Tuesday, September 30, 2014

When rock stars get dementia

Malcolm Young of AC/DC is suffering from dementia and won't be returning to the band. His family confirmed this in a statement to the US magazine People. He's sixty-one.

Glen Campbell recently announced that he was suffering from Alzheimer's. He's seventy-eight.

Sneaky Pete Kleinow of the Flying Burrito Brothers died from an Alzheimer's related condition in 2007. He was seventy-two.

There are no doubt lots more we don't know about. Famous rockers of the past who have stopped touring because they can no longer handle it. Most of the time it won't be announced.

Although it's none of our business I suppose we should be grateful for the few whose families have chosen to make their conditions public.

Nobody would have predicted that rock musicians would ever succumb to an age-related condition. Nobody would ever have imagined them going on as long as they have done.

We grew up with these acts and we were used to them getting to every experience before we did. This latest one is the saddest.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Don't the police Google?

I read that when Liz Kershaw decided to get in touch with Operation Yewtree the officer who answered the phone said "We've been trying to get in touch with you, but we realised we've been talking to the wrong Liz Kershaw."

Leaving aside the implications of an officer of the law talking to the wrong witness, I'm amazed how in these Google days I still come across people who have difficulty finding and making contact with people.

Worse, some of those people are journalists, lawyers and policemen, the sort of professionals who used to be able to find people in the days when it was hard to do.

At the risk of adding to the demands upon the national curriculum, an hour should be devoted to "how to Google".

Not an hour every week. Just an hour.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Never mind the Velasquez, here's the Duchess of Devonshire

Deborah, the last of the Mitford sisters, has died at the age of 94. The Mitfords: Letters between Six Sisters is an amazing and unique book. When I heard the news I couldn't help recalling her letter about when they had a bomb scare at Chatsworth House in 1972. I love the idea of the policeman suggesting they might search the house. Since Chatsworth has 126 rooms it would be hard to accomplish this in the half hour before the bomb went off.  You hear a lot about people being "cool". Deborah was cool before it was invented.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Stevie Nicks: her style is unforgettable, her lyrics unintelligible

Preparing for Monday evening's Word podcast recording with Ben Watt and Zoe Howe and thinking about Stevie Nicks, the subject of Zoe's new book, I remembered an old spoof that Danny Baker used to play on the radio. Is it on You Tube? Of course it's on You Tube.


Now don't tell me it's a cheap shot. All humour is a cheap shot. God, I miss musical comedy.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

When did the man hug arrive and when's it going to go away?

Last night I said to my wife "when we got married, thirty five years ago, was there any male hugging?"

"No," she said. "Your father and my father might have put an arm around your shoulder but it wouldn't have been anything people would recognise as a hug."

We looked at the wedding picture on the wall and wondered whether the other guests might have hugged. We decided they wouldn't. That didn't make them notably undemonstrative people. They just didn't hug. Nobody did.

I was asking last night on Twitter when the current vogue for male hugging began. It's like the internet. It spread so fast you can barely remember a time when it wasn't there.

Somebody said it began in 1988. "Why?" I asked. "Ecstasy," he said. Oh.

Like all these things the man hug has gone from being optional to being obligatory in no time at all and now people look at you as if there's a piece missing of you if you don't do it. I'll be honest. With very few exceptions I hate it.

Is there any chance it will go away as fast as it came?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Does Britain have a Portlandia?

Interesting New York Times piece about the kind of people who have moved to Portland, Oregon. They've got good college educations and yet prefer to work as baristas or yoga teachers.

“People move to New York to be in media or finance; they move to L.A. to be in show business,” Renn said. “People move to Portland to move to Portland.”

 It's interesting for two reasons: it recognises what's been clear for the last twenty years. Lots of young people want the good lifestyle but don't want to do the work that buys the lifestyle and therefore will get by on next to nothing if it means they can noodle about playing music or designing a website for a friend.

The other is that Americans have traditionally relocated across the nation if it means they can afford the kind of life they want.

There's been talk of this over here recently in the light of the Scottish independence debate and HS2. Could Britain sustain its own Portlandia? Does it have one already?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The thousand natural shocks the bench is heir to

I'm not surprised that Marco Van Basten has stepped down as coach of Az Alkmaar because of "mental and physical problems".

I'm just amazed at how many people seem eager to become a coach, a job that makes most other jobs look stress-free.

You may have difficult days at work from time to time but you don't have the hot breath of 50,000 people blaming you when one of the over-bred multi-millionaires you send out to implement your policies have a bit of an off-day.

When absolutely everything that could go wrong has gone wrong you don't have to go and face a room-full of hacks who seem completely at a loss as to how to fix their own business but can immediately tell you where you're going wrong in yours.

You don't turn on the radio to hear a load of hacks gleefully discussing how soon you'll be fired.

I don't think anybody puts themselves through that kind of thing for the money.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Putting Nick Cave on the cover of the NME is like putting Johnnie Ray on the cover in 1976

"Yesterday's Papers", my programme on Radio 4 this afternoon at four, doesn't have time to go into the minutiae of the decline of print music magazines but you can see one problem at work in the latest issue of NME.

Nick Cave had his major success at the end of the 80s, which is a quarter of a century ago. Putting him on the cover is like putting Johnnie Ray on the cover in 1976.

Of course that analogy doesn't apply because the world moves so much more slowly now and anyway Nick Cave has the kind of fans who may even buy the paper because he's there. The free posters are interesting too. Bet the Iggy Pop and David Bowie pictures date from before the current editorial team were born.

There was a time when the best thing you could put on the cover of the NME was the new, new thing. That formula stopped working years ago. And please don't waste your time blaming the publishers or the editorial staff for not being bold or adventurous enough. They found out where boldness and adventurousness gets them because they tried it and looked at the figures.

Old publishing saying: pioneers are dead men with arrows in their back.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

In 1971 nobody kept a record of the records

I get a lot of enjoyment out of my 1971 playlist. It's a bit like having a garden. From time to time I visit and do a bit of weeding. I chuck out duplicates. I get new things from the garden centre. For instance, when I started it Spotify didn't have Led Zeppelin. Now they do.

There's the odd album which is probably so locked up in legals that it may never appear. You can't get Badfinger's 1971 album "Straight Up" so I had to get a track from it via a film soundtrack. Sometimes Spotify has things mixed up. They've confused Paul Williams, the composer of the soundtrack of "Bugsy Malone", with an Evangelical Christian singer and anyway his 1971 album "Just An Old Fashioned Love Song" isn't represented.

Sometimes I'm quite relieved to see albums aren't there. Donovan's stuff can be infantile at the best of times and I can get by without hearing his 1971 children's album "HMS Donovan" again. Other times it's a shame. You can't get the first J. Geils Band album, which came out in the UK in 1971, but you can get the follow-up "The Morning After", which came out the same year.

Lots of acts put out two albums in 1971 and most of them were also on tour for most of the year: Alice Cooper, Yes, Carole King, Paul McCartney (one on his own and one with Wings) and The Faces (you can't get "A Nod..." on Spotify for some reason).

In 1971 nobody seemed to have worried about "saturating the market". Crosby, Stills and Nash each put out solo albums in the year and the group was further represented by the live album "4 Way Street". At the same time Neil Young was touring with the songs that would come out on "Harvest" the following year.

Some albums, such as Nick Drake's "Bryter Later", which is marked as a 1970 release, don't appear to have actually come out until March 1971.

I was talking to a youngster the other day (they come up and ask questions when I'm mending my nets at the harbour) and trying to explain that in those days release dates were approximate, particularly where the smaller labels and the less well-known artists were concerned. In the 70s if you went into a record shop and asked them to look something up they would have to either consult a Gramophone guide, which would always be a year out of date, or their own card index. If you knew what record company it was they might order it and if they were lucky they might receive it. If not they would keep on putting in the order and getting "not available" in reply. It might take months to find out they were trying the wrong distributor.

In those days shopping was like a treasure hunt. Affording the records was one thing. Hunting them down was another thing altogether.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Breakfast with a National Treasure at the British Museum

I guarantee my day started better than yours did. First thing this morning I was at the British Museum for a press unveiling of Germany: Memories Of A Nation, Radio Four's big new series which starts at the end of the month. Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum who fronted A History Of The World In 100 Objects and Shakespeare's Restless World, stood up and gave us half an hour on the relationship between German identity and German history.

I noted down a few nuggets: the greatest German philosopher, Imanuel Kant, never set foot in any of the country we now call Germany; Goethe was a great admirer of british railways; the greatest German military decoration, the Iron Cross, is given to all ranks; the resettlement of eastern Germans to the western sector in 1946 was equivalent to the entire population of Australia and Canada coming back to the UK; the true measure of tyrannies like Hitler's is the amount of energy they're prepared to spend on trivial things; being an island people, the British have difficulty understanding peoples who define themselves across national frontiers.

He spoke without notes, using just a few slides to illustrate exhibits in the British Museum event which will accompany the series. He didn't once say "um" or "er", when he reached for a word it was always the right one, he didn't include a sentence that didn't need to be there in order to set up the next sentence and when he finished the audience, who were made up of hacks and arts professionals, applauded him for longer than I've ever heard anyone applauded at a press conference before.

Like all the best speakers, MacGregor's a teacher above all. It's a rare gift.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Get your tickets for a quiet Word with Ben Watt at the Islington

Ben Watt's our special guest when we record another Word podcast at the Islington on Monday, September 22nd.

He'll be talking to me and Mark Ellen about his adventures in the music business as a solo artist, producer, DJ, club owner and independent label head.

He'll also be talking about his current album Hendra and his book Romany and Tom: A Memoir, which I blogged about here. The first has just picked up the Difficult Second Album award from AIM, the second has been nominated for the Samuel Johnson Prize, Britain's most prestigious prize for non-fiction.

This is the latest in a series of shows that we've put on at the Islington. The last one featured Simon Napier-Bell. They're available as podcasts, which you can subscribe to here. Tickets to the live event are £10. You can get them here.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

There's something fishy in the world of the rock doc

Music documentaries are like Agatha Christie mysteries. Once you've finished one you just want to pop the next one right in. Nowadays the interesting ones are all made by freelances and they get made because the person behind the camera spins the distributor a line. The distributor, who knows no better, then tries to spin the same line to the public.

The most commercially successful example of this is Searching For Sugar Man, which I'm staggered to see won an Oscar. I turned it off after half an hour. The people behind the camera seemed to be asking me to believe that this man Rodriguez had made his records in 1970-71 and then vanished so utterly that he didn't know that his music was helping bring down apartheid in South Africa and the most hard core of his fans didn't know the first thing about him. If you don't buy that, and I don't, then you don't buy the film, which proposes the usual bogus screen "journey" to find him.

Paul Williams: Still Alive is about the man who wrote the music for "Bugsy Malone" and hits for the Carpenters and Barbra Streisand. Here the director spends the first ten minutes trying to get us to believe that he began the project under the impression that Williams was dead. Even before the internet he would have to have been singularly stupid to think this was the case.  Then he makes contact with Williams and follows him on the road as he continues to play his hits, albeit under slightly reduced circumstances, and to counsel fellow addicts. I liked Williams, not least because he had the honesty to say that there were things in his personal life that he was so ashamed of that he wasn't prepared to talk about them on camera. What I don't understand, and what this film doesn't lift a finger to explain, is how come a man who's written some of the most played songs in radio history isn't comfortably off.

"The Ballad Of Rambling Jack" is made by Rambling Jack Elliott's daughter, allegedly in an effort to get to know him, and also to have him account for his shortcomings as a father. The journey here isn't quite as bogus. She tries without success to corner him. There's an odd coldness about Jack, as if he's only alive when he's on stage, with obvious implications for the people who have to deal with him in real life. Dave Van Ronk, who's died since the film was made, says that Jack should have settled down and been a family man but then we wouldn't have had Rambling Jack Elliott. This is fine for us, as he points out, but possibly not so good for his daughter.

The secret of successful public speaking revealed

Conversation at Sunday lunch drifted to public speaking - the fear thereof. As Seinfeld says, at most funerals people would rather be in the casket than delivering the eulogy. I say, anybody can do it. Kids say, you would say that.

What I should have said next has only just occurred to me.

You're mistaken if you believe that people who are good at public speaking worry about it less than people who are frightened of it.

They worry about it more.

They deal with that worry by spending a lot of time preparing. That's probably why they're good at it.

Thought I'd better write that down.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Who had it toughest? Big Star or Jane Austen?

I've been flipping The Real Jane Austen by Paula Byrne.

I learned that she only saw her name in print twice in her life. On both occasions she was listed as a paid subscriber to a new book. Crowd funding clearly didn't begin with Kickstarter.

When her beloved sister Cassandra went away to marry she thought she would never see her again. Marriage meant childbirth and that often meant death. As it happened the potential husband died before they could be married and so Cassandra came back. Her life, which ended when she was forty-one, was punctuated by sudden deaths of people close to her.

She used to go into her father's church and fill out phoney banns announcing her upcoming wedding to fictitious men. When her father died she didn't go to the funeral because widows and daughters didn't in those days.

When she was twenty-seven a man six years younger proposed to her. She accepted and then changed her mind the following morning.

She had a wealthy relation who was tried for shoplifting a card of lace. If she'd been found guilty the penalty was either death or transportation.

After her death her books were out of print for twelve years, which is longer than the albums of Big Star.

Big Star: there's no success like failure

Best bit in the Big Star documentary "Nothing Can Hurt Me" recalls their appearance at the one and only Rock Writers Convention in Memphis in 1973. "Suddenly they found their audience," somebody says. How true that is.

Groups who appeal to rock critics don't appeal to anyone else. This is made more certain by the fact that rock critics prefer bands who aren't popular. Nothing appeals to the rock critic mindset more than a band somehow too pure to appeal to the great unsophisticated. And they like bands who appear temperamentally unsuited to fame. Because a lot of rock critics are train wrecks themselves they feel validated by bands who are the same.

Big Star were celebrated among a bunch of people who thought that they could make a load of other people like them and then found out they couldn't. Of course they suffered from having the wrong record company and the wrong distribution but it might not have made much difference if they hadn't. Big Star were the progenitor of a seam of hundreds of bands who sound as if they ought to produce pop hits but don't actually have the common touch that you need to produce hits. They were never going to make it but there was enough pop DNA in their sound to make it seem they might.

Instead they had a very successful career as a failure. Their reputation grew over the years.  "They were like a letter posted in 1971 that didn't arrive until 1994," says Robyn Hitchcock. Actually, it's arrived at regular intervals since 1978.

The film starts with the original, purposely slipshod band in the studio in 1971 and ends with the great and the good of contemporary rock gathering around a microphone and a string section to respectfully pay tribute to the music they came up with. Watching that it struck me: is this the way Classical Music got started?