Saturday, 30 January 2010

Time and a Buzzcock

As the Pink Floyd once said,

‘And then one day you find
Ten years have got behind you’

In fact they are wrong; ten years doesn’t so much get behind you as sprint away to the distant horizon as fast as its legs will carry it i.e. about the speed of light, never to be seen again. We all suffer from its effects but none more so than music.

As I was watching last season’s Strictly Come Dancing I was struck by three things:

1. I wonder if Motown writing team Holland, Dozier and Holland are being paid royalties? Their songs, now 40+ years old, are constantly in evidence and are used for all manner of dances – which just goes to show that their appeal then is the same as their appeal now – they are irresistible dance tunes.

2. I realised what a great song the Zombies’ ‘She’s Not There’ is. I knew this really, but the interpretation by the session players in the BBC band was really, really good and it just underlined the fact. Actually this happens quite a lot. I end up ignoring the dancing and getting engrossed in the interpretations of some great songs.

3. I wonder what the Buzzcocks thought of their ‘Ever Fallen in Love’ being danced to by the World Latin Dance Champions?

Whilst items one and two are interesting in themselves and show a sort of timelessness to songs that are clearly classics, it was point three that got me to thinking about the effect of time on music. Back in 1978, when Punk was raging and trying its hardest to upset the established order but only succeeding in mutating into the more acceptable New Wave, songs such as this were part of the genre. They were performed at breakneck speed with buzzing guitars and snarled lyrics just daring anyone over about 18 to like them. They were specifically designed not to appeal to older listeners who may after all be, gulp, Genesis fans.

Forty years later, they are being performed by smooth cabaret singers on the bastion of middle England, the BBC, on prime Saturday night TV appealing to a vast cross section of society. The basic arrangement is still there but the guitars have been neutered and the drums muted. What remains is the song and this is the key, it still stands up on its own. Pete Shelley’s lament to lost love has stood the test of time and over the intervening period has transcended the genre that spawned it. Even Genesis fans will like it now and I’d love to know what Pete feels about it.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

BRIT Nominations 2010

It was bound to happen sometime and this year it has. The judges for the annual British Record Industry Trust (BRIT) awards 2010 have found themselves between a rock and a hard place over the singing phenomenon that is Susan Boyle. Subo has clearly been pointedly ignored and does not feature in the nominations which were posted recently.

Whilst their fellow judges at the rival Mercury Music Awards have always steered a somewhat self-consciously elitist course and voted for acts that are, in their opinion, esoteric rather than populist, the same cannot be said for the BRIT’s who have tended to root for the popular (read ‘good at making money’). So here is the BRIT dilemma: whilst it would like to champion genuine talent in the hope that it will repay them over time, they cannot ignore the fact that Subo has shifted shedloads of ‘units’ and the public loves her. The difficulty is that she is a product of a Simon Cowell TV talent show which somehow diminishes her worth within the music industry.

Oh dear! You can’t help feeling sorry for them, can you? Apparently the official reason why she was left off the nomination list was that she was merely a singer doing cover versions of others’ material and that winners of a BRIT award should show a more rounded musical talent (you mean like the Arctic Monkeys? Haha!) This is all very well and works for most of the BRIT history, except last year when Welsh chanteuse, Duffy, picked up a couple of gongs. I have the greatest respect for Duffy but she does fall rather uncomfortably into the ‘merely a singer’ category. Hmm.

Nevertheless, this year’s ceremony should be packed with interest as we have a veritable plethora of artists nominated in up to three separate awards, those being Lady Gaga, Florence and the Machine, Pixie Lott, Lily Allen and JLS (who are also a product of the ‘X’ Factor – help!). JLS are up against Doves, Kasabian, Muse and Friendly Fires in the Best Band category so there is a good excuse to ensure they don’t win anything. Personally I hope Lady Gaga and Florence sweep the board as they have both, in their own way, livened up a pop world which is in grave danger of taking itself too seriously of late.

Last and probably least, Robbie Williams is in line for the ‘Outstanding Contribution to Music’ award and I’m sure that the irony will not be lost on him as he has been comprehensively outperformed by his erstwhile bandmates, Take That, for at least the last two years. Perhaps Subo should get it?

Monday, 18 January 2010

Under The Ivy

Generally, I am not an obsessive gadgets person. I don’t mind computers or mobile phones but toys like Satnav are a complete no-no. So, back in 1985, when video recorders had already been around since the late 1970s, I was probably the last person on earth to buy one of the new-fangled machines. The reason for this late change of mind was that a certain TV channel was re-running old episodes of Gerry Anderson’s ‘Fireball XL5’ during the day when I was at work and having been besotted with them the first time around when I was a 7 year old would-be astronaut, I couldn’t bear the thought of missing the opportunity to see them again. So a machine was duly purchased, the timer set and nostalgia reigned.

After the initial burst of recording frenzy, I scouted around for other things to record and music programmes were the main target. In the late 1980s there were loads of music programmes on TV. As well as Top of the Pops, there was The Tube, The White Room, The Old Grey Whistle Test and various other chat shows and Saturday morning extravaganzas. So most of the period between 1985 and 1990 was spent with me having my finger permanently glued to the pause button in case something good should come on.

I still have the original Video Cassette with 3 hours of snippets from all sorts of bands but it is now over 20 years old and having been wound back and forth constantly, it is a little delicate and doesn’t always play properly. Somewhere in the middle is a short clip of Kate Bush at Abbey Road studios playing the piano and singing ‘Under the Ivy’ taken from ‘The Tube’ (and introduced by the late Paula Yates). It is quite enchanting, as I remember, but I daren’t try and find it now for fear of the tape disintegrating.

Happily, some kind soul has posted it on YouTube so I was able to reacquaint myself with it and confirm that it is one of those moments that makes your hairs stand up. ‘Under the Ivy’ did not appear on any Bush album but resided as a ‘B’ side on the ‘Running Up That Hill’ single. Notwithstanding its ‘reject’ status, it is a simple, short and infinitely beautiful song and the live rendition shown in the video shows Kate at her best – just her and a piano. Unfortunately, some bright spark of a TV producer has inserted a load of effects and snippets of her videos which rather spoil the atmosphere but it is still a mesmerising vocal performance from a true artist.

The last few seconds are quite revealing. As the song ends, Kate seems to ‘resurface’ to the real world and gives the camera a dazzling smile. It is almost like she enters an alternate world when she is performing, one which is completely unattached to reality and it takes a few seconds to pass between the two. Magic.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Celebrity Book Tokens

I think it is about time for a New Year rant. There’s one question that haunts me every time Christmas or one of my children’s birthdays comes around and that is: why do people give book tokens to very young children? I can remember as a child myself suffering from that terrible sinking feeling whenever a book token hoved into view. Money, yes: book tokens, no. Book tokens were for swots like Carole Morgan whose bedroom was probably bursting with all sorts of improving volumes but you can’t buy records with book tokens...or Airfix kits or Man from Uncle bubblegum cards or anything…except books.

And so it came to pass that yet more book tokens arrived this Christmas and I was obliged, like some Bureau de Bookchange, to exchange them for cash so that the kids could buy what they really wanted. This has two consequences. First it involves a bit of creative writing when it comes to thank you notes and second it involves me in a search of WH Smith or Waterstones for something worth exchanging them for.

And this is where I start to get really depressed because WH Smiths has on a sale of 125 hardbacks and of them I counted 12, yes 12, that were fiction and 113 that were either by or about so-called celebrities or spin offs from TV programmes. Worse, the fiction titles were by authors that have already sold enough copies to fill the Albert Hall, twice. In fact I checked Smith’s website and discovered that of their top 30 best selling hardbacks, 7 are by fiction authors and the rest are celebrity trash. So where does that leave the rest of us authors (and I count myself here even though my measly self published opus is hardly a work of literary genius) when it comes to making a living? Where is the motivation to write a book and sweat blood to get it published only to find that you are outsold by millions to one by that one off the travel show or some faded comedian who can’t write a proper sentence?

Predictably, Waterstones was no better. The books that I would really like to buy are no longer sold by bookshops who are so in thrall to the celebrity culture that they probably wouldn’t know a fiction book if it fell off the shelf and knocked them unconscious. Instead, I am forced to Amazon who do sell them, and much cheaper, but WHO DON’T ACCEPT BOOK TOKENS.

There, I’ve got that off my chest. And speaking of which, where did I put that Katie Price volume?

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Beatles Remastered

Hi gang! And a happy New Year to all. As usual, my Christmas revolved around being woken at the crack of dawn by marauding kids and eating far too much but I did come out the other end with a set of Beatles Remasters, which means I now own one or two albums that I have (whisper it) never owned before, (like ‘Help!’), in nifty little digipaks.

It’s a long time since I’ve sat down and listened to a whole load of Beatles albums in chronological order and it was an interesting experience. What immediately strikes you is the sheer amount of generally above average songs that were generated over a seven year period and the exponential curve that the maturation and experimentation takes. The few years from 1963 to 1966 show a remarkable grasp of musical form which in the view of composer and broadcaster, Howard Goodall, saved the great heritage of western classical music from a slide into atonal obscurity. Whilst he may be overstating the case, there is no doubt that the world benefited enormously from the inventive joyfulness of their output based on little more that the musical structures known intimately to Bach and Beethoven hundreds of years before.

One other aspect also occurred to me and it helps to explain why the standard was maintained over a period of many years. Listened to in sequence it becomes apparent that there is always one dominant songwriter at the top of their game at any one point helping to keep the brand on course for sustained greatness. More specifically, there are three eras. The first is the early years where Lennon dominates. After all, it was his band and his vision that started it all. Virtually all of the initial ‘Beatlemania’ songs – ‘Please Please Me’, ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ and ‘A Hard Days Night’ for example - were a product of his ear for an explosive and memorable tune. Clearly McCartney was a catalyst but I put the initial burst of energy down to Lennon.

The second is the middle period where McCartney, having found his composing feet under the wing of Lennon steps out of the shadow and mesmerises us with his melancholy ballads – ‘For No one’, ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘Blackbird’ and of course, ‘Yesterday’. The third period is probably the most interesting. In the final years Lennon and McCartney have lost the cohesion that made them such a force to be reckoned with and it is George Harrison that takes centre stage. His ‘Something’ is the finest song Lennon and McCartney never wrote and ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ is a high spot on the ‘White’ album. Author Neil McDonald disagrees with me on this latter point but I stand by it – it still gives me the shivers even today. Add in ‘Here Comes The Sun’ and you can see why the final rites still have a fascination.

(To read more about my book which describes the effect of The Beatles, and many other bands, in my life see 'Memoirs of a Music Obsessive'.)