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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

These two interviews stopped me in my tracks.

The first is A Major In Mosul, another example of the New York Times podcast The Daily, which seems the state of the art when it comes to doing daily news with sound. In this they talk to Ben Solomon, a NY Times journalist who has been embedded with a unit of the Iraqi Army whose job it is to clear ISIS forces out of Mosul street by street, hole by hole, in what promises to be the bloodiest street fighting since the Second World War. One of the points he makes is that the ISIS soldiers are an unusually difficult foe for the simple reason that they expect to die.

The second is Sam Harris's long conversation with Graeme Wood, the author of The Way Of The Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State. Wood set out to talk to the people within ISIS about what they believed, why they had joined up and how they saw it all finishing. Strangely enough, he says it was a lot of fun. This is an amazing listen, particularly when it gets on to the details of the End Of Days.

Friday, June 02, 2017

Why Fiona Apple's version of "Across The Universe" is the only Beatles cover that's better than the original

I wrote a piece for Saga to mark the 50th anniversary of "Sgt Pepper". I said there was only one cover of a Beatles song that was better than the original. This was asterisked in the print version but not named in the version online.

On Twitter and Facebook people were speculating what I could be talking about. Was it Joe Cocker's "With A Little Help From My Friends", Stevie Wonder's "We Can Work It Out" or Earth Wind and Fire's "Got To Get You Into My Life"?

If I'm honest (as the footballers say) I don't actually like any of those records. I don't like Ella Fitzgerald's "Can't Buy Me Love" for the same reason. They're all cases of people being told "you've got to do a Beatles song", realising they can't improve on the original record and then doing their own unnecessarily ornamental version just because they're the kind of artists who can.

To my ears they don't sound right. They're overdone. It's like hearing lines from The Sopranos declaimed by some actor of the grand tradition. They're all so American (particularly the Joe Cocker one) and they remind me of how British the Beatles were. They weren't ones to indulge their emotions.

Fiona Apple's version of "Across The Universe" is the only record of hers that's every done anything for me. I only heard it because it's used at the end of "Pleasantville". What I like about  is it goes the other way from the cover versions mentioned above. If anything it's slighter sparer than the original. And it seems to work slightly better in her blank after-hours style than it did in the original. I play it a lot. For me it's the only Beatles cover I would reach for in preference to their original.



Thursday, May 25, 2017

How to record an audiobook


We started recording the audiobook of my new book "Uncommon People" on Monday morning. This is how it works. You go to a studio that specialises in voice recordings. They've printed out a script of the finished version of the book. It looks a bit intimidating when you start.

We were recording in Patch's studio. He was on the other side of the glass with another copy of the script. Whenever you fluff or misread (even so much as changing an indefinite article for a definite article) he stops you and you go back and drop in the correction. As you finish each page you try to drop it to the floor noiselessly. At the end of each session there's a ton of paper at your feet. Patch also warns you if the energy is dropping, as it tends to do in the late afternoon, and dispenses industrial strength lozenges when he hears your voice "getting tight".

The last book too almost four days to record. We must be getting better because we managed to do this in three by starting early on the last day and giving ourselves hardly any breaks. We reached this page at close of play yesterday.






Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Want to know why Donald Trump repeats sentences? This is why Donald Trump repeats sentences.

Of all the impressions of Donald Trump I've seen or heard in the last few months Anthony Atamanuik's is the best. It's so good that it's got this unknown improv actor his own show on Comedy Central.

What impresses me most is that Atamanuik has worked out the great truth about Trump. He's a TV personality. Like all TV personalities he only exists when he's being televised. Like all TV personalities he only believes in one thing, which is the thing that appears to be going down well at this particular moment. When he says things it's clearly the first time he's thought them. Which is why you can observe him hearing them coming out of his own mouth. They're clearly as fresh to him as they are to us. And as soon as he's heard himself say something which sound OK to him he repeats it.

There are two reasons for this. So that he can enjoy the sound of it and also give his mouth time to prepare the next thing to say.

Atamanuik explains the mechanics of his impression to Stephen Colbert here.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

How they put Charlie Chaplin's silent comedy on the radio


I've been reading David Robinson's biography of Charlie Chaplin. It's an amazing tale.

Chaplin makes his name on the London stage in the 1900s. He goes to the USA as a stage performer. Somebody tells him that his pantomime style will work in pictures, which are the new new thing.

He starts making movies in Hollywood just as the First World War is breaking out in Europe. By the time it's over he's the biggest superstar in the biggest business in the history of entertainment.

He's the most famous man in the world. Because he dealt in mime rather than language he was famous in a way we simply can't imagine today.

When radio, another new new thing, comes along in 1920 he's beside himself with nerves at the thought of speaking into the live microphone.

When The Gold Rush opens in London in 1925, the BBC, casting around for new uses for the new medium, broadcasts ten minutes of the sound of the film's audience at the Tivoli in the Strand laughing at Chaplin's performance.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Chuck Berry and the absurdity of categories


Picture by Supersize Art.

Last night at the Aye Write festival in Glasgow I was taken to task for mentioning Carole King and Marvin Gaye in the context of a book that was supposed to be about "rock".

The words used to map music are sometimes good servants. They're invariably bad masters.

I'm old enough to have watched these terms move over the years, usually in response to somebody's needs to map out their own territory, a little place into which they can admit this but not that, a safe space in which they don't have to trust their ears and their emotional responses.

I was with a bunch of crime writers in the bar at the Malmaison later in the evening when we heard the news that Chuck Berry had died.

Chuck got his first hit with "Maybelline" by adapting a hillbilly song "Ida Red". That's a perfect example of how music ebbs and flows across boundaries, making a mockery of categories.

Chuck started writing songs about rock and roll because the kids liked them.

I was one of those kids who got into Chuck because the Beatles and Rolling Stones did his songs. This was 1963, when nobody talked about rock and roll. The Beatles were known as a pop group, when they weren't being a beat group. The Rolling Stones called themselves an R&B band.

At the time these bands were making his songs famous for a new generation, Chuck was in prison. He came out to find his songs were more famous than when he went in. Some of my favourite Chuck Berry records were made immediately after he came out. The English hipster DJ Guy Stevens had the idea of putting them out in the UK on the Pye R&B label, thus making them acceptable to music snobs.

The best of them is "You Never Can Tell", which I always say is the best record ever made. It's also, thanks to the Pye R&B label, one of the prettier records ever made. What category it belongs in I am not qualified to say.



Monday, March 06, 2017

My eight favourite podcasts right now


The scope of my radio column in the Guardian Guide has been expanded to include podcasts, which means I've heard a few new ones that I've really liked, some of which I've added to my regular listening diet where they take their place among some old favourites. All media is a question of habit. That applies to podcasts more than it does to any other form of media. People who listen to podcasts listen regularly. They like podcasts because they slot into the routine of their day or week. Furthermore there's something about the intimacy of the medium that means you get in an extra bad mood when you miss an episode. These are my eight favourites.
  1. The Football Ramble. Obviously, there are lots of club-specific podcasts. I'm an occasional contributor to one, The Spurs Show. The strength of the Football Ramble is it covers all football and the four blokes who do it are as knowledgeable as football journalists without any of the accompanying self-importance. I've listened to hundreds of Ramble episodes and I still don't really know who Luke Moore, Pete Donaldson, Marcus Speller and Jim Campbell are. It doesn't matter much to me as long as each of them knows that their job is to keep the red ball of conversation up in the air and resist at all times the temptation to appear smarter than the others.
  2. The Daily. I really hope this is working for the New York Times because it seems to me one of the most interesting things to have come out of a newspaper in recent years. Each Daily is made up of a story which has been in and around the news in recent weeks, explored in a more rounded fashion.  This week I've heard a story about a small town in Illinois which voted for Trump but then found that a much-loved pillar of the community turned out to be an illegal immigrant. Just now I was listening to one about the North Korean government's assassination programme and how it fits into their crazy-like-a-fox foreign policy. The Daily is posted every morning in time for NYT readers to listen on the way to work. It's usually available here late morning.
  3. The Awards Show Show. When something big happens you want to binge on it. I found this because I was looking for something that told me in detail what went wrong at this year's Oscars and how. I got that explanation from The Awards Show Show because both the people on the podcast were in the room when it happened and understood how it was supposed to happen and why it went wrong. Anyway, it turns out this was the last podcast of The Awards Show Show because it was a pop-up production which ran during Hollywood's awards season. Once that's over its work is done. Until next year, presumably. 
  4. Pod Save America. Trump has been good for the newspaper business. He's been even better for the podcasting business. Right now the air fairly crackles with the sound of indignant "progressives" (as they style themselves) venting about his latest faux pas. Trumpcast does the best impression of his voice and is always worth hearing for the bit where they read out his tweets. The NPR Politics Podcast does an excellent job of reporting what is actually going on when people are distracted by his latest brainstorm. Pod Save America is interesting because it's the vehicle of a bunch of young men who were inside the White House and the government during the previous administration. Their company Crooked Media is shaping up to be the liberal Breitbart. This venture has taken off so well that they probably won't go back to the tiresome business of government and will probably restrict themselves to commentary. Power without responsibility being the prerogative of the harlot and all that.
  5. I don't think you could do Death, Sex and Money in the UK because you wouldn't be able to find interviewees who were prepared to talk about their experiences with that key triumvirate. It's a brilliant title because it cuts to the quick of the things we're all interested in. The first one I heard was an interview with retired NFL player Dominique Foxworth, which was a unique view of what it's like to be paid a fortune for playing a game and then not to wish to play any more. The second I heard was Sallie Krawcheck who used to run America's biggest wealth management firm but never stopped worrying about her own bank balance.
  6. Each episode of one of my favourite podcasts begins "I'm Phoebe Judge and this is Criminal". The thing about crime is that, like life, it contains infinite variety. It hits us where we live. Sometimes we're the victims of it. Sometimes we wonder if we could get away with it. Sometimes we just shudder at the thought of it. We remain fascinated with it. For that reason alone, Criminal could run for ever.
  7. This American Life is the gold standard of Public Radio in the United States. It's superbly produced and immaculately presented by Ira Glass. But what makes it work is the sheer size of America and the willingness of Americans to talk. Contained within that immense country is at least one example of every variety of human behaviour and it will likely have happened to somebody who is perfectly happy to talk about it. The one I was just listening to is about a woman who at the age of forty-three was told by her mother that she had taken the wrong baby home from the hospital. You know, that old chestnut.
  8. I don't actually listen to the Word Podcast on account of the fact that I'm on it, along with Mark Ellen. Most of these are recorded at our Word In Your Ear evenings at the Islington. You can add your name to the mailing list to be kept informed up upcoming events. Please do.