Stop pollutin’ m’ recs

There was a brief interlude, wasn’t there, when the internet seemed to be making life better. And then it took over everything and we colluded with it in destroying the high street and Ruining Politics and everything else.

I just let my Apple Music free trial lapse and I’m so happy to be away from the Continuous Stream of Bad Recommendations. I’m also not on Netflix at the moment (waiting for a critical mass of 10 must-see shows to accrue), so I’m not seeing their particular algorithm’s Continuous Stream of Bad Recommendations.

But I’m still stuck with the YouTubes and the Twitters and the Amazons. Amazon hits you with a triple whammy of bad recs. Its algorithm is no more sophsticated than those ads that follow you around, like when you buy wellington boots or something you get nothing but ads for wellington boots for weeks afterwards. Amazon is currently showing me tents: not because I want a tent or bought one. Just because I clicked on a tent out of curiosity, wondering if the technology had improved since the last time I went camping (spoiler: they’re still tents).

Amazon is also offering me film for a camera I don’t own; a microwave dish because I bought a… microwave dish; a big fuckoff box of blue plasters because I recently bought a big fuckoff box of blue plasters; and a bicycle light because I recently bought a bicycle light. You see the problem.

It’s even worse over on Amazon Prime, where Amazon are guilty of spamming you with the spammiest spam they can spam about the US Open tennis because Bezos foolishly overpaid for it and they really really want you to pay a bit extra to watch tennis. In addition to this, because it’s an account I share with the family, I’m always hacking through the weeds of the shit other people watch in order to find anything I might watch. And no matter how many times you don’t watch Jeremy Clarkson, there’s his hideous giant smoker’s face.

It’s a shame because Amazon does harbour some decent shows, but they seem happy to bury them under television and movie landfill rather than make it easier to discover them. I mean, I really ought to be able to click a button that says I WILL NEVER WATCH ANY SPORT EVER and they just stop showing it to me.

The pollution of your recs is real and it’s here and it’s killing us. I also get polluted recs on YouTube because it’s on the AppleTV box, but people tend to watch their crap using my account, so I get bombarded with terrible recommendations. I made the mistake about three months ago of allowing one of my kids to put on a music video, and now I get slapped in the face with bad recs on a monotonous schedule.

But it’s even worse than that, because even when you watch something you quite like, you still get only peripherally related crap fired at you like so many wet tennis balls. Watch, say, a Beatles video, and you suddenly see every fuckwit with a video camera’s take on What Makes Ringo Special or one of those godawful Reaction videos or a conspiracy theory about Paul. YouTube has basically become that scene in Aliens where they decide to nuke the planet from orbit.

The saddest aspect to all this is the way it has become impossible to discover decent books. The tide of awfulness has simply overwhelmed what used to be the core, curated, controlled-by-gatekeepers publishing world. As iniquitous as it used to seem, now that any idiot, including myself, can self-publish an ebook, it’s nearly impossible to find anything decent to read by a new writer. There, I said it. Editors are important.

It’s hard to know where we’ll end up with all this. In the meantime, stay away from my recs, lest you pollute them with your roving eyeballs. And stop looking at tents.

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Boring

imagesI’ve been giving some thought to cars lately: for no particular reason other than mild interest and an ongoing feeling of being set adrift by the Volkswagen emissions cheat device scandal. I won’t say betrayed. But I will say, after 33 years of driving VWs and reading their manuals, I’d come to believe that environmental protection was something the company was serious about. Now, every time my Polo nags me to change to a higher gear, I scream, ‘YOU STEAMING HYPOCRITE!’ Hopefully, loud enough to be heard in Wolfsburg.

After watching forty million electric bike videos on the YouTube, I started watching car review videos for a bit of a break. I find these pleasantly boring, like sinking into a warm bath of nostalgia for William Woollard-era Top Gear, when it was a dull show about cars rather than a documentary about right-wing extremists.

There’s Autogefühl (pronounced to rhyme with “auto careful”, obvs), which is a nice unexciting German chap (and now with pub bore British side kick) reviewing cars in fine, obsessive detail. I’m particularly fond of his vegetarian disdain for leather upholstery and that he likes to point out the fake chrome twin exhausts on the back of so many high-end cars (the real one is hiding underneath, and there is only one of them).

If I want something a bit more racy, I turn to Carwow, which features fast-talking and personable brummie Mat Watson. He’s kind of what Top Gear might be if it was presented by someone with a healthy ego. These really are the only places you’ll see reviews of the kinds of vehicles people actually buy rather than animated versions of the posters 10-year-old boys put on their walls.

I’m not in the market, but I like to keep up. Mainly, I’m fascinated by the disparity between what people seem to care about (“kerb appeal”) and what actually matters. I suspect we’re into territory signposted Late Capitalist Decadence with most of this stuff. My watchword is always that line from Steve Forbert:

“Driving a Jaguar’s impressive

But you can’t watch it go by…”

In other words, if you buy a car, the bits that matter most to you, the driver, are inside looking out. But these warm bath car reviews spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about external details, character lines, LED headlights, alloy wheels, chromed exhausts, and so on. What I would care about would be: do I get back ache after more than an hour inside? Can I see adequately in all directions (are there blind spots)? How do I connect my phone? And will it default to the ELO’s “Above the Clouds” every time it runs out of podcasts to play?

Another thing that has struck me, as I attempt to force myself to care about brands other than Volkswagen, is that the popular higher end German cars all look alike within their segment. You might be able to see a difference from the rear, as they tend to be wider and higher at the back; and you might be able to tell some difference in length, but when these things are coming towards you, they’re really hard to tell apart.

Which is odd, coming from my little VW bubble. At the consumer end of things, you can clearly see the difference between a Polo, a Golf, and a Passat. You can even easily tell the difference between a Golf and a Jetta, which is really just a Golf with a boot. But they look different to each other. I simply cannot spot the difference (face-on) between an Audi A3 and an A4, nor between a BMW 3/4 or 5. Probably, I haven’t been looking long enough, but a thought struck me.

If you’re coming into a prestige brand towards the bottom end, you probably want the (relatively) cheaper, smaller models to look as much like the more expensive, bigger models as possible. Because the game here is about conspicuous consumption and keeping up appearances. And the identikit front ends are part and parcel with the silly LED lights, the uncomfortable oversized alloy wheels and the fake exhausts.

None of which is original to think or say, but one can’t help wondering about the psychology of these people. Because they believe they’re communicating something, and they are, only it’s not what they think.

Joy

One of the undoubted benefits of the YouTube era has been the surprising availability of almost miraculous cultural artefacts. For example, I still can’t quite get my head around the fact that you can find a concert film of the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl in 1964. Back in 1977, when the 1964 and 1965 concerts were included  on a vinyl release, I would scarcely have believed that one day I would be able to watch – and in reasonable quality, considering it was 50 years ago.

I blogged a while ago about the appearance (on the UK iTunes store, at least) of Bruce Springsteen bootlegs, particularly from the 1978 Darkness on the Edge of Town tour. YouTube has a number of gems, too. I was never lucky enough to see Springsteen in the pre-stadium days, but the bootlegs and YouTube allow you to get a taste. You can also compare, perhaps unfortunately, to more recent shows.

Back in the early 1980s, all we knew was that there was a film of Springsteen performing Rosalita in Phoenix in 1978. I remember it being featured in the legendary Jeff Bridges-presented documentary about rock music (“Rock ‘n’ Roll – phew!”). The 9+ minute video was an tantalising glimpse of just how exciting Springsteen could be in his heyday.

1978 Springsteen is loose and rangy, diving all over the stage like a deranged mannequin. His set consisted of recent songs from Darkness, classics from his first three albums, unreleased tracks (“Independence Day”, “Fire”, “Because the Night”, “The Ties That Bind”), and classic covers, such as the Detroit Medley and the extended “Quarter to Three.” You simply cannot watch without being astonished at his energy levels, his showmanship, his rapport with the audience, the love and trust evident in his relationship with Clarence Clemons.

Recent Springsteen is still brilliant, that’s not what I’m saying. He knows that every night is someone’s first and only show, and he brings it to the absolute limit every single time. But 60-year-old Bruce is (of course) stiffer, less athletic than 29-year-old Bruce, and his voice is tighter and has less range. He’s also performing in a completely different way, simply because of the nature and size of the venues. And the E Street Band of 1978 was smaller, playing more intimate venues, and I’m afraid much better than the E Street Band of today. Two of the original members are dead, and the additional personnel have to be there, I suppose, because Bruce and Clarence together used to be the show, and older Bruce needs more help in the vast arenas he now plays around the world.

The Capitol Theatre show is available as an audio Bootleg – or (see above) as a pretty ropy black and white video recording of a TV broadcast. It’s low contrast, horribly degraded, visually, looking more or less the same as the Beatles Hollywood Bowl footage of 14 years earlier. But: it is brilliant. It’s Springsteen the guitar hero, the guy who leapt onto amplifiers and onto pianos and PA stacks – health and safety be damned. It’s the Springsteen of the 9-minute “Prove It All Night”, the 14-minute “Quarter to Three”.

There is a colour video from the 1978 tour. It came from slightly earlier in the summer, and was probably a local TV show, this time in Maryland. In spite of the colour, the video quality still leaves much to be desired, but that doesn’t matter. There’s something incredibly moving about performances of “Thunder Road” and so on in this era. I feel incredibly lucky to have access to these historical documents, the kinds of things I would never have believed could exist, back then. And maybe – just like the 1975 Hammersmith Odeon show, which is available in very good quality – they will emerge in more pristine condition.

I defy anyone to watch the 1978 Detroit Medley and not feel unconstrained joy.

Night Moves – I wonder who’s kissing her now?

Night Moves (album)

David Hepworth blogged some time ago about the album Back in ’72, released in 1973 by Bob Seger, pointing out that he had it on vinyl, and that it had (unusually) never been released on CD. He was wrong, of course: in this wild west age, it is available on CD (apparently, this is an Argentinian release), but how official that availability is is unclear.

Seger is one of the famous iTunes holdouts, who lasted longer than many when it came to making his music available to download. Even now, you can only buy one compilation and two live albums through iTunes. If you want to get hold of, say, Night Moves, you’re going to have to buy it on CD – or use YouTube, a downloader, and your own cheekiness to assemble the album yourself. Not that I would ever do such a thing. *cough* I quite admire Seger’s stand. Obviously, it’s no skin off his nose, given the meagre source of income that iTunes downloads would be in comparison to his concert tours and income from computer games.

So I bought the iTunes comp. I don’t know why. I think John Scalzi tweeted something about “Night Moves” and it made me think, I’d never even sampled Bob Seger, having dismissed him early on as a low-rent Springsteen copyist. I was wrong about that, of course. Back in ’72 pre-dates Springsteen’s first album (give or take a Steel Mill bootleg), and while Night Moves was clearly inspired by Springsteen, it’s different. And Seger’s voice is straight out of Detroit.

I don’t get many people listening to my jams on This is My Jam – you can count the plays on the fingers of one hand – one Simpsons hand, much of the time – so for anything to get more than 5 plays is remarkable. As of this writing, the song “Night Moves” has had 9 plays, two comments (I never get comments) and six likes. Now, I’ve put some pretty fucking ace classic tracks onto my Jam page over the months, so what is it about “Night Moves” that makes it so different? I imagine that if I was someone with social skills and some kind of profile the play count would go through the roof.

The song seems to work on a couple of levels, partly aided by its own structure. The lyrics are a bit awkward, too. I think sometimes people cleave to an awkward lyric more than they would a perfect one. The chord sequence is very straightforward, meaning that any idiot could play it. And in some sense, like a Dylan number, it does’t feel quite finished: it’s a work in progress. The song begins in 1962, and with one meaning of the title phrase. By the end, it’s shifted to looking back at 1962 from 14 years later, with a new meaning for the title phrase. The third layer of nostalgia comes from the fact that the track is from 1976, and not only do they not make ’em like that any more, they can’t. The song itself is a musical version of the movie American Graffiti which came out in 1973, with the same sense of nostalgia for a decade or so before.

From this perspective, it seems slightly ridiculous that there was so much nostalgia in the mid-1970s for just a decade earlier. It’s as if we, here in 2013, were getting all misty-eyed about 2002. 1962 is that year before everything changed forever. In some ways, things changed for the better (the end of deference, the fucking Beatles), and in some ways a simpler (more sexist, more racist, less colourful and nuanced) way of life that had something to recommend it was gone forever. qv. Pleasantville for more on that theme.

1962 was the year I was born.

1976, 37 years ago, stands at the the cusp of the change in recording technique, from the three-mics-on-the-drumkit to the mic-on-every-drum technique that came in around the time of Who Are You and Damn the Torpedoes. More than that, of course, it sits at that awkward historical place, what you might call “classic rock” just before punk came to burn it all down. Just as Bruce Springsteen seemed old fashioned in 1978, Bob Seger was beginning to be old news. People looking back at that era now, people my age who might have been looking the other way at the time, find something in “Night Moves” that fills a hole.

’76 was 14 years on from ’62, and I think this is what Scalzi was tweeting about. 14 years on from 1976 was 1990. “Night Moves” comes from longer ago now than “Heartbreak Hotel” was distant in 1976.  And the fact is, it wasn’t that big of a hit to start with. #45 on the UK singles chart? #4 on the Billboard Hot 100? To us, now, “Night Moves” stands in the same historical position as Glen Miller‘s “Moonlight Serenade”, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” or Judy fucking Garland’s “Over the Rainbow” did to it.

Perhaps the hit song that most closely resembles “Night Moves” from 1939 is “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” by (it says here) Ted Weems and his orchestra with Perry Como.

And in 1939, “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” was itself a 30-year-old song, a nostalgia fest in its own right:

I wonder who’s kissing her now

I wonder who’s showing her how

I wonder who’s looking into her eyes

Breathing sighs, telling lies;

I wonder who’s buying the wine,

For lips that I used to call mine.

I wonder if she ever tells him of me,

I wonder who’s kissing her now.