Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Hootie who? Counting Crows - Somewhere Under Wonderland

This I know about Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz: he is very tall (he once stood next to me - to my surprise - at a Who concert); he has made social media a confessional for some, at times, pretty intense thoughts about his life; he did not inspire Sideshow Bob, Bart Simpson's dreadlocked arch nemesis.

The other thing I know about Duritz is his tendency to write impenetrable lyrics that tie themselves in knots of verbal complexity, which is one of the first things to hit you about Palisades Park, the sprawling opener of the Crows' seventh studio album and their first in a long time, Somewhere Under Wonderland.

It's a dewy-eyed romp through childhood memories of a New Jersey theme park and, in an instant - well, an eight-minute instant - re-establishes Counting Crows as one of America's finest purveyors of wholemeal rock (and, as I quickly concluded on my drive north from Lake Tahoe to Oregon, the perfect accompaniment for a road trip - "Keep going till we hit Reno, Nevada" Duritz sings helpfully, just as Reno passed by my right-hand window.

Reminiscent of Elton John's Madman Across The Water, and with the New Jersey reference inevitably drawing comparison to Bruce Springsteen's heartland storytelling, the song jumps manically like a big dipper as it recalls friendship lost in a typical Duritz style - a mixture of melancholy and dour wrapped in a bouncy rocker, as much of this album is.

For a native of Baltimore, who made his name in San Francisco, has lived in LA and only recently relocated to New York, Duritz spans the American geography throughout Somewhere Under Wonderland. But whereas plenty before have documented America in song, America - and California in particular - act as a vast backdrop for the exploration of his own neuroses, in particular a chronic sense of loneliness.

It seems odd that for someone who has lived in the second most populated city in the US, and now lives in its first, this should be an issue, but as anyone who has followed him on Twitter will attest, social detachment has been a challenge for most of his adult life. Here, then you find Duritz at his most confessional. Earthquake Driver talks of the restless spirit that took him "skipping and diving and bouncing back to New York City", unsure whether he wants to be "...an earthquake driver...an aquarium diver...I just don't want to go home", but living along "hungry for affection... I just struggle with connection 'til the water calls me home/Down into ocean among millions of other lonely people/Drowning among the only people we are ever going to know."

It sounds morose - and it probably is - but the Crows as a band - in particular, Dan Vickrey's southern blues-infused guitar - lift Duritz's lyrics up with infectiousness.

Even on a song as dystopian as Elvis Went To Hollywood ("When Elvis went to Hollywood, that's when everything went wrong") the seven-piece contrive to make something vibrant.

There is more than a lot of classic 70s rock to like about Somewhere Under Wonderland, with glimpses of The Doors on Dislocation (which also borrows from the J Geils Band's Centerfold - "So I write to all the girly magazines/Splash my passion on the pages in between") and even Lynyrd Skynyrd on Scarecrow. There are also more contemplative moments, such as John Appleseed’s Lament and Possibility Days, which set Duritz's lyrical intensity against reflective musicianship, with neither overdoing the other.

Unlike the bland and even uninspiring nature of the last new album I listened to, U2's Songs Of Innocence, this one is immediate, even when you have to listen for a second or third time in the hope of unravelling the intricacy of Duritz's words. This is earnest rock-pop, a kind that American bands do best, be it Wilco or Phish, Dave Matthews or Hootie & The Blowfish, and you can even throw Kings of Leon into that pool. Like so many things in the US, familiarity is key to its appeal, but don't take that to be an accusation of homogeneity.

Whether it's the tonal comfort of listening to a classic rock album while on an American road trip, or simply the perfect storm of brilliant songwriting and brilliant performance, Somewhere Under Wonderland is an instantly enjoyable record, and without doubt Counting Crows best for a long, long time.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The end of Rock'n'Roll as we know it: U2's Songs Of Innocence

The control room of Studio 5 at Tyne-Tees Television in Newcastle was heaving. Members of The Tube crew, various associates of that week's studio guests (Rik Mayall and Ade Edmonson, Robert Cray, Mick Hucknall) and me, crammed in for what was, undoubtedly, An Event.

In silence, and with hairs upright on almost every neck in the room, the screens faded from black to Bono in monochrome: "See the stone set in your eyes, see the thorn twist in your side. I'll wait....for you." The Event had begun.

Malcom Gerrie's weekly music show on Channel 4 had secured the worldwide premiere - on Friday, March 6, 1987 - of the first single from U2's soon to-be-collossus, The Joshua Tree, which was released the following Monday.

Live Aid, two years before, had already elevated the band into the upper echelons of pop's elite, but The Joshua Tree would take them even higher. Achtung Baby, the gargantuan Zoo TV tour, and the Zooropa album would follow, cementing their position as The Biggest Band In The World ™. Then came Pop, with Discothèque and its quasi-Village People video, and Staring At The Sun and If God Will Send His Angels. And then?

U2 remained The Biggest Band In The World ™, but on scale alone. The tours got bigger - the U2 360° tour concluded in 2011 was the highest-grossing concert run in history, with 7.2 million tickets sold worth $736 million - but the creativity levelled off. As have the album sales - The Joshua Tree sold 25 million copies worldwide: No Line On The Horizon, their last, barely touched 5 million. For some that would still be a tidy return, but not for U2.

Which raises questions around the sort-of surprise arrival, this week, of Songs Of Innocence, the band's 13th album. Unlike the heart-pounding drama of that Friday afternoon in Newcastle, the appearance of U2 at Apple's iPhone event in Silicon Valley on Tuesday and the subsequent free giveaway of the album to iTunes subscribers was as much a statement of how the music industry today - beholden to technology - as it was the launch of an album by one of the biggest acts of the last 30 years.

Picture: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
The days of multi-million-selling records is probably long behind us, and I don't just mean sales of 'physical' format albums, either, which means it probably makes sense to give it away and hope to recoup the cost through ticket sales and merchandising. Songs Of Innocence will actually go on sale in October, but given that there are somewhere in the region of half a billion iTunes subscribers worldwide, it's a doubt as to who will actually go out and buy it.

Apple and U2 have palled up before, launching a special charity edition iPod ten years ago; then - with Steve Jobs still at Apple's core - there was more than a hint of middle-aged technology executives trying to look cool. Tuesday's was no different, and no amount of awkward-looking badinage between Tim Cook and Bono can mask the fact that this was, at the end of the day, just a marketing exercise.

Even now, it's hard to know who the carefully stage-managed stunt aimed to benefit. Perhaps U2 hope it will stimulate back catalogue sales; perhaps it really is just an expensive (as in $100 million  expensive) attempt by Apple to look clever (thus masking the fact that neither the iPhone 6 or the Apple Watch are all that much in the way of breakthroughs). But, really. Is this the same rock band that so brilliantly mocked mass marketing barely a decade or two ago?

There are, inevitably, serious questions to be addressed as to how and why Songs Of Innocence ended up in my iTunes library without my agreement, since it's in there, I might as well give it some some consideration.

Is it any good? Actually, it is, but it takes time to get to that part. In their blurb U2 say that that the eleven new songs constitute "a kind of musical autobiography" charting "their earliest influences from 70s rock and punk to early 80s electronica and soul".

So quite why the opening track, The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone), sounds more like Adam & The Ants' Kings Of The Wild Frontier than anything the Ramones unleashed is puzzling. The second track, Every Breaking Wave, California (There Is No End To Love), certainly brings the U2 story full circle in so far as it sounds more like Coldplay than U2, replete with "whoah-oah" stadium singalong moments and the now generic bass-and-guitar thuddery over-adopted by the junior group. Indeed, the idea that Coldplay want to be U2 has now been answered. Perhaps they should just merge, like some humungous corporate M&A exercise, and call themselves ColdU2play?

I'm sure there are those who will delight in these first two tracks, but for me, they seemed to perpetuate the lack of real adventure of the band's most recent outings. And as for the idea that they dip back into their musical influences...none that I could tell.

But, like me in the morning, perhaps this album just needs time to wake up and drink some coffee. The first tinges of caffeinated interest appear three tracks in with the ballad Song For Someone. Yes, a ballad. While lacking the melodrama of One or even Without Or Without You, it does at least engage the listener, rather than deflect through lack of interest, and draws you into the narrative Bono (as, one suspects, lyricist-in-chief) is trying to address, "themes of home and family, relationships and discovery", as the band's website explains.

Family and history certainly figure in the reflective nature of Iris (Hold Me Close), a heartfelt tribute to Bono's mother, and Cedarwood Road, which recalls his Dublin childhood with a somewhat sepia-tinted melancholy as he concludes by noting that "a heart that is broken is a heart that is open".

The chief complaint about U2's recent output has been the lack of conscious reinvention that marked their transition from The Joshua Tree's Americana to Achtung Baby's dystopian Berlin. Songs Of Innocence won't do much to change the perception that the Dubliners have become bland in their latter career, but there are some genuine moments of reassurance. Volcano - and try avoiding the word "erupts" with a title like that - erupts with the sort of industrious rock U2 once were known for (or at least adapted from Echo & The Bunnymen...), while Sleep Like A Baby Tonight trundles through sonic experimentation, the like of which the band has shown precious little time for since their 1990s zenith.

It's here that you notice that U2's signature sounds - The Edge's trademark guitar delay and Adam Clayton's often under-appreciated bass - have been reigned in. U2 albums always seemed to be more Bono's than the other three's, but the reflective nature - or, perhaps, the melange of producers (Danger Mouse, Adele's Paul Epworth, Ryan Tedder, Declan Gaffney and lifelong U2 collaborator Flood) - has contrived to smooth out the harder edges of their canon.

The final track, The Troubles even includes a guest vocal. Not their first (BB King guested on When Love Comes To Town) but in keeping with television's recent obsession with all things cold, dark and Nordic, U2 add Swedish singer Lykke Li, who is not cold and dark, to my knowledge, but is Nordic, to add some tonal variation to Bono's own singing (which takes off into Thom Yorke territory). Despite the title suggesting another attempt by Bono to commentate on Northern Ireland, the song itself is actually an amalgamation of thoughts on the women in his life, in particular wife Ali and mother Iris.

The overall impression of Songs Of Innocence is an album not rushed (it's taken two years to complete) but forced out because U2 have something to say. My question is whether anyone is listening. If they are, I can't help thinking that they - as I am - are wishing the band had something more dynamic to offer. Bowie returned with a surprise single and an even better album. U2 have returned with more of what they left us last time.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Try to keep up - you're on Valley time

Apple Watch picture courtesy of Apple

The irony wasn't lost on me: just as Tuesday's Apple event was getting underway at what appeared from the air to be a large crime scene tent in Cupertino, I was just a few miles down the road at the Intel museum, looking at, in many respects, the history of Silicon Valley.

© Simon Poulter 2014
The museum tour commences in front of a giant photograph of the company's original staff - men in suits and ties, and a large and progressively encouragingly group of female employees in beehive hairdos and horn-rimmed spectacles. That was 1968. 46 years ago, perhaps, but a blink of an eye in a part of the world that still boasts the largest distribution of dinosaur fossils.

It's one of the things you are conscious of when visiting America in general: time and history are relative. Years ago I was with a group of American journalists visiting Bruges, where we went past what is believed to be the world's first stock exchange, the bourse, which opened in 1309. They genuinely appeared to struggle with the concept of 1309.

And yet here in Silicon Valley, ten years is a lifetime. When I moved into my Sunnyvale apartment almost 14 years ago there were protests - not against me, you understand - but against the condominium complex which had been built on the site of one of the last of the town's original agrarian cherry orchards. That was when I realised that Silicon Valley, as a concept, dated back no further than the 1960s - and I had grown up in a suburb of London that had evolved during London's great concentric expansion in the 1930s.

Since I was last here five years ago companies have come and companies have gone. Shiny corporate headquarters have sprung up while others have been torn down to make way for $3,000-a-month condos catering for the junior end of the Valley's über-wealth scale. Even the San Francisco 49ers have moved from San Francisco to the recently inaugurated Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara.

The contrast of fortunes is even greater since 2003 when I left the Valley to move back to Europe. Then, the local economy was still reeling from the twin effects of the dot com bubble bursting and the post-9/11 impact on Bay Area companies.

In 2003 companies like Sun Microsystems and Palm were tech bellwethers. Today, neither exist. Yahoo! was the search king, and Google was simply a start-up built around smart mathematics. Facesmash - Mark Zuckerberg's college prank predecessor to Facebook - was barely a dorm room idea. Netflix had just got going with a clever postal-based DVD rental service. Tweeting was simply something birds did.

And Apple? Even in 2003 there were plenty in the technology industry dismissing Steve Jobs' yet-to-be behemoth as a boutique business. It's hard to remember this now, but the prevailing view was that Apple had a share of less than 5% of the personal computing market back then. The PC - in the Microsoft sense of the name - was still king.

Apple's products were, then, just making the transition from expensive but highly desirable professional tools to being expensive and desirable devices for the new 'digital lifestyle'. The foundation of this transition, of course, was the 1998-launched original iMac.

But on October 23, 2001 Apple launched its first iMac peripheral, the iPod. It was met with a relative murmur of excitement: 9/11 had occurred just over a month before and the world - and especially Americans - had other things on their mind. And critics weren't slow to recognise that Apple's click-wheel MP3 player was simply a nicely packaged interpretation of other entrants to the nascent 'portable jukebox' industry.

Things have come full circle. As Apple's current CEO Tim Cook was introducing the iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch on Tuesday, his company were quietly retiring the final incarnation of that original iPod. In 13 years it had shrunk, physically, but expanded its capacity from 5Gb to 160Gb, catering largely for the serious muso who has to carry their entire music collection with them at all times. Today, it is something of an anachronism: a bulky, hard drive-based music player, lacking Internet connectivity, still using the click-wheel (which was never all that good to begin with), and even still using Apple's old 30-pin connector. Yes, it's that old.

But it's been interesting to use this week's Apple event to reflect on how time passes in Silicon Valley. Indeed, this is the first time I've been in the area during an Apple launch since that original iPod unveiling in 2001. Back then, Apple had a share price of just over $10. Currently it's hovering around $100, with the company worth an extraordinary $550 billion.

Despite it's enormous value, the question remains - can Apple truly continue to innovate? And by innovate, I mean make jaw-droppingly interesting new products? Hacking into our iTunes account and giving us a free U2 album whether we want it or not is not innovation. In fact, it's the ultimate example of the fears critics expressed when iTunes was launched, that the platform could become too-dominant and unhealthy for consumer and many artists alike.

Indeed, U2's appearance on Tuesday had the air pseudo-rock'n'roll marketing. The idea of a group of middle-aged technology executives, dressed more for the corporate barbecue than the corporate boardroom, trying to connect with a disinterested and disaffected youth market. I mean, U2?

The band and the brand have been close friends for some time, so to be honest, there wasn't that much to be seriously impressed by. And I'm not altogether sure it worked: after all, there were only two stars of the show on Monday, and neither were much of a surprise anyway.

iPhone 6 picture courtesy of Apple
The iPhone 6 - long expected and much rumoured - will no doubt do well. Apple consumers are stupendously loyal. You can argue all day long as to whether it's Apple's world that Samsung are chasing or the other way round, but there are enough of us who bought into the Jobs/Ive world when the iMac came along in 1998 and were then seduced by the iPod three years later.

From those two devices - hub and add-on - we've willingly added iPhones and iPads, MacBooks and Apple TVs. There is no such thing as "the cult of Apple" - there is just a slick marketing machine, one that is happy to build on its own formula.

The Apple Watch is an interesting idea, but like the iPod to begin with, an amalgamation of others' ideas. It was possible to buy a wristwatch-style case for the previous square iPod Nano, which you could then wear as a watch. It just didn't have all the healthcare and fitness tracking stuff. Nor did Apple have an expensively-acquired Senior Vice-President of watches overseeing it.

The idea of wearable electronics is interesting as well, from a long-term health and fitness point of view. But as much as I appreciate the benefits of such technology, this whole 'machine-to-machine' and 'Internet of things' business starts to get creepy after a while. After all, isn't an electronic tag something you attach to prisoners out on parole?

It's now two full days since Apple held its event. This means two things: one, the first queues are probably already forming outside Apple Stores with (mainly) bearded hopefuls sitting in lawn chairs anticipating being the first to walk out with their new toy on the day it goes on sale next week. And second, the rest of the world will have moved on to the next new subject of fleeting excitement. Because, as the marketing and PR cliché goes, it's no longer revolution, it's evolution. And, really, that's just not as interesting.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Long live the king: Robert Plant - Lullaby and...The Ceaseless Roar

In an excellent recent interview with Uncut magazine, Robert Plant was depicted walking through the remains of Ludlow Castle in Shropshire. Ludlow is a place I know well, having spent the first year of my career in the pretty - and now gastronomically-engorged - market town on the Welsh border.

The castle itself holds a strategically commanding view over the River Teme and into the Welsh hills, where famously, Led Zeppelin disappeared to get their heads together and creatively recharge while on hiatus from marauding through the western hemisphere.

Uncut’s location for the photoshoot and interview was, then, perfect: the still-leonine king, surveying a more modest kingdom to the one he once ruled.

Moreover, Plant is seemingly content with his world, a 66-year-old rock god making jokes about his entitlement to free senior citizen concessions. This from the onetime viking warrior who travelled across land and sea in a Boeing 707 known as ‘The Starship’.

There is, of course, the slightly thorny issue of Jimmy Page appearing to accuse Plant of "playing games" over committing to one last, lucrative Led Zeppelin crusade. "I'm not my brother's keeper,” he told the magazine in an attempt to defuse things. "And he, really, as a pro, should know better than that... I feel for the guy. He knows he's got the headlines if he wants 'em. But I don't know what he's trying to do. So I feel slightly disappointed and baffled."

The point of all this is that Plant is actual more than comfortable in his more modest kingdom today. The days of the ‘Riot House’ Hyatt Hotel on Sunset Boulevard being Zeppelin’s own Xanadu have long gone, as has the Boeing. Today he and his band The Sensational Shape Shifters tour by train and evoke a camaraderie more akin to Robin Hood's Merry Men. Having seen them twice this summer - in Paris and then three weeks later at the Montreux Jazz Festival - it’s clear that this is Plant’s court now.

Plant hasn’t, however, completely abandoned Led Zeppelin: his live set contains quite a number of the band's songs. Some, like Going To California and What Is And What Should Never Be, were recreated in much their original form. While others - notably Rock and Roll - were infused with the world music vibe that pervades Plant’s new album, Lullaby and…The Ceaseless Roar, released today, and which he recorded with the Space Shifters.

It’s a product of both contrasting textures and ethnicity, a blend of African rhythms, Celtic adventure and Middle Eastern exotica. And it starts with Little Maggie, a song from 1948 by two brothers, Carter and Ralph Stanley, from the Clinch Mountains of Virginia.

It is typical of Plant's latter work - taking something old and blending it with seemingly incongruous ingredients to turn it into something which looks exotic and tastes sublime. This, on Lullaby’s opener, Juldeh Camara - the Gambian who plays the single-stringed riti fiddle - blends with Plant’s breathy vocals to reinvent American bluegrass as a music form from thousands of miles away.  

The irony of this is that Plant describes Lullaby as something of an English homecoming. Having spent the last few years bi-located in the UK and Austin, Texas, where he was in a relationship with the musician Patty Griffin, his return to the West Midlands he grew up in has provided fresh perspective - and a wider palette to choose from.

"Now I have a whole index, an absolute rainbow, of influences,” he said recently. "I need to talk about what's going on in my life, in my lap, speaking from my experience; it's far more honest and much more appropriate.” In this spirit Rainbow - another track previewed on the summer tour - takes a gentle and reflective romantic tone, pleasant while the brooding, piano-based ballad A Stolen Kiss, draws on Plant’s break-up with Griffin.

Break-ups are always inspiring, but rather than being Plant’s own maudlin Blood On The Tracks or Face Value, there is a sense of renewed freedom in Lullaby, even playfulness. Thus, Turn It Up finds Plant’s current guitar muse, Justin Adams, having fun Bo Diddley riffing on a song about the great American road trip, "I’m lost inside America…I’m stuck inside the radio, turn it on and let me out!”, touring through the South with nutjob Bible Belt radio stations for amusement.

Over the last two or three solo albums, Adams has been, to a certain extent, Plant’s musical director. Like another former guitar-playing sidekick, a clever sorcerer of influences. “He saved my life, musically,” Plant recently said of Adams in an interview with the Daily Telegraph’s Neil McCormack. "His contribution, as a positive force in my time, has been second to none,” noting “he doesn’t think the guitar begins and ends with Clapton, Beck and Page.”

That’s no dig at Page, or any of the other two former Yardbirds. It’s simply Plant’s declaration that his musical life has been a journey, one that started in Birmingham as a teenager, seeing blues legends like Son House and Bukka White bring their Mississippi blues to the English industrial heartland, and which now comes to a 10th solo album featuring afro-beat tracks like Arbaden (Maggie’s Baby) which includes the Delta-like line “I’m going down to the station with my suitcase in my hand”.

Lullaby and...The Ceaseless Road is by no means the perfect. Somebody There and the decidedly soft rock House Of Love nod back to the material Plant was producing in the immediate years after Led Zeppelin’s demise - slick 1980s, MTV-friendly pop. They’re not bad, but far less interesting than the diversity elsewhere, and stronger tracks like Embrace Another Fall, a powerful blend of tribal rhythms and walloping guitars or, arguably, the standout of the record, Up On The Hollow Hill (Understanding Arthur), with a searing Saharan heat evoked by Adams’ guitar.

Plant has suggested - possibly mischievously so - that this could be his last album, but I don’t think so. Instead of reaching the end of the line, there is a curiosity, still, in him to discover more and encounter new. His live shows this summer weren’t farewells, or even grand, O2-sized attempts to recreate past glories. “It seems to have some sort of finality,” he says of his journey, but that doesn't mean it's over. Long live the king.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

...and breathe. The frenzy is over.

It's OK. You can come out now. The summer transfer window has closed. The madness is over.

All the wheeling-and-dealing has been done. Agents can hang up their multiple mobile phones, until January, and count all that lovely commission, reward for a job well done in providing sport's most ridiculous matchmaking service.

Yesterday's deadline day was no different to any other: like the outbreak of a war, full of rumours, crackpot theories and even the odd real development. Twitter only added to the confusion, with dodgy half-sightings of players at airports and helicopter pads, along with cheesy 'thumbs-up' pictures during medicals. Hats off, then, to broadcaster Danny Kelly for encouraging Twitter posts of back gardens, local grounds and city parks with reports along the lines of "no transfer activity here".

The only thing noticeably absent yesterday was the actual transfer window - the driver's-side portal of Harry Redknapp's Range Rover that football's very own Del Boy is usually seen leaning out of, declaring, optimistically, "well we think the boy is on his way, but there are still a few loose ends to tie-up". You know, like a contract.

The transfer window deadline day is football's equivalent of doing all your Christmas shopping at 4pm on Christmas Eve. Your purchases will, probably, bring momentary delight and fleeting relief. No disrespect to those bought in the final hours of yesterday evening, but some acquisitions were emergency colouring sets bought at the Esso garage in case of unexpected Boxing Day visitors.

This summer's window has seen a whopping £835 million spent by the Premier League clubs, with Manchester United shelling out more than £150 million alone - the highest gross transfer spend in a single window by any club, according to Deloitte - and seemingly reversing the resistance to "kamikaze" spending Sir Alex Ferguson once branded transfer window splurges of old.

Time will only tell as to whether Louis van Gaal has been spending his way out of trouble with Herrera, Shaw, Rojo, Di Maria, Blind, and - because clearly he didn't have enough talent up front - bringing in Radamel Falcao from Monaco on a season-long loan that will probably cost United well above the £300,000 a week they're paying Wayne Rooney to, now, sit behind him.

From one perspective, Manchester United is once more the envy of all clubs around it. But given the apparent resistance to van Gaal's methods so far this season, you have to wonder how he's going to gel together his own version of los galácticos, especially with questions remaining about their defensive capabilities. Unless Manchester United really are going to play all ten outfield players up front, that is.

As Falcao was arriving in the north-west, the Manchester-born Danny Welbeck was heading south-east, seemingly breaking the legacy of United nurturing homegrown talent, and providing another [legitimate] excuse for Arsenal fans to grumble about Arsène Wenger's apparent indecision.

If Welbeck's transfer to Arsenal had been the source of protracted, summer-long negotiations for a player long tracked by the club and then concluded at the 11th hour (reminiscent of Ashley Cole's 2006 deadline day move from Arsenal to Chelsea), then the last-minute nature of it would have been somewhat justified.

But with Giroud injured, and the club simply too late to gazump Chelsea's acquisition of Loic Remy from QPR, Arsenal only have themselves to blame for Welbeck being the closest yesterday's panic buying came to my Christmas Eve analogy.

Most will be sure that it wouldn't have been Welbeck's own preference, either, but for a player wrongly but inevitably associated with Manchester United's woes last season and the start of this, it could be argued that Arsenal have thrown him a lifeline. Then again, you could say Welbeck has thrown one to Arsenal.

And what of the others? Louis van Gaal's spree may have eclipsed all others, but that still leaves some £685 million spread across the Premier League's 19 other clubs. Down the M62, Liverpool have been cashing in on the Suarez by raiding Southampton for Adam Lallana (£25 million) and Dejan Lovren (£20 million), Benfica for Lazar Markovic (£20 million) and, perhaps, riskiest and most audacious of all, Mario Balotelli for a mere £16 million (though that doesn't include the cost of insuring him, fully comp...). And if Sunday's performance at White Hart Lane was anything to go by, Balotelli - if he can be kept away from fireworks and other distractions - could prove to be the missing piece of a very exciting attacking line-up indeed.

I can't help but feeling just a little smug about my own team, Chelsea. Some might say that is the nature of Chelsea fans in general, but Chelsea's transfer dealings this summer have arguably been the smartest of all clubs.

Diego Costa was already on his way from Atletico Madrid before he'd even left for Spain's disastrous World Cup campaign, and the Blues' smart approach for Cesc Fabregas not only plugged the creative gap vacated by Frank Lampard, but has already been instrumental in Costa's impressive four goals from three appearances.

No one realistically considers Didier Drogba's return to the club as anything more than one of affection, but with the snap purchase of Loic Remy to replace Torres, Chelsea have some presence again up front. It is, of course, far too soon, to talk of titles, but Chelsea's balance is at last pleasing. What isn't however, is their squad husbandry. Whereas most other Premier League clubs seem to have managed to loan out three or four players at the very least, Chelsea have a ridiculous 19 players being borrowed elsewhere.

Picture: The Times

Like Chelsea, Manchester City also did their business early and could benefit from the earlier settling in of new players like Eliaquim Mangala and Fernando, while accepting their Fair Play requirements, trimming their squad efficiently and quickly, or shoring up existing players to new contracts.

So what about elsewhere? It was certainly a fantastic day for Hull City, with Steve Bruce bringing in Uruguayan striker Abel Hernandez from Palermo, West Ham's Mo Diame, Southampton's Gaston Ramirez and Newcastle's under-rated Hatem Ben Arfa. Of course, for a club like Hull, with the acquisition comes the expectation but outside the notional Top 4, Hull's transfer window certainly caught the eye.

A fresh, £3 billion television deal has swolen the Premier League clubs' coffers, which goes to explain how this summer's transfer window in England was double that of  Spain's La Liga (£425 million) and almost quadruple that of Italy's Serie A (£260 million), with the German Bundesliga shelling out a similar amount. What a difference four years makes. 2010's transfer window was a considerably modest affair amongst all clubs in the so-called elite, as the global recession took its toll.

As to whether the good times are back again, spending's one thing, it's what the purchases do once they've been unwrapped that counts.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Revolution No.9

I'll admit it. I was wrong. Pretty wrong, actually. When I wrote, in January 2011 (Shut that window, mother, it's freezing out), that Chelsea's £50 million acquisition of Fernando Torres "represented good business", I couldn't have predicted as poor a return on the investment as just 46 goals out of 172 appearances. No excuse from club, player and fan alike can mask the fact that the player simply hasn't delivered on what his £175,000-a-week contract prescribed.

Picture: @Torres/Twitter
As Torres commences his two-year "loan" spell at Milan (i.e. the remainder of his Chelsea contract), it's hard to really equate who the actual winner is. Certainly not the club that shelled out a league record fee for the player, evidently on yet another whim of the club's owner, who'd seen Torres put two past Chelsea for Liverpool in the November and on that evidence decided to buy him two months later.

Though hardly an impulse purchase, it was a foolhardy rush of blood to the wallet that can be implicated in the sackings of Carlo Ancelotti, André Villas-Boas and Roberto di Matteo, who failed to wring any noticeable goal-scoring out of the centre forward. Not even Torres' former Liverpool boss, Rafa Benitez, was able to coax the player's once mercurial marksmanship out of him and that, presumably, was all Chelsea had brought him in to do.

In all honesty, the blame for Torres should probably be spread evenly. If the player wasn't up for it, he shouldn't have made the move to London only to spend the next three years moping about. And if the player wasn't right, why did the club go through the due-diligence - including a medical - only discovering after making Torres their staggeringly record signing that he lacked the mental fortitude to deliver?

This might sound harsh, but at an instant, we've seen the difference in Diego Costa. His goals so far - even his attempts on goal - have been swiftly considered and decidedly taken. No last-minute crises-of-confidence and a wasted flick to an advancing teammate. No. Ball at his feet and bam! It took Costa just 17 minutes before scoring his first competitive goal for Chelsea. And Torres?

Picture: @milanello/Twitter
The Spaniard's move to Italy, where sometimes mediocrity can be easily camouflaged by the aura of Serie A, will probably take off him whatever burden was preventing him from shining at Chelsea.

That said, Torres' body language on arriving for his medical at La Madonnina clinic didn't look any different to that with which he has lurched around for Chelsea, resembling a teenage girl who has been barred from going out on a Monday night.

As footballers are prone to do, he's at least talking a good game at the start of his career with the rossoneri. "I can't wait to start the new season," he said this morning at Milan's Linate airport, adding, pointedly, "I have already spoken with coach Inzaghi - he understands what it is to be a striker."

Being the master of political doublespeak that he is, José Mourinho has remained remarkably conciliatory towards Torres' departure (as he was towards Romelu Lukaku's).

"So if he wants to leave", Mourinho said this week, "I believe that [it] is to try to be happier than he was in the last couple of years." That is the first tacit admission by anyone at Chelsea that Torres was anything less than happy, which draws some doubt on Mourinho's following statement: "This is a very human club in the way the club approaches this kind of situation," he said prior to the Milan move becoming public.

From a fan's point of view, Stamford Bridge has been a very compassionate place when it comes to Torres. We have wanted nothing but for him to do well, willing him on in the final third, feeling his frustration when his runs have come to nothing, cheering in encouragement at the mere sight of him warming up on the touchline. Like the club, we have even been prepared to see the likes of Sturridge and Lukaku move on in frustration in the hope that Torres might come good.

It would be wrong to blame the Torres experience solely on the folly of Abramovich's millions. Go back in the history of any club and there will be expensive mistakes. Chelsea certainly made plenty of them long before the Russian came along (Chris Sutton anyone?). But the magnitude of the mistake - this time was in a different class - £50 million in fee and roughly a further £33 million in wages.

For Chelsea, sadly, the only net benefit from the Torres experience is that it should provide the club with an expensive reminder of how what glitters isn't always gold.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Time to throw in the towel on the Ice Bucket Challenge

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or motor neurone disease, depending on which side of the Atlantic you hail from, has had millions of people throwing buckets of ice-cold water over themselves for their Facebook friends to gasp, giggle and take a small degree of sadistic pleasure over.

Since July 29, the ALS Association has received a record $94.3 million in donations, fuelled by the flow of freezing water splashing all over social media. Brilliant. But now it's time to stop - the water. Please.

Much like 'Movember', in which men - in particular, those apparently ill-equipped to do so - grow moustaches to raise awareness for the equally worthy cause of prostate cancer, the "ha-ha" social media value of flinging the eau glacée is in danger of being stretched too far.

Social media itself is to blame: every time you go on Facebook, someone is chucking a bucket of the cold stuff over themselves (having first made the obligatory challenge to three more challengees).

As with all charitable acts, credit to them. But at risk of being both a killjoy and treading on topical sensitivities, the Ice Bucket Challenge is now resembling a non-stop stream of jihadist propaganda videos: first the index finger-aloft pontificating to camera, then the grisly act. You know what I mean.

While we will, hopefully, never become desensitised to the truly murderous footage coming from Syria and Iraq, the light-hearted shock value of the Ice Bucket Challenge is starting to dry out.

It doesn't help that, despite the enormous sums of money it has raised for ALS, some are having their frigid 30 seconds and NOT donating to an ALS charity. According to a poll in The Independent newspaper, more than half of Brits taking the challenge haven't made a donation afterwards as required, while another half didn't even know what all these wannabe snuff videos were in aid of. Worse still, over a third of those who responded to the poll said they'd only taken part in the challenge to gain attention on social media.

ALS is a serious condition, but maybe the most humane thing - for the rest of us - would be to spare us the sight of people getting drenched in the name of it, and just hand over a cheque. Privately...