Tuesday, July 31, 2012

If you're going to make up quotes, don't make up Dylan quotes

I see another smart young writer from a smart publication has been caught misrepresenting quotes, this time from Bob Dylan. That's never a good idea.

Jonah Lehrer claimed that the quotes came from an unreleased interview done for the film No Direction Home. He said that he'd been given access to this by Jeff Rosen, who is not so much Dylan's manager as his Boswell. An experienced editor would have raised an eyebrow at this point because this kind of thing doesn't happen.

Oddly enough, while artists and their representatives rarely complain about being misquoted, their most devoted fans are often the first to smell a rat. It's these people that Lehrer should have been worried about because they know the most and care the most.

I interviewed Bob Dylan in 1986 for a magazine which was yet to be announced. I got back from New York later that week and was accosted, at a press event, by somebody who said "I understand you interviewed Bob Dylan on Tuesday night".

That was my first meeting with the late John Bauldie, at the time Britain's leading "Bobcat". I was spooked by the fact that he knew. However the more I learned about John's world - and this was in the days before the web accelerated the sharing of information between like minds - the more I realised that there are some artists who are not so much followed as stalked. Dylan is foremost among that group. The stalkers may not know everything straightaway but they get to know everything eventually. Lehrer should have picked somebody else.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

A big thank you to the people who sat out last night's show

We watched last night's opening ceremony thanks to the hospitality of the German family holidaying next door to us in Brittany. I managed to stop myself saying, forgive the sentimentality but public displays of national characteristics don't come naturally to us.

I'm told Danny Boyle removed half an hour from the running order just last week, which must have been heartbreaking for those who were due to take part and didn't. However in the end it was the ruthless pacing of the whole thing that made it work so brilliantly. Nothing lingered long enough to become boring. The hits were coming so thick and fast I was leaning towards the screen for fear of missing anything.

It seemed like a bit of a triumph to me, for which we have to thank Danny Boyle, his celeb wranglers, all those volunteers and, most of all, the people who were in the half hour that was cut. They're the ones who made the biggest difference.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Why Hilary Mantel's books aren't historical fiction at all

What I like about historical novels is the feeling of god-like superiority that comes from knowing things that the characters don't yet know. I've just come from reading Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger, set in the slave trade of the 18th century, and Ian Pears' An Instance Of The Fingerpost which is wrapped up in the scientific discoveries of the late 17th, to Hilary Mantel's chest-thumping Bring Up The Bodies, which is all about Thomas Cromwell and Ann Boleyn.

In the first two books you feel your knowledge of the way things turned out might give you an advantage over the key characters. Not so Thomas Cromwell. The character in Mantel's book has burrowed so far into the hearts of men that, even with the advantage of a further 500 years of history, you suspect you really couldn't tell him anything at all.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Fraser Lewry, the digital Jeeves

Closing a magazine is one thing. Closing its accompanying web site is another, particularly one as dependent on its users as The Word blog. It would have been rude to have abruptly unplugged the jukebox, flicked on the strip lighting and ushered people towards the car park. Instead we gave the hard-core site users a couple of weeks to make alternative arrangements to move the community to a new site.

Many and tearful were the tributes to the oasis of civility which had been built here over the last few years. That garden has been tended 365 days a year, sometimes from distant tyrannies with indifferent internet access, by Fraser Lewry.

If you thought this job called for technical competence you'd be right. If you guessed that it would also suit somebody whose sense of duty didn't stop at normal office hours, you wouldn't be far off either.

What you probably underestimate is the saint-like reserves of patience it takes to run a web community, even one as generally polite as this. You only have to look at the comments on the Guardian site to see how the ownership of an internet connection has turned us into a nation of preening know-alls dispensing redundant advice at the scene of traffic accidents. There wasn't much of this on the Word site but there was some.

Every so often in the nether regions of some thread about Manic Street Preachers B-sides it would kick off. My natural instinct would be to charge in there shouting "you're barred", after the style of Al Murray. Not Fraser. Like Jeeves he was never far away. Like Jeeves he never did anything as vulgar as entering a room. Instead he would shimmer in, materialise or, when the occasion called for it, ooze.

He would keep an eye on each succeeding post - as he did every single word that was ever posted on the site - and then, judiciously picking his moment, intervene with a pithy post usually combining practical advice with, for those who had ears to hear, the distant whisper of consequences.

He rarely had to banish anyone because most regular visitors to the site had learned, as the rest of us in the office had learned, that you shouldn't get on the wrong side of Fraser. That's because the very few people who are on the wrong side of Fraser have one important thing in common. They're wrong.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Can a chipmunk derail the Wrecking Crew?

It's three years since I blogged about music doc "The Wrecking Crew" and it's still not released. Last night they had a screening at BAFTA. I spoke to producer Denny Tedesco about the thing that's holding it up, the slow process of getting permission to use the scores of records on the soundtrack. (There's a full list here with links to the original musicians union contracts. This is a decent Spotify playlist of the kind of records involved.)

Tedesco still needs three hundred thousand dollars to clear the hits his father and other Wrecking Crew members played on, which range from "Be My Baby" through "Mr Tambourine Man" to "California Dreaming". He's keen to stress that many people have been helpful and generous. Artists such as Herb Alpert who own their masters have granted permission. Wealthy music industry people have written cheques.

The track he's having special trouble with is, ironically enough, "The Chipmunks Theme". The Chipmunks were the invention of Ross Bagdasarian who had some hits at the end of the 50s by speeding up his voice in playback to create the sound of a pop-singing squirrel. Ross died in 1972 but his son keeps the Chipmunks franchise going. In 2000 he and his wife sued Universal Studios for $100 million for failing to properly promote the Chipmunks and thereby "destroying an American icon".

Fictional creatures always bring out the worst in people. As many lawyers have ruefully advised after going to court with the Disney Corporation, "you don't mess with the mouse."

There's a screening of "The Wrecking Crew" next Friday at the Bethnal Green Working Men's Club. Details here.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

You can't take a record back once you've made it, Def Leppard

Having fallen out with their former record label Universal, Def Leppard have taken a kind of revenge by re-recording their biggest hits. They claim these versions are so close to the hit versions that even the producer of the originals, Mutt Lange, was impressed.

Down the years scores of acts have gone in for this kind of self-plagiarising. It may work for the performer, who's probably quite happy to have the chance to iron out weaknesses in the original performance. It never works for the fans because they know those records better than anyone else possibly can.

What musicians don't understand is that once a record is out there in the world it's no longer theirs. A big pop record is listened to repeatedly and internalised more completely than anything in human history. These listeners aren't aware of what went into the record but they're hyper-aware of what they got out of it. The imprint of their favourite records is something they carry deep inside. One of the reasons Paul McCartney has been able to recreate the sound of the Beatles' records on his recent tours is because his band is made up of people who grew up as Beatle fans and consequently know those records in a different way than he does.

People talk about re-recording "note-for-note" copies as if that meant we would end up with a version that would pass a blindfold test. It's not the notes we're bothered about. We don't even care whether it's the original performers. It's the record we care about. That one, not one quite like it. Our familiarity with these records goes beyond the singer and the song. I know Like A Rolling Stone or Penny Lane better than any piece of prose or any scene from a film. They're inside me. I know them in the same way that I can find my way around my house in the dark.

Def Leppard will argue these are their songs and their performances, which they are. But they're competing against the records, which actually belong to the fans.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Technology won't make football any happier

They're talking about goal-line technology again. A meeting taking place today could vote to give it a try. I don't know anything about officiating but it seems to me;

This is a game into which cheating, deception, rule-bending, intimidation, finagling and arguing black's white is hard-wired. It's coached. This is Jarndyce and Jarndyce in shorts. Nobody is interested in what's right. They're interested in what goes for them or against them. There is nothing that top managers won't do to get an inch of advantage.

In the light of this the argument advanced by the proponents of goal-line technology, that its introduction will "settle the disputes", is naive.

Furthermore, arguments on football pitches expand to fill the time available for them. If there is a stoppage during which the referee has to consult, either a person or a piece of technology, said stoppage will be used as an opportunity for further argument. If there isn't a stoppage, somebody will be arguing there should have been one.

There's only one way to run a football match and that's with one official who's the final arbiter of everything that's gone on and what should be done about it. If you open it up beyond that you're getting into questions of what happened in real life. That way madness lies.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

The best thing on Radio Four at the moment

The New Elizabethans is the best thing on Radio Four at the moment. Each fifteen-minute programme (also available as a podcast) is devoted to an individual who shaped British life during the Queen's reign. If you want to argue who's on or off the 60-strong list, it's here. I see Lennon and McCartney are treated as one person, which is about right.

The composition of the list is less interesting than the programmes themselves, which are authored pieces by James Naughtie. They drop in a little archive from time to time but mostly it's just Naughtie describing the things that made these people exceptional.

It's one of those programmes that should be forced on eighteen-year-olds during "reading week". There were just six people at the third performance of Pinter's Birthday Party. Edmund Hillary had to spend the first two hours of the morning of the assault on Everest holding his boots over a fire to thaw them out. When Benjamin Britten died in 1976 the story led the BBC news.

But it goes further than that. Naughtie manages to weave fact and observation together: Pinter's dialogue has a "fugue-like structure", Alfred Hitchcock was never happier than when "managing disturbance and alarm" and Phillip Larkin's poems were imbued with "the lurking fear of inadequacy and discovery".

I've learned to dread that change of gear which announces that somebody who usually presents the news is about to tell us what's in their heart. I can't even get on with From Our Own Correspondent. The "colour" is always laid in great primary slabs and the reporter seems in too much of a hurry to get on side with the good guys.

Naughtie's different. Like the best teachers he's at his most appealing when you get him off the thing he's supposed to be teaching you, in his case the news. Most news presenters sound very shaky once they're off the script. Naughtie on the other hand sounds as if he could keep his end up in a conversation about sport or soap opera or the Booker prize. I'm sure he had to do a lot of mugging up before writing the scripts for this series. But I like to think it was just revision. That's what makes the difference.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Sometimes the Stones surpassed the old masters

In yesterday's Times Richard Hawley said that the Chuck Berry original of Around and Around "pisses on the Stones version from a massive height". He's making a point about them trying to copy something and ending up with something of their own. This is valid but he's picked a rotten example. The Rolling Stones' Around And Around is far better than Chuck Berry's original. It has an electricity that Chuck's doesn't. It has a rhythm guitar, which Chuck's doesn't. It's sung from the point of view of an 18-year-old who doesn't want the night to end. Chuck on the other hand seems to be checking his watch. Look. He put it on a B-side.

I once sat on a panel at an American university talking about the British Invasion. The American rock critic Robert Christgau said that the early r&b cover versions of the Stones were terrible but they had "ironic distance". Simon Frith, who was on the same panel, leaned towards me and said "I think they were trying to make the best sound they could". I agreed. At the time it was one of the best sounds I'd ever heard in my life. It still is.