Joe Sparrow : Spot the gif-ference*

*It’s pronounced with a hard “G”, I don’t care what anyone says

Blog posts that begin with “I’ve not posted for so long because…” are ten-a-penny and all boil down to three main excuses: my job got super busy; I had a baby; I’ve been dealing with some personal stuff.

For me it was, boringly, the former. But now I can breathe again. One of the things that has kept me so busy is being the editor of MONTAG.WTF , the can-you-believe-they-trusted-him-to-launch-it-under-that-name magazine of weird futurist philosophy, oddball sci-fi fiction, and terrified glances at dystopias that the Berlin startup Grover funds.

I’m endlessly grateful that the people at Grover who sign off on things have been so daring and blasé ab out signing off on MONTAG, which has now branched out into a blog, a surprisingly decent podcast, a devastatingly gorgeous print edition, and an actually-rather-good weekly email. Everyone who I’ve been lucky enough to corral into working on MONTAG is brilliant.


One thing that has given me huge pleasure is creating a series of frankly bananas gifs for MONTAG. We aimed for eyebrow-raising writing with lowbrow gifs, and I think we have generally hit that… er… benchmark? Either way, here are some of the gifs I made that I’m most proud of.

Tupac Shakur crotch-thrusting at a Victorian lady from a crystal ball for this piece on VR.

Some firemen burning books for this piece on Fahrenheit 451.

I snuck some classic headlines including “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster” into this gif for a piece on Automation and creative jobs.

Corr, just feel the width of the white-hot satire as Kim Kardashian gets inserted into a gif for a piece about dystopian futures (in this case, Blade Runner)

And I’m simply proud of this one, because it looks good  – from a piece on the storification of your own life via AR.

Joe Sparrow : Blackstar, Big Exit

I can’t remember the last time I truly dug into an album — straining to understand each word, trying to unlock each decision and quantify every sound — as I have with David Bowie’s Blackstar.

It feels horribly glib to say that death was a marketing masterstroke by Bowie; and yet the album is so carefully constructed to frame the end he knew was coming, that it’s probably not as gauche as it might sound.

After overcoming the shock of his death, any prior analysis of Blackstar immediately evaporated. And then, any shock – from the realisation that the true context had been hidden in plain sight all along – was tempered by a feeling of jarring clarity. The control and gracefulness of the LP, and how it addresses death, was obvious.

Compare Bowie’s end with that of another rock star, Lemmy: both were loved and praised since their death, but only one reached the end still innovating, reaching, gambling. Only one entirely controlled the dialogue around his exit.

Most artists’ later output is unremarkable. Instead, Bowie gilded his reputation by producing an album which dallies with invention in a manner unlike any of his work since the late 70s.

And then there’s the lingering feeling that Blackstar — the album, the media and the message around it — is like a puzzle box: something important sits at its heart. But what is it?

There is a lot in Blackstar that knowingly harks back to 1977’s Low. For me, these echoes of Low make Blackstar’s finality even more beautiful and difficult. Low was the first Bowie LP that I really loved, and it’s still my favourite. On Low, a combination of bizarro pop and startling innovation negate the honky-tonk theatricality that dulled my connection to some of his work.

Aside from sharing an overtly experimental approach, Blackstar’s open connection to Low is intriguing. Warszawa’s synth sounds prop up the woozy Lazarus; an immediately recognisable harmonica hook from Low spikes the gut-wrenching final track I Can’t Give Everything Away.

The harmonica hook is taken from the song which marks the point where Low enters a wholly unexpected state. It initiates the transition from art-pop album to otherworldly soundscape. The song is called A New Career In A New Town. 

My neck hairs prickled when the penny finally dropped: Bowie was not simply using his glorious past to frame his present art as on his previous album, he was leveraging meaning from his whole career to frame his future. A new career in a new town.

Whatever lies beyond the end — an afterlife, utter nothingness, anything in between — Bowie is exiting with the nod and a wink of a man comfortable with himself and intrigued by what lies ahead.

As far as a final message goes, Blackstar is almost unbearably beautiful; as a piece of pop music addressing death, it’s an unparalleled statement; as a brazen appraisal of his whole career, it’s breathtaking. His parting gift is a powerful fillip for us all: be fearless, be true to yourself, step into the unknown. I can’t imagine how my approach to life will ever be quite the same now.

I always wanted to meet David Bowie. And in a weird way, after diving into Blackstar, I feel like I have.

Joe Sparrow : Against The Grain: Grand Royal Magazine

I recently started a new job and had to share some #FunFacts about me with my new colleagues.

Racking my brain for suitable candidates was a much more fraught experience than I expected. Banality and humblebrags lurked at each turn, primed to translate my initial contact with 80 new workmates into a flurry of get-a-load-of-this-jerk emails.

The faintest whiff of desperation clung to my choices, all the same. One of them was this:

3) I have spent a moderately embarrassing amount of money collecting all but the first issue of Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal magazine. (If you have a copy, please email me! :) )

Besides that heinous bracketed addendum, something else odd happened. It turns out that Grand Royal is a secret handshake: prising open societal loopholes and thrusting co-conspirators into a world of boyish* enthusiasm over odd stuff. 

New colleagues who I’d not even met, let alone learnt the names of, sidled up to me in the kitchen, initiating wide-eyed conversations about weird hip-hop cuts, Stüssy T-shirts and limited edition Adidas footwear. One conspiratorially rolled up his sleeve to show me a blue, limited edition wristwatch that had a photo of Mike D in a captain’s hat on the face.

I cooed pathetically over it; all because I’d mentioned a magazine that was published, sporadically, over six increasingly odd issues at the end of the last millennium.

Some people who didn’t know anything much about the B-Boys asked about Grand Royal, interested in the furtive conversations they’d seen. The first issue — I explained —  is almost impossible to get hold of, as they only printed a few thousand, and you don’t really see them outside of the USA. 

About once a year, they pop up on eBay, I continued, and I was bidding on a copy once, but I bowed out when bidding topped £200. (It turns out that one true hero has put the PDF of issue #1 online now.)

These interested parties often pronounced the magazine “Grand Royale”, with an “E”: Grand Roy-al.

I don’t correct them, because I too mispronounced it this way in 1997 when, in the Hanley branch of Mike Lloyd Music (RIP), I first saw a copy of Grand Royal (possibly issue 4, but maybe issue 6), which I later regretted not buying.

Also, I remember feeling silly when someone cool corrected me: of course it’s Grand-Royal-without-an-“E”; I must be conflating the name with that “Royale with cheese” bit in Pulp Fiction.

But looking back, I wonder if that connection between the Beastie Boys’ magazine and QT’s 90s movie behemoth is some sort of holistic proto-logic, surfacing from the depths of my consciousness.

Look at the similarities: Grand Royal and Pulp Fiction both are cultural grab-bags penned by outsider auteurs; cut-and-paste scrapbooks of hyper-aware creative madmen.

Bear with me here: on one hand Tarantino breathes life back into John Travolta, Little Green Bag, and Jheri Curls; on the other, three hyperactive hip-hop heads fund ten page Demolition Derby special features, cut-out-and-keep cardboard jeeps with protruding bass units, and interviews with Russell Simins pretending to be Russell Simmons.

Brimming with the skittering confidence of auteurs at their creative peaks, both QT and the Beasties transformed the obscure into the ultra-cool, and flipped the old into the new; all through a weird cross-cultural alchemy.

Grand Royal’s wild mix of this, that and the other has rarely been replicated in a magazine format, and it’s probably not even been fully replicated on the web — the perfect home for this kind of verge-of-ludicrous scrapbooking.

Today, maybe the curated best-of-the-web über-blogs like Boing Boing and Kotkke, or the quasi-gonzo output of Gawker, are closest in spirit to Grand Royal.

Some of the Grand Royal-isms — like bizarro meta-interviews with Weird Al — would (and do) comfortably sit on Gawker: this is a huge media platform that runs a blog written by a dog, after all.

However, I can imagine others — “Joey Buttafuoco’s back To School Wear For ’93” — being greeted with furrowed brows and short shrift.

Grand Royal was blogging before blogging: whatever the Beasties wanted in the mag went in the mag. I’m pretty sure some stuff they didn’t want in the mag went in too, simply because it had nowhere else to go and they figured it was the right thing to do.

This approach seems a simple reflex action today, when populating your Tumblr feed with whatever makes you you is a frictionless, instinctive action. But in 1996, it was a fairly revolutionary tactic, particularly on an international, high-profile platform.

Grand Royal ultimately could not sustain itself: three rich pop stars propped it up and then they moved on to new whizz-bang ideas.

And now, surely it’s time for a Grand Royal rebirth: 2015’s world of push-notifications, oddball niche Twitter streams and chuck-it-online-and-see-what-happens Buzzfeed listicles seems specifically designed to deliver Grand Royal’s mad excess in a way that might finally pay off. I’d subscribe in a  heartbeat.

*I know, I know, “boyish”. I’ve not met any women who are Grand Royal aficionados, but they are obviously out there, and I’m looking forward to greeting them with the same secret GR handshake.

Joe Sparrow : Simon Cowell, political agitator

I truly don’t want to add too much to the unwanted post-election opinion-chunder, so here’s some bullet points on why, in the next five years, Simon Cowell may turn out be the true political revolutionary of our time:

  • The shows Simon Cowell makes are most childrens’ first introduction to mass polling. Voting for your favourite act on X Factor et al to appears to be an example of proportional representation. Whether voting by SMS or making opinions heard via Twitter, a tweet/SMS appears to have the same weight as another.
  • We now routinely base decisions on the number of Likes, RTs and views: they are an indicator of quality and popularity. These are simple decisions, made via complex interpretation: yes, Zayn Malik got 100,000 RTs — but who are those 100,000 people and what does it mean?
  • So what do the UK public, attuned to quick analysis of figures, feel when they look at the numbers after the election? Just over a third voted Tory, but they got a majority government with 331 seats. UKIP polled 13% of the vote and were given one seat; which is 55 seats less than the SNP, who polled half as many votes. It is clearly unfair. Do they feel cheated?
  • Meanwhile, we still vote like we always have: walk to a polling station, and someone crosses your name off a paper list before handing you a voting slip. All you need to do is tell them your name and address — no ID needed!
  • Voting by app would be, relatively speaking, cheap to initiate, simple to manage and less likely to be defrauded. Compare the complexity and inherent risk in a banking app, or the micro-transaction system in Kim Kardashian: Hollywood.
  • The 18-24 year old electorate, raised in a world of apps and instant voting (and I think it’s OK to regard hitting “Retweet” as a tiny socio-political endorsement) are effectively being held at arm’s length by the government. But for how long?
  • While the figure of nearly 60% of 18-24 year olds voting is decent enough, how will these social media natives feel when they compare the impact of their vote with the world they are used to?
  • Our political system no longer merely seems like a systematic quirk — it just feels wrong.

Joe Sparrow : The Kids are all right

Idly spooling through products on Amazon, trying to find something cheap to make my order up to £10 and thus claim free delivery, I felt a weird flashback.

“Ten years ago,” it occurred to me, “I would choose a bunch of CDs online, click ‘order’, and wait four days for them to arrive.”

“How gauche,” I thought.

What was most odd about this recollection was that I didn’t even consider the ten years or so before that, when the act of finding and purchasing music meant that I – a wan teenage schoolboy – would walk to Mike Lloyd’s record shop after school, and physically flick-flack through CDs.

I could afford about one a month. CDs were about 15 quid.

Thus I only very occasionally gambled on an album because of the cover, or an odd band name; on the whole, I went by the reviews in the Melody Maker.

Looking back, I can see that a lot of the emotion I have amassed for LPs released around that time was invested in the subsequent walk-up to the counter.

I’m about to spend all this money on this CD I haven’t heard: what if it’s only a 6/10?

Those days are so far gone, I don’t even reminisce about them any more.

This is what progress really feels like, fifteen years on: nothing at all.

Last year, for a day a week, I taught a hundred-odd 18-year old students on a Music Business course.

The lessons were a two-way street: I revealed how much money they will realistically make in comparison to their feverish rock star/yacht-moored-in-Ibiza dreams, and they opened my eyes to how kids their age regard music.

It was great fun, and extremely bracing work; although sometimes I wondered if we were a mutual focus group established to cause each other occasional twinges of disappointment.

So how do #teens find music now – and what do they use to listen to it?

Well, the latter question was easy: they use Youtube and Spotify, and that’s it.

None – literally none – choose to listen to music radio even once a week, although some admitted that they tell people that they do.

None pay for Spotify. Some pay for bonus editions of LPs they‎ already like.

And how do they find the music in the first place, in an era of ubiquitous, instant album reviews that cost nothing to read and are written for nothing?

Generally, they all mumbled a bit about “Facebook” and “recommendations from friends” but none had a really firm, tried-and-true method.

Some thought they might have used Spotify playlists now and then, but on the whole all of them voiced what felt like a collective shrug – as if even they didn’t know how they discovered music.

Is it possible to enter a post-music-discovery age? Will careful pondering and considered exploration go out with a whimper?

Or are they being induced to listen to new music in a brand new way, so subliminal, so sneaky, so in tune with now that they – and the rest of us – haven’t even noticed what it is yet?

Is this what progress feels like whilst it’s happening: nothing at all?

Joe Sparrow : Bearable wearables

Any paradigm-busting™ tech revolution shows mis-steps along the way to ubiquity (hello, the sadly un-loved MiniDisc) but what about the mental mis-steps that pre-date the new tech itself?

A quick search for “iWatch” vomits thousands of what-if… images onto your screen, and they all seem to show a thing that goes on your wrist which looks like an iPhone screen. The curvy ones in particular look all future-y, and probably would have fitted in nicely with the concept drawings from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But. Do you really simply want the screen of your iPhone on your wrist? Isn’t that what the phone’s for?

Do you even want 100-character snippets of emails and texts and tweets and Facebook updates and Yo alerts and Snapchat notifications and Instagram hearts and Foursquare suggestions buzzing your wrist every five minutes?

Shouldn’t wearable tech – or any new tech – do something that your existing glut of tech doesn’t do?

Instead of beaming some info about which song you’re streaming onto your wrist, what if the device tried to solve a real problem – say, song curation?

What if your playlist was seamlessly, brilliantly selected for you, via the sensing of blood flow, movement, location, mood, keywords, perspiration, agitation?

What if the iWatch doesn’t have a screen at all?

Joe Sparrow : Narrow and deep: the undead album, and seeing work in context

I’m not sure what’s more prevalent right now – to point out that The Album Is Dead, or to comment on what a Cliché It Is To Point Out That The Album Is Dead.

I studied art for years. At school, then at art college, and then at university, and then at university again. When I started being interested in art, in the 90s, the YBAs were the colossuses, and I obediently worshipped at the alter (which was a big tank with a shark in it).

The one artists I never enjoyed was Sarah Lucas: I got her work, and admired it enormously. I just didn’t get excited by it.

And then a few months ago, I saw her retrospective at the Whitechapel gallery, and as the scales fell from my eyes, I was hit by the waves of enjoyment that I’d missed. I could see all her work together, in context, all subtly relating to one another; holistic, complimentary, brilliant.

There will always be a market for albums of music as long as there are people like me, and possibly like you, who enjoy a collection of work: the difference between enjoying a Sherlock Holmes story and owning a big book full of them.

What’s clear is that common consensus now agrees with the people at the top of the ladder – and they’re right, too. It’s funny how quick that happens, but the public is ruthless at moving on from one established norm to another, as BlackBerry and countless others will attest.

So, albums are, indeed, dead, if your starting point is the assumption that the outrageous album sales figures of the 90s were always going to be sustained, in which case, let’s book some time in our diaries and I’ll show you this new email thing that everyone’s talking about.

It’s more and more clear that albums are going to be a bit like like vinyl: a (big-ish) niche market. So, the Ed Sheerans and Adeles will shift a zillion albums, but for the rest, releasing an album is a secondary activity: something to put out as an added extra, like a really glossy bit of merch.

And thus, albums and vinyl find perfect solace in each other, feeding a desire for something more than one-off pop songs through a delivery system that looks, feels and smells good.

But most importantly, the continuing existence of albums encourages narrow and deep discovery: the listening and re-listening of a body of work. In a time when fast-and-loose media-consumption is de facto, this may be the most valuable thing of all.

NB: huge hat-tip to the inimitable Louis Barabbas for introducing me to the idea of the undead album :)

Joe Sparrow : Super-local socialism and disappearing Diners: New York City’s cowardly rush for gentrification

It’s a creaking cliché to discuss how New York and London are losing their soul in the relentless, remorseless rush for gentrification.

But the feeling of helplessness in observers like me who think that it’s a deeply sad state of affairs mean that it will be discussed endlessly, until the whole depressing process has finally turned these great cities into the middle-class theme parks they are destined to be.

Try to read this NY Times article without letting out a big, long, deep sigh.

“It’s going from a family neighborhood to a corporate neighborhood,” Mr. Gouvakis said, though most would probably say it has already gone.

The tremendous pressure of money on that pushes families like Mr Gouvakis’ out of their neighbourhoods is not about improvement, evolution, or even simple economics.

Put more simply, it’s a lizard-brain act of cowardice: by rich cowards, for other rich cowards, to make ‘grubby’ areas more palatable for their cowardly world-view that eschews mild risk, minor discomfort, gentle experimentation or slight acceptance of otherness.

When I was living in Greenpoint in Brooklyn, there was a diner next to the Greenpoint subway station called Three Decker, and going there for breakfast and coffee with Gem is still my favourite memory of NYC.

I based all of my expectations of NYC on TV, movies and Beastie Boys LPs. Excitingly, Three Decker was exactly as I’d imagined NYC to be.

There was a friendly, wry, gruff woman behind the counter asking if I wanted “caw-fee”, who slung out great big bowls of the stuff – and then refilled it without asking, which I honestly thought was a thing that only happened in the movies for the sake of dialogue continuity.

The whole place had a community, family, working-class feel. There were a few young hipster lifestyle-tourists (of which I guess I was one too), but really, it was too pleasingly uncool to be co-opted by that crowd.

I loved everything about it, and the simple but deeply satisfying food. The place was exactly the kind of socialism I enjoy: good food, hard work and a warm, caring welcome to all and sundry.

I also remember worrying, channeling an estate agent’s eye: this is a neighbourhood on the up, this location is primo, how much rent would a Starbucks command here?

On one hand, everything moves on, and everything must come and go – that’s why going for breakfast in that diner was so great to experience: one day, this café and all these people will be gone.

But on the other hand, a relentless, rapid, death-by-a-thousand-cuts disappearance of these non-corporate, meat-and-potatoes places seems like a total betrayal of the working (wo)man’s society.

We’re all middle class now, apparently; except for the huge majority who aren’t, and are being marginalised at the expense of individuality, family and the opportunity to make their own lives better (or just to control it) without being in kow-tow with big corporations.

Putting the means of production in the hands of the workers is not just about moustachioed revolutionaries handing the keys of the factories over to the workers; or even Startup World™ providing bunch of buzz-word #lifehack #apps that allow us to bypass middlemen of old.

It’s also about small-level socialism: family, community, and being able to eat, drink and read the paper in places that belong to the workers too. The Three Deckers of the world are not just scrapping to keep trading, but for the very soul of our cities.

I suppose there’s no simple solution to saving and evolving these places so that they can survive money’s stupefying, paint-the-town-grey onslaught – but putting one’s money where one’s mouth is and supporting the small guys would be a good start.

all posts

11The Target Shoots Next
10The Target Shoots First
23Some things I have written for Music Ally
22MONTAG: an infinite magazine

6Embrace nostalgia carefully to build the community you love (and thought you’d lost)
23Selected posts from MONTAG Issue 1

15Spot the gif-ference*

9Oasis’s “lost” third album: Forever… And A Day
28Oasis minus the fun
24Blackstar, Big Exit

25The Sandinista! Problem
28Gifting Music
6How NYPD Blue is the Instagram of cop shows
24Against The Grain: Grand Royal Magazine
9Simon Cowell, political agitator
11I thought I got a tiny glimpse into what being a woman in the music industry is like, but of course I never will
29Gray’s Papaya
5Surf’s Up; or Surf’s Everywhere, all the time

22Everything, everything
8The Kids are all right
19Why I (almost) killed A New Band A Day
4I just figured out why I love pop music…
29Music streaming, scarcity and breadth vs. depth
26Scale x Time: How Spotify Works Right Now [Part 1]
18Are Sleaford Mods the best band in the UK? (Yes.)
7Bearable wearables
4Narrow and deep: the undead album, and seeing work in context
16Super-local socialism and disappearing Diners: New York City’s cowardly rush for gentrification
15A couple of paragraphs from an email I wrote to a friend about Tommy Ramone’s death, and rock fetishism