Thursday, 20 December 2007

It's Chriiissstmasss!

Well, if it isn’t that time of year again, where does the time go? You know, the time when you can’t go anywhere or do anything away from your own home without being assaulted with ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’ or ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’ blasting from every store, pub, petrol station or shopping mall via a speaker system so poor it makes dogs whine and horses bolt. It’s enough to send you bonkers.

Why is it that artists seem to take leave of their senses when it comes to Christmas? Too many good-idea-at-the-time inspirations at the alcohol fuelled office party seem to actually get made and released despite the moderating influence of the cold light of day. Bottom of the pile would be the Pogues and that dreadfully irritating ‘Fairytale of New York, (Kirsty, what WERE you thinking?!). And let’s not go anywhere near Sir Cliff in case you have to listen to ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ or ‘Saviour’s Day’ nor Kim Wilde (ditto ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’) unless you intend spending the afternoon lying down in a darkened room.

And on top of it all is Wizzard. Funnily enough, I noted recently that the MD for some big conglomerate was called Roy Wood. You can imagine what their board meetings must be like: ‘…and moving on to item 34(c) where I have proposed that it be deemed to be Christmas Everyday…all in favour?’

The worse thing about Christmas records is that they pitch up every year without fail to torment us. At least all other dodgy tunes do the decent thing and have their 15 minutes of fame before disappearing into history never to be heard again. Isn’t there a statute of limitations on this sort of stuff?

I suppose that if I were forced to have to pick one half decent festive tune in a spirit of goodwill to all men, it would be ‘Christmas Wrapping’ by that strange mixed gender post punk band, The Waitresses. It’s the Nile Rodgers style rhythm guitar, James Jamerson bass lines and the great story-telling vocal that really sells it to me. Sadly, Patty Donahue, their vocalist, died of lung cancer in December 1996, aged just 40 but her playful irreverence where a lyric was concerned made her a unique talent and ‘Christmas Wrapping’ usually puts a smile on my face, even after the 957th hearing.

Unfortunately, there is no video of The Waitresses doing ‘Christmas Wrapping’ on YouTube, but if you do a search there are some home videos to accompany it of varying degrees of watchability. Give it a try.

I’m signing off for the holidays, so Merry Christmas everyone! See you in the New Year with more thoughts of a music obsessive.

Monday, 17 December 2007

Mid Life Crisis

As Rock ‘n’ Roll lumbers into a truculent middle age, as exemplified by the recent Led Zeppelin extravaganza, you’d expect it to start thinking about things like retirement and pensions – that’s if it’s not already dead.

It’s a bit of a tricky problem for rock stars. Obviously not for the majority who never made it, as they will have returned to the day job and will already be thinking about playing golf and looking after the grandchildren. But for the real achievers, it becomes less clear. Do they retire gracefully at a time when most of us still have their nose to the grindstone or do they continue to strut their stuff well into retirement age?

Option A is less risky in that the material that made them famous and presumably well-loved remains in the public domain (and in the shops) and cannot be tarnished by any middle-aged cavortings masquerading as new material. The artist retains a degree of integrity and lives a life of ease if not adulation. Clearly if you are dead, option A is an imperative but it doesn’t seem to have done Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain any harm.

Option B is the high-risk strategy based on the premise that the artist remains relevant throughout their working life. The drivers here are money and adulation, two of the most powerful motives for most performers. The Rolling Stones are the prime example and it is debateable whether they have harmed their own legacy by continuing for so long. But also in the category are the likes of Genesis, Iggy Pop and Blondie who, you get the feeling, are a bit marginal and then there’s Status Quo.

If there is anyone who has fallen in the public eye it is Status Quo, as evidenced by the famous refusal of Radio 1 to play their latter day singles. The irony is that for a short period in the 1970s Status Quo was a force to be reckoned with. Given their self-imposed stylistic limitations, they moulded themselves into a tight, powerful and utterly compelling unit. Listen to anything on ‘Hello’ or thereabouts and you will hear a team welded together by a common purpose, a four piece that you couldn’t squeeze a cigarette paper between musically and with an energy level that could power a small village for a whole year.

With a legacy like that, option A begins to look like a winner.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Return to Bangleonia

There are some bands that seem destined to be consistently misrepresented by their own publicity and ultimate success.

Take Californian all-girl band, The Bangles for example. You will probably know this lot for one or more of the following 1980s tunes:
'Manic Monday'
'Walk Like an Egyptian'
'Eternal Flame'

All these songs have two factors in common. First they are all, in large part, sung by Susanna Hoffs and second, they are all songs that I, as a fan, probably wouldn’t turn a hair if I never heard again – with the possible exception of 'Eternal Flame' provided it is not the Atomic Kitten version. But sadly they are basically the public face of The Bangles giving the distinct impression of a somewhat dippy lightweight west coast pop band led by Hoffs and backed up by a bunch of unknown others.

But it’s not true. Have a look at their albums, any of them, and what do we find? An endless selection of kooky ballads sung by Susanna Hoffs? No. What we find is a diversity of pop ballads, folksy 1960s psychedelia, gutsy rockers and vocal harmony tour-de-forces all written by Vicki or Debbie Peterson, Susanna Hoffs and Michael Steele in roughly equal proportion and a sprinkling of well arranged covers. The lead vocals are split democratically between all four of them and each makes a substantial case for being the lead vocalist per se whilst the others provide multi-harmony backing. My particular favourite is drummer Debbie Peterson who brings a real edge to her vocal chores.

In fact, all their 1980s albums contain a whole swathe of up-tempo rockers (usually contributed by Vicki Peterson, the senior songwriter) where jangling or spiky guitars meet Debbie’s pounding drums. My guess is that many people who bought these albums were a little taken aback, given their PR.

It is a sad fact that it was the public perception that Hoffs was the band leader (and by implication the ‘talented one’) that drove a knife through them and split them up in 1989. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Live on stage the truth becomes apparent. Live, they are one of the most enjoyable bands I have ever seen and I saw them three times during the 1980s. Check out their new DVD ‘Return to Bangleonia’ (Region 1 only, sadly) which features their reunion gig in 2000, and you will see what I mean. What this tells of is a versatile, entertaining band comprising four consummate musicians who sing and play beautifully, but who, more importantly, contribute equally to the greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts whole. Moreover, the quality of the bulk of the set transcends the ‘Hits’ and makes you begin to wonder why the buying public support the sort of kitsch that is ‘Walk like an Egyptian’.

Hmm…it seems singles have a lot to answer for.

Friday, 7 December 2007

One Today!!

Hurrah! My Book is officially one year old today (‘Happy Birthday to you…etc’). Actually, it was formally published on 13th December but it was available prior to the official date so as to catch the Christmas market (Ha!), but today is its real Birthday!

I still have no clue from the publishers as to how many I’ve sold (something to do with long sale-or-return delays) so I am undecided as to whether I should be celebrating or not (probably ‘not’) but I think I shall anyway.

A BIG THANK YOU to all of you who have bought it, even if you have since given it away or lost it down the back of the sofa. I hope you were entertained but even if you weren’t at least it will look very colourful on your shelf and will act as a good conversation piece. I have to say that my first inkling of the proposed cover design was when my wife rang me at work to say that the proof had arrived in the post and when I asked her what it looked like there was a horrible silence at the other end of the phone for what seemed like an eternity followed by a blurted, ‘It’s YELLOW…!’

Happily, I have learned to live with it so I hope you have too.

PS If you have read it and liked it, a review on would be nice!!
PPS It is still available if you need a last minute Christmas present!

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

A Deeper Understanding

I don’t know about you, but these days I seem to be permanently connected to a computer, whether it be at work, tapping away for hours on end or at home writing this blog or exchanging emails with friends. It is an environment that just seems to have crept up on me and to not have a computer humming away within earshot would now seem untypical. But it certainly wasn’t the case back in 1989 when Kate Bush wrote ‘Deeper Understanding’, a song that ended up on the album, ‘The Sensual World’.

Listening to it recently, the song shows itself to be surprisingly prophetic now. It tells of a lonely person whose computer takes on its own personality after having been loaded with a ‘voice console’ and becomes a friend – a sort of updated version of ‘Sparky’s Magic Piano’ (this will date you, ‘Sparky’ was originally recorded in 1947!)

Looking through the lyrics, it all becomes a bit unsettling. For example:
‘As the people here grow colder
I turn to my computer
And spend my evenings with it
Like a friend.’
Oh dear! Does she mean me?

Of course, after a brief and passionate affair, it all ends in insanity:
‘I did not eat, I did not sleep,
The intensity increasing,
'Til my family found me and intervened.’

The clever part in the writing is that when the computer ‘speaks’ it is with a beguilingly beautiful melody, backed by the Bulgarian vocal ensemble, Trio Bulgarka, whose control over those slightly grey areas between semi-tones is breathtaking, giving the ‘speech’ an aura of otherworldliness, especially to traditional western ears.

In a wider sense, it seems to me that Kate, intentionally or otherwise, hit obliquely upon a growing phenomenon – that of the virtual community. Today, with the aid of a computer and the Internet anyone can have a global community of ‘friends’ without ever meeting any of them. In the good old days such people were called pen pals but frankly, waiting 6 weeks for a reply from Outer Mongolia doesn’t really compare with the instant response available from email.

With networking sites like MySpace springing up all over the place, a lifestyle based on virtual friends is looking increasingly like a sustainable choice. A sci-fi future of isolated humans, working at home, never leaving their room and communicating only via cyberspace beckons and it’s not that far away!

I suppose the danger that ‘Deeper Understanding’ warns of is that the computer itself becomes the perceived ‘friend’ rather than the people, but we’re all well-adjusted hackers here, aren’t we?

Aren’t we?