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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

We gentleman of a certain age still live in Hancock's world

I had to smile this morning when someone tweeted the old Tony Hancock line "have they forgotten Magna Carta? Did she die in vain?"

In the early seventies I shared a flat with a load of blokes. Between us we had three budget Hancock LPs on Pye's Golden Guinea label. We played them on Sunday afternoons when nothing was open and there was nothing else to do.

Thus we committed every word of The Blood Donor, The Radio Ham, The Missing Page, The Reunion  and the others to memory. There are a few comedy series that stand up to repeated viewing and listening but I don't know another where the individual lines linger quite as much.

Not a week goes by I don't quote one either out loud or just in my head. Handing around the wine gums at the theatre the other day I found myself saying "don't take the black one", which then led to "they do tubes of all black ones nowadays" and then "I know, but you can't always get 'em".

Galton and Simpson were great writers, they were coming up with lines for great comic actors and most of them were tried first on the radio, which may account for their peculiar savour, for the way they only lend themselves to being said in the way the actor in the original production said them.

I know them like other people know poetry. 

"Given, no. Spilt, yes."

"We're not all Rob Roys, you know."

"Last one in the Reichstag's a sissy."

"We're going to Margate this year, if any of you young nurses fancy it. No funny business."

I walked in on my youngest Skyping mates all over the world the other day and couldn't stop myself saying "send a bread pudding to Kuala Lumpur".

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

"Subterranean Homesick Blues" and the days when records came to us in dreams

Richard Williams' piece about the anniversary of Subterranean Homesick Blues got me thinking back to the first time I heard it. In those days the Light Programme hardly played any records. Thanks to the BBC's agreements with the Musicians Union, they were only allowed a handful. Most of their output was light orchestral. A pop record, any pop record, coming on the radio was exciting. If it was a record like "Subterranean Homesick Blues", which seemed to have no precedent, that was doubly the case.

I think I remember hearing it first on the TV. I dimly remember a minute of it was played on "Juke Box Jury", probably over shots of students and shorthand typists uncertainly trying to tap their foot along to the beat. It literally sent shivers up my spine. I had a presentiment that when I finally got to hear this record properly it would thrill me beyond measure.

I knew that I might not hear it again for weeks and if I did it would come without warning. I might turn on the radio just as it was finishing, which would be like arriving at the youth club dance to find the girl you fancied laughing at somebody else's jokes. Furthermore, when it actually came out you might not be able to afford to buy it and you'd have to hope somebody would bring their copy to school and you would be able to persuade the music teacher to let you use the gramophone at lunchtime.

In the gap between hearing something and being able to hear it again in those days a strange and rather beautiful feeling blossomed. You re-ran the memory of your hearing the record in your head and tried to uncover further details of it, as if you were the witness to a crime, going over your recollections again and again trying to come up with another line or a sound you had forgotten.

This meant that music came to you as if in a dream. This is interesting because that's often the way a song first occurs to the musician. Before it's something they play it's something they hear in their head. The dream analogy applies particularly well to "Subterranean Homesick Blues", a performance that still sounds today as if it's tumbling forth faster than the recording machine can handle it and that if it hadn't managed to capture it on that occasion the moment would have been lost to memory entirely, much the way most dreams are.


Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Buying more books saves you something more important than money

Discussions about digital migration are often ham-strung by a version of the either/or fallacy. I'm sure the boss of Waterstone's would love to believe that Kindle sales have all but disappeared and the paper book is making a comeback. I'm sure it's not as simple as that.

The habit matters more than the product and the Kindle may have re-awakened the habit of reading books among some people. If I'm reading something major nowadays, the kind of thing that I'm going to want to have in my pocket to read at the bus stop, I'll tend to buy a cheap paperback and also get it on Kindle. Generally speaking, books are cheap. The major investment is the time devoted to reading them. If I buy both forms I'll read more quickly, which is a more satisfactory way to read. I'll then get through more books, which will make me feel better and also look for more books.

I think that's what they call win-win.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Just one amazing detail from Gyles Brandreth's Westminster Diaries

2015 is going well. I'm in front of a fire with Breaking The Code: Westminster Diaries by Gyles Brandreth, which is the most candid parliamentary memoir you're ever going to read.

I'm not one of those people who believe MPs are up to their necks in bribery and corruption but the entry for February 3rd 1993 contains a wonderful illustration of how people in institutions - all institutions - design things to make live easier for themselves.

Brandreth was a member of the Heritage Select Committee, which was chaired by Gerald Kaufman. He writes:
"Gerald and the Select Committee are off to the U.S. at the weekend, gathering evidence for our enquiry into the cost of CDs. Gerald explained to us that if we all went, the Budget wouldn't stretch to us travelling Business Class. He felt that those going would want to travel Business Class (murmurs of assent), so was anyonready to volunteer not to go? I put my hand up."
Was there ever a time when rational human beings thought that Parliament could make the slightest difference to the price of compact discs? And in that time was it really felt that a bunch of Parliamentarians could rock up in New York and be given access to some information about CD pricing that they couldn't have got back in Westminster? And how did Gerald Kaufman manage to keep a straight face while asking that question about Business Class?

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?"



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.