Sunday, 28 June 2009

Who are the defining rock performers?

I'm not going to pretend that I'm a great Michael Jackson fan because I'm not. Although I do like Smooth Criminal and would really like to moonwalk. That aside, his death was very depressing and, like a lot of people, I guess I find myself talking about it with friends and family at the moment. Conversations normally start with, "So, what about Jackson then, bit of a surprise," and the whole thing shifts in to gear from there.

Today I found myself on Woodmansterne Green in Surrey in the UK, having cycled there early in the morning with a pal. We've been cycling out into the sticks like this every weekend for the best part of three years, and our exercise has always been accompanied by chit chat about virtually anything. Today, flask of tea in hand, I started the conversation. "So, what about Jackson then, bit of a surprise," and for a while we chatted about the great man, his music and his untimely departure from the world.

And then we started thinking that, like a lot of things, there are only really a few defining rock acts and how the rest are all derivative. But who were the great defining rock performers and are there really only a handful of albums needed for any of us to lay claim to owning the ultimate 'all you need' collection? This is not about choosing your top ten albums, that would be easy, this is about naming mainstream acts (bands or solo performers) that define rock.

I would guess that the list would have to include Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Sex Pistols (and possibly the New York Dolls too) but who would you choose as the defining heavy metal band? Who started it? Deep Purple, Black Sabbath? For the grunge period, I would choose Kurt Cobain and Nirvana.

And then, of course, there is the late, great Michael Jackson: his Thriller album would have to be part of your collection. But what about Morrissey and The Smiths? What about The Clash, The Jam, Roxy Music, Dire Straits and Thin Lizzy? What about U2, what about all those bands in the 80s like Duran Duran, ABC and Spandau Ballet? What about Blur and Oasis? What about the Stone Roses? They've all had their defining moments, but would they be on your list of bands who defined an era or pioneered a style of music?

People say that the Stone Roses missed a trick by splitting up and that their first album was a defining piece of work – as opposed to their second which was widely regarded as a bit of an anti-climax. But should Ian Brown and John Squire be lauded as rock gods? I love Squire's jangly guitar on She Bangs the Drum and one day I will get round to buying that first Stone Roses album, but are they leaders or followers?

I know that, ultimately, every band and performer out there is influenced by somebody or something, but the thinking behind this blogpost is this: who, out of our current run of bands from the mid-20th century to the present day, have been responsible for starting something? Were the Rolling Stones and the Beatles the original guitar bands? Was Black Sabbath the defining heavy metal band? Did Led Zeppelin pioneer heavy rock? Which bands, in other words, were first out of the traps?

If you had to choose a particular album from Presley, Dylan, The Beatles and so on, which one would it be – or would you go for 'greatest hits'? What, for instance, is the defining Beatles album: is it Rubber Soul, Revolver or Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band?

I think The Beatles are overrated. I would have to pick individual hits, avoiding howlers like Yellow Submarine – talk about The Emperor's New Clothes.

With the Sex Pistols, it would have to be Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, because it defines the punk movement and was, I think, their only proper album. I've already mentioned Nevermind by Nirvana: every track is good, which is saying something as a lot of albums carry one or two good tracks and then a load of mediocre stuff that, in the old days of vinyl, required plenty of 'stylus lifting'.

Take Who's Next, for example. I loved that album, but felt it was ruined by My Wife. When I was at college, myself and a friend used to rave about Who's Next and then pretend we thought My Wife was the best track on the album. We were suspicious of people who thought that Money was the best track on Dark Side of the Moon, by Pink Floyd, when it was clearly Time.

My Zeppelin album would be Presence; my Floyd album would be Dark Side of the Moon and I'm not sure about the Rolling Stones – they have so many albums and so many recognisable hits that I would be foolish to choose just one. As for Black Sabbath, it would have to be their first album, the one with The Wizard on it, and if I had to choose a Deep Purple album, it would be Deep Purple in Rock – for Speed King.

Right now, though, proof that pop, rather than eating itself, just rolls on regardless. I am listening and watching Blur performing an excellent set to an excited, sing-a-long crowd at Glastonbury. No, I'm not there, I'm sitting at home watching it on television. Hardly very rock and roll. It's gone 11.30pm and I need to sleep. All that cycling, fresh air and sunshine – and three bottles of Stella – mean it is time for bed. But I'm not going anywhere until Blur leave the stage, they're brilliant. Or is that the Stella talking?

"Take care. Goodnight!"

Saturday, 20 June 2009

The Ace Hotel, Portland and Seattle.

The top photograph is an outside shot of the Ace Hotel in Portland, Oregon. The shot below is the sign of the Joyce hotel across the road. Apparently, the Ace Hotel used to be as run-down as the Joyce and was, in fact, used in the filming of Drugstore Cowboy. Perhaps one day the Joyce will get a facelift too.

I travel a fair bit in my job and there are many places that, to this day, stick in my mind simply because they were so fantastic. I thought I'd share a few of these with whoever reads this blog of mine.

Back in January 2008 I travelled to Portland, Oregon, for a convention. Alright, a potato processing convention. I decided to stay downtown rather than at the dreary hotel across from the convention centre. Just prior to flying off from Heathrow, I checked out an article in the Travel section of the Saturday Guardian and there I found Beth Ditto talking about Portland and why she loves it so much. She singled out the Ace Hotel in Portland as a place to stay so I took her up on her suggestion and booked myself in.

I've never met Beth Ditto, the singer in a band called Gossip, but if ever I do I'll thank her for pointing me in the direction of this great American city and such a fantastic hotel. For a start the hotel has an amazing website (just key Ace Hotel, Portland into Google and you will see what I mean). The hotel is arty and a bit leftfield, the rooms are a joy to behold with murals on the walls and low beds. It's a bit like the hotels you might expect to find in an episode of The X Files – a kind of safe, clean and tidy version of the slightly ill-at-ease Joyce across the street. Key 'Joyce Hotel, Portland' into Google and check out the comments on a website called

My room on the third floor of the Ace, afforded me a view of the Joyce and some of the strange people populating the rooms. Directly opposite from me was a man living in a room with walls and furniture covered by red graffiti. It didn't matter what time of day it was, the television and a light, were always on. It's more of a hostel than a hotel, according to those who have supposedly risked life and limb and stayed there; and, from the comfort and safety of my hotel room, I often considered nipping over there and spending just one night among the pimps, prostitutes and drug addicts who, apparently, occupy the place. There have been reports of fighting in the corridors, while others have said its fine if you keep yourself to yourself. Best, it has been argued, to get your own room as there is an option of dormitory accommodation. One comment on the website said it was fine if you wanted to live out your Jack Kerouac On the Road fantasy, but otherwise stay well clear. Fortunately, my better judgement won through in the end, but there's an experience I guess I didn't have.

As for the Ace, well, what can I say? The food and beverage operations downstairs are not run by the hotel but are franchised out – or that's what I was told. There's a restaurant and bar with its own microbrewery and there's an excellent coffee shop, ideal for breakfast as, thankfully, the Ace doesn't have the traditional hotel restaurant that doubles as a breakfast room in the mornings.

The hotel is ideally located on First and Stark and is literally a stone's throw from Powell's, the biggest bookshop in the world. I recommend you go there and check out not just the books but the seemingly hand-made magazines that must be produced in students' front rooms in and around the Portland area. Alternatively, there is Portland itself. First and Stark is no more than a ten-minute walk from anywhere and there's an excellent tram system too.

I loved Portland and I loved the Ace Hotel. In fact, I booked in to the Ace in Seattle on my way home and that was just as good but a little smaller. The staff are friendly too and, dare I say it, the place is considerably 'hip'. It's a cool hotel, put it that way. My only regret is that I didn't take the train from Seattle to Portland on my inward journey; or, for that matter, my return trip. Instead I flew Horizon Air on a particularly stormy evening and I hate turbulence more than anything, bar a soft pickled onion. The train, I was told, follows the Pacific coastline for a while before veering inland to Portland. If I get the chance to go there again, I'll take the train and perhaps I'll check in to the Joyce for a night too, but I'll make sure I have my reservation at the Ace, that's for sure.

Check out the entire Ace hotel estate at

Sunday, 14 June 2009

"Emergency! Paging Doctor Beatt!"

In situations of uncertainty, it's amazing how there are still little pockets of humour to be found. My father-in-law is in hospital at the moment and I wish him a speedy recovery. I am spending a little bit of time ferrying my wife to and from the hospital and, occasionally, normally two to three times a week, I drop in and say hello to the patient.

Last week, while sitting by the bedside of my father-in-law, I noticed on the wipe-clean board next to the bed of another patient, the name of a Doctor Beatt. Surely not! I thought Doctor Beatt was a fictional character to be found only in the lyrics of a funky song by the Miami Sound Machine. Who could forget, "Emergency, paging Doctor Beat..."? "Doc, Doc, Doc, Doc, Doctor Beat".

Anyway, to cut along story short it made me laugh. And then I got to thinking how much fun one could have working at the hospital (May Day in Croydon) knowing that the hospital employed a Dr Beatt. I don't know about you, but if I was in charge of the Tannoy and Dr Beatt ever needed paging, well, "Emergency! Paging Dr Beatt...". I think I would even go as far as recording an American ambulance siren to accompany any messages sent to the good Doctor.

While I was in the hospital, nobody did page Doctor Beatt as I would imagine there would be plenty of smirks from both staff and patients of a certain age: those who were around when the Miami Sound Machine had its hit in the charts way back when.

On the drive home from the hospital, however, I began thinking, hold on, Doctor Beatt's name had been scrawled on one of those wipe-clean boards using a marker pen and I reckon somebody accidentally wiped off the Y of Beatty. Somehow, "Emergency! Paging Dr. Beatty" doesn't have the same ring and nor does, "Doc, Doc, Doc, Doc, Doctor Beatty". Still it was good while it lasted.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

The Samsung Omnia – never again, put it that way.

Most of the mobile phones I have owned have been pretty good in terms of reliability and usability. I've owned a basic Nokia and two Sony Ericssons and none of them have caused me any problems. My latest phone is a different story.

The Samsung Omnia is, in my opinion, 'a poor man's iphone' at best, and an infuriating piece of useless plastic at worst.

Unlike a conventional mobile, the Omnia relies upon a touch sensitive, computer-generated representation of a keyboard. In other words, the keys aren't really there at all. 'Dialling' any number requires thought and I don't want to think too much about such a mundane task; I never had to with my other phones. With the Omnia, it's a case of 'dialling' carefully and slowly, using a pen, watching all the time in case, as often happens, the machine inputs, say, half a dozen 3s or 4s – it's that sensitive. Dialling 0208 could easily become 02000008. You get the picture. Not ideal if you're in a hurry.

I know what you're thinking: use the phone's speed dialling function. Under normal circumstances I'd say fine, but not with the Omnia. Problems lurk on every corner for Omnia users. I have stored around a dozen pre-set telephone numbers, but first I have to access them by pressing a small blue keyhole symbol at the top right of the screen. Pre-set numbers are supposed to pop up, but they don't. Instead, I am given a page of icons offering me the web, the camera, media player, alarms, everything but my pre-set numbers. If I press 'exit' to try again, the same thing happens. Then, to add insult to injury, the phone locks itself, meaning that I have to press 'unlock', which is more difficult than you might think. It's virtually impossible to unlock the phone using the pen (of which, more later) so I have to thump the phone hard with my index finger and then start again, but I get greeted with all the unwanted icons for a second time. Arrrggghh!!! The solution is to press another icon at the top of the screen, like 'settings', and then, as the icons shuffle to the left, press the speed dial icon when it has moved to the far left of the screen – that way the pre-set numbers pop up.

Finally I get to my speed dial numbers. Now I've got another problem. If I press the icon for my home number, it accesses the number represented by the icon to its left and I find myself dialling somebody I don't want to talk to; then the problem of stopping the phone dialling a wrong number, which involves a frantic thumping of the black button below the screen to cancel the call. I have numerous calls from one particular work colleague who thinks I am trying to reach him when I'm not.

The Omnia likes to keep me on my toes by constantly inventing new problems. For example, when I press 3 it's 2 so once again I can't simply dial a phone number on the move, I have to stop, concentrate hard, use the pen to tap the 3 key at its far edge in order to key in a 3 and not a 2. This often takes more than one attempt and is further thwarted by the fact that the cancel key (the orange arrow at the top right of the keypad) then types a 3, the key to its immediate left. Try to keep up: the 3 key is really a 2 and the cancel key is really a 3, but there is no way I can cancel the wrong number so I have to quit the keyboard entirely and start again. But then, the phone locks again and I have to thump it hard again with my index finger to unlock it as using the pen, for some inexplicable reason, won't unlock it.

Writing a text message is a nightmare too. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. Invariably, the latter. A big problem with texting is that the keys do not represent the right letters. If I try to write 'Good morning' I need to be aware that G is F and that O is U and that P is really i, D is S and so on. In short, it's impossible so I am forced to give up.

If I try to exit the messaging function, another problem arises: I can't. The pen simply won't work if I use it to depress the 'ok' in the screen's top right hand corner which should close the window. More often than not, a text bubble will appear saying 'contract WAP (GPRS) which I don't understand, but can't delete however hard I try.

The scrolling function on Call Log, Phonebook and Messaging is temperamental, only working effectively when it so chooses. With messaging in particular, it is very hard to move the scroll bar up or down to review messages received or sent, and to exit a message and return to the main list of messages is nigh on impossible, even using the pen, which is supposed to make life easier for Omnia users. It is best to depress the phone icon on the bottom right of the phone and then re-open the function from the phone's 'home' page.

As for the pen, well, it's there to be lost. Miraculously, I still have mine, although it has spent a few days under the car seat during which time I have relied upon assorted ballpoints and my chipolata fingers. The pen is supposed to make things easier, especially dialling and messaging, but it is just another irritation, especially when the P key is O, the G is F and so forth. And I can hit that 'ok' at the top right of the screen as many times as I like but it won't remove the page I'm on for love nor money: all I get is annoying speech bubbles that refuse to go away.

If somebody calls me I have to call them back as, by the time the phone is out of my breast pocket and in my hand, the right way around and without the pen swinging about uncontrollably, they've gone. Even if the phone comes out of my pocket easily enough, I've got to hit the word 'answer' and that's harder than it sounds, believe me; forget using the pen, by the time you've unleashed it from its housing, your caller has hung up. If I call back I'm confronted with the aforementioned call log problems. If I use the speed dial function, I end up calling somebody else. Trying to stop a mis-dialled number is very hard and usually involves a lot of thumping on the screen to avoid a call from somebody else which, if they get through, results in, "Sorry, I dialled you accidentally, new phone," I might lie, ignoring the fact that I've had the Omnia for months.

Knowing what I know about the Samsung Omnia, I would never buy or recommend one to friends. Enemies, maybe. I am seriously considering transferring the SIM card to my old Sony Ericsson and using that instead. Mind you, the Omnia does have a decent 5 mega pixels camera, but that is the phone's only redeeming feature.