Tuesday, July 30, 2013

An encounter with Mick Farren thirty years ago this month

Thirty years ago this month I was the editorial director of the company that published Smash Hits. This was experiencing such dramatic success in the UK that publishers overseas wanted to see if they could replicate it in their territories.

One of them was Felix Dennis, who wanted to launch it in the USA, using the money made from a dazzlingly successful magazine called Computer Shopper and another one called Club International, which was published by the most charming pornographer I've ever met.

Felix insisted that the art director Steve Bush and I flew over to New York to discuss the feasibility of a 
licensing deal. It was a hot summer, we were very busy, it meant giving up our weekend and so I booked business class flights. When we got to the Pan Am terminal we were told there were no business class flights and so we were being upgraded to first class at no extra charge. 

Steve had never been to the States before. He was wearing shorts. He brought sandwiches. When we arrived at the Gramercy Park Hotel we were confronted by two hookers who asked if we wanted to "party". We made our excuses.

That weekend Felix, who was paying the hotel bills, had me moved into a suite so that we could meet there the following day. On the Saturday night we were joined by Neil Tennant from Smash Hits who was fresh from lunch with his hero Bobby O, with the news that he had agreed to make a record with him. We drank beer, ate crisps and laughed like loons.

The following day Felix turned up. He brought along Mick Farren, who he'd known since Oz days, to make sure that I wasn't pulling the wool over his eyes when it came to the music business.

We had lunch in the deserted hotel dining room, attended by many waiters. Everybody smoked through the meal.  Mick Farren ordered a Jack Daniels.

I often think about that meal. The magazine was launched in the USA but never took. Felix went on to make further fortunes. Neil's deal with Bobby O proved to be onerous but it eventually led to mammoth success with Pet Shop Boys. Steve Bush went on to be a magazine mogul in Australia. Mick Farren went back to writing pulp fiction, reformed the Deviants and eventually died on stage in London this week.

Thirty years ago this week.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Thinking about J.J. Cale

The news of the death of J.J. Cale reaches me in rural France, where I have very little music to listen to. It doesn't matter because his is the kind of music I hold every detail of in my memory.

We went to see him the first time he came to London. The curtain rose on a bunch of musicians sitting in a semi-circle, looking at their feet and playing an instrumental. "Which one's him?" asked my wife. "He hasn't come on yet," I assured her. As soon as the words were out of my mouth the figure second from the right started to sing "Call Me The Breeze".

It's funny how people talk about him as the heir to the old tradition of sitting and picking on the back porch. Although there are elements in his music that remind you of Slim Harpo and even Hoagy Carmichael nobody had previously put things together in the way he put them together. In that sense he wasn't a traditionalist so much as the originator of one beautiful new trick, a trick he had the good sense to never try to surpass.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Lots of the best music writing is free

There's not much point hanging around waiting for somebody to pay you to write about music. And if they do, they'll probably ask you to write about something you don't have much interest in.

Why not just write what you want for the love of it? Lots of people do it and some of them are big names.

In The Blue Moment Richard Williams writes about some of the musicians whose paths he has crossed throughout a long career as journalist and a&r man, touching upon areas of music beyond the well-trodden paths. It's thanks to him I'm listening to a record Burt Bacharach made with Ronald Isley in 2003. I'd never heard of it before.

Andrew Collins won't mind me saying he's a very methodical sort and therefore it's not surprising to find his music blog aims to pick "the 143 best songs in the world". It's more light-hearted than it sounds.

Finally Paul Burke writes short entries about something that's just happened to him - he saw Paul Weller in the street, he watched a test match, he noted American Independence Day - and comes up with a song it brings to mind.

In the old days of paid work nobody ever asked them to write material like this, which is why we didn't get to read it.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Inconvenient Truth About The Recorded Music Business

While I've been away I see the "Spotify don't pay enough" debate has been re-ignited by Thom Yorke, who even says that if they don't raise their rates "new music producers should be brave and vote with their feet". (Seems to me that would be as effective as League Division Two threatening to walk out on the Premier League. "I'm leaving home, mum. I say I'm leaving home.")

This has attracted a "grow up" post from Tim Worstall at Forbes, which finishes by saying that if you're not making enough money on Spotify that may be because not enough people like you, and a similarly robust slap from music industry controversialist Bob Lefsetz who offers this piece of advice from marketing boffin Seth Godin:
"Send your stuff to ten friends. And if they don't tell others, if nothing happens, the problem is you."
Here's the inconvenient truth about the music business. It used to be you could only get music by buying it in units of 12 songs, only two of which you really liked. Bands did very well out of that system. Now that the album's unbundled you can buy the albums you truly love (which is why Adele sells in such huge quantities), buy the single-track downloads that reflect the moment (which is why sales of the big singles are as big as ever) and then taste and try a couple of songs from scores of other albums, most of which don't impress you enough to persuade you to buy the whole album.

If you think the gatekeepers of the music industry aren't fair then take it up with the general public. They're even less fair than the man with the big cigar.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

No books programme on the TV. Am I bothered?

Sky Arts are dropping their books programme. As you'd expect, the book trade isn't happy. Book PRs wonder where they're going to get their new publications reviewed. Novelists, who all look like librarians, wonder how they're going to get famous. Tweeters tweet.

I used to watch Read All About It when Melvyn Bragg fronted it. That was 1977 and books, often quite serious ones, were suddenly being marketed in the way that albums had been and their authors were being encouraged to style themselves like rock stars. It must have been quite rigorous. I was just listening to an old exchange between Martin Amis and John Pilger on the programme. It achieved Newsnight-levels of testiness.

I haven't watched a book programme in years. I've never read more books, never bought more books and probably never read more reviews of books, but I don't have the patience to watch a bunch of authors being interviewed or some critics comparing notes. What information or opinion value such programmes may once have had I can now obtain somewhere else.

(In fact I no longer watch the kind of TV that features people discussing things at all. I've realised in the last couple of weeks how little TV I watch when I've been introduced to a couple of people who were, to judge from other people's reactions, quite famous. It's not entirely true to say I had no idea who they were but an idea was all I had. I'd never seen them.)

We'll probably get by without a books programme on the TV. We managed without Barry Norman's film programme. It's apparently still on but presented by somebody else. 

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The promoter's prerogative

I've spent my gig-going life standing around thinking "why don't they get on with it?" and so it's good to be in a position to do something about it. Last night at the Duckworth Lewis show at Lord's we found ourselves ready to start the second half earlier than anticipated. It was the same at the Daniel Tashian show the week before.

As one of the promoters I was able to say "let's get started then". That way the band aren't racing against the clock to fit their set in, the audience aren't hanging around bored, they don't have to race for the tubes at the end and the band and crew either get to see more of their hotel beds or make tracks to the next show. Everybody looked at me with that expression that says "can we really do that then?"

It could be that the best things happen late at night but since I'm unlikely to be awake to experience them I don't much care.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Stanley's has gone - have my old home movies gone with it?

Stanley's in Wardour Street went into liquidation last week.

It was one of those places in the heart of London's film district that you didn't take much notice of unless you were in the business. I went there a year ago on the advice of a friend in television. I needed to get some old VHS-C tapes transferred to DVD. He said, Stanley's is the place. They did it without batting an eyelid. They obviously had every kind of machine in the back and could transfer from any format to any other format. It wasn't cheap but it was done and I was thrilled.

And now they've gone, driven out of business by the expense of replacing and maintaining the machinery and the steady march of digital. Great pity. Now looking at my drawer-full of old tapes of the kids as toddlers makes me really melancholy.

That's why they're playing the game

The British and Irish Lions won the test series against Australia without captain Sam Warburton, genius Brian O'Driscoll or second row stalwart Paul O'Connell. The player that the coach singled out as his man of the match was Alex Corbisiero (left), who wasn't even picked in the original squad and had to join them halfway through from an England tour of Argentina.

Reminds me of the one about Danny Blanchflower's short-lived career as a football pundit. Following a discussion of the players' qualities he was asked to predict who was going to win. "Oh, I don't know that," he said. "That's why they're playing the game."

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Why MPs really should lay off rock

In The Independent MP Karen Buck contributes to a list of the most overrated bands of the 60s. As follows:
5. Fairport Convention "Liege and Leaf got five stars but no one actually played it. Or if they did, they were too stoned to remember." Karen Buck, Labour MP.
I know the MP hasn't been born who can resist expressing an opinion about music but you would have thought that if she actually had heard the record she would know:

  1. How to spell the record's name;
  2. "Liege And Lief" didn't get five stars because in those days star ratings were unknown;
  3. Fairport fans were never particularly big stoners, tending to prefer woolly ale;
  4. It came out a few weeks before 1970 so it's barely a 60s record at all;
  5. It was and remains one of the most-played records of its era.
Apart from that, all correct.

The reverse spin of Michael Franks

Danny Baker told me to listen to Time Together by Michael Franks. I've got some of Franks's albums but not this one. There's a song here called "Charlie Chan In Egypt". It's gentle, like all his songs, but with a sting in the lyrics. "These kids we're sending out to quote defend our nation," he sings. I prefer the effect of that word "quote" to the windy rhetoric of most protest songs. It seems to be a perfect rejoinder to political spin. Reverse spin, you might call it. You can listen to it below.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Australia 16 Lions 41 - the score isn't the only number that's changed

I was lucky enough to be there the last time the British and Irish Lions played Australia (or, as it said on the ticket "The Vodafone Wallabies") in Sydney. We lost on that occasion but we had fun in that throng of people from these islands belting out "Cwm Rhondda", "Danny Boy" and "Swing Low Sweet Chariot". The Australians don't seem to go in for the kind of singing that's such an important part of sport in northern Europe.

We went to the stadium by boat, which was different. On the way back, by bus this time, the Lions fans were understandably subdued. Then somebody struck up, to the tune of "She'll Be Coming Round The Mountain", the jubilant refrain "we get three Aussie dollars to the pound, we get three Aussie dollars to the pound".

That was in 2001, before events. I'm sure the Lions fans are having a high old time in Sydney tonight but they won't be singing that old song. For a start A$1.64 refuses to scan.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Genius is in the details. Mass media has no time for details. Could be why it's losing.

I met a bloke about five years ago who was a TV producer with an interest in music. He said something which made an impression. "All the macro stuff's done. The future is micro, if only you could find a way to pay for it."

There were a couple of moments in last night's Quiet Word evening, which we put on at the Slaughtered Lamb with Daniel Tashian (right, above) of the Silver Seas and author/magazine editor Dylan Jones, when I saw what he meant.

When I was interviewing Daniel he said that the big change he went through between his first solo album in 1996 and the first Silver Seas album was his discovery of the major seventh. He played a few chords with a major seventh to demonstrate. That, he said, is in all my songs. Once the major seventh is there it doesn't matter what you're singing about, the world ain't so bad.

This is the kind of tiny but hugely telling detail 99% of so-called music journalism passes over because it's difficult to communicate it on the page. Music broadcasting doesn't even notice it. This refusal to deal with the micro story is an issue way beyond the tiny world of music magazines.

Editors and producers want a big story that's already been told which they can put their own spin on. They don't have much patience with things that don't hit you over the head. Yet Daniel talking about the major seventh and playing it in front of an audience of dedicated fans in a cellar in Clerkenwell does more to communicate what makes the Silver Seas's new album Alaska so great than any amount of overheated prose in the papers or intemperate ravings on the airwaves. It's the tiny detail which suffuses everything they do.

Genius is in the details. I was talking to Dylan about his book The Eighties: One Day, One Decade, which is centred on Live Aid. The centre of Live Aid was Queen's performance. The centre of that was the crowd's choreographed hand clapping during "Radio Gaga". Those handclaps weren't on the original recording. They were put there at the behest of video director David Mallet because they fitted with the image in the promo clip. How about that? Live Aid became a great TV show because the audience spontaneously imitated an action which had been put on the record to reflect a video image.

I'm fascinated by things like that. The problem is mass media doesn't have time for small stories, which is one of the reasons it's losing out to the internet and the personal appearance. I told the audience last night that what we're trying to do with these Word In Your Ear evenings is provide something which combines performance with some of the things music journalism used to provide. In fact they're the kind of things music journalism didn't provide because it had trained itself to believe they were boring.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Live Aid: yes, I remember it well - which is more than can be said for most people

Tomorrow night I'm talking to Dylan Jones about his excellent book The Eighties: One Day, One Decade at our Quiet Word with Daniel Tashian evening at the Slaughtered Lamb in Clerkenwell. Love to see you there if you can make it. Details here.

Dylan's book focuses on Live Aid and he talks to lots of the people involved. I've never watched any of the footage of Live Aid since the day and I haven't read much about it either. I think this makes me almost unique in that I know what I saw and not much more. What's amazing about Live Aid is what people think happened. Dylan provides an example:
 (I hope you can read that. I did it with my Genius scan on my phone.)

Anyway, Dylan interviews Harvey Goldsmith for the book, who explains that the reason Springsteen didn't stay for Live Aid is his daughter was just beginning to compete as a showjumper and he didn't want to miss her first competition. The only thing wrong with that is that Springsteen's only daughter wasn't born until 1991.

If you're coming along tomorrow night I might explain why I didn't write the official memoir of one of the event's key protagonists. If people so close to the action can mis-remember on that scale it's not surprising that every cab driver in the world remains convinced that Bob Geldof said "give us your fucking money".

Two fingers good, one finger rather pretentious

Car A overtakes car B on the inside this morning. The driver of car B honks. The driver of car A, male, 20s, extends an arm out of the window and gives the middle finger. The driver of car B, female, 40s, gives him the traditional British two fingers in return.

I don't know why we bother borrowing American forms of abuse when our own culture is such a rich storehouse of disrespect. That single finger seems so pretentious somehow, like a DJ with a phoney American accent.