Pablo Honey

It’s February 1993. The indie chart holds itself in an awkward position, between new takes on punk by American start-ups and characteristically wry British bands without a single umbrella term to hang over them. The top ten indie chart for February 1993 runs from Sugar and Tad and Huggy Bear – all unknowns even outside the few remaining true “record shops” by the winter of that year, never mind today – to Suede and Cornershop and Belly. Also in that month, Oxford’s Radiohead released their début “Pablo Honey”. For British music, for them, for the charts, corners were turned. Things never quite sounded the same again.

What is “Pablo Honey” today? For whom was Thom Yorke positing “What the hell m’a doin’ here?” Foreshadowing Beck and Weezer, both of whom could have passed ‘Creep’ off as their own, the first album from Radiohead could easily challenge or be challenged by the teenage angst it seemed initially to encapsulate. There are modern day fans of the Manic Street Preachers for whom “Generation Terrorists” is a youthful joke, a throwaway compilation of decent songs with too much naivety, too much eagerness for the title of the next enfants terribles. Who were Radiohead at the time? What label was attached by contemporary critics: indie, grunge, alt.rock, was any of that created yet? Was this the start of shoegazing or the continuation of something else, something older?

“Pablo Honey” begins with “You”, a sarcastic, sardonic love song, with a sneer in vocals and thwacka-thwacka guitars which could have come across the Atlantic. At the time, both US and UK teens had their own brand of educated anti-establishment soundtracks, both of whom documented the end of their own respective worlds. “You” sounds like the linear successor to Morrisey’s forlorn hope from the middle of the previous decade, an update, an extension. Of course, “Creep” would be too mawkish even for The Smiths; as Kurt Cobain would find, such cryptic self-referential anthems would be both albatross and accolade. “Creep”, like “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, both celebrates and derides teenage listlessness, balances the delight and despair of introspection. Did Michael Stipe feel the same, hearing “Losing My Religion” adopted as soundtrack? This unholy triptych, this unlikely period piece of youthful diary-writing, hailed as something so fucking special…

This week, Radiohead released “King of Limbs”. That is, in the language of the 90s, they “released” their new album, for in the 21st Century, they did nothing more than allow fans to pre-book for downloading. Nobody in 1993 could have foreseen the advances in technology, nor could anyone have assumed the indie boys with a sneer and complex lyrics turn away from melody and rhymes and instruments to the Wonderland world of “Kid A”, “Amnesiac”. Listen to “Ripcoard”, the highlight nobody remembers today, and you might as well be comparing Catatonia with Katatonia.

Is “Pablo Honey” any good? Yes. The NME of the time said “…flawed…but satisfying”. Rolling Stone considered it “grungy” before that term was coined. (Well, okay, the Oxford English Dictionary has Vanity Fair using it in 1991 and the Guardian in 1992, but only referring to Nirvana and Hole. I can only suspect that Britain held out against using the term for home-grown bands.)

There are more highs than (artistic) lows on “Pablo Honey”. There is muddle, there is clear teenage shoe-scuffing, there is nothing exactly original (“Prove Yourself” could well be There Might Be Giants.) By “The Bends”, their career advancing classic, Radiohead had moved on as quickly and assuredly as a train moves from station to station. In the context of the new, obscure, unusual release, its dubstep and ambient elements utterly unknown in the early 90s, “Pablo Honey” is the postcard from a past we cannot bring ourselves to entirely forget. It sounds honest even if the content was not entirely true to themselves.

From our vantage point, older and wiser and more knowledgeable, we can understand the exuberance of youthful excitement, of expression and of intent. “Pablo Honey” is not the record of where Radiohead wanted to be; it’s a vital piece of evidence of how much further they were than their peers even then.

Nationstates

Across the Arab World, people of all ages and backgrounds risk their lives in demonstrations against corrupt governments. Meanwhile, our close European cousins risk the chill of the North Sea winds in naked protests against the lack of a government. In the topsy-turvy world of Belgium, never knowingly simple to understand, the longest period of time without a national government continues apace and nobody sees an answer in the short-term.

There is a serious economic side to the otherwise eccentric story that has developed in Belgium since elections last year. The country has severe national debt and the risk of investing with the centre of the European Union has been thrown in serious doubt. Whilst local government continues offering services at ‘street level’, the national scene is one of chaos and confusion. The King of the increasingly polarized Belgians has almost reached the limit to what he can provide in leadership. Away from the high-level talks along the corridors of uncertainty, ordinary Belgians want resolutions. History suggests they will be waiting for a long time.

In short, Beglum (not known as a “made up country” for nothing, in all fairness), is a compromise with a flag and borders. Political parties have split and divided to satisfy the often completely contradictory demands of Francophone and Flemish populations. The small German enclave in the east acts like an unexpected flavour in the bowl of contrasting ingredients which Belgium has become, a failed dessert overcooked and overstirred. Brussels is a Francophone exclave surrounded by the Flemish Region which has been flexing its none-too inconsiderable muscles, the capital city of the EU’s beating heart, watching the fabric of the country flicked and charred by the flames of dissent, exhaustion, frustration.

It was after their most recent election that the Flemish population pushed hard enough to unsettle the columns of compromise that held the state up for decades before. The sight of people marching for the formation of a government must seem like Wonderland stuff under the context of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain; placards and posters uniting citizens under one flag, only for different ends from their means, the flip-side to North Africa’s pleas for representative democracy and economic reform. Belgium, oddly to observers, is a divided country demanding the ties of compromise are brought together tighter.

The southern, French-speaking Wallonia is statistically poorer with double unemployment levels to the right-leaning, Dutch-speaking north. Politicians from both sides spend so long balancing political compromises to the detriment of economic solutions. Resentment of the north by the south permeates across and through all Belgian society. In an example from the fringes, Belgium has alternated French and Dutch-language entries to the Eurovision Song Contest ever year, to keep both sides “sweet”. When, in 1999, the Flemish broadcaster chose an English-language song, tempers flared and questions were raised in Parliament.

Not having a Government for nigh-on 300 days must seem like bliss to demonstrators in the UK from both sides of the political debate. To those under the “UKUncut” umbrella, demonstrating against the Coalition government’s spending proposals from a largely left/leftist perspective, such apparent freedom from a formal government structure must seem like a dream come true. After all, Belgium has not fallen apart, its two sides not torn asunder. If all Belgium has is local government delivering services on a tight budget without central government, without crumbling away to nothing, then why not here? They’ve got a monarchy, so have we, where’s the harm?

From the extreme-right in the UK, demonstrators wanting an England of their own invention, pure of race and colour, march under the St George and Union flags, self-styled ‘Defence Leagues’. It must be attractive to them, too, seeing how a country with two different peoples struggling to survive under one flag. Observe the contrasting sociolinguistic and geopolitical struggles, watch the tension, see how they run. Without a government the two sides are running their own affairs, and even with a government and titular Head, the populations speak their own language and enjoy their own culture. We’ve been force-fed multiculturalism and the diluting of culture for too long, why should this be tolerated further?

England (and I specifically use England, not Britain) has all the makings of another Belgium. My politics, my conviction, is not nationalist, is not flag-waving jingoist. I don’t want or desire a break-up of England anymore than I would like the break-up of the United Kingdom itself per se. Let us look at recent coverage of the Coalition’s plans to reduce the number of MPs by 50; the good burghers of Cornwall signed a petition in their thousands against any new constituency crossing the Tamar. One Mebyon Kernow supporter went on hunger strike. Ask a man from Northallerton where he lives, and he is likely to say Yorkshire before England, and long before Britain. North/South divides in England are almost Belgium reversed: an over-inflated south-east and economically compromised north, pulling in different directions for generations. Can you imagine an England split in two? Would the on-going demonstrations by both left and right result in an England we all wanted to live in?

Each Arab World demonstration has the name of the country seared on the hearts and wrapped around the souls of each protester – Egyptians wanted their country back, Tunisians want their country back, Bahrainians demand (and die for) an island for Sunni and Shia. In England, the political discourse swims around the nationalistic question, flirts with it, places more wood near the fire.

There could be a situation to all this from outside the box entirely, of course. When Belgium needed to choose a Eurovision entry in 2006 they forego Dutch, French and English, chose something in an entirely invented, made-up language and got their best result in nearly 30 years. Maybe there’s a political equivilant answer for England in this…

2010 election spending

The Electoral Commission, as it must every year, publishes the election campaign spending and donations to every political party and candidate , in handy (ish) spreadsheets. Some of the finer details are certainly worth grappling with the sporadic dummy-spitting of Excel’s filters and formatting…

Let’s look at the broad picture first. The general election of 2010 was as much ‘The Expenses Election” as “the expensive one”. The top 200 donations to candidates – not all of them winners, it must be said – totals over £7 million. It takes only 200 candidates to reach six-and-a-half-million pounds in spending. Some “digging down” uncovers the extremes people go to when candidature comes calling; James Thornton, who stood as an Independent in Poplar and Limehouse, spent £269 per vote to come 10th. His final total of nearly £16,000 is staggering.

So to is the percentage of money spent as a proportion of the “aggregate limit”, the legal upper amount allowed for each candidate in their seat. Stephen Lloyd (Liberal Democrat, Eastbourne), spent 99.62% of his allowed amount en route to winning; Christopher Philip (Conservative, Hampstead and Kilburn) didn’t win despite clocking up 98.93% of his maximum allowance. In the case of Stephen Lloyd, the total was just over £39,700.

Ten Labour candidates have who finished second have “total spent” amounts over £30,000. These range from Michael Foster at £38,645.97 (Hastings and Rye) to Jim Kinght (South Dorset) at £31,150.55. Both are former MPs. Both have ‘total donations’ over £30,000.

For the Liberal Democrats, riding at the time a wave of optimism (oh what far away lands that all seems….), the number of candidates topping £30,000 without winning the seat in the “total spend” column is 21, over twice the Labour amount, running from Lynne Beaumont at £30,457.63 (in Folkestone and Hythe, a distant target seat at one point) and up to Martin Tod in Winchester (at a whopping £40,382.72, more than 95% his allotted total). I’ll leave these facts here, you can make up your own mind on things…

Now let us turn to the British National Party, whose focus at the time was the ‘Battle for Barking” led by leader Nick Griffin. The total spend of their candidates who registered any costs adds up to £197,771. This does not include his personal cost of £22,498.77, an amount which is three times more than the next listed BNP failed candidate. (Let’s not forget that Griffin finished third in Barking, blaming the population change of that constituency for his failure).

Another interesting factor about the BNP results has been highlighted by a political forum I visit. Forty-four candidates lodge exactly £800 “total spend”, a further 142 put down their “total spend” at bob-on £400. Is this coincidence? Was Thomas Main (Glasgow North, position 6th) as exact with his financies as David Lomas (Ashton-under-Lyne, 4th)? Was this amount handed to each candidate in non-target seats (that is, anywhere outside Barking)?

Is this very good business sense from the BNP or accounting with a lot of scribbles and unexplained approximations? Is it further coincidence that two National Front candidates – Terry Williams in Birmingham Erdington, and Paul Morris in Birmingham Yardley, also lodged £400 each “total spend” ?

The other side of the financial details deals with political parties as entities in their own right. This tells a lot about the financial health (or otherwise) of the party machines.

Simple things first, then, and that means the column marked “Total” under the heading “Payments Made”. The top 5 are:

* Conservative Party £15,588,708
* Labour Party £7,131,811
* Liberal Democrats £4,718,503
* UK Independence Party £640,877
* Green Party £318,534

This shows the immense paying power of the “mainstream” parties, diverting huge funds (by British standards) into the electoral process. For the Tories, this mammoth amount includes over £6 million on “unsolicited material”, the much more glossy and professional leaflets pushed through your doors. For Labour, who were once on the backfoot with leafleting and doorstep politics, this “unsolicited material” devoured £4.1 million, almost exactly 50% of their total expenditure.

By far the “mighty” party for leafleting – no Lib Dem worth their salt are ever without FOCUS newsletters – the total in this column is £3.05 million.

Tellingly for the Lib Dems, their total for “rallies and events” is under £100,000, whereas Labour spent 8.5 times as much. Only in one regard do the Lib Dems come out as bigger spenders than Labour – “Canvassing and Market Research”, with £12,000 the difference between near-enough half-a-million each on phonebanks. If ever there was a sign that the letterbox isn’t king, this is it. Expect such shifts and changes in electoral campaigning to continue.

Other than stretching my self-taught knowledge of Pivot Tables, where does this leave our understanding of British politics today?

One – and it’s a big one, fnarr fnarr – the amount of money dished out can be explained purely as a consequence of the election being regarded as a) close (and in the end, t’was close), and b) somehow more relevent given all MPs needed to cleanse their reputations and c) somehow more relevant given Esther Rantzen was losing in Luton South (taking of whom, £24,000 spent to finish 4th and have “ESTHER LOSES LUTON SOUTH” appear on the bottom of the BBC News screen). Okay, maybe just “a” and “b”.

The game is never outside the reach of non-party members, though it certainly seems so even under the unique circumstances of 2010. Parties are driven to the brink of bankruptcy by American-style races to the top of the spending tree, desperate to flush more members’ money into risographs and coffee mornings. The overall consequence has not been greater confidence in the political process.

It will be interesting to see what will come from two pressing economic concerns – the diminishing donations into political parties and the general attitude towards political spending. These stats could be the last of their kind…

Voted for

The following MPs are those who voted to reform the rules (however marginally) relating to prisoner voting rights.

1 Barry Gardiner Labour Brent North
2 Kate Green Labour Stretford and Urmston
3 Glenda Jackson Labour Highgate and Kilburn
4 Andy Love Labour Edmonton
5 Kerry McArthy Labour Bristol East
6 John McDonnell Labour Hayes and Harlington
7 Yasmin Qureshi Labour Bolton South East
8 Jeremy Corbyn Labour Islington North
9 Peter Bottomley Conservative Worthing West
10 Caroline Lucas Green Brighton Pavillion
11 Lady Sylvia Hermon Independent Unionist North Down
12 Hywel Francis Plaid Cymru Aberavon
13 Jonathan Edwards Plaid Cymru Carmarthen East and Dinefwr
14 Elfyn Llwyd Plaid Cymru Dwyfor Meirionnydd
15 Lorely Burt Liberal Democrats Solihull
16 Alan Beith Liberal Democrats Berwick-upon-Tweed
17 Tom Brake Liberal Democrats Carshalton and Wallington
18 Duncan Hames Liberal Democrats Chippenham
19 Simon Hughes Liberal Democrats Bermondsey and Old Southwark
20 Julian Huppert Liberal Democrats Cambridge
21 Alan Reid Liberal Democrats Argyll and Bute
22 Stephen Williams Liberal Democrats Bristol West

Robert Miles "Thirteen"

In the mists of time, hidden amongst layers of subsequently placed concerns about paying the bills, football statistics and favourite recipes, is the memory of “Dreamland”, the shockingly successful (16 platinum discs, 12 gold, across 21 countries) album from Robert Miles. If you don’t remember him for “Children”, try “One and One”, the follow-up single with the female vocalist….Got it? Good. Now forget all of that, because it won’t help you one bit here.

“Thirteen” is essentially Miles’ “where I am now” album, and as his sixth studio release it is distinctly soft-rock and guitar wig-outs. The licks of guitars are everywhere; reverb on “Somnambulism”, jamming on “Black Rubber”, and fuzzy amongst the tin-pot drums throughout “Archives”. This possibly is some kind of midlife crisis (Miles is 41), for amongst the mild sci-fi hints (an obscured vocal sample features across all songs saying the same thing) and loose feel of a concept album, all the songs here sound like is the forced marriage of dance and lift muzak.

In fairness, this is not the dance music of the contemporary club scene, and should not be compared with that kind of output. Putting the guitars to one side, as one expects should have been suggested by his producers, the tinny drums and basic chillout here is simplistic stuff. It would appear obvious to point out how disappointing this album is, though they do say “Thirteen” is unlucky.

AVin’ a larf

Those of you with difficulty sleeping may have already noticed how long the House of Lords has held onto the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill. Having started before Christmas, it’s still there and they’re still at it.

One look at the amount of amendments lodged should give a clue as to what is holding back the Bill .

Essentially this Bill is in two halves, and reflects the compromise which ultimately brought the Coalition together. Reducing the number of MPs from the Cameron camp, removing the skewed and failed First Past the Post coming from Clegg. The one Bill – I’ll call it “PVSaC”, which sounds like a minor player in the first post-Communist elections in Transnistria – has joined a whole swathe of constitutional reform coming from the Conservative-led Government, and heaven knows we’ve been waiting for the Tories to flood the Commons with reform (voting change, fixed-term Parliaments, directly elected police chiefs, referendums on proposed council tax rises, what a time to be alive, etc.)

Labour’s foot-dragging has been an affront to democracy. They daren’t even put the door of reform ajar; they would rather lock it shut. Labour’s dinosaurs (“they’re off the leash, as Clegg put it, somewhat muddled) have not “scrutinised” the Bill, they have torn it to shreds. They patronise the electorate – (“People aren’t used to referendums” they say, “They might not know how to cope with multiple ballot papers on the same day”, treating voters as fools for the basis of a strawman argument made not from common-sense but spit and string.)

Make no mistake – this Bill is in serious danger of being talked out. Today, tomorrow and Wednesday is all it has left to have any chance to survive. Labour’s wrecking amendments have already pushed back polling day from May to October, and have promised to talk out the constituency boundary review section until they drop dead rather than hand the Conservatives with constitutional victory. The AV referendum may be suffocated before it is given to the people to decide. How offensive that Labour will be the Party who deny the people a right to say how parliamentarians are voted.

I have been a passionate (and doubtlessly boring) advocate for constitutional reform all my life. It is one of the rare passions I have left. It frustrates and angers me that Labour, of all parties!, are now those standing against reform whilst the Conservatives, of all parties!, are left making the case for change. The decision to talk out the Bill will ultimately kill any chance of future reform for my life time, if not forever.

Between today and Wednesday the future of democratic reform will be drawn. To borrow a phrase; “the Bill has been torn to shreds, the pieces are in flux, what happens when they rest is up to us. Let’s reshape the country.”