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Monday, December 22, 2014

Soon all rock history will come from Wikipedia

I got a few calls this evening to talk about Joe Cocker. I don't really have anything pat I wanted to say and I wouldn't have had time to do any revision so I passed.

I just heard the BBC's Arts Correspondent on the 9 o'clock bulletin on Five Live. He said something like "Of course, Joe broke through with that amazing version of 'With A Little Help From My Friends' at Woodstock in 1968 and after that the Beatles sent a telegram congratulating him."

In fact Woodstock the event took place in 1969, almost a year after Joe Cocker had a huge hit with the song in the UK. If the Beatles had congratulated him it would more likely have been then. The first anyone in Britain really knew about the performances at Woodstock was when the film came out a year later in 1970.

The truth is never quite catchy enough, is it?


Christmas dinner with Noddy Holder and veterans of the Battle of Watford Gap

Went to an interesting Christmas lunch the other day. The venue was a pub overlooking the Thames at Barnes. Two long tables were set in an upstairs room, seating around fifty people, most of them men. Men in their sixties and seventies. All of them were either musicians or people who'd worked in music; journalists, managers, agents, PRs and the like.

The odd one had a stick or a hearing aid. There was a lot of talk about heath, which you rarely hear from the healthy.

"What's that thing that Pete Townshend's got?"

"Tinnitus?"

"Pardon?"

They took their places, some of them holding warm beverages in cups, indicating that their drinking years might be long behind them. There were two Slade, one Status Quo, one Searcher, two Family, one Manfred, an Argent, a Tornado and a Shadow. This last was Bruce Welch, current holder of Best Hair In Rock (own hair section).

There were also a load of journalists, enough to put out an entire issue of the Melody Maker from 1971. Old hacks like me and Philip Norman and Robin Denselow pointed excitedly at the elderly cove who turned out to be Norman Jopling, who used to interview the Beatles in Record Mirror, back in the days when it was the first colour music paper on the stands.

A toast was made to "those we have lost in the last year". When the waiters couldn't make themselves heard above the hubbub, Noddy Holder shouted the orders. "Beetroot salad!" he roared.

Beetroot salad was not much called for at the Blue Boar at Watford Gap back in the days these men made their bones. They were out there on the circuit before there was a circuit. It could be this that makes them stick together in their third age. Difficult to imagine subsequent generations of musicians doing the same thing.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Legendary pop groups expressed as pie charts

Taking to Martin Kelner about the Bee Gees the other day it struck me that successful bands owe their success to two qualities. One's musical talent; the other's charisma. The proportions vary as you can see in these three examples.



Monday, December 15, 2014

Don't like the owners of your magazine? Buy the thing off them.

Stories here, there and everywhere about turmoil at venerable American magazine The New Republic. Like all magazines described as venerable, The New Republic has been sustained for years by backers prepared to pump in money to make up for its losses. A couple of years ago The New Republic was bought by one of the founders of Facebook, Chris Hughes. This meant it was now backed by a billionaire. All seemed hunky dory for a while. The young billionaire said that the future was in tablets, which proved he was no more or less naive than people who'd been in the business for years. Then it turned out that the billionaire wanted to change a few things about his new toy: fire some people, change some headlines and, most shockingly of all, stem the magazine's losses.

I don't know whether any of these moves were sensible. They were definitely predictable. And yet, as I read one hand-wringing piece after another about the loss of a leading liberal voice in American affairs and the impossibility of proper journalism in this new dispensation, it appears the only people for whom this came as a surprise were journalists.

Journalists ought to think how their trade is financed or, as is often the case, subsidised. Most of them don't. As long as somebody's signing off the payroll they don't give that person or body much thought. Now more than ever, they should.

Print assets used to be owned by people who wanted to own them for profit. Even if they owned them for influence, they were generally people, like Murdoch, who liked and understood the trade. This latest lot of owners, many of whom made their money in the dotcom boom, don't understand the trade at all but have an oddly sentimental belief in the value of legacy assets. I'm thinking of Jeff Bezos, the new owner of The Washington Post. But just as these people bought assets on a whim they could get rid of them just as quickly.

I hope the staff at the New Republic have approached the unsatisfactory Chris Hughes and offered to buy the magazine from him. He'll be prepared to take a bath on whatever he paid for it just to get it out of his life. All the new owners will have to do is guarantee to underwrite the magazine's losses in the future. They will have a clear idea of the size of that loss. Most of it will be their pay cheques.


Friday, December 05, 2014

The best pop records are essentially stupid

"Neil hires some of the best musicians in the world and has 'em play as stupid as they possibly can."
That's the late Nashville drummer Kenny Buttrey on Neil Young in Shakey: Neil Young's Biography by Jimmy McDonough.

When Sting first played "Every Breath You Take" for Stewart Copeland the drummer couldn't believe that he wanted him to play anything quite so simplistic. That's why his playing on the record has the exact "I can do this in my sleep" feeling that makes it work.

Similarly Hugh Cornwell told me that Jean Jaques Burnel refused to play on The Stranglers "Golden Brown" because he thought it was just too stupid. (Didn't prevent him taking 25% of the publishing.)

Musicians are naturally drawn to complexity. Humans, on the other hand, like things simple, which is another reason why they always prefer the musicians' earlier records to their later ones.

Monday, December 01, 2014

The story of the riff from "The Liquidator"

The Staple Singers made their best records between 1970 and 1972 for the Stax label.  They were produced by Stax President Al Bell, who was mainly about business; the additional spice was provided by the Muscle Shoals players, who were mainly about hooks.

In December 1971 Traffic were on hiatus because Steve Winwood was ill and so Jim Capaldi went to Muscle Shoals to make a solo record with the same musicians who had been playing on those brilliant records with the Staple Singers. Maybe he played them "The Liquidator" by The Harry J. All Stars, which had been a skinhead favourite in the UK in 1969-70. Maybe somebody else from the Island label passed it on. Maybe they heard it themselves. It goes like this:

It's a catchy tune, which started life on a Tony Scott record called "What Am I To Do", where it was played (and probably first invented) by the Barrett brothers and Alva Lewis, which went like this:

It was so catchy that it turns up, uncredited, on the Staple Singers "I'll Take You There", which is a huge hit and of course you know how that goes:

The following year Lee Perry, who works with the Barrett Brothers as The Upsetters, makes a satirical point at the beginning of "Cow Thief Skank" by The Upsetters by taking a whole section from The Staple Singers' "This Old Town" and putting it at the beginning of his own record. He didn't bother copying the song; he just pasted in their recording.


Both "The Liquidator" and "I'll Take You There" have turned out to have the pop music version of eternal life.

The Staples' record has the kind of inimitable catchiness that guarantees prefabricated sections of it will turn up in dance records from here until doomsday. Salt 'n' Pepa, Britney Spears, Dizzee Rascal and Kelly Price are just the most recent artists to have covered it. And "The Liquidator" plays every time Chelsea run out to play, even though football teams don't run out anymore.

As Joseph Shabalala used to say, "music is a thing you cannot hinder. It rises from here all the way to heaven." That's nice for us but not for people who either hold - or should hold - the copyright.






Monday, November 24, 2014

First law of Twitter – it takes careful planning to look spontaneous

I was talking to Joanna Cohen about the picture on the left when I was in Gateshead recently for the Radio Three Festival Of Free Thinking. Joanna lectures on American History at Queen Mary and was giving a talk about how Abraham Lincoln used photography to project his image to the American public in the 1860s (which you can hear here) so she knows a bit more about the subject than I do.

We were talking about the tweet which Bill Clinton posted after his daughter Chelsea gave birth to her first child. I found it interesting in all kinds of ways: simple human interest value in looking at new grandparents; nosey curiosity about the amount of weight he's lost; speculation about the state of the relationship between the two adults; wondering whether in years to come the child might look back at that snap and be amazed at how it went round the world so quickly.

Bill's tweet followed Hillary's. Even I realised this story was mainly about Hillary and the next Presidential election. And why not? This seemed to be the action of a proud grandmother hoping people would momentarily overlook the fact that she's also an ambitious politician. Joanna had a different view. Look, she said, I'm sure she is a proud grandmother but there's no way plans have not been in place for the posting of this picture on Twitter from the moment Chelsea Clinton first announced she was pregnant. There are people on her team who know exactly where Hillary stands in the eyes of the American people and understand that the opportunities to short circuit voter's rational defences and appeal to their emotional side are too precious to be passed-up. This picture and the tweeting of it will have been as carefully choreographed as a major press conference. 

I suppose she's right. The power of this picture is it looks spontaneous, which is obviously not the same thing as being spontaneous. Things that are spontaneous invariably look a mess. Only things that are carefully planned look spontaneous.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

An exclusive look inside the mind of Mauricio Pochettino

Imagine you're an ambitious young manager/fitness coach/scout and you're approached by Tottenham. You might be mildly flattered by the attention, particularly if you'd come from a club which doesn't spend so much time proclaiming its ambitions. But at the same time you would know - and if you didn't know, your agent, your friends and your wife would impress it upon you - that you only had to look at the record of the club's chairman to realise that the most likely outcome of your tenure is that you will be booted out before your contract is up.

Therefore you will spend less of your time thinking of the unlikely eventuality of success and more of your time thinking of the near-certainty of failure and how you might insure yourself against the personal consequences of same. Think about it. It's bound to be the mindset. You're going to get fired. You would have to be Pollyanna to think otherwise. This changes the way you look at life.  It's like going into a fancy restaurant thinking not about the nice meal you might have but instead about the pay-off you will get when you contract food poisoning.

Spurs fans wasted a lot of energy trying to work out what AVB or Redknapp or Sherwood were thinking and now they're doing the same with Pochettino. I'll tell you what he's thinking. He's thinking, when is it going to happen, how bad will it make me look and how much will I walk away with? And if he isn't his agent certainly is. None of these people are thinking of the future with the club because the overwhelming likelihood is that there won't be one. It's the one certainty of life at Spurs. Levy will fire you. Just look at the stats.

And the same thing applies to everyone below the manager on the pyramid. If they go, you will go too. Therefore why should you demonstrate loyalty to anyone?

I've got nothing against heavy management. People pay a lot of money in order not to feel bad about firing people. It happens in every walk of life. But in football the downside is so profitable that it changes the relationship between the employer and the employed. Samuel Johnson said that if a man knows he's going to be hanged in the morning it concentrates his mind admirably. If a man knows he's going to be fired at some point in the near future and he's going to walk away with a significant pay-off it does the opposite.


Saturday, November 15, 2014

Is "Serial" going to do for podcasts what "The Wire" did for TV?

I knew Serial would be good before I actually heard it because word reached me from the right places. I knew I'd hear it eventually so I didn't try to find out more about it. I didn't want to know any more. I still don't.

I knew it was by the same people as This American Life, which was good enough for me. They've got a style you don't find on British radio. In the case of Serial - and this is all you need to know - they've presented a whodunnit as a series of one-hour podcasts.

You encounter the story through the thoughts of a reporter who's puzzling over a fifteen year-old murder case. You hear her interview tapes, eavesdrop on her phone conversations. I don't know if the voices belong to actors, civilians or a mix of the two. It really doesn't matter. The beauty of Serial is there's nothing to compare it to.

I may not stay to the end. I don't know how many episodes there are and, where whodunits are concerned, I'm more interested in the journey than the destination.

All I know is this. Radio couldn't begin to do what Serial is doing.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Los Angeles, December, 1970, when Leon Russell was king of the world


It says this is from 1971, but I actually think it was recorded in December 1970 at KCET in Los Angeles as part of what's known as the Homewood Sessions. They say it was the first live stereo FM broadcast. Not sure how true that is but what's certain is this captures the Leon Russell caravan at their very best, including such key walk-ons as Don Nix, Claudia Linnear and Furry Lewis (of whom Joni Mitchell wrote "Furry Sings The Blues").

I find his solo albums a bit strained but at the time this was taped he was a brilliant producer/svengali. This was around the time he produced Freddie King's brilliant "Going Down". The woman with the rolling pin is Emily Smith who was part of Russell's retinue and the inspiration for his song "Sweet Emily". In this clip the sound and pictures are out of sync but I don't think that changes the remarkable fact that they could play this well live and these days you'd probably get arrested for having this much fun on camera.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

What do TV producers talk about if not new faces?


Olenka Frenkiel is forthright about why she left BBC Current Affairs. When they decide you're too old, she says, they starve you of work.

TV believes in youth the way Roman Catholics believe in sin. They're always thinking "can we get a younger presenter?"

In fact there are only two "creative" thoughts in TV.

The first is "change the look of the programme", which means "new sofa".

The second is "refresh the team", which means "get somebody younger and more pleasant to look at".

If they can no longer say that openly I can't imagine what they find to talk about.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Have U2 reached the un-Tipping Point?

“About 100 million people checked us out, one or two or three tracks, but about 30 million people liked the whole album. That took us 30 years with The Joshua Tree. So we did in three weeks with Songs of Innocence what took us 30 years with The Joshua Tree.”
That's Bono talking about U2's iTunes giveaway. He can't really believe that, can he? That it's possible to deduce from a load of clicks that 100 million people "checked us out" or that 30 million people "liked the whole album".

It reminds me of that ad where the Encyclopaedia factory goes back into mass production because a baby somewhere is stabbing at an iPad.

This is an attention economy. Being exposed to something means nothing. Hearing something means nothing. Now even "owning" something doesn't tell you a whole lot.

The only currency that counts is people's active engagement, as measured, in the case of music, in repeat plays.

If you look at The Joshua Tree comparison another way, in that case the enthusiasm grew and spread, like one of Malcolm Gladwell's benign infections. This campaign seems to have gone in the other direction. This time they started by giving people the infection. Now those people seem to be saying "I had the U2 album but I'm better now." Call it the un-Tipping Point.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Carly Simon's torrid summer of 1971 and the invention of celebrity culture

Carly Simon wrote "Anticipation" in 1971 while waiting for Cat Stevens to arrive for their first date, if date's the word you use. During their brief affair Cat also inspired her to write "Legend In Your Own Time".

This was the era of the singer-songwriters. If you slept with one it was expected they would write a song about you. If they didn't it was tantamount to saying you weren't important enough. "Songs are like tattoos," as Joni Mitchell sang the same year. She wrote "Willy" about Graham Nash. He wrote "Our House" about her. Leonard Cohen wrote "Chelsea Hotel No 2" about Janis Joplin. That's the way it went.

Carly only saw Cat for a couple of months. She was in London making an album with his producer Paul Samwell-Smith, another lover. (That cover picture was shot in Regent's Park's inner circle.) In spring Cat introduced her to future husband James Taylor. In summer she supported Kris Kristofferson who took her back to the Gramercy Park Hotel and sang "I've Got To Have You" for her, in case she didn't get the idea.

They were all young, beautiful and would never be better. Being immortalised on somebody's next album simply heightened the romance. You could guarantee a song that featured your favourite subject - you. And of course as this branch of celebrity culture was being born that torrid summer the funny thing is the media neither knew nor cared.


Wednesday, November 05, 2014

What Taylor Swift says. What Taylor Swift means.

"Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. "

This is what Taylor Swift says in interviews because it sounds as if she's on the side of the angels and not just speaking for herself.

But what does it mean? Some pop music may be art but most of it is just pop music and is neither important nor rare.

We don't pay for things because they're valuable. We pay for things according to how much we value them, which is a different thing.

What she's really saying is,"right now I can get away with charging a premium for my services and I intend to do it while I can."

Nothing wrong with that. Rembrandt would have done the same.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

We need a national debate about the problem of suitcases on wheels

Sometimes cases on wheels are necessary; more often they're pulled by people who seem to think they're too fabulous to carry anything.

They've got a skinny latte in one hand and with the little finger of the other they're wheeling a case that makes them TWICE AS WIDE.

Two business people walking along the platform wheeling their individual laptops takes up more space than the Temptations.

There are people on the Tube today with pull-along suitcases bigger than wardrobes. What can they possibly have left at home?

Kids follow, wheeling *their* mini trollies containing Buzz Lightyear & a bag of sweets. Everyone's taking up twice the room they need.

Family groups are convoys of human articulated lorries, zig-zagging, tail-gating & jack-knifing all over the public thoroughfares.

And if they suddenly stop, it's never their problem. It's the poor sod behind them who comes to grief.

Don't talk to me about caravans. The pull-along suitcase is the real issue when it comes to traffic congestion.

Monday, November 03, 2014

The 1971 music of Smoke Dawson finally arrives

This is the story of George "Smoke" Dawson. He first appeared in the very early sixties playing banjo in a trio with fiddler Peter Stampfel and Rob Hunter. He's like a minor character in "Inside Llewyn Davis". Then, according to Stampfel, he "took a fuck ton of speed and came back playing fiddle better than I ever did."

In 1971 somebody got Smoke Dawson in a small studio at Sea Lake, California and recorded him playing seventeen tunes. They pressed 750 copies. God knows what happened to them. They certainly didn't sell. Smoke never became any better known and went off to pursue a number of jobs, including fisherman, computer programmer and wrestler. He's in his late seventies now and has had his share of misfortune.

Anyway, Josh Rosenthal of the Tompkins Square label stumbled upon the 1971 Smoke recording and has put it out. The whole thing runs for less than half an hour. He plays so quick the tunes are over before you know it. It's insanely good. I've played it five times today.

They say that Big Star were a letter sent in 1972 that didn't arrive until the late 80s. Smoke has taken even longer to get here.


Thursday, October 30, 2014

I didn't hear a single at the Mercury Music Prize

Went to the Mercury Music Prize last night. It's an enterprise dedicated to promoting the virtues of the long playing record, which is understandable. Inbetween the acts we were shown clips of DJs and musicians enthusing about their qualities as albums as if that would somehow convince us to set aside a portion of our time in forty-minute increments to listen to them.

I don't think there's ever been a time when there's been such a disconnect between the way the public listen to music and the way the record companies, broadcasters and tastemakers do the same thing. They have to be committed to the records, either because their pay cheque depends on them or they have to think of something to say or write about them. On the other hand we the public, now that we can listen free of the encumbrances of ownership, float across the surface of a limitless sea of music, occasionally finding one song we like and then playing it again and again and then, only then, dipping further into the album that it might have come from.

There's no longer any point in telling us to persevere, to finish our vegetables, to clean our plates before we're allowed to go out and play. That's a behaviour that belongs back in the days when you bought a record on the basis of a review and struggled with it until you convinced yourself that you liked it. That's gone. These professionals have to decide whether the new album by Royal Blood or Jungle is really good or not. Because they're forced to come to a conclusion they generally end up saying it's better than it is. We don't have to decide and so we don't. We just try it and move on.

There were some performances last night I enjoyed more than others, as is always the case, but here's the curious thing. It's now over twelve hours ago and I can't remember a single song any of them played. I've been going through the shortlisted albums on Spotify and even with that prompt I can't be sure I've found the songs that they played. The only exception is the one by Jungle, which I've heard a lot.

This is surely a big problem because in the end it's hit songs that make us listen to albums. We hear one tune we fall for and we go looking to see if there are any more where it came from.

I've written about this before but let's imagine that there had been a Mercury Music Prize in 1971 and the shortlist had been "Every Picture Tells A Story", "Hunky Dory", "Led Zeppelin 4", "Sticky Fingers", "Bless The Weather", "Ram", "Imagine", "Who's Next" and others. I don't have to remind you what the stand-out tracks were from those records because they stood out. It's always been that way and there's no getting away from it - memorable singles make memorable albums. Unmemorable singles just make up the numbers.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Variety's back - from the frozen north to the Thames and the Tyne

Alex Gold messaged me last night from Skagway, Alaska. As you can see it looks like a frontier town out of a Bob Hope comedy.

Skagway's the latest stop on his current tour with the United Kingdom Ukulele Orchestra. He joined them last year for a tour of Germany. Since we were organising Word In Your Ear gigs at the same time we were in regular contact and I could never get enough of his reflections on finding himself in a musical comedy act. Everybody gets to do a party piece. His is Viva La Vida. This clip was recorded on their German tour. Makes a change from the thankless life of the indie musician, doing your own songs. "People turn up," he said to me once. "And they really enjoy it. I'm not used to this."

That's another sign that Variety's back, obviously, and not a moment too soon. On November 11th at the Islington we're presenting country duo My Darling Clementine and best-selling crime novelist Mark Billingham in The Other Half, a specially-written marriage of words and music. They'll also be playing a few bar-room weepies favoured by Mark's hero from the Tom Thorne Playlist. Tickets and details here.

This Saturday afternoon I'll be at the Sage in Gateshead playing classical records for Radio Three's Saturday Classics. This promises to be an unusual way to spend the day. I'll be in the foyer, I think, disturbing the peace of people who've innocently wandered in to have a cup of coffee and look at the Tyne. It's all part of their Festival of Free Thinking and you're more than welcome to turn up if you're in the area. On the Sunday I'm taking part in a discussion about how digital distribution may or may not have changed people's tastes and habits. It's all free. Further details here.

I don't miss mainstream entertainment at all.


Monday, October 27, 2014

"Look, mush, you asked to be on this TV programme. Don't get coy about it."

During his interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Channel 4 News Richard Ayoade referred to an earlier interview with Quentin Tarantino and said the elephant in the room was the film-maker's insistence that he had a right to have his film plugged on the TV in return for turning up.

He was right, of course, but he'd have been even more right if he'd said that the real elephant in the room during his own appearance before the C4 cameras was the PR who was presumably watching a few feet away. It was the PR who had called the producer at C4 News and said "I can deliver Richard Ayoade". It was the producer who thought "whoopee, that would be just the ticket between Syria and UKIP". It was Krishnan Guru-Murthy who thought, "Oh, that would be fun". It was Richard Ayoade who thought, "Oh, well, I've got to plug my book and there are worse places to do it than this". And it was Richard Ayoade who had signed the deal with the publisher which required him to make his best efforts to promote it on the TV.

I've endured sticky times interviewing people on radio and TV, people who made it clear that they didn't want to be there. The temptation to say, "Look, mush, you have paid a PR to have got you on this programme and would presumably feel no compunction about bollocking them if they hadn't been able to make it happen, therefore it seems only right that you should stop acting like a member of the public unaccountably harassed while going about their daily business and just do something to make the next few minutes entertaining and interesting for the people who have tuned in."

If what we read about the atomising of broadcast news is true then this won't be a problem for Richard or anyone else much longer. Authors get on magazine programmes because they're free filler. When the programmes are gone there'll be nothing to pretend not to cooperate with.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Alfred Wertheimer is dead. He invented rock photography

Alfred Wertheimer has died at the age of 85. If you don't know who he was put his name into Google Images and you'll see a unique series of pictures of the young Elvis Presley.

Wertheimer took them during a train journey with Elvis between New York and Memphis in 1956. The pictures show Elvis canoodling with girlfriends, waiting for his meal at a segregated lunch counter, staring out of a train window and hanging about with his extended family at North Audubon Drive.

They are the best set of pictures ever taken of a rock star. That's not just because Elvis was the best subject or because Wertheimer was the best photographer. They're the best set of pictures ever taken of a rock star because Colonel Tom Parker didn't have the presence of mind to cut off the thing that made them great - access.

All the iconic pictures taken of rock stars - early Presley, Dylan, Beatles, Stones, Sex Pistols, Smiths etc - were taken in the days when they were so keen on publicity that they gave access to just about everybody. As soon as they could pick and choose they sought to control their own images and in the process made themselves profoundly dull. That's why there hasn't been a picture of a rock star taken in the last thirty years that packs a fraction of the power and information contained in the one above.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Honestly, who chooses friends according to their musical tastes?

Dan Brooks in the New York Times argues that since streaming music has made the same music available to everybody it's no longer possible to identify kindred spirits by the fact that they like the same as you do.

He says that in the old days "the bands you listened to conveyed not just the particular elements of culture you liked but also how much you cared about culture itself".

It's very well-argued. It's also wrong.

If there's one thing I've learned in the course of a life spent listening to music it's that liking the same music is no more an indicator of your likelihood of getting on with people than you both happening to have bought the same sweater.

I've met raging bores who like the same things I like. I've got bosom pals whose choice of music I wouldn't be paid to listen to. And I also strongly suspect that anyone who sets that much store on what music you listen to is the kind of person who knows the sub-genre of everything and the value of nothing.

It's not music that bonds people. It's the attitude to music.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Dear public figures, you don't have to apologise to me

It's Friday, as good a day as any to think of the people who will offend us next week. Right now they're not aware that they will be offending us. They're happily thinking about their book tour or the after-dinner speech they're about to give. They're blissfully unaware of the fact that this time next week they'll have to issue a formal apology for something which they've said, something which seemed sensible and moderate at the time but once strained through the medium of Twitter and condensed into another headline to feed the raging appetite of rolling news, which now demands one apology a day, it suddenly reads like a paragraph from Mein Kampf.

Not that I've read Mein Kampf, just as most of the people demanding the apology won't have read the article or speech or exchange from which the offence will have apparently arisen. They will simply be basking in that warm feeling of self-righteousness that comes from assuring everyone that they're on the side of the angels, as if the angels didn't change sides every bit as much as everyone else. The sign of a mature society is it can live with the idea that the public discourse will be full of things that might not get general agreement. It's a sign of the other kind that people feel such a need to shout other people down.

With a full week to go, I'd just like to say that if in a week's time you're called upon to apologise for something you said in the first half of the week, you don't have to apologise to me, nor do I insist that you apologise to anybody else. Hope that helps a bit.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

I heart Rod Stewart 1970-71

Why am I always going on about old records? Somebody asked me that the other day. Don't I like music made today? Don't I check out "nubandz"?

Well,  the reason I go on about 1971 is because I'm writing a book about it. I do like music made today but it tends to be hip hop or pop music. Most of today's rock sounds tired to me. No, I don't check out "nubandz".

Tell you why I go on about the music of 1971. I'd never heard this track until today. It's The Faces recorded at the Fillmore East at the end of 1970. They're doing "Love In Vain", which they've clearly heard for the first time via the Stones. That is one reason to love it. The idea that an up and coming band wasn't embarrassed to borrow an idea from their elders and betters. And though Rod Stewart clearly hasn't learned the words properly he gives a performance which is simultaneously bravura and  nonchalant.

Now you may tell me that there are up and coming rock bands today who have singers who have this kind of presence and power. I reserve the right not to believe you.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In the music business, "suits" often have ears

People who talk about "the suits" in the music business (or any other business come to that) usually don't know what they're talking about. I met up with Rob Dickins yesterday. I suppose many people would call Rob a suit. He used to be Chairman of Warner Music UK, which is the kind of job people lazily associate with boardroom politics and a complete disengagement from the products which the business deals in.

There's no point trying to rattle your rock and roll medals in Rob's direction because he's got more and bigger ones than you have. He went to see Jimi Hendrix when he was sixteen, was booking the Faces as Social Sec at Loughborough University when he was twenty, and was plugging Neil Young's "Heart Of Gold" to Radio One when he was twenty-two.

We were talking about 1971 and Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On". I pointed out that Gaye took it to the West Coast and secretly remixed it to bring the congas up in the mix and to make it sound more ethereal. Rob pointed out that the really extraordinary thing about "What's Going On" is the sound of the triangle.

I've just been playing it and he's right. Not bad for a suit.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Interviews with the reluctantly retired from Palm Springs

The Download's a good podcast if you're interested in vintage soft rock. 

It comes from a weekly radio show done by  Chris May and Elli Tourj√© in Palm Springs, California and features straight, informative interviews with people such as James Taylor bassist Leland Sklar, Beach Boy Al Jardine, trumpeter turned mogul Herb Alpert, Wrecking Crew bassist Joe Osborn and Richard Carpenter.

I was just listening to the episode with Sklar. He still works, which makes him happy. He'd just been talking to Linda Ronstadt whose health prevents her from doing the same thing.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Force yourself to watch a proper film this weekend

Ever since I was a teenager people have been telling me to see the French gangster film "Rififi", made in 1955. I've been so convinced by their argument that it's a classic I've probably told people that I've seen it when I hadn't. This week I finally got round to actually seeing it on Netflix.

Of course it's brilliant. Now that I'm older I can appreciate things about it that I wouldn't have quite got when I was a kid: the look of post-war Paris, the shiny old cars, the glistening pavements, the cruel glitter in the eyes of the leading man, the extraordinary look of the jazz clubs, the half-hour robbery sequence which is done without words, the difficulty of making a phone call and the way that feeds into the drama.

Amazing how often when you've got a choice between the old thing that you know will be great and the flashy new thing which you know will disappoint you choose the latter and end up wasting your time and money. Henceforth I shall try not to do that.




Thursday, October 09, 2014

Morrissey gets pranked by his own record company

You have to feel for Morrissey. Even in middle age he goes around trying to pick fights with people who apparently have better things to do. Current target is his record label Harvest. He says they haven't promoted his record enough. Acts always say this when the record hasn't sold enough. To underline his point he has his band dressed in tee shirts saying "Fuck Harvest". (Bit rich this, since the members of the band won't be signed to Harvest and therefore presumably have no quarrel with them.) Anyway, Harvest have responded by offering "Fuck Harvest" tee shirts for sale. They come in a choice of colours. Love to have been a fly on the wall when he got the news.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Stop whinging about the distortion of sound and make records we like.


This has had three and a half million views on You Tube. It's a short documentary about the shortcomings of compressed music made by audio firm Harman.

It features Snoop Dog, Slash, Kate Nash, Hans Zimmer, Lianne La Havas, Mike Shinoda and other musicians, bemoaning the fact that over the last ten years we've traded audio excellence for convenience. An MP3 file short-changes us in terms of quality and we don't care. Given the amount of time and care the musicians put into their recordings, ain't that a shame?

Problem is there's no sign that we care. And there's no point bitching about our obsession with convenience or the fact that these days You Tube is the record business, the radio and the printed media all put together.

That massive movement has benefited the musicians. If it weren't for today's virtual free flow of recorded music most of those people in that film wouldn't be well-known enough to be in that film. When music was hard to find and difficult to afford there were far fewer prominent musicians. The perceived preciousness of music is directly related to its scarcity. Those days are not coming back. These people should thank their lucky stars.

Some of the greatest records I ever heard were made in spite of the limitations of the recording medium and the manufacturing technology. Lee Perry's records wouldn't have been any better if the tape had run at the proper speed and the record had been on virgin vinyl. They had the power to move and next to that sound quality is nothing.

I listen to the musicians in that film and I think that if I were to hear their recordings in the way they intended it wouldn't make all that much difference to the way I felt about them. If it's great music it will be great no matter how compressed it is. If it's middling all the expansion in the world won't make it any more than that.

This is a classic case of Hepworth's Law Of Improvement, which I developed over years of watching people trying to improve magazines. There's improvement, then there's the kind of improvement which is recognised by the user and finally there's the kind of improvement which is both recognised and valued by the user.

Only the third sort is worth the trouble.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

When rock stars get dementia

Malcolm Young of AC/DC is suffering from dementia and won't be returning to the band. His family confirmed this in a statement to the US magazine People. He's sixty-one.

Glen Campbell recently announced that he was suffering from Alzheimer's. He's seventy-eight.

Sneaky Pete Kleinow of the Flying Burrito Brothers died from an Alzheimer's related condition in 2007. He was seventy-two.

There are no doubt lots more we don't know about. Famous rockers of the past who have stopped touring because they can no longer handle it. Most of the time it won't be announced.

Although it's none of our business I suppose we should be grateful for the few whose families have chosen to make their conditions public.

Nobody would have predicted that rock musicians would ever succumb to an age-related condition. Nobody would ever have imagined them going on as long as they have done.

We grew up with these acts and we were used to them getting to every experience before we did. This latest one is the saddest.


Saturday, September 27, 2014

Don't the police Google?

I read that when Liz Kershaw decided to get in touch with Operation Yewtree the officer who answered the phone said "We've been trying to get in touch with you, but we realised we've been talking to the wrong Liz Kershaw."

Leaving aside the implications of an officer of the law talking to the wrong witness, I'm amazed how in these Google days I still come across people who have difficulty finding and making contact with people.

Worse, some of those people are journalists, lawyers and policemen, the sort of professionals who used to be able to find people in the days when it was hard to do.

At the risk of adding to the demands upon the national curriculum, an hour should be devoted to "how to Google".

Not an hour every week. Just an hour.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Never mind the Velasquez, here's the Duchess of Devonshire


Deborah, the last of the Mitford sisters, has died at the age of 94. The Mitfords: Letters between Six Sisters is an amazing and unique book. When I heard the news I couldn't help recalling her letter about when they had a bomb scare at Chatsworth House in 1972. I love the idea of the policeman suggesting they might search the house. Since Chatsworth has 126 rooms it would be hard to accomplish this in the half hour before the bomb went off.  You hear a lot about people being "cool". Deborah was cool before it was invented.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Stevie Nicks: her style is unforgettable, her lyrics unintelligible

Preparing for Monday evening's Word podcast recording with Ben Watt and Zoe Howe and thinking about Stevie Nicks, the subject of Zoe's new book, I remembered an old spoof that Danny Baker used to play on the radio. Is it on You Tube? Of course it's on You Tube.

.

Now don't tell me it's a cheap shot. All humour is a cheap shot. God, I miss musical comedy.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

When did the man hug arrive and when's it going to go away?

Last night I said to my wife "when we got married, thirty five years ago, was there any male hugging?"

"No," she said. "Your father and my father might have put an arm around your shoulder but it wouldn't have been anything people would recognise as a hug."

We looked at the wedding picture on the wall and wondered whether the other guests might have hugged. We decided they wouldn't. That didn't make them notably undemonstrative people. They just didn't hug. Nobody did.

I was asking last night on Twitter when the current vogue for male hugging began. It's like the internet. It spread so fast you can barely remember a time when it wasn't there.

Somebody said it began in 1988. "Why?" I asked. "Ecstasy," he said. Oh.

Like all these things the man hug has gone from being optional to being obligatory in no time at all and now people look at you as if there's a piece missing of you if you don't do it. I'll be honest. With very few exceptions I hate it.

Is there any chance it will go away as fast as it came?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Does Britain have a Portlandia?

Interesting New York Times piece about the kind of people who have moved to Portland, Oregon. They've got good college educations and yet prefer to work as baristas or yoga teachers.

“People move to New York to be in media or finance; they move to L.A. to be in show business,” Renn said. “People move to Portland to move to Portland.”

 It's interesting for two reasons: it recognises what's been clear for the last twenty years. Lots of young people want the good lifestyle but don't want to do the work that buys the lifestyle and therefore will get by on next to nothing if it means they can noodle about playing music or designing a website for a friend.

The other is that Americans have traditionally relocated across the nation if it means they can afford the kind of life they want.

There's been talk of this over here recently in the light of the Scottish independence debate and HS2. Could Britain sustain its own Portlandia? Does it have one already?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The thousand natural shocks the bench is heir to

I'm not surprised that Marco Van Basten has stepped down as coach of Az Alkmaar because of "mental and physical problems".

I'm just amazed at how many people seem eager to become a coach, a job that makes most other jobs look stress-free.

You may have difficult days at work from time to time but you don't have the hot breath of 50,000 people blaming you when one of the over-bred multi-millionaires you send out to implement your policies have a bit of an off-day.

When absolutely everything that could go wrong has gone wrong you don't have to go and face a room-full of hacks who seem completely at a loss as to how to fix their own business but can immediately tell you where you're going wrong in yours.

You don't turn on the radio to hear a load of hacks gleefully discussing how soon you'll be fired.

I don't think anybody puts themselves through that kind of thing for the money.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Putting Nick Cave on the cover of the NME is like putting Johnnie Ray on the cover in 1976

"Yesterday's Papers", my programme on Radio 4 this afternoon at four, doesn't have time to go into the minutiae of the decline of print music magazines but you can see one problem at work in the latest issue of NME.

Nick Cave had his major success at the end of the 80s, which is a quarter of a century ago. Putting him on the cover is like putting Johnnie Ray on the cover in 1976.

Of course that analogy doesn't apply because the world moves so much more slowly now and anyway Nick Cave has the kind of fans who may even buy the paper because he's there. The free posters are interesting too. Bet the Iggy Pop and David Bowie pictures date from before the current editorial team were born.

There was a time when the best thing you could put on the cover of the NME was the new, new thing. That formula stopped working years ago. And please don't waste your time blaming the publishers or the editorial staff for not being bold or adventurous enough. They found out where boldness and adventurousness gets them because they tried it and looked at the figures.

Old publishing saying: pioneers are dead men with arrows in their back.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

In 1971 nobody kept a record of the records


I get a lot of enjoyment out of my 1971 playlist. It's a bit like having a garden. From time to time I visit and do a bit of weeding. I chuck out duplicates. I get new things from the garden centre. For instance, when I started it Spotify didn't have Led Zeppelin. Now they do.

There's the odd album which is probably so locked up in legals that it may never appear. You can't get Badfinger's 1971 album "Straight Up" so I had to get a track from it via a film soundtrack. Sometimes Spotify has things mixed up. They've confused Paul Williams, the composer of the soundtrack of "Bugsy Malone", with an Evangelical Christian singer and anyway his 1971 album "Just An Old Fashioned Love Song" isn't represented.

Sometimes I'm quite relieved to see albums aren't there. Donovan's stuff can be infantile at the best of times and I can get by without hearing his 1971 children's album "HMS Donovan" again. Other times it's a shame. You can't get the first J. Geils Band album, which came out in the UK in 1971, but you can get the follow-up "The Morning After", which came out the same year.

Lots of acts put out two albums in 1971 and most of them were also on tour for most of the year: Alice Cooper, Yes, Carole King, Paul McCartney (one on his own and one with Wings) and The Faces (you can't get "A Nod..." on Spotify for some reason).

In 1971 nobody seemed to have worried about "saturating the market". Crosby, Stills and Nash each put out solo albums in the year and the group was further represented by the live album "4 Way Street". At the same time Neil Young was touring with the songs that would come out on "Harvest" the following year.

Some albums, such as Nick Drake's "Bryter Later", which is marked as a 1970 release, don't appear to have actually come out until March 1971.

I was talking to a youngster the other day (they come up and ask questions when I'm mending my nets at the harbour) and trying to explain that in those days release dates were approximate, particularly where the smaller labels and the less well-known artists were concerned. In the 70s if you went into a record shop and asked them to look something up they would have to either consult a Gramophone guide, which would always be a year out of date, or their own card index. If you knew what record company it was they might order it and if they were lucky they might receive it. If not they would keep on putting in the order and getting "not available" in reply. It might take months to find out they were trying the wrong distributor.

In those days shopping was like a treasure hunt. Affording the records was one thing. Hunting them down was another thing altogether.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Breakfast with a National Treasure at the British Museum

I guarantee my day started better than yours did. First thing this morning I was at the British Museum for a press unveiling of Germany: Memories Of A Nation, Radio Four's big new series which starts at the end of the month. Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum who fronted A History Of The World In 100 Objects and Shakespeare's Restless World, stood up and gave us half an hour on the relationship between German identity and German history.

I noted down a few nuggets: the greatest German philosopher, Imanuel Kant, never set foot in any of the country we now call Germany; Goethe was a great admirer of british railways; the greatest German military decoration, the Iron Cross, is given to all ranks; the resettlement of eastern Germans to the western sector in 1946 was equivalent to the entire population of Australia and Canada coming back to the UK; the true measure of tyrannies like Hitler's is the amount of energy they're prepared to spend on trivial things; being an island people, the British have difficulty understanding peoples who define themselves across national frontiers.

He spoke without notes, using just a few slides to illustrate exhibits in the British Museum event which will accompany the series. He didn't once say "um" or "er", when he reached for a word it was always the right one, he didn't include a sentence that didn't need to be there in order to set up the next sentence and when he finished the audience, who were made up of hacks and arts professionals, applauded him for longer than I've ever heard anyone applauded at a press conference before.

Like all the best speakers, MacGregor's a teacher above all. It's a rare gift.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Get your tickets for a quiet Word with Ben Watt at the Islington

Ben Watt's our special guest when we record another Word podcast at the Islington on Monday, September 22nd.

He'll be talking to me and Mark Ellen about his adventures in the music business as a solo artist, producer, DJ, club owner and independent label head.

He'll also be talking about his current album Hendra and his book Romany and Tom: A Memoir, which I blogged about here. The first has just picked up the Difficult Second Album award from AIM, the second has been nominated for the Samuel Johnson Prize, Britain's most prestigious prize for non-fiction.

This is the latest in a series of shows that we've put on at the Islington. The last one featured Simon Napier-Bell. They're available as podcasts, which you can subscribe to here. Tickets to the live event are £10. You can get them here.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

There's something fishy in the world of the rock doc

Music documentaries are like Agatha Christie mysteries. Once you've finished one you just want to pop the next one right in. Nowadays the interesting ones are all made by freelances and they get made because the person behind the camera spins the distributor a line. The distributor, who knows no better, then tries to spin the same line to the public.

The most commercially successful example of this is Searching For Sugar Man, which I'm staggered to see won an Oscar. I turned it off after half an hour. The people behind the camera seemed to be asking me to believe that this man Rodriguez had made his records in 1970-71 and then vanished so utterly that he didn't know that his music was helping bring down apartheid in South Africa and the most hard core of his fans didn't know the first thing about him. If you don't buy that, and I don't, then you don't buy the film, which proposes the usual bogus screen "journey" to find him.

Paul Williams: Still Alive is about the man who wrote the music for "Bugsy Malone" and hits for the Carpenters and Barbra Streisand. Here the director spends the first ten minutes trying to get us to believe that he began the project under the impression that Williams was dead. Even before the internet he would have to have been singularly stupid to think this was the case.  Then he makes contact with Williams and follows him on the road as he continues to play his hits, albeit under slightly reduced circumstances, and to counsel fellow addicts. I liked Williams, not least because he had the honesty to say that there were things in his personal life that he was so ashamed of that he wasn't prepared to talk about them on camera. What I don't understand, and what this film doesn't lift a finger to explain, is how come a man who's written some of the most played songs in radio history isn't comfortably off.

"The Ballad Of Rambling Jack" is made by Rambling Jack Elliott's daughter, allegedly in an effort to get to know him, and also to have him account for his shortcomings as a father. The journey here isn't quite as bogus. She tries without success to corner him. There's an odd coldness about Jack, as if he's only alive when he's on stage, with obvious implications for the people who have to deal with him in real life. Dave Van Ronk, who's died since the film was made, says that Jack should have settled down and been a family man but then we wouldn't have had Rambling Jack Elliott. This is fine for us, as he points out, but possibly not so good for his daughter.

The secret of successful public speaking revealed

Conversation at Sunday lunch drifted to public speaking - the fear thereof. As Seinfeld says, at most funerals people would rather be in the casket than delivering the eulogy. I say, anybody can do it. Kids say, you would say that.

What I should have said next has only just occurred to me.

You're mistaken if you believe that people who are good at public speaking worry about it less than people who are frightened of it.

They worry about it more.

They deal with that worry by spending a lot of time preparing. That's probably why they're good at it.

Thought I'd better write that down.


Monday, September 01, 2014

Who had it toughest? Big Star or Jane Austen?

I've been flipping The Real Jane Austen by Paula Byrne.

I learned that she only saw her name in print twice in her life. On both occasions she was listed as a paid subscriber to a new book. Crowd funding clearly didn't begin with Kickstarter.

When her beloved sister Cassandra went away to marry she thought she would never see her again. Marriage meant childbirth and that often meant death. As it happened the potential husband died before they could be married and so Cassandra came back. Her life, which ended when she was forty-one, was punctuated by sudden deaths of people close to her.

She used to go into her father's church and fill out phoney banns announcing her upcoming wedding to fictitious men. When her father died she didn't go to the funeral because widows and daughters didn't in those days.

When she was twenty-seven a man six years younger proposed to her. She accepted and then changed her mind the following morning.

She had a wealthy relation who was tried for shoplifting a card of lace. If she'd been found guilty the penalty was either death or transportation.

After her death her books were out of print for twelve years, which is longer than the albums of Big Star.

Big Star: there's no success like failure

Best bit in the Big Star documentary "Nothing Can Hurt Me" recalls their appearance at the one and only Rock Writers Convention in Memphis in 1973. "Suddenly they found their audience," somebody says. How true that is.

Groups who appeal to rock critics don't appeal to anyone else. This is made more certain by the fact that rock critics prefer bands who aren't popular. Nothing appeals to the rock critic mindset more than a band somehow too pure to appeal to the great unsophisticated. And they like bands who appear temperamentally unsuited to fame. Because a lot of rock critics are train wrecks themselves they feel validated by bands who are the same.

Big Star were celebrated among a bunch of people who thought that they could make a load of other people like them and then found out they couldn't. Of course they suffered from having the wrong record company and the wrong distribution but it might not have made much difference if they hadn't. Big Star were the progenitor of a seam of hundreds of bands who sound as if they ought to produce pop hits but don't actually have the common touch that you need to produce hits. They were never going to make it but there was enough pop DNA in their sound to make it seem they might.

Instead they had a very successful career as a failure. Their reputation grew over the years.  "They were like a letter posted in 1971 that didn't arrive until 1994," says Robyn Hitchcock. Actually, it's arrived at regular intervals since 1978.

The film starts with the original, purposely slipshod band in the studio in 1971 and ends with the great and the good of contemporary rock gathering around a microphone and a string section to respectfully pay tribute to the music they came up with. Watching that it struck me: is this the way Classical Music got started?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Why acts don't make it - the brutal truth

I was listening to an interesting programme about Judee Sill which is coming up in a couple of weeks on Radio 4. Sill made a couple of very good albums for Asylum in the early 70s. She had a song called "Jesus Was A Crossmaker" that was almost celebrated at the time. Celebrated, at least, among the people who might have watched "Old Grey Whistle Test" or read the "Melody Maker". Obviously not mass but better known than most things.

Sill died in 1979. There had been a lot of sadness in her life: drugs, accidents, abuse. When that happens there's always the chance that thirty-five years later Radio 4 will commission a programme about you called The Lost Genius Of Judee Sill.

But here's the thing. When acts make it big they take is as proof of their talent. They did it on their own.

When they don't make it big they always blame it on something or someone specific. The record company went out of business, the radio banned us, the drummer left, there was a strike, there was an oil crisis or a war, there was somebody who had it in for us.

If the artists don't make such a claim then enthusiasts have to make it for them. The story here is that Sill outed David Geffen, the boss of her record company, on-stage. In this narrative he had his revenge by dropping her from the label. I'm not sure the record business works like that. It's more likely that his company had put out the two albums they were obliged to release under the terms of Sill's contract, records which hadn't sold. Therefore they decided their money would be better spent on somebody else.

Simon Napier-Bell was talking the other night about how performers have a combination of self-belief and chronic insecurity which you would consider mad if you encountered it in a member of the public. This same egoism drives them to believe that the only thing standing between them and widespread acclaim is some kind of wicked plot. They would rather believe that somebody has been deliberately trying to do them down than to accept the truth, which is that we, the public, weren't really bothered one way or the other. We're the villains, not the mythical "suits" or the tin ears at radio. Our natural state is indifference. We bought some other music or we didn't buy any music at all. We forgot. We passed by on the other side. We have lives in which your career doesn't figure at all.

When we don't buy your record it's nothing to do with you. As the ex-girlfriend would say, it's not you; it's us. But whereas she would be saying it to spare your feelings we would say it because it's the brutal truth.

But performers, whose job is the winning of hearts, find this impossible to face.

Makes me think of the episode of Frasier called "The Focus Group" in which the star is so obsessed by the one listener who says that he doesn't like him that he follows him home to try to get an explanation. With disastrous results.

Monday, August 25, 2014

An evening in the pub with Simon Napier-Bell

Simon Napier-Bell is uniquely qualified to write about the history of the music business because he's one of the few authors who's also read a record contract. As the manager of the Yardbirds in the sixties, Japan in the seventies and Wham! in the eighties he's seen what has changed about the music business and what hasn't. A lot of this wisdom is gathered in his new book Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay, which is sub-titled "the dodgy business of popular music". It's the kind of tour d'horizon that needed writing, spanning events from the establishment of copyright in the days of powdered wigs to The X-Factor where the audience pick up the bill for payola. It's full of words to the wise. I was particularly struck by his point that since nine out of ten acts signed by record companies don't make it then a record contract is as good as a guarantee of failure.

Mark Ellen and I talked to him in a special Word Podcast Live at The Islington last week. We covered everything from the early stars of music hall through the era of the show tunes and the early days of rock and roll to the present day. A recording is available for free as a Word Podcast. You can subscribe or listen here. And here's the same thing on YouTube.
 If you're looking for further talkie entertainment, I'll be appearing with Mark Ellen at the Soho Literary Festival on September 24th (tickets here and at the Henley Festival on October 1st (details). Come along, why don't you?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Malcolm Gladwell was one man Kirsty Young couldn't seduce

We listened to a handful of old and new editions of Desert Island Discs while driving north for a wedding. Kirsty Young's very good at it. Less gushing than Sue Lawley. Not the anecdote hunter like Parkinson. But even her powers of persuasion couldn't get Malcolm Gladwell to tell her anything about his private life. He declined every opportunity to go there, simply because he couldn't understand why people from this part of the world are so interested in everybody's private lives. He wasn't tense or precious about it. He just wouldn't play. Get him on to any subject but himself and he was great. The problem is that DID traditionally operates on the premise that the subject we all find most fascinating is ourself.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

When it comes to The Band it's sad stories wherever you look

Saw the Levon Helm documentary Ain't In This For My Health, which was slight but not without interest.

I was particularly interested in Elizabeth Danko, widow of Rick, who's the most forthright interviewee in the film. We see pictures of a sleek rock star wife on board a private jet during the Bob Dylan/Band tour in 1974. Then we see her as an elderly woman living in a not very posh retirement home in Woodstock. Rick had died and there can't have been much income even when he was around. The PRS from the use of This Wheel's On Fire on Absolutely Fabulous wouldn't pay many doctor's bills, particularly if you took as little care of yourself as Rick did.

I went looking for more information about her and found that she died since the film came out. Elizabeth was Danko's second wife. Then I read he had a son Eli from his first marriage. Eli died at the age of 18 in a binge drinking incident at college. The local coroner called the Danko house three times, wishing to speak to the boy's father or mother and tell them about his findings. Nobody got back to him.

Funny how Robbie Robertson talked in The Last Waltz about the road being "a godamn impossible way of life". That was 1976. In truth The Band hadn't toured anything like as much as, say, Jethro Tull, so it's difficult to know quite what he was talking about. It was a good line. For most of them it seems life got a whole lot more impossible once the touring stopped.


Saturday, August 16, 2014

Tramps like us, baby, we were born to jump

Jessica Springsteen, daughter of Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa, has been in London this week, competing in the Longines Global Champions show jumping tour.

Other competitors included Sofia Abramovic, daughter of Roman, and Athina Onassis de Miranda, only surviving descendant of Aristotle Onassis.

I'm sure Jessica's very good. Her ambition is to represent the USA at the next Olympics. Best of luck to her.

There's a line in Springsteen's song "The Wish" about "the things that guitar bought us". It always makes you think about cars or jewels. What it should really make you think of is unprecedented social mobility.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The words "Oscar winner" tell us nothing

This headline from today's New York Times site seems to be the right way to memorialise somebody.

What they were, what they did and then what they won. In that order.

All too often nowadays, in its unseemly haste to have something to say before it's worked out what's worth saying, 24 hour rolling news leads its deaths stories with "Oscar winner" or "Grammy winner" as if that was the thing that made the person notable rather than the (usually belated) recognition of their being of note.




Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Why I'll never know if The Goldfinch has a good ending

I once walked out of a screening of Pearl Harbour ten minutes before the end. Considering at that point I'd put up with its shortcomings for over three hours you might have thought I would have stayed for that last bit of action. I didn't because it's long- windedness had made me so cross I wanted to strike back in the only way available to me. You may have had my money but I'm damned if you're going to waste another ten minutes of my life.

I've just bailed out of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch around page 700, which is a hundred pages from the end. I'd been reading it on holiday this week and for most of that time I enjoyed it: good premise, a few excellent characters and lots of educational material about the world of fake antiques. But I fell out with it for the same three reasons I fall out with so many books.

1. The hero goes through a major drugs phase. I'm sure drugs can be enormous fun to take but they're always tedious to read about.

2. It gets violent near the end. Violence has its place in fiction. I think it should be dealt with in a paragraph. If you're expecting me to keep track of who's got the deadliest weapon and which room in the house they're lurking in and expecting me to remember the name of more than one wrong un then frankly you're talking to the wrong reader.

3. In straining for a finish that justifies what's gone before, the book tired me out. It spends the last three hundred pages pumping itself up for a big finish. During that time I lost the thread, lost interest in finding out how it ended and eventually, somewhere under the Channel on Le Shuttle, gave up.

I learned a lot about the endings of stories when we were doing True Stories Told Live. Since having an ending is the thing which distinguishes fiction from real life, it's the bit that the storyteller agonises most about, often to the detriment of the story.

What storytellers fail to realise is that even if we're enjoying things we can't wait for them to end. Films, concerts, parties, novels, it's all the same.

I think it was Oscar Hammerstein who said, give them a good opening number and they'll forgive you anything.

I think it was me who said the best ending is always the one that comes along soonest.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

What my grandparents wore to the beach

I guess this was taken on the beach at Filey in the late 1950s. Left to right: my maternal grandfather Leonard, me, my grandmother Lois (pronounced Loyce.)

That's how my grandparents dressed to go to the seaside. If they were going to be seen in public there was no question of not putting on their best. Leonard wore a shirt (possibly with a stiff collar), tie, stout sweater, equally substantial trousering, golfing socks, highly-polished shoes and his best cap. Lois appears to be wearing pearls and is certainly guarding her best handbag.

I never saw my grandad out in public in a shirt without a tie. The very notion of him owning a pair of shorts would have seemed disrespectful. You could say the same about granny and trousers.

Granny and grandad weren't in any way posh but they were profoundly respectable. The clothes they wore were the outward expression of that respectability. Particularly on the beach.




Tuesday, July 22, 2014

When Ralph Coates was traded across the Harry Fenton Line

It's the time of year football clubs shuffle their playing staffs, moving young stars on to bigger clubs, despatching yesterday's stars to Hull.

These days they'll tend to arrive all looking the same, stepping out of blacked-out SUVs in skinny jeans and expensively distressed tee shirts, accompanied by disreputable-looking agents, everyone nervously fondling their mobiles.

If they sign they will swiftly move into the local millionaires' enclave. Once installed behind the security gates with their wife, family and dependent relatives, they need only to establish the route to the training ground, golf club and beauty parlour to be able to pick up life precisely as it was at their previous club a few hundred miles away.

 It's an interesting time to be re-reading The Glory Game, Hunter Davies's definitive inside story of the 1971-72 season at Tottenham Hotspur. It begins with the arrival of Ralph Coates from Burnley for £190,000, at that time a cash record for a British player. When Ralph was first told of the deal he said "no player's worth that", which gives you some idea of his modesty.

He and his wife don't have a house and so the club put them in a first floor flat on Green Lanes in Palmers Green. There's no phone or TV. I've lived near Green Lanes for the last forty years and there's never been a time when you could have imagined it as a suitable place to put a top footballer.  Even though it was widely accepted back then that top footballers were wealthy men, earning in some cases more than £200 a week, the Coateses worry about being able to afford the £15,000 needed to buy a house in the South.

When they get changed for their first pre-season training session, the rest of the squad, who were predominantly Southerners, stare at Coates's pointed shoes and narrow trousers, still the mark of the Northerner who hadn't gone South. They congratulate him on his shirt. He says thanks, not realising they're joking.

1971 was the year the flared trouser began to arrive on every High Street via chains like Take Six and Harry Fenton. After that we were all just as in fashion or out of fashion as each other. Maybe Ralph was the last man to move from the old world to the new.


Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Was that the most men-against-boys football match of all time

Imagine you were managing an under-13 football team and their star striker got injured before a big cup tie. They might suggest to you that they wanted to take the shirt of the missing player out and hold it up  during the pre-match formalities. It's the kind of idea over-excited small boys have.

You would quietly tell them that you didn't think that was a good idea. You'd be thinking, I want the team concentrating on what they're going to do in the match, not indulging in this gesture of self-pity.

They lost 7-1. The Brazilians were playing a sentimental game in their heads. The Germans were playing an actual game on the pitch. I loved it. Half the fun of football is watching it go wrong for other people. What I liked about it most was the muted German celebrations after each goal. I think we need more of that kind of thing.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Fifty years ago this week I went to see "A Hard Day's Night". Last night I went to see it again

Fifty years ago this week I went to see "A Hard Day's Night" at the Pioneer cinema in Dewsbury. This was situated on the top floor of the Coop and was reachable via a very slow lift behind a metal grille. In those days nobody took any notice of a film's starting time. You might turn up halfway through, watch until the end and then stay to watch it from the beginning. I watched "A Hard Day's Night" three times that day. It was enthralling.

It was enthralling because it showed the Beatles on a screen yay high and brought them up this close. Nothing had done that before. TV still had end of the pier production values and so we had never seen them via a medium that matched their splendour. Cinema tickets, unlike records, were affordable. That's why the release of "A Hard Day's Night" was a moment of greater impact than the release of the two albums they put out before its soundtrack. Everybody shared it.

Last night I went to a screening of a new digital version of the film at the BFI. The director Dick Lester was interviewed by Mark Lewisohn. Lester pointed out that it was only made because the music division of United Artists saw it as a way to get a best-selling soundtrack album, it was shot in black and white because they didn't think Beatlemania would last long enough to justify the investment in colour and the brass at the company thought it was good but assumed the dialogue would be dubbed to make it more intelligible to an American audience. They were told this would not be possible, not least because there simply wasn't time. There's nothing in media and entertainment that can't be ruined by more money and more time. There's no better illustration of that principle than "A Hard Day's Night".

I find its comedy a bit leaden nowadays. There's one joke in the film and it goes like this. Don't grown-ups say some strange things? Whether it's Richard Vernon's "I fought the war for you" routine or Wilfred Brambell's Irish republican pub talk, Victor Spinetti's overwrought luvviespeak or Kenneth Haigh's assumption of the voice of "yoof", the message is this is a middle-aged world in which the young people are only occasionally allowed to feature. The fans in the crowd scenes are all wearing Famous Five clothes - pleated skirts, cardigans, winter coats and clumpy shoes - as if they've been decked out for a school concert. They're children.

However I now realise that the music is even better than I thought it was at the time. I also see that Lester's great achievement was in finding a way to deliver their performances to the screen and happening upon a template which still haunts anyone who tries to point a camera at a pop group. "If I Fell" and "I'm Happy Just To Dance With You" are the original and most powerful pop videos because they depict the Beatles ostensibly rehearsing for their TV appearance. That means they're playing but also working  and just enjoying being together. They exchange looks that say, right now we're the luckiest people in the world. It's that feeling that they're playing for their own delight that laid down the way that all bands would seek to behave even to this day. Lester talked about how they had an indivisible solidarity that saw them through. They're the Beatles and you're not. "I hope I managed to communicate how I felt about them," says Lester. He did.

There was such outrageous vitality in their music at the time that it didn't need overselling. The vibrancy of the 1964 sound would never be surpassed. It's amazing that they could do it. In the midst of the madness of Beatlemania they wrote and recorded thirteen absolutely brilliant songs for the film. That's seven to go on the soundtrack and another six you can put on side two. Nobody had ever done that before. Nobody's done it since.

The uncanny perfection of "If I Fell" and "I Should Have Known Better" endures after everything else has gone. It filled that luxurious cinema last night as surely as it warmed the Pioneer in Dewsbury fifty years ago this week. We sat there rapt. When the cowbell came in on the middle eight of the title song I felt the screen was about to burst with joy.




Sunday, June 29, 2014

Mis-remembering Bobby Womack

It's good that BBC TV News acknowledge the deaths of artists like Bobby Womack but I'm increasingly irritated by the way they feel they have to misrepresent history in order to justify doing it.

He had hits with "It's All Over Now" and "Across 110th Street", they said. Well, of course, it's the Rolling Stones who had the hit with the first song and when "Across 110th Street" came out in 1972 it got to number 19 in the black singles chart in the USA, which even in those days was hardly a smash. It was only in 1997 when Quentin Tarantino put it on the soundtrack of Jackie Brown that it came to wider attention, or at least to the attention of those people who end up putting together news bulletins in 2014.

The bulletin went on to say that he'd played Glastonbury a while back in front of an audience including everyone from small children to grandparents. The implication was that Bobby had drawn all those people there, which I don't think he would have claimed. Then there was a brief interview with an old bloke in this year's crowd who remembered seeing him and said he liked him because he was, well, old.

I suppose people like Womack are a problem for the news machine. Not obscure enough to be regarded as underrated (indeed he was always being talked up by people like Keith Richards) and not famous enough to able to depend on the people at home having actually heard of him.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Pythons and privilege

Finished The Python Years: Diaries 1969-1979 by Michael Palin. Really interesting. You get the impression Cleese was living beyond his means from early on and that Idle always saw himself as a member of the jet set, which probably helps explain this year's reunion. These people have lifestyles that have to be maintained.

But even modest Michael doesn't really appreciate how privileged he is; or if he does he doesn't let on. In 1979 he's asked to open a fete at the local boys secondary school. He does it in the hope that his own boys will be able to get in to the school when they're old enough. Don't think that was ever in doubt. If you're famous enough to open the fete, you're famous enough to open lots of other doors. It's the kind of power celebrities prefer to play down.