Monday, January 28, 2013

When do you hang up your air guitar?

Played Tres Hombres by ZZ Top on Saturday. It sounded as good as it did in the early 70s, when I first heard it. Back then I shared a flat in Wood Green with a bunch of blokes and one of them had an import copy. He worked an office job and every night when he came home he would fire up his prized Pioneer PL12D and play this. He played it so loud I reckon I can still recognise the pregnant hum and crackle of the stylus on the vinyl in the few seconds before the opening bars of "Waiting For The Bus".

On playing the record the other day I found my right index finger and thumb wielding a non-existent pick while my left hand reached for an invisible neck at round about the point Billy Gibbon would have done on the real one. Some air guitarists favour high notes at the top of the neck. Other prefer windmilling chords. The sound of Tres Hombres is obviously the sound that connects with my inner air guitarist.

It's a while since I played air guitar. It's not seemly when you've got grown-up children. Playing pretend is a huge part of growing up with pop. I used to have a knitting needles and pillows arrangement on the end of my bed in emulation of a drumkit. I collected old tennis rackets of different sizes to serve as guitars. My enjoyment of the music intensified in direct proportion to the extent to which I could pretend I was the one who's making it. Among boys the dawning love for music comes in at the end of their love affair with military hardware. It touches a lot of the same buttons.

I wonder when it wanes and finally dies. Probably when your children reach the age that you run the risk they might happen upon you doing it. They know what you were doing because they've started doing it themselves.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The French have cracked the secret of boringly perfect coffee

Today we went to Lille on the Eurostar to celebrate a friend's birthday. We arrived at the station in time to have a cup of coffee before lunch.

The French seem to have avoided the plague of speciality coffees. Instead it seems that every bar, cafe and restaurant, when faced with the words "un cafĂ© s'il vous plait", seems to offer exactly the same boringly perfect cup of coffee.

It's never too strong. It's never too weak. It tastes of coffee but it won't keep you up for days. Each cup is exactly like the one you had the day before in a completely different establishment hundreds of miles away. It doesn't come from some self-important machine that sits behind the counter like the Albert Hall organ.

It takes seconds to appear. I love every cup. How do they do that?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Cheer up, Colin Murray, you're too clever for MOTD

Colin Murray is being dropped as presenter of Match Of The Day 2. Regular viewers of programmes like this often entertain surprisingly violent opinions of the people whose job it is simply to read the autocue and lob a few questions at the pundits without exhibiting any obvious bias towards any particular team.

I like Colin Murray. In leaving Radio One to go to BBC 5Live he showed he was prepared to take his chances as a general broadcaster and he's been equal to anything they've thrown at him. I'll listen to anything he presents and never miss "Fighting Talk" on Saturday morning or "Kicking Off" on Friday evening.

I read the news about him losing the Match Of The Day 2 slot just after  watching, for the first time, Match Of The Day 3, a web-only post script which seems designed to offer a more discursive approach to the weekend's events. It had struck me while watching it that maybe his problem is he looks and acts just slightly too clever for a presenter. And there are two institutions which mistrust cleverness more than most. Telly is one. Football is the other.

Monday, January 21, 2013

When did pop become the dominant culture?

There was an interesting irem on the Today Programme this morning in which James Naughtie talked to a couple of politicians about the remarks of Liz Forgan, outgoing chair of the Arts Council. She said nowadays politicians are reluctant to let their constituents know they've been to classical concerts or the opera, for fear of being seen as elitist. Whereas, she said, they're happy to be seen going to rock festivals.

This was followed by a very good Start The Week which featured America's foremost classical composer John Adams talking about where "serious" music stands. Adams described popular culture as a behemoth flattening everything in its path. "You can't try on a pair of pants without listening to hip hop," he said.

Of course Adams is right. Pop is now culture's default position. It's unimaginable that a new arts programme or supplement could be launched today without an interview with Damon Albarn or a think piece about Scandinavian detectives. It wasn't always like this. When did this change take place? Some of us grew up in a world where pop was still the sub-culture. It was always being chased up trees by the dominant culture of serious music and serious books and serious people. Pop was the brightly-coloured alternative world into which you could momentarily escape through "Top Of The Pops" every Thursday or every other Wednesday with "Smash Hits".

About fifteen years ago I realised there had been a war between serious culture and pop culture. It had ended and Pop had won. Clearly. Trouble is I have no memory of that war taking place.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The best pop songs begin with an entrance; the best pop song is about an entrance

My favourite pop song is Jackie De Shannon's "When You Walk In The Room". The Searchers did a great version. Where the Searchers go Bruce Springsteen is never far away and he's featured it in his act over the years.

It's not the greatest pop song just because it's got that 60s surge, which seems to come from a place halfway between Motown and folk-rock. (Somebody should write a book about the tambourine in pop music.) It's not just the opening guitar peal, attempted by anyone who ever held a 12-string Rickenbacker. It's not even the fact that it's catchy.

What makes it the best pop song ever written is that the activity it describes is at the heart of pop music. It's about walking into a room. Hundreds of great pop songs begin with an entrance, with somebody walking into a room. This isn't an accident.
"You walked into the party like you were walking on to a yacht. 
"Well he walked up to me and he asked me if I wanted to dance." 
"The screen door slams, Mary's dress waves, like a vision she dances across the porch as the readio plays"
An entrance is an obvious way to start a pop song: it can be slapstick ("She came in through the bathroom window, protected by a silver spoon") or menacing ("You walk in the room with your pencil in your hand") or triumphant ("I'm comin' out") or it can even be an exit ("There she goes, there she goes again").

Pop music's a crutch, never more useful than when helping you enter a room full of strangers. This is something that still causes most adults a tremble of apprehension. When you're fifteen it's worse than that. In fact most fifteen-year-olds would rather stay out of a room indefinitely than go in without the support of their crew. The right music helps carry them across that difficult threshold. It stiffens the sinews and makes the blood pump more quickly. It's why 50% of movies nowadays have a sequence where the main characters move purposefully towards the camera in slow motion. There's a good sample here.

When you're a teenager rooms are like stage sets and life is fraught with drama. *He* might enter. *She* might leave. *He* might be with another girl. He might see *her* kissing somebody else. Remember what that was like? Remember the delicious agony of teenage romance?

"When You Walk In The Room" ("I can feel a new expression on my face/I can feel a glowing sensation taking place...I close my eyes for a moment and pretend it's me you want/Meanwhile I try to act so nonchalant") isn't just about walking in the room. It can also give you the courage to do it yourself.

P.S. And when anybody tries to tell you that the pop songs of the 60s were charmingly naive, ask them to point out where in the pop chart of today you'd find a line that hits the emotional bullseye  like "meanwhile I try to act so nonchalant".

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Twenty quid will get you the last great record shop carrier bag

One of the most interesting record shops in London used to be Dobells on Charing Cross Road. It finally shut its doors in 1989.

Dobells dealt exclusively in jazz and folk, operating such a strict apartheid between the genres that they had separate entrances from the street. When I first came to London it was just about the only place you could get imports. I couldn't possibly afford to buy them but I used to go in to read the covers and inhale the atmosphere of tobacco and superiority.

On the few occasions I bought anything there I was most delighted to take my swag home in a Dobells bag. Its design, copied many times in the years since, by me and lots of others, showed the spines of a shelf-full of records, in the days when no home could have anything more impressive than that.

Leon Parker, who used to work there and now runs the British Record Shop Archive, is mounting an exhibition all about Dobells. He's soliciting small donations on Kickstarter on a page here which explains all about it. If you give over £20 he'll give you one of the 50 Dobells bags he managed to rescue from the ruins. I'm tempted.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Remember what we used to pay for the privilege of renting videos?

Blockbuster going into administration gives me an excuse to recall the first video library I joined.

It was over twenty-five years ago in a London suburb. I'm pretty sure it cost £40 to join, it was £2 for each video you rented and you had to buy a £40 video to activate your membership.

I paid it. With a fairly light heart in fact. After all it was a small price to pay for the miracle of being able to watch something other than the four TV channels.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

If HMV goes the Long Tail goes with it

I bought this old Bonnie Raitt album for three quid in HMV last week. It was among a bunch of Warner Bros offers.

I then went to the Bonnie Raitt section to see if there were any other titles. There weren't. "Give It Up" was the only one. This is odd because Raitt has made 16 albums and most of them will still nominally be in the catalogue.

 HMV has always prided itself on catalogue. It was the place you came to get the things your local record shop couldn't afford to stock. It certainly did when I worked there and it still did a few years ago.

HMV must have slowly stopped re-ordering records like Bonnie Raitt's - and there are tens of thousands of artists like Raitt from all generations and styles - as they went out of stock. You can't blame them. If they're struggling to pay the rent and make payroll they're not going to buy in stock that they might not sell for another year, if at all. And if HMV, who represent 38% of the UK record retail market, stop ordering records like that then after a while record companies stop manufacturing records like that.

Now that HMV is headed either for extinction or a very different business model under a new owner then they're likely to stop completely and if you want Bonnie Raitt you'll have to download it or wait until the rights owner decides there's enough of a market for a giant reissue programme. There, my friends, goes the Long Tail.

The Long Tail was a theory expounded ten years ago in a book by Chris Anderson. It was sub-titled "how the future of business is in selling less of more". It was a theory that lots of us took to, because it was encouraging to anyone who needed to make a living without "selling out" to the mass market.

HMV, particularly in its big shops, was a key patron of the Long Tail. It would stock your cultish folk record. It would keep the entire catalogue of classical composers. It would order your music magazine. When Virgin went HMV was the only place keeping the Long Tail going.

It's a mistake to think that when HMV's gone it will instantly be a better day for independent record retailers. The majority of music sold in this country comes from the big hits which are increasingly sold as downloads. For the hit CDs, the Adeles and Mumfords, the supermarkets will continue to pile high and sell cheap.

That leaves the few remaining record shops to sell the rest. That's if the record companies, once 38% of their market is taken away, think it's worthwhile to produce it in the traditional way and to support the star-making machinery and the distribution experts, salesmen, PRs, pluggers, reviewers and image-makers who have traditionally laboured in it. The big record companies may not think it's worth their while and the small ones won't be able to afford it.

This would be not just the end of another large commercial organisation which really should have seen the writing on the wall years ago and anyway last time I went in there they didn't have the second album by the Blue Aeroplanes and we never go there anymore because we prefer to support our plucky little indie. It's also the end of a whole way of doing things, a way which has been unchanged since the 70s, a way which many people have come to confuse with the natural pattern of real life.

Put it this way. This time next year people may have stopped saying "have you heard the new album by....."

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Summarising the genius of Joni Mitchell in thirty seconds

I've spent the last few days listening to Joni Mitchell's Court And Spark and trying to explain to myself why I gets me the way it does.

Most of the celebrated albums have one song that encapsulates their appeal. Most of those songs have a bit within them that in turn sums them up. With this record it's "Free Man In Paris", the song she wrote about David Geffen, the man who owned her record company, getting away from his work in Hollywood and having a holiday in Paris. She visited the city with Geffen and Robbie Robertson in the early 70s.

The bit is the middle eight. "If I had my way I'd just walk through those doors and wander down the Champs Elysees...."

The words tumble towards the two syllables of "wander" (which is barely a letter away from "wonder") which she extends into three and a half and then holds. As she does so you're rushing through the revolving door of that posh hotel lobby and into the Parisian sunshine with her. At that point the entire record opens up. You can listen to it below.

Friday, January 11, 2013

How much is that doggie in the window? And what if there's no window?

HMV are cutting their prices today. They need to quickly raise cash to meet their banking covenants at the end of the month. It's not good when one of Britain's most prestigious retailers has to behave like the Trotter brothers running scared of Boycie. This is in the same week that Jessop's, the camera chain with almost 200 stores, goes into administration. This is very worrying for the people who work in these places. It's an urgent concern to suppliers who've extended credit to these outlets for the good of their own businesses.

In the long term it will also have a profound effect on the way the rest of us view products like cameras, CDs and CVDs, products which not long ago we might have called "luxuries", to use a term that seems to belong in an age when austerity was a permanent condition, not a temporary inconvenience.

We can now buy a tune without buying a record and take a picture by holding up our phone. For most people that's enough. Most people will go through life without ever feeling that they ought to have a boxed set of The Godfather, a copy of David Bowie's new LP on vinyl or an SLR camera in a nice leather case. The handful of people who still yearn for things like these will be able to buy them on the web. Once the rest of us are no longer walking past shop windows with glinting pyramids of metal and glass we'll no longer think much about cameras. We'll allow them to slip off the shopping list of our dreams. When there are no longer adverts on Channel 4 on a Friday night exhorting us to go and buy Beyonce's new record with a bonus DVD in HMV we'll slowly stop thinking of records as items that exist in physical space, as objects that have the power to quicken pulses and excite envy. That lust for objects has underpinned all consumer activity since the war and the first flickering of that lust always came by looking in a shop window.

I won't insult the intelligence of the professionals by pretending I know how to secure the future of retail businesses like HMV and Jessop's. I suspect that a lot of their problems come from being spread too thin but there's not much they can do about that. If I go to HMV in Oxford Street today I'll probably drop into the Apple Store at Oxford Circus. It'll no doubt be packed. I won't buy anything but I'll still call. It has that effect on people. Why? I suppose it's selling a product which has a rare lustre. It's not seeking to be comprehensive which makes it far less overwhelming than traditional megastores. And since Apple store aren't in every city, let alone on every corner, it's as exciting as a visit to the HMV Shop in Oxford Street used to be.

The busiest shop I went into in the week before Christmas was Daunt's bookshop in Marleybone High Street. This is always full. Its specialism is travel books but it stocks pretty much everything, without overfacing the customer, and appears to know precisely what sells to the well-heeled clientele who live or work nearby. There's no obvious discounting and the place feels more like a church than a souk. I never go in there without buying something. It's usually something I could have bought for less money somewhere else. It just has that effect on me.

I'm sure there will be shops in the future but there probably won't be so many of them. There will be a handful of places that are congenial destinations and they'll be sought out by a self-selecting group of shoppers. How chains like HMV and Jessop's find a place in that future I don't exactly know. Again I'm reminded of the old story about the countryman being asked for directions by a smart young couple in a sports car. "Well," he said, "I wouldn't start from here."

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Who remembers smoking on the tube?

I used to measure the passing of time by the proportion of the population who could remember the First World War. Then it was the Second World War. Now it's this.

Who remembers smoking on the tube?

The tube's 150 years old today.  When I first came to London in the late 60s you could smoke on every carriage of a train apart from the carriage one from the front and the carriage one from the back. I can no longer quite remember just how unpleasant that must have been. Discarded cigarette ends would gather in the slats of the carriage's wooden floors. Passengers who found the fug too unpleasant could reach over and open the windows. Non-smokers were inured to smoke. It was a fact of life.

At some point in the 70s things were reorganised so that most carriages were non-smoking, again apart from the penultimate carriages at the front and back. The ban came in by degrees after a series of fires. Smoking was banned on the actual trains in 1984 but still people lit up as they left the platform. The build-up of discarded smoking materials under the escalators contributed to the catastrophic fire at King's Cross in 1987, which killed 31 people. The smoking ban had been extended to all stations below ground two years earlier but the detritus of ages was still there.  In the wake of the King's Cross disaster the ban became total, covering all stations on the network.

You tell the kids of today that and they won't believe you.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Rock magazines sell the past because that's what people buy

Killing time at Stansted last night I wandered into WH Smith and looked at the music magazines, something I haven't done for a while. Johnny Marr was on the cover of Mojo. A 1969 image of Gram Parsons was on the cover of Uncut. Q was a composite cover featuring Robbie Williams, Noel Gallagher and others.

People ask why the cover stars of monthly music magazines are so often stars whose fame is rooted in an earlier age, as much as ten, twenty, thirty, even forty years before. Surely these titles should be celebrating newness?

It's not because the editors of these titles are in love with the past. It's because it works. It doesn't work perfectly but it works better than the alternative, an act who are either unrecognisable or have a polarising effect which will rebound at the expense of your circulation figures.

There was a time when the best thing you could put on the cover was the Hot New Thing. Nowadays it's possibly the worst thing you can do. Why should that be? Too many Sigue Sigue Sputniks and not enough Radioheads? Too many acts who were set to take the world by storm and then didn't? Novelty fatigue? A multitude of new ways of accessing information about the Hot New Thing? It's probably a combination of all these.

The fact that new acts are box office poison is particularly bad news for PRs. The thing they are paid to achieve will remove a few thousand pounds from the revenue line of the publication they must achieve it through.

I see that last week's cover of the NME featured Haim and Parma Violets. That's two new bands, albeit photographed in a sixties pose and a cover line referencing a fifty-year-old Who single. But that came after three consecutive covers which were essentially backward-looking.

With the new issue normal service has been resumed.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

The cup of coffee that says 'do you know how busy I am?'

A friend recently went to a school carol service in a church. It was late afternoon. Some parents, who had obviously come directly from work, arrived clutching their Starbucks coffee. He was surprised to see this in a church, as I would be.

Certain personality types increasingly feel the need to turn up everywhere - for work, play and now apparently worship - absently clasping a waxed bucket of hot milk with corporate branding on its side. Motion picture actors are never seen out in public without one.

This may be partly a question of thirst but it is more often a question of show. The brandished beaker is a way of saying "do you know how busy I am?" without having to show people your diary. People's need for the milky sustenance in the cup is nothing compared to the signal their sporting of the cup sends out about just how busy they are and how fortunate the rest of us are that they've managed to insert this trifling appointment into a day otherwise devoted to deciding the fate of empires, furiously pedalling to keep the economy afloat or saving the lives of small children.

Busyness is the pose de nos jours. Bah.

P.S. Some of them left their empty cups behind in the pew.

Friday, January 04, 2013

The grubby business of exchanging actual words for actual money

"We believe this is the right price point for our newspaper at this time," said the Guardian's marketing director at the end of 2011 to explain why the price was about to rise from a pound to £1.20. Just over a year later it's going up again, this time to £1.40. "We believe this is the correct current price point," says another statement.

Inevitably the same people will be saying something similar to justify the next price hike in a year's time. What they won't say is what they're bound to be thinking - isn't there something perverse about putting a tax on the declining number of people who support you in order to subsidise giving your content away to people who don't?

I sympathise with the people who have to make these decisions. They're in an impossible position. As demand shrinks the basic product ought to be cheaper, as it is in the record business. In press it works the other way. Cover price revenue is one of the few levers a hard-pressed publisher can pull. They ask themselves whether the rump they're left with will stop buying if they put up the price. They guess a percentage, then close their eyes and jump.

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, I've been saying for years that some of the people who make airy predictions about new digital business models should leave the security of their banker-funded old media empires and try to walk the walk they've been talking for so long. Andrew Sullivan, probably the biggest political blogger in the English-speaking world, has announced that this is what he's doing. From February 1st his full output will only be available for the payment of a $20 annual subscription.

I'm sure Sullivan's people know all the tricks to ensure that as many as possible of his millions of followers pay the sub. If an old magazine hand may offer an observation to someone entering the real world of trying to part private citizens from the actual cash money in their pocket (in which of course the proprietor of your local car wash knows more than the cleverest person in the Groucho club) it would be this.

Many of your followers will disappear with a wooshing sound the moment you even hint at charging.  A noisy minority will fall over themselves to give you their money and will make sure everyone knows they are doing it. An argumentative minority will hang around to complain that what you're doing is a) morally wrong and b) bad business practice.

Don't worry about any of these groups. The people you have to worry about are the ones who fully intend to subscribe, in some cases think they already do subscribe, but never actually get round to it. They're the ones.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Who still lives the long-playing life?

In the fifties and sixties pictures like this one were staples of the greetings card trade. The teen couple whiling away their time with a limitless supply of long-playing records was a dream of the age.

The figures reported by the music business yesterday weren't altogether bad. People are buying downloads in greater numbers than ever (at this stage in the game it would be surprising if they weren't) but they're buying the tracks they want and leaving the rest at the side of their plate. It's a singles market, the singles often elected by the buyer at the point of purchase, not by the industry. Volume sales of both digital and physical albums declined by 11% in a year. People spend less time listening to one artist for a sustained period. The record industry is heavily invested - financially, creatively, nostalgically and emotionally - in a format, the 45-minute album, which the first business consultant off the rank could tell you appears to be an obsolete medium.

One of the reasons it's obsolete is because the grandchildren of the couple in the picture above don't set aside the time for the sustained listen which the long playing record demands. One of the things that helped the long playing record flourish was that there was such a thing as not much else to do. Entire days of it. Rushing into that vacuum came all those huge selling records of the 70s. You'd come back to your student flat every evening and play the same fifty albums again and again, not least because there was no radio in the place and certainly no TV. There were great albums, of course, which is one prerequisite for an albums boom, but there were also plenty of time, which begged to be whiled away in album-shaped denominations.

That's the thing that strikes me about all those end of the year lists of ten (ten!) albums of 2012. Who's actually listening to all these albums all the way through more than once and where are they getting the time? If they've elected ten then presumably they must have listened to fifty all the way through more than once.  How? With more TV and radio than ever before and the advent of the Great Time Waster the internet? I can only conclude that it must be their job or they don't have a job. How else could they clear the time? And do they still sprawl on the carpet just like the couple above?

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Sometimes the kindest thing you can do is discourage people

Nice little piece in Paris Review about a young novelist who slips Philip Roth a copy of his first book while serving him coffee. Without reading the book Roth advises him to give up before it's too late. "I would say just stop now." He knows what heartbreak awaits the young novelist. Given the state of graduate unemployment nowadays Roth must get a box-fresh novel every time he goes into Costa. I'm sure he's not meaning to be hurtful. He may be trying to avoid being recruited to the young writer's team.

Even at my footling level I run a mile to avoid anyone who wants to give me their CD. I do that because I can't win. If I like it people expect me to somehow help them make it a success. If I don't like it I'm clearly a bastard. Furthermore there is no middle way between those positions. No matter what they say musicians do not want anyone's advice about how they might make their music better. They don't want it anymore than a mother wishes to learn how to make her children more appealing.

Back to Roth. Presumably he also reasons that anyone who is serious about being a writer isn't going to be put off by any discouraging advice he might offer. As Laurence Olivier told the young would-be actor, "if you're not an actor then you simply didn't want it badly enough."

I sometimes find myself facing classes of journalism students and having to mutter variations on "it was competitive when I got in this game but it's far more competitive now." People say to me I shouldn't be discouraging. But maybe a little discouragement isn't actually fatal. Furthermore, in weeding out the more easily discouraged I may be making things easier for the more deserving ones. Let's face it. For the last thirty years there's been an awful lot of encouragement around.