Friday, February 15, 2019

Another reason I reach for Steely Dan

When Will Birch tweeted this the other day I couldn't help but agree with his choice of Steely Dan. They’re the act I just naturally reach for and not just to test audio. They’re my default position in all kinds of situations.

I’ve just been looking at the covers of the first seven LPs. (After that it’s all CDs and compilations and you can’t really feel the same about CDs and compilations.) Because the covers of those records didn’t feature pictures of the band, all had cryptic titles and didn’t appear to share any particular aesthetic they seemed the perfect thing to reach for when you weren’t sure how you felt or what you felt like.

The act of “reaching for” something is qualitatively different from the act of clicking a couple of times and having it there. It’s an act that takes place in the physical world and therefore calls for commitment. In its own tiny way it echoes the difference between a teenager going up to someone and asking them out and merely friending them on Facebook. 

I’ve spent a lot of the last year thinking about LPs and their covers for my upcoming book A Fabulous Creation.

The cover was always more than the wrapper for the thing itself. Because it was twelve inches square and you couldn’t just slip it into your pocket it projected the music into the physical world. Therefore your decisions about what to play next were made as much visually as anything else. The problem with taking all those precious physical objects and reducing them to noughts and ones  is that once something is out of sight it has a tendency to be out of mind as well.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Why I'm happy to wait for Robert Caro and Mark Lewisohn

I’ve read four volumes of Robert Caro’s epic biography of Lyndon Johnson. The fifth volume hasn’t been finished yet. In the course of an excellent piece in the New Yorker he explains that that fifth volume is “some years away”. (He's eighty-three.) If you read the piece, which is about how he has researched the book so far, you understand why.  Caro's driven by a compulsion to unearth the story that has not been told, even when he’s dealing with events that occurred many years in the past and have been extensively picked over.

When he started the book in the mid-70s many of Johnson’s contemporaries were still around. He spoke to them all but felt that many of them were just repeating the old stories that they had already trotted out for other writers. He thought there had to be more to it than that. He tells the story of how he managed to get after-hours access to the modest home in Texas where Johnson grew up in the 1920s and took one of Johnson’s brothers, who was at that stage elderly and in poor health, sat him at the table where the family used to eat, positioned himself behind him so that he was out of his eye line and then gradually nudged him into recalling where each member of the family would have been seated, what they would have said to each other and, crucially, what Johnson’s father used to say to his son over that dinner table that left him with such a burning desire to succeed where his own father had failed.

In the same week I read this, Mark Lewisohn, who is working on the other massive biography that I’m going to have to wait to read, told me that he’s currently listening to all 97 hours of the original tape which was running as the Beatles recorded what would be the “Let It Be” film and album. Furthermore he was making sure he did it on the day and at the time that they did it fifty years earlier. That’s a similar kind of dedication. Wonder if he'll come up with any insights the way that Caro did. I'm sure, in both cases, it will be worth the wait.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Doctorr Hook's part in the greatest spy story ever told

Blurbs on the covers of real-life stories of espionage that invoke the name of John Le Carré too often seem like a devalued currency. They’re like those reviews of new Stones albums that say “their best since ‘Exile On Main Street’. However I can assure you that The Spy and The Traitor, Ben Macintyre’s book about Oleg Gordievsky, fully warrants that kind of billing and that's for two reasons. 

The first is that Gordievsky is, as spies go, noble. He didn’t do it for money. He did it because he believed it would make the world a safer place. The second is that Macintyre is a brilliant storyteller who knows how to leave out the kind of detail that drags on the narrative and understands the importance of key details much as a spy would.

For instance, when Gordievsky was working for HM Government while based in Russia it was agreed that if he wanted to talk to his handlers he would stand outside a certain bakery at a certain time of the week carrying a Safeway bag. That meant staff from the embassy had to check in at this place scores of times, always wearing the same coloured clothes, holding the same carrier bags and having about their person a Kit-Kat and a Mars bar. Just in case. When Gordievsky was transferred to London his handlers kept on checking in at the same place in case the KGB had been watching and would connect the British spies’ non-appearance with Gordievsky’s absence from Moscow. Handling that one agent, whose identity was known only to a handful of officers, involved hundreds of people in years of harmless charades and a small minority in acts of breathtaking courage, particularly when it came to the moment of his "exfiltration".

The team set off from Moscow by car on the pretext of going to see a doctor in Finland. They take with them all the supplies they would need to stage a full picnic, English middle-class style, as well as syringes full of sedatives to quell the nerves of anyone called upon to spend a long time in the car's boot. Unbelievably the team also includes a husband and wife who, partly because they can't find a sitter and partly because her presence would serve to confuse their KGB shadows, take along their baby girl. Furthermore, this being the mid-80s, to pass time on the journey, they take cassettes including Dire Straits' "Brothers In Arms" and the Greatest Hits of Doctor Hook. Macintyre makes almost comic use of this last choice in the narrative. I'm sure if they make this into a movie the director will have a field day.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Now that pop music's turning into history it's time for rock's version of the Sealed Knot

Chris Shaw does a podcast called I Am The Egg Pod in which he asks people to talk about a Beatles or Beatles-related record. I was too late for "A Hard Day's Night" because that had already been picked and so I chose "With The Beatles".

I dipped into some of the earlier interviews, which featured the likes of David Quantick and Samira Ahmed, and was frankly a little intimidated by how much people seemed to know about the records they were talking about. I wouldn't say I know a lot about "With The Beatles". However I do know a lot about how it felt to be thirteen-years-old and to get that record for Christmas in the days following the assassination of John Kennedy.

It's struck me while talking about my book "Nothing Is Real" that the Beatles were freshly placed before the public by the Anthology series in the mid-90s; because this happened to be around the time of Britpop, they seem to have emerged from that process for many people as the Godfathers of Blur. Because we can only appreciate things from the past when they appear to confirm our complacency about the present we find it easy to approve of the older, hairier, bitchier version of The Beatles sitting around at Abbey Road knocking out their white album, and we have difficulty relating to their earlier selves who sang thrilling pop songs for thirteen-year-old girls who screamed every time they shook their heads.

Chris asked me what people thought about the Beatles albums at the time they came out. I couldn't answer this properly because I think he was expecting me to describe the kind of considered responses people had in the early 90s to, say, the new U2 album. Was it a step forward or back? Was it a disappointment? In 1963, when we were in the thick of all the excitement, "With The Beatles" was just the big black thing that came between the small black things that were "She Loves You" and "I Want To Hold Your Hand". It was wonderful if you were one of the lucky ones who had it bought for you for Christmas. If you weren't it probably seemed even more wonderful. At the time I remember we just felt blessed.

I suppose it's inevitable that pop history, like the history of World War II, has to pass from direct experience to the history books and henceforth be experienced in perpetuity via Friday evenings on BBC Four. It already seems that pop music is, if anything, more appreciated in retrospect than it is at the time. Last year my son-in-law went to see the Stone Roses at Wembley Stadium. I was surprised they were playing anywhere that big. But they were. Almost thirty years after they were the hot new thing they appeared to be selling out bigger venues than ever, entertaining people who for one reason or another missed them at the time.

All this music may be appreciated more than it was at the time but it can never be felt in the same way. At the time it all happens it's too fast, too vulgar and too controversial to attract a mass audience. The mass audience comes later when everything's settled down and everything has been safely consigned to history and we can all approve of everything. Maybe that's the future of all pop music. Historical re-enactment. Maybe somebody will take a lead from America's Renaissance Fairs and make a fortune staging their own re-run of the NME Poll-Winners Concert of 1966 or the Glastonbury Festival of 1971, with actors playing the musicians, lots of places to charge your mobile and glamping facilities on site. A rock and roll version of the Sealed Knot. That's the way it all seems to be pointing.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

In praise of George Beardmore

I came to George Beardmore's "Civilians At War" after Kate Atkinson credited it as a source for her own "Transcription". It's one of the best books I've ever read about the experience of World War II.

Beardmore was an unsuccessful novelist living in North London with a young family when the war broke out. His asthma disqualified him from military service and so he did a variety of jobs. He was stationed with a rifle outside the engineering department of Broadcasting House in case somebody tried a coup de'état. Later he worked for the local authority, trying to find billets for nurses around where he lived in Harrow and then working with the teams who were sent in to pick up the pieces after air raids.

While they recovered the bodies, some of whom had to be retrieved from several gardens away from the point of impact, and tried to make safe the buildings, Beardmore dealt with the living. He kept a diary of the time. It's a unique account of the tedium and terror of life on the Home Front.

It's actually at its most terrifying in the days following D-Day when Hitler unleashed his so-called "terror weapons" on London and the South-East. After the war he became quite a successful writer and so he didn't do anything with his diary. In fact it wasn't discovered until more than thirty years later and then published by his daughters in 1984. It's well worth reading if you can find a copy. There's more about him here.

Monday, September 24, 2018

By looking at what happened in the Clinton years "Slow Burn" explains what's happening now

The Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton scandal was just over twenty years ago. Listening to Slow Burn, the podcast devoted to recounting it, I realise how many of the details I either never knew or have since forgotten.

The same could be said of the previous series of Slow Burn, which was about Watergate. What's most striking about the Clinton one, apart from his breathtaking recklessness, is that the Democrats were every bit as quick to close ranks around him as the Republicans are to get behind Trump today.

In both cases there's a lot of moralising in public while the decisions are made purely on the basis of legislative arithmetic. It's not a matter of what's right. It's a matter of what they get away with. It's a salutary illustration of the truth of Lyndon Johnson's dictum that the thing that matters most in politics is the ability to count.

Friday, September 21, 2018

If you're not nervous, you're not trying

Our guests at Word In Your Ear this week, Mark King and Mark Kermode, have the same initials and play the same instrument. You can hear both conversations here.

Kermode was talking about his adventures in a succession of semi-pro bands, which are recorded in his new book "How Does It Feel?". King was talking about his time at the top of the tree with Level 42 in the 1980s.

Both had interesting things to say about nerves and stage fright. Kermode realised after he was on the receiving end of a particularly savage audience reaction when trying to work as an alternative comedian that anything that didn't kill him made him stronger. King realised, when he was about to take part in a star-studded Prince's Trust show in the mid-80s, as he looked around and saw the ashen faces of Elton John and Eric Clapton, that nerves are something that never goes away.

My kids always say "it's all right for you - you've stood up in front of people lots of times". And I have. It doesn't mean I don't get nervous, just like the other three show-offs in the picture above.