Tuesday, August 01, 2006


Stop of the Pops

Last weekend saw the final edition of Top of the Pops, a show that’s been fading away on BBC2 life support for some time. I’d intended to watch it but, come Sunday, we were watching DVDs and didn’t remember. I suspect that’s pretty much been the story of the end of its life: with so many other pop outlets, it simply wasn’t essential viewing for anyone any more. I did, however, celebrate the programme earlier in the week by buying a couple of singles. The Pet Shop Boys’ Minimal was for Richard, and the Who’s Wire & Glass for me.

The Pet Shop Boys’ single is by a long way the stronger of my two purchases. While I was minimal in my review of the song as part of their new album, it’s got a good, driving beat and even a rather lovely sense of space to the bridge. The video, available on the DVD single, is distinctly stylish as well (though I wouldn’t bother with the rather sparse remix. Two other quite nice B-side tracks, though). I admit to a mild disappointment that the second single from Fundamental wasn’t the epic, angry, anti-Blair anthem Integral, but there’s still time for a third, chaps. It’s hit the top twenty anyway, which is good, and rather more than the Who’s latest has done.

On the one hand, I appreciate a ’60s band still coming up with new material; on the other, they’ve missed an open goal in the form of re-releasing Won’t Get Fooled Again when it was getting saturation play on the BBC’s ads for the World Cup. That is, of course, a great single, and runs to anything from about four to about ten minutes, so I never thought I’d be complaining that the Who were too short. The trouble with Wire & Glass for me isn’t that it missed a commercial opportunity, but that it’s not really a single at all. It’s billed, rather ominously, as “Six songs from a mini-opera,” and all but one of them come in at well below two minutes in length. While the first, Sound Round, has a bit of oomph to it, it’s gone before it gets going, and none of the others display much fire. The second song – if it’s not breaking the Trades Descriptions Act to describe minute-long snippets in that way – sounds appealing for approximately the opening three seconds that it sounds like I Can See For Miles, while the third is just a dirge. By the fourth, things are slightly livelier again, but calling it We Got a Hit was unwise; and They Made My Dreams Come True really didn’t. The closing live song isn’t remotely memorable either but at least is a song in its own right, which belatedly gets a few points. All these are bundled together in one track on the CD, so they’ve got so little individual life you can’t even skip between them. It’s not bad, exactly, but I can’t help feeling done; two or three of these as songs and I’d have been happier, but a handful of unfinished snippets and it’s like I’ve been conned into shelling out for what ought to have been a free sampler posted out to advertise the album. A great single, even a mediocre or a poor one, still has the merit of being singular – it should stand on its own.

Incidentally, though the ads didn’t use any of the vocals from the song, did anyone else think the BBC’s wide-eyed enthusiasm that, yes, England really, really were going to win this time was just a teeny bit undermined when underscored by Won’t Get Fooled Again?

Meanwhile, Top of the Pops was never a programme I followed religiously, though some friends did (hello, Paul, if you’re reading), and after the shift of day and channel some months ago it always felt like it was on borrowed time, anyway. Perhaps I should pretend the George Michael reference was an early tribute… It may have been an institution, but not one that deserved listing, and I can’t say I feel a great sense of loss.

I felt the same about Commander in Chief; we’d been watching this treacly soap drama about the first woman President of the United States on ghastly, overstuffed-with-advertising import channel ABC for the last three months, and it’s noticeable that while the UK premiere of the end of The West Wing last weekend caused much weeping and gnashing of teeth around the blogosphere, nothing as loud as a tumbleweed has been heard about its ‘successor’. Geena Davis had star quality as the President and Donald Sutherland was often delightfully hissable as her main opponent, but the whole thing was so inclined to take the easy answers throughout that it was hard to care. For the last couple of months, we’ve also been watching The West Wing on DVD alongside it, and the comparison is painful. Without even starting at our favourite period of The West Wing, its first two years, and having dashed instead through Seasons Three and Four and now into a fifth season where everyone’s characters suddenly seem to have disappeared, it still knocks so many spots off Commander in Chief it seems mean to put them in competition. Two examples stick in my mind: The West Wing’s storylines often meandered, but even the weaker ones built to a pay-off over time, while the later series needs instant gratification on every shallow twist (we barely even noticed the Vice-President’s sudden falling under the wheels); the most embarrassing comparison for the cast is that both series feature female press secretaries, but the resemblance ends there. CJ Cregg is awesomely effective, a consummate political operator who commands universal respect, has a phenomenally quick brain combining a conscience and political nous, and, incidentally, looks terrific. Kelly Ludlow is… What can I say that’s positive about her? She’s mean to be endearingly ditzy, and sometimes she succeeds. Most of the time she’s merely wet (appropriate to someone so completely out of her depth). She could be shuffled unnoticed into any bland American series featuring a blandly improbable ‘professional’ woman who, gosh, you know, looks all flustered and is all upset without a man to hold her pretty little hand. Remind me, what decade is this?

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