18 May 2012

Summer moved on

My favourite Donna Summer story concerns the recording of No More Tears (Enough Is Enough) with Barbra Streisand.

Unlike a lot of big celeb duets, these two worked on the song in the same studio at the same time. It was 1979, so we had a major Broadway and Hollywood star singing alongside the media-styled 'queen of disco' and, while it's understood the two got on, there was certainly a clash of egos and styles that made for interesting recording time.

At the beginning, there is that long, percussionless, slow scene-setter as the two swap segments of singing, ending with Streisand singing a very long last syllable on the word 'tears', prior to the disco beat kicking in for the remainder.

Streisand, the older professional, had prepared for the session in her own sensible way. Summer, not yet 30 and arguably the most famous solo female singer in the world at the time, had prepared by being out on the sauce the night before. As Streisand hit that final note, Summer next to her collapsed with the after-effects of a heavy night of drinking and partying.

But Streisand was not to be distracted. She held her note, raised it a semitone (as we hear on the record), and only when given the thumbs-up by those in the production studio did she stop singing and attend to her companion behind the microphone. Summer had only momentarily passed out, and a few glasses of water and (possibly) a slap around the chops later, they continued.

I love that story. I love the ruthlessness of Streisand's professionalism and the contrast in lifestyles that it shows. I also love Donna Summer's work, from the pure filth of Love To Love You Baby (all subsequent versions have succeeded in removing the sex from the song, and therefore the point of it too), to the daft calypso of Unconditional Love (from Streisand to Musical Youth) and the impossibly catchy This Time I Know It's For Real, arguably the best pop song that Hit Factory combo wrote. I played Dinner With Gershwin, with that menacing vocal, on last week's Q The 80s.

She was known as an outstanding singer, a great partygoer and a workaholic. That's a pretty good trio of qualities for a pop star.

17 May 2012

"Yes, we're very handy for the NEC..."

I absolutely loved watching The Unforgettable Noele Gordon last night. Crossroads was deservedly the butt of many jokes but we forget, or never fully appreciate, just how much of a hold it had on the nation in (especially) the 1970s.

Even I watched it. I didn't have a choice, really; the Thursday evening trips to my maternal granparents' house always began with half an hour of "Ssssh!" noises as we usually arrived just as Crossroads was starting. Eventually, beaten into silence, this young lad began to wonder what the fuss was about.

I was too young to read grown-up publications like tabloid newspapers and telly magazines - and we never got telly mags anyway, except at Christmas - but even I knew that "Nolly" had a hold on the nation somehow. She'd travel the country doing supermarket openings and the like, and you'd see her on the news. Only last night did it dawn on me just how individually popular she was when those negatives of her in front of a table full of TV Times awards, which she won each year without fail, were put on show.

The Christmas scene where she breaks into song was hysterical, but I loved the comment from Susan "Miss Diane" Hanson, who said that as Nolly wasn't embarrassed, neither was I. I expect that all this time later, however, revisiting that scene on telly last night was uncomfortable. We got familiar anecdotes about the odd form of crediting on the show, her improvised one-way telephone calls to extend episodes that were too short and those cliffhanging last scenes that ended each episode just before the ATV symbol came up. All very much about Crossroads rather than Noele Gordon, you would think, but it was evident from the tone of the documentary and the comments from her co-stars and associates, that she was Crossroads.

I remember her exit on the QE2 and my grandma's actual tears as both Nolly and Jane "Jill" Rossington cried at the end of her last scene, and the outcry that made the national news. The footage of her immediate interview with Russell Harty was magnificent; she was haughty and confused and angry as she replied with a curt "I don't know!" when he gently asked her why they had let her go. It still seems like the single most pointless sacking in soap. The show divebombed for the rest of the 80s and was cancelled in 1988, by which time Noele Gordon had long succumbed to cancer. When you think of the ribbing Crossroads took, usually using the twin motive of wobbly sets and clunky acting, then firing its one superstar for no apparent reason was essentially killing the whole show. Nobody is bigger than a soap? Noele Gordon was, at the very least, of the same stature as hers.

I watched Crossroads for the last three years or so of its run. I remember with a bit of fondness the likes of Charlie Mycroft, Ann Marie Wade, Tommy Lancaster, the Grice family (one of whom was also appearing in kids' anarchy show Your Mother Wouldn't Like It, which was most off-putting), Mr Darby and the chain-smoking cleaner Mrs Tardebigge, but even still having Jill and Adam Chance there as head couple couldn't save it. Crossroads was essentially handed its notice by ATV when the bosses chose to ditch Noele Gordon, and the show itself essentially died when she did. Last night's documentary was unashamed in making that perfectly clear.

15 May 2012

Squad mentality

Roy Hodgson announces his England squad for Euro 2012 today and it's genuinely intriguing even for casual observers of the national team like me, as he is brand new to the job and therefore there has been little opportunity to gauge what he thinks of the players.

He can take 23 players to Poland and Ukraine next month, and is likely to name a few on standby as one or two injury issues have yet to be sorted, and a handful (ie, half a dozen at Chelsea) still haven't finished their club seasons yet. In total, probably 40 players harbour hopes (assuming players still hope to represent their country, something that many journalists would seek to cast doubt upon) of being selected.

I enjoy squad announcement days, as it's fascinating to compare your own thoughts on players and formations with what the main man himself is actually thinking. In the past there have been supposedly glaring omissions, downright baffling inclusions and the odd side story thrown up by the apparently simple act of choosing 23 very good football players.

Back in 1982, Ron Greenwood threw up something of a shock when he left out his most experienced defender in Dave Watson, who was in the team regularly up to and including the very last friendly prior to going to the World Cup in Spain. Watson had been an England player since 1974 and, although a little long in the tooth, was still accomplished, ruthless and eternally hard as nails. Greenwood left him out in favour of the youthful, headbanded Steve Foster and Watson's international career came to an end with not a World Cup appearance to his name. He remains the most capped England player never to have played at the tournament. England went out in the second group stage although ultimately defending wasn't an issue - in fact, they were a little too good in a way as their gameplan was largely based on caution and negativity, and they came home without losing a game, beaten by their inability to score goals.

In 1986, Bobby Robson's squad for the World Cup in Mexico was notable for being unproblematic, but two years later in 1988, he surprised everybody by including uncapped left back Tony Dorigo in his squad for the European Championships in West Germany, though ultimately the selection of somebody without any international experience was forced upon him, as he needed left back cover - two specialist left backs are a must in any squad - and the regular chap, Stuart Pearce, had suffered an injury at the end of the domestic season and was unavailable. Dorigo, at the time a Chelsea player, was a most unusual case as a) everybody thought he was Australian (he qualified only through his duration of residency in England); and b) he actually didn't get to win his first cap until well over a year later. He was, in a way, England's answer to the new laws on recruitment for national sides that had been exploited clinically by Jack Charlton's Republic of Ireland side, which contained a stack of Englishmen and at least one Scotsman as it beat England in the first game. Given the form of England's first choice left back at the tournament, the long-serving Kenny Sansom, it may well have been wise (after the event) to put Dorigo in the team, fearless and fresh. Sansom never played for England again and Pearce took over with Dorigo as his deputy.

In 1990, Robson again had a squad to pick after his side enjoyed an unbeaten campaign to reach the World Cup finals in Italy. Much had been made during the qualifying matches of the form of Paul Gascoigne, the gifted new boy of the team who made a passing contribution to qualifying but cemented his place in the friendlies afterwards, and so seemingly content with Gascoigne's inclusion, attention turned elsewhere. In the end, the biggest name to miss out was that of Arsenal defender Tony Adams, captain of his club and inspirational to a man, but at the time something of a political bugbear owing to his recent imprisonment for drink-driving. Ultimately, Robson didn't take him just because he thought he had better options which, when one considers Adams' merits was quite a bold thought, and it would be another eight years before Adams would finally play in a World Cup. His England career took in 13 calendar years during which period he won a (comparatively) meagre 66 caps. England's legendary sweeper system, featuring the three centre backs Robson chose over Adams, was a key factor in the team getting to within two penalty kicks of the final. Along with Gascoigne, of course.

Two years later, the belief that Graham Taylor preferred graft over craft was epitomised by his decision not to take Chris Waddle, a rare British success at the top of the European game with Marseille, to the European Championships in Sweden. Waddle was only 30 when Taylor took over and with his move to France hit some truly sparkling form, but Taylor simply didn't fancy him - and this remained the case even after John Barnes was ruled out of the tournament with injury. Taylor instead used Andy Sinton - skill but no pace - and Tony Daley - pace but little skill - as his wide men and got conclusively found out. This was one of those occasions when expectations were lowered via the way England played, not the players who did that playing. England scored once in three group games and went home very early.

In 1996, with a new broom under Terry Venables and status as host nation meaning there was no qualifying campaign to act as a form guide, it was difficult to say which inclusions or exclusions would count as a shock when he announced his squad. He liked enthusiastic youthfulness, however, and the likes of Phil Neville, Nick Barmby and Sol Campbell all made the squad when ageing players still with ability such as Mark Wright and Peter Beardsley missed out. Perhaps the biggest shock, if there really was one, was the exclusion at the very last moment of Robert Lee, the in-form English midfielder of that mid-1990s period who had been of frequent usefulness through the course of the previous year or so as the team progressed from friendly to friendly. As it turned out, Venables didn't do a lot wrong and just those wretched penalties got in the way of a triumph that became more than just a dream.

Two years on, with a third head coach in three tournaments, and an omission that rocked football and the back pages for many a week between the announcement and the World Cup finals themselves. Glenn Hoddle, never left out of a finals squad for which he was available but regularly not utilised properly, was now in charge while barely 40 years old, and although his star performer had been excellent in the qualifying campaign that had got England to the finals in France, the antics off the pitch of Gascoigne meant that, in a move nobody saw coming, he was one of the quintet that was trimmed from the final squad. The setting and aftermath of Gascoigne's exclusion is well known - Kenny G on the stereo, a tearful tantrum, broken lampshades - but although much debate ensued from the football press, they heavy-heartedly realised Hoddle was right. England went out with ten men in the second round, thanks again to penalties, and even though the exit was earlier than expected, there is no doubt that Gascoigne's looniness would have been of no use whatsoever.

Two years later and another coach was in charge, with Kevin Keegan now selecting the squad, the populist choice that to this day haunts the FA to the extent that picking Harry Redknapp last month would have looked like they hadn't learned a thing. Keegan had a relatively settled squad even though he had no real tactical plan for them, but his apparent refusal to believe that decent left-sided players existed, beyond the injured ones that he actually wanted - Pearce, Jason Wilcox, Graeme Le Saux - was a major ingredient in his downfall. England played its three group games at the European Championships in Belgium with Dennis Wise and Phil Neville on the southpaw flank, both right footed and contributing little more than anonymity and one infamous tackle respectively that went some way to guaranteeing a typically early exit. Ashley Cole and Steve Guppy, not to mention a teenager called Gareth Barry, first choice left back at Aston Villa, would have all been much more sensible choices; their comparative inexperience alleviated by their actual ability to balance a defence or midfield by being natural on the left. More galling was that Barry was actually in the squad and could have played in either position, but Keegan simply overlooked him.

Keegan soon did one, in typical Keegan manner, not long after the tournament ended, and Sven Goran Eriksson arrived. For all his controversies over leadership, tactics, nationality and - ludicrously - what he did with his private life, his actual selections for the first two of the three tournaments to which he led England were pretty much without parallel in their lack of controversy. He picked exactly the squad available to him for the 2002 World Cup in the Far East, choosing obvious deputies when Gary Neville and Steven Gerrard were ruled out with injury, then chose precisely the right man in John Terry to deputise for the suspended Rio Ferdinand in Portugal for the European Championships two years later. Then, the Swede had his squad pretty much nailed for everyone to guess prior to the 2006 World Cup in Germany - but with one extraordinary exception. The 23rd player, as announced at the lavish FA do by a John Motson voiceover, was one 16 year old attacking wide player called Theo Walcott. He had only just begun playing first-team football, had no senior caps and yet had managed to get into Eriksson's squad for reasons that absolutely nobody to this day can still understand. Jermain Defoe, hardly proven at international level but certainly older and with some semblance of a scoring record at the top level in the club game, stayed at home. Walcott travelled with the squad and came nowhere near to actually being involved as England, like in 2002 and 2004, exited in the last eight.

Fabio Capello's arrival two years later prompted a new wave of discipline and boot-camp mentality to the England set-up, so it appeared. Proven as a club coach around Europe, he never really got to grips with the requirements and limitations of coaching within the international game, not to mention the English language, but nevertheless there were no real surprises when he announced his squad of 23 that travelled to South Africa in 2010, especially once David Beckham's Achilles injury had taken one major decision out of his hands. The fact that England were truly awful didn't reflect at all on Capello's selection, though the players ultimately shouldered more blame than that taken on by any other preceding squad of underachievement.

So, Hodgson has decisions to make that, given the hard time his appointment has afforded him from the press, could make or break his spell as head coach before any player has even kicked a ball in his name. His goalkeepers and midfielders should be a cut and dried choice, but he has massive decisions to make regarding his centre forwards, especially as Wayne Rooney is banned for the first two games, and also his defenders, thanks to the extra-curricular tensions involving Terry and the Ferdinand family, with many suggesting he should just ditch both factions and start afresh. Whatever he does, or doesn't do, will be criticised because of the current relationship between the press and the FA, and Hodgson is stuck in the middle. But ultimately, the wisdom after the event regarding those who go and fail, coupled with those who don't go and therefore could have made a difference, will as ever provide the post-mortem to a tournament that Hodgson, and the rest of us, know we probably can't win.

14 May 2012

"Now, are we all agreed on what the fire bell sounds like?"

At the gym which I still miraculously patronise three times a week, they often do their fire alarm test while I'm there. I don't think they necessarily do it deliberately because I'm there, but given that it always scares the crap out of me when it sounds, which must look amusing to others, maybe they've taken it on as some kind of mediocre sport.

The sound is very high-pitched, very loud and extremely brief. The problem is that they do it probably six times, with roughly a minute's gap in between, so you're never not made to jump each time it happens. The chap who is already holding up a weight that is turning his right bicep into water can't be aided by the fright of that alarm. One false move and the weight has snapped a couple of toes and the local authority gets a writ.

They never warn us it's happening either. In a responsible world, a great big notice goes on a wall, or the receptionist informs every customer as they swipe their membership card. But not at my gym. In order to gain some pleasure from what is otherwise a mundane duty required by law, they decide to petrify the customers.

I've never, to my great good luck, been present when a fire alarm has been activated due to an actual fire. Problem is, nowadays the requirement to practise properly and evacuate a building for a few minutes seems to have gone. The last time I can remember doing it was in Stockport when I was on the Imagine FM breakfast show, and that would have been more than seven years ago. Essentially three links and songs worth of stuff was pre-recorded into the computer so the radio station stayed happily on air while its entire staff - plus those in other offices within the block - were bundled across Heaton Lane to stand on a small patch of wasteland next to a municipal car park, whose users were looking at us if we were mad.

I wonder how they do fire drills at school now? I remember at primary school we got a mixture of publicised drills and surprise ones, with the latter always being quite soon after the former. The alarm - a one note drone that carried on ringing in your ears for hours after it had actually been switched off - would sound and everyone would do that disciplined thing of standing up, putting on coats and filing in an orderly manner out of the fire exit at the side of the classroom (all our classrooms had them). Then we'd gather on the playground, the register would be taken, some wag would momentarily pause before saying "Yes Miss!" to make the teacher panic (even though there wasn't an actual fire) and then we'd all go back in again. Presumably, the head teacher would then file a 40-page report to the education authority and fire service saying it was done.

The problem for me on one occasion was when the surprise drill came along, I happened to be standing near the normal classroom exit for the corridor. The alarm sounded and, well, I was rivalling Allan Wells for the speed I used to vacate the building. I just hurtled down the corridor and out of the front door. A couple of other kids - we were probably nine, I think, remembering the classroom in question - followed me at similarly high speed and so we essentially cocked up this teacher's drill completely. Everyone else did the right thing through the correct exit and we were waiting, alone and sheepish, on the playground for the bollocking that we knew was coming. We were told afterwards, curtly, that just buggering off like that could result in running "straight into the flames", which even then I thought was slightly over the top.

By contrast, even though I was there longer and was obviously older, the only thing I can remember about any fire drill at my secondary school was starting an impromptu domino rally among my classmates as the teacher tried to take the alfresco register. Boys will be boys. Given that the gym I use is in the same building as that school, I suppose the current system of frightening the shit out of me each time it rings its wretched three-tone alarm is fate's way of getting its revenge on me.