Tuesday, April 24, 2012

My Rainbow Connection

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the release of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, a fact that quite frankly blows my mind just a little.

We had a Spectrum, my brother and I, after months of attending the local Computer Club and watching the slow transition of those in the group from the modest but limited ZX81 through to models that were a little more ambitious in memory and performance - including the Speccy. Money was saved, cases were argued (including the old chestnut that it would improve our education) and, eventually, as a family we made the trip down to Dunedin to pick up the new addition, all 16 kilobytes, peripherals, manuals and polystyrene packaging of it. It was a big moment in my adolescent life. I was thirteen and this looked for all the world like the future in our spare room. We loved our ZX Spectrum, lavishing it with hours of our developing lives and crafting it a fuzzy blue workstation of its very own, with holes for its coaxial cables and a shelf for its cassette player. Within a year or so we made a further plunge and with the help of a school friend, upgraded our little beauty to a more impressive 48k.
Let other blogs and sites tell of games and cheats and fledgling forays into BASIC and COBOL; my Spectrum experience was forged in site of these. I was no programmer, although my early attempts at computer graphics started with our home machine; nor was I a gamer, my lot in digital life seemingly ever to be terminated (with extreme prejudice) around the end of level three of every game I've ever played. My Spectrum experience was however an immersive one: lured by glossy ads and the promise that my comic heroes (Dredd, Nemesis the Warlock, Strontium Dog, Rogue Trooper, Dan Dare) would be realised in interactive, noisy 8 bit form. I became savvy to the Spectrum phenomena of marketing and fan culture - the slick advertising that promised so much (even if it delivered slightly less), the cheat-sheets and playground negotiations of these and bootleg game cassettes, the specialist magazines with their infinite lives pokes and codes. Every day trip to Dunedin had to involve two shop visits: to London Bookshops for White Dwarf magazine, and to David Reid Electronics, who'd sold us the computer and had many more cheap games and cassettes to copy others on to.

Somewhere amidst travelling with Bilbo Baggins, collecting Chuckie's Eggs and Jet-Setting with Willy I grew up. I learned the shrewdness of brand recognition (Melbourne House games were often literary based - The Hobbit, Sherlock Holmes, earnest but very well put together, Ultimate games - Sabre Wulf, Atic Atac, were punchy, dynamic, imaginative and innovative) and brand loyalty (I spit on you, Amstrad! et cetera). I learned my limitations as a programmer and gamer. But I communicated wit other kids about our shared interest in the computer, I made friends, and by god I actually got more out of it than I put into it. That's a rare thing in life right there. In time the world moved on: my friends upgraded to C64s or Amigas, and our school BBC Micros became robust, cuboid early Apple Macs. Ten years on from our ZX Spectrum I was eventually writing university essays on a word processor, then using email, Telnet, and eventually the World Wide Web. Technology, as George Lucas would modestly put it, had caught up with me. But my first love, for ever and always, will be a slim, black box with rubber keys and a non-threatening 80s-sharp rainbow flash on the corner.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

"A Mile Empty Inside"

Manic Street Preachers 'Gold Against the Soul' (1993)
Almost a year on from listening to Gold Against the Soul for the first time, I’m still unsure what to make of it. On the face of it, Gold is a logical progression from Generation Terrorists – lyrically it’s not greatly different in style or content, and thematically and sound-wise it seems as though the Manics have simply taken up where they left off, in the direction they probably intended to go. It’s not a memorable album, though, and while it was no failure, so far as I can ascertain it’s not regarded as one of their important ones either. It simply hasn’t warmed on me the way other Manics albums have.

 Put broadly, Gold is Manic Street Preachers sticking to their plan of pop chart domination, and perhaps this intention is flagged a little more deliberately than on the previous album – the compositions are more straightforward, with more variety in pace and melody. Rather than barking polemic the lyrics flow like confessionals – indeed, the album seems more of an intimate work, with greater use of the first person and less of an objective second-person. What’s more the influences are, for want of a better word, more traditional and softer – there are bluesy moments, and a synthesised Hammond organ fills in gaps where previously guitar feedback would have performed the task. James Dean Bradfield’s voice is in places hushed, conveying more emotion and less hysteria – if this is a formula for greater chart penetration then it’s a simple and reliable one. It all adds up to the impression that as threatened the Manics are making their pitch at the hit parade, but not necessarily on their terms only, it’s a calculated form of compromise, and one that stops short of crying ‘sell out’. One resists the term ‘radio friendly’, although it’s an apt one, but under this new fa├žade the band is changing still; in fact it’s deteriorating. Indeed, you don’t have to look far to see that below this glossier veneer, the Manics are still writing and singing about some troubling subjects. Insomnia, the anonymity of age, addiction, self-loathing – this is perhaps the first clear example of the band’s lyricists expressing their lives explicitly through their songs, but for a tilt at stadium success these make for difficult subjects to sing along to. Life Becoming a Landslide’s “My idea of love comes from / a childhood glimpse of pornography” is hardly Living on a Prayer. Within the band had something of a crisis the coming year, with Richie James admitted to a clinic for alcoholism and depression, singer Bradfield summing up the year in four words “Bag of utter shite.”

 And yet, Manic Street Preachers supported Bon Jovi on a national tour to some success in that year, and Landslide remains one of the standouts from the album, achieving a melodic accessibility though a ballad format, one which wasn’t previously explored on an album outside of Pretty Baby Nothing. You might well think this evidence of a growing maturity in their songwriting, and perhaps it is. For me though the album’s highlight is its other big single, La Tristesse Durera (Scream to a Sigh), seeming to lead in on a single sustained note from the fading close of From Despair to Where: “I sold my medal, it bought a meal / It trades in market stalls, parades Milan catwalks” strikes me as one of their simplest, most elegantly rueful lines of the band’s early output, and its meditation on the lot of an elderly ex-serviceman will revisited three albums later of course in If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next. On the whole, Gold has some good material, and a well-constructed first side indeed, with Sleepflower/Despair/La Tristessa and the egocidal Yourself playing a clever game of changing subjects and pace while leaving off and picking up in the same key. It flows rather well and deliberately, and it’s really only the latter songs of the album’s second side that either show their melodic limitations (Symphony of Tourette) or dated treatment (the title track, which I’d really like to hear stripped of its popping, blistering dancefloor synthesisers and mashed production.) Perhaps the final judgement I could lay on Gold is not that the Manics overreach themselves with this album, but that compared with what output follows this release doesn’t show the same verve or invention as its predecessor, even if the technique and awareness is evident.

 The temptation I suppose in dealing with an album like Gold Against the Soul is to treat it as part of the journey, consigning it the status of a stepping stone along the way to a bigger, more influential or important work. Superficially this is of course what it is – there are two of these immediately to come, but Gold isn’t a road marker - it’s not even the fork in the road. What follows for the Manics is the choice between staying the path and sticking to their plan of chart success and that Wembley Stadium gig, or taking the path less followed, eschewing all to pursue something more personal and less radio friendly. Such decisions are the things that kill bands. In the end, with internal trials making themselves evident in song and the band’s appearances, I’m not so sure the choice was clear cut for the band, and what resulted is sort of both, for better or worse, and the seeds of the next two albums are equally shared in Gold Against the Soul.

Cover Story: Artistic, and decidedly less provocative than the previous effort. There's nudity inside the album jacket, but by far the most offensive object on display is Sean Moore's scary red ruffled pirate shirt, in which he's decided to take a swim:

Friday, April 6, 2012

RIP Jim Marshall

If the master plan had come to fruition, there'd be a picture of a much-used, well-loved Marshall Amp here, which, given my rather timid approach to rock and/or roll at the time, would never have been turned past ten. So a sad farewell to a man whose product I always coveted, but haven't yet owned. I figure if I can make it to 88 myself, then I have a few more years yet to achieve the dream.

May the wonders of the next life go all the way to Eleven for you, sir...

[below: several Marshall amps put to good use]

Monday, April 2, 2012

Right Next Door to Hell

As a postscript to Talkin' Eds, I always meant to put this up, coming as it did around the time of the series' end, and as it is of local interest (i.e., seen while driving home from work one day):

Reader, I didn't attend.