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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.