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.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

There's nothing so potent as an old podcast - unless it's three hundred-odd of them

Fraser's worked some everyday magic and now all the Word podcasts are on Spotify. That means you can follow this link and go back all the way to the first weekly one from 2007,  done in the small room where Mixmag used to store all the clothes for fashion shoots, right through to the most recent ones, which are recorded at the Islington in front of a live audience.

There are over three hundred of them and they probably average a running time of around forty-five minutes so you could probably drive to Afghanistan listening to nothing but. I'm sure there will be some people who will complain that they still haven't got the full, longer version of one from the days when they were only available to subscribers but personally I think it's a miracle that they're there in any form at all. They were certainly not done with any thought of posterity.

They contain contributions from all sorts of people, from Matt Hall, who first suggested that we ought to do it regularly, to Word writers and staff members such as Andrew Harrison, Jude Rogers, Rob Fitzpatrick, Andrew Collins and Kate Mossman. There's a period of a good few years when Fraser Lewry was always in the room, manning the levels and making his own characteristic contribution.

The nearest thing to ever-presents are Mark Ellen and me. We didn't set out to do this but what we've ended up with is a unique record of what poured forth on hundreds of perfectly ordinary days when we just went in the other room, with scarcely any preparation, opened the faders and yakked. That adds up to hundreds of hours of us just gassing, just trying to keep the bright red ball of human interest in the air not for as long as it took to line up a record but right to the end of the hour. Most of the time there are no edits.

People liked to say they liked the Word podcast because it sounded like a lot of mates having a conversation in the pub. Well imagine that you had recordings of all your conversations in the pub. That's what it's like for me and Mark.

We can drop into these three hundred anywhere and suddenly be ported back to a time when Oasis had yet to break up, when Amy Winehouse was alive enough for us to make jokes about her, when Twitter was such a novelty that it required explanation, when we thought that all that work we'd put into the latest issue of the magazine was going to pay back in terms of an extended reach, when we still thought that the record business was a pretty big deal, rather than a sub-division of the information technology industry, when we talked about going into big record stores and looking at all the new releases. We didn't fully realise we were map-making in an earthquake zone.

There's also lots of personal stuff that wouldn't be noticeable to the casual listener. People talk about family weekends just past, about holidays taken, about Christmases coming up, about daft things that happened in the office the other day, about the sound of a passing police car denoting "the sound of Young Islington having it away on its toes".

For myself I never go back and look at the magazine but every time one of these old podcasts pops up on my phone I'm secretly thrilled and listen to the end. I'm not proud of them. Pride seems beside the point. We were only trying to please ourselves and in the course of that we happened to please a few others as well. And now there's a mountain of this stuff that you can enjoy again.

Noel Coward remarked on how potent cheap music could be. I think old podcasts are even more so.

Monday, October 07, 2019

Ginger Baker was the Stirling Moss of drumming

Following the death of Ginger Baker I asked on Twitter if there were any famous drummers left.

People replied with their nominations.

There were the obvious ones such as Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts.

Then there were names like Jim Keltner, who are known to people who study album credits.

Somebody pointed out that in the world of metal the drummer still had a certain celebrity.

But still the overwhelming majority of names came from the 60s and the 70s. This seemed to recognise the fact that the drummer hasn't had the same level of fame since the invention of automated percussion.

Ginger Baker was on the front page of The Times today, which is some indication of how famous he was. I think he was even quite well known amongst people who had never knowingly heard him.

He was the first celebrity drummer I can remember apart from Dave Clark and Dave didn't really count. Ginger was the first person I remember who did solos rather than breaks.

He also looked like a drummer, which I think is very important. He always played as if he felt his place was in the front line rather than at the back.

In the years when he was no longer in the spotlight it was impossible to talk for long about drumming without mentioning his name. The expression "like Ginger Baker" was a term widely understood.

People who drive fast are still regularly likened to Stirling Moss, who stopped driving in 1962.

Ginger Baker was to the drums what Stirling Moss was to racing cars.

That's a very special kind of immortality.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

How the Italians do festivals

When I visited Italy a year ago to publicise my book my excellent translator was Seba Pezzani. Seba helps run an annual festival in Fiorenzuola d'Arda, a small town south of Milan in Emilia-Romagna. This year we were there for it. The festival goes under the name Dal Mississippi Al Po to emphasise the link between two famous rivers and it brings together Seba's two passions, edgy fiction, particularly the kind that deals with crime, and blues-flavoured rock and roll music.

We had a most civilised weekend. In the mornings we visited ancient hill towns like Castell'Arquato, then repaired for one of those long lunches on the verandah of a vineyard that are usually only seen on TV cookery shows, then, following a nap at the hotel, a discussion about Creedence Clearwater Revival or noir detective novels in the courtyard of some old civic building and finally, following a meat feast in the town square, a show on the steps of the local church by the evening's headliner which was attended by pretty much everyone in the town who fancied an evening's entertainment.

The headliners ranged from the American country blues singer Keb' Mo' to the young Tuareg singer Bombino while also finding room for Bobby Solo, one of Italy's many Cliff Richard figures, who satisfied the full range of people gathered in the square with a set that combined his favoured blues warhorses with a few of the romantic tunes that graced the juke boxes of Italy in the mid-60s. They've managed to keep it going for fifteen years now, with a combination of sponsorship from small businesses, support from the local council and volunteer help.

One of its most charming features is that it takes place in the middle of town without seeming to interfere with the traffic of normal life. As the acts play in the square elderly ladies amble past exercising small dogs, teenage girls give each other lifts on bikes before going home to change into something more eye-catching and small children drag parents in the direction of a bedtime gelato. Of course that's helped by the weather, which is generally reliable. On the final night, when rain was forecast, the show was immediately switched to the tiny opera house which they just happened to have ready for just such an eventuality.

It was a lovely weekend, even if it meant catching up on the cricket via the BBC Sport app.