I have been watching Breaking Bad

heisenberg

I enjoyed Breaking Bad, but spent five seasons waiting for it to blow me away. Everyone told me it would, but it never quite got to me. There were definitely plenty of occasions where it took my breath away. A fair few when I punched the air in righteous triumph. But it didn’t seep into my skin like The Sopranos, or to a lesser extent The Wire, did. I wanted to believe the hype but in the end I just…don’t. Also, spoiler alert for everything.

I think the reason I don’t probably has more to do with my own expectations as a TV (or now, as it is, Netflix) viewer than any real problems with the show. As far as I can tell, Breaking Bad rarely ever put a foot wrong. It probably has fewer shite episodes than The Sopranos (the only time I really thought ‘this isn’t working’ was the first episode of the second season, I think the first one Bryan Cranston directed. I’ll chalk it up to inexperience but he doesn’t get the visual style right and the acting is weirdly stiff, though he improved with later assignments) and it’s undeniably more exciting. I basically guessed that Walt and Jesse would be there till the end- it’s bizarre to me that Vince Gilligan was going to kill Jesse off at the end of season one, because they’re such an iconic unit- so it was more a case of ‘how are they going to get out of this one’, as opposed to ‘are they going to?’ Off the top of my head, the best episode for that was the one where they’re stuck in the RV and Hank comes to investigate. If Hank had got in there, that would’ve been it, but there were another three or so seasons after that, so the pleasure came in seeing how the writers wriggled a way out that wasn’t absurdly deus ex machina. By and large, I think they did a good job of never cheating the audience. If something mental happened, we were going to see Walt cope with it, even if it meant Walt was forced into yet another apparently intractable situation. That’s what I liked most about it.

But it was never binge TV for me. I think I started watching in October and finished up the other night, so that’s over half a year, maybe two or three episodes a week. I appreciated the cliffhangers but I never felt that I had to find out how they were resolved. Maybe because I knew they would be. I think I struggled with Breaking Bad because its precision-sharp structure meant that nothing, absolutely nothing, was left up in the air. Nothing relevant anyway. There was no ambiguity, no thread left untied. The last episode is the most perfect last episode you could hope for. Walt kills some Nazis then falls down dead with a smile on his face. The bad businesswoman gets poisoned. Jesse rides a sweet car onto the set of Need for Speed.

Of course, all of that was entirely intentional as creative decisions, so I’m not criticising the show for those reasons. I’m merely saying that I prefer the style of the prior generation of made-for-cable dramas. I prefer the immense, tedious longeurs of The Sopranos, the excessively specific detailing of The Wire or the lack of resolution (enforced though it was) of Deadwood (and btw, I totally forgot Anna Gunn was also in that. I probably need to watch it again). For me they exemplify what TV can have that cinema can’t- a deliberate pace that allows for the obsessive dissection of character. I’m not saying the characters in Breaking Bad were weak at all, but the show’s moral universe is much more straightforward, as is its narrative. It feels like a massively over-extended film, which is not necessarily a compliment. And I think maybe that’s why it never quite clicked for me. I wanted a stroll, but what I got was a sprint.

tony

It’s just a guess, but I suspect that’s why Breaking Bad crossed over in a way that The Sopranos et al never quite did. Its ruthless, fast-paced plotting relied on twists and reversals, the sort of plot devices that create immediate impact. They reward a viewer who’s invested any amount of attention in the show. Anyone looking for that in the increasingly bloated (but also my favourite) later seasons of The Sopranos will be reaching for the remote (or clicking their mouse, whatever…) in frustration. That show always frustrated its conventional mobster trappings with absurdly allusive dream sequences that went on and on and on until you realised that the only way to enjoy them fully was if your name was David Chase and you were creator of The Sopranos. So basically what I’m saying is that I like it when programmes do their utmost to alienate anyone who might be watching, and like it less when programmes make an effort to appeal to their viewers. So basically I’m a cunt.

The other thing, and I’m not going to make a big deal about this, but with Walt I never felt I was watching a person. Limmy- who might actually be our most astute cultural commentator- said a thing on Twitter, that when he watched Bryan Cranston he felt like he was watching an actor acting. I read that before I started Breaking Bad and it completely affected my potential appreciation of his performance. It ruined it, in fact. Not that I thought he was bad, I think it’s just part and parcel of the show’s extremely tight structure. Walt was always a motor of the plot or on the receiving end of it. He never just was, in the way that…yeah, you guessed…James Gandolfini just was. Tony Soprano walking down the driveway for the morning paper was one of the highlights of any given episode. I don’t know what the comparison with Walt would be. Putting on his silly wee hat?

But again, this isn’t a criticism so much as a difference in taste. If you asked me to critique Cranston’s performance, I couldn’t. Everything he does is perfectly executed. It just doesn’t breathe, at least not for me. I think what it is is that every American TV show I watch is coloured by my love of The Sopranos, which I’ve marathoned twice. On a general level, they all seem to follow a basic format- a man does bad things- so I always expect that man to be a larger than life figure. Walt, determinedly, isn’t. If he was in The Sopranos he’d be Uncle Junior, the feeble, un-charismatic nearly man. It’s actually one of the bravest things about Breaking Bad that he’s the main character, although ultimately I’m not that fussed.

If it sounds like I’m down on it, I’m not really. It didn’t meet my expectations, but I kept on for the following reasons: Walt watching Jane die. The kid on the bike- both kids on bikes, in fact. Lydia Rodarte-Quayle. Saul Goodman (obviously). Fring walking out with half his body missing. Jesse lobbing dollar bills into a fat guy’s mouth. Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium- two copies. A man’s head on the back of a tortoise. Everyone dying of poison around a swimming pool. Pushing a barrel of money across the desert. Hank’s minerals. Making a really awkward speech about an air disaster. Gale’s karaoke tape. That ill-advised bathroom reading. Mike’s death.

So yeah. Decent.


Steve Buscemi in Boardwalk Empire is another victim of my televisual prejudices. I get that Nucky isn’t meant to be a big showboating figure, but the psychological impression (scars?) left by Gandolfini mean that I just want him to be. I think I might rate Boardwalk Empire over Breaking Bad, but Buscemi has always been my least favourite thing in it. Luckily the rest of the cast is amazing.

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I have been reading Roy Jenkins: A Well Rounded Life

jenkins

So called, I like to think, because Roy Jenkins had a well rounded head.

Jenkins isn’t one of my favourite political figures of yesteryear, but this era in British politics (my personal favourite) is so rarely revisited now that this biography was an immediate purchase for me. Pre-publication buzz centred around the revelation that Jenkins and Tony Crosland had a homosexual love affair. Actually, this was already alluded to in Giles Radice’s Friends and Rivals- possibly less definitive in light of this- and the actual details, as recounted here, are fairly tame. Jenkins was probably seduced by Crosland, but what is more suggestive are the letters they wrote each other, which, reproduced here, are extraordinarily affectionate, almost to the point where you would have to conclude they must have been lovers in some way. Or perhaps, now that the art of letter writing has died out, we’re unused to people expressing themselves in such emotionally articulate language. Certainly the other letters from Jenkins to his wife Jennifer are equally as expressive in a way that seems utterly foreign in today’s terms.

That’s not all we’ve lost since then, as the author points out in his preface. It’s not a particularly original point so I’m not going to labour (heh heh) it, but the politicians of the 60s and 70s had fought in a war and held other careers before entering politics. They had all, to various degrees, lived life amongst real people, meaning that they actually understood the real impact their policies might have. By contrast, most of today’s political leaders have worked solely in politics, mostly as special advisers, and perhaps lack that crucial insight. We’ve also lost the sense that politics is important, that the crises facing the country are immense and that they can only be handled by supremely talented men and women. This was the case in the 70s, when Denis Healey became a sort of co-Prime Minister with Callaghan, such was his clout as Chancellor during the IMF crisis. I suppose a point could plausibly made that George Osborne holds a similar position now, except he’s but one meekly competent professional in a cabinet full of them.

Jenkins is actually more in the modern mould, in that he was the spoiled son of a Labour politician, and although he held rank during the war it was as a code breaker at Bletchley, not on the front-line with Healey and Crosland. I suspect more will be made of this as the book continues- Jenkins was criticised by his peers for his well-appointed bearing, and even though he wasn’t actually upper class, his lack of the common touch would scupper him when he came to lead the SDP. What places him as an imposing figure, the slightly intimidating man pictured on the book’s cover, is his relationship to three key strands of our current political milieu. As Home Secretary he began the process of liberalising British culture that continues- culminated?- with the recent Gay Marriages bill. As a leading figure on the Labour right in the early 70s, he pushed for European integration and got it, setting us on our current course with the Community. And as leader of the SDP in the 80s, he inadvertently forced the Labour Party to take a rightwards turn that ended up transforming politics into the kind of hopelessly dull management consultancy that Jenkins himself might have been at home in.

I don’t find him a particularly interesting or sympathetic figure- as far as I’m concerned he’s as bad as Tony Benn- but so far this is a good read. Usually I dread biographies for their opening chapters- I literally couldn’t give two fucks about anyone’s childhood- but the author (yeah, sorry, I’ve no idea who the author is and I can’t be fucked getting up to check) keeps it moving at a brisk pace, inserts the odd cameo from a Healey or a Heath and, most importantly, gives us a light frisson of scandal in the form of those letters. But what I’m most excited about is Jenkins’ stint as MP for Glasgow Hillhead, which is about as incongruous as the fact he was usurped by one George Galloway a few years later.


Crosland has been forgotten to such an extent that the Daily Mail referred to him as Jenkins’ male lover in their headline. He may not have risen to the same heights as Jenkins, but he was intellectually his superior and ended up holding the position of Foreign Secretary in the Callaghan government. Possibly the biggest reason Crosland lacks the name recognition of Jenkins, Healey or Callaghan is that he died before Labour went into the wilderness, therefore playing no direct part in the struggles that formed New Labour (indirectly his writings on socialism may have been influential). He was also, arguably, less apt for caricature than any of those men- Healey the bulldozer, Jenkins the aristocrat, Sunny Jim- although he was a fascinating and complex individual, ‘the most exciting friend’ of Jenkins’ life.


Obviously I wasn’t pleased when Tony Benn died, and obviously no-one was ever going to speak ill of him in an obituary (although the most interesting one was Denis Healey’s rather circumspect memorial on BBC News- and what’s the betting that Healey’s death generates about a tenth of the coverage that Benn’s does?), but I do feel it’s worth noting that Benn, as much as Jenkins, turned the Labour Party into the festival of competence it is today. Benn’s deputy leadership challenge to Healey in the early 80s created the impression that Labour was a party in turmoil and turned off those voters- misguided as they might have been- looking for a steady hand in choppy waters. This, in turn, forced Labour into a retreat from genuinely socialist policies to the monolithic crypto-Thatcherism of Blair et al. Benn might have struggled with Tony Blair, but really it was his own fault.

It’s also worth noting that Benn was a cabinet minister for much of the 70s and did nothing, save for rescinding his resignation a few times, to arrest the monetarist policies that Callaghan and Healey were implementing and which paved the way for Thatcher. I don’t say that Benn’s own suggested solution to the economic crisis- namely cutting off all worldwide trade links and establishing a fortress economy- was any better, but I do think that if he was really the principled battler for socialism that his ardent followers make him out to be, he might have made a stand when it was politically impactful for him to do so and not just linger on in government because he liked the red boxes.

I wouldn’t go as far as to blame monetarism on Benn, but I would say that the lack of a real left alternative in today’s politics is a direct consequence of his complete and utter failure of vision.


If I were casting a drama based on the Labour governments of the 60s and 70s, Jenkins would be played by Rory Kinnear.

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I have also been listening to:

Metronomy- Love Letters

Metronomy-Love-Letters

Not very good, is it? And that’s gutting, because The English Riviera is up there for me and they’re one of the few British bands that you can rely on to do something both interesting and likeable. It’s, what, ten or eleven tracks long? And most of it sounds like the weaker tracks off English Riviera, apart from the title track, which is frankly aggravating, and The Upsetter, which is a really lovely opening song and promises so much. The only song that delivers on that promise- exceeds it, in fact- is I’m Aquarius, which is actually the best thing Joe Mount has ever done. It brings tears to your eyes, not just because it’s well observed (without sounding like a shit stand-up *cough* Mike Skinner *cough*) but also because Metronomy are so good they can throw away their all-time greatest song on probably their most disappointing album. So I’ve been listening to a lot of that song, and almost none of the rest of it.


Mica Levi- Under the Skin OST

The film is excellent, and although I think a lot of that relates to the soundtrack, I also don’t think the film could’ve been released with any other music. So it’s been made deliberately to enhance the film (I know that sounds obvious, but this is literally the only soundtrack from the last…twenty five years that I own. Most soundtracks these days are little more than fancy sound effect reels). Actually listening to the soundtrack in isolation can be unrewarding ‘cos it’s mostly the same theme repeated without variation, but I bought it ‘cos I really liked the song during the (not quite) sex scene, here called ‘Love’. I can’t really be fucked describing what it sounds like or why it works, it just does, and like I’m Aquarius I would say it justifies buying the album. Or you could download the track by itself if you’re that bloody modern.

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I have been listening to SALEM: King Night

SALEM King Night

Writing about this album I feel like the sad wee boy from the sticks that I am. It came out four years ago and was apparently divisive as fuck, so predictably enough it completely went past me. What was I listening to at the time? Obviously that would be The Drums and Yeasayer’s second album. And to think that at the time I consoled myself by saying ‘well, you don’t have many friends, but you do have an interesting taste in music’. I can’t say how far the two things were connected, but I suppose the irony is that if I’d been aware of SALEM or any of this stuff in 2010, I could’ve gone out to, I dunno, The Arches, dressed in a loose fitting and suspiciously soiled white t-shirt, parachute pants, bangles or whatever, and bonded with like-minded/dressed types over this deeply depressing dance music. Whereas now, if I did that I’d probably receive, at the very least, a caution from Operation Yewtree. Which is why I have to write about it on a blog. Fuck.

Anyway, for those of you (like me until last week) who didn’t know, SALEM are a witch house band. Witch house is now viewed as a slightly regrettable joke, one of the first times that a genre was forced into being by online hipsters (I was about to say scenesters, but do people still say that? It seems like people stopped using it in about 2006 or whenever Pete Doherty’s arrests stopped being funny). I reckon there are two reasons why people cringe like cliché Pavlovian dogs cliché whenever they hear that phrase. One, because it became a fashion thing far more than a music thing, and the fashion world is somehow the leper of creative culture, and two, because people got really fucking excited about it and then it never took off. I don’t know how much of this is SALEM’s fault, but apparently they put in a really bad performance at Primavera (or was it Coachella? One of those festivals I can’t afford anyway) that basically killed the momentum. They actually haven’t released much since this album, and any of the witch house bands who have are treated, pretty much, like returning Vietnam vets. They’re given cautious respect for being on the new front in music, but they’re also losers whose loss indicts the whole system. That’s why the NME, of all fucking publications, gave oOoOo (or however the fuck the guy spells it) 4/10 for an actually pretty solid album he released last year. There’s a sense of shame there, I think, and that’s why there’s been such a proliferation of genres in the few years since witch house, because nowadays people don’t have the patience to let anything bed in and mature. They just want it to be amazing and if it’s not then fuck it- there’s always the next seapunk.

There’s also maybe a sense that because these people came out of the internet, they’re not proper. Yes, even now, when our lives basically revolve around appeasing various websites, there is still the notion that proper artists like Arcade Fire or The National come up through gigging and grafting, while anyone who makes it otherwise is somehow inauthentic. That’s always been there, but it’s heightened now because the music is so closely wedded to online stuff like Tumblr, Unicode and memes. It can look suspiciously like a hobby, not a serious pursuit that you intend to make a career out of (and the music press, I suppose, likes that type of artist because they inculcate loyalty, and loyalty sells magazines as well as albums. Actually, I have no idea if that’s the case, but doesn’t it make more sense that people would buy your magazine if Alex Turner was on the front cover, as opposed to, say, Saint Pepsi?). That’s even true, especially with a lot of the newer vaporwave artists, but it’s that close proximity to ephemeral trash that, for me, gives a lot of this new music its interest and, yes, weight. That’s definitely the case with King Night, which I will now actually talk about.

SALEMSXSW

So far, I like it, and briefly thought that maybe it was one of the best albums I’d listened to (I’m neurotic about not quite having a top ten favourite albums). I stumbled upon the title track on Spotify radio and instantly cottoned on that it’s in the rough general ball park vicinity of the usual stuff I listen to. Dance-ish, but almost overbearingly heavy and with a slight odour of disease about it. The album didn’t quite live up to my hopes on the first few listens, but there was stuff on there that nagged at me. Like on ‘Trapdoor’, there’s a guy rapping and it sounds like he’s rapping about doing some really horrible shit, and although I couldn’t make any of it out, I knew this was exactly the sort of music made by people who’ve read all the serial killer pages on Wikipedia and probably burnt themselves out on Creepypasta and extreme videos. That’s not me, by the way (honest!!!!) but it’s a little to the left of me, and to anyone, basically, who grew up in a generation where awful things would happen and we’d rationalise it by making a Gif out of it (oh my god he’s like, so, y’know, deep, yeah?).

I think what played a major part in my eventual appreciation of it is that it’s come along at a time in my life that I’ll lightly describe as troubled, and many of the tracks have what I’ll wankily describe as a sort of desolate poignancy (writing about music is fucking hard). I’m not trying to show off how sensitive I am, but ‘Release Da Boar’ actually made me cry. The ethereal vocals, slightly aimless tune and odd bleepy sound effect sound, to me, like an astronaut completely alone in space, drifting into a black hole, which I guarantee is how at least 60% of this generation would describe their present experience of life (fuck off if you’re the other 40%, this isn’t for you). The other track I really liked was the last one, ‘Killer’, which is the only one that to me sounds vaguely Goth. It reminds me a bit of The Church, or even Jesus and Mary Chain (over-rated though they are). It’s got that ‘I’m twenty something years old and I’ve spent the whole night drinking and fucking up my life’ vibe that all the best music in the last ten years has. Although maybe I’m biased.

I’m not sure the rest of the album is as amazing as that but it’s one of those ones that sticks with you because the band are suggesting at stuff that’s maybe a bit unsettling or esoteric. They’re from Michigan, which makes sense because this sounds like a missive from a place that isn’t in decline but has already declined, and is now in the process of sinking straight into Hell. They’re also from the internet, where people can post, in complete anonymity, the most horrible fucked up shit imaginable. Maybe I’ve made too much of the online stuff but I think it’s the connective tissue between all the great, troubling bands of today. The sheer unwanted diversity of the internet is leading to music that sounds more definitively warped than anything before it. Punk was never this dystopian. Only since the emergence of witch house and the micro genre have we heard music that has the necessary sonic and thematic elements to convey the exhaustion and horror of modern life.

To be honest, I don’t think I’d have been able to appreciate any of that in 2010, so even if I do sound like a 15 year old who’s just listened to OK Computer for the first time, I’m glad I discovered King Night eventually and can enjoy it in a completely unfiltered, emotive way. If any of the above has struck home I’d suggest you give it a listen too.


I remember seeing Yeasayer on Jools Holland (in retrospect that should’ve been a warning sign, but whatever) and loving the guy’s mad dancing. On the strength of that I bought the second album- I can’t even remember what the fuck it’s called and I’m not going to Google it because I don’t want to know- on the day it came out, watching with a budding erection (possibly) as each track slithered down the download bar and into my newly bought iPhone. And then I listened to it and felt exactly the same way I felt when I saw The Phantom Menace for the first time- ‘yeah, no, it’s…it’s good. I think I just need to listen to it a few times. It’s probably a grower. But I definitely liked it. No, definitely, definitely’. Knowing full well that it wasn’t. I knew at the time that it was just a bunch of squelchy synth noises larded over twelve fundamentally crap songs. But I couldn’t admit that because I’d already committed. I’d already booked tickets to see them at the Oran Mor. So for about a week I listened to it solidly, thinking ‘oh yeah, I’m not sure if this is really the sort of thing I’m into but at least it’s interesting, and you’re supposed to like interesting things if you want to be an interesting person’. Then I saw them live and they were boring as fuck, they played all the new songs and all the old songs that were shite, and tossed off Sunrise (or 2080, I can’t remember which) in the encore. I know you always leave the fans waiting, but you can only get away with that if you’re not infuriating world-beat muso wanks from Noo Yawk Citee, and/or wrote a bunch of other songs that ordinary folk (as in, folk not tripping off their tits on a cocktail of peyote, lysergic acid and Relentless) could tolerate. And yet the overwhelming feeling after the gig was relief. Even though it was a waste of seven whole pounds (which was a lot of money in them days) I no longer had to pretend I liked the album. I had been to the gig, it was baws and no-one wanted to talk about it (my erudite analysis: ‘I thought they would’ve played 2080’). I had no further commitments to Yeasayer. They were not a band I needed to listen to anymore. And I never did. That second album lingers on my iPod as a warning from history- ‘don’t think you like a band just ‘cos the frontman looks like he could easily be taken in a fight’.

As for The Drums, well, I can’t even explain that. Maybe it was a cry for help? Fuck knows.


There is a slight feeling in some quarters of the popular internet press that micro-genres are all a fashion thing backed by some limp beats, which I think is untrue- except in the case of seapunk. I know there’s witch house music and there’s definitely chillwave and vaporwave music. But can someone point me in the direction of an actual, honest to goodness seapunk album? The only thing I’ve heard is Blank Banshee and that sounds like a very tasteful rip-off of Crystal Castles- which is more witch house than anything. I love the visuals that people are citing as seapunk and I’d be quite happy for it to exist just as that, but the descriptions I’ve heard of the music sound ridiculously narrow and lack the ideological aspects that make the other genres so interesting- I mean, this is literally a thing that started when some cunt tweeted a joke about a seapunk jacket.

I think the biggest contribution seapunk has given the world is not Rihanna singing in front of some screensaver dolphins, but those two cunts- I think their names are Demonelle and Zomboy- who fucking insist that seapunk is a real thing, to the point of attacking Iggy Azalea (or Azalea Banks- whichever is the one who calls gay people faggots) for pretending to be a mermaid in one of her videos, apparently on the grounds that ‘MERMAIDS ARE NOT SEAPUNKS’. There’s something oddly endearing about two people who have staked their whole lives on a fly by night musical movement to the extent that they go around policing other people who get it ‘wrong’. Endearing, and also very sad.


Actually, there’s a genuinely dubious side to Trapdoor beyond the pantomimic ‘urban derelict’ affectations. Pitchfork in their review (from four years ago- fuck, I was wearing purple hoodies back then) suggest that the rapping here is ‘minstrelry’ because rapper Jim (John?) Holland is actually white, and clearly he’s put an effect on his voice to make him sound like a big black man. I’m not enough of an authority on matters of race to make a big impassioned point about it, but I think there are maybe distinctions that can be made. Firstly, if you’ve listened to the album it should be fairly apparent that SALEM know about black music. Admittedly they’re yet more white people to nick it from black people, but we can assume they’re doing it as an act of love. Which leads to the second point- I’m guessing that the modulated voice is there to reinforce associations with trap music, not to insult black people. Maybe I’m saying all this to excuse the fact that this is one of my favourites off the album, I liked it before I knew it wasn’t a black guy doing the rap and still do now, to be honest. All I know is I’m a bit bothered and worried by it all and half thinking that if I watched The Black and White Minstrel Show and didn’t know they were all big white wankers would I sort of enjoy that? Or maybe good music transcends racism (can someone listen to a Skrewdriver album to confirm this?). Fuck I’m sorry, I’m really not a racist, I like everybody until I know they’re a cunt and I hate the EDL and BNP and Nick Clegg PLS BELIEVE ME PLS!!!!

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