Monday, December 31, 2012

The only thing to do today is watch this film about David Geffen

The rain's lashing the windows. It will continue all day. The best thing you can do if you're interested in show business is watch "Inventing David Geffen" via the PBS site. That's him second from right in the picture with Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell and Cass Elliott.

In many ways it's what you'd expect. Lots of famous faces (many of them lifted) popping up to trot out their polished observations about the only man to have been an enormous success as both a music and a film mogul. In editing these films producers tend to favour the pithy untruth over the insight that takes a while to get out. Thus the A&R man gets away with saying that when Guns N' Roses were first played on MTV at four in the morning "it blew up the switchboard". On the other hand I liked Mike Nichols talking about how Geffen sabotaged Hilary Clinton's presidential bid by saying that "everybody in politics lies but they do it with such ease, it's troubling". "It was like a tiny pin dopped at a very silent moment and everybody said 'that's true'."

I liked the section about his trip to Paris with Joni Mitchell which resulted in her writing "Free Man In Paris", one of very her best songs, about him. I liked Jackson Browne talking about what it was like to overhear Geffen's phone conversations with promoters. You never quite know whether to trust the actuality. Is that really him talking on the phone to Clive Davis about trying to get the reformed Byrds on his label? Did he really get in early at the William Morris Agency for six months to intercept the letter from UCLA which would have torpedoed his made-up CV? And is that the actual letter? And are we so prudish that even the word "bullshit" has to be bleeped?

Still, there should be more films about impresarios because I don't think they get the respect they deserve. The narrative of the entertainment business is loaded so heavily in the artist's favour that we can't see that the guy on the phone can be every bit as creative as the bloke with the guitar.  I sympathise with Elliot Roberts, the man who's managed Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and many other people who can't be easy, when he says "Sometimes you just want a thank-you. You move mountains and all the act says is 'OK, that's where the mountain should be.'"

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Michael Nesmith is 70 today and this is what he did best

Michael Nesmith's 70 today. He's done lots of things in his career. Because he inherited a fortune from his mother, who invented liquid correction paper, he could pick and choose. When the Monkees reform sometimes he's there and sometimes he isn't. He's the boss of a think tank. He pioneered long-form video. He's been a quite successful movie producer. He put out a record which was accompanied by a book you were meant to read at the same time.

In the seventies he released a series of albums on RCA that I still love. They had the kind of titles like "Tantamount To Treason" and "Loose Salute" that made you love them long before you got to hear them. They're impressionistic. On one hand he was making Nashville pop. On the other he seemed to be fashioning little movies. He scattered sound effects and spoken passages throughout. I've put three of the best ones on a Spotify playlist here.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The best writers tell you what they see, not what they think

I bought Up in the Old Hotel in Foyle's just before Christmas. I was attracted by the cover, the testimonials from Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie and the fact that the author, Joseph Mitchell, wrote for the New Yorker for fifty years. He died in 1996. For the last thirty years he clocked in at the office daily and wrote but didn't come up with anything he considered worth publishing.

If you read his collected works you can see why. If his portraits of New York characters from the thirties, forties and fifties are notable for anything it's the density of information and observation he packs into each one. Mitchell would hang out with his subjects for years before he'd filled his notebooks with enough detail to justify writing them up.

He was probably one of those writers who regarded his job as a trade rather than a profession. At no stage in the 700 pages does he appear to acknowledge the fact that he is going to places and meeting people that we, gentle readers might find a little too real. This applies whether he's detailing the money-making scams of New York's gypsy tribes, describing the rituals of the beefsteak dinners put on by the city's Tammany societies, telling the story of how the Mohawks recovered their warrior prestige by working in "high steel" or levelly reminiscing about the nocturnal activities of the Ku Klux Klan during his Southern boyhood.

There are good writers around today but generally they've read about things before actually encountering them. They're graduates. They come at life book-first. They delight in measuring how far experience exceeds or falls short of how they feel things ought to be. They need to tell you what they think about everything. Their stories are peopled by goodies and baddies. Their prose is peppered with hooray words and boo words.

Mitchell is from a very different school and was fortunate the world of print could support him. In the introduction he says that the only people he doesn't care to listen to are "society women, industrial leaders, distinguished authors, ministers, explorers, moving picture actors and any actress under the age of thirty-five." Journalists will recognise that these are the very people that editors are most interested in. Mitchell says experience has taught him that the best talk actually comes from "anthropologists, farmers, prostitutes and the occasional bartender."

I've been sitting in front of the fire all Christmas, reading his book. As a result I don't know how he might have voted, what his attitude to religion might have been or what he thought on any of the issues of the day. I do not know "where he was coming from", which is the first thing people expect these days.  In 700 pages Joseph Mitchell doesn't let slip as many clues about himself as most people do in the average night on Twitter.

However I do feel I've learned a lot about people by reading his collected works. One of his most trusted sources is a middle-aged policeman called Captain Campion. Mitchell reports that he was promoted from beat cop because his seniors noticed that he was "unusually intelligent and that he had a remarkably accurate memory for faces, names, conversations, and sequences of actions and that he was deeply curious about human behaviour". I like to think that when he wrote those lines Mitchell might have been describing himself.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Have yourself a merry little Christmas, if the fates allow

The best Christmas songs are the sad ones: "Fairytale Of New York", "It's A Big Country", "Blue Christmas" and "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas", which is probably the best actual Christmas song of all.

The lyrics were written by Hugh Martin and the music by Ralph Blane. It was unveiled in the 1944 film "Meet Me In St Louis". Judy Garland sings it to comfort her young sister, who's upset at the news that the family are moving to New York.

The lyric has changed through the years. The film's director thought it was too sad and persuaded Martin to change "it may be your last" to "let your heart be light". When Sinatra came to record a version on an album called "A Jolly Christmas" he asked him to change it again. This time "until then we'll have to muddle through somehow" became "hang a shining star upon the highest bough". Sinatra's got form when it comes to making clunky changes to lyrics - see his altering of Jesus to "Jilly" in his version of "Mrs Robinson".

In later life Martin, who was a Seventh Day Adventist, re-wrote his song as "Have Yourself A Blessed Little Christmas" and performed it as "we will all be together, if the Lord allows", a form of words he claimed were in the original but were swapped for "if the fates allow" to make the song less religious.

Last night I caught Larry Lamb and the cast of "Gavin And Stacey" doing it at the end of a repeated Christmas special. I think "if the fates allow" is actually the best line in the whole song. As we re-group for Christmas and think about who's here, who's not and what's changed, that's the line that strokes the heart strings. Have yourself a merry little Christmas.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The harmless TV fun of today may produce the scandals of tomorrow

Toyah Willcox said an interesting thing on this week's programme on Radio Four about Smash Hits when talking about the relatively benign world of 80s pop stardom. "Nowadays," she said, "I think of fame as something dark and abusive."

I know what she meant. However, the majority of people seem to associate seediness exclusively with the past. I overheard some thirtyish blokes in the pub talking about the police investigation of Jimmy Savile. They seem to have arrived at the view that anyone who had been on Radio One in the seventies was, to use the great contemporary smear-all, "dodgy". This seemed to apply particularly if they'd worn a tank top. People like things to look the way they do in their prejudices.

Scandal's no respecter of eras. I don't have any evidence but I can't help suspecting that when our 21st century world of reality TV and searches-for-a-star finally lands in a ditch at the side of the road, a lot of victims will crawl from the wreckage and some of them may have very "dark and abusive" stories to tell. Since so many of those swept up in this gold rush have been wide eyed innocents or people with fragile self-esteem, there's bound to be fall-out. At which point a lot of the same people currently celebrating it all as harmless fun may abruptly change their tunes.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Paul Thompson *is* Roxy Music

Last night I walked through the rain in Islington listening to early Roxy Music (I do recommend this) and realised that when developing my theory that drummers are the truly irreplaceable heart of all great bands I hadn't taken Paul Thompson into consideration.

I think of Thompson's style as being somehow on the military wing of funk. He's the one who kept Love Is The Drug and Do The Strand rattling along but he also sounded as if he would be completely comfortable supplying the percussion noises that accompany court martial scenes in movies. There's something round, hard and stirring about the way he plays, something dry and stern about his fills. If you were going to be led out to be hanged you'd like to think Paul Thompson would be playing.

Thompson was working on a building site when Roxy Music went in to do their first sessions for John Peel and he never fitted comfortably into the group's visual scheme.
In fact this picture of the early line-up shows how much of a sore thumb he could be. He's the one far left looking like a "before" picture in a body building ad. This particular shot is a "do I have to wear this, boss?" classic.

Thompson was edged out when the group made their early 80s albums, to be replaced, not entirely satisfactorily, by session players and drum machines. He then played with everyone from Blondie to the Angelic Upstarts. He was called back to the line-up in 2001. It was like an errant footballer going back to the wife who had borne his children. While he was away Roxy Music had a few hits but did nothing that was great. That could be because Paul Thompson is Roxy Music.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The strange economics of pantomime

A few years ago I was talking to the artistic director of one of Britain's most prominent provincial theatres. It was after a charity performance of a Shakespeare play featuring a few very starry names. I asked him how easy it was to fill his theatre. He told me that if it wasn't for the annual pantomime season they probably wouldn't be able to keep the doors open.

I find it surprising that in this day and age you can still fill a theatre for two shows a day for over a month with this form of entertainment, charging (I've just had a quick look) up to £35 in Milton Keynes and up to £29.50 in Glasgow and no discounts for children.

I'm sure that the annual influx of American stars who increasingly top the bill at these shows (David Hasselhof is in Manchester this year, I see) genuinely love performing to full houses but I wonder how much money it takes to get somebody like Priscilla Presley to spend Christmas at the New Wimbledon Theatre.

A piece in the Independent in 2010 suggested that it could be as much as £250,000 for a five-week run with further bonuses tied to the total box-office  take. Last year the Telegraph ran a piece alleging that the Wolverhampton production of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs would henceforth use children instead of dwarf actors. Presumably the money saved is spent on the thing that puts bums on seats, which probably means former TV stars.

It's the strangest deal in the entertainment business: people who were big names thirty years earlier paid top dollar to dress up and perform in front of small children who would presumably be far more impressed with Jedward or a children's TV presenter.

In this I suppose it has something in common with rock festival economics. It's the line-up of big names that persuades people to sign the cheques when the line-up is announced. It's the small act on the fringes of the festival that actually justifies the investment when the weekend comes around.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

John Lennon, Smash Hits and the lost art of putting pen to paper

I've been looking at The John Lennon Letters app on the iPad. It's quite charming. Most of the time he's a lot warmer with a pen in his hand, apologising to a chauffeur he's had to let go, writing to Ringo from Rishikesh enthusing about the number of new songs he's written, keeping in touch with his many relations and even (left) his mates in the press.

I don't expect the march of musical history to turn up any similar treasures. The kind of sentiments that could be scribbled on a postcard are now likely to be sent as a text. Their tone will be entirely different.

Contributing to a Radio 4 programme about Smash Hits which is broadcast on Thursday I was reflecting once again on the thing that most amazes me about that whole phenomenon. It's the fact that every night in the eighties thousands of 14-year-olds sat down with their Friends Forever notepaper and their multi-coloured pens to scratch out letters to us at Smash Hits and, they hoped, to the fabulous pop world beyond. That's another world.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Will Amazon be the Last Record Store?

I was walking up Oxford Street yesterday and thinking about the record and book shops that used to be there. Two HMVs, two Virgins, at least one Our Price, Borders, Books Etc, Waterstone's and some other chains whose names I've forgotten.

Now there's just HMV and yesterday they reported that they were likely to breach their banking covenants in the New Year.

The theory of Last Man Standing goes that when a market is cleared out it remains possible for one large operator to make money. If HMV were the last music retailer on the High Street it could do OK. It doesn't look as though it's going to work out as neatly as that.

While I was thinking about that I learned that Amazon aim to get a margin of just 1% across its business. I'm no business analyst but surely that kind of strategy can only work if you get mind-boggling scale.

The way your way cool new internet is panning out makes me yearn for the ways of the old-fashioned retailers. Like Tesco and Sainsbury.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

What Paul McCartney can do. What Mick Jagger can't

So Paul McCartney fronts a band featuring the remaining members of Nirvana, makes a decent fist of it and the people who are most surprised are the citizens of Indie Nation, where versatility is despised and people only feel they can properly trust those who've spent years ploughing the narrowest of furrows.

McCartney, whether you like him or not, has worked in more musical idioms over a longer period of time than anyone else and therefore he's the last person about whom you should ever say "but I never realised he could do that". Every shade of pop and rock and roll, dance music, sound collages, show tunes, classical, film scores, kids songs and "Give Ireland Back To The Irish". He's done the lot. Nobody would claim it's all been uniformly brilliant but he's always been equal to the job and very often he's shown mastery.

Plus, if one living performer could be said to have invented the art of screaming in front of a rock band it was Paul McCartney. He did that with "I'm Down", "She's A Woman", "Helter Skelter" and plenty of other recordings and he did it long before anybody even thought of putting up the discredited polytechnic that is indie rock.

 Meanwhile, by contrast, Mick Jagger turned up on Letterman this week to deliver the Top Ten Things He's Learned and proves that it's possible to have spent 50 years at the top of your profession and still trample all over the punch-lines of the writers. This is so bad I have to watch it again and again.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Pictures from last week's Word In Your Ear show

Bobby Goulding's pictures from last week's Word In Your Ear show at the Lexington capture something of the evening's madcap spirit. Here Dan Heptinstall and Lorna Thomas demonstrate Skinny Lister's two-fisted approach to folk.
Special guest Danny Baker, with occasional prompts from me, regaled the room with incidents from a life teeming with same, many of which are in his book Going To Sea In A Sieve.

Following the show the usual bacchanal ensued in the luxurious star dressing rooms backstage.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Ten acts who made brilliant trilogies without meaning to

Front Row asked me to say something about trilogies - prompted by The Hobbit, 50 Shades Of Grey and the slightly less enthralling news that we're in the midst of a Green Day trilogy.

The best rock trilogies were never designed as such. They're the after-the-fact trilogies, made because standard record contract used to be for three albums, three years seemed to be as long as you could hold a particular line-up of a band together and, as Louis Menand pointed out, the iron law of stardom is that the public can't maintain its enthusiasm for a particular artist much longer than three years. It's interesting to go back and look at record-making not as a steady string of albums but as a blind stumble towards a three-album purple patch. Like these.

Scott Walker's hit trilogy - 1967-1969

Purists disagree but most of us think Scott Walker hit his peak with these three LPs, each of which combined throbbing versions of Jacques Brel with a sprinkling of his own songs. Scott 4 was all his own songs. It was deleted within the year.

The Beatles psychedelic trilogy -1965-1967

Of all the Beatles albums these are the three that feel most like a series. Menand argues that the Beatles are one of the few exceptions to his three-year rule because they had a three-year career as lovable mop-tops immediately followed by another three-year career as moustachioed adventurers.

Bowie's Berlin trilogy - 1977-79

The fans call it his "Berlin Trilogy". In fact, the third one wasn't recorded in Berlin. It would be more accurate to call it his "Eno trilogy". Know what they mean though.

Neil Young's ditch trilogy - 1973-75

"Heart Of Gold put me in the middle of the road," he said. "Travelling there became a bore so I headed for the ditch."

Stevie Wonder's pop/soul trilogy - 1972-74

He'd had hits before and he had lots after but wherever he is tonight he's playing Superstition, You Are The Sunshine Of My Life, Living For The City, Boogie On Reggae Woman and lots of other songs from these three records which were written, recorded and released in a dizzying two years.

The Nick Drake trilogy - 1969-72

When writers talk about not sticking around to mess up their own legacy it's usually because it sounds like a mordant thing to say. Well, it certainly worked for Nick Drake who was dead just two years after the last of this trio came out.

The Cure's dark trilogy - 1980-82

Rock bands hardly ever set out to do trilogies but they often turn round to find that they've done one, which is what happened to the Cure.

The Steely Dan band trilogy - 1973-75

The singer on the first Steely Dan album was David Palmer. He'd left by Countdown To Ecstasy and so Fagen took over. By the time of Katy Lied the band had been replaced by session players but they still sounded like a group, which they never did again.

Bob Dylan's geezer trilogy 1997-2006

Bob Dylan's often done some of his best stuff while marking time. In the late 60s he made three records in Nashville that showcased his new, post-accident voice. In the 90s he re-launched himself as a wheezy old gimmer doing retreads of old r&b tunes which he'd picked up while doing his radio show.

Nick Lowe's Brentford trilogy - 1994 to the present time

Nick Lowe's recent records have all featured the same musicians and the songs all illustrate the life of man in late middle-age who's sorry for a lot he's done. These three were christened "the Brentford trilogy" after Robert Rankin's books and the area where Lowe lives. They've been so well-received that he's made another couple since. Which is bending the rules.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Now's as good a time as any to realise that Randy Newman is unique

While the nation was watching The X Factor on Saturday night, Ian Penman, Danny Baker and I were each playing Randy Newman's Good Old Boys and marvelling about it via Twitter.

Every time I listen to Randy Newman I come away even more impressed by him. This time it struck me he's one of the few pop artists with no forerunners and no successors. Nobody came before and there's no sign of anybody coming after. You can detect the influences - Fats Domino, Ray Charles, the soundtrack music that his uncle Alfred wrote, probably even Schubert if you're cleverer than I am - but you can't draw a direct line from any of them.

As for successors, any songwriter who isn't influenced by Newman's own songs simply hasn't twigged how good he is. You can find traces of him in the songs of people like Neil Hannon, but that's probably because they both sit at the piano. But does anybody else strike the same notes? I don't think so.

Nobody else seems to have his remarkable ability to make the unloveable our friends. The father who wants his children to hurt like he did, the Southerner who gets fed up of seeing Lester Maddox being guyed by "some smart-ass New York Jew" and goes to the park "and takes some paper along", the drunk who confesses "it takes a whole lot of medicine for me to pretend that I'm someone else", the impresario who prods Davy The Fat Boy into performing his agonisingly pretty fat-boy dance, the God who explains that he loves mankind only because we are so pathetic and needy, smiling down at the hands which are tracing out New Orleans-style piano: only Dickens has come up with a comparable range of characters.

Which reminds me of the account Dostoevsky gave of meeting Dickens. According to him, all Dickens' virtuous characters were what he wanted to be and all his evil characters were what he actually thought he was. I doubt that Randy Newman thinks like that. They're not evil characters but they do entertain unworthy thoughts. The fact that he's prepared to give those unworthy thoughts such wicked tunes is more than enough.

I've put eight Randy Newman tunes here.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Why would a band not play their hits? *Any* hit

I was talking to a musician recently. He was in a band that had reformed for a last tour. They had a following but the nearest they'd come to an actual hit was a cover version of a well-known song that they'd recorded years before for a film soundtrack. Reasoning that even the tiniest regional hit was a calling card that reached beyond their tiny fan constituency he suggested they should put it in the set. It was vetoed by the drummer who thought it was somehow "embarrassing". It never occurs to bands that any of their own songs might be "embarrassing" but they are apt to think that by doing other people's songs they are somehow reneging on their deal with the God of authenticity.

In every other area of show business it's pretty much inconceivable that an act facing a crowd who needed entertaining wouldn't reach for every weapon as their disposal. Even an ornery old soul like Bob Dylan does his biggest hits. Clive James told me that his anecdote about the dunny man from the first volume of his memoirs is the "bit" that still makes people buy tickets to hear him read. James Taylor sings about the people who "pay good money to hear Fire And Rain again and again and again" in a song called, with refreshing honesty, That's Why I'm Here.

If I were climbing on stage and had any reason to believe that there was anything the audience wanted to hear for me, I'd make damn sure I played it, probably near the beginning. I'd do that because any kind of performance is a battle for survival. How come bands are the only people who don't know this?

Monday, December 03, 2012

The obsolete box in the corner

Downstairs in our sitting room is a piece of furniture I have recently come to regard as obsolete. It's a television.

Since we had it connected to a Freeview box my wife complains she can't easily tune it to the channels she wants and so she doesn't turn it on much. She catches up on the few things she wants to watch on the iPlayer via an iPad. Most of our kids have grown and, in the words of Randy Newman, "they have TVs of their own". The one who's studying at home no longer bothers with a TV in her bedroom. She watches whatever she watches on a laptop. Most of the TV I watch isn't live. When it's football or rugby I go to the pub to watch.  The family hardly ever gather to watch the same thing.

The upshot of this is there's never an occasion in our house when somebody asks what time something's on and then settles down accordingly. Which means we must be beyond the reach of the TV schedulers. Scheduling is ultimately what TV's about. TV plays lip service to the idea of creating exciting programming but mostly they just trundle their output into slots where experience has taught them a given group of people will be on the sofa waiting to watch.

The traditional power of TV and radio has derived from their power to make large numbers of people do the same thing at the same time. This is changing. Already more teenagers follow pop music on You Tube than on radio. My children are growing up with little of no awareness of channels or broadcasters. They already resent the idea that units of entertainment can be held back in order to help an organisation sell advertising or boost ratings.

I'm already seriously considering life without a landline. The next thing to go will be that big box in the corner.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

"It's before my time" - the four most infuriating words in the language

None of the three contestants on a trivia quiz on Danny Baker's Saturday morning show just now could tell us which member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young was called Graham.

You just knew what they were going to say. "It's before my time."

I hate "it's before my time".  I loathe "it's before my time". It makes my blood boil.

These four words are the wholly inadequate sick note offered up by all those who think that knowledge is something exclusively acquired through direct experience, who have such a distorted sense of the lens of their own life that everything which is outside their immediate field of vision falls sharply away into the gloom of total ignorance (they haven't even got enough of a framework to attempt a guess), who regard learning as something that stopped at the end of their learning years, who must be making an effort to ensure that nothing lodges in the windy vacancy of their mind that they haven't made a definite effort to put there, who, most infuriatingly of all, can never quite hide the fact that they are, if anything, quite proud that they don't know because this somehow makes them young and vital. It doesn't.

When I was young, nobody said "it's before my time". You were expected to know lots of things that were before your time. That's what civilisation is. Yes, even with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.