Sunday, December 28, 2003

WHAT THE POP PAPERS SAY AT CHRISTMAS: 'Putting everyone on a warning that if they say 'proper crimbo' within a ten metre radius they'll be getting discarded turkey down their shirts' edition
Ah, the spirit of Christmas - peace on earth, and goodwill to all men. Except of course for Michael Jackson, who was plotting to come and spend the festive season in the United Kingdom with Uri Gellar - we're tempted to suggest that regardless of what the Ex-King Bonkerstime of Pop may or mayn't have done, nobody deserves to spend the longest day of the year with Uri - "Oh, I know... I'll bend the spoon in the brandy butter now, yes?" - but it was by no means certain that Jacko would be allowed to flee from California anyway. Nevertheless, the Brighton Argus decided to gather some opinions about the proposed visit anyway, and so went direct onto the phone to, erm, Michelle Hadaway to ask what she thought. Hadaway is, of course, the mother of one of the two little girls murdered in Wild Park, Brighton back in 1986. Quite why her thoughts on this matter were even sought is puzzling - we're picturing an editorial meeting where they realised too late she'd have been perfect local background colour for the paper's Soham Trial coverage, so they resolved to call her up for the very next story vaguely associated with children in peril. If the choice of interviewee was odd, though, the decision to run the piece anyway despite its frankly baffling lack of coherence is frankly stumping all synapses: "Jackson should be banned until and unless he is cleared of these charges. It is out of order letting him in with these allegations hanging over him. I hope someone like him isn't involved in child abuse but then Gary Glitter was my idol and looked (sic) what he did. It is difficult to know who to trust these days so it is better Michael Jackson stays where he is. If the allegations are false and he is cleared then we should welcome him back." Really, the paper would have been better off running a story about some lost kittens or something in the space.

As if being told to stay home by the mother of a dead child, things got worse for Michael Jackson when Ulrika Jonsson used her News of the World column to call for Jackson to be banned from Britain in total. And that meant from the radio and the muzak-tubes of the nation's stores. Apparently the woman who single-handedly created the John Leslie episode this year has taken to flouncing up to cowering sales assistants and demanding they take Thriller out the CD machine. Going a bit far, surely, Ulrika? If it was Earth Song, though, we'd be right behind you.

One of the best pieces of music writing of the Christmas period came, oddly, in The Economist, which took three pages out to consider the state of music on the Congo. Pieces such as this in, say, The Wire or Observer Music Monthly usually suffer from a double-entrapement for the writer, who assumes the audience to have a working of background knowledge of the far-flung music scene in question, (which often we don't) and then feels the need to score some points with a little showing-off (trying to demonstrate they know more than the level of background they've assumed, erroneously, we have). The Economist explores the scene with the same assumption they bring to articles about the Azerbaijani Oil Industry - the compliment that we're interested without the expectation that we're initimate with all the basics. We've always like Papa Wemba's music, but we've never before been offered the context that explains why he makes the music. We'd also missed the news that Wemba had been detained in France, facing charges of smuggling several thousand Congolese into Europe under the guise of his "entourage."

Talking of the Observer Music Monthly (we were, a moment back), the December issue had a bloody scary photoshoppy-airbrushy Beyonce on its cover and a slightly sad Top 10 Party Animal List. Keith Moon at One, perhaps, but Belinda Carlisle earns position six on the basis of once waking up having bought a greyhound and Lee Ryan from Blue is at number ten. Hey, why not include Will Young on the strength of the awful Leave Right Now video where he pretends to be needinga good throwing out of an art launch?

The secret life of Elton John reveals - shhh - he's got a knighthood, buys a lot of flowers and supports Watford. Shhh... just between you and me, okay?

Raymond Briggs gets the Record Doctor treatment, resulting in a prescription of Morrisey, Van Morrison and Nick Drake (the ultimate 'May cause drowsiness - do not drive or operate heavy machinery', we'd guess) - Briggs had reservations about the Moz, but hated Van - "couldn't stand it - just terribly crude and oh, god, just miserable."

Paul McCartney writes up his trip to Russia, offering the OMM the chance to use lots of erroneous 'Back in the USSR' gags - although the USSR doesn't exist and he'd never been there before anyway. Paul got told not to cycle round Red Square because it was "sacred" and responded "But I did a concert here last night", which we guess is the closest he's ever needed to come to having say "Don't you know who I am?"

Uday Hussein used to be the patron of the Iraqi pop radio station, Voice of Youth, and would dictate what got played. Kind of like Johnny Beerling at Radio One, then, only his reign of terror went on a little longer. This information came from a piece of Baghdad's answer to Westlife, Unknown to No One. Actually, "answer to Westlife" doesn't quite convey the full horror - "they grew up listening to Air Supply, Whitney Houston and Phil Collins."

The evils of the West are further explored by Luke Bainbridge, recalling the Christmas when The Saint Winifred's School Choir got to number one with "There's No-one Quite Like Grandma." The scary fact here is that the Winnies' recording career lasted longer than that of the Beatles. Onto 2003, and the Darkness' attempt to write an 'I wish it could be christmas every day' for the jaded, post-ironic market is lauded as "song of the month" - now, we like The Darkness as much as the next man (except on those rare occasions when we're stood next to robertshaw), but we were cursing them for trying this even before we were visited on the Christmas Eve by the ghost of Christmas future who took us to a place where the track is pumping out of every fourth doorway in the mall, from the end of October until the start of January. We really could have done without another Thank God Its Christmas, thank you.

Ardal O'Hanlon meets Cliff Richard, thereby offering a sweet 'one small bomb' possibility - no more My Hero, no more relaxed-Christmas-pop-with-a-christian-message. Instead, we find out Cliff uses Nioxin, a shampoo designed to reduce thinning and receeding hair. "I've only been using it about six months, and haven't noticed that much difference. I'm going to check it out in six month's time. I'm going to give it a chance because I think we move on from things too quickly these days." Blimey, Cliff even treats his grooming products with Biblical charity. He truly must be the greatest man ever, right? Of course not. "I mean, I cannot beat Jesus. It's just impossible" he chides.

The trouble of loving Jesus and playing the devil's music is one familair to Cliff, of course, as it is to others. Beyonce - OMM's artist of the year - admits her public personna is "distorted so that people can be entertained. At this point I don't try to make it less confusing because I can't prove anything to anybody and I don't feel I need to." Which, in a line, is what Marilyn Manson has been struggling to express a billion times since he paniced in the Columbine aftermath and wanted to distance himself from his act. It's easier for Beyonce, of course, because she's walking a line that's familiar to many - wanting to be good, but feeling good - whereas Mazza is trying to simultaneously be a philosopher while making clown rock.

The OMM's choices for the year's best:
single: Crazy In Love
band: The Darkness
gig: The Roots (London Jazz Cafe, January)
fashion icon: Christina Aguilera (actually, OMM, girls have been dressing like colourblind hookers for about the last five years round our way)
album: Blur - Think Tank (hmmm)
object: the iPod
idiot: Pete Brame

"I'd heard rumours the new [Top of the Pops] presenter could be Alan Rickman or Eddie Izzard" whispers Paul Morley, confusing TOTP with Dr Who for comic effect. Paul frets that there's no real role for ver Pops now - "a steam engine in a world packed with jumbo jets" - but along with every single other piece we're read about TOTP since Peters refreshed (okay, fucked-up) the programme, it misses the point. There was a similar review in the Christmas Private Eye, suggesting that the revamp has failed and its time to put the show out of its misery. Well, the revamp has made a failing entertainment worse, that's undeniable, but to suggest that the displacement of a couple more million viewers is going to spell the end for the programme is to ignore what Top of the Pops is - it's not a show in its own right, the Friday night edition is merely the centrepoint from which the brand is spun. The function of the Pops isn't to deliver viewers, but to continue to fill the BBC with valuable archive (the Corporation has probably made enough from flogging old footage of Slade to Christmas nostalgia shows to more than cover the next year's costs of production) and to be the heart of the format machine - there's seventy-nine thousand TOTP clones onscreens around the world, not to mention the magazines flying under the banner, and the games and puzzles and so on. To worry that Tim Kash is a crap presenter and not fit to kiss the cigar of Jimmy Saville is like believing that Treasure Planet marks the end of for a Disney Studiowhich has long since given up caring about the cinema and started concentrating on flogging Winnie the Pooh wall friezes and blankets.

Hindsight is a beautiful thing, and we're wondering if Colin Pillinger is using his to weigh the value of getting Blur to record the "Beagle has landed" fanfare for Europe's Mars probe Beagle2 - the tune that has yet to be heard (at time of writing) some three days after it should. For the first time since they released 13, the entire universe (or our part of it) is actually desperate to hear a Blur song, and the bloody thing isn't coming through. Alex James wrote about how Blur came to be involved in the whole project in the New Statesman, suggesting that having Blur's name inolved helped the mission along (more, apparently, than the various Universities did, which might tell you more about the poor status of science in our country than it does about how great Blur are.)

Also in the NS, William Cook clearly got a little bit too pissed listening to School Reunion: The 80s at the Statesman Christmas Party before writing his piece on the Here and Now tour - the 80's had "the camp, self-deprecating couplets [of] Noel Coward", Boy George's "disarming insouciance recalled the heyday of oscar Wilde." He even applauds Ben Volpeirre-Pierrot for telling him "when you're hot, you're hot - and..." (prepare yourself, dear reader) "when you're not, you're not" - this is, apparently, "philosophical" rather than aged marketeers speak.

The Smash Hits Poll Winners Party has been cancelled - allegedly because the American winners can't be arsed to fly over to dance around on a stage in the docklands in front of the rapidly diminishing British preteen market - which means, for the first time in donkeys years, the Reader's Poll results come in the year end issue, with the acceptance speeches printed instead of yelled into a microphone against a backdrop of screaming.

So, whowonwhatthen?
Best Band In The World, Ever: Busted ("winning awards is such a cool thing!")
Best dressed male: Duncan from Blue ("winning awards is cool thing!" - that's almost a consensus now, then)
Worst single: Fast Food Rockers - The Fast Food Song ("We love that we've won - at least it's just a novelty record" - kind of implying they're doing a service taking the heat off 'proper' artists, as if they intended the fast food rockers to perform the role of pop scapegoats. Unfortunately, if it hadn't been them it would have been the Cheeky Girls who took the title, and they really do need to be told that - while we all enjoyed the joke - it's perhaps time for them to withdraw to babecast TV or somewhere and stop trying our patience).
Most fanciable female: Beyonce ("Oh, wow")
Best Male Solo Artist: Gareth Gates ("Thanks")
Best Dressed Female:: Rachel Stevens ("Wow - my second award as a solo artist." Yes, and its for sitting around in Pretty Polly knickers, Rach.)
Most fanciable Male: Justin Timberlake ("I can't believe so many of you think I'm so hot" - you came just ahead of Gareth, Timbo, I wouldn't start plotting your career as the new face of Calvin underpants just yet)
Best International Act: Westlife - we're frankly surprised that they're still stinking the place up. I mean, we can understand the teenage mums who got knocked up to them dialling in during little Kian's third birthday party to give them ITV's Record of the Year, but frankly, the only way we can figure they got this award was that a large number of the current SH readership didn't know what the long word starting with "I" meant and so skipped this category.
Top Pop Mop: Mattie Busted
Flop Pop Mop: Kelly Osbourne ("Kelly understandably decided not to comment")
Best female solo artist: Christina Aguilera
Best Dance Act: DJ Sammy ("Thank you, amigos"
Best Album: Busted - Busted
Best Video - Beyonce - Crazy In Love
Hot New Talent - Girls Aloud ("It is unbelievable that we won" - yeah, you can say that again)
Pop song of the year: Madonna-Britney-Christina
TV Show of the Year: Pop Idol (these last three suggest that mash its readers don't ask for very much)
And the best single... Gareth Gates - Sunshine. Crazy In Love didn't even make it into the top five.

While we're flicking through Smash Hits, when did it become a girl's magazine? There's some sort of 'what sort of dancer are you?' quiz which just assumes without a word that you'll be wearing a skirt and fancying boys. Okay, so that doesn't rule out every boy, but we think we might have worked out why the sales figures have collapsed so amazingly in the last few years. A further disturbing trait is the slapping of an amusing thinks or says bubble on the middle of every picture - we're using the word "amusing" at the limits of its tolerance here. But then the magazine seems to think that Avid Merrion is some sort of comedy genius, so what would you expect.

Javine is put in charge of the problem page, which she deals with the sort of bland 'love yourself' guff you'd expect a Popstars Loser to dispense. But even she can't quite deal with one poor soul - Heidi from Wales - who writes "A lot of people say I've got a face like Gail from Coronation Street." "Get a facelift" advises Javine, tactfully, before trying to say that she had it bad, too, because people told her she looked like Angela Griffin. Except Angela Griffin is incredibly gorgeous, Javine - so it's like someone saying "please help me, I've got a face like an arse" and you saying "I feel your pain, I look like Alyson Hannigan." Except it's not even that, as you don't look anything like Angela Griffin, Javine - maybe people said you looked like the Midland Bank Griffin?

So, onto the NME double issue, which featured the Libertines dressed up like Victorian Urchins on the cover - "a rock n roll Christmas carol", apparently, although for some reason Carl and Pete are clearly The artful dodger and oliver, which is quite a different book.

The big picture is Marilyn Manson and Peaches, as Mazzer attempts to try and link his sideshow onto the Peaches big top - it doesn't work, of course; Manson's now pianfully self-conscious and cartoony, while peaches isn't; it's like a meeting between Vera Duckworth and Anna from This Life - they're both made-up people, but the fictions which support them are just so far apart as to make their meeting seem like an error in space and time. It's less a meeting of minds, more internet slash fiction made flesh.

"Happy new year from the White Stripes" promises a prodcution-deadline cursed nme. "There are rumours Jack White will have to go back to hospital" worries the paper - yes, that badly bruised hand will need a looking at, we're sure.

The Pet Shop Boys do the made-up CD thing - Colin Blunstone, propaganda and kraftwerk. Mmmm.

Peter Robinson takes on Dave Grohl, who is lovely, as you might expect. "I don't have much body hair, so Queer Eye wouldn't have to wax me" explains Dave. Oh, Mr. Grohl - waxing has nothing to do with unwanted body hair, my friend. It's about seeing how much pain you can take before you start screaming.

You know, one of the things that makes us happy is seeing all the Libertines back together; it's like Tim and Dawn wandering off holding hands:
Pete - Did I ever go to midnight mass? Yeah, I used to go with my Mum and cry
Carl - I used to go with your mum and cry as well.
Of course, it'll all end in tears again before 2004 is out, but let's just enjoy it while we can, eh?

The Kings of Leon don't bother with a question asking them what Kate Moss was like, because they met Satan, who they think is more famous. More famous? When did Satan record a song with Primal Scream, or dance in a White Stripes video? Best he could do was a walk on playing the fucking violin in The Devil Went Down to Georgia, and that was a bloody long time ago.

Get various stars to draw santa and then have their pcitures psychoanalysed - a long, roundabout way to find out Steve Bays from Hot Hot Heat is "possibly emotionally unstable."

One of the ten distinguishing characteristics of 2003 festivals: "Keith Allen no longer officially a celebrity sighting"

Pub Golf! This is what Christmas is all about. And it's called pub golf this year, which is right, and they've got some proper people in it - Mira from Ladytron, who we'll be worshipping as a god this year, we've decided and Hank Von Helvete of Turbonegro. Of course Hank bloody wins. He's dressed up as a man with spiders for eyes, isn't he? Of course he wins.

Unfortunately, the rather fine Christmas edition of the nme starts to flag by giving three pages over to Avid Merron. This time - oh, please, stop it - in the characters of Michael Jackson, Elton John and Justin Timberlake. It's like the karaoke part of your office party. We put our hands over our eyes and wonder why the BBC never treated Rock Profile better.

Aggie and Kim from Channel 4's Do You Live Like This, You Disgusting Person? God, I Shudder To Think What Your Foreskin Must Be Like - Look, You've Got Bloody Flies In Your House - Flies, Like In the 19th Century, Dammit ("How Clean Is Your House") are called in to look at Elbow and Electric Six's tourbuses. Aggie worries Elbow need to wash their sheets once a week at sixty degrees and that Electric Six don't bother emptying their ashtrays.

Jeremy Vine - one of No Rock's hero-god figures, of course - Vicvky Pollard and Charlie Busted do the annual single review thingy - jeremy observes that "even if some White Stripes songs are quite ropey, it's about the sound" and "what eminem did with a hammer and a chisel, 50 Cent does with a mallet." Ouch.

Album of the year is Elephant - Think Tank comes in at a more realistic 21 here, and fever to tell, which is what we'd choose, is at five.

Another slight embarrasment - if the Bo selcta piece is the karaoke at the office party, then the claim that Lennon's Happy Xmas is "one of the most important protest songs ever" and attendant piece of flammery is the boss standing up to make a couple of weak jokes and blether on about how next year we should all be pulling our weight and looking forward to a successful year (i.e. ill-judged nonesense that even he himself doesn't believe in.) "Of course it's not bigger than 'White Christmas' in terms of sales, but it's bigger in a sense that this generation relates more to 'Happy Xmas'" opines Yoko. She was talking "recently", apparently - although before the Idols cover version proved what we all knew anyway; it's seen as just another piece of meaningless shopping soundtrack. Nobody hears the little school choir and thinks "You know, maybe we should try and do something positive in Serbia, otherwise the election of indicted war criminals may lead to another bloodbath right in the heart of our continent" - they think "Would aunty Kath like that tray with the chickens on? Will this song be over before I get to the front of the line? Do Marks and Spencers take credit cards yet?" Of course Yoko likes to claim that her hubby's work made - makes - some sort of difference. But in a world where even Band Aid now gets flung out over the Christmas Carvery speaker system, it would only be a self-deluding fool who believed that.

Fab Morretti chooses his favourite band to enthuse over. He chooses guided by voices, which makes us suddenly look at him with a new degree of respect. Good choice, fella. But the second album is still lacklustre.

NME single of the year is - uh-oh-uh-oh oh no - Crazy In Love, although the obvious statement of fact is undermined a little by the way they try to pull a "Ha, you didn't expect that, did you?" on us. Yes, yes, we did expect it, but that's okay - choosing Beyonce over seven nation army and even the year's other 'look at my surprising choice' Outkast demonstrates that there's still so much right with the nme, that the spirit which sniffed punk coming and warned us that we were going to like Public Enemy is still around there somewhere. That the stuff that we're meant to believe the nme actually cares about - like Jet at 47, or Kelly Osbourne (nowhere) or Andrew WK (nowhere) - does so poorly when the writers are asked to choose what they want, rather than made to write to the needs of AOL focus groups - makes us just wish we'd get a bit more instinct, a bit more "what we play in the office" rather than "what we're told will play well in the University shopping centre." Because, you know what? We still love nme. We spent a happy hour stretched out reading an issue cover to cover in the Dallas Airport Marriott Courtyard North early on in this month, and it made us smile as much as it made us cross. And we're aware that the pop papers is usually hectoring, and especially so about the nme's faults, but that's because we love the paper. Now, we know that beating up on something you love is domestic violence, which - hey kids - isn't cool, but that at least entitles us to the tear-stained "it's just you make us so mad when you go on about Kelly Osbourne like we should care, nme." And so, at this most magical time of the year, we wanted to take you all under the mistletoe, and kiss you. One or two of you we're going to fondle in inappropriate ways, too, but all of you deserve a kiss. Because for all your faults, Wednesday would be a darker place without you. [Pausing to wipe our eyes]. Now, don't you go and spoil the moment by doing something shit like an Oasis special next week, will you?

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