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Archive for March, 2012

Celtic travel to play Rangers tomorrow in what a lot of people will see as simply another Glasgow derby to be fought out between the two old rivals.

But this one could be historic for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, Celtic could clinch the league title at Ibrox for the first time since 1967. This depends on whether Motherwell can take all three points from a visit to Kilmarnock today, but the scenario that football’s governing bodies always try to avoid could come to pass. A loss or draw for Motherwell would mean that Neil Lennon’s men can become SPL champions with a victory at Ibrox.

And secondly, this could be the last time that Celtic travel across the city to play their oldest rivals in a league match.

I’ve written at length about the financial troubles of Rangers FC PLC (in administration). And, despite the positive noises coming from the laptop loyal amongst the Scottish media, I remain convinced that the club will be liquidated sooner or later.

The players may have taken large wage cuts, but only until the end of the season. And a fair chunk of the money saved will simply go to pay the hefty fees of administrators Paul Clark and David Whitehouse from Duff & Phelps and their staff, plus the court costs for the many legal cases that the club has been involved in. Neither administrators nor Queen’s Councils come cheap.

But all of this is simply a series of short term measures that attempts to ensure the club can fulfil its remaining league fixtures.

The long term financial problems that the club faces remain totally unchanged. The debts are still there. Ticketus still owns 100,000 or so future season tickets. And the Big Tax Case still looms on the horizon – yes folks, the gorilla is still in the room.

But, I hear you cry, a queue of consortia from across the globe are lining up to save the club, aren’t they? The administrators are looking at bids to buy Craig Whyte’s shares, the fans are busily raising money and Ally McCoist is showing prospective owners around Ibrox.

Well, let’s put this great use of McCoist’s “skills” to the side for a moment. Reports are that the various fan money making schemes have so far raised around £200,000. In total. Or, to put it another way, about 0.16% of the £125,000,000 or so that would be required to save the club. Way to go!

And the bids? Well, firstly, has anyone actually heard Craig Whyte say that he intends to sell his shares? Inconvenient as it might be to many people, he still owns 85% of the club.

And secondly, to be accurate there have been no actual bids made, none. There are simply conditional expressions of interest should Whyte’s holding actually be put on the market. A firm bid would be, “I’ll give you £2 for your shares, Deal or no deal?” No one has said anything like that.

Instead the interested parties have said that if there was no big tax bill and if the Ticketus deal could somehow be magiced away, then they might perhaps be interested in making a firm bid to purchase Craig Whyte’s shares.

Now that’s very different, isn’t it? But what exactly does a conditional expression of interest amount to when the conditions set are quite simply not going to happen?

It would be like me saying I am interested in buying a company for £100,000,000 but only on condition that I win the Euro Millions jackpot and the main Lottery draw the next night in a week when it is a triple rollover. Don’t hold your breath in other words.

The only way that Rangers FC PLC (in administration) can be saved is if Craig Whyte agrees to sell his shares, the purchaser agrees to pay his price and the new owner is then prepared to pay off the £125,000,000 debts. And, according to David Murray, the club would then need a further £25,000,000 of investment to become competitive again.

In other words, don’t hold your breath.

The club will be liquidated. No one will throw that sort of money away knowing that there wouldn’t be a return on it. The various consortia, those led by Paul Murray and Brian Kennedy amongst them, are simply jockeying to be in position for the asset sale that will come when the club is inevitably wound up.

There may be another football team formed, and it may at some time play its home games at what is currently called Ibrox. But it will not be Rangers.

So, to get back to the football, tomorrow then could mark the last time that Rangers v Celtic is seen on a fixture list.

Neil Lennon and his men will be desperate to return to winning ways after the disappointment of losing out on the League Cup last week. There could well be several team changes with injuries to Hooper and Forrest on the manager’s mind. Georgios Samaras could have a big part to play after being dropped to the bench at Hampden.

Rangers will be battling to avoid a fourth consecutive home defeat, something I believe has never happened to date. And, should Motherwell drop points, they will be desperate to avoid a Celtic title winning party taking place in their back yard.

It promises to be a historic afternoon on the south side of Glasgow.

 

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George Osborne’s third budget cut the rate of income tax to be paid by the richest 300,000 people in society while Britain’s pensioners will pay £3.5 billion more in tax.

Those are the main headlines from an hour long speech in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer also admitted that growth was lower than expected, with unemployment higher and the government borrowing more than he had previously forecast.

Unemployment is still rising every month as economic growth struggles to reach a fraction of one per cent. The Chancellor may have called this “a budget for work” but he also chose to cut public spending further rather than investing to stimulate the economy. And a £10 billion welfare cut over the next three years was announced although details were not given.

Many of this budget’s key measures had been leaked in advance, so there were not too many surprises left for the Chancellor to unveil in his speech. The main measures were known – increasing stamp duty for houses costing over £2M, a cut in the top income tax rate to 45% from April 2013 and the raising of the personal tax allowance to £9,205, also from April 2013.

This was a coalition budget and as such the Chancellor has to at least be seen to have negotiated with his allies, Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems. And there has been a great deal of pressure on Clegg to deliver something positive, given his party’s surrender to the Tories over the NHS Bill for England.

For many weeks now, the contents of this budget have been argued over at the so called Quad meetings of messrs Cameron, Osborne, Clegg and Alexander. But how much influence did the junior coalition partners have on the final package of measures?

The Lib Dems will argue that the increase in the amount that can be eared before tax is paid is a success for them. It will put money into the pockets of everyone, around £220 per year, although for some on the poverty line it has to be balanced by the loss of means tested benefits.

But the price Clegg agreed for this was the reduction of the 50p top tax rate, which will bring down the tax bills of those earning over £150,000 a year – and in some cases cut them by many thousands of pounds each year. Quite how the Chancellor can justify a tax cut for the wealthiest when the economy is in a poor state and there are cuts everywhere is beyond me. Yet it gives a clear indication of his priorities.

Osborne argued on Sunday that his intention in this budget was to help low and middle earners. This clearly falls down right away – unless of course the millionaire Chancellor includes those earning £150,000 a year as middle earners.

Nick Clegg had initially stated that he saw no case for reducing the top rate 50p tax rate. Then he said that he and his colleagues would support the move it if were balanced by a mansion tax. And then the mansion tax was seemingly abandoned. Was this because David Cameron scuppered the idea knowing that most of the mansions are in London, which is just about to vote for a new Mayor? Clegg then came up with the tycoon tax, which simply sounded too radical for the posh boys to countenance.

So in the end Clegg backed the tax cut for the rich he had previously opposed and in exchange settled for the personal allowance reduction, the principle of which had been agreed anyway, an increase in stamp duty that will only impact on around 4,000 house sales a year and some new, if half hearted, measures to cut tax evasion through the implementation of a previously commissioned report. Not a good deal for the Lib Dem leader at all.

A poll earlier this week revealed that 67% of voters wanted to keep the 50p top rate, introduced in 2010 by Gordon Brown. This strong support is spread remarkably evenly across the country, the social spectrum, and the political divide. Even among Tory supporters, 65% want the top rate retained. So it is a big political gamble for the Chancellor to remove something so popular.

One surprise in this Budget was George Osborne’s announcement that the age related personal allowances for Britain’s 4.4 million pensioners would not be increased with inflation and will be phased out for existing pensioners. This seemingly minor announcement will net the Chancellor £3.5 billion. The loss for existing pensioners will be £63 a year and £197 for new pensioners, who will not get any additional age related allowance at all.

Only a cabinet of millionaires could come up with the notion that public sector workers in the poorer areas of the UK should be paid less. The true intention of course is to weaken unions by removing the national pay bargaining system, as well as to save money by driving wages down in areas outside London and the south east. And Osborne confirmed that the idea of some government departments introducing local pay scales will be investigated.

The Chancellor also announced new tax allowances for North Sea oil exploration, allowing an area west of the Shetlands to be developed. This will be welcomed by oil companies. New investment in fast broadband will bring some cities up to standards set in other countries and some railway lines in the north west of England will be upgraded. And the previously leaked relaxation of Sunday trading laws in England will also be brought in during the Olympics.

The government is taking child benefit away from higher earners next year, in a plan first announced at the Conservative party conference in 2010. But amid growing political disquiet – not least from David Cameron himself – Osborne has now tried to placate middle-class voters by softening the measure. He has lifted the limit to £50,000 instead of the initially proposed £43,000. And a tapering will mean that only those with an income of over £60,000 will lose all of their child benefit.

But this still leaves an anomaly where a family with two earners each on just under £50,000 will retain the benefit while a single parent earning £60,000 will lose it entirely. And many Tory MPs are worried that the move will primarily affect their party’s voters.

Osborne also said that tobacco tax would rise by 5% above inflation, adding 37p on 20 cigarettes, while tax on alcoholic drinks will also go up. The scheduled 3p rise in fuel duty in August will go ahead too.

A number of measures that were not technically part of this budget but have been previously announced will also have an impact on many people.

One of the biggest of these is the change in the tax credit regime which will require claimants to work for at least 24, instead of 16, hours a week. This will mean the loss of up to £4,000 per annum for some 212,000 families. The Employment Minister, Chris Grayling, has already admitted in the Commons that couples with children who will no longer qualify will see their income drop to £257 a week – £14 a week less than an equivalent family with no adult working.

George Osborne had been under some pressure from anti poverty organisations and campaigns to reverse these cuts – but by not doing so he made it obvious that his priorities lie elsewhere.

And if George Osborne had really wanted to put money into the pockets of the poorest families as well as giving consumer spending a shot in the arm, he could have taken Labour’s advice and cut VAT, which hits the
poorest hardest. The 20% VAT rate introduced by the coalition, despite Clegg and his party campaigning against such a move in the election campaign, has forced up the cost of many basic goods. And even those on which VAT is not actually paid have gone up because of increases to transport and other business costs.

Ed Miliband for Labour made perhaps his best speech since becoming Labour leader in reply. He attacked the “same old Tories” for having the wrong priorities and giving to the rich rather than helping those on lower incomes. He argued that 300,000 people would benefit from the top rate tax cuts, while only 4,000 or so would be likely to pay increased stamp duty on properties valued over £2M.

And, to great hilarity from opposition benches, he repeatedly asked how many of the Cabinet would personally benefit from the top rate tax cut.

Miliband highlighted the fact that hidden in the detail of the budget was the freezing of age-related tax allowances, and their abolition for anyone turning 65 after 5 April 2013, which will mean that 4.4m pensioners will be worse off next year.

He also attacked Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats for supporting the top rate tax cut and for believing that a Budget from George Osborne would do anything for working families.

“The fairness test for this Budget was whether the chancellor used every penny he could to help middle income families that are squeezed. He has failed that test,” said Miliband. “Wrong choices, wrong priorities, wrong values. Out of touch.”

So what will this budget achieve?

With unemployment is at its highest since the 1990s and over one million young people now out of work it will do little to help the economy. This was very much a case of Osborne sticking to his austerity plan, with more public sector spending cuts and nothing new to promote growth. There simply is no Plan B.

The economy is the number one political issue, especially in the current climate, and the Tories have long been rated as the party most trusted by the British public. So taking the unpopular decision to cut the top rate of tax at a time of cuts must be seen as something of a political gamble by the Tories. Even seen alongside the increased personal allowance, giving to those at the top is not a good message to send out.  And the almost hidden cuts for pensioners may also come back to bite the Chancellor.

Will the budget pay off for George Osborne – or does it simply signal to the end of talk of us all being in this together?

 

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What would television programmes look like in an independent Scotland? Quality entertainment or wall to wall tartan and shortbread? Pete Wishart MP, the SNP’s Culture, Media and Sport spokesperson, gave us some ideas in a recent conference speech.

Wishart, perhaps best known as the former keyboard player from Runrig, told a conference on television in the nations and regions that a new Scottish Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) would be formed from Scotland’s “share” of the current British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). And typically he claimed that Scotland would be much better off under this arrangement.

Wishart stated that the BBC currently receives £325 million from Scottish license payers but spends only £175 million north of the border. He conveniently forgets that Scotland benefits from the large sum that is technically spent in England but provides UK wide programmes. But then this simply follows the same methodology that his boss used to “prove” that an independent Scotland would be better off.

And, as anyone who works for a UK wide company or organisation will know, you cannot simply cut off the Scottish arm and call it an independent organisation. It’s a lot more complicated, and expensive, than that.

Take news output alone. Presumably the SBC would want to provide more than the current five minute add ons at 6:30 and 9:30pm. So it would either have to buy in some of its programming from BBC News or expand its own staff, as well as employing its own foreign correspondents, to produce full evening and nightly bulletins.

According to Wishart, the SBC would replace much of the current BBC output with home grown programmes. But he promised that viewer favourites such as Casualty, Strictly Come Dancing and Eastenders would stay, pledging to buy up to £75M of content each year from the south.

All other BBC programmes would continue to be available to anyone with Sky, Virgin or similar commercial contracts, but not to those with basic television services, he admitted. And it is also likely that Scottish viewers would have to pay a monthly fee to access the online iPlayer catch-up service, as Irish viewers currently do.

So anyone wishing to keep up with all of their favourite BBC programmes across its range of channels will likely need to pay more than they do now. This would particularly hit older people who are less likely to have a satellite or cable television contract.

What could we look forward to from the SBC’s own programming? Wishart said that more Scottish shows would be aired, “and it would make sure our national (political) debate would be held and managed absolutely properly.”

More politics programmes then. Not sure that will please everyone. And while it would probably be wrong to assume that other Scottish output would be Take The High Road and River City style soaps mixed with music shows featuring endless accordions and fiddles, there is the real risk of SBC output becoming parochial. But there could be more opportunities for young Scottish programme makers to deliver quality drama or comedy shows, if there is money to do so.

Other political parties were predictably unimpressed with Wishart’s vision. Patricia Ferguson, Scottish Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Culture, argued that, “Viewers in Scotland deserve the best possible television service in the world, not some cheap knock-off.

For the Tories, Culture spokesman (sic) Annabel Goldie said, “The BBC is a much-loved institution in the UK and many people will be furious at the prospect of carving it up.”  And Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie agreed. “Why put something great like the BBC at risk? It is respected across the globe,” he said.

The debate on what an independent Scotland would look like is only just beginning. Alex Salmond and the SNP know they will have to put a lot of detail onto the vague claims of a better life that they have got away with so far, and a series of more comprehensive policies will have to emerge over the next year.

The future look of television services might not be anywhere near the most important of these, but like others to come it will bear careful study.

 

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No Cup Final Joy For Celtic

A week that started badly for Neil Lennon ended in the same fashion as Kilmarnock took the first trophy of the season. Celtic’s long unbeaten run came to an end with a 1 – 0 League Cup Final defeat at Hampden.

The past seven days have seen Lennon bury his friend Paul McBride and give evidence in the trial of men accused of trying to kill him before he could concentrate on preparing his side for the final.

There was one surprise when Celtic’s starting eleven was named, with Georgios Samaras left out. This allowed Joe Ledley to take up a midfield berth with Charlie Mulgrew playing left back and Kelvin Wilson coming in at centre half for his first cup final.

Samaras had to be content with a place on a strong bench besides Kris Commons and the South Korean pair Cha and Ki.

Celtic started the game strongly and Gary Hooper had a great early chance when he intercepted a stray pass, but Cammy Bell did well to block the shot. The game was played at a fast pace with both sides keeping the ball largely on the ground and there were chances at both ends.

Neil Lennon changed his midfield deployment with James Forrest switched to the left and Joe Ledley moving into the centre beside Victor Wanyama. Scott Brown, now on the right, showed some fine wing play before crossing for Anthony Stokes. The Irishman’s powerful downward header arrowed towards the corner of the net but Bell got down well to produce his second fine save. And the Killie ‘keeper surpassed even that five minutes later when he tipped a Scott Brown piledriver over the bar.

Kilmarnock drew a couple of saves from Fraser Forster and Stokes also cleared a header from close to the post following a corner, but half time was reached without a goal.

The second half started slowly, before Celtic took control after Neil Lennon’s first substitution. Ki came on for Rogne with Wanyama moving into defence and Celtic forced Kilmarnock back. Chances were created, but the opening goal would not come.

Joe Ledley found space in the box but opted for power and couldn’t find the target with a left foot effort. Then Stokes shot straight at the impressive Bell before the goalkeeper turned a Wanyama header over the bar.

Samaras made his appearance on 79 minutes, replacing Gary Hooper, who had a quiet game after his early chance. Mulgrew then came close to beating the entire Kilmarnock defence with a driving run but the ball ended up with Bell, before a powerful Samaras run was stopped by foul means but Stokes’ free kick was blocked by the defensive wall.

And then came the sting in the tail. Kilmarnock broke down their left and substitute Van Tornhout headed a cross into the net at the back post with just minutes left on the clock.

Celtic poured forward looking for the equaliser and man of the match Bell made a double save from Samaras and late sub Commons, before Anthony Stokes burst onto a Wanyama through ball deep into injury time. The striker was clearly pulled down from behind – but referee Collum controversially booked the Irishman for a dive rather than awarding a penalty.

That decision was to end the match and Kilmarnock celebrated their first ever League Cup win.

So all talk of the domestic treble is gone for another year. Neill Lennon now has the task of picking up his team for a visit to Ibrox and what could be a chance to clinch the league.

There is still a double to be won for Celtic.

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Once upon a time there was a football club in distress. Ok, it’s not quite the same as a beautiful damsel but stay with me. The football club had already suffered under the ownership of a Knight of the Realm and then a Whyte Knight who was supposed to ride to the rescue had only made things much worse. So a new band of heroes was required.

But The Knights of the Round Table had disbanded. The Knights Templar were nowhere to be found. And even The Knights Who Say Ni had said no.

So step forward The Blue Knights.

No, not the international brotherhood of motorcycling law enforcement personnel, who may well be preparing a copyright suit as we speak. Not the jazz band formed by Curtis McLaw. Not even the American wrestler, also known as Greg Valentine.

No, this group of Blue Knights is led by former Rangers director Paul Murray and is said to include some wealthy fans, a number of supporters’ associations and the company Ticketus that already owns 100,000 season tickets for future years. And, according to the Scottish media, this is the consortium that will save Rangers FC PLC (in administration).

Unfortunately for fans of the cash strapped southsiders that’s where the fairy tale ends and reality has to kick in once more.

Because the formation of a wee group with big plans does not change the basic situation one iota. The club is still in administration and unable to pay its many debts, including those to HMRC, other football clubs and many smaller creditors. The players who are on reduced wages for three months will still be able to leave on the cheap in the summer. The footballing authorities are still investigation allegations of illegal payments and failure to disclose contractual details. And the tribunal investigating what is known as The Big Tax Case will still announce its decision and add £50M+ to the debts very soon.

So, unless the Blue Knights are willing to start by giving the club more than £100,000,000 to wipe out the debts, they have as much chance of taking over Rangers as I have of taking over Microsoft or Apple.

And I say “giving” the club £100M deliberately. Because we are not talking about lending or investing here. We are talking about pouring the money into the black hole at the heart of the club’s accounts knowing that they will never see any of it ever again.

So, Blue Knights. Do you have £100M to throw away? And that’s on top of the cost of buying Craig Whyte’s shares because, contrary to the impression given in the media, he won’t be giving them away for free. Then there’s the investment needed to replace the players who will leave. And of course Ticketus will take the money it is owed from season ticket sales over the next three years, thus diminishing income.

Not exactly an attractive proposition, is it?

But hang on. Have the press not mentioned a CVA as the way out of the mess? Well, they have. But, as I’ve already pointed out, we can’t exactly trust their spin on the situation, can we?

A Company Voluntary Agreement, or CVA, is a legal method by which creditors can agree to take far less money that they are owed as an alternative to a company being liquidated.

Could this work? Would Rangers’ creditors agree to being paid only a fraction of what they are owed? Well, some might on the basis that something is better than nothing. But the largest of these creditors is Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. And HMRC is likely to insist on receiving all of the money that is due to taxpayers rather than settling for a small percentage.

Because if HMRC was to agree to a cut price deal it would be giving carte blanche to every business in the country to stop paying its taxes and seek to pay a smaller amount at a later date.

So where does that leave the Blue Knights?

The consortium simply cannot buy the club. It would make no sense to pour good money after bad. And so, in my view, the liquidation of Rangers FC PLC (in administration), the company incorporated in 1899, is inevitable. There is simply no way out of the terminal state that its past and current ownership have got it into. If it was an animal it would be put down now to save it from any further suffering.

A new club will certainly formed, the phoenix I’ve written about before. It may well buy Ibrox and look to establish its own new football team.

Now Paul Murray and his leading backers are not stupid. They will have worked all of this out before I have. And so what they are really doing right now is not bidding to but the current club, but rather putting themselves in prime position to run the phoenix that comes next. But the Scottish media won’t say that. They are stuck in the denial phase of grieving over their favourite club’s demise.

And so our story ends not with the rescue of Rangers, but with its death. Well, it’s only in fairy stories that a happy ending is guaranteed.

 

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With just over a week to go until George Osborne outlines his budget to the House of Commons, the media talk has been largely of how much tax the rich should pay.

Will he abolish the 50% top rate of income tax giving a boost to those earning over £150,000 a year? Will the Lib Dems agree to this if an alternative tax is introduced? And what would that be: the mansion tax, Nick Clegg’s new tycoon tax or some other top of the head creation?

Or will the Chancellor instead listen to calls to concentrate on assisting the working poor by reversing £1.6 billion of planned cuts to tax credits? These previously announced cuts will come into force in April unless Osborne can be persuaded to backtrack.

Around two million people on low incomes currently benefit by receiving tax credits which allow them to work. All will be affected by a freeze on payments, meaning their income won’t rise while their bills will continue to do so. And around 212,000 will lose their tax credits entirely as new rules will mean they must work at least 24 hours per week to qualify rather than the current 16 hours.

Now much of the Tory rhetoric on benefits has been about the importance of work and welfare not being a career choice. About making work pay. About no one being better off on benefits than in work.

But how many of those caught by this change will be able to increase their working hours in the current economic climate? And how many will instead be forced to give up work entirely, becoming dependent on benefits?

The Employment Minister, Chris Grayling, has already admitted in the Commons that couples with children who will no longer qualify will see their income drop to £257 a week – £14 a week less than an equivalent family with no adult working.

The Child Poverty Action Group has written to both George Osborne and David Cameron urging them to reverse the moves before they “consign thousands of families to poverty”. And independent thinktank the Resolution Foundation has also called for a reversal arguing that individual losses will run to several thousand pounds, a huge drop for those on low incomes.

Ed Balls, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor has also spoken out on the issue. “Tax credits were introduced to help make work pay. This unfair and damaging change will mean thousands of families will lose £73 a week and will be better off if they quit work. That cannot be right.”

So Mr Osborne. Will you reduce the tax that the highest paid contribute? Are you more concerned with the mess made of plans to cut child benefit for the middle classes?

Or will you back the rhetoric of “we are all in this together” by reversing these cuts on the income of working families?

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It is an astonishing 39 years since the first Springsteen album, and the release of Wrecking Ball shows that The Boss has no plans to slow down just yet. But one of the reasons for his longevity is the variety of the music he produces. We all know he can do flat out blue collar rock as well as anyone, but unlike many artists Springsteen doesn’t just churn out formulaic records that sound much like their predecessors.

This album does have some familiar Springsteen themes and characters, and there are a couple of typical rockers in there. But musically it also draws a lot from the Seegar Sessions folk stylings, and there are elements of country, gospel, Celtic rock and even rap in there too. In fact this American album draws from almost every strand of American music– and that’s no coincidence. I’m sure. Add in some electronic samples, a couple of choirs, a whole host of backing singers and you have a unique musical background on which Springsteen can work his magic.

And this is undoubtedly a Bruce Springsteen solo album; it’s not an E Street project. Drummer Max Weinberg and Patti Scialfa get credits while the late, great saxophonist Clarence Clemons makes his final appearance in typical style. But much of the record relies on the Seegar Sessions Band along with producer Ron Aniello and guitarists Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine and Marc Muller.

Wrecking Ball is an album of two halves – side one and side two of a record for those of us who still think in these terms. And I believe that the famously perfectionist Springsteen probably does. His song choices and their order on the final product are always carefully thought out to create the effect he has in his head.

Side one opens with the single We Take Care Of Our Own, which is the most E Street Band sounding song on the album. But the message is not the one that the title implies. There is an irony here: just as Born In The USA was an angry song misinterpreted as a patriotic anthem, this is a call for justice rather than a description of a caring modern day America. It’s a plea for jobs: “Where’s the work that’ll set my hands, my soul free?”

Easy Money has a character with another answer. He goes out with his thirty eight and his girl and simply takes the money he needs to survive. Well, if it is good enough for the fat cats to steal, then why not, he rationalises? And the joyous nature of the music shows that he does not feel in way guilty about the choice he has made.

Shackled and Drawn is an old style protest folk song. The central character loves “the feel of sweat on my shirt” and again wants to work. But what’s “a poor boy” to do if there is no work? And the cause of this unemployment is clear: “Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the price”. The track ends in a church with a spiritual call to arms.

In the next track we again have a narrator desperate for work. And he will do anything to make a living, this Jack Of All Trades. No manual task is beneath him as he struggles to feed his family. This beautiful slow, piano driven song with its mournful trumpet solo is sung has a delicious empathy and a resignation to fate. He knows these economic problems have happened before and that they will inevitably happen again. But there is a deep seated anger too: “If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight.”

Death To My Hometown is something of a dichotomy. Musically it is a rich, Celtic rocker, stomping along in true Irish fashion with penny whistles and violins picking out the melody. But there is an anger at the destruction that has been wrought without the need for cannon balls or powder flashes. For this death was caused by ”the robber barons” and “greedy thieves”.

What I think of as side one ends with This Depression, a slower brooding song that is lyrically quite simple. The depth of feeling displayed is terrible to hear as the protagonist struggles with both kinds of depression, economic and medical. It features an excellent Tom Morello guitar solo that wouldn’t be out of place on a Pink Floyd track.

Side two begins the fight back against the despair and disenfranchisement with the title track. Wrecking Ball is superficially about the demolition of the old Giants Stadium in New Jersey, where Springsteen debuted the song in its last ever concert. But there is a call to arms, “Hold tight to your anger”, and a recognition that hard times will come and go, but will always come again.

You’ve Got It is a simple upbeat love song with more excellent lead guitar work. It acts as a break from the darkness before the closing songs of the album, where Biblical language comes to the fore and a spiritual redemption is sought from the earthly trials that the earlier songs have described.

I don’t get Rocky Ground at all in a musical sense. There’s a lot going on with a Michelle Moore rap, an electronic sample and a trumpet as well as the vocal and it sounds confused to me. The lyrics are clear though, with money changers, shepherds and a forty day exile all referenced before the exaltation that a new day is coming for those who have kept faith.

Land Of Hope And Dreams is an old song, familiar as an encore in Springeteen’s shows, but recorded in the studio for the first time. It uses the old metaphor of a train as the vehicle through which the journey to salvation can be made. All are welcome to board, the whores and gamblers as well as the lost souls and the broken hearted. But “dreams will not be thwarted” and “faith will be rewarded”.

I wondered how this song would translate to the studio, but it retains all of the energy and exuberance that make it a live favourite. The track also marks the final contribution of Clarence Clemons to Springsteen’s work and it is a bitter sweet moment when the sax kicks in.

The album proper closes with We Are Alive, an acoustic track full of resurrection imagery that grows into something spiritual and even borrows a melody from June Carter Cash’s Ring of Fire. The memory of those killed in struggles over the years are invoked as the dead rise from their graves and “Our souls and spirits rise to carry the fire and light the spark.” There is not just recognition of the enduring human spirit but an echo of the earlier call to arms here.

There are two bonus tracks on the deluxe version of the album. Swallowed Up (In The Belly Of The Whale) is dark yet not depressing, slow yet not a dirge. It’s as moving as anything I’ve heard in a very long time. And American Land, familiar to Seegar Sessions fans, is a jubilant celebration of the contribution of immigrants to the rise of the USA.

If the previous Springsteen album, Working On A Dream was an optimistic look forward to the new Obama administration, this one is very much grounded in the current economic climate.

Springsteen himself has called it his most direct album. At times the songs seethe with righteous anger about the way the poor pay for the excesses and the mistakes of the rich. But it does so in a fashion that doesn’t preach; rather it draws the listener in and creates empathy with his characters.

Wrecking Ball is yet another fine album from Bruce Springsteen. It is, at its core, a very American album, written for an election year, but is one which travels well. Dealing primarily with the fight for economic justice in times of recession its theme will also resonate with a European audience.

 

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