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Sunday, September 14, 2014

In 1971 nobody kept a record of the records


I get a lot of enjoyment out of my 1971 playlist. It's a bit like having a garden. From time to time I visit and do a bit of weeding. I chuck out duplicates. I get new things from the garden centre. For instance, when I started it Spotify didn't have Led Zeppelin. Now they do.

There's the odd album which is probably so locked up in legals that it may never appear. You can't get Badfinger's 1971 album "Straight Up" so I had to get a track from it via a film soundtrack. Sometimes Spotify has things mixed up. They've confused Paul Williams, the composer of the soundtrack of "Bugsy Malone", with an Evangelical Christian singer and anyway his 1971 album "Just An Old Fashioned Love Song" isn't represented.

Sometimes I'm quite relieved to see albums aren't there. Donovan's stuff can be infantile at the best of times and I can get by without hearing his 1971 children's album "HMS Donovan" again. Other times it's a shame. You can't get the first J. Geils Band album, which came out in the UK in 1971, but you can get the follow-up "The Morning After", which came out the same year.

Lots of acts put out two albums in 1971 and most of them were also on tour for most of the year: Alice Cooper, Yes, Carole King, Paul McCartney (one on his own and one with Wings) and The Faces (you can't get "A Nod..." on Spotify for some reason).

In 1971 nobody seemed to have worried about "saturating the market". Crosby, Stills and Nash each put out solo albums in the year and the group was further represented by the live album "4 Way Street". At the same time Neil Young was touring with the songs that would come out on "Harvest" the following year.

Some albums, such as Nick Drake's "Bryter Later", which is marked as a 1970 release, don't appear to have actually come out until March 1971.

I was talking to a youngster the other day (they come up and ask questions when I'm mending my nets at the harbour) and trying to explain that in those days release dates were approximate, particularly where the smaller labels and the less well-known artists were concerned. In the 70s if you went into a record shop and asked them to look something up they would have to either consult a Gramophone guide, which would always be a year out of date, or their own card index. If you knew what record company it was they might order it and if they were lucky they might receive it. If not they would keep on putting in the order and getting "not available" in reply. It might take months to find out they were trying the wrong distributor.

In those days shopping was like a treasure hunt. Affording the records was one thing. Hunting them down was another thing altogether.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Breakfast with a National Treasure at the British Museum

I guarantee my day started better than yours did. First thing this morning I was at the British Museum for a press unveiling of Germany: Memories Of A Nation, Radio Four's big new series which starts at the end of the month. Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum who fronted A History Of The World In 100 Objects and Shakespeare's Restless World, stood up and gave us half an hour on the relationship between German identity and German history.

I noted down a few nuggets: the greatest German philosopher, Imanuel Kant, never set foot in any of the country we now call Germany; Goethe was a great admirer of british railways; the greatest German military decoration, the Iron Cross, is given to all ranks; the resettlement of eastern Germans to the western sector in 1946 was equivalent to the entire population of Australia and Canada coming back to the UK; the true measure of tyrannies like Hitler's is the amount of energy they're prepared to spend on trivial things; being an island people, the British have difficulty understanding peoples who define themselves across national frontiers.

He spoke without notes, using just a few slides to illustrate exhibits in the British Museum event which will accompany the series. He didn't once say "um" or "er", when he reached for a word it was always the right one, he didn't include a sentence that didn't need to be there in order to set up the next sentence and when he finished the audience, who were made up of hacks and arts professionals, applauded him for longer than I've ever heard anyone applauded at a press conference before.

Like all the best speakers, MacGregor's a teacher above all. It's a rare gift.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Get your tickets for a quiet Word with Ben Watt at the Islington

Ben Watt's our special guest when we record another Word podcast at the Islington on Monday, September 22nd.

He'll be talking to me and Mark Ellen about his adventures in the music business as a solo artist, producer, DJ, club owner and independent label head.

He'll also be talking about his current album Hendra and his book Romany and Tom: A Memoir, which I blogged about here. The first has just picked up the Difficult Second Album award from AIM, the second has been nominated for the Samuel Johnson Prize, Britain's most prestigious prize for non-fiction.

This is the latest in a series of shows that we've put on at the Islington. The last one featured Simon Napier-Bell. They're available as podcasts, which you can subscribe to here. Tickets to the live event are £10. You can get them here.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

There's something fishy in the world of the rock doc

Music documentaries are like Agatha Christie mysteries. Once you've finished one you just want to pop the next one right in. Nowadays the interesting ones are all made by freelances and they get made because the person behind the camera spins the distributor a line. The distributor, who knows no better, then tries to spin the same line to the public.

The most commercially successful example of this is Searching For Sugar Man, which I'm staggered to see won an Oscar. I turned it off after half an hour. The people behind the camera seemed to be asking me to believe that this man Rodriguez had made his records in 1970-71 and then vanished so utterly that he didn't know that his music was helping bring down apartheid in South Africa and the most hard core of his fans didn't know the first thing about him. If you don't buy that, and I don't, then you don't buy the film, which proposes the usual bogus screen "journey" to find him.

Paul Williams: Still Alive is about the man who wrote the music for "Bugsy Malone" and hits for the Carpenters and Barbra Streisand. Here the director spends the first ten minutes trying to get us to believe that he began the project under the impression that Williams was dead. Even before the internet he would have to have been singularly stupid to think this was the case.  Then he makes contact with Williams and follows him on the road as he continues to play his hits, albeit under slightly reduced circumstances, and to counsel fellow addicts. I liked Williams, not least because he had the honesty to say that there were things in his personal life that he was so ashamed of that he wasn't prepared to talk about them on camera. What I don't understand, and what this film doesn't lift a finger to explain, is how come a man who's written some of the most played songs in radio history isn't comfortably off.

"The Ballad Of Rambling Jack" is made by Rambling Jack Elliott's daughter, allegedly in an effort to get to know him, and also to have him account for his shortcomings as a father. The journey here isn't quite as bogus. She tries without success to corner him. There's an odd coldness about Jack, as if he's only alive when he's on stage, with obvious implications for the people who have to deal with him in real life. Dave Van Ronk, who's died since the film was made, says that Jack should have settled down and been a family man but then we wouldn't have had Rambling Jack Elliott. This is fine for us, as he points out, but possibly not so good for his daughter.

The secret of successful public speaking revealed

Conversation at Sunday lunch drifted to public speaking - the fear thereof. As Seinfeld says, at most funerals people would rather be in the casket than delivering the eulogy. I say, anybody can do it. Kids say, you would say that.

What I should have said next has only just occurred to me.

You're mistaken if you believe that people who are good at public speaking worry about it less than people who are frightened of it.

They worry about it more.

They deal with that worry by spending a lot of time preparing. That's probably why they're good at it.

Thought I'd better write that down.


Monday, September 01, 2014

Who had it toughest? Big Star or Jane Austen?

I've been flipping The Real Jane Austen by Paula Byrne.

I learned that she only saw her name in print twice in her life. On both occasions she was listed as a paid subscriber to a new book. Crowd funding clearly didn't begin with Kickstarter.

When her beloved sister Cassandra went away to marry she thought she would never see her again. Marriage meant childbirth and that often meant death. As it happened the potential husband died before they could be married and so Cassandra came back. Her life, which ended when she was forty-one, was punctuated by sudden deaths of people close to her.

She used to go into her father's church and fill out phoney banns announcing her upcoming wedding to fictitious men. When her father died she didn't go to the funeral because widows and daughters didn't in those days.

When she was twenty-seven a man six years younger proposed to her. She accepted and then changed her mind the following morning.

She had a wealthy relation who was tried for shoplifting a card of lace. If she'd been found guilty the penalty was either death or transportation.

After her death her books were out of print for twelve years, which is longer than the albums of Big Star.

Big Star: there's no success like failure

Best bit in the Big Star documentary "Nothing Can Hurt Me" recalls their appearance at the one and only Rock Writers Convention in Memphis in 1973. "Suddenly they found their audience," somebody says. How true that is.

Groups who appeal to rock critics don't appeal to anyone else. This is made more certain by the fact that rock critics prefer bands who aren't popular. Nothing appeals to the rock critic mindset more than a band somehow too pure to appeal to the great unsophisticated. And they like bands who appear temperamentally unsuited to fame. Because a lot of rock critics are train wrecks themselves they feel validated by bands who are the same.

Big Star were celebrated among a bunch of people who thought that they could make a load of other people like them and then found out they couldn't. Of course they suffered from having the wrong record company and the wrong distribution but it might not have made much difference if they hadn't. Big Star were the progenitor of a seam of hundreds of bands who sound as if they ought to produce pop hits but don't actually have the common touch that you need to produce hits. They were never going to make it but there was enough pop DNA in their sound to make it seem they might.

Instead they had a very successful career as a failure. Their reputation grew over the years.  "They were like a letter posted in 1971 that didn't arrive until 1994," says Robyn Hitchcock. Actually, it's arrived at regular intervals since 1978.

The film starts with the original, purposely slipshod band in the studio in 1971 and ends with the great and the good of contemporary rock gathering around a microphone and a string section to respectfully pay tribute to the music they came up with. Watching that it struck me: is this the way Classical Music got started?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Why acts don't make it - the brutal truth

I was listening to an interesting programme about Judee Sill which is coming up in a couple of weeks on Radio 4. Sill made a couple of very good albums for Asylum in the early 70s. She had a song called "Jesus Was A Crossmaker" that was almost celebrated at the time. Celebrated, at least, among the people who might have watched "Old Grey Whistle Test" or read the "Melody Maker". Obviously not mass but better known than most things.

Sill died in 1979. There had been a lot of sadness in her life: drugs, accidents, abuse. When that happens there's always the chance that thirty-five years later Radio 4 will commission a programme about you called The Lost Genius Of Judee Sill.

But here's the thing. When acts make it big they take is as proof of their talent. They did it on their own.

When they don't make it big they always blame it on something or someone specific. The record company went out of business, the radio banned us, the drummer left, there was a strike, there was an oil crisis or a war, there was somebody who had it in for us.

If the artists don't make such a claim then enthusiasts have to make it for them. The story here is that Sill outed David Geffen, the boss of her record company, on-stage. In this narrative he had his revenge by dropping her from the label. I'm not sure the record business works like that. It's more likely that his company had put out the two albums they were obliged to release under the terms of Sill's contract, records which hadn't sold. Therefore they decided their money would be better spent on somebody else.

Simon Napier-Bell was talking the other night about how performers have a combination of self-belief and chronic insecurity which you would consider mad if you encountered it in a member of the public. This same egoism drives them to believe that the only thing standing between them and widespread acclaim is some kind of wicked plot. They would rather believe that somebody has been deliberately trying to do them down than to accept the truth, which is that we, the public, weren't really bothered one way or the other. We're the villains, not the mythical "suits" or the tin ears at radio. Our natural state is indifference. We bought some other music or we didn't buy any music at all. We forgot. We passed by on the other side. We have lives in which your career doesn't figure at all.

When we don't buy your record it's nothing to do with you. As the ex-girlfriend would say, it's not you; it's us. But whereas she would be saying it to spare your feelings we would say it because it's the brutal truth.

But performers, whose job is the winning of hearts, find this impossible to face.

Makes me think of the episode of Frasier called "The Focus Group" in which the star is so obsessed by the one listener who says that he doesn't like him that he follows him home to try to get an explanation. With disastrous results.

Monday, August 25, 2014

An evening in the pub with Simon Napier-Bell

Simon Napier-Bell is uniquely qualified to write about the history of the music business because he's one of the few authors who's also read a record contract. As the manager of the Yardbirds in the sixties, Japan in the seventies and Wham! in the eighties he's seen what has changed about the music business and what hasn't. A lot of this wisdom is gathered in his new book Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay, which is sub-titled "the dodgy business of popular music". It's the kind of tour d'horizon that needed writing, spanning events from the establishment of copyright in the days of powdered wigs to The X-Factor where the audience pick up the bill for payola. It's full of words to the wise. I was particularly struck by his point that since nine out of ten acts signed by record companies don't make it then a record contract is as good as a guarantee of failure.

Mark Ellen and I talked to him in a special Word Podcast Live at The Islington last week. We covered everything from the early stars of music hall through the era of the show tunes and the early days of rock and roll to the present day. A recording is available for free as a Word Podcast. You can subscribe or listen here. And here's the same thing on YouTube.
 If you're looking for further talkie entertainment, I'll be appearing with Mark Ellen at the Soho Literary Festival on September 24th (tickets here and at the Henley Festival on October 1st (details). Come along, why don't you?