📚 Hitman

To me there is something beautiful about a brotherhood of big, tough men who only pretend to hurt one another for a living instead of actually doing it. I came to appreciate that there is an art to it. In contrast to my father, who loved to proudly tell people who the real tough guys, or shooters, of his generation were, I can just as proudly tell you who the great workers, or pretenders, of my generation were. — Bret Hart

Satellite TV entered my house when I was eleven. At first, I was mainly obsessed with MTV’s never-ending carousel of music videos. That was until my dad spotted a small advert in the TV section of the newspaper, letting us know that something called WrestleMania V was showing on Sky TV that evening. The incredibly-named ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage was to face off against the blonde-moustached Hulk Hogan. My brothers and I tuned in to watch, and our heads promptly exploded.

Looking back now, we weren’t obsessively into Wrestling for that long. After WrestleMania V we kept up with the storylines for a while, but I don’t remember too much after The Ultimate Warrior beat Hulk Hogan to win the top belt at WrestleMania VI. But in the short period that it grabbed us, we watched it all the time. Quickly, the World Wrestling Federation made us familiar with characters that ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous: ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper, Brutus ‘The Barber’ Beefcake, Mr Perfect, ‘Ravishing’ Rick Rude, André The Giant, ‘Superfly’ Jimmy Snuka, ‘The Million Dollar Man’ Ted DiBiase, Bad News Brown, Dusty Rhodes, The Big Boss Man, ‘Hacksaw’ Jim Duggan, Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts, ‘The British Bulldog’ Davey Boy Smith and The Honky Tonk Man, along with the tag teams of The Hart Foundation, The Bushwhackers, Demolition and the Legion of Doom. We even got to know the brilliant commentators: Gorilla Monsoon, Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura, Bobby Heenan and Vince McMahon.

Mum and dad used to get mad at us kids for play-wrestling all of the time. After the shows had finished we’d become the wrestlers, jumping off the sofa and getting each other into holds. Typically to Gorilla Moonsoon-like cries of “Look out!”, “He’s put him in a half nelson!” and “Right in the breadbasket!” Often the wrestling would escalate to the point of an accident, tears or both. I once cracked my brother’s head open on the corner of a the stereo cabinet in the lounge. Children are different these days, probably much nicer to each other as they are typically in front of screens instead of making up their own games. I’m not sure which is better.

I didn’t think about wrestling for a long time. A few years ago I found myself walking to the train station, listening to the Reconcilable Differences podcast and hearing Merlin Mann raving about a 1990s ‘Hell in a Cell’ match between The Undertaker and Mankind. The match happened many years after I stopped watching. One of the wonders of the modern world is that I can stop what I’m doing and then watch whatever it is that I’ve been reading or hearing about, usually on YouTube. The match is brutal; a complete health and safety nightmare. The fence-clad ‘cell’ that surrounds the ring starts to buckle under their weight, shortly before The Undertaker sends Mankind 22ft through the air into a table next to the ring below. After receiving medical attention, he climbs back up only to be ‘chokeslammed’ through one of the cell panels, falling a the same distance again, this time to the ring mat. From Wikipedia:

According to both Foley [Mankind], Calaway [The Undertaker] and Prichard [sic], the second bump through the cell roof was completely unplanned, Calaway would later say that he thought Foley was legitimately dead following the second fall, and asked Funk to check if he was still alive, while Foley would describe Ross’ commentary as “not part of a wrestling match, but a legitimate cry for my well-being”. Foley later said that the only reason he survived the fall was because he did not take the chokeslam properly, as he had been too exhausted to lift his body weight in response to the chokehold.

Somehow, Mankind gets up and they wrestle further, while one of his dislodged teeth hangs from his nose. Things get ridiculous when thumbtacks are scattered in the ring, and this gimmick is somewhat overshadowed by what went before. There is a brilliant summary and commentary on the match on YouTube which is well worth watching:

The podcast got me thinking about what I’d seen as a kid. Yes, wrestling was made up. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t great. The wrestlers still had careers and reputations to nurture and build. Getting to win a belt was something agreed before a match finish, but generally you only got to be the winner of the best matches if you were popular and good at the job. The work had to be believable on TV, to the fans in the area and sometimes even right next to the crowd as they brawled. They wrestlers also had to record lots of TV spots, trash talking and gurning to the camera to keep the storylines going. Every time they got into the ring they were putting their trust in each other to make it great but also to keep it safe, and it didn’t always work out.

I worked hard to bring out the best in my opponents. I gratefully acknowledge the hundreds of wrestlers I worked with in thousands of matches over twenty-three years, and am proud that I never injured another wrestler to the point that he couldn’t work the next day. — Bret Hart

I started reading Hitman, Bret Hart’s autobiography, towards the end of my holiday in April. I thought that it would be some light reading to go with my vacation vibe. As an ebook, I didn’t realise it would be such a monster read at nearly 600 pages. I knew Hart as part of The Hart Foundation tag team back when I used to watch at the turn of the 1990s, but I hadn’t realised he’d gone on to much greater things including winning the WWF World Championship belt. The whole book was an education. Early on you are introduced to the wrestling lingo:

  • Babyface: A ‘good guy’ in the storyline.
  • Heel: A ‘bad guy’. A babyface could ‘turn heel’ as part of a story.
  • Kayfabe: To keep in character, even outside of the ring. Although the storylines were make-believe, nobody wanted to disappoint fans by being seen with their supposed arch-enemy on a tour bus or having a beer together.
  • Getting heat: When you’re a hot property or you’re having a great match, this is shorthand for adulation and frenzied fever from the fans or the crowd.
  • Putting someone over: Letting them win. Apparently the end of matches were decided by the person doing the booking, but the content of the matches themselves were down to the wrestlers.
  • Getting some juice: Secretly and deliberately cutting your forehead with a razor blade during a match in order to add blood to the proceedings. Apparently wrestlers would hide a blade in their mouth and then spit it out and cut themselves when they had taken a blow to the head.

Getting some juice seems to be something that happened a lot in the earlier years, but the promoters knew they had to try and curb it as wrestling became more mainstream. From Hitman:

Though I’d bladed when I thought it would increase the artistry of the match, the practice was clearly stupid, and stopping it was a step in the right direction to protecting wrestlers. What bothered me was that Vince banned blading four months too late. My forehead had so many deep cuts in it from our recent run of cage matches that I could easily pull the slices apart with my fingers. Pat Patterson later explained that the real concern was that AIDS could be spread by all that self-inflicted bleeding in the ring. I was relieved, and at the same time I felt bad for ever having done it.

Hart’s story is fascinating. His life in the business traces a route from the 1970s — where wrestling was fragmented across regions, with his dad Stu running the Stampede Wrestling promotion in Calgary, Alberta — to the turn of the millennium, where the World Wrestling Federation (WWF, now WWE) run by Vince McMahon was all-conquering. Hart was the eighth of twelve children, all of whom were involved or married into wrestling in one way or another. Their childhood home had a room in the basement that was nicknamed ‘The Dungeon’, where Stu would take pleasure in teaching ‘submission wrestling’ to anyone wanting to get started in the business.

The author comes across as sincere and honest, documenting his hectic schedule of life on the road and the impact that this had on his relationship with his family, as well as his womanising and his use of steroids. You get a good sense of how much work it was, and how much effort he had to put into keeping in great shape and ensuring he was earning a living. Hart is self-aware of his qualities, and has an intelligent understanding of what makes a great wrestler:

I have my own theory on the three qualities it takes to be a great pro wrestler. The first one is look or physical presence. On a scale of one to ten, Hogan, being such an awesome specimen, might rate a ten, for example. Although it always helped, it wasn’t as important to be tough as it was to look tough, especially if you were a heel. The second quality is the ability to talk, to sell yourself; Hogan might score another easy ten, whereas a guy like Dynamite would have to work to earn a two. The third is wrestling talent, the ability to work. Here it would be just the opposite: Hogan would rate the two and Dynamite would get the ten. A score in the high twenties adds up to a great wrestler.

Losing can be a beautiful thing if it’s done right. The Hitman character was generally seen as a wrestler who, try as he might, could never quite win. This made him more human than, say, Warrior or Hogan. His constant struggle to make it to the top was endearing to the fans because it was something they could identify with in their own lives.

Early in Hart’s career, he suffers a horrible injury at the hands of wrestler Dino Bravo. Although Hart could see that their planned move would have problems, it was difficult to stop the match and ‘break kayfabe’ in front of all the fans:

The referee, John Bonello, stepped between us, pushing him back, and it was while I was standing on the apron with my back to the crowd, knowing the spot was coming, that I realized it was quite some distance to the steel fence, that it was bolted to the floor and that it wasn’t going to budge when I hit it. But it was too late! Dino, right on cue, rushed the ropes and launched me backwards into the air. As if in slow motion I twisted and braced myself, but my foot was tangled in the cord from the mic stand, and I feared that it would catch and pull me downwards, head first into the fence. Somehow, in a millisecond, I was able to shake my foot free then—wham!—my chest hit the top of the fence, and I crumpled to the arena floor. In very real agony, I was unable to catch my breath. My first thought was, Don’t die, don’t die. It felt like I’d crushed my rib cage or maybe even punctured a lung. As I twisted around on the floor, nobody seemed to realize this wasn’t part of the show! I thought, Just hold on … somebody will know I’m seriously hurt. Oh no they won’t … my selling is realistic, so nobody realizes I can’t breathe. … I might die here on the floor of the Maple Leaf Gardens. God, what an awful way to go.

There seems to be little thought to wrestler wellbeing, such as ensuring they have an income if they are injured in a match. This is a theme that repeats throughout:

Vince’s generosity extended to $200 a week while I healed. Luckily my $10,000 SummerSlam 1989 cheque arrived to cover me. Still, I found myself going back to work after only eighteen days. My ribs would bother me for years, and I had to be careful taking hard falls and turnbuckles. There’s a certain art to being able to work hurt and not disappoint your fans. I’m proud to say that nobody noticed a thing.

These physical injuries culminate in an awful event where Hart’s brother Owen loses his life as he makes a vertical entrance to the ring:

Hanging from a cable off a catwalk up in the rafters of the arena, Owen suddenly fell seventy-eight feet to the ring, smashing chest-first across the ropes, about a foot from a turnbuckle, bouncing hard onto his back toward the middle of the ring. He lay there for several minutes turning blue while paramedics worked feverishly on him, to no avail.

It’s hard not to judge history by the standards of today. Looking back, it is so sad to know that there was no holistic support for the wrestlers. As well as getting little or no pay while they were off work due to physical injury, there was no support for the those who were battling mental issues and addictions. Wikipedia has a long page, filled with sorrow, documenting a list of premature professional wrestling deaths.

The impact of Owen’s loss on his family is deep, and causes significant rifts. At this point, a lot of the extended family’s income and future earnings is either directly or indirectly dependent on the company that now has a near-monopoly on the wrestling business. So the immediate pain splits into different views about how to approach Vince McMahon, the man who runs the business.

Bret has his own run-in with Vince McMahon. Due to various reasons covered in the book, Bret wasn’t happy with the decision that he should drop the world championship belt to Shawn Michaels before leaving the WWF to join the rival World Championship Wrestling. McMahon had agreed, but then during the match the bell was rung prematurely, causing Michaels to be declared the winner. I wasn’t familiar with this story before picking up the book, but it is apparently very famous, now known as The Montreal Screwjob. There’s an episode of the documentary series Dark Side of the Ring which covers this in a lot of detail.

What I found interesting is the ‘kayfabe’ side to the story. At the end of the match, Hart looks truly devastated, spitting on McMahon, writing the letters ‘WCW’ in the air and then smashes up some ringside gear. You wouldn’t typically expect the wrestler to acknowledge the existence of another wrestling promotion, nor McMahon’s role as a senior person involved with the incident. Backstage, McMahon goes to see Hart in his dressing room and is apparently knocked unconscious by him. From Wikipedia:

The far-reaching impact of the incident led to its adoption as a theme in matches and storylines of the WWF’s “Attitude Era” and the creation of the character of “Mr. McMahon,” the evil arrogant boss. Many wrestling fans, and several within the business, believe the entire incident was an elaborate work executed in collaboration with Hart. Nonetheless, Hart was ostracized from the WWF while McMahon and Michaels continued to receive angry responses from Canadian audiences for many years.

There’s some interesting detail on the incident in the excellent 1998 TV documentary Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows which has been made available on YouTube:

With the advent of the Internet, ‘keeping kayfabe’ must have become almost impossible, with wrestling fans sharing stories with each other online about the real people behind the characters. It makes sense that the business would adapt to this, turning McMahon’s real-life role as the boss of the WWF into a storyline. Back in the days when I watched the show, McMahon was seen as just one of the match commentators and nothing more.

During the last few years that are covered by the book, Bret suffers a quick decline brought about by WCW’s poor management and terrible storylines, as well as his own serious injuries that start with concussion from a kick to the head and a subsequent stroke after falling off of his bike.

I’m really glad I read this. It put my brief spell as a wrestling fan into context and gave me a newfound appreciation for the work that they did. Yes, it wasn’t ‘real’. But we loved it.

📺 The Beatles: Get Back

Finished watching The Beatles: Get Back. What a treat! It was well worth the wait.

This is how history is made.

This is how history is made.

The Beatles have always been part of my life. My awareness as a child moved to obsession as a teenager in the early 1990s. I listened to as much of their recordings and hoovered up as much information as I could, reading books such as The Ultimate Beatles Encyclopedia from cover to cover. My obsession has waned but my interest is still alive; I continue to pick up the odd Beatles-related book or movie every now and again.

I’ve never seen the original Let It Be movie from 1969. It was always out of print and unavailable to buy. But the recording sessions were infamous. I’d read and heard so much about them I felt like I knew the story. It turns out that I did, but there is so much more colour to the narrative than I was expecting.

The three episode format, each one longer than many films, seems like an odd choice at first but makes sense upon watching them. Each one covers a period of about a week or so. The first is based on the sessions at Twickenham Studios, the second when they move into Apple Studio in Savile Row and the third covers the concert on the roof of the Apple office. Eight hours seems like a long running time but it didn’t feel that way. Usually when I watch a music documentary I am always clamouring for the ‘super deluxe director’s cut extended redux’ edition and feel a bit short-changed, but not this time. Jackson has judged the running time superbly, having edited it down from approximately 140 hours of audio and 55 hours of video. The edits are superb; you can spot the audio-only segments as they are cut away from the person talking but it isn’t distracting. The first episode seems to run at breakneck speed as different snippets of songs appear before we quickly move onto the next one.

Jackson has thoughtfully added visual context to the films, interspersing the footage with brief interludes to explain things such as the incredible-looking venue in Tripoli that Michael Lindsay-Hogg was trying to persuade them to play at, and exactly who Enoch Powell was.

The most incredible scene comes in the first episode where McCartney and Starr are waiting for the others to arrive. McCartney is noodling a riff on the bass guitar and suddenly the basic shape of Get Back, the song, emerges. It is absolutely extraordinary to watch; the audio equivalent of seeing someone take a piece of clay or a blank canvas and create something amazing, new and unique.

Harrison seems to be particularly productive, staying up late and writing new songs such as I Me Mine which he demos to the others in an almost finished form. Through the first episode I can see why Harrison gets annoyed and ends up walking out. The full attention McCartney gives to Lennon is totally different to the poor-quality attention he gives to Harrison. It seems so passive-aggressive and I’m not sure McCartney was even aware of it. I have to remember that he was only 26 at the time. At one point McCartney disparagingly refers to a Harrison tune as “one of his ‘last night’ songs”. They touch on gems such as All Things Must Pass but never come back to them again. The others didn’t recognise the wonderful treasures he was bringing to the table.

The story of The Beatles being Lennon’s band at the start and McCartney’s at the end is well-known. Lennon had already started taking heroin at this point and seemed content to let someone else be the driving force. Towards the end of the first episode, McCartney is talking to the room, saying how they need to have more structure to the work that they are doing and Lennon sits next to him playing seemingly hungover or stoned word-games. I think McCartney comes across well here, showing incredible patience.

As we move to Apple Studio in episode two it struck me at how expensive the whole adventure must have been. The Beatles’ first album, Please Please Me was recorded in a single day. The contrast with the Let It Be sessions couldn’t be more stark; seemingly endless recording with no proper numbered ‘takes’ to speak of and a vast number of people milling around the studio. They seem happy to bumble along, singing silly versions of their songs as they record that they know will never make the final cut.

The second magical air-punch-worthy moment takes place in episode two when Billy Preston arrives. He instantly delivers the secret sauce on the electric piano. The riffs are recognisable in the final versions of the songs that you hear on the Let It Be album and the whole room seems to lift just from him being there. I’ve heard snippets of his work before, such as the live version of That’s The Way God Planned It at the Concert for Bangladesh, but I need to give his studio albums a listen.

In episode three we get to see the ‘takes’ that ended up on the Let It Be album, helpfully annotated on-screen. Throughout the series there are snippets of conversation that ended up on the record, such as “‘I Dig A Pygmy’, by Charles Hawtree and the Deaf Aids; phase one in which Doris gets her oats!” and “That was ‘Can You Dig It?’ by Georgie Wood. And now we’d like to do ‘Hark The Angels Come’.” It’s strange to hear these out of context without the music kicking in straight afterwards. Whatever you think of the lush ‘wall of sound’ strings that he applied to some of the tracks, Phil Spector did an incredible job to create a now much-loved album out of what he had.

In the same episode we also see Starr playing Octopus’s Garden. You can see from the film how much Harrison contributed to developing the song. I assume it was de-prioritised in favour of the Lennon and McCartney numbers, only to reappear later that year on Abbey Road.

The final scenes featuring the rooftop concert are well worth the wait. They blew me away. All of a sudden, the band that had spent endless hours noodling and clowning around in the studio look like a proper group again. Their run-throughs of the songs are electrifying, even when John fluffs some of his lyrics in Don’t Let Me Down. It was amazing how much of the album was derived from the rooftop concert, given that it is outside and they only have late 1960s technology to capture it. Jackson does an incredible job to intersperse the live music with everything else that was going on — people being interviewed in the street about what they were hearing, and the police being held off for as long as possible. The simultaneous multi-camera shots add to the excitement.

I absolutely loved this series. It is perfect — I don’t think I could have asked for more. The years of work that were poured into making this series have paid off in a massive way and I am so glad that it exists. What a wonderful thing.

📺 Surviving 9/11

With the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks fast approaching, the TV schedules are filled with lots of programmes related to the event. This week we watched Surviving 9/11, a moving documentary that gives an insight into some of the lives that were directly impacted by the horrors of that day. The range of people featured in the film, and the ways in which they have survived and coped — to varying degrees — with the aftermath of the trauma, were delicately and thoughtfully presented.

It’s a cliche to say that it seems like yesterday, but it’s true. On the day of the attack I was in London, sitting at my desk, filling out a form to try and make a case for getting myself transferred to work in New York on a company assignee scheme. The bank that I worked for had recently bought a large US-based brokerage firm and we were getting a programme off the ground to integrate our two HR systems. That August, I had been to New York on a business trip and had started to build relationships with our new colleagues. Much earlier, when I started at the company in 1999, I had met a bunch of New York-based fellow graduates and made some solid friendships. I was enthused to think about spending time with them all in a new and exciting place.

Early that afternoon, I read a glib message about the first plane crash on our internal chat system and we all turned our attention to the news websites. I don’t think much work got done after that. At some point I had to walk across the city to another of our buildings for a seminar about the company pension fund. I knew it was going to be about as interesting as it sounded, but I felt obliged to go. On my way I saw scores of people standing outside office lobbies, staring through the glass to watch the news on the TV screens. At some point, somebody came into the seminar and told us that everyone was being sent home. It was weird — New York was so far away, but we somehow all felt as though we were connected to it. Nobody was sure that there wouldn’t be a similar attack in London. I packed my bag, jumped on the tube and then stayed up watching the TV until the early hours, hitting refresh on the Metafilter thread to find out what was going on via my dial-up Internet connection at home.

An American friend of mine had just moved from London to New York, and years later he wrote up his experience of that day. Re-reading it now brings back more memories. I moved to Manhattan exactly two months later on 11 November 2001. It was a strange time; when I arrived there I felt a little as though I was an outsider intruding on a shocked and numb city. I lived on my own, and spent many evenings walking for miles just to be around people. The bus shelters were still filled with candles and photos of missing friends and relatives.

My new office was in Weehawken, New Jersey, a ferry ride across the Hudson River from Manhattan. It was open plan, with glass-walled single-person offices around the edges for the senior managers on each floor. One of those was kept locked — the occupant had been tragically killed by the first plane crash as he waited for a bus to work outside the World Trade Center. In the weeks to come, I overheard my new colleagues talking in hushed but animated tones about whether his office should be left alone out of respect or cleared out so that they could move on. I couldn’t share their pain as I had never met him.

In the year I spent in New York the demand for flights from London was understandably low and tickets were cheap; consequently I had many friends and family come to visit. I loved having a stream of guests to entertain and take on a tour of the city. Some of them wanted to go down to the World Trade Center. I didn’t want to go, but I did accompany them. It felt somehow macabre to go and look. It was already a tourist destination, despite the memorial being some years away.

The two decades have passed in a flash. Watching the documentary this week reminded me of how primitive things were back then and how long ago it was. Analogue video tape recordings from the events of that day. VoiceStream being the only phone network that provided a local GSM service, on handsets with tiny displays. No mobile web as we know it now, and no Facebook or Twitter to share status updates. I still had to email or call my friends and family if I wanted to catch up. In the past couple of years I have worked with a colleague who was born after 9/11, which was difficult to get my head around at first. I guess this is what getting old feels like.

My year in New York was a seminal time for me and I think about it often. The integration programme was a great success and I learned a lot from working with some wonderful colleagues, many of whom I still speak to. My girlfriend came to visit a number of times before eventually quitting her job and coming to live with me. We came back to London together and got married less than two years later.

Twenty years on, the mental and emotional impact of 9/11 is unsurprisingly still raw for those people directly impacted by the horrors of that day. Surviving 9/11 offered a moving and sensitive insight into this. I feel very privileged to have been able to have made my own memories of the city during those fragile months.

Die Da!?! Memories of MTV Europe

Satellite TV arrived in my life in 1988 when I was eleven years old, and it felt like I sudden leap into the future. My dad had seen a ‘you can’t afford not to’ offer in the newspaper that got us a dish and 16-channel decoder supplied and fitted for next to nothing. Turning it on for the first time was a big event — we were the first people I know to get a dish and I remember having lots of friends and neighbours over to see it. We were all falling over each other in the lounge as we looked with wonder at the new channels.

An Amstrad Fidelity decoder. Look at all the buttons! (Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

An Amstrad Fidelity satellite TV decoder, circa 1988. Look at all the buttons! Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Dishes all over Western Europe pointed skyward to the Astra satellite, and we all received the same programming. There were only 16 channels on the service, but this was a crazy amount compared to the four that we got through our terrestrial aerial. Only a few of the new channels were British — Sky One, followed eventually by Sky Movies and Sky News — with a significant number of others in German. The most fun were those that were aimed at everyone over Europe, typically in English, such as Eurosport and Screensport. The king of them all was MTV Europe, the channel that was probably the reason we got the dish in the first place. From that point on, when I wasn’t in front of my home computer you could usually find me in front of the TV.

Music was a big deal in our house when I was growing up. The radio, a tape or CD were playing all the time, whether we were at home or in the car. As it was for millions of others, for me Friday at school was spent talking about all of the bands that we’d seen on Top Of The Pops the night before. Having MTV Europe in the house meant that I no longer had to wait for Thursday. Back then, the ‘M’ in MTV meant something, and music was front and centre in the programming. When a specialist show such as 120 Minutes, Most Wanted or Yo! MTV Raps wasn’t showing, we would get a stream of videos from the MTV playlist one after the other. It was brilliant.

One of the big benefits of having a pan-European station was that the songs on heavy rotation often hadn’t gone far up the charts in the UK. They even had a specific chart programme, the MTV European Top 20 countdown, hosted by Pip Dann. Compared to our national chart, this one seemed to change at a glacial pace, and Dann must have been challenged to keep her commentary fresh every week.

Over the years I’ve noticed that there are a whole bunch of songs that I remember from those days that my friends don’t seem to be aware of. With the help of a wonderfully old-school-looking website, I’ve scoured my memories to pick out the weird and wonderful songs that got tons of airplay on MTV Europe but are relatively unknown here in the UK.

Lambada — Kaoma (1989)

People seem to know this song but aren’t aware of the band that made it big. A video filled with Latin dancing, revealing clothes, Orangina, a silent angst between children who want to dance with each other, and an angry adult who slaps a young girl.

Got to Get — Rob ‘n’ Raz featuring Leila K (1990)

I could never make my mind up as to whether this was ‘so bad it’s good’ or actually good. One thing I do know is that it burrowed into my brain very, very deeply. I’ve never met anyone else who has heard of Leila K, “a Swedish Eurodance singer and rapper of Moroccan descent.”

Heading for a Fall — Vaya Con Dios (1992)

Not the sort of thing I would have gone out and bought, but it had something about that I enjoyed. Everything seemed vaguely ‘adult’ about the music. Listening again now, the vocals are superb. I have no idea what the video’s all about though.

Still Got The Blues — Gary Moore (1990)

Always had my dad playing air guitar within half a second of appearing on TV. People seem to have heard about Gary Moore, formerly of Thin Lizzy and Skid Row, but this song only made it to number 31 in the UK. The Belgians (#1), Dutch (#2), Norwegians (#3), Swedes (#4), and Finns and Poles (both #7) must have driven the amount of airplay that this got on MTV.

Die Da!?! — Die Fantastischen Vier (1992)

This could have so nearly been the first song to have an interrobang in it’s title. To this day I have no idea what they are singing about (“that one!?!”), but the fantastic four showed me that German rap is fun!

Tag am Meer — Die Fantastischen Vier (1994)

A totally different vibe with this one. Like the Beastie Boys moving on from their (You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party) phase, the band seem to have matured, got serious, and increased the video budget. Chilled out rapping in front of a video that reminds me of Neneh Cherry’s Manchild. Weird. Great.

Cose Della Vita — Eros Ramazzotti (1993)

Italian power pop, complete with a truck driver’s gear change. Apparently Ramazzotti is massive in Europe, and this song made it to in Belgium, in Spain and #4 in Italy. I bought a tape copy (quite literally) of the album on a family holiday in Bulgaria in 1994. This is the best song on there.

Bakerman — Laid Back (1989)

Fancy dress sky diving to Danish electro-pop with Prince-style backing vocals in a video directed by Lars von Trier. What could be better? Made it to #44 in the UK chart, but the Austrians took it all the way to .

Wind of Change — Scorpions (1991)

“I followed them on squark, down to gonky park.” Those immortal misheard opening lines from this German metal band were seemingly played every few minutes on MTV Europe in 1991. Despite the video being a montage of recent news footage, I had no idea at the time that this was such an important song with associations to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, with viewers of the German ZDF network in 1999 choosing this as ‘the song of the century’. 14 million copies sold. Made it to in the UK, but you never hear of it here now.

(I Wanna Give You) Devotion — Nomad featuring MC Mikee Freedom (1991)

I love this song, a one-hit wonder from Nomad. The video is super low-budget but completely memorable. And I saw it a lot. Much, much better than other songs of the time that ‘featured’ a rapper. Take-it-a-down-now-Mikee!

Go For It — Joey B Ellis featuring Tynetta Hare (1990)

The first three CDs I ever bought were George Michael’s Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, a Do The Bartman single and the Rocky V soundtrack. This was the lead song from the somewhat patchy soundtrack and for a short time I thought it was superb. These days Joey B Ellis is known as MC Breeze.

Crucified — Army Of Lovers (1991)

The only other person I know who has ever heard of Army of Lovers was a young Russian chap I worked with over a decade ago. They had a dark-haired male singer that looked like Paul King, and everyone seemed to flounce around in revealing underwear. Swedish euro pop was all a bit too much for me at 13 years old.

From looking at the charts, as the 1990s progressed it seems as though the number of big European Top 20 hits that were unknown in the UK seemed to diminish. We were all listening to the same songs. As the number of available satellite channels grew, MTV Europe was replaced with regional broadcasts, which further reduced exposure to massive hits from the continent. I drifted away from MTV as studying, exams and going out with friends replaced the time I had spent at home on the couch. But these tunes are still with me.

Young @ Heart

If you’re not doing anything right now I suggest tuning in to Channel 4 to watch ‘Young @ Heart’. It’s a lovely film about a group of singers in America who have an average age of 2-3 times my own but perform concerts of alternative music such as Sonic Youth and James Brown. We watched it a couple of weeks back on More4 and loved it. Heart-warming stuff!

Jez Hodge, superstar

Jez Hodge in Press GangAt dinner a few weeks back we were talking to my cousin’s boyfriend about his former career as an actor. He happened to mention that as well as being an extra on Eastenders many moons back he also played the character of Kevin in Press Gang. I’m not sure if it was way before my time or not but I didn’t remember the programme…so, after a quick search of the internet I grabbed myself a copy of series two.

So, for your viewing pleasure, here are a few shots of Jez in Press Gang:

If you want to meet Kevin…erm, I mean Jez…he’s the one who is organising the sponsored cycle ride for Cystic Fibrosis so he’ll be there for autographs. If you haven’t signed up already, what more of an incentive do you need to come along? :o)

Office Monkey

By chance I’ve just watched one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on TV – ITV2’s Office Monkey. Basically what happens is that two employees in an office are given a series of challenges to do, such as ‘model your friend’s fashion garment and try to sell it’ or ‘become a human stationery cupboard’ while their colleages have no idea that they are all being filmed. We saw one guy get demoted after using a one-man-band kit in the office and another told that he looked “like something out of Gay Pride” for modelling a unique vest-pants combo! At the end of the event, the managing directors of the firm walk in, tell everyone they’ve been featured on the show and award a holiday to one of the two Monkeys. So simple and yet so brilliant! But why on earth would you want your company to participate?

The Power of Nightmares

Towards the end of last year, the BBC screened a three-part documentary called The Power Of Nightmares which provided an excellent view of the background to our current political climate – how the rise of the neo-conservatives in the US and the radical Islamists influenced the creation of a world that neither intended. Basically, the programme went on to state that a highly-organised group such as Al-Qaeda does not exist, but has been pushed to us by western politicians to ensure that they still have a relevant role in society following the end of the Cold War. Powerful stuff.

The best news is that the series is being repeated on BBC Two this week; it’s on at 23:20 on Tuesday 18, Wednesday 19 and Thursday 20 January 2005 and I urge you to watch it.

What’s on TV?

A friend of mine has developed a fantastic free application that shows you what’s on TV in the UK. It’s a good alternative to DigiGuide which I used to use until I had to pay for it. I especially like the links to Google when you click on episode titles and the automatic Internet Movie Database links when you click on films. Other people have built on top of it – there’s now a Windows version, a WAP version and a Flash interface as well. Great stuff.