Wednesday, July 29, 2009

David Simon at the Hay Festival 30th May 2009

If he’d have turned up at my front door I’d have given him money. As it was I had to go to the Hay Festival to see David Simon. To pay and pay homage. I would have travelled further as I don’t really think about much else now apart from The Wire.

Basically it was an hour or so of David Simon in conversation with Mark Lawson from the Late show and answering a few questions from the audience.

He was there to plug his book Homicide and the HBO mini-series The Corner.

Two sides of the same city and both sides would feed in to The Wire itself.

Homicide is the result of his years of crime reporting for the Baltimore Sun and captures the aggressive humour of Baltimore Police speak, while The Corner is filmed as a fly on the wall documentary and focuses on the daily grind of drug addiction in the Baltimore row houses where people are too busy being addicts to put the work into being funny.

So once you get to The Wire, you can get 60 hours of ambitious, gripping telly that expects the viewer to put the work in, pay attention and not to expect a neat plot resolution at the end of each episode.

It moves between the lives and work cultures of the Baltimore Police Department police and the drug gangs that they’re chasing. For both sides, it’s just business as usual and they’ve all got their own bureaucracies and work pressures. It then pans out to take in the roles of the schools, local politics and the press. You get a real feel of a city and society, disastrously going about it’s work.

The dialogue is fantastic. Foul mouthed and funny with properly inventive swearing. The potty mouthed work of people who spend too long doing observation in unmarked cars and standing on corners selling drugs. Both sides, dealing out the banter, just to pass the time. Both sides spending a lot of time just waiting. Both sides just doing their jobs.

The Wire has some fantastic characters, and even the minor characters seem to have had some care and effort put into them. My favourite character at the moment is Proposition Joe, who runs a drugs empire from his TV repair shop. He takes time out from fixing a toaster (he looks like he’s had a
few pieces himself) to remind one lucky individual that he was nearly a “cadaverous muthafucker"

The main thing that came out of the evening was David Simon’s ongoing love affair with journalism. He talked about starting out and just being in awe of the other reporters who were “Older than me, knew more than me, could drink more than me and were funnier than me…It was like a lost weekend that went on for years. Good job I took notes”

There was the pride in the fact that after his years in the job he knew exactly how to get the different sides of a crime story, through the fact that he had all the Police contacts, he knew where they drank and who would talk to him and about what. And who had an axe to grind or maybe just a different view.

One of the themes running through Series 5 of The Wire is the decline of the local paper. The problems of the Newspaper industry in Baltimore are echoed in local papers in the UK.

Although Simon acknowledged that a media based on dead trees may not be the most efficient way of delivering News he wondered what could replace it. Would an army of Citizen Bloggers have the skills, the time and the resources to find, follow and break a story? Because of course he was proud of his own skills and experience, but as he pointed out…he got them because he was paid and there was a newspaper industry that was willing and able to pay him.

His explanation of how The Wire came to be funded was really interesting. He talked about an executive at HBO who explained that it didn’t really matter how many people watched it (and by extension any of the other HBO shows). They just needed to have enough programmes that people would be interested in and would sign up for.

The company weren’t interested in whether you’d subscribed to the channel for The Sopranos, The Wire, boxing or indeed anything else…just so long as there was at least one programme in the schedule that would make you pay your subscription. Which of course turns the whole British TV ratings game on it’s head.

He claims to be surprised at how well The Wire was received in the UK (1200 people in a tent at Hay for starters) but put it down to “American dystopia plays better the further away you get from it”.

I was pleased to hear him talking about another Baltimore phrase that I loved from the series. Cops would describe themselves as being “A Police.” He said Martin Amis had been criticised for using it but Simon stood by it as a Baltimore phrase.

He talked about the importance of getting it right, the stories and the dialogue and about how the worlds of his characters were often only a few blocks away. But you are never going to go to Lafayette (where The Corner is set) as a tourist. He described The War On Drugs as a war against the underclass.

My next Box set is his Iraq drama Generation Kill and his next project is based Hurricane Katrina. Again you can see the parallels in his other work. Stories of failure by Government and Corporations and the effect on communities. Using drama to ask questions and show what is going on.

As he put it, after 40 years of talking about it, why are Baltimore schools still failing?

When he was asked about other writers he admired, he talked about Chekhov….because his characters don’t always do what they are supposed to do. By which I think he meant that the character isn’t just there as part of the plot. Which brings us back to The Wire and it’s huge and hugely entertaining cast.

Start working your way through the box sets. It may change the way you live. There’s a lot more swearing over breakfast after a night watching The Wire. Family punishments are harsher too.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

That Petrol Emotion Birmingham Acadamy 1st July

That Petrol Emotion split up in 1994 long after the world had lost interest.
Judging by the amount of elbow room at the Academy on the opening night of
their first tour since they split, the world may still not be interested.
Shame on the world. They were always an excellent band live and they've
still got all their powers.

I wouldn't trust them to set the video though. The first song Blue to
Black should have started with a sample...And indeed it did...Once singer
Steve Mack had found the play button.

Steve asked who remembered the name of the pub where they'd played their
first gig in Birmingham. That would be the Vine in Aston. I didn't go to
that but I do remember buying the first single Keen, downstairs in the old
Virgin Shop on Bull St where the assistant was enthusiastically promoting
the gig. Actually he probably was the promoter.

They were definitely amongst friends. Old friends. Over 30's friends,
many well acquainted with their 40's. Drummer Ciaran used to be an hairy man and used to look as if the red carpet had been rolled out along the back
of his neck. Well it's not quite gone to stripped floorboards yet but he’s
certainly put down a silver fox rug. Steve Mack still looks exactly the
same, all sinew and flailing limbs occasionally breaking into a kind of
hopping dance with a finger in the air. Guitarist and Undertone Damian's
sole concession to the ageing process seems to be a pair of glasses. He's
probably just wearing them as a show of solidarity with the rest of us

It looked like the gig was going well, for both band and audience. Steve said, "They say you should never go back to your old lover, but I'm beginning to change my mind".

It's A Good Thing would have me heading straight to Friends Reunited. It's a great example of how TPE built a joyous celebratory Pop out of awkwardness. One of the constant things about the band is they way they use discordant words. (Scum Surfin’, Chemicrazy...even T shirts that proclaim TPE to be renegades in Pop redux. I'm sure you are…but you probably told your mums you were astronauts, as it was easier to explain.) So in It's A Good Thing you get a line like "Our flesh feels fresh, That's the beauty" It's geekily awkward, and like unscientifically but enthusiastically
dissecting a frog. Just poking it to see what works. But you do get this
great high/ low sing song chorus from Steve and then just as the song
should be building, it breaks down as the guitars stumble into each other
before building up again. Calculated chaos. Obviously it doesn't finish
with a chorus (after all if you've got a great chorus...why would you want
to play it 3 times. That would be Pop insanity?) Instead what you get is a
blissful Ahhh ah vocal and Ciaran doing 4 bars of rolling drum thunder.
And that'll do instead of a chorus. And it does. Magnificently.

Looking out at the low numbers, Steve cheerfully announced, “next time we
do this, shall we just do it in somebody’s yard? We’ll have a barbecue,
bring a barrel of beer. It’ll be cheaper for all of us.” He gestured to
the rest of the band “…and if these fuckers won’t come, I’ll bring an

The band barrelled through the hits that got away, the likes of Big
Decision, Abandon, Hey Venus, Sensitize. It’s a toe in the water come back
tour, nothing to promote except their legacy. Great Pop tunes with
scratchy, scouring guitar lines to take the edge off the sweetness.
Another mishap with an intro sample to Catch A Fire brought anguished cries from the band. “This is what you’ve got look forward to…the doddering Petrols playing the same song 10 times”

Scum Surfin’ was an exhilarating hair pin drive, as the track built momentum
with the guitar powering out of the corners. Get it onto a video game,
boys. It can be your pension plan. Lifeblood comes from the first album
when their sound was closer to the Pere Ubu/Captain Beefheart template.
Closing tracks Last Of The True Believers and Detonate My Dreams sounded
fantastic as Damian's white Les Paul seemed to have turned into a white cat
which he was enthusiastically strangling. And the choker is that these
were the tracks that they had released after the world had lost interest.
And that, to my shame, included me.

These are the tracks I can remember...not necessarily in order

Blue To Black
Gnaw Mark
It's A Good Thing
Big Decision
Hey Venus
Head Staggered
Sooner Or Later
Life Blood
Catch A Fire
Scum Surfin'
Last Of The True Believers
Detonate My Dreams

There's TPE treasure trove at and