Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Advance ticket sales - a good thing?

In China, generally NOT.

I got a bit miffed with this benefit show a few weeks ago and eventually decided not to go - because they were announcing that they had 'sold out' on pre-sale tickets, without elaborating as to whether there were in fact going to be any more available on the door. Hence, I gather, it was not a particularly well-attended event: only a few hundred people in a venue that can hold well over a thousand. All in all, a bit of a cock-up.

The problem is that there aren't really any remote pre-sales here as yet. If you try to reserve tickets by telephone or online, you'll usually just get put on a crudely handwritten list at the door. The poor flunky charged with distributing "pre-sold" tickets will fumble for ages trying to find your impossible-to-recognise foreign name - or any name - on the usually completely unorganized and barely legible list. If/when he does eventually find it, he will certainly not bother to try to use your phone number for security verification, as he is presumbaly supposed to. And venues just about never 'sell out' anyway, because nobody enforces safety code regulations on maximum numbers, and so the doors aren't shut until it is physically impossible to get any more people in.  Thus, most times, it is about ten times quicker and easier just to buy your ticket on the door.

Venue owners and promoters, of course, would like people to buy tickets early, to reassure themselves that the turnout is going to reach a decent minimum level for them to break even on the gig. Unfortunately, the prevailing system doesn't achieve that, because nobody actually buys in advance on a credit card; it's simply advance reservation of tickets, with no kind of enforceability. And because of that, people put themselves down for rafts of tickets when they're still undecided as to whether they'll go or not, knowing that there's no comeback if they fail to appear and pay for their reserved tickets. Because the whole business is so shambolic and bogus, you very often find that a venue hasn't bothered to earmark tickets for all the advance registrations anyway, or hasn't bothered to hang on to them once things start getting busy on the door.

So, 'booking' over the phone doesn't even guarantee that you'll get in. And it's unlikely to save you any time at the door when you arrive; quite the reverse.

Given this lack of incentive to pre-book tickets, venue owners often discount very heavily for early purchases... to the point where it actually becomes - arguably - worthwhile to hike miles out of your way to pick up a half-price ticket from the venue in person a day or two before the show.  This is the only way I ever go and see an otherwise over-priced Yugong Yishan show (but, luckily, YGYS isn't too far from where I live).

However, venue owners then quickly become anxious about lost profits, so limit the number of tickets available for pre-sales.

But then their box office staff just tell you that the gig is 'sold out' without explaining exactly what that means - and people get discouraged from attending.

Yep, a monumental COCK-UP all around.

Until a better system is developed for online/telephone booking, it would be better to do away with "pre-sales" altogether.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Bon mot for the week

"How can the angels get to sleep when the Devil leaves the porch light on?"

Tom Waits  (1949-  )

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Summoning the get-up-and-go

I have been victim of a depressive inertia for the past few weeks - shortage of work and shortage of money, related woes; lethargy and insomnia becoming a vicious cycle.

So, I feel in need of some energizing music to try to get me up and bouncing - at least to try and be a bit more active within my apartment, if not to go outside for only the third or fourth time in a fortnight.

And there are few better things for doing this than....

Weather Report playing Birdland!!

I hadn't played this - or even thought of it - for years. It was brought back to mind just a couple of weeks ago by this blog discussion. I discovered this classic electro-jazz project by chance during my college days, and this opening number from their Heavy Weather album soon became my favourite pep-me-up music back then.

This might well merit inclusion in a future instalment of my 'Favourite Basslines' as well - although it's one of that class for which I haven't yet hit upon a name: the legendary Jaco Pastorius isn't content to just sit in the groove, but meanders artfully all over the place.

And here's a great live version, from a 1978 concert in the Stadthalle in Offenbach, Germany.

There. Now I feel better.

Friday, January 27, 2012

HBH 270

The nights become days,
The days all blur into one -
Fog of exhaustion.

Insomnia has been an intermittent curse of my life since childhood, but mercifully rare. And most of the time it is more a case of taking three or four hours to nod off or having a very broken night's sleep, rather than having no sleep at all. And instances of this have, I think, almost invariably been isolated: of course, after one crappy night's sleep, you're so run down that you sleep like a log the following night to recover.

But not this week. No, something very strange has happened to me this week: I managed barely a wink of sleep from Sunday through to Wednesday. I can't blame the fireworks. That has been an issue in years past, but this year people seem to be observing some sort of curfew and things have been remarkably quiet between about 1am and 7am. Unfortunately, I have been wide awake to appreciate how quiet it has been!

Now, I am wretchedly brainfogged and feel as though I probably need to spend the entire weekend in bed to try to catch up on my sleep deficit.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

This week's drinking excuse

The 26th January is Australia Day.

For the last few years this has been a welcome pretext for special over-indulgence at my favourite bar, the Aussie-owned 12 Square Metres.

I don't know what kind of a turnout we'll get down there this year. It is a particularly welcome distraction for foreigners during the drab Chinese Spring Festival holiday; but this year, more than ever before, almost everyone seems to have quit the city. And the party has gone rather better in the years when it's fallen just ahead of Chunjie rather than smack in the middle of it.  Moreover, there used to be a bit of synergy with the other two Aussie bars in the neighbourhood - Ned's and MaoMaoChong together with 12SqM forming an Oz Triangle ideal for short-distance bar crawling. Ned's, alas, is now gone; and MMC has been keeping very irregular hours while owners Steve and Stef are on their long winter holiday this year. So, 12SqM will be flying the flag alone this time. Maybe having a monopoly on the Aussie custom will be a good thing; or maybe the event just won't gain a lot of momentum this year. Swings and roundabouts. We shall see.

The Coopers Ales are going to be a very tempting 20rmb each, and new laoban MB has managed to source some Australian beef pies for the day - for the first time in six months. And we should be tuning in via the Internet to favourite Aussie radio station Triple J's traditional holiday countdown of the 'Hottest 100' songs in Australia this past year, as selected by a listeners' poll (the only way I keep up with what the rest of world is listening to these days!).

Australians have their rough edges, but you have to admire their robust appetite for life, and particularly for drink. The nation's prodigious drinking abilities are epitomised in former Prime Minister Bob Hawke - an Oxford lao tongxue of mine, who was celebrated as holding the world speed record for downing a yard-of-ale (equivalent to around two-and-half pints, and very tricky to drink, because of the odd shape of the vessel) while he was a Rhodes Scholar there in the early 1950s. After all these years of happily believing the myth, I now find Wikipedia has pissed in my tankard by alleging that in fact he drank a comparable volume from a sconce pot (a large drinking bowl traditionally used for penalties and drinking challenges at formal college meals), and that his time of 11 seconds was equivalent to the then yard-of-ale record, but this mark has since been bettered. Oh, print the legend!  [The Turf Tavern, a famous real ale pub in Oxford (and a favourite hangout of Colin Dexter's fictional detective Inspector Morse) has recently started advertising - quite mendaciously, I think - that the feat occurred there. In my day, the stories had it that it was either in The Bear or The White Horse; but Wikipedia - apparently following Bob's own memoirs - is adamant that it happened in the dining hall at University College.]

Bob, now 82, is still capable of opening his gullet to guzzle down the amber nectar at mindboggling speeds: just a few weeks ago he was filmed obligingly chugging a pint in one at the Australia v India Test Match in Sydney.

I've never been able to do that!

To cap today's celebration of Australian-ness, here's Colin Hay - founder of the great but sadly short-lived '80s band Men At Work - doing a great version of his signature hit Down Under in LA a few years ago with the Ringo Starr All-Star Band. [Lyrics here; it's also worth checking out this solo acoustic version.]

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Elements of a memorable Chinese New Year's Eve

I was grumping the other day about how little I enjoy the Chinese New Year celebrations (and would always quit the country at this time of year if I could only afford to); but I have, of course, had a few good times here during this holiday over the years. In particular, my very first Spring Festival Eve ended up being rather fun... in a bizarre and random sort of way.

Here are the things that made it special:

1) Novelty
It was my first one. So, even the aspects of the holiday that aren't all that appealing to me (nearly all of them) at least had curiosity value. It didn't start to seem such a horrendous bore until I'd been here three or four years.

2) Being included in the party
Chinese friends are usually too preoccupied with fulfilling their family obligations (or spurning them, and fleeing the country for an overseas holiday!) to give much of a thought to us foreigners at this time of year. But in my first year here, several people - students, colleagues, new friends - made a point of inviting me to stuff. Such invitations haven't completely dried up, but in subsequent years I've probably tried to dodge them, since most of the traditional holiday activities - temple fairs, family dinners, watching the CCTV 'gala special', er... that's about it - are in fact a bit of an ordeal. But, as I say, in that first year they had novelty value. And I was particularly glad that LG, a musician I'd recently met, arranged a dinner gathering on Spring Festival Eve - almost exclusively for 'foreign friends', who he knew would have nothing else to do that night. The food I recall being fairly horrible, and the wine even worse (a comedy fake Chinese variety that appeared to have been manufactured from erguotou and cochineal); but it was a fun gathering, and I made several interesting new acquaintances there - including DD, who was eventually to become one of my closest friends here (although I didn't see her again for two or three years after this!).

3)  Comparatively few fireworks
At that point there had been a ban on fireworks within the city limits of Beijing for several years, and it remained in place until 2006. It was widely ignored. There were actually quite a lot of fireworks being let off back in those days - but not the monstrous overkill we have to suffer today. Moreover, it was nearly all traditional firecrackers rather than the fancier mortars and rockets and volcanos and so on that we are now deluged with (and which become such a trial because they are often so poorly made, and almost invariably irresponsibly used: rockets tend to explode at a dangerously low height overhead, and often at ground level; fizzling misfires and delayed detonations are alarmingly common). Most of all, I think, it acquired an extra level of exhilaration from the fact that it was an outlaw activity, that kids were having to set them off furtively, while keeping a lookout for the armband-wearing neighbourhood monitors patrolling the hutongs to try to suppress this naughtiness.

4)  A random flirtation
After the dinner, we adjourned to the foreigner bar street of Sanlitun Nanjie (demolished a couple of years later), which was about the only place where anything was open that night. Just as my party were decamping to another bar on the strip, an improbably gorgeous Scandinavian girl came in through the door - apparently lost and alone. What could I do? While not exactly a crash-and-burn, it was not one of my more successful chat-ups either - but we nattered pleasantly for half an hour or so. Romance was evidently never going to be a possibility here, but we are still friends 9 years on.

5)  More randomness
The irresistible distraction of a gorgeous blonde had separated me from the rest of the group - and I couldn't find them again. At this point, I'd hardly ever been out on Nanjie; maybe once or twice before, at most (I couldn't afford to frequent foreigner bars in my first year or two here). So, I didn't know the bar they had said they were hitting up next. And I couldn't find it. Couldn't find them. And after briefly trying a couple of other bars on my own, and being severely unimpressed with them (I think that was one of only two occasions that I ever went in the notorious dive that was Pure Girl), I gave up on the evening and decided to head home. At least I had finally begun to familiarise myself with the Nanjie strip, an area that I would be starting to visit a little more often over the coming year.

6) A game of pool (or several)
However, it was barely 10pm, which did seem a little early to be calling it a day. And there were, of course, no cabs to be had, so I was likely to have to walk the whole 6 miles or so back to my college. I therefore decided to break my journey at the only foreigner bar I had developed any sort of 'regular' habit with at that point - Huxley's 2, a large-ish venue down by the south gate of the Workers' Stadium (it was a promising space, but suffered from a slightly out-of-the-way location and extremely patchy promotion; it lasted barely 6 months - eventually killed off by the SARS outbreak, although I don't think it would have survived much longer anyway). There was a young European guy there - Dutch or Belgian, I think, not sure now - who was supposed to be running a DJ night. But it probably hadn't been effectively advertised: there was no-one there - NO-ONE. The DJ was trying to remain upbeat about the prospects of people starting to show up around midnight - but no-one ever did. I bought him a drink to console him, and thrashed him on the pool table a couple of times. Then I started playing the staff - as I had before a number of times on slow nights (there were many slow nights in that place, so they'd all become quite good; Sammy the head barman was a formidable player, rather too good for me). That passed a very pleasant two or three hours. And then I decided to continue my journey home.

7)  Mellow thoughts
I'd had a wretched Christmas that year, with my mother dying a couple of weeks before, huge strife with my employer, a temporary holiday job in Tibet falling through... I'd been a bit of an emotional basketcase for the preceding three or four weeks. But there are few things as good as a long solitary walk very late at night for clearing the cobwebs out of your head: very restful, meditative, restorative.

8)  The spirit of Christmas Chunjie
When I finally got back to my college, the two teenage security guards in the sentry box at the front gate were looking particularly disconsolate. I imagine they'd tried to watch the traditional CCTV variety gala on their tiny black-and-white TV earlier; but now they were completely at a loose end, while all the rest of the city was revelling - and were probably desperately homesick, since they came from Shaanxi province, far to the west, and this was their first year working in the capital. On a sudden impulse of goodwill, I nipped up the street to a 24-hour convenience store to buy them a few beers and a bag of candy. The young lads almost wept with gratitude. I never again had any problems persuading them to open the gate for me 'after hours'.

Yep, I have very fond memories of that first Chunjie in China. Unfortunately, the law of diminishing returns has been operating particularly ruthlessly since then.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Bon mot for the week

"Horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people."

W.C. Fields  (1880-1946)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A welcome alternative

I'm afraid I find the protracted celebrations of the Chinese New Year a colossal bore; and the constant risk of witnessing or suffering a serious injury through the attendant reckless use of fireworks wears on my fragile nerves.

The two Chinese New Years I've enjoyed most - out of the ten that have passed since I moved here - have been the two when I managed to escape from the country for a fortnight and avoid almost the whole thing. The third best was the one where I went up to the far north-eastern city of Harbin for the second half of the holiday (where the public revels somehow seem to have more genuine joie de vivre and less tiresome overkill than they do here in the capital).

But tonight, at least, I have a good reason to stay at home, and to try to ignore the tedious barrage outside. The English Football Association - with a wanton cultural insensitivity -  has seen fit to schedule two of the most important matches in the Premiership season for this biggest of Chinese festival days: the 1st versus 3rd teams in the league, followed by the 2nd versus the 5th. And both are being shown live on local Beijing sports station BTV6.

On any other day, I would be tempted to trek across town to try and catch a game of such magnitude in a sports bar, with the benefit of an English commentary. But tonight.... it's arse-freezing cold, there are very few cabs, and there are people lobbing explosives into the middle of the sidewalk every few yards. I'm quite happy staying at home, thank you.

I just hope this insane firework mayhem quietens down decently early this year. Last year, it seemed to have pretty much burnt itself out by half past midnight; but it has been known to drag on until 2am or 3am. Sleep can be in short supply over the next two weeks.

Happy Year of the Dragon!

Today is the eve of the new year in the Chinese lunar calendar. So, we are set to embark upon 16 days of almost relentless revelry to try to get this Year of the Dragon off to an auspicious start.

As a little China-themed holiday treat, I therefore give you.... the opening scene of Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, wherein Kate Capshaw (as this movie's heroine, Shanghai nightclub singer Willie Stone) performs Cole Porter's Anything Goes in Mandarin Chinese. I just learned that Ms Capshaw really did sing this herself. Good job, Kate! [I wonder who her dialogue coach was. We never remember the really important people in the credits.]

Of course, there's also a Lego version (although the song's in English, for some reason).

I just posted a rather more traditional salutation over on Froogville.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Positive feedback

Via yesterday's Irish Independent, I learn that Sega has just launched in Japan a series of urinal games. 

Yes, video games to be played while answering the call of nature. Special urinals have multiple pressure sensors in them to measure the direction and force of your urine stream, and this data is used to control one of a number of simple games you can choose from a console screen on the wall in front of you: things like creating a wind to blow up a young girl's skirt (ah, Japan!), hosing graffiti off a wall, or just measuring the power of your jet against that of your predecessor at the stall.

I wonder how long before we see these technological wonders appearing here in China?

Of course, for the local market, we might have to make a few changes, produce some different games.

I suggest....

Merry-Go-Round - where you are rewarded for directing your cigarette stub in circles around the drain for as long as possible before it finally comes to rest and clogs it.

Flood - in which you win a prize for being the first person to make an obviously completely clogged urinal overflow.

Golden Showers - where the aim is to get all of your widdle directly on to the floor rather than into the urinal.


The Underpant Sprint - where sensors in the floor in front of urinal time how long you take before and after pissing, as you wrestle with belt, trousers and fly-less underpants.

What larks!

HBH 269

Music and whisky:
Most reliable of friends;
Late night indulgences.

I have been falling into bad habits during the last week or so. Having no cash in hand, and with few friends around to go out and play with anyway, I have been staying home a lot in the evenings. So far, so good: living quietly, drinking little or not at all, cooking for myself, catching up on DVDs I bought a year or more ago... The trouble is, quite often my home cinema session will end by 10.30 or 11pm (or 11.30 or 12...), which is much too early for me to go to bed. So... I start listening to music on my computer. And I have a nightcap. And I get rather caught up in the music. And have another nightcap. And I somehow start feeling not very sleepy at all. And I keep thinking to myself one more song, one more drink. And I don't manage to drag myself off to bed until 3am.

This is no way to live, I know. I'm going to impose a 2am curfew on myself.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A rocking anniversary (with its own drink?!)

A year-and-a-bit ago, I posted some Janis Joplin songs in tribute to the 40th anniversary of her untimely death.

Today, I happened upon online drinking bible, Difford's Guide, which informed me that today's notable event was... Janis's birthday. She would have been 69 today, quite the grand old lady. It would have been nice to see how her voice and her style might have matured; many of her contemporaries (Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Janis Ian) are still singing gorgeously.

Difford's recommends a special cocktail for the event - the Southern Tea-Knee. (Knee??!! What's that all about? I don't object to shortening the name to Tini; or even using the jokey Tea-Ni, since it does have tea in it. But Tea-Knee seems ludicrous, jarring.) It's mostly Southern Comfort (a tipple Janis was notoriously fond - somewhat over-fond - of), but throws in half-shots of Bombay Sapphire, Apricot Brandy, and Banana Bols, and then tops up with cold Earl Grey tea to introduce some tannic bitterness. Sounds interesting. I think I'd be inclined to up the Southern Comfort proportion very slightly, to stop the fruit flavours dominating (or, better, to add some straight bourbon, to stop the sweetness getting out of hand).

With or without a drink in hand, let us once again enjoy Janis's finest hour - Me and Bobby McGee.  [I learned just recently that the song was in fact written by Kris Kristofferson, and 'Bobbie', the travelling companion/lover who sang the blues so affectingly was originally a girl. This excellent blog post by Maud Newton, in analysing the lyrical genius of Hank Williams, quotes the country star Roger Miller (a key figure in my childhood!) as being particularly admiring of this song; in fact, he had been the first person to have a hit with it. I am curious to hear what that was like, but also somewhat afraid to go looking for it on YouTube; that song belongs to Janis now - anyone else's interpretation is going to sound like a bit of a travesty.  I should probably add this song to the growing list of nominations on this recent 'Great Lyrics' post on fellow Beijing-ren Bucketoftongues' music blog.]

There's also a nice live version here, though, unfortunately, with jarringly mismatched video; and this enchanting rarity, supposedly her first-ever recording of the song.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Recommended Posts, October-December 2010

Better late than never, here is the 'pick of the crop' from just over a year ago....

Guided Tour  -  recommended posts from the 4th quarter of 2010

1)  Brain the size of a planet  -  6th October 2010
My formidable talent at trivia quizzes threatens to become an embarrassment and a bore. At least I have a theory on the optimum team size for such competitions. And a strange reminiscence of a 1960s British comic book.

2)  Festival overload?  -  7th October 2010
I've had too much of music festivals in Beijing. Haven't you?

3)  Missing the diva...  -  16th October 2010
Cesária Évora was supposed to have been playing in Beijing. I don't think she did. But I was gutted to have missed out on her, whether it actually happened or not.

4)  Top Five Signs of Winter  -  18th October 2010
It gets COLD early this year.

5)  On the mountainside  -  18th October 2010
One of my biggest audience participation posts: who would be on your Mount Rushmore of Rock?

6)  A song for Ruby  -  23rd October 2010
I spend a part of my birthday watching a concert by virtuouso finger-picking guitarist Tommy Emmanuel. And he has an especially pretty song named after one of my companions.

7)  Music puns  -  29th October 2010
A couple of irresistibly silly cartoons inspired by the names of famous bands.

8)  Top Five Things That Can Go Wrong On A Date  -  4th November 2010
You need to read this one. You KNOW you do. And then you'll never complain again.

9)  Single, and PROUD  -  11th November 2010
My response to the recent-ish Chinese holiday of 'Singles Day'.

10)  Weird and wonderful  -  20th November 2010
Visiting Finnish vaudeville choir Semmarit fairly knock me out.

11)  What's the Rush?  -  6th December 2010
I see a Rush cover band just down the road from where I live. They're quite good. But why would you want to cover CRAP? [Provocative music post]

12)  Pump It Up  -  28th November 2010
One of my Great Drinking Songs - the classic Elvis Costello hit, which was one of the regular highlights of 2010's marvellous Monday Nights With Nige.

13)  Bon mot for the week  -  6th December 2010
One of my own; one of my best.

14)  Another useful metaphor...  -  8th December 2010
... for that occasional overwhelming imperative you feel to get wasted immediately after work.

15)  HBH 212  -  10th December 2010
A particularly good Beijing gig reminds me how I discovered Jimi Hendrix...

16)  Top Five New Hangouts  -  10th December 2010
2010 was a good year for new bar openings; I broadened my horizons a bit.

17)  Bad Santa(s)  -  13th December
Concerns about whether this year's SantaCon might get busted by the perpetually over-anxious Chinese security forces suddenly gave me the idea for a new theme song for Chinese dissidents.

18)  Top Five STUPID names for bars  -  15th December 2010
You wouldn't believe it were possible unless you lived here.

19)  Again with the metaphors...  -  23rd December 2010
I never approach the turn of the year with anything other than the most extreme trepidation...

20)  OffMyFaceBook  -  28th December 2010
One of the most marketable ever of my drunken ideas.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Starting the Wish List early

OK, it is fully 9 months till my birthday, and over 11 months until Christmas rolls around again, but...

... if any of my readers were thinking of buying me a little something for the imminent Chinese New Year, or just as a thank-you for all the spiffing blog content I've turned out for you over the past year...

... then you could do worse than this:
Yes, a set of shot glasses commemorating six of the world's greatest tippling literary figures:  Byron, Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill, W.B. Yeats, and Dorothy Parker.

They are produced by the quite splendidly named Unemployed Philosophers' Guild (is there any other kind?).

These chaps do lots of other great stuff too - such as a finger puppet of Munch's Scream figure, a template for creating images of the Virgin Mary on slices of toast, a 'Relativity' wristwatch (the hands stay still while the numbers move), and Freudian slippers. All of your gift needs taken care of on one site!

New 'Competition' Idea - Literary Drinkers

I can't help thinking that their shot glass set has overlooked some significant boozing writers. The American greats of the early 20th Century provide a particularly rich vein: F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler, Tennessee Williams, and of course Hemingway. Going just a little further back, we might add Jack London as well. And more recently, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, and Charles Bukowski.  From British shores, we could mention Kingsley Amis, Malcolm Lowry, and Jeffrey Bernard. Graham Greene and Anthony Burgess were known to imbibe a fair bit too, I think. P.G. Wodehouse, although he was not himself a heavy drinker, as far as I know, certainly appreciated a drink. And of course, from the Emerald Isle, we must have my favourite drinking writer, Brian O'Nolan.

So, quite a few to be going on with there.  Any personal favourites you would add, readers?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Bon mot for the week

"Say what you mean and act how you feel, 
because those who matter don't mind, 
and those who mind don't matter."

Theodor 'Dr Seuss' Geisel  (1904-1991)

I've never really read any Dr Seuss (he's not such a big thing in England); but now I discover that he encapsulated the motto of my life!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A musical youth

We weren't exactly a 'musical family': nobody played an instrument - although my mother used to sing a lot around the house, and I had a favourite cousin who played acoustic guitar for a bit in his teens. But there was not really any live music in my home environment. However, my parents had been busy acquirers of records at a certain stage of their lives: they had some hundreds of 45 rpm singles (very middle-of-the-road stuff, for the most part), and a few dozen albums (mostly film musical soundtracks - the entire Rodgers & Hammerstein songbook is probably hardwired into a remote corner of my brain). They seemed to have got out of this stage by the time I achieved consciousness: it was nearly all 1960s stuff. I hardly recall them buying anything in the 1970s; I used to buy them records.

I obviously had some affinity for music from an early age. When I was about 2 or 3 years old, we lived for a while with one of my grandmothers (the English one rather than the German one) who had an old upright piano in her parlour: I would 'play' that for hours at a time. HOURS. It must have sounded bloody awful, but I think I have probably never tasted such a pure and perfect happiness in my life since.

Within another couple of years, I had mastered the operation of my parents' big Pye Radiogram, and would spend whole afternoons working my way through their record collection (and getting my first taste of building playlists, since there was a stack-and-play feature which enabled you to pile 6 or 8 discs on the spindle at once, to be dropped on to the turntable in succession).

I was also fortunate, I suppose, to have a brother who was nearly 7 years older than me. That gave me some access to contemporary music that my parents would never bother with, and that would ordinarily have been outside the consciousness of someone so young. I disliked most of it at the time - or pretended to, to maintain the required levels of sibling antagonism. But I found a lot of it growing on me through repeated exposure, and after a while I began secretly playing some of my favourites from among his albums whenever he was out of the house. He it was who gave me my first taste of Queen, Pink Floyd, and Deep Purple. The strangely discomforting tinted pyramid poster from Dark Side Of The Moon was on his bedroom wall for several years (a bedroom that I shared with him for a year or two). I also remember being deeply disturbed by the burning man photograph on the inner sleeve art for Wish You Were Here (I was only 7 or 8 at the time). The bro had broader - and better - tastes than most kids his age, I think. He ignored most of the pop and rock fads of the early '70s, and concentrated on heavy rock. He even delved back a little into the past, collecting some classic late-60s stuff that he would have been just a bit too young for when it first came out: Led Zeppelin and Creedence Clearwater Revival were two of his other most important introductions to me.

But I didn't fully 'get' rock music for quite a while. It was an intermittent, and somewhat shamefaced pleasure - since my parents strongly disapproved, and none of my friends at school seemed to have any interest in it either. Punk happened just a bit too early - and too far away - for me. I admired the energy and iconoclasm of The Sex Pistols, but didn't really grasp their context or significance. (It took us 4 or 5 years to catch up: in the early '80s, I played the Malcolm McLaren role to a bunch of fellow 6th Formers, goading them into forming a band called Ded Lemming, and writing a number of songs for them [The only ones I remember now were called Tortoise In My Head and Don't Put Kitty In The Microwave - they might be worth a little post of their own at some point!]. It was a short-lived venture. By that time, punk was pretty much dead, and its memory being drowned in the first waves of synth-pop.) Jazz I knew only a little from TV, mostly from old movies (I think my parents had a token album or two of Louis Armstrong, and some Acker Bilk - a British jazz clarinetist who had broken through to 'easy listening' fame in the 1960s). Blues - destined to become my favourite thing - I'd hardly heard at all in my childhood.

No, the soundtrack of my schooldays was almost exclusively classical music. I used to wake up every morning with BBC Radio 3 (nothing knocks the drowsiness out of you quite like the William Tell Overture... which I'm sure was on the early morning show at least once almost every week!). And when I joined a mail order record club in the 6th Form, it was exclusively classical LPs that I bought; my 'introductory offer' purchase being the Tchaikovsky and Mendelsohn violin concertos, Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite, Bizet's Suites from Carmen and L'Arlesienne, and Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez. I bought myself a boxed set of Beethoven symphonies (Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic) for my 18th birthday, and "prepared" for my Oxford admission interviews by lying on my back in the living room and staring at the ceiling in a trance for hours at a time, while I listened to all 9 of them back to back... every day for about a week. (It seemed to work!)

I listened to a lot of Radio 4 as well (I think radio used to play a bigger part in our lives than TV back in the 1970s and early 1980s; I wonder if that's been lost now, with the explosion of digital music and the Internet?), and had encountered Tom Lehrer through the wonderful comedy anthology show Frank Muir Goes Into... He soon became another of my great enthusiasms. As did Instant Sunshine, a British comedy quartet who produced some fantastically witty and jaunty songs, and had their own Radio 4 series for a number of years. (Still going strong today, although one of the original members dropped out a decade or so ago.) The first book order I placed at Blackwell's, the venerable and rather stuffy university bookshop at Oxford, was for The Instant Sunshine Book (With Hints For Struggling Supergroups). I wonder if I still have that somewhere.

And then on TV, there was Neil Innes, whose spoof Beatles rockumentary The Rutles (All You Need Is Cash) is the 'Lost Ark' of television comedy (the music has all been reissued on CD, but, as far as I know, the film only ever aired once, and has not been released on DVD). Much the same fate befell The Innes Book of Records, a brilliant series of song pastiches accompanied by often surreal videos (was there not one of Frankenstein's monster in traditional Scottish dress doing a tippy-toe dance over crossed swordfish in a cave beside the sea? or did I just imagine that??). Two six-part series were made in the late '70s, and it was one of the great joys of my childhood; but it has rarely been seen since, as a result of a bitter rights dispute between Innes and the BBC.

In the 6th Form, my musical tastes had just started to branch out a little, tentatively, sporadically. A few of my friends had begun to unearth more 'obscure' stuff from the past few years: we'd play these new discoveries to each other in our studies, and share taped copies (home taping supported live music, you fools!!). The early ZZ Top albums were the one find that I remember from that phase, though; the song Fool For Your Stockings lodged in my brain particularly persistently. I suppose this - and occasional doses of Dr Feelgood - was my first sustained exposure to the blues; although I probably didn't realise that's what it was at the time.

Of course, it was only when I went up to university that things really exploded. It was only then that... a) I first met a whole bunch of people who were very nearly as musically omnivorous as I was, and b) I acquired a record-player of my own for the first time. Thereafter, mainly thanks to the miracle of the 'bargain bin', I was for a few years purchasing well over 100 albums a year.

And THAT is how my music tastes came to be as eclectic and diverse as this (a discussion of 'obscure gems' on another blog), and this (today's Song Lyrics Quiz on Froogville).

There is one further key element in the development of my enthusiasm for music: I was born in Hereford and grew up in Monmouth. Only a handful of musicians and music nerds are likely to grasp the significance of that. I think it deserves another post all of its own; so, I'll keep you in suspense for a little while. Be patient.

Friday, January 13, 2012

A student of history

One of my journo chums is having a (slightly premature) birthday get-together today.

Casting around for some grander pretext to have a party TODAY, he came upon a Wikipedia article which suggested that the 'Great Fire of New Orleans' occurred on this day in 1830.  Having visited NO a few times, I have absorbed a certain amount of information about its history - and I had never heard of this 1830 fire. Indeed, neither has Wikipedia: there is no separate article on this alleged conflagration. The two most famous fires in N'Awlins history, occurring just a few years apart, and both commonly known as 'The Great New Orleans Fire', were much earlier - in 1788 and 1794. I still haven't got to the bottom of that 1830 reference.

Searching for a more secure historical event we could tie our revels to, I turned up an interesting - and seemingly exhaustive - list of suggestions here. I particularly liked the publication of Zola's "J'accuse!" in 1898, the first commercial production of the Frisbee in 1957, and Pope Honorius II recognising the Templars as an 'Army of God' in 1128 as possible pretexts to raise a glass or several.

Our host has pointed out that it was also on this day - in 1968 - that Johnny Cash performed his famous Folsom Prison concerts. Which seems like a good excuse for a song, as well as a drink....

There doesn't seem to be any film footage of the Folsom shows, but you can listen to a recording here. This clip is from his San Quentin concert the following year - Folsom Prison Blues.

HBH 268

Month of no drinking.
Poverty, not principle:
Home the pauper's jail.

I'm trying to survive through to the other side of Chunjie - the whole of January and the first week of February - on a paltry 4,000 kuai. I just might do it.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


In recent ambles down Andingmennei (now becoming a fairly regular event, as it is the most convenient route into the city centre for me since moving to my new apartment) I have been looking out for the site of the old Room 101 - which had been a favourite stomping ground of mine (and of a number of my other drinking companions: The Man In Black, The Weeble, Crazy Chris, Mr Sex), very nearly my 'bar of the year' back in 2008. Unfortunately the bar's too numerous investors had bickered endlessly over how to make the best of the venue, eventually opting for a daft rebranding as restaurant/bar Ginkgo - a characterless and directionless venture that died on its feet. It staggered on for 18 months or so, before finally finding some Chinese businessmen to take it over; they kept the Ginkgo 'concept' for a number of months more, without doing anything to advertise or otherwise trying to drum up custom. That may have set some kind of record for the least profitable business in the city: I really think it might have gone a week or more at a time without a single customer, and I doubt if it ever turned over 1,000 rmb in a month.

But then, this lame-ass Ginkgo Mk. II abruptly disappeared, some time around the beginning of last year - disappeared so completely that I struggled to remember where it had been.

But now I've realised it is here - this cookie-cutter Chinese restaurant.

The thing that makes it so difficult to recognise is that the new owners have tackled the thorny problem of the otiose second storey... by demolishing it. I suppose their plan was to create a roof terrace that they can use in the summer; but I didn't notice it being put into service last summer, and it's bugger-all use to them during the long months of winter here. Still, they got rid of the second floor entirely!!  That's a pretty radical re-design. I wish I'd thought to suggest it to the original Room 101 people; I'd always said the upstairs was one of the biggest problems with the place... but I couldn't get 'outside the box' enough to conceive of simply taking a sledgehammer to it.

Bravo to the new proprietors, I say. I must go and give this place a try sometime, to see if their cuisine is as innovative as their remodelling of the space.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Memory Palace of Mr Froog

It's funny how powerfully music can recall distant memories - more than poetry (which is a pretty strong trigger for me), more even than the sense of taste or smell.

I have been sundered from the bulk of my record collection for a little over 18 years now. I compiled most of it - somewhere in the range of 600-700 albums and a dozen or so EPs (no singles!!), I think - during the mid-80s, when I was an undergraduate. (I went through a spell in the later '90s of trying to replace - and add to - this collection on CD; mostly during the year I spent in Canada, where I took advantage of the ridiculously low prices [only 5 Canadian dollars per disc for the most of the stuff I bought] at that most wonderful of private music store chains, Sam The Record Man, which, unsurprisingly, went bankrupt a couple of years later.)

And yet, and yet... despite not having given it very much thought in nearly two decades, I find that I can still recall much of that collection in quite a lot of detail: where I first bought each record, who introduced me to the artist, which musicians were playing on the album, which tracks I particularly liked. (And that's just thinking about these records. Christ knows what reveries I might be transported into if I heard some of this stuff again after all these years. Listening to Roger Miller's King Of The Road now [one of the first songs I ever heard] takes me instantly back to sitting cross-legged on the living room floor, five years old, transfixed by a reverential awe for the enormous Pye 'radiogram' in front of me, and for the wondrous music coming out of it.)

This realisation has suddenly been brought home to me by my newest online gadfly, Bucketoftongues - whose thought-provoking (mostly*) music blog has pitched me into a series of long reminiscences over my favourite vocalists, favourite bass players, and the favourite 'obscure' highlights of my record-buying career.

Yes, it is all a bit like the compulsive nerdery of Rob, Dick, and Barry in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, but... well, it's FUN, dammit. In that way that only painful nostalgia for lost happinesses and lost youth can be.

Go and take a look. You might find yourself being sucked in too.....

*  I had, of course, intended this 'mostly' to be read as referring forwards rather than backwards. Perhaps I should clarify: always thought-provoking and mostly [about] music.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Hitting the Naale on the head!

The 'one and only' proclaims the banner at the top of the famous Newcastle beer's label. How ironic!

In China, you are not quite so unique as you had supposed, Caledonian Brewery Co.! Last week in my local supermarket, I spotted this familiar-seeming can below. And I have to say, at first glance, at a distance - I was fooled. The distinctive five-pointed blue star on the yellow background, the lettering, the name beginning with 'New...': that was more than enough for me. I really thought Newkie had started mass-market distribution in China. Even when I noticed the price was only 3.50 rmb per can (a fifth, at most, of what you'd expect for an import), I wanted to believe that this was an inadvertent slip by the store's staff, a bank error in your favour.  Only on the third or fourth look did I realise that this product is in fact.... Newtaste Naale.... from the "USA Ale Development Company Limited".

I'm not sure if the Caledonian Brewery or the great country of the USA should be more aggrieved at this outrageous misrepresentation. This is what we call 山寨  - shanzhai: the fake or copycat products that are so ubiquitous here, and are mostly not quite good enough to fool anyone, but often cut significantly into the market share of the legitimate products they are aping anyway.

And what is this Naale like? Well, weird. It's a lot paler than Newcastle Brown, and what colour it has seems to have been created by the addition of a gloop of malt or caramel to the mixture. There is just a suggestion of the Newcastle Brown taste about it (though that might just be an illusion brought on by the similar packaging?), but very, very watered down. (It can't just be watered-down Newcastle Brown, can it? Well, this is China: it could be...) It's not exactly unpleasant; just odd.

Still, at 3.50 rmb for a half-litre can, it is VALUE.

Monday, January 09, 2012

The 2011 gigging year

Beijing Daze's indefatigable Badr did a post at the end of last week on his favourite (and least favourite) gigs of the past year: an interesting selection.

Although we share an enthusiasm for the idea of live music, our specific tastes don't seem to coincide much, even in those areas (heavy rock) that we both like. In general, he's into the very heavy end of things, mosh-pit metal and punk, and tends to be a bit contemptuous of anything too melodically 'poppy'; I quite like pop-punk type stuff, things with a bit less aggression and a bit more tunefulness; but these days, in fact, I'm leaning mostly towards acoustic shows, jazz and folk. So... between the two of us, we've got just about everything covered!

Abaji's appearance at Jianghu last March was about the only thing that made it into both of our lists (my music rundown of the year was at the start of my '2011 Bar Awards' post). And even there, I think I was a little less bowled over than Badr; I felt the Armenian multi-instrumentalist was trying just a little too hard to be ingratiating, and, while it was an extremely entertaining evening, for me, the music didn't quite take off and fly.

I think I would have liked the performance of Norwegian band The Black Snakes, who everyone assures me were the highlight of Badr's superb summer party at 2 Kolegas, the 'dazeFEAST (which we must beg him to make an annual event)... but unfortunately I had to miss them because I was working early the next day.

It's very useful to have BD covering so much of the Beijing (and China) music scene for us, and that Review of the Year of his is well worth a look.

I suspect we're both going to be at the big folk show at Mako this Wednesday (it's a benefit gig for a young Kazakh guy who's been seriously injured in a traffic accident and can't pay his hospital bills). See you there too?

Bon mot for the week

"What I'm looking for is a blessing that's not in disguise."

Kitty O'Neill Collins  
(who appears to be another of the Internet's great almost unknowns...)

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Top Five Basslines

A little New Year's musical treat for you!

Well, I've been pondering a post like this for ages, but the idea had dropped off my agenda for a while, and I've only just got around to resurrecting it. Of course, once I started thinking seriously about it, I couldn't limit myself to just FIVE. I think I'm going to sneak in six here; and I have enough nominations left over to fill one or two follow-up instalments later in the year...

[Thanks for inspiration to the formidably knowledgeable Bucketoftongues, another Beijing-based blogger (and copywriter/editor, it would seem), who I happened across for the first time a few days ago.]

Anyway, off the top of my head....

My Top Five (or so) Favourite Basslines

5=)  My Baby Just Cares For Me
Here's the rather sweet claymation video from Nick Park's Aardman studio which helped to carry the classic Nina Simone version of the song to the top of the UK pop charts (well, No. 5, anyway) when it was re-released in 1987. Most of the bassline is carried by the piano, but if you listen carefully, there is a very mellow upright bass underlining it as well - though I can't discover who was playing this. (You can also hear an extended studio version here, or watch her tearing it up live at the Montreux Jazz Festival here.)

5=)  Stand By Me
Here's a rare TV clip of Ben E. King performing his great hit; alas, the opening and closing are clipped a bit. Ruby informs me that his bass player was called Wendell Marshall. A year or so ago on Froogville I found another marvellous version of this song by the Playing For Change project, which supports street musicians.

4)  I Scare Myself
Possibly my favourite Thomas Dolby track (and I'm a big fan): Matthew Seligman playing bass, from the 1984 album The Flat Earth. You should really listen to the album version to enjoy the bass in all its richness, and for genuine trumpet rather than synthesizer (the video isn't that interesting, and seems strangely just a little short); but this is quite a good live performance from Channel 4's great '80s music show The Tube (which gave Jools Holland his start as a presenter). It's also interesting to check out the original version by its composer Dan Hicks, with his band The Hot Licks.

3)  Caramel
Yes, I've posted this on here before, in my 'Great Songs' series. But no apologies - it's a fabulous song, one of  the marvellous Suzanne Vega's very best. And it all hangs on that lilting bossa nova bassline. I'm not sure who played this; two bassists are credited on her Nine Objects Of Desire album, Bruce Thomas (who used to play with Elvis Costello's band, The Attractions) and Sebastian Steinberg.  Here's the video for the song; but there are some good live performances worth checking out as well, particularly this one from the TV show 'Sessions at West 54th'. You should also listen to the unaccompanied version (missing the bass, of course) from her recent series of Close-Up albums.

2)  The Love Cats
Hmm, are all my selections here played on an upright bass? I think perhaps they are (I have a feeling Caramel might be an electric bass; but the rest are all definitely uprights). I wonder what that signifies?? There don't seem to be any good quality postings of the original video at the moment; this rather grainy MTV screening is the best of a very bad lot. However, this clip - from a German TV show called Bananas - is pretty good (apart from Robert Smith's refusal to even attempt to mime in sync!). Great stuff from Simon Gallup here. On reflection, I realise that the basslines are actually the thing I like most about The Cure. Robert's voice has always irritated me, but they have some great basslines.

Ah, but in the top spot, it can only be....

1)  Fever
I discovered just the other day that Peggy Lee's bass player, Max Bennett, introduced this song to her and begged her to add it to her repertoire. That probably tells you all you need to know about what a fantastic bassline it is. The great lady, of course, made the song her own, adding half of the lyrics we know today herself. You can listen to the original recording here (accompanied by a montage of photos of Peggy). This, however, is an interesting - rather speeded up - live performance from the late '60s, with Max on bass and Jack Sperling on drums. No other accompaniment on this song: just a rhythm section, some finger snaps, and that wonderful voice.