Wednesday, 25 April 2012

All The President's Men

I am mildly surprised that it has taken me this long to compose a blog post about this, one of my favourite movies, but as I recently watched it again in full,  here goes!

For the uninitiated, All The President's Men, directed by Alan J Pakula, tells the story of the Washington Post's investigation into the Watergate scandal. It is based on the book by the two reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who are portrayed in the film by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman respectively.

This is less a political thriller than a detective story, told largely from the perspective of the newspaper and its staff.  There are some fascinating sub-plots, dealing with the relationship between Woodward and Bernstein, and the power struggles and infighting within the editorial staff as the story assumes greater gravity.

As anyone with any knowledge of the Watergate case can testify, this is a very complex story, but the producers do a laudable job of distilling the bewildering quantity of information into digestible form, without dumbing things down.

One of the strengths of this movie is the manner in which the intricacies of the plot are unveiled creepingly and gradually, and carrying the viewer on the journey, allowing them to deduce the ramifications of each morsel of evidence which is uncovered.  Any moves to clarify and explain ambiguities are done subtly and discreetly.

Clever and effective use is also made of lighting, sets and locations to help communicate the atmosphere of menace, fear and oppression surrounding the case and the investigation. Again, this is done with finesse and moderation, not drawing attention to itself, but seeping into the consciousness of the viewer.

Imagery and metaphor are employed sparingly and judiciously, almost to the point where they can pass by unnoticed.  An example of this is the scene where Woodward and Bernstein are exiting the Library of Congress, and the reflection of the Capitol buildings is seen on the glass door just as Bernstein pushes it open somewhat disdainfully. Also, the part where the journalists emerge from the Department of Justice, at a point in the story where official collusion in the cover-up is becoming apparent.  The camera shot (from a distance) shows the two men as tiny figures set against the monolithic edifice of this organ of the state, and thereby depicts the scale of the machinery ranged against them.

On a few occasions, key stages in the journalistic investigation are juxtaposed with major developments in the political arena.  A few chronological liberties may have been taken there, but this is no major criticism, as it is well done and adds to the strength of the overall narrative.

The early stages of the film, where the first strands of evidence are amassed, could in other hands have been dull and prosaic, but here they are lent great power and impact, via a combination of acting, camera work and set design. The scenes where Woodward makes endless telephone enquiries are a case in point.  He is surrounded by the general hubbub of the office, those people being oblivious of the import of what he is discovering. These scenes also serve to breezily condense into a dramatic form lots of data and detail which might otherwise have proved dry and stodgy.

Although I'm not sure whether the film outwardly sets out to analyse the relationship between Woodward and Bernstein in any great detail, this dynamic does bubble beneath the surface, and is actually one of the joys of the piece. At the outset, Woodward is seen to be eager, deferential, naive even, but as some of his illusions are shattered in the white-heat of the investigation, he becomes more hardened and jaded. In the early stages, Bernstein is portayed as more cynical and street-wise.

As the magnitude of the story becomes ever clearer, the two men are brought closer together, at least partly overcoming their differences and achieving a tolerable working relationship, reasoning that the momentous task at hand should transcend any petty squabbles.

One other sub-plot is the attitude of the paper's editorial staff, and the infighting which develops to gain control over the story.  Not everyone on the paper is immediately convinced of the story's merits, but eventually the diligence of the young reporters, and the potential threat to the status of the newspaper have their effect. Jason Robards ably plays the role of Ben Bradlee.

On the subject of performances, the one delivered here by Robert Redford may be one of his most under-rated. He is able to evoke the subtle changes in the outlook and approach of his character quite convincingly. Hoffman has not always been my cup of tea, but he does a fair job of making his character appear more nonchalant and worldly-wise than Woodward early on.

As the investigation gathers pace, we are shown some of the novel methods employed by the reporters to obtain information. This is lightened by them sometimes being presented as amusing episodes. Examples of this are the visit by Bernstein to the District Attorney's office in Florida, and the visits to the houses of employees of the Committee to Re-Elect the President.

In addition, we see the contrasting methods used by the two reporters, from the facts-based stance of Woodward, and the gut-feeling sometimes favoured by Bernstein.  It seems that as matters went on, each began to assume some elements of the other's approach, which were complementary.

Of course, many people remember this movie primarily for the role of "Deep Throat", Woodward's government source. The scenes involving Deep Throat are some of the most affecting in the whole movie, with the underground car park where the meetings took place providing a suitably eerie and shadowy backdrop.  Initially, Deep Throat is reticent and dismissive, but as matters become graver he shows more despair and weariness, perhaps opening up when he realises the sincerity and resolve of the journalists.

Deep Throat's exhortation to "follow the money" sees the film move up a gear.  Officialdom, even that which on the surface would normally be sympathetic, is uncooperative and obstructive. The scene where Woodward establishes the financial link between CREEP and the Watergate burglars is pivotal, Redford acutely projecting the anxiety and excitement of the moment. Nerves and euphoria are both palpable.

The latter stages of All The President's Men are quite bleak in places, as the paranoia escalates, and the tone and ambience grow darker.

The movie thankfully makes allowances for some powers of deduction among its audience.  There is some exposition, naturally, but this is not excessive. There is intelligence, deftness, but also accessibility.

All The President's Men is not always mentioned in the same breath as the other classic American movies of the 1970s, but it should be.....

Sunday, 22 April 2012

2012 Bahrain Grand Prix Review

Many of the column inches during the 2012 F1 season have centred on the perceived fall from grace of the Red Bull team. However, after today's impressive victory for Sebastian Vettel, they may be tempted to utter the time-honoured phrase "crisis, what crisis?".  Vettel now sits atop the standings....

Despite a spirited challenge from Kimi Raikkonen's Lotus, this was a composed display by the reigning champion, building on his pole position. In addition, and significantly perhaps, the German overshadowed his team-mate Mark Webber for most of the weekend.  Vettel's performance had that stamp of calm and authority that one expects from a true champion.

Another major talking point arising from the race was the continuing excellent form of the Lotus team. Right from the start of the season, their car has looked nimble, stable and fleet, and there is a lean and lithe feel about the team generally.  The drivers are capitalising ably on the machine's responsiveness and zip. It is worth noting its straightline speed, too.

Even allowing for his credentials and pedigree, Romain Grosjean continues to be a revelation, confident and assertive, and far from over-awed in the illustrious company near the head of the field. This spur of competition is pushing Kimi Raikkonen along.  The Finn looks perfectly at home on his F1 return, that fluid and pacey style very much to the fore.  Even though he admitted afterwards that he had failed when presented with his one big opportunity to overtake Vettel, at least he was in a position to attempt that manoeuvre!

To say the least, McLaren had a frustrating and problematic race, with more sloppy pit-stops, and culminating in Jenson Button's mechanical problems. It would be surprising if the McLaren hierarchy allowed this situation, intolerable for such a polished outfit, to persist. Despite the car's potential, and the points already registered, the team has looked uncharacteristically ragged and untidy at times in 2012. Lewis Hamilton has suffered from all this, but has managed to amass a healthy tally of points.

Another topic which jumped out at me today was the one raised by Michael Schumacher about the extent to which tyres, and the requirement of the drivers to manage tham, is influencing the racing. I suspect that many fans would counter that the tyre situation is at least partly responsible for the close and exciting racing which we are witnessing, and that Schumacher's rather indignant remarks smack of sour grapes.

From a purist's point of view, there would be concern if it were felt that the outcome of every single Grand Prix was being determined largely by tyre wear, distorting the efforts of teams and drivers, and discrediting the sport. However, I don't think that we have reached that stage yet, and the time for a more balanced judgement on this will come later in the season.  It will be interesting to see how many other drivers publicly give vent to their feelings about the burdens being imposed on them by tyre concerns.

Whatever the merits of his argument, it is interesting to see Schumacher speaking out like this. In the past, it can be argued that he did not always speak his mind as readily as would be expected from the sport's leading personality.  Today's candid comments looked to me like those of an elder statesman figure, not constrained by some of the pressures of his earlier career, and not afraid to look at the big picture, and be outspoken about matters which genuinely perturb him.

The other Mercedes driver had an adventurous race today, being involved in a couple of contentious incidents. Over-confidence in the wake of China, or frustration at not being in a position to live up to expectations, post-Shanghai?

It seems that Ferrari were back in a position more representative of their car's potential, having to scrap for every position.  Both drivers tried manfully, and the spirit shown by Felipe Massa will have provided at least some encouragement.

A word of praise also for Paul di Resta, who achieved a fine result, based on a courageous strategy and some intelligent racing.  His drive was reminiscent of many of those which he delivered in 2011.

A crucial period in the season now awaits us.  A three week break before Barcelona, and interestingly, a testing session at Mugello. Red Bull may feel that they have something to build on now, and some pundits are pointing to Catalunya as a "Red Bull track".  In the past, the dawn of the European season has sometimes seen a sea change in form, but this time there appear to be too many variables and imponderables in place.

Whatever happens, it looks like being interesting....

Friday, 20 April 2012

Levon Helm

I was saddened this morning to learn of the death of Levon Helm, drummer and vocalist with The Band, the acclaimed and influential American/Canadian rock group of the 1960s and 70s. 

Levon's distinctive voice and drumming style played a crucial role in the special appeal of The Band. He provided much of the essential grit and soul, which together with other ingredients, made their music so captivating and unique. As the lone American in a group consisting mostly of Canadians, this input was regarded as very important.

Not only did Levon supply some memorable lead vocals to the Band, but he also played an integral part, with Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, in the gloriously ragged and endearing harmonies which suffused their early albums.

His drumming has I think been somewhat overlooked in comparison, and I think that he was one of those instrumentalists whose personality and enjoyment is transmitted and conveyed directly through his playing.  This was also true of his singing.

Levon Helm will be greatly missed.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

No Other - Gene Clark - album review

I have always been somewhat wary when approaching albums with a "cult" or mythical reputation, as the substance seldom matches the lavish praise heaped upon them.   The longer one is exposed to the fulsome reviews and general hyperbole, the greater the eventual sense of disappointment and anti-climax will be.

In the case of Gene Clark's 1974 release No Other, I acquired it not long after becoming aware of it, and so no process of "softening up" was involved.  I found that it did largely justify its reputation, and is a noteworthy piece of work for a number of reasons.

The album stands out from the rest of Clark's oeuvre, even considering his quixotic career.  The stems from the juxtaposition of Gene's patented songwriting and performing prowess with some quintessentially "Seventies" production values and soundscapes. Although the production might appear lavish and glossy, it also manages to retain some organic and gritty qualities. Thankfully, the quality and power of the compositions is hardly obscured at all.

Whilst it is very true that No Other is "of its time", it does have a real grandeur and majesty about it, and a certain mythology surrounds it, partly fuelled by the lurid tales emerging from the recording sessions. The LP became emblematic of the bloated hedonism of its era, although it seems that many of the stories surrounding its making were exaggerated or fabricated. The same properties which make No Other unique and captivating are the same ones which have also made it misunderstood, divisive and slightly polarising. Derided by many around the time of its release, it has since been largely rehabilitated.

The instrumentation is unusual when compared to Clark's other work, with more opulent and layered backing tracks on the majority of the tracks.  This prompts the charge that many of the songs are "samey", and almost indistinguishable from each other. It is almost a concept album in that respect.

Having said that the songs border on the homogeneous, the closer "Lady Of The North" is arguably the tour-de-force of the set. From a delicate, largely acoustic, opening, this builds into something of an epic - ethereal, compelling, evocative and hypnotic.

The opener, "Life's Greatest Fool", sets the tone, with some atypical (for Clark) harmonies and even lyrics.  We have already touched on the uniformity of the backing tracks, but some nuance is injected by the variety of musicians employed; a veritable who's who of Los Angeles sessionmen of the time.

"Silver Raven" exemplifies the atmospheric, vaguely unsettling flavour of much of the album, with oblique lyrical content. Here, as on some of the other numbers, Gene's voice sounds less expressive than normal, but also more varied; not a contradiction.

The title track exudes many of the trends of the early to mid 1970s, with its use of electric piano and synthesizers, and the treatment applied to the singer's voice. These things were very much in vogue, and the sound also contains echoes of the likes of Steely Dan and Little Feat, two critically acclaimed acts of the time.

"Strength of Strings" has a very steamy acoustic guitar intro, again very much a 70s trait. The arrangement here is dense and excessive but dramatic, driven largely by piano. This song also contains possibly Clark's most effective vocal on the album, more emphatic and distinctive than the others. The lyric is vaguely mystical, and there is some pleasing guitar work throughout.

The next item "From A Silver Phial", is more country-tinged than the other material, and features a more archetypal Clark melody and lyric, whilst still incorporating some of the hallmarks of this particular album.

Also, helping to steer the album towards more familiar Gene Clark-esque territory is "Some Misunderstanding". This time the vocal is allowed sufficient room to breathe, and the flourishes are less obstrusive than elsewhere. All this makes the song one of the more understated, but also one of the more impressive songs on No Other, artist and producer achieving a kind of happy compromise, even if inadvertently. The guitar and piano parts complement the song rather than verging on the cloying.

"The True One" is less country-rock than authentic country, with its use of pedal steel.  In this esoteric setting, the song sounds quite banal, but it does also serve as light relief, being undemanding in comparison to the statements surrounding it. Well crafted and innocuous.

No Other is an album which defies easy description.  An uneasy listen at times, but it was probably not intended to be cosy and comfortable. It was hightly ambitious, and the flights of fancy do not always come off or succeed, but this is one its virtues. Approach with an open mind, and you will be rewarded and even enchanted....

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Chinese Grand Prix 2012 - Review

Another absorbing and unpredictable Formula 1 race, and this time we have a new winner, which is always a healthy sign.

Looking back, whatever doubts which may have inhabited Nico Rosberg's mind prior to the race were largely dispelled by his confident and clean get-away from the starting grid.  Thereafter, making allowances for pit-stops, he had the measure of his rivals, once strategies had unravelled.

The emotion and relief amongst the Mercedes personnel at the finish was palpable, notably from Norbert Haug and Ross Brawn.  I am delighted for Haug in particular; he has always occurred to me as one of F1's good guys.

While the weather conditions in Shanghai did not exactly hinder Mercedes in their endeavours, at least some of the questions about the car's earlier shortcomings appear to have been answered, and Michael Schumacher alluded to this when interviewed after retiring from the race.

The failure of Schumacher to finish will have been the one blemish on the day for the Silver Arrows. Since his comeback, I am probably guilty of over-analysing Michael's words and body language, searching for signs of a mellowing or a weakening of resolve. To be fair, these things are extremely difficult to discern, because for much of his career he has been diplomatic and sanguine, being loyal and protective to team members, publicly at least.  His qualities as a team player were in evidence today, with what seemed to be genuine pleasure at Rosberg's victory.  The seven-times champion probably in turn senses that the team has turned a corner, and that he will be a beneficiary.

If we disregard the relatively serene Rosberg, this was quite a freakish, fluctuating race, which had a faintly surreal air to it throughout.  The battle for the other points positions in the latter stages resembled a Formula Ford thrash rather than a Grand Prix, but I have heard few complaints!  My head was hurting at times watching, as I tried to make sense of the constantly shifting fortunes and permutations. It goes without saying that tyres were the major contributory factor in determining the nature of the contest, but the generally unpredictable pattern of Formula 1,2012-style, also had a role in all this.

Because of the volatile nature of the race, I am loath to make too many concrete judgements on individuals teams.  The margins were so slender that even one minor misjudgement could have what must have seemed disproportionate consequences.  The teams and drivers may have to become accustomed to this becoming more the norm in this "new age" F1.  Frustrating for them, entertaining for neutral observers....

McLaren are first and second in the driver's standings, and lead the constructor's championship.  However, they may come away from Shanghai feeling that the waters have been progressively muddied since Melbourne.  Their advantage was admittedly slim even then, but matters are becoming even more complicated, and the spectre of Mercedes must now concern them more.  Jenson Button must have felt that this race was tailor made for his unruffled, mechanically sympathetic style, but even allowing for his botched final pit-stop, he had no real answer to Rosberg.

As for Lewis Hamilton, has he arrived at a satisfactory balance?. This season may well put a premium on consistency and accumulation of points, and he has been on the podium at all three races thus far.  At the same time, the close and frenetic competition this season will help to satisfy his racer's instincts. His demeanour after the race hinted at some contentment and optimism, but not complacency.

Sebastian Vettel salvaged something from what on Saturday, and even in the early stages of the race itself, threatened to become an embarrassing and dispiriting state of affairs. Even so, circumstance and the odd slice of luck may have played their part.  Still not wholly convincing.

I was impressed with Mark Webber today.  He never stopped trying, withstood one particularly disconcerting moment, and his persistence and perseverance were rewarded at the end.  Above all, he never stopped racing.  He was also very gracious afterwards when praising Rosberg and Mercedes for their win.

Assessing Ferrari's day is an onerous task.  Both drivers seemed to try hard, and in some respects the cards did not fall for them, although admittedly Alonso made a late mistake which cost him places. The final results marginally exaggerate how bad a day they actually had.

 Of the others, Lotus, Sauber and Williams maintained the favourable impression which they have made in the early races.  It was heartening to see both Williams entries well inside the points, with the drivers being impressively assertive, Maldonado building on his reputation as a man not to be trifled with!  Sauber were slightly unlucky, although some impetuosity on the part of their drivers may have contributed to this.  For Lotus, Romain Grosjean had a chance to exhibit some of his flair.

The pulsating late tussle behind the leader may be the thing which lingers most in the memory from the 2012 Chinese Grand Prix.  It is noticeable how much the drivers themselves are enjoying this season's racing, this being reflected in post-race comments today from Button and Hamilton, amongst others.  Some competitors are coping with these new conditions better than others...

When we assess Formula 1 in 2012, the plot thickens....

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Chinese Grand Prix Qualifying

Not totally unexpected, in view of some of the trends in practice and qualifying thus far in 2012, but great to see Nico Rosberg on pole position for the first time in his Formula 1 career.  The traditionalists will also be purring, as this was the first F1 pole for Mercedes as a team entity since the Fangio/Moss days of 1955.

I'm tempted to say that the qualifying sessions in Shanghai have produced a win-win situation for the watching billions.  A new pole-sitter, close times and some fancied runners for various reasons further back on the grid than they are accustomed to being. 

Some people might view this as a "topsy-turvy" grid, but it is not, really.  Mercedes have been there or thereabouts in testing, practice and qualifying, so it was only going to take a minor shift in conditions,circumstances or luck for them to achieve today's outcome.  The other "surprising" grid positions are also not totally out of kilter with what has already been seen or predicted so far this year.

The main talking point, other than Rosberg's pole, will undoubtedly be Sebastian Vettel's failure to make the top ten.  Funnily enough, I was thinking of saying something to the effect that the recent criticism and scrutiny of Vettel has been premature and misguided.  The German will clearly not be thrilled to be where he is on the grid, but even now I'm not reading too much into it.  Just one of those things!  It is more instructive to look at times, and any mitigating circumstances, rather than pure positions.

Going back to Mercedes, the onboard shots with Rosberg suggested a very stable, responsive and easy-to-drive car, but of course doubts linger about their capacity to maintain a consistent race performance, partly because of their tyre-wear "issues".  One also wonders whether Nico's entry into the limelight might galvanise Michael Schumacher into an assertive and aggressive race performance tomorrow?

It remains to be seen whether McLaren, for all their prowess in race trim, will be hampered by their grid positions.  On balance, I think not, because of the nature of the track, and the uncertainties surrounding the cars in front of them. 

The Sauber and Lotus performances in qualifying have ceased to be surprising or unusual.  Consistent top ten positions should now be the norm for these two teams.  Kimi Raikkonen's times today have gone slightly unheralded, because of the feats of others, but his position is more proof that he never really "went away", and belongs on the rarefied air near the front of the grid.

What is very noticeable this season is how guarded and equivocal team personnel and drivers are being in their comments post-qualifying and pre-race, eschewing bold predictions or bravado.  They all realise just how competitive and fluid the current F1 landscape is, and few people are able to foresee future events with any degree of certainty.  This can only be a good thing!

Thursday, 12 April 2012

2012 Chinese Grand Prix Preview

After what by common consent has been an intriguing start to the Formula 1 season, the action resumes this weekend in Shanghai, after a break of three weeks. 

It is likely that much of the discussion will be dominated by the thorny topic of the Bahrain Grand Prix, and that is very understandable. However, here's hoping that there is another enthralling race to grab at least some of the attention.

Allowing for the weather conditions which prevailed in Malaysia, and taking nothing away from Alonso's superb drive in Sepang, the team to beat (just) remains McLaren.  Jenson Button will be seeking to revert to the form and poise which he displayed in Australia, and to make amends for his uncharacteristic rush of blood in the last race.

Lewis Hamilton's cause will not exactly be aided by a five-place grid penalty in China, because of a gearbox change, but the Briton seems philosophical about this hindrance, and he will still harbour hopes of notching up a win to vindicate his pre-season buoyancy, and to consolidate his solid start to the 2012 campaign.

The three-week hiatus since Malaysia will have been employed by some teams to try to analyse their lack of form and all-round pace. Foremost amongst these would probably be Mercedes, who badly need some kind of race result in China.  Red Bull, though having many more points on the board, will also have been striving for solutions.

Fernando Alonso was correct in pointing out, amidst the post-race euphoria in Malaysia, that the race victory there, welcome and merited though it was, did not fundamentally alter Ferrari's position. It is difficult to imagine a quantum leap in performance in Shanghai, but at least the triumph in Sepang may have given the team an extra spring in its step, and instilled a greater sense of impetus.

Several teams will be hoping to build on encouraging beginnings to the season.  Williams, and particularly Pastor Maldonado, will be seeking to continue to convert promise into points.  For Lotus, one suspects, more of the same would suffice at this stage.  Sauber, following the Perez podium in Malaysia, are another outfit threatening to consistently intrude into the party at the front end of the field.  It is to be hoped that the young Mexican will not be over-awed by his new-found prominence.

So, there we have it.  Another interesting weekend in prospect!

Monday, 9 April 2012

Bubba Watson

Unusually for me, this year I took only a passing interest in the Masters golf over the weekend, my mind being occupied with other pursuits.  Normally, I am a avid viewer of this, one of the most evocative and compelling events on  global sporting calendar.

Last night, however, I made a point of following the pulsating concluding round, and was transfixed, like countless millions of others, by the drama which unfolded on the back nine.  In the end, Bubba Watson prevailed after a play-off, and he is a most refreshing addition to the list of major winners in golf.  Possessing an unorthodox style and approach, and defying some of the other conventions, he also appears to have human qualities which will endear him to a wider public.

Watson's outpouring of emotion after clinching victory seemed genuine and sincere, and it is always gratifying to witness somebody accomplish one of their main aims in life, whether professional or personal.

It was also good that his expansive style of play earned him his victory, and he did not revert to a more conservative mindset when the pressure really began to exert itself yesterday.  Not afraid to take risks, he was rewarded in the final analysis.

The Masters triumph may have completed Watson's transition from cult figure to mainstream sporting star, and it will be fascinating to see whether his new-found status inhibits him in some respects, or whether his game continues to flourish in the future.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Formula 1 in 1980

I recently blogged about the 1978 Monaco Grand Prix:

1978 Monaco Grand Prix

In that article, I speculated that the race signified in some respects the end of an era, with changes, both technological and commercial, afoot, or at least on the horizon. 

Following on from the Monaco article, I also recently watched some footage from the 1980 Canadian Grand Prix, in Montreal.  It was instructive to see how many of the impending upheavals discernible just over two years earlier had now come to pass, or were firmly entrenched.

Ground effect cars were now de rigueur, and the beginnings of today's Grand Prix "circus" were now more fully noticeable, albeit in a relatively embryonic form.

The Formula 1 cars of 1980 were nowhere near as immediately lovable, or as individualistic, as they had been in the Spring of 1978, but all the same they possessed a certain primal, savage beauty.  The attentions of the aerodynamicists, and more pointedly their wind tunnels, were beginning to reap their "benefits".

It was not just the cars that had changed.  Niki Lauda and James Hunt had both retired, and former champions Jody Scheckter and Emerson Fittipaldi were uncompetitive, and also destined to exit the stage. A new generation was emerging, to dominate the early to mid-1980s, in the form of Nelson Piquet, Alain Prost, Rene Arnoux, Didier Pironi and others.

The teams which had loomed so large in the preceding decade, such as Ferrari, Lotus, McLaren and Tyrrell were all at sea, although the green shoots of McLaren's renaissance were just visible.  The centre of gravity of F1 had been disturbed, and the resultant disorientation is one of the things which makes the 1979-1981 era a touch nebulous and disconcerting for many.  For the open-minded though, there was still much to fascinate and enthuse over...

I may be slightly biased in my own assessment, as I became interested in the sport in 1981. However, even from the vantage point of 2012, those years do have a slightly sterile and uninspiring air about them. There was neither the variety and charisma of the 1970s, nor the distilled and untamed drama of the turbocharged era which was to follow.  In this respect, I see the late 70s/early 80s, as a period of transition, rather than an era in itself.

The racing in Montreal was close and exciting, although there was an accident at the start, which caused proceedings to be halted. Nelson Piquet was badly affected, having to revert to his spare car, but valiantly led the early laps until his engine cried enough.  Pironi having being penalised for a jumped start, this paved the way for Alan Jones to cruise home in relative comfort, thereby clinching the world title.

I suppose that Jones is remembered as one of the less "glamorous" world champions, but his success in 1980 was fully merited.  He was a natural charger, and had paid his dues in Formula 1.  He had dominated the latter portion of 1979, but was too late to contend for the top prize.  In 1981, he would prove that he was a worthy champion by driving arguably even better than before, only to be plagued by ill-fortune.

One of the less savoury spectacles of the 1980 Canadian round was the serious accident suffered by Jean-Pierre Jabouille in the Renault, and the failure to stop the race, even while he was being extricated from the car and given medical treatment at the side of the track.  Such a thing would be inconceivable and unthinkable today.  The race would be red-flagged promptly.  Clearly, even in 1980, F1 still had a long way to go in some respects.

That was "the way we were" in 1980.....

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Bringing It All Back Home - Bob Dylan - album review

Of Bob Dylan's much revered "trilogy" of classic mid-1960s albums, it is Bringing It All Back Home which I find myself returning to most of all. The first of the threesome to be released, it is still my favourite, for several reasons.

First, it exudes an aura of restrained cool and quality, with an immediacy and confidence which is rare indeed. Secondly, it represents a perfect mixture of styles and themes, creating a richness of texture absent from the other two of the aforementioned trilogy. Thirdly, it contains more genuinely memorable and substantial songs than the other two.

It is all here - the beginnings of folk-rock, the lingering elements of protest, oblique lyrics, inspiring imagery. The profound, the amusing, the angry, the inspiring and the touching all within these eleven compositions. The fact that the album encompasses so many directions, from the "hipster" appeal of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" to the languid charm of "She Belongs To Me", to the revelation of "Mr Tambourine Man", is part of its impact, in addition to the quality of the execution.

There are still clear remnants of Dylan's "folk-protest" past on songs such as "Gates of Eden" and "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)", and if anything these tracks assume a greater resonance, power and venom, surrounded as they are here by numbers with very different subject matter and agendas. I am sometimes tempted to regard "It's All Over Now Baby Blue" as a kind of hinge in Dylan's career, closing the door on one era, and peering into another.  I may be incorrect in this assessment!

The sound on Bringing It All Back Home has an uncluttered, clear quality which gives it part of its accessibility. The more dense, murky feel of later albums is thankfully not evident here. Dylan's vocals are projected quite forcefully on many songs.  This was also the stage at which the "bluesy" songs still sounded original and distinctive, and not samey and stodgy.

It is some measure of the standard set by Bringing It All Back Home that it could be argued that Dylan tried too hard in struggling to surpass it.  I feel that Highway 61 Revisited, excellent though it is, sounds over-earnest and contrived in comparison. Was Bob hamstrung by the artistic brilliance and spontaneity of his first album of 1965?  Did the pressures, personal and professional, which caught up with him not long afterwards partially stem from this?

In addition to its other properties, I also find Bringing It All Back Home the most enjoyable of Dylan's classic albums.  It is an accomplishment indeed to be able to combine the cerebral with a pure entertainment value with this facility. The albums which followed never quite managed to achieve the same balance to this extent.

Listen to this album.  You will be entertained, amused, challenged and inspired.....