Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Frank Sinatra was good enough to sing off-key just to make a point

In 1959 Frank Sinatra played two shows in Australia. To try something different, and presumably to keep costs down, he decided he was going to be accompanied by a quintet led by the vibes player Red Norvo.

Sinatra liked to think he naturally belonged to the brotherhood of jazz musicians. Norvo opens the show with a number and then introduces "a new boy singer we've added". This is clearly a gag but it's also a recognition that Norvo and his musicians aren't just there to provide a foil for Sinatra's celebrity.

What ensues is both a band gig and also one of those performances where the musicians don't seem to be troubled by the worry of who might be listening. It's not just the way Sinatra plays with the lyrics or the inclusion of on-tour gags like "On The Road To Mandalay" (lyrics by Kipling). It's the serene, carefree bounce of the way he leans on the drummer's roll underpinning the line "when I get you up there" in "Come Fly With Me".

The performance, which is frictionless throughout, is beguiling enough to make you forgive the tape hiss. The show was only recorded because somebody in the venue's sound booth decided to press "record" just as it got under way and it wasn't released until the late 90s.

As Adam Gopnik points out, the downside of Sinatra's perfectionism could be a tendency to chide musicians to the point of bullying. When the pianist gets the wrong chord at the beginning of "All The Way" Sinatra sings deliberately off-key. I'm trying to imagine the rock singer who'd have the nerve to do that.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The people at Gawker don't seem to like the world they've built

There’s a big to-do at the U.S. website Gawker over a story being withdrawn, apparently in order to placate advertisers.

A number of senior people have noisily resigned, claiming the independence of editorial has been fatally undermined. 

The new generation of digital journalists working in U.S. media don’t stop at giving themselves the rather inflated job titles favoured by their eyeshade-wearing predecessors; they also seem to think they can hold the same line between “church and state” once so dear to Time magazine and the New York Times.

But that was in the days when news media was a two-revenue stream business. The old position wasn't a principled stand - it was just common sense. Some of the money came from advertisers; the rest came from readers. The job of the editor was to hold the line between the two streams. You couldn’t lean too far in the direction of one for fear of making the other, to use one of the most popular weasel words in the contemporary lexicon, uncomfortable.

If on the other hand you’re an internet media business like Gawker (where readers don’t pay) you only have one revenue stream. That’s the advertiser. Or sponsor or commercial partner or whatever you call them. In this new dispensation, where the advertising is the only source of cash, the advertising will always win. A child could tell you that.

This is the new Jerusalem the Gawker people eagerly built. Now they’ve got it, they don’t seem to like it.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Let's help James Hyman preserve a vital part of our pop history

A few weeks ago I was shown round the archive of old magazines and newspapers in the basement of Time UK's offices. There were old copies of everything from NME to Woman's Own to TV Times and Horse and Hound.

I've seen this kind of treasure house before. If you've never worked in the magazine business you probably think all that stuff must be a really valuable resource. If you have worked in magazines you know it isn't, because it's never kept in a form that makes material easy to retrieve and it's difficult to re-publish because nobody knows who has the rights. From time to time publishers have plans but they always back down as soon as there's the threat of a copyright claim. I've seen it happen lots of times.

That's why I'm interested in the James Hyman Archive. This is the world's largest private collection of magazines and it just so happens that it's heavy on the music and lifestyle titles I've always had a personal and professional interest in. James (above with collection) has got backers and the support of industry body the PPA who are keen to see this collection digitised and turned into an archive which could be useful to all sorts of people in the advertising and media industries.

James explains more about it here. I've written a column about it for In Publishing. I'd like to see it happen, not because I might make a few pounds from it. I really don't care about the money. I care about the work and the people who did it.

Monday, July 13, 2015

What do I remember about Live Aid? The weather and a Billy Connolly joke.

People ask what I remember about Live Aid, thirty years ago today.

I remember it was hot. The sky was blue. The sun was fierce, particularly in that immense tupperware box slung from inside the roof of Wembley Stadium that we broadcast from. To get to it you had to climb ladders and go across gantries. Once you were up there you couldn't get away in a hurry. You just stayed there and baked. The heat from the crowd rose to the roof and hung there.

And I remember Billy Connolly, who was sitting alongside me as the Pretenders came on stage, leaning over and saying "I wouldn't join that group." This was not long after both James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon of the group had died. "Why not?" I asked.

He looked at me. "Nobody leaves."

Mark Ellen and I have been talking about the day with fellow survivors Dylan Jones and Janice Long. You can hear it here.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

In praise of the Criminal podcast

There's this podcast called Criminal. Each episode is devoted to a true-life first-person account of some brush with criminality or the law. They're the kind of odd tales that would cause a hush to descend if they were personal stories being shared at a dinner party.

I listened to three this afternoon while on various errands. There was one about romance scams, in which Nigerian fraudsters pose as retired English professors in order to work their way into the confidence (and then the bank account) of recently widowed women. Another concerned a young woman of twenty-five who had wanted to be a coroner ever since she was a kid. The last one was all about a guy who scammed most of the antiquarian book stores on the West Coast in order to build up a collection that might advertise him as a man of quality.

None of these stories would have quite made a radio programme. Radio programmes need a neat moral or an obvious twist. Instead these stories have the strange, unfinished quality that announces them as profoundly true. Nothing's more human than crime. You might like it.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Two pages from July music papers dramatise the staggering speed of change in the 60s

Ten years separate these layouts from editions of two British music papers published in July in years past. This (left) is the inaugural issue of Bill Harry's "Mersey Beat" from July 1961. The Beatles haven't yet become famous enough to be on the front page of even a local publication. The ads are for a local music shop or for charity. It's as modest as a parish magazine.

Just ten years later, almost to the day, this (above) is Richard Williams' review of Rod Stewart's "Every Picture Tells A Story" from "Melody Maker", which was Britain's leading music title in July 1971.

"Every Picture Tells A Story" is  a record that would have been entirely inconceivable in the world in which "Mersey Beat" had been launched. It was reviewed in a way that pop records never would have been reviewed ten years earlier. Rod Stewart even looks like a human being from a world that would have been difficult to imagine in 1961. The changes that took place between 1961 and 1971 boggle the mind.

Will we ever see things change quite so much so quickly again?

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Who needs a new album by 71-year-old Boz Scaggs? Me.

I've always seen Boz Scaggs as the guy coming home with the milk, black silk-tie loosened, feet still feeling the last samba, heart slightly regretting the heiress who got away.

I go back to 1971 with Boz. I saw him do one of the nullest shows I've ever witnessed, when he visited here in the wake of "Silk Degrees", and also one of the best about ten years ago at the Jazz Cafe.

He's seventy-one now and has no right to be still making records as good as this one. He reckons he finds it quite easy because he doesn't write the songs. This has tunes associated with Al Green ("Full Of Fire"), Huey Smith ("High Blood Pressure"), The Band ("Whispering Pines"), The Impressions ("I'm So Proud") and Bobby Charles ("Small Town Talk").

I've written about that last masterpiece before. Only sold a few thousand copies but I've met everyone who bought it.

Does anybody need another album of rhythm and blues covers, particularly now that it's never been easier to access the originals? Probably not but he's got his own very special flavour and sometimes a little bit of what you fancy does you all the good in the world.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

If only you could un-see 80s videos like Bruce Springsteen's "I'm On Fire"

"At night I woke up with the sheets soaking wet/And a freight train running through the middle of my head."
I was thinking of that line yesterday, on the hottest July day in London since records began.

It came into my mind the way lots of pop lyrics do. Detached from the song, Bruce Springsteen's "I'm On Fire", which came out thirty years ago this year, ready to mean whatever I wanted it to mean, which is the way I like it.

Keen to hear it, I looked on You Tube and found myself watching the promo video in which Springsteen plays a mechanic flirting with a dame with an expensive car. Like almost all videos, it's kitsch and absurd, demeaning the song by making everything explicit. 

I interviewed him around this time. In those days videos were still novel and you always asked artists about them. I rememember he said that he struggled with them because you either had to illustrate the story of the lyrics, which seemed a bit obvious, or impose an entirely different narrative on that song, which seemed unsatisfactory.

Of course, nobody really minded because they were a way you could reach audiences. They were adverts. Thirty years later I wonder if that's the reason why so much music from the 80s gets no respect. Once you see these videos again, even after a gap of thirty years, you can't un-see them.

Old pop music gains something over time. Old videos just sit there and look ridiculous.

If you must, it's here.