Sunday, 10 August 2008

Ogmograptis scribula

I don't know what to call it, but my first encounter with it was in the TV ad for Diamond Chopsticks. The restaurant, which advertised extensively on Sydney television throughout the 1980s, wrote its name in roman letters composed of several wedge-shaped strokes to represent Chinese-looking writing. It resembles cuneiform script far more than it does Chinese; nevertheless this now seems to be the global standard for Chinese restaurants and for anything attempting an east-Asian look. To the six-year-old me, the strange gulf between the Chinese people who appeared in the ad and the Chinoiserie of the font used was far more jarring and noticeable than the, in retrospect, more bizarre use of Offenbach's galop infernal as background music (the accompanying lyrics were "Diamond Chopsticks, 6-8-4-1-double-4! Diamond Chopsticks, try some you'll be back for more!").

When attempting a little more authenticity, however, it is wise to check one's sources. Unless you are Brighton's listing magazine XYZ, in which case you will end up printing this on your cover and carpet bombing every shop in town with evidence you failed Year 7 Japanese.

At a local charity shop a week or two ago I happened to find an LP of Fiddler on the Roof making extensive use of a bastardised Hebrew version of English. Not too surprising, I suppose, but to go on and use this font on The King and I seems to indicate a level of ignorance that - oh all right - frankly doesn't surprise me.

Let's not even mention the poster for Borat.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Setonix brachyurus

My wife was giggling at someone's blog. I looked over; the site was called 日本語のできないダンナさま. I knew enough to feel embarrassed.
"You're too used to Windows," she said when I mentioned that I might ditch the laptop for a shiny MacBook like hers.
I am not too old to learn how to use a new operating system, but I am far too old to ever be comfortable with it.

"i like the idea of your mac, and am warming to jump ship to attack, but there is a story in the end of the first book of don quixote where two ships come up against each, moors versus christians and when the christians ramm the boat the narator jumps to attack the other ship but somehow his boat then veers off course and no one else joins him and he becomes a hostage/prisoner of the moors making him row their boats...this is a convulated metaphor for my frustrations/fears/anxieties of shifting from pc to mac for all those reasons unsighted above."
- Misha Kropotkin, Your Name Here

"Vhali, king of Algiers, a brave and bold pirate, having boarded and taken the Capitana galley of Malto, in which only three knights were left alive, and those desperately wounded, the galley of John Andrea Doria bore up to succour them: in this galley I was embarked with my company, and doing my duty on this occasion; I leaped into the enemy's galley, which getting loose from ours that intended to board the Algerine, my soldiers were hindered from following me, and I remained alone among a great number of enemies; whom not being able to resist; I was taken after having received several wounds; and as you have already heard, Vehali having escaped with all his squadron, I found myself his prisoner; and was the only afflicted man among so many joyful ones, and the only captive among so many free..."
- The Captive, Don Quixote


"I am not too old to learn how to use a new operating system, but I am far too old to ever be comfortable with it." If only learning Mac OS was as fun as learning hangul or Arabic.

Varanus tristis

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Chlamydosaurus kingii

...and I read books here and I read manuscripts in London, I went to the Royal Geographical Society, I went to Rhodes House. I had a marvellous experience at Rhodes House. This woman says, "Welcome, Mr Cathcart, it's very nice to have you here. You'll find the catalogue is quite self-explanatory." So I go out to the catalogue, and after 20 minutes I can't find anything. And I come back and I say, "Look, I'm awfully sorry, but I just can't find anything in the catalogue about Australia." And she said, "Oh yes, it's under 'Non-Africana'."

for reading, listening

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Menura novaehollandiae

Today I had to call one of my credit card companies to report that I had received my new card. As I live in Britain and the company is in Australia, I followed the instruction to reverse the charges and called British Telecom.

"British Telecom" sounds woefully outdated to my ears, given that the Australian Telecom changed its name to Telstra over a decade ago. It's like arriving in a small town to find that the local Pizza Hut is still using the old logo with its curly-girly twiggle coming from the side of the H (I imagine pastel-coloured suits in an eighties boardroom asking each other "How can we give this H more of that
outrageous camp swagger?"); or like seeing the dated "future" Pepsi logo in Back to the Future: you snicker slightly at how they could have got it so wrong.

Anyway, I say to British Telecom "I'd like to call Australia reverse-charge."

The operator says "I will have to pass you through to another operator."

I briefly wonder why I am being told. Do I have an option? I get some hold music, before a cheery Australian robot asks me to dial the number "as if I was calling from within Australia. For example, to call a number in Sydney, dial 02, then the number." This is utterly heartwarming; I get to pretend I'm in Australia for a few seconds, and the mention of the Sydney area code floods my mind with nostalgia. I resist the temptation to call my old house, and dial the credit card hotline. There is a pause. I suddenly realise that I am going to have to read out my card number, then provide my name and date of birth for clarification. Perhaps a phone booth in the pub is not the smartest place to be making this call from. I am thinking about the satellite relay my voice is being filtered through to go from Britain to Australia.

Then a lady with a strong American flavour to her not-quite American accent asks me the appropriate questions, activates my card, and wishes me a good evening. Oh, it's evening in Australia. So I say

"Excuse me, just out of interest, would you mind telling me where your call centre is located?"

There is a pause. I know this pause because I used to do exactly her job for a British credit card company in Manchester. People in the UK would call me (also in the UK), hear my accent, answer the ID questions, and then tremulously inquire if they were really calling all the way to Australia. You could tell that the old ones were slightly in awe of this brave new world; arrogant ones were working up to tell you it was a disgrace that this was an international call they'd been hoodwinked into making; and the young ones would tell you off for moving to a dismal shithole when I could have been at home cooking flaming shrimpo on the barbio.

The American lady says that she is in the Philippines. I thank her, say goodbye, and sever the orbital transmission from my morning summer English phone box, via midnight winter Australian phone company, to her tropical Filipino call centre, safe in the knowledge that I don't use my Australian credit card anyway, and when I call her to renew my next card in 2011, she will still be there, just like last time we spoke in 2005.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Swainsona formosa

Next in my withering screeds of singles-obsession comes a fairly simple question: what song is the shortest single ever? Spiderbait put out a number of sub-two minute singles in the late nineties; the video for the Vines' "Highly Evolved" turned its ninety-second duration into a selling point by simply broadcasting a countdown to its own conclusion. The Pixies' "Allison" lasts seventy-seven seconds - but despite having a video, this never came out as a single.

Until further notice I am crowning "I'm a Strong Lion" by Robert Pollard the winner (66 seconds) but I am keen to be disproved wrong.

I believe that in the fifties a popular single in diner jukeboxes was called "Three Minutes Silence", consisting of precisely that and aimed at people who didn't want lousy kids playing their rockabilly nonsense while they were trying to have a decent Godfearing conversation for chrissakes.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Callocephalon fimbriatum

A few weeks ago, I bought "We're Gonna Rise", the new single from the Breeders. I cannot actually remember the last time I bought a new single, which is a surprising state of affairs. Once I had a vague philosphy about singles; which was buy them instead of albums. The thinking was that singles were much more collectible than albums, and over time were priced up, rather than albums, which crop up in second-hand shops at cheapo prices. They were collectible in the sense that they were released in varying formats, and there was the thrill of discovering that only one shop in your city had copies of the seven inch, or the enhanced digipak, or that you got a poster with this one, or a bonus disc of other artists on the same label with that one.

Whereas the album was available everywhere, and if you waited a year, would be half-price, nice-price, or dirt cheap and second hand. Singles were thus sketchpads and sandboxes; the improving proving grounds for experiments and nonsense, always far more fruitful than the album track that sounds like an album track. Who cannot love the fact that Cocteau Twins twelve-inches were played on the radio at the wrong speed and John Peel never noticed? That Sneeze released a seven-inch with 20 songs on it? That the Breeders have released their first B-side since 2001, and it is ninety seconds of melodic nonsense German chanting in the middest and Westernest of Midwestern accents?

A truly stupid B-side wins over a considered one any time. Surely it is no coincidence that the Breeders' cover of "Lord of the Thighs", and the Pixies' cover of "Winterlong" are seen by some as the best things ever performed by those bands. They take you where you did not expect to be taken, because the bands allow themselves to be hijacked by an idea that seems not to spring from any concept of what their own band is all about.

There seems to be a bit less of this messing around now, given that the vinyl revival has meant records have to work in the market. Manic bedroom tinkerers like Jesus Couldn't Drum were once able to blart out a sugar rush of gleeful nonsense that would get reviewed locally and then disappear. Now, if a band in Brazil put out a fun song, they get released in major markets immediately and their second single gets reviewed in every zine in the world. A band like They Might Be Giants, once your reliable go-to source for B-side experimentation, doesn't even release singles any more.

As I type today, I am listening to the "Jesus Christ Super Star" single by Kazmi With Rickies. Track 4 is a spoken-word exhortation for listeners to remix the track for future release. Track 5 is the vocal track with a click track. Behold and lo, the next year a five-track EP of the best remixes appeared. And this was on EMI, twelve years ago. Yet today we have editorials lambasting EMI for not adapting to change, and praising Radiohead's brave experiments with releasing the "Nude" multitracks and inviting listeners to remix them...

Sunday, 13 April 2008


It was slightly over ten years ago that I made the move into documenting my own obsessive record collecting. I started to compile an HTML database of all the tracks on all the CDs I owned, complete with facts about the albums and personal comments about each release - it was an intensely nerdy website that happened to be offline and, in fact, still sits mouldering away in a sub-directory on my laptop, having not been updated since September 2001.

I have, however, never stopped asking myself the sort of questions that would fill a charity-shopful of Record Collector magazines. Which album has spawned the largest number of singles? It's one of those questions that can never be answered, because there is no clear definition of 'single'. I think we can all safely disagree with the view that every track on iTunes is a single by virtue of its being able to be downloaded individually - this is, in fact, my favourite worst nightmare of the future of the single.

If a single has its own individual physical product, I think it's a single. Back in the nineties I asked Steve about this, and he gave the example of Alanis Morrisette's debut album: six singles you could buy in shops. The very next year, Garbage's album "Version 2.0" was released and, over the following fifteen or so months, spawned six singles.

That is, in the UK. Britain introduced more and more convoluted and ridiculous rules for What A Single Was. By 1998 if you had more than three tracks, sir, you were no single. So the B-sides of the six British singles were found in their entirety on the B-sides of the four Australian singles (there being no rule in Australia that you couldn't have a five-track single - in fact, Towa Tei's "Private Eyes" had nine tracks, Cher's "Believe" had ten.)

However, if you develop a relationship with the music, you may find you have unconsiously extended that relationship to the cover art and the design. So while, living in Australia, I had access to all the B-sides, what I didn't have were the cover art of the missing two singles. And I somehow wanted these even though I already had all the music on them. And slowly this desire spread to other bands I liked, so that now, a good five years after the very last time I ever felt the remotest desire to listen to Garbage's music, I still retain all this information as a muscle memory.

TISM's "Great Truckin' Songs of the Renaissance" had six singles. Even though one of them came out two years before the album and was extensively reworked for the album version. It's a single from the album, shut up.

All this has been brought on by the release of The Spinto Band's new single, "Summer Grof", which heralds their second album, "Moonwink".
Here is the song.

When I like a band, I like to hear all their stuff, and pretend I'm some kind of archivist. I usually try to pick up the Japanese releases. The Spinto Band are American, but are signed to an English label that expended no little effort in getting them known. As the UK is still (not by much, but still) a viable singles market, the first album generated five singles in Radiant's attempt to raise Spinto awareness. (I count "Brown Boxes" distinct from "Mountains", citing the "Grass"/"Dear God" issue and assuming you will know what this means if you care about this sort of thing.)

The question I am now asking myself is: given that the Spinto-consciousness raising did not presumably have the intended effect, will the UK release of "Moonwink" have anything like the number of etched 7" singles and cavalcade of formats that heralded "Nice and Nicely Done"? I am still waiting for a band to commit commercial suicide and gain everlasting fame by releasing their entire album, mastered into one CD track, as a B-side. The band would instantly be the subject of a thousand bemused blog posts, sell seventy thousand copies of the single and watch as their stars rose and the album itself tanked spectacularly.

Maybe, Spinto Band, you will self-immolate and win my heart in this way. Then again, they could do it as "Moonwink, Acoustic Version" and it would be seen as a free music stunt worthy of Radiohead. This is a band far more cutting edge than I think anyone gives them credit for. They provided a director's commentary for one of their songs, for frig's sake. And, in fact, the cassingle could have been invented for that very purpose. Think on it, Spintos.