When Smart Meters Aren’t

In a process that took ten years, from 1986 to 1996, the Conservative government privatised energy supply in the UK and turned it into a competitive marketplace. The British public resigned themselves to a lifetime of scouring pricing leaflets and frequently changing energy suppliers in order to get the best deal. This became simpler with the introduction of comparison sites like uSwitch and nowadays most switches can be completed online with very little effort on the part of the customer.

Of course, one of the crucial reasons why this works is that nothing actually changes on your premises. Your gas and electricity are still supplied through the same meters. The actual changeover is just a flick of a switch or a turn of a tap in a distribution centre miles from your house.

I’m a member of the Money Saving Expert’s Cheap Energy Club. This makes my life even easier. They know all about our energy usage and a couple of times a year I get an email from them suggesting that I could change a bit of money by switching to a different plan.

They also set up deals for their customers. They have enough clout that they can go to big energy suppliers and say “we’ll give you X,000 new customers if you can give them a good fixed deal on power”.

And that’s how I switched to British Gas in February 2016. I got a good fixed deal through the Cheap Energy Club.

The next innovation in British power supply was the recent introduction of smart meters. These are meters that can be read remotely by the suppliers, eliminating the need for meter readers. Because it’s automatic, the suppliers will read your meters far more frequently (daily, or even more often) giving customers a far better picture of their usage. You even get a little display device which communicates with the meter and gives minute by minute information about how much power you are using.

Last August I investigated getting a Smart Meter through British Gas. They came and fitted it and everything seemed to work well. All was well with the world.

Then, a couple of months ago, British Gas announced massive price hikes. This didn’t bother me at the time as I was on a fixed deal. But that deal was going to end in October – at which point my electricity was going to get very expensive.

A week or so later, I got an email from the Cheap Energy Club telling me what I already knew. But also suggesting a few alternative plans. I glanced through them and agreed with their suggestion of a fixed plan with Ovo. My power would go up in price – but by nowhere near as much as it would with British Gas. I clicked the relevant buttons and the switchover started.

Ovo started supplying my power this week and sent me an email asking for initial meter readings. I contacted them on Twitter, pointing out that I had smart meters, so there was no need for me to send them manual readings.

Their first reply was vaguely encouraging

But actually, that turned out to be untrue. The truth is that there are (currently) two versions of the smart meter system. Everyone who has had a smart meter installed up until now has been given a system called SMETS1. And SMETS1 meters can only be read remotely by the company who installed them. There’s a new version called SMETS2 which will be rolled out soon, which allows all companies to read the same meters. And there will be a SMETS1 upgrade at some point (starting late 2018 is the best estimate I’ve been able to get) which will bring the same feature to the older meters (and by “older”, I mean the ones that have been installed everywhere).

Of course, the SMETS1 meters can be used to supply power to customers of any company. But only working as dumb meters which the customers have to read manually. And, yes, I know this is very much a first world problem, but it would be nice if technology actually moved us forward!

I see this very much as a failure of regulation. The government have been in a real hurry to get all households in the UK on smart meters. At one point they wanted us all switched over by 2020. I understand that target has now been softened so that every household must be offered a new meter by 2020. But it seems that somewhere in the rush to make the meters available, the most obvious requirements have been dropped.

The power companies keep this all very quiet. The market for power supply in the UK isn’t growing particularly quickly, so they’re all desperate to grab each other’s customers. And they won’t tell us anything that would make us think twice about switching supplier.

Ovo will come out and fit new smart meters for me. And (like the original British Gas installation) it will be “free”. Of course, they aren’t giving anything away and customers are paying for these “free” installations in their power costs. It would be interesting to see how many households have had multiple smart meter installations.

Of course, if you’re switching to save money (as most of us are), then I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t switch if your smart meters will no longer be smart. But I’d suggest asking your new supplier if they can use your previous supplier’s smart meters. And making a loud “tut” sound when they say they can’t.

And when you’re offered new smart meters, don’t get them installed unless they are SMETS2.

Brighton SEO

Last Friday, I was in Brighton for the Brighton SEO conference. It was quite a change for me. I’ve been going to technical conferences for about twenty years or so, but the ones I go to tend to be rather grass-roots affairs like YAPC or Opentech. Even big conferences like FOSDEM have a very grass-roots feel to them.

Brighton SEO is different. Brighton SEO is a huge conference and there is obviously a lot of money sloshing around in the SEO industry. I’ve been to big technical conferences like OSCON, but tickets for conferences like that are expensive. Brighton SEO is free for most attendees. They must have lots of very generous sponsors.

The conference took place at the Brighton Centre. The people I was staying with in Brighton asked how much of the centre the conference took up. Turns out the answer was “all of it”. Not bad for a conference that started out as a few friends meeting in a pub just a few years ago.

The conference day is broken up into four sessions. It was easy enough to choose sessions that sounded useful to me. I’ve only really been looking into SEO since the start of the year and I’m more interested in the technical side of SEO. I don’t have much time for things like content marketing and keyword tracking (although I’m sure they have their place).

So I started in a session about Javascript and Frameworks. This began with 

This was followed by Emily Grossman talking about Progressive Web Apps – which are basically web sites bundled up to look like smartphone apps. I plan to try this out with a couple of my sites soon.

The final talk in this session was David Lockie on Using Open Source Software to Speed Up Your Roadmap. I’ve used pretty much nothing but open source software for the last thirty years so I needed no convincing that he was advocating a good approach.

A quick coffee break and then the second session started. I chose a session on Onsite SEO. I was amused to see that even after only eight months of working on SEO, I could pick a session that was too basic for me.

The session started with Chloé Bodard on SEO quick wins from a technical check. This was interesting because it’s close to a service that I’m thinking of offering to clients. But I learned very little.

Chloé was followed by Sébastien Monnier with a talk entitled How Google Tag Manager Can Save Your SEO. Earlier this year I was involved in discussions where a client was talking about using Google Tag Manager. Another developer and I managed to persuade them that it was a bad idea as GTM inserts data into the page using Javascript and the right approach was to ensure that the correct data was inserted into the page as it was first built. It was gratifying to hear Sébastien (who is a former Google employee) say that (and I’m paraphrasing) “GTM is really a tool for SEOs to work around bad developers”.

The final talk in the session was Aysun Akarsu and On the Road to HTTPS Worldwide. This was a good talk, but it would have been far more useful to me before we moved ZPG’s three major web sites to https earlier this year.

It was then lunch and with some ZPG colleagues I wandered off to sample some of Brighton’s excellent food.

For the first session in the afternoon, I chose three talks on Technical SEO. We started with Peter Nikolow with Quick and Dirty Server-Side Hacks to Improve Your SEO. To be honest, I think Peter misjudged his audience. I was following the conference hashtag on Twitter and there were a lot of people saying that his talk was going over their head. It didn’t go over my head, but I thought that some of his server-side knowledge looked a little dated.

Then there was Dominic Woodman with a talk entitled Advanced Site Architecture – Testing architecture & keyword/page groupings. There was a lot of good stuff in this talk and I need to go back over the slides in a lot more detail.

The session ended with Dawn Anderson talking about Generational Cruft in SEO – There is Never a ‘New Site’ When There’s History. A lot of this talk rang very true for me. In fact just the week before, I had been configuring a web site to return 410 responses when Google and Bing came looking for XML sitemaps that had been switched off two years ago.

For the fourth and final session, I chose the talks on Crawl and Indexation. This session began with Chris Green giving a talk called Robots: X, Meta & TXT – The Snog, Marry & Avoid of the Web Crawling World. The title was slightly cringe-making, but there was some good content about using the right tools to ensure that pages you don’t want crawled don’t end up in Google’s index.

I think I wass getting tired by this point. I confess that I don’t remember much about François Goube’s How to Optimise Your Crawl Budget. I’m sure it was full of good stuff.

There was no chance of dozing off during Cindy Krum’s closing talk Understanding the Impact of Mobile-First Indexing (the link goes to the slides for a slightly older version of the talk). This was a real wake-up call about how Google’s indexing will change over the next few years.

I had a great time at my first Brighton SEO. I wonder how much of that is down to the fact that for probably the first time this millennium I was at a conference and not giving a talk. But I’m already thinking about a talk for the next Brighton SEO conference.

Many thanks to all of the organisers and speakers. I will be back.

Mail Rail Map

If you read yesterday’s post about my Mail Rail trip, you’ll remember that my slight quibble with the experience was that there weren’t any maps showing the route that the tour takes.

Well, I’ve found one. And I think it explains why they don’t shout about the route.

I was Googling for any maps of the whole Mail Rail system when I came across this blog post from 2013 where John Bull examined the documents that made up the planning request that the British Postal Museum and Archive had submitted to Islington Council. For real document buffs, the blog post included a link to the original planning request.

But, for me, the interesting part is the diagram I’ve included at the top of this post. It’s a map of the intended route. And it ties in well with the tour I took on Saturday, so I’m going to assume there were no changes in the four years between the planning request and the exhibit opening.

The Mail Rail exhibit is the coloured sections. The Postal Museum is on the other side of the road in the Calthorpe House. The bit in green is the entrance hall and gift shop and the blue bit is where you queue and board the train.

And the pink shows the route that the train takes. You can see it doesn’t go very far. In fact, it doesn’t make it out of the Mount Pleasant complex. It goes from the depot, takes a sharp turn to the right and pulls into the south-east Mount Pleasant platform. That’s where you see the first multi-media presentation. Once it pulls out of that station, the train comes off of the main tracks and takes a maintenance loop which brings it back into the same station but on the north-west platform where it stops for the second multi-media presentation. After that, it returns to the depot where the passengers alight.

So, all-in-all, you don’t get to see much of the system at all. I knew that you wouldn’t go far, but I’m a little surprised that you don’t get any further than Mount Pleasant station. And that, I expect, is why they don’t publicise the route.

To be clear, I still think it’s well worth a visit. And it’s great to see such an interesting part of London’s communication infrastructure open to the public.

But I really hope that in the future, more of the system can be opened up – even if it’s just for occasional trips for enthusiasts. I know I’d be first in line for a ticket.

Riding the Mail Rail

I rode the Mail Rail yesterday. It was very exciting. More about that in a minute. Before that, I went to the Postal Museum.

I’ve often thought that the UK needed a museum about the Post Office. And the new (well, newish – it’s been open a couple of months) Postal Museum is a really good start.

Most of the museum is a pretty standard chronological look at the postal service in the UK. There are exhibits telling the story of the service from its earliest incarnation five hundred years ago. It’s interesting and the displays are well-designed but I couldn’t help thinking it was all a bit simplified. There were many places where I would have welcomed a deeper investigation. Mind you, I find myself thinking that in many modern museums, so perhaps the problem is with me.

Towards the end of the museum is a small cinema area where they show various short films associated with the Post Office (yes, this includes Night Mail). I could have sat there watching all of them – but I didn’ t have the time. And I think they missed a trick by not selling a DVD of the films in the gift shop.

The Postal Museum is well worth a visit. It’s not as big as I thought it would be. We went round it all in about 45 minutes.

But the reason I left it a couple a months to visit the Postal Museum was because it was only this weekend that the other nearby attraction, the Mail Rail, finally opened to the public.

The Mail Rail is an underground railway system which, between 1927 and 2003 was used to transport post around London. I remember hearing about it soon after I first moved to London and I’ve been fascinated by it ever since.

And last week it opened as a visitor attraction. New carriages have been installed which are (only just) more comfortable for people to sit in and you can take a 20 minute guided tour of the line. Well, it’s 20 minutes if you include the time the train is sitting in the platform as you all board.

I enjoyed the ride. To be honest, I would have been happy just riding around the tunnels for 20 minutes, but there are a couple of points where you stop and are shown a multi-media presentation about the system and the postal service. A lot of time and money has been spent on them and they were really enjoyable (if not particularly informative).

As you leave the platform at the end of your ride, you pass though an interesting exhibition on the history of the system.

If I had one suggestion for improvement, I would like to have seen a map of the system with the bits that the tour covers marked. I suspect that you don’t actually get out of the bits of the system under Mount Pleasant sorting office. [Update: I found a map. See here for details.]

I recommend a visit. I’ll be returning at some point in the future to see it again.

Here’s a video I took of my tour.

Previously on Game of Thrones

In just a few weeks, HBO will start to broadcast the seventh series of Game of Thrones. The show has a large cast, so I thought it would be useful to take a look at who’s still alive, where they are and what they are doing.

To start, I’ve looked at all of the forty-two actors who have appeared in the main credits for the show. Twelve of these characters had died before the start of series six, so let’s get started with those.

(In case it’s not obvious, this article assumes you have seen all six previous series of Game of Thrones – so there will be spoilers for the first six series. I should also point out that I’m only considering the TV show here – I won’t be talking about the books at all.)

Viserys Targaryen

Viserys has the honour of being the first major character to be killed off in  the show. In episode six of the first series, he was killed by Khal Drogo by having molten gold poured over his head.

Robert Baratheon

In the very next episode, Robert died after being gored by a boar while on a hunt. It was his death that lead directly to the War of the Five Kings.

Eddard Stark

Ned Stark was beheaded at the order of King Joffery in the ninth episode of the first series. Things started to go very badly for the Starks from that point.

Jeor Mormont

The next major character death wasn’t until episode four of the third series. Jeor Mormont got involved in a fight with wildlings at Craster’s Keep and it didn’t end well for him.

Robb Stark, Catelyn Stark & Talisa Maegyr

The Red Wedding took place in episode nine of series three. The Freys and the Boltons plotted together and killed Robb Stark (along with his mother and his wife). That’s what you get for breaking a promise, I suppose.

Joffery Baratheon

Of all the major character deaths in the show, this probably got the biggest cheers (certainly in my house). Joffery has poisoned at the feast following his wedding to Margaery Tyrell. This was in series four episode two.

Ygritte

The wildlings were attacking Castle Black. Jon Snow knew nothing, but Olly took the shot and killed Ygritte in the ninth episode of series four.

Shae & Tywin Lannister

In the last episode of series four, Tyrion goes on a bit of a killing spree. Having found his lover, Shae, in his father’s bed, he strangles her and then shoots his father with a crossbow.

Stannis Baratheon

By any reasonable criteria, Stannis was Robert Baratheon’s true heir. But instead of being crowned king, he got involved in a bloody and pointless war and eventually got himself killed by Brienne of Tarth after his army failed to take Winterfell

 

So that was all the major character deaths up to the end of series five. Series six took it all up a notch.

Roose Bolton

Roose legitimised his bastard son, Ramsay back in series four. But that did stop Ramsay being very suspicious when his stepmother gave birth to another potential Bolton heir. Ramsay’s solution, in episode two, was to kill his father, his step-mother and his half-brother.

Ramsey Bolton

But Ramsay didn’t last long as Lord Bolton. When Jon Snow’s army, with help from the Lords of the Vale, took Winterfell in episode nine, Ramsay must have realised that his life expectancy was rather short. But it still rather took him by surprise when his wife, Sansa, fed him to his own hounds in revenge for the way he had treated her.

Margaery Tyrell & The High Sparrow

The number of casualties from the Red Wedding took some beating, but Cersei Lannister managed it in episode ten when she blew up the Sept of Baelor when it was full of people waiting for her trial. Pretty much anyone who was anyone in King’s Landing was there. And they all died.

Tommen Baratheon

One of the few named characters in King’s Landing who wasn’t blown up in the Sept of Baelor was King Tommen. But he was watching from his room and when he saw what had happened, he was so appalled that he killed himself by jumping out of the window.

Other Series Six Deaths

But it wasn’t just major characters who died in series six. Many other characters died too. This is a list of the other named characters who died during the series.

In episode one we have a clean-up of Dornish characters. Elleria and Tyene Sand kill Doran Martell along with his guard Areo Hotah and Obara and Nymeria Sand kill Doran’s son, Trystane .

In episode four, the wildling Osha attempts to kill Ramsay Bolton while seducing him. He sees through this and kills her instead.

In episode five, one of the saddest deaths so far was Hodor’s. He died holding a door so that Bran and Meera could escape. We also saw that the reason he could only say “Hodor” was that while this was going on in the present, Bran was watching him in the past and the shouted instructions to “hold the door” somehow leaked through time and affected his brain.

In episode eight, Lady the Crane (the actress who Arya has befriended) is killed by the Waif. Arya responds by kill the Waif.

In episode nine, Rickon Stark is killed by Ramsay Bolton just before the Battle of the Bastards. And the giant, Wun Wun, is killed breaking down the doors to Winterfell.

In episode ten,  Plenty more people die in the explosion at the Sept of Baelor. These include Mace Tyrell and his son, Loras, and Kevan Lannister with his son, Lancel. Qyburn has Pycelle killed and in the Twins, Arya kills Walder frey.

So, all in all, that’s quite a clearing of the board. Who’s still around? And what are they doing?

Daenerys Targaryen

After six series of shilly-shallying around on Essos, Daenerys has finally got a fleet together and is sailing towards Westeros to claim her crown. On the ship with her, we see Tyrion, Missandei and Varys. Theon Greyjoy (with his sister, Yara) are on another ship.

Jon Snow

Jon had an interesting series six. He came back from the dead, was reunited with his half-sister Sansa (the first time two members of the Stark family have been together since the Red Wedding),  gave up his command of the Night’s Watch and took back Winterfell from the Boltons. The series ends with him in Winterfell, being proclaimed King in the North. The other main characters we see at the proclamation are Sansa Stark, Davos Seaworth, Peter Baelish and Tormund Giantsbane.

Oh, and we’ve just found out that Jon isn’t Ned Stark’s bastard son at all. He’s the son of Ned’s sister, Lyanna, and Rhaegar Targaryen. He doesn’t know this yet.

Cersei Lannister

Having destroyed the Sept of Baelor and killed all of her rivals, Cersei has been crowned Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Her brother Jaime (who returned, with Bronn, from the Siege of Riverrun in time to see the aftermath of the explosion in  the Sept) watches from the side of the room.

Samwell Tarly and Gilly

Sam and Gilly have arrived at the Citadel where Sam hopes to be trained as a Maester. He has been invited explore the library. Gilly (as a woman) had to wait outside.

Bran Stark

Bran Stark is just about to go back south through the wall with Meera Reed. He has become the “One-Eyed Raven” and is having lots of visions that explain the back-story of the show.

Arya Stark

Arya finished her training as a Faceless Man in the House of Black and White, but she turned her back on their mission and took back her identity. It appears she has gone back to working her way through her list as she was last seen killing Walder Frey at the Twins.

Others

Melisandre was exiled from Winterfell by Jon Snow. She left on a horse, but we don’t know where she is going.

Brienne of Tarth was last seen escaping from  the Siege of Riverrun on a boat with Podrick Payne.

Jorah Mormant was sent off by Daenerys to find a cure for his greyscale.

Elleria Sand was last seen plotting with Olenna Tyrell and Varys and agreeing to support Daenerys’ invasion of Westeros.

Daario Naharis was left behind in Meereen by Daenerys. He has be told to keep the peace in Slaver’s Bay.

Sandor Clegane is wandering around the Riverlands with the Brotherhood Without Banners.

Jaqen H’ghar was last seen in the House of Black and White.

And then there’s Gendry. Gendry was last seen back in series three when Davos helped him escape from Dragonstone by putting him on a boat to King’s Landing. Who knows if he got there of if we’ll ever see him again.

 

So that’s where we’ve got to. Now read on…

A Gig Without Phones

Phones at Gigs

On Wednesday, I went to a gig without phones for the first time since… well, since before everyone had a camera on their phone.

I wasn’t planning to go to a gig on Wednesday but on Tuesday afternoon I received an email from Songkick inviting me to a secret gig by Haim. I accepted the invitation and on Wednesday I got further details of the show. This second email also contained this information:

HAIM would like to invite you to enjoy a distraction free concert experience at their upcoming show at Islington Assembly Hall.

No cellphones, cameras or recording devices will be allowed at this show. Upon arrival, all phones and smart watches will be secured in Yondr pouches that will be unlocked at the end of the show. Guests maintain possession of their phones throughout the night, and if needed, may access their phones at designated Yondr unlocking stations in the lobby.

We appreciate your cooperation in creating a phone-free viewing experience for this intimate show.

That sounded interesting. I had heard of Yondr before, but I had never been to a gig where their system had been used. I didn’t even know that they were active in the UK.

But let’s start by addressing that first paragraph.

HAIM would like to invite you to enjoy a distraction free concert experience at their upcoming show at Islington Assembly Hall.

To put it bluntly, that statement is bollocks. Oh, sure, perhaps it’s true that bands would rather people were watching them rather than taking photos or telling their friends on Facebook how much they were enjoying the show. But let’s be honest here, no-one would have invested time and money developing a system to prevent people from using phones at gigs if it was just about encouraging a “distraction-free” environment.

No, this is about copyright protection. That’s where the money comes in.

It’s surely no coincidence that the first gig where I see the system in use is one where the band are trying out songs from their (as yet, unreleased) new album. It also happens to be a show that is being filmed for later release as part of a documentary about the band.  That’s why they don’t want us to record it.

The system itself works well enough. While we’re queuing outside, someone comes along and demonstrates it to us (annoyingly reiterating the bogus “distraction-free” excuse as she does it). It’s a neoprene (or something like it) pouch with a sealable top. She describes the sealing mechanism as “the strongest magnet available”. It looks to me something like the devices they use to tag clothes in shops – certainly, the release device looks identical to the mechanisms used to remove those tags.

As we enter the venue, our phones are taken from us and sealed in pouches (there are several different sizes to accommodate different phones) but the sealed pouch is returned to us to hold on to through the show. This is, I guess, the clever bit. You’d get a lot of kickback from people if you took their phones away from them. But letting them keep their phones, albeit rendered unusable, removes a lot of objections to the system.

If you find you really need access to your phone to during the show, you can go back to the foyer, where someone will open the pouch for you. But you’ll need to have the pouch re-sealed before returning to the venue.

At the end of the show, you file out past two desks that are set up with the release devices. There were maybe a dozen or so in total, and I didn’t queue for more than about a minute.

So, the system works and is pretty painless. I didn’t really enjoy the hour or so that I was waiting in the venue before the show started, without access to Twitter or Facebook, but I’m sure I’d get used to it. I don’t think that the distraction-free environment really added very much to the atmosphere, but I suspect the band (or, more likely, their management and record company) are very happy that no footage of the show will have leaked out.

I do wonder if it’s all necessary. I’m reminded of a couple of gigs I saw within a couple of weeks a few years ago. Bjork was recording her “Biophilia” show at Alexandra Palace. All around the venue were signs telling us not that filming and taking photos was banned. And there was a lot of security trying to enforce the rules. But hard rules like that just encourage people to try to break them – so the security guards were having to work really hard as a large proportion of the crowd tried to grab a quick photo.

On the other hand, a little later I saw David Byrne and St. Vincent at the Roundhouse. Before the show, there was an announcement over the PA (it might even have been by David Byrne saying that they understood people would want to take videos and photos and asking the audience to just please try not to get in the way of anyone around you. That, more friendly, approach seems more likely to succeed. I’ve also seen shows where the act announces that the next song is unreleased and asking the audience not to film it. If you have a nice audience, that works (and if you don’t have a nice audience, then you have a whole load of other problems to deal with).

All-in-all, I’m not sure. I didn’t find Yondr to be a huge inconvenience to me. But I’d rather not be part of an audience where I feel slightly untrusted. I don’t think it will stop me from going to a show, but I really hope it doesn’t become very common.

What do you think? Have you been to a Yondr-ed show? How was it?

Top of the Pops and Me

In 2011, the BBC started repeating old episodes of Top of the Pops. Initially, they were showing one episode a week, as close as possible to thirty-five years after the original broadcast (starting with shows from 1976). More recently, they’ve been showing two episodes a week, so we’re currently in early 1983.

I’ve been watching them avidly since they started, but I’ve been even more interested in watching them over the last year or so – since the repeats hit October 1981. That’s because that’s when I moved to London to go to university and I started to watch fewer and fewer episodes as I, increasingly, had better ways to spend my Thursday evenings. So I’m seeing many of these broadcasts for the first time.

Over the summer of 1982 I pretty much stopped watching completely. I managed to get myself elected as Social Secretary at City University and many of my evenings were spent running gigs, discos and various other entertainments for the students.

I’ve written before about a couple of things that happened while I was Social Secretary (here’s me being threatened by the lead singer of Bad Manners and here I am booking Marillion at the start of their first major tour) but recent episodes of Top of the Pops have reminded me of a few other incidents.

There was the time that I was mildly censured by the London Student newspaper because I had booked Toto Coelo for a Christmas Party. Or the time I booked the Hee Bee Gee Bees (featuring Angus Deayton and Philip Pope) and ended up inviting Philip Pope back to a hall of residence party[1].

A few recent episodes of Top of the Pops have featured Blue Zoo singing “Cry Boy Cry”. I’m not sure I realised what a big hit that was. They played a few gigs at the university – including a “Blue Party Night” at a hall of residence where I painted my face blue, using dye that took days to get out. And I’m pretty sure that they were the band I cancelled when I was offered the Marillion date I mentioned above.

But a recent Top of the Pops reminded me of the biggest mistake I made while I was Social Secretary. I turned down the chance to book Culture Club.

To be fair to myself, no-one had heard of them when I was offered them. Well, no-one who wasn’t really in tune with the London music scene. Of course, you could say that someone who was running entertainment for a London university should really be in touch with the music scene. And I’d have no answer to that.

But when their agent called to offer me the gig, I hadn’t heard of them.

They were just about to start a tour and wanted somewhere to play a warm-up gig. Back then (and, I suppose, it’s still true now) bands used to like using student unions for warm-up gigs. Student unions were like private clubs – you couldn’t get in without a union card. Acts could get their performances right without making fools of themselves in front of the general public. That was how most student unions got most of their decent acts.

So Culture Club’s agent called me and offered me a warm-up gig for their first national tour. And I turned them down because I had never heard of them.

I thought that was the last I would hear of it. But I was wrong. A few months later, at the end of October 1982, they made their first appearance on Top of the Pops. I think this is it (warning, a few seconds of Jimmy Savile at the start of this clip).

Of course, these days we’re all used to seeing Boy George on the telly. But in 1982, this wasn’t the case. It was a sensation. He was all over the tabloid front pages the following day. People talked about it for weeks. Instantly, everyone knew who Culture Club were.

Oh, and the date that I had been offered for the warm-up gig – it was, of course, the day after this Top of the Pops. If I had taken the booking, it would have been a great night. I would have looked like someone who really had his finger on the pulse of the music scene.

Instead, I’m the man who turned down Culture Club.

[1] Although looking at the dates, it seems more likely that this was during the previous year – when I was just a member of the entertainments committee.

2016 in Gigs

Sunflower Bean

Time for my traditional round-up of the gigs I saw in the previous year.

According to Songkick, I saw 39 gigs in 2016. That’s the lowest number since 2012 (when I saw 36 – but had the excuse that my leg was in plaster for six weeks and I didn’t get out much).

Let’s start with the disappointments. I left two gigs at the interval. I had wanted to see Marc Almond for a long time, but when it finally happened it was all just too torch song for my tastes. I’m told the second half was much better.

Then there was Barclay James Harvest (or rather, John Lees’ Barclay James Harvest – the two surviving members of BJH both have their own touring version of the band). Sometimes going to see an act for the first time for thirty-five years isn’t a good idea. They just didn’t hold my interest the way they did back in the early 80s. When they took an early interval (after only half an hour on stage) I ducked out. I hope the second half was longer.

I didn’t leave, but I thought the Björk show at the Hammersmith Odeon was pretty disappointing too. I think I’m in a minority there though.

I only saw two bands twice – Sunflower Bean and the Magnetic North. And this might be the first year in living memory that I didn’t see any members of the Carthy clan playing.

I ticked off four more acts in my “acts from my youth that I never got round to seeing” list – Toyah, ELO, ABC and the Human League. I already have a ticket to see ABC again.

Usually, Amanda Palmer gets a free pass onto the top ten list, but in 2016 I only saw her as a special guest at a Jherek Bischoff show that didn’t quite make the cut.

Here, in chronological order, are the ten best gigs I saw in 2016.

  • Sunflower Bean – the first show (at the Dome) just trumps the second (at the Scala) proving once again that smaller venues are better. I reckon 2017 will be your last chance to see them in a smallish venue. That’s them in the photo.
  • SOAK – I’ve loved SOAK since I first saw her support Chvrches a couple of years ago. And live, she gets better and better.
  • ELO – Yes, incredibly cheesy, of course. But great fun. They have so many fabulous songs.
  • Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark – This was the night they played Architecture & Morality and Dazzle Ships. Not really their best-known material – but the fans loved it.
  • Laura Marling – You can’t go wrong seeing Laura Marling play whenever possible and this show was no exception. I already have a ticket to see her in a couple of months time when she launches her new album.
  • Belle and Sebastian – Only the second time I’ve seen them, but they are now a must-see. This show had them playing all of Tigermilk. I’m seeing them again in 2017.
  • The Orb – The Orb playing all of Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld. What’s not to like?
  • The Magnetic North – The show at RIBA was the second time I saw them in 2016. Their new album, Prospect of Skelmersdale is even better than their debut and I highly recommend seeing them live.
  • ABC – In the first half, they played random hits along with selections from The Lexicon of Love II. But in the second half, they played all of The Lexicon of Love. Everyone in the audience knew every lyric and sang along with gusto. It was sublime.
  • Christine and the Queens – What an awesome act. One of the best live performances I’ve seen for a very long time.

I’ve just deleted Marianne Faithful and The Staves from this list as it was too long. Other shows bubbling outside the top ten include Barenaked LadiesSt. Etienne and Hannah Peel. It’s mark of the quality of the shows I’ve seen this year that I haven’t found space for SavagesPixies or Billy Bragg.

And let’s spare a thought for acts we’ll never see performing again. I will alway regret never seeing Prince live and it’s over twenty years since I saw David Bowie play. But of all the talented musicians who died in 2016 I think it’s the two Leonard Cohen shows I saw (in 1993 and 2013) that I will treasure the most.

There are “year in gigs” posts for every year since 2011.

Listening to Leonard

Leonard Cohen

Over the last week, I’ve re-listened to all of Leonard Cohen’s albums in chronological order. And, most importantly, I’ve rated them.

  1. recent_songsRecent Songs (1979)
    Sorry, but this is the one that I really didn’t get. In “Humbled in Love” it contains one of my favourite Leonard Cohen songs, but the rest of the collection really doesn’t do it for me. The received wisdom is that this was a major return to form following the rather dodgy Death of a Ladies’ Man – but I can’t see it. If I wanted to play someone an album that reinforces the stereotype of Cohen songs being depressing dirges, then this is the one I’d choose.
  2. leonardcohendearheatherDear Heather (2004)
    I’m generally a big fan of Cohen’s more recent albums, but this is an exception. I don’t actively dislike it in the way I do Recent Songs, but It’s very rare that I’ll choose to listen to it over any other Cohen album. There are some flashes of Cohen’s dark humour here, but you have to go looking quite hard in order to find them. And then there’s that version of “Tennesse Waltz”. I’m really not sure what to make of that.
  3. leonard_cohen_you_want_it_darkerYou Want it Darker (2016)
    This was released just a few weeks ago. And it’s only so far down the list because I haven’t listened to it enough to really know how much I like it. As with Bowie’s Blackstar, the fact that it was released so close to Cohen’s death means that it will always be linked to that tragic event and will inevitably be seen as his farewell to his fans. On listening to it this week (for what may have been only the third time) I enjoyed it. If I revisit this list in a few years, there’s a good chance that it will be higher.
  4. leonardcohenpopularproblemsPopular Problems (2014)
    Another album that I really haven’t given the attention that it deserves. To be honest, I’m surprised to find it came out two years ago. It seems like only a few months. I don’t know the album well enough to recognise particular songs, but while listening to it this week I was pleasantly surprised by how familiar it sounded even though I can’t have listened to it more than half a dozen times.
  5. leonardcohenoldideasOld Ideas (2012)
    It’s astonishing to me how productive Cohen became in his final years. There’s an eight year gap between his previous album (Dear Heather) and this one. But then he releases this, Popular Problems and You Want it Darker all in quick succession. It’s like he’s determined to get as much material as possible out there before the end. And like the other two albums in this loose “trilogy” I don’t know it particularly well. I suppose I should count myself lucky that there are still three more Leonard Cohen albums that I need to listen to a lot more.
  6. songs_from_a_roomSongs from a Room (1969)
    From Cohen’s last three albums, we leap back to the beginning of his career. This was his second album and it built on the success of Songs of Leonard Cohen. It opens with one of his best-loved songs, “Bird on the Wire”, and closes with the impressive run of “You Know Who I Am”, “Lady Midnight” and “You Know Who I Am”. First albums can be a fluke. But a follow-up of this quality marks you as a real talent.
  7. new_skin_for_the_old_ceremonyNew Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974)
    By 1974, Cohen is firing on all cylinders. Many of your favourite Leonard Cohen songs are on this album – “Chelsea Hotel #2”, “There is a War”, “A Singer Must Die”, “Who By Fire”. Only the closing “Leaving Greensleeves” strikes a slightly jarring note.
  8. leonardcohentennewsongsTen New Songs (2001)
    How do you follow an album like The Future? In Cohen’s case, the answer is you go away for nine years (five of which you spend in a zen monastery) before surprising your fans with a great new album. Songs like “In My Secret Life”, “A Thousand Kisses Deep” and “Here It Is” are as good as anything he ever recorded. This album is often overlooked, but is well worth investigating.
  9. various_positionsVarious Positions (1984)
    Another largely overlooked mid-career album. Or, rather, it would be if it wasn’t for one single track. This is the album that includes “Hallelujah”. I used to believe that it was impossible to record a bad version of “Hallelujah”. But that was when only talented people like John Cale and Jeff Buckley had discovered it. Now I’m not so sure. There are plenty of other great songs on this album too though. The first track, “Dance Me to the End of Love” was the usual opener to Cohen’s live shows.
  10. songs_of_love_and_hateSongs of Love and Hate (1971)
    Back to the early part of Cohen’s career. This was his third album. It didn’t move much from the successful formula of the previous two albums, but that’s no bad thing as that still makes for a great album. In “Famous Blue Raincoat”, this features my favourite Leonard Cohan song, but there are other great songs too – including “Dress Rehearsal Rag”, “Diamonds in the Mine” and “Joan of Arc”.
  11. death_of_a_ladies_manDeath of a Ladies’ Man (1977)
    This is likely to be controversial. Not everyone likes this album. Cohen himself is on record calling the recording a “catastrophe” and he only ever played one song from the album (“Memories”) in concert. But I like it. I think that “True Love Leaves No Traces” and “Paper Thin Hotel” are two of the loveliest songs that Cohen ever wrote. Ok, “Fingerprints” is a bit cheesy, but surely it’s impossible to listen to “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On” without smiling.
  12. songsofleonardcohenSongs of Leonard Cohen (1967)
    There are very few debut albums as good as this one. Even almost fifty years after it’s release, most of Cohen’s best-known songs are from this album – “Suzanne”, “Sisters of Mercy”, “So Long, Marianne”, “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye”. And the songs that aren’t so well-known are just as good – I’m particularly fond of “Stranger Song”.
  13. im_your_man_-_leonard_cohenI’m Your Man (1988)
    When I first discovered the joys of Leonard Cohen, this was his latest album. And it was completely different to the other examples of his work that I had come across (things like Songs of Leonard Cohen). This was certainly different, but it was just as good – perhaps even better. I immediately loved things like “First We Take Manhattan” and “Everybody Knows” but later on the less immediate songs also gripped me. “Tower of Song” is now on of my favourite Cohen songs.
  14. leonardcohenthefutureThe Future (1992)
    This was the first album that Cohen released whilst I was following his career; the first of his albums that I bought as soon as it was released. And it’s a nearly perfect album. It’s hard to choose a favourite song. The title track is great. “Democracy” and “Anthem” are both wonderful songs with lyrics that really resonate. And I will always love “Closing Time”. I would recommend this album to anyone. If you don’t love it then your musical taste needs serious recalibration.

This is all purely subjective of course. And if I made the list again in six months time, it could well be completely different. What do you think? Have I put you favourite Leonard Cohen album high enough?

Brexit

I was awake soon after 5:30 yesterday morning. As I got to my computer, the EU referendum results weren’t confirmed, but it was looking certain that the country had voted (narrowly, but decisively) to leave the European Union. My thoughts during the day are nicely summed up by my tweets and retweets.

My initial reaction was anger.

(Hmm… the downside of rolling news coverage – that story has changed dramatically since I first linked to it.)

A few minutes later I was slightly more coherent (and almost philosophical)

Then the reality of the situation started to sink in

I tried to be positive

I was being sarcastic, of course. We’ll return to this subject later on.

I started to see life imitating art in a quite frightening way.

(And, yes, I know I should replace that picture with one of Boris Johnson)

Nigel Farage is (and, apparently, always has been) a despicable man. So it should have come as no surprise that his victory speech was insulting and divisive.

I don’t mind not being considered ordinary, but I’m certain I’m real and I like to think I’m decent. Tom Coates inverted Farage’s phrase nicely.

When Cameron resigned, I immediately became worried about the fall-out.

Really, if your best option is a man who stuck his penis into a pig’s mouth, then it must be clear that you’re in trouble.

Then I checked the stock market and realised that many of the Brexit supporters may have shot themselves in the foot.

A story in the FT illustrated the fall nicely (“nicely” isn’t really the right word!)

The markets bounced back a bit later in the day – but it was one of the most volatile days of trading in history.

Fox News can, of course, always be relied on to get important facts wrong.

Then I started to see data on the demographics of the voting – where it became obvious that it was mainly the older generations who were voting against the EU

Can I just point out that it’s #NotAllBabyBoomers :-/

Remember the £350m a week that was going to be diverted to the NHS. Turns out that was a lie.

It was a lie on many fronts.

  • It was a lie because the UK doesn’t send £350m a week to the EU
  • It was a lie because it ignored the money that we get back from the EU
  • It was a lie because any money saved was never going to be spent on the NHS

It was a lie that the Leave campaign were called out on many times, but they refused to retract it.

To be fair to Farage (and that’s not a phrase I ever expected to write) he wasn’t part of the official Leave campaign, so he wasn’t the right person to ask about this. But someone should certainly take Johnson or Gove to task over it.

Going back to the baby-boomers, I retweeted a friend’s innocent question

Then it started to look like Cameron might not be the only party leader to go in the fallout from the referendum

Incidentally, has anyone seen any evidence of the Lib Dems in this campaign? A couple of days ago I saw footage of Tim Farron in a crowd somewhere. Took me a few seconds to remember who he was; and then another minute or so to remember that he was the leader of the Lib Dems.

Euro-myths have always really annoyed me

More bad news from the City

I should point out that Morgan Stanley have denied the story. I guess time will tell who is telling the truth here.

By mid-afternoon, I was working on alternative plans

A final thought struck me

I mean, they were a single-issue party. And they’ve won that battle. Surely, there’s no need for the party to exist any longer. They can’t surely expect people to vote for them now (although, UK voters are a very strange bunch). If they closed down, they could all go back to the Tories and Farage and Carswell could get places in the new Johnson/Gove cabinet.

Oh, now I’m really depressed.