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Friday, March 30, 2012

There's always one picture you haven't seen

This is a spread from The New Yorker. I don't think I've seen this picture before and I can't stop looking at it. I grabbed this version from the iPad app. In the magazine you can see more width.

It was taken on the morning of November 22nd 1963 as John F. Kennedy left his Fort Worth hotel to go to Dallas. The first thing that struck me was the lack of obvious security. I suppose the men in white macs on the left are Secret Service but they're behind the President not in front of him. The cameramen are wandering free, not behind a red rope. In the magazine version you can see that the public have been corralled at the other side of the road but still it's very relaxed.

In the accompanying feature, written by Robert Caro (who is four volumes in to a five-part biography of Lyndon Johnson) we learn that it was raining that morning, that Johnson took off his hat because he realised it made him look old next to the bare-headed President and that Kennedy's nervous habit of checking his jacket button was connected with the fact that he wore a form of corset which was held in place by an elastic bandage that wrapped round his back and thighs "in a figure eight pattern".

A few hours after the picture was taken Kennedy was dead and Johnson, who had thought his political career was over, was being sworn in as President in a carefully stage-managed photo op featuring the dead man's wife. They include that familiar picture as well but I love the boldness with which this first picture is used. Once you've seen it you can't imagine any other way of doing the story.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

What's wrong with being a hack?

Lucas Hare told me that in his Desert Island Discs Barry Cryer was happy to call himself a hack. I’m the same. I don’t understand why some people think it's a term of abuse. I’ve always understood that hack was derived from the word Victorian gentlemen shouted to get a hackney carriage. A hack writer was one who plied for hire and would write for money. This distinguished them from the pre-Samuel Johnson scribblers who didn’t need to because they had private incomes.

I don’t understand why people look down on the idea of writers or musicians or painters practising their trades for money. They’re quite comfortable with the idea of doctors and plumbers and cab drivers doing the same thing. Is this a peculiarly British trait, to feel that you should distrust the motives of anyone who’s doing something for the money and exalt anyone working for free?

I recently tweeted that  “beginning an email with the words ‘I’m an unsigned artist’ was like saying ‘I’m an unemployed chef’”. I’d just received an email that began:
I am an unsigned artist, with a style of rock which you may find interesting
I got a lot of flack from people, one of whom described themselves as ‘proudly unsigned’. Surely announcing yourself as "unsigned" is a classic case of leading with a feature that isn't a benefit, in the language of sales. I don’t care whether you’re an unsigned strummer. All I care is whether you’re any good. Ditto if you're a chef. Being unsigned or unemployed doesn’t put you on a higher moral plane than Coldplay or Jamie Oliver - nor does it make your music or lasagne any better.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Remembering Eric Watson and the eternal struggle between editors and photographers

Eric Watson died last week at the age of 56. He did the lion's share of the photography for Smash Hits during the early 80s. I think this picture of Lee Thomson from 1982 may be the first one. It was actually shot for Stiff Records. I was the editor at the time. We liked Eric's style because it was bright without being corny and captured that innocence on the edge of knowing which was so much part of the magazine's personality. This was the first of scores of Eric's photos that appeared in the magazine, many of them on the cover.

When I think back it's extraordinary the amount of effort that we put into picture sessions in those days. I remember spending two days at Eric's studio in Wandsworth helping organise a session for the Smash Hits yearbook. It was supposed to depict the changing face of a teenagers bedroom between the 50s and the 90s (which had yet to occur). Somehow we actually built a set in Eric's studio. And this was for an annual.

The relationship between magazine editors and photographers is always a difficult one. The former regard their business as commerce. The latter think it's art. Eric's work started off as one and ended up as the other, with exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery. In the grown-up world of galleries and art dealers I'm sure they appreciate many of the qualities that made Eric Watson's pictures so beautiful and clever. What they'll never appreciate is what they did for you at the news stand.

Friday, March 23, 2012

A man in a dog suit is never not funny

I realise that I'm probably the last person to catch up with the Australian TV series Wilfred. I know it's been going on long enough to have spawned an American version which probably isn't as good. Still, it's made me laugh - actually laugh as in the involuntary bodily movement meaning of the word - more than anything in quite a while. Obviously you all know this already but, for the benefit of the one person who's even less "in touch" than me, this is how it works.

Sarah has a dog called Wilfred. As far as she's concerned he's a regular dog - "Alsatian, bit of Lab, angry," she reports whenever he goes missing - with normal dog habits - wishes to sleep on the end of the bed, digs up the garden, eats everything. But her new boyfriend Adam comes to see Wilfred as we see him - as a six foot tall, dope-smoking slacker in a dog suit.

Once you've accepted that premise, which took me no time at all, you realise that dog behaviour, which is much like male behaviour minus the thin veneer of sophistication, is more often than not funny. Example: wishing to chase the ducks on the lake but being scared of getting wet, Wilfred confines himself to patrolling the shore shouting "C'mere, I want to tell you something."

There's a bonus. All standard male behaviour - sorting out his DVDs, sitting on the sofa pontificating, showing off in front of another male - is automatically funny once it's performed by a bloke wearing a dog suit.

I can't promise you'll find it as funny as I did - but you might.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

OK. Now what do we do?

Caught "Three Little Pigs", the new long-form advert for The Guardian during My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding the other night. It's a very ambitious piece of work, running over two minutes. Its point is, I suppose, that news is different in the age of social media.

Ad men always used to tell me that every ad had to finish with a call to action. In the case of a newspaper or magazine this was usually something along the lines of "buy it tomorrow" or "available now with free toy".

The Guardian ad doesn't finish with a call to action. Instead the message is that the brand can be accessed in a number of different ways. Which is true. But still a nagging question remains - does the lack of a call to action suggest that modern media organisations are no longer quite sure what it is that they can expect people to do?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Reality breaks out in the middle of a football match

On Saturday around six I was in a room with two TVs. One was showing the England-Ireland rugby match. The other, which I was watching out of the corner of my eye, had the Spurs-Bolton game on with the sound turned down.

I glanced across at the football and suddenly saw the genuinely shocked faces of the players as they reacted to Fabrice Muamba's collapse. When a player is in real peril on a football pitch the other players know it instantly and react accordingly. Their behaviour in these circumstances is so radically different from the usual operatic simulation of agony which is their stock in trade that it's surprising they don't find it more embarrassing. It's as if an actor in Romeo & Juliet has suddenly stopped the fight scene because somebody has really been stabbed.

You can't help thinking none of those players will ever be able to run on a pitch in quite the same way again.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Why people kiss and tell

I just caught a little of Frank Skinner talking to Mark Lawson on the iPlayer. One of the things they touch upon is the amount of casual sex Skinner enjoyed during his stand-up years. Skinner describes doing a book signing at a Literary Festival when he suddenly found himself confronted by a woman who said "you may not remember me. We had a one-night stand once."

She was perfectly pleasant about it and even introduced him to her partner. Skinner confessed to Lawson that he had no memory of her which is the kind of modest boast most men would like to be able to make. Then he pointed out that while he might have mentioned the many women he'd slept with in his books he at least had stopped short of identifying them. Unlike the women, many of whom will have been tempted to let slip at a dinner party that they once had a bunk-up with TV's Frank Skinner.

"Part of the purpose of casual sex," he says, "is anecdote production." This is truer than people like to admit. I know at least one person who had a one-off sexual encounter with a Very Famous Person. This person has been known to say "it was the best thing that ever happened to me."

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Adele leaves me cold & Bonnie Raitt doesn't

Bonnie Raitt's version of "I Can't Make You Love Me" is one of my favourite sad records. Raitt's always been brilliant at delivering songs about being overlooked. She makes a nonsense of the idea that you have to write a song to understand it. She understands this song better than the blokes who wrote it.

Adele's done a version too, which isn't surprising. I'm amazed that while the first one moves me the second one doesn't. They're in the same style and by common consent Adele "can sing", whatever that means. There are no egregious lapses of taste and no X Factor flights of melisma. The arrangement is no different. It's done in the same way. It presses the emotional buttons. It just doesn't touch me at all, which I realise puts me in a minority of one.

I'm sure a certain amount of it is prejudice. Bonnie Raitt's been a part of my life since I was 21. There is history between us. I will never be able to look at or listen to Adele in the same way.

But there's something beyond the prejudice, something beyond the inevitable discussion about "kinds of singers". There's something in the notes that come out of the speaker and the way they make me feel. What makes me warm to one and not the other?

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Why do Americans pronounce non-English words in such a pretentious way?

Everybody else in the world, including the Iraqis, puts the emphasis on the second syllable of "Baghdad". Not the Americans. They put it on the first. Where do they get that idea from?

I watched Midnight In Paris last night. This is about Americans in Paris and therefore it's full of similarly mangled versions of well-known foreign words. Parisians becomes "Pareezhuns". The painter Monet is "Moanay". The sculptor Rodin is "Row-Dan".  When the Sorbonne is first mentioned it's "Sorebone". The Boeuf Bourguignon is "Boeuf Berniown". The splendid old Peugeot which picks Owen Wilson up every night is a "Poojoe". This is not exclusively a problem with French words either. The well-known flat bread popular in Greece is "Peter Bread".

Obviously no nation is blameless in this regard but there's something about the way that many Americans - particularly sophisticated Americans, the kind you get in Woody Allen films - deliver these words that suggests that they feel that even the way the locals do it isn't sufficiently pretentious for them.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Why rock records are like cakes

The rush to pronounce on the new Bruce Springsteen album reminds me of all the frantic spinning that goes on immediately after a Budget. The New York Times even unleashed *two* of its pop critics on it. Their debate was like an argument over the merits of different candidates running in the Presidential primaries. Everybody seems obsessed with what he had to say about the recession and just who he was siding with. It reminds me of the crowd pursuing Graham Chapman in The Life Of Brian, begging for a sign.

There was a similar clutching at straws among those who confined themselves to discussions of the music. They ticked off the musical characteristics - choruses, types of guitars, production techniques - as if from a shopping list. I honestly can’t see the point.

Here’s the thing about rock records. Even to the trained ear they all sound the same the first four or five times through. At that stage those people who are predisposed to like them will convince themselves the record is great. Those predisposed to think the record's poor will convince themselves of the opposite. Those with 1,000 words to write will form an opinion that they don’t yet have. None of them know.

They don't know because the things that mark out the tiny handful of great records from the thousands of fair to middling ones only emerge over time and they do so when you’re not concentrating. Great records creep up on you like friendship. The things that make them great records are often not obvious on first acquaintance. Most cakes have the same ingredients. Only the good ones rise. And any baker will tell you that you'll get nowhere opening the oven door to check.

Monday, March 05, 2012

In defence of very rich men who own football clubs

The firing of Andre Villas-Boas coincides with the QPR behind the scenes documentary "The Four Year Plan". If it's your view that the owners of football clubs are overgrown trigger-happy boys who shouldn't be in charge of a sweet shop today is the perfect day to voice it.

I disagree. I don't think the likes of Flavio Briatore and Roman Abramovich or any of these people are fools. I think they may have some courtiers who are scoundrels and they all have fans who are quite happy to see insane sums of money spent on players' wages but I don't think they're stupid. The only lever they have on the business is the hiring and more often the firing of the manager and they have to do it sooner because if they're going to do it later it'll probably be too late.

The contrary view is that the clubs who have stuck with their managers, Manchester United and Arsenal, have prospered as a consequence. I think this is a fundamental misreading. Those clubs have stuck with their managers because, through some combination of good judgement, good luck and sheer effrontery, they have done well more than they have done badly. They've been retained because they've done well. They haven't done well because they've been retained.