Sunday, 29 November 2009
I've had a lovely autumn and am enjoying a splendid winter. I've been as far away from the music business as you can imagine and it's been rather refreshing. From this distance the business looks kind of grim to me: Robbie Williams' record sounds like Gary Barlow, Oasis are no more, I can't even bring myself to listen to Dylan's Christmas album and still I don't sense that there are any great new groups out there who we can take to our hearts. Although having said that I had one of those lovely experiences in a record shop (can you guess which one?) the other day when I heard a back-of-neck-tickler I didn't know, followed by another one by the same artist. I asked the reassuringly surly bloke behind the counter who it was and discovered that it was an act I'd never heard of. It's on Chemical Underground but don't let that put you off - I don't mean to be flippant but all those worthy Scottish bands that Chemical Underground used to specialise in like Arab Strap, Mogwai and The Delgados systematically failed to grab me. And don't even get me started on Bis. But this album is fantastic - or at least three quarters of it is - it's like a cross between - oh Christ, here we go - a cross, I say, between the groove-based LA Woman period Doors with the melodic no nonsense of Gary Lightbody. I sense I'm not selling it to you, but do yourself a favour and check out Checkmate Savage by The Phantom Band. I've just noticed that Piccadilly in Manchester have voted it their fave of the year so I'm not completely out in the cold on this one.
Anyway what does Wardle know? - he's... well he's.... What does he do now? Nope, not saying yet. But one thing I will say is the book on album sleeves is out next year but you can preorder it on Amazon for next Christmas.
I'm not going to go on too long now because there are probably many things you would rather be doing than reading some tardy missive from an ex-A&R man. I hope you all have a Merry Christmas and get to do all those things over your break that you've got piling up on the kitchen table. Or is that just me?
And because it's the season of good will, I've finally got it together to upload some of my Radio 4 broadcasts for you so you can relive their splendour and wit. So without further ado here are:
Phil Collins is Good!
Cars Go Pop
Happy New Year!
Monday, 24 August 2009
Anyway, where was I? Oh yes. Saying goodbye. The basic point is that I don't think I'm going to be able to write this blog anymore. The reason? Well, put frankly, I'm going to try and earn some money, get a career, do something else. And to do that it would seem I have to study, work hard and focus. The new thing is nothing to do with the music business, by which I don't mean that people in the music business don't have to work hard (Christ, they have to work twice as hard as they did ten years ago), no, it's just that because I've chosen to do something totally unrelated to the music business and I've got to learn about it. So I don't think I'm going to have time to write this anymore.
You've probably got a couple of questions, haven't you? Well, firstly, I'm not sure I'm ready to tell you what I'm doing, except that it's not porn. A friend of mine - a singer songwriter actually - traveled to LA a couple of years in the hope of earning money from being in porn films. He was well into his 40s, but figured he was still quite popular with ladies, so he would fit into some sort of niche category. He was under no illusion that men earn considerably less than women in the porn business but he was fine with that. I haven't heard from him since but I suspect that he is happily panting away somewhere in front of a camera. Good luck with all that. I'm going to try for a much more respectable career option but I'm just not ready to talk about it here.
The other question is: "but, but, but.... weren't you doing really well as a freelance writer? Weren't you writing books and lecturing to music students and reviewing plays and doing columns on Radio 4? And your Guardian blogs always succeed in annoying people so well!" Well, yes, all of those things have been happening over the course of the last year or so, and many of them continue - here's a Guardian blog from this week about 10 new Kinds of Blue.
But you know what, the reality is that you don't earn much money being a freelance writer. Especially these days. I bumped into a proper freelance writer at my dad's 80th birthday party last weekend - he is still reviewing books for The Daily Mail aged 75+. He could remember having interviewed Marty Wilde and Doc Pomus in the 1960s and he's still at it. "I'm living proof you don't earn much as a freelance," he said, shuffling off to get another drink. OK, you may know people who do earn a juicy living - and so do I for that matter, but they are in a minority. I tell you, for all the joy of being creative, seeing your name in print and getting paid for it, there are long days of watching tumbleweed drift around your inbox waiting for one of the "editors" to get back to you on an idea. Putting the word editors in ironic inverted commas is as close as I'm going to get to naming and shaming.
Also - and this is the big one - I haven't written one sentence of fiction since I became a freelance journalist; haven't even jotted down a single story idea. I went to a local writers' group the week before last to get myself back in the mood. The group is an absolute textbook selection of would-be writers: old man who pens detective fiction set in the present day where everyone behaves as if they're living in the 1950s; strange fella with a squeaky voice who writes poetry, middle aged woman who is a talented poet but lacks confidence; woman who writes equestrian romances, then shows you pictures of her horse; sci-fi guy; Samuel Beckett-wannabe etc etc. They're all good, to be honest; there's no one there whose work you find yourself inwardly cringing over. I took a short story with me to read and realised that it was about two years old. I read it and it still came over well I think, but, I felt like a impostor. I was so distanced from the thing, that it felt like someone else's work.
Anyway, to cross the road and get the bus back to The Point, I'm going to stop writing A&Rmchair for a while. I will be back, possibly in this form, possibly anonymously writing about what I'm going to be doing. In the meantime, I may contact you about my novel Pink Flag, which we hope to have ready before the end of the year in a lovely pocket-sized hardback edition. Also, feel free to keep your comments coming - Facebook, still seems inexplicably to be the most popular - and I promise get back to you.
To everyone who read this regularly and to those of you who dipped in and occasionally sent me comments, thanks ever so much. It's difficult to know where the record business is going now and to be honest I'm glad in a cowardly sense that I don't have to try and figure ways of earning money within it. Whilst it would be easy to interpret recent music business events as being negative (Bob Dylan leading the team of artists who are pulling out of Spotify; hardly any new UK acts hitting Gold in almost two years; Radio 1 being full of vacuous star turn DJs just like it was in the 80s, the live circuit dominated by reformed bands) there are still good things happening - new acts like La Roux and Florence - good acts who weren't championed at the outset being recognised, like Friendly Fires and Tynchy Stryder and the charts resembling less of a graveyard of re-releases and bearing some relation to the singles chart (Calvin Harris, who would've thought it?).
Also, it occurred to me as I sat in the Royal Albert Hall watching the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain playing Anarchy In The UK last week, that maybe the armchair in which I sit and observe things needs a break too. I was getting annoyed that people found the Sex Pistols/cute tiny guitar/Proms juxtaposition in any way amusing - a hall full of middle people (aged/class/management/skin tone) singing along to "Anne R Key" in an ironic way, made me feel like like the angry 13 year old having just rushed back from the shops with Bollocks. Clearly, I am taking it all too seriously. Just because I am still listening to Fast Cars, When You're Young and Hate and War doesn't mean that normal people haven't moved on with their lives.
So for all these reasons, I think it's time to bow out. I shall miss you. I hope you'll miss me a bit too. This blog is about the same age as my daughter Esther who is now 19 months old. At the risk of sounding mawkish, the two of them have developed side by side and I'd like to think that A&Rmchair occasionally managed to be as articulate, amusing and charming as she is.
Monday, 10 August 2009
Where the hell have I been? Thanks for asking. Although I'd love to say I've been lying around on a beach for three weeks (is it three weeks?) I have actually been really busy. OK, I've been lying on a beach too. But only for a week and most of that time was spent being a chauffeur to the family.
Since I was last here - it was about Blur right? - The Mercury Prize nominations have been announced (congrats to Friendly Fires!), Tynchy Stryder has got a number one hit and Michael Jackson is selling records again. Pop is back. Funny, just as I was thinking pop was over, I go on holiday to the South Coast and find that the independent record shop is living and breathing. In Broadstairs, there's even a record shop in the building where Dickens wrote Pickwick Papers. Eat that, iTunes losers!
It's sad really, you go on holiday to get away from daily life and all you do (well, I do) is make a b-line for the charity shops. Just to see if I get that Nick Hornby-esque experience of finding some priceless gems tucked away between the Bygraves and Mantovani. It rarely happens anymore, and I suspect that with the advent of eBay and Amazon Used it doesn't happen to many people. I was looking after my youngest on Thursdays before the summer break and would take her to a Salvation Army mothers' morning every week. Obviously, I'd spend a bit of time wheeling her around the hall in a red plastic car and sitting on a mat reading but without fail, the itch would overtake me and soon I'd palm her off on a mum and go next door to sift through the 20p a pop vinyl. It's the same addiction as gambling, I imagine: chasing that high that you got when you discovered the soundtrack to the Ipcress File on original mint vinyl for $10 in Texas or Sticky Fingers complete with zipper cover for a couple of quid in Cancer Research.
This busman's holiday aspect was accentuated for me last week on in Whitstable. The previous two weeks I had been manfully struggling with a deadline for a book on album covers. That's the reason why I've been so tardy with the blog. True story. The editor and myself had to write 140 word mini essays on 350 albums as well as 10 chapter introductions with themes such as Sex, Death and Ego. I'll be honest, it was a lovely job - the sort of job that - like Woody Allen in What's New Pussycat?, where he works in a striptease - I would have paid to do. Actually, forget that - the editor is probably reading this - it was a tough job. Really hard. Especially trying to find things to say about sleeves where no actual info was available; after one sentence I was dragging my heels through a dessert of waffle and bollocks.
Still, I think I managed to find out most of the interesting things to say about some of the unsung sleeve design heroes - I mean, we've all heard a surfeit about Vaughan Oliver, Storm Thorgerson and Peter Saville but there's simply not enough stuff devoted to Barney Bubbles (although Paul Gorman's new book on him is work of erudition and beauty), or great unsung in-house people like Ed Thrasher (Are You Experienced), Nick Fasciano (that Chicago logo) or Burt Goldblatt (loads of 50s and 60s jazz and also that brilliant Robert Johnson sleeve).
Stories of my own about getting involved in band's sleeves should perhaps wait for a separate blog, suffice to say, I love artwork and tried to get involved as much as possible, frequently treading on all sorts of marketing toes. It was nice when artists knew what they wanted - Stephen Duffy for example always knew exactly what worked, but some others had no idea and why should they? I'm pleased to say that Bagsy Me by the Wannadies made it into the book, not because it was a record that I put out but on the strength of Lars Sundh's fantastic artwork. Oh bollocks that reminds me I still haven't written that one.
And talking of sleeves, I visited the home of one of the other great unsung sleeve designers a few weeks ago. We were on our way to the Latitude Festival and stopped off to say hi to an old friend of mine, Cally. He long ago gave up on conventional Christian and surname and strangely this is one of the few instances where it doesn't smack of vanity or conceit. It is merely accuracy. His artwork ranges from the in-house stuff he did for Phonogram and Island for the best part of the 90s (think of Scott Walker's Boychild or that Cranberries sofa) to the more recent jobs he did for Scissor Sisters (their second album, a homage to Band on The Run with its celeb cameos) or Kaiser Chiefs or the recent Madness triumph. He specialises in using vintage fonts, handwritten liner notes,often incorporating archaic language and always seems to have an eye for what the finished thing will feel like in the hand. His house, a word which does it no justice is his finest work of art. I won't go on about it other than to say it was like visiting Caractacus Potts' workshop and Willy Wonky's factory - a dream home for anyone interested in art, music, cycling, motoring, architecture or beautiful English gardens. There are only a handful of genuine music business original and he is near the top of the heap. My enduring memory of our brief stop off is Cally picking us fruit from his ancient cherry tree on the front lawn - appropriate as he looks after the estate of Fruit Tree singer Nick Drake.
Down the road at the Latitude Festival (we're in Suffolk, by the way if you're wondering where all this is going on) I manage to get our Hymer camper van parked up next to the loudest van in the guest enclosure. "I've got a five year old and a one year old on board can we park somewhere a bit more family orientated?" I ask the friendly man in the hi-visibility tabard. It's a no-no but it soon transpires that Loud Van is actually owned by a family with a baby who just happen to have some boisterous mates. They soon disappear and I sit staring at the van interior in front of me - about a foot away - shell shocked by having just driven a massive, left hand drive van from London without any damage to it or my family. I sit and guzzle red wine whilst listening Chrissie Hynde being back on the chain gang.
Later we go and watch a band that Maddy falls head over heels for. It must be genetic. Those two men she later asked about are Chris Difford and Glen Tilbrook. As they sing It's So Dirty and Slap & Tickle, I realise that much of my youth was spent listening to Squeeze. I liked them but partly out of loyalty - I never realised just how good they were because my best mates' sister was friends with them. One time, I remember coming back from school with Robert and there they were on the sofa, those two men, Chris and Glen. I was pretty excited. I mean I'd seen them around before but usually Robert and I were being aloof 13 year olds in his room listening to cassettes and talking about girls. Now here they were in front of me. I sat at the kitchen table while Robert made tea and they nodded over at me. I nodded back as cooly as I could. They went back to what they were doing. "A9" said Glen to Chris. There was a pause while Chris looked at his notes "OK, C7..." FUCK! I thought, not only are the men behind Cool For Cats and Take Me I'm Yours in front of me but THEY ARE WRITING A SONG! Maybe I'll be in it! Or maybe they'll ask me for my opinion when they finish - it sounds like they're going quite fast after all. A bit later, I'm in Robert's room when he returns from the loo. He's just bumped into his sister on the landing. "Have they finished the song yet?" I ask. He laughs as if he knew all along (he didn't! He was as excited as me - well almost) "No, they were playing battleships."
I bumped into them much later in the 90s at a studio called The Strongroom in East London. I was helping Aimee Mann make her follow up to Whatever and she had invited them to do backing vocals and play on a song called That's Just What You Are. I tried to make conversation with Glen, who had always struck me a friendly sort but, despite the South East London connection (I mentioned Robert and his sister, possibly even told him the battleships story) he blanked me. I think to him I was just the A&R man for the day and as such of no interest other than paying for the studio time. Perhaps this is harsh, maybe he was like the rest of us, having a bad day. The fact is that the rest of us haven't written a song as good as Pulling Muscles From The Shell. I sing along to every word at Latitude and now, despite the fact that she's not yet six and has never heard of Harold Robbins and was only 1 when we went to Camber Sands, so is Maddy.
You'll be happy to hear that both Squeeze's debut and Aimee Mann's album with that Difford Tilbrook song on are both in the sleeve book. Neither is their best work but both remain great sleeves.
Promise to be back sooner next time.
Monday, 6 July 2009
Second man who knows all the words to every Blur song: "They're not going to play Charmless Man"
Third man who knows all the words to every Blur song: "Of course they're going to play Charmless Man! I bet you a fiver they play it!"
Second man who knows all the words to every Blur song: "I bet you a tenner they don't..."
I assume by the end of the show that the slightly more laid back man behind us is £10 up on the deal because Blur don't play Charmless Man. This is not surprising considering it's the song which singularly represents their Britpop hubris from which they beat a rapid retreat. But that doesn't discourage the charmless men behind us singing along with every word of the rest of the set. The sense of warm satisfaction that comes over me when Blur play Oily Water - an underrated My Bloody Valentinish megaphone-sung thrash from Modern Life Is Rubbish is huge - here finally is something this barber's shop trio from hell are incapable of singing along to. At last we get to hear what is coming off the stage rather than out of the mouths of the Britpop students.
Hello, I am your resident Britpop Grumpy Old Man and this week I'll be taking you by the hand and telling you about how great it was back in the old days. Relax, of course I won't. Thursday's Hyde Park Blur show was great as I'm sure by now you will have read or more likely seen on Youtube. Did you see the shagging video by the way? I don't know whether the couple's frantic grass jiggery did happen along to The End but this choice of song definitely adds to the power of the clip.
Back in Britpop's heyday when I was just about young enough to still get away with such alfresco antics (although of course, will neither confirm or deny that I ever did) this is the sort of thing that was expected of audiences and bands alike - anything went. Or so it seemed. To those of us who had been going to gigs up and down the country professionally since 1989, observing terrible sub-U2 chest beaters, post-acid house baggy bands, miserable shoegazers and tuneless, right-on crusties play to near-empty venues, Britpop was a welcome hurricane. To finally go to gigs and for the venue to be packed with audiences younger and better dressed than us and, crucially, made of equal numbers of girls and boys - it was life affirming. Several times I had the hopelessly romantic notion that this was what the 60s must have been like. Quite what the 60s were like, I have of course like the rest of us, gleaned from watching Blow Up, Help! and The Italian Job because I was playing with my Lego at the time.
But for sheer exuberance and excitement, it did for one brief summer in 1995, at least, feel like the 60s again. The crux of this as far as being an A&R man was concerned was that it felt possible to a see an unknown band in a small club and within a couple of months they could quite reasonably be expected to be on Top Of The Pops. Admittedly, this probably only happened a couple of times - Menswear being the key occasion. But the fact that it could perceivably happen at all was a remarkable thing considering we were still living under the spectre of album projects spiralling into years, singles requiring many different formats, artwork and b-sides and a pre Evening Session Radio 1. Amongst many good things that Britpop did was reintroduce an element of fun and flippancy to the music business - 7"s came back, coloured vinyl, good melodies, witty lyrics, bands looking sexy, being bitchy to one another in the press, hanging out with each other in private, and very occasionally shagging. We all know what happened in Blur's case.
Damon never did say much on stage. Last Thursday his mid-song banter was truncated to the point of mid-sentence break-up. It didn't matter, no one was there to hear Bono or Chris Martin-like monologues. I suppose Damon, like Mick Jagger, is an articulate man who prefers to just be a performer on stage. Having said that, he did ramble on a bit about the 2003 Anti War march ending in Hyde Park and how we should never forget its importance. Interesting, considering it's very unlikely that he has any recollection of it as on the actual day he was by all accounts so drunk he could barely stand.
But later he mentioned Hyde Park again, this time in the context of "a song I wrote". There was a ripple of anticipation from fifty thousand people. Before launching into a Phil Daniels-led Parklife, he reminisced about how he'd lived in a flat off Kensington High St and would regularly come into the park to people watch. He didn't elaborate about this flat but it set me reminiscing - this flat - in leafy Hornton St - was owned by his girlfriend at the time and very lovely it was too. I knew it was Justine Frishchman's place because I used to leave my car in the underground car park opposite, when I worked at East West Records which was - as Atlantic are now - in the Electric Lighting Station just off Ken High St.
I mentioned in a blog last year that Justine once arrived unannounced at East West with the first Suede demo - presumably because we were local. "Got Justine in reception for you." "Who?" Unannounced strangers pitching up happened surprisingly rarely and it was usually just irritating chancers. Still, I went upstairs to relieve her of the demo and promise to listen to it. It was a good plan she'd had, she knew she looked very cool and that I would immediately check the tape out. It all would have worked splendidly if the music (which I still have somewhere) had been any good. Ironically it was only after she left the band that they got better.
Later, when I was no longer local, I visited her flat for the first time. It was to woo her RCA-wards, as she was by then in Elastica. For our meeting, she had bought some very impressive looking canapes for us. Canapes! We sat, poured tea and discussed her future in rock and pop as if we were in an Evelyn Waugh novel. It was certainly the only time I've ever had a meeting about doing a record deal accompanied by canapes - how very Britpop you could say, although this was, to be fair, 1993.
Either during that visit or another, later, slightly more desperate visit (Steve Lamacq's Deceptive imprint were clearly going to win Elastica's hand), I remember bumping into Damon. At that point he wasn't at a career high. After their initial pop success Blur had somehow got lost. A year earlier, many people, possibly including Damon himself, had given up on them. They were perceived to have jumped onto the baggy bandwagon with There's No Other Way and times had moved on. At some point during Elastica's first run of dates that myself and my mate Michael drove the band to, Damon came along. I think it was probably Guildford. Anyway, on the way back we were chatting about music and success and we got on to the subject of Top Of The Pops. Damon said of the show: "Yeah, I've pretty much done that. Don't feel the need to go back to it." At the time I thought: fair play, you've moved on, you're in a different game now, you've been Blur the pop act, now you're going to be the wayward screeching Blur of Popscene - the band who plays with My Bloody Valentine and Dinosaur Jnr. and ignores the singles chart. How little I understood the Albarn ambition. Buried beneath this faux indifference he was obviously loathing every minute of not being in the public eye; of Brett Anderson's Suede having taken the Britain's Best Band crown; of the ignominy of being ranked alongside other underachievers like Swervedriver and Slowdive. Funny to think that despite Blur starting the Hyde Park shows with She's So High (which finally sounded like the enormous international stadium filler it always was) the band's early hits became mere footnotes after they achieved their big crossover.
Back in Hornton Street I remember standing by the window of Justine's living room chatting to Damon about how things were going. This was some time after our Top Of The Pops chat and, as I recall things were going a little better, Modern Life Is Rubbish was deservedly doing OK but it hadn't quite set their career back on track. Blur could have still gone either way. We made small talk and I asked him what he was up to. I can't remember exactly what he said but it was along the lines of:"Writing and recording B sides, the record label are always wanting more and more". I can't remember much beyond this but it struck me at the time as it strikes me now that here was a grafter; someone who has a respect for the system if it is going to get him to where he needs to be. He was also clever enough to know that as an A&R man I would appreciate the mild dig. Incidentally, I'm surprised with all those B sides that EMI haven't put a Blur box set together. I'd make an exception for that.
But back to Damon's work ethic. All those stories you hear about bands not cracking America because they can't be bothered to put the hours in, the constant smiling, handshaking with local DJs and promoters, the playing in tiny venues after playing European stadia - it makes you wonder why Blur failed to export their hugely commercial sound to the States if Damon was such a hard worker. And how frustrated he must have been to see his girlfriend rocket to the top there. After all, many of Elastica's songs sounded uncannily similar to his own, have you ever listened to Line Up and Boys And Girls back to back?
Talking of which, the blokes behind us are off again, singing along to "Girls who like boys..." lost in a sea of nostalgia for when they were 12 and Blur had just opened up the world of pop and rock for them. Over to our right stands Mark Ronson. Like so many others, he's wearing the Blur shibboleth: a Fred Perry. On stage, Damon wears one too, as does Dave. Damon once said to me, almost as if he was in the company's employ, "They just fit better the more you wash them." And he's right, I'm wearing one now as I write this although last Thursday I deliberately avoided doing so because I didn't want to look like some sad old fella re-living his Britpop years. Which of course I am and was. An old friend I bumped into who now works in fashion said to me, "Damon's wearing one of the Comme Des Garcons ones" She was right, you could tell from the single line of piping on the collar - that's the difference now, the grown ups are recreating the old look via their new access to cash. Another exec next to me is wearing a Marc Jacobs version.
The guys behind us must be mid to late twenties. It occurs to me that the crowd I had expected - the crowd I wrote about in a Radio 4 column a few months ago, who I anticipated being now more familiar with Parklife in the sense of pushing a buggy around one - is not here. Or certainly not near us. We are the oldest people here - everyone else is their 20s. This means that they probably never saw Blur first time around and which by definition means that Blur have done it; they have achieved what every artist desires - a constantly renewing audience. Like the Stones or Bob Dylan they could now carry on forever - fitting better and better like those Fred Perrys. This crowd aren't just here for the nostalgia; sure they want the hits but they're mainly here for a new experience.
As the sun goes down over West London and the moon comes up over the stage I am having a new experience too. It involves hearing The Universal being sung tunelessly from behind my left ear. But I tell myself to chill out, this is what live entertainment is all about - the audience makes the show.
Tuesday, 30 June 2009
Around me, my friends' children contemplate buying a T-shirt from the handy souvenir stall - do they sell souvenir umbrellas? Ah, it turns out they do. My own daughter is barefoot in her mud-spattered favourite dress, indifferently twirling an umbrella over her head. My friend, Mandy complements me on her stoicism but I know what is going through her head: when can we go home so I can watch High School Musical 3? And as another ear-splitting crackle of thunder breaks and the rain gets even more intense, the prospect of watching Troy, Gabriella and Sharpay going through their routines for the 38th time is beginning to seem attractive to me too. But two things keep me going. Well, three actually if you include the half bottle of red wine I've just downed in 3 minutes.
Firstly, we are not at Glastonbury. We are in London and can leave any time we want to. Hooray! OK, so it would be lovely to be at Worthy Farm with Springsteen, Albarn and Spinal Tap, bumping into friends I haven't seen in ages. But the big mistake to make about Glastonbury is that if you want to watch lots of your favourite bands it's probably better to stay at home with the telly. Glastonbury, as I discovered when I took Robyn and Maddy in 2005, is about serendipity; about chancing upon The Bootleg Beatles on a stage you never knew existed, about getting your face painted in the kids field, about walking around with no particular destination and no deadlines. The moment you start referring to your little Guardian timetable your weekend takes on a completely different shape, you'll find yourself saying sentences like "Christ, the White Stripes are on the Pyramid Stage in 10 minutes - we're never going to make it!!!" Far better to be wandering past a stage and catch a song by a stranger with a beard.
I used to go to Glastonbury for work but it was only when I went as a punter in 2005 that I felt like I'd sampled what the festival is all about. As an A&R man you're not actually working at a festival, just bathing in the reflected glory of your bands. And schmoozing with other industry folk in the Guest area between the Pyramid and the Other stages. And I did have a good time most years but let's be honest, small talk with the drummer from Echobelly or the scout from Rondor Music is not the cutting edge of festival pleasure. Particularly if you have to find your way back to a B&B in Shepton Mallet at midnight.
At Glastonbury in 2005, I smoked a joint for the first time in a hundred years. After the obligatory 15 minutes of complete paranoia where I thought I was going to get abandoned by everyone and end up sitting alone in a mud pool all night, I surfaced as officially the happiest person on site. I missed every performance, regularly arriving to see bands at the precise moment when there was a mass exodus from the John Peel tent. So we missed the Magic Numbers - big deal! we giggled, and made our way back for more drinks. I walked barefoot round the whole site at 5 in the morning just enjoying the morning. That's the sort of sentence you get punched for isn't it?
Contrast this with waking up in a posh B&B with the staff of BMG as I did in the 90s and finding there were no cabs to the site so we all had to hitch hike in. We eventually all got a lift in - I kid you not - a van filled with veteran hippies. There were about eight of us - from marketing to business affairs, all wearing our best festival gear. Hidden about each of our persons were mobile phones - a object which in those days was symbolic of being The Man. We all got into the back of the van and contemplated the unbelievable tableau before us - a mixture of teenager's bedroom and Moroccan bazaar, hand woven scatter cushions, empty bottles of Lambrusco and king size Rizzla.
"Welcome aboard. You guys come to Pilton every year?" says a long haired handsome guy whilst strumming a guitar (I am not making this up)
"Er, yeah, man" mumbles our head of legal, not wanting to say anything that might be used against him.
"We go over the fence" says another, slightly less benign-looking hippy.
"Can you still do that? I thought they'd clamped down on all that...stuff..." says a product manager instantly regretting he'd opened his mouth, "I mean, I used to of course... " Handsome hippy lifts his fingers from the strings and taps his nose,"You gotta know the right places, man."
Each one of us is silently hoping that our phones don't ring. Not before before we get to the festival site anyway - how much longer? Come on! If that happens then our cover of being young hitch-hiking gunslingers will be blown and our new hippy friends will probably wreak some horrible Manson-esque vengeance.
Or so I was thinking anyway. But we were lucky, we got to the perimeter of the site without ringtone incident. We waved goodbyes like the best of friends - see you in the Head shop, man! Turned down the offer of a bunk up over the fence too. Who knows, maybe everyone in the van breathed a sigh of relief as they sped away. Maybe they started back on the Pimms and lemonade and got out their own mobile phones: "Hello darling! You'll never guess what! We just picked some hitchhikers up! Ya! Totally wicked - Sebastian and Everard even pretended to be hippies! Priceless!"
Of course, we were the exceptions in the 90s - not many normal punters had mobiles at festivals . And this lack of contact was a good thing. I didn't bring my phone in 2005 as I recall and I tell you not being in constant contact with everyone and everything all the time really adds to the pleasure. Reception is never good there anyway, so why bother? But clearly many do - this year there was a mobile phone recharging area and of course a place where you could get your Wifi access. Yes, I read those Tweets, you sad people.
Before all this connectivity there would be a rumour every year that another pop Peter Pan had died - Cliff Richard. For several hours you could believe it was true - unless you had been there the year before when exactly the same rumour had gone around. And apparently this year when news started hitting the wires about Michael Jackson's death there was just as much confusion as when Cliff 'died' - lots of people running about asking "Is it true? Can it really be true?" I'm sure there were many who remembered the Cliff rumours and consequently assumed it must be a wind up. Apparently the massive BBC presence at the festival this year was utilised by punters simply to confirm the truth about the King of Pop's demise. So it was worth the licence fee funding all those presenters being there after all.
I'm not going to go on about Jackson here as you are no doubt fed up with hearing reminiscences and confessionals in the press. It is sad but at the same time, I suspect the O2 shows would not have been a pretty affair and so his death at least spares him - and his legacy - the ignominy of a 50 year old man thinking he can perform like he did in his thirties . As Paul Gambaccini said on Radio 4, the ugliness of the last few years will be forgotten just as Judy Garland's final years were and all that we will remember will be the fantastic body of work. And Bo Selecta obviously.
So if I wasn't at Glastonbury, why the hell was I standing in the rain in London? I'll tell you, I'd gone to see Ray Davies at Kenwood. How middle class and middle aged is that? But regardless of the weather - and I would submit, because of it - it is fantastic. The music is the second thing that was keeping me going (if you can remember that far back in this blog- the first thing was the fact that we were in London, remember!?)
There is nothing more English than unpredictable weather and arguably none more English pop than the Kinks. The fact that Davies had the Crouch End Festival Chorus with him too, added to the plaintive quality of the tunes and fell in with the blackening skies and ominous rumblings. So by the time he'd reached the bit where he played most of Village Green Preservation Society weather and music were locked in a groove - somehow Ray's lyrics about vaudeville, variety, china cups and draught beer seemed absolutely appropriate whilst every member of the very English audience grooved on the spot whilst clad in in makeshift rainwear, letting their wine get a heavenly top up. If there was any queuing to be done we would have been there like a shot too. And I'm sure if the sun had shone Ray would have been first to complain.
It was only then that I remembered we'd brought a cake and it was calling my name from the bag. I got it out and our group descended on it wolfing chunks down before the rain got there first. It kept us going for a few more songs. As Waterloo Sunset and Lola finished the show, we realised that no amount of High School Musical would make Maddy forgive us if we stayed any longer so we began to pack up. I left the remains of the cake out in the rain just like the Jimmy Webb song and watched the sweet brown icing flowing down...
Monday, 22 June 2009
If there is a God, I thank him or her that I wasn't the recipient of a Dad compilation on Sunday. Did you notice any of these pernicious things? I meant there's nothing necessarily wrong with We Will Rock You, Addicted To Love or Sweet Home Alabama but if anything proves Bill Drummond's notion of all recorded music having run its course, these compilations do. There is just nothing left of these tracks is there? Maybe for kids who've never heard them but surely not for the dads who were bludgeoned with them for 20 years by Simon Bates and now are insulted by them via the Tannoys of every chainstore and hold music of every helpdesk.
I speak specifically of EMI's 3 CD set Dad Rocks! and Universal's Dad's Jukebox - with tracklistings so predictable that it's almost as if a computer put them together. So who compiles these things? I'd suggest that in both cases it's a question of using what you have on the shelf (hence EMI including Coldplay's Clocks) but also it looks like these brands have been going for years and are subscribing to the Ain't Broke philosophy - rather like the annual appearance of the Best Xmas Album Ever and why you no longer find Jona Lewie in the kitchen at Christmas parties but gleefully rubbing his hands together at the bank. Perhaps you'll always find him in the kitchen at Barclays. On Father's Day you don't get Stop The Cavalry but you do invariably get Alright Now.
Every year these brands get rolled out and back in 2006 - Sony had a go with World's Best Dad - opening track? Van Halen's Jump - but relax, later on you do get a dose of Alright Now. There will be a few changes to the brand to keep the thing up to date, for example on this year's Dad Rocks! Pink Floyd's Money has been replaced by Razorlight's America - surely giving father a kick in the bollocks would have been cheaper? But do you ever get the feeling you've been cheated?
Despite the fact that I think I make a pretty mean compilation - or mixtape, as the kids now call burned CDs - I've never really been in the compilation game professionally. The closest I came was when the Head of Marketing at RCA asked me to put together a tracklist for a compilation of Irish and Scottish pop he wanted to do - you know the sort of thing - Van Morrison, The Proclaimers, The Saw Doctors, Clannad, etc. I leaped into action and immediately produced what I thought would be a good tracklisting. Then the research came back on what the title was going to be - Celtic Heart. My own heart sank. It's a title that reeks of marketing meeting, focus group and flip chart. But, it must be said, it would appear that this title has stood the test of time as it still appears to be available on Amazon and has at least two imitators which have stolen its title.
It might of course be my cunning and timeless tracklisting which has resulted in the continued availability of Celtic Heart- I mean, who can argue with the genius of kicking it off with Deacon Blue? Christ, what was I thinking? Still, at least I sneaked in Brian Kennedy who at that point had been dropped by the very label I was working for. Turned out that the exec who was masterminding Celtic Heart was unaware of Kennedy and liked the track so much he ended up resigning him to the label. Kennedy still didn't end up selling many records but he was a worthwhile artist who was given a deserved break. Those of you who've been paying attention will remember that the exact same thing happened to a band I signed, Club St Louis who got dropped by Warners label East West (a label they re-christened Least Best) and then re-signed as Honky to the Warners label over the road WEA.
But I'm digressing from compilations. I really don't mean to be down on them. Some of the best records are the ones that mash together a load of stuff you wouldn't think of putting together yourself. There are two reasons why compilation can work, one is where in amongst a quagmire of unlistenable bollocks you find a gem you've never heard of which immediately rises to the top of all your playlists. Examples of this for me are hearing Quincy Jones' sexed up version of Loving Spoonful's Summer In the City on the first of the three quite superb Blaxploitation CDs that BMG put out in the 90s, Stan Getz's bonkers I'm Late, I'm Late on frequently hard-to-like The Verve Album and Roger Eno outdoing his brother with Winter Music on an All Saints Records compilation I bought at SXSW. More recently, I was reviewing a compilation for Word Magazine called Destroy That Boy - More Girls With Guitars and in amongst the enjoyable if predictable collection of 60s girl bands was a track called Hold On by Sharon Tandy, which makes Janis Joplin sound like Sandi Thom and is a guaranteed air-punching winner. You never know where
The other, perhaps more valid, reason for compilations is when they work as bona fide albums; where the tracklisting works in a way that artist albums are supposed to. I'm not going to list my favourites because they are probably the same as yours but I'd argue that by far and away the compilations that work best are reggae and ska ones.
Reasons for this are twofold, firstly, many of the artists contained on these compilations were singles artists who made one or two definitive tracks which are great and secondly reggae and ska are so stripped down and muscular that disparate artists can sit alongside one another without jarring. Oh, and of course, the quality level is invariably high. I've lost count of the number of great reggae, ska and dub compilations I own or my good friend and reggae 7" collector Russell has bootlegged me, but it's certainly more than any other genre. Sometimes I yearn for more artist-based ska and reggae albums but then you have to remember than a lot of the time it's the same band I'm listening to - the Skatalites, the Soul Brothers, the Soul Vendors - they're playing on most of the great ska records of the 60s, either under their own name(s) or backing everyone from the Wailers to Desmond Dekker as well as ending up being manipulated by Lee Perry et al later in the 70s when dub came in. Those guys, Tommy McCook and Roland Alphonso on tenor sax, Don Drummond on trombone, Lester Sterling on alto sax, Lloyd Brevett on bass, Lloyd Knibbs on drums, Jackie Mittoo on piano, Jerry Hines on guitar and John 'Dizzy' Moore on trumpet, deserve the same respect afforded to the usual Mojo and Uncut suspects. Indeed, if anyone is looking for a good story like Nick Moran has just produced about Joe Meek, they need look no further than Don Drummond, the trombonist who was the creative force behind many of the Skatalites tunes, a schizophrenic who was locked up for murder and was then found dead in his cell amidst rumours of gangland revenge.
I'm sure I'm not telling you anything you don't know already but if for some reason you aren't a huge fan of this sort of music or you haven't got to it yet then I have two compilation tips for you. Firstly Jazz in Jamaica, a compilation of great good time ska instrumentals including Roland Alphonso's mind blowingly wonderful Yard Broom. For some reason it seems to be deleted but you can still get it secondhand - or from me if you ask nicely. And secondly Studio One's Dub Specialist which is packed with lots of the same ska recordings but put through the dub blender and rendered otherworldly yet still warm and melodic. Again it's deleted - clearly Celtic Heart fans aren't particularly moved by it.
Judging from this week's compilation charts, it would appear that Celtic Heart fans have been persuaded to get into ska but only on the terms laid down in 1980 by Jerry Dammers. Ska Mania is currently at number 3 in the charts, sandwiched between Dad Rocks and Dad's Jukebox - it's not a bad compilation, a nice mixture of Two Tone and original Trojan artists, and it's a much better paternal experience than anything with the D word in its title.
I was going to leave it there for this week but I want to leave you with one final piece of compilation advice - if you are tempted to buy Common People - The Brit Pop Story, make sure you go in with a firmly held remote control - or rip the tracks you want - because I can only assume that whoever compiled it was deaf. Or mad. A three CD set that starts with the criminally overrated Auteurs then, after the brief respite of Elastica, sucker punches you with Gene. Relax, it gets worse. CD1 particularly is insane - Dubstar are are loggerheads with Black Grape who precede Stephen Duffy - you couldn't make it up. By CD2 you are lulled into a false sense of security by Pulp's title track (but relegated to volume 2?), Supergrass' Alright and Sleeper's Inbetweener then before can say Parklife, you're hit with Echobelly, Northern Uproar and Powder. There is of course good stuff here and you know that the Britpop years in my opinion were healthy for British music but this compilation seems to have been put together with the meticulous hatred of a serial killer - someone who wants to bury the genre for good. Come out and show yourself, whoever you are!
Friday, 12 June 2009
There you go.
What are you going to say now?
Not a very interesting answer is it? Possibly the most boring and predictable I could give you.
But let me tell you how I got there.
It's the hardest question in the world isn't it? I mean, we've all got great taste haven't we? Yet, to boil down our taste to a balsam that encapsulates our very being is, well, unfair, right? I can never answer that question. Partly because it opens up a whole six pack of worms that cover my career, my life choices etc etc. It's like asking me: Hey, Ben, would you mind baring your soul and brains so we can take the piss? Which of course is why I write this every week. So I can get the satisfaction of revealing the bits I want to without giving the entire game away.
But, if pushed, my answer to that question is thus: I like White Man (In Hammersmith Palais) by the Clash and This Year's Model by Elvis Costello. Despite the fact that I decided that these were my favourites 30 years ago, when I'd probably heard about 20 albums at most - and most of those were by Geoff Love or ELO - I still stand by that single and that album as being my favourites. I mean, they never let me down. I can be in any sort of mood, any situation and a snatch of White Man or the title track from Model will set me right. So at the risk of completely giving the game away, I confess to liking skinny tie new wave or more specifically, records made in 1978. I'm writing something for Loops about 1978 at the moment so the subject is banging around my brain but also I've been thinking a lot about how tastes change but somehow always remain the same.
You may have noticed over the last year or so's blogs, that I have been making references to listening to English Whimsy. English Whimsy was my original name for the sort of music that covers eccentric pop oddities that have something peculiarly English about them - examples from my new wave fave category are The Soft Boys or Ian Dury's first album or the pastoral side of XTC, but the genre slips backwards into Eno, Barrett, Drake, Ayers, Wyatt, Martyn, and Harper and forward into Goldfrapp and Tuung, although it ceases to have as much fascination for me once it takes on that 21st century self awareness.
But despite branding it English Whimsy, I soon realised that what I was actually beginning to like was Prog. So added to this list soon came Genesis, King Crimson and Yes and before I knew it I was turning into the sort of person I hated at school - the guys in the Sixth Form common room who had the Breakfast In America poster on the wall, or Tyler in my class who laughed at my Buzzcocks fixation and carefully wrote out the lyrics to Stairway To Heaven on his rough book to show me how much better they were than "your punk shit".
But I couldn't help myself and soon I found myself doing a column on BBC Radio 4 about how great Phil Collins is, contemplating buying Thick As A Brick and Aqualung and exploring the solo works of Robert Fripp.
But as I listened to You Burn Me Up Like A Cigarette from Fripp's all-over-the-shop solo album Exposure, it dawned on me that I was going full circle - here was the loop I'd been looking for, the link between the Whimsy or Prog and the Skinny Tie rock that I love: it's the genre that never spoke its name or was possibly too bookish and shy to do so: Prog Punk!
This is of course what Magazine really were. So it struck me that I must listen immediately to early Ultravox! (when they still had the ! in the name) ... This week I wrote a piece for the Guardian music blog about Ultravox!'s label, Island Records, attempting to inject a tiny bit of sanity into the otherwise mouth-foamingly reverential coverage of Island's alleged 50th anniversary. Of course, I love classic Island more than anyone at the moment - much of what I have been listening to during my Whimsy obsession is from Island's undisputed golden period (although I still can't quite get behind Dr Strangely Strange). But what I don't mention in the piece is Island's singular flailing uselessness in the face of punk. I mean, Eddie And The Hot Rods is just not enough is it? Perhaps it was just not musical enough for them and, I suppose, they were proven right: not much from the punk years has endured in the same way as the reggae, ska, rock and folk that Island pioneered.
But at least they had a go at Ultravox!, whose Island debut contains songs with promising punk titles like Satday Night In The City Of The Dead, Wide Boys and My Sex. You can imagine the record company looking forward to hearing these tracks and finally having something that X-Ray Spex fans might want to buy. I can taste the fear of the A&R man at the time, who knew that promisingly titled punk wave rocker I Want To Be A Machine was actually an acoustic ballad which opens on the line "I found the bones of all your ghosts, locked in the wishing well..." And rather than being a chest-beating S&M thrash, My Sex, turned out to an ambient piano-led synth piece. Boy, did he have some prog on his face.
But listening to this album and the slightly punkier follow-up Ha!-Ha!-Ha! they sound way less dated that the Midge Ure's Oh Vienna new romantics - I cannot recommend Ultravox!'s Prog Punk classics highly enough,- give them a go on Spotify then snap them up for under £4 on Amazon.
So once I'd recognised the hidden genre of PP I realised that if my taste has evolved from the 13 year old who bought those Clash singles, it has gone in this direction. So a snapshot of PP classics from my favourite 70s period like Eno's Here Come The Warm Jets and Magazine's Correct Use Of Soap, Buzzcocks' Different Kind of Tension, the Cure's Seventeen Seconds and the first three albums from my perennial favourites Wire. But it also incorporates my favourite album of the last 20 years... Yes you guessed it, it's by Radiohead. But it's not OK Computer, it's The Bends.
It's hard to describe the indifference surrounding Radiohead when The Bends first came out. Sure, they had a fanbase, but even their PR company Hall Or Nothing used to show off about them being a 'best kept secret' - sort of like a hairdresser listing the number of bald customers he styles. I remember sitting on a train going to see some gig with a very well known indie tastemaker - he had a promo cassette (cassette!) of The Bends - "You like this lot, don't you?" he asked casually, "I can take it or leave to be honest" he added. I told him I loved My Iron Lung and had been played some mixes by John Leckie's management when they came in for a meeting. In fact they had wanted to play me John's work on Elastica but I had heard a handful of the new Radiohead tunes at a gig at the Highbury Islington Garage, the week before, and I still had a song called The Bends in my head. They obliged and played me an unmixed version of the track. It was electrifying - I'm not just saying that, even in the context of a workaday A&R meeting with some producer managers I found myself bristling with excitement.
So when the tastemaker offered me the unwanted promo cassette I grabbed it. For the next couple of months it the only thing on in the car. At first I found it heavy going - so much detail, layers of complex guitar, lyrics that seemed like a JG Ballad novel. But after two listens the song Black Star leapt out, then soon afterwards the rest of the album opened up like a flower. I became evangelical perhaps too much as no one took me seriously. In a world that was obsessed with Blur and snappy, cynical, handsome indie kids it just didn't fit. This was Sleeper's time and I of course was enjoying riding that wave. But I remember bumping into Radiohead's manager's at an EMI Music Publishing street party in Denmark St. They had a new band called Supergrass who looked like they were going to be the year's big thing. I congratulated them. Then told them that the band of theirs I thought were the best was Radiohead and how much I was loving The Bends - they looked slightly bemused ; who was this weirdo? Hadn't he heard the I Should CoCo advance cassette?
Of course Supergrass shared a label with Radiohead - they were signed by the same guy and I'm a big fan of theirs too. But I can't somehow see EMI releasing box set versions of their first three albums as they have just done with Radiohead. It was odd opening the Bends box, given that my old CD is as close to being worn out as CDs ever get. I thought I had most of the singles from the period but the accompanying CD of B sides is revelatory in that it threw up a load of tracks I never heard at the time but which, if not as good as anything from the actual album, are pretty splendid. And it's great finally to have everything together in one box. I'm sad enough to have wondered when EMI were finally going to package up the b sides, partly because I lost my favourite ones. I brought round my Fake Plastic Trees CD to Stephen Duffy's flat in Albert Street to play him the fantastic India Rubber and How Can You Be Sure? in 1995. I never got it back. I don't blame Stephen, you understand, it probably slipped fell under a sofa, and we were having such intense Britpop fun at the time that I only noticed it was missing several years later.
But as usual am I digressing into a sea of bollocks. Prog Punk then, is not the scratchy post punk that the newly-founded indie labels of the late 70s specialised in and which Simon Reynold's about writes so well about in Rip It Up. PP is actually rather well played. Radiohead's Just, for example, has several completely different sounding and incredibly well delivered guitar solos one after the other. But, like original proggers King Crimson, it doesn't resist the urge to rock. Something I find the later period Radiohead doing quite a lot. Of course, I know I'm in minority in thinking that The Bends is better than OK Computer, but as ever, as with my choice of favourite Bond film (On Her Majesty's Secret Service, of course - it's got the best music!) I am prepared to defend the underdog.
And what an underdog. Like White Man (In Hammersmith Palais) and This Year's Model, it always gets me no matter where I hear it and in what mood. It used to be my 'favourite album of the 90s' but looking back over the last 15 years since it came out, I should probably add another decade to that accolade. I certainly can't think of another album I've played more by a band who are still a going concern. And discovering this week that Thom Yorke is playing Latitude is exciting news - particularly in the knowledge that I might spy him in the audience for Magazine. Taking copious Prog Punk notes, I hope.
Friday, 5 June 2009
The patrons of the Ladywell Tavern must be the only people in the entire country who aren't watching the final of Britain's Got Talent. Why am I missing this televisual feast? Don't I want to see how SuBo is going to fare? Am I, as my good friend Andy suggests, "a bit weird"? Why would I want to miss the ultimate bit of communal A&R? After all, I couldn't resist sitting down with my five year-old daughter and watching a generous slice of Eurovision this year. No one can accuse me of being some elitist twat who only accepts music that has been blessed by hipsters as you will know if you've been reading this for any length of time. I am, in fact, the polar opposite of this; far more likely to embrace a Girls Aloud album than one by Bon Iver - how many tunes does Bon have per song? Answer: two at best; how many do Xenomania give Girls Aloud? Five per song. Fah. Eye. Vah! Count 'em.
Eurovision had the usual pitiful selection of tunes but some unforgettable performances - Dita Van Tease's appearance with Germany's appalling entry was so popular with Maddy that she forced me to sit through it a second time the moment it finished. How I cursed the Sky+. At least she showed a modicum of taste when half way through Norway's inexplicably winning entry, referring to an earlier Graham Norton quip, she said, "Daddy, I agree with what that man said before, I want to give him a slap too."
The pub is packed for their performance, mostly friends and family of course - but how brilliant does this feel? It's like I suppose it was before entertainment was provided so easily on recordings - when, as the cliche goes, you had to make your own entertainment. To a certain extent I go along with Bill Drummond who believes that 'all recorded music has run its course' and that we should ditch it all and 'start again'. Clearly The Grey Cats are not out to produce anything quite so radical as Drummond's choir - you can't imagine The 17 doing a version of Stray Cat Strut with as much gusto as The Grey Cats - but the fact that we have all come to watch some blokes playing for fun, who have no worries about playing a few bum notes or wonky time signatures, says something.
Perhaps it's what all of us who never really liked sport are destined to do - instead of golf or fishing or watching the cricket we dust down our guitars, buy some new plectrums and get on the phone to some cheap rehearsal rooms. I'm playing music again for the first time in 20 years, as are many of my friends. I've yet to do any gigs (and boy, if I do, am I going to keep that one quiet) but I'm in a minority - one bunch of 40-something friends are in a band called Mass Data Storage (I love this band name) - who, despite having a jazz-obsessed bass player with the brain the size of a planet, only play three chord new wave covers.
The beauty of pop music being so old is that we are now all mature enough to recognise it as something which we shouldn't feel bad about maintaining a passion for until we die. Why should we put childish things away as we puff up, lose brain cells and develop ear hair? Most of us had some sort of aspiration to play rock when we were young but it's only recently become acceptable for normal middle aged guys, who aren't Stephen King or Simon Armitage to get up and play just as badly as they did when they were teenagers.
And talking of teenagers, last week I also got some first hand experience of another phenomenon at the other end of the age spectrum: the pop music school. I was asked to talk to a bunch of students at a North London music school about their Myspace pages .
The idea of going to school to learn about pop music still seems slightly bizarre to me. After all, School of Rock was only a handful of years ago. But these schools are a massive growth area in the UK and seemingly there is no end to the amount of kids who want to formalise their pop music knowledge so they can earn a living from it. Come to think of it, my mate from The Grey Cats has a daughter who goes to the BRITs school in Croydon.
This was the first time I'd ever spoken to students about the music business and frankly I was a little alarmed. Not just at the prospect of standing up in front of a class who might take anything I said as undisputed truth but also at what you say to kids who want to get into the music business when no one really knows what this business is any more.
Of course, the usual thing happened before any of the kids arrived - no one could work out how to make the overhead projector connect to the laptop. It's always the same, whether you are organising a surprise birthday party for your wife or an international A&R conference: whenever more than 6 people gather together in a conference room, all AV gear will stop working for as long as it takes for everyone from Post Room staff to Prada-sporting CEOs to be on their hands and knees under furniture shouting "Is it working now? Can you press AUX? No? Well, press PHONO, see if that works!"
Eventually we got it working (one of the students saved the day, of course) and in the blink of an eye the two hours I was booked to talk to them disappeared. In that time I found myself spouting all sorts of music industry lore I never even knew existed. I've heard this is what happens to lecturers and teachers - you are seduced by the sound of your voice - hey, I'm making these guys laugh... I AM A GOLDEN GOD.
This was a very smart bunch of kids and most of what I was saying was simple common sense - about logos, images and blogs - but they still seemed to something from it. We didn't speak much about songwriting and the music each Myspace was promoting but in preparing for the lecture I'd come across some notes I'd made back in the 90s when I was at Indolent and listening to far too many demos. I decided to close on this just to give them a little hint at the depths of my cynicism - it's a list of the most common lyrical cliches I found on demo tapes. Believe me, these blunders are so common if you have ever written a song you will have used one. So here as a little bonus are the Top Ten Lyrics To Be Avoided
10 Deep inside (combined either with "I've got a feeling..." or "Make you feel good...")
9 How much you mean to me
8 I hope and I pray
7 Don't matter what I do (plus optional) just can't get over you
6 Change... rearrange
5 You can't run, you can't hide
4 Just can't go on (and yet somehow, they manage to...)
3 Should have seen those lies in your eyes (plus optional) made me realise
2 Never thought it could be this way
1 Till the break of dawn.
The Grey Cats have a couple of their own songs which avoid any of the above - something I think we must thank the punk rock idiom for is the absence of navel gazing love lyrics. And talking of navel gazing, I find myself staring at the naked torso of Mr Krankie who is now being escorted from the pub by the landlord. He is clearly no stranger to White Ace and has a face which tells a thousand stories - most of them ending in being escorted from the building. "He comes to all our shows" announces Grey Cats singer Jac, and there is a ripple of mirth before the floor fills again to the strains of a Message to You Rudie and I start worrying about the babysitter.
Friday, 29 May 2009
Me: Er, Oliver Jones... Skream?
Bloke: No, who are you?
Me: Ben Wardle - from V2. I think I spoke to you a couple of days ago...
Bloke: Oh yeah. What was it about again?
Me: It's about a remix...
To paraphrase Norm from Cheers: Remixers - can't live with them... Would you pass the beer nuts? Why I didn't want to like the La Roux album is precisely because of the fella above - Skream. But first let me give you some background.
I was writing a piece on 'The Red Lady' for a Portuguese magazine and I thought that rather than just write a load of old biased conjecture based on hearing two songs and knowing she had a funny haircut, I really should do the decent thing and listen to her record and interview her. Well, the latter never happened because she was 'on holiday' but Universal did hook me up with their amazing digital pass system and before I knew it I had the album in my inbox - surely this is the best way of getting music to fans, it was just as fast as iTunes and frankly a better service.
Anyway, the album is genuinely great. OK, In For The Kill has been in the charts for 10 weeks, has only just left the top five but is far from the best track on the record. But, I'll be honest here, I didn't really get the single - the voice sounded too strained, out of its comfort zone and after a while the tune just seemed to go round and round without getting anywhere. Hey, Mr W, that's pop music, buddy, get used to it, I hear you say. And, as ever, you are right. I am listening to it now and it's one of those records - and songs - that feels like it's always been with us. But once you've heard the album - and judging from my travels last week you probably have, as it seems to be the most widely disseminated pre-release in recent history- yes, once you've heard the album (out on June 29, listeners) you'll get a much fuller idea of Elly Jackson's voice. Bulletproof, the next single, is a stonker. Yes, I did actually write that word down.
But I was cynical about La Roux for the reason many people initially were - because when In For The Kill was getting its early plays three, four months ago, the buzz was all around the Skream remix. It had nothing to do with the original track. This remix is great, markedly different from the actual track and wholly in keeping with the dubstep hipster's previous releases. But this only made me extra reluctant to like La Roux - and here's the rub: a couple of years ago I had tried repeatedly and failed to get Skream to do a remix for one of my acts. Actually, worse, I couldn't even get the dubstepper to return my calls.
I was A&Ring Lethal Bizzle at the time for V2. This is a whole other story in itself and I'll save it for another time, suffice to say here that the Walthamstow grime hero is a genuinely lovely chap whose only fault is perhaps the length of time he takes to get around to recording things. Bizarre, because once in the studio he would zip through stuff with lightning speed.
Anyway, at his insistence I'd been trying to open his ears up to things he wouldn't normally listen to and getting him to work outside his grime comfort zone. He loved Gallows at SXSW so I got them to remix a single, after that I got The Enemy to do the same and both remixes turned out great. Lethal (for that is what we call him) also worked with the massively underrated Akira The Don on tracks which featured samples from The Clash and The Ruts (there is even a superb track Akira did which samples The Breeders' Cannonball, which will never see the light of day for Kim Deal reasons, sadly.)
But we needed something hip for the second single and what better - and indeed cooler than that summer's underground dance craze dubstep and its coolest representative Skream If you haven't heard his debut Skream! it's worth going and purchasing a copy - it's full of Hitchcockian menace and cheap beats - like a council estate Portishead.
Skream turned out not to have a proper manger at the time - he appeared to be based out of a record shop in Croydon. At least I think it was a record shop. Maybe it was a proper office with fax machines and lavish itineraries pinned to the wall. Or maybe not. I phoned it several times and the conversation would start as per the exchange above and continue thus:
Me: It's about a remix. For Lethal Bizzle...
Bloke. Oh yeah, that's right, yeah.
Me: Is he about? You said he would be around today...
Bloke: Nah. He's not about today.
Me: Right. Did you pass the message on though?
Bloke. The message? (Sound of other conversation and laughter in the background)
Me: About Lethal?
Bloke. No, he's not bin in.
Me: But did you pass the message on?
Bloke: (laughing uproariously at something going on in Skream HQ, then returning to phone) Yo...
Me: Hi, I just wondered if did you pass the message on?
Bloke: Nah, like I say, he's not bin in
Me: And you can't pass his mobile number on?
Bloke: Nah sorry.... (to some colleagues in the Skream HQ in the background) Oh wicked, man! That's mega!
Bloke: Yeah - I'll tell him you called. (Line goes dead)
So Skream wasn't exactly biting our hands off on this one. To be fair, he wasn't getting a whole lot of remix work at that time which either means he was avoiding calls like mine or he was sitting at home wondering whether he should sack his assistant. I'd like to think it was the latter as he's since done a fair few remixes.
Dealing with producers, remixers and their representatives is - or certainly was - one of the main parts of the A&R job. There's a scene in John Niven's book where an A&R man is asked for his producer suggestions in a meeting and he lists a very impressive line-up of people he says he's considering. It later becomes apparent that all he's done is quickly look at that week's album chart (which always lists the producer alongside the artist presumably for this very purpose). And in theory it's that easy. Ever wondered why suddenly a producer or remixer seems to be everywhere? It's because, as William Goldman says in Adventures in The Screen Trade, "nobody knows anything" so if someone has had a sniff of a hit it's likely that they'll be enlisted to produce whatever the big signings are which the record company needs to be successful- and because these acts are the safe bets it's likely they will be successful and so the producer's Midas-like reputation will grow even more. Then eventually, a couple of surprise stiffs later, the producer's mortality is revealed and the A&R men move on to fresh pastures. But there are a handful of perennials who are safe pairs of hands - certainly I'd cite Stephen Street as one. Graham Coxon, who Street produced in Blur and who Coxon continues to use for his solo stuff, recently described 'Streety' as someone who is 'consistent', not perhaps at first glance the biggest accolade but if you're an artist it's a huge plus. Artists reserve the right to be erratic, blow hot and cold and you definitely don't want someone behind the console who is like that. Even when Street makes a dull record it's always redeemed by lovely little bits of detail - and you can hear everything, nothing is buried.
I always tried to use interesting producers and remixers - not go for the obvious list of that week's chart winners. I'd try and find people who were new or had perhaps not had the breaks but I thought - or their manager suggested - might be good. Sometimes this worked (Akira The Don had never produced a record before Bizzle for example) and sometimes it didn't. I once was given the task of looking after Aimee Mann for one summer in nascent Britpop years. She was making the follow up to Whatever (a nascent Britpop album if ever there was one) and had recorded a song, a duet with Glen Tilbrook, called That's Just What You Are which needed mixing. I got a producer called Marcus Dravs involved who was a personable young German guy who had done some engineering with Brian Eno and had some good ideas. He mixed the track really well, I thought, bringing out a modernity that it needed . But guess what? Aimee loathed it and bless her, told me in no uncertain terms. Ah well. Still a decade later Marcus is having some sort of last laugh as he's now producing Arcade Fire and Coldplay.
It was the artistic process which always interested me - the listening to the tracks, the tweaking of certain things which subsequently threw a new perspective on everything else. Sometimes too much bloody perspective. What I was less good at was the haggling - the fee, the percentages, the deal. I was out earlier this week meeting someone at The Strongroom, a studio in Hoxton and in the bar opposite was a meeting of the Music Producers' Guild. Outside was the manager of two sizeable acts and we speculated on what these producers might be talking about. "How they are going to get paid" he said bluntly. He then went on to point out how unfair it has always been that producers have always commanded a percentage (points) of an artist's royalties in perpetuity: "Sure, share some of the action for the first couple of years but after that goodbye and thank you very much!"
As record companies lose their power and artists with a fanbase gain more leverage, this could become a reality but back when I used to negotiate with producer managers you were really made to feel who was boss when you wanted one of their top producers. I remember trying to get a very well known dance remixer for a Pop Will Eat Itself single who was managed by an portly industry legend who shall remain nameless. After the inevitable industry small talk he cut to the chase and said what the deal was. I told him what I was thinking (IE MUCH LESS), and explained why given what sort of group PWEI were etc etc. He listened, then quietly told me I could fuck off if I thought his producer would take any less and put the phone down. Most producer managers, I must stress are charming and open to negotiate but I was always surprised by the disregard for manners that would occasionally come out of the blue - one big name manager with whom I was trying to negotiate, cut me off mid sentence and said "Just fax me the bloody deal and make sure it's not Mickey Mouse!" I ask you, is that what a Cambridge University education achieves?
So maybe the boy with the goldfish attention span in Skream's office was giving me the dubstep equivalent of a fob off; he may not have been to charm school or even Cambridge but in his own syncopated way, he was saying: "We're not interested in your Grime, Mr Record Company - never call us again".Or perhaps the day that La Roux called, Skream like Godot had finally shown up and taken the call.
Friday, 22 May 2009
I look around me at the young crowd and once again have to acknowledge that apart from Steve Lamacq who is standing just in front of me and Simon Williams who is to my right, I am undeniably the oldest person in the room. No, wait, hang on - I'm not! Who is that whispering in Steve's ear - it's Fruitbat from Carter From The Unstoppable Sex Machine! Blimey, maybe going to see the time-travel friendly new Star Trek film on Wednesday has warped me back to 1989.
Earlier the same evening, Steve and I had been drinking in his favourite pub The Ship on New Cavendish Street. He was chatting to NME Radar editor Jamie Hodgson and without either of us saying it both of us were thinking - this guy does the same job Steve was doing 20 years ago. That would be the equivalent of the two of us in 1989 meeting the guy who had given Led Zeppelin, Free or James Taylor their first NME column inches.
Also outside The Ship was up-and-coming singer Florence aka Florence And The Machine. I saw her perform in some Soho basement about two years ago with a lone guitarist (The Machine, I presumed). Even back then it was full of hipster A&Rs like Geoff Travis but I have to admit I didn't get it at all: her voice, which everyone was extolling the virtues of, seemed to work off a small portion of Amy Winehouse's range and the songs were circuitous bluesy dirges. But from what I hear of her forthcoming album, she's gone into a rich La Roux/Bat For Lashes direction and the voice now has really depth. And I'm not just saying that because she was very personable outside the pub. Although she was. I mean, she didn't need to be friendly to me, did she? - I am neither a legendary music DJ or an influential new band correspondent. I am merely the bloke who once spent a windy October evening at the Harlow Square on Steve Lamacq's birthday in 1990.
Looking back on the last 20 years that I've known the bloke they used to call 'the boy Lamacq' I now realise that without ever becoming what you'd call 'bezzie mates' we did share an awful lot of pop experiences. OK, so I missed that night at The Norwich Arts Centre when Richie Manic claimed to be 4 Real but we were together for much of Britpop, especially Elastica (although he bagged them for his label Deceptive over my label Scared Hitless) he followed and supported my first signing Five Thirty, and it was Ride that brought us together. It was for Ride that were waiting in the Harlow Square that night in 1990.
Steve was grumpy; possibly about being a year older, although there may have been some kind of romantic issue going on too. But once the band came on nothing mattered. Ride were a great live act obviously, but my point is that Steve's heart and soul have always been so wrapped up in music that it takes priority over everything else. Yes, he loves Colchester United and I've frequently found him reading Jeffrey Bernard books when he's waiting to meet me in the pub but most of his waking hours are filled with noise. A few years ago he wrote a piece in The Guardian about only ever having seen 14 films in his entire life. Now whilst he was probably exaggerating (for instance, the two of us definitely went to see Robocop 2 together when we were in New York for a music seminar, so that makes 15 already) I don't find it hard to believe that he couldn't find time to catch, say, a Bond movie on TV on Christmas Day - he would be too busy going through the demo bag to see if there was anything worth including on his Boxing Day show.
This obsessive behaviour makes him an easy target for ridicule of course and sometimes when I feel myself slipping into cynicism about the music business I ask myself why he bothers. But bother he does and regardless of him being a friend I think in the shallow modern world of celebrity presenters, he is a lone and necessary figure. Zane Lowe, Hugh Stevens, Colin Murray and their like are good on the radio - some of them better than Steve perhaps, but you know that much of what they play has been suggested by the producer or is dragged from the pages of the NME or Internet blog trawls. With Steve, you know he's hunted the stuff down and quite probably has had a pint of cider with the singer.
Of course Steve is a celebrity of sorts, but only by default of being good at what he does. I'm sure he enjoys being recognised in venues - and he always is and invariably comes out laden with CDs - but that's not what motivates him. Anyone who is out with him gets caught in the crossfire too. I came home with a Tapetheradio CD last night (very good by the way - a much more manageable and melodic Bloc Party). Out with him couple of years ago, whilst I stood patiently listening to an awestruck bass player tell him how he should really listen to Track Two of the demo, the guitarist from the same band took pity on me, "You done been doing this long?" he asked. "Sorry," I looked up, "Doing what?" The guitarist gestured at Lamacq , "Being his bouncer."
I won't go on because it will look like he's paying me for this. Actually that's an idea, perhaps I should ask him... No, I will simply finish on this: A few years ago an old A&R friend of Steve's was staying on his couch after his marriage had broken up. One afternoon after Steve had gone through his demo bag, he gave the guy a CD to listen to saying he thought it was pretty good and might cheer him up. Fast forward several years and Steve's mate is now managing the band, who have become rather successful and are supporting AC/DC on their current world tour. Normal friends would have tried to help him meet a new woman or get a job; Steve did what he does best, he found him a band.