Friday, May 29, 2015

When Duke Ellington tore it up and grandad just applauded politely

On November 7th 1940 the Duke Ellington Band played a ballroom in Fargo, North Dakota. Two young radio engineers got permission to record the shows on condition that they didn't issue them commercially. (The full story of how they eventually came to be issued is here.)

The shows were recorded direct to a disc cutter using sixteen-inch discs revolving at thirty-three and a third RPM. It was a novelty for the band to be able to hear themselves playing for as long as fifteen minutes. Studio recordings were generally no longer than three minutes.

This was the heyday of the Blanton-Webster line-up of Ellington's band, with the young bassist Jimmy Blanton, who would die of T.B. not long after, and the saxophonist Ben Webster, who soon left to become famous in his own right.

It doesn't matter what you think of jazz or of Ellington; this is exceptional music performed in a way were find difficult to imagine today. No individual microphones, no amplification, just an announcer who occasionally comes to the front and tells the people what the next number is - and no post-production jiggery-pokery. This is the unvarnished sound of one of the greatest bands who ever drew breath having an on night.

Which makes the ripple of applause at the end of the number even more amazing. The kids in this dancehall in the middle of nowhere have just been exposed to one of the richest musical experiences of the 20th century and yet their reaction is no more than polite and approving. In time their great-grandchildren would be trained like Pavlov's dogs, to over-enthuse, often before a note has been played.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Remember when radio DJs were famous enough for sitcoms to make gags about them?

When Mark Ellen and I had our chat with Johnnie Walker at Word In Your Ear the other week - now available as a podcast - I teased him with the fact that he was always the housewife's favourite. He shrugged it off.

This weekend I was watching some old episodes of "Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads", including their most famous show in which they try to avoid accidentally hearing the result of England's game against Bulgaria.

They visit Terry's long-suffering housewife sister Audrey, played by the lovely Sheila Fearn. The first thing they do is switch off her radio. "One day without Johnnie Walker won't do anyone any harm," says Terry. Big laugh.

That's a kind of immortality. Back in the day when sitcom writers would make gags about DJs. Back in the days when audiences knew who they were.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

It's amazing how well Sinatra sang when you consider how much sex he got

"You won't make much money but you'll get more pussy than Frank Sinatra."

With those words Ronnie Hawkins convinced Robbie Robertson and his fellow teenagers to sign up as his backing band the Hawks.

I often think about this line and whether Frank did indeed get more women than Elvis Presley or Steve McQueen or, well, name your contender.

And then I was listening to this tremendous playlist somebody's put together of Sinatra's performances of the songs that Bob Dylan did on "Shadows In The Night".

A lot of the recordings that built Sinatra's reputation were of songs where the woman leaves him. This is a situation of which he had so little real-life experience to call upon that it can only increase your admiration for his artistry.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

There can only be one reason Russian oligarchs haven't had The Sopranos treatment

Seriously, what do Russian oligarchs have to do to get their own TV series? I'm thinking something like The Sopranos or House Of Cards or Mad Men. I keep waiting for it to arrive and it never does.

You can't say the raw material isn't there. These people have more money than God. They spend like drunken sailors. They have gorgeous girlfriends dripping with jewels. They own football clubs. Newspapers. Yachts. Submarines. Art. Governments. They can get any pop star in the world to sing "Happy Birthday" at their party. And because they have more feuds than the Labour Party a remarkable proportion of them come to sticky ends. Honestly, could they *be* any more long-form TV?

So why isn't Showtime or HBO or Channel Four announcing the imminent launch of "Oligarch!" Obviously this can't be because they haven't thought of the idea. And clearly it can't be because these fearless seekers after truth are frightened of the consequences which might befall them....


Monday, May 18, 2015

Isis is the very model of a modern media organisation

On this morning's Today Programme Matthew Glanville and Muhannad Haimour were talking about ISIS taking the Iraqi city of Ramadi. They said ISIS isn't an army. It's a brand.

True enough. It doesn't have an HQ or command structure. It crosses borders with impunity. It's got young people talking about it. Out of nowhere it suddenly has a big voice in international affairs.

How has it done all this?

Through the manipulation of our imagination.

And social media.

This is what the would-be Citizen Kanes of 2015 dream of.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The busman's life of B.B. King

B.B. King has died at the age of 89. For most of the last sixty years he's been on the road, playing as many as 250 gigs a year. He retired more than once. Each time he came back. He spent his life on a bus.

"Being a musician is not a job; it's an incurable disease," said one of the senior musicians my young friend Alex Gold was playing with in his ukulele orchestra. That's a very good line. Sadly this very musician died earlier this year. He was on the road at the time.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

If I managed a young rock band these are the seven things I'd tell them

I've never been in a rock band but I've stood and watched enough up and coming bands perform to have realised a few things the people in those bands still don't appear to have realised. The other night I saw another lot of up and comers and found myself thinking the same things I've thought for years.

1. The most precious resource is not your music, it's the audience's attention. Don't let it drop for so much as a second.

2. Introduce yourself or be introduced. Bob Dylan has a man whose job it is to list his achievements and remind the audience who he is. And he's Bob Bloody Dylan.

3. Get on stage and start at least two minutes before your agreed time. And start, don't faff. In the early days Elvis Costello and The Attractions would *run* on clutching the tools of their trade, which was a signal. Any band who didn't want to waste their own time weren't going to waste yours either.

4. Audiences only really like two parts of a show - the beginning and the end.  Prolong the former by rolling directly through your first three numbers without pausing. End suddenly and unexpectedly. Audiences reward bands who stop early and punish those who stay late.

5. Between songs never approach the microphone and say the first thing that comes into your head. The chat is as important as the music.

6. In his excellent book The Ten Rules Of Rock and Roll, Robert Forster says "no band does anything new on stage after the first twenty minutes". Try to prove him wrong by doing one thing they're not expecting you to do. That's what the people will talk about on the way home.

7. Finally, there's nothing an audience enjoys more than hearing something familiar. If you think your songwriting and all-round musical excellence are enough to entertain a bunch of strangers for an hour with songs they have never heard before, bully for you. The Beatles didn't, but what the hell did they know?

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The inescapable parallels between political parties and magazines

Eavesdropping on the vicious in-fighting that always comes in the wake of a major political defeat I can't help thinking about the parallels with what we used to say about magazine publishing.

There are two ways to launch a magazine. Either:

1. You look around at how the mass of people are behaving (which is always different from how they *say* they're behaving) and produce a magazine that goes with that grain.
2. You produce the kind of magazine you would like to read yourself and hope that a lot of other people will like it as well.

Guess which one works.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

What's happening in Word podcast land

The interview with Johnny Rogan about his book Ray Davies: A Complicated Life that Mark Ellen and I recorded a couple of weeks ago is now available as a podcast.

If you go to you can stream it and subscribe so that you get future podcasts, including the one we're recording next week with Johnnie Walker and Michael Watts, also in the salubrious but intimate surroundings of The IslingtonTickets.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

When rock was rock, selfies were rare and something inevitably went wrong

When Mick Watts (he's the one on the right) sent me this pic, he apologised for the quality. Along with Johnnie Walker, Mick's our guest at Monday's Word In Your Ear, talking about his time working for Melody Maker in the 1970s. Tickets here.

Back in the 70s if you did manage to get a picture of yourself with the star you were interviewing, it was inevitably either out of focus or one of you would be partially obscured. Nobody carried photo-taking apparatus in their pocket. And if you did have a picture taken it was imperative that both you and the subject posed in such a way that sent up the very idea that you were having your picture taken. Even then it probably wouldn't "come out".

If you were lucky what you ended up with was a prototype selfie like the one above. While the subject wasn't actually operating the mechanism it was a selfie in that the only person really interested in the picture was the less famous one in the picture. The rarity of the "me with very famous person" snap has been devalued by mobile phone cameras and the increasingly military organisation of the meet-and-greet. Taylor Swift must already have had her picture taken with far more people than Frank Sinatra ever managed in his long career. Nowadays I don't know anybody who hasn't had their picture taken with Bruce Springsteen. It wasn't always so.

Friday, May 01, 2015

The Riddle of the Sands Adventure Club is a beautiful, pointless thing

I've never read Erskine Childers' Edwardian spy thriller The Riddle Of The Sands but I'm delighted that two blokes have developed such an obsession with it that they've started a website all about it and are now doing a podcast describing their plan to re-enact the events of the story in their original location.

When Jude Rogers and Keith Drummond and I were all working in the same office and reading the novels of Patrick Hamilton, which are set in a similarly alluring vanished world, we spent a fair bit of spare time investigating old Fitzrovia pubs which were supposed to be the inspiration for the Midnight Bell, trying to work out the location of the last Lyons Corner House in London or looking at pictures of the spivs hanging about outside motor dealers in Warren Street in the 50s. Sometimes there's nothing like losing yourself in the background world of a book.

That's what these guys have done. They start by visiting the last ship's chandler in London, then try to source some Raven Mixture pipe tobacco, look into a prismatic compass, unravel the Schleswig Holstein question, drink grog and just do the kind of harmless, nourishing things that middle-aged men prefer to do when they probably should be reading to children or insulating the loft.

What they find at every turn is this strange remedy or that arcane perquisite which once formed part of a clubman's daily life in the later days of the reign of Queen Victoria is actually still available in some form if you know where to look. Furthermore, if you find it you'll also find people only too happy to talk about it. It would take a very hard heart not to share some of the their innocent delight in each tiny discovery.

Bill Bryson said the thing he loved most about England was the way its people could get so thrilled about something as tiny as a biscuit. This project, I like to feel, could only have happened in England.