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.