5 bands to watch in 2011

The way the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph have been carrying on this week, anyone would think that British rock music is about ready to pack up and go home.
While the lack of any serious Brit award nominations does reflect a shortage of successful mainstream guitar-based music in 2010, the fact that only three so-called rock songs made the top 10 of the singles chart last year is hardly a major cause for concern. If you’re looking for emerging talent in 2011, it doesn’t take long to scratch below the surface and find some hidden gems.

1.) This Town Needs Guns

This Oxford-based quartet made waves on the alt-rock scene with their 2008 debut Animals, and are set to follow that up with another, as yet untitled, record in late summer. TTNG mix mesmeric rhythms with mind-bending guitar licks to create a sound that no-one can rival.

2.) Sonic Boom Six

If you’re looking for proof that ska’s not dead, Laila Khan and co made be just the answer. This irrepressible group have been honing their sound since 2002, and with a support slot on King Blues‘ nationwide tour coming up, they could be about to take off.

3.) Jil Is Lucky

Bit of a cheat here, since Jil Bensénior is a French artist, but his Mid-Atlantic style folk tunes are definitly worth a mention. Signed to EMI, his self-titled debut album is due to reach these shores in February, after a highly successful French release. Think Conor Oberst meets Sam Duckworth and you’re not far off.

4.) Skeletons and the Empty Pockets

The effervescent new incarnation of ThisGIRL are due to finally release their debut ep this year, following up from their hugely promising first single Oh Brother! Oh Sister! Lead singer Liam Creamer’s acrobatic vocals and Mick Jagger swagger make for an unmissable live show as well.

5.) Dive Dive

Better known to many as Frank Turner‘s backing band, the Oxford quartet started life while the folk-rock troubadour was still in his previous band Million Dead. Their third album, Potential, is out tomorrow, and it has already garnered much praise from Kerrang (4Ks) and Rock Sound (9/10). Jamie Stuart’s vocals sound as sharp as ever on lead single Liar, see below for a whole host of alt-rock cameos:

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British papers fawn over Russian doll

I must admit, I was taken in by the Cold War intrigue of the FBI arresting 11 Russian secret agents this week. It’s been a good few weeks since a decent story emerged and with England knocked out of the World Cup, the broadsheets were beginning to run out of things to talk about. So it was understandable that the Telegraph and The Times both went big with this story – double-page news features, columnists wading in etc. However, after one extended read it rapidly became clear that this story was not as significant as it first seemed. As with anything involving the FBI, the details are desperately thin on the ground – all that can really be discerned is that there are allegations of money laundering involved. Their main crime seems to be against spying cliches, with one of the 11 recorded as meeting another informant in the park and greeting them with the secret phrase “It is wonderful to be Santa Claus in May.”

Anna Chapman Russian Spy
I wonder why the British press are so keen on Anna Chapman?

Keen to make the most out of this story, the papers focused in on former London resident Anna Chapman. She has effectively made this story, helped in no small way by her former husband Alex Chapman who rather generously sold his most glamorous photos of her to the Daily Telegraph. The shameless punning headlines rolled in, with various allusions to Austin Powers and James Bond. In this way, the broadsheets have rather embarrassed themselves by scrapping over such a non-story which wouldn’t have got anywhere near as much coverage if it wasn’t the summer and if the main protagonist wasn’t so attractive.

The Standard splashed on Friday with a large picture of Chapman in a bikini, describing her as a femme fatale. Lest we lose all perspective, we should remind ourselves that money laundering is not fatal. In fact, in other circumstances it might be described as a victimless crime.

Is there any substance to this story? We won’t know for several months. In the meantime, the broadsheets will enjoy filling their pages with second-hand pictures of some posh foreign crumpet.

Telegraph vindicated by MPs’ expenses blackout

House of Secrecy (photo: Fleet Street Blues)
House of Secrecy (photo: Fleet Street Blues)

When we look back on the main British news stories of 2009, the MPs expenses scandal will undoubtedly stand out. It will take a lot to eclipse the bombshell that hit Westminster in May. The latest twist in this story seems to have sealed the reputation of both our current crop of MPs and The Daily Telegraph. On Thursday morning, the long-awaited publication of the MPs expenses in full showed how perfectly justified The Telegraph were in paying to have exclusive, advance access to the expenses documents.

The story broke whilst I was on work experience there, and I had mixed feelings about the revelations, not least because they spiked a couple of my stories. For me, the public interest in publishing the expenses early seemed to wane in relation to the potential financial gain of such a scoop. The Commons Fees office had long promised to publish the expenses in June and if the information was going to come into the public realm anyway then the only real reason the Telegraph could have for buying the documents would be the monetary windfall from getting the scoop out there first.

Whilst the financial boon of the story cannot be denied, yesterday’s official publication confirms, once and for all, the public interest argument in The Telegraph’s decision to buy the expenses documents. If they had not shelled out thousands of pounds for this story, then the full details of the scandalous expenses may never have seen the light of day. On reflection I can now give my unreserved praise to The Telegraph for breaking the story of the year with consummate flair and timing, and for bringing a truly important story into the public realm.

I would rant further about what this tells us about the avarice and secrecy of Westminster, but Matthew Parris at The Times does a far better job than I ever could. The fallout is still continuing and the MPs responsible are being made to look less and less trustworthy every day. We will only know the true extent of the impact after a general election, which can’t come soon enough.

MPs Expenses: The Apathetic Fallout

(Photo: Flickr User eddiedangerous)
(Photo: Flickr User eddiedangerous)

My feelings about the Daily Telegraph’s exposure of MPs’ expenses and the ensuing scandal are mixed to say the least. Whilst this  is undoubtedly a great public interest exclusive and a massive victory for freedom of information, it has left me feeling somewhat cold.

The Telegraph grabbed this story with both hands and ran with it, understandably. Friday’s revelation warranted nine pages of broadsheet coverage, 11 on Saturday and a further nine on Sunday, and it seems no other national could resist delving into this story. Today’s publication of the Tories’ expenses gives the lie to traditional allegations that The Telegraph is exclusively a loyal Conservative paper. With Cameron cruising to Number 10,  The Telegraph will have to get used to criticising its favourite party, even if it will not be championing Labour’s opposition as much as it has done for the Tories. Who knows, after Smeargate, the Lib Dems may even regain their status as Britain’s second political party? (Wishful thinking perhaps.)

But the main thing which surprises me from all this is the suggestion that the suitable remedy is increasing MPs’ salaries, which I find frankly preposterous. Rewarding them for abusing the system is comparable to giving wasteful investment bankers multi-million pound bonuses. Instead, I have to agree with Gordon Brown (for a change): “The system doesn’t work… it’s got to be changed.”

That’s right, changed, but not scrapped. The second home allowance, controversial though it may be, is based on sound reasoning. MPs almost invariably have and need two homes. The failing of the system has been twofold. Firstly, ministers have got greedy, pushed their luck and got away with it for years and years. Clearly this cannot and will not continue. Call it the court of public opinion if you must.

But secondly, and more importantly, there has been a failing in regulation. The House of Commons fees office has not been strict enough, and this is a combination of the Green Book guidelines being too generous and the rules not being followed closely enough.

MPs’ expenses should be restricted to extra costs incurred by coming to parliament that should not be covered by their (already handsome) income. The second home should be defined as within 10 miles of Westminster, and the first home must be more than a commutable distance away from the House (say 50 miles).  If Keith Vaz thinks 12 miles is an unacceptable length to be commuting, he should try the rush-hour train from Guildford to London Waterloo and see how he prefers that. Nonetheless, there is nothing to say the system cannot be saved, it just has to be policed much more rigorously.

What is truly concerning about this whole fiasco is that everyone seems to be tarred by the same brush, labelled as greedy and deceptive. Cameron will probably come off better for his readiness to offer an apology, with Brown hot on his heels, but overall the main impact will be growing political disenchantment. What with all the scandal going around, it seems logical that more and more of the voting public will start to see all politicians as greedy liars and simply not turn up and vote in the next general election. Regardless of who gets the chop from the Cabinet, this scandal could have much further-reaching implications for the state of democracy in this country.

Osborne Strikes Again

After the Deripaska fiasco, you would’ve thought George Osborne would just lie low for a few weeks and keep his name out of the press.
Quite the opposite

How are we going to dig our way out of this one?
How are we going to dig our way out of this one?

Now I don’t know a great deal about politics or economics, but it didn’t take me long to realise that Osborne made a massive blunder in predicting a run on the pound. Whilst the credit crunch begins its slow and painful transformation into a full-blown recession, what we need right now is confidence coming from the top in order to begin to turn things around.
It may be the Conservatives’ role to criticise Labour’s every move, but shattering public confidence in the stability of sterling is just plain irresponsible. There are plenty of other ways to criticise Labour at the moment, and Osborne’s leader seems to be doing pretty damn well in reaction to the case of Baby P.
Osborne is, of course, obliged to be critical about the economy, but his actions have grave implications for the whole financial system. It seems he has an ‘if I’m going down, I’m taking you down with me’ mentality. And yet he refuses to apologise, and may even lose his post as a result.
There are some times where ‘telling the truth’ can do more damage than good, and you would expect a prominent politician to be aware of that. This may be the time for a novice, but it’s certainly not the time for a maverick. Just ask John McCain.
I’d be interested to know if anyone can defend his behaviour this week.

UPDATE:

So it seems Boris Johnson disagrees with me:

George Osborne is paid to warn of such risks, and he is absolutely right to do so.

In this highly predictable piece he effectively spouts the typical Tory line, but since he can no longer sit in the Commons and berate Brown face-to-face, he has to find a new medium for his partisan accusations. Mayor Johnson’s biased ramblings aside, I think it’s a bit cheap of the Telegraph to print this. Trying to snare in readers with a big name opinion piece by any chance?