Mediocre TV in the platinum age

My tolerance of mediocre television has hit an all-time low. I breezed through Season 4 of The Magicians (see below) in a few days, mainly because I wasn’t watching much else at the time. There are a few average-but-watchable things around (in which category I do include Succession – see also below), but there are also programmes to which I take an almost instant dislike.

Catherine the Great, for example, which is on Sky/NowTV, and which stars Helen Mirren and a bunch of other (too) familiar faces. I gave it half an hour and as George in Seinfeld would say, it didn’t take. I just couldn’t see the point in paying attention to it. For a start, it seemed like the wrong end of Catherine’s life. Surely the interesting bit was when she, as a young woman, helped organise the palace coup against her own husband, the king? In broader terms, how much interest do I have in Russian royalty? I don’t mind an historical drama, but have little interest in the aristocracy. They’re all awful in the same ways, really. And if I were to watch something about the Russian royal family, I’d rather see something about the Bolshevik revolution and their execution/exile.

I lasted less time with the Winds of War World on Fire, the BBC’s splashy wartime drama. Again, I couldn’t really see the point of it. Helen Hunt disturbs me (have never seen the appeal), but that aside, there was something a bit naff about this drama. It had a soapy quality that did remind me of the kind of 70s and 80s mini-series represented by The Winds of War or Rich Man, Poor Man. But also, and I think this is the crux, everything seemed too clean.

The doubtless expensive shots of “periodised” 1940s streets with old double decker buses and vintage cars just looked too pristine. Everything looked too digital, too much like green screen artificial scenery, and the skies were too unsmoky, as were the cars and the pubs. You feel too much as if you’ve been dropped into a simulation.

Which is before we get to the live music portrayed in the club scenes. It was as if a 20-something with no knowledge of the history of popular music nor any experience of seeing actual live music in, say, a pub or a back room, had been asked to create “authentic” 1940s entertainment. It seemed wrong in every possible way. And again: not enough smoke. More smoke would seem an obvious fix for a lot of this stuff: apart from anything else, it could hide the fact that everybody’s clothes looked too new and all the surfaces too clean. We’d just come out of a depression, for fucksake.

I think it wants to be Babylon Berlin, but it can’t quite hack it.

Meanwhile, there are things that I have in the background and quite like having on, mainly because they’re not even trying to be prestige television. One such is SyFy’s Reverie, a show about people who get lost in simulated realities and the woman who rescues them. It’s Sara Shahi, for a start, and Dennis Haysbert: both decent actors. I don’t know if I’ll stick with it, but it doesn’t offend or annoy. A similar-feeling show was Manifest, which is about a bunch of people who board a flight which disappears for five years before it lands. It’s like a lot of these kind of shows, like The 400, or Flashforward: high concept, and quite fun, until it gets cancelled. It’s no Counterpart, but it’s watchable.

Why can I stand that kind of middle-of-the-road fare but get turned off by Helen Mirren and a bunch of white people in period frocks? I guess the simple answer is genre, but also the feeling that these shows aren’t trying to convince me they’re better than they are.

In short: don’t waste time watching overblown period dramas when you could be hooting your face off watching The Magicians.

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Podcastination Nation

art

Thought it was about time for an update on what’s in the ‘casting playlist.

I just subscribed to The Missing Cryptoqueen (BBC), which was featured on this week’s Fortunately (also BBC). It’s the story of what appears to be a financial scam on a massive scale: a Ponzi scheme masquerading as a cryptocurrency. It’s a good listen, although, as ever, I’m absolutely bewildered that people ever fall for these things. I mean, if a relative came to me and said, “Oh, I found a fantastic investment opportunity. You need to get on board,” my immediate reaction is no thanks, I’ll leave my pension exactly where it is. And if they were to add, “It’s a Bulgarian cryptocurrency,” my first thought is Mafia. My tenth thought would probably be, oh, outside of any financial services regulatory framework, then? What could possibly go wrong?

And yet it seems that thousands of people have invested gambled millions of Euros like so many cartoon characters with fruit machine eyes.Other recent additions to my playlist include Backlisted (Unbound), a books podcast, which came to my attention when David Hepworth guested on an episode about Beatles books. Quite apart from that, it’s always good to listen to people enthuse about things they love. It’s a little blast of fresh, optimistic air in our fractious times. I prefer Backlisted to Simon Mayo’s Books of the Year (Ora et Labora), which is also on my list, as it’s less of a plug show and more about pulling out unjustly overlooked titles and authors. The most recent episode, about Elizabeth Taylor (who I’m convinced is overlooked because of her name, which is shared by someone more famous than her), is a perfect place to start.

Another podcast featuring someone (theoretically) enthusing about something they love is The Band: A History (independent), which ought to be right up my street, but unfortunately the presenter needs some voice training. His delivery is flat and monotonous, making a fascinating subject seem dull.

Heavyweight (Gimlet) is back, and presenter Jonathan Goldstein is here to show The Band guy how it’s done. Former This American Life reporter Goldstein can take the most mundane episode from an ordinary person’s life and make it dramatic and mysterious. What is Heavyweight about? It’s a little like the late lamented Mystery Show: people get in touch concerning unresolved incidents from their past, and Goldstein does his best to put people in the same room to have it out. I know it’s a good podcast because I have a flashbulb memory of picking up chestnuts in the garden in France while listening to an episode about someone who was kicked out of a sorority in college and never knew why. It’s episode #10, if you want to check it out. (I have a similar flashbulb memory of listening to an episode of Criminal about the theft of Pappy Van Winkle whiskey while riding my bike in France.)

I’ve started listening again to The Word podcast, which I had wrongly believed finished, or at least gone behind a paywall. This oversight can be rectified by downloading back episodes, of course. I love the content, but have to say that their audio quality is poor. Given that so many people manage to make podcasts with great audio, not all of them working for NPR or the BBC, then this seems a bit off.

Finally, a couple of complaints. I would never make a mean comment about a podcast on the iTunes review thing, but I have to get a couple of things off my chest.

There are a few people I kind of follow and listen to multiple podcasts they’re on, mainly because they’re enthusiastic/knowledgable about things that interest me. Merlin Mann, for example, is on a few podcasts, and I generally like his stuff. I love Roderick on the Line, and Reconcilable Differences (Relay) is still a favourite. On the other hand, I gave up on his Do By Friday because the constant giggling by one contributor and shilling for Patreon on the show got too much. I listen to a lot of Incomparable Network shows, many of which feature founder and former Macworld editor Jason Snell. But I can’t listen to Mr Snell’s podcast Upgrade (Relay), because his British co-host Myke Hurley is an idiot and a philistine ignoramus. I’m assuming his parents were idiots too, for giving him a nickname instead of a name and then misspelling it.

Talking of idiots. I like to listen to the thoughtful John Siracusa, who occasionally guests on The Incomparable and co-hosts Reconcilable Differences. But I cannot listen to his technology podcast Accidental Tech (ATP), because both of his co-hosts are whiny, entitled, car bores and one of them is also an idiot.

One of the things you learn if you know anything about technology and software is that, if you want an easy life, you shouldn’t be an early adopter. The early adopter mentality should be that you can be first to have something but should always expect it to be flaky and buggy. This is something both Casey Liss and Marco Arment seem not to understand. So when they get the new iPhone/Apple Watch on release day and then find it takes a few software updates before things are working properly, they act like spoiled 10 year olds who have been told they can’t have birthday cake until the candles have been blown out. Which is not to mention the shameful detail that one of them is such a self-entitled baby that he actually went down to the Apple Store to buy a new phone because the one he ordered online and which was out for delivery didn’t arrive quickly enough for him. I ask you. Can you imagine being married to that? To be the wife who phones up while he is queuing in the store to inform him that his new phone has been delivered? Meanwhile, the voice of reason, John Siracusa, points out that if you were going to bent out of shape by software bugs, you should wait a few months to buy. My personal philosophy is that if you’re buying a new iPhone, don’t order it till November.

Anyway, I had to switch off an unsubscribe because I could no longer listen to these people whining. And it feels good to get it off my chest.

Abbey Road 50th Anniversary edition

The last time EMI flogged us a copy of this record was in 2009, 40 years after its release. The last time EMI flogged us a copy of this record, EMI still existed, but is now defunct, broken up, off its twig, kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil. It is an ex-corporation. The last time EMI flogged us a copy of this record, its producer, George Martin, was still alive. Then, we were told, it was a remastering, an improvement on the original CD release, which had been – we were now led to believe – substandard, rushed, whatever (even though The Beatles were among the last artists to release their music on CD, and then later on digital download). Of course, this is all just marketing. The real reason for a 50th anniversary “remix” is that they can renew mechanical copyright for another 50 years.

A remix is different from a remastering, how? Mastering is when you take the final mix and bounce it down to a stereo file, optimised for playback on consumer equipment, EQ’d to sound as sweet as possible, compressed and limited to sound loud but not too loud, with a dynamic range designed to fit within the limitations of the playback medium. Mastering is an art separate and distinct from record production and mixing. A mix engineer and a mastering engineer are often different people, different sets of ears listening for different things.

A remix, on the other hand, means a return to the multis, an opportunity to adjust the levels, to spread the stereo field. For example, the bass can be more prominent, or the bottom end more pronounced, or the instruments more cleanly separated across the channels. In 1969, still, the vast majority of music fans were buying the mono release; stereo was for nerds and millionaires, more or less.

And, lo, it came to pass, that there was a new Martin on the block, and although the kid was responsible for one of the worst things created in the Beatles’ name (the Las Vegas extravaganza, Love), he was once again allowed access to the vaults to tweak and twat about. 

If I sound cynical, it’s because I am. Of course, the real ears behind this are those of the remix engineer Sam Okell, and the Martin name is a rubber stamp, a message of reassurance to tell us that this is okay, really.

Abbey Road was already one of the Beatles’ best-sounding records. Only Please Please Me really reveals its limitations, they always sounded great; and from A Hard Day’s Night onwards, really great. So did it really need a remix? Not really, although it makes a bit of sense to separate the duelling guitars on “The End” a little bit, or to give the thing a boost for what passes for modern music systems.

Does it sound better? Better than the 2009? Better than the CD before that? Better than the vinyl? I’m not one of those people who thinks he can really tell the difference. My hearing tops out at 16kHz these days, and I’ve always had a bit of bass blindness. Couldn’t hear the kick drum when I played live with a band (maybe it was nerves).

The truth is, the equipment I listen to music on now is much, much worse than that I used even back in the 1980s, and ever since my oldest was born I’ve been without what you’d call a proper stereo. But then that’s the story of my life. Completely obsessed with music but usually listening on substandard equipment. A mono record player that couldn’t even combine the two channels of a stereo record into one, so that I never even heard the guitar solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” until some time after I first bought it. My dad had a second hand stereogram, with a melted front panel (from the heat of the valves), and it sounded warm and woolly. And then eventually I got myself a NAD turntable, amp, and speakers. Not the greatest components, but the best I’d ever had or have. But then, in the 1980s, we started buying CDs, and then we’re later told that those early generation CDs were bad, badly mastered, too rotten deep down in the bits. And so then we get the remasters and the “Mastered for iTunes” and…

It becomes problematic. If, in 1969, people were listening to Abbey Road on ropey old mono record players, in 2019 we’re largely listening to compressed music on cheap earbuds, or playing through a few bluetooth speakers dotted around the house. The car speakers. Apple airpods. I do have some grown up studio reference monitors, but these are not really for relaxing listening, nor are they convenient. While the industry has been after perfect sound, the audience has been looking for the cheapest, most convenient, most portable way to listen to music: and always has.

So who is this really for? It’s for the corporation that owns the new mechanical copyright; it’s for a new generation who don’t know the original and couldn’t tell the difference; and it’s for anyone who wants to spend some time thinking about this music.

Every ten years, we need to think about Abbey Road. Is it their best? Some have said so. Is it better than the sum of its parts? Definitely. I’ve always taken note of the semi-detached Lennon. I like “I Want You (‘She’s so Heavy’)”, but if you look at it sideways, it’s someone who can’t be bothered to write lyrics anymore. Put it together with “Don’t Let Me Down” from earlier that same year, and he’s a man in full retreat from Dylan’s listen to the words, man, and he’s playing games with repetition. He’s got that, and “Come Together” and then it’s all blink-and-you’ll-miss-it on Side 2. I love “Here Comes the Sun” but I’ve never been a big fan of “Something”, and there isn’t really a song on Abbey Road that I’d happily listen to, on its own, as a song. Which makes it a great album, because it needs, still, to be listened to as an album and not a collection of individual songs. “Polythene Pam” is as flimsy as cellophane, but it it slides between “Mustard” and “Bathroom” beautifully.

Back in 2009, the narrative was still that the group wanted to put out “one last” good record. That turns out to have been as much of a myth as the one about how Paul first met John at the Woolton village fête. Now we’re being told that they had no such thoughts about Abbey Road and this was just “the new record”, which only became, in hindsight, the last record. The way this narrative changes is interesting. It drifts with our “turns out” times. It still blows my mind that they recreated the Please Please Me cover shot in early 1969, the one that was later used on the Blue album. Something was in the air throughout that last year, from the day Ringo left the band during the White Album sessions, to that final bored/board meeting when the not-yet-thirty Beatles couldn’t agree on next steps.

In addition, this: part of the current narrative is that “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is rubbish. It’s certainly the case that the song took a lot of takes over several days to record, but there’s nothing wrong with it. Paul’s genius for creating lyrics out of the vernacular – always his greatest gift – is evident here: “Can I take you out to the pictures, Jo-o-o-oan?” But also: “Painting testimonial pictures…” and the innuendo of “Late nights all alone with a test tube…”

Finally, the extra tracks and demos. Ever since the Anthology, it’s been clear that The Beatles weren’t Bob Dylan. They weren’t leaving any good stuff off the records in the way that he has done. So I’m happy enough grabbing a listen to a couple of them on the YouTube and don’t feel I’m missing out if I don’t catch ‘em all.

Succession

I slept through most of the eighth episode of the second season of Succession. As I felt myself drifting off (it had been a hard day), I thought to myself that I could always watch it again; but when I woke up, I realised I was totally fine with missing it. I saw the first five minutes and the last five minutes and got the gist, as it were.

It’s had some rave reviews, has Succession, and it has got a kind of addictive, soapy quality to it. It’s yet another TV series about horrible rich people, but something about their horribleness, and the sense that you’re watching a roman-à-clef, with thinly disguised Murdoch idiot children bickering over their father’s empire, makes it more watchable than, say, Billions, or Downton Abbey.

But then it kind of goes along and keeps going but nothing much changes or happens. Oh, sure, there are corporate raids and shareprice crashes, whatever, but these are no more interesting than they are on the news, and its the human relationships that remain static and unchanging. This one is jealous of that one; this other one is irredeemably stupid; this one is flailing helplessly. And when the patriarch asks them, disingenuously, to give him an opinion on a matter of import, they’re too fucked up and ignorant and so desperate for his approval that they are hopeless.

But you can only take so much of this kind of psychodrama. Nobody learns anything, nobody changes, and anyway, you don’t care enough to want to stick around.

The problem with a show like this is that the reviewer is done and dusted after 1-4 episodes, but sticking around to watch the end is a different experience. One week the family fly here and fuck around and stab each other in the back; the following week they fly to London and do the same thing; and the week after that they fly to Dundee and do the same thing. And there a cringeworthy moments galore, and if you like to cringe, cringe away. But I’m rapidly losing interest.

In the real world, do we care who takes over from Murdoch père? Sure, the man has spread his poison for 50-odd years and is probably in some degree responsible for our Brexit mess, but I’m not one to point fingers at powerful individuals. Brexit was a collective enterprise. The people who work for these powerful men, who do their bidding, who write the words that result in the toxic discourse, who present the news programmes and apologise in Parliament and spread lies for money: these people are the real enablers. Succession shows this to an extent, with the patriarch’s immediate minions trying to outdo each other in venality and ruthlessness, but of course, the cancer spreads deep and wide.

Autumnal Sounds

I used to have a theory about country music, which I don’t think holds up, but it went something like the following. There are off years and on years: every other year, there’s a raft of great records; every other year, not so much. If such a theory were to hold true, then this year feels very much like an on-year. Mind you, it took till summer’s end for most of the good stuff to kick in.

Terms of Surrender

Let’s start with the most recent release, out today: Terms of Surrender by Hiss Golden Messenger continues MC Taylor’s prolific run of releases (more or less an album a year for 10 years). Preview tracks included “I Need a Teacher” (which I think is objectively great, even though I am a teacher) and his personal “Happy Birthday, Baby” message to his daughter. If you listen to the words, this is intense stuff. As he admits in a Rolling Stone magazine interview, after his father’s heart attack and a bout of depression, he started to think about mortality and what he would want his final recorded words to be. These intense songs about love and personal crises have the distinctive sound of HGM, a unique vibe that is restful to the soul and beguiling to the ear. Nobody else quite sounds like Taylor: he’s almost a genre in himself.

Threads

I was there at the start of Sheryl Crow’s solo career, with Tuesday Night Music Club, which had its moment back in 1993. But it was only a moment, for me, and I lost interest in her output after that. Unlike MC Taylor, she does not sound particularly distinctive to my ears, and I couldn’t really pick her voice from a line-up. On Threads, her purported last record (why?), she pairs up with a variety of celebrity friends to perform songs across a number of genres. There’s something for everyone here, and there’s a lot of it, to the extent that you could pick a dozen or so of these songs and make yourself a great album. The pick of the bunch, for me, is “Prove You Wrong”, performed with Stevie Nicks and Maren Morris, a terrific, barnstorming, singalong country-rock track. Then there are numbers with Bonnie Raitt & Mavis Staples; Chris Stapleton; Eric Clapton, Sting, & Brandi Carlile; Jason Isbell; Keith Richards; and so on. It’s not a bad collection, and reminds me a bit of the Don Henley solo record of a few years ago.

Every Girl

Wow. Trisha Yearwood released her last proper album of new music, Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love in 2007. Two thousand and seven. And after a run of strong records in the 90s and early 00s, her productivity had slowed considerably before then. Her last really strong set was Inside Out in 2001, and then there were just two more before the Long Silence descended.

The silencing of Ms. Yearwood’s extraordinary voice coincided with the horrible descent of country radio into its current state of decay: a format that will play a record by literally anybody with testicles and a baseball cap, even if nobody knows who the fuck they are and only their mum and 70 high school friends bought their record; but will not play music by a woman, even if she’s selling out stadia (Carrie Underwood) or going platinum (Miranda Lambert) or objectively better at music than anybody else. Trisha Yearwood’s vocal technique rivals Sinatra’s.

So is it any wonder that Yearwood, Faith Hill, The Dixie Chicks, et al all stopped releasing records around the same time?

But here she is, back: and it’s a strong set. Fourteen tracks, killer vocals, terrific songs, everything we’ve been missing. The title track, “Every Girl in This Town” is an instant favourite, and there are whiskey songs, lonely songs, and duets with the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Garth Brooks, Patty Loveless and Don Henley. Welcome.

The Highwomen

All of which leads to this. Listening to the radio while she was on tour, Amanda Shires idly decided to determine the ratio of male to female voices on country radio stations. She knew it was bad: everybody knows it’s bad. She thought it might be as bad as 10 men to one woman; but as she took notes, she realised it was much, much worse. Nineteen. Nineteen tracks by men, followed by a lone female artist. And then the whole thing cycled around again. She phoned the radio station. “Why don’t y’all play more tracks by women?” Well, they have to be requested. And then voted up. On Facebook.

But how are people going to request/vote for something they’ve never heard?

Catch 22.

Country radio is full of excuses as to why they don’t play women. There’s no demand (see above); listeners, particularly women, complain (um, fuck ‘em); they’re not really proper country, it’s more, you know, Americana. Etc. Furthermore, the problem of only one woman at a time being allowed onto the playlist encourages female artists to act as if they’re in competition with each other.

Enter the Highwomen: Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, and Maren Morris. It’s hard to underestimate how powerful that lineup is. Brandi Carlile was nominated for 6 awards at the 2019 Grammy’s, and won in three categories. Her last three albums were #1 in the US Folk chart, and the most recent two were also #1 on the US Rock chart. Meanwhile, Maren Morris has a huge hit album on her hands, following her previous hit album, and unlike the others, has even had a #1 single on the Country Airplay chart. For her to align with the others is a powerful show of solidarity. Amanda Shires has won Americana and Grammy awards and rocked the Americana scene with her 2018 album To the Sunset. The fourth member, Natalie Hemby is less known for her own recordings (although I have her record and love it), but has written many songs for other artists, including no less than 5 #1 Billboard singles.

And here they all are, with this terrific, knock-down, take no prisoners, collection of brilliant country music, which is already both #1 on the US Country chart and #10 in the mainstream album chart.

The highlights for me are the title track, a reworking of Jimmy Webb’s original “The Highwayman”; “If She Ever Leaves Me”, a drop dead gorgeous lesbian love song; “My Only Child”, a heartbreaking song about not being able to have more children; and “Loose Change”, a classic I’m-too-good-for-you number. It’s an unapologetic set of songs by women and about women in the great, long tradition of country music — a genre that Ken Burns’ new documentary series will show has always given equal status to female artists.

Needless to say: highly recommended. This needs to happen.

All good children: Mark Lewisohn’s Hornsey Road

Went to see Mr Lewisohn’s cutely-named talk about Abbey Road in Northampton. If you’re familiar with his books, you know that nobody knows more than Lewisohn about The Beatles, and I went in expecting the Full Trivia: the anecdotes, rumours, related events, cardboard cutouts and hidden extra tracks.

And that’s what you get, give or take. You could characterise this show as an extra-long Ted Talk, complete with a not-too-awful PowerPoint (Cooper Black was the typeface; Avant Garde – or even a Garamond – might have been a better choice, in keeping with the Apple Records house style) which nevertheless seemed to teeter on the edge of disaster on occasion. My suspicion is that it was playing from a Windoze* PC with a spinning disk HD, and that the occasional video glitch was the disk waking up.

Lewisohn structures the approximately two-hour talk around the chronological recording of the Abbey Road tracks, many of which were already complete long before the summer-of-’69 sessions at EMI Studios. “I Want You” – without the (She’s So Heavy) addendum, which was added in August – was the first to be recorded, in February 1969, and that not even at Abbey Road, but at Trident. Shockingly, Lewisohn doesn’t share this gem:

The song was done in an overnight session on February 22, 1969, at London’s Trident Studios. With the amps turned up high, band received a noise complaint from one of the studio’s neighbors in the Soho area of the city. The take has John Lennon exclaiming, “What are they doing here at this time of night?” Then he adds: “Well, we’ll try it once more very loud. And then if we don’t get it, we’ll try it quiet, like it might do it the other way. OK. The loud one, last go. Last chance to be loud!”

https://www.forbes.com/sites/markbeech/2019/08/08/beatles-reveal-unheard-abbey-road-treasures-50-years-after-cover-shot/#10535b8b2e8a

Which is not me quibbling so much as acknowledging that this is the comprehensive-but-not-exhaustive version of events, the Lewisohn-lite version that (it turns out) has appeal to a more general audience as well as people who already know most of this stuff but like to hear the stories again, because the story of The Beatles’ 1969 is basically King Lear with better tunes. Paul is Lear, obvs, with the other three cast as ungrateful daughters, although Ringo is clearly Cordelia in this arrangement. All good children go to heaven.

One thing I do think Mr Lewisohn got wrong is the question of the Beatles’ esteem in the eyes of the British public. He uses evidence from the Daily Mail to suggest that Britain had fallen out of love with the Beats by 1969. Well. The Daily Fucking Mail, as it’s known around here, has always found time to add hatred of The Beatles to its poisonous drippings. Because of course it would. And as for the music press, I’m pretty sure they were predicting that the Beatles were “over” from about January 1964. Like the proverbial stopped clock, they were, eventually, right. The mainstream press of course fed the suspicion and fear of their readers: that’s their stock in trade. But the charts don’t lie.

So: a burning incense stick (George’s favourite brand), a stage set you could get in a small van, a slightly shonky PC and a borderline tasteful PowerPoint. Add to this the recordings themselves, played in edited isolated-tracks versions, so we can hear Billy Preston’s uncredited Hammond organ, or Paul’s frankly incredible vocal on “Oh! Darling” or his frankly incredible-sounding acoustic guitar elsewhere. Or George’s rather plodding bass-lines. Lewisohn foregoes commentary on the musicianship or most of the more technical aspects of the recordings, which is probably for the best.

It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt

The best bits for me were when he revealed the fruits of his painstaking research. John and Yoko went for a nostalgic road trip that summer and wound up interfacing an Austin Maxi with a tree somewhere in Scotland. All this is known, but what Lewisohn adds is the exhaustive tracking of the route by means of local newspaper reports along the lines of, “Yoko Ono visited the Post Office in Sodderton Chutney and bought some sweets”. Which is both hilarious and brilliant in equal measure. So there’s a map of the purported route, and later on the story of the missing bed leg, and so forth.

Another precious moment came when Lewisohn delved into the history of Mean Mr Mustard, who was the Abbey Road equivalent of Mr Kite; and Polythene Pam, who was this album’s Eleanor Rigby. Or something.

I reckon I could have written him a better ending (his kind of petered out to an awkward round of applause). But how do you even end this kind-of Ted talk? I’d have gone for the serendipitous circularity of this record. The first track recorded, “I Want You”, was bookended by the “(She’s so Heavy”) vocal tracks, the last thing The Beatles recorded together until “Free as a Bird”, and the last time Lennon and McCartney sang into the same microphone in EMI Studios.

And no, they didn’t know it was really the end.

But that cover photo? The perfect one out of six, with the other five sort of shit? Miraculous.

*©The Interwebs Flame Wars ca. 1991

To Be Taught If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

This was one of the cultural highlights of the summer for me, a new novella from Becky Chambers, who has previously published three delightful novels (none of which were particularly long) in her Wayfarers series. This one is not from the same series and comes in at about half the length of a standard novel – and at under a fiver I can’t complain.

So, why a novella? A small idea, an itch that needed to be scratched? The introduction of a new Becky Chambers universe with some light worldbuilding? Or a short story run wild?

Hard to say. Anyway, I read this in a day, and it was enjoyable but slim pickings. I’ve been thoroughly engaged by Chambers’ work and wouldn’t call her a “science fiction lightweight” as some do, but this novella, if you wanted to be harsh, could be described as four characters in search of a plot.

The set-up is straightforward, though some heavy suspension of disbelief is required. A crowdfunded space exploration programme sends several missions from Earth to explore different exoplanetary systems, all of which have the potential to harbour life. If a crowdfunded space programme is hard to believe, the strong ethics of the explorers also tests your ability to go along with it. These humans are determined to have as little impact as possible upon the ecosystems they explore. They’re explorers, not colonisers, and their code is hippocratic: first, do no harm. Rather than change their environment, they change themselves, which is a necessarily under-explored aspect of this piece.

The plot, such as it is, follows the four crew of one of the missions as they explore, in turn, four promising worlds in a solar system, all of which have – or might have – water. Comparisons to Goldilocks and the Three Bears are inevitable, given that the zone in which life might potentially exist is named after that fairy tale. Is one planet too cold, another too warm, and another just right? And what of the fourth?

The rule of four: four planets, four crew, four personalities. Are they all too perfect? Chambers’ human characters are generally so caring and considerate and tolerant that the conflict necessary to drive a plot has to come from elsewhere. It’s hard to say here whether she intends people to be sympathetic or deeply irritating. Once character comes across to me as so prickly and difficult that I cannot believe they’d be allowed on such a mission. Are the planets and the people metaphorically linked? It’s worth some thought.

Standard science fiction elements are here: a way of dealing with human lifespans and interstellar distances; a way of dealing with the perils of radiation; some hand waving about fuel and propulsion systems; more handwaving about air, food, and recycling. It’s a novella, so you shouldn’t expect Kim Stanley Robinson level detail. But there’s a lot of handwaving, and someone like KSR would dig into that a little and create some peril out f it. Which is not to say that there isn’t peril here: but it’s served as a side dish rather than the main course.

The story begins with the words “Please read this” and even tempts you to skip to the end in order to find out what “this” is all about, but I didn’t do that. They land, they explore, stuff happens, and then they face a decision, which ought to be high stakes and dramatic, but somehow feels like a cop-out.

So: not an essential Becky Chambers read; certainly an enjoyable way to pass the time while you do read it, though. I’d accept this as the introduction to a new series, but if it turns out to stand alone, it’s inessential.