My Top 10 Live Bands – 4

Ultravox

If there’s a single band that encapsulates all that’s best about the music of the late 70s and early 80s, then that band must surely be Ultravox. With a dark, new wave undercurrent, superb arrangements and a willingness to step off the pop reservation, Ultravox effortlessly bridge the language gap between mainstream music and the alternative counter-culture.

There’s no doubt that they arrived on the scene with perfect timing, at the end of an era when unconventional and experimental tracks like Vienna and The Thin Wall still stood a chance of chart success. Seriously, does anyone believe singles like those would’ve gotten a look in five years later? I sincerely doubt it.

Like so many talented bands from that brief flowering of analogue alchemy, I wasn’t able to catch Ultravox in their Monument heyday, but I was thrilled to finally see Midge and the boys performing live at Sheffield’s O2 Academy during their highly regarded Return to Eden tour. This was doubly exciting for me as I’m already on record stating that Rage in Eden is my favourite album of all time.

I thought I’d died and gone to heaven as Midge Ure strode onto that stage in a silver-sheen suit and proceeded to blast out some serious hard-core guitar chords. Within half a minute those chords had morphed into the opening riffs of New Europeans, one of the great unsung new wave classics. Not only does it sound fantastic, but it perfectly packages the zeitgeist of that struggle between the printing press and the microchip, played out against a backdrop of grey concrete and glaring new neon.

The gig that followed this blinding opener was a nonstop parade of new wave classics, reminding us all just how imaginative and prolific they’d been during that short burst in the early 80s. Although some hair was thinning here and some waistlines thickening there, Midge and the boys more than proved that they could still throw down with the best as they displayed a level of musicianship which, let’s be honest, was all too rare among some of their more readily marketable contemporaries.

With an unassuming stage set combined with sound and lighting to die for, Ultravox re-established their credentials as some of the more serious musicians from a decade that started deep, but quickly shallowed into an identikit ensemble of sickly synthetic pop confections. It’s ironic how those dark, brooding foundations of the Ultravox sound were once a drag on commercial success, yet now they’ve become the very feature attracting a new generation of admirers in this new millennium.

Whilst they may not have been the vaunted megastars of yesteryear, there’s no denying that Ultravox have outpaced, outlasted and out-created nearly all of their contemporaries. There are no humiliating twenty minute slots on some washed-up-by-the-sea revival tour for Midge and the boys, and their enduring appeal is proof positive that substance always outlasts style in the long run. I’ll wager there’s many a big-name from yesteryear who secretly wishes they could still headline in their own right, instead of hitching their one-hit wagon to a burgeoning and cynical nostalgia machine. A lesson for us all methinks.

Though the years may have changed them physically, Ultravox’s commitment to their sound, their performance and their audience remains as bright and youthful as those heady days of top ten success and Smash Hits centrefold splashes. Though they may never again write or perform as a cohesive unit, it’s clear that those New Europeans have more than a couple of ideas inside them still.

Remoaners need Dr Who, not Captain Picard

So, it’s finally happened. The entrenched establishment’s last desperate gamble to thwart Brexit has cranked into life amid great fanfare, tons of publicity and a million pound budget.

Of course they don’t call it that. When questioned on their attitude to Brexit, this elitist coalition of closet authoritarians hide their disdain for democracy behind phrases like “choice”, “new information” and “the terms of divorce.” They are always, always at pains to stress just how much they respect the result of the 2016 referendum.

This is a brazen, calculated lie, and we all know it. In fact, arch luvvie and continuity remainer Patrick Stewart couldn’t even convince the BBC’s Andrew Marr of his sincerity when asked about respecting the Brexit vote. Either he wasn’t properly briefed by the “People’s Vote” campaign, or he’s decided that honesty is the best policy. Whether by accident or design, we should thank Mr Stewart for saving us all the time and trouble of trying to prize the truth from this dishonest and deceitful campaign’s lips for the next year or so.

One of the more reliable rules of politics is that any nation with the words “democratic” or “people’s” anywhere in its name should be treated with extreme caution, and the same can be said of political campaigns. Ironically enough the “people” understand this fundamental truth well enough, which is why this this last hurrah from the fading neoliberals will expend a lot of time, energy and hot air with no discernible outcome. Kind of like having a counsellor on a spaceship.

The People’s Vote is doomed.

First and foremost, because there will be no second referendum. Both Labour and the Conservatives have been clear about this. Any such proposal is extremely unlikely to make it through Parliament as both the voting public and the political class are well aware of Brussels’ long and lamentable record of re-runs when it comes to democratic votes they don’t like. Such a move would be politically impossible in the current atmosphere.

Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty has already been triggered, and any move to reverse that decision will require a democratic mandate equal to or greater than the 2016 referendum. In the unlikely event a second referendum were to be held, it would not affect the result of the first unless that question was specifically addressed on the ballot paper.

This new and fundamentally flawed rearguard action is grounded on the false premise that any second referendum will be a direct re-run of the first, when the likelihood of such is vanishingly small. The best they can hope for is a take-it-or-leave-it vote on the final form of any future Brexit deal, but this will not affect the legal status of the Lisbon Treaty. In fact, such a plebiscite could quite conceivably lead to the “hard” Brexit they so desperately seek to overturn. The potential for backfire is a real and present danger, so hardcore remainers should be careful what they wish for.

Finally, there is also the inescapable and ironclad fact that Brexit is driven by the largest democratic mandate for anything, ever, in the long history of this nation. The ship has sailed, and there’s very little chance of stopping it now. The hard core rump of Brexit deniers would’ve done better to find a time traveller than to rely on Captain Yesterday.

Image courtesy Carol Kramberger at Freeimages.com

Our Futuristic Breadbin Brexit

What do Brexit, a loaf of bread and a high profile environmental campaign have in common? You might be tempted to answer “not very much,” but they are in fact linked by deeper, hidden forces which are currently the rise of populism and the rejection of the neoliberal world view.

It’s not often that everyday objects like a sliced white can speak so much truth, but that’s exactly what happened in the bread aisle as I endured the ritual torture of grocery shopping. I’d arrived at the supermarket earlier than planned, having fled the house after Sky News tried to force feed me another helping of environmental advocacy. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s true that the amount of plastic polluting our world is a real and pressing problem, and I for one am pleased that such a large organisation is bringing attention to this urgent and important issue.

There were films of plastic, debates about plastic and statistics surrounding plastic still rolling around in my head while I engaged in the drudgery of the supermarket shop. First stop was the fruit and veg, and I immediately recalled the apocryphal tale of four apples shrink-wrapped on a plastic tray, which is often cited as the pinnacle of ridiculous and completely unnecessary plastic packaging.* In fairness there are very few people who’d approve of such a thing in today’s more environmentally conscious climate, but still it happened once upon a time.

Then I came to the bread, and as I was loading my favourite brand into the trolley I suddenly remembered that bread was once packaged in nice neat waxed paper parcels, whereas now it’s nearly always wrapped some sort of plastic bag.

So who actually asked for such a change? I don’t recall the old way of wrapping bread being a particular problem, and I certainly can’t remember the consumer demanding his apples be packed in plastic trays. So how did we get to the place where we find ourselves now?

Like so much in modern life, to find the answer we must follow the money and the power to the point where somebody’s holding of either increases. It’s a fundamental truth that businesses must either cut costs or grow revenue to increase profits, and in the food sector that means processing. The more any given food is processed, the greater value is added to it, and that fundamental economic and marketing truth goes a long way to explaining our apocryphal apples wrapped in plastic. What else can you do with an apple and still preserve it as recognisable piece of fruit?

It’s only now, after decades of profligate plastic usage that we’re starting to understand just how big a problem we’ve created for ourselves. Naturally we’ve started seeking solutions, which ironically involve looking back to an era when paper was king and glass bottles were easily reused or recycled. Taking the longer view, it turns out that maybe we were once wiser than we knew, and many “old fashioned” ideas had a lot more to their credit than the loudest of lobbying voices cared to admit.

Just like our apples wrapped in plastic, the European Union has also quietly grown into an expensive and wasteful hazard, and its baleful influence had to reach choking point before most of us noticed its creeping incursion into all our lives. Outside of a few noisy special interest groups, hardly anyone in Europe ever wanted or asked for the gargantuan behemoth we’re battling now; and just like our irresponsible push to plasticise, we stand aghast at the damage we’ve unwittingly unleashed.

The good news is that just like the packaging industry, the future for nation states can be found in the past. That doesn’t mean slamming on the brakes and trying to throw history into reverse, but instead taking some fundamentally sound ideas from a time before the EU and reimagining them for the century to come. Just as some bright inventor will soon come up with bio-degradable waxed paper 2.0 and make a ton of money, so we’ll develop new ways of working together in an increasingly globalised, interconnected, yet de-centralised world.

Doubtless many aspiring authoritarians will argue that our increased interconnectedness demands an even greater degree of supranational governance and regulation. Well, that all sounds fine in the lobbies at Davos, but history is now revealing the folly of exchanging the reality of national sovereignty for the illusion of increased prosperity and security.

The European Union is the plastic apple tray of the political world. We don’t need it, we never asked for it, and all it does is serve the interests of a small group of men sitting on the top floors of tall buildings.

We’ve allowed one hell of a mess to build up over the years, and it’s going to take a long time and some innovative thinking to repair the damage.

Image courtesy of tinpalace at Freeimages.com

*Some commentators maintain that wrapping food like fruit prolongs shelf life and decreases food wastage, and thus the environmental impact is more nuanced.

Do you want Friars with that? – Dessert

What better way to round off a multi-course musical banquet than something sweet, uplifting and not too heavy?

Everybody knows that one of the best and most enjoyable rituals of a live gig is the false ending followed by the (almost) inevitable encores, and naturally Marillion were only too happy to oblige. Being a Friars gig, there was no way they could sneak out of the building before delivering a rousing rendition of Market Square Heroes, their very first single from the dim and distant days of the early eighties. In fact, I’m pretty sure there are local bylaws compelling them to play it whenever they set foot in the smallish town where it all began. Although it’s undoubtedly the most famous song about this unlikely musical mecca, Steve Hogarth did remind us that Bowie himself also

Charlie from David Live

tipped his hat to the very same square in the first line of Five Years.

Maybe it was because Marillion had played a mere forty-five minutes, or maybe it was the joy of going home early that gave Steve the energy to launch himself into the air with such gusto and abandon during the shouty bits of the song that launched them. Whatever the cause, he looked and sounded like he was having as much fun as the rest of us.

Naturally we were all awaiting the finale, which most of us figured had to include a Bowie number. My money was on Starman, which kind of fitted into the whole idea of the day.

Well, we did get a Bowie number, but not the one I’d imagined. Mind you, that hardly mattered less as the first unmistakable chords of Heroes filled the theatre, the sound rising to the rafters and somehow lifting us all with it.

I never saw Bowie play live, but as all the musical contributors piled onto the stage and Charlie from David Live took the microphone, it was as though the spirit of the great man himself had returned for one final appearance. I’ll remember the way my hair stood on end for many a year to come.

Dave & Sue Stopps

Naturally, it was only fitting that both Dave and Sue Stopps were cajoled onto the stage for their own personal, and hugely deserved round of applause. After all, it was their hard work, dedication and persistence that brought us all together in the creation of the world’s first, most dramatic and easily the most memorable monument to one of this nation’s most enduring musical talents.

As the music faded and the atmosphere dissipated along with the audience, many of us stopped beside the Earthly Messenger to reflect on what the past has given us and what the future may hold. If I’m honest, I think we also lingered to drink up the last dregs of that wonderful atmosphere, in a brightly lit place where we set aside our squabbles to create something very, very special.

I like to imagine we all fell asleep feeling just a little bit heroic that night, and I like to believe we deserved it too.

Just for one day.

Images courtesy of Alan Jones

Do you want Friars with that? – The Main Course

With the Dung Beatles and John Otway having set the bar incredibly high, there was a sense of palpable and growing excitement as the tech staff busied themselves preparing for the hugely talented Howard Jones to take the stage.

Now I can’t have been the only one who had the image of a big-haired, bat-sleeved eighties keyboard wizard etched into his memory, so I doubt I was alone in my surprise when that techno minstrel’s stripped down, almost lounge scale set up began to take shape. Perhaps somewhat naïvely, I’d expected banks of preassembled equipment to be wheeled onto the stage to deliver old favourites and new experiments. However, time waits for no man and so I confess my curiosity was piqued as that middle-aged but still very recognisable musician took to the stage behind a single keyboard, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar and some kind of new-fangled, multipurpose percussion pad.

Howard Jones Alan Jones crop
Howard Jones

Whether conscious or not, Jones’ stripped down performance was a reflection of both the change and continuity experienced by most of his now older and hopefully wiser audience. In the same way that the concrete brutalism of Jones’ heyday has been reshaped and remodelled, so his musical expression has adapted and evolved to blend in perfectly with its environment. Gone are the artificial colours and flavours of his synthesised eighties concoctions, replaced by a warmer, more organic and holistic musical output. All the old favourites were there, but reimagined in a more carbon-neutral and less overbearing package. Not too loud, not too abrasive; not too shrill and guaranteed not to upset anyone from anywhere. Yes indeed, Howard Jones’ extremely competent and very watchable performance was a true reflection of the world in which we now live.

Perhaps it was selfish of me to expect to hear those synthpop classics in their original forms, but none of us can choose where we come from. In the end, I’m a child of concrete, fluorescent light, smoking indoors and no internet to tell me what I should be outraged about next. Howard Jones put on a great show and I’m glad to have been there. I just wasn’t expecting his music to be wearing carpet slippers and a safety helmet.

That’s how I found myself in a reflective kind of mood as the applause faded and the techs returned, this time to clear all available space for the imminent appearance of the mighty Marillion.

For anyone who’s never seen this legendary live band, a Marillion gig is best summed up as a masterclass in the studied application of musical power as opposed to the blunt-force assault of mere volume alone. With only a small handful of line-up changes over the decades, Marillion are unquestionably one of the slickest, tightest and most respected live acts anywhere in the world today. While many others have burst brightly and disappeared just as quickly, Marillion have remained a constant and extremely well disciplined star still burning brightly as they approach their fourth decade in music.

Their performances are the stuff of musical legend, whilst their relationship with an intergenerational fan base is one of the closest of any band to its audience. Indeed, after their short run of chart success in the eighties, Marillion turned their back on chasing mainstream success, and by doing so they built themselves one of the strongest and most fanatical followings in music today.

Naturally, being the world’s premier touring prog rock band, the big joke was how many of their ridiculously long tracks they’d manage to shoehorn into a mere forty-five minutes. I confess I was curious to see how they’d handle such a restriction on their usual running time of two hours plus.

Steve Hogarth Alan Jones crop
Steve Hogarth

With a stripped down stage and few of the usual whistles and bells that accompany a successful live act, it was kind of refreshing to see the guys cram so many old and new favourites into such a short space of time.

The crowd went crazy when the perennial Easter made the cut, and we were all treated to Steve Rothery’s legendary guitar solo that features so prominently on that decades-old track. It was wonderful to hear Afraid of Sunlight once again, a firm favourite of mine.

As ever, Steve Hogarth was in fine form, leading many of the uninitiated to wonder just how such a big and clear noise can emanate from someone who sounds so much bigger than he really is. That precocious and seemingly ageless vocal talent has earned him the affectionate nickname of Windy Shrimp in some quarters.

I’ve actually lost track of how often I’ve seen Marillion play across the years, but their gigs never grow old, never get tired and they never look or sound like they’re just going through the motions. I’ll wager they picked up a few new followers at the Bowie Benefit that night.

All in all it was an amazing evening, and we were full to bursting with four delicious and very different musical courses. At the end of the night came the question that springs to every restaurant patron’s mind as the plates are being cleared away…

Have I got room for dessert?

Images courtesy of Alan Jones Photos

Do you want Friars with that? – The Starter

Don’t mind if I do, and lay it on thick while you’re at it!

What better dish to compliment the world’s first David Bowie statue than a double helping of local music talent? With no less than four top quality acts donating their fees to the statue fund, my musical taste-buds were already tingling as I took my seat in Aylesbury’s impressive Waterside

The Dung Beatles

Theatre.

I don’t like to fill up on starters, but as this was a special occasion I decided to just go with the flow. Besides, it’s downright ungracious to refuse a course when the chef’s showcasing his skills for free.

First up were the Dung Beatles, and if I’m honest, I can’t say my expectations were all that high. After all, it’s another Beatles tribute band, which is fine if you like that sort of thing. Now it may be heresy to say so, but I’ve never been a massive fan of the Fab Four. Maybe that’s because I’m a child of the seventies and eighties, but I figured I’ve heard pretty much everything a tribute band could offer the boys from the Cavern Club.

I wondered just how wrong my preconceptions were as I counted a grand total of nine onto the stage. My interest was especially piqued as I saw the four piece brass section take their places, not an occurrence you see all that often in tribute bands. As the first crystal clear chords chimed out, I realised I was hearing a well-oiled and carefully calibrated machine clicking effortlessly into gear. These guys could really play, and they’d clearly been practicing…a lot.

John Otway

Never before have I heard such bold tribute choices as Sergeant Pepper and The Walrus. The Dung Beatles have clearly set out to be so much more than just another Beatles band, and they’ve succeeded completely. They were as tight as a drum and sounded so damned good that I think I can finally understand what all the fuss is about.

As I said earlier, I’m not a massive Beatles fan, but I’ll sure be seeing these guys again, given half the chance!

The first act had left me in a buoyant mood as I eagerly awaited the appearance of the legendary John Otway. The last time I’d seen one of Aylesbury’s favourite and daftest sons was at the Wellhead, which means I’m talking in decades here. So I wondered if time had changed both him and me enough to make the experience a little less scintillating in middle age.

I needn’t have worried really. If anything, the man who got famous for falling over on telly was even more daft, amusing and unsettlingly perceptive than he’s ever been. That same old self-deprecating humour hid the same old insight and sensitivity this professional jester often slips into his songs. It’s easy to miss if you’re laughing all the time, and I think he plans it that way.

Never one to let life get too serious, Otway regaled us with his old stories and firm favourites like his hilarious rendition of Blockbuster and, of course, his Cumbrian dad’s Space Oddity was a no-brainer for such an occasion. One of my most enduring memories of that whole special day was of my other half laughing for a full half hour straight as John reminded us that music and mirth make good bedfellows.

Like all good starters, both acts were finished just as I was getting a taste for them, but I was far from full and eagerly anticipating the main course as the funniest man in rock left the stage to raucous and heartfelt applause.

The Thin White Duke’s Shadow

At last the big day dawned, cold and bright.

After all the hype, the uncertainty and the tireless campaigning of Sue and Dave Stopps, the world’s first statue of the late David Bowie was finally revealed, in the seemingly peculiar setting of Aylesbury’s market square.

That Sunday afternoon was the culmination of a long fundraising and planning campaign to have this legendary musician’s cultural contribution honoured in bronze, and also to highlight this market town’s significant yet unsung contribution to modern music.

For anyone who’s not familiar with the story, the legendary venue of Friars Aylesbury is where Ziggy Stardust made his first appearance here on Earth, while the Spiders from Mars were born in the long-demolished dressing room.

This was all before my time, although that early wave of live music legends cemented

The Earthly Messenger

Aylesbury’s unlikely reputation on the gig circuit, ensuring I had easy access to a whole host of brilliant and innovative acts when my turn came around. Looking back now, I sometimes find it hard to believe just how lucky I was.

Like so many sons of this small but sparkling jewel in Britain’s musical crown, I was only too happy to answer the call when the appeal was launched to honour one of this nation’s most remarkable, innovative and enduring musical performers. Although I’d never had the privilege of watching Bowie perform live, I gained a great deal of personal satisfaction from helping to preserve and promote this legend’s legacy after his premature passing.

So that’s how I, along with a crowd of other sponsors, musicians and well-wishers, ended up standing under the arches beside Aylesbury Crown Court on that chilly spring morning.

There’s often good reason to criticise local authorities as obstructive and bureaucratic, but Aylesbury had gone all out on this one. The Market Square, already immortalised in Marillion’s debut single, became a musical focal point once again as the air shimmered with an LED archive of Bowie’s timeless videos and live performances. Local rockers the Callow Saints put in a terrific performance to entertain the crowd, but with the great man never far from the stage, it wasn’t quite clear who was supporting who. It’s really something to be headlining from beyond the grave.

There was an expectant air as we huddled beneath those arches, staring at a custom printed cover all set to reveal the Earthly Messenger to the waiting world. As the clock struck two, both Steve Hogarth (Marillion) and Howard Jones tugged on the string…and nothing happened. It’d worked flawlessly during rehearsal, but that’s showbiz for you. I’m sure David was having a rueful chuckle somewhere in music heaven.

The applause rose quickly, and I joined in as I realised I wasn’t looking at a single image of the great man, but several. Ziggy Stardust floated, in the air, somehow suspended in time as the Thin White Duke looked on, finally at home with himself and his accomplishments.

A sweeping bronze chorus line of Bowie’s other incarnations spiralled across the wall behind, reminding the world of the master performer’s constant creativity and re-invention.

Sculptor Andrew Sinclair explained how he wanted to capture as many faces of Bowie as possible, as his long and varied career meant that his identity was forever shifting in the minds of his audience. How we remember him often depends on the time and place we first crossed paths, be it on the turntable, through the radio or the internet.

Speaking of the internet, social media went crazy of course, with comments both for and against the Earthly Messenger raging back and forth across Facebook and Twitter, the forever homes for malcontents and could’ve-beens. Some bright spark has already defaced this privately funded endeavour with a political message about homelessness, and I’ve read several online rants about wasting public money. However, they are all wrong. This project was funded entirely by a group of people who wanted to honour one of the twentieth century’s most recognisable men. Clearly some in this world are just too embittered to endure anything that isn’t about them. Well, I’m sorry you didn’t get as famous as David Bowie but you’re just not talented or creative enough. Your ill-informed, pinch-faced scribblings are easily erased.

As for me, I think Bowie’s memorial is as bold and striking as the man and his music had always been. He was never afraid to take chances both with his image and his reputation, and I think that pioneering, risk-taking spirit is expressed perfectly in this unconventional dedication to that most unconventional of pop icons. Really, it could not have been otherwise.

I for one am extremely proud that my name will forever be seen in the Thin White Duke’s shadow.

My Top 10 Live Bands – 5

Depeche Mode

Every once in a while, an avid music fan is lucky enough to catch a band at the very peak of their pomp. While it’s great to find exciting up-and-coming acts and somehow more real to see performers once the media machine has discarded them, sometimes we hit that sweet spot. Ironically, we’re often ignorant of that truth at the time.

That’s what happened to me when I saw Depeche Mode at Crystal Palace in July 1993. Still riding high on the huge success of Violator and touring to promote Songs of Faith and Devotion, this once plastic synthpop band from the early eighties had somehow transformed itself into a worldwide musical phenomenon.

If I’m honest, I don’t really know what I was expecting because I’d turned out as much to see the Sisters of Mercy in support as I had to see the headline band. After all, that kind of combination doesn’t come along every day and so I jumped at the chance of getting two for the price of one.

As the light faded and the boys from Basildon took to the stage, I quickly realised that I was witnessing something far greater than just a few blokes twiddling with keyboards: this was an all-out musical assault by a band of hardened professionals who’d honed their skills both in the studio and on the touring circuit.

I remember being blown away by the sound quality, innovative use of video and the sheer energy and excitement of the crowd; something I’d only really experience at rock gigs before then. If Dave Gahan was on something that night, it was still during those early days when energy and endurance are enhanced and the piper is still totting up his bill for the user.

It was really terrific to hear all those old hit singles remixed and re-delivered, yet still so comfortingly familiar as to create a slightly disconcerting effect where it was difficult to reconcile the live experience of the moment with the countless years of radio repetition that had burrowed deep into my brain.

For me, the standout moments were the band’s performances of Enjoy the Silence and Stripped, both of which are considered by many to be the finest recordings of those two singles ever made. The video of a hand writing the word “stripped” over and over is one of the simplest and most impressive effects I’ve ever seen at a live show.

Although I’m sure they’re still very good now, I don’t think I’d want to watch Depeche Mode again today. I want to remember them as the conquering heroes who held the world in the palms of their hands, standing high on the crest of a wave that was always destined to crash upon the gently declining shores of age and familiarity.

I know they continue to tour and attract huge worldwide audiences, and so they should, but sometimes a kind of magic chemistry occurs between band and audience. Like a user forever chasing that first high, the wise music fan knows that any attempt to recapture those few golden hours will inevitably end in disappointment.

I’ll leave Depeche Mode as I found them, in a place where age, scandal and mediocrity can never diminish them.

The BBC’s new Personal Services Comedy

Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s the one where a bunch of too-clever-by-half wheeler dealers get caught out for tax dodging, and then start crying and blaming each other.

The proceedings inside Parliament’s Committee Rooms are not known for producing outstanding satire, but there are always exceptions.

Earlier today, various BBC presenters including Kirsty Lang and Liz Kershaw were giving evidence on the widespread use of Personal Services Companies (PSCs) within that organisation. These companies have been increasingly scrutinised by both the press and HMRC over recent years because of well-heeled professionals using them as vehicles to minimise their tax exposure. It’s a shame that the rest of us aren’t permitted to offset the cost of our lunch or our daily commute, but I digress.

However, according to both Lang’s and Kershaw’s accounts, the situation at the BBC was entirely different. The Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Committee heard tales of the taxpayer funded broadcaster forcing its presenters to set up such companies in order to avoid paying National Insurance on their salaries. It’s unclear to what extent the presenters themselves benefited from such arrangements, but I’ve never heard of a Personal Services Company being formed to increase tax liability. If Christa Ackroyd’s tax bill of £419K is anything to go by, then we’re talking about a lot more than a couple of lunches and a few train tickets here and there.

The BBC stands accused of using these service companies as a way of bypassing normal workers’ rights such as sick leave, with one presenter stating, on the record, how she felt forced to work through almost an entire course of chemotherapy. These poor, downtrodden public servants paint a picture of a tyrannical corporation that has driven some of its familiar faces to the brink of suicide.

The highlight of today’s show was when the BBC’s Paul Lewis said “this isn’t a story of well-paid presenters trading through companies to avoid tax.” Although I’m pretty sure he knows what kind of PAYE take-home is needed to run up a £400K tax bill. It’s funny how the BBC’s money guy suddenly got all shy about hard numbers on the presenters’ side, yet he was pretty outspoken about the £10 million tax the BBC has allegedly sidestepped.

So, if I’m following the plot correctly, the taxpayer funded BBC forced these presenters to set up Personal Service Companies, and as a result both parties paid a lot less tax, but that was only the intention of mendacious BBC executives. Any favourable tax conditions enjoyed by the presenters were entirely incidental and forced upon them against their will. Poor souls.

No doubt that Christa Ackroyd would much rather have paid the lion’s share of half a million pounds to HMRC in exchange for the security of sick leave, and it’s just a shame that the BBC declined to tell its side of the story to the committee today.

Now that really would’ve been a punchline!

Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

My Top 10 Live Bands – 6

John Foxx & Louis Gordon

Just like my previous posting in this series, John Foxx is another legendary musician I just assumed I’d never get to hear play live. In this case it was a simple accident of birth, with my being a little too young to go out gigging while he was on the road.

By the autumn of 1997 I was well into my twenties, and by sheer blind luck I passed the now demolished Duchess in Leeds and caught sight of his name on the upcoming gig list. Naturally I was through the door in seconds, and I’ll never forget the barman’s world-weary roll of the eyes as he confirmed that yes, it was the John Foxx, and yes, I could buy advance tickets.

Next thing I knew, I was standing on the street with tickets in hand, less than five minutes after first glancing through that window. Needless to say, the next couple of weeks really seemed to drag as the gig slowly approached.

At last the great day came, and I recall an unexpected feeling of trepidation creeping over me as I waited for the maestro of discordant harmonies to grace the Duchess’ tiny stage. Would he be any good? Could he be any good? How could a middle-aged bloke hiding behind a keyboard expect to engage even an expectant and partisan audience like this one? After all, although Foxx is a fine lyricist and a musical visionary, he’s not exactly a rock front man. How would he pull it off?

As the lights dimmed and both Foxx and Gordon appeared in logo-less black polo necks, my questions about how the great man would win us over were instantly answered.

He used his music. What else?

As the first thumping techno beats of unfamiliarity gradually morphed into the iconic Burning Car, I began to realise I was witnessing something very special. This was John Foxx 2.0; remixed, re-engineered and reimagined for the coming millennium. Unchanged and yet enhanced, balancing both the security of the familiar and the shock of the new by creating a perfect equilibrium between those opposing poles.

With a dizzying array of cutting-edge equipment somehow spliced together with older, more outdated devices, firm favourites were remixed and repackaged; new and improved, yet always faithful to the established and trusted brand.

The King is dead, long live the King!

It’s striking that among all the technological wizardry, one of the things that impressed me most is just how well both Foxx and Gordon could sing and harmonise live on the hoof, especially during those oddly melancholy and off-key moments which are his hallmark.

Foxx and Gordon were nothing short of triumphant conquerors that night, reminding an increasingly pushbutton industry that there’s more to electronic music than simply assembling files. Although the output may be digitised for the information age, Foxx’s great strength has always been that his synthesised concoctions spring from the heart and soul of a true artist.

Long may he reign.