Sunday, June 29, 2014

Mis-remembering Bobby Womack

It's good that BBC TV News acknowledge the deaths of artists like Bobby Womack but I'm increasingly irritated by the way they feel they have to misrepresent history in order to justify doing it.

He had hits with "It's All Over Now" and "Across 110th Street", they said. Well, of course, it's the Rolling Stones who had the hit with the first song and when "Across 110th Street" came out in 1972 it got to number 19 in the black singles chart in the USA, which even in those days was hardly a smash. It was only in 1997 when Quentin Tarantino put it on the soundtrack of Jackie Brown that it came to wider attention, or at least to the attention of those people who end up putting together news bulletins in 2014.

The bulletin went on to say that he'd played Glastonbury a while back in front of an audience including everyone from small children to grandparents. The implication was that Bobby had drawn all those people there, which I don't think he would have claimed. Then there was a brief interview with an old bloke in this year's crowd who remembered seeing him and said he liked him because he was, well, old.

I suppose people like Womack are a problem for the news machine. Not obscure enough to be regarded as underrated (indeed he was always being talked up by people like Keith Richards) and not famous enough to able to depend on the people at home having actually heard of him.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Pythons and privilege

Finished The Python Years: Diaries 1969-1979 by Michael Palin. Really interesting. You get the impression Cleese was living beyond his means from early on and that Idle always saw himself as a member of the jet set, which probably helps explain this year's reunion. These people have lifestyles that have to be maintained.

But even modest Michael doesn't really appreciate how privileged he is; or if he does he doesn't let on. In 1979 he's asked to open a fete at the local boys secondary school. He does it in the hope that his own boys will be able to get in to the school when they're old enough. Don't think that was ever in doubt. If you're famous enough to open the fete, you're famous enough to open lots of other doors. It's the kind of power celebrities prefer to play down.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Premier League and England. It's a lose-lose situation.

England's top footballers won't get any better until they play overseas.

That means that some overseas team has to want to buy them. Since our top players are over-priced they don't.

The English players also have to want to go overseas. Since our top players are frightened of abroad, they don't.

Most of the overseas players who play in the UK are better for the experience. They're exposed to a different way of doing things. They improve their language skills. They get out of their comfort zone. They meet and mix with players from all over the world.

Meanwhile the Premier League is doubly bad for the England team. The amount of money washing about in it ensures that our best players never go overseas to get better while guaranteeing that the best overseas players come here to get better.

It's a lose-lose.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Graeme Swann is commentary gold

I've enjoyed listening to Graeme Swann on Test Match Special over the last few days.

For the benefit of those who neither know nor care about sport or cricket, Graeme Swann was a spin bowler who was one of England's few world-class players until time caught up with him and his body broke down during this winter's nightmare tour of Australia.

Swann's a really good talker. Not an intellectual but an easy conversationalist, a talented mimic and smart enough to be able to convey the nuances of what it's like out there in the middle.

During his stints at the microphone over the last few days the professional commentators have taken every opportunity to tap into his recent experience of being in the team to get him to talk about what he thought would be going on in the dressing room or out in the middle at various points in the contest. It's been fascinating.

From the fragments that emerged you could assemble an impression of a modern professional sporting outfit, an impression that you could probably apply to the England football, rugby or hockey team.

It's a set-up in which a majority of senior players have their place by a kind of divine right, a handful of young players are trying to claw their way to the same position and there's a tacit agreement that highly developed "banter" has taken the place of actually talking about the job.

Throughout the match summariser Geoff Boycott kept pointing out that England's top bowler Jimmy Anderson was bowling a length which was inappropriate for the ground. Swann was forced to agree but said that in Jimmy's head he was doing the right thing.

This was really interesting. That's the thing they say about sporting performance. You have to concentrate without thinking. Thinking might mean looking down and that could mean falling. So you keep on executing, "putting the ball in the right areas", as they invariably say, and just keep hoping against hope that something is going to happen. Hoping that the game will change rather than directly seeking to change the game.

Fresh from the fray Graeme Swann is briefly allowed the rare privilege of seeing the things the fray would have prevented him from seeing. He can no longer change anything, of course, and within a year his actual recall of being on the pitch will have been replaced by a number of picturesque "memories" to be endlessly rehearsed in commentary boxes all over the world. For the moment he's commentary gold.

Friday, June 20, 2014

How many media academics does it take to work out what's going on?

Media Show interview with Matthew Gentzkow, "a pioneer in the field of media economics" in which he concludes that internet advertising wouldn't turn off-line pounds into on-line pennies if people spent as long looking at news content on screen as they used to do on paper.

This makes sense in academe but it's not much help in the outside world because it's simply never going to happen.

The professor points out that newspapers were in decline long before the internet, which is true. However the habit of newspaper reading was inseparable from the habit of newspaper buying. Once you'd paid for a newspaper you had an investment in getting some value out of it. You read a few regulars, a couple of things you'd never read before and thanks to the happy serendipity of the interface between hand, eye and paper, you were exposed to a lot of things you happened to pass by on the way, some of which were adverts. When you'd finished it you passed it on to somebody else who would do the same in their own way.

Those habits have gone and they're never going to come back. Neither are they going to be replicated in accelerated form via the internet.  It's no longer anything to do with the news the papers happen to provide, which is what the world of media academics spends its time fretting about. It's entirely a question of how users behave. Tech understands this, which is why it changes its products all the time in response to the way they're used. No wonder it's stolen the media's lunch.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

We're not a great football country. We're a great football market.

During the match a voice in the pub piped up with "does anybody remember when England were any good?"

I remember watching England win the 1966 World Cup. I was perched on my suitcase in the lobby of a hotel in the Loire valley where we'd travelled on a school trip. But I don't really remember what it felt like. The very fact tha you could arrange to take a load of 16 year old boys on a tour of France as the competition reached its climax gives you an idea of the status of football in those days.

I remember England going out in Mexico in 1970. I remember Norman Hunter losing control of that ball on the halfway line at Wembley in 1973 and the previously unimaginable pain and indignity of England not qualifying. Nothing has hurt as much as that since, no matter how agonising the penalty shootout or abject the performance.

That's why it jarred when Clive Tyldesley, with his infallible knack for saying what nobody is thinking, climaxed his commentary by saying "there will be millions of Englishmen in tears tonight".

No there won't, Clive. This didn't hurt at all. They were beaten by a side who took advantage of the fact that the England football team, no matter how it's comprised, has a fatal lack of cunning, which is always exposed at major tournaments.

The media try to be disappointed on our behalf. We're not disappointed at all. Deep down it's what we expected.

We're not a great football country. We're a great football market.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Michael Palin's invaluable diaries of the 70s

I'm working on a book about 1971 and so I'm picking up any diaries that cover that time. Found this unopened hardback copy of Michael Palin's 1969-1979 diaries for three quid. Very glad I did.

Without meaning to it perfectly evokes the small irritations of daily life in the days when things didn't work. He and his wife and small child set off to France on holiday in an Austin Countryman. They drive to a tiny airport on the south coast where they board one of those front-loading planes, car and all, to make the short hop over the Channel. On their journey through France the car's exhaust breaks in two and he has to find a garage that can weld it back together.

When his wife goes into labour with their second child he has to take her to the hospital, then drop Child One off with a neighbour, then go home and ring the production office on the set of the Python film and hope they can rearrange the shooting schedule so that they can do without him for a day. Then back to the hospital where she's already given birth. Nobody expects anything to be easy or convenient. Python record a talk show on the West Coast in 1973 without stopping because the tape has to be flown to the next timezone to enable it to be broadcast simultaneously.

He's excellent on the morale-sapping reverses which are the showman's lot. They show the Holy Grail to the investors, who include members of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, and it's only then that they realise it's not all that funny and in fact it's a bit depressing.

He's good on the politics of being in a band, which is what Monty Python were. Some members need the band more than others but none of them ever entirely escape it. He's the one who's always brought in when somebody's drinking gets out of hand, the BBC need stroking or some press chores need handling.

His diary reveals the difference between the person he thinks himself to be and the person he's become, as diaries often do. He frets about inequality while taking the £5,000 he's offered for one day on a commercial. He wanders around London wondering how long it will be before this or that much-loved old area surrenders to the wrecking ball. The funny thing is he's wrong about that. It's all still there. And of course nowhere in the diaries does he entertain the idea that they might all reform in their seventies in order to boost their pension pots.

That's the great thing about diaries. The hindsight is all ours.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Protect your personal information with my amazing "keep your voice down" method

In the doctor's waiting room this morning I was once again amazed by how much information people will volunteer about themselves in public space.

Two women who hadn't seen each other in a while vouchsafed the following in less than two minutes. Their kids used to go to school together. One of them's grown up and fathered a child, though he doesn't live with the mother, who doesn't often call the baby's grandmother and ask her help although yesterday she did. The young father is a difficult sort and she doesn't know where he gets it from because his dad's very steady and considerate. The other mother's daughter has got two A stars at A Level and fancies training to teach, primary you know, not secondary. The other daughter missed some school work because of illness and now she's doing a nail course.

At that point the conversation was interrupted because the first woman's full name came up on the screen which announces that the doctor will see you now. I could probably have found her address within minutes.

I took part in a government survey last week. At every stage the researcher went to great pains to assure me that my data would be anonymized. I believe her. People are quite rightly concerned about their privacy being invaded on-line. I'm not sure they're sufficiently concerned about how much information they broadcast about themselves in the real world.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Last Of The Summer Whine about digital music

Obviously, I should talk, but I was interested to see three old gimmers weighing in this week on the subject of the harmful effects of free content.

The splendid Van Dyke Parks started with a piece in the Daily Beast about how he'd recently written a song with Ringo Starr. In the past, he argues, this would have bought him a house and a pool. These days the streaming revenues would barely buy lunch.

This led to a piece by David Carr, venerable media editor of the New York Times, noting that digital downloads, which had been growing steadily for the last few years, are now declining and therefore the future of music appears to be in having access to music rather than owning it, which is unlikely to increase its market value.

This in turn led to a rant by music business opinion-monger Bob Lefsetz which pointed out, among other things, that the only people who seemed to be bothered about this state of affairs were old farts who wished things could go back to the way they were.

With the greatest of respect to all three, I would like to make three points. To Van Dyke Parks I would say, don't you think it's remarkable that a musician like yourself has maintained a profile and a career for almost fifty years - and have you ever checked which of your school friends can say the same?

To David Carr I would say, if you value certain music that much and appreciate Spotify for giving you access to it, do you not think it's worth paying for the premium service in order to help those people make it?

To Bob Lefsetz I would say, I think you're more right than wrong.

Friday, June 06, 2014

All acts have one song that's bigger than all the rest put together

I interviewed Gary Kemp and Tim Arnold at Ronnie Scott's this morning as part of the Sohocreate Festival. Gary confirmed the theory I'd proposed in the past, namely that if you're a successful songwriter then it's likely that one of your copyrights will be more valuable than all the others put together.

In Spandau Ballet's case, of course, it's "True". Gary said that other songs may be more popular in concert but this is the one that gets the lions share of the airplay, most of the sync money and it's the one that ends up getting sampled on the hip hop hit.

Since nobody's going to show me their PRS statements, I like to look at the play counts on Spotify, which are another measure of the relative popularity of an artist's different songs. Here are a few interesting cases.

Paul Simon - "You Can Call Me Al" has had 17,000,000 plays, which is 10,000,000 more than the next Paul Simon record, "Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard".

Yes - "Owner Of A Lonely Heart" has had more than twice as many plays as "Roundabout", which may mean that Trevor Rabin and Trevor Horn are doing better out of the Yes catalogue than the members you more readily associate with the band.

Simple Minds - "Don't You Forget About Me" is far and away their most popular record. It was written by their producer and a bloke from the Nina Hagen band.

Randy Newman - you might think it's "Short People" but actually that's a distant second to "You've Got A Friend In Me" from "Toy Story" and both of them are way ahead of "Sail Away" or any of the critic's favourites.

Dexy's Midnight Runners - "Come On Eileen" is eight times more popular than the next one "Geno".

Otis Redding - "Sitting On The Dock of The Bay" has over 21,000,000 Spotify plays, which puts it way ahead of "Try A Little Tenderness". Otis never lived to see what a hit it was. Steve Cropper co-wrote it and he must give thanks every day for the fact that he did.

Blondie - I was surprised to see their most played song is "One Way Or Another", which is slightly ahead of "Heart Of Glass". It was co-written by Debbie Harry and former bass player Nigel Harrison who, not surprisingly, asked to be recognised when the group were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Tom Waits - "I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You" from his uncelebrated 1973 debut album is his most popular song on Spotify.

It's a random sample, of course, but I note they're all singalongs.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Another way of looking at D-Day

It's the seventieth anniversary of the D-Day landings tomorrow and already the BBC is getting itself in Greatest Generation mode, as is the style nowadays.

I wonder what my dad would say if he heard the awed tone today's broadcasters adopt when they get to touch the hem of some veteran's garment. Not that my dad exactly went ashore with the first wave. He was a lowly private in the R.E.M.E. and as such was probably changing a fuse somewhere in Catterick on June 6th 1944. My mother was catching rats in Lincolnshire with the Women's Land Army. My uncle Joe was in his second year in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, having been swept up in the fall of Singapore. The rest of my aunts and uncles were in reserved occupations, teaching or farming their way through the war, in most cases far away from the bombs. One aunt had a short period in the Wrens but suffered from sea sickness. At least that's what she would say.

None of them talked about it as I was growing up and nobody talked about anyone being a hero, not even when they were talking about Ernest, who worked for my dad and had been in the Desert Rats. This wasn't because they had seen things so terrible they didn't wish to be reminded of them. It was because they had a variant of survivor's guilt. You might call it survivor's embarrassment. They'd never fired a shot in anger. They wouldn't have known how to. Even my uncle Joe, who was taken prisoner, was in the Signals.

I was talking to Mark Ellen recently about his dad, a young paratrooper who lost a leg thanks to an enemy mortar in Normandy.  Even brave young men like him were acutely aware that they spent most of the war safely in their barracks before making a brief contribution to what we would nowadays call "defeating fascism", the value of which is impossible to weigh and the impact of which was entirely personal. Again, survivor's mild embarrassment.

Most people who served in the war, on whatever side, didn't crack codes or storm cliffs or fly Spitfires. They just served. It was boring and entirely inglorious but it was service. That should be enough to deserve our respect.

I just heard an interviewer poke a microphone at a veteran and ask him what it was like on the landing crafts. "My generation can't imagine that, " she gushed. Actually, I think maybe we can. What we really can't imagine is the service.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Patti Boyd's misery memoir from Planet Henley

Read Wonderful Today: The Autobiography of Pattie Boyd yesterday.

She grows up in Kenya in one of those upper middle class families who find they don't quite have the means to sustain their status. Grandparents who smell of pink gin, parents rarely there, educated at a series of boarding schools.

She leaves school in 1961 at seventeen, gets a job as a trainee beautician in Bond Street and is immediately living in a flat in Knightsbridge. Somebody comes into the salon and tells her she should model, she gets some test shots done, she's featured in Honey which leads to advertising work and then a small part as a schoolgirl in "A Hard Day's Night".

George Harrison asks her out. Their first date is at the Garrick Club where their chaperone is Brian Epstein. After that she is lost to any kind of normal life.

Instead she has a thirty year career as the plus one of a rock superstar, first Harrison and then Clapton, thirty years spent in the numbing twilight world of country houses where the gravel drive is littered with the relics of the occupants' last craze, where the old school friend lives in the gatehouse and there's a recording studio in the basement in which barely a worthwhile note will be played.

The downside of being a Beatle girlfriend, she discovers, is that fans will try to do her physical harm. The drawback of being Clapton's wife, she learns, is that the only way he can keep a lid on his anger is by medicating with heroin or a pint mug of brandy and lemonade.

I find there are two ways to read rock memoirs. One is to take them in the chipper "well, that's what it was like with creative types back in the 70s" spirit in which so many of them seem to be written. The other is to set them down at regular intervals, shake your head and thank the almighty that none of it ever happened to you. Looked at in a certain light they're broad comedy. Looked at in another they're misery memoirs.

When I read stories like this I'm again surprised that nobody's got round to making a proper documentary about the lives of the dolly birds of the sixties. That's something I'd love to see.