Monday, 30 July 2018

I COULD MAKE IT LONGER IF YOU LIKE THE STYLE [120]

Here are a few of those stories that, while not becoming full-length articles, still needed to be told:


1. PUT THE TAPE ON ERASE: After learning how the FLAC format preserved the sound of my CDs onto my Sony Walkman [link], I was disturbed by the clicking noise on the test track I used. Was it caused by the Walkman, the transfer program, or a scratch on the (brand new) CD? No – it was the original recording. I used “Through Being Cool” by DEVO, a song written in revolt at the sudden popularity of “Whip It,” and a song I played multiple times a day at the time, putting the clicks down to the YouTube upload I found. I later found it was down to the record company: DEVO’s “New Traditionalists” album was recorded using a new brand of analogue tape from 3M, but after finding the tape was falling apart from the edges, DEVO appealed to Warner Bros to re-record their work – they refused, so DEVO had to transfer the now-imperfect recordings to another tape in order to complete the album. The darker, less polished sound of the album could be said to be an unhappy accident, but when DEVO wanted to “spank the pank who tried to drive you nuts,” they could have been singing at Warner Bros.

2. I AM SAILING STORMY WATERS: “Captains of the Queens” was a memoir by Harry Grattidge, a commodore for the Cunard line of ocean liners, and he writes in it about how, in 1949, a piano fell through the floor of a dining room on RMS Aquitania, while a corporate lunch was taking place. The Aquitania entered service in 1914, alongside the Mauretania and Lusitania, ships originally in competition with White Star’s Titanic and Olympic. However, after thirty-five years, two world wars and three million miles, it was not in the best shape, with leaking decks in poor weather. Aquitania would be withdrawn from service by the end of 1949, deemed too expensive to refit, after three years ferrying people emigrating to Canada, and scrapped in 1950. The image I have in my head was that the piano was being played as the floor started to collapse – people then stood around the eventual hole, the piano having impacted the floor below, as one person tells the player, “well, it made a better noise than you did.”

3. DON’T YOU FORGET ABOUT ME: “The Goon Show,” the surrealist masterpiece by Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe, was nonetheless a BBC radio show from the 1950s, and had an announcer to, well, announce the episode. Enter Wallace Greenslade, who joined the BBC’s European service in 1945, becoming an announcer on the Home Service (now Radio 4) in 1949 to link programmes and read the news. Greenslade joined “The Goon Show” with its third series in 1952, just as it was turning from programmes of sketches into single three-act stories.  Greenslade’s clipped, authoritative delivery made Milligan’s diversions deceptively understandable and reasonable, proving to be the perfect straight man, playing other straight parts in stories as required. He was also allowed to be belligerent: “The Six Ingots of Leadenhall Street Part 2, or the Two Ingots of Leadenhall Street Part 6, whichever you like, I don’t care.” With “The Goon Show” playing out across the world, including on US radio by NBC, Greenslade also became one of the first on-screen newsreaders on British television, making a trademark of taking off his glasses when wishing viewers a good evening at the end of the bulletin. Greenslade died of a heart attack in 1961, aged just 48, only one year after “The Goon Show” ended, never to knowledge of the place he has in British comedy to this day, as the man who subverted authority by playing the very voice of authority.

Monday, 23 July 2018

YOU’RE AS COLD AS ICE [119]


How is this for an uphill struggle: in 2010, Lipton Ice Tea, the leading brand iced tea in the United Kingdom, launched a nationwide promotional campaign, giving out free samples, under the headline, “Don’t Knock It Until You’ve Tried It,” because a survey revealed sixty per cent of people claimed hated the taste of the drink, without even trying it. After the campaign, 87 per cent of samplers claimed they enjoyed it, and 73 per cent said they were likely to buy it in future.

How is this for a success story: during the summer of 2017, Lipton’s social media feeds in the UK were filled with queries about stocks having run out in stores, particularly Tesco, leading me to drink Lucozade for a number of weeks until supplies returned.


For all the hundreds of years of trade and empire-building that fused the British national identity with tea plantations in the Far East, and for all the arguments about whether you add the milk before or after the water - the answer to both is “no” - the UK always drinks its tea hot. It could well be to do with the weather: iced tea had been around in the United States since the 1860s, but gained prominence after Richard Blechynden, a tea plantation owner and salesman, changed his hot tea stand at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, which also hosted the Olympic Games, to iced tea, as no-one wanted a hot drink in the intense heat.

Today, I could make my own iced tea – I have been known to boil five peppermint tea bags in a bowl, put that water into a jug, add more water, but not sugar, and chill – but I usually buy bottled tea, made in the American tradition. Lipton is the world leader at any temperature, having grown from a chain of British grocery shops that bought its own tea plantation to maintain supply. However, in the UK, Lipton is only known as an iced tea brand because Unilever’s other brand of tea bags, PG Tips, is more popular. Also-rans in UK shop fridges are Coca-Cola’s Fuze Tea, and Nestea from Nestlé, and imports like the New York-based Snapple and Arizona.


Before I lionise Lipton any further, a taste test is required. I already had Lipton lemon iced tea at home – they sell other flavours, but I find anything other than lemon tends to overpower the tea, which I thought was the point – so I found Snapple’s and Arizona’s equivalent, while a peach hibiscus-flavoured bottle of Fuze Tea had to suffice, as they don’t sell a lemon-flavoured one in the UK. Honestly, all of them have a similar taste, except for the Arizona tea, and I could still taste the tea amongst the peach in the Fuze Tea sample. However, Lipton still wins for me because while it is sweet, the taste of tea is stronger – the others feel a little more like juice with added tea.

I left out the Arizona tea from the above because their entire package is curious. Apart from being a New York-based company using another state’s name, their tea is usually sold in gigantic, luridly-coloured 23 fl oz (680 ml) cans. While this is the only way they advertise, helping to maintain the 99-cent cost of the drink, it also means you are sold what is listed as “3 portions” in a package that cannot be resealed – I had to find a bottle for what I wanted to finish later. Furthermore, Arizona’s lemon tea is made differently from the others, in the common “sun brewed style,” usually done by steeping tea leaves, in non-boiling water, in the sun for hours – the aim is for a more “mellow” taste, but I read it as “weak.” I may prefer my tea cold, but I don’t want the taste to lie down on me either.

Monday, 16 July 2018

LIVING TOGETHER, WORKING TOGETHER [118]



When I say I had been subjected to “stimulus progression,” it does not mean I built up my body to have ripped abs and guns – the term sounds like it comes from an intensive CrossFit-like exercise, as alien to me as the words “abs” and “guns.” Neither does “stimulus progression” mean I have been blind to the machinations of some deep state, as conspiracy theorists would have me believe. No, this sinister-sounding team is to do with music, mixed with a large dollop of business and psychology.

Once upon a time, most music heard outdoors, particularly in the background of shops and other public places, could have been provided by the Muzak Corporation, whose name hoped to evoke the new technology demonstrated by companies like Kodak. The name originally had more to do with how you heard the music: George Owen Squier, inventor of multiplexing for telephone lines as early as 1910, wanted to adapt the process to transmit multiple channels of music, as a way of competing with radio. However, as radio took off in the 1920s and 30s, a series of takeovers built Muzak into a well-known provider of piped music. It benefitted from being owned for a time by Warner Bros., whose vast music archive, built by the film studio as they introduced sound to film in the 1920s, was among the music provided.


“Stimulus Progression” was the next stage of Muzak’s development, after the company was bought in 1947 by William Benton, publisher of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (last printed edition published 2012, continues online). The new process grouped specially-recorded orchestral versions of existing songs into fifteen-minute chunks, during which the tempo of the songs played would speed up, and the brass-led instrumentation would become louder and brassier. Each programme would be separated by fifteen minutes of silence, so the listener could not become fatigued. Indeed, the intended effect was to speed up productivity in factories and offices, meaning a bit of ebb and flow was needed. A similar effect was attempted on BBC radio in the UK, as “Music While You Work” provided half-hour programmes of brass-led music from 1940 to 1967, although the music stayed at the same pace, and there were fewer attempts to accuse the BBC of mind control and brainwashing.


The downside of the exercise is how the original intention of the song is squeezed out of it. A Muzak instrumental I wanted to buy, from the ominously-titled album “Stimulus Progression 5” (sounding like “Stimulus Progression, Level 5”) turned out to be a version of “Living Together, Working Together,” a song written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David for the 1973 remake of the film “Lost Horizon.” I thought a Bacharach tune could be spotted from a mile off, until now, the changed tempo and unsubtle arrangement turning it almost into its own entity. It’s OK, but it’s no longer what it was.

“Stimulus Progression” ended in 1984, when Muzak, taken over by another firm, began programming other peoples’ songs again, in answer to shifting tastes. These days, what is left of Muzak, which has been in and out of bankruptcy, is now available to download by the general public for nostalgia purposes, which is a very recent event. However, anyone listening to their favourite songs hopes for a certain outcome, whether it is “Stimulus Progression” or not.

Monday, 9 July 2018

BLANKETY BLANK, BLANKETY BLANK [117]



An iconic scene of British television exists almost entirely without explanation. The scene, replayed whenever the stars met, is of Kenny Everett bending and breaking Terry Wogan’s long wand of a microphone on the BBC game show “Blankety Blank.” What must have initially been an impulsive move, the result of Wogan’s pointing it in the wrong direction for a moment, became a procession of breakages, most notably with a pair of garden shears, as Wogan presented the opportunity each time they met. The phallic connotations of the pranks were definitely not lost on the audience, or on Wogan, who would present the rest of show with his microphone cruelly cut down or bent out of shape.

Anyway, why did Terry Wogan have that microphone? It is a question I have never seen asked, let alone answered – it just seemed to be accepted. I think I know the answer, and it stretches back over fifty years.


For the uninitiated, “Blankety Blank” is based on “The Match Game,” an American game show format made by Mark Goodson-Bill Todman Productions, which made their name with the panel game “What’s My Line?” This show spawned sequels “To Tell the Truth” and “I’ve Got a Secret,” while other Goodson-Todman shows also remade for British TV include “The Price is Right,” “Password,” “Blockbusters” and “Call My Bluff” – yes, at one point, “Call My Bluff” was being played for money.


“The Match Game” began back in 1962, with two teams of three, each headed by a celebrity, attempted to match their teammates’ answers to simple questions like, “what word is most often used when you talk,” or “what word would you use to describe Nikita Khrushchev.” If you did ask someone to fill in a blank, it would be something like, “to a rich man, [blank] dollars is nothing.” So much, so pedestrian. The show was in danger of being cancelled, which emboldened the staff writing the questions. Once statements like, “John liked to put butter on his [blank],” ratings picked up. However, the refined dinner party atmosphere, for that was how everyone on US TV in the 1960s dressed, kept the show in check.


Proceeding over “The Match Game” until it ended in 1969 was Gene Rayburn. Like Terry Wogan, Rayburn had presented on radio, except his shows on New York’s WNEW with Jack Lescoulie, and later Dee Finch, defined what we now know as a “breakfast show,” before Wogan turned his BBC Radio 2 breakfast show in a Beachcomber-esque subversive fantasy in the 1990s. Rayburn was also the original announcer of NBC’s “Tonight Show” in 1953, before becoming a game show host – watching Rayburn, stood behind a lectern on the remaining recordings of the 60s “Match Game,” microphone hung around his neck, he looks hemmed in. You wait for the veneer of respectability to crack, and for Rayburn to jump into the middle of the floor. He would get his chance.


When “Match Game” returned in 1973, just after the Watergate hearings and titled, erm, “Match Game 73,” it was like night and day. If sensibilities had changed, “Match Game” was there with double entendres to match: “Though Sam was eighty years old, he still liked to [blank],” “Mary never told anyone her [blanks] were fake,” “Raquel preferred to [blank] in the dark,” “Mary has never seen John’s [blank],” and “everyone watched in amazement as Tonto [blanked] the Lone Ranger” – after reading the last one, the returning Rayburn fell in laughter onto the stage’s orange shag carpeting.


This time, Rayburn was free to roam. He originally had a lapel microphone, but 1970s technology meant a wire trailed through a door to it. This would be replaced by a Sony EMC-51 microphone that Rayburn would have to hold, but when Richard Dawson, the show’s first permanent celebrity panellist, realised the handle was telescopic, he left it for Rayburn to pick up at the start of one show, and almost take his eye out. From there, it became a prop – a conductor’s staff, a magic wand, a doctor’s saw, anything it needed to be, at any length it needed, until constant wire pulling meant a long mic was cut to size.


The answers, this time from a panel of six celebrities not unlike the nine of “The Hollywood Squares” (retitled “Celebrity Squares” in the UK), were about as bad: one answer involving Batman and Robin was “queer,” with alternatives of “divine,” “married” and “fairies” – the contestant got three queers. These shows were going out as early as 11:30am, but with the filth residing in the minds of the audience, this version of the show became the number one show on US daytime TV, beating all other game shows, all of the soap operas, and the news.


This version of “Match Game,” which lasted until 1982, is worth finding, and is readily available online. If you imagine the more refined and polished primetime show that “Blankety Blank” was, “Match Game” was rough, randy and raucous. As said by one frequent celebrity panellist on the game, the theatre director and actor Charles Nelson Reilly, “this is not a show, this is a social engagement”: the shows were recorded at the weekend, and the lubricated condition of the celebrities made it clear which ones were recorded after their lunch break.

(The best answer I have ever seen on “Match Game” was a 1976 episode. The statement was, “Clive the lion tamer treats his wife like one of the lions – each night he makes her [blank].” The answer given was, “put his head in her mouth.” That answer was given by actress Mary Wickes, best known for playing a nun, in “Sister Act.” The show was broadcast, uncut, at 3:30pm.]


This does sound like I am describing a different show to what the BBC made of it – “Blankety Blank” could be watched by the whole family, but Terry Wogan’s tenure as host was more “cheeky” than Rayburn was on “Match Game” – Wogan was less likely to grab hold of cameras or climb over the audience. Thankfully, someone noticed the potential of the prop microphone, although the BBC’s answer was to stick a lapel mic on a car radio aerial. However, “Blankety Blank” has the better theme tune, almost a British answer to the 1960s “Batman” theme.

The demise of “Blankety Blank” appears to have been the prizes – not allowed or able to afford tens of thousands of pounds in cash, the BBC relied on things like TVs, crock pots and wicker furniture, and once that becomes the focus of the gags, especially once Les Dawson took over from Wogan in 1984, things start going amiss. Dawson’s wordplay Is unmatched, but once you have someone who takes the prime prop of the show, and deliberately breaks it themselves on their first appearance, you know something has been lost.

In a parallel universe, “Blankety Blank” would be on the air, just as “Match Game” is on US TV right now, presented by no less than Alec Baldwin, with a cordless version of the stick mic – why RuPaul or Ice T have not done an Everett with it is beyond me.

Monday, 2 July 2018

LIFE’S A GAS [116]

So much for adults teaching children where food comes from, for we did not realise on what we relied for our drink.


The UK’s shortage of carbon dioxide has remained among the top news stories for the last two weeks, due to demand outstripping supply. However, just as when KFC ran out of chicken when changing their distributor [link], the disruption in CO2 supply could have been foreseen: summer plus World Cup equals beer and barbecue, with CO2 used to provide fizz to the beer, while food has a longer shelf life free of mould.

Heineken was the first company to warn of problems, although competitor AB Inbev, owners of Budweiser, Stella Artois and Foster’s, are less affected because their brewing process reuses CO2. Coca-Cola announced it was reducing production for a while, as carbonated water is only added to the US-made syrup at the bottling plants, and supermarkets started rationing sales of some products as a precautionary measure.


However, once Warburtons, the UK’s largest producer of crumpets, halted production at two of its four plants after running out altogether, and once the Food and Drink Federation starts to say, "If a similar issue were to affect the water industry... then you feel government would be acting with far greater urgency," you do have to wonder why this headless-chicken-running doesn’t happen more often.

There are lessons to be learnt by everyone here, as I had never given thought to the process by which a gas – one of the two I can make myself - is produced en masse, let alone how finds its way into my Diet Coke.

Five plants in the UK produce the majority of the CO2 it uses, based in Ipswich, Manchester, Ince, Wilton and Billingham. However, the primary use of these plants is to produce ammonia, a compound of nitrogen, from air, and hydrogen (NH3), where CO2 is a by-product of the process used to create it – the gas captured is then purified and sold as gas, refrigerated liquid or dry ice. The ammonia is used in fertiliser – and here is the problem, because ammonia is the reason for building the plants, with CO2 becoming a lucrative side business.


At the time of writing, the plants are reopening, following a shutdown period for maintenance purposes – the plants in Manchester and Ince have restarted, with the others to follow. The shutdown was planned, as only so much ammonia is required by the fertiliser industry, but the increased demand for CO2 means the food and drink industry is relying on the production cycle of the fertiliser industry. This is not in the same manner as any industries relying on electricity, as electricity is still as much of a utility as gas and water, despite the industry required to fulfil that need – the CO2 is needed, and it’s just as well that someone can provide it.

It is inefficient to distil CO2 from air, but the race is on to improve: for example, the Swiss start-up company Climeworks opened the first direct air capture plant in June 2017 with the intention of proving the concept is worth pursuing.  The plant currently feeds its CO2 back into a greenhouse to increase food production, but the eventual goal is to assist in producing carbon-neutral fuels. Other methods being developed focus on producing cells that can replicate photosynthesis. However, the current production cost of producing a ton of CO2 is $600 for Climeworks, versus $80 per ton using the capture method deployed at the ammonia plants, while competing with other fuel sources require that amount to be virtually zero.


The alternative is less useful – you can buy canisters of “food fresh nitrogen” (N2) to use in food packaging, the most well-known example being bags of Walkers crisps, while users of Tupperware already know storing food in a vacuum is also effective. However, while the slightly tart taste of “sparkling” carbonated water is due to CO2 bonding with some water molecules to form carbonic acid (H2CO3), too much nitrogen in water is harmful to life, and is never added, with only a few milligrams of nitrates found in mineral water.

In the UK, all we can do right now is wait for fertiliser production to reach normal levels, and probably find something else to drink and eat in the meantime.