Saturday, 31 May 2008

Eurovision Song Contest 2008

YES! Even half a world away I cannot be denied! When the Eurovision song contest goes off (and believe me, it goes OFF) I will find a way to be there. Thanks to the sorcery of joy that is the internet I was able to enjoy the whole Eurovision song contest – start to finish, voting included, Wogan included - as if I had actually watched it live. Except I already knew who was going to win. But still.

So since I wrote about last year’s cavalcade of joy, things have changed a little for me in that I’m living in Japan now. Which means that I’ve met a bunch of people who aren’t from “the old continent”, who might read this, and who, AMAZINGLY, have no idea what the Eurovision Song Contest is. Therefore, here is a short primer:

Thousands of years ago in the rural idyll of Europica, a peaceful and merry race of faerie-folk were enslaved by cruel grime-trolls. Discovering that the only way the vile tempers of the grime-trolls could be lessened was through the healing power of song, the faerie folk set about writing the perfect song that would free them from their unutterably cruel suffering. That song was Waterloo, the faerie-folk were Abba and the grime-trolls were… oh, I don’t know… the Nazis or something.

So there’s this song contest right, where every country in Europe, including the stupid ones like Andorra and San Marino, enter a song and eventually one is chosen to be the best song via a series of telephone votes and so-on. Last year Serbia won with a boring ballad sung by a woman who pretty much everyone has to bite their tongue to keep from calling a fat, grumpy lesbian. Hence this year Belgrade hosted the contest, and since Belgrade is built on two massive rivers (the Danube, and the Other-One) the running theme was two rivers meeting. Unfortunately to tie into the Serbian national colours one of these rivers was always coloured red, which, come on – river of blood – is a little disconcerting. The hosts were a whole heap of nothing much, but the girl had dyed her hair some ungodly red that didn’t go with anything she wore.

And there were songs, here I will write about EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM:

1. Romania – Nico & Vlad - Pe-o Margine De Lume

Things start off slowly with a pretty dull ballad. Imagine my surprise when one of them (Nico? Vlad?) turned out to be a woman! Yes, my surprise wasn’t great. Worrying? The woman was old enough to be the guy’s mother. Disturbing undertones. An inauspicious opening.

2. United Kingdom – Andy Abraham – Even If

Andy Abraham and his happy, fat bassist, and his happy, happy band do their best for the UK. Better than I was expecting in an upbeat faux-soul-rock way, but not great. That bassist sure was happy though.

3. Albania – Olta Boka - Zemrën E Lamë Peng

This girl’s coat was a sartorial mullet, long at the back, and veeery short at the front to show off her belly shirt. Kinda skanky and classy at the same time – I felt very confused. The song was kind of a dirge, but at least she brought a wind machine.

4. Germany – No Angels – Disappear

Everything you feared Eurovision might be, Germany enters 8 legs, 4 hairstyles, 4 diaphanous pan’s-people-nightmare robes, and walks away the worst act of the night by far. Out of tune, straight off the shopping mall catwalk (or possibly straight out from behind the bar) and straight to hell buddy.

5. Armenia – Sirusho - Qele, Qele

Basically Armenia, Ukraine and Greece entered the same act – modern, Shakira-esque dance pop, where a cute girl in half a dress shook “it” while three ripped hunks danced their asses off. Seriously the quality of the male dancers this year was really something. I mean, the amount of leg Sirusho was showing distracted me some, but I was trying to pay attention to them.

6. Bosnia & Herzogovina – Laka – Pokušaj

My hands down winner of the night, this one wrapped a storming power chord romp in a washboard romance play with Brechtian stylings, backing singers dressed as brides and the word “Love” spelled out on a washing line. It was incredible, and like I said it was a good song too, I’m listening to it right now. Eurovision comes alive! I knew it would.

7. Israel – Boaz – The Fire In Your Eyes

He sings like a girl, but he looks like a man. Boaz had shoulders the size of your head, and a shiny silver waistcoat, but sadly not much of a ballad to go with it.

8. Finland – Teräsbetoni - Missä Miehet Ratsastaa

Two years ago Finland won with GWAR-lite. This year they entered Iron Maiden-lite, and that is nowhere near as much fun. My sister dug it, but I’ve gotta disagree. Bad metal Bunny, sorry.

9. Croatia - Kraljevi Ulice & 75 Cents – Romanca

I kinda liked this one, where a pretty Baltic melody was ranted over periodically by a dapper, but soused old man. The hideous euro-pop beat ruined it though, and the bit where the old geezer scratched the gramaphone was a little too much. Strange as it may seem, even in Eurovision less is sometimes more.

10. Poland – Isis Gee – For Life

As opposed to against life? Isis is tall and blonde and I’m almost certain she sang a song of some description. It left me speechless / bemused / incoherent / constipated / ambivalent (delete as appropriate).

11. Iceland – Euroband – This Is My Life

Oh, this was terrible, in a wonderful way. Big, bold, awful euro-dance fronted by a so, so, gay Icelandic lad with a huge forehead, and a refreshingly un-skinny Icelandic lass. Were they siblings? They certainly reminded me of the bad guys from High School Musical. Utter rubbish, but not offensively so like the German entry.

12. Turkey - Mor ve Ötesi – Deli

Turkey did surprisingly well with this alternative rock song. Yuki thought the singer was scary-looking and I thought it was all pretty boring, but at least it introduced me to the concept of an alternate reality Turkish version of The Cult, and Miniature Turkish Dave Navarro. Miniature Turkish Dave Navarro! He was adorable.

13. Portugal – Vânia Fernandes - Senhora Do Mar (Negras Águas)

A big lady in a sort of medieval-gothic dress wants to sing at you very loudly, are you going to stop her? No you are not, because if you do, you’ll have her variously sized backing goons to deal with. The backing singers really hypnotised me here, as they looked so much like a rejected super-team from an unmade 1980s Superman flick. Seriously, one of them can run fast, one of them has super-strength, one of them can turn invisible…

14. Latvia – Pirates of the Sea – Wolves of the Sea

God bless you Latvia – Pirates + cheesy euro-disco + a comedy tiny plastic sword + a breakdown where the leader did a terrible dance and shouted “Pirates!” at random = WIN! They even had a ship’s wheel on the deck… I mean stage. Genius.

15. Sweden – Charlotte Perelli – Hero

Really scary, I don’t want to think about her right now. Brrrrrrr.

16. Denmark - Simon Mathew – All Night Long

The Danish Robbie Williams takes us all down the alley for a right old cockney knees up. Sort of. It was a pretty good song, but a little too Maroon 5 for my palette.

17. Georgia - Diana Gurtskaya – Peace Will Come

Last year Georgia were my surprise favourites, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find that this years entry was by the same songwriters, since it’s composed on the same dramatic scale and laden with the same dense electronic production. That and the android Billy Idol dancers makes me think that Georgia is a hotbed of futurist thinking waiting to burst into life. The song wasn’t great, but it had a crazy deep voice in the chorus and an AMAZING quick change of wardrobe from black to white (I seriously don’t know how they did it). Also, it turns out the singer is actually blind, so all that stuff I was saying about her stupid glasses and the way she wasn’t moving around… I just… I feel terrible.

18. Ukraine – Ani Lorak – Shady Lady

That’s a kind of pathetic title. Anyway, here’s your next Eastern European Shakira, and probably the leggiest and most professional of the three. Her backing dancers were top drawer (again), her dress was the shortest, and the little “beep-beep” nodding dance they all did at the start was fabulous. It did well!

19. France - Sébastien Tellier – Divine

I had no idea this was Sébastien Tellier, but this was awesome. A sublimely dreamy 80s indie pop number where Tellier seemed to be channelling Jarvis Cocker and David Herman Dune while his backing singers all wore beards and shades to look like him. He arrived on a golf cart, sucked helium from a balloon (great idea, it didn’t quite work) and all in all was fantastic.

20. Azerbaijan – Elnur & Samir – Day After Day

This was Azerbaijan’s first ever entry to Eurovision, but I’m pretty sure they nailed the concept. A positively deranged rock opera where one of them played an Angel with white wings and white contacts, and the other a Devil on a twisted throne, hunched over, pouring goblets of blood over his writhing lovelies. I’m serious! The vocals were almost as crazy as the performance, leaping octaves in a single bound, switching to spoken word for the middle eight… Bravo Azerbaijan, bravo.

21. Greece – Kalomira – Secret Combination

The third and final flirtation with Shakira was (ssshhh… I didn’t say this) the cutest of the lot. The song was probably the best too, but perhaps they suffered a little from people getting them confused with the Armenia and Ukraine. All three did well in the final voting, but if perhaps there had been only one it would’ve mopped the floor with everyone.

22. Spain – Rodolfo Chikilicuatre - Baila El Chiki Chiki

The most nose-thumbing entry of the night. Spain clearly could not give a crap about Eurovision so they entered a guy in an Elvis wig with a tiny toy guitar, rapping badly about some dance he made up. Of course, that’s where Eurovision gold is mined, so this was brilliant. Probably the best thing was the comedy backing dancers, who each got a little slapstick moment of glory.

23. Serbia - Jelena Tomašević feat. Bora Dugic – Oro

Longest name, shortest song title, most boring song. Next

24. Russia - Dima Bilan – Believe

The Winner! And really, it was probably a fair result. The song wasn’t awful, the guy was cute and he ripped open his shirt to prove it, the violinist fiddled up a storm on his knees, and – the master stroke, they performed on a tiny ice rink while a world champion skate pirouetted around them. The skater thing was a con, he had nothing to do with the music and yet he spoke during the acceptance speeches, but still – it was a smart idea.

25. Norway – Maria – Hold On Be Strong

Norway closed things up a little anti-climactically with a perfectly nice tune for all the single ladies out there. In fact the echoes of Memphis soul that you could hear were pretty interesting, but they were never in the running.

And that, as they say, is that. Of course, were you watching it on TV, there’s still an hour and a half of the voting process to go through, which we sort of did, but here I’ll knock it on the head. Of course, you can never read too much about Eurovision, so I strongly recommend you read everything my sister has to say on the matter over here. She dug up the soft-porn photos of the winner too, so seriously, check that out. And yes, it does feel good to think that we’re the only siblings who have collectively written a doctorate’s worth of material on the Eurovision Song Contest, when we open our Institute of Musicorology it’ll all make sense.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Hakata Love Baby! Shots from Fukuoka

Like I said, Andy has lived in Fukuoka for about two and a half years now, and I’ve visited there twice, and I’ve gotta say it seems like a really great city. Sources (Andy) say that it’s the fastest growing city in Japan, and it seems to combine some lovely old Temples and Shrines with a gleaming, spacious modern centre really well. It has a good sized alternative area called Daimyo, monstrously huge shops, a beach, and most importantly it feels like a good city. In fact I could really see myself living there, if it weren’t for the fact that in the summer it reaches temperatures rivalling Satan’s taint.

Holy crap, I was there in July and August two years ago and I almost died. Steaming, filthy heat engulfs the whole city and frankly I don’t see how anyone gets anything done at all. God I never want to go back in the summer.

Another drawback is that Fukuoka was Frankensteined together hundreds of years ago from two separate cities: Fukuoka and Hakata. The big train station is still called Hakata, and the local Hakata identity is still really strong. In fact at the airport as I was leaving, I noticed more omiyage (souvenirs) are branded Hakata than Fukuoka. The problem for the modern city is that it’s still pretty much split in half with the majority of the shops in the Tenjin area, and the main station and plenty of other stuff in the Hakata area. It’s quite a hike, or a packed bus ride, between the two, and in that heat I was talking about…

Yeah, coz I was there this time at the end of April, and there were already two days that I would describe as uncomfortably humid. God bless you, good people of Fukuoka, I don’t know how you do what you do.

Another thing the guidebook said about Fukuoka was that it’s famous for Hakata Bijin – the beautiful women of Hakata. I met people there who swore this was true but sorry I couldn’t swear to it. Perhaps I should’ve been ogling more women, though to be honest… probably not.

So here’s some shots of Fukuoka:

Fukuoka’s local ramen is really good. Hakata Tonkotsu Ramen is kinda meat-stocky and the noodles are tougher and chewier. I hit two famous ramen shops, but I liked the less famous of the two (Ikkousha) better. Don’t ask me if it’s better than Sapporo ramen though, I might be able to tell the difference taste wise but it would be insulting to pretend I actually prefer one over the other.

Fukuoka has the largest wooden Buddha in Japan secreted away on the third floor of a pretty unassuming temple in the city centre. The Buddha itself is spectacular, but even better is the “hell” beneath it. A door leads you into a pretty graphic exhibition of what’ll happen to your soul if you go to hell. Let me tell you, it don’t look pretty. The demons are going to be about five times bigger than you, ugly as sin, and there’s gonna be burning, squishing, stabbing and starving. Not only that but because we’re dealing with re-birth after the whole thing is through… yeah, you’re probably going to have to do it all again. Creepy music and narration accompanied the pictures and the corridor gradually gets darker until turning the corner you have to pass through a twisty pitch-black corridor of terror. You hold onto the hand-rail and ruminate on the many, many reasons you’re probably going to end up burned, squished, stabbed and starved. Finally you emerge into the light where some particularly pure looking figures wait to accept your pitiful small change in exchange for some slim grasp at not getting horribly torn asunder by massive green demons. Of course I didn’t take any pictures, the floor would’ve probably opened up and taken me right there.

The Across building is really worth climbing up. It’s a huge, stepped office/ arts complex, covered in trees and plants that you ascend via a series of winding staircases up the outside. The combination of lush flora and ugly concrete hidden beneath it makes the whole thing feel very apocalyptic and tripods-esque.

At Robosquare, now located near Fukuoka tower next to the beach, you can mess around with lots of cute mass produced robots, like Aibo, the robot dog; Pleo, the robot dinosaur; and Hello Kitty Robo, the robot Hello Kitty. The lady who showed us the robots was incredibly nice, especially the way in which she talked to the robots as if they were actual animals rather than machines. However they all speak Japanese of course, and there’s no way they’re going to understand your crude gaijin tongue. Oh except the robot dinosaur, he doesn’t speak any language because he’s a dinosaur.

Of course there’s more, so much more, but that should give you a feel for the place. Hakata love and out!

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

The Fukuoka Punk Rock Mafia

For Golden Week (one of Japan’s three nationally sanctioned block holidays) I headed down to Fukuoka on the southern island of Kyushu to catch up with my close acquaintance Andrew Bentley. Andy’s been living in Japan for around two and half years now, and the fact that I’ve been here for nine months without taking a trip to see him is to my shame. Still, I done gone put that right now.

I’ll go into the joys of Fukuoka some other time, but for now let’s talk about punk rock music. Andy plays drums in a punk band called 5 Minute Advantage, and to be honest both his drumming and his Japanese had improved a lot since the last time I saw him. Actually, that’s hardly surprising since he’s been both living in Japan and drumming in a punk band. I guess that’s what you get with the whole living thing. Better at things.

The rest of Andy’s band consists of Kuma and Crazy Non Maedirt. Kuma seemed to be a great guy, and asked me many questions in Japanese and English about music, the UK, lyrics and the English language that I was hard put to answer with my terrible Japanese. Bless the guy though, he was tenacious and we never ended a conversation with mutual incomprehension, which let me tell you, is always a danger.


This turned out to be a bit of an exaggeration as he later acted as something of a translator between me and another guy who was listing all the obscure European punk bands that he liked. However he did use the phrase “Fucking Punk Rock Mafia” more than most people do, and he did tell me that he found singing English lyrics difficult while I was there since he was so self-conscious. That kinda caught me by surprise because there was very little that was "self-conscious" about Non.

The first night I was in Fukuoka we headed down to a pretty fancy rehearsal studio, where we had a “mini-session” with a bunch of their friends. First of all Kuma’s other band The BJs played some songs. Yes, they’re really called The BJs, but I’m pretty sure they don’t mean… what it can sometimes mean… I didn’t have the nerve to ask for clarification. Anyway they ended on a 5 Minute Advantage song, which was a cool touch. Then 5 Minute Advantage tore through their harder, punk stuff, sounding really good! Then Non orchestrated a crazily ad hoc jamming session whereby he went around the room, distributing instruments and creating a variety of different bands and combos. He handed me his guitar first and, frankly my chops were not up to jamming with Shuji and Uela (I’m pretty sure that was his name, he spoke no English whatsoever but he had fantastic taste in music). I did manage to fuck my fingers up nicely though with some ferocious power-chording, and later acquitted myself pretty well with singing duties on Nirvana, Undertones and Ramones tracks. And, of course, I got everyone to play Louie Louie. Afterwards we went to a 24 hour diner and drank macha lattes and talked about music. It was a fantastic welcome to Fukuoka!

5 Minute Advantage have apparently played only one proper show, at which Non was so drunk that he fell over during the first song, knocking over the PA as he did so and scattering the crowd before him. I wish I’d been there.

For the Japanese take on the whole experience head on over to 5 Minute Advantage’s page, where Kuma wrote all about it:

Andy, Kuma, Me, Waki & Non