Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Videos - make them stop

I'm rather pleased that I've managed to wrangle tracks from two of the best young male singer songwriters around for the October Word CD. One's "Go To Hell" by David Ford. The other is "While You Were Sleeping" by Elvis Perkins (who, I obviously can't resist telling you, is the son of Anthony). Both these blokes have got genuine weight about them. I just looked them up on YouTube, which did make me wonder whether the promotional video is now actually the most moribund, pointless waste of money in the promotional armoury. Ford's video is just plain stupid, its plinking undergraduate literalness apt to put you off what is a terrific song. And who, apart from me, is going to show you it? Better to spend time watching Elvis Perkins on Letterman, where he has the simple stage sense to get the band to come on halfway through and looks as if he's connected to the material rather than standing behind it, making jokes at its expense. Still, two great songs.

Monday, July 30, 2007

The sound of silence

Went to see the fabulous Keren Ann at the Arts Theatre in Soho tonight. It's difficult for a performer like her, who is essentially a quiet, un-piercing singer in the tradition of someone like Antonio Carlos Jobim, to get the volume right. Electric instruments always seem to be on the verge of some unseemly blurt.
Anyway, we were sitting next to an old colleague. The other side of him were a couple who went to the bar during the encores, leaving their bags behind. She was just tuning up prior to another song when the phone in this bag erupted into a polyphonic ring tone. She didn't hear it but most of the audience did. The innocent guys next to the guilty bag extracted the phone and tried in vain to silence it. Eventually, in the gig-goers' equivalent of flinging yourself on the grenade, one of them got up and took it out, still pumping out its sig tune.
Anyway, you pick your words carefully when enthusing about another female to the GLW.
She's got lovely hair, I offered as we were going down the escalator to the Piccadilly Line. I was swiftly corrected. She's beautiful, apparently. I'd barely noticed.

One to watch

Teddy Thompson's second album, which comes out here in October, is made up of country ballads by people like Ernest Tubb and Dolly Parton. It works because he's genuinely got the voice for it and the material never fails to do the job. (Is it possible to write a better song than "She Thinks I Still Care"?) None of these revisiting the classics albums seem to go over big commercially (unless you count Rod Stewart's horrid "American Songbook" series) but if you get the timing right they can delight a discriminating minority. Like you.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Another night slumming it

We went to Houghton Hall in Norfolk last night for an open air benefit performance of "Twelfth Night" in aid of Norwich's Theatre Royal. The cast featured Stephen Fry, Mel Smith, Matthew Kelly and the extraordinary Harriet Walter. Everyone had given their services free for a production which was rehearsed in just over a week and performed for just four nights. Amazing what people will do when they're having fun.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The primeval call of booklust

My official birthday today. This is marked by a day off and a visit to the exhibition of news photography at the National Portrait Gallery, lunch at an unbelievably busy Wagamama in Victoria and then a stroll up Marleybone High Street to Daunt, which still glories in its reputation as "the most beautiful book shop in London". It was packed, largely with people even older than me, actually buying books to take on holiday. A few doors down is an Oxfam shop that specialises in books and that was surprisingly busy too with people queueing up at the till. What it is about books that makes us desire them so and why is this no longer the case with records?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The don't pick me up factor

Every so often a CD comes along with a cover design so breathtakingly repellent that you want to stop and wonder whether anyone in a major record company ever gives a thought to the subject of packaging. The new Stereophonics album "Pull The Pin" is guilty of the usual sins: the attempt to visualise a song title which itself enshrines a cliché, insufficient thought given to whether the idea behind that cliché is itself an attractive one, all delivered via the kind of retro graphics which only designers are nostalgic for and topped off with a really rotten logo which is surprisingly difficult to decipher. Without listening to a note of music you know that the appeal of this record will not travel one inch beyond the Stereophonics' core.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Great places to eat

While most of the UK has been under water we have been enjoying three freakishly sun-kissed days on the Isle of Arran. We spent most of them in or around the Machrie Bay Golf Club. I've never played the game in my adult life but in surroundings like these it seems ill-mannered not to, particularly as the other "members" on this 9-hole seaside course included six year olds being instructed by their grandfathers (below).
The clubhouse, which has more in common with a mission hut than Royal Birkdale, has a kitchen run by an enthusiastic bunch of young people who play Jackson Browne records while dispensing date slice, Banoffee pie and cups of tea. Rigorous analysis failed to see anything wrong with this. In the evening they do dinner and you are encouraged to bring a bottle. Book for around six o'clock before the midges descend. Tell them I sent you.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Halberstam's last despatch

David Halberstam, who died in April, was America's most popular historian, the king of those slab-like ruminations on America's place in the world that they go in for over there. He made his name with his reporting from Vietnam (left). His death in a road accident was made even more tragic by the fact that he was being driven by a journalism student who was one of his biggest admirers. His last piece appears in the latest Vanity Fair. It's an attack upon the Bush cabinets hijacking of historical parallels and contains many fine lines. Here's my favourite:
Cheney still speaks of Vietnam as a noble rather than a tragic endeavor, not that he felt at the time—with his five military deferments—that he needed to be part of that nobility.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

"Broadcast assistant on line one"

The leader pages of today's papers are largely devoted to the curious business of the BBC and the competitions that were fixed. The Guardian argues that some mitigation might be found for programmes in the obscure reaches of the schedules, such as Liz Kershaw's 6 Music show, but not for the big viewer participation shows. Actually, I see it the other way. Why the hell would anyone bother to run phone-in competitions on a pre-recorded rock show and then compound the sin by having members of the production team "ring up" pretending to be winners? And what happened to the people who presumably picked up the phone and mysteriously couldn't get through? What's the point of all this? The programme doesn't rely on it. Why not just drop the competition? Obviously it was stopped when a new producer took over but before that happened there must have been quite a few people who had worked out what was going on and either bit their lips or shared the producers' contempt for the listening audience.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Don't fight the feelin'

I don't hold with all that "you heard it here first" racing to get to the new talent but I think I may be slightly ahead of the curve with Eilen (rhymes with "feelin') Jewell. I suppose she plays in the country idiom but I wouldn't mind betting it's the kind of country that goes down best in New York and Boston. And I think a lot of people would like her over here too. Her new record is called "Letters from Sinners and Strangers". I'm chasing a track for the October "Now Hear This" CD. This song is off her previous one "Boundary County".

There's no success like failure

When Mike Nesmith left the Monkees he made a number of country rock records for RCA. They were all very good. None of them sold shit. Thus when in 1972 he put out a strange record of highly introspective songs recorded with his collaborator O.J. "Red" Rhodes he called it "And The Hits Just Keep On Comin'".
This embracing of defeat is a bit of a strand in rock and roll. NRBQ put out a record called "NRBQ at Yankee Stadium" which was nothing of the kind. The only connection was that they had their pictures taken in the empty venue as a birthday treat for one of their members. In 1969 Man called their LP "2 ozs of Plastic With A Hole In The Middle", thereby guaranteeing it could never go platinum. Monty Python were contractually obliged to release an album and so they put out "Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album".
Of course even these titles aren't quite such an admission of defeat as calling your record "Untitled", which is the plan for the new one by Korn (can't wait, can you?). The Byrds double of the same name from 1969 wound up being called "(Untitled)" because they were still working on a name when the producer had to fill in a form for the record company. His placeholder wound up being the title. The group never quite recovered their mystique after that.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Every home should have...

I was talking to an RAF officer with a lot of experience of organising receptions in Whitehall. He'd learned through bitter experience that the only musicians you could trust to keep the volume level of their performance down far enough for conversation to take place were harpists. The kora, which Toumani Diabaté plays, is a kind of harp and it has the same quality of rippling gentleness. I keep this album, "New Ancient Strings", on my desk and I play it a lot, usually in the early mornings. It soothes the soul, as they say in the gospel songs. Regardless of your personal taste, I recommend you should buy it and keep it at hand. It will make an important contribution to your equilibrium.

Monday, July 16, 2007

We have all the time in the world

Just before nine on Sunday morning on Radio Four used to be the Alastair Cooke slot. It's now occupied by a simple ten minute programme called "A Point Of View" which is even better. This used to be done by Brian Walden. It's currently done by Clive James.
This week's monologue (for that's all it is) was about the wisdom of veteran tennis players. You can read it or listen to it here. Noting that a handful of former champions (McEnroe, Navratilova, King) can be relied upon to say something insightful when given the chance, he celebrates the many rain delays in the recent tournament for the chances it gave them. I found when I was flicking around I actually preferred it when there was no play for this very reason. I'm the same with the cricket on Test Match Special. Hearing Viv Richards and Tony Cozier talking about the Caribbean during the recent series was not just a joy - it provided illumination you wouldn't get anywhere else. During a lunch break in the one-day games they had Graham Taylor and Frank Skinner talking about their love of the game. I could have listened quite happily for more than an hour.
TV and radio presenters spend most of their time saying "that's all we've got time for", which is a lie. These media are actually at their best when they decide they have all the time in the world. Maybe that's what we can all learn from podcasting.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The best drummer in the world?

My experience of drumming is limited to two rulers on a desktop. This doesn't stop me stating categorically that you can't have a great group without a great drummer. Which is why the Smiths and Oasis will never qualify. The drummer supplies the one thing that can't be fixed later. One of the greatest who ever drew breath is Joseph 'Zig' Modeliste. He used to play with the Meters and he supplies the percussion on all those classic Lee Dorsey records of the late 60s and early 70s. Doctor John called on the Meters when he made his New Orleans pop records "In The Right Place" and "Desitively Bonaroo". "I Been Hoodooed" is from the former. Mac Rebennack lays lots of extra percussion on the top but it's Modeliste's phlegmatic cowbell and snare that holds it down. They dropped it in next to last.

Friday, July 13, 2007

"Just one without the hat, your majesty"

Set aside for a moment the fact that the company making this trail played with the chronology. That's standard TV practice.
Let's focus instead on the fact that Annie Leibowitz actually suggested that by removing the crown (that's the crown) she could somehow make it "less dressy".
It's not Teri Hatcher you're dealing with here, Annie.

Kids do the darndest things

We make jokes in the office about "young Islington" but even we wouldn't have dared make up the story about the two sixteen years olds who've ended up in custody in Ghana. According to the Telegraph:
Their parents, who thought they were on a trip to France organised by their school, the Islington Arts and Media School, were said to be "devastated"

According to an interview conducted from their jail cells by PA:
"It was basically like a set up. They didn't tell us nothing, we didn't think nothing, cos basically we are innocent. We don't know nothing about this drugs and stuff, we don't know nothing."


Thursday, July 12, 2007

Education, education, education.

A friend of mine, who's in a senior position at a major media company, has just sent this on to me. It's supposed to be a job application:
Hi [over-familiar Christian name with diminutive],
You hiring at [name of major media company]? I'm ex-economic times and Cambridge. If there are any openings, do tell.
Kind regards,
[Over-chummy Christian name withheld to spare blushes].
As he said to me, "could it be that every single one of the 22 words are, in their own unique way, totally wrong?"

The way we wore

Mark Ellen dug out his wedding pictures the other day. This was taken on August 14th, 1982. It's one of those rare pictures that calls up an era perfectly. There's no older generation to spoil the effect. It could almost be from a movie. The light coloured footwear sported by the men is a dead giveaway. The Bananarama outfit favoured by Bev (right) helps immeasurably and Neil Tennant holds his tea cup just as Stephen Fry might.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The end of teenage

Yesterday I was helping judge the submissions of a number of people studying for their Masters in magazines and media. One of them was an idea for a magazine aimed at teenage boys between the ages of 10 and 14. Today I read that the American magazine Jane was closing . In the last eighteen months we've seen the death of Smash Hits, Elle Girl, Cosmo Girl and others. In each case there's a lot of talk about titles no longer having their original spirit.
The truth is that the one thing that all the products that teenagers favour have one thing in common. They're not aimed at teenagers.

Why voting is bad for you

I'll never get round to reading "The Myth of the Rational Voter" by Bryan Caplan but if Louis Menand's review in The New Yorker is anything to by, I'd like the cut of its jib. Caplan reckons society would be better off if voting were left to the small proportion of the population who are capable of making rational choices about the kind of policies likely to make life better rather than just doing what most of us do: placing our crosses against the candidate who seems most consistent with our received opinions and hoping that life can somehow get back to being the way we believe it once was:
Caplan rejects the assumption that voters pay no attention to politics and have no real views. He thinks that voters do have views, and that they are, basically, prejudices. He calls these views “irrational,” because, once they are translated into policy, they make everyone worse off. People not only hold irrational views, he thinks; they
like their irrational views. In the language of economics, they have “demand for irrationality” curves: they will give up y amount of wealth in order to consume x amount of irrationality. Since voting carries no cost, people are free to be as irrational as they like. They can ignore the consequences, just as the herdsman can ignore the consequences of putting one more cow on the public pasture. “Voting is not a slight variation on shopping,” as Caplan puts it. “Shoppers have incentives to be rational. Voters do not.”

Monday, July 09, 2007

Pardon my French

"We asked artists not to swear but sometimes they got carried away," said that most difficult to imagine personality, a "BBC spokesperson" about the complaints that followed Live Earth. Pull the other fucking one. When people swear on TV it's almost always deliberate. With rock stars this is even more the case. They swear because they think it will transform the not very interesting thing they're saying into something memorable. They swear because they think it brings them closer to the street. And finally they do it because it usually gets them a cheer.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Welcome to the industry of human happiness

The business guru Gary Hamel refuses to stay in hotels that have immovable coat hangers. It's as if they're saying "welcome, thief", he reckons.
I'm sure Interpol fans will feel something similar when they open their copy of the new CD "Our Love To Admire". The first thing they see is one of these card inserts pointing out that how they can buy Interpol ringtones for £3 a pop.
The message here is "welcome, brainless consumer".
Nothing could be further from the feeling EMI should be seeking to engender as they try to build a relationship between artist and fan.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Walk Away Cherie

Cherie Blair is clearly nothing like as appalling as her enemies suggest, nor as saint-like as her friends insist. The one thing that came over in The Real Cherie Blair was that the camera doesn't like her. That's not to do with good looks. It's to do with the quality they call poise. Her eyes look cornered and defensive while her speech is invariably aggressive. It's the sort of thing that doesn't matter in a court room but it matters like hell on TV where nobody's listening to what you say so much as they way you say it. In this film you could contrast her with Hillary Clinton, who's better at talking to a camera, and Laura Bush, who's better than both of them. Why Cherie did this film at the very point in her life where she no longer had to, suggests that she still believes she can change the nation's perception of her. I don't think so.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

No smoke

Last night after work I went for a drink with a friend. That's two pints in a pleasantly dark old pub on the Kings Cross Road. For the first time in my pub-going life I arrived home not smelling of smoke.
I don't feel sorry for smokers. I just feel cross about all the times in the past that I came home reeking and had to hang clothes out in the garden to air them. I'd like a few of those nights back.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Prince and the bigger splash

The record shops are up in arms about the plan to give away Prince's new album with the Mail On Sunday. The man from HMV called it "absolute madness". They reckon that if this goes on, Prince's albums will no longer be stocked in record shops. (Coo. And my Dad's a policeman.)
For Prince it makes absolute sense; he gets his umpteenth record in the hands of millions of people who wouldn't otherwise buy it and he also gets a large cheque from the Mail. They big him up in an almost comic fashion, describing him as "rock's greatest superstar" and claiming he has "millions of fans" who can hardly sleep for thinking about his forty-fifth album.
If Prince has the slightest scintilla of self-effacement (I know, stay with me) he knows that his record will create no excitement if he takes the conventional retail route. By taking the MOS option he creates the effect that every other new release thinks they're getting but aren't - that of a large rock thrown into still water. He grows his fan base and gets paid for doing it.
The people who should probably be thinking twice are The Mail On Sunday. How long can Sunday newspapers go on spending eye watering sums of money in order to carve out a few market share points for just one week? At the moment they're providing a lot of stars with an unexpected pension.

Monday, July 02, 2007

All films are too long

Watched The Last Picture Show last night for the first time since it came out. It's half an hour too long. In the extras Peter Bogdanovich justifies this by saying that if it weren't the audience would be left wanting to know more about the characters. I fear that's one of those self-serving illusions that directors like to labor under. Have you ever come out of a film wishing it had been a bit longer? I haven't. Anyway, Cybill Shepherd, who had done no acting before getting the part of Jacy, is sensational, proving once again that at least 50% of film making is casting.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

There's a breathless hush in the close tonight

Sports commentators get so wrapped up with what they think is happening that they increasingly miss what actually is happening. The BBC were so excited to get any play at yesterday's Wimbledon that the chap calling the Sharapova-Sugiyama match enthused "the crowd is absolutely gripped by this enthralling contest" over some shots of a woman yawning, somebody else stretching, a small boy clearly asking his dad whether they could go now and a teenager on a mobile. It was a fairly good match but at most major sporting occasions nowadays there are as many people interested in the occasion as there are in the sport. I went to the England-West Indies Twenty20 game at the Oval on Thursday and for every bloke wrapped up in the action there was one who was trying to see how much lager he could carry and another on the phone to his office.