Tuesday, 29 April 2008

False Start

It has long been a pet theory of mine that the route to success is not paved with unbroken success but more likely stained with failure, or at least some sort of initial setback. This apparent paradox can be seen in the music business time and time again. No sooner do record companies drop or fail to sign an act than they get picked up by a rival and are immediately successful.

A good example is the Sugababes who were unceremoniously dropped by London records just before achieving global mega-status for new label Island. Of course, there are always famous cases of future stars being turned down at audition by unsuspecting potential employers. I dare say that Decca are still kicking themselves over those four scousers called, what was it? Oh yes, the Beatles – I wonder what happened to them?

But often, success of a different flavour can follow disappointment. In the mid 1990s, Julian Cope was dropped by Island after his masterwork, ‘Jehovahkill’ was considered too uncommercial. But since then he has carved out a low key yet successful multi-career by releasing his own albums and writing learned books about ancient stone monuments as well as his own idiosyncratic autobiography.

More recently, a favourite artist of mine, Nerina Pallot has just returned to the fray with the brilliant ‘Fires’ album, released on her own independent label, Idaho, having been dropped by Polydor after just one album, and it is the best work she has done to date. Why can’t artists be given room to grow? Let’s face it; ‘Sgt Pepper’ was the Beatles’ eighth album. How many bands get the opportunity to release eight albums these days? Commercial shortsightedness is the bane of the music industry. How many companies these days would tolerate the experimental dabblings of the Pink Floyd before ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ (also album number eight)?

But let us not be too hard on the companies who see fit to let their potential stars go, as there is an upside. It is often the enforced change of direction that such setbacks bring about that precipitates the improvement in fortunes, something that may not have happened in situ. I, however, like to think that there is a strong element of two fingers to the perpetrators that spurs artists to thrive elsewhere.

Succeeding at a new record label after being dropped by another is a bit like scoring the winner against your old club, having been transfer listed the previous season– hugely satisfying.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Bailey's Mum

There is no doubt that one of the best things ever to come along for us Music Obsessives is YouTube. If you ignore the junk and the wannabes, it rekindles musical memories, allows re-appraisal of half forgotten acts, serves as a vast store of knowledge and is an invaluable aid to finding new undiscovered strands of the rock ‘n’ roll tapestry. But every now and again it gets up and bites you and shows you who is really in control and it ain’t anyone over 40.

Which leads me to Bailey’s Mum. Who? Well, exactly. It is an inevitably sad fact of life that the older you get the more you lose your own identity and become an appendage to someone else’s. This is one entry that I was presented with when I searched for Judie Tzuke on YouTube: Judie Tzuke (Bailey’s Mum).

Who or what is Bailey? I’m ashamed to say that my first thought was that it was a song title. It just shows you how wrong you can be when you don’t keep up. So, after a bit of research it transpires that she is Bailey Tzuke, Judie’s twenty-year-old daughter and she is currently following in her mother’s footsteps and launching her own career. To her followers she is, no doubt, the latest big thing and poor old Judie who has a 30 year career behind her and twenty-odd albums, is no longer an artist in her own right apparently, but merely her mum. Which just goes to show that YouTube, like most things in life, is in the frenzied grip of the young who, whilst having an encyclopaedic knowledge of technology and how to use it, have no knowledge of anything else. How long before Madonna is relegated to ‘Lourdes’ Mum’ or Ozzy Osbourne to ‘Kelly’s Dad’? This is the danger of pandering to the very young; they have no perspective and have a blinkered propensity to live for the day.

So just to set the record straight, Judie Tzuke (born Myers, but reclaimed her original Polish family name in the 1970s) is the possessor of a fine soprano voice and bothered the charts a bit in the early 1980s with the sublime ‘Stay With Me Till Dawn’ and produced a raft of excellent albums on a variety of labels. I own the first half dozen of them and would direct you to her debut ‘Welcome to the Cruise’ and number 4, ‘Shoot the Moon’ as the best of the crop.

Let’s hear it for mums!

Sunday, 20 April 2008

I'd Do Anything...sort of

So here we go again with another BBC/Andrew Lloyd-Webber reality audition TV show, ‘I’d Do Anything’ where another West End star will be chosen by the public. You know what the worst thing is about TV singing talent shows? It’s the way the results can be manipulated. In the case of the ‘competition’ type shows like IDA, the control of manipulation lies with the organisers, judging panel and ‘trainers’. So if you want to create your own show, this is how you do it.

1. First plan out your talent show and then decide who is going to win.

2. The potential winner is then given an extremely well known and popular song to sing. This is absolutely key because an audience will always respond to a favourite song almost irrespective of the talent or personality of the singer. The song should be chosen so that it fits the audience demographic, so a sixties song is matched to a middle-aged audience and so on. There are always memories attached to songs, most of which are happy, so a well-matched song is bound to strike a few chords. (Note - the ‘Stars in their Eyes’ entrant who won with Chris de Burgh’s ‘Lady in Red’ got it absolutely right. His was not a killer impersonation but the song chosen was a tremendously popular, sentimental song that virtually everybody in that audience had last-danced to in their youth. How could he fail?)

3. Conversely, the most talented singer in the competition is given a slightly bizarre yet extremely difficult song to attempt. When it doesn’t quite come off, the judging panel sympathizes with the following:
‘We gave you a tough song this week because we felt your talent could do it justice, but unfortunately it didn’t quite convince. Nevertheless it was still a great performance.’
Of course the last sentence attempts to show balance but the damage has been done and the seed of doom has been sown with the audience.

4. The remainder of the competitors are given slightly less popular or wrong demographic songs than the proposed winner (so Bing Crosby in front of a twenty-something audience and Puff Daddy for old age pensioners). This ensures that they will not shine in quite the same way. Of course, if it doesn’t work one week there is always the following week and eventually the ‘right’ person will emerge.

In these sorts of shows it is really the music that is under scrutiny, not the performers and the music is the one thing that the organisers have under their complete control. Hence results can be influenced, as generally the performer has little control of the song choice and must perform as best they can on an uneven playing field.

Simple really. Good luck with your show.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Return to Sender

Ever get the feeling that all song lyrics are just there to give the singer something to do so that they don’t have to do that sort of half-dance whilst the rest of the band rock out? Unfortunately there are far too many songs that give that impression but a page of lyrics can be an interesting object in its own right.

There are lyrics that proclaim political or religious views or rants on modern life or heart-on-sleeve love overtures, and others that tell stories or even advertise wares. The possibilities are endless but there is one subset of all this that interests me and that is the ‘open letter’ type that appears to be a direct communication between two people with the rest of us eavesdropping whilst enjoying a good tune (or not of course).

The first of these is the acrimonious split as essayed by Lennon and McCartney. 1971 was the year following the Beatles’ split and tensions were obviously running high in an I’m-better-than-you-even-after-THAT-band type of way. McCartney opened on ‘Ram’ with the biting ‘Too Many People’ which many people saw as a direct accusation that his erstwhile partner was too big for his very expensive boots.

Lennon hit back on his ‘Imagine’ album with a typically acerbic reply, ‘How Do You Sleep?’ which cast doubt on Macca’s songwriting ability and business sense. Sorely aware that Yoko was blamed for the split, it even incorporated a pseudo-Japanese musical motif just to rub salt in the wound. All very entertaining.

Another musical correspondence was that between Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Young fired the first shot with ‘Southern Man’, (and ‘Alabama’) which attempted to kill off a few misconceptions about the American South, but Lynyrd Skynyrd felt he had scatter-gunned too many indiscriminate targets and replied with their own South-affirming, ‘Sweet Home Alabama’. The dispute rumbled on off vinyl for years afterwards.

On a more light-hearted note there is the exchange between Carole King and Neil Sedaka. In 1959 a young Sedaka wrote an impassioned plea ‘Oh Carol!’ to his ex-girlfriend, Carole King (it turned out to be his first big hit!) She eventually replied with ‘Oh Neil’ some time later and history does not relate what happened next but clearly the relationship foundered although both forged successful musical careers.

There don’t seem to be many of these at the moment and I miss the cut and thrust so I think we need more of them. Anyone fancy releasing a single entitled, ‘You Spice Girls are Complete Crap’?

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Guilty Pleasures Pt4

And so to part 4 of this occasional series which is proving to be quite cathartic and it features singer, Pauline Matthews, or Kiki Dee to give her stage name. The reason Kiki Dee is a guilty pleasure for me can be summed up in one song title, ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’. This dreadful duet with Elton John was a huge hit in the UK and I hated it. I still hate it, so let’s move on.

Kiki started her promising career in the 1960s singing in local bands and doing backing vocals for the likes of Dusty Springfield. As a result of her vocal potential, she holds the accolade of being the first white British star to be signed by Tamla Motown, who released a little known album in 1970 and then dropped her. By 1973, Elton John’s Rocket label had picked her up and she had a decent hit with the beautiful ‘Amoureuse’. Up until this point, I had been completely unaware of her, but this single enthralled me with its beguiling melody and moody vocal performance.

I still have the scratched vinyl 7-inch copy that I rushed out to buy when my affair with Kiki started. Although never a rock ‘n’ roll rebel in the accepted sense, she did have a powerful strident voice and in 1974, with a proper rock band assembled around her, she released my favourite of her albums, ‘I’ve Got the Music in Me’ and had a hit with the triumphantly raucous title track.

This album collected together a bunch of much rockier tracks that we were used to from her and she seemed to be aiming at the sort of rock chick market that Pat Benatar would inhabit a decade later. Whilst the album was a reasonable success, the rock chick demeanour never really suited her more staid image and consequently her career failed to take off. Then, in 1976 just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, THAT single was foisted on us. The result was that she seemed to lose her fragile identity completely and became ‘that woman who sings with Elton’ complete with guest appearances. With punk on the horizon, it was about here that we parted company as I couldn’t stand the embarrassment of admitting to liking someone who was famous for doing naff duets with EJ.

Nevertheless, I still play my copy of ‘Amoureuse’ and her ‘rock’ album, but I don’t tell many people about it, so please keep it quiet!

So that’s the story of me and Kiki. What next you may well ask, Clodagh Rodgers?

Monday, 7 April 2008

The Strange Case of Jane Aire and Others...

So, as hinted at some time ago, I finally acquired a USB turntable and have, also as predicted by some observers, spent hours closeted away with it transferring parts of my vinyl collection to MP3 to the general dissatisfaction of my family.

One album that I reached for almost immediately is simply entitled, ‘Jane Aire and the Belvederes’, was released on the Virgin label in 1979 and has never seen the light of a CD release. This is one of those albums that I creep back to on a regular basis but never quite understand why. After all, I know next to nothing about Jane Aire and even less about the Belvederes, other than one of their number was future Culture Club drummer, Jon Moss.

The reason for its purchase is that I heard it playing in a music store and bought on a whim and it turned out to be very good indeed. It comprises some sprightly covers of Motown songs and a number of variously penned rockers and ballads, all of which are sung in Jane’s rich contralto. The problem for me has been that because it has not been released on CD or as a download, I haven’t played it that often – until now.

Now that I think about it, there are several albums that have become favourites by stealth rather than by rattling the door, demanding to be let in and most of them are the sort of one-of-a-kind album epitomised by Jane Aire. Somehow, I find myself going back to them time after time rather than play something by a recognised favourite with a large representation in my collection.

Those with this peculiar mystique include ’30,000 Feet Over China’ by the Passions, ‘Metro Music’ by Martha and the Muffins and ‘Strange Boutique’ by The Monochrome Set. All of them have a fatal attraction which makes me play them but doesn’t make me want to go out and buy more from the artist involved. Weird or what?

My only explanation is that because I love the one album I already own so much, I don’t want to risk sullying the experience by buying another potentially awful example of their work. After all, these things have been known to happen (Seven and the Ragged Tiger, anyone?) and on a disconcertingly regular basis and my spider-sense tells me that this is almost inevitable in the case of these albums.

What this all boils down to is that I now have my favourite stealth albums on my trusty Creative Zen – so I’ll probably be sick of them by about the end of next week.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Criminally Amusing

‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man’ so sayeth the Jesuits but in my case it was more a case of ten or eleven. It was at that age that I mentioned casually to my mother that there was a hard-backed copy of the Complete Sherlock Holmes Short Stories occupying a huge chunk of shelf space in my primary school library and she immediately instructed me to borrow it for her to read.

My mother was a great devourer of detective fiction – Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret was her favourite - and a chance to read all the Sherlock Holmes stories at a stroke was too good to miss. So it was that I ended up struggling home with the massive tome one fateful afternoon. The book took up residence in our home for so long that, out of curiosity, I started to read it myself and having finished it I, too, became hooked on crime fiction.

In my teens I read all 80-odd Agatha Christie novels and then graduated on to writers such as Dorothy L Sayers, Ruth Rendell, P D James and a host of others. It had become my favourite genre and to a large degree, still is.

My other preferred reading style can be traced to the school book club, operated by my English master at secondary school. This was designed to allow pupils to purchase books at low prices and thus benefit from our rich cultural heritage. Unfortunately, not all the books on the monthly lists were of what the school would consider an improving nature. My first purchases included ‘The Art of Coarse Rugby’ by humorist Michael Green who wrote a whole series of ‘Art of Coarse...’ books in the 1950s and ‘How to be Topp’ by another humorist, Geoffrey Willans and illustrated by Ronald Searle (of St Trianians fame). Willans was an ex-school master himself and his books are about life at a fictional post war boarding school, St Custards, written through the world-weary eyes of pupil Nigel Molesworth (the gorilla of 3b...as any fule kno!)

His Molesworth books were a riot of poor spelling and uncannily adept insight into the schoolboy mind and I loved them...and still do. These two writers led me to humorist novels and pretty soon the likes of P G Wodehouse, Keith Waterhouse and Spike Milligan followed.

And thus were born from an early age my duel reading preferences which have remained largely unchanged all my life. Funnily enough, I now find myself reading many of the American crime writers like Sue Grafton and particularly, Janet Evanovich, who combine the traditional crime mystery with a degree of either wry or madcap humour. For me, the perfect combination.