30 for 30: Record Shops

30 for 30 – as I reach my fourth decade of being, I’m writing about some of the things that made the three that came before what they were. 30 – mostly trivial – things that have been a part of 30 – mostly trivial – years.

26. RECORD SHOPS

Bruce from Minus Zero Records, his now defunct shop

I love going into a record shop. I’ve hung out in them all my life.

I worked in a record shop in high school. I pretty much wrangled my way into the shop. It was called Countdown Music, and it was next to the supermarket where I worked. Every break I had I spent it at the record store.

It was run by Vicki, a lovely woman, who owned a series of stores with her husband. The Campsie store was Vicki’s baby. She was there every day, usually on her own. And she was a music fan but not a huge music nut by any means. It was chart shop in a mall.

It was a very small store too. So I’d be there, browsing the shelves and I could hear someone ask Vicki a question. And if she didn’t know it, I would just interrupt and answer them myself. I did this for a while until Vicki trusted me enough to mind the store when she went for short errands. Christmas came around and Vicki finally hired me. I had left school by then and started working there full time.

I have many stories about working at that shop. Almost all of them fond, although that might be dreaded nostalgia kicking in. But those stories are for another time.

(Best record I got here was with my first pay check I bought the Beatles Box Set, the one that came in a black bread box, which is long out of print.)

Before that awesome job, the record stores in my life were either chains, or the CD department of a bigger shop. Years of shopping with mum would have me running off to look at CDs while she did actual shopping.

As for chains – Brashes and HMV in the city were the main ones. Brashes in Pitt Street is where I used to go every day after school. There was a whole week where I would listen to You Am I’s Hourly, Daily on a listening post until I saved up enough to buy it.

Funny thing is, that was around the time I discovered indie record shops. The chains were great behemoths, but there was this little shop by the cinema that actually had an Hourly, Daily display in the window. It was the old, small Utopia Records. And although I listen to the album at HMV, I bought it at Utopia.

(And I’m glad I did because I got the “Beat Party” bonus disc. It’s also still my favourite album in the world.)

Utopia Records was primarily a metal shop. Dark, gothy and full of tattooed people all the time. I was a small kid in my school uniform. But Utopia had records I never saw in the chains. A Japanese version of Blur’s Modern Life Is Rubbish? Huge crazy box sets? Second hand but rare CD singles. Obscure bands no chain would stock. And – of course – vinyl.

It was love. And even though I wasn’t a metal head, there was plenty of records for me to buy. I think it was the point. Because a lot of smart music fans went to Utopia, so they stocked stuff like Nick Drake and Big Star – even though they are wussbags compared to Metallica. So I pretty much bought all the non metal albums I could find in that shop.

(Best thing I ever got there was the then-rare first Modern Lovers album, with the members of the band on the cover)

From there it was a small descent into the Indie Record Shops of Sydney. I had started to read street press and all those ads for all these amazing shops drew me in. Red Eye and Waterfront were the main ones – and I’m not sure I’ve ever been out in Sydney without at least dropping by one of those shops.

And I learnt so much. Both Red Eye and Waterfront would sticker their CDs with helpful information. “Rare Demo Recordings” or “Awesome album for fans of sunshine pop” or something. And it’s not like they ever stocked bad albums anyway. I remember asking for a Neil Finn CD single (his charity cover of I Can See Clearly Now) and a snobby person behind the counter said they didn’t stock that kind of stuff.

I did a lot of asking anyway. Ray from Utopia, Frank from Waterfront and various people at Red Eye, but mainly Michael. These were my teachers. Frank was one of the funnier ones – I would bring up an Uncle Tupelo CD to the counter and he would tell me to go buy Gilded Palace Of Sin instead.

There’s a lot of talk about the death of the record store – and the death of counter culture. Back in the mid to late 90s, the internet was nascent to say the least. You still had to ask, read and learn the secret corners of music history. Now we have Wikipedia.

Waterfront, which became my favourite, was bought out in the early 00s in a failed bid to start an online retailer. It closed altogether shortly after. Red Eye moved to a bigger location in a great part of town, still fighting the good fight. Utopia – well, it moved several times and started branching out into merchandise and memorabilia. It still has a lot of cool records, but has loss it’s underground vibe.

In the early 00s I was working as the Indent Manager for Warners – not worth explaining what that is but it did lead me to travel, and I had to look after all the indie record stores in Australia with obscure records.

Melbourne was probably the best music store city in Australia. Great Record stores akimbo. First time I went into Gaslight Records I had a nerdgasm. Add AuGoGo, Polyester, Greville and this little chain store JB Hi-Fi and you can spend many days doing nothing but shop go to record shops.

Again, it was a learning experience. Chuck from Gaslight turned me onto Charlie Rich, as Mel would point out big expensive box sets that I would no doubt buy. AuGoGo was more punk and had heaps of great Australian unsigned bands. Polyester was all about pop, in the indie vein, a music food staple. I loved going to these shops.

But the one I spent the most time in was Greville Records – mainly cos of Warwick. Oh Warwick. A great man, and funny as hell. Always enjoyed holding court with his customers, talking about how great specific words are in Bob Dylan songs, or going on and on about the Grateful Dead. He was pretty good with bootlegs and weird stuff too. I love that store – it may still be my favourite one in the world.

The Warner job and touring took me all over though. 78s and Dada in Perth. Big Star in Adelaide. Rockinghorse in Brisbane. Stores in Byron Bay, Canberra and even Ballarat Music and Tapes.

But that little JB Hi-Fi store in Melbourne opened in Sydney. Then every other city in Australia. By the time they got to Canberra, they literally bought out the competition. Gaslight and AuGoGo are gone. Australia was mainly JB Hi-Fi when I left. My life was back in the chains.

I went more obscure anyway. Frank from Waterfront started working for Mojo Music, a jazz specialist that branched into 60s and 70s underground stuff. I would live there – and have diet cokes with Frank, and talk about the Monks. Then over to Red Eye to talk to Michael for a while and pick up some new stuff.

JB opened several stores in Sydney, including another big one in the CBD. It’s amazing how quickly it grew and destroyed the competition, and now the music business is at it’s mercy.

I soon left the country anyway.

Wherever I go, I would always check out the stores. In Montmartre there was a little store like Mojo Music. And there’s the big chain FNAC. Barcelona was heaven – lots of small vinyl shops, with an eye for indie and underground. Pet Sounds in Stockholm. Heaps in Glasgow. Newbury Comics in Boston.

But sadly, they are dying too. Many times my dated Lonely Planet guide would lead me to a shop that had just closed. Legendary shops are dying all the time.

But there’s still the chains. The big HMV in Hong Kong. Virgin and Best Buy in the US. Virgin is even in Dubai. And yes, of course, I duck my head in every time.

London has the best record shops in the world. Even in a dying industry. Even though the island of Manhattan itself is about to have no record stores left, London booms. Sure, it had hard times and businesses go under. But it’s still remarkable.

HMV are the biggest chain left. But then there are the big indie stores. (Rough Trade, Sister Ray, etc). Then there’s the specialist stores – be your poison Jazz, Soul or whatever. Honest Jon’s in Ladbroke Grove was a reggae specialist. Then the collector scene – the second-hand world – is the greatest I’ve ever seen.

I really loved Minus Zero Records. And it was scary how quickly I fell into conversation with the people there, and how I still have so much to learn from these wiseolds.

Record shops are in trouble. Along with the entire industry. They have been hit hardest by the digital revolution. They are bleeding. Such a shame because I love them so. I love the knowledgeable staff. I loved working in one too.

I don’t use Amazon for CDs. They have limited vinyl anyway. I also don’t trust the shipping. So I will probably always need a shop to go into.

I hope there will always be some.

30 for 30: Pub Quiz

30 for 30 – as I reach my fourth decade of being, I’m writing about some of the things that made the three that came before what they were. 30 – mostly trivial – things that have been a part of 30 – mostly trivial – years.

25. PUB QUIZ
 

Newtown Town Hall - venue of many Pub Quizes

I love being part of a pub quiz

What isnit about Pub Quizzes that attracts a certain type of person?

When you look at it, coldly and from a distance, it is a strange thing. A man* asks you questions about obscure stuff. What is it supposed to be a test of?

Yet, you see all sorts there. To take a little step towards sexism, it is usually men (yes, I’ve been to pub quizzes with women, but it is predominantly men, and men get most excited about it). Trivia, I think, is a particularly male pursuit – and I’ve yet to read anyone discuss why.

For reasons best left alone, I used to have a subscription to Zoo magazine. The last page was always a Fact Page. Did-you-knows?, facts and figures, etc. One I learnt that I still remember is:

If a daughter is taller than her father, it’s actually considered a physical deformity.

(I’m not sure how accurate the Zoo magazine Fact Page is, but I’ve yet to meet a girl that is taller than her father.)

Men love facts. Yet – I don’t go to pub quizes to learn. I go to test what I’ve learnt.

Do I learn just to be tested? That’s the question. Do I plough throw my music reading, absorbing all I can, just so I can be tested? The only time that stuff really comes into use is at a pub quiz.

But I don’t read those articles thinking, BAM, locking it away for a future music pub quiz.

Maybe the bigger angle is the test. I naturally love trivia – and here’s my chance to see how much.

Lond ones were hard. We had a great team for a while. Jay covered sport and all things dude. Dan Ryan also helped with sport but was great with news and current events. Me – I had music, TV and film. Daniel Hampton backed me up on those topics and was a great all-rounder.

Best of all though was our approach. We were all on the same page.

What British city had a mechanical spider walk through it’s streets?

We talked it through and decided the best guess as Liverpool, that year’s British city of culture. But it was the way we worked it – with cold logic. And we were right. We were ego-less as well. No one argued an answer just because it was their’s.

The problem then? We needed a token British. “Apparently” easy questions like:

In 2005, what was voted on the BBC as Britain’s favourite children’s animal?

Highlight for the answer (Bagpuss. What the hell is a Bagpuss?)

What city with the postcode SY is in Shropshire?

(Shewsbury. What the hell is Shewsbury?)

We had a series of ring-ins – thank you Feds, Stewey, etc – but we never did find that magic guy. We came 2nd or 3rd consistently, often just one or two questions behind. It was frustrating.

That is the other part of it – the deduction.

What band name is the anagram of Acre Fay Forty?

(Fear Factory)

What comes next in this list?

WH PT JP TB PD CB SM PM CE DT

(MS – Matt Smith, the initials of the the Doctors in Doctor Who in order)

Another defeat for the ‘test of knowledge’ theory. This is deduction. We are pocket Sherlock Holmes’s. And I hated tests in school. Yet I happily put myself through this stuff.

Why??

Sydney was great for Pub Quiz. So many places, so many pubs. Beating the members of Gomez at the Annandale at age 20. The Quizmaster – BT – mockingly derided us with a barbed “must have written too many young people questions.” Then there were mammoth nights at the town Hall hotel, including one where Barry and I drunk our winnings in one night.

Industrys quizes are quite something too. I was once at a quiz team with Billy Brimingham, the Twelth Man himself.

I am – let’s face it – pretty good. Not only do I love facts, I love the drama and the rigmarole. At a new quiz, I love finding out the tyoes of rounds. A lyrics round, anyone?

It’s almost hilarious then when Jay and I were in France (with Dutchie and Nat in tow) doing a pub quiz – a really easy one. It was a tourist crowd, so it had to be. But God, we barely got a question wrong. We almost doubled the next team. We were hopelessly drunk and arrogant too. People must have hated those loud, obnoxious drunks at that table. The fact we won must have ruined some nights.

I got my own back in Boston though, playing against a Harvard crowd. Aftar an almost flawless first round (including identifying the band Red Rider – Tom “Life is A Highway” Cochrane’s band), we died quickly and the night got less fun. There was a maths round. And the name-the-author round was mostly non English books.

Let’s go do a pub quiz one day. I love them. I don’t see that stopping. And lately I have been looking at the theatre of it.

What is it about us, as men in particular, that are drawn to it? Maybe by the time I get to 40 for 40, I can propose some findings.

* I have never, ever, had a female Quizmaster.

30 for 30: Scott McCloud

30 for 30 – as I reach my fourth decade of being, I’m writing about some of the things that made the three that came before what they were. 30 – mostly trivial – things that have been a part of 30 – mostly trivial – years.

24. SCOTT MCCLOUD

Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics, discussing 'visual closure'

I have been a fan of Scott McCloud since high school. Writer? Artist? Technology guru? Genius? All of the above.

Of all these articles I’m writing for this 30 for 30 series, McCloud will be, by far, the most obscure.

But his influence on me is possibly the biggest of all my personal idols. Every day, I approach work, thinking and life in ways influenced, if not out right mimicking, Scott McCloud.

Let me tell you about him.

McCloud’s most groundbreaking work is Understanding Comics. Published in 1993, it was the first really serious study on the artform of comics. And it reflected the all possibilities of words and pictures combined, not just men in capes and tights.

This is the first wonderful thing I learnt.

Comics don’t equal superheroes. Don’t equal kids entertainment. That little flying in theseat pocket of a plane, with instructions to put on a life vest – that’s a comic.

Although he started in the world of comics, he went on to talk about digital distribution, micropayments and how to distribute comics online. The things he discusses can be applied to any discipline.

McCloud is, in short, the smartest person I’ve ever read discuss the sweet point of Art, Commerce and Computing.

Revelations abound for those who LOVE to take things apart.

Q) Ever wonder why people don’t use photographs to illustrate comics? Or maybe a better question is, why do people avoid doing that, or when they do, why does it seem so jarring?

A) A picture in a comic is not an instant. It can’t be. A picture in a comic suggests movement and time – especially when there is speech. Imagine a panel when two people are talking to each other.

If you think about it, the left side of the panel is not set at the same time as the right side – the two people aren’t talking at the same time.

Q) Why don’t people draw comics more realistically?

A) Because the more realistic you get, the less you relate to a character.

This is an AWESOME fact.

We see ourselves in everything.

Look at a power point.

Doesn’t it make you think of a face?

Look at a car.

Doesn’t it make you think of a face?

Draw a circle. Add two dots.

Doesn’t it look like a face?

Yet, compared to the Mona Lisa, it looks nothing like a face.

Which is the great point of all this. Mona Lisa looks like…Mona Lisa. A smiley face looks like…us.

Look at the greatest cartoon characters of all time. Homer. Mickey. You can put yourself in their shoes. Dick Tracy however, was larger than life.

The lesson; the more you abstract something, the more you relate to it.

And then there is a further abstraction – the word FACE.

Look at it.

FACE.

Something in your mind tells you to think of the concept of a face. Just like a circle with two dots does. Words and letters are the ultimate abstraction of an idea.

There is a lot more stuff like that in his books. Lots more.

McCloud’s is an art theorist and takes things apart. In understanding comics, he defines several styles of panel jumps, then graphs the number that occur in popular American comics and popular Japanese comics. Here, we see some scientific data on the difference between Manga and Superheroes.

Here are two things I love that McCloud has said about art.

1) Art can be split into 4 groups.

Classicist – those who admire form and beauty.

In music I would say artists like Cole Porter, James Taylor and Crowded House.

Animist – real gutteral, expressive, uncensored

In music I would say punk rock, but also people like Neil Young.

Formalist – exploration of the form and launguage of the art

I would say the Beatles and the Beach Boys, their exploration of sound and song structure. Later, people like Sonic Youth, Beck and people who played around with form.

Iconoclast – where the message and the personal experience is king. Very much the look-at-me kind of art.

I would lop in Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and expecially Joni Mitchell in here.

(Of course, not every fits neatly into a square).

You find this in comics. Films. Books. Everything.

More of this in the video below.

2) What the fuck is art anyway.

Get me drunk and ask me to define art, and I will give you the Scott McCloud definition of art.

Firstly though – there is a lot of pop psychology on what art is. Some say as long as you call it Art, then it is. Others look at Jackson Pollack or Norman Rockwell and decide it’s not Art.

McCloud puts his definition back at the reasons of creation rather than the result.

I’ll try and sum up this complicated notion as best I can.

We all act, and those actions have reasons – most boil down eventually to our survival instincts.

Maybe I’m trying to impress someone. There are lots of ways I can do it. I can buy them a present. I can make a speech in their honor. And at the end of the day I could be trying to impress them to get money, get a promotion, or simply sex (or companionship). Boil it down to food and reproduction – our most basic instincts.

But what if I decided to paint a picture to impress this person? Well, all those other reasons to impress still exists. But there’s a new reason – I like to paint. I like the form and I like that way of expression. In that new space, that spurs creation, is Art.

McCloud in the late 90s onwards became the poster-boy(/man) for the Digital Revolution. One that never quite came, but he was an investor in micropayment companies (that are once again getting traction), defined the possibilities of an infinite canvas and most importantly, removed expression from form.

In short, he’s a very forward thinker.

When the rest of the comic industry panics about the death of print, McCloud stuck his neck out there and said – hey, it’s about the stories, not the paper.

Just as with music. A song is not about the CD it comes on (although, that stuff can be fun). The CD was always about the promise of some great music.

In his 2000 book Reinventing Comics, when iTunes was but an idea, McCloud clearly laid out the steps that we have followed. The elimination of the supply chain. Direct-to-fan relationships.

But he also pointed out some of the reason bigger companies are needed. Production budgets is the big one. In music, the record companies have access to expensive studios and film clip budgets that a MySpace hobbyist cannot touch. There are others in the book.

McCloud was an early Mac adopter (like another person I will write about in a couple of weeks) and discusses technology a lot. I learnt ideas like Moore’s Law from him.

But McCloud has great things to say about technology and it’s predictable future.

Computers will get more powerful.

Computers will get smaller.

Resolution (monitors, speakers) will get better.

You can tell Apple knows all these sorts of rules. McCloud also spends a lot of time discussing the web and using it as a form of expression.

But if there’s one piece of thought I use every day that McCloud gave me, it’s this:

Look for patterns.

There is so much more. I always devour the latest McCloud book. Even more amazing is none of these books are written in words. They are written as comics. There’s no fight scenes, or curvey babes. It’s a science/art book written as a comic, using icons, text, graphics to tell te story in a more powerful way.

But McCloud’s next book is a return to fiction. He’s keeping it close to his chest, but it’s set in New York.

Which I am excited about. Because as much as I’ve learnt from him, he is also the writer of possibly my favourite comic ever – Zot!. I wrote about Zot! previously.

If you are a comics fan, especially with an alternative bent, you must read this.

So, that’s a brief intro to the world of Scott McCloud. An amazing writer and illustrator. And an amazing futurist and thinker. He continues to be ahead of his time, and I think his influence is only growing.

At any given time in my head, it’s swirling with ideas – for songs, stories sometimes. But sometimes about technology, web and interaction. And sometimes about business, how we work and where the world is leading.

Art. Technology. Commerce.

And the place where the three of them meet.

And sitting there is Scott McCloud.

Below is a talk McCloud did for TED, which touches quite nicely on some of his big ideas.

And his website is here – http://scottmccloud.com/


30 for 30: Doctor Who

30 for 30 – as I reach my fourth decade of being, I’m writing about some of the things that made the three that came before what they were. 30 – mostly trivial – things that have been a part of 30 – mostly trivial – years.

23. DOCTOR WHO

Matt Smith and Karen Gillan, the current stars of Doctor Who

My favourite show at the moment is Doctor Who

I am a big nerd. And I like being one. I love falling in love with stuff. And the great thing about science fiction (or this terrible word “genre”), is that it provides someone a lot to get into. Star Wars novels, Lost encyclopedias, etc.

(It’s why I love REM as well. So many albums. So many singles to collect. So many special editions. Hooray!)

But there are huge gaps in my nerd-om. Tolkien. For years I thought Tolkien was the name of a character in Lord of the Rings. Battlestar Galactica. By all accounts an amazing show. Just looks cheap and shit to me. Heroes. God what an awful show.

4 years ago, I could say the same thing about Doctor Who. Now, I am obsessed.

What the hell happened?

My pre-season three knowledge of Doctor Who could be summed up thus:

– The Doctorin’ The Tardis song, by KLF, that samples Gary Glitter’s Rock ‘n’ Roll

– The episode of Press Gang (written by future Who showrunner Steven Moffat) called UnXpected – about a  Doctor Who-ish character called Colonel X.

– A skit from the Late Show where a bouncer throws some Daleks out of a night club.

– The show had recently seen something of a rebirth, and Billie Piper was now an actor.

– Tim was a big fan. Paul was a fan as well.

And that’s about it.

I know even less about Tolkien.

The home for comics and sci-fi in London is the world famous Forbidden Planet store – and I would wander in around once a week.

Doctor Who is the biggest thing in the UK sci fi world, and it makes sense that almost half their top floor is devoted to Doctor Who. What is this stuff? People seem to love it.

Toys. Posters. Bubble bath. Costumes. Lunch boxes. It’s over whelming. And I knew nothing about Doctor Who. I have to say – I was a little jealous. Someone who loves this show is going to have so much fun.

I felt the same way as a kid, wandering into Utopia Records, Sydney’s biggest and best heavy metal music store. They would have, say, Japanese Blur records, that I would buy. But they had this whole other section of the store – merchandise. Kiss mugs, Megadeth wrist bands, Manowar posters. My little indie bands didn’t make this sort of stuff. It must be so fun to be a metal fan.

When series three started – with Martha Jones replacing Rose Tyler as the companion – it was all over the news. It was front page of every paper. It really just got to the point where they were going to take away my nerd credentials. When science fiction hits the front page of all the papers and I knew nothing about it, something was wrong.

So it’s really simple actually, the story of how I came to Doctor Who. I sat myself on the sofa one Saturday night and watched the episode 42 on BBC1. It was pretty exciting. I liked it.

So the next week rolled along, then the next. This next run of episodes – Human Nature, The Family of Blood and Blink are probably still the best run of episodes the show has ever had. These episodes won a million awards, and my heart. Blink, especially, is regarded as the greatest Doctor Who story of all time. I’m certain a whole generation of English kids will never forget it.

I’ve been watching it ever since.

I love the message of Doctor Who. The positivity. It’s the opposite of Dark Night, and in general dark sci-fi. It’s so damn positive.

And exciting. Boiling the premise and the point of Doctor Who, it’s this – stay curious and love life.

At it’s very best, it makes the everyday come to life. Statues can be amazing monsters. Your shadows could eat you alive. The crack in your wall could lead to another world. Looking up at the night sky, it’s not just pretty stars. It’s possibilities.

It’s what I love best about sci-fi. It fires the imagination. For me, this show that’s new to me, is about the purest form of all that’s good about sci fi.

That halloween I bought an excellent raincoat and went to a party as the Tenth Doctor. The raincoat is so great.

Doctor Who was also my road into British actors. Because it is one of those rare occurences when something that is hugely popular is also critically acclaimed.

I have a Brit Awards drinking game – a drink for every presenter you don’t know. And there are lots. People from old radio breakfast shows or soaps I’ve never seen. But Doctor Who opened me up a lot.

The list is amazing. David Morrisey and John Simm’s work led me back to the excellent State Of Play mini-series. Catherine Tate, who I heard about but never saw her show, was new to me. Peter Capaldi led me to The Thick Of It. Currently I am enjoying Mark Gatiss’s history of horror movies –  a man I first heard about on Who.

I guess that touches on the educational aspect of Doctor Who. But it goes beyond the silly dropping of “happy prime numbers” into a plot.

Then there’s Doctor Who Confidential – the hour long behind the scenes of Doctor Who that airs after the episode on BBC3. I’ve been chewing over a career in TV or film, and part of it comes from watching DVD extras, and some from watching Doctor Who Confidential. Every week is a lesson on lighting, or scriptwriting, or stunts, or location scouting.

There was also a kids game show based around Doctor Who called Totally Doctor Who. Primary school kids would get into the science of the show, play games and meet the stars. How amazing – shame they cancelled it.

All this happens because of what I said above – the sweet spot of being popular and critically acclaimed. Doctor Who holds such an unique place in British culture. It can do almost no wrong, and a hell of a lot of good.

And hey, it delights me that cockheads like James Murdoch hates Doctor Who, because the brand is so big, it keeps the BBC alive. In a recent rant, he claimed how unfair it was the BBC use Doctor Who to launch games and services like the iPlayer because it gives them a competitive advantage. Another win.

As of this year, Steven Moffat took over as showrunner for Doctor Who. He was another reason I was drawn to the show. He’s one of those writers I have loved all my life – from Press Gang to Coupling.

I am a Moffat fanatic. And although he’d written some of the most acclaimed episodes of Doctor Who, he was still only getting out an hour of TV a year. Jekyll did ok, but a planned second series never happened. Adam and Eve never got off the ground. His script for the Tintin movie was rewritten and is still nowhere near completion. The worse was the dismal US version of Coupling.

I also discovered along the way that Moffat was a life long Doctor Who fan. I’m not sure how to explain the feeling, but when this man who brought me so many good times, who I never met, got his dream job, I was so happy for him. I went out and got really drunk on his behalf. I didn’t care about the people leaving the show. Just that this guy I never met had something good going for him.

I’ve avoided saying what is great about Doctor Who episodes here – there’s plenty of that online. But the Moffat series, starring Matt Smith, was perfect – the best yet. If you want to start somewhere, start with the first episode of that series – the Eleventh Hour.

It also means I’ll be following this show for a while longer, as I pretty much think I will watch anything Moffat is involved in until one of us dies.

As for the Doctor – who knows. Maybe the next team will be awful. And maybe the team after that will be great. Its impossible to tell. But that’s what I love about it. Anything is possible.


30 for 30: Birthdays

30 for 30 – as I reach my fourth decade of being, I’m writing about some of the things that made the three that came before what they were. 30 – mostly trivial – things that have been a part of 30 – mostly trivial – years.

22. BIRTHDAYS

Happy birthday

I was born on October 11th, 1980.

I have a pretty good memory, a collector’s bent, many on-and-off diaries and a list of all the shows I ever attended til around 2003 – which is how this little column can even exist.

Yet I have no recollection of birthdays until I was 18. It was just never celebrated. I never had a party – we just weren’t that kind of family. It was never a big deal.

I remember other kids birthdays. In particular I remember Josh’s bar mitzvah at Randwick Racecourse where in an inspired moment for one so young, he showed Star Wars on all the betting screens.

I don’t even remember being punched at school for it, or anything. And to this day, I don’t treat my birthday like a big deal.

October 11 is a day when very little happened/happens. Compared to friends of mine who share birthdays with Woody Allen, Alex Chilton or Bob Dylan, I have Luke Perry. And Marcus Graham from E Street.

The number one song when I was born in the US was The Police’s Don’t Stand So Close To Me. The Police are one of those bands I just think I will never get into. If it hasn’t happened by now. It’s not going to.

In the UK, it was Another One Bites the Dust by Queen. I love Queen, but this song is pretty average. When compared to the pop delights of You’re My Best Friend or Don’t Stop Me Now, it seems very second rate.

In Australia it was Upside Down by Diana Ross. Ok. I give this song a pass. It’s a pretty good pop song. And an important song for many people. It was disco though.

In the end, 1980 was a pretty shit year for music.

(The Goldie Hawn vehicle Private Benjamin was the US number one movie when I was born)

The first birthday I can remember doing something specific and interesting was my 18th. It was the end of high school and everyone was studying (I perhaps should have been). So with no one around, my brother’s girlfriend took me to see The Truman Show at Auburn cinemas.

Life became music after that – and that’s what I think of. I would see bands on my birthday. I spent my 19th birthday onstage with my favourite band – You Am I – and support band Shihad, in a small NSW town called Tumbi Umbi. I was serenaded on stage for a little bit, got embarrassed, walked off, tripping over Davey’s guitar lead, unplugging him. Great night.

I’m not sure how the Thai restaurant Doytao came into my life. Maybe cos it was close to my first flat out of home and it was recommended. I had a birthday dinner there with my parents the first year I moved out of home, and that tradition continued. Ross told me recently that the place has changed – I hope not.

Mainly though, I took my birthday off work and would just wander into Sydney city and do whatever the hell I wanted. Spend hours in record shops, talking to friends who work in the city, walking by the harbour. Not drinking meant not having a party was expected. Some simple drinks sometimes. It was never a big deal.

My best birthday was 24, because that was the day the very first album by my band – Last Impressions by The Reservations – was released. Nick, the guy who owned our label, did this. Even though we moved it back a week, it is still an amazing gesture. So it took me 24 years exactly to make that first album.

Even without people knowing it’s my birthday, people were calling all day about seeing our album in this shop or that shop. MySpace and digital was still quite new in Australia (our album only just got on iTunes) so you had to get it from a shop. Anyway – it was old school and it meant more. Before digital tore up the rule book, I’m so happy to have made an album that was released the old way.

And that was my 24th birthday. When I look back at all the amazing things that happened to me on my birthdays, I’m not sure how this one could be beat.

Second favourite was my 26th, where an amazing woman cooked me a steak.

In the last few years I’ve had some big birthdays. Maybe cos it always feels a little like a holiday here. A big night at the Westborne. A big night at North Nineteen. I even spent one at Berlin, after Popkomm. Thomas and various friends helped me to live it up. I’m also not very used to getting presents – that’s something new.

This year will be quiet, once again. I am so disorganised. And the next few weeks will be a lot of farewells. As interesting as they are, they are just a day. And it’s more important to get these farewells right.

I was pretty obsessed with Beth Orton’s Central Reservation album, from 1999. I still am.

Since it’s come out, there’s a song – the title track – that I listen to every birthday. It’s my only real birthday indulgence. It’s like a little prayer. If you have the album with various mixes, it’s the “Then Again Version”. Those bubbly William Orbit keyboards kill me. But it’s got that escapist spirit of Thunder Road. It fills me heart with life. But the line, the chorus, is why it’s great.

Today is whatever I want it to be.

(A different remix but still pretty great)

30 for 30: Calvin & Hobbes

30 for 30 – as I reach my fourth decade of being, I’m writing about some of the things that made the three that came before what they were. 30 – mostly trivial – things that have been a part of 30 – mostly trivial – years.

21. CALVIN & HOBBES

Calvin & Hobbes

I love the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes, and the work/life of it’s creator, Bill Watterson.

The very first track on the very first album I ever released was a song called Calvin & Hobbes.

I’m a person who thinks about things from a million angles before doing anything. So choosing a song to come first on the first album I ever released was something I spent a long time thinking about. I am keenly aware of all the great opening tracks on all the great debut records.

And I’m happy to tie my flag to Bill Watterson’s greatest creations. I find the strip hugely inspiring, and a comment on the magic of life and the power of imagination.

Calvin & Hobbes started in 1985, and ended in 1995. Reading them 20 years after their context, it seems solid but unremarkable. But Watterson was a pioneer – subtly in print and more so outside of it.

Watterson, like JD Salinger, is one of the world’s more famous recluses. He also wanted to make comic strips for the sake of comic strips – not as a lead in to cartoons or films. He was fiercely independent and controlling. It led to a long hard battle throughout the years of Calvin & Hobbes.

It’s much like the music industry today. Comics Syndicates are what runs the business of comic strips. Watterson and his new Calvin & Hobbes strip became a success, and the Syndicate wanted to do more – sell C&H merch was one. Watterson said no.

I remember in the 90s, the worse thing you could ever do was sell your song to a TV ad. Nowadays, it’s a sign of credibility. I’m not sure how I feel about that to be honest. But it’s the end of the 80s, and Watterson’s company could not understand why this guy was “leaving money on the table”.

He did a lot more to get on the nerves of his paymasters – all boiling down to him not making more money, and by default his syndicate not making more money.

He even pushed the boundaries of the strip itself. Playing outside the normal box sizes, it made it impossible for newspapers to cut and crop a C&H strip to fill their needs. Newspapers happily got together and sued Watterson.

Throughout all this, Watterson fought his corner, yet never gave an interview. After all the court cases and battles were over (which he won, as there is still no C&H merch and artistic freedom is more common in strips), he quietly put his characters to rest, barely doing anything ever again.

So the parallels are abound. Artistic integrity vs. Commercial Imperative.

Comic strips were still the product of a troubled marriage with newspapers. They were the “funny pages” and of little value. But Watterson didn’t see it that way. Far more than Charles Schulz and his generation. And maybe that’s why. The Beatles excelled because they grew up with (disposable) rock ‘n’ roll. 70s cinema excelled because those filmmakers grew up with the (disposable) movies of the 50s and 60s. Watterson was the second generation of comic strip creator. The idea that he wasn’t 100% an artist probably never occurred to him.

Which could be why he fought so hard against the power imbalance levelled against comic strip creators. Again, mirroring the Hollywood Studio system, or early record companies – the young artists usually got screwed. And could barely fight for themselves.

So along comes Watterson. Who just wants to make comic strips. Who wants to grow and experiment with his art form. Who didn’t want to see his creations watered down to images on a mug or a calendar.

(Of course, with many making a stand, Watterson was rich enough to make a stand. C&H is still one of the most successful strips ever)

On the page, the strip was remarkable. If you don’t know it, it’s the story of two friends and one central conceit. Six year old Calvin and his fluffy toy tiger Hobbes. Except when no one else is around, Hobbes comes to life.

Or does he?

Or is the live Hobbes just how Calvin, a boy with a huge imagination, sees him? It could be, as Calvin’s world is full of fancy. Dinosaurs, spaceships, clones and all manner of madness fill the strips. It’s how Calvin fills his mind to get through a mundane childhood that powers the strip. And the wonderful way that Watterson draws it all.

So all that stuff about Watterson’s court fights and legal wrangling are better told elsewhere (I suggest the Tenth Anniversary collection, with a great introduction and as close to a best-of collection there is). Even the story of his reclusiveness – and the odd interview he did earlier this year – can be found elsewhere.

What’s important about C&H for me was another story of holding the line about the things you believe in. And when it comes to art and being creative, thinking about your personal rights and wrongs about it.

Sure, there are artists in the world who just do their thing and then let people do whatever they want with it. Then there are those who are fiercely protective. And I’m always drawn to the protective types. When I read articles about sampling laws, I always support the sampled artist side over the sampler. Why? I just think that the person who created it should have final say.

Watterson got the final say in more ways than one. He has yet to follow up his greatest creation with anything. Fifteen years later and I’ve stopped waiting.

From the stories, I learnt a very different lesson. Which is to give in completely to imagination. It’s best summed up by the very last Calvin & Hobbes strip.

Final Calvin & Hobbes strip. Click to embiggen.

Some say there is nothing scarier than a blank page. I’m worried about the blank pages running out.

This stuff touches ever so slightly on my belief system – which is another reason I love it so much. That you make your own truths. I can’t fault anyone for believing in God, for example, because I got my moral code from Superman, and he’s not real either. But I learnt right and wrong and that’s more important than what got me there.

The names ‘Calvin’ and ‘Hobbes’ come from two philosophers anyway. It’s a big subtext in the story. When as a kid, you believe in things, and how sad it is when your grow out of them. I read Calvin & Hobbes to remind myself to not grow out of them, if I can.

There’s lots in the strip to get into if you want to. Growing up. Authority. Morality. The things we learn. An amazing series of strips that dealt with a burglary. It’s this extra facet that makes this strip so beloved and so acclaimed. There’s plenty of critical analysis elsewhere if you want to discover more.

For me, looking at this six year old kid and his imaginary tiger, I think of one thing;

You make your own happiness.

I have an iGoogle C&H comic strip set up. Every morning I am greeted by an old strip.

I have a couple of collections. The ones to get are the landscape ones. The books in portrait have cut the squares around to fit the page – an unforgivable sin. It’s like watching the pan-and-scan of Pulp Fiction. You miss out of half the action.

I have read a lot of the strips, and have for ten years. I’m not sure if I’ve read every one though.

In 2005, they put out a Complete Collection. Two gorgeous hardcover books (in landscape!) in a hard slipcase for stupid money. I had my money already to buy one at Dymocks in Sydney when the shop clerk brought it out and asked me how I was going to get it home. It doesn’t fit in a bag. It’s going to be tough to carry on a train. I didn’t have a car or anything. I put my money away and said I’d come back after I worked it out. I never did.

(Why can’t they do them in lovely volumes like the Peanuts Collection?)

I wrote about Calvin & Hobbes in my first zine. I still try to hunt down the odd collection when I can. I made myself a Calvin & Hobbes badge with a friend’s badge machine. I just love it.

Every so often I see someone in a Calvin & Hobbes t-shirt. It has to be a fake. None have every been officially produced. I am kind of jealous. Who is making these C&H bootleg t-shirts? But am I buying into the thing Watterson rallied against?

So, I still love this strip. It’s mixed in the soup that swirls in my head when I think of terms like “artistic integrity” and “creative control”. And it’s endlessly inspiring.

It’s a magical world, ol’ buddy… let’s go exploring.