Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Interviewers can't win when the interview's down the line

Listening to the radio these days I'm increasingly aware I'm hearing conversations between people who aren't in the same physical space.

They used to proudly announce these exchanges as being "down the line from" as if that proved how far their mighty arm extended. These days not so much, maybe because an increasing number of people aren't prepared to disrupt their entire day just to help fill a two-minute gap in a programme.

I could be wrong but I think BBC 5Live are particularly reluctant to flag up up how many interviewees are in London, which is of course where they used to be.

The remote interview is popular with company chairmen spinning their annual results on the Today Programme. They get an ISDN line installed in the office and then they can field the questions while surrounded by PR men holding up flash cards with key points on them.

Radio engineers hate Skype because of the quality. Interviewers don't like it because on a remote call it's difficult for them to butt in. Listening to Skype interviews you realise how much of the exchanges in an intervieware signalled physically.

One former Cabinet minister would always plead a packed calendar as his excuse for not being able to come to the Today studios. He knew that if they sent the radio car round he was in command. He was on his own turf rather than theirs, they couldn't intimidate him with so much as a raised eyebrow and once he was embarked on an answer he could talk as long as he liked.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Fifty years ago today The Rolling Stones signed their first management deal

The men who signed them were Eric Easton, an agent, and Andrew Oldham, a PR man.

On the same day Oldham, who was only 19, took pianist Ian Stewart aside and told him he was no longer in the group and would henceforth have to settle for being their road manager. Oldham had decided that Stewart's prominent jaw spoiled the perfect picture made by the other five. Stewart wasn't the first and he wouldn't be the last to be fired because his face didn't fit. Oldham's decision may have been callous but it was the right one.

Oldham told me that he only met the Rolling Stones because of a train. It was the early sixties. On Sundays London was closed. His custom was to go and see his mother in Hampstead for lunch and then while away the afternoon much as Tony Hancock had done. Somebody had told him that this interesting new group played sessions at the Railway Hotel in Richmond on Sunday afternoon. He looked at the north London line and worked out that he could get the train directly from Hampstead Heath to Richmond.

So he did. The rest is a blog entry. Fifty years later they're still gigging.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Eagles documentary celebrates a very hard-nosed operation

The History of The Eagles doesn't packs any dramatic revelations. In fact it steers clear of any mention of their personal lives apart from their intervention in Joe Walsh's drinking and drugging.

On the other hand it doesn't hold back when it comes to slipping the knife into people who've spent some time inside the tent.

Producer Glyn Johns, who oversaw their first three records, is derided for thinking they were all about close harmonies and believing they should forget trying to prove themselves as a rock band. I've heard James Dean. I think Johns had a point.

Johns remembers being called in to work with them and being wholly unimpressed until he heard them amusing themselves with a campfire singalong. As so often it's not what you recognise in yourselves. It's what other people recognise in you.

David Geffen, who signed them to his record label and made them huge stars, is castigated for making more money than they did.

Erstwhile guitarist Don Felder is tried, sentenced and executed for getting in Glenn Frey's light, being a bit of pain and for having the temerity to have written the lick that gave birth to Hotel California.

It's clear that Frey and Henley, the two singers, run the show, along with their manager Irving Azoff. Walsh and Timothy B. Schmidt are just delighted to be along for the ride. I was recently wondering whether a band could have two leaders.  The Eagles seem to have managed it. It probably helps if you've got compliant staff.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Listening to radio Betty Blue

My radio preview column in today's Guardian Guide is about Building Bridges, this morning's Radio Four programme about middle-eights, and Collar The Lot, the Tom Conti-fronted documentary about Italian internees in Britain during the war.

Mainly it's about FIP, the French radio station I often spend spring Saturdays listening to. Ecouter en direct ici. I conjure up visions of the lady on FIP broadcasting from one of those beach houses on stilts that you see at the beginning of Betty Blue.

It says here you can find the originals at Gruissan on the Mediterranean coast.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

A quick reader survey

People occasionally ask how they can subscribe to this blog. Since it's not something I do myself I'm not sure what to tell them. I've put the "posts" and "all comments" links above but I've not a clue whether they're any use to anybody. I'd be grateful for any feedback or advice.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Thirty-seven years ago this week the Ramones became A Thing

Thirty-seven years ago this week I first handled a copy of the first Ramones album. I was standing by an import van in South Molton Street in the West end of London.

It looked funny. They looked funny. That look wasn't yet A Thing, as we say nowadays.

We played it in the shop and didn't know whether to be excited by the headlong swing or amused by the comical conciseness. We settled for being both excited and amused.

There they were, already fully formed and, as it turned out, fully developed. It only took one play to get the whole idea, whether you thought that idea was a life-changing manifesto, a brilliant conceptual wheeze or a giant full stop. There was no mystery, nothing to be gained by digging deeper, nothing that grew on you.

Some people loved them. In a way, even though I've got lots of their records, they left me a bit cold. I once spent an afternoon with them in a Chinese restaurant in Cambridge and they were your average, slightly whiny American rock band.

It doesn't matter what I think of their music. Here's the thing I'm thinking thirty-seven years later.

The day before we heard The Ramones we couldn't have imagined them. The day after we heard the Ramones we could no longer imagine the world without them.

Thirty-seven years ago I found a new way of describing things. A bit like the Ramones.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Soho Hobo puts on the best little show in London - if you can find him

They say that even when you're starting out you've got to behave as if you're playing Wembley stadium.

That's what Tim Arnold, who performs under the name of The Soho Hobo, was doing last night in front of a hundred people in an Islington pub at our latest Word In Your Ear show. He's made a record which is all about Soho - its history, vice, glamour, deprivation and gents tailoring - and he's still looking for a record company to put it out.

Meanwhile he performs intermittently but with a professionalism and determination to entertain most performers don't achieve until they're on a headline tour in support of their third album. He fronts a band who look like members of the team who pulled off the Italian Job - apart from saxophonist Kit Mlynar, who dresses like a lady accustomed to men drinking from her shoe.

He has his own MC, Jud Charlton, and brings on famous guest singers including Gary Kemp and Jessie Wallace. (Phil Daniels would have been there, but he was recovering from playing Coachella with Blur.) For one song, The Windmill Girls, which is dedicated to his mother who worked as a showgirl, he's accompanied by Miss Giddy Heights, a fan dancer, who finishes the song with one of the stationary nudes that were The Windmill's trademark. He finishes the act with a headstand that lasts fully thirty seconds.

The music comes from that place in British pop which has one foot in the theatre. He made me think of Ian Dury, the Divine Comedy, even Deaf School. I asked him when his next show was. He said he didn't know. Amazing.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Going round to someone's house to listen to their records while staying at home

We used to go round to people's houses and listen to their records. I sometimes feel a pang that we don't do that anymore but then I remember that it's often an uncomfortable experience and I think better of it.

But last night I discovered that the internet gives you the chance to enjoy the ancient ceremony of the laying of tone arm on vinyl without any of the attendant social discomfort. I discovered, for the first time, that particularly hi-fi aware people have taken to posting clips on YouTube of entire classic long players actually playing all the way through. Rig it up to your sound system and you get the whole experience, pops, clicks, dust bugs and all. It's very restful, particularly when it's an old jazz album like this one.

This guy - and it has to be a guy - has even mixed the clip so that you see the crease marks on the sleeve, the original price sticker, cuttings from reviews and, during Take Five, his cats watching the record going round. It's rather blissful.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Everybody likes recommending. Nobody likes being recommended to.

Twitter has launched #music, a music recommendation service that recommends tracks based on who you follow.

The paradox at the heart of all music recommendation engines is that as soon as a recommendation process is blunt enough to be performed by a machine it's no longer sharp enough to be much use to a human being. Similarly, as soon as a process is mass enough to make money for a company it's too mass to be of much benefit to an individual. As soon is it's insistent and mechanical enough for somebody to claim it as a success it's so insistent and mechanical that you want to turn it off.

In theory everybody likes the idea of recommendations. In practice there's no pain in the arse quite like the person who's always telling you what you should be listening to or reading or watching. Anyone who's really full of recommendations probably has poor judgement. I know scores of people who listen to music for a living and there are only three of them who recommend things that I like. Other people may well recommend stuff I'd like but I simply don't warm to their recommendations.

Music is a thing you pull towards you when you're in the mood. As soon as it's pushed towards you it loses all its charm.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The conformity of footballers

Staying with Ken Sharp in St Andrews. Dundee United train on the university's fields. You know they're here, says Ken, when there's a line of white BMWs parked down the road.

Why white BMWs, I wondered.

It's just the fashion, he said.

I thought he was exaggerating. Then I went round the corner and was confronted by this.

Monday, April 15, 2013

You choose your furniture but the best furniture chooses you

An upholsterer has just been to look at this chair, which was bought in 1967 by my late father-in-law.

He said "they used to advertise this as 'the world's most comfortable chair'." I'm not surprised. Being new traditionalists by inclination we used to turn up our noses at the look of it but we had to concede it was comfortable to sit in.

When we were clearing their old house we were going to get rid of it because it didn't seem to fit in our Edwardian place. Our youngest stopped us. She wanted to keep it, not least because she remembered how much Grandma liked sitting in it. We hauled it up from the south coast and somehow got it to the top of the house in the workroom. Here it proved ideal for TV viewing and even for sleeping in when you have one of those throat irritations that mean you can't lie down.

Now the upholsterer tell us it's a design classic and his son has a nice sideline knocking out replicas. The Management want to re-cover it in something less jarringly sixties. I've got so used to it that it no longer jars.

We've got a house full of furniture. The kids satirically call it The Museum Of Chairs. We've got a load of infants school wooden chairs which are ideal for perching on to put your shoes on. Our most comfortable sofa is one we inherited, for nothing, from the divorcing couple we were buying our previous house from. I have an office chair which came from a place my father took over in 1966, which had probably been in place since before the First World War.

We're not particularly interested in antiques. We never set out to acquire any of this stuff. Aristocrats used to identify the nouveau riche as people "who bought their own furniture". We've bought plenty of our own as well over the years but it's odd how
the furniture we cherish the most is the stuff we didn't buy.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

The profound joy of getting rid of stuff

We've been in this house twenty-five years this summer. Most of that time has been devoted to raising a family. We didn't pay much attention to the rising tide of stuff we were surrounding ourselves with.

After a while even books, records, DVDs and magazines cease to be the things you work for. You get to a point where it's either you or the stuff. By that time you've had the melancholy experience of clearing the homes of your own parents, who didn't accumulate a fraction of the junk you've got yourself. You kid yourself you're going to pass on your records to your kids. Then they grow up and you realise that even if they were bothered there's no way their lives could also find room for the detritus of yours.

What do you get rid of and what do you keep? The reasons you once collected things no longer hold good. Spotify and iTunes have made a nonsense of all those compilations you hung on to because of one track. IMDB makes those fat film and TV reference books look ridiculous. Those launch issues of classic magazines you squirrelled away are never going to make you rich but they will attract dust and mildew. You no longer believe that if you pass up this CD you will never be able to replace it.

In the past few months I've taken what seems like tons of books down to the charity shop. I'm such a good supplier they've given me a Gift Aid card.

Chucking stuff away is a learning experience. You realise nobody is remotely bothered about the thousand-pound computer you take down the tip. They just point you to the pile in the corner. On the other hand they don't know what to make of the old tea chests because they've never seen one before and you wonder whether you should take them home and hang on to them. You visit the second-hand book store so often that you start to develop an attraction for old paperbacks and find yourself picking up the odd one as you drop off the odd box of fifty.

The process of sifting is slowed down by the occasional piece of paper that flutters out of an old book. A child's hand-drawn birthday card, a note of apology for some long-forgotten breakage, a rejection letter from a job you don't remember applying for, all put away nowhere in particular because somebody thought it would be a shame to lose them. Maybe this was the occasion that you were saving them for. Is anyone really going to pause in the middle of cleaning up to look at them again? Anything that's not been disturbed in the last twenty-five years is, for obvious reasons, unlikely to be disturbed in the next quarter of a century.

Your reward for having got rid of all this stuff is the liberation of the space you need to be able to enjoy the stuff. The records you can suddenly put your hand on, the newly-cleared window seat which you can use as a place to read, the profound calm that steals over you when your desk is finally cleared. This is every bit as spiritual as the impulse that led you to acquire the stuff in the first place.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

A perfect record

I know what they say about snowflakes/How there ain't no two the same/Well all them flakes look alike to me/And every one is a dirty shame.
Watching the workmen this week erecting a shed at the bottom of our garden in a blizzard made me think of that song from the first Jesse Winchester album from 1970.

Winchester was from Louisiana, which is hot and wet. He fled to Canada, which is cold and snowy, to avoid being drafted into the military to fight in Vietnam.

The songs on the record - songs like Yankee Lady,  Biloxi and Brand New Tennessee Waltz - yearn for Winchester's vanished world of lost content. Snow complains specifically about the weather, which is always understandable.

The handful of people who bought it were either snobs like me, attracted by the fact that it was produced by Robbie Robertson, engineered by Todd Rundgren and appeared on the mysterious Ampex label, or they were people like Elvis Costello and James Taylor, who would in years to come cover the songs.

But nobody has ever improved on the originals. Winchester made good records after this one but his first is one of the handful of rock records I would call perfect. They say that when he'd done the original sessions for Nashville Skyline, Bob Dylan played the tracks to Robbie Robertson and asked him to overdub guitar on them. Robertson said "why would I do that?"

The Jesse Winchester album was graced by a similar restraint. Robertson produced it in the same year The Band did Stage Fright and he must have wondered whether Winchester had stumbled on something just as the Band had begun to lose it.

You can get it as an import or you can find it more easily in a "twofer" with the follow-up Third Down 110 To Go. Which is good but it's not perfect.

If you're interested, I post the vinyl that I often play on Saturdays here.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Can a band have two leaders?

Richard Williams' music blog The Blue Moment is full of excellent stuff, some of it grounded in his time as an a&r man for Island in the 70s.

Writing about Television he says "no band can last long with two leaders".

This made me wonder if there are any exceptions. The big exception is the biggest band of all, the Beatles, but you might say that by modern standards they didn't last all that long. It's clear that no decisions can be made within the Rolling Stones without Mick and Keith. However the former proposes, the latter disposes and they both know that they're useless without each other. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page wrote Led Zeppelin's songs and formed their front line together. When Cream were together both Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton seemed to take the weight of public attention equally.

The leadership of REM seems to be a triumvirate. All their songs are credited equally, as are U2's and Coldplay's. This means that all the members share in the really rich source of revenue, though not necessarily equally. This is certainly why they're all still together.

I can think of one prominent exception to Richard's Law. The career of the Eagles is interesting in that when they did split up it was nothing to do with warring between their two leaders, Don Henley and Glenn Frey. When hell froze over and they reformed they slipped back into their old roles. But watching their official documentary the other day I got the clear impression that all the other members of the band, whether past or present, were very aware that they served at the pleasure of their two leaders.

Obviously there are always exceptions to any rule but the rarity of these makes you think.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Come and hear Brit pop in its anecdotage

Gary Kemp & Tim Arnold, Miss Giddy Heights,
Math Priest, Andy Lewis and Katy Carr.

We've added Math Priest, Andy Lewis and Dan Thompson to our Word In Your Ear show at the Lexington on April 22nd.

It's twenty years since Oasis versus Blur, since TFI Friday and Select magazine, and finally a few of Britpop's muddied and bloodied foot soldiers feel ready to talk about it.

That's what Math Priest, Dodgy drummer and man about town, Andy Lewis, bass player with Paul Weller and DJ on the Parklife tour, will be doing on the 22nd with Dan Thompson, DJ and pioneer of inner city regeneration.

Math promises:

  • The one about Damon drunkenly giving us career advice 
  • The one about Brett Anderson so mashed off his face he thought Starry Starry Night was a Xmas song 
  • The one about The Bluetones lived in our garage 
  • The one about what it was really like backstage on the Parklife tour 
  • The one about us coming off stage to find the guitarist from Space getting a blowjob in our dressing room from a girl with a Dodgy T shirt on. Yes, you can see I still haven't got over that one :-)

  • Tickets for the evening, which also features The Soho Hobo revue plus Gary Kemp and Miss Giddy Heights, plus Katy Carr are on sale here now for £15.

David Ford uses everything but the squeak at the Scala

David Ford at the Scala last night - new album called Charge here - was an object lesson in maximising what you've got.

The evening began with Emily Grove, who comes from Asbury Park, supported by Jarrod Dickenson, David Ford and drummer Joey Love.

Then it was Jarrod Dickenson, who comes from Texas, supported by Grove, Ford and Love.

Finally it was David Ford, who comes from Eastbourne, supported by Dickenson, Grove and Love.

That's what they used to say about raising pigs. Everything gets used but the squeak.

At one stage in the last set Ford said thank you for the privilege of being a touring musician, for being able to fill up a van with as many instruments as possible, being able to set off and see who they can persuade to listen to them and also spend time with each other. And he played this.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Joss Stone and the ultimate downside of pop fame

By any measure the four members of the Beatles made more people happy than most of us manage to do. In return two of them were the victims of attacks by homicidal maniacs. In one case it was fatal. In the other it may have contributed to an untimely death.

Bob Marley was the victim of a drive-by shooting. Bjork was targeted by a "fan" who mailed a letter bomb to her home and then killed himself on camera. Those are just the cases I can call to mind right now. There are no doubt hundreds of similar incidents that were intercepted by security and never got as far as the media.

And now Joss Stone has to live with the thought that a pair of murderous misanthropes set off from the other end of the country with the intention of killing her and were only apprehended because they were more than ordinarily stupid. I'm not being facetious when I say that this really is the ultimate downside of pop fame.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

"You can have any record you like as long as it's on this list"

Radio Two asked its listeners to choose which of its 100 most-played albums it liked best. This is a curious form of polling. It's like asking Dagenham and Redbridge supporters to name their favourite Chelsea player.

It's the only way radio can work. Radio can't actually respond to people's requests because that might mean going off-message and then where would they be?

They used to run a Sunday night request show on Capital. Listeners would call in and banter with Dr Fox, he'd say "what do you want to hear?", they'd name a record and he'd have it lined up to play straight away.

That's slick, I thought. It's also, coincidentally, on the playlist.

It was then explained to me that although that show was being broadcast live, everything you were hearing had been recorded a few minutes earlier. This gave them the space to tell the caller which of three records they could choose, stage the fake conversation and then tidy up any loose ends in time for broadcast a few minutes later. At which point they would be doing the same with somebody else.

The radio man looked at me as if to say "what did you think happened, you poor child?"

Monday, April 01, 2013

The Great Gatsby

Took a walk on Friday listening to the Radio 360 podcast about The Great Gatsby. It's pegged to the imminent release of a new film. From the podcast I learned that the book still sells 20,000 copies every few week, that Fitzgerald hated the title, that Ralph Lauren's real name is Lipschitz and his real life career echoed Gatsby's rise from poverty and anonymity and that every American novelist is allowed one official hometown. Extracts were read by the actor Scott Shepherd, who can recite the entire book from memory.

I came home and tried, for the umpteenth time, to read it. This time I succeeded. I still don't like the dialogue and there are whole scenes that I can't really visualise but I loved Nick Carraway's narration and I was determined to finish to get to the last couple of paras, which are as good an ending as I've ever read.