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Friday, May 31, 2013

Is this the future of music journalism, a good night out or both?

It's hard to get people to pay for music magazines nowadays but there's still an appetite for the things music magazines are about. Music is the most obvious one. The other is what Alan Partridge would call "music-based chat". We've been edging towards that with the Word In Your Ear shows Alex Gold and I have been putting on over the last few months, featuring people like Chris Difford, David Ford, Tracey Thorn and Danny Baker.

We're doing one on July 2nd at the Slaughtered Lamb in Clerkenwell when we're putting on A Quiet Word With Daniel Tashian of the Silver Seas. They're one of my favourite groups and he's one of my favourite songwriters. Their new album Alaska is quietly fabulous. They're in the midst of a short tour of the UK and Ireland that week. They play the Lexington the following night. On the 2nd it's just Daniel. He'll be playing some songs and talking to me about whatever I can get him to talk about: what it's like writing songs in Nashville, why he made a solo album inspired by the Dudley Moore film Arthur, the stories behind songs like Kid, why he got interested in PG Wodehouse and how his dad came to play Shea Stadium with the Beatles.

The basement bar in The Slaughtered Lamb is one of London's more intimate and atmospheric spaces (pictured above) so I'm hoping it lends itself to a hybrid between a show, an interview, workshop, Q&A session, meet-and-greet, podcast, True Stories Told Live and evening down the pub. Please come, either to that or our show on July 8th at Lord's with the Duckworth Lewis Method. Early bird tickets are sold out but tickets are still available for £10.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Most novels are about money but they don't want to admit it

I was listening to a programme about The Great Gatsby when the American author Susan Cheever said something that stopped me in my tracks.

"Most novels are about money but they don't want to admit it".

Where was this revelation when I was being introduced to serious fiction at the age of sixteen? It's the key to understanding Dickens, Austen, Eliot, Thackeray, Trollope and the other 19th century novelists. Their characters' lives are always overshadowed by the giant hand of inheritance, fortune, providence, expectations. Without the promise of the imminent arrival of money or the threat of it being withdrawn their stories don't work.

Of course if I had been told this at the age of sixteen I would have put it down to shallow acquisitiveness, which shows what sixteen year-olds know. We like to think we're beyond that now which is why, as Cheever says, people no longer like to admit that most novels are about money.

It could also be why we don't read novels in the numbers that people read them in Victorian and Edwardian times. The reading public of those days understood the importance of money every bit as much as the novelists did and they didn't mind talking about it, which is something that, for all the talk about materialism, people rarely do nowadays.

I just read Edith Wharton's 1905 novel The House of Mirth, which is about not just losing money but also two even more chilling but inescapable thoughts, the fading of a young woman's looks and downward social mobility. On occasions it's so fierce and real you have to put it down. I'm not sure anybody would dare to write it today. We like to think we're so grown-up, don't we?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Why American place names "sing" and British ones don't

American place names work in songs in a way British place names don't, which is often attributed to the geographical charisma and new-world associations of the former.

I wonder if it's also because a lot of American place names end in a vowel and hardly any British ones do.

Thirty-two of the united states have names ending in a vowel, including euphonious regions like Ohio, Mississippi and Tennessee. Many have Spanish names such as Sausalito, Amarillo and El Paso. Others, such as Takoma, Tallahassee and Tampa, are native american in origin. Many of them have the additional benefit of beginning with a T, which is how Lowell George came to sing of going from "Tucson to Tucumcari, Tahachapi to Tonopah" in Willin'. On the other hand a huge number of British place names end in "n" or "r".

I asked songwriter Boo Hewerdine if the terminal vowel made the word "sing" in a more open, appealing fashion. He agreed that multi-syllable words ending in a vowel "sing very well". One of the few songs to make a success of invoking a British place name is Waterloo Sunset, which involves a word that isn't English and finishes in a vowel.

I asked Boo to name the best British place name to sing and he came back with Piccadilly. "It's perfect. Four syllables. Hard-soft, hard-soft."

It also derives from the Spanish word "picadillo" so I'll consider my theory proven.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Music's like a train that nobody gets off

We were hanging around last Monday as the bands got ready for our Word In Your Ear show with David Ford and My Darling Clementine. The sound and lights were being looked after by a young woman dressed like Tank Girl. The guitarist with My Darling Clementine, pub-rock veteran Martin Belmont, was talking about back pain and anti-inflammatory pills. The drummer mentioned he used to subscribe to my magazine. Which one? The Word? No. Smash Hits.

I get glimpses occasionally but I can no longer accurately work out generations of music people.

Music's like a long train. Some people got on at the beginning of the line. Others join it later. They can explore the rest of the carriages but their experience of the journey will not be the same as the people who got on earlier. The passengers who've been there longest may point out that the train is going round in circles and has passed certain landmarks before. The newer passengers don't care. It's new to them. In fact they might get excited about a station which they previously passed through without comment. Their view of the journey is a different one. Unlike real trains, this one has unlimited capacity. Once you're on the train, nobody checks your ticket.

And here's the really significant thing, the thing which has more bearing on the music economy than file sharing and whatever happens to be the latest thing. More and more people get on but hardly anyone gets off, unless, of course, they're compelled by forces beyond their control.


Friday, May 24, 2013

I make my recording debut with the Duckworth Lewis Method

On July 8th, just a couple of days before the first Ashes test, we're presenting a very special Word In Your Ear show in the Thomas Lord suite at Lord's cricket ground with the Duckworth Lewis Method.

They're the band fronted by Neil Hannon from the Divine Comedy and Thomas Walsh from Pugwash who perform cricket-inspired material. Their first album, which came out in 2007, was a huge favourite in The Word office. The new one's called Sticky Wickets and it comes out on July 1st. You should come to the show (tickets priced £18) because it'll be great fun. You should get the album not least because I'm on it. As in I'm on the last track, singing wordlessly on a classic throwaway instrumental called Nudging And Nurdling along with Chris Addison, Alexander Armstrong, Phill Jupitus and a host of others. It was a great thrill.

Here's a snap from the session, featuring Neil, Kate Mossman, Dave Gregory, Mark Ellen and Thomas Walsh.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

I like singers who sing like they talk

Mark Ellen won't mind me saying he can be absent-minded. In the early days of The Word he forgot he'd arranged to do a phone interview and went out to get a sandwich.

Reception rang looking for him. "There's a Tony Bennett on the line." I couldn't help wondering whether this was the great saloon singer or a decorator ringing Mark with an estimate. It's a common name.

I asked them to put him through. Soon as I heard the voice say "Mark?" I knew it was the Tony Bennett. The voice speaking to me was unmistakably the same one that had sung to us all those years. He could no more disguise it than fake his fingerprints.

Since then I've decided the singers I really like sing in the way they speak. For instance I prefer Christine McVie to Stevie Nicks. That doesn't mean they sound exactly the same but it does mean their musical sound is identifiably related to their spoken one. The best singer of all, Sinatra, was the classic example. That's how he made songs make sense. He slipped from speech to song without stopping to arrange himself into the posture of a singer.

On the other hand, and here I'm obviously an old git, an increasing number of singers don't seem to feel they're performing until they've put on what they clearly think is a singerly voice. And I don't just mean the usual diva tricks - showy melisma, notes sustained beyond reason, the word "my" delivered as "mah". I also find myself being exposed to a lot of guitar-playing stool-roosters who deliver in a mannered "hello sky, hello trees" style from the back of the throat with minimal involvement of the articulators. They wouldn't talk like that. The result is their songs make no sense whatsoever.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The richer and more stupid the footballer the more untouchable

Numbskull Sunderland player has picture taken covered in £50 notes at a casino. Martinet Italian manager vows to sell him and anybody else who misbehaves.

It won't be as easy as that. Players aren't lining up to go to the north-east. Nor are other clubs lining up to buy Sunderland's reprobates. High-earning players hold their clubs hostage rather than the other way around. Watching these stand-offs I'm reminded of the old line about debt: if you owe the bank £5, it's your problem. If you owe them £5 million, it's theirs.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Media can't hype people any longer but they're quite at liberty to hype themselves

Twitter positions itself as an accompaniment to watching TV. There's a term for it - double-screening. You're watching one. The other's on your knee.

Double-screening works best with TV that requires low engagement. Eurovision, X Factor, a football match between two teams you don't support. Somebody in advertising told me that they can track the amount of conversational "noise" on programmes of that kind. It continues all the way through.

On the other hand programmes that require high levels of engagement, such as Homeland, are preceded and followed by lots of Twitter traffic. While the programme's on people are too busy watching. Makes sense.

I wish somebody would come up with a name for the shows of enthusiasm that Twitter increasingly tempts people into. I'm getting the feeling that people's desire to be seen to enthuse about some new things, particularly in music, is greater than the actual enthusiasm they feel.

Media can't hype people any longer but they're quite at liberty to hype themselves.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Waitresses, Top Forty radio and the illusion of diversity

When I wrote about something I heard on Planet Rock, somebody who didn't wish to be named took me to task for slating the station having only listened to it for five minutes. In fact it was a bit longer than that but no matter.

All the people I know in radio accept that the very most of a new listener's attention they're going to get is a few minutes. That's why they design playlists in the way they do so that they hear something familiar, something hot and something new but familiar-sounding.

I was reading John Seabrook's piece about the songwriters behind Rihanna in an old copy of The New Yorker. Here he quotes from Marc Fisher's excellent book Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation. Fisher credits Todd Storz with the invention of Top Forty radio. When Storz was in the army during the war he watched how customers in diners tended to pick the same records again and again on the jukebox. When the customers left the waitresses took their own coins, put them in the jukebox and punched up the same records. They didn't want change. They wanted familiarity.

It was this concept he took into radio - in an era when it was considered bad form to play the same song twice in a twenty-four hour period. It's this principle of heavy rotation which still underpins all music radio, whether it professes to provide all the hits and more or pretends to follow a higher agenda. Behind the scenes programmers, producers and algorithms are working very hard to make sure you're never too far from something warm and familiar.

It's the same thing when you do research around people's preferences in music magazines. When asked everybody will describe themselves as having very eclectic tastes. In practice very few of them do. They all say they want informative pieces about new bands. In practice they all read the old one about Oasis.


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Meet Mr Gig

Nige Tassell, who used to write for The Word, has published a book called Mr Gig, which details his quest to discover what live music means nowadays. This takes him from a package tour of former Smash Hits cover stars through Glastonbury and Cornbury to All Tomorrow's Parties in Butlin's, Minehead and a festival on the remote Hebridean island of Eigg.

Stuart Maconie has described it as "a sweet and tender paean to a very particular lost love, the live gig". Nige is joining us at next Monday's Word In Your Ear show, which also features My Darling Clementine and David Ford, where I'll be talking to him about the live experience past and present. Come one, come all. Tickets here.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

An Othello review for short attention spans

We went to see Othello at the National Theatre.

With modern dress productions I always feel that for everything you gain (this is set in a Bastion-style military encampment on Cyprus) you sacrifice just as much in lost appreciation of just how deeply sunk in his times Shakespeare was (the play starts with Iago complaining about missing a preferment, which simply wouldn't come again in his lifetime.)

Brought up on a diet of "wot me guv?" wide boys, modern audiences sneakily prefer Iago to Othello whose nobility we're expected to take his own word for. The audience yesterday snickered nervously at Rory Kinnear's asides. But by the time the bed was piled with bodies, some of whom had expired at great length, one even confirming the fact with the words "I die", you could have heard a pin drop in the full house.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

No intelligent life on Planet Rock


It's always a delight to hear someone mangling a really rotten idea for a listener competition on the radio.

I was listening to Planet Rock the other day. A listener had proposed the following list of artists as a competition: George Harrison, Peter Frampton, Rolling Stones and Weezer. The thing they had in common was that they'd all once covered Buddy Holly songs. All except Weezer who had recorded a song called Buddy Holly.

It's the kind of "so what?" question that makes you want to lynch the inquisitor. The answer should always be more interesting than the question and this really isn't.

But it was made worse by the fact that the presenter hit the wrong button on the play out machine (nobody has actual CDs in the studio any more) and played Wheatus instead of Weezer. He didn't notice and ploughed blithely on with the competition, far too busy to listen to the music.

The only thing I ask of any DJ is that they be enjoying the same experience they're providing. Most of them aren't.

I see from their site they're asking "want to be a Planet Rock presenter?" Tempting.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Why modern vinyl sounds better than old vinyl

Chris Topham flies jumbos for Virgin Atlantic for a living,  runs the vinyl label Plane Groovy for a hobby and is spinning the records at our next Word In Your Ear show on May 20th for nothing.

Plane Groovy has put out records by Chris Difford, My Darling Clementine, Henry Priestman and Francis Dunnery plus lots of progressive rock, which is Chris's particular taste.

These are proper records. Hefty things, often doubles, packaged in thick card covers and tightly shrink-wrapped so that they feel special and worth £19.99. To unpeel one is to be re-acquainted with the feeling of anticipation that vanished from recorded music thirty years ago.

They sound strangely good as well. Chris says the reason the vinyl records of the 70s and 80s popped and clicked was because in those post-fuel crisis days they had to be pressed on some recycled materials. "Modern vinyl," he reckons "sounds much better."

So few pressing plants are still open that it costs £3,000 to produce 500 copies of one of Plane Groovy's vinyl double albums. He does deals with artists on a handshake. Once the records, most of which are sold mail order, have earned back their manufacturing costs he splits things 50/50 with the act.

It's not a business that would provide anyone with a living but it takes more time than a standard hobby. He's trying to do a bit less flying so that he can spend more time with his records.

Chris will be spinning all kinds of vinyl inbetween the acts at our next Word In Your Ear gig at the Old Queen's Head on May 20th, a show which features My Darling Clementine and David Ford. You can book tickets here.


Monday, May 06, 2013

The knees are the mirror of the soul - which is why rock stars can't go on stage in shorts


I was talking to David Ford about our upcoming Word In Your Ear show on May 20th.

He'd recently compiled a list of dos and don't's for live performance and his first one was Don't Wear Shorts.

Soon as he said it my mind performed a Google image search of rock stars in shorts. Here they came, a cavalcade of charismatic heads and distinctive upper bodies mounted on the same strangers-to-sunlight pipe cleaner legs. The Beatles filming Help in Bermuda. Bob Dylan diving into a hotel pool in the 60s. Keith Richards in the basement at Nellecote during those Exile sessions. There was even some long forgotten snap of the otherwise muscular Bruce Springsteen torso perched on legs that wouldn't keep Peter Crouch off the ground.

Ford concedes that there are exceptions. Angus Young of AC/DC is clearly one. Sir Freddie Mercury of Live Aid is obviously another - but gay shorts are another variety altogether.

Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys could wear shorts with pride because he looked like a beach boy before he was a Beach Boy. And obviously this advice does not apply to women with good legs.

I've been thinking about this ever since. There is something about rock stars wearing shorts that is so profoundly wrong that it makes you wonder if contained within it are the secret codes defining rock star mystique as a different species from movie star mystique or any other form of mystique.

Maybe it's because legs don't lie and they remain there as a repudiation of every other form of re-invention. You can cover your face with hair, place a hat on your baldness, even make a feature of your pigeon chest but your knees are the true mirror of your soul.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Are "the greatest rock and roll band in the world" any good?

There's only one way that the Rolling Stones are going to restore their lustre now that we know the market for tickets to see them on their valedictory tour is soft. They're going to have to do something which they haven't really had to worry about since the 80s, which is to play really brilliant shows.

Round about Live Aid, when outdoor gig going became just another branch of the international leisure industry, audiences decided that they would give the biggest bands slack on the musical front as long as they made up for it in sense of occasion. We won't say that your playing is ropey as long as you persuade us we're seeing "the greatest rock and roll band in the world". It was a confidence trick.

The last time I saw them was around that time in the 100 Club on Oxford Street. They were doing one of their "back to the clubs" column inch grabbers. There were just a few hundred people in the place. Sight lines weren't a problem. The audience weren't distracted by threatening weather or jets going into Heathrow.

And you know what? They weren't all that good. They had grown so used to playing on a certain scale that they could no longer rein in the gestures to suit the fact that the audience were under their noses and not in a different postal code. Keith Richards and Ron Wood played like men watching each other's moves but not listening to the noise coming out of each other's amps.

I've caught live recordings since then and it doesn't seem to have got much better.  Since Bill Wyman left it's gone the other way. This is their official YouTube channel's view of their opening in L.A. this week.  Jagger's urge to sell the song has got in the way of his just singing it. Gwen Stefani does "Wild Horses" as if she's in the West End in some musical based on their old hits. They play "The Last Time" as if they're the only people in the world who don't know that it's all about that echoey old guitar lick and the clanging tambourine and not just another "will this'll do?" boogie vamp.

(This is where McCartney scored. He got younger guys in his band, people who'd grown up listening to his records. They knew how to reproduce them live better than he did.)

And it's all too fast. All of it.

Go back and listen to their great records, from their very earliest ones to "Start Me Up", and the magnificence comes from the slur, the implied threat of the drums, the tail dragging whip of the rhythm section, the feeling of something being reined in in case it got out of control, the sound of something being played slightly slower than other bands would dare.

Jagger at his best was not manically patrolling the apron of the stage as if terrified of losing your attention. He was standing there and commanding it. Maybe he's running up and down working like crazy nowadays because he knows that they don't sound right.

Whether or not Glastonbury turns out to be their last hurrah it'll be treated  as such. They'll be in your living room where they won't be able to retreat behind their mystique. Between now and then they should see if they can rediscover how to rock. I'm actually not interested in "the greatest rock and roll band in the world". I'd just like them to be, as the kids say, any good.


Friday, May 03, 2013

I hate picky eaters. It's the way I was raised.

I was in a caff near Oxford Circus this lunchtime. Not a restaurant but more than a greasy spoon. A caff.

 A woman came in, evidently undecided whether to sit at a table, get something to take away or leave empty handed.

The east European waitresses attempted to help her, pointing at the array of sandwich fillings in the display cabinet and the chalk boards full of hot meal options. She stood there looking studiously unimpressed, much like I imagine Maris Crane might look.

This, don't forget, is in the middle of one of the most cosmopolitan cities on God's earth. The customers represented every type and many ethnicities. The food is nobody's idea of gourmet fare but the place is clean, the service is good and they've been running in that location for over twenty-five years, which means their menu features everything they're likely to be asked for by the thousands of different people who will drop in during the average week.

The woman stood there. She looked at one menu. Then she looked at another. She looked in the cabinet. Then at the chalk board, which must have had fifty options on it. Then she turned and left.

I felt affronted on the staff's behalf. I'll forgive most things but there's something about a picky eater that can make my blood boil.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Is this really only the second British country record?

Mark Ellen reckons the album by My Darling Clementine, who are performing at our next Word In Your Ear gig on May 20th with David Ford, is only the second example of what you could call a British country record.

The first, he reckons, was Elvis Costello's Almost Blue. That was recorded in Nashville with Billy Sherrill. My Darling Clementine's was recorded in London with Nick Lowe's producer Neil Brockbank.

Of course he's wrong in all sorts of ways but you only say things like that to get a response. Without resorting to hair splitting you could mention Albert Lee, Meal Ticket, The Rockingbirds and any number of acts from what you might call the Eddie Grundy wing of country. But it's still not that many.

It's certainly not so many as there are British practitioners of other forms of American vernacular music. We've had hundreds of pretend Dixieland jazz bands, legions of supposedly Southside Chicago blues acts and rockabilly and soul revues by the score. But country acts, not so many.

It's not that there isn't affection for the music. Being the last redoubt of songs that mean something country is one of those strains that Brits return to when the latest hip thing turns out to be meretricious. As the likes of George Jones shuffle of this mortal coil people realise how good they were. And for all its slavish adherence to formula the Nashville pop industry still turns out some brilliant records, which are all the better for being passed over by smart opinion.

You should come along to the Old Queens Head on the 20th. They promise a George Jones tribute. Tickets here.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

The blog post that became a presentation - you read it here first

From time to time magazines or papers get in touch and ask me to expand on something I've written about on this blog in a column for them, which I'm only too happy to do.

In June last year I wrote one about what I learned about modern media in the act of announcing the closure of The Word.

Twitter asked me to talk about it at an advertiser event.