21 May 2010

Say Cleese

John Cleese is going on a speaking tour, according to today's news. Get me there.

I know he gets stick these days for his criticisms of the UK and his rather eventful marital history, not to mention some dodgy film roles and political endorsements, but I don't care about any of those. If this tour consists of a two-hour show that allows him to tell the best stories and anecdotes from his working life then I'm sold. Front row for me, please.

There are loads of (sorry for use of this expression) national treasures who I could just sit down and listen to yarn away about their lives for hours on end. Cleese is one. Now that he's back in Government, we may have to wait a while for the Kenneth Clarke speaking tour but it'll be fascinating when it happens. I'd love to hear the stories of Barry Cryer, Geoffrey Boycott, Terry Wogan, Ranulph Fiennes, Steve Davis, Bruce Forsyth, Jimmy Greaves, Stephen Fry and David Dimbleby. Tony Benn went out on tour a year or two back and I missed it, but I'd love to hear about his stories from Attlee via Wilson to Blair.

Lots of ageing people of a certain profile do the after-dinner speaking bit, especially among sports stars, but a full-scale tour would be a really good test of just how interesting their lives had been. I'm in no doubt Cleese would fill each of his eight scheduled venues several times over. In fact, I'd rather hope that his example will be followed by some of his contemporaries - get me to the Graeme Garden lecture immediately!

I so wish someone would put the full eulogy from Cleese online, rather than just the first section, but nonetheless it's still worth seeing.

19 May 2010

"Listen to my heart go bumpity-bump..."

Mona by Craig McLachlan and, it would be criminal to forget, Check 1-2. The first example of a soap star getting far too high above their station.

I was a teenager in the late 1980s and therefore, like every other person my age, would watch Neighbours at 5.35pm each day. My dad would despair but, outnumbered my three other people, would grumble and whinge while buried beneath the Hull Daily Mail as the rest of the family took in our daily 22 minute fix from Ramsey Street.

We all remember McLachlan, of course. He had the body that teenage girls craved and teenage boys wished for, helpfully enhanced by the script demanding some denim dungarees and little else. His character was given an element of (Australian) wit and his basic plotline was of the bad boy done good, given that we knew of Henry Ramsey's existence for months prior to his entrance as he was in prison. For what, I can neither remember nor care.

Soon it was obvious that McLachlan possessed a bit more charisma - and acting talent - than most of the hams doing the rounds. His press interviews made it plain that he was also a musician and he was regularly writing songs and going to the studio.

This was a worry. After all, as amazing a talent as he may have been (and I'm not saying he was), there is always a disadvantage that comes from a decision to follow a high-profile but untesting acting career rather than try to make it off one's own bat as a musician. He was doomed from the start. Even if he had been Johnny Marr or Pete Townshend, he was still doomed.

As it turned out, he wasn't quite Johnny Marr or Pete Townshend, and I remember a televised celebration party for Neighbours (probably a fifth birthday or something) in which McLachlan was invited onstage to play guitar on something. He did. It was one of those crazed, improvised solos that start nowhere and end nowhere and it showed technical ability without a hint of real musicality. He was showing off.

Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan were the pathfinders, of course, for every half-baked soap opera thesp to believe they could carve out a musical career. This isn't a criticism of them, as they knew their audience and were happy being teen idols, knowing that they could use their fame to forge a more grown-up career later. My favourite quote about McLachlan's own pop career came from the unlikely Mancunian gob of MC Tunes (himself on the extremely crap wing of rappers that emerged in 1990) when, in reviewing one of McLachlan's singles, said: "Kylie's alright, Jason's alright, because they make crummy pop records for kids, but then along comes Craig saying 'Well, here are my records and they're crap'."

Articulacy wasn't his strongest suit (if you've ever read the lyrics for Tunes Splits The Atom you'll know this) but his point was clear - if you're going to have pretensions for proper musicianship after doing a soap, make sure you do it properly, or otherwise be the teen idol for a bit. McLachlan's material was incredibly weak when one considers he was a guitarist and not just some blonde fledgling who had put pound signs in Pete Waterman's eyes.

Mona was the debut single, released in the summer of 1990. It was a very old Bo Diddley tune with a chord sequence that even Status Quo would consider too samey. Needs must, and catchiness had to override artistic merit in order to get McLachlan and Check 1-2 (notice that he got extra billing; had it really been about the music then he'd have just melted into the band - a band named after the words traditionally used to test that a microphone is working) into the charts. It worked. It flew to No.2 in the UK at a time when McLachlan, back home, was already long gone from Neighbours and was now in Home & Away, playing a teacher. In the UK, however, he was still hapless Henry Ramsey, walking naked around Bronwen's garden and making audition tapes for radio stations (fool).

The Mary Whitehouse Experience were the first to point out what every music person of a certain vintage knew - that the song was essentially Not Fade Away with new lyrics. I don't know if they knew that Mona wasn't a McLachlan composition but my guess is that they realised their audience probably didn't know either and therefore could criticise McLachlan for aping someone else's song. For me, it just made me think of a skeleton advertising videotapes and from then onwards I couldn't take it seriously at all.

The lyrics are 50 years old and so there is a caveat right there about the relationship between men and women, perhaps, but I am quite taken aback by the idea of someone building a house next door to the object of their desire before they'd even asked them out. So it was, in fact, an early song about stalking. Paparazzi by Lady GaGa is behind the times after all.

McLachlan's next problem was the follow-up. It was called Amanda, and once again it was a positive song about bald lust for the eponymous character. Now fictional it may all be, and McLachlan only wrote the latter song, but surely someone in his entourage or at the record company thought that releasing consecutive singles about two different women was a bad idea? Amanda scraped into the Top 20 and was seriously featureless, then the third effort, called I Almost Felt Like Cryin', (which was the song MC Tunes was reviewing) missed the Top 40 altogether.

That wasn't quite it, as one more forgettable McLachlan song (without the band, or at least without crediting for them) found the Top 40 in 1992 before his period in Grease took over and he teamed up with Debbie Gibson, something that every boy of my generation would have rather enjoyed. A single from the musical was his last go at the UK charts, and the last time I saw him was in Bugs.

I stopped watching Neighbours and Home & Away on the same day in June 1993, the day I left home for the final time to start a working life that meant I'd never be home for 5.10pm. For all I know, McLachlan may have been back in one or the other for years.

17 May 2010

"Clams on the half shell and roller skates..."

A first for me yesterday as I played the music at a roller disco. This was interesting. I never knew that roller discos were still going strong, but evidently they are.

I know kids arse about on those sharp bladey things, of course, but they seem to be the preserve of shopping precincts at twilight rather than organised rinks, and these kids can do all sorts of turns and acrobatics as opposed to just careering with limited control in an anti-clockwise direction round a large bit of parquet floor.

This was a council event in a town centre square in Stockport, and the rink was an open air oblong owned and erected by a mobile roller disco company. Skating marshals with orange tabards and legwarmers were hired to guide the skaters around and pick up the (many) stumblers, and then I turned up with my CD wallet under instruction to play non-stop 70s and 80s.

Seven hours of it, and it was terrific fun. While I like to think my maturity threshold can be set to a reasonably high level most of the time, and my sense of humour is best triggered by highbrow acts or words, it is still really funny when somebody falls entirely arse over tit on a roller skating rink.

I essentially was watching a You've Been Framed DVD on repeat play, while offering Stockport town centre everything from the Hues Corporation to Rick Astley including, naturally, a certain song by Cliff Richard.

Roller discos, you may not immediately realise, are a measurement of how good a parent you are. Many a mum or dad took a small child on to the rink and therefore had to try to teach both the sprog and themselves to skate simultaneously. Some parents were less keen to learn, and stayed on their own sturdy soles while gently helping the be-wheeled kid round and round.

Cocky kids, especially lads, got their comeuppance. Some local wannabe jikes with branded shoulder bags and those horribly chunky exterior chains, had a go and just as they began to show off to their mates or girlfriends, would take an almighty tumble. The bruising suffered by their bottoms and elbows was nothing compared to that of their egos. I was being paid to laugh at them. And boy, did I laugh.

And it enlightened me as to how many people still roller skate as a pastime, with some expert skaters coming in from elsewhere in the north west just because the online roller fraternity had revealed that a free open air rink was being erected in Stockport. They turned up with their skates, did lap after lap after lap for hours on end, and then went home. One girl said she'd driven in from Burnley. A chap told me he had been skating in Ashton-under-Lyne for 30 years.

Naturally, I stayed well away. In Hull we had a roller rink called Blisters in the 1980s which I, along with every person of my generation, visited in the school holidays and at weekends. I actually remember very little about it, but a casual mention on Facebook of my weekend gig brought out loads of memories from old schoolpals about going along. Like a lot of people, I went only a handful of times, realised that paying good money to just fall over for two hours wasn't exactly value for money, and returned to kicking a ball instead. See also the fad for ice skating which hit the city when the ice arena was inaugurated in the late 80s.

So, seven hours of retro tunes while people lost their bearings, balance and dignity. The sun was out. People were smiling. There are worse ways to earn a living.