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.