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Thursday, March 26, 2015

In Publishing column: keep those awards entries short and don't be luvvie about it

Fifty years late, here's my review of "Highway 61 Revisited"

It's all about the fear of falling. By 1965 Bob Dylan had become famous and celebrated more quickly than anyone else. Like anyone suddenly famous and celebrated, he had a secret fear of being found out.

Most of us just have dreams about having to go for job interviews without clothes. Songwriters put the same fear into songs.

I realised this last night listening to a pristine mono copy through a top-of-the-range hi-fi in the library at the Barbican.

Side one starts with "Like A Rolling Stone", pop's best take on what it must be like to fall from grace. Side two starts with "Queen Jane Approximately", which is about being shunned by those on whom you previously depended. Both songs are supposedly about other people. But Dylan knew their falls might foreshadow his own. The failings we point out in others are often the same ones we don't like to recognise in ourselves.

In 1965 only disgraced cabinet ministers seemed to care about prestige and shame. In the age of social media we all do. That's one of the reasons these songs are even more powerful now.

At the same time the music feels as if it's on the verge of falling apart. The musicians are never comfortable and on top of things. You can almost hear their eyes swivelling from side to side as they try to keep track of the chord shapes, wonder whether each verse is the last and whether what they're doing is what's required.

Somebody pointed out that until last night he'd never heard the tambourine part on "Like  A Rolling Stone" and how strange and haphazard it seemed to be. It's that very uncertainty that keeps the music so alive. "Highway 61 Revisited" isn't perfect, which is one of the reasons why it's still brilliant.

Monday, March 23, 2015

I don't know about the future of the music press but its past gets better all the time

A questionnaire about the future of the music press was doing the rounds online this weekend. "Do you get most of your information about music from press or from blogs?" That kind of thing. I stopped filling those in a while ago. They're mostly sent by journalism students hoping they can turn their dissertation into a gig. I tell them the gig's gone but they want to believe that's not true so badly that they try to reason the music press back into rude health.

They'd be better off reading a couple of new memoirs about rock journalism from the days when the living was easy and the cotton was high. Shake It Up Baby! is by Norman Jopling and it's sub-titled "notes from a pop music reporter 1961-1972".

For instance, in the week of May 15th 1965 Norman's in the Savoy with The Beatles who've come to see Bob Dylan. They go to the restaurant and order porridge and pea sandwiches. Paul sings their new single "Help!" to him and says "I think John and I are writing different sorts of songs now....I can't say whether they're better or worse but they're certainly different."

The other book is Another Little Piece of My Heart: My Life of Rock and Revolution in the '60s by Richard Goldstein, who was the man who wrote the "Pop Eye" column in the Village Voice and therefore has a claim to be the world's first rock critic. By the late sixties the chummy tone of Norman Jopling's articles in the Record Mirror had given way to something altogether more knowing.

For instance, Goldstein remembers talking to Jimi Hendrix in New York in 1970. "Hendrix was stupefied, his shirt stained with what looked like caked puke. There was no publicist to make excuses or even wipe him up."

There's nothing quite as seedy as the Hendrix encounter or as epochal as dinner with the Beatles in Mark Ellen's Rock Stars Stole My Life!: A Big Bad Love Affair with Music, which has just come out in paperback, but there is a vivid and some say quite amusing account of what it was like to work for NME, Smash Hits, Q and the rest when the business was exploding in every direction. In some senses that was the best era of all. I would say that, wouldn't I?

Mark and I are talking to Richard Goldstein and Norman Jopling at next Tuesday's Word In Your Ear at the Islington. Anybody with even a passing interest in what it was like when the going was good really ought to be there.

Meanwhile, here's Richard interviewing Jim Morrison in 1969.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

How Lambert and Stamp and the Who made it up as they went along

Chris Stamp was the brother of Terence, the film star. Kit Lambert was the son of Constant, the celebrated classical musician.

They met in the film business of the early sixties. They got into music to further their film careers. They reckoned that the only way they could get a seat at the table when movie deals were made was by coming along with their own pop group who wrote their own material. That's how they found The Who.

They signed the group by promising to pay them a weekly wage. The Who's parents were very impressed by the weekly wage. Lambert and Stamp didn't know much about the music business but they managed to keep the weekly wage coming long enough to inspire the group. Lambert encouraged Townshend to write long-form pieces that could be performed in concert halls. Stamp showed the group how to carry themselves.

By the time they came to record "Who's Next" in 1971 Lambert and Stamp were so deep in drink and drugs that the group had to take care of themselves. Lambert never quite sobered up and died in 1981. Stamp eventually got straight and has made his peace with The Who, peace enough for them to be featured in a fascinating little documentary about their unique relationship with the group.

Because they were film guys the footage of the group they shot back in the days is surprisingly beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that it looks almost artificial. The best bit is Townshend and Daltrey sitting together doing what they never did back in the day, which is actually discuss the tensions within the group. Like all the survivors of the sixties they look back in amazement at the things you could get away with in those days just before everybody learned how to be professional.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

My favourite Andy Fraser band wasn't Free

When I heard Andy Fraser had died I got out this album, "First Water" by Sharks.  It didn't disappoint.

Sometimes it seems every band from the 70s has some kind of cult following. But not Sharks.

There's been no loving reissue programme for Sharks, no retrospective in Uncut, no young movie actor has stepped forward to claim them as his own. They're not on Spotify and there's barely anything on You Tube. It seems the only people who know anything about them are the people who saw them.

In the wake of the death of Fraser people are rightly talking about Free, the band he was in before forming Sharks. They're the band with all the hits. Sharks were a slightly less ingratiating, slightly more "indie" (to use a word that nobody used at the time) outlet for Fraser's still teenage instincts.

Fraser formed Sharks in 1972 with Marty Simon, a drummer from Canada, recruited Britain's most versatile session guitarist Chris Spedding and probably thought he'd have a shot at being his own front man. But the record company didn't rate his voice and brought in Snips as singer.

That probably explains why he left when their first album "First Water" came out in 1973 and failed to set the world on fire. They made another one which isn't anything like as good and then split up.

I saw Sharks three times before Fraser left and they made one of the best rackets I've ever heard in my life. They made music which had some of the more appealing characteristics of the jam - that sense of a groove being mined to see what might be inside it and the feeling of edges which nobody could be bothered to polish  - allied to that catchiness which hints at further layers of catchiness to come.

Like most great rock and roll bands they were led from the rear by the rhythm section, nobody in the band was actually playing what you were hearing and the guitar solos were largely implied.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Everything worthwhile I know I learned by heart

Every week there's a story on the news agenda which is so stupid you just know it's not worth finding out about. Last week there was something about a kitchen. Don't go any further. I don't wish to know.

This week there are poets arguing about the value of kids learning things by heart. I'm sure poets aren't stupid enough to say that this is ever a bad idea. I'm equally sure there are hacks capable or twisting their words to make it look as though they did. And I'm certain the BBC will have staged one of those sham debates where somebody who's in favour of fresh air has been put up against somebody who thinks it's bad for you.

I took a little notice of this because recently I've tried to teach myself to learn a few bits of Shakespeare off by heart. I used to be able to do this when I was young and I was interested to see if I still could, particularly now that Google's causing my mental muscles to atrophy.

I also did it as an alternative to reading while on the tube or listening to music while out walking. I'm enjoying the process. I'll be the one sitting opposite you staring into space with lips barely moving, stopping occasionally to check the lines on my phone.

Everything worthwhile I know I learned by heart.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Did Marvin Gaye actually write "Got To Give It Up"? Up to a point.

Lots of interesting things came out of the Marvin Gaye/Pharrell Williams court case.

There's the $32 million the track is said to have earned, which indicates that today's big hits are bigger than ever.

There's Robin Thicke's admission that he had no part in writing the song, despite having his name among the composer credits. (All the big hits today are written by teams. The artist's name is generally included, though it's impossible to know how much part they play in coming up with it. One very famous superstar is known as "add a word, take a third".)

There's a good piece here from today's New York Times which argues that the whole case is based on a way of looking at the world that no longer applies. One of the point it makes is as follows: "Implicit in the premise of the case is that Mr Gaye's version of songwriting is somehow more serious than what Mr Williams does, since it is the one that the law is designed to protect".

I'll go further. "Mr Gaye's version of songwriting" was probably nothing like we think it was.  For a start "Got To Give It Up", the song that was allegedly copied, was never actually written. It was recorded from various jams, often surreptitiously, by Marvin Gaye's engineer Art Stewart, who is quoted in David Ritz's Marvin Gaye biography "Divided Soul" saying "Marvin wasn't sure of what I was doing but he left me alone to piece the song together. On Christmas Day, 1976, after working on it for months, I ran it over to his house. He liked it but still wasn't sure - a typical Marvin reaction."

We'll never know how true that recollection is but it certainly chimes with other accounts of how Marvin Gaye made records. He had to work through other musicians and producers because he didn't have the know-how to make a track on his own and in those days the technology still required specialist operators. And he could never make up his mind about anything.

He used to complain that Motown never paid him properly for his efforts. The musicians he worked with used to mutter the same thing about him. God knows what they think of all this money going to his children, who certainly had nothing to do with it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The three lots of people who will miss Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear

If this proves to be the end of the road for Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear then it will leave a hole in the lives of three distinct sets of people.

First of all, there are the people who love him and the programme and never miss it.

Then there are the people like me who miss it all the time but rather enjoy it when we happen to catch it.

But the people who will miss him most of all are the ones who hate him and seem to use him as a handy instrument to calculate their position on the attitudinal spectrum.

The first set of people will follow him to whichever broadcaster puts most money in his pocket.

The second set will catch him even less frequently and will be dimly aware that it isn't quite the same on another channel.

The third lot will be desolated and will have to go hunting for somebody else to disapprove of, which is getting harder and harder in a BBC gelded by Compliance Culture.

Clarkson's a proper TV personality but what made his shtick work was that he was doing it on the BBC.

Not only did that give him access to the biggest audiences and, thanks to BBC Worldwide's success in selling the brand, the biggest budgets, it also gave his stunts a legitimacy they wouldn't have had anywhere else and at the same time made it seem that he was just about, by the skin of his teeth, getting away with something he shouldn't be getting away with.

Guys like Clarkson are always on the points of being fired. That's their standard operating position. Wherever you paint the line, they go and stand just six inches the other side of it. It's a way of proving to themselves that they are who everybody seems to think they are. The downside is they get fired from time to time. It's the cost of doing business.

In the case of Clarkson and Top Gear that firing would be very costly and messy for both parties because they've built the brand around him. Stories of actual or threatened punch-ups suggest that the relationship was reaching its natural end anyway. The problem is that people no longer do the natural thing, which is just walk away. TV shows nowadays can make so much money in syndication that they're kept going long after their energy has run out.

Much like rock bands.