The Fallen

Over the past six months bassist Steve Hanley and drummer Simon Wolstoncroft have both released books on life in my favourite band, The Fall, and there’s another one due next year from Brix Smith-Start.  Brix, Hanley and others have also started playing gigs as The Extricated, delivering convincing renditions of old Fall and Adult Net songs.  I wish nothing but good fortune to these folks, who have all played significant roles in creating a body of music which has enriched my life. But I do have mixed feelings about where this is heading.  My 2009 review of the book that kicked it all off might help explain why…

The Fallen
Dave Simpson, CANON GATE ISBN 978 1 84767 144 8 PAPERBACK UK (2008)

Mark E Smith has been keeping the music press supplied with choice anecdotes for many a year, but interest in his behaviour (as opposed to his music) seems to have ramped up quite considerably of late, fuelled in part by his mid-90s excesses and, more recently, his notorious TV appearances on Newsnight and Football Focus, which garnered amused respect from folks who care not a jot about his band The Fall.

And in theory there’s nothing to halt the ongoing rise in MES-mania, as the stories that make it into the media are just the tip of the iceberg. (You’ll be aware of this if you’ve ever encountered the man or know anyone who’s had the pleasure of his acquaintance). So how long before we have newspaper columns, monthly magazines and entire TV channels devoted to his exploits?

For now, we have The Fallen. This is the story of music journalist Dave Simpson’s two year quest to track down and interview as many ex-members of The Fall as possible, originally for a four page Guardian article. For who better to spill the beans about MES than the men and women who worked for him? Indeed, for many music journos the rapid turnover of Fall musicians is the most visible and fascinating manifestation of Smith’s eccentric behaviour. The fact that the quality of The Fall’s music is seemingly immune to lineup changes seems to be particularly confounding for them. The Fall look like a rock band and yet they aren’t.

This sense of bafflement is captured in the paperback edition’s sensationalist tagline: ‘Life In and Out of Britain’s Most Insane Group’. Simpson puts it more grandly in his introduction: it’s ‘a piece of social history: 30 years of music seen through the eyes of the foot soldiers’. Which description is the most accurate? I’m still not sure.

Fall fans have pieced together a lengthy list of said foot soldiers on the band’s unofficial website, but even that’s doesn’t give the whole picture. Without even trying I’ve met two people in different walks of life who claim to have played keyboard for The Fall, neither of whom are mentioned on the website or in the book. Are you among The Fallen too?

Given the scale of the challenge he sets himself, Simpson does as well as anyone could reasonably hope for, interviewing almost all of the significant figures, plus many others who passed through the band briefly but whose stories are revealing or at least entertaining. I’m pleased to report that my personal favourite Fall anecdote (or a variation on it) is present: the story of how Smith, frustrated with slow progress being made at a mixing session, threw his producers off the desk, arranged the faders in a smiley face and said ‘that’s how we’re mixing the track’.

There’s lots here that is laugh-out-loud funny: the chapter on keyboard player / producer Simon Rogers’ time in the band is especially chucklesome. But whilst The Fallen plays the ‘isn’t MES a crazy feller?’ card for all it’s worth, it is at least honest about the impact of Smith’s more destructive and perverse actions, and it does make some interesting if not particularly original observations about Smith’s approach to getting the best out of his band.

But whilst I can usually hoover up as much information about The Fall as the day will allow, I came close to being defeated by the book. About half way through it started to feel rather empty and unedifying, like a very, very long version of those Mojo one-pagers where musicians talk about how they joined a band and how they left, but all the most interesting and productive stuff in the middle is skipped over. For me, initial admiration for Simpson’s persistance and devotion to his task turned to wonder that he managed to get so little out of most of the people he encountered. It’s no surprise that the famously reticent Craig Scanlon would have little to say, but he’s by no means alone. And when long-serving members of the band like drummer Simon Wolstencroft come away with a few unrevealing pages, it starts to look like Simpson isn’t a very capable or sympathetic interviewer.

I wonder if some of The Fallen took Simpson for a chancer, out to ride the wave of interest in MES, and clammed up accordingly. The book may amount to a big group ‘kiss and tell’ session, but its subjects are not, for the most part, bitter and have no axes to grind. In fact they’re almost universally loyal to their former boss, irrespective of any personal gripes they may have him, which is possibly the most heart-warming revelation in the book. As it makes clear, they value the framework and creative encouragement he gave them as well as the opportunity to be part of something special.

Whatever Simpson’s real motivations, a problem manifested in the book is that he only seems to be interested in his interviewees in so far as they can tell him about their boss. There’s a token amount of biographical chat, but the subject soon turns to and stays with Smith, and the book ends up being the worst of both worlds: unsuccessful as a portrait of Smith and unsuccessful as a portrait of his band members. You get little sense of what they did between tours or albums, how they came up with their contributions to Fall songs, or how they went about their collaborations with each other. Sure, Simpson has a lot of ground to cover, and the book is aimed at a casual audience who may not want to know intimate details of every recording session or fist fight, but there must be a more interesting and informative middle ground than he achieves here.

As for Smith, perhaps trying to work out what makes him tick is the real fool’s errand here. Simpson himself concludes that he hasn’t got much closer to knowing the man: ”Like Macavity, The Mystery Cat, the more you try to pin Smith down, the more he slips away”. And given the limitations of Simpson’s approach, we can be thankful he set some limits to his task. If he had kept going and interviewed Smith’s best mates, accountant and postman (who, after all, says Smith’s house is like the bleeding bank of England) it’s not likely that he, or we, would be any the wiser.

Undeniably The Fallen does add plenty of detail to the picture of the band sketched in recent biographies by Simon Ford and Mick Middles. And, given as Smith is to fantasy, exaggeration and self-congratulation, The Fallen should, in theory, be a useful as an objective counterpiece to Smith’s autobiography, Renegade.

But the difference between the two books is instructive. For all the half-informed taxi-driver-rant style of Smith’s book, I found it unexpectedly moving. Smith may be a habitual liar and he is unsentimental to a fault, but he’s also full of ideas and optimism and I came away from Renegade inspired and excited about life, music and creativity. The Fallen just left me depressed.

That’s partly because Simpson’s book ends on a major personal down beat, his obsession with The Fallen eventually causing his long term girlfriend to walk out. In itself this isn’t particularly noteworthy – it’s not the first time a workaholic has alienated his partner – but it somehow becomes pathetic when Simpson tries to weave it into the myth of The Fall. He relates the tale of how Smith berated a particularly annoying journalist with the words, ‘I fucking curse you. You’ve got the Curse of The Fall’. Two days later said journalist had a near-fatal car accident, in just one possible manifestation of Smith’s purported psychic powers. As Simpson proceeds through his journey, he half-jokingly wonders whether Smith has cursed him too. Following the split with his girlfriend, his own car accident, and various other disasters which befall him, he concludes that he too has fallen victim to The Curse of The Fall.

By this point the book has goes seriously awry. Having failed to carve his way into Mark E Smith’s head, Simpson turns his blunt scalpel on Fall fans and himself, asking ‘why are there no Fall ‘fans’, only Fall obsessives?’, and suggesting that obsession with The Fall is a product of a deep psychological flaw: ‘It’s as if we all have a crack in our psyches or a scar in our experiences that makes us susceptible to The Fall’. But he’s wrong about Fall fans: yes, of course I would say that, and many are obsessed, but there’s also plenty of people who like and respect the Fall but whose obsession goes no further than attending a gig or buying a record every few years.

And he’s also wrong to try to treat obsession with The Fall as if it’s a medical condition. With 30 years of intensive and radical music-making behind them, The Fall represent an important contribution to our culture. And with Smith defying all predictions of demise (physical or creative), they’re the band that keeps on giving. They’re worth devoting time to, even obsessing over.

But obsession can take many forms. You can dwell on Smith’s behaviour and try to work out what makes him tick, as Simpson does, or you can get to grips with the messages which are encoded in Smith’s interviews, his approach to making music, and the music itself. Simpson seems fully aware of this side of The Fall, but in an entirely passive way; as a gobsmacked onlooker rather than engaged participant. None of what Smith has to say about imagination, change or self-determination seems to have rubbed off on him.

Two decades ago, in the song ‘Dice Man’, Smith outlined his personal attitude to risk (‘balls on the line, man’) and challenged to his audience to follow suit: “Do you take a chance, fan?” I’d argue that The Fall’s music is one big challenge to engage with Smith’s ideas: to learn from them, integrate them into your life or improve upon them, or to reject them and go your own way. And to obsess about Smith the man – or his band – is to miss the point.

In this light, Simpson’s imagined Curse starts to look like a self-fulfilling prophecy. And from where I stand, there was no need for Mark E Smith to lay that curse on Simpson, he laid it on himself.

Originally published, in slightly different form, in The Sound Projector issue 18.

Consumer Kids: How Big Business is Grooming our Children for Profit

Ed Mayo & Agnes Nairn, Constable (2009)

It’s another day, and here’s another book warning us about the evils of modern capitalist society. This one focuses on the influence of consumerism and advertising on the lives of children. As the father of a five year old, I have an interest in the subject, but I’m also sceptical of the grand claims often made about the power of advertising by both its advocates and its opponents. Not so this book’s authors, who boldly state that ‘marketing today is… the very air that [children] breathe’.

The authors are campaigner Ed Mayo and academic Dr Agnes Nairn, who evidently believe that their approach to the subject is more considered and sensible than most; a middle ground between traditionally polarised positions. And, at one level, the book is a useful objective survey of modern marketing practices, which pays particular attention to the new approaches made possible by widespread access to the Internet and considers how these are these different to previous forms of marketing. Any book that can help us understand changes in society is to be welcomed, but the prominent use in the book’s subtitle of the word ‘grooming’ – with its associations of sexual predators and paedophiles – should tip us off that this isn’t going to be a sober assessment.

Sure enough, the emotive language continues inside. If you thought that ‘behavioural tracking’ was a way of companies keeping tabs on what you buy in order to predict what you might want to buy next, think again: ‘Be under no illusions, someone is stalking your child’. And when a conference pamphlet describes children as ‘secret weapons’ in the war of marketing, Mayo and Nairn choose to take the meaning literally rather than dismissing it as an ill-advised example of marketing industry posture.

‘Catching Children’

That’s the title of the first section of the book, which continues in this overheated and alarmist vein, and follows a template set by popular books such as Fast Food Nation – light blue touch paper, stand back and wait for eruptions of middle class outrage. It also shares the latter book’s simplistic worldview: big corporations run everything, we are subject to powerful commercial forces beyond our control, and we all need protection. And none more so than children. Accordingly, almost every liberal bugbear of the last couple of decades is here, magnified through the lens of child protection – advertising, gambling, teen magazines, pornography, anorexia, body image, objectification of women, materialism, supermarkets, computer games, media violence, mobile phones, junk food, salt, plastic surgery, alcohol, Disney, etc etc.

And, like Fast Food Nation, Consumer Kids is largely content to preach to the converted and doesn’t make any serious attempt to persuade dissenters round to its point of view. Take for example the statement that ‘Around half of children aged 8 to 15 eat from a fast-food outlet at least once a week’. This is clearly intended to be self-evidently shocking but what if, instead, it seems a) unsurprising and b) nothing to worry about? In so far as Mayo and Nairn acknowledge other outlooks, their approach seems to be ‘if that hasn’t shocked you, then perhaps this will’.

One particularly unpleasant example given – a company who marketed pole dancing kits to children – seemed so unlikely, even in today’s highly sexualised times, that it prompted me to check its provenance. The reference given in the book turned out to be erroneous, but Googling the accompanying quotes took me to a hysterical newspaper piece about a mother who happened across the offending items in the Toys section of the Tesco website. If you resist the temptation to scream ‘outrage!’ and instead read the actual details of the story, it looks more like an administrative mistake, arising from confusion about how to categorise ‘adult toys’, than a deliberate attempt to sexualise our children.

Such dubious evidence suggests that, before flying into a blind panic and calling for restrictions and censorship, we should ask ourselves what actual impact this all has on the lives of our children? Despite the book’s claim to detail the ‘real effects of the runaway commercial world we live in’, the evidence it presents runs counter to its message. Every allegation of marketing malpractice is undercut by the supporting testimonies provided, which demonstrate children being far more intelligent and media-savvy that the authors give them credit for, inadvertently suggesting at the same time that a lot of the effort put into marketing is wasted and ineffectual.

Yet Mayo and Nairn appear to be blind to this, and their interpretations of their evidence compulsively negative. For example, when they discover that many young girls gleefully torture their Barbie dolls, they may be right, at a stretch, to speculate that their subjects are ‘reacting viscerally against a product that tried to package a very particular fantasy of how they should be’. We might see this though as a healthy example of children growing out of the toys they liked when they were younger.  However for Mayo and Nairn ‘There is no magic, only betrayal.’ (This begs the question, would they prefer young girls to stay enamoured of their Barbie dolls forever?) Likewise, when the inevitable happens and children learn that many adverts promise much but deliver little, Mayo and Nairn can only grant that they have ‘grown to expect disappointment’.

From this glass-half-empty outlook, advertising is seen as a minefield of thwarted expectations and disappointment. But children’s engagement with advertising isn’t that straightforward or one-sided. I remember spending hours poring through a Hornby trains catalogue when I was a child, fantasising about the games I could play if I got this train or that engine shed. It made a more lasting impact on my imagination than the actual, pretty limited, train set I finally persuaded my parents to buy (although I enjoyed that too). Nowadays I’m pleased to see that toy catalogues still grip my son’s generation with similar fascination, and ‘telly selly’ time (as advert breaks are known in our house, thanks to Tiswas) can be a cause of great excitement. The fact that children won’t get to own everything they see doesn’t automatically lead to lasting heartache and pain, and learning that you can’t have everything is an important part of growing up. I’d argue that children’s capacity to engage imaginatively with advertising and their ability to reflect upon its relationship to reality suggests that the situation is a lot less alarming than Mayo and Nairn would have us believe.

Stealth marketing

However the authors have a trump card: ‘stealth marketing’. In other words the secretion of products and brands within TV shows, films and other media. By Mayo and Nairn’s way of thinking, it doesn’t matter how clued up today’s kids are, they aren’t equipped to deal with adverts which they don’t realise are there. This is because ‘the stimuli which kids don’t really notice and which create emotional associations are the ones which influence them in the most powerful ways’

To back this up, Mayo and Nairn cite experiments in which watching films containing product placements apparently influenced children to choose Pepsi over Coke and unhealthy Fruit Loops over a healthy fruit salad. Interesting perhaps, but how much do these cases really tell us? As any parent will know, children will generally choose sugary junk food over the more virtuous equivalent, with or without the guiding hand of the marketing industry. And is persuading people to make a choice between two all-but-identical products such as Pepsi or Coke that big an achievement? (And what if Coke and Pepsi both place products in films, do they cancel each other out?) Such real world considerations do not figure in Consumer Kids, as Mayo and Nairn take the findings of this and other experiments conducted in controlled circumstances and brazenly extrapolate them to society as a whole. Ironically we learn that, in his capacity as a consultant, Mayo tells companies not to believe everything that marketing industry lobbyists tell them, yet he and his co-author seem happy to uncritically trot out any study that fits their prejudices.

Attacking the marketing industry

For a high-profile consumer activist and a Professor of Marketing, Mayo and Nairn seem staggeringly naive and ill-informed about the marketing industry. The picture they paint is, it seems to me, based on superficial observations rather than insider knowledge or insight. Whatever you think of the commercial world, it is not monolithic, and companies are not acting as one to ‘catch our children’. They are competing for our attention, some more successfully than others, and some playing dirtier than others.

Despite claiming that their book ‘uncovers the latest marketing tactics and discovers what big corporations are really up to’, it is not really the tactics that the authors object to but the ends to which they are put. They bemoan pester power when it’s exploited by corporations, but are conspicuously quiet about its government-approved use in schools to get children to guilt-trip their parents into recycling, for instance.

And while they rightly reject the marketing industry’s attempts to give its actions a socially responsible sheen, they take pretty much everything else it says as read. You don’t have to be a genius to see that marketing professionals have a vested interest in persuading people that what they do is incredibly effective (hence the almost mystical significance attached to ‘the brand’) but this beginner-level knowledge seems to have escaped Mayo and Nairn.

Attacking parents

Companies and corporations are not the only ones who come in for criticism. Mayo and Nairn also appear to have a rather dim view of parents, despite claiming to look out for their interests. This particularly comes out in the section about diet and obesity. As many critics have pointed out, the measure of obesity has been expanded in recent years to cover more and more people until it has become effectively meaningless. So we might sympathise with the parent (quoted in the book) who says of their child, ‘I don’t really think about whether [my children] are physically healthy because I can see that they are. If they were ill, I would know’. But according to Mayo and Nairn, if we dispute official advice that our children are overweight or obese, we are simply fooling ourselves.

I could go on…

…because there’s something to object to on almost every page. In that at least the book is good value. Nevertheless, the authors and I agree on something fundamental. There are much better ways of organising society than around commerce and there are better things we could be doing with our collective time than creating Barbie dolls or pole dancing kits. But if we are unhappy with the consumerist society, we need rigorous political debate about what could replace it, and honest discussion about which aspects of it work and which don’t. The jaundiced and one-sided picture presented by this book muddies rather than clarifies our understanding of the world we live in, and the authors’ willingness to cast parents and children as victims, helpless in the face of all-encompassing consumerism, is arguably more disempowering and destructive than the things they criticise.

Having said all that, the second part of the book is a different matter altogether. Entitled ‘Children Set Free’, it looks at ways in which children have turned the commercial world to their advantage, and finally takes the open-minded and inquisitive approach promised at the beginning of the book. This I found genuinely thoughtful and interesting, but it takes up a paltry fifth of the page count and is so bizarrely at odds with the previous chapters it feels like it was written by different people.

Mayo and Nairn suggest these closing chapters ‘could offer a vision of a society that … neither relegates children to the position of someone else’s customer nor assumes that they will be passive victims that need to be protected by older generations.’ A noble sentiment, but the authors should reflect upon their own role in relegating children to that position, before they criticise others.

Recent activity

  1. I joined Ed Pinsent in the Resonance FM studio for a tribute to Ennio Morricone: http://www.thesoundprojector.com/2009/12/12/ennio-morricone/
  2. A scathing (but fair) piece I wrote on The Fallen, Dave Simpson’s book about ex-members of The Fall, appears in the latest issue of the Sound Projector: http://www.thesoundprojector.com/current-issue/
  3. …as does a lengthy consideration of Peter Doggett’s excellent There’s A Riot Going On: revolutionaries, rock stars and the rise and fall of ’60s counter-culture

George W. Mackey?

Recently I wondered whether or not some of the acclaim which has been showered on TV-show-of-the-moment The Wire would rub off on The Shield, the cop drama which shares some themes with The Wire and which has, in its own way, been pretty great through most of its seven series run.  We’re now half way through the final series, and the answer to my question appears to be ‘no, not really’.

This may in part be because the first few episodes shown this year were, truth be told, terrible.  I suggested previously that at some point all of The Shield’s strengths become weaknesses, and so it has come to pass, en masse, this season. The already fast-paced show went into plot twist overdrive, in the process becoming detatched from whatever was anchoring it to reality.  As a friend put it, it’s as if the show’s writers suddenly forgot how to tell stories: characters have been behaving bizarrely, in situations which have been set up  unconvincingly, and the contrivances have been piling up left, right and centre.  With the show looking like a lazy parody of its former self, the usually reliable cast of actors have had little choice but to mug their way through as best they could or, in some cases, go into chicken-in-headlights mode.  Only Walton Goggins (normally the closest-to-the-edge member of the cast) has maintained his actorly dignity in the midst of this dramatic car crash.

But, returning to my question, why did The Shield not get more attention when it was actually good?  It’s easy to see why The Wire has caught the imagination of critics at this particular time.  Amongst other reasons its bleak message – that people’s attempts to change their circumstances are doomed to failure – chimes with the modern penchant for celebrating victimhood.  In contrast The Shield is an undeniably intense, macho and testosterone-driven show, in which human willpower is central, and I suspect this sits uneasily with many of the liberal-minded folks who have taken The Wire to their hearts and for whom masculinity is a bad word.  Then there’s politics.  Given The Wire’s subject matter and sprawling scope, left-learning critics and columnists haven’t had to try too hard to reduce it to a salutory tale about the evils of Bush’s America.  It is much more difficult to do the same to The Shield, with its tighter focus and tough questions about morality and human nature.

Or so I thought.  In one of the few features to herald the return of the show, Ben Marshall (writing in the Guardian Guide on 14th February) argued that The Shield works as “a hyper-real depiction of a wounded, deeply conflicted country and even as a metaphor for the Bush administration”, whilst pointing out that the show’s run coincided more-or-less with George W Bush’s term in office.  He provided evidence for his claim drawn from an interview with Shield creator Shawn Ryan who claimed that the character of corrupt cop Vic Mackey was “very much inspired by the Bush ‘my country, right or wrong’ doctrine”.  Michael Chiklis, the actor who played Mackey, also got in on the act: “Bad times often produce great art. If you believe that art is human outcry then there has been a lot to cry about over the last eight years.”.

This has the whiff of hindsight and revisionism about it to me, but of course we can’t know for sure what was in the heads of Ryan and co when they were making the show or how directly they were influenced by political events.  Whatever the case, if The Shield is genuinely intended to be a giant metaphor for the hubris of the Bush administration, it’s not a very good one.

Power is their common factor but The Shield tells us little about George W Bush and vice versa.  For a start, the highly intelligent and calculating character of Mackey just doesn’t make a good proxy for Bush, for obvious reasons.  And it’s not just a matter of personality or strength of character.  The source of their power, their motivations for using it, and the manner in which they do so are all very different.  Mackey is the head of a small but effective team of police officers which bends the rules in order to keep drug dealers under control in a rundown part of LA.  Bush was the head of the most powerful nation on the planet at a time when, post-collapse of communism, it lacked any meaningful purpose or direction.  Mackey routinely takes incredible risks and makes them work.  Bush and other American politicians view the very idea of risk as something to be avoided wherever possible, and haven’t any idea how to see whatever risks they do take through to a successful conclusion.  Mackey and Bush could hardly be more different in what they represent.

Viewing a show like The Shield or The Wire through the narrow prism of anti-capitalism means you’re likely to miss a lot of what makes them interesting.   Take the way The Shield handles the question of money – normally treated as ‘the root of all evil’ (hand-in-hand with consumerism and a love of material things).  True, the pursuit of large amounts of cash does lead the corrupt cops in Mackey’s Strike Team into all kinds of trouble and eventually causes them to turn on each other.  And they do jokily fantasise about using it to bring them a carefree life of leisure.  But their actual concern, as seen again and again throughout the series, is to support and protect their families (as reflected in their description of their ill-gotten gains as a ‘pension fund’).  And material possessions hardly figure in their lives, which mostly consists of incredibly stressful and dangerous work.  If anything, the show raises questions about why Mackey and co feel they need to be go to such extremes to secure a decent lifestyle for their loved ones.  And Bush-shaped blinkers won’t help us answer questions like that.

The Shield v The Wire

It’s official! Television viewers and critics, Booker Prize-winning novelists, the United Nations and even God all agree that The Wire is ‘the best television show ever’. And I think I’m with them; the widespread acclaim belatedly given to the show over the last year or so is mostly deserved. But I’m curious to see if any of the glory will rub off on my other fave show, The Shield, when it returns to UK screens later this month for its final season. After all The Shield has a lot in common with The Wire: it’s a challenging and intelligent cops-and-robbers show with great scripts and acting; it doesn’t make clear-cut distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters; police brutality and corruption are presented as the norm rather than the exception; and it has built up a decent-sized UK fan base by word of mouth. But, in a reverse of The Wire’s fortunes, it was a ratings hit in America (at least for a non-network show) and still remains largely ignored by the UK media.

The general consensus amongst fans of both shows is that The Shield took television drama to a new level and The Wire propelled it to even greater heights. So I was intrigued to hear that Chris Petit had written a piece for the Guardian which argued that The Shield is in fact better than The Wire.

Unfortunately, it turned out to be another article about The Wire: only four-and-a-bit of the 26 paragraphs mention The Shield. Of course, it’s always refreshing to have a critical take on a show that’s been showered with as much praise as The Wire. But did the article get sub-edited to shreds, or did Petit not have much to back up his claim? Either way, I think he did both shows a disservice.

Drama v Journalism

Most of the article is given is over to telling us how journalist David Simon came to create The Wire. This is there partly so that Petit can make a half-hearted point about journalistic exploitation, noting that whilst Simon’s career thrived off the back of a year he spent hanging around with Baltimore police officers, their careers suffered because of it and still languish in the doldrums. Funnily enough, Petit doesn’t mention that much of The Shield was also borne of similar inspiration, creator Shaun Ryan having spent time riding with police officers whilst working on Nash Bridges, nor does he enquire as to how much those officers have shared in the success of The Shield.

Petit’s more substantial claim is that Simon is ‘non-fiction boy’ (as he was dismissively tagged by his colleagues on the cop drama Homicide: Life on the Streets). The implication being that The Wire is constrained by the need to tell the ‘truth’, in contrast to the more freewheeling and imaginative Shield. He does have a point, but he brushes over the important role played in creating The Wire by crime fiction writers such as George Pelecanos and Richard Price. Simon’s forthright opinions may have given The Wire its shape and purpose but the show avoids (mostly) becoming didactic because it is first and foremost a well-crafted drama, with all the ambiguities and open-endedness that brings.

Good v Bad

So what does Petit have to say about The Shield? He argues approvingly that it lacks ‘the core of good guys who police Homicide and The Wire… everyone hates and mistrusts each other, most of them are slimeballs, with little bonding beyond sadomasochistic dependency. It goes beyond dysfunction… The Shield has something very dark to say about personal corruption’. Not a surprising thing to read in The Guardian, where it sometimes seems the worth of a piece of art lies in how much it reveals the ‘true wickedness of the human soul’. But this paints a one-sided picture of the show and willfully ignores the characters of Dutch Wagenbach and Claudette Wyms who provide a counter to the pragmatic and self-serving worldview of The Shield’s star, crooked cop Vic Mackey (note: short for Machiavellian). Yes Dutch and Claudette too are flawed and sometimes do some questionable things, but they mostly act benevolently in very difficult circumstances. In fact you could turn Petit’s argument on its head and point out that most of the cops and some of the criminals in The Shield try to do good but they all have different ideas of what that means. And this is part of its appeal – The Shield is unflinching in putting its characters in extreme situations, giving them tough dilemmas to deal with, and making it difficult for us viewers to work out where we stand. In short, it’s engaging and thought provoking.

Story v Character

Petit argues that The Shield is less predictable than The Wire, and it’s true there is a certain inevitability about some Wire plotlines which is entirely absent in The Shield. It’s worth noting that The Shield’s approach to storytelling comes in part from an unlikely source: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and its creator Joss Whedon). Ryan cut his teeth writing scripts for Buffy spin-off Angel and commented: “One thing I learned from Joss Whedon that I blatantly stole was the idea of approaching the stories first from character… The cop stories were always the last thing we’d figure out on a ‘Shield’ episode”. This means that it avoids the pitfall of many shows which force their characters to do whatever a given story or situation demands, however unlikely or against type that might be. And in contrast to The Wire, where story rules and the plotline for the entire 5 series was set in stone from almost the beginning, The Shield doesn’t follow a pre-conceived scheme. Instead it proceeds in an organic fashion with the writers having a loose idea of where each season is going but the option to change course if a better idea occurs to them along the way.

This approach comes with its own set of drawbacks. The later series concentrate more and more on Mackey and his Strike Team to the detriment of its other equally interesting central characters; supporting characters are introduced and fleshed out only to be dropped the moment they are no relevant to the ‘emotional journey’ of the leads; and ironically the show even resorts to some age old drama series contrivances in order to keep characters such as Mackey’s ex-wife Corinne in the series, when in a more story-driven show they would have had no reason to stick around.

Fast v Slow

Petit picks up on The Shield’s urgent style and the adrenalin rush that usually goes with watching it – it’s ‘the pure stuff that gets you hooked.‘ I’d argue that this is more than a stylistic device; it derives in from the way the characters behave, and reflects a more dynamic view of people’s capacity to respond to situations and act decisively than we’re used to. If you’ve watched a few American telly drama series over the years, you’ll be familiar with the limited and predictable ways in which characters behave and you’ll probably be able to predict the pace at which a given story will develop: a plot thread is introduced, it’s explored over a couple of episodes and then it’s resolved. The Shield throws all this out the window; characters come straight to the point and confront situations head on, and events that would normally take a series to unfold are dealt with in twenty minutes.

It’s fast paced to a fault (and at some point or other all of The Shield’s strengths become weaknesses). Episodes are written very quickly, giving the show plenty of interesting rough edges and a strong sense of spontaneity, but it also means that the writers sometimes trip over undeveloped plotlines, write themselves into corners, or just fail to set up situations convincingly. The Series 6 finale, which is the single worst episode so far, even resorts to an embarrassing ‘Scooby Doo’ scene where Mackey and accomplice untangle ten episodes’ worth of convoluted plot threads in as many seconds.

Ryan recently acknowledged that the show’s rapid plot twists and turns can baffle viewers, but responded ‘it still all makes sense and … you guys [viewers] love that complexity on The Wire’. But The Wire takes things at a third of the pace of a normal drama show, gradually and carefully laying out the pieces of its enormous puzzle. The Shield in contrast rushes by at a hundred miles an hour. Blink and you miss a key plot point. (Watching it on DVD is highly recommended – you can switch on subtitles and hit the rewind button when necessary). Yet despite their opposing approaches, both shows credit their audience with intelligence. The Wire assumes we have the patience to wait for the story to unfold, The Shield assumes we are quick witted enough to keep up.

The Shield’s sheer dramatic ambition means it can encompass storylines that most TV shows would steer clear of through faint heartedness or lack of ambition. Ryan, who seems a very calm and considered fellow to be writing such an edgy and testosterone-driven show, may have arrived at this by accident. He wrote the pilot as a showcase for his abilities and, assuming it would never get made, he had his lead character commit cold-blooded murder in the sort of stakes-raised cliffhanger that would normally be saved till the final episode of a run. When he got the opportunity to film the pilot, Ryan could have played it safe and gone with a less ambitious ending, but to his credit he left it as it was and then continued to up the dramatic stakes even further as the show developed.

Arguably the urgency and impetus of The Shield comes from both Ryan the writer and Mackey the character trying to deal with the implications of that first episode. Ryan once described Mackey as ‘a guy who is really able to compartmentalize his life and separate the bad things he does from the good things he does’. He could have been describing his own approach to keeping the various storylines of The Shield under control, starting with the need to keep his lead character out of prison; Ryan had the chutzpah to simply put the murder to one side for the next few series.

Yet even Ryan couldn’t keep raising the stakes forever, and the first wobble came when he copped out on the aftermath of the show’s most interesting and ostentatious storyline, the robbery of an Armenian gang by Mackey’s Strike Team. Mackey’s staggering ability to evade punishment for his bad deeds has also stretched credibility the longer the series had gone on. Ryan himself acknowledged the need to avoid the show becoming ‘Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner with Vic as the Road Runner’, but it did at times fall into that trap, most memorably in the episode where Mackey somehow dupes most of his colleagues into helping him undermine an internal investigator, in a triple-bluff that doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny.

People v Institutions

David Simon has spoken somewhat dismissively of this aspect of The Shield:

…nothing is more the quintessential American dramatic impulse than to make the individual bigger than the institutions which he serves. Vic Mackey, he is the id that rages well beyond the L.A.P.D. It’s “What is he capable of? What is he not capable of?

“The Wire” has not only gone the opposite way, it’s resisted the idea that, in this post-modern America, individuals triumph over institutions. The institution is always bigger. It doesn’t tolerate that degree of individuality on any level for any length of time. These moments of epic characterization are inherently false. They’re all rooted in, like, old Westerns or something. Guy rides into town, cleans up the town, rides out of town.

This is where Petit is right about Simon. From a narrow journalistic viewpoint, The Shield is unrealistic and so (if I read Simon’s comments correctly) worthless. Well, The Shield may be unrealistic in terms of how well it reflects modern day society, but as a piece of drama it does tackle important questions about human nature, morality, loyalty and power. And even though it uses an extreme setting to tease them out, it speaks to people because these questions are universal.

And, for all the squalor and degradation in The Shield, Mackey’s position at the centre of it is the key to its success. Ryan has noted with perhaps disingenuous bafflement that the more bad things Mackey does, the more viewers root for him. Whilst it’s tempting to put this down to charisma (which Michael Chiklis, the actor who portrays him, has in spades), we shouldn’t forget there’s many admirable aspects to Mackey’s character: his willingness to take enormous risks and sideswipe rules and regulations in order to achieve what he thinks is right; and his ability to solve the most apparently intractable problems by sheer determination and quick thinking. These aren’t just any old character traits, they’re heroic qualities which strike a chord in our directionless and risk-averse modern day world. So, while The Wire accurately identifies some very serious problems with society, The Shield offers some hope that we may find a way to solve them. I say, praise be to them both!

The Shield series 7 begins Monday 16th February at 10pm on Five USA.

The Sound Projector 17

The latest issue of The Sound Projector, Ed Pinsent’s hefty annual survey of interesting music, has hit the streets.

For over a decade now, the magazine has ploughed an unfashionable furrow, championing the alternative, overlooked and avant garde. It thankfully steers clear of the pretentious language usually associated with ‘Art’ criticism, instead bringing honesty, healthy scepticism and insight to the subject and making a lively and straight-talking case for why this music is important and can enrich our lives.

The magazine sees music as an active, not a passive experience, as born out in both its motto ‘better listening through imagination’ and Ed’s uncanny facility for translating his listening experiences into evocative visual descriptions. Helped by regular contributors Jennifor Hor, Richard Rees Jones and Aaron Robertson, he investigates such diverse areas as folk music, Black Metal, field recordings and, this issue, Australian surf music.

My contribution to this issue is an essay which explores the thinking behind the Guilty Pleasures (TM) phenomenon, whereby music fans confess their love for uncool records by the likes of Phil Collins or David Essex, and finds it wanting. By way of comparison, readers may also be interested in the appreciative surveys of 90s chart music which I compiled for previous issues of the mag; the issues in question are now sold out but the first of them can be downloaded as a pdf via Scribd (see The Chartists, p76). Happy readings!

The Sound Projector 17 – 172 (!) pages for £7.00 + postage, available online or via discerning record shops.

Culture Top Gear-style

I tuned into The Culture Show on BBC2 last night to catch their feature on the excellent American telly drama The Wire and its creator David Simon. Simon is an articulate and opinionated person with a lot of interesting things to say about the television industry and society at large, but I had a feeling the folks at the BBC would find some contrived way to mess up this golden opportunity. Sure enough, they decided to give the feature a ‘theme’ based on the show’s name, putting Simon in handcuffs and getting presenter Lauren Laverne to confront him with taped ‘wiretap evidence’ of his views about the show.

Simon is good value even under such duress, but this sort of time-wasting and gimmicky approach unfortunately seems to be increasingly common these days. Indeed, The Culture Show rather blatantly steals its format from the revamped Top Gear, being filmed in front of a live studio audience, and having its presenters Laverne and Mark Kermode stand up and chat in a pseudo-spontaneous fashion between the glossy and edit-heavy features.

A friend who is in a position to know tells me that, within the Beeb, the highly popular Top Gear is now seen as the Holy Grail of magazine show formats. Consequently it’s not good enough any more for a show to cover a subject just because it’s interesting, or to do so in a straightforward way and let the subject speak for itself. Every piece now has to have a Top Gear-style ‘angle’ involving celebrities, ridiculous challenges or better still both.

But this misunderstands the reason why Top Gear is popular. At the end of the day, it’s because of its content, not its format. As Patrick West argues, it’s the fun, imagination, joie de vivre, love of risk taking and the wilful disregard for political correctness that makes Top Gear stand out from other shows and appeal even to non-petrol heads such as myself.

The Culture Show seems staid and self-satisfied in comparison, rather ironically for a programme that is supposed to be interested in breaking barriers and challenging taboos. Lauren ‘isnt everything so humorous’ Laverne in particular exudes ironic disinterest. And while Clarkson and co may be boorish and infantile, they clearly love cars and their passion is infectious. Give me their half-scripted blokeish banter any day over the excruciatingly forced and arch exchanges between Laverne and Kermode – a match made in TV hell if ever there was one.

The Culture Show is so bad it almost makes me pine for its predecessors The Late Show and The Late Review. The Mark Lawsons and Germaine Greers of the world may be boring, pretentious and middle-of-the-road but at least they all share an unstated assumption that culture is worth taking seriously. The Culture Show on the other hand seems convinced that nobody really likes culture at all.

The Story of Climate Change

In August 2006, influential UK think tank the Institute of Public Policy Research published Warm Words: How are we telling the climate change story and can we tell it better, a review of the way the media discusses climate change and in particular how it handles the question of whether climate change is caused by humans. It concluded that the alarmist language typical of the ‘climate change discourse’ is counter-productive, because it implies that the situation is so bad nothing can be done about it. Amongst their recommendations for addressing this situation was the following:

To help address the chaotic nature of the climate change discourse in the UK today, interested agencies now need to treat the argument as having been won, at least for popular communications. This means simply behaving as if climate change exists and is real, and that individual actions are effective. The ‘facts’ need to be treated as being so taken-for-granted that they need not be spoken.
(Warm Words, p.8)

There’s lots that interesting about this statement, not least the IPPR’s apparent belief that their audience for ‘popular communications’ would never read the document or find it at all sinister. Yet some did and interpreted it as a straightforward incitement to deceive the public. I think the truth is more subtle. On one hand the IPPR do appear to be sincere in their believe that man-made climate change is real; on the other they tacitly acknowledge that the science is not conclusive. Effectively they know the evidence isn’t solid enough to back up their position and so they make a leap of faith. Fair enough, but they hope to deny us the information on which to make a similar decision for ourselves. They just want us to blindly follow suit. It reveals something about the IPPR’s mentality that nowhere in the document do they reflect upon the idea that it’s ok for people in the media to say one thing amongst themselves and another to the public.

We can’t know for sure how many in the media read this report and took it to heart. There’s certainly been no noticeable reduction in climate change alarmism since its publication. But while the environmental lobby have been behaving ‘as if climate change exists and is real’ for years, it seems to me that they did begin to assert this in an increasingly aggressive way in the wake of the report.

Of course, they might be right. But if the debate were to be conducted only on their terms, how would we know? Indeed, a common argument put forward by environmentalists is that climate change is just too complex and technical for the average person to understand, and as a result ‘denialists’ find it easy to bamboozle Joe Average with facts, figures and rhetoric. Science Museum Director Chris Rapley crystallised this point of view in his description of a public climate change debate:

“It was fascinating to watch how easy it was for someone who wants to make a point to drop down to a technical level, at which point 96 per cent of the people in the room are not competent to judge the merits of the technical case and so are making their decision on no more than someone’s posture, timbre of voice and whether the person looks honest or dishonest.”

In doing so he revealed a dim view of the public’s ability to rationally judge a debate. And although his point is aimed at sceptics, it would apply equally to those on his side of the climate change debate, as the practice of flinging about obscure stats and references is not confined to the sceptics. To Rapley’s credit he at least argues that the way forward is for climate scientists to improve and strengthen their arguments. But in general, the eco-lobby argues that such technical discussions only distract and confuse the public and so should be kept out of the public sphere. This amounts to a call to shut down debate; to suppress any information which doesn’t fit the ‘bigger picture’.

Anyhow, the debate does not entirely turn on technical matters; it involves philosophical and political questions about subjects like risk, the nature of scientific evidence, and the relationship of humanity with the planet we live on. And you don’t have to be a climate scientist to see that many environmental arguments rely upon ad hominem attacks and fallacious reasoning. Take the notion of ‘climate change denial’ as an example of both. As has been widely pointed out, this weasel phrase is calculated to 1) suggest psychological shortcomings on the part of the ‘denier’ and 2) draw a parallel with holocaust denial. The absurdity of which would be unwittingly articulated by one environmentally-minded writer who argued, without irony, that climate change denial and holocaust were the same, except that ‘holocaust denial denies the past, climate change denial denies the future’. Quite how it is possible to ‘deny the future’ when it hasn’t happened yet was not made clear.

Other have pointed out that the much vaunted notion of a ‘scientific consensus’ on climate change misrepresents how science works. Consensus is irrelevant in science and any claims that a subject as complex as climate change is 100% settled and understood should raise eyebrows. Even the much-cited Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose reports are treated as sacrosanct by environmentalists, only claims to be 90% certain that humans are responsible for climate change. That leaves a not insubstantial 10% margin of doubt, which is surely worthwhile of consideration and investigation. And besides, as has been argued on Spiked Online, science can only tell us the physical facts. How we respond to those facts is a matter for politics.

So almost two years on from the publication of the IPPR report, what has been the effect of ‘behaving as if climate change exists and is real’? Well, despite repeated claims that ‘there is no debate’, environmentalists have been forced to rethink their arguments and shift their position in light of a series of revelations casting doubt upon the AGW hypothesis, not least the recent admission that global temperatures have not risen for a decade. And for a debate that never was, climate change has certainly generated a lot of passionate column inches and blog posts not to mention scientific papers, both supporting and attacking the AGW hypothesis. It also seems that the increasingly shrill tone taken by the environmental movement has prompted a number of scientists to say ‘enough is enough’ and publicly question some or all of the climate change hypothesis. One thing is certain, the number of people willing to admit scepticism has grown.

And just last Sunday, a poll published in The Observer found that ‘most Britons doubt climate change’. Whether or not you agree with all the reasons given by those polled, this can be seen as a sign of intelligent behaviour; an indication that, despite years of being fed a party line, people still have a healthy sense of scepticism and can make up their own minds on such matters. But according to the logic of the environmental movement, it just means the public have been duped.

So while one would hope this poll would prompt a rethink on the part of the media, it only seems likely to intensify calls to silence dissenters. The latest of these has come this week from NASA’s James Hansen who called for oil chiefs to be put on trial for crimes against humanity for spreading ‘misinformation’ about climate change. No doubt oil companies do engage in self-interested spin from time-to-time, but the implications of what Hansen is suggesting should send a shiver down the spine of anyone who gives a fig for freedom of speech.

Personally, I suspect the truth about climate change is somewhat more prosaic than the apocalyptic scenarios beloved of alarmists such as George Monbiot, Mark Lynas and Al Gore. The environmental movement after all has a long history of exaggerating its case in the pursuit of what it sees as the greater good. Monbiot has even written in defence of ‘crying wolf’ as a tactic. Yet if the media wants to keep telling ‘the Story of Climate Change’, it would do well to remember what happened to the protagonist of that particular tale.

21st Century Who

I can’t say I’m sad to hear that Russell T Davies, the producer behind the 21st Century revamp of Doctor Who, will be leaving the show at the end of 2009. I’ve found his version of the programme pretty unwatchable. I don’t have a problem with the huge liberties he took with its format. As a huge childhood fan of the original show, I’ll be the first to admit that it needed a big kick up the arse following its sad decline during the Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy years.

And to be fair to Davies, his radical revamp was actually in keeping with the history of the show, in that Doctor Who has always reflected contemporary BBC production values at any given time. The changes Davies made in bringing it up to date are in line with wider changes in television drama over the last decade or so, and just seemed shocking because of the lengthy gap since the show was last broadcast. If Doctor Who had never stopped, we probably would have seen the same changes happen in a more gradual fashion.

So what has changed in television drama during this time? Well apart from the obvious advancements in digital production techniques, and the availability of affordable computer graphics, television producers (and society as a whole) have become much more interested in the personal lives and emotions of their characters, and less in their deeds and actions. This is epitomised in the way the new series treated the Daleks; on the one hand taking advantage of modern special effects to make them more convincing killing machines and on the other exploring what would happen if a Dalek had a soul, in the travesty that was the ‘sad’ Dalek of series 1. As for the Doctor himself, this usually inscrutable alien was given a big dose of 21st Century human-style emotional baggage, resulting from the death of his entire race, the Time Lords. And of course we discovered for the first time that he’s a sexual creature, a development which generated publicity-friendly storylines such as his snog with Rose Tyler.

The episode that finally killed it for me though was School Reunion in Series 2, which brought back popular 70s assistant Sarah Jane Smith. This looked like an attempt to comment on and make sense of the asexual relationships between the Doctor and his predominantly female assistants in the original series, a concept that must seem curious and anachronistic today to some, now that sex is assumed to be central to everyone’s lives. So Davies and co rewrote Doctor Who history, retrospectively injecting sexual tension between Sarah Jane and the Doctor which simply wasn’t present in the original show, leading to the embarrassing and undignified spectacle of a middle aged Sarah Jane and a twenty-something Rose Tyler bickering over the Doctor like a pair of lovesick school children. It’s ironic that, although the Doctor’s relationship with his female assistants was often criticised for being sexist, in bringing the character into the more ‘enlightened’ 21st century the show’s producers seem to have missed the very characteristics (gumption and independence) that made Sarah Jane an attractive and forward-looking character in the first place.

The idea that sex is the key motivator in our lives is of course a popular undercurrant in modern British television. Even shows like This Life or Attachments, which on the surface are about professionals from different industries, turn out to be mainly interested in the bedroom hopping antics of their characters. It seems that whether you’re a lawyer, a website designer or a Time Lord all you’re really after is a shag.

This is an extremely dispiriting and self-centred outlook. It’s also a bad foundation for drama. It’s notable that the best telly dramas and comedies (most of which are American) proceed along different lines, whether it be CSI, The Wire, My Name is Earl or even Friends for chrissakes. These feature people who struggle to achieve things that are bigger than their own lives, and any sexual attraction between them is a side product of who they are and what they do. And it’s no coincidence that the more central sex is to a show, the more shallow and depressing it is (think Sex and the City, Nip and Tuck, Desperate Housewives, etc, etc).

Speaking of American television, at the time of Doctor Who’s relaunch much was made of the influence of Joss Whedon’s critically acclaimed show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There’s no doubt the new Doctor Who emulated some aspects of Whedon’s show, but the differences between them are revealing. Buffy took an established format – light-hearted action adventure – and turned it inside out, using it as a framework for complex and lengthy storylines that repaid attention over many episodes. Doctor Who in contrast looks very dumbed down, with its simplistic storylines and plot twists which are signposted in the most unsubtle way (just in case the audience doesn’t get it). Buffy was packed with obscure and intelligent cultural references, Doctor Who with self-consciously hip references which would be familiar to everybody. Whedon has a healthy disrespect for therapy culture and other modern trends; Davies appears to have taken it all on board uncritically. At the end of the day, the key difference between them is that Whedon has interesting stuff to say and assumes his audience are intelligent enough to understand it; Davies is a dull and conventional thinker who treats his audience as stupid. Either that or he’s just not a very good writer.

Still the BBC have a hit on their hands, as they don’t hesitate in reminding us. You can’t argue with the viewing figures, although it should be pointed out that an average of 6-10 million viewers isn’t that popular (and is only twice as many viewers as the show had in late 80s nadir). It’s striking that most of the adults I know who watch it do so with a certain amount of resignation, muttering phrases like ‘it’s crap but…’ and ‘well that’s as good as it gets these days’.

I recently revisited some of the Tom Baker stories that spooked me as a kid and found that they stood up surprisingly well. And it struck me, back then Doctor Who was a children’s show which appealed to the whole family. Now it’s a family show which is fit only for children.

What’s wrong with children’s television?

Children’s television has always come in for a lot of stick. If you believe its diverse critics, it teaches children bad habits, atrophies the imagination, propagates stereotypes, encourages passive behaviour, and can even harm their teeth and lead to alcohol abuse and sexual promiscuity.

Many of these claims are evergreen but two criticisms in particular have become dominant in recent discussions about the subject:

  1. The malign effects of advertising.
  2. The dominance of American-made shows.

These both reflect a concern that television is turning our children into young capitalists, by encouraging unthinking consumerism and spreading cultural imperialism (specifically American capitalist culture).

Some critics even aspire to invert this relationship, positing that children’s television could be used to undermine the status quo. Author Philip Pullman, who has described the state of children’s television as ‘social poison’, has made this explicit: ‘Taking children’s needs seriously is not different from taking every human need seriously. It is absolutely central to a true and humane vision of the whole of life. If we need to challenge the prevailing neo-liberal, market-based religion in order to do it, then we should do so proudly.’

I believe that this line of thinking is in fact destructive and leads us towards making worthy but poor quality children’s programmes. It’s revealing that discussion of the content of children’s television is conspicuous by its absence. Shows are judged merely in terms of whether they transmit the right or the wrong ideas; how entertaining, original, imaginative or well-constructed they are appears to be an irrelevance.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the widespread praise heaped upon Lazytown, often talked about as the antidote to poor quality children’s TV. This show shares many characteristics with ‘bad’ children’s television – pantomime-level characters and formulaic storylines, garish colours, over-the-top action, cheesy music and a highly successful range of merchandising. But all this is ok because it is in the name of health education. (Lazytown encourages children to get fit and eat lots of fruit).

I’ll expand upon the points above soon. See you next time when I’ll argue that advertising on children’s television can be a good thing.