Saturday, July 29, 2023


Each Saturday, I have ripped out and saved Caitlin Moran’s weekly column from “The Times” newspaper, one of my inspirations for these articles. Printed in their magazine, my cutting down the page’s sides, to fit into an A4 folder, is always a job for another time. A week ago, the shape of the magazine thinned down to A4 size, much to my approval. This change was prompted by the closure of the Prinovis printing plant in Liverpool in June 2023, leaving Walstead, owner of five printing presses, as the UK’s last large volume printer of magazines.

The rising cost of paper is as much a contributor to the declining circulation figures for magazines as the preference to read online. Popular titles like “Marie Claire”, “Glamour”, “Time Out” and “NME” are only found online in the UK, the latter two having relaunched as free magazines before withdrawing from print altogether. Others either print fewer issues a year, like “Cosmopolitan” (from monthly to bi-monthly) and “Time” (from weekly to fortnightly), while I stopped buying the “Radio Times” once the price of a weekly issue reached £4.00 in 2022, having reached the point for me where the time-limited use of a TV listings guide becomes too expensive to be a disposable item.

The only magazines I now buy regularly are the cheap and grimly functional “What’s On TV” because, like bus timetables, I find TV listings easier to read on paper; the aforementioned “Cosmopolitan”, whose annual subscription rate remained static as the number of issues per year dropped; and “Private Eye”, the satirical news magazine whose enduring cultural relevance, and “print first” publishing order, means its sales figures have never been higher. Any other magazine purchase either has to be for something I know I am going to keep, like the “Sight & Sound” decennial list of the greatest films of all time, or for a specific article I need to read for research – I would not create an online login in order to read one article from, say, “The New Statesman”, but I wouldn’t spend £5.50 on a print issue unless they provided me with a really good reason.

From my own behaviour, I can see traditional print magazines dissipating into two categories: online-only publications, and “bookazines”, the latter name currently applied to special-edition magazines on one subject, or compilations of previously printed material, whose presentation without advertising means the price approaches the £10-12 normally spent on a book, and more likely to be kept by its owner like a book. To that end, the music magazine “NME”, originally a weekly music newspaper and magazine until it became online-only in 2018, will introduce a bi-monthly premium magazine in 2023, “reprinting” online articles aimed at capturing a moment in time instead of what is coming next, with a limited print run and restricted availability to build scarcity and hype, and a cover price of £10, all aimed at people who will treat the magazine’s purchase like they would a vinyl record. That doesn’t sound like something that can be put in a recycling bin once you have finished reading it.

Sunday, July 23, 2023


Sir Elton John has been a constant and welcome presence in popular culture for over fifty years because he is seen as honest, genuine and emotionally complex as the songs he and Bernie Taupin have written since 1967, and we have responded in kind: “Your Song” is everybody’s song, his speaking about his sexuality helped change public attitudes, and he’s now been in the public eye longer wearing a wig than not, and we still don’t care.

Having not engaged in the sort of alternate persona building or avantgarde soundscapes that became expected with each new David Bowie album, an Elton John album has sweeping ballads, or barnstorming rock standards, with chords influenced by gospel, all coming from the minds of two people who found their Georgia located north of Wembley. 

This is why I’m still bemused by “Regimental Sgt. Zippo”, having only just become aware of its existence. The first Elton John album was a psychedelic rock album inspired more by The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Procul Harum than Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis, with heavy organ and harpsichord forming the album’s sound as much as piano. Recorded between November 1967 and May 1968, the album was ultimately shelved - some songs were released in a box set in 2018, with the full album not seeing the light of day until July 2021.

The title track is the sticking point. John started recording this album six months after the release of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, and the same month as their single of “Hello, Goodbye” and “I Am the Walrus”. “Regimental Sgt. Zippo” is evocative of that period, when that heavier, psychedelic sound was prevailing in pop music, and can subsequently be folded into any playlist of music from that period, its being an Elton John album making it a novelty. To that end, I latched on to the heavier sound of “Nina” as making it the best song on the album, followed by the title track, with the more frivolous sound of “When I Was Tealby Abbey” being welcome. For an album that would have been released in 1968, there had to be songs titled “Angel Tree” and “A Dandelion Dies in the Wind”.

For me, the weak points were “Turn to Me” and “Sitting Doing Nothing”, sounding more like standard pop songs, the former sounding like it could have been written by anyone. The curiosity of “Sitting Doing Nothing” is its rarity as a song with Elton John lyrics, with music by producer Caleb Quaye - a nice little poem about being told you are lazy by people who wished they were as free as you are, the melody makes it sound simpler still.

At the time of the album’s recording, John and Taupin were staff songwriters for Dick James Music, cranking out songs on demand for clients - Taupin was given an hour for lyrics, and John just thirty minutes for the music. These songs feel like they were written under these conditions, meeting the moment rather than making it. With John having a parallel career at the time as a session musician, backing vocalist and anonymous performer of cover versions on cheap compilation albums, having your own album is the inevitable next step, but not with these songs. 

The first released Elton John album is “Empty Sky”, released in June 1969, and while I previously put its sound down to having been released that year – more progressive rock than psychedelic, more harpsichord than organ, and John and Taupin directed to write more for themselves – it now sounds like a bridge between “Regimental Sgt. Zippo”, which has the same band, and the first “proper” Elton John album, the self-titled 1970 release that includes “Your Song”, “Border Song” and “Take Me to the Pilot”. This third album, and most people’s first encounter with Elton John, properly displayed John’s and Taupin’s own voice as songwriters, which belied its origin as a sampler for those songs more than a proper album, and John’s confidence as a singer that saw him break the United States before the UK. That’s what you get for being yourself. 

Saturday, July 15, 2023


Once upon a time, British adults raced home from work to watch a cartoon before the evening news. Starting with Eric Thompson’s subversive re-voicing of “The Magic Roundabout”, a succession of five-minute delights aired around 5.40pm on BBC One from 1965 to 1983, like “The Wombles”, “The Perishers”, “Fred Bassett” and “Willo the Wisp”, before Richard Baker or Kenneth Kendall appeared to snap you back to reality.


Today, with “The Simpsons”, “King of the Hill” and “Family Guy” cementing adult animated shows firmly into primetime, the American TV strand Adult Swim, which began as a three-hour slot for offbeat shows on a Sunday night in 2001, has reached parity with its parent channel, Cartoon Network: having steadily expanded to eleven hours a day from 7pm Eastern Standard Time, it will begin from 6pm from August 2023, its Sunday start time remaining at 9pm. Adult Swim has arguably become its own channel, taking up virtually half the pool’s opening time, as Cartoon Network uses a closedown sequence that will soon say “good night” to its audience at 5.59pm.


This is a generational change in both the content and the technology of television. Cartoon Network began in 1992 as a round-the-clock playback of TV shows and theatrical cartoons, like Looney Tunes, that its audience watched on a Saturday morning. This continued through the addition of Boomerang and Cartoonito in the early 2000s as extra channels to show those older shows, and pre-school programming, while Cartoon Network concentrated on its own original shows like “Dexter’s Laboratory”, “The Powerpuff Girls” and “Samurai Jack” - the new 6pm hour of Adult Swim will repeat series like these, originally known as “Cartoon Cartoons”, in a nostalgic slot titled “Chequered Past”, evoking the original Cartoon Network logo, before going into a schedule that draws on its own library of shows, currently dominated by “Rick & Morty”, that have built up over the last twenty years.


With two-thirds of Cartoon Network’s TV audience aged over 18, and most of the intended audience of 6-12 audiences watching online without knowing a time before streaming services, traditional linear broadcast television channels are now in a battle to maintain the remaining eyeballs still looking at them. They are now the secondary way to find television programmes, the last way to have their content just presented to you, still capable of bringing many people together, but only for some of the time.


In Cartoon Network’s case, it is putting on repeats of “King of the Hill” on Adult Swim, for people like me who didn’t want to watch the news when they arrived home, and staying on air until 9pm on Sundays to show family films that may not even be animated. For TLC, the History Channel or Syfy, it is by putting on programmes that don’t match the channel’s original purpose. In the BBC’s case, it is cutting into BBC One’s primetime schedule with hours of Wimbledon tennis, and Sir Elton John’s Glastonbury show, because they were live events that millions were going to watch at the same time. For ITV, it is having three hours of “Coronation Street” every week, and another three of “Emmerdale”, to keep people coming back for the next instalment. For Channel 4, it means now ending trailers for programmes by saying “stream weekly or watch live tonight...”

Sunday, July 9, 2023


I never could say that I flew Concorde but, courtesy of the Intrepid Air & Space Museum, I can say I have sat in British Airways G-BOAD, which flew from New York to London in a record time of two hours, fifty-two minutes and fifty-nine seconds.

However, this record was achieved on 7th February 1996, a long time for such a record to go unsurpassed. Once capable of travelling at twice the speed of sound, this plane’s wing was used by me earlier that day as an awning from the summer heat.

Having previously written about the idea of “the future” having ended with the withdrawal of Concorde from service in 2003, with supersonic passenger travel having turned back into a goal for another generation, I am guilty of believing that speed equals progress. Taking seven hours cross the Atlantic feels like a compromise, the ability to travel faster having now passed, no matter how expensive the flight on the most exclusive of aircraft had been.

Tour groups could sit in the front few rows of G-BOAD, with the remainder of the cabin, galley and toilets roped off. After hearing about the history and technical feats of Concorde, a few of us at a time could look into the tightly-packed cockpit while the guide answered our questions. Developed in the 1960s and using manual, analogue controls, a separate flight engineer sat with the pilots to manually control the fuel from the thirteen fuel tanks across the aircraft, and crucially maintain its centre of gravity. It was explained to us that two people were required to fly the plane, while the third ensured there was still a plane to fly.

What passed for luxury seating and space on Concorde following its final 2001-02 refit is equal to Premium Economy on a Boeing 777, plus leather seats, and minus the in-flight entertainment. But with Concorde being its own attraction, having your meals served on fine china, and receiving a certificate to commemorate your flight, more than balances out having a few stereo music channels available to listen. 

My question to the guide concerned not speed, or the pressure exerted on the plane during supersonic travel – the tiny windows being the alternative to having none at all – but the luggage space. 

It turns out that cabin luggage allocations were the same as for a regular flight, although the overhead bins were quite shallow, while only one 12kg suitcase was allowed in the hold, located at the rear. This followed an initial period of the luggage being delivered on a separate plane, negating the time saved by the supersonic journey, but outside of those taking the weekly trips made by Concorde to Barbados, you were most likely an executive on a business day trip to sign contracts, and carrying hand luggage only. You could still get a bag under the seats.

This confirmed to me that speed was the only advantage Concorde really had. Its prohibitive development cost, and the luxury level at which it was sold to recoup that cost, meant it was never developed any further, leaving reinvention as the next step. The online realm also eliminated the time advantage it offered for business customers, meaning new reasons must be found for needing to travel so fast, other than expecting it to be an option.


They say never to meet your heroes...

Saturday, July 1, 2023


Jamestown LP /

After looking into the history of the building-cum-billboard located at One Times Square, I made a mental note to check on its current state, now it was certain I would walk past it again. 


What I was not expecting was for a lot of it to not be there, the structure having been stripped back to its metal frame and encased in netting, ahead of its second near-total rebuild, this time in glass and lights, anticipated to reopen in Autumn 2024. The rebuilding work had actually begun in June 2022, and while the New Year’s ball and the largest, north-facing billboard were removed for part of this time, they were both back by my visit in June 2023, remaining the building’s biggest money-spinners.


The plans are impressive, and are intended to make One Times Square the main visitor centre for New York City, according to co-owner Jamestown LP at, their website for the $500 million development. 


The shorter front section of the building, a natural place for an observation deck, will now host one, accessed by glass lifts placed on the outside of the structure, providing views across Times Square, and down to the TKTS booth and bleacher seats placed opposite it since 2008. 


With the building’s small footprint unsuitable for modern office requirements, only one floor is being retained as office space, most likely for the organisers of the New Year’s celebrations to return. Efforts to return the inside of the building to full use after decades of abandonment include six floors will become a museum for Times Square, and of the building itself, while space for a traditional shop remain at ground level, alongside an improved subway entrance.


The most interesting section of the development involves a Web 3.0 reinvention of the exposition spaces previous building owner Allied Chemical once provided, essentially allowing companies to advertise inside the structure as well as outside: “One Times Square will also connect visitors to their favorite brands through immersive, technology-enabled activations across 12 floors, including digital, virtual, and augmented reality experiences. For the first time in decades, the public can experience the home of the New Year's Eve Ball in a more meaningful way.”


While sounding like a version of the original Epcot Centre at Walt Disney World, with corporate-sponsored visions of the future, it will be extremely interesting to see if One Times Square can pull this off, because in reserving physical spaces for experiences while having an official place in the metaverse at Decentraland, a space I have only just found about, it has a head start against the decline in the office market affecting other buildings in New York, cementing its new use before one needs to be found for the others. With the Paramount Theatre in Times Square having been filled in by offices in the 1960s, perhaps it might be time to dig it back out and put on a show?