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Monday, December 31, 2012

The only thing to do today is watch this film about David Geffen

The rain's lashing the windows. It will continue all day. The best thing you can do if you're interested in show business is watch "Inventing David Geffen" via the PBS site. That's him second from right in the picture with Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell and Cass Elliott.

In many ways it's what you'd expect. Lots of famous faces (many of them lifted) popping up to trot out their polished observations about the only man to have been an enormous success as both a music and a film mogul. In editing these films producers tend to favour the pithy untruth over the insight that takes a while to get out. Thus the A&R man gets away with saying that when Guns N' Roses were first played on MTV at four in the morning "it blew up the switchboard". On the other hand I liked Mike Nichols talking about how Geffen sabotaged Hilary Clinton's presidential bid by saying that "everybody in politics lies but they do it with such ease, it's troubling". "It was like a tiny pin dopped at a very silent moment and everybody said 'that's true'."

I liked the section about his trip to Paris with Joni Mitchell which resulted in her writing "Free Man In Paris", one of very her best songs, about him. I liked Jackson Browne talking about what it was like to overhear Geffen's phone conversations with promoters. You never quite know whether to trust the actuality. Is that really him talking on the phone to Clive Davis about trying to get the reformed Byrds on his label? Did he really get in early at the William Morris Agency for six months to intercept the letter from UCLA which would have torpedoed his made-up CV? And is that the actual letter? And are we so prudish that even the word "bullshit" has to be bleeped?

Still, there should be more films about impresarios because I don't think they get the respect they deserve. The narrative of the entertainment business is loaded so heavily in the artist's favour that we can't see that the guy on the phone can be every bit as creative as the bloke with the guitar.  I sympathise with Elliot Roberts, the man who's managed Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and many other people who can't be easy, when he says "Sometimes you just want a thank-you. You move mountains and all the act says is 'OK, that's where the mountain should be.'"


Sunday, December 30, 2012

Michael Nesmith is 70 today and this is what he did best

Michael Nesmith's 70 today. He's done lots of things in his career. Because he inherited a fortune from his mother, who invented liquid correction paper, he could pick and choose. When the Monkees reform sometimes he's there and sometimes he isn't. He's the boss of a think tank. He pioneered long-form video. He's been a quite successful movie producer. He put out a record which was accompanied by a book you were meant to read at the same time.

In the seventies he released a series of albums on RCA that I still love. They had the kind of titles like "Tantamount To Treason" and "Loose Salute" that made you love them long before you got to hear them. They're impressionistic. On one hand he was making Nashville pop. On the other he seemed to be fashioning little movies. He scattered sound effects and spoken passages throughout. I've put three of the best ones on a Spotify playlist here.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The best writers tell you what they see, not what they think


I bought Up in the Old Hotel in Foyle's just before Christmas. I was attracted by the cover, the testimonials from Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie and the fact that the author, Joseph Mitchell, wrote for the New Yorker for fifty years. He died in 1996. For the last thirty years he clocked in at the office daily and wrote but didn't come up with anything he considered worth publishing.


If you read his collected works you can see why. If his portraits of New York characters from the thirties, forties and fifties are notable for anything it's the density of information and observation he packs into each one. Mitchell would hang out with his subjects for years before he'd filled his notebooks with enough detail to justify writing them up.

He was probably one of those writers who regarded his job as a trade rather than a profession. At no stage in the 700 pages does he appear to acknowledge the fact that he is going to places and meeting people that we, gentle readers might find a little too real. This applies whether he's detailing the money-making scams of New York's gypsy tribes, describing the rituals of the beefsteak dinners put on by the city's Tammany societies, telling the story of how the Mohawks recovered their warrior prestige by working in "high steel" or levelly reminiscing about the nocturnal activities of the Ku Klux Klan during his Southern boyhood.

There are good writers around today but generally they've read about things before actually encountering them. They're graduates. They come at life book-first. They delight in measuring how far experience exceeds or falls short of how they feel things ought to be. They need to tell you what they think about everything. Their stories are peopled by goodies and baddies. Their prose is peppered with hooray words and boo words.

Mitchell is from a very different school and was fortunate the world of print could support him. In the introduction he says that the only people he doesn't care to listen to are "society women, industrial leaders, distinguished authors, ministers, explorers, moving picture actors and any actress under the age of thirty-five." Journalists will recognise that these are the very people that editors are most interested in. Mitchell says experience has taught him that the best talk actually comes from "anthropologists, farmers, prostitutes and the occasional bartender."

I've been sitting in front of the fire all Christmas, reading his book. As a result I don't know how he might have voted, what his attitude to religion might have been or what he thought on any of the issues of the day. I do not know "where he was coming from", which is the first thing people expect these days.  In 700 pages Joseph Mitchell doesn't let slip as many clues about himself as most people do in the average night on Twitter.

However I do feel I've learned a lot about people by reading his collected works. One of his most trusted sources is a middle-aged policeman called Captain Campion. Mitchell reports that he was promoted from beat cop because his seniors noticed that he was "unusually intelligent and that he had a remarkably accurate memory for faces, names, conversations, and sequences of actions and that he was deeply curious about human behaviour". I like to think that when he wrote those lines Mitchell might have been describing himself.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Have yourself a merry little Christmas, if the fates allow

The best Christmas songs are the sad ones: "Fairytale Of New York", "It's A Big Country", "Blue Christmas" and "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas", which is probably the best actual Christmas song of all.

The lyrics were written by Hugh Martin and the music by Ralph Blane. It was unveiled in the 1944 film "Meet Me In St Louis". Judy Garland sings it to comfort her young sister, who's upset at the news that the family are moving to New York.

The lyric has changed through the years. The film's director thought it was too sad and persuaded Martin to change "it may be your last" to "let your heart be light". When Sinatra came to record a version on an album called "A Jolly Christmas" he asked him to change it again. This time "until then we'll have to muddle through somehow" became "hang a shining star upon the highest bough". Sinatra's got form when it comes to making clunky changes to lyrics - see his altering of Jesus to "Jilly" in his version of "Mrs Robinson".

In later life Martin, who was a Seventh Day Adventist, re-wrote his song as "Have Yourself A Blessed Little Christmas" and performed it as "we will all be together, if the Lord allows", a form of words he claimed were in the original but were swapped for "if the fates allow" to make the song less religious.

Last night I caught Larry Lamb and the cast of "Gavin And Stacey" doing it at the end of a repeated Christmas special. I think "if the fates allow" is actually the best line in the whole song. As we re-group for Christmas and think about who's here, who's not and what's changed, that's the line that strokes the heart strings. Have yourself a merry little Christmas.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The harmless TV fun of today may produce the scandals of tomorrow

Toyah Willcox said an interesting thing on this week's programme on Radio Four about Smash Hits when talking about the relatively benign world of 80s pop stardom. "Nowadays," she said, "I think of fame as something dark and abusive."

I know what she meant. However, the majority of people seem to associate seediness exclusively with the past. I overheard some thirtyish blokes in the pub talking about the police investigation of Jimmy Savile. They seem to have arrived at the view that anyone who had been on Radio One in the seventies was, to use the great contemporary smear-all, "dodgy". This seemed to apply particularly if they'd worn a tank top. People like things to look the way they do in their prejudices.

Scandal's no respecter of eras. I don't have any evidence but I can't help suspecting that when our 21st century world of reality TV and searches-for-a-star finally lands in a ditch at the side of the road, a lot of victims will crawl from the wreckage and some of them may have very "dark and abusive" stories to tell. Since so many of those swept up in this gold rush have been wide eyed innocents or people with fragile self-esteem, there's bound to be fall-out. At which point a lot of the same people currently celebrating it all as harmless fun may abruptly change their tunes.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Paul Thompson *is* Roxy Music

Last night I walked through the rain in Islington listening to early Roxy Music (I do recommend this) and realised that when developing my theory that drummers are the truly irreplaceable heart of all great bands I hadn't taken Paul Thompson into consideration.

I think of Thompson's style as being somehow on the military wing of funk. He's the one who kept Love Is The Drug and Do The Strand rattling along but he also sounded as if he would be completely comfortable supplying the percussion noises that accompany court martial scenes in movies. There's something round, hard and stirring about the way he plays, something dry and stern about his fills. If you were going to be led out to be hanged you'd like to think Paul Thompson would be playing.

Thompson was working on a building site when Roxy Music went in to do their first sessions for John Peel and he never fitted comfortably into the group's visual scheme.
In fact this picture of the early line-up shows how much of a sore thumb he could be. He's the one far left looking like a "before" picture in a body building ad. This particular shot is a "do I have to wear this, boss?" classic.

Thompson was edged out when the group made their early 80s albums, to be replaced, not entirely satisfactorily, by session players and drum machines. He then played with everyone from Blondie to the Angelic Upstarts. He was called back to the line-up in 2001. It was like an errant footballer going back to the wife who had borne his children. While he was away Roxy Music had a few hits but did nothing that was great. That could be because Paul Thompson is Roxy Music.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The strange economics of pantomime

A few years ago I was talking to the artistic director of one of Britain's most prominent provincial theatres. It was after a charity performance of a Shakespeare play featuring a few very starry names. I asked him how easy it was to fill his theatre. He told me that if it wasn't for the annual pantomime season they probably wouldn't be able to keep the doors open.

I find it surprising that in this day and age you can still fill a theatre for two shows a day for over a month with this form of entertainment, charging (I've just had a quick look) up to £35 in Milton Keynes and up to £29.50 in Glasgow and no discounts for children.

I'm sure that the annual influx of American stars who increasingly top the bill at these shows (David Hasselhof is in Manchester this year, I see) genuinely love performing to full houses but I wonder how much money it takes to get somebody like Priscilla Presley to spend Christmas at the New Wimbledon Theatre.

A piece in the Independent in 2010 suggested that it could be as much as £250,000 for a five-week run with further bonuses tied to the total box-office  take. Last year the Telegraph ran a piece alleging that the Wolverhampton production of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs would henceforth use children instead of dwarf actors. Presumably the money saved is spent on the thing that puts bums on seats, which probably means former TV stars.

It's the strangest deal in the entertainment business: people who were big names thirty years earlier paid top dollar to dress up and perform in front of small children who would presumably be far more impressed with Jedward or a children's TV presenter.

In this I suppose it has something in common with rock festival economics. It's the line-up of big names that persuades people to sign the cheques when the line-up is announced. It's the small act on the fringes of the festival that actually justifies the investment when the weekend comes around.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

John Lennon, Smash Hits and the lost art of putting pen to paper

I've been looking at The John Lennon Letters app on the iPad. It's quite charming. Most of the time he's a lot warmer with a pen in his hand, apologising to a chauffeur he's had to let go, writing to Ringo from Rishikesh enthusing about the number of new songs he's written, keeping in touch with his many relations and even (left) his mates in the press.

I don't expect the march of musical history to turn up any similar treasures. The kind of sentiments that could be scribbled on a postcard are now likely to be sent as a text. Their tone will be entirely different.

Contributing to a Radio 4 programme about Smash Hits which is broadcast on Thursday I was reflecting once again on the thing that most amazes me about that whole phenomenon. It's the fact that every night in the eighties thousands of 14-year-olds sat down with their Friends Forever notepaper and their multi-coloured pens to scratch out letters to us at Smash Hits and, they hoped, to the fabulous pop world beyond. That's another world.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Will Amazon be the Last Record Store?

I was walking up Oxford Street yesterday and thinking about the record and book shops that used to be there. Two HMVs, two Virgins, at least one Our Price, Borders, Books Etc, Waterstone's and some other chains whose names I've forgotten.

Now there's just HMV and yesterday they reported that they were likely to breach their banking covenants in the New Year.

The theory of Last Man Standing goes that when a market is cleared out it remains possible for one large operator to make money. If HMV were the last music retailer on the High Street it could do OK. It doesn't look as though it's going to work out as neatly as that.

While I was thinking about that I learned that Amazon aim to get a margin of just 1% across its business. I'm no business analyst but surely that kind of strategy can only work if you get mind-boggling scale.

The way your way cool new internet is panning out makes me yearn for the ways of the old-fashioned retailers. Like Tesco and Sainsbury.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

What Paul McCartney can do. What Mick Jagger can't

So Paul McCartney fronts a band featuring the remaining members of Nirvana, makes a decent fist of it and the people who are most surprised are the citizens of Indie Nation, where versatility is despised and people only feel they can properly trust those who've spent years ploughing the narrowest of furrows.

McCartney, whether you like him or not, has worked in more musical idioms over a longer period of time than anyone else and therefore he's the last person about whom you should ever say "but I never realised he could do that". Every shade of pop and rock and roll, dance music, sound collages, show tunes, classical, film scores, kids songs and "Give Ireland Back To The Irish". He's done the lot. Nobody would claim it's all been uniformly brilliant but he's always been equal to the job and very often he's shown mastery.

Plus, if one living performer could be said to have invented the art of screaming in front of a rock band it was Paul McCartney. He did that with "I'm Down", "She's A Woman", "Helter Skelter" and plenty of other recordings and he did it long before anybody even thought of putting up the discredited polytechnic that is indie rock.

 Meanwhile, by contrast, Mick Jagger turned up on Letterman this week to deliver the Top Ten Things He's Learned and proves that it's possible to have spent 50 years at the top of your profession and still trample all over the punch-lines of the writers. This is so bad I have to watch it again and again.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Pictures from last week's Word In Your Ear show

Bobby Goulding's pictures from last week's Word In Your Ear show at the Lexington capture something of the evening's madcap spirit. Here Dan Heptinstall and Lorna Thomas demonstrate Skinny Lister's two-fisted approach to folk.
Special guest Danny Baker, with occasional prompts from me, regaled the room with incidents from a life teeming with same, many of which are in his book Going To Sea In A Sieve.

Following the show the usual bacchanal ensued in the luxurious star dressing rooms backstage.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Ten acts who made brilliant trilogies without meaning to


Front Row asked me to say something about trilogies - prompted by The Hobbit, 50 Shades Of Grey and the slightly less enthralling news that we're in the midst of a Green Day trilogy.

The best rock trilogies were never designed as such. They're the after-the-fact trilogies, made because standard record contract used to be for three albums, three years seemed to be as long as you could hold a particular line-up of a band together and, as Louis Menand pointed out, the iron law of stardom is that the public can't maintain its enthusiasm for a particular artist much longer than three years. It's interesting to go back and look at record-making not as a steady string of albums but as a blind stumble towards a three-album purple patch. Like these.

Scott Walker's hit trilogy - 1967-1969







Purists disagree but most of us think Scott Walker hit his peak with these three LPs, each of which combined throbbing versions of Jacques Brel with a sprinkling of his own songs. Scott 4 was all his own songs. It was deleted within the year.

The Beatles psychedelic trilogy -1965-1967








Of all the Beatles albums these are the three that feel most like a series. Menand argues that the Beatles are one of the few exceptions to his three-year rule because they had a three-year career as lovable mop-tops immediately followed by another three-year career as moustachioed adventurers.

Bowie's Berlin trilogy - 1977-79








The fans call it his "Berlin Trilogy". In fact, the third one wasn't recorded in Berlin. It would be more accurate to call it his "Eno trilogy". Know what they mean though.

Neil Young's ditch trilogy - 1973-75








"Heart Of Gold put me in the middle of the road," he said. "Travelling there became a bore so I headed for the ditch."

Stevie Wonder's pop/soul trilogy - 1972-74








He'd had hits before and he had lots after but wherever he is tonight he's playing Superstition, You Are The Sunshine Of My Life, Living For The City, Boogie On Reggae Woman and lots of other songs from these three records which were written, recorded and released in a dizzying two years.

The Nick Drake trilogy - 1969-72







When writers talk about not sticking around to mess up their own legacy it's usually because it sounds like a mordant thing to say. Well, it certainly worked for Nick Drake who was dead just two years after the last of this trio came out.

The Cure's dark trilogy - 1980-82








Rock bands hardly ever set out to do trilogies but they often turn round to find that they've done one, which is what happened to the Cure.

The Steely Dan band trilogy - 1973-75








The singer on the first Steely Dan album was David Palmer. He'd left by Countdown To Ecstasy and so Fagen took over. By the time of Katy Lied the band had been replaced by session players but they still sounded like a group, which they never did again.

Bob Dylan's geezer trilogy 1997-2006








Bob Dylan's often done some of his best stuff while marking time. In the late 60s he made three records in Nashville that showcased his new, post-accident voice. In the 90s he re-launched himself as a wheezy old gimmer doing retreads of old r&b tunes which he'd picked up while doing his radio show.

Nick Lowe's Brentford trilogy - 1994 to the present time








Nick Lowe's recent records have all featured the same musicians and the songs all illustrate the life of man in late middle-age who's sorry for a lot he's done. These three were christened "the Brentford trilogy" after Robert Rankin's books and the area where Lowe lives. They've been so well-received that he's made another couple since. Which is bending the rules.




Monday, December 10, 2012

Now's as good a time as any to realise that Randy Newman is unique

While the nation was watching The X Factor on Saturday night, Ian Penman, Danny Baker and I were each playing Randy Newman's Good Old Boys and marvelling about it via Twitter.

Every time I listen to Randy Newman I come away even more impressed by him. This time it struck me he's one of the few pop artists with no forerunners and no successors. Nobody came before and there's no sign of anybody coming after. You can detect the influences - Fats Domino, Ray Charles, the soundtrack music that his uncle Alfred wrote, probably even Schubert if you're cleverer than I am - but you can't draw a direct line from any of them.

As for successors, any songwriter who isn't influenced by Newman's own songs simply hasn't twigged how good he is. You can find traces of him in the songs of people like Neil Hannon, but that's probably because they both sit at the piano. But does anybody else strike the same notes? I don't think so.

Nobody else seems to have his remarkable ability to make the unloveable our friends. The father who wants his children to hurt like he did, the Southerner who gets fed up of seeing Lester Maddox being guyed by "some smart-ass New York Jew" and goes to the park "and takes some paper along", the drunk who confesses "it takes a whole lot of medicine for me to pretend that I'm someone else", the impresario who prods Davy The Fat Boy into performing his agonisingly pretty fat-boy dance, the God who explains that he loves mankind only because we are so pathetic and needy, smiling down at the hands which are tracing out New Orleans-style piano: only Dickens has come up with a comparable range of characters.

Which reminds me of the account Dostoevsky gave of meeting Dickens. According to him, all Dickens' virtuous characters were what he wanted to be and all his evil characters were what he actually thought he was. I doubt that Randy Newman thinks like that. They're not evil characters but they do entertain unworthy thoughts. The fact that he's prepared to give those unworthy thoughts such wicked tunes is more than enough.

I've put eight Randy Newman tunes here.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Why would a band not play their hits? *Any* hit

I was talking to a musician recently. He was in a band that had reformed for a last tour. They had a following but the nearest they'd come to an actual hit was a cover version of a well-known song that they'd recorded years before for a film soundtrack. Reasoning that even the tiniest regional hit was a calling card that reached beyond their tiny fan constituency he suggested they should put it in the set. It was vetoed by the drummer who thought it was somehow "embarrassing". It never occurs to bands that any of their own songs might be "embarrassing" but they are apt to think that by doing other people's songs they are somehow reneging on their deal with the God of authenticity.

In every other area of show business it's pretty much inconceivable that an act facing a crowd who needed entertaining wouldn't reach for every weapon as their disposal. Even an ornery old soul like Bob Dylan does his biggest hits. Clive James told me that his anecdote about the dunny man from the first volume of his memoirs is the "bit" that still makes people buy tickets to hear him read. James Taylor sings about the people who "pay good money to hear Fire And Rain again and again and again" in a song called, with refreshing honesty, That's Why I'm Here.

If I were climbing on stage and had any reason to believe that there was anything the audience wanted to hear for me, I'd make damn sure I played it, probably near the beginning. I'd do that because any kind of performance is a battle for survival. How come bands are the only people who don't know this?




Monday, December 03, 2012

The obsolete box in the corner

Downstairs in our sitting room is a piece of furniture I have recently come to regard as obsolete. It's a television.

Since we had it connected to a Freeview box my wife complains she can't easily tune it to the channels she wants and so she doesn't turn it on much. She catches up on the few things she wants to watch on the iPlayer via an iPad. Most of our kids have grown and, in the words of Randy Newman, "they have TVs of their own". The one who's studying at home no longer bothers with a TV in her bedroom. She watches whatever she watches on a laptop. Most of the TV I watch isn't live. When it's football or rugby I go to the pub to watch.  The family hardly ever gather to watch the same thing.

The upshot of this is there's never an occasion in our house when somebody asks what time something's on and then settles down accordingly. Which means we must be beyond the reach of the TV schedulers. Scheduling is ultimately what TV's about. TV plays lip service to the idea of creating exciting programming but mostly they just trundle their output into slots where experience has taught them a given group of people will be on the sofa waiting to watch.

The traditional power of TV and radio has derived from their power to make large numbers of people do the same thing at the same time. This is changing. Already more teenagers follow pop music on You Tube than on radio. My children are growing up with little of no awareness of channels or broadcasters. They already resent the idea that units of entertainment can be held back in order to help an organisation sell advertising or boost ratings.

I'm already seriously considering life without a landline. The next thing to go will be that big box in the corner.



Saturday, December 01, 2012

"It's before my time" - the four most infuriating words in the language

None of the three contestants on a trivia quiz on Danny Baker's Saturday morning show just now could tell us which member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young was called Graham.

You just knew what they were going to say. "It's before my time."

I hate "it's before my time".  I loathe "it's before my time". It makes my blood boil.

These four words are the wholly inadequate sick note offered up by all those who think that knowledge is something exclusively acquired through direct experience, who have such a distorted sense of the lens of their own life that everything which is outside their immediate field of vision falls sharply away into the gloom of total ignorance (they haven't even got enough of a framework to attempt a guess), who regard learning as something that stopped at the end of their learning years, who must be making an effort to ensure that nothing lodges in the windy vacancy of their mind that they haven't made a definite effort to put there, who, most infuriatingly of all, can never quite hide the fact that they are, if anything, quite proud that they don't know because this somehow makes them young and vital. It doesn't.

When I was young, nobody said "it's before my time". You were expected to know lots of things that were before your time. That's what civilisation is. Yes, even with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Why The Grateful Dead will out-last all its members

In last week's New Yorker Nick Paumgarten devoted many thousands of words to the legacy of the Grateful Dead. He's particularly interested in the way Dead fans collect soundboard tapes. It's almost twenty years since the band ceased to exist but the tape trade is stronger than ever.

For all their apparent disavowal of anything "straight", the Grateful Dead are the most outstanding example of the triumph of brand in rock music. They're far more impressive in this respect than Rihanna or One Direction or even Pink Floyd could ever hope to be.

The Grateful Dead's name is 80% of the reason for their astounding longevity. Its associated logos and decals are worth another 15%. Only 5% of what they're about is in the music. Nobody listens to the music without having first of all bought into the idea of The Grateful Dead and the idea is all in their name.






Sunday, November 25, 2012

Bill Wyman explains the Rolling Stones "wobble"

"Something happens when we play together. It's impossible to copy. Every band follow the drummer. We don't follow Charlie. Charlie follows Keith. So the drums are very slightly behind Keith. It's only fractional. Seconds. Minuscule. And I tend to play ahead. It's got a sort of wobble. It's dangerous because it can fall apart at any minute."
Bill Wyman talking in the second part of the Rolling Stones documentary, Crossfire Hurricane.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Amazon Economics - a dummy speaks

Everybody uses Amazon and thinks it's brilliant because it's so cheap..

Everybody criticises Amazon for not paying its proper share of taxation.

I'm no economist but hear me out.

Maybe one of the reasons they're cheap is because they don't pay their proper share of taxation.


Monday, November 19, 2012

I pity the poor immigrant


At lunch with neighbours yesterday we were joined by their friend from Spain. She had lived in London for ten years. She brought along her young cousin, a woman in her twenties who had just arrived in the UK and was staying with her. She had some qualifications and experience as a social worker in Spain but had come to England because the job prospects were better. The friend said she was getting phone calls from lots of relatives wondering if they can put them up while they try to get jobs in kitchens in London.

The twenty-something had barely any English but her parents had helped pay for a four-week intensive language course. After that she hoped to get a job waitressing. She knew it was going to be hard - she'd already been struck by how many Spanish voices she heard in the West End - but she probably doesn't know how hard. As far as she's concerned it can't be any harder than in Spain, where the unemployment rate is anywhere between twenty-five and forty per cent depending on who you ask.


Sunday, November 18, 2012

The only way I can make a playlist without trying to look as if I've got "taste"


Every few days I post something on This Is My Jam. It's usually because I've found myself thinking of an old favourite. I don't actually listen to the tracks all the way through at the time I post them but every few weeks I export the accumulated jams to Spotify (there's a button on This Is My Jam that makes it easy) where I find they make the very best kind of playlist.

Playlist-making the conventional way too often succumbs to fatigue or snobbery. After the first ten songs you can't be bothered. And those who have the stamina to compile playlists are usually too keen to use them as a way to position themselves and show off their taste as if it was something you can be good at.

I hate "taste", particularly when applied to pop music. It's just snobbery. When people try to show off their taste on Spotify they quickly resort to fly-tipping a load of tracks by acceptable-sounding names into a list in the hope this will make them look good. On the whole I'm against trying to say anything meaningful about music by just listing the names of perfomers rather than performances. I heard someone talking about "passionate specificness". I like that.

It's only after listening back to a load of songs that you have picked one by one over a matter of weeks that you begin to get a picture of what your taste is. It's only when you stop trying to flex your taste you can get a picture of it. It's like being able to read your own palm.

Here's the most recent export of my "jams" on Spotify.

My "1971 was the annus mirabilis of the rock album" playlist has over 400 subscribers.

Of all the playlists I've found on Spotify, the one I like best is Vanessa Pelz-Sharpe's unfolding list of all the music used on Mad Men.

Friday, November 16, 2012

We don't need Tomorrow's World. We need Yesterday's World.


I can't see any reason to bring back Tomorrow's World. We're no longer amazed by the prospect of what technology is about to make possible. We assume it's already making it possible. All we're working on is a way to make it affordable.

Instead of Tomorrow's World I would like to see Yesterday's World, a programme that reminds us of what passed for daring new technology the day before yesterday.

One of those conversations came up at a dinner party the other day. Does anyone still use faxes? (Actually, football clubs still use them to register new players with the Football League.) When did you send you first email? Remember the internet before browsers? Who remembers pagers? Telexes? Magazine designers putting a slide in a projector and then drawing round the image on a layout sheet? The younger people round the table even shook their heads at the idea that it was ever possible to lock the keys inside your car.

We've lived through such a revolution in convenience over the last twenty years that we've forgotten the world of small inconveniences it swept away. This Dymotape dispenser (above) I came across recently is more than quaint. It makes you wonder how we ever had the patience to operate it and what we have done with the time we've saved by doing away with it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

What do you call a suit without a tie?


If you're a man it doesn't really matter how you feel about ties. There are some occasions when you'd be foolish not to wear one. If I were being asked to appear before a select committee, for instance, I would wear a tie.

Matt Brittin, the CEO of Google UK, didn't feel he needed to when he turned up yesterday to talk about his company's tax arrangements. It seemed to say a lot about how seriously his company takes Parliament.

Tim Davie also went for the open-necked shirt in his first day as acting Director General of the BBC. When he gave his interview down the line to Sky News it gave an impression of informality which was at odds with the formal meetings he was having with colleagues. This can't have been what he wanted. (People who work in TV should surely know better than anyone that when you're on camera viewers are getting most of their signals from what you look like rather than what you say.)

Both these men work in companies where even the senior management go tieless nowadays. Maybe they should dress differently when representing those organisations in the outside world. The "one of the guys" look may work OK if you're squeezing into the lift in the morning, clutching a cup of coffee. When you're facing the music it can easily look disrespectful.

We seem to have a generation of  male executives who think it doesn't matter. They ought to ask their female colleagues. No woman would have dreamed of appearing in front of parliament or the media in anything other than her best armour.

When George Entwistle got the job of Director General of the BBC Alastair Campbell congratulated him and said "get yourself some decent suits". There was nothing particularly wrong with Entiwistle's suits but maybe Campbell  detected that he didn't wear them seriously enough.

The wearing of a proper suit in the so-called "creative industries" indicates many things, one of them being that you are prepared to be a hardass. The subliminal message is "I no longer care particularly whether you like me or not - I will do what I think is right."

Some managers make the mistake of thinking that the staff will like them more if they appear to be dressing like them. They don't. Particularly in the creative industries staff prefer to think that the management is not like them. They like to think they're grown-ups. They like to think somebody else is steering the ship while they're having all kinds of fun below decks. Martin Scorsese hasn't made a memorable film in years but his personal stock remains high because every time he appears in public he looks as if he's about to walk his daughter down the aisle.

When people are sent to see a male specialist they want somebody who looks like a headmaster from the 1960s and not somebody who might be running a copy shop.  Even those authority figures who don't bother with suits appreciate the important of looking as if they've thought about their uniform. Steve Jobs didn't wear a black turtle neck because it was the nearest thing to hand when he got up in the morning. It was part of his identity. With his thin and no doubt expensive sweaters Simon Cowell has proved that it's possible to make a uniform out of anything.

The suit without tie get-up looks like the wearer hasn't got the courage of his convictions. He's trying to look "smart" without looking smart. He's trying not to look like a grown-up. Paul Du Noyer says too many men today dress "like toddlers". You can see what he means in the supermarket queue. Baggy sweat shirts, hoodies, the kind of footwear that inspired Ian Dury to talk about "shoes like dead pig's noses". It's as if they want to crawl back into mother's arms and go to sleep.

The point in men's lives when they have to grow up has receded over the years. It's no longer strictly 21 or 30 or even 40. When you're a father the signal arrives in the eyes of your teenage daughter as she scans your dress and gives you the unspoken "what are you wearing?" look. Not everyone has children so they have to pick up clues elsewhere. Any man over the age of 40 who has more than one pair of trainers really should have a word with himself.

Ask yourself, what would Sinatra do? He had two modes of dress. One was immaculately suited and booted. The other was immaculately suited and booted but with tie slightly loosened. This was no accident. What this look said is "I may be slightly relaxed at this moment but don't let this deceive you because my natural state is alert and ready for battle". The look adopted by Davie and Brittin yesterday didn't say anything quite as powerful as that.

Apropos of nothing in particular

I've presided over my share of defamation scares. This is the conclusion I've reached.

There are two ways to avoid problems. One is to share the responsibility between, let's say, ten people, which means they all think that responsibility is ten per cent theirs. The other is to give that responsibility to one person, who is then aware that the responsibility is entirely theirs.

I recommend the latter.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Why I can't love your new records as much as your old ones. "It's not you. It's me."

It's the challenge for any heritage act. The main competition for your new records comes from your old records. Old fans only have so much bandwidth and they'd rather ease back into the embrace of their old favourite than get used to the unfamiliar shape of the new one.

I recently played the new Donald Fagen album, Sunken Condos, alongside The Nightfly, his first solo record from thirty years ago. Some reviews have pointed out the things they have in common: high-concept covers, a song about nuclear dread, one deadpan cover version, lots of playing that sounds like it was hard to do and a certain set-em-up-Joe resignation about the delivery.

I doubt the untutored ear could detect which one was the old record and which was the new one, which says something about the last thirty years. Some reviewers think the new one could have done with a little more of one quality and a little less of another. Funny how we treat musicians like chefs, as if they could just pop their record back in the oven for a moment and make it better.

It's difficult to decide why one record works and another doesn't. Some parties are huge fun without anyone trying while others are no fun at all despite everyone trying like crazy. You can't accuse "Sunken Condos" of not making the effort. It probably took more heavy lifting than "The Nightfly". Maybe it's the absence of catchy tunes that brings its busyness to your attention. It has moments but it never flies in the way that "The Nightfly" did and still does. Only on "Weather In My Head" does the groove achieve escape velocity. Nothing get under your skin. It's cold.

"The Nightfly", on the other hand, is like a summer evening's drive. Even the songs with quite a bit of plot, "Goodbye Look", about a gangster with an appointment with the fishes, and "I.G.Y", which peers at the future through the binoculars of the year 1957, and "New Frontier", which is about getting a Tuesday Weld-lookalike alone in your dad's fallout shelter, glide by as if on castors. It's one of those cases where the session guys are doing more than the minimum. Each tiny instrumental fill at the end of a line is distinct from the one at the end of the last line. Each one is a new spring driving the watch. "The Nightfly" is one of those records where you don't just sing along with the songs. You play the arrangements with your eyebrows and the drums with your extremities.

But then you would, wouldn't you, because you've lived with it for thirty years. That record is imprinted in you because you've heard it so much. No new record by Donald Fagen or Bruce Springsteen or Tom Petty or anyone else who was making records back in the mid-70s is ever going to be listened to as intently as the records that made their names. Elvis Costello still talks passionately about the day he bought Joni Mitchell's "Blue" and took it home to his dad's place in Twickenham where he listened to it so hard he almost took the shine off it. "I'll never listen to music that way again."

In his book The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember Nicholas Carr argues that the human brain changes all the time and that in recent years the internet has re-routed our neural pathways. I wish he'd do something similar about what repeated exposure to the same music does to us. It must change us. Repeated listening must make us different. The people who heard the first performances of Beethoven's works expected to never hear those works again in their lives. I've heard the great records of Donald Fagen literally thousands of times. I've heard them far more than Donald Fagen will have heard them. (The reason Paul McCartney's backing band can do the Beatles so well is that they've spent thousands of hours listening to Beatle records. Paul McCartney never did.)

Whenever an old favourite releases a new album some of the reviewers want to persuade us the artist has got the old magic back. They always list the familiar ingredients: the choruses, the hooks, the sense of purpose which has apparently returned. The laundry list of qualities is the first refuge of the rock critic who can't really think of anything to say. Lists move in when love moves out. After a while they don't play it anymore, which is the only review that really counts. What he should say is what he's probably found himself saying back in the dim and distant past when other affairs came to a natural end. It's not you. It's me.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Thank God there was no Twitter when the last baseless rumours were around

Just over twenty years ago a prominent figure in British life was the victim of an unexplained act of violence. In the absence of an explanation a story quickly spread among people who apparently had some inside knowledge of the incident because they worked in what was then called "the media". 

I heard more than one version of this story which involved a reference to sexual abuse and children. That's probably what helped the story spread so quickly. I was assured that it would be just days before this story was "all over the papers".

I'm still waiting. A subsequent court case proved the rumours groundless.  Probably not before the prominent figure and his family had got to hear about them. He must look back on it now and thank God there was no Twitter at the time. 

On Twitter people who really ought to know better, and are often familiar with the laws regarding defamation, publish things they would never dream of publishing in a newspaper or on a TV programme. This is on the grounds that the story is "out there" and in the awareness/hope that they will somehow bully the victim of the rumours into coming out to defend themselves.

They pretend that they're doing it to campaign for the victims and to respond to the public's concern. They're not. They're doing it out of personal ambition and malice. Mostly the latter.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

What Mick Jagger's mum thought about him buying antiques

Just finished reading James Lees-Milne's diaries. His wife Alvilde Chaplin is a garden designer to the quality, which explains this passage:



Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Danny Baker, otherwise known as David Essex's brother, added to our gig

I first met Danny Baker in, well, it was probably 1975. I was working in the HMV Shop in Oxford Street, which in those days was near Bond Street station. There's a Foot Locker there now. They used to say that before fame the Beatles had made some kind of demo in the stockroom on the first floor. Anyway, it was a big store in the days before megastores. This was in the days when confused-looking middle-aged parents up in London for the Rugby League Challenge Cup or the Ideal Home Exhibition would approach the counter carrying a piece of paper on which was written "ZZ Top" or "Sex and Soul by Roy C". In those days you didn't believe those records existed until you saw them in places like HMV.

Danny worked round the corner in the far trendier Harlequin (late One Stop) in South Molton Street. He used to come round occasionally to pick up something mainstream for one of his star customers. He was only a teenager and very handsome. "That's Danny," said one of my fellow drudges. "He's David Essex's brother." I nodded. It seemed to make sense. He wasn't, of course, but it was a good way to get the attention of girls.

Forty years later Danny is living proof that you may be able to take the boy out of the record shop but you never quite take the record shop out of the boy. Sparks of esoterica concerning The Fatback Band or Todd Rundgren are likely to illuminate exchanges with puzzled former footballers on his Saturday morning show on BBC Five Live. They obviously also litter the pages of Going to Sea in a Sieve: The Autobiography which is out now.

The reason I'm telling you this is that Danny will be appearing alongside Skinny Lister (left) and other acts yet to be announced at the Word In Your Ear show which "Magic" Alex Gold and I are putting on at the Lexington in London's swinging Islington on Tuesday, December 4th. Danny will be talking to me about times past, present and future (he may well touch upon recent events that took him to the front page of the The Times) and signing copies of his book.

I'm delighted he's doing this and really hope as many people as possible can come along for what promises to be a great start to the run-up to Christmas. 

Tickets are £15, I shall be taking care of MC duties while also presenting my legendary 1971 was the annus mirabilis of the rock album roadshow. There will be further announcements in due course but if you want to be sure of your ticket you need to book now.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Memo to Radio Three - all discs are records but not all records are discs


Listening to BBC Radio Three first thing this morning my ears prick up when "the announcer" (I feel sure they should still be called "announcers" on Radio Three) talks about playing "some new discs".

"Discs" is a term that seems to hang on at Radio Three and in certain corners of Radio Four. It wasn't long ago that Desert Island Discs (there it is again) asked guests to pick eight "gramophone records" to be cast away with.

All terms used to decribe sound carriers have a moment in the sun and quickly become quaint. In the late 60s people talked about having "an album collection" because it implied a whole new level of sophistication. In the late 70s cassette was the dominant format. At the time my mother would describe any recorded music as "a tape".  I cling on to "LP" because it puzzles young people. I have known people point at 12" vinyl LPs and call them CDs.

"Album" itself is a word borrowed from the world of photography, used to describe the packages in which the first classical works could be spread over a number of 78s. "Waxing" and "vinyl" were borrowed from the production process. "Hot biscuit" was a hipster term for a record, so-called because early 78s would be apparently baked during manufacture.

There's actually only one word that would cover anything from an early Edison cylinder to the latest stream, anything from a rare Black Patti to a Paul Young cassette with a cracked case picked up in a motorway service area, from a Jamaican dub plate to the most recent classical performance.

That's the word "record".

"Record" doesn't apply to the physical object. It applies to the medium. Therefore, that music they're playing on Radio Three may be coming from a disc or it may not, it may be a download or it may not, it may in ten years' time be played in via a machine that we cannot imagine now. It will however still be a record.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Bands are like tree surgeons


I don't want to manage any bands but there are times when I wouldn't mind being a coach. Last night was one of those times. I was a guest at the Mercury Music Prize show at the Roundhouse. Twelve acts did one song each, which gives you a rare chance to compare and contrast.

Most of the bands took to the stage with the slightly self-important air of tree surgeons about to perform a delicate operation from which you'd be best advised to stand well clear. They further resemble tree surgeons in the way they appear to be preoccupied with important matters while hoping against hope that you're admiring them. When you consider how far technology has advanced in the last thirty years it's remarkable that musicians still look so burdened by the increasing amount of kit they take on stage with them and distracted by the fear that it might go wrong. This is of course even worse when it's a TV taping.

Does this self-consciousness matter? Only if you think the musician should be reaching out to the audience rather than operating a machine. The folk singer Sam Lee clearly does. When he began his number he looked directly into the audience and defied them to look away. In doing this he proved it was possible to establish some kind of relationship, even with an industry crowd.

I once went on a public speaking course taught by an actor. He was full of all kinds of drama school tricks, the sort that make normal people roll their eyes and blush. At one stage he said, before a performance I like to go on stage and cast my net over the audience. Here he mimed flinging a Biblical fishing net over the front stalls. I find it helps me project myself into the room, he added. To conquer the space.

We all sniggered, of course. Nonetheless, whenever I'm about to talk to a room full of people, I fling that net. Only in my head, of course. Something similar makes athletes believe in the power of visualisation. I wonder if any member of any band has ever thought about their performance in those terms.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

If there had been a Mercury Music Prize in 1971, this would have been the shortlist

I'm going to the Mercury Music Prize tonight. The shortlisted acts are alt-J, Ben Howard, Django Django, Field Music, Jessie Ware, Lianne La Havas, The Macabees, Michael Kiwanuka, Plan B and Richard Hawley.

When I was compiling my Spotify playlist 1971- the Annus Mirabilis of the Rock Album, it struck me that if you'd been doing a similar exercise in that year, your Mercury shortlist would have been:

The Who's "Who's Next"
Rod Stewart's "Every Picture Tells A Story"
The Rolling Stones' "Sticky Fingers"
David Bowie's "Hunky Dory"
Paul McCartney's "Ram"
T. Rex's "Electric Warrior"
Yes's "The Yes Album"
"Led Zeppelin IV"
Pink Floyd's "Meddle"

Better? I couldn't possibly say. But one thing I promise you is that some radio station somewhere will be playing every single one of those records today.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Nothing beats the stately homos of England

I love a diary. I'm just reading the second volume of James Lees-Milne's.

I'm not greatly bothered about the professional world he operated in - he was one of the prime movers behind the National Trust - but I find his dogged old-fashionedness cracking fun. Even in the 1970s he's still using the words "motor" and "lunch" as verbs. He talks about the ringing of the "telephone bell" and describes his struggles with a "self-photographic box" at the Passport Office. His concerns are refreshingly out of sync with his age, let alone ours. He describes, in painful detail, a dinner with Princess Margaret's circle and lists everyone at the table with the exception of one woman he describes only as "a film star". That's what today they would call "cool".

One of the famous stately homos of old England, Lees-Milne and his old pal, the no-less married John Betjeman, get together in old age and chuckle over who used to "tuck up" with whom back at Oxford. I wonder if publishers are going to fight shy of paras like this in the post-Savile era: "
Walking to church he said, I wonder what the bell-ringer will look like. I said boy bell-ringers should be plain, spotty and wear spectacles. Yes, he said, men don't make passes at boys wearing glasses. We were mistaken, our bell-ringer was a very pretty boy with a cream complexion.....At Westonbirt, where I took him during the afternoon, he was sent into ecstasies by a girl with flaming red hair and blue jeans who was lolling lasciviously over a table in the library. These thrills and what he calls "letchings" are sheer fantasy, I presume.
But what I most like about him is also what I think I most like about great diaries. These are the moments when he says things to his diary that are simply too bleak to say to another person. When an old friend dies he thinks about them for a few seconds and then turns the page of his paper. That, he reflects, is what happens when you die. Your friends think about you and then turn the page. And then this:
Have been pondering over what someone said the other day, that when one is awake at 3 a.m. then one sees life and death, as they truly are, in their stark, terrible, hopeless reality; that at all other times of the day, one sees these infinite thing through rose-tinted spectacles...
Worth reading.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Listen to Johnnie Walker's Long Players tonight at ten

Over the last year I've recorded a bunch of programmes in the above series for Radio Two in which Johnnie and I enthuse over old favourite LPs, often while fondling the sleeves. I don't think I've ever been more enthusiastic than I am in tonight's programme, which goes out at ten. That's because we were celebrating "Who's Next" in general and "Baba O'Riley" in particular. A bit like this:
And it was made in 1971, which was of course the Annus Mirabilis of the Rock Album.

Pop annuals and the ghosts of Christmas Past

I came upon these two while sorting through some old books. The Radio Luxembourg Book of Record Stars must come from 1963 because the Beatles are in it, thought most of it's devoted to Peggy Lee, Frank Ifield and other artists who probably didn't get much Luxembourg play once they'd arrived. It's an awkward mix of PR shots accompanied by copy which purports to come from the performers and DJs. Jimmy Savile writes about his passion for country and western music. Nevill Skrimshire contributes a piece called "Categories in jazz don't matter".

Young people always looked forward to annuals but they rarely justified the anticipation. Publishers traditionally regarded them as money for old rope. The editorial was recycled from the files, the cover prices were high and they were bought by indulgent aunties for Christmas. I like to think we briefly changed that in the early 80s with the Smash Hits Yearbooks. When I look back it's amazing to see how much work we put into them: special photo sessions, very expensive "Look and learn"-style strips depicting the career of the Sex Pistols or how an edition of Top Of The Pops is put together plus features that looked back at what had happened in pop and what might happen in the future ("he'll be able to exchange video gossip with his girlfriend by computer", we wrote, looking forward to the unimaginably distant year of 1987.)

The interesting thing about them is that since they're an ephemeral item in more permanent form they tend to hang around long after the magazines have been boxed up and taken to the tip. Anyone else still got theirs?


Monday, October 29, 2012

Why do rock fans pretend they've *always* been into things?

I watched "Last Orders", the BBC 4 doc about Chas and Dave.

It must be funny being them. They've played the same music for over forty years. Sometimes they've sold a lot of records, sometimes they haven't. Sometimes they've played big halls, sometimes they've played small ones.  During that time they must have been aware that their star rose and fall according to the public mood.

Now they find that the music, which has never changed, is suddenly acceptable to the people who decide what's acceptable. Hence a BBC 4 documentary full of talking heads talking about how most people didn't realise that Chas & Dave have been acceptable for years. A clip is shown from a Jools Holland New Year's Show in which Ben Elton and Hugh Laurie enthuse about them with the shifty expression of men who suspect that the wind has changed in the last ten minutes. Even Pete Doherty is hauled out to perform his own fuddled benediction. Are there really people who would have their minds changed about music on their say-so?

The show is so full of people who apparently liked them all the time that you wonder where it got its revisionist zeal from. You wonder why the people who used to do them down aren't represented. If the film is all about presenting them in a new light, wouldn't it be natural to look at them in the old light for a minute or two? I suspect that the old light would have been the same light in which all British working class entertainment is seen as corny while working class entertainment from Louisiana or Lusaka is regarded as edgy and cool. In many ways this version of the cultural cringe would have been as interesting as Chas & Dave themselves.

Of all the arts pop music is the one in which people change their minds most often. Why is it also the one where they're least likely to admit that they do so?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Is this one of the futures of magazine publishing?

Yesterday I took part in a debate about digital magazines at the London College Of Communications. The last time I was there it was the London School Of Printing.

These debates are usually dominated by CEOs of major publishing companies who have to make optimistic predictions without really having a clue what they're talking about.

This was different because all the panellists had sufficient experience of actually producing magazines in both paper and digital formats to have shed most of their illusions.

Interestingly, nobody even used the words "bells and whistles", which is the term industry people use to describe the "feature-rich" iPad magazine apps which got all the attention when the medium first appeared. Everybody seemed to regard them as an irrelevance.

Afterwards I was talking to Adam Banks, the editor of Mac User. This used to have a staff of thirteen. It's now produced by Adam from his home in Newcastle. That's both paper and tablet editions. Fortnightly. Edited, commissioned, laid out and subbed by one, clearly very energetic man. I asked him if he found he got things done more quickly because he was doing them on his own. He said he did.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

We're putting on a gig

In the last couple of years of The Word's life the Word In Your Ear gigs were one of the most popular things we did. These were generally put together by Alex Gold, who managed to persuade bands that they could make a few pounds for playing in front of an attentive, discriminating audience at the Lexington, which is just over the road from the old office on Pentonville Road. Among the people who said yes were Wilko Johnson, the Blockheads, Neil Hannon, David Ford and Eliza Carthy. A good time was had by all. Just ask anyone who went.

It's now a few months since the magazine folded and Alex and I have decided to have a crack at continuing the tradition. The idea is to put together balanced bills with the accent on variety. On Tuesday December 4th we're bringing back Skinny Lister, the young band who were a sensation supporting the Blockheads back in June. They've done more than most to explore the pop music possibilities of sea shanties, they're the gamest young band around, as their videos attest, and Lorna Thomas has been known to come jigging into the audience offering people rum from the band's communal jug. Their video for Seventeen Summers (see below) demonstrates well the nothing-can-phase us attitude it takes to get the top - or at least to the Lexington.

There will be a full supporting bill to be announced in due course, I'll be MC-ing and fronting my world famous Annus Mirabilis disco, in which all the records come from 1971. We hope to see as many old friends as possible and anyone else who wants to come is more than welcome. We'll be announcing the other "acts" in due course, but meanwhile I'm in a position to offer you, as a valued reader of this blog, special "early bird" rates. That's just £12 a ticket to you. Hope you can come.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Which sixties singers can still sing in their sixties?

An opera professional said to me recently: "No operatic tenor would dream of performing one of their old songs in the same key that they first recorded it but Paul McCartney does it all the time."

We notice it in McCartney's case because he's so clearly trying to emulate his younger self in every respect. Most of his contemporaries have stopped trying. Robert Plant's still got a good voice but it's not the same one that he used to front Led Zeppelin with, which probably explains why he hasn't rejoined the band. Bob Dylan's reed is broken but can still sell a song somehow and he probably likes sounding like an old man. But when Joni Mitchell re-recorded "A Case of You" in 2000 you could tell the way she sung the word "Canada" that she couldn't get near the bell-like top note of her 1971 recording. It seemed like a terrible capitulation.

James Taylor is one of the few people who was performing in the sixties who still seems to sing in the way he did in his pomp. Nick Lowe sings better than he did in the days when he was having hits. Both of them seem to sing their age. They record quietly, which makes a a difference. Georgie Fame's almost seventy. If the evidence of his new album Lost in a Lover's Dream is anything to go by, his voice has lost nothing since the sixties. He doesn't have to stretch because the most he's competing with is a guitar and bass and the songs, standards like "Cry Me A River" and "My Foolish Heart", are the kind of saloon-scaled material that are well within his range. I even like this one, which is about winter sports. Listen for the plosive at 3:17.

Monday, October 22, 2012

George McGovern and The History Man

George McGovern died this weekend at ninety. Most of the people furiously tweeting about the Presidential election won't know who he was. For my generation he was quite a big story. He opposed the Vietnam war. He also served with distinction in the Second World War. As the Economist piece says, in those days politicians thought it tasteless to talk about it.

The funny thing is this weekend I've also been re-reading Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man, his satire of campus politics in the 70s, first published in 1975 and turned into a hit TV drama in 1981. McGovern's there in the first paragraph of the book, referred to by just his surname as if it was bound to reverberate down the ages.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Is there a better song about an inanimate object than A Thing Well Made?


Don McGlashan wrote some great songs for the Mutton Birds but the best one is "A Thing Well Made". It's about a man who runs a sporting goods store. He's not getting on well with his wife. He opens his shop early so that men can come in on their way to work and "daydream around the rods and reels". He shows off a gun to a customer. "Look at the way this gun fills the crook of your arm. To make a thing like that you'd need to know what you were about."

Then what? The music gets more insistent, which invites us to wonder if he's taken the gun to the top of a water tower and done something terrible. There's nothing in the song that actually says so. That's one of the things I like about songs. They go in one ear and out the other. But then they come back long afterwards.

The Mutton Birds reformed earlier this year to play a tour of New Zealand wineries. I can't imagine anything much better than that. They're playing at the Shepherd's Bush Empire next Saturday. Here they are doing "A Thing Well Made" a few years back.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Why the drummer is the only unsackable member of the band

A few years back a musician friend said something that changed the way I think about rock bands. Traditionally we tend to accept that leadership of the band is in the hands of the member who writes the songs, usually the singer. What this musician said was "the drummer is the one who knows where the beat is". This made me think. It's not a matter of being the best drummer, whatever that is. It's a matter of finding the pulse of the band, the temperature at which this particular bunch of musicians functions best.

That's why there was never any chance of Led Zeppelin keeping going after John Bonham died. He was the one who dictated how the rest of them played. That's why the Who without Keith Moon were almost embarrassing. That's why the Ramones were never the same after Tommy Ramone stopped playing the drums. That's why nobody but Levon Helm could ever have been the drummer of the Band. These people weren't just good players. They decided how the band should walk. The other musicians may have complained about it but in the end they had to get in step.

The new documentary Hello Quo provides the perfect demonstration of this truth. The line-up that made their classic rock shuffles, which they admit were based on the Doors "Roadhouse Blues", was Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt on guitars, Alan Lancaster on bass and John Coghlan on drums. Lancaster left in 1985 and Coghlan in 1981. "They wanted to replace me with a drum machine," he recalls, probably inaccurately.

Quo soldiered on without Coghlan (and no group embodied the verb more perfectly) but as Lancaster points out, the albums were just no good anymore. They brought in other drummers, who were probably more technically adept, and they even had hits, but old time fans knew that something was missing. Lancaster started a new life in Australia and got some startling new teeth. Coghlan took his hangdog expression into a variety of bands. Until recently.

The last five minutes of Hello Quo are its best. The four original members are reunited on a Shepperton sound stage. They embrace as awkwardly as any other bunch of Brits in their sixties. You get the impression Rossi is the difficult one and Parfitt is the diplomat. Then they take up their instruments and play "In My Chair", one of those slow, loping shuffles which made their name in the early seventies. Suddenly Status Quo is back in the room. The swing has returned. It's not just another bunch of musicians doing their best to replicate a sound that the original four stumbled upon in 1970 but the sound itself. It's a sound that all rock bands think they can make, which is where all rock bands are wrong. When you hear the real thing you know how wrong they are. Here it is again, as if by magic, forty years later. Actually, it is by magic. How else do you describe the way a band just happens to lock together?

You can hear the original "In My Chair" here.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

What would the Guardian - or anyone - gain from ditching ink and paper?

The Telegraph was presumably flying a kite when it ran today's story about the Guardian's alleged "plans" to dump the paper and go digital-only. Of all the bits that didn't make sense about the piece, this paragraph was the most  difficult to understand:
However, trustees of the Scott Trust, GNM’s ultimate owner, fear it does not have enough cash on its books to sustain the newspapers for that long, according to More About Advertising
 All businesses worry about cash, particularly at the moment. Therefore the last thing they would do is cut off one of the main sources of that cash, which is the income that they get from cover price. This may not be as much as it used to be but it's still there, in, as they say in the boardroom, off-line pounds rather than on-line pence. The cash isn't going on sustaining the newspapers. It's going on investing in the on-line offering until it can supply a revenue stream as serious as the one it may ultimately have to replace.

This is the self-same problem the record business faces. They know that the future is downloads but meanwhile the revenue that they get from that allegedly dying format CD is what keeps the lights on.

Funny thing is five years ago somebody rang me from Media Guardian wondering if I knew anything about NME's alleged plans to ditch the paper edition to go digital-only. I said then what they have no doubt been saying to the Telegraph today. Why would anyone in their right mind do that?

One of the best speeches I've ever heard

Last night I found myself at the Oldie British Artist Awards in Mayfair. The competition's open to artists over the age of 60. When they announced the winner of the £5,000 prize it turned out to be the small gentleman in the blazer who was sitting, surrounded by family, just in front of me.

He's Donald Zec, a retired showbiz journalist of ninety-three. There he is (left) in the early sixties with one of his illustrious subjects.

Richard Ingrams was making the presentation from an unstable dais eighteen inches from the floor. Donald was invited up and at first it seemed he might not be able to make it. Then I heard him mutter "I'll get there" and he slowly rose, made his way across the room, mounted the dais and then delivered one of the best acceptance speeches I've ever heard. He complimented the other competitors, thanked the magazine and dedicated his success to his wife whose death six years ago had spurred him into painting for the first time. I can't remember all the jokes but one of them involved the words "do not resuscitate" being written at the bottom of his script.

I'm sure Donald was thrilled with the prize. I bet he was a lot more delighted with the chance to make a speech. For a natural show-off like Donald a speech is a pleasure and never a chore at any time. This must be doubly the case when you're ninety-three.




Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Cocktails are a fundamentally bad idea

I wish only the best for Gaby Scanlon, the 18-year-old who has had to have her stomach removed following a misadventure with a birthday cocktail containing liquid nitrogen. I mean that seriously. That's the word the Royal Lancaster Infirmary uses to describe her condition. Mind you, she was tweeting at the same time, which is classic.

Once recovered, Gaby will be able to say that her ill-judged experiment with cocktail drinking went worse than most people's - but then she went further than most people. Everybody has a cocktail incident, usually when they're young. Feeling that they ought to drink alcohol but put off by how nasty it tastes, young people are instead drawn to drinks that looks more like the garish libations they had on birthdays as a child. For a 17-year-old anything that looks like a cross between Lucozade and Knickerbocker Glory is acceptable.

It always goes wrong. I have a slogan to lend to the next Drinkaware campaign. "If you don't like alcohol, don't drink it." To which I could add, if you're going to drink it, don't stir in another ingredient in the hope that it will make it more palatable or exciting. It won't.

This applies to all mixing. I've never had a "cocktail" that I would want to have again. Gin and tonic is acceptable. Every other "combo" is a taste abomination, a waste of good liquor and an excuse to part you from your money. I always thought James Bond's dry martini was a bum note. Imagine if you took him to the pub and he asked for one of those. The whole place would be thinking "what a tool". They'd be right.


Saturday, October 06, 2012

Why are people so sure Mike Love is the bad guy in The Beach Boys?


Mike Love issues a long statement to the Los Angeles Times about how he didn't "fire" Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys and why he had to curtail their large venue tour in order to fulfil his obligation to tour smaller venues with "his" Beach Boys.

If you can read past the jarring self-justification and gushing over-statement it seems he's got a case, which is not what so-called "true" Beach Boys fans, many of whom have rushed to social media to libel the singer, want to hear.

Love has always had what Paul Weller called a kind face. The kind of face you wanted to punch. He's the person that rock history has decided is the snake in the Garden of Eden the Wilson family would otherwise be. But how do we know? All bands are families, particularly ones that start out as families, and if we know one thing about families it is that they're immensely complicated and there's   plenty of blame to go round.

With long-lasting rock bands we pick out the member we have decided is the baddie and stick with it for long periods. It was Paul McCartney in the Beatles, Robbie Robertson in The Band, Steve Stills in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Roger Waters in Pink Floyd. The reasoning may change but once a person is cast as the villain any action they take will be interpreted in that light. Once the villain is chosen the rest of the cast can relax because anything they do will be seen as an understandable reaction to the tyrant in their midst.

The classic case of this is Mick Jagger. Those close to the Stones don't share the orthodox view that Keith is the soul of the group while Jagger is merely its accounts department. Keith never feels an encounter with the press is finished unless he has loosed off one shot at his old friend. He knows we'll all share in the joke because we all know Mick, right?  He also knows Jagger won't respond. I bet Mick could issue quite a few Mike Love-style statements if he chose to. But he doesn't.

Friday, October 05, 2012

50 years ago this month two great archetypes were born

Was on Five Live just now talking about the 50th anniversary of the first Beatles single and the first Bond movie and why they both continue to fascinate us. After I'd hung up the phone I remembered what I meant to say.

In his excellent 1964 book Love Me Do the American journalist Michael Braun suggested that one of the reasons they made such an impact on the London media was that they were "new kind of people". They were bright, sardonic, sharp without being educated and apparently possessed of a special secret known only to the four of them. In a way they were a template for the way every group has sought to behave ever since.

 You could say that in playing James Bond Sean Connery also presented the world with a new kind of person. Proud, sensual, cruel, sardonic, upwardly mobile and good at games, his Bond was a world away from the hero figures who had stalked British films in the forties and fifties. In a way he's been a template for the way every action hero has tried to behave ever since.

Maybe that's another reason they both endure.