Saturday, 30 March 2013

A Period of Readjustment

The National Health Service was established in 1948 as a result of legislation passed two years earlier. It was founded on the humanitarian principles that healthcare should meet the needs of everyone, should be free at the point of delivery, and should be based on clinical need rather than the ability to pay. It is a perennially over-stretched service and the target of frequent criticism, which is often justified. Occasionally things go seriously wrong and there are scandals. However, without it, a large section of the population of the UK would have either intermittent access, or no access at all, to quality healthcare.

As of April 1st, 2013, the NHS will cease to be an organisation whose sole purpose is to tend to the needs of the sick and disabled. Instead it will effectively become a brand name, under which a raft of private companies will cherry pick those parts of the service that make money and then run them for a profit. Naturally there are concerns about the conflicts that might arise between quality of care and the need to provide a return on shareholders' investments.

The short piece of fiction below is written in the style of the incident reports that I seemed to spend half my life writing when I was employed by the NHS. It is somewhat flippant, and yet no less absurd than the situations that those who work for NHS hospitals may find themselves in, over the coming months and years.

A Period of Readjustment

By Mark Sadler

Last Monday our hospital was paid an unannounced visit by a senior figure from the Department of Health. While I ushered the gentlemen into my office and made him coffee, my colleagues scrambled to alert the wards and departments that a dignitary was in the building, and that we should at least try to put on a united front, and give the impression that we all knew what we were doing.

Of particular concern was the possibility, however slim, that our distinguished guest might run into the disembodied spirit of Mr Wheeler, who had died the previous evening on the respiratory ward and had returned as a poltergeist. The member of the chaplaincy who normally deals with patient hauntings was away on annual leave. My secretary had spent the morning phoning around the usual temping agencies in an unsuccessful search for a qualified individual who would be able to deal with the problem. In the interim, a suggestion made to Mr Wheeler's spectre by a member of the nursing staff to “go towards the light” had resulted in him rapidly circling a strip lamp in one of the delivery suites on the maternity ward, like an over-excited moth.

As it turned out, our visitor expressed no desire to see the hospital and became openly hostile when I suggested a tour of the new Linda Mountjoy Diabetes Unit, which had been opened the previous month by Wagner – a former contestant on X Factor.

“Driving here was depressing enough...” he yawned boorishly. “...Tell me, do you actually live in the area or do you commute in?”

“Well, I live in Thorpe Bay. There's some quite nice houses there and the schools are improving. There's a lovely new swimm...”

“Do you know what: I was just making conversation. I don't actually give a shit.”

The gentleman went on to apprise me of the singular purpose of his visit, which was to deliver a special package direct from Number Ten Downing Street. This turned out to resemble a round hat box. When I opened it I was somewhat surprised to discover that it contained a top hat.

After I had signed for the package, the very important man from the Department of Health informed me that, as of 9 o'clock this morning, the government had unceremoniously cut all funding for our healthcare trust. As a substitute for this abrupt 100% loss of income, we had been provided with a high-quality, magical top hat. Whatever we were able to conjure from it we would be allowed to keep and use to run the hospital.

“I would ask it for sensible things such as a kidney dialysis machine, rather than a million pounds, in case it decides that you're a fucking piss-taking cunt and stops working for you,” he advised me.

My immediate response was to ask him how the top hat functioned and whether he could perhaps give me a demonstration. He reluctantly agreed to my request. After about ten minutes of rummaging around inside, interspersed by occasional light taps on the brim with a pencil, which he brandished theatrically like a wand, he managed to produce a very wet and surprised looking sardine from the silken void.

“Do you want this?” he enquired, dangling the wriggling fish above the upturned hat by its tail.

“No. Thank you very much for asking.”

“I'll fucking throw it back then.”

The fish disappeared into the hat with a faint splash. My visitor turned his attention to his coffee which he predictably described as “tasting like it had shot out of a C-diff patient's arse”. I assured him that this was not the case and offered to his address his concerns by sending a sample to the pathology lab where it could be tested for the presence of faecal matter. This seemed to calm him down. After the sample had been sent, he filled me in on some of blue-sky thinking that lay behind the government's Top Hat Initiative:

“The firm that won the bidding process provides transport for prisoner transfers and security at live music and sport events, so basically they don't know what the fuck they're doing. They had the hats knocked out in a factory in Jakarta. We think part of the problem is that the pixie inside, or whatever the fuck it is that does all the magic, either doesn't understand English or is ideologically opposed to western culture and the concept of socialised medicine. If you have a member of staff who can speak Indonesian it might be worth letting them have a go at it. Also if you sort of wave your hands above it like you're casting a spell, that sometimes works.

“There's one other thing: We're not entirely sure whether the hats are bringing objects into existence or teleporting them in from elsewhere. If it turns out to be the latter then, technically, every time you use it, you're committing theft. If you ever get anything that looks like it's come from another hospital, make sure that you peel off any incriminating labels and file down the serial numbers.”

After he left, my colleagues and I spent a fruitless afternoon attempting to conjure something from the hat. The following Tuesday was equally barren. On Wednesday one of the Heart and Chest consultants managed to coax a wheel of smoked Bavarian cheese from it. Later that day a couple of nurses emailed me and made it known that they were willing to accept this as part payment of their salaries.

On Friday I accidentally knocked the hat over. Somehow this jolt caused it to expel a quantity of uncut cocaine with a street value of around £5million, all over my desk and the floor of my office. We are currently engaged in high level discussions, exploring whether, given the circumstances, we might be able to legally sell it or, alternatively, whether the government would be willing to take it off our hands and then financially reimburse us for it.

The papers, of course, have been full of stories about the hats. Of all the hospitals involved in the program, Basildon has made the easiest transition, after they hired a stage magician and his assistant to oversee the magical procurement process. The hat at Queens hospital in Romford has gone berserk. The only thing that staff are able to pull out of it are bewildered patients from other hospitals, who have had to be returned to their point of origin by ambulance. One poor man has apparently made the round trip three times.

As is always the case with any new initiative, there is a period of readjustment before things settle down and get back to normal.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Lafayette Clearmont vs The Funkerberg

Lafayette Clearmont vs The Funkerberg

There have been few more absurd rivalries in the world of popular music than the one that simmered for over two decades, between the self-styled, smooth soul sensation, Lafayette Clearmont, and his polar opposite - a garishly attired and coiffured individual known as 'The Funkerberg'.

For a quarter of a century the pair sparred for dominance in the US singles and album charts, and on the pages of the music press. Following an apprenticeship in The Beamers, Clearmont recorded mainly as a solo artiste (the 'e' on the end was his own addition). The Funkerberg was guitarist and band-leader in a succession of extraterrestrial-themed funk outfits, among them - The Apollo Funk Program, Apollo Moonbase and King Pimps of Saturn.

The roots of their rivalry can be traced back to a nightclub in Detroit called Larry's. Prior to the venue's brief rise to prominence as the upper east side's premier nightspot, the building had been occupied by Larry's Used Motors. When the club took over the premises they didn't bother to take the sign over the door down and the name stuck.

Delroy Patterson worked behind the bar at Larry's during the early days and recalls the tension between the two artists:

“At the back of Larry's there was a VIP booth on a raised platform. People used to call it 'the throne,' because whoever was up there had a tendency to hold court and call the shots.

“In the beginning it seemed like almost every night there would be an argument over who got to sit on the throne. Eventually Elijah Deacon, who was the manager of Larry's back then, got sick of all the fighting that was going on. He drew up a rota so that everybody who was interested got a turn at sitting up there and playing at being King of Detroit.

“Everyone in the joint respected his decision with the exception of Clearmont and The Funkerberg. Those boys were always sitting on the throne when they shouldn't have been. Elijah would say to Clearmont: 'I'm just trying to make sure that everybody here has a good time. Why you got to make life so hard for me?'

“Clearmont would reply: “Well I was king here yesterday and I ain't ready to abdicate.'

“The only explanation you would get from The Funkerberg was for him to remind you that he's 'The Funkerberg.' When somebody bases their defence on definitive statements like that, there's not really much you can offer by way of a counter argument.”

In 1985, Clearmont released an album titled Clear Horizons, in which ditched his tried and tested bedroom-soul in favour of socially-conscious proto-hiphop. Although the album received encouraging reviews in the music press, it failed to connect with his core audience and was a commercial flop.

The Funkerberg was quick to capitalize on the situation. In an interview on Atlantic Heights FM, he publicly claimed credit for the decline in Clearmont's fortunes, pronouncing himself “the iceberg that sank the Titanic of Adult Contemporary Soul,” before adding: “Lafayette was a cruise liner sailing on a smooth ocean until he was sunk beneath the choppy waters of the funk. All the men on-board drowned. Only the women and the children were saved because the funk is merciful.”

The Funkerberg went on to list the various marine animals who he felt best embodied the tenets of the funk. Among these were whales, which he erroneously described as “the biggest and funkiest of all the fish” and the octopus, which he rechristened “The Funktopus.” As his monologue descended into incoherence and the DJ, Alice Ward, cued-up an old Apollo Funk Program record, The Funkerberg mumbled: “Ain't never been no lobster ever had the funk. Ain't never gonna happen.”

Despite his triumphant posturing The Funkerberg's career was arguably experiencing a bigger slide than Clearmont's. While his rival eventually returned to commercial success with an album of duets titled Lafayette and..., The Funkerberg was too unpredictable, and to much of his era, to ever regain the standing he had once enjoyed..

In November 2012, footage of him being ejected from a bank, after he was refused a loan, appeared on Youtube. As he is escorted off the premises by security he yells to the baffled crowd of onlookers: “I'm' the Funkerberg!”

In January of this year an article titled: When the Funk melts where will all the polar bears go? appeared on the inexplicably popular hipster blog – Poseidon Media. The writer of the piece (one James Rushbrooke) illuminated the plight of The Funkerberg and pondered on whether global warming had played a role in catastrophically depleting world funk deposits.

At the time of writing Lafayette Clearmont is enjoying strong sales with his 2012 album Lafayette Sings Marvin. He is currently on tour in the US and will perform at a variety of UK venues over the summer.

The Funkerberg's Apollo Funk Program will play a single date at the Oakleigh Farm Festival in July. I have been asked to point out that this act has absolutely no connection with The Original Apollo Funk Program, which is also touring.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

The day Steve Miller rhymed “abracadabra” with “reach out and grab ya”

The day Steve Miller rhymed “abracadabra” with “reach out and grab ya”

At NASA Steve Miller was called the Space Cowboy – the nemesis of the warlike Martian High Council; quick on the draw with an experimental ray gun; an expert wrangler of satellites, using the Apollo rocket’s robotic lasso.

Back on planet earth, in shadowy underworld circles, he was known as the Gangster of Love - a throwback to the romance prohibition era of the 1950s and early 1960s, when he earned a living running boxes of contraband Valentines Day cards between New York and Atlantic City for the Clintoni Family.

Some people called him Maurice - a name traditionally given to an elite of cabal of men and women who speak of the pompitous of love. In 1987 I was taken by my grandfather to The Royal Society, where Miller lectured on this subject for six hours without pausing for a break. He concluded his speech with a demonstration of how small objects can be made to levitate in a tank of the densely gaseous compound Sulphur Hexafluoride. I forget his point, but remember that it was eloquently made.

Despite his many accomplishments, Miller, ever the renaissance man, yearned to create something less abstract and far grander in scale. He laid out his ambitions in 1977, in an interview with the music journalist Charles Shaar Murray:

“I want to write a song capable of inspiring awe, something comparable in scale and grandeur  to the pyramids of Egypt or Stonehenge. I want people to say: ‘Wow! How the hell did he make that?’”

In 1981, Miller’s plans were to come to fruition in a song called Abracadabra. The chorus incorporated one of the most ambitious rhymes ever conceived, offsetting the five-syllable title against the five word sentence “reach out and grab ya.”

Miller would have been only too aware of the dangers of creating such a behemoth. It was well known that a song’s instability increases exponentially with the complexity of its rhyming structure. As the connections between the lines of verse become more laboured, the stresses exerted on the composition as a whole leave it in danger of collapse.

Many of the more literary-minded rock and pop groups of the 1960s had attempted rhymes of three or  four syllables, often with disastrous consequences as their lyrics caved-in under the weight of their own contrivance.  Accidents of this type were so common in San Francisco that the city employed a specialist unit to rescue bands who had foolishly attempted to rhyme ‘Grand Canyon’ with ‘D’artagnan’ and had subsequently become buried in the rubble of their own psychedelic whimsy.

Producer Gary Mallaber was among the first to be informed of Miller’s audacious plans for a five syllable rhyme:

“Steve handed me a set of lyrics for a new song he had written called Abracadabra. So I sit down and I read the first verse:  ‘I heat up, I can’t cool down...’ Okay looking good so far. Then I get to the chorus  and I’m like ‘Woah! Hold on! A five-on-five rhyme! This is crazy! It can’t be done!”

Undeterred, Miller engaged the services of the architect, Maxwell Herne. Previously he had worked on a building in downtown Toronto called ‘The Waffle Stack.’

“During the construction of the Waffle Stack everybody said that the building was going to fall over, but it didn’t. I knew there and then that he was the man for the job,” recalls Miller.  

Herne immediately spotted problems with the original design for Abracadabra.

“The challenge was to rhyme a five-syllable word against a sentence of five individual syllables. The problem is that ‘abracadabra’ rolls off tongue faster than ‘reach out and grab ya.’ It takes less time to say, so immediately you have a structural imbalance that’s probably going to wipe out you, your entire band and the first three rows of the audience if you play it.”

Herne’s elegant solution was to preface “Abracadabra” with “Abra, Abra.”

“The idea was to create a kind of brace that would bear the weight of the counter-sentence,” he reminisced, 17 years later, at a gala dinner held in his honour.

To support the massive forces that were to be exerted on the chorus, Miller, Mallaber and Herne designed a 60 foot tall, asymmetrically-buttressed archway. Because of its size, the group would have no choice other than to perform the song directly underneath it, knowing that there would be little hope for their survival if it collapsed.

When it came to sourcing appropriate materials for the archway the trio shunned the usual aluminium and lightweight plastics that were commonly used as in pop songs of this era.  

“We needed a material that was strong, yet light...” says Mallaber.

“...The Proto Metal and Prog Rock bands of the time were using exotic elements forged in the hearts of stars but these turned out to be too heavy. In the end we went a different way. Working in conjunction with scientists at MIT we developed a new alloy called Mitlerium that fulfilled our requirements.”

With the archway completed the band prepared to test the song:

“The day we played Abracadabra for the first time was insane...” recalls Miller.

“...As a precaution the area around Capitol studios in Hollywood was evacuated. There were three ambulances, a fire engine and a military gunship, all on standby in case anything went wrong. Everybody on the sound stage kept nervously glancing up at the archway. We expected it to collapse at any moment.”

Maxwell Herne watched the performance from the sidelines:

“I was amazed at how well the structure held. I had a panel of instruments in front of me measuring the stress levels. In the end it didn’t so much as creak.”  

 “Years later I was discussing Abracadabra with an exec for Warner Records...” says Gary Mallaber. 

“...He said that there was something magical about the way the song held together. Let me tell you there was nothing magic about it. It was all down to a solid grasp of architectural engineering and the behaviour of metallic lattices when subjected to controlled structural loads. Most modern bands aren’t prepared to learn these basic skill-sets any more and I think contemporary pop music has suffered as a result.”  

Sunday, 3 March 2013

What if... Elvis Costello had joined the Fast Food Rockers after their first album?

What if... Elvis Costello had joined the Fast Food Rockers after their first album?

Buddy Holly look-alike, Elvis Costello, fused the righteous anger of punk with a stinging intellectualism. Despite cultivating the outward appearance of a nerdy junior accountant from the 1950s (a look that singled him out in a genre pre-occupied with leather bondage trousers) he was perhaps a more experimental performer than many of his peers; not in the get-naked-and paint-your-cock-orange-to-make-some-kind-of-laboured-politcal-point sense of the word, but in the sense that he was receptive to a broader range of musical styles and collaborators. His lengthy career, coupled by an openness towards taking creative risks, has seem him deftly sidestep the poisoned chalice of being branded a “national treasure.” He has been less successful in avoiding the millstone of “critical acclaim.” This is essentially journalistic shorthand meaning that, outside of his ardent fan-base, nobody else can name a song he’s written in the past two decades. 

Fast Food Rockers were a pop trio who dressed in bright primary colours. Their stage get-up gives us some insight into what might happen if a group of children, of nursery school age, were asked to collaborate on a new fashion range, made from recycled Superman and Wonder Woman costumes. Their name was a bit of a red herring as the closest the trio ever came to rocking out was on a cover of the theme from the movie Ghostbusters.

The group’s biggest hit - The Fast Food Song -  was a playground chant, set to a dance beat, that name-checked popular brands of fast food. Creatively it was on a par with those CDs of nursery rhymes that you can buy if you are a parent and will, at some point, be forced to play in your car, instead of something by Darkthrone or Bathory. The song was incredibly annoying to anybody over the age of six and therefore doomed to be played at children’s birthday parties from now until the human race is snuffed from existence, after which it will radiate across the universe, both deterring and inciting invasions from other intelligent races. Despite this handicap and the lack of spending power of its target audience, the song went to number two in the UK singles chart and was only held at bay from the top spot by the overwrought Goth rock band, Evanescence

A follow-up single did less well, while the debut album - It’s Never Easy Being Cheesy - ricocheted off the top 200 like a slice of stale pizza hitting the side of a wheelie bin. A Christmas single limped to number 25 and became the group’s final release.

I am going to imagine Costello joining the Fast Food Rockers in January, 2004, when the band were in commercial freefall and at their lowest ebb. Through force of personality and previous experience as a band leader he would have quickly established himself as the de-facto head of the group. The founding members of FFR were likeable, but anonymous, pop drones, who claim to have met at a fast food convention in Folkestone. It is doubtful that they would have offered much in the way of resistance to this benign dictator. Any act of rebellion or dissent would have been quickly put down by a barbed quip from Costello, who had previously crowned himself King of America. At this stage in his career you simply did not fuck with him.

By this time the Fast Food Rockers management were becoming disillusioned by the trio’s diminishing returns and were a few months away from parting company with the group. It is therefore unlikely that they would have put up much opposition to the new regime. Their indifference would have allowed Costello’s transition to power to take the form of a relatively bloodless coup. Relatively. 

Once he had assumed control I predict that Costello would have taken the band in one of two directions: 

The first possibly is that he would have kept the fast food theme, but attempted to steer it into more bitter-sweet contexts. Perhaps he would have written a song in which a man finds the name ‘Tony’ and a phone number, scrawled down on a McDonalds napkin in his wife’s handwriting. He may also have been tempted to use fast food culture as an allegory to explore some kind of existential void in the human soul. 

This move could have potentially placed a strain on the previously cordial relationship between the group and the fast food chains, who are quite happy to have their brand-names mindlessly parroted, but less comfortable about being named as a third party in a case of adultery. There may also have been concerns about the use of trademarked products as metaphors, as opposed to being presented as actual menu items that you can purchase and eat. 

The other alternative would have been to abandon fast food as a subject altogether and push towards songs about fine dining. In doing so, Costello would be taking a calculated risk, deliberately narrowing the audience of the group in the hope that a smaller, but more loyal, fan-base might allow for a longer career and glowing write-ups in The Guardian weekend section.

This would have undoubtedly alienated hardcore fans who would naturally expect more songs about burgers and fries, performed energetically by a fresh-faced, asexual trio, dressed in brightly coloured costumes; behaviour and attire that would have been frowned upon in fine dining establishments where there is often a dress-code. 

Remember this is years before Jamie Oliver demonstrated that fast food needn’t be bad food, and that you could whip-up something vaguely Italian with pesto in it, in around 15 minutes. 

Would the group’s hardcore six year old audience really warm to a song about the disintegration of a marriage during a child’s birthday party, in Hampstead, that incorporated a line about Polish finger food falling to the floor like autumn leaves? 

In time the founding members of Fast Food Rockers might have wondered whether the addition of a lyricist, even one as highly acclaimed as Elvis Costello, was really worth selling out their ideal of making lightweight pop songs about pizza. 

Lucy Meggitt, for instance, might have found herself, during some downtime in a tour of provincial theatres, doodling the motto “Live free or die” on hotel stationery, next to a biro drawing that resembled an eagle with its wings spread, hovering above a pair of crossed assault rifles.  

In the end the inscrutable Elvis Costello, for whatever reason, did not join Fast Food Rockers. In his absence the group did what countless punk bands have threatened to do but didn’t: They released an album and a handful of singles, and then they spilt up. 

I like to imagine that, prior to disbanding, the trio met up in a branch of McDonalds, where one member of the group wrote “4 real” on their forearm, using sachets of tomato ketchup.