Monday, 26 March 2018

TRUE BLUE, BABY I LOVE YOU [102]


For me, the easiest way to start is by recounting the story: last week, the French-Dutch company Gemalto, a digital security company that also manufactures mobile SIM cards and biometric scanners, emerged as the winner of a blind auction held by the UK Government for the contract to produce passports for ten years from 2019. The new passports will be blue in colour, but this turned out to be the least interesting part of the story. Gemalto will replace De La Rue, the British makers of banknotes and stamps, who themselves won the contract in 2009 from 3M Security Printing and Scanning, although the originators of Scotch tape and Post-it notes are no longer in this line of work.

Back to today: the “Daily Mail” newspaper, having fallen out of its bath chair upon hearing that a foreign company – a French-ish one, no less – may be awarded the contract to produce a symbol of British nationality, has received over 120,000 signatures to a petition demanding that the makers of British passports must remain British, regardless of the fact an American company has done it before. The argument forced by the “Mail” includes how Gemalto are to be bought by the French defence company Thales, which is partly owned by the French state, and that the company had apparently been subjected to hacking raids in 2010 and 2011 from the US National Security Agency, and from its British equivalent, GCHQ, that were aimed at stealing the encryption keys that could unlock the security settings in SIM cards, of which Gemalto is the world’s biggest producer.

I used my hundredth article to point out how the circulation of the “Mail” is falling, and I wish this story had broken then, for it clearly explains why the eventual demise of this newspaper will not be mourned. As the “Mail” pointed out, the information on the hacking raids came from documents released by the whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who had been working as a contractor for the NSA. In October 2013, when another newspaper, “The Guardian,” published information on what Snowden had leaked, the “Mail” labelled it, “a paper that helps Britain’s enemies,” that would put lies in danger. Another newspaper, “The Independent,” also spoke at the time about choosing not to publish leaked data that would have proved sensitive. I can only guess that, due to time having passed, any leaked information that now helps prove your point is now fair game.


Then, there is headline for the “Mail’s” comment piece, published in last Friday’s issue: “Today the Mail has a question for Britain’s ruling class: Why DO you hate our country, its history, culture, and the people’s sense of identity?” It is an extraordinary screed of bile and phlegm, which includes this magical passage: “As the EU pillaged our sovereignty, it also decimated the symbols of our sovereignty. Weights and measures went the same way as the passport.” Those metric bastards! The piece also references how, “while Remainers predictably sneered,” the new passport was announced to be blue in colour, for the first time since 1988, a symbolic shift from the burgundy colour adopted since 1988, when the UK voluntarily standardised its passport colour with the rest of the European Union – as someone who has only ever had a burgundy passport, this means absolutely nothing, but for others, especially the “Mail”, the symbolism of a return to something imperial means the entire world to them.

I thought the blue cover of the new passports was going to be my main point of conversation, a symbol of longing for a time that exists only in memory, as people only tend to remember the good things about the past – using the colour of a book to indicate a distinct national identity being one such thing, rather than hailing the less sexy fact that British citizens can access more visa-free travel than anyone else on Earth.

Instead, I am stuck talking about awarding government contracts. The prevailing argument since the news broke over Gemalto, propagated by the “Mail,” is that despite the award being the result of the free-market economics of which you imagine the “Mail” would be in favour, money should not have been the major thought, even if the Government could save up to £120 million. While De La Rue could lose jobs, Gemalto will create jobs, particularly at its offices in Fareham, not far from where I live. However, even if Gemalto proves it is secure in its management of data, just as De La Rue and 3M did, the simple fact that allowing a non-British company to deal with British biometric data is being considered as treasonous, giving a British national newspaper another chance to be xenophobic about those bloody foreigners again: page 7 of last Friday’s “Mail” carried a teaser for a later story, marked as “Mass walkouts cripple France – quelle surprise!” It’s almost like the French right to strike is part of their national identity or something.

Monday, 19 March 2018

IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD [101]


It is hard to talk about the genre of music known as vaporwave without understanding its intention. A bit like punk, vaporwave subverts the 1980s consumerist society by cutting up the music and images of the decade, and representing it as an ironic form of nostalgia, and yes, I am still talking about music.

The name “vaporwave” comes from two sources – “vaporware” is a term given to computer software that is announced, but never appears, while it also evocates “waves of vapour,” a term from Karl Marx denoting old ideas and conventions being swept away before they can solidify. It is not a bad way of describing a genre that popped up as a meme, on the social media site Tumblr in 2010, but its having lasted longer than the original burst of punk in the 1970s means the nostalgia for the failed promises of a 1980s consumer society clearly speaks a lot to people.


What does vaporwave do? Just as the postmodern practices of sampling, cutting and pasting, and nostalgia came to the fore in the 1980s, vaporwave takes what that decade gave us and cuts it up again, finding more connections. Most often, a passage in a song is slowed down and looped, partially for the disorientating and alienating effect, but also to focus on particular lyrics or melodies. A major example of this is the song “Computing of Lisa Frank 420 / / Contemporary,” by Macintosh Plus (aka Vektroid, both aliases of the DJ Ramona Xavier) – its original title is in Japanese, a country also borrowed for vaporwave iconography – by cutting up a 1984 Diana Ross album track, “It’s Your Move,” a slick three-minute song becomes a seven-minute brooding dirge, highlighting the refrain of “it’s all in your head.” It could be said to be post-music too, as little or no original music is composed for vaporwave, unless you are trying to recreate the effect by writing an original piece.

For the record, the albums to listen for the beginning of vaporwave are “Eccojams Vol.1” by Chuck Person, the cover of which cuts up the cover for the Sega Mega Drive / Genesis game “Ecco the Dolphin”; “Far Side Virtual” by Ferraro; and Macintosh Plus’s “Floral Shoppe,” which has an album cover that sums up the visual aesthetics – sorry, I mean A E S T H E T I C S – of vaporwave: a playful mix of pastel and fluorescent colours, cityscapes, patterns, along  with Roman busts and columns. For good results, the art should look like it was slightly unplanned, resulting from a glitch, found and revered, just like the music.


For many, this type of experiment makes a hard listen without context, and I first came across the genre through its use in series on YouTube like Dead Mall Series, Ace’s Adventures and Retail Archaeology, which have all used vaporwave as backdrops to video tours of deserted American shopping malls, where the shift to shopping online left the shopping meccas of the 1980s and 1990s to become vacant, deserted, and abandoned. With the accompanying vaporwave soundtrack sounding like it may be playing in the mall during the filming – indeed, background music from the Muzak Corporation is also used for vaporwave tracks – it feels like the utopian safe space of the shopping mall, and the aspirational imagery in advertising, were false promises, but that could just be the Marxist side of it.

Where does all of this effort go? For many, vaporwave will feel like a deliberate joke, an attempt to create something that purports to have depth, when it has none. But like any solid postmodern work, all the meaning is on the surface, and that meaning, at least to me, is to make something of the fractured world the 1980s has left us, and rejoice in it.

Monday, 12 March 2018

WE HAVE THE CHANCE TO TURN THE PAGES OVER [100]


This is my one hundredth article for “Leigh Spence is Dancing with the Gatekeepers,” probably the best blog title in the world, and I thank you all for reading what began as a weekly writing exercise in May 2016. I must have written at least sixty thousand words since then but, perhaps more importantly, sales of the “Daily Mail” newspaper fell by over two hundred thousand copies in that time. I know these figures are not related, but I have more to say about this later.

What I love about writing is the process, the build-up, the formation of an idea. This usually culminates in a frenzy of typing at the last possible moment, like this one has, especially if the ideas came later. For months, I assumed trying to equate the outlandish nature of the current political climate with Dadaist performance art did not work out, leaving me with lessons for next time, but that article, using a quote from Alfred Jarry’s absurdist play “Ubu Roi” – “That’s a beautiful speech, but nobody’s listening” – has become the most popular article so far.

Other moments of apparent madness included making blue pyramids of Quorn, making the food more attractive to children’ the assertion that “ain’t” is a proper word that adds punch to song lyrics; that our old family car, an Austin Ambassador with a brown interior, is now one of the rarest production cars in Britain; that people build super-basements so they no longer have to go out; that there are many types of Range Rover to help those that identify as Range Rover drivers, so they can live their life the way they feel; and that Donald Trump is the first world leader to restrict his own ability to speak, rather than restrict his own people. When there is always a next time, ideas come freely.

But what if time is running out? With endless space online, and a curious brain that won’t shut up, my writing has no reason to cease, but what if I was a newspaper, speaking with a one-track mind, in a country where newspaper sell fewer copies than ever?


The world knows “Daily Mail” as the most-read news website in the English, with a very showbiz-led mix on its brightly coloured front page, but UK residents also know it as a very conservative, populist newspaper that makes many people want to spit – you can buy t-shirts and badges saying, “I’m the one the Daily Mail warned you about”. It began in 1896, but its current form evolved in 1971, when the seriously-minded broadsheet “Mail” was merged with a more populist tabloid paper, the “Daily Sketch,” with “Sketch” staff effectively taking over the new compact “Mail,” building a fiercely confident, conservative voice that, within a few years, overturned fifty years of the “Daily Express” beating it at its own game – the “Mail” now sells as much as the “Express,” “Daily Mirror” and “Daily Star” put together.

So why did I mention the “Mail’s” sales had fallen? Looking at figures quoted by the “Press Gazette” website, its circulation peaked at 2.59 million copies in September 2001. By February 2018, that figure halved to 1.34 million, down eleven percent on the previous year. The global shift to online put printed newspapers into decline, and when Mail Online effectively gives you the same content for free, why bother with the “Daily Mail” at all?

After reading it for the last month, I wish I knew. I consider myself to be politically in the centre, but I am definitely to the left of the “Mail.” It reads like a magazine, using many double-page spreads of stories and opinion pieces in high-contrast black on white type, bellowing its points down to the reader in length and in depth. Using these pages to brand Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn an informant to a Communist spy, and ex-Formula One boss Max Mosley as much of a racist as his father, everyone with connections to them are also scrutinised and judged for their reactions, and the BBC is criticised for not covering either of the stories at the same length – when Mosley didn’t reply  how the “Mail” wanted, the next day’s headline was “STILL HE WON’T APOLOGISE.” Based on what was printed, both Corbyn and Mosley have some questions to answer, but the “Mail” has already found them guilty as hell, let alone guilty as charged, and any raising of their voices is a threat to a free press.


There has also been the A-Z of Millennial speak, the A-Z of Baby Boomer speak, the “witch hunt” against men by “Hollywood feminists,” how political correctness causes sense of humour failure, stories about the pro-EU bias by inbred left-wing taxpayer-funded BBC, and the usual stuff about politicians, tax avoiders, judges and investment bankers trying to thwart Brexit, preventing the will of the British people. The last of these included a page-length editorial comment with the headline, “They just don’t get it, do they? This elitist class imposing THEIR views on ordinary people…”

I think the “Mail” gets off on hearing itself rage. If the “Mail” were a person, I would run away.

The last months of screaming words has been overwhelming, the spectacle of the Metropolitan liberal elite being lambasted by the Metropolitan conservative elite seemed like an ironic and pointless bonfire, as the “Mail’s” sales continue to fall – Mail Online hides many of the double-page spreads under a link to “Columnists,” leaving the bigger stories to generate views and revenue. For all the outrage over the content of the “Daily Mail” as a newspaper, for how it currently uses acres of paper to tell us to stop using plastic, and for all the advertising boycotts by Lego, Paperchase and Center Parcs, there remains one thing: the figures show the newspaper is dying anyway. Unless the website can support it when printing on paper is too unprofitable to continue, we will live to see the end of the “Daily Mail” – it will happen, it will absolutely happen.

One day, just as in the dream that gave me the name for this blog, I may turn “Leigh Spence is Dancing with the Gatekeepers” into an album, where I will yell at those that tell you what to think, singing “all they have are words” until fadeout. I don’t know if that will be in the next hundred articles, but I will see where my mind takes me.

Monday, 5 March 2018

IT’S THE THEATRE OF FINANCIERS [99]


If I ever win the lottery, I would invest in premium bonds. I know the National Lottery is now the main way to win a cash sum, but having now looked further, I can maintain my fantasy.

Bonds are used by governments and businesses to borrow money from investors for a fixed period of time. Interest on the amount borrowed is paid to the investor at regular intervals, and the investor gets their initial sum back at the end of the term. Premium bonds are different in that the interest is instead issued as a monthly prize draw, and the bonds are held indefinitely by the UK Government, through National Savings & Investments, until you request your investment back.

This is all fine, so long as the business or government can pay back its debt to you. The Gibson Guitar Corporation, makers of the Les Paul since 1952, are currently facing bankruptcy, and not just because guitar-based rock music is currently not as popular as electronic-based rap or hip hop: it is running the risk of being unable to repay on bonds it issued to expand its business, which now includes audio brands like TEAC, TASCAM, Pioneer, Onkyo, and even the audio-video-multimedia arm of Philips, leaving the Dutch company to focus on its “health and wellbeing” products.

In other words, for a rock music singer and musician like David Bowie to issue his own bonds, in 1997, required an unsurpassable level of confidence, although this had been proven – in 1985, he became the first artist to release his back catalogue on CD, only two years after CD players became commercially available, and in 1996, “Telling Lies,” from Bowie’s  album “Earthling,” became the world’s first downloadable single, selling 300,000 copies.


The back catalogue was the reason for issuing the bonds, as Bowie sought to end his obligations to his former manager, Tony DeFries, who he had split from in 1975. DeFries owned 50 per cent of Bowie’s recordings from up to 1975, and a claim to half of Bowie’s share of the royalties for them, and a sliding scale of those recorded after it to 1982, which includes the “Low,” “Heroes,” “Lodger” and “Scary Monsters” albums. With these payments to DeFries due to continue in perpetuity, and with DeFries using the contract to release compilations of material without Bowie’s approval, such as recordings of old sessions for the BBC, Bowie would need to take full ownership of his catalogue to stop this exploitation of his work.

The investment David Pullman was the inventor of the “Bowie Bond,” and has since become head of his own company that has done similar deals for other artists. Under his idea, the next ten years royalties for David Bowie’s back catalogue would be secured, at an interest rate of 7.9 per cent – Premium Bonds only offer 1.4%. With all the bonds bought by the Prudential Insurance Company of America for $55 million, keeping them for the full period, despite their ability to sell them on, it was up to Bowie to preserve the value of the songs that were now his – more touring, and more playing of the hits. Bowie even branched out into further enterprises, with his own internet service provider, BowieNet, in 1998, and 2000 saw an online bank, BowieBanc, which only reached around 1,500 customers. More conventionally, 1999’s “Hours” album became the first album to be available for download ahead of its physical release (by two weeks).


Of course, Bowie was accused by his peers of selling out, of turning himself and his work into a commodity or utility, and the changing nature of the music industry, especially the threat posed by MP3 streaming sites like Napster, caught it out. The Bowie Bonds, as a result, were relegated to near-junk status by the credit ratings agency Moody’s, despite Prudential not selling them – Moody’s didn’t think Bowie would be able to pay Prudential back on time. Having said that, Bowie continued to look at the long game, as shown in an interview with “The New York Times” in 2002:

“The absolute transformation of everything that we ever thought about music will take place within 10 years, and nothing is going to be able to stop it. I see absolutely no point in pretending that it’s not going to happen. I’m fully confident that copyright, for instance, will no longer exist in 10 years, and authorship and intellectual property is in for such a bashing… Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity. So it’s like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again.”

Having looked into this, I am unsurprised David Bowie went into semi-retirement for a few years, before springing “The Next Day” upon everyone in 2013. With his future secure, his future worth proven, and with familiarity probably breeding a little contempt, it was time to let the prophecies, and the marketplace, play themselves out. It is not romantic to talk about money and art together, but when one is needed to preserve the other, it becomes unavoidable.