Monthly Archives: November 2010

Something uncomfortable….

We all know about the ‘freedom’ of the internet and I suspect that we have all rejoiced from time to time in the fact that the truly global nature of the Web prevents anyone from controlling it.  Two cheers for the international conspiracy and long may it stay that way.

As Robert Frost  has cynically noted, a liberal is someone too broadminded to take their own side in a quarrel.   Thus it is that – for me – one of the downsides of the Web is that if I demand/expect/hope for some kind of freedom of expression for myself and those who share my views, I also have to give elbow room to those whose views and sentiments do not equate with my own, no matter how noxious I find their standpoint. 

Anyway, what happened today is that I got a comment here on the blog from what I can only describe as a politically extreme  right-wing website – which I obviously won’t name.  The comment didn’t really make any sense, so I clicked on the link to the site from which it originated and found some fairly high-level  white supremacist bullshit.  I say ‘high-level’ because although I didn’t spend too much time poking around, it was clear from what I did see that these weren’t the hysterical ravings of a bunch of stereotypical good ol’ boys holed up in a bunker in Montana with a few  hunting rifles, a hundred cases of Jack Daniels and another hundred of freeze-dried ration packs. 

Let’s just say that these people had developed some kind of intellectually cute rationale for their views and seemed to be buying into the whole noble white warrior schtick with overtones of Nazism but none of that untidy stuff about genocide or over-running most of the civilised world.

Not nice, but particularly unpleasant when it marches up your front pathway and takes a dump in your inbox.  Worse still, the Stormtroopers have linked to an article about T.E. Lawrence on this site, so I might have to take that down if I get any more mail from them.  Apologies for that, but I do object to having the Fourth Reich making a beeline for this blog.   Leaves a nasty stink around the place.

Listening to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘The Promise’

Whatever happened to The Boss & I?  There was a time – the summer of 1981, if memory serves – when my whole life seemed to revolve around the bloke.  ‘The River’  and ‘You can trust your car to the man who wears the star’ and ‘Born to Run’ hardly ever seemed to be off my turntable and I spent a lot of time and money that year travelling around the UK to see Springsteen & the E Street Band ripping up a succession of theatres and arenas.  I even queued up all night, sleeping on the pavement along Hyde Rd to get tickets for his two Manchester Apollo gigs….

And then, there was a lengthy hiatus until ‘Nebraska’ appeared the following year.  By that time, I’d relocated to the north-east and a lot of things had changed.  ‘Nebraska’ came as a huge shock and even the revisionism of  the passing years hasn’t changed my opinions about it.  Too sparse, too bleak, a lot of so-so songs – just not what I’d hoped for. And where was the band?  For Springsteen it must have seemed like a bold statement; I just thought it was a severe error of judgement.  By the time he returned with ‘Born in the USA’ two years further down the line, it had all become very manicured….the videos, the stadium anthems…….what a let-down.

‘Born in the USA’ ..the album, the video, errr…….the shoe

Some years later – about 1988 at a guess – I had a moment of epiphany whilst stranded on a train on my way home from where I was working in north Birmingham.  Springsteen was playing a gig at Villa Park and my train went right past the stadium.  Somewhere between Witton and Aston stations, the train ground to a halt and sat there ticking in the heat right next to Villa Park.  We were all cooking gently with the train windows open, when suddenly, the opening fanfare of ‘Born in the USA’  came blatting out of the stadium with an accompanying roar from the crowd.  A couple of girls laughingly got to their feet and started pretending to dance in the aisle of the carriage to general mirth, but my overall feeling was one of sadness.  The train suddenly lurched on and it came to me in a flash that I had, too.  All that romantic stuff, all those Mancunian serenades and burning down the M62 at 3a.m. with a head full of pharmaceuticals and ‘Jungleland’ blaring out of the cassette player – it was all gone – I felt like a wage-slave for probably the only time in my life.

Early days….

Springsteen had moved on, too.  The Columbia Records machine enfolded him in its grasp and he was recreated as America’s official bona-fide blue-collar rock & roll hero.  What had previously seemed like glorious chaos, a genuine grassroots phenomenon bursting out of the Jersey badlands with monstrous intensity now seemed like a shrewd and calculated play for megastar status.  It was as though, the music, the albums, the shows weren’t gripping enough on their own – and from 1975 to 1981 they certainly had been.  The video for ‘I’m on fire’   made Springsteen , his blue jeans and white workshirt, sleeves carefully rolled to the elbow, look like an airbrushed fake or a Tussaud’s waxwork.   Before, they had been songs, albums, shows – now it was just product.

I pretty much gave up on the guy at that point.  Through the years, the Columbia hype machine churned out endless schtick about his integrity and  his place in the great rock songwriting tradition, but for me, 1984  onwards was the period where Springsteen went from being a surefire Hall-of-Famer, up there with just about everyone except Dylan, to being a guy who ‘coulda been a contender’ but blew it by allowing the Columbia suits to groom and photoshop his career.

Even the very ‘worthy’ Pete Seeger project of a few years back smacked of a slight degree of desperation.  Bruce the folksinger?  I don’t think so, folks.  This guy was born to rock and roll.

Which brings me to ‘The Promise’, the first instalment in a glut of Springsteen ‘product’ coming your way just in time for Christmas.

Briefly, the 3-year hiatus between 1975’s ‘Born to Run’ and 1978’s ‘Darkness on the edge of town’ was a time of massive creativity for Springsteen, but although he and the E Street Band criss-crossed the States building a reputation as a formidable live act, he was unable to release any records due to a dispute with a former manager.  The band was certainly recording, however, and it’s those 1976–7 recordings that form the bulk of this 2-cd set.  Some of the songs (‘Breakaway’, ‘Candy’s Boy’, ‘Rendezvous’) are familiar from bootlegs, whilst other songs  – notably ‘Fire’ and ‘Because the night’ – were farmed out to other performers.

Stylistically, there’s a sizeable gulf between the Phil Spector – inspired romance of ‘Born to Run’ and the lean, edgy gloom of ‘Darkness on the edge of town’.  It might be convenient to see ‘The Promise’ as the missing link between these two albums and in a way, it is.  Nonetheless, ‘The Promise’ seems to me to have far more kinship with ‘Born to Run’ than ‘Darkness’.  Whilst there is no defining mood to the collection, it definitely leans more to the widescreen romanticism of 1975 than it does to the watchful wisdom of 1978.  The excellent black & white cover shot would tend to support such a view; a moody Bruce slouches  on the bonnet of his retro-looking motor on a long straight track through the desert. 

Given that the post-punk landscape of 1978  must have looked substantially different to Springsteen at the end of his ‘gardening leave’, it’s possible to understand why this stuff wasn’t released once he was free to do so.  It’s all a bit too head-in-the-air romantic and by ’78, Springsteen had taken a fair pummelling from the slings & arrows of the press and the courts. ‘Darkness‘ was a better fit for 1978’s cynicism and in itself probably carried the seeds that eventually produced the bleak minimalism of ‘Nebraska’

Anyway, for  anyone like me who feels that 1975-1981 represents the key period of Springsteen’s career, ‘The Promise’ is just fine, despite odd bits of 2010 ‘re-touching’ here & there.  Of course, the passing years have rendered it a good deal less ‘important’ or ‘crucial’  than it probably would have seemed had it been released in 1976.   Even so, there are some really good songs here, very much in  the tradition of  blue-collar romanticism that characterises songs like ‘Meeting across the river’ or ‘New York City Serenade’. It’s an Apocrypha, of course, but no less enjoyable for all that.  One thing that emerges very strongly from the collection is the range of influences on Springsteen at the time. Many of  his heroes are in here; Buddy Holly, Jackie Wilson, Motown, Stax….the glockenspiels tinkle and the castanets clatter; all that had long gone by the time ‘Darkness’ emerged a couple of years later.  The stylistic changes of these ‘lost years’ are perhaps best summarised by the early version of ‘Racing in the Streets’ which starts the album; this take has an amended melody and the bleakness of the lyric is pretty much drowned by the operatic nature of the production.  When the definitive version emerged a couple of years later on ‘Darkness’, the message was less cluttered, but the romanticism was also more tarnished and tempered with reality

‘Darkness’ is going to be subject to its own dose of revisionism, as it’s being re-released in a deluxe package with assorted DVD’s of live performances from the 1978 era which should be well worth a view.  There’s also a documentary floating around called ‘Wings for Wheels’ about the making of ‘Born to Run’, so we’re virtually awash with Springsteen product right now.  Make of that what you will.

Listening to Prefab Sprout

Writing about Prefab Sprout is a bit like trying to grab armfuls of fog once you get beyond the band’s years as alternative pop icons in the mid -1980’s.  The Sprouts  have continued  in some shape or form without regular releases or tours and had probably dropped off most people’s radar by the 1990’s.  Yet 2009 saw the release of ‘Let’s change the world with music’, the first album to be released under their imprimatur since 2001’s ‘The Gunman and Other Stories’.

For all that, and despite the fact that bandleader Paddy McAloon has become more eccentric and idiosyncratic with the passing years, Prefab Sprout have a place in many people’s hearts for the wit and intelligence of their songs and their absolute refusal to conform to any trends other than the ones they set themselves.  They were – and remain – one of the most easily identifiable bands of their era and, if anything, are hugely underrated in their own homeland.

Of course, for all the solid contributions of Paddy’s brother, Martin, not forgetting Wendy Smith, Neil Conti and long-time collaborator and producer Thomas Dolby, Prefab Sprout really stand or fall by the quality of Paddy McAloon’s songs – and right from the get-go, many of those songs were special.

The Sprouts were part of the early 80’s post-punk explosion where new bands seemed to be coming out the woodwork every week.  Aside from all the bands that we all know, there were many other hugely promising bands that never quite made it – Silent Running, The Lucy Show, Personal Column, Blue in Heaven… there were just so many of them competing to get up there with the likes of Simple Minds, U2, The Bunnymen, The Smiths, New Order et al.

The first self-released Prefab Sprout single from 1982 was called ‘Lions in my own garden, exit someone’, which struck me as being an insanely clumsy title until it was explained to me by someone who claimed to be  ‘in the know’ that Paddy’s girlfriend had left him to go and live in the French city of Limoges….well, you can figure the rest of it out, I’m sure.  After that, the Sprouts signed to the new Newcastle-based Kitchenware Records, who were swallowed up by Columbia (neé CBS) Records in fairly short order.  The North-East was hip for the first time in a dog’s age and the Sprouts and the Kane Gang were flying the flag for the area. The band’s first major break came when they were filmed  for Channel 4’s  ‘The Tube’ in a gale on a clifftop, as I recall, miming to ‘Don’t sing’ , one of the songs from their inaugural LP, ‘Swoon’, released to considerable acclaim in 1984.  It was a pretty short album, but there was enough there to suggest that here was a band with something special, something different.

Early Sprouts in Hamburg

I was living in Newcastle at the time, and Prefab Sprout were adopted as local heroes by many.  A dead giveaway was that a lot of girls liked the Sprouts.  Musically, there was none of that male rage or fret-bending nonsense, but instead a series of romantic songs framed in semi-acoustic settings that showed off Paddy’s lyrics to their best advantage.  I didn’t love the album unequivocally; there were some misfires, but equally, the best songs – ‘Don’t sing’, ‘Cruel’ and (in particular) the marvellous ‘Elegance’ were like nothing else around, despite the attempts of the press to bracket Prefab Sprout with the likes of Glasgow’s Orange Juice and the other Postcard bands, not to mention Lloyd Cole.  I could see the connection, but McAloon ‘s songwriting alone took Prefab Sprout to a whole new level; the voguish  ‘sensitive’ stance adopted by some of these new troubadours seemed like a flag of convenience for many, but not for the Sprouts; they meant it, maaaan.

‘Cruel’ was probably the song that made so many of us sit up and take notice, quite simply because the lyrics completely bypassed the conventions of traditional romantic songwriting in favour of an approach that reflected the new post-modern, post-feminist world we were all growing up in….and struggling with.

“Should a love be tender, and bleed out loud?
Or be tougher than tough, and prouder than proud.
If I’m troubled by every folding of your skirt,
Am I guilty of every male inflicted hurt?
But I don’t know how to describe the modern rose,
When I can’t refer to her shape against her clothes.
With the fever of purple prose.”


Musically, ‘Cruel’ tapped into older traditions.  There was just a hint of bossa nova in there, evidence that the band and Paddy Mc. in particular were drawing their inspiration from further afield than most.  Wendy Smith’s high soprano descants only fuelled the air of vulnerability and romance in the songs. 
Swoon’ was a promising start, but also in some ways a difficult album to get to grips with in terms of the internal dynamics of the songs.  There were traces of pure gold, but overall, it was a patchy album.  Even at this stage, there was a feeling that maybe Prefab Sprout needed someone who could embellish and tweak the band’s sound to provide the best framework for McAloon’s lyrics.
It was at this point that Thomas Dolby enters the picture.  He had already had some chart success on his own and was perceived and promoted as a kind of techno-geek who was more comfortable with machinery than with human beings.  When Kitchenware put out ‘Don’t sing’ as a single, Dolby was on a panel of ‘critics’ on a BBC radio show where guests were invited to pass comment on the new single releases from that particular week.  As Dolby tells it, he hated everything he heard until -about two-thirds of the way through the show- the DJ played ‘Don’t sing’. For Dolby, it was love at first listen and he enthused wildly about the song on air.  Unbeknownst to him, assorted Sprouts were tuned into the show and it wasn’t long afterwards that he got a call from the band’s management asking him if he was interested in producing them.

A trip up to the McAloon retreat in rural County Durham soon followed, where Paddy allegedly sat on a bed with a guitar and played Dolby song after song that he was pulling out of a huge pile stashed under his bed.  Paddy has since described ‘Steve McQueen’ as ‘Thomas’ album’ because Dolby effectively chose the tracks that he liked, which McAloon duly demo-ed with an acoustic guitar, this becoming the ‘pot’ of songs from which the final tracklist for ‘Steve McQueen’ was selected.

This was a marriage made in musical heaven. ‘Steve McQueen’ is the Sprouts’ finest hour and right up there as one of the best albums released in the 1980’s.  Dolby’s understanding of how best to frame McAloon’s tales of thwarted romance immediately gives the album a kind of continuity and overall feel which ‘Swoon’ lacked.  The (sometimes) lush arrangements also help to make clear for the first time McAloon’s true antecedents – forget about Lloyd Cole and Edwyn Collins – Paddy’s real inspirations came from a far older school – Jimmy Webb, Burt Bacharach, Smokey Robinson, Brian Wilson, George Gershwin.

A few years back, Dolby was invited to remix/remaster the album for a Columbia Legacy edition and the label threw in a second disc of  recently re-recorded solo versions of the ‘Steve McQueen’ songs featuring just McAloon with his acoustic guitar, so we can hear what Dolby heard back in 1984, albeit filtered through Paddy’s years of subsequent experience.  1980’s productions tend to have a pretty bad rep these days and whilst it’s true that the cavernous drum sound popularised by Phil Collins destroyed many a promising recording, that really isn’t an issue here; the production is perfect for the songs and whilst there are many who shudder at the thought of Fairlights and synthesisers, the arrangements are never allowed to dominate the performances or obscure the lyrical intent.  If the re-recorded versions are McAloon’s way of apologising for Dolby’s 80’s production, then he is doing both Dolby and himself an injustice because the original version of ‘Steve McQueen’ still sounds fine to this day.

Kitchenware/CBS obviously thought so as well because they made massive attempts to turn the first single from the album – ‘When love breaks down’ –  into a hit.  This tale of lovelorn angst, with Wendy Smith’s wordless vocal evoking 10cc’s ‘I’m not in love’, went through multiple releases and re-releases in 12″, double 7″ , cassette and heaven knows what other formats before it finally limped into the lower end of the singles charts in 1985.

There were more singles as well and a UK tour, with the Reading University gig being preserved for posterity and bootleggers by the BBC.  In the USA, the estate of the late Steve McQueen took a dim view  of the Sprouts use of the man’s name, so over there it became ‘Two wheels good’, a reference to the cover shot of McAloon and Smith astride an old Triumph or BSA (sorry, not a bike aficionado).

The ‘Steve McQueen’ cover shot

The belated success of ‘When love breaks down’ had one unexpected side-effect, inasmuch as it deprived us of a new Prefab Sprout album.  The album – called ‘Protest Songs’ – was slated for a 1986 release, but with the band finally hitting the singles charts, Kitchenware decided that it made more sense to re-promote ‘Steve McQueen’ as the album featuring the hit single.

This established what has by 2010 become a well-established McAloon tradition – the unreleased album.  ‘Protest Songs’ did finally get released in 1989, but it was issued without any real fanfare, no singles and a slightly apologetic tone that did it no favours in a cut-throat marketplace.  Since then, the unreleased Sprout projects have been stacking up; 2009’s ‘Let’s change the world with music’ was actually recorded in the early 90’s and the McAloon archives allegedly contain complete unreleased albums based on the ‘Zorro’ stories originated by Johnstone McCulley and another album based on the life and times of Michael Jackson.  There are probably more that we don’t know about. Go figure.
Anyway, after ‘Protest Songs’ was shelved, the next Sprout album to emerge was ‘From Langley Park to Memphis’ in 1988.  This was the album which saw the band at their commercial zenith, with the Thomas Dolby-produced ‘The King of Rock & Roll’ reaching #7 in the UK singles charts.  Langley Park was actually a village (close to the McAloon home in northwest Durham) whose other claim to fame is that it was the childhood home of the late Sir Bobby Robson. 
With the benefit of hindsight, we can probably see that ‘The King of Rock & Roll’  did the band no favours, though its success probably kept the CBS accountants happy for a while.  The remainder of ‘Langley Park’ was notable for ‘Cars & Girls’ , a witty song about Bruce Springsteen’s obsessions and the gorgeous ‘Nightingales’, which featured lush orchestration and a beautiful harmonica cameo from Stevie Wonder.  Generally, the album saw the growing expansion of the widescreen McAloon vision and style of writing and arranging that revealed an older school of writers as his inspiration.  What it lacked was the homogeneity that had made ‘Steve McQueen’ so effective.  Dolby was retained for only a handful of tracks, McAloon produced or co-produced much of the rest of the album and the overall effect was of a solid, but not stellar effort.
After ‘Protest Songs’, we didn’t have to wait long for the next Sprout album.  1990 saw the release of the Dolby-produced ‘Jordan: The Comeback’.  Again, this brought the band a lot of success, though there were no real hit singles.  A lot of people were bemused by the album’s content – was it religious? Was it about Elvis? Or Jesse James?  The answers would seem to be fairly equivocal – yes, God, Elvis & Jesse are all in there, but it’s about much more than that as well.  The problem was that it was probably too ambitious for anyone new to the band and was a challenge, even for confirmed Sprouties.  The problem for me (and I appreciate that many will disagree) is that among this 19-track, 62-minute selection, there is nothing that has the spark of the songs on ‘Steve McQueen’ or even the stronger cuts on ‘Langley Park’.  ‘Jordan’s’ songs were erudite; yes, witty; possibly, but memorable?  Not really.  Believe me, I have tried intermittently over the years to see ‘Jordan’ as others see it, but for me it remains a too-clever-by-half  collection where the individual songs are often bogged down and devalued by conceptual issues.  Certainly, it lacks the simple effectiveness of so much of the band’s earlier output – like a meal that’s too rich, it just leaves you with indigestion.
After a 1992 collection ‘A Life of Surprises’, it was to be another 5 years before ‘Andromeda Heights’  appeared.  This was to be Prefab Sprout’s last album of original material for Columbia/CBS and it established a pattern that has persisted ever since; a few standout songs with the rest a little underwhelming.  The most effective songs on ‘Andromeda Heights’ are the title track and ‘Prisoner of the Past’.  Best of all, however, is the hugely witty ‘Electric Guitars’, which sees McAloon back to his best – it’s a wonderful song.  Another noticeable aspect of ‘Andromeda Heights’ was that it was made without long-time drummer Neil Conti and Wendy Smith left to start a family not long after its release. 
To all intents and purposes, Prefab Sprout was now the McAloon brothers, but they kept the Prefab Sprout name alive by touring in 2000 (with Neil Conti) and producing  a new album for the revived EMI offshoot, Liberty Records.  ‘ The Gunman and other stories’ came out to  muted sales and critical reviews in 2001.  It was essentially a collection of songs that McAloon had written for others, notably Jimmy Nail and Cher.  Produced by Tony Visconti, it was not a commercial success, but nonetheless features some strong material – ‘Cowboy Dreams’, and the sentimental but effective ballad ‘Love will find someone for you’, as well as the country-tinged ‘Blue Roses’ are all better than much of McAloon’s output since ‘Langley Park’ .  
However, Paddy’s career was now interrupted by serious bouts of ill-health that have afflicted him on and off ever since and have certainly made touring an impossibility.  First, he began to lose his vision due to a degenerative eye condition which causes the retina in the eye to detach spontaneously, leading to blindness unless the retinas can be secured to the rest of the eye with a kind of silicon buckle  – an operation that has been carried out effectively with  McAloon.  During this era, he produced an album inspired by the hours he spent listening to the radio (as visually impaired people often do). ‘I Trawl the Megahertz’  is a spoken word /orchestral album featuring only one track where McAloon sings and was released in 2003.
Modern Day Paddy McAloon – the Z Z Top influences are showing!
As if this wasn’t enough, he then developed a severe case of tinnitus, which leaves him unable to hear bass frequencies and – just for good luck – he also suffers from eczema.  
The 2009 release of ‘Let’s change the world with music’ saw a return to Sony (neé CBS, neé Columbia) and an encouraging critical response.  In truth, it’s an album of rather sentimental songs which hint at religious issues just below the surface , but the best of it – ‘Sweet Gospel Music’ and ‘Ride’ – is very listenable without  being Grade ‘A’ Sprout.
Whilst age, infirmity and domestic necessities (wife & 3 kids) will probably preclude a return to the rock and roll barricades for the increasingly hirsute Paddy McAloon, he continues to sit on piles of unreleased projects which may appear in the coming years – and that’s encouraging.  One of them – ‘Knights in Armour’ – already circulates in bootleg format,  as does ‘Chrysalis Cognosci’ (apparently considered as name for the band in their formative stages) which is a collection of other people’s versions of McAloon songs.  It also features Paddy’s solo version of Jimmy Webb’s classic ‘Wichita Lineman’ as well as a duet with Webb on another of his classics, ‘The Highwayman’.  I suspect that Paddy McAloon never thought he’d get to work with Stevie Wonder and Jimmy Webb when Prefab Sprout were a scruffy post-punk outfit from the wilds of north-west Durham – a ‘Life of Surprises’ indeed. 

Watching ‘The Sopranos’

In some respects, writing a review of ‘The Sopranos’ in 2010 is a bit like turning out a contemporary review of the Woodstock Festival of 1969 – that train left the station quite some time ago.  God knows how many millions of words have already been blasted into the ether about the Season 6 finale alone, but the great thing about bloggers is that we stumble inexorably onwards; as Rowan Atkinson once memorably remarked, “Like the blind man searching in a darkened room on a foggy night for the black cat…..which isn’t there”…or words to that effect.

I’ve written here before about my problems with committing to long-running TV series.  I’m currently struggling to keep up with Season 4 of ‘Mad Men’ and relying heavily on the BBC’s iPlayer in order to do so.  It’s not that I’m out partying all the time, either…no, it’s more perverse and insidious.  We even (finally) have a shiny new widescreen LG monster on which to watch all these shows, but I think I have become accustomed to being able to watch what I want when I want – the epitome of viewer-centred TV.  iPlayer, Virgin Catch-Up TV, box sets and internet streaming or downloads are all grist to my mill in this respect, so I rarely regard anything other than live United games as ‘must-watch-now’ events.  Everything else comes under the heading of ‘must-watch-sometime’.

Another problem is that more choice has generally meant more crap on TV and the major networks have responded by lowering the bar with ordure like ‘The X Factor’ and ‘Strictly Come Dancing’…… cheap TV that has gradually been tarted up as its audience has grown.  Mutton dressed as lamb, however you choose to interpret it.  Yeah, I know, a million flies can’t be wrong…..

Currently, the ITV networks are in particularly poor shape; having already had to deal with a diminished advertising share due to the proliferation of channels, they now have a recession to cope with as well.  Blithe talk about ‘quality programming’ seems to have been superseded by survival strategies these days.  Their response has (largely) been to produce a range of  lowest common denominator ‘light entertainment’ programmes that shriek and bray and howl for us to sit down and watch them RIGHT NOW!  Advertisers are loath to settle for anything less.

Thankfully, due to the archaic safety net of the licence fee, the BBC are insulated from all this to some extent, but they get constantly outflanked by companies like Sky – ‘Mad Men’  Series 5, assuming they make it, will be screened first in this country on Sky, who pinched ‘Lost’ from Channel 4 in the same way and have, of course, previously been responsible for removing live Premiership football from the ‘free-to-air’ landscape.

However, to see non-network TV companies as leeches who simply outbid the  broadcasting establishment is no longer valid, if indeed it ever was.  ‘The Sopranos‘ is a case in point. Made by HBO, ‘The Sopranos‘ is just one of several hugely successful shows originated by HBO in recent years.  ‘Sex & the City’ and ‘Six Feet Under’ are other examples.  HBO started as a Manhattan-based cable TV company in the late 1960’s, but is now part of the Time Warner conglomerate.  Clearly, their philosophies about originating rather than simply buying in programmes  has changed as their status (and their budget) has grown.

As a subscription service, HBO was liberated from the usual problems  with advertisers and ‘Moral Majority’ crazies about sexual content, violence and profanity that afflict the mainstream networks.  This enabled the makers of ‘The Sopranos‘ to go for a far more realistic approach to their scripts; the message was classic American entrepreneurialism – ‘If you don’t like it, don’t buy it’.  Whilst this hasn’t kept them off the radar of the right-wing media, the makers of the show have to some extent headed their critics off at the pass by selling a sanitised ‘no sex/no violence/no profanity’ version of the show (in 2007) to A&E Televison ( a combine involving Disney, NBC and the Hearst Corporation) for $2.5 million per squeaky-clean episode.  Strikes me as a bit like trying to cook a spice-free curry, but to each their own.

Anyway, my pathetically belated attempt to ‘catch up’ with the whole ‘Sopranos’ saga began during the summer.  I know a guy who had systematically downloaded all six seasons of the programme from a torrent site and burned them all to DVD.  Thus I began, a season at a time and watched the last three episodes in a colossal Bada Bing-e last night. 

Condensing 8 years of Soprano family history into about 4 months is a strange sensation.  Physically, the adults don’t change much, but the Soprano kids, A.J. and Meadow start out as high school kids and are to all intents and purposes adults by the time it ends.   It will be interesting to see how their career paths fare from here on.  I suspect that it doesn’t matter what Jamie Lynn Sigler (Meadow) and Robert Iler (A.J.) do from now on, to most of us, they will always be the characters they portrayed so faithfully through all those years.  Then again, will James Gandolfini ever be able to  really escape from Tony?

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano

Inevitably, like many people, I came to The Sopranos via The Godfather and Goodfellas.  Whilst The Sopranos is quite clear about its New Jersey roots – as is apparent from the title sequence – it nonetheless taps into that whole East Coast wiseguy schtick.  The Sopranos, it should be noted immediately, is a lot more Goodfellas than Godfather. There is much Goodfellas-type banter in The Sopranos; the guys are forever ‘busting each other’s balls’ over one topic or another.  It’s a little piece of American/Italian machismo that sometimes has a serious intent – testing out a potential enemy’s weak spots – and occasionally has murderous consequences – the deterioration of relations between Tony and John Sacramoni could be said to stem from Ralph Cifaretto’s off-colour joke about Sacramoni’s wife – something which has fatal and near-fatal resonances throughout the rest of the saga.

If Coppola’s epic saga of one Cosa Nostra ‘family’ was Shakespearean in tone, The Sopranos was, for all its portrayal of violence and corruption, far less sombre – at least until the final season.  The original, amusing conceit of a ‘made man’ going into therapy was picked up on and turned into 2 hit movies (‘Analyse This’ / ‘Analyse That’) and characters like Silvio and Paulie were often gently lampooned for their attitudes and behaviour, as were Tony and Carmella themselves.

Dinner chez Soprano

One thing that ‘The Sopranos’ does share with ‘The Godfather’ is a preoccupation with family life and the rituals of eating, drinking and socialising.  Carmella & Tony are, one would assume, third generation Italian/Americans and they retain enough of that racial memory of their Ellis Island roots to want to live in a house that looks like an MFI version of the Doge’s Palazzo in Venice.  They  (like Vito Corleone) also want to keep their kids out of the ‘family business’.  Like Vito, then Michael Corleone, Tony Soprano has to somehow reconcile acts of monstrous violence with the humdrum realities of family life.   Tony is not apparently as unhinged by all of this as Michael; at the end of Season 6, he remains what he has been throughout – essentially, a  cunning , but good-natured slob with a  depressive streak and a violent temper that only kicks in when things don’t go his way.  There is none of the chilly, almost demonic sang-froid that characterises Michael Corleone’s behaviour in the closing half-hour of Godfather 2. 

Of course, over the course of six seasons, we get to know Tony Soprano from every conceivable angle – we see Tony the family man and father, Tony the gambler, Tony the serial philanderer, Tony the cold-blooded killer, Tony the Boss, Tony the bully, Tony the therapy junkie and numerous other facets of this complex man  The question that should, I suppose, be asked is whether his journey has made him wiser as well as older.

The answer to that question would suggest that his shooting and near death at the start of Season 6  abruptly makes him aware of his own mortality and changes his attitude to many things.  ‘Every day is a blessing’ would seem to be the mantra and Tony’s hunger for a quieter life manifests itself in the way in which he tries to reach out to the Lupertazzi family in an effort to resolve their disputes.  He even feels some kinship with Phil Leotardo when he suffers a heart attack and is obviously reflecting on the passage of the years. 

Tony may be longing for a peaceful life, but he’s too enmeshed in ‘the life’ to escape now.  Despite his attempts to defuse problems with the Lupertazzis, events are moving rapidly towards a violent and bloody confrontation.   His two male ‘heirs’ – A.J. at home and Chris Moltisanti at work – are both proving to be letdowns for one reason or another.  A car crash in which Moltisanti is seriously injured gives Tony (who isn’t) the chance to finish him off and eradicate one source of worry, but problems with A.J. remain, as he will clearly never follow in his father’s footsteps.

By the end of Season 6, Tony appears to have survived his showdown with Leotardo, though at some cost to his organisation, with Bobby Baccalieri dead and Silvio Dante comatose in hospital.  Still, a measure of sanity appears to be returning with A.J. seemingly over his abortive suicide attempt and Meadow planning a wedding.   Peace is brokered with the Lupertazzis and Leotardo ‘whacked’, so Tony feels free to resume his normal routine – aside from his visits to his therapist; she discontinues their sessions after reading research which suggests that therapy makes sociopaths more sociopathic.

Steve van Zandt as Sil; probably my favourite character

The diner scene at the end of the series left things hanging in the air – it was by no means a straightforward ending.  Does Tony get ‘whacked’ as he has dinner with his family or is it just that he will always be watching the door to see who might be coming in?  Technically, the final scenes are extremely carefully constructed and everything (including a possible hommage to The Godfather) points to the fact that Tony is indeed about to get his come-uppance.   The 10 seconds of blank screen at the end of the episode before the credits silently roll, perhaps reference an earlier conversation that Tony has with Bobby Baccalieri where they speculate that when you get ‘whacked’ it’s all over so quickly that you see, hear & feel nothing… there’s just blackness.

In any case, why should we care? This is a man who has used verbal and physical violence towards  his family,  has betrayed his wife on numerous occasions with multiple partners, has himself committed 8 murders that we know about and sanctioned numerous others, has serially endorsed widespread corruption and law-breaking, is homophobic and racist.  It might be asked why we should shed metaphorical tears for such a man.  And yet , we have all sat there through six seasons of his nefarious, callous and murderous behaviour, fascinated by a man who like most of us is a mixture of good, bad and ugly – except with Tony, it’s just more so.  Series originator David Chase was apparently horrified by the apparent clamour to see Tony with his brains spattered across the wall, thus we are left to ponder the fate of Tony Soprano and his two families, with no clear answers available to us.

Tony lays down the law to Chris Moltisanti with Sil and Bobby looking on

It’s often said that comparisons are invidious, but before I close I feel the need to comment on the fact that  ‘The Sopranos’ was recently voted the best ever TV series by readers of The Guardian. Good as it was, I would have to demur.  For me, the subtexts of the show are too narrow and predictable – we know there will be crime, we know there will be violence,  we know there will be betrayals, we know that there will be scenes of family life as Tony struggles to reconcile the conflicting polarities of his complex existence.  In other words, if you make a series about ‘The Mob’, the landscapes – both external and internal – are almost as inevitable as they  would be in a Western.  To their credit, Chase, Weiner et al make much of flying in the face of such conventions, especially when it generates moments of genuine humour among all the drama and blood-letting.  Thus we get Tony with the ducks in his pool, Tony pouring out his thoughts to Dr Melfi, Tony dogged by his appalling Mother in the early seasons and so on. 

For me, however, ‘The West Wing’ is a more impressive and resonant piece of television.  Here, all the world is President Bartlett’s stage and whilst any White House drama will also have its own conventions, they are generally less oppressive than is  the case in The Sopranos.  The writers and directors  of  ‘The West Wing’  make better use of the ensemble cast (particularly the female characters) and the potential of the overall narrative is far wider and far less predictable.  These are two high-water marks in the chequered history of television, so it’s a bit like choosing between foie gras and caviar.  Even so, and much as I enjoyed the saga of 8 years out of Tony Soprano’s life, for me ‘The West Wing’ wins by a short head.  Then again, best not mention horses’ heads….