Monday, November 24, 2014

First law of Twitter – it takes careful planning to look spontaneous

I was talking to Joanna Cohen about the picture on the left when I was in Gateshead recently for the Radio Three Festival Of Free Thinking. Joanna lectures on American History at Queen Mary and was giving a talk about how Abraham Lincoln used photography to project his image to the American public in the 1860s (which you can hear here) so she knows a bit more about the subject than I do.

We were talking about the tweet which Bill Clinton posted after his daughter Chelsea gave birth to her first child. I found it interesting in all kinds of ways: simple human interest value in looking at new grandparents; nosey curiosity about the amount of weight he's lost; speculation about the state of the relationship between the two adults; wondering whether in years to come the child might look back at that snap and be amazed at how it went round the world so quickly.

Bill's tweet followed Hillary's. Even I realised this story was mainly about Hillary and the next Presidential election. And why not? This seemed to be the action of a proud grandmother hoping people would momentarily overlook the fact that she's also an ambitious politician. Joanna had a different view. Look, she said, I'm sure she is a proud grandmother but there's no way plans have not been in place for the posting of this picture on Twitter from the moment Chelsea Clinton first announced she was pregnant. There are people on her team who know exactly where Hillary stands in the eyes of the American people and understand that the opportunities to short circuit voter's rational defences and appeal to their emotional side are too precious to be passed-up. This picture and the tweeting of it will have been as carefully choreographed as a major press conference. 

I suppose she's right. The power of this picture is it looks spontaneous, which is obviously not the same thing as being spontaneous. Things that are spontaneous invariably look a mess. Only things that are carefully planned look spontaneous.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

An exclusive look inside the mind of Mauricio Pochettino

Imagine you're an ambitious young manager/fitness coach/scout and you're approached by Tottenham. You might be mildly flattered by the attention, particularly if you'd come from a club which doesn't spend so much time proclaiming its ambitions. But at the same time you would know - and if you didn't know, your agent, your friends and your wife would impress it upon you - that you only had to look at the record of the club's chairman to realise that the most likely outcome of your tenure is that you will be booted out before your contract is up.

Therefore you will spend less of your time thinking of the unlikely eventuality of success and more of your time thinking of the near-certainty of failure and how you might insure yourself against the personal consequences of same. Think about it. It's bound to be the mindset. You're going to get fired. You would have to be Pollyanna to think otherwise. This changes the way you look at life.  It's like going into a fancy restaurant thinking not about the nice meal you might have but instead about the pay-off you will get when you contract food poisoning.

Spurs fans wasted a lot of energy trying to work out what AVB or Redknapp or Sherwood were thinking and now they're doing the same with Pochettino. I'll tell you what he's thinking. He's thinking, when is it going to happen, how bad will it make me look and how much will I walk away with? And if he isn't his agent certainly is. None of these people are thinking of the future with the club because the overwhelming likelihood is that there won't be one. It's the one certainty of life at Spurs. Levy will fire you. Just look at the stats.

And the same thing applies to everyone below the manager on the pyramid. If they go, you will go too. Therefore why should you demonstrate loyalty to anyone?

I've got nothing against heavy management. People pay a lot of money in order not to feel bad about firing people. It happens in every walk of life. But in football the downside is so profitable that it changes the relationship between the employer and the employed. Samuel Johnson said that if a man knows he's going to be hanged in the morning it concentrates his mind admirably. If a man knows he's going to be fired at some point in the near future and he's going to walk away with a significant pay-off it does the opposite.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Is "Serial" going to do for podcasts what "The Wire" did for TV?

I knew Serial would be good before I actually heard it because word reached me from the right places. I knew I'd hear it eventually so I didn't try to find out more about it. I didn't want to know any more. I still don't.

I knew it was by the same people as This American Life, which was good enough for me. They've got a style you don't find on British radio. In the case of Serial - and this is all you need to know - they've presented a whodunnit as a series of one-hour podcasts.

You encounter the story through the thoughts of a reporter who's puzzling over a fifteen year-old murder case. You hear her interview tapes, eavesdrop on her phone conversations. I don't know if the voices belong to actors, civilians or a mix of the two. It really doesn't matter. The beauty of Serial is there's nothing to compare it to.

I may not stay to the end. I don't know how many episodes there are and, where whodunits are concerned, I'm more interested in the journey than the destination.

All I know is this. Radio couldn't begin to do what Serial is doing.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Los Angeles, December, 1970, when Leon Russell was king of the world

It says this is from 1971, but I actually think it was recorded in December 1970 at KCET in Los Angeles as part of what's known as the Homewood Sessions. They say it was the first live stereo FM broadcast. Not sure how true that is but what's certain is this captures the Leon Russell caravan at their very best, including such key walk-ons as Don Nix, Claudia Linnear and Furry Lewis (of whom Joni Mitchell wrote "Furry Sings The Blues").

I find his solo albums a bit strained but at the time this was taped he was a brilliant producer/svengali. This was around the time he produced Freddie King's brilliant "Going Down". The woman with the rolling pin is Emily Smith who was part of Russell's retinue and the inspiration for his song "Sweet Emily". In this clip the sound and pictures are out of sync but I don't think that changes the remarkable fact that they could play this well live and these days you'd probably get arrested for having this much fun on camera.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

What do TV producers talk about if not new faces?

Olenka Frenkiel is forthright about why she left BBC Current Affairs. When they decide you're too old, she says, they starve you of work.

TV believes in youth the way Roman Catholics believe in sin. They're always thinking "can we get a younger presenter?"

In fact there are only two "creative" thoughts in TV.

The first is "change the look of the programme", which means "new sofa".

The second is "refresh the team", which means "get somebody younger and more pleasant to look at".

If they can no longer say that openly I can't imagine what they find to talk about.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Have U2 reached the un-Tipping Point?

“About 100 million people checked us out, one or two or three tracks, but about 30 million people liked the whole album. That took us 30 years with The Joshua Tree. So we did in three weeks with Songs of Innocence what took us 30 years with The Joshua Tree.”
That's Bono talking about U2's iTunes giveaway. He can't really believe that, can he? That it's possible to deduce from a load of clicks that 100 million people "checked us out" or that 30 million people "liked the whole album".

It reminds me of that ad where the Encyclopaedia factory goes back into mass production because a baby somewhere is stabbing at an iPad.

This is an attention economy. Being exposed to something means nothing. Hearing something means nothing. Now even "owning" something doesn't tell you a whole lot.

The only currency that counts is people's active engagement, as measured, in the case of music, in repeat plays.

If you look at The Joshua Tree comparison another way, in that case the enthusiasm grew and spread, like one of Malcolm Gladwell's benign infections. This campaign seems to have gone in the other direction. This time they started by giving people the infection. Now those people seem to be saying "I had the U2 album but I'm better now." Call it the un-Tipping Point.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Carly Simon's torrid summer of 1971 and the invention of celebrity culture

Carly Simon wrote "Anticipation" in 1971 while waiting for Cat Stevens to arrive for their first date, if date's the word you use. During their brief affair Cat also inspired her to write "Legend In Your Own Time".

This was the era of the singer-songwriters. If you slept with one it was expected they would write a song about you. If they didn't it was tantamount to saying you weren't important enough. "Songs are like tattoos," as Joni Mitchell sang the same year. She wrote "Willy" about Graham Nash. He wrote "Our House" about her. Leonard Cohen wrote "Chelsea Hotel No 2" about Janis Joplin. That's the way it went.

Carly only saw Cat for a couple of months. She was in London making an album with his producer Paul Samwell-Smith, another lover. (That cover picture was shot in Regent's Park's inner circle.) In spring Cat introduced her to future husband James Taylor. In summer she supported Kris Kristofferson who took her back to the Gramercy Park Hotel and sang "I've Got To Have You" for her, in case she didn't get the idea.

They were all young, beautiful and would never be better. Being immortalised on somebody's next album simply heightened the romance. You could guarantee a song that featured your favourite subject - you. And of course as this branch of celebrity culture was being born that torrid summer the funny thing is the media neither knew nor cared.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

What Taylor Swift says. What Taylor Swift means.

"Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. "

This is what Taylor Swift says in interviews because it sounds as if she's on the side of the angels and not just speaking for herself.

But what does it mean? Some pop music may be art but most of it is just pop music and is neither important nor rare.

We don't pay for things because they're valuable. We pay for things according to how much we value them, which is a different thing.

What she's really saying is,"right now I can get away with charging a premium for my services and I intend to do it while I can."

Nothing wrong with that. Rembrandt would have done the same.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

We need a national debate about the problem of suitcases on wheels

Sometimes cases on wheels are necessary; more often they're pulled by people who seem to think they're too fabulous to carry anything.

They've got a skinny latte in one hand and with the little finger of the other they're wheeling a case that makes them TWICE AS WIDE.

Two business people walking along the platform wheeling their individual laptops takes up more space than the Temptations.

There are people on the Tube today with pull-along suitcases bigger than wardrobes. What can they possibly have left at home?

Kids follow, wheeling *their* mini trollies containing Buzz Lightyear & a bag of sweets. Everyone's taking up twice the room they need.

Family groups are convoys of human articulated lorries, zig-zagging, tail-gating & jack-knifing all over the public thoroughfares.

And if they suddenly stop, it's never their problem. It's the poor sod behind them who comes to grief.

Don't talk to me about caravans. The pull-along suitcase is the real issue when it comes to traffic congestion.

Monday, November 03, 2014

The 1971 music of Smoke Dawson finally arrives

This is the story of George "Smoke" Dawson. He first appeared in the very early sixties playing banjo in a trio with fiddler Peter Stampfel and Rob Hunter. He's like a minor character in "Inside Llewyn Davis". Then, according to Stampfel, he "took a fuck ton of speed and came back playing fiddle better than I ever did."

In 1971 somebody got Smoke Dawson in a small studio at Sea Lake, California and recorded him playing seventeen tunes. They pressed 750 copies. God knows what happened to them. They certainly didn't sell. Smoke never became any better known and went off to pursue a number of jobs, including fisherman, computer programmer and wrestler. He's in his late seventies now and has had his share of misfortune.

Anyway, Josh Rosenthal of the Tompkins Square label stumbled upon the 1971 Smoke recording and has put it out. The whole thing runs for less than half an hour. He plays so quick the tunes are over before you know it. It's insanely good. I've played it five times today.

They say that Big Star were a letter sent in 1972 that didn't arrive until the late 80s. Smoke has taken even longer to get here.