Thursday
Dec012016

Tobacco talk (on the Big Yorkshire Phone-in)

Here's a transcript of my contribution to a BBC Radio Leeds phone-in yesterday.

I've edited it very slightly where the recording was slightly inaudible or the meaning wasn't 100 per cent clear, but it's an accurate record of the conversation.

Presenter Andrew Edwards introduced me following some comments about iQOS, the heat not burn device that was launched in the UK yesterday by Philip Morris (PMI).

Andrew Edwards, presenter, BBC Radio Leeds:
Listening to that is Simon Clark. He is from the pro-smoking group Forest which describes itself as the voice and friend of the smoker and he is on the Big Yorkshire Phone-in. Good afternoon, Simon.

Simon Clark, director, Forest:
Hello, Andrew. Actually pro-choice rather than pro-smoking.

Andrew Edwards:
Right pro-choice. Good distinction. Shouldn't we just though ban tobacco altogether rather than saying we have invented this which is less harmful?

Simon Clark:
Well, no, because prohibition doesn't work. I think everybody knows the example of America where they tried to prohibit alcohol and they had to give up that experiment after 12 years because it was a terrible failure because the people who took over the market were the criminal gangs and the bootleggers.

So from that experience I think the tobacco control lobby has understood that prohibition never works and over the last few decades in the UK, and globally, we've seen an attempt to wean people off tobacco, trying to get them to give up completely, and again that hasn't worked as well as the tobacco control lobby would have liked because, simply, there are millions of people who enjoy smoking.

I think the health message has got across to most people and in many cases that has discouraged people from taking up smoking in the first place. It has also encouraged some people to give up, but many people are prepared to take the risk because they enjoy smoking and because they enjoy it they're not going to give it up until a product comes along that gives them the same pleasure that smoking tobacco does.

Andrew Edwards:
Which is where I think today's conversation is an interesting one. We understand other big manufacturers are quite close to releasing similar products to this one here [PMI's iQOS device]. Now as I understand it the difference from an e-cigarette here is that with traditional e-cigarettes the conversion rate to e-cigs of smokers is about 20 per cent, whereas the boss of PMI, who have developed this new one, says shareholders are enthusiastic about the new product as well and part of it is that it gets round the basic weakness of it not being, for a smoker, something that gives them that 'hit'. Do you take that point? Does that seem to make sense to you?

Simon Clark:
Yes, I mean we are excited by all these emerging products from e-cigarettes to heat-not-burn products. I think it's true that there is a small market of people who have switched to e-cigarettes and they swear by them. They say that these are absolutely marvellous, but it's [also] true that the majority of smokers are not switching,even though the majority of smokers have tried e-cigarettes. The majority aren’t switching because e-cigarettes don't give them, as you say, the hit or the taste they're looking for.

So those people, if they are looking to cut down or quit cigarettes completely, they want something else and what seems to be exciting about heat-not-burn is that they sort of stay true to the concept of consuming tobacco, because of course e-cigarettes shouldn’t even be called a tobacco product because they don't have any tobacco in them. So what the consumer should be offered is a range of products. Now, if you think of combustible cigarettes at one end of the line ...

Andrew Edwards:
By that you mean a traditional cigarette, a combustible cigarette?

Simon Clark:
Yes, that's right, a traditional cigarette where you have to light it and the tobacco is being burnt rather than heated. The thing is, what we need to do is offer the consumer as wide a range of choice as possible, so at one end you've got the traditional cigarette, at the other you've got the e-cigarette, but for a lot of smokers that's quite a big jump from a combustible cigarette to an electronic cigarette.

Andrew Edwards:
But aren’t we dancing around the issue that we all understand which is that smoking is very bad for you, it kills an awful lot of people, and we've known that forever, and shouldn’t we just be saying rather, 'Here's something that is less harmful,' we should just be saying, 'Look, let's get rid of it altogether.' And I take your point that you are pro-choice and you think it's a legal product, nobody is denying that. Shouldn’t we though just be saying, for the sake of the health of the generations to come, our children, our children's children, 'Look, let’s just get rid of it.' Like that texter Jonathan said to me, you know, people will look back on it like some of the madnesses, as they now see it, of taking what turned out to be poisonous things to try and cure our ailments.

Simon Clark:
Well, the problem is there are lots of things in life that are potentially not good for us. Now smoking may come quite high up that bar but drinking too much alcohol, drinking too many sugary drinks, eating too much fatty food and dairy products, there are lots and lots of things that are potentially bad for our health and we can't go around banning all these things.

The exciting thing about these emerging products is that they give control back to the consumer. I mean we have got to put this in perspective. Smoking rates in the UK have fallen dramatically over the last 30 or 40 years and if you go back to the Fifties half of the adult population smoked. Now the figure is about 16 per cent. So that’s been a pretty dramatic drop but of course the really dramatic drop actually happened between the mid Seventies and the early Nineties when there were very few restrictions on smoking and most people absorbed the health messages and they chose either not to start smoking or they decided they're going to quit.

What's happened in the last ten to 15 years is that we got down to a core group of the population who enjoyed smoking and weren’t going to quit and the government, in order to force the smoking rates down to the current level, has had to introduce a raft of very repressive, very restrictive regulations ...

Andrew Edwards:
... and things like plain packaging, advertising, and the rest. We will come back, Simon. I'm glad you are here. I am just going to remind people how to give us a call. You are with BBC Radio Leeds. This is Simon Clark from the pro-choice group – 'We are not pro-smoking, we are pro-choice' was his distinction – which describes itself as the voice and the friend of the smoker. He is live on BBC Radio Leeds. This is the Big Yorkshire Phone-in.

I'm Andrew Edwards and we're talking about the product which has been launched today by one of the world's biggest tobacco companies, Philip Morris ... and it's been described as a new less harmful cigarette. It's been launched [in the UK] and it is, as you heard Simon mention, a heat-not-burn product. So it heats tobacco but it does use real tobacco and the company claims that [although] it's not been independently scientifically verified smokers get the same nicotine hit but 90 per cent less of the nasty toxins that come with cigarette smoke. They're not pushing that end of the finding. They are just simply saying at the moment that the new product is likely to cause less harm and they are inviting scientists to test it, but I'm asking, 'Aren't we dancing around here? Isn’t the point that we should just ban smoking tobacco altogether?'

Simon, just before I open this up to our callers, I'm interested to see what you make of the chief exec, and you heard a little quotation from him there, André Calantzopoulos, who said that he would like to work with governments towards the phasing out of conventional cigarettes. He said that the company knows its products harm their consumers and that the only correct response is to, quote, “find and commercialise ones that are less harmful”, which is presumably where a product like the one you and I are talking about today fits in?

Simon Clark:
Yes, I completely understand why Philip Morris are moving in that direction and working with government seems to be a very sensible route to go, but I do think it's a bit of a kick in the teeth for their consumers who enjoy their products, their cigarettes, and I do think a company like Philip Morris should be prepared to defend the rights of its existing consumers a bit more than they appear to do. 

I mean, it's marvellous that they are working on these new products because, as I say, we embrace the concept of choice – and the more choice there is for consumers the better – and if that allows people to switch of their own volition to a so-called safer product that has to be a very good thing. But, as I say, I do think to say we are working to essentially get rid of combustible cigarettes, the traditional cigarette, I do think that is a kick in the teeth for consumers who enjoy that product.

Andrew Edwards:
But probably it’s a bit like you, Simon, taking issue with me at the beginning where, and I take your point that you described yourself as a pro-choice group rather than a pro-smoking group, but perhaps in this modern era, very heedful of the health messages, knowing about the younger generation, having shareholders, this is obviously a big private company, that they've got to walk that very delicate line between saying 'Yes, we know people like to smoke, we will try and make it as safe as possible' but, you know you can see where I'm coming to. It's a difficult, difficult line while we've got something that is legal, brings in huge tax revenues and yet is a killer.

Simon Clark:
It is [a difficult line] but one thing we keep saying to legislators, politicians and anti-smoking campaigners is, don't forget that millions of people enjoy smoking tobacco. I mean it's almost taboo these days to actually say that because smokers are routinely talked about as if they have a dirty disgusting habit and are hopelessly addicted to nicotine and all the rest of it.

And yes, there are people who are addicted to nicotine and there are smokers who want to give up, but there are many who don't want to give up because they enjoy it and I think it's up to a tobacco company such as Philip Morris to actually acknowledge that and say 'Look, we are trying to work towards a safer product because there's no doubt a lot of consumers do want that as the endgame, and we want to work with government', and again they're quite right to say that because it's absolute nonsense that government will not sit down and talk to tobacco companies because they quote World Health Organisation regulations saying they're not allowed to talk to tobacco companies. That's completely ridiculous. The companies and governmet have to sit down, with public health, and talk about these issues. 

Andrew Edwards:
Simon, I am going to leave it there. I am really glad we could talk. I am going to open this up to our callers, texters and tweetters but it's very good to talk to you. Thanks for your time.

Simon Clark:
Thank you.

Andrew Edwards:
Appreciate it. Simon Clark from the pro-choice group Forest, which describes itself as the voice and friend of the smoker.

Wednesday
Nov302016

Is this the beginning of the end for conventional cigarettes?

I have a clock radio that bursts into life at 6.10 every morning.

It's tuned to Radio 4 so at weekends I lie there, half awake, listening to Farming Today or Clare Balding rambling on (literally) as she "joins notable and interesting people for a walk through the countryside".

During the week it's the Today programme that wakes me up and today the first voice I heard was that of Deborah Arnott, CEO of ASH.

I only caught a bit of it but she was talking about PMI's new heat not burn product which is being launched in the UK today. According to this report:

Philip Morris has launched a new, less harmful cigarette in the UK which it says could mean halting sales of its conventional tobacco products.

The so called Iqos product heats tobacco rather than burning it.

The tobacco giant claims this means smokers get the same nicotine hit, but 90% less of the nasty toxins that come with cigarette smoke.

It says trials - not yet externally verified - found the new cigarette had the same impact as quitting smoking.

The firm is not pushing that finding, saying only that the new product is likely to cause less harm.

See Philip Morris could stop making conventional cigarettes (BBC News).

Shortly after seven there was an interview with André Calantzopoulos, PMI's chief executive, who confirmed the company would like to work with governments towards the "phase-out" of conventional cigarettes.

Interestingly I've been invited by BBC Radio Leeds to discuss whether combustible cigarettes should now be prohibited.

The argument seems to be that, with the availability of 'safer' non-combustible nicotine products, perhaps it's time to ban the sale of traditional cigarettes altogether.

I've said many times that Forest welcomes all alternative nicotine delivery devices and heat not burn products are of particular interest because of the link with tobacco.

Nevertheless the idea that a tobacco company wants to "phase-out" conventional cigarettes does stick in the throat somewhat.

PMI is entitled to have that conversation with government or anyone else, but they're not entitled to speak for other tobacco companies or the millions of consumers who enjoy smoking and don't want to quit, even for a 'safer' product.

Update: I've just discussed this subject on BBC Radio Leeds. Prompted by André Calantzopoulos's comments this morning, the theme of their phone-in was 'Should tobacco be banned?'

Well done, PMI, you've got people talking openly about the prohibition!

For the record I said that Forest is "pro-choice not pro-smoking" and we are excited by all emerging nicotine products including e-cigarettes and heat not burn devices.

I supported PMI's efforts to speak to government (I said that government, the tobacco companies and public health should get together to discuss these issues) but I also said that talk of phasing out traditional cigarettes was a "kick in the teeth" for consumers who enjoy smoking.

If I can get a clip I'll post it here later.

Tuesday
Nov292016

Sign language

A non-smoking self-employed workman has been fined for not displaying a 'No Smoking' sign in his own van.

Trevor Emery, who runs a domestic appliance business, had to pay £150 which is £100 more than he would have been fined had he actually smoked in the vehicle.

According to Trevor he was unaware of the law, which is no defence of course, but the curious thing is that it took Kent's eagled-eyed wardens almost ten years to spot the 'offence'.

The story first appeared here but went national via The Sun, Daily Mail and others.

BBC South East News also ran the story last night. They wanted to know what our reaction was so I responded as follows:

"This case demonstrates how harsh the law is. Enforcing it in such a heavy-handed way is inappropriate and ridiculous.

"Common sense suggests that a gentle warning and a reminder to Mr Emery to put a no smoking sign in his van would have been sufficient.

"It's almost ten years since the smoking ban was introduced. Compliance is very high which indicates there are very few people who aren't aware that smoking is forbidden in workplaces, including work vehicles.

"Do we really need 'No Smoking signs everywhere? Instead of punishing people like Mr Emery for this most trivial of offences, the authorities should amend the regulations because the vast majority of 'No Smoking' signs are increasingly redundant."

In the event they didn't use any of it but the issue of signs that are essentially redundant is something I may come back to.

After all, do we really 'No Smoking' signs on every shop window, for example? Who, in this day and age, would walk into a store and light up?

Truth is, 'No Smoking' signs rarely if ever have anything to do with health.

In terms of advising people they can't smoke in shops or work vans (or churches!) they tell us nothing we don't already know.

In many cases their primary purpose is no longer to inform but to create a culture in which smoking is widely perceived as a forbidden, even criminal, activity.

This less than subtle tactic is part of a general strategy to denormalise smoking and, by association, smokers.

Trevor Emery could have been let off with a word in his ear. But no, he had to be made an example of, a warning to anyone else who dares to overlook one of the most important symbols of modern life – the ubiquitous 'No Smoking' sign.

Friday
Nov252016

Sheffield smokers steel themselves for further harassment 

Sheffield City Council has announced proposals to reduce smoking. They're out for consultation, deadline January 2, 2017.

The Sheffield Star has the story on its front page today, with the full report (including Forest's response) on page 4. It reads:

Smoking could be banned outside public buildings in Sheffield and at events like the city's half marathon and Christmas lights switch-on.

Lighting up in the vicinity of hospitals, universities, council offices and leisure centres would be outlawed under proposals from council chiefs.

According to the council, in a press release issued earlier this week:

The vision for the Tobacco Control Strategy, which will run from 2017 to 2022, is to create a smoke-free city where people live longer and healthier lives, where children think smoking is unusual, and where young people don’t take up smoking in the first place ...

The World Health Organisation recommends that a comprehensive programme of tobacco control is adopted in order to effectively reduce the number of smokers. This includes supporting smokers to quit, preventing children from starting to smoke in the first place, increasing the awareness of the dangers of smoking, removing cheap and illicit tobacco from our communities and extending smoke-free environments to protect people from the harm caused by second-hand smoke.

Interestingly:

In Sheffield the budget for tobacco control is £1.1m and, currently, 60 per cent of this budget funds stop smoking services and 40 per cent funds wider tobacco control work.

The city council is proposing to move £220,000 from stop smoking services into prevention work. This would involve working with all secondary schools in the city as well as some primary schools, increasing the number of outdoor smoke-free sites and events, and increasing the investment in communication and media campaigns targeting those who find it the most difficult to quit.

So stop smoking services would lose approximately a third of their budget but instead of spending the money on more important issues (maintaining roads and pavements or tackling crime and anti-social behaviour, for example) the council intends to use some of the money to increase "the number of outdoor smoke-free sites and events".

The real issue is why councils are spending public money on tackling smoking when there are national campaigns and events including Stoptober and No Smoking Day plus numerous lobby groups and "charities" spewing out anti-smoking propaganda every day of the year.

I would be more impressed if Sheffield City Council announced that it was to cut its "tobacco control" budget, not just reassign part of it to other anti-smoking initiatives that could further punish those who don't want to quit.

Anyway here's Forest's response:

"Banning smoking outside public buildings, even hospitals, is rather pathetic. Tobacco is a legal product. As long as they are considerate smokers should be allowed to light up outside.

"Smoking in the open air doesn't put anyone else's health at risk so there's no justification for extending the smoking ban to any outdoor area, even children's play areas. People should be allowed to use their common sense, and most do.

"We would support a cut in funding for stop smoking services because the numbers using them have dropped dramatically in recent years, but there are better things to spend public money on than other anti-smoking initiatives.

"In a nationwide poll this year only 14 per cent of the public believed that tackling smoking is a very important priority for local government. The issue came second bottom in a list of ten priorities.

"Tackling crime and anti-social behaviour was the highest priority. Other issues that were rated more important than tackling smoking included investing in roads and pavements, investing in street cleanliness, and improving facilities for young people.

"The council needs to get its priorities right. Tackling smoking and harassing smokers should not be one of them."

The council is asking for people's views. To have your say visit the online consultation hub.

I'll remind you again nearer the closing date. Something to do over the Christmas break, perhaps!

In the meantime I'll link to the full report in the Sheffield Star when it's posted online later today.

Plan to ban smoking from outside public buildings in Sheffield (Sheffield Star)

Tuesday
Nov222016

Industry lights up Next Generation Nicotine Delivery conference

As I mentioned last week I was a panellist at the third Next Generation Nicotine Delivery conference in London.

A two-day event, the second day coincided with the fourth E-Cigarette Summit, also in London, which struck me as a terrible bit of planning.

I’m told the date of the Next Generation conference was confirmed first. Nevertheless organisers of both events should have tried harder to avoid a clash.

I’ve written about the E-Cigarette Summit before and I suspect the views I expressed last year are equally valid now. But I’ll come back to that later.

Unlike the E-Cig Summit the Next Generation conference was industry led and there was far greater emphasis on markets, regulations and the actual products.

Speakers included James Murphy, British American Tobacco; Liam Humberstone, Totally Wicked; Dr Nveed Chaudhry, Philip Morris International; Bo Edberg, former senior vice president, NJOY Electronic Cigarettes; Mike Cameron, CEO, SMOKO; Dr Taman Powell, CEO, Xolo Vape, and many more.

Lead sponsor was EL-Science which is “dedicated solely to eLiquid analysis and manufacture”.

Other sponsors included IntraTab Labs whose “products will never damage the lungs in the manner that occurs from smoking or any inhaled nicotine product”, and Hertz Flavors whose “long term commitment and dedication to the tobacco industry has made us a preferred partner and Europe's leading supplier for unique flavours of premium quality.”

I thought the sessions might be rather technical but the ones I attended were presented in plain English and I learned quite a lot.

To fully appreciate the revolution that’s taking place it’s important to understand that e-cigarettes are just one of many emerging products.

True, they have a significant head start and markets are developing quickly in a number of countries, but it’s only part of the story.

To begin with ‘e-cigarette’ hardly begins to describe a category that includes so many devices. It’s a bit like using 'cigarette' as a generic name for cigarettes, cigars, pipes and shishas.

New kids on the block include tobacco heating products (aka ‘heat not burn’) and a hybrid product that combines e-cigarette technology with tobacco. Not quite sure how that works. I must find out.

We were also given a sales pitch for a nicotine tablet that melts in your mouth. Can't see that taking off big time but if there's a market for nicotine nasal inhalers there must be a market for tablets.

Personally I find all these developments fascinating. The work that’s going into developing safer nicotine products is genuinely impressive.

Of course it's not just about the product. There's also the consumer to consider.

In e-cigarette terms there's the “extrovert enthusiast” who is notable, said one speaker, for his tattoos and beard. This group, and the larger more complex devices they use, is no longer a growth area it seems.

Does that mean that vape festivals are an endangered species? We'll see.

The most important group of consumers, we were told, has no interest in politics or web forums. All they want is a convenient alternative to the combustible cigarette. "This is the market segment everyone wants to serve."

Another speaker suggested that open systems will never appeal to the mass market. Closed systems are the future, convenience is the key.

There was in addition a welcome note of reality. “Cigarettes,” declared another speaker (not me!), “are going to be here for a very, very long time.”

The E-Cigarette Summit is a much bigger event. It benefits too from having a far more prestigious venue. The elegant Royal Society near Pall Mall versus the rather dowdy Thistle City Hotel near the Barbican – which would you choose?

It’s equally clear however that the E-Cigarette Summit is a public health event. The organisers say it’s “solely funded through delegate revenues” but that’s a bit misleading.

Yes, the private sector (consumers and industry) is represented but the single largest group of delegates is a combination of public health professionals and lobbyists most of whose places will be funded by the taxpayer.

Also, check the programme. With one or two exceptions it's dominated by one public health speaker after another. I may have felt like a “square peg in a round hole” at the Next Generation conference but at least the organisers invited me to speak.

From what I've read the closest the E-Cigarette Summit came to an alternative point of view was giving a session to someone from the British Medical Association. The BMA may be ambivalent about e-cigarettes but they still fit the Summit's anti-smoking agenda.

And here's the problem. In my view the more vaping is promoted by public health as an "approved" activity the less it will appeal to the millions of smokers who have yet to switch.

The attraction of e-cigarettes, or so we are told, is that they empower smokers to quit without state intervention or the nagging voice of your local stop smoking service.

Instead – and the E-Cigarette Summit exemplifies this – vaping is slowly but surely being appropriated by public health and a host of taxpayer-funded anti-smoking lobby groups.

I'm certain the majority of public health professionals who currently support e-cigarettes as an alternative to smoking would prefer their use to be relatively short-term. Long-term nicotine use is definitely not on the agenda.

The elephant in the room – which I tried to point out during the panel discussion at the Next Generation conference – is that millions of people enjoy smoking and the majority won't quit until there is a product that matches or exceeds the pleasure of smoking. For some smokers e-cigarettes meet that criteria but it's still a relatively small minority.

At the E-Cigarette Summit I attended in 2013 there were two principal camps – tobacco control campaigners and advocates of e-cigarettes. Since then those two camps have edged closer together.

Three years ago Deborah Arnott, CEO of ASH, supported the precautionary position with regard to e-cigarettes. Her reluctance to endorse them wholeheartedly put her at odds with her predecessor Clive Bates. Today, in public at least, she is a little more enthusiastic.

Likewise the leading vaping advocates have moved irrevocably in the direction of tobacco control, adopting some of the language of public health while passively embracing (ie refusing to condemn) almost every anti-smoking policy of the last 15 years.

The two groups meet in private. They also invite representatives from each camp to address their various conferences. Don’t be fooled though. This is not an equal partnership. The public health industry is clearly in control.

The E-Cigarette Summit is one example. Another was the decision to ban vaping in plenary meetings at the Global Nicotine Forum in Warsaw in June. The policy was introduced to appease a single public health delegate who had complained about being "trapped" by "unpleasant and distracting" vapour.

Officially the policy was also introduced to avoid antagonising any Polish ministers or officials who had been invited to attend. It made no difference. Three months later the Polish government banned the use of e-cigarettes in public spaces.

Appeasement doesn't work. Banning vaping (at the behest of public health) at an e-cigarette conference was a classic example of who is really calling the shots. The subsequent ban on vaping in public places was a further kick in the teeth and I can’t believe the organisers of GFN have agreed to return to Warsaw in 2017.

At the very least the conference should take place in a vaper-friendly country. Instead the organisers are effectively handing control of the conference to public health and the tentacles of tobacco control have once again strangled an event that ought to be celebrating not restricting consumer choice.

In contrast what I enjoyed about the Next Generation event was the general absence of public health nannies and the suspicion that tobacco control was effectively pulling the strings.

Unlike the E-Cigarette Summit we didn't have to listen to lectures about excluding or how to deal with the tobacco industry.

Don’t get me wrong. Every speaker that I listened to at the Next Generation conference supported risk reduction products with enthusiasm (none more so than James Murphy, head of Biosciences at British American Tobacco) but there was no preaching and health issues weren’t rammed down our throats.

Although I described myself as a “square peg in a round hole” in a previous post I never felt unwelcome. There was no hostility and I genuinely felt we were all on the same side.

In an ideal world there would be a single conference that brings together over two or three days the speakers and panellists that attended both the E-Cigarette Summit and the Next Generation Nicotine Delivery conference.

They are very different events but a fusion of the two would be extremely interesting and informative for everyone. The Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum is edging in that direction but an event that brings together all parties should be organised and hosted by an independent third party.

There's a need to understand the health issues but that must go hand in hand with an appreciation of the products that are available or in development, the problems faced by over-regulation, and the need for everyone – industry, consumers, public health – to work together.

Adults who enjoy smoking and don’t want to quit must also be represented, not only to convey that important message but to make the point that, ultimately, it’s about giving consumers a choice so they can make informed decisions freely and without harassment.

The sticking point is the refusal of many tobacco control groups to share a platform with the tobacco companies and critics of public health. Worse, there’s a Stalinist determination among some public health professionals to smear anyone who engages with the tobacco industry.

Sadly even the more moderate public health campaigners are averse to open, civilised debate. Their culture is based on secrecy, prohibition and, most important, control.

I will take the E-Cigarette Summit seriously but only when the organisers open it up to include some of the industry speakers who lit up the Next Generation Nicotine Delivery conference.

If that means a handful of tobacco control campaigners boycott the event, so what? The conference will still take place and it will be bigger, better and more interesting than ever.

Other views:
A Day at the Summit (Facts Do Matter)
Thoughts from the E-Cigarette Summit (Freedom to Vape)

Monday
Nov212016

Sheila take a bow

Only a curmudgeon would begrudge Sheila Duffy, CEO of ASH Scotland, an award for her tireless efforts to turn Scotland into a smoke free nation.

So I'm a curmudgeon.

This morning I saw several tweets congratulating Duffy for winning the snappily titled Scottish Cancer Foundation Prize and Evans Forrest Medal.

Now in its second year the prize is awarded by the SCF to "support the work of those dedicated to reducing the burden of cancer in Scotland."

The tweets I have seen refer only to the Evans Forrest Medal which is named "in recognition of the founders of the Scottish Cancer Foundation".

Perhaps it's too indelicate to mention in a tweet but the winner of the SCF Prize also gets "up to £10,000".

Nice one!

I'm not suggesting there's anything wrong with this, btw. I'm curious however about the phrases "to support the work of" and "up to £10,000".

Exactly how much will Sheila receive for winning the SCF Prize, will the money go to her or the taxpayer-funded organisation that employs her, and how will it be spent?

Just asking.

PS. When the first SCF Prize was launched last year it was stated "Applicants may be nominated or be self nominated."

I'd love to know who nominated Sheila.

Sunday
Nov202016

What Joe Jackson is listening to

It's a small world.

Further to yesterday's post featuring Sharon Jones, who died on Friday, I was reminded that Joe Jackson – who comments occasionally on this blog – also worked with the American soul singer.

They collaborated on a track (I Ain't Got Nothin' But The Blues) on The Duke, Joe's 2012 tribute to Duke Ellington.

Two years later, writing on his own blog What I'm Listening To (WILT), Joe had this to say about Give The People What They Want, the third album by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings:

Sharon Jones sang the shit out of I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But The Blues on my Ellington tribute record The Duke, and is a real pro and a hell of a nice lady. This album is basically business as usual, and none the worse for it: classic, deeply satisfying soul-funk. Her first album, Dap-Dippin’, is the most raw-sounding, while I Learned The Hard Way is the slickest, with strings and French horns on some tracks, but pointing out what’s new each time can become an exercise in head-scratching.

Let’s see ... this one adds three ladies called the Dapettes, which works quite nicely, though I didn’t miss them when they weren’t there. The opening of Retreat briefly reminds me, of all things, of The Clash’s London Calling. You’ll Be Lonely features a trumpet solo somewhat reminiscent of Penny Lane. Making Up And Breaking Up sounds a bit like something Dusty Springfield might have done. (Was Dusty great or what?) But really, SJ & the DKs are like the perfect Martini: some formulas don’t need to be messed with.

Anyway it reminded me I was going to write about What I'm Listening To which I discovered only a few weeks ago. WILT is beautifully written, full of pithy insights and droll, sometimes humorous, observations.

'Writing about music is difficult,' he notes, 'but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.'

Written from the perspective of a "musician and a fan", readers discover that although he's "a bit uncomfortable" with having 'favourites' his favourite singer, "hands down, of all time", is Ella Fitzgerald.

His favourite record stores are Amoeba Records in Los Angeles and San Francisco, Louisiana Music Factory in New Orleans, Dussmann in Berlin and the "glorious" Concerto in Amsterdam; two of his favourite live albums are The Duke at Fargo 1940 (Duke Ellington) and Waiting for Columbus (Little Feat); and one of his favourite musicians is the late Horace Silver.

Although his taste in music is eclectic and the blog leans towards the obscure and the underrated (Värttinnä, Janáček, Señor Coconut to name three), he's not so snobbish that he ignores the most popular and successful artists – Adele, for example:

By the time you read this, Adele's new album will have been released, and there will be no escape. There will be no remote Pacific island, no benighted Congo village, no igloo in Greenland, where it won't be on the radio every hour. The statistics will pile on top of the already staggering ones she amassed the last time around. The number of audiocassettes sold in Indonesia alone, if placed end to end, would stretch all the way to the planet Neptune, etc etc.

More power to her, I say. While one person sneers (on principle!) at popularity and embraces anything obscure, another does the exact opposite – and they're both wrong. Sometimes an artist comes along who is both popular and really good. What do you say to that, eh, you clever bastards?

Discussing the song Hello, Joe writes:

I first heard this song in a supermarket in Antwerp and thought, that must be Adele's new single, it sounds pretty good. Two days later I heard it loud, in the back of a taxi, and I swear I had a lump in my throat by the time it ended. I've never been a fan of the Power Ballad as strenuously performed by the likes of Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, or Mariah Carey. But Adele is different. How can I put it? She's not trying ... she just is.

Those American divas all sound like they've been brought up, in true American style, to believe they are truly special, and the prettiest girl in the class, and if they only believe in themselves, and follow their dreams, they can be anything their hearts desire, grow up to be President, save the starving children of Africa, defy gravity, never die, blah blah blah, pass the barf bag. Whereas Adele says things like, I'd rather have lunch with me mates than go to a gym, and then she goes and sings her heart out and puts them all to shame.

Sometimes he reveals more about himself than the music. Reviewing the Pet Shop Boys' last two albums he writes:

There was even a song called Your Early Stuff ('You've been around but you don't look too rough / And I still quite like some of your early stuff'). Quite catchy, really, but I can't listen to it without feeling uncomfortable. On the one hand, I can totally relate. Quite a few people have told me they're my biggest fan, but what they really like is My Early Stuff. In fact, they like it so much, and they're such big fans, that they've never listened to anything else.

And yet ... I couldn't write a song like Your Early Stuff - or another song from the same album, Invisible, about feeling too old at a party. In the first case I wouldn't expect anyone to sympathise, and in the second, I'd think: no one my own age needs to hear this, and no one younger wants to. I would be embarrassed by those songs before I even started writing them.

If you think that's honest his diatribe about boxed sets – his own in particular – is positively heroic:

I have one pet peeve about the music industry in general that never goes away, and that is their insatiable, and indiscriminate, demand for 'extra' material. Alternate takes, out-takes, bonus tracks, edits, remixes, special tracks for special editions or special occasions or special territories or special people ... no matter how much you give them, or how good it is, it's never enough. OK, I know some artists are more prolific than me, or have a better hit-to-miss ratio. But for the love of God, what is so hard to understand about the following?

"I've given you the absolute best I've got. I've worked my arse off and this is what I feel confident about presenting to the world. There isn't anything else, or if there is, it's in the trash where it belongs. Who says so? I say so. Why? Because I'm the bloody artist, that's why. That's what artists do: we experiment and re-write and edit and fine-tune until we get it as good as we can. And that is what we want people to hear."

So, back to 'my' boxed set (which may or may not happen): I've agreed to include a couple of lame B-sides, the Rundgren cover, and some so-so live recordings. These really are the last dregs, but it's still not enough, which is why I'm sitting here ploughing miserably through things like: (a) four takes of 'One More Time' which, even to my ears, sound exactly the same; (b) three takes of 'Is She Really Going Out With Him' marked 'Not Bad', 'Good', and 'Brilliant' (the last having been used on the album); © one and a half minutes of Graham Maby, Dave Houghton and yours truly jamming aimlessly between takes; (d) 'Beat Crazy – Instrumental' (no, not a different arrangement or anything, just the track without the vocals); (e) a mix of 'On Your Radio' identical to the album version except for a very slightly different echo effect on the vocal; etc, etc, etc.

This is not even scraping the bottom of the barrel. The bottom fell out years ago. But what do I know? Let's let the fans decide! Do you want a boxed set containing stuff like this?

Sometimes music takes a back seat. The latest entry (November 2016) is ostensibly a review of The Beatles' Live at the Hollywood Bowl but before we get there Joe takes the reader on a hilarious diversion:

A couple of years ago I was exploring a funky neighbourhood away from the tourist hordes in one of my favourite cities, Prague. It was mid-afternoon, and, feeling peckish, I went into the only place that looked open. It had dirty net curtains and a dead plant in the window. Inside, it smelled of wet cardboard, and the clientele consisted of three morose, grumbling old geezers. The beer was cheap and astonishingly good. My kind of place. And guess what: the music was The Beatles. Which inspired two thoughts.

Firstly, the Czech Republic has the best beer in the world. Not too weak or too strong, too bitter or too sweet; fresh, smooth, thirst-quenching and addictive. Why is that so hard for other countries to do? I'll never forget my father, on his one visit to New York thirty years ago, trying an American beer he pronounced 'Bud Wheezer', and judged to be 'cat piss'.

To be fair, I disagreed. Surely cat piss has much more flavor? Fast forward, though, and (thanks to that great American tradition of hurtling in an evangelical frenzy from one extreme to another) every hick town in the USA now has a 'Craft' brewery, so we have: Choice!! Yes, a choice between Triple-Hopped Barrel-Aged Molecular Sour Pomegranate Dark Rye Ale, or cat piss. What's so hard about making Good Honest Beer?

If you want to find out what his second thought was you'll need to read the WILT archive for yourself. I've cannibalised it quite enough already. Instead I'll finish with some soundbites.

On mediocre bassists:

Maybe you've never had to play with a mediocre bassist. Most of them are so sure no one's really paying attention to them, that they get away with murder.

On first albums:

There's no doubt that first albums are often romanticized or overrated. Sometimes they're the best thing the artist ever did (especially if the artist then conveniently went and died) but more often they're not; and anyway, if you can't do anything at least as good as your first album later in your career, you're not much of an artist.

On musical heroes:

I can't deny that almost all of my real musical heroes are dead, and I'm on record as saying, more than once, that I don't think we're exactly living in a musical golden age right now.

On the death of David Bowie:

I feel like I lost a friend recently. Well, not really a friend, but definitely someone who was a part of my life, whom I'd met three or four times, liked, and admired. I can't seem to either get my head around it or get it out of my head, so there's nothing else I want to write about this month.

Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Young Americans, Station To Station, Low, Heroes, Lodger, Scary Monsters, Let's Dance, Earthling, Heathen, The Next Day, and Blackstar. This is what I'm listening to, but I have nothing to say about any of it that hasn't already been said. Furthermore, a lot of what's been said is such complete bollocks, that I don't want to add to it.

As for the Pet Shop Boys:

The fact is it's 2016 and they're still around, still prolific, and still keeping the overall quality high. In the scheme of things, it's all pretty bloody amazing.

The same could be said of Joe Jackson.

Saturday
Nov192016

"The wonderful, magnificent and talented Sharon Jones"

I'll leave this here.

Recorded in Sydney in 2007 it features an electrifying vocal by "the wonderful, magnificent and talented Sharon Jones" who died yesterday.

Sharon Jones of retro-soul band the Dap-Kings dies at 60 (BBC News).

See also:

Sharon Jones remembers meeting, working and fighting (a little) with Lou Reed (Billboard).

It's rather touching.

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