Saturday, 31 March 2012

Kindle Or Real Books?

Well, after a lot of persuasion from one friend in particular, I have purchased a Kindle.  I am assured that this will open up a whole vista of new possibilities, and enhance my life immeasurably.

As something of a Luddite on matters technological, I always need to be dragged kicking and screaming to embrace the latest "must-have" gadget or innovation.  The process was the same with games consoles, mobile phones and PCs.

In fairness, I am impressed by what I have so far seen from the Kindle. The device itself seems user-friendly, neat and efficient, and the mechanism for downloading Kindle books is much swifter and more seamless than I had envisaged. The reading experience itself also appears pleasing and straightforward.

Having said all this, I still find it difficult to imagine totally forsaking the world of "real", tangible paper books any time soon.  I know that it sounds trite, but there is something inherently comforting and reassuring in holding a book in one's hands, as if the space between the covers symbolizes a whole secret and mysterious world waiting to be uncovered, discovered and explored.

I am not a particularly strong advocate of technology for technology's sake, and there is a tendency these days to view the medium as more important than the content or the message.  However, I can see how the Kindle and its ilk will continue to take hold, although it will take a long time for such devices to truly supplant the paper book in our affections.

From what I have heard and seen, the Kindle is very much causing a buzz, partly through pure word of mouth, and there is an element of peer pressure at work, as with other such items in the past, in persuading people to buy them. Some people will probably get one in order to "keep up with the Joneses" on a micro-scale, for fear of feeling left out of chatter, or becoming a social pariah.

I can say, hand on heart, that I bought mine in order to complement and augment my existing reading habits, and to take advantage of the sheer variety of literature available on the Kindle format.  The move may also save me a bit of shelf space at home!

Some future posts on this blog may well be inspired and prompted by my Kindle reading....

Thursday, 29 March 2012

1978 Monaco Grand Prix

I recently watched a full video of the 1978 Monaco Grand Prix, and this prompted me to make some observations about the Formula 1 scene back then, and the odd comparison to our modern racing.

Viewing footage of this particular race served to remind me that this was the end of an era, and the dawn of a watershed in the sport's development, although few realised it at the time.  This was the last race before the introduction of the revolutionary and ground-breaking Lotus 79.  The complexion of F1 altered almost overnight, and the contest in the principality was the last glimpse of the "old order".  Grand Prix racing lost some of its innocence, and the modern era commenced.  Not only were "ground effects" about to become de rigueur, the commercial side of the sport was also beginning to be transformed, largely through television exposure.

These things are keenly felt by the likes of myself, who maintain that the period 1970-1977 represented some kind of golden age of F1 racing.  However, I acknowledge the merits and appeal of the ground effects and turbo eras which were being ushered in as the teams raced at Monaco in '78. 

So, to the race itself.  New talent was emerging and making its mark, in the form of Gilles Villeneuve,Patrick Tambay, Didier Pironi and Riccardo Patrese.  In the early stages of the race, the Williams of Alan Jones was quite prominent, symptomatic of the continuing rise of Frank's team.

The pole man was Carlos Reutemann in the gorgeous Ferrari 312T3, arguably one of the best looking F1 cars of its era. However, the grid was extremely competitive, with no one team or car/driver combination enjoying any discernible margin of superiority.  This was all to change at the next race in Belgium, when Colin Chapman's latest creation shook the status quo to its foundations.

The pattern of the race was influenced to some degree, as ever at Monaco, by the start.  Lauda and Reutemann clashed, and the Argentine driver had to pit with a damaged rear aerofoil. Caught up in all this was James Hunt, who brushed the barrier whilst taking evasive action.  One of the curious things about Hunt's F1 career was his relative lack of prowess and success on street circuits, although the failures were not always attributable to him.

John Watson took the lead at the start, and had the race under some kind of control, exhibiting his flair and fluency.  Alas, he was not to prevail this time, and as in so many races in 1977/78, he was denied victory. The Brabhams were pointedly competitive at this event, all this before the introduction of the notorious "fan car".

Watching the race in full, I was reminded how people's perception of Formula 1 has been affected by the role of television.  There is a tendency to lionise and wax lyrical about "the good old days", but much of this thinking is based on snippets of footage and brief highlights, in the days before widespread live TV coverage. There were lengthy "fallow", uneventful and even tedious phases in races in those days, and Monaco '78 was not a lights to flag thriller itself. Contrary to what some people might have you believe, processions are not a recent innovation....

The two Brabhams and Patrick Depailler's Tyrrell were clearly superior, and forged ahead into a race of their own, providing an absorbing three-way tussle.  Depailler constantly harried Watson, and the Frenchman drove with elan and panache, but also control and discipline.  The Brabhams may have been adversely affected by the weight and thirstiness of the Alfa engine, whereas the Tyrrell was more nimble and forgiving.

Eventually, Watson stumbled at the chicane after the tunnel, and Lauda was forced to pit for new tyres, leaving Depailler to proceed in relative comfort towards his maiden triumph. Lauda's difficulties were the springboard for a spirited recovery drive, with the Austrian's car assuming some very unorthodox angles, perhaps one of the least "Lauda-esque" displays of his entire career. His audacious manoeuvre to pass Jody Scheckter in front of the pits was especially impressive.

In the end, though, it was Depailler's day, and few would have begrudged him his moment of glory. This was a fully merited victory, although as it transpired the Tyrrell team was unable to build on it to any meaningful extent.

Watching the race was a very useful and enjoyable exercise, providing a snapshot of a time of change in Grand Prix racing.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The Baader Meinhof Complex - Stefan Aust

I recently revisited the movie The Baader Meinhof Complex.
The logical next step was to re-read Stefan Aust's book of the same name, on which the film was based.  

Basically, this book chronicles the story of the Red Army Fiction, from its origins in the late 60s student protest movement, through to the aftermath of the so-called "German Autumn" of 1977.  The edition which I have also has a new preface, and updates on the more recent activities of the group.

The book is quite a curious one, because it sometimes feels as if corners are being cut, but after completing reading it, I still felt as if I had been told the story comprehensively and representatively.  The short, staccato chapters give the work a fast-paced appearance, as if superfluous information has been "boiled off", leaving just the crucial and necessary detail.  This was a wise strategy, as we are dealing here with occurrences which in essence spanned a decade or more.

The author was a close observer of events, and remains even-handed and dispassionate here.  The preface to the edition which I own does offer some moral judgements, but by and large analysis is that which surfaced at the time when the events took place, offered by the media, families, the state and others.

A large proportion of The Baader Meinhof Complex is dedicated to examining the events leading up to the formation of the RAF "proper", and its main actions.  Portaits of some of the members, concise but enlightening, are provided, and then the story of the late 60s student movement is documented, taking in the events of 2 June 1967.  We see how the various strands coalesced, how members became acquainted, and how the project acquired its momentum.

Some seminal episodes are dealt with, including the period 1969-70, before Andreas Baader was forcibly freed from custody, and the work undertaken to equip and build up the organisation "underground".

There is some real insight into the temperaments of the different protagonists, their original motives, their fears, and their occasional misgivings. The acrimony and dissent which occurred, particularly in those early days, is also detailed.  These passages offer a spotlight into the pressures and strains of the murky underground existence, and how some coped better than others with the lifestyle and the constant upheavals and dangers.

In time, we eavesdrop on the police and the judiciary of the Federal Republic, as they strove to confront this new and ominous threat. The two sides run in parallel, occasionally intertwining.

From going through the book again, and renewing my research on this topic generally, I have a clearer understanding of the Red Army Faction's grievances, although I still find their methods utterly repugnant. 

Also, it can be seen that the judiciary, and the state machinery, often damaged their own credibility and moral standing with heavy-handed, over-zealous or unnecessary measures. The defendants in the Stammheim trial sometimes held some semblance of high ground, but tended to squander it with their delusions, their well-worn and tired rhetoric, and their petulance in court and elsewhere. Less obduracy may have helped, but of course passions were running high, and it is easy to make these observations three and a half decades later.

The book's coverage of the so-called "German Autumn" in 1977 is very effective, conveying the drama, tension and emotions of all concerned.  The savagery and insecurity of the Schleyer kidnappers, the resourcefulness of the authorities, and the horror of the Lufthansa hijacking all come over very vividly.

We switch between the "theatres";the terrorist hide-outs, the corridors of power in Bonn, Stammheim and the hijacked airliner.  The pace quickens as the denouement is approached,brinkmanship, psychology, bargaining, stalling tactics, and blackmail all in evidence.

The underlying emotion which comes across in the aftermath of the events of October 1977 is one of emptiness and bleakness.  The book feels like it concludes abruptly, and perhaps this is no accident.

Throughout the book, Aust reproaches and questions those parties who he feels are at fault, or have a case to answer, be they terrorists, politicians, police or lawyers. The failings of all are laid bare, and he puts forward arguments and evidence lucidly, although some of the questions have never been fully or satisfactorily resolved.

If you are looking for endless passages of sociological dissection of causes and motives, then it may be best to look elsewhere. However, for an authoritatively researched and written, "all under one roof" account this is very good.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Malaysian Grand Prix 2012 - Review

Well, few people saw that result coming, although when the weather began to close in just prior to the start of the race, Fernando Alonso must have fancied his chances a little.  Those conditions were tailor-made for the Spaniard's finesse and awareness.

Almost as impressive as Alonso's assured display out on the track was his realistic and pragmatic attitude afterwards, being keen to stress that the result, although welcome, did not alter some fundamentals about Ferrari's situation. The wet weather, and Alonso's delicate touch, will have masked some deficiencies in the car, which still need to be tackled and alleviated.

Receiving almost as many plaudits as Alonso's performance has been that of Sergio Perez in the Sauber. Showing commendable maturity for a relative newcomer, he took all the fluctutations and strategic intrigues in his stride, until that minor error near to the end. The conspiracy theorists were unsurprisingly out in force when some advice was directed to Perez over the radio, which was swiftly followed by his mistake. Personally, I am inclined to think that the charges are wide of the mark; the radio message from the pits merely seemed to be imploring the young Mexican to "be careful", and to be mindful that second place is preferable to no place at all.

Perez has unobtrusively made a favourable impression since he entered F1, although not perhaps generating the headlines and hysteria which tend to accompany some rising stars. Consistently solid performances, and sometimes placing the car where it doesn't really belong, have helped to build up a picture and reputation of someone who has a bright future. Rumours have been circulating about his whereabouts in the future, and they are sure to intensify after today's events, particularly when cross-referenced with the problems being endured by others.

Those who dominated proceedings in Melbourne had mixed fortunes in Melbourne.  Jenson Button made an uncharacteristic error of judgement when trying to pass Narain Karthikeyan, and thereafter suffered a race plagued by niggling difficulties.  There was to be no repeat of his famous win in Canada last year.

After the red flag, Lewis Hamilton had a solid if unspectacular run, although his progress was impeded by a couple of dramas at pit stops. Lewis is racking up the points at the moment, and although he is a born winner, he must realise that these points-scoring finishes could be crucial in what looks set to be a closely-fought campaign. I was pleased to see that he alluded to this in his post-race comments, sounding measured and philosophical.

Red Bull continue to mystify slightly.  A lack of inspiration, and outright pace, is affecting them at the moment.  Other teams have upped their game, but Red Bull are just not the formidable force on the track of the past two years.  After Australia, the team was at pains to stress that they were not fully up to pace, and we expected a bit more at Sepang.  The rain in the race naturally complicates any assessments, and a dry weekend in China may enable us to reach some more definitive conclusions.

After promising signs in qualifying, the Mercedes team once more singularly failed to deliver on race day. True, Michael Schumacher was seemingly blameless when tipped into an early spin, but after that he and Nico Rosberg were largely anonymous.  There may be some soul-searching in the hiatus before we go to China.

The Williams team continued its encouraging opening to 2012, with a fine and combative display from Bruno Senna, finishing sixth, and Maldonado had not done himself any harm before his late retirement.  The car is clearly a good one, and it is to be hoped that this form can be prolonged.

The Lotus team also sought to build on its Albert Park exploits, with a good if unexceptional drive from Kimi Raikkonen.  He will be pleased to have finished both races in the points, and also to have got more mileage under his belt, although I think theories that his five-place grid penalty adversely affected his race prospects are overplayed.  By contrast, Romain Grosjean again failed to finish, and needs a result or two to add substance to his undoubted ability and flair.

All told, however, this race was won by the panache and all-round skills of Fernando Alonso, aided in no small part by the slick pit work of Ferrari.  This is one thing which the Scuderia certainly has mastered so far this season!  Admittedly, the frailities of others, as ever in changeable conditions, also helped the Ferrari cause, but this in no way detracts from their achievement.

The first two races have certainly given us plenty of entertainment, and there is much to mull over for the teams, drivers, media and fans in the three weeks before the Chinese Grand Prix....

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Malaysian Grand Prix Qualifying

Just a few quick observations on this morning's qualifying session from Sepang.

If not wholly surprising that the McLaren team monopolised the front row of the grid, there were some interesting developments behind them. 

The major talking point may well be Michael Schumacher's creditable effort to end up in third position. Although this is not altogether a shock, when taking account of Mercedes' testing form, it will give a boost to the seven-time champion, and perhaps mollify some of those who have been questioning his continued presence in Grand Prix racing.  It remains to be seen whether the team can improve on its rather anti-climactic outing in the race in Melbourne.

One of the pleasing aspects of the session was the solid and convincing form of Lotus, with both cars in the top ten, even though Kimi Raikkonen will start from tenth place because of his penalty.  A heartening state of affairs, and the approval for Raikkonen's comeback becomes slightly less qualified by the hour.

Many people expected Red Bull to return to something like their "rightful" place in the scheme of things in Malaysia, but things have not quite worked out that way. They are not sounding in any way downcast, but there still appears to be room for improvement in some elements of the car's performance, and the decision by hedge their bets on strategy is quite revealing.  We shall see what, if anything, Red Bull have up their sleeves for the race.

Not unexpectedly, Ferrari continue to struggle, with Alonso striving manfully to extract some performance from the car, and Massa, rightly or wrongly, continuing to be under the microscope.  The margin of their deficit on the stopwatch to the top teams should be the concern, rather than the grid position.  A damage limitation exercise may be the limit of their hopes in tomorrow's contest.

So, McLaren in the driving seat, but others could well have a say in how tomorrow pans out.  Almost everybody is mentioning tyres as the major imponderable.....

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Malaysian Grand Prix preview

It is often foolish to read too much into the outcome of the first race of the season, and this weekend's event in Sepang should provide us with additional pointers.

For me, one of the most telling features of the post-Melbourne media maelstrom has been the self-assuredness being evinced by McLaren personnel. They have expressed confidence that their car will perform capably on all circuits, thereby refuting some of the theories that McLaren's advantage in Australia was down partially to the nature of the circuit, and the MP4-27's compatibility with it.

Of course, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, and other teams may contend that the Albert Park track masked the true potential of their own machines, and flattered others.  However, it seems reasonably clear that the onus is on McLaren's rivals to improve, rather than relying on the Woking-based equipe to fall from grace or suddenly become "lost" technically.

These days, F1 is too complex, some would say clinical, to allow for teams to be freakishly quick and dominant at the beginning of a season, and then fall away precipitately.  Examples of this would be Shadow in 1975 and Ligier in 1979.  The peculiar circumstances, and technical sweet-spots are simply not there anymore.  Rather, in modern times progress in Grand Prix racing is more measured in small increments rather than wild oscillations.  Hence McLaren's small but tangible advantage, and the measures needed by the competition to bridge that gap.

My hunch is that we may even have to wait until the Spanish Grand Prix for any sort of demonstrable pecking order to reveal itself, and even then we can expect form to be quite volatile, particularly amongst the "middle order" of the field.

Despite McLaren's impressive display in the opening race,  Red Bull in particular are not exuding any signs of panic or concern, confident that they are there or thereabouts, and that some fine-tuning, hard work, and a bit of luck, will remedy matters.  Expect Red Bull to be more prominent this weekend, and Mark Webber to be less peripheral than he was on home turf.

Prospects amongst the other teams fancied pre-season are decidedly less certain.  Notwithstanding Alonso's determined drive Down Under,  there is clearly still disquiet at Ferrari.  Changes to the car are to be anticipated, and the team's likely form in Malaysia is difficult to foretell with any degree of confidence.

A team which failed to totally convince in Melbourne was Mercedes, the jury still being very much out on their prospective race form. They need to demonstrate that they can consistently challenge the "big two".  Or are they destined to remain in a kind of limbo, occasionally troubling the front, but just as regularly being subsumed into the pack behind?  It is premature to judge, but Malaysia may offer up some additional clues on this score.

With luck, we will be treated at Sepang to the same type of spectacle in the midfield to which we were witness in Australia. This should involve Force India, Sauber, Williams, Lotus and possibly others. One of these teams could even intrude into the higher echelons, capitalising on any frailties at Ferrari or Mercedes.

Returning to McLaren, another sub-text in Malaysia should revolve around the Button/Hamilton dynamic, which will be interesting to behold. Expect some kind of reaction from Hamilton, who seemed somewhat taken aback by his colleague's resolute race performance at Albert Park. Happily, it is quite clear that the two of them will be allowed to race each other, subject to the usual provisos about civility and overall team welfare.

The Sepang track does not exactly luxuriate in a reputation for throwing up pulsating F1 races.  Not only is there a chance that the nature of the circuit will supply us with a truer barometer of form, but this may also spread the cars out. I hope that I am proved wrong in this, and it may be that the pre-season feelings of some pundits will be further realised, in a tightly contested event.  Some rain, as ever, would spice things up appreciably.

My prediction?  Well, I won't make a precise one, other than to say that McLaren and Red Bull could be difficult to separate this time around.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

After The Gold Rush - Neil Young - album review

After recently writing blog posts about two of Neil Young's classic 1970s albums, I thought that I would take a look at the Canadian singer-songwriter's first effort of the decade, After The Gold Rush.

Commonly cited as Young's quintessential "singer-songwriter" LP, it is in fact quite a diverse and varied piece of work, containing many of the elements which have made his career so enduringly fascinating and unpredictable.

The album opens with "Tell Me Why", which contains ingredients from both Young's troubadour days, and also the style of Crosby Stills and Nash, with whom he had recently been collaborating when this was recorded. The vocal harmonies here are fragile and airy, and somewhat unique in flavour to After The Gold Rush.

The title track follows, and is one of those songs which was very much in keeping with the tenor of its time, hinting at apocalypse and subsequent rebirth.  Similar themes to Jackson Browne's "For Everyman" and "Wooden Ships" by CSN.

It is fair to say that many of the stronger compositions on this album are packed in at the start, and this is maintained with "Only Love Can Break Your Heart", which has become almost a standard because of many renditions by other artists. This original drifts by without drawing that much attention to itself, and is quite difficult to categorise and define, so I won't bother trying!

The track which aroused most discussion and debate was "Southern Man".  Apart from its socio-political message, this is a very powerful track musically, with perhaps the last major outing on record for some time of Young's idiosyncratic, brittle and meandering guitar style.  The piano-playing on this song is also sometimes forgotten, adding depth and helping to drive the melody along.

It has to be said that the remaining tracks are a mixed bag, two of them being brief and rather whimsical items, "Till The Morning Comes" and "Cripple Creek Ferry".  These, together with the perfunctory and incongruous cover of Don Gibson's "Oh Lonesome" Me, tend to belie the reputation of After The Gold Rush as a classic of its kind.  Whether Young was short on genuinely strong material around this time, it can only be speculated. Of course, some of his superior creations were being diverted to CSNY, and other projects.

These weaker links are balanced out by some memorable and beautiful moments towards the close of the album. "Birds" and "I Believe in You" are far from the most popularly revered songs here, but they both have charm and finesse, and have not suffered from the over-familiarity associated with the earlier "marquee" numbers. Again, piano is used to considerable effect on both of these songs.

After The Gold Rush is something of a hinge in this phase of Neil Young's journey, having a character of its own, but still showing the legacy of his early albums, and paving the way for the more "commercial" period, albeit relatively brief, on which he was about to embark.

Whilst there are some strong songs, and an appealing "organic" and sparse feel throughout, it has possibly been slightly over-rated. This was one of the first Neil Young albums which I listened to, and I judged it before exploring other areas of his catalogue. Once I had been exposed to Tonight's The Night and On The Beach, After the Gold Rush began to sound much tamer and anodyne; almost, but not quite, a case of treading water.

So even if the passage of time, and repeated exposure, dulls its impact, and makes it appear ever so slightly sterile, After The Gold Rush is still a great listen.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Australian Grand Prix 2012

In the build up to the Australian Grand Prix, I discussed the prospects for the race with some friends online. I stuck my neck out and predicted that Jenson Button would emerge victorious, based on McLaren's assured and consistent pre-season, and an expectation that the man from Somerset would have everything "together" for the opener, in his usual neat fashion.

And so it proved. A performance of some aplomb and authority from Button, who was assertive when he needed to be, at the start of the race, and at the restart following the safety car period. Although his lead was never that vast on the stop-watch, he was not seriously challenged throughout.  However, there was plenty of interest and significance behind him.

Button's confident display clearly impacted on Lewis Hamilton, whose demeanour post-race was much remarked upon.  There has been major comment on how Hamilton has addressed some "issues" over the winter, but it is easy to forget that his team-mate has also worked hard and prepared assiduously, albeit with less media fanfare.  Even when we make allowances for the vagaries of tyre wear, strategies and safety car interludes, Lewis clearly knows that he will have his work cut out this season, and was clearly perceptive in his recent assessment that Button constitutes his greatest threat, as things stand.

One of the major talking points of the race was the tenacious performance of Fernando Alonso in the Ferrari. This must have given the Italian team some heart, after their travails during testing and also throughout practice and qualifying in Melbourne.  Once again, Alonso exhibited his fighting qualities, and his ability to transcend technical deficiencies.

Felipe Massa was less impressive than his team-mate, and although he could not be totally blamed for the collision with Bruno Senna, it will not have helped his cause too much. His performance will inevitably be contrasted with the praiseworthy effort of Alonso.

Red Bull were not quite on the pace, but the remarks emanating from their camp suggest that they are not quite extracting the maximum potential from their machine, and that there is more to come. Perhaps Malaysia, a different kind of circuit, will reveal more, and give us a truer barometer of the relative strengths of McLaren and Red Bull. Sebastian Vettel stuck to his task, and showed some gritty racer's attributes. The reigning champion has acknowledged that McLaren have built an effective car, but is remaining positive.

Mercedes promised much, but the results just did not materialise in the race proper. There were hints of tyre-related difficulties.  Michael Schumacher was in a good position when he was forced out, but Nico Rosberg, after a bright start, struggled to make serious headway later on.  Still, it is clearly premature to discount a team with their resources and expertise.

Of the rest, Williams' rebirth has been pleasing to behold, although the outcome in Melbourne was ultimately frustrating.  Of course, whether they can sustain this early form remains to be seen. Pastor Maldonado no doubt silenced some of his critics today, but equally his detractors will have nodded sagely at some of his antics, culminating in the late crash.  Senna was unlucky at the start, and judging by his team-mate's pace, may have been well up the field.  Race pace is all well and good, but perhaps the Williams hierarchy need to remind their drivers that the odd solid points finish would not go amiss.....

The Saubers to some degree justified the good things said about them following the pre-season tests, although they pursued what could be described as a conservative race strategy. That said, both drivers raced hard and resolutely, with Kobayashi giving us some reminders of the form he showed when he first entered F1. 

Romain Grosjean was not able to build on his excellent qualifying effort, lacking momentum off the grid, and then being despatched into the gravel by Maldonado. However, things look promising for Lotus, with F1 returnee Kimi Raikkonen showing real spirit as the race progressed, clearly trying hard, and giving us the occasional glimpse of "the old Kimi".

Overall, this was an encouraging start to the new F1 season.  Although McLaren have an advantage at this stage, it is clearly surmountable, and the evolution of the regulations, together with a minor reshuffling in the pack, has delivered a cocktail which looks like providing a fine spectacle.  There was much good dicing throughout the field in Australia, and we can only hope that this continues.

And so on to Sepang.  I,for one, am definitely looking forward it!

Saturday, 17 March 2012


Yesterday, I was sifting through some of my old DVDs (funny how even the term "DVD" now seems archaic in this digital age!), and found my copy of WarGames, the 1983 film about a teenager who inadvertently hacks into the US defence system, and almost triggers World War 3.  It got me thinking about my own shifting attitudes towards some of the issues which are thrown up by the movie.

In 1983, WarGames very much rode the "Zeitgeist", tapping into debate and anxiety triggered by the threat of nuclear war, and the increasing role of technology and computers in our lives.  The film was pertinent for me in both respects, as I was just beginning to become interested in computing, like most schoolboys of my generation.  Also, around that time I was flirting with CND, attending a meeting and mingling with a few members.

I later reverted to a more hawkish stance, and retained this until just a couple of years ago. I still acknowledge the imperatives and realities of the Cold War, and although it is tempting to conclude that the multilateralists "won" the argument, I am much more sympathetic now to the sentiments which the unilateralists were expounding in the early 1980s. I tend to question everything now, and would be much less easily taken in by the propaganda.

On the question of hacking, which WarGames also deals with, there was a feeling back then, and up until comparatively recently, that its exponents represented an inherent menace, and a danger to stability and order. I too subscribed to this view until recently. Now, hackers are increasingly seen in some quarters as protecting the liberty and interests of citizens, by exposing mis-deeds of officialdom, and combating centres of authority and power.  Of course, we would certainly not want hackers to trigger World War 3!

My feelings towards the military personnel also differ from before.  Before, I would have been reverential towards them, and other representatives of the state and authority.  These days my view is not exactly contemptuous, but definitely less deferential.  I am suspicious of motives, and assumptions of primacy, albeit still regarding these structures as necessary in some shape or form.  In 1983, the alternative was insidious, but legitimate questions still need to be posed.  Trust has to be earned, and unquestioning obedience is misguided and dangerous. It is foolhardy to put anyone on a pedestal.

Turning back to the movie itself, I thought it was unusual, in that it worked on several levels. Appealing to a younger audience, because of the technology and adventure elements, and empathy with the David Lightman character, but also posing questions about mankind's relationship with technology, and moral quandaries concerning our destructive tendencies.

Some might argue that the issues in this film are less relevant in an era when the Cold War is just a memory, and when computers are integral to all of our lives. However, the issues and dilemmas continue to fascinate and vex. Perhaps the themes are still more applicable to our current situation than we would care to admit....

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Led Zeppelin

One of the more curious and puzzling characteristics of those within these shores is our tendency to overlook and neglect the most worthy accomplishments and qualities of our countrymen. We seem to be embarrassed sometimes by things which are instantly and staggeringly successful, especially if such success is achieved by means which are seen as "different" or "too good to be true".

I often feel that Led Zeppelin were victims of this phenomenon in their homeland. From the outset they were more appreciated and valued abroad, particularly in the United States.  Popular acceptance in Britain always seemed grudging and apathetic.  The masses at home never really took Zeppelin to their hearts.

Led Zeppelin always possessed a certain mystique which set them apart from their contemporaries, and this may explain their failure to connect emotionally with some in their home country. The refusal to release singles in the UK, their unorthodox career path generally, and the wilful misrepresentation of their music by much of the media all played a part.

Although these idiosyncracies helped to ensure that Zeppelin were never perhaps "loved" by the public  like the Stones or the Beatles, they were some of the principal reasons for the band's unique appeal, and place in rock history. The methods which they employed to record and put together their albums, their stylistic diversity and their self-contained, almost reclusive, status, all also contributed to this trend.

It is a frustrating, but nonetheless necessary task for those of us who love Led Zeppelin to regularly dispel the myths and misconceptions which surround them, and continue to cloud and distort their reputation.

First of all, the most irksome one, the notion that Led Zeppelin were merely a "heavy metal" band.  If people would take the trouble to listen properly to their catalogue, they would swiftly realise that this is a nonsensical charge.  Not only was Zeppelin's repertoire varied and eclectic, but even the louder and heavier numbers could hardly be dubbed "heavy metal"; more like experimental blues-rock, expanding on what had been done by the Yardbirds (who spawned Zep), Cream and others.  I would argue that "heavy metal", in its truest form, was pioneered by Black Sabbath and their ilk.

Some of the "trendy" music press, and a certain group of musicians who emerged around 1976/77, often charged that Led Zeppelin were "corporate", and epitomised everything that was grasping, avaricious and "corporate" about the music industry.  Well, Zeppelin certainly made lots of money, largely through their own talent and shrewd management.  In fact, they bucked many trends, defied much conventional wisdom on promotion, and generally refused to "play the game".  I would also ask people to seek out interviews with Jimmy Page or Robert Plant, and see how their love of music for its own sake shines through.

With some observers, Zeppelin acquired a reputation for being somewhat arrogant and aloof.  Some of the tales and anecdotes were doubtless inflated and exaggerated, calculated to embellish the mystique which we have already touched on.  This perceived lack of "media-friendliness" also partially helps to explain the detached and nebulous image which the group still has for some.

Enough about the myths and the criticisms.  What were some of the secrets and virtues which made Led Zeppelin so special?

Well, the make-up of the band, and the chemistry which this engendered, was certainly instrumental. Both Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones were steeped in the British music scene of the preceding period. Endless session work meant that, for their relatively tender years, they had accumulated considerable knowledge of production and arranging.  Also, this had helped them to work any bad habits out of their systems.  Because of these elements, the nascent Led Zeppelin was equipped to hit the ground running.

Because of the background of Page and Jones, it was easier to harness and focus the awesome raw talent of the two comparative novices, Plant and John Bonham. This environment also assisted them in smoothing off their rough edges.

We have already referred to the "self-contained" nature of the group.  This was jealously guarded, and the inner circle made sure that no great entourage of hangers-on or guest musicians was involved. Consequently, they were never really part of any movement, or "scene", developing on their own terms, and not being diluted or compromised, or falling prey to outside influences.

Another hallmark of Zeppelin was their willingness to be experimental and unconventional when it came to recording their material.  Many sessions were by all accounts informal and spontaneous, and there is very much a vibrant "live" feeling to many of their tracks, particularly on Led Zeppelin III and Physical Graffiti.  This was accentuated by careful use and placing of microphones and amplifiers in the studio.

So how are Led Zeppelin perceived today.  I sense that they still not as "fashionable" or "establishment" as their contemporaries.  However, they should be proud of refusing to sacrifice their integrity or selling their souls simply to court more acceptance or adulation.  They did things on their own terms, and not everyone can honestly claim that.  New artists do not regularly name-check them as an influence, but I hardly think that the surviving band members lose much sleep over this.  Above all, they should be proud of their achievements, and their body of work.

Stay tuned for some reviews of individual Led Zeppelin albums in the future!

Monday, 12 March 2012

The Baader Meinhof Complex (movie)

One subject which has fascinated me for the past two decades or so is the political violence which plagued many European countries in the 1970s, and particularly that which happened in West Germany. Recently I have renewed my study of this phenomenon, and as part of this I have watched again the 2008 movie The Baader Meinhof Complex.  Although I accept that the movie is over three years old, I thought that I would share some of my thoughts and observations.

It is tempting to see The Baader Meinhof Complex as being too glossy and superficial, and lacking nuance and depth.  However, one must recall that this is no niche "art film", but one seemingly aspiring to a wide, mainstream audience. So criticism from that standpoint is a little unjust.  In any event, most films in this sub-genre are tainted with being dubbed too "Hollywood"....

The film was based on Stefan Aust's book of the same name, and it seems that Aust had some input in a consultancy role. This shows in the attention to detail, and the narrative of the movie tallies with my own recollection of reading the book.

The film-makers were confronted with the prospect of telling a very complex and emotive story, and accomplishing this in a little over two hours.  Taking everything into account, I think they did a more than creditable job.  They couldn't hope to cover every aspect in minute detail, so careful use is made of real film footage and other material from the era, and many scenes take the form of "vignettes", all helping to tie things together and ensure continuity.  These abbreviated "snippets" end up being among the most memorable parts of the movie.

An area where the influence of Stefan Aust and his book can be clearly seen is in the portrayal of some of the major characters, particularly Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin.  Care was taken to ensure that some of their personality traits and idiosyncracies were shown. It is not quite a case of truth being stranger than fiction, but the lead actors manage to carry things off quite convincingly.

I was also impressed with the way in which the personal journey of Ulrike Meinhof formed a thread through the movie, from her periods of ambivalence and doubt, her relationship with Gudrun Ensslin, to her eventual estrangement from the rest of the group.

Many of the pivotal scenes in the film are intended to exactly replicate of the actual events, and this will be instantly recognisable to people who are familiar with the film footage from those days. In some ways, this is a mixed blessing. 

As in many movies of this kind, the "crowd" scenes are the ones which are most awkward to make convincing and not "staged".  Film-makers seldom get the balance correct, and in this The Baader Meinhof Complex is no exception.  I really don't know what the answer is.  These scenes are often essential to the relating of the story, but habitually look hopelessly contrived, and put the teeth on edge! My preferences are always for the parts of movies where personalities, motives, insecurities and human nature are examined, and this film allows ample scope for this.

I did not find the movie in any way judgemental, but an attempt to be even-handed and present events as accurately and frankly as possible, and let the viewer make up his or her own mind. This is aided by the telling of the story partly from the point of view of the West German authorities, and the differing views evident within the "inner circle" of police officers.  This was a mature depiction of all concerned; things are rarely black and white; there are a million shades of grey in between.

Continuing the "shades of grey" theme, there is some effort to underline the emergence of divergent agendas within the group, differing interpretations of aims and ideals, and the points at which individual consciences and scruples can no longer be suppressed and stifled.  All human beings have weaknesses, foibles and insecurities, and we are shown this as well as the bravado and bluster. The reconciling of "ends" and "means" is a sub-text, though not pushed excessively.

The film captures much of the anger and indignation of the protagonists, but also how this can become mutated.  Some people are easily led, and seduced by a sense of "belonging",  but soon realise that they do not possess the same zeal or ruthlessness as their comrades, but are in too deep to easily extricate themselves. Others seem at times to be driven as much driven by ego and narcissism as by the cause which they espouse.

The sequences set within the walls of Stammheim are among the most affecting in the film. The feelings of frustration and isolation are palpable, and we see the familiar dymanics involving people who are either in a confined space, or thrown together in close proximity to each other.  People have different thresholds of pain, suffering and torment. Still, even when the will has been broken and hope seems gone, the feeling of being trapped, and the need to "belong", still eat away.

Inevitably, a subject this contentious and troublesome will divide opinion, but overall, I would say that The Baader Meinhof Complex does a creditable job of telling a very contentious and complicated story, being quite comprehensive but still holding the attention.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Sweetheart Of The Rodeo - The Byrds - album review

Continuing my non-chronlogical look at the albums of the Byrds, we now move on to the one which perhaps had the most lasting influence of all, Sweetheart of The Rodeo.

I won't become embroiled in the tiresome debate about whether this was the first "country-rock" album. Works by Bob Dylan, Gene Clark and others, released around the same time, could also qualify for that accolade. What is indisputable is that Sweetheart Of The Rodeo represented some kind of landmark. 

Listening forty-odd years on, it is striking how comparatively little "rock" there is here for an LP dubbed "country-rock".  Compared to some of the insipid fare released by other artists under the latter banner in the 1970s, this sounds almost like "purist" country music.  The session musicians employed by the band certainly add that touch of authenticity.

This is the only Byrds album to feature country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons, and many of his contributions were erased from the original release for contractual reasons.  That said, Gram's distinctive vocals are evident on at least three of the tracks.  On the remainder of the cuts, Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn cope manfully.  Of course, David Crosby had by now departed the fold, but it is difficult to imagine his vocal harmonies suiting the country format!

The song list is a shrewd mixture of country-esque styles, including bluegrass, honky-tonk and country-soul, with a couple of Dylan numbers tastefully given the country-rock treatment.  This allows the strengths of the group members, particularly Hillman and Parsons, to be given free rein.  Underpinning all this is the backdrop provided by the sturdy session-men.  The pedal steel sound throughout is particularly soothing, even opulent.

Sensibly, the two Dylan songs are employed as "bookends" at either end of the album, anchoring the more estoteric (for mainstream ears) material in between.  The standout for me is "One Hundred Years From Now", a stirring melody backed by sumptuous pedal steel, and restrained but effective harmonies by McGuinn and Hillman.  "Hickory Wind" I often think is lauded more for what it represents than its aesthetic strenghts, and because it is Gram Parsons' "signature" tune.

The sound on the album is quite pleasing, and this has been faithfully retained by more recent remastering efforts. Crisp instrumentation, ample separation and space for the various contributors to be given full expression.  The nuances of the vocal harmonies are also nicely captured.

Sweetheart Of The Rodeo has held up well, compared to other "country rock" of its time, because The Byrds approached the project with the correct approach, that of wanting to record a country album, rather than a rock album with country tinges.  Much of what was spawned by "Sweetheart" sounds very diluted in comparison.

Of course, Hillman and Parsons were to have a further role in the marriage of country and rock, but that is another story....

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Paul McCartney and Wings

Amongst my own contemporaries, I like to think that I am something of a contrarian, cynical of "memes" and willing to go out on a limb, rather than run with the herd in order to conform or belong.I am definitely inclined towards this approach when it comes to music and popular culture in general.

This approach means that, for example, music which others smugly dismiss as "guilty pleasures", I accord the same respect as any other works. Falling within this definition for me are the likes of Abba, the Carpenters and Paul McCartney and Wings.

Since the break-up of the Beatles it has been fashionable to decry McCartney's solo material as hollow and over-sentimental, a trend which many had detected whilst he was in the Beatles, but which some had disregarded because criticism of the Beatles was considered taboo.  But once he was out of the cocoon of the Fab Four, he was fair game, and it was open season.

What had gone immediately before was an albatross around Paul's neck, but at least some observers are able to retain some objectivity, and appraise his post-Beatles efforts on their own merits.

It is hard to dispute that some of  Paul's solo work is uneven, with occasional weak moments and even what could be termed lapses in taste.  However, the cream of this body of work has stood the test of time.

Some of the criticisms levelled are valid, but at the same time much of the disdain stemmed from snobbery and false premises.  In the eyes of some detractors, Paul's 1970s music committed the crime of not being as "good" as the Beatles, or as socially or politically relevant as what John Lennon was doing around the same time. In reality, what he was doing differed little from his role in the Beatles, but he was now more exposed and vulnerable.

Looking back at the "Wings" era, there were very few periods of sustained weakness, Paul always being capable of coming up with strong melodies and commercially appealing songs. So the output was reasonably consistent. As has been said, the strongest material at any given time was always around the same standard.

One thing which some of the tracks suffer from in the period 1971-75 is that curious 1970s "sheen", which is by no means unique to Paul's work of the time, which can be disconcerting, and even detracts from the quality of the songs on occasion.

Ironically, one of the McCartney tracks from the early 1970s which receives inordinate amounts of praise from pundits is "Maybe I'm Amazed".  For me, it is over-rated, with a mediocre tune which is partially concealed by a grandiose production and arrangement.  It comes across as "profound", but a closer look reveals otherwise.

Most of the genuine high points were reached in the first half of the decade.  "Another Day" is a prime example of Paul's common touch, although I accept not everyone's cup of tea.  Definite parallels with, and echoes of "Eleanor Rigby" here. Relying on subtlety and finesse for its impact, and melodically reminding me of some of Paul's acoustic numbers of the "White Album" period.

The status of "Live and Let Die" as a Bond theme I think has distorted people's appreciation of it as a song.  A dynamic production, benefiting from application of "light and shade", whilst also allowing Paul's prowess as a tunesmith to shine through.

Although "My Love" probably divides opinion, it is difficult to dispute its gorgeous simplicity.

The McCartney and Wings music of this era was quite eclectic, with some genre exercises, reflecting his sheer joyous love of music in all its forms. The attempts at returning to rock 'n' roll roots met with mixed results artistically, but were invariably infectious and likeable, dripping with the customary enthusiasm.

There was always something engagingly low-key, humble and unpretentious about Wings. No outlandish projection of an "image" or gimmicks, just musicians making music and enjoying themselves. This went against the grain of the period.

By common consent, 1973's Band On The Run was the apogee of the Wings era, and two of the songs on that album, the title track and "Jet" represent everything that was admirable and pure about Paul, and the group, at their best.  Effortlessly tuneful, clever, crafted and hook-intensive, with a warm, vibrant and inviting production.  This was what Wings were always meant to sound and feel like, but the formula sometimes proved elusive before and since...

Would Paul and Wings have "benefited" from a harder edge, to be provided by more assertive collaborators?  Possibly at times, but this is missing the point.  This was one of the things which made the Beatles so powerful, and was Macca really striving for that anymore?  Wings were not designed to be "the Beatles Mark II".

One of the things which did not promote balanced assessment of Paul's work, in Britain at least, was the overwhelming commercial success of "Mull of Kintyre".  This, in hindsight something of a novelty record, for some time overshadowed their worthy and interesting music of previous years.  Thankfully, this perception receded gradually, and my feeling is that the McCartney/Wings catalogue has been mildly rehabilitated in the eyes of many.

Listen, and enjoy!

Monday, 5 March 2012

F1 Testing

Well, the serious pre-season testing activity has thus been concluded,  and the journey to Melbourne beckons.

Several respected and learned observers are of the opinion that 2012 will be a very closely contested season.  For a change, these bold statements stand up to scrutiny, and have some foundation based in what we have seen and deduced.

Yes, the times are close and the overall running order volatile, but the very top echelon still consists of Red Bull and McLaren, when all is said and done.  Mercedes are very probably next in line, but Ferrari is the subject of too many imponderables for comfort.

Some of the midfield teams, such as Force India, Sauber and Lotus have been very assertive during the recent tests, but they need to back up these flourishes with cold hard consistent form when it really matters. Whilst it is awkward to judge and precisely quantify, the form of these three teams in particular appears slightly more than a mere flash in the pan, but of course we do not know for sure.  Thank goodness that the time for sandbagging and deception will soon be over!

By some measures, Red Bull and McLaren are very close. The birth of the new McLaren creation has been slightly more stable and comfortable than that of their closest rivals, and the Woking-based outfit has given the impression of quiet diligence and focus, without over-ebullience.

The Red Bull has encountered the odd glitch, but is demonstrably swift. The team is by no means invincible or infallible, judging by the tests.  When assessing these things,it is tempting to attach excessive importance and significance to the merest weakness or minor occurrence.

Ferrari have been busying themselves seeking to dampen and manage expectations, and throughout these tests they have exuded a certain irritability and unease, if not anxiety. Could they be swamped by the eager and ambitious midfield pack?  That question remains to be answered.  There is, though, historical precedent for teams seemingly beset by maladies suddenly finding that everything falls into place when the season proper commences. The reverse often happens to those whose preparations have gone swimmingly.

Some of us are frankly glad that the testing is over, and that things from now on can be taken at face value.  Let competition commence!

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Battle of Britain (movie)

One of the drawbacks of some war films from the 1950s and 1960s is that they promote an excessively sugar-coated or jingoistic view of the subject matter.  Genuinely insightful and accurate examination of the historical issues can be obscured by the urge to pander to the prejudices of a mass audience.

Just recently I watched Battle of Britain, a 1969 movie telling the tale of the grim struggle between Germany and Britain in 1940.  I had seen this film several times when I was younger, and now, equipped with greater historical knowledge and a more nuanced political appreciation, I was pleasantly surprised at what a relatively sensible and mature account of events it is.

The cast is impressive to say the least, with prominent roles for Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer, Robert Shaw, Trevor Howard, Kenneth More and others.  The sets and effects are lavish, but employed tastefully and sparingly, and scenes which in other films might have been excessively showy or grandiose are thankfully not much in evidence here.

Rather than simply deal with the air battle itself, the film seeks to apply some context, and so matters begin with the impending fall of France, and the atmosphere of despondency, retreat and chaos. This is swiftly followed by images of Britain bracing itself for possible invasion.  There are some imaginative bits of sequencing which appear to contrast British stoicism with German triumphalism and perhaps over-confidence.

One of the things which I admired about this film is that it celebrated the courage and defiance of Britain in facing up to its plight without being overly sentimental or trite. The "stiff upper lip" is much in evidence, but in an agreeably understated manner.  For me the script flirts with the notion that much of this was a case of "putting on a brave face".  This theme is continued with the often fatalistic or sarcastic humour displayed by the RAF pilots, masking their genuine fear.

This movie was justifiably praised for its action sequences, and it is fair to say that they were impressively done.  The impact of these sequences was magnified for me by the quality of the film stock.  Effective camerawork and judicious use of music also contribute in this regard.

As well as the flying excerpts, the parts where British airfields are attacked are also very powerful, and occasionally graphic, as in the scene where Susannah York's character is faced with a line of the bodies of her subordinates, covered in blankets.  A reminder of the human cost, in a type of war which often seemed relatively impersonal.

One of the scenes which I noticed, but which might not have garnered the credit which it deserved, was one at the height of the battle, where RAF and Home Guard personnel appear in the same location. The producers may have seen this as symbolic, and hinting what was at stake if the battle was lost, and invasion became a certainty.

There were signs that some thorough research had been undertaken, with regard to tactics, the disposition of the respective forces, and so on. I found myself cross-referencing nuggets of information in the film with my own knowledge of the events of 1940.

Laurence Olivier delivers what appears to be a fine portrayal of Air Chief Marshal Dowding. Taciturn, matter-of-fact and a realist, not given to hyperbole.  Solid as a rock and level-headed when such qualities had never been more essential.

My one criticism of this movie is the decision to have a Hitler speech scene, and also some scenes featuring Hermann Goering.  These bits were quite superfluous, and my opinion is that they should have confined the dialogue and characterisations to the men and women at the sharp end, as it were.

Interestingly, there is no real attempt at a stirring climax. There is some symbolism, with empty seats at a dinner for German airmen, and moves in France to suspend invasion plans.  The British looked and sounded more philosophical than elated or euphoric.  At the end, Olivier looks out from his headquarters at the English countryside, and this subtle and gentle, but incisive imagery is in keeping with much of this film's tone.

Overall, I thought this was a credible, well-judged and balanced telling of the tale, possibly a definitive "mainstream" cinematic take.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Little Feat

People often ask me who my favourite recording artists are.  I usually answer that my tastes are so varied and diverse that it is difficult to single out one in particular.  However, for many years I have reserved a soft spot for Little Feat, more specifically the era (1971-79) when the late, great Lowell George was at the helm.

Analysing the appeal of Little Feat is tricky, and it is a truism that the most worthwhile works of art defy conventional and straightforward analysis.  Suffice to say that once people listen to vintage Little Feat, they invariably become confirmed fans for life.

I gravitated towards Little Feat through my interest in country-rock and folk-rock of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Little Feat were loosely affiliated with that "movement", although they never really fell into any easy or convenient categories or pigeon-holes.  When properly checking out their music for the first time, I was immediately impressed and attracted by the humour, the technical prowess of the musicians, and the absence of pretension.

Although the style and emphasis of Little Feat's music evolved throughout the 1970s, one can always detect a certain ambience and spirit, which permeates their work of that period.  One of the things which contributed to their uniqueness was the background of the musicians, having feet in both the Frank Zappa/Captain Beefheart camp and the then thriving roots-rock genre.  It has been opined that the resultant quirkiness was one of the things which deprived them of major commercial success, but then again without this amalgam of personae Little Feat would have been just another band.

In the eyes of the casual listener, it is easy to see Little Feat as a vehicle for the talent and charisma of Lowell George, but I would interject that this is an inaccurate summary.  Yes, Lowell's distinctive guitar playing, singing and songwriting was a central plank, but they were so much more than a one-man show.  The other members, and particularly Bill Payne and Richie Hayward, helped to conjure up the irresistible funkiness and groove which characterised Feat in their pomp. The "subsidiary" members contributed more than is commonly appreciated.

Little Feat's first two albums, the eponymous 1971 debut and 1972's Sailin' Shoes, dripped with blues-rock and country influences, all infused with the trademark off-beat humour and general weirdness. Little Feat contains more than a token nod to the psychedelic and California rock idioms, with more introspection and mellowness than would become customary later in the decade.  One of the most telling aspects of the debut LP is the clarity with which Bill Payne's piano work is captured, more so than on future albums.

Lowell George's taste for zany and unusual lyrical themes is exhibited to the full on "Strawberry Flats" and "Crack In Your Door".  Indeed, with its consistent quality and clear production values, Little Feat has a charm all its own, and tends to be unjustly overlooked when Feat's body of work is evaluated.

Sailin' Shoes reveals Little Feat forging ahead, with occasional glimpses of the musical direction in which they would soon move, especially on the tracks which closed the album.  The songwriting also was more focussed and hard-edged, and the sound overall was richer and diverse. However, this would be the last "hurrah" for the original Feat sound.

Changes were instituted for 1973's Dixie Chicken, with the recruitment of a new bass player, and the addition of a second guitarist (Paul Barrere) and a percussionist.  The groundwork was being laid for the new incarnation of Little Feat, which would take them to the end of the 1970s.

Dixie Chicken saw Little Feat encroaching into newer territory, and nurturing a slinkier, more supple and sensuous sound, owing much to funky New Orleans R&B.  The expanded group line-up was clearly created with this deviation in mind.  Despite the changes, the familiar Little Feat humour and approach were still very conspicuous, and if anything the individual proficiency of the players was given greater prominence within the revised framework.

The new sound emitted enormous self-confidence and tasteful restraint, and the track listing of Dixie Chicken features some of the undoubted high points of the band's career, including the title track, "Two Trains", "Fat Man In The Bathtub" and "Roll Um Easy".  The production is quite lush, but this ideally complements the mood of the songs.

With hindsight, it is clear that on Dixie Chicken Little Feat reached their own apogee.  The subsequent four albums contained many gems, such as "Rock n Roll Doctor", "Long Distance Love", and "All That You Dream".  They continued to be a formidable live act, and indeed if anything Lowell George's songwriting became more mature and incisive, but some of the unity and spark had receded.

The gradual eclipse of Lowell George by his bandmates coloured the course of events, with a more keyboard, jazz rock-orientated dynamic taking hold.  Well-crafted, but somehow missing that essential Feat je ne sais quoi.

With Lowell George's death in 1979, an era ended.  However, we are left with the legacy, the music of one of the period's most talented, but hard to define, groups.