Tuesday, January 03, 2023

Robert Caro's editor comes out to take his curtain call

If, like me, you've been waiting years for the fifth and final volume of Robert Caro's Lyndon Johnson biography the announcement of the release of "Turn Every Page" can only be taken as a hopeful sign.

It's a documentary about the relationship between Caro and his editor Robert Gottlieb, who can also boast that he has been the midwife of such trifles as "Catch 22", that he's edited both John Le Carre and Len Deighton, Toni Morrison as well as Doris Lessing, no end of Presidents and hyper-temperamental bigwigs and is also presumably the only person in the world who really knows how Bob Dylan's "Chronicles" came to be.

Gottlieb's ninety-one and still working. Caro's a mere eighty-five.

I can't wait, which is an expression use far too freely these days. My guess is we'll come out of it rooting for the editor.

July 26th, 1966 was the day when football first became compulsory

According to Two Brothers by Jonathan Wilson, when Bobby and Jack Charlton were both playing for England in the semi-finals of the 1966 World Cup, their father Robert Charlton, who had no interest in football, was at work. He was that kind of man. 

When David Coleman heard that he’d missed the match he made sure that Dad was sent a tape and the means to play it on. 

If he had been bothered he would have been there. But no, he couldn't be permitted his one quiet, very Northern display of independence. Presumably Robert then had to dutifully sit down and give the impression of being excited by something which, frankly, he could take or leave. 

Even to this day nothing offends a broadcaster more than the idea of somebody not sharing the excitement they are professionally obliged to whip up.

Saturday, December 17, 2022

An old music paper won't ever let you down

We've been talking about greatcoats on the pod. In the late sixties and early seventies every male student or head would be wearing one, bought for small sums at Millett's or your local army surplus store. We often followed bands who wore the same thing, though theirs probably came from trendier outlets. 

I found this pic of me in a standard greatcoat of the times. This was taken in a north London launderette when I was at college. By researching the edition of NME I'm reading I can establish it was taken in the first week of February 1969. Furthermore, thanks to the miracle of the internet, I've been able to read that issue again. Thanks to this blog so can you.

It turned out to be the week after the Beatles had played on the Apple roof. There's a news item inside about it. Thanks to Peter Jackson's "Get Back" these days we can all experience that week in glowing colour, some of us for the first time.

However there remains no better form of time travel than an old music paper (I mentioned this in a review of Paul Gorman's excellent new history of the music press, which is called "Totally Wired".) It's only here that you get a true flavour of the times. 

Suddenly the conversations The Beatles are having about replacing George with Eric Clapton make a sort of sense. It was in those few weeks the music papers were predicting that very soon permanent bands would be replaced by an army of star players merging and de-merging according to whim and musical fancy. Inside this same issue is the news that Steve Winwood was set to replace Jack Bruce in Cream and Klaus Voorman predicts that in the future bands simply would no longer matter the way they had done in the sixties. It was one of the great false dawns.

What neither Klaus nor the Beatles (nor the bloke in the launderette for that matter) could possibly have realised was that in the future those bands would come to matter even more than they mattered then.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

On not watching this World Cup

I haven’t been watching this World Cup.

I’d like to say this was because I objected to the naked corruption which led FIFA to award this tournament to Qatar.

It would be more true to say I didn’t want my life dominated by the media narrative around the World Cup. 

I’ve been following World Cups since the sixties. The clamour drowned out the actual football years ago.

So when the match was on last night I played a few records.

Looking at people’s reactions on social media this morning, which are out of all proportion to the benign chaos which is sport, I don’t regret that decision a bit.

Friday, December 09, 2022

What do Charles Dickens and Ray Davies have in common?


"The Turning Point" is about what Charles Dickens did in the year 1851. This was the year of the Great Exhibition. It was the high point of the Victorian Era. He was spending a lot of his time on semi-pro theatricals, on editing a weekly magazine and gearing up to write "Bleak House", the book that would transform him from Great Entertainer to Great Novelist.

He was mapping out the book in his head and chose the title from ten possibles. What I can't get over is that at the time in November when his publisher announced that the first of twenty monthly parts would come out in February he hadn't put pen to paper. Because I have some dim idea of what hard labour writing a book of any kind can be (and no concept of how much imaginative energy is called upon to write the way Dickens wrote), I am amazed that he could expose him to that amount of pressure.

Still, as Ray Davies told me ages ago, when I asked him about his run of sixties hits, which was the greatest hot streak in the history of pop, some people go looking for inspiration while others only respond to deadlines. 

Clearly Charles was like Ray.

Sunday, December 04, 2022

How "Revolver" felt in 1966. How it feels now

I was on a school trip to France when England won the World Cup in 1966. 

When we returned the following week there was a mysterious-looking LP in the window of the shop near school. It turned out to be The Beatles “Revolver”. 

I can’t honestly remember exactly how it struck us at the time. Maybe we were spoilt. Certainly we’d grown accustomed to having our clock cleaned by pop music on a weekly basis. 

Many of the aspects of “Revolver” that people have spent the subsequent sixty years raving about seemed par for the course in 1966. 

I played it through the other day and was struck instead by the things they did in 1966 that nobody seems to do any more.

It fades in a way that simply wouldn’t be allowed to happen today. If a band were - forgive me - cooking the way the Beatles are during Paul’s guitar solo that band would plough on, inviting us to admire their intensity.

“Eleanor Rigby”
With the Beatles it's never the songs. It’s always the records. They thought of themselves as Recording Artists. All the pathos comes from the formality of the way they chose to record the song rather than the song itself

“I’m Only Sleeping”. 
When I was fifteen I probably thought pop singers had access to some special wisdom. Now I’ve met hundreds of them I realise their specialist subject is fatigue.

“Love You To”.
I feel just as unmoved by this as I did sixty years ago. The difference is that now I appreciate how remarkable it was that George devoted one of his two tracks to what was effectively homework and that the rest let him do it.

“Here There and Everywhere”.
They had learned from Motown girl groups the importance of wordless backing vocals. Hence they really commit to every last "ooh" of the backing vocals in a way it’s difficult to imagine any contemporary band doing. 

“Yellow Submarine”.
At the time it didn’t strike me that nobody else in pop music would ever have a fraction of the Beatles’ range. We just thought it was the way they were.

“She Said She Said”
Their middle eights were like booster rockets. I honestly don’t know how other bands can hear the amount they pack into the bit that goes “when I was a boy” in this song and think they’re in the same profession, let alone the same league. 

“Good Day Sunshine”
In my book about Abbey Road (plug) one of the engineers talks about how rock and roll meant the studio were suddenly dealing with “amateurs”, by which they meant people who couldn’t just sit down with the sheet music and knock it out first time. The Beatles couldn’t do that either but here they had George Martin to play the solo that nobody else could play. It makes a difference.

“And Your Bird Can Sing”
Hear that opening guitar line? If anybody came up with that now they would play it for a good thirty seconds before the song would start.

“For No One”
“You want a French horn part? We know just the man.” Could never have happened on any other label or in any other studio.

“Dr Robert”
As pop music got more idiosyncratic in the mid-Sixties we drank in the song titles of upcoming albums as they were unveiled in the news pages of the inkies. The titles we liked most were the ones, like “Dr. Robert”, which seemed both mysterious and specific.

“I Want To Tell You"“It’s only me, it’s not my mind that is confusing things”. The first stirrings of therapy pop?

“Got To Get You Into My Life”
Some reckon the Earth, Wind and Fire version of this is one of the great Beatles cover versions. Personally I hate their version, just like I hate every other example of Proper Musicians taking Beatles records, removing their blazing simplicity and putting pointless elaboration in its place. 

“Tomorrow Never Knows”
When this came out we made a fuss about the words. Tibetan Book Of The Dead. Coo. Sixty years later the thing that really strikes me is how up-tempo it is. No doubt about it. The world has really slowed down since 1966.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Bob Dylan, Michael Palin, the auto-pen and me

What most intrigues me about the Bob Dylan’s automated signature story is the implication that resorting to the auto-pen is standard practice. 

I don’t have any doubt that a machine signs the American President’s name for them but I was taken aback by the idea that it was widely used by famous musicians, authors and the like. My modest adventures in book signing obviously have never taken into that region where the air is presumably very rare indeed.

However, in 2016 when my 1971 book came out, my publisher did a deal with Waterstones, as a consequence of which I was called upon to sign 500 copies. To do this, I had to travel out to the printers, which was in Suffolk. 

I was collected from the train by a local cab driver, who asked me why I was going to the printer. Feeling rather pleased with myself, I said “I’ve been asked to  sign 500 copies of my book.” Then I preeningly added “I’m going to be here all morning."

The driver left what he considered a decent pause and then said “I had Michael Palin in this car the other day. He was here for two days.”

You could hear the air going out of my self-regard as far away as Ipswich.

Now obviously the sainted Palin would never resort to the auto-pen, no matter how great the demand, no matter what a clearly embarrassed Bob Dylan might say.

While I’m here, if anybody wants to buy a copy of my Abbey Road book and get it authentically signed by the author I’ll be in
Foyle’s in Charing Cross Road tomorrow night, December 1st, and would appreciate the company.

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Never in the field of personal finance has so much been owed to so many by one man

Finally got round to reading "No More Champagne", David Lough's book about Churchill and his money. This confirmed me in my view that we are mistaken when we assume that the wealthy aren't bothered about money because they've got enough. He was obsessed.

Churchill was born with all the expectations of a 19th century aristocrat without any of the funds. Everything he bought was charged and paid for later. Much later. He smoked a dozen cigars a day and at one stage didn't pay his cigar bill for five years. In 1932 he earned £15,000, which made him one of the best-paid people in the country. The problem was that in the same year he spent £30,000.

Unlike most of his peers Churchill didn't own any land, politics was a precarious business and the only way he could really make money was by his pen. Since he dictated most of it would be more accurate to say that he earned it with his voice. In the 30s he was constantly cranking out some piece for an American magazine or a British newspaper in order to pay the tax bill of the year before last. He had to be so productive that he sometimes engaged young historians who were paid a pittance to write stuff that would appear under his own name. 

The thing that changed everything was the war. When it began he owed money all over town. When it finished his bank account was groaning with funds. That money had been placed there by publishers keen to profit from the celebrity that war had brought him. For the rest of his life he was box office.