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Monday, December 15, 2014

Don't like the owners of your magazine? Buy the thing off them.

Stories here, there and everywhere about turmoil at venerable American magazine The New Republic. Like all magazines described as venerable, The New Republic has been sustained for years by backers prepared to pump in money to make up for its losses. A couple of years ago The New Republic was bought by one of the founders of Facebook, Chris Hughes. This meant it was now backed by a billionaire. All seemed hunky dory for a while. The young billionaire said that the future was in tablets, which proved he was no more or less naive than people who'd been in the business for years. Then it turned out that the billionaire wanted to change a few things about his new toy: fire some people, change some headlines and, most shockingly of all, stem the magazine's losses.

I don't know whether any of these moves were sensible. They were definitely predictable. And yet, as I read one hand-wringing piece after another about the loss of a leading liberal voice in American affairs and the impossibility of proper journalism in this new dispensation, it appears the only people for whom this came as a surprise were journalists.

Journalists ought to think how their trade is financed or, as is often the case, subsidised. Most of them don't. As long as somebody's signing off the payroll they don't give that person or body much thought. Now more than ever, they should.

Print assets used to be owned by people who wanted to own them for profit. Even if they owned them for influence, they were generally people, like Murdoch, who liked and understood the trade. This latest lot of owners, many of whom made their money in the dotcom boom, don't understand the trade at all but have an oddly sentimental belief in the value of legacy assets. I'm thinking of Jeff Bezos, the new owner of The Washington Post. But just as these people bought assets on a whim they could get rid of them just as quickly.

I hope the staff at the New Republic have approached the unsatisfactory Chris Hughes and offered to buy the magazine from him. He'll be prepared to take a bath on whatever he paid for it just to get it out of his life. All the new owners will have to do is guarantee to underwrite the magazine's losses in the future. They will have a clear idea of the size of that loss. Most of it will be their pay cheques.

Friday, December 05, 2014

The best pop records are essentially stupid

"Neil hires some of the best musicians in the world and has 'em play as stupid as they possibly can."
That's the late Nashville drummer Kenny Buttrey on Neil Young in Shakey: Neil Young's Biography by Jimmy McDonough.

When Sting first played "Every Breath You Take" for Stewart Copeland the drummer couldn't believe that he wanted him to play anything quite so simplistic. That's why his playing on the record has the exact "I can do this in my sleep" feeling that makes it work.

Similarly Hugh Cornwell told me that Jean Jaques Burnel refused to play on The Stranglers "Golden Brown" because he thought it was just too stupid. (Didn't prevent him taking 25% of the publishing.)

Musicians are naturally drawn to complexity. Humans, on the other hand, like things simple, which is another reason why they always prefer the musicians' earlier records to their later ones.

Monday, December 01, 2014

The story of the riff from "The Liquidator"

The Staple Singers made their best records between 1970 and 1972 for the Stax label.  They were produced by Stax President Al Bell, who was mainly about business; the additional spice was provided by the Muscle Shoals players, who were mainly about hooks.

In December 1971 Traffic were on hiatus because Steve Winwood was ill and so Jim Capaldi went to Muscle Shoals to make a solo record with the same musicians who had been playing on those brilliant records with the Staple Singers. Maybe he played them "The Liquidator" by The Harry J. All Stars, which had been a skinhead favourite in the UK in 1969-70. Maybe somebody else from the Island label passed it on. Maybe they heard it themselves. It goes like this:

It's a catchy tune, which started life on a Tony Scott record called "What Am I To Do", where it was played (and probably first invented) by the Barrett brothers and Alva Lewis, which went like this:

It was so catchy that it turns up, uncredited, on the Staple Singers "I'll Take You There", which is a huge hit and of course you know how that goes:

The following year Lee Perry, who works with the Barrett Brothers as The Upsetters, makes a satirical point at the beginning of "Cow Thief Skank" by The Upsetters by taking a whole section from The Staple Singers' "This Old Town" and putting it at the beginning of his own record. He didn't bother copying the song; he just pasted in their recording.

Both "The Liquidator" and "I'll Take You There" have turned out to have the pop music version of eternal life.

The Staples' record has the kind of inimitable catchiness that guarantees prefabricated sections of it will turn up in dance records from here until doomsday. Salt 'n' Pepa, Britney Spears, Dizzee Rascal and Kelly Price are just the most recent artists to have covered it. And "The Liquidator" plays every time Chelsea run out to play, even though football teams don't run out anymore.

As Joseph Shabalala used to say, "music is a thing you cannot hinder. It rises from here all the way to heaven." That's nice for us but not for people who either hold - or should hold - the copyright.

Monday, November 24, 2014

First law of Twitter – it takes careful planning to look spontaneous

I was talking to Joanna Cohen about the picture on the left when I was in Gateshead recently for the Radio Three Festival Of Free Thinking. Joanna lectures on American History at Queen Mary and was giving a talk about how Abraham Lincoln used photography to project his image to the American public in the 1860s (which you can hear here) so she knows a bit more about the subject than I do.

We were talking about the tweet which Bill Clinton posted after his daughter Chelsea gave birth to her first child. I found it interesting in all kinds of ways: simple human interest value in looking at new grandparents; nosey curiosity about the amount of weight he's lost; speculation about the state of the relationship between the two adults; wondering whether in years to come the child might look back at that snap and be amazed at how it went round the world so quickly.

Bill's tweet followed Hillary's. Even I realised this story was mainly about Hillary and the next Presidential election. And why not? This seemed to be the action of a proud grandmother hoping people would momentarily overlook the fact that she's also an ambitious politician. Joanna had a different view. Look, she said, I'm sure she is a proud grandmother but there's no way plans have not been in place for the posting of this picture on Twitter from the moment Chelsea Clinton first announced she was pregnant. There are people on her team who know exactly where Hillary stands in the eyes of the American people and understand that the opportunities to short circuit voter's rational defences and appeal to their emotional side are too precious to be passed-up. This picture and the tweeting of it will have been as carefully choreographed as a major press conference. 

I suppose she's right. The power of this picture is it looks spontaneous, which is obviously not the same thing as being spontaneous. Things that are spontaneous invariably look a mess. Only things that are carefully planned look spontaneous.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

An exclusive look inside the mind of Mauricio Pochettino

Imagine you're an ambitious young manager/fitness coach/scout and you're approached by Tottenham. You might be mildly flattered by the attention, particularly if you'd come from a club which doesn't spend so much time proclaiming its ambitions. But at the same time you would know - and if you didn't know, your agent, your friends and your wife would impress it upon you - that you only had to look at the record of the club's chairman to realise that the most likely outcome of your tenure is that you will be booted out before your contract is up.

Therefore you will spend less of your time thinking of the unlikely eventuality of success and more of your time thinking of the near-certainty of failure and how you might insure yourself against the personal consequences of same. Think about it. It's bound to be the mindset. You're going to get fired. You would have to be Pollyanna to think otherwise. This changes the way you look at life.  It's like going into a fancy restaurant thinking not about the nice meal you might have but instead about the pay-off you will get when you contract food poisoning.

Spurs fans wasted a lot of energy trying to work out what AVB or Redknapp or Sherwood were thinking and now they're doing the same with Pochettino. I'll tell you what he's thinking. He's thinking, when is it going to happen, how bad will it make me look and how much will I walk away with? And if he isn't his agent certainly is. None of these people are thinking of the future with the club because the overwhelming likelihood is that there won't be one. It's the one certainty of life at Spurs. Levy will fire you. Just look at the stats.

And the same thing applies to everyone below the manager on the pyramid. If they go, you will go too. Therefore why should you demonstrate loyalty to anyone?

I've got nothing against heavy management. People pay a lot of money in order not to feel bad about firing people. It happens in every walk of life. But in football the downside is so profitable that it changes the relationship between the employer and the employed. Samuel Johnson said that if a man knows he's going to be hanged in the morning it concentrates his mind admirably. If a man knows he's going to be fired at some point in the near future and he's going to walk away with a significant pay-off it does the opposite.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Is "Serial" going to do for podcasts what "The Wire" did for TV?

I knew Serial would be good before I actually heard it because word reached me from the right places. I knew I'd hear it eventually so I didn't try to find out more about it. I didn't want to know any more. I still don't.

I knew it was by the same people as This American Life, which was good enough for me. They've got a style you don't find on British radio. In the case of Serial - and this is all you need to know - they've presented a whodunnit as a series of one-hour podcasts.

You encounter the story through the thoughts of a reporter who's puzzling over a fifteen year-old murder case. You hear her interview tapes, eavesdrop on her phone conversations. I don't know if the voices belong to actors, civilians or a mix of the two. It really doesn't matter. The beauty of Serial is there's nothing to compare it to.

I may not stay to the end. I don't know how many episodes there are and, where whodunits are concerned, I'm more interested in the journey than the destination.

All I know is this. Radio couldn't begin to do what Serial is doing.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Los Angeles, December, 1970, when Leon Russell was king of the world

It says this is from 1971, but I actually think it was recorded in December 1970 at KCET in Los Angeles as part of what's known as the Homewood Sessions. They say it was the first live stereo FM broadcast. Not sure how true that is but what's certain is this captures the Leon Russell caravan at their very best, including such key walk-ons as Don Nix, Claudia Linnear and Furry Lewis (of whom Joni Mitchell wrote "Furry Sings The Blues").

I find his solo albums a bit strained but at the time this was taped he was a brilliant producer/svengali. This was around the time he produced Freddie King's brilliant "Going Down". The woman with the rolling pin is Emily Smith who was part of Russell's retinue and the inspiration for his song "Sweet Emily". In this clip the sound and pictures are out of sync but I don't think that changes the remarkable fact that they could play this well live and these days you'd probably get arrested for having this much fun on camera.