Tuesday, February 25, 2014

In praise of Barbra Streisand's "Stoney End"

I'm recording a programme with Johnnie Walker this week and one of the records we're talking about is Barbra Streisand's "Stoney End". Yesterday morning when the sun was out I took a stroll with that one track playing again and again through my headphones. Boy, it's a jewel.

Sometimes proper singers can seem too good for pop music. I'm still haunted by memories of Ella Fitzgerald's baroque versions of Beatles songs. You can see why they do it. They think the songs are a bit beneath them. To my ears Laura Nyro's songs never seem to fly in her own versions.

But Streisand's "Stoney End" is a joy. In 1971 they made a lot of fuss about the fact that the album was produced by Richard Perry and included songs by all the hip young writers. That all helps but it's her genius as a singer that brings home the bacon. She goes into the chorus of "Stoney End" four times. Each time it's more  exhilarating than the time before.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The rugby director's fear of the wide shot

I watched a lot of rugby this weekend.

BT Sport’s coverage of the Aviva Premiership seems pretty good to me. On the other hand I find the BBC’s coverage of the Six Nations Championship increasingly irritating.

I understand that Wales v France in Cardiff and England v Ireland at Twickenham demand to be treated differently than London Irish against Leicester. The former are big national occasions. The latter’s just a sporting encounter.

I understand that you’ve got to go big on the build-up and the pyros and the anthems and the reaction shots. I understand that a lot of people tuning in are more interested in the occasion than the game.

Nonetheless the coverage of the other stuff shouldn’t be at the expense of the action. When you go to a big game you may be a long way from the action but at least you can see where the action is. It’s the single most important piece of information you need. There’s no point having a moody close-up of the scrum if you can’t see whereabouts on the pitch that scrum is taking place and how the two teams are lining up either side of it.

I tweeted about this during the Wales v France game and a TV director friend replied that the traditional watchword is “action is wide, replay is close”. This seems sensible. It wasn’t what the BBC seemed to be providing. When George North scored the first try he was out of shot because they were too busy focussing on the confusion of the French defenders. Later during this game and in the England match the following day the commentator had to tell us which line we were looking at because he knew that the shot was too tight for us to be able to work it out for ourselves. Then there are the penalties. In the post-Wilkinson era TV directors have become so enamoured of the curious rituals of goal kickers that they linger for whole minutes on their close-up of this process and leave us not knowing how difficult it is to score because we can’t see where they are on the pitch.

TV seems to believe that the closer it brings us to the action the more we understand. I don’t think so.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Was "Working Girl" a period film when it was made?

I rarely feel like watching any of the contemporary films in Netflix. I tend to choose TV series or old films. In the second category I watched "Broadcast News" the other day. I liked this in 1987 but now it seems ridiculous that you can have a plot revolving around the dangerous charisma of a man who reads the news. While watching it I estimated I haven't actually seen a news bulletin in five years.

The other thing that's almost more laughable is the fashion. Holly Hunter has shoulder pads which are out of all proportion to her size. And her hair looks as if it's had violence done to it by a drunken stylist.

But "Broadcast News" is nothing, let me tell you, to "Working Girl" (1988). In this Melanie Griffith plays a secretary from Staten Island who grabs her chance to climb the greasy pole of a Wall Street firm. This being a film her progress is clearly indicated by her hairstyles. She starts out needing to enter a room sideways in order to accommodate the same lacquer-spun high-rise headpiece as her friends. She ends up with something neat, manageable and expensive.

I'm trying to think back to 1988 when I first saw this film. Were the fashions worn by Griffith and her friends in the early scenes funny and grotesque then? Watching now it's impossible to see past them.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

All families have a secret but not many have a book in them as good as as Ben Watt's

We never think our parents are entirely real.

We go from depending on them when we’re young to patronising them when we’re teenagers to depending on them again when we have kids of our own and then patronising them all over again when they’re getting properly old. At no stage do they ever quite emerge from our shadow. That’s the way we prefer it.

We also tend to assume that our horizons are broader than theirs and our experiences are somehow deeper and more profound than theirs. This must be particularly the case if you’re any kind of celebrity and have had the experience of being asked what you think and feel about just about everything.

Romany and Tom is Ben Watt’s book about his parents. Mother was an actress turned magazine journalist and rather grand. Father was an underemployed jazz musician and rather Scottish.

It starts in their later years, in retirement flats and care homes, and goes back through their individual stories and on into their strange romance. It’s not a comforting story. It’s got very few “aw, sweet” moments. That’s what I like about it. It’s closely observed, brilliantly written and unsparing in making Romany and Tom real, even at the cost of making them likeable.

I was enthusing to my wife about it, misquoting the old Alan Bennett line about all families having a secret and the secret being that they’re not like other families. I was speculating you could write a book as arresting as this one about any family. She didn’t think you could. Maybe she’s right. I still think all families are equally strange. Most of the time we’re on the inside. When you're on the inside you can't see it. It's afterwards that you see it.

The North isn't a place and Manchester certainly isn't its capital city

Amused by this story of the Yorkshireman who broke out of his prison near Preston because it was full of Lancashire and Liverpool people. It came not long after there had been suggestions that the country should counter the magnetic effect of London by moving the seat of government to Manchester.

As a Yorkshireman who has lived in London far longer than I ever lived in Yorkshire I feel I'm allowed to ask "WTF?"

Why is it always Manchester? Why do metro-centrics in the media-government complex always say Manchester when what they really mean is not London? Why not Peterborough or Norwich or Middlesbrough or Leeds? Or a million other places they never mention because they've never been there?

(You can always tell when letters are made up in magazines because they pretend to come from somebody in a large industrial city in the north. People who live in those places always identify precisely which town, village or suburb they're in. They never mention the metropolis.)

It's always Manchester. Let me tell you, when I was living in Yorkshire Manchester seemed like the dark side of the moon. We hardly ever went to Manchester. We were much more likely to go to London or Scotland.

I may be wrong but I don't get the feeling that people in the north-east felt much better about the BBC on learning it had ostentatiously moved everyone (well, everyone but its senior management and star presenters) from London to Salford. If you're in Barnsley or Derby it seems just as far away. This comes as a shock to metro-centric planners. They think the North is a place and Manchester is its capital city.  Wrong.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The importance of being top

Generally speaking foreign managers working in the Premier League speak better English than the British ones. It's only when they have to put their faith in just one word that you often find them picking the inappropriate one.

After they conceded a late goal to West Brom last night Jose Mourinho accused his team of having a "lack of personality". I think what he meant was lack of character. He was referring to a lack of what the dictionary calls "mental or moral constitution" rather than an absence of individuality.

The adjective I listen for is "important". Managers from overseas always talk about games being "important", players being "important", goals being "important". It's a furrowed brow word whose natural home is the boardroom. British managers, on the other hand, don't use important. Instead they use playground words like "big" and "massive" and, most frequently, "top".

To increase the impact of "top" they double up on it. Pundits and managers now use the expression "top, top player" as if it were a technical term and not just a way of filling a silence.

Friday, February 07, 2014

The love of Harry Nilsson's life

I know Harry Nilsson's records well but I didn't join the dots of his personal life until I saw Who Is Harry Nilsson (and why is everybody talkin' about him?).

The biggest surprise was the third wife, a 19-year-old Irish exchange student called Una he met in an ice cream parlour in New York. He was drunk on brandy. He'd shot his voice. His career was pretty much over. He told her she had the most beautiful eyes he'd ever seen. He wasn't a bad judge.

They got married in a fever. A cocaine fever. First he lost his money. Then he lost his health. And yet, unbelievably, he and Una had six children and were happy. As old friends like Jimmy Webb and Van Dyke Parks attest in the film, he faced his premature end without any rancour. His kids talk about him without any bitterness. Una still has beautiful eyes.

It's Valentine's Day next Friday.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

I couldn't escape the news today, oh boy

We were having our Sunday meal just now when our son, who had been checking his phone, said "Philip Seymour Hoffman has died".

A week ago I was looking at the Melody Maker from July 1971. In the first week of the month they had a news story saying that a rumour has reached them that Jim Morrison has died in Paris. They put it to the record company, who'd denied it. A whole week elapsed before they could confirm, in their next issue, that it was true.

You once had to find the news. Now the news finds you.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Only teenagers envy rock stars' lives

Some music fans reckon they're not interested in the scandal of a musician's personal life. I'm not like that. Only 10% of my interest in Beware of Mr Baker was in what it revealed about the music - Cream was his idea, he invited himself into Blind Faith and nobody had the nerve to say they didn't want him, he earned five million out of that 2005 reunion and spent it.

The other 90% of the appeal is the opportunity to watch a man with a breathtaking lack of interpersonal skills. Baker sits smoking in a La-Z-Boy recliner on his farm in South Africa, moaning about the fact that he's bound to lose the place because he spent all the money that was supposed to see him through to retirement, bitching about most of the musicians who have played a part in his career and refusing to discuss most of his ex-wives.

When you first watch rock documentaries you're young enough and starry-eyed enough to envy everything about the people who star in them.  Because you admire their music everything they say about anything else seems so smart. Forty years later you might envy them their talent, but you no longer envy their lives. Not one little bit.