Sunday, February 18, 2024

IF YOU’RE ALRIGHT, YOU CAN’T GO WRONG [436]

"I'm Alright", a novelty song that charted at number 40 in 1982

The outpouring of grief at the sudden death of Steve Wright on Monday 12th February speaks both to the intimate connection between the radio DJ and his audience, and to his professionalism. I shouldn’t have been surprised at my upset over the loss of such an engaging, friendly and funny personality, when that was all I knew of him. 

Media coverage of Wright’s death, coloured by a narrative that he “died of a broken heart” at the ending of his Radio 2 afternoon show by the BBC in 2022, later dispelled by his own brother, collides with his own lack of sentimentality about his career, having only taken over “Pick of the Pops” four months ago, with further projects to come.

Usually a straightforward and nostalgic chart rundown, Steve Wright turned “Pick of the Pops” into a Steve Wright show: engaging chat, meticulously researched facts, and massive current-sounding jingles firing off all over the place, the energy kept high throughout. He did cut off a few songs too early, but name a DJ that hasn’t done the same.

What makes a Steve Wright show can be tracked through an abundance of radio recordings, and listings in the “Radio Times”. Starting his professional broadcasting career at the launch of Radio 210 in Reading in 1976, presenting evening and weekend shows, he was interviewing Marc Bolan and his wife Gloria Jones within its opening fortnight. Wright’s confident and cheeky radio personality is already evident, with only the jingles and content telling you what year it is, despite having to give way to AA Roadwatch telling the audience that the car parks in Bracknell are filling up fast. He also displays the “gift of the gab” required at a time when there were still restrictions on playing records on UK radio.

After three years, a six-month stint at Radio Luxembourg had Wright reading the news bulletins during his own evening show – the peppering of news headlines, weather, showbiz stories and “Strange But True” features through an average Wright show, over and above the news already on BBC Radios 1 and 2, would be read in the same way, more conversational than authoritative, keeping the audience both engaged and informed – “infotainment” is an apt description for any of Wright’s shows.

Headhunted by the BBC, Wright’s first two years on Radio 1 were essentially a bootcamp - if you weren’t a top-class national broadcaster by the end of this, no-one will be. His first Radio 1 show was on 5th January 1980, presenting Saturday evenings for three months. One month later, Wright presented “Top of the Pops” for the first time without a screen test. After covering the flagship breakfast show during April, and after taking May off, Sunday mornings became Wright’s main show in June - this month also had him present his first Radio 1 Roadshow from that year’s Lawnmower Grand Prix in Holt, Wiltshire. From June to August, he also presented a Saturday lunchtime hour titled “The Amazing Facts and Figures Show”: a “Radio Times” listing in July had Wright saying that “collecting useless but often fascinating bits of information has always been a thing of mine, and it’s surprising what you find out.” The “Strange But True” and “Factoids” features and spin-off books make perfect sense now, especially the one that stuck in my mind: if you unfurl a human brain, you can cover an ironing board with it.

Wright moved to Saturday mornings at the end of August while both frequently covering other presenters’ shows during the week, while acting as film reviewer for fellow host Andy Peebles. This continued until October 1981, when what became known as “Steve Wright in the Afternoon” began, although he continued reviewing films on other shows for the station. The lightly satirical characters like Mr Angry, Damien the social worker and local radio DJ Dave Doubledecks would start to appear, the meticulous preparations for each show becoming more apparent, inviting comparisons with Kenny Everett.

All this happened before you get to what people start with when they talk about Steve Wright: the “zoo radio” format, with lots of co-presenters, lots of features, big interviews replacing character sketches, lots of clapping and lots of “love the show, Steve!” from listeners’ messages. Hearing him speak on his Radio 1 show from May 1983 about spending a week in Los Angeles and New York, mostly listening to the radio and watching CNN and MTV, explains why his shows for the BBC right up to 2024 retained an energy not present on other British radio shows – it had to be imported. Scott Shannon innovated the “morning zoo” breakfast show on WRBQ-FM in Tampa, Florida, taking it to WHTZ in New York – Shannon did not continue with the zoo format upon leaving WHTZ in 1989, but the station continues to run a similar format at breakfast time today.

The major innovation Wright had upon the zoo format was to run it in a continent where, if people weren’t experiencing a lull in their day at 2pm, they were taking a nap. It was a second wind for its audience as much as an entertaining listen, augmented by bespoke jingles sourced from New York production houses. Ironically, when Wright moved to the Radio 1 breakfast show in 1994, carrying the existing format didn’t work, and his Radio 1 career ended the following year – perhaps it was a bit full-on for British audiences at that time of day. After a short break in television and at Talk Radio UK, Wright joined Radio 2 in 1996 for two weekend shows, resuming an updated afternoon show in 1999 that, while toned down a little, remained an outlier to how the rest of the station sounded.

I am not ready to talk about Steve Wright in the past tense, and listening to so much of his work from across his career only made me wonder what he could have done next. His public modesty about his own career is admirable, and while he never really got personal on air, you were always left with the impression that he was a thoroughly sincere and hard-working man, such as when he spoke to Simon Garfield for his book about BBC Radio 1, “The Nation’s Favourite”:

“Part of the success of the afternoon programme wasn’t the fact that we were postmodern and smart, it was that we were reliable and friendly. You could switch on wherever you were and be amused and have a friend. That sounds terribly pretentious, but it’s true: it’s comforting, it’s something nice, it’s upbeat, we tried only to reflect the good, the funny and the interesting... It's just a jobbing broadcaster doing a gig. When you do a show you can't think of the exact numbers of people tuning in and how it compares with the last figures - such thoughts are impostors. What people remember is the time you got them through their depression, or the time you helped them with their exams... Everything else is unimportant. At the end of the day it's just entertainment. Nobody has a disease.”

Sunday, February 11, 2024

ONE PILL MAKES YOU LARGER [435]


The Wachowski sisters’ film “The Matrix”, the wildly successful and thoughtful cyberpunk science fiction action blockbuster, was released in March 1999, long enough ago for my first copy of the film to be on VHS, bought from no less than Blockbuster Video. It was the widescreen release, reducing the picture resolution to only about a hundred lines – it was “letterboxed” as in like watching it through next door’s letterbox. No wonder I swapped it for a DVD at the first opportunity, and later a Blu-ray boxset of what had become a trilogy. 

 

I like “The Matrix” for the same reason I say that Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” is my favourite film: it has everything in it. It is visually vibrant and innovative, densely plotted, filled with action, and it stays with you after the end, withstanding repeated viewings. It was like the nature of what a blockbuster film could be had changed, something which didn’t bear fruit much beyond its own three sequels.  

 

The comparative box office failure of 2021’s fourth instalment, “The Matrix Resurrections”, may have put pay to the chances of the original film’s twenty-fifth anniversary being officially recognised, but it remains important to me. The anniversary cannot be marked by the US Library of Congress adding it to the National Film Registry for future preservation, because that already happened in 2012, when it was inducted alongside “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, “Dirty Harry” and “A Christmas Story”. 

 

Cyberpunk was a subculture still current in 1999, but also nearly twenty years old, and the combination in “The Matrix” of technology, music and fashion, with added martial arts and gunfire, may have redefined that term in the mainstream, the nature of “the matrix” as a simulation and distraction of the real world of the film prepared its audience for when the World Wide Web would become exactly that. The Wachowski sisters’ innovation of “bullet time”, freezing action to move around it before continuing, has been copied endlessly, as has the “digital rain” of phosphorous green code and text on a black background, itself inspired by the 1995 anime “Ghost in the Shell”.

 

Much was made at the time of the use of postmodernist philosophy in the story of “The Matrix”, either to put the film above the action-fare characterised as mindless, or to say that it was too complicated for audiences to understand. The Wachowskis issued copies of postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s 1981 book “Simulacra & Simulation” to the cast and crew. Baudrillard himself said the film had nothing to do with this work, which was more about the breakdown of distinctions between reality and simulation until the latter takes precedence, but then again, it is also about the implosion of meaning in the media... well, at least that sentence appears in my copy of his book.

 

I will admit I had problems following “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions” when they were in cinemas, but the epic nature of the story allowed you to get lost in it. Having already been used to the layering of references and meaning in “The Simpsons”, to be uncovered as your knowledge increased, I thought “The Matrix” will be the same. Only in August 2020, when Lilly Wachowski said that she and Lana had written and directed a trilogy with implicit transgender themes, my thoughts were, in order, (a) I wish they said that at the time, (b) how did I miss that, (c) 1999 may have been too early to say explicitly, and (d) that makes the films so much easier to understand, what with Keanu Reeves’ character Neo being alerted to their true nature, as well as that of the world around them, along with the villain Agent Smith only referring to Neo by the name the Matrix gave them –this would also apply to Trinity, Morpheus and so on.

 

When I saw “The Matrix Resurrections”, I took issue with criticisms of its internal commentary, and replaying of scenes from the original film: “To make a new ‘Matrix’ film is to comment on what has happened to our representation of the world in the last eighteen years, because that is the only acceptable way to do it.” It is my favourite film of the now-tetralogy, just as my favourite film of the “Back to the Future” trilogy is the second one.

 

We are now at a point where cyberpunk may now be understood as a historical period in popular culture, just as the dystopian worlds depicted in its literature and films resemble reality greater than they ever did. With “the matrix” now being misappropriated for personal gain by whoever Andrew Tate thinks he is, and “taking the red pill” being used as by right-wing groups as a term for “freeing” themselves from what they believe is a simulation of the world created by liberal ideology, a celebration of “The Matrix”, and what it really is about, couldn’t be timelier.

 

I now need to square how a previous film that also starred Keanu Reeves, the critically derided “Johnny Mnemonic”, came to influence “The Matrix”.

Sunday, February 4, 2024

DON’T EVER CHANGE, NEVER CHANGE [434]


The Isle of Man is part of the British Isles, but not part of the UK. It is a self-governing Crown Dependency, but the UK government is responsible for its defence and representing its interests abroad. The British monarch is the Isle of Man’s head of state, and their head appears on their currency, the value of the Manx pound being tied to the British Pound.

The Isle of Man government has said it will no longer produce their own 1p and 2p coins, as they cost more to produce than their face value. Businesses on the island have been asked to start rounding prices to the nearest 5p, in preparation for shortages of the lower value coins in the coming years.

This is old news to many people. Six countries that have the Euro as their currency have not used one- and two-cent coins since 2013, something I hardly noticed when I visited the Republic of Ireland in 2016. The policy there is also to round up the final amount to pay to the nearest five cents, a policy introduced in Sweden in 1972 when they began a similar process with the krona – the öre still exists as one hundredth of a krona, but the one-krona coin has been the smallest unit of physical currency since 2010.

The last item I bought for a penny was a few years ago, a second-hand book obtained through Amazon, although the cost of postage must have made up for any shortfall. I remember being able to buy penny sweets individually, but that was in the 1990s.

The time is now ticking on the practicality of the British penny, despite the protestations of coin collectors. My own coin collection exists mainly to have examples of old coins, like the old pre-decimal farthing, one quarter of a penny when 240 pennies made a pound, itself withdrawn in 1960. I also own three unopened rolls of decimal half-penny coins, withdrawn in 1984 when dividing a pound into more than a hundred units became useless. Few coin-operated payment machines in the UK now accept coins under 10p in value – by the way, one Swedish krona happens to be worth between seven and eight pence. I usually only carry coins in an emergency, anticipating if a car park is only accepting cash, or if a card payment machine in a shop is broken, otherwise only paying in coins to get rid of the weight received as change from using banknotes. I would be fine with the “shilling” being the lowest value British coin, as the five pence coin is smaller in size than a penny.

Coins don’t wear away that fast, so coin collectors will be fine for some time to come – this group is the reason I rarely see a fifty pence coin in my change, as they are usually issued these days as special editions. A new set of standard, “definitive” coins will be introduced by the Royal Mint, with a dormouse and red squirrel on the 1p and 2p respectively, so they will remain for some time yet. The penny could eventually become a commemorative coin, having been pure silver until the switch to copper in 1796, before bronze and copper-coated steel followed – this will allow the usually-commemorative crown coin, valued at £5, to finally replace the £5 note.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

LIKE A SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM [433]

AI image generated via Dall-E 3: "cybernetics, but without using human form"

I have built a long enough list of words I have needed to look up to clarify their meaning, I could start my own dictionary – “proscribe”, “sententious”, “speechify”, “extant” and “disdain” have been my most recent additions. I like to be sure, and I want to be clear, so I need to use the right word if I can.

“Cybernetics” is one of those words for which I felt I should know the meaning, but the breadth of the subject made it hard to grasp in one go, when what I would like is a working definition that may form the basis of further discussion. Therefore, the grasping has become the discussion.

When I previously defined cybernetics here as “the science of control systems, communications and technology”, I was still under the impression that the term was mostly to do with technology, the prefix “cyber-” having been popularised in the 1980s by the cyberpunk movement of culture and literature. The use of “cyberspace” to describe online space also dates from then, but the word dates from the 1960s, “Atelier Cyberspace” having been the name of a husband-and-wife artistic group from Denmark producing installations about the management of physical space.

“Cybernetics”, both the word and the discipline, dates to 1948 and the publication of the book “Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine” by Norbert Weiner, following a Greek word meaning “steersman”, but more usually translated as “governor”. This title is similar to definitions I found for “cybernetics” used by the Oxford English Dictionary at OED.com, and via the macOS Dictionary app, which used the Oxford Dictionary of English. Merriam-Webster is more detailed: “the science of communication and control theory that is concerned especially with the comparative study of automatic control systems (such as the nervous system and brain and mechanical-electrical communication systems).” This definition reads like it was written before technology captured the meaning of the first two syllables, examinations into artificial intelligence as part of cybernetics having begun further into the 1950s.

The most straightforward and useful definition of cybernetics I have found is in the book “Anti-Oculus: A Philosophy of Escape” by the artistic and philosophical collective Acid Horizon, published in 2023 by Repeater Books: “Cybernetics is the interdisciplinary science of control and communication. One can use cybernetics as a science to build social machines of control, and one can use cybernetics to analyse the machinations of production that attempt to direct and govern social reality.”

After positing that we have arrived at the “vision of ecstasy and anxiety all at once” promised by cyberpunk, the book explores how we can escape the management and control inherent in this “Cybercene”, by way of a manual produced by a fictional institute concerned with studying how systems organise, recognise and compartmentalise ourselves. The idea of this book is exciting, and it is my reason for making cybernetics that will come up here in future: it is “having a moment”. Deciding what kind of world you want to have starts with how the world acts with you, or on you.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

DO YOU WANNA KNOW HOW IT FEELS? [432]


My musical listening journey has created a list of artists and bands for whom I don’t have a physical copy of any of their music, an omission to remedy someday: Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, the Spice Girls and so on. Some works demand better than the lossy compressions of MP3 or streaming.

Kate Bush is a different matter. Upon realising I had none of her albums, I felt embarrassed by this admission - how can I have all of David Bowie’s studio albums, but nothing by Kate Bush? I practically ran to the nearest HMV to stock up: “Hounds of Love”, “The Red Shoes”, “Never For Ever”, “The Kick Inside” and “The Sensual World”, one each of what the store had in stock. 

My CD collection felt complete in that moment, and seemingly remains so until I decide I really need something by Pink Floyd, for Kate Bush always feels like a special occasion, whenever I hear a song by her, and no matter how often I hear those songs. 

From the ethereal nature of early hits like “Wuthering Heights”, “Them Heavy People” and “Wow”, to the spiky characters of “The Dreaming” album, and the triumph of both sides of “Hounds of Love”, Kate Bush’s output became better as more creative freedom was afforded to her, and her increasingly experimental albums, made in her own time, at home through technological advances and portability, like the Fairlight CMI album first used on “Babushka”, have allowed this experimentation and freedom to become mainstream.

My favourite Kate Bush album is 1985’s “Hounds of Love”, and my favourite song of her songs is “Running Up that Hill (A Deal with God)”, from the commercial-led side A of that album – the perceived failure of 1982’s “The Dreaming”, which still reached number 3 in the charts despite singles not charting, led to a compromise that put more avant-garde material onto side B, while also becoming Bush’s first album recorded entirely at home, in her own time, at her own pace.

“Running Up That Hill” reached number 1 in the UK singles chart for three weeks in June 2022, having been used as a plot device in the Netflix TV drama “Stranger Things”. Having a song that talks about exchanging sexes to achieve a greater understanding to have come back from 1985 to become more relevant and celebrated than ever intended, is perhaps one of the best things that could have happened in pop music, and it was entirely deserved – it was like us, as the audience, had caught up with the song at last.

Kate Bush’s last album of new material was 2011’s “50 Words for Snow”, a chamber-pop-jazz-ambient album based around a single theme, with no track shorter than seven minutes in length. There is a natural expectation for any future release, but I currently like to think that she thought long enough to make music her way, having achieved a position where she can make music entirely for herself, any clash this makes with the image of a publicly accessible rock star is her audience’s problem alone.  

Sunday, January 14, 2024

STUMBLE YOU MIGHT FALL [431]

The BT Tower, seen from St Paul's Cathedral

Leaving home for work as usual, I opened the BBC Sounds app on my phone to play BBC Radio 6 Music. Chris Hawkins has a brilliant weekly feature about people’s names heard unintentionally during songs, and as the time for it approached, the app would not load. Sometimes it takes a while, but realising this was taking longer than usual, I opened my web browser to stream the station via the BBC’s website. This also failed to load, along with any other website I tried.

Arriving at my bus stop, unable to check why my phone had no internet signal, I hoped the bus company’s app will let me catch the bus. Restarting my phone did not re-establish any connection. Fortunately, I was able to carry on my journey, as whatever codes needed for the app to work today must have downloaded previously.

Unaccustomed to travelling in silence, and with my MP3 player at home, I was resigned to listening to music saved to my phone before the near-unlimited choice of a music streaming app made purchases rare. I compromised with the Muzak Corporation’s “Stimulus Progression 5” background music album, various songs by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, and the reworked version of David Bowie’s 1987 “Never Let Me Down” album released in 2018, an interesting exercise that could still have been left alone. Listening to the sublime original “Rawlinson End” piece by Vivian Stanshall, I thought of looking up more information about it, then had to sit there realising I could not – I couldn’t leave my bus to work to stop at a library.

Finally logging into my work computer confirmed that Vodafone, my mobile network, had an outage of their 4G and 5G internet networks, but not phone calls and text messages – Vodafone introduced text messages to the world, so maintaining its use must be a point of pride. I thought the internet came back just before starting work at 9am, but this was after going to an area of the building with poor reception (the staff toilets) caused my phone to search out the still operating 3G network instead. This network will be phased out by Vodafone during 2024 to bolster 4G and 5G reception, a good idea in the circumstances, but GPRS (General Packet Radio Services), introduced in 2001 and still used for calls and messages, will remain.

Cybernetics is a subject I plan to discuss in greater detail in coming weeks, but nothing serves to focus your mind on the science of control systems, communications and technology than being temporarily kicked out of such a control system. As much as I would like to think I could live without the internet, I have surely arrived at the point where any period of disconnection will cause frustration. Its initial usefulness became a welcome extension of myself, and it may be time to properly make sense of that.

Everything was back to my new normal by 11am, and I listened to Chris Hawkins’ radio feature during lunchtime.

Saturday, January 6, 2024

I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE [430]

The famous "South Park" disclaimer

Would saying “this article is based on a true story” make you more likely to read it?

Is this because you are assured of reading something true to life, inspired by real events, or because it will shed light on a wider truth? Or did I use it as a marketing tool, knowing it would work?

The truth is that I wrote “this article is based on a true story” on a Post-It note with no idea of what I meant by writing it, or of what I would do with it. This sums up my feelings about this phrase: by itself, it means nothing, but it is used to ascribe worth to other things.

Two examples of stories “based on a true story”, when they are not, are Joel & Ethan Coen’s 1996 film “Fargo”, which infamously begins with a message saying it is a true story, but in reality is a fictional story based around a real murder; and “Saturday Night Fever”, a film based on a “New York” magazine article of which its writer, Nik Cohn, revealed twenty years later was a fictional story, but inspired by people he met. “Based on a true story” perhaps sounds more “official” than “inspired by true events”, because that could feasibly be used to describe the inspiration for any and all stories.

An article on MTV’s website from 2005 quotes Joel Cohen from a “Time Out” magazine interview, which I have been unable to find online, saying “if an audience believes that something's based on a real event, it gives you permission to do things they might otherwise not accept.” The MTV article, by Karl Heitmueller, talks about the veracity of “The Amityville Horror” series of films, real-life atrocities being the reliable sponge base for many horror film cakes.

Disclaimer for the HBO film "Phil Spector" (2013)

For me, verisimilitude has more importance. The average Batman comic book story could be completely fantastical, from the villains to the technology deployed and the way Gotham City is portrayed, but there are elements of truth or realism that make the more outlandish elements plausible. I think this is why, in terms of the fictional stories I read or watch, I can get along with “Blade Runner” more than “Lord of the Rings” – the former, especially through its city setting, has a more immediately familiar verisimilitude to me from real life, while the rich world-building of the latter, well, builds its own plausibility, rewarding the audience’s attention.

I don’t find myself watching a straight drama very often – that is, one not tinged by a genre, like science fiction. One was “Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War”, a 2012 Australian two-part mini-series about the commercial professional cricket tournament set up for a media mogul’s television network. The two characters that drew me the most into the story were TV executive Gavin Warner, who bore the pressure of making this outlandish idea work, and Packer’s personal assistant Rose, both reflecting and deflecting her employer’s monstrous personality. 

At the end of the second episode, I saw the cast explicitly listed them as “fictional character[s]”. At the time, I felt a little like I had wasted my time in watching scenes that did not happen, but I recognised this artistic license was needed for the story to work as a drama – a talking heads-style documentary, or even a docudrama, could give you the facts efficiently, but making an emotional connection requires a different approach. I did like the fact that the credits were honest - the creation of a fictional assassin in the 1932 MGM film "Rasputin and the Empress", and the defamation trial that followed, prompted the adoption of the famous disclaimer “The events and characters depicted in this photoplay are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”

In 2023, “Based on a True Story” was used to name a TV comedy series about an estate agent with a “true crime”-themed podcast, also named “Based on a True Story”. The success of this series may determine future (over-)usage of the phrase.