Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Why The Grateful Dead will out-last all its members

In last week's New Yorker Nick Paumgarten devoted many thousands of words to the legacy of the Grateful Dead. He's particularly interested in the way Dead fans collect soundboard tapes. It's almost twenty years since the band ceased to exist but the tape trade is stronger than ever.

For all their apparent disavowal of anything "straight", the Grateful Dead are the most outstanding example of the triumph of brand in rock music. They're far more impressive in this respect than Rihanna or One Direction or even Pink Floyd could ever hope to be.

The Grateful Dead's name is 80% of the reason for their astounding longevity. Its associated logos and decals are worth another 15%. Only 5% of what they're about is in the music. Nobody listens to the music without having first of all bought into the idea of The Grateful Dead and the idea is all in their name.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Bill Wyman explains the Rolling Stones "wobble"

"Something happens when we play together. It's impossible to copy. Every band follow the drummer. We don't follow Charlie. Charlie follows Keith. So the drums are very slightly behind Keith. It's only fractional. Seconds. Minuscule. And I tend to play ahead. It's got a sort of wobble. It's dangerous because it can fall apart at any minute."
Bill Wyman talking in the second part of the Rolling Stones documentary, Crossfire Hurricane.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Amazon Economics - a dummy speaks

Everybody uses Amazon and thinks it's brilliant because it's so cheap..

Everybody criticises Amazon for not paying its proper share of taxation.

I'm no economist but hear me out.

Maybe one of the reasons they're cheap is because they don't pay their proper share of taxation.

Monday, November 19, 2012

I pity the poor immigrant

At lunch with neighbours yesterday we were joined by their friend from Spain. She had lived in London for ten years. She brought along her young cousin, a woman in her twenties who had just arrived in the UK and was staying with her. She had some qualifications and experience as a social worker in Spain but had come to England because the job prospects were better. The friend said she was getting phone calls from lots of relatives wondering if they can put them up while they try to get jobs in kitchens in London.

The twenty-something had barely any English but her parents had helped pay for a four-week intensive language course. After that she hoped to get a job waitressing. She knew it was going to be hard - she'd already been struck by how many Spanish voices she heard in the West End - but she probably doesn't know how hard. As far as she's concerned it can't be any harder than in Spain, where the unemployment rate is anywhere between twenty-five and forty per cent depending on who you ask.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The only way I can make a playlist without trying to look as if I've got "taste"

Every few days I post something on This Is My Jam. It's usually because I've found myself thinking of an old favourite. I don't actually listen to the tracks all the way through at the time I post them but every few weeks I export the accumulated jams to Spotify (there's a button on This Is My Jam that makes it easy) where I find they make the very best kind of playlist.

Playlist-making the conventional way too often succumbs to fatigue or snobbery. After the first ten songs you can't be bothered. And those who have the stamina to compile playlists are usually too keen to use them as a way to position themselves and show off their taste as if it was something you can be good at.

I hate "taste", particularly when applied to pop music. It's just snobbery. When people try to show off their taste on Spotify they quickly resort to fly-tipping a load of tracks by acceptable-sounding names into a list in the hope this will make them look good. On the whole I'm against trying to say anything meaningful about music by just listing the names of perfomers rather than performances. I heard someone talking about "passionate specificness". I like that.

It's only after listening back to a load of songs that you have picked one by one over a matter of weeks that you begin to get a picture of what your taste is. It's only when you stop trying to flex your taste you can get a picture of it. It's like being able to read your own palm.

Here's the most recent export of my "jams" on Spotify.

My "1971 was the annus mirabilis of the rock album" playlist has over 400 subscribers.

Of all the playlists I've found on Spotify, the one I like best is Vanessa Pelz-Sharpe's unfolding list of all the music used on Mad Men.

Friday, November 16, 2012

We don't need Tomorrow's World. We need Yesterday's World.

I can't see any reason to bring back Tomorrow's World. We're no longer amazed by the prospect of what technology is about to make possible. We assume it's already making it possible. All we're working on is a way to make it affordable.

Instead of Tomorrow's World I would like to see Yesterday's World, a programme that reminds us of what passed for daring new technology the day before yesterday.

One of those conversations came up at a dinner party the other day. Does anyone still use faxes? (Actually, football clubs still use them to register new players with the Football League.) When did you send you first email? Remember the internet before browsers? Who remembers pagers? Telexes? Magazine designers putting a slide in a projector and then drawing round the image on a layout sheet? The younger people round the table even shook their heads at the idea that it was ever possible to lock the keys inside your car.

We've lived through such a revolution in convenience over the last twenty years that we've forgotten the world of small inconveniences it swept away. This Dymotape dispenser (above) I came across recently is more than quaint. It makes you wonder how we ever had the patience to operate it and what we have done with the time we've saved by doing away with it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

What do you call a suit without a tie?

If you're a man it doesn't really matter how you feel about ties. There are some occasions when you'd be foolish not to wear one. If I were being asked to appear before a select committee, for instance, I would wear a tie.

Matt Brittin, the CEO of Google UK, didn't feel he needed to when he turned up yesterday to talk about his company's tax arrangements. It seemed to say a lot about how seriously his company takes Parliament.

Tim Davie also went for the open-necked shirt in his first day as acting Director General of the BBC. When he gave his interview down the line to Sky News it gave an impression of informality which was at odds with the formal meetings he was having with colleagues. This can't have been what he wanted. (People who work in TV should surely know better than anyone that when you're on camera viewers are getting most of their signals from what you look like rather than what you say.)

Both these men work in companies where even the senior management go tieless nowadays. Maybe they should dress differently when representing those organisations in the outside world. The "one of the guys" look may work OK if you're squeezing into the lift in the morning, clutching a cup of coffee. When you're facing the music it can easily look disrespectful.

We seem to have a generation of  male executives who think it doesn't matter. They ought to ask their female colleagues. No woman would have dreamed of appearing in front of parliament or the media in anything other than her best armour.

When George Entwistle got the job of Director General of the BBC Alastair Campbell congratulated him and said "get yourself some decent suits". There was nothing particularly wrong with Entiwistle's suits but maybe Campbell  detected that he didn't wear them seriously enough.

The wearing of a proper suit in the so-called "creative industries" indicates many things, one of them being that you are prepared to be a hardass. The subliminal message is "I no longer care particularly whether you like me or not - I will do what I think is right."

Some managers make the mistake of thinking that the staff will like them more if they appear to be dressing like them. They don't. Particularly in the creative industries staff prefer to think that the management is not like them. They like to think they're grown-ups. They like to think somebody else is steering the ship while they're having all kinds of fun below decks. Martin Scorsese hasn't made a memorable film in years but his personal stock remains high because every time he appears in public he looks as if he's about to walk his daughter down the aisle.

When people are sent to see a male specialist they want somebody who looks like a headmaster from the 1960s and not somebody who might be running a copy shop.  Even those authority figures who don't bother with suits appreciate the important of looking as if they've thought about their uniform. Steve Jobs didn't wear a black turtle neck because it was the nearest thing to hand when he got up in the morning. It was part of his identity. With his thin and no doubt expensive sweaters Simon Cowell has proved that it's possible to make a uniform out of anything.

The suit without tie get-up looks like the wearer hasn't got the courage of his convictions. He's trying to look "smart" without looking smart. He's trying not to look like a grown-up. Paul Du Noyer says too many men today dress "like toddlers". You can see what he means in the supermarket queue. Baggy sweat shirts, hoodies, the kind of footwear that inspired Ian Dury to talk about "shoes like dead pig's noses". It's as if they want to crawl back into mother's arms and go to sleep.

The point in men's lives when they have to grow up has receded over the years. It's no longer strictly 21 or 30 or even 40. When you're a father the signal arrives in the eyes of your teenage daughter as she scans your dress and gives you the unspoken "what are you wearing?" look. Not everyone has children so they have to pick up clues elsewhere. Any man over the age of 40 who has more than one pair of trainers really should have a word with himself.

Ask yourself, what would Sinatra do? He had two modes of dress. One was immaculately suited and booted. The other was immaculately suited and booted but with tie slightly loosened. This was no accident. What this look said is "I may be slightly relaxed at this moment but don't let this deceive you because my natural state is alert and ready for battle". The look adopted by Davie and Brittin yesterday didn't say anything quite as powerful as that.

Apropos of nothing in particular

I've presided over my share of defamation scares. This is the conclusion I've reached.

There are two ways to avoid problems. One is to share the responsibility between, let's say, ten people, which means they all think that responsibility is ten per cent theirs. The other is to give that responsibility to one person, who is then aware that the responsibility is entirely theirs.

I recommend the latter.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Why I can't love your new records as much as your old ones. "It's not you. It's me."

It's the challenge for any heritage act. The main competition for your new records comes from your old records. Old fans only have so much bandwidth and they'd rather ease back into the embrace of their old favourite than get used to the unfamiliar shape of the new one.

I recently played the new Donald Fagen album, Sunken Condos, alongside The Nightfly, his first solo record from thirty years ago. Some reviews have pointed out the things they have in common: high-concept covers, a song about nuclear dread, one deadpan cover version, lots of playing that sounds like it was hard to do and a certain set-em-up-Joe resignation about the delivery.

I doubt the untutored ear could detect which one was the old record and which was the new one, which says something about the last thirty years. Some reviewers think the new one could have done with a little more of one quality and a little less of another. Funny how we treat musicians like chefs, as if they could just pop their record back in the oven for a moment and make it better.

It's difficult to decide why one record works and another doesn't. Some parties are huge fun without anyone trying while others are no fun at all despite everyone trying like crazy. You can't accuse "Sunken Condos" of not making the effort. It probably took more heavy lifting than "The Nightfly". Maybe it's the absence of catchy tunes that brings its busyness to your attention. It has moments but it never flies in the way that "The Nightfly" did and still does. Only on "Weather In My Head" does the groove achieve escape velocity. Nothing get under your skin. It's cold.

"The Nightfly", on the other hand, is like a summer evening's drive. Even the songs with quite a bit of plot, "Goodbye Look", about a gangster with an appointment with the fishes, and "I.G.Y", which peers at the future through the binoculars of the year 1957, and "New Frontier", which is about getting a Tuesday Weld-lookalike alone in your dad's fallout shelter, glide by as if on castors. It's one of those cases where the session guys are doing more than the minimum. Each tiny instrumental fill at the end of a line is distinct from the one at the end of the last line. Each one is a new spring driving the watch. "The Nightfly" is one of those records where you don't just sing along with the songs. You play the arrangements with your eyebrows and the drums with your extremities.

But then you would, wouldn't you, because you've lived with it for thirty years. That record is imprinted in you because you've heard it so much. No new record by Donald Fagen or Bruce Springsteen or Tom Petty or anyone else who was making records back in the mid-70s is ever going to be listened to as intently as the records that made their names. Elvis Costello still talks passionately about the day he bought Joni Mitchell's "Blue" and took it home to his dad's place in Twickenham where he listened to it so hard he almost took the shine off it. "I'll never listen to music that way again."

In his book The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember Nicholas Carr argues that the human brain changes all the time and that in recent years the internet has re-routed our neural pathways. I wish he'd do something similar about what repeated exposure to the same music does to us. It must change us. Repeated listening must make us different. The people who heard the first performances of Beethoven's works expected to never hear those works again in their lives. I've heard the great records of Donald Fagen literally thousands of times. I've heard them far more than Donald Fagen will have heard them. (The reason Paul McCartney's backing band can do the Beatles so well is that they've spent thousands of hours listening to Beatle records. Paul McCartney never did.)

Whenever an old favourite releases a new album some of the reviewers want to persuade us the artist has got the old magic back. They always list the familiar ingredients: the choruses, the hooks, the sense of purpose which has apparently returned. The laundry list of qualities is the first refuge of the rock critic who can't really think of anything to say. Lists move in when love moves out. After a while they don't play it anymore, which is the only review that really counts. What he should say is what he's probably found himself saying back in the dim and distant past when other affairs came to a natural end. It's not you. It's me.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Thank God there was no Twitter when the last baseless rumours were around

Just over twenty years ago a prominent figure in British life was the victim of an unexplained act of violence. In the absence of an explanation a story quickly spread among people who apparently had some inside knowledge of the incident because they worked in what was then called "the media". 

I heard more than one version of this story which involved a reference to sexual abuse and children. That's probably what helped the story spread so quickly. I was assured that it would be just days before this story was "all over the papers".

I'm still waiting. A subsequent court case proved the rumours groundless.  Probably not before the prominent figure and his family had got to hear about them. He must look back on it now and thank God there was no Twitter at the time. 

On Twitter people who really ought to know better, and are often familiar with the laws regarding defamation, publish things they would never dream of publishing in a newspaper or on a TV programme. This is on the grounds that the story is "out there" and in the awareness/hope that they will somehow bully the victim of the rumours into coming out to defend themselves.

They pretend that they're doing it to campaign for the victims and to respond to the public's concern. They're not. They're doing it out of personal ambition and malice. Mostly the latter.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

What Mick Jagger's mum thought about him buying antiques

Just finished reading James Lees-Milne's diaries. His wife Alvilde Chaplin is a garden designer to the quality, which explains this passage:

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Danny Baker, otherwise known as David Essex's brother, added to our gig

I first met Danny Baker in, well, it was probably 1975. I was working in the HMV Shop in Oxford Street, which in those days was near Bond Street station. There's a Foot Locker there now. They used to say that before fame the Beatles had made some kind of demo in the stockroom on the first floor. Anyway, it was a big store in the days before megastores. This was in the days when confused-looking middle-aged parents up in London for the Rugby League Challenge Cup or the Ideal Home Exhibition would approach the counter carrying a piece of paper on which was written "ZZ Top" or "Sex and Soul by Roy C". In those days you didn't believe those records existed until you saw them in places like HMV.

Danny worked round the corner in the far trendier Harlequin (late One Stop) in South Molton Street. He used to come round occasionally to pick up something mainstream for one of his star customers. He was only a teenager and very handsome. "That's Danny," said one of my fellow drudges. "He's David Essex's brother." I nodded. It seemed to make sense. He wasn't, of course, but it was a good way to get the attention of girls.

Forty years later Danny is living proof that you may be able to take the boy out of the record shop but you never quite take the record shop out of the boy. Sparks of esoterica concerning The Fatback Band or Todd Rundgren are likely to illuminate exchanges with puzzled former footballers on his Saturday morning show on BBC Five Live. They obviously also litter the pages of Going to Sea in a Sieve: The Autobiography which is out now.

The reason I'm telling you this is that Danny will be appearing alongside Skinny Lister (left) and other acts yet to be announced at the Word In Your Ear show which "Magic" Alex Gold and I are putting on at the Lexington in London's swinging Islington on Tuesday, December 4th. Danny will be talking to me about times past, present and future (he may well touch upon recent events that took him to the front page of the The Times) and signing copies of his book.

I'm delighted he's doing this and really hope as many people as possible can come along for what promises to be a great start to the run-up to Christmas. 

Tickets are £15, I shall be taking care of MC duties while also presenting my legendary 1971 was the annus mirabilis of the rock album roadshow. There will be further announcements in due course but if you want to be sure of your ticket you need to book now.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Memo to Radio Three - all discs are records but not all records are discs

Listening to BBC Radio Three first thing this morning my ears prick up when "the announcer" (I feel sure they should still be called "announcers" on Radio Three) talks about playing "some new discs".

"Discs" is a term that seems to hang on at Radio Three and in certain corners of Radio Four. It wasn't long ago that Desert Island Discs (there it is again) asked guests to pick eight "gramophone records" to be cast away with.

All terms used to decribe sound carriers have a moment in the sun and quickly become quaint. In the late 60s people talked about having "an album collection" because it implied a whole new level of sophistication. In the late 70s cassette was the dominant format. At the time my mother would describe any recorded music as "a tape".  I cling on to "LP" because it puzzles young people. I have known people point at 12" vinyl LPs and call them CDs.

"Album" itself is a word borrowed from the world of photography, used to describe the packages in which the first classical works could be spread over a number of 78s. "Waxing" and "vinyl" were borrowed from the production process. "Hot biscuit" was a hipster term for a record, so-called because early 78s would be apparently baked during manufacture.

There's actually only one word that would cover anything from an early Edison cylinder to the latest stream, anything from a rare Black Patti to a Paul Young cassette with a cracked case picked up in a motorway service area, from a Jamaican dub plate to the most recent classical performance.

That's the word "record".

"Record" doesn't apply to the physical object. It applies to the medium. Therefore, that music they're playing on Radio Three may be coming from a disc or it may not, it may be a download or it may not, it may in ten years' time be played in via a machine that we cannot imagine now. It will however still be a record.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Bands are like tree surgeons

I don't want to manage any bands but there are times when I wouldn't mind being a coach. Last night was one of those times. I was a guest at the Mercury Music Prize show at the Roundhouse. Twelve acts did one song each, which gives you a rare chance to compare and contrast.

Most of the bands took to the stage with the slightly self-important air of tree surgeons about to perform a delicate operation from which you'd be best advised to stand well clear. They further resemble tree surgeons in the way they appear to be preoccupied with important matters while hoping against hope that you're admiring them. When you consider how far technology has advanced in the last thirty years it's remarkable that musicians still look so burdened by the increasing amount of kit they take on stage with them and distracted by the fear that it might go wrong. This is of course even worse when it's a TV taping.

Does this self-consciousness matter? Only if you think the musician should be reaching out to the audience rather than operating a machine. The folk singer Sam Lee clearly does. When he began his number he looked directly into the audience and defied them to look away. In doing this he proved it was possible to establish some kind of relationship, even with an industry crowd.

I once went on a public speaking course taught by an actor. He was full of all kinds of drama school tricks, the sort that make normal people roll their eyes and blush. At one stage he said, before a performance I like to go on stage and cast my net over the audience. Here he mimed flinging a Biblical fishing net over the front stalls. I find it helps me project myself into the room, he added. To conquer the space.

We all sniggered, of course. Nonetheless, whenever I'm about to talk to a room full of people, I fling that net. Only in my head, of course. Something similar makes athletes believe in the power of visualisation. I wonder if any member of any band has ever thought about their performance in those terms.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

If there had been a Mercury Music Prize in 1971, this would have been the shortlist

I'm going to the Mercury Music Prize tonight. The shortlisted acts are alt-J, Ben Howard, Django Django, Field Music, Jessie Ware, Lianne La Havas, The Macabees, Michael Kiwanuka, Plan B and Richard Hawley.

When I was compiling my Spotify playlist 1971- the Annus Mirabilis of the Rock Album, it struck me that if you'd been doing a similar exercise in that year, your Mercury shortlist would have been:

The Who's "Who's Next"
Rod Stewart's "Every Picture Tells A Story"
The Rolling Stones' "Sticky Fingers"
David Bowie's "Hunky Dory"
Paul McCartney's "Ram"
T. Rex's "Electric Warrior"
Yes's "The Yes Album"
"Led Zeppelin IV"
Pink Floyd's "Meddle"

Better? I couldn't possibly say. But one thing I promise you is that some radio station somewhere will be playing every single one of those records today.