Saturday, 1 March 2014
Pop music has always been a little too po-faced for my liking. To be taken seriously as an "artist" you either have to the act the tough guy, get your kit off or appear mysterious. There's not much room in today’s charts for "comedians". Humorous acts are instantly dismissed as novelties and relegated to the Christmas hinterlands or Comic Relief telethons.
So when The Darkness came blazing into our lives in 2003 in a blur of spandex, testicle-constricting vocals and sense of escapist fun it was hard to know what to make of them. I remember hearing their breakthrough hit I Believe In A Thing Called Love and thinking its big dumb riffs and mad multi-tracked falsetto were the perfect antidote to the sea of boring earnest mediocrity doing the rounds at the time (Beddingfield and Stereophonics I'm looking at you).
I wasn't the only one to catch the hair-metal bug as debut Permission To Land sold by the denim jacket load. Even the cynical music press embraced The Darkness's tongue-in-cheek love of rock 'n roll excess. Don't forget this is a band who won an Ivor Novello for Songwriters of the Year in 2004. There’s craft in their cheese.
After the party comes the hangover and the band started overdoing the Alka Setlzer (wink wink) as they begun to embrace the rock ‘n roll lifestyle a little too readily. Bassist Frankie Poullain was acrimoniously sacked and the good vibes that had powered the first album evaporated. As a result sophomore album One Way Ticket To Hell...and Back was an over-produced dogs dinner.
In 2006 Hawkins thought he might as well go the whole hog with the rock n roll clichés and promptly checked into rehab for drug abuse. True to form the band split and members of The Darkness spent the intervening years time playing in poorly received side projects like Hot Leg, Stone Gods &; British Whale. Hawkins got clean (he sips on nothing stronger than bottle water tonight) and the inevitable band reconciliation followed. The second coming would yield the album Hot Cakes in 2011 which, although selling like lukewarm crumpets, was a handsome return to cock-rocking form.
So what of The Darkenss of 2013? Justin emerges on stage looking lean and mean sporting his usual Lycra onesy and a new beard/moustache combo that makes him look like th d'Artagnan of hair metal. Poullain is back on board & tonight seems to have come dressed as Prince circa Purple Rain with his extravagant bouffant, tache and flashy trench coat. Fans will be pleased to know that it's (absurd) business as usual from the guys.
Tonight's set is a game of two halves. The first is a hodgepodge of old tracks, new songs and covers. The second part is Permission To Land played in its entirety (big cheers at this news by the predominately older rockers who make up much of tonight's audience). The new song is The Horn which distils The Darkness to its ludicrous essence. Its balls out rock silliness with operatic flourishes. Sample lyrics
"Take off your dress, undo my tux
Stick your long,sharp nails
into my pale buttocks"
Curse of the Tolland Man is The Darkness doing prog-rock and maybe the only misfire of the night. It’s a non-album track from 2005 and it lacks the band's usual immediacy. With its new age lyrics and odd time signatures it sounds like a Jethro Tull B-side. That's never a good thing. Their cover is Radiohead's Street Spirit (Fade Out) which has been injected with steroids and kicked up the arse. It's an inspired makeover. Ed Graham's drums sound like a herd of horses about to trample you to death and Justin falsetto is so high it’s barely audible to dogs. It's magnificent and I actually prefer it to the original.
At half time Hawkins takes exception to a chap in the first few rows who has been filming the show since the start and tells him it’s illegal
"not to mention f*cking distracting. It’s this kind if sh*t that's killing music"
He then invites the entire audience to record the next part so they can upload it to YouTube.
"…as it will blow your f*cking mind"
The roadies come on stage for an inordinate amount of time and appear to be adjusting the drum kit for what is about to come. I was fully expecting the drum kit to levitate or spin in the air a-la-Motley Crue but with the crowd poised for something amazing Graham does nothing more than the most basic of drum fills, like a 3 year old given a toy kit on his birthday. The crowd dissolve into laughter. The Darkness may appear ridiculous but they are certainly self aware.
Sonically it’s hard not to hear echoes of Queen in The Darkness back catalogue and there is much of the Freddie Mercury in Justin Hawkins live performance. There are the outlandish outfits, the showmanship, the impeccable vocals and the easy rapport with the crowd. At one point during Growing On Me he stops and conducts the audience in an impromptu sing-along with a raising and lowering of his arm. He literally has the audience in the palm of his hand.
During Love Is Only A Feeling one middle aged fan emboldened by beer now feels its time to go for a spot of crowd surfing. He is doing well for a minute until his girth becomes too heavy for those supporting him and lands head first with a one way ticket to the concrete.
That's not the end of the crowd based fun. We are treated to an extended version of Love On The Rocks With No Ice with Justin getting on the shoulders of one of the roadies and riding him into the audience. He solos as he creeps closer to where we are standing all the while being groped by various rabid fans. He doesn’t miss a note. To top off an excellent show we get an encore of Christmas Time (Don't Let the Bells End) with the guys dressed up in their Xmas outfits (bobble hats, tank tops etc). I dread Xmas but this even managed to unearth the yuletide spirit buried deep within me.
The Darkness is in every shape and form a stadium band so it’s a privilege to see them in such close proximity. The songs, their attitude and their musical ability all scream Wembley Stadium. They may be a joke to some but it’s a punch line that keeps on giving.
Monday, 10 February 2014
Whilst the UK is a country obsessed with the weather, celebrity sex-lives and mediocre karaoke competitions Venezuela is a country obsessed with beauty. Girls of 4 don't play in the park but go to "beauty school" and practice putting on make-up and learn how to sashay down a catwalk. Having produced more Miss Worlds than any other country the obviously are doing something right but this pursuit of perfection comes at a cost.
Reporter Billie JD Porter spent 6 months in this peculiar part of Latin America following some of the aspiring beauty queens and the circus that surrounds them. Lets put it this way; if you are slightest bit ugly or overweight Venezuela is not the place for you.
Venezuela's equivalent to the X Factor is Our Latin Beauty (Nuestra Belleza Latina) and their Simon Cowell is Osmel Sousa, a camp beauty impresario with over 40 years in the business. Sousa knows about queens because he is one. He has the power to make or break careers and during his reality TV show contestants go through the mill until they are broken, emotionally and physically, until they fit Sousa's ideal of airbrushed "perfection".
With borderline OCD the smallest of details are seized upon and criticised. Ass not perfect? Get liposuction. Teeth too big? File them down. One contestant talks about him sotto voce.
"If you need a nose, face or voice changing he will tell you"
His show culminates in a grand final held in a huge sports stadium watched by TV audience of 50 million people. Despite Sousa being the paternal figure in Venezuelan pageantry his waspish comments do not show much compassion for the contestants. When one of them passes out due to lack of food his response is
"If you feint like a beauty queen, get up like one"
He is interviewed by Porter for his response to the feminists who protested against Miss World when it was held in London in 2011.
"Those protests were staged by Ugly Bettys who have no chance to be beautiful. All were horrendous"
His solution to virtually all flaws is to recommend plastic surgery.
"Nature has not been kind to some women"
To be fair to him he does practice what he preaches and has had so much work done he looks like Elton John and Barry Manilow's lovechild. You get the feeling he thought Zoolander was a documentary.
In the UK beauty pageants died out with in 70's along with Tiswas and the "friendly" pat on the bottom so its curious to see why Venezuelan women still aspire to this Charlie's Angels image of plastic-breasted beauty. The answer may be that this beauty ideal is the one that wins competitions and doing well in Miss Venezuela opens doors in a country with very few opportunities.
Despite the poverty that affects large parts of the country families see expensive plastic surgery as an investment in the future the same way a public school education may be a short cut to a well paid job in the UK.
Porter interviews Maya an 18 year old aspiring beauty queen living in the run down Caracas slum of Santa Cruz. Her family saved up and forked out £7000 on new boobs, nose and dental work despite her looking stunning to begin with. The family make sacrifices not just because she is their daughter but because she is their meal ticket out of the barrio. Caracas is one of the most dangerous cities in the world with on average of a murder every 40 minutes and you can understand its citizens desire to move up the property ladder.
Hugo Chavez may have died but his legacy of his radical Bolivarianism lives on. Food shortages are commonplace since the state nationalised all the farms and Porter films an angry queue of women hanging about on street corners for basics like eggs, milk and toilet roll. Its no wonder aspiring beauty queens will literally do anything to win competitions. Careers, boyfriends and health are all sacrificed.
Perhaps the most shocking evidence of their desperation is that in an effort to loose weight Maya had a plastic patch sewn onto her tongue that makes solid food too painful to eat. All her meals are taken liquefied. You thought the Atkins diet was bad?
Its is a relief to hear the mother of another contestant reject this surgical madness
"She doesn't need surgery. Who is competing? Is it the most beautiful girl or the best surgeon?"
With the BBC3 docu-bar being kept artificially low by the lightweight Stacey Dooley, Extreme Beauty Queens was a fascinating glimpse into this anachronistic way of life. Despite being a self-confessed newby to Latin America, Porter comes across as Alan Whicker in comparison to Dooley.
Of course it helps having someone as unhinged as Osmel Sousa as the centrepiece for a documentary but the whole hour had the air of an episode of Louis Theroux Weird Weekends about it. I can pay it no higher compliment.
Whilst a little green around the edges Porter did not shy way from asking probing questions but did so with an easy charm that got her subjects to open up to her. Let’s hope the remaining couple of episodes on South America are equally as entertaining.
Catch it on iPlayer for the foreesable future.
Friday, 17 January 2014
Monday, 13 January 2014
Wednesday, 18 December 2013
Nicaragua may rank as the 2nd poorest country in the Americas behind Haiti but one of the side effects of having no cash is that Nicas certainly do make best use of their resources.
This frugality permeates all aspects of life. Be that sustainable eating (outside urban centres Nicas tend to grow their own veggies/keep chickens & pigs and supermarkets stock far less imports than the UK), recycling (certain plastic and cans are worth money so they are not left lying around)or transport(ubiquitous ramshackle US school buses are imported, pimped-out and always full to the brim).
In the UK you can hardly see the stars for light population but when you fly over Nicaragua at night it looks like the place has shut for the day. Nicaragua may well take the prize for the most eco-friendly country I've ever been to.
Five gear mountain bikes of indeterminate make seem to be the most popular. On my way back from the baseball I saw a man riding an a bike on a busy road in near darkness with his other half riding side saddle on the crossbar whilst holding a two year old. I wonder what Boris Johnson would make of that? Despite the apparent lack of traffic lights & road rules (no one indicates so you have to slow at junctions and watch what other people are doing) cycling in Granada is excellent way of assimilating with the locals and getting a feel of this lovely town.
In Granada there a few place on La Calzada (the main tourist drag) to hire bikes. They aren't all in great nick so it's definitely worth testing them out first before setting off. I got mine from Bicimaximo which is based in the Parque Central just to the right of the custard coloured picture book Cathedral. You can hire a decent if unspectacular 5 speed for $5 (about 5 hours), $7 the full day or $22 a week. You can hire bikes with better spec but no one rides around on these so forget it unless you plan on doing some serious offroad.
They also do guided tours of the area if you feel the need for back up as there are certain areas where it may be sensible to exercise caution. The area between the lakeside and the start of La Calzada is fine during the day but a bit sketchy at night with reports of muggings and I have read anecdotal evidence that the 2hr ride up to Laguna de Apoyo has its share of problems.
Irrespective of the potential risks I love cycling and always hire a bike on my travels so I ventured along the coast past the unspectacular "tourist area", through fields and jungle and onto the Marina Cocibloca. Its an easy 4km ride on tarmac that can be easily in an hour or so. I like to do things at my own pace so I skipped the tour. In the end it all worked out OK but not before I got a lucky break.
Cycling on my own and into an area known for robberies might not win me the Einstein Award but there can be much to be said for just travelling minimally and trying to blend in. One way to do that is not to carry a gaudy back pack around like some travelling North Face turtle. This will mark you out as a gringo with something worth stealing. Keep it light, take a few cordobas and there will always a corner store selling something to eat and drink.
Although there have been reports of muggings in this area the journey on the main road to the marina seems to be OK in daylight as there are now tourist police stationed at the half way point to dissuade any would be assailants (although I'm told they are less than useless if you do get into trouble). I passed locals on horse and cart transporting their wares from the fields, cattle grazing on the shoreline and farmers chopping grass with machetes. It looks pretty idyllic and a world away form the hustle and bustle of Granada.
WARNING:DO NOT take the dirt road down to Astillero Diamante (at a junction you'll see a big sign with a diamond) as I now know many people have been mugged and even had their bikes stolen on this trail. I only learned about this particular pitfall from the caretaker at Marina Cocibloca AFTER bumbling down this pretty path bordered by fields, farms and the odd shack for about 30 mins. I was on my guard but only doubled back to the main road when I saw some dubious types up ahead. That was a wise move.
"You were lucky my friend. That area is notorious"
The caretaker started to tell me a story about how growing up in "el campo" was paradise. He and his friends used to climb trees and sleep out in the countryside at night and walk wherever he wanted without any fuss. Now even the locals have to choose their routes with caution especially at night or risk bumping into an opportunistic "pandilla".
"Kids don't want to work these days. They want the easy life so they just take nice things from other people"
It was interesting to chat to the old chap as he lamented about the ills of modern day Nicaragua and the changes it was going through. In that respect Nicaragua is no different from the rest of the western world with old school values replaced by a preoccupation towards get-rich-quick materialism. I blame 50 Cent.
Part 2 - Bells, Butterflies and Burials
Wednesday, 4 December 2013
When you think sports in Latin America you think football, right? From Mexico to Argentina the average Brit has romantic images of kids playing keepy-uppy with oranges on street corners and crumbling stadia flooded with rabid fans in a riot of colour all garnished with flares and streamers.
Having travelled to a few of these countries I've seen that many of the stereotypes ring true. However, in Nicaragua football is not el deporte numero uno, it's baseball. Only a 2½hr flight from Miami it's no great surprise that this quintessentially American sport has taken root in Nicargaua.
It was first introduced in the 19th Century by American importer Albert Addlesberg and popularised by US Marines stationed in the country. Despite Nicaragua's turbulent past and impoverished present the country has a 4 team professional baseball league (La Liga Nicaragüense de Beisbol Profesional)that runs from October through February.
It comprises of the Indios del Bóer, the Tigres del Chinandega, the Leones de León, and the Orientales/Tiburones de Granada. Most of the Nicas I spoke weren't really that interested in the national league but were pasionate about "las grandes ligas" i.e. Major League Baseball.
Nicaragua may not have exported the volume of top players to the US as Cuba or the Dominican Republic but they can be proud of the likes of Dennis Martinez who broke numerous pitching records during his 23 year playing career. Currently only Everth Cabrera (San Diego Padres), Wilton López (Colorado Rockies)and Erasmo Martinez (Seattle Mariners) currently play in the MLB.
So, when in Rome or in this case Granada I thought it only right to check out one of the games from myself. After getting confirmation of a 6pm game via their Facebook account (they don't have a website) I jumped in a shared cab (you could walk it but its wise to spend the 15 cordobas) and headed to the
The stadium is Nicaragua in microcosm: rough and ready but with tons of character. Pitching up in the dark and stumbling through the dusty car park I was a little wary of what to expect. How rowdy do baseball fans get after a few beers? A long line of people were queuing at a ticket booth for the main standing area which you could enter for about 30C$ (just over a $1). I thought I'd go for the comfort of a plastic chair and splurged 70C$ for "el palco" or the posh seats behind the batting area. There was no queue for this line. With this you get a program so I caught up on what Los Tiburones had got up to.
Walking up the gangway into the main arena it was obvious that this wasn't a must win game as the stadium was half empty and no touts had come to try and flog me tickets in the car park (I was warned this might happen) so I could sit wherever I wanted.
The teams took to the field without a huge deal of razzmatazz but after about 10 mins play was abandoned as a freak storm deluged the pitch and the fans in the cheap uncovered seats were getting well and truely drenched. Things started to get a bit heated as they were shouting for the gates that separated us to be opened so they get into our enclosure. The stewards and police seem to mull over the implications of this for a while before relenting and letting the soggy mass in. This was great as the atmosphere soon perked up.
First of all lets start with the food. None of your rubbery pies or reconstituted hotdogs here. A constant procession of food & drink vendors shout their wares at you as the cruise up and down the aisles. Quesillos (cheese filled tortillas), Vigoron (pork rinds & cabbage wrapped in banana leaf), Cerviche (raw fish marinated in lime served out of coolers), Asado (roasted meats) sweets, sandwiches, tiny bags of nuts (with a thin moustachioed guy constantly shouting Nipi,Nipi,Nipi,Nipi! on a loop) are just some of the delights you can sample from the comfort of your seat.
Whilst football in the UK has only recently moved from its white working class male roots baseball in Nicaragua is a family affair. Nicaragua in general is a very young country (the median age is 23 compared to 40 in the UK). Maybe its a remnant of Catholicism, maybe there's not much on the TV or maybe they can't afford babysitters but the stadium is full of the little critters running around and causing havoc. It makes for a pleasant atmosphere. Those who run the club even let the street kids come round with sacks to collect the discarded cans and bottles. There is nothing like poverty to encourage you to recycle.
"Jabon Marfil!!!!! Lava, lava y nunca se acaba!"
It's brainwashing taken to Clockwork Orange proportions. I would have bought a box of the stuff just to shut the guy up!
As the innings moves past the half way stage the brass band starts to crank up the volume and we are treated to some booty shaking in the aisle from one die-hard as he is cheered on by the crowd. Then, apropos of nothing, the stadium announcer decides to play The Village People's YMCA during a break in the activity and the crowd all does the synchronised dance moves. This makes me very happy.
Rival fans are not segregated and a tiny group of Tigres fans sat to my left were getting progressively drunker as the game wore on. By the end they were hammered and took to questioning the sexuality of the Tiburones pitcher. At the end of the 9th with the game tied at 3-3 they were loud but they exploded into rapture when deep in the 10th with bases loaded their batter hit one over left field above the despairing gloves of the Tiburones outfielders. Game over.
Overall it’s a great night out and a unique glimpse into an aspect of Nicaraguan culture. It’s an assault on the senses and a must for baseball virgins. In Granada there is no better place to pop your cherry.
Saturday, 19 October 2013
Back in the day I remember being overjoyed at receiving a cheap Saisho Walkman at Xmas and thinking I had won the lottery. Now today's "yoof" settle for no less then a £400 games console. Anything cheaper and you may as well have gifted them a freshly steaming turd and wrapped it their grandmother's underwear.
It the same principle with holidays. Malia is lame and Ibiza is old hat. The cool kids today what to party to Koh Phangan, Las Vegas or as Stacey Dooley ground breaking documentary discovers, Cancun. Two million party goers flock to Cancun every year for its beautiful white sand beaches turquoise Caribbean waters and tacky strip of mega-clubs & bars like Senor Frogs or Coco Bongo. It's a classy place.
Such attributes make it Mecca for Spring-breakers and an increasing amount of Brits with cash to burn. Dooley sets the scene by interviewing a trio of dolly birds at an all inclusive resort who are drunk by 4pm.
"There loads of fit Americans" they screech in unison.
Then she then interviews a bunch of lads of preening lads before a night out through a fog of Davidoff and Shockwaves. They are on their 8th consecutive night out and are getting to grips with traditional Latin American customs.
"Americans can't drink...they start chanting for no reason...we go what you doing, you're an idiot...it's a completely different culture"
For this series, Dooley's modus operandi has been to go to a popular tourist destinations and try and dig the dirt. She will either attempt to titillate viewers who might fancy a debauched holiday (see last week's expose on prostitutes Prague) or shock Guardian reading types who are aghast at the fact the hotel cleaner is not earning £20 an hour.
Sadly, despite Dooley's best efforts there are precious few revelations to be uncovered and little "carnage" you wouldn't see down your local high street on a Saturday night. Out on patrol with paramedics the best she can come up with a local who has got into the fight and slightly cut his head. On the beach trying to score she is offered drugs by some "cigar salesmen". It's small potatoes.
Out on patrol with the tourist police there is virtually no trouble on the "strip" as it is patrolled by officers with M16's in order to dissuade any would be narco-violence. Despite the high levels of violent crime in Mexico it's to Stacey's chagrin that she finds it difficult to argue with her chaperone when he says Cancun is:
"One of the safest cities in all Mexico"
Convinced she is just being fed the sanitised version of Cancun her handlers want her to see she hot-foots it "downtown" to interview hotel workers struggling on minimum wage. There are shots of dusty roads, wild dogs and tin-roof shacks. Problem is I've stayed in downtime Cancun and it is absolutely nothing like the scene depicted on screen. It's a bog standard, if unspectacular, Mexican town with a tree lined pedestrian area, open air restaurants and a modern bus station. What we are being shown is clearly way out in the sticks.
To fit the director's narrative between the affluent tourists on the strip oblivious to the suffering of the locals they have conned the viewer into believing "downtown" Cancun is some two-bit-tumbleweed shanty town within spitting distance of the plush resorts. This may be the case in Rio but not in Cancun. Sad, they have to use this sort of subterfuge to hoodwink the viewer.
Its hardly groundbreaking to find out the local cleaners don't get paid more than £3 a day but they wouldn't be particularly well paid if they lived in the UK either.
The only arresting interview that Dooley captures during the documentary is that of a reformed drug addict confesses to killing 25 people, when he was 15, to fund a heroin habit. He would carrying out these hits for the drug gangs on their non-paying rivals. As the age of responsibility in Mexico is 16 the courts were unable to impose a prison sentence. He now bakes bread and is trying to turn his life around.
Dooley "Who did you kill?"
Killer: "Mostly women"
Dooley: *goes white*
Having watched a few of Dooley's documentaries I get the feeling her production team come up with a catchy title first and think about the documentary later. To call them lightweight affairs is like saying Hitler wouldn't have been a very good host at the MOBO's.
Dooley showed a lot of promise with her initial foray into the world of documentary making with her part in Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts expose on the textile industry's fondness for Indian sweat shops. However, her subsequent documentaries have suffered from having some great ideas stymied by amateur research, cheap voyeurism and a style of presenting that owes more to Stacey Solomon then it does to David Dimbleby.
At 25 she is still earning her docu-chops but if the quality doesn't start to improve there is going to be a lingering suspicion that she just was the check out girl that got lucky.