Saturday, December 16, 2017

Two old gits push back against the tyranny of now

I've forgotten exactly how we got on to it but at some point during my conversation with Danny Baker at this week's Word In Your Ear he talked about the misconceptions about pop music lurking in the breasts of most of the people who make programmes about it. The recording's here.

A certain amount of this is only to expected – what with some of them not having been born when most of the events they're documenting were taking place – but it's made more misleading by a view of the past which can't help being condescending.

In this linear view of events each chapter of pop history has to be another staging post in a journey towards our present state of enlightenment.

In this view progressive music (boo!) must always be slain by punk rock (hooray!).

In this view nobody is permitted to have heard of reggae until the arrival of Bob Marley.

In this view all TV comedy in the seventies is an orgy of -isms which we blush to think about.

All the trousers must be either tight and narrow or extravagantly flared.

It's what somebody called the Tyranny of Now.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

The podcast way to do history

I read about the Sharon Tate murders not long after they happened. I followed Watergate as it unfolded. I've clearly forgotten enough of what I picked up back then or missed enough of what memoirs have subsequently brought into the public domain to be fascinated by two recent podcasts devoted to them.

You Must Remember Manson is a spin-off from You Must Remember This, Karina Longworth's acclaimed series of looks at the seamy side of what she calls "Hollywood's first century". Recited by the author in a characteristic style, as if from the depths of a chaise longue situated beneath a slowly revolving fan, Longworth's Manson series devotes whole episodes to looking at people like Dennis Wilson and Terry Melcher who were more than incidental figures in the story. It's fascinating to hear the story told from a showbiz point of view.

Slow Burn is a newly-launched podcast about Watergate which sets out to tell the story in pieces, which is the way it first came to light. It starts with the amazing and sad story of Martha Mitchell, the loose-tongued wife of Nixon loyalist John Mitchell, and continues with the saga of Wright Patman, the Texan populist whose committee first set out to prove a link between the money found on the Watergate burglars and CREEP, the Committee To Re-Elect The President. Where there are parallels with what's going on at the moment with Trump and Robert Mueller, let's say they don't resist them.

This is obviously the way to do history via the podcast medium - not so much by drawing the threads together as by separating them, seeing where they lead back to and treating them as a collection of life stories.

It seems to work.

Friday, November 24, 2017

My eyewitness account of nothing happening at Oxford Circus tonight

My wife and I were going into Oxford Circus station at 4:36 tonight. It was beginning to get busy. There was that quickening of the pace you can feel when people are just keen to get through before the crowd arrives. As we were at the top of the escalator a voice on the P.A. said "LT police to Platform One, please" with just enough urgency in the voice to suggest this might not be routine.

At the bottom of the escalator there were some people starting to go against the tide. They were coming through from the tunnel leading to Platform One and they looked spooked by something.  They were talking to other people and telling them to go back. They may well have been visitors from overseas.

We didn't stick around to find out. We just kept heading down the second escalator to the Victoria Line, got on the first train that came and were out of there and at Warren Street before the police were called. On the way home I looked on Twitter and could see the signs of a big story developing. BBC and Sky were all leading with the story. Armed police were swarming all over the place. People were talking about shooters, even knives.

By the time I got home, which was round about 5:36, the story was being carried by the New York Times and the Washington Post. At the same time the Met were saying that as far as they could see nothing had happened. There had been reports of a shooter in Oxford Circus station but they hadn't been able to find any evidence of any such person or incident.

I've worked in the West End on and off for over forty years. In the seventies you could have terrorist incidents in the West End and you wouldn't know about them until you picked up the paper the following morning.

Contrast that with Oxford Circus tonight. In just one hour of nothing happening the news was halfway round the world.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Here's a play for people who don't go to the theatre

Yesterday I went to the theatre on my own.  I've never done that before. I'd been telling myself for a while I had to get round to seeing James Graham's play Ink, with Bertie Carvel as Rupert Murdoch. This week I saw a poster on the tube saying that it closed in early January. I decided I had to get on with it.

Yesterday morning, using the TodayTix app,  I bought a ticket in the Royal Circle of the Duke Of Yorks Theatre for just £23 including agents fees.  The view wasn't brilliant but I've had far worse at rock gigs over the years and it didn't prevent me enjoying it.

Ink is brilliant. Fast, punchy, broad, vulgar and thoughtful, it tells the story of the first year of the Sun newspaper from Murdoch's purchase of the failing title from the complacent Mirror group to the introduction of the first Page Three girl. Its climax is provided by the tragically botched kidnapping of the wife of Murdoch's deputy.

The only thing that could improve it would be to see it with an audience more like the Britain the play describes and less like the self-selecting bunch who go to the theatre.

The latter are overwhelmingly white, senior, middle class and would be the first to tell you they have never read a copy of The Sun in their lives and really couldn't understand what anyone would possibly see in it.

Something like Ink should be seen by the widest audience possible. Not because it would be good for them. But because it would make a great experience even better.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Let's not talk about sex, chaps.

The obit of American writer Nancy Friday in today's Times quotes her on why she started writing about sex:
"Men spend a great deal of their leisure hours in pubs, clubs or washrooms talking about their sexual exploits, but women don't say anything at all. Consequently one woman never knows what another woman thinks about sex."
I don't wish to take issue with the recently-deceased but, setting aside the obvious question, "how would Nancy know what men talk about in men-only situations?", it has not been my experience that men talk to other men about their sexual exploits.

I realised this again recently in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein business when, like everyone else, I've been asking old colleagues whether we ever worked with anyone who showed any of the same tendencies.

We quickly realised that what little we knew on the subject was entirely based on what female colleagues had told us.

Obviously been going in the wrong washrooms.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

What Teddy Roosevelt did all day

I've been reading about Theodore Roosevelt. He became President in 1900. I suppose that's a long time ago but since all my grandparents were alive at the time I don't feel it is.

Roosevelt's daily routine as President began with a couple of hours doing correspondence. Between ten and noon he was in the second floor reception room at the White House meeting lawmakers and civil servants. At noon the general public were let in for an hour. Roosevelt, who was a man of exceptional energy, shook the hands of all of them. Then at one he would repair to the barber's chair for his daily shave. During that time newspapermen were allowed to join him, to listen to his plans and to ask questions.

That's four hours a day answering questions in public. During that time he must have said a few things he wished he hadn't but his biography isn't particularly littered with gaffes. I suppose hat's because gaffes are a product of the broadcast age. In the broadcast age politics is a performance first and an exchange of ideas second.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

It was the fickle, style-obsessed London media that made a star of Tom Petty

Oddly enough, London was the making of Tom Petty.

When their first album came out in 1976 it made no impression in the USA. Their manager Tony Dimitriades, a Greek Cypriot born in London, just happened to be visiting his family here at the time when he read an enthusiastic review of an import copy in Sounds.

He went to see a British agent, showed him the review and he decided he could get the band a support slot with Nils Lofgren, who was due to tour the UK.

They came in Spring 1977 and went down so well that they stayed behind to play headlining shows of their own. They did "Top Of The Pops" and "Whistle Test" and got on the covers of NME, Melody Maker and Sounds, achieving in that short period national prominence that would have taken years to achieve in the USA.

What's more they went back to the USA as the band that the British had taken to and with punk credentials that would never have occurred to anyone over there.

Maybe it was the leather jacket he wore on the cover. Whatever, it worked. Of course it couldn't happen today. You only miss gatekeepers when they're not there anymore.

Monday, October 02, 2017

House price shock 1980s-style

We bought our first house in 1982. It was a four-bedroom place in north London.

An uncle of mine asked what it cost. When I told him he caught his breath and rocked back on his heels. He didn't have much experience of house prices outside Yorkshire.

He thought about it for a moment and then found a silver lining. "Still, I expect you'll also get a double garage for that."

I explained that there was no garage of any kind. Properties on suburban streets in London didn't work like that.

He went away shaking his head that we would ever pay such a ridiculous sum of money for a house, even in that there London.

How much were we paying?


Thursday, September 28, 2017

Questions I didn't get round to asking Jimmy Webb

Just got back from talking to Jimmy Webb about his memoir "The Cake And The Rain" at Waterstone's. I'm looking at my notes and realising that while our conversation touched on such topics as Frank Sinatra in a onesie, the night he left a party with Little Feat, became involved in a road race in the Hollywood Hills and totalled an unbelievably expensive motor car, how he wrote his first hit in his head while driving to the beach, what it was like as a 17-year-old to stand in front of the cream of Los Angeles session men and conduct his own arrangement and why there's a solid fiduciary reason why "Hey Jude" is as long as it is, these are just some of the things I didn't get round to asking him about.

* Singing for the first time in public at Hugh Hefner's place for his TV show "Playboy After Dark".
* Why Richard Harris was incapable of properly singing the title of "McArthur Park".
* Watching the Vietnam demo in Grosvenor Square from the penthouse on top of the Playboy Club in Park Lane.
* His disastrous in-concert debut in Los Angeles in 1970 where Le Tout Hollywood turned up to watch him fail – and he obliged.
* His private conversations with Elvis Presley and Louis Armstrong.
* Being sneaked into the control room to watch the Beatles record "Honey Pie".
* Taking part in a naked orchestral concert with, among others, Joni Mitchell.
* Nearly killing himself shooting the cover of "Lands End".
* How he became one of twelve writers credited on "Famous" by Kanye West.
* Lots of other stuff involving famous beautiful women, expensive cars and cocaine.

Still, it's all in the book.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

There's no such thing as new music. There's just old music you haven't heard before.

The other day somebody asked me the "what are you listening to right now?" question. This questions assumes that I'm one of those people who spend their weeks ploughing through the latest releases. There was a time I had to do that and it almost killed my love of music. I envy Bob Harris who always says that his favourite record is whatever he's just heard. I can't do that.

In addition to this we now have access to so much stuff we haven't heard it seems absurd to give any special respect to whatever happens to be new.

There was a live example this morning. I was reading Michael Chabon's "Telegraph Avenue" which starts with a guy in a record shop going through a crate of old jazz records. He's delighted to find one by Melvin Sparks. Because I'd never heard of Melvin Sparks I fired up the album he was talking about on Spotify and really enjoyed it. It was made just before his death in 2011.

I was just enjoying that when my son messaged me to say he was enjoying "Living On A Thin Line" by The Kinks. This was recorded in 1984 but he'd heard it on a Sopranos soundtrack, which came out sixteen years later in 2001.

Like I should have said to the woman who asked me what I was listening to right now. There's no such thing as new music. There's just old music you haven't heard before.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

The ten best single words in Steely Dan's songs

Chuck Berry prided himself on being able to use words you didn’t often find in pop songs. So did Bob Dylan. And Joni Mitchell.

But nobody did it better than Steely Dan.

In memory of Walter Becker I launched a Twitter search for the best single words used in their lyrics.

I’m not counting actual place names like Guadalajara and Hackensack; nor made-up places like the Custerdome.

I’m not using real people’s names like Cathy Berberian or Thelonius.

These are the ten best single words in Steely Dan lyrics, as chosen by lots of people on Twitter and put into order by me. Why not? It's my blog.

  • “Squonk” in “Any Major Dude Will Tell You”
  • “Oleanders” in “My Old School”
  • “Scrapple” from “Josie”
  • “Kirchwasser” from “Babylon Sisters"
  • “Merengue” from "Haitian Divorce"
  • “Skeevy” from “Cousin Dupree"
  • “Bodhisattva” from “Bodhisattva”
  • “Spoor” from “Rose Darling"
  • “Dolly” (as a verb!) in “Haitian Divorce”
  • These are all great suggestions but my winner is still “piastre” in “Doctor Wu”. 

There’s lots of fascinating reading about references in Steely Dan songs in the fabulous Steely Dan Dictionary.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Funny how podcasters never talk about the kind of advertising they get

I listen to a lot of podcasts for my Guardian Guide column.

Traditionally podcasts have been a tough advertising sell. Nobody knows whether the figures they claim are reliable and even if they are nobody can decide whether they're surprisingly big or surprisingly small.

However since the success of Serial the profile of the big podcasts in the USA has grown. The people who host them are well-known; they're refugees from press or politics, know how to put themselves over and sometimes even get invited on TV chat shows. The biggest podcasts now have backers who are paying the talent and hoping they can make their money back through advertising.

These adverts are the kind of thing it would be very difficult to buy on traditional media. They're the kind of thing you might have come across in the early days of TV when the host would break off to hymn the virtues of a brand of cigarettes or a detergent. What the advertiser wants is the presenter recommending their products to the listener. Some podcasters can do this with a straight face. Some can't. They'll learn the hard way.

What's more interesting is the kind of advertising these podcasts attract. This tends to be aimed at cash-rich childless couples, the sort who like to think of themselves as "time-poor" (as if any sub-set of the population has more time than any other) and are immensely attracted by the idea of contracting out any of their domestic requirements to a service they can interact with without talking to a human being.

In this post Uber, post-Deliveroo world you can get anything delivered to your door because it's taken for granted that one is simply too busy on Instagram to actually go to the shop in the High Street and get it.

Inevitably this means that the shop on your High Street closes and the retail sector shrinks further with predictable consequences for the local environment and the job prospects of people who are never going to make a living out of the digital economy. 

Clearly none of these podcasters could change any of this even if they wanted to.  It's just I've heard them opine about so many things that I can't believe that they haven't at least raised an eyebrow at the manner in which they may be benefitting from changes they otherwise deplore.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Donald Trump is facing the kind of crisis all media brands face

Donald Trump's obviously no politician. He's not a businessman either. He's a media brand.

All his inveighing against the media is understandable because, like everyone else in the media, he's obsessed with the media.

He was invented by the media. He was invented specifically by Si Newhouse, the boss of Conde Nast, who got the idea that Trump had done well on the cover of GQ and thought he might have a book in him.

The book, The Art Of The Deal, was created by Tony Schwartz whose story of how it was done is definitely worth reading. The book successfully promoted the false idea that Trump was some kind of deal-making genius, when in fact he was a laughing stock among property developers

Enough people bought that idea for NBC to subsequently hire Trump as the figurehead of "The Apprentice". These programmes built him up into some kind of superhuman figure. As somebody said, he eventually became a poor man's idea of a rich man, a weak man's idea of a strong man.

Between them these two mainstream media companies built the brand that he was able to ride to the White House on a wave of brand synergy beyond the wildest dreams of the Harvard Business School.

His current travails remind me of what happens to all media properties when they come under pressure. What do they do? Stick or twist? Do they try to reach out to a new audience and risk alienating the audience they've already got or do they settle for delivering higher satisfaction to a shrinking core? This used to happen on magazines all the time.

It's even more intense on TV. TV success is always way more personal. TV stars who feel their ratings slipping do the only thing they know how to do, which is turn themselves up to eleven.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Obviously you want to know what I thought of "Dunkirk".

I hardly ever go to the cinema but when my wife went away for a week I couldn't resist seeing "Dunkirk". Particularly since it was a lunchtime screening on the IMAX at Leicester Square. That's my favourite way to see films. I like theatres packed but cinemas empty. In fact there were just three of us in the place when the usher came out with a microphone and welcomed us, which was unexpected. He called us "you guys", which was rich since all three of us were old enough to be his father.

And IMAX, well. I had asked for a seat in the middle of the place but had to move back two rows when the trailers started because the image was still too big.

One of the advantages of being completely out of touch with films is that the only actors I could name  in "Dunkirk" were Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh.

As for the film, I was put in mind of the apocryphal story of the brave but effete chap from Vogue who when asked what he recalled of his experience of D-Day clapped his hand to his forehead and said "Oh, the noise! The people!"

I was aware that people were trying to hang on to their lives in "Dunkirk" but, as is traditional in today's films, I couldn't make out the dialogue that explained how they planned to do it for the prodigious bangs on the soundtrack. I wanted to know a bit more about their lives away from the beach in order to root for them. I suppose I basically find the drama of history more interesting than the spectacle of battle and I would have liked more of the former and a bit less of the latter.

Which explains, of course, why I have no business making feature films in 2017. I realised this when I emerged blinking in to the daylight afterwards, feeling impressed by the craft of the film makers but curiously unmoved by their story-telling skills. I thought back to all the upcoming releases I'd seen trailed before the film had started. I'm sure "Dunkirk" is a lot better than most of them but in terms of what it's seeking to provide it's of a piece with them. The modern film is a spectacle. It's a thrill ride. It seems there's no higher praise.

There's no point me complaining that I couldn't follow the story for the bangs. The bangs are the point.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

One great war story they won't make into a film

One of the many advantages of never having taken part in a war is you can have such uncomplicated feelings about it.

Vera Atkins: A Life In Secrets by Sarah Helm is the very complicated story of the often cold, always inscrutable woman responsible for sending volunteers into German-occupied France for SOE in order to fulfil Churchill's slightly Trumpian threat to "set Europe ablaze".

One hundred of the four hundred people she sent fell into German ends. At the end of the war she went into the chaos of "liberated" Europe to find out precisely what had happened to them. This quest took her into German prisons, former Gestapo headquarters in Paris and the sites of concentration camps. What was driving her? The need to do the right thing by the young women she had, unknowingly, sent to their deaths? Or did she want to ensure that she was the person whose version of the truth was the one that found its way into the official record?

And who exactly was she, this lady with the cut glass accent and the profoundly English sense of propriety? As Sarah Helm's book gradually reveals Vera's whole life was something of a lie. Thanks to the accident of her birth it had to be.

When I was a quarter of the way in I couldn't believe that this book hadn't been made into a film and that I hadn't already seen Kate Winslet or Cate Blanchett turn up on some chat show sofa talking about what a great opportunity this was to play "a very strong woman."

By the time I got to the end I was no longer wondering. The fates the agents met had been the kind not even Aaron Sorkin could have turned into inspiring drama. The qualities that made Vera Atkins effective were the same ones that made her unpopular.

Although her book is full of examples of unimaginable courage Sarah Helm leaves the purple prose in the drawer and refrains from describing anyone as a heroine. Maybe that's why it feels like the truth.

Friday, July 28, 2017

When Scott Walker was Robbie Williams big

During the Scott Walker Prom at the Albert Hall on Tuesday night I looked around at my fellow concertgoers and thought, this is what most pop concerts will be like in the future - people gathering to enjoy a re-creation of something which was originated long before. A bit like the rest of the Proms in that respect.

The hall was packed with people who, by the looks of them, weren't born in 1967, back when Scott Walker was as big a star as Robbie Williams. In their eyes Scott Walker is a misunderstood genius, an indie pioneer, a prophet without honour, a man who apparently had to wait until today to get his due. This narrative is repeated by Luke Walker in a review in The Guardian.

It's not quite the way I remember it. Scott Walker was a very big deal in the Walker Brothers but he was still a very big deal as a solo artist. His albums were in the shop window. He was played on the radio. He had his own TV series. And it wasn't stuck away in late night. It was prime time BBC television.

As for "the albums struggling commercially", the first three were all top-three hits and the fourth might have done the same if he hadn't made it more difficult for himself by putting it out under his birth name Scott Engel. Then he made a few albums of covers just to run down his contract. As for his name fading he had a big hit with "No Regrets" when he rejoined the Walker Brothers in 1976.

Scott Walker was never actually forgotten. He was simply adopted by another generation and they preferred to think they were the ones who discovered him.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Social media and BBC pay cheques

The unveiling of the BBC pay list provoked lots of comment on social media. None of it was very interesting. 

On Facebook and Twitter people were either falling over themselves to tell you how the BBC was the best bargain in Britain and therefore every penny it paid was money well-spent or they wanted to tell you that it was about time the whole featherbedded lot was privatised. Such positioning statements are largely for show or to keep in with mates and useful contacts.

Meanwhile all the real chat about who was worth it and who was getting away with daylight robbery had tactically withdrawn into Direct Messages on Twitter, individual emails from Gmail accounts, texts and indignant WhatsApp groups.

Maybe this is a tipping point for social media. We've seen the same thing in recent elections. If people are going to say what they think they're going be increasingly choosy about who they say it to. We don't really know any more about what the mass of people think than we did back in the days when nobody asked their opinion about anything.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Weather fronts don't "rock up". Nor do rock bands.

Just heard the weatherman on BBC Radio Four talk about when some weather front would "rock up".

I talked about the rockification of everything in "Uncommon People". Now that we no longer have actual rock stars we have rock star chefs, politicians or cyclists instead.

Clearly I should have added something about the unchecked growth of the verb "rock up", which is now so widespread that even weather forecasters, who used to be dull and sort of proud of it, feel they should use it to lend their bulletins a raffish air.

"Rock up" isn't mentioned at all in the 2008 edition of Jonathon Green's Dictionary of Slang so it must be a recent thing.  But it's not all that recent. According to the OED it was first recorded in a dictionary of South African English in 1996 where it meant "to arrive, turn up, esp. casually, late, or unexpectedly".

Strikes me that two things never turn up casually or unexpectedly. One is a weather front, which takes weeks to build up; the other is a touring rock band, which is encumbered by so much equipment and so in thrall to the soundcheck that it is incapable of doing anything quickly and without fuss.

If rock bands could get on, get it on and get off without fuss they would be a good deal more popular than they are.

Monday, July 03, 2017

Here's a thing the Beatles didn't do very often

I was at the Chalke Valley History Festival this weekend, talking about Sgt Pepper with Giles Martin and Kevin Howlett.

These are two men who've heard more unreleased Beatles session tapes than anyone.

Over dinner beforehand I asked them to confirm what I had always suspected: that The Beatles didn't swear much.

Giles and Kevin thought about it and then said that the Beatles swore but only occasionally. When they did it was in extremis. It wasn't part of their standard flow.

That's one of those things which underlines just what a different the world of fifty years ago was.

Back then most of the swearing was done by men doing heavy work out of doors. It wouldn't have been heard in public or in a white collar environment. The EMI studios was a white collar environment.

If you were to eavesdrop on any bunch of people at work in 2017 on the other hand, from a band in the recording studio to people trying to fix an I.T. system,  I think you'd hear quite a lot of casual, even playful profanity.

I wonder when that started to change.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

These two interviews stopped me in my tracks.

The first is A Major In Mosul, another example of the New York Times podcast The Daily, which seems the state of the art when it comes to doing daily news with sound. In this they talk to Ben Solomon, a NY Times journalist who has been embedded with a unit of the Iraqi Army whose job it is to clear ISIS forces out of Mosul street by street, hole by hole, in what promises to be the bloodiest street fighting since the Second World War. One of the points he makes is that the ISIS soldiers are an unusually difficult foe for the simple reason that they expect to die.

The second is Sam Harris's long conversation with Graeme Wood, the author of The Way Of The Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State. Wood set out to talk to the people within ISIS about what they believed, why they had joined up and how they saw it all finishing. Strangely enough, he says it was a lot of fun. This is an amazing listen, particularly when it gets on to the details of the End Of Days.

Friday, June 02, 2017

Why Fiona Apple's version of "Across The Universe" is the only Beatles cover that's better than the original

I wrote a piece for Saga to mark the 50th anniversary of "Sgt Pepper". I said there was only one cover of a Beatles song that was better than the original. This was asterisked in the print version but not named in the version online.

On Twitter and Facebook people were speculating what I could be talking about. Was it Joe Cocker's "With A Little Help From My Friends", Stevie Wonder's "We Can Work It Out" or Earth Wind and Fire's "Got To Get You Into My Life"?

If I'm honest (as the footballers say) I don't actually like any of those records. I don't like Ella Fitzgerald's "Can't Buy Me Love" for the same reason. They're all cases of people being told "you've got to do a Beatles song", realising they can't improve on the original record and then doing their own unnecessarily ornamental version just because they're the kind of artists who can.

To my ears they don't sound right. They're overdone. It's like hearing lines from The Sopranos declaimed by some actor of the grand tradition. They're all so American (particularly the Joe Cocker one) and they remind me of how British the Beatles were. They weren't ones to indulge their emotions.

Fiona Apple's version of "Across The Universe" is the only record of hers that's every done anything for me. I only heard it because it's used at the end of "Pleasantville". What I like about  is it goes the other way from the cover versions mentioned above. If anything it's slighter sparer than the original. And it seems to work slightly better in her blank after-hours style than it did in the original. I play it a lot. For me it's the only Beatles cover I would reach for in preference to their original.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

How to record an audiobook

We started recording the audiobook of my new book "Uncommon People" on Monday morning. This is how it works. You go to a studio that specialises in voice recordings. They've printed out a script of the finished version of the book. It looks a bit intimidating when you start.

We were recording in Patch's studio. He was on the other side of the glass with another copy of the script. Whenever you fluff or misread (even so much as changing an indefinite article for a definite article) he stops you and you go back and drop in the correction. As you finish each page you try to drop it to the floor noiselessly. At the end of each session there's a ton of paper at your feet. Patch also warns you if the energy is dropping, as it tends to do in the late afternoon, and dispenses industrial strength lozenges when he hears your voice "getting tight".

The last book too almost four days to record. We must be getting better because we managed to do this in three by starting early on the last day and giving ourselves hardly any breaks. We reached this page at close of play yesterday.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Want to know why Donald Trump repeats sentences? This is why Donald Trump repeats sentences.

Of all the impressions of Donald Trump I've seen or heard in the last few months Anthony Atamanuik's is the best. It's so good that it's got this unknown improv actor his own show on Comedy Central.

What impresses me most is that Atamanuik has worked out the great truth about Trump. He's a TV personality. Like all TV personalities he only exists when he's being televised. Like all TV personalities he only believes in one thing, which is the thing that appears to be going down well at this particular moment. When he says things it's clearly the first time he's thought them. Which is why you can observe him hearing them coming out of his own mouth. They're clearly as fresh to him as they are to us. And as soon as he's heard himself say something which sound OK to him he repeats it.

There are two reasons for this. So that he can enjoy the sound of it and also give his mouth time to prepare the next thing to say.

Atamanuik explains the mechanics of his impression to Stephen Colbert here.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

How they put Charlie Chaplin's silent comedy on the radio

I've been reading David Robinson's biography of Charlie Chaplin. It's an amazing tale.

Chaplin makes his name on the London stage in the 1900s. He goes to the USA as a stage performer. Somebody tells him that his pantomime style will work in pictures, which are the new new thing.

He starts making movies in Hollywood just as the First World War is breaking out in Europe. By the time it's over he's the biggest superstar in the biggest business in the history of entertainment.

He's the most famous man in the world. Because he dealt in mime rather than language he was famous in a way we simply can't imagine today.

When radio, another new new thing, comes along in 1920 he's beside himself with nerves at the thought of speaking into the live microphone.

When The Gold Rush opens in London in 1925, the BBC, casting around for new uses for the new medium, broadcasts ten minutes of the sound of the film's audience at the Tivoli in the Strand laughing at Chaplin's performance.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Chuck Berry and the absurdity of categories

Picture by Supersize Art.

Last night at the Aye Write festival in Glasgow I was taken to task for mentioning Carole King and Marvin Gaye in the context of a book that was supposed to be about "rock".

The words used to map music are sometimes good servants. They're invariably bad masters.

I'm old enough to have watched these terms move over the years, usually in response to somebody's needs to map out their own territory, a little place into which they can admit this but not that, a safe space in which they don't have to trust their ears and their emotional responses.

I was with a bunch of crime writers in the bar at the Malmaison later in the evening when we heard the news that Chuck Berry had died.

Chuck got his first hit with "Maybelline" by adapting a hillbilly song "Ida Red". That's a perfect example of how music ebbs and flows across boundaries, making a mockery of categories.

Chuck started writing songs about rock and roll because the kids liked them.

I was one of those kids who got into Chuck because the Beatles and Rolling Stones did his songs. This was 1963, when nobody talked about rock and roll. The Beatles were known as a pop group, when they weren't being a beat group. The Rolling Stones called themselves an R&B band.

At the time these bands were making his songs famous for a new generation, Chuck was in prison. He came out to find his songs were more famous than when he went in. Some of my favourite Chuck Berry records were made immediately after he came out. The English hipster DJ Guy Stevens had the idea of putting them out in the UK on the Pye R&B label, thus making them acceptable to music snobs.

The best of them is "You Never Can Tell", which I always say is the best record ever made. It's also, thanks to the Pye R&B label, one of the prettier records ever made. What category it belongs in I am not qualified to say.

Monday, March 06, 2017

My eight favourite podcasts right now

The scope of my radio column in the Guardian Guide has been expanded to include podcasts, which means I've heard a few new ones that I've really liked, some of which I've added to my regular listening diet where they take their place among some old favourites. All media is a question of habit. That applies to podcasts more than it does to any other form of media. People who listen to podcasts listen regularly. They like podcasts because they slot into the routine of their day or week. Furthermore there's something about the intimacy of the medium that means you get in an extra bad mood when you miss an episode. These are my eight favourites.
  1. The Football Ramble. Obviously, there are lots of club-specific podcasts. I'm an occasional contributor to one, The Spurs Show. The strength of the Football Ramble is it covers all football and the four blokes who do it are as knowledgeable as football journalists without any of the accompanying self-importance. I've listened to hundreds of Ramble episodes and I still don't really know who Luke Moore, Pete Donaldson, Marcus Speller and Jim Campbell are. It doesn't matter much to me as long as each of them knows that their job is to keep the red ball of conversation up in the air and resist at all times the temptation to appear smarter than the others.
  2. The Daily. I really hope this is working for the New York Times because it seems to me one of the most interesting things to have come out of a newspaper in recent years. Each Daily is made up of a story which has been in and around the news in recent weeks, explored in a more rounded fashion.  This week I've heard a story about a small town in Illinois which voted for Trump but then found that a much-loved pillar of the community turned out to be an illegal immigrant. Just now I was listening to one about the North Korean government's assassination programme and how it fits into their crazy-like-a-fox foreign policy. The Daily is posted every morning in time for NYT readers to listen on the way to work. It's usually available here late morning.
  3. The Awards Show Show. When something big happens you want to binge on it. I found this because I was looking for something that told me in detail what went wrong at this year's Oscars and how. I got that explanation from The Awards Show Show because both the people on the podcast were in the room when it happened and understood how it was supposed to happen and why it went wrong. Anyway, it turns out this was the last podcast of The Awards Show Show because it was a pop-up production which ran during Hollywood's awards season. Once that's over its work is done. Until next year, presumably. 
  4. Pod Save America. Trump has been good for the newspaper business. He's been even better for the podcasting business. Right now the air fairly crackles with the sound of indignant "progressives" (as they style themselves) venting about his latest faux pas. Trumpcast does the best impression of his voice and is always worth hearing for the bit where they read out his tweets. The NPR Politics Podcast does an excellent job of reporting what is actually going on when people are distracted by his latest brainstorm. Pod Save America is interesting because it's the vehicle of a bunch of young men who were inside the White House and the government during the previous administration. Their company Crooked Media is shaping up to be the liberal Breitbart. This venture has taken off so well that they probably won't go back to the tiresome business of government and will probably restrict themselves to commentary. Power without responsibility being the prerogative of the harlot and all that.
  5. I don't think you could do Death, Sex and Money in the UK because you wouldn't be able to find interviewees who were prepared to talk about their experiences with that key triumvirate. It's a brilliant title because it cuts to the quick of the things we're all interested in. The first one I heard was an interview with retired NFL player Dominique Foxworth, which was a unique view of what it's like to be paid a fortune for playing a game and then not to wish to play any more. The second I heard was Sallie Krawcheck who used to run America's biggest wealth management firm but never stopped worrying about her own bank balance.
  6. Each episode of one of my favourite podcasts begins "I'm Phoebe Judge and this is Criminal". The thing about crime is that, like life, it contains infinite variety. It hits us where we live. Sometimes we're the victims of it. Sometimes we wonder if we could get away with it. Sometimes we just shudder at the thought of it. We remain fascinated with it. For that reason alone, Criminal could run for ever.
  7. This American Life is the gold standard of Public Radio in the United States. It's superbly produced and immaculately presented by Ira Glass. But what makes it work is the sheer size of America and the willingness of Americans to talk. Contained within that immense country is at least one example of every variety of human behaviour and it will likely have happened to somebody who is perfectly happy to talk about it. The one I was just listening to is about a woman who at the age of forty-three was told by her mother that she had taken the wrong baby home from the hospital. You know, that old chestnut.
  8. I don't actually listen to the Word Podcast on account of the fact that I'm on it, along with Mark Ellen. Most of these are recorded at our Word In Your Ear evenings at the Islington. You can add your name to the mailing list to be kept informed up upcoming events. Please do.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Who The Hell Does O.J. Simpson think he is?

When we started Q in 1986 each issue began with a punchy interview feature called "Who The Hell Does (insert name of famous person here) Think He Is?"

It was a big success. It also became a bit of a millstone. Wary PRs would say "this isn't a Who The Hell, is it?"

One thing that inevitably got lost was the fact that the headline was supposed to be a serious question. People who became famous very quickly lose a sense of who they actually are, which can make it interesting to find out what they think of themselves.

I kept going back to "who the hell?" while watching "O.J.: Made In America", which won Best Documentary at the Oscars, and is on the BBC iPlayer right now.

I've never seen a man so lost inside his own fame. At no stage do you feel you hear his authentic voice. He doesn't have one. He just projects the version of O.J. that he thinks his audience is looking for at any given time.

Very good film.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Lottery Winners know something most bands refuse to learn

Watching The Lottery Winners, the self-described "mediocre indie pop band" from Leigh, Lancs at the Water Rats last night, it struck me that people who climb on stage have one of two motivations.

They're either looking for attention or they're looking for validation.

If they're looking for attention they understand that the most precious prize is an engaged audience and this is something that can't be commanded. It must be won. People who are keen for attention will be attuned to the mood of the room and will pull back the audience's attention if they feel it wandering.

On the other hand people who are keen for validation think they've done the job just by securing the gig. They won't talk to the audience any more than they have to and if they do it will be just to tell them what the next song is. If the audience aren't paying attention they don't really mind because they're quite happy playing their music. They're not prepared to change that in any way just to win the audience's favour. If people don't happen to like it that's because they're wrong.

It goes without saying that the Lottery Winners belong in the first category. As does anybody whose career last more than a couple of years.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Alan Simpson deserved a medal for writing Tony Hancock's best stuff. But no badge.

Alan Simpson has died. He and Ray Galton wrote the great Hancock radio shows. That's him on the left.

I don't really remember those shows being on the radio. I picked them up later on, from gramophone records played on the radio in the 60s. People would request snippets of them on "Two Way Family Favourites".

When I was living in a flat in north London at the beginning of the 70s a bunch of us had some of those records on the Pye Golden Guinea label. We played them so often that I can recite entire pages of the scripts.

There's never been better broadcast comedy. There's never been more poignant broadcast comedy. There's been better delivered comedy.

Hardly a week goes by without one of Galton and Simpson's lines as spoken by Tony Hancock unaccountably welling up from my subconscious.

"Given, no. Spilt, yes."

"There's more water out there then there is in your beer."

"Send a bread pudding to Kuala Lumpur."

"We're going to Margate this year, if any of you nurses fancy..."

"But no badge...."


Sunday, February 05, 2017

A thought about the next President

Keep turning over in my mind something I just heard on the excellent NPR Politics podcast.

If you'd suggested in the first year of George W. Bush's second term that the next President would be Barack Obama you would have been laughed at.

And if you had suggested in the first year of Obama's second term that the next President was going to be Donald Trump the laughs would have been even louder.

I don't know exactly what it proves other than the enduring truth of Harold Macmillan's line about  the thing politicians most fear.

"Events, dear boy, events."

Friday, February 03, 2017

This is what's happening with Word In Your Ear

Paul Gambaccini was our guest in a particularly riveting Word In Your Ear evening at the Islington last week. He was talking about everything from his time as a writer on Rolling Stone through his time at Radio One to his harrowing year under the shadow of the Metropolitan police Yewtree investigation. This is all detailed in his extraordinary book Love, Paul Gambaccini. You can hear the conversation here. You can also sign up to get further Word In Your Ear podcasts.

Next Wednesday our guests are Tony Fletcher and Barney Hoskyns. Tony, who's the former editor of Jamming magazine, will be talking about his various music biographies, including his new one In The Midnight Hour, which is the story of Wilson Pickett. Barney is with us, talking about and signing copies of his book Small Town Talk, which is all about the extraordinary musical background of Woodstock. There's a few tickets available here, where you can also sign up for the mailing list and make sure you get notice of upcoming events. We're hatching plans for spring right now.

Monday, January 30, 2017

A President with nothing to hide

For years now I've been thinking, why would anyone run for high office in this day and age?

Some of the most effective leaders – Churchill,  Roosevelt, Mitterand  – had clanking great skeletons in their closet. But since the media took on the job of exposing everything about candidates that they might not want to have exposed, we've had leaders like Obama and Cameron and Merkel who are above all things careful and don't appear to have any secrets to cover up.

That's led us to people who don't have their fingers in the cookie jar, haven't changed their positions all that much and have a dull domestic life.

And now we have the opposite. A President who is largely motivated by money, has run as the candidate of a party who don't agree with him and has a domestic life like something out of a Tom Wolfe novel.

But here's the thing.

Donald Trump doesn't really have anything to hide.

He's exactly the blowhard his opponents say he is and precisely the bull in a china shop his supporters ordered. They didn't vote for him because they listened to his plans and thought, that seems sound. They voted for him because they wanted to roll a grenade under the door of the status quo. They wanted action. And they've got hyperactivity.

But is there anything, apart from the slow unravelling of plans entered into in his haste, that could derail him?

Certainly not the normal stuff. If his tax returns were to come out and to say that he'd been involved in massive tax avoidance it wouldn't particularly hurt him. If it were to suggest he wasn't quite as rich as he makes out that would annoy him but it wouldn't really damage him. If he were to be found in the outer office with an intern, like Bill Clinton was, would even the Evangelical right do anything more than shrug? I don't think so. This is not a man that anybody looks at and thinks, he represents my values or my country. Nobody would lend him their lawnmower.

He's a television personality. To twist an old Tom Stoppard line, he's the opposite of a person.

What he's doing at the moment is "Larping". Live Action Role Playing.

He has no principles. Therefore he has nothing to hide.

TV has a lot of answer for. This is the person the TV industry has been building towards since the middle 1950s. Nothing on the surface and nothing underneath either.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

So is this why Americans drink before meals

These are just four of the scores of different covers that Frederick Allen's "Only Yesterday" has had since it was first published in 1931, which gives you an idea of how it's maintained its popularity.

It was a massive best-seller back then, and that was richly deserved. It's a brilliantly written account of the America of prohibition, red scares, irrational economic boom, dramatic changes in the relationships within the family, the transforming power of the motor car and the advent of radio, all written while the decade's paint was still wet.

Now I understand why Americans would still rather have two or three strong cocktails before a meal than wine with it. This habit dates from Prohibition, when people would meet their friends in a hotel room where they could serve each other a few illicit drinks in seclusion before going down to eat in the hotel dining room.

Can't recommend this book too highly.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Books have replaced records under the Christmas tree

I was in a few West End bookshops in the week before Christmas and they were busy, as busy as I remember record shops used to be in the week before Christmas.

Albums were formerly the ideal Christmas present. They were the right price and they were always appreciated. Tens of thousands of people would buy albums at Christmas who hardly bought them the rest of the year.

Now all that's gone. The people who used to give albums now give books.

The record business's loss seems to have been the book business's gain.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Why acts might tout their own tickets

I've no idea whether Robbie Williams' management really did sell marked-up tickets to his shows via resale sites as the BBC are claiming.

This I do know. If you're managing a hot act you know that there's a big difference between the price your artist is comfortable with charging and the amount the market will pay. It might be twice as much.

If people are going to pay double the standard price for tickets you can either watch that money go to wicked scalpers (or averagely shrewd members of the public who buy two lots and sell one in order to pay for their evening out); or you can get some of it for your artist.

I'm not saying it's right or desirable but I can understand it.

Monday, January 09, 2017

The reason pop star deaths always make the news

We were out at lunch with old friends yesterday when we got the news Peter Sarstedt had died.

I asked my friends whether the news of his death would make the BBC Six o'clock News. The consensus of the table was it was unlikely. One hit and such a long time ago. It wouldn't be enough.

I said I thought he would be.

We were driving back when I got a text from one of the friends from the lunch. They had the radio on and, sure enough, the news of Peter Sarstedt's death was on the Six O'Clock.

With pop star deaths the question of news values becomes muddied by the desire of a radio producer to interrupt their diet of hard news with a little bit of music.

The one hasn't been born who can resist.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

The Mariah Carey cock-up was my favourite TV of the year.

I didn't watch any TV on New Year's Eve but I can't get enough of the Mariah Carey story that emerged the following day.

There's nothing I like more than seeing a self important pop star and an over-inflated TV show caught at it. The only thing more fun than watching the disaster unfold is following the fall out as everybody in earpiece land tries to pin the blame on everyone else.

Mariah Carey was supposed to do three songs for Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve With Ryan Seacrest, which sounds like a heartwarmingly modest little do, doesn't it?

Something went wrong in the second one. Either the wrong track played or the right track played but she couldn't hear it. So she ambled around looking tight-lipped while her dancers carried on like the troupers they no doubt are.

There's a round-up of the latest state of the blame game here. On one side you've got the TV producers. On the other you've got Carey's manager. These things are usually six of one and half a dozen of the other so I'm not taking sides.

However it does cause you to reflect on the panic of the traditional gatekeepers of entertainment - the TV networks and the record companies - when confronted with the challenges of the wild world of today. Certain aspects are particularly interesting to me.

* By the look and sound of things she was going to sing most of the song live with only the difficult bits flown in from a hard drive. This is presumably how these things are increasingly done. Technology is now flexible enough to provide lots of such halfway house solutions, which would lead you to suspect that anything which sounds incredible is precisely that.
* The dancers don't appear to be thrown by not being able to hear the track because they're dancing by numbers. As long as they all start together they're likely to finish together.
* Is it possible that the producers were more interested in seeing it go wrong than seeing it go right because three days of speculation on the web is worth more than a massive audience on the night?
* If that's not true, isn't it interesting that Mariah Carey thinks it is?