Thursday, October 30, 2014

I didn't hear a single at the Mercury Music Prize

Went to the Mercury Music Prize last night. It's an enterprise dedicated to promoting the virtues of the long playing record, which is understandable. Inbetween the acts we were shown clips of DJs and musicians enthusing about their qualities as albums as if that would somehow convince us to set aside a portion of our time in forty-minute increments to listen to them.

I don't think there's ever been a time when there's been such a disconnect between the way the public listen to music and the way the record companies, broadcasters and tastemakers do the same thing. They have to be committed to the records, either because their pay cheque depends on them or they have to think of something to say or write about them. On the other hand we the public, now that we can listen free of the encumbrances of ownership, float across the surface of a limitless sea of music, occasionally finding one song we like and then playing it again and again and then, only then, dipping further into the album that it might have come from.

There's no longer any point in telling us to persevere, to finish our vegetables, to clean our plates before we're allowed to go out and play. That's a behaviour that belongs back in the days when you bought a record on the basis of a review and struggled with it until you convinced yourself that you liked it. That's gone. These professionals have to decide whether the new album by Royal Blood or Jungle is really good or not. Because they're forced to come to a conclusion they generally end up saying it's better than it is. We don't have to decide and so we don't. We just try it and move on.

There were some performances last night I enjoyed more than others, as is always the case, but here's the curious thing. It's now over twelve hours ago and I can't remember a single song any of them played. I've been going through the shortlisted albums on Spotify and even with that prompt I can't be sure I've found the songs that they played. The only exception is the one by Jungle, which I've heard a lot.

This is surely a big problem because in the end it's hit songs that make us listen to albums. We hear one tune we fall for and we go looking to see if there are any more where it came from.

I've written about this before but let's imagine that there had been a Mercury Music Prize in 1971 and the shortlist had been "Every Picture Tells A Story", "Hunky Dory", "Led Zeppelin 4", "Sticky Fingers", "Bless The Weather", "Ram", "Imagine", "Who's Next" and others. I don't have to remind you what the stand-out tracks were from those records because they stood out. It's always been that way and there's no getting away from it - memorable singles make memorable albums. Unmemorable singles just make up the numbers.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Variety's back - from the frozen north to the Thames and the Tyne

Alex Gold messaged me last night from Skagway, Alaska. As you can see it looks like a frontier town out of a Bob Hope comedy.

Skagway's the latest stop on his current tour with the United Kingdom Ukulele Orchestra. He joined them last year for a tour of Germany. Since we were organising Word In Your Ear gigs at the same time we were in regular contact and I could never get enough of his reflections on finding himself in a musical comedy act. Everybody gets to do a party piece. His is Viva La Vida. This clip was recorded on their German tour. Makes a change from the thankless life of the indie musician, doing your own songs. "People turn up," he said to me once. "And they really enjoy it. I'm not used to this."

That's another sign that Variety's back, obviously, and not a moment too soon. On November 11th at the Islington we're presenting country duo My Darling Clementine and best-selling crime novelist Mark Billingham in The Other Half, a specially-written marriage of words and music. They'll also be playing a few bar-room weepies favoured by Mark's hero from the Tom Thorne Playlist. Tickets and details here.

This Saturday afternoon I'll be at the Sage in Gateshead playing classical records for Radio Three's Saturday Classics. This promises to be an unusual way to spend the day. I'll be in the foyer, I think, disturbing the peace of people who've innocently wandered in to have a cup of coffee and look at the Tyne. It's all part of their Festival of Free Thinking and you're more than welcome to turn up if you're in the area. On the Sunday I'm taking part in a discussion about how digital distribution may or may not have changed people's tastes and habits. It's all free. Further details here.

I don't miss mainstream entertainment at all.

Monday, October 27, 2014

"Look, mush, you asked to be on this TV programme. Don't get coy about it."

During his interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Channel 4 News Richard Ayoade referred to an earlier interview with Quentin Tarantino and said the elephant in the room was the film-maker's insistence that he had a right to have his film plugged on the TV in return for turning up.

He was right, of course, but he'd have been even more right if he'd said that the real elephant in the room during his own appearance before the C4 cameras was the PR who was presumably watching a few feet away. It was the PR who had called the producer at C4 News and said "I can deliver Richard Ayoade". It was the producer who thought "whoopee, that would be just the ticket between Syria and UKIP". It was Krishnan Guru-Murthy who thought, "Oh, that would be fun". It was Richard Ayoade who thought, "Oh, well, I've got to plug my book and there are worse places to do it than this". And it was Richard Ayoade who had signed the deal with the publisher which required him to make his best efforts to promote it on the TV.

I've endured sticky times interviewing people on radio and TV, people who made it clear that they didn't want to be there. The temptation to say, "Look, mush, you have paid a PR to have got you on this programme and would presumably feel no compunction about bollocking them if they hadn't been able to make it happen, therefore it seems only right that you should stop acting like a member of the public unaccountably harassed while going about their daily business and just do something to make the next few minutes entertaining and interesting for the people who have tuned in."

If what we read about the atomising of broadcast news is true then this won't be a problem for Richard or anyone else much longer. Authors get on magazine programmes because they're free filler. When the programmes are gone there'll be nothing to pretend not to cooperate with.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Alfred Wertheimer is dead. He invented rock photography

Alfred Wertheimer has died at the age of 85. If you don't know who he was put his name into Google Images and you'll see a unique series of pictures of the young Elvis Presley.

Wertheimer took them during a train journey with Elvis between New York and Memphis in 1956. The pictures show Elvis canoodling with girlfriends, waiting for his meal at a segregated lunch counter, staring out of a train window and hanging about with his extended family at North Audubon Drive.

They are the best set of pictures ever taken of a rock star. That's not just because Elvis was the best subject or because Wertheimer was the best photographer. They're the best set of pictures ever taken of a rock star because Colonel Tom Parker didn't have the presence of mind to cut off the thing that made them great - access.

All the iconic pictures taken of rock stars - early Presley, Dylan, Beatles, Stones, Sex Pistols, Smiths etc - were taken in the days when they were so keen on publicity that they gave access to just about everybody. As soon as they could pick and choose they sought to control their own images and in the process made themselves profoundly dull. That's why there hasn't been a picture of a rock star taken in the last thirty years that packs a fraction of the power and information contained in the one above.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Honestly, who chooses friends according to their musical tastes?

Dan Brooks in the New York Times argues that since streaming music has made the same music available to everybody it's no longer possible to identify kindred spirits by the fact that they like the same as you do.

He says that in the old days "the bands you listened to conveyed not just the particular elements of culture you liked but also how much you cared about culture itself".

It's very well-argued. It's also wrong.

If there's one thing I've learned in the course of a life spent listening to music it's that liking the same music is no more an indicator of your likelihood of getting on with people than you both happening to have bought the same sweater.

I've met raging bores who like the same things I like. I've got bosom pals whose choice of music I wouldn't be paid to listen to. And I also strongly suspect that anyone who sets that much store on what music you listen to is the kind of person who knows the sub-genre of everything and the value of nothing.

It's not music that bonds people. It's the attitude to music.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Dear public figures, you don't have to apologise to me

It's Friday, as good a day as any to think of the people who will offend us next week. Right now they're not aware that they will be offending us. They're happily thinking about their book tour or the after-dinner speech they're about to give. They're blissfully unaware of the fact that this time next week they'll have to issue a formal apology for something which they've said, something which seemed sensible and moderate at the time but once strained through the medium of Twitter and condensed into another headline to feed the raging appetite of rolling news, which now demands one apology a day, it suddenly reads like a paragraph from Mein Kampf.

Not that I've read Mein Kampf, just as most of the people demanding the apology won't have read the article or speech or exchange from which the offence will have apparently arisen. They will simply be basking in that warm feeling of self-righteousness that comes from assuring everyone that they're on the side of the angels, as if the angels didn't change sides every bit as much as everyone else. The sign of a mature society is it can live with the idea that the public discourse will be full of things that might not get general agreement. It's a sign of the other kind that people feel such a need to shout other people down.

With a full week to go, I'd just like to say that if in a week's time you're called upon to apologise for something you said in the first half of the week, you don't have to apologise to me, nor do I insist that you apologise to anybody else. Hope that helps a bit.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

I heart Rod Stewart 1970-71

Why am I always going on about old records? Somebody asked me that the other day. Don't I like music made today? Don't I check out "nubandz"?

Well,  the reason I go on about 1971 is because I'm writing a book about it. I do like music made today but it tends to be hip hop or pop music. Most of today's rock sounds tired to me. No, I don't check out "nubandz".

Tell you why I go on about the music of 1971. I'd never heard this track until today. It's The Faces recorded at the Fillmore East at the end of 1970. They're doing "Love In Vain", which they've clearly heard for the first time via the Stones. That is one reason to love it. The idea that an up and coming band wasn't embarrassed to borrow an idea from their elders and betters. And though Rod Stewart clearly hasn't learned the words properly he gives a performance which is simultaneously bravura and  nonchalant.

Now you may tell me that there are up and coming rock bands today who have singers who have this kind of presence and power. I reserve the right not to believe you.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In the music business, "suits" often have ears

People who talk about "the suits" in the music business (or any other business come to that) usually don't know what they're talking about. I met up with Rob Dickins yesterday. I suppose many people would call Rob a suit. He used to be Chairman of Warner Music UK, which is the kind of job people lazily associate with boardroom politics and a complete disengagement from the products which the business deals in.

There's no point trying to rattle your rock and roll medals in Rob's direction because he's got more and bigger ones than you have. He went to see Jimi Hendrix when he was sixteen, was booking the Faces as Social Sec at Loughborough University when he was twenty, and was plugging Neil Young's "Heart Of Gold" to Radio One when he was twenty-two.

We were talking about 1971 and Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On". I pointed out that Gaye took it to the West Coast and secretly remixed it to bring the congas up in the mix and to make it sound more ethereal. Rob pointed out that the really extraordinary thing about "What's Going On" is the sound of the triangle.

I've just been playing it and he's right. Not bad for a suit.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Interviews with the reluctantly retired from Palm Springs

The Download's a good podcast if you're interested in vintage soft rock. 

It comes from a weekly radio show done by  Chris May and Elli Tourj√© in Palm Springs, California and features straight, informative interviews with people such as James Taylor bassist Leland Sklar, Beach Boy Al Jardine, trumpeter turned mogul Herb Alpert, Wrecking Crew bassist Joe Osborn and Richard Carpenter.

I was just listening to the episode with Sklar. He still works, which makes him happy. He'd just been talking to Linda Ronstadt whose health prevents her from doing the same thing.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Force yourself to watch a proper film this weekend

Ever since I was a teenager people have been telling me to see the French gangster film "Rififi", made in 1955. I've been so convinced by their argument that it's a classic I've probably told people that I've seen it when I hadn't. This week I finally got round to actually seeing it on Netflix.

Of course it's brilliant. Now that I'm older I can appreciate things about it that I wouldn't have quite got when I was a kid: the look of post-war Paris, the shiny old cars, the glistening pavements, the cruel glitter in the eyes of the leading man, the extraordinary look of the jazz clubs, the half-hour robbery sequence which is done without words, the difficulty of making a phone call and the way that feeds into the drama.

Amazing how often when you've got a choice between the old thing that you know will be great and the flashy new thing which you know will disappoint you choose the latter and end up wasting your time and money. Henceforth I shall try not to do that.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Morrissey gets pranked by his own record company

You have to feel for Morrissey. Even in middle age he goes around trying to pick fights with people who apparently have better things to do. Current target is his record label Harvest. He says they haven't promoted his record enough. Acts always say this when the record hasn't sold enough. To underline his point he has his band dressed in tee shirts saying "Fuck Harvest". (Bit rich this, since the members of the band won't be signed to Harvest and therefore presumably have no quarrel with them.) Anyway, Harvest have responded by offering "Fuck Harvest" tee shirts for sale. They come in a choice of colours. Love to have been a fly on the wall when he got the news.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Stop whinging about the distortion of sound and make records we like.

This has had three and a half million views on You Tube. It's a short documentary about the shortcomings of compressed music made by audio firm Harman.

It features Snoop Dog, Slash, Kate Nash, Hans Zimmer, Lianne La Havas, Mike Shinoda and other musicians, bemoaning the fact that over the last ten years we've traded audio excellence for convenience. An MP3 file short-changes us in terms of quality and we don't care. Given the amount of time and care the musicians put into their recordings, ain't that a shame?

Problem is there's no sign that we care. And there's no point bitching about our obsession with convenience or the fact that these days You Tube is the record business, the radio and the printed media all put together.

That massive movement has benefited the musicians. If it weren't for today's virtual free flow of recorded music most of those people in that film wouldn't be well-known enough to be in that film. When music was hard to find and difficult to afford there were far fewer prominent musicians. The perceived preciousness of music is directly related to its scarcity. Those days are not coming back. These people should thank their lucky stars.

Some of the greatest records I ever heard were made in spite of the limitations of the recording medium and the manufacturing technology. Lee Perry's records wouldn't have been any better if the tape had run at the proper speed and the record had been on virgin vinyl. They had the power to move and next to that sound quality is nothing.

I listen to the musicians in that film and I think that if I were to hear their recordings in the way they intended it wouldn't make all that much difference to the way I felt about them. If it's great music it will be great no matter how compressed it is. If it's middling all the expansion in the world won't make it any more than that.

This is a classic case of Hepworth's Law Of Improvement, which I developed over years of watching people trying to improve magazines. There's improvement, then there's the kind of improvement which is recognised by the user and finally there's the kind of improvement which is both recognised and valued by the user.

Only the third sort is worth the trouble.