Sunday, August 30, 2009

Muirhead Bone

Went to see the Muirhead Bone exhibition at the Fleming Collection in Mayfair. Bone was one of the best architectural engravers of the first half of the last century, specialising in summing up the scale of massive engineering projects like this one of the great gantry at Charing Cross station. He also served as an official war artist in both wars. It's a terrific exhibition if you're in the area.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Pop is a verb

I wrote a piece recently in The Word about The Beatles. It's here. It was an attempt to rescue them from beneath the dead weight of all that social significance and point out that what made them exceptionally good was the catchiness of their records, particularly the early ones. I got a reader's letter which was so derisive that I almost felt like turning up on his doorstep. His argument seemed to be that their greatness was so Olympian it couldn't possibly be reduced to mundane matters of craft. How could the word "catchiness" possibly do justice to their achievements? There's no point arguing with customers so I'll pursue my theory here.

Somebody recently slipped me a copy of an excellent documentary called "The Wrecking Crew". It's about Los Angeles session musicians of the 60s and 70s. It features the reminiscences of people like Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Tommy Tedesco, Earl Palmer, Plas Johnson and Glen Campbell, the people who played the actual music on everything from "River Deep Mountain High" through "Somethin' Stupid" to Herb Alpert's "Lonely Bull". It's like going under the bonnet of a whole era of peerless pop music, from The Byrds "Mr Tambourine Man" to the theme from "Hawaii 5-0", and seeing what makes it tick.

To hear Carol Kaye (pictured) and Al Casey talk about how they arrived at the backing sound of "These Boots Are Made For Walking" is to realise how much of a hit record's emotional stickiness arises from the uniqueness of a particular performance. This in turn owes a huge amount to the idiosyncratic ear of a certain musician. Nancy Sinatra has performed that song thousands of times since that recording date but she hasn't found anyone who plays the distinctive bassline like the combination of Chuck Berghofer on string bass and Carol Kaye on electric did on that day. "It's very difficult to capture," she says. Capture's the word.

"The Wrecking Crew" proves how wrong my Beatles correspondent was. And I think most rock fans are probably every bit as wrong in exactly the same way. They think greatness in pop is all about soul and inspiration and having your heart in the right place. It's not. It's about the tiny details that, in the words of some musician here, "make the tune pop". If it doesn't pop all the elements - song, singer, musicians and that unspecified box of skills which we in our ignorance summarise under the word "production" - just lie there on the slab.

When these musicians used the word "pop" it's as a verb, not a noun. That's my learning for the week.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Edward Kennedy (1932-2009)

Some time in the late 80s I was in Washington, DC for work. In those days you could visit all the main sites of the capital, including The White House, without any great security hoo-ha. A colleague and I went to the Capitol, had the tour and then decided to drop in on The Senate, which was in session. I remember climbing many stairs and then being admitted to a gallery looking down on the Senate floor. The chairman was there plus a bunch of pages, lobbyists and functionaries. A debate was going on between two senators. Hardly anyone else was in the place. One was Jesse Helms, legendary Republican from North Carolina. The other was Edward Kennedy, legendary Democrat from Massachusetts. Just occasionally, your timing turns out to be perfect.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

St Pancras Old Church

Today I went past St Pancras Old Church. The graveyard has been shaved a little to accommodate the Eurostar Terminal. It's not the first time. When the Midland Railway was being built here in the 1870s young Thomas Hardy was the architect with the job of relocating graves. It's reckoned to be one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in Europe. It was also one of the venues on the Beatles Mad Day Out photo session, as seen in the gatefold of the red and blue albums.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Why nobody waits for the fat lady anymore

During this climactic sporting weekend of the summer media coverage of sport overtook the games themselves. During Test Match Special on Saturday the Australian commentator Jim Maxwell, who was otherwise impeccable, kept having to tell his listeners back home to walk away from the radio while he updated them on what was happening in the rugby match between Australia and the All-Blacks. I fear that they wouldn't have thanked him for reminding them of something they either knew already or were taking rigorous steps to avoid knowing. On Sunday I was keeping up with the last overs via a combination of Cricinfo and the Ashes thread on Twitter. This latter told me that catches had been dropped seconds before Cricinfo did. It was a classic case of a thousand amateurs being faster and more accurate than one professional. Before the last batsmen had arrived in the middle the crawler on the Sky Sports Score Centre on my iTouch was confidently announcing "England Win The Ashes".

I was even more disturbed by the Premiership table on the BBC Sport website. I am told that this now updates automatically as matches are going on. This meant that they were showing Spurs at the top of the table with nine points seconds before the final whistle had gone at Upton Park. I know it would have taken somebody even more pessimistic than me to think that England and Spurs weren't about to win but there's something not quite right about this habit of spending emotional capital before it has been gained. It reminds me of the flat feeling you get if you open a birthday present as soon as it arrives, rather than waiting for the big day. All media is acutely aware of the fact that they're only one of thousands of different ways of getting information and therefore their natural reaction is to make sure they're the first with the news, even if it hasn't quite happened yet. Witness OK's Jade Goody "tribute issue" which went on sale before the poor woman had died. I fear this is the way of the future.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Once every ten years I put away all my records and feel a rare sensation of peace

Who can conquer Mount Cassette?

A while back I mentioned I had scores of unlogged, disorganised tapes of my old GLR radio shows. Some saintly souls offered to digitise them. Well, now I've actually got them in one very big box. How do you feel about it now?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Introducing a genuinely exciting item of information technology

The Pilot G2 "Pixie" pen, if you want to get technical. Like a normal pen but small enough to go in the pocket of your jeans. Or, at this time of year, shorts.

No money has changed hands in connection with this message.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The pity of war, the pity war distilled

On holiday in Brittany I had to hide "D-Day" by Anthony Beevor whenever the German family next door dropped round. I'm sure they think we're obsessed with the fifty year old past. I suppose I am. In my defence it's the way I was brought up, at the teat of the nation's sustaining myth. I can't claim to follow every thrust and counter thrust of the Normandy campaign. Earlier today I drove up through the bocage and tried to relate this peaceful, tidy landscape to the killing ground described in the book. I couldn't.

What I love in Beevor's books are the gripping details of human nature under unrepeatable duress. The mid-western farm boys who had little concept of a world beyond Kansas but were profoundly moved by the sight of Normandy cows desperate to be milked. The fact that the invaders stripped dead German soldiers naked for the souvenir value of their uniforms. And the head-spinning story of the three French whores who had set up a brothel in a burned-out landing craft on the invasion beach on the evening of D-Day.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The future of journalism (latest in an endless series)

There's a piece in today's Times about Liverpool's chances of winning the league which is notable not so much for what it says as for the way it chooses to say it. The opinions in it are those of Patrick Barclay, who has the title Chief Football Commentator, but it's based on an interview with Ben Smith, who presumably doesn't have an exalted title but can be relied upon to tee up the great man with a few questions (possibly on the phone from his holiday home) and then write up his responses.

This kind of approach is as much of a straw in the wind blowing through the media as all this talk about pay walls. The Times pay Patrick Barclay for his opinions and the more directly they can access those opinions the better. If they send him off to compose his thoughts it probably takes hours, even if he's quicker than most. If they just stick an apprentice in front of him with a dictaphone it probably takes five minutes and for the end-user the result is exactly the same.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

50 odd gigs

Last night John Innes sent me this:
[Following Jude Rogers' lead....] OK, here are the rules. Test your memory and your love of live music by listing 50 artists or bands (or as many as you can remember) you've seen in concert. List the first 50 acts that come into your head. An act you saw at a festival and opening acts count, but only if you can't think of 50 other artists. Oh, and list the first concert you ever saw (you can remember that, can’t you)?

It was raining last night so I tapped out this:
1. Chuck Berry and the Animals at the Bradford Alhambra, 1965. 
2. Bob Marley and the Wailers, Lyceum, 1975. Best rhythm section I ever heard. Front line not shabby.
3. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Madison Square Garden, Thanksgiving, 1980. Afterwards they had a party in the bowling alley.
4. Earth Wind and Fire, Wembley Arena, 1980-ish. The drummer levitated and turned upside down while playing a solo.
5. Diana Ross, Wembley Arena, 1983? She had a tantrum over the sound and kicked a whole monitor off the stage with just her tiny foot.
6. Little Feat at the Rainbow on a Sunday afternoon in 1974(?) The Doobie Brothers literally couldn't follow them.
7. Haircut One Hundred at the Hammersmith Odeon at the height of Heyward-mania. Mark Ellen and I only men in the audience.
8. Yes at the LSE in 1972. We sat on the floor.
9. The Jam at the Hope and Anchor in 1976. Ten people in the audience.
10. Randy Newman at the Barbican a few years back. Funniest and wisest man in pop.
11. Tom Waits at the BBC TV theatre in 1981. Audience had been bussed in to see Jim'll Fix It.
12. The Modern Lovers at Aylesbury Friar's in 1978. I Introduced them on stage.
13. Elton John at Wembley Stadium in 1975. Hot day. Girlfriend (now wife) and I sat baking on the turf. He played the whole of his new album in dispiriting sequence.
14. Paul McCartney at Earl's Court. It was the first gig that my whole family (youngest member, 7) demanded to attend.
15. Son House at the Commonwealth Centre in 1971(?)
16. Elvis Costello Sunday night residency at the Nashville Rooms in 1977.
17. Maria Muldaur at Ronnie Scott's in 1975. Shook the hand of Amos Garrett.
18. Richard Thompson at the 100 Club on the night before Cropredy a few years back. Teddy was playing guitar. The woman standing next to me was Linda.
19. The last night of the Naughty Rhythms Tour at Holloway Poly. I still have one of Pete Thomas's drum sticks.
20. Jean Michel Jarre lighting up the skyline of Houston in 1983.
21. The D'Oyle Carte Opera doing The Mikado at the Savoy Theatre ten years ago. Best performance of anything I've ever seen.
22. Led Zeppelin at Knebworth in 1978, watched from a lighting tower.
23. Stiff talent night at Eric's, Liverpool in 1977. Jayne Casey and Holly Johnson singing "I'm sticking to you because I'm made out of glue."
24. Marillion in Poznan, Poland, 1986. Band paid in zlotis which they drank afterwards in the hotel bar.
25. Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Sheffield City Hall, 1980. They screened "Deep Throat" on the coach afterwards.
26. The Headboys at the Moonlight Club in West Hampstead. Formerly Klook's Kleek.
27. Tinariwen at the Shepherd's Bush Empire last year. I have finally found my perfect vantage point.
28. Van Morrison and the Caledonia Soul Orchestra at the Rainbow.
29. The J. Geils Band at the Midnight Court at the Lyceum in 1972. We walked most of the way home.
30. The Move at the Queen's Hall, Leeds in 1967. They didn't play but came on stage to apologise.
31. Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band in Leeds, 1967. Somewhere in an arcade.
32. The B 52s at the Paradiso in 1979.
33. Greg Kihn and Sammy Hagar at some County Fair in upstate California in 1976.
34. The McGarrigles at Carnegie Hall. Rufus Wainwright came on and organised them.
35. Humble Pie at Walthamstow Poly 1971. Steve Marriott spat in the air and then walked under it.
36. Crowded House farewell at Sydney Opera House.
37. Took 17 year old son to see Bob Dylan at Wembley. "He'll be crap," I said. "He was crap," he said.
38. Louis Armstrong at Batley Variety Club in 1967.
39. The Decemberists at Shepherd's Bush Empire a few years ago.
40. The Rolling Stones at the 100 Club. They were rubbish.
41. Britney Spears sound check at the Smash Hits Poll Winners Party in 1998.
42. Status Quo at Reading in 1977.
43. Michael Jackson at Madison Square Garden in 1986. I was in the same hotel as Bubbles.
44. Live Aid.
45. Culture Club at the Dominion Theatre in 1983.
46. Boz Scaggs with his blues band at the Jazz Cafe ten years ago.
47. David Bowie on the "Station To Station" tour at Wembley. The longest, dullest drum solo in history.
48. The Grateful Dead at Wembley twenty years ago. Even duller drum solo.
49. Neil Young at Hammersmith Odeon when he played solo in front of bare brickwork.
50. Toumani Diabate played for me in his back garden in Bamako, Mali in 2007.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Remember him this way

Reading John Le Carre's "The Tailor Of Panama" on holiday. He based the titular character on his old friend and tailor Doug Hawyard who died last year. To refresh my memory I consulted Hayward's obituary in the Telegraph which included this beautiful detail:

Hayward lived in a flat above his shop, and spent weekends at a house on Lord Hambleden's estate in Oxfordshire. But he remained proud of his Cockney roots; and every week until her death in 1984 he visited his mother, Winifred (who had worked in a bullet-making factory during the war), presenting her each time with a £1 note to pay for her meals-on-wheels.

When she died the family found this money preserved in 15 ice-cream boxes under her bed, along with a note reading: "This money is to get Doug out of prison when they finally get him." She did not believe that her son could earn so much money as a tailor, and assumed that he must have criminal connections.

I'm trying to imagine which obituaries of the future will hint at the same sort of raffish life.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

London. There's no shortage.

Took a trip on London Transport this morning which was a reminder what a huge, multifarious city it is. Because I was on my own I was able to focus on my fellow travellers. The people on the Piccadilly Line early this morning, predominantly Afro-Caribbean or Filipino, were clearly on their way to church. The people on the Docklands Light Railway on their way to the London Triathlon at the ExCel Centre in Docklands (above, 10,000 competitors each day) were overwhelmingly white and middle-class. Mum, children and grandparents were gathering to cheer on super-fit 35-year old Dad who was trussed up like Paul Rutherford during the early days of Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Afterwards I went to Stratford to see if it looks like an Olympic venue. It does, kind of. All my fellow passengers on the train-replacing bus that took me from there to Highbury and Islington were East European apart from a couple of hangover-nursing posh girls who were "rear tyred". When we got to Highbury there were armies of red-headed Glasgow Rangers supporters pouring out of the station on their way to a friendly at the Emirates.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

"Darling, I could have calibrated words differently"

Obviously the three little words that matter most in a marriage are "I was wrong". In that context they lead to forgiveness, sooner or later. In politics on the other hand they are the inevitable precursor to weeks of public scorn and wounding criticism, which is why politicians seldom utter them. They approach the press conference lectern intending to say them but at the last minute they can't bring themselves to do it and retreat instead into a tongue no man other than a politician ever used. They "mis-spoke". Or in the case of Obama's clarification over what he said about the Henry Gates case they "could have calibrated words differently".

This is a very subtle way of putting things, as befits a very subtle man. It suggests he should have said things in a different way while also, by employing a term often used in the world of artillery, implying that had he known the impact his words would have had, he would have pointed them at somebody else. How he must yearn for the days when Presidents weren't expected to have a quotable reaction to every small convulsion in the nation's daily life.