An Andy Way to Work

At the time of writing, Ireland are three from three in the 2023 Six Nations Championship. Following on from the uber successful tour of NZ in the summer, Irish rugby is sure in a good space. As the old cliche goes, winning is very much a habit. But what has caused this successful turnaround?

To my mind, the key factor is Andy Farrell. Farrell has brought so much to the Irish set up. Consistency of performance hit new heights under the venerable Joe Schmidt but, against the odds, the former rugby league man has pushed standards even further. The proof is there for all to see. So, what has Farrell done?

The primary thing that Farrell has provided is the infusion of a winning mentality. Sure, Ireland has a group of talented and ambitious players, but it’s the mind-set of the group that impresses most. These guys expect to win. Not in an arrogant way, but they fear no-one. And they’re relentless in maintaining and improving standards of performance.

Here, Farrell’s influence is key. A product of that splendid Wigan rugby league side of the ’90s, Ireland’s coach was brought up in an environment where winning was not just desirable but essential. It was mandatory. That side was marvellous. And Farrell was an integral component of it. You see that relentless attitude within the current Irish playing group.

What’s wonderful as well is the brand of rugby currently played. It’s pleasing on the eye and there’s a massive emphasis on individual and collective skills. Schmidt’s side was the archetype of systemic rugby, where everyone was meticulously drilled within their roles. It was functional rather than overtly creative.

Farrell’s side plays differently. The players clearly have licence to play what’s in front of them. If it’s on, they routinely go for it. And, delightfully, the offload is no longer an endangered species. Don’t get me wrong. It’s all curated within a definite shape and structure, and the team is as well organised as it’s ever been. But it’s not restrictive. There’s no straight jacket at play.

And they’re doing it with smiles on their faces. This Irish team is evidently enjoying its rugby. Work is an opportunity to improve, grow and develop. It’s not onerous in any way. The players are clearly relishing the challenge.

One example of the elite nature of this environment is the way in which Ireland have coped with injuries. A succession of players have gone down, but replacements have slotted in seamlessly. For instance, Stuart McCloskey has thrived with his belated chance at a regular run. Similarly, Finlay Bealham has excelled covering for the once indispensable Tadhg Furlong. Players have slotted in and out pretty effortlessly.

Such understanding only happens within a highly competitive and organised environment. All credit goes to the coach. The Schmidt era was the high water mark for Irish rugby. And, yet, his successor has taken performance to another level entirely. Success is never guaranteed in any walk of life but, heck, it’s coming pretty regularly these days at Lansdowne Road. We’ll soon see if the precious Slam lands, but these days it’s very unwise to bet against Andy Farrell’s men.

P.S. The Rolling Stones are reportedly collaborating with the surviving Beatles on their new album. Some are surprised at the move. But these guys have always been great friends. The supposed rivalry was always over hyped and as much a media invention as anything else. After all, it was Lennon and McCartney that gave the Stones their first major UK hit.

What this project ends up as, who knows. But even if McCartney and Starr only play on a couple of tracks, how fantastic is that? I’m excited to see what materialises. Because we’re running out of time to make this type of history. Bring it on!


Promotion of a Lion!

It was mooted this week that Andy Farrell is in the running to be Lions’ head coach for their tour of Australia. The IRFU has stated that it won’t stand in the way if its main man is indeed the choice. Good news for Farrell and for rugby fans alike as Farrell’s appointment, if rubber stamped, is a shrewd move.

Interestingly, though, Farrell’s would-be promotion creates an opportunity for one of our own to shine in his absence. You don’t need to be Sherlock Homes to deduce that Paul O’Connell is being lined up to succeed Farrell as Irish head coach. When the Munster legend was catapulted into the Irish set-up a couple of years ago, all signs pointed to this being an integral part of the IRFU’s succession plan for the national team. The universal plaudits O’Connell has received since his arrival attest to the monumental impact he’s made.

Therefore, it makes perfect sense that in the event of Farrell shipping off with the Lions, O’Connell is a ready made stand in. Sounds like the perfect plan, right? Of course, these days Lions coaches get carte blanche to pick their assistants and the former Wigan man may well want his Irish assistant with him in his jaunt down under if appointed to the Lions. However, from an Irish perspective, it makes sense for O’Connell to deputise with Ireland while his boss is away with the Lions, should that scenario come to pass.

So, although the IRFU has said it won’t stand in Farrell’s way should the Lions come knocking, will its condition be that O’Connell stays put for the duration of the Australian tour? I imagine the union won’t want to lose both its star coaches to the Lions when Lions’ tours always provide such great developmental opportunities for the players left behind. For Irish rugby, the dream scenario is Farrell leads the Lions to an historic series victory and that O’Connell stays behind to begin his apprenticeship as Ireland head coach in waiting.

Of course, much water has to pass under the bridge for any of the above to emerge. Life is fluid and things change very quickly. One day, you’re hot and the next you’re, well, not. But, all things being equal, this series of events could work out very well for all concerned in Irish rugby. The road map for succession is laid out before our eyes and few rugby nations are in as strong a position. Big Paul striding into his first press conference as head coach, you sense the excitement just thinking about it. With Farrell linked to the Lions’ job, Irish rugby has talked about contingency. That contingency has to be Paul O’Connell.


In Pods We Trust!

As you know, I’ve been a Beatles nut for the best part of 15 years. However, this year was a game changer. It started with Macca’s historic headlining stint at Glastonbury in June. Despite devouring anything Beatles in recent years, I’d always resisted a deep dive into Paul’s solo and Wings’ stuff. Why? Well, the reviews were often so poor. To be honest, I was afraid of the disappointment.

But, after the glory of Glastonbury, I belatedly gave it a go. And I haven’t looked back since. I was always worried about being let down. To my delight, I was blown away by the sheer quality of the Wings’ output. For those who don’t know, Wings are immense! The obvious place to start is Band on The Run but there is so much more to discover. Red Rose Speedway is terrific and I even like Wild Life, an album that’s been universally derided by critics over the years.

Thereafter, I ploughed my way obsessively through Macca’s solo stuff. Sure, some of it is average and the music is so diverse at times it can’t be to everyone’s tastes. But there are some undisputed gems in there. Ram, of course, is essential listening but you won’t regret discovering later classics like Flaming Pie or Flowers In The Dirt. The most satisfying thing to unearth is the absolute breadth of the catalogue: there is so much material to get your teeth into.

But that was only the start of it. After that, I discovered two fantastic podcasts that I want to share with you. The first is I am The Eggpod, hosted by the wonderfully amiable Chris Shaw. The pod is conversational in style, dissecting Beatles’ and solo albums with an array of consistently brilliant guests. I’ve learned a phenomenal amount from listening and the great thing is, it’s helped me reappraise some albums I’d previously discounted.

Virtually every interview is worth a listen, but the podcast really excelled with its treatment of Peter Jackson’s Get Back film. Here, Chris and contributors went through each day captured in Jackson’s film. Of course, Get Back was the event all Beatles’ fans looked forward to with feverish anticipation. How satisfying it is to have the film analysed in such marvellous detail. It’s a tour de force.

But I am The Eggpod reviews a litany of albums and there’s much to delight. Virtually everything in the canon has been discussed, which means there’s always something to treasure. Your favourite Beatles’ related album is sure to be in there and, if not, you can bet your bottom dollar it’s coming!

The other superb Beatles podcast I discovered came to me later in the year. I stumbled upon a Radio Ulster series called Give The Beatles Back To The Irish which uncovered the band’s Irish roots and influences. The series is great, please go check it out if you haven’t heard it. As part of this discovery, I learnt that the hosts, Jason Carty and Steven Cockroft had a Beatles podcast. An Irish Beatles’ podcast? I was in!

Nothing is Real is awesome. It’s superbly researched and goes into minute detail in every topic it discusses. It’s definitely one for The Beatles’ obsessives. The best example of its forensic approach is the series of pods the guys did on the controversial former Beatles’ business manager, Allen Klein. Klein, to put it mildly, is a divisive figure in the Beatles’ universe. However, Jason and Steven go to great lengths to truly dissect what really happened in The Beatles’ breakup and the messy aftermath.

It’s not quite a reappraisal of Klein but strenuous efforts are made to properly understand what happened at the end of the end. The timeline is rigorously followed and questions are asked in relation to each party’s real motivations. As a listener, I left with the impression that the breakup was not so much a fait accompli but the result of a complex series of events and reactions that culminated in the final, bitter legal acrimony. Yes, Klein was a factor in the breakup, but by no means the only one and certainly not the most significant one.

Nothing Is Real is full of good stuff like that, though- essential listening for The Beatles’ buffs out there. That’s the best thing about being a Beatles’ fan. Just when you think you know most of it, you find there’s a treasure trove of wonderful, new stuff to discover. It’s never ending. At the start of this year, I thought I knew a good deal of Beatle trivia, but it turns out it was the mere tip of the iceberg. For those fans wishing to go to the next level, Nothing Is Real and I am The Eggpod are good places to start.


Worth a Spin!

Don’t know if you’ve caught the Revolver Special Edition , recently released by The Beatles? It’s well worth it if you haven’t. I’m not big on the endless trend of bands constantly remastering and editing old records. After all, the value is in the novelty of the original work, right?

In truth, I’ve always had a mixed relationship with Revolver anyway. Hailed by many as the greatest Beatles’ album, I disagree with that assessment myself. For me, The White Album and Abbey Road are vastly superior pieces of work. That said, it’s important not to underestimate the significance of Revolver. Above anything else, the Beatles’ heralded 1966 release represents the peak of the band’s transition from jovial mop tops who mastered the art of radio friendly pop into an experimental, creative group that was determined to cement its place in history.

So, Revolver is undoubtedly important, but I’m not its biggest fan. To me, the record always had an Indy vibe and that was never my bag, to be honest. I approached the new release, therefore, from a rather underwhelmed viewpoint. In preparation for the release, I listened to Revolver on repeat to try and approach it from a new angle. To my delight, it worked! After bombarding my ears with repeat marathons, I finally get why Revolver is so good.

The Special Edition of Revolver involved remixing the record through the wonders of modern technology and also incorporates previously unheard demos and samples from the period. The mastermind behind it all is Giles Martin, son of George. Well, is it any good? And given the fact that all Beatles albums were remastered as recently as 2009, is there any point?

Well, the results are incredible. Martin has done a wonderful job with the mixes. The songs sound beautifully fresh and modern, yet retain the creative genius of the original compositions. The tunes are polished and packaged superbly, but the technological sheen doesn’t diminish the essence of the album’s spirit. The Beatles still sound like the Beatles and that’s essential.

In listening to the album again, it strikes me that Revolver is the perfect gateway for Beatles newbies to learn about the unrivalled skill and creativity of the band. Because this album has everything. Ballads, social commentary, poetry and even Indian music (courtesy of George Harrison’s mid-60s obsession with the sitar). You name it, Revolver’s got it.

The most essential track to understand how creative and experimental the Beatles were is Tomorrow Never Knows. When I first heard the Lennon composition, I was mesmerised. This was written in 1966? It can’t be, it sounds like a 90s’ dance track! Talk about being ahead of their time! If you listen to nothing else, check out this tune. It is very special and still sounds modern all these years later.

But there’s much more. And all so varied. Eleanor Rigby is a masterpiece of melancholy and also like nothing heard before. Along more conventional lines, Here There and Everywhere is a classic; one of the most beautiful songs ever composed. It’s said that Jane Asher never speaks about her relationship with Paul McCartney. Then again, she doesn’t have to as it’s charted in some of the greatest love songs ever written.

In a similar vein, For No-One is a beautifully crafted number, with its plaintive lament for a relationship that seems to have run its course. John’s I’m Only Sleeping, meanwhile, is humorous and whimsical, an ode to lazy days, if you like. There’s also a delightfully pissed off George sticking it to the man in Taxman; all these years later you still hear the anger of a working class man who’s finally made money only to find that the bloody government is taking most of it!

Then there’s the extras and demos on the new release. The full speed version of Rain blew my mind-the song sounds fantastic that way. The guitars are great. But the real revelation was Lennon’s Yellow Submarine demo. I’d always seen this (ostensibly a children’s song) as slightly out of place on this album. All these serious and experimental pieces joined by this tongue-in-cheek McCartney joke song, given to Ringo almost as a throwaway.

The demo casts doubt on all of that. The original idea for the song actually seems to have come from John and his demo is a world away from the finished version. Check it out. It has what can only be described as a haunting quality. And the lyrics? ‘In the town where I was born, no-one cared, no-one cared…’ There’s genuine sadness there. Paul took the song in a very different direction, of course, but, man, what if Lennon had developed that demo?! Certainly, I’ll never look at Yellow Submarine the same way again.

My verdict is a positive one. The Revolver Special Edition is class. It’s a lovely polished, updated version of the classic album and the extras are delightful glimpses into geniuses at work, building towards their creative peak. Martin has done a terrific job. And, yes, it still sounds rather like a ’90s Indy record, albeit one by the greatest, most experimental band ever seen.


Who Needs Yesterday?

If you haven’t already, I suggest you watch Paul McCartney’s headlining Glastonbury set. Even if you’re not a Beatles’ fan. Even if you don’t particularly dig that type of music. Watch it. You’ll not be disappointed.

For an 80 year-old to headline the most prestigious festival in music is impressive enough in itself. But it’s the way McCartney did it. In a set that lasted nearly three hours, the former Beatle didn’t pause or draw breath. The only short interlude in the entire performance was prior to the encore. And that was a matter of minutes.

For the rest of it, Paul was relentless; entertaining the vast crowd with anecdotes in between the comprehensive rendition of the most impressive catalogue in rock n’ roll. Brilliant, as an adjective, fails to capture the awesomeness of it.

Still, there were detractors, of course. Some complained about the composition of the set. This allegation was peculiar given that McCartney rattled through loads of Beatles’ classics, as well as Wings’ staples such as Maybe I’m Amazed and Band on The Run.

Some moaned about his voice. Sure, it’s not what is used to be, understandably, but see how well it held up, without backing, during I’ve Just Seen A Face and George Harrison’s Something.

Others complained about a lack of crowd enthusiasm. I assume they switched off before the end. Yes, the set started slowly (as is the way with these things), but by the end Sir Paul had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. What else to expect from a legend with over 60 years’ experience in the industry?

Criticism of McCartney has often been fashionable. Yet, no-one has achieved what he has. In truth, no-one’s even come remotely close. Such an accomplished history. The Beatles’ stuff alone is peerless, but look at all he’s done since. And he’s still going!

Paul’s last two albums, New and Egypt Station were damn good. Keen observers also note that the veteran entertainer found time during Lockdown to complete McCartney III. On top of all that, he’s still touring, performing to tens of thousands of people per night in stadiums all over the world. Evidently, the fire still burns brightly.

It’s not as if he’s doing it for the money. McCartney’s still stretching himself at this stage of his career because he still loves it and is so damn good at it. Paul McCartney could have retired comfortably years ago and with his place in music history long since assured. The fact that he hasn’t tells all about this remarkable man.

The Glastonbury show ended, of course, as is now customary, with the finale of the Abbey Road medley. You sensed the palpable disappointment from the crowd that it was all over. Because we felt it too watching on our tv sets. There was no shortage of emotion. Headlining Glastonbury at 80: what an incredible achievement.

So, complain if you want to. Be negative if it makes you feel better. But I know what I prefer to do. How long can he keep this up? Who knows? But, one thing I do know for sure. Make the most of this iconic human being while he’s still around. For we will never, ever see his likes again.


Between a Rock and a Hard Place

I want to write a few words about cancel culture. That hackneyed term is ubiquitous now. There are several high profile examples bringing it into focus, not least the Will Smith/Chris Rock incident at the Oscars.

Frankly, enough was written about that and I’ve no desire to jump on the bandwagon. What interests me is what it (and things like it) say about cancel culture. Obviously, a world where a comedian telling jokes is susceptible to intervention is problematic. Equally worrying, though, is our overreaction to relatively minor indiscretions, blowing such incidents out of all proportion.

Cancel culture is an interesting phenomenon. In the modern rush to silence people and, well, cancel, we’ve lost the run of ourselves. The insidious thing about cancel culture is the way it shuts down debate. Perceived wrongdoers are arbitrarily silenced, often permanently. It’s the ultimate moral sanction, where public (usually online) critics are judge, jury and executioners.

There’s nothing new here, but the sheer scale of the problem is magnified by social media and the instantaneous reactions it provokes. Any transgression (either real or imagined) is dealt with in an immediate, often irreversible fashion.

And there’s logic to it. Bad decisions and mistakes should have consequences, right? Of course, but who in the online mob decides the scale and severity of the punishment? Who decides those that face and those that evade sanction? And where is the scope for forgiveness, rehabilitation and redemption?

Conventional justice systems allow for this, but the online mob not so much. Part of the trouble with this is the way in which it curtails free speech. Cancel culture stops people expressing sincerely held opinions, within the law, because those views may offend certain sensibilities. That is obviously supremely dangerous in a democracy.

Well meaning as much of this is, it is also profoundly unnecessary. In many ways, cancel culture seeks to influence something that largely regulates itself. In days gone by, we knew where the line was with free speech and hardly ever went over it. And on the rare occasions we did, there were certainly consequences, but the breaches were nothing that couldn’t be atoned for. It was a good system. But that’s not deemed good enough in the modern world.

We are increasingly unforgiving. These days, we don’t want solutions but want to apportion blame instead. That might be cleansing, satisfying even, but doesn’t solve any problem. And it absolves us of the responsibility for making things better. Human beings will always transgress, but we must allow for rectification. Otherwise, the law of the jungle applies. It’s mob rule.

Back to the Oscars. When a comedian gets interrupted for doing their job, the whole world loses its mind overreacting to the incident, and everyone involved is threatened by some form of cancellation (even if temporary), there must be a better way of doing things.


Look for The Best

Modern life is tough. Everywhere, we’re surrounded by stresses and strains. It doesn’t get any easier. I’m in my 40s’ now. When you’re younger, (if lucky and privileged, as I am), you get away with it. Life insulates you from its more excessive elements. You’re sheltered from the extremes.

That doesn’t happen when you’re older. It changes. Every single person you know is going through something. Sometimes it’s mild, sometimes extreme. But there’s something amiss. Every single person in your circle is going through something stressful: career, family, health, finances. You can bet your life on it.

And it’s hard to stay stoic in the face of life’s pressures. Deflection works for a while, but the strain shows eventually. It seeps out. And, in many ways, the pressure’s never been greater. We’re expected to be so much and do so such for our families and ourselves these days. Nowadays, everything is judged against a supposed perfect standard that simply doesn’t exist. It’s an illusion. And a supremely unhealthy one at that.

And what’s more, everyone’s perpetuating it. It was not so long ago that only celebrities had carefully constructed images for public consumption. These days, everyone has one. Social media has changed the way we interact with each other and it’s not for the better. Most of us are putting out inauthentic versions of ourselves to impress complete strangers and with no tangible reward. Myself included.

What value is there in these myriad social media profiles where we’re all proclaiming our supposed greatness and exuding falseness through edited, filtered photographs? Where is the real meaning in any of that? This is surely one of the main reasons we all feel so discomfited in the modern world.

But it’s not the only thing by any means. In 2022, we’re more tough on each other than ever before. The world is a more sinister and unforgiving place. Just look at so-called cancel culture. Modern life compels us to judge the perceived indiscretions of others in an extreme and permanent way, while simultaneously seeking forgiveness and understanding for our own flaws. How can any society work in this way? It can’t.

My fear is this will only get worse. I’m genuinely concerned about the world my daughter (just turned five) will grow up in. We’re already fixated with image and insincerity to the point of ridiculousness. Where will this end? If this is what the internet and social media looks like in 2022, where will it be in ten, let alone twenty years time? It’s a sobering thought.

It’s impossible to avoid a lot of this, however. The syndromes described above are merely symptoms of getting older in the times we’re living through. The world is a tough and cynical place. Maybe it was ever thus, but you get a different perspective as you get older and navigate through life’s various obstacles, both real and imagined.

What’s the answer, then? Well, the antidote to falseness is authenticity. Truth is the antidote to lies. Kindness is the antidote to meanness and cruelty. That doesn’t solve all of life’s problems, of course, but, gee, it gets us much closer to where we need to be. And correction is definitely needed.

It’s important, as we get older and in such an increasingly cynical world, that we look for the good in all situations. That we see the best in ourselves and others. Not that we should be naive, but rather optimistic and open minded in the face of life’s nonsense. By doing that, we can not only make our own worlds better places, we can add to our collective joy and experience. In a world of such rampant individualism, selfishness and fickleness, we need society more than ever.


Will The World Ever Learn?

In the past couple of weeks, we’ve all looked on horrified as the world descends into chaos once again. The scenes from Ukraine are scary and heart-breaking in equal measure. The unprovoked nature of the attack only adds to our sense of indignation.

What’s happening is definitely an escalation, and indeed re-ignition of post-cold war tensions. Certainly, we haven’t seen the likes of this in scale and intention for quite some time. I know, yes, that wars and conflicts happen all the time. Tragically, that’s true. But there’s something about this conflict that’s producing a visceral reaction in the west.

There’s good reason for that. The Russia-Ukraine conflict is resonating loudly precisely because it’s happening on our European doorstep. We’re more agitated when things like this happen close to home. That this is an uncomfortable realisation doesn’t make it any less true.

We haven’t experienced fully-fledged war as western Europeans for decades. In fact, all post-war generations in western Europe, notwithstanding the regular bouts of insanity in other parts of the globe, have lived their entire lives in unfettered peace, harmony and relative affluence. Yes, this war is having precisely the effect it is because it’s waged a little too close to home. That’s the brutal reality.

It raises fundamental questions. As a species, how do we do better? At this stage of our evolution, why is war, conflict and mayhem still our basic reflexes and recourses? Why, in 2022, are we still not better than this? Russia-Ukraine undoubtedly reflects tensions in the geo-politics of the region that were simmering for a while.

Putin may claim to be antagonised by the expansion of NATO, but the current conflict suggests much more. Russia-Ukraine speaks of the utter disintegration of diplomacy and cooperative government in the post-cold war era. Relations break down, on a global level, when sincere and productive dialogue stops. When politics and its systems fail, tensions, distrust and, inevitably, wars, fill the void. That’s the permanent cycle of human existence, I’m afraid.

Of course, there’s a better way and its incumbent on those with influence to help find it. We must always strive for solutions. War starts quickly, but it also ends quickly. That’s where hope lies. It’s not too late for Russia to pull back from the brink and end this insanity and unjustified aggression. Enough suffering and misery is inflicted already. This maddening, futile war must be brought to an immediate end.

For those of us that grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, there was a lot of chatter about what World War 3 looks like. The idea of nuclear oblivion was never too far away, as crazy as that sounds. We’re a long way from that scenario, of course, but it’s nonetheless depressing to know how little we’ve learned in the ensuing years. Above all else, Russia-Ukraine shows how complacent we’ve become to those ideas. What a sobering thought.

P.S. You know, you’re never too old to learn. Every time you think you have it sussed, life bites you and shows there’s still much to discover. Every now and then, though, breakthroughs happen.

Always watch closely how individuals treat other people. It’s extremely important to observe that. Why? Because that’s precisely how they’ll treat you! No ifs, ands, buts or maybes about it.

This may seem like an obvious thing to note, yet it’s amazing how often, as humans, we ignore this truth. But it’s one that life teaches us over and over again. If others are treated badly, it’s only a matter of time before the same treatment is meted out to us. The only way to avoid it is to be aware. To observe. Here endeth the lesson.