and have lived here ever since, and while there is crime here, it is no way confined to the working classes.   I discovered also that the streets were not paved with gold, but this has never stopped the capital being a magnet for those attempting to enrich themselves.  It may well be that there were crooks in high places back then, but it was either hushed up or not so prevalent, in short we didn’t hear much about it.  There were even political condemnations such as Edward Heath’s public criticism of Tiny Rowland (ancient history for many of you, no doubt).

Everything changed with Mrs. Thatcher and the coterie she surrounded herself with.  In 1984 the markets were liberated and that created an explosion of traders who saw rules as there to be broken, who had greed as their creed, whose sole motive was to make themselves rich.  And the regulators, despite almost constant reforms have been totally ineffective.  The schemes dreamed up are so complicated that even commercial lawyers have difficulty in deciding if they are actually legal or not. One thing is for sure, they are absolutely immoral.  Trading in food futures merely inflates the price for the poorest in the world, and in this dog eat dog world the nastier, the sharper, the greedier you are, the bigger the prize.

The newspapers delight in exposing benefit cheats, living in big houses with ten children at the state’s expense, but are largely silent about the shenanigans of company directors who have work done on their homes and bill it to the company and other misdemeanours.  I am not sure how to even begin to change things.  A change in the culture is needed, one where people matter more than money.  Sadly I cannot see that idea catching on soon.

W is for Wooly Wolstenholme

Wednesday 2nd April

Never heard of him?  I am not surprised.  He was an original member of Barclay James Harvest and played on their first ten or so albums.  He also wrote quite a few of their songs, the more orchestral, the elegiac Moonwater for example which was simply classical music, and a few gorgeous songs like Harbour and Jonathan.  He played keyboards and was one of the first users of the mellotron, a fore-runner of synthesizers which played short pieces of taped music; incredibly difficult to play, but allowing the band to sound “orchestral” with a conventional line-up.

In the early eighties Wooly left the band, disappointed at the, as he saw it, more commercial direction they were moving towards.  The band was already splitting anyway, with John Lees and Les Holroyd hardly communicating and sharing equal songwriting in their remaining few albums.  Wooly released two albums which bombed, although I bought them, and felt they were quite good, especially the frst one Maestoso.  But then Wooly gave up; he did write some music for a couple of soundtracks but turned his hand to farming.

When the Barclays eventually split he was persuaded by John Lees to re-join John’s half of the old band.  They made an album ‘Revival’ and played at a few festivals then seemed to go quiet.  Wooly retreated to the studio where he released a handful of albums made up of snippets and poorly recorded songs which sold simply to the ever-diminishing fans of the old band.  Wooly had mental problems and suffered frequent bouts of depression, eventually he took his life a couple of years ago.   Maybe he felt that his music never really accomplished what he had envisaged, maybe he regretted ever being in the band, or maybe he just couldn’t cope with trying to make music in today’s aggressive climate.  Whatever, he made some great records and I will continue to listen with fondness to one of the quieter rock musicians ever.

Political Bias

Tuesday 1st April

We very rarely get un-politically biased reporting, since they were first popularized Newspapers have held and espoused political opinions, usually extremely right –wing.  Why else would you pour money into an enterprise where very few have actually made money?  But I can remember the launch of the Independent, I bought the very first edition and kept it for a few years.  It was my paper of choice for years and I still read it on-line most days (or bit of it).  It has always had a policy of un-biased political reporting, while inviting a wide variety of opinion to write their comments columns, even lately giving a platform to Nigel Farage.  They tended to favour the Lib-Dems rather than one of the larger parties, though since in Coalition they too have come in for censure.  But generally they leave the reader to make their own mind up.

Not so, City A.M., a free London newspaper which unremittingly espouses a right-wing Capitalist view of the world.  And their reporting is unbelievably biased.  There were local elections in France at the weekend and as usual the ruling party suffered losses but if you didn’t know better you would think that poor M. Hollande had been taken into the Place Concorde and publicly thrashed.  They even talk of defeat and the unstoppable rise of the far-right.  The facts are somewhat different.  M. Hollande’s party did lose some votes and now commands a mere 42% of the vote.  Let me just repeat that figure – 42%.  That was how much Tony Blair got in the landslide election of 1997.  Since then no party has got even 40%.   At the last election Cameron got just under 36%.   The NF in France got just 10%, quite a bit lower than our own UKIP is expected to receive in this years elections.  And yet this result is painted as the French electorate’s rejection of Socialism.  When Cameron loses a few more seats in the coming local elections as he most probably will, (they were last fought in 2010 when Labour lost the General election) I fully expect the editor of City A.M. to declare a great victory for a mid-term party to have held onto as many seats as they have.

Another factor of course in the French elections was the continuing low turnout, which is happening here too.   This is a far more worrying result than who actually voted for whom.