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Saturday, June 30, 2012

What closing a magazine tells you about why you had to close a magazine

We had to close The Word yesterday. We'd told the team the day before. All that remained was to announce it to the readers, advertisers and other interested parties.

Not long ago this would have meant a call to Media Guardian. There would have been some bargaining over exclusivity. A press release would have been sent. There would have been a tense wait to see whether the story was treated sympathetically or shoehorned into a larger narrative. Then you would hope that your readers and interested parties happened to read Media Guardian.

This is what actually happened. Before I went to the office I posted a statement explaining the closure on the Word website. Then I tweeted saying that the magazine was closing in both mine and the magazine's account. This linked to my statement.

By the time I got to work forty minutes later the story was everywhere. The Word site had fallen over twice through weight of traffic. People I hadn't seen for years were in touch. Slower ones were told about it by relatives in China. Media Guardian were on the phone, chasing after the conversation that they once would have started.

People love a funeral and in the digital age they don't even have to dress for it. This funeral was even more attractive because the deceased was there to hear what was said about them. The words of tribute were kindly meant but sometimes over the top. A surprising number of them were laced with anger. Surely somebody must be to blame for this. Somebody suggested getting up a petition, which made me wonder who they would present it to. Others seemed to hint at a wider tragedy about the decline and fall of so-called intelligent debate. Speaking as one who's played that card occasionally when in a tight spot this kind of forehead-smiting, woe-is-us reaction is, to use the adjective of our times, "inappropriate".

Here's what I learned yesterday. The speed with which this item of news spread and became a news event in which people could happily participate and the "disintermediation", to use a jargon word, of the traditional news outlets was a live demonstration of the same forces which mean you can't publish magazines, or indeed anything, the way you once did.

Even the most established and successful ones are having to go about it in a different way. The boss of Hearst Magazines in the United States said recently that all magazines needed to have five revenue streams. They used to have two. It was hard enough to get those.

The organs of the media once sat athwart the roads down which information travelled, charging readers a premium for access to information they couldn't get elsewhere, and advertisers for access to readers they couldn't identify any more precisely.

That doesn't apply anymore. Both readers and advertisers have got hundreds of choices and they use them, which is fine. I don't yearn for the old days. I think the new wide open media world is more interesting and fun than the old one. But I also wouldn't be surprised to see any media enterprise - from massive household name newspaper brands to tiny ones like The Word - shut their doors tomorrow. I wouldn't bat an eyelid.

Monday, June 25, 2012

We don't talk anymore but TV drama never stops

In the opening scene of Aaron Sorkin's new drama The Newsroom the hero Jeff Daniels is asked by a college student why America is the greatest country in the world. In the course of launching into an attack on the assumptions implicit in her question and pointing out, in great statistical detail, all the many ways in which America no longer fits the bill, he almost makes her cry.

Obviously it's fiction. I'm starting to wonder if it's also something more. The popular TV writers of today, exemplified by Sorkin in his way and Armando Iannucci in his, always put torrents of words into their characters' mouths. Their dramas are all words. They have so many words to get through that they have to bustle down corridors in flying-V formations as they debate complex moral points. They often stand in open offices directing open abuse to each other. They say what they mean at the top of their voice. They demand that everyone listens to them.

That's not how life is today. In the real 2012 anything that matters is confined to an email or a text. In business meetings people avoid saying what they think, often because they aren't entirely sure what they think and they're terrified at the prospect of getting out of step with the group.

Many of these shows, such as The Good Wife and Mad Men, are set in workplaces, which seem to offer endless scope for drama - the board meeting, the problem in reception, the late night heart to hearts over the bottle of Scotch in the filing cabinet.

In fact places of work have never been quieter or more decorous than they are today. There's very little drinking or fornication going on in today's office. There are less open arguments than there were in the 70s. People steer clear of anything personal because they know that a free and frank exchange of views might land them in a disciplinary procedure. When they use expletives it's usually in an affectionate way.

Maybe the oratorical flights of President Jed Bartlett in The West Wing and the gothic abuse dished out by Malcolm Tucker in The Thick Of It are compensation for the tongue-tied timidity we see around us every day. They're a form of wish fulfilment, doing for middle aged men of leftish views what Harry Potter does for ten year old boys, allowing them to believe that if they could only come up with the right zinger they could make the world do their bidding.

There's nothing essentially wrong with that as long as they understand that it's no more authentic an account of human behaviour than The Ring Cycle.

You can see some of the Newsroom scene here.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

It's surprising how boring great football can be

I've read a few accounts of last night's game in the sports pages of the broadsheets. They haven't used the word that most people I know were using about it. Boring.

This was the match we were all supposed to be looking forward to. It was the one that was most keenly anticipated by those who talk about football as if it's art, who talk about "Meelan" and "Barsa", who speak in formations and say players and managers have "a body of work".

Spain were the superior side. Their superiority was manifest in the way they got the ball and kept it, making France run until they looked tired, demoralised and eventually as bored as the rest of us.

When there's no contest you look for entertainment in goals, which is the usual outcome of a one-sided contest. After the game Roberto Martinez actually said that Spain weren't all that bothered about goals. They looked slightly embarrassed by the second one, a penalty in the last few minutes, as if they didn't need anything quite so vulgar as a two-nil scoreline to prove their superiority.

There was lots of very fine football played, most of it by Spain. What was missing was drama. Given a choice between football and drama, I'll take drama every time.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Hip hop is just a noise

Yesterday I bumped into a distinguished academic. He was on his way to record an item for the Today programme about whether rap music had a corrosive effect on society. He was going to argue that rap was all part of a rich tradition of words. Similarly, Annie Nightingale is in The Times this morning talking up Radio One's Hackney show and saying that Plan B is "a brilliant wordsmith".

Hip hop, if we can call it that, certainly features a lot of words but it isn't about words so much as sound and that sound comes from the way it's done. This music and all the variants that have come along in the last thirty or so years is about hooks, drama, personality, comedy, sex, tone of voice, anything it takes to achieve the required air of sad swagger. That's why in all those thirty years it hasn't really produced a single worthwhile song, not in the sense of one that you could sit down and play. That's why live performances of hip hop always look like a bit of an afterthought.

Fifty years ago they used to have the same arguments about Bob Dylan. Was he a poet or just a noise? This was the wrong question, the same wrong question they now ask about rap. As a poet Dylan was mediocre. As a noise he was immense.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Brian Wilson and the best opening line in pop

Brian Wilson's 70 today. My favourite Beach Boys record is "Don't Worry Baby" from 1964 because "Don't Worry Baby" has the best opening line in pop.

"Well, it's been building up inside of me for, oh, I don't know how long..."

If you know this record at all that line has probably been embedded in your memory since the first time you heard it, so perfectly do its seventeen syllables carry the tune. (Presumably he needed seventeen. That's why he puts an "of" between "inside" and "me".) In later years Wilson chased complication for its own sake. In "Don't Worry Baby" he was simply expressing in music the feelings of a young man whose heart was so full it hurt.

Wilson wrote the song with Roger Christian, a DJ who specialised in words for songs about cars. Presumably it's Roger we should thank for lines like "And if that ain't enough to make you flip your lid/ There's one more thing, I've got the pink slip, Daddy" in "Little Deuce Coupe". Christian could have come up with that first line. I doubt it. It wouldn't be hooky or detailed enough for a wordsmith. Wordsmiths read words. Musicians hear the sounds they make. Whenever a musician wants to bring another artist's song into conversation he'll quote it by singing a snatch of it. That's how he remembers it. A songwriter's job is to make sure you can never hear it any other way. With "Don't Worry Baby" Brian Wilson nailed it, as they say on The X Factor.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Do all men become their scrotums?


When David Hockney met WH Auden he remarked "if his face is like that, imagine what his scrotum is like". It's an apocryphal tale. Hockney's not denying it. The story was in Alan Bennett's play The Habit Of Art and it's repeated in Paul Johnson's "Brief Lives", which I've just been reading.

Johnson adds that the lines on Auden's face were connected with his smoking. I've never heard this one before, though I do know that line of George Orwell's about a man at fifty having the face he deserves.

The late George Melly remarked on the wrinkles on the face of Mick Jagger, possibly in this famous picture by Jane Bown, prompting somebody to say they were "just laughter lines".

"Laughter lines?" said George. "Nothing's that funny."

P.S. In Viv Stanshall's Sir Henry At Rawlinson End the hero is attended by Scrotum The Wrinkled Retainer. This is still a good joke.

Monday, June 18, 2012

A day in the life of 23-year-old James Paul McCartney

He's 70 today. For a reminder of his range, look at what he did on June 14th 1965.

On that day the Beatles recorded three songs at Abbey Road. In the first session, which began at 2:30 and finished three hours later, they did "I've Just Seen A Face", an up-tempo, almost Western Swing pop tune, and "I'm Down", a larynx-shredding stormer in the Little Richard mould. In the second session, which began at 7:00, he recorded the acoustic ballad "Yesterday".

He wrote, arranged and sang lead on all three. You're welcome to find other examples of artists recording three songs as different, memorable and enduring as these in the same afternoon and evening. Take your time.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Country music knows that Father's Day is changing

I'm listening to the new record by Kenny Chesney and quite enjoying it. I'll be honest. These arena country stars are much of a muchness to me but every now and then one of their songs strikes a chord. This happens because country is the only branch of pop music that really knows how its audience's lives change.

Track eight on Welcome To The Fishbowl is probably going to be a Father's Day favourite for the future.

It's callled "While He Still Knows Who I Am". You can probably imagine how it goes.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Why bands will never again change their names


In 1966 something happened in pop music that hadn't happened before, hasn't happened since and probably won't happen again in the future.

Lots of groups changed their names. They did it more or less simultaneously.

They did it to give themselves a fresh start, to signal the fact that they were bands rather than groups and to announce which side they were on in the cultural revolution of the late 60s.

As usual, this sudden overthrow of the old order was swiftly followed by the establishment of a newer, more rigid one.

Their old group names had consisted of the definite article followed by a plural noun. Buddy Holly's group The Crickets had begun this trend in the 50s. The Beatles modelled their name on the Crickets. Everybody else fell in behind.

Few of the new, post-1966 band names were plurals. They were often a concrete noun with a modifying adjective that was slightly unusual or, as we might say today, inappropriate.

In this way, the Human Beans became Love Sculpture, the Pigeons turned into Vanilla Fudge, the Ingoes became Blossom Toes, The Action became Mighty Baby and the Screaming Abdabs were reborn as Pink Floyd. The last was an example of taking something from the real world (the blues musicians Pink Anderson and Floyd Council) and bending it to achieve the desired air of meaninglessness.

The Warlocks adopted the words The Grateful Dead from a book. As did the Wilde Flowers when they turned into Soft Machine.

Sometimes the change was suggested by the record company. Fantasy owner Saul Zaentz didn't want a group called The Golliwogs and told them to come up with ten alternatives. He picked the first one, the entirely meaningless Creedence Clearwater Revival.

The Ashes were encouraged to restyle themselves as the Peanut Butter Conspiracy so that their first album could be called The Peanut Butter Conspiracy Is Spreading.

Round about the same time, in a fictional dimension, the self-explanatory Thamesmen became the puzzling Spinal Tap.

Most of the acts who changed their names hadn't made enough of a name to risk a great deal in the changing. The same didn't apply to the proven musicians who played in the popular road bands of the mid-60s. Zoot Money's Big Roll Band were re-badged as Dantalion's Chariot. A few years later Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers became Toe Fat and Simon Dupree and the Big Sound was reborn as Gentle Giant.

At the same time The Beatles were retiring, chummy name and all. How would they have got on with that name if they'd still been going in the mid-70s? Maybe not so well. There are plenty of excellent groups from the 60s whose names made them seem dated in the 70s: The Zombies, The Hollies and Pretty Things never prospered as much as they deserved in the new world of puzzling names and opaque song titles.

This naming revolution has never been repeated. Since 1966 nobody has dared to re-badge themselves quite as boldly and as touchingly as those groups did at the time. Many groups have toyed with the idea of reappearing in a new guise. By now most of them know that their name is actually their fortune.

The acts who took on the new name in 1966 probably weren't thinking it would last them more than a few years. They didn't think *they* would last more than a few years.

You can't imagine it happening today. Even a middling band isn't going to radically change their name. That would mean admitting that they want a new image. It would be letting daylight in on magic, admitting that the whole idea of bands as gangs is just a ruse. Nobody renames a gang. It can't start again.

Renaming a band means you have to admit that the name you had before wasn't right, that it didn't match your aspirations. It attracts the question all Englishmen dread the most - who do you think you are?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

One thing a magazine app can't do


The new Vanity Fair has one of their "more stars than there are in heaven" picture spectaculars, this time to mark the 100th anniversary of Paramount Pictures. Problem with these things nowadays is that Photoshop post-production is so capable that even things that were done for real look at least a bit faked.

It's also a clear case of paper doing something that a screen can't. I grabbed the above from the app. You can pinch and zoom all you like but this is one of those cases where the interface between hand, eye and paper is an unimprovable way to process the information. On paper you look at the little groups of people - Demi Moore next to Bruce Willis, Jack Nicholson just so far from Dustin Hoffman, Jack Black safely in cult corner with David Lynch - at the same time as you're looking at the whole picture. You can't do that with a screen. On paper it would keep you going for an hour. On a screen it gets a bit tiring after a few minutes.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The best football podcast is done by a bunch of rank amateurs

I listen to loads of football podcasts. I can tolerate any amount of bollocks on this subject provided it's entertaining. My current favourite is The Football Ramble. Those are the four blokes who do it. I don't really know who they are. I get the impression some of them do stand-up but I don't know any more than that. No disrespect. They don't reek of the press box. I don't need to know any more.

When I first started listening to it I thought, these guys obviously aren't as expert as the ones from the newspapers but I like their enthusiasm, the easy, bantering relationship they have with each other, the funny regular slots and the way they laugh at each other's jokes, which is something journalists are never caught doing. Knowing what I know about podcasts I suspect they're doing it for love rather than a salary.

I recently revised my opinion. Not only do they know as much as the guys from the newspapers, they probably know more - and not just about the same five clubs and one nation. Their knowledge implies they spend every waking hour watching football. Their manner implies they don't. They wear their knowledge lightly and never let it get in the way of their main duty as podcasters, which is to play keepy-uppy with the bright red beach ball of human interest. Long may they run.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

At least *somebody's* reading the papers!


Samir Nasri followed his goal for France last night by making a shushing gesture in the direction of the French press, some of whom had been critical of his performances in the European Championship warm-up games.

This came just a couple of days after West Indies cricketer Denesh Ramdin had celebrated his century against England by taking off his gloves, laboriously digging out a piece of paper from his pocket and pointing it at Viv Richards in the commentary box. Apparently Sir Viv had been critical of Ramdin in the press and he'd taken it to heart.

There's lots of good news here. Sports administrators all over the world are no doubt trying to contact Sir Viv right now in the hope that he can be persuaded to bollock members of their teams. And the sky is black with hats in newspaper offices all over the world at this resounding vote of confidence in their continued relevance. At least somebody's reading them.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Two's an interview. Three's a PR disaster


Interesting Guardian interview with Gordon Ramsay. He takes umbrage at the line of questioning and terminates the interview.

We've all had an experience a bit like that. Most journalists are secretly delighted when it happens because suddenly they've got a drama to write about.

All interviews are pieces of theatre. The first instinct of a magazine journalist is to describe that theatre: where it's taking place, whether the subject is early or late, how they're dressed, what their body language says, what's been taking place backstage, whether the PR has attempted to put any ground rules on the interview. It's what a colour piece is made of and actually magazine journalists prefer colour to anything. Tom Hibbert, who made the Who The Hell series his own all those years ago, got his best material when no actual conversation was taking place.

Reading this piece it's striking how different newspaper journalism is from magazine journalism. The Ramsay interview is certainly interesting and entertaining but a magazine editor would have been asking for more of a feeling of what it was like in the room. This is particularly the case when it comes to the occasional mentions of "the woman" who's in the room. I can only assume this is the PR who has set up the interview.

Most of my celebrity interviewing was done in the days when no self-respecting client would dream of allowing their PR to be in the room during the interview. Nowadays they often insist on it. I've forced the odd PR out of the room with the threat that if they're in the room they're part of the feature. The line "I'm sure she doesn't need her hand holding, does she?" sometime embarrasses the client into saying they can go.

Whenever a PR has told me "he really doesn't want to talk about" something I've always made a point of asking them about it. They always talk about the subject that is allegedly off-limits. If you ask either party why these restrictions have been set they always point the finger at the other.

Once the PR is there the slightest friction turns into a conflagration in which somebody has to be seen to DO SOMETHING. There can be no flexibility because they both have to be seen to be holding the line. In these cases it's always the client who looks like somebody who can't take care of themselves and the PR looks like somebody who can't take care of their client. If there's just the two of you in the room it's difficult to fall out. Once there's three it's almost inevitable.

Friday, June 08, 2012

The secret history of our streets remains a secret



There's been a lot of favourable comment about the first programme in the series The Secret History Of Our Streets, which dealt with the damage done to the community around Deptford High Street in the 60s and 70s. It's certainly a subject that deserves treatment, better treatment than this. This described what had happened without telling us why or how. It was a classic case of television's argument beginning and ending with the pictures it had at its disposal.

The old maps of the area which colour-coded certain streets according to the economic circumstances of the inhabitants were useful, as were the hand-written notes of the council inspectors who looked at the properties, but they clearly weren't telling even half the story. There were a few elderly market stall holders to describe how wonderful things had been, an argument that seems to make itself. A retired man who used to be on the planning committee volunteered to be filmed on the site and must have wished he hadn't, so sternly did the camera seem to look at him, drum its fingers and say it had got all day.

Instead of really tracing the story of the woman who had grown up in those streets, at a time when working class people could do very well for themselves, and ended up on a comfortable but bleak-looking development somewhere in suburban Kent, which might have told us something, it spent a few minutes with an elderly Jamaican panhandler, presumably because he was only too delighted to perform for the cameras.

It raised questions it failed to even try to answer. Who did this and why? There was no mention of the political leadership of the London County Council at the time. Maybe if they'd been Conservative there would have been. Some streets that were in worse condition than the ones demolished are now gentrified and eye-wateringly expensive. No TV producer can resist the sight of a plummy-voiced agent showing young professionals round one but it would be a lot more edifying to be told how exactly this change came about. What had happened in the 70s, 80s, 90s? What had happened last week? The film didn't go there at all, probably because it had no pictures.

I came away wanting to read a book.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Fifty years ago Norman Smith sent a lad on pop's most significant errand


Fifty years ago today the Beatles, still with Pete Best, had their first recording session at Abbey Road. They recorded four songs. They began with the soupy standard Besame Mucho before playing three of their own songs: Love Me Do, PS I Love You and Ask Me Why.

The session was supervised by Ron Richards. Norman Smith engineered. It was Norman who thought George Martin should hear Love Me Do and sent the tape operator to find him. They all agreed that the drummer would have to go but Martin liked what he heard and oversaw the rest of the session.

Had Martin not been called in it's perfectly possible The Beatles' recording career would have ended right there. For all their 10,000 hours, their following in Liverpool, their proven ability to write songs, their personal charm and their nagging manager, they could very easily have gone the way of hundreds of other acts, victims of the eternal imbalance between supply and demand.

They'd already been turned down by Decca. If EMI had also passed there wouldn't have been many other places to go. It wouldn't have taken much to have seen them go back to Liverpool for good.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Must we throw this filth at our pop grandmothers?


I quite like noisy beat music. I've spent a lot of my life listening to it. However even I never forced my mother to listen to it. Had she lived to be eighty-five I think I would have objected if somebody had suggested that she be forced outside on a chilly evening in spring to be exposed to the full blown audio-visual assault of the 21st century rock experience as delivered by a load of people she'd never heard of and had even less interest in. And this at the point in the evening when, as every Peter Kay fan knows, all any grandmother wants is to be at home "getting settled".

Obviously constitutional monarchs spend their lives looking at things they have no interest in. That's part of their job. But most of the things that they are called upon to watch are brief demonstrations, not strength-sapping marathons. An open air rock concert, even one as lite and well-organised as last night's, is a test of endurance more than anything else during which 75% of the audience, if they're honest with themselves, are praying for the end. It's bad enough inflicting it on those who've cheerfully volunteered for it without forcing it on those who never asked for it.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Who is the BBC nowadays?


I never watch BBC 1 which is probably why I didn't recognise most of the faces fronting yesterday's coverage of the Jubilee.

With the honourable exception of Clare Balding, they didn't look as if they were up to it. They all looked as if they'd wandered in from their little niche in the confederacy of niches which is the BBC in 2012. They couldn't find the right words. They couldn't find the right way to look at the camera. Nobody hit the right note. They were like Redcoats suddenly called upon to conduct a commission of enquiry.

None of them embodied the BBC the way that David Dimbleby, Des Lynam or Frank Bough could be said to have embodied it back in the day. Maybe that can't happen anymore. If I was conducting this month's interviews for the next BBC Director General I'd be asking the candidates who they thought should be fronting that kind of thing in the future, which is another way of asking the more important question, can anyone be the BBC nowadays?

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Why don't writers look charismatic?


One of the basic tenets of arts journalism is that whereas even the puniest rock star looks at least a bit like a rock star all novelists look like, at the very best, librarians.

Try as they may, and publishers spend fortunes on having them photographed in different styles, they never seem to look charismatic. They never look as if they've actually been anywhere or done anything. It doesn't matter how hard the imagemakers work you still look at the picture and think, here's a man who's spent days looking out of windows trying to think of a rhyme for the word "orange". He hasn't been doing much other than type.

I was in the National Portrait Gallery just now and found myself looking at the Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare (above). They can't prove it is Shakespeare. I'm a believer. The greatest writer of the ages and he looks like the owner of a small haulage business somewhere in the Midlands. It must be him.

Friday, June 01, 2012

"I look up to him and I look down on him..."


My favourite bit of the BBC's excellent The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was the appearance of the reliably waspish art historian Roy Strong (born in Winchmore Hill, went to Edmonton County School and London University, subsequently re-invented himself as the grand aesthete) to deliver the withering observation that Viscount Eccles (Winchester and Oxford), the Minister of Works who oversaw the Coronation, had "a flash of car salesman about him".

The English class system is far more subtle and plastic than people give it credit for and its most reliable observers are always the people who get close enough to want in. It took the Irishman George Bernard Shaw to observe "it is impossible for one Englishman to open his mouth without making another Englishman hate him".