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Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Smells like 1971. Feels like it too.

I watched "Sunday Bloody Sunday" yesterday. It's on You Tube.  It was directed by John Schlesinger in 1970 and came out in 1971. Every frame reeks of London in that period of time.

Glenda Jackson plays a recruitment professional who's having an affair with toy boy Murray Head, who's also carrying on with Peter Finch. In the first few minutes of the film we see her washing down pills with Scotch and trying to make a cup of instant coffee by putting a cup of Nescafe under the hot tap. She drinks from an enormous flagon of wine. We're not meant to interpret this as meaning she has a drink problem. It's the standard behaviour of lots of people in the film.

Everybody smokes. They smoke so much that at times it seems a film about smoking. When Finch goes to the all-night chemist in Piccadilly Circus everybody in the queue is smoking. At one stage she spills ash on the carpet and then rubs it in with her shoe. People used to do that and say "good for the pile".

Just as you can smell the smoke, you can also feel the cold. She and her boyfriend get into bed to keep warm. Even when she goes to visit her wealthy parents in their very salubrious house they're sitting having dinner at a splendid table with the only heat in the room provided by a two-bar electric fire.

Monday, August 31, 2015

A perfect book to read now that all the music in the world's at your fingertips

Discussions about music online tend to be dominated by the question of paydays for professional musicians. Will they be able to make a living in the way they used to? The first thing you learn from Electric Shock: From the Gramophone to the iPhone - 125 Years of Pop Music by Peter Doggett is that no, they certainly won't be able to operate in the way they used to. Any long look at the way the business of making music has unfolded in the last hundred years shows it's changed many times. It was disrupted by sheet music, by the player piano, records, radio and by forces beyond its control, such as world wars and economic slumps.

Despite all the anguished editorials about how nobody will be able to make a living in the future, I haven't noticed the current malaise having much effect on the number of people still working as professional musicians or reducing the steady flow of new starters wishing to join them. As somebody said about independent TV producers, "it's not a job; it's a lifestyle".

The second thing I've realised is that writing a book like Doggett's is only possible in an era like this one. When we talked to Peter at Word In Your Ear last week he said that in the course of writing it he'd listened to every single record that had ever gone in the charts. He might have only listened for thirty seconds but he'd done it nonetheless.

That's only possible in the age of You Tube or Spotify. The river of music accumulated over the 125 years is now almost as as broad as it's long, hardly any of it goes away, the more you you hear the more you realise you have yet to hear, and now it's finally sitting there at your fingertips.

Doggett's is a perfect book for reading right-handed, with your finger hovering over the mouse. While going through it I've been able to re-new my acquaintance with recordings I haven't heard for years and also hear lots of things that I don't think I'd heard before.

Such as "The Downfall Of Nebuchadnezzar" by Reverend J.C. Burnett, Paul Whiteman's "Muddy Water", in the course of which Bing Crosby makes his debut, "Oop Shoop" by Shirley Gunter and The Queens, which could be said to be the prototypical girl group record, and Louis Jordan's "Ain't That Just Like A Woman", which gave Chuck Berry the guitar lick that he then claimed as his own.

Of course, there's really no such thing as "the original". One of the other things you learn through reading "Electric Shock" is that there isn't much point looking for originators and copyists. Pop music has always been the magpie's domain. Thanks to the internet we've finally got the evidence of all that benign larceny at our fingertips.

You can listen to our chat with Peter Doggett here.








Saturday, August 29, 2015

A book that might actually change your life, if you dared read it

If any book qualifies for the "could change your life" treatment, it's Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. His argument is that for the last thirty years the combination of advancing technology and prosperity have made it possible to prolong human life in ways that would have been thought pointless not long ago. Instead of asking how people ought to die, his book asks how people ought to have the best life they can, given the lottery of longevity.

I'll be honest. I screwed up my eyes and skimmed during the passages when he was describing the awful conditions that had been endured by patients he'd come into contact with, ranging from people who came into his hospital to his own father; on the other hand I was paying maximum attention when he got to the bit where he described the moments when the treatment paused and he had The Conversation.

That's the main thing I took away from "Being Mortal". What matters is what a person wants out of life. Once you've got that from their own lips you can work out how long they can have it for and how it might best be provided.

Ten years ago, I took our then ailing cat to the vet. I said "is there anything you can do?" As soon as the words were out I realised that was a ridiculous thing to ask. There's always something they can do, as long as somebody's prepared to foot the bill.

Read it. If you dare.


Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Never knew the pre-performance yawn was such a thing

Mark Ellen and I are doing one of our Word In Your Ear evenings tonight. It's a standing joke that half an hour before we begin Mark will start yawning. He's done it for years. Since the yawning will often coincide with a period of frantic preparation on my part it can give the impression that one party's trying and the other one isn't.

Yesterday I was listening to the commentary from the World Athletics Championship and a number of retired runners and jumpers were saying that when they know they're about to perform "your body withdraws to conserve its strength and you start yawning".

I passed this on to Mark and he sent me this clip of the Beatles getting ready to perform at Shea Stadium, just over fifty years ago. I never knew the pre-performance yawn had such a rich history.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The interviewer's fear of the playback

These Alec Baldwin podcasts are a treasury of advice for anybody who ever has to do anything you might call performing. I was just listening to his chat with Dick Cavett, who recalls a time when he was suffering from chronic depression and had to interview Laurence Olivier. He felt so bad he seriously considered just walking out on the recording. When they began Cavett felt that Olivier sensed that his interviewer had a problem and, being the professional, upped his game accordingly. Cavett got through the taping but was convinced it had been a disaster.. Obviously he never watched the playback. Years later he was telling Marlon Brando about this experience. Brando said "do yourself a favour - go and watch it." Cavett did, and it wasn't anything like as bad as he thought it was. What did he take from this experience? "You can never look as bad as you feel."

Thursday, August 20, 2015

How did students get so easy to offend?

Profile of former Greek finance minister of Yanis Varoufakis in the New Yorker has two brilliant items of trivia.

The first is that his partner may have been the girl who came to Greece with a thirst for knowledge and studied at St Martin's College in Pulp's "Common People".

The second is that when he was a student at Essex University in 1978 he was the spokesman for the Black Students Alliance. He remembers that everyone would laugh when he got up at meetings and said "we blacks believe...."

Add this to the thousand and one things you couldn't do at a university today. How did students get so easy to offend?

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Good news about the past, present and future of the Word podcast




For years now I've been hearing from people who say "where can I get all the long versions of the old Word podcasts?" Now, thanks to Chris Rand, you can. They're archived here.

Pick the bones out of that lot. And no, I'm afraid I don't know what was the number of the one where Andrew told the story of Van Morrison and the harmonica. You'll just have to take your dog for a very long walk.

Mark Ellen, Alex Gold and I keep the spirit of the old podcast going in our Word In Your Ear events, the recordings of which you can subscribe to for nothing at all here. These happen at the Islington, which is a great pub with a brilliant small concert room at the back which is ideal for putting on and recording these shows. Since we've been here we've hosted Danny Baker, Johnnie Walker, Ben Watt, Mark Billingham, Clare Grogan and many more.

We usually do these as audio/visual shows with the conversation steered by pictures on a screen and to help get the idea over we put some of them on You Tube. Our most recent one with the lovely Clare Grogan is here.

You can still get a ticket for our next one which is next Tuesday and features music writers Mick Wall and Peter Doggett.