Friday, May 23, 2014

Where we are now

The train had come to a standstill. On either side of the tracks there was rich vegetation and foliage. We were in London, apparently, but it could be anywhere at all. I was imagining exploring these track side areas on foot, losing myself in their green abundance, maybe making a wooden hut and going wild, living on pigeons and foxes. It seemed an attractive possibility. The bushes and trees on the sides of the train tracks carried on and on and felt calming and contemplative. There was even, maybe around Peckham Rye, a small area of reeds blowing in the wind.

'Where are we now?' She asked.
I had no idea but said, 'Between The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath and the Evening Standard'. To our left was a woman leafing through a heavily annotated copy of the Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath; to our right was a pile of discarded Evening Standard newspapers.

As long as I have my music with me I could stare out of a train window forever and ever. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Four-day working week

Nothing comes close to that feeling of warm balmy Mediterranean evenings near the coast, humid but with a faint cool breeze, crickets chirping in the distance, small green geckos scattering on the hot ground, the sun setting slowly, a warm glow to everyone, loved ones holding hands, the laughter of children, the smell of suntan lotion and the scent of flowers.

This scene is perhaps, if I'm lucky, one week of a year in my life. The rest of the time it's staring at a computer screen all day in a grey office surrounded by people I don't want to be with or listen to. My loved ones are hundreds of miles away. My thoughts are usually hundreds of miles away (they only have my body and my time).

Two hundred and forty four days a year are spent in the grey office in order to spend a week (at most) in the balmy Mediterranean country with loved ones (just as eight hours a day are spent with completely apathetic ones in order to spend three hours – completely knackered – in the evening with loved ones). In years to come, the five-day working week will be looked on in the same way as we now look at slavery and public hanging  – ie as a violation of human rights.

The recent flurry of Bank Holiday Mondays and Easter break has us getting used to the concept of the four day week. If I was running for Prime Minister, I would simply call my party The 4-day Week Party and immediately get voted in as PM. It's pretty much that simple (I'd keep most other policies the same; we don't give a shit about them anyway. Well, saying that, I'd do my best to ban cars, modern R&B, football and carrier bags): but my main policy, my only policy, would be to introduce the four-day working week. All we do is live for the weekend and holidays – Monday to Friday feels like prison, with weekends let off for good behaviour. Polls have shown the average office worker only spends three days a week actually working – the other two days are spend in banter, browsing the internet etc, so let's stop wasting pointless time and actually try to get our lives back.

The Guardian agrees.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Introverts vs extroverts
The offensive office

Monday, May 12, 2014

London through its charity shops #26: Streatham SW16 & SW2

Streatham, or St Reatham as some wannabes are pronouncing it (apparently – I've never actually heard anyone say it this way in earnest) is on the up. You can tell by the house prices and quality of the charity shops: they're mostly great, plentiful and vaguely overpriced. Streatham's okay; it has a nice common, an ice rink, bowling alley and the newly opened Streatham Tate library, so named after its builder and benefactor, Henry Tate, founder of the Tate galleries, and former local resident.

Streatham's charity shops are all along the long and wide, boulevard-like (even on a Saturday afternoon it felt relatively empty due to its size) Streatham High Road. Streatham is big: it's spread over the boroughs Lambeth and Wandsworth and has three train stations (more than some cities have!): Streatham, Streatham Common and Streatham Hill.

Streatham Hill is the nearest station for the charity shops. I started with Give A Little  – 'a non profit charity shop with a difference'. I wasn't entirely sure what the difference was, but it's a lovely little shop with an ethnic feel and chilled out reggae music playing. It's clean and well looked after with quality items. Plenty of clothes and lots of CDs and DVDs only £1. I continued walking south towards Streatham Common. Trinity Hospice is very spacious and pleasant with wooden floor boards. Mostly clothes with some books and CDs.

PAWS (just off the High Road) is small and cramped but pretty cool, with plenty of clothes, posters, CDs, records and bric-a-brac. British Heart Foundation have a lovely Books and Music shop. Old jazz was playing; there were stacks of well-ordered records, CDs, books, DVDs and comics. I was in heaven. By contrast, Rffr charity shop was a shambles, but I like that too. Lots of VHS tapes. Next is a large Oxfam which stocks shabby furniture, electricals, books, music, DVDs, bric-a-brac and clothes.

Another Trinity Hospice is small but well ordered; lots of men's shirts, stacks of CDS and some records and books. Another Oxfam too, this one small but impeccable, apart from the records, which would have been great (The Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Patti Smith etc) if they weren't mouldy. On the corner is a decent Cancer Research, good to see some toys actually – charity shops seem to be largely neglecting them nowadays. Next is an excellent, and large and spacious British Heart Foundation. All Aboard – Working for Charity was closed. Probably for the best, by now I was seriously starting to flag. Finally, a nice assortment of clothes in Shelter. A section of new stuff too, which never really appeals to me, as well as a few books and CDs.

By my count, that's twelve charity shops. Is this a record for a single road?

I wasn't really in the buying mood, so no barngains today. Besides, I've just moved into a rabbit hutch and am trying not to fill it with crap.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Living in the real world

I'm sometimes told that I don't live in the real world (I'm the first to admit, this is absolutely true). Or people tell me that so-and-so doesn't live in the real life. I've always had a problem with the concept 'real world' like there's only one real world and it's a pretty dull one at that. Their concept of the real world usually involves drudgery, no money and no fun. I imagine the real world as 1970s England: black and white, unemployment, rainy Sundays with no shops or pubs open. Or working at a job you hate for years and years, being paid badly, then losing your job and getting dumped by your girlfriend. That's real world scenario.

But some people's real world consist of yachts and hot chicks and noodle salads*. And good luck to them. There's not one 'real world', it's a relative concept I reckon. Maybe even every one of us has their own real world, and why should someones world in a shanty town in Brazil be any more 'real' than someone's world in a $2m house in Bel Air?

Anyway, I like my world, it feels pretty real to me and I wouldn't want to live in anyone else's.

(*I'm not entirely sure if I know what a noodle salad is, but I like the speech by Jack Nicolson in As Good As It Gets where he mentions it:
Carol: OK, we all have these terrible stories to get over, and you—
Melvin: It's not true. Some of us have great stories, pretty stories that take place at lakes with boats and friends and noodle salad. Just no one in this car. But, a lot of people, that's their story. Good times, noodle salad. What makes it so hard is not that you had it bad, but that you're that pissed that so many others had it good.)

Listen to: Living In the Real World by Blondie or I'm Not Living In The Real World by Belle and Sebastian

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Complete album collections

From The Byrds and Cheap Trick to Harry Nilsson and Leonard Cohen, many older artists and bands are releasing their entire album output in one go in CD box sets. This is an easy and relatively cheap way to acquire all an artist's music in one fell swoop. But to me there's only one word for it: cheating.

In the case of the Bob Dylan complete album collection, you get all 42 studio and live albums (as well a deluxe 268-page book). I own all of them, of course, but it took me about twenty years to amass them. Some were taped off friends to start with, then bought second hand in car boot sales or record shops. I didn't get into Dylan until the early 90s, so I didn't start buying new Dylan albums on their release until Good As I Been to you (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993), two albums of cover versions, at which stage I assumed his career was stagnant and songwriting days were over.

Anyway. It's like with the internet. Everything is at your fingertips. Everything is too easy. I used to travel miles to some obscure repertory cinema to see some obscure Armenian film. Now it'll be a click away. I like that I had to make the effort, I like that it took me twenty years to buy forty albums. It's a learning thing, a slow thing, making an effort, hunting things down. Hunting it down on Google just ain't the same.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Tangled up in Blues

Before iTunes was around I had an idea to compile a CD of different versions of Bob Dylan's Tangled up in Blue, arguably my favourite song ever. It would start with the original album version from Blood on the Tracks then include alternate versions from other Dylan albums, ie outtake and live versions (the Bootleg Series and Real Live), then unreleased bootleg versions, all containing lyrical and musical variations. Tangled up in Blues would be the first in a series of albums taking one song and including all its different versions. Of course (and I think I'm like this with everything – if I want something for long enough, by the time I get around to actually getting it, I don't actually want it any more), iTunes was invented, I could easily burn the album but figured, well, it's easy to do now, I can do it anytime, so of course I never did it and never will. If I do ever do it, I would have to include lyric changes from last year's live performances, the most significant variations in the song since 1984.

Well, she lit a burner on the stove
And brushed away the dust
Well, she looked at me, and she said to me
“You look like somebody I can trust."

Then she opened up a book of poems
And she said, "Just so you'll know,
Memorise every one of these lines
And you can use it when you're walkin' to and fro."

And every one of them words rang true
Glowed like burnin’ coal
And pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you
Tangled up in blue.

Now I’m goin’ back again
I've got to get to them somehow
All the people that we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now
Well, some went up the mountain
And some of 'em went down to the ground
Some of the names are written in flames
And some of them they just left town

But me, I’m still on the road
And I'm tryin' to stay out of the joint
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point, point of view
Tangled up in blue

(New lyrics in bold)

If I wanted to take it a step further, I could go the John Oswald way. In the 1980s Oswald coined the term Plunderphonics. As its name suggests, Oswald took pre-existing sounds to make his own music, in the style of William Burroughs' cut-up technique. His Grayfolded album uses over a hundred different performances by the Grateful Dead of their song Dark Star between 1968 and 1993.

I could do a similar trick with Tangled up in Blue, each line – or even word, a different performance from a different show, with forty years of live versions to sift through. After all, the song was always meant to be told from different points of view.

I had a similar notion with film, too. I was going to take one actor – I chose Robert de Niro – and try to make a narrative film using clips from all his films. I forgot this idea for years but watching The Clock (2010) by Christian Marclay got me inspired again. 24 hours long, this 'staggering artistic montage' consists of thousands of clips from films and TV illustrating the concept of time. So it could be a shot of a clock (usually Big Ben), someone looking at their watch, someone saying the time, or the sun going down, sundials, Peter Fonda throwing his watch away in Easy Rider... But the amazing thing about the film is it all takes place in real time, so the time of the clip in the film is the actual time in real life.

Again, the technology finally caught up with me (when I first thought of it I would have had to use two VCRs plugged together), but now I don't have the time or inclination.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Top 10 most valuable CDs

(Warning: rare doesn't always mean good)

We mainly think of CDs as being worthless and ugly things, a harsh and impersonal product of the digital age. In this era of downloads and streaming music they seem as clunky and obsolete as VHS. Vinyl records, however, have made a resurgence, and are a better, and many would argue, more aesthetically pleasing investment than the compact disc (the album cover art as well as the so-called 'warmer' sound). Vinyl records are usually worth more than their CD counterpart, but not always.

Many CDs are actually out of print and hard to find, and in some cases worth more than their vinyl equivalent. Examples of this include, say, Bob Dylan's 1973 album simply titled Dylan, which was released in CD only in Europe and in limited numbers; expect to pay about £40 for it on CD (and £4 for the vinyl). 1960s San Francisco band Moby Grape's CDs are similarly out of print; expect to pay up to £25 each (and a lot less for the vinyl).

Original West German pressed CDs from the 1980s are becoming increasingly valuable, mainly because older CDs aren't as loud and compressed, and many audiophiles believe they sound better than later pressings (compare the original 1986 CD pressing of Paul Simon's Graceland to the 2011 reissue, which has been over compressed, distorting the sound and far louder than the original pressing, taking out subtleties and distorting the sound).

Japan must be the geekiest country in the world when it comes to rare, limited edition, promotional, deleted and hard to find CDs. Whether they come in paper sleeves, obi's (disposable folded strips of paper that wrap around the spine of the CD, record or book) or only available in Japan, it's more likely that the most valuable CDs would have come from there.

1. Prince – My Name was Prince (1993)
Japan-only compilation. Worth $4500-$5000

2. Rolling Stones – Steel Wheels Japan Tour (Feb 1990)
Japan-only compilation. Worth $4400 - $4600.

3. Rolling Stones/Paul McCartney/Queen – The Greatest (1995)
Japan 3-CD box set. Worth £2,500.

4. Bob Dylan – 50th Anniversary Collection (2013)
4-CD set of outtakes, recorded 1962-63, released by Columbia Records in limited edition of 100. Sold in January 2013 for $2,625.

5. Bruce Springsteen – The Future of Rock and Roll (1988)
Japanese promo-only release. Double CD. Worth $1800-$2200.

6. Nirvana – Penny Royal Tea (1994) 
UK. One track – alternative version of song from In Utero. Worth $1500-$2000.

7. Michael Jackson – Smile (1997)
Withdrawn Austrian single. Worth $1500.

8. Coldplay – The Safety EP (1998)
UK issue 3-track. 500 made to give to fans. Worth $1000-$1500.

9. Paris Hilton – Paris (2006)
Remixed by Dangermouse with artwork by Banksy. The street artist doctored the artwork of several hundred Paris Hilton CDs and put them in HMVs around the country. Worth up to £500; anything by Banksy is a worthwhile investment. 

10. Now That's What I Call Music 4 (1984)
The first Now That's What I Call Music available on CD, very rare and sought after, regularly goes on eBay for anything from £200-£400. This is the only one on the list you may well come across in a charity shop.