Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Nothing beats the stately homos of England

I love a diary. I'm just reading the second volume of James Lees-Milne's.

I'm not greatly bothered about the professional world he operated in - he was one of the prime movers behind the National Trust - but I find his dogged old-fashionedness cracking fun. Even in the 1970s he's still using the words "motor" and "lunch" as verbs. He talks about the ringing of the "telephone bell" and describes his struggles with a "self-photographic box" at the Passport Office. His concerns are refreshingly out of sync with his age, let alone ours. He describes, in painful detail, a dinner with Princess Margaret's circle and lists everyone at the table with the exception of one woman he describes only as "a film star". That's what today they would call "cool".

One of the famous stately homos of old England, Lees-Milne and his old pal, the no-less married John Betjeman, get together in old age and chuckle over who used to "tuck up" with whom back at Oxford. I wonder if publishers are going to fight shy of paras like this in the post-Savile era: "
Walking to church he said, I wonder what the bell-ringer will look like. I said boy bell-ringers should be plain, spotty and wear spectacles. Yes, he said, men don't make passes at boys wearing glasses. We were mistaken, our bell-ringer was a very pretty boy with a cream complexion.....At Westonbirt, where I took him during the afternoon, he was sent into ecstasies by a girl with flaming red hair and blue jeans who was lolling lasciviously over a table in the library. These thrills and what he calls "letchings" are sheer fantasy, I presume.
But what I most like about him is also what I think I most like about great diaries. These are the moments when he says things to his diary that are simply too bleak to say to another person. When an old friend dies he thinks about them for a few seconds and then turns the page of his paper. That, he reflects, is what happens when you die. Your friends think about you and then turn the page. And then this:
Have been pondering over what someone said the other day, that when one is awake at 3 a.m. then one sees life and death, as they truly are, in their stark, terrible, hopeless reality; that at all other times of the day, one sees these infinite thing through rose-tinted spectacles...
Worth reading.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Listen to Johnnie Walker's Long Players tonight at ten

Over the last year I've recorded a bunch of programmes in the above series for Radio Two in which Johnnie and I enthuse over old favourite LPs, often while fondling the sleeves. I don't think I've ever been more enthusiastic than I am in tonight's programme, which goes out at ten. That's because we were celebrating "Who's Next" in general and "Baba O'Riley" in particular. A bit like this:
And it was made in 1971, which was of course the Annus Mirabilis of the Rock Album.

Pop annuals and the ghosts of Christmas Past

I came upon these two while sorting through some old books. The Radio Luxembourg Book of Record Stars must come from 1963 because the Beatles are in it, thought most of it's devoted to Peggy Lee, Frank Ifield and other artists who probably didn't get much Luxembourg play once they'd arrived. It's an awkward mix of PR shots accompanied by copy which purports to come from the performers and DJs. Jimmy Savile writes about his passion for country and western music. Nevill Skrimshire contributes a piece called "Categories in jazz don't matter".

Young people always looked forward to annuals but they rarely justified the anticipation. Publishers traditionally regarded them as money for old rope. The editorial was recycled from the files, the cover prices were high and they were bought by indulgent aunties for Christmas. I like to think we briefly changed that in the early 80s with the Smash Hits Yearbooks. When I look back it's amazing to see how much work we put into them: special photo sessions, very expensive "Look and learn"-style strips depicting the career of the Sex Pistols or how an edition of Top Of The Pops is put together plus features that looked back at what had happened in pop and what might happen in the future ("he'll be able to exchange video gossip with his girlfriend by computer", we wrote, looking forward to the unimaginably distant year of 1987.)

The interesting thing about them is that since they're an ephemeral item in more permanent form they tend to hang around long after the magazines have been boxed up and taken to the tip. Anyone else still got theirs?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Why do rock fans pretend they've *always* been into things?

I watched "Last Orders", the BBC 4 doc about Chas and Dave.

It must be funny being them. They've played the same music for over forty years. Sometimes they've sold a lot of records, sometimes they haven't. Sometimes they've played big halls, sometimes they've played small ones.  During that time they must have been aware that their star rose and fall according to the public mood.

Now they find that the music, which has never changed, is suddenly acceptable to the people who decide what's acceptable. Hence a BBC 4 documentary full of talking heads talking about how most people didn't realise that Chas & Dave have been acceptable for years. A clip is shown from a Jools Holland New Year's Show in which Ben Elton and Hugh Laurie enthuse about them with the shifty expression of men who suspect that the wind has changed in the last ten minutes. Even Pete Doherty is hauled out to perform his own fuddled benediction. Are there really people who would have their minds changed about music on their say-so?

The show is so full of people who apparently liked them all the time that you wonder where it got its revisionist zeal from. You wonder why the people who used to do them down aren't represented. If the film is all about presenting them in a new light, wouldn't it be natural to look at them in the old light for a minute or two? I suspect that the old light would have been the same light in which all British working class entertainment is seen as corny while working class entertainment from Louisiana or Lusaka is regarded as edgy and cool. In many ways this version of the cultural cringe would have been as interesting as Chas & Dave themselves.

Of all the arts pop music is the one in which people change their minds most often. Why is it also the one where they're least likely to admit that they do so?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Is this one of the futures of magazine publishing?

Yesterday I took part in a debate about digital magazines at the London College Of Communications. The last time I was there it was the London School Of Printing.

These debates are usually dominated by CEOs of major publishing companies who have to make optimistic predictions without really having a clue what they're talking about.

This was different because all the panellists had sufficient experience of actually producing magazines in both paper and digital formats to have shed most of their illusions.

Interestingly, nobody even used the words "bells and whistles", which is the term industry people use to describe the "feature-rich" iPad magazine apps which got all the attention when the medium first appeared. Everybody seemed to regard them as an irrelevance.

Afterwards I was talking to Adam Banks, the editor of Mac User. This used to have a staff of thirteen. It's now produced by Adam from his home in Newcastle. That's both paper and tablet editions. Fortnightly. Edited, commissioned, laid out and subbed by one, clearly very energetic man. I asked him if he found he got things done more quickly because he was doing them on his own. He said he did.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

We're putting on a gig

In the last couple of years of The Word's life the Word In Your Ear gigs were one of the most popular things we did. These were generally put together by Alex Gold, who managed to persuade bands that they could make a few pounds for playing in front of an attentive, discriminating audience at the Lexington, which is just over the road from the old office on Pentonville Road. Among the people who said yes were Wilko Johnson, the Blockheads, Neil Hannon, David Ford and Eliza Carthy. A good time was had by all. Just ask anyone who went.

It's now a few months since the magazine folded and Alex and I have decided to have a crack at continuing the tradition. The idea is to put together balanced bills with the accent on variety. On Tuesday December 4th we're bringing back Skinny Lister, the young band who were a sensation supporting the Blockheads back in June. They've done more than most to explore the pop music possibilities of sea shanties, they're the gamest young band around, as their videos attest, and Lorna Thomas has been known to come jigging into the audience offering people rum from the band's communal jug. Their video for Seventeen Summers (see below) demonstrates well the nothing-can-phase us attitude it takes to get the top - or at least to the Lexington.

There will be a full supporting bill to be announced in due course, I'll be MC-ing and fronting my world famous Annus Mirabilis disco, in which all the records come from 1971. We hope to see as many old friends as possible and anyone else who wants to come is more than welcome. We'll be announcing the other "acts" in due course, but meanwhile I'm in a position to offer you, as a valued reader of this blog, special "early bird" rates. That's just £12 a ticket to you. Hope you can come.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Which sixties singers can still sing in their sixties?

An opera professional said to me recently: "No operatic tenor would dream of performing one of their old songs in the same key that they first recorded it but Paul McCartney does it all the time."

We notice it in McCartney's case because he's so clearly trying to emulate his younger self in every respect. Most of his contemporaries have stopped trying. Robert Plant's still got a good voice but it's not the same one that he used to front Led Zeppelin with, which probably explains why he hasn't rejoined the band. Bob Dylan's reed is broken but can still sell a song somehow and he probably likes sounding like an old man. But when Joni Mitchell re-recorded "A Case of You" in 2000 you could tell the way she sung the word "Canada" that she couldn't get near the bell-like top note of her 1971 recording. It seemed like a terrible capitulation.

James Taylor is one of the few people who was performing in the sixties who still seems to sing in the way he did in his pomp. Nick Lowe sings better than he did in the days when he was having hits. Both of them seem to sing their age. They record quietly, which makes a a difference. Georgie Fame's almost seventy. If the evidence of his new album Lost in a Lover's Dream is anything to go by, his voice has lost nothing since the sixties. He doesn't have to stretch because the most he's competing with is a guitar and bass and the songs, standards like "Cry Me A River" and "My Foolish Heart", are the kind of saloon-scaled material that are well within his range. I even like this one, which is about winter sports. Listen for the plosive at 3:17.

Monday, October 22, 2012

George McGovern and The History Man

George McGovern died this weekend at ninety. Most of the people furiously tweeting about the Presidential election won't know who he was. For my generation he was quite a big story. He opposed the Vietnam war. He also served with distinction in the Second World War. As the Economist piece says, in those days politicians thought it tasteless to talk about it.

The funny thing is this weekend I've also been re-reading Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man, his satire of campus politics in the 70s, first published in 1975 and turned into a hit TV drama in 1981. McGovern's there in the first paragraph of the book, referred to by just his surname as if it was bound to reverberate down the ages.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Is there a better song about an inanimate object than A Thing Well Made?

Don McGlashan wrote some great songs for the Mutton Birds but the best one is "A Thing Well Made". It's about a man who runs a sporting goods store. He's not getting on well with his wife. He opens his shop early so that men can come in on their way to work and "daydream around the rods and reels". He shows off a gun to a customer. "Look at the way this gun fills the crook of your arm. To make a thing like that you'd need to know what you were about."

Then what? The music gets more insistent, which invites us to wonder if he's taken the gun to the top of a water tower and done something terrible. There's nothing in the song that actually says so. That's one of the things I like about songs. They go in one ear and out the other. But then they come back long afterwards.

The Mutton Birds reformed earlier this year to play a tour of New Zealand wineries. I can't imagine anything much better than that. They're playing at the Shepherd's Bush Empire next Saturday. Here they are doing "A Thing Well Made" a few years back.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Why the drummer is the only unsackable member of the band

A few years back a musician friend said something that changed the way I think about rock bands. Traditionally we tend to accept that leadership of the band is in the hands of the member who writes the songs, usually the singer. What this musician said was "the drummer is the one who knows where the beat is". This made me think. It's not a matter of being the best drummer, whatever that is. It's a matter of finding the pulse of the band, the temperature at which this particular bunch of musicians functions best.

That's why there was never any chance of Led Zeppelin keeping going after John Bonham died. He was the one who dictated how the rest of them played. That's why the Who without Keith Moon were almost embarrassing. That's why the Ramones were never the same after Tommy Ramone stopped playing the drums. That's why nobody but Levon Helm could ever have been the drummer of the Band. These people weren't just good players. They decided how the band should walk. The other musicians may have complained about it but in the end they had to get in step.

The new documentary Hello Quo provides the perfect demonstration of this truth. The line-up that made their classic rock shuffles, which they admit were based on the Doors "Roadhouse Blues", was Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt on guitars, Alan Lancaster on bass and John Coghlan on drums. Lancaster left in 1985 and Coghlan in 1981. "They wanted to replace me with a drum machine," he recalls, probably inaccurately.

Quo soldiered on without Coghlan (and no group embodied the verb more perfectly) but as Lancaster points out, the albums were just no good anymore. They brought in other drummers, who were probably more technically adept, and they even had hits, but old time fans knew that something was missing. Lancaster started a new life in Australia and got some startling new teeth. Coghlan took his hangdog expression into a variety of bands. Until recently.

The last five minutes of Hello Quo are its best. The four original members are reunited on a Shepperton sound stage. They embrace as awkwardly as any other bunch of Brits in their sixties. You get the impression Rossi is the difficult one and Parfitt is the diplomat. Then they take up their instruments and play "In My Chair", one of those slow, loping shuffles which made their name in the early seventies. Suddenly Status Quo is back in the room. The swing has returned. It's not just another bunch of musicians doing their best to replicate a sound that the original four stumbled upon in 1970 but the sound itself. It's a sound that all rock bands think they can make, which is where all rock bands are wrong. When you hear the real thing you know how wrong they are. Here it is again, as if by magic, forty years later. Actually, it is by magic. How else do you describe the way a band just happens to lock together?

You can hear the original "In My Chair" here.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

What would the Guardian - or anyone - gain from ditching ink and paper?

The Telegraph was presumably flying a kite when it ran today's story about the Guardian's alleged "plans" to dump the paper and go digital-only. Of all the bits that didn't make sense about the piece, this paragraph was the most  difficult to understand:
However, trustees of the Scott Trust, GNM’s ultimate owner, fear it does not have enough cash on its books to sustain the newspapers for that long, according to More About Advertising
 All businesses worry about cash, particularly at the moment. Therefore the last thing they would do is cut off one of the main sources of that cash, which is the income that they get from cover price. This may not be as much as it used to be but it's still there, in, as they say in the boardroom, off-line pounds rather than on-line pence. The cash isn't going on sustaining the newspapers. It's going on investing in the on-line offering until it can supply a revenue stream as serious as the one it may ultimately have to replace.

This is the self-same problem the record business faces. They know that the future is downloads but meanwhile the revenue that they get from that allegedly dying format CD is what keeps the lights on.

Funny thing is five years ago somebody rang me from Media Guardian wondering if I knew anything about NME's alleged plans to ditch the paper edition to go digital-only. I said then what they have no doubt been saying to the Telegraph today. Why would anyone in their right mind do that?

One of the best speeches I've ever heard

Last night I found myself at the Oldie British Artist Awards in Mayfair. The competition's open to artists over the age of 60. When they announced the winner of the £5,000 prize it turned out to be the small gentleman in the blazer who was sitting, surrounded by family, just in front of me.

He's Donald Zec, a retired showbiz journalist of ninety-three. There he is (left) in the early sixties with one of his illustrious subjects.

Richard Ingrams was making the presentation from an unstable dais eighteen inches from the floor. Donald was invited up and at first it seemed he might not be able to make it. Then I heard him mutter "I'll get there" and he slowly rose, made his way across the room, mounted the dais and then delivered one of the best acceptance speeches I've ever heard. He complimented the other competitors, thanked the magazine and dedicated his success to his wife whose death six years ago had spurred him into painting for the first time. I can't remember all the jokes but one of them involved the words "do not resuscitate" being written at the bottom of his script.

I'm sure Donald was thrilled with the prize. I bet he was a lot more delighted with the chance to make a speech. For a natural show-off like Donald a speech is a pleasure and never a chore at any time. This must be doubly the case when you're ninety-three.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Cocktails are a fundamentally bad idea

I wish only the best for Gaby Scanlon, the 18-year-old who has had to have her stomach removed following a misadventure with a birthday cocktail containing liquid nitrogen. I mean that seriously. That's the word the Royal Lancaster Infirmary uses to describe her condition. Mind you, she was tweeting at the same time, which is classic.

Once recovered, Gaby will be able to say that her ill-judged experiment with cocktail drinking went worse than most people's - but then she went further than most people. Everybody has a cocktail incident, usually when they're young. Feeling that they ought to drink alcohol but put off by how nasty it tastes, young people are instead drawn to drinks that looks more like the garish libations they had on birthdays as a child. For a 17-year-old anything that looks like a cross between Lucozade and Knickerbocker Glory is acceptable.

It always goes wrong. I have a slogan to lend to the next Drinkaware campaign. "If you don't like alcohol, don't drink it." To which I could add, if you're going to drink it, don't stir in another ingredient in the hope that it will make it more palatable or exciting. It won't.

This applies to all mixing. I've never had a "cocktail" that I would want to have again. Gin and tonic is acceptable. Every other "combo" is a taste abomination, a waste of good liquor and an excuse to part you from your money. I always thought James Bond's dry martini was a bum note. Imagine if you took him to the pub and he asked for one of those. The whole place would be thinking "what a tool". They'd be right.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Why are people so sure Mike Love is the bad guy in The Beach Boys?

Mike Love issues a long statement to the Los Angeles Times about how he didn't "fire" Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys and why he had to curtail their large venue tour in order to fulfil his obligation to tour smaller venues with "his" Beach Boys.

If you can read past the jarring self-justification and gushing over-statement it seems he's got a case, which is not what so-called "true" Beach Boys fans, many of whom have rushed to social media to libel the singer, want to hear.

Love has always had what Paul Weller called a kind face. The kind of face you wanted to punch. He's the person that rock history has decided is the snake in the Garden of Eden the Wilson family would otherwise be. But how do we know? All bands are families, particularly ones that start out as families, and if we know one thing about families it is that they're immensely complicated and there's   plenty of blame to go round.

With long-lasting rock bands we pick out the member we have decided is the baddie and stick with it for long periods. It was Paul McCartney in the Beatles, Robbie Robertson in The Band, Steve Stills in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Roger Waters in Pink Floyd. The reasoning may change but once a person is cast as the villain any action they take will be interpreted in that light. Once the villain is chosen the rest of the cast can relax because anything they do will be seen as an understandable reaction to the tyrant in their midst.

The classic case of this is Mick Jagger. Those close to the Stones don't share the orthodox view that Keith is the soul of the group while Jagger is merely its accounts department. Keith never feels an encounter with the press is finished unless he has loosed off one shot at his old friend. He knows we'll all share in the joke because we all know Mick, right?  He also knows Jagger won't respond. I bet Mick could issue quite a few Mike Love-style statements if he chose to. But he doesn't.

Friday, October 05, 2012

50 years ago this month two great archetypes were born

Was on Five Live just now talking about the 50th anniversary of the first Beatles single and the first Bond movie and why they both continue to fascinate us. After I'd hung up the phone I remembered what I meant to say.

In his excellent 1964 book Love Me Do the American journalist Michael Braun suggested that one of the reasons they made such an impact on the London media was that they were "new kind of people". They were bright, sardonic, sharp without being educated and apparently possessed of a special secret known only to the four of them. In a way they were a template for the way every group has sought to behave ever since.

 You could say that in playing James Bond Sean Connery also presented the world with a new kind of person. Proud, sensual, cruel, sardonic, upwardly mobile and good at games, his Bond was a world away from the hero figures who had stalked British films in the forties and fifties. In a way he's been a template for the way every action hero has tried to behave ever since.

Maybe that's another reason they both endure.

Monday, October 01, 2012

In the 21st century all groups will reform

The latest rumour is that The Smiths will reform for Glastonbury next year. I don't know whether this is true. I doubt whether anyone does. But I wouldn't be surprised. All groups eventually reform because:
1. It's almost unknown for an individual to achieve as much outside a group as he did within a group.
2. And even if he did (as was probably the case with Sting) his name doesn't resound like theirs does.
3. Because the group has been off the market for years the price they can command is far greater than they could command as individuals.
4. There are always a couple of members who really need the money and no matter how bitter the relationships within the band you'd be very cold-hearted not to want to help them out.
5. Band reunions always come along when the solo career of the most bankable member has stalled or become routine.
6. Great excitement surrounds reunions and bands crave excitement.
7. All musicians reach a stage where they realise the best is behind them and they're just as keen to revisit those glory days as their fans.
8. In the last twenty years the life expectancy of pop brands has changed radically. It used to be that bands were at their most popular at the beginning of their careers. They're now far more popular at the end of their careers. Their fanbase is swelled by each new generation. There are far more people who want to see The Rolling Stones now than wanted to see them when they were in their pomp because in those days only people between the ages of 18 and 30 were interested.  Take That are far bigger now than they were in the early 90s. Leonard Cohen is still touring in front of crowds that dwarf the crowds he played in front of when he first recorded the songs he's delighting them with.

It will be the same with The Smiths. If they do reform they'll get their original fans plus the people who've decided that they're now Classic Rock plus the youngsters who are drawn to anything that looks like a legend. And all those tens of thousands of people who are drawn to whatever everybody else appears to be drawn to.

I haven't been so cross with a Virgin product since Beefheart's "Bluejeans And Moonbeams"

I don't have cable but I do have one of these directly outside my house. This one (left) in fact. It belongs to Virgin Media. The engineers obviously have trouble shutting it properly so they took to using masking tape on it. I've reported it repeatedly but nothing's been done to clean it up. When I take it to Twitter, as I have done more than once, Virgin Media's people direct me to their site where I report it (they want to know if it's got any racist grafitti on it) and still nothing's done. It's typical modern customer relations. Lots of time and trouble devoted to trying to assure me they're taking the problem seriously followed by no indication that they are.

I've found this one round the corner as well. I pass this one regularly and as far as I can see it's been open for six months. How the good people of Redacted Road resist the temptation to just reach inside, grab a fistful of multi-coloured fibre optic cables and yank them out is a tribute to their neighbourliness. Virgin Media really don't deserve them.