Tuesday, 6 April 2021

I Made You a Mixtape - Summer 1994

 And a very good morning to you!

This is a post about music. Specifically, music that I put onto compilation tapes in the 1990s and played to people, in the hope that they would say, "Hey, Rob! Cool tune. I wonder if you could spend many hours explaining your thoughts about these tunes, while I bring you wine and stroke your face?"

This particular tape was made in the Summer of 1994. Let's explore the songs that I chose, and together we can try to work out what on earth I was thinking. 

Should you wish to listen along, you can find the Spotify list here.

Just out of shot - housemate Andrew, in a dressing gown, 
hating me with every fibre of his being. It was midnight.

Past the Mission - Tori Amos

The Summer of 1994 was one of warm, beautiful evenings. And how delightful that Tori Amos chose that time to bless us with her second album, "Under the Pink". 

This particular song is carried along on by a gentle breeze, and hazy light. In particular, it brings to mind the evening before we were due to move out of our rented post-student house. We had spent all day cramming things into boxes and now we sat, drinking beer and playing chess in the front garden, listening to Tori Amos and enjoying the dying embers of the day. 

It was at this point a beautiful German girl passed by and said something along the lines of, "Hey, I live across the road. I love chess - we should hang out." I was both delighted and furious at the timing. 

Feel a Whole Lot Better - Tom Petty

A great, breezy song from a fantastic album. This reminds me of zooming along massive country roads in Canada, on a sunny afternoon a couple of years earlier. Which is pretty much the kind of experience this kind of song is meant for. 

Patience of Angels - Eddi Reader

I'm doing pretty well with this compilation so far, aren't I? There's a lightness of touch that suits the Summery feel of those days, and these are excellent songs. This is a particularly lovely entry. I've never really understood what it's about, but it carries that sense of fragility and vulnerability that I often connect with in songs. Because I am very sensitive. 

You should probably write that down. Sensitive. Very.

End of the Line - Traveling Wilburys

Man, this is a great compilation! Why weren't people falling over themselves to hang out with me? Was it all the chess playing?  The obsession with Red Dwarf? Please don't say the personality. 

This is a terrific song that picks you up and carries you along with it as it goes, sweeping you up in its confidence and sense of freedom. I've tried to cover this song in a couple of the bands I've been in, but it never quite worked. There's a magic in here which sounds effortless but is actually the sound of several amazing musicians working really well together. 

Hounds of Love - Kate Bush

I think we all need to pause here and congratulate me for finally realising, several mixtapes into my career, that women can make music too. As I have noted before, my tendency had always been to listen to blokes, making bloke music - whether that's straightforward MOR guitar stuff like U2 and REM, or super-serious synth stuff like Ultravox.

I was never a very confident person when it came to interactions with women, and it's interesting in retrospect to see that play out in my music tastes too. I had girlfriends, sure, but although I liked them and could occasionally fool them into thinking I was a decent human being, there was never a great deal of balance in those relationships. 

But here's Kate, Tori and Eddi to suggest that maybe I don't need to be quite so bleeding uptight all the time. I wonder if I'll listen?

Emperor's Song - Fish

A track here from Fish's third solo album, "Suits". It is not an album I love, but at this stage I am still buying his albums as a matter of duty. And we're still at the point where I have relatively few CDs, so I properly listened to this album many, many times. 

I think we'd moved into the new house by the time I got into this. It was another shared house, with most of the people from the last house, except this time the landlord was a friend instead of an angry psychopath. 

I have strong memories of sitting in the massive lounge playing a computer game about blowing tanks up, called - if memory serves - "The Perfect General". I listened to this album again and again while playing the game, wondering if there would be a point where I'd get properly into it. 

I did not. This song is kind of OK, but it seems quite leaden after the previous few tracks on this compilation

Trip Through Your Wires - U2

This is another song that sweats and burns like Summer days. Not just the Summer of '94, but originally the Summer of 1987. I am in my parents' house, lost in the long hot months between O levels and sixth form, playing the vinyl of The Joshua Tree again and again, laying on my back and gazing out of the window at impossibly blue skies. Starting to feel less like a little boy but nowhere near being a man - this music felt like the pull of impossible ideas and feelings. 

Ah, U2. I loved you once. 

I Can't Dance - Genesis

Well, if anyone was sitting and listening to this tape with me, and was considering how cool I was for my musical taste and thinking maybe they'd like to seduce me, this would be the point where their eyebrows would shoot up in horrified surprise. 

This is about as relentlessly uncool as you could get. However, I know exactly why this is here. It's another song that, for me, evokes the grime and heat of Summer days. It's something about the grunginess of the guitar part and the gloopy keyboard pads - it all feels like heat and the smell of sun burning tarmac. 

And there's all the lyrics about how hot it is. It's probably that too.

U2 - Fire

I really am hitting a theme here. And that theme is 'songs that make me feel like a lizard, basking in the toasty sunshine on baking hot flagstones'. 

Great production on this song. U2 used to be so good at working with space and sonic dynamics. There's a real sense of being in a time and place, in their early stuff.

However. The Mixtape Inspector is likely to get out her notebook at this point and make some pretty serious remarks about have two songs by the same band in such close proximity. Yes, she'll say, they might well be from different albums. But I think you'll find the rules are clear, and now I have to slap you in your gormless face. 

Take on Me - Aha

Whoah! Looks like the Mixtape Inspector is going to have to put away her stupid notebook, because here comes the greatest get-out-of-jail card ever. It's only the astonishing pop genius of Take on Me!

Long term readers may remember that, in 1994, I had a subscription to 'Britannia Music' - an organisation which sent you CDs through the post on a seemingly daily basis. Unless you remembered to post them a letter saying 'Please don't', which you never ever did.

Well it all worked out OK, because one time they sent me the best of Aha  - "Headlines and Deadlines" if I remember rightly. What on earth does that even mean? Maybe I've misremembered. I didn't think I loved Aha. I knew I liked them well enough, as they'd been a ubiquitous presence through my teen years - but I didn't know if they were the kind of band I wanted to actually listen to by choice.

Well thank God for Britannia music and their mafia like insistence of sending me music whether I liked it or not. This is one of the best pop songs ever, and it brings me immense pleasure every time I hear it. Perfectly constructed and brimming with impossibly cool hooks and flourishes. 

Mind you, have you heard the demo? It's called 'Lesson One' and it's total bobbins. Go listen to it on YouTube - it's hilariously bad. At one point Morten starts shrieking, as if he's realised how awful it all sounds. 

Just goes to show that, as Ernest Hemingway once said, "The first draft of everything is shit."

Afternoons & Coffeespoons - Crash test Dummies

The second single from the writers of the fun and popular "Mmm Mmm Mmm". And it's not as good, is it? 

Nice chorus, though. Which I will now find myself singing for the rest of the day. 

No Man's Land - Billy Joel

Hey everyone! It's Billy Joel again. You may remember him from the last mixtape, where I developed a weird and inexplicable obsession with his late 80s/early 90s output. 

Well here we are again. This is well produced mid-tempo pop which does nothing to disgrace itself, but it's not what you'd call 'Classic Joel'. 

On the last tape, this kind of thing fit in quite well. But on this much breezier, happier collection, it feels a little staid. 

Coconut - Harry Nilsson

This is one of those 'oh no, the tape is going to run out' tracks. When I only had a minute or so left I tended to fill it with something that I considered 'lesser' than the other songs. 

I'm clearly a little scared of this song, as it is quirky and unusual and doesn't behave like a proper, sensible song, like what Ultravox would make. This reluctance, on my part, to be properly playful, is one of the things I'm finding interesting about going back through these tapes. You'll be unsurprised to find that I tucked my T-shirts into my jeans at this point. 

The Sun Always Shines on TV - Aha

Another fantastic song by one of the best bands ever. This was one of their first singles, so I was already very familiar with it from the mid 80s. But it belongs just as much to these hot months, a decade later, as we settled into our new home and everything seemed positive and full of opportunity. 

It's an incredibly confident piece of work, isn't it, for an early single by a band no-one had heard of?  There's over a minute of slow build up before we're into proper 'pop' territory, and we're a third of the way through the song before the first verse kicks in.

But then. Oh, it's all so gorgeous. Really exciting and big and bold and with one of the best, most singable choruses ever.

Little Green Bag - George Baker Selection

This, of course, is inspired by our household's continued obsession with Reservoir Dogs. The movie had been out for years, but was still doing the rounds at the cinemas. I have a feeling it was banned for release on VHS, probably in case continued exposure to the film caused us all to start murdering each other and, worse, swearing. 

I believe we went to see it at the local awful cinema in Wakefield centre. The screen was about as big as my TV is now, and the picture quality was abysmal. But we loved it, and listened to the soundtrack constantly. As did everyone else at this point in the 90s. An interesting example of feeling counter-cultural while doing exactly what everyone else was doing.

Cornflake Girl - Tori Amos

I've mentioned my obsession with this song in earlier blogs, so I won't dwell. Suffice to say, I was delighted that I was finally able to buy this album, after hearing the song so many times on the radio. 

A wonderful, breezy, ramshackle explosion of wonder that fills me with delight even as I'm listening to it now. And I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a deep, dark, sexual pull to the music which made me want all manner of things that I couldn't have. 

One of which was, of course, "Tori Amos as my girlfriend please."

Gloria - U2

Hmm. Not a song I have massive love for, though I can see why it's popular. I guess I must have bought the parent album - October - at around this time and thus I was mining it for songs which a) had a nice melody and b) were good to listen to with a beer on a hot afternoon. 

I've Been Losing You - Aha

More Aha! Clearly they were the big hit of the Summer for me. This is a song that I have liked more and more as time has gone by. Less obviously poppy than it's friends earlier on the tape, and I suspect it had less impact on the charts. 

But the melodies in the verse and chorus are sublime, and this is among their best work, in my opinion. I particularly like "There in the mirror stands half a man, I thought no-one could break".

Make Me Smile (Come up and See Me) - Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel

This feels very much of a piece with the Tom Petty / Traveling Wilburys stuff from earlier. There's a light, trippy, acoustic feel to a lot of this mixtape which reflects the ambience of this Summer. I suppose University was well and truly behind us and we were starting to loosen up a bit. I did like my degree, but there were ways in which it limited me as much as liberated me. When you think too much about things, your brain can kind of seize up, I think.

Anyway. Great song. I always flinch a little at the pauses near the end, because I have a hardwired memory of trying to make my covers band, 'The Groovy Thing', play this, and they Simply. Could. Not. Count. Time.

Love is All Around - Wet Wet Wet

Now this is starting to look like I'm deliberately trying to make a compilation to reflect popular tastes in the 90s. Well, it would do if there wasn't that 'Fish' track earlier.

This did really seem to soundtrack the entire year, which makes sense as it was in the charts for something like a million weeks. It's a nice enough song which has been tarnished somewhat by its ubiquity. I remember us all being big fans of the film, which probably helps explain this song's inclusion here. Nowadays 'Four Weddings' feels like the epitome of upper middle class unadventurous film-making. Unfairly, I think, and at the time it was quite amazing to have a British film with this kind of energy, and its attitudes were fresh and unconventional. 

This also became, at the time, the unofficial soundtrack for a new romance between two of my friends. A relationship which went through many ups and downs but did pretty well in the end, to the extent that I ended up playing this song at their wedding reception. 

Depending on You - Tom Petty

The partner, in many ways, to "Feel A Whole Lot Better", from near the beginning of the playlist. What I'm doing here is creating a subconscious echo in the listener's mind, suggesting a circular structure to the whole mixtape - a kind of self reflexive pattern that folds back on itself as it draws to its end. 

Either that or I'm getting near the end of the tape and I've run out of ideas. It might be that.

Take it Back - Pink Floyd

Along with 'Under the Pink', this was the album we played on that amazing, warm July evening, sat outside our old house playing chess and meeting alluring German girls. 

I imagine it was a big deal, Pink Floyd releasing their comeback album 'The Division Bell' back in '94. I didn't have much opinion on them, having been too young to really know about their work, except by reputation. I did know that they occupied a similar place, musically, to Marillion, so I was pretty interested in hearing what they had to offer. 

I liked the album a lot, and played it endlessly over the following months. This particular song is quite unadventurous in retrospect - a fairly trad structure with a guitar riff heavily indebted to U2. But the texture is fantastic, and it served well as the background to cheap beer, foolish conversation and the dying warmth of the day.

Shadows and Tall Trees - U2

One thing I'm really enjoying about revisiting these tapes is remembering why I love certain bands. Here's another reason to love U2, despite their subsequent crimes in the name of mediocrity. 

Before they became obsessed with stadiums, and the need for songs to blast everyone into a state of euphoria about half way through, they could write drifting, wandering pieces like this. This clatters and echoes like empty streets. It builds and swells, sure, and you can hear how they would develop their love for big rousing choruses... but the song also drops, sometimes, to nearly nothing, and leaves spaces for little shafts of sun to drift through. 

I Call Your Name - Aha

Absolutely not my favourite Aha song by a long way, but I liked the way it began and - you guessed it - the tape ran out after about 50 seconds, so that was pretty much all you got. 

Overall I've very much enjoyed revisiting this mixtape. I'd still listen to 90% of this now. It's the sound of long evenings, store brand lager and days that were significantly more simple. I don't miss it, exactly, but I'm glad I recorded some fragments of what it all meant, here in this collection of tracks.

If you've enjoyed this, why not go back in time to Easter 1994, and see what I was listening to then.

Saturday, 20 March 2021

I Made You a Mixtape - Easter 1994

Afternoon, morning, or whatever takes your fancy. 

I have decided to take mixtapes that I made in the 90s and recreate them on Spotify. Nothing wrong with that, you're thinking. Well, hold on a minute, before you give me the benefit of the doubt, because I'm not just doing that. 

I'm also writing about them here, and exploring my reasoning for putting them on the tapes in the first place. 

Yes, you're right. There is indeed no point whatsoever in doing that. But look at me, doing it anyway. 

This one is from 1994, when the world was young and we knew naught of the sorrows yet to come. If you want to listen along at home, here is the link: 


How cool was I in 1994? Glad you asked...

 Zooropa - U2

It's Easter 1994 and I live in a big rented house with some of the people I was at university with. Luckily for them, I am very into U2 at this point, and so they get to hear songs like this all the time. 

This is a pretty good piece of music. It builds interestingly, which is a thing I enjoy. I like listening to a song slowly coming together, developing sonically as the various instruments join in. This is extra good because of all the weird radio chatter and feedback, making it all alien and mysterious. 

There's a version of U2 here that I really like, and I'm sad it never went beyond this album. Listen to that lovely spacey stuff at about 3 minutes in. Absolutely gorgeous. Make albums full of that, Bono. Come on. There's still time. 

I Go To Extremes - Billy Joel

You also join my 1994 self in the middle of a massive Billy Joel phase. Where did that come from? I honesty am not sure. River of Dreams had just come out, I suppose, so there was that. And there's also that strange desire that I seem to have at around this point in my life, which is to find the music which is absolutely definitely the least cool thing possible for a young man in the 90s to listen to, and listen to that. 

Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm - Crash Test Dummies

A rare instance of 'actually in the charts' music, here. This song was a big deal at the time, and it's still quite fun to listen to now. Lovely instrumentation and quite unlike anything else you tend to hear. 

The album, however, was not much fun. Someone in the house owned it and I occasionally made the mistake of playing the whole thing. It turns out that raspy-voice quirky nonsense is fun for a maximum of just one song. After that, the tone becomes rather relentless, and you quickly go from thinking, "This is unlike most other songs!" to thinking, "Yeah, now I know why. One is enough."

Crockett's Theme - Jan Hammer

Just in case anyone got cocky and thought, "Ah, I'm listening to a selection of top pop hits!", I threw this into the mix. That's right - it's a piece of incidental music from Miami Vice. A television show I have never ever watched. 

This must have been a single or something, otherwise why would I have ever heard of it? I'm guessing it's target audience was 30 somethings who wanted to seem urbane and cool and pretend they had an apartment overlooking the sea, instead of just 'a house' overlooking 'other houses'.  I cannot for the life of me recall why I had access to this song, or why I decided to put it on here. 

I do like it, but that's because I have an almost indiscriminate love of synths and sometimes they make me feel vulnerable and I don't know why. 

Ultra Violet (Light My Way) - U2

Oh, there'll be no escape from U2 for quite a while yet. Just in case you're wondering when my obsession with them starts to wane and you'll be spared. Not for ages, is the answer. 

This is on the tape partly because I really like the line about "I want to get it wrong". In 1994 I am coming down from several years of fairly zealous Christian-ness, and am intrigued by the idea that maybe I don't have to suffer internal moral conflict every single day of my life. 

I do know that I am bored of my girlfriend at this point, and very interested in another woman. But rather than a) finishing the current relationship and seeing the other girl or b) ignoring the other girl and trying to make things work with actual girlfriend, I opt for c) live in a state of tension between the two, neither doing the right thing nor the wrong and making everyone sad. Getting it wrong was an attractive idea, and might have been a better path.

Stuck In the Middle With You - Stealer's Wheel

Oh, the fun we had with this song. Putting it on at parties and dancing around, pretending to be Mr. Blonde from Reservoir Dogs. Tying Richard to a chair and waving knives dangerously around his face as we danced. 

We spent a lot of time in the 90s defending Tarantino films from the accusations that they inspired violence. But if one of us had drunkenly cut off Richard's ear, it would absolutely definitely have been down to his influence. 

State of Grace - Billy Joel

Some more Billy Joel for the lucky visitor to the house, or passenger in my car. Perfectly good song, though this playlist is a bit samey so far. 

This is one of those mixtapes that I listened to so often, the order of songs is burned into my mind. Whenever 'Stuck In the Middle' is on the radio, which is reasonably often, my brain will automatically start playing this song as it comes to an end.  Thanks brain. Now can you remember where I put the spare batteries?

No. I thought not. 

Runaway - Marillion

Marillion finally got round to releasing their new album in Spring 1994. It was called 'Brave' and it featured absolutely no singles that worked on a mixtape. 

This was a frustration to me. Their last album  - Holidays in Eden - had been packed with light, fun, poppy singles that were  excellent for populating compilation tapes. You could listen to them in company and people would think, "Oh, a song," and just enjoy it. 

Marillion were clearly furious about this and thus determined to make something altogether more complicated and irritating. Now, this kind of music is exactly why I liked the band in the first place so I should have been delighted. But an interesting shift had occurred in my outlook since I started making compilation tapes. Songs had started to become commodities, subject to the demands of the mixtape. 

This song made it on because it was short (relatively) and had a sort-of verse chorus structure. Plus I loved (and still love) the middle music-box-like section. But my appreciation of the rest of the album suffered a little from my new obsession with pasting songs together on tape, and that would take a while to fix. 

Something the Boy Said - Sting

Another song from Ten Summoner's Tales? Haven't I used them all? Apparently not. 

This one isn't as distinctive or interesting as the others, but it's still perfectly lovely and I was hugely into Mr. Sting at this point, so that meant everyone in ear shot had to be too.

Detonation Boulevard - Sisters of Mercy

I was still working at the local Laser Quest in the Spring of '94, experiencing all the job satisfaction that comes with constantly repeating the phrase, "Please don't smack each other in the face with the guns."

One of my new workmates was a guy who we'll call Patrick, because he had similar chiselled cheekbones to the T1000 in Terminator 2. Who was played by Robert Patrick. 

We became friends, even though he was a preening, self aggrandising prima donna and mostly annoying. And, from his point of view, I was a confused idiot who insisted on playing Marillion at you whenever you came near. 

He was into the Sisters of Mercy. And I thought I might get into them too. It's kind of weird that I didn't - it's exactly my kind of thing. I quite enjoy them, but it's all a bit "Perfectly nice polite kids pretending to be techno-satanists". Maybe that's unfair on the band, and I'm just projecting my annoyance at Patrick. 

This song ran out on the tape exactly as the whiny guitar phrase start at 2.52. So of course, every time I hear it now, my brain jumps up and down and shouts, "Remember? Remember when it used to run out here?"

What are any of my passwords, brain? Hmm? Hmm?

All About Soul - Billy Joel

Yep, more Billy. This is a good song which I still enjoy. I have no further connection to it that this, however, and so let's move on.

Streets of Philadephia - Bruce Springsteen

I very much enjoyed the soundtrack to this film, and I rushed out to buy it straight away. I liked this song a lot and I liked Neil Young's song 'Philadephia', from the same album. Young's song should be on this playlist but isn't, because Spotify doesn't have it for some insane reason. 

Anyway. This song is drifty and sad and has lovely synth pads, which makes it lots more interesting, in my opinion, than other Bruce Springsteen songs. I'm a particular fan of the drum riff, which manages to be both incredibly simple and also instantly recognisable when it starts the song, all by itself. That's impressive.

The Man With the Child in His Eyes - Kate Bush

Someone in the house must have had a Kate Bush 'best of', because we're in for quite a few of her top pop hits in playlists to come. I liked her well enough, but was never a massive enough fan to buy her music. Which seems odd, really. She has all the qualities I enjoy in a musician - she's a bit weird and she creates melodies which are at once unique and seem weirdly familiar. 

This is great music, and is a welcome break on this playlist, which is otherwise composed of very blokey, mid tempo rock stuff. Looking back, songs like this seem like flowers breaking through the concrete of my staid musical tastes. Don't worry - eventually there are enough flowers to break open the ground for good. 

Alone Again in the Lap of Luxury - Marillion

As if to atone for the playful, ethereal beauty of the last song, here's a very boring, plodding piece of rock. This was another single from Marillion's 'Brave' album and is by far the least interesting thing on it. But it was a single, so I decided it would do.

There are some nice harmonies in the bridge and chorus near the two minute mark, and it's not that bad, melody wise. But this is middle ground stuff that fails to satisfy the Marillion fans because it's not weird enough, but misses mainstream appeal because it doesn't really seem to be trying very hard. 

The Closer I Get to You - Ultravox

And I continue to mine the 'I Can't Believe It's Not Ultravox' album that's been with us for several mixtapes now. This isn't actually that bad, and after the last song it at least has the advantage of some energy and proper dynamics. 

The River of Dreams - Billy Joel

More Billy Joel, and thinking about it, this must have been housemate Antony's album. He had a much better appreciation of music that was fun and rhythmically interesting, while I regarded such things with great suspicion. 

I remember seeing the adverts for this album before it came out - I still bought Q magazine at this point - and thinking it seemed mysterious and inviting. The title and the artwork suggested music that delved into the unconscious and probed the dark and dangerous things within. When I heard the actual song - this jaunty piece of groove-based frippery - I was profoundly disappointed. 

But, as has been noted, this is because I was an idiot who did not yet know how to enjoy himself. 

Near Wild Heaven - REM

No matter how stupid and boring my tastes were, there was always room in my heart for a great pop song. I'm kind of done with REM these days, but in the 90s I was super obsessed with them, and I think with good reason. This is a lovely song and suggests great freedom and joy. 

I remember putting this mixtape on at Laserquest. When this song came on, my workmate - a droll young man called Nick - perked up briefly, and said, "This is the only good song on this entire tape."

Army Dreamers - Kate Bush

Another incredibly odd song from Kate, sitting among the rest of these songs like the coolest, weirdest person at an otherwise pretty sensible party. I remember the video of this from whenever it was in the charts. All photo-clicking eyes and Kate staring down the camera with her terrifying, beautiful gaze. 

The Downeaster 'Alexa' - Billy Joel

Yes, it's more Billy Joel and I think we can all agree that the laws of mixtapes have been well and truly transgressed by the number of his songs I've seen fit to include. But - BUT - this one is great, and so you have to let me off. 

I've loved this song since I first heard it. It pulls at me like the currents of the sea. 

Ashes to Ashes - David Bowie

Now what on earth is this doing here? One of the best songs ever by one of my favourite artists, and here it is, tucked away at the end of this resolutely unadventurous collection of songs. 

Someone in the house - Antony again, I think - had a Best of Bowie CD, and I started to pilfer songs from that. It's not weird that I chose Ashes to Ashes. I bloody love it. What's weird is that there's not five Bowie songs on this collection, instead of all the Billy Joel. 

This is quite a thing, though, isn't it? A piece of music that dances between different section as if easily bored, never quite settling on it's main groove. Hopping through ideas that would have sustained other musicians for entire songs, scampering madly from moment to moment without ever losing its crazy power. 

It's odd to find it here, but it's also kind of nice. Along with the Kate Bush, it suggests that there is hope for me. 

Systems of Love - Ultravox

And then, as if to remind us that I'm still in my early 20s and very much an idiot, here comes a piece of average synth pop. Sorry.

This Corrosion - Sisters of Mercy

I think this was another 'tape about to run out' choice. I really loved the opening moments of this song, and wanted to include them. But the entire song is a ridiculous ten minutes, which I thought was rather overdoing it. 

Taking a good idea and making it last for far too long is only cool when Marillion do it, I think you'll find. 

That's it for another tape. I hope it has brought you some pleasure to realise that you didn't live with me in the 90s, and so you didn't have to put up with this every day.

Glutton for punishment? Go back in time to early Spring 1994 - here!

Or charge excitedly forwards in time, to Summer 1994 - here.

Thursday, 31 December 2020

Oh, and... Six more shows that made 2020 better

So I started a list of TV shows that I liked in 2020, and wrote about them here

I was going to include loads, but only got to seven, because I'm very lazy. But I'm happy to inform you that I've mustered up the energy to complete the list, and here it is. Six more TV shows that made me happy in this, the stupidest of years. 

I Hate Suzie

This is about Billie Piper, and she basically plays Billie Piper, if Billie Piper was 

a) lots less together than in real life and 

b) beset by a constant stream of impossible disasters

Her character - Suzie - is an actress who used to be a pop star when she was a teenager, and then went on to be in a popular sci-fi TV show. So there's the 'very similar' bit. But then her life is thrown into turmoil when someone leaks some sex pictures of her onto the internet. 

Each half hour episode is like accompanying Suzie as she tumbles down a hill and tries to work out which way is up. We experience all her emotions in vivid HD and surround sound, from despair to anger to hilarity to remorse. It is frequently hilarious, as Suzie's layers are peeled away and she reveals incredible, vulnerable humanity and soul. 

There is a whole episode about masturbation, during which your mum and dad will definitely walk in, even if they live miles away or died years ago. 

The Mandalorian

It's not really an original observation to say that this show is great, but I don't care. The Mandalorian kicks ass, and absolutely nails Star Wars in a way that recent films haven't always managed. 

My favourite thing about it is the commitment to action and incident. Each episode is *about* something, and the narrative charges towards that "something" with great determination and glee.

"Kill the big monster". "Rescue the guy". "Get to the place". Each episode is powered by a simple concept like this, and everything that happens unfolds naturally from the core premise.

There's something very appealing about this, especially in an age where Quality TV likes to take its sweet time wandering towards any kind of narrative conclusion. Yes, I like a slow burn plot arc as much as anyone. But between the opening of an episode and its closing credits, something should happen. And ideally that something will involve people shooting lasers at each other.

Best of all is the concept art that plays under the credits each week. Big, bold images that capture the visual power of each instalment. Though I strongly suspect that the actual concept art was just frenzied crayon scribblings of Stormtroopers being blown up by minor characters from the Star Wars universe, which used up all the red crayon and made John Favreau's mum come up to see what all the noise was about.

Normal People

They would never do crayon drawings of this show. Well, they'd only need to do one, anyway - a picture of two people sitting in a room, staring into space with their mouths resolutely closed, in case they accidentally shared any information with each other. 

This is a show about two people falling in love. We follow them over a number of years, and your likely response to their romance will be to shout a combination of the following phrases at the screen:

i)  Oh, you're both so adorable and sweet and realistic!

ii) For the love of God, both of you, would you ever communicate even the most basic information about your feelings?

iii) Oh, yet another incredibly explicit sex scene. And, oh, hello mum, who has just walked in and is wondering why I am watching porn. I'm not! It's art! And why are you here when you live 200 miles away?

iv) I am very moved by the way your love is expressed in subtle and beautiful moments of tenderness.

v) Good grief, will you please talk to each other, rather than living in constant pain because you completely invented the other person's point of view in your head and now you're cross?

Anyway. It's very good, the acting is great and it has a brilliant soundtrack. 

The Queen's Gambit

Chess is very exciting already, so imagine how much more exciting it is when it forms the backbone of a thrilling, beautifully shot drama? That's right - so exciting you might die of joy. 

This show is a thing of absolute wonder (even if you don't really give a toss about chess). The central performance of Queen Gambit herself is astonishing, and would captivate even if she was playing a woman who was really into collecting and cataloguing carpet samples. 

This is one of those shows that just purrs like a finely tuned engine, running smoothly along with such confidence and brilliance that you think, "Man, other TV series are just dicking about. What's their problem? This looks easy!"

I assume it was not easy. It is genius. 

This Country

I did not want to watch This Country for ages, and I think that speaks badly of my own character. I think I looked at the people in it and went, "Ugh - they look like the kind of common, irritating stupid people who I have no real time for. I don't want to see them while I'm enjoying myself with my massive TV. I would like to see spaceships and robots, please!"

Well, it turns out that I was wrong by quite a significant margin. And indeed it is exactly my prissy attitude that this show is directly aimed at. This is an amazingly sweet, funny and often moving show and it sneaks in some proper social commentary while it's there. 

One of the great things fiction can do is to increase empathy for those not like you. This Country does exactly that with the young, white underclass of small town communities. And, like all good comedy, it does it by reminding us that we're all idiots, really. Yes, these people can be selfish and impetuous and unwilling to change, and that's hilarious. But they're also human and fragile and ultimately very, very loveable. And if I think I'm not stupid in exactly the same ways, I'm kidding myself.

It's also the most I've laughed all year.

What We Do In The Shadows

I don't have any startling insights into this show, except to say that it's fantastically funny and constantly inventive. Series one was great and did a good job of hitting the beats of the (excellent) film which spawned it. Series two develops further and strikes out on its own a bit more, playing with the characters and ideas in a way which shows real confidence in the premise, the actors and the scripts. 

Maybe this is the most I've laughed, actually? I don't know. I laugh a lot. Perhaps I'm having a breakdown? That would make sense of a lot of things.

So that's it. 13 excellent TV shows which I've really enjoyed. Honourable mentions also go to:

Better Call Saul - consistently good, to the point where it feels redundant to mention it

Feel Good - something I've only recently started, because lovely Charlotte Richie from Ghosts is in it

Home - which I probably should have included, as it's both hilarious and extremely relevant

The Boys - excitingly violent TV that charges in its own direction with great joy. 

There you go. A reminder that part one of this list can be found here