Thursday, February 21, 2013

Kevin Ayers was a great singles artist and there's nothing better than that

We tend to think of Kevin Ayers as someone who failed to live up to his potential because he never made the kind of career as album artist that contemporaries like Pink Floyd and Genesis did. He never had hit singles either but I still think of him as a singles act because he made a few that distilled his appeal. Whenever and wherever they pop up I'm always in the mood for them. Albums are what get you those obits in the heavy papers. Singles are what keep you alive in people's hearts. Like this one.


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

There's no such thing as underrated these days

I was tweeting yesterday about Face Value by Phil Collins. Somebody responded that it was underrated. Since it sold ten million copies I think it's a bit of stretch to describe it as underrated. Abused, yes, dismissed out of hand, sneered at for reasons that had nothing to do with music, all these would serve as descriptions, but not underrated.

It's funny the way we use that term. Underrated was always a popular thread in The Word magazine and on its website. Readers like to think that the music they like is underrated, presumably because it plays to our image of ourselves as fearless swimmers against the tide.

I'm not sure there's very much you can call underrated these days. The big hits reach a level of ubiquity of which even The Beatles could only have dreamed. At the other end of the scale, the tiny cults of yesteryear now have entire evenings devoted to them on BBC Four. Scott Walker put out another album recently and while very few people bought it or heard it he can't complain that it has gone unnoticed. I sometimes think that the real reason groups reform is that they know that this time they'll be overrated.

Furthermore time and chance eventually ensure that everybody gets their chance to be rated, even overrated. I'm sure it amuses Wilko Johnson greatly to see his inbox jammed with interview requests from people who have been avoiding his PR's calls for years. The only aspect of his current situation which could remotely be described as satisfactory is he's getting the chance to read his obituaries. In which he will probably be described as "criminally underrated". 

P.S. One of the small children who's pictured on the gatefold of "Face Value" is now forty.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Bad men can be great sportsmen

I'm reading Beyond A Boundary by CLR James, which is about growing up in Trinidad in the early part of the 20th century. His passion is cricket. He talks about a local called Matthew Bondman.
He was a young man already when I first remember him, medium height and size, and an awful character. He was generally dirty. He would not work. His eyes were fierce, his language was violent and his voice was loud. His lips curled back naturally and he intensified it by an almost perpetual snarl. My grandmother and my aunts detested him. But that is not why I remember Matthew. For ne'er-do-well, in fact vicious character that he was, Matthew had one saving grace--Matthew could bat. More than that, Matthew, so crude and vulgar in every aspect of his life, with a bat in his hand was all grace and style.

It's funny reading this in the same week the papers are full of the chaotic lives of prominent sportsmen. CLR James could cope with the idea of a man who was hopeless in every respect but one - happening to be a great athlete. We on the other hand, being softer and more superstitious, seem to believe that any man who has shown a great sporting talent should be at the very least capable when it comes to daily life, as if genius in one respect ought to spill over into bare competence elsewhere. Journalists, biographers, chat-show hosts and voice-over artists try to persuade us that virtue follows talent around. There's lots of evidence that it doesn't.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Just in time for Valentine's Day, an unromantic love song

I don't expect anyone to seek my advice when choosing an appropriate record for the happy couple's first dance at their wedding. Therefore, in the week of Valentine's Day, for anybody who's merely fantasising about getting married and could use some further inspiration, I propose the best first dance song of the modern era.

Erin Bode (it's pronounced Beau-day) wrote "Long, Long Time" with her piano player Adam Maness. It begins "the rest of your life is a long, long time/It's hard to gauge when you're twenty-five".

What I like about this song is it celebrates not the first flush of romance, which is easy, but the patience required for the long haul. "We're taking all the rest of our lives." In fact it's a great love song which isn't actually romantic at all.

I like to feel it's a musical repudiation of those couples who split the minute both parties feel the married state has failed to magically transfigure their lives. If they asked me I'd say "what were you expecting?" Of course they don't ask.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Why is Lincoln a film and not a TV series?

I saw "Lincoln" yesterday. It would have been so much better as a TV film, which is not a thought I've ever entertained before.

I couldn't follow half of what went on in it and it's not long since I read the book it's based on. As if conscious of the byzantine complexity of the plot, which is acted out in the smoke-filled rooms of Washington in 1865, Spielberg's film is topped and tailed by a prologue and epilogue which seem to have been parachuted in from children's TV to make up for the fact that the audience is historically illiterate.

As a three-part HBO series it would have been able to introduce the main characters, explain a bit about the party political background, convey some idea of the agony of the civil war they were in the midst of and paint in a bit of the path that had got Lincoln to that point. An episodic framework would, most importantly, have given the viewer the vital opportunity to consult with a fellow viewer and ask "remind me, who's the guy with the funny whiskers?"

In recent years, in shows like "The Wire" and "The Killing", TV has shown it can handle complexity. On the other hand the only feature film I've seen that did it was "The Social Network", and that was dealing with events that had happened very recently.

There are times these days when I wonder why feature films are still around.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

John Adams and the fourth of July myth

Just finished "John Adams" by David McCullough, which I've enjoyed as much as any political biography I've ever read. I knew nothing about him until I saw the HBO mini-series. If anything, that series undersells him.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were known as the voice and pen respectively of the American Declaration Of Independence. Their lives, while completely different, were intertwined. They both served as President. They both lived far longer than any of their contemporaries and died, hundreds of miles apart, on the same day, the fourth of July, 1826, which was the nation's 50th birthday.

Although the declaration is dated July 4th it was actually passed by Congress two days earlier and celebrations didn't take place until July 8th. At the time Adams said that July 2nd would be the date that would go down in history. According to McCullough's book Jefferson actually spent July 4th shopping for ladies gloves. However in later life both Adams and Jefferson bought into the national tradition so completely that they would argue vehemently that it all happened on the fourth. So much for primary sources.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Mini Disc was the home taping technology that dare not speak its name

Sony have announced they are no longer making MiniDisc players. This is not a surprise.

They were launched in 1992 as an attempt to challenge the compact disc, which had been developed primarily by Philips. Sony still believed, as it had believed when it launched Betamax, that if it controlled the hardware it would control the software.

MiniDisc was a fiddly medium and difficult to love but it had one great thing going for it. For the first time it offered the home taper a flexibility you could never achieve with cassette. You could record a bunch of tunes, then edit or delete them and change their order. In 1992 that was heady stuff.

Problem was Sony could never be seen to say anything positive about home taping. I was once paid to present this technology to a dealers convention but it was made plain that they didn't want me lingering on the one thing that made it an exciting technology.

After that you only ever saw it being used by bands or radio producers. The public didn't get why they might like it because every effort was made to keep it from them. Thus it languished and bigger technological fish came along to eat the record companies' lunch.

Last week Philips announced that it was no longer in the consumer electronics market. Amazing.

Reg Presley and the people who know the chart position of everything and the value of nothing

I caught the end of a short Reg Presley obit this morning. Its central thrust seemed to be that Wild Thing went to number one in the USA and only got to number two in the UK.

 I hate this kind of thing. Chart positions are statistical happenings which depend on the amount of competition in a particular week and the level of corruption and statistical accuracy prevailing at the time of a record's release. Otherwise they don't prove much.

 It's sometimes interesting to reflect on those acts who had scores of number ones because it reflects consistency and popularity but to attempt to prove a point about whether, say, Abba are better or more successful than Elton John based on totting up the number of top ten records they had is the pursuit of idiots. The people who say these things are the same people who put the words "Oscar-winning" in the first line of an obit of a film person, as if that bauble justified whatever they are about to follow it with.

 Reg Presley traded his narrow range and strange sincerity into a place among the immortals. We all know that. And if we don't the stats aren't going to make any difference.

Friday, February 01, 2013

The most interesting conversation ever captured at a recording session

On November 4th 1940 John Lomax and his wife Ruby were in Atlanta, Georgia, looking for folk musicians to record for the Library of Congress.

As they drove past the Pig and Whistle, a whites-only drive-in barbecue, Ruby saw an African American playing guitar and singing for the customers. Blind Willie McTell, who was dressed in the smart suit, cap, collar and tie in which he preferred to perform, was 42 at the time. The Lomaxes had been told to look out for McTell and they paid him a dollar to turn up the Fulton Hotel the following day with his guitar.

November 5th was election day in the United States but McTell came to the hotel room where Lomax had set up his equipment and for two hours played his songs and talked. Unlike Robert Johnson, who was so shy during his two recording sessions that he would only sing while facing the corner, McTell gives a performance which is so confident and polished it's almost a lecture.

He plays spirituals, gambling songs, rags and songs about chasing women. Unlike the bluesmen of the Delta his articulation is clear, which means the lyrics are intelligible. His command of the twelve-string guitar and bottleneck allows him to break off lines and let the instrument do the talking, in a way that Jimi Hendrix would do years later. Many bluesmen are hard to listen to for long periods. You can listen to Blind Willie McTell all day long.

Between songs he addresses the Lomaxes as if they were a public meeting, telling them about what "the country people" used to do in "the old days" and how one particular song dates from the days when "the blues first started being original". He recounts the name - and full addresses - of all the various record companies he has recorded for under different names during the 30s. He is clearly a sophisticated, worldly-wise, seasoned, even slightly pompous professional entertainer.

Lomax, who had discovered Leadbelly, knew the white audience preferred its blues musicians miserable and oppressed and so asks if he's got any "complaining songs". Willie refuses to play along. Listen.

Then again, we do get this. One man and a guitar, in a hotel room, in the middle of the afternoon.