Monday, August 30, 2010

Has record reviewing gone mad?

I was talking to a fellow hack last week. Said hack was due to review a new album for one of our more august newspapers. The only way the record company would let the hack listen to the record was if one of their employees came round to hack's place of work with an iPod containing said new album, found a spare office somewhere, sat them down, clamped the headphones on and then played them the record while the drone looked on to make sure they weren't uploading it to the internet.

This ritual, which introduces into the carefree world of pop picking a formality more usually associated with registering a death, is the most absurd thing I've heard of in the increasingly ludicrous and security-obsessed world of pre-release reviewing. I won't tell you the name of the artist in this case lest it should embarrass my friend, who's only trying to earn a living. It ought to embarrass the newspaper, who are prepared to give space to a review based on so glancing an encounter with the record. It probably won't embarrass the record company who are one of those who have worked themselves into such a state of hyper-tension about piracy and pre-release leakage that they prefer to send journalists links to password-protected streams rather than CDs.

Personally, I'm too old and set in my ways to play along. If I have to listen to a record under those conditions I'd really rather not hear it at all and, if they've got any sense, they won't want me to because I'm likely to take out my anger at the process on the poor bloody record. One thing is certain. Whether you're sitting in a meeting room under the gaze of a PR or tethered to your computer auditing a stream, anything much less conducive to the proper spirit in which pop music should be enjoyed would be difficult to imagine. It encourages the rush to judgement which usually comes up with the wrong answer.

Of course, record companies don't care whether critics are wrong about their records provided they're favourably wrong. They know that the first past the post review system forces critics to come up with an opinion before they have one. They hope that based on a hack's often premature opinion people may buy the record. This all conspires to deceive the public. Reviewers trying to justify their continued employment tend to have crisp, quotable opinions when what they really think could better be summed up in a Gallic shrug.

Time was you bought the record and got to know it afterwards. If you'd bought it on the basis of some review and it didn't seem to live up to the claims - I bought Patto's Roll 'em Smoke 'em on the basis of a review that called it "the missing link between Abbey Road and the Mahavishnu Orchestra" and I still haven't forgiven the bastard who wrote those words even though it's 38 years ago - then you persuaded yourself that you liked it. This created a tradition of self-deception which ran like a silver thread through the collective memory of the rock cognoscenti.

We don't have to do it anymore. Now we can get to know records over time and decide if we want to stream them, download them or even buy them on the basis of how we feel. There's no rush. The records aren't going anywhere. The record companies should calm down and so should the papers. There are no verdicts. Just opinions. If they're interesting opinions we'll still have them next week.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The charisma of a forty-year-old piece of window dressing

This large piece of hardboard is a reminder of just how important record sleeve art once was. This was put in the window of the old HMV shop in Oxford Street in 1973 to mark the release of "Burnin'", the second Island album by Bob Marley and The Wailers. My old friend and colleague Steve Wright rescued it when the display period was over and it took pride of place in various hippified pads in north London. It used to look down on Saturday nights as we returned from the pub to sit round smoking and listening to the new John Martyn album. Anyway Steve moved to Australia and ten years ago when he died a friend and I had the job of sorting out the stuff he'd left in Holloway. We found the Wailers hardboard and, rather than see it on a skip, I took it home. It did stints in the office and at university halls of residence. It has holes in the corner where a cord has been threaded to hang it from a picture rail. It's still in one piece after nearly forty years. Son wants to keep it and is therefore going to get it framed, which seems the most sensible way to ensure its survival. Odd the things that survive.

The Beatles - as brought to you by Miner's make-up

While making a half-hearted attempt to tidy up in my work room at home I came across this copy of The Beatles' "Hello Goodbye" from 1967. The B-side is "I Am The Walrus". That's another reminder of this group's uniqueness; no other act before or since has scattered its jewels so freely. Anyway, the Miner's make-up ad which was printed on the bag, as it was on most of the Beatles classic singles, attests to the fact that brand tie-ins on pop records have been going on for a long time and aren't some post-Simon Cowell abomination.

I used to get the bus to school. When we came home we passed Shaw Cross Pit just as the miners were coming off shift. They'd been in the pit baths but they still had coal dust round their eyes. I can remember wondering if there was a direct relationship between the eyeliner applied by girls prior to going out and the black outline that remained on the miners' eyes all the time and whether the make-up manufacturers had deliberately named themselves after the miners. I never voiced this thought at the time. Can't believe I'm doing it now.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Was this the first gay magazine?

The first gay magazine that I remember was "Jeremy". This caused enormous excitement forty years ago among the college friends I had who took interest in such things, but had yet to officially decide they were gay. Before that they used to buy "Films And Filming", a magazine that combined learned features about distinguished lighting cameramen with yay-high pictures of film actors like Terence Stamp, Bjorn Andresen, Malcolm McDowell and (as is the case here) Sean Connery in torrid states of undress. The magazine was obviously run by a gay publisher or someone who had worked out you would sell a lot more copies of your Eisenstein retrospective if you wrapped it in a picture of David Hemmings dressed as a gladiator. I found this old copy in the office today and it made me very nostalgic for the days when you could be apparently publishing one thing while actually publishing another.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I wouldn't buy a £50 ticket in a £30 economy

Happened to catch a tea interval conversation on Test Match Special between Jonathan Agnew and the bloke in charge of the Oval during yesterday's England-Pakistan test match. The subject was the poor attendances we've seen during internationals in other parts of the country finally starting to affect the London matches. The Bloke, who was very reasonable and perfectly happy to accept criticism, admitted the evidence seemed to be pointing to the fact that the prices might be too high. The cheapest ticket to attend a London Test for just one of its five days was £50.

He let slip that he'd always believed that if people would pay £30 they would pay £50. This is a classic example of how prices rise in a boom. The people setting the prices - whether they're the people running the Oval or the managers of your favourite indie rock band - keep pushing the price until they feel the market begin to push back. They do it in bigger increments all the time. It's not hard to see their reasoning. They've got to make up for massive shortfalls elsewhere, whether it's the drop-off in record sales or attendances at county matches, and they argue that £50 for six hours of top class sporting entertainment seems reasonable, certainly compared to whatever you have to pay at Chelsea or Arsenal or the Grand Prix.

This is not how the customer sees it. The customer, generally male, sees it as £50 each for him and possibly his wife; then maybe another £50 for two offspring; add in the general expenses of a day out (transport, parking, food, drink, unforeseens) and it's not hard to spend £200 on what could turn out to be a weather disrupted day of no great distinction without any winner at the end of it. And here it's not like football. Our man could spend £200 and return home with a family which is less happy than the one he went out with.

It's the same with rock bands. You might be able to demand £50 for your absolute favourite performing at the top of their game in a perfect venue. Problem is that a lot of the time you're delivering the act you've always kind of wanted to get round to seeing performing a ho-hum set in an unsympathetic venue with rotten sight lines. People don't go home from an unsatisfactory day or night out saying, oh, well, you have to take the rough with the smooth. They go home feeling angry and swindled.

Part of the answer, of course, is for the £50 ticket to go back to being £30. At £30 you might be prepared to take the risk. For £30 you might be prepared to give the event the benefit of the doubt. It ultimately makes a kind of sense for the promoters too. Already in the USA this summer they've been slashing the prices of tickets for big stadium shows because they have to get people in there to buy the tee shirts and to pay for the parking. Otherwise they're stuck with hugely expensive real estate with nobody in it. There's a piece about this in the latest issue of The Word.

While the web has had a deflationary effect on most things over the last few years, with live entertainment it's pushed prices in the other direction. This seems to be at an end. You can't go on charging £50 when everybody out there knows it's a £30 economy. Not unless you're going to be able to guarantee the experience.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The fathomless stupidity of the Football Association

I've long suspected that the Football Association, with its rotating cast of chief execs, long-established reputation for appointing bottom pinchers to senior positions and inability to produce a football pitch with grass on it, is the worst-managed organisation in the world. Last week's announcement that the next England manager would definitely be English confirmed this supposition beyond reasonable doubt.

There may well be good reasons for appointing an Englishman. There is not one good reason for announcing this is what you intend to do at some point in the future. Where does it get you? It means that you can't have a conversation with any candidate from another country. It means that the three English managers who could claim to be qualified for the job know that they've got the whip hand in any negotiations. And what are you going to do if Fabio Capello wins the European Championship? Why in the name of all that's holy would any organisation show their hand in this fashion?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Complete Smiley is the ultimate mile-melter

Yesterday we drove back to London from the south western tip of Brittany. It takes about thirteen hours, which can be tedious. This time the journey was considerably lightened because we listened to ten hours of The Complete George Smiley, Radio Four's dramatisation of all the John Le Carré novels that feature his hero George Smiley, "the last illusionless man". It's over twenty hours of running time in total.

It makes great radio drama because most of it involves characters who choose their words with surgical care. Hearing great actors like Simon Russell Beale, Brian Cox and Eleanor Bron delivering lines like "a nation's secret services are the only real expression of its sub-conscious" or "between us we'd make one good man" is a rare treat. The plots are easier to follow than in the TV adaptations or the original books because on radio they have to be. Every now and then there's a "doof-oof-ratatat" interlude indicating that somebody has been shot trying to escape. A voice quickly and plausibly tells us who it was.

We haven't finished it yet. The thought that we might do so makes the prospect of driving to Glasgow in a couple of weeks time a bit less of a chore.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

I envy the people who stay late at the beach

On holiday in Brittany we end each day with a post-prandial walk on the beach. No matter how late we leave it there will be some family group still down there, making sand castles, playing volleyball, swimming or doing something else that most people stopped doing at the end of the afternoon.

Ever since I can remember I've envied the people who were still on the beach long after the rest of us had made whatever concession we needed to make to getting ready for dinner. I can remember looking out of the window of hotel dining rooms and seeing a handful of kids still out there playing, the whole beach to themselves. How did they do that? How could their parents be so relaxed?

I've concluded it's an attitude of mind. The people who are still on the beach at nine o'clock aren't worried, like most of us, about making their leisure fit the dictates of a clock. They're not terrified that Junior will never go to sleep if he doesn't get fed by a certain time. They're not haunted by the fear that they will arrive at the restaurant too early or too late. They're not suffering the agonies of the rest of us by trying to make everything perfect. They're built for holidays in a way that most of us, sadly, aren't.