Sportsthoughts (120) – The West Ham renaissance

This is not a blog I expected to be writing. And I know things could could change very quickly. But…

West Ham are in the top four and playing brilliantly!

Today we beat Man City, last season’s Premier League champions, 2-1. Four games ago we beat last year’s second, Liverpool, 3-1. In between we’ve polished off a couple of the promoted teams, QPR and Burnley. There has only been one bad defeat all season – at home to Southampton – but given that they are playing even better than us, and have risen to second place today, that doesn’t seem so bad now. The other defeats, to Spurs and Man Utd, were both unlucky.

This is SO different to last season. The team is playing fast, incisive, attacking football. The energy is high, the commitment huge. Confidence is flowing through the team as they realise what they can do. No longer is it just long balls up to the big man, hoping for scraps. It’s still direct, there is still a lot of crossing from the wings, but that’s OK, because it’s precise and players are getting forward to support the target men. Last season, you might get a ball punted to Carlton Cole or Andy Carroll, and at best two or three people running into support positions. Now there are five or six.

What’s the difference? Well, clearly the raft of signings in the summer has delivered. Valencia (who played for Ecuador in the World Cup) and Sakho up front, Kouyate, Amalfitano, Zarate and Song in midfield, full backs Cresswell and Jenkinson. As I watched all this purchasing, I admit I felt a bit of scepticism. I liked the ambition, but a lot weren’t that well-known and you had to wonder whether they would gel. But they have. Every single one of those players has done well.

Valencia and Sakho (from French team Metz) have been extraordinary up front. Both fast, strong, sklilful and with a good eye for goal. Sakho has scored in six successive matches. Valencia terrorised the Man City defence today. Even the mighty Vincent Kompany was rattled.

Zarate has been in and out of the team but has shown good vision in the hole behind the front two. Amalfitano, bought from Marseille, with previous experience at West Brom, has shown skill and vision out wide and did an excellent job today. Kouyate, from Anderlecht, had been awesome in midfield until he got injured, and it was good to see him back as a sub today. And then there is Alex Song. Ex-Arsenal and Barcelona. How did we get him? Never mind, we must keep him. He was magnificent today, the dominant midfielder, outplaying Yaya Toure. A destroyer and a creator – he initiated the first goal with a superb pass behind City’s left back Clichy, to Valencia, who sped through and cut back to Amalfitano for a tap in. An amazing move. I had a shiver down my spine – this sort of thing has not been happening at West Ham for years.

The two young full backs – Cresswell from Championship Ipswich and Jenkinson, an England international unwanted at Arsenal (bizarre) on loan – have looked assured, good going forward and… just excellent!

And around all these new players, Mark Noble remains busy and effective in the midfield holding role (outrageously overlooked by England), Tomkins, Reid and Collins (perm two from three) have been solid in central defence and Stewart Downing has been reborn as the high point in a midfield diamond. Adrian has been excellent in goal. There is experience on the bench: Jarvis, Demel, Cole, Nolan, Vaz Te, with Andy Carroll due to return in the near future.

Blimey, how did this happen?

Last season was so poor that the majority of West Ham fans (me included) were calling for the manager’s head. Big Sam, it was acknowledged, had got us back into the Premier League and consolidated well in the first season. The second was disappointing, we flirted with relegation and the football was ugly, unadventurous, all about percentages. Antithetical to the West Ham tradition of attractive football (even if it wasn’t always that successful). Things had to change. The Board clearly realised this, initiated the summer spending spree, got ex-England striker Teddy Sheringham in as attacking coach and told Sam, publicly, that he had to change his ways. The suspicion was that it would all end in tears, but it hasn’t. The football has improved hugely and the results have come. The energy, the pressing, the interchanges, the chances created today –  against City – were a revelation.

Fourth in the Premier League!

Only nine games in. Anything could happen. Injuries could wreck the momentum. It could all be a false dawn. The recriminations could begin again. But something feels better. The optimism – and relief – marking the comments on Twitter today was unprecedented.

Football fans are a fickle bunch – they could turn if we lose to Stoke next week. But this feels so much better.

So credit to the Board for getting the chequebook out and demanding a new style. To the new players for adapting so quickly to new surroundings and the established players for adapting to the new formations and style. And, yes, to Sam Allardyce, for shaking off his caution and rigidity and presiding over the renaissance. He will argue that he would have done it anyway, given the resources, and that it was a natural progression. He will point to his past record with Bolton. Well maybe, but it didn’t feel that way.

Anyway doesn’t matter how it came about right now, because we are all happy!

Let’s hope Sportsthoughts (125) in December isn’t asking where it all went wrong…

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Thumbs up to Wilko Johnson!

There was great news yesterday that Wilko Johnson, guitarist with Dr Feelgood in their seventies heyday, has had a successful operation to remove a tumour which had previously been thought to make his cancer terminal. Fingers crossed it stays successful.

This is Wilko in 1975 with singer Lee Brilleaux and bassist John B. Sparks behind him.

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And Wilko recently.

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Wilko is one of the great rock’n’rollers. Dr Feelgood were precursors of punk, bringing back the three minute rock’n’roll song in the face of prog rock self indulgence. Wilko left the band quite early on, and they were never quite as sharp again. I and a couple of friends saw him a couple of years ago in the Lexington pub  in North London (looking like he does in that second photo). He was still magnificent and slightly crazed, as he always was – playing his choppy, buzzsaw guitar, inspired by Chuck Berry, but really like no-one else. His partnership in the Feelgoods with Lee Brilleaux (sadly departed many years ago) was, for me, one of the greatest in rock’n’roll: up there with Strummer and Jones, Jagger and Richards.

Their greatest song was “She Does It Right”, off their debut album, “Down By The Jetty”.

Long may Wilko rock!

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39 years on – another Status Quo concert!

My first ever proper rock rock concert was Status Quo at Leicester de Montfort Hall in May 1975. Aged 16.

They played four beats to the bar rock’n’roll and blues turned up to heavy.  The sound was monstrous. I was was right at the front – doing what today would be called moshing, I suppose. I touched Francis Rossi’s plimsoll. Looking round and up at the circle, I could see that it was moving up and down, wobbling, as everyone stood up and jumped to the same metronomic beat. Frightening. As resident fifth form scribe in Johnson’s house at Oakham school, I penned a short letter to Sounds music magazine on behalf of all who attended the concert. Flob, Morv, Rollo, Hedgepig amongst them. It went something like: We went to see Quo at Leicester, they were f*****g  brilliant! It got published….

Tonight, somewhat against my better judgement, I went with my two Yorkie friends called Dave to see the two main men from Quo – Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt – play an acoustic set of the band’s hits, mainly from their best days in the early seventies. It was being transmitted live for BBC Radio 2 and shown on the red button on TV.

Why against my better judgement? Well, because while I absolutely loved them in the mid-seventies – before punk blew everything apart –  they turned increasingly into an East End knees up pub band, which is fine in an East End pub, after West Ham have won. Otherwise, no thanks.

Anyway, Big D persuaded me and not-s0-big D to come along. And it was pretty good, especially the first half of the set, when they played most of my old favourites. “Paper Plane”, “Caroline”, “Down Down”, “Mystery Song”, and the wonderful “Softer Ride”, with its immortal line, I don’t wanna work, I don’t wanna work no more. The only one that was really missing was “Roll Over Lay Down”.

The crowd, naturally, was mostly 40 and over, predominantly male, and with a high proportion of closely-cropped heads. I think a fair few might have been West Ham season ticket holders.

The band was much larger than the old Quo. There were FIVE guitarists, a string section, accordion player, and two backing singers, amongst others. The old hard rock sound was stripped back to basics and then embellished. It worked well. It brought home the fact that Quo were rooted in American country-blues, amped up and speeded up. The accordion was a nice touch, though, as not-so-big D pointed out, it ran the risk of making the music sound like a Bavarian stomp. The hideous spectre of the “Birdy Song” loomed.

And that was what happened in the second half of the show. As I look at the playlist now, I see that some of the songs were still from the golden era, but it became increasingly like that pub knees-up. I cannot deny that the audience was reacting increasingly enthusiastically as I switched off. But by the end, I was expecting someone in Lederhosen to come on the stage and pump some elbows.

It was good to see the Quo again. I’m listening to them on iTunes as I write this. They will always have a place in my musical heart, although I cut them off brutally from 1977, with the making of “Rocking All Over The World”, which I could just about appreciate, but which heralded the descent into knees-up.

Tonight’s show started really well, then got dull, then got gruesome. But only if I’m being a musical extremist. It was actually fun all the way through. People were really enjoying themselves. You can’t knock that.

Here’s a video of Quo playing “Caroline” in 1973. Their best song?

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lovelondonscenes – 72

I walk through the grounds of Chelsea Art College (which isn’t in Chelsea) on the way to and from work most days. Last week, this thing appeared, as things often do – it’s an arts college. It looks like something that could have sprung up from a seventies episode of Doctor Who. The square is illuminated at night by strips of light from tubes built into the paving. It’s arty…

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On another night…

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Are Kraftwerk in the area?

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lovelondonscenes – 71

A couple of weekends ago Kath and I were walking up to Soho from Tate Britain, where we’d been to see the late Turner exhibition. One for a blog in due course. As we walked through St James’s park we came across the Fields of Battle – Lands Of Peace 14-18 exhibition. There were some amazing photos of sites in Belgium and France that look lovely now but were horrific scenes of battle in the First World War. We must never forget this, out of respect to those who fell, and in order to avoid the same the same mistakes in the future.

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The first photo below, Belleau Wood, near Aisne, was the scene of the last major offensive by the Germans, in 1918. America had become involved by this time and they played a major part in the battle. There was hand-to-hand fighting, which earned the Americans the name Teufelshunde. Devil Dogs. Frightening. What it takes to win a war.

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Next up, the Somme. Needs no introduction. A synonym for the horror of war. And now so beautiful.

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And finally, Messines Ridge. See the bomb crater and compare with today’s tranquil farmland.

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We must never, ever forget. Forget the horror, the sacrifice, and the role America played rescuing Europe twice in the 20th century. And protecting it thereafter.

God bless America…

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200 tracks

So, this blog is what it says in the title. 200 of my favourite songs, with only one allowed per band or artist.

But why?

Well, one of the best music blogs around is Every Record Tells A Story by a guy called Steve. It’s a mix of live reviews (often with great photos, so much better than mine), reflections on bands, records, musical trends, and humorous takes on the world of rock. He has just written a blog about the latest Oasis box set, which costs £116.99 (US$189) and asks what else you could do with the money. He’s looking to assemble a vinyl alternative.

I said I’d have a go at an alternative too, got lazy, and thought, well, how many brilliant tracks could you download for that price? Well, at 99p each on iTunes it would be 118. At 79p it would be 148. I started with 118 and felt, I need more. So I went to 148 and felt I need more. I went to 180 and felt…. I decided to go for a round 200. This means, at 99p each, you’d have to spend another £81.18. Worth every penny!

Alternatively, you could listen to this playlist I’ve made for you on Spotify. It is awesome. It ranges through rock, reggae, soul, rap, indie, punk, folk, country, dance, Mowtown, funk, metal. It’s not my favourite 200 tracks ever, but a random selection with only that one rule: no more than one track per artist, or band.

Enjoy! And by all means disagree and offer alternatives.

200 tracks

PS. No Beatles because they are not on Spotify.

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The Horrors at the Troxy, 4 October 2014

I went to see the Horrors last night with my good friend Jon G. We’d seen them at Latitude in 2012 and they were brilliant, one of the best of the festival. Since then they’ve released another album, “Luminous”, which is good, but maybe not as good as its predecessors, “Primary Colours” and “Skying”. More of the same big sounds, but not quite as many tunes.

The Troxy is an interesting venue. A real Art Deco treasure in the East End, on Commercial Road, travelling out from the edges of the City to Limehouse. It opened in 1933 as a cinema/musical hall, went through difficult times after the Second World War, became a training venue for opera singers and then a Mecca Bingo hall. It’s been revived as a multi-puporse venue since 2006.

I didn’t take any photos from outside last night as the light was dimming, but it did look impressive. This is a photo from 2006.

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And here’s one I took inside last night.

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The support band were Telegram. I’ve heard them a few times on Marc Riley’s evening show on BBC 6 Music and liked what I heard. I thought of the music as Buzzcocks/Ramones with guitar solos. I wondered whether their name was inspired by the great T.Rex track “Telegram Sam”. I doubt it, but maybe their Dads or Mums had the record. Anyway, they were pretty good. Looking forward to hearing an album.

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And then The Horrors. Their show is an experience – the big, swirling sounds, the lights, the dry ice, the shadows. The band don’t expose themselves – for the most part they are silhouettes behind the flashing lights. It’s a powerful, but also quite detached presentation. The guitars soar, the keyboards scream, the drums pound furiously. And the lights, the lasers, get in your face. It’s big. It’s impressive. But, you know, there aren’t that many tunes. Singer Faris Badwan surfs of the waves of sound, all in black, emerging from the haze. A few people around us, sitting near the back, maybe not committed fans, not knowing what to expect, did leave halfway through.

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The lights are extraordinary. There was this laser that branched out to encapsulate swirling cloud, or maybe the sea. Complemented the music brilliantly.

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I was happy with the music. All my favourites got an airing. ” Who Can Say”, which does have a great tune as well as an immense beat; “Endless Blue” with its awesome riff; and in the encore, the amazing “Moving Further Away”, with its metronomic beat and swooning vocals providing a canvas for some brilliant guitar pyrotechnics from Joshua Hayward.

So the concert ended on a high. There were longeurs and I guess this is why The Horrors, while being one of the premier indie bands of the last few years, haven’t gone on to stadium status. The lights, the shadow, the banks of sound are so much part of the experience that it just isn’t going to work at three in the afternoon or even nine at night in a rainy field in the countryside. They have to be on the second stage – indoors.

The Horrors are a great band, but you have to meet them on their own terms. Go with the Goth.

 

 

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