Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Having attended a school where music tastes were mocked first, sexuality second, I have always been a little curbed when discussing my music tastes. Even to this day I have issues buying CDs over the counter for fear of laughter or pitying glances. Thank heavens for the internet.

My music collection during my tender years was a bit of an embarrassment. My vinyls consisted of hand-me-downs and discs bought from car-boot sales. They included Max Bygraves, The Jets, a Playaway album and Rupert and the Firebird.
I spent a lot of the eighties listening to Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and Five Star and, embarrassingly, I even recall defending my choices by saying the old adage “Blacks have great rhythm!” (Yes, I know, I know… but I was young, naïve and eager to evade derision.) I was also a big fan of Swing Out Sister, but more of them later.
In the nineties I was obsessed with Beverley Craven, The Commitments and The Kinks but it was of course Kirsty MacColl who took the highest pedestal.
Due to peer pressure, I did try and get into the groove of the cooler side of music. Attending every performance of my brother’s band and listening to the Wayne’s World album didn’t really cut it, frankly. I guess my Betty Boo CDs exposed my cheesy side a little too glaringly.
I did have my darker days as I had a tumultuous time dealing with the whole gay thing. I would lie on the bedroom floor in the dark listening to Jerry Goldsmith’s score to Damien: Omen II hoping the world would leave me alone or at least give me a billion pounds so I could buy that elusive Gothic mansion I had my eyes on. When I rose from those bleak moods, I would stick on some Del Shannon and sing-a-long to Runaway.

In an effort to shed the burden of guilty pleasures, I thought I’d write about the music that brought me to the present day. I can’t detail every single artist or band who brought me enjoyment, but here are a few highlights…

I am a ‘90s Madonna’ fan. I wasn’t swayed by her in the 1980s (although I thought Material Girl and Express Yourself were cheeky and fun) but by the nineties, I was becoming in sync with her metamorphosis. I was a late developer, sexually (come to think of it, I’m still developing, bloody retarded hormones!) and when I was desperately seeking (!) some confirmation that I could be who I needed to be, Madonna was going through her Erotica/Bedtime Stories phase and I almost took Human Nature as my anthem - “I’m not you bitch, don’t hang your shit on me.”
That era was bookended with two of my favourite albums - I’m Breathless and Ray of Light. The former was my proper introduction to old Madge through a corridor lined with 1940s wallpaper and jazzy swing beats. The latter was her most accomplished album to date and her voice was at its peak thanks to the training she undertook whilst working on Evita.
I felt it was a shame that the 21st century brought an endless stream of dance-themed albums with little deviation. Reinvention was her hallmark for the first two decades of her career. She needs to take some of her own advice, methinks.
In one moment of bravery, I did dress up as Madonna for Comic Relief and performed Hanky Panky and Vogue for a refectory full of college students. It would have helped had I known all the words.

Swing Out Sister
From the moment I heard Breakout I was in love with Corinne Drewery. Maybe if I’d seen the video and witnessed her love of jangly bangles, I may have been less thrilled. Corinne reminded me of my step-mother Eileen, mainly because they had similar haircuts, and it was Eileen’s copy of the debut album It’s Better to Travel that I practically commandeered for my own aural pleasure. I simply adored Twilight World and still do.
Many people think that was the last of Swing Out Sister until they remember that they did a cover version of La La Means I Love You which was featured on the soundtrack to Four Weddings and a Funeral. Thankfully, for fans like me, their success continued in Japan of all places and they are still doing their thing and producing music which is unique and brilliant to this day. I recently completed my collection of Swing Out Sister albums having found the brilliant Filth and Dreams on line. This is their notoriously difficult to find sixth album from 1999 which was only released in Japan. There have been three more since and I am hoping that there will be a tenth next year. Thirty years in the business and still entertaining me greatly. For anyone interested in seeking out their loungey, jazzy style, I’d recommend Beautiful Mess, The Living Return and Filth and Dreams (if you can find it!)

Beverley Craven
As with Swing Out Sister, I knew I was going to love Beverley from the moment I heard her debut single. She was on Top of the Pops performing her superb Promise Me and I felt something inside click and I was an instant fan.
During a hiatus to raise a family and battle cancer, her songs never left the playlists of my mind. When she returned to music a couple of years ago, it was as though she’d never left and her fourth album Close to Home was like an intimate concert especially for her devoted fans.
During my last couple of years at school, Beverley was riding the heights of popularity and had some massive sell-out concerts. I was desperate to attend one, but could simply not afford to go. However, there was a special promotion where one could obtain free tickets as part of a run of charity concerts (Sadly, I forget the charity now).
I wanted to go so badly and I was determined to do so. There was one problem. The tokens one had to collect were only available from the inside of Tampax packets, printed on the leaflet within the box.
So, using the charm I was born with, I persuaded a number of girl friends to part with their tokens (I even bought some myself!)
One of my friends, feeling slightly embarrassed about the whole thing, gave me the tokens but had discreetly cut off the illustrations showing how to insert the product into the body.
The end result was positive and I eventually made it to Sheffield. The tickets were for two seats and I had to take someone who could drive – so I took my brother who was also a fan…
…we were the only blokes there.
The hippodrome was crawling with Tampon-wielding usherettes, handing out free samples and chocolates for those in need. I was keen to get a goody bag and persuaded one attendant to keep one aside, despite my penis, as I was such a fan – only because I knew there was a cassette sampler of one of Beverley’s songs inside.
I still have that tape along with some very find memories.

Harry Connick Jr.
Oh, Harry.
Harry, Harry, Harry.
Why won’t you dump Jill Goodacre and come and marry me?
Whether he is covering a smooth classic or belting out one of his own numbers, he exudes the sexy confidence of a truly talented musician. I love the old Big Band/Swing thing and Harry is an expert at caressing our emotions with his dulcet tones. I’d take Harry over Michael Buble any day for the same reason that I’d take Tony Bennett over Frank Sinatra. Michael and Frank are a little too perfect and clinical in their style – bloody amazing, obviously – but Harry and Tony have that extra dollop of heart as far as I’m concerned. There’s a little extra dose of magic there.
I still have not managed to see Harry perform live but hopefully one day in the future... Our eyes will meet between stage and stalls and he will suddenly be overcome with sexual abandon and - *slaps self* Ahem… anyway, where was I?

Bebel Gilberto
Bebel is a late addition to my music library – well, I say “late” but I was amongst the first to discover her – you know, prior to every single café in Christendom using Tanto Tempo as mood music.
It was the year 2000 and I was on that heinous example of globalisation gone awry, Borders, browsing as one does – looking for items and then searching for them cheaper elsewhere. Overhead, I could hear these beautiful melodies embracing my ears and I went to the information counter and for once and once only, I received some actual information (At Borders! I know! Incredible!) The very nice woman informed me it was this little known Brazilian artist, Bebel Gilberto and I was smitten. I actually gave the hungry beast (the shop, not the nice lady) my money and take home the CD and it became a frequent sound at the shop where I worked for a few months.
A few years later, Bebel visited Melbourne on tour and I got to see her live. It was a beautiful experience and I had shivers down my spine and even welled-up with tears at one point. Bebel is one of the most sensual performers around – the opposite to the forced eroticism of Madonna – it was all natural and sensual. Pure bliss.

Betty Boo
Don’t mock me. I love her! Sure she dropped her microphone whilst miming. If it had happened these days, no one would care. She was sprightly, entertaining, funny and way ahead of her time.
Have you heard Grrr! It’s Betty Boo? It’s an awesome summer album and was even cited by Old Madge herself as being “Criminally underrated”. Damn straight.

Kirsty MacColl
There is nothing I can say here about Kirsty that I haven’t written many times before. So I shall be brief in my overt enthusiasm for this wonderful and much-missed performer.
1) If it wasn’t for French and Saunders, I’d not be so aware of her work.
2) She ‘helped’ me during my lowest ebb with her touching music.
3) Tropical Brainstorm is my favourite album ever, bar none.
4) When she died, I broke a little bit inside and still feel that fracture daily.
5) I am grateful beyond words that I got to see her perform live.

I understand she isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but for me, there has never been anyone as clever, witty and original as the late Kirsty MacColl.

So, I could go on (and on) and talk about the influence of Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, The Kinks, The Pasadena Roof Orchestra, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, various musical soundtracks (“Aren’t all musicals gay?” asks Roy in The IT Crowd) and a whole bunch of odds and ends including that CD of Del Shannon’s hits and a variety of Marilyn Monroe compilations, but I shan’t and won’t.

Music is a deeply personal thing and, as with comedy, it’s a matter of taste. I try not to judge others as I know I have no right to do so.
So, next time you’re in the local CD store and you’re feeling a tad embarrassed about buying the Spice Girls greatest hits, take a deep breath and purchase with confidence – I know when I did, I actually received some kudos from the girl at the checkout.

Well, she was nine.

One final note: The worst album ever to be created is one I bought as a booby-prize for a party – it was called Pan Pipes play Celine Dion or some such rubbish. Absolutely dire. Unfathomably awful. Yet… hilarious.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

He's On The Beach

I have just returned home after a beautiful two-hour walk. Spring seems to have finally arrived in Melbourne and there were lots of people up and about making the most of the splendid sunshine and cool breeze.

As I walked along the beach by the lapping shore, breathing in the aromatic salty smells one can only find in such locations, I was astonished by the remnants of shells and the notion of all the amazing life this planet creates. It all seems so minor and insignificant to our daily lives but it's also so much bigger than us and often far more impressive.

Then I stumble across litter. Shards of debris left by some ignorant twat who cares so little for the natural beauty of our world. Oh, it makes my heart ache. :(
I frown, curse under my breath and walk on daydreaming about a time when I might be able to find a quiet little corner of the earth away from the crowds and live a peaceful life. *sigh*
Let me not digress... back to the more pleasant thoughts:

Initially, the beach is reasonably quiet. Then the joggers and the dog-walkers come along. It seems these early-risers are far more polite and will return the gesture of 'good morning' despite not knowing who I am.

I see families out with their children and the excited glee of their young faces as they hurtle towards the waves. I reminisce about my childhood when a trip to the beach was a rare treat. Even if it was a cold Northern Hemisphere winter, there was still this well of thrilling energy within one's stomach as one approached the open beach. Armed with a yellow bucket shaped as an upside-down castle with a stubby spade to match, I'd run from the car along the concrete path to over the brow of a dune... sometimes my stomach would lurch slightly with disappointment when seeing hordes of people when my imagination had pictured an cast empty play area all for me, but I would soon get over it and spend hours on end making castles, swimming and digging pits.

The simple pleasures, eh?

I may endeavour to get out walking more often this coming summer.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Dear John

On Monday, I received my DVD boxset of the classic 1980’s BBC sitcom, Dear John. I have fond memories of watching the show with my brother all those years ago (I was only 11 – bless!)
Each night this week, I watched one disc from the box. Monday night was series 1, episodes 1-4; Tuesday night was the last three of that debut season. Wednesday night was the first half of series two and Thursday was the remainder plus the Christmas special which turned out to be the finale. I was always under the impression that this was due to the unfortunate death of the lead actor, Ralph Bates, but he didn’t actually pass away until four years later so I don’t know why I had that notion in my head.

The basic premise sounds depressing, but stick with me…
John is divorced by his wife when she leaves him for his best mate, Mike. John moves into a small rented room and having been shunned by his cliquey friends (all of whom prefer ‘couples’ when socialising) decides to join a club for the divorced and separated. The people he meets are quite an eclectic bunch with whom he only has the one thing in common – being alone.

The series was remade in America a year or so later as Dear John USA (God! The geniuses who came up with that title…) and that ran for four seasons. Suffice to say, I never went out of my way to watch that. Maybe it was good, who knows? Not I.

Although I hadn’t seen it for well over 20 years (at least) I was surprised to find so many comedic lines flooding back to me. I was amazed to find myself quoting them as they were spoken. The party held by Mrs Boyd-Peters has one of the all-time classic moments of the series, but I simply cannot tell you about it here as it needs to be enjoyed when viewed properly. Still, I chimed in with the humdinger of a quote when the time came.

Ralph Bates played John Lacey to perfection. He was beautifully bewildered, depressed and essentially flawed but still rather lovable at the same time.
Belinda Lang’s Kate was sassy and acerbic – one can see why she ended up getting the lead in 2.4 Children.
Peter Denyer’s Ralph is very much a caricature but once again, he was played with heart and the episode with the death of his friend Terry is splendid.
Rachel Bell is one of those actresses that I get excited about when I see her name in a cast list. I think she is mesmeric to watch – an under-rated comedienne who can play the snobbish social climber as well as Penelope Keith any day. As Louise, the woman who runs the 1-2-1 social club, she is the epitome of the Eighties’ middle-class yuppie wannabe and her overt interest in people’s sex lives is genuinely entertaining.
All of these elements could have made for an adequate and enjoyable situation comedy, but there was one more ingredient which strengthened the mix and that was Kirk St Moritz, played by Peter Blake.
He was the arrogant, cocky, vain, Lothario who could have been the love child of John Travolta and The Fonz. Once again, this character could have been all clichés and a one-joke wonder, but John Sullivan’s writing and Peter Blake’s performance gave Kirk a much deeper history. This layering of character resulted in a beautiful moment in the finale which should have any viewer grinning like a lunatic.

Although there were a variety of other characters throughout the run, there was one other performance I really want to mention – that is Irene Prador as Mrs Lemenski, John’s Polish neighbour. For two series, she was the one to criticise John and his crazy way of talking to himself. She would often call him a ‘Looney Man’ or some such insulting term. However, her role in the Christmas finale is as beautiful and touching as anything one could ever hope for in a festive episode and I genuinely shed a tear as I relived those scenes again.

Goodness, it is hard writing about the show when I don’t want to give anything away to those who have yet to discover it on DVD.

In fairness, it wasn’t ever going to be the greatest situation comedy of all-time and there were some moments which missed the mark. Even after the praise I have heaped upon it in this post, I cannot deny that the first half of series two is its lowest point (but it does improve by the end!)

If you have never seen it, give it a go. The series is available on DVD in the UK from Acorn Media and, yes, it may seem a little dated, but it is sure as hell funnier than some of the tripe that gets churned out these days.

Thanks to a happy coincidence, Kirsty MacColl also wrote a number called ‘Dear John’, so I didn’t need to find some tenuous link for the title of this post in my ongoing task of naming all posts after one her songs. Huzzah.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Keep Your Hands Off My Baby

*As told by 'Ben the Baker'*

One comes to learn that when it is leading up to Christmas, it is best to buy enough ingredients for TWO Christmas Cakes. This is because one will be far too tempted to not eat the first cake when one sees the finished product emerge from the oven. So, the images that follow detail attempt #2 for 2010.

Please note Ben's festive apron.

So, first one prepares the fruit and makes sure it is soaked well in brandy. There is also a number of spices mixed in too, including cinnamon and nutmeg - of course!

Then one makes the cakey part of the mix... Butter, Sugar, Eggs and Flour.

Then one mixes the two tasty mixtures together in an enormous bowl.

The majority of it is scooped into the prepared lined baking tin. The little bit left over is allowed to be licked off the enormous bowl and spoon until one is close to vomiting.

Then it is backed at 150C/300F/Gas Mark 2 for around three hours and when it is retrieved from the oven, not only will the kitchen smell fabulous, one also has a lovely cake too. It needs to stay in the tin for a bit to cool.

Over the coming months, one pours various spirits over the cake to allow it to absorb the alcohol. A good fruitcake matures with age like a good wine.

(I know what some of you may be thinking, but being 'sober' does not mean I can't have alcohol within food. That's my rule!)

If anyone thinks they are going to get a sneak preview, they can think again. That initial cake has already been demolished by oneself. So HANDS OFF until Christmas!