Monday, December 31, 2007

Kevin Greening

Most of the successful DJs I've met have had an exaggerated sense of their own importance. There's something about opening a fader and talking to nobody that attracts the unstable.
Kevin Greening, whose death at 44 was announced today, was at GLR when I used to do a weekly show and he was different - he was modest to a fault. So modest, indeed, that he was fitted into an extraordinary range of slots - from newsman on GLR through desk-driver for Zoe Ball at Radio One to safe pair of hands at every station from Five Live to Smooth FM. His own career somehow got lost in his professionalism.
Anyway, everybody who knew him liked him, which is rare anywhere. In the media it's almost unknown.

Slip off your shoes

"Conned and frightened, our nation demands not actual security, but security spectacle."
Patrick Smith on the absurdity of airline security in the New York Times.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Guess who's killing music now?

We all know the record business is being brought to its knees by a small, highly motivated and unscrupulous minority of individuals who don't care how much damage they do to the fragile ecology of the exchange of money for music as long as they personally benefit from the chaos they cause.

Yes, lawyers have got a lot to answer for.

Seeing the current panic of the industry as a once in a lifetime opportunity to make money out of desperation, they have leapt in with sledgehammers in the hope that they can crack nuts and affect consumer behaviour. They are not easily discouraged because they are the one section of society who get paid no matter how disastrously they perform. As one initiative after another has failed they have kept on billing an increasingly impoverished industry with the promise that they are just one action away from success.

It's lawyers, in diabolical cahoots with the peddlers of software, who flogged the clueless babes at Sony their disastrous rootkit solution, who have tried to convince us that we should enter into agreements to pay a monthly fee whereby we rent the music and have impressed nobody on the the financial pages with their efforts to take institutes of higher education and single mothers to court because they've been party to the swapping of Metallica's execrable racket. (The members of said group should go down on their knees every night and thank whatever bearded deity they worship that there are people on these planet who care enough about them to steal their music.)

And now, as if to underline the fact that they have taken quite a strong moral argument and steadily rendered it wholly indefensible in the eyes of the consumer, the RIAA have announced that they believe that even ripping a CD that you have legitimately purchased is a crime. According to some highly paid nitwit at Sony/BMG, this is just "a nice way of saying 'steals just one copy.'"

I don't have the energy to count the ways in which this is unworkable hogwash but I would strongly suggest that the next intervention made by the RIAA should involve raiding the premises of a major record company, where they will find untold thousands of unlicensed recordings which have been ripped in exactly that way. Start with the legal department.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Car crash media

Stephen King is in Time magazine bemoaning the fact that we're more interested in Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan than Iraq. This is a horror writer and he's complaining about our obsession with triviality. In the pages of Time magazine.

I've got nothing against King or Ricky Gervais or Damon Albarn but I am getting tired of prominent people using their bully pulpits to publicly wonder why we're (it's always us, never them) so interested in the misadventures of over-stimulated young airheads. Surely, they say, this is a conspiracy on the part of the media. Surely we're only consuming it because it's jammed down our throats.

Well, no. We like a good story about the wheels coming off a prominent life because it's a rare example of the spin machine breaking down and allowing us to see things as they really are. Over the last twenty years PR has invaded every sphere of our lives with the result that most of the information and entertainment we get has been drained of the tang of real life. Everybody is so concerned about saying the wrong thing that they no longer say anything at all. Celebrities no longer say anything memorable on chat shows or in magazine interviews. No wonder we have invented our own mini-celebs who can be depended on to blurt at the drop of a hat.

So if Britney or Lindsay or Amy is weeping in the gutter at the end of a difficult evening we will slow down and have a look. As will Stephen King. I don't think we'll stop and get out. That would be ghoulish. But let's not pretend we're not interested.

Friday, December 28, 2007

The difficult last episode

The only actual laughs in the Christmas "Extras" were provided by Stephen Merchant. The scene where he rushed at - and failed to clear - a BBC security gate was all the funnier for the fact that you didn't actually see it. The best you could get out of the rest of the 90 minutes was a knowing smirk, provided you knew about things like the amount of energy expended in the media in getting a table at the Ivy.
It was the final show. Andy Millman had an attack of bad conscience while in the Celebrity Big Brother house and turned his back on the hollow sham of celebrity. This came at the climax of a programme in which everybody from Hale and Pace through June Sarpong to Gordon Ramsay turned up to riff upon their public personality. 
Savage ironic twist or ultimate case of having your Christmas cake and eating it? 

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Kings of Pain

BBC Three is the digital service that Mark Thompson most often finds himself having to defend. Its public service remit is not easy to see at the best of times.
Last night it devoted two hours to recalling The Most Annoying People Of 2007. You would have thought that even those with Serbian memories for slights would have considered an hour ample time to list the most prominent pests of the past year. But somebody at Three must have a very thin skin indeed.
Every time I flicked back we were being reminded of yet another minor reality TV face or unfortunately dressed actress by an over-styled and under-prepared talking head purporting to belong to an "entertainment journalist". After a while it was difficult to tell who was the complainer and who was the complained about. Which might as well have been the case anyway because most of the people doing the complaining had spent the year bringing us news of the very people they were claiming to find most tiresome.
No doubt they will have found 2007 instructive in this regard and will spend next year keeping us up to date with the careers of more worthwhile people.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The shop - an old curiosity

On Thursday afternoon I bought a new iMac on-line from Apple. I completed the transaction at around 3.30 pm.
It arrived at my home at 11 am the following day.
It's ages since I bought anything substantial from an actual shop but I seem to recall that it was a stressful, frustrating business. With rare exceptions the person selling the item knew less about it than you did and half your time was spent establishing which product you wished to buy. When you had decided on what to buy you then had to wait while they established whether they actually had the thing they were proposing to sell you. Then you either had to pick it up from Customer Collection and haul it to the car or arrange a date three weeks hence when they would deliver it to your home. Every element of the transaction was arranged for the greater convenience of the shop.
Ah but, say the Ah-buts, what happens if you buy something on-line and it goes wrong? I've had that experience and I've actually found it easier to deal with than taking something back to an actual shop in the West End. Often I've just contacted the vendor and they've said "box it up at your front door and we'll arrange to have it picked up and replaced". It's not faultless but it's a sight more convenient than the last time I hauled a heavy amp back to a shop in the City then hauled it back six weeks later after it was repaired.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

"No one likes us..."

The public and media fascination and, let's face it, glee over the Manchester United party scandal is not merely the standard British delight in seeing the wealthy brought to heel.It's also indicative of just how much our contempt for top footballers has grown in direct proportion to their wealth and also our fascination with them.
We may support them, envy them, read about them, discuss them in the pub as if they were racehorses and wish we were like them, but we don't actually like them any more. Now that they don't need us to support their testimonial, now that they don't appear to occupy the same planet as us, now that their girlfriends write columns in the press talking about how much money they've spent, now that every single last one of them will change clubs the minute the deal is right, we are all storing up our resentment just waiting for them to give us an excuse to get a bit of our own back.
Look at how fast the nation turned following the Croatia result. The nation doesn't just want results. It wants somebody to be punished.
In the midst of this Sol Campbell turns up on the Today Programme moaning about the abuse he got from the Tottenham fans last week. I'm sure it must be horrible.
But if spewing a little verbal poison is what a fan can do, he will do it. It's all he's got.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

For a short season only, the best Christmas record ever made

It's traditional at this time of year for me to share with a few close friends The Greatest Christmas Record Ever Made. It's called "It's A Big Country" by Davitt Sigerson and it was made in the early 80s. Because of the size of their land-mass, Americans feel distance and separation more keenly than we do, particularly during the holiday. That's what Sigerson's record taps into so beautifully, the idea that you can't possibly get to see everybody but you're thinking of them.
"Merry Christmas, girls, you're crazy, but I guess you know..."

Rome or away?

The allegations of sexual assault around the Manchester United players party throws a little daylight on to the Roman social lives of many top Premiership players.
The party started at lunch time at a restaurant, moved to a pub and a lapdancing club and then adjourned to a very expensive small hotel at around 9.30 pm. All the rooms at the hotel had been booked out for the party. According to The Mirror one hundred girls were invited to the party at the hotel, "after wives and girlfriends were told to stay away".
You wouldn't have to be Julie Andrews to see what misunderstandings might arise, would you?
And the spin is that Sir Alec was very reluctant to let it happen after problems with previous socials.
If Alec Ferguson can't control these guys, who can?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The thickness of it

Just caught Newsnight for the first time in years. They led with an item about the election of a new leader for the Liberal Democrats. Having obviously decided that the story was a dead duck, they decided to set it up as an X Factor pastiche, complete with fake titles and digitally got-up images of the contenders as boy band members. Television is at its most irritating when it's desperate to make everything into television first and content second. Have they done some research that indicates that people are more likely to tune into a current affairs programme if all its items are tricked up like student skits?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Bullshit watch (latest in a probably endless series)

I'm not against jargon. I actually quite like learning new examples. And I don't get particularly bothered about clichés like "driving the business forward" because at least I know what they're trying to say, as does the person using them. The idea has taken root in British culture that we are a nation of stout, unpretentious souls who are held back by a managerial class who talk in unintelligible gibberish. I don't buy it.
But where I do fall out with the writer of press releases - and press releases are the key instrument of touchy-feely government and please-love-me business - is when I feel that the awkwardness of the language is there to hide the fact that the writer doesn't know what they are supposed to be saying. Either that or they know only too well but are afraid to say it. One anonymous poster described the Sony example as "a desire to communicate ideas which are either totally fanciful or beyond the writers' vocabulary." I think the former is certainly true.
Somebody asked "does anybody actually believe this stuff?" and the answer, interestingly, is no. But that doesn't matter to the organisation, which is just keen to be seen to be doing something.
All this in the same week that the government's Minister For Children announced that they wished to make children happier by "securing a holistic approach to tackling children's issues." Apart from the fact that "holistic" is just "co-ordinated" for people who shop at Ikea and there is no such thing as "a children's issue", I just want to say this. As the owner of three children, most of whom aren't children any more, I can assure the government that it is quite beyond the power of parents to make their own children happy, let alone somebody in Whitehall. Christmas is the annual festival provided for us to learn this lesson time and time again.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Bullshit watch (3)

I was taught English by Mrs Ellis. This was back in the days of black and white and so we spent endless hours doing what she called "clause analysis", which involved breaking sentences down into their component parts.
I'm sure some people would say I am emotionally stunted by the fact that we didn't do "creative writing" but there's hardly a week goes by when I don't thank Mrs Ellis for what she taught me.
When confronted by the quote from the Sony chap below I am even more sure of the value of what Mrs Ellis said. She would have taken him apart for his grammar and language, thereby exposing the hole at the heart of the project.
You cannot have "a tangible view", she would say, because the noun describes seeing whereas the adjective means touching.
You cannot "evolve a perception" because "evolve" is not an active verb. Evolution does not occur as a direct result of an action. That's why it's an evolution. What you really want to say is "changing" but you prefer to pretend that you are just helping along a change that is already taking place. Is that true?
At the sight of "clearly illustrating Sony's joined-up story of content creation to content enjoyment" I fear she would begin to reach for her slipper. She would probably ask whether what you actually meant was advertising.
Nobody ever spoke this paragraph into the empty air to see if it made sense.
It was assembled by, I'm guessing, a number of people. A number of expressions were lined up, herded in the rough direction of the sentiment, moved around a bit, tapped gingerly into place, approved by about six people and then finally somebody pressed "send".
Mrs Ellis, if she were here, would neatly write "see me" at the bottom of the page.

Bullshit watch (2)

"Haymarket's approach to Sony's customer magazine delivers a tangible view of the total scope of the brand, evolving consumers' perception of the business from an electronics company to a digital entertainment brand, clearly illustrating Sony's joined-up story of content creation to content enjoyment," said Mikah Martin-Cruz, the general manager of marketing at Sony UK.
In other words, we'd like to be iTunes but we fear that we're Panasonic.
So here's a magazine.

Pre-fantasy football

Last night's Timeshift: A Game Of Two Eras tried to compare and contrast the FA Cup Finals of 1957 and 2007 to see what they said about the difference between football then and now. They looked at the weight of the ball, the robustness of the challenges, the lack of substitutes and the lack of dissent. Being TV, what they didn't look at, apart from a brief reflection on goal celebrations, is the incalculable effect that TV itself has had in imposing a fantasy narrative on top of the actual events.
In 1957 Kenneth Wolstenholme just told you what's happening. The goalkeeper is injured. This player passes to that. It's a goal. It's another goal.
He doesn't try to sell you the idea that it's a titanic struggle between small and great, good and evil; he doesn't try to tell you that this tackle is payback for that one; he doesn't try to place this match in the context of a years long journey; he just describes what's going on. A football match.
Everything else we have invented in the last twenty years to sell lager.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Our men in the don't know

I don't see what was the hurry to appoint Fabio Capello as the new England manager. Surely the FA can't be so tin pot an operation that they need to announce somebody to boost ticket sales for a no-count friendly in February.
Anybody, what I like about him is the fact that he clearly takes no lip from the press pack, who are already clearly terrified of him, and he hasn't arrived yet.
These highly paid hacks, who set so much store by their contacts, have been conspicuously wrong about nearly everything of late. They assured us it would be Mourinho. He was ready to sign. He didn't.
The truth is they're just guessing, like the people at the other end of the phone-in show.
They said Avram Grant was just a stop-gap at Chelsea. Today he got a four year contract.
They know nothing.

The acceptable face of people who go "whoo!"

Tinariwen were sensational at Shepherd's Bush last night. Best dance band in the world.
Since I last saw them their backing singer Mina has left to have a baby and her replacement does everything apart from the distinctive shrill ululations that accompany the instrumental passages. For the first few numbers something was missing and then somebody in the audience took it upon themselves to supply them. It wasn't annoying at all. It was perfect.
I couldn't see who it was because I was upstairs occupying my favourite vantage point at any gig anywhere. Mark Ellen and I happened on this at a Lucinda Williams show some while ago and decided it was perfect. It's standing but leaning forward, allowing for occasional terpsichorean forays but with the solid guarantee that nobody can get in your sight lines.
Not telling you where it is, of course.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

World music and British weather

Off to see Tinariwen tonight. Was talking to somebody in Mali who coordinates their travel and apparently they really do live in tents in the desert north of the country. If you want to get in touch with them you have to leave messages at the nearest community of any size and hope that they drop in for supplies. Walked to the Albert Hall from Islington last night and for the first time this year it was properly, seasonally cold. What it feels like for a member of Tinariwen I can't imagine. Reminds me of the first time the Wailers came to Britain. They saw snow for the first time while playing in Leeds and decided to go home.

Monday, December 10, 2007


In case you're near a wireless tomorrow lunchtime you'll be delighted to know that Radio Four is repeating my Three Minute Education at 1.30 pm. It features Neil Tennant, Neil Finn, Bryan Ferry, Caitlin Moran and others.

Sound without the e-numbers

In the course of researching a piece about Toumani Diabate, I talked to the engineer Jerry Boys. Boys is widely regarded as the master of the natural sounding recording. He's the bloke who makes people look round to see where the band is when they enter a room where "Buena Vista Social Club" is playing.
He explains that it's a question of recording the room as well as the instrument and then mixing the two together. I won't pretend that I fully understand it but it seems to explain why most digital recordings are so exhausting to listen to. If there are gaps in the sound, he explained, you are drawn towards it. If it's overly dense you stay away.
The first person who flagged this up for me was Neil Young. I interviewed him in 1991 and he made this same point. You listen to an old record you feel good in a way that is to do with the sound, not just the music. I think he was right. That's why I still listen to "Harvest" but haven't heard "Harvest Moon", the album he was plugging at the time, in years.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

It's the internet, stupid

Pick a detail, any detail, of the John Darwin disappearance story and you can trigger a dinner table discussion lasting half an hour. Why the...? What the...? How could we imagine he could..?
Anyway, my favourite facet is how they found the picture, which I repeat here for the benefit of anyone who doesn't think that Google has changed the world.
As the members of her majesty's press and Cleveland Police were exhausting all the specialist lines of enquiry trying to find out if the Darwins were in Panama, Britain or elsewhere, an anonymous single mother just went to Google image search and keyed in "John Anne Panama" and there, top left, was a picture of the couple with some Panamanian property agent. Try it yourself. The larger picture has gone but the cache is still there. It's even dated.
Not since the year 1910, when wireless was used to capture the fugitive murderer Crippen, has technology been used so publicly to catch somebody red-handed. And this time it didn't take an expert or a specialist. In fact those people didn't think of it. In future they will.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Morrissey and the decline of grammar

I have no opinion on the rights and wrongs of the Morrissey/NME shemozzle, although I suspect that he's over-fond of the sound of his own voice and they're over-inclined to see themselves as the guardians of public virtue. However I do think it's an example of the way that the steady coarsening of language is detaching us from reality. It's also about how serious it can be to move from an adjective to a noun.
When I was a teenager they used to use the adjective "racially prejudiced", as if this was a tendency that most people had in smaller or greater measure. Everything in my experience suggests that this is the case. We all draw conclusions about people based on their appearance, ethnicity, accent and so on. (The British do it with class fifty times a day.) The measure of our civilisation is how well we manage to curb those tendencies. I have just come back from Africa, a continent where racial prejudice is a daily reality and you are aware that everyone is making unspoken judgements about people's background and personality based on the precise pigmentation of their skin. That's just the way people are. Certainly nobody would be stupid enough to deny it.
But then at some stage in the '70s people were accused of being a "racist". This move from an adjective to a noun rather suggested that this was something people did, as if their every waking moment was occupied by thoughts of how they could subjugate another ethnic group, as in Nazi Germany or Darfur. This doesn't apply to the overwhelming majority of people to whom the label is commonly attached and only a buffoon would attach it to Morrissey.
The tendency to prejudice, like the human tendency to envy, lust or greed, is old as time and is not something that is going to be excised from human behaviour as a result of any campaign, not even one called (it hurts to even type the words) "Love Music, Hate Racism". The pretence that it can does us no favours.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

It's not easy being green

While we've been distracted by the war in Iraq, another, more historically significant phenomenon has been taking place. That's the decline of the dollar.
Throughout my lifetime the dollar was the only currency you could take anywhere in the world and know it could be exchanged for everything from food to weapons. Not any more. Having been warned by Mark Ellen, who recently found that they wouldn't take dollars in Jordan, I took Euros to Mali and changed them for the local currency.
None of this has anything to do with politics. It's to do with value. As Joseph E. Stiglitz outlines in a very readable piece in the new Vanity Fair, the dollar has declined in value against the Euro by 40% in the last six years. The consequences of this shift are seen everywhere - from the dramatic decline in the value of US aid to Africa to the increasing number of US rock acts who are playing over here because they can make money to the fact that for the first time in my experience I did a job for an American publisher recently and they couldn't afford to pay me.

Monday, December 03, 2007

How to close a country for a week

And this morning I returned from Mali aboard a standing room-only Air France flight to Paris.
Being landlocked, Mali relies on airlines to supply its lines of communication with the outside world. Therefore when, a week before we arrived, the Minister of Transport decided that Bamako must resurface its only runway the news came as a bit of a shock to Air France, who run the only daily inter-continental flight out of there.
This move, which amounted to taking an entire country and hanging a sign on it saying "Closed for repairs", was made with just a couple of days notice and left hundreds of Malians stranded thousands of miles away from home with all the attendant expense, emotional wear and tear and visa difficulties.
It passed without any comment from the world's press.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I can play like this. I just don't feel like it.

Tomorrow I'm flying to Mali to interview Toumani Diabate. Maybe he's looking for a few pointers.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Shakespeare and football

"If you think about it, the culture of a country is dictated by what they learn in school. We in France have Descartes. His rationalism is the basis for all French thought and culture. In Italy you have Machiavelli, who is also about being rational and calculating. Here in England, maybe because they are an island, they are more war-like, more passionate. They view football as an old style duel, a fight to the death, come what may. When an Englishman goes into war that's it, he either comes back triumphant or he comes back dead."
That's Arsene Wenger talking about the English way of sport in Gianluca Vialli and Gabriele Marcotti's book "The Italian Job". It's the most illuminating thing I've read about sport and the national character in years. He could have gone a little further and pointed out that the key British writer is Shakespeare who saw things in terms of the battle between good and evil, vice and virtue, sincerity and duplicity. And generally ended up with a stage full of bodies. I look forward to hearing what Alan Shearer has to say about this.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

I know nothing about football but...

...I do know something about language.
Why are Croatia "technically better"? Does that mean they can pass the ball in a straight line and not give it away? Isn't that playing football? Why is it only in football that we talk about people being "technically better", as if it were some new, somehow suspect, dimension of play?
We don't talk about Australia being "technically better" at cricket. We don't say that South Africa are a "technically better" rugby team. We don't talk about Tiger Woods being a "technically better" golfer.
They're just better. Maybe a few people ought to get that into their head.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Word Weekly 28

Mark Ellen, David Hepworth, Matt Hall and Paul Du Noyer talk ukuleles once more, piano players who are only loved by their mothers, and why you should never roadie for Budgie.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Breaking down the build-up

Today is a day of some significance in European football.
It's the kind of day when Five Live and Sky Sports promise "we'll bring you all the build-up".
This phrase amuses me, suggesting as it does that the build-up is something that takes place and requires close watching rather than merely the thing that TV and radio uses to fill up the many hours during which nothing whatsoever is taking place.
Just as the amount of sport has increased so has the amount of time that broadcasters devote to getting us to feel tense about it. And when, as surely it will, it all comes crashing down, they will be the the first to say "are we getting this whole thing out of proportion"?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Death of a storyteller

Ira Levin, who died this week at the age of 78, was a great teller of tales that got under the contemporary skin. "Rosemary's Baby". "The Boys From Brazil" and "The Stepford Wives" were all made into big hit films. My favourite is his first book, "A Kiss Before Dying", which came out in 1954. It's only a slim volume. You could read it this weekend. You might not sleep though.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Architecture and morality

St Pancras International opens today. Every night this week BBC2 are running "The £800 Million Railway Station" which is about the transformation project. The chief architect Alastair Lansley wanders around the site pointing out to the construction people where they've failed to finish things properly. But the main problem, and the one that resulted in his weeping into his mobile phone, was the fact that the glass panels on the east side were two inches out of line. He went to another architect for sympathy. "I think I'll cut my throat," he said. He wasn't joking.
I think I'll go this morning and inspect.

Monday, November 12, 2007

A class act

This week I finally got round to watching the first series of "The Wire".
Once I'd decided that the only way I was going to make sure I didn't miss anything was by watching it with the sub-titles on, I found it the most absorbing TV I'd watched in a while.
Once you've accepted its liberating thesis that drug dealers are people too, you start to see how the narcotic economy functions. The dealers run the tower blocks ('though the men at the top make sure they are never caught in the same room as either the dope or the money and the people at the retail end are all kids) whence they remove tens of thousands of dollars every day, most of which comes straight from the government in welfare checks, and then launder it through legit businesses. It's the biggest inadvertent government subsidy in history.
And then there's the acting, which is uniformly marvellous, all the more so when you take into account that the men in this scene, Dominic West and Idris Elba, are both British.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Don't touch that dial

For most of the 90s I presented a show on GLR. I left before they could fire me or, worse, tell me what to play. It was mostly on Friday evenings and it had a select but devoted audience.
Just this afternoon I got an email from a woman. She and her husband used to listen devotedly and taped many of the programmes. And guess what? They still play them in the car whenever they're off to Wales for the weekend. One of these tapes ran out before they got the answer to the phone-in quiz. It was driving them mad. They had to know what the answer was.
The question was "what do all Motown records have in common?"
I think the answer was, they all fade at the end.
I suppose Gary Davies gets loads like this.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

How to make it in magazine journalism

Aim for the lowest person on the masthead whose title includes the word "editor," except for "contributing editor" which means "freelancer in jammies."
This piece on is the kind of thing they should be teaching on magazine journalism courses. In fact, this is a magazine journalism course. How they fill up the rest of the time is beyond me.

The end of an old fruit

Last night's film on BBC Four, "George Melly's Last Stand", showed how the urge to perform is the last impulse to die. It followed the last few months of George Melly as he succumbed to double lung cancer and drifted in and out of dementia. Bedridden at home and unable to eat ("there's no room for any food in me"), he was nonetheless eager to play whatever gigs he could. There he was in a Travel Tavern somewhere on the A1 on his way to a sold-out gig in Newark. There again being carried down the fire escape at the back of the 100 Club in his wheel chair to play his last show. As shows, they weren't up to much. He couldn't wear the suits anymore and the voice was down to a reed but he still wanted to be wheeled on. The objective, he said, as ever was "to win them".
His wife Diana arranged for his old girlfriends to come and say goodbye to him. These were women who'd had affairs with him during their marriage. "I didn't think you'd recognise me," said Molly Parkin, dressed up like a medieval Archbishop.
There was some insight into what it's like to live with a legend. Not always fun. His children, who seemed remarkably sane, talked about how embarrassing it had been to have him as a father was when they were teenagers, what with him coming out as gay and bursting into song in the streets. His sister talked about how he'd been "such a big personality there was almost no room for anyone else."
Now he was shrinking there was almost a sense of relief.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Was it something I read?

So Angus Deayton is in trouble for uttering a lame and tasteless gag about Jimmy Savile and his mother on one of those TV programmes where smug tits sit behind desks and snipe at everyone they're unlikely to run into at Soho House.
But what makes the oranges and lemons of the mind spin and spin and spin is the fact that the line was in the script! It's one thing to say something regrettable in the heat of the moment. It's another to have a line tapped out by a hack, passed by a producer and then passed on to another hack who reads it off autocue and then invoices for a few thousand quid.
It's a whole other other thing to then censure the person who was daft enough to believe that it wouldn't come back to haunt him.
Dear God, TV can't go on like this.
And in Hollywood the writers have gone on strike and so Jay Leno and David Letterman go off the air rather than reveal how dull they are unless somebody's making and loading the bullets for them.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

An actual email I received this morning

I would like to start up my own magazine could you please give me some info.
Many Thanks

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The way we live now

We moved into our current house twenty years ago. The previous owner had lived in it for fifty years and not much had been done to it in that time. We lived in chaos for a while as we installed such luxuries as central heating, electrical wiring, a kitchen and a room in the roof. Twenty years later, all that work starts to come up for renewal around the same time. And let me tell you - paying for your second boiler is nothing like as much fun as paying for the first one. It costs more and the novelty isn't there anymore.
Anyway, over the last few months quite a few properties down our leafy suburban road have changed hands. People who are already retired or thinking about it have decided to take their profit and move to somewhere smaller. This means that the skips are dotting the road once more. Perfectly serviceable houses which have been refurbished during the last ten years are being gutted all over again as a younger generation of home makers move in, their imaginations inflamed by TV makeover shows and their way smoothed by twin incomes, and proceed to bring them up to the minimum standards they require. That means multiple bathrooms, fabulous kitchens, plasma screen TVs plumbed into artfully-lit recesses, gravel covering for the off-street parking and lots of decking. Just as we installed many things which the previous generation had managed to get by without, so they are introducing a whole new level of basic comfort and convenience.
I don't begrudge them any of it. It's just the way of the world. When we sell ours it will no doubt be bought by some go-getting young couple who'll wave our removal van off while muttering under their breath "how could they live like this?"

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Juande without you

Within a few weeks he'll be as eggy and fallible as all the other Spurs managers, but for now Juande Ramos arrives with a reputation for being a hard guy. He certainly looks the part.
And he comes preceded by a fantastic anecdote. In one of his previous jobs in Spain his team were leading 2-0 but he wasn't happy with the effort they were putting in.
So he took a man off. Didn't replace him. Just took a man off.
If that's not true I don't wish to know.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A night with the Establishment

I've done a little hobbing and nobbing in my time. Tonight's party for the birthday of "The Today Programme" was on a different scale.
Mark Ellen and I propped up the bar of the Royal Festival Hall's Skylon Lounge trying to work out which ones were the great and which ones merely the good. We decided the great are the ones with the bushy eyebrows.
An actual bishop engaged me in light banter after John Humphreys' speech. Geoffrey Howe still looks like a teddy bear. Ken Livingstone looks remarkably sleek. As does Norman Fowler. Charles Kennedy doesn't even accept a glass anymore for fear that people will start speculating about what's in it. Anna Ford is a fox - and she knows it. Floella Benjamin was there. And Desmond Lynam.
Why were Mark and I invited? "Opinion formers", apparently. Oh.
The big story on this morning's programme had been about the government's less than perfect grip on the numbers of foreign workers in the country. The tall, beautiful girls working the room with their bottles of wine and things on sticks were pretty much all East European.
Never has an elephant in a room been quite so attractive.

How tickled I was

Anthony Clare, whose death at the age of 64 has been announced, used to present "In The Psychiatrist's Chair" for Radio Four. One of his on-air "patients" was Ken Dodd. This was not long after he'd undergone an investigation for tax evasion. You knew the question was going to come eventually.
Clare: "I want to talk to you about money."
Doddy: (without missing a beat) "Why? Have you got some?"

Monday, October 29, 2007

"Do you like Demis Roussos, Sue?"

Last night's thirtieth anniversary documentary "All About Abigail's Party" threw light on lots of the reasons for its success, not least the fact that it was shown on BBC during an ITV strike and therefore drew a disproportionate share of the audience.
What it didn't probe is how the hell actresses step on stages everywhere from Stevenage to Sao Paolo and attempt to fill the agonising shoes of Alison Steadman in the role of Beverly. You could just about play Lady Bracknell without thinking of Edith Evans and maybe put Marlon Brando out of your mind while mounting a production of "On The Waterfront", but how you could speak a single line of Beverly's dialogue in "Abigail's Party" without adopting Steadman's threatening, nasal voice, without bobbing your head in that suggestive, wife-swapping way and without carrying your shoulders like a quarterback is beyond me.
"Definitive" doesn't begin to cover it.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

By Milton Keynes Parkway I Sat Down And Wept

My family were always members of the AA. When their motorcycle patrolmen passed they would see our badge and salute. I would salute back. Great excitement.
Last night on the way back from the airport we had a blow-out on the A1 so I called the AA out. I have paid my subs every year since I was 17 and have never had cause to regret it. Nowadays the system works even better because mobile phones mean they can get back to you and tell you how long help is going to be.
I've always had the theory that AA men have a great job because people are always pleased to see them. A few years ago I met a retired AA man in a ferry queue in the Western Isles and expounded my theory to him. He wasn't so sure. He'd taken early retirement after years working the M1 in South Yorkshire. One day he'd had a nervous breakdown at the side of the road. Just collapsed into tears in the middle of a job.
Standing by the A1 (M) for half an hour last night just a few feet away from millions of tons of speeding metal - in the same week that a couple of children were killed trying to cross a motorway - I have to confess to some sympathy. Once you're out of your car and standing there looking at it, motorway traffic shows us at our maddest and most malign.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Early morning music

This is the last Sunday morning when we'll wake up to sunshine, I suppose.
I find myself on the wavelength of John Martyn, or at least John Martyn in the mid-70s. I put on "Sunday's Child" with its wonderfully rounded version of the traditional song "Spencer The Rover", the man who had become "much reduced and caused great confusion" and as a consequence took to the roads.
Then I found this impeccable (apart from the wrong note in the introduction) performance from 1977.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The meaning of sport

When Danny Blanchflower was working as a football pundit, somebody asked him who was going to win the match.
"I don't know," he said. "That's why they're playing the game."
Banal or the only worthwhile you can ever say about sport?
You play the game to find out who wins the game.
South Africa are a better team than England. Even England believe that.
But that didn't mean that tonight wasn't, in the words of Wellington, "a damned close run thing."
And I still think this was a try.

Live Aid and false memory syndrome

I see that Freeview have compiled a list of people's most memorable TV moments.
The collapse of the twin towers comes top, ahead of the moon landings and Diana's funeral. At number five is Bob Geldof asking people to "give us your fucking money" during Live Aid.
It really is remarkable that this event looms so large in people's memories because it never happened. I know because I was there. Let me take this opportunity to place on record the true facts.
Geldof wanted Live Aid to be a fundraiser. The BBC didn't. There were details of how you could give money. You could send it by post, you could pay at a Post Office or you could ring up and pledge a donation. The captions came up in that order: address, PO details, phone number.
I was anchoring that part of the broadcast, up in the boiling hot perspex box in the roof of Wembley, and, following one of Geldof's finger-pointing rants, went to the appeals procedure.
"Here's the address," I said.
"Fuck the address," he said. That was quite a moment.
I've never looked at a tape of that incident since the day but I was amazed to watch the "give us your fucking money" myth blossom. People who had watched it told me with great certainty what had happened, as did people who hadn't.
When Mark Ellen was preparing a 20th anniversary piece for Word he spent a day going through a tape of the whole thing. I asked him to let me know what Geldof had actually said.
"Fuck the address," he reported back.
I was relieved that it was the world that was deluding itself and not me.
I was thinking about this this week when weatherman Michael Fish was on BBC News24 explaining the real story of his notorious hurricane forecast. It turns out that the hurricane he was referring to was a tropical cyclone in the West Atlantic. He told his story but you could tell from the expression on the interviewers face that they weren't remotely interested in the disappointing truth.
Every time I read somebody's memoirs or hear about somebody giving evidence in a courtroom about events that took place many years earlier, my thoughts turn to Live Aid and the things we are capable of "remembering".

Friday, October 19, 2007

The great Alan Coren

The sad news of the death of Alan Coren gives me an excuse to trot out the story behind his 1975 book "Golfing For Cats". This was so called because Coren was told by his publishers that only three kinds of books sold: those about golf, pets and Nazis.
Hence the cover.

All Things Must Pass

Continuing my efforts to stay ahead of the curve, I watched "The Departed" last night. This very cleverly plotted film about Boston gangsters and undercover police is another of those contemporary stories that simply doesn't work without the mobile phone and the web. Obviously, the introduction of this technology has liberated screenwriters to devise scenes in which people can interact without being in the same space. Conversations can be engineered between any two characters at any point and the plot clipped along accordingly. At the moment this is all thrillingly new. I wonder how it will all look in ten years time when none of this is novel anymore. Maybe we'll just watch round it like we do when we see films from the 50s like "The Blue Lamp" and "The Lavender Hill Mob", which were equally delighted by the possibilities of the then new-fangled police radio car.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Negotiation and the BBC

The argument for Jonathan Ross's £18 million is "you've got to pay the best for top talent".
It's not as simple as that. If Jonathan Ross had really wanted to go to ITV he would have gone. But, like anyone with any self-respect wishing to do a decent job in decent circumstances and not have it all chopped up with ads, he didn't. Natasha Kaplinsky has just gone to Five for a million. Best of luck. She took the money and the risk is she may not be heard of again.Personally, I don't care whether any of these people go or not. Nor do the British public. There's an endless supply of TV talent. The BBC holds all the cards in these negotiations because, even in reduced circumstances, it's got the only train set worth having. If you want to play with it, if you want to have a nice radio show and get rowed into the heart warming Christmas special and be on the cover of the Radio Times, this is the only place to be.
Broadcasting is not a level playing field in this country. That has its disadvantages. The fact that you get to call the bluff of a few over-confident agents is one of its glorious upsides.
Does anybody remember a bloke called Desmond Lynam? Great broadcaster. Iredeemably tarnished by ITV. Last seen selling Setanta in the back of a burger van.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Distance no object

I'm fascinated by the march of technology and the Death of Distance in all its manifestations. A couple of weeks ago my son took part in the Great North Run. Within ten minutes of his having crossed the finish line I could look on the race's site and see his time and position. Within a day I could follow a link to see souvenir pictures of him in the race. You put in his race number and up popped seven shots, taken at different points in the race.
They were doing this for 50,000 runners. Logistically it's a staggering job.
Obviously, as a proud father, I ordered pictures. Give them your credit card details and you could immediately download low and high-res versions from their site. But that's not all. They then send you the picture files on a disc.
They just arrived.
From Hamilton, New Zealand.
12,000 miles away.

Monday, October 15, 2007


The best thing on Radio Four at the moment is Genius. It's presented by the estimable Dave Gorman and involves members of the public proposing strange ideas - summer clothes for Goths, running the House Of Commons along the lines of Just A Minute, hooking up gym equipment to run the National Grid – to a celebrity panelist. Last week's, in which a bloke tried to sell Germaine Greer on the idea that his wife should be compelled to make him a hot pudding three nights a week, had me laughing out loud at the traffic lights on the North Circular.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Welcome to wherever you are

Yesterday I got to go to Wembley for the first time. Our visit was club class thanks to Peter's kind hospitality. Lots of salmon and white wine and uniformed young ladies calling you "sir".
From inside the place looks like an airport, particularly in the posh bits. The old Wembley used to smell of beer and urine. The new one smells like the world's biggest McDonald's. The seats are surprisingly comfortable and the sight lines are excellent but once you're inside you can no longer see its only interesting architectural feature, the arch. The old place was unlovely but whenever you see footage or stills shot there you knew immediately what you were looking at.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Oh Happy Day

An everyday story of country folk

A friend of mine lives in a hamlet of about twelve houses somewhere in the East Midlands. Most of the properties are period conversions. There is one larger house which was built in the 70s. With its seven bedrooms, electric gates and swimming pool, it's the kind of place a middling Premiership player might have found appealing.
The neighbours recently noted that it had been taken over by some burly gentlemen who seemed to be Eastern European. Then they began to see an influx of blonde girls in short skirts and high heels.
Not surprisingly, the neighbours gathered and pooled their information. It turned out that there was also a website advertising the services being offered at this very property and drop-down menus that enabled potential clients to choose the girl they would like to see dispensing them.
Clearly they are taking steps.
But here's what I wonder. How come we are expected to believe in the quite congenial, and shamelessly fictional life portrayed by Billie Piper in The Secret Diary of A Call Girl and yet if I were to propose a story based around events actually taking place in one genuine English village in 2007 to the writers of The Archers I would probably be accused of taking liberties?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Is three pints enough?

England's cricket team have just won a one-day series in Sri Lanka, which is the first win in the sub-continent since God was a boy. Asked if they were going to be celebrating, Paul Collingwood, still smarting from being caught in a lap-dancing club, said they now had a "three-pint rule".
Opinion on 5 Live was divided. Is a mere three pints self-denial only previously seen among the Amish or actually Quite Sufficient?
Obviously, were this the Pakistani team this wouldn't be happening at all and I don't see the West Indian or Indian teams feeling they hadn't marked the occasion properly if nobody had wound up rat-arsed in a drifting pedalo. I can't believe the Australians or the South Africans feel that every celebration calls for a headfirst dive into oblivion. It would be nice if the England team felt the same way. It's not the drinking in this country. The French and Italians do far more actual drinking. No, it's the desperate need to get Out Of It.
These days my calculations about beer intake tend to relate to the length of the Tube journey which is to follow. Which would make three pints more than enough.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A site better

The new Word Magazine site is unveiled today. It's a lot airier and more flexible and you can post your own topics. Please go and have a look.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Brief Encounter

Coming out of the station this evening I was confronted by a young man coming the other way. Track suit. Hood up. I know you have the picture. There was limited room between a lamp post and a parked car and for some reason I didn't let him through first. Consequently he had to check his step for about a third of a second. I could see he had made a comment. I took off my headphones and said "I'm sorry?"
He turned and said, with some venom, "watch where you're fucking going!" He didn't mutter it. I've rarely been talked to in a more aggressive manner.
I wasn't going to start a fight. He would have killed me. I was surprised but I managed to smile and say "very nice to meet you".
He went off. It didn't go any further.
What could possess a young guy to front up like that against a middle-aged commuter in a suit? How angry is he and about what? If he can get that cross about having to check his step, in an incident that involved no physical contact whatsoever, how is he going to deal with the other small frustrations that life will put in his way? How will he react to a baby who won't sleep?

Hannah Montana, Led Zep and the madness of crowds

In the states district attorneys are getting involved in the controversy over tickets to see Disney teen star Hannah Montana. There's dark talk of software that can jump Ticketmaster's digital queues and lots of articulate middle class mothers who are determined to satisfy their desperate daughters and are not going to be fobbed of with talk of supply and demand. As head teachers and hotel managers all over the world have the scars to attest, these people have a habit of getting what they want and in this case they're not above picking up the phone to local officials.
Meanwhile, closer to home, Harvey Goldsmith is at daggers-drawn with eBay over the resale of Led Zeppelin tickets, which are being advertised at ten times their face value. The government meanwhile blandly holds to the view that pretty much anything that can be bought can also be sold, which sounds about right. In the past these were the kind of problems you only came up against when you camped outside Earls Court. These people didn't have credit cards and rarely got indignant. When they didn't get what wanted they muttered "bummer" and went to the pub. But now they hold the reins of the economy in their hands, they feel very differently and the audience for live rock and roll has grown from a passionate minority to an hysterical majority.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

God Bless The World Wide Web

During sporting tournaments like the World Cup this marvellous technology provides us with the not-t0-be-passed-up opportunity to see what the oppositions's media is saying before and after encounters like the Australia-England game.

Fame: still a cruel mistress

The new issue of Word contains a story about Colin Larkin, the author of the Encyclopaedia of Popular Music, which is in its 5th edition. I was most intrigued to see the list of acts who had been dropped from the previous editions to make room for the Arctic Monkeys and Amy Winehouses of today. This includes: Carmel, Curve, King, Menswear and the Godfathers among others. They've been dropped because it's been concluded that they were neither successful enough to be included for the sake of historical record nor good enough to have any prospect of being rediscovered by future generations. What's the opposite of the Hall of Fame?

Friday, October 05, 2007

Katherine the Great

I've blogged in the past about the fabulous Katherine Whitehorn's contribution to the TV documentary "A Widow's Tale". There's a marvellous extract from her autobiography in today's "Times" in which she's describing what it's like to face "the grey mudflats of the future" without her husband. Her writing should be required reading for all those millions of Sunday supplement columnists who came in her wake because there's not an inch of self-pity in her and she's frank enough to say she doesn't know how anyone gets through this without strong drink.

Get with it, Grandad

There's not much between the main parties in policy terms so it's mainly a battle about language. I note that David Cameron's speech this week used the expression "getting pissed" and promised that Gordon Brown's election campaign would involve a "dog whistle on immigration". This took them far enough in the polls to give them the nerve to accuse the PM of "bottling it". It's all very media macho and has the effect of making old Gordon look, well, old.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Happy Days

Word's running a story about people's experiences of working for record companies. I did a short stint working for Beserkley in 1977-8 and this is one of the few items of memorabilia I've been able to come up with. It's me and Greg Kihn snapped at a souped-up go-kart track in the Bay Area in 1978.
I made my first trips to the States at the time and Greg was kind enough to put me up and show me the Golden State. We met up again a few years back when he was over here recording his radio show, which goes out in San Jose. We've just been exchanging emails about musicians and colleagues from that time who have passed away. Which is amazing when you look at that picture.


Two offenses are committed in this short clip. The Celtic fan had no business running on the pitch or patting the Milan goalkeeper on the cheek. By the same token, the latter shouldn't have run energetically after him and then fallen down as if shot in the hope of getting the match extended. The fan will no doubt get a significant ban. What will the goalkeeper get for insulting the intelligence of millions and trying to deceive the officials?

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

It's the economy, stupid

I don't know anything about the decline of kids' TV but I agree with Bob Wootton when he says that Ofcom's crackdown on advertising to kids hasn't helped. TV companies don't have much appetite for making kids' programmes at the best of times, but when they can no longer get their shows underwritten by the manufacturers of sweets, they soon give up altogether.
At the same time hardly a week goes by without another teenage magazine closing, their traditional room for manoeuvre restricted by the limited amount of advertising and the fact that the supermarkets watch them like hawks for any sign of risqué material, aware that if they don't some backbencher will be on the Today programme talking about moral decay.
In terms of both kids' TV and magazines the old world wasn't perfect but it was better than what's come in its place. The kids aren't missing anything, of course, because they're quite happy gawping at TMF rather than reading. If there's nothing in the "Grange Hill" line they'll just watch whatever their older brothers and sisters watch.
Despite the best efforts of government over the last ten years, you don't change people's behaviour from the top down. Something similar happened with school meals post-Jamie. Given the choice we often choose junk.

"It's all about the passion, innit"

There's an FA proposal to launch a pilot scheme where only team captains are allowed to speak to the referee. Some clown rang Five Live tonight and said - and I quote - "that kind of thing's fine in rugby because they're all upper class but football's all about passion...."
I will not sleep until I have counted the ways in which this is bollocks.
1. There is clearly no point trying to persuade fools like these that rugby union is, and always has been, played by a wider range of people than they think. So I won't.
2. But I would like to be standing by when they told Gareth Thomas or Lewis Moody that they didn't understand passion.
3. While clearly the England team are exclusively effete public school nances, you wouldn't say the same about the Welsh, let alone the Fijians or the Tongans or the Romanians, all of whom play by the same rules and observe the same conventions.
4. Rugby players constantly try to influence the ref - people like George Gregan are chattering to him all the time - but they never try to intimidate him. Martin Johnson never confronted a ref like John Terry does nearly every game.
5. Rugby League players, who are as rough-hewn as you like and could have the entire Premiership for breakfast, earrings and all, never argue with the ref because they're not allowed to. The same applies in most sports.
6. Arguing with football referees is a high level form of cheating. It's not done in the hope of changing his mind. It's done in the hope of getting the next decision.
7. It's orchestrated and sanctioned by managers and coaches at the very top of the game. If they want to stamp it out they just have to get half a dozen blokes in a room.
8. If you've ever watched a game of schoolboy football and seen how small children, with the active encouragement of their parents, copy this behaviour, you'll recognise that the day is not far off when the only people who will volunteer to referee football at any level will be those with the kind of personality disorders which ought to disqualify them.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

"Do you want a biscuit?"

This is an excellent programme about the relationship between age and creativity made for National Public Radio in the States. It features Nick Lowe whose new album is called "At My Age". And, via a tinny phone line, me.

"Tell us about Dame Edith Evans in the Dog & Duck"

Ned Sherrin had one great gift as a radio presenter. He never felt the need to pretend you were eavesdropping on a regular chat. Consequently when he presented "Loose Ends" on Radio Four there was none of that nervous laughter, conversational gear grinding and embarrassed "so anyways" that tends to characterise most radio chat. He knew he was there to get each guest to tell three stories. His job was to direct the traffic, making sure they got to the punch line in the most efficient way and staying out of their way as far as possible. And if they wouldn't tell the stories he'd do it himself.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Proud Father Alert

My son just called to say he's just finished the Great North Run in 1 hour 29 minutes, which is pretty quick for somebody who's never done this kind of thing before and had his foot run over by his mate's car outside a pub the other day. He's doing it for Great Ormond Street Hospital. If anybody reading this knows him and wants to make a contribution....

Paris Hilton: this is her fourth fragrance

Guests on Letterman usually complain they've barely got started when they're interrupted by an ad break.
Paris Hilton must have been praying that something of the sort would deliver her from the host, who turns her slowly on a spit over a low flame on the subject of her jailtime. After about four minutes she manages to summon the nerve to say "that's all behind me now. I don't want to talk about it."
"Well, that's where you and I are different," he says. "That's all I want to talk about..."
Then when she does manage to get on to the subject of the product she has come on to plug it gets even worse for her.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Are we being served?

Last night I was in a pub. The night before I was in a pub. This is rather unusual.
It gave me an opportunity to reflect on the fact that the boozers of old London town are remorselessly changing into stripped pine gastro-pubs with computerised tills, guests beers on blackboards, staff who are young and new to the country and interesting furniture.
I don't mind this. I don't particularly miss the old ones. Except in one respect.
If you go into some old Irish fighting pub around the Angel, Islington you will find that it has been organised in order to facilitate the swift, uncomplicated dispensing of beer to thirsty men. The bar staff in these places, who are often middle-aged women, can remember, fulfill and charge for the most complicated order of drinks rapidly and accurately, without disappearing round the corner to stab hopefully at a bunch of artists impressions on the keypad of a till while humming along to the music, indulging in a little banter with colleagues or saying "do you want to start a tab?"
Given this, and the pointless range of new product options which are always being introduced ("cold Guinness or warm?", "straight glass?", "which vodka?", "large glass of wine or small?") London has turned into the slowest place in the world to get served in a bar.
You don't get this in New York, Paris or Rome. There they steamroller any confusion by just giving you what they think you should drink. I'm not against this.
I propose a new beginning. I see a new chain of "fast drink" pubs with one beer, one lager and two bottles of wine. I think we all know what it would say above the door.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Factory Records: never dull

The interesting thing about the career of Joy Division/New Order, as reflected in the excellent Factory Records documentary on BBC Four, is the extent to which they seem to have been allowed to do whatever they wanted to do, regardless of the consequences. Far from having their fate decided by "the suits" (who have actually been extinct as a music business type since the late 70s but still live on in the fantasies of young men in indie bands) their willful side was actively encouraged by those around them in management and at Factory. They were allowed to remain in Manchester, allowed to put out records that didn't have their name on them, allowed to perform live on TOTP (their record went down) and allowed to watch lots of their money disappear into the Hacienda and thence down an adjacent drain. They had vigorous arguments about all these issues but usually the Mad Option prevailed, presumably because nobody was really prepared to lie down in front of the Folly Train and risk the accusation of being dull.
One of the most telling moments comes in the interview with Tony Wilson, who was dishing out the sideswipes like a man who knew exactly how ill he was, when he recalls Ian Curtis's girlfriend telling him how worried she was about him.
"He means it," she said.
"No, it's just Art," replied Tony.
Not long afterwards Curtis was dead. The remaining members of the band are candid about how surprised they were. It was only then that they listened to his lyrics.

Monday, September 24, 2007

It's a big day for the smoking section

It's here. The first day of truly vile weather since the smoking ban came in. This is the day to test the resolve of all those people who've been gathering outside pubs and cafes to do their puffery. What's their fall-back plan?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

"I got ladies instead..."

The Rugby World Cup doesn't throw up as much internet japery as the football version so this invention of Irish independent station Today FM is particularly precious. For the uninitiated, it's supposed to be the Irish coach Eddie O'Sullivan following one of his side's underwhelming performances. And, yes, I know, nobody else in these islands has got anything to feel smug about.
Makes me laugh.

The EMI archives: it's in here somewhere

Last week I made a trip I've been planning to make for a while. David Holley from EMI invited me to come out to Hayes to look around their archive. This is where the company formerly called "the greatest recording organisation in the world" keep everything from the equipment they no longer manufacture through all their important contractual correspondence to the tapes and artwork for all those tens of thousands of records that they've released down the years.
It occupies a huge area of the site on which they used to manufacture records, not quite like the warehouse at the end of "Raiders of The Lost Ark" but not far off. (EMI no longer make even one CD. It's all done in Northern Europe, apparently.)
I've got this idea for a radio documentary called "Where Is Everything?" This will examine our assumption that all the millions of media products that are made nowadays are actually being kept somewhere. And if they are, does anyone know where? EMI's archive is huge and comprehensive but some of their singles are filed under catalogue numbers rather than names which makes them awfully difficult to retrieve.
Still, it's better than it used to be. Apparently until quite recently it was all in a cold store beneath Smithfield market. The blood sometimes dripped through from above and threatened some of the precious artefacts below.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

You make me feel like dancin'

Speaking as someone whose attempts at formal dance resemble a man trying to manoeuvre a fridge into a difficult corner, I am in awe of them as can. YouTube is the perfect place to marvel at their genius and to wonder at just how they did it. How does this member of Tip Tap & Toe do that sliding thing at about 0.49 without shooting straight off the end of the dais?

The physical ease of these people is breathtaking. How does Fred Astaire manage to go from speech to song in the space of one sentence without looking embarrassed? How could they film such demanding routines without cuts and edits? They must have rehearsed for weeks before every number.

How did Whitey's Lindyhoppers manage to get through a number like this without somebody getting seriously hurt? This was 1941, long before the invention of either rock and roll or health and safety.

My old Dad knew nothing about dancing but he used to say "you've got to be good to be able to muck around". There's no better example of this than Wilson & Keppel who parlayed one number into a forty-year career. In the days before TV.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Word Weekly 20

In which Mark Ellen, David Hepworth and Andrew Harrison read their fanmail and design their ideal record shop

What Cookiegate tells us about the meeja

There's much talk about "failures of management" and "scapegoating" around the Blue Peter Kitten Scandal and the Liz Kershaw Fake Phone-in Farrago. I don't know about all that.
This I do know. People who work in the media have a very curious relationship with their listeners/viewers/readers.
When they're getting in touch to congratulate you they're fine upstanding citizens, individuals of great taste and discrimination. When they're complaining about anything, expressing an opinion which doesn't chime with yours or otherwise failing to behave, they are dangerous lunatics with too much time on their hands and you are free to make as much or as little of their contributions as you choose.
Why? Because at root people in the media think they're clever and cooler than we are. It's the new British class divide. On one hand the people with the cool toys. On the other the hapless consumers of pablum.
Obviously the Blue Peter team had decided that they would prefer their kitten to be given the media-friendly, Chiswicky name "Socks" rather than the comparatively clunky "Cookie", the kind of name that Mums call from the back doors of Barratt homes. Obviously it doesn't matter a damn what the creature is called, which is why they fiddled it. It's also why they should have left it alone.
It's the triviality of these issues that somehow points up how wrong the decisions were. Was any listener to Liz Kershaw's show going to care if they recorded a few shows so that they could have the weekend off? Probably not. So why go to the trouble of faking a phone-in competition, having one of your production team (production team? 6Music?) "win" the prize and a few listeners wondering why they can't get through?
How much contempt do you have for your actual customers to do that?
In the early 80s, when I was at Smash Hits, we launched the first Readers Poll. We got over 30,000 poll forms back. We didn't take a sample. We didn't send them to an outside agency. We sat there and counted every single last vote. I remember weekends spent in that office putting ticks next to Adam Ant and Toyah on huge pieces of cardboard and then crossing them off ten at a time. We weren't trying to be particularly virtuous. It just seemed the least you could do for somebody who'd bothered to fill in a form.
Many of the people who filled in those forms as kids are now grown up and running the media. I run into them all the time.I have a strong feeling that many of them are not as scrupulous in their dealings with the public as we were with them. But then, that's kids for you.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Some kids apparently think that having no mobile phone is an indicator of poverty. There were campaigners on the radio this morning saying that not being able to afford to buy a present to take to a classmate's party indicates "exclusion".
The best Western World definition of poverty I ever came across was in Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson. The president was raised in the hill country of Texas in the 1920s. The parents and children at his school embarked on a protracted money-raising campaign and were eventually successful in buying the team a basketball. (He's the teacher in this picture from 1928.)

The Times They Have Already Changed

Today the New York Times tears down its pay wall, meaning that you no longer have to pay for access to its most prized content, such as name columnists like Thomas Friedman and Maureen Dowd. They reckon that the subscription take-up was good but it makes more sense to be able to allow more people access to their site and sell advertising on the basis of the traffic. It seems that Rupert Murdoch is looking at doing the same thing with the Wall Street Journal and if he does then the Financial Times may not be far behind, which would mean that the idea that you can get consumers to pay for online access to highly prized sections of newspapers or magazines will finally be a dead duck.

Elsewhere, Spiral Frog has finally launched. Remember they talked about this as the salvation of the record business a couple of years ago? The idea is that you get the music for free but in return you have to watch a load of advertising. I'm not going to let the fact that I haven't used it stop me predicting that it won't work. For why?
  1. It's only on PCs. (Want to know why nobody's talking about the BBC's IPlayer?)
  2. You can't put the music on an iPod.
  3. You can't burn it on to a CD.
  4. If you don't return to the site and watch more advertising within 30 days, your music is locked up.
  5. You can't access it outside the USA and Canada.
  6. Any innovation which meets with the approval of the major labels is doomed by definition.
  7. I'm not even going to mention the name.
Meet me back here in six months and tell me I was wrong.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Joyce Hatto Deception

The current New Yorker has a remarkable feature about the classical pianist Joyce Hatto, who died last year. She'd made some recordings in the 60s that had passed unnoticed but then in the last years of her life she began to be much-celebrated among the fanatics who inhabit the classical music communities on the web. She could not perform in public because of her health but many Hatto recordings were issued on a small label owned by her husband. These had glowing reviews in legitimate publications like The Gramophone. When she died in July of last year The Guardian's obituary described her as "one of the greatest pianists Britain has ever produced".
However there were some who wondered how such a distinguished performer could have remained unknown so long. It was only when a fan put one of her CDs into his computer and it was interrogated by the Gracenote database that it was revealed to be somebody else's work, as were all the rest. (Gracenote identifies particular CDs by reading the length of the tracks.) Her husband still insists that the scores of CDs he issued were largely his late wife's work and that he had merely inserted extracts from other recordings to cover passages where she made involuntary noises because of her illness. If you can't be bothered to read the whole thing you can listen to the writer Mark Singer talking about it here.
You wonder whether other areas of music could be susceptible to a similar con. Many years ago somebody sent tapes of established acts like Steely Dan to the a & r departments of various record companies and then published the inevitable rejection letters, but that probably meant that they didn't even listen to them. Presumably only in the world of the classical repertoire could such an elaborate deception succeed, at least for a while.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Holding Macca's Coat

In 1989, in the course of putting together the official programme for Paul McCartney's world tour, I said to him 'it would be great to photograph some memorabilia, if you have any.'
Oh yes, he had memorabilia. He arranged for me to spend the morning going through a warehouse full of stuff in the East End. It was an astonishing archive. He had the keys to every city in the USA, innumerable gold and silver discs, vituperative letters from John and cosier ones from his bank manager back in Liverpool ("I'm pleased to confirm that the check from EMI has cleared satisfactorily"), old instruments and stage costumes, including the jacket he wore on the cover of Sgt Pepper. The name "Paul" was inscribed under the Berman and Nathan label.
We got permission to photograph some of it, including the jacket, and of course, you couldn't let a chance like that go by...

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Formula One - bovvered?

If we were to discover that, let's say, the veg buyer for Sainsbury's had defected to Tesco and had taken with him the details of the prices his previous employer had paid for potatoes, we wouldn't be at all surprised. We wouldn't expect a governing body to levy a £50 million fine for breach of confidence. We wouldn't expect to see Tesco prevented from being a supermarket for a year. We certainly wouldn't expect it to be the second lead on the ten o'clock news.
Whatever has gone on between McLaren and Ferrari in the none-more- pompous world of Formula One racing is only the kind of bare-knuckled conflict we would expect between any two competing businesses. That's what they do. They will try to steal each other's secrets in the usually vain hope that this will give them a key advantage.
By conceding that some business intelligence was unfairly acquired and that this then gave one company a key advantage over another, the racing authorities are conceding the one thing we have long suspected - that Formula One is not actually a sport at all. It's a business and it works by asking us to get excited about which business is in front at any particular time.
And we don't much care. Any more than we do about Sainbury's and Tesco.

Word Weekly 19

David Hepworth, Mark Ellen and Jude Rogers ask 'what was Britney Spears doing?' at the VMA awards, continue collating the definitive list of records to clear a room, and hear a testimonial from a reader in Scotland explaining how the podcast banishes the worst of heebie jeebies.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

YouTube's revenge

I've just realised the real reason why I love YouTube so much. Not only does it give me the chance to hear Kanye West having a tantrum because he hasn't won a VMA ("give a black man a chance!"), it also fundamentally shifts the balance between you and the tube.
Had I watched this programme live I would have been the hapless pawn in the hands of Viacom's plan to sell more hair gel advertising. If only for a while, I would have been owned by TV.
But with YouTube I can just watch the bits people tell me were notable (Britney's sleepwalk) and completely ignore the rest. It makes me feel that I'm the one in charge rather than the one being used. It makes me feel we're gradually getting our own back for all those hours, days and weeks we've all spent in front of the box watching TV that wasn't worth it.
I always say to my children, "nobody ever got up from the sofa saying, 'well, that was a worthwhile use of the last three hours'". Maybe that's why they've all left home.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Yet another country

In years to come the crime drama will be divided into pre and post-technology eras. We watched the first Prime Suspect last night. Early on somebody sings "Happy Birthday" into a radio phone but there's no appearance from a mobile at any point. We're supposed to be impressed by the fact that the star has a bleeper. There is one computer in the office but it's used to store about five word processing documents. Police are dazzled by the prospect of being on television. And somebody mentions having got some money out of "one of those cash machines".
It was made in 1991.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

ITV - a fundamental lack of class

After a mere two days just how many reasons are there to loathe ITV's coverage of the Rugby World Cup? The sense-numbing exposure to the same half dozen adverts, the cumulative hours taken up showing you the same chest-beating titles sequences and ad bumpers, the plodding summarising from saloon bar blowhards like Stuart Barnes, the studio full of former captains with damaged ears who are never given the chance to get up to speed, the uniformative reports from "inside the England camp" and the reflexive recourse to that brand new non-word "physicality", which simply means big and tough. (It's like an athletics commentator pointing out that, gosh, the runners do go quite fast, don't they?) If a miracle happens and the BBC do get this event back in the future they should only retain one person and that's the former England player Will Greenwood. He has things to say and can say them in the thick of a game. I would show you an example but ITV's site can only run on Internet Explorer. Says it all really.