Monday, December 22, 2014

Soon all rock history will come from Wikipedia

I got a few calls this evening to talk about Joe Cocker. I don't really have anything pat I wanted to say and I wouldn't have had time to do any revision so I passed.

I just heard the BBC's Arts Correspondent on the 9 o'clock bulletin on Five Live. He said something like "Of course, Joe broke through with that amazing version of 'With A Little Help From My Friends' at Woodstock in 1968 and after that the Beatles sent a telegram congratulating him."

In fact Woodstock the event took place in 1969, almost a year after Joe Cocker had a huge hit with the song in the UK. If the Beatles had congratulated him it would more likely have been then. The first anyone in Britain really knew about the performances at Woodstock was when the film came out a year later in 1970.

The truth is never quite catchy enough, is it?

Christmas dinner with Noddy Holder and veterans of the Battle of Watford Gap

Went to an interesting Christmas lunch the other day. The venue was a pub overlooking the Thames at Barnes. Two long tables were set in an upstairs room, seating around fifty people, most of them men. Men in their sixties and seventies. All of them were either musicians or people who'd worked in music; journalists, managers, agents, PRs and the like.

The odd one had a stick or a hearing aid. There was a lot of talk about heath, which you rarely hear from the healthy.

"What's that thing that Pete Townshend's got?"



They took their places, some of them holding warm beverages in cups, indicating that their drinking years might be long behind them. There were two Slade, one Status Quo, one Searcher, two Family, one Manfred, an Argent, a Tornado and a Shadow. This last was Bruce Welch, current holder of Best Hair In Rock (own hair section).

There were also a load of journalists, enough to put out an entire issue of the Melody Maker from 1971. Old hacks like me and Philip Norman and Robin Denselow pointed excitedly at the elderly cove who turned out to be Norman Jopling, who used to interview the Beatles in Record Mirror, back in the days when it was the first colour music paper on the stands.

A toast was made to "those we have lost in the last year". When the waiters couldn't make themselves heard above the hubbub, Noddy Holder shouted the orders. "Beetroot salad!" he roared.

Beetroot salad was not much called for at the Blue Boar at Watford Gap back in the days these men made their bones. They were out there on the circuit before there was a circuit. It could be this that makes them stick together in their third age. Difficult to imagine subsequent generations of musicians doing the same thing.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Legendary pop groups expressed as pie charts

Taking to Martin Kelner about the Bee Gees the other day it struck me that successful bands owe their success to two qualities. One's musical talent; the other's charisma. The proportions vary as you can see in these three examples.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Don't like the owners of your magazine? Buy the thing off them.

Stories here, there and everywhere about turmoil at venerable American magazine The New Republic. Like all magazines described as venerable, The New Republic has been sustained for years by backers prepared to pump in money to make up for its losses. A couple of years ago The New Republic was bought by one of the founders of Facebook, Chris Hughes. This meant it was now backed by a billionaire. All seemed hunky dory for a while. The young billionaire said that the future was in tablets, which proved he was no more or less naive than people who'd been in the business for years. Then it turned out that the billionaire wanted to change a few things about his new toy: fire some people, change some headlines and, most shockingly of all, stem the magazine's losses.

I don't know whether any of these moves were sensible. They were definitely predictable. And yet, as I read one hand-wringing piece after another about the loss of a leading liberal voice in American affairs and the impossibility of proper journalism in this new dispensation, it appears the only people for whom this came as a surprise were journalists.

Journalists ought to think how their trade is financed or, as is often the case, subsidised. Most of them don't. As long as somebody's signing off the payroll they don't give that person or body much thought. Now more than ever, they should.

Print assets used to be owned by people who wanted to own them for profit. Even if they owned them for influence, they were generally people, like Murdoch, who liked and understood the trade. This latest lot of owners, many of whom made their money in the dotcom boom, don't understand the trade at all but have an oddly sentimental belief in the value of legacy assets. I'm thinking of Jeff Bezos, the new owner of The Washington Post. But just as these people bought assets on a whim they could get rid of them just as quickly.

I hope the staff at the New Republic have approached the unsatisfactory Chris Hughes and offered to buy the magazine from him. He'll be prepared to take a bath on whatever he paid for it just to get it out of his life. All the new owners will have to do is guarantee to underwrite the magazine's losses in the future. They will have a clear idea of the size of that loss. Most of it will be their pay cheques.

Friday, December 05, 2014

The best pop records are essentially stupid

"Neil hires some of the best musicians in the world and has 'em play as stupid as they possibly can."
That's the late Nashville drummer Kenny Buttrey on Neil Young in Shakey: Neil Young's Biography by Jimmy McDonough.

When Sting first played "Every Breath You Take" for Stewart Copeland the drummer couldn't believe that he wanted him to play anything quite so simplistic. That's why his playing on the record has the exact "I can do this in my sleep" feeling that makes it work.

Similarly Hugh Cornwell told me that Jean Jaques Burnel refused to play on The Stranglers "Golden Brown" because he thought it was just too stupid. (Didn't prevent him taking 25% of the publishing.)

Musicians are naturally drawn to complexity. Humans, on the other hand, like things simple, which is another reason why they always prefer the musicians' earlier records to their later ones.

Monday, December 01, 2014

The story of the riff from "The Liquidator"

The Staple Singers made their best records between 1970 and 1972 for the Stax label.  They were produced by Stax President Al Bell, who was mainly about business; the additional spice was provided by the Muscle Shoals players, who were mainly about hooks.

In December 1971 Traffic were on hiatus because Steve Winwood was ill and so Jim Capaldi went to Muscle Shoals to make a solo record with the same musicians who had been playing on those brilliant records with the Staple Singers. Maybe he played them "The Liquidator" by The Harry J. All Stars, which had been a skinhead favourite in the UK in 1969-70. Maybe somebody else from the Island label passed it on. Maybe they heard it themselves. It goes like this:

It's a catchy tune, which started life on a Tony Scott record called "What Am I To Do", where it was played (and probably first invented) by the Barrett brothers and Alva Lewis, which went like this:

It was so catchy that it turns up, uncredited, on the Staple Singers "I'll Take You There", which is a huge hit and of course you know how that goes:

The following year Lee Perry, who works with the Barrett Brothers as The Upsetters, makes a satirical point at the beginning of "Cow Thief Skank" by The Upsetters by taking a whole section from The Staple Singers' "This Old Town" and putting it at the beginning of his own record. He didn't bother copying the song; he just pasted in their recording.

Both "The Liquidator" and "I'll Take You There" have turned out to have the pop music version of eternal life.

The Staples' record has the kind of inimitable catchiness that guarantees prefabricated sections of it will turn up in dance records from here until doomsday. Salt 'n' Pepa, Britney Spears, Dizzee Rascal and Kelly Price are just the most recent artists to have covered it. And "The Liquidator" plays every time Chelsea run out to play, even though football teams don't run out anymore.

As Joseph Shabalala used to say, "music is a thing you cannot hinder. It rises from here all the way to heaven." That's nice for us but not for people who either hold - or should hold - the copyright.