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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

These two interviews stopped me in my tracks.

The first is A Major In Mosul, another example of the New York Times podcast The Daily, which seems the state of the art when it comes to doing daily news with sound. In this they talk to Ben Solomon, a NY Times journalist who has been embedded with a unit of the Iraqi Army whose job it is to clear ISIS forces out of Mosul street by street, hole by hole, in what promises to be the bloodiest street fighting since the Second World War. One of the points he makes is that the ISIS soldiers are an unusually difficult foe for the simple reason that they expect to die.

The second is Sam Harris's long conversation with Graeme Wood, the author of The Way Of The Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State. Wood set out to talk to the people within ISIS about what they believed, why they had joined up and how they saw it all finishing. Strangely enough, he says it was a lot of fun. This is an amazing listen, particularly when it gets on to the details of the End Of Days.

Friday, June 02, 2017

Why Fiona Apple's version of "Across The Universe" is the only Beatles cover that's better than the original

I wrote a piece for Saga to mark the 50th anniversary of "Sgt Pepper". I said there was only one cover of a Beatles song that was better than the original. This was asterisked in the print version but not named in the version online.

On Twitter and Facebook people were speculating what I could be talking about. Was it Joe Cocker's "With A Little Help From My Friends", Stevie Wonder's "We Can Work It Out" or Earth Wind and Fire's "Got To Get You Into My Life"?

If I'm honest (as the footballers say) I don't actually like any of those records. I don't like Ella Fitzgerald's "Can't Buy Me Love" for the same reason. They're all cases of people being told "you've got to do a Beatles song", realising they can't improve on the original record and then doing their own unnecessarily ornamental version just because they're the kind of artists who can.

To my ears they don't sound right. They're overdone. It's like hearing lines from The Sopranos declaimed by some actor of the grand tradition. They're all so American (particularly the Joe Cocker one) and they remind me of how British the Beatles were. They weren't ones to indulge their emotions.

Fiona Apple's version of "Across The Universe" is the only record of hers that's every done anything for me. I only heard it because it's used at the end of "Pleasantville". What I like about  is it goes the other way from the cover versions mentioned above. If anything it's slighter sparer than the original. And it seems to work slightly better in her blank after-hours style than it did in the original. I play it a lot. For me it's the only Beatles cover I would reach for in preference to their original.



Thursday, May 25, 2017

How to record an audiobook


We started recording the audiobook of my new book "Uncommon People" on Monday morning. This is how it works. You go to a studio that specialises in voice recordings. They've printed out a script of the finished version of the book. It looks a bit intimidating when you start.

We were recording in Patch's studio. He was on the other side of the glass with another copy of the script. Whenever you fluff or misread (even so much as changing an indefinite article for a definite article) he stops you and you go back and drop in the correction. As you finish each page you try to drop it to the floor noiselessly. At the end of each session there's a ton of paper at your feet. Patch also warns you if the energy is dropping, as it tends to do in the late afternoon, and dispenses industrial strength lozenges when he hears your voice "getting tight".

The last book too almost four days to record. We must be getting better because we managed to do this in three by starting early on the last day and giving ourselves hardly any breaks. We reached this page at close of play yesterday.






Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Want to know why Donald Trump repeats sentences? This is why Donald Trump repeats sentences.

Of all the impressions of Donald Trump I've seen or heard in the last few months Anthony Atamanuik's is the best. It's so good that it's got this unknown improv actor his own show on Comedy Central.

What impresses me most is that Atamanuik has worked out the great truth about Trump. He's a TV personality. Like all TV personalities he only exists when he's being televised. Like all TV personalities he only believes in one thing, which is the thing that appears to be going down well at this particular moment. When he says things it's clearly the first time he's thought them. Which is why you can observe him hearing them coming out of his own mouth. They're clearly as fresh to him as they are to us. And as soon as he's heard himself say something which sound OK to him he repeats it.

There are two reasons for this. So that he can enjoy the sound of it and also give his mouth time to prepare the next thing to say.

Atamanuik explains the mechanics of his impression to Stephen Colbert here.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

How they put Charlie Chaplin's silent comedy on the radio


I've been reading David Robinson's biography of Charlie Chaplin. It's an amazing tale.

Chaplin makes his name on the London stage in the 1900s. He goes to the USA as a stage performer. Somebody tells him that his pantomime style will work in pictures, which are the new new thing.

He starts making movies in Hollywood just as the First World War is breaking out in Europe. By the time it's over he's the biggest superstar in the biggest business in the history of entertainment.

He's the most famous man in the world. Because he dealt in mime rather than language he was famous in a way we simply can't imagine today.

When radio, another new new thing, comes along in 1920 he's beside himself with nerves at the thought of speaking into the live microphone.

When The Gold Rush opens in London in 1925, the BBC, casting around for new uses for the new medium, broadcasts ten minutes of the sound of the film's audience at the Tivoli in the Strand laughing at Chaplin's performance.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Chuck Berry and the absurdity of categories


Picture by Supersize Art.

Last night at the Aye Write festival in Glasgow I was taken to task for mentioning Carole King and Marvin Gaye in the context of a book that was supposed to be about "rock".

The words used to map music are sometimes good servants. They're invariably bad masters.

I'm old enough to have watched these terms move over the years, usually in response to somebody's needs to map out their own territory, a little place into which they can admit this but not that, a safe space in which they don't have to trust their ears and their emotional responses.

I was with a bunch of crime writers in the bar at the Malmaison later in the evening when we heard the news that Chuck Berry had died.

Chuck got his first hit with "Maybelline" by adapting a hillbilly song "Ida Red". That's a perfect example of how music ebbs and flows across boundaries, making a mockery of categories.

Chuck started writing songs about rock and roll because the kids liked them.

I was one of those kids who got into Chuck because the Beatles and Rolling Stones did his songs. This was 1963, when nobody talked about rock and roll. The Beatles were known as a pop group, when they weren't being a beat group. The Rolling Stones called themselves an R&B band.

At the time these bands were making his songs famous for a new generation, Chuck was in prison. He came out to find his songs were more famous than when he went in. Some of my favourite Chuck Berry records were made immediately after he came out. The English hipster DJ Guy Stevens had the idea of putting them out in the UK on the Pye R&B label, thus making them acceptable to music snobs.

The best of them is "You Never Can Tell", which I always say is the best record ever made. It's also, thanks to the Pye R&B label, one of the prettier records ever made. What category it belongs in I am not qualified to say.



Monday, March 06, 2017

My eight favourite podcasts right now


The scope of my radio column in the Guardian Guide has been expanded to include podcasts, which means I've heard a few new ones that I've really liked, some of which I've added to my regular listening diet where they take their place among some old favourites. All media is a question of habit. That applies to podcasts more than it does to any other form of media. People who listen to podcasts listen regularly. They like podcasts because they slot into the routine of their day or week. Furthermore there's something about the intimacy of the medium that means you get in an extra bad mood when you miss an episode. These are my eight favourites.
  1. The Football Ramble. Obviously, there are lots of club-specific podcasts. I'm an occasional contributor to one, The Spurs Show. The strength of the Football Ramble is it covers all football and the four blokes who do it are as knowledgeable as football journalists without any of the accompanying self-importance. I've listened to hundreds of Ramble episodes and I still don't really know who Luke Moore, Pete Donaldson, Marcus Speller and Jim Campbell are. It doesn't matter much to me as long as each of them knows that their job is to keep the red ball of conversation up in the air and resist at all times the temptation to appear smarter than the others.
  2. The Daily. I really hope this is working for the New York Times because it seems to me one of the most interesting things to have come out of a newspaper in recent years. Each Daily is made up of a story which has been in and around the news in recent weeks, explored in a more rounded fashion.  This week I've heard a story about a small town in Illinois which voted for Trump but then found that a much-loved pillar of the community turned out to be an illegal immigrant. Just now I was listening to one about the North Korean government's assassination programme and how it fits into their crazy-like-a-fox foreign policy. The Daily is posted every morning in time for NYT readers to listen on the way to work. It's usually available here late morning.
  3. The Awards Show Show. When something big happens you want to binge on it. I found this because I was looking for something that told me in detail what went wrong at this year's Oscars and how. I got that explanation from The Awards Show Show because both the people on the podcast were in the room when it happened and understood how it was supposed to happen and why it went wrong. Anyway, it turns out this was the last podcast of The Awards Show Show because it was a pop-up production which ran during Hollywood's awards season. Once that's over its work is done. Until next year, presumably. 
  4. Pod Save America. Trump has been good for the newspaper business. He's been even better for the podcasting business. Right now the air fairly crackles with the sound of indignant "progressives" (as they style themselves) venting about his latest faux pas. Trumpcast does the best impression of his voice and is always worth hearing for the bit where they read out his tweets. The NPR Politics Podcast does an excellent job of reporting what is actually going on when people are distracted by his latest brainstorm. Pod Save America is interesting because it's the vehicle of a bunch of young men who were inside the White House and the government during the previous administration. Their company Crooked Media is shaping up to be the liberal Breitbart. This venture has taken off so well that they probably won't go back to the tiresome business of government and will probably restrict themselves to commentary. Power without responsibility being the prerogative of the harlot and all that.
  5. I don't think you could do Death, Sex and Money in the UK because you wouldn't be able to find interviewees who were prepared to talk about their experiences with that key triumvirate. It's a brilliant title because it cuts to the quick of the things we're all interested in. The first one I heard was an interview with retired NFL player Dominique Foxworth, which was a unique view of what it's like to be paid a fortune for playing a game and then not to wish to play any more. The second I heard was Sallie Krawcheck who used to run America's biggest wealth management firm but never stopped worrying about her own bank balance.
  6. Each episode of one of my favourite podcasts begins "I'm Phoebe Judge and this is Criminal". The thing about crime is that, like life, it contains infinite variety. It hits us where we live. Sometimes we're the victims of it. Sometimes we wonder if we could get away with it. Sometimes we just shudder at the thought of it. We remain fascinated with it. For that reason alone, Criminal could run for ever.
  7. This American Life is the gold standard of Public Radio in the United States. It's superbly produced and immaculately presented by Ira Glass. But what makes it work is the sheer size of America and the willingness of Americans to talk. Contained within that immense country is at least one example of every variety of human behaviour and it will likely have happened to somebody who is perfectly happy to talk about it. The one I was just listening to is about a woman who at the age of forty-three was told by her mother that she had taken the wrong baby home from the hospital. You know, that old chestnut.
  8. I don't actually listen to the Word Podcast on account of the fact that I'm on it, along with Mark Ellen. Most of these are recorded at our Word In Your Ear evenings at the Islington. You can add your name to the mailing list to be kept informed up upcoming events. Please do.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Who The Hell Does O.J. Simpson think he is?

When we started Q in 1986 each issue began with a punchy interview feature called "Who The Hell Does (insert name of famous person here) Think He Is?"

It was a big success. It also became a bit of a millstone. Wary PRs would say "this isn't a Who The Hell, is it?"

One thing that inevitably got lost was the fact that the headline was supposed to be a serious question. People who became famous very quickly lose a sense of who they actually are, which can make it interesting to find out what they think of themselves.

I kept going back to "who the hell?" while watching "O.J.: Made In America", which won Best Documentary at the Oscars, and is on the BBC iPlayer right now.

I've never seen a man so lost inside his own fame. At no stage do you feel you hear his authentic voice. He doesn't have one. He just projects the version of O.J. that he thinks his audience is looking for at any given time.

Very good film.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Lottery Winners know something most bands refuse to learn

Watching The Lottery Winners, the self-described "mediocre indie pop band" from Leigh, Lancs at the Water Rats last night, it struck me that people who climb on stage have one of two motivations.

They're either looking for attention or they're looking for validation.

If they're looking for attention they understand that the most precious prize is an engaged audience and this is something that can't be commanded. It must be won. People who are keen for attention will be attuned to the mood of the room and will pull back the audience's attention if they feel it wandering.

On the other hand people who are keen for validation think they've done the job just by securing the gig. They won't talk to the audience any more than they have to and if they do it will be just to tell them what the next song is. If the audience aren't paying attention they don't really mind because they're quite happy playing their music. They're not prepared to change that in any way just to win the audience's favour. If people don't happen to like it that's because they're wrong.

It goes without saying that the Lottery Winners belong in the first category. As does anybody whose career last more than a couple of years.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Alan Simpson deserved a medal for writing Tony Hancock's best stuff. But no badge.

Alan Simpson has died. He and Ray Galton wrote the great Hancock radio shows. That's him on the left.

I don't really remember those shows being on the radio. I picked them up later on, from gramophone records played on the radio in the 60s. People would request snippets of them on "Two Way Family Favourites".

When I was living in a flat in north London at the beginning of the 70s a bunch of us had some of those records on the Pye Golden Guinea label. We played them so often that I can recite entire pages of the scripts.

There's never been better broadcast comedy. There's never been more poignant broadcast comedy. There's been better delivered comedy.

Hardly a week goes by without one of Galton and Simpson's lines as spoken by Tony Hancock unaccountably welling up from my subconscious.

"Given, no. Spilt, yes."

"There's more water out there then there is in your beer."

"Send a bread pudding to Kuala Lumpur."

"We're going to Margate this year, if any of you nurses fancy..."

"But no badge...."

Respect.


Sunday, February 05, 2017

A thought about the next President

Keep turning over in my mind something I just heard on the excellent NPR Politics podcast.

If you'd suggested in the first year of George W. Bush's second term that the next President would be Barack Obama you would have been laughed at.

And if you had suggested in the first year of Obama's second term that the next President was going to be Donald Trump the laughs would have been even louder.

I don't know exactly what it proves other than the enduring truth of Harold Macmillan's line about  the thing politicians most fear.

"Events, dear boy, events."

Friday, February 03, 2017

This is what's happening with Word In Your Ear


Paul Gambaccini was our guest in a particularly riveting Word In Your Ear evening at the Islington last week. He was talking about everything from his time as a writer on Rolling Stone through his time at Radio One to his harrowing year under the shadow of the Metropolitan police Yewtree investigation. This is all detailed in his extraordinary book Love, Paul Gambaccini. You can hear the conversation here. You can also sign up to get further Word In Your Ear podcasts.

Next Wednesday our guests are Tony Fletcher and Barney Hoskyns. Tony, who's the former editor of Jamming magazine, will be talking about his various music biographies, including his new one In The Midnight Hour, which is the story of Wilson Pickett. Barney is with us, talking about and signing copies of his book Small Town Talk, which is all about the extraordinary musical background of Woodstock. There's a few tickets available here, where you can also sign up for the mailing list and make sure you get notice of upcoming events. We're hatching plans for spring right now.


Monday, January 30, 2017

A President with nothing to hide

For years now I've been thinking, why would anyone run for high office in this day and age?

Some of the most effective leaders – Churchill,  Roosevelt, Mitterand  – had clanking great skeletons in their closet. But since the media took on the job of exposing everything about candidates that they might not want to have exposed, we've had leaders like Obama and Cameron and Merkel who are above all things careful and don't appear to have any secrets to cover up.

That's led us to people who don't have their fingers in the cookie jar, haven't changed their positions all that much and have a dull domestic life.

And now we have the opposite. A President who is largely motivated by money, has run as the candidate of a party who don't agree with him and has a domestic life like something out of a Tom Wolfe novel.

But here's the thing.

Donald Trump doesn't really have anything to hide.

He's exactly the blowhard his opponents say he is and precisely the bull in a china shop his supporters ordered. They didn't vote for him because they listened to his plans and thought, that seems sound. They voted for him because they wanted to roll a grenade under the door of the status quo. They wanted action. And they've got hyperactivity.

But is there anything, apart from the slow unravelling of plans entered into in his haste, that could derail him?

Certainly not the normal stuff. If his tax returns were to come out and to say that he'd been involved in massive tax avoidance it wouldn't particularly hurt him. If it were to suggest he wasn't quite as rich as he makes out that would annoy him but it wouldn't really damage him. If he were to be found in the outer office with an intern, like Bill Clinton was, would even the Evangelical right do anything more than shrug? I don't think so. This is not a man that anybody looks at and thinks, he represents my values or my country. Nobody would lend him their lawnmower.

He's a television personality. To twist an old Tom Stoppard line, he's the opposite of a person.

What he's doing at the moment is "Larping". Live Action Role Playing.

He has no principles. Therefore he has nothing to hide.

TV has a lot of answer for. This is the person the TV industry has been building towards since the middle 1950s. Nothing on the surface and nothing underneath either.


Saturday, January 14, 2017

So is this why Americans drink before meals

These are just four of the scores of different covers that Frederick Allen's "Only Yesterday" has had since it was first published in 1931, which gives you an idea of how it's maintained its popularity.

It was a massive best-seller back then, and that was richly deserved. It's a brilliantly written account of the America of prohibition, red scares, irrational economic boom, dramatic changes in the relationships within the family, the transforming power of the motor car and the advent of radio, all written while the decade's paint was still wet.

Now I understand why Americans would still rather have two or three strong cocktails before a meal than wine with it. This habit dates from Prohibition, when people would meet their friends in a hotel room where they could serve each other a few illicit drinks in seclusion before going down to eat in the hotel dining room.

Can't recommend this book too highly.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Books have replaced records under the Christmas tree



I was in a few West End bookshops in the week before Christmas and they were busy, as busy as I remember record shops used to be in the week before Christmas.

Albums were formerly the ideal Christmas present. They were the right price and they were always appreciated. Tens of thousands of people would buy albums at Christmas who hardly bought them the rest of the year.

Now all that's gone. The people who used to give albums now give books.

The record business's loss seems to have been the book business's gain.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Why acts might tout their own tickets

I've no idea whether Robbie Williams' management really did sell marked-up tickets to his shows via resale sites as the BBC are claiming.

This I do know. If you're managing a hot act you know that there's a big difference between the price your artist is comfortable with charging and the amount the market will pay. It might be twice as much.

If people are going to pay double the standard price for tickets you can either watch that money go to wicked scalpers (or averagely shrewd members of the public who buy two lots and sell one in order to pay for their evening out); or you can get some of it for your artist.

I'm not saying it's right or desirable but I can understand it.

Monday, January 09, 2017

The reason pop star deaths always make the news

We were out at lunch with old friends yesterday when we got the news Peter Sarstedt had died.

I asked my friends whether the news of his death would make the BBC Six o'clock News. The consensus of the table was it was unlikely. One hit and such a long time ago. It wouldn't be enough.

I said I thought he would be.

We were driving back when I got a text from one of the friends from the lunch. They had the radio on and, sure enough, the news of Peter Sarstedt's death was on the Six O'Clock.

With pop star deaths the question of news values becomes muddied by the desire of a radio producer to interrupt their diet of hard news with a little bit of music.

The one hasn't been born who can resist.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

The Mariah Carey cock-up was my favourite TV of the year.

I didn't watch any TV on New Year's Eve but I can't get enough of the Mariah Carey story that emerged the following day.

There's nothing I like more than seeing a self important pop star and an over-inflated TV show caught at it. The only thing more fun than watching the disaster unfold is following the fall out as everybody in earpiece land tries to pin the blame on everyone else.

Mariah Carey was supposed to do three songs for Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve With Ryan Seacrest, which sounds like a heartwarmingly modest little do, doesn't it?

Something went wrong in the second one. Either the wrong track played or the right track played but she couldn't hear it. So she ambled around looking tight-lipped while her dancers carried on like the troupers they no doubt are.
.

There's a round-up of the latest state of the blame game here. On one side you've got the TV producers. On the other you've got Carey's manager. These things are usually six of one and half a dozen of the other so I'm not taking sides.

However it does cause you to reflect on the panic of the traditional gatekeepers of entertainment - the TV networks and the record companies - when confronted with the challenges of the wild world of today. Certain aspects are particularly interesting to me.

* By the look and sound of things she was going to sing most of the song live with only the difficult bits flown in from a hard drive. This is presumably how these things are increasingly done. Technology is now flexible enough to provide lots of such halfway house solutions, which would lead you to suspect that anything which sounds incredible is precisely that.
* The dancers don't appear to be thrown by not being able to hear the track because they're dancing by numbers. As long as they all start together they're likely to finish together.
* Is it possible that the producers were more interested in seeing it go wrong than seeing it go right because three days of speculation on the web is worth more than a massive audience on the night?
* If that's not true, isn't it interesting that Mariah Carey thinks it is?