Where There Were No Doors

Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before - Joseph Campbell

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The North

I don't spend much time reading the deluded witterings of right-wing journalists or bloggers. I'm not a great fan of left-wing writing either, but at least the witterings of the left often contain traces of self-deprecation and humour. Left-wingers tend to be better writers, but a dogmatic adherence to any political party or the willingness to locate yourself within any exclusive part of the political spectrum is a clear sign of mental retardation. Those on the right are, with a very few exceptions, as thick as pigshit and twice as smelly.

The left merely has a slightly higher proportion of exceptions.

Today though I found myself clicking on a link to Peter Cuthbertson's Conservative Commentary blog. Peter's writing contains as much humour as most left-wingers manage, but this humour is amplified considerably through being unintentional. These days, sadly, the poor chap is too busy to be a conservative commentator and ConCom is updated even less than this place. When it is updated it tends to be in the form of a quotation lifted from elsewhere.

However one recent post caught my eye. It's a photograph of Gerry Adams and Fidel Castro under the title Hey, don't hog the sniper rifle! Presumably intentional humour, though he missed an opportunity to make it more topical (I suggest "Where's a suicide bomber when you need one?" would've been funnier, but that's just me).

Anyways, beneath it Peter lists the source of the image. A blog called A Tangled Web and specifically the post entitled Interview with a Vampire. This blog is also listed under the heading "Great Blogs" on Peter's site, so I expected a thick-as-pigshit right-winger who smelt bad.

I wasn't disappointed. It turns out to be a group blog, so even stinkier than I'd imagined (if there's one thing that smells worse than a right-winger with their mouth open, it's a bunch of right-wingers with their mouths open). Rarely have I encountered such nauseating hate-filled wankery. And there's something peculiarly worrying about nasty hate-mongers who find it necessary to asterisk out the word "piss".

Within just 5 minutes of reading I'd discovered the following gems:

The person called DV was actually sickened by the conclusion of the British Government's chief scientific adviser that an increase in hurricane ferocity is linked to anthropocentric global warming. However, Sir David King (the advisor in question) was actually reporting the conclusions of research carried out by climatologist Kerry Emanuel (of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and research meteorologist Tom Knutson (of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory) published last month in Nature magazine. I suspect their research would sicken DV too. Poor, sensitive DV. I recommend dramamine prior to reading any scientific literature.

DV also likens the chances of a bird-flu epidemic to the chances of the earth getting hit by an asteroid and demands that attention is paid to that issue. The fact that a government can take simple practical steps (stock up on vaccines and anti-viral drugs) to prevent bird-flu from being too damaging, but would have to invest the entire national budget several times over in order to have even a slim chance of dealing with an asteroid seems to have escaped DV. As has the fact that a bird-flu epidemic is far more likely than an asteroid strike during the term of this government. DV also objects to ensuring medical staff and other emergency workers will be the first to receive anti-viral treatment in the case of an outbreak. DV is a moron. I think most non-morons would agree that doctors, nurses, police and firefighters - plus any other workers who might actually have to deal with sick people - should be the first treated in any outbreak of any infectious disease.

It's also DV who appears completely unable to grasp why Muslims might feel more stressed by the London suicide bombings than others. Truly not the sharpest tool in the shed, poor DV fails to appreciate that Muslims will feel roughly the same amount of stress at the idea of being blown up by a random suicide bomber, but will also have certain additional stresses (being part of a community that could be targeted in revenge-attacks, being shot by the police by mistake - though that additional stress also applies to South Americans too - plus plenty of other shit; like having to explain to their kids why there's been a sudden increase in bullying and why the bullies are calling them "the enemy" of the country they thought they belonged to). Of course Muslims will be more stressed by random suicide attacks carried out in the name of their religion than non-Muslims. To fail to appreciate that is either wilfully thick. Or just thick.

But it's A McC's piece, Interview with a Vampire, that really got my goat. A McC lives in (as best as I can make out) Northern Ireland. However, he's clearly one of the people who prefers the term "United Kingdom". He's a Unionist who insists on putting the letter 'O' before the words Ireland and Irish. It's difficult to know whether this is because he's actually too stupid to learn how to spell the name of the island he lives on properly, or is just being wilfully offensive towards the majority of people who live on that island.

Usually I'd assume it was the latter, but with this guy it really is difficult to know. Thick as pigshit doesn't even begin to describe him.

I'm from Ireland in case you were wondering... the southern part. So when I title a blog entry "The North", it means something very specific. And many people reading the title will interpret it in a different way. Some English people would assume I'm about to wax lyrical on the subject of Manchester or Leeds or - heaven forbid - Newcastle. While a Texan reader may automatically think I'm gonna wail on some yankee sons'a'bitches.

And although English or American friends of mine - knowing I'm Irish - might understand that by "The North" I mean the six counties of Ireland currently under British occupation, even they won't get the full connotations of what's meant when someone from a very republican Irish background capitalises 'The North'. In the same way as I'll never fully capture the wave of subtle emotion and memory that The North may evoke to someone from a different background.

I have a large extended family, and three generations ago it was split right down the middle by the civil war. The Irish civil war wasn't between Republicans and Someone Else. It was between two groups of republicans who had different notions about how to go about it. And it got nasty. So even three generations later, family gatherings could explode into heated arguments and slammed doors. Shouts of "that treacherous bastard de Valera!" or "To hell with you! And to hell with That Great Sell Out!" echoing through the house (the last bit refers to Michael Collins by the way, when hissed through the teeth of a de Valera republican).

One thing however, that would immediately unite the whole clan is the issue of the future of The North. Stated simply; the Irish Republic should encompass the entire island - all 32 counties. Having the British parliament set laws for part of Ireland makes as much sense as giving legislative power over parts of Bradford to the government of Pakistan.

It's political bias that makes someone describe Belfast as being part of the United Kingdom. Whereas it's simple geographical observation to say it's in Ireland.

If nothing else, given the history of these islands, isn't it just tasteless for English people living in London to be still passing laws over a third of the people living in Ireland, and taxing them for the privilege? Every single time The North hits the news, I (and countless other Irish folk) feel a nagging sense of injustice. It's not a voluntary reaction and until Ireland is reunited it'll never go away. Because it's entirely justified.

Unionists living in the north are essentially in the same position as British muslims, born and raised in Yorkshire or Lancashire or London, but who wish to see Sharia Law implemented in Britain.

And I'm frankly amazed that the British haven't left in embarrassment by now. Have they no shame? The continued occupation of almost 20% of the island is keeping one of the ugliest chapters in British history wide open. Why would Britain want to do that? Except perhaps as some kind of sackcloth-and-ashes-self-flagellation thing, maybe? Is that what it is? But if that's the case, I do wish they'd choose somewhere else to prostrate themselves and roll in filth. My little island deserves some peace... it's about time it got it.

Now, I don't for a moment suggest that the British occupation has been particularly "tyrannical" in the recent past. Certainly not in my lifetime, though the policy of internment during the 70s and 80s came damn close. But that's not the point... not to a people with a sense of their history (and the Irish would tend to fall into that category).

In an historical context, the current occupation is merely the continuation of a long-term policy which has in the past been implemented and maintained via some of the vilest attrocities imaginable. Oliver Cromwell slaughtered the entire population of a city and countless towns and villages to enforce an occupation that still continues to this day.

Is it any wonder republicans have a serious problem living in the shadow of British army watchtowers?

Of course, Cromwell was a long time ago. But he was followed by the Penal Laws, which was essentially a strategy of cultural extermination. The Penal Laws criminalised the use of the Irish language, the playing of traditional Irish music or sports, the performance of any Catholic or traditional religious services, and so on... it succeeded in killing the language pretty much, and that's arguably the most important thing to save, but in the long run it strengthened many traditional Irish cultural values (not all of them positive... I doubt The Church would have had such an influence in the Ireland of my youth had the British not suppressed it for a few hundred years).

To be honest, I wouldn't know how to hold another position on the matter. Like a number of political issues I see it as less a battle between two reasoned positions and more a bunch of mad people refusing to face up to reality. And when the opposing view is expressed by the kind of people who are sickened by the suggestion of anthropocentric climate change, would rather prepare for an asteroid attack than a flu pandemic (and would deny front-line health workers any special privileges during such a pandemic), and who can't understand why suicide bombers acting in the name of Islam might stress out Moslems a little more than the rest of us; well... clearly my view that they are "a bunch of mad people refusing to face up to reality" is soundly validated.

I'm not a nationalist per se let me point out. Certainly I feel "at home" when I arrive in Cork (or even Dublin) in a way that I don't when I'm in London or Athens. But the difference between Dublin and London is far smaller than the difference between London and Chicago. So if anything, I must feel more "European" than "Irish". Similarly I take a guilty pleasure in seeing an Irish sports team do well (even though I don't follow sports and have no connection to anyone on the team except a geosynchronous birth). But I take far more pleasure in seeing one of my English or Swiss or Greek or American friends doing well at something.

Being from the same island as James Joyce and Van Morrison always thrills me a little. But there's no rational reason whatsoever for it to do so. I might just as well get excited by the fact they both expressed a preference for the same flavour ice-cream as me. People aren't always rational about these things.

What? Really Jim? You're saying people don't always act rationally when it comes to matters of nationalism? Next you'll be telling us the earth moves round the sun and isn't the centre of the universe!

Yeah. Sorry for stating the obvious.

All I'm saying is I fully admit that I have an overwhelming cultural bias when it comes to The North. But that's not the same as being barking mad. Fecking mentalists!
Full post...

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Scots "don't know what's good for them" report says

A study commissioned by the Scottish parliament has revealed that Scots are too fucking stupid to know what's good for them. At least, that's the spin put on it by the BBC.

According to the BBC article, research suggests that "a 10p tax on plastic bags would bring only limited environmental benefits to Scotland". Given that a similar tax brought significant environmental benefits to Ireland, the assumption must be that Scotland isn't capable of reaping the same level of benefit from the scheme as Ireland does. It doesn't openly say "because Scots are so fucking thick", but what other possible reason could there be? Are Scottish plastic bags different to Irish ones in either composition or function? No they are not. So the problem must be with the people who use them.


I should warn you, however, that the article linked to above has been rewritten since I first read it, and may very possibly be rewritten again by the time you read it. The beeb's policy of failing to archive each version of a story and instead altering sections over time, fundamentally undermines the usefulness and trustworthiness of the BBC as a news source.

When I first read the article it concluded with the line, "In Ireland a similar scheme has reduced the number of new plastic bags entering circulation by more than 90%" (that's paraphrasing... I can't sadly check the source). That statistic is no longer mentioned at all in the story and the success of the Irish scheme is now only reported as an allegation by Green and LibDem MSPs.

Why was the line removed? Well, it was removed for either editorial or accuracy reasons.

If it's the case that the "more than 90%" figure is inaccurate (the Worldwatch Institute claims it's actually 95% incidentally, and therefore accurate) then I would expect a supposedly reliable news source to issue a retraction and correction.

If it was for editorial reasons, however, then one needs to analyse the overall effect that such a decision would have on the article. I'd argue that by placing the success of the Irish scheme into hearsay rather than fact, it significantly weakens the arguments in favour of the Scottish levy. The BBC, therefore, have retrospectively altered a news story to lend weight to the commercial arguments of the Scottish Retail Consortium.

So long as they have policy of rewriting published stories without providing an archived "original version", the news as presented by the BBC must clearly be taken with an extra pinch of salt. The original article in this case contained a very significant fact that was then removed without explanation. Shoddy journalism and very shoddy editing.

I don't - of course - believe the Scots are morons (though clearly no nation can scale the intellectual heights that we Irish are capable of achieving). Indeed I'm fairly confident that a plastic bag tax north of the border would have roughly the same impact as it did in Ireland... a massive reduction in plastic bags finding their way into the environment and a smaller, but significant, reduction in overall waste. Certainly many people will simply switch from disposable plastic to disposable paper, but the majority will switch to reusable bags and will press that pile of old plastic bags under the sink into action until they've worn out.

Leastways that's how the Irish reacted. Maybe the Scots are thick (though the ones I know would seem to make a lie of this assertion). Maybe they'll not realise that reusable bags will save them money. Maybe the Scottish perception of waste in general can't be shifted in the way the Irish perception is beginning to shift (thanks not only to the plastic bag levy, but also to a switch from charging households a flat fee for rubbish collection to charging them based upon the volume of waste they generate). Maybe Scottish retailers, as they claim ("store owners said the proposals would be an "administrative nightmare" which would actually have the effect of increasing waste) are simply not as competent as their Irish counterparts. Given that we in Ireland managed to handle this supposed "nightmare" without increasing waste, it seems odd that Scottish retailers don't think they have the skills or intelligence to do the same.

They must have a very low opinion of themselves, poor little buggers.

The Scottish research also claims that "paper bags [have] a greater effect on the environment than conventional plastic carrier bags". I'd be interested in how this "effect on the environment" is quantified. I'm fairly well-versed in the processes required to produce conventional plastic carrier bags from fossil fuels, and know a little about the manufacture of paper. I'm also well aware of the difference in environmental impact between a biodegradable substance (such as paper) and a non-biodegradable one (such as plastic), and any research which sees the former as worse than the latter is clearly not taking a very long-term view (and what the hell other view should be taken when researching environmental impact?)

And of course, then there's the long-term sustainability of oil, gas and coal (our primary sources of plastic) but that's another discussion altogether.

Apparently there's also a worry that the levy "could result in 700 jobs being lost". This is the sort of thing, of course, which will affect the decisions of politicians. Lost jobs equals lost votes. And what's more important than that? Right?

Well, "the environment" for one.

If these 700 jobs are environmentally destructive then, I'm sorry to say, I couldn't be happier that they'll be lost (assuming they will... that claim comes from The Carrier Bag Consortium and so, like the BBC itself, should be taken with a little salt). If Japanese whalers lose their jobs, I'm ecstatic. The same goes for Australian uranium miners, Canadian oil shale workers and the Irish lads building the natural gas pipeline on the west coast.

Jobs do not trump sustainability or environmental responsibility. In fact, jobs trump very little, and "jobs will be lost if we don't" is simply not a valid argument in favour of doing something. Besides which; why not pass a parallel law insisting that all paper bags must be manufactured from recycled paper? The boost to the recycling industry would be bound to offset some, if not all, of the potential job losses in the plastic bag industry.

To reiterate... the Scots are not morons. They are probably the closest relatives to we Irish, which naturally makes them the second least moronic bunch of people on the planet (you can find idiots anywhere; I'm talking statistically here). Let's start taking sustainability seriously folks. A plastic bag levy would have a positive environmental effect north of the border, and commercial objections to the scheme (backed up by insidious reporting from the BBC) should be run roughshod over with all haste and glee.
Full post...

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The blogs are alive with the sound of outrage

A week ago I wrote a piece, though never published it, about the violent death of Jean Charles de Menezes at the hands of the police. It expressed outrage all right, but the article is filled with equivocation and "mitigating circumstances".

After all, the guy did vault the ticket barriers after the police had challenged him and told him to stop moving. And he ran through Stockwell station and onto the tube. And he was wearing a fairly bulky jacket on a warm day. And he'd been positively identified (mistakenly, but that - sadly - can happen) as one of the suicide bombers that had failed to blow up trains the previous day.

My article of course is out-of-date. If we're to believe the leaks... none of the above is true.

Jean Charles de Menezes was shot eight times (seven in the head), after being restrained, by police who had only that moment identified themselves. He had not been identified as one of the bombers (merely someone who should be checked out), he was wearing a light denim jacket, had taken a bus to the tube station, stopped to pick up a newspaper, used his season ticket to get through the barriers (did, admittedly, run the last few yards to the platform as every Londoner does when they hear a train pull in) and made no attempt to disobey anything shouted at him by his pursuers... who he was completely unaware of up until a handful of seconds prior to being leapt on and executed.

So how did my original article get it so wrong? Sadly I made the mistake of basing it on "the facts" as announced by Sir Ian Blair (no relation), the boss of all our police. Either the top policeman in the city failed to ascertain himself of the facts prior to making a public statement on television and issuing a press release, or he just plain told lies.

This makes the man's position untenable. There is now, and will continue to be - so long as Blair is the boss - a serious question mark over any "facts" as officially released by the Metropolitan Police. It's really not acceptable to have a demonstrably untrustworthy police force. Not at any time, but especially not during times of like these.

For more, I suggest you read the statement from Harriet Wistrich and Gareth Peirce, lawyers for the family of Jean Charles de Menezes.

And then read how Sir Ian Blair actively tried to prevent an independent investigation of the shooting on the grounds that it "could impact on national security and intelligence".

And then read Larry's piece which is worth reading in itself and also provides a handy round-up of other blogs covering it.
Full post...

Spearhead at Camden: An Extended Monologue

Spearhead played Camden tonight

Spearhead played Camden tonight. Yay!

Just returned from Camden where the best live band in the world played tonight (well, technically last night - Wednesday the 17th). They play the Jazz Café again tomorrow night (well, technically tonight - Thursday the 18th) and, except that I'm fairly skint at the moment, I'd have no hesitation in heading down to see them again. In fact it pisses me off royally that I won't be (but going to see a great band once is obviously 'an essential item'... two nights in a row though is technically 'a luxury item' and I've made a decision to cut out luxury items until I next get an invoice paid... a week or ten days away). Seriously though, if you have the opportunity to see them tonight, I urge you to do so. The music is just incredible... and if ever there was a time for us to turn out in numbers to see intelligent and positive protest music; it's now.
Please tell me the reason
Behind the colors that you fly
Love just one nation
And the whole world we divide
I first encountered Michael Franti when he was one of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. They recorded a stunning album with William Burroughs and I'm a big fan of Uncle Bill's work. From that it was a short step to the Disposable Heroes criminally under-rated Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury (most people will know the track Television, the Drug of the Nation but nothing else... which is a great shame, 'cos it's an excellent album. Shit, just thinking about it, I don't think I have it anymore... I think I got that during the weird two years when I was buying everything on cassette and that's one of the few really good albums I've not got round to replacing in shiney-disc format... needless to say my cassettes are long gone. Man, I've not listened to that album in ages). Anyways, after Disposable Heroes Franti got together with a group of musicians from different musical backgrounds and Spearhead came to be.

They blend jazz and hip-hop and rock and reggae and folk and funk and blues and soul and dub and pop and... well, you get the picture... there's a dash of samba, a sprig of salsa and a pinch or two of tropicalia in there too. That it works comes down to two things I think; firstly the fact that the band are tight enough and accomplished enough to feel completely comfortable going into extended jams that never ever flag. Ever. I mean, people were getting up on the stage - complete strangers - and jamming along with them and the band were (a) cool enough to vibe off that, and (b) good enough to make it work flawlessly.
We can chase down all our enemies
Bring them to their knees
We can bomb the world to pieces
But we can't bomb it into peace
The second thing that keeps this almost overpowering fusion of styles together is Michael Franti's incredible stage presence. I don't say this lightly, and some may even see it as faintly sacreligious, but Franti's stage presence is on a par with Prince in 1988. No, I'm quite serious about that. I saw Prince at an aftershow gig in Camden Palace on the Lovesexy tour when he was - arguably - at the peak of his live performances. So I know whereof I speak.

Michael Franti blows away almost all of the "London Audience" syndrome. And I saw him do it - somehow - at the Festival Hall, so it's not just a small venue thing. Also, small venues often bring out the worst examples of the London Audience thing anyways... people who'd much rather remain cool and aloof so that they don't.... what?... look uncool? Is that it? Chin-stroking wankers who stand with a faint frown on their face and furrow their brows furiously should you dare bump into them whilst you're grooving. I mean... really!
Violence brings one thing
More more of the same
Military madness
The smell of flesh and burning pain
So I sing out to the masses
Stand up if you're still sane!
To all of us gone crazy
I sing this one refrain

And I sing power to the peaceful
Love to the people y'all
Power to the peaceful
Love to the people
But with Spearhead there's none of that aloofness... no separation from the music... from the front, right to the back, everyone is whooping and singing and jumping up and down and waving their hands in the air and clapping in time and singing every line that Michael asks them to, joyously, at the tops of their voices... or quietly as he asks them to do the harmonies. It's three hours (and as many extra minutes as they can get away with) with a crowd of people really getting into what's going on around them... both on-stage and off. And the things they're singing! It'd shock The Daily Mail for sure (another reason to go, if ever there was one!)
I don't understand the whole reason why
You tellin' us all that we need to unify
Rally 'round the flag
And beat the drums of war
Sing the same old songs
Ya know we heard 'em all before
You tellin' me it's unpatriotic
But I call it what I see it
When I see it's idiotic
The tears of one mother
Are the same as any other
Drop food on the kids
While you're murderin' their fathers
But don't bother to show it on CNN
Brothers and sisters don't believe them
It's not a war against evil
It's really just revenge
Engaged on the poorest by the same rich men
Fight terrorists wherever they be found
But why you not bombing Tim McVeigh's hometown?
You can say what you want; propaganda television
But all bombing is terrorism
So the band take to the stage and everyone cheers and the music doesn't stop for three hours, and Michael never stops moving (well, actually, he does sit down for some of the acoustic guitar stuff now that I think about it... but the energy never stops pouring from the stage, put it that way). And it's infectious.

Along the way, some bloke in the audience made his way to the crowd and caught Michael's eye. He was holding a flute. Michael helped him up onto the stage with the line... "I have no idea who this guy is, but I guess he wants to do his thing" and the flautist joined in with the jam for a couple of minutes. Half an hour later another guy ended up playing some of the most vibing piano I've heard in a long long time (he looked about as chuffed with himself as I would have looked had I just climbed onto the stage with Spearhead and impressed them with my piano playing; i.e. Very fucking well-chuffed indeed. His name was Simon, the flautist was Robbie, the guest saxophonist was the astonishingly beautiful Heather (and can she play!) and I didn't, sadly, catch the name of the guest vocalist but she was incredible too.

You'd have to be really.
you can make a life longer, but you can't save it
you can make a clone, and then you try to enslave it?
stealin' DNA samples from the unborn
and then you comin' after us
'cause we sampled a James Brown horn?
The three hours seemed to whizz by... they came on stage at nine, and it felt to me like maybe eleven o'clock when we finally emerged at half midnight. The set was very heavily weighted towards the recent stuff... Stay Human, Everyone Deserves Music and the new one, Love Kamikaze (which I only got hold of at the gig tonight... so there were more than a couple of songs I didn't even recognise, but I was jumping along to them all the same... seriously, how many bands get the entire audience jumping along to songs many of them don't have yet? In London!?)

It's great to see that the trademark Spearhead trait of dropping out of a song into a cover; so that you're suddenly unsure what song you're listening to; is still there. Last time they played London, Smells Like Teen Spirit suddenly emerged from the music and rocked like a bag of bastids falling down some stairs. It really rocked. Tonight it was less inyerface, but still amazing to hear snatches of Grace by U2 and a Jackson-5 song and a couple of others the names of which have just been liberated from my mind by a little pot, sadly.
Well politicians got lipstick on the collar
the whole media started to holler
but I don't give a fuck who they screwin' in private
I wanna know who they screwin' in public
The quieter times of the gig were dominated by Michael in acoustic mode. Or at least... sitting down. He told some stories about his recent visit to Iraq which were funny and sad and uplifting and depressing. He played music on street corners in Baghdad as well as in people's homes and what have you. That's a pretty full-on thing to be doing in this climate of bombings and kidnappings, but the man's a committed activist and it's fucking inspiring to hear him talk... not just of his own experiences but of the work of others and how people can make a difference even in these seemingly apocalyptic times when if the bombs don't get you then the cynicism will.

Spearhead make some of the funkiest music around today. And Michael Franti stands tall (literally... he's an incredibly good-looking, athletic and sexy man who towers above my paltry six foot two inches) as possibly the finest protest singer-songwriter-musician-poet of our times. He's not half as important as he deserves to be, because not nearly enough people know about him for reasons that I'm simply incapable of understanding. Why Stay Human didn't sell 20 million copies is just beyond me! And he fires up an audience with such a positive energy that I seriously have to hark back to Lovesexy '88 to find a worthy comparison.

Go see Spearhead if they're playing near to you. It's good for you.
Full post...

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

20 Best Debut Albums In The World Ever

Elsewhere on the web, a discussion has begun regarding the best debut albums of all time. It's an interesting topic as it would seem to exclude quite a few of the musicians and bands that make it into most Top-10 / Top-1000 lists.

I'm a huge fan of The Beatles for instance and although I love the vibrancy and charm of Please Please Me, I wouldn't put it into my Top-20 debut albums list. At least not if we're judging the albums by their individual merit, rather than the promise they show or the cultural earthquake they foreshadow. And although Prince's debut (For You) contains some glorious songs and demonstrates the man's incredible mastery of the studio and multi-instrumentalism, it doesn't really have the consistency of a great album (arguably it wasn't until his third, 1980's Dirty Mind, that he really hit his stride).

There are also some technical issues when compiling a list like this. Do you include the debut solo albums of people who have made records in the past as part of a band? And - importantly - can Space Oddity be considered Bowie's debut, given the existence of the Deram tracks?

I have decided to answer both those questions "Yes". Because to respond "No" would remove a bunch of the finest debut albums of all time from my list. So, without further ado...

The 20 Best Debut Albums In The World Ever

  1. The Smiths - The Smiths (1984)
    I'd be surprised if there's a serious music-head of my generation who wouldn't acknowledge the right of The Smiths to top a chart like this (even if said music-head were to choose someone else themselves). Featuring a half dozen of the best tracks they ever did and not a duff one amongst the rest, this album - following hard on the heels of some fine singles - announced the arrival of one of the world's best lyricists as well as musically influencing an entire generation. Personal high point: Still Ill
  2. Debut - Björk (1993)
    Björk of course was fairly well known as the singer from The Sugarcubes prior to her solo work. But with Debut she abandoned some of the convention and restriction that working in a band - however groovy - inevitably brings. Sometimes that's not always a great thing (it's hard to argue, for instance, that any member of The Beatles worked better outside the group than within) but for Björk it provided the creative freedom to produce a gloriously idiosyncratic album that was both stunning in its own right as well as just hinting at the greatness to come. Personal high point: Venus as a Boy
  3. '77 - Talking Heads (1977)
    David Byrne is one of the musical giants in my life. His solo work continues to excite and inspire me to this day, but it's almost certainly as the frontman for Talking Heads that he's best known. An art-rock band that found a home in the New York punk scene, TH were the perfect blend of intelligence and raw energy... spikey and inyerface but with a subtlety that was to elevate them far beyond their roots. Personal high point: Don't Worry About the Government
  4. Space Oddity - David Bowie (1969)
    As mentioned earlier, this was - arguably - not Bowie's debut album at all (1967's David Bowie on Deram UK would qualify as that if we're being pedantic), and it wasn't even until the 1972 re-release that it gained the title "Space Oddity" having been originally put out in 1969 as "Man of Words / Man of Music". All the same, there are plenty of Bowie-heads who would agree that this was the album that really defined the starting point of Bowie's career as we've come to know it. There's a distinct 'hippy' quality to Space Oddity which is a comparatively acoustic affair that closes with the ultimate flower-child anthem, "Memory of a Free Festival". All the same, Bowie's intellect, wit and darkness seep through into almost every song. Personal high point: Letter to Hermione
  5. Here Come the Warm Jets - Brian Eno (1974)
    Looking at the line-up, this appears for all intents and purposes to be a Roxy Music album with the addition of the godlike Robert Fripp and without the rapidly lounging Ferry. But in practice it starkly reveals the reasons why Eno chose to leave Roxy Music and the creative shadow of Bryan Ferry... and the radically different musical directions both were moving. Here Come the Warm Jets builds on and expands the experimentalism of earlier Roxy albums at a time when Ferry was moving towards the mainstream. It's glam, it's raucous and it refuses to conform. Personal high point: Driving Me Backwards
  6. Soulmining - The The (1983)
    Like Space Oddity (above), it would be prefectly valid for someone to object to Soulmining being described as the debut album from Matt Johnson's The The. Two years previously 4AD had put out Johnson's Burning Blue Soul under the singer's own name (it was later re-released as an official The The album). All the same, Soulmining can claim to be the first album originally released under the "The The" moniker. This album probably has more of my emotional baggage attached to it than any other. It kept me sane through some of the darkest moments of my teens and early 20s with the gritty despair tempered by such lines as "Death is not the answer / for your soul may burn in hell". Cheery stuff! Interestingly the album also contains a piano-solo which (in my view) single-handedly justifies Jools Holland's otherwise questionable career. Personal high point: I've Been Waitin' for Tomorrow (All of My Life)
  7. Memories of a Colour - Stina Nordenstam (1991)
    Stina Nordenstam is a relatively unknown singer / songwriter / producer from Scandanavia. Comparisons are often made with Björk, and while that's fair enough to some degree, it also does her an injustice by failing to recognise the sheer originality of her work. Her fragile, almost broken, voice seems to haunt her dark and claustrophobic music... she dwells within her music rather than singing over the top of it. This debut album contains some of her more accessible and commercial-sounding songs (though she's never exactly had "commercial success" to any great extent - possibly partly due to the fact that she never performs live) but at the same time nobody could think of Memories of a Colour as a commercial or mainstream album featuring - as it does - several examples of the dark and brooding atmosphere that defines her later work. Personal high point: Soon After Christmas
  8. Deep in the Heart of Nowhere - Bob Geldof (1986)
    Saint Sir Bob of Geldof is probably better known these days as a political activist than a musician. But that doesn't detract from the great music he has created over the years. Deep In The Heart of Nowhere was Geldof's first album post-Boomtown Rats and the first new music he released after Live Aid (it's also the single-most underrated album of the decade). It's a dark, introspective and sometimes challenging album which was a huge departure from the post-punk jangle of The Rats and brought Geldof closer (in tone and spirit) to early Van Morrison. Now and then the music is a little too "of it's time" - the mid-80s, but that never overshadows the depth of feeling contained in the songs and the gloriously ragged voice of Geldof himself. Personal high point: Pulled Apart by Horses
  9. Marquee Moon - Television (1977)
    Easily one of the best albums of the decade, it's perhaps no surprise that Television never managed to really emerge from its shadow and what followed sounded like a pale imitation of this explosive debut. In many ways, Television are the Orson Welles of music; creating an early masterpiece which couldn't help but be a millstone round their necks and led to the band breaking up prematurely after only their second studio album. Nonetheless, Marquee Moon isn't an album illustrating wasted potential... because it's all there, wrapped up in this sublime slice of punky new-wave guitar poprock. Personal high point: Marquee Moon
  10. Horses - Patti Smith (1975)
    This album gave birth to the American new wave, and deserves a place in all our hearts for that alone... would Marquee Moon have sounded anything like it did without Smith's arrival on the scene? Would Talking Heads have been able to carve out a place for themselves among the New York punks if Smith's imaginative and penetrating lyrics hadn't brought an intellectualism to the American scene that was not only missing - but positively discouraged for some time - in British punk (it later arrived of course, with the more political punk bands that followed). But Horses was not only culturally transformative, it's also one of Smith's best albums (which says a lot given the amazing quality of her work over the years). It opens with a reinterpretation of Van Morrison's Gloria that's possibly the finest opening track of a debut album ever, and the quality never drops. Literate, beautiful, violent, tragic and filled with enough inspiration and energy to justify most careers. Personal high point: Birdland or Gloria
  11. Maxinquaye - Tricky (1995)
  12. Jane's Addiction - Jane's Addiction (1987)
  13. Piper at the Gates of Dawn - Pink Floyd (1967)
  14. Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) - The Wu-Tang Clan (1993)
  15. The Lion and the Cobra - Sinéad O'Connor (1987)
  16. Surfer Rosa - The Pixies (1988)
  17. Three Imaginary Boys - The Cure (1979)
  18. Viva Hate - Morrissey (1988)
  19. Original Pirate Material - The Streets (2002)
  20. Private Revolution - World Party (1987)

Full post...

Monday, August 15, 2005

A poem (sorry)

In the past couple of years I've written perhaps a hundred or so short poems (usually in 5-7-5 format... haiku-like). I came very close to publishing them as a collection last year, but didn't have the time or money to do it the way I really wanted. Perhaps one day I shall.

The poem that follows is not haiku-like. And it's even got some rhyming going on! I don't think it's all that great, but I'm publishing it because I wrote it in my dream last night and was surprised that I could still remember it when I awoke.

"This is where it all begins"
said the man with the medals

His listeners grinned
their fingers twitched
(there were buttons that needed pressing)

"Collateral damage
will be kept to a minimum"
(but that's just window dressing)

So the missiles fly and the bombs fall
And the cities in the desert burn.

"This is where it all begins"
said the man with the fat cigar

His listeners grinned
their fingers twitched
(there were contracts that needed signing)

"The taxpayers loss
will be our gravy train"
(and it'll be some politician who ends up resigning)

So the desert oil flows into American cars
And the corporate waistline expands.

"This is where it all begins"
said the man in the armoured car

His listeners stared
their fingers twitched
(through nervousness and confusion and fear)

"We'll be in and out in seconds
they won't know what hit them"
(his tour into its second year)

But the roadside bomb has other plans
Now his mother protests in Crawford.

"This is where it all begins"
said the man in the green headscarf

His listeners stared
their fingers twitched
(through nervousness and confusion and fear)

"We'll drive them from our land
return to us what's ours"
(to him his purpose is clear)

Patriotism, greed, duty and anger
People kill and die for many reasons.
Full post...

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Iran removes seals from nuclear plant

TEHRAN, Iran (ASBC) -- In a move which has shocked many world governments as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), uranium enrichment operations have recommenced at the Esfahan nuclear facility in central Iran.

Although the Tehran regime is not contravening any international laws, and is indeed working within the framework specifically provided by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to enable nations to become self-sufficient in the production of nuclear fuel, words of warning have nonetheless been sounded from around the globe.

In the United States, President George 'Dubya' Bush has refused to rule out the use of military force should Iran not cease it's nuclear activity. Bush stressed that he was still seeking a diplomatic route towards preventing Iran from carrying out the perfectly lawful enrichment programme, but insisted that "all options" were still being considered. "Hell, we've got a quarter million troops down there already!" pointed out the president before adding "And Dick thinks the Iranian oil fields would make a perfect acquisition for Halliburton".

George Bush sends a clear message to Iran

President Dubya sends a clear message to Iran

In response to Bush's announcement that a military attack on Iran was "an option being considered", Cyrus Nasseri, Iran's chief delegate to the IAEA, told the Anarcho-Syndicalist Broadcasting Corporation that Western nations should "think twice" before taking any action that might be considered "coercive."

"That would be a course of action that would lead to a situation where everyone would lose," he said during talks on Wednesday. Nasseri also dropped a clear hint that Iran was prepared to push world oil prices "much higher" if the West tried to block its nuclear program and pointed out that the Iranians were in a position to help ease - or worsen - trouble spots in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

The threat came on a day when crude oil futures hit a new high of nearly $65 a barrel in trading in New York.

Meanwhile European negotiators are still trying hard to bring Iran back to the table. "Certainly it's true that they're not breaking any laws", admitted Hans-Pierre Smith spokesman for the EU-3, "but unlike other governments, Iran has lied in the past about it's nuclear activities. So clearly we have an obligation to refer them to the UN security council because of their resumption of this legal activity".

On Thursday, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a religious decree declaring the "production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons" to violate the tenets of Islam.

"The leadership of Iran", he announced, "has pledged at the highest level that Iran will remain a non-nuclear-weapon state party to the NPT and has placed the entire scope of its nuclear activities under IAEA safeguards and additional protocol, in addition to undertaking voluntary transparency measures with the agency that have even gone beyond the requirements of the agency's safeguard system."

This was confirmed by IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky who agreed that the IEAE had indeed received such assurances, and said that the plant at Esfahan "is fully monitored by the IAEA" and does not produce enriched uranium which can be used in nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, he admitted that the actions of the Tehran government were of concern to the Agency. "It's not that we specifically don't trust the Iranians", sighed Gwozdecky, "but when you've been doing this as long as we have... well... we've heard it all before frankly. India and Pakistan both lied to us consistently for a decade, and now they've just been rewarded for their deceit with major US arms-trade deals. I mean, how the hell are we supposed to keep a lid on this thing when every time some maverick regime starts researching nukes they get threats and sanctions, but as soon as they actually test one it's all F-16 contracts and anti-missile systems. And don't even get me started on Israel! Oh, but of course we're not allowed talk about that, are we?"

Gwozdecky then muttered something along the lines of "I don't know why I bother" before cutting the interview short to "go and get drunk". There was, he insisted, "bugger all else to do".

The crisis follows almost two years of negotiations during which the plant at Esfahan was rendered inoperative by trained IAEA seals put in place to monitor the facility and alert the agency should uranium enrichment begin again. The seals, which are each the product of a 15 million dollar training programme according to the IAEA, have "been removed humanely" according to authorities in Iran.

One of the IAEA trained seals being removed from the Esfahan plant

An IAEA seal is removed from the Esfahan plant

"We will, of course, return the seals to the IAEA at the earliest possible time" insisted Cyrus Nasseri. "Right now they are being debriefed in Tehran zoo where they are being very well treated". Animal rights organisations, however, have lodged several complaints with both the IAEA (claiming that nuclear facilities are not suitable habitat for aquatic mammals, however well trained) and the government of Iran (claiming that Tehran zoo does not have adequate space to house the almost two dozen seals deployed by the IAEA at Esfahan).

An IAEA trained seal at work

An IAEA seal monitors a plant in Japan

Matthew Boland, a spokesman for the U.S. mission to international organisations, said that the actions of the administration in Tehran were "yet another sign of Iran's disregard for international concerns." He attacked the track-record of "a nation which has consistently lied about it's nuclear activities" and also raised concern that some of the seals were being mistreated in the hope of gaining information about previous nuclear facilities at which they were stationed.

A seal monitors construction at the Esfahan facility

A seal monitors construction at the Esfahan facility

"Frankly I find their claim that all of the seals are being treated well to be laughable", Boland stated. "We have photographic evidence of seals being transported in barrels with the lids fastened shut and only the smallest of airholes through which to breathe. Under IAEA regulations, seals must only be transported in their specially designed barrels with the lids removed so they can have adequate access to both light and air."
A seal transportation barrel fastened shut

Alleged seal-barrel cruelty

Despite the concerns of the United States and the insistence of Boland that "this is an issue that needs resolving urgently. We cannot allow it to drag on for months allowing the Iranians to develop a nuclear bomb", Western intelligence sources have told ASBC that Iran is still five to 10 years from being technologically capable of building an atomic weapon, even if it restarted its entire nuclear program today.

Because of this, IAEA board members appear sharply divided on a response to the Iranian moves with many not sharing the hardline stance of the US. In fact the United States initially wanted Iran to give up its entire nuclear program but has since been forced to fall in line with the EU-3 in search of guarantees Iran will not produce weapons.

The IAEA's Mark Gwozdecky claimed he was confident the board members would come to a consensus in this week's talks - but he said the larger issue at hand was "Iran's relationship with the rest of the world." That ultimately would require the United States - which has no diplomatic relations with Iran - to enter the European-led negotiations. "I think this [the work at Esfahan] is a concern, but ultimately the bigger question for us and the global community is how to normalise a relationship with Iran that's been strained for almost 25 years," Gwozdecky said.

IAEA website calling for reinstatement of seals

The IAEA website calls for the reinstatement of the seals

Under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, member nations are allowed to develop nuclear energy under the watchful eyes of the IAEA. The only states that have declared they have nuclear weapons but have not signed the NPT are India and Pakistan.

Israel is also not a signatory: It neither confirms nor denies having nuclear weapons but is widely believed to have a significant arsenal.
Full post...

Friday, August 12, 2005

Some links and ting

Infinite Wheel. If you like well-produced web-toys then you will love this site. If you also happen to enjoy dub music, then you will really really love it. One of my favourite websites ever (and I've only just discovered it). Needs sound.

"President Bush unveiled an aggressive initiative Monday that would make the U.S. free of petroleum dependence by the year 4920, less than three millennia from now." (read more) I'm a big fan of The Onion. There are - as with everything groovy - those who say that it's past it's best. Well I've been reading it for 10 years now, and what impresses me most is the consistency. In fact, if anything it's gotten sharper. "Our distant relations will have some hard work to do," Bush said. "But hard work is what built this nation, and I have every faith that they will succeed."

Of course, the grim truth of the matter is that The Onion story wouldn't be half as funny if we didn't suspect that Bush really does think that way. Why else would the Hirsch report go missing, after all?

Incidentally, there hasn't been a new Get Your War On for a while now. Well worth giving the old ones a re-read though.

Federal Agent Jack Bauer thinks so.

By the way, if you're not a regular reader of George Monbiot's columns in The Guardian, then you should be bloody well ashamed of yourself. You can start making amends by reading his excellent piece on Patriotism which was in this weeks paper.

In the words of Albert Einstein, "Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind."
Full post...

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Blog Against The Lords

Yesterday was - apparently - "National Blog About How Ridiculous The House of Lords Is" Day. Leastways so say the self-styled arbiters of these things, Chicken Yoghurt and Tampon Teabag (I love citing people by their blog titles; though it does make me wish I hadn't chosen a 'private joke' to title this place... I'd much prefer it if people could say something like "As Jim over at Wanking Tossbuggery says..." or maybe, "In the words of Jim at Exploding Rectum...").

I didn't find out about this national holiday until after it had passed, though on my sidebar I do have an Elect The Lords banner in constant readiness for such eventualities.

That said, being an Irishman in Britain I must admit to being secretly (and constantly) delighted by the absurdly anachronistic system of governance still being employed by my former colonial oppressors. Of the three branches of government, two are unelected and one is entirely ceremonial. Britain is a country where you can claim a position of power and governance based entirely upon who your Mum and Dad were.

And they still claim to be "a democracy".

Ah that famous British humour.
Full post...

Robin Cook

It's terrible really. When I think of the recently-snuffed-it Robin Cook, the first thing that always springs to mind is Chris Morris on The Day Today discussing "tomorrow's front-pages" and bellowing "Robin Cock!" with comic intonation of absolute genius.

And that's how the man will live on in my memory for as long as I have one.

Other tributes to Our Ethical Politician can be found at Bristling Badger and Chase Me Ladies...
Full post...

Religious jokes

So the Buddha walks into a pizza restaurant and says "Make me one with everything!"

OK, OK, so hardly the most original... but it's not easy being funny about religion in this environment. I was watching a documentary recently about the phenomenon of suicide bombing. Needless to say, the film-makers appeared to skirt over the fact that most suicide bombers are not in fact Islamic terrorists. The Tamil Separatists are Hindus engaged in a political / nationalist struggle against a larger Hindu state... so when they use the tactic, it can hardly be described as "religious". And they were the most prolific suicide bombers prior to the Iraq debacle (which I'd describe as an ongoing war rather than a series of terrorist actions - and certainly as much political as it is religious).

Update: See comments for clarification on the Tamil thing... I was wrong about the "Hindu State" point, but still maintain it's a political rather than religious conflict.

Also, when it comes to terrorism in general (suicide and non-suicide)... the single largest sufferers; making up almost a quarter of all global deaths due to terrorism; are not Israelis, or Americans, or Brits or Spaniards. They are Nepalese people at the hands of (technically atheist) Maoist guerrillas.

Just a perspective thing.

Nevertheless, the documentary (or the part I caught... I surfed into it while it was already on; so perhaps they discussed the Tamil Tigers earlier?) focussed on the religious aspect of suicide bombing. In particular, from an Islamic perspective. I guess this is to be expected given recent events in London, but I can't help feeling that the film-makers (as well as the media and public in general) are making way too much out of the link between Islam and suicide terrorism.

As the documentary progressed, an interview was carried out with an accomplice of a Palestinian suicide bomber (in prison). He was clearly an educated and intelligent young man. On the surface he appeared rational and even displayed a subtle sense of humour and irony that one doesn't usually associate with psychopaths.

He discussed, sensibly, the political background to his struggle. He explained that when he was a child he had been assaulted by an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint (anyone who has dabbled in psychology and understands the pressure-cooker environment that must exist in a Palestinian refugee camp will see the roots of the man's psychosis right there). He explained the hopelessness felt by himself and everyone around him. And he claimed that what gets described as "terrorism" is merely "asymmetrical warfare". Palestinians don't have the tanks or bulldozers that would allow them to adopt the Israeli tactics of destroying the homes of the families of enemy combatants. They don't have jet fighters armed with powerful missiles ready to target enemy combatants (and anyone within a quarter mile blast radius). And they don't have helicopter gunships to hunt down and kill enemy combatants (and anyone else visiting the same market-stall at the time).

And so - claimed the bomber's accomplice - how else can they fight back against an occupying army which does have and does employ these weapons?

There are those, of course, who declare that Israeli tactics target combatants, and any civilian deaths are "collateral damage". On the other hand, Palestinian tactics target civilians. They are therefore morally reprehensible in a way that Israeli tactics are not.

But this simply doesn't stand up to any kind of scrutiny. Those targeted by Israel are suspected terrorists. Israel makes the claim that it is an enlightened democratic state (the only one in the area, it is often said!) and indeed bases much of its moral authority on that claim. However, the use of military force by any government to carry out extrajudicial executions in crowded public areas, with the clear foreknowledge that many more "random" people will die than "targeted people", does not conform to any standard of "enlightened democracy" upon which moral authority can be based.

An analogy... I find myself in a pub in an unfamiliar part of town one night. The pub is packed with strangers, all out for a fun Friday night. But two tough-looking skinheads are sitting in one corner. As I pass their table, one of them pulls a knife out and promises me that at some point in the evening, he's going to plunge it into my back. So I step outside the pub door and throw a hand-grenade back into the building killing 40 people, including the two skinheads.

Question: Is there a court in any "enlightened democracy" which would accept my plea of self-defence?

All of this is pretty standard fare of course. And to be honest, it's all been said a thousand times. There are those who will claim I'm being "anti-Israeli" and will extend that to "anti-semitic" based upon the fact that I'm criticising the policy of a supposed enlightened democracy (aren't you supposed to do that... isn't it part of the very definition of enlightened democracy?)

One thing though that should be mentioned... the rational and ironic suicide-bomber's accomplice on the recent documentary was asked how suicide terrorism fit into his religious beliefs. Without missing a beat, he transformed from an outwardly rational young man into a complete nutter.

Paradise awaited the dead bomber / murderer, he claimed. Allah will marry him to 72 beautiful virgins, and he will live in a land where there are rivers of purest water, of milk, of honey, and of non-alcoholic wine.

It was the specificity of the non-alcoholic wine in heaven that truly revealed the man's madness (set aside the whole 72 virgins thing... though that makes as much sense as eating soup with a fork). He was simply repeating dogma... this man who could clearly analyse and interpret complex political issues was content to parrot nonsense in the name of religion.

There's absolutely no question that adding religion to a conflict (as it has been done by both sides of the Palestinian conflict... and as Dubya Bush seems eager to do in his crusade to rid the world of terror - anyone heard of his plans for Nepal by the way?) is a surefire way of taking existing psychosis and magnifying it to the point where it's almost all that remains. The tendency to conflate Jewishness with current Israeli policy is just as much a manifestation of this as the tendency of an apparently intelligent Palestinian to suddenly spout ludicrous beliefs about 72 virgins and Allah making the distinction between alcoholic and non-alcoholic wine after you've already made it to heaven.

Personally I think all religious dogma needs to be exposed as the tasteless joke that it is.

So the Buddha goes to a dentist for some extremely painful root-canal surgery. He point-blank refuses the Novocaine offered to dull the pain, however. His reason? To Transcend Dental Medication (of course).
Full post...
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