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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Publishers should stop promising things they can't deliver

Trinity Mirror have announced the closure of their People.co.uk website and the departure of Sue Douglas who oversaw it. That's sad for her and anyone who worked on it.

I don't care whether it was a good, bad or indifferent idea. The way they went about it was wrong in one key respect.

In November, which was when it launched, Sue Douglas was on The Media Show talking it up. The interview, which starts here at 2:56, reminded me of Siobhan Sharpe's flights of fingers-crossed positivity in the Olympic comedy Twenty Twelve. Steve Hewlett didn't have to be particularly tough to expose the fact that she seemed to be making it up as she went along.

And that shouldn't matter because in the world of the internet that's what people do - they start with a small idea, look at how people use it and then build it up from there. They literally make it up as they go along. What Sue Douglas was doing on the The Media Show was not demonstrating something, which might have been powerful. Instead she was promising something, which was what people used to do in the old media world.

The worst thing you can do nowadays is promise something. Nobody believes you. As my friends in the music business say, you can't hype people any more. You can't predict something is going to be the case. The only thing you can do is point out what is already the position and build from there. The only hype that matters is the hype the users provide themselves.

Large companies with web initiatives should rejoice in the fact that they don't have to get the permission of advertisers or distributors before they start. In the words of that well-known manufacturer of gym pumps, Just Do It.


Monday, January 27, 2014

Is this World War I or Photoshop?

Saw this on Twitter yesterday, captioned "World War One battlefield".

If you say so. To me it looks like a cross between War Picture Library and Photoshop.

You don't find a highly composed panoramic view of the battlefield from the second war and camera technology had moved on quite a lot by then. Back in 1915 cameras weren't exactly point-and-shoot. A lot of the most frequently used images were reconstructed, just like lots of the early action newsreels were re-enacted in quarries back in Blighty.

I  always think you can tell real war photography from the fact that the photographer is too terrified to hold the camera steady.

Like this (right). I believe in that.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The triumph of hope over experience in the competitive world of the gastropub

There used to be a pub at the end of Chapel Market called The Salmon and Compasses. Few ever ventured there.

About five years ago it was taken over by a guy who owned a successful gastropub in Clerkenwell. He got the builders and decorators in, gave it a facelift and re-opened it as The Compass. We did our True Stories Told Live evenings in the room upstairs, which worked very well.

The owner told me the problem with Chapel Market is you couldn't get people to pay much for lunch there. You could fill it in the evening but unless you were doing a certain amount of covers at lunch you couldn't afford the kind of chef you needed. That's why he sold it to somebody else.

After about a year the new owner sold it again, this time to a firm who run a very successful place about a quarter of a mile away. (In Islington that quarter of a mile may as well take you to the dark side of the moon.) Anyway, the new owners got the decorators in, changed the name of the place again and ran it under the new name for about a year.

Now it's closed again, it's changed hands again and the decorators are in again. That's three times in five years.

I've noticed the same pattern all over London. Pubs, clubs and restaurants change hands all the time. Whenever they do they close, call in the interior decorators, change the name and then re-open, by which time it seems to me that only the decorators have profited.

I'm sure decor and name do make some difference. I don't think they make all that much difference. Surely what determines the success of any catering business has to be location, location, location. If I can see that, why can't the people who run them?

Monday, January 20, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis and the most important six words in the music business

I have to pick a few nits about the historical background.

It opens with a shot of a microphone. It's 1961. Would a folk cellar like The Gaslight have had one? Or had need of one?

He goes round to his girlfriend's apartment and she has what looks like a hundred albums. In 1961 young people didn't have a hundred albums.

Somebody sings "The Last Thing On My Mind", which Tom Paxton didn't record until 1964.

The language is completely 21st century. In 1961 nobody came out with a torrent of profanity and if they did it certainly wasn't in front of women and children.

All that said, this is a haunting film. I'd happily watch it again tomorrow.

Would-be folk star Llewyn Davis is so consumed by the needs of his own career that the needs of the people around him simply don't seem real to him; plus he's so convinced of his own talent that he can't understand why anybody else should have the tiniest share of the spotlight. He thinks it's the managers and agents preventing him from being successful. He doesn't understand his real problem is people don't like him.

He gets to play a song for the Albert Grossman figure. The man listens to the whole song (every song throughout the film is given a complete performance), then looks at him and says the six words which everybody in the music business thinks and hardly anybody ever says: "I don't see any money here".

Friday, January 17, 2014

Why real life is never good enough for glossy magazines

Jezebel claim to have the unretouched pictures of Annie Leibowitz's shoot with Lena Dunham for American Vogue.

If they're to be believed the powers that be have rearranged Dunham, whose whole thing is she doesn't look like a model, so that she looks, well, like a model.

It's very interesting stuff. Head from one shot added to torso from other shot etc. Flesh excised from anywhere the A.D. doesn't wish flesh to be.

I know this kind of thing goes on. In my experience it generally goes on with the enthusiastic approval of the subject.

That's as maybe. Jezebel is puzzled by all this. It says "men are generally allowed to have pores and wrinkles; women are supposed to be perfect". That's true, I suppose, but I can guarantee you that any men who have made it through to the pages of Vogue have had a similar amount of post-production work done on their images. Photoshopping is like the cast of Friends. Once one character got thinner, the others had to get thinner for fear of appearing fat.

But more than that. If you want to know why art directors and photographers do this kind of thing, let me refer you to that old TV programme where the Comic Strip did the Miner's Strike. You may remember they had Al Pacino playing Arthur Scargill.

Anyway, the most telling scene in that film, one of the most telling scenes in all TV, came when the director and art director stood in the middle of a proposed location, which was a genuine mining town somewhere in South Yorkshire.

They looked sceptically up and down, scanning the video store, the Indian takeaway and Spar grocer. Eventually the art director, clearly dissatisfied, turned away.

As he went he uttered the line which tells you everything you need to know about the image-monger's trade. "It doesn't say 'mining town' to me."

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

What Evelyn Waugh (might have) said about rock band reunions

Christine McVie is rejoining Fleetwood Mac, forty four years after she first joined them and sixteen years after she left. This must be some kind of record. I'm reminded of the Father Brown line that Evelyn Waugh uses in "Brideshead Revisited".
Father Brown said something like 'I caught him' (the thief) 'with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.'
Think he was talking about the Catholic church. It applies to rock bands too.

Friday, January 10, 2014

50 years ago today the Rolling Stones accidentally make a masterpiece

Fifty years ago today the Rolling Stones recorded "Not Fade Away" at Regent Sound in Denmark Street, or Tin Pan Alley as they called it in those days. According to Keith Richards it was a tiny room at the back of a shop, with a two-track Revox mounted on the wall and sound-proofed with egg boxes. According to this it wasn't much different when Black Sabbath came there in 1970 and recorded "Paranoid".

Andrew Loog Oldham was the Stones producer though he didn't have much more experience than they did. They later did their first album in the same place. I still think it's the best first album ever made by anyone. According to Keith the tiny room made it easier to make those first albums "but hard to make a better one".


Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Why did nobody tell Bruce Springsteen he looks like Shakin' Stevens on his new album cover?

That's the cover of the new Bruce Springsteen album. It looks like a Shakin' Stevens reissue on a CBS budget label.  It won't come as a surprise to people who've seen the covers of his last few, all of which looked as if they'd emerged at the end of a long lunch with the Top Gear production team.

It wasn't always like this. I know Springsteen album covers are never going to be the first thing talked about when art directors gather but back in the day there were a few that were excellent and one that was definitive, both of the genre and of him. That one.

Obviously he's never going to have the same glow at 64 he had when he was 24 but whereas the young man looks as if he has his tongue in his cheek, the old man wears the heavy self-consciousness of someone about to take the stage at an advertising agency Christmas party. I know he looks better than most men his age but most men his age have grown-up children who see it as their duty in life to make sure Dad never wears a Levi jacket. You'd have thought they could have told him.


Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Neil Young stops the crowd at Carnegie Hall from clapping and he's got a point

During the first of four shows he's playing at Carnegie Hall this week Neil Young stopped a song because the audience was clapping in the wrong time. According to the New York Times review "Mr Young seemed rattled by the precarious balance of worship and familiarity exhibited by the capacity crowd".

There are times when Neil Young seems a bit up himself, as the young people might say. This doesn't sound like one of them. I know exactly what the writer means by the worship and familiarity. It happens all the time these days when you go and see icons. The audience are so keyed up for the experience that they get ahead of themselves. They're not reacting to what's going on in the hall. They're celebrating the fact that they're in the same room as a legend.

When I went to see Bob Dylan recently I sat near a middle-aged woman who stretched her arms towards him in supplication throughout every song. If this had been a church service you would have moved away from her. At that gig we were close enough for Dylan himself to be able to see her. He must have found it disturbing as well. Then again I'm sure he's used to it by now.

I'm writing this while listening to Live At The Cellar Door, a collection of live recordings of Neil Young made in 1970 when he had just written the songs that made his name. There's no untoward audience reaction here, no cack-handed clapping along to songs that really don't call for any sort of percussion and he can even sing the line in After The Gold Rush about "I felt like getting high" without anyone answering with an approving whoop. It's a relief.

Johann Johannsson and the sound of peace and quiet

Johann Johannsson is an Icelandic composer whose music is approvingly described as "haunting". That's the word critics always reach for when they can't hang their hat on the beat or the lyrics. "Haunting" is what people who've got university degrees use to describe music that's easy to listen to, which I suppose is different from easy listening. I play quite a bit of music in this category. I reach for it when I'm looking for a change from music that has a lot going on in it. If that sounds like a slight, I don't mean it to be.

Fordlandia is a piece inspired by an industrial community Henry Ford tried to establish in the Brazilian Rain forest in the 1920s. He did it in the hope it would supply enough rubber to reduce his company's dependence on the products of Malaya. It didn't work. The local pests killed the rubber plants. The workers didn't like Ford's regime. The Brazilian government didn't cooperate. It's been a ghost town since the thirties. 

Once a composer like Johannsson has chosen to tell us that his music's about Fordlandia then something magic happens in our heads; we can instantly see the boats coming upstream with their crew of sweating, fly-swatting petrol heads. We can smell the decay. We can snigger at this triumph of nature over petty, striving, greedy man. Had he chosen to call it something different we would be seeing something different again. At school Mr Grimshaw used to herd us all into the lecture hall, get out the old wood-panelled record player, some classical recordings and then ask us if we could see the sea or trees moving in the wind or war of whatever it was that the piece of music was supposed to be inspired by. We would nod and say we could. I think what we were mainly enjoying was the peace and quiet.



 Johannsson is in the UK in March. Dates here.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Sad about Phil Everly, but the great rock'n'roll quartet are still with us

There's no way you can say this without appearing to be tempting fate but the death of Phil Everly is another reminder of the fact that the great quartet of rock'n'roll front men - Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino - are all still with us.

Chuck Berry, who's 87, is due to play his next gig in ten days time at Blueberry Hill, Missouri.

Jerry Lee Lewis, who claims to be only 78, is doing the Sams Town Casino on February 1st.

81-year-old Little Richard claims that he played his last gig at the Howard Theatre in Washington on September 1st after he experienced trouble breathing. He's probably just waiting for the right offer.

Fats Domino, 85, has just been announced as an Honorary Grand Marshall at March's Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, although he isn't feeling up to riding on a float and has relinquished the duty of playing his hits to his son. 

Considering that he was thought dead in Hurricane Katrina, which washed away many of his possessions, it's amazing Domino's here at all. You could say the same for all four of them. In their different ways, none of them have been poster boys for living right.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Phil Everly (1939 - 2014)

The Everly Brothers had their hits in that period at the end of the 50s and the beginning of the 60s when, if we're to believe conventional wisdom, nothing very interesting was happening.

They were soon to be put in the shade by The Beatles, who loved them as much as they loved anyone. George was a particularly big fan. Don and Phil were the third proper group he saw live and he would perform the obscure album track "So How Come (No One Loves Me)" in the Beatles stage act in 1961.

The Everlys always appealed to guitarists. Even in their tuxes on Sunday Night At The London Palladium there was always something rootsy about them.

I remember their red label Warner Brother singles sounding their best on the jukebox in the new coffee bars where you could get a cup of frothy instant in a Duralex glass cup. The best ones, like "Cathy's Clown" and "Price Of Love", were sad and slightly sour. They were just the thing when you were fourteen and feeling sorry for yourself, which was most of the time.

But the place they sounded best of all was at the fairground. In those pre-headphones days one of the few places where you could hear recorded music played loud was at the fairground. The records accompanied the dodgems or the waltzer and the combination of movement and music squared the intensity of the experience.

The song generally lasted as long as the ride. For me the Everlys will always summon the sadness and elation of the fairground. They had a song about it.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Why musicians are always bitter

Reviewing DUKE: A Life of Duke Ellington in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik recognises that Ellington took tunes invented by his famous sidemen and called them his own, but also makes the following good point about someone like Billy Strayhorn:
"Would he have had the energy and mastery to form a band, sustain it, recruit the right musicians, survive their eccentricities and addictions, give them music they could play, record it, and keep enough of a popular audience alive to justify the expense of the rest?"
He probably wouldn't. Ellington's genius was for getting the most out of other people and that will probably involve exploiting them. The tragedy is that music publishing is a winner-takes-all game that over-compensates the person who gets their name in the credits and under-compensates the Billy Strayhorns of this world.  It also explains why musicians over the age of forty are always bitter.