Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Eric Morecambe grabbed Andre Previn's lapels for a good reason

My daughter bought me The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase for Christmas. It's by Mark Forsyth. He's proud to call himself a pedant and blogs about his interests here.

Forsyth's book explains how the secret of effective communication is an understanding of the techniques that underpinned Greek and Roman rhetoric. This applies to the making of speeches, the fashioning of slogans and even the writing of pop songs. When Ian Fleming's character says "My name is Bond. James Bond" he's using diacope. When Mick Jagger sings "she blew my nose and then she blew my mind" he's employing syllepsis. Churchill said that all he had to offer was "blood, toil, tears and sweat" but his audience's ears were so primed for the tricolon they deleted the word toil and rearranged the sweat and the tears.

It's a witty little book. The funny thing is it will mainly be read by people who understand its lessons already. That doesn't mean that they know what hendiadys is exactly but they do understand that Shakespeare's "sound and fury" is way more powerful than "furious sound" could ever have been. How do they know this? Nobody ever taught them. It's just that people who spend a lot of time playing with words develop an ear for sentences that amount to more than simply the sum of the words involved.

Like most people who write about music from to time I often wonder how I can have a serviceable ear for organising words while having none at all for organising music. I'm not completely musically illiterate. I can read music. I even know a few chords on the guitar but it doesn't matter how long I spend noodling away I can never come up with anything which sounds like a musical idea worth revisiting. That may be because I haven't played three notes that were worth repeating. It's more likely to be because I wouldn't recognise them even if I did. Learning to write effectively, much as learning to speak effectively, is first of all a question of recognising patterns. With words I can see those patterns from miles away. With music I can't.

When Eric Morecambe grabs Andre Previn's lapels and insists he's playing the right notes but not necessarily in the right order, I laugh like everyone else laughs. It's a good joke. At the same time I can't help thinking he's making a serious point. The order is the only thing that matters.

Friday, December 20, 2013

What the world needs is Wikipedia TV

I’ve been watching ITV’s Lucan and the BBC’s The Great Train Robbery. They’re both fictionalised versions of real crimes that took place in Britain within living memory, though not, in all probability, within the memory of the people who made them.

From the two programmes we learn a few things. One magnificent actor, Rory Kinnear as Lucan and Jim Broadbent as Superintendent Tommy Butler, can’t help but make the rest of the cast look as though they’re, well, acting. All TV directors wish they had directed Mad Men and will grab any chance to do scenes featuring lounge singers, cocktails and cigarettes. Efforts the writers make to point out the prejudices of a bygone age will mainly reflect the prejudices of the present. We turn fact into fiction by giving it an ending which real life doesn’t provide.

Both dramas sent me back to the facts of the original cases. I remember them both happening. We were on holiday in north Wales in 1963. When Dad wanted to get us out of his hair he would tell us to keep digging in the sand until we found some of the mail train loot. I was working in HMV in 1973. One of my colleagues was the son of one of the senior Lucan detectives.

Neither story is the same as it was back then. Accounts change. People die. New details come out. New theories arise and are rebutted. I’m always interested in what happened to the offspring of the key people. Bruce Reynolds’ son is a member of Alabama 3, whose theme for The Sopranos will have made him more money than his father managed to retain from the train. One of Lucan’s daughters is now a barrister.

The best place to keep track of all this is Wikipedia. People say “you don’t trust Wikipedia, do you?”. I’d say it’s no more or less imperfect than any of the traditional history resources. And the stories it tells are, thanks to its open nature, never-ending. At a stroke this makes them less like stories and more like the truth.

What I’d really like to see is Wikipedia TV. I’d watch that.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Hims Ancient And Modern

"They were made of that sombre, youthful stuff, rich in ideals but poor in experience, that modern terrorist movements feed upon."
That's not somebody in the papers summing up the two murderers of Lee Rigby, who were convicted today. It's Christopher Clark, author of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. He's describing the teenagers who killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo a hundred years ago.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A film unimaginable without Miles

Went to a screening of Lift To The Scaffold (Ascenseur pour L'├ęchafaud) and it was sensational. The BFI are screening it in February. When they do, bunk off for the afternoon and see it.

It was made by Louis Malle in 1958 when he was 24. It's about a man who murders his lover's husband and gets trapped in the lift of the building over the weekend while a couple of tearaways go joyriding in his car and commit a crime of their own.

It struck me how some aspects of daily life in the Paris of that time might seem as puzzling as historical fiction to modern audiences. A nightwatchman clocks into the building during the night to check the premises. The killing is masked by the sound of an electric pencil sharpener. The newspaper which shows the murderer's picture is set in hot metal. The tearaways spend the night in a motel where you slept right next to your much-prized car. The girl lives in the 15th arrondissement in what the characters familiarly refer to as a "maid's room". And I suppose the over-arching question that any 18-year-old might ask is - how could you possibly not be able to get in touch with someone for twelve hours? 

The picture above shows the film's star Jeanne Moreau with Miles Davis, who improvised the soundtrack in one overnight session in Paris after having seen the film just twice. It's now pretty much unimaginable without him as you can see in this short clip.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Las Vegas? I'm just not that kind of guy

Went to a preview of Last Vegas last night. I'm not quite as old as its lead actors but I'm part of the demographic it's aimed at. As the entertainment business starts to realise that very soon most of the population will be over fifty it's belatedly responding with dramas thick with jokes about Viagra, old eight-track cartridges and the number of trips to the bathroom it takes to get through the average night.

This one's about four childhood friends who are still bosom buddies almost sixty years later and go to Las Vegas for a stag weekend prior to the wedding of one of them to his 32-year old cupcake. This isn't the Vegas of Sammy and Dean. It's the modern Las Vegas, where clubbing is more profitable than gambling and if you're prepared to go into a year's worth of debt you can pretend you're 50 Cent for a few hours. Thanks to a win at the tables our four geezers get to behave like the characters in The Hangover: their suite is comped and next thing you know they've got a hundred Maxim girls twerking round its indoor swimming pools.

I had a comfy chair in a preview theatre so I quite enjoyed it. It was best when Mary Steenburgen appeared as the only prom fresh lounge singer in town. "Are you good in bed?" "I don't remember." That kind of thing.

Couldn't help thinking while watching it how far and fast my oldest male friends would run to get away from the prospect of an actual weekend in Vegas. Their idea of perfect escape is to idle away a winter afternoon in a French restaurant far below the pavements of Soho, to mooch muddily around some war graves in Flanders, to watch any half-organised sporting encounter or - and this really remains the all-weather favourite - to sit around amusing each other by talking absolute bollocks.

As Jerry Seinfeld says, "Girls, you want to know what guys are thinking? You really want to know? I'll tell you. (Pause.) Nothing."

Monday, December 16, 2013

Stumbled over on Spotify: Jenny Scheinman

I don’t have much time for recommendation engines but I do like This Is My Jam. When you choose a tune it lists the other people who've chosen the same one. Then you can look at what else those people have chosen.

This is how I came to hear Jenny Scheinman. She’s best known for playing violin with people like Bill Frisell and arranging for people like Lucinda Williams, but I’ve been playing this 2008 solo album a lot over the last week. Her other records are mainly instrumental, but this one’s vocal. She’s got a proper voice, which doesn’t sound as glib and used as it might do if she vocalised for a living. She favours tunes in a folk/blues idiom like “I Was Young When I Left Home” and "Miss Collins" which is based on "Louis Collins" by Mississsippi John Hurt.

The record gets better towards the end, which is always a good sign, with “The Green”, which is the (presumably true) story of the singer’s aunt who just up and disappeared one day; an attractively rackety version of The Platters’ “Twilight Time”, her own “Skinny Man”, which owes something to Lucinda Williams and has got just the same catchy slur, and finally her versions of "Johnsburg, Illinois" by Tom Waits. I like it a lot. If I see a copy I'll buy it.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The view from seat J31 at Mark Lewisohn's first (and last?) Pepper lecture

Before he delivered his hour-long presentation about Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band tonight Mark Lewisohn told me it had taken him three weeks to prepare.

A lot of that must have gone into organising the studio out-takes, rare photographs, old TV clips and newspaper cuts with which it was illustrated. It's a lot of work to put into something which he was delivering for free for the benefit of Pepper, a charity which raises money for the home care of seriously ill children in the Chilterns, where he lives.

If he did it again it would have to come out of time he really ought to be spending on the second volume of his mammoth Beatles trilogy. From what I could gather this will start in 1962, where the first volume finishes, and go up to Sgt Pepper. He hasn't started writing it yet and he has lots more research to do so it looks as if it'll be seven years before it's published.

He started his lecture with a whizz-through their albums. Just standing there and revealing one sleeve at a time is a reminder that never gets old of just how much they did - and how much they changed - in such a short period of time. As he pointed out, they gave up playing live just four years after they were first filmed by Granada TV at the Cavern.

His Pepper lecture makes many points. These are a few of them.

  • It's John and Paul's record. You can hear that in the nearness of their harmonies and the magical interplay which is "Day In The Life". 
  • It's not so much psychedelic as English and not so much futuristic as deeply nostalgic. 
  • The idea of Pepper's band was probably Mal Evans'. It was initially "Doctor Pepper" but that was changed for obvious reasons. 
  • You simply can never ignore the extraordinary role that chance plays in the story of the Beatles. On Pepper it's exemplified by the story of Melanie Coe, whose real-life flit inspired the song "She's Leaving Home". As you'll find out if you search her name on You Tube, she and Paul had met before.

Friday, December 13, 2013

All albums should be surprise albums

Glad to see Beyonce has put out a new album on iTunes only. It's said to be "a surprise album".

All albums used to be surprise albums. In the 60s long players would just appear in the window of your local record shop. That's how I first saw Sgt Pepper. The first I saw of the new Bob Dylan or Rolling Stones sleeve wasn't on an advert in the NME. It was in my own High Street. You can probably imagine how thrilling that was.

By the time we'd reached the 90s the softening up process, the teaser campaign, the carefully choreographed series of "exclusives", had been developed into a fine art and the relationship between the music business and the media was so incestuous that you tired of hearing about the damned albums by the time they came out. I was always bothered about the idea of the BBC, particularly, playing records for months before we poor saps out there in radioland got the chance to buy them. Of course they always made sure to tell us when we would be able to buy them. Some people might call that advertising. In the case of the "U2=BBC" campaign of 2009 even the BBC thought it had gone too far. Afterwards.

Surprise albums are better in every respect. We'll be the ones to decide how nice a surprise they are. That way the media can get back to doing what they used to do, which was reflect public enthusiasm rather than trying to mould it.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Shut up. You're not really cross

The Danish Prime Minister's selfie at the Nelson Mandela funeral rally occasioned this week's outbreak of the 21st century disease - fake indignation.

Jeeves might have raised an eyebrow at this apparent breach of form but it really is no reason for newspapers, columnists and phone-in shows to pretend to be mortally offended - not for themselves, you understand, but on behalf of some unspecified group of people who apparently can't speak for themselves.

It's a binary world. People only stop being cross long enough to gush. Most of the things they're responding to don't warrant either.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

What kind of world is it where Bob Dylan wears a tie and the weatherman doesn't?

The same day Tie Rack announced it was going into administration I went to see Bob Dylan at the Albert Hall. He was wearing a tie.

A few nights later I saw Dream Themes, Rhodri Marsden’s TV theme-tune band. They were all wearing ties. Even the guitarist, who threw himself to the ground during an emotionally wrenching version of the Panorama theme, was wearing one.

It’s funny that rock bands, who used to pride themselves on being morally above wearing ties, should now adopt them as a working uniform. There have been memorable rock ties. There was Bryan Ferry’s GI tie, which he would tuck into his shirt. Around the same time Bill Nelson had a nice line in bulky Rodney Bewes-style kippers. One of the things that made Doctor Feelgood stand out from other pub rock bands was they wore ties.

The wearing of a rock tie does two things: it helps distinguish the members of the band from the members of the audience and also makes them look as if they're going to work, like the gang at the beginning of Reservoir Dogs.

It's funny that this should happen just as ties are falling out of use in the real workplace. I don't have anything against informality.I simply feel that if you wear a suit without a tie, or without a collar that can said to be properly resolved, you look unfinished. That surely wasn't what you had in mind when you bought the suit.

At the end of last night's BBC news they had two weathermen, one wearing a tie and one not. I know which one I paid attention to.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Was ever a sitcom so funny for so long as Frasier?

I found a cache of complete episodes of Frasier on You Tube. Once I start I can't stop. One's too many and a hundred aren't enough. It gives new pleasure every time. A load of new things struck me this time around.

  • In every respect but their sexual orientation and the fact they're brothers, Frasier and Niles are a gay couple.
  • For all its fine talk British comedy has never come up with anything half as sophisticated as Frasier.
  • I think it was Andrew Collins who told me that in situation comedy character serves plot whereas in literature plot serves character. That's true. Once you've bought the idea of Daphne acting as the saucy maid you're prepared to overlook the fact that she's introduced as "Dad's physical therapist". 
  • The depiction of radio is ludicrous but you forgive it.
  • The set was said to be the most expensive in television. It was worth it.
  • Of course the script's good but what makes it brilliant is the acting. It's the energy and the precision of the business - a great deal of which, particularly in Niles's case, is physical - that makes it sing. The cast is even secure enough to let occasional guest turns like Bebe Neuwirth as Frasier's ex Lillith and Harriet Sansom Harris as his satanic agent Bebe Glazer (above) steal the show. ("Don't look her in the eyes, Roz!")

They did 11 seasons. That's a total of 264 episodes. It wasn't as funny at the end as it was in its purple patch but it was still funnier than most. Amazing.

Monday, December 02, 2013

A great record the out of touch are digging

The Mcgarrigle Hour's one of my favourite records. It came out in 1998. The idea was to reunite some of the team who made that first McGarrigle sisters record in 1975 (that's Kate and Anna plus producer Joe Boyd and engineer John Wood) and add musicians from the next generation of their family, such as Rufus and Martha Wainwright, and finally to conjure some of the spirit of the family musical evenings the sisters knew when they were young.

The songs range from familiar originals like Loudon Wainwright's "Schooldays" and Anna's "Cool Cool River" through their mother's parlour party piece "Alice Blue Gown" and "Baltimore Fire", the traditional song Kate and Anna used to sing on the Portobello Road in 1971, to Martha's perfect version of Cole Porter's "Allez-Vous En".

It ought to be precious. It isn't. All the songs pack some surprise. Great songs are always surprising. The most pleasant surprise of all is the power of family harmony, even when that's previously been confined to the recording studio or the concert stage. As Jane McGarrigle says in the sleeve notes, when Kate, Loudon, Rufus and Martha sing Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do", they've "never sat down to a Christmas turkey together, let along sung a song". Nevertheless, as she says "they come together as natural as breathing". And they do.

I pulled it out today. It's drinking well on these cold winter afternoons. When people ask me what new music I'm listening to I go blank. If it helps you could pretend this is new. After all, as Harry Truman said, "the only new thing in the world is the history you don't know".