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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Strangely Strange

Came home this afternoon listening to "The Lusty Sounds Of Diddy Wah", another inimitable podcast by Adam Weatherhead. Adam appears to be an Australian based in this country and he can be found here where he cooks up strange, smoky mixes from vinyl found in junk shops or at record fairs. "The Lusty Sounds" involves Jonathan Richman's "Egyptian Reggae", Johnny Wakelin's "In Zaire" and The Turtles doing "I'm Chief Kamanawanalea (We're the Royal Macadamia Nuts)" among many others, but what I really love is the sound of a blunt stylus ploughing through a scratched black vinyl 45.

A Star Is Born

Ysabella Brave is a unique YouTube find. She just gets on her webcam and sings. Everything from "Proud Mary" to "I Loves You Porgy". Brilliantly. Try "Let's Misbehave" for starters.

Monday, January 29, 2007

The hits keep right on comin'

Jonny Wilkinson got through half a game with the Newcastle Falcons, which is such good news they're now talking about putting him in for England against Scotland this weekend. There are bound to be hopes that he'll be back to his best. Then there'll be the inevitable disappointment. I'm just glad for his own sake that he's back. I can't imagine how frustrating it must be for a guy like that to spend years on the treatment table, prevented from doing the one thing you were put here for. Meanwhile I read in The New Yorker that a running back in the NFL can now anticipate a career of just four years. Something has to be run about the hits in both sports until we get to the stage where it simply won't be worth the time spent putting in the preparation.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Going the pretty way

The fuss about Prince Charles's carbon footprint in the light of his visit to the USA to pick up an environmental award makes me wonder whether we might ever see the return of passenger liner travel between the UK and New York. I'm no great lover of flying and I still recall my English teacher telling us we will never understand the United States unless we sailed in to New York harbour and saw it as the immigrants saw it. Last time I was in New York I stayed across the Hudson in Hoboken and was amazed at the number of modern ocean liners from Scandinavia that kept zipping past my hotel room window (left). They're presumably holidaymakers spending the kids' inheritance on their way to the Caribbean but it was good to see that the routes were still being used.

Friday, January 26, 2007

The power of negative thinking

I'm not surprised that England lost to Australia. I am surprised that they lost as badly as they did. But what I find profoundly dispiriting is listening to the interviews with the players. Like everybody else who even breathes into a microphone nowadays they talk in the same "look on the bright side, tomorrow's another day, we need to stay positive" terms that we hear from everybody from the Home Secretary to Adie Boothroyd. Just once I'd like one of those players to say "we're absolutely crushed and humiliated, this has been the worst few months of our lives, every night we go back to our hotel and get dangerously pissed, we're deeply angry and we're never going to let it happen again."

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Just do it

Spoke to Neil Tennant today for a Radio Four programme I'm doing about things you can learn from pop music. He worked with Dusty Springfield who assured him that she never thought about the words while she was singing them. We talked a bit about the importance of just being able to perform or write without agonising about it. It puts a question mark against a lot of critical appraisal which sets great store by the apparent level of engagement between the song and the performer. We like to think we can tell when people are being sincere and when they're just coasting but the truth is we don't know. Actors like Robert Mitchum were quite candid about the fact that they neither knew nor cared about the film or the director. They just did their stuff the same way they always had done. Judi Dench doesn't read the scripts she gets offered. She just talks to the director and if it seems a good idea she does it. Contrast that with the young actors of today who want us to believe that they've been off doing "research" in order to be able to convey the reality of their role. Spencer Tracy's advice "know your lines and don't bump into the furniture" seems funny to those people who don't know how difficult that can be.

Going back to go forward

I'm delighted Neil Finn has decided to get together with Nick Seymour under the name Crowded House. He wanted to tell me when I spoke to him back in November but it wasn't clear whether they'd be going out as Crowded House or not. I don't welcome this news because I want to relive the past. It's simply because it means he won't have to keep explaining himself as a solo act (or as part of a duo with Tim) and I won't have to keep saying to people "he's the bloke who used to be in Crowded House" and they won't have to keep saying "oh, I see". It seems to me that there isn't much he's done since that he couldn't have done under the umbrella of Crowded House and no matter how he's been billed he's felt obliged to play "Don't Dream It's Over" or "Weather With You" at some stage in the evening. It's very difficult to build up any kind of perception amongst the public and once it's set it's very difficult to shift it or ask for temporary release from it. Like most bands they'll probably find that the passing of time has seen their following grow and I don't doubt that this audience will be receptive to all kinds of things, old and new. They're apparently playing Coachella this summer (as are the similarly reformed Rage Against The Machine and the Jesus & Mary Chain). A better festival act it's difficult to imagine.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

For those in peril

Caught a bit of BBC1's Trawlermen last night. It's an old fashioned straight documentary about trawlers operating out of Peterhead. The weather turns from fair to foul in an instant. Modern navigation and tracking devices mean that as soon as they find fish so does everybody else and they get traffic jams in the middle of the North Sea. One of their competitors comes back with a decent haul and makes enough to pay each member of the crew £1,200. That's for ten days at sea.
Contrast with the kids on BBC3's Sweet 16 who are doing their GCSEs at a fairly tough school in Tottenham. All their dreams seem to be painfully out of whack with their actual prospects. The career plan of the lad last night was simple to "be famous" and he travelled to Turkey to sort out the one thing he felt was holding him back, his nose. One of the girls, when asked to describe her friends, said they were "popular and pretty". The boy tonight wants to be a rapper. Watch it.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Department Of Cake And Eat It

This afternoon the Channel 4 board have been in conclave trying to work out whether Goodygate really has damaged: a) their brand and: b) their relationship with the government who provide their subsidy. At the same time their marketing department are cranking up interest in Skins, their upcoming drama about how all sixteen-year-olds, particularly the slim, beautiful ones, are at it like knives. They've put their "sneak preview" on MySpace. But they don't want you to watch it if you're under eighteen so lots of 14 year olds are bound to be disappointed.

Nothing's gonna change their world

Bobby Gillespie was just being honest when he told Word he didn't give a fuck about global warming. When it come to this issue we're all caught in a greenhouse with a pocketful of stones but rock stars are in another league altogether when it comes to spending the planet's resources. They can make all the statements they like but if there's a conflict between their careers and the planet, career wins every time.
The daily business of being a rock star involves a profligate waste of electricity and airplane fuel; they gather around them vast retinues and fleets of pantechnicons such as would make Eddie Stobart blush; they consider they have a God-given right to invade the peace and quiet of anyone unfortunate enough to live in the vicinity of their open air gigs; whenever one of their records stiffs they blame it on the fact that the record company didn't flood the outlets by over-producing copies; they are incapable of going anywhere unaccompanied or by public transport; they buy huge houses that they rarely visit; their indulgence in drugs supports corrupt governments and criminal cartels and wherever they go they tend to leave a trail of waste.
Hardly eco-warriors, no matter how many songs they sing about it.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Pet Sounds

From An Underworld At War by Donald Thomas: "In the City of London in the thirties, the tired businessman, on his way home, could purchase a kiss and a cuddle from one of the waitresses, provided he paid 2s 6d for his cup of tea. Police officers testified to sounds of 'petting' from behind a screen. When asked to describe the precise sound of petting they were unable to do so."

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Anger management

I've just woken up to another of those "is - isn't" conversations that have been clogging up the airwaves post-Jade Goody. I don't remember anyone using the word "racist" in the 60s and I've grown sick of the way it's flung about now. There's something about the "-ist" formulation (as in "sexist", "misogynist", "ageist" and other clanky expressions) that implies this is what people do rather than a tendency they have.
Ever since man crawled out of the bog he has discriminated against people on the grounds of difference. It's either done minutely and silently and never results in any action or in societies that enshrine that discrimination in law. As a human tendency there is no more chance of "racial prejudice" (which is what they actually called it in the 60s) being stamped out than we will stamp out lust, avarice, anger, pride, gluttony or any of the seven deadly sins. It can be contained, discouraged and its most extreme excesses legislated against but it isn't going to go anywhere. Those commentators popping up this week to tell us that "Britain is a racist society" have been unable to point to anywhere on earth where people are blind to differences of pigmentation, accent or religion. It's a human tendency which is shared by every human on earth.
In the same week Janet Street Porter is in the papers because she's alleged to have used "racist abuse" at some neighbour over a parking dispute. I've had my dealings with JSP and while I don't believe she would make any racially controversial remarks to anyone, I would be more than ready to believe she unleashed a volley of abuse on very little provocation. And actually it's the abuse that's the problem in both these stories – the lack of tolerance, the tendency to fly off the handle as soon as somebody gets in our faces, the feeling that we have a civic right to our anger, the desire to hear the sound of our own voices raised in indignation and assumed hurt, the pathetic petulance of it all. Whichever less than pleasant part of our personality all this anger derives from is beside the point. It's that Channel 4 should "confront".

Friday, January 19, 2007

"Cut or uncut?"

I was standing in line in a shop the other day and found myself reading one of those signs that said "our staff have a right to do their work free from harassment, threats, violence etc".

It was a bread shop.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

"Salford calling"


On Simon Mayo's Five Live show yesterday talking about the future for record shops in the light of the feature in the current issue of Word. Usually Simon broadcasts from Shepherd's Bush but on certain days (such as Prime Minister's Question Time) the show is done from the BBC's very busy studio in Millbank, just across the road from Parliament. Now today, in the light of the licence fee settlement, I hear Mark Thompson talking on Simon's programme and insisting that the BBC's planned move to Salford will go ahead. Paul Fox popped up to point out that since the Olympics is coming to London and politics is based in London, this seems like a funny time to be moving everything to Manchester. Broadcasters are always talking big about the need to decentralise. It's a good way to drum up backing from government. Everybody approves in principle but nobody approves in practice apart from the people who happen to live at the new location. Ask Malcolm Gerrie how hard it was to get acts to travel to Newcastle to appear on The Tube. Given that and the fact that the senior management and top talent at the BBC will simply find a way to avoid going, I don't believe it will ever happen. If the BBC has to move a studio across London in order to be nearer to a power centre, how much sense does it make to move so much of its operations two hundred miles away from the hub of finance, the media, government and show business? And I know it's not fair but this country is too small to decentralise and too crowded to cross.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

One giant leap for a hack

Last night's Front Row on Radio Four included a piece by me about the 40th anniversary of the original news item about 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire. What I'm really excited about is that this was the first time I've done a column for Radio Four without having to go in to Broadcasting House. That's thanks to my investment in an Edirol R-09 WAV/MP3 Recorder. I just recorded it at home and emailed them an MP3. Saves hours going into the West End. Not that I've got anything against seeing radio producers but what with security checks and signing in and out even the shortest visit takes ages nowadays. Interviewed Neil Finn on my Edirol last year. He'd just got one himself. Apparently it's the hot new toy for musicians' demos.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Copyright and book keeping: a cautionary tale


Nine months ago I was contacted by somebody from Universal DVD who was putting together a DVD of John Martyn at the BBC. They wanted to use some ancient clip from Whistle Test which happened to feature me introducing him and they were seeking my permission. I said fine. They said, we have to pay you something. Because I've had lots of experience of the amount of palaver attached to paying trifling sums of money in cases like these, I said, don't bother, just send me some wine. They eventually came back and said they couldn't do that and they'd need me to sign a form giving them permission and then send them an invoice for £100. I duly did this (plus VAT). This was in May. Months later we were going through the books and found it hadn't been paid. So I got on to them. They did a search and came back saying I needed to fill in a form to become one of their official suppliers before I could get paid. You know the kind of thing: sort codes, VAT numbers, next of kin etc. I still didn't get paid. Three months later they paid me, but they missed off the VAT. Now, once you've made out a VAT invoice, you have to get it paid or the VAT man wants to know what you're up to. So I get on to them again. Just before Christmas they send me that missing VAT, but it's wrong by £2.50. So almost a year later I'm still chasing a sum of money that I never asked for and a number of people both at my end and at Universal's have had their valuable time wasted. Now I'm not asking for sympathy but my point is this: as the entertainment and media industries get more and more complex and diverse, how much more of people's time is going to be occupied chasing signatures in order to clear this or that footling item? I don't have any moral rights here. I don't add any commercial value to John Martyn's DVD. If they'd just left me in and not said anything I wouldn't have been particularly bothered. I know that the producers of these Whistle Test DVDs have to waste months chasing down bass players of long-forgotten bands in order to tell them that if they sign to clear this twenty five year old performance they're entitled to £53.34 or whatever it is. It is an unsustainable model devised for a different era. No wonder Bill Gates is talking about buying out musicians for life.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

I want my aaawwww TV

Somebody should think of a name for the increasing number of home-edited montages from new generation sitcoms that are starting to appear on YouTube. The classic example is made up of clips of will-they-won't-they screen couples cut to romantic music. I think it began with Dawn and Tim on The Office. It went wild with their counterparts Jim and Pam on the American version. It continues with Caroline and Mac in Green Wing. I think it's rather sweet. It certainly seems to indicate that lots of these long-running comedy programmes are actually love stories in heavy disguise.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Never before and never again


Tonight's Timewatch Beatlemania film wasn't up to much. The producers tried to pass off their collection of home movie footage and people who've not been interviewed much as a coherent chronology and the absence of any Lennon/McCartney material was plain laughable. However, Maureen Cleave, the same person to whom Lennon gave the "bigger than Jesus" interview, talks sense. "They went from nothing to being the best known people in the English-speaking world. In just two years." That's fair comment. On the left is the cover of the issue of Datebook that picked up the Evening Standard "Jesus" interview and started the whole scandal in the Bible Belt. Amazing nobody took any exception to the story that's above it on the cover, in which McCartney uses the "n" word.

Joni Mitchell in concert


Last night I happened to catch the last few numbers of a BBC In Concert recording of Joni Mitchell from 1970. There she was in a long frock surrounded by a small selection of adoring fans. She was looking beautiful and sounding astonishingly good. She played California with a dulcimer on her lap, then Big Yellow Taxi and then Both Sides Now, all of which were only months old at the time. Amazing to reflect that she'd only been a professional singer for a few years at that point and yet she'd already laid down the foundation stones of her reputation. This isn't "early Joni Mitchell". It's the finished item. She's said to be making a comeback this year and if that includes some live work, these are the songs that people are going to be calling for.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Why should anyone care about the chart?


All this talk of a revolution taking place in the charts now that downloads are included in the calculations overlooks the larger question – in a downloading world, why the hell does anyone other than the record companies or the chronically insecure need a chart at all?

Charts were introduced as a means of helping record shops decide which of the many new releases they should stock. A song went in at number 43 on the basis of how many copies it sold in a small number of shops, all the other record shops ordered it, people went into the shops, listened to whatever was new to the chart, in some cases bought it, more copies were thus manufactured and distributed, radio play was cranked up, TOTP appearances booked and so it went on, around and around.

It was a model that was built for the world of physical distribution, where resources had to be managed and directed in order to make the machine work. Somebody had to decide how many copies of a record were pressed and where they were sent to. Who's doing that today?

The business analysts would call it a "push" model. People responded to the limited amount of material that could be placed before them at a given time.

But the same business analysts will tell you that the web is all about "pull". Everything in the world is now front of you and all you've got to do is choose what you want. If a million people decide to buy the MIKA single today, the record company won't have to manufacture any more copies and get them into the distribution chain.

It's no longer a physical business. This ought to be embraced by all right thinking people for the amount of waste and expense it saves. But it doesn't seem to be that way. The people who are clinging most desperately to the life rafts of the Old Ways are the record companies, the broadcasters and the acts themselves, all of whom are trying to find a way of deciding who's This Week's Winner when the truth is that nobody cares any more. There is no such thing as the most popular record any more. It's a dead parrot. If it wasn't nailed to the perch by the the bureaucrats at the BBC and the BPI (who between them are historically responsible for the slow decline in interest in the charts) it would be pushing up daisies by now. HMV are bailing already. Who's next?

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