Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Are the Mirror changes part of bigger changes for editors?

I've just heard on the Media Show that Lloyd Embley, the quiet man who's replaced the editors of the Mirror and the Sunday Mirror and will be at the helm of the new seven-day paper, is "a good production journalist".

At which point I would be failing in my trumpet-blowing duty if I didn't point out that in my current column for In Publishing I said:
Editors used to be picked for their ability to predict what was about to be interesting to people. In the future, they'll be picked for their ability to note where the interest is and minister to it.
I was talking about magazine editors but I think the point holds good.

Thinking about Doc Watson, who died yesterday

One of the most educational records I ever bought was The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's 1972 double album Will the Circle Be Unbroken. The idea of putting a bunch of hippies in the studio with the old time country artists that they admired seemed rather controversial at the time. The performances were beautiful and they kept an additional tape running throughout to capture the respectful exchanges between the youngsters and the older, shorter-haired musicians like Mother Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis, Earl Scruggs, Roy Acuff and Doc Watson.

Watson, the guitarist and singer from North Carolina, seemed an even older and more venerable figure than the rest, maybe because he was blind. In those days there seemed to be an immense gulf between the ancients and the revivalists. In fact he was only forty-nine, the same age as Johnny Depp is today. "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" helped introduce him to a new audience and ensured that he had an even longer career reviving his music than he did playing it in the first place. He died yesterday at the age of 89.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Has this shortarse been to his last standing gig?

Last night I went to see Esperanza Spalding at Koko. She was good. However I fear that unless I have a belated growth spurt this may be the last standing gig I go to. The last time I went to Koko was to see M.Ward. He played sitting down which meant that there was no chance of me catching sight of him at all from my position on the floor.

This time I got there earlier and I was on my own which meant I could find a niche up in the Gods where I could see the stage. The problem was that as more and more people arrived they took up positions on the stairs in order to get a view and I was hemmed in, unable to move forward, backwards or sideways. Theatregoers or football fans wouldn't remain standing in the same place for 90 minutes before the entertainment begins. Why do music fans put up with it?

Some of the best gigs I've ever been to were at old theatres like Koko but that was in the days when I hadn't been up since six in the morning. The experience was still novel enough for me to put up with the discomfort. I'm not sure I'm going to do it any more. I spoke to Esperanza Spalding this morning. She explained she played venues where they could get enough paying customers in to enable her to pay her 12-piece band. That makes sense for her. Nonetheless this short arse resigns.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Soon as you're dead you're fair game for Vanity Fair

This is the cover of the new Vanity Fair, one of the most upmarket (or "upscale" as the Americans call it) magazines in the world.

The two features it's leading on are: "Marilyn: The Lost Nudes" and "Whitney Houston...her toxic choices and tragic final days".

They'll probably sell well. All magazines love a prurient story about a famous person. That's because all magazine readers love a prurient story about a famous person. There are absolutely no exceptions to this rule. The only thing that makes Vanity Fair upmarket and the National Enquirer downmarket is that the former waits until you're dead to write it.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Is this where they invented celebrity photography?

The March by E.L. Doctorow is a novel about Sherman's notorious march through Georgia and the Carolinas at the end of the American Civil War. Enterprising photographers followed the armies to record the action and did a brisk business taking pictures of the men in uniform for the cartes de visite that were currently popular. One of Doctorow's characters is a photographer keen to make Sherman's photograph. He tell his apprentice:
As a photographer you get to know human nature and the one thing about human nature it that it is the most famous people who think they are not getting enough of the world's attention.
I like that. I hope they've found room for it in the Steppenwolf stage adaptation which is running in Chicago at the moment.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Hitler's Children

Documentaries with the word Hitler in the title are such a staple of British TV that when we're looking for something worth watching my wife says "what's on the Hitler channel?" Most of them have nothing new to say. This week's BBC-2 film Hitler's Children was different. Its subjects were the son of Hans Frank, the ruler of wartime Poland, the daughter of Amon Goeth, commandant of the Plaszow concentration camp (played by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List), the grandson of Rudolph Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz and two middle-aged women who had to deal with being called Goering and Himmler.

Most documentaries with the word Hitler in the title are happy to provoke a satisying shudder. This didn't even bother to do that. There was no recounting of specific atrocities. It was assumed we knew enough to be able to imagine that for ourselves. Instead you had a serious examination of what it's like to live with guilt for things you didn't do. There were elements of the standard 21st century documentary about it - there has to be "a journey to find out" in every film - but it paid its audience the great compliment of not telling them at the beginning of the film all they were going to find out at the end. See it if you can.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Do we have to talk like this, "people"?

Good call.
That sucks.
Let's do this.
Stay safe, people.

Thanks to Twitter and Facebook there aren't many days that go by without my having to read one of those eight expressions. Why do I find them so irritating? It's partly because they sound as manifestly false as Steve Maclaren's Dutch-inflected English. It's mainly because they are all deliberate overstatement and I don't like to see spoken English, which quietly prides itself on selecting the word five degrees below the emotion in question, go in that direction.

Flavours of yoghurt are not "awesome". "Let's do this" implies an act of physical courage, not a trip to the multiplex. "Good call" should announce a decision which could have had dire consequences, not the choice of a pop record.

It seems particularly inappropriate to hear this kind of wild overstatement employed by a generation whose knowledge of human extremity hasn't gone much further than a Glastonbury lavatory. Contrast this with the Edwardian actor Ernest Thesiger who survived the battle of The Somme. Since that battle must have been "a mixture of surprise and fear", he would have been justified in using the word "awesome". Instead, when he was asked what it was like he reputedly said "oh my dear, the noise, the people!"

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The most precious music costs next to nothing

I don't know where Desert Island Discs stand on boxed sets but I'd be quite happy to spend eternity with the four CDs in this set.

It does pretty much everything I would want music to do. And it costs buttons.

Masterpieces: 1926-1949 (4CD)

Monday, May 21, 2012

A little Eurovision dirty work never hurt anyone

I've just finished Savage Continent by Keith Lowe, which is the most depressing book I've ever read. It's about "Europe in the aftermath of World War II". Some of it - such as the German death camps, the Russian rape of Germany and the fate of millions of displaced people - I knew about. Much of it - such as the Soviet crushing of any dissent on their side of the Iron Curtain and their deliberate aggravation of existing ethnic tensions - I could have guessed at. What's most depressing is the amount I didn't know about and just how much killing was still going on when the world was allegedly at peace.

It would look tasteless to list any specific examples here. If you really want to know what people are capable of doing to their neighbours you should read it. You come away from it mildly nauseated, newly aware of the fact that every nation or national group has plenty of reasons for hating the people next door and that the modern continent of Europe, this green and pleasant, effectively borderless land latticed by motorways, theme parks, shopping malls and holiday resorts, has been built on top of a charnel house.

Now that I've finished the book I've got time to listen to all 42 entries for this year's Eurovision Song Contest in time for tomorrow night's Front Row. I don't know whether anyone has ever claimed that the brotherhood of Eurovision could heal the wounds of war. One thought struck me. If this weekend any of the countries of Europe want to settle an ancient score or two by deliberately bearing false witness or marking down the entry of their ancient enemy, that's absolutely fine with me. I've just been reading about how they used to do it.

Friday, May 18, 2012

You can't blame the 60s for flares

Earlier today somebody sent me a picture taken in the street in 1967 and demanded to know why nobody was wearing flares.

Despite what most contemporary art directors might think, flares hadn't really arrived in 1967. They were around - generally known as bell bottoms - but they didn't become the uniform of youth until a few years later. The costumes The Beatles wore on the covers of Sg Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour in 1967 were adventurous in most respects but their trousers were narrow and straight.

If you look at this picture of young men climbing the lighting towers at Woodstock, which was two whole years later in 1969, they appear to be wearing straight-legged Levi's.

The first pair of flares I remember owning were grey herringbone jobs bought at Harry Fenton. That would have been in the winter of 1969-70. Not long after that they became the only acceptable shape. Things stayed that way until 1977.

If you want to blame one decade for flares, blame the 70s, not the 60s.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Welcome back to Test Match Special: the sweet music of men talking absolute balls

I've been working at home today, intermittently listening to Test Match Special's coverage of the first England-West Indies Test from Lord's. I don't have to turn it on to keep up with the score. Twitter will do that. Like many others I put it on for the company and conversation.

One of the first things I heard this morning was the Wodehouse tones of Henry Blofeld describing the Warner Stand as being "brimmers"; then we had Viv Richards musing, in his Antiguan burr, on the challenges of being "aksed" to bat first. The TMS team has the vocal blend of a great gospel quartet.

The Barbadian commentator Tony Cozier and Geoff Boycott didn't blink as they ran through the line-ups who contested the same series in 1953. Blofeld casually mentioned Cassius Clay, the name Ali discarded in 1964. TMS is the only corner of the BBC that doesn't feel it has to apologise for not being youthful. Even Phil Tufnell, who is young by the standards of the team, referred to another commentator as looking "a Bobby Dazzler".

Retired sportsmen never seem to forget a single game or team mate. Cricketers play for longer and can call on a richer storehouse of memories. I don't know who Jonathan Agnew was talking about but I heard him say:

He turned up the next day and said sorry and gave him a box of eggs. Not even chocolates. Eggs. We used to call him Crime. You know, crime never pays.

The beauty of that is that it really doesn't matter who he's talking about. By the same token it doesn't matter what's going on in the match as long as those men in the TMS box can sustain their gently rippling stream of speculation, analysis, reminiscence and banter. It's a joy. Long may it continue.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Do all rich people have that rich person glow?

We had Graham Gouldman in the office the other day to take part in The Word podcast. It was the morning after he'd played the Albert Hall with 10cc. He came on his own and parked his car round the corner. He couldn't have been more pleasant. He couldn't have made less fuss. There were absolutely no airs about him.

After he'd gone, somebody said "he'll be richer than God, I suppose". Since he co-wrote "I'm Not In Love" , "The Wall Street Shuffle", "Art For Art's Sake" , "The Things We Do For Love", "Dreadlock Holiday" for them and the likes of "Heartful Of Soul" for The Yardbirds and "Bus Stop" for The Hollies it seemed reasonable to suspect that his PRS cheques alone would make interesting reading.

But here's the thing. He didn't look rich. Didn't act rich either.

Usually when you encounter rich people they have some outward signs of the life of comparative ease that they lead. Because they have more holidays than the rest of us they've often got a kind of glow, which comes from either a sun tan or a regular facial. Teeth have generally been fixed. Hairlines have had some work. Even those who dress down tend to dress down expensively. They tend to be more toned than their contemporaries, thanks to trips to the gym in the basement or visits from the personal trainer. There's often a watch or item of jewellery which those who notice these things can't help but notice.

This is not to say that Graham Gouldman looked in need of any of these things. He just didn't look rich, that's all.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Does it matter whether DJs choose their own music?

Huey Morgan has a go at Lauren Laverne on Twitter, implying that while he "builds" his programme by hand, she gets hers handed to her. I love it when deejays have cat fights. In public they're always fulsome in their praise and respect for each other. In private they're absolute bitches about each other and the most popular gibe has always been "they get handed a box of records and a running order by their producer". Now that most radio stations are controlled by a hard drive many don't even have to open a box any more.

But does it matter whether DJs choose their own music? Not from the point of view of "credibility", whatever that is. Most of them have advertised tastes which are very orthodox. In my experience the DJs who make a song and dance about their passion for music are often more bogus than the people who just turn up and do a job. But it matters if you think DJs should be playing records that they feel like hearing at the time they feel like hearing them, that they want to put you in the same moment that they're in. Which I suppose I do.

Twenty highlights of a stag weekend in Magaluf

Nobody has stag nights any more. One of the guys in our office has been on his stag weekend in Magaluf, which seems to be the form. As is traditional he recounted the highlights when he return. I scribbled down a few notes.

1. Rubber fist
2. Viking helmet
3. Drawing on face
4. Cable-tied
5. Absinthe
6. Sick in a pint mug
7. Dare cards
8. Kiss as many men as possible
9. Eighteen-strong
10. My brother in law the vicar
11. "All the curry poured on me"
12. "Knocked her hair extensions out"
13. Klinsmann dive on table full of drinks
14. Clinically obese man in Teletubbies suit
15. Best man went to bed in wrong hotel
16. Girl selling syringes of Sambuca
17. Ripped off the nappy while singing It's Raining Men
18. Suicide tequilas
19. "Hit my best man round the face with a flip flop"
20. "The biggest balls I've ever seen"

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Donald "Duck" Dunn was the reason a generation of dads wear their sex face on the dance floor

Pop music owes as much to the ingenuity of its hired hands as it does to the inspiration of its alleged artists. Donald "Duck" Dunn, whose death has been announced, was more prominent than most because Stax never tried to keep the identities of its players anonymous and he was a member of Booker T & The MGs, the first bunch of session men to have hits in their own right. As a young player he originated the churning bass lines of Otis Redding's I Can't Turn You Loose, Sam & Dave's Hold On I'm Coming and Eddie Floyd's Knock On Wood. It was this material that meant he was rediscovered in the 1980s through The Blues Brothers, an affectionate but ham-fisted parody act which I've never been able to warm to. He died while on tour with The Blues Brothers Band in Tokyo.

Steve Cropper was also on that tour. Now he and Booker T are the only members of the MGs left. The drummer Al Jackson, Dunn's partner in the driest rhythm section that ever drew breath, died in 1975. Listening to Booker T & The MGs provides me with the same kind of pleasure as other people get from listening to the idling engine of an expensive motor car. At first they sound like one instrument. As you get in closer you can hear how much each of the four individual parts is contributing. They make sure they never quite interlock. They draw near and then stand off. By standing off they create the space in the air where the record's magic lives.

As a rule bass players get even less recognition than drummers. This is wrong in so many ways. If it wasn't for bass players like Duck Dunn - and there weren't many bass players like Duck Dunn - the music would have no bottom and Dad wouldn't wear his sex face on the rare occasions he hits the dance floor.

Friday, May 11, 2012

They wind you up, your mum and dad

Every now and then, often during some exchange over the dinner table, you catch a brief, fleeting glimpse of the things that your own children find annoying about you. They don't even have to say what it is that infuriates them. In that instant you can tell that you've just applied the silver paper to their fillings.

The sources of their annoyance are not the same things that enrage your spouse about you. She's not your issue and so she's not worried that she's like you. Basically, your kids find you embarrassing and aggravating because they're your kids and they're worried they might turn out like you.

When these moments occur across the dinner table I flash back to the things which used to drive me mad about my own parents. If I hadn't loved them I would have been indifferent to them. I don't worry about it. I'm now at an age where I'm starting to identify with the allegedly out of touch parent figure in every sitcom. Marty Crane, I'm with you.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Forty-nine years ago today and forty-nine years before that

Forty-nine years ago today the Rolling Stones recorded their first single for Decca. If you go back forty-nine years before that Gavrilo Princip was probably acquiring the revolver he was to use a couple of months later to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand and begin the series of events that led to the First World War.

When the Stones were making that record the producers were putting the finishing touches to the historical series The Great War, which came out the following year and set the template for TV documentaries. This contained interviews with men who didn't seem old enough to be called "veterans". Most of them were in their late sixties, much like the Stones are now.

Makes you think. I'm never sure precisely what, but it makes you think.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Shakespeare does it again - with help from Neil MacGregor

Shakespeare's Restless World, the series of 15 minute programmes that Neil MacGregor is presenting on Radio Four at the moment, isn't a disappointment. (After A History Of The World In 100 Objects most things would have been.) Each Shakespeare programme has a different theme - religion, conquest, Ireland, science or Plague - explored by reference to an object - a ceremonial cup, an apprentice's cap, a model ship, a flag or a poster. You come away from each one dazzled by Shakespeare's ability to take the kind of thoughts it exhausts the rest of us merely to think and render them as verse. You listen to each one with fresh admiration for how he managed to take the news of his day and turn it into the wisdom of the ages. You listen to each one wondering why radio programmes seem to have more substance than time while TV programmes seem to have more time than substance.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Every decade has a dream

This week's Mad Men finishes with Don Draper trying to get his head around The Beatles Tomorrow Never Knows. "I was raised in the thirties," he says. "My dream was indoor plumbing."

I don't usually think decades can be summarised so neatly but this line seems about right. In the forties they must have dreamed of peace and all that could flow from it. In the fifties they dreamed of comfort. In the sixties my generation at least dreamed of pop music. In the seventies we dreamed of a glamorous past. In the eighties we stopped dreaming of things because we discovered they could be had on credit. In the 90s we dreamed of technology. In the noughties we stopped dreaming of technology because we suddenly had it all.

Now we dream of being able to afford it.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Pure Pop For Then People

I've been sent the latest compilation in the Late Night Tales series. It's put together by Tom Findlay from Groove Armada. "Music For Pleasure" is sub-titled "a late night classic 70s collection of:
Blue Eyed Soul
Funk Rock
Disco Rock
and Yacht Rock".

The sleeve note says it aims to "evoke the ghosts of Laurel Canyon for one last rallying cry". Actually most of the selections - Robert Palmer's "Every Kind Of People", Steve Miller's "Fly Like An Eagle", Boz Scaggs "Lowdown", ELO's "Showdown", Todd Rundgren's "Be Nice To Me" and 10cc's "I'm Not In Love" etc - had very little to do with Laurel Canyon, due to their being northern Californian, not Californian at all or not even American.

But the past is whatever the present wants it to be, particularly when it comes to music. What's slightly more puzzling is the genre menu at the top. All of these terms were invented after the event. They were designed to describe the horse once the horse had bolted. At the time these were all great pop records. They were all recorded as things were starting to get a little electronic at the edges and records wanted to sound above all modern. That's why they still sound faintly ethereal and share a sun-blasted vibe. These acts - Michael McDonald, AWB, Hall & Oates and Bread - gloried in modernity every bit as much as Kraftwerk did. It's just they didn't talk about it in interviews. They just wanted hits. In fact Music For Pleasure is a title that doesn't need much qualification.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Nicorette made me stand up Mick Jagger

We just found this old leather jacket in the back of a wardrobe. There's a half-finished pack of Nicorette chewing gum in the pocket which was probably put there almost thirty years ago. I gave up smoking a few days before I was due to go to Bardados to interview Mick Jagger for the Whistle Test.

We used to amuse ourselves on plane rides by smoking and so I decided to pop a square of Nicorette whenever I would ordinarily have had a cigarette. That probably means I had about a dozen between London and Bridgetown. My ears must have been fluttering and buzzing. When we got to the hotel somebody decided we should have rum stingers. More Nicorette. More stingers. Bed. When I woke in the morning I couldn't speak. We had to postpone the filming with Mick Jagger. At first I thought I'd been stricken with a very bad sore throat. Obviously I hadn't. It was the Nicorette. Still, haven't had a cigarette since.

Friday, May 04, 2012

"Just Another Thing": bread makers of the internet

Couple of weeks ago I bumped into James Brown in the West End. He's always got something new to enthuse about. This time it was something he'd done with his Sabotage Times venture which was, he promised, "the end of podcasts". I wasn't very sure whether for most people podcasts could ever have been said to have begun but I had a look. It was a bunch of people (nine is the limit at the moment) chatting about football on video with James as moderator. Technology was a bit clunky but you could see what they were getting at.

Back at the office I told Fraser and he looked into it. Turns out it's a Google + product called Hangouts. The point of telling you this is because Fraser's sign-off resounded in my memory. It is, he said, "just another thing".

Just Another Thing. If the world could be said to need a further book about the internet it ought to be called Just Another Thing. Every month along comes a new way of slicing our attention and dicing the material. It always promises to be transformational. You hurry to install it, you show it to a few mates, and then you consign it to the digital equivalent of the loft where it can gather dust alongside the nerd equivalent of the rowing machine and the bread maker.

While tapping out this post I've got an email from Lefsetz. It starts with this line. "Playlists. They're the new radio." It's more likely that they're Just Another Thing.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Are we post-stuff?

Over the last ten years the music business has discovered that while it can't get people to pay more than a couple of pounds for a CD, those same people will pay anything up to £50 to go and see that artist perform live. Maybe this isn't so much a consequence of the digital revolution as the harbinger of a more significant change which has been taking place over the same period of time. Put concisely, it means people would rather have experiences than stuff.

Look around. Premium sporting occasions, expensive rock festivals, blockbuster movies, premium-priced meals, lavish family occasions, adventurous holidays, beauty treatments, weekend retreats, the Hockney exhibition: people seem increasingly relaxed about spending money on things which don't last rather than, as they might have done in the past, on items that are supposed to give long term satisfaction or advertise the owner's status.

I've noticed this in my own offspring. There are a few key branded goods that they feel they must have - a Blackberry, a pair of Ugg boots for instance - but beyond that they are far more likely to get excited about a visit, a concert or a gathering of friends.

I'm wondering, are we post-stuff?