Blog the Light Fantastic

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: August 2013

Another August, another year older...


I had a great night out last night at the Colston Hall. I was there to see Robert Plant with his latest band, the Sensational Space Shifters. I had no idea what to expect - the band is formed from an eclectic mix of musicians including personnel from Beak>, Cast, Massive Attack and JuJu - but the last time I saw Mr. P perform live he only did two numbers from the Led Zeppelin days. That most certainly wasn't the case last night, as we started off with Led Zep material straight out of the gate (it's a bit of a blur but I think it was "The Rain Song"). That was followed by "Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down" from the "Band of Joy" album, some updated blues standards like "Spoonful" and Bukka White's "Feels like I'm fixin' to die" (covered on RP's "Dreamland" album) as well as "Big Log" from "The Principle of Moments" (which was followed by the wry comment "right, that's the eighties done with...) and, best of all, a whole slew of Zep numbers including "Whole Lotta Love", "Rock and Roll", "Going to California", and more. I was ecstatic. It was one of the best gigs I've been to in a long time. "See you in A & E," Mr Plant said as they left the stage after the encore. I hope not - may he be doing what he did last night for many years to come, because it was awesome.


I went to see Edgar Wright's new film The World's End on Wednesday night in town. It's the third in his "blood and cornettos" trilogy after Sean of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and this time the subject matter is alien invasion, by way of a pub crawl. If you haven't seen the film yet, you probably won't want to read any further because there will be SPOILERS.

In short, it's a masterclass in plotting, callbacks to earlier dialogue, sight gags, and swearing. Gary King (Simon Pegg) gets his childhood friends back together in their home town to attempt a fabled pub crawl that they failed to complete on the day they all left school. As the film progresses it becomes clearer (although it's never made explicitly so) that Gary is deeply troubled and is undergoing psychiatric treatment following a suicide attempt. His life has been in stasis ever since that night. Completing the pub crawl along the Golden Mile and having a pint in the twelfth pub - "The World's End" - has become his Holy Grail, the thing that will fix his life for him. The problem is, the town is not what it used to be...

The Holy Grail reference is flagged repeatedly through the film; each of the five main characters has a surname which references a role at court: King, Chaberlain, Page, Prince, and Knightley. Appropriate names is a trope that Wright used before in Hot Fuzz (where all the villagers had traditional saxon names like Cooper, Fisher, Wainwright, Cartwright, Thatcher, Merchant and so on) but here it's much more closely tied to the film's plot. There are set-ups and payoffs aplenty. And as usual there are some familiar faces (or, in one case, voices) cropping up in cameos. In fact the whole movie is so densely and intricately constructed I will probably be picking through its many and varied easter eggs for years to come.

The film shows a more mature side to the team's writing, and there are times when events follow the emotional thread of the film rather than making a quick gag. The characters are staring middle age in the face and they all have unresolved issues from childhood that surface as the plot progresses. Nick Frost gets the widest character arc and the scene where he finally snaps and becomes bar-stool hulk is worth the price of admission all by itself.

Edgar Wright also demonstrates once again that he has an impeccable ear for picking the right music. Gary's emotional development stalled back in the 1980s so the songs we hear all hark back to those happier times. We get the Soup Dragons, we get Primal Scream, we get Inspiral Carpets and the Happy Mondays, Blur, Suede, the Sisters of Mercy, and Kylie Minogue. And each piece fits in perfectly with what is taking place on screen. I walked out of the cinema singing "This Corrosion" with a smile on my face. And you can't do a film about drinking without including the Doors' version of Brecht's Alabama Song, can you?

However, I must admit that the ending, although it effectively does what it says on the film's tin, felt off-kilter. Don't get me wrong; the film as a whole is well worth going to see. It's one of the best British films to come out in years. I don't mind the fact that Gary never attains his Grail (in fact, when it's offered to him he outright rejects it). That fits in with the Grail legend, because the knights never found the Grail either. I don't mind that the end also allows Nick Frost to do the film's required Cornetto sight gag in glorious fashion but in a very different context to those of the other two films. My problem is that the ending undermines Gary's redemptive arc. He has, after all, brought the whole of civilisation crashing down in order to be healed. Although the final scene shows him leading the blank copies of his classmates' former selves on a quest for acceptance, there's little evidence that he is no longer the "sod you, I'm alright Jack" arsehole that he was when the film started. Indeed, his main change is that, like everyone else on the planet, he now has to be a teetotaller. That felt disappointing.


I'm on holiday next week - but it won't be a "chilling out at home not doing very much" type of break. My brother arrived from the US today, and I'm going to be hanging out with the other members of my family as well. There will be entries about it in the blog, I'm sure.


I know it's not the first time I've written a blog post at the end of August with this theme, but today when I woke up it felt like summer is over. While I was driving in to work last week I noticed how low the sun was in the sky; it doesn't rise here until after six now. This morning when I woke up, there was a definite chill in the house and I was rather glad I could stay a bit longer in my nice warm bed. Today is the August Bank Holiday here in the UK, which is yet another signifier that we're beginning to move into autumn. For all my whingeing about the weather being too hot, this seasonal change always brings mixed emotions. I love the gentle calmness of September evenings, and the mists and fogs of October. I've taken my best landscape shots at this time of year, because the countryside never looks better than it does in the autumn. But it also means the end of evenings in the garden, of warm sunlight even first thing in the mornings, and of weeks eating tasty barbecued food as the grill gets returned to the back of the garage. It also means, to borrow a phrase, that winter is coming...

There's no beer festival write up for me this year; I didn't go. Possibly related to this, I'm enjoying a Bank Holiday Monday where I don't feel like I'm coming down with a cold. Instead I've been drinking coffee (Rebecca's brother brought me a great stash of espresso back from France) and listening to more songs on the 50/90 jukebox. I realised this week that you can only listen to songs on this if you're a registered user on the website, so I won't post the link this time, but if you're interested, I am presently listening to Crown of Feathers by FAWM regular Sapient.


Okay, I admit it. Yesterday I did go and have a nap. But I also got two more songs recorded, including my first 50/90 collaboration, as I sang some lyrics written by Arthur Rossi. That was fun! One thing I noticed when I really got into the FAWM process is that once you train yourself to just go for it and write stuff, your inspiration muscles start flexing more often. So it is this morning with 35 songs under my belt, as I've just had to stop and write down the lyrics for another song that just popped in my head unbidden. I've got the whole thing written down; after listening to Sapient's track earlier I'm thinking it's time for another metal song...


And that's another week gone by. It's Sunday afternoon, and I've just spent half an hour lying in the bath reading the Ableton manual after mowing the lawn and preparing the garden for next month's building work. To be honest, the next thing I'd like to do is take a nap; I just couldn't get to sleep last night. I was buzzed after I had a really good day in the studio and came up with another two numbers for 50/90. One of them could quite possibly be the catchiest thing I've ever written, as far as I'm concerned.

I have spent a lot of time recently recording, listening to, and commenting on music for 50/90. I've now left over 225 comments on other people's stuff. As I said last week, it's an important part - perhaps the most important part - of being a member of the 50/90 community. I've also received some nice feedback on my songs.

Last weekend I was in a more metallic mood. Alistair Reynolds posted a link on Twitter to an article in the Daily Telegraph about the hazards of biscuits (the custard cream, as I have long suspected, is the most dangerous biscuit in the UK) and aside from finding the story very funny I realised there was definitely potential for a song. The track was the first thing I've done with the EZ Drummer software that I blogged about last week and the plugin has done wonders for my drum sound. I've now written 33 songs for 50/90 so I'm well ahead of the game. Even so, I'm going to head back to the studio in a while and see if I can get two more songs written by the end of the day.

If I don't fall asleep first.


It's been a good year for apples, the television news was saying this week. I don't know about that, but it's been a bloody good year for spiders...


I don't care if it is a house spider, it was safely deployed into the back garden as fast as possible.


It's Friday evening again and we're already more than half way through August. I've been going to bed early every evening this week, and that might be why it feels like this week has flown past. I've cut down on my computer use in the evenings, the TV has stayed off and instead of using digital devices I've been doing plenty of reading, using good old-fashioned analogue paper. It will probably come as no surprise to hear that I've been sleeping better.

The early nights seem to have paid off and I definitely feel more energised tonight: I'm nowhere near as tired as I usually am on a Friday. I've installed that virtual drummer software that I mentioned on Wednesday, which was delivered today, and oh boy - I suspect that I will end up recording one or two heavy metal tracks for 50/90 over the weekend, as I also ended up getting Toontrack's Drumkit From Hell add-on. The sound is immense.

I've only managed to write and record three songs since Sunday, which is slow going for me. It's funny how productivity comes and goes in cycles. Last night I managed to come up with a complete set of lyrics, yet the night before I'd struggled to think up anything beyond a couple of sentences. I have a few patches programmed into the Korg which should give me enough material to record some songs over the weekend. But not tonight - I've spent the evening listening to other people's songs and leaving comments on them on the 50/90 site. That's a very important part of participating in the enterprise.


I've been busy offline for a fair chunk of the last week. I had a very nice weekend, which included a barbecue on Saturday afternoon with Rebecca, Ruth, Rob and some friends. It was a nice day - we even got some sunshine every now and again - so we just chilled out in the back garden. My birthday the following day was really quiet. I skyped with my brother for a nice chat, had a supper of beer and hot dogs, and recorded another song for 50/90.

For the last couple of days, though, I've been going to bed really early. I had a full-on panic attack in the early hours of Friday morning and it's left me feeling shattered so I've been in bed by nine. About all I've done in the evenings since Sunday night is read a book. I'm beginning to feel a bit better this evening, so I might have a go at writing song number twenty three a bit later. I need to get back on schedule as I'm a few days behind.


I've hardly touched the thing since it was delivered, but my Ableton Push arrived at the weekend. First thoughts? It's a very substantial piece of kit, particularly when compared to the Launchpad I've been using for the last year. The pads, dials and controllers have a lovely robust feel to them and the whole thing oozes quality. The colours are quite spectacular, too - particularly when the thing's running on mains power through the AC adapter that comes with it.

The musical scale interface is bizarre, but fascinating (as an alternative to the chromatic scale which throws all the notes at you, you can choose to only see notes that "fit" the scale you have currently selected). The scale is wrapped around the matrix of buttons in such a way that any chord is always played with a the same shape no matter what its root note is. Clever! The programming and device selection interface is simple and intuitive, and I can see myself spending a lot of time using it in the future. But it's not the only change I've made to my DAW workflow in the past week...

The Focusrite Scarlett that I bought recently came with a free CD of a plugin for Ableton called EZDrummer Lite, and on Sunday morning I tried using it for the first time. It's a simple drum track programmer which uses MIDI to trigger drum samples, and it has a nifty interface which is very easy to pick up. It lets you listen to a drum pattern by clicking on it. When you've found a pattern you like, you just drag it into Ableton's arrangement view and you're ready to go. The Lite program is a cut-down version of the full product, but I was impressed enough with the results that I've ordered the upgrade to the full version. I'm hoping this will push me to making recordings that are a bit more rhythmically dynamic, as up until now I've mainly used the patterns that are produced by the Korg and once they've started, they don't really change. Certainly Sunday's effort (which featured that staple beat of heavy metal, the thundering double kick drum) sounds more complex than the stuff I normally write and I've been getting good feedback on the resulting song.


I'm heading off to see Guillermo del Toro's science fiction extravaganza Pacific Rim again tonight, this time in 3D. I don't often go and see a movie at the cinema more than once, but this one definitely needs repeated viewings.

Some movies don't even stand up to a single viewing. From the reviews I've read, The Lone Ranger definitely falls into this category, and I won't be bothering to see it. Today Disney announced that they will lose as much as £125 million on their summer "tentpole" attraction. Oh dear.

Still, I doubt it will be as bad as Prometheus; a colleague lent me the DVD a couple of weeks ago so I finally sat down to watch it without having to fork out any money for the experience. But it was still two hours of my life I won't get back. The actions of the characters were so stunningly incoherent that I was shouting at the screen at one point. Anyone dumb enough to take his helmet off in a strange pyramid on an alien world when they've only done a rudimentary analysis of the atmosphere is clearly far too stupid to ever be allowed on board a spacecraft. The film relies on a continuously unfolding stream of over-the-top set pieces to distract the audience from spotting the looming inconsistencies and incomprehensibilities in what is, let's be fair, a truly abysmal plot. It's a technique that Hollywood is relying on all too heavily these days, and over at Boing Boing Colin Berry has had enough. I don't blame him.


Graham Linehan mentioned the SCP Wiki on Twitter today and now that he's found it again I suspect I will spend a good few hours at the weekend reading through the site's many pages. It's a collaborative writing website that reads like a fileserver from Fox Mulder's office. The standard of writing is variable, but it's certainly different.


Ah, so that's what 3D printing is for. A company in Hamburg will scan you and print out a remarkable miniature copy in full colour. The results, which range in height from 15 to 33 cm, look extraordinarily, disturbingly lifelike.


Last night turned out to be a productive one. By eight o'clock I'd got song number 21 recorded and uploaded to the 50/90 site. I've discovered a tweak to my voice that I really like the sound of: I use Ableton to lower the pitch of the vocals by three semitones. It's amazing what it does to the timbre of the sound. To go with this, I decided to play "proper" bass using the Stick and I was pleased with what it sounded like.

Only 29 more songs to go before the beginning of October!


The weather has calmed down after yesterday's storms and this morning there were five balloons in the sky over Bristol as I drove in to work. The weather forecast for Saturday bodes well, with calm conditions and no rain. Keep your fingers crossed.


So, as has become traditional in the UK we've gone from a blistering heatwave to flash flooding with, it seems, nothing in between. Bristol got several torrential downpours today and the one I got caught in on the way home was so intense that traffic on the M5 slowed to about 20 miles per hour. Just running from the garage to the front door left me soaked. The weather seems about right - it's the Bristol Balloon Fiesta later this week and the weather is invariably rubbish for it. I hope the mass ascents go ahead, though, because they are a really spectacular sight.


So, after a completely unnecessary television "event" last night that had me squirming in my seat with embarrassment during which poor Rufus Hound was so overwhelmed that he cocked up his first joke, blurted out the mystery actor's first name early, and generally got so flustered that tweeted afterwards that he was going to go off and shoot himself, we found out last night that the next Doctor Who will be the person we all expected it to be anyway, Peter Capaldi. It's a fine choice, I reckon. At 55, he's the same age that William Hartnell was when he started in the role and he's the first Doctor in the new run to be played by someone who is older than I am. Mr Capaldi is a long-time Whovian (he wrote articles for at least one of the show's fanzines) and has already appeared in the show. His line, quoted above, is in my opinion one of the finest throwaways ever. I'm looking forwards to seeing how he approaches the role.

Meanwhile, excited rumours are still circulating that a cache of many of the missing 106 episodes from William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton's stints on the show has been found - possibly as many as ninety of them. If this does turn out to be the case, the 50th anniversary of the show is going to involve even more celebrations than I expected.


After last week's unplanned excursion, I was able to get some songwriting done at the weekend and I'm now back on target with twenty songs completed. That's 40 per cent of my 50/90 quota in the can - hooray! No time for complacency, though. I'm off upstairs to see if I can come up with another track before bedtime.


I'm home for the weekend, and I'm very glad about that. I must be really tired because I slept for eight hours last night, only waking up when the noise of heavy rain disturbed me at just after six this morning. The rain stopped after a couple of minutes, as quickly as if someone had turned it off with a tap. I got up and headed off to work.

Right now, the sun's out again. It's nowhere near as hot as it was yesterday (which was the hottest day of the year so far, with the temperature at Heathrow and Northolt in west London reaching 34°C) but it's still very humid. I've got the patio door open and I can hear the lovely sound of a guinea pig chirping to itself from somewhere over the garden fence. It's a lovely sound.

Guinea pigs notwithstanding the rest of this weekend will, I hope, be quieter than the last one. I need to catch up on the housework and then work on my 50/90 quota and get a few more songs finished. But not right now. So far this evening I've installed a spiffy new ergonomic keyboard on this PC (my beloved old Microsoft Natural Keyboard Pro decided it had had enough when I knocked half a glass of red wine into it last week) and had pizza for tea. I made sure that I kept my wine - and greasy fingers - well away from this keyboard.


...who was being referred to in the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band song The Intro and The Outro. Some non-band members, like Princess Anne, Adolf Hitler and Sir Kenneth Clark, are obvious, but who was Garner "Ted" Armstrong? Why did the Bonzos have to call in a session gorilla? The Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy has the answer (of course!) It turns out to be a fascinating glimpse of 1960s culture. Pay a visit to the entry's discussion pages too - they're just as entertaining and supply considerably more detail on some of the characters being referred to.

For those of you who will only listen to something if there are moving pictures attached to it, here's the band on ITV's comedy show Do Not Adjust Your Set in 1969 or so performing a rather interesting alternative version of the song that I hadn't seen before. Monty Python fans should pay particular attention to the musicians playing garden rake, temple bells, and toast...


When I arrived at Dad's place on Monday, I was able to unlock both the outer and inner front doors and get as far as the kitchen before Miffy came to see who it was. On Tuesday, when I arrived back at the house after collecting Dad from the hospital I could hear her barking before the wheels had stopped rolling. She'd be at the window, watching intently. The same thing happened every time I arrived back at the house after taking Dad somewhere. Together, we'd be greeted by a chorus of barks. But if I was on my own, Miffy didn't want to know. She stayed in her bed. She quite clearly knows when Dad is in the car and when he isn't, and I'm at a loss to think of any process by which that could take place.


I got back from Norfolk this morning. Dad seems to be back on an even keel; this is a polite way of saying that he's carrying on as if nothing had happened and is refusing to discuss making any changes to his lifestyle. He's not allowed to drive for six weeks, so I took him shopping yesterday and the house is stocked up with food for him and Miffy. The local supermarket are great - they do a home delivery service over the phone rather than online, and they deliver twice a week, so he's not going to starve. There's a local taxi service, so he's not going to be stuck in the house. Miffy doesn't require much exercise because she's a very stately old lady these days. I've done as many chores as I can. I cleaned the oven so that it no longer emits clouds of smoke when you turn it on (there was a pile of burnt food at the back) and you can see through the glass on the door again.

But I had to return home. Apart from feeling like I was banging my head against a brick wall, I have stuff of my own to sort out; the guy from Dyno-Rod has just turned up, looking profoundly embarrassed, to make a third attempt to carry out the survey of the drains under my house. It turned out that the position sensor on the system they used last time wasn't working so while we had lovely video of everything, there was no record of where any of it was...


What happened when one of the UK's leading comedians of the 1960s wanted to record a "serious" pop song? Well, if you were Charlie Drake back in 1975, you got in the best lineup of musicians you could muster. And what a lineup it turned out to be: Peter Gabriel, Robert Fripp, Keith Tippett, Sandy Denny, Phil Collins, and (if the rumours are to be believed) Brian Eno all chipped in and Mr Drake ended up with a record that sounded like this. Sadly, it didn't chart.