RIP MCA – Why Adam Yauch’s death will be a great loss to music

Adam 'MCA' Yauch of the Beastie Boys (1964-2012)
Photo: Flickr User: Michael Morel

“I’ve got more rhymes than I’ve got grey hairs / And that’s a lot because I’ve got my share”

With lyrics like these, it’s obvious that Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch was no ordinary rapper. Self-aware, self-deprecating and acutely witty to the last, he was the creative heart of the Beastie Boys and his death, at the age of 47, will be felt throughout the music scene, from hip hop to punk and beyond.

At the time of MCA’s death, the band were reportedly planning a return to their roots in the form of a full-band punk tour, making the news so much more of a shock when it emerged earlier this weekend. Not that it was completely out of the blue – Yauch’s health had been a matter for concern ever since he was diagnosed with cancer of the salivary gland back in 2009.

A true musical pioneer, Adam Nathaniel Yauch co-founded the Beastie Boys in New York in 1981 with Adam ‘Adrock’ Horovitz and Michael ‘Mike D’ Diamond. Originally a hardcore punk act, the band spanned the genres as the years went on, famously supporting Madonna on tour in 1985 and being banned from the UK in 1986 for provoking the trend for stealing VW badges from cars and wearing them as oversized necklaces.

True pioneers of both white boy rap and rap rock, without Yauch and the Beasties we quite possibly wouldn’t have Rage Against the MachineEminem or Linkin Park. MCA’s deep gravelly voice was integral to the band’s sound, providing a perfect counterpoint to the nasally tones of Mike D and Adrock.

Beyond music, Yauch was a committed activist with many causes to shout about, from environmentalism (the band appeared at the 2008 Live Earth concert) to non-violence. He even went public with his views on peace in the Middle East during the band’s 1998 VMA awards acceptance speech and the Dalai Lama paid tribute to Yauch upon hearing the news of his death:

Adam had helped us raise awareness on the plight of the Tibetan people by organizing various freedom Tibet concerts and he will be remembered by his holiness and the Tibetan people.

For many, the Beasties were the first hip hop act to reflect this left-wing liberal sensibility. From the late 90s onwards, they railed against bigotry in all its forms, proving that rap music doesn’t have to be all about self-aggrandisement and blatant machismo.

To read the rest of this article on Virgin Red Room, click here.

UPDATE 10/08/12: Beastie Boys star Adam Yauch’s will bans music in ads – what a legend!

Bloodletting to save the planet: 10:10’s twisted vision

Nowadays it’s increasingly hard to get worthy messages across about saving the planet without your audience simply switching off. In the post-Copenhagen world we’re all just a bit disillusioned. Carbon emissions reduction campaign 10:10 thought they had struck upon the perfect way to make an impact, when they teamed up with Richard Curtis (of Four Weddings… and Blackadder fame), but changed their mind after less than 24 hours.

The original version is still available on YouTube and the explosive short film provoked quite a reaction, but was it what 10:10 were hoping for? Their hurried retraction, which the Guardian reproduces here, suggests not.

There’s no doubt that blowing people up for their lackadaisical approach to reducing carbon emissions is striking and is gorey enough to make people pay attention, but is this approach tasteful, or even effective? If they were aiming to make us take this issue seriously, then they certainly failed, but given Curtis’ pedigree, it’s unlikely that a serious approach was what 10:10 were aiming for.

Maybe they intended to cause offence from the off. After all, any publicity is good publicity, and I wouldn’t be blogging about this now if the short film wasn’t controversial. They certainly pulled off an impressive trick by roping in celebrities such as Peter ‘The Robot‘ Crouch, Gillian Anderson and David Ginola, but is the message lost in the OTT ridiculousness of it all?

This is certainly the most memorable climate change video I’ve watched all year, but for all the wrong reasons. I’ll tell people about this because of the content, but not the message. Nothing about it inspired me to change my living habits. However if the aim was just to get the name of the campaign out there, then 10:10 have certainly succeeded.

A Hitchhiker’s guide to ethical travel

Since the monumental anti-climax of the Copenhagen conference in December, it has been very hard to find interesting and relevant environmental journalism. The media disenchantment is palpable. As a refreshing change, this weekend I discovered the BBC’s Ethical Man blog, written by Justin Rowlatt. Rowlatt’s approach to ethical living is rooted in science and in his latest post he sums up his attempts to calculate the most energy-efficient mode of travel, with a few controversial conclusions:

Cars are greener than public transport

fairly empty bus
Flickr User: MBK (Marjie)

Except, they aren’t. Well, they can be if they’re full and the bus/train isn’t. Rowlatt claims that the average UK bus only holds nine passengers (rising to 13 in London), so a four-seater car would be more eco-friendly, on a person per person basis. This argument is effective in highlighting the surprising state of affairs at the moment, but the only logical conclusion to be drawn is that more of us should take public transport. The more people use it, the more efficient it becomes.

Walking can be more polluting than driving

This may seem absurd, but there is a twisted logic at work here. Walking is energy-intensive and as a result of exercise we have to eat more food to refuel our bodies. With the aid of some rather rough science, Rowlatt concludes that the average human walking at 3mph has the carbon efficiency equivalent to 42 mpg (miles per gallon), and some hybrid cars are more efficient than this. Furthermore on an all-beef diet, this drops to 10mpg, making you the human equivalent of a Chevrolet Corvette. Whether you let his calculations stand or not, the fact remains that the vast majority of road cars are less efficient than 42mpg, by quite some way, so walking is almost always the more eco-friendly option.

Hitchhiking is the most carbon-efficient form of transport

Now this seems to be written with a hint of tongue in cheek, and rightly so. Rowlatt postulates that in a hitchhiking scenario, the driver was going to make his trip anyway, so by picking up a stranger he is nearly doubling his efficiency. Rowlatt concedes that hitchhiking is highly dangerous, although he does have a pretty amusing anecdote of hitchhiking to Glastonbury festival to commend this mode of transport. Having undertaken a similar journey myself, I can add another criticism – hitchhiking is incredibly slow! Perhaps even slower than walking. In my experience, you can be waiting hours to be picked up at any one location, and compared to that, the much maligned public transport system suddenly seems quite alluring…

Hitch-hiker heading for Glastonbury
Would you give this man a lift? A fellow hitch-hiker on the way to Glastonbury 2007

Climate Change protesters on the crest of a Wave

Trudging through a soggy December afternoon is rarely as heartening as it was last weekend. The Wave, organised by the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition, attracted swathes of punters to London, all intent on putting pressure on the gathered politicians at the upcoming Copenhagen Conference on climate change. Some were seasoned veterans, others were barely old enough to walk. All the pilgrims gathered in Grosvenor Square around midday and the congregation of banners, face-painters and vibrant music gave the day a festival-esque feel. The choice of Galvanize by the Chemical Brothers as the anthem of the day was particularly astute and fitting.

Ed Miliband at The Wave 2009
A Miliband in the midst

When the music subsided, so did the early euphoria. A sizeable stage had been erected for the organisers to give speeches from, yet the PA was either too weak, or badly balanced, so their words fell on deaf ears. Next to me, a small girl, no older than six years old, blew loudly on a whistle. As her parents tried to quieten her down, she retorted: “What’s the point? I can’t hear them anyway.” Among the crowd, Energy and Climate Change minister Ed Miliband mingled, fielding general questions and posing for photos.

From this point onwards, the lack of organisation began to show, as the march got off to an awkward, stumbling start. The planned exit to Grosvenor Square became an impenetrable bottleneck, and made the event seem more like queueing for climate change, rather than marching. As we reached Mayfair, the pace began to quicken and the eccentricity of the protesters shone through.

A Cycle-powered stero at The Wave 2009
The Cactus Caravan

Later, my group passed the Cactus Caravan, a cycle-powered stereo atop a garishly-decorated trolley, which entertained the masses with classic protest anthems such as Gold Lion by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer.

As we marched past Starbucks, McDonald’s and Porsche garages, I was surprised not to see even a hint of anti-capitalist rage. Despite various communist banners, the tone of the Wave was peaceful and a million miles away from the hectic events of the G20 protests, back in April. The sheer turnout and the diversity of the crowd made this a far more significant demonstration of public sentiment. Those who marched in The Wave were undeterred by the wintery conditions and there was no allure of anarchy and violence to draw in the curious or those attending for the wrong reasons.

All the major charities were out in force, some making more helpful contributions that others. I was in two minds about the rickshaws that Oxfam had deployed to ferry protesters along. On the one hand their irritating size hindered those of us on foot (what’s the point of going to a march and being chauffeured around anyway?), but on the other hand they did provide valuable support for the elderly and infirm.

As the march turned onto Piccadilly, a party atmosphere began to build. Walking down the middle of one of London’s most famous streets was a liberating experience, which climaxed at the world-famous Piccadilly Circus. This invigorating feeling continued to buoy up the troops as we passed Trafalgar Square, despite a cynical banner that proclaimed: “Don’t be duped, investigate climategate“. It may be a while before people are marching for climate change denial, but the presence of this defiant banner was indicative of the sea change that has taken place over the past week.

Houses of Parliament from a bridge over the River Thames, London
A View From The Bridge

Reaching Parliament Square should have been a triumphant end to this march, however, due to a gross lack of central organisation it was more of a damp squib. The proposed finishing point was 3pm, at which point we were all meant to create a Mexican wave around the Houses of Parliament. But when exactly is 3pm? By whose watch? From where I stood it was impossible to hear Big Ben’s chimes, so the wave that came was disorganised and confused.

As we crossed the eventual finish line at Embankment, we were greeted by a man on top of a bus giving general encouragement via a megaphone; words to the effect of  “Thank you all for coming, aren’t we all great?”. I have no idea who he was or whether he was meant to be an important figure. “Last year we had George Monbiot, this year we’ve got this berk,” a man next to me bemoaned. Our megaphoned crier was certainly far from well-informed. “How many did we have here today?” he asked an assistant, before inaccurately proclaiming that 40,000 had turned out.

Later, from the comfort of a nearby pub, BBC News informed us that the turnout was closer to 20,000 and our fellow beer drinkers cheered heartily. In some ways it was all about the level of participation, which showed a real groundswell of support ahead of the Copenhagen conference. The range of people, from toddlers to pensioners, hippies to yuppies, showed that climate change truly is an issue with the scope to garner widespread interest. To convert this popular sentiment into results will take much better organisation, however. Stop Climate Chaos ultimately failed to provide a focal point for the march, resulting in an anti-climactic, disaffected end to an otherwise encouraging march.

To see more photos from The Wave, click here.

Kingsnorth is dead, long live Nuclear

Drax coal-fired power station in North Yorkshire: a Victorian relic
Drax coal-fired power station in North Yorkshire (Flickr user: Jonobass)

Great news today for eco warriors everywhere – E.ON have pushed back their plans for the Kingsnorth coal-fired power plant by three years. As a result, the project will not be completed until 2016, if at all. The German electricity company cite the state of the economic market as their reason, but they are callous not to acknowledge the impact of Green protest groups such as Greenpeace and Climate Camp.

Kingsnorth has long been seen as a symbol of backward-thinking policy, and this delay will be celebrated as a huge victory, mainly because it makes the project all the less likely to ever be completed. If E.ON think the conditions for building a coal-fired power station are bad now, then enthusiasm for burning fossil fuels is unlikely to improve in seven years time as we approach peak oil. For Green activists, this should be seen as evidence that protesting and lobbying does work and can make an impact on multi-national corporations, just don’t expect them to admit that you’ve won.

Many will be sceptical of the impact that Greenpeace and Climate Camp have had and claim that global economic factors play a much larger role  in these decisions. Even if this is true, it should still provide encouragement for environmental protesters. Recent predictions suggest that the recession has resulted in a 3% global reduction of greenhouse gases. There has never been a better time to drive home the point that there are cheap, workable and cleaner ways of producing electricity. The time and effort spent on Kingsnorth could have been much better spent researching alternatives. E.ON claims to be leading the charge in developing Nuclear power to tackle the global threat of climate change (their words, not mine), now they need to put their money where their mouth is and give up on Kingsnorth for good. Coal is dead and should be resigned to the Victorian age.

Branson Takes One Giant Leap

Richard Branson
Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group (Photo: Flickr user riz94107)

Business maverick Richard Branson hopes to boldly go where others wouldn’t even dream with the launch of his latest venture, Virgin Galactic. Forget what you thought about the cost and carbon footprint of space tourism: by launching their craft, SpaceShipTwo, from a mother-ship cruising at 50,000 ft, Virgin Galactic say they can cut out 90% of the CO2 emissions of a traditional rocket launch and the price per passenger is reduced by a staggering 99%. The result –
space tourism is no longer just for millionaires.

This project is green to the core. Virgin Galactic claims that its two-hour flights, which reach heights of 110km above the earth, will burn just 1.5 tonnes of CO2 per passenger – 40% less than the carbon footprint of a London to New York return flight on a commercial jet. Branson has also stated that his New Mexico spaceport will take all its energy requirements from natural, renewable  resources. It has been designed, by Lord Foster of Gherkin fame, to draw on wind, solar and geothermal energy.

James Lovelock, environmentalist doomsayer and author of the Revenge of Gaia, will be one of the first passengers to get a taste of this $200,000 zero-gravity experience and Branson believes a VG flight could change the way the rich and powerful think about the world. “Seeing the planet from out there, surrounded by the incredibly thin protective layer of atmosphere, helps one wake up to the fragility of the small portion of the planet’s mass that we inhabit,” says the bearded one.

The $200,000 price tag may seem prohibitively steep, but it is significantly cheaper than the $20m that the first space tourist Dennis Tito spent on his trip in 2001. Since then, five self-funded space tourists have followed in his footsteps, with Hungarian-American Charles Simonyi currently on his second orbital jaunt.

Virgin Galactic's mother-ship EVE, during a test-flight (Photo: Freddie Weston-Smith)
Virgin Galactic's mothership EVE, during a test-flight (Photo: Freddie Weston-Smith)

But the age of exclusivity characterised by Tito et al is coming to an end. Virgin Galactic is not a far-flung fantasy of the distant future. Work on SpaceShipTwo is well advanced and last month its mother-ship EVE  completed its longest and fastest test flight. All being well, the company should begin commercial operations within the next two years.

Will Whitehorn from Virgin Galactic insists that this project is more than just a millionaire’s plaything: “We have radically changed the economics of getting to space and built the most advanced aviation system the world has ever seen,” he says. “Training only takes three days – within years you could go to space for a week’s holiday.”

Given the state of the environment and the economy, this does all seem a bit frivolous, regardless of the massive savings in cash and carbon. But Whitehorn insists on the importance of investing in such innovation: “Over the past 15 years we have become so reliant on space technology. We could not even feed the population of the earth anymore without satellites to predict weather forecasts for farmers and GPS systems to guide food deliveries  to the stores.”

But can they really be immune to the global recession? Surely VG must be feeling the pinch? Nothing of the sort, according to Whitehorn: “We have seen a massive surge in interest lately. Over 300 reservations have already been made, totalling more than $40 million in deposits.” One thing seems clear, this project certainly has momentum.

Despite Branson’s many successes, or perhaps because of them, Britain has never really warmed to him. Maybe its got something to do with how self-satisfied he always looks, but then again, if you were worth $2.4 billion, you’d be pretty smug too. For those of you who would be glad to see the London-born entrepreneur shot into space and never return, here’s Babylon Zoo’s 1995 electro-rock hit (I couldn’t resist).

UK Aware 09: The great, the good and the green

This weekend saw the UK’s only green and ethical living expo come to the Kensington Olympia 2. What better opportunity to try out my new found multimedia skills? Please let me know what you think of my first attempt at video blogging.
(I categorically refuse to say vlogging. Ever.)

The atmosphere in the exhibition hall was buzzing. Around 100 stalls promoted ethical banking, fair-trade foods and clothes swapping, to name but three good causes. You could almost feel the self-satisfaction of punters and stall holders alike.

However, I was very disappointed to find out that the Tesla Roadster, the star attraction, was not on show. The organisers declined to name the motoring journalist responsible for its absence.

Later when I approached The Ecologist magazine, they were very cagey and refused to go on the record about the recent choice to go on-line only, although they did confirm that the new site will have a subscription area to ensure future revenue. Seems like some troubled and uncertain months lie ahead for this invaluable publication.

Overall, the event was exciting, inspiring and packed with innovation. Many thanks to Ed Franklin, James Lloyd and Ptolemy Elrington for their contributions. Please visit their sites and support their fantastic green products.

G20: Protesters strike back

Just when I thought the G20 protests would get swept under the rug, the events of this week have re-stoked the fires of dissent and unrest. The alarming second post-mortem on Ian Tomlinson revealed that the 47-year-old newspaper seller died of internal hemorrhaging not, as was previously thought, a heart attack. Reports suggest that the officer involved could face the charge of manslaughter, so this is definitely one to keep an eye on.

This seems to have garnered genuine public interest and the Evening Standard’s splash yesterday ‘What Have You Got To Hide?’ pours further scorn on the tactics of the Metropolitan Police. It seems this one is not ready for a rug sweeping just yet.

Nicola Fisher does seem to be milking her altercation for all it’s worth and her decision to hire Max Clifford does raise serious doubts about her real motives (as if you need reminding, this is the man who juiced the last days of Jade Goody). Hugo Rifkind acerbically dissects Fisher’s anti-capitalist credentials in a typically witty column for The Times.

But the really impressive footage to arise this weekend comes from Climate Camp in the City. At 9 minutes 50 seconds, this professionally-edited documentary pushes the upper time limit of YouTube, but it is well worth a watch as it wonderfully encapsulates the mood at Climate Camp and exposes some disgraceful police behaviour to break up the protest after dark.

For those of you who don’t have 10 minutes to spare, the highlights are:

4:50 – An officer is clearly seen smacking a protester across the head with his shield.
7:49 – An officer punches a protestor in the face.

Whilst I can partially sympathise with the police who must have had one of the hardest days of their careers, the assaults shown here are simply indefensible. In my last post, I called for a bigger stick to beat the police with. I think the protesters have found it.

The Metropolitan police haven’t seen the back of this one yet.

G20: The view from the frontline

Firsr damage at Threadneedle Street
First damage at Threadneedle Street

Violent, anarchist protesters grabbed headlines yesterday by smashing their way into a branch of RBS on Threadneedle street, effectively stealing Barack Obama and Gordon Brown’s thunder. Whilst this certainly got people’s attention, it is hardly the most effective way to convince the G20 to listen and act responsibly on the climate and economic crises.

At the frontline the atmosphere was electric – crowds pushing, chants erupting out of nowhere – not dissimilar to a heavy-metal gig or a music festival. It was hard not get swept up with the call and response: “Whose streets? Our streets!”

But it didn’t have to be like this. Had the Metropolitan Police not pursued such stubborn ‘kettling’ tactics on the protest at the Bank of England, the damage could have been mitigated. Admittedly, there were several thugs who were intent on violence, but their ire was spurred on by the thousands of peaceful protesters who had been trapped in this small part of the square mile.

Police surrounded the main area, blocking all the exits by standing shoulder to shoulder and refused to allow protesters to leave “until the protest was over” for fear of the various London protest groups combining to form a riot, but the frustration of being penned in one area for hours without food, water or toilets is enough to make borderline dissidents turn to violence. Such controversial ‘kettling’ practices were only deemed legal in January.

Helicopter hovers over the G20 protest
Helicopter hovers over the G20 protest

Police stood by in full riot gear, but remained calm to the rising tide of anger. Photos were taken from rooftops and helicopters hovered ominously. The basic tactic seemed to be: “Let them loot and smash all they want, we’ll arrest them later.” After half an hour of unbridled window smashing, egg throwing, smoke-grenade lobbing and curtain ripping, 24 police horses were brought in to force the crowd back. In our modern times it is humbling to see such graceful creatures and their composure amidst the chaos. Melanie Reid has written an excellent column about this over at Timesonline.

Eventually an exit was opened, but there was no mass rush to escape. Rather, the disinterested protesters were left to find this back-door on their own. The majority of the protest was peaceful and colourful; full of dancing and accompanied by music from Billy Bragg and Get Cape. Wear Cape Fly. However, without a powerful enough PA to address the entire crowd, the event lacked focus or guidance.

A campaigner talks into a kinetic energy-powered PA at Climate CampClimate
A campaigner talks into a kinetic energy-powered PA at Climate Camp

Over at Bishopsgate, the Climate Camp protest was a much more peaceful affair. The hippie atmosphere provided a welcome relief and the level of debate and discussion was far more intellectual.

One speaker used a PA system powered by kinetic energy from a bicycle and invited passers-by to play climate change Top Trumps. If meaningful global change is going to come from direct action and protest, this seems like a much more likely source than the aggressive anarchist tactics which were unleashed at Threadneedle Street.

I took all of the above photos – to see more and two video clips from this protest, visit my Flickr stream page. My partner-in-crime Abby Edge has a lovely slideshow of photos she took on the day and some great analysis over at her blog, Grassy Roots.

Lights out for the G20

My view
My view

As I’m sat here in the darkness I’m wondering if this is all worth it. An hour without lights seemed hard enough, but I felt compelled to go the extra mile and forgo all electrical appliances. All that’s left is me and my guitar. Sounds romantic, but it’s too dark to see the frets and my Biffy Clyro impression sounds lousy. I can hear clearly that my neighbour is watching Matrix Revolutions. Seems I’m in this alone.

Last night, in case you missed it, was more than just the beginning of British Summer Time. At 8.30pm WWF’s annual Earth Hour began – an idea which struck me with its simplicity and symbolic power last year, but I never got around to contributing to it. With G20 protests bringing alive the spirit of activism, it felt right to do something personal to try and change the world.

Only to the world I probably looked like a lone nutter. The first few minutes were bizarre – I anticipated 8.30 with mild trepidation as I wondered if I would go through with it or just lame out. As it happened, Earth Hour inconsiderately began half way through my dinner, so I started the hour fumbling with my curry like a diner at Dans Le Noir? After a couple of minutes, however night vision came surprisingly easily. I opened my curtains to let in some natural light. Instead of moonlight, my room was lit up by the distant yellow glow of a million other Londoners happily ignoring this hippy protest.

Newcastle glows with electrical power
Newcastle at night; glowing with electrical power

Symbolic gestures weren’t too scarce (The London Eye, The BT Tower and The Coca-Cola Lights at Piccadilly Circus were all blacked out), but looking out over central London it seemed like few had taken it on themselves to join in.

In truth, I got used to the darkness. It was oddly relaxing not to be hammering away at my laptop or flipping through channels trying in vain to find an episode of Top Gear that I haven’t already seen. Half an hour in I received an encouraging text from my fellow eco-nut and darkness dweller Abby Edge. “I’ve still got my laptop on,” she admitted, “does that count?” I felt proud of my puritanical effort.

I strummed another chord trying to remember some Bob Dylan. Whilst my guitar work leaves a lot to be desired, that is probably more down to a lack of practise than a lack of light. In the end I got so engrossed in my practice that I happily played on in darkness for an extra four minutes at the end of the hour.

What the G20 protests this week show us is that for politicians to really make difficult decisions on the economy or the environment, they need the public pressure. Marching on the city is a great start, but for individual actions to make a difference it’s going to take long-term commitment as well as widespread co-operation. If we don’t then blackouts might not be voluntary in the future.

The good news, I can report, is that Britain is on course for meeting its Kyoto target for 2012. But now is not the time to get complacent. Far from it – now is the time to get active.

By all accounts, WWF seems to be praising Earth Hour 2009 as a huge success. Total figures of CO2 saved have not yet been calculated, but the symbolic power of plunging landmarks into darkness will surely have a worldwide impact.