Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Was this the greatest hot streak in the history of pop?

Been thinking about what Ray Davies said when I interviewed him last night at the Stratford Upon Avon Literary Festival, about how he wrote all those great Kinks songs in the sixties to order.

They needed a new hit single every three months and he was the one who supplied them: You Really Got Me, All Day And All Of The Night, Tired Of Waiting For You, Everybody's Gonna Be Happy, Set Me Free, See My Friends, Till The End Of The Day, Dedicated Follower Of Fashion, Sunny Afternoon, Dandy, Dead End Street, Waterloo Sunset, Autumn Almanac and Days.

That's fourteen smash hits in four years. Mark Ellen's fond of describing it as the greatest hot streak in the history of pop. Even more amazing when you consider they were all written and sung by one person. That's what you call pressure. Pressure appears to be every bit as effective as inspiration.

There's one further single which sometimes gets forgotten in that sequence and it was raised by somebody in the audience last night. Wonderboy came out at the beginning of 1968 and stalled at number thirty-six, which was disappointing by Kinks' standards.

Davies draws comfort from the fact that somebody told him that John Lennon loved it, demanding it was played three times in a row by a DJ in a club because he liked the middle eight so much. That may be an apocryphal tale but if it was my song I too would do my best to keep it alive.


Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Pearlfishers and the cheap music that doesn't sound cheap anymore

There was a time when it was possible to hear how much had been spent on a record. The records with big budgets, those that had been paid for with an advance from major record companies, sounded more polished, deeper, more resonant than the record that had been done in the cheap studio, let alone in the garage. They might not always have been inspired but they were usually more congenial to listen to than their low budget competitors. You knew the difference, much as you might have done if you'd slipped into the passenger seat of an expensive German car immediately after a cheap Japanese one.

Listening to Open Up Your Colouring Book by the Pearlfishers it strikes me you can't make that distinction anymore.

The Pearlfishers' records are the work of David Scott, a writer, musician and lecturer, who made "Up With The Larks", which is one of my favourite records of the last five years. It was the kind of record which sounds like a hit to people who don't have the first idea of what actually makes a record a hit. People like me.

Unlike most music made by indies (if that term still has any meaning) Scott's abjures rough manners, aspiring to polish rather than grit. If you were going to try to plot him on an taste map you might show him in the vicinity of Prefab Sprout and Jim Webb. His music can sound a bit precious, as if it's been inspired by an afternoon visit to an arts cinema rather than real life, but that's the risk involved in reaching for a certain delicacy. Also that might just be a prejudice I've placed there because I know he's a lecturer.

Colouring Book is his new one and, given Scott's circumstances, which are the same as the overwhelming majority of musicians, it seems reasonable to assume it was made on a budget which wouldn't stretch to unlimited studio time, the services of legions of session musicians, the input of top mixers and mastering engineers flown in from America in order to increase the chances of radio play.

In 2014 major record companies still spend sums of money they don't have to spend because they can't bear to think they left anything un-done. But the truth is that nowadays anybody can layer backing vocals, get instruments in tune, edit precisely, erase tracks that aren't working and add some strings; you don't need to have Universal paying the bills.

I'm guessing Open Up Your Colouring Book was a fairly cheap record to make. But here's the thing. It doesn't sound like one. I think you might like it. If you don't, I'll buy it off you.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

No good expecting us English to beg the Scots to stay - let's make them a mixtape

I don't want Scotland to leave the union but I can see it happening. If it does you'll be able to blame England's twin traditions of superiority and reticence. Taken together these two qualities makes us incapable of pleading with anyone to stay, in any situation, ever. I'm profoundly English. This manifests itself in the fact that I would never want anyone to spend time in my company who didn't want to. I'd hate anyone to come to one of my parties (if I had parties) out of a sense of obligation. The thought of it makes my English soul shrivel. The expression "if that's the way you feel" comes to my lips all too readily. The accompanying shrug comes just as naturally to my shoulders.

There appear to be initiatives to encourage Englishers to band together to persuade the Scots not to do it. I can't see any of them getting much in the way of a following. The English are not going to campaign to persuade somebody else to do something. They're not going to make passionate declarations of their belief in the Union or their respect for the Scots. The English don't go in for big, public gestures. Instead I propose that we choose a Scottish friend who is thinking of voting "yes" and do what the English always do when called upon to express something too deep for words. Make them a mixtape.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

You don't have to get sucked into the Fake Rarity Roadshow

Unhappy with the way his limited edition records were on sale on eBay before National Record Store Day 2014 was even over, Paul Weller says he won't be taking part in future. In his statement he contrasts "greedy touts" with "genuine fans". 

Fair enough, if that's what he wants to do, but surely the simple act of producing an edition of a record for which the demand is bound to exceed the supply guarantees this kind of thing is going to happen. If you make something rare you increase the value of it and somebody is bound to try to realise that value.

When he refers to "greedy touts" I suppose we're meant to conjure up visions of fat blokes in knock-off Burberry smoking five cigarettes while peeling off fifties from a bundle big enough to choke a donkey.

When he refers to "genuine fans" we're supposed to picture Tiny Tim lookalikes pressing their noses against record shop windows while clutching their carefully pinched pennies in their hands.

I'm not sure I buy any of this. I don't believe there's any way of judging the "genuineness" of fans. What does that mean? Length of service? Degree of disengagement from normal society? Age? Wealth?

Plus I suspect some of these "greedy touts" are also the "genuine fans". They're doing a bit of the former in order to subsidise some of the latter.

There's only one way to avoid being exploited in the Fake Rarity Roadshow. Don't take part. Pass by on the other side. Go and do something else. There are plenty of other ways to support your local record shop. That applies whether you're a performer or a genuine fan. Or even a fair-weather fan like me.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The best first album ever made is fifty years old today

It's fifty years this week since the first Rolling Stones album was released.  It's still the best first album ever put out by anyone.

Most of the songs were rhythm and blues favourites, which would have been unfamiliar to their UK audience.  There wasn't much chance of Rufus Thomas's "Walking The Dog" or Jimmy Reed's "Honest I Do" being played on the Light Programme or Radio Luxemburg.

Blues purists, who like to spoil people's fun, said the Stones' versions of Bo Diddley's "Mona" and Chuck Berry's "Oh Carol" weren't as "authentic" as the originals. What they missed or deliberately ignored was the way their hopped up versions of Muddy Waters "I Just Wanna Make Love To You" or Slim Harpo's "I'mA King Bee" suddenly turned this middle-aged braggadocio into what the MC5 later called teenage lust.

It was the first great party album of the sixties. You simply had to put it on the Dansette and you unleashed something elemental into the most staid suburban sitting room.

It was produced by Andrew Loog Oldham who was making it up as he went along. And recorded in a tiny room on Denmark Street where, as they like to recall, the tape machine was attached to the wall and insulation provided by a bunch of egg cartons. It was, as Keith Richards later recalled, the ideal space in which to make that album and no use at all when it came to making anything else.

That doesn't matter to me. What they produced was perfect. They never made a record with quite the same buzz ever again. To borrow a line from Roy Carr's sleeve notes to a later Stones compilation, don't go looking for a better first album than this. It hasn't been made.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Angel of Records watches over an old head like me

In the early 70s I used to buy records at Harum in Crouch End. It was opposite the church that Dave Stewart later turned into a recording studio. Later on there was another shop round the corner called Spanish Moon after the Little Feat record. Before fame, Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart rented the flat  upstairs.

Harum kept a good cellar and they had a secondhand rack from which I picked up lots of ex-review promos. I've still got a white label of Ry Cooder's "Boomer's Story" I picked up there back in the day. It's possible that they might have also had a copy of Michael Hurley's Armchair Boogie but it would have been just that bit too obscure for even my snobbish Bearsville tastes.

Harum's long gone, along with thousands of similarly-named head shops.  I only recently heard "Armchair Boogie" via the miracle of Spotify. I was drawn to the fact that it came out in in 1971, which, as any fule no, was the annus mirabilis of the rock album.

Then, on the advice of Ian Penman, I took my amp to be fixed at Audio Gold, a shop dealing in vintage hifi not all that far from the old Harum. When I went to pick it up I saw on the counter a little rack containing half a dozen copies of "Armchair Boogie", which has been lovingly and no doubt unprofitably reissued  in a de luxe CD version by Light In The Attic Records (above). It cost me twelve quid but since the Angel of Records had gone to such trouble to place it in my path it seemed churlish to refuse.

I'm listening to it now. You know there's an Angel of Records who makes sure you get to hear everything you're supposed to hear. I really believe that.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Richard Hoggart's Lost City of Leeds

Today they announced the death of Richard Hoggart. He was ninety-six.  Hoggart was an academic who made a big splash in 1957 with the publication of The Uses of Literacy. In it he called upon his memories of growing up very poor in Leeds in the period between the wars.

When I was in the sixth form our English teacher recommended it because at the time there weren't any books dealing with working class life and popular culture, at least none that anyone would wish to read.

I found this copy a couple of years ago and read it again. I find the first half of it still an extraordinary reminder of the world of cobbled streets and back to backs - before TV, cars and the free movement of people changed things forever.

I've just been trying to find the bit where he describes how he used to see men pushing items of furniture across town in old prams. I can just about remember that myself.

Didn't find that but I did find a paragraph where he talks about the old sayings which, as he points out, "cluster most thickly around birth, copulation and death". One, which was apparently used to refer to the easy sexual habits of married women, goes: "A slice off a cut cake is never missed."

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The hack's fear of the word count

I write a regular column about magazines for In Publishing. They're collected here, if you're interested.

Somebody just commented that the last one could have been shorter. Undoubtedly true. Pretty much anything could be shorter.

The reason it's long is it starts life in the magazine and James the editor asks for 1500 words. That way he knows it will fill the space he's set aside for it.

That's the way editors are. "Good idea. Can you do 3,000 words?" They pay you on the same basis. Weight. I suppose in the future the idea of asking for a certain amount of words will seem quaint.

I can write any amount of stuff for this blog because I don't have to. I'm not worried about whether I can produce enough words. If what I'm writing needs to be longer I keep going. If it doesn't I just stop. Like this.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Only New Yorker podcasts can do zis

The reason I bore on a lot about The New Yorker and its podcasts is they do things you simply won't find anywhere in British radio. This one, a  discussion of the books coming out of America's recent wars, involves war reporters George Packer and Dexter Filkins.

It does the thing podcasts do so well: lets people who know whereof they speak to do the talking. It doesn't come in with an editorial view that the journalists are expected to endorse. It wanders as good conversations wander. It has nuance. Not just the nuance of the well recollected detail but also the more valuable nuance of a tone of voice.

They also point out that war correspondents don't properly reflect war because they're always trying to superimpose a narrative on it. Bit like football journalists in that respect.

I seem to be in the most repeated music documentary of our times

A  couple of years ago a TV producer called and asked me to be a talking head on a clip show he was making for BBC-4. The hook was they'd compiled a list of the most lucrative songs in the history of music publishing. Since TV producers don't believe their audience understands the word "lucrative" it ended up being called "The Richest Songs In The World", which is of course ridiculous because a song can't be rich.

When they sent me the list I couldn't see how they'd done their working out. Nobody has an accounting for the full life of a relatively recent song like "Yesterday", let alone "Happy Birthday", and if they did they wouldn't be sharing it with anyone. But in TV the commissioning editor gets what the commissioning editor orders. Therefore I turned up on the appointed day, made my comments on camera, invoiced for the agreed fee - which, believe me, wasn't much - and thought no more about it.

The programme, fronted by Mark Radcliffe, was first shown in December 2012. Then again. Then again. Then people started contacting me saying they'd caught it in the middle of the night on BBC-4. This morning I was looking for something else on the iPlayer and I see that last night they were showing it once more. It must be in double figures by now.

It's obviously one of those programmes that somebody has decided is ideal for just running and running. It's ninety minutes long, hence it uses up plenty of schedule. It's not got anything in it that might make you switch off. It's got "hey, Doris" appeal; most people will be interested to learn "Happy Birthday" is still in copyright. It's not likely to be superseded by subsequent events. They must have made sure that there's nothing in it which qualifies for repeat fees. I certainly don't.

It looks destined to follow me into decrepitude.

Monday, April 07, 2014

"Game Of Thrones" is top of my must-not-watch TV chart

I've never watched "Game Of Thrones". That's nothing special. I've never watched "The Hunger Games" either. Nor "Breaking Bad", "Battlestar Galactica", "The Waking Dead", "Sherlock", "Lost", "True Detective", "Buffy The Vampire Slayer", "Arrested Development" and hundreds of other hot TV series everybody says are great.

And when I say I've never watched them I mean I've never watched so much as ten minutes of any of them. They're not designed for snacking. With this kind of densely-plotted high concept entertainment you can't stop while passing through the room and expect to be brought up to date by somebody sunk deep in the sofa. You're either there for the long haul or you're not there at all.

There are plenty of these shows I hear a bit about and decide to avoid because I suspect they're clever enough to keep me watching but not substantial enough to make me glad I did. And they're so long they can steal half your life away. It's a new category. Must-not-watch TV. If I had a chart of must-not-watch TV "Game Of Thrones" would be at the top of it.

Which is why it's so risky putting a show like that on the cover of a general interest magazine. Shows like this run in narrow channels and don't pique the interest of anyone outside those channels. They're intensely rather than widely popular.

It's not like when J.R. was shot in "Dallas" almost thirty-five years ago. Everybody had some attachment to that storyline. Either they watched it or they had watched enough of it to know which one was J.R. and to have an idea why somebody would wish to shoot him.

Interest in "Dallas" spilled over the sides of the channel which carried it. No longer.

They say it's the golden age of TV. They're probably right. In years to come we'll look back and say "Yes, I remember Game Of Thrones. Never watched it."

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

An open letter to the board of Tottenham Hotspur


Thank you for your patience in waiting so long to hear what I think of the club's current situation. It's only when I'm away on holiday that I have the leisure to turn my thoughts to such a serious matter. This post is being composed while keeping out of the afternoon sun.

You will be relieved to know I am not one of those supporters who believe that football nowadays is run too much like a business. I am more likely to side with those who think it is not run enough like a business.

The Chief Executive Daniel Levy will also be relieved to hear that I do not hold him responsible for the team's lacklustre, inconsistent performance on the field this season. Football is chaos and all narratives are written to justify the score at the end. As William Goldman said about Hollywood, nobody knows anything.

And yet. I suspect that, in seeking to maximise shareholder value, the board hires people experienced in the game, people such as the present Director of Football Signor Baldini. The hiring of such people should ensure that the club's player purchases are more sound than they would have been had they been made after consulting a random selection of supporters in my local. This, in case it helps to know, is the Dog & Duck in Winchmore Hill.

If we are to believe the back pages of the papers last summer Signor Baldini presided over the purchase of a number of players for a combined figure in excess of £80 million, the windfall that came in as a result of the once in a century sale of a genuine superstar. That, as PG Wodehouse would have observed, is a lot of lettuce.

I do not intend to criticise those players individually. I shall simply suggest that even they will have been disappointed at how they have failed individually to adapt to a new league and failed collectively to gel into a proper team. None of those players has enhanced his reputation and increased his value. But I would prefer to focus on what this has done to the balance sheet. The company's finance director must be dismayed at the fact that in less than a year that eighty million pounds of player value has been transformed, by a process of reverse alchemy, into about fifty million pounds. That is worrying for any company.

Here I would like to help. I think it would be unfair to put Signor Baldini under the pressure involved in going out on another buying spree this close-season. It seems only fair to let him have the summer off to recharge his batteries. Yet the work must go on. If you would care to send a list of the club's transfer targets together with their asking prices and an estimate of the funds available, then you will be pleased to hear that I have organised a sub-committee of Dog and Duck patrons who would be happy to do the actual choosing. Our services will cost the club nothing, not least because we have our own pin.

In passing, can you please mention to Signor Baldini that I have a four bedroom house for sale not far from the Dog & Duck? It is worth £25 million. I have a queue of eager buyers.

Yours in Spurs.