Wednesday, December 30, 2015

It's been a back to mono Christmas

I got a Bose ® SoundLink Bluetooth Speaker III for Christmas, with which I am well pleased. Since my phone is the player most of the time - either for music, radio or the recordings I preview for the Guardian Guide - it suits me to be able to pair it with a speaker that's easy to take around the house.

Yesterday I was talking to two younger blokes, who'd also got expensive items of audio equipment for Christmas. One was a Harman/Kardon Onyx Studio Wireless Bluetooth Speaker; the other was Sonos PLAY:1 Black - The Wireless Hi-Fi.

It's interesting how the things that were once important - things such as lots of speakers - are no longer an issue. I was talking to Alan Parsons recently about the amount of investment in quadrophonic in the mid-70s. It was just assumed that people would want a more sophisticated of what they had already. If you think two speakers are great, try four. It wasn't what they wanted at all.

I dimly remember a comedy sketch from the 70s where the gag was, "why not get rid of all these speakers and just have the music all coming from one place?"

Looks like it's happened.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

I finally understand Nancy Sinatra's kinky masterpiece

Reading a novel set in the American Civil War the other day I belatedly realised the significance of the lyric of Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'".

Most cowboy boots had a cutaway heel which made them ideal for placing in stirrups but not so good for walking. Any boots which were good for walking would advertise the fact.

Amazing how long it can take a penny to drop.

P.S. Lee Hazlewood must have made a fortune out of this one song.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Thirty five years ago today pop music stopped being "alternative"

Thirty-five years ago today I was woken by the news John Lennon had been murdered.

It's difficult to think back to that time when he was just another former rock star living in effective retirement in New York. However I have a feeling that he wasn't all that famous. Obviously he was famous but he wasn't as famous as he would become in death.

I was editing Smash Hits at the time. I wasn't surprised that people like me, who'd grown up with the Beatles, were deeply affected by his death but what amazed me is how keen the readers of Smash Hits, who had been infants at the time they broke up, were to join in the mourning and celebration.

In the days following his death everybody else piled in. The greybeards of the arts, the men of the cloth, the politicians, the soothsayers of the media, every last man jack who had ever been on a TV programme with him, everybody who had ever sung a pop song, been to the pictures to see "Help!" or combed their fringe forward. They all wanted to make it clear how much they approved of pop music.

Some of it was delayed reaction to Elvis Presley's death three years before. The editor of "People" didn't put Elvis on the cover because he wasn't sure it was a big enough story, which tells you a lot about the moment. His career had faded, much as Lennon's had, and it was assumed that the lustre would diminish along with it.

Of course, as we know now, it didn't. It grew. The process of mourning made both men bigger figures in death than they had ever been in life. In Lennon's case it also triggered the rekindling of the love affair with the Beatles, an affair which continues to this day.

It was the day pop music stopped being the alternative and became the mainstream.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

How to make the British love you - a guide for show folk

The Media Show interviews the TV producer Natalka Znak about how come "I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here" continues to appeal to British TV audiences and yet two different attempts to launch it in the USA have failed.

She explains that whereas Americans like to celebrate the success of their celebrities, the British only feel affection for them when they've confessed their sins and asked forgiveness.

That chimes with my experience. It was this that made Q's big interviews work. Elton John or Phil Collins or Mick Hucknall would outline the full extent of their trespasses in eye-watering detail and then tell the interviewer that after a while even the greatest excess made them feel hollow.

The reader could nod sagely, secure in the knowledge that they had somehow dodged a bullet by never having gone to bed with three strippers and a mountain of cocaine.

The story told in these interviews always followed the same line: I struggled, I triumphed, I fucked up and now I'm sorry.

In this country it never fails.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Boxing: are the BBC part of the hype or part of the coverage?

I don't follow boxing but couldn't escape knowing there was a big fight last night between Klitschko and Fury. The hype was all over BBC Five Live all day Friday and Saturday, pointing listeners to their Saturday night coverage.

Fury won the fight, which was unexpected. On Sportsweek this morning Garry Richardson spoke to the boxer David Haye about Fury's habit of saying outrageous things in the build-up to a fight. Haye said it was all about selling tickets. But surely, said Richardson, there's more to life than selling tickets. Well, said Haye, this is pay-per-view and there are lots of boxers who suffered brain damage and didn't even get compensated for it. The more that people like you talk about it the more tickets they sell and the better they do.

Haye's got a point. It's one the BBC should think about. Their beating of the drum before a fight drives more people to sign up for pay-per-view than it does to listen to their coverage on the radio. I would guess the BBC coverage is an important part of the hype for the people selling pay-per-view.

It's not just about boxing. The BBC face the same dilemma around the release of the Adele album or the latest James Bond movie. They could cover it after it's happened but that never seems to be enough; they also seem to want to make it happen. They need to decide whether they're providing coverage or playing their part in the marketing mix.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Terrorism: what I think

ISIS will eventually be subdued by some combination of carrot and stick. They won't be the last of the new super bogeymen. 

 All the "why us? and "what do these people want?" talk is beside the point. There will always be some deviant group seeking to get their way. Furthermore, as long as fame is our key currency, there will be a ready supply of hopeless young man to do their bidding.

 They might not all come from the Middle East and their targets may not be the same ones but they'll be there. The damage they will cause and the pain they inflict will get steadily worse. There have always been homicidal maniacs. Now we have suicidal maniacs, which is worse. 

The availability of cheap communications technology means the terrorist will always be just slightly ahead of the authorities. That's another thing you can depend on. As Stanley Baldwin said long before the last war, "the bomber will always get through". 

 In the light of this our talk of destroying the threat is as empty as their carefully blood-curdling rhetoric. The best we can hope is that this is contained rather than extinguished. 

The price of that containment will be some curtailing of the things to which we have only recently grown accustomed. Easy movement across borders is one. Unlicensed communications platforms is another.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The music is another good reason to watch Aziz Ansari's "Master Of None"

Enjoying Aziz Ansari's new Netflix series "Master of None", which couldn't be more contemporary. The choice of music – Beach House, Kurt Vile, The War On Drugs, Father John Misty, Michael Kiwanuka and so on – literally and metaphorically underscores this. Last night I watched the episode where he hooks up (it's the world of hooking up) with Claire Danes. I'd never heard the play-out music before. I couldn't date it but the voice sounded familiar. Surely it couldn't be Eric Burdon. It was.

"Cheating" by the Animals didn't even get on their 1966 album "Animalisms" but it was a bonus track on a recent reissue. Now, like Chris Stainton's riff from "Woman To Woman" which lay in obscurity until Tupac's "California Love", and Badfinger's " Baby Blue" which had its moment in the sun over forty years after release as the last tune in "Breaking Bad", "Cheating" comes blinking into the light thanks to the patronage of a young actor who doesn't have a clue who the Animals were and doesn't need to.

Why are television and film producers so much better at picking something because of the vibe, as Ansari explains here, than radio people are?

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

"Sir, you need to get back".

There is an item on the New York Times about a demonstration taking place at the University of Missouri. In the clip a student journalist is surrounded and jostled by members of the crowd who try to stop him taking pictures.

What interests me is the form of words that they used to do this. They don't say "get back". They say,  "you need to get back". They say it repeatedly. They seem to like the "you need to" formulation. It seems to suggest that this is somehow a universal imperative the man should obey rather than the instructions of a gang with their particular agenda. I find it pretty ugly. The weasel pretence at politeness makes it more so.

Even uglier at the end of the clip is an assistant professor of mass media, no less, calling for "some muscle" to help remove a troublesome journalist. I sincerely hope she's embarrassed.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Steely Dan: the band you can eat between meals without ruining your appetite

Now that music's out there in the cloud, rather than over there on your shelf, it's harder than ever to decide what you feel like hearing.

Now that we have unlimited supply behind a tiny display window, we are more reliant than ever on the names that our memory just happens to shuffle to the front of mind.

I wouldn't describe Steely Dan as my favourite band but they are the act whose music I reach for – or maybe that should be click for – more than any other.

Why should that be?

The sound of the records they made in the 1970s doesn't date.

They have a pop catchiness that falls just short of being ingratiating. It helps that their singles weren't big hits so they're passed over by the algorithms responsible for programming most radio.

The performances are detached enough to match whatever mood I happen to be in. None of their songs seem conspicuously happy or sad. They're all just faintly amused.

And since they kept their own pictures off their covers, giving them over instead to cryptic illustrations and curious archive photographs, there's no personality to get in the way.

They're the band that fills the time when I don't know what I want to hear, the band I can eat between meals without spoiling my appetite.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

How did anyone survive bonfire night in the 1950s?

Our house was on an unmade road that finished in a farmer's field.

Every year we built a bonfire in that field.

For a few Saturdays beforehand we would go "chumping".

This meant finding anything combustible we could beg or steal and dragging it to the site where our fathers would build it into some kind of structure.

Parental supervision was patchy. We kids would wander up there with a bag full of fireworks and a box of matches long before the adults appeared with the parkin and brandy snaps.

I can see the kid now. He was ten years old and he carried his stash of fireworks in a leather school satchel strapped across his chest, evacuee-style.

Somehow a spark must have got in there because there was a commotion and I turned to see this lad desperately trying to divest himself of the bag, from which flame was now shooting in every direction.

Somebody's dad got to him, pulled the strap over his head, threw the sorry-looking satchel to the ground and stamped on it.

He was OK. It didn't interrupt proceedings.

His gabardine school mac was ruined, though.

Bet he caught hell from his mother.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Past, present and future on the Piccadilly Line

There were two girls on the tube this afternoon.

17 or 18 years old, I would guess. Sisters, I would hazard. They were both fully occupied with their iPhones, their heads presumably full of whatever is going through a teenager's mind when riding the tube. The standard modern scene.

The only thing that made it non-standard was they were both wearing the hijab plus black coats, ankle-length black skirts and black shoes. Not a lock of hair or a inch of wrist was visible.

It made me wonder whether their mother or grandmother would have dressed in the same way, regardless of whether they grew up overseas or in the UK. And assuming they hadn't, what was the journey that had resulted in their dressing that way in 2015?

It also made me reflect that what nobody bears in mind when trying to predict the future is the amount of the past it's bound to contain.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Want to know what the BBC's real problem is? My son.

Went to the recording of the Media Show's debate on the future of the BBC, chaired in exemplary fashion by Steve Hewlett. It's here.

I came away thinking these things are a ritual dance.  James Purnell, the Corporation's director of strategy, makes exaggerated claims for the unique quality of BBC output; Trevor Kavanagh, leader writer for The Sun, makes equally exaggerated claims for the damage the BBC supposedly does to the rest of the media landscape. All the panellists are asked what will happen in twenty years time. None of them really know.

The people who will ultimately decide about the licence fee are not the people on stage or the politicians or the loyalists in the audience in the BBC Radio Theatre. They will be people like my son.

He's just moved into his own flat, has no intention of getting a TV and gets his TV pictures from Netflix, You Tube and various time-shift platforms, watching them on a laptop. If he has a preference it's for American drama and comedy, which the BBC seems to have cleansed from its output, and big sport, which has all gone to Sky or BT.

I'm sure he's not the only one. This is a different generation which has grown up in a radically different climate. (As Greg Dyke said in the debate, last time the BBC's Charter was discussed, back in 1990, there was not a single mention of the internet.) The BBC doesn't figure in the life of this generation as much as it likes to think it does.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Americans will never understand our sport because they're not pessimists like we are

American publisher wants to know what I mean by "digging out an away point". Fair cop. It's a book about music after all.

American journalist on New Yorker podcast says it wasn't until he lived in Britain that he heard and understood the expression "a result"

In "Fever Pitch" Nick Hornby says something like "the natural state of a football supporter is disappointment, no matter what the score".

There's something in all three thoughts that points up the role sport performs in this rainy little country. We are pessimists by culture and disposition. The best we can hope for in sporting encounters is they don't make us feel worse.

This is nothing to do with whether the team's any good or not. I have a New Zealander friend who simply can't bear to follow the All-Blacks in the Rugby World Cup because so much of himself is bound up in their winning that he couldn't bear the idea of them losing.

This may be coincidence but it rains a lot in New Zealand too.

Monday, October 19, 2015

After almost fifty years of trying I found a Grateful Dead album I really like

Always preferred the concept of the Grateful Dead to the sound of them. I tried their albums over the years and could never get past the bloodless voices and the lack of whomp in the rhythm section. "You have to see them live," said people. I did that a few times but always felt like an unbeliever at a revival meeting.

That's all changed now. In the spirit of Alan Bennett's parents who delightedly announced "we've finally found an alcoholic drink we like"  – it was bitter lemon –  I've found a Grateful Dead album I can listen to all the way through. Well, apart from the drum solo.

The band wanted to call it "Skull Fuck". The official name is "Grateful Dead". The fans call it "Skull & Roses". It's live, of course. Most of the songs are standard blues band warhorses like "Not Fade Away", "Going Down The Road Feeling Bad", "Johnny B. Goode" and "Big Boss Man". It's a delight to find that here they finally achieve that benign shuffling sound I've read about so much and never heard.

When was it made? 1971, of course.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Cold weather tips for the house-bound scribbler

Spring and summer are easy for those who write at home. Put on a pair of shorts and a tee shirt and you're ready.

When there's a cold snap in the morning it gets more challenging. I read Janice Turner's column in the Times today where she mentions a fellow writer who can't work unless she's in full fig, earrings, heels and all. I'm sure Peter Robinson wrote that you can't do proper work unless you're wearing shoes and socks, which is an interesting point.

I'm always alert to hints about how other hacks work. Mark Ellen and I compare notes all the time. Mind you, he put the central heating on the other morning, which won't be happening here for quite a while.

I got through last winter without having the central heating on after nine o'clock. In the last couple of years I've been following a personal central heating plan which is best described as "head to toe in Uniqlo" involving gilets, wooly hats and the kind of underwear people wear on skiing holidays.

When the weather's in a transitional phase I follow The Beatles plan, otherwise know as "I'll Follow The Sun". This means I take my laptop to whichever part of the house is getting the most natural warmth at any part of the day.

Because I need physical movement to have any kind of original thought, I go for walks in the park a couple of times a day. Sometimes I sit on a bench writing on my phone. Sometimes I go to a cafe. It's amazing how the proximity of other people can help you concentrate.

I'd be interested to hear about other people's regimes.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Why do American magazines never have actual editors?

The New York Times piece about Playboy dropping pictorials of naked women starts with "a top editor" at the magazine going to see 89-year-old Hugh Hefner to check that it's OK.

In British magazine culture there's only one top editor. That's the editor.

I've never understood how American magazines can have so many people called editor, particularly when the staffs are as shrunken as they must be now.

You generally find the actual the editor is called Managing Editor or Editor-in-chief.

You also find they have no power.

Monday, September 28, 2015

How The Song Machine overwhelmed the Old Way of making pop

John Seabrook writes for The New Yorker about the frontier between music, commerce and technology. In his fascinating new book The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory he describes the changes that have occured in the last twenty years in the way the hits are made and played.

If they could only clear the rights to the music, it would make a great movie. It's got characters: the fiercely-driven young mouseketeer Britney Spears who started off assuming  anything she was told by an adult was the law and wound up checking out of a rehab clinic after one day and shaving off all her hair in public; Clive Calder, the parsimonious, publicity-shy, allergy-suffering South African who sold his company Jive Records at the top of the boom for almost $3 billion dollars; Lou Pearlman, who made a fortune out of managing the Backstreet Boys, spent it propping up a bunch of fraudulent ventures and is in prison as a consequence; a long-haired Swedish metalhead called Karl Martin Sandberg whose genius for grafting the chord progressions of European pop music to the brutal cookie cutter rhythms of American hip hop would transform him into Max Martin, the most successful songwriter and producer of the 21st century.

Seabrook calls it the "track-and-hook" business. It starts with some kind of rhythm bed, engineered for maximum dance appeal by a specialist in the art. The track may then be sent to numerous specialists in coming up with the "top line". Everybody competes to see who can fashion the most compelling one. The weirder and more arresting the effects the better – these people are endlessly ingenious – but it's an article of faith in the Song Machine that the listener should never be too far away from the comforting embrace of a chorus close enough to what they've heard before to render it naggingly familiar after three listens.

Next to the Song Machine's appliance of science and fierce creative competition, there doesn't seem to be a lot of hope for the traditional nice-words-and-music pop song. You just have to look at the charts. Next to this stuff everything else feels flaccid. Ryan Adams' recent decision to make his new album a cover of Taylor Swift's Max Martin-produced and written "1989" is less  a homage than a white flag raised over the ramparts of the Old Way.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

No peace for the garrulous

Seem to be spending a lot of time talking for public consumption at the moment.

The Word In Your Ear evening that Mark Ellen and I recorded last week at the Islington is now available as two separate podcasts, the first featuring world’s leading lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe who’s worked with the Rolling Stones and lit the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics; the second featuring Paul Du Noyer and Laura Barton (above), talking about Paul McCartney.

I’m on Saturday Review tonight talking about Ai WeiWei’s exhibition at the RA, the new film 99 Homes, the new book by Margaret Atwood, the one-woman show Fake It Til You Make It and Music For Misfits, an upcoming BBC Four series about indie music.

Next weekend I’m at the Cheltenham Literature Festival anecdoting with Mark, Kate Mossman and Paul Du Noyer and talking to Will Hodgkinson about the famous “who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?” editorial in The Times at the time of Mick and Keith’s drug trial of 1967. On Monday October 5th I’m talking to Mark Lewisohn about his massive Beatles biography at King’s Place.

Future Word In Your Ear events include Dave Cavanagh talking about John Peel, Chris Salewicz on rock stars who died at the age of twenty-seven and Jon Savage on 1966. You can add your name to the mailing list here.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Audiences will eventually be paid to go and see unknown bands

Budweiser are running an ad at the moment featuring an unknown Canadian band The OBGMs playing a club gig. The twist of the ad is that when they go on stage they're amazed to find themselves playing to an enthusiastic full house rather than the usual mix of blood relations and unimpressed locals. The audience have been provided and bussed in by Budweiser.

This is an interesting inversion of the traditional "dreams come true" advert, which recognises the fact that the supply of middling bands is now far greater than the demand for them could ever match and it's therefore the band rather than the audience who need to have their wishes fulfilled.

I was talking to somebody recently who was launching a gigging-focussed social media site. I told him there was more chance of getting the bands to pay for access to the audience than vice versa.

I wrote a column a few years ago speculating that we would soon reach the point where audiences were paid to turn up at non-star gigs. This ad is another step closer.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The day ITV broke out

My grandfather always called ITV "the soap programme". Not that "soap opera" was common parlance in September 1955 when ITV was launched but it was assumed that any TV which wasn't funded by a licence fee was paid for by detergent advertising, which was to a certain extent true.

In our house we only had BBC. When ITV first arrived in 1955 we didn't have it. That must have required a different aerial. We didn't get that until years later. I remember I was at a friend's house and tried to wangle myself permission to stay for tea to watch "Champion The Wonder Horse". My friend's mother said, why didn't I go home because, you never know, you might be able to watch it there.

I trudged home reluctantly and found my mother and sister having tea in front of the newly-adapted TV and, magically, "Champion The Wonder Horse".

Meals were never taken in front of the TV in my house. This was a very special day. Two channels. Bewildering choice.

Friday, September 18, 2015

This isn't the first time the NME has changed - but it may be the last

This isn't the first time the NME has changed.

I remember when it was called the New Musical Express and had adverts for Petula Clark's new single on the front page. That wasn't long after it was briefly known as "New Musical Express incorporating Accordion Times". I remember when it was so desperate to be "a lifestyle title" it had suicide on the cover. That's suicide, not the New York duo Suicide. In its time NME has been all over the map.

But I think it's fair to say that only today's move to free distribution could be described as "shit or bust". I don't think there's any coming back from this. It either works or that's the end.

This is what it means. It's going from being a two-revenue stream business - advertising and circulation - to being a one-reveue stream business - this will stand or fall on whether it can attract enough advertising to make it profitable.

Advertisers like a little "edginess" and all the other qualities that have been associated with the NME in recent years, but what they like most of all is big numbers. Despite what you may think, it's not simple to give a away a publication to the right people. They have to want it, at least for the next fifteen minutes.

The advertisers you need are not the music companies and promoters, who simply don't have the budgets. The ones you need to support this enterprise are banks, beers, fashion, phones, hair products and the other firms whose products don't appear to sit at the centre of NME's world (although of course they're very much at the centre of the lives of their readers). Hence you're going to need "an editorial product" which is far more high street and far less niche than the NME has been in recent years.

For what it's worth, they've made a very good start with Rihanna for the cover of their re-launch issue. But they will know that it's not about one issue. They have to find a way to deal with the full range of contemporary pop while still being identifiably the NME. Week in, week out. It's a tough task.

If it doesn't work then it will be sold off to some independent who will say they're going to keep it going as an "online-only" proposition and then quietly disappear.

If it works then they're going to be kicking themselves for not having done it ten years earlier.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

God Bless The Internet

Last night I sat and watched an hour-long lecture about the Potsdam Conference of 1945 by American historian Michael Neiman.  I really don't know why people make all this fuss about going to "uni". You could have a perfectly adequate higher education from the Internet.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

I have seen the future of expensive hi-fi and it's not for me, I'm afraid

To a demonstration of high-end home audio from Linn.

This is apparently how the new hi-fi dream works. You buy a pair of tall speakers which can be shrouded in appealingly-designed covers to make them look more like furniture than audio equipment and an inscrutable-looking box which houses the streaming unit from which all the music is chosen via an iPad. The idea is you have all the music in the world available via a service like Tidal, you choose what you want and the bidden sound magically manifests itself in the air.

The system sounds great. It's undoubtedly the future, or at least one of the futures, but it's a hereafter which will have to get along without me.

For me music has always been indivisible from stuff. That's not simply because music was the sole channel for my male instinct for acquisition. It's because the whole process of falling in love with music was inextricably bound up with holding it in my hands and this wasn't just for the obvious reasons.

This deep bond between a thing which is intangible and the vessel that traditionally carried it goes beyond simply being able to read the sleeve notes. With a physical product it was clear that you owned it because it sat on your shelf. The physical product sealed and deepened your relationship with the music and the people who made it. With each revolution of the label you absorbed all sorts of ideas about the culture which had produced it.

It wasn't all romance. It was marketing and branding as well. The cover of a twelve-inch long-playing record always managed to persuade you that the music within was rarer and more precious than it actually was. That same music, which was immediately less valuable once on the less charismatic carrier CD, can now be summoned by the stab of a finger on the screen of a tablet and consequently seems to have no value at all.

You can find hundreds of pictures of starlets of the fifties and sixties apparently "relaxing" at home listening to a bunch of gramophone records, strewn across the floor around their recumbent bodies beautiful. That was the dream of good living in those days. Stuff as far as the eye could see.

Today's good life is measured in access to experiences rather than stuff. I understand that. If you were to invest in a Linn system, or something comparable, the amount that it would cost you would say a great deal about the value you attach to the experience of good sound. The problem is that if you attach the same value to your idea of good music (and everybody thinks they know what good music is) you are also going to want to be able to see and touch the physical manifestations of that music.

The future as envisaged by companies like this is a future lacking the very thing that got me at least as excited as I was excited by the music itself - the records it came on.

I went with my friend Brent Hansen, who does have an expensive hi-fi. What Brent does these days is buy the records he wants on expensive vinyl. He then uses the enclosed code to download a digital version to play on his phone. It wouldn't do for everyone. Then again, the future of recorded music is a multi-lane highway. Not everyone will travel the same way.

Friday, September 11, 2015

A Little Light Music with Jarvis Cocker

Went to the Albert Hall after my usual bedtime last night to see Jarvis Cocker's Wireless Nights Prom. The world's largest sitting room was bathed in blue light, reflecting the programme's underwater theme.

The programme included Wagner's "Flying Dutchman" and John Williams' "Theme From Jaws", Ronald Binge's "Sailing By" and Echo & The Bunnymen's "Ocean Rain", Tim Buckley's "Song To The Siren" and The Beatles' "Good Night".

The high spot was Barry Gray's "Aqua Marina" from the TV series "Sting Ray". You've not lived until you've seen and heard a tune like this, which is the epitome of cheap music, played by the massed ranks of the BBC Philharmonic and the Manchester Chamber Choir.

You can hear it here.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

One is not really stoked to meet you

One of the Queen's key strengths is her poker face. She never looks particularly thrilled to be wherever her schedule has happened to take her, unless it's a racecourse. She doesn't look particularly excited to meet whoever she's meeting. She doesn't feel the need to compose her features into a rictus of feigned delight.

It is difficult to imagine her being excited, let alone "psyched".

Thank God for that.

Monday, September 07, 2015

The great thing about a 60s education was nobody told you you were special

When I look back at my upbringing in the 50s and 60s I don’t remember anyone ever telling me I was in any way “special".

Nobody suggested there might be a novel or a symphony inside me. I don’t think we ever had Creative Writing. In Art I don’t think we were ever encouraged to “let our imaginations run wild”. They just put things in front of us and we drew them. In drama we never improvised. We read the script. We learned poetry. If we wrote any poetry we were encouraged to keep it to ourselves.

I realise that by contemporary standards this may seem a terrible denial of the natural creativity of youth. It doesn’t bother me a bit.

When it came to school report time our teachers had nothing to say about us that couldn’t be condensed into a sentence. “Is struggling in this subject but occasionally calls for a life-belt” is one I remember. Teachers didn’t ask for our views. They didn’t pretend they found us fascinating.

We didn't mind. We knew we were lucky. We went to grammar school and by the time we got out National Service would be abolished. Therefore we had nothing to complain about and little to congratulate ourselves on either. Our education and upbringing seemed designed to communicate one message and the message was “you’re not all that".

When I read about the apparently intolerable pressure faced by today’s sixth formers I can’t help feeling it’s the inevitable corollary of a system that affects to believe everyone’s a bit more special than they are.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Smells like 1971. Feels like it too.

I watched "Sunday Bloody Sunday" yesterday. It's on You Tube.  It was directed by John Schlesinger in 1970 and came out in 1971. Every frame reeks of London in that period of time.

Glenda Jackson plays a recruitment professional who's having an affair with toy boy Murray Head, who's also carrying on with Peter Finch. In the first few minutes of the film we see her washing down pills with Scotch and trying to make a cup of instant coffee by putting a cup of Nescafe under the hot tap. She drinks from an enormous flagon of wine. We're not meant to interpret this as meaning she has a drink problem. It's the standard behaviour of lots of people in the film.

Everybody smokes. They smoke so much that at times it seems a film about smoking. When Finch goes to the all-night chemist in Piccadilly Circus everybody in the queue is smoking. At one stage she spills ash on the carpet and then rubs it in with her shoe. People used to do that and say "good for the pile".

Just as you can smell the smoke, you can also feel the cold. She and her boyfriend get into bed to keep warm. Even when she goes to visit her wealthy parents in their very salubrious house they're sitting having dinner at a splendid table with the only heat in the room provided by a two-bar electric fire.

Monday, August 31, 2015

A perfect book to read now that all the music in the world's at your fingertips

Discussions about music online tend to be dominated by the question of paydays for professional musicians. Will they be able to make a living in the way they used to? The first thing you learn from Electric Shock: From the Gramophone to the iPhone - 125 Years of Pop Music by Peter Doggett is that no, they certainly won't be able to operate in the way they used to. Any long look at the way the business of making music has unfolded in the last hundred years shows it's changed many times. It was disrupted by sheet music, by the player piano, records, radio and by forces beyond its control, such as world wars and economic slumps.

Despite all the anguished editorials about how nobody will be able to make a living in the future, I haven't noticed the current malaise having much effect on the number of people still working as professional musicians or reducing the steady flow of new starters wishing to join them. As somebody said about independent TV producers, "it's not a job; it's a lifestyle".

The second thing I've realised is that writing a book like Doggett's is only possible in an era like this one. When we talked to Peter at Word In Your Ear last week he said that in the course of writing it he'd listened to every single record that had ever gone in the charts. He might have only listened for thirty seconds but he'd done it nonetheless.

That's only possible in the age of You Tube or Spotify. The river of music accumulated over the 125 years is now almost as as broad as it's long, hardly any of it goes away, the more you you hear the more you realise you have yet to hear, and now it's finally sitting there at your fingertips.

Doggett's is a perfect book for reading right-handed, with your finger hovering over the mouse. While going through it I've been able to re-new my acquaintance with recordings I haven't heard for years and also hear lots of things that I don't think I'd heard before.

Such as "The Downfall Of Nebuchadnezzar" by Reverend J.C. Burnett, Paul Whiteman's "Muddy Water", in the course of which Bing Crosby makes his debut, "Oop Shoop" by Shirley Gunter and The Queens, which could be said to be the prototypical girl group record, and Louis Jordan's "Ain't That Just Like A Woman", which gave Chuck Berry the guitar lick that he then claimed as his own.

Of course, there's really no such thing as "the original". One of the other things you learn through reading "Electric Shock" is that there isn't much point looking for originators and copyists. Pop music has always been the magpie's domain. Thanks to the internet we've finally got the evidence of all that benign larceny at our fingertips.

You can listen to our chat with Peter Doggett here.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

A book that might actually change your life, if you dared read it

If any book qualifies for the "could change your life" treatment, it's Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. His argument is that for the last thirty years the combination of advancing technology and prosperity have made it possible to prolong human life in ways that would have been thought pointless not long ago. Instead of asking how people ought to die, his book asks how people ought to have the best life they can, given the lottery of longevity.

I'll be honest. I screwed up my eyes and skimmed during the passages when he was describing the awful conditions that had been endured by patients he'd come into contact with, ranging from people who came into his hospital to his own father; on the other hand I was paying maximum attention when he got to the bit where he described the moments when the treatment paused and he had The Conversation.

That's the main thing I took away from "Being Mortal". What matters is what a person wants out of life. Once you've got that from their own lips you can work out how long they can have it for and how it might best be provided.

Ten years ago, I took our then ailing cat to the vet. I said "is there anything you can do?" As soon as the words were out I realised that was a ridiculous thing to ask. There's always something they can do, as long as somebody's prepared to foot the bill.

Read it. If you dare.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Never knew the pre-performance yawn was such a thing

Mark Ellen and I are doing one of our Word In Your Ear evenings tonight. It's a standing joke that half an hour before we begin Mark will start yawning. He's done it for years. Since the yawning will often coincide with a period of frantic preparation on my part it can give the impression that one party's trying and the other one isn't.

Yesterday I was listening to the commentary from the World Athletics Championship and a number of retired runners and jumpers were saying that when they know they're about to perform "your body withdraws to conserve its strength and you start yawning".

I passed this on to Mark and he sent me this clip of the Beatles getting ready to perform at Shea Stadium, just over fifty years ago. I never knew the pre-performance yawn had such a rich history.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The interviewer's fear of the playback

These Alec Baldwin podcasts are a treasury of advice for anybody who ever has to do anything you might call performing. I was just listening to his chat with Dick Cavett, who recalls a time when he was suffering from chronic depression and had to interview Laurence Olivier. He felt so bad he seriously considered just walking out on the recording. When they began Cavett felt that Olivier sensed that his interviewer had a problem and, being the professional, upped his game accordingly. Cavett got through the taping but was convinced it had been a disaster.. Obviously he never watched the playback. Years later he was telling Marlon Brando about this experience. Brando said "do yourself a favour - go and watch it." Cavett did, and it wasn't anything like as bad as he thought it was. What did he take from this experience? "You can never look as bad as you feel."

Thursday, August 20, 2015

How did students get so easy to offend?

Profile of former Greek finance minister of Yanis Varoufakis in the New Yorker has two brilliant items of trivia.

The first is that his partner may have been the girl who came to Greece with a thirst for knowledge and studied at St Martin's College in Pulp's "Common People".

The second is that when he was a student at Essex University in 1978 he was the spokesman for the Black Students Alliance. He remembers that everyone would laugh when he got up at meetings and said "we blacks believe...."

Add this to the thousand and one things you couldn't do at a university today. How did students get so easy to offend?

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Good news about the past, present and future of the Word podcast

For years now I've been hearing from people who say "where can I get all the long versions of the old Word podcasts?" Now, thanks to Chris Rand, you can. They're archived here.

Pick the bones out of that lot. And no, I'm afraid I don't know what was the number of the one where Andrew told the story of Van Morrison and the harmonica. You'll just have to take your dog for a very long walk.

Mark Ellen, Alex Gold and I keep the spirit of the old podcast going in our Word In Your Ear events, the recordings of which you can subscribe to for nothing at all here. These happen at the Islington, which is a great pub with a brilliant small concert room at the back which is ideal for putting on and recording these shows. Since we've been here we've hosted Danny Baker, Johnnie Walker, Ben Watt, Mark Billingham, Clare Grogan and many more.

We usually do these as audio/visual shows with the conversation steered by pictures on a screen and to help get the idea over we put some of them on You Tube. Our most recent one with the lovely Clare Grogan is here.

You can still get a ticket for our next one which is next Tuesday and features music writers Mick Wall and Peter Doggett.

Monday, August 17, 2015

"Kolymsky Heights" is the coolest thriller I've read in years

Lionel Davidson's Kolymsky Heights is a very cool thriller. Not in the sense that it might appeal to fashion-conscious readers but in the sense it's so brilliantly restrained. For instance, near the end Davidson tells us some startling information about what just happened to the hero and does it in brackets, which takes some nerve. It's also cool because it's set in Siberia, a part of the world I know nothing about other than it's cold. How factual is it? As Philip Pullman says in his excellent introduction, it doesn't matter whether Davidson went there to research the place, read all about it in a library or just sat there and made it all up. "The point at which the author's affection for the background exceeds the reader's interest in the foreground is the point at which the book is put down and the TV is switched on." Davidson, an English writer who died in 2009, never reaches that stage because, like The Day Of The Jackal, the action of his book is moving relentlessly forward all the time. I haven't been so impressed with a thriller since Thomas Harris's Red Dragon.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Alec Baldwin's podcast is the best, wisest thing I've heard in years

I've spent the last few days listening to Alec Baldwin's "Here's The Thing" podcast. It's the best thing I've heard in years.

I've heard him talking to David Letterman, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Lawrence Wright, Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, Chris Rock and Lorne Michaels and others. In the course of that I feel I've had more genuine insight into how people operate and are motivated at the very top of the show business tree than I would have picked up in years of listening to the standard celebrity interview. That's the one where the interviewee condescends to the interviewer who in turn condescends to the listener.

Instead here you get Jerry Seinfeld actually saying the great truth that nobody ever says:
"My life in comedy is a life of sacrifice that I am only too happy to make. All my relationships were as disposable as a dixie cup next to my career."
Here you get Gay Talese, who wrote the classic story "Frank Sinatra Has A Cold", talking about why people at the top of the tree are so often unhappy.
"If you're extraordinarily talented you're living up to expectations that can not long be met."
Here you get David Remnick talking about meeting Bob Dylan:
"He looks like Vincent Price playing a cowboy."
I really haven't got time to tell you any more. Here's the archive. Dive in.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

What I read on my holidays

Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Artemis Cooper is the story of a under-funded toff who at the age of 19 in 1933 set off to walk from London to Istanbul.

The Third Reich at War: How the Nazis Led Germany from Conquest to Disaster is the third volume of Richard J. Evans's history of the great enormity, a project that's every bit as long as it needs to be.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald told me more about the relationship between hawk and handler than I thought there was the remotest chance of me wishing to know.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel starts off with an interesting premise but ends up reminding me that I prefer the way Stephen King did this kind of apocalyptic thing in The Stand.

The best thing I read on holiday was A Spy Among Friends: Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre. As a yarn it gets more amazing every time it's told. As a moral tale it makes you think even more as you get older. When you get older you understand the meaning of loyalty.