Burma VJ

by Steve Mainprize

On 7th November 2010, elections are due to be held in Burma, the second-largest country in South-East Asia. These are the first elections to be held in the country since 1990, so it seems a good time to finally catch up with ‘Burma VJ’, Anders Østergaard’s Oscar-nominated documentary.

A bit of background: since 1962, the Burmese military has been in control of the country following a coup d’état led by General Ne Win. Between 1962 and 1988, Burma declined spectacularly and became one of the poorest countries in the world, thanks to a combination of economic isolation, Soviet-style central planning policies and official government policy based on superstitious belief.

1988 saw widespread pro-democracy protests throughout the country. Eventually, the army was deployed to subdue the protesters; an estimated 3,000 people were killed.

The 1990 elections were comfortably won by the National League for Democracy, but the military junta refused to accept the result and retained power. The NLD’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to restore democracy to the country, was placed under house arrest (where she remains today).

In 2007, the government suddenly withdrew fuel subsidies, leading to sporadic protests which were quickly put down by the authorities. Then the country’s Buddhist monks began to protest, which the government found harder (culturally) to deal with. The monks were soon joined on the streets by ordinary Burmese people. Although the outcome of the 1988 uprising was not forgotten, the people were encouraged by the monks’ success, and joined the protests. It’s these 2007 events that are covered by ‘Burma VJ’.

‘VJ’ stands for “video journalist”. The film focuses on a guerilla video journalist referred to only as “Joshua”, a member of the Democratic Voice of Burma: the DVB is an underground media organisation whose objective is to expose the reality of life under the Burmese military regime. Their footage is smuggled out of the country, and has found its way onto CNN, the BBC and many other media outlets, particularly during the 2007 protests. It’s also beamed back into Burma on pirate TV stations. The DVB’s audience is not only the outside world, but – as a counterpoint to the regime’s propaganda – the Burmese people themselves.

The film is pieced together from footage surreptitiously (and often illegally) shot by the DVB’s reporters. We’re told in the film’s opening caption that “some elements of the film have been re-constructed in close co-operation with the actual persons involved, just as some names, places and other recognizable facts have been altered for security reasons in order to protect individuals”, but the degree to which reconstruction has been used is not revealed; we are not always sure whether what we’re watching is real.

Sometimes you (think that you) can tell a scene has been reconstructed because of the quality of the footage, or the way the shot is framed. Other times, for instance in the scenes that document thousands of people marching through the streets of Rangoon, there’s no way it could be a reconstruction. There’s a scene in which the country’s Buddhist monks are joined by ever-increasing numbers of citizens. People are hanging out of the windows of city buildings and lining the rooftops to cheer on the marchers. A man walks towards the camera and points up, shouting “Film them! Film them all!” It’s very emotional: uplifting, and tragic if you know how it’s all going to end, and there’s no way it’s faked.

Where the spectre of reconstruction is a problem is in the scenes in which the veracity is not so clear-cut. In one scene, a protester is snatched by plain-clothes security forces. The security forces attempt to throw her into the back of a truck, while protesters fight to rescue her. Is it real? The fighting seems diffident, but then again, real street scraps can be like that. The dialogue seems stilted, but we’re getting it in translation via subtitles, so who knows?

Why it’s a problem isn’t really to do with whether or not we believe what we’re being told is the truth. What’s going on in Burma isn’t seriously up for debate; the brutal events of ‘Burma VJ’ are corroborated and condemned by media organisations from the Guardian to Fox News. Even if there were a debate, we’re used to documentary makers taking a stand – it’s the legacy of Michael Moore, of ‘Bowling For Columbine’, ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’, and of others.

In any case, it seems only reasonable to obfuscate some of the details surrounding “Joshua”, his colleagues in the DVB, and their subjects, for the sake of their personal security. It’s also reasonable for the sake of story. If a particular scene would make the narrative work more elegantly, but no footage exists, I see no real problem with shooting a reconstruction of that scene. An example would be the framing sequences in which “Joshua”, in hiding in Thailand, uses his cell-phone and computer to liaise with his DVB colleagues back home in Burma. There would have been no reason for “Joshua”, ostensibly alone, to film these scenes, but they work to provide context and move the narrative on.

The problem is that it’s frequently distracting trying to discern what’s real and what’s not. It gives the viewer something else to think about, when he or she should be considering the wider and more important issue of the plight of the Burmese people. Use of a caption to indicate which scenes were real and which were not would surely have been simple, so you do find yourself asking why they didn’t do that.

Such distractions apart, ‘Burma VJ’ is a convincing and emotional film, and an important one. There’s no happy ending to this film, and it’s a draining experience, particularly if you know where it’s leading. I’ve seen it twice, and watching the second time, I was most affected by the contrast between the peacefulness of the demonstrations and the brutal resolution to come. The protests may be amongst the largest you will ever see – a seemingly never-ending sea of people – but also, as befits a protest led by Buddhists, the least angry and the most reasonable. “We demand a dialogue!” and “Reconciliation now!” are the slogans most often heard. This merely makes the downbeat ending more tragic. The violent quelling of the protests is a matter of historical record, so what follows are not spoilers as such: the film ends with monks subdued by the army with extreme prejudice, and members of the DVB scattered or imprisoned.

The final scene takes place a year later, in the wake of Cyclone Nargis. It consists of more guerilla video footage, this time of interviews of cyclone survivors, victims of not only natural forces but of their own government’s indifference. The government’s isolationist policies prevented international aid from arriving and an estimated 140,000 people ultimately died.


Go and watch ‘Burma VJ’ at Channel 4′s web site, and consider your own good fortune.

Kick Ass

‘Kick Ass’

Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Starring Aaron Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Mark Strong

by Steve Mainprize

Sometimes it takes a while to for a film’s true worth to become apparent. When a new release first hits the multiplexes, buoyed up by the audience’s sense of anticipation and a fully-mobilised Hollywood publicity machine, there’s a momentum that can go a long way towards covering up any flaws.

I only caught up with Kick-Ass on its recent DVD release. The trailers were a hoot, suggesting some sort of gleefully violent punk rock Spider-Man, a low-rent B-movie antidote to the po-facedness of recent installments of certain superhero franchises, but as it ended I found myself feeling slightly disappointed. Partly, I think, this was because all the best bits were in the trailers, which do rather too good a job of explaining what it’s all about and don’t leave much room for the viewer to be surprised during the film itself. The other problem is that underneath the epic levels of violence and bad language, it’s basically your standard superhero movie.

Kick-Ass is often very funny, particularly as Kick-Ass’ exploits spin more and more out of control and he gets further and further out of his depth. And it does look fantastic. Its colour palette – reminiscent of Warren Beatty’s comic book adaptation, Dick Tracy – and brightly-lit daytime scenes reflect its printed sources of inspiration, and the fight scenes, although they’re full of quick cuts, deserve much credit for avoiding the disorientation that audiences of modern action movies often experience. You can actually see what’s going on.

The film and the comic book were conceived simultaneously as an interesting pair of cross-media projects: strictly speaking, the film is not an adaptation, so it’s not as if the movie is hamstrung by the limitations of the original medium. Kick-Ass could have followed any path, so the fact that it chose to follow the one laid out by thirty years of superhero adaptations, not to mention seventy years of superhero comics, is quite surprising.

Plot point after plot point echoes what we’ve seen before time and time again, going back at least to Richard Donner’s 1978 version of Superman. For example, here Aaron Johnson plays Kick-Ass, a crimefighter whose secret civilian identity is a bit of a dweeb. Also see, amongst others: Christopher Reeve in Superman, Michael Keaton in Batman, Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man. There’s a beautiful woman, with a thing for the hero’s more glamorous alter ego – here she’s Katie, played by Lyndsy Fonseca, but in Superman she was Margot Kidder, in Batman she was Kim Basinger and in Spider-Man (up to a point) she was Kirsten Dunst.

Subsequently, the genre convention states that there must be a scene in which the hero reveals his secret identity to the heroine. “Look,” he says, or possibly implies, “Ta-da! I’m not a dweeb after all!” “Gosh!” she replies, “I was wrong about you all along!” And she falls in love with him.

There’s a reason that this twisted relationship repeats time after time in comic-book adaptations: it’s wish-fulfilment for the comic-book reader, and therefore written into the DNA of the source material. Ironically, Kick-Ass (the comic) sidesteps the cliché: the girlfriend character is horrified at being deceived and Kick-Ass gets another beating. Kick-Ass (the movie), however, follows the template exactly, and the hero gets the girl. This, I think, reveals that Kick-Ass (the movie) is still a little bit too much in love with the conventions of the comic book.

Other tropes include the psycho mob-boss villain, the gang of henchmen, the climactic face-off high above the city and the villain’s subsequent metaphorical and literal downfall (all of which are in Burton’s Batman, but it’s my guess that you’ll find at least one in every superhero film). It’s clear, though, that we’re supposed to get these allusions. Kick-Ass doesn’t exactly hide its reference points, from the opening titles that ape Donner’s Superman, to Nicolas Cage’s channelling of 1960s TV Batman Adam West’s hammy speech patterns, to the final line of dialogue, originally spoken by Jack Nicholson in Batman. And if Cage’s Big Daddy character is as close to a Batman analogue as could be achieved without a plagiarism charge, that means that Hit Girl is Robin, but made hyper-violent and famously sweary, not to mention younger and female, presumably to emphasise the irresponsibility of taking a child with you to fight crime.

Furthermore, the protagonists do have superpowers, despite the film’s high-concept idea of “what if superheroes existed in the real world?” (itself in danger of becoming a cliché, in the wake of Watchmen and Chistopher Nolan’s Batman movies). Kick-Ass himself, woefully over-ambitious and underprepared for crime-fighting, suffers a beating that leaves him with metal plates throughout his skeleton and an inability to feel pain – useful, because he’s always on the wrong end of a fight – whilst the other characters have the superpower of unlimited wealth and resources, which they share, of course, with Bruce Wayne.

Although Kick-Ass seemingly aspires to be something other than just another superhero flick, in the end it conforms to the conventions of the genre, perhaps too fond of its inspirations to truly break free of them. It wants to have its cake, beat the living crap out of it, then eat it.

Who Do AC/DC Think They Are?

Who Do AC/DC Think They Are?

by Steve Mainprize

Recently, I saw “Percy Jackson and the Lighting Thief”. (I have kids. That’s how I roll.) Actually, it’s OK, as shameless Harry Potter rip-offs go, and I’ve seen a lot worse movies in the company of my little ones, but I couldn’t help noticing how brutally literal the soundtrack songs were. “Poker Face” plays as the heroes are having fun in a Vegas casino. When they are brainwashed into wasting time at an endless party, we hear Randy Newman’s “Mama Told Me (Not To Come)”. And when they embark on their journey to confront Hades and rescue Percy’s mother, it’s – of course! – “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC.

To be fair, “Highway To Hell” is used ironically; the characters are travelling by bus. So there’s a mock-heroic undertone that rescues the scene from cliché… or does it?

Previous uses of the song in film include “Final Destination 2”, “Little Nicky”, and “Wild Hogs”, and in each case it’s been used ironically. In fact, the ironic use of “Highway To Hell” is the cliché – the song seems to have gone straight to irony, without passing through any intermediate stage where we’re expected to take it seriously.

To which you might well respond: “Well, duh. It’s AC flippin’ DC.” Yep, I know. I know how the world perceives the band and their records. Big stupid (in a good way) riffs, lyrics about rock and roll, life on the road and single entendres, designed to appeal to the adolescent in everyone.

That’s not how AC/DC, sees it, apparently. Here’s guitarist Angus Young in a New York Times article from October 2008:

“You get very close to the albums,” said Angus, relaxing on a couch while sipping a cup of tea…“It’s like an artist who does a painting,” he added. “If he thinks it’s a great piece of work, he protects it. It’s the same thing: this is our work.” The band has said it does not want to break up its albums to sell individual songs as iTunes usually requires.

Yep, you won’t find AC/DC on iTunes, or on any other legal download service, as I found out when Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief triggered my base and carnal urges, and I came home wanting to listen to “Highway To Hell” in full. And maybe “You Shook Me All Night Long” too.

Because I’m the kind of spendthrift who doesn’t mind recklessly throwing 79p about, I was quite happy to buy it, so I went to iTunes and searched for it. It wasn’t there. In fact, there was no AC/DC there at all. I shrugged and went to Amazon’s download store. They weren’t there either.

“This is strange,” I thought. Well, OK, maybe I don’t need to buy it, maybe it’s one of those songs where I’ll hear it once and it won’t be as good as I remembered it and I’ll be able to put it behind me and move on. So I launched Spotify and looked for it there.

Nope. A whole bunch of AC/DC tribute bands, sound-a-likes and cover versions, but not so much as a note from the real thing.

Ah-hah! I thought, what about the band’s own web site? So I found it – acdc.com – and, yes, they have an online store, but no, it’s all t-shirts and badges and beanie hats. Not a download to be seen.

Well, already I’d already spent more time on this than I’d intended, but my interest was piqued. I started Googling, and quickly found this at billboard.com:

AC/DC is finally selling its music digitally. But not on iTunes. Verizon Wireless has snagged the exclusive rights to sell the band’s entire back catalog through March 2008, becoming the first and only digital music store to offer the Australian combo’s content.

Huh? Guys, I’m sitting here trying to give you my money. Come on.

OK, whatever, I supposed I could get it from Verizon. So I spent ten minutes on the Verizon Wireless website, and I found out how to buy the whole album (rather than the one track I want), as long as I don’t mind finding a Windows machine (I’m on a Mac – not making a big deal out of it, I just am) and installing some drivers and a media manager program (which is going to take up a third of a gigabyte), and I think I needed a phone as well but it wasn’t entirely clear and in the end I just gave up and listened to it on YouTube.

Their tracks aren’t even available on the soundtrack albums for the movies mentioned above, or for most of the other films in which they feature: at least 5 major studio releases in the past 10 years have incorporated the song “Back In Black”, and none of them have it on their soundtrack albums.

Basically, if you want to buy “Highway To Hell”, or “Back In Black”, or “It’s A Long Way To The Top”, you need to buy a full AC/DC album. There are also no AC/DC compilation albums (at least not yet, but more of this in a minute), so you can’t even satisfy all your AC/DC needs with a single CD purchase.

To all of which I say: who do AC/DC think they are?

It’s one thing if you’re the Beatles, who also, famously, haven’t done a deal with any of the online MP3 retailers. Certainly, it’s irritating sometimes the way the Beatles’ songs are treated as pop’s holy relics, and you get the feeling that it’s only grudgingly that they even allow their CDs to be sold in the same shops as everyone else’s. It’s like they’d only be happy if there were special shops that only sold Beatles albums. But then the Beatles did set most of the parameters of modern pop, so if anyone should be allowed to make their own rules, it’s them.

But AC/DC aren’t, by a long shot, the Beatles. To the extent that you might be surprised to learn that the band’s “Back In Black” album is the second highest selling (physical) album in the history of the world. However, but this particular game is skewed in the band’s favour for the following three reasons.

Firstly, other bands have tracks that can be downloaded, whether as an album or individually. You can’t pick and choose with AC/DC: it’s a full album or nothing. So sales of their physical albums aren’t diluted by sales of downloadable tracks. On the other hand, their total sales from downloadable tracks is nil.

Secondly, all the good AC/DC albums are pretty much the same. (The bad ones are also the same, except worse.) This means that the casual record buyer only needs one AC/DC record.

Thirdly, AC/DC have never released a true compilation album, claiming that they are making a principled stand in that their artistic integrity (oh, good grief) only lends itself to a full LP presented as a coherent statement of the band’s yada yada yada. Given the absence of a greatest hits package, it’s probably going to be “Back In Black”, because that’s got more well-known songs than any of the others. Hence “Back In Black” being the second-best seller of all time, and the rest of the band’s back catalogue is nowhere.

But wait, what’s this? Now there’s a compilation available as a spin-off from the ‘Iron Man 2’ movie, so pffft to artistic integrity. And although it’s being marketed as a greatest hits, there’s plenty missing. No sign of “You Shook Me All Night Long” or “Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution”, for example, both of which are on “Back In Black”, and no “Whole Lotta Rosie” or “It’s A Long Way To The Top” or “High Voltage” either. So it’s unlikely to take many sales away from the band’s other CDs, and it will probably tempt a good number of people who previously didn’t feel the need to go beyond “Back In Black”, as well as people who weren’t tempted enough by any previous AC/DC albums.

But, surely there’s a decent market for people to buy one-off songs on a whim? If I want to pay to download tracks, I can’t be the only one. And furthermore, what’s the average potential customer going to be tempted do when they find that they can’t download “Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” legally? Are they going to drop a tenner on an entire CD? Some might, but plenty are going to be off to Hype Machine or Limewire to download an illegal copy. Alternatively, iTunes does offer one option: there are half a dozen AC/DC sound-a-like groups on there, hawking carbon-copy cover versions of the more popular AC/DC songs, so presumably those acts are picking up at least some of the money that AC/DC themselves don’t seem to want.

My first instinct was that this was all a particularly stupid strategy on the part of the band, their management and the record company. Leaving money on the table is supposed to be a cardinal sin in business. But then I started wondering if it was really that simple. After all, I’d given it a few minutes thought, after which it looked a bit daft, but there’s presumably a ton of money in selling AC/DC music, and responsibility for that sort of thing tends not to rest with daft people, or if it does, it don’t rest there for too long.

So assuming that there is a good reason for leaving the download money on the table, what is it?

The record industry, still begrudging the fact that they’re expected to deliver their products in a form that suits their customers rather than themselves, fancied a little bit of an experiment. I don’t know for definite that this is what’s going on, but I do know that if I was in charge, I’d probably be interested in trying out a little test – for instance, what would happen if we didn’t licence tracks for download?

The industry has had a couple of goes at this experiment. As you might expect, the pop chart singles market, being driven by short-term trends, behaves in a very different way from the heritage rock market that AC/DC inhabit. In 2008, Atlantic Records removed Estelle’s single “American Boy” from iTunes because they were worried that everyone was downloading the track and no-one was buying her CD “Shine”, on which it featured. What happened next is that sales of “Shine” fell even further, and, hilariously, a cash-in cover by a “band” called Studio All-Stars climbed right up the iTunes chart. (Studio All-Stars, incidentally, have nearly six THOUSAND songs on iTunes, including a bunch of the previously-mentioned AC/DC covers. Now there’s a band with an interesting business model.) That experiment was cancelled pretty quickly, and Estelle returned to the iTunes store.

At the time, there was a lot of crowing about Atlantic’s climb-down, but I don’t suppose they’d be particularly upset. They lost a couple of weeks’ sales of a hit record, but they must have got some valuable, good quality, hard data about what happens if you turn your back on downloadable tracks.

The fact that AC/DC’s refusal to go digital continues is probably the other side of this coin. If there were similar effects to that of the Estelle situation, you can bet that the experiment would have ended the same way. However, their market apparently, and perhaps not surprisingly, behaves differently. On finding that the AC/DC back catalogue – and the back-catalogue is AC/DC, it’s not about new tracks – still makes its money without downloads, the experiment was allowed to continue, only now being tweaked a tad with the Iron Man 2 soundtrack.

It’s a bit like trying out a new paint colour in the living room. First of all you try it out on a slightly grotty area that you’re dimly aware is there but you seldom pay attention to, and it doesn’t matter too much if you screw up.

In the living room, it’s the bit behind the sofa. In the music industry, it’s AC/DC.


Oomska’s AC/DC Spotify Playlist (does not include any actual AC/DC): http://open.spotify.com/user/mainy/playlist/6qWzmxOqT5gyQiYpukRbYc


Just A Facebook Group Away

The Revolution Is Just A Facebook Group Away

by Steve Mainprize

“And another demonstration passes on to history
Peace, bread, work, and freedom is the best we can achieve
And wearing badges is not enough in days like these”

- Billy Bragg, ‘Days Like These’

In the good old days – before the internet – there were two courses of action open to the ordinary person-in-the-street who wanted to complain about some disagreeable state of affairs. Firstly, they could write a stiff letter to a newspaper or their MP. Secondly, they could get some friends together and go on a march/start a riot.

What’s happening now on-line – what’s happened recently in causes such as the anti-Pop Idol campaign to wangle Rage Against The Machine’s Christmas number one* and the resistance to the threatened closure of BBC 6 Music – is that those two courses of action have blurred together. Now it’s relatively straightforward, given a sympathetic cause and a handful of online contacts, to assemble a mob, albeit a mob which, rather than marching on Whitehall for example, will all join the same Facebook group or put a logo on their Twitter avatars.

What I like about the old-fashioned options is that they both require you to put a bit of effort in. Even if you’re only going to write a letter, you need to marshal your thoughts, form a coherent argument and try to avoid wittering on too much. Then you need to gum a stamp on the envelope and actually get out of the house to go and post it. You actually have to show some commitment.

Similarly, to get a march going, you need co-ordinate plenty of like-minded people arriving at the same place at the same time, and you need to get banners and the appropriate permits and so forth sorted out beforehand, so there’s lots of organising to do. Riots may look easier to organise than marches, but remember that most riots actually start off as something more peaceful, so you’ve got all the administrative stuff at the start anyway, and then in addition you’ve got to worry about not being beaten up by whatever law-enforcement body your particular country dispatches to these events.

The problem with internet campaigns and Facebook groups and all the rest of it is that the cost – financial and personal – of taking part is practically nothing. You could even argue that the cost of entry is actually negative sometimes: there may be an advantage, beyond the cause itself, to joining “Save 6 Music”. I’m thinking of all those people who have “protested” via their office computers, as a displacement activity to avoid doing any actual work for another couple of minutes. I’m thinking about people joining just because their Facebook friend did. There’s also the phenomenon of people signing up to the cause not because they feel strongly about that cause specifically, but because it’s tangentially related to something they do feel strongly about. Here, I’m also thinking about people who never listen to 6 Music but wanted to get a bit bolshie because they love the BBC. I’m thinking about people who never listen to 6 Music but wanted to get a bit bolshie because they hate the BBC.

Ironic digression: having a lot of people in a Facebook group can generate as much press as a bunch of protesters waving banners in the street. This is because in recent times newspapers have had to cut costs to survive as their advertising income and sales revenue plummets, and consequently the few reporters that are left haven’t the time to research stories or even in some cases leave the office. So stories that they can pick up on-line are a godsend to them. (For a more detailed discussion of this, read the book “Flat Earth News” by Nick Davies http://www.flatearthnews.net/.) And to pile even more irony on top of that: why are advertising income and sales revenue dropping off? Because advertisers are diverting budgets to reach their target audience on the web, and because consumers increasingly get their news from online sources too.

It’s essentially free to add your name to an online campaign. But since it’s also free to not add your weight to the campaign, maybe we should be asking: what’s up with all the people who don’t sign up? 6 Music had a reach of 695,000 listeners in December, and the “Save 6 Music” group on Facebook has 168,000 members. What do the other 527,000 think? If we assume that each of the 168,000 Facebook members want to see 6 Music saved – for which the evidence is very weak – isn’t there an argument that the majority of the station’s listeners aren’t really that bothered? At best, they apparently aren’t bothered enough to spend a minute signing up to Facebook and clicking a button.

Yes, of course, I’m being deliberately obtuse. But when people can publicly voice their grievances so easily and cheaply, how are we meant to judge the true depth of feeling? The ease, cheapness and speed with which protesters can express dissent tends to lessen its weight, and hence its impact.

The other problem with almost-zero-cost protests is that, on the receiving end, it’s also almost-zero-cost to ignore the angry voices. If a thousand protesters turn up on your doorstep waving banners and shouting slogans at you though a megaphone, you tend to pay them some attention. If a thousand faxes arrive, or a thousand letters, then you may have to deal with the consequences of a broken fax machine, or a broken postman. But if you get a thousand emails complaining about the same thing, it’s a pretty quick job to set your spam filters to deal with them so that you don’t have to. If a thousand people sign up to a Facebook group, you don’t even have to notice.

It all seems terribly unfair on those people who really do feel strongly about an issue. In terms of pure numbers, their voice counts as much, or as little, as that of the merest button-clicking flibbertigibbet work-avoider. What those people need is to get back to the modes of protest that demonstrate more commitment. They need publicity-friendly stunts to attract news coverage, they need to be marching in the streets, waving banners and singing songs, and they need the support of large numbers of people.

The 6 Music protesters have realised this, and organised a Saturday lunchtime protest outside Broadcasting House. At the time of writing, the number of protesters is uncertain: reports range from five hundred to two thousand, and these are numbers given by the protesters themselves, rather than actual news agencies, which seem to have largely ignored the event. This is a shame, even if the subject matter under consideration makes it understandable.

But they need to stick to their guns. Keeping the momentum going until the BBC Trust publishes its interim conclusions in the summer will be difficult, and although their campaign has been largely successful so far, there will no doubt be setbacks.

The fact that people have actually made an effort to get out of the house and make a bit of noise is hugely encouraging. Hopefully this is a sign that real protest is alive and well, and that virtual protest is merely a starting point along the road to mobilising people to act in a just cause, whatever that might be. And beyond the survival or demise of a radio station, there might even be hope yet for protest of a more political hue.

* Wow, those words still don’t look right, do they?

Oomska’s Protest Playlist: http://open.spotify.com/user/mainy/playlist/5mtKK8d4fhnjtspEiccAOC

Joe Tex

“Grass and Trees and Cars, Fish and Steaks, Potatoes” – The Total and Utter Genius of Joe Tex

by Steve Mainprize

Listening to Joe Tex’s history, it’s hard to escape the thought that there really ought to be a Joe Tex biopic, to sit alongside “Walk The Line”, “Ray”, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” and all the rest of the baby boomer heritage pop movies. Just like Johnny, Ray and Tina, Joe Tex was a formative influence in the history of black music, but his career was full of false starts and stylistic cul-de-sacs, and he never quite achieved the momentum necessary to get the popular recognition that he deserved.

Here are some of the scenes from the imaginary film of his life that’s playing in my head.

Scene 1: We’re outside a Texas honky-tonk, some time in the late 1950′s. As we track through the car park, past chrome and fins and pick-up trucks, we hear the muffled, galloping sound of a country-and-western group. The music becomes clearer and louder as we push through the door, and across the crowded, darkened room we see the band on a tiny stage, fronted by a powerful figure in a purple cowboy outfit and an enormous white ten-gallon hat. The singer lifts his head, and we see his face for the first time. It’s Joe Tex, and he’s the only black man in the place. From the side of the stage, a man in a suit – the joint’s owner – is screaming at the top of his voice: “Get him off the stage, he ain’t country! He ain’t white, he can’t be country!” Joe grins at him, and the band plays on.

Scene 2: Muscle Shoals recording studio in Alabama. Joe and his producer, Buddy Killen, can’t agree on anything; their working relationship has been showing cracks, Joe’s fledgling career is on the line if he can’t get a hit, and the last of their studio time is nearly up. They’ve worked through the night and it’s starting to get light outside. Joe’s voice is almost shot. “Joe,” says the weary producer, “this number isn’t working. Let’s try a new song.” The band gets set up one last time, and they start to play “Hold What You’ve Got”. And it’s magic. Joe’s vocal isn’t technically perfect, but the hours of singing have left him with just the right degree of weariness and hoarseness for the tune. He’s on his way.

Scene 3: Joe’s on stage again: he’s ripping through a Southern soul number, opening for James Brown. Joe openly mocks Brown – a man, let’s face it, not known for his enjoyment of a good joke – by wrapping himself in a cape and dropping to his knees in fake anguish, hollering “Please! Please! Please! Please … get me out of this cape!” The audience thinks it’s hilarious, but later, a furious Godfather of Soul confronts Joe in a nightclub with a shotgun. Joe dives through the exit, as Brown opens fire: Joe’s unscathed, but several of the club’s customers are wounded and have to be paid off.

The James Brown shotgun incident was the culmination of a series of disagreements between the two men, not the least of which was that Brown had taken up with Bea Ford, Tex’s ex-wife. Joe also held the opinion that Brown had copied his act – hence the cape gag – and there’s no denying the strong similarity between the two men’s dance moves. Joe Tex was a total showman (or show-off – take your pick), whether he was juggling his tambourine, hurling his mic stand around, or dropping to the floor in a perfect splits. Little Richard used to say that James Brown picked up a good deal of his act from watching Joe Tex.

It was typical of Joe Tex that his instinct was to face misfortune and arguments with humour. Apart from the cape routine, he also wrote the song “You Keep Her”, which riffed on Brown’s own “Baby Don’t You Weep”, about Bea taking up with Brown. How much he could really complain about Brown lifting his moves is questionable, because his own early records were really only notable for their resemblance to the works of other artists. In those early days, up until about 1965, his recordings sounded like Little Richard, Sam Cooke or Fats Domino, and he never seemed to find his own voice.

In the end, it was James Brown who became the superstar because he took it all very seriously. With Joe Tex, though, you always got the idea that he was on the verge of cracking a joke. Take one of his best records, “The Love You Save (May Be Your Own)”, possibly the grimmest thing he ever wrote. The chorus is about the importance of working out your romantic relationships, but the verses are a social commentary, of the type that would later turn up in the protest movement, on the black experience in the American South in the fifties and early sixties, something Joe would have known all about:

I’ve been pushed around
I’ve been lost and found
I’ve been given til sundown to get out of town
I’ve been taken outside
And I’ve been brutalized
And I’ve had to always be the one to smile and apologize

But watch him perform the song on YouTube and you kind of think, well, he means it – but on the other hand there’s a lightness of touch there too. It’s almost the same humour that you find in early Morrissey lyrics, but without the self-pity.

Like so many of his contemporaries, he was heavily influenced by the gospel music of his childhood. In small town Texas, though, where Joe was born and brought up, country-and-western was also popular, and although society was heavily segregated, young Joe experienced enough country music for its rhythms and outlook to have an effect on him too.

This led to the ill-advised scattergun approach of his early records, when he was releasing seven or eight singles a year, but without a strong identity. He’d make a rock and roll record, then a country record, then a soul record, then a novelty record about a pig. Part of the problem is that in those days it was – and still is, I guess – assumed that you had to fit a particular role. You couldn’t be a comedian and a soul man and a country singer. Make no mistake, Joe Tex was great in all three of those roles, but if he’d been world class in just one, or even just stuck to one, perhaps he’d be more well-known today.

But then, of course, he wouldn’t have been Joe Tex.

In his early career, he was in demand from other artists, including Little Richard and James Booker, to sing on their records, but had little success on his own. He moved regularly from one record company to the next, each label failing to find the exact combination of song and backing to turn him into a star. You can’t knock the labels’ faith in him, or their persistence, though: he released over 30 singles on various labels before he and his producer Buddy Killen, who had set up Dial Records specifically to get Joe’s records out, finally hit on the right formula and “Hold What You’ve Got” became a hit in 1965. He finally got to release an album, the similarly titled “Hold On To What You’ve Got”, and wrote every track on the record – an almost unheard of honour at the time for a soul singer.

What followed was a career in which Joe Tex, casually and almost unnoticed, sowed the seeds for all kinds of developments in black music. One of his trademarks that he returned to continually was the trick of speaking his verses, then singing the refrains: he coined the term “rap” to describe the spoken word passages, and the ribald humour of songs like “Skinny Legs And All” and “You Said A Bad Word” is right there in hip-hop. He sang about social issues before Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, and was the first soul singer to have a hit about the Vietnam War (“I Believe I’m Gonna Make It”).

The style that brought him success was more rustic than that of other soul singers of the period. He loved to take some folksy colloquialism that he’d overheard and build a song around it, like “Buying A Book” or the magnificent “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show”. One of his favourite themes was the battle of the sexes, in which he’d offer home-spun philosophy on a man’s responsibility to his woman and his family. He was particularly fond of morality fables; anyone, man or woman, guilty of messing their partner around in the first verse of a Joe Tex song was bound to have the tables turned on them by the end of the second verse.

There’s roughly a metric truckload of Joe Tex compilation albums. (One of the best available ones is 1988′s “The Very Best Of Joe Tex”, on Charly Records.) The glut is partly due to the fact that he recorded for lots of different labels before he got successful, and partly because he managed to sign himself – not entirely ethically – to more than one simultaneous contract while he was with Buddy Killen. Consequently the rights got passed around and around, and the legal side of Joe Tex’s back-catalogue goes a little murky, but I don’t think he would have worried about that too much. As previously mentioned, who owned what and who did what first weren’t questions that particularly bothered him anyway. He did claim to have written the pop standard “Fever”, a hit for Little Willie John and Peggy Lee, and recorded by dozens of other artists, but to have sold the rights to the song because he needed the money. (The usually-credited writer, Otis Blackwell, denies this.) Joe then went and wrote “Pneumonia”, a pastiche of “Fever” so cheeky that you hoped he had indeed penned “Fever”, otherwise he was really going to need a good lawyer.

Joe Tex had one hit single in the UK. One. And it was the 1977 novelty disco hit “Ain’t Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman)”. Lyrically it’s very much in Joe’s usual cheerful battle-of-the-sexes territory, but it would have been great to hear it with his more usual funk backing in place of the shimmery disco polish. The unfortunate upshot of that is that the man who invented rap music, who first fused soul and country, and who ought to be mentioned in the same breath as Ray Charles, James Brown and Johnny Cash, is more likely to be associated with The Weather Girls and Rick Dees & His Cast Of Idiots.

After “I Ain’t Gonna Bump No More”, Joe Tex went into semi-retirement on his farm in Texas. Throughout his career he’d taken care of himself, almost entirely avoiding alcohol and drugs, but according to Buddy Killen, “during his last four years, he staged a marathon of self-abuse. It was as if he was trying to make up for lost time.” Joe Tex died of a heart attack in 1982 at the age of 49.

That would be a sad way to leave the Joe Tex story, which is otherwise jam-packed with fun and joy. So I prefer to finish with this quote from the man himself, in an interview towards the end of his life.

“It’s been nice here, man,” he said, “A lot of ups and downs, the way life is, but I’ve enjoyed this life. I was glad that I was able to come up out of creation and look all around and see a little bit, grass and trees and cars, fish and steaks, potatoes…And I thank God for that. I’m thankful that he let me get up and walk around and take a look around here. ‘Cause this is nice.”
Oomska’s Joe Tex Spotify Playlist: http://open.spotify.com/user/mainy/playlist/5k7xkvf08fxOoo7dTOtcsW