Sunday, August 18, 2019

This Is The Modern World

For me, the first decade of the twenty-first century passed largely unnoticed. I was in another world. Several other worlds, in fact. I coudn't tell you very much about the politics, the culture or the music from the Millennium to sometime around 2012 but I could tell you an awful lot about what was going on in Norrath or Telon.

It's hard to put the pieces back together now. I have a firm timeline for the rest of my musical and cultural history, all the way back to childhood but playing MMORPGs anything up to forty hours a week, while holding down a full-time job and living with someone playing the same games, if anything, for even more hours in the day than I was didn't leave an awful lot of room for much of anything else.

Eventually the fervor receded, the fires began to bank and I started to take notice of the outside world again. The joy of it was, thanks to modern life, I really hadn't missed a thing.

Before the coming of the World Wide Web, retracing my steps to find out what was lost would have been an arduous, effortful struggle There would have been library research. I'd have found myself trawling through dusty record bins. I'd have needed an awful lot of luck just to make a dent in the battleplate of the past. Now the world and all its wonders are just a click away.

So began the YouTube years, which is where I live now although maybe not for much longer. Things change. Certainly permissions and access are becoming more restricted. The internet of the 90s and noughties looks increasingly like Lana's seventies freedom land as it recedes into misty-eyed nostalgia. Rules, regulations and corporate control spread like wildfire, burning through our shared histories like flames through a sepia-hued map of the Old West.

Speaking of Lana del Rey, something I never tire of doing, she represents the apogee, the zenith, the shining beacon of a new era of discovery for me. And also the entry point into a new world of magical potential.

I first came across her name in a two-line note in The Guardian, when it was still spelled Lana del Ray. Something about the brief mention intrigued me. When I got home I went onto YouTube and searched. And there went the next few years.

Lana del Rey is my favorite solo artist of all time. I pay attention to her in the way I only ever paid attention to Lou Reed. So far she hasn't let me down but it took Lou a while so I'm sanguine. Her lyrics are a mystifying melange of apparent cliche and stunning profundity, so artfully constructed they compel emotions that seem entirely inappropriate.

Her phrasing is immaculate. She can bring nuance to a seemingly simple line that keeps me wondering for days. She's playful, mischevious, vulnerable and stronger than steel and she's only getting better.

I spent more than a year listening to almost nothing but Lana. I bought all her official releases as they arrived and downloaded every one of the myriad demos, leaked tracks and albums she made as May Jailer and Lizzy Grant.

Lana introduced me to the counterweight world where unreleased material is publicly avaialable and often superior to the version that ends up on record. So many of the variant takes on YouTube beat the studio versions hands down - rougher, faster, more joyous.

It's a fine and free world where we can have it all. And how I have it!

Over the last few years I've recovered and modified my habits from before I played MMORPGs. I used to spend inordinate amounts of time thumbing through stacks of vinyl in filthy record stores and markets. Mrs Bhagpuss and I used to drive to every town in a sixty-mile radius, visiting every thrift store and boot sale in search of nuggets.

Now I do it propped up in bed against a couple of pillows with my headphones on. I search through the riches of the last six decades and more, roaming across the whole wide world in search of strangeness and wonder.

And how much of it there is. Malaysia and The Phillipines have amazing scenes with countless bands, some original some most definitely not. Mexico, Spain, South America share a guitar sound no-one else hears. Canada, Australia, New Zealand all pump out more quality than their populations can possibly justify.

There are so many radio stations and webcasts and live venues, all inviting bands to perform, then pinning them like butterflies to the net forever for me to rummage and shuffle and keep and discard.

It's very heaven. It's also a little dislocated and strange. So many of the great discoveries I make turn out to have peked and folded years ago. A few carry on but by the very nature of the kind of thing that attracts me,  most have already crashed and burned.

Never mind. I follow their breadcrumb trails. I watch and hear whatever they leave behind and track their fleeing eminences to other bands, only to see those crash and burn in turn. As I find gems I grab them and stash them. Not because I want to steal but because I understand the impermanence. Links die. Channels end. Loss is inevitable.

At time of writing I have close to two thousand songs and videos stored, over 40GBs of obscure, largely unreleased work from people with ridiculous names. Where there's official content, often through the invaluable Bandcamp portal, sometimes from the bands' own websites, I spend actual money. If there are CDs I buy those. Mostly there are none.

I've a few favorites. Bands I would have followed had I known they were around before they weren't. I bought or officially downloaded everything by The Papertiger Sound, whose melancholy yearning haunts me every time I sink inside it. Scott and Charlene's Wedding bring back feelings I haven't had since I heard The Velvet's Live 1969 almost half a century ago. Pony Up remind me of Tiger Trap, higher praise than which is hard to imagine. I love Let's Eat Grandma, Superorganism, Starcrawler, Princess Chelsea, The Goon Sax...

Mostly, though, I pick tunes. A lot of bands have just one or two astonishing songs. They might spend years trying to replicate the impact and never succeed. I cherry-pick the best and gorge myself.

How long this can last I have no way of knowing. Like the phases before it, perhaps it will pass and I'll move on to another mode. Or, more likely, all the gates will close, one after another, and paywalls will lock down imagination and wonder for a generation.

I'm going to ride the tide while it still surges. The best music I've ever heard is out there, waiting for me to find it. It always has been and it always will be. Always look back, always look forward, never stop searching.

Onward and upward!

Saturday, August 17, 2019

How Funky Is Your Chicken?

Not that anyone cares - I'm not even sure I do - but I'm still playing Riders of Icarus. For a given value of "playing", that is, one where a full session means logging in and going afk for thirty minutes then logging out again.

RoI, in addition to being a more than half-decent MMORPG for anyone who can actually be bothered to get quests, run dungeons and, y'know, kill things, is by a country mile the most generous idle giveaway game I have ever seen. After a few weeks, I already have more really good things in RoI than I've collected in Guild Wars 2 over seven years. Just sayin', ANet.

A couple of days ago I got a psychedelic chicken. It's not actually called that, of course. I only wish it was. Its official name is Tropical Ramphastos. Good luck remembering that.

It clearly is a chicken because it runs on two legs and can't fly. I'm not entirely sure what the point of ground mounts is in a game predicated on flight but there's a lot I don't know about Riders of Icarus - most of it, most likely. My chicken has an 11% run speed buff, which makes it my fastest ground mount by far, so maybe it will come in useful somewhere.

First of all, though, I have to level it up. This takes ages if all you do is sit on the grass under a tree. I finally got my Skywhale to twenty-five, the same level as my Trickster, then I moved to another nice freebie I'd picked up, a fighting crab called Skallion.

Skallion seemed to be taking even longer than most familiars to get going. In the end I put him back in the stable at Level 15 in favor of the chicken. It's going to be a week or so before I pick up the next giveaway Legendary mount so I ought to be able to top both of them off before then.

There's another special login event running because of course there is. In fact, I believe there are something like five or six login events stacking throughout August, including several that require logging in at specific times of day. I literally can't keep up so I've been pretending those aren't happening.

The one I am working on (if doing absolutely nothing counts as working) is the one I probably wouldn't have noticed if Massively:OP hadn't popped up a notice about it. It's a Summer Fishing Event although I may never see a fish. The event comes with its own seven-day login cycle, for which I need to do nothing at all. I'd already done the first day without even knowing it was on.

As if to prove how incredibly generous the game is, the rewards for each of the first six days include a pack of 50 Elluns, the cash shop currency. That's 300 Elluns in total just for being there. I already have over 300 Elluns and this will double my stash.

It takes an increasing number of Elluns to open each new Familiar slot or to increase Inventory but so far the free currency stream is running much faster than my needs. It's as if GW2 handed out a few hundred gems every month to free-to-play accounts, something that's about as likely as an announcement for a new expansion.

Most of the other rewards for the fishing event are temporary cosmetics. In keeping with many imported F2P MMORPGs, RoI loves rented items. I don't usually care for such things but when you get them for nothing...

On the seventh day there's a Legendary mount that's yours to keep for good. I haven't managed to find a picture of it so we're going to need to use our imagination here. It's called Watermelon Banana Boat. I just can't wait!

As if that wasn't enough, which it clearly ought to be, while I was fiddling about in my bags after logging in to take some screenshots for this post I found yet another Legendary Mount in my backpack. It's the four-ticket top of the shop Familiar I bought with my July login tickets. I'd completely forgotten about it.

I wondered what it would look like. It's called Gilded Infernal Demeroth, which tells me nothing.

Turns out it's a frickin' gold dragon! It has the best stats of any of my mounts so far and it looks utterly amazing. I have more incredible-looking mounts with overwhelmingly powerful stats and razzle-dazzle particle effects in Riders of Icarus than I have ever had, and most likely ever will have, in any MMORPG - and I've done nothing to earn any of them.

It's fantastic! I could play this game indefinitely just as an idle collection simulator. Oh, wait, what am I talking about? That's how I am playing it.

Maybe one day I'll get back to questing and levelling up but right now I don't entirely see why I'd bother. I'm having all the fun with none of the effort and it's all for free.

Soon the game will be changing publishers to VFUN, whoever they are. I've already done all my pre-registration stuff so I'm hoping it will be a smooth transition and that the game goes on to have a long and healthy future under the new management.

I'd really hate to lose my stuff, now I have so much of it and all so good.

My Life Story And The End Of Going Out

Musically, the early '90s kind of passed me by, which is ironic, given it was a tumultuous and immensely significant time for popular cultural in general and popular music in particular. I was still going to see bands regularly but I never went to a rave or a warehouse party or even took Ecstacy.

The closest encounters I had with the acid house and drum'n'bass revolution came from going to parties with Mrs Bhagpuss, who I first met in 1992, I think. Might have been 1991. She was, and still is, a lot more into the dance music of that era than I ever was and so were many of her friends.

I was exposed to plenty of it but nothing really rubbed off on me. Some music you need to be on the right drugs to appreciate. I like a bit of techno in the right setting, and who doesn't like ambient house, but mostly I'll pass.

Luckily for me there was change in the wind. One of the first gigs I remember Mrs Bhagpuss and I going to was Suede, in April '93. They were then just starting to be touted as the harbingers of some as-yet unspecifiied new trend. Within a few months the floodgates opened and the full horror of Britpop was upon us.

Britpop marked the beginning of the end of my association with live music. Mrs Bhagpuss and I saw some of the lesser luminaries, all of whom I preferred to the scene leaders Blur and Oasis. After Britpop crashed and burned my nights at the rock and roll club sputtered out too.

While I was still going out dressed like that, though, among others, we saw Sleeper, who I loved then and still do, Powder, who were superb and would have been something special had the drugs not intervened, and The Auteurs, whose leader and songwriter, Luke Haines was and remains a maverick genius and incipient national treasure. Best of the lot were Pulp, who I saw in a pub just before they blew up.

The band that swept me up and became something of an obsession, though, wasn't really part of the core Britpop scene at all. Yet again it was one of those chance happenings that make life so wonderful and strange.

By the 1990s there was music all over T.V. The days of appointment-to-view for a handful of shows that showcased pop hits were long, long gone. You could channel-hop from video showcase to magazine format to zoo-party and see band after band, most of which you'd never heard of and would never hear of again.

That's how I happened across Fluffy, still one of the most underrated all-female acts of the 90s, whose only album is one of the fiercest, most furious expressions of anger and rage I've ever deafened myself with. But it's not Fluffy I'm talking about.

I came home late one evening, a little the worse for wear from doing who knows what, who knows where, with who knows whom. I switched on the television. The White Room was on, an ironic yet somehow serious showcase for new music, hosted by the estimable, if overly ironic, Mark Radcliffe.

He was introducing a live band and there were hundreds of them. Seemed like it, anyway. In fact there around a dozen. The band was My Life Story and I became somewhat obsessed with them for the next couple of years.

It did help that the first thing I ever saw them do was their best song, 12 Reasons Why. And that they stormed it. They had a full string section, horns, and one of the violinists was feeding the rest of them grapes in a disturbingly orgiastic manner. Then they hit the riff.

Jake Shillingford, the charismatic if not especially good-looking singer and band leader stood stage center in what looked like a blue cagoule, a kiss-curl ludicrously glued to his forehead. Beside him a blonde woman intoned each numbered reason like the clock of doom, holding up a card with the relevant numeral just in case we might not be getting the message.

I went to bed and when I woke up next day I remembered what I'd seen and wondered if I'd dreamed it. Happily, in those days I habitually recorded anything and everything I saw on TV on VHS tape. The evidence was there. My Life Story were real.

Over the next couple of years I bought every record they made and went to see them every chance I got, which sadly wasn't many. They were magnificent live. I still have one of the torn, numbered pages from 12 Reasons Why, thrown into the crowd and caught by me. It's framed, hanging on the wall over the fireplace. And it's #12.

It's hard to keep a band of more than a dozen people in work on what turns out to be only moderate success. After a while MLS diminshed from a spectacle to a mere rock band, losing the strings, the horns and most of the pizazz. I saw them last as a five-piece and it was quite sad.

By then we were into the mid-90s. I carried on going to see live bands for a few more years but as we approached our forties Mrs Bhagpuss began to feel we might be a little out of place. Almost all the bands I wanted to see were little-known, usually very young, playing dive clubs and the back rooms of bars to audiences twenty years younger than either of us. It was begining to feel a little odd although I'm not sure I'd have noticed if it hadn't been pointed out to me.

I guess it would have been fine if we'd stuck with our contemporaries, politely applauding greatest hits and nostalgia sets from the endless round of reformed bands that began to appear at that time. I only ever went to see one of those unfortunate events. My friend Pete had somehow managed to miss seeing The Buzzcocks in their original incarnation. They'd reformed and he wanted to tick them off his list. I somewhat reluctantly went along with him. The Buzzcocks were extremely professional and utterly devoid of everything I'd once loved about them.

Looking back at the decade down the telescope of time, the nineties was an amazing time for music. One of the best ever. I wallowed in what came my way but I missed so much. Other than Britpop and the resurgence of guitar bands, about the only other trend I hit was was trip-hop.

All those seeds that The Pop Group planted in the late '70s, the entwining, subterranean roots that spread and flourished in The Dugout Club (where my band once played the longest set we ever did and got roundly trounced for it in a review in Sounds), watered by The Wild Bunch, flowered spectacularly in Portishead, Massive Attack and Tricky. Bristol, for decades a sleepy joke, found its sound and its place on the musical map, a place it still holds, fiercely and with pride.

Trip-hop, though, was stay-at-home music. I did see Portishead play, once, a brief set at an Ashton Court festival. They were ethereal and magical in the dusk but they weren't Spiritualized. Who is?

And then, in late 1999, I came home with a boxed copy of EverQuest and that was the end of "going out" for the next couple of decades.

Thank god for YouTube.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Twenty Something

I had been planning for my panda Monk to finish her trip to the free trial cap of Level 20 in Dun Morogh but somehow she ended up in Goldshire instead. Thinking ahead to Classic, where my Dwarf Hunter will most definitely be starting in the snows around Ironforge, I figured it might be better to avoid doing the same content twice in such a short time so I stayed where I was.

Wilhelm has been talking about how very much he just wants to get on with Classic already. I'm not quite that gung ho but I am looking forward to it. So, it appears, are lots of people, if what I saw in Goldshire and Westfall are any indication.

I wasn't too surprised to find the area around the Goldshire Inn teeming with ne'er-do-wells talking trash, riding their culturally inappropriate mounts and dueling. That's how it mostly is in the armpit of the WoW universe.

What set me aback was the sheer number of players out questing and levelling up. Everywhere I went, every quest I took on, I was shoulder to shoulder with two or three other characters, sometimes more. There were crowds at every quest hub and player characters travelling in all directions.

I know this is one of the most popular starter areas in the game but I've played through it a couple of times in recent years on trial characters and I can't recall seeing it like this. I wonder if people are giving themselves a little pre-Classic reminder of what things are like now so they can better appreciate the change. Or maybe the general buzz has just raised all boats and even non-Classic fans are out for a little nostalgia. Then again, maybe it's always this busy now Blizzard has tweaked servers so they come in clusters.

Whatever the reason I was able to appreciate some of the changes that have come to the game unnoticed by me. I hadn't realised that WoW now has open kill-and quest-sharing  like Guild Wars 2, for a start.

So long as I put in a hit or two on a mob someone else was fighting I got full credit and loot, including any quest items. That made a huge difference to the community feel, turning much of what I was doing into co-operation not competition.

Then there were the quest rewards. I had two green rewards upgrade themselves to blue when I selected them. I don't remember that feature but it's very welcome.

I also ran into several wandering vendors. I do remember these but there seemed to be a lot more of them. One was a boy selling kittens. I bought myself one. A very nice little addition to my pet collection.

As for the supposed heart of the game, combat, it was really quite challenging at times back in the Pandaren starting area but it has become very much easier. Mostly, I think, as a function of the hugely improved gear I'm now wearing. For a game like modern WoW, so famously unchallenging at low levels, the design of racial starter areas seems out of step.

My monk went fifteen levels with virtually no quest rewards above Common. Her weapons hit like wet noodles and her armor didn't seem to do a lot to protect her. She had hardly any fighting abilities and the mobs were in most cases as powerful or more so than her plus they came in packs.

How that makes for a suitable introduction to the game for new players beats me. It seems almost intended to put them off.

It's going to be interesting to see how hard the first few levels seem in Classic compared to that. I definitely don't remember dying as much when I levelled up to fifteen in Wrath of the Lich King.

From the moment of arrival in Goldshire, however, the famous casual-friendly pace has been very much the norm, apart from a couple of oddities. One such occurred when I was working my way, yet again, through the mystery of the Furlbrow murders.

I was sent to get clues from Murlocs and Gnolls. The gnolls gave their clue up in a handful of kills but I was the best part of half an hour prying one out of the dead claws of a murloc. I had to wait on several full respawns of the little village, which took what seemed like five minutes each time.

Other people were also trying for the clues. Things got very competetive for a while, at least for me, because kill-sharing is quite hard to achieve when you have no ranged attack whatsoever. All in all it felt like an oddly nostalgic episode but not in a particularly good way.

After an hour or two, hoovering up every quest I saw, which was many, I finally dinged twenty on the hand-in for a mission for SI:7. That puts a full stop to the Monk's journey for now. I can still play her, make money, get drops, complete quests and so on but her experience bar will stay firmly closed.

It's been a very nice run. Now I have to think about subbing. With clear pressure on the announced servers as signified by the rush to reserve names I might get my credit card out a little earlier than I planned. That way, I could make a character for Classic and also carry on with my Monk until it starts.

Going to have to give that some thought.

We're The C86 Generation And We've Got Nothing To Say

1984 was shaping up to match 1975. Not much going on. No direction. Post-punk, so incredibly influential in the second half of the 21st Century's sophomore decade, passed relatively unnoticed at the time. I heard The Gang of Four, Cabaret Voltaire, A Certain Ratio and the rest but paid little attention.

The Smiths, that seminal force now so blunted by Morrissey's  bizarre and troubling personal journey, never had the impact on me they did on so many of my peers. I think I might have been just a little too old in my mid-twenties. While I liked and admired them I didn't worship them, unlike my then-girlfriend, a few years younger than me.

Nothing really struck me as important or exceptional then. There seemed to be a drifting down all around. Then one day I switched on the radio in the evening and heard a squall of chaos like I'd never heard before: The Jesus and Mary Chain's debut single, Upside Down. As Jarvis Cocker would later say about something entirely unrelated, something changed.

Even though I was deeply involved in punk ten years earlier, and the right age for it, too, in my late teens, it's still the C86 scene that I feel most represents my peak involvement with a musical watershed. I should have been too old for it, too, but I wasn't. Not at all.

Punk was thrilling but the hard edges and nihilism were tough to live with over time. As things moved into pantomime in one direction and hardcore in the other, all the interesting people diverted to other channels. Post punk was hard work. New Romanticism couldn't be taken seriously. C86, lighter, less focused, more fun, was just right.

It was and remains a movement with no confirmed name or credo. The C86 monicker came from a free cassette attached to an issue of The New Musical Express in May 1986. On it were a disparate collection of bands that really had very little in common beyond a ringing guitar sound and a predeliction for songs about relationships and real life.

The Jesus and Mary Chain, outliers and yet scene leaders, didn't even feature but one of my favorite bands of all time, The Shop Assistants, did. I saw the Shoppies by chance, supporting The Pastels, when they were still operating under the name Buba and the Shop Assistants. They were revelatory. Three girls and a guy on guitar, who happened to be a dead ringer for a close friend of mine.

The drummer stood and hammered a floor tom and a snare and not much else. The singer stood center front and didn't move. They made a sound like the crystal chandeliers of heaven falling while angels sang.

From then it was on. My friend and gig-buddy Gary and I went to see every band on the scene that happened to come to town. Our favorites were The Darling Buds, a power-pop outfit from Wales with a dynamite singer. We saw bands from Scotland, the North of England and, of course, our own city, where a vibrant scene was growing around the nexus of The Subway Organization.

Subway, which was also its own indie record company, was spearheaded by The Flatmates, a true shambling band if ever there was one. I can't count how many times we saw them live. I preferred the chaotic line-up with Rocker drumming, out of time, to the tighter version that made most of the records but they were always great live.

1986-87 represented my last fling with live performing. I was writing a lot of songs, some of them pretty good, or so I thought. The themes of what would become known as "twee" suited me; bittersweet, languid tales of lost or languishing love set to surprisingly jangly, cheerful beats. 

For the first and only time I tried to put some people together to play my songs. Gary was a good guitarist, who went on to tour with a couple of successful indie bands. He and I found a bassist from somewhere, who I can't now remember at all, and Gary persuaded Rocker to sit in on a rehearsal and drum for us one time.

In the end, though, putting a band together is hard. A lot harder than putting a group together to do a dungeon in EverQuest, although I didn't know that at the time. We rehearsed and made a tape or two but in the end we never got as far as performing.

Over time the C86 scene morphed and dissipated into what would become known, and still is, as "Twee" or "Tweepop". The wikipedia entry defines it, accurately, as "excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental", which is the pejorative version, but also as " with a spirit of D.I.Y. defiance in the grand tradition of punk, but with a simplicity and innocence not seen or heard since the earliest days of rock & roll", which is exactly how I felt and still feel about it.

C86/twee turned out to be far, far more lasting than anyone could have expected. It was taken up in the States by bands like the wonderful Tiger Trap, by Tullycraft and Beat Happening, and going on into the next century by the likes of The Pains of Being Pure At Heart and The Vivian Girls. Today there are twee festivals and gatherings all over the world and several countries, particularly Spain, have vibrant twee scenes.

In the UK there was a drift towards an acoustic, almost folk take on twee, led by the highly influential Sarah Records. Even though Sarah was based in Bristol, where I was living at the time, I didn't really pay much attention. I liked what I heard of their repertoire on John Peel but I never bought any of the records or went to see any of the bands.

In retrospect, perhaps the most important aspect of C86/twee was the way it brought gender equality to the fore. As you can see from many of these clips, lots of the bands were mixed-gender, much more so than punk. Most importantly, there were no fixed roles, no token female keyboard player or bassist. Anyone could play anything and no-one thought twice about it.

As the nineties rolled in, bringing with them some truly huge and imposing cultural changes in Acid House, Madchester and Baggy I found myself out of the loop. I can't even remember now what I was listening to but it wasn't any of that.

Things fell fallow for a while. And then I met Mrs Bhagpuss and Britpop came running after.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

If I Can Help Someone Along The Way

I've been playing FFXIV all afternoon. Played the way I'm playing it now, it really is a delightful game, gorgeous to look at, fascinating to explore, very relaxing.

After my brief discussion with Pete in the comments to yesterday's post over whether it's possible to travel overland or by ferry to La Noscea from The Dark Shroud, I set out to ride my chocobo into Thanalan.

On my first attempt I didn't get far. As soon as I zoned into South Shroud I saw a bunch of quest markers on the map. I couldn't ignore the opportunity.

I'm thoroughly enjoying all of the side quests. Far from being the tedious filler many people take them for they seem to me to be the meat and potatoes of a proper virtual world. I get to speak to ordinary Eorzeans living their regular lives. They tell me about convincingly straightforward problems, the kind you might imagine any rural or scattered village society to be concerned about.

They ask me to do manageable tasks that make sense for a travelling adventurer to take on. There's no overarching narrative or portentous plot, no mysterious strangers who know more about me than I know about myself. No worrying secret societies trying to recruit me. Just some solid work-for-hire.

This, to me, is what an MMORPG should be about. A living, breathing world to explore and get to know and live in. Ignore the Main Quest and that's what you get in FFXIV.

I have no time for the MQ itself but I do like the way various perks and upgrades are acquired by means of what the wiki calls "Content Unlock". Now I've twigged that the blue symbol with the plus sign indicates an unlock I make for those like a guided missile whenever I see one.

In South Shroud I picked up one such quest that unlocked the abilty for my Chocobo to fight alongside me. That meant some backtracking into Central Shroud but it didn't take too long to complete.

From my first run back at launch I remember being very unimpressed indeed with the fighting ability of a chocobo. I recall it being basically useless. Not any more.

Fighting alongside me my chocobo seemed to do some very good damage indeed. Fights went much faster and I got hit less. I kept him out and pecking for the rest of the afternoon and I plan on doing that regularly in future.

I cleaned up a few more quests then I set off once again for Eastern Thanalan. As soon as I arrived I picked up more quests and got started. I placed scarecrows and killed Nannies for meat and picked flowers. It rained, hard. I thought it was supposed to be a desert.

One quest offered me spectacles as a reward. They were a downgrade but I took them and put them on. Style over substance. I love my characters wearing specs or shades.

Eventually the sun came out and the desert scrubland glowed. I ran into a Lalafel handing out Leves so I took them all and did them. They were Level 15 and my Archer is Level 32. They were easy and fun and they gave me plenty of gil and ticked the xp over nicely.

I even did the annoying one where you have to /beckon a merchant for a mile or so. I was cooking a pizza at the time so I kept leaving him standing by the roadside. I left him there while I ate and came back to find us all still alive with four minutes left on the Leve. I got him home with ninety seconds to spare.

After three hours or so I stopped to write this post. I could easily have carried on for a couple of hours more. I'm no wiser about whether I can get to La Noscea without using an airship but that can wait. There are people to help along the way and I plan on being the one to help them.

Dolly Mixture, Playing Live and The Lost 80s.

In 1978 I went to University. I read English at St Catharine's College, Cambridge, where my student experience was extremely atypical. I lived the first year in college but the second and third years I lived out, in non-university accomodation, with my non-student girlfriend, who left home back in Bristol, aged sixteen, to move in with me.

My best friend at college was kicked out of Cambridge University after failing his first year exams, along with several other Maths and Science students. They'd all done about ten times the work I had but at the time I was there it seemed to be almost impossible to fail arts and humanities, so I rolled on, oblivious.

My friend immediately enrolled in a humanities course at Cambridge Technical College or Poly (I forget what it was called then), where he went on to get a First. I divided my time between a very (very) active social life that took full advantage of all the opportunities for hedonism and pop culture both within and without the university and an academic career that I treated exactly as though it were a nine-to-five job.

I have to say it all worked for me. I had a great three years. I'd recommend it to anybody. Didn't get the best degree but in those days a 2.2 was solid and a 2.2 from Cambridge trumped a 2.1 or even a First from many other institutions. Not that I ever used mine for anything.

I mention all this partly because this is still Getting To Know You week in Blaugust (or I think it is - I may have lost track) but mostly because it had a huge affect on my musical journey. Those three years in Cambridge were astonishingly siloed from the outside world. I watched almost no TV at all, rarely listened to the radio and my social circle hardly ever talked about current affairs or politics.

Everything revolved around going to parties, seeing countless movies at the 30+ college film societies and going to see local bands or whoever happened to play the Cambridge Corn Exchange. Also, we started a band, because of course we did.

My friend, Keith, was the instigator, even though he had no musical skills whatsoever. He was the singer. He could not sing but he spent an inordinate amount of time and effort obtaining some pink vinyl leather-look trousers that distracted the audience from his vocal shortcomings.

We played just three gigs. For the first we had to audition. How we passed is beyond me. We were third on the bill at a college event. For that one we had a very good sax player who covered a lot of our infelicities. We played a set of covers including The Jam's "David Watts" and a twenty minute version of Sister Ray. Actualy we got through about twelve minutes before the MC came on and told us we'd overrun our slot.

Our second gig was at a party in a disused  outdoor swimming pool, supporting a band from Oxford. It was a very Cambridge party. There was Pimms. A lot of Pimms. If you've never had Pimms, it tastes like drinking lemonade. It was a hot, summer evening. We all drank plenty of Pimms.

By the end of our set I was extremely drunk. We must have gone down alright because towards the end of their set the headliners invited me to up play. My musical skills did not extend to jamming on songs I'd never heard but I was too drunk to care. Fortunately I discovered when the gig ended that I'd neglected to plug my guitar lead into their amp.

I was drunk but not so drunk as our keyboard player, who was last seen walking into the sunset carrying his electric piano cradled in his arms. We didn't see him for two days, which is how long his hangover lasted.

There was a third gig, I'm fairly sure, but I can't remember it. After that we split up and then reformed without Keith, the singer. The next version, under a new name, only ever played one gig but it was far better.

We played a mix of covers and originals. We had two new members, both of whom could play their instruments. Three of us took turns on lead vocals. I sang my songs and some covers, we had three of our girlfriends on backing vocals and we went down very well. I have the whole gig on tape somewhere and you can actually hear the audience enjoying themselves!

When we weren't rehearsing or playing we went to see other college bands, The Hearthrobs being an early favorite. Then came the fateful day when we went to see The Fall at The Corn Exchange. Opening the show were the band that was to become my all-time favorite: Dolly Mixture.

The Dollies, as we called them, as though we knew them (and we kind of very periferally did, since we ended up at the same parties once in a while) were three girls in their mid-late teens, Rachel, Debsey and Hester. They dressed sixties and sounded seventies, with a punk attitude and drive, a deep glam sensibility and all the tunes and wise, wonderful lyrics you could ever hope to hear.

We saw them every chance we got, which wasn't as many as it might have been since they had a burgeoning career that took them away from Cambridge. When they played, though, every gig was a celebration and a joy. The last time I saw them, a storming homecoming set at The Locomotive, a rock pub, was one of the best gigs I've ever been lucky enough to attend.

In the mid-90s I taught myself HTML (well, really I taught myself how to use Dreamweaver, which did most of the heavy lifting), just so I could put up a tribute website to Dolly Mixture, who at the time seemed to have no web presence whatsoever. I got some great feedback from that, including several bootleg concert tapes and an email from someone out of Slater-Kinney. I have the whole thing backed up on floppy somewhere.

Dolly Mixture released a number of singles and EPs, all of which I now own. Somehow, they never got around to releasing a full album but that didn't matter because in the early 1980s they released a double-album of all of their demos. It was, is and most likely always will be my favorite album.

They eventually broke up but not before they had their fifteen minutes of fame, backing Capt. Sensible on his #1 smash, Happy Talk. Rachel married the Captain and went on to play, briefly, in a band called Fruit Machine, who I not only saw but videoed at a pub gig.

It was in the days before cellphones with cameras and I was using a large, Mini-VHS tape camera. I was so obvious the band could clearly see me filming them from the stage. I felt obligated to go up and explain what I was doing after the set. I had a stilted and somewhat embarassing chat with Rachel, who seemed quite happy to have been recorded without her permission. At least, she didn't demand I hand over the tape.

In one of the stupidest things I have ever done, several years later I taped over most of the recording, filming hedges and gates for another project I had in mind. Only a couple of songs survive from the full set. One day I'll put them on YouTube. I don't believe there's any footage of Fruit Machine online anywhere.

As soon as I finished my finals I returned home and married my girlfriend. I was the ony member of my social and academic circle to attend graduation day as a married man, although within a year several more had joined me. Getting married was the thing to do back then.

Judi and I returned to Bristol, where we lived happily and then less happily for several years before divorcing, very amicably, in the mid-80s. We remained close friends until she moved to Wales and we remain in touch. If you loved someone once you should always love them unless there's good reason not to, that's my take on it.

The early to mid-80s were kind of a wilderness time for music for me. I liked a lot of stuff but I had no real focus. I'd made a whole lot of friends in comic fandom, most of whom lived in London. Visiting them, going to conventions and marts and writing extensively for fanzines took over from music as my focus.

All of those people, however, had eclectic and eccentric tastes in music. We used to play records all night, often on the "one song" rule, where every track was chosen by a different person. We made mix-tapes for each other all the time and swapped them by post and whenever we saw each other. I was introduced to a torrent of new sounds but mostly I didn't follow through, simply revelling in the specific songs people played or taped me and moving on to the next.

The only new musical obsession I collected at the time was Lloyd Cole and The Commotions. Lloyd is one of the best songwriters - specifically lyricists - I have ever heard. I saw him first doing "Perfect Skin" on some TV show and I was sold.

I bought the first Commotions album, "Rattlesnakes",  as soon as it came out and played it, loudly and frequently, for months. I've been buying every album he makes ever since. I love almost all of them although his brief "I'm a RockStar" phase had its dodgy moments.

I went to see Lloyd once. Never again. He is the definition of dull on stage. It was the original Commotions line-up at the peak of their powers and every track sounded exactly like the records. I really hate that but it could still have been okay if Lloyd had any charisma or stage presence. He didn't.

Never mind, some people are born to play live and some only come alive in the studio. In the booth, Lloyd is a god.

I wasn't born to do either but I loved performing back then. When I got back from Cambridge I found the remnants of my old band had kept going, now led by Phil, the younger brother of my best friend Chris, who at that time was still playing drums but who not long after turned evangelist Christian and vanished to the USA, never to be seen again, at least by me.

Phil, who had been the bass player, was now rhythm guitarist and de facto band leader. He was also a budding businessman with the energy and ability to get gigs and publicity. Under him, the band had been playing regularly.

I used the fact that I'd been a founder member to inveigle my way in as backing vocalist and percussionist. I played a stuffed aligator, whose ridged back I stroked with a drumstick. In time I was singing lead on some songs of my own. Then after a while I was singing all of them, most of which had been written by Phil, who wasn't a great singer nor wanted to be one.

Chris left, we renamed the band, we got more gigs. We got quite tight. Everyone could play now. I played a little rhythm guitar but mostly I just sang. The highlight of my musical career came when a girl approached me after a gig and told me I sounded just like Lloyd Cole. The lowlight was when Gerald Langley of The Blue Aeroplanes told Phil the band could go places if we got rid of the singer. He can bloody talk!

Didn't stop me loving The Blue Aeroplanes, though. One of the best live bands I've seen, along with the unfortunately named Spics, who had a fantastic soul-rb roadshow with a punk attitude. Live music in Bristol was amazing in the eighties and I wasn't even aware of the best of it. That was yet to come.

Eventually the band broke up. That was sometime around 1985 I think. I was immediately headhunted by an extremely intense, very thin guy called Mark, who had seen me sing and wanted me to front a band he was putting together.

He wrote most of the songs and played guitar exactly like David Gedge out of The Wedding Present. I like The Wedding Present a lot now but I didn't then. I'd seen them live twice and they were monotone and boring. Still, great guitar sound and Mark could really hit it.

We rehearsed for a solid year. We never played a single gig. Eventually I quit. That was the end of my rock star dream.

Well, almost. Then came C86.

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