Monday, 15 April 2013

Five things to watch out for at Eurovision

1. Old is gold
Alongside host Sweden, only big spenders France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK are guaranteed a place in the Eurovision Song Contest final on 18 May - Germany won in 2010 (for Lena’s Satellite), but none of the so-called 'big five' had previously won since Katrina and the Waves in 1997 (Love Shine a Light); the UK is trying to reproduce her success by having Bonnie Tyler fly the flag this year with Believe in Me. Semi-finals to decide which countries join them in the final take place on 14 and 16 May.

2. Nul points?
Expect much joshing at the expense of Norway, as the country has come bottom on 10 occasions, though they have won three times - in 1985, 1995 and 2009. I'd love Margaret Berger (pictured) to win with the stonking I Feed You My Love but suspect it's one of those that's too good to come out top.

3. Irish-ise
Ireland have won a record seven times and their entry this year, Ryan Dolan’s Only Love Survives, is fine radio pop, but their position as European favourites has been undermined by the explosion of former Soviet states on the scene. 

4. All tied up
Iceland has had some of the most unusual entries over the years - including former drag queen Paul Oscar, who instituted a perennial taste for bondage outfits in the competition in 1997 - and is one of the better-performing countries over time who have never won. I don't think they'll make it this year with long-haired Eythor Ingi’s ballad Ég Á Líf (I Am Alive), though - but look out for fellow nearly rans Malta, represented this year by Gianluca’s enjoyable, TV-friendly Tomorrow.

5. Hebrew times
Songs performed in English have won 24 times over the past 54 years – Hebrew has dominated three times and Israel tends to perform strongly, but can Moran Mazor (Rak Bishvilo) match their last winner back in 1998: transsexual Dana International and Diva?

Monday, 8 April 2013

Old pop stars don't retire, they go digital

The first generation to have grown up listening to pop music is getting on now, so it's no surprise pop stars are also entering old age. On 8 January, his 66th birthday, David Bowie announced his first album for more than a decade, The Next Day - released last month. Its first single, Where Are We Now?, sounds deliberately frail, which many critics linked to Bowie's heart surgery in 2004, and references to Berlin sites from the Low heydays add to its poignancy.

If anything, the rest of the album bristles with the vigour of late-'80s outing Tin Machine, and a similar vitality can be found on Delta Machine - the 13th studio album in 33 years from Depeche Mode, whose band members' average age is 51. Pet Shop Boys - Neil Tennant (58) and Chris Lowe (53) - have revealed they'll be releasing their 12th studio album, Electric, in June. And French pop icon Etienne Daho, 57, has just announced new work and a series of concerts in Paris for next February.

Unlike the visual arts or writing, pop music is not known for creative longevity - it is traditionally a youngster's game, though pop musicians may go onto innovate in other fields: David Byrne has worked in film and theatre for more than 30 years; Pet Shop Boys premiered ballet The Most Incredible Thing in 2011 and scored Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin back in 2004; Patti Smith is noted as a writer and photographer, now.

While older artists may sound stupid aping new genres (Paul McCartney's the Fireman, anyone?), musicians like Bowie and Radiohead have been quick to grasp the opportunities afforded by new technologies - notably digital release - which may go some way to explaining their current, prolific output. Secure of their fan base, Pet Shop Boys will release Electric through Kobalt Label Services - which released Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' Push the Sky Away in February - barely nine months after their last, Elysium.

In the concert arena, however, women lead the way, as evidenced by Blondie, Joan Jett and Laurie Anderson - or take this year's Meltdown on the South Bank (14-23 June), tickets for which go on sale this week. The 80-year-old Yoko Ono has selected Siouxsie, Marianne Faithfull and Patti Smith among her line-up. Who said girl power's dead?

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Going to the dogs: literary satire after the crash

Thanks to the great Caustic Cover Critic's recommendation, I've just enjoyed what has become one of my favourite reads ever: Going to the Dogs (1931), by Erich Kästner. Subtitled 'The Story of a Moralist', this adult novel by the author of Emil and the Detectives tells the story of 32-year-old copywriter Jakob Fabian who's struggling to make his way in Berlin following the crash of 1929.

Stories set in the time of the Weimar Republic are perennially popular, but this is a real humdinger, featuring unsatisfied wives - including a nymphomaniac brothel keeper - and a cabaret of the insane. There's pathos, too, in Fabian's relationships with his mother, his aspiring-actress girlfriend Cornelia, and his talented and generous best friend Labude.

I was reminded of Belgian author Willem Elsschot's Cheese, published by Granta, in which the author's perennial everyman Frans Laarmans fills his home with 22 tonnes of Edam he's unable to sell on. Roughly contemporaneous, the two books depict a world tipping over into desperation, while their authors never lose faith in the warmth of the human heart.

It also brought to mind William Gerhardie's wonderful satires, such as Doom (Prion), which predates these works by only a few years. Last year the novelist William Boyd invoked Gerhardie as a sort of morality tale: initially fêted, Gerhardie wrote no books for the last four decades of his life and is now little known. 'He's an awful warning of how easy it is to stop writing,' Boyd told Metro.

And then there's the marvellous Albert Cossery, who, like Kästner, has been championed by New York Review Books. Though he died aged 94 (in 2008), Cossery produced less than one, slim, book for each decade of his life. Cynical they may be, but that doesn't make them any less true; alongside the other works mentioned here, they're truly appropriate for our times.

PS I note Cossery's Laziness in the Fertile Valley (1948) - with a foreword by Henry Miller - is due to be published in November by New Directions, who already publish his A Splendid Conspiracy (1975) and The Colors of Infamy (1999). Can someone remind me nearer the time, please? Thanks.