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Years ago, around 1992, I had a phone call from a friend asking me if I wanted to see The Fall. Some may know them as John Peel's favourite band - they were once described as a 'cantankerous racket'. (True, but a fantastic racket nontheless.) "Yes, I'd love to. Where are they playing?" "At the Hacienda, in Manchester." My answer was something that I will take to my grave with me. "Err.... No. Better not, I'm on an early shift the day after." What I had done was pass on an opportunity to visit possibly the greatest nightclub in existence - not that I knew it at the time. Sure, I'd heard of it, and many of my friends would travel from Leeds to Manchester, talking about the electrifying atmosphere - and sometimes about the other things they'd seen there. It was only after I'd seen 24 Hour Party People that it hit me. All the great bands that were a familiar part of daily life, and there were many of them but the Happy Mondays and New Order stuck out the most - came from Manchester, and the Hacienda was the galactic centre of it all. It felt like I'd missed the greatest party in the whole world, and because it had been made into a film, it was now immortalised and had passed into history, never to be repeated. I was gutted. Strangely, the place where I had received the call to visit the Hacienda was also immortalised and passed into history - a psychiatric hospital where I was a member of staff, which closed and was then featured in a Paramount film, Asylum. Back on topic again - I was delighted to hear of Mr. Hook's book, because I thought here was the best insight into something that I'd missed out of sheer ignorance, and had kicked myself for ever since. It's an electrifying read, and I've finished it in two nights. One of my first impressions is that it should actually be classed as a business training manual, because Mr Hook calmly describes just about everything that can go wrong going even more badly awry than could be imagined - just about every possible form of financial abuse is exacted against the long suffering members of the band. It's all listed in gory detail - the brewery that lends them money to finish the club then tells them that as a condition of the loan they can't buy competitors products, and charges them an inflated price for their beer. The designer who goes hopelessly over budget, and is then allowed to do the same when they open a second club. I wasn't sure, but I think I can detect Mr. Hook berating himself for having been taken hook (no pun intended), line and sinker, on dry land. - if this is true, he needs to be proud that he didn't exhibit the same qualities as some of those around him at the time - I've heard it said that to be a successful businessman, you had to have auditioned for the starring role in 'Jaws'. Don't be hard on yourself, Mr. Hook - it may have broken your finances, but look at what you did and feel endlessly proud - over fifteen years, you helped to shape some of the most important contributions to music ever made, and it sounds like you had one magnificent time doing it. It's a terrible shame that it's all over, and I can hardly contain my contempt for what presently masquerades as music - the plastic, manufactured, boil in the bag garbage that has everything to do with marketing, clothing and makeup contracts, and nothing to do with real music. In summary, a fantastic book - a hilarious, poignant and at times saddening read. A brief word about the Fall - I got to see them years later at The Roadhouse Club, Manchester - Peter Hook was there, doing their live sound for them. He looked at me and my friend, then smiled and nodded. Cheers, Hooky, you made our night. The Fall were terrible though.
The Omen (1976)
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I have had an uneasy relationship with this film for many years, having first seen it probably a few years younger than I should have done. This was a mistake. I am blessed (or cursed, as it may be) with a particularly overactive imagination at times, and I have to say that I spent several years wishing that I had never seen this film - it wouldn't leave me alone for a long, long time after seeing it. I've seen its director, Richard Donner, being interviewed on TV many times - he is a remarkably intelligent individual and appears jovial, cheerful and amiable - just the sort of individual that you could fondly imagine as a grandfather to your children, or (with no offence intended) a real life Santa Claus. So, Mr. Donner - how on earth does someone like you make a film like The Omen? This film didn't just redefine 'scary' films for me, it redefined the sensation of feeling scared. It really did cause some significant problems for me, and I still can't explain the odd decision I took to buy a Hi-Def copy on Blu-Ray, and watch it all over again - I suppose wanting to climb back on the horse after falling off, so to speak. But - don't let me put you off. What a masterpiece this film is. One of the most striking aspects of this film is its soundtrack, by Jerry Goldsmith, who in my opinion has written some of the very best film music ever heard. Infact, to dismiss him as 'just' a film composer is to insult him - this soundtrack is one of the most remarkable pieces of music you could hope to hear, and one of the few film soundtracks that I have gone on to buy. If you do buy it, a word of warning - don't play it at night. You'll wish you hadn't. Many people confuse this soundtrack with Carmina Burana, and this is one of the many old wives' tales you might hear about this film. To put it simply, Jerry Goldsmith created one of the most instantly chilling film scores ever made. Another possibly inaccurate tale you might hear about Mr. Goldsmith is that he hallucinates his music, and then scores and orchestrates it... possibly not, but I could just about believe this to be true. And on to what you see on screen - this film isn't an action epic with major events every few minutes to keep the hard of thinking occupied. What it does, and possibly does the best of any horror film I've seen, is to very slowly craft and develop a sense of mounting dread. A happy, successful and affluent family are slowly dissolved by something that appears innocent and pure, and is infact the prodigy of the darkest force of evil. What a load of old cobblers, I hear you say - but I watched this throughout my formative years, when I wasn't sure what I thought of religion, having also spent many years having this drilled into me at school. It's extremely unlikely that you won't have seen this film if you have an appreciation of horror films (again, I don't like to pigeonhole this as a horror film, because for me it's in a class of its own) but its transfer to Blu-Ray has been extremely worthwhile - I've seen details I've never seen before, and the soundtrack, whilst recorded a long time ago, has been tidied up well. I can barely bring myself to describe my 'best' moment in the film. Thorn has arrived back at the family home, to identify Damien as the Anti-Christ, by examining his scalp for the mark of the 3 sixes. It's dark in the house, and raining outside. He hears the Rottweiller found by Mrs. Baylock (or Baa'lock, to give her her hell's apostate name) to guard Damien, and hides. The dog, unaware of Thorn, walks slowly to Thorn's hiding place, and very quietly in the background, there can be heard a truly awful, demonic whispering. Thank you, enjoy, and I wish you sweet dreams.
2001: A Space Odyssey: Special Edition
So this film needs a remake with computer generated effects, does it? Thanks for your input, but with all due respect you've missed the point of this film altogether - a landmark piece of complete genius, way ahead of its time, a distilation of sheer, obsessive talent and relentless attention to detail. I have to admit a long-standing admiration of anything by the late Mr. Kubrick - this film, after all, was what inspired a certain young Mr. Lucas to take a good look and think "I reckon I could do that." - and the rest, as they say, is history. Sure, this film isn't for everyone, and just because you don't like it on the first viewing doesn't mean you have the wits of a tree stump - this film and some other Kubrick films are very much an acquired taste. But, those with a modicum of patience, who are prepared to watch slow-cooked rather than flash fried will be treated to some of the most electrifying visual and sonic perfection ever committed to film. Just don't expect a thrill each passing minute, or dazzling Silicon Graphics visual effects - this film was made in 1968, and there was no such thing, which is actually one of the greatest compliments that could ever be paid to Stanley Kubrick - he literally crafted the impossible, and then filmed it for you. And who cares what the end is supposed to mean?? It's entirely subjective, and is one of the very few film endings, if not the only one, where it can mean exactly what you like... My take on it, having watched it many times entirely sober, is that Astronaut Bowman travels back in time through a black hole and becomes God - whatever that ubiquitous name means to you. But, if you watch it and see the same scene as a journey backwards through Blackpool lights, whereupon the astronaut invents a magnet that picks up assorted mixed vegetables, then fine, all well and good. A minor technical point - If the very slow panning shots are juddering and you're watching it on Blu-Ray, turn 24Hz video on - this film, like most other celluloid prints, was filmed at 24 frames per second - the 24Hz facility on your Blu-Ray player is there to provide the same synchronisation, when used with a compatible TV, and stops juddering.
Apple iPod Touch / 8GB / 1st Gen
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For some years now, I've had a fifth generation 60Gb iPod Video, and I've been very pleased with it for many reasons - having your entire CD collection in one tiny, good looking box is fairly priceless anyway - but added to that I would say that the iPod, whilst certainly not an exotic piece of high-end hi-fi equipment, sounds astonishingly good for a portable audio player. Use it with a pair of decent headphones, Sennheisers being a personal favourite, and you won't believe what you hear. Another great reason for owning one is that so many other manufacturers have jumped on the iPod bandwagon. In my car, for instance, I have an interface box which sits between my car's CD player and the iPod - the ipod is then placed out of sight, and is controlled by the head unit. Lately, quite a few hi-fi manufacturers have also begun to recognise the iPod as a serious piece of equipment, and have started to make some fantastically good amplifier / speaker combinations - TL Audio's Fatman iTube, for instance, which uses vacuum tubes instead of transistors for amplification. The video capability of the iPod, far from being a poorly conceived add-on (we're talking about Apple here, who seem to have an unrivalled ability to conceive and design something that actually does what it says it can do, without endless bug-fixes and reliability problems) works like a dream. So, how could this be better? Take all of the above, make it smaller, add the most gorgeous user interface ever invented, then add wi-fi and the ability to stream video from your wireless router, increase the battery life, and make it sound even better. Even if you never actually turn the thing on, this is one of the most beautiful pieces of equipment ever made; the very definition of 'tactile'. A fairly mandatory buy with the touch is the docking station with video connector. I've been using mine to stream BBC iPlayer programmes through my home system - again, you won't believe what you're seeing. Sure, it's not high definition, but it's better than VHS video quality, definitely more than watchable. You also see it full screen on either the player or your TV, not the usual window if you're streaming it on a PC. The fact that all this is coming from something which isn't too much bigger than a credit card will never cease to amaze. Then there's the sound quality. I won't be getting rid of my older iPod which has everything I own encoded at a lesser bitrate, and what I've done with my iPod touch is to encode about 100 of the albums I play most at lossless quality. (This is on a 32Gb iPod.) Concerning MP3 and other encoding systems there is always a trade-off between file size and sound quality, and you lose more storage space doing it like this - but for doing so you are rewarded with a huge increase in sound quality, especially when you're playing it through a decent hi-fi system - at the risk of labouring a point, you won't believe what you're hearing. In case you haven't worked this out, I'm completely hooked, which I'm very surprised to say because about twenty years ago I sold staggeringly expensive hi-fi equipment and would never even have dreamed of something like this even slightly entertaining me. It's like the toy you always imagined as a kid, the one that could never really exist except in science fiction, but even better - with a constant ability to surprise at what it can do, and draw admiring looks from other people who then curse you for having 'had to' go and get one. Can't recommend it enough - go and get one, the bigger the better!
Tom & Jerry Classic Collection - Volume 1
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In a recent conversation with a friend, the subject of the late and lamented Tom & Jerry was raised - particularly that it was some time since either of us had seen one of their cartoons. This conversation faltered somewhat in the lack of available evidence, until a third person contributed to the conversation - "Oh, you won't see them any more, they're just too violent. They give kids the wrong idea." How I scoffed and harrumphed at this load of old cobblers - but, the more I thought about it, it was disproportionate enough to actually be true. Disproportionate?? We live in a society where people are allowed to part with perfectly good money to go to cinemas, whereupon they watch the occupants of hostels meet with particularly gory, sadistic and horrific demises - and then leave, giddy with mirth, delightedly discussing their evening's gore-fest with similarly thought disordered individuals. That same money, I submit, could be spent on perfectly good antipsychotic medication with very few side effects. The SAME society, if this is true, withdraws two of the very greatest comedy icons of the last century, with its at-the-time groundbreaking animation because - well, because - someone's kid MIGHT get the wrong idea and throw a 5 ton anvil at next doors' dog. I strongly and actively support protecting children from things that they plainly should not experience at particular ages, and am from a childhood age where there was nothing like the protection that children should rightfully have - but, come on!I remember the family tradition of sitting down to watch Tom & Jerry, shortly before Grandstand then Doctor Who, on a Saturday afternoon, and all of us shrieking with mirth. Other than an appreciation for slapstick humour and a fondness for cats, I have NO sustained effects or unwanted personality traits AT ALL from having sat repeatedly through this family institution. I've actually bought all three of these discs - and, apart from convulsions of hysterical laughter and frequent requests for repeat viewings, have noticed NO ill effects in my child at all. Being the responsible citizen that I am, I have also been carefully monitoring the local animal population - and can safely say that I have seen no bulldogs with anvil marks on their heads, no two dimensional cats that have clearly met with foul play at the hands of a steam roller, and no mice resembling balloons having ingested the entire contents of a carton of milk. I will continue to observe and take necessary action. And the discs themselves? If you remember Tom & Jerry, and can bring yourself to ignore the perilous warnings of 'frequent and mild slapstick violence' (really?no kidding!) these are priceless and essential viewing, superbly transferred to DVD - they're also excellent value, at 3 hours per disc. Call me irresponsible, but a wholehearted recommendation is happily cited.
Live At Glastonbury: 1994 - 2004 (2CD & DVD)
Orbital - CD
A minor technical problem revealed itself with this disc - nothing to do with the disc, but an almost new HDMI DVD player shouted 'Incompatible TV System!' and refused to play it. It's in NTSC format rather than PAL. For almost all modern TV sets this isn't a problem, but you may have to switch your player over to NTSC. Progress - Don't you just love it??? On to what's actually on it - even if you arent' a diehard Orbital fan, you simply must see this disc as an amazing demonstration of band / crowd synergy. I saw them six times and they were never anything less than electrifying - Orbital were one of the very few live acts where the whole was always more than the sum of the parts. A new Orbital album coming out was always great news. Seeing them live, as the two pairs of headlights appeared behind their gear and the crowd went quite ballistic, was just sublime. I was gutted to hear they were no more, and must admit that when I watched this disc and the magnificent 'Chime' draws to its close, I had quite a big lump in my throat. Sure, they're men of few words (Phil - "Thank you very much, thank you.." and Paul "You've been brilliant, cheers") - but their show was never about the two musicians, and always about fantastic music with a really unique 'let's try this and see where it goes' feel to it. If you're thinking of doing a few more shows, guys, that would be the best news ever. As a disc to buy, I'd have to say that this completely rounds off my Orbital collection, and can't recommend it enough. Sure, there a few issues with sound quality, but it gets steadily better throughout the disc, and by the end of it, looks and sounds fantastic. And of course, none of this matters if you were actually there in 1994 (which I was - 'ave it!!)