Friday 31 December 2010

Ice cream for snow - my Captain Beefheart tribute

Great music often evokes specific memories hardwired to precise locations and so with the death of great musicians. Friday 17th December 2010 saw the passing away of Don van Vliet, a beguiling musician, who you may know by the name of his musical alter ego: Captain Beefheart. Snow was falling fast in London and I happened to be playing some of my favourite Beefheart tracks on Spotify whilst attempting to clear my desk at work before Xmas - a persistently futile exercise. The snow was threatening to clogg everything up and so I headed for the tube. Someone twittered "Beefheart has died" which I picked up when the District Line surfaced to a snow-drenched Bromley-by-Bow underground station. I always lose data connection there but when I got home the radio confirmed Don van Vliet's depARTure.

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band disbanded in 1982 after their 12th, and final, studio album Ice Cream for Crow and van Vliet committed himself to expressionist painting for the rest of his life. So his shuffle off this mortal coil was not an immediate loss to music as he had already retired: no comebacks, no reunions, no final tours or charity singles. If you have never been gripped by pop/rock music post 1955 then he will be, and is likely to remain, an utter mystery to you. If however, you like popular music (and one can never assume that everyone does) and you have never come across Captain Beefheart, then you have many treats ahead of you. My brief tribute is not an obituary, please go to Rolling Stone, MOJO, Wikipedia, The Guardian and cult fans sites for the narrative details. No, this is simply a short personal reflection on Captain Beefheart's impact on my musical senses.

I went to Nottingham Trent Polytechnic in 1983 as an indie kid and left in 1986 a jazz-fiend, a world music lover with a taste for the avant-garde - or so I like to think. Some of my new friends were listening to Frank Zappa - who immediately excited me as an artist - and along with Zappa came Captain Beefheart. Zappa went to school with Beefheart (I prefer to use his alter ego's name) and encouraged him to pursue his music, produced the most experimental of all his albums: Trout Mask Replica (1969) and also worked with him on the 1975 album, Bongo Fury. If you like one then you'll probably like the other although they are clearly very different artists. Nevertheless, what they share is a jazz sensibility.

Beefheart had an incredible voice. He could get really low and he also developed a characteristic high-pitched squawk, or squeak, that would punctuate his singing. His voice was often compared to Howlin' Wolf and it's a reasonable assumption that Wolf was a significant influence on Beefheart because of the initial similarity of the vocal sound, the skillful harmonica playing and Beefheart's clear love of the blues. So if you mix up Howlin' Wolf's voice with the free jazz experiments of some of John Coltrane's and Ornette Coleman's recordings and mix in a desert-swamp-rock blues thing with a poetry vibe, then you get some way to describing the explosive Beefheart sound.

I love the first album, Safe As Milk (1967). Electricity, a song from this album, is so brilliantly captured in this live footage from 1968 on the beach at Cannes. Beefheart looks out of kilter with the time. The audience certainly don't know what to make of him. The music has a frenetic energy and a very thick full sound. Ironically for me, I also like the mid-period, 'softer' recordings -  Unconditionally Guaranteed (1974) and Moonbeams and Bluejeans (1974) - that Beefheart later disowned (not so avant-garde now are we?). If you get an opportunity to listen to Upon the My-O-My and Observatory Crest then hopefully you will be enraptured by the atmospheres they conjure up. Trout Mask Replica they certainly aren't.

Smoke-filled student digs, going on mad trips to Wales, turning up the dial to 11 on my (recordiing) Sony Walkman through the streets of Nottingham and free jamming sessions all get tied up into my Beefheart memory bank. Enjoy these links if you want to get booglarized:

13 Reasons Why We Love Captain Beefheart
Ten Essential Captain Beefheart Songs

Tuesday 30 November 2010

Hope Augustus live at PJ's, Covent Garden

Hope Augustus live at PJ's, Covent Garden from eclectictrains on Vimeo.

In June this year I had the opportunity to film jazz singer Hope Augustus at PJ's in Covent Garden.  It was great to get out with a video camera and capture a flavour of the atmosphere at Hope's gig.  The performing space at PJ's is intimate, for those of you that don't know it, and therefore a challenge to film in.  So I plonked myself at the back of an eating area and didn't take the camera off the tripod until the punters had had a few drinks.

It was a fun night.  There were certain moments when the audience were completely captivated which is hard to achieve when everyone is eating and imbibing.  Look out for the audience reaction to Hope singing "The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face".  Before the show I filmed a short interview with Hope.  This was a family show, so to speak, as Hope is my sister-in-law.  I hope (every pun intended) you enjoy this short film of the night.

[For those of you interested in the technical stuff: the film was shot on a Sony Z1 (HDV mode);  I recorded extra sound from the PA feed into a Zoom H4n (utterly crucial); I edited on Final Cut Pro and my colleagues at Xube graded my footage using Magic Bullets].

Friday 26 November 2010

What makes the Canon 7D so good at video?

I'm not sure I can't answer that question yet because we have only just started experimenting with DSLR camera technology but we had great fun making this little film at Xube last week.  Filmed on a cold winter's day in Wanstead Park, East London.  Here is The Chocolate Lab Test:

The Chocolate Lab Test from xubetv on Vimeo.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Fun with HDR photography on the iPhone

Tyne, leaves, seaweed and steps
I'm really enjoying the HDR app on my iPhone. Pro HDR "lets you capture an image exposed for the highlights and another exposed for the shadows", as it says in the marketing blurb. High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography has been around for a while but now smartphone apps are giving people instant access to HDR imaging through a combination of the onboard camera and dedicated software. The HDR effect often gives images a dream-like quality because areas where you expect to see shadows become vibrant and full of saturated colour. If you have any links to great HDR images please let me know by just posting a comment on this blog.

I took this shot in Newcastle-upon-Tyne on a stunning autumn day in October.

Friday 19 November 2010

Playing with the Canon 7D

My outer office wall
I had great fun yesterday playing around with the Canon 7D camera. We hired it for its video capabilities but I couldn't resist a few still shots. Here is one taken with the aperture wide open (f2.8). This is the outer wall of my office in Bethnal Green, East London. The shallow depth of field (sdf) means that only a 20cm slither of the wall is sharp whilst the rest of the image - foreground and background - is satisfyingly soft (out of focus). SDF is also known as bokeh.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

Side Entrance

Side Entrance
Originally uploaded by eclectictrains
A photo from my trip to the Bogside, Derry (Feb 2010).

Monday 8 November 2010

First Amazon Kindle spotted on Tube

Kindle on tube
Well, this is clearly a claim that I cannot substantiate. Anyone (is there anyone?) who has read my previous postings ( and will know that I like observing people and especially if they are on the London Underground parading the newest techie product that we are all talking about. So, I have just seen a middle aged man perched on a carriage-end 'seat' (you know, the uncomfortable types) with a Kindle on his knee. My iPhone photos do it no justice (train wobble and lack-of-flash saw to that) but I can tell you this: the quality of the "electronic ink" is amazing. I did a double take because I thought he was reading a book with some oddly placed plastic buttons at the bottom of his page. The e-reader revolution continues! I hope he didn't notice the surreptitious pics I took of him.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Wednesday 3 November 2010

Wallace & Gromit jumped the invented shark

Wallace & Gromit "jumped the shark" tonight with their World of Invention show tonight on BBC1 (7:30pm). The kids were confused because they wanted Wallace & Gromit doing their normal stuff (as did I). Instead they were the comic anchor for a highly random series of "serious" invention news items stuck together with some ropey video footage*. I am quite surprised that the BBC polluted their W&G brand to this extent. What of course they are trying to do is create a contemporary twist on the old BBC classic, Tomorrow's World. Why bother? Just bring it back and leave W&G re-inventing our plasticine, flat-capped past.

*They also made the mistake of trying to mix a film aesthetic (W&G has the high production values we associate with feature films) with the, often lesser, production values of a magazine style doc shot on video for TV.

It just didn't work for me although I am always interested in anything with the "invention tag" attached to it. The chap with the lifetime project of creating robots without electronics, propelled by wind and made out of electricians' plastic tubing was pure Heath Robinson.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Wednesday 27 October 2010

Standards and rules on the web

I am still in a webby place where having "designed" and tinkered, more like, with my company's Wordpress (Thesis theme) driven website, I am seriously frustrated by the non-standard way that various browsers (okay IE7 and IE8) interpret my design. I can hear the wall of sound that says "hire a specialist" - and I probably will - but getting out simple, standardised content should be easier than this. Yes, there has been a learning curve. Yes, I've been on a journey. Yes, I still like Wordpress. But why can't the experience be slightly more straightforward?

Stupid question really. Anything good is worth struggling for, so people say. I'm 70% there and will call in expertise to help with tweaking, finishing and error removal.

Please visit when you have a moment:

Video Production services from Xube. We make videos.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Friday 22 October 2010

Pressing on with Wordpress (and not giving up)

In September 2008 I wrote a blog about my frustrations with Wordpress (PHP, CSS and the rest) and I gave up! Yep, I thought Blogger would do for now. Wordpress (the open source variety) was just too damn fiddly. If you want to blog why not get something that works straight out of the box like Blogger. I didn't see the point of (the hosted service that Blogger is similar to) it was either Blogger the ready-made package or host-it-yourself Wordpress "purity". A rather silly dichotomy that resulted in dumping the pure option rather quickly. Well, something changed and I have had a more successful second go at Wordpress.  Hurrah!

Over the last 2 years I have seen, read and explored many highly-customised, slick and SEO-friendly Wordpress blogs and thought that my company needed to head in that direction. Our new website is still in its infancy but it has been launched.  Please go and take a look: Xube - High Quality Video Production.  It's a first attempt, admittedly, but I'm pleased with how it shows off some of our most recent work and has blogging as a core feature of the site.

It's very early days with the new website but our plans are to use the blog to deepen and enrich the content published there.  If you have a basic knowledge of HTML and are willing to learn a few CSS tricks then Wordpress is worth exploring.  It has now matured into an CMS (Content Management System) which means you publish what you like, when you like and Wordpress will handle the rest (such as archiving).  It has taken the best part of 2 months to get the features working the way I want them too and there will inevitably more changes over the next 2 months.

Any tips?  I have found the Thesis theme a good investment.  The SEO-friendly theme holds your hand around Wordpress and makes customisation slightly less daunting.  This is a paid-for theme but you don't have to go down that route.  You could try free themes, make your own or just adapt what Wordpress gives you.

I am now inspired to learn a little more about PHP, the coding language behind Wordpress, but am going to take one step at a time.

Thursday 21 October 2010

Poster doubletake: Hampton Court Poster part 2

"Welcome to the world of the magnificent Tudors" the not right poster beckons. At first it appears as though the design agency may have left the intern on his own in the office one Friday afternoon and he has subsequently pushed the crazy colours button in Photoshop and sent it to the printers. The red bricks (Wikipedia calls them pink) of Hampton Court Palace are overwrought and shout at you. The Central Casting Henry VIII is ruddy-faced and welcomes you to his gaff with a menacing look in his eye. As your eye is drawn into the centre of the picture (through the Palace's wonderful arches) you notice a young man, coyly smirking, in a doublet and hose who reminds me of the tennis player Andy Murray (it must be the south west London link). And further in the distance is a woman of unknown identity (in posh Tudor garb) who is being looked at by a group of cut-out tourists. Yes, literally cut-out with scissors and stuck on! The visual incongruities that first repelled me now create an air of mystery that make me want to walk into the poster. What initially appeared to be a design faux pas is perhaps a small work of genius. The appeal to explore Hampton Court Palace's rich history is captured not with standard issue beauty shots but with an off-beat visual over-saturation of colour and curious characters.

"Welcome to the world of the magnificently intriguing tourist poster!"

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Tuesday 19 October 2010

Poster doubletake: Hampton Court Palace part 1

[It's been a while: real world events, micro blogging and social media can take some of the blame...]. There's a poster that has distracted me from my SPDS (Semi-Permanent Distracted State) and it's the one on the London tube for Hampton Court Palace; an advert for a Tudor-themed experience with a buxom princess and H8 himself. There is something not right about this poster! 'Not right' is, I appreciate, a pretty appalling excuse for a critical description, but take a look at the poster and you will, I hope, start to see what I mean. But I have to admit the 'not rightness' of this poster has cast a spell on me. It's got me. I always stop and stare. Perhaps the poster is very right! More detail, and a picture, in my next post.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Wednesday 23 June 2010

European Public Policy Blog: The UK’s public data tsunami gathers speed

European Public Policy Blog: The UK’s public data tsunami gathers speed: "And there should be as few ‘strings’ attached as possible so developers can easily reuse it, mash"

I sometimes feel I live in a constant data tsunami with noughts and ones crashing around my head but it is great to know that Tim Berners-Lee involvement with the previous administration is leading to further releases of government data.

 Let's get crunching...

Thursday 13 May 2010

CamClegg: coalition government anagram fun

I am tickled by a few "coalition government" anagrams:

Team Recoil Nonvoting (CamClegg face up to their true minority status).

Team Convening Oil Rot (CamClegg go and help BP clear up the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico as first international green gesture and get to see Obama's pad).

Team Cringe Onion Volt (CamClegg have just opened the books and looked in the treasury coffers to find a tear-jerking legacy from Gordon Brown - onions! [Yes, I know volt should be spelt vault]. So they close the door of the vault, giggle and tell George Osbourne to go take a look for himself).

Team Connive Lingo Rot (CamClegg plan a new way of communicating to the nation).

I got some help with this great website:

Have you got any favourites?  Then please send them my way via comments.

Sunday 9 May 2010

A fluid situation: dealing with democracy

I enjoyed listening to Malcolm Rifkind on R4 and BBC Breakfast this morning. He brushed aside any quick fixes on PR as democratically impossible. His understanding that Cameron will have to win arguments with the Conservative MPs appeared almost quaint but the present situation has at least thrown the "dated" concept of winning an argument into the foreground.

A fantasy scenario (but not that fantastic in these fluid times) is a temporary LD agreement with a Tory minority government. The ensuing crisis of credibility for the LDs, the lack of confidence the Tory's have in governing (without ideology) and the arrival of a new Labour Party leader forces another general election where PR is on the agenda but, crucially for people who believe in the power of debate, a small but significant gap opens up for the contestation of radical ideas.

I'll vote for that!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Sunday 21 March 2010

Ed Ruscha Film Challenge 2009

Okay, I'll come clean, I never got to see the Damien Hirst exhibition inspite of all my best intentions. In fact this blog has laid dormant since November 2009 and it is a source of much guilt. Shouldn't be, but it is. My only excuse is that I've been extremely busy with work and other stuff. Which is, all in all, a good thing. But don't you find that it is the uplifiting, cultural excursions in life that get squeezed (plus properly catching up with your friends)? So it was a very pleasant surprise to be asked by the Southbank Centre to take part in their Ed Ruscha Film Challenge. (Slightly weirdly, days before my invite I had tweeted a picture of this exhibition poster (right) and asked my very few Twitter followers whether anyone had been to the exhibition, or knew much about Ruscha. No one replied and I never did find out whether my tweet had created a ripple in SocialMediaTwittersphere which led to my invitation but I like to think it might have. Otherwise, why tweet?).

The deal was to choose a 45 minute slot from a selection of dates provided by the gallery and make a 30 second film about any one, or combination, of 7 of Ed Ruscha's paintings. I was allowed to take some video equipment in but no lights. The winning filmmaker would win a prize of a camera and the film would be used in the promotion of the exhibition. This was a great fun invite that I couldn't turn down. I swotted up on his work (being only vaguely familiar with a few iconic pieces) and made sure I had some grasp of Ruscha's role and influence in the US 50s-60s pop art scene and off I went to the Southbank.

One of the curators re-explained the rules to the competition (she had already emailed them to me) and then firmly, but politely, showed me which paintings I could film and which I could not. "You definitely cannot film "Oof". Ed has not given permission for that one to be included." I didn't want to film "Oof" anyway. I had my sights on Oof's companion piece "Noise" (1963).

Here is my film. It didn't win. Too noisy I reckon.

The bold yellow letters on a blue canvas are utterly impenetrable. The painting baffles me and entertains me. What could I possibly bring to this pure piece of 1960's pop art skullduggerry? Well, I could certainly bring a lot of noise. So that's what I did. I also filmed the busy black and white mountainside from Ruscha's later work "Me" (1999). The texture of the mountains reminded me of the television fuzz that you used to get when programmes finished late in the evening. My friend, Jo Herlihy, kindly let me record a telephone call we had one evening where we discussed politics, Ruscha's work and other stuff. I recorded some sounds and words that caught my attention from the exhibition, in particular a quote from Hamlet that features in another Ruscha painting: "words without thoughts never to heaven go". The words stuck in my head all day. Great words. Noisy words. Ruscha, a playful artist, might have been suggesting in his use of Shakespeare that many of his word paintings like "OOF" and "NOISE" were simply "words without thoughts" with no exalted ambition. Just abstract words.

My editor friend, Ben Hooton, jumped on board and kindly edited the film, supplied the "right-back-at-you-Ruscha" idea "NOISE IS NO NOISE" and donated some of his double-bass playing. I hoped to create a small visual and audio cacophony. Ruscha's direct painting is so "unnoisy" that by filming my film on an iPhone and a consumer digital stills camera with "video capabilities" I could break the painting up into noisy pixels. As a video producer most of the time you want to light shots sufficiently so that you can eliminate artefacts and pixel noise. It was liberating to use no lights and work with very noisy images.

At one point I stepped over the low wire cordon separating me from the painting and got both my cameras to within an inch of canvas and just filmed the edges of the big yellow letters. Gallery security kept a close eye on me but let me get on with it. I am very pleased they did. What a privilege.

Here is Fiona Skinner's winning film with a great voiceover from Johnny Marr.

Some useful Ruscha links:
Ed Ruscha’s great subject by Jackie Wullschlager
Ed Ruscha: A man of his words by Tom Lubbock
Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting by Laura Cumming