Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Eric Morecambe grabbed Andre Previn's lapels for a good reason

My daughter bought me The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase for Christmas. It's by Mark Forsyth. He's proud to call himself a pedant and blogs about his interests here.

Forsyth's book explains how the secret of effective communication is an understanding of the techniques that underpinned Greek and Roman rhetoric. This applies to the making of speeches, the fashioning of slogans and even the writing of pop songs. When Ian Fleming's character says "My name is Bond. James Bond" he's using diacope. When Mick Jagger sings "she blew my nose and then she blew my mind" he's employing syllepsis. Churchill said that all he had to offer was "blood, toil, tears and sweat" but his audience's ears were so primed for the tricolon they deleted the word toil and rearranged the sweat and the tears.

It's a witty little book. The funny thing is it will mainly be read by people who understand its lessons already. That doesn't mean that they know what hendiadys is exactly but they do understand that Shakespeare's "sound and fury" is way more powerful than "furious sound" could ever have been. How do they know this? Nobody ever taught them. It's just that people who spend a lot of time playing with words develop an ear for sentences that amount to more than simply the sum of the words involved.

Like most people who write about music from to time I often wonder how I can have a serviceable ear for organising words while having none at all for organising music. I'm not completely musically illiterate. I can read music. I even know a few chords on the guitar but it doesn't matter how long I spend noodling away I can never come up with anything which sounds like a musical idea worth revisiting. That may be because I haven't played three notes that were worth repeating. It's more likely to be because I wouldn't recognise them even if I did. Learning to write effectively, much as learning to speak effectively, is first of all a question of recognising patterns. With words I can see those patterns from miles away. With music I can't.

When Eric Morecambe grabs Andre Previn's lapels and insists he's playing the right notes but not necessarily in the right order, I laugh like everyone else laughs. It's a good joke. At the same time I can't help thinking he's making a serious point. The order is the only thing that matters.

Friday, December 20, 2013

What the world needs is Wikipedia TV

I’ve been watching ITV’s Lucan and the BBC’s The Great Train Robbery. They’re both fictionalised versions of real crimes that took place in Britain within living memory, though not, in all probability, within the memory of the people who made them.

From the two programmes we learn a few things. One magnificent actor, Rory Kinnear as Lucan and Jim Broadbent as Superintendent Tommy Butler, can’t help but make the rest of the cast look as though they’re, well, acting. All TV directors wish they had directed Mad Men and will grab any chance to do scenes featuring lounge singers, cocktails and cigarettes. Efforts the writers make to point out the prejudices of a bygone age will mainly reflect the prejudices of the present. We turn fact into fiction by giving it an ending which real life doesn’t provide.

Both dramas sent me back to the facts of the original cases. I remember them both happening. We were on holiday in north Wales in 1963. When Dad wanted to get us out of his hair he would tell us to keep digging in the sand until we found some of the mail train loot. I was working in HMV in 1973. One of my colleagues was the son of one of the senior Lucan detectives.

Neither story is the same as it was back then. Accounts change. People die. New details come out. New theories arise and are rebutted. I’m always interested in what happened to the offspring of the key people. Bruce Reynolds’ son is a member of Alabama 3, whose theme for The Sopranos will have made him more money than his father managed to retain from the train. One of Lucan’s daughters is now a barrister.

The best place to keep track of all this is Wikipedia. People say “you don’t trust Wikipedia, do you?”. I’d say it’s no more or less imperfect than any of the traditional history resources. And the stories it tells are, thanks to its open nature, never-ending. At a stroke this makes them less like stories and more like the truth.

What I’d really like to see is Wikipedia TV. I’d watch that.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Hims Ancient And Modern

"They were made of that sombre, youthful stuff, rich in ideals but poor in experience, that modern terrorist movements feed upon."
That's not somebody in the papers summing up the two murderers of Lee Rigby, who were convicted today. It's Christopher Clark, author of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. He's describing the teenagers who killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo a hundred years ago.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A film unimaginable without Miles

Went to a screening of Lift To The Scaffold (Ascenseur pour L'échafaud) and it was sensational. The BFI are screening it in February. When they do, bunk off for the afternoon and see it.

It was made by Louis Malle in 1958 when he was 24. It's about a man who murders his lover's husband and gets trapped in the lift of the building over the weekend while a couple of tearaways go joyriding in his car and commit a crime of their own.

It struck me how some aspects of daily life in the Paris of that time might seem as puzzling as historical fiction to modern audiences. A nightwatchman clocks into the building during the night to check the premises. The killing is masked by the sound of an electric pencil sharpener. The newspaper which shows the murderer's picture is set in hot metal. The tearaways spend the night in a motel where you slept right next to your much-prized car. The girl lives in the 15th arrondissement in what the characters familiarly refer to as a "maid's room". And I suppose the over-arching question that any 18-year-old might ask is - how could you possibly not be able to get in touch with someone for twelve hours? 

The picture above shows the film's star Jeanne Moreau with Miles Davis, who improvised the soundtrack in one overnight session in Paris after having seen the film just twice. It's now pretty much unimaginable without him as you can see in this short clip.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Las Vegas? I'm just not that kind of guy

Went to a preview of Last Vegas last night. I'm not quite as old as its lead actors but I'm part of the demographic it's aimed at. As the entertainment business starts to realise that very soon most of the population will be over fifty it's belatedly responding with dramas thick with jokes about Viagra, old eight-track cartridges and the number of trips to the bathroom it takes to get through the average night.

This one's about four childhood friends who are still bosom buddies almost sixty years later and go to Las Vegas for a stag weekend prior to the wedding of one of them to his 32-year old cupcake. This isn't the Vegas of Sammy and Dean. It's the modern Las Vegas, where clubbing is more profitable than gambling and if you're prepared to go into a year's worth of debt you can pretend you're 50 Cent for a few hours. Thanks to a win at the tables our four geezers get to behave like the characters in The Hangover: their suite is comped and next thing you know they've got a hundred Maxim girls twerking round its indoor swimming pools.

I had a comfy chair in a preview theatre so I quite enjoyed it. It was best when Mary Steenburgen appeared as the only prom fresh lounge singer in town. "Are you good in bed?" "I don't remember." That kind of thing.

Couldn't help thinking while watching it how far and fast my oldest male friends would run to get away from the prospect of an actual weekend in Vegas. Their idea of perfect escape is to idle away a winter afternoon in a French restaurant far below the pavements of Soho, to mooch muddily around some war graves in Flanders, to watch any half-organised sporting encounter or - and this really remains the all-weather favourite - to sit around amusing each other by talking absolute bollocks.

As Jerry Seinfeld says, "Girls, you want to know what guys are thinking? You really want to know? I'll tell you. (Pause.) Nothing."

Monday, December 16, 2013

Stumbled over on Spotify: Jenny Scheinman

I don’t have much time for recommendation engines but I do like This Is My Jam. When you choose a tune it lists the other people who've chosen the same one. Then you can look at what else those people have chosen.

This is how I came to hear Jenny Scheinman. She’s best known for playing violin with people like Bill Frisell and arranging for people like Lucinda Williams, but I’ve been playing this 2008 solo album a lot over the last week. Her other records are mainly instrumental, but this one’s vocal. She’s got a proper voice, which doesn’t sound as glib and used as it might do if she vocalised for a living. She favours tunes in a folk/blues idiom like “I Was Young When I Left Home” and "Miss Collins" which is based on "Louis Collins" by Mississsippi John Hurt.

The record gets better towards the end, which is always a good sign, with “The Green”, which is the (presumably true) story of the singer’s aunt who just up and disappeared one day; an attractively rackety version of The Platters’ “Twilight Time”, her own “Skinny Man”, which owes something to Lucinda Williams and has got just the same catchy slur, and finally her versions of "Johnsburg, Illinois" by Tom Waits. I like it a lot. If I see a copy I'll buy it.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The view from seat J31 at Mark Lewisohn's first (and last?) Pepper lecture

Before he delivered his hour-long presentation about Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band tonight Mark Lewisohn told me it had taken him three weeks to prepare.

A lot of that must have gone into organising the studio out-takes, rare photographs, old TV clips and newspaper cuts with which it was illustrated. It's a lot of work to put into something which he was delivering for free for the benefit of Pepper, a charity which raises money for the home care of seriously ill children in the Chilterns, where he lives.

If he did it again it would have to come out of time he really ought to be spending on the second volume of his mammoth Beatles trilogy. From what I could gather this will start in 1962, where the first volume finishes, and go up to Sgt Pepper. He hasn't started writing it yet and he has lots more research to do so it looks as if it'll be seven years before it's published.

He started his lecture with a whizz-through their albums. Just standing there and revealing one sleeve at a time is a reminder that never gets old of just how much they did - and how much they changed - in such a short period of time. As he pointed out, they gave up playing live just four years after they were first filmed by Granada TV at the Cavern.

His Pepper lecture makes many points. These are a few of them.

  • It's John and Paul's record. You can hear that in the nearness of their harmonies and the magical interplay which is "Day In The Life". 
  • It's not so much psychedelic as English and not so much futuristic as deeply nostalgic. 
  • The idea of Pepper's band was probably Mal Evans'. It was initially "Doctor Pepper" but that was changed for obvious reasons. 
  • You simply can never ignore the extraordinary role that chance plays in the story of the Beatles. On Pepper it's exemplified by the story of Melanie Coe, whose real-life flit inspired the song "She's Leaving Home". As you'll find out if you search her name on You Tube, she and Paul had met before.

Friday, December 13, 2013

All albums should be surprise albums

Glad to see Beyonce has put out a new album on iTunes only. It's said to be "a surprise album".

All albums used to be surprise albums. In the 60s long players would just appear in the window of your local record shop. That's how I first saw Sgt Pepper. The first I saw of the new Bob Dylan or Rolling Stones sleeve wasn't on an advert in the NME. It was in my own High Street. You can probably imagine how thrilling that was.

By the time we'd reached the 90s the softening up process, the teaser campaign, the carefully choreographed series of "exclusives", had been developed into a fine art and the relationship between the music business and the media was so incestuous that you tired of hearing about the damned albums by the time they came out. I was always bothered about the idea of the BBC, particularly, playing records for months before we poor saps out there in radioland got the chance to buy them. Of course they always made sure to tell us when we would be able to buy them. Some people might call that advertising. In the case of the "U2=BBC" campaign of 2009 even the BBC thought it had gone too far. Afterwards.

Surprise albums are better in every respect. We'll be the ones to decide how nice a surprise they are. That way the media can get back to doing what they used to do, which was reflect public enthusiasm rather than trying to mould it.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Shut up. You're not really cross

The Danish Prime Minister's selfie at the Nelson Mandela funeral rally occasioned this week's outbreak of the 21st century disease - fake indignation.

Jeeves might have raised an eyebrow at this apparent breach of form but it really is no reason for newspapers, columnists and phone-in shows to pretend to be mortally offended - not for themselves, you understand, but on behalf of some unspecified group of people who apparently can't speak for themselves.

It's a binary world. People only stop being cross long enough to gush. Most of the things they're responding to don't warrant either.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

What kind of world is it where Bob Dylan wears a tie and the weatherman doesn't?

The same day Tie Rack announced it was going into administration I went to see Bob Dylan at the Albert Hall. He was wearing a tie.

A few nights later I saw Dream Themes, Rhodri Marsden’s TV theme-tune band. They were all wearing ties. Even the guitarist, who threw himself to the ground during an emotionally wrenching version of the Panorama theme, was wearing one.

It’s funny that rock bands, who used to pride themselves on being morally above wearing ties, should now adopt them as a working uniform. There have been memorable rock ties. There was Bryan Ferry’s GI tie, which he would tuck into his shirt. Around the same time Bill Nelson had a nice line in bulky Rodney Bewes-style kippers. One of the things that made Doctor Feelgood stand out from other pub rock bands was they wore ties.

The wearing of a rock tie does two things: it helps distinguish the members of the band from the members of the audience and also makes them look as if they're going to work, like the gang at the beginning of Reservoir Dogs.

It's funny that this should happen just as ties are falling out of use in the real workplace. I don't have anything against informality.I simply feel that if you wear a suit without a tie, or without a collar that can said to be properly resolved, you look unfinished. That surely wasn't what you had in mind when you bought the suit.

At the end of last night's BBC news they had two weathermen, one wearing a tie and one not. I know which one I paid attention to.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Was ever a sitcom so funny for so long as Frasier?

I found a cache of complete episodes of Frasier on You Tube. Once I start I can't stop. One's too many and a hundred aren't enough. It gives new pleasure every time. A load of new things struck me this time around.

  • In every respect but their sexual orientation and the fact they're brothers, Frasier and Niles are a gay couple.
  • For all its fine talk British comedy has never come up with anything half as sophisticated as Frasier.
  • I think it was Andrew Collins who told me that in situation comedy character serves plot whereas in literature plot serves character. That's true. Once you've bought the idea of Daphne acting as the saucy maid you're prepared to overlook the fact that she's introduced as "Dad's physical therapist". 
  • The depiction of radio is ludicrous but you forgive it.
  • The set was said to be the most expensive in television. It was worth it.
  • Of course the script's good but what makes it brilliant is the acting. It's the energy and the precision of the business - a great deal of which, particularly in Niles's case, is physical - that makes it sing. The cast is even secure enough to let occasional guest turns like Bebe Neuwirth as Frasier's ex Lillith and Harriet Sansom Harris as his satanic agent Bebe Glazer (above) steal the show. ("Don't look her in the eyes, Roz!")

They did 11 seasons. That's a total of 264 episodes. It wasn't as funny at the end as it was in its purple patch but it was still funnier than most. Amazing.

Monday, December 02, 2013

A great record the out of touch are digging

The Mcgarrigle Hour's one of my favourite records. It came out in 1998. The idea was to reunite some of the team who made that first McGarrigle sisters record in 1975 (that's Kate and Anna plus producer Joe Boyd and engineer John Wood) and add musicians from the next generation of their family, such as Rufus and Martha Wainwright, and finally to conjure some of the spirit of the family musical evenings the sisters knew when they were young.

The songs range from familiar originals like Loudon Wainwright's "Schooldays" and Anna's "Cool Cool River" through their mother's parlour party piece "Alice Blue Gown" and "Baltimore Fire", the traditional song Kate and Anna used to sing on the Portobello Road in 1971, to Martha's perfect version of Cole Porter's "Allez-Vous En".

It ought to be precious. It isn't. All the songs pack some surprise. Great songs are always surprising. The most pleasant surprise of all is the power of family harmony, even when that's previously been confined to the recording studio or the concert stage. As Jane McGarrigle says in the sleeve notes, when Kate, Loudon, Rufus and Martha sing Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do", they've "never sat down to a Christmas turkey together, let along sung a song". Nevertheless, as she says "they come together as natural as breathing". And they do.

I pulled it out today. It's drinking well on these cold winter afternoons. When people ask me what new music I'm listening to I go blank. If it helps you could pretend this is new. After all, as Harry Truman said, "the only new thing in the world is the history you don't know".

Saturday, November 30, 2013

What the would-be songwriter ought to be getting this Christmas

Leonard Cohen had an album called "Songs From A Room". Nick Lowe knew a pub in West London with a small function room attached and he used to go there to sing his songs aloud into the empty air. It's only that way he could be certain he'd got something.

In Daniel Rachel's new book "Isle Of Noises", Andy Partridge paints a vivid picture of how he came to write "Senses Working Overtime". His then-wife's family had a couple of rooms above a shop which he was given use of. "I found being in such an empty space was quite inspiring to fill with your own sonic pictures. I'd stand there staring out of the window or at the black wooden floor with a guitar, just trying to pull stuff out."

He was determined to write a hit (you would be if you'd just got married) and asked himself what was the easiest way to do that. Taking Manfred Mann's "5-4-3-2-1" as a starting point, he wondered what there were five of, which led him to senses, then he messed up a chord and ended up with an E-flat. He thought the chord change summoned up a picture of a medieval serf ploughing. This made him wonder what the serf would sing and he decided he would sing "Hey, hey, the clouds are whey...." That's the way the song came.

He goes into a lot more detail in the book. It's a perfect example of what a bastard craft songwriting is. I'll be talking to Daniel at Word In Your Ear at the Lexington tomorrow night. He'll be signing copies of the book for anyone who wants to give a special Christmas present to that would-be songwriter friend.  Tickets here.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Bob Dylan at the Albert Hall - the view from twenty feet

I hadn't planned to go. My old friend Nick Stewart very kindly invited me. I took this picture when we sat down because I couldn't believe how close we were. Row 1. Seats 108 and 109. Go and look at the seating plan to see how close we were.

We reckoned we were about twenty feet away from the microphone. Actually it was more like fifteen when he played the piano and as little as twelve when he came and took a drink between numbers.

You don't get many opportunities to observe a legend at close quarters for a couple of hours. All the lights are behind him, discouraging any examination of his features. When he walks he bounces, like a puppet whose head is slightly too big for his body. When he comes to the microphone to sing he holds on to it like a politician addressing farmers somewhere on the prairie.

He looks as if he belongs to a flyover state rather than Los Angeles or New York. He wore a Nudie type suit with powder blue panels. His band were dressed in grey suits and black shirts. It could have been a County Fair. When he wanted to emphasise a lyric he put his hand to his hip in a manner reminiscent of Larry Grayson. There's an odd tentativeness about him since he abandoned the guitar, as if he's looking around for a new crutch.

He actually spoke to announce the interval. At the end of the set he and his band stood centre stage and accepted the audience's applause. They didn't put their arms around each other, nor did they smile.

He played hardly any old. I would have been happy if he hadn't played any. Most of the songs came from Tempest or one of the albums immediately before it. He narrates the songs rather than singing him but the band definitely play them and play them well. You could see all five of them watching him closely at all times, clearly aware that he could do anything without warning.

It was intense, particularly on High Water, Scarlet Town and Wasted Years, but despite that intensity he doesn't seem to use up any of himself. John Le Carré said he wasn't doing any more interviews because he couldn't afford "the expense of soul" it involved. Bob Dylan seems to have avoided that problem. I've been watching and listening to him for fifty years now and still he gives nothing away. It's this that keeps you coming back.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The saddest I've ever felt in a record shop

I bought this today in the closing down sale at the big HMV near Oxford Circus. It's the saddest I've ever felt in a record shop. They were literally taking the place apart as I was shopping.

In the basement the Classical department is long gone, absorbed into the jazz department, which in itself doesn’t seem as big as it used to be. The shrinking of even these specialist departments means this is structural; if it’s happening with Classical and Jazz you can’t blame the decline of the CD business on The X-Factor.

I passed the rack of Spoken Word recordings and thought, I bet that lot doesn’t resurface in the new store down by Bond Street. I’ve been there and it seems to be aimed at selling records to tourists, which no doubt makes sense.

When I worked at HMV, which is 40 years ago, it made most of its money selling the hits of the day, just as it does today, but it also prided itself on its curatorial role, on the fact that it stocked the records that other record shops had never heard of.

Here there was an International Department long before anyone had come up with the term “world music”. Elsewhere you could get LPs of train noises, stereo test records, EPs of nursery rhymes, Hoffnung at the Oxford Union, BBC sound effects, Count Ossie and The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari pressed on extra-heavy vinyl, military band music from Stalinist dictatorships, the Songs Of The Hump-Backed Whale, records for self-hypnosis and even some that went round at 16 revolutions per minute.

When there was a record business there was always something interesting going on in the margins of the record business. Records that were made because there was a tiny market, records which catered for some special interest group and records which did OK by selling in tiny quantities, worldwide, for ever. Records which came out because somebody somewhere wanted to put out a record with their name on, something they could hold up and say, there, there it is, this is what I did.

The Ferry record above is a classic example of that. There is nothing quite so self-indulgent as Bryan Ferry putting his name on a record of Roxy Music tunes done in the idiom of 1920s jazz. I scoffed as much as anyone when it came out and didn’t take any notice of the odd review that said, actually, this is quite good. It’s taken a few years to find a way into my heart.

Nobody’s going to get behind a record like this. No DJ’s going to shout about it from the rooftops. It won’t produce a hit single. Like so much good music it was thrown a lifeline by Hollywood, when Baz Luhrmann heard it and asked Ferry to provide some music for his soundtrack of the Great Gatsby. "The Jazz Age" hasn’t happened yet and it may not but, even a few years ago, it was just conceivable that a record like that could move out of the margins and temporarily lend its spice to the mainstream.

It happened before for records like The Buena Vista Social Club, Le Mystere De Voix Bulgares and Missa Luba. When I was at HMV people would approach the counter with a piece of paper and a “you won’t have heard of this” look on their face. If you told them they were the fifth person to ask for it that day you’d be spoiling their fun. They needed to feel they were free spirits.

In the end it happened for these records and quite a few others because they were records, briefly precious objects as well as means of delivery, tangible monuments to the self-esteem of the people who made them and bought them. The music on them was made because somebody wanted to make a record, not a recording. Nobody's going to go to that trouble to get something on Spotify. Watching them take down the old HMV today I was more than ever convinced that it will take a lot of the record business with it and maybe the area at the margins is the bit it will take. If there’s nowhere to sell records like that, why would you bother making records like that?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Harry Truman's my new favourite President

I stayed up half the night finishing Truman by David McCullough. This is the second McCullough book about a President I've read. He seems to be interested in men who lived in the shadow of more celebrated men. John Adams came after George Washington. Harry Truman came after Franklin Roosevelt. I knew nothing about him before reading this book. Now I'm awestruck by the scale of the responsibilities he took on. (I know awestruck is a word people use about biscuits. I can't help that.)

He came from the mid-West, distinguished himself in the First World War, failed as a clothing retailer and became a politician. He was known as a safe pair of hands but nobody expected to see him in high office. As a Senator he was regarded as a good committee chairman. He got roads built. When war came he made sure arms manufacturers delivered.

He liked a shot of bourbon in the morning and a game of poker at night. He was devoted to the women in his life: his wife, daughter, mother and sister. He wrote to them all the time. He even managed to get on with his difficult mother in law who thought her daughter had made a disappointing marriage even when she was living in the White House. He was loved by the people who worked closely with him, all the more because they recognised that he was "made of granite". When he was angry he would write really angry memos, the kind he knew he could never send.

He was persuaded to run as FDR's Vice President in 1944, when it was clear the President was going to die. A few months later he got the call. It's no exaggeration to say he faced the most daunting choices any President has ever had to face: how to get the Germans to surrender unconditionally; where to draw the line with the Russians; whether to use the atomic bomb on Japan; whether to commit a huge part of America's resources to re-building Europe or just to let it crumble; whether to resist the North Korean invasion of South Korea; whether to sack MacArthur when he proposed bombing fifty Chinese cities and whether to spend a lot of money on rebuilding the White House or to let it literally fall down.

He had that sign on his desk saying "the buck stops here". He had a press secretary whose name was Tubby and a security man called Boring. When he ran for re-election in 1948 they polled fifty political journalists and not one thought he would win. But he did. Hence the famous "he who laughs last" picture at the top of this blog. Truman would say, a million Americans could do this job but the fact is that I've got this job and therefore it's up to the million to help me. I think he's my new favourite President.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Talking TV theme tunes with Rhodri Marsden

Writing a TV theme should be the most lucrative sort of work a composer can possibly do. Somebody told me years ago the guy who composed the Coronation Street theme earned £25 every time it was played, which made it, according to my calculations, £100 per airing. But I've just looked it up and it's not true. It was actually commissioned by De Wolfe Music, the soundtrack specialists, so nobody got more than the day rate.

Some clever people have tried to get round this. Star Trek producer Gene Rodenberry insisted on writing some words to the instrumental theme tune. Even though the words were never sung it meant he got 50% whenever it was aired. Then there was the extraordinary business of the Channel 4 theme, which nobody thought to buy David Dundas out of, and subsequently became the most profitable four notes in the history of culture.

Actually, by the time the producers of Friends were looking for a theme tune in 1994 they were thinking about the money a lot and, as Bob Lefsetz pointed out in a recent post, The Rembrandts had to settle for a less advantageous deal in order to get the chance to provide "I'l Be There For You". They also planned to keep their involvement in it a secret for fear of what it might do to the group. But that was doomed so eventually the theme became so big it ate the band.

Rhodri Marsden plays keyboards with Scritti Politti, writes a column in The Independent and has a sideline playing TV theme tunes with the band Dream Themes. They're supporting Pugwash at our next Word In Your Ear show at the Lexington next Sunday. Among the tunes Dream Themes play are the themes from Ski Sunday and Grange Hill, sounds that are no doubt rich in associations for people of a certain age. Tickets here. There's a special discount for readers of this blog to get tickets for £12 if they put in the code "mincepie".

I asked Rhodri whether he thinks the Golden Age of TV themes has passed and he said they certainly don't bother with them as much these days and contrasted the Wogan theme from the 80s, which would have been written and arranged for a big band and has the traditional big band virtues, including a tune, with the current theme for the Jonathan Ross programme, which as he says, sounds as if they've set up a basic backing track grid and then neglected to put anything on top of it. This could be just TV themes reflecting the way that pop music has gone in the wider world.

But as he says often the thing that makes a theme magic is just sheer repetition. "The theme for the darts coverage on Sky Sports is a dreadful piece of music, but get a load of darts fans in a room, people who've heard it hundreds of times and just watch them go". Just watch them go indeed.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Everybody remembers remembering the day they shot JFK

I clearly remember waking up in the bedroom at our old flat to the news that John Lennon had died. I obviously remember seeing 9/11 unfold on a big flat screen TV in reception at Saatchi and Saatchi. I was in a lift at Television Centre when somebody told me that HMS Sheffield had been hit by an Exocet. On a happier note I remember watching Geoff Hurst net the fourth in the World Cup final while sitting on my suitcase in the reception of a hotel in the Loire Valley.

The death of JFK, which was fifty years ago tomorrow, was the first event I remember remembering.

It was early evening on a Friday. I don’t remember exactly who was in the house but I think my mother was. The radio was on. The first I remember was a story saying that the President had been involved in some incident involving a motorcade. I took that to mean some kind of car accident. Maybe I was the only person in the world who put that intrepretation on the news. We put the TV on. It would have taken a while to warm up. There was some form of rolling news, unusual at the time. It might have taken half an hour for the announcement that he was dead.

I can’t actually remember the details. I don’t know who passed on that news. It might have been Richard Dimbleby, but that may be something I learned later. The events of that day have been recapped so often that the original version is buried like a faint pencil sketch beneath a Rembrandt. But I do remember being in that room, looking at that TV and rather enjoying that feeling of righteous grief.

What I remember most of all is being told how I would always remember that day. Which I do. As much as anyone does.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

All speeches can be shorter

150 years ago today Abraham Lincoln gave his famous address at Gettysburg.

It's probably the most sophisticated bit of mass communication in history. It took him less than two minutes to deliver. Quite a few people missed it because they were relieving themselves, after having sat still for the previous speaker Edward Everett, who talked for two hours.

Nobody remembers a word Everett said.

Millions of people remember every word Lincoln said.

Which goes to show, everything can be shorter.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Everybody's a one-hit wonder. If they're lucky.

A few years ago I was talking to Sting's publisher. He told me that if he went to any city in Europe, checked into a hotel and turned on the radio, he could guarantee that within a couple of hours he would hear a song written by Sting. What's more, he knew which song it would be: "Every Breath You Take".

This idea, that even a career which was rich in hits, was really about one hit, fascinates me and seems yet another illustration of how success in the music business can be rooted in things completely beyond the artist's control.

I spoke to Hugh Cornwell at Louder Than Words yesterday in Manchester and put this to him. Was The Stranglers' "Golden Brown", which I'd heard on a radio in a shop yesterday, his "Every Breath You Take"? He confirmed it was. "In terms of PRS, it's worth all the other songs put together."

Maybe this has always been the case but as you've got more and more radio stations programming music from a smaller and smaller repertoire, much of which is machine-selected, it's surely going to be more so. Everybody's a one-hit wonder. If they're lucky.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Beatles were brilliant because they had no patience

At an event at Abbey Road last night for On Air - Live At The BBC Vol 2 it struck me again how many great Beatles records don't have intros - they just start.

It's particularly the case on "With The Beatles", their first great album. "It Won't Be Long", "All My Loving" and "Hold Me Tight" don't so much start as explode.  Even on "All I've Got To Do", "Don't Bother Me", "Not A Second Time" and "Little Child" there are no more than a few bars before the vocal.

The ones that take the longest to get to the point are the cover versions - "You Really Got A Hold On Me", "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Money". Though "Please Mr Postman" starts with enough urgency to be one of their own. This was a group which was close enough to the audience to know how easily it got bored. They had no patience. It was another facet of their genius.

One of the most reliable marks of the fraud in music is The Long Intro. It came in with the head music of the late 60s and was taken up by indie a decade later. It's done for two reasons: because it takes that long for the group to establish any kind of groove and in the hope that by the time the song arrives you'll like it out of sheer relief.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Word In Your Ear ventures out of London next Saturday to talk to Hugh Cornwell

If you haven’t been able to get to any of the Word In Your Ear events we’ve been running in London over the last few years and you’re within reach of Manchester you could come to a mini Word In Your Ear event which takes place next Saturday, November 16th.

As part of the Louder Than Words Festival, which is happening that weekend, I’m going to be talking to Hugh Cornwell. He’s going to be telling me what he thinks about rock journalists and in return I’m going to tell him a few home truths about rock musicians.

It promises to be an exchange brimming over with home truth and anecdotage. Come if you can. Tickets here.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Is wearing headphones making us more stupid?

Yesterday I learned that ad genius John Hegarty gets cross when he sees young creatives arriving at work wearing headphones.

This got me thinking. People often talk about what headphones put into our ears but rarely about what they keep out.

We use them as a way to travel around in our own pod, to keep the real world and the other people, of whom hell is said to be comprised, at bay.

This has to be making us less aware of the sounds around us, the music of speech and the riches of overheard conversation.

I'm assuming Hegarty feels that people with eyes and ears open are more likely to be stimulated and therefore more likely to come up with good ideas.

If I get an idea - even a mediocre one - it's always when out walking. I'm going to monitor myself and see if it's more likely to happen without headphones.

I've just been to collect a parcel from the post office and immediately realised I'm far more likely to talk to myself without headphones. This is a good thing.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Send me your radio programmes

Every week I write previews of the following week's radio for The Guardian Guide.I was complaining to a radio professional this week that it tended to be overwhelmingly Radio Four. "It's not surprising," he said. "They're the only people who make anything." And this is a guy who worked in the commercial sector.

I know there are cases of people doing preview-worthy programming beyond Radios 3 and 4 but they don't tend to be organised enough to send out preview recordings. I know some radio professionals look at this blog. If you're one of them, or if you know one of them, get in touch.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

What if the record business survived but the album didn't?

Went to the Mercury Music Prize show last night in the company of the BPI.

From the table talk it seems the business is beginning to get the upper hand against the big torrent sites, which your ISP will be legally obliged to block.

The sales cake may be worth roughly half of what it was worth fifteen years ago in terms of value but since it's increasingly a digital cake the costs are lower. Streaming is on its way to being, if not necessarily the whole market, as it is in Sweden, then certainly a significant part of that market. Speculation is that at some point in the future you'll have a service like Spotify bundled into your broadband deal.

All this will mean that for most people it won't be worth their trouble to steal things. Access to all music will be more important than ownership of particular items of recorded music.

It seems funny to be discussing this after watching twelve acts competing for the Mercury Music Prize, which was introduced in conscious emulation of the Booker Prize and is dedicated to the proposition that the 45-minute album is an artistic form as coherent and enduring as the novel, that some forms of it are more precious than others and furthermore that the public at large can still be persuaded to buy into that.

I can see why you might believe it. I can see why the acts would want to believe it. There's very little sign that the people they used to call "the record-buying public" do.

Monday, October 28, 2013

If you charge us this much, we're not fans, AVB. We're patrons

Went to Tottenham v Hull City yesterday. A couple of tickets came up through a friend of a friend. £96 for me and my 26-year-old son to go. It was a tense affair. Tottenham didn't really deserve their 1-0 win but nor did they really look like losing.

After the match the manager complained the fans hadn't made enough noise.  I could see what he meant. But at the same time I could see that it would have taken a lot to ignite the people around me. They're middle-aged men who are faintly resentful about how much money they've paid. Once you've paid that much money, you're not so much a fan as a patron.

To make a big noise you first have to make lots of small noises. You can feel it's not going to happen with these guys. And I'm not going to start it. Nor is my son.

At half-time he told me the last game he'd been to was a Serie A game at Inter Milan. He'd been amongst the home fans. In their section the cheering and chanting had been orchestrated by a fan who had his back to the pitch and was perched on a railing high above the crowd. At half time he was replaced by another, on the grounds that nobody could keep that level of shouting going for ninety minutes.

How about that, AVB?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Why GLR can never be allowed to happen again

Went to a party last night to mark twenty-five years since Radio London became GLR. There was a good turn-out, as is usually the case with GLR functions. Nobody got paid more than petty cash for whatever they did there and yet they still feel more loyalty to its memory than they do to most of their other jobs.

Trevor Dann was interviewing people for his radio podcast. He asked me if I thought there was any chance of something like it existing in the future. I mumbled something about it being unlikely and how you're more likely to find the spirit of GLR living on in a million websites than on any radio station.

In classic fashion I was halfway to Oxford Circus before I realised what I should have said:
Trevor, if I've learned one thing through my dealings with radio in the last ten years it is that the people running it are determined to ensure that nothing like GLR can ever be allowed to happen again - and that determination is just as strong in the BBC as it is in the independent sector. No matter how they dress it up, radio is immeasurably more controlled today than it has been at any point in its history. That's the way the people running it like it. Let's hope they know what they're doing. Now, was it recording?

Monday, October 21, 2013

Digital sales go down. It's the music economy, stupid.

There's a piece in the New York Times about digital music sales, which have dipped over the last year. There's the usual debate about whether things would be healthier if they didn't have to compete with free streaming services. The paper frames it this way:

Whether streaming has had any demonstrable effect on sales remains intensely debated, though. Do Spotify and YouTube, which let users choose the songs they play, cannibalize sales, or lead listeners to songs they may buy later? And do Pandora and other radiolike providers — Apple introduced a similar feature, iTunes Radio, last month — compete with sales at all, or just with radio?
I'm tired of this kind of thing. If people on the financial pages were as binary in their reading of the market for cars or pork bellies they would be called on it.

Ever since the arrival of digital delivery the people who write in business and technology sections and financial analysts have proposed a neat migration of the habits of buying physical product to the inevitable digital future. You move it all from this column and you put it in that one. And it's not just the money men. David Byrne was saying something similar a week or so ago.

Surely we've seen enough by now to suggest that it doesn't work like that.

Technology doesn't just change habits. It disrupts them.

Does YouTube cannibalise sales or lead listeners to songs they may buy later? It does both. Does Pandora compete with sales or with radio? It does both. And do these two services just swell the multitude of different pipes down which music travels, leading people to form the opinion that recorded music is something that they no longer have to find because it's very busy finding them? Well, yes, take my unscientific word for it, they do.

As a result of all this and incessant multichannel pop radio and music leaking out from every fissure between TV, films, sport, advertising and retail, much of it placed there by highly paid professionals whose job it is to make people feel that they ought to own it, does the average Joe or Joanna feel that recorded music is worth less money than they thought it was worth twenty years ago? Well, yes, they do.

Is this all that much different from what's happening in newspapers? No, interestingly enough.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

How the internet was really invented

In the 60s and 70s student rag magazines were popular, often so popular that certain editions still changed hands years later. They were mostly made up of old jokes. Some of them were new ones, written by people who thought they were going to be the next Eric Idle, but mostly they were old ones you'd never heard before. Because the people doing the rag magazines had A levels and didn't like to think of themselves as completely superficial, the jokes would  be interrupted from time to time by an opinion column, usually by a prematurely world weary 20 year-old angry and indignant on behalf of somebody they'd never met. But then you'd turn the page and there would be a funny picture of an animal torn from a newspaper re-presented with a caption about the Head of Catering. Then you'd turn the page again and there would be a girl in the nude and maybe a competition to see who had the biggest rack on campus. You obviously wouldn't get the competition anymore but in every other respect that was the internet, wasn't it?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Why readers always speak with forked tongue

The latest instalment of the debate about how The Guardian is going to pay for itself comes from the USA where some people, such as David Carr, the New York Times's veteran media correspondent, suggest the paper use its current success in exposing NSA secrets to get people to "show a little sugar" by paying for it.

Journalists are often poor at predicting what readers will or will not pay for. Furthermore they are uncharacteristically naive when it comes to believing what they want to hear.

People may pledge money in public for things they advertise their approval of in public but in private their default position is not to pay. You may get a proportion of the readers who would put their hands in their pocket as they might for some charity but that's really no basis for an ongoing commercial endeavour. And for everybody who does so there will be hundreds who will intend to but will never get round to it and tens of thousands more who will remember something else they have to do and simply melt away. I've experienced this at first hand.

And you only have to look at the comments below the fold to see that people are very inventive when it comes to coming up with principled reasons why they won't pay. They never speak the truth, which is they don't feel like it.

But where Carr is mistaken is in thinking the things that papers value - the respect of their peers, getting talked about on TV current affairs programmes, revelations about spying, Pulitzers - are the same things readers value. They aren't. When newspaper buying was the norm rather than the exception people picked them up to keep up with the humdrum stuff - what starlet wore on red carpet, who's starting for England tonight, the court report of a murder in the suburbs, the crossword - rather than a way of keeping up with the exceptional stuff. 

The problem that all the British papers have now is that all that humdrum stuff, apart from the crossword, is provided for free - either by a giveaway newspaper or by the BBC.

Monday, October 14, 2013

What this blog says today the BBC DG says a year later

Wrote this column for The Independent last year. It's mainly about the iPlayer but since Tony Hall's speech last week I'm congratulating myself on showing uncanny prescience in the last para:
It seems likely that, once we have got used to being able to watch previously broadcast programmes when it suits us, there could be a clamour for the right to be able to watch them as soon as they're ready. If the BBC has got all the episodes of its latest series in a cupboard somewhere, why not let us watch them at our convenience rather than theirs? Then we'll find out if they love us as much as we apparently love them.
Now what can he do to address the issues in a Guardian column today? Can he make radios cool again?

Sunday, October 13, 2013

An amazing day at Bletchley Park

Just back from a day at the The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park. Some of it's housed in the old huts used by the wartime code breakers, which is a bonus. They're in the process of improving the visitor experience, which makes sense. Nevertheless you should get there before they do because it's bound to be dumbed down eventually.

We went on an organised tour which meant we were conducted round by volunteer enthusiasts, many of whom I would guess are in their sixties. That means that when they started work - in one case as an actual rocket scientist - they were lucky to be issued with a calculator and have since seen at first hand the growth of an obscure branch of science into something without which we would have trouble getting through the day.

They lead you through rooms cluttered with improbably huge and clunky machines which would take days to perform a piece of long division we can now do on our phones. They have machines that take discs the size of Redwood trees and can only be turned on for five minutes a year for fear they drain the national grid. They have a card index system used by a chicken farmer in the early 50s that cost millions of pounds in today's money.

They explain it all with the ease of people who've spent some time under the bonnet of even the most improbable main frame. These blokes are as essential a part of the museum as the exhibits. In twenty years time their parts will be taken by actors. Get there before that happens.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Were we fitter before the invention of Fitness?

I understand the theory that we're all getting fatter but I've rarely seen it demonstrated quite as clearly as it was last night on the Yesterday channel. The documentary was actually about the Great Train Robbery so it used lots of archive clips of police inspecting the crime scene, railwaymen loading trains and women and children gathering outside court buildings as the accused were smuggled in under blankets.

It's 1963. Everybody's thin. Everybody. It's startling how thin they are. Even the senior police officers may incline towards burliness but they're never what you'd call paunchy. The small boys and girls mugging for the cameras are Lowry figures. The overalls are hanging off the fingerprint experts sweeping Leatherslade Farm. Only the odd member of the gang is built as if he's a stranger to physical exertion.

I suppose none of this is surprising in the light of something else I learned yesterday. In the fifties the average housewife walked eight and a half miles a day. That's presumably made up of housework, taking the kids back and forth to school and shopping without a car. Eight and a half miles a day. Nowadays we'd call it a regime. None of those people in 1963 would have given any thought to their fitness. Most of the adults would have smoked. Their diet wouldn't have been the best. But in terms of body mass they must have been fitter in the days before the discovery of fitness.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Where's the AutoRip for book readers?

I've bought a few albums from Amazon recently because they offer their AutoRip service. That means that as soon as I've paid for it I can download an MP3 version. This combination of immediacy and tangibility (is that a word?) suits me well. If I like something enough to buy it I want to hold it as well. Otherwise I'll just access it via Spotify or You Tube.

I wish the book trade would do something similar. If you pay £20 for a book you want to start reading it straightaway and you also don't want to haul it around on the Tube with you. You also need to increase the number of opportunities you have to read it. It would work for me and would work for the publishers. We'd read more quickly, probably find the reading experience more satisfactory as a consequence and buy more books.

How they do it I don't know. It can't be beyond the wit of the trade.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Why PRs don't tweet

A PR agency canvasses journalists' opinions on the most irritating things that PRs say, write or do and gets lots of good stuff.

The one that hit home for me was a complaint about PRs who want journalists to follow them on Twitter, which adds:
"Show me the PR who can say something meaningful in 140 characters and I'll eat my shorts."
If a PR could condense what they had to say into 140 characters they wouldn't need to contact the media about it. If they could say it that concisely they would have a message.

A message spreads itself. It finds the people for whom it's of interest. Sadly for the PR, that's never quite enough for the client, who really ought to consider advertising. Instead they take that money and spend it on a PR, thereby doubling the irritation the journalists feel. More pages to fill, less budget to fill them with, more people "reaching out" and wanting to "touch base" with them.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

What is it about the BBC and cabs?

Good Jennifer Saunders quote about the BBC in new issue of Glamour:

"It got so annoying that you were called into these special lunches with the Director General at The Ivy and you were like, 'Fuck off!' This is the license payers' money! I'm paying for the car to take me there - we all are. And I'd like an extra bit of budget on my programme, please, and less of your wheels."

I'm glad she's said this. Ever since I did my first job for the BBC they've been notable for two things: the first is their willingness to offer you derisory sums of money in compensation (money which I've always been happy to accept on the basis that most of the things they ask me to do, nobody else would); the second is their apparent belief that they can make up for this by "sending a car", even though everybody in London knows that "a car" is the slowest, least convenient and most ruinously expensive way to get around.

It's something in the organisation's DNA, this belief that black cars cure all ills. I've seen literally scores of drivers lined up in TV Centre reception waiting to take people home. I've heard stories that they used to send a car from London to Loch Lomond to pick up Billy Connolly. That sounds apocryphal but having seen the amount that senior executives charged the Corporation in order to ensure that their expensive shoes never actually touched the pavement I'm not so sure. 

I don't recognise the organisation that's being called out on bullying and sexual harassment in today's "dossier" from the NUJ but I do recognise exactly what Jennifer Saunders is talking about with the cars.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Young people aren't bored enough for EastEnders any more

Interesting item on Radio Four's always excellent Media Show last week (you can listen here) about the declining popularity of British soaps.

In the last twenty years Coronation Street has gone from averaging over 20 million viewers to around 11 million. EastEnders has lost two million viewers since 2006 and sometimes comes second to Emmerdale in the ratings.

People inside the world of soaps think this might have something to do with too many episodes and not enough focus on strong stories.

People outside the world of soaps - like me, for instance - wonder if this might mean that in the multi-channel universe new generations of viewers never have the leisure to develop the soap habit. That's not to say they're frantically busy. They're probably not. But any idle time they have is hoovered up by YouTube clips, endless X-Factor spin-offs or faction formats like the Kardashians. In this climate it's hard for a soap to get started on people. Nobody was ever magnetised by a soap. Soap works on people who are bored. Young people aren't bored any more. They're fidgety and distracted but never actually bored enough to devote the time it would take to work out what was going on in EastEnders.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Who really wants a record to change their life?

The Times is running a series about Books That Changed Your Life.

People routinely talk about the Record That Changed My Life.

Or the 200 Movies You Have To See Before You Die.

It's no longer enough to say that you simply like or admire something. You have to suggest that it brought about a change in everything you think and feel. I suppose it's an inevitable feature of a world in which bars of chocolate are routinely describe as "awesome". If you've used all your enthusiasm on things that don't warrant it, how do you begin to describe things that do?

On weekends like this I'm reminded of the words of my erstwhile colleague Paul Du Noyer. Paul doesn't talk a lot. Not when compared to Mark Ellen at least. This subject was once being discussed in The Word office when Paul piped up "who wants a record to change their life? I don't."


Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Pop as it looked to Nik Cohn in 1969 and as it looks to Bob Stanley in 2013

When Nik Cohn wrote Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom in 1969 it was sub titled "pop from the beginning". At that point the beginning was only twelve years earlier. It seemed a long time then. Now we realise that's about as long as it's been since Oasis last had a big record. I was looking at the copy on the left which I bought in 1973. It has an afterword grudgingly revising the odd judgement from three years before. When he'd first written it the Beatles hadn't broken up and Woodstock hadn't happened. At a time when rock seemed to be getting bigger and better he wasn't afraid to contradict the conventional wisdom, describing Crosby Stills Nash & Young as "gutless and mindless", saying that Led Zeppelin had "reduced blues playing to its most ham fisted level" and repeating his belief that "rock had seen its best moments". This was controversial stuff in the early seventies.

Cohn's book was short enough to put in your back pocket and catchy enough to commit to memory. Its style had a huge effect on all those people who wrote for the inkies in the 70s. And Cohn's greaser aesthetic, which valued PJ Proby ("the great doomed romantic showman of our time") above Bob Dylan ("he bores me stiff"), was equally influential.

I bet Bob Stanley's read it. If he hasn't he should because his book Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop sets out to do a similar job over forty years later. Cohn was a child of the fifties and therefore his judgements were different from mine. Stanley's a child of the seventies and therefore his are different again. That doesn't matter. It can go on like this forever, with people looking at the history of pop through the lens of their own age.

There's a lot more music, a lot more is known about the stuff that was there when Cohn was writing his history and, most interestingly, there are things we only realise when many years have gone by. Such as, and here I'm quoting things I just happen to have marked in the margin, Hank Marvin may have been a Geordie and Cliff Richard may have come from Herts, but they both spoke with the same RP accent they thought entertainers should have; Jim McGuinn changed his name to Roger because he wanted to be a pilot; Simon and Garfunkel were called Tom And Jerry because it was one little guy and one long guy. The musical points are no less arresting: the Rolling Stones recording of The Last Time was "an incredible sound for a group from Kent" (I think I was familiar with the concept of the Stones before I was familiar with the concept of Kent); Bruce Springsteen described Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill's "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place" as "every song I've ever written" (which it is); Motown in the 60s is a glimpse of what would have happened in America if the Beatles hadn't; the apex of the Beatles' genius is the second side of A Hard Day's Night. That last one's an easy sell to me.

I'm only 200 pages in. I'm talking to Bob at the Old Queens Head next Wednesday as well as Mark Lewisohn. By then I'll have finished it. I'm enjoying it. I can guarantee it won't finish like Nik Cohn's history of pop did in 1969.
Very soon you'll have pop composers writing formal works for pop choirs, pop orchestras; you'll have pop concerts in halls and the audience all sat in rows, no screaming or stamping but applauding politely with their hands; you'll have sounds and visuals combined, records that are played on something like a gramophone and TV set knocked into one, the music creating pictures and patterns, you'll have cleverness of every kind imaginable. Myself, though, I'm not interested...

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Most pop is nostalgic. Discuss.

In his new book Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story Of Modern Pop, Bob Stanley writes about "Wonderful Land" by The Shadows.

It was probably written as a hymn to America....but what I hear in it is a British dream of the future, the primary coloured optimism of post-war Britain, people moving to the new towns ringing London, the space and light in the bright open spaces of Crawley and Stevenage...just months before the Beatles' annexation of British pop, Wonderful Land sounds vast, blue-skied and still so sad.

Which is lovely. But here's another thing.  I was barely into my teens when it came out and yet it already made me think of times gone by. I was talking to Richard Williams at Word In Your Ear about great Saturday night records and he said his favourite disco singers always have a little sadness in their voices. Maybe that's just one feature of a bigger thing. The great disco records actually have some nostalgia and melancholy about them, as if the best Saturday night were long in the past and the best you can hope is to summon up a little bit of what it felt like. "Wonderful Land" isn't a disco record but the land it refers to seems to be in the past.

"Wonderful Land" is also one of those records which can never sound quite as good as you remember them sounding the first time you heard them. I listened to it on You Tube just now and it didn't glow the way it does in the back of my mind, which is a double hit of nostalgia, I suppose. That's a feature of any record you've lived with for fifty years. The version imprinted on your memory, the version you can call upon any time you close your eyes, is always going to be the most powerful one.

You could go further and say that actually the truly great pop records are the sad ones. Funny that a form of entertainment meant to celebrate the now should be so nostalgic.

I'll be talking to Bob about his book at next week's Word In Your Ear at the Old Queens Head. We'll also have Mark Lewisohn, Mr B The Gentleman Rhymer and the amazing giant 45s of Morgan Howell. Tickets here.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Van Dyke Parks and the lost art of talking between songs

I wouldn't be surprised if Van Dyke Parks has forgotten this record. He made it in 1996. I've only just bought it. These days I'm crazy about Van Dyke Parks. "Moonlighting" is him and a full band with singers and a string section playing - and playing wonderfully - songs from throughout his career, songs like Orange Crate Art, FDR in Trinidad and Sailin' Shoes.

VDP is a man who understands, as 99.9% of performing musicians don't, that since its's deuced hard to get people's attention it's a bloody crime to waste it. (I wasn't there when he came in to do the Word podcast but according to those who were he came in like a whirlwind, talked a blue streak, did everything but kissed the hands of the women and, most tellingly, left this business card.)

On this album, recorded at the Ash Grove in Hollywood, he's similarly busy. He starts talking as the applause fades at the end of the first number, and then introduces the next and the next and the next by way of anecdote, quotation, historical analogy, political rant, geography lesson, Robert Frost poem or reminiscence about the circumstances in which he wrote or heard it. He doesn't say "this next song's called" or "I want to tell you a story". He understands, like Bruce Springsteen understands, that a stage act is a story. There's not a second of deviation, repetition or hesitation in the whole set. It makes the performance seem so full. It says "keep up, keep up".

Obviously most musicians don't have the conversational gifts of a VDP. Nonetheless listening to "Moonlighting" reminds me that if there's one thing I'm consistently disappointed by when watching live rock bands it's their failure to give the impression that they've even thought about what they might say between songs. It's their apparent willingness to build excitement and then just let it fall away as they tune up, swap instruments or wait for another member of the band to say something. It's as if they're just there to play the songs and the person whose job it is to entertain the audience, introduce the songs and just generally play host has unaccountably failed to turn up.

You don't have to talk a lot. I don't think the Ramones ever did. But the people who've bought a ticket are paying for every moment of the experience and if a lot of those moments are filled with nothing but agonising pauses and the shuffling of feet they're entitled to ask why.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The view from the end of Mark Lewisohn's massive Beatles book

It was always in the same order: John, Paul, George and then the drummer, first Pete and then Ringo. That order didn't only sound right. It also reflected the way the power structure worked. It was John's group. He brought in Paul, who brought in George, who later on argued for Ringo. And they never forgot it. They all sought John's approval, partly because he could be a bully if he didn't approve. Then again, so could all of them.

Not long after their first record came out Brian Epstein took John and Paul aside and made them register as a songwriting partnership, despite the fact that they hadn't written many songs. The first royalty payment for "Love Me Do", which was obviously more of a hit than I remember, had the people who played on the record earning £27 each while the people who got the composing credit made £157 each. Very quickly this must have begun to rankle with George, particularly because he would know that in most cases only one of those names had actually written the song.

Lewisohn's very good on the puzzled reaction of the British music business to that first record. The Beatles were almost unique in already having a fan following when they put out their first record so they couldn't be completely ignored. "Love Me Do" sold well in the North West, even with literally no radio play and minimal publicity.  Brian Epstein ordered a lot of copies because his shop could sell them, not in order to hype the chart. Everyone else they met thought the name was risible and wanted to know who was the leader. Publicists would have to explain that this was a different animal, a group that played its own instruments and did its own singing. Even George Martin, who recognised that they had a special chemistry as people, wanted to know who was the leader. When they did auditions they would do three songs, each featuring a different lead singer.

The most perceptive single line about the Beatles comes in Michael Braun's early book about them "Love Me Do! The Beatles' Progress", in which he said that when they arrived in America they were representatives of "a new kind of people". In Lewisohn's book some of the adults that they come into contact with like them but only the teenagers got them and responded to the way they dressed and carried themselves. Pete Waterman was a young DJ when they played Coventry and remembers John Lennon wearing the first pair of Levi's he'd ever seen. Norman Jopling, the 18 year old writer on Record Mirror, wrote at the time about their "long flat hair" and remembers that in those days "music hadn't caught up with fashion and film. When I saw The Beatles I knew things were changing."

I can remember that feeling. I'm bound to love The Beatles - All These Years: Volume One: Tune In because it's not just the story of their lives. It's a little bit the story of anyone who lived through it. I write all this about it and still people get in touch and say "should I read it?" as if it's a major life decision. Look. If you haven't read all the other books about the Beatles then bully for you because here's the definitive one. If you have read all the other ones then it would be silly not to read this one as well. And don't forget, I'm talking to Mark Lewisohn about the book as well as Bob Stanley, the author of Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop on October 9th at the Old Queen's Head. Full details here.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The view from page 780 of The Beatles book

This is the kind of utterly inconsequential story that I love. October 23rd and 24th were the only days the Beatles had off in 1962. They were earning good money from live shows. Nevertheless, when McCartney decided to use the two days taking his girlfriend Celia down to London, they hitch-hiked. A series of lorries picked them up, they ate at the Blue Boar at Watford Gap and they arrived in the West End after midnight. "It was a wild, arty thing to do," recalls Celia.

They went straight to Peter Cook's club The Establishment, where Liverpool friend Ivan Vaughan, the boy who introduced John to Paul, was working as a doorman. Paul bought Celia a bitter lemon, he had a Scotch and Coke, and they danced late into the night. They slept on the floor of Ivan's tiny flat in Great Portland Street. The following morning they went for a walk in Fitzroy Square and Celia helped him with the lines to a song he was writing at the time called I Saw Her Standing There, in which, you may recall, they danced through the night and they held each other tight.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The view from page 680 of the Beatles book

In the process of truth tidying itself up into myth a lot of condensing goes on. Memory does something similar. The story of the Beatles being signed to EMI is a classic case. They're rejected by cloth-eared Decca and go down the road into the open arms and ears of George Martin and Parlophone. Anything you don't like? I don't like your tie. Let's change the world.

Over many pages Tune In makes clear it wasn't like that at all. Since Brian Epstein ran one of the biggest record retailers in the north of England EMI had to listen to him when he said he had a group. They weren't impressed and were trying to let him down gently. He went to see the manager of HMV in Oxford Street, who he'd met on a junket. The manager suggested that he should use the facility they had in the shop to make an acetate from his tape. While hanging around the building (in the old address that HMV are about to move back to) he got to play it to the blokes at Ardmore & Beechwood, the EMI-owned music publisher that shared the same building. One of the guys there quite liked the Lennon-McCartney song Like Dreamers Do and suggested to his boss that it would be a worthwhile copyright to acquire. His boss put pressure on the label boys to make a record with them. Nobody at the company wanted to. They were busy. They had other priorities. George Martin and the staff at Abbey Road went along with it very reluctantly, which must have been apparent to the group. There was no eureka moment. It took months.

(In the light of the above the fact that EMI didn't end up with the publishing rights to the most lucrative catalogue in popular music is pretty amazing.)

At the same time they were manoeuvring to get rid of Pete Best, who clearly wasn't remotely good enough. It's the one musical point that everyone who had anything to do with them musically agrees on. This was made worse by the fact that he didn't speak, which in this gregarious company must have been a withering reproach in itself. Brian was irritated by the fact that he would have to get rid of somebody he'd just signed to a management deal and so he went as far as corresponding with his solicitor about the best way to do it. He also looked into making Best the drummer with the Merseybeats and then signing them to management, thus ensuring he didn't break his contract. All this without letting Best get wind of it or triggering the departure of Best's close friend, Neil Aspinall, who was the Beatles' tour manager. Oh, and also the father of the baby that Best's mother Mona (fifteen years his senior) was about to have in July 1962.

As that Rodney Crowell song puts it, life is messy.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The view from page 540 of volume one of Mark Lewisohn's massive Beatles book

I'm 540 pages into Tune In, first volume of Mark Lewisohn's three-part biography of The Beatles. In case you think that's a lot, bear in mind it's just over halfway through volume one. There's another three hundred pages to go and that will only bring me up to 1962.

There have been hundreds of books about the Beatles but nothing as comprehensive as this. I've read quite a few of those books. I'm not a Beatles completist or even much of an anorak. I've met enough anoraks to know nothing satisfies them. It could be that some of the details in this book have already been published before in somebody's memoirs. I wouldn't know that. Nor would you, in all likelihood.

I know more about this subject than most people and yet I can open this book on almost any page and find something I didn't know, have never had confirmed or have never realised the full significance of before. Because you know some of what's going to happen later on in the as yet unwritten Volumes Two and Three, then every tiny detail, every little decision, every road not taken, is pregnant with significance.

A few examples: on page 493 I learn that Richie Starkey, already quite a successful working musician with Rory Storm and The Hurricanes, wrote to the Chamber of Commerce in Houston, Texas, enquiring about the opportunity of factory work. (Throughout this book people write actual letters to each other.) He picked Houston because of its association with Lightnin' Hopkins, whose music he had heard on an LP brought back from Hamburg by Gerry Marsden.

On page 314 I learn that the Silver Beetles were offered the chance to tour Scotland with Johnny Gentle provided they could be in Alloa in two days. They got the offer on Wednesday, persuaded a 28-year-old drummer they had never used before to go sick from his job and join them, rehearsed on the Thursday and were on-stage at Alloa Town Hall on Friday night. It goes without saying that this was without mobile phones, probably without fixed line phones.

On page 396 I read about how Astrid Kirchherr and Stuart Sutcliffe took the seventeen year-old George Harrison to the railway station in Hamburg when he was deported. They gave him some sweets. He hugged the pair of them. "This was the sort of demonstrative thing they never did."

On page 505 I learn that John and Paul were given their distinctive haircuts by their German friend Jurgen Vollmer in the Hotel De Beaune in Paris. They were trying to emulate the appearance of Parisian youth, put some distance between The Beatles and all the Brylcreem bands back in Liverpool and establish a group look which the rest of the band would have to adopt. George did.  Continuing his policy of sullen non-cooperation, Pete Best didn't.

Because the story unfolds at such a leisurely pace, pretty much a week at a time - unlike previous books, which are in a hurry to get to Beatlemania and the hits  - it reminds you of some of the things that were exceptional about the way The Beatles developed and some of the things that make them even more exceptional today. Here are a few:

The most musically accomplished member of the band ended up playing the bass. He didn't want to. He considered it "the fat man's instrument" and preferred guitar or piano. When Stuart Sutcliffe left it was clear that Lennon wasn't going to take it up and so McCartney did, for the good of the group, at a stroke making them twice as musical as any band in Britain.

After they'd played their second Hamburg residency they were the most performance-hardened band in Europe. Tony Sheridan says "they were the best rhythm and blues band I've ever heard". Lewisohn estimates their total stage time in Hamburg at 918 hours. Most bands today spend the majority of their time waiting to play. The Beatles spent more time on-stage than off. They didn't practise. They performed.

One of the reasons they were so good was that they were forever learning new material. When a hot new song came out they would cover both sides, which meant that they spent years deconstructing how big hits were written before doing their own. They didn't quickly graduate to writing their own songs. In fact, at the point that Brian Epstein signed them they had stopped.

Bob Dylan says that he doesn't remember the 60s but he does remember the 50s. This book's a bit like that. It's difficult to imagine how the subsequent volumes can be as good because they will be dealing with the world after Beatlemania, which we all like to feel we either lived through or recognise. Tune-In is different. It's set in the pre-deodorant, pre-central heating, pre-Radio One, pre-credit card, pre-car ownership world of cigarette smoke, smog, hire purchase, greasy overalls, bare wires held in the socket with matchsticks, National Service, rubber johnnies, suspender belts, Scotch and Coke and standing for the national anthem. Nothing was convenient.

Furthermore there was no road map for where this group could go. Before the Beatles there weren't even that many groups in Liverpool and Liverpool had more than most. They couldn't look at an established act and think they'd like to be a bit like them. They couldn't aim at a niche. There were no niches. Before them there was nobody like them. After them it was difficult to imagine things being any other way.

They had a unique combination of single-minded ambition and sod-this impulsiveness. Time and again they were on the point of breaking up when something came up: a tour of Scotland, some gigs in Hamburg, the money to buy an amp, Brian Epstein.  Probably the only thing that ensured they would keep going was John Lennon's lack of an alternative.

What you get from this book is that sense of possibility, the world as they experienced it, through a succession of instants, rather than as the recapitulation of a time-honoured legend.

I shall keep reading. In a way I don't really know how it's going to turn out.

I'll be talking to Mark Lewisohn as part of our Word In Your Ear evening at the Old Queen's Head on October 9th, We'll also have Bob Stanley talking about his book Yeah Yeah Yeah and music from Mr B The Gentleman Rhymer. Tickets on sale here. Hope to see you there, by which time I will have finished the book.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The elephant in the art gallery

To Tate Modern to see Grayson Perry give the first of his Reith Lectures about how to appreciate contemporary art. It goes out on Radio 4 on October 15th.

He wore a zany print tee-shirt dress, sea green tights, pale orange platform heels and Yootha Joyce make-up. 

What he said was interesting. The kind of art we get to see is chosen by a shadowy jury of collectors, critics, curators and sundry tastemakers, many of whom were in the room. When he made a joke they laughed just slightly louder than they would have laughed if he'd been wearing men's clothes.

That was the multi-hued elephant in the room. Surely the thing that makes art valuable today is the celebrity of the artist. I'm visually illiterate but even I've noticed that ever since artists became celebrities their art has moved from the arts section to centre stage and the prices have followed.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Talking about music is the new writing about music

Somebody came up to me at Monday night's Word In Your Ear show at the Betsey Trotwood, which was billed as A Night Playing Records And Talking With Richard Williams and Kate Mossman, and asked if there was any chance of The Word coming back. I think I surprised him with the certainty with which I said "over my dead body".

I might miss the working environment but I don't miss the work involved in putting together a monthly magazine. Richard Williams said that one of the pleasures of doing his blog The Blue Moment was that he wrote what he felt like and nobody told him it was 200 words too long or spoiled it with an inappropriate headline.

I value lots of the things the magazine provided but a lot of the time I think it may work better through conversation. This is what I like about the Word In Your Ear format. This stuff's best dealt with by talking about rather than reading about.

I don't mean dry discussions about what ought to be in the shortlist for the Mercury Music Prize or whatever happened to the protest song. Life's too short for all of that. There were a few things touched on in Monday night which nobody's ever going to write 3,000 words about that I find a lot more interesting than the things people do write 3,000 words about.

Things such as: why you get so few pop songs about Saturday night nowadays; how come the best disco singers have a hint of sadness in their voices; how Spitting Image used to make current affairs intelligible to a five year-old; why 1965 was the annus mirabilis of the pop single; what the inside of your head sounded like when you were fifteen; how pop singers might still function with Alzheimer's and why the greatest dance records by-pass your defences and speak to your true self.

I love all this stuff. It's the kind of stuff I used to love talking about on the Word podcast. It's something I hope we can keep alive through Word In Your Ear.

The next one, which is on October 9th at the Old Queens Head in Essex Road, features Mark Lewisohn, the world's foremost expert on The Beatles, talking about Tune In, the first volume of his mammoth trilogy about the band. We've also got Bob Stanley who's publishing Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story Of Modern Pop. That's in addition to the genuinely inimitable chap hop sounds of Mr B The Gentlemen Rhymer. Tickets are on sale here.  If you liked the Word Podcast or True Stories Told Live you might like this too. In fact if you go to this page and put the word "banjolele" where it says "enter promotional code" you can get tickets for just £10.

And don't forget our motto: it starts early; it finishes soon afterwards.