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.

Friday, September 07, 2007

"They'll be singing in the streets of Auchtermuchty tonight"

The Rugby World Cup starts this weekend. I love international rugby. It's the greatest of spectator sports because it's war conducted by other means, characterised by fearless competition and remarkable good humour. Time to ponder the question which national anthem we would trade for the tiresome "God Save The Queen".
It's obviously not a boil-in-a-bag jingle like "Ireland's Call" or "Flower Of Scotland". It can't be an uneasy shotgun marriage like South Africa's "Die Stem/Nkosi Sikelele Africa". Italy's and Argentina's don't stir much either.
Here's my top three in reverse order:
3. The Star-Spangled Banner

It's the tune. Its great quality is there's no slack in it.It comes from an old English drinking song. We get pissed to it. They put their hands over their breasts to it and stare into the middle distance. And the words are magnificently overblown. "In the rockets red glare" could apply to anything from the War Of Independence to Afghanistan.
2. La Marseillaise

I love the idea of a load of American actors dressed as French colonials outsinging another load of American actors dressed up as Nazis in a bar presided over by an American in North Africa. I love the pace of this tune. Its central message, whether in the film or the rugby field, is "you and whose army?"
1. Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau

Whenever the camera travels down the line of the Welsh team as they sing this song (usually helped out by a bunch of white haired retired headmasters in blazers) there's always one who is too overcome by emotion to sing. I'm with him - and I don't have a drop of Welsh blood in me.
If Planet Earth was going to have one national anthem to play before its first game against Mars, this is it.

Turn off the waterworks, they don't move me no more

Long ago a senior broadcasting exec told me that TV was all about "moments of disclosure". This means it's at its best when closing in on a human face as it reacts to new information. You can see it in just about every form of modern TV: Pop Idol, Changing Rooms, Big Brother and, well, just watch and make a note.
It's the money shot and you can set your watch on its happening two-thirds of the way through the show. Because all media inclines towards formula the event that at one time arose naturally quickly has to be turned into the cornerstone of the enterprise.
Last night saw the launch of the fourth series of BBC's "Who Do You Think You Are?" and featured Natasha Kaplinsky tracing the fate of some of her ancestors in Eastern Europe. As soon as this path was marked out you knew that the director was waiting for one thing and one thing alone - the shot where the star weeps. And understandably she did. But then again so did Jeremy Paxman and Jeremy Clarkson in earlier series – and their great-grandparents weren't victims of Nazi death squads. You know that if the camera hadn't been rolling when she wept they would have got her to do it again.
TV doesn't believe anything it can't see happening and because it's essentially a machine for making people more stupid it assumes that by now we feel the same.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

And some are more equal than others

Singing is the most direct and mysterious aspect of music and the one that most resists explanation. Obviously Domingo and Carreras were both sensationally gifted but anyone from a small child to a Mariah Carey fan could take one listen and know that Pavarotti was on another level altogether.

Monday, September 03, 2007

The royal gaze

We watched "The Queen" again last night. It may seem trite to say it but nonetheless we did. You really do think it's her. She's too young, too tall and she has the same broad-hipped walk as DCI Jane Tennison, but still Helen Mirren's turn as the Queen is one of the supreme pieces of impersonation. It works best when she occupies the entire frame - very much as her character does an entire stamp - and just looks out at the rest of us. She describes how she did it in a marvellous John Lahr profile in the New Yorker. “Her personality, her intelligence, everything is way back. Then she’s steadily looking out, as if through a porthole, with this incredibly nonjudgmental, confident gaze." Like Michael Caine says, the only thing that matters in movie acting is the eyes.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Man about town

I passed Michael Parkinson in Covent Garden on Thursday. He was very smartly dressed in a perfectly tailored navy blue suit and Garrick tie. His hair was thick and white and he looked indecently well preserved. Only his careful walk betrayed the fact that he's seventy-two. Odd how you don't really see people walk on the TV.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Is it because I is a bloke?

It's traditional that in the few days following the announcement of a "Big Brother" winner their face looks out from the covers of all the celebrity magazines. It will be interesting to see if the same thing happens with Brian Belo.