Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Younger Than Yesterday - The Byrds - album review

It is a trait of the music world that often bands only attain genuine critical acclaim when their records become less commercially successful.  Sometimes this is genuinely down to the greater profundity of the music, but one is often left wondering what was "wrong" with the earlier work. Perhaps shifting millions of units makes something inherently suspect in the eyes of some.....

The Byrds are an example of this phenomenon.  After their initial burst of success in 1965/66, their music became experimental, and therefore less appealing to the masses.  These days, when serious critical study of their catalogue is conducted, the period of 1967/68 is lent most credibility.

Younger Than Yesterday was very much a transitional album.  Gene Clark was no longer involved with the group, and his departure had the effect of liberating and motivating the other songwriters in the Byrds.

Certainly on this album David Crosby made some of the most concise and expressive musical statements of his whole career, the spine-tingling "Everybody's Been Burned" being the highlight.

The most surprising side-effect of the re-alignment within the Byrds was the emergence of Chris Hillman as a songwriter of real stamp, and his vocal and instrumental contributions also became more prominent. "Have You Seen Her Face" is one of the hidden gems in the Byrds entire canon, with its engrossing melody and dense guitar sound.

Younger than Yesterday is less compact and cohesive than its successor, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, or even its predecessor, Fifth Dimension, and this can leave it sounding quite dissonant in comparison.  However, song-for-song it is stronger than either of those albums, and has some moments of sheer beauty and genius (in addition to the songs already mentioned, "Renaissance Fair" comes to mind).

Unlike their earlier records, this one feels like a modern rock album, with the involvement of guests and session musicians providing variety and texture.  This all represented a shift away from the staid "beat group" format.  Foremost among these guests was Clarence White, whose distinctive "twangy" guitar parts would become a feature of later Byrds efforts.

I know that there has been come criticism of the decision to include a cover of Bob Dylan's "My Back Pages" on this LP.  Amongst the innovative and adventurous material, it sounds like a backward step.  I would not disagree, but the Byrds make a fine fist of the song, and it acquires an even more wistful tone in this setting.

In keeping with the Zeitgeist, and their own musical detours, there is continuing evidence of the influence of Indian music and jazz.  On the psychedelia front, only "Mind Gardens" misses the bullseye, appearing somewhat self-indulgent and pretentious.  Admittedly, this was not uncommon in the music world circa 1967!

The closer on the original album, "Why", sounds more futuristic even than some of the other numbers, and tracks like this help to explain why the Byrds became so seminal a touchstone for many acts of future decades.

If you are searching for the ultimate psychedelic rock album, albeit one which retains a core of catchy and memorable songs, then Younger Than Yesterday may just be it.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

F1 Testing in Barcelona

I predicted in an earlier blog post that the formbook would began to "crystallize" during the testing this week in Barcelona, in the wake of events in Jerez.

Looking purely at the headline time-sheets from Barcelona, it is tempting to suggest that the situation is even more confused than following the earlier session. Even if some of the lap-times seem even more unrepresentative of the true picture, there are also signs that the cream is slowly but surely beginning to rise to the top.

Sebastian Vettel have been consistently quick, in their matter-of-fact, undramatic fashion.  The times recorded during longish runs look distinctly ominous for their rivals. McLaren maintained a lower profile in Barcelona, working methodically, and seemingly reasonably content. Positive noises were emanating from Lewis Hamilton about the performance and potential of the car, and this augurs well, even if Red Bull possess a slight but significant edge at present. After the negativity surrounding them a couple of weeks ago, there are indications that things are looking brighter for Ferrari.

Perhaps the most genuinely interesting development of the week was the first serious appearance of the new Mercedes, and the fact that it was quick straight out of the box.  Michael Schumacher seemed pleased with progress, although drivers tend to make these kinds of utterances pre-season, even when the true state of play has not yet made itself plain.  I would suggest that Michael's voice and opinion carry more weight than some other people!

Although there were reasons for Force India and Sauber being particularly swift at some junctures, both of these teams appear to be moving in the right direction.

Will the top teams show their hand, or more of their hand, at the test in early March?  Possibly, but don't bet on it....

Friday, 24 February 2012

On The Beach - Neil Young - album review

Just recently, I blogged about Neil Young's classic 1975 album, Tonight's The Night:

Tonight's The Night - Neil Young

Habitually, another album is tied together with Tonight's The Night as representing a particular stage in the singer-songwriter's career. That album is On The Beach:

It is indeed tempting to lump these two albums together, but I think that this a simplistic way of looking at things. They are markedly dissimilar in musical terms, and the mood is subtly but importantly different.

For me, On The Beach has a certain automony within the Neil Young body of work, operating outside the frameworks of most of his other albums of that era. It is illustrative of his urge to continue his restless musical and philosophical journey, rather than rely on old formulae.

Whereas Tonight's The Night, which was recorded first, had a semblance of a common thread musically, On The Beach is quite diverse, and the palette is expanded to include relatively unusual instruments, such as electric piano, banjo and fiddle.  There is none of the redeeming jauntiness of whimsical bluesiness.  These songs are more brutal, and unsettling.  The fact that the songs are all "self-contained" adds to their potency.

On The Beach has an undercurrent of resignation and quiet despair, and there are lyrical references, oblique and otherwise, to Watergate and counter-cultural neuroses of the time. This is combined with examinations of the paths and lifestyles of the artist and his contemporaries.  A very apt document of its times, in many ways.

The stand out-tracks are "Revolution Blues", with its sinister and disturbing lyrics, the deceptive and under-estimated title track, and the closer "Ambulance Blues".  The latter is one of Young's real gems, harking back almost to his folk-troubadour days.

On The Beach was unavailable on CD for many years, and this helped to generate an air of mystique around it.  Whilst the reality could not really hope to match the mystique, it is a unique album, and one of Neil Young's most important releases.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

The Hundred Years War - Desmond Seward

Over the past two years, I have read quite voraciously, and have managed to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge of European history.  One area which had somehow eluded my grasp had been the Hundred Years' War.  I possessed a rudimentary awareness of Agincourt, Henry V, Joan of Arc, and so on, but had not gone into the finer points.  Desmond Seward's excellent book, A Brief History of The Hundred Years War, has enabled me to rectify this.

This is of course an enormously broad subject, but Seward succeeds in condensing things into digestible form, while still giving the appearance of thoroughness.  The tale is presented in chronological order, with the chapters sensibly corresponding roughly to the prime of the reign of certain English and French monarchs.

The richness of the story is augmented by the use of quotations from the contemporary reports and chronicles, delivered in the language and prhaseology of the day.

I approached this book with an open mind, but was quite shocked and disturbed at how brutally and mercilessly the combatants behaved in pursuing their objectives, including with regard to their treatment of civilians.  Both sides were culpable, but the English especially seem to have displayed few scruples.  The avarice and amorality of the participants is also strongly depicted.  Henry V in particular does not emerge as a very likeable figure. Different times, I accept, but the descriptions of some of the atrocities committed are enough to chill the blood.

The author, from my standpoint, slightly downplays the military and strategic importance of Agincourt, and also has a more nuanced interpretation of Joan of Arc's role than what I suspect is usually offered.

The final chapters deal with the swing in the pendulum away from the English and towards France, and the slow but sure decline in the fortunes of the former. The financial woes of the English are detailed, as are the advances in military technology which gave France some of its ascendancy as matters approached their conclusion.

Also covered towards the end of the book are the recriminations, and assorted rebellions and insurrections, which followed the English loss of territory and prestige.

I found this to be a very enjoyable and informative book. Presented in a jaunty, readable, non-confrontational style, it is well pitched, appealing to casual readers, but also I would suggest containing sufficient detail and analysis to attract keen students of its subject.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Tonight's The Night - Neil Young - album review

Every so often, artists or groups opt to take what is perceived as a diversion in their career path, but sometimes this is quite calculating, and intended merely to enhance their degree of "hipness" and mainstream success.

In the case of Neil Young, following the colossal success of 1972's Harvest, he deliberately took a detour, not for any other reason but to explore new territory and escape the treadmill.  Perhaps the most authentic and compelling product of that decision was Tonight's The Night, recorded mostly in 1973, but not released until 1975.

In addition to a conscious desire to defy stagnation and convention, the music which Neil Young wrote and recorded around this time also clearly addresses the fall-out from the era just past, and its impact on rock culture. The deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry cast a shadow over this album in particular.

Throughout Tonight's The Night, the arrangements and performances are ragged and almost disjointed, contrasting sharply with much of the singer-songwriter's previous work.  As well as signifying an intentional stylistic departure, the basic bluesy approach perfectly complements the lyrical subject matter.

The instrumental hallmarks of the album are also fundamental to its artistic success.  Nils Lofgren's brittle but superbly evocative guitar work is often to the fore, as is the weeping pedal steel guitar of Ben Keith.  The latter, and Young's harmonica are, essential to the subdued mood of several tracks.  These element are supported by the redoubtable Crazy Horse rhythm section.

Neil Young's vocals are as ragged as the backing tracks, sloppy and haphazard, or more accurately perhaps a natural consequence of the turmoil contained in the words of the songs themselves. The croakier, harsher Young voice proves perfectly expressive here, and in keeping with the uncompromising central thrust of the work.  It is safe to assume that very few overdubs were performed during the sessions.  What would normally be seen as mistakes and blemishes were left in....

Despite the melancholy and often rancorous vibes, there is kind of nobility and defiance about Tonight's The Night, which for me is central to its appeal - a "ragged glory", to borrow from one of Neil's later album titles.  Some of the dark humour contained in the lyrics helps to encourage this feeling.

Three of the tracks, "Mellow My Mind", "Albuquerque" and "Tired Eyes", are quite similar in style and melody and, astutely separated, constitute the emotional backbone of the album, together with the bookends of the title track and its reprise.

For the unwary I would expect that Tonight's The Night is an awkward listen at first, and in this and other respects there are parallels with the Stones' Exile On Main Street.  However, as a snapshot of an artist's state of mind, and as a slice of raw emotional candour, this album has few equals in rock music.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

A Bridge Too Far

Very recently, at a loose end one afternoon, I opted to revisit the 1977 war film A Bridge Too Far, directed by Richard Attenborough.  It recounts the tale of the ill-fated Operation Market Garden of World War Two.

The movie begins with an effective and evocative black and white newsreel passage, which sets the scene, and places the operation to come in its proper context.

The term "star studded" does not even begin to describe A Bridge Too Far, although none of the performances stand out in particular, generally tending to cancel one another out.  None of the luminaries is given sufficient screen time to make a special impression. Among those featured are Dirk Bogarde, Ryan O'Neal, Sean Connery, Gene Hackman, Robert Redford, Edward Fox, Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins, James Caan and Laurence Olivier.

The early scenes of the movie naturally concentrate on the preparations and planning of both sides. Cleverly, the viewpoint of Dutch civilians and resistance activists is also shown. The misgivings of some Allied commanders are also displayed, as well as to what degree the combatants read (or mis-read) the intentions of their opponents.

The rushed and improvised nature of the Allied plan is also emphasised, with subordinate commanders more often than not unwilling or unable to register the doubts about the operation, for fear of being ridiculed or demoted.  One courageous reconnaissance officer spoke up, but was ignored. Whether this is absolutely historically accurate or not is hard to say, but it enhanced this reading of the story.

Some effort is made to contrast the egotism of some commanders, dazzled by prizes and glory, with the reservations and fears of the rank-and-file.

In amongst the glittering cast, I must mention one performance; that of Edward Fox as Lt. Gen. Horrocks. This seemed like a passably accurate, if exaggerated, portrayal of the man, capturing some of his character.

Credit also to the film-makers for having Dutch and German dialogue (and subtitles).  This for me increased the authenticity.

One thing which I noticed about this film is the quality of the cinematography, and the camera-work, which looked to be quite advanced for its time.  There is almost an intimate/documentary feel about some of the battle sequences, bringing the viewer close to the action, typified by the parachute jumps. Sharp editing and well-judged sound also help to strengthen the sense of believability.

As the campaign goes on, we are shown the sense of desperation which starts to intrude on the operation, with some gallows humour and sarcasm, and dissension in the ranks. From the bravado and optimism of the beginning, this movie takes on a bleaker, and more thoughtful, tone. The vast scale of industrialised war is inter-cut with more considered, personal sub-plots.  The sense of weariness,fatigue and hopelessness gradually takes over.

The latter stages of the film dwell on the destruction,misery and futility of war, and how civilians are disproportionately affected. The finale is sombre indeed.

I do not think that A Bridge Too Far is a masterpiece, but it is a decidedly above-average war movie.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Rites of Peace - Adam Zamoyski

During the past two years, I have read and watched quite a bit about the Napoleonic Wars, but comparatively little of this research had centred on diplomatic and geo-political matters, particularly those which became pressing in the years 1813-1815.  This has been remedied by my reading Adam Zamoyski's admirable book, Rites Of Peace.

The early stages focus on the completion of Napoleon's retreat from Russia, and the efforts of the other powers to position themselves to capitalise on the fall-out from his imminent downfall.  The scene is set, and developments placed in their overall context.

Attention is paid to the differing agendas at work, from Tsar Alexander's sense of destiny and mission, to the tension between Austria and Prussia, and the suspicion aimed at Britain, which was viewed as ignorant of the niceties of European diplomacy.

Zamoyski also introduces us to some of the principal diplomatic players, with colourful anecdotes about their characters and backgrounds.  He also begins to unravel and explain the bewildering intricacies of the age, and how interwoven the various countries were by treaty, alliance, marriage, religion and history.

The bargaining and horse-trading could be confusing for even dedicated historians, but Zamoyski does a commendable job of condensing and streamlining the developments,  whilst still seeming to be thorough.

Also in the early chapters, we find out about the desperate attempts by Napoleon to shore up his alliances, and the equally devious and creative methods employed by the "allies" to persuade rulers or armies to defect or declare neutrality.  As these matters progress, there is a palpable withering of morale and enthusiasm in the French camp, belief ebbing away....

We also see how the divisions and discord in the Allied camp intensified as the armies approached the borders of France itself, Russia and Prussia advocating pressing forward, Austria more circumspect.  Britain seemed handicapped by the fragmentation of its diplomatic team "on the spot", but also concerned at being marginalised and deprived of some of the spoils.  France still entertained hopes of profiting from any discord amongst his foes, to secure more honourable terms.

Throughout the book, we are constantly given quotes from the diaries, letters and papers of some of the protagonists. These help to supply an insight into the state of mind and motivations of these people. This is particularly true in the case of  Metternich, the Austrian Foreign Minister.

Some gaps in my knowledge were certainly filled, mainly on the Allied approach to Paris, and the negotiations which followed.  The covert discussions conducted by Alexander are covered in depth, in particular the feeling that he was too magnanimous in his approach. The reasoning behind the return of the French monarchy would certainly strike modern eyes as quaint and curious.

One thing which struck me about Rites of Peace is how some major events themselves were given scant coverage.  This is no bad thing, as the pivotal battles and ceremonies are covered painstakingly in numerous other books.  Zamoyski prefers to concentrate on the work of the diplomats and sovereigns themselves, and their personalities and quirks.

Moving on to the Congress of Vienna itself, the scene is well set, the difficulties and challenges highlighted.  A constant theme is the precarious nature of the Coalition, its cracks and fissures, and its perpetual state of near-collapse. The ongoing attempts of the diplomats to keep the show on the road are beautifully detailed by Zamoyski.

The social scene in Vienna is colourfully depicted, and the romantic dalliances and lavish occasions do help to break up the paragraphs on political discourse.  However, I must admit that I found myself scanning through these passages after a while.  Once you've read about one extravagant occasion, you've read about them all!

Much of the emphasis in the chapters covering Vienna is on the erosion of trust and solidarity between the allies. Napoleon had been defeated and ousted, and having achieved this, the powers permitted old animosities and tensions to resurface.  The vexed questions of Saxony and Poland almost led to war, and Zamoyski leads us adroitly through the discussions which led to some kind of settlement. He also details the lingering resentment harboured by many smaller countries and territories, who felt left out and patronised by the big powers.

Of course, as matters were being tied up in Vienna, Napoleon was re-entering the drama, and reading the paragraphs on this, there is a sense of initial panic and dismay, followed by grim resolve to confront the situation.

In keeping with the approach of the book, Zamoyski does not dwell overly on the military technicalities of Waterloo, but devotes his attention to its repercussions, the unpredictability of the Tsar becoming an ever greater concern. 

After documenting the resolution, or not as the case may have been, of the outstanding territorial issues, the author examines the legacy of the Congress of Vienna, and the period generally.  Many of the purported ideals and objectives of the Powers were either forgotten or simply not implemented. Much of Europe reverted to the clammy grip of absolutism and repression.  Reactionary forces sought re-entrenchment.

Looking at what occurred in Europe after Waterloo, one could be forgiven for wondering whether some had put on a facade of enlightenment in order to secure some moral high ground during protracted discussions. The gains achieved were not always used to advance freedom or justice, but rather to buttress the power of those who wished ultimately to curtail and limit those things.

The last chapter is somewhat downbeat, almost seeming to question which causes were actually advanced or served by the battles won and the treaties signed. Many of the people and ideas defeated by the Coalition soon seemed more wholesome and edifying than those of the victors, and the flaws in the settlements, and the arrogance displayed by the major Powers, may have simply served to fan the flames of agitation and nationalism in parts of Europe.

I would have perhaps liked to have seen more dissection of the struggle between liberal and conservative ideas at the time, but appreciate that this falls largely outside the remit of the book.

Overall, though, Rites of Peace is a very worthy, readable and informative piece of work.  It certainly gave this reader ample food for thought....

Friday, 17 February 2012

Petrov, Trulli and Caterham

The news this morning that Vitaly Petrov will supplant Jarno Trulli in the Caterham line-up for the forthcoming Formula 1 season came as little surprise.  The Italian's seat had been considered vulnerable for some time, and Petrov's name was the one most regularly linked with it.

The announcement by the team made little attempt to conceal the economic factors involved in the decision, but I think it a little harsh to bemoan this as another case of a "pay driver" displacing a more deserving candidate.  Petrov has done just about enough to indicate that he is worthy of another opportunity in F1, and Jarno Trulli is clearly not the force he was.

Caterham have evidently concluded that having a younger, motivated and ambitious driver, with access to sponsorship, is preferable to one whose career is in decline.  The timing of the change is perhaps not ideal, and all parties may have preferred it to have happened earlier, if it was going to occur.  No doubt some observers will think that this is hard on Trulli, but sentiment does not figure prominently in F1, or many other walks of life, for that matter....

Having said all this, it is sad to see Jarno go.  His departure, coming soon after that of Rubens Barrichello, continues the "changing of the guard", and also makes many of us feel our own ages!  As the saying goes, however, time waits for no man, and the new blood in F1 has the opportunity to carve out its own niche, and become as respected as Jarno and Rubens have been.

It is characteristic of Jarno that he was very gracious and magnanimous is his words in the press release, and reading between the lines, it seems that team and driver have parted on quite amicable terms.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Rolling Stones 1968-1972

Some artists or groups have a fairly regular and consistent career path, with occasional peaks and troughs along the way.  However, I struggle to think of an act whose time of greatest creativity and zest is so clearly defined as the Rolling Stones are by their output in the period 1968-1972.

During this four or five year span, the Stones fashioned their most consistent and coherent creations, and their records immediately preceding and succeeding it sound anaemic and uninspired by comparison. The band released four studio albums, with a stellar live set (Get Yer Ya-Yas Out) neatly sandwiched in between.  Each of those albums has a distinct character, reflecting not just developments within the Rolling Stones, but also in the wider world.

So what was the background to this vibrant phase? 

From the start of their recording career, the Stones had leavened their gutsier, bluesier persona with more pop-orientated material. The psychedelic experimentation immediately prior to 1968 may have met with ambivalence and even incredulity, but it did see the consolidation of the Jagger/Richards axis, and the diminishing role and influence of Brian Jones. The Stones were being re-shaped, but for what future purpose was not yet totally clear.

As 1968 dawned, however, it became clear that "flower power" was losing much of its urgency and lustre. As it turned out, this shift worked in the Stones' favour.  Rock music was preparing to move in a more rootsy direction (Bob Dylan, The Byrds, The Band), and other artists looked to embrace this to some degree or other. The Stones were no exception.

In this climate of social and political ferment, the stage was ideally suited to the Stones' edgier, rebellious, anti-establishment take.  The vogue for stripped-down and less elaborate sounds in a time of upheaval was not entirely coincidental.  Many were disenchanted with the naivete of 1967, and were looking to alternative methods and agendas.  The artifice of much psychedelic music seemed incongruous against this backdrop.

Above all, the Stones must have felt liberated from the need to conform and compromise, as they had done for much of the previous two years.  They could be "themselves" once more....

The first fruits of this rebirth came with the single "Jumping Jack Flash".   Even from the scuzzy opening guitar chords, and the sinewy riff which follows, once can feel that this is a new, more purposeful Rolling Stones. The recruitment of producer Jimmy Miller helped to sculpt this new sound.

The same groups of recording sessions spawned the Beggars Banquet album. Few albums before or since have defined their times as pertinently as this one did.  The edginess, uncertainty, menace, belligerence even, are palpable. The idealism and optimism of 1967 had given way to realism and cynicism.

It is open to debate whether Beggars Banquet should be regarded as the soundtrack to a year, as it was released in December of 1968, but the Stones slotted seamlessly into their role.  Country blues sounds are prominent on the album, and the earthiness and sincerity are perfectly in tune with the mood. 

The widespread use of acoustic guitars on the album adds to the authenticity, grit and immediacy. They seem more "proletarian" than vulgar electric ones!  And no attempt is made to conceal finger noises and other imperfections.  This "warts and all" approach is one of the secrets to the power of Beggars Banquet.

"Sympathy For The Devil", epic and sinister, sets the tone as the opening track.  Engagingly and defiantly different and percussive, this song and its message seem symbolic of the shift in the Western mindset around that time. A shrewd choice with which to commence proceedings.

Another linchpin of the album is "Street Fighting Man", which has been the focus of heated debate down the years. More acoustic guitars, and what seems an ambivalent, sardonic and slightly mocking view of the year's events.  Whichever interpretation we place on this song, it remains a powerful piece, lyrically and musically.

Two of the numbers on the album, "Parachute Woman" and "Jigsaw Puzzle", with its sub-Bob Dylan words, would normally be filed under "filler", but here they blend into the whole, so their mediocrity is less conspicuous. "Stray Cat Blues" is a nod to traditional Stones territory, and fits in musically, even if its lyrics are out of place.

Beggars Banquet closes with two paeans to blue-collar values, "Factory Girl" and "Salt of The Earth".

By the time the Stones commenced recording Let It Bleed, Brian Jones was a peripheral figure at best, and appears on only two tracks.

In places, Let It Bleed is indeed apocalyptic and incendiary, but to these ears is nowhere near as uniformly strong or cohesive as Beggars Banquet.  This may have been partly intentional, and the traumas being undergone by the Stones also played a role, but I would say that Let It Bleed's reputation is ever so slightly out of proportion to its aesthetic merit.

In spite of my mild misgivings, I still rate some of the songs on Let It Bleed.  "Gimme Shelter" , as well as being au courant for the end of the 1960s, is one of the outstanding slabs in the Stones catalogue, and indeed the whole of rock music, and "Love In Vain" is one of their most effective covers, but the rest is uneven and patchy. 

There is something vaguely tired and listless about much of Let It Bleed, and I am still not fully convinced by the efforts of some critics to talk these things up as if they represent virtues. It might have sounded relevant and important in 1969, but to more dispassionate modern ears it is by far the weakest of the four studio albums released during the period which we are looking at.

Many changes had occurred by the time of the 1971 release of Sticky Fingers. The world was a different place, much of the revolutionary fervour having evaporated.  Mick Taylor was now fully integrated into the set-up, rather than being a hired hand.

Sticky Fingers is civilised, well-structured and shrewdly produced.  It lacks the rambling, informal quality of Exile on Main Street, but the material is strong and memorable.  The lyrical spotlight is firmly on the hedonistic, reflecting perhaps the jaded resignation characteristic of the young decade.

When listening, it is immediately noticeable how much Mick Taylor's guitar flourishes add to the palette, complementing the de facto rhythm section of Keith Richards and Charlie Watts.  There is more texture and depth than before, and the addition of Taylor also facilitates more instrumental virtuosity and experimentation, as evidenced by the closing section of "Can't You Hear Me Knocking?". The sound on Sticky Fingers is accessible and clear, but the trademark Stones grittiness is not sacrificed.

There is a sensible balance between rockers and ballads.  The album, though, is almost entirely devoid of social commentary, and therefore verges on the one-dimensional lyrics-wise. This may be where Sticky Fingers acquired its reputation as the one which most embodies the fabled Stonesy "swagger".   "Brown Sugar" is an absolute gem, but could also be termed "Rolling Stones by Numbers".

Exile On Main Street is often cited as the culmination of everything that the Stones had been working towards, but I'm not altogether sure about this.  The 1972 release should be seen as a unique entity, or a tangential work, because of the conditions under which it was recorded, and its groove.  If you're looking for the "quintessential" Stones album, you might be better stopping off at Sticky Fingers.

No, I tend to regard "Exile" as a project all by itself, differing in vibe and sound from those which came before, less concise and less concerned with structure and form.  It could almost qualify as a compendium of American "roots" music (blues,country, R&B,soul,gospel), but that was unlikely to have been the intention.

I know that some people, on their initial listen, can find "Exile" a touch alienating, because of its slapdash nature and the "foggy" sound. Persevere, though, and these are the things which you will find most endearing about the project. 

Exile on Main Street begins and ends with some of its most recognisable tracks ("Rocks Off", "Rip This Joint","Soul Survivor"), but in between is an eclectic blend of offerings, some of them on the surface sounding like lightweight afterthoughts, but forming an appetising whole.

In comparison to the more considered sheen of Sticky Fingers, "Exile" almost feels like a series of "demo" versions of new songs, but it is to the Stones' credit that they resisted the temptation to go for the easy option in 1972, and come up with more of the same.  Above all, it sounds like the Stones and their entourage had a swell time putting these songs together, and this exuberance oozes from every chord.

We have mentioned the raw and loose playing on the album, and this is all held together with a glorious soulfulness, most clearly found on such songs as "Let It Loose", "Shine A Light" and "Loving Cup".  Hard to define, but very much there.

The Stones made great records before 1968-1972, and some great ones since, but never again did they recapture that "sweet spot", that intangible spirit which informed their music during their halcyon period. 

Rather than lament the relative lack of inspiration in the post-1972 catalogue, I think that we should just enjoy and savour these four albums......

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Gilles Villeneuve

Increasingly these days, I blanch at the idea of having "heroes", putting people on pedestals, or relying on one person or interest for my emotional sustenance. Hero worship, or other related obsessions, have been consigned to my past. More often than, they prove corrosive or counter-productive.

There was a time, however, when I, like other confused, insecure and impressionable kids, craved someone to look up to, to relate to, to believe in.  One of the first people to fulfil this role for me was the racing driver Gilles Villeneuve.

As is often the way with these things, it happened almost randomly.  I had been aware of motor racing before, but it had shimmered in and out of my consciousness. Then, one soporific Sunday afternoon in 1981, our TV became tuned to coverage of the Monaco Grand Prix. I did not recognise most of the drivers' names, and the technical ins-and-outs were beyond my ken, but the one thing which did capture my imagination was the driving of the number 27 Ferrari.

At the next race, at Jarama, Gilles won again, this time leading home a baying pack of pursuing cars.  I had found my new hero.  Then it struck me that this was the same guy who had performed those heroics in Holland back in '79.

Looking back, a combination of factors drew me to Gilles.  His unquenchable spirit, humility and underdog status were part of the appeal.  Also, at the time, I was going through a dark and bewildering time in my own young life, and Gilles represented something pure, heroic and optimistic to hold on to.

Of course, I naively expected the run of successes to continue. Ignorant of the vagaries of racing, little did I know that circumstances and the hand of fortune had contributed to the back-to-back victories.  My mind was ill-equipped to cope with the reversals and mishaps which followed during the remainder of the 1981 season.  I was dispirited particularly by his trip up the escape road in Austria, whilst being challenged for the lead.

Like many a callow youth, I learned through disappointment that my new hero was not infallible, but was human like the rest of us. Once I had readjusted my outlook, this made me appreciate Gilles' qualities even more.

The auguries for the 1982 season were good for Ferrari and Gilles, and strong showing in Brazil and Long Beach seemed to back up this optimism.  I recall being unhappy with events at Imola, but was largely oblivious to the political background, and the alleged duplicity of Didier Pironi.  There was still everything to play for....

On 8 May 1982, I had been out with friends, and returned home in the late afternoon.  As soon as I had entered the house, my mother informed me that there had been a serious accident during practice at Zolder.  It soon became clear that Gilles was involved.  I watched the footage on the television news, hoping that this was all a bad dream.

That evening, as the sun began to go down, I vividly remember walking to the bottom of our driveway, with tears in my eyes, and just staring into space for many minutes. 

Since that day, I have respected many people in many fields of endeavour, but rarely have I allowed myself to idolize them as I did with Gilles for that eleven of twelve month period.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Francois Cevert

The advent of the internet has enabled younger racing fans access to information about some of the heroes of the past, and many of these drivers have become icons for a new generation.One driver who inspires much coverage, and deservedly so, is the stylish Francois Cevert, who left a genuine legacy during his relatively brief career, which ended with his tragic accident at Watkins Glen in 1973.

Cevert embodied everything that was great about that period in racing, the free-wheeling early 1970s.  Sadly, whilst epitomising an era, he also fell victim to its ever-present perils.  Much of the attention now given to him probably stems from a perception that he was a man denied his destiny, being cut down just as he was reaching his prime.

I have long been an admirer of the Jackie Stewart/Tyrrell era, and have therefore been exposed to a good deal of footage, literature and information concerning Francois. A handsome, charismatic and cultured young man, he seems to have made an indelible impression on all those who met him. Whenever I have seen Jackie Stewart, Ken Tyrrell or anyone else associated with the tight-knit team interviewed about Francois, one could sense the genuine affection in which he was held.

The Parisian spent his entire Formula 1 career in the homely but efficient confines of the Tyrrell team, after being given his chance following Johnny Servoz-Gavin's sudden decision to retire in 1970. Cevert had the backing of fuel company Elf, but Jackie Stewart's promptings, having raced against the youngster in Formula 2, also seem to have weighed heavily. 

The rest of the 1970 season was very much a bedding-in stage, but the newcomer clocked up valuable mileage, and before too long was delivering consistent performances.  The March 701 might have been a reasonable vehicle with which a youngster to find his feet, but as the year progressed it was surpassed by the developments and innovations of the more established constructors.  The introduction of Tyrrell's own car, although initially entrusted only to Stewart, boded well for 1971.

It was now that Cevert truly began to come under the tutelage of Stewart, and began to develop very much in the Scotsman's image; smooth, and with mechanical sympathy.  Francois was aspiring to emulate Stewart's facility for setting up a car to be easy to drive, thereby minimising errors and encouraging consistent lap times in the races.

In the early races of 1971, Cevert was playing himself in gently, still learning, and also adapting to the new car.  Around the mid-point of the season, however, things started to come together.  His first podium finish was achieved, appropriately, on home turf at Paul Ricard, and his gesture of exultation as he crossed the line indicated that he felt that a major threshold had been crossed. After another second place in Germany, he was then in the thick of the frenetic action at Monza, eventually finishing a very close third.

Finally, at the season finale at Watkins Glen, New York, he scored his maiden Grand Prix victory, winning fair and square.  It was one of those days when the whole F1 community was genuinely pleased for the winner.  Little did anybody know that this would be his sole World Championship victory in Formula 1.

As can often happen to a rising talent, the Cevert star waned somewhat in 1972.  Whether Cevert began to over-analyse or over-theorise is difficult to say, but the Tyrrell team was admittedly in a state of transition at the time, and the health problems suffered by team leader Stewart may have unsettled his understudy.  The new car introduced at mid-season was temperamental, and the Frenchman infamously crashed it during practice at Clermont-Ferrand.

The downturn of 1972 is regularly used by detractors to assert that Cevert was over-rated.  There were mitigating factors, which we have touched on, but it is difficult to dispute that at many races that year Francois was quite lacklustre. On the plus side, it can be argued that he learned much in adversity, and that the disappointments accelerated his motor racing education, equipping him for the challenges to be faced in the future.

As 1973 dawned, the Tyrrell team was more stable, focussed and prepared, and this was reflected in the consistency shown by Cevert from the outset.  His driving now had real authority and flair, and he was on the pace much more regularly.  Tactical imperatives often dictated that he deferred to Stewart, but Jackie has admitted since that on several occasions that year Francois was perfectly capable of beating him, the Nurburgring being an example of this. The apprentice was now beginning to match the sorcerer.

Francois still seemed content at this stage to gain more experience, and soak up the knowledge and advice imparted by Stewart.  He guessed that 1974 would be his year, although he did not know for sure that the Scot would be retiring at the end of '73.  Cevert thought he had time on his side.  Then came Watkins Glen...

So how good was Francois Cevert, and what heights could he have reached had he lived?

He was only 29 years old when he died, and still developing as a driver. While not blisteringly quick and spectacular in the mould of Peterson or Rindt, he was blessed with some natural ability, and was also acquiring many of the qualities of a "thinking" driver, such as Fittipaldi, Lauda or his mentor Stewart.  The arrangements which prevailed in the Tyrrell team make it awkward to gauge his ultimate potential.  There were de facto team orders, and possible differences in equipment allocated to each driver. Cevert's junior status in the team from 1970-73 must also be considered, giving him less responsibility, and pressure.  Some of the Tyrrell cars of the time were reckoned to be quite tricky to handle, another fact which shows just how masterly Jackie Stewart was...

There has been much debate about whether Cevert would have won the 1974 World Championship.  It is tempting to say "yes", based on the assumption that his upward curve of development would have continued.  However, one also has to point out the resurgence of Ferrari, the continued development of McLaren's M23, and also the disruptive effect that Stewart's departure would have had on Tyrrell, whatever the other circumstances.  Many of the calculations assume that Francois would have immediately blossomed after emerging from Stewart's shadow, and reckon without the generally tighter level of competition in Grand Prix racing in 1974.

In the event, Jody Scheckter, who was effectively the replacement for Stewart, came quite close to winning the championship. We can assume that Cevert would have out-performed the South African, but we will never know for sure what would have transpired.

One thing which we are certain of is the fondness with which Francois Cevert is remembered, much more so than some people who made a greater imprint on the record books than he did.  It is heartening to be reminded that human qualities still mean more to many than mere statistics....

Friday, 10 February 2012

F1 Testing at Jerez

I was going to begin this article with the disclaimer "testing times are meaningless", but on reflection they are not "meaningless", but rather they should be taken with a pinch of salt.  Even with numerous caveats added though, this week's proceedings in Jerez have supplied us with some useful pointers for the rapidly approaching 2012 Formula 1 season.

Despite the headlines generated by the flashes of speed by Lotus, Mercedes and others, it is fair to say that the top table of F1 eminence is still largely the domain of Red Bull and McLaren.  When due allowances are made for "sponsorship" lap times, 2011 cars, set-ups and tyre choices, we have seen little to dispel the notion that these remain the most consistent and reliable performers.

Another of the themes to come out of the Jerez tests is the continuing rebirth of Lewis Hamilton, and his apparent determination to move forward and establish a firm foundation for his 2012 endeavours. Positive comments about the potential of the new car, a quietly assiduous approach to his work, and bolstering his management team all point to a desire to grasp the nettle, and blow away any cobwebs.

Sebastian Vettel seemed a touch more guarded in his thoughts on the new Red Bull, and a few gremlins were encountered, but its performance out on the track would indicate that there are few major concerns. They have the resources and the personnel to ensure that everything will be "alright on the night."

The news emanating from the Ferrari camp has been less euphoric. Whilst the team has stressed that much of their work has been methodical, it seems clear that they have much still to do, even if Fernando Alonso delivered some rapid lappery on the final day.

The lap times achieved by the Lotus duo of Raikkonen and Grosjean have been met with hyperbole and derision in equal measure.  It is fair to assume that some of those times were notched up with less than a full tank of petrol, and sly references have been made to the possible imperatives of publicity and promotion, but even taking these factors into consideration, signs are not discouraging.  Above all, the team is exuding a spirit of optimism and combativeness.

Respect is due to the teams who were content to shun the limelight and,horror of horrors, concentrate on getting lots of laps under their belts, and making sure that their cars are reliable.  Caterham and Williams were happy to adopt this approach for much of the four days, presumably reasoning that it is better to expose any frailties or weaknesses now, rather than in Melbourne.

This is the first time that I have followed a pre-season test with this level of attentiveness for many years, and it is striking how things have changed.  These modern tests are clearly tailored for the requirements of the media and sponsors, and also to help contain costs.  I do, though, miss the more haphazard and informal testing arrangements of fifteen or twenty years ago, which took place in greater anonymity, and with less rigid protocol.

It seems that these tests are regarded by F1 followers in the same way that football fans see pre-season friendlies, and the same unbalanced conclusions are often extracted from both!  Every infinitesimal detail is analysed to the nth degree, and either euphoria or misery proclaimed by supporters of Team X or Driver Y. It is remarkable how even some discerning F1 fans can get things out of proportion. Or perhaps these days I don't pay sufficient attention to every nuance myself....

Sifting through the plethora of lap times, statistics and press releases coming from Jerez, and the myriad interpretations of that information, there is no overwhelming reason to believe that the pecking order will have changed that much, apart from some reshuffling in the midfield, and Ferrari lagging slightly further behind "the big two".  No startling breakthroughs have been signalled or hinted at, although some minor but interesting trends may be seen with greater clarity at the forthcoming Barcelona tests.

This testing is all jolly good fun, but to see how things really stand, the best advice may be - wait until Australia!

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Sheer Heart Attack - Queen - album review

It seems to be a common trait amongst music pundits to eulogise about a so-called "classic" album, whilst overlooking the claims of a previous release to be regarded as the seminal work by an artist.

Such is the case with Queen's catalogue.  A Night At The Opera is habitually cited as their zenith, when in fact their previous effort, 1974's Sheer Heart Attack, has equal if not greater claims, which I will now expound upon!

Most of my esteem for Sheer Heart Attack is founded in its musical and artistic merit, but I must admit that I have some emotional attachment to it too, as it was one of the first albums which I purchased, when I was about eleven years old, and on vinyl!  Even back in those days I detected a certain mystique within those grooves.

The album's content and flavour were certainly affected by circumstance.  Before and during the recording sessions, Brian May was afflicted by illness, and this may have dictated the modus operandi in the studio.  The backing tracks were assembled differently, with acoustic guitar and piano more to the fore.  I have heard Brian acknowledge in interviews that the unusual feel detectable on Sheer Heart Attack was partially down to these factors.

So, if Brian had not been incapacitated at times, would the LP have more mirrored the multi-tracked excesses of Queen II?  It is difficult to judge.  My hunch has generally been that on their second album,Queen got much of the extravagance and experimentation out of their system, and that they were destined to move in a more pop-orientated direction, anyway.  The musical style and songwriting were not massively influenced by the peculiar circumstances, but more its freshness, energy and atmosphere.

So, "Heart Attack"  lacked some of the layered opulence of the sophomore album, but equally it has a bounce and suppleness largely absent from its successor.  For all its gravitas, A Night At The Opera occurs to me as a classic case of "trying too hard" to make a career-defining album.  There is a certain over-earnestness to it all, and over-production leads to some of the songs sounding stale and ponderous.

By contrast, Sheer Heart Attack flows naturally, as if the band was just in the studio to cut some new tracks, as opposed to subconsciously seeking to cement their place in the rock pantheon. It is also diverse in its scope, encompassing hard rock, Tin Pan Alley pop, jazz/ragtime, glam rock and psychedelic influences.  Again possibly because of the improvised nature of the recording schedule, it sounds different from other Queen albums, the drums being captured with great clarity and punch, and the piano appealingly airy and treble-heavy.

Whether by accident or design, the sequencing and running order of the tracks works very effectively, perfectly alternating light and shade, and showing off the group's stylistic versatility. 

The album opens with "Brighton Rock", a showcase for Brian May's virtuosity and the properties of his renowned homemade guitar.  This version is condensed in comparison with those subsequently performed on stage, and this is no bad thing.  This track also features the clear but earthy drum sound which is a feature of Sheer Heart Attack.  The hi-hat in particular seems to be intensively employed.

"Killer Queen" was the big hit single from the album, and is a prime candidate for Queen's first truly catchy pop song. With evocative lyrics, and pleasing but sparingly and tastefully applied harmonies and guitar licks, this is a very difficult song to allocate to any particular genre, and this is part of its charm.

We then move on to "Tenement Funster", a quintessential Roger Taylor composition, with its uncomplicated, raw melody and "blue collar" lyrical concerns.  As with many of the numbers here, the backing track is solid and distinctive, augmenting but not suffocating the overall effect, and the subject matter adds welcome variety and levity.

"Levity" is not a word that could be used to describe "Flick of The Wrist", in which Freddie Mercury appears to vent his anger at some of the nefarious practices in the music industry.  Freddie manages to focus his emotions, though, and there are some memorable and impactful lines.  Brian May's guitar parts here are suitably intricate and sinister-sounding.  One of the most under-rated and powerful items in the Queen catalogue.

By way of relief, we then segue into "Lily of Valley", a fine example of a Mercury piano-based ballad. Brief, but effortlessly tuneful.

"Now I'm Here", upon close observation, can be said to be heavily influenced by the Who's music of the "Quadrophenia" era, particularly its vocal harmonies and guitar riff.  The words are said to concern Brian May's ruminations on his life around that time, including Queen's first tour of the USA. Although grandiose and pugnacious, "Now I'm Here" has not aged as well as some of Queen's other singles, now sounding quite bland and lumbering.  There are some nice Chuck Berry-esque guitar licks in the fade, though!

"In The Lap of The Gods" starts in dramatic fashion, with one of Roger Taylor's trademark screams, but then becomes another melodic and charismatic song, underpinned by one of those piano/acoustic guitar/bass/drums backing tracks which are emblematic of this album.

Another shift in tempo and atmosphere then occurs, as we are treated to "Stone Cold Crazy", an energetic and frenetic rocker, with an infectious guitar riff, and clever use of percussion and drum fills.  Who could have predicted that this song would become influential and revered by the groups of future decades?  Also unusual for that time in being credited to all four members of Queen in the songwriting stakes.

"Dear Friends" is a vignette, very characteristic of Queen's mid-70s output.  In many ways one of Brian May's most quietly touching lyrics, and a healthy counterpoint to the more elaborate material elsewhere on Sheer Heart Attack. 

I suppose that the next two songs could also fall under the description of "vignette", representing a pause for breath before the climax. "Misfire" was the first John Deacon song to be included on a Queen album, and fits in perfectly here, with its ornate but joyful guitar sound and melodic verses. "Bring Back That Leroy Brown" is the kind of number which has invited comparisons with the eclectic nature of some Beatles albums, the delving back in time to styles favoured by the writer's parents or grandparents.  Beautifully constructed, and with semi-humorous, tongue-in-cheek lyrics, this song also features "non-rock" instruments such as double-bass and ukelele.

"She Makes Me" is one of the most impenetrable and enigmatic songs ever recorded by Queen, and I wouldn't really like to speculate on what Brian's lyrics are alluding to.  Largely constructed around acoustic guitars, and a futuristic drum sound,  with Brian on lead vocal, this track has a haunting quality all of its own.

The album finishes with "In The Lap of The Gods... revisited", which became the concert closer for a time. One could dismiss this as a typical Queen "anthem", but the verses are beautiful, and Freddie's piano very prominent.  I think that the closing repititions of the chorus are overdone, though, and by the end one has almost forgotten the finesse and spring of the verses. 

So there we have it, an enjoyable and exquisitely paced album, which in some respects is greater than the sum of its parts.  It still sounds fresh and vibrant to me after all these years, predominantly because the melodic nuances and personalities of the individual songs are given, and allowed, space to breathe and flourish.

I know that after a while, a large proportion of devoted fans gravitate to this one as their favourite Queen album.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Lewis Hamilton

Having resisted the temptation to write a blog post about the current snowy weather here in Britain, I thought that I would offer my views on Lewis Hamilton, his prospects for the coming Formula 1 season, and his future in the sport.  I realise that I am a bit late in the day with these thoughts, but here goes!

At the McLaren new car launch earlier in the week, Hamilton seemed re-focussed and newly energised.  He can sometimes give the impression of being ill-at-ease, but I think this is a product of his natural demeanour.  This sense of renewal and freshness looks quite genuine, and there is little reason to suspect any kind of smokescreen designed to deflect lingering concerns.

It is a good thing that Hamilton is winning the battle with himself, because he faces plenty of competition, not least from within the McLaren team. Last season the balance of power in the Woking outfit began to tilt towards Jenson Button, and there is no reason to believe that the position has changed fundamentally as we approach the onset of the 2012 campaign.

Although it is perhaps an exaggeration to conclude that Button is now the undisputed main man at McLaren, he has gradually asserted his influence and authority, all this aided by his general air of calm, serenity and self-confidence.  Whether the team itself regards him as a more "natural" and archetypal McLaren man is difficult to judge.  However, the detached observer may be tempted to view Hamilton as the outsider looking in, and Button as the man in possession, if only temporarily.

This shift in power among the McLaren drivers may appear magnified by their respective contractual positions at this time.  Hamilton's current deal expires at the end of this year, whereas Button is more firmly ensconced.  Hamilton has reiterated his wish to get contractual discussions out of the way, in order that he can devote all of his attention to racing.  Looking at the options realistically available with other teams, it seems highly unlikely that he will not renew his McLaren agreement in some shape or form, however much financial and psychological brinkmanship takes place. So he will make a further commitment to the team, even if it does not feel as solid and long-term as that currently exuded by his team-mate.

It is interesting to examine Hamilton's possible motives in expressing a desire to sort out his contractual affairs sooner rather than later. Reading between the lines, a cynic might view these statements as reflecting a short to medium term need to get the media hordes off his back, rather than any intrinsic urge to reaffirm his loyalty to the team. We can certainly surmise that the minimising of distrations is a large part of his reasoning, and it was arguably distractions of various kinds which led to many of his difficulties in the past year or so.

Regardless of these other considerations, what Hamilton really needs to do is to drive quickly and consistently, and "show willing" within the team. If he does this, he may find that many of the peripheral issues take care of themselves also.

The fortunes of Lewis Hamilton, and his position within the McLaren scheme of things, will form one of the most interesting sub-texts in the early races of the upcoming season.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Das Boot

In recent years, I have developed a real penchant for movies based on, or around, submarines.  The particular atmosphere and circumstances of a sub and its crew make for great drama, and as a basis for examinations of human characteristics and foibles, there are few more fertile situations.

Many of these films were well-meaning but fairly minor in commercial terms, often made in the 1950s and 1960s on relatively meagre budgets, but with thoughtful scripts and above-average acting. 

One submarine-orientated movie which made a major splash (pardon the pun) was "Das Boot", the German-produced work from 1981, which follows the fortunes of a U-Boat crew during World War 2. Just recently, I was fortunate enough to watch a full-length version.

The main thrust of the movie is a portrayal of how the psysche of the crew members is affected by isolation, fear and boredom. Some of the men prove stronger, and more resolute and robust than others. We are shown how personality and philosophical clashes can fester and thrive when people are forced by circumstance to live in close proximity to each other for any length of time.

Some of the most impactful scenes in the film were those during which the U-Boat is under attack from depth charges, with suspenseful moments while the men await their possible fate. Vulnerability, helplessness and terror are all emotions etched on the faces of the various submariners, These scenes are a vivid illustration of what it must have been like to serve in one of those vessels.  When depth charges do explode near the submarine, the chaos and confusion which follows is dramatically conveyed.

The visuals in this film are a large part of its appeal, and I detected a Blade Runner type, almost dystopian aesthetic at times, with lighting deftly applied to project the darkness and eeriness inside the U-boat.  The camera work also helps greatly to create the feeling of confinement.

As the mission goes on, despondency, resignation, fear, unease, tedium, unreality and fatigue all become factors.  Throughout we see how the men find escape, through drunkeness, stupidity, comradeship, religion, work and duty.

Throughout, the film is cleverly held together by the narrative formed by the diary entries of a journalist travelling on the U-boat.

The commander, superbly and sensitively played by Jurgen Prochnow, comes across as a complex character, resilient but fatalistic, calm but with some insecurities.

"Das Boot" is unflinching and stark in its portrayal of the other "enemies" faced by the crew; the sea, the elements, the boat itself and the conduct of the war.  There is little attempt to downplay the horrors and turmoil, and at times it is unsettling and uncomfortable viewing, but never less than absorbing.

The longer format allows full rein to be given to the development of characters and plot, and the shifts in their states of mind.  The scenes in the bunk beds are especially grim and disturbing, but also occasionally comic.

A sense of loneliness also becomes sharper, with the men cut off from home, their bases and any potential help.  News from the home front only aggravates these feelings.The dialogue becomes more monosyllabic and sparse as the ordeal grows more protracted and intense.

The research undertaken by the producers seemed quite meticulous and thorough, but the fruits of this, in the form of technical insight and detail, are not overplayed or over-emphasised, and are simply woven discreetly into the fabric of the movie. 

During the film, we get to see all areas of the submarine, and not just the bridge and the areas frequented by the officers.  This affords us a glimpse into the scale of the effort, and the differing perspectives of those discharging various roles.

In spite of the privations being endured, a kind of instinct still seemed to take over when it was time to engage in combat.  Perhaps this was self-preservation, rather than glorying in the suffering of others, and as the film moves on issues of humanity and morality come to the fore more and more.

The nerves of the crew are frayed by being constantly in harm's way.  Various forms of dissent, numbness, delirium and brinkmanship become more common, as thresholds of endurance are breached. Some men begin to question whether "successes" are justified by the toils which they are being put through. Weariness and skepticism grows.

In some ways the film is a study of what the human mind and body can readily withstand, and the differences between the tolerances of people in this respect. Faced with the unique circumstances of the U-boat, men have to adapt, survive and improvise. Some become almost impervious to the pain and fear, others go the opposite way.

Probably the most harrowing scene in the whole movie is that where an ailing merchant ship is sunk, and some of the U-boat crew witness the appalling plight of the sailors on board that vessel. They come face to face with the true horror of war, it having hitherto been distant and remote. The men in the water cease to be seen just as an adversary, but as fellow human beings.After this episode, the mood is more subdued and pensive. The attitude of the commander appears to harden, out of necessity, in the face of dissension from his subordinates.

The story takes a twist with the news that the mission is to be extended, taking a detour into potentially more hazardous territory. This has a demoralising effect on some of the men, but the officers remain curiously stoic.

This leads us on to another fascinating scene, where the U-boat effects a rendezvous with a German merchant ship off Spain.  After their experiences, the submariners seem rather alienated from their surface-dwelling counterparts, who find it difficult to comprehend what they have been through. Also the luxury seen on the ship confuses the U-boat men, possibly more than anything because of the shock of new surroundings.

Some unity is restored by a display of insubordination by the Captain, and some sense of common purpose restored, albeit still tinged with uncertainty and tension.

Much of the rest of the film centres on the aftermath of an air attack off Gibraltar, following which the U-boat plumments to the sea-bed.  The anxiety and terror displayed by the men during these sections is chilling, and the imagery and lighting used at this point almost gives some of the men the appearance of corpses.  We also see the defiance and vigour of the human spirit in the desperate, and ultimately successful, efforts to rescue the stricken submarine.

The one area of this magnificent work which left me with some mixed feelings was the ending, which sees an air-raid occur just as the boat returns to port.  The submarine sinks, and the commander loses his life.  I am still unclear in my mind what this was intended to signify, apart from injecting a note of supreme irony.  Perhaps it tells us that even as we emerge from one ordeal, the cycle begins again, and we are still vulnerable and potentially subject to forces beyond our control?

Despite my reservations concerning the ending, I still think that "Das Boot" is a momentous, courageous and thought-provoking film. And it set a benchmark for this particular sub-genre of movie which will never again be reached.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The McLaren Launch

I duly cleared my hectic and overflowing social and professional diary to ensure that I would be by my laptop this morning to follow the launch of McLaren's 2012 challenger, the MP4-27.

As is often the case with these kinds of events, the anticipation was weightier than what was actually delivered. The white sheet was removed to reveal the shiny new creation, the drivers and team luminaries were interviewed by the assembled press, and sponsors name-checked at regular intervals.

I have always been somewhat ambivalent about F1 "launches" and "unveilings".  For somebody like myself, whose interest in racing revolves less around the technical side than the human and sporting aspects, they can be sterile and superficial. Many of the technological minutiae leave me cold, and the people involved are inclined to be guarded and non-committal.

Even allowing for this, I thought that today's launch was a touch one-paced.  I found the opening portion of it, when the car was unveiled and the drivers interviewed by the compere, to be awkward, and the banter stilted.  One gets the impression that all concerned see the launch as a chore to be performed, almost with gritted teeth.

The F1 circus tends to go through phases and fads when determining how to launch its machines to an expectant world. From the mid-1990s onwards, there was a trend towards employing showbiz gimmicks (pop groups mainly) and using grandiose and prestigious locations.  If we have to endure these ceremonies, my ideal would be the kind of thing we had today, carefully leavened and enlivened with a touch of razzamatazz, but not too much razzamatazz.....

I think it's fair to say that the MP4-27 is quite easy on the eye, and retains one of the most distinctive and effective liveries on the grid.  There is a temptation to equate prettiness with expected performance in F1 cars, even if experience has shown that to be a facile assumption!  However well the car goes, I would expect it to be more visually pleasing than most of its competitors.

When interviewed, Jenson Button seemed as calm, cheerful and confident as ever, these qualities perhaps reinforced by last year's events.  Lewis Hamilton was his usual enigmatic self, but of course it is impossible to gauge likely fortunes for the year ahead from a stage-managed event such as this.

As the launch progressed, and we were introduced to more members of the McLaren "family", my thoughts shifted towards how the organisation might have changed in recent years, both before and after the withdrawal of Ron Dennis from the frontline Formula 1 effort.

Though I would not describe myself as a fanatical "fan"in the modern sense, McLaren has been the team which I have most admired, after my obligatory youthful Ferrari fixation began to fade.  Even if it was to all intents and purposes a different team, I could detect a thread stretching back to the days of James Hunt, Teddy Mayer and Alastair Caldwell in the 1970s.  I was also able to delve beyond the popular perception of the Ron Dennis era, as a dour and soulless operation, and develop genuine respect for the qualities and values which he and others instilled in the team.

How does the current set-up compare?   Well, the structure and basic ethos and culture appear little changed from the previous two decades or so, but perhaps lacking the dynamism and outright passion which was there in the past.  This is not surprising, since many of the personnel are different.  Also, the more mundane aura given off by the team these days is likely more indicative of how the world itself has changed. The true nature and likely path of the "new" McLaren is yet to fully reveal itself.  It might be less overtly interesting than past incarnations, but could prove just as successful.

Martin Whitmarsh has always impressed me, from the days when I remember seeing him in documentaries in the early 1990s.  Very businesslike, and able to act as a protective buffer between the media/fans and team members, even if in a subtly different way than Dennis did in the past.  A calm, and quietly effective figure, if not quite as "hands on", visible or emotive as his predecessor.

Predictions for McLaren in 2012?   It is difficult to see them making any quantum leap forward, or plummeting backwards. Improvements will be incremental, as tends to be the case in F1 these days. We shall soon see whether the team's quiet confidence is justified.