Saturday, May 31, 2014

It happened one summer

I'm told the annual occasions which sell most books are Christmas and Father's Day.

Makes sense, I suppose. Doesn't matter how much of a book lover mother is, you probably don't buy her a book for Mother's Day.

Father's Day is coming up in a couple of weeks and you can obtain One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson for the price of a pair of socks. I can't see why the recipient wouldn't thank you.

What happened in summer 1927?  Babe Ruth redefined baseball. Charles Lindbergh redefined celebrity. The Mississippi flooded. The Jazz Singer was filmed (with sound). Radio became enormous. TV was invented. Al Capone and the Federal Reserve made the mistake of thinking they could go on forever. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed. Work began on Mount Rushmore. Above all, as Bryson says, the USA, which had up to then been used to all the biggest advances coming from Europe, began to realise it was the most powerful country in the world.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Was there ever a memoir as po-faced as Patti's?

Read the Patti Smith memoir Just Kids, which is candid, well-observed and well-written, as the reviews said, but did any of the reviews point out that it's completely lacking humour?

I don't expect a laugh riot but surely you shouldn't be able to look back at your formative years without either snapping into the foetal position under the duvet out of mortified embarrassment or dealing with the same feeling by having a bit of a rueful laugh at yourself. On the evidence of this book that never ever happened with Patti.

I remember seeing a TV interview with Ken Campbell back in the 70s where he said "anything that isn't in some way funny isn't true". I'd buy that.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

If Led Zeppelin reformed they'd be playing for people who don't "remember" them

Interesting piece by Michael Hann about the chances of Led Zeppelin getting back together again. He think they're slim. I think he's right. Robert Plant doesn't need to risk being called mutton dressed as lamb. It's different for the blokes in the band. They're operating machinery. They're not advancing towards the microphone and singing "you need cooling, I'm not fooling, I'm gonna send you back to schooling'". The singer is the one who's most exposed. Here the line between worship and ridicule is a thin one.

This must be made more difficult by the fact that in rock, unlike in almost every other branch of human endeavour, the audience for what you're doing continues to grow as your ability to do that thing diminishes. It is amazing that all those years after Led Zeppelin gave up you can still write pieces in serious newspapers about them getting back together again. In fact the level of interest in Led Zeppelin is higher now than at any time since they started in 1968. That's not because of anything they've done. It's because of the relentlessly retrospective nature of popular music. Let that be the new law of rock. Most of it's in the past.

Bands may stop but their music stays there in the canon to be taken up and championed by successive waves of fans. The remorseless march of demographics mean that those latter-day fans soon outnumber the originals. If Led Zeppelin reformed and played Wembley Stadium this year I would guess no more than 5% of the people who went would have seen them first time around.  Most of them wouldn't have been born when they broke up. Even a 50 year old fan probably wouldn't have been old enough to have gone to Knebworth in 1979 without a chaperone.

This flies in the face of all the theories about rock - that you live it, that it reflects the moment and when the moment's over people throw it away. All around us is the evidence that they don't. What's more the audience is boosted by millions of people who aren't even aware what that moment was like because they weren't around. It's a truism to point out that people like to hear old music because it reminds them of their youth. What's interesting is that most of the time it's not their youth they're reliving.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Terry Reid and the incurable disease of being a musician

In the sixties everybody thought it was only a matter of time before Terry Reid made it.

He'd left school at fifteen to go on tour with the Rolling Stones. He was managed and produced by Mickie Most, who'd made Donovan and the Animals into hit acts. He could sing, play guitar and was considered the best looking front man around. Others took this quality more seriously than he did. The story goes Jimmy Page wanted him to be the lead singer of Led Zeppelin. Terry decided it wasn't for him and suggested Page should talk to another young singer called Robert Plant. Page asked "what does he look like?" Reid wondered why he asked.

Ever since then he's had to put up with people telling him how unlucky he was. He doesn't see it that way. Funny how we see the people who didn't make it as the victims of cruel misfortune. It's more useful to reflect upon the one in a million stroke of luck accounting for the tiny handful who did.

Terry Reid has his own idea what he wanted to do and a few years later he did it, putting out two albums, "River" and "Seed Of Memory", which, while leaving the charts unbothered, were widely admired. Ahmet Ertegun, who got him out of his contract with Most, paid for the first one, which was produced by Tom Dowd and came out in 1973. When Ahmet heard it he said "you've given me a jazz album". Both records are notable for their grooves rather than songs. Reid's theory was that if you could get the right musicians they would lean together and magic up the loose-limbed, Brazil-inflected music he heard in his head. He was right.

He moved to America in 1971 and has been there ever since. There were a few major label tries but nothing that took. He still plays. He was at the Jazz Cafe on Wednesday with a band of high calibre musicians who were clearly playing for the love of it as much as anything else. Where else would they get the opportunity to play this kind of thing? The voice doesn't have the silvery highs but the people who turn up don't care much about that. That's the funny thing about the expansion of rock cults. More people than ever like to tell everyone how underrated their favourites are, thereby making them no longer underrated.

I talked to him on Thursday at his lawyer's house. Amazingly he's had the same British legal representative since the late sixties. I know what Hunter Thompson said about the music business being "a cruel and shallow money trench" but it's surprising what pockets of sentiment and loyalty you still come across. Rob Dickins, who used to book him in the late sixties when he was a university social sec, signed Reid to Warners in 1991 for an album called "The Driver". Robert Plant is still in touch. Jack White's group The Raconteurs have recorded his "Rich Kid Blues". Admiring young musicians turn up backstage, aware that what he does they can't really do.

I dropped him off at the station in the rain. He was going off to Southend to stay with a friend. He's here for a month but it's not the kind of visit that stretches to a hotel. That's the music business in 2014. More people than ever playing for less money. What sustains live music is not so much the audience's hunger to hear as the musicians' hunger to play.

Talking of which, Alex Gold and I were on the tube yesterday when we bumped into Carl Hunter from the Farm. He joked that the group were getting together for "another of our Saga holidays". They had a few big hits in the early 90s, enough to ensure they still get a few down the bill bookings at festivals. They enjoy it and presumably just about show a profit. In any other business it wouldn't be enough. But this isn't any business.

Alex has just got back from touring Germany with a ukulele orchestra. The musicians were all ages and backgrounds. The oldest one, who used to be Lulu's bassist in the 60s, flew over from Alicante to join them. He passed on to Alex the best definition of being a musician I've ever heard. "It's not a profession," he said. "It's an incurable disease".

Terry Reid's UK dates are here.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Listen to Mark Ellen talk bollocks: on the new Word podcast and live

Obviously it pains me to admit it but this morning  I couldn't get through just a paragraph of the chapter on the Weeley Festival in Mark Ellen's book Rock Stars Stole My Life!: A Big Bad Love Affair with Music without entirely losing my composure.

You can hear what ensued if you listen to the new Word Podcast that we recorded this morning Chez Fraser (above).

We're putting on a special Word In Your Ear evening at the Deaf Institute in Manchester tomorrow. There I'll be talking to Mark about his book and to Stuart Maconie about his new one The People's Songs: The Story of Modern Britain in 50 Records. If you're quick you might be able to score a ticket here.  Hope to see you there if you're within reach of Manchester.

Mark and I are talking at Word In Your Ear events in London on May 12th and 19th but I'm afraid both of those are already sold out.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Remembering Ray Gosling

If you're near a radio tomorrow night you might listen to "Sum Total", a Radio Four Archive Hour programme about Ray Gosling. It's presented by Mark Hodkinson, who used to write things for The Word and also published some of Gosling's writing.

Gosling died in 2013 in rather reduced circumstances both materially and professionally but in the 70s and 80s he was one of the most distinctive voices in broadcasting.  He was, as Mark says, "a complicated man with his life divided into different compartments". Gay when the term was unknown. A lot of a drinker. Fiercely working class but sent for ballet and elocution lessons as a child. Maybe the latter took, maybe they didn't. He never lost his wheedling Midlands tone.

His personal touch made him a brilliant interviewer. Somebody in the programme calls it "deceptive diffidence". There's a clip from an interview with Barbara Castle which illustrates how his willingness to allow himself to look foolish often conjured tiny slivers of interpersonal gold.

Worth hearing.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Aren't hand-written lyrics as reliable as fragments of the true cross?

Obviously Sotheby's wouldn't be lending their good name to the sale of the original hand-written lyrics for "Like A Rolling Stone" if they hadn't checked the provenance. They apparently come from somebody in California who was given them by Dylan many years ago and is now looking to cash in. The auction is on June 24th if you're interested. They expect it to fetch half a million dollars.

Just imagine for a second you're a sixties legend and somebody asks if you've got the original piece of paper where you first scribbled the words to your legendary hit. I'd be tempted to say nothing for a few months and then say "you'll never guess what fluttered out of an old book the other day - there it is on the actual hotel stationery with authentic Maxwell House coffee mug mark in the corner. What about that then? Do you think it's worth anything?"

Rock heirlooms seem to multiply according to demand. When I spent some time filming in Memphis many years ago I found that there were as many original recording consoles on which Booker T & The MGs allegedly recorded "Green Onions" as you might find fragments of the true cross in a Tuscan hill town.

Wouldn't mind betting a lot of hit songs never had the words written down properly, not in a form that you or I could read. In the days of Smash Hits you'd often negotiate a fee with the publishers to reproduce the lyrics and then find that they expected you to get the words from the record because they didn't have an official copy of them.

I was amused to see that when they asked McCartney to contribute a hand-written lyric to a charity auction in 2010 he came up with this.