Friday, April 29, 2011

That Royal Wedding In Full

I went into town this morning to see what a major event like a Royal Wedding was like without commentary. I can't bear the way TV presents these events. They don't react to what happens. They simply recite a script. My favourite tweet of the morning was @kateflett pointing out that the BBC's coverage was "either ponderous (Huw) or inane (Fearne)".

I couldn't get into St James's Park. Nor could the two would-be brides (above). The hard core had staked out their pitches long before. With thousands of others I repaired to Hyde Park where the atmosphere was like a well-behaved rock concert. You wouldn't have been surprised if Duffy had come on. The crowd was a lot younger than I would have predicted. The overwhelming majority were under 35. I kept looking around for flag waving females of my mother's generation but of course they've passed on. There were mums in leggings and tee shirts with small daughters wearing plastic tiaras. There were young professionals drinking supermarket fizz and eating gourmet crisps. There were tourists from countries which executed their royals many years ago. There were a few grown-ups in fancy dress.

We watched the ceremony on big screens. It was a relief when the liturgy took over from the commentary. At the very instant that Kate Middleton reached the altar the sun came through the clouds and everyone in Hyde Park cheered. TV probably missed that.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

TV: You’ve Never Had It So Much

I’m due to go on Five Live on Tuesday to compare and contrast the run-up to this royal wedding with the run-up to the royal wedding of thirty years ago. Coincidentally we’ve been clearing out the attic and we came upon this old copy of The Guardian from June 1981. Looking at the paper is educational but nothing is more telling about the differences between then and now than the TV listings for this Thursday evening.

For a start there were just three channels. Channel Four was still a year away from launch. Unless you count Emmerdale Farm, which was still in the bucolic innocence of its teatime years, there were no soaps at all. BBC still provided lots of sport, from the Test Match to Royal Ascot and the pre-Wimbledon tennis from Eastbourne. ITV had an original single-episode drama at nine o’clock. BBC-2 was showing a 50-year-old Ealing war film right across prime time. Between ten and midnight on BBC-1 it was serious news and current affairs all the way. All the channels closed down at midnight.

Whenever there’s talk of a crisis in BBC funding, Channel 4 mutters about changing the terms of its deal with the government or ITV reports poor ad revenues I’m amused by the wailing and gnashing of teeth that arises from people who have grown up amid the groaning plenty of post-80s media. To listen to the prevailing argument we are constantly in danger of losing the things that traditionally made British broadcasting The Envy of The World amid a tide of reality formats, celebrity profanity and other meretricious rubbish. The argument goes that we had heaven in our hands and we swapped it for a toffee apple.

This thinking fails to take into account:
1. TV is far less dull than it used to be;
2. Because there is infinitely more of just about every genre, none of it can ever have the impact that it had in the days of the old duopoly - although programmes like The X-Factor are as popular as anything in the history of TV.
3. The same people who like the cleverest stuff on TV also like the dumbest stuff.
4. Even taking inflation into account, there has to be infinitely more money spent on making television in 2011 than there was in 1981.
5. I don’t know whether it’s true to say that you’ve never had it so good. You’ve certainly never had it so much.

Friday, April 22, 2011

"What's the plot?" thinking and "the best pop band in the world"

If anyone asks me to recommend a record I always suggest The Silver Seas' "High Society" or "Chateau Revenge". I tell people that in the unlikely event that they don't like them they can give them away to their next-door neighbour who assuredly will.

These are not the most celebrated, successful or culty records of the last few years but they are my favourites. I've enthused about them wherever I can but mainly with a bit of decorum. I hate the missionary zeal of music journalists who think their job is A&R. I know that a few people have taken them up on the back of my recommendation. I know this because they've told me. It's clear that they get the same thing from them as I do, that tumbling exhilaration that comes when one great up-tempo pop song follows straight after the previous one. It's not a thing that happens so often that you can afford to ignore it. (You can get a perfect idea of it here, where they stream a taster of each track.) Danny Baker shares my enthusiasm. In fact on his radio programme this week he called them "the best pop band in the world today". Simon Mayo likes them too.

Daniel Tashian, the leader of the group, was in town this week to do some songwriting. These days guys like Tashian, past the first flush of youth but clearly a brilliant songwriter, increasingly find themselves helping telegenic up and coming pop stars to write their own material. This is the template for the Duffys of this world. It's a new form of ghost writing which is turning into an industry. He was on Danny's programme for an hour yesterday and we had him on the Word podcast.

It's clear that for all their manifest quality the Silver Seas are finding it difficult, not to say impossible, to get the interest of a major record label. This is not because the labels don't recognise their quality. They do. They know they have brilliant songs and have made a couple of great records. But what nobody can answer with the Silver Seas is the "what's the plot?" question.

"What's the plot?" is the question most frequently posed nowadays when you take an act to radio. It's roughly translated as "what's the wider narrative into which this band fits and can I be guaranteed that if I support their record others will do the same?" You can see "what's the plot?" thinking at its most depressing in that poll the BBC publish at the beginning of the year where they separate the sheep who are supposed to make it from the goats who won't. It's the kind of thinking you would expect from commercial radio, where they traditionally don't play a record unless they've tested it with their listeners, but you would have thought that the BBC would be above it.

It's not just the broadcasters. It happens right across the music media where everyone is watching everyone else to make sure than the minute any artist has commercial lift-off that they've grabbed themselves a fistful of coat-tail. That's how come you find yourself startled by the ubiquitousness of new acts whose records haven't even been released yet. Everybody rushes to get them while they're allegedly hot and any sense of the public choosing what it likes goes by the board. Hence acts like the Silver Seas have problems because nobody is going to be able to make their name on the back of them. They have no narrative other than the music. In the music industry that isn't enough. Given the state of that industry you'd have thought they might be questioning some of that new-found science.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The only thing a British football manager needs is hair

The majority of the twenty managers in the Premier League are over forty-five. Five of them – Ferguson, Wenger, Redknapp, Hodgson and Houllier – are over sixty. All of those senior footballing citizens have plenty of the one commodity that blokes in their sixties frequently mourn the loss of, which is hair. Only four managers in the division - Holloway, Kean, Pulis and Martinez - have anything less than a luxuriant thatch. It seems likely that a couple of those four may be slipping out of the division at the end of the season. If they do they may be replaced by Norwich's Paul Lambert, Cardiff's Dave Jones or QPR's Neil Warnock. What have these three got in common? Hair.

I realise there are leagues where it is possible to prosper without hair. Pep Guardiola seems to manage in Spain, though it helps to be ostentatiously handsome. But over here we seem to have difficulty placing our destinies in the hands of anyone who doesn't have plenty up top. I'm not saying this is right. I'm merely observing the odd fact that whereas pressure seems to visibly thin the pates of our serving politicians when they're in office, with football managers it seems to have the opposite effect. I'm surprised no enterprising shampoo company has got round to capitalising on this by launching "Prem - For Men Who Thrive On It".

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Joan Rivers and "what the fuck are we doing Monday?"

They should take Joan Rivers - A Piece Of Work and show it to anyone who's starting a show business career of any kind. Rivers is still frantically working at the age of 75, to finance a very lavish lifestyle, to pay for a large staff (and in some cases the private education of their children), to prove to everyone that she's as good as any male comedian and finally because she's got a drive to perform that almost qualifies as an illness. Her daughter points out that ever since she can remember everybody in the family has been working on "the career" and there was never any doubt whose career that was. "As soon as you make it," she says, talking about her days on the Johnny Carson Show, "you're an industry."

It's this clear understanding that she is a product as well as a person that makes the film so watchable. You get the feeling it would be impossible to bullshit Joan Rivers. Even when the one-woman show appears to be going very well she makes her assistant read out the reviews to her and zeroes in on the negatives. She knows how this works. There are also a couple of very engaging manager/agent figures who flit in and out, talking about her desperate need to keep her date book completely packed. She has to know that she's doing something different every couple of hours. The agent, when talking about how her appearance on The Celebrity Apprentice re-ignited her career, points out that lightning can strike twice in show business "but you've got to be prepared to stand out in the rain. Joan is." He also identifies the question that performers of all kinds ask themselves all the time. "Never mind the long range. What the fuck are we doing Monday?"

Friday, April 15, 2011

Do people still snog in public?

One of the least popular features of the re-born St Pancras station is the huge statue of the canoodling couple on the upper level. If you subscribe to Danny Baker's view that statuary went wrong with the introduction of the trouser you'll probably fall in with the view that it just looks false.

The other thing that strikes me every time I go through stations and airports nowadays is the farewells I witness are no longer as fond as they used to be. The couple bidding goodbye at the ticket barrier will be in phone contact throughout the ensuing journey and so there's somehow no need to get quite as tactile and tonsillar in their parting.

I was reflecting on this while reading the story about the gay couple who'd been asked to leave a Soho pub after kissing. I don't feel as if I see quite as much public snogging as I used to, heterosexual or otherwise. I don't see teenagers on park benches osculating themselves to the point of numbness. I don't see girls pulling their boyfriends towards them on the tube in that time-honoured demonstration of ownership. And another thing. I used to have a friend who worked with the Royal National Institute for the Blind and she used to reckon that her clients were the most romantically demonstrative section of the population. I witnessed what she meant on more than one occasion on public transport. I don't even see that any more. Is it possible that the public snog is yet another area of human behaviour that has been quietly changed by technology?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

You don't have to love rock stars to love rock

Mark Ellen's written a big piece in the new issue of The Word about the unfortunate lot of the Rock WAG. It includes an interview with Beverley Martyn, the former wife and musical partner of John Martyn, in which she describes what in an extreme case it can be like to share the life of someone with the monomaniacal drive it takes to make it in the music business. In Martyn's case, when the drink and drugs were added to his own turbulent nature, this sometimes spilled into violence against her. "He's up there and everyone loves him and I'm just this little woman who has to put up with this stuff," she complains, not without reason.

A reader tweets "I may have to bin all my John Martyn records." Why? The work is one thing and the worker is another. You don't have to read a lot of history to realise that the standard proportion of exceptionally talented people have a deeply unpleasant side. In fact, given the pressures of living out their lives in public, it's likely that this can make them even more unpleasant in private. John Lennon, by his own admission, was "a hitter". Does this make "Help!" any less brilliant? Chuck Berry filmed women in lavatories. Does this change "You Never Can Tell"? John Martyn's "May You Never" is still "May You Never" no matter what an arsehole he was capable of being. While I never saw any violence in the times I met him, he could certainly be charmless. In fact like many rock stars he was charmless in the way that people are charmless when they are confident that most people they meet are predisposed to love them.

It's not surprising we do that. We begin by seeing pop stars through a mist of adolescent admiration and for many people - men, particularly, in my experience - that mist never lifts. Even when they grow up and realise that the people they meet in their daily lives are more complicated than they previously thought they continue to assume that because they love an artist's songs they must similarly love that artist. They feel that surely this person must embody the virtues in their songs. That's the rock star's trap. People want to think the worst about the personal side of, say, politicians but they want to think the best about the personal side of their rock heroes.

Philip Larkin could be an arse. He knew it better than anyone. But that doesn't make his poems any less profound. In fact it probably makes them more so. Then again Larkin didn't spend his life wandering on to stages to be greeted by a warm blast of love from a sea of upturned faces. People didn't think of him as "good old Philip Larkin". People didn't seek his autograph or want to have their pictures taken with him. He wasn't forced to hawk his personality around along with his poems. He wasn't "good old Philip Larkin".

Of course nobody ever thought people would be listening to rock records in their forties and beyond. There's nothing wrong with listening to the music but at some point you have to shake off that crippling worship of the people who made it. Some of the biggest, most admired names in rock are unbearable and quite a few of the others are nothing like as delightful as they would have you believe. And then lots of them are just like you or me, but with very special talents. I don't wholly agree with John Lennon's line "you have to be a bastard to make it" but there's some truth there. It's ridiculous to allow that to taint an appreciation of their work.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

I have seen TV sport future

Watching the Indian Premier League cricket this afternoon I wonder whether I may have glimpsed the future of TV sport.

The New Zealander Daniel Vettori was bowling, the Indian Sachin Tendulkar was batting and the South African AB de Villiers was keeping wicket in front of a packed, noisy stadium. It's probably not your idea of cricket – cheerleaders, throbbing dance music between overs, fawning close-ups of the sponsor's wife, every feature of the contest sponsored to the hilt, floodlights - but you can probably imagine.

What was really remarkable was that in between balls de Villiers was talking, via a microphone hidden in his helmet, to the off-field commentator. It was an entirely new context to see a player in. No great insights were forthcoming but because he was being spoken at his actual work bench there was none of that desperate stiffness that usually attends the post-match interview. If I was responsible for increasing the profile of AB de Villiers or one of his sponsors I'd be keen for him to do more interviews out in the middle. They polled the TV audience to see how many thought it was a good idea. 83% said yes.

It seems inevitable that as sound equipment gets more discreet, coaches feel an increased need to try to control every play on the field and broadcasters want to wring every fluid ounce of drama they can in exchange for their increasingly expensive rights, we're bound to see more of this kind of thing. Where technology can go, it tends to.

Further education is just a click away

It started with listening to the recordings of former slaves on the Library of Congress site. Fountain Hughes was 101 at the time he was interviewed and said his grandfather was owned by Thomas Jefferson. This led me to reading Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made by Eugene D. Genovese. One of the sources he quotes most is Mary Chesnut's Diary. She was the wife of a senior Confederate officer. During the Civil War she maintained a diary of how the world looked from her side. I read that. At the same time I began watching The American Civil War, Ken Burns's definitive TV history of the era which also quotes Chesnut a lot. I heard great things about Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and so I read that, by which time it began to dawn on me that 2011 is the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. I picked up the copy of Lincoln by Gore Vidal that I'd had kicking around unread for twenty years. A simple novelisation of actual events, I could only assume I wasn't intended to throw it away. Looking for something to listen to while shaving I now find David Reynolds' Civil War series "American, Empire Of Liberty" being repeated on the BBC iPlayer.

From which I conclude that it's never been easier or cheaper to pursue an interest than it is today. Some of these were digital resources, some were three dimensional objects made from paper or carbon fibre. Some were new, some were second hand, all were below cost price. In the days before the web just finding all of that would have involved a lot of shoe leather, a lot of poring over microfiches and explaining things to shop assistants. A lot of faff in fact. Above all I would have had to remember to do it. With the web you simply take action as soon as something is front of mind.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Down in the Tube Station at midnight

Last night we watched "Heart Of The Angel", another documentary from The Molly Dineen Collection Vol 1: Home From the Hill (2-DVD set). This was made in 1989 just before Angel Tube station got its multi-million pound overhaul. The film is an echo of a vanished era when ticket-takers sat on stools in lifts that were always out of order, stationmasters were sixty-something blokes with cigarettes permanently clasped between their jaws and nobody knew what an Oyster Card was.

When the station closed for the night Molly and her sound recordist descended to the tunnels where the track maintenance engineers tramped through like weary pedestrians on the way from Camden Town to Bank, dragging sleepers behind them with pick axes. Even more amazing are the "fluffers", teams of women cleaners who patrolled the tunnel in near total darkness, removing by hand the human hair that would accumulate between the rails and risked causing an increased fire hazard.

The women in charge of the team doing this horrible, tedious, filthy and backbreaking job said that she'd inherited it from an aunt who had done it for thirty-three years. She introduced her team as her daughter-in-law and sister-in-law. In a week when the high and mighty have been making pronouncements about internships and privilege it was useful to be reminded that nepotism can flourish in the most humble jobs, even way down in the bowels of the earth.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

A great documentary and a funny poem

Last night we watched "Home From The Hill", the short TV documentary that first made the name of its director Molly Dineen in 1987. It's the lead item in The Molly Dineen Collection Vol 1: Home From the Hill (2-DVD set), a collection of her work which somebody kindly sent me. "Home From The Hill" is about the return to Britain in the 1980s of retired colonial army officer Hilary Hook from his splendid home in rural Kenya to a rented flat in the suburbs. In the parlance of film Dineen occasionally breaks the fourth wall, a key feature of her later films about subjects such as London Zoo, Geri Halliwell and the decline of the farming industry. When Hook refuses to even try to use a can opener in his cramped English kitchen she can be heard saying "you're going to have to learn". It was quite easy to talk to him in this way because Hook was the father of her then-boyfriend and clearly adored her. At the end of the film he walks the English countryside complaining of the cold. "Let's go to a pub," he says before leaning towards her and launching into a poem:
It is not true to say I frowned,
Or ran about the room and roared;
I might have simply sat and snored -
I rose politely in the club
And said, 'I feel a little bored;
Will someone take me to a pub?'
She asks him whether he's happy. "Blissfully happy in your presence," he says, twinkling. "Otherwise I represent divine discontent."

This morning I looked up the poem. It's "A Ballade Of An Anti-Puritan" by G.K. Chesterton. Amazing.

Friday, April 08, 2011

How long do we give handwriting? Ten years?

Why iPads may not be good for "creatives"

I subscribe to iPad versions of The Times and The Economist. I find the iPad a convenient way of reading anything that's up to a thousand words long and doesn't rely on pictures, the kind of thing where you roughly know what you're going to get. The big feature, the journey of discovery, I'm not going to tackle on a screen.

I stick to the Times's Opinion section, the sport and a few other bits and pieces. In The Economist it's Bagehot and the British section of the magazine. Because I broadly know what I'm looking for and I'm more likely to find it via the navigation at the front than by idle flicking through (so much for the delight of page turning) there's less likelihood of my attention being caught by a good picture or a showy pull-quote. In fact the ideal layout for an iPad page could be this one on the left from today's Economist. Self-contained, looks long enough to read in kettle-boiling time and doesn't require the traditional picture of Eton boys and urchins.

When you're reading a publication on the iPad you're not bothered about bulk and it was the drive for bulk, which in turn was driven by specialist advertising opportunities, that eventually made me stop buying papers, particularly weekend ones. It resulted in papers that were groaning with fluff, where to find the bit you wanted to read you had to plough through tons of stuff which you didn't want to read and further tons of stuff to sort out for the binman on Monday night. I wonder whether the rise of the screen read will also result in an end to supplements, sections and some of the fluffier end of design. It won't bother me as a reader if it does.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

If you're the record business, why not sell records to people?

What has happened to the music business in the last ten years was impossible to plan for and its impact was, in the words of PG Wodehouse, "like catching the down express in the small of the back". However they don't make things any easier for themselves by clinging to the wreckage of the old way. The new Paul Simon album "So Beautiful Or So What" is very good. It was originally supposed to come out in Britain in April. He did interviews about it. They organised a playback for media. They circulated copies for review. I wrote a favourable one in The Word. Then they decided to postpone the release until Paul Simon tours the UK in June.

Leave aside for a second the fact that anyone observing the careers of other boomer acts like the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney would have noticed long ago that tours no longer sell new albums. Leave aside also the fact that any Paul Simon fan who has heard about this record will now either buy a copy from or get it from some PtoP site. When you have built up some anticipation around the release of anything, what on earth is the use of delaying that release and allowing that anticipation to fade into disinterest? Public attention is a finite resource and it is quickly diverted on to something else.

I asked this question of a former record label employee this week. He explained it as follows: "They'll be trying to get it to chart". Note he was not saying they're trying to get it to sell. In the old days when the record business was all about manufacture and distribution a chart entry was a useful thing in that it encouraged all the smaller record shops to stock the item and increased the distribution. Now that there are no small record shops what is the point of "getting it to chart" other than to make the marketing manager look good?

The former label man is now an artist manager. Deciding he had more chance of selling his artist's CDs to people attending his gigs than hoping they would go to shops, he negotiated to buy 500 copies from the label. The best price they would give him was over £6 a copy. "Can't you do any better than that?" he said, noting that the same record was available on Amazon for about £7. "No," they said, "because we want those people to go and buy a copy the following day - preferably at a chart return shop." He struck a better deal by buying his own artist's records from a retailer.

All too often that's the record business. The horse is already gambolling around in the upper pasture and the stable boy is busy oiling the lock on the stable door.