Song Of The Day – Under Surveillance by Scientist

From the album ‘Scientist Encounters Pac-Man’ (1982)

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Sons Of Anarchy is perfect background TV

Let me state right away that Sons Of Anarchy isn’t terrible, just flawed.

Partly it’s a victim of heightened expectations, which explain why I tried it to begin with. I saw it regularly mentioned alongside the gold standard of television dramas; The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul and Mad Men, but it doesn’t belong in that company.

So why have I been watching it?

The absence of anything better is one reason, thanks largely to Covid. But Netflix deserves its fair share for me watching up to the end of season four at the time of writing. The platform makes it all too easy to watch a series, even when it’s no better than decent. Before streaming services became good you’d have suffer through the archaic method of manual downloading, my mode of choice was torrents, usually overnight thanks to shitty broadband speeds. Having to do this, as recently as five years ago, had a knack of clarifying what was and wasn’t worth the bother.

The recent death of Michael K Williams brings Sons Of Anarchy’s failings to the fore. Few can come close to his brilliant portrayal of Omar Little, one of the great anti-heroes and antagonists, in The Wire, which, in quite the understatement, was a rather good. As The Wire didn’t have a main protagonist or antagonist, Omar wasn’t on screen for considerable periods of time, but when he was there was real gravitas to the acting; the rants (a Shakespearian delivery of Baltimore slang), the mannerisms, the conviction to his mission. Omar was so rich with detail that it seemed Williams was possessed by him.

Sons Of Anarchy falls down heavily on characterisation, lacking anything tangible. All venerated television dramas have strong characterisation. Having upwards of ten hours of air time in your average season provides ample runway to build backstory or to resolve multiple plot strands, but that’s also a lot of time to kill, so drawing characters that are engaging becomes a necessity to keep you engaged.

There’s no character that really grabs you in Sons, either through their comedic or sinister presence, pathos or neuroses, or their insight. No Roger Sterling. No Gus Fring. They’re all stock offerings; the psycho biter, the chibbed one (okay, maybe not), the teccy capable one (because you’ve gotta have someone who knows how to use a computer these days), the recently paroled one, the grizzled leader who’s getting worn down by it all (everyone loves Ron Pearlman, but he’s not got much to work with here), the lead character and leader-in-waiting who doubles as a Warren Beaty-esque Shampoo lothario type going through a crisis of faith in the gang’s direction.

More amusing is a preposterous Mommie Dearest character (played by Katey Sagal, aka Peggy from Married With Children), a master manipulator of her son (among others), the tie that binds, who is the leader Clay’s wife and right hand. She’s either suffering from the most serious case of Stockholm Syndrome ever recorded, or is the ultimate devotee, continuously extoling the virtues of being a wife to someone in the life and championing the MC life itself at all times.

It’s extremely difficult to create anything more out of Sons Of Anarchy when it’s essentially a glamorised depiction of the life by someone who’s clearly chosen to romanticise it. Still, one thing I’ve realised is that making a television show truly realistic is overrated. Make it entertaining first and foremost, and occasionally Sons Of Anarchy is. The Sons live a life rich with action; dealing arms bought from the IRA, controlling the local police through bribes and blackmailing when required, double-crossing and stealing from rival MC gangs and white supremacist thugs, not to mention Unabomber types and weirdo FBI agents.

Their acts of vigilantism and morally justified torture, out-manoeuvring then smacking down the local Arian gang, or winning a gun or a bar fight with a rival biker gang who don’t have the Sons’ wholesome streak is very satisfying when you don’t care about the characters or find it all remotely believable. And who would watch a show that was realistic about the life? What would that be? A bunch of fat forty and fifty somethings sitting on their arses smoking and drinking themselves to death, playing pool and cards, dabbling with meth, working construction or sheet metal three days a week, getting into bar fights (sometimes with their wives) and shagging strippers with cheap tattoos, misshapen tit jobs and missing teeth.

Sons Of Anarchy is successful because it knows what it’s audience wants – escapism, a vicariousness in the ideal, of a life you’ll probably never lead and doesn’t truly exist; hitting the open road travelling through California’s diverse geography with a freedom to drift wherever the day takes you, not tied to a menial nine to five existence as most of us are and are too afraid to relinquish because the consequences likely mean no Netflix. As Bob Dylan rightly said freedom is waking up in the morning and doing exactly what you want for the rest of the day. Of course the characters in Sons Of Anarchy are not truly free of obligation, they still are bound by loyalty to each other and the club hierarchy, but compared with the lives so many of us lead, it sure seems like freedom, and even better, they get to be proper naughty, as Danny Dyer would say.

Twenty-five years ago this would’ve been viewed on televisions in kitchens while you did the ironing or prepared your tea. Thanks to technological progress and a pandemic, it’s now the perfect show to have on in the background if you’re working from home. With so much Basil Exposition among the spotty dialogue, and the hard boiled and formulaic narrative structure, you can focus on something else and miss little. And in the only area in which it excels, with a musical cue, Sons Of Anarchy will let you know when to take a ‘screen break’ from your work.

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Song Of The Day – Medication by Spiritualized

From the album ‘Pure Phase’ (1995)

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Song Of The Day – If I Stay Too Long by The Creation

From the album ‘We Are Paintermen’ (1967)

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Speculating why and when he started to behave this way was a regular occurrence in many sitting rooms during evenings when mediocre television made tawdry topics of conversation a necessity.

One hypothesis was a microscopic brain tumour in the pituitary gland. The Pest claimed to be experimenting with diets, without success. His porcine profile remained, as did the crimson almost metallic purple hue in his cheeks and the skin on his face, festooned with whiteheads, sagged where it wasn’t rutted by acne scars. While not blessed with good looks that deserved better care, his body, now at the start of its sixth decade, was so abused by disavowing rudimentary forms of health and fitness that it was hard to imagine him having ever been young and full of vitality.

The brain growth rumour was firmly debunked by Dr Myles, a local GP, who, with a smug exuberance, simply couldn’t wait for an opportunity to impress by showing off the years of medical training he’d suffered through. He pointed out to the know-it-alls – who thought they knew ‘some things’ about medicine from watching episodes of Casualty, House M.D. and ER – that a different part of the brain, the frontal lobe, was responsible for behaviour and mood. Myles also suggested it highly likely the Pest had been lying about the diets. Myles’ babyish looks belied his age and dented the perception of his expertise amongst this arrogant clique, but in this instance there was a collective glee at being standing corrected. You’ll note that the possibility of mental illness being the cause was fair game. It not being cancer was absolution, and so they continued to indulge in their favourite topic at gatherings guilt free: bitching about him.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Perhaps he had a tumour in the frontal lobe? Few other explanations remained for him meddling with some guys trying to do roadworks at the end of his street in early July, or more specifically, how he went about it. The gist of it; first he told them to stop, and asked what they were doing, only to be met with complete indifference. Later, after some investigation on the internet of road repairs and regulations, he returned asking to see the permits, eventually irritating the lead squaddie by invading his personal space too invasively. This earned the Pest a stern ‘fuck off’. Despite being outnumbered four to one, he threatened to call their supervisor and gave it the big I am a member of the community council, the latter was met with disbelieving laughter. Humiliated, he upped the ante, and offered to get the police involved. They soon would be, but not in the way the Pest envisioned. After some more chuckling followed by a retort of ‘I’m fucking serious and I’ll have your jobs’, one head-butted the Pest and severely broke his nose.

Sniggering was abundant at the next council meeting. Hearsay became fact, and his metamorphosis into a supersized emperor penguin was now complete, his wobbling gait was now coupled by the plastic nose splint forming a stupendously large beak. Did the guy who head-butted him have his hard hat on? This detail was unclear, but it was ultimately decided he did equip it during the deed, as it adorned their vision of the incident.

After taking early retirement due to a chronic back injury two years prior, the Pest’s influence within the council grew and so did the frequency of his irritating forays and interventions. Why was he let in to begin with? Well, he was a railway operator who’d worked his way up to district manager without any qualifications and was a leading union rep. He had a formidable reputation in this area that preceded him. Indeed, he fought hard and successfully against pay freezes numerous times. This, despite misgivings about his abrasive approach, carried clout among the existing community council board, many of whom, in their previous political incarnations, had socialist leanings. Some still used the term ‘workers’ without an ounce of shame, hypocrisy or awareness of how patronising and archaic it was.

Clashes with other council members over trivial matters steadily increased his unpopularity – requests for sleeping policemen, bollards to close off a street entrance, the style of the new gates to be added to a communal garden he’d never use, the ‘right’ height of bushes in communal parks or their removal. He even challenged a petition to turn a brownfield site into a park, a position which favoured private enterprise and was considered a betrayal by the Champagne Socialists.

Several rumours and events, some council related, some not, simply added to his legend as a bit of a fucking arsehole who took enjoyment at being loathed. There was an element of retaliation at play through exaggeration. Does it matter that middle age had made him irrationally, irresponsibly vain? It did lead to the following sequence of events; dismayed at the expansion of his bald spot, he got a hair transplant on holiday in Turkey, but then decided to shave his head in November after the weather had turned.

Ridicule over superficial details said more about his adversaries, and let it be said everyone who is involved at the council, however casually, has an agenda of some sort. But even so, he gave his opponents ammunition unnecessarily with a complete lack of tact. One episode was relived so often, thanks to the influence of wine, that the mundanity of the original was long lost to fable. Some council correspondence, vitally important, no doubt, got delivered to another elected member instead of the Pest by accident. Upon retrieval he was met at the door by the child of the parents the letter was delivered to. His opening remark, and this is to someone who he’s heard about, but never met, ‘ah, so you’re her’. Bizarre as this introduction to a stranger was, or, even stranger, he expected his council reputation to precede him, even among ten year olds who were completely oblivious, to the sane, it would be considered an insignificant quirk. But by this point scores were being kept.

Other accusations against him weren’t so inconsequential or benign. There was the theft of a pie, well more a quiche, at a council meeting. And someone reported him shooting squirrels with an air gun during a round at the local golf course. A case of mistaken identity it turns out. Before the episode was cleared up, and the animal welfare fascists were assured of his innocence, the motives of the accuser lead to the circulation of some nasty emails between the Pest and a few others. It heightened the Pest’s paranoia that someone opportunistically accused him of squirrel killing to rile him into doing or saying something that could potentially lead to his expulsion from the council.

Here the narrator will interject, and state that the previous events are deeply uninteresting to most not infected by the suburban malaise of housing bubbles, mortgages, idle gossip, school catchment areas, class, etiquette pertaining to communal garden use, and four-by-fours. But what is interesting is that the Pest’s behaviour was somewhat indicative of contemporary sociology. Some people, regardless of intelligence or nature have an innate capability for sauntering through life relatively unscathed or seldom challenged, despite the ill-conceived ideas and actions they deliver unto themselves and others. In most instances these folks keep to themselves, don’t take risks and avoid conflict, so we should admire the Pest for not adhering to the aforementioned rule, but still managing to often escape unscathed. The Pest continued to pester others without recourse, as he knew he was dealing with the sauntering types. He had them pegged. With two exceptions, none of the other council members were prepared to challenge him in person and the theft of the quiche could not be proven. Sneers and ridicule in private did not concern him, only actions did. Here, we return to the broken nose, which was a turning point, a shock to the system. At first it did cow him somewhat, but after that…

In the third decade of the twenty-first century, with the self-serving piousness of cancel culture firmly ascendant, the suspicion of being a racist equates to guilt. The Pest has been through a fallow period of council involvement. But now his nose had healed.

It was late November, and he was driving home from the driving range. He was stopped by the traffic lights adjacent to Abdul’s, an Indian takeaway, which was actually Pakistani run, a distinction the Pest did not make nor was aware of. Abdul’s was located next to a newsagents, Indian run, for full disclosure. The owner’s father worked the counter exclusively, as he could do the job sitting on a stool, which saved his aching knees. The Pest privately disliked the older gentleman for his uppity air, dismal English and for twice shorting him on his change, so much so that the Pest hadn’t entered the premises in a number of months in silent protest.

He dwelt on a frost covered half-eaten chicken drumstick that was delicately balancing on the kerb edge, whilst waiting for the lights to turn green. The Pest’s dwam was broken by movement in his peripheral vision. He looked down the lane to the employee back entrances for the block of shops and businesses of which Abdul’s and the newsagents were a part. The Pest saw a young Asian man in his early-twenties exiting the employee back door into the lane with a carrier bag. The Pest observed him walk to an extravagant looking beamer in his wing mirror. Too extravagant for someone who’d just exited a service entrance. The lights had turned green during the Pest’s focus on the young man, only to have it broken by the motorist behind, who accosted him for remaining stationary.

The Pest pissed off further nearby motorists by doing a sudden u-turn to follow the young man who’d sped off in the opposite direction. After following him for ten minutes at a distance – the tailing process excited him immensely – the young man finally stopped outside a large house in a nice part of town. Nicer than the Pest’s territory, which only served to further convince him of his suspicions.

He inelegantly alighted his Range Rover, catching his foot in the door frame, before he waddled up to the young man as quickly as his body would allow him. The young man was oblivious to the Pest’s presence thanks to sophisticated noise cancelling in-ear headphones. ‘What’s in that fucking bag’ The Pest roared with conviction that took even him by surprise. The young man sported a look of spooked confusion, little wonder, he was being aggressively confronted by a middle-aged white man in the dark. While the young man was at least six inches taller than the Pest, the Pest had a significant advantage in both weight and girth. The young man responded timidly, as he had not fully heard what was said, and in the expectation that he was unlikely to convince his accuser. ‘What’s in there. It’s drugs, I know it’. The young man remained quiet, little doubt considering it likely the Pest may be on them and produced his phone. ‘I’m calling the fucking polis now’. He looked at the Pest hoping that this would instantly dissuade him and force him to retreat. ‘Calling your mates, are you’. ‘I’m not scared, I’m going to call the real police and then we’ll fucking see’ he boasted with a joyous conviction as he clumsily fidgeted with his flip phone. All he could see was his name and face in the free local paper he read every morning, under a triumphant headline: “Brave local man shuts down drug ring ran out of a popular local takeaway” and he knew exactly which photo of himself he’d submit to the paper – him holding a ten kilo Salmon he’d caught in 1996. It was the vindication he needed to achieve the respect he was owed.

Both men waited, the Pest stared intently at the young man. The young man looked nervous at first, but he grew more certain the longer they waited, and started to smirk as the police sirens grew louder. Now it was the Pest who was unnerved, the horror of the opposite outcome (and the ramifications) finally dawned on him – why would a drug dealer be smiling and happily standing in the street with 10kg of illegal product in a carrier bag? Let alone be standing waiting for the police?

The police car arrived, because sirens weren’t often heard around here, the neighbours had congregated at their windows to gawk at the forthcoming tittle-tattle that would sustain them through the winter.

Before the police had even inquired as to what was happening the young man broke his stoic pose and pointed at the Pest ‘He’s fucking crazy man’. ‘He’s got drugs in there’. ‘I know it’. Shouted the Pest in an empathic, almost instant, rebuttal. The policeman and policewoman looked at each other with a coded look that substituted for an eye roll.

The young man earnestly offered the policewoman the bag, ‘go on, test it. Tell him’. She carefully pierced the top of the plastic bag with her pinkie finger, she then removed her finger from the bag and put some of the bag’s substance on the end of her tongue. She then handed the bag to her colleague who tested it too. He paused and then gave the Pest a look that was both solemn and derisive before offering his verdict;

‘It’s sugar’

It turns out the lad was transporting sugar. Abdul’s, which sat next door to his dad’s shop, bought it in bulk and donated a portion to the Indian shop keeper’s family as a gesture of long standing friendship. Even better, and to add even further embarrassment for the Pest, the intended recipient, the family matriarch, had developed a taste for tablet after emigrating to Scotland during the seventies. In her opinion, Jaggery, cane sugar from the Indian subcontinent, made the best tablet.

Finally exiled from the council, the residents of the area were no longer subject to the Pest’s scourge, but, having enjoyed exhausting the Pest’s various misdeeds and revelled in the nature of his demise, just what would they talk about now?

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