Some classic Herne Bay behavior here. So as not to annoy the neighbor, I moved from our shared parking space to the road for the weekend, as I was away. Parked directly behind another car. Then this note when I came back (car has Tauranga plates as that’s where I bought it):
I hosted an event with Dan Aykroyd last week. He was impossibly cool.
This article originally appeared in the Herald on Sunday.
I never fully grasped how big pop music was until Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009. I arrived in the TV3 newsroom to find cameraman Grant Findlay in tears. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Michael’s dead,” sobbed Grant. He had taken out an extra mortgage on his house so he and partner Patsy could get to one of Jackson’s O2 Arena comeback shows. Now his hero was lying dead at an LA morgue.
I found myself on a plane to Los Angeles to cover the story, discovering Grant wasn’t the only one sobbing.
Whether I was outside Jackson’s house in Palomino Lane or the main gate at Neverland Ranch, people were grieving. Loudly. Publicly.
"He didn’t deserve this. We didn’t deserve this," gushed one plump woman called Geraldine. I remember her clawing into my forearm, her weight threatening to send me toppling.
Michael Jackson’s death made me understand that pop wasn’t just popular, it was a huge, uniting force that we rely on. Once we had myths, then we had religion, now we have pop. And this summer sees a sort of pop pilgrimage taking place in New Zealand. The thing is, we’re not going to them, they’re coming to us.
Melbourne-based mega-promoter Michael Coppel says pop in general is the strongest genre in music.
"What’s happening is that pop is such a big phenomenon these days, it’s such an inclusive church. You look at the numbers we’re seeing, 30 to 40,000 people coming out in Auckland."
This summer is particularly full on. At last count, 25 shows by major artists are taking place between now and Christmas. Rihanna, One Direction, Beyonce, One Republic, Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Jack Johnson, Fleetwood Mac, Leonard Cohen, Alicia Keys. Then there’s Bruno Mars kicking things off in 2014.
So why summer? Well, while some of us are sick to death of the place, to them New Zealand might as well be Pandora.
The simple fact is, New Zealanders are mellow and while our weather warms up, the parts of the world inhabited by pop stars (think London, New York, Los Angeles) are cooling down.
If I was Justin Bieber, this is exactly where I’d want to be. Once a cute, innocent, Christian musician from YouTube, he’s now making headlines for all the wrong reasons. His most recent piece of publicity involved a photo of him walking up the Great Wall of China. Except he wasn’t walking, he was perched atop the shoulders of two burly minders. A commenter on website reddit.com said what many of us are thinking: “I kinda like the complete and utter sociopathy that defines Bieber. It’s like watching some corrupt monarch treat everyone like s***, but as a goofy-looking Canadian teenager. Absolute fame corrupts absolutely?”
As well as having one of the best names in New Zealand, Sam Sargeant runs a business called Blak International, what he calls “a luxury events and experiences agency”, meaning he looks after rich people who come to New Zealand.
Here calls working with Lady Gaga’s crew who, like many acts, simply choose to stay here.
"They will come and tag on for five days or a week after their show. And no one will never know about that, as it’s our job to keep it secret."
I like to think of Sargeant as some kind of secret agent. His website is always talking about the latest black helicopter he’s added to his fleet. “What stars tend to come for is some peace and quiet, which isn’t normal for them. Normally it’s paps climbing fences and cliff faces to see them,” he says. “They can do a gig, then in four to five minutes we’ll have them on a chopper from Mechanics Bay.”
Where do they chopper to? “If they are younger, say, Rihanna, who want a bit of the nightlife, they will stay in the city in a private penthouse suite in a hotel or apartment, or Mechanics Bay will get them to a location six to eight minutes away from Auckland. There’s a 12-minute rule to move them: they don’t like being moved a lot.”
I think to myself that pop stars sound like cats. Cats hate being transported from place to place. I’d know, because I used to show cats.
Of course, not all the pop acts coming here this summer are descending into madness or looking to party at the viaduct. This is the summer of Leonard Cohen and Fleetwood Mac.
I found myself talking to Mick Fleetwood on his last visit, a kind man who displayed a wisdom and richness of spirit I’ve rarely experienced in the world of pop. Mick is a man who’s been the one constant in the band since 1967, a band that’s sold more than 100 million albums.
I tell him I think it’s a sort of miracle he’s still here. “It is some miracle. If you go through the grinding machine of not only what we psychologically became - certainly speaking for myself I was the king biscuit … one who did everything he could to make sure he was not going to make it!” But Mick did make it, and he’s coming back again: his third visit to New Zealand in four years. He says he enjoys the quiet that our country brings, and our wine. The whole time we talked, he was enjoying a glass of red.
Michael Coppel tells me he’s answering hundreds of emails that came in overnight. Some of them are finalising details on the acts he’s sending down our way.
"They love the country, the audience response and the natural environment. It’s just a feel good visit. Often when artists drag themselves around countries and cities that aren’t as attractive, it’s a highlight to come somewhere they enjoy going to."
It works out for us, too. As well as seeing our favourite pop stars gyrate about, it’s a chance for New Zealand to make some cold, hard cash. According to the rather clumsily titled Auckland Tourism, Event and Economic Development, last year’s Coldplay concert injected $3.2 million into Auckland’s economy.
Pop stars are in it for the money themselves, of course. Beyonce isn’t going to come all the way here if it’s not worth her while: she has clothing lines to run, charity events to open, and Jay Z to cuddle. And promoters like Coppel aren’t going to promote a concert if it’s not going to make them some money, too.
"Geographically, you’re right next to Australia which is a big market, so it’s easy to include you in a touring circuit. I think if New Zealand was in the location of Tahiti, you’d see a lot less touring activity."
I ask him whether it’s worth hauling all the dancers, lights and costume-changes down to New Zealand. “It’s a little bit more challenging as there are additional costs in terms of air fares and freight to get a tour there. But New Zealand is a very strong market. The last two or three years we’ve seen a real growth in the number of shows that artists can do. Multiple shows make a huge difference to the economics of coming. You cover your setup costs for the first night,and it becomes much more attractive for them to do multiple nights.”
For many pop stars, multiple nights are a wonderful, money-grabbing end to their world tour. While their concert is your one special night out this summer, for them it’s simply the end of an ordeal that started back in April with a giant tour of America (perhaps it’s a European tour if they’re that way inclined). From there, they’ve gone to Asia for a month or so and eventually ended up, disoriented and sweaty, in Australia. Finally, exhausted, they stumble to the arse-end of the world, the last stop. To put it in language the average New Zealanders can understand: New Zealand is their Friday night.
With so many acts to take in, I ask my friend Duncan Greive who I should go and see. Greive is one of New Zealand’s best music writers, but I mainly remember him from university where he insisted on wearing stubbies practically every day. He tells me Rihanna is a must. “Last time she came, she was one tenth the star she is today, and it still felt like you were witnessing an indomitable pop cyborg, the future of music as imagined by Paul Verhoeven in the early 80s.”
Grieve also says that Beyonce is on his list: that, all credit to MJ, she’s taken his spot as the new king of pop. Unlike Taylor and Rihanna, these are her first shows in New Zealand which always adds a strange, end-oft of-the-world edge to an event pop show like this.”
And speaking of Taylor, Duncan seems to agree with the idea the final leg of a tour can be the best one. “Taylor Swift’s last three-night stand at Vector was extraordinary, and rather than the last drops being wrung out of the concept, it felt like everyone involved never wanted it to end. It was a ludicrous teenage dream of a show, a naive imagining of love, small towns, friendship. But its hokiness was precisely its charm.”
Hearing Duncan rave on like this, I feel a bit sick. I must confess I don’t particularly like pop music. I should probably see a psychologist about this (and I’ve been told I need to see one), but happy music brings me down. Jack Johnson is my idea of a terribly boring coma. Rihanna mystifies me. I was offered a place on her infamous 777 promo trip, in which her music label hired a 777 aircraft, filled it with music journalists from around the world and took them to watch seven Rihanna shows, over seven days, in seven countries. It sounded like a terrible idea and I was right. The Independent carried this headline three days into the flight: “Rihanna’s 777 tour descends into anarchy and chaos.” No, there’s something in my brain that gravitates away from pop music.
I saw Grant Findlay the other day, that Michael Jackson-loving rascal. He and I are going to go and see Justin Bieber sing in November. He still orders Michael Jackson memorabilia from the internet. I told him to find a babysitter for October 30 as Cirque de Soleil’s Michael Jackson The Immortal World Tour is coming to town.
Even the King of Pop will be here for our summer of pop.
Random bag search at LAX. My hardcover copy of DIANETICS is revealed. Discussion ensues. I give him (Mark) some application forms I happened to pick up from the Scientology Celebrity Centre. None of this is real. But for Mark, it is real. What is the point? No idea. I feel quite a bit of my life is like this interaction.
Sometimes it’s important to look back. To turn around, look over our shoulder, and go, “Hey, look at that!” In looking back, we see where we came from, and in doing so, we see where we’re headed. As a famous person once said: “To look to the past is to see the future!” And if we look back hard enough – if we really strain ourselves – we see one thing and one thing only: Mr Blobby. Or as he’d say, “BLOBBY! BLOBBY BLOBBY BLOBBY!!!”
Mr Blobby was regular guest on a TV show called Noel’s House Party, which ran from 1991 to 1999. I suppose it was a little like The Graham Norton Show of its time. Noel Edmonds, a small ginger-goateed man (also a licensed helicopter pilot and former president of the British Horse Society) would interview celebrities and run competitions. And occasionally – when the live studio audience was in full hype mode - a creature called Mr Blobby would bust onto the set and wreak havoc.
Mr Blobby was basically a big blob. He was pink blob covered in yellow spots, like something sicked-up by a malnourished dog. He had a huge, unfaltering smile with eyes that would incessantly wobble about on his face. His only way to communicate was to repeatedly shout his name, “BLOBBY! BLOBBY BLOBBY,” his tone distorted and warped by a computer.
The popularity of Mr Blobby was unparalleled. As well as launching a series of popular specials on VHS tape, Mr Blobby also released a radio single, simply titled “Mr Blobby”. The song involved some singers singing about how great Mr Blobby was, interrupted at random times by Mr Blobby saying words like “blobby” and “blobby.” Released in 1993, “Mr Blobby” by Mr Blobby went straight to number one on the British charts, knocking Meat Loaf’s “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” off the top spot he’d been holding for seven weeks straight.
The man inside Mr Blobby was Barry Killerby, previously a Shakespearean actor. Today Barry is 51, and recently told the Mirror that being Mr Blobby was a difficult task – even more difficult than performing the words of William Shakespeare. “People think it’s easy bouncing around saying, ‘blobby’, but they should try it. It was exhausting and demanding,” he said
The thing is, Mr Blobby was never meant to be real. In his original form on Noel’s House Party, he was a fake children’s show presenter. He’d be introduced to celebrities as such, before they were forced to interact with him. He was a bit like the Borat of the nineties, as celebrities revealed their true selves as Mr Blobby became increasingly irritating, constantly falling over and becoming impossible to work with.
But every hero has his day, and Mr Blobby’s day eventually came to an end. His demise was predicted in 1995, when he released yet another single. It was a Christmas song this time, “Christmas in Blobbyland” and saw a guest appearance from Mr Blobby’s wife, “Mrs Blobby”. Unfortunately for the pair the song debuted at number 36, and quickly dropped from the charts entirely. It would appear the world was tiring of Mr Blobby.
The previous Christmas, Noel Edmond’s had opened a Mr Blobby-themed theme park in Morecambe, a depressing seaside town in Lancashire. It all turned to shit (no one went) and 13 weeks later it shut down, losing 2.5 million pounds. A report into the park wasn’t kind, describing Crinkley Bottom as “imprudent, irrational and even unlawful”. Around the same time the weighty New York Times weighed in, saying Mr Blobby was, “a metaphor for a nation gone soft in the head”. Years later, fellow BBC personality Michael Parkinson would remark, “I really didn’t get it, to be honest. Millions of people just loved Mr Blobby, but he was far from amusing to me.” Today, Crinkley Bottom (including Mr Blobby’s own area called “Dunblobbin”) lies in ruins. A Mr Blobby themed bed sits in a trashed Mr Blobby themed room. Used needles and beer bottles litter its stained, decaying sheets.
This wasn’t the first time host Noel Edmonds had one of his characters die. In 1986 he was working on The Breakfast Show. One of the segments, called “Hang ‘Em High”, involved a man called Michael Lush bungee jumping from an exploding crate suspended from a crane. Unfortunately he became unclipped from his bungee cord and Lush hit the ground at full speed. He died. The show died with him, pulled off the air.
As for Mr Blobby, Noel’s House Party wrapped up in 1999, leaving Mr Blobby homeless. He limped on, appearing on various game-shows where he’d fall over yelping, “BLOBBY, BLOBBY BLOBBY!” But even this eventually came to an end. It was over for Mr Blobby.
His time had come.
Until 2012, when Mr Blobby made a truly triumphant return on Channel 4’s Big Fat Quiz of the 90s, delivering the final bonus question. During the segment his distorted voice was turned up to 11, his appearance years after his demise solidifying in people’s minds how truly bizarre this character was. “How the fuck were you allowed near kids?” mused contestant Jack Whitehall. Another contestant, after getting a question wrong, responded with, “I don’t give a fuck, this is the happiest day of my life”. The quiz ended with Mr Blobby crashing through the set, eventually returning with the winner’s trophy, before finally stumbling and collapsing on the floor, dead. Whitehall got up and poked him. This was the real end of Mr Blobby (except it wasn’t because Mr Blobby got up again after the credits started rolling. Fuck).
It’s been fun looking back in time, hasn’t it? What have we learnt? We’ve learnt that a character invented to trick celebrities could land a number one single. We’ve learnt a thing whose vocabulary is restricted to one word can be on a TV show for eight years. And we’ve learnt that a giant pink blob covered in yellow spots can continue to make seemingly infinite comebacks long, long after it should have died. Who is the Mr Blobby of the moment? Is it Justin Bieber, Kanye West, or that guy from The X Factor? Is it John Key or Kim Dotcom? Maybe Blobby himself has the answer: “BLOBBY! BLOBBY BLOBBY!!!”
About 15 minutes into Gravity, the person next to me whispered “cut”. They were right. It was the first time the camera has cut from one shot to another. I hadn’t noticed - I was too transfixed.
The premise of Gravity is simple enough. Newbie astronaut Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is out on a spacewalk with veteran Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney). They’re tweaking some things on Explorer before heading home. Things are going great… until they aren’t. Space debris from a destroyed satellite is headed their way, and before long they’re in the shit. From this point on, Gravity is essentially one long action sequence, as the two struggle to stay alive. Space is formidable enough as it is (no one can hear you scream), but try it with your spaceship in pieces.
Gravity is a film of utter beauty. People rave about Avatar being beautiful, somehow elevating movie-making to ‘the next level’. I’m sure it did, but I still haven’t made it through Avatar, because I keep falling asleep. It’s a combination of boredom and, perhaps, over-stimulation. I simply had to shut my eyes.
I found the opposite with Gravity. Yes, it’s a giant action sequence, but the shots are thoughtful, lingering and utterly engaging. We’re so used to films now where the camera is being flung around wildly (often shaking), close-ups and edits telling us as an audience where to look. With Gravity, the camera is a distinct character, observing what’s going on, almost in a state of dreamy anti-gravity itself. You’re presented with what’s happening in front of you, but never being shown where to look. It’s as if there’s an amazing painting, and you have the time to stop and choose where in the frame you want to look. As you do, your jaw will drop.
Gravity does something very smart, in that it moves between a variety of perspectives. There are huge wide shots that take in the vastness of space. Then there are shots close to the action, before you slip into the helmet of an astronaut and see their sweaty, stressed-out face. Then without even noticing, you’re seeing things entirely from their perspective. It’s when the camera slowly leaves their point of view and floats nearby that something special happens - you’re there, observing; and you haven’t noticed how engaged you are until you realise you’ve been clenching your hands on the seat rest for the last 10 minutes. Your fingers hurt.
For all this, we have Alfonso Cuarón to thank. Not only did he direct Gravity, he also had a hand in writing, producing and cutting it together. It’s a film where he takes the technical prowess of Children of Men (those long, continuous shots he does so well) and combines it with a very small human story like audiences saw in Y Tu Mamá También.
And the performances are, by and large, great. For much of the film we’re left alone with Sandra Bullock. Don’t panic, because she’s a pleasure to be with, as she problem-solves her way through what is probably the most stressful situation a human being could experience. George Clooney’s character is a joker, jibing along in an attempt to keep her calm and collected. There are some heavy-handed moments, where things are needlessly spoken out loud - many of these plodding lines padding out a sometimes overly-sentimental backstory about Dr Stone losing a child and having to move on.
But Gravity is a movie that feels very, very special. Much of the time I had no idea how, technically, they pulled this film off. What was CG? What were sets? How are they floating like that? The answers no doubt lay in an array of tricks and technology that’s far beyond me. According to Bullock, at one stage she was suspended as a camera rushed at her from 100 metres away, ending up just millimetres from her face.
So, while others rave about the spectacle of Avatar or Life if Pi, I think I’ll choose to rave about Gravity. It’s a film I want to see again, and soon.
review originally published at 3news.co.nz
I spent the day with Thom and Alisa from The Naked and Famous. It was a stinking hot LA day, and the band had just released their second album, In Rolling Waves, a few hours earlier.