These two albums are extraordinarily good.
I know that seems deliberately ironic and clever but it's really, actually true. I used to think that I only loved them because they were the first things I really listened to. But I find that I keep listening to them, and finding things in them, and I'm realising that other people, real musicians whose opinions I respect think they're great too.
A few reasons:
1. The song-writing is brilliant. Great tunes. Great arrangements. Little hooks everywhere. Lots of whistlable stuff. Lovely little lyrical moments.
2. The production is fantastic. It's got that late-70s meatiness, hints of glam and pub-rock, thick Chris Spedding guitar. But it doesn't just drone on. Lots of space and stops and starts, little vignettes, great use of orchestras and special effects for textures.
3. It's got top musicians, but they're restrained. Mike Batt himself is obviously an excellent musician, and he rounded up some great players for the albums. But because of the nature of the project there's no musicianly excess. No tedious solos, no showing off, everything's tight and constrained, like the best of The Carpenters.
4. The pastiches are brilliant. Better than that. Batt doesn't just do a country music parody with Wipe Those Womble Tears From Your Eyes or The Orinoco Kid. He writes a great country song. The Wombling Twist is great glam, rock-n-roll. Hall Of The Mountain Womble is like Concerto For Group & Orchestra but good, and short. It's a shame he didn't keep going longer, I would love to have heard Smells Like Womble Spirit, or Fear Of A Womble Planet.
But the number one reason is the combination of great songs and brilliant world-building. The best bands are almost always fictional constructs. They make little myths out of themselves; through music, interviews and performance, the best bands have a story as well as music. And this gives them a constructed world their songs can spring from - meaning they can be about more than Boy Meets Girl, or can at least approach it in a different way. For The Smiths it was a literary melancholia. For ABC it was sarcastic glamour. For The Wombles it was the importance of tidying up.
And 'tidying up' is such an original and strange place to start that you end up with really charming, fresh songs. Songs about things you've never imagined before; like Tobermory's Music Machine - a great tune, with lovely effects and ingenious mucking about with tempo. And Batt takes this stuff seriously, like everyone who writes well for children; he apparently spent a week in a Womble suit to get into the mood for song-writing. His conviction, and convincing world-building, makes something like Womble Of The Universe (Batt's Space Oddity) incredibly affecting.
I found this in the very cheap box outside Harold Moore's in Soho (website coming soon.) I think the original cover looked like this. I fell a little in love with the Conway Hall the first time I visited, and every time I've been back, and with all the Interestings, it's really starting to fascinate me.
It seems a place that encourages this kind of informality:
It seems like ages ago doesn't it? Things to mention: there's now a Flickr pool. Daniel Wier's done a round-up. Toby's put his talk on slideshare and Tuur's are here. Anab's talk about Superpowers she grew up with is here. (More importantly her Power of 8 show is now on - you've got to go). Robert/Dizzy talks about his RJDJ demo here, and links to Paul's recording of the RJDJ demo, recorded with RJDJ.
I think that's it for Interesting talk follow-up for now. I think.
But I also wanted to say thanks to the businesses that helped us out. We're lucky enough that we don't really need sponsors to make interesting happen, so I don't have to do all that scrounging around that most conferences require. Which is nice for me. But, every year someone decides they'd like to get involved anyway, which is brilliant of them. Imagination have been hugely kind in the past.
And this year INQ (probably with some nudging from Charly) volunteered some money for anything we might need. They didn't ask for anything particular in return, a mention on the stage and on here, which is more than fair.
I asked Charly, and she said this is what they'd like you to know about them:
They're the social mobile company.
They sell phones which make it easier to stay in touch with people on the move, Facebook, Twitter and Skype are all embedded right at the heart of the phone's development.
They make phones which are cheap and fantastic.
The new phone, chat has just launched in Singapore, and here's what one lovely lady said about them.
And I'd add that any business that sees the value in supporting something as vague and ill-defined as Interesting has to be worth further investigation. So thanks to INQ.
And, similar appreciative noises go to Henry Goode for supplying the licorice. Lovely.
I have the intellectual habits of an annoying teenager. Contradictory for the sake of it. I went to see a Richard Long show a few years ago and thought, fine, but you should do that in cities. And I've been listening to and reading all sorts of incredibly smart people talking about urban computing and cities for a while now. Adam, Dan and Matt particularly are always writing astonishingly thoughtful, well-researched stuff about these things. But the annoying teenager in me is feeling the impish, ill-informed urge to say, yeah but, what if something else was true, what then, huh? huh? huh? What if we thought about the countryside instead? That was some of the urge behind Lyddle End 2050. (I know, I know.)
So I thought I'd bash some notes down here and see if it might congeal into a Wired column. Not because I'm convinced there's a real argument here. But because of that annoying dilettante columnist habit; the urge to poke at assumptions a bit to see if there are 800 words in another point of view. It's not big, it's not helpful but it's sometimes interesting.
1. The remaining half
It is useful and thought-provoking to point out that more than half the world's population now lives in cities. That's significant. But it must also be worth realising that:
a. This is only just true, in the last few years. So for almost all of human history, most of us have not lived in cities. This would suggest that we're pretty well adapted to not living in cities. I'm not calling for a retreat to a bucolic paradise, but I'm saying this is worth thinking about.
b. Half of us - an entire half - still don't live in cities. This may be a shrinking proportion of the world but it's still a lot of people, and (apart from some privilged bits of the West) it's the poorest, less mobile, less educated proportion. Most people are moving to cities to escape poverty, surely the people left behind merit some attention.
Lots of very smart people are thinking hard about the future of cities, and about how to instrument them and what living in augmented cities would be like. They are imaginative and rigorous people, so I've no concerns about how cities will pan out. Not so many people are thinking about equivalent things in the countryside. (A crude measure: "urban computing" returns about 15,800 results on google, "rural computing" returns about 2,160) This is at least unfair. If the countryside is indeed hollowing-out, should we just accept that, let everyone move to the city and make everywhere else a park? Maybe. But might it also be missing a trick? If some of the benefits of these technologies are about eliminating distance and enhancing community then they're probably more valuable in rural and small town settings. A lot of the stuff technology does cities can do for themselves, but I'd be interested to know what successful ruricomp would look like. Could it help some people stay out of the maximum cities? One of the best arguments for getting people into cities is an environmental one. Living in the countryside is a sustainability disaster; the city offers all sorts of energy efficiencies. But, again, maybe communications technologies can help to overcome some of that. That's got to be worth thinking about.
3. Rural designI suspect one of the reasons the countryside gets overlooked in all these conversations is that the aesthetics are so disappointing. Certainly the natural stuff's good; landscapes, hedges, skies etc. But as soon as something gets designed it looks like either Poundbury or Hobbiton, and it seems compulsory for any project involving a tree to get its typography from a Gong album. Are helvetica and leaves mutually exclusive?
That's probably why I find Matt Cottam's thoughts about Computational Wood so stimulating. Certainly he's mucking about, but he's mucking about with a contemporary version of the countryside, with chainsaws and tractors, not an imagined idyll with pooh sticks and pony clubs.
Maybe a decent ruricomp aesthetic would get some smart thinkers trying to prevent the hollowing-out.
4. Next largest context
I think it was Mr Hill (possibly via the medium of Mr Jones) who introduced me to the that lovely Eliel Saarinen quote "Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context - a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan." But, of course, in that quote, and in a lot of the conversations about the urban world, we've forgotten the next largest context for the city; the suburbs, the rural world and the small towns and villages that populate it.
So much city thinking seems mad keen for a return to city states; autonomous islands, connected to each other through finance and fibre but not to land that surrounds them. It's a little bit collapsist; let's wrap the city around us while we still can. But maybe we could think about network technologies as a way to reintegrate rural and urban rather than accelerate the dominance of one over the other. Perhaps all this brilliant city thinking could lift its eyes a little and look beyond the city walls - I'd love to see what we'd come up with then.
If we can stop the countryside becoming a Cursed Earth, we might not need a Mega-City.
The irrepressible Alfie Dennen has another scheme afoot, called Bus-Tops, this is it in a nutshell:
"Bus-Tops is a London based project which was shortlisted for the Artists Taking The Lead fund, a collaboration between the Arts Council and LOCOG . The project intends to install a number of LED displays on the roof’s of Bus Shelters across London and providing the tools for the public and established artists to create content to be seen on them. It is as far as we know the largest physical computing project ever devised, and it’s core aim is to democratise public art."
Or you can read the full project plan. Looks good doesn't it?
And here's a message from Alfie: "What we're doing right now is trying to let artists know about the project to try and gather some ideas for how the platform might be used. In our budgeting we've allocated 20 £2,000 grants to work with artists and groups."