Wednesday, August 31, 2011

TV Presenting - the job anybody can do and nobody can do

I haven't been watching Channel 4's coverage of the world athletics championship but nonetheless the news of the tribulations of lead presenter Ortis Deeley reached me via various waspish comments in the newspapers. You can get an idea of how at sea he was in this item in the Guardian. Now he's been demoted mid-games.

I tend to believe that in 99% of situations where the presenter has egg on his face it's not his fault. He's just the poor bloke out front trying to put a brave face on it while unseen others grapple with the logistics. Having said that it wouldn't have been asking too much of him to expect him to learn the names of the commentators he was handing over to so that he didn't get them wrong twice.

But the person who should be in the dock here is not Deeley, who is probably only guilty of a little too much ambition and not quite enough homework. The guilty party is whichever, presumably highly-paid, person at Channel 4 decided: a) that anchoring a major live sports presentation like this could be done by a novice rather than the most battle-hardened professional on your books; b) that the novice should be this graduate of Saturday morning television.

Only in television is the person who fronts the business likely to have been chosen by somebody who has never personally fronted the business, doesn't know what's involved in fronting the business and intends to keep their head firmly below the parapet when their choice of person to front the business is proved to have been so wrong.

P.S. I was talking to a senior person in a large company recently and congratulating her on the quality of her young intern, who seemed to be the last word in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed efficiency. She rolled her eyes and said "She doesn't read a book. No hinterland."

John Rawling is a pretty well-known commentator and I'd like to feel that anyone who ended up anchoring a sports show might have heard of him. If, that is, they had a hinterland.

Monday, August 29, 2011

A great music book about the days when the road was the road

This weekend I finished The Chitlin' Circuit: and the Road to Rock 'n' Roll by Preston Lauterbach, which is one of the best music books I've read in years. Chitlins are pig intestines which, when fried, were a popular delicacy among African Americans. Hence the Chitlin' Circuit was the name given to the network of dancehalls, night clubs and music joints flourishing below the Mason Dixon Line in the days before television and mass entertainment.

Lauterbach's book is essentially the story of Denver Ferguson and Don Robey, the promoters who realised that every community down south had a "dark town" and every dark town had a "stroll", a parade of black-owned barbers, beer joints, undertakers and money lenders. Where there was a stroll there was invariably a market for rambunctious musical entertainment.

Thus they despatched hundreds of entertainers on tours of one-nighters throughout the south in the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. Advance men went out in front, making sure that the musicians' record was on the jukebox. Recorded music was about immortality and profile, not about money. This was a live business and it ran as perfectly in sync with human self-interest as eBay does today.

If the performers were lucky there were black hotels that might accommodate them. More likely they'd be staying in boarding houses or sleeping on buses, doing their best to keep their stage clothes clean, trying to make sure they got paid at the end of the night and avoiding the attentions of razor-toting members of the audience who suspected the saxophone player of looking at their girl.

In the 30s it was all about the big bands. Walter Barnes and his Royal Creolians were one of the biggest attractions of that era. They were killed along with 290 dancers in a 1940 fire in a dancehall at Natchez, Mississippi. Many of these venues were known as "toilets", not because of the sanitary conditions, but because there was just one way in and one way out.

It's full of examples of ingenuity in pursuit of green: from the "policy" rackets that drove the neighbourhood economies to the promoters who put on "sissie nights" to cater for the transvestite market; from James Brown's first group whistling the instrumental passages because they couldn't afford gear to the early 78s which were literally baked like biscuits. Nobody in this book talks of creativity. They talk about making a living.

By the 40s a wartime shortage of buses meant the bands got smaller after the style of Louis Jordan's Tympany Five. It became more about rocking than swinging. When Elvis Presley finally came along, chitlin circuit heroes like Roy Brown and Wynonie Harris wondered what the fuss was about. They'd been making that exact same sound for five years.

I suspect some canny publisher suggested the author put that bit about rock'n'roll in the title. There's a tendency to undervalue any version of popular music that doesn't culminate in a big white millionaire. It's a shame we have to see it like that. Even if this journey had led nowhere in particular it would still have been a hell of a ride.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Another tiny detail from Nick Lowe's new record

The Nick Lowe album is gentle, which is not the same as being quiet. There are plenty of quiet records at the moment which are actually quite tense to listen to. Most of "The Old Magic" is performed with a band but it's put over so gently that you pick up nuances lost in 99% of pop records.

There's a lovely bit at the end of House For Sale. This is sung from the point of view of a bloke trying to get rid of the house where love "once did reside". Like all vendors he wishes to reassure potential purchasers that while its material condition may be shabby there's nothing that can't be improved.

In fact, he sings, "with time, care, cash, peace, love and understanding it can be as good as new". The unusual word in that list is "cash", which he seems to acknowledge in the half-beat's pause before singing it. When the word "cash" turns up in pop music it tends to be used aggressively. It's rhymed with flash and trash. To hear it suffused with the same comforting glow it creates in the householder who's got some is a delight. Particularly in times like these.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Forget Ab Fab. This is what the 60s really looked like

This picture of the HMV Shop in Oxford Street has been doing the rounds again today. Judging by the LP covers displayed at the back it appears to have been taken at Christmas 1965. The Beatles Rubber Soul has just come out and the shop is more than usually full.

The interesting thing is this is at the midway point of the Swinging 60s. This has been the year of the Rolling Stones' Satisfaction, Bob Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone and James Brown's Papa's Got A Brand New Bag. If you were to ask a film director to re-stage this scene he'd look at the date and suddenly it would be all paisley shirts, bell bottoms and op-art frocks which as you can see here was not the case.

This picture is a rare opportunity to examine the reality of the 60s rather than the version of it that's been propagated by Austin Powers films. The men have all got neatly-trimmed short hair and are wearing shirts and ties. There's a woman in a head scarf. The assistant behind the counter is in a nylon overall. The till has just run up 32 shillings, which was probably the price of one of those copies of the Beach Boys' Little Deuce Coupe stacked at the top above the listening booths.

There's nothing as improving as a dead end job

After we'd finished recording a podcast with David Ford the other day Fraser said "that's three of us who've been road sweepers". I did two years as a road sweeper in north London during college vacations in the seventies before graduating to the dustbins. Sweeping was boring but it was educational, like doing the Knowledge. Working on the bins was hard, lucrative and, believe it or not, fun. That's another blog entirely.

I was reminded of this experience when reading Alice Thomson's column in The Times today where she says "the professional middle classes used to mix widely in pubs, factories and communities. Now they are ghettoised" and goes on to argue that they don't need more holiday jobs helping out in law offices. There seems to be some truth in that. My own kids have done holiday jobs but they haven't done anything like the bins or the Christmas post, which were staples for grammar school boys like me back in the day.

The decline of manufacturing, the march of automation and the need for every job to require some training means that it's no longer possible for a dozy 18-year-old to find useful employment the way that we did. Everybody of my age has a vivid memory of what it was like to work in a factory or to perform some mundane, repetitive task, often in the company of people who didn't make any allowance for the fact that you were young and foolish. It was more educational than the education it was designed to subsidise.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Jerry Leiber - songwriting's great pretender

Jerry Leiber's death was announced today. A Jewish kid from Baltimore whose first language was Yiddish, he wrote the words for more classic rhythm and blues tunes than anyone else. He's best known for Hound Dog and Jailhouse Rock, which is a pity because neither of them is a particularly interesting song. Far better are the gems he and Mike Stoller wrote and produced for The Coasters: three-minute dramas like Searchin', Smokey Joe's Cafe and Young Blood, each one a dazzling mixture of Saturday morning funnies, black street slang and social comment wrapped around infallible hooks and brilliant playing.

Leiber's ear for the nuances of African-American language was uncanny, as was his nerve in putting himself into situations that he may not have experienced at first hand. In Down Home Girl the protagonist, a sharp car worker from Detroit, going out with a girl from the backwoods of the Carolinas, sings "every time I kiss you, girl, you taste like pork and beans".

The Sistine Chapel of this purple patch was Shopping For Clothes, which they wrote under the name "Elmo Glick", exactly what a black Jewish songwriter would be called. Here a would-be dandy goes into a department store, picks out the clothes that will make him the envy of the guys at the ballroom on Saturday night and then finds that his credit is refused. As somebody pointed out to me today on Twitter, the fade-out "I got a good job sweeping up every day" says more about civil rights than any amount of Blowing In The Wind.

When I was growing up those Coasters songs were merely musical comedy in the background. It was only in my twenties, via such magazines as Cream and Let It Rock, and the writings of Charlie Gillett and Richard Williams, that I came to appreciate the genius of the Coasters and Leiber and Stoller and realised that fifties r&b was not just insanely catchy and clever. It was also grown up, subtle and serious in ways we are only just now beginning to appreciate. In fact it's a lot cleverer than the records that think they're clever.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Is this what they mean by playing in the big leagues?

When our son used to play rugby as a teenager there was always a nervous moment when the opposition came running out. You'd look at them and be immediately struck by how much bigger they appeared than our boys. Surely they had to be from another age group. Of course they weren't. This was simply an illusion fostered by the fact that you didn't notice how fast your own were growing.

I was struck by something similar last night watching Tottenham swat Hearts aside by five goals to nil. Obviously there was a gulf in class which is an inevitable result of the gulf in money and prestige. But what was surprising is that there was such a gulf in physique. Even Tottenham's smaller players appeared barrel chested. Next to them Hearts looked like a bunch of under-nourished schoolboys.

Monday, August 15, 2011

He might have been a spy but he didn't patronise

Best moment from an excellent episode of the always interesting The Reunion on Radio Four was an anecdote about the spy and art historian Anthony Blunt. Called upon to explain Van Dyck's portrait of Charles I to a group of nine-year-olds in the National Gallery he surveyed the children sitting on the floor and began thus:
"If I could just remind you of the historical background to this picture....."

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Is anybody writing better love songs than Nick Lowe?

The upcoming Nick Lowe album The Old Magic" starts with a song called "Stoplight Roses". I'd never heard that particular expression before but I immediately knew what he was singing about. Many years ago a good friend who was out there in the dating game said to me, "Better no flowers than garage flowers". She said it feelingly. I have since passed on this advice to young men of my acquaintance.

The last few Nick Lowe albums are like a series of slim novels which explore the perfidious inclinations of men. I think they're some of the best pop records ever made. They're certainly some of the most affecting explorations of regret since Frank Sinatra's "lonely" albums of the 1950s. The men in Nick Lowe's songs reach for romantic gestures when cornered but generally underestimate how rigorously those gestures might be interpreted.

The key line in "Stoplight Roses" is especially chilling. "You've broken something this time," he sings, "stoplight roses can't mend".

My unique take on the London riots

The London riots may not have been the biggest outbreak of disobedience and larceny in the capital's history - as a quick flick through Peter Akroyd's London: The Biography demonstrates - but they are already the most commented on.

As someone who from time to time "gives out" about issues of the day who has been unavoidably detained in a hammock in Brittany while it's all been going on, I feel I should make it clear that, other than sending my sympathies to anyone who's been directly affected, I have nothing to say.

I have no prescriptions to offer, no advice to give the government or the police and no bright ideas for instantly improving people's behaviour. I realise this may come as a disappointment to some of my regular readers but there it is.