Monday, November 28, 2011

Funny how time doesn't slip away

Ken Russell just died at the age of 84. Rob, who does a fantastic blog called Another Nickel In The Machine, posted a link to A House In Bayswater, a short film Russell made in 1960. I just watched it at lunchtime and was struck by something that is either banal or quite profound.

When I was a kid, round about the time that Russell was making his film, you couldn't see the early life of an 80-year-old man. There were still pictures and the odd bit of over-cranked cinema film but you couldn't visit this place the way that you can with film. Now you can. Whether the pictures are produced by a professional or shot in your own back garden the past will always be with us in a way that it never was in the past.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

50 remarkable gigs I went to

Just found this on my Facebook page. I wrote it a few years ago.  These are just a few that stuck in my mind.
1. Chuck Berry and the Animals at the Bradford Alhambra, 1965. First house.
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. The following week John Lennon was shot.
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. This was the golden age of prog and yet it felt as low-tech and beat clubby as that scene with The Yardrbirds in "Blow Up".
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 in 1973. I *know* how disappointing he can be because I saw him in the days when he wasn't.
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 in the 80s. 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  got in the hotel lift and there was Bubbles with his minder..
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.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Is Twitter the tabloid of tomorrow?

In the middle of the evidence-giving at the Leveson enquiry yesterday I saw a tweet posted by a quite prominent media figure. He's not a journalist, which may explain why he was re-tweeting an outrageous allegation about the people giving evidence, which was in turn allegedly tweeted by another prominent person. 

Maybe the mood of righteous indignation had got to him. It took him only a few minutes to post another tweet pointing out that he did not actually know that the first tweet came from the person he had said it had. Maybe he then hurriedly deleted the original tweet. I hope he did.

The potential legal repercussions of those 140 characters took my breath away. Repeating a libel is, as every hack knows, just as bad as originating it. Repeating a libel and then attributing it to someone who didn't say it is off the scale.

The phone-ins this morning are all about making the press behave. I think the drift of the business will probably take care of that on its own. If it's no longer about moving paper from a shelf there will be less call for the lurid headlines which are the endgame of the controversial stories. 

Maybe Twitter is the tabloid of tomorrow, the place where people will gather to share stories which confirm all their prejudices. But just as the press is going to matter less, social media is going to matter more and everybody is going to have to make sure their fingers aren't quite so tappety-happy.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

How PRs make their clients look bad

I went to the National Film Theatre to see Molly Dineen interviewed about her documentaries. The new box set contains her films about Geri Halliwell, the House of Lords and the farming industry in crisis. Talking to Mark Lawson she recounted how hard she’d had to fight against Alastair Campbell when making her short film about Tony Blair to save it from consisting of endless unconvincing pieces to camera. It was only when she filmed him in his kitchen that he came over as sympathetically as she had found him in real life. She showed a few outtakes where she tries to coach him in how to avoid looking insincere. In the same vein she showed a clip of Geri Halliwell phoning her lawyer to assert her editorial control over the film that Dineen is already making as she’s doing so.

Dineen also revealed that she kept some information out of her film The Ark that could have looked bad for London Zoo. Lawson pointed out that this might be a dereliction of her duty as a journalist. She said she wasn’t a journalist. She was a film maker and she wanted to make a rounded picture of her subjects and she wasn’t interested in having her material obscured behind one big punchline.

It made me think that what she did was more like magazine profile writing. I thought this even more when she said that nowadays everyone has armies of PRs devoted to making sure she can't make the films she wants. It's the same in magazines. Subjects are scared of letting writers and photographers have any kind of personal access for fear that they will be ridiculed. PRs, frightened of losing their contracts, go along with it. You end up with a sterile half an hour in a hotel room and a boring feature. 

It doesn't make sense. A journalist provided with no raw material is far more likely to make up the deficit in meanness. On the occasions I've enjoyed relatively unlimited access to subjects I’ve deliberately not included material that could easily have been used to make them look bad or stupid. I've done that because I’d come to the conclusion that they weren’t either thing.

The subjects of Dineen's films have ranged from insecure pop stars through crusty old buffers to blokes whose job it is to go round shooting unwanted calves. In her films they emerge as occasionally contradictory, sometimes absurd, but this only makes them easier to like. She’s not interested in making people appear bad or stupid because essentially she doesn’t believe that they are. I think I agree with her. 

That doesn’t mean that I come out of every star encounter thinking I’ve just met someone “lovely”, which is the conclusion you might easily reach when scanning journalists social networking sites. But if I feel that they’re trying to  control my access I’m far more likely to think they're a pain in the arse. If they give me nothing better to write about I’m likely to say so.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

If £8 for 90,000 Spotify plays isn't enough, what is?

"Got paid £8 for 90,000 plays. Fuck Spotify." That was a tweet the other day from the musician/producer Jon Hopkins. You can see how opening an envelope containing that royalty statement might catch you on the raw. Apparently an increasing number of smaller labels are removing their music from the streaming service because the revenues aren't worth it and they fear that it could have a detrimental effect on the sales of their CDs.

I'm not seeking to press Spotify's case but how big would the cheque have to be to make Jon Hopkins think it was worth persevering with them. Double? Triple? Ten times bigger? At what point does it seem about the right sum of money? Presumably at a point where Spotify decide they no longer want to deal with the Jon Hopkins of the world and will stick to Lady Gaga.

This kind of thing's happening all the time at the moment. In the days of scarce physical product prices were high and the winners could make money. Now we're in the world of digital product, frictionless communication and limitless supply even the rest of the field are achieving numbers and numbers make people think they should be earning money which is commensurate with those numbers. But it doesn't work like that. Writers are getting paid far less money (if they're getting any money at all) to have their work read by far more people on a blog than they would have got for having it read by a relatively small readership in a paid paper product.

Nobody knows anymore what the numbers signify. Presumably those 90,000 plays aren't the equivalent of 90,000 plays on a radio station big or small. (With traditional mechanical payments you get a lot more for having your song played on Radio Two than you would for having it played on a small local station.) Presumably 90,000 represents the number of times any one individual has accessed the stream on which the artist's song can be found. What's the average number of individuals it would take to generate that kind of activity? This 90,000 presumably includes a handful of people who listen to one song obsessively and a lot more people who just click once out of curiosity and never go back. It's not 90,000 fans. It's not even 90,000 listeners. It's 90,000 clicks.

If you sold 90,000 records you might expect to have done quite well. And you'd have reason to believe that you might be on your way to selling 250,000 records. You'd be some kind of a hit. If you'd had your record played just once on a radio station with 90,000 listeners you'd expect to get, well, eight pounds?

Monday, November 14, 2011

My strange afternoon with Linda Ronstadt

At some point in the mid-90s I was asked to interview Linda Ronstadt. She was in London promoting some album of ballads. The day before the interview the PR called and said Linda had hurt her back. She could still do the interview but she had to remain lying down. Would that be OK if she did the interview in bed?

Avoiding mentioning that there was a time when an interview with Linda Ronstadt conducted in a recumbent position would have been a fantasy assignment, I assented. The following day I turned up at Claridges and was conducted to a suite where a make-up artist was just finishing touching up the make-up of Linda Ronstadt. She was sitting up in a king-sized bed with the covers carefully arranged over a decorous high-collared nightgown.

She apologised for the unusual circumstances and I interviewed her for about an hour. I've often thought back on that encounter in the years since. Obviously this makes me appear naive but it dawned on me very slowly that she probably hadn't hurt her back. What she was really doing was trying to avoid any press comment on the fact that she is a lot bigger than she was back in the day.

To which you might say, aren't we all? Yes we are but most of us are allowed to grow up and grow out without being ruthlessly measured against peers who are insanely motivated by their own vanity (such as Madonna) or slowly disappearing before our eyes (such as Cheryl Cole).

Male rock stars are constantly reminded of their younger, more beautiful selves. The unsinkable vanity of blokes means that they just shrug it off. Female rock stars don't.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Tiger Woods caddy and Oscars producer both got in trouble because they were desperate for laughs

In the same week that Steve Williams, former caddy of Tiger Woods, has been in trouble for saying, at a public event, that he celebrated a win by his new employer because he “wanted to shove it up that black arsehole” Oscars producer Brett Ratner has had to resign his prestigious job because he said, at a public Q&A, “rehearsing is for fags”.

 Obviously both remarks could be construed as offensive, though since some papers are deleting the noun in Williams’ outburst while others have struck out the adjective it seems safe to say that people aren’t entirely sure how. Since we weren’t there at either occasion we are free to believe that both remarks were said with some bitterness, which they probably weren’t.

 I think it’s more likely that both were said with a smile on the speakers face in the hopeful expectation that they would be justified by laughter from the audience. That’s not because people agree with either of the sentiments of the sentences but because audiences have become pre-programmed to laugh at the end of any sentence which finishes with a profanity. It’s how 50% of comedy works.

 I’ve always taken the view that you shouldn’t use language in a public gathering that you wouldn’t use at a school speech day. Not only does it run the risk of going wrong, as it has done in these cases, but it’s terribly needy. Just how desperate are you to get a laugh?

Monday, November 07, 2011

The record collection that matters is the one in your head

On Friday night, having recorded an item for BBC Front Row about the fact that I can no longer kill time by hanging around in record shops, I went on to spend an hour doing just that. It made me think of lots of records I hadn't thought of in ages.

Of course with Amazon and iTunes we can now access far more records than can be accommodated in even the biggest record shop, but what we don't have is any equivalent of the record shop's display function. All that often bewildering range has been replaced by the tiny window represented by the home page of iTunes and it's harder and harder to remind yourself what you might like to listen to. That rack of records that you used to run your finger down has been replaced by a computer "containing" everything. You know it's all back there but you don't know what lever to pull to bring it forth.

In the future we'll increasingly be presented with limitless range behind the tiny window. To deal with it we will increasingly fall back on the music we can immediately call to mind and that often means the music that we first heard at an age when we were unusually receptive. In my case that's the 70s, a decade which was far broader than cheap jokes would suggest. If I set my internal compass for that decade I can instantly come up with a whole load of records that I love from that time. If somebody asked me to do the same for the 90s I'd go blank.

If you're interested in what came out of my head yesterday, here are 66 of them.

Friday, November 04, 2011

There's nothing you forget more quickly than yesterday's technology

I'm reading The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember. It begins with the author recounting his digital history. How he spent his entire savings on a new computer. I remember that. He pointed out that this came with a piece of Apple software called HyperCard. I'd forgotten that. I can't believe I'd forgotten that.

In the 90s I was doing a music radio programme for GLR, which involved me logging each record I played. I user HyperCard to do this. I would spend hours every week creating playlists on HyperCard which I would then export, print out and send to the music library at GLR where they would be entered in some huge mainframe computer. At the time it seemed impossibly futuristic. People used to remark on it. It looked like this. Amazing.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

It's amazing when you remember something from a book correctly

I first read George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London in my early twenties. The thing I remembered most about it is what he said about waiters. I picked up a second-hand copy this week, largely to check I'd remembered it correctly. Amazingly, it fell open at the page.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Like Pete Townshend, I miss the record companies

I've been reading the text of Pete Townshend's John Peel lecture. He makes the perfectly valid point that what record companies and music publishers used to do was a form of banking. You know banks. They're the people we tolerate when they're lending us money and despise when they're wanting some return. *Just* like record companies.

I've been waiting for this for the last few years. Now that record companies are not the force they were we get nostalgic about them. We realise the things they did and wish they still did them.

When you had to buy an album rather than cherry-pick a track record companies could afford to subsidise acts to go on tour.

When that album cost £10-£15 they could take some of that margin and spend it on marketing, which meant music magazines got advertising.

When record stores were the shop window, the companies could hope that your attention might be attracted by something you hadn't gone in there to get.

All that's gone now. People download individual tracks, which means even successful acts get a fraction of a fraction of the revenue. Record companies can't afford to spend money on promoting records. All that matters nowadays is getting into those few inches of space occupied by the home page of the iTunes store.

What used to work in the artists' favour, although they could never be caught admitting it, was competition between record companies, struggling to elbow each other off the airwaves, out of the front window of HMV and off the cover of NME. In order to achieve this they would spend lots of money. They'd pay big advances, invest in name producers, buy advertising spaces, press up lots of copies, distribute them and then spend more money on ballyhoo in an effort to move them out of the shops.

And when one record company failed to break an artist, as they usually did, there would be another one waiting to have a go. I don't buy the idea that artists are cast aside as soon as they don't sell. I'm consistently amazed to see how commercially unsuccessful artists keep on making records. This is the business from which NOBODY RETIRES. Hope springs eternal in the record business.

I agree with a lot of his analysis but I can't see iTunes, or anybody, adopting Townshend's recipes. I can't imagine lots of talent spotters sitting there patiently ploughing through MP3s. I don't know whether everybody who writes a song has the right for it to be heard any more than anybody who writes a blog has the right for it to be read. In the days when John Peel listened to every demo there was barely any email. He would only receive them from the relatively small number of people who could get up off their backside, make a record, pay to get it pressed up, buy a Jiffy bag, take it down the Post Office and send it to the BBC. Believe me, it's not like that today.