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Friday, December 30, 2011

The music of the Unknown Artist

I found this reel of tape today while clearing up at home. God knows what it is. I don't have any means of listening to it and I'm not madly curious either. Half an hour later I was listening to The Fame Studios Story 1961-1973 (3cd Box) and I noted that one track on the third disc is credited to "unknown female".

There are only two generalisations about the sexes that hold good. When called upon to describe an item of clothing they once wore, women will always draw it on their body. When asked for their response to a piece of music, men will only tell you what they think once they know who it's by.

All minority evening radio works on this latter principle. Genre first, artist second, actual emotional response a distant third. It wonder if any radio station could find room for a programme which just played records based on what they sounded like and talked about them based on the things you could hear in them. Stupid question.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Sports Impersonality Of The Year

From The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach:
Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine. It didn’t matter how beautifully you performed sometimes, what you did on your best day, how many spectacular plays you made. You weren’t a painter or a writer - you didn’t work in private and discard your mistakes, and it wasn’t just your masterpieces that counted. What mattered, as for any machine, was repeatability. Moments of inspiration were nothing compared to elimination of error.
Whenever players are asked to comment on a game in progress they'll tend to say "we need to cut out the errors". Commentators, on the other hand, say "they need to produce something special". Never read anything which illuminated the different ways of looking at it quite as well as this.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Importance Of Somebody Being Ernest


My Dad was called Ernest. That's him pushing my sister. Over the last thirty years we've watched the fashions in boy's names click by. We've seen the stalwart Edwardian names give way to the matier painter and decorator names of the 40s and 50s. We saw all sorts of unlikely names come back but my sister and I have always been pretty certain that it would be a long time before anyone would call a child Ernest again.

Today my wife was in the hairdressers next to another client with a four-week old baby. "What's his name?" she asked. The mother explained that they had combed through all the available names in search of something that wasn't going to turn up in those inevitable lists of the most popular names. They'd decided on Ernest. Best of luck, son.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Families at war and peace

Watched The War Room, D.A. Pennebaker's 1993 documentary about Bill Clinton's election team. It's pre-digital. The only mobiles are huge items, charging on desks. The pace of the campaign is dictated by the headlines of daily papers. There's some talk of "meeting round the computer, then you can show us."

The thing that makes it more remarkable is the fact that James Carville, the "raging cajun" who stars in the film as Clinton's chief strategist, is an item with Mary Matalin, who also appears in the film as a key spokesperson for the incumbent President George Bush. This seems to me like the definition of a civil society.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Why actors make such good bankers

This morning I went to a screening of Margin Call, the Kevin Spacey/Jeremy Irons drama about the coming apart of a Wall Street firm over a 36-hour period in 2008. It begins with a corporate cull, as over 70% of a dealing floor are "let go" in a few hours. The human resources people move in to state the severance terms, the Blackberrys are switched off, computer access codes changed and security men escort the 70% off the premises with their personal possessions in a cardboard box.

Once they've gone Spacey gathers his remaining troops and reassures them that because they have survived they are a lot nearer to their boss's job than was the case a few hours earlier. They may miss the people who've gone, he says, but they know that ultimately they're the beneficiaries of the cull.

It's quite a shocking scene and the young actors (Zachary Quinto and Penn Badgley among them) manage to look shocked on our behalf. So this is how the world of finance works. This is the brutal downside to those big bonuses. How foreign that is to the lives the rest of us lead.

But then another thought stole over me. If there's one section of the population for whom this shouldn't be a surprise, one bunch of professionals who have spent huge parts of their young lives finding themselves on one side or another of an uncaring cull, who know what it's like to be figuratively escorted off the premises, who know that the difference between success and failure can be the flip of a coin, it's actors.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Why don't we cough on the radio?

Before doing Front Row on Tuesday night I was worried that my incipient cough would let me down. It had kept me awake most of the night before. In the words of Julian Clary, I sucked on a Fisherman's Friend until a minute before we went live. Fifteen minutes later I was once again amazed to note that I'd got through it all without even thinking of coughing.

I've discussed this with broadcasting people before. How the adrenalin required to do radio or TV somehow shuts down all the receptors that make us want to cough or sneeze. On the stage it's known as "Doctor Theatre". The person on the stage will not feel the need to cough at all. The person down in the audience will find it impossible to stop.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Nobody wants a traditional Christmas more than yesterday's teenagers

When your kids are teenagers it's hard to get them very interested in Christmas. They refuse to go to carol services, lie in bed until midday on Christmas morning, nursing the hangovers they've acquired the night before, announce they're starving an hour before the meal is ready and start making appetite-destroying bacon sandwiches, then sit there texting their mates to work out the earliest they can get away from the obligations to hearth and home and reunite in a ravening wolf pack. They appear to have no interest in the simple joys of togetherness and give every appearance of preferring to be with their peers.

But then they leave home and go to "uni" and work, go and live in flats and houses alongside people who often are even less scrupulous about washing up than they are, run out of money in October, endure their first bout of flu away from the consoling arms of mother and generally come face to face with the truth that they're not all that special.

At that point they start becoming very concerned that Christmas is going to be observed according to the rules. They ring home to make sure you've got a tree, find out when it's being decorated, check that nothing unusual is being ordered in the way of food and do everything in their power to make sure that everything is being done "the way we've always done". It's interesting. You only find out about "family tradition" when you depart from it unknowingly and it's generally somebody in their twenties who reminds you of it.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

If you're looking for a history book for somebody this Christmas

I've just finished this book. Most histories are written from the top down. The main chapters are devoted to the big stories. The personal details are in the footnotes.

The Beauty And The Sorrow by Peter Englund works the other way round. Sub-titled "an intimate history of the First World War", it interweaves the diaries of twenty young people who were caught up in the conflict, from Belgian pilots to English nurses with the Russian army, from gung-ho young men looking for glory to soldiers of fortune looking for a scrap, from 12-year-old German girls to stranded Polish mothers.

Wilfred Owen talked about "the pity war distills". You feel that pity on every page of this book.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

How come the best women's sport is never on the TV?

I don't want to get involved in the to-do about the lack of women candidates on the short list for the BBC Sports Personality of The Year award but it may be a good time to air a question that's been puzzling me for a while.

How come the best all-women's sport - the one which is not a poor relation to the men's version because there isn't one, one which is clearly played by keen amateurs in parks and school playgrounds all over the country, one which is a brilliant spectator sport because it's intelligible to even a casual watcher - is never given any coverage in the media and also, even more bafflingly, is not included in the Olympics, which seems nonetheless to have found room for activities as marginal as synchronised swimming?

I'm talking about netball. It's a brilliant game. What did it do to get left out in the cold?

Saturday, December 03, 2011

What happens when Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger stop

Bob Seger played Madison Square Garden this week and was joined on one number, appropriately enough "Old Time Rock & Roll", by Bruce Springsteen.

We were looking at the clip in the office yesterday. Kate Mossman was kicking herself that she hadn't seen through her plan to go to New York to see the show. Meanwhile Jude Rogers was getting very excited about the prospect of Springsteen's tour of Europe next year.

I don't think these two young woman were wrong to get excited about two old gits, people who had already made their names before they were even born. Though both performers are past their prime, when they're on stage they represent a vital link to the first two decades of rock and roll, an age that is fast disappearing over the brow of the hill in the rear view window.

That's why I would gently urge any interested young person to go and see Springsteen. (In fact I think a few of the old fans should step aside and make way.) When he stops doing what he does, nobody will be doing it at all.

 You can see the clip here.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Funny how time doesn't slip away

Ken Russell just died at the age of 84. Rob, who does a fantastic blog called Another Nickel In The Machine, posted a link to A House In Bayswater, a short film Russell made in 1960. I just watched it at lunchtime and was struck by something that is either banal or quite profound.

When I was a kid, round about the time that Russell was making his film, you couldn't see the early life of an 80-year-old man. There were still pictures and the odd bit of over-cranked cinema film but you couldn't visit this place the way that you can with film. Now you can. Whether the pictures are produced by a professional or shot in your own back garden the past will always be with us in a way that it never was in the past.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

50 remarkable gigs I went to

Just found this on my Facebook page. I wrote it a few years ago.  These are just a few that stuck in my mind.
1. Chuck Berry and the Animals at the Bradford Alhambra, 1965. First house.
2. Bob Marley and the Wailers, Lyceum, 1975. Best rhythm section I ever heard. Front line not shabby.
3. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Madison Square Garden, Thanksgiving, 1980. Afterwards they had a party in the bowling alley. The following week John Lennon was shot.
4. Earth Wind and Fire, Wembley Arena, 1980-ish. The drummer levitated and turned upside down while playing a solo.
5. Diana Ross, Wembley Arena, 1983? She had a tantrum over the sound and kicked a whole monitor off the stage with just her tiny foot.
6. Little Feat at the Rainbow on a Sunday afternoon in 1974(?) The Doobie Brothers literally couldn't follow them.
7. Haircut One Hundred at the Hammersmith Odeon at the height of Heyward-mania. Mark Ellen and I only men in the audience.
8. Yes at the LSE in 1972. We sat on the floor. This was the golden age of prog and yet it felt as low-tech and beat clubby as that scene with The Yardrbirds in "Blow Up".
9. The Jam at the Hope and Anchor in 1976. Ten people in the audience.
10. Randy Newman at the Barbican a few years back. Funniest and wisest man in pop.
11. Tom Waits at the BBC TV theatre in 1981. Audience had been bussed in to see Jim'll Fix It.
12. The Modern Lovers at Aylesbury Friar's in 1978. I Introduced them on stage.
13. Elton John at Wembley Stadium in 1975. Hot day. Girlfriend (now wife) and I sat baking on the turf. He played the whole of his new album in dispiriting sequence.
14. Paul McCartney at Earl's Court. It was the first gig that my whole family (youngest member, 7) demanded to attend.
15. Son House at the Commonwealth Centre in 1971(?)
16. Elvis Costello Sunday night residency at the Nashville Rooms in 1977.
17. Maria Muldaur at Ronnie Scott's in 1975. Shook the hand of Amos Garrett.
18. Richard Thompson at the 100 Club on the night before Cropredy a few years back. Teddy was playing guitar. The woman standing next to me was Linda.
19. The last night of the Naughty Rhythms Tour at Holloway Poly. I still have one of Pete Thomas's drum sticks.
20. Jean Michel Jarre lighting up the skyline of Houston in 1983.
21. The D'Oyle Carte Opera doing The Mikado at the Savoy Theatre ten years ago. Best performance of anything I've ever seen.
22. Led Zeppelin at Knebworth in 1978, watched from a lighting tower.
23. Stiff talent night at Eric's, Liverpool in 1977. Jayne Casey and Holly Johnson singing "I'm sticking to you because I'm made out of glue."
24. Marillion in Poznan, Poland, 1986. Band paid in zlotis which they drank afterwards in the hotel bar.
25. Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Sheffield City Hall, 1980. They screened "Deep Throat" on the coach afterwards.
26. The Headboys at the Moonlight Club in West Hampstead. Formerly Klook's Kleek.
27. Tinariwen at the Shepherd's Bush Empire last year. I have finally found my perfect vantage point.
28. Van Morrison and the Caledonia Soul Orchestra at the Rainbow in 1973. I *know* how disappointing he can be because I saw him in the days when he wasn't.
29. The J. Geils Band at the Midnight Court at the Lyceum in 1972. We walked most of the way home.
30. The Move at the Queen's Hall, Leeds in 1967. They didn't play but came on stage to apologise.
31. Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band in Leeds, 1967. Somewhere in an arcade.
32. The B 52s at the Paradiso in 1979.
33. Greg Kihn and Sammy Hagar at some County Fair in upstate California in 1976.
34. The McGarrigles at Carnegie Hall. Rufus Wainwright came on and organised them.
35. Humble Pie at Walthamstow Poly 1971. Steve Marriott spat in the air and then walked under it.
36. Crowded House farewell at Sydney Opera House.
37. Took 17 year old son to see Bob Dylan at Wembley. "He'll be crap," I said. "He was crap," he said.
38. Louis Armstrong at Batley Variety Club in 1967.
39. The Decemberists at Shepherd's Bush Empire a few years ago.
40. The Rolling Stones at the 100 Club in the 80s. They were rubbish.
41. Britney Spears sound check at the Smash Hits Poll Winners Party in 1998.
42. Status Quo at Reading in 1977.
43. Michael Jackson at Madison Square Garden in 1986. I  got in the hotel lift and there was Bubbles with his minder..
44. Live Aid.
45. Culture Club at the Dominion Theatre in 1983.
46. Boz Scaggs with his blues band at the Jazz Cafe ten years ago.
47. David Bowie on the "Station To Station" tour at Wembley. The longest, dullest drum solo in history.
48. The Grateful Dead at Wembley twenty years ago. Even duller drum solo.
49. Neil Young at Hammersmith Odeon when he played solo in front of bare brickwork.
50. Toumani Diabate played for me in his back garden in Bamako, Mali in 2007.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Is Twitter the tabloid of tomorrow?


In the middle of the evidence-giving at the Leveson enquiry yesterday I saw a tweet posted by a quite prominent media figure. He's not a journalist, which may explain why he was re-tweeting an outrageous allegation about the people giving evidence, which was in turn allegedly tweeted by another prominent person. 

Maybe the mood of righteous indignation had got to him. It took him only a few minutes to post another tweet pointing out that he did not actually know that the first tweet came from the person he had said it had. Maybe he then hurriedly deleted the original tweet. I hope he did.

The potential legal repercussions of those 140 characters took my breath away. Repeating a libel is, as every hack knows, just as bad as originating it. Repeating a libel and then attributing it to someone who didn't say it is off the scale.

The phone-ins this morning are all about making the press behave. I think the drift of the business will probably take care of that on its own. If it's no longer about moving paper from a shelf there will be less call for the lurid headlines which are the endgame of the controversial stories. 

Maybe Twitter is the tabloid of tomorrow, the place where people will gather to share stories which confirm all their prejudices. But just as the press is going to matter less, social media is going to matter more and everybody is going to have to make sure their fingers aren't quite so tappety-happy.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

How PRs make their clients look bad


I went to the National Film Theatre to see Molly Dineen interviewed about her documentaries. The new box set contains her films about Geri Halliwell, the House of Lords and the farming industry in crisis. Talking to Mark Lawson she recounted how hard she’d had to fight against Alastair Campbell when making her short film about Tony Blair to save it from consisting of endless unconvincing pieces to camera. It was only when she filmed him in his kitchen that he came over as sympathetically as she had found him in real life. She showed a few outtakes where she tries to coach him in how to avoid looking insincere. In the same vein she showed a clip of Geri Halliwell phoning her lawyer to assert her editorial control over the film that Dineen is already making as she’s doing so.

Dineen also revealed that she kept some information out of her film The Ark that could have looked bad for London Zoo. Lawson pointed out that this might be a dereliction of her duty as a journalist. She said she wasn’t a journalist. She was a film maker and she wanted to make a rounded picture of her subjects and she wasn’t interested in having her material obscured behind one big punchline.

It made me think that what she did was more like magazine profile writing. I thought this even more when she said that nowadays everyone has armies of PRs devoted to making sure she can't make the films she wants. It's the same in magazines. Subjects are scared of letting writers and photographers have any kind of personal access for fear that they will be ridiculed. PRs, frightened of losing their contracts, go along with it. You end up with a sterile half an hour in a hotel room and a boring feature. 

It doesn't make sense. A journalist provided with no raw material is far more likely to make up the deficit in meanness. On the occasions I've enjoyed relatively unlimited access to subjects I’ve deliberately not included material that could easily have been used to make them look bad or stupid. I've done that because I’d come to the conclusion that they weren’t either thing.

The subjects of Dineen's films have ranged from insecure pop stars through crusty old buffers to blokes whose job it is to go round shooting unwanted calves. In her films they emerge as occasionally contradictory, sometimes absurd, but this only makes them easier to like. She’s not interested in making people appear bad or stupid because essentially she doesn’t believe that they are. I think I agree with her. 

That doesn’t mean that I come out of every star encounter thinking I’ve just met someone “lovely”, which is the conclusion you might easily reach when scanning journalists social networking sites. But if I feel that they’re trying to  control my access I’m far more likely to think they're a pain in the arse. If they give me nothing better to write about I’m likely to say so.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

If £8 for 90,000 Spotify plays isn't enough, what is?


"Got paid £8 for 90,000 plays. Fuck Spotify." That was a tweet the other day from the musician/producer Jon Hopkins. You can see how opening an envelope containing that royalty statement might catch you on the raw. Apparently an increasing number of smaller labels are removing their music from the streaming service because the revenues aren't worth it and they fear that it could have a detrimental effect on the sales of their CDs.

I'm not seeking to press Spotify's case but how big would the cheque have to be to make Jon Hopkins think it was worth persevering with them. Double? Triple? Ten times bigger? At what point does it seem about the right sum of money? Presumably at a point where Spotify decide they no longer want to deal with the Jon Hopkins of the world and will stick to Lady Gaga.

This kind of thing's happening all the time at the moment. In the days of scarce physical product prices were high and the winners could make money. Now we're in the world of digital product, frictionless communication and limitless supply even the rest of the field are achieving numbers and numbers make people think they should be earning money which is commensurate with those numbers. But it doesn't work like that. Writers are getting paid far less money (if they're getting any money at all) to have their work read by far more people on a blog than they would have got for having it read by a relatively small readership in a paid paper product.

Nobody knows anymore what the numbers signify. Presumably those 90,000 plays aren't the equivalent of 90,000 plays on a radio station big or small. (With traditional mechanical payments you get a lot more for having your song played on Radio Two than you would for having it played on a small local station.) Presumably 90,000 represents the number of times any one individual has accessed the stream on which the artist's song can be found. What's the average number of individuals it would take to generate that kind of activity? This 90,000 presumably includes a handful of people who listen to one song obsessively and a lot more people who just click once out of curiosity and never go back. It's not 90,000 fans. It's not even 90,000 listeners. It's 90,000 clicks.

If you sold 90,000 records you might expect to have done quite well. And you'd have reason to believe that you might be on your way to selling 250,000 records. You'd be some kind of a hit. If you'd had your record played just once on a radio station with 90,000 listeners you'd expect to get, well, eight pounds?

Monday, November 14, 2011

My strange afternoon with Linda Ronstadt

At some point in the mid-90s I was asked to interview Linda Ronstadt. She was in London promoting some album of ballads. The day before the interview the PR called and said Linda had hurt her back. She could still do the interview but she had to remain lying down. Would that be OK if she did the interview in bed?

Avoiding mentioning that there was a time when an interview with Linda Ronstadt conducted in a recumbent position would have been a fantasy assignment, I assented. The following day I turned up at Claridges and was conducted to a suite where a make-up artist was just finishing touching up the make-up of Linda Ronstadt. She was sitting up in a king-sized bed with the covers carefully arranged over a decorous high-collared nightgown.

She apologised for the unusual circumstances and I interviewed her for about an hour. I've often thought back on that encounter in the years since. Obviously this makes me appear naive but it dawned on me very slowly that she probably hadn't hurt her back. What she was really doing was trying to avoid any press comment on the fact that she is a lot bigger than she was back in the day.

To which you might say, aren't we all? Yes we are but most of us are allowed to grow up and grow out without being ruthlessly measured against peers who are insanely motivated by their own vanity (such as Madonna) or slowly disappearing before our eyes (such as Cheryl Cole).

Male rock stars are constantly reminded of their younger, more beautiful selves. The unsinkable vanity of blokes means that they just shrug it off. Female rock stars don't.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Tiger Woods caddy and Oscars producer both got in trouble because they were desperate for laughs

In the same week that Steve Williams, former caddy of Tiger Woods, has been in trouble for saying, at a public event, that he celebrated a win by his new employer because he “wanted to shove it up that black arsehole” Oscars producer Brett Ratner has had to resign his prestigious job because he said, at a public Q&A, “rehearsing is for fags”.

 Obviously both remarks could be construed as offensive, though since some papers are deleting the noun in Williams’ outburst while others have struck out the adjective it seems safe to say that people aren’t entirely sure how. Since we weren’t there at either occasion we are free to believe that both remarks were said with some bitterness, which they probably weren’t.

 I think it’s more likely that both were said with a smile on the speakers face in the hopeful expectation that they would be justified by laughter from the audience. That’s not because people agree with either of the sentiments of the sentences but because audiences have become pre-programmed to laugh at the end of any sentence which finishes with a profanity. It’s how 50% of comedy works.

 I’ve always taken the view that you shouldn’t use language in a public gathering that you wouldn’t use at a school speech day. Not only does it run the risk of going wrong, as it has done in these cases, but it’s terribly needy. Just how desperate are you to get a laugh?

Monday, November 07, 2011

The record collection that matters is the one in your head

On Friday night, having recorded an item for BBC Front Row about the fact that I can no longer kill time by hanging around in record shops, I went on to spend an hour doing just that. It made me think of lots of records I hadn't thought of in ages.

Of course with Amazon and iTunes we can now access far more records than can be accommodated in even the biggest record shop, but what we don't have is any equivalent of the record shop's display function. All that often bewildering range has been replaced by the tiny window represented by the home page of iTunes and it's harder and harder to remind yourself what you might like to listen to. That rack of records that you used to run your finger down has been replaced by a computer "containing" everything. You know it's all back there but you don't know what lever to pull to bring it forth.

In the future we'll increasingly be presented with limitless range behind the tiny window. To deal with it we will increasingly fall back on the music we can immediately call to mind and that often means the music that we first heard at an age when we were unusually receptive. In my case that's the 70s, a decade which was far broader than cheap jokes would suggest. If I set my internal compass for that decade I can instantly come up with a whole load of records that I love from that time. If somebody asked me to do the same for the 90s I'd go blank.

If you're interested in what came out of my head yesterday, here are 66 of them.

Friday, November 04, 2011

There's nothing you forget more quickly than yesterday's technology


I'm reading The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember. It begins with the author recounting his digital history. How he spent his entire savings on a new computer. I remember that. He pointed out that this came with a piece of Apple software called HyperCard. I'd forgotten that. I can't believe I'd forgotten that.

In the 90s I was doing a music radio programme for GLR, which involved me logging each record I played. I user HyperCard to do this. I would spend hours every week creating playlists on HyperCard which I would then export, print out and send to the music library at GLR where they would be entered in some huge mainframe computer. At the time it seemed impossibly futuristic. People used to remark on it. It looked like this. Amazing.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

It's amazing when you remember something from a book correctly

I first read George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London in my early twenties. The thing I remembered most about it is what he said about waiters. I picked up a second-hand copy this week, largely to check I'd remembered it correctly. Amazingly, it fell open at the page.



Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Like Pete Townshend, I miss the record companies


I've been reading the text of Pete Townshend's John Peel lecture. He makes the perfectly valid point that what record companies and music publishers used to do was a form of banking. You know banks. They're the people we tolerate when they're lending us money and despise when they're wanting some return. *Just* like record companies.

I've been waiting for this for the last few years. Now that record companies are not the force they were we get nostalgic about them. We realise the things they did and wish they still did them.

When you had to buy an album rather than cherry-pick a track record companies could afford to subsidise acts to go on tour.

When that album cost £10-£15 they could take some of that margin and spend it on marketing, which meant music magazines got advertising.

When record stores were the shop window, the companies could hope that your attention might be attracted by something you hadn't gone in there to get.

All that's gone now. People download individual tracks, which means even successful acts get a fraction of a fraction of the revenue. Record companies can't afford to spend money on promoting records. All that matters nowadays is getting into those few inches of space occupied by the home page of the iTunes store.

What used to work in the artists' favour, although they could never be caught admitting it, was competition between record companies, struggling to elbow each other off the airwaves, out of the front window of HMV and off the cover of NME. In order to achieve this they would spend lots of money. They'd pay big advances, invest in name producers, buy advertising spaces, press up lots of copies, distribute them and then spend more money on ballyhoo in an effort to move them out of the shops.

And when one record company failed to break an artist, as they usually did, there would be another one waiting to have a go. I don't buy the idea that artists are cast aside as soon as they don't sell. I'm consistently amazed to see how commercially unsuccessful artists keep on making records. This is the business from which NOBODY RETIRES. Hope springs eternal in the record business.

I agree with a lot of his analysis but I can't see iTunes, or anybody, adopting Townshend's recipes. I can't imagine lots of talent spotters sitting there patiently ploughing through MP3s. I don't know whether everybody who writes a song has the right for it to be heard any more than anybody who writes a blog has the right for it to be read. In the days when John Peel listened to every demo there was barely any email. He would only receive them from the relatively small number of people who could get up off their backside, make a record, pay to get it pressed up, buy a Jiffy bag, take it down the Post Office and send it to the BBC. Believe me, it's not like that today.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Was Charles Dickens the first rock star to go on a never ending tour because he needed to be loved?

Just finished Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin. Maybe all biographies should be written by women. Men like Peter Ackroyd, the author of Dickens, tend too much towards hero worship. Tomalin on the other hand describes how he could be callous as well as compassionate, how he condemned his wife to a life of uninterrupted child-bearing and then dismissed her from his life so that he could set up an alternative home with a young actress and how he sent many of his children overseas so that he wouldn't be tainted by their failures.

Her depiction of the novelist in later life, spending much of his time "on the road" in order to maintain his increasingly lavish and complicated lifestyle, recalls nothing so much as a legendary rock star on a never-ending tour, playing the arenas in order to enjoy the uncomplicated affection you can only get from a bunch of strangers.
The applause and praise received at readings became increasingly important as balm to his wounds, allowing him to believe in his own goodness. Having specialized in being a good man for so long and been known as such to the public, he was intent on keeping his good reputation: hence the public statements putting others in the wrong.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

I've decided not to enter Parliament

On Monday night I was in a committee room in the Houses Of Parliament, taking part in a debate around the motion “This House Agrees With Dr Johnson that no man but a blockhead ever wrote, but for money”. This was sponsored by the PPA. We won but it was, in the words of the Iron Duke, “a close run thing”, not least because it’s easy to pick holes in anything that came out of the mouth of a controversialist like Johnson.

This was the first time I’d taken part in a formal debate since the age of fourteen. Actually, I took part in one a few years ago at the Oxford Union but that was to a hall full of students. They wanted rabble rousing so rabble rousing they got.

 The atmosphere at this debate was very different. The room was full of the great and good of publishing plus a load of people whose idea of a Monday night’s entertainment is popping out to take part in a debate. Any one of them could easily have taken apart my logic.

The usual speakers trick - make eye contact with anyone who looks sympathetic - doesn’t work. You don’t know where to pitch your tone of voice. The atmosphere leaves you unsure whether to declaim or converse.

You can prepare your opening remarks but at the end you have to summarise what’s been said by your opponent and the speakers from the floor, take some of it on board, kick most of it into touch and then somehow restate your argument. It’s very hard. I emerged from the experience with new respect for parliamentarians and a fresh understanding of why so many of them are former barristers.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Why the tappety-tappety office of today is a bad place to learn things


One afternoon in 1975 I spent a few hours in the sales office of an independent record company. I'd done various jobs but I'd never been in a working environment like it before. There were six people in an overcrowded basement office and the thing that immediately struck me was they were all on the phone all the time, not simply cold calling big accounts but also fielding enquiries, sharing news, bollocking reps, making arrangements, taking messages for each other and through it all just talking, talking, talking.

I sat in a corner, intimidated and dazzled by it all. I was only there for an afternoon but I learned more in those few hours than I would have done in an ordinary month. If I'd been there a month I would have learned a year's worth - just from watching and listening to how people handled themselves.

In complete contrast I was in an office today where ten people sat round a table. There was very little noise. They were all working very hard but it was impossible to know what they were doing because they were communicating by email rather than phone. Tappety-tappety where it had once been ring-ring. They were presumably doing the same jobs as the people in 1975 but you wouldn't know it. You could presumably spend months in that office and never overhear anything. And if you're not witnessing people working you can't be learning anything from them. If nobody's answering a colleague's phone, nobody's extending their circle of contacts. You're not picking up hints, borrowing elements of style, building up your schtick. 

You learn to work like you learn most other things, at first by copying and then by gradually building your own style. The modern office environment makes it more difficult to copy. Therefore it must be making it more difficult to learn. Or maybe there's nothing to copy anymore. Which is even more worrying.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Steve Hewlett, the Media Show and the question nobody in the media can answer

Radio Four's Media Show is currently one of the best things on the network. That's probably because its presenter, Steve Hewlett, is the best broadcast interviewer working anywhere. He's done enough homework to be able to get an interviewee to explain the key points of what are increasingly complex stories and yet when he slips the stiletto between the ribs he doesn't seem to be doing it maliciously.

I just caught up with a recent edition where he interviewed The Guardian's Director of Digital Engagement about the practicalities and ethics of their new Facebook alliance and the new editor of The Independent, Chris Blackhurst, about press regulation, Johann Hari and the future of the paper.

When he asked "Do you think the Independent will still be here on paper in five years?", the editor said that this was difficult to predict, which is a pretty remarkable answer if you think about it.

A John Humphreys would not have been able to let that answer go by without mocking the inability of the newspaper to be able to see its own immediate future. He would have repeated the question in a number of different ways while the editor shifted from foot to foot and eventually muttered something about having to speak to his superiors.

Hewlett didn't bother. He knows that the media is the land of vanished certainty. To pursue the question would only have tempted Blackhurst to make something up. I'm very glad he didn't.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

How to get some more young people into The Archers

I know The Archers isn't real. If it was Ambridge would be a victim of the same drift which is seeing an estimated 200,000 young people a year desert rural areas for the cities. But instead I am happy to report that Ambridge is bursting at the seams with bright, personable, highly motivated, web-savvy people under the age of 30, all starting up businesses selling sausages, organic cheese, cocktails, horse shoes and the other staples of life in the year 2011.

There's something else that makes this notional village near Birmingham exceptional. 21% of the UK population work in the public sector in some shape or form and yet Ambridge doesn't boast a single teacher, nurse, road sweeper or retired civil servant. Not one. The only person who is reliant on the public purse is Clive Horobin, who's just been released from prison. This sylvan hive of industry must be the motor that is keeping the British economy going now that the North Sea oil has run out. I'm surprised it hasn't been on the news.

A friend of mine lives in a small hamlet in the (real) East Midlands. The residents recently noticed that somebody had moved into the large house on the edge of the settlement. It seemed to be occupied by a number of willowy young women who tottered down the shop on very high heels to buy the cigarettes which seemed to be their only form of nourishment. A number of burly gentlemen looked out from the front of the property.

It turned out, of course, to be an east European-run knocking shop. The locals reported it to the police and it was shut down quite promptly. Now wouldn't this make an Archers plotline? It would be both stranger and truer than what's going on in Ambridge at the moment.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Politics is a dialogue of the deaf

Had the plumbers round this morning.

Having established my wife is a teacher, the younger of the two, in his thirties but probably not a parent, said "I see Michael Gove is going to make it OK for them to hit pupils".

I think he expected to enlist my automatic disapproval. I widened my eyes in the "you don't say" expression I use when I don't want to pursue a line of conversation.

The older of the two, definitely a parent, said "some of them want a good hiding" and carried on with his work without looking up.

This is why I don't watch "Question Time".

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Happy birthday to Paul Simon, the man who's made more great pop records than anyone


"Baby Driver", a track from Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water", popped up on my iPod last night. It struck me, as it does from time to time, that Paul Simon's musical reputation suffers because he doesn't represent anyone but himself. I tweeted to the effect that no individual writer has more great pop records to his name than Paul Simon. @MaggieA, among others, contested this view, suggesting that Joni Mitchell had more.

Today is Paul Simon's 70th birthday so it seemed as good a time as any to offer this Spotify playlist as evidence. Life's too short to get bogged down in defining what is and what isn't pop. It stands for popular. Pop records, to my mind, exist independently of the artist. They are familiar to people who aren't very aware of who made them and don't much care. If I was putting music on the computer of a radio station these are the Paul Simon-authored records I'd put on there in the confident expectation that when they came up on the airwaves people would say "I know this one".

I've cheated in including his first hit "Hey Schoolgirl", which was in the fifties, but I haven't put in anything from his recent "So Beautiful Or So What" or any of his much-admired but relatively uncommercial records of the last few years. Even without those his achievement is exceptional. Big hits as a member of a duo, for whom he wrote all the songs and did most of the singing. Big hits on his own in the 70s. Even more big hits on his own in the 80s. Songs like "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover" and "Still Crazy After All These Years" which are still a boon to headline writers all these years later. Only Paul McCartney can boast a comparable span.

Oh, and I didn't include "Baby Driver".

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Women drinking pints and other things that give the lie to costume drama

I caught a clip of Pan Am, the new American drama about the early 60s when air travel was glamorous. In one scene the stewardesses were on a layover in London. They were in a pub and  they were drinking pints.

I don't remember exactly when women started drinking pints but it wasn't in the sixties and the last people you would have seen with a brimming beaker in hand were these would-be Jackie Kennedys.

I've adapted to many things but women and pints is something I've never quite got used to. It just never looks right to me. It's obviously one of those things that betrays one's age.

Back in the early 70s the only woman I knew who drank pints was a roadsweeper I worked with during a student vacation. She used to have two pints at lunchtime and a lot more in the evening. She was probably in her fifties and wore bright red lipstick framing her solitary front tooth. I want to call her Lil.

I can't expect the makers of today's period dramas to recognise their own bum notes. The world of Pan Am is about as distant from today as the Edwardian world was from the makers of The Forsyte Saga in the mid-60s. Back then there were probably Edwardian etiquette books they could consult to establish how polite society had been ordered. There's nothing you can refer to which rules with similar authority on what went on in more recent times. When women started drinking pints it was as much a watershed moment as the first appearance of a mini skirt. Nobody, however, seems to have marked it.

Friday, October 07, 2011

There's a difference between changing the world and selling it toys

Saw a Tweet yesterday which read:
"They're leaving flowers outside the Apple Store. What has happened to us?"
Couldn't help but sympathise. Steven Spielberg described Steve Jobs as "the greatest inventor since Edison", which can't be right. What about the airplane? The rocket to the moon? The technology which enables keyhole surgery? Antibiotics?

More to the point in Steve Jobs' case, he probably wouldn't have claimed to have invented the personal computer or MP3 player, the products with which he's most associated. He was a man who had a genius for perfecting such products and then marketing them. However nobody mourns a brilliant marketeer.

Did he "change the world", as all and sundry were claiming yesterday? You could say that he was a brilliant maker of toys. That's not to diminish him or the sense of loss of those around him. I've got all his toys and I love them.  But I do worry what our possession of these toys may be doing to our sense of proportion.

Another Tweet I saw yesterday came from Richard Coles.
"William Tyndale, translator of the Bible into English that ploughboys might be as learned as bishops - burned for his trouble on this day."
Now William Tyndale. There's a man who did change the world. Got no thanks for it either.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Anyone who says they can't work their mobile or their Mac is just trying to draw attention to themselves


The presenter of the football programme on Five Live last night was making the usual announcements about how you could get the programme as a podcast. Guests John Motson and Steve Claridge were making the harrumphy "this is all too space-age for me" noises that men of a certain age and background seem to feel is their only appropriate response to a sentence that contains the word "podcast" or "tweet". 

How long can they - or anyone - keep this kind of thing up? They already sound like Victorian butlers whinging about the telephone. It's not the space age any more, boys. That was ages ago.

Obviously not everyone listens to podcasts. Not everyone uses Twitter. Personally, I don't like Facebook. Every time I go on there I feel as if I've stepped into a bar full of people whose names I've forgotten and immediately want to turn on my heel and leave.

I don't however pretend that I don't understand it or that it's operating on some level beyond my competence because I haven't passed the right exams or I began my education too late. Anything that's been taken up by millions of people all over the world can not be difficult to understand. 

If I don't embrace it that's my choice. I don't say "I'm a bit of a Luddite", not least because Luddites were weavers whose jobs were threatened by the advent of machines and in extreme cases they destroyed said machinery. 

I don't say "it's all too technical for me" because one of the most interesting things about the digital revolution is that it's been achieved without anyone other than a coder having to consult a technical manual at all. 

Our adoption of this technology has been so seamless that we've been taught how to use the technology by the technology itself. The only people who have trouble are people who have decided to have trouble.

Nobody has had to pore over an instruction manual to use Google or eBay or an iPhone. We may have relied on friends to show us the odd short-cut but we haven't needed anyone to tell us how to begin. It wasn't always thus. It's not that long since you had to take a day off to set-up even the most elementary item of kit.

The introduction of the Amstrad PCW 8256 back in the 80s. Now that *was* too technical for everybody. It came with two huge spiral bound books and had no hard drive. That meant you couldn't save even the smallest memo on it. You had to save it on to a removable disc. If, like me, you were a very early adopter, you only found this out after you'd lost a whole day's work.

In those days technology allowed you to get things wrong. Today you almost have to want to.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Why can't gigs start earlier?

Went to see Charlie Dore at Green Note in Camden Town last night. The three musicians played beautifully. Green Note is a nice little place but not exactly fit for purpose. It's so long and narrow that they had to perform in single file. From the front they looked like one of those many-armed Hindu statues.

I got up not long after five a.m. yesterday. We get up early in our house, particularly when my wife is teaching. I had a long day at work. At 6.30 I looked at my watch and realised I still had two and a half hours to kill before the show began. I went to Wagamama for something to eat then made my way over to Camden, found the venue and then went across the road to have a drink in a pub in Parkway. I bumped into an old friend, which passed some more of the time. Nonetheless, by the time she came on I was starting to fade and could only stay for the first half.

When we started True Stories Told Live I insisted that we had to start at 7.30 and finish no later than 9.30. Most people were coming straight from work and they don't want to have to kill time before the entertainment. I think it's one of the best decisions we ever made. If people want to hang about and have a meal they can do it afterwards.

I realise that most gigs are put on by people who can only make money if we eat and drink but this has meant that gigs get pushed further and further back in the evening. I suppose there are people who need time to travel in from the suburbs but most of the people I encounter have come there straight from a very long day at work. The performers may be fresh as paint but the audience are dying on their feet. If there was a thought bubble over their heads it would say "how long will it take me to get home at this time of night?"

I don't expect this to change but surely in these hard-pressed times (I walked past the Jazz Cafe last night and it appeared to be closed) there must be room for alternatives. What about two shows, one starting at 7.00? What about Saturday afternoon matinees which aren't just for kids? Lunchtimes? Back in the early 60s promoters used to organise gigs for the convenience of the audience. It seems they don't do that anymore. If ever there was a time to do it that time is now.

Monday, September 26, 2011

It's easier to make up a baddie because we're all baddies inside

I read a very good piece by novelist William Nicholson in The Guardian. He was wondering why book publishers have such a resistance to commissioning serious fiction with a hero who is middle class. After all, publishing is the most middle class of industries and its products are bought by almost exclusively middle class customers. Nicholson thinks they're in a life-long denial of who they are.

This coincides with my reading of this year's Man Booker Prize Short List. I've done four so far. The two I've enjoyed, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes and Snowdrops by A.D. Miller, are written from the point of view of middle-class males who are not wildly removed from the books' authors. In fact the latter almost reads like a magazine feature about life for a single male British lawyer in Putin's Russia.

I've got on less well with the other two. Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch is told by a young male urchin engaged by a Victorian collector of animals. Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan is told by an elderly black American jazz player who spent the years between the wars in Berlin. I didn't actually believe in either of them. And it's not helped by the fact that I know neither author can ever have had anything like the life experiences they describe.

I don't think this is anything to do with the fact that their authors are women. Hilary Mantel certainly made me believe in Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall. But maybe that worked because he was such a sinister character. It seems that's what you have to do to make people convincing. One of the reasons Randy Newman ventriloquises so well is that his protagonists are often weak, lustful, grasping and sometimes outright malign. He's perfectly comfortable with admitting that elements of those people are inside us all.

The men (do we still call them heroes?) in the first two Booker books are averagely horny and certainly easily-led. In both cases they don't see what's happening to them. In creating them the authors seem to have revealed plenty about themselves.  That's why I preferred them to the other two where the authors don't.





Tuesday, September 20, 2011

If you don't cane it on Saturday night, you won't know about the SOS bus

Returning to my Norwich hotel in the early hours of Sunday I saw the SOS bus, something which I have since learned is increasingly becoming a feature of the weekend in British city centres.

The SOS Bus is a mobile medical unit cum social work resource parked in the town's clubland. It's primarily there to keep young people who have been, in the jargon, "overdoing it" from coming to harm. It was started in response to a tragedy in 2000 when three young people in Norwich all died on the same night in drink-related incidents. It's funded by the police, the council, local club owners and other agencies such as churches. It's manned by volunteers.

I can see the benefits of this. It no doubt stops nasty cases turning into fatalities while taking the pressure off the local A&E. Young doctors I've talked to reckon that without drink the average A&E would be a comparatively serene place at the weekend. I wouldn't be surprised if the club owners' support of the SOS Bus also helps when they come to renew their licences.

At the same time you can't help but think about the message a service like this sends over time. "Society", as represented by the law and the local authorities, accepts the fact that oblivion drinking is here to stay and is prepared to devote resources to protecting those who voluntarily indulge in it from its inevitable consequences.

In the 19th century organisations like the Sally Army and the Band of Hope patrolled the back streets of major cities picking up drunks. The best they could hope for in those circumstances was a new recruit. The least they could expect was a little shame. Maybe nobody feels that any more.


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Ever put the wrong record on at the wedding disco?

The wedding we went to this weekend was one of those rare occasions where the dance floor was crowded from the moment the confetti bomb went off over the head of the happy couple, who inaugurated proceedings to the sound of Andy Williams. Young and old, sophisticats and rubes subsequently lapped up a programme of tunes that largely pre-dated 1990 and thankfully inclined towards the bleeding obvious: "Superstition", "Blame It On The Boogie", "I'm A Believer", "Staying Alive", "Livin' La Vida Loca" and "Uptown Girl" were just a few of the tunes I remember. None of the DJ's selections seemed to be trying to appeal to the usual snobs sneering on the sidelines because there weren't any. Everyone was on the dance floor.

The only time our man dropped the ball was when he played "Sweet Child O' Mine" by Guns N' Roses. This can only have been in response to a request from somebody in the wedding party. The DJ must have suspected that you couldn't follow tunes like those above with a piece of near-rock as sludgy, generic and ploddingly macho as this one. It went down well with a handful of young males but the rest of the dancers began to slip away, to re-charge their glasses and wait for the restoration of good sense. The DJ's heart must have sunk and the song's 5.56 running time must have stretched before him like a Russian winter. He must have been kicking himself inside.

It's a funny thing. When dancers are in the zone they want one particular set of chords and beats to go on forever while wishing that some other set of chords and beats would immediately cease. Time either gallops by or drags unbearably according to what the tune is. Our DJ got it back with Beyonce - the universal panacea for party longueurs - and then never wavered again. Maybe that's the mark of a great wedding set. It's only by making one wrong move that we see the true path more clearly. It's only by recognising what is not party music that we appreciate how rare real party music is.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Are we too busy to play with the kids or are we too idle?

A UNICEF report says that the British don't spend enough time with their children because they're too busy. This is a theme that seems to go unchallenged by the commentariat and politicians. They were talking about it on the World At One just now. "We all live busy lives" is one of those clichés that is passed on and never examined as if that's just the inevitable price we pay for the life we lead, a bit like electricity and traffic.

The word "busy" implies that we're doing something important like work or cooking or checking our tax returns. But what we're probably "busy" doing in that time is watching TV. A recent survey found that the British watched an average of three hours forty five minutes every day. If they're being as honest as I am when the doctor asks me how much I drink in an average week, they're probably underestimating those hours.

Let's say they're watching four hours a day. That's 1,456 hours a year. That's almost sixty-one whole days a year spent watching TV. Even if you accept that some of the programmes we're watching might be passing on some worthwhile information, such as the value of spending more time with our children or going for a bracing walk, that's a mind-boggling share of time.

And if Twitter is anything to go by the people doing the heavy watching are just as likely to be the university-educated sorts with their iPads on their laps as the Jim Royles of this world. We're not busy. Just idle.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

When Degas was papped

This morning I went to the press preview of Degas and The Ballet: Picturing Movement at the Royal Academy.

In the 1870s Degas spent hours sketching dancers rehearsing and performing from every conceivable angle. His girls appear more solid than today’s ballerinas. They bend and flex. They grip their ankles. They adjust their straps. They have hips and thighs. You can almost hear them strain. For all the airs and graces on display they could be lifting baskets of fish down at the market.

Photography wasn’t up to the job of capturing a dancer on tiptoe because exposure times could be as long as fifteen minutes. The early moving pictures which were being pioneered in Paris around the same time took multiple exposures of running men, connected them and slowed them down in an effort to isolate the secrets of motion. It wasn’t satisfactory. To adapt an old commercial, thanks to the way shading and shape can suggest precise transfers of weight, only painting can do zis.

The press event was enhanced by the attendance of former prima ballerina Darcey Bussell (above). She was dressed all in red. This is the only respect in which she would be confused with the back of a bus. She was explaining how she admired the way Degas had managed to suggest that the dancer had arrived at a particular pose that very instant. To demonstrate she flickered to life in front us, dazzlingly arranging her upper body into that precise pose. Degas would have got out his pencil and made her do it again and again and again.

The exhibition finishes with a lovely touch. Degas had become obsessed with photography late in his life. When he was a very old man he was asked if he would pose for a movie. He refused. So the photographer set up in the street near his house, waited for the old man to come out and then filmed him walking past the camera. He doesn't appear to have been aware that he was being papped.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

This is what 1965 looked like if you really were absolutely fabulous

Publishing event of the week has been the arrival on You Tube of a selection of the home movies of actor and best friend of the stars Roddy McDowall. Here you see the jeunesse dorée disporting themselves on the decks of Malibu homes in the year 1965. Rock Hudson, Jane Fonda, Natalie Wood, Julie Andrews, Edward Fox, Robert Wagner and many more whose names don't immediately spring to mind, all knocking back small brown drinks and smoking as if the health implications were completely unknown.

You really must watch some of these films. They're curiously compelling. Three things struck me while looking at them:

 1. Nobody ever holds a home movie shot quite as long as they ought to. We frantically pan in search of movement when stillness is what the eye most craves. 2. Even Hollywood stars, for whom the admiring close-up is the stuff of their daily work, feel the need to send themselves up when put in front of a movie camera. 3. Right now some smart advertising exec is negotiating for the rights to get this footage, set it to some suitably hedonistic contemporary music and use it to sell fragrances in the run-up to Christmas.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

It's Joe Bussard, broadcasting from Planet 1928

There's nobody whose enthusiasm for music I've found more infectious over the last year than Joe Bussard. He's the collector of vintage 78s who's the subject of the documentary Desperate Man Blues. He's currently doing a weekly radio show which you can hear as a podcast. It's called Country Classics but it also features hot jazz, blues and in the one I've just been listening to, he played a flamenco recording from 1930. In fact pretty much anything Joe plays comes off a 78 and was released during that small time window that started in 1928 and ended with the Depression.

Joe hasn't got an awful lot to say about the music. In fact he's at his most eloquent when he's just dissolving into delighted giggles over some ancient track by Uncle Dave Macon or the Carter Family. He reads out listeners emails as if email had just been invented. One of them came from a listener in Atlanta who said he liked to listen while in traffic jams. "Yup, I heard of them traffic jams," says Joe, who clearly doesn't intend to experience one for himself. More power to him.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

It's better to have a short book that you actually read than a fat one that you don't

I've read two books in the last week: Submergence is a novel about a British agent taken hostage by Al-Qaeda in Somalia. Its author J.M. Ledgard says its aim is "to alter the perspective of the planet we inhabit". The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes is about a man in his sixties trying to distinguish between the things he remembers of his young life and the things that actually occured.

They're both, in their different ways, terrific. You can imagine Ledgard being a cult favourite for years to come. The Barnes book could be a big popular success because its central premise is so compelling. The thing they have in common, and the reason I've been able to read the pair of them in a week, is that they're both short. Submergence is 208 pages, The Sense Of An Ending only 160. You could read either of them in an afternoon and evening. I don't know whether this indicates that the publishing business is starting to favour brevity. It wouldn't be a bad thing if it did. Most books, like most films and most records, don't need to be anything like as long as they are.

Funny that I should read these books so quickly in the same week that the new management of Waterstone's announced that they're stopping their famous "three-for-two" offers on books. As I write this I'm looking at the spine of a fat paperback I picked up in one of these offers some while ago and still haven't read. I don't think I'll miss the three-for-two. I tend to buy books because I feel like starting them on the day I buy them. It's difficult to extend that feeling beyond one book. And if the other ones are still sitting there unread a year later it's no comfort to know I got them cheap.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Whistle Test and me

Spent a morning this week with Bob Harris and his Radio Two team who are doing a whole series of radio shows celebrating the legacy of Old Grey Whistle Test. The idea is to do one programme about each series of the show, to talk to old presenters and record sessions with the bands, many of whom are still playing. I went on the day Gang Of Four, Squeeze and Nick Lowe were booked in. We recorded it in the huge studio at Maida Vale. There's a plaque marking the fact that Bing Crosby did his last recording there in 1977. He died the following day on the golf course. I talked to the engineer who did the session. Since Whistle Test seemed to be in the air, I wrote down my personal reminiscences of my experience working on it in the early 80s in a feature in The Word. You can read it here .

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

TV Presenting - the job anybody can do and nobody can do

I haven't been watching Channel 4's coverage of the world athletics championship but nonetheless the news of the tribulations of lead presenter Ortis Deeley reached me via various waspish comments in the newspapers. You can get an idea of how at sea he was in this item in the Guardian. Now he's been demoted mid-games.

I tend to believe that in 99% of situations where the presenter has egg on his face it's not his fault. He's just the poor bloke out front trying to put a brave face on it while unseen others grapple with the logistics. Having said that it wouldn't have been asking too much of him to expect him to learn the names of the commentators he was handing over to so that he didn't get them wrong twice.

But the person who should be in the dock here is not Deeley, who is probably only guilty of a little too much ambition and not quite enough homework. The guilty party is whichever, presumably highly-paid, person at Channel 4 decided: a) that anchoring a major live sports presentation like this could be done by a novice rather than the most battle-hardened professional on your books; b) that the novice should be this graduate of Saturday morning television.

Only in television is the person who fronts the business likely to have been chosen by somebody who has never personally fronted the business, doesn't know what's involved in fronting the business and intends to keep their head firmly below the parapet when their choice of person to front the business is proved to have been so wrong.

P.S. I was talking to a senior person in a large company recently and congratulating her on the quality of her young intern, who seemed to be the last word in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed efficiency. She rolled her eyes and said "She doesn't read a book. No hinterland."

John Rawling is a pretty well-known commentator and I'd like to feel that anyone who ended up anchoring a sports show might have heard of him. If, that is, they had a hinterland.

Monday, August 29, 2011

A great music book about the days when the road was the road

This weekend I finished The Chitlin' Circuit: and the Road to Rock 'n' Roll by Preston Lauterbach, which is one of the best music books I've read in years. Chitlins are pig intestines which, when fried, were a popular delicacy among African Americans. Hence the Chitlin' Circuit was the name given to the network of dancehalls, night clubs and music joints flourishing below the Mason Dixon Line in the days before television and mass entertainment.

Lauterbach's book is essentially the story of Denver Ferguson and Don Robey, the promoters who realised that every community down south had a "dark town" and every dark town had a "stroll", a parade of black-owned barbers, beer joints, undertakers and money lenders. Where there was a stroll there was invariably a market for rambunctious musical entertainment.

Thus they despatched hundreds of entertainers on tours of one-nighters throughout the south in the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. Advance men went out in front, making sure that the musicians' record was on the jukebox. Recorded music was about immortality and profile, not about money. This was a live business and it ran as perfectly in sync with human self-interest as eBay does today.

If the performers were lucky there were black hotels that might accommodate them. More likely they'd be staying in boarding houses or sleeping on buses, doing their best to keep their stage clothes clean, trying to make sure they got paid at the end of the night and avoiding the attentions of razor-toting members of the audience who suspected the saxophone player of looking at their girl.

In the 30s it was all about the big bands. Walter Barnes and his Royal Creolians were one of the biggest attractions of that era. They were killed along with 290 dancers in a 1940 fire in a dancehall at Natchez, Mississippi. Many of these venues were known as "toilets", not because of the sanitary conditions, but because there was just one way in and one way out.

It's full of examples of ingenuity in pursuit of green: from the "policy" rackets that drove the neighbourhood economies to the promoters who put on "sissie nights" to cater for the transvestite market; from James Brown's first group whistling the instrumental passages because they couldn't afford gear to the early 78s which were literally baked like biscuits. Nobody in this book talks of creativity. They talk about making a living.

By the 40s a wartime shortage of buses meant the bands got smaller after the style of Louis Jordan's Tympany Five. It became more about rocking than swinging. When Elvis Presley finally came along, chitlin circuit heroes like Roy Brown and Wynonie Harris wondered what the fuss was about. They'd been making that exact same sound for five years.

I suspect some canny publisher suggested the author put that bit about rock'n'roll in the title. There's a tendency to undervalue any version of popular music that doesn't culminate in a big white millionaire. It's a shame we have to see it like that. Even if this journey had led nowhere in particular it would still have been a hell of a ride.




Thursday, August 25, 2011

Another tiny detail from Nick Lowe's new record

The Nick Lowe album is gentle, which is not the same as being quiet. There are plenty of quiet records at the moment which are actually quite tense to listen to. Most of "The Old Magic" is performed with a band but it's put over so gently that you pick up nuances lost in 99% of pop records.

There's a lovely bit at the end of House For Sale. This is sung from the point of view of a bloke trying to get rid of the house where love "once did reside". Like all vendors he wishes to reassure potential purchasers that while its material condition may be shabby there's nothing that can't be improved.

In fact, he sings, "with time, care, cash, peace, love and understanding it can be as good as new". The unusual word in that list is "cash", which he seems to acknowledge in the half-beat's pause before singing it. When the word "cash" turns up in pop music it tends to be used aggressively. It's rhymed with flash and trash. To hear it suffused with the same comforting glow it creates in the householder who's got some is a delight. Particularly in times like these.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Forget Ab Fab. This is what the 60s really looked like

This picture of the HMV Shop in Oxford Street has been doing the rounds again today. Judging by the LP covers displayed at the back it appears to have been taken at Christmas 1965. The Beatles Rubber Soul has just come out and the shop is more than usually full.

The interesting thing is this is at the midway point of the Swinging 60s. This has been the year of the Rolling Stones' Satisfaction, Bob Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone and James Brown's Papa's Got A Brand New Bag. If you were to ask a film director to re-stage this scene he'd look at the date and suddenly it would be all paisley shirts, bell bottoms and op-art frocks which as you can see here was not the case.

This picture is a rare opportunity to examine the reality of the 60s rather than the version of it that's been propagated by Austin Powers films. The men have all got neatly-trimmed short hair and are wearing shirts and ties. There's a woman in a head scarf. The assistant behind the counter is in a nylon overall. The till has just run up 32 shillings, which was probably the price of one of those copies of the Beach Boys' Little Deuce Coupe stacked at the top above the listening booths.

There's nothing as improving as a dead end job

After we'd finished recording a podcast with David Ford the other day Fraser said "that's three of us who've been road sweepers". I did two years as a road sweeper in north London during college vacations in the seventies before graduating to the dustbins. Sweeping was boring but it was educational, like doing the Knowledge. Working on the bins was hard, lucrative and, believe it or not, fun. That's another blog entirely.

I was reminded of this experience when reading Alice Thomson's column in The Times today where she says "the professional middle classes used to mix widely in pubs, factories and communities. Now they are ghettoised" and goes on to argue that they don't need more holiday jobs helping out in law offices. There seems to be some truth in that. My own kids have done holiday jobs but they haven't done anything like the bins or the Christmas post, which were staples for grammar school boys like me back in the day.

The decline of manufacturing, the march of automation and the need for every job to require some training means that it's no longer possible for a dozy 18-year-old to find useful employment the way that we did. Everybody of my age has a vivid memory of what it was like to work in a factory or to perform some mundane, repetitive task, often in the company of people who didn't make any allowance for the fact that you were young and foolish. It was more educational than the education it was designed to subsidise.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Jerry Leiber - songwriting's great pretender

Jerry Leiber's death was announced today. A Jewish kid from Baltimore whose first language was Yiddish, he wrote the words for more classic rhythm and blues tunes than anyone else. He's best known for Hound Dog and Jailhouse Rock, which is a pity because neither of them is a particularly interesting song. Far better are the gems he and Mike Stoller wrote and produced for The Coasters: three-minute dramas like Searchin', Smokey Joe's Cafe and Young Blood, each one a dazzling mixture of Saturday morning funnies, black street slang and social comment wrapped around infallible hooks and brilliant playing.

Leiber's ear for the nuances of African-American language was uncanny, as was his nerve in putting himself into situations that he may not have experienced at first hand. In Down Home Girl the protagonist, a sharp car worker from Detroit, going out with a girl from the backwoods of the Carolinas, sings "every time I kiss you, girl, you taste like pork and beans".

The Sistine Chapel of this purple patch was Shopping For Clothes, which they wrote under the name "Elmo Glick", exactly what a black Jewish songwriter would be called. Here a would-be dandy goes into a department store, picks out the clothes that will make him the envy of the guys at the ballroom on Saturday night and then finds that his credit is refused. As somebody pointed out to me today on Twitter, the fade-out "I got a good job sweeping up every day" says more about civil rights than any amount of Blowing In The Wind.

When I was growing up those Coasters songs were merely musical comedy in the background. It was only in my twenties, via such magazines as Cream and Let It Rock, and the writings of Charlie Gillett and Richard Williams, that I came to appreciate the genius of the Coasters and Leiber and Stoller and realised that fifties r&b was not just insanely catchy and clever. It was also grown up, subtle and serious in ways we are only just now beginning to appreciate. In fact it's a lot cleverer than the records that think they're clever.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Is this what they mean by playing in the big leagues?

When our son used to play rugby as a teenager there was always a nervous moment when the opposition came running out. You'd look at them and be immediately struck by how much bigger they appeared than our boys. Surely they had to be from another age group. Of course they weren't. This was simply an illusion fostered by the fact that you didn't notice how fast your own were growing.

I was struck by something similar last night watching Tottenham swat Hearts aside by five goals to nil. Obviously there was a gulf in class which is an inevitable result of the gulf in money and prestige. But what was surprising is that there was such a gulf in physique. Even Tottenham's smaller players appeared barrel chested. Next to them Hearts looked like a bunch of under-nourished schoolboys.

Monday, August 15, 2011

He might have been a spy but he didn't patronise

Best moment from an excellent episode of the always interesting The Reunion on Radio Four was an anecdote about the spy and art historian Anthony Blunt. Called upon to explain Van Dyck's portrait of Charles I to a group of nine-year-olds in the National Gallery he surveyed the children sitting on the floor and began thus:
"If I could just remind you of the historical background to this picture....."

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Is anybody writing better love songs than Nick Lowe?

The upcoming Nick Lowe album The Old Magic" starts with a song called "Stoplight Roses". I'd never heard that particular expression before but I immediately knew what he was singing about. Many years ago a good friend who was out there in the dating game said to me, "Better no flowers than garage flowers". She said it feelingly. I have since passed on this advice to young men of my acquaintance.

The last few Nick Lowe albums are like a series of slim novels which explore the perfidious inclinations of men. I think they're some of the best pop records ever made. They're certainly some of the most affecting explorations of regret since Frank Sinatra's "lonely" albums of the 1950s. The men in Nick Lowe's songs reach for romantic gestures when cornered but generally underestimate how rigorously those gestures might be interpreted.

The key line in "Stoplight Roses" is especially chilling. "You've broken something this time," he sings, "stoplight roses can't mend".




My unique take on the London riots

The London riots may not have been the biggest outbreak of disobedience and larceny in the capital's history - as a quick flick through Peter Akroyd's London: The Biography demonstrates - but they are already the most commented on.

As someone who from time to time "gives out" about issues of the day who has been unavoidably detained in a hammock in Brittany while it's all been going on, I feel I should make it clear that, other than sending my sympathies to anyone who's been directly affected, I have nothing to say.

I have no prescriptions to offer, no advice to give the government or the police and no bright ideas for instantly improving people's behaviour. I realise this may come as a disappointment to some of my regular readers but there it is.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

I've had it with the "pudding first" school of TV documentary

Started The First World War From Above on the iPlayer. After five minutes I turned it off. It seemed to have all the things that drive me mad about today's factual programmes:

* A script machine assembled from a Scrabble set of clichés: "bird's eye view", "like a lunar landscape", "today's state of the art technology", "those brave pilots", "from the intimate to the truly epic" and so on;
* More shots of the noble presenter, Fergal Keane, looking at the things which are supposed to be interesting than of the things themselves;
* Swelling music to reassure us that the programme will be emotional as well as informative;
* The insistence that the programme will "uncover one of World War One's secrets"' - a "secret" being anything that's not been in this time-slot before
* A three-minute opening section desperate to shoehorn in a taster of everything that's coming up in the next hour, up to and including "the extraordinary encounter at the end of my journey when I meet the daughter of the airship pilot of ninety years ago" and the obligatory shot of somebody crying when they see some film of their father.

There's nothing wrong with making factual programmes entertaining but techniques like these seem to be rooted in a growing belief that we won't eat our greens unless we're first assured that there will be pudding. After a while we lose our appetite.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Every joke has its day

Back in 1978 we were on holiday in Los Angeles. We stayed at the Sunset Marquis. This was the rock and roll hotel at the time. Bruce Springsteen had recently checked out. Santana were there, as were Hall & Oates.

It was summer and there was a small hot tub in the grounds which had room for about half a dozen people. We were lounging in there one day when we were joined by a hippyish chap and an elderly French gentleman. Listening to their conversation it dawned on me that the latter was Stéphane Grappelli, the violinist who played with Django Reinhardt in the Quintette du Hot Club de France. The former was the American mandolinist David Grisman. This is impressive but not as impressive as a member of the Hot Club.

This week I happened to relate this story to Mark Ellen. He cracked the joke that has been waiting to be cracked for almost 35 years.

"Ah yes," he said. "The Hot Tub de France."

Monday, July 25, 2011

Twitter leaves the media standing

Yesterday morning Broadcasting House on Radio 4 carried an item about the death of Amy Winehouse. The reporter went to Camden Square and mused into his microphone about why people were standing around. He then recorded interviews with them. It seems likely that even more people will subsequently come to stand around because at last something was happening. People were getting interviewed about why they were standing around.

The media may well have to get used to just standing around looking at people standing around because this weekend's events have seen them not so much breaking stories as puffing along in their wake. The first hint of the events in Oslo appeared in my Twitter timeline in the middle of Friday afternoon. I searched on "Oslo" and immediately my screen looked like the Dow Jones index at the height of a crash, with tens of thousands of tweets in different languages scrolling past at an unreadable speed. I switched on Five Live, which is the BBC's news and sport station, to hear Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode reviewing films. I found myself on an RTE site where they were just running the feed from Norwegian TV.

Similarly the following afternoon I was watching rugby on TV with the iPad on my lap when a tweet appeared from a source who you'd expect to be well informed, asking "Is this Winehouse story true?". I immediately searched on "Winehouse" and discovered what the story was. This can't have been more than half an hour after the ambulance had arrived at her home. An hour later it was confirmed.

Obviously mainstream broadcasters and newspapers can't publish on the basis of unsubstantiated tweets but the pressure to do so is going to become harder and harder to resist. And this at a time when there is talk of them being brought into line. It'll be funny if the press are restrained from intruding into private lives while at the same time a medium ideally suited to the spreading of unsubstantiated gossip become's the nation's favourite toy.