Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Rogue One, 1979

Off to the cinema to see Rogue One, a new film from the mind of Hollywood wunderkind George Lucas. Eighteen months ago Lucas was a nobody, at least outside the United States, where American Graffiti was a smash hit. Now he is the saviour of cinema, and all because of one film. A charming space fantasy adventure that takes place in "another galaxy, another time".

Conventional wisdom had it that the top flicks of 1977 would be Airport '77, The Other Side of Midnight, and perhaps Sorcerer. Instead they failed to entice crowds, and it was up to George Lucas - and close friend Steven Spielberg, with some help from our very own James Bond - to give Hollywood something to be cheerful about.

Few films have given Hollywood more cheer than Star Wars. Two years later it is still a phenomenon. Toys based on the film's characters were the must-have Christmas presents last year and the soundtrack album remains a best-seller. George Lucas has talked about an epic "trilogy of trilogies", with Star Wars as episode four in a nine-film saga. He is currently working on episode five, and time will tell whether his ambition will get the best of him. Star Wars told a complete story but the characters were engaging and the simple good-vs-evil plot was a breath of fresh air in these cynical times.

On the surface it was a simple film - but it was also a bold experiment in post-modern cinema, a homage to the Flash Gordon serials of yore; a clever exercise in constructing a modern mythology out of plywood and plastic. Rogue One is an experiment too, but of a different kind. Instead of continuing the adventures of Luke Skywalker and pals, Rogue One is instead "a Star Wars story", a prequel that exists outside the series' nine-film arc.

Lucas claims that this gives him the creative freedom to tell stories that would not fit in the series otherwise. Personal stories, with a mature tone. With its "A" certificate Rogue One is noticeably grittier than its parent, although it's hardly A Clockwork Orange. If Star Wars was a compendium of fantasy clichés, Rogue One takes its cues from war classics such as The Guns of Navarone and Westerns such as The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (or in this case The Neutral, the Evil, and the Droid). A less charitable reviewer might point out that Rogue One is a quick cash-in designed to give 20th Century Fox another sip at the well, especially given Lucas' decision to self-fund his next adventure; but who am I?

With Lucas busy elsewhere Rogue One is directed by Briton Ridley Scott, more famous for his television commercials than The Duellists, his sole theatrical film. With that film Scott demonstrated that he could imitate Stanley Kubrick as well as anyone, which is presumably why Lucas gave him the nod. For Rogue One Scott has toned down his cinematic mimicry. His direction has none of Lucas' artistic flair, but he does a tremendous job at making the Star Wars universe seem real, especially given the film's reportedly modest budget. Each shot is lit with a wash of colour - blues and oranges predominate - and if the characters spend too much time running down corridors, they are at least visually interesting corridors. Despite the fact that there are no cigarettes in the distant universe of the Jedi, the sets are usually bathed in smoke, which if nothing else disguises the gaffer tape.

The producers have also shaved costs by filming the desert scenes in Spain, doubling for the planet Jakku, rather than Tunisia. The effects of evil villain Darth Vader's moon-sized superlaser are stock footage from the original, and although there is one exciting albeit brief space battle, for the most part the action is earth-bound - or "planet-bound", because this is set in space after all. Gone too are the original film's distinctive light swords, and almost all of the hippy mysticism surrounding The Force, as Lucas called it. The Force was embarrassingly twee, but I miss it; Rogue One suffers from a lack of magic. Ridley Scott has talked of his distaste for supernatural deus ex machina, but Rogue One feels small, dare I say anonymous without Lucas' muddled spiritualism.

But what's it like? The film follows a band of heroic spies, who are sent on a desperate mission to capture the blueprints of the aforementioned Death Star. Peter Cushing returns as the villainous Moff Tarkin, although with Darth Vader presumably busy elsewhere the chief baddie is this time Designer Krennic, played with gusto by Oliver Reed, who by all accounts enjoyed himself immensely during filming, to the extent of joining the production in Spain, even though he does not appear in that section of the movie. Beyond Cushing, only Carrie Fisher returns from the original cast, in a sequence that cleverly matches the very beginning of Star Wars. I'm not sure if the little man inside R2D2 returns, or if they simply moved the prop around the sets with invisible strings.

What of our heroes? Much has been made of screenwriter Alan Dean Foster's unisex names; Scott likened the casting process to "throwing darts at a Ouija board", albeit that yet again the board appeared to be whites-only. The decision to give the film a female star - in a gritty war picture, no less - has been met with incredulity, but newcomer Debra Winger is convincingly weather-worn as wayward spitfire Jyn Erso. Only one year older than Star Wars' Carrie Fisher, she carries much of the film's emotional backbone, although perhaps inevitably she is nonetheless captured by a mini-villain (played by Omar Sharif, almost unrecognisable in a gas mask), and has to be rescued. Of her merry band of brothers Harry Dean Stanton stands out as an Imperial pilot who has been artificially aged under torture, while a bearded Tom Skerritt plays ruthless agent Cassian Andor, who develops a platonic respect for the supposedly inexperienced Jyn. And I stress platonic; in one amusing scene the film acknowledges the obvious age difference between them.

Of the rest of the cast Ian Holm has a neat turn as reprogrammed Imperial robot K2SO. It's curious that the clunky "mechanicals" in Star Wars are less advanced than Holm's convincingly humanoid robot - presumably another cost-saving measure - but his world-weary performance won me over. By now John Williams' score is almost a character by itself, but beyond a new theme for Tarkin and some desert music it is noticeably more spartan than the original (the famous Star Wars theme does not appear until the end).

Will children like it? The new cast are older the originals, and although the action sequences are plentiful they tend to follow the same basic formula. Our heroes journey to a local warlord, but are interrupted by Imperial stormtroopers and escape in the nick of time; our heroes attempt to rescue a key characters' father, but are thwarted in the nick of time; our heroes attack an Imperial installation, and actually do manage to achieve their goal - but to say any more would spoil the ending. Despite a first half that takes place in the desert Rogue One lacks the weather-worn aesthetic of the original, and of course the ending owes a lot to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Parents will have to explain to their children that sometimes victory has a high price. It will be interesting to see if the toys are as popular, given that fate of almost all of the characters.

Nonetheless, as both an experiment and a solid action film, Rogue One is a success. It convincingly demonstrates that the Star Wars universe can carry a film by itself. Of course it has strong immediate competition from Moonraker, which cost much more and has a lengthier space battle, but doesn't look any more expensive, and there is the looming threat of Paramount's Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Disney's The Black Hole, both scheduled for release later in the year. Will they spoil the public's appetite for Star Wars V?

Friday, 30 December 2016

The Impossibility of Life in the Minds of the Dead

Contemplate the photograph. It's Audrey Hepburn posing for the press early in her career. It's not a very good photograph and no-one at the time expected it to survive beyond the immediate present, but it has survived. A few years ago the internet discovered it - the people discovered it - and now it is one of the classic images of Audrey Hepburn. The lighting is terrible and the pose is curious, but Audrey Hepburn is magnetic; the photograph is silly, slightly sexy. It endures while so much has passed from memory. There are far better photographs of Audrey Hepburn, but they lurks in the dead memory of books, where they will remain until there is a shift in public taste, or perhaps forever.

Ostensibly this blog is about photography, although in practice I find it hard to stay focused on one thing and there is only so much to say about photography. The equipment doesn't move me any more; it's the art I care about, specifically the topic that drives all art. The desire to live beyond death. The human animal is unusual in that it is conscious of its unavoidable date with the inevitable. Death is like the end of summer. It may be many months away, but it is inevitable and there is no escape. Stronger, braver, smarter, richer men than I, entire societies have failed to find a cure. Nothing I have experienced convinces me otherwise; quantum entanglement, cryogenics, vitamin pills, shared consciousness, pathetic.

The inescapable laws of thermodynamics destroy our bodies, and even if we no longer needed bodies the same laws would destroy our minds, or transform us into a new form, which is also a form of death. I take cold comfort in the notion that consciousness itself is an illusion. That we are not really conscious at all; that we do not have souls. We are just animals with a sophisticated brain that can store information, match patterns, and process audio-visual-sensory information in real time. Our consciousness is a byproduct of this. If we ascend to heaven when we die, what happens to people who have Parkinson's disease, or Alzheimer's? Do they spend the rest of eternity as mentally empty vegetables? The idea that heaven rewinds our mental clock back to our teenage years is absurd, and if our souls are separate from our minds, which of those two things is the real us? Both of them, or neither? Theology does not convince me. It's arbitrary nonsense.

Death holds two horrors. There is the cessation of consciousness for all eternity. An eternity of endless blackness and the knowledge that this is all there will ever be. It is difficult to visualise nothingness, but not impossible. We are going away and never coming back, and in the fullness of time the universe itself will collapse, and not a single thing will remain. The same will happen to our worst enemies, our greatest friends, our children.

The second horror is the idea that we will be forgotten, and that our works will be forgotten. This is the curse of everyone in the long term. In the shorter term, we know our parents; we are aware that we had grandparents; but until relatively recently, at least in the West, our great-grandparents were just words on a tombstone. Photography and the extended lifespan that comes with modern living have expanded our generational horizons, but there is still a generational cut-off point. The vast, vast majority of British people cannot name their great-great-grandparents; they are shadows, and if their great-great-grandchildren do not remember them, who will?

No-one, is the answer. Within a few generations we are forgotten. The few names that live after death survive as twisted approximations of the past. This is a theme I have elaborated upon before. It is one of the fundamental themes of all art. On an idealistic level art is an attempt to communicate ideas and emotions, and if that means creating new media, or using existing media in novel ways, why not? On a practical level art is also a means of self-aggrandisement, and self-enrichment, and furthermore it is a viable way of avoiding having to drive a bus for a living. It is an excuse to do cool things with computers. The wealthy mega-artists of today probably do not care about their legacy, although "the impossibility of death in the mind of someone living" was one of Damien Hirst's early themes. The ubiquity of artists in the media has given them a form of short-term immortality.

But the people decide which things live and which things die. The establishment occasionally tries to push a thing; tries to make that thing immortal. Novels become set texts in university degrees, the works of certain photographers are cited in textbooks, artists are given government-funded institutes with which to promote their work, but fashions change, and both high and low art is subject to the whims of fashion. Even high art, once thought of as immortal, is just a series of fads. The cathedrals of the past become theme parks and then ruins. Their stone is used to line pavements, which are built over with motorways.

During the twentieth century entire art forms fell out of fashion, poetry and painting most notably. Once upon a time schoolchildren were taught to idolise Tennyson and his works, but now the formerly high art form of poetry is dead. An entire art form. People still write poems, but it no longer establishes reputations. There are no poetic giants today. Poetry from the past is hard to take seriously; modern poetry has been obliterated by pop music. Schoolchildren were also taught to idolise painters and their works, but although paintings are now highly-prised as safe investments, painting itself is too limited to be thought of as high art any more. Painters are no longer major figures as they were perhaps as recently as fifty years ago. As for music, when children of the future listen to classical music of our time they will listen to Philip Glass, and John Williams' Star Wars soundtrack, make of what what you will.

Poetry, painting, and music still exist; but they no longer have a hold on the public, and in any case their hold was artificially bolstered by an establishment that insisted on forcing the public to respect high art even though most people were bored silly. From cradle to grave children of the past were told that they should respect the words of Tennyson, and that if they did not, they were idiots. Now the public must find its own way, and it has. It has found another way.

During the latter half of the twentieth century it was fashionable to treat popular art with the deference that had been shown to high art, and so for many years there was in this field a correct way of thinking, just as there had been with high art. The Beatles, as mentioned elsewhere on this blog, were the beneficiaries of this new orthodoxy, and then victims of a counter-orthodoxy in the punk years, and then beneficiaries again in the 1990s, and beyond fashions there are great sweeping paradigm shifts. The swift rise of hip-hop horrified the once-dominant white anglo orthodoxy; it brought home the fact that none of us have a monopoly on legitimacy, and that for other people our lives and tastes are alien and inconsequential.

An enormous amount of popular art has sunk beneath the waves, never to return, but some of it bobs to the surface again. Some of it continues to intrigue the people; on a fundamental level popular art was created specially for them. In the long term the people have power, because the people are always there. The state establishment requires energy to function, but energy always runs out. The people remain, albeit that individual people do not.

Are we dead already? We are the animate corpses of our childhood selves, ghosts driven by inertia. As Epicurus pointed out a long time ago we have already been dead. For several billion years we were dead, until we came into being; we will be dead again. The problem is causality. The flow of time is not symmetrical. Our consciousness gradually grew from noting until we were self-aware. The same is not true at the other end of our lives.

Every so often the internet ponders the problem of teleportation. When Captain Kirk steps onto the transporter pad his body is analysed and destroyed by the teleporter's scanners; it is then recreated at the destination, but the recreation is not really Captain Kirk, it is instead a perfect duplicate with fake memories. The original Kirk knows he is going to die when the teleporter activates. The new Kirk is presumably thrilled to have the gift of life. Before he arrived he did not exist. It is surprising that instead of dropping to his knees at the realisation he has been brought into existence, the new Kirk instead carries on with his mission. Star Trek is a good example of popular art that died and was reborn, that died again and was reborn, and may periodically die and be reborn until we are sick of it. The original film series came to a dismal end in the early 2000s, but it has been successfully revived, and there is even a plan to expand the format into an episodic television show. It remains to be seen how well the Star Trek concept will translate to television; will it work?

We view the past as a set of blocks. Homogeneous blocks of centuries and millennia in which nothing changed, during which people lived unchanging lives. The late nineteenth and twentieth centuries still have a personality, but in time they will become part of a larger block. Everyone who lived in those blocks had to deal with the reality of death. Nobody escaped. Trillions of years of nothingness await us, and even on a more human timescale we cannot guarantee that our distress flares will be seen from afar. Even if they attract attention the rescuers still have their own problems, because they are doomed too. No-one will rescue them. Another year begins.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

The Beatles: An Illustrated Record

"Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust", so sang The Clash in 1979. I like to think that they were irritated with Beatlemania rather than the Beatles themselves. Specifically phony Beatlemania. Let's have a look at The Beatles: An Illustrated Record, which came out in 1975 and is essentially the first good post-Beatles book about the Beatles (the next were Philip Norman's Shout! (1981) and Mark Lewisohn's Sessions (1988), after which the floodgates opened again).

The 1970s wasn't a good decade for the Beatles. The band's records continued to sell - the Red and Blue singles collections charted highly on both sides of the Atlantic - and after a wobbly start all of the former Beatles released at least one classic solo albums. Given the fragmentation of the music market in the 1970s the band's position as the greatest pure pop band of all time remained unassailable, but I can understand why Joe Strummer was sick of them in 1979. At the end of the decade John had retired, Ringo and George had run out of ideas and Paul had became a light entertainment celebrity. The music they played said nothing to us about our lives; the esoteric radical concerns of millionaire John Lennon earlier in the decade felt utterly alien at a time when people were struggling just to get a job.

The decade also gave us the peculiar grotesqueries of All This and World War II (1976), a mixture of Second World War news footage with covers of Beatles songs by the likes of Leo Sayer, David Essex and Peter Gabriel, who should have known better, breathe in, plus Beatlemania, a 1977 tribute musical that was eventually turned into a film that nobody liked, and ultimately Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978), a disco-era musical with yet more Beatles covers, this time by Steve Martin, Peter Frampton, and (again) the Bee Gees.

It was as if the 1970s had tried to express its love of the band by smothering it to death; as if the decade had been created by an expert propaganda factory for the specific purpose of making people sick of the Beatles.

I was born in the middle of the 1970s so I wasn't there. By the time the Beatles split up pop music had fragmented into different genres, to such an extent that unaffected Beatles-esque pop was a novelty in the 1970s. The most obviously Beatles-influenced bands of the early post-Beatles period were power-pop acts such as Badfinger, Big Star and The Raspberries, but for whatever reason they didn't appeal to the mass market and were famously unpopular albeit well-loved.

Kids of the 1970s instead opted for the harder sounds of Led Zeppelin and progressive rock, or the post-modern pop art stylings of glam rock, or the ooshiness of Carole King etc Pink Floyd etc Elton John etc Slade etc David Bowie. Such was the pace of musical taste that by the end of the decade the Beatles were an oldies act, even though they had only been gone for a few years.

At the height of their powers the Beatles were on the cutting edge of popular music. They knew 1950s rock and roll like the backs of their eight hands, but they also kept abreast of the latest trends and tried to incorporate elements of musique concrète, folk, reggae, soul, even early heavy metal, all of which fell short in some way but at least came across as genuine enthusiasm rather than bandwagon-jumping. At the beginning of the 1980s however they had all lost touch with the mainstream; Paul McCartney's attempts to incorporate reggae (again) and sample-based dance music into his music felt desperate and judging by Yoko Ono's new wave contributions to Double Fantasy I don't think John Lennon would have grasped the decade any more effectively.

In the end they all seemed to accept that the world had moved on, George and Ringo first, McCartney later and not completely. By the late 1980s the pop audience had split along generational lines; the kids who enjoyed "I Want to Hold Your Hand" had become thirtysomethings with CD players, microwave ovens, and mortgages. They didn't have time to keep up with modern pop either, but they did remember the Beatles. In the 1990s the Beatles retained their cross-generational appeal and they remain popular today, although I have a sense that as the white anglo majority loses its power to set the cultural agenda the Beatles' music will slowly fade. It will never die, but the flood of books and reissues will vanish and shrink. For modern audiences the band's early music might as well be gamelan music from outer space, but their mid-60s output is substantial enough to look after itself. The band's music will always have a place in humanity's jukebox.

But what about the book? It's a 12" coffee table softback the same size and shape as an old-fashioned vinyl LP. It was compiled from a series of columns in the NME by Roy Carr and Tony Tyler. The first edition came out in 1975; my copy was reprinted in April 1976 with all the same words in the same order. It was published by the New English Library, which was more famous for lurid paperbacks about skinheads and James Herbert's The Rats. The first edition has an RRP guide on the back that reveals a cost of £1.95, about £12.99 in modern money. The RRP guide also lists the prices in the Republic of Ireland, Cypus, Gibraltar, Malta, New Zealand, Spain, Trinidad, and Australia, so it's a little glimpse into the twilight days of the British colonial empire. Later versions of the book don't have this - I mention it because although revised editions in 1978 and 1981 corrected some errors and added more content, they took out the Bootlegs section. It is no longer in print. NB It has an uncensored reproduction of the cover of Two Virgins, so technically it's not safe for work, depending on how chill your workplace is with John Lennon's penis. "Such a big fuss over such a small thing", as the writers put it.

1975. My impression of 1970s rock music writing is wrong. My impression is wrong. The problem is that British rock music writing of the pre-punk period has been lost to time. It's not reprinted today and no-one quotes it on the internet. The same is true of British rock music writing of the post-punk period. All of it, really.

As a consequence my only experience of contemporary historical rock music writing is of music writing from the United States - the likes of Lester Bangs and the deadly dull Rolling Stone magazine. American rock music writing is widely available in print and on the internet, but if Lester Bangs ever wrote about the Beatles I can't recall what he said, and if Rolling Stone ever published a good piece of writing in the 1970s or ever I am unaware of it.

Before embarking on An Illustrated Record my assumption is that it would be twee, overwritten, irritatingly florid a la John Peel writing about Robert Wyatt for Sounds magazine. Also, imagine if Mark Chapman and John Hinckley met. They never did; would they have got on? Chapman felt betrayed by Lennon and celebrities in general, Hinckley felt betrayed by Jodie Foster's unwillingness to reply to his love letters, they both tried to work out their issues by killing people. If they had met, their twin obsessions might have cancelled each other out. The purity of Hinckley's love for Jodie Foster might have convinced Chapman not to give up on celebrities whilst conversely the disillusionment of Chapman might have convinced Hinckley that Jodie Foster was not worth dying for. It would make an interesting theatrical two-hander. Hinckley irritates me because his name is hard to spell correctly.

The book. The book. I learn that the four Beatles were 5'11" except for Ringo, who was slightly shorter, but that's okay because he spent most of his career sitting down. John was big-boned, but that's also okay because British people were unused to having access to large quantities of food in the 1950s and thus gorged themselves when fruit became available. The book opens by arguing that the Beatles ushered in a cultural revolution, which is something I'm not qualified to comment about. The cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, if it even existed, is nowadays stereotyped as pubic hair in Playboy and a small number of unwashed hairy people taking drugs; and a lot of idealistic communes that failed to sustain a new lifestyle outside the context of capitalism while the vast, vast majority of ordinary people got on with life just as before.

I grew up during the height of the counter-revolution, during a period in which relics of the 1960s had smartened up and gone to work as advertising executives. Did the common man of 1975 believe that society had changed? Here in the UK the economy had just weathered a recession and a stock market crash; there was mass murder in Ireland, mass strikes on the mainland, and a final acceptance that foreign people were no longer awed at the sight of the Union Jack as they had been previously. The smugness of the 1970s hippies and their dreams of a new society without money or prejudice fuelled the ire of the punk generation; on a trivially silly level the likes of Joy Division and The Jam wore smart shirts and ties, and within a few years the scruffy hippie was a stock character, a joke, epitomised by Nigel Planer's Neil from The Young Ones. The book, the book.

Never let it be said that the Beatles did not know how to dress well.

The writing is stiff, charmingly so. It uses semi-colons; the the first line reads "it is popularly imagined that all four Beatles are products of Liverpool working-class backgrounds; this is not so", which is the kind of writing you don't get nowadays.

Pete Best's dismissal is treated as a group decision; later histories of the band put the blame for Best's sacking solely on George Martin's shoulders, but I think it's generally accepted nowadays that the band was never keen on Best, and that Martin's displeasure during the band's EMI audition was just the excuse they were looking for to get rid of him. The Anthology compilations included a version of "Love Me Do" with Pete Best on drums; either he was dreadful or he had a spectacularly bad day that day.

An Illustrated Record covers his subsequent career in a paragraph at the end of the book, dismissing the woeful 1966 cash-in Best of the Beatles and the Pete Best Four's "I'm Gonna Knock on Your Door", a 1964 single released on Decca Records, ironically the label that turned down the Beatles in 1962. In my opinion it's a decent albeit completely trivial pop single in the style of the Dave Clark Five - Best's drumming chugs along monotonously, there's a tuneful guitar solo, but nothing stands out. I imagine Decca were disappointed that vocalist Wayne Bickerton didn't sound at all Liverpudlian. The book also pours scorn on the band's version of "Boys", which was also covered by the Beatles. Again this feels unfair. Best's lead vocals aren't bad and his drumming is at least energetic.

Also at the back of the book are a variety of other odds and ends. The entry on "Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand" suggests that the German language is incompatible with rocking, which is not true because I have heard Kraftwerk's records in the original German and they rock. There is mention that a 1965 show at the Hollywood Bowl had been recorded for possible release as a live album; this eventually came out in 1977, two years after the book was published. There is also a paragraph about a 1970 single, "Have You Heard the Word?", b/w "Futting, the Futz", which "allegedly features Lennon and some of the Bee Gees". In fact this was just Maurice Gibb impersonating Lennon. The b-side was actually "Futting", and the band was The Fut, which suggests that Carr and Tyler had been given the information down the telephone.

Flipping back to the start, the book covers the Beatles' career in chronological order. The Beatles were exceptionally well-documented and all the familiar vignettes appear - "I don't like your tie", the sixteen-hour recording session for their debut album, Paul making irritating "air" "quotes" with his hands during the sessions for Let It Be, rumours that Billy Preston was going to join the band etc. The reviews include the catalogue numbers and release dates of the singles, so I imagine that Beatles collectors in the 1970s were thrilled; it uses the UK discography throughout, with a couple of pages at the back briefly describing the differences between the UK and US versions of the albums (in particular they slam the soundtrack-heavy US version of Help!).

As of 2016 it's essentially obsolete as a reference guide; it's worth it for the reviews, which are always engaging and paint an interesting portrait of how the band's work was perceived in the mid-1970s. As an overview of their career it's less successful. concentrates on the records almost to the exclusion of all else, but unlike Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head or Mark Lewisohn's Sessions - which have similarly narrow focuses, at least in theory - it has little to say about the Beatles' lives or the times around them. The successful invasion of America post-"I Want to Hold Your Hand", for example, is a curiosity that happens mostly off the page. Beatlemania, the collapse of the Apple dream, the trips to India are mentioned in passing; there's more coverage of John Lennon's pre-post-Beatles radicalism than anything the other band members did while they were Beatles.

On a tonal level the writers obviously loved the Beatles, saving most of their ire for the solo releases. McCartney's early single "Another Day" "would have made a super TV commercial for underarm charm". Criticisms of the band generally arise from frustration at the lack of focus in their latter years. Lennon's instant pop records are dismissed rather than destroyed; the cattiest turn of phrase is a quote from Alan Smith of the NME, who describes Let it Be as "a cheapskate epitaph, a cardboard tombstone, a sad and tatty end to a musical fusion which wiped clean and drew again the face of pop music", which is mean but true.

The authors seem strangely dismissive of George Harrison, implying that the only thing driving him to write "Something" was "his well-developed financial interests", and moaning that the triple-LP All Things Must Pass was too expensive. "It has not worn well", they write from a distance of five years, citing the homogeneous production and lugubrious compositions. Nowadays the album is thought of as a classic, although I can sympathise with their position. My understanding is that it aged in much the same was as the Live Aid concerts; a massive hit at the time, an embarrassing and overblown relic of an age slightly later, and then later still a flawed but awesomely impressive souvenir of a time forever lost. I would have hated it if I had heard it in the 1980s. It's overlong, too slow, and it's a shame about all the reverb, but it's magnificent nonetheless.

In contrast they love The Concert for Bangla Desh, although once again they get in a dig at "Something", so presumably they didn't dislike George Harrison personally. Again, I can understand why critics in the 1970s might have been unkeen on the man. Unlike Paul McCartney he took himself very seriously, but unlike John Lennon he didn't appear to have anything to say, and on a personal level he just didn't seem interested in being a huge star; and yet he obviously wanted people to spend their wages on his records, why bother to release them otherwise?

Elsewhere in the book the writers dismiss "Rain" with a throwaway line and, later on, describe "Tomorrow Never Knows" as "convincing flannel", although they appear to like it. "Eleanor Rigby" is "sentimental, melodramatic and a blind alley", which I feel is unfair - the track is notable for its unflinching unsentimentality, and the detached, dispassionate viewpoint appears throughout the Beatles' songbook. It was one of the reasons Lennon's post-Beatles records seemed so shocking; the gap between "Glass Onion" and "Mother", recorded just two years later, is immense.

There are some occasionally puzzling turns of phrase. Dismissing "Eleanor Rigby" as a self-conscious attempt by Paul McCartney to be taken seriously Carr and Tyler write that "sociology, not for the first time, reared a mis-shapen skull", which immediately makes me think of the green skull on the BBC test card which unnerved me as a child. "You Know My Name" is a "couldn't-care-less example of Disintegration Blues", which makes sense on an emotional level, but what is "disintegration blues"? I don't know.

The final section discusses the possibility of a Beatles reunion, arguing that this would most likely boil down to money, and that Lennon in particular could use the cash! This may have been true in 1975 - the Beatles were famously stiffed out of tonnes of cash - but seems weird nowadays. We're used to thinking of the former Beatles as multimillionaires many times over. So the story goes, the band almost reunited on a whim in 1976 for an appearance on Saturday Night Live, but from then until 1981 the stars did not align again, and then it was too late.

Famously the book championed Revolver at a time when Sergeant Pepper was thought of as the band's masterpiece (they champion Pepper as well, but Revolver is "the peak of the Beatles' creative career"). "Unlike the later Sgt Pepper", they write, "it has aged well - it's even matured - and the wealth of musical invention, social observation and downright intuition are as fresh today as when the album was originally issued". Nowadays it's fashionable to big up The White Album instead, because it's too easy to cite Revolver as your favourite Beatles album, but on a personal level I have never warmed to The White Album. Picking a favourite Beatles LP is a lot like playing Mornington Crescent. There are rules, but they are mysterious. When asked, I maintain that the band's peak was the US release of Rubber Soul (stereo mix), which has so far stood me in good stead; you cannot choose that album because I chose it first.

Occasionally the writers' love of early Beatles turns into gushing. With the Beatles sold millions but tends to be dismissed today, whereas in the world of Carr and Tyler "it was a simply staggering achieve from every point of view, a landmark par excellence and one of the four best albums the Beatles ever made". That's a stretch. Presumably the other three were Pepper, Revolver, and Abbey Road.

I have the impression that The White Album was not thought highly-of until relatively recently. The writers argue that it's essentially a set of solo tracks with the Beatles acting as session musicians for each other, but then again they end the review by suggesting that there had been a mid-70s critical re-evaluation of the record, so who am I? The review of Abbey Road is lengthy but perfunctory, essentially just listing the songs and concluding that it is too slick. "All You Need is Love" is described as "a fabulous piece of self-satire", which is fair enough.

The book ends with a page that has space for the reader to fill in "further Beatle events". I have written "Lennon dies; the band wisely chooses not to release any more singles; Free as a Bird did not happen; Harrison dies; David Bowie dies; George Michael dies; Carrie Fisher dies", the rest is silence.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Raspberry Pixel on a ThinkPad X60s / X61

ThinkPad X61, with an X60S lid.

Some time ago I tried out Linux Mint on my ThinkPad X60s. It worked!

Now let's try Raspberry Pixel, which is essentially a Debian distribution for children. It's made by Raspberry, creators of the popular Pi microcomputer. I haven't seen a single one of the Hunger Games films, but I miss seeing posters for Mockingjay on the London Underground. The advertising was ubiquitous for eighteen months during 2014 and 2015, and it will never return. Future generations will not know what it was like to see Jennifer Lawrence around every corner, wearing armoured fitness gear, surrounded by flames.

The books were written for the young adult market, and because of this I dismissed them, but isn't the same true of The Dark Knight or The Hobbit? They were written for children as well. The Hunger Games hype didn't really take off until the release of the second film in the series, Catching Fire, which confirmed that the original wasn't a one-off. The films all went on to be members of the half-billion-dollar club, and for three years the world was enraptured by a shared mythology that will probably never be rebooted or continued. And now it's all gone. Like the East German national anthem they belong to the past now.

ThinkPad X60s, with an X61 lid.

Pixel - it has nothing to do with Google Pixel, which is a mobile phone - Pixel is a live-bootable image that works on PCs and some Macintoshes, but not my late 2008 MacBook Pro. I tried, but not very hard, and it didn't work. My X60s is a typical mid-2000s laptop. It was released in 2006. It has a low-voltage, 32-bit, dual-core Core Duo running at 1.66ghz; 3gb of memory; a 1024x768 screen; rubbish Intel graphics; built-in wi-fi; a SATA 1 hard drive. The specifications are very old-fashioned nowadays but by no means obsolete, and in its favour it has a lovely keyboard and lots of ports. If you think about it, Donald Trump's real estate business involves borrowing huge amounts of money to build things in the hope that this will generate more wealth, which is the kind of business model left-wingers have wet dreams about. It's the opposite of austerity-era politics.

Besides which as a businessman his activities seem positively tame compared to those of Carl Icahn or the Barclay Brothers. His greatest sins in that respect are brashness and insensitivity. Most of the opprobrium aimed at him seems to be just personal animosity, and horror that such a vulgar man could be president. Underneath this is the horrible thought that, as with Rupert Murdoch, Trump is in fact more representative of society than we are. The human animal is fundamentally vile and base, but very few people are willing to accept this. Donald Trump is the political equivalent of a dog handler who thrusts the dog's nose into a pile of poo it has left on the pavement; he is a mirror of ourselves, and we don't like that.

The X60s is... The X60s is one of the reasons I have never bought a Raspberry Pi. The X60s has a case, a keyboard, a screen, three USB ports, a Firewire port (unusual for a PC), VGA output, an SD card slot, a cardbus slot, and a love-it-hate-it pointing device. It also has a battery and can be used on the move. The Pi can be made to have all of those things as well, but doing so makes it more expensive than a used laptop. Besides which it has less software support because it has an ARM processor.

My X61 originally had a dull, yellowy screen; my X60s had a bright, crisp screen, so I swapped them around. The easiest way to do this was to swap the entire top half of the machine, hence the mismatched bezels.
How did I accomplish this? Lenovo has a technical manual with complete strip-down instructions.

Pixel is at the moment just a liveDVD or liveUSB stick. Raspberry suggests using Etcher to create the USB stick, which I did; I found that PenDriveLinux' Universal USB Installer didn't work. (The machine booted to the initialisation screen but became caught in a loop.) Neither Etcher nor UNetBootIn were any help creating a USB stick with my MacBook Pro, but Macs are strange beasts, besides which what's the point? OSX is already Unix. It's a lot like Linux, but with a good UI and applications that ordinary people want to use, and it just works.

Once burned to USB, the installation was easy; it worked first time. It detected and used the TrackPoint nub and the ThinkLight keyboard light. It didn't detect the X60s' Bluetooth module but that can probably be fixed and anyway I don't care, I'm never going to use Bluetooth with a laptop. EDIT: After posting this I decided to try the very same stick in my X61, and it also worked first time.

The official website shows Pixel running on a ThinkPad X40, an earlier Pentium M-powered machine hobbled by a non-standard 1.8" PATA hard drive. The X6N generation is a slightly better choice; the 64-bit X61s and X61T tablet in particular. The undervolted processors in the X60s and X61s run cooler than the conventional equivalents in the X60 and X61, and aren't appreciably slower.

A few tweaks set up the desktop. Pixel is very limited and doesn't seem to be optimised for laptops. You have to add the battery meter to the taskbar, and there's no option to standby the machine. The control panel configuration is basic and on the whole it's essentially an internet-connecting-application-launching OS with no bells and whistles. Why not. It runs quickly. The standard browser is Chromium, which makes sense on an X60s given that Chrome has been discontinued for 32-bit processors.

Within a few minutes the typical Linux UI quirks manifested themselves. Little things that mount up. Make the taskbar small, for example, and then maximise Chromium, and it leaves a little gap between the browser and the taskbar until you manually tweak the taskbar size. As with other Linux distributions there is a peculiar emphasis on fiddly things such as making the menu bars customisable - which is nice, but not something I miss in OSX or Windows 10 - but huge gaps elsewhere, e.g. the online help consists of a link to Debian's online manual. Good luck. Linux fans boast about the vast library of applications, but the package manager is just a lot of directories with a plain text search. If you want to install a star map, but you don't know that you should search for Stellarium, you're obviously a stupid lamer idiot who doesn't deserve help. And its immaterial because if you try to install anything it asks for a password, but there seem to be no user account settings.

The manual prominently quotes a developer who opines that "Unix is user friendly, it's just selective about who its friends are", which was probably amusing sixteen years ago to a small audience of Linux fans but is completely off-base today. Amusingly the same man was eventually un-personed by the Debian team, who are obviously highly selective themselves. He must have had a chuckle to himself about the irony.

See, I have nothing against Linux. It's the people I can't stand. In the future, when Linux is finally ready for prime time, they will be forgotten and their influence obliterated. No-one remembers who built the first piano, or the first piano stool; people instead remember the music, and the same is true of operating systems.

Solange is a romantic name. Saint Solange is a Christian saint who lived in the 9th century AD. She was murdered - beheaded - by the son of a local aristocrat, which ordinarily would have ended up with the family being paid to shut up, but instead she became a saint to the locals, who made up stories about how she could heal the sick. Supposedly she survived the beheading and carried her head to the local church before dying. The name Solange comes from the Latin for "solemn". In the screenshot above I am running LibreOffice Writer, one of the few applications bundled with Pixel.

Does Pixel many any sense? My general rule with Linux distributions is that if I have to open the terminal or if it irritates me in any way I rip out the CD/USB stick and never use it again. At the moment Pixel only runs from a live installation, which in practice means that if you install it on a laptop you end up with a USB stick protruding from the side. On a desktop machine there's no point because you have lots of other choices. Sadly I can't try it on my Pentium III-powered ThinkPad 600X to really test its compatibility. The fundamental problem with Pixel is that there are lots of other, more mature Linux installations around, some of which also work on basic hardware, albeit not so basic as an actual Pi.

However I suspect that I'm not Pixel's target market. For the educational sector the existence of a known, standard, low-maintenance Linux distribution that runs from a simple USB stick has an obvious appeal. Pixel allows teachers to give students a cheap USB stick which stores not only their files but also their educational environment. And of course it's a prototype. It will be interesting to see what it looks like in a year's time.