Friday, 30 August 2013

Music Mechanics

A friend of mine made an interesting remark the other day.  Here’s how he arrived at it.  We were mourning the passing of old technology like the cassette, 8-track cartridge, VHS videotapes and of course, vinyl records.  The real issue, we surmised, with the march of time is that we are all left with the data media, records, tapes and so on, but not the equipment to play them on.  As cassette players and record decks become a rarity we are left with a load of un-retrievable data.  It was at this point that my friend propounded his theory; that of all the media formats, vinyl would be the one worth holding on to as it would be possible for many people, with a rudimentary understanding of physics to build a machine to play them.

Let me expand this a bit.  The vinyl or indeed, shellac, disc was invented during an age when everything was the product of mechanical engineering, electricity barely having been discovered.  As a consequence, the physical record carried an analogue groove which was read by a mechanical contraption, a needle on an arm, and the vibration thereby generated, amplified by physical, not electronic means.  Even today it should be possible to build a rudimentary machine that tracked the record groove and fed the vibrations produced to a large horn much in the same way that the first record players did.  So even if the apocalypse comes, owners of vinyl records may well be able to play them again after a bit of mechanical fiddling with components that could be made or cannibalised.

Those still owning a stack of tape formats such as cassettes, cartridges or CDs would not be so lucky as these are a product of the electronic age and would require a knowledge of electrical engineering and the correct materials to build circuits.

The idea that the age of mechanics has now become the age of electronics was brought home to me when I tried to buy a Meccano set for my son’s birthday.  These days it is manufactured by a French company and is not generally available in the same way that say, Lego, is.  Lego has filled the void left by other construction toys in a big way but it has a flaw.  I read a recent review of today’s Meccano written by a Civil Engineer and he made a pertinent point.  His view is that Lego allows you to build today’s structures in an unreal way but Meccano allows you to build the same structures in a real way.  In other words Lego does not use real engineering principles and thus teaches you nothing.

It seems that in the age of electronics, no one is really interested in teaching youngsters how to build mechanical objects as the knowledge is redundant.  Perhaps building a record player may well be beyond today’s generation after all?

Friday, 16 August 2013

Is There a 1980s Audio Stamp?

It looks like I’m having a bit of a Polish phase at the moment.  Having reactivated my connection with Pat Benatar (nee Andrzejewski), I have been trawling through the back catalogue of another daughter of Polish immigrants, Judie Tzuke (nee Myers but reverted to Tzuke).

Having always liked her 1979 debut ‘Welcome to the Cruise’, I have been rediscovering her subsequent LPs (and in 2 cases, cassettes – eek!) that have been lying dormant and generally unloved in my collection since the 80s.  And it has been time well spent as her first half dozen albums are well worth seeking out.  Why I haven’t until now brought this stuff into my current playlists is undoubtedly due to their limited availability on CD.  The fact that her first 10 albums were originally released on no less than 8 different labels goes a long way to explaining why there is no box set retrospective or sensible reissue programme.  Many of these labels have changed hands several times with the consequence that no one has been really interested in maintaining their availability.  Shame.

Listening to the likes of ‘Sportscar’, ‘Shoot the Moon’ and ‘The Cat is Out’ is a bit like opening a time capsule.  The general consensus is that the 1970s has a strong aural and visual identity but there is no doubt that the 1980s has its own highly identifiable audio stamp.  Take 1985’s ‘The Cat is Out’ for example and have a squint at the cover – that hair!  Those shoulders!  The music is even more identifiable.  Almost every instrument is a classic example of 80s sounding rock.  It starts with a drum machine and no matter what anyone says, these things were a curse on real music.  You can predict the rhythmic patterns after about the first 8 bars of every song.  At least a human error mixes things up a bit.  Then there is that fat fretless bass sound.  Good grief!  I’m SO glad they died a death.  Most noticeable of all are the analogue synth sounds.  Those chord washes and bell sounds are absolutely typical of the early-mid 80s.  For people who know their synths intimately and I’m not an expert, you can probably guess the exact year of recording on these alone.

Yet despite the 80s aura, the songs are strong and the whole things holds together remarkably well.  I never realised that the 80s were so unique, sound-wise.  Moving on to the 90s I have not yet detected any real defining features – perhaps it needs a bit more distance before these things become apparent?

Friday, 2 August 2013

Glastonbury 2013 Part 2

OK, so I did watch a bit of the Rolling Stones set but frankly I wasn’t that impressed.  They looked tired, jaded and dated.  Mick looked faintly ridiculous, prancing around at his age in front of his largely static fellow band members.  Best rock ‘n’ roll band on the planet?  Hmm…

I was heartened to see that at the same time, over on the Other Stage, Chase and Status had drawn a huge crowd of not-interested-in-the-Stones people with their own brand of RapRock.  It’s good to see that the younger generation are not hanging on to the coat tails of classic bands and nor should they.  Each generation should discover their own and if that includes past examples then fine, if not then that’s fine too.

In fact, this year’s Pyramid Stage headliners didn’t really do much for me.  As well as the Stones, I’ve never really quite understood The Arctic Monkeys and although I like a bit of folk, the dreadful corporate blandness of Mumford and Sons sends me to sleep.  So, where do my awards for this year lie?  There were a plethora of new(ish) bands that got my attention without really standing out so a ‘highly commended’ goes to the likes of Noah and the Whale, Editors, Cat Power, Stealing Sheep, Hurts and Phoenix who were all very entertaining, but I’ve had to reject all of these in favour of my final choice of three.
Two HAIM sisters

In third place are US sister band Haim, who were just about everywhere, so hard to avoid.  They played several sets on various stages and turned up as backing singers for Primal Scream so their PR team deserve a medal at the very least.  Their own sets were full of bluesy rock which at times took flight into fabulously dizzy instrumental jams that few bands seem to manage these days (especially when they are playing to backing tapes!).  Unfortunately, their tunes are a bit disjointed and the vocals a tad idiosyncratic but hey, they come across as a raw joyous talent and they provided some of the best festival moments for me.  One to watch, I’d wager.

For second place, I struggled between two bands that I’d not heard of before.  First were Savages, a somewhat strange outfit who delivered an intense and at times, quite frighteningly serious set of spiky songs.  In the end I ousted them for being too close to ‘Scream’ era Siouxsie and the Banshees for comfort and decided to deliver second place to the enigmatic Daughter, whose enchanting set of Indie Folk delivered on the John Peel Stage held me spellbound.  Singer Elena Tonra looks a solo performer but has chosen to surround herself with two male musicians whose edgy arrangements lift her songs to another level.

My choice for first place was the result of much soul searching, having already panned the Stones for being too old, but this lot were so much fun, so the award goes to Chic.  For me, music is something to be enjoyed and in this business oriented age, it is good to see how uplifting it can be, given the right circumstances and Nile Rogers delivered this in spades.  Everybody danced – how could you not?  Such a shame that Bernard Edwards was not there to reprise those iconic bass lines and see how much of his legacy still resonates with modern audiences.  The most enjoyable set at the Festival by a short glitter ball.