Dec 04

Faders Up

Faders Up An article in a recent edition of Four Four Two magazine caught my eye recently. It was a light tribute to the art of the football commentator, fleshed out by short interviews with some of the more high profile broadcasters of the moment, all of whom contributed anecdotes and memories of some of their best experiences behind the microphone. Curiously these interviewees, and indeed the focus of the article itself all had one thing in common. They were all from television, and as a result the article contrived not simply to only tell half the story but actually to miss the most important part completely. That of the world of radio.

Now OK, I am biased. Radio is what I do after all. The picture above represents the scenery I enjoy every weekend of the year, but this “view” of the world has allowed me to work closely with some absolute masters of the art and a bunch of people whose skills and talents are a whole seven storeys above those who ply their trade on the supposedly more important medium of television.

Let us be honest. The TV commentator doesn’t really have to describe or tell the story of a game. The pictures do that for him. His job alone is to supply occasional colour, to augment the action with a detail the casual viewer may have spotted and yes, to supply a soundtrack to the “big moments” that a mere crowd roar cannot convey. Many are the famous football moments that live long in the memory thanks not only to the action on the pitch but the words that were being spoken to accompany them at the time. Ask people to describe the moment that England won the World Cup, and the answer won’t be with reference to the defence-splitting pass that allowed Geoff Hurst through on goal for his celebrated hat-trick but instead will mention the iconic television commentary that has since passed into legend. As it should be.

Yet part of this is just mere luck. Aside from the ability to recognise a player from the back of his head at short notice and have a useful turn of phrase for the record books just in case something destined for thousands of replays happens in front of you, I would submit that there is very little in the work of a television commentator that can be elevated to an art form. Note how the commentary is only really worthwhile if you are watching with a small crowd. Ever gathered in a pub to watch a big match on a huge projector screen? There the commentary is incidental, scarcely audible amongst the background noise of the room and the constant cheers and comments from the assembled crowd. I can remember watching every crucial moment of the Italy v England game in October 1997 which saw England qualify for the 1998 World Cup, yet I have no idea what the commentators said. My view of the game, and my memories of Ian Wright hitting the post in the last ten minutes are entirely populated by the roars, cheers and chants of the people who were assembled in the Bradford City Centre pub where I was watching the game – not least of all the city-wide conga that developed within minutes of the final whistle. Quite simply the words of the television commentator did not matter at all. You would be hard pressed to find an occasion when the same could be said of a radio commentator.

The radio listener to a football game is like a helpless child. Blind and incapable, bereft of any means of participating directly in the experience. They are almost totally reliant on the man or woman perched high in the stands with just a microphone for company, using nothing more than the tone of their voice and the internal rhythm of their speech to convey the story of the match. The radio commentator is a true artist. The significance of each pass, the movement of each player, the reaction to each decision from the sidelines and the crowd, all has to be articulated, expressed and communicated without hesitation or faltering to the audience. Get it wrong and it can be a jarring, awkward and frustrating listen. Failure to give the score, or the time elapsed often enough, or even failing to adequately describe where the ball happens to be at a given moment in time can be enough to have the listener reaching for the dial in frustration. Get it right and the effect can be compelling.

DSCF0493Since the very start of my career I’ve been privileged to sit and hear some of the biggest moments of the decade described to me by some of the best broadcasters I have known. I’ve felt every wave of emotion, every howl of frustration and every shout of anger as these men effortlessly paint pictures with nothing more than the power of their voices. I’ve heard Chris Cooper shout in disbelief as Liverpool were awarded the penalty in the 2005 Champions League Final that gave them a chance to draw level and turn around a 3 goal deficit. I felt directly the emotion that came from not just him but the entire British contingent in the press box as the spot kick was put away, as even the most hardened journalists were moved to tears by the scale of what they were witnessing.

I’ve heard Jim Proudfoot commentate on rather too many competition exits by England in penalty shootouts, the most recent coming in 2006 and the World Cup quarter-final against Portugal when with a throat strained raw after over two hours of description he all but joined the crowd in a howl of frustration that two hours of fighting, a long period of defending ceaselessly with a player disadvantage had been given no more reward by the Gods than an honourable yet fruitless exit and the chance to fly home in the morning.

Most recently I was there on that Wednesday night in early November when a Republic Of Ireland side, on the verge of defeating some former champions on their way to their own World Cup berth were undone by a goal that had come from the most controversial of circumstances. The disappointment turned to annoyance and then outrage as the replays showed what the referee on the pitch alone had not spotted, that a blatant handball had led to the ball remaining in play for the goal. For the truest, rawest, most personal expression of disgust felt in those ensuing minutes, you didn’t have to turn on the TV or replay a video. You just listened to Ray Houghton, a man who had helped that side to one of its most famous international achievements, give vent to his fury and disgust at what he had been forced to witness.

The best commentary is one that can make you care about the result, even weeks after the event. Earlier in the year I had cause to retrieve from the archive and replay the final 15 minutes of Chelsea’s Champions League semi-final against Barcelona, a game that they were leading 1-0 and which would see them through to a second straight final if they could only hold on. Listening to the tape, I knew they didn’t. I knew they were undone by a final minute lapse of concentration, yet the description was so good, the drama being set up for me so compelling that I couldn’t bring myself to stop the tape, just wishing that this time the outcome was different and that the hope being built up through those final ten minutes was not to be wasted after all. That is the mark of a masterful piece of work.

I think we are fortunate in this country in having a national game that lends itself to this kind of descriptive eloquence. American sports radio fascinates me (WGR 550 in Buffalo, NY is my current late night guilty pleasure) but the one thing that strikes you listening to the variety of sports on which they provide what the Americans like call “play by play” is the singular lack of drama or eloquent poetry. Really that is down to the nature of the sports themselves. Gridiron football is a game that takes three hours to unfold, with endless breaks in play for huddles or for television advertising purposes. The commentators are reduced to ten second bursts of frantic action, during which time it is more or less impossible to paint a clear picture, whilst filling the rest of the time with analysis and backchat. Even their faster paced sports just don’t quite lend themselves to the same kind of storytelling. I tried listening to the commentary on an Ice Hockey game the other night, an experience which only served to make a baffling game even more impenetrable to the casual ear. A sport played at speed in a confined space and using a playing piece which is hard to see with the naked eye when it is moving at 30mph just doesn’t lend itself to the kind of picture painting and dramatic eloquence that other sports manage. You get the feeling the commentary is merely a device for allowing the hosts to update the audience on the game as it progresses rather than calling the action in any meaningful sense.

It isn’t a coincidence that whilst most of the broadcasting innovations in television sports coverage have been inspired and borrowed from the way American networks stage major events, radio production has borrowed little and perhaps has even less to learn from the way our transatlantic cousins conduct themselves. Maybe uniquely in sport, football has a constant flow of action, an almost non-stop sense of urgency and a means by which the theatre of the game can easily be communicated by one man and his voice.

So whilst it is the TV commentators whose words will inevitably accompany the images of the most celebrated moments in sport, it is really the unseen and sometimes unfairly overlooked radio commentators who are the true artists, the ones who are extending their abilities the most and on whom the success or failure of a broadcast can rest. This weekend I’ll be at my usual perch in the studio, barking instructions down a line and attempting to hold the massed resources of a countrywide band of reporters together – and at the same time listening to a two men paint me pictures with their voices and in the process maybe, just maybe, writing themselves into recorded history.

Dec 02

The Men Who’ve Got The Best Music

Christmas time. A time of traditions and annual rituals. The decorating of the tree. The shopping for presents. The gratuitous overconsumption.

Plus in my case the attending of and writing about the annual Radio Academy Music Quiz, an assemblage of the great and the good (and often the not so good) of the London radio scene which sees us all cram in to a series of increasingly glamorous locations to pit our knowledge against one another.

Bar Location

This year there is a particular reason for bringing the subject up. Because we overturned the form book, upset the apple cart and essentially knocked a home run out of the park. talkSPORT actually won. Last year BBC 6 Music were the runaway winners and I noted at the time that this fact was actually kind of comforting, knowing that the one radio station on the dial that is actually all about music and based on an unrelenting love of it just happened to be staffed by people who knew better than the rest of us. This year I am sad to report they appeared to experience something of a decline, finishing a distant fourth place to the eventual winners.

Not that this was a walk in the park by any stretch of the imagination. Eight rounds of increasingly fiendish music based knowledge were supplemented by two radio-related rounds – the usual “guess the celebrity in the Santa beard” picture round and an almost impossible “what did these radio stations change their name to” round, featuring the cream of some of the tiniest stations in the country and their frantic sets of name changes to try to claw back some audience from the big boys.

The questions themselves tested all manner of disciplines. They ranged from transport themes (guess the artist singing the travelling related song) through to “name the country of origin” and a round on long-forgotten 90s hits. I always knew having the vocal climax to Martika’s ‘Love Thy Will Be Done’ stuck in my head would prove useful one day. Just as last year the quiz also had a “guess the year” round which prompted a minor squabble on our table when I insisted (correctly) that ‘(Meet) The Flintstones’ by the BC-52s was indeed a hit in 1994. Not that it was all straightforward. The ladies on our team proved invaluable when it came to the round where we had to identify the hit from a reality TV star and also the show that discovered them. At this point I have to extend sincere apologies to Pop Idol’s Sarah Whatmore for being unable to remember her second name when ‘When I Lost You’ was played. I spent the rest of the round holding my breath waiting for Rosie Ribbons to come on to rescue me, but sadly she was overlooked by the compilers.

One round very nearly sunk us, the lyrics round – recognising the spoken words from old songs has never been my forte. That said, one of the scarier moments of the evening had to be the sight and sound of radio producers and presenters from across the dial enthusiastically singing along to ‘Let’s Get Ready To Rhumble’ when the PJ and Duncan classic turned out to be the answer to one of those questions. I’d worry if anyone actually got that correct. I didn’t.

My favourite had to be the final round which our host assured us would separate the men from the boys. 20 different Number One hits were played and we had to identify the previous chart-topper by that artist. Only the most desperate musical anorak would have inside their head a rough knowledge of Number One hits throughout musical history and so it was with the recall of details such as ‘Tragedy’ being preceded by ‘Night Fever’ and ‘Chain Reaction’ being followed by ‘I’m Still Waiting’ that meant that our four point lead over our nearest rivals after the penultimate round eventually matured into a 26 point margin of victory come the final reckoning.

With the room stunned into near silence, it was time for me to go up to the front and collect the amusingly miniscule trophy from the organisers. Having conducted it back to the table, we then took turns to be photographed with it in the most creative manner possible in an orgy of over the top celebration. We were talkSPORT after all – this is what we do.

Lauren Robyn Stuart Antony The Team

After things had calmed down, I had one more mission to complete – something I had failed to do last year to my year-long regret. I approached the celebrity host for the evening with a camera and asked nicely if I could take a picture.

“Where is your trophy?” someone asked, thinking I was preserving the moment for that reason.

“I don’t need it.” I replied, “This is my trophy”.

Masterton and Goodier - together at last!

Dec 01

X Factor 2009 – Week 8 (Results)

Yes, I know this is late but there are some huge advantages to doing the results show after the fact. Tale for example the way you can spot the consequences of the weekend shows and the way they have triggered sales of some of the songs performed. Most entertaining of all is the way that ‘Something About The Way You Look Tonight’ made a brief rally on the iTunes chart. Plenty of friends who spotted this wondered out loud if people were buying the song without actually realising that they owned a copy already. Heck, it sold 4 million copies in the UK alone. There can’t be many music fans of a certain age who don’t own the CD single. Apart from me, I refused to touch the damn thing.

Such a thing would not be unique. You know how ‘Rivers Of Babylon’ by Boney M is one of the biggest selling singles of all time in this country? There is a school of thought which suggests a substantial number of those sales were due to people hearing the b-side ‘Brown Girl In The Ring’ played on the radio (which it was after DJs grew bored of the single hanging around the charts for so long and so flipped the record) and raced into town to buy this “new” single. Possibly without realising it was the same record they already owned. Nobody ever went broke underestimating the public after all.

Time to roll the tape then and note with amusement that Dermoto has a new addition to his introductory dance and has taken to drumming the final bars of his intro music with with handheld microphone. Dare I suggest he is now only a small step away from turning into Alan Partridge and will thus be pretending to machine-gun the audience by the time we get to the final in two weeks time.

Onto the group mime, a segment which is growing ever more pointless as the number of remaining contestants shrink ever further. In fact surely this is the most hated aspect of the format this year as a group of wannabes who want to become singers do a dance routine whilst not actually singing. Mention has to be made once again of American Idol this year (from whih the idea was borrowed) which for the first few weeks of the live shows had to use ever more creative ways of staging the routine given that a blind man was one of the contestants. The song here incidentally is ‘I Don’t Feel Like Dancing’ which does indeed have an Elton John link although bizarrely this is never made explicit to the audience, leaving I suspect most people in the dark as to why they performed a Scissor Sisters song this week of all weeks. Mind you, it is a shame they didn’t follow it up with a Gary Barlow written hit and sing ‘The Winners Song’ as a follow-up.

Star guest 1 is Alicia Keys who rather than directly plugging her new song actually performs an odd medley of some of her better known hits. A strange choice really given that she does actually have a new single to plug, a song which is buried in the middle of this arrangement. Stars who perform hit medleys at concerts to cram in as many crowd favourites as possible always annoy the hell out of me. If I’ve turned up to hear you sing, at least sing me your songs in full. It is like opening a box of chocolates and finding trays full of fondant centres without the chocolate surround. Your “best bits” mean nothing if they are not packaged correctly. The cunning plan appears to have backfired for the moment. At the time of writing ‘Doesn’t Mean Anything’ by Alicia Keys is on course for a Top 30 entry at the weekend and nothing more.

Still, positives. She has a live mic and does appear to be performing live. We get a full shot of the judges applauding proving that just for a change the studio audience are not going to be sat applauding many taped performances tonight.

The point is hammered home that tonight the judges are powerless and the public vote alone is what counts. Line of the night from Dermoto: “Simon, this is how normal people feel all the time”.

Star guest 2 is Rihanna who sings live when she really shouldn’t. Most of her verses are flat despite the obnoxiously large ear monitors she wears which get in the way of her costume. Then again is it really my place to critique multiple Grammy award winning stars? The quality of her singing makes no difference here – the single will be challenging for Number One next week and only has Peter Kay in its way.

Results time then and the nation asks itself the important question – how are they going to spin this out until the end given that, as we have been repeatedly told, there is no final showdown. Ah, video package featuring all the contestants on how the semi final is important to them is the answer. Benefit of seeing this on tape: I fast forward.

One by one the contestants are told they are safe. Was that possibly a small smattering of boos I heard as Arsehyl is sent back to the house for another week? He surely has to be the favourite to go next time. Rumours are circulating that internally the programme has decided that Ken is the anointed one, hence the lavish praise he received last night and the constant rumours that the winning song is going to be one he has already performed on the show.

Happily the result itself does go with form and after messing up every single one of his performances last night, it is Lloyd whose journey (not actually called a journey this year, have you notice?) is binned by the public.

Bummer.

I’m reliably informed that during his post-show interviews, members of the press were daring each other to ask if, when he was at school, he’d ever fancied any teachers.

Dec 01

House Of (Credit) Cards

HouseOfCards I’m surely not alone in actually celebrating the news at the end of last week that for the moment, attempts to legally challenge the right of banks to levy charges on unauthorised overdrafts had ended in failure.

Of all the grassroots campaigns aimed at sticking it to the man and fighting for the rights of the poor oppressed masses staged in recent years, this always struck me as one of the more self-serving, badly thought out and potentially disastrous in living memory. I’m not the biggest fan in the world of high street banks and the way they treat their customers, as I have ranted several times in the past – but let us all be honest here, the courts got it absolutely right. There is no reason at all why your bank should not hit you with a penalty for going over your limit. At the end of the day this is a spontaneous gesture, one which can potentially save you the embarrassment of having a transaction declined, but at the same time one which carries with it a huge risk for the bank in question. Without any checks, without any investigation into the circumstances and without any real reason to believe this is money they will ever see again, the bank is willing to lend you a token sum of money on spec and trust to the Gods that there is a good reason for you needing to borrow it.

In short, although it is a service the banks are cheerfully offering, they need to have some way of discouraging excessive use of that service – and what better way than to impose what are at times punitive charges for doing so. Yes, at the end of the day there is an element of profiteering there and I’m sure their balance sheets have benefited enormously from the charges imposed on customers going over their limit, but at the end of the day all they are doing is trying to persuade customers that managing their finances better is a far cheaper way of living and at the same time limiting the risk they expose themselves to by offering an unauthorised overdraft facility in the first place. Funny that – a year ago banks not limiting their risks was being blamed for an economic meltdown.

The best bit was that this campaign against bank charges was spread far and wide like some kind of evangelical crusade. I’ve lost count of how many forums I would read with a sticky thread noting the ways you could try to claim back from your bank along with a link to download the form letters that were supposed to put the fear of God into your bank manager. There was even a record made – ‘I Fought The Lloyds’ by Oystar which was released in January 2008 and was supposed to fly to Number One to demonstrate just how widespread public revulsion at these charges was. It was bloody awful and deservedly limped to Number 25 (during the lowest sales period of the year you will note) before sinking without trace.

The daft thing was this was all so short sighted. People were so wrapped up in the gleeful prospect that they might suddenly get free cheques for hundreds of pounds back from their banks and that all these profiteering fat cats might suddenly be forced to fork out millions of pounds that they failed to consider what the consequences of this huge hole in the balance sheets might be. It wasn’t idle scaremongering that led financial commentators to speculate on the imminent end of free banking – charges for cash withdrawals, commission fees for card payments, and monthly account charges whether you had a “premium” account or not – they were all very real possibilities as the banks attempted to claw back the money they were about to lose.

So it is in fact to be cheered that common sense has prevailed. At the end of the day your bank account and the terms that come attached to it are a commercial arrangement between you and the financial institution in question. In a free market economy there is no earthly reason why a bank should not attach certain penalties to violations of parts of the agreement, particularly when it is out of their own goodwill and at their own risk that they allow you to exceed certain limits or stray outside certain set boundaries. I say this as someone who at the start of the decade frequently found himself bumping against his overdraft limit and whose old bank statements almost certainly contain evidence of several hundreds of pounds of charges which he incurred. I was never once motivated to try to claim this back on spurious grounds. I knew the rules when I signed up. More fool me for breaking them.

Believe it or not there are plenty of battles against banks and other assorted financial services companies that are far more worth fighting and which do have some merit to them. Take the credit card companies for example. At a time when interest rates on savings have plunged to the floor and the Bank Of England base rate remains stubbornly at a record low level, how do credit card issuers continue to justify annual interest rates of close to 17% for their products. OK, it is a premium service and once more represents a carefully calculated risk on the part of the lenders, but for the rates they charge to be the same, or in many cases even higher than they were 10-12 years ago when interest rates were around the 6% mark is as blatant a consumer rip off as you can get. For my own entertainment I regularly use the “contact us” link on my online ISA account to complain about the halving in the space of a year of the rate of interest they pay me on my investments and asking how they sleep at night advertising both a tokenistic rate of interest on savings balances and a punitive extortionate rate of interest on credit card lending on the front page of the same website. Sadly these messages elicit little more in reply than a patronising “you clearly have no understanding of the way financial affairs work, so please go away and be grateful little person” but I carry on sending them anyway. How else are they supposed to know how unhappy their customers are if we don’t tell them after all?

Even when you bite the bullet and have a credit card at an extortionate rate, you still get screwed by every con trick in the book. I know it is my own fault for having an MBNA card, and their widespread reputation for being a bunch of chiselling crooks is well deserved, but I was left speechless last month when my latest statement arrived complete with a penalty for late payment despite my regular standing order having gone out at the usual time of the month. Closer examination of the new statement revealed that my payment date had magically moved from the 6th of the month to the 30th of the previous one, leaving me with a week less to settle any balance I may have and thus resulting in me incurring the charge the previous month. Yes, my fault entirely for not reading the small print on the last bill and noting the change, but heaven forbid they should have found some way of highlighting this arbitrary change in the conditions of my account, one which was likely to impact the way I manage my finances at that.

These are all very real issues faced by thousands of users of financial services nationwide. Where is the grassroots campaign against these kind of sharp practices though? If they exist then for the moment they are extremely well hidden. In the meantime self-styled “money saving experts” continue to bleat about the non-issue of overdraft charges and pledge to continue to look for loopholes to try to screw the banks some other way.

How on earth did these people get their priorities so wrong?

Nov 29

X Factor 2009 – Week 8 (Performances)

It is that time of the week already. Welcome to what the show is studiously avoiding calling “The Quarter Final” instead preferring the much pithier and altogether more marketable branding of “the race for a place in next week’s Semi Final”. This is why the producers work for ITV and I don’t.

Deep into the contest and with only five contestants left, this is naturally the week where the format changes slightly, so everyone gets to sing twice and the judges no longer get a vote at the end. I’m only telling you this to save our host the trouble of spelling this out naturally, a host who incidentally now appears to be called “Dermoto Leery” by the scary voiceover at the start.

Oh yes, and every week I seem to get hits from people searching “dermot’s x factor walk on theme” so if you are wondering it is an orchestral rendition of the riff from Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’ as used by Puff Daddy on ‘Come With Me’. If you earn 30p for answering that, I’ll take a cut please.

Time then to hear the contestants sing and answer for ourselves the three big unspoken questions.

1) Given that last week in “George Michael” week one person sang a song that Elton John appeared on, will anyone use “Elton John” week to sing a song that George Michael appeared on?

2) How many times will the show big up its massive Number One charity record without reference to the fact that it is not only still the same chart as last Sunday but won’t be Number One by the time the results show rolls around?

3) Will anyone make any reference at all to The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name Lest Simon Sues Us All, or will the internet just have to collectively explode at every unfortunate innuendo that presents itself?

Second away, Round 1. The theme is Take That (not appearing on this show).

Coming first (stop it!) is Arsehyl who if the tales are to be believed is hated by several of the judges over the way he has allegedly been groomed for this for some time. As well as promising that he is going to give us a “different kind of song” we are also told how wonderful it feels for them to have a Number One record and what a good cause it is all in aid of. Desperate to bump its sales up in the few hours remaining much? With the two twats now out of the way, Brian Freidman and his all over Number 1 cut have more time to devote to giving other people dance routines, meaning that Arsehyl gets to bust some moves to ‘Relight My Fire’.

I’ve worked out what I don’t like about his singing. In an attempt to find a style and some voical distinctiveness, he has taken to chewing the words as he sings them, like a bad cabaret star. Churlish nitpicking of the song choices means we are obliged to note that out of the vast body of work that Gary Barlow has written for his group, they have chosen to open the show with a Dan Hartman song that is only associated with Take That thanks to their cover version. Never mind, he gets to sing the words “I Need Your Love” several times, giving everyone else the chance to mentally insert the name of one of his fellow performers after it and snigger like teenagers. Or maybe that is just me.

Dannii uses the magic word “pitchy” to tell him he was off key. Somewhere in America Randy Jackson is consulting lawyers and demanding royalties. Cheryl says she knows how tough it is to sing and dance at the same time. Shame he didn’t have the option of pre-recording the chorus then isn’t it Cheryl?

We move on to NotGazza and yes, the irony of tactfully changing his nickname from the one I used in Week 1 is not lost on me either. He has “the full package” says Cheryl. I wonder who told her.

His first song tonight is ‘A Million Love Songs’ which isn’t the hardest song in the world to sing, not that you would know from this travesty. I’m starting to wonder what the point of all the backroom staff on this show is. They all have singing lessons throughout and are prepared with vocal coaches, so why on earth are they not being told that singing isn’t just about bleating the words. You have to sell a song with soul and feeling and I regret to say that the blonde Welshman does this without a hint of either. Or even a tune for that matter. No, this was utterly, utterly painful. We are a fortnight from the final and he is down to the final 5. By this stage he should be a thousand times better than this. Bin him now, seriously.

“People seem to like you much more than I do.” moan Louis grumpily “but the singing was pretty good”. No it wasn’t.

Dannii suggests that there are a million girls all wanting the love songs to be for them. A bolder man than I am writes:

image

We should move on to NiceBloke who appears to be refreshingly scandal free. In his video Simon announces he will be singing one of his favourite songs but not one of the Take That’s most popular songs. I scare myself by wondering out loud if it will be ‘Love Ain’t Here Anymore’ roughly ten seconds before that turns out to be the case. Simon is actually quite correct here, for despite being one of the few Take That singles of the 90s that didn’t shoot straight to Number One, it is easily one of the least dated of their songs from that era. NiceBloke goes for the juglar, crooning it straight from the catwalk to some planted ladies in the audience. Now that is called truly playing to the gallery as several million females get over the heartbreak of earlier and imagine truly that he is singing it to them, prior of course to noting his number for the voting. This really was a great choice and a great performance. I’m still a little unsure about his singing but the problems he has aren’t anything that can’t be corrected in the studio and with a few months of practice. He hits the big note at the end to perfection and for my money has taken this round so far.

Ken is up next, and we should take time out to note how ‘Fight For This Love’ is the backing music for his video package thus meaning that Cheryl gets a few more royalties out of this show. Who said they don’t look after their own. He is doing ‘Could It Be Magic’ so we are obliged to note that out of four “Take That” songs done so far, two of them have been covers of songs made famous by other people. Also, who thinks that one week the theme should indeed be Barry Manilow? Back to reality, and the big camp disco arrangement of the song suits him well, allowing him to put on the sort of big performance you can see him repeating in the final should be make it through the next two weeks.

Finally we come to token female Dagenham Doris. In her video she worries about taking something like this on. “It is a song written for four men.. and then there’s me” she babbles in a manner which suggests the exciting nature of that thought has just occurred to her. Bless.  She sings ‘Rule The World’ and it may be significant that she is the only contestant to take on a contemporary Take That song and thus one that will be recognised by the younger element of the audience. This may turn out to be a masterstroke. Sadly the performance is only OK and nothing more. This is the eternal frustration with her, as the promise of her early audition has never really developed into anything more. She’s a nice person and fun to have around but the sad truth is she just doesn’t feel or sound like a winner.

Danni applauds her anyway and notes the “incredible support out there for Dagenham Stace”. I knew one of my names would catch on eventually. I’ve decided that for Christmas I want a video compilation of all her post-song interviews with Dermoto. Every week she makes less sense than ever before, I could swear tonight that not one word that came out of her mouth resembled English.

With that we push the reset button and go back to the start as it is time for the second theme of the night. Step forward Sir Elton John (also not appearing on this show).

You have to love the way the little video packages put together to introduce the acts who are being paid tribute to somehow manage to suck all the life and joy out of the back catalogue of the acts in question. Elton’s 40 year career is summed up in 25 seconds of wooshing noises. Buy his Greatest Hits now everyone.

Oddly we mix the order up slightly and kick off here with NotGazza. He performs ‘I’m Still Standing’ which I have to confess is one of my favourite Elton songs so I immediately hate him for ruining it. Once more he hoofs and shouts his way through it all but displays no passion or understanding of what the song is about. Look, I’m no singer and have only had the briefest of technical training in the art, but even I know the first rule of performing music is to make sure you actually care about the material. Sell the emotion, convince me that you are feeling what the words mean. He does none of this here.

Intriguingly during the post-song debrief Cheryl does something that appears to have been downplayed this year and leans on the regional angle. “I hope Wales gets behind you” she says in all innocence. My Twitter feed immediately explodes with far too much innuendo to reproduce here.

Entering from the rear now is Arsehyl. He does ‘Your Song’ in a manner which is clearly intended to ape the Moulin Rouge arrangement but which comes across like a shockingly bad Vegas act. One of the world’s most famous piano ballads ends up lost in bombast, campness and yes – even a choir of children to accompany him at the end. I really can’t decide if this was amazing or terrible, but if this does turn out to be his last performance on the show (as everyone seems to be hoping) then it is one hell of a way to go out. Simon claims it was sensational. I can’t find anyone who agreed.

Rattling through, here comes NiceBloke. Who gets to show off his post-watershed raunchy side with ‘Saturday Nights Alright For Fighting’. Of particular note here are the dancing girls in their bras and hot pants which gives this performance a sexual frisson we haven’t seen all series. Hell, I even find myself applauding.

Cheryl asks how he concentrated with all those sexy girls around him. Ask your husband dear.

Ken gets to tug on the heartstrings with ‘Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word’ and I can’t really offer too much in the way of comment here other than to note that the magic which worked for Blue is intact here as well. He is far and away the favourite of the night, beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Simon says here “my day job is I run a record label”. How on earth does he fit that in with his other role of being ruler of the universe? Anyone know?

This marathon show finishes with Dagenham Doris and my, what a weird choice. The song she is performing is the biggest selling single of all time, yet the truth of the matter is nobody will recognise it. Yes calm down, she’s not doing the Diana song but instead the record’s notional a-side ‘Something In The Way You Look Tonight’. In a lovely touch the theme for the staging is Fabulous Baker Boys, and she does indeed sprawl all over a grand piano in a red velvet dress. She has a cleavage. Who knew?

You know what, this was utterly incredible. It may well be the least played Track 1 of any CD single ever released but it does mean that her rendition is pretty much untainted by comparison with the original. Guess what though – Simon doesn’t like it much.  I like that I live in a world where Simon is wrong sometimes.

Her post song chat once again reminds me that there are now three people on the list of individuals who when I win the lottery will be hired to do nothing but talk to me in the evening. 1) and 2) are two of my colleagues who shall remain nameless. 3) is Dagenham Doris. Although I may have to wait, as I think she’s going to be back singing next week.

By the time the results show airs, their charity record won’t be Number One any more. How on earth will they cope?

Nov 26

The Holy Grail – Republished!

Well, I never thought we’d see the day.

I’ve written many times in the past about the fabled “Guinness Book of Top 40 Charts”, last published in 1996 and how the out of print book has been a source of frustration to many a hardcore fan of the music charts. You’d be hard pressed to explain to a neutral observer just why a tome which lists week by week the Top 40 singles chart with the odd footnote to provide background is so useful, so interesting and such a source of constant surprises – but it is.

It is therefore with fear that I open my own copy of the 1996 version every time I need to refer to something, simply because the ageing volume will inevitably fall apart from age and overuse. For a long time the chances of a replacement looked slim. As I’ve mentioned before, this is a book which theoretically can never be profitable, targeted at a niche hardcore market with limited potential sales, yet at the same time costing a great deal of money due to produce due to the need to licence the data it contains.

Yet the closing months of 2009 have seen something of a miracle occur – because the book is back on the shelves. Having seized the mantle of chart books publishers after an unseemly interregnum when none were available by publishing the welcomed yet rather badly designed and at times misfiring British Hit Singles volume, Virgin Books have now grasped the nettle with both hands and responded to what appears to have been enthusiastic public demand. Available now at a bookshop near you is the chartwatchers holy grail – “The Virgin Book Of Top 40 Charts”.

Reviewing such a work is a near impossibility, for this is truly the most Ronseal of publications. Inside its 1000 plus pages, you will find nothing less than a complete account of every Top 40 (or nearest equivalent) singles chart dating from the first weeks of the Record Retailer chart in March 1960 right up to the present day, the book climaxing with the very first chart of 2009 featuring Alexandra Burke nestling at the top. All present and correct are the markers from previous versions, allowing easy noting of the chart debuts of particular acts as well as the moment a disc reached its own particular chart peak.

If you are reading this wondering why on earth anyone would want to own such a thing, then chances are you won’t ever need to. If, like me, you’ve somehow found reason in your life to want to refer back to just what song entered at Number 22 on the day you met your significant other and have tired of filling in the decade and a half gap since the last such document with various Excel spreadsheets and carefully filed away emails of old rankings, then chances are you’ve already located a copy and bought it for yourself enthusiastically.

The Virgin Book Of Top 40 Charts is a co-publication of Virgin Books and the Official Charts Company and is priced at £20. Just mind your copy carefully, who knows when it will ever come out again.

Meanwhile, what to do with my battered copy of the 1996 edition which once upon a time could have fetched huge sums on ebay. It just shows how the value of your book collections can go down as well as up…

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Nov 23

X Factor 2009 – Week 7 (Results)

The British public appear to be getting more cynical in their old age. What else could explain the increasing number of hits this site is recording from people searching the answer to the question “is the X Factor results show recorded?” The truth of the matter is that yes, some of it is, although the actual result itself at the end is most manifestly live – or at least as “live” as television gets these days. Given all the recent scandals it would be foolish in the extreme for ITV to play fast and loose with the moment the voting is closed, however given that even the “live” Big Brother final is on a 15 minute tape delay, who can blame people for being suspicious.

So for this week, let’s pay careful attention to the switch between tape and studio, particularly as the show’s PR and the newspapers have been fairly open about the pre-taped nature of this week’s celebrity guest performances.

First the show intro and the presentation of the judges. Live, or at the very least done live in front of tonight’s studio audience.

Then it is time for the ensemble performance of the week, as the final six gyrate about the stage to ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’, the song making its first X Factor appearance since Same Difference took their unique brand of suspected incest to the screen and had a messy pillow fight with each other. It has long since been established that this performance is both mimed and taped a little while before the show actually airs. We know this due to the post-song chat where everyone sucks each others rude bits about the fact that the Bloody Charity Record is Number One and the show pats itself on the back about the fact that Leona’s album has also topped the charts, despite the fact that she is still far too big to ever need the rub of this programme again. That doesn’t stop the smugness sadly.

Onto the recap of last night. My only curiosity here is the spliced in backstage shots of the judges (normally Louis and Cheryl) jawing with each other on the way to their dressing rooms. Presumably this is done on the spur of the moment as they all head backstage during the breaks, but does this mean they really march down the corridor, sit down to check their makeup and then get back up again to be back in place by the time the break finishes. What a waste of time.

First guest of the night is SuBo herself – Susan Boyle as she steps back into the limelight to promote her first ever record. This is a curious situation as X Factor gives the rub to a contender from Simon’s other show for what I’m guessing is the first time ever. It is a fairly open secret that this was taped 24 hours ago in front of Saturday’s audience. Careful scrutiny of the audience shots proves that Cheryl is not wearing the salmon “look at my boobs” dress she has on tonight and it is notable that the only clear shot of the judges shown is a reaction shot of Cowell which might as well be stock footage as he always wears the same thing anyway.

As for the song, her rendition of ‘Wild Horses’ is immaculately done and although she is more or less a shoo-in to have the Number One album next week, I’ll be fascinated to see how many singles she shifts. Her only problem is that part of the SuBo mythology stems from the way she looks rather than the fact she can sing. As one Twitter friend puts it:

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She’s not wrong either.

Back we go live for a quick conversation with the judges who we must presume have not sat in their seats for the last 15 minutes of taped singing and dancing but instead were hiding in their dressing rooms. What were the audience doing? Watching the tapes, or being entertained by the warm-up?

We now switch back to tape thanks to a convenient arse-kissing video tape introducing the second star guest of the week – Mariah Carey. Again it is pretty much a matter of public record that her glitzy performance (complete with glitter covered microphone and stand) was taped last weekend at the start of her recent promotional swing through the UK. Writing in this forum I can freely confess that I can’t stand the woman, her records lacking in soul or feeling and serving only as the platform for unnecessary vocal gymnastics designed to go “look how well I can sing”. The whole stuff about her diva demands (white kittens and puppies etc.) puzzles me as well. Either she really is that self absorbed which makes you dislike her even more, or someone near to her dislikes her enough to leak stories about her wanting to fly in on her own personal cloud to further damage her public reputation.

Oh yes and her single is, I am glad to report a bad cover version of ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’ which rips every last bit of emotion out of the justly famous Foreigner original. For those still following the whole live/not live debate – note that Dermot’s link promoting that the results are next was recorded a week ago in the same session as the Mariah performance. What would they have done if something had happened midweek such as a contestant pulling out or being disqualified? Would an emergency reshoot have been required?

Anyway, we return from the break to be truly live for the official results. She is one of the first to be rendered safe, but in the moments before the vote is announced, it is fun to note that Dagenham Doris’ unhappy face makes her look like she is wetting herself. I hope for that reason she is in the final so at the grand climax we can see her do both the “poo” and “wee” looks in quick succession. Confounding all predictions Arsehyl survives for another week of diva strops. That’s the last time I believe anything written in the Daily Star.

I can’t believe I just wrote that.

In the latest shock result, the final showdown is between bookies favourite NiceBloke and – at last – the Malfoy Twins. Now surely this week there is no real choice to be made. No fence sitting here, it is a straight decision between the worst performers and one of the most popular. Although so far this series stranger things have happened.

First up are the terrible two who do ‘No Matter What’ Noticeably they start with no backing vocals, dancers or pyrotechnics and so for the first time in a very long time we can hear clearly and without prejudice just how terrible they are. Best of all they are shovelling shit on the memory of the defining performance of a man who was recently murdered in a threesome with a Daily Mail writer (I forget the details). If you so desire, this is another reason to hate them even more.

On to the man who really cannot lose. NiceBloke is doing ‘Wonderful Tonight’ but although he rightly credits the song to Clapton, he performs the Damage arrangement from 1997, complete with incongruous lyric change to reference the subject’s “long brown hair”. This always struck me as stupid, given that the song is about an actual named, living woman whose hair was indeed long and blonde. Some people just don’t get it do they?

Vote time, and given that this is the last week the judges votes count and given that it has not gone unnoticed that thus far they have exercised their right to choose just once, you get the feeling that this is not going to deadlock.

Simon supports Olly as he has to.

Cheryl just for a change doesn’t whine about how tough the decision is and how much she hates this part of her job. Without much hesitation she backs Olly too.

Louis sticks with the twins but in truth he knows what is coming next.

Dannii gets the casting vote. Will she bottle it? Or will she make a proper choice just for once. Before giving her verdict she asks “is this a singing competition” which makes Simon Cowell put on his “gay slur” frown again. Any chances of a row brewing this side of Xtra Factor are quelled by the floor manager’s frantic waving that the show is running long and we have to get on with it.

So it finally happens. The worst fears of a nation are not to be recognised. I’ll say it one word at a time as they get named properly for the first and only time.

John. And. Edward. Are. OUT.

Dogs howl. Lights dim. Corks are popped. The shout you can still hear echoing to this very moment is the one made by bookmakers across the land who stood to lose a huge amount if they had gone all the way. It took seven weeks but the joke is at an end. Finally and at long last, the X Factor is all about the singing. What a shame there are precious few contenders left who are up to the job.

Nov 22

X Factor 2009 – Week 7 (Performances)

Yes, you read that correctly. We are at Week 7 of this epic already, and as Dermot notes in his opening link, how time flies. Naturally this only serves to hammer home some hard truths: the final is just 3 weeks away, it is nearly Christmas, and oh yes, many of the better singers in the competition have already been ditched through a combination of the public vote and judges incompetence.

Welcome then to George Michael week, and I’m sorely tempted to suggest that this theme was actually a mistake. Simon Cowell scribbled on a napkin that this week the final six should sing “songs of yore” and it was misread as “songs of Yog”. I guess you have to be a fan of a certain age to get that joke.

Incidentally does anyone else find that the pre-titles talking heads sequence has now lost whatever drama it may have once had, all thanks to Peter Kay’s skewering of its banality with his own “there’s only one act who’s tough – and that’s the winner” routine. The four Judges are described by Dermot as being the show’s very own George, Andrew, Pepsi and Shirley. I can only wonder which of them is the closeted gay one.

Oh yes, and describing George Michael as a man who has been entertaining us with his music “for almost three decades” is a phrase guaranteed to make him, and the rest of us, feel really old. No wonder he had better things to do than actually turn up – although he is “watching this show at home” we are assured. How is that supposed to make us respect him more?

First out of the hat this week is NotGazza, fresh from his narrow escape last week. The theme for the introductory VTs this week is “the visit home”. You know the ones, where everyone’s family has to do a really bad acting job and pretend to be surprised when their children just happen to knock on the door with a camera crew in tow.

We are told that tonight the canny lad will be “singing one George’s most recognisable songs”. Shame that, my favourite songs are the ones you can’t recognise.. although maybe that will come when the twins perform later on.

“I’m gonna sing ‘Harder Than I Ever Have Before’” he enthuses, and you are right, I don’t recognise that song. Actually joking aside it turns out to be ‘Faith’ which means that yes, a wide-eyed 17 year old boy singing about how it would be nice to touch your body is now prime time family entertainment.

Oh god, now I’ve written that – what if the twins are down to do ‘I Want Your Sex’? In fact sod it, they should just to guarantee headlines.

Back to NotGazza for a moment though and in case you are wondering, yes he is singing sharp as usual. The performance gets better as it goes on, although maybe I was just singing along to demonstrate to the other half that this was indeed the first song I ever performed on karaoke. Lonsdale JCR, Lancaster University, March 1993 in case you are wondering. Yes am making this review all about me. Is that a problem?

Next tonight is Dagenham Doris. She is the one contestant for whom the visit home is pointless for (as she readily admits) she goes home once a week to see her son anyway. She is called “The Voice” so many times during this buildup I am starting to wonder if this is her new internal nickname. Call me an old cynic but I don’t think this will sell as the title of her album. Her assessment of her chances tonight: “I’ve got to get better or there is a chance I will be in the bottom 2”. Profound.

Her chosen song is, confusingly, ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’, or as it is better known to the public “the b-side of ‘Older’ that everyone ignored back in 1997 and was a cover version anyway”. Let’s take a moment to recap. George Michael by my reckoning has had something of the order of 34 solo hit singles, with a further 10 more as part of Wham. Out of all of those, Doris, the producers and the judges picked a really boring one that no casual listener will recognise off hand. Isn’t that incredibly stupid? OK then positives.. once she gets to belt the chorus (such as it is in this dirge) she comes into her own. But, and it is a big but, I’m not blown away by her in the way that her first audition suggested everyone would be by this stage. This is the girl people were branding as a winner from the word go, and here she is three weeks before the end putting on performances that are average at best.

At least the panel says nice things, so she gets to pull the poo face a lot. Oh, and gabble to Dermot excitedly afterwards, which is always entertaining. I’d buy a recording of her reciting War and Peace without hesitation. The whole thing could fit on a double CD.

Now for the moment we have all been waiting for – it’s the Malfoy Twins. Who return to Ireland. And then come home again, to everyone’s regret.

Sadly they aren’t doing anything that would get them banned by Radio One but instead ‘I’m Your Man’ and in the cutest tribute of the night do indeed perform the song dressed in the same iconic “choose life” T-shirts that Wham! wore in the video. Naturally the rules of the contest have now been bent to the extent that they cannot just do one song but have to mash it up, and in this case the segue into ‘Wham! Rap’ midway through. I have to confess that I prefer them as rap stars to singers as this is the one thing they cannot do out of tune. Notably following press criticism this week, their sung vocals are brought higher up in the mix than usual which means we get to hear just how tuneless they really are.

This is now quite tricky, for after weeks of tweaking the producers have found a way to make the pair entertaining which is the key to the whole thing. The one advantage to the surprise ditchings of the last few weeks is that should the ultimate nightmare happen and the skippy pair actually win, it is unlikely to be at the expense of a really talented singer. X Factor is due an off-year for discovering proper talent and so if we have to fill the void with a couple of talentless clowns, then so be it.

Simon’s Cowell’s pre-rehearsed line of the night is to say their performance was more like Andrew and Andrew rather than George and Andrew. An obvious line, but he is clearly so pleased with it I guess preserving it here for posterity is the least we can do.

Now to the man who appears to have taken over from the terrible two in terms of negative press – Arsehyl. In his homecoming video he eschews family in favour of meeting up with his mates and going down the pub. See public? He is A NORMAL BLOKE JUST LIKE YOU. Message duly hammered home. The unseemly row (again) over what song he should sing is glossed over here for now.

After all the tantrums it turns out he is doing ‘Careless Whisper’. Is now a good time to break out a 1984 vintage joke? OK then – why does George Michael have chocolate all over his face? Because he’s been careless with his Wispa.

This paragraph intentionally left blank as nothing can sensibly follow that without a pause.

Can I also note that once whilst drunk I too attempted this song on karaoke. The great thing is I was as bad at it as Arsehyl is. He’s going for a different interpretation of the song but instead of being unique and distinctive he sings it rather like you’d imagine Liam Gallagher would at a soundcheck. To widespread shock Cheryl Cole(!) becomes first person this series ever to critique the singing and tell him he was flat. Simon to her left meanwhile falls back on his favourite platitude and congratulates him on being “original” which is apparently what he is always looking for. I always find this train of thought fascinating, as this is after all a man who made his original millions out of two actors singing twee cover versions.

Brace yourself ladies, for it is NiceBloke time. He goes home and brings her lots of washing to do. I’m sorry but this isn’t like him, or maybe it is his way of being nice to his mum. Admittedly when I first left home my mum used to beg me to bring washing back from university for her to do. It is a mum think I guess. He’s on the case of ‘Fastlove’ tonight, known to millions as George Michael’s “hey baby, let’s shag” song. Oh boy he is FLAT. Ouch. The number of supposedly talented acts that continue to warble off-key makes me wonder if they actually have proper monitors onstage with them and can hear themselves at all. We keep being told this isn’t a karaoke contest, so why are the singers sent out on stage with no more awareness of their tone than your average Sharon down the Dog and Bollock. Singing aside, there are plenty of voters who will have been moistened as he purrs the “make a little room in my BWM” line in the song so his continuing presence is more or less assured. Simon post-song pretty much assures him he will get laid after the contest. I bet he’s so glad it wasn’t Louis telling him that.

Finally tonight we get to Ken. Apparently there is a big note in the song which rehearsal footage shows him struggling to hit. Bizarrely he is doing ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ and from the moment he opens his mouth roughly half the watching public are shouting the same thing at their televisions.

Hello! This is not a George Michael song.

It is with almost unseemly joy that Louis squabbles with Cheryl over this point afterwards, although such smugness is undermined slightly by the fact that ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’ wasn’t a George Michael song either and nobody saw fit to moan. This aside, he does at least hit the note that everyone was worried about and pleasingly hits all the rest as well. Far and away the best performance of the evening is not a bad way to end things really.

We end with shout outs to George Michael himself who we are once again assured is watching us at home. Unless of course he has spontaneously fallen asleep through “exhaustion”. See you tomorrow for a show where apparently all but the last ten minutes is on tape. Wish I had audience tickets for that one…

Nov 15

X Factor 2009 – Week 6 (Results)

Answer there came – one. Am pleased to confirm the technical term for the “emergency wide shot of extreme panic” used by TV directors when something unexpected happens:

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This man used to direct live Saturday morning television, so he should know.

Tonight: Queen! Shakira! The thing that henceforth will be known as The Bloody Charity Record! I’m all agog aren’t you?

First of all the group performance, which as widely reported is indeed Bohemian Rhapsody with OneHalfOfQueen magically appearing halfway through to accompany the remaining seven. Amazing how they manage the harmonies so perfectly isn’t it? Anyone would think this is pre-recorded.Sorry to be so grumpy, but there is very little entertaining about these pose-fests, it tells us nothing new about the talent of the contestants and just because something is done on American Idol does not automatically make it a good idea.

Dermot brands it the “best X Factor moment ever!” which would make me lose all respect for him, but for… oh you can guess the rest.

ShakiraShakira (so good they named her twice) is the sole star plugging her single tonight. Call me an old cynic but I think her drummers were miming. Sadly the track is symptomatic of much of her current album in that the producers forgot to make it any good. Mind you, if the Black Eyed Peas can get to Number One with the dirge they sang last week, anything is possible.

Now for the grotty bit, as the grand premiere of The Bloody Charity Record is upon us, and you just know that there will be nothing as fun as last year’s cockup with the unopened doors to raise the entertainment level. As worthy a cause as it may be, the record (a cover of ‘You Are Not Alone’) is still little more than another part of Simon Cowell’s plan to drown the world in a tide of MOR mush and so should be resisted at all costs. Plus it will be another step towards confirming Steve Mac as one of the most successful producers of the decade which itself will paint a wholly false picture of the state of pop music.

I’m taking care to note how many times the song’s author (R Kelly) is mentioned in comparison with the number of times reference is made to the person who just happened to sing it originally. The irony of bandwaggoning with yet another Michael Jackson song that he had not part in creating isn’t lost on me. Anyway, the single is as slick and bland as you might expect with the most autotune you will hear this side of a Kanye West single. It may well wind up as the second biggest seller of the year sadly. The spontaneity of the audience waving glowsticks at the climax is spoiled slightly by an accidental shot of them being handed out earlier in the song. Oddly enough not one single reference is made to the origin of the song and who sang it originally. How curious.

OK then, result time which should hopefully be controversy free. The last minute safety of the two twats means we are left with…

Disco Stu who is fresh off being branded “ordinary” by Louis last night. How appropriate would it be if the rocker was binned in a week where a rock band was the theme. For his desperation song he eschews creativity and trots out another Queen song in the shape of ‘The Show Must Go On’. Is it worth pointing out that this was the song Freddie released right before he died? That has to be an omen surely.

NotGazza goes next and is sharp again. So much so, that for a moment I’ve no idea what he is singing. It turns out to be ‘Last Request’ in case you were wondering. I think my ears bled a little during this.

The casting vote goes down to Dannii and the audience by this time are so jacked that they drown out her words. What wouldn’t you give for Cat Deeley to tell them to “fucking shut up” at this point. Yet again(!) the vote is deadlocked and the Magic Envelope Of Doom is handed to Dermot, its contents serving only to bin…

Jamie. Feel the cold hand of irony around your barnet son and go home knowing that you at least propelled Kings Of Leon back into the Top 10 the moment you opened your mouth to sing on television. Not everyone has that kind of effect on people.

Dermot asks him “what’s next?”. He reels off a long list of plans, none of which involve a haircut. That’s why he went.

Nov 15

X Factor 2009 – Week 6 (Performances)

I told you we hadn’t heard the last of it.

The bizarre end to last week’s result show inevitably prompted a flurry of column inches and wild conspiracy theories as to Simon Cowell’s motives in not binning the twins at the first opportunity he was given and as a result sending home someone who appears to be universally regarded as one of the more talented contenders in the competition.

I should point out from the outset that much of this is patent nonsense. Any argument that somehow the fix is on and that a scheme is afoot to make sure that the terrible two make it to the end so they can either win outright or, as some would have you believe, so that they will present an easy black and white choice between themselves and the true winner. Such speculation inevitably ignores the fact that the one variable the producers cannot control is the public vote. However much we might complain about the machinations of the judges or the producers behind the scenes, we still get to choose who the 2 acts are who are in line for the chop.

The one unanswered question really is just how much did the judges know about which way the vote had gone last week, and so was Simon making his final choice with the full knowledge about what the consequences would be? Even if he did know, the actions of the panel before him in voting 2-1 for the twins to go home meant he had little room for manoeuvre in his choice, as whichever act he chose would have gone. Suggestions that it was all a grand conspiracy simply don’t hold up. For all the talk of how Lucie was clearly one of the most talented and a “threat” somehow to the other acts, the fact remains that she didn’t actually have anyone voting for her last week. Just like when Laura White got an early bullet last year, it may well have been a shock to see someone who could sing better than many of the rest eliminated, but the numbers did not lie. She wasn’t popular, few people voted for her, so it stands to reason that she has to go.

Simon Cowell’s one problem now is that his ability to wear two different hats is badly compromised. During the week the newspapers are full of backstage reports of Simon changing something that he doesn’t like, Simon insisting that something else should happen or Simon changing the theme on a whim. The fact is that X Factor is his show, he calls the shots throughout and everyone else dances to his tune yet when it comes to judging the acts we are expected to believe he suddenly becomes the impartial evaluator of talent, assessing each performance on its musical merits with little regard to any plans he might have had about the direction the competition could take. His ability to keep up this pretence was surely hit last week when despite many public pronouncements about what a disaster the twins were for the show and how he could emigrate if they won, he still did not remove them from the show the first time an opportunity to do so presented itself. On balance, you can understand why so many people are asking questions and coming up with strange conspiracy theories.

So sit down to watch the show this week suspecting that we will see a new, contrite and analytical Simon Cowell. He has to upsell himself as a judge and downplay his role as producer. Or maybe something unexpected will happen to create a brand new set of headlines…

The first thing we learn this week: there is no part of “It’s the X Factor Queen night – with Dermot O’Leary” that doesn’t sound funny. On any level. The show begins by offering Simon a few minutes of airtime to explain himself and his actions six days ago, although he spends most of it throwing down the gauntlet to Sting and suggesting he should help the contestants out rather than condemning them. I’m happy with this, just as long as it doesn’t mean “lute week” for the semi final or something.

Disco Stu gets to worship at the font of Messrs May and Taylor first, the game of “who’s got the silliest haircut” he played with Brian May presumably taking place before the cameras are switched on. His song of choice is ‘Radio Gaga’ and we are told time and time again that he wants to avoid coming across as some kind of bad Freddie tribute act. Or “Queen with Paul Rodgers” as I believe they are commonly known. Refreshingly this wasn’t a tribute act, nor was it particularly terrible. He took his time warming up to it but by the end the crowd were on their feet. A good start.

“Pyro excites me” says Dannii during the judging. Odd, I thought it used to be Canadian racing drivers. Tastes change I guess.

NotGazza steps up to the plate next. Cheryl promises us a “cheeky” performance, as the crushing weight of dramatic irony threatens to swamp the universe. All will become clear. The man with the white hair trots out ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’. Cheeky? Yes. Tuneful? No. Notice that you struggled to sing along with this whilst watching at home? This is because he was a semitone sharp almost the whole way through in a manner which was at times quite excruciating. Whilst waiting for someone other than me to point this out I finally spotted that the X Factor format almost requires the judges to critique the performance as a whole rather than the actual singing. You will notice that there is no equivalent of say a Randy Jackson who will pull a face and so “I dunno dawg, for me that was a bit pitchy for me that was”. Hence the poor singers are never really pulled up on their technical inadequacies. Yes it is nicer, but it does mean that people who can’t really hold a tune ride through sometimes at the expense of people who can sing. Fine in theory, except on those occasions (hello Leon Jackson) when a non-singer wins and this bites them on the bottom.

I mentioned arses again. Almost as if it is foreshadowing something. Also, have you noticed how Cheryl constantly glances down at her notes when delivering her reviews? Even when she is saying nice things about her own acts.

Moving on, and to sing next is new competition favourite NiceBloke. His big news of the week is the hand injury he has suffered whilst in the X Factor gym. It means he spends every rehearsal wearing a sling, making slick choreography rather tricky this week. If you don’t mind, I’m going to pretend he has actually suffered some kind of bizarre wanking injury as it makes the whole thing even funnier.

Tonight he is singing ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ but this ends up being just a little bit of a letdown. It is a huge song to sing and he is by no means the first person ever to be totally swamped by the song and almost lost on the stage. Pleasingly Dannii makes the same point mere moments after I’ve written the above in my notes which does at least mean that one of us knows what we are talking about. Meanwhile the wanking knuckle injury is elevated to “nearly broke your arm” by the time we get round to Simon’s comments and he is required to make excuses for the poor performance of one of his acts.

The regrettable but sadly inevitable parade of boys continues with Ken who has chosen ‘Somebody To Love’. In the deserted theatre of celebrity worship, May and Taylor purse their lips and tell him what a hard song it is which sets this up to be a car crash. Except it isn’t. His rendition is everything the last chap wasn’t. Showing a side of him he never has before he delivers this in a powerful, confident manner and even hits the long sustain into the bridge without so much as a wobble. If it does fall to me to start critiquing the singing then I’m pleased to report this was almost inch perfect. Best of the night honours are surely going to go his way.

Louis grumpily complains about the choir that joined him onstage, for reasons that are not quite clear. Simon says he was better last week. I shout at the TV that last week is irrelevant before realising they are in Zone 4 on the tube map and can’t hear me.

So it comes to this. Fresh from Stacey-gate are the Malfoy Twins. I’m going to skip over the “we met Queen. The Band not The Queen” gap in their intro VT as this was clearly scripted as part of a new campaign to endear them to the public. Some of us aren’t so easily fooled you know.

Their carefully chosen (to mask their inadequacies) song is ‘Ice Ice Baby’, er.. I mean ‘Under Pressure’, although the joke is spoiled when they wind up doing a cute hybrid of both songs. As seen on the last Westlife tour I’m told. Wonder who came up with that idea. First of all we should note that as a performance, this was knockout wonderful. I’m not sure what it was. Whether it was the revelation that they make better rappers than dancers or whether it was the fact that the staging meant they toned down that annoying little jig dance that they always wind up doing, I’m not sure. All I do know is that for a brief four minutes it was worth forgetting everything that had gone before and appreciating the pair in a whole new light. Now that took some doing.

Sadly for them, this won’t be the reason the performance was remembered. The headlines will belong to a stage invader (quickly revealed to be planned studio guest Calvin Harris) who makes his bid for Jarvis Cocker-esque infamy by dancing around with a pineapple on his head before pointing his rear end towards the camera and then exiting stage left. Some swift camera work ensures it was a blink and you’ll miss it moment, but the wonder of the internet means that screen captures of the whole thing were being swapped left right and centre within moments of the performance.

If he had tried to disrupt them being awful it might have been funnier. As it was, as a timely intervention this was right up there with the time during my university years when the rag society hijacked a Union meeting, just as they were discussing a recent campus suicide.

We’ll move on to the lady who is quite blatantly the only womb-packing contestant left – Dagenham Doris. She performs ‘Who Wants To Live Forever’ which turns out to be an inspired choice. For the first time since, well pretty much the first audition show, she gets to break out the “new Leona” persona that made her an instant favourite after the very first show on the series. Can I change my mind about best of the night? This was rich, classy and actually not a little bit moving. The panel shower her with praise, meaning we get to see her looking really happy over and over again. The downside being that it hits home how much her “I am really pleased” face is exactly the same as everybody else’s “I am doing a large poo” face.

To bring up the rear if you’ll pardon the ever more appropriate pun, here comes Arsehyl who is apparently still on the horns of the “too cocky or not to cocky” dilemma. OneHalfOfQueen reassure him that most people believed that Freddie Mercury was cocky and arrogant and it didn’t let him bother him. Although Freddie also had lost of unprotected promiscuous sex and didn’t let that bother him either, and look where that got him. Not that Arsehyl will fall into that trap, unless he takes Cheryl’s cooing over his close cropped haircut at face value.

What’s that? Oh yes, his song. ‘We Are The Champions’. It was only OK, and Dermot has just reminded me that we have to endure this year’s charity ensemble record tomorrow night and so we’ve finished on a downer.

We’re left at the end of this performance night with three big questions unanswered:

  1. Who is for the bullet? I’d go for NotGazza in all honesty.
  2. What is the “big Queen surprise” that they teased.
  3. What is the technical TV term for the “emergency wide shot of extreme panic” that the director cut to when Calvin Harris started waving pineapples around?

On that last question, I’ll consult a TV director friend and report back tomorrow. In the meantime I’ll leave you with a clip of the Twitscoop cloud from moments after the show ended. The bigger the word, the more popular it is. Can you guess what the real talking point of tonight was?

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