Friday, 25 November 2011

Pensions - We're Not All In This Together

Its not all music, films and idle celebrity chit-chat at Messiah HQ. Sometimes we have to get serious.

The thorny spectre of pensions has once again reared its boring but important head with confirmation of a mass walk out by staff at the UK Border Agency on Wednesday that is likely to make air travel a major pain in the ass.

Its not just customs officials who are downing tools. We will see coordinated strike action by 2m public sector workers threatened with pension reform that will force them to pay more into their pensions, work for longer and accept a pension based on a "career average" salary rather than a final salary.

Now it depends on which side of the fence you sit on as to whether you agree with the strikes or not.

If you work in the public sector you are understandably going to be pissed off at having joined a defined scheme, budgeted your life and expectations around that scheme only to have changes imposed arbitrarily.

Alternatively, with private sector pensions being steadily eroded and final salary pensions being as rare as hen's teeth many private sector employees resent the fact that they have subsidise hefty public sector pensions that they in the private sector can only dream of.

For the sake of transparency I need to make clear I work in the public sector. A few years ago we were told that we had Hobson choice of accepting a revised contributory pension or sticking with the generous final salary pension and risk bankrupting the company. So we had no choice but to swallow the bitter pill and go with the lower deal. This type of downgrade has occurred universally across the entire private sector.

The previous government did nothing to tackle the gaping pension shortfall caused by a greater amount of the population living into old age and a stock market that has been in the toilet in the last few years. Whether the status quo has been kept for ideological reasons or because Labour's major funding comes from the public sector unions who they were scared to upset is now immaterial.

If pushed I would have to say that whilst I sympathise with those in the public sector I don't believe they should be immune from the cuts and have to accept that we are living in difficult times and cuts are inevitable. To think other people have to fund their unwieldy pensions. Mass strikes are only going to alienate the rest of the working community who will have to change travel plans and take time off work to look after their kids when the schools go on strike.

If we are all going to take the pain then we aught to look at ALL public servants. One small section seems to have escaped the cuts. Who do you reckon that could possibly be? Whilst millionaire cabinet ministers are keen to trumpet the fact they have taken a pay freeze MP's like pensions minister Steven Webb keep schtum on the fact they still have these gold-plated tax-payer funded index-linked pensions. After just 15 years’ service an MP can retire with an annual pension of £24,000. A worker in the private sector with a defined contribution pension would have to have built up a pension pot of around £700,000 to be able to enjoy a similar annual pension.

It's about time M.P's set an example. How on earth can they justify their mandate when the public can see it is case of do as I say not do as I do?

We are all in this together? Don't make me laugh.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Je Suis Un Rockstar

When you were growing up what did you want to be? Perhaps you had innocent dreams of a being a ballerina or an astronaut? Maybe as your career path became more focused you fancied a respectable career as a banker, lawyer or politician? (See what I did there? I am funny) Chances are whatever direction qualifications, fate and luck have blown you will be sitting in some office typing some shit into a computer.

I admit I never really have had a driving ambition to be anything in particular but I guess secretly I wouldn't have minded being one of two things : a professional footballer or a rock star.

What young lad doesn't dream of one day being a successful musician. The benefits are obvious: fame, money, drugs, exotic locations, unlimited blowjobs from compliant young women. With perks like that I'll take my chances with the strong possibility of an undignified early death.

I have to admit my chances of being a professional footballer are looking decidedly slim. I may still have the vision of David Beckham and the close control of Lionel Messi but no club is willing to take a chance on 35yrs old with a history of knee problems who gets out of breath running 4km on a treadmill. Well, perhaps Arsenal.

No, rock star is still the only real avenue left for me and I recently I took one step to fulfilling my destiny. Regular viewers of my blogs will be aware that I have dabbled in the murky world of music before. I have filmed Youtube cover versions of a few songs that have taken my fancy and I've recorded some of my own material on a home studio. The process was ultimately rewarding but it was unbelievably painstaking and at times quite dull.

However recently I was contacted by a young friend of mine who knew I could play the guitar. We did a cover of Kings of Leon's "Use Somebody". It was OK if unremarkable version and it showed we had a long way to go before we looked and sounded like the pros.

This time we have upped the ante. Bem hired out a studio to record and film a live track, the classic Bill Wither's Ain't No Sunshine. We had done only an hour’s rehearsal and was just hoping it would come together on the night. He roped in a couple of friends who are aspiring film-makers to shoot the video and suddenly it was all getting rather professional.

The studio was in a part of Brighton that I don't normally visit located in a student centric area off Lewes Road. From the outside it looked a bit sketchy situated on the ground floor of crumbly backstreet college but inside it was bright, well equipped and friendly. Branching off from the reception area are a warren of rehearsal rooms and ours contained a full drum kit mounted on a stage, some huge amps and some comfy chairs for the entourage to stroke their chins and say.

"Bit more echo on the mic"

I have to say it was quite fun to play in a proper recording studio. First of all there is sound engineer to make sure all your mics, amps and guitars are working. I nodded along to his talk about leads, voltage and amps as good muso should secretly not knowing what he was talking about half the time. There is an awful lot that can go wrong when you start getting electrics involved as we found out quickly when my electro-acoustic just stopped working. Luckily he had a spare.

I have never professed to be Jimi Hendrix and there was a noticeable added bit of pressure at having to play amplified in front of strangers but eventually I managed just to zone the spectators out and we relaxed into it(as much as you can with camera in your face).

So like me don't let a lack of talent ruin your dreams of fame, fortune and unlimited fellatio. If Jedward can do it so can you!

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Live Music -Maverick Sabre - Concorde 2 Brighton - 07/11/11

Down at the Concorde the crowd are getting restless. It's 09:45 and headline act Maverick Sabre has yet to appear.

As the next great white hope Maverick has been seen and heard in all the right places (Buzzcocks, Jools Holland, Chris Moyles, V-Festival) and without even releasing his debut album the venue is sold out. This is in no small part to standout single Let Me Go which goes "Bond Theme" with Portishead's sample of Isaac Hayes' Ike's Rap II. A sample re-sampled. Who said there were no original ideas in music?

Just before things turn nasty he comes out full of apologies blaming a date mix-up that forced him to go back to London to do a batch of interviews only to rush back 10mins before the start.

Much has been made about Maverick's everyman quality and in the flesh he looks every bit the potato-headed council estate chav you would expect to see hanging out by the off-license in a tracksuit with a dog on a rope. Appearances are invariably deceiving as all preconceptions are shattered when he opens his mouth and sings with the voice that is part Finley Quaye part Amy Winehouse, but 100% unique.

Things start promisingly with Look What I've Done a soulful number with a decent hook that talks of teenage pregnancy and female body image. Credit where its due for avoiding the usual Cristal/Beeyach cliches.

During I Can Never Be the heat of the venue gets the better of Maverick and he takes off his T-Shirt only to be admonished by security who come on stage and whisper in his ear that uncovered flesh is against health and safety. Maverick picks up shirt like a scolded schoolboy but once the partisan crown starts to boo he plucks up the courage to rebel.

"I'm boiling up here...this is for all the guys without a six-pack"

he says in a bizarre patois that vacillates between County Wexford blarney and Jamaican rude boy. Let's say he wasn't late because he was held up at the gym.

New song Cold Game has echoes of Stevie Wonder's Gangsters Paradise with its descending chords and I Used To Have It All is a pleasant track. Both are played competently but struggle to stay in the memory after they finish.

Next up an acoustic section where Maverick breaks out the guitar and attempts go all Redemption Song on our asses. Best I can describe the nagging disappointment I feel is that Maverick suffers the Jill Scott Syndrome where the music has been sacrificed in order to tell a story. These Walls a tale of dysfunctional life in and out of prison has admirable lyrics but musically is entirely forgettable. An exception to this They Found Him a Gun. a pretty decent song about gun crime whose refrain is musical enough to get the crowd involved. It shows he can do music and message when he puts his mind to it.

He certainly knows how to work the crowd with his shouts of "You are the best crowd yet, Brighton" and the requests to put our hands in the air. It is a touch too "Radio One Road Show" for my tastes but you can't fault the guy for effort.

After declaring Noel Gallagher one of the best songwriters ever he launches into a pretty unimaginative version of Wonderwall which has the crowd in full karaoke mode. It would have been nice to see him do something a little different with it though.

Current single I Need is a radio friendly slice of inoffensive FM soul which is delivered with his trademark slur.

For an encore we get the big hit, Let Me Go backed up by some great Chaka Khanesque backing vocals that sound a good live as they do on record.

Last up a version of fellow Hackney resident Professor Green's Jungle, a bass heavy distant cousin to Jamiroquai's Deeper Underground which adds some menace to Sabre's soulful warbling.

With only flashes of brilliance Maverick would do well to develop his songwriting craft if he ever wants to challenge the Noel Gallaghers of this world. For a man who wants his debut album to be something

"that people can play back to their kids."

Based on this outing he needs to work harder on his songs unless he wants to be remembered as a poor man's Plan B. To be top gun Maverick needs the melody to meet his high flying ambition.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Film Review - No Country For Old Men

The genre of thriller is often a widely used misnomer in the movie world for films involving detectives searching for clues to murders. To really make it thrilling some director may even throw in a car chase or some artistically lit rumpy pumpy. This is all rather lazy and predictable and probably the reason most thrillers are about as thrilling as a wet weekend in Margate.

Fortunately, the Coen Brother's redefine the genre with this modern classic that bagged a hatful of Oscars and gave a shot in the arm to the careers of both Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem. Not so much a modern day The Good, The Bad And The Ugly but The Old, The Brave and The Nutcase the movie is so utterly engrossing that at times I caught myself peering open mouthed at the unfolding tension.

No Country For Old Men is a literary adaptation of Cormack McCarthy's tense classic about washed-up Vietnam vet Llewlyn Moss (mustachioed Josh Brolin) who stumbles upon a drug-deal-gone-wrong whilst hunting in the deserts on the Mexican border. Amid the carnage and dead bodies is a bag containing $2 million. He decides that none of the corpses are going to need the loot any time soon and decides to liberate the money in order to build a better life for him and his trailer park wife Carla Jean (Kelly McDonald).

Problem is that no-one is going to let $2 million disappear without a fight and sadistic "collector" Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is sent to retrieve the cash. Picking up the pieces is world weary Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) whose laconic investigation follows the trail of destruction.

The film is a distant cousin of another Coen classic, Fargo. It's has a similar collection of nobodies, the same jet black humour and this time substitutes the stark icescapes of North Dakota for the barren deserts of Texas. They both involve murder, ill gotten gains and the long arm of the law.

The cat and mouse chase between Bardem and Brolin is a joy to behold. Street-wise Moss continually tries to stay one step ahead of the single-minded Chigurh with all manner of cautionary steps seemingly without success.

Bardem's terrifying performance as Chigurh is the stand out performance and in the same league as other legendary big-screen psychopaths Hannibal Lector and Norman Bates. He defines the word unhinged, with his own warped set of morals and ludicrous haircut he dispatches his victims with a sadistic calm. The scene involving Chigurh verbally battering a shop keeper is a masterclass of timing and dialogue.

"What's it to you where I'm from friendo?"

Tommy Lee Jones' measured melancholia is the perfect antidote to Bardem's all encompassing madness. As the old man in the films title Jones has a hard time accepting that the world is going to hell in a handcart. His old fashioned values are completely at odds with the rampaging menace he is tracking down. On the verge of retirement he is always that one step behind the killer but is resigned to the fact that despite his experience he is totally unprepared to tackle this force of nature.

I didn't realise at the time but the film's virtual lack of musical score inadvertently creates a really tense atmosphere where you are forced to pay attention to all the elements that pass you by in standard films such as creaking doors, traffic noise etc. This is obviously a deliberate ploy to focus you on the details and creates a heightened sense of reality. There were a few occasions where a jumped out of my seat, not something I'm inclined to do very often.

Roger Deakin's deserves special praise fine cinematography showcasing one of the few forgotten corners of the U.S. in all its stark majesty. A no man's land where law and order does not always have the upper hand.

Despite the many positives the film isn't perfect. It does drag on a tad too long in its efforts to be as faithful to the novel as possible, Tommy Lee Jones southern drawl is at times unintelligble and the ending is anti-climactic and leaves you wondering where the missing reel went.

8 out of 10

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

TV Review - Louis Theroux: America's Most Dangerous Pets - BBC2 Sunday

Louis has been getting a bit serious lately. First of all there were stray bullets avoided in his foray into Israel to meet the ultra-Zionists, then back for a return visit to God-Hates-Fags zealots and lastly a trip to Miami Mega Jail to socialise with sociopaths. Fascinating documentaries one and all but hardly a barrel of laughs. Perhaps keen to avoid turning into the thinking man's Ross Kemp, Louis goes back to the light hearted formula that made his Weird Weekends so successful, namely focusing on the incredibly rich seam of eccentric loonies that populate America.

This time Louis looks at America's fascination with killer pets. Tiger and primate ownership is legal in certain states and owners go as far as piercing monkey’s ears and pushing them around in buggies to humanize them. Capturing the zeitgeist, the documentary comes in the wake of the story about a woman in Connecticut who had her face ripped off by a pet chimpanzee and a man in Ohio who killed himself and released his menagerie of tigers and lions as a final "fuck you" to the authorities.

Louis visits the owner of GW Exotic Animal Park, Joe Exotic, a gay redneck (if that is not a contradiction in terms) with a peroxide mullet, handlebar moustache and more tattoos then Amy Winehouse. His heart seems to be in the right place as all his animals are rescued from the growing number of owners who find they can't look after the animals when they grow from cute cubs to 600lb man eaters.

However, money worries and a running battle with PETA about his supposed cruelty to animals, of which we see no evidence, mean he has to supplement his income by breeding some of the animals and taking them on a trashy mall road show. Sad to think that most Americans will only take an interest in nature if there is a Taco Bell within waddling distance.

Despite Louis best attempts to dig up some dirt the worst accusation that Louis can throw at Joe is whether his animals would have a better life in the wild. Well, duh? It's like asking a wheelchair bound war veteran dragged to safety whether his life would be any better if he could walk. Sometimes life is a choice of the lesser of two evils. As Joe pragmatically points out

"Its a choice of a small cage or a smaller box"

If Joe fails the oddness test fellow animal lover Tim was a bit closer to the loony enclosure. In Tim's own private zoo, funded by his extremely patient wife, we see him boxing a mountain lion and casually strolling into his bear enclosure

"I don't care if I don't come back out again"

His bears do seem oddly wary of him like they had been molested on a drunken night out but had subconsciously blanked it out.

"I don't trust or respect any humans...not even my wife"

he declares, in front of his wife. She has a sad air similar to those poor bears in the enclosure.

In a display of machismo that probably hints at some deficiency in the penis department Tim wheels out a massive Siberian tiger on a chain which is way too strong for him and manfully pretends everything is under control

"We should probably have talked this through"

implores Louis retreating to the safety of the house.

There is more discomfort for Louis in a scene reminiscent of The Simpsons when he is given Tatiana, a female baboon to hold with a faraway look in its eye and a bright red arse.

"I don't really want to touch her bum"

Louis seems convinced the baboon is about to bite his nose off as it clings on to him and picks through his chest hair for nits.

"Is it safe?"

whimpers Louis. The assurances he gets aren't very convincing so you can understand his reticence.

Louis caution is at odds with his normally gung-ho attitude to danger and it sounds like he his research has got the better of him. At the start of the programme, Joe gives him some sound advice about not underestimating the chimpanzees

"Chimps will lure you in and get ya!"

Louis visits another family with pet chimps who worryingly seem to be using them as surrogate children feeding them Doritos and Mexican food and having them wash in their shower.

" my eyes he seems like a tiny, hairy, energetic child"

Another older chimp is given a pep talk before meeting Louis and is threatened off camera to be shown "the bang bang" a reference to the shock that can be given from his collar. Regardless of the talking to, the adolescent chimp comes bounding out of his enclosure and in his excitement promptly puts his hand throw the patio window that Louis is cowering behind

“I think we have what we need,”

Sadly, Louis is the victim of his own success and whilst still entertaining this wasn't a memorable as his previous efforts. Louis has the knack of uncovering unreported or niche areas that have not had the oxygen of publicity but there are few revelations to be uncovered here. Neither extreme or quirky enough to qualify as whimsy and not enough dirt to qualify as a expose the show hangs limply between the two like a lachrymose orangutan swinging on an old tyre.

You can watch it again today on BBC2 @ 23:30 or on the Iplayer for the next 5 days