Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Get Back, outside

Speaking personally, I avoid going out wherever possible, but other people do venture forth into the wide blue and when this happens they will no doubt sometimes find themselves in attendance at live music performances. There are countless of these taking place right now all over the world, and save for the occasional unplanned pregnancy or Damascene moment of self-realisation, little or nothing about them will be remembered by history.

Of course, it is not always this way. Nothing that is possessed of the power of music could always slide by unnoticed and as a result there have been some performances so shattering, so profound and so memorable that they have – directly or otherwise – shaped the course of more or less everything that happened next. This is a fact that is particularly on my mind today, for reasons that I will get into shortly. However, I feel it would be germane at this point to first provide some examples of gigs that sent ripples far beyond their own pond, just in case any of you think that I am lying.

Case study 1: Bob Dylan is so Punk it's unbelievable 1965-1966

One of the curious and unexpected effects of the rise of technology that still threatens to end us all was the re-emergence of the folk music scene in America during the 1950s and 1960s. The apex of this movement was the Newport Folk Festival, an annual three-day analogue happening on the picturesque New England coast; THE place for all the insufferable hairshirt-wearing, hempy draft-dodgers to assemble for a coffee clatch, smoke a doobie and listen to Pete Seeger sing a scurrilous eighteen-verse song about King George II as two shirtless men chop wood at the side of the stage.

Dylan's gig there in 1964 had been greeted by the kind of fervent, rapturous response normally reserved for Jesus Christ on Palm Sunday. Perhaps mindful of what happened to the J man subsequently, the following year the prophet of all of the oakiest folkies decided that the time had come to mix things up a little. On Saturday 24th, Dylan played a three-song acoustic set at an afternoon workshop, accompanied only by his guitar, harmonica and (presumably) two blacksmiths casting pewter tankards, before making the spontaneous and momentous decision to play an electric set the following day to showcase his new material accompanied by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

Bob Dylan injects some electricity into the Newport Folk Festival 1965
Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival 1965: Sing while you slave but I just get bored

This Sunday evening set was completely incendiary. Dylan would again play three songs, but this time his output came courtesy of RAW POWER. He clattered through this truncated set, playing into a wall of discontent and studied outrage, before leaving the stage to a cacophony of jeering and politically appropriate anger. The evening's master of ceremonies Peter Yarrow was left on the verge of tears. Neither in his role as King of the Hippies nor or as Peter from Peter, Paul and Mary had he ever had to deal with such overt and voluble hostility and Yarrow begged Dylan to return to the stage and continue his performance. This he did, unaccompanied once more, cheered to the echo by the same crowd who minutes before had been baying for his blood. An unprepared Dylan didn't have the correct mouth organ and asked the crowd whether or not anyone had an E harmonica. The subsequent volley of metal objects that hurtled towards the stage had been quite unmatched in the area since the Revolutionary War and, now musically replete, Dylan performed two more songs to placate the crowd, whom rock historians by this point may have started to suspect of being a load of reactionary idiots. Dylan wouldn't return to folk music's hallowed spot again until 2002 where, possibly still wary of reprisals from hacky sack-playing beatnik wastrels, he played his set decked out in a wig and false beard.

But it wasn't just American folk fans who had temporarily lost the Zeitgeist: it turned out that British people can be idiots as well, and idiocy without the consoling prospect of the imminent tour of duty in Vietnam is a deadly combination indeed. The following year, during a rambunctiously adversarial European tour, on 17th May 1966 (a Tuesday) Dylan played a concert at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester which would become perhaps the most notorious, bootlegged and discussed non-festival gig ever played in the United Kingdom.

Anyone who believes that trolling is a modern phenomenon that came about with the advent of online communities need only look at the set list from that night in order to see the errors in their thinking. The first half of Dylan's show, solo and accompanied only by himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica, was largely comprised of pared-down versions of his newer material, cribbed from the contentious electric era albums. When he returned for the second half it was in the company of five other musicians, four of whom were on the cusp of finding stardom in their own right as The Band. Here, Dylan played eight more numbers, this time mainly older songs from the folk era but with a thousand volts shoved right up them. The crowd grew increasingly restless, chanting, shouting and slow handclapping their way through the gaps between songs, only for Dylan and his band to beat them back into submission with another wall of noise. The whole affair culminated in the most famous heckle in rock and roll history: “Judas!”, followed by its most famous riposte: a version of Like A Rolling Stone that, as per Dylan's instruction to his group, was played “fucking loud”. Dylan would suffer a serious motorcycle accident two months later and following his recuperation would choose instead to tread a less confrontational path: country rock.



Case study 2: Otis Redding makes black all right for the all whites, 1967

The United States of America's black community had been quietly producing all the music that mattered for generations, only for the rest of the population to ignore it and then have it sold back to them by more "palatable" (i.e. white) British acts for much of the preceding decade. The 1967 Monterrey Pop Festival was when White America finally woke up to this fact and realised they could cut out the middle man and, in turn, help make America great again. The Jimi Hendrix Experience blew a few minds later that weekend (lest we forget that Hendrix himself had needed to leave America and go to the UK in order to gain any recognition as a solo artist, a fact which history has rendered completely absurd), but the standout moment was Otis Redding's set on 17th June 1967, a Saturday. Backed by the Stax Records house band Booker T and the MGs, it culminated in a screaming rendition of Try A Little Tenderness so shattering that it can, even now, still peel the skin from your face. White America, suitably chastened, would never again so wilfully close its ears en masse to the music of their black brethren. This is a considerable legacy for just an hour's work and all suitably marvelled. Unfortunately for Redding, his personal legacy would be cemented by his untimely death in an aeroplane crash just six months later.

Case study 3: James Brown saves Boston

Martin Luther King, one of the great orators and humanitarian figures of the 20th Century was assassinated on April 4th 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. This was a Thursday and by Friday morning, many of America's inner-cities were already counting the cost of a night of protest, anger and civil disobedience. In Boston, MA, the powers that be had a bright idea: if they could get WBGH-TV to film and broadcast the James Brown show scheduled for the night of April 5th at the Boston Garden, perhaps everyone who might otherwise be keeping themselves occupied by rioting would instead be glued to their television sets.

Brown himself took some convincing: he had already signed a contract with a rival TV station for the exclusive filming of a later show in the same tour and if he allowed the Boston gig to be broadcast he would break its non-compete clause, costing him a cool $60,000. No matter: the Boston city government put their hands in their pockets and paid him the difference, in what turned out to be a particularly savvy move for all concerned. Brown's electrifying eleven song set and legendary stage show had the effect that the city council had desired. Having succumbed to riots and fires on Thursday evening, Boston remained calm that Friday night while many other major American cities continued to burn.

All of this is not to say that the whole event was without a frisson of tension, however. In fact, the whole gig was a tinderbox, but one that would be masterfully handled by the hardest working man in showbusiness. The overall effect is completely electrifying, as well as pregnant with a sense of historical significance. In the most famous point in the show, the stage was invaded by over-enthusiastic fans and Brown had to stop the concert in order to prevent the police and venue security from over-reacting in their attempts to make them stand down. Having re-established control and his authority over the situation, Brown would then turn on his audience, admonishing the crowd: “Wait a minute, wait a minute now WAIT!” Brown yelped. “Step down, now, be a gentleman….Now I asked the police to step back, because I think I can get some respect from my own people!”

Case study 4: Jimi Hendrix breaks the national anthem, 1969

As we have previously discussed, Jimi Hendrix had gone to some lengths to get some respect from his own people and at The Woodstock Festival, New York on 18th August 1969 (it was a Monday), he would crystallise his entire experience of race and of national identity down into a single unforgettable moment. With his new band, Gypsy Sun and Rainbows, Hendrix closed the 20th Century's most legendary countercultural gathering with a middling twelve-song set (beginning at the decidedly un-rock'n'roll time of 9 am) that would become infamous for a wailing three-minute long electric guitar rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. Filled with feedback, distortion and notes bent way out of shape by his Stratocaster's tremolo bar, it was viewed by many as a protest - against prevailing racial politics in the US and against its ongoing war in Vietnam - and it caused quite a stir in the United States at large, already a country notably and visibly fractured along generational lines. Hendrix himself later told talk show host Dick Cavett that he didn't consider his performance unorthodox in the least. "I thought it was beautiful". Perhaps it was. Perhaps his tongue was in his cheek. It is a moment frozen in time, whose power to move and shock and provoke is seemingly captured inside the same amber.

David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, with toucan
David Bowie and friend, 1973. Only one of these men is telling the truth

Case study 5: David Bowie kills an alien, 1973

Tuesday 3rd July 1973. As his alter-ego Ziggy Stardust, Bowie - a man who craved fame but who just two years previously couldn't even have gotten himself arrested - sent the entire world's youth population into spasms of uncontrollable grief with a spontaneous announcement that this would be "the last show that we ever do". That night, July 3rd 1973 (a Tuesday) Bowie - backed by Mick Ronson, Woody Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder (with additional help from Jeff Beck) - played an extensive seventeen song set, drawing on all his previous album releases as well as covers of songs by both The Velvet Underground and Jacques Brel. The resulting concert entered legend both for Bowie's dramatic announcement of his retirement (actually, he was just off to return to his home planet) and the fact the whole happening was filmed by feted rockumentarian D.A. Pennebaker.

What the anguished teens who were still reeling from the Ziggy-shaped void that had just been ripped into their souls were not to know is how lucky they had been to be getting any of this at all: earlier that day, a notorious gang of Shepherd's Bush herberts had broken in to the Hammersmith Odeon and nicked thousands of pounds worth of high end public address and recording equipment. They were, however, to put it to good use.

Case study 6: Manchester's Big Bang, 1976

At the Lesser Free Trade Hall, Manchester on 4th June 1976 (a Friday), a then little-known group of London herberts (featuring Shepherd's Bush's very own Steve Jones on lead guitar) called the Sex Pistols played to an estimated crowd of as many as 40 people. Such would prove to be the cultural impact of what happened that night, almost everyone who worked in the music industry alive on Earth at the time has subsequently claimed to have been one of them.
Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols
Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, off out shopping


The Pistols wouldn't achieve their national notoriety until the December 1st that year (Wednesday) when Jones dropped the F-bomb on tea time television. Six months prior, on that night in Manchester the band played thirteen songs, five of which were covers, some indication as to how limited their repertoire still was at this point. The crowd sat transfixed by this clattering, antagonistic and utterly indifferent performance and then staggered out into the world with an urgent need to create their own music. Confirmed attendees that night included Mark E. Smith of The Fall; Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, Steve Morris and Ian Curtis (later Joy Division and three-quarters of New Order); Pete Shelley, Steve Diggle, John Maher and Howard Devoto of The Buzzcocks; Stephen Morrissey (later of The Smiths, Morrissey and other notoriety); TV producer and future record label impressario Anthony H. Wilson and, yes, Simply Red's and sex with ladies' Mick Hucknall. "It was our Big Bang," Hook would tell the BBC years later. "It created our musical universe". It was, and it did. The course of British culture was definitively and permanently diverted as a result, in ways which can still be seen and felt over forty years later. No-one had even so much as thought to record it, one of rock's greatest oversights.

Case study 7: Radio Ga-Ga, 1985

In 1985, Bob (now Sir Bob) Geldof and Midge (he got an OBE in 2005) Ure (with a smattering of help, no doubt, from Harvey Goldsmith) organised the world's biggest ever charity concert, to raise money for the victims of the brutal, pitiless, civil war and famine in Ethiopia. This became known as Live Aid and took place on 13th July 1985 (which was a Saturday) at both Wembley Stadium in London and the John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia, PA. The London gig had been rattling along nicely for six hours and 41 minutes by the time that Queen - a band who, variously, were largely considered to be at the time either all washed up, rock dinosaurs or (rather more troublingly) mercenary shills of the Apartheid regime in South Africa - took to the stage, introduced by comedians Griff Rhys-Jones and Mel Smith dressed as policemen.

They would play six songs in a set lasting just over twenty minutes, including fragments of classic hits Bohemian Rhapsody, We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions, as well as their current single Hammer To Fall. But it was their unremittingly powerful rendition of Radio Ga-Ga that stole the show, no small boast for a show that an estimated FORTY PERCENT OF THE WORLD'S POPULATION was actively engaged in watching. Freddie Mercury's charismatic pull was astonishing to an extent that it has later drawn parallels with the performance of Adolf Hitler at the Nuremburg Rallies in the 1930s. This was perhaps not what the band were aiming for but then Hitler couldn't possibly compete with their record sales, which went through the roof almost immediately. It guaranteed that it this would be another good year all round for the band. And for the starving Africans, of course.

It was, and is, a mesmeric performance, its power to affect quite undimmed by time, its impact still tangible from watching the recording back on YouTube 34 years removed, which I would heartily advise.

Up on the roof, January 30th 1969

But for all of this: for all of the cultural impact, for all the lives touched and the paths changed, it all pales into insignificance next to an impromptu 42-minute performance in central London fifty years ago today. It is, for me, surely the greatest concert ever played in the history of popular music. The band who gave it played just nine songs. Of these nine, only five were different: one number was repeated on no fewer than three occasions and two others were played twice.

No-one had heard any of these songs before, either: the group eschewed the potential to run through their greatest hits and instead picked all new numbers from a forthcoming LP that wouldn't be released for another 14 months, by which time the band itself had broken up. Two of them were wearing their wife's coat to keep warm in the January air and the gig itself would be curtailed by the intervention of the Metropolitan Police. It was 30th January 1969, a Thursday, on the roof of a terraced office building at number 3 Savile Row, Mayfair. The group in question were The Beatles, accompanied by Billy Preston on an electronic piano. It would be the last time they ever played together in public.

Indeed, this was the first time that The Beatles had performed live ANYWHERE outside of a recording studio for 886 days, since their concert at Candlestick Park, San Francisco on 29th August 1966 (a Monday). For one of their number, it would prove to be the penultimate live performance of a brilliant career: John Lennon would appear before an audience just once more before his untimely death in 1980, once again unbilled, during the encore of an Elton John concert at Madison Square Garden, New York City on 28th November 1974. Which was a Thursday.

The genesis of the idea that led them to the rooftop was a desire to recapture the spirit of live performance after two and a half years of studio-based nurdling, radical experimentation and fierce, circular arguments that had left the group on the brink of dissolution. It stemmed from the death of their manager, Brian Epstein, in the summer of 1967: the group had reinvented the possibilities of popular music but were, from a personal and professional point of view, now completely rudderless. Step forward Paul McCartney, who as the band's new self-appointed leader would spend the remainder of the group's life royally pissing everyone off.

After the backbiting and ill-feeling that had marinaded the recording sessions for The White Album, McCartney had developed the theory that the solution to all of The Beatles problems would be to play live together again just as they had in the olden days, after these lost years of overdubs, tape loops and pissy arguments in windowless rooms. The rest of the band, despite some serious misgivings, went along with this idea if only to shut McCartney up and so the Get Back project was born. McCartney's idea ran as follows: just after the new year in 1969, the band would reconvene at Twickenham film studios to begin rehearsals for their triumphant return to the stage. The songs that they produced would form the basis of this mooted concert at the Royal Albert Hall, as well as being the contents of their next album. In addition, a film crew would accompany the group throughout, making a fly-on-the-wall documentary about how it all came together.

The eventual documentary, Let It Be, was released the following year and portrays four men who had grown apart, going through the motions of being in The Beatles because they didn't yet know any other life. John Lennon spends much of the time huddled in a corner giggling conspiratorially with Yoko Ono and Ringo Starr sits forlornly behind his drum kit, hoping that someone, somewhere, would give him something to do. The sessions were particularly tough on George Harrison, who was the Beatle with the strongest distaste for the return to live performances. Early in the film we watch him get electrocuted twice by a microphone stand, before he receives an equally unwelcome dressing down from the matronly McCartney for his failure to play his guitar parts properly.

Thankfully, what happened next did not make it into the film. On January 10th (a Friday), he and Lennon had a fearsome argument which some reported turned into a physical altercation (although this was later denied by both parties). At issue was Yoko Ono's continued attendance at rehearsals (that old chestnut) and Lennon's strident dismissals of Harrison's new material. At this point, Harrison had flourished as a songwriter – in one scene in the Let It Be film we hear him working his way through the chords for Something – and Lennon and McCartney's continual treatment of his creative output as an afterthought, a mere trifle or good only as album filler was becoming a serious issue. Serious enough, in fact, for Harrison to walk out of Twickenham Studios and announce to the rest of the group he would not be coming back.

Days of mediation followed (although the hard-boiled Lennon's idea was to “just get Eric Clapton in”) and when George agreed to make the Fab Four again it was on the understanding that he would not be a part of any concert, at the Royal Albert Hall or otherwise. George would return to the fold with his friend, keyboard player Billy Preston, in tow. This was a time honoured Harrison trick: bring an outsider with you to recording sessions in the hope it would make the others behave. It worked, too, but McCartney's grand plans seemed to be dead in the water.

Eventually, a compromise solution was agreed where the band would go up onto their office roof and play a set of the material they had been filmed working up, completely unannounced. And so it came to pass that after lunch on January 30th 1969, the Beatles emerged to play in the open air one last time. Many of the staff at Apple Corps would join them to spectate, too, taking a break from their normal day-to-day office activities – chiefly making reverse charge telephone calls to Canberra and smoking ounce after ounce of Moroccan black, according to Ringo Starr's later account of his erstwhile employees' labours.

The Beatles play on the rooftop of their Savile Row office, January 1969
The Beatles, 3 Savile Row, London; 30th January 1969 (a Thursday)

The band began their set with Get Back. Now a song about as familiar to everyone in Britain as the National Anthem (they would play this too, incidentally, while the film crew changed the reels in their cameras), at the time it was so shiny new that it probably took anyone in earshot a minute or so to put together exactly what the hell was going on. They soon realised, however, and a genuine cross-section of British society all began to try as best they could to get a better look. In the film, we see excitable secretaries hurling themselves across busy roads, taxi drivers rubbernecking, businessmen who are old enough to have seen everything wearing faces of childlike wonder and, my own personal favourite, an old boy with a bowler hat and umbrella climbing up a ladder on the outside of a building to stand on his own roof and take in the scene with his hands in his raincoat pockets. The Beatles played Get Back twice in succession, with the first of these performances featuring in the final cut of the Let It Be film.

Next up was Don't Let Me Down, and again it was the first of the two performances of John Lennon's new song that afternoon that made it to the final cut of the movie, in spite of the fact that he forgets the words and fluffs a verse mid-way through. Don't Let Me Down would appear on the B side of the Get Back single that April, although it was inexplicably cut from the final Let It Be album by its producer. This would normally represent the biggest dick move of any producer's career, but in this case I think we can make an exception as the culprit in this instance was Phil Spector.

The fourth song of the set was a first of two versions of I've Got A Feeling. In the film, it accompanies a slew of interviews with the spectators who had gathered on the streets below and you can easily, even if you are familiar with the record, miss the fact that the version that appeared on the final album is this live performance. It is a persuasive hint of just how tight The Beatles' playing was that day. Having not played live to anyone in almost a thousand days, on a frigid London rooftop and singing to leaden, empty January skies, here was a band who still had it, never lost it and had sufficient left to just give it away. The next song in the set, One After 909 would also appear on the LP in its live form.

Song six is Dig A Pony. Ringo Starr bellows “hold it!” to halt the introduction because he had been trying to choke down a cheeky cigarette and needed to extinguish it. Lennon, meanwhile, is not confident in his lyrical recall and reads them off book – held in front of him by a lackey no doubt pondering that this will probably be the greatest thing that ever happens to him in his whole life.

By this point, there is considerable commotion in and around the streets of London, as one might expect when the world's greatest rock and roll band play a free concert completely on a whim in the centre of one of the world's great capital cities. Not everyone shares quite the sense of wonder that the whole occasion engenders within me, however. This is, after all, England and English people will always react accordingly. “This type of music is all right in its place and I think it's quite enjoyable,” explains a besuited business type who could be any age from an old 30 to a young 55, “but I think its a bit of an imposition to absolutely disrupt all the business in this area”. As a fellow Englishman, it is hard to argue with him on this point, even though I feel that there need to be exceptions to many a hard and fast rule, particularly if The Beatles are involved. Perhaps he was one of the people who called in the Old Bill to sort it out. Either way, there was by now a growing police presence in Savile Row. They were initially denied entrance to number 3 by the Apple Corps staff, perhaps mindful that the building probably contained all of the drugs in the entire world. However, once the rozzers began threatening arrests for obstruction, uniformed officers slowly began to percolate throughout the building and onto the roof itself.

Still treading the duck boards, The Beatles were by now onto their seventh and eighth numbers of the set, second versions of I've Got A Feeling and Don't Let Me Down. In the latter case, Lennon manages to get the lyrics right and as such a complete live version of the song could later be stitched together and released on Let It Be: Naked. By this point, the powers that be were really rather insistent that the band should stop making this unholy and unexpected racket. Perhaps they were just fed up with all the repetition and could have been placated with a few verses of Ticket To Ride? We'll never know.

Now surrounded by enough police officers to host an FA Cup tie, the band lurched into their final song, the last they would ever play in public together. It was a third performance of Get Back and it is the scuzziest yet, not helped by the fact that the groups' long-suffering personal assistant Mal Evans had been told to turn off the amplifiers by a police officer and, understandably enough, had complied with the instruction. The sound drops out as Lennon and Harrison try to wail on their axe only to get a handful of silence, before both men plug themselves in again on the fly while the song rolls on almost seamlessly. This third version is the one that was released in Anthology 3, complete with McCartney's improvised final verse: “you've been playing on the roof again, and that's no good, your momma doesn't like that, she's going to have you arrested!”. The song concludes hurriedly and is greeted by a loud cheer from Maureen Starkey, Ringo's wife. “I'd like to thank you on behalf of the group and myself and I hope we've passed the audition,” says Lennon to peals of part-sycophantic, part-nervous, part-genuine laughter. The Beatles may not have left the building, but they were no longer on its roof.

In the end, no-one was arrested, a fact made scarcely credible by the sheer quantity of narcotics contained within the Apple building. Perhaps The Beatles had built up enough residual goodwill that the police were willing to turn a blind eye. They had just played a killer gig, after all, and as a passing vicar points out in the finished film, “it's nice to get something for free in this country at the moment...”

However, the long term effects on the group would take their toll. The Get Back sessions had been marred by so much ill-feeling that the album and feature film were shelved, the group instead throwing themselves into recording what would become Abbey Road, a more fitting final hurrah for the band that had changed the course of Western culture forever. On April 10th 1970 (a Friday), Paul McCartney announced that he had left the band and The Beatles were no more. The following month, a Phil Spector-produced rehash of the turbulent Get Back sessions would be released as the Let It Be album, in tandem with a feature film of the same name. Both were hugely successful at the time but have subsequently been reviewed in a far harsher light, unfairly so in my view. There are brilliant moments in each and, although it isn't nice to see it when mummy and daddy fight, they both still love us all the same.

Imagine being there, though. That day in January, now fifty years ago. A moment of history, lovingly recorded so that we can all still be a part of it, unfolding before your very eyes and ears. It must have been hard to fully comprehend the magnitude of what you had witnessed, a process that could only truly begin once it was confirmed that these four brilliant men would never again play together. A process that still isn't over now, as current and future generations still come to grips with what The Beatles did and what they gave us. They were the big bang that created our cultural universe. This was their farewell.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Formula 2017

This Sunday sees the opening race of the 2017 FIA Formula 1 World Championship season. On Monday night, with this in mind, a peculiar thing happened to me: the wife said that she was getting more interested by the F1 races. This is presumably due to her continued hazardously toxic exposure to me, but whatever the reason, she said it and there are no take-backs. As a result, I plan to spend this season trying to indoctrinate her to my own poisonous ends: i.e. watching motor racing all the time.

To this end I thought I should begin with a pre-season primer, a broad sweep looking at the coming Grand Prix year and pointing out some potential areas of interest. Maybe it will work on her. Maybe it won't, but it will work on you. I hope so. Formula 1 motor racing, even when it is at its most soporiphic and tedious (which is anything up to 85% of the time), is GREAT and I love it.

THE FORMULA

Formula 1 is called "Formula" 1 because the cars are designed to a formula: that is, regulations which stipulate everything about the dimensions of the car, the specifications of the tyres it is allowed to run and the size and type of engine. If you didn't know that, I have just BLOWN YOUR MIND.

This year, the Formula has changed. Cars are now wider than they were last year, with bigger tyres which offer more grip and more downforce - 35% more downforce, in some cases - coming from the increased allowances in the size of the aerodynamics. The effect of all this is increased performance, a much needed change since the previous formula, which began in 2014, had seen the drivers forced to drive their cars below their full limitation in order to finish races in the shortest possible time. A 2017-spec Formula 1 car will probably begin the season lapping 4 to 4.5 seconds faster than its 2016 counterpart, with potential increases of up to 5 to 6 seconds per lap by the time the circus reaches Abu Dhabi in November.

The likely result of this: more spectacular cars, more physical and mental challenge for the drivers and more flat-out driving on Sunday afternoons due to more the durable redesigned Pirelli tyres. The racing cars actually being able to race each other on the circuit may prove more difficult to due increases in aerodynamic turbulence and shorter braking distances. However, the passing we do see should be purer - less based on strategic factors - than it has been in recent years.

The rules have also been tweaked. Instead of lengthy safety car periods, red flag stoppages are making a welcome return to Formula 1. Rather than countless neutralised laps behind the pace car, eating away at the total distance, races will now be stopped and the remaining competitors subject to a standing restart on the grid. It should add a little extra spice to proceedings.

Pirelli continue as the sole supplier of Formula 1 rubber. There are five compounds of dry tyre available: Ultrasoft, Supersoft, Soft, Medium and Hard. Three of these compounds will be available at each race, with drivers able to choose their own allocation of each. Drivers need to run at least two different types of tyre in each race, meaning that there will be at least one pit stop each.

Finally, over the winter there was a major change behind the scenes, as Bernie Ecclestone finally relinquished control of the sport he has dominated since the 1970s to the American company Liberty Media. Expect a brief period of harmony followed by inevitable, relentless, politics.

An racing car driver, yesterday


THE COMPETITORS

AMG MERCEDES-BENZ

Mercedes have dominated Formula 1 since the sport switched to 1.6 litre turbocharged hybrid power units for the 2014 season. Of the 59 Grands Prix of the hybrid era so far, Mercedes have won 51. Last season they won a record-breaking 19 races from the 21 events, with Nico Rosberg winning nine to snatch his first World Championship. It was a Herculean effort from Rosberg, who promptly decided that he was spent and retired from Formula 1 in the following week.

Car 44: LEWIS HAMILTON (GB)
Born: 7th January 1985, Stevenage. Age: 32
First GP: Australia 2007
Statistics: 188 races; 53 wins; 61 pole positions; 31 fastest laps; 2247 points. 2008, 2014 and 2015 World Champion.

Car 77: VALTTERI BOTTAS (SF)
Born: 28th August 1989, Nastola. Age: 27
First GP: Australia 2013
Statistics: 77 races; 2 second places; 1 fastest lap; 411 points. Best Championship: 4th (2014).

Hamilton is now driving his fourth season at Mercedes, an association which has brought him 32 Grand Prix wins in 78 starts. If the new car is on the leading pace, Lewis Hamilton is the most likely World Champion of 2017 because he is the most complete driver on the grid. This is the Lewis Hamilton-era of Grand Prix racing, whether people like it or not. Bottas moves across from Williams to replace Rosberg. 2017 will most likely prove to be the Finn's first season in a front-running car and so he has it all yet to prove. I would expect him to win his first race this year, but beating his teammate consistently will almost certainly be beyond his capabilities.

FERRARI

Ferrari have endured a fallow period since the departure of Michael Schumacher at the end of 2006. Their last championship title came in 2007 and, since the hybrid era began in 2014, the sport's most historically successful team have won just three races, all the victories coming in 2015. Pre-season testing suggests that this year's car is much improved, however and Ferrari go into this year's Championship chasing the title.

Car 5: SEBASTIAN VETTEL (D)
Born: 3rd July 1987, Heppenheim. Age: 29
First GP: United States 2007
Statistics: 178 races; 42 wins; 46 pole positions; 28 fastest laps; 2108 points. 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 World Champion.

Car 7: KIMI RAIKKONEN (SF)
Born: 17th October 1979, Espoo. Age: 37
First GP: Australia 2001
Statistics: 252 races; 20 wins; 16 pole positions; 43 fastest laps; 1360 points. 2007 World Champion.

Vettel has won more world titles than any other active Grand Prix driver but the Hamilton domination of the hybrid era has seen rather slim pickings for the German. He failed to win a race in 2016, the second season in the last four where he came up empty handed. However, if the Ferrari is quick enough to get Vettel pole positions in 2017, expect him to win a lot of races: there is no better front-runner in the field and he could easily win a fifth world title this year. Raikkonen, the oldest driver on the grid, hasn't won a race since the Australian GP in 2013 but is one of the most consistent, reliable and canny drivers in Formula 1. Quick enough to beat Vettel over a season? Probably not, but he only just missed out last year.

RED BULL RACING-TAG HEUER

Red Bull consistently produce the most admired chassis in the field but the hybrid era has seen them hamstrung by a weak engine. Don't be fooled by the name: Red Bull are powered by a factory team-specification Renault unit. There are signs that Renault have started to make significant strides towards equalising their performance with the Mercedes and Ferrari powertrains and if they have, a tantalisingly competitive season could be in prospect.

Car 3: DANIEL RICCIARDO (AUS)
Born: 1st July 1989, Perth. Age: 27
First GP: Britain 2011
Statistics: 109 races; 4 wins; 1 pole position; 8 fastest laps; 616 points. Best Championship: 3rd (2014 and 2016)

Car 33: MAX VERSTAPPEN (NL)
Born: 30th September 1997, Hasselt (Belgium). Age: 19.
First GP: Australia 2015
Statistics: 40 races; 1 win; 1 fastest lap; 253 points. Best Championship: 5th (2016).

Red Bull boast what is perhaps the strongest driver line-up in the field. Max Verstappen arrived from the junior Toro Rosso team mid-way through last season and promptly won his first race, the youngest driver ever to win a Grand Prix. His explosive, aggressive talent makes him the hottest prospect in Formula 1. Daniel Ricciardo was the moral victor of last year's Monaco Grand Prix, his brilliant weekend's work spoilt by a tactical mistake by his team in the pits. He is the sport's most bold, daring and exciting racing driver and well capable of putting a Championship tilt together in the right car. The most likely one to wear the "future World Champion" crown? Probably Verstappen, but only on account of his age.

FORCE INDIA-MERCEDES

Force India had their best ever season in F1 last term. Aided by the superiority of their Mercedes engine and their wise decision to live within their financial means by not maintaining their own wind tunnel or building their own gearbox sees them focus their attention on the things that really matter. All of this is moot, of course, since they painted their new car pink and that became the only thing anyone noticed. But make no mistake, Force India are now a team who are capable of winning a race if things go their way.

Car 11: SERGIO PEREZ (MX)
Born: 26th January 1990, Guadalajara. Age: 27
First GP: Australia 2011
Statistics: 114 races; 2 second places; 3 fastest laps; 367 points. Best Championship: 7th (2016)

Car 31: ESTEBAN OCON (F)
Born: 17th September 1996, Evreux. Age: 21
First GP: Belgium 2016
Statistics: 9 races, no points.

Sergio Perez spent 2016 showing distinct signs of a hitherto unseen maturity. Previously, his Grand Prix performances had been lacking in consistency and alarmingly prone to wild and woolly on-track behaviour. Last season, though, he delivered two third place finishes and scored points on 16 occasions from 21 races, including in the last ten consecutive events: Perez looks like a driver coming into his prime. His new teammate, Ocon, spent half of last season racing for Manor but is a protege of Mercedes-Benz. 2017 is his first real chance to show what he can do, but the signs are very promising. His speed is allied to significant consistency: Ocon has so far finished every Grand Prix he has started.

WILLIAMS-MERCEDES

Williams are marking their 40th year as a Formula 1 constructor in 2017. They are the sport's third most successful team and the one that most neutrals root for. Their association with Mercedes-Benz has seen them pull themselves out of the doldrums to a certain degree, although last season was a little more disappointing than the two that had gone before it. Williams last won a race in 2012 and, like Force India, they will need things to go their way for that to change this year.

Car 18: LANCE STROLL (CDN)
Born: 29th October 1998, Montreal. Age: 18
New to Formula 1 this season

Car 19: FELIPE MASSA (BR)
Born: 25th April 1983, Sao Paulo. Age: 33
First GP: Australia 2002
Statistics: 250 races; 11 wins; 16 pole positions; 15 fastest laps; 1124 points. Best Championship: 2nd (2008)

Williams' driver line-up is perhaps the weakest on the grid, on paper at least. Lance Stroll, the son of a Canadian billionaire, is the field's only rookie at the start of 2017. He dominated last season's European Formula 3 championship, but there remain big question marks regarding his age, his experience, his consistency, his racecraft and his fitness for driving this new generation of more aggressive cars. Time will tell. His teammate is Felipe Massa, who was World Champion for 30 seconds in 2008 but hasn't won a race since he fractured his skull in a freak accident at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix. Massa's time as a top line Grand Prix driver is past, a fact of which he is sufficiently aware to have retired at the end of last season. However, Williams' main sponsor, Martini, contractually oblige the team to have one driver who is over 25 years of age (for the purposes of advertising hooch) and Massa found himself unretired again. He's a good driver, who at one point looked as though he was coming to be great, but Massa's likely benefit to Williams this season is his experience.

McLAREN-HONDA

McLaren are now presided over by American advertising guru Zac Brown, long-time president Ron Dennis - the divisive and controversial figure who had made McLaren into the second-most successful team in F1 history - having been acrimoniously deposed last year. They have also returned to running orange cars, a welcome return for the team's traditional colour after years in silver and grey. However, that is pretty much the only piece of positive news coming out of Woking, because the car is a shambles. This will be their third year with Honda engines and both companies are openly dreaming of divorce, following a disastrous pre-season where McLaren didn't manage to run a car for more than eleven consecutive laps because of reliability issues. Will Honda get there? All recent signs suggest that they probably won't. A desperate season looks to be in prospect for McLaren unless these problems can be resolved and they may even be trying to avoid the ignimony of finishing last.

Car 2: STOFFEL VANDOORNE (B)
Born: 26th March 1992, Kortrijk. Age: 24
Only GP: Bahrain 2016
Statistics: 1 race; 1 10th place; 1 point. Best Championship: 18th (2016)

Car 14: FERNANDO ALONSO (E)
Born: 29th July 1981, Oviedo. Age: 35
First GP: Australia 2001
Statistics: 273 races; 32 wins; 22 pole positions; 22 fastest laps; 1832 points. 2005 and 2006 World Champion.

One area where McLaren don't need to worry is in their driving strength. Fernando Alonso is one of the greatest Formula 1 drivers in the history of the sport but his luck (and judgement) are famously atrocious. Since his back-to-back titles with Renault and his fractious season as Lewis Hamilton's teammate in 2007, Alonso has managed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time with alarming consistency. He is not as adept at the politics of the sport as he perhaps thinks he is, which is a terrible pity because as a driver he is probably Hamilton's nearest rival. Since the retirement of Jenson Button, Alonso is the sport's most experienced active driver and he is starting to look royally fed up with McLaren and Honda's inability to give him what he wants, a third world title. His new teammate is the Belgian Stoffel Vandoorne. Vandoorne is highly rated thanks to a stellar and highly decorated career in the lower formulae, but more impressive yet was his drive in Bahrain last season, where sitting in for an injured Alonso he delivered a points finish in his debut Grand Prix. Paddock whispers are that Vandoorne is a potential future World Champion. But probably not in this car.

TORO ROSSO-RENAULT

Toro Rosso are Red Bull's junior team, operated out of Italy by what used to be the Minardi team. This will be their eleventh year in the sport and they have already brought through drivers like Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen. They have firmly established themselves as midfield runners now and are usually a good bet for picking up a lot of small points during the year. Whether or not they boast the resources or ambition to push on to challenge for podiums is open to question: often they start the season well then slide backwards as their better-funded opposition catch up. This year's neat car is also, finally, painted sufficiently differently to the Red Bull that colourblind people will be able to spot it at a glance.

Car 26: DANIIL KVYAT (RU)
Born: 26th April 1994, Ufa. Age: 22
First GP: Australia 2014
Statistics: 57 races; 1 second place; 1 fastest lap; 128 points. Best Championship: 7th (2015).

Car 55: CARLOS SAINZ JR (E)
Born: 1st September 1994, Madrid. Age: 22
First GP: Australia 2015
Statistics: 40 races; 3 sixth places; 64 points. Best Championship: 12th (2016)

Toro Rosso's brief is to provide a home for young drivers in the Red Bull program, with a view to establishing them in Formula 1. As such, it is a peculiarly brutal place, where young talents are cast aside with alarming regularity. Daniil Kvyat can count himself fairly lucky, then, to still have a seat: he was promoted to a Red Bull seat for 2015 but lost it to Max Verstappen early in 2016 after a series of high-profile accidents with Sebastian Vettel's Ferrari. It's sometimes not easy to remember that Kvyat is not yet 23 years of age, because he is fighting for his Formula 1 life. His teammate, similiarly, has a lot to prove. This will be Carlos Sainz Jr's (he is the son of the two-time World Rally Champion, Carlos Sainz) third season at Toro Rosso and that usually means: reckoning. Sainz has shown himself to be a thoroughly reliable pair of hands but there are questions about his ultimate speed. A Red Bull drive may await him if he can prove himself, though.

HAAS-FERRARI

Haas are now in their second season. They are the sport's only American team, although it is hard to guess that from the outside. Indeed, much of their powertrain is built by Ferrari and their chassis is built by Italian racing car manufacturer Dallara, so there's a peculiarly European feel. This is a pity, as Formula 1 could do with some of that Stateside glitz, glamour and showmanship. They had a decent first year, scoring a remarkable 5th place at their debut race, but after that their development curve flattened out and they were comfortably overtaken by their rivals. Second seasons are notoriously difficult for new Formula 1 teams, so we will wait and see. Testing was not particularly promising, with the car suffering from brake problems that its lead driver considered to be insurmountable until Haas finds a new supplier.

Car 8: ROMAIN GROSJEAN (F)
Born: 17th April 1986, Geneva (Switzerland). Age: 30
First GP: Europe 2009
Statistics: 103 races; 2 second places; 1 fastest lap; 316 points. Best Championship: 7th (2013)

Car 20: KEVIN MAGNUSSEN (DK)
Born: 5th October 1992, Roskilde. Age: 24
First GP: Australia 2014
Statistics: 40 races; 1 second place; 62 points. Best Championship: 11th (2014)

Haas has two pilots whose "highly-rated young driver" mantle is starting to go curly and crisp at the edges. Grosjean was fast and wild in his early years in the sport but he has matured into a fine, if not necessarily ultimately competitive, Grand Prix racing driver. Whatever the Haas car is capable of, Grosjean will deliver. Kevin Magnussen's Formula 1 career so far has been a stop-start affair: he finished 2nd in his first ever race in a McLaren that spent the remainder of the season getting slower by the race. He found refuge at Renault last year, but the car wasn't competitive enough to showcase what he can do. What can he do? We don't really know yet. Magnussen is the son of former Grand Prix driver Jan Magnussen and is one of three drivers in the field who can make a similar boast, alongside Max Verstappen (Jos) and Jolyon Palmer (Jonathan).

RENAULT

Renault's love affair with Formula 1 blows hot and cold, but when they are determined to stick around they usually win things. Last season saw fresh investment and impetus being given to the current project and the team are starting to grow again. Renault are operated by an outfit at Enstone, Oxfordshire who originally competed as Toleman and then as Benetton before Renault bought them in 2001. In their various guises, they have won three constructors and four drivers world titles. Renault seem to be on an upward trajectory again, which will be a blessed relief after a difficult 2016 which saw the team finish in the points just twice.

Car 27: NICO HULKENBERG (D)
Born: 19th August 1987, Emmerich. Age: 29
First GP: Bahrain 2010
Statistics: 115 races; 3 fourth places; 1 pole position; 2 fastest laps; 362 points. Best Championship: 9th (2014 and 2016)

Car 30: JOLYON PALMER (GB)
Born: 20th January 1991, Horsham. Age: 26
First GP: Australia 2016
Statistics: 20 races; 1 tenth place; 1 point. Best Championship: 18th (2016)

Nico Hulkenberg joins Renault this year from Force India, the first time that Hulkenberg will drive for a team with full factory support. Hulkenberg is an enormously well-respected driver who has been continually passed over by bigger teams because of concerns over his height and weight. There are few drivers in the field who are quite so reliable, however, and if Renault can give him a good car he will give the team good results. Maybe even his first ever Formula 1 podium: Hulkenberg is just 14 races shy of holding the unwanted record for the longest Formula 1 career without one. His teammate, Jolyon Palmer, was retained by Renault for a second season despite a difficult first year. This may be a smart piece of business by the team, as Palmer has consistently proved that he gets better with time. A better car this year could offer us an insight into what his potential might be.

SAUBER-FERRARI

Sauber have been in Grand Prix racing for 24 years now and are yet to shake off the suspicion that they are making up the numbers. Normally, such suggestions are greeted by an impressive season of point scoring, but Sauber now look as though they might now be in terminal decline. A 9th place at last season's chaotic Brazilian Grand Prix was their only return in a harrowing 2016 season, where they were often the slowest car in the field. However, their facilities at Hinwil, Switzerland are some of the finest in the world and last year saw fresh investment in the team, who have built a neat-looking car for 2017. Beating McLaren is not an unreasonable target, although Renault and Toro Rosso will probably prove too far ahead.

Car 9: MARCUS ERICSSON (S)
Born: 2nd September 1990, Kumla. Age: 26
First GP: Australia 2014
Statistics: 56 races; 1 eighth place; 9 points. Best Championship: 18th (2015)

Car 94: PASCAL WEHRLEIN (D)
Born: 18th October 1994, Sigmaringen. Age: 22
First GP: Australia 2016
Statistics: 21 races; 1 tenth place; 1 point. Best Championship: 18th (2016)

Pascal Wehrlein is a Mercedes-Benz development driver who was impressive in an uncompetive Manor last season. His age and lack of experience cost him, however, as Bottas got the nod ahead of him when the seat at the works team became available. He was also publically sore about Force India choosing his teammate Esteban Ocon as their second driver instead of him. Still, Sauber represent a step up for Wehrlein, who needs to discover that the only way to really make your mark in Formula 1 is by delivering results and lap times. He certainly seems to have the ability to do so. His teammate, Marcus Ericsson, really IS making up the numbers. He has much to prove and, I fear, lacks the talent to do it.

THE RULES

Grand Prix meetings are three day affairs: on Friday (or Thursday, in Monaco) there are two 90-minute free practice sessions. On Saturday morning there is an additional 90 minute free practice, before an hour-long qualifying session at lunchtime. The cars are then put away and cannot be worked on by the teams until the race on Sunday afternoon. Each driver is allocated 13 sets of dry weather tyres and 4 sets of wet weather tyres for the race meeting, no more and no less, so teams have to limit their running to ensure they have enough serviceable rubber to be competitive on Sunday.

QUALIFICATION

On Saturday afternoon, there is a one hour long session to decide the order of the grid for Sunday's race. Within the the first 18 minutes - called Q1 - all twenty cars must set a time, after which the drivers who have set the five slowest lap times will be eliminated and will line up in 16th-20th positions on Sunday. After a short break, the remaining fifteen cars must set a time during the 15-minute Q2, where the 11th-15th placed starters will be decided. The fastest 10 cars then compete in the 12-minute Q3, after which the driver who has posted the fastest time celebrates wildly because they will start the race from pole position.

Drivers who make it to the Q3 top ten shootout receive an additional set of tyres that they can use for that session only. However, there is a trade-off: those drivers must start the race on the set of tyres they used to set their fastest time in Q2. The drivers who qualify in 11th-20th positions may choose which set of tyres they start the race on. The only alteration to this is if a wet race is declared, when all drivers must change to either intermediate or full wet treaded tyres.

Any driver whose fastest time is 7% slower than the pole position time is deemed to be too slow and does not qualify for the race. However, this very infrequently happens and when it does, there are usually extenuating circumstances and the affected car will be allowed to start.

RACE DAY

Each Grand Prix race takes place over a distance of 200 miles (300 km) or two hours, depending on which occurs first (usually the former). Drivers who finish in the top 10 are awarded points and the driver with the most points at the end of the season is the World Champion. The points are awarded as follows:

Winner: 25 points; 2nd place: 18; 3rd: 15; 4th: 12; 5th: 10; 6th: 8; 7th: 6; 8th: 4; 9th: 2; 10th: 1.

The only changes to this come if the race is stopped before 75% of the distance is completed and cannot be restarted. In this scenario, half-points are awarded: 12.5 for the winner, 9 for second, 7.5 for third, and so on. Drivers must also complete at least 90% of the race winner's distance to be eligible to score points.

FLAGS

You will see flags and lights displayed all over the place during the time that the cars are on the circuit. The meanings of the flags are as follows:

Green: Nothing to see here, get on with racing.

Yellow: Caution - reduce your speed. (Waved yellows mean dramatically reduce your speed, double waved yellows mean be prepared to stop).

Yellow and red striped: Slippery surface ahead.

Blue: There is a faster car behind you. In a race, you must get out of its way within three marshalling posts or else you will receive a time penalty for blocking.

Red: The race has been stopped, return slowly to the pit area.

White and black chequer: The race is over. Well done, you finished.

Black and white diagonal: A warning for unsportsmanlike behaviour.

Black and orange: Your car is in a dangerous condition, return to the pits to have it fixed.

Black: You have been disqualified, return to the pits and stop.

There will be times during the races that the safety car will be called out to neutralise the race: cars line up behind it until the problem has been solved. There are also Virtual Safety Car periods, where drivers must drive at a pre-prescribed pace until the problem has been solved, but do not have to line up and circulate behind a pace car on the circuit. For 2017, laps behind the safety car will not count towards the full distance and races will be restarted from a standstill on the starting grid. This is all very complex and boring on paper but makes more sense when you see it taking place.

THE CALENDAR

There are twenty races in 2017, down from 21 in 2016 after the loss of the German GP.

26th March: Australian GP (Albert Park, Melbourne)
9th April: Chinese GP (Shanghai International Circuit)
16th April: Bahrain GP (Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir)
30th April: Russian GP (Sochi Autodrom)
14th May: Spanish GP (Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona)
28th May: Monaco GP (Monte Carlo)
11th June: Canadian GP (Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, Montreal)
25th June: European GP (Baku City Circuit, Azerbaijan)
9th July: Austrian GP (Red Bull Ring, Spielberg)
16th July: British GP (Silverstone, Northants)
30th July: Hungarian GP (Hungaroring, Budapest)
27th August: Belgian GP (Spa-Francorchamps)
3rd September: Italian GP (Monza)
17th September: Singapore GP (Marina Bay Street Circuit)
1st October: Malaysian GP (Sepang Circuit, Kuala Lumpur)
8th October: Japanese GP (Suzuka)
22nd October: United States GP (Circuit of the Americas, Austin, TX)
29th October: Mexican GP (Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, Mexico City)
12th November: Brazilian GP (Interlagos, Sao Paulo)
26th November: Abu Dhabi GP (Yas Marina)

I hope you enjoy it.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

England fan fiction

As one of the voices on the venerable white horse of internet football broadcasting that is the Twohundredpercent Podcast, I have had to do some unusual things. A while ago, when we were thinking of ideas for our subscriber special podcast, we wondered about doing some football fan fiction. That would be a stupid idea, we thought. Well, it most certainly was: so stupid, in fact, that we hastily abandoned the concept and retired to our den to smoke our pipes and suck a thoughtful tooth.

But with today being the day of Gareth Southgate's first game since he was officially installed as the England team's full-time manager - and with that very eventuality being the subject of the fan fiction that I had written - I rashly promised that I would put the piece up on my website. Here it is.

The team coach crackled its way up the hotel's circular gravel driveway, dodging peacocks and Polish gardeners. This was not the usual salubrious countryside retreat where the England team would convene before a Wembley fixture, but the more modest confines of the Hertford Ramada Jarvis. It was the choice of the squad's new permanent manager, Gareth Southgate, keen to stamp his own identity on proceedings. "What's this place, gaffer?", asked a concerned Theo Walcott. "Is this where we're staying? Do they have archery?". "Yes, do they have archery?" chimed Daniel Sturridge, nervously fingering the carbon fibre carry case of his bow.

"There's no archery, there's no pool table, there isn't even a golf course," came Southgate's terse reply. "But they do have excellent conference facilities and there's a love tester machine in the corner of the bar". "Can we use the love tester machine, boss?", Joe Hart asked. "No you may not. No you may not." came Southgate's reply.

Southgate had been both the most outstanding and indeed only candidate for the position of England manager after the hurried dismissal of Sam Allardyce, whose downfall had been so swift that there remained a slice of gala pie and a jar of pickled onions the drawer of the desk in the manager's office at Lancaster Gate. Southgate had established his credentials with his even-handed and successful stewardship of the England Under-21 team, as well as with his willingness to do his own typing. No England manager had ever been so thoroughly proficient with Microsoft Office.

"We're beginning a new era, so we're in a new place," explained Southgate as the team gathered in the hotel lobby. "We're here to concentrate, to work and deliver for the country and I want you to bear in mind that all of my decisions have been taken towards that end". The players shuffled about nervously, some even going as far to remove their headphones so that they could better listen to their new manager. Southgate reached into his briefcase and pulled out a single sheet of immaculately typed A4 paper, which he placed on the table.

"Here are your new room assignments. Many of you will find that you have been given a new international roommate but do not be alarmed. In time, I want you to get to know one another as closely as you do your clubmates, this is my hope and my expectation". The players lurched forward as one, curious to examine the list and pair off into their new units. Many of the players were now grouped by their position, an attempt to help foster a greater understanding both on and off the field."Right, you have your rooms. You've got an hour of free time before hot yoga, so get yourselves settled in," Southgate announced. "And no sloping off to Kyle Walker's room. We all know what goes on in there". Kyle Walker put down the joint he was skinning and made a face.

The team's captain, Wayne Rooney, stepped forward. "I'm not on the list, gaffer. Where do I go?". "I was wondering when you'd ask that, Wayne. You'll be with me", said Southgate. The receptionist, who had been carefully pretending not to listen to any of this, suddenly let out a loud fart with shock.

Three hours later, the players were all back in their rooms. Gareth helped Wayne to peel back his sweaty leotard. "Blimey", said Rooney, "if I'd known that yoga was going to be quite that strenuous I wouldn't have eaten that third Turducken!". The two men chuckled good-naturedly until Gareth Southgate's face froze. "Wait, you've eaten three Turduckens? Today?". "Only a joke, gaffer, only a joke," said Wayne reassuringly, hurriedly kicking a wishbone underneath the Welsh dresser. The two men were now in their white hotel bathrobes and a lengthy silence developed. A minute or two passed before Wayne was the first to speak. "Why did you want me to room with you, gaffer? I've been in football a long time and I've never heard of a player being roommates with the manager". "Wayne, I needed to try and get inside of you," Southgate explained. "Get inside your mind, try and understand what makes you tick. You're still a young man with a lot to offer this team. I need to try and understand why it isn't happening for you on the pitch at the moment. Are you happy at home?"

Wayne Rooney exhaled deeply. "It's been tough, gaffer. My wife has got nipples like walnuts. The actual kernels of walnuts. The nut meats. Its hard to put it out of my mind. Increasingly, I find that during the course of games my mind has started to wander. All I can see are table after tressle table of coffee cakes at a Women's Institute summer fair". Southgate put an arm around Rooney's now bare shoulder. "Wayne, I'm going to tell you something that I have never told anyone outside of my family before. In the autumn of 1996, my marriage nearly ended. My wife couldn't get past the fact that it turns out my cumface is exactly the same as the face I pulled when I missed that penalty in the shootout at Euro 96."

Both men were now in tears. "Football exposes the rawest of emotions, Wayne. It is the root of its success as a sport, but it is also why it puts such a strain on the people who play it. Do you know that Denis Law is only 35 years old?" "That explains why he's got so many Ocean Colour Scene albums in his CD rack," sniffed Rooney. "I had wondered".

"Ultimately Wayne, you can't get through this crazy life inside professional football without the outlet of family. So if your wife has got walnut tits and you make three hundred grand a week, there's an obvious solution. But you need to communicate". Southgate now, too, was completely naked.

Rooney studied the pattern on the carpet intently for a minute or more before he looked up again. "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Shell suits spontaneously combusting in the skips outside Deepdale. I watched shadow stripes glitter in the floodlights at Ashton Gate. I've done a shit in the dressing room toilet at Goodison Park that they still can't get to go down. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. It's time to play."

"I've cum on the floor", said Southgate, pulling the exact face he made when he missed that penalty in the shootout at Euro 96.

Don't @ me.

Friday, 17 March 2017

(Sometimes) With The Beatles

Have you ever considered the possibility that all musicians are a bunch of shiftless, dishonest bastards? It is a tantalising possibility, isn't it? Particularly with regard to groups. If you settle down to listen to a Bob Dylan LP, for instance, you can be pretty sure that ol' Bob was responsible for at least some of the sounds that you are hearing. But groups are a very different dynamic: the achingly fashionable Johnnies you saw on Top of the Pops last week might have had very little to do with their latest 45.

That said, there's nothing particularly wrong with this state of affairs. Artists have employed assistants for centuries to do all kinds of different work for them, often completely anonymously and without any expectation of credit. It is said that the modern day artist is more of a manager than a craftsperson, but it was ever thus: Andy Warhol got his mum to sign his work for him and while Michaelangelo did most of the figurative painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel himself, he still had a grunt on the ground telling him where to put extra pubes, mixing his paint and passing him up sausage rolls.

It is, of course, particularly rife in popular music. The majority of The Beach Boys' most famous recordings were made by the Wrecking Crew, a Los Angeles-based supergroup of session musicians. Led Zeppelin were similarly formed by players from the London recording scene. And the less said about Milli Vanilli, the better.


The Beatles: Jim, Peter, Gregory and Roland

Which brings me to The Beatles, who whether you like it or not happen to be the most famous and notable recording artists in history. This is a major advantage, as from a point in around the middle of 1962, no-one closely involved in their story has been able to do so much as a fart without Mark Lewisohn noting it down. As such, we are able to establish exactly who did what, where and when. The following is a list (possibly incomplete but hopefully not too badly so) of recordings released by The Beatles which did not have all four canonical members of the group playing on them. There will be a test later.

YESTERDAY
Only Paul McCartney appears on the record: the other musicians were a string quartet, arranged by George Martin and comprised of Tony Gilbert, Sidney Sax, Kenneth Essex and Peter Halling or Francisco Gabarro.

WE CAN WORK IT OUT
Is is unknown for sure whether or not George Harrison is present on this recording: some have argued that he provided the tambourine but others believe that this was played by Ringo Starr. Harrison did, however, contribute to the song's composition.

ELEANOR RIGBY
Ringo Starr is absent from this track, with John Lennon and George Harrison only providing vocals. The music was provided exclusively by a string nonet arranged by George Martin and comprising Tony Gilbert, Sidney Sax, John Sharpe and J├╝rgen Hess on violin; Stephen Shingles and John Underwood on viola and Derek Simpson, Stephen Lansberry and Peter Halling on cello.

LOVE YOU TO
John Lennon is absent from this recording, with Paul McCartney only offering vocals and Ringo Starr on tambourine. The group was bolstered by the addition of Anil Bhagwat on tabla and musicians from the Asian Music Circle on sitar and tambura.

WITHIN YOU WITHOUT YOU
George Harrison recorded this solo, assisted by musicians from the Asian Music Circle providing dilrubas, tabla, swarmandal and tambura accompaniment.

SHE'S LEAVING HOME
Features only Paul McCartney and John Lennon, who provide only vocals. She's Leaving Home is one of a scant few Beatles tracks on which none of the canonical four play any musical instrument.

THE INNER LIGHT
Ringo Starr is absent from this recording. Parts of this song, which appeared as the B-side of the single Lady Madonna, were recorded at a session in Bombay during the group's stay in India. It is the only song ever issued by The Beatles not to have been recorded solely in the UK.

BACK IN THE U.S.S.R.
DEAR PRUDENCE
Ringo Starr left The Beatles following a series of escalating intra-band arguments and did not appear on either of the opening songs on the white album. Paul McCartney provided the percussion instead.

WILD HONEY PIE
BLACKBIRD
All exclusively solo Paul McCartney projects.

MARTHA MY DEAR
Paul McCartney was again the sole representative on this recording, which was bolstered by a 15-man brass and string orchestra arranged by George Martin.

DON'T PASS ME BY
The first Beatles song solely written by Ringo Starr, only Paul McCartney joins him on the recording; with additional violin by Jack Fallon.

WHY DON'T WE DO IT IN THE ROAD?
Paul McCartney recorded this song solo, although Ringo Starr would later overdub his own drum track which eventually appeared in the finished version.

I WILL
George Harrison was otherwise occupied for the recording of this song, which required 67 takes.

JULIA
John Lennon's first and only exclusively solo effort as a Beatle.

MOTHER NATURE'S SON
Ironically recorded at a time of great disharmony within the group, McCartney recorded the song alone, later adding in a George Martin brass arrangement. Lennon and Starr were, reportedly, extremely peeved that McCartney had taken his own initiative.

LONG, LONG, LONG
SAVOY TRUFFLE
Lennon was absent from the session in which both of these songs were recorded.

GOOD NIGHT
Ringo Starr provides the vocal for this John Lennon-penned song, with orchestral accompaniment arranged by George Martin and backing vocals from The Mike Sammes Singers.

ACROSS THE UNIVERSE
Paul McCartney is absent from the Phil Spector-produced version that appeared on the Let It Be album, although he appears on the "birdsong" version recorded for the World Wildlife Fund at the request of Spike Milligan, which was subsequently released on Past Masters volume 2.

I ME MINE
John Lennon had left the band by the time this Harrison composition was recorded. However, the session - in which John Lennon instead spent his time dancing in the corner of the studio with Yoko Ono - appeared in Michael Lindsay-Hogg's film Let It Be and therefore had to be included on the finished album.

THE BALLAD OF JOHN AND YOKO
George Harrison was on holiday and Ringo Starr away filming The Magic Christian when inspiration struck Lennon to write this song, which he recorded with help from McCartney on vocals, bass, percussion and piano.

MAXWELL'S SILVER HAMMER
HERE COMES THE SUN
GOLDEN SLUMBERS
John Lennon was in a car accident in Scotland on July 1st 1969 which saw him hospitalised for six days and absent from several sessions for the Abbey Road album. Lennon had returned to London and to the studio by the time work began on Maxwell's Silver Hammer, but declined to take part because he thought the song was "rubbish".

BECAUSE
Ringo Starr is absent from this song, which required no percussion. Or at least, that was their story.

HER MAJESTY
A Paul McCartney solo.

(honourable mention: The version of Love Me Do that appears on the Please Please Me album (and also released as a single in the US market) features session musician Andy White on drums instead of then-newcomer Ringo Starr. However, Ringo is on the record, playing the tambourine. The version of Love Me Do that appears on Past Masters Vol. 1 has Ringo restored to his rightful seat.)

Saturday, 31 December 2016

The Pengest Version

Cover versions needn't be rubbish. The alchemy that makes a song great involves a confluence of so many different factors: artist, style, production, time, its relevance to current affairs, etc., that it is statistically improbable that the original version of every song should always be definitive. However, the paradigm remains intact - modern humans seem hard-wired to expect that the song's authors will produce the ultimate interpretation. It's enough to make Roland Barthes spit.

It wasn't always so, of course. The people to blame, if you are the sort of person who likes to bear grudges, are the pioneers of Rock 'n' Roll. People like Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly were all self-contained creative hubs, a new breed of recording artists in an industry that had previously been dominated by softly crooned versions of Tin Pan Alley-penned standards. When this was adopted by the early movers and shakers in 1960s popular music - particularly by Bob Dylan and The Beatles (ironically, both extremely adept cover artists) - their contemporaries noticed how much more money they were making and the 'write-it-yourself, play-it-yourself' model became set in stone. Capitalism, there.

2016 has been such a stark, uncertain and frightful year for so many people that the prospect of 2017 being a pale facsimile is enough to make the hole in your arse heal over. This was when my mind turned to cover versions, I guess: looking for examples of when history looked at the past and made it better.  As ever, I took to Twitter and asked other people to do my work for me. The resulting list of cover versions of songs better than the originals was, yet again, pretty weighty and will be presented at the bottom of this post for the completists among you.

However, this time I have cast democracy aside and cordoned off a perfect ten. Complaints, as always, to the usual place. Your mum.

10. Saint Etienne - Only Love Can Break Your Heart

Written and first recorded by Neil Young, initially released in 1970.

It is still, just, 2016 and therefore let it first be said that Neil Young is a great artist and long may he reign, but his falsetto heavy version of Only Love Can Break Your Heart is really quite weedy compared to the version released by Saint Etienne twenty years later. Saint Etienne turned Young's slow-punctured balloon into a fully fledged tornado with the judicious application of breakbeats and syncopated piano. The overall effect is to switch the tone from a lachrymose, introspective after-hours bar singalong to a defiant and dubbed-out Poll Tax riot.

9. The Communards - Don't Leave Me This Way

Written by Gamble, Huff and Gilbert. First recorded by Howard Melvin and The Blue Notes, initially released in 1973. Most famously recorded by Thelma Houston and released in 1977.

A classic example of 1970s soul when it was first released in 1973, Thelma Houston re-energised the smooth yet stodgy Howard Melvin original into a huge disco floor-filler in 1977, where it also became an enormously significant anthem for both gay rights and AIDS-awareness. However, neither version can compete with the Hi-NRG version released by The Communards in 1986, a song so bursting with passion and intent that it leaves the previous versions looking ponderously sedate. It also features what is, surely, the greatest ever House music-inspired piano break to be played on record by a licensed clergyman.

8. Soft Cell - Tainted Love

Written by Ed Cobb. First recorded by Gloria Jones, initially released in 1964.

Tainted Love was, in common with the majority of the songs that are now deemed to be bona fide classics of the Northern Soul genre, a largely forgotten recording. It failed to chart in either the US or the UK, where the record buying public at large seemed immune from its urgent, pounding rhythm. Gloria Jones was better known as Marc Bolan's girlfriend and ill-fated chauffeur by the time Soft Cell made the song a huge hit in 1981. Rather than speeding it up, they slowed it down, giving the song space to breathe. Despite this, it retains all the urgency and feeling of the original. Contrary, too, is the warmth that radiates from the recording in spite of the ice and glass of Soft Cell's electronic style.

7. Joe Cocker - With A Little Help From My Friends

Written by Lennon/McCartney. First recorded by The Beatles, initially released in 1967.

Originally the second song on The Beatles' magnum opus Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album, its charm, humour and richness was nevertheless completely derailed by Joe Cocker's ferociously powerful rendition, released the following year. Just watch the video. No-one is telling me that Joe Cocker doesn't need more help from his friends than Ringo Starr. But what really sets this version apart is the addition of the full orchestration of American Soul music. Where The Beatles version is perfectly formed and calculated, Cocker's is the roaring, desperate effort of a disparate collective which all somehow keep pulling in the same direction. The overall effect is little short of shattering.

6. Johnny Cash - Hurt

Written by Trent Reznor. First recorded by Nine Inch Nails, initially released in 1995.

This song was, overwhelmingly, the popular choice from my straw poll on Twitter. The original version, suffused with the hollow angst of Generation X, proved to be completely inadequate next to the heartfelt 2003 interpretation by Johnny Cash, reaching the end of his days but completely undimmed as a creative force. The enduring legacy of a cultural giant, its accompanying video has been known to completely overwhelm people of any number of certain ages.

5. The Jimi Hendrix Experience - All Along The Watchtower

Written and first recorded by Bob Dylan, initially released in 1967.

Many people will tell you that every Bob Dylan song is better if someone else is performing it. These people are, almost always, completely mistaken. However, there's no denying this one, released in 1968: even Dylan himself freely admitted that his version couldn't hold a candle to it and he has used Hendrix's arrangement when playing the song live ever since. Dylan's will-o-the-wisp, downstated and bucolic Biblical fable is transformed into a swirling, whirling dervish rock anthem by Hendrix's unique guitar heroism, simultaneously the meat of his sound without ever overwhelming it. Telegraphing the bit where your solo is about to drop is for suckers, kids.

4. Sinead O'Connor - Nothing Compares 2 U

Written by Prince. First recorded by The Family, initially released in 1985

The original version of this song, all sparse instrumentation and peculiar harmony singing by one of Prince's many pet project groups, The Family, is bloody awful. This time, it took some pasty white people to add some genuine soul to a song. Sinead O'Connor's version, which was number 1 in the UK for four weeks at the start of 1990, is completely definitive: all that remains of the original is the stupid abbreviations in the title. Brilliant, bold and defiantly beautiful, it came complete with its own iconic video. What's not to like? Prince, of course, hated it and O'Connor's first meeting with the tiny velvet genius predictably ended in fisticuffs.

3. The Slits - I Heard It Through The Grapevine

Written by Whitfield & Strong. First recorded by Gladys Knight and The Pips, initially released in 1967. Most famously recorded by Marvin Gaye and released in 1968.

There is no denying the fundamental power of Marvin Gaye's recording of this song. It is, quite rightly, considered one of the peaks of the Motown Records story and of its sound. Lushly orchestrated and powerfully delivered, it is one of the great single records of all time. But then along come The Slits, the chaotic "girl group" of the British punk era. Their interpretation of the song was the first thing that they ever recorded in a proper record company studio and it is possessed of a potency that defies easy description. Ari Up's vocals are packed with the confidence and attitude that only being seventeen years old can bring; Viv Albertine's clipped guitar and yelping, discordant backing vocals are endlessly beguiling and fun; Tessa Pollitt's bass turns a soul classic into a skanking uptempo dub bonanza. The fact that they all hum all of those tricky orchestral parts, rather than finding someone to play them, just seals the deal. A swaggering, energetic and life-affirming piece of work.

2. Pet Shop Boys - Always On My Mind

Written by Christopher, James and Carson. First recorded by Gwen McRae, initially released in 1972. Most famously recorded by Elvis Presley and released in 1972; also by Willie Nelson and released in 1982.

A country music standard, Always On My Mind's various versions have produced a series of masterpieces. Elvis Presley's interpretation was voted his greatest ever song in a poll done for ITV in 2013, while Willie Nelson's lush, yearning iteration won him a Grammy. The Pet Shop Boys' rewards were rather more prosaic: Christmas Number 1 in 1987 and now, the number two position in this list. This is not to diminish their electronic pop reading in the least. Simply put, it is one of the most magnificent pop songs ever recorded. Neil Tennant's distant, dispassionate vocal imbues the song with additional power and meaning; while Chris Lowe's layered, upbeat and punchy accompaniment cuts the traditional meandering orchestration through to the quick. The best bit? The theremin break, of course.

1. Aretha Franklin - Respect

Written and originally recorded by Otis Redding, initially released in 1965.

So complete is Franklin's hold over this song that many people don't even know that it is a cover. Otis Redding's scudding, energetic version was quietly establishing itself as a soul standard when Aretha came along in 1967 and completely reinvented it. Where Redding's song was a demure plea from a browbeaten husband, Franklin's was an unashamed statement of intent from women everywhere. Nearly 50 years have past since it was first released and they have done nothing to dim the importance or relevance of her message, nor tarnish the brilliant urgency of her delivery. Aretha Franklin, herself a talented songwriter and musician, has never been bettered as an interpreter of other people's work. A genuine landmark in the development of human culture and civilisation, it should probably be the National Anthem.

So, there you go. Some proof, if it were needed, that the second verse doesn't need to be the same as the first. I wish you all a happy, prosperous and peaceful 2017.

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As promised, here is the full list of songs that you considered to be better than the originals. I can vouch for some of them, the others I'll leave up to you to decide:

Alien Ant Farm - Smooth Criminal
Amy Winehouse - Valerie
Bahaus - Ziggy Stardust
The Beatles - Money (That's What I Want)
Blondie - Hanging on the Telephone
Buddy Rich Big Band - The Beat Goes On
The Cramps - Surfin' Bird
The Damned - Eloise
Depeche Mode - Route 66
Dickies - Paranoid
Dinosaur Junior - Feel a Whole Lot Better When You're Gone
Dubstar - Not So Manic Now
Foo Fighters - Baker Street
The Four Tops - Simple Game
Frankie Goes To Hollywood - Born to Run
Gary Jules - Mad World
Grace Jones - Love is the Drug
Guns 'n' Roses - Live and Let Die
Happy Mondays - Step On
Incredible Bongo Band - Apache
The Jam - David Watts
Jane's Addiction - Sympathy for the Devil
John Cale - Hallelujah
Jeff Buckley - Hallelujah
Kevin Rowland - Thunder Road
The Kingsmen - Louie Louie
Lawnmower Deth - Kids in America
Loop - Cinnamon Girl
Marc Almond & Gene Pitney - Something's Got a Hold of my Heart
Michael McDonald - Baby I Need Your Lovin'
The Mike Flowers Pops - Wonderwall
The Mock Turtles - No Good Trying
Nadasurf - Love and Anger
Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood - You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling
Nirvana - The Man Who Sold the World
Prince - Just My Imagination
R.E.M. - Toys in the Attic
Ray Stevens - Misty
Reigning Sound - Stormy Weather
Robert Wyatt - Shipbuilding
Ryan Adams - Wonderwall
Sid Vicious - My Way
Sonic Youth - Addicted to Love
Sonic Youth - Superstar
Stereophonics - Handbags and Gladrags
The Pixies - Head On
The Pretenders - Stop Your Sobbing
Therapy? - Isolation
Toni Basil - Hey Mickey
Tricky - Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos
The Wildhearts - Understanding Jane
William Shatner - Common People
Young@Heart - Fix You

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