18 May, 2011

The Big Story

The big story is not who Arnold Schwarzenegger fathered with whom.  That’s between him and his family and is no-one else’s business.  I don’t care if he revealed it himself – I don’t want to know.

No, the big story is that having done this, he still managed to be a pretty decent, two-term Republican governor of California.  How is this possible?  Perhaps it’s further evidence that marital fidelity tells us nothing about a person’s ability to hold office and serve well in that office.

I am not rationalising cheating.  What goes on in any couple’s relationship is none of my business.  But let’s all grow up a bit and realise that it happens.  I really don’t care that Newt Gingrich had affairs.  It’s only relevant because he led the efforts to destroy Bill Clinton over the same thing.  It’s not the affair, it’s the hypocrisy.  And even the hypocrisy isn’t as bad as being prepared to paralyse government over something that only concerned the Clinton household, and the excuse that Gingrich’s own philandering was due to the pressures of office.  I bet Slick Willy is kicking himself that he didn’t think of that one.  I mean, if being the Speaker of the House is enough to drive you to have an affair, how tough must it be when you’re president?  The only difference between Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton is that Clinton saved his marriage while Gingrich let it go and married the other woman.  But that’s none of my business and it says nothing about how well he can hold office.

The Schwarzenegger affair would probably have destroyed his governorship had it come out while he was still governor, but why should it have?  Has it negated anything he did in office?  Kennedy’s well documented affairs weren’t such a big secret at the time, but it was a time when people and the media knew how to mind their own business.  How would the public interest have been served if it had all been revealed in 1962?

Actual corruption cannot and should not be ignored, but it’s time to stop expecting all politicians to be superhuman paragons of virtue.
Or to put it another way, Don’t be political girly men.

15 May, 2011

The Best of the Best-Ofs: Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd are the quintessential ‘albums band.’ They gave up releasing singles very early on. Between that and the fact that many of their best loved songs run well over ten minutes, it seems impossible that there could ever be a satisfying compilation. There have been a few attempts, but have any succeeded?

Echoes: The Best of Pink Floyd – 2001
The only career-spanning compilation was always going to be a big ask. Pink Floyd had been through at least four distinct phases (depending on who you talk to) and three very different creative leaders. How would the bonkers space-rock wig out of Astronomy Domine sit with the equally bonkers but awfully serious guitar histrionics of Sorrow? How would Syd Barrett’s whimsy flow with Roger Waters’ acerbic social commentary? And how could that be done at a time when Waters and David Gilmour were only speaking to each other through their lawyers?

Almost unbelievably, they make it work. The tracks are segued into one another as they always were on most Pink Floyd albums, and most of the new crossfades work well. It helps that Floyd used so much wind noise and other ambience in between tracks anyway. Also, they have managed to make the segues work thematically in some places. See Emily Play fades into The Happiest Days of Our Lives which kind of makes sense. The transition from Hey You to Marooned to The Great Gig in the Sky is so good you could almost think it was written that way. The only place it sounds a little contrived is at the sudden end of Us And Them, where some extra guitar swoops are added to make the transition to Learning to Fly. I can imagine a thousand FM radio DJs thinking that Floyd finally got their come-uppance for that one.

As for the tracklisting itself, it’s a pretty fair representation of all phases of Pink Floyd’s career and thanks to the CD age, long pieces like Echoes and Shine On You Crazy Diamond can be included without dominating the entire album. Syd Barrett rightly has the first and last words. It doesn’t lean too heavily on any particular album, although Ummagumma, More, Atom Heart Mother and Obscured by Clouds are ignored completely. The inclusion of tracks from A Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell (arguably David Gilmour solo albums) is balanced by the addition of one track from The Final Cut plus When The Tigers Broke Free from the film of The Wall – both acknowledged by all sides as Roger Waters solo projects in all but name. This was the first time the latter had been released on CD.

The other attraction of this particular collection is the artwork. While latter Pink Floyd album designs had become somewhat self-consciously weird, Storm Thorgerson’s multi-layered references to previous albums is brilliant and will have you playing spotto for hours if you’re that way inclined.

There will of course be quibbles about the omission of Brain Damage/Eclipse or the inclusion of the unremarkable Jugband Blues but really, this is just about the best distillation of all the music to have carried the name Pink Floyd that anyone could reasonably expect.

For: Career-spanning, value for money.
Against: Jumpy, arguably compiles three different bands.

See Emily Play from Echoes

One of These Days from Echoes

Works - 1983
Works was released in the US by Capitol Records to compete with Pink Floyd’s then new album The Final Cut which was released on CBS. It contains the early singles Arnold Layne and See Emily Play, plus some worthy, underrated tracks such as Fearless and Free Four. Ultimately though, it sounds patchy and slapped together. The collection opens with the heartbeat drum from Speak to Me, which is mixed over the beginning of One of These Days. Presumably, this is to match the outro of Eclipse at the end of side 1, but the idea is just tacky. The inclusion of Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict was surely added for the weirdness factor only. To tempt completists, the album closes with the dirge-like Embryo, a track previously only available on the Harvest label sampler, Picnic.

For: One rare track
Against: Rather pointless

See Emily Play from Works

One of These Days from Works

A Collection of Great Dance Songs - 1981
At first glance, this ironically-titled collection looks like a reluctant, contract-fulfilling release. However, look a little closer and there are a few things to make it somewhat appealing to the completist. The version of Shine On You Crazy Diamond cuts together all the verses into one continuous track. It’s what you might call the radio edit of the song, if such a term can be applied to a track that is still over ten minutes long. The version of Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2) includes the 4-bar intro that was only ever on the single release of the song, but does not fade out like the single, instead concluding the same way as the album version. As such, it’s the only CD release of Brick 2 to include the intro. Of most interest though, is Money. For contractual reasons, they were not allowed to use the original version, so David Gilmour re-recorded the track, playing all the instruments himself, except for the sax solo which is reprised by Dick Parry. Although produced as a sound-alike, there are noticable differences and this version has not been released elsewhere. Add One of These Days, Sheep and Wish You Were Here into the mix and this collection has enough curiosity value to make it a worthwhile purchase at mid-price.

For: Exclusive version of one song, exclusive edits of two others.
Against: Short, not comprehensive.

One of These Days from A Collection of Great Dance Songs (2000 remaster)

Relics - 1971
When it was released in 1971, Relics was a pretty good best-of for Pink Floyd at the time. Even now, it stands as an excellent introduction to what less adventurous fans might describe as ‘the weird stuff.’ It was the first album release of Arnold Layne and See Emily Play and remains the easiest way of obtaining B-sides such as Paintbox and the studio version of Careful With That Axe, Eugene.

Relics hung around for 25 years in various different covers and on various budget labels until it was finally remastered and reissued in 1995. Subtitled “A Bizarre Collection of Antiques and Curios,” the title is even more apt now. It’s truly a relic of a bygone age, before stardom, stadia and ego clashes. If you want a taste of the early years, this is the best place to start.

For: An excellent introduction to early Pink Floyd
Against: It’s Pink Floyd Jim, but not as we know it.

See Emily Play from Relics (1995 Remaster)

If you had to choose one, choose...
Frankly, none of the above. Echoes is as good a career overview as you’ll get, A Collection of Great Dance Songs is a decent sampler of the late 70s and Relics is an excellent collection of the early stuff. For all that, if you really want an album to introduce you to Pink Floyd, get The Dark Side of the Moon, then work your way outwards. If you’re impressed by the production values and social commentary, then start buying the later albums. If you’re impressed by the madness and experimentalism, then start buying the earlier albums.

See also,

A Foot in the Door – 2011
Due for release this November alongside a torrent of deluxe editions, the reported tracklisting of this single-disc collection is,

Hey You, See Emily Play, The Happiest Days Of Our Lives, Another Brick In The Wall pt2, Have A Cigar, Wish You Were Here, Time, The Great Gig In The Sky, Money, Comfortably Numb, High Hopes, Learning To Fly, The Fletcher Memorial Home, Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Edit), Brain Damage, Eclipse

Obviously I haven’t heard this compilation yet, but a quick look at the track list tells us a couple of things: they are staying moderately true to the flow of the original albums with four pairs of songs presented in the same order that they originally appeared in. Also, depending on the edit of Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Have a Cigar is the only track that hasn’t been on at least one compilation already. Nothing is mentioned about remastering but again, it’s hard to imagine what could be done to the music to make it sound any better than the last three times it was remastered.

One sentence review:
Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash.

Masters of Rock – 1974
Rather good collection of early singles, not worth the collectors prices being asked.

Shine On – 1992
It could be argued that this is the real way to compile the best of Pink Floyd – by choosing the best albums. Shine On was a box set of A Saucerful of Secrets, Meddle, The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals, The Wall and A Momentary Lapse of Reason. Additionally, there is an exclusive disc of early singles. Now out of print, if you’re inclined to spend several hundred dollars or more, you might be better off going with the complete box set, Oh, By the Way.

1967 The First 3 Singles – 1997
Exactly what it says on the cover, A and B sides. Released for the band's 30th anniversary. For collectors only.

Oh, By the Way – 2007
Every studio album in replica vinyl sleeves. The albums have not been remastered since the last round of re-issues in the ’90s. Apart from the packaging, there is nothing new or remarkable here. Handy if you’re looking to replace all your old LPs in one go, but a waste of money otherwise.
Oh, by the way, there’s another box set being released later this year with previously unreleased material.

The Best of Syd Barrett: Wouldn’t You Miss Me – 2001
It may be a controversial and rather harsh view, but I’m of the opinion that history has been rather generous to Syd Barrett. It’s fashionable to regard him as the one true genius of Pink Floyd but the reality is that he’s better known for founding the band that went on to make The Dark Side of the Moon, than any music he made himself, even with Pink Floyd. If you heard Terrapin before you heard Wish You Were Here, then fair enough, but I suspect you didn’t. It was right for his former colleagues to keep his legacy (and, let’s not be coy, his royalties) alive through reissues.  However, if not for this support, and that of celebrity fans, I get the feeling Syd might be as well know as, say, Kevin Ayers.

As for the music itself, the first thing you need to know is that it sounds nothing like Pink Floyd – not even Barrett-era Floyd. That’s not a good or a bad thing, just don’t go expecting Interstellar Overdrive. At best, it sounds like Laughing Gnome period David Bowie, with one foot in Psychedelia and the other in music hall. At worst, it’s tuneless miserablism. This collection included the first release of the satirical, bordering on libellous, Bob Dylan Blues, which showed that Syd had not completely retreated into his own little world. There are flashes of brilliance – Gigolo Aunt could easily have been a hit single – but overall, it’s not an easy listen.
Gigolo Aunt from Wouldn't You Miss Me?

Flickering Flame, the Solo Years Volume 1 - Roger Waters – 2002
After a pretty quiet time in the 90s, Roger Waters unexpectedly began touring again in 2000. This compilation was released at the start of the 2002 leg of the tour. Whether it was for the sake of having some product to promote, or perhaps was intended to compete with Echoes, released six months earlier, is unclear. It’s a curious collection. Radio-friendly songs like 5.01am (The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking) and The Bravery of Being Out of Range are eschewed in favour of album tracks such as Too Much Rope and 5.06am (Every Stranger’s Eyes). While these are still quality songs, they lose something when stripped of the context of the albums they came from. The versions of Perfect Sense parts I & II are taken from the live album In The Flesh. The album includes Towers of Faith from the hard to get When the Wind Blows soundtrack, and three previously unreleased tracks – Flickering Flame (listed as a demo, although a ‘proper’ version has never come out), the demo of Lost Boys Calling, written with Ennio Morricone, and bizarrely, a cover of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. The new tracks are interesting enough, the old stuff is all top notch, but it feels hastily slapped together. Ultimately, it adds up to less than the sum of its parts. Buy Amused to Death instead. Oh, and don’t hold your breath for Volume 2.

An Introduction to Syd Barrett – 2010
Probably a better compilation of Syd’s work than Wouldn’t You Miss Me? as this includes his work with Pink Floyd. On the downside, the roughly chronological track ordering only highlights his descent. Overseen by David Gilmour, five of the tracks have been remixed for this collection and a newly recorded bassline has been added to Here I Go. There has been some controversy regarding the altering of the originals, but this is nonsense. As the notes of Wouldn’t You Miss Me? reveal, Syd had to be coaxed into making these recordings at all, and the demos were cleaned up for release days or even months later. The fact that one more overdub was added in 2010 is really neither here nor there. In fact, much as I always prefer to hear the original artist, Syd Barrett’s songs are possibly better appreciated when performed by other artists with perhaps a greater love of the music than Syd seemed to have.  The extra bonus on this release is a link to download a recently discovered 20-minute jam called  Rhamadan.  While not comparable to Pink Floyd as we know them today, every serious collection should have at least a sampling of Syd Barrett and this is as good as any.
Gigolo Aunt from An Introduction to Syd Barrett

Roger Waters Collection – 2011
Box set of Waters’ three studio albums, In the Flesh live CD and DVD and opera Ça Ira, presumably released to further capitalise on the success of Roger’s tour of The Wall. Flickering Flame, When the Wind Blows and the 2004 EP, To Kill the Child/Leaving Beirut, are not included. As with Oh, By the Way, there is nothing new here aside from the packaging, although that might be better than having a handful of new material and forcing people to buy the whole box. In fairness, this box is pretty reasonably priced at not much more than the cost of two albums so it could be an economical way of filling some gaps in your collection.

04 May, 2011

For anyone who wonders....

…what my thoughts on the events of this week are, these are they:

U.S. forces did what was unpleasantly necessary, and not a decade too soon.  Like many others, I would have preferred that he was taken alive.  However, if he chose to fight to the last breath, so be it.  This is war, after all.  Some reports now say that bin Laden was unarmed when he was shot.  Whatever.  He had already slipped through the net at least twice before – no more playing it safe.  Also, a cornered man with 30 years’ experience of guerrilla warfare is not necessarily a neutral threat just because he isn’t holding a machine gun.  As to the woman, possibly/maybe one of his wives, who was killed too, that’s unfortunate.  Yes, I know that sounds callous.  No, it is callous.  I despise the term ‘collateral damage,’ and will not legitimise its use, but when you live with the world’s most wanted man – even if it’s under duress – you can’t not expect something like this.

So to the reaction:
The relief is understandable.  The celebrations?  That’s a bit crass.  There was a quote running all over the internet yesterday – I’m sure you’ve seen it – falsely attributed to Martin Luther King.  I will write specifically about this later, but regardless of who said it, it’s a fair comment.  It’s one thing to endorse this necessary action.  It’s one thing to (forgive me for using this term) get closure from it.  But if you think it’s cause to punch the air and chant U! S! A!, then I’m sorry, but you’re probably a dick.

Obama has been sensible to treat this occasion with the gravitas it deserves.  No flying onto aircraft carriers, no “Mission accomplished” banners, no saying, “We got him.”  You can leave that last one to the headline writers anyway.  However, he is wrong to say that justice has been done.  It has not.  Not unless you call retribution justice.  Not unless you think there can ever be justice for the enormity of some crimes.  I am not saying it’s an INjustice – certainly not!  I’m just saying the justice is more than just finding a guy and killing him – not that there was any other option, as I’ve already mentioned.  This is what might reasonably be called Satisfaction.

On to some other talking points...
I’ve heard it said on several lesser news outlets that bin Laden was “executed.”  He was not.  If he had been condemned to death by some court (however trumped up) and then killed in some state or military sanctioned manner, that would be an execution.  Or, if they had caught him and restrained him, tied him up, dragged him outside, said, “This is for New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, motherf***er!” and blown his brains out, that could also be described as an execution.  Nor was he assassinated.  That implies some kind of surgical strike.  Bin Laden was killed in a military operation.  I know that sounds better than what he deserves and probably is, but that’s what happened.

“Could he ever have had a fair trial anyway?”
I dunno.  Did Tojo get a fair trial?  Did Hermann Goring get a fair trial?

“This proves the value of waterboarding.”
Except that is doesn’t.  A former Guantanamo interrogator said they got more valuable information with cookies than with any form of “enhanced” techniques.  Also, waterboarding (allegedly) hasn’t been used since for nearly five years, which means this must be very old information and leads one to wonder what took them so long.  If anyone wants to take this as a vindication of waterboarding, they should perhaps dig up the Japanese soldiers who were hanged for it back when it was a war crime.

“Obama just happened to be there at the culmination of what Bush started.”
Logic dictates that this must apply to the recession as well.  Next!

“How can we be sure he’s dead?”
Never mind that, how can we be sure he even existed?  All we have seen is a few photos and grainy videos of a bloke with a beard in a turban and we are told he’s said bad things.  If you want to get all conspiracist, go all the way.

Finally, there is very real question of how bin Laden was living in an affluent bedroom community about an hour out of Islamabad.  Pakistani officials are expressing (or some might say feigning) surprise and embarrassment that he was right under their noses.  That’s probably a good plan for now.  The “we’re not evil, just stupid,” line worked well enough for the Bush administration, after all.  Some have suggested that having eliminated bin Laden, now is the time to reduce the millions of dollars of US financial aid that goes to Pakistan.  I have some sympathy with this point of view.  It would also be the stupidest idea of the century.  Shall we consider some of the other countries that the US dropped like a hot potato when they were no longer useful?  Specifically, Afghanistan and Iraq.  How did that turn out?  Although it hurts, and although it may seem like a kind of protection racket, the US now needs to build a reasonable working relationship with Pakistan and help them with education and welfare so that Pakistan does not turn into another Afghanistan any more than it already has.  Need I remind anyone that Pakistan already has the bomb?