Saturday, 4 December 2010

Fat, Old Men

Ah, yes.  Barry John in his pomp.  Widely considered the best fly-half ever to have played the game.  Well, by Welsh people at least.  A magical number 10 maestro in the style that is guaranteed to get any Welsh rugby fan misty eyed and waxing lyrical.  A genius of vision and timing, a master of controlling a game and bringing his team mates into play at the exact right moment.  And, unthinkably in sport's current era of professionalism and money spinning, a part-timer and an amateur playing for the love of it in his spare time.

I love sport.  I've never been that good at it; I lack the necessary fine motor skills to be the mercurial number 10 in rugby union or football I dream of being.  Combine that with a quite spectacular case of pigeon toedness and you understand that I had to reconcile myself to a lifetime of passionate appreciation of the skills of others in sport.  Having said that, I did manage to carve out a very brief and mediocre niche in my school rugby team as a utility forward.  My favoured position was wing forward - too slow and clumsy to be a back, too weak to be a lock - but I think I played every position in the front eight over the three or four years I played.  I discovered that I could use a half decent bit of acceleration and a surplus of body weight to good advantage if I used my head and tried to play ahead of the game.  It was reasonably successful and got me into the school team for a couple of years.

(I even actually managed to play for Wales, to wear the famous red shirt.  Admittedly, it was for the Air Cadets and it would be safe to say that Air Cadets are really not very good at rugby; they seem to draw their ranks from boys that would rather be playing with Airfix kits and constructing balsa wood flying machines.  I enjoyed a tournament as a medium sized fish in a very small pond indeed; I think it must have been my sporting apex.)

I also explored a slightly darker side of my personality that I think is worth knowing about in the life long quest to improve one's nature and become a better person: there was no sweeter sound to me than a scrum half's breath being forced out of his chest as I drove my shoulder into his torso and dumped him on his backside.  Getting up off the ground, leaning excessively on the vanquished foe to further rub salt into his wounds and fan the flames of fear and intimidation.  You would feel invincible, indomitable and trot off to tidy up with whatever the fancy dans in the backs had managed to muck up.  It's not a particularly constructive or good character trait, but I think that as a bloke one needs to be aware of it; many of us have a need to dominate, to be more powerful, to be the victor at the expense of others.  After I left school, I quite fancied playing a bit more rugby for a local team (Clwb Rygbi Nantgaredig) and signed up to join.  I think I trained for about a month for what must have been about the 10th XV side, whereupon I realised that I had nowhere near the ferocity or fearlessness that is required to cut it in the carnage of low level Welsh club rugby.  Let alone the skill or application.  So I gave up rugby and focused on the far less frightening and more forgiving code of Association Football.  The physical costs of the two sports are incomparable; I'd rather have a twisted knee from a late challenge than an eye gouged out by terrifying, ginger farmer with hands the size of snow shovels.  I soon found that goalkeeping played to my skills as an over physical bully hell-bent on scaring the living daylights out of players that are more skilful and talented than I could even dream of being but who made the fatal error of being smaller than me.  OK, I've destroyed my knee playing football (jumping to catch a cross on a not-quite bowling green flat pitch in Nailsea), but I'm pretty certain if I'd stuck at rugby I'd have been picking my teeth off the ground, having my eyelids stitched back together and relocating many a jauntily angled finger with much more regularity than I have.

But now I'm fatter (thanks in no small part to the needy knee) and older and have had to scale back all my delusions of sporting grandeur.  I now enjoy watching the games and playing the vital sporting role of fanatical fan and armchair raconteur.  Sports like football bring so much pleasure to so many people in such a simple and innocent way.  Since the dawn of time, human beings have like nothing more than watching other human beings race, wrestle or knock heads for entertainment.  Which is why Sepp Blatter and FIFA really, really make me annoyed.

Why is it that self-serving, fat, old men that wear expensive but crushingly dull suits are in charge of almost everything that is good in the world?  Why should something as simple and joyful as sport be enveloped in a world of back-handers, bungs and bribery?  Sport should be innocent, carefree and, above all, entertaining.  These people are like Dementors that suck the soul out of the entertainment of the common Man and grow ever fatter, ever more self-important with every slurp and lap up of our innocent joy.  Money doesn't care about us.  Power couldn't give a shit about our passions or traditions.  If you're a Liverpool FC fan like me, or just a fan of sport that has followed the whole sordid, sorry affair of our transition from family run tradition to globally branded commodity, you'll know what I'm clumsily trying to describe here.  Don't get me wrong: I don't think England has a God-given right to host the World Cup - as a follower of Welsh international football I find the arrogance of English fans and media quite irritating and am very happy to see Russia, one of the biggest and most football mad countries on earth never to have hosted the competition - but I do find FIFA's smugness and greed one of the most nauseating phenomena on the planet.  Why the hell is Blatter and all of his executives treated like statesmen and dignitaries?  Who the hell do they think they are?  Why the hell do we play along with it and play along with inflating their egos?

So, hurrah! to Panorama.  Hurrah! to Roger Burden.  Smash FIFA; go for the jugular and bring all their leeching executives crashing down on their engorged and bloated backsides.  I'd be very happy to see the real fans, the real grass-roots of the sport turn on their detached, conceited and corrupt leaders and force them to find gainful employment in some other realm.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Widdly widdly woo!

Is this the most avant garde, experimental and downright dangerous thing ever to have happened on a popular music recording?

Yes.  Without a doubt, it is.

The whammy bar glissando introduction is almost half arsed, like Mr Van Halen can't really be bothered, but launches into the most mind-blowing assault on tonality and common sense, good old fashioned guitar playing ever recorded.  People have played faster and louder on many other records, this quite tame to many of Van Halen's other recorded guitar solos, but there is something about the fact that this is on a record by the King of Pop himself that trumps all other examples of widdly woo virtuosity.

Musicologists could - and almost certainly already have - write entire theses on this solo.  Obviously, it is technically very difficult to play.  However, most bedroom guitar nerds don't worry about that sort of thing.  Check this note perfect rendition for example:

Not a problem.  Note perfect, even down to the knock on the body of the guitar, although the forced harmonics don't quite have the same ferocity as the original.  You have to admire this man's - and it is almost certainly a man, isn't it? - dedication to learning things really carefully, to the detriment of his sleep patterns, personal hygiene and social skills.  I have known many bedroom based guitar geniuses, some of whom rank among the most accomplished musicians I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.  All totally blow me away when it comes to technical knowledge of how Western music works, from classical tradition to death metal.  However, get them in a band and it all goes wrong, probably for the disregard show to the fundamental life skills listed above; live music is a team sport and not really the preserve of the genuine geek.

(As an aside, I didn't realise that knock at the start was a guitar; knocking on the body of a guitar is something lots of players do to check they're on and live in a less obtrusive manner than playing a note or chord.  If Van Halen did that on purpose, that's an outrageous approach to a recording session and therefore true genius. If it was accidental and the producer (the great Quincy Jones) just thought he'd leave it in, well that's just as maverick and just as innovative; these big money recordings are high stake affairs and little touches like this are gold dust.)

What interests me more than the geeky widdlery and note frequency is the unfettered abandon of the performance, the cavalier approach to musical theory and convention.  I don't have the necessary education to explain it, but some of Mr Van Halen's note choices and musical phrases are challenging to say the least.  This is no solo by numbers that one would normally expect from a session player on a pop record. No sir.  This is a tirade, an outpouring of raw, visceral virtuosity and expression that can only come from a player that a) has done a lot of practising, b) is unbelievably self-assured, possibly almost psychotically so and c) is almost certainly drunk.

I really enjoy and admire technical excellence.  I have huge respect for players that have dedicated their lives to playing just so.  But more than anything, I love players that have done that work, have painstakingly built up a vast chandelier of skills, muscle memory and cerebral knowledge, and then choose to smash the whole lot up in an instinctive, emotional and gutteral mess.

And, to really cement the claim for the most avant garde exhibition of musicianship in the history of pop music, he did the session for free.  As Eddie Van Halen himself said to Rolling Stone magazine in 1984: "I did it as a favour ... I was a complete fool, according to the rest of the band, our manager and everyone else. I was not used. I knew what I was doing - I don't do something unless I want to do it."