Monday, 30 July 2012

White Light - Gene Clark - album review

When Gene Clark's solo albums are evaluated, his 1974 magnum opus No Other is regularly cited as some kind of high point, if nothing else because it is regarded as a concept album of sorts, and because it symbolises something crucial about the period during which it was recorded.  However, after giving it due attention, I would venture to suggest that his 1971 work White Light deserves to be awarded similar acclaim, if for differing reasons.

White Light does not have any particular sonic or philosophical thread running through it, but song-for-song it is consistently superb, and proved a revelation to me, even within the context of Gene's formidable repertoire. The songs are recorded and captured in glorious clarity and freshness, allowing the vocals and acoustic guitars in particular to stand out.  There is none of the outlandishness or semi- superfluous packaging to be found on  No Other.

On occasion, I have heard people remark that some of Gene's acoustic numbers are "samey".  This is a very debatable point in itself, but they are invariably so compelling, engrossing and beautiful that such notions hardly seem to matter anyway.  There is a power and finesse about his voice and the melodies; indeed so much so that it is sometimes quite easy to overlook the lyrics...

Don't get the impression that this album is standard, "meat and potatoes" country-rock or folk troubadour fare.  Many of these songs are infused with a certain soulfulness, which is also characteristic of much of Gene Clark's other work. Care is taken with the arrangements, in order to ensure that there is some variety and colour to augment the tunefulness.

One of the notable virtues of White Light is the consistent excellence of the songs.  There was genuinely not a weak song on the originally released LP, and this means that the listener's attention is held throughout.

Uniformly strong the album may be, but there are some tracks which do stand out.  The opener, "The Virgin" is distinctive in its flavour and ambience. 

"For A Spanish Guitar" may be the the most famous song on the album, and is memorable for its tempo and intricate guitar parts.

"One In A Hundred" has a superb melody and touching lyrics, although many will prefer the more "Byrdsian" rendering which was recorded at a later date. 

"Because Of You" sounds deceptively simple at first, but it has a real charm and warmth about it, accentuated by the subtle organ part.

"Where My Love Lies Asleep" is another lovely tune, carrying some echoes of the Rolling Stones' "No Expectations", with its pleasing slide guitar flourishes.

Gene Clark made lots of wonderful music both before and after White Light, but there is reason to think that much of the continuing affection, admiration and esteem in which Gene and his music are held stems from this great, and under-rated, record.

2012 Hungarian Grand Prix Review

Despite the small margin of victory, quite a commanding display from McLaren's Lewis Hamilton at the Hungaroring.  The other happy man will be Fernando Alonso, who despite finishing only fifth, actually increased his lead in the points standings. 

The race was not as processional or turgid as some which we have witnessed at this circuit in the past, but neither was it as exciting as most of the other Grands Prix of 2012.  The nature of the track dictated a lack of fluidity and dynamism in the running order, in relative terms, and the intense heat added another factor. Tyre matters seemed more pervasive than ever. Some teams and drivers will have felt that they possessed the pace, but were frustrated at their inability to make progress. Indeed, Force India appeared to be making this very point post-race.  This has been a recurring theme down the years at the Budapest venue. 

McLaren looked strong all weekend, this form having been hinted at in Germany.  Hamilton's smooth and trouble-free getaway from the line served as a good platform.  A partially botched first pit-stop could have proved costly for Lewis, but fortunately for him Romain Grosjean was affected similarly.  After that, in the opinion of some, Grosjean's relative inexperience in tyre management played a role.

Despite their failure to overhaul Hamilton, the Lotus team will have been pleased to have got two cars onto the podium, returning to the convincing form of some recent races. Kimi Raikkonen's strategy proved effectual, and there was a very spicy moment on lap 46 when the two team-mates locked horns at the first corner!  Once again, the Finn amply demonstrated that he has lost little of his old fire, in overcoming Grosjean, and taking second position.  Both Lotus drivers exuded some optimism after the race, and they must still feel confident of mounting the top step of the podium before the season is out.

There were a few other interesting sub-plots today.  It was nice to see Bruno Senna get a good solid points finish, and comprehensively outshine his highly-rated team-mate in the race.  This will hopefully give the Brazilian added confidence with which to tackle the remainder of the campaign.

Sauber showed some promise, but then sank into midfield, a fate which also befell both Force India and Mercedes.  For the latter, Michael Schumacher had a particularly miserable day, with problems on the parade lap, a penalty, and ultimately retirement from the race. 

We now have a break, before moving on to Spa, which could hardly contrast more with the Hungaroring.  For all the talk of a tightly contested championship, the fact remains that Alonso has established a lead, and bridging the gap to the Ferrari driver looks an increasingly tall order.  He can afford to drive tactically on occasion, keeping a watchful eye on the fortunes of his principal rivals. It looks unlikely that somebody will suddenly string a series of wins together.  Alonso looks in a very strong position, it must be said.


Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Harvest - Neil Young - album review

Of the albums released by Neil Young during his golden period of the late 60s and 70s, Harvest is perhaps one of those whose reputation has diminished slightly with the passage of time.  Its huge commercial success, and that of the single "Heart of Gold", seemingly prompted the singer-songwriter himself to explore new and more edgy territory in the ensuing years.  I suspect that many people's introduction to the music of Neil Young comes via Harvest.  It is a satisfying but relatively undemanding initiation.

Over my many years of listening to Harvest, I had gradually persuaded myself that it was a curious mish-mash, comprising country-rock, singer-songwriter angst aplenty, and a couple of orchestral-backed numbers.  Authentic Young classics cheek-by-jowl with some decidedly enigmatic fare, it increasingly seemed to me....

Just recently, and for the first time in a while, I listened to the album in its entirety, and it once again began to make sense, as a credible entity.

A few of the country-orientated songs, including the title track, are relatively prosaic, if undeniably pleasing to the ear. Whether it was the musical sterility, the lack of adventure lyrically, or the constraints imposed by fame and success,  which led Neil to visit new pastures, is not totally unclear; possibly a combination of all those factors. At any rate, the momentous fruits of this detour would justify it, both for the artist and the listener.

As has been said, Harvest is often the first album encountered by the Neil Young neophyte.  And it may be that many of those people imagine that the whole of the Canadian's catalogue is similarly "nice".  Little do they know what things lurk in that canon.  You either recoil in shock, or embrace his extraordinary body of work.  To my eternal joy, I did the latter!

For all of Harvest's image as a laid-back and mellow work, there are some genuinely affecting songs. "The Needle And The Damage Done" is harrowing and chilling, and the rendering here is quite mesmeric. "Heart of Gold", for all its familiarity and over-exposure, is a superbly crafted and warm song.  More focused than most of the songs on this album, and not without its pleasing touches melodically.  "Alabama" appeared to take up where "Southern Man" had left off.

The opening track, "Out On The Weekend", sets the tone, with its almost supine rhythm, accentuated by a harmonica part, and some lugubrious words.  The almost soporific tone is evident in other areas of the album, both the piano work and the pedal steel contributing to this.

Perhaps the most contentious aspect of the track listing was the decision to include "A Man Needs A Maid" and "There's A World".  My experience is that the more one listens to the album, the less out-of-place and grating these songs feel. They certainly help to provide some relief from the relentless diet of country-rock material. Theories as to why these tracks were included:

1. Intentionally, to inject some variety.
2. They helped to alleviate a shortage of songs (unlikely, with the prolific Neil)
3.  Just Neil Young being Neil Young!

In some ways the most interesting track on Harvest is "Words (Between Lines of Age)", which contains elements of both the artist's previous work, and what was to come in the later 1970s.  Whether this is symbolic of a lack of direction at that time is open to debate. 

Some have criticised Harvest for its alleged musical conservatism, following some already prevalent trends in North American rock. Yes, it has its weaknesses, and yes it may pale against the more "substantial" material which the great man was to create in the years which immediately followed, but by the standards of most people this is a very fine album indeed. 

Sunday, 22 July 2012

2012 German Grand Prix Review

Another victory for Fernando Alonso and Ferrari, and the Spaniard may be slowly and imperceptibly taking control of this year's world championship.  His cause in the points standings was aided further by the penalty imposed on Sebastian Vettel following his late-race passing manoeuvre on Jenson Button. Indeed, many of the other potential title candidates had days which they would rather soon forget.

I have seen today's race at Hockenheim described as "tense".  In motor racing parlance, this is often a euphemism for "quite close but processional".  However, in this case that would be inaccurate, as there was plenty to hold the interest, with the outcome in doubt until the very end, and the now customary wheel-to-wheel dicing throughout the rest of the field.

Even though Alonso won by a meagre margin in terms of time, he managed largely to keep his rivals at arm's length, assisted by the Ferrari team's efficient pit-stops and a sound strategy.  In addition, the driver proved adroit and calm in dealing with traffic, especially in the closing stages.

For me, the other major story of the race was the continuing restoration to eminence of Jenson Button.  The early signs of a recovery were already evident, and he exuded cautious optimism before the race.  In the contest itself, he was looking to be aggressive, as his moves on Schumacher and Hulkenberg amply demonstrated.  Also, he showed steel and resolve in his dealings with Vettel, before the contentious late incident.  It is unclear whether something has "clicked" with Jenson recently, but there appears to be more direction and purpose there.  Things bode well for the second half of this season.

Vettel did look a little ragged at times.  Trying too hard in front of the home crowd?  Probably not. It may have just been a case of seeking to overcome a marginal deficit to the Ferrari, and trying to withstand the challenge of Button.  As for the move which caused the German to incur a twenty second penalty, it seemed warranted, with all four wheels off the track proper.

Regrettably, Lewis' Hamilton's 100th Grand Prix did not give him much cause for celebration.  A poor getaway at the start, and a puncture shortly afterwards, set the tone for the afternoon.  "DNFs" could prove very costly for drivers this year.

The Saubers were both in sprightly form during the race.  A charging drive (again) by Sergio Perez, admittedly to make amends for a mediocre grid position.  These surges from the young Mexican are standing out even amongst the frantic level of competition which this season has witnessed.  Racing hard and fast, but also fitting this into the framework of a strategy.  The sort of things which tend to be noticed by potential employers?

I was going to describe Kimi Raikkonen's drive as "solid", but that would be doing him an injustice.  Even though he inherited his podium position, it was the kind of pacy display which he can produce almost effortlessly.  Just driving quickly and bravely.

Of the rest, it was good to see the Force India cars involved in some spirited dices on the periphery of the top 10, with the drivers proving difficult to shake off.   Schumacher held his ground resolutely, but did not seem to have the outright pace, whilst team-mate Rosberg conducted a decent damage-limitation exercise in the wake of his troubled qualifying.

Will Alonso continue to apply the pressure in Hungary?   We await the next gripping instalment in the saga!

Friday, 20 July 2012

The Pretender - Jackson Browne - album review

On his first three albums, Jackson Browne established himself as one of the foremost singer-songwriters of his time, combining insightful and mature lyrics with subtle and affecting melodies.  This reached its zenith on his 1974 work Late For The Sky, which I wrote about some time ago on here:

Late For The Sky

His 1976 album The Pretender perhaps acted as a kind of hinge in his career, between the time when most of the lyrical concerns were personal or introspective, and an age when the subject matter became more diverse and socially concerned.

The Pretender has a gloss and sheen which is largely absent from the first three releases.  Indeed, I can imagine that in 1976 this might have come as quite a shock to some fans.  The organic, acoustic feel has diminished, with one or two exceptions.  The production sounds more "modern", although whether that is a good thing is open to debate!   This may have been largely unavoidable, because of the recording technology and personnel being employed, I don't know.  It could have been intentional, as representing a break with the past...

A few of the songs have arrangements which lack the depth and subtlety of earlier LPs, and this can leave them sounding a little clinical and soulless.  The piano parts, though, sound very sprightly and luminous, though some people may prefer the more natural sonic charm of the past.  This, and also the distinctively brittle and sparingly used guitar are possibly the hallmarks of the set, along with Jackson's more confident vocals.

It has often been remarked how more assured and technically "adept" the lead vocals are on The Pretender.  In truth, this can be viewed as a double-edged sword.  Certainly, the vocals are fuller, and there is more power there, but at times I find myself longing for the more fragile and pleading style of years passed.

Perhaps the most telling thing is the less prominent role of David Lindley in the arrangements. 

Although people hoping for, or expecting, more of the Jackson Browne of 1972-74 may have been disappointed, it was probably time for him to move on anyway.  By 1976, the singer-songwriter movement, such as it was, had begun to fragment.  Some observers have commented on the danger of the material becoming samey and stale.

The first track, "The Fuse", sets the tone, and gives us some clues.  The song has a brooding flavour which permeates much of the album.  The lyrics are open to interpretation, but there are hints that the writer is looking forward, and more outward than inward.

"Your Bright Baby Blues" almost feels like a relic from old.  This song appears to have been written a few years before, as I have seen footage of Jackson performing it with the Eagles circa 1974.  The sound is a throwback to For Everyman, with rich instrumentation, including piano, organ and acoustic guitar.  The slide guitar and harmony of Lowell George supply real character and bite, although in fairness there is plenty to hold the interest anyway, with JB in controlled and confident form on lead vocal.  All these ingredients lift the song well above the ordinary.

The greater eclecticism of The Pretender is encapsulated by "Linda Paloma", with its overt Mexican/Latin stylings.  A pleasant enough melody, with relatively undemanding lyrics, and a lightweight counterpoint to the more profound material.

By direct contrast, "Here Come Those Tears Again" is one of the centerpieces of this album. An intensely personal song, it is stylistically difficult to pin down, but its emotional impact is undeniable, with another fine vocal, Jackson stretching himself.

I know that "The Only Child" has been lauded in some quarters, but I have tended to regard it as a little bit weak and directionless, even though it contains some nice touches, notably David Lindley's violin. Overall, though this song to me smacks a little of going through the motions, almost "Jackson Browne by numbers".

"Daddy's Tune" has more substance to it, with a welcome change of atmosphere part-way through, which adds vibrancy and energy. The introduction of a brass section was certainly a novelty for a Jackson Browne record, at least in those days!  This one is lyrically quite intriguing, too.

Another of the landmark tunes on The Pretender is "Sleeps Dark and Silent Gate".  In its very early stages, this song looks like flirting dangerously with MOR, but the incisiveness and resonance of the lyrics elevate it comfortably above all that.  In addition, it does not outstay its welcome, saying what it needs and wants to stay, before bowing out.  There are some memorable and penetrating lines here, with which many of us will identify closely.  Familiar Browne themes still very much present, here at least.

The title track, of course, is one of the artist's most famous compositions, although it is questionable whether those who hear it on the radio pay more than passing attention to its messages and observations.  Lamenting the frustrated ideals of one era, and swinging a lamp on some new social trends, and those lurking on the horizon. Churlish I know, but for my own tastes the guitars, backing vocals and keyboards on the closing song are excessively "pretty", but they are indisputably also "radio-friendly". 

I find it difficult to judge this album.  The stronger songs are potent, cerebral and memorable, but there are some patchy moments too. Its diversity and its restlessness inevitably mean that for some it may lack the cohesiveness of other Browne albums. However, looking at things objectively, it is a fine album, and an intriguing window on the artist's life and career, the music scene, and indeed the wider world, circa 1976.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Jon Lord

I was very saddened to hear this evening of the death of Jon Lord, keyboard player with Deep Purple, at the age of 71.

His inventive and distinctive organ playing helped distinguish Deep Purple from the other bands of their era, giving additional subtlety and texture to their sound.

Whenever I saw Jon being interviewed on documentaries, he came across as a very engaging, amiable and entertaining man.

A very sad loss.  Rest In Peace Jon.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Stephen Stills and Manassas

Some years ago, I embarked on a journey through the California rock movement of the 60s and 70s, encompassing country-rock, the singer-songwriter movement, and the tangentially connected "scenes".

One day in my favourite record store, I discovered the 1972 debut album by Stephen Stills' group Manassas. To my shame, I had not previously even been aware of the existence of the record or the band. I distinctly recall standing in the shop, gazing at the cover of the CD, with the names of the group members in white lettering, and thinking that this was almost too good to be true.  I had no internet access back then, and so without undertaking any additional research, purchased the album, feeling reasonably certain that it would accord with my tastes.

As soon as I played the album, I "got it".  A bunch of accomplished and skilled musicians, performing songs embracing a number of styles - blues,country,folk,Latin,R&B and straight rock, these genres often being amalgamated.  The record instantly appeared diverse,funky and broad in its scope, almost an embarrassment of riches, the music equivalent of a delicious plum pudding!  Having not heard of the Manassas project before, it was akin to discovering a box of hidden treasure.

Another thing which occurred to me right away was the lack of artifice or self-indulgence on the album, in spite of the calibre of the musicians featured on it.  Manassas is almost entirely founded on concise songs.  Tentative parallels may perhaps be drawn with another double-album issued in 1972, Exile on Main Street by the Rolling Stones.  Both exuded rootsiness, and the joy of a group of guys making music almost for the hell of it.  Of course, Stephen Stills had some links with the Stones around this time, and Bill Wyman makes a guest appearance on Manassas.

Mercifully, in digital formats (those which I have heard, anyway), the music retains its essentially organic and earthy ambience, the emotion and grit not being sucked out by over-zealous remasterings. The sounds are permitted to breathe....

In addition to the presence of Stills himself, other elements go towards making this such a fine album. The pedal steel of Al Perkins injects vital nuance, soul and novelty throughout.  The variety of guitar sounds adds depth, with Perkins complementing Stills' own prowess. Joe Lala's percussion adds a certain funkiness and rhythmic vigour to many of the songs.

The role of Chris Hillman is also crucial, his harmonies being an important, but underplayed, element. To describe him as Stills' right hand man here may be inaccurate, but his input and presence add a subtly different dimension to things; a welcome counterweight to the other participants.

On an album which is so uniformly enjoyable, it is a tough task to select highlights, but I'm going to do it anyway!  "So Begins The Task" has an enigmatic, ethereal and haunting quality about it, with a tasteful backing track overlaid by some affecting and inventive pedal steel. The vocal harmonies in the chorus are perhaps the most impressive on the album.

"It Doesn't Matter" features some languid vocals.  This track is almost "Byrdsian", but with a seductive and hedonistic "Seventies" feel, mostly by virtue of the glitzy guitar parts.  Another deceptively strong melody.  On Manassas, many of the songs are subsumed into the whole, seemingly not wishing to draw attention to themselves. 

A powerful, driving core is at the heart of "Right Now", with quite a breathless riff holding things together.  The track is propelled along by the efforts of the whole musical combo.

The penultimate number, "The Treasure", contains what could be loosely termed a "guitar jam", but it is a strong song in its own right, with some pleasing changes and hooks.  When the guitars do kick in, some variety and invention at least partially answer any charges of excess. 

One of the delights of Manassas is its ability to offer up hidden gems, and for the beauty and charm of some of the songs to reveal themselves gradually. Even many years after first hearing it, I am still constantly discovering hitherto neglected corners and depths.  Is it probably true to say that none of the individual songs are outright masterpieces, but this is to miss the point.  This is an album, in the truest sense, with a real vitality about it. 

The running order is arranged astutely, divided into four sides (as per the original vinyl LP), each one nominally covering a musical style, or the subject matter.  This itself is not immediately conspicuous, but the scheduling works well in practice.  There is some "light and shade", and this all helps to keep the listener intrigued.

The Manassas combination released a second album, "Down The Road", in 1973, and although this possessed its stylish, entertaining and appealing moments, it could not fully recreate the magic and zest of its predecessor. 

A contentious point, I know, but the Manassas album might just be the most fully realised, coherent work which Stephen Stills ever committed to record.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Laura Nyro

My interest in the singer-songwriter movement of the late 1960s and 1970s had brought me into contact with the name Laura Nyro.  I was aware that she was considered influential, that her songs had been covered by a wide diversity of artists, and that she had sadly died in 1997.  However, until very recently I had not delved into her own musical body of work, and doing this has proved a revelation to say the least.

Before, I had browsed cursorily through a couple of greatest hits compilations, and I had developed a fondness for a few of her best-known songs, in particular "Wedding Bell Blues".  I imagined that her solo recordings from the early days would be something of a "songbook", with perfunctory versions of the songs covered by various luminaries.  How ignorant and mistaken I was!  I had greatly under-estimated the sheer beauty of Laura's music, and the quality of her voice. It also turns out that some of her most famous compositions are not necessarily representative of her catalogue overall.  Those first three or four albums in particular are all credible and coherent works by themselves.

The first album, later re-issued as "The First Songs", offers a rich harvest of melodies and memorable and affecting songs.  The most astounding thing about that debut is just how fresh and timeless it sounds, well over four decades since it was recorded.  Let's face, much of the music from that era has not aged very well, but these songs of Laura's sound as if they could have been recorded yesterday.  I was also struck by the richness of the chord changes, and the all-around crispness.

Among many highlights on the first LP is "Goodbye Joe", a song which for me embodies everything which makes great pop music so wonderful.  Effortlessly melodic, evocative but immediate lyrics and a jauntiness, vibrancy and energy which are like honey to the ears.  Contrast this number with the haunting "Billy's Blues", "I Never Meant to Hurt You" and "Buy and Sell"...

Another thing which I was previously unaware of was the purity and versatility of Laura's voice.  Sometimes such angelic voices can appear anodyne at times, but hers managed to combine all of this with expressiveness and individuality.  Spontanetity, variety and inventiveness of phrasing were also hallmarks.

Not content to rest on her laurels, later albums were more experimental and ambitious. Certainly "Eli and the Thirteenth Confession" is less commercial and instantly "likeable" than its predecessor, and contains more hard-edged material.  That said, it contains many memorable compositions, and it can be argued that the lyrical subject matter is more varied and interesting.  "Christmas and the Beads of Sweat" in some respects represents a return to the feel of, and the territory explored by, the debut, at least melodically and sonically, although the songs were longer and more complex.

Listening to those early albums in particular, one can hear a multiplicity of influences, including jazz, Motown and soul, but the finished article is never less than original and cleverly and sympathetically produced.  I have heard Laura described as the "missing link" between Brill Building pop and the then nascent singer-songwriter movement.  There may be an element of truth in this, although it is likely an over-simplification.

Although's Laura Nyro's own records did not sell in the multi-millions, it is clear how influential her work has been, especially for female artists, and how much respect she commanded amongst her peers. I have also been heartened to discover that the music still has many devoted fans.  These songs and recordings deserve an ever wider audience.  I am endeavouring to spread the word here in England!

I defy anyone who enjoys good music not to be enthused and touched by that first album, and what followed....

Monday, 9 July 2012

The Damned United (movie)

After some prevarication, I recently read David Peace's novel, the Damned Utd:

The Damned Utd

It also seemed logical to check out the movie, The Damned United, which was based on said novel.

One of my first thoughts when watching the film was that the authenticity and attention to detail was a cut above what is normally forthcoming in "biopics".  The settings and aesthetic were well done, and perhaps most importantly not over-ambitious.  The 1970s hairstyles and fashions were much better realised than I had expected...

The only discordant note in this respect was struck by the football sequences in the movie, which I felt were unrealistic, perhaps falling victim to an over-earnest attempt to replicate what was perceived to be the slower but more robust style of football in the 1970s.  Thankfully, these shots were used only sparingly, and the film's makers sensibly employed real archive footage.  I did notice one error, though; the lettering on the back of Leeds' famous purple tracks-suits was yellow, not white!

A few of the early scenes I found a touch discouraging, feeling that the characterisations were being over-cooked, and the acting cloyed.  However, I stuck with it, and was rewarded.  The dialogue and acting became gradually less cringe-inducing and more plausible as it progressed.

I accept that compromises had to be made to fit the story into a manageable running time for a movie, but I would have liked more concentration on the period between Don Revie's resignation from the Leeds and the appointment of Brian Clough.

In assessing Michael Sheen's performance in the Clough role, I oscillated between admiring its occasional restraint and recoiling at what seemed to be an exaggerated portrayal of the man's well-known personality traits.

Overall, I found the film to be a slight disappointment, just ever so flat and anaemic.  However, like the book, it did provide a commendably mature and nuanced depiction of Clough, and did not pander to easy cliches.

2012 British Grand Prix Review

An eventful British Grand Prix, all told, with the kind of dramatic finale which we are becoming accustomed to in 2012.

For much of the race, Fernando Alonso seemed to be in control of proceedings.  He had been suitably assertive at the start, in order to protect his lead, and had then settled into a rhythm, keeping the opposition at arm's length. However, Mark Webber had bided his time throughout, keeping himself in touch and out of trouble, and was in a position to pounce towards the end when the strategic position fell in his favour. It was then left to the Australian to perform a characteristically brave overtaking manoeuvre to settle matters.  A victory for a home driver was not achievable, but a triumph for the popular Webber was clearly the next best thing as far as the Silverstone crowd was concerned.

After the race, I thought that Alonso seemed somewhat glum and downcast, whilst third-placed man Sebastian Vettel was all smiles.  It is tempting to read too much into these things; perhaps these expressions represent the standard countenance of the respective drivers.  Alonso may have been lamenting the narrow "failure" of his race strategy, whilst Vettel could have been counting himself lucky to have salvaged a podium finish.

It is fair to say that McLaren have enjoyed more fruitful weekends.  Lewis Hamilton did his formidable best, but his brief and spectacular dice with Alonso around lap 19 looked more like a gesture of defiance on his part, than anything else.  The team, realising the immensity of their task, tried unorthodox strategies, but there seemed a fundamental lack of urge from the cars.  Jenson Button's morale may have undergone something of a revival, even if his final result did not amount to much.  He may have felt that he was moving in the right direction, a departure from the fumbling in the dark of many recent Grands Prix. It will be little consolation for McLaren that their pit-stops were very efficient this time around!

One of the main talking points was the collision involving Sergio Perez and Pastor Maldonado.  Replays indicate that Maldonado was indeed at fault, and a penalty was warranted, but I think that some of the hysteria is being over-done.  Maldonado has acquired something of a reputation, and therefore any contentious incident in which he is involved will be magnified.

Michael Schumacher had another solid race, and despite running high up in the early stages, never looked like a genuine threat to the leaders.  The same might be said of Kimi Raikkonen.  The Finn's team-mate delivered another impressively fleet drive, after an early pit-stop to remedy damage incurred in a collision with di Resta.  A case of what might have been?

One of the most quietly satisfied men in the aftermath of the British Grand Prix might well be Felipe Massa.  A confident drive, and finishing not too far distant from his illustrious team-mate.  The speculation surrounding Ferrari's driver line-up for future seasons is becoming very complex! 

On to Hockenheim....

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The Damned Utd - David Peace

This book had been gathering dust on my shelves for many months, but I felt a strange reluctance to give it my full attention.  This may have something to do with the ambivalent and even uncomfortable feelings which for many, myself included, surround the 44-day Brian Clough reign at Leeds.

The first thing which will strike many readers is the colourful language, which does not relent throughout. Indeed, once one becomes accustomed to the expletives, they somehow become an indispensable feature of the book, without which it is difficult to imagine the tale having quite the same impact. At the same time, the sheer incidence of the industrial language tempers its shock value, but not necessarily its "value" to the fabric of the story....

As much as its concentration on the Brian Clough/Leeds saga, this book is also a window on the gritty and often bleak ambience of the times in which it is set.  The stark, almost minimalist tone and and style of prose serves to accentuate this. The Britain of the late 60s and early 70s, is made to feel quite sinister and dark, a place where the sun rarely shone, and menacing clouds were never far away.  I was a very small child in the early to mid 1970s, and any meaningful recollections on my part are therefore impossible, but the depiction of the Leeds (my home city) of that time pretty much tallies with other accounts which I have read and heard. Almost a dystopian vision, but not quite!

The format of The Damned Utd is novel, and by and large quite effective.  The relating of the "forty four days" is alternated with the Clough managerial chronicles up until his appointment at Leeds. Although very occasionally confusing (that may just be my own feeble attention span!), this method of telling the story helps to place the drama at Leeds in some kind of context, underscoring what Leeds were letting themselves in for, but also highlighting some of the essential differences between the environments which he had previously worked in, and that which he would be confronted with when he turned up at Elland Road.

I was heartened, but not totally surprised, to note that the Clough story, up until late 1974 at least, was presented in a complex, multi-faceted light, moving beyond the stereotyped and cliched media image of him at the time. Insecurities, regrets, and relationships are all explored, as well as the curious, shifting and evolving nature of his attitude towards Don Revie and Leeds United.

As well as this being a thoroughly engrossing read, I also learned some things about the tumultous events of 1974 at Leeds.  There is possibly a tendency for some Leeds followers to expunge some episodes from this period from their minds, or airbrush them from history. It was good to get a rounded account of those days, even by a less than fully orthodox route.  The feelings which come through are despair, dread and mistrust, and the grubby, cut-throat, dark heart of football, even back then.

From what I have gathered, opinion is mixed about how some of the protagonists are portrayed in The Damned United, but whilst making allowances for this, it is a compulsively gripping and raw documenting and interpretation of those times, both within football, and in a broader social sense.

I found it a less than comfortable read at times, but felt unable to put it down....

Monday, 2 July 2012

Euro 2012 Review

So, the European Football Championships, or European Nations Cup (as they were variously called when I was a lad) is/are over for another four years.  What, if anything, have we learned from the past few weeks of footballing endeavours?

Well, first of all, it would seem that reports of the decline of the Spain team have been greatly exaggerated. Indeed, many would opine that the tactical experimentation being instituted by Vicente Del Bosque is indicative of a further evolution of his squad.  Can this generation of players maintain the motivation and zest to launch a credible defence of their world title in Brazil in two years' time?  At this juncture, the answer would seem to be in the affirmative, although much can transpire over such a timespan.

Although defeated in the final, Italy also emerge with considerable credit from events in Poland and Ukraine.  Before the tournament, they were not being totally discounted, but equally they were not exactly receiving rave reviews and endorsements, either.  In the event, they applied themselves to their task, and relied on their inherent good footballing habits and tactical nous to progress to the final, augmented by the imperious play of Andrea Pirlo in midfield, and cameos from others.

One of the nations which has most to ponder in the aftermath of Euro 2012 is Germany.  As the tournament went on, they were increasingly being feted as likely winners, but in the end flattered to deceive, more than meeting their match in the semi-final against the Italians.  For me, the Germans had not been wholly convincing in the group stages, seeming to lack the fluency and bite which they showed in the World Cup in South Africa.  Injuries and fatigue affecting key players may be partly to blame, but there is clearly also much work to do to turn this group of players into the "finished article".

As for England, they achieved one objective by reaching the quarter-finals, although their shortcomings were evident even as they accomplished that aim.  It was acknowledged, and even accepted, going into the tournament the the current crop of players did not have the quality in depth of previous squads, and effort and organisation proved insufficient to make up the deficit.  Without wishing to sound defeatist, the cupboard looks relatively bare as we look forward to the next World Cup. Roy Hodgson is no doubt keenly aware of the task facing him, but is at least being afforded some breathing space and leeway by media and public alike.

So, how will Euro 2012 be remembered?  Despite what some are saying, I don't think that it was a sensational tournament.  There were some bright moments and some entertaining matches, but these were counter-balanced by mediocrity.  It did not have the entertainment, excitement or all-round quality of, for example, Euro 2000, which is probably the best international tournament which I have watched in my lifetime.  However, it was played in a generally good spirit, and was blessed with exceptional victors in Spain.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Euro 2012 Final

In recent days, it had become almost fashionable to bemoan and decry the approach of the Spanish team. To hear some of the detractors, you would think that they had resorted to the same tactics employed by the catenaccio sides of the 60s and 70s, or the cynicism of some of the South American club teams of the same period. All that they were doing was examining a differing method of attaining the same objective - winning a football tournament.

The self-appointed arbiters of football "morality" and "righteousness" will have been disarmed by tonight's performance in Kiev. True, Italy were emasculated for the final quarter, after going down to ten men after Motta's injury, but it would be stretching credibility to imagine that this affected the ultimate destiny of the trophy.  Spain's performance represented an emphatic "take that" to those who had been doubting them.  It will also have made sobering viewing for those who aspire to topple them from their perch.

In the early stages, as Spain forced the pace, I thought to myself that they did lack a spearhead, or a focal point for their attacks.  However, if you have that many options, from such a myriad of sources, it does not seem to matter all that much, as long as everything clicks, which it assuredly did in the final.

Andrea Pirlo did still see the ball, but he seemed to be coming deeper than usual to collect it, and was having to work harder to find himself some space. Spain appeared to work according to the notion that if they kept possession well enough themselves, Pirlo would be denied influence by default.  The Milan midfielder rarely got into positions where he could hurt Spain.

One must have some sympathy for Italy, who did not do all that much wrong.  They were affected by injuries during the game, and their substitutions by and large made tactical sense.  I was impressed by Mario Balotelli tonight, both in his work-rate, and his demeanour during the match, remaining philosophical.  In Balotelli, Pirlo and Buffon, Italy supplied three of the tournament's outstanding personalities.

So for all the debate about their formation, Spain have proved a cut above the rest once again.  Personally, I prefer my football to have a bit more rough and tumble (following Leeds United does that to a man!), but it would be churlish to deny the aesthetic beauty and technical proficiency of this Spanish squad.  They are still the benchmark, amongst the European nations at least.

Now, bring on the English domestic season!