Sunday, November 30, 2008

Now that's what I call 1983

One the favourite voices I've heard in the last couple years, Laura Clapp, bagged the fantastic gig of supporting legend Howard Jones on a selection of dates during 2008.

Here is HJ, performing with Laura and Robbie Bronnimann live on ITVs "Now that's what I call 1983".

A really well-written 80s song, no miming, and one of the all-time great synth riffs to boot - class.

Friday, November 28, 2008


A 2 minute slice of what I was talking about in the previous post:

Orde Meikle focuses the beats, The Arches, Glasgow.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Slam @ The Arches, Glasgow

In the dark and the damp, under Central Station in Glasgow, lurks The Arches.

For several years, this hidden space of concrete floors, clocks that ran backwards and epic stone arches was stormed weekly on Fridays by local DJ/producer duo “Slam”. Occupying two of the rectangular cavernous stone arches (one dancefloor, one bar) Slam at The Arches was an institution. Anchoring one long side of the dancefloor arch was a fortress-like DJ box – on the other three sides, an array of bizarre projections cascaded down white-sheet-clad stone walls. A huge stack of speakers sat in each of the four corners of the dancefloor, and propelled the angular noises and grinding grooves through the huge stone arches, out through the door and in to Midland Street. From the bar arch, the sound came through as a thunderous booming.

I wandered in to Slam at the Arches some time in 1994, and stayed there for a couple of years. Over a decade later, it’s goosebump-raising to recall the things that made those nights so special. Slam at the Arches would have been stunning as a one-off – but it wasn’t a one-off, and the way in which it maintained its quality week after week for months on end still defies belief.

A night at Slam would start off with an extended queue under the bridge over Midland Street, dodging the attention of pigeons nestling above, the regular chancer walking the queue looking for spare change (in between bottles of lager in the bar next door), and more often than not a steady stream of rain from the rail tracks overhead.

Once inside the music would start with floating ambient electronics as the first bodies walked in, with people gathering drinks, walking through the cold space of the empty club, gathering and soaking it up. As the tunes mutating to stripped down-tempo broken grooves, you would find the first people swirling around in the dark space of the dance floor. The spacey early sound of the night would then slowly resolve into a solid, grinding house groove, as more people were drawn through from the bar arch into the wide open dance floor spaces. The pace was always slow at this time of night – surprisingly slow, but deep, and tough, and from early on you could hear one of the magic elements that separated Slam from almost all their guests: a slow, implacable progression. The whole night, the pacing, the refusal to give too much too early, the constant building of atmosphere, the slow creep of tempo, of intensity, was a tangible promise of a future conclusion. Every tune, every noise, every mix, was part of a plan, part of the whole. It grabbed you, it was planned, it was seductive, it was going somewhere.

The crowd was a mix of students and locals, and the mix was important. Too many students, and not enough locals, and the atmosphere became too much influenced by alcohol - it wasn’t the same. On the other hand, not enough students, and it could become occasionally too sparse, and things could become slightly more edgy. Somewhere in the middle, there was a magical balancing point. As the crowd would oscillate between locals and students with seasons, you would feel the atmosphere falling away, and you would feel it when it was on the up. There would be runs where you would go every week, feeling the vibe getting better and better every time, telling others to come down, riding the rising wave of intensity.

The lineups of guest DJs would put many supposedly great clubs to shame: Jeff Mills, Derrick May, Andrew Weatherall, Josh Wink, Daft Punk, Funk D’Void, David Holmes, Derrick Carter, Richie Hawtin, on and on they came. But for me, it was the residents nights that always held a mysterious magic. There were less hangers-on, less name-DJ tourists, a better atmosphere, and (more than anything), the music choices and timing of Meikle and McMillan were on a different planet to even the most admired of their guests. Simply put, very few of the visiting DJs could hold a candle next to the Slam guys when it came to the overall shape and execution of the night.

The Arches may not always have been the best club venue in the world. The crowd may not have been the best crowd in the world. The DJs may not have been the greatest DJs in the world. But a club is the sum of its parts, and for a run of months that never seemed like it was going to end, all the stars were in line underneath those damp rail tracks. Those of us that were there should consider our luck.

While the residents played in different orders, more often than not Meikle would play the first two hours, and McMillan would play the last - it proved to be a devastating combination. A contrast in styles, Meikle would stand inscrutably in the DJ box as huge jacking beats cranked out of the speakers, a fag occasionally lazily dripping from his mouth, smoke slowly twirling up into his face, seemingly gazing down at the decks most of the time. Every so often, he would glance up at the dancefloor, although he was so impassive the gesture came across like he was just checking someone was still there. From behind this veneer of disinterest, emerging from the ambient genesis of the night, came a slowly rising tempo and progressively tougher beats, morphing into the most utterly seamless, jaw-droppingly powerful, building groove.

There was also, often, the track.

If you had come in and gone for a drink first, you might be standing in the bar arch, listening to the groove slowly winding up in intensity. Bodies slowly disappear in to the dancefloor, gliding through the spaces as the atmosphere started to build. Sipping your drink, a tune would come on – and on this tune, the night would turn.

Sometimes this turning point announced itself with the biggest bassline you’d ever heard in your life. Sometimes it was just a repeating chord sequence, every repetition hitting harder than the last. Everyone could feel it. Every time, you knew. As the track ripped from the towering stacks of speakers and erupted through the club, and the roar of the dancefloor went up, people turn to each other; “What, is that?”. Few people survived the transition still prepared to remain only onlookers. As everyone sought out the dancefloor, sucked in by the promise of every new tune and every new mix, the night set sail properly, with jacking house and techy grooves, smiling faces in the pitch black, rotation, repetition, riffs, thunderous kick drums, Meikle's huge extended seamless mixing, and always building, building, building.

With the night teed up perfectly by Meikle, McMillan would come on at the halfway point. His style diametrically opposed to his co-resident, McMillan would practically hover over the decks. Staring straight across the dancefloor at the back wall where the double-tiered plinths ran, by now crammed with enthusiastic dancers, he looked like he was trying to make contact with the underworld. Eyes straight forward glaring like a man possessed, leaning forwards over the decks like he was about to leap out of the DJ box, bobbing and grimacing with concentration as the music tore from the speakers. Tough Detroit and European techno, angular and metallic grooves, double-copies, records that built and built like they would take your head off, records that looped you endlessly into a trance, and an ongoing McMillan trademark: the heaviest of bass drops. The bass would evaporate for seconds at a time whilst the intensity in the crowd built, and built, and built. When the moment had been drawn out and time had nearly come to a halt in this ocean of intensity, he would unload all the bass energy on the crowd in one titanic downbeat, sending the speakers, the club, the crowd, and anything not nailed down several miles into orbit. And with this, still the building, still the building that had been set in motion a lifetime away, somewhere back in the earliest stages of Meikle’s set.

Nearly four hours of this relentless building, twisting, shouting, jumping and cheering later, as Slam approached its end, as you could nearly taste and touch the conclusion it was so close, the perfect musical timing of the night would undergo its final twist. With 15 or 20 minutes to go, the musical brakes, which had so carefully controlled and shaped the night, so expertly applied by both DJs, would finally fly completely off. With the music, the volume, the atmosphere and the intensity at fever pitch following over three and a half hours of calculated construction, McMillan would unleash on the crowd a night-finishing series of devastating tunes – three, or four, or five in a row, each hitting harder, bigger, and wilder than the last. And it was always building, or by this point, more exploding, right up until the last second – no cooling down, no chilling out. It always delivered the most definitive of ends. It always delivered.

Then, as the final epic tune would come to an end, and for the first time in four hours it was not replaced with another, volleys of cheering and clapping would go up, filling the odd silence. The lights would flick on, people would turn around grinning at each other, cheering and hugging, drinking water, and slowly, reluctantly, the dancefloor would clear.

The dancefloor cleared for me some time in 1996.

Over ten years later, the smile is still here.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Ayman al-Zawahiri - "The parting of Bush and the arrival of Obama"

Yesterday, a new audio recording purporting to be from Ayman al-Zawahiri was released, and subsequently circulated globally. Al-Zawahiri is the right-hand man to Osama bin Laden, and widely accepted to be the ideological top man in al-Qaeda.

The prevalent take on this in the western media so far is that the most significant part of the statement is that al-Zawahiri apparently called Barack Obama a "house Negro". Some of the blogs and comments on news articles regarding this redefine irony - there are US citizens seemingly furious that the second-in-command of al-Qaeda was racially denigrating president-elect Obama. It seems to me if you're going to be angry at al-Qaeda, you can find better reasons than the occasional racial slur!

The balanced and incisive Juan Cole has an interesting take here. Cole has several reflections, which I would summarise as follows:
  • The Iraqi people never substantially supported al-Qaeda style Sunni extremism, and the actual upshot of the US winding down is that both the US and al-Qaeda have lost in Iraq - and that Iran are the big winners.
  • Cole believes al-Zawahiri is terrified of Obama's popularity (particularly outside the US), and that al-Zawahiri fears that support in the Islamic world for anti-US terrorism will collapse with the different dynamic that the new president will bring.

From Cole's article:
Obama has the opportunity to be the most popular US president in the Middle East since Eisenhower. If he is wise, he will defeat al-Zawahiri not just by military means but by stealing away al-Zawahiri's own intended constituency. Obama is about building communities up; al-Zawahiri is about destroying them. If Obama can convince the Arab publics of this basic fact, he will win.

I'd agree that Obama needs to defeat al-Qaeda ideologically, rather than militarily - in fact, I'd argue it is the only possible way to win. There is no point in arresting or assassinating the key players in a terror organisation, if the inspiration they provide to potential terrorists worldwide remains intact. Plus, Obama has some very difficult choices to make with what military action to take, particularly in the unstable and nuclear-armed Pakistan, so it could be argued that leaving bin Laden and his friends intact, while severely toning down US foreign policy might be the best way to de-tooth al-Qaeda.

One way or another, I cannot see how the terror threat can be dealt with without the US getting Israel to get back in line, and that includes reasonably quickly reaching a fully independent Palestinian state, in a physically contiguous area. If Obama can deliver that, then not only would he have achieved the greatest step forward in peace and general human rights within my lifetime, but al-Qaeda would be ideologically sunk.

In any case, I went looking for the full text of the statement. Western news outlets tend to only carry very limited excerpts and quotes, and I'd rather read the full thing myself. I finally found a PDF version claiming to be the translation from the Arabic here.

So, in the style of a western news organisation, here are the quotes that I find interesting:

[addressing Barack Obama]
If you still want to be stubborn about America's failure in Afghanistan, then remember the fate of Bush and Pervez Musharraf, and the fate of the Soviets and British before them.

This is more than a little bit presumptive - Bush's "fate" was to see through his entire double-term, and the party swap that is in progress is probably more due to the current domestic economics of the US than anything else. As for Musharraf, he was ultimately unseated by a groundswell of public opinion within Pakistan due to his increasingly stubborn refusal to relinquish power.

The Soviets and British in Afghanistan is where al-Zawahiri starts to aim slightly more true. Both the Soviets and the British invaded Afghanistan, and both were ultimately sucked in to guerrilla warfare in the country that they could not hope to win. In fact, the US was largely responsible for the Russian invasion of Afghanistan - Zbigniew Brzezinski (the National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter at the time) specifically wanted to goad the Russians into a long and unwinnable battle in Afghanistan, in order to give the USSR "their Vietnam". As has been pointed out in the past, a guerrilla war is never over until the guerrillas win.

Again to Obama:
You are neither facing individuals nor organisations, but are facing a Jihadi awakening and renaissance

This is an extensively debated point. Is the bin Laden threat still primarily from a centralised, command-and-control organisation (with trained and instructed fighters worldwide), or is al-Qaeda now an ideology which has penetrated worldwide, and which radicalised Muslim youth can use as their inspiration in perpetrating terror attacks as they see fit, without the knowledge of or instruction from the original al-Qaeda structures?

This goes to the heart of the threat facing western civilians. If the answer is the command-and-control structure, then one might imagine occasional, large, devastating set-piece terrorism might be the future, such as 9/11, Bali, the African embassy bombings, and so on. With this structure, effective counter-terrorism, intelligence and global cooperation might manage to put a lid on the current participants (not withstanding the fact that their place can always be taken by others.)

If however the threat from al-Qaeda is now largely ideologically "dispersed" rather than formally controlled, then the danger is much harder to contain, and terror attacks in western countries from previously unknown participants with no direct links or communication with al-Qaeda may occur. It's very, very hard to see how a threat of this sort can ever be contained adequately in a free society, unless you remove the desire of people to attack you in the first place.

Al-Zawahiri seems to be implying that the threat is more of a physically dispersed one, although whether this is current fact, or wishful thinking is a good question. It may well be the latter, as the next section (directed at Muslims worldwide) seems to be a call to arms:
America, the criminal, trespassing Crusader, continues to be the same as ever, so we must continue to harm it, in order for it to come to its senses.

Which brings us to the final passage, part of the end address which is (according to the statement) intended for the citizens of the US:
You incurred defeat and losses from the foolish actions of Bush and his gang, and at the same time, Shaykh Usama bin Laden (may Allah preserve him) sent you a message to withdraw from the lands of the Muslims and refrain from stealing their treasures and interfering in their affairs. So choose for yourself whatever you like, and bear the consequences of your choice, and as you judge, you will be judged.

This seems more aimed at the worldwide Muslim community to me than it does at the US. As Michael Scheuer (who was the creator and chief analyst in the CIA's "bin Laden" unit) pointed out in this fascinating interview in 1996, Bin Laden and al-Qaeda got quite a hard time in Islamic circles after 9/11, for several reasons.

Scheuer, with my italics:
Bin Laden was called on the carpet by his peers in the Islamic militant movement for three things. One was that he didn't give us enough warning. He's now addressed the American people on five separate occasions since 2002. So he's taken care of that one. He was also called on the carpet for not offering us a chance to convert to Islam. He's now done that three separate times, and Zawahiri has done it once. So they've covered that angle. The other thing they were taken to task for was that they didn't have the religious authority to kill as many Americans as they did. In the summer of 2003, he got a religious judgment from a very reputable Saudi cleric that he could use weapons of mass destruction, specifically nuclear weapons, to kill up to 10 million Americans.

So the end of this latest statement from al-Zawahiri could be seen in light of providing further warning to the US and others engaged in military action in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

And I can't help but wonder every time I catch one of these "clearing the decks" type statements that contains a warning, or an offer of a truce - what are they clearing the decks for?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Obama are you watching?

Israel is blockading Gaza. To which they illegally control all entry and exit from.

Oxfam says Gaza is "facing disaster".

The Israeli government are blockading food from civilians for whom they are responsible under the Geneva Conventions.

Obama - are you watching?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Hitting the wall?

This is a particularly interesting press release on the site of the US federal reserve.

It seems to suggest that the US attempted to shift US $150bn in bonds today - offering people the opportunity to purchase US government securities - which as they are priced in dollars, effectively prop up the dollar itself and finance the US national debt. This isn't news, it is a regular happening.

So what is different in this press release? What's different is, of the $150bn on offer, only $12bn was sold.

This may be nothing, or I may have misunderstood seriously - but if the willingness of the world to fund the ongoing debt of the US by purchasing dollars is coming to an end, then it is time to batten down the hatches...

Monday, November 10, 2008

Palin Song

As produced by my cousin, the real musical talent in the family.

The more you listen, the more clever this becomes...

Great work!