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.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

The thing that surprises me most about the Super League business is....

 .....they didn’t tell the management. 

I don’t mean Klopp or Guardiola. 

I mean the people who manage the business of these clubs day to day, the people who are closely involved in how many shirts they sell in Taiwan, the people whose annual bonus is based on the commercial deals they pull in, the people who are kept awake worrying about whether they can persuade the goalkeeper to spare ten minutes for an interview with The Guardian, the people who, although nobody wants to hear it, probably have just as much affection for the club as the average supporter.

I’ve read everything I can get hold of about how this all happened and the only thing I can find out is that the senior PRs at the clubs didn’t know until they were on a Zoom call on the Friday. Since it came as a complete surprise to them we can only assume their fellow execs didn’t know either, which beggars belief.

If it’s true they didn’t know that probably explains how quickly the Chairmen and CEOs climbed down the following week. They were getting it in the neck from the fans, the media, the government and even the Royal Family. 

That they could stand. 

I wonder if the real problem was that the senior teams at all these clubs were looking at the boss with an expression which clearly read “all right, genius, what should we do now?”

In years to come they’ll teach this debacle as a text book example of what happens when the Big Boss is flattered into a meeting with all the other Big Bosses and then dared to make a decision without referring it back. 

That’s why most mergers and acquisitions turn out to be bad ideas. At root, they’re all dick measuring contests. To coin a phrase.

Monday, December 21, 2020

The steel of Richard Thompson

There's a good new edition of Matthew Bannister's podcast "Folk On Foot" in which he accompanies Richard Thompson as he revisits places in London that played a part in shaping him and his music: William Ellis School in Highgate, where he formed his first group with fellow pupil Hugh Cornwell, the house on Fortis Green Road in Muswell Hill which is still named Fairport, the Lamb and Flag in Covent Garden where he first encountered the Irish tenor Joseph Locke and the site of the old Marquee Club in Wardour Street, from which he would sometimes walk all the way home to Whetstone, getting home at three o'clock in the morning before getting up for school in the morning.

Thompson emerged from the same stable as Nick Drake and John Martyn at around the same time. They were all exceptionally gifted players and songwriters. Such troubadours are paradoxical figures. We like the idea that such people are introverted but they can't be so bashful that they can't command a room. Drake was so shy he didn't manage to complete the few gigs he did. Martyn seemed to need stimulants or depressants before he could truly look an audience in the eye. Thompson, who presents as shy but knows exactly what he wants, said in an interview that to survive on stage you have to develop a persona which is a larger version of your actual personality.

And so he has done. When he appears on stage today there's no doubt who's in charge. "Folk On Foot" is a different challenge. It calls on him to get out his guitar and perform songs like "Meet On The Ledge" and "Long Walk Home" at the site of the places which inspired them, out on the street in the middle of the day without anyone to give him the big build-up, with people rushing by presumably wondering who the busker in the baseball hat is. 

I often think this kind of al fresco performance is more difficult than facing a stadium full of people, none of whom are actually looking you in the eye. To stand in an alley just off Wardour Street and belt out "The Long Walk Home" as Richard Thompson does here calls for steel that most performers simply don't have.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

"What did you read in the pandemic, Daddy?"

I haven't learnt a foreign language during the pandemic but I have finally read  "A Dance To The Music Of Time" by Anthony Powell. As Tony Hancock said, there ought to be a badge.

I started the first volume, "A Question Of Upbringing" back in March. Last night I finally laid down the 12th, "Hearing Secret Harmonies".

I was helped in reading this by Andy Miller of the excellent books podcast "Backlisted". I read a fair bit but people like Andy read an an awful lot more. He told me that one of the things he sometimes does is supplement his reading with an audiobook of the same title. This made me get hold of the excellent Simon Vance version of Powell's book which you can get on Audible. Once I read one of the books I would then listen to Vance's reading of it and I found this sealed it in my memory and then made the reading of the later volumes easier.

I can't pretend it was all easy. Powell writes in the way that Sir Humphrey speaks when he's trying to avoid giving a direct answer. However after about three volumes I did get into its stately rhythm and was starting to look forward to the next appearance of favourite characters like Uncle Giles, General Conyers, Charles Stringham, Mrs Erdleigh and Pamela Flitton.

I enjoyed it most when it had a strong sense of place, which is why I found the three books dealing with his experiences in the war so compelling. 

The temptation now is to go back to the beginning and start again, taking in details of the introduction of characters now that I know what happened to them.

Furthermore I'm writing this the day after the government announced a further six months of restrictions. 

I may have to find another, full immersion reading project.

Friday, April 03, 2020

If not for "Whistle Test" and Mike Appleton

I just heard that Mike Appleton has died.

Mike's the guy second from the right in the back row, alongside Robyn Hitchcock, Trevor Dann, Andy Kershaw and Rick Wright of Pink Floyd. The front row is Mark Ellen, Bob Harris, Billy Bragg and me.

Mike was the BBC man behind "The Old Grey Whistle Test". He was the one who launched it as  producer and for years as Editor managed to keep it on the air until it was eventually booted out in the course of one of BBC's numberless quests for a younger demographic, only to be replaced by a more hectic show that nobody remembers.

"Whistle Test", by contrast, they do remember and that's all thanks to Mike. Even the people who don't remember have come to know it. If you've ever gone on YouTube and watched some old clip of Little Feat or Ry Cooder or Tim Buckley or John Martyn or the Wailers playing in some tiny BBC studio, that's because Mike booked them, often at a time when nobody else in broadcasting seemed to be remotely interested in them. Mike was oblivious to the whims of fashion. At the time everybody thought that was a weakness but actually it proved to be a strength.

I knew Mike a bit from when I worked as a record plugger and when I bumped into him at a Bruce Springsteen party in the bowling alley at Madison Square Garden in 1980 I had drunk enough to suggest that he really should hire me on the "Whistle Test". A couple of weeks later he rang and asked me to come and review some music books. That led to me doing the show with Annie Nightingale and then with Mark Ellen and Andy Kershaw and then Live Aid, which was only made possible by the fact that Mike was the one guy who knew how to put a thing like that on television.

I went all over the world filming with Mike. On our days off in New York I would head down to Tower to buy the latest records. Mike would rent a car and drive into rural New Jersey where he would track down elderly people who had once worked for Thomas Edison in pursuit of his passion, which was collecting old phonographic equipment.

It's not going too far to say that most of the people in the picture above, taken twenty years ago when VH1 put on an evening celebrating "Whistle Test", would not have crossed each other's paths, or even be in that line of work, had it not been for Mike.

I'm regularly asked to name the records that changed my life. If I'm perfectly honest records never changed my life. However, a handful of people did. Mike was one of that handful.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

All the right notes but not necessarily in the right order

Last Monday we recorded interviews with Pete Paphides and Dan Franklin about their books. Both interviews are published as podcasts right now. You can get them at the Word Podcast or usual suppliers.

Given the circs that's likely to be the last Word In Your Ear for a while. We've postponed the April 14th event with Paul Gorman for the moment. If you've got tickets, don't worry. You'll be contacted when "Magic" Alex Gold returns from the Caribbean where he's being evacuated from a cruise ship as we speak. (He hasn't been cruising himself. He's been entertaining the cruisers.)

Pete's book "Broken Greek" is the story of how pop music provided a lifeline for the son of a Greek Cypriot family running a chip shop in the Midlands in the 80s. Dan's book "Heavy" is the story of how heavy music spoke to somebody growing up in the suburbs of north London in the late 90s.

In both cases the music that appealed to them had already happened many years before. When Dan went to see Ozzy Osbourne as a fourteen-year-old Black Sabbath were a distant memory. The Guns N' Roses album was bought for him by his Dad because it reminded him of Led Zeppelin. When John Lennon died the young Pete was amazed to discover that Lennon, who he only knew from "Double Fantasy", had once been in a group with Paul McCartney out of Wings. Surely they must be some kind of supergroup?

I always say that being born in 1950 gave me the winning ticket in the lottery of life, as far as pop music is concerned. It certainly allowed me to say that I was there for all of it and therefore most of the time when I've encountered music it's been on its first time around. But given that my first memory of "Roll Over Beethoven" was via the Beatles rather than Chuck Berry, that's not entirely true. The difference was that in those days there was a lot less to keep tabs on and therefore even the people whose music I didn't know first-hand I nonetheless had some kind of awareness of.

Nowadays there's too much to know and people will increasingly encounter "the right notes but not necessarily in the right order", as Eric Morecambe explained to Andre Previn. It's inevitable that as rock music heads for its 70th birthday it becomes detached from the eras in which it was birthed and can no longer be understood in the way it was understood at the time. Fortunately, as these two books in their different ways prove, subsequent generations will misunderstand them in their own ways and we'll all be richer as a result.