Thursday 23 February 2017

Are You Not Entertained?

I've written before about my conviction that boredom is the most important factor in inspiration. After taking an extra day off work on Monday – filled with plans for amazing things – I decided to revisit the subject. I woke up to find Dartmoor hiding inside a wall of fog and decided not to go yomping with the dog as in the original morning plan. Then I felt a bit tired after a smaller yomp on the moor behind the house, so decided not to go out to the studio and attempt to clean up the dreadful audio mix on the never-finished-but-released-anyway-for-some-reason Dave Not The Cat EP as per the afternoon itinerary. Instead I sat on the sofa with the cats and watched all three Millennium (Stieg Larsson's Girl With The Dragon Tattoo etc. etc.) films. I really enjoyed it, and I don't regret it one bit, but then I once took a week off work to do nothing more than watch a Red Dwarf box set and drink cider, I have never regretted that either.

I am convinced that had I grown up in a world where you can watch cartoons 24 hours a day I would never have bothered to pick up a guitar, or try and string words together in an amusing fashion. The only thing that used to force me off the sofa in the school holidays was Why Don't You? A programme about all the things you could be doing rather than watching telly, I hope it was aware of its own irony.

As an adult I have experienced the joy of re-enacting the boot through the screen of the opening titles.
 It is less satisfying and a good deal more painful than I had expected it to be.

There is nothing more guaranteed to get you doing something other than watching TV than the only thing on being a bunch of Scottish (always Scottish for some reason) kids talking unintelligibly (to a kid from Surrey who couldn't understand any accent north of Letchworth Garden City or west of Swindon – I still can't understand the Devon accent and I've lived here since 1983) about how to make some strange – and ultimately disappointing – contraption from everyday objects. 

It was this very lethargy that finally forced me to take an interest in things other than He-man and Thundercats. Eventually there is a point when there is nothing on telly but news and documentaries (at least there used to be in the days of four channels) and only the very lazy indeed will continue to lie, unblinkingly, in front of the television. I count my teenage self among those venerated, level eight mages of the gogglebox. Given a choice though, I would have put on another episode of Transformers and kept on watching – over the top of the book I was 'revising' from, with the telly as 'background'. At some point I accidentally learned stuff about history, and got angry enough about the Tory government of the 90s to become politically aware. This, in a nutshell, is where the problem with getting things done now lies. Infinite choice is now stifling innovation.

Had I been able to put whatever I wanted on the telly on demand, I would have. I occasionally do now that it exists, though my nearly-40-year-old self has a tiny bit more self-control, and refuses to re-watch Thundercats in case it is not as awesome as I remember (like Battlestar Galactica and The Box of Delights proved to be). The near infinite choice of entertainment on offer now ensures that we all remain in a soma-induced trance, uncaring of what is happening in the wider world as long as we get our next hit of Strictly Come Lion-Taming Love Island On Ice With The Stars: Bread and Circuses all over again. In fact the very dramatisation of everything leads even the most cynical and world-weary of us to have to remember that Trump is not a TV show, and Brexit is not a movie. News is treated like drama, ratings, ratings, ratings, and so it is no surprise that it becomes increasingly difficult to tell the difference. I noticed this phenomenon when my stepdaughter asked me who the baddies were while I was watching election footage many many years ago – I told her to listen to Michael Howard speak for a bit, then it would be obvious.

Infinite choice breeds infinite choice, and another way of keeping our minds occupied, and not on more important things, is to ensure it takes at least half an hour to work out which particular cup of coffee you want, while having to constantly compare energy suppliers, regularly switch mortgages and weep openly every time you have to decide whether it is polyunsaturated fats or mono-resaturated fats, or analogue dehydrated vacuum tube fats which are good/bad for you this week while deciding what kind of not-actually-butter-because-that's-definitely-bad-isn't-it? you want to buy. Einstein famously (though perhaps not truthfully) had a wardrobe full of identical suits so that he wouldn't waste any of his time on unnecessary decisions – I think he probably had a point.

Back in the long, distant, undistracted past (which is almost certainly a fictional construct of mine) human endeavours were aimed at making life better for everyone (told you it was fictional). Self-reliance was key, you couldn't just google what to do, you needed to find someone who knew how to do it, or learn to do it yourself. Unfortunately, once most of the big problems, like not being eaten by lions (entertainment purposes excepted obviously), freezing to death or poisoning yourself with the wrong type of berries have been solved, all human ingenuity and innovation becomes focused entirely on parting fools from their money (I accept that this is an oversimplification, and if you are new to this blog then hi: I regularly take huge liberties with history by not bothering to do any research, most of prehistory was probably creatures somewhere between monkeys and people hitting each other with rocks in order to have sex with the prettiest monkey-person, chill the fuck out).

Sadly, there is no money in beauty, be it in the form of the written word, graven image or musical notes (at least there won't be soon – given most people's aversion to paying for it). There is money in cake though, and coffee – since you can't illegally download that – and if you make it seem virtuous and ethical you can charge fifteen quid for it: especially if you serve it in a wheelbarrow with a moustache on it. Just as you can sell the same completely unnecessary gadget in various different sizes and colours while changing the all-important charger socket every two months and have people continue to buy all of them somehow.

This is the pinnacle of modern innovation, marketing. Selling remakes of old movies to nostalgic idiots who have lost all ability to concentrate on a new original plot. Though that may be doing them a disservice, who wants to spend thirty-odd quid on a movie you don't know if you'll like? Nobody, thus we perpetuate the prequel/sequel/remake/franchise bag of awful that is modern cinema. I wanted to see a new, original movie that came out last week (Prevenge, if you're interested, and can prove my next point wrong) but not one of the cinemas in Devon wanted to show it, certainly not in half-term when they could cram in as many screenings of Lego Batman (double franchise, boom, everything is bat-awesome motherfuckers) as they could – guaranteeing kiddies screaming for more sweets and popcorn, along with single comic geeks (although everybody loves superheroes now I'm old enough not to get my head flushed down the school bog for it don't they?) who don't need to scream for more sweets and popcorn, but will certainly buy a great deal of it.

I know there are people out there doing new, exciting, beautiful art. I also know that most of them are either starving, begging on crowdfunders or spending most of their time working dayjobs to fund the art in a way that Dan fucking Brown and Coldplay will never have to. I know that more thought is being put into how to wring as much money from oil, coal and gas before they run out than developing cheap, sustainable alternatives, and that the reason for that is always given as it not being profitable/economically viable. I'm sure that the history books of the future would not judge us well for choosing small pieces of green paper over the big green things we need to make more of them. Luckily there will be no history books in the future since we are all almost certainly going to die in a nuclear apocalypse at some point (optimistically) in the next few years – I consider that quite the consolation. Happy apocalypse everybody.

Thursday 16 February 2017

Cork Sniffing Wankery – Vinyl is Crap and Kindles are better than books

Just a quick note for regular readers to start off with, sorry for the complete radio silence recently. I have been working very hard on book number two, and you'll be pleased to know that it has gone off to my small but select group of alpha readers to tell me how awful it is, so that I can spend the rest of the year rewriting it.

With that out of the way, I noticed at the start of the year that there were an awful lot of news reports about the resurgence of vinyl records and print books again in defiance of downloads. I think, in fact, it might actually be a rise in cork-sniffing wankery. (I know, there have been a lot more important things in the news to get angry about and knock off a quick couple of thousand words on the subject, but that's been covered extensively by everybody else, and I thought it might be nicer to have some light relief by writing about something completely unimportant and frivolous instead.)

Let me be clear, I love vinyl records and print books and the largest room in my house is dedicated to them and full to the brim with both; and I could accurately be described as a cork-sniffing wanker where music and literature (and wine come to that) are concerned. So much so that having to use the term 'print books' rather than just 'books' is setting my teeth on edge, and I have a special place in hell reserved for people who refer to LPs as 'Vinyls'.

Seriously, this is just a fraction of what we've got in the house
and the photo is from that brief moment when it was organised nicely and not overflowing.

But I love vinyl for its flaws and imperfections, and am painfully aware that CDs and full-fat digital flac files are better, in every way. They are portable, they can be backed up, and they don't need endless fiddling with the weights on your stylus arm to play correctly. I like the sleeve notes, but you can read all you want to about the band and how they recorded the record on the internet now – without having to squint at the bits that have been obscured by cider stains and mysterious burns (as far as my mum knows, I have no idea what those burns might be). I like the ritual of pouring a drink, rolling a cigarette and sitting down in a big comfy chair in front of my record player to listen to the whole album from start to finish. But I can do all of that with a CD or even something I downloaded – and the bass can be as big and deep and panned wherever you like when there is no needle to bounce out of the groove. There are those who will tell you that vinyl sounds intrinsically better, and they may or may not be right. Unfortunately, to find out you need to spend well over 2000 quid on a turntable that looks like a set of kitchen scales from Babylon 5, followed by an awful lot more money acoustically treating your listening environment (and ensuring that a good engineer has mixed and mastered the same recordings for both vinyl and digital release) to find out: and I have neither the time, nor the money, nor the inclination to find out. Above all, you definitely need two decent ears, rather than being completely deaf on one side with acute tinnitus in your remaining ear, like me.

I was so decided on there being no difference between the two that I replaced my old, played-to-death and damn-near-unlistenable-to copy of Brewer and Shipley's Greatest Hits with a nice new CD copy, and blow me, it didn't sound as good. (But then that's because it's a digital transfer of an album that was mixed and mastered entirely for the vinyl delivery system that nobody bothered to remaster correctly. That's where the myth of the soulless CD came from – a lack of care when transferring old tech onto new. Interestingly the last time I was disappointed by sound quality like this was when I bought a proper copy of Metallica's ...and Justice for All and discovered that it hadn't sounded shit because it was a tape of a tape of a tape, but because they forgot to mix it properly in the first place.) Neither of them sound as good as the last EP I downloaded from Candythief, which sounds enormous and lovely through my ancient NAD 3020 amp and Wharfedale XP2s, whether I play it through my computer, my mp3 player or using the CD copy (in an old DVD player no less) that Diana sent me for paying into her kickstarter campaign. Admittedly, the record probably did, twenty years ago before it had been played to death – but I didn't own it then.

I am still unable to stop listening to this song, they also happen to have done the best version of
All Along the Watchtower ever, bar none, do look it up if you've never heard it

But enough of the technicalities, they are by the by. People are buying records and NEVER PLAYING THEM. They have become prestige objects for the type of contrary pricks who put 1959 Gibson Les Pauls in bank vaults. The same tossers who buy bottles of wine they have no intention of drinking – the skewers of market forces. I saw, in FOPP in Bristol today, Queen's Greatest Hits, for £27. You can get this in any car boot sale in the country, any weekend you like for 50p, and it will still be shit whatever you listen to it on (mostly because it will be on nasty flimsy 80s vinyl but also because Queen's singles are rubbish, go and listen to the pre-1980 album tracks, that's why I love them). The worst part of this is that those people that actually do play them are mostly doing so on modern equivalents of the old Dansette record players that are responsible for the most scratchy trebley ugly playback ever, and destroying most of the records I bought in my youth. So they will sound worse than listening through cheap, crap earbuds on your phone anyway, sorry – it's lucky almost nobody's actually playing them.

Unbelievably these things are selling for well over £500 now.
I have two of them for comedy drunken DJ nights with a big box
of worthless singles in the kitchen, they're still shit though.

As to kindles versus actual books, I am afraid there is no competition, because they are essentially the same thing. I can't speak for everybody, but my kindle (which is ancient) looks like a printed page, it is not a backlit screen of awful like the seven I spend my working days having my retinas burned out by, it is a page of happy writing. With the added bonus of not breaking my wrist when I hold it up all night one-handed while my wife sleeps soundly on my other arm, and the pages turning easily with a quick thumb click – which makes me feel the years I spent learning to flip pages one-handed and silently were a total waste of time. It also fits in a pocket, with hundreds of books on, unlike the massive bag of paperbacks I used to take away on holiday with me, which were not backed up to a cloud if I got drunk and dropped them somewhere sticky. It seems to me – if I were feeling like a conspiracy theorist – that somebody would rather we spent our time arguing about how we read, rather than actually reading, or, god help us, arguing about what we have read. It is not the medium that matters, merely that people are still reading and listening.

Nostalgia is a wonderful thing, but it makes fuckwits of us all. I bought records when I was a kid because I could not afford CDs or tapes, and you could get a bagful of vinyl at the market for less than a fiver. I've written enough times about how that led to my strange tastes in old music with pretty record covers, but it's true. I often claim to be a fan of bands I have never heard because I have forgotten that I had only ever read about them in the pages of Kerrang! and Metal Hammer. Back in the 80s and 90s you could only hear them if you could afford to buy their records (nope), they were played on the radio (double nope), your mates could afford to buy their records (sometimes) or they were featured in a rare free tape on the front of the magazine (lots more nope).

Because of this phenomenon if anybody mentions Sabbat, Die Toten Hosen, Thee Hypnotics, Flotsam and Jetsam and a whole host of other turn of the decade Metal I will immediately say 'Yeah, I love them,' despite never having heard any of their music. Obviously now I could go and look them all up online and hear them immediately, but I don't. Because I am nearly 40 and I don't care anymore. 25 years ago I would have though, I would have given my right leg to be able to (not my arm obviously, I can't yet get a record out of its sleeve one-handed). I would not have saved what little money I had to buy a wax cylinder of their music for four times the price of a tape though, because it was an ancient, clunky and useless format. Rather like vinyl is now.

Don't get me wrong, I like old, musty second hand books, and records, I like the mysterious stains on their pages, the cryptic dedications in the front from long-dead lovers (particularly in my Grandad's old books, I wish I'd read them when he was alive to ask about them). I once happened across a post-it note in my copy of Sideways, that said 'This is shit and boring', which I showed to my wife as an example of the fun things you find in old books only for her to tell me she had put it there in revenge for me making her watch the movie a week beforehand. She was right about the movie as it happens, but the book is a marvellous study into toxic masculinity and middle age – probably, it's been a while, and I think I donated it to a charity shop with my wife's hand-written warning left intact. But that's just being a nosy twat, not much different from reading public-toilet graffiti.

I can't help but think it's all just middle-aged men harking back to what they see as a simpler time (which it wasn't) and turning it into marketing (which it is). There is no simpler time, but life was simpler for you, me and everybody else when we were 20 years old and listened to records (that had become mysteriously glued inside their sleeves by the damp in the only flat we could afford to rent) and read print books (whose pages were all curled up from the same damp – and occasionally being dropped in the bath). Somehow they've managed to capitalise all of this and are selling prestige bullshit to today's 20 year old kids who have immediate access to more culture than they could ever possibly consume in a lifetime for the grand sum of absolutely fuck all. I think that's what scares them (whoever they are).

So charge up your electronic Meerschaum pipe replica, pour a glass of hand-extracted-monkey-semen-infused artisan gin, put a £30 reissue of Tubular Bells (available from all good charity shops for 10p) on your hand-cranked gramophone-a-like turntable and read your limited edition, wrist-snappingly heavy vellum-printed War and Peace (available from Project Gutenberg for fuck all) and let the bastards win again.