Former Little Printer evangelist at Berg, Digital Editor at The Word Magazine, Head of Music at Xfm, and A&R Manager for The Cure. I have eaten animals alphabetically for The Observer, invented a famous kitten website, and written a book. I've also written for the New Statesman, Saga Magazine, Prog Magazine and UsVsTh3m.
Guca, trumpet's golden mecca, lies in a secluded valley three hours south of Belgrade, at the end of a winding road dotted by makeshift memorials to the motorcyclists lost on its curves. I'm here for the 50th anniversary of the Dragačevo Trumpet Festival, and the usual five day binge has been replaced by a ten-day extravaganza, a cacophonous celebration of all things brass. The organisers report 800,000 attendees.
It's the kind of event where a construction hat adorned with two cans of lager signifies the wearer to be a man of great wisdom and probable importance. Pretty girls with short skirts and strategically hoisted cleavages roam the packed streets selling phials of rakia, a potent broth made from fermented fruits, and the braying stag logo of Jelen Pivo lager, the principle sponsor, is everywhere. Consumption is all - one enterprising fellow has even set up a private bar in the river that winds through Guca's centre - and if you're not knocking back the booze or feasting on the meat that piles high on smoking grills throughout the town, there's plenty of other opportunities to spend. On sale are industrial-strength BBQ units hewn from brick and steel, fir trees, machetes, delicate religious carvings, and anything celebrating Serbia: Nemanja Vidić's Manchester United kit is on sale at one stall, while the next features t-shirts bearing the face of Bosnian Serb politician Radovan Karadžić, currently on trial in The Hague for war crimes. At a crossroads in the middle of town, a toothless drunk attempts to offload an unwanted chainsaw, while two gypsy children in traditional clothing - not much older than toddlers - dance for coins. Hours later, their mothers are arrested for child abuse.
The music? It's relentless: apart from the annual competition for the Golden Trumpet, bands roam the streets and perform for diners sitting at long tables in the sun, the music performed faster and louder, rewarded as banknotes are stuffed into horn bells or onto sweat-soaked foreheads. Gypsy girls dripping with jewellery take their cut, dancing on the tables. With up to three bands working a restaurant at a time, the noise is as extraordinary as the repertoire limited. It seems as though every table requests Goran Bregovic's brilliant, frantic anthem Kalashniko, and a single day at Guca will subject the wary listener to dozens of versions of the tune. Indeed, the faire is so one-dimensional that the organisers arrange day trips away from the festival - to visit local monasteries or to Drvengrad, the village built by filmmaker Emir Kusturica for his movie Life Is A Miracle. Here, the streets bear the names of those who inspired the director - Fellini, Kubrick, Maradona, Strummer - as a statue of Johnny Depp overlooks the gift shop.
Elsewhere, Slovenian pop star Magnifico is magnificent, mixing Balkan brass, euro-disco and Hawaiian guitar to vividly camp effect, while the serious business of competition is between the smooth, extraordinarily fleet-of-finger Dejan Petrović, and the raucous Ekrem Mamutović, both leaders of fearsomely well-drilled Orkestras. The former includes Englishman in New York and Smoke on The Water in his set, and while it might be tempting to think of the music as mere bierkeller fodder, these men are inspired players – fellow trumpeter Boban Maković was once described as "revelatory" by none other than Miles Davis.
The one downside is the presence of the cursed vuvuzela, having mutated on its long journey from South Africa into a shorter, louder version requiring none of the technique of its bigger brother. This infernal instrument is everywhere, puncturing the silence and “accompanying” everything else.
By Sunday evening, the bands have gone home, and a single bar caters for the remaining, exhausted hardcore. As I pass, Ceca, the pneumatically extravagant queen of Serbian pop, is blaring from the speakers. But it's too late, and I'm too tired. I find my bed and drift towards sleep, while somewhere, in the distance, a lone vuvuzela wails.
It all starts as filmmaker Kurt Kuenne’s best friend, a popular young doctor named Andrew Bagby, is murdered. All the evidence points towards his former girlfriend, Shirley Turner, a clingy, manipulative figure twelve years his senior who flees to Newfoundland and announces – whilst awaiting extradition to the US – that she is pregnant with Bagby’s child. Kuenne’s film, which starts as a project to collect memories of his friend, swiftly turns into something altogether more powerful: an open letter to a son who never knew his father.
And this truly is a powerful story. Bagby’s parents – genuine heroes in a tale that should never have had to be told – quit their jobs and move to Newfoundland, where they’re obliged to barter with Turner for access to their grandson. The only way to see the child frequently is by sharing time with Zachary with the woman they believe is responsible for the murder of their son. So they go swimming and to the park together, the four of them, a pretend happy family.
Kuenne chronicles all this with absolute fury. Fury for of the waste of a friend’s life. Fury for of the pain endured by Bagby’s own friends and colleagues (he was very clearly adored). Fury because the judicial system in Canada seems hell-bent on ensuring that a likely murderer with eight (EIGHT!) restraining orders against her should be granted access to a child she shows very few signs of being able to look after properly. And fury for of the suffering of Bagby’s mother and father.
A crescendo of dread builds throughout – Kuenne himself cracks twice during the occasionally fraught narration – but there’s little doubt the filmmaker knows precisely which buttons to press. The music swells and saddens at all the right moments, while the footage and photographs of Turner show her looking cold and conspiring, and the Bagbys almost beatific. Despite this, Dear Zachary avoids the most obvious pitfalls and never descends into mawkishness, in itself a triumph.
Since its US release in 2008 I’ve watched the film five times, and I’ve reacted to each viewing in the exactly same way: I’ve wept, and I’ve been angry to the point of revising my usually woolly views on the formation of lynch mobs. It’s made me want to write scathing letters to minor public servants in faraway Canadian provinces, left me feeling utterly, utterly devastated, and ashamed for having spent ninety minutes in the company of other people’s misery. This movie is powerful in a way that fiction never is: compelling, distressing, exhausting, appalling, and a roaring testament to both the power of documentary filmmaking and to grief’s crippling unwillingness to provide any kind of comfort or closure.
It's October 1978, AC/DC's Powerage tour finds its way to the University of Essex in Colchester, and The BBC sends its cameras along to capture the show for its Rock Goes To College series. Joining the set during a frantic Live Wire, the first thing the viewer sees is 23-year-old guitarist Angus Young, that curious, leg-pumping, head-jerking, peacock shuffle already in place. He's wearing the familiar school uniform and satchel. Thirty years on, AC/DC have a new album, Angus Young is 53, and absolutely nothing has changed. It's like discovering that Nadia Comăneci is still hoisting herself up onto the parallel bars and scoring 10s.
Rock bands aren't supposed to work like this. When the group formed in the Sydney suburb of Burwood in 1973, progressive rock was the career of choice for the serious guitarist, but AC/DC's approach was considerably more lo-brow; a wilfully, joyously juvenile world where boys were forever 15 and girls only existed between the pages of well-thumbed adult magazines. Since then, they've resolutely ploughed the same puerile furrow, untouched by punk and everything that's followed, never leaving the comfortable boogie bubble that might expose them to other influences, leave them open to alternative ways of plying their trade, or even grow up. They haven't released a cover version since 1976 (Chuck Berry's School Days, naturally), and yet, somehow, they've become one of the best-selling acts in the world. 1980's none-more-brilliant Back In Black, which introduced Brian Johnston as replacement for the ill-fated Bon Scott (Johnston, bizarrely, is still seen as the new boy, despite being in the band for over quarter of a century) has sold more copies than Sgt. Pepper, Saturday Night Fever and Bat Out Of Hell. Since signing with Columbia in 2003, they've sold 18,000,000 records without releasing a new album. The band's reluctance to change the it-ain't-broke formula extends into the digital age, where their refusal to allow tracks from Black Ice to be sold as downloads is probably less of a political decision than it is a reflection of the fact that iTunes simply wasn't a consideration last time they had a new record to flog. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.
Over the last couple of decades, AC/DC haven't released any bad albums: they've just released albums that aren't as good as Back In Black. Black Ice is another, but that's OK, because no one really expects anything else: everything is as it should be. The riffs are still pummelling, danceable brutes, Brian Johnston (60 years old) is still singing about schoolgirls (Rock n' Roll Train), while Rock n' Roll Dream, She Likes Rock n' Roll and, uhm, Rocking All The Way are further examples of the benefits of musical stasis. Highlights include the lurching stomp of She's On Fire, the fearsome War Machine, and the title track's churning bounce. Nothing veers from Plan A, except for a few bizarre seconds in Stormy May Day, where Johnston's trademark gargle is dropped in favour of a voice that sounds more, well, like David Coverdale's. Thankfully, normal service is resumed pretty quickly. Long may it continue.
Dark Night Of The Soul first appeared in June of last year as a lush, limited-edition picture book containing a blank disc and a set of clearly exasperated instructions: "For Legal Reasons, enclosed CD-R contains no music. Use it as you will." With the tracks available online via American radio network NPR, the sub-text was pretty clear: download this while you can, because it might not see the light of day. A year later, the original book fetches a healthy three figures on eBay, the lawyers have settled (the reasons for the dispute have never been made clear, although EMI's involvement suggests it might just have something to do with producer Danger Mouse's Beatles/Grey Album shenanigans), the project finally has an official release, and two of the participants are dead – co-producer Mark Linkous from self-inflicted gunshot wounds, and singer Vic Chestnutt after an overdose of muscle relaxants that left him in a coma.
Amidst all the tragedy and trauma, it's only natural to tug on the surgical gloves and examine the album in unnaturally forensic detail, searching for hidden meaning and prescience amongst the songs, perhaps a sense of approaching doom. And you don't have to dig too deep before the circumstantial evidence begins to mount: the phrase "Dark Night Of The Soul" is a metaphor used by those of a spiritual bent to describe a phase in a one's life characterised by desolation and doubt, and the album's recurring themes – pain, torment, death, etc - aren't the cheeriest. Yet despite the gloomy backdrop (this truly isn't Shiny Happy People territory), DNOTS is a surprisingly buoyant, uplifting collection.
It's also remarkably cohesive, given the disparate nature of the assembled cast. Joining Linkous and the Mouse are The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne, Gruff Rhys from Super Furry Animals, Strokes singer Julian Casablancas, Iggy Pop, Grandaddy's Jason Lytle, Black Francis, Chestnutt, Cardigans siren Nina Persson, Shins frontman James Mercer, Suzanne Vega and - most surprisingly – cinema's master of the macabre, David Lynch, who provides the typically sinister visuals as well as singing on two tracks. Indeed, it's tempting to presume that Linkous was always happiest working with other singers. His own vocals on Sparklehorse albums were often disembodied or bathed in static, their frailty disguised by analogue crackle and electronic buzz, but the work produced alongside others – notably with Persson on the first A Camp album, and with a similarly stellar line-up on the wonderful Daniel Johnson tribute album Discovered Covered - is much less reticent.
Typical is Gruff Rhys' contribution, Just War, initially recorded at Linkous' North Carolina studio in 2006 and finished two years later. Danger Mouse admits, "It grew into a pretty special piece of music, but Mark didn't want to sing on it himself. I thought he could pull it off, but he decided not to even attempt it". Yet with Rhys on board, introduced by a chorus of parping car horns, accompanied by swooping violins and ending with an insouciant whistle, it's as enchanting and carefree as anything the Super Furry Animals have recorded. Casablancas' performance on Little Girl is equally effervescent, a perfect match for the rattling, excitable backing track – there's even a delightful, spiraling guitar solo - before the song dissolves in a series of squelching crescendos. On Angel's Heart Black Francis sounds as demented as he did with the Pixies, that trademark shriek attached to a crunching monster of a riff, while Iggy Pop's Pain (featuring the astute diagnosis "pain, pain, pain, that's why I'll always be in pain") is a rousing hybrid of Sparklehorse's Someday I Will Treat You Good and his own Cold Metal. Suzanne Vega is coy and breathless on Man Who Played God, Jason Lytle an almost spectral presence on the haunting, deserted fairground lurch of Eveytime I'm With You. Vic Chesnutt comes on like a grizzled, disturbed David Lynch on Grim Augery ("Our families, at a gathering, were cutting a baby out, with my Grandmother's heirloom antler-handled carving knife") while Lynch himself fights the typecasting and sings of blue skies and sunshine on the swelling, rather lovely Star Eyes (I Can't Catch It).
Best of all – perhaps surprisingly, given the delighted performances elsewhere – is when Linkous takes his own turn up front, on the jubilant, alt-gospel exaltation Daddy's Gone. It feels like an end-of-the-movie, ride-into-the-sunset moment ("I woke up and all my yesterdays were gone") before joyously disintegrating in a trademark squall of static. As a producer with a sound as unique as that of Phil Spector or Joe Meek, Linkhous' audio fingerprints are all over this album, and with Danger Mouse's track record for bringing out the very best in others – see the Danger Doom alliance with MF Doom, or his collaboration with James Mercer on the Broken Bells album – he might just have produced his best, most complete work. Dark Night Of The Soul is a near-masterpiece, and a worthy tribute to a unique, troubled talent.
If Copiapó isn't the middle of nowhere, it's probably twinned with it. This dusty Chilean town, one of the driest places on Earth, became the focus of the World's attention on 13 October this year as 2000 journalists set up camp alongside their satellite tracks and waited for a miracle, the feel-good story to end all feel-good stories. It happened: a flawless rescue operation and 33 miners walking into the sun, hoisted to the surface after 69 days trapped 2,000 feet underground.
The year hadn't started well. February's earthquake had seen the nation's self-esteem take a battering. This wasn't Haiti, a third-world basket-case relying on Western money to apply sutures after a natural disaster; Chile prides itself on being a modern country, self-sufficient, and having richer nations reach into their pockets didn't sit well with many.
I attended a wedding a few weeks after the quake in the small town of Rocas de Santo Domingo. The damage was obvious: you could only access the town via a temporary bridge manned by the army, the wedding itself had been moved because the original church had been declared structurally unsound, and the small swimming pool at my hotel was out of use, having slipped a couple of metres downhill from its original position. But people got on with their lives. The wedding went ahead. The golf course was open. A couple of small tremors occurred during my stay, the locals seemingly oblivious as tourists exchanged nervous glances. Life had returned to normal.
But Chile needed a way to repair itself, to restore its self-esteem, to show the world what it was capable of. The World Cup helped. Having qualified above Argentina, Paraguay and Uraguay, the team came closer than anyone to matching Spain before losing to Brazil and returning to Santiago heroes. And then came Los 33.
The mine collapsed on 5 August. For 17 days nothing was heard from those trapped below, staying alive by consuming the most meagre of rations: two spoonfuls of tuna, a sip of milk, a biscuit and a slice of peach every 48 hours. Drinking water was siphoned from the radiators of underground vehicles. Then a note appeared, attached to an exploratory drill bit retrieved from the depths. "Estamos bien en el refugio, Los 33" ("we are alright in the shelter, The 33"). Three tunnels were bored, each little wider than a tin of beans. Down one went supplies: food, medicine, water. A second pumped oxygen. The third hosted the video-conferencing equipment used to communicate with the surface. Three different companies raced to complete a rescue shaft: one South African, one Canadian, the third a joint venture between Chile and the US. The latter broke through, and by 13 October, Camp Hope, which had started as an ad-hoc gathering of families desperate for news and unwilling to stay far from their loved ones, had expanded to include the international media. Reality TV had a new show.
The rescue provided the one thing that rolling news coverage almost never gets: news that actually rolled. Up they came, one after another. Florencio Avalos was first, dignity incarnate. Mario Sepúlveda (who had "hosted" the miners' video broadcasts, and ended one with an immortal, "back to you in the studio") followed, whooping and hollering and high-fiving. With each rescue we learned a little more. What their hobbies were. Which teams they supported. Who they were married to. Whose marriages weren't looking solid. "BREAKING NEWS!", screamed the BBC. "Self-proclaimed Elvis fan Edison Peña - the 12th miner to be rescued - has been invited to Graceland, the legendary singer's home!" Peña had also been running 10km a day underground, and competed in the New York marathon less than a month later. This was Neil Armstrong in multiple, each rescue another triumph for human ingenuity and spirit, another small step for mankind.
As someone who made his fortune in television, President Sebastián Piñera was a man who understood the importance of being at the right place at the right time, especially if everything was being captured on tape. And so he stood, waiting to greet the miners as they were tugged from the earth, beaming with pride and at his own extraordinary luck, as the rescue played out perfectly, miner after miner after miner. As the last of the 33 — foreman Luis Urzúa — arrived on the surface, the final drama was played out. He embraced the President like a long-lost brother. The two spoke for 20 minutes, mano-a-mano, the billionaire and the coal miner, before turning to face the cameras, hands over hearts, and singing the Chilean National Anthem.
And then it was over. Piñera was welcomed to Downing St, made something of a political faux-pas in Germany (writing "Deutschland über alles" in a visitor's book hasn't been considered cool since about 1942), and Chile vanished from the centre-stage almost as quickly as it had arrived.