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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.