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 clich├ęs 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.