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From the archives: Britney vs The Beatles

I think I wrote this somewhere around 2002, for my first attempt at building a website – in the days when nobody was talking about blogs, MySpace was still just a twinkle in Tom's eye, and… Well, lets just say that my tastes have developed since then. (Back then, putting a date on your posts wasn't considered terribly important. Or if it was, nobody told me...) I think this was my first attempt at writing something for my own website, at a time when all the HTML was hand-coded. I'm putting it here so I don't have to worry about the day when my old website inevitably falls off the internet and goes to the big Geocities archive in the sky.

The reason I've dug it up though: there is a passing mention of Max Martin at the end; the guy who wrote "...Baby One More Time" - which was his first number one. At the time of reposting this, he has now written/co-written more number one singles than anyone in history other than John Lennon and Paul McCartney. If his work with Taylor Swift on 1989 is anything to go by, I reckon he has a pretty strong chance of overtaking them.

What this is all about is Britney Spears, who embodies all that I think is good about pop music, and the Beatles, who have become the embodiment of all that I think is bad about pop music.

Actually, it's not specifically about Britney Spears. It's just that she's another target of venomous hate campaigns that I think are thoroughly unwarranted. It could just as well be about S-Club 7, or Steps, or Bananarama, or any one of countless "manufactured" bands. But Britney Spears sounds like more fun to write about, and gives me a good excuse to put her pictures all over the place...

And it's not strictly about the Beatles either; more about the Beatles fans that still exist in the 21st century but haven't quite managed to move on from the late 1960s.

Firstly, I have to say for the record, I don't think the Beatles were a bad band. That's not my point. I'm happy to say that I've bought a few of their albums, and used to listen to them quite often. I think they wrote and recorded some great songs, did some great things, and although I can't really say, because I wasn't born until 7 years after they split up, I think they probably deserved their phenomenal success.

At the time...

In Christmas 2000, the Beatles released an album called "1", which was a collection of all their number one singles. It went to number one in the album charts for a while, and had people queuing up outside record shops for the midnight release.

Now, this is something that's bothered me for a while, but actually seeing this happen really brought it home to me.

Here's an interesting statistic; Before the Beatles split up, between 1963 and 1970 they released 13 long-playing albums in the UK. Since they split up, they've released no new songs (unless you count what are, by anybodys judgement, second-rate, discarded songs dug out of their rightful place at the back of a cupboard in Abbey Road and dusted off for the Anthology. They weren't released first time round for a reason...) but have managed to put together another 20 long playing albums. TWENTY! With NO new material... Now, I have to admit that if I was in the band, or worked for their record company, I'd love to do the same thing- sell not just the same songs, but the very same recordings shuffled in a slightly different order and watch the ca$h roll in (those country mansions don't pay for themselves, you know...) No, the thing that bothers me is the people out there who will walk into a record shop and out of however many hundreds of records there, what they choose to spend their hard earned sixteen pounds on is another compilation album from a band that split up 30 years ago. I can't help wondering, if someone had told John Lennon that the first Christmas number one of the twenty-first century would be the umpteenth compilation of Beatles songs, would he have laughed or cried? (Considering that Michael Jackson bought up the publishing rights to most of his songs in the 80s- probably cried...)

I can remember thinking how strange it seemed when CDs broke through as the standard format for music and people were spending small fortunes on buying their records again in a slightly smaller, shinier disc, rather than just have a record player and a CD player next to each other. I always thought that was about as pointless as buying a record could get. But buying the same recordings again in a different order? While I'm quite sure that there must have been a fair few sold to kids who never had a Beatles record before, I'm equally certain that wouldn't possibly sell enough copies to get to number one at the time of year when record sales hit their peak.

So, these people don't bother me. If you want to get some Beatles songs in your CD collection, but you don't want to shell out two hundred quid for all of their albums and none of the other compilations are to your taste, this may well be what you're looking for.

No, what really irks me are those people who hold up the Beatles as a shining example of what good music can be, and would be were it not for the hordes of manufactured, talentless, soulless boy/girl/pop bands flooding the charts, who not only don't play their own instruments, they don't even write their own music!!!!!

The horror...

There are two main elements to any band- the look and the sound. And Britney Spears is intrinsically better than the Beatles on both counts.

1) Appearance.

The Beatles, to my knowledge, had one dance move. They played their concert motionless for 95% of the time (except for playing their instruments, obviously) but their one dance move consisted of shaking their hair when they went "wooooo" in the chorus. They couldn't really do much else because they all had guitars to deal with, and it wasn't until later in the sixties that the idea of moving and playing the guitar at the same time would be invented by such pioneers as Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townsend, who then sent Chuck Berry back in a time machine... So the pressure of doing both at once became too much, and George Harrison gave the rest of the band an ultimatum- either they didn't have to play live, and deal with the pressure of shaking their heads and playing their instruments at the same time, or he would quit the band. They quickly realised, however, that they were so ridiculously famous that their records went to number one on pre-orders alone; which meant that no-one really cared what they sounded like anymore because they bought the record anyway, and as their fans screamed so loud at the gigs that they couldn't hear themselves either, they would be better off not bothering to get out of bed. So, in what can only be described as a massive snub to their fans who trooped along en masse to their live performances, they decided not to play live anymore, which meant they were free to have their own individual, non-matching haircuts, grow beards, take lots of new exciting drugs and slowly withdraw up their own arses.

Compare this to the pop stars of today. Britney Spears doesn't play an instrument- she get a professional to do that job. So she isn't restricted by a plank of wood tied around her neck. And the stars are chosen, at least in part, for their looks. And since Madonna, they don't even have to worry about holding a microphone, as its strapped to their heads. So they are free to dance and put on a show that's actually worth watching (as opposed to four motionless blokes that you can't hear anyway.) And when they have their ego-driven temper tantrums, it's more along the lines of "I want a bowl of 1000 M&Ms, and someone to pick out the brown ones" or "I want an entourage of 15,000 stylist, hairdressers, make up artists and a stylist for my dog"- which effectively adds to the show, because you can still be entertained by reading about their off-stage antics while they transform into an untouchable legend living in a parallel popstar universe, which contrasts sharply with just not going on stage anymore because you can't be bothered.

Combine this with todays extravagant stage shows with light shows, smoke machines and pyrotechnic displays, and you have a better looking show. Arguably, this is a result of things advancing with the times, but there were plenty of bands in the 60s playing around with projectors, lights and smoke to give their shows an edge, so that doesn't really hold. I think it's more likely that they simply didn't care. Did the Beatles ever abseil onto the stage or fly in from the back of the stadium on flying skateboards as Five and Backstreet Boys did?

And if you're of the opinion that the Beatles image was all their own, compared to the manufactured images that todays pop bands are forced into, then I recommend you read up on the subject and find out exactly what happened to them in Hamburg that turned them from leather-clad rockers to pop stars with matching suits and haircuts well before anyone other than their immediate families and friends knew they existed.

2) Playing Instruments & Writing Songs.

Some people would have you believe that a band that plays their own instruments and writes their own songs is somehow intrinsically better than a band who doesn't. This is one of those things that, as far as I can tell, is subtly implanted into peoples heads at an early age by people who don't know what they're talking about, and is subsequently taken for granted. It's not true. In fact, if you think it through, the opposite is true.

Firstly, every band needs instruments- whether its a single piano, a couple of guitars, a bank of synthesisers or a full orchestra. But there's simply no reason for the band to play them themselves. What's a better show- four good looking young kids singing and dancing, of four good looking young kids staring at their hands trying not to drop a note or fluff a chord?

On top of that, there's the problem of ego. Musical instruments are there to play music on. Seems like stating the obvious, but a lot of people who play musical instruments seem to think that they're for something different- to show off how well they can play that particular instrument. Which leads us away from the finely crafted 3 minute pop songs that we know and love, and into the territory of extended guitar solos that don't send the audience anywhere other than to sleep. Except, of course, for the schoolboys (always seems to be boys, for some reason) who are learning to play guitar so one day they could do extended guitar solos too, staring in wonder that anyone can play that fast, when in fact just about anyone who can be bothered to waste a few years of their life practising scales can do it.

On top of which, the bands end up being tied down by their instruments. A band with two guitarists, a bassist and a drummer will generally only be able to do drums-and-guitar-based songs without causing rifts within the band (for example, when the drummer has nothing to do in the studio while the guitarist spends hours playing with a drum machine.) Even if they were talented enough to come up with them, they would never allow themselves to do the likes of "Baby One More Time", or All Saints' "Pure Shores", or S-Club 7's "Don't Stop Moving." But there's nothing to stop Britney Spears getting hold of a guitarist and playing a rock classic. (She's already covered the Stones...)

The other thing that every band needs is a song. Preferably more than one, too. This is where the other popular misconception comes in- that bands who write their own songs are intrinsically better than bands who don't. While I appreciate that it can bring more "authenticity" to hear a singer singing one of their own songs, it's not without its drawbacks.

To me, it makes no difference whether the ideas, songs or concepts come from the band themselves or their managers, producers, songwriters, stylists, families or off the back of a cereal packet, so long as they're good. There seems to be a school of thought that thinks that artists who don't write their own songs get them from some sort of machine, or simply plucks them out of the ether, so their songs are somehow "bad", while artists who write their own songs spend months at a time carefully crafting them, pouring their blood, sweat and tears into them, so they're naturally "good". Clearly, that's not true- if anything, it's the opposite. A band with an established following will be forgiven for writing the occasional duff tune, because their faces have had thousands of pounds worth of marketing money invested in them so they have to be kept happy. On the other hand, a faceless songwriter will be dropped and replaced without any need for press releases or newspaper headlines, or just simply not have their "duff" songs recorded. So they've got a reason to make every song as good as they can, rather than just knocking out a b-side in less time than it takes to listen to it. On top of the fact that they're just songwriters, so they don't spend their time rehearsing dance steps or practising poses in front of mirrors or planning what they're going to say to the journalist from NME and whether it's going to be the same speech they gave the journalists from Q and Smash Hits, because they're just learning how to write damn good songs.

And there's no simple formula or set of rules to follow to make a number one song. What will go straight to number one today might not do the same next week, next month or next year. And if a "rule" should happen to come into existence, it will be broken just as quickly. In the late 80s, the KLF attempted to write "The Manual- How to have a number one single the easy way." Although an excellent read, statements like "In this day and age no song with a BPM over 135 will ever have a chance of getting to Number One" show it as something forever set in the days before drum'n'bass, it clearly didn't take long for the rules to transform completely. (Nowadays a final chorus that goes up a note seems to be an appendix to the "Golden Rules".)

And anyway, surely if you love a song, you love the song no matter where it came from? Does it make any difference if it was written by the singer, guitarist, drummer, manager or someone else? It certainly never seemed to bother any Motown fans.

And besides, as much as I love the work of Max Martin (writer of such songs as "Backstreet's Back" and "Baby One More Time"), I don't want a blown-up picture of him on my wall, or his face on MTV. In fact, I don't even care what he looks like. Give me Britney Spears any time... Redesign

I've just clicked the button to make a new template go live on the site.

I hope you like it - any feedback (particularly bugs or awkward looking pages) would be helpful.

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Old site still out of action (for the forseeable future…)

It is now two weeks since I pulled my old website off the internet for the good of the internet. (Not just to avoid anyone stumbling across my ramblings, but because my server got hacked and was redirecting visitors to… well, wherever someone else wanted to. Given that I don't know who that 'someone else' is, other than that they are the sort of person who hacks into other people's websites and messes about with them, I don't really trust them too much. Hence taking the site offline.)

This post is a rambling explanation about why the old site is going to be staying offline for the forseeable future.

Its also the first time I've managed to find both the time and the energy to sit down and try to get the old site cleaned up, working again, and back online so that I can start moving something like ten years worth of blog posts over to this new site. (Again, not because the internet is worse off without it – going offline is hardly like _why vanishing – just because ten years of 'stuff' feels like a shame to just watch vanish into the ether.)

So… before I can even start on fixing things, I have to deal with the fact that my old hosting moved back in December. Which shouldn't be a big deal, except it means that when I try to SSH into my server, my computer sees that isn't where used to be, panics, and refuses to let me connect in case the site has been hacked. (Which, of course, it has – but as far as I can tell, this detail is actually unrelated.) I know enough about SSH and RSA to know how to tell my computer to be ultra-safe and not let me connect when something strange is going on, but not enough to know how to tell the same computer that I understand that something looks strange, but that it isn't so strange that I don't want to let it connect.

(This kind of thing is exactly why I don't want to look after my own server any more.)

So, I need to try to either figure out how to make my computer forget about the paranoid security settings I set up a while ago for this particular server, or for every server I've connected to, knowing that at some point I'll want to connect to one of them again and have to jump through a similar bunch of hoops. Which sounds like creating a new headache for the sake of taking my mind off the existing headache…

Instead, I'm going to try a different approach. Given that all of the old content that I want is sitting in a database, I'm going to try to just dump the database and sift through it for the stuff that I want to keep. I have no idea how much work that is going to be to make it actually work properly (by "properly", I mean "every single post makes it back online, with all the old links still pointing to the same content, images and links still working etc. etc.)

With it being ten years since I started putting stuff onto servers on the internet, that feels like a big job. (Or more accurately, a very large number of little jobs, many of which have a bunch of other little jobs nested within them.)

The new 'first problem' is that both Safari and Chrome are still being ultra-paranoid about my web domain – meaning that trying to access web-based tools gives me repeated 'This site is unsafe' warnings, breaking functionality of web apps – so while I can get into my databse, I can't easily download the contents of it.

Except... this turns out to be a database with almost half a million entries in it. Some of these will be relevant to the 400 or so blog posts, notes and links that I've posted. Most of them will be utter rubbish (including spam comments, spammy user accounts, unfinished draft posts from several years ago.)

So… rebuilding the old site feels like something that would take time and energy that might be better spent elsewhere. Its not something that I'm definitely not going to do (I'm particularly aware that the longer I leave it, the harder it will get.) But rather than this being something I'm going to do as soon as I have the time to look at it (ie. tonight), its something I'm going to do when I get around to it. Which, given that I have a lot of things that I want to get around to (including two children to raise, a bunch of iTunes U videos to watch, a new GTA game coming out this year to play, a new guitar that hasn't had nearly as much attention as I would like, a job to do and a bunch of commitments that will probably extend outside of the 9 to 5, Monday to Friday)… lets just say that digging through a bunch of code and databases is sitting fairly low down on my 'to do' list – some way beneath 'write some new stuff.' So although there are a couple of bits and pieces that I do want to pull out and put back online, I'll probably end up rewriting them and bringing them up to date rather than effectively necroposting my own blog.

So… Goodbye For the most part, it was fun. Except for all of the admin stuff that I don't have to do anymore…

Hacked again...

On receiving an email from Google Webmaster Tools earlier today (14th Jan 2013) telling me that my 'old' website (at was serving up malware, the first thing I did was yank the website offline and put up this holding page (a bare HTML file) and start figuring out what the problem was.

(At least, that is what I thought I had done. But because my browsers weren't letting me visit the actual website - because Google was reporting it as containing malware - I couldn't see what was happening.)

So, the first place I looked was my Theme files- the ones that actually generate the HTML code that gets served to visitors. Sitting in my custom theme was an iframe, which linked to what looked like a Wordpress update script (judging by the URL), sitting on a .ru domain name. As my CMS is not Wordpress, this looked pretty obviously out of place.

(The slight worry is that I do have Wordpress installations on my server, so I'll be checking them over for any issues- as anyone/thing that can rewrite one file might be able to rewrite another.)

The second place I happened to look at also had a nasty, foreign iFrame. As did the third. So, some script has clearly run through my server, found every file that looks like it generates an HTML page, and made it do something I don't want to do.

It was about this point that I decided to check to see if this page was appearing instead of the compromised page by visiting it on my phone - which promptly bounced around about a dozen different URLS, before landing on some dating site. (As you can see, I've fixed that problem. At least for now.) The second problem turned out to be a modified .htaccess file (which is a file that usually is used to tell the server what to do if unexpected things happen – if pages have been moved, '404 page not found' errors etc.) which had been changed to redirect any visitors to a different site. An easy fix once you know what the problem is, but not (for me) a simple problem to find.

Annoyingly, my home router broke down yesterday, so I don't have a broadband connection at home. Meaning that I'm having to figure this out (and fix what I can) over a mobile connection. Oh- and mobile coverage of my house is hit and miss, dropping in and out pretty much at random. Which makes it even slower and more frustrating than it would be otherwise. (Also, as an added bonus, my 3 and a half year old son decided against sleeping this evening.)

So, right now I'm wondering if I can be bothered with the effort of ongoing server maintenance etc, and just moving everything to Tumblr or Squarespace or something where I don't have to worry about security, spammers and malicious scripts, and can just get on with writing things that I never finish again.

At least I know what I'm doing with that...