Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys

Having been without any form of www access over the past few days, I’ve resorted to listening to more and more music to while away my suitcase-hours.

Over the years, I’ve manage to collect quite a few versions of this – a song that has been mooted by many commentators as one of the very finest hybrids of jazz-tinged-rock – tho’ putting absurd labels to creativity of this order seems (to me) senseless.

Let’s just say then, by pretty much any criterion, it’s a piece that is widely regarded as one of the truly great songs of the last thirty years.

The, by now instantly recognisable opening two piano chords, underpinned by a very-much slowed-down four-four snare-drum whiplash with David Hood’s original scrunching-bass-line locking everything together… as tight as a duck’s arse. And, that’s watertight.

The studio version recorded at Muscle Shoals in Alabama was extraordinary enough in itself but, it’s the live renditions that I’ve always preferred. And, while this isn’t the absolute best – the definitive I reckon being the one which was recorded somewhere in America and only ever appeared at the tail-end of a re-formed Traffic cd-single that barely sold – the one I’ve recently discovered and loaded onto the silver-machine is pretty bloody amazing.

Actually, I can’t even remember the name of the title-track of that cd-single ‘cos it is only really worth having for the sublime variant of this song that’s tagged on at the end. Something like fourteen minutes long and always but always worth playing as loud as one dares.

Those beautiful piano chords… the howling crowd immediately baying in eager anticipation as they recognise – as one – the intro to what’s being played… that cracked-down-upon snare… the tinkled ivories with their mysterious chord progression… the exquisite way-off-stage-left saxophone… that delicately swirling organ… and then… that entirely magical voice…

The percentage you’re paying is too high priced
While you’re living beyond all your means

This morning – or was it yesterday – the Council of Mortgage Lenders predicted that the recession we’re all now experiencing and suffering under will lead to a monumental rise in arrears being endured by their borrowers.

They reckon that the number of people who’ll fall behind in making their payments will rise to over half-a-million. And what have the CML said..? They’re telling us that 2009 is going to be really tough and that the recession will drive up unemployment and lead to – they reckon – between 75 and 100 thousand repossessions.

Comforting isn’t it..? In the good times the mortgage brokers bend over backwards to sell you a mortgage that, in anyone’s reality (and they’re the one’s who should know), you can’t really afford and then, when the going gets tough, what do they do..? Obviously it isn’t their fault so… they just take your home away. Why..? Because they can.

The large print giveth… the small print taketh away.

And, it is happening right now. For example… how do you think this particular couple feel? I gleaned the following facts from a paper I looked at yesterday and tomorrow is… Christmas Eve. So… have a little ponder on this if you will.

Marian and Peter Addyam – he’s a pharmacist and she’s a mental health worker, who live in St Leonards on Sea in Sussex – were sent a letter last September by NatWest that told them they had thirty days to pay back their loan (ie the mortgage that NatWest had given them only seven months earlier that, in turn, replaced an earlier same-company mortgage) in full. Why..? According to NatWest, this was due to a ‘review of the banking arrangements you have with us’.

Clearly it didn’t matter to NatWest that the couple had never in their lives missed a payment. Anyhow… the Addyam’s did the dutiful thing and tried to find another lender. In this ‘ere current market – a hopeless task. But, they gave it their best shot.

This, almost needless to say, wasn’t good enough for the NatWest bullies – absolutely not. Two weeks ago, they fired off yet another letter which stated that unless they received the full payment within a calendar week, the couple’s home would be repossessed.

And the sum that the Addyams were supposed to conjure up..? £226,000 – like… that’s not too hard to find, in these recessionary times… is it?

So… what has Peter Addyam got to say about the predicament he and his family are being forced to square up to – We face Christmas with the prospect of being made homeless and they (the NatWest) won’t even tell us why.

And, NatWest (which we shouldn’t forget is part of The Royal Bank Of Scotland and thus part-owned by the Government) – what have they said..? They’ve justified their actions, by saying that the ‘loan’ is being recalled because of ‘very limited and exceptional circumstances’

That may well be the case… but, don’t the NatWest – and remember who actually part-owns it – have a moral duty here? Or am I just thinking the bleedin’ obvious?

Because… isn’t it their duty to work with these people and try to find a solution to the predicament that they, unwittingly and through no fault of their own, find themselves in?

Secondly, hasn’t one of the bullying-bankers thought about or considered the kind of stress this puts a family with small children under?

Or, are they – the banking-bullies only concerned about making the figures stack up – the numbers they’ve fxxxxd up so magnificently over the last however long – so as to all become due their bonuses…

And the man in the suit has just bought a new car
From the profit he’s made off your dreams

How long ago was it when Morgan Stanley was bailed out by the US Government?

In the last two, maybe three months… something like that. They’re a global entity and they’re in just as much as we’re in (or, in my view at the start of) a global depression – perhaps not quite so bad as the 1929 crash but, 2009 will inform us all better on that I think.

So… given all of that… how will the 5,000 London-based employees of this up-standing firm fare this Christmas? Its festive-frolic-bonus-time as usual with reports telling us – the mere mortals on this planet – that their staff will all be taking home around about £53,000… extra... each. That, I’d imagine, is more than most people earn in a year.

Rather responsible of the bank’s board, wouldn’t you say? Clearly looking to set an example.

And Goldman Sachs – what about them..? They too have over 5,000 UK employees and will they get their mince pies and stuffing as well..? Of course they will… an average of about £142,500 will pop up in their January pay-packets. It seems somehow irrelevant that not that long ago Goldmine Sachs was forced to accept a £6.5billion lifeline from the U.S. government after not just falling prey to the current crisis but to stop it actually going under.

Is this truly mad or is it just a maddening way to end the year?

A week in which Richard Branson – sorry, Sir Richard – came out live on TV saying, the economy if fxxxxd. Yes it is… absolutely… so why on earth does this lunacy of greed… and illogical spending… still exist?

Hasn’t anyone learned anything from what is going on around us, from what’s staring us straight in the face?

Clearly not, because yesterday shoppers in London alone credit-carded and cash-machined their way to a record sale-day by spending… £60 million… in one, single day. It’s their choice and I’m not suggesting otherwise… my voltaire, however, suggests that shoppers were very neatly provoked though.

The stores were and are discounting everything in sight – and, hungry shoppers eager for colossal bargains were taking advantage. Nothing wrong with that – we all love a good deal.

So… the much anticipated, much heralded pre-Christmas boost for the high street (doubtless reflected around the globe) has finally come. That’s good… or… is it?

I’m not so sure.

It is pretty obvious that some retailers are in real peril. Otherwise, why the insane level of discounts? What are they – the retailers – actually trying to achieve? Isn’t that blindingly obvious..?

They’re trying – by whatever means they can find – to raise cash.

They all have staff, rent and overheads to pay. So… how can they do that when there has been no trade to speak of during the last few months? Discount everything in sight – and raise the cash that way.

A short-term solution but, what will it mean for the longer term..? What will occur within the high street geography in the first or second quarter of 2009..?

From where I’m sitting, I’m thinking it could well be somewhat similar to the twin towers collapsing… leaving a vast mound of rubble, twisted steel and dismembered body-parts, the accumulated haze of dust hanging like a funeral pall over bereft cities and towns.

Town centres will become decimated as shops go under. The landscape is about to change forever.

Will this / could this really happen?

It’s like the bloke says in one of the Titanic films – the one in which Kenneth Moore nonchalantly saves everyone who hasn’t otherwise already drowned from the freezing waters of Ruislip Lido (where all of the sea-scape scenes were filmed). The one in which the bloke who designed the ship is asked by the bearded Captain if his ship is really going to sink. And is met with the reply, Captain, it’s a mathematical certainty… look, I’ll show you. And, he proceeds to explain it all-too graphically.

We’re in that time now.

High streets will resemble ghost-towns and we’ll be left to the tender mercies of the slightly-out-of-town megastores – life as we know it according to Tescos or Wallmart - its there now, with the smaller shops closing by the day… Because…

If shop or retail outlet A buy for X and sell for Y, then figure Y has to be more than figure X – if not, shopkeeper A is committing financial hari-kari.

Two questions arise…

Just how long can any store survive by this level of discounting..?

And…maybe… or, even perhaps… or…

Have we all been hoodwinked for overlong seeing as how most of the stuff that is now being so heavily-discounted is made for nuts-whole-hazelnuts in China?

If so, does that mean that prices are now realistic… whilst still be sold for a decent profit?

Whichever way it’s looked at, there’s been some criminal activity going on.

But today you just read that the man was shot dead
By a gun that didn’t make any noise

And, now I’m starting to rather wonder if a life of crime isn’t such a bad vocation after all since, in the last year alone, the UK Government have off-loaded £3.32 million – yes, that’s the stated figure – as compensation to convicted criminals who have (and I’m quoting here) either ‘slipped in the shower’ or have ‘fallen down the stairs’ whilst incarcerated. Within that figure are also claims (that have been met) for ‘breaches of human rights’ and ‘damage to property’.

Allright, being of criminal bent isn't really that clever (sic) so, perhaps we should all turn to the internet… but, maybe we already have since it is anticipated that on Christmas Day itself – there will be more people logged on in the search for bargains than will actually go to Church. Ahh, it must be 2008 – still... but what of 2009 and beyond?

My friendly computer guru, Steve – who has his ear far more to the ground than pretty much anyone I know – offered up some truly alarming thoughts the other evening on this subject over a stupendously good Rhone red; what better currency to indulge in for fixing nasty computer viruses.

He’s predicting the soon-come end of the internet as we know and love it – and, his reasoning is so logical that it’d be hard to disagree.

It cannot sustain itself.

We – all of us – cruise about and get chunks of this that and the next thing for nothing. Information by the country-mile, news in any shape and colour, music by the terabyte and anime pornography from Japan if that’s your kind of thing – crouching geisha, hidden cucumber anyone?

But, the reality of all of this is a bit like going in to see Mr Marks and Mr Spencer, eyeing up a particular cashmere sweater in an attractive shade of lime-green and walking off with it… without paying.

How so..? Because creativity costs… and, creators have just as many bills to pay as the rest of us. Equals – if their work isn’t or cannot be paid for, it cannot be sustained.

And it wasn’t the bullet that laid him to rest
It was the low spark of high heeled boys.

So… here’s my first festive resolution… after all, this is the season of goodwill to all men, is it not?

Part of me (ok, almost every little bit of me) would really like to share a shower with one of the NatWest people; those uncaring, over-bonused, insensitive bullies who’ve as near as dammit ruined the Addyam’s festive season.

And to then – slowly – anally force-feed them… a bar of old-fashioned carbolic soap; the bars with the square ends.

That said, I really am looking forward to 2009 – on the basis that it simply cannot be as lousy as the last 12 months have been.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Time Has Told Me

Ahh… the madness of a messy break-up. Always the who did what to whom, when and where and… why oh why? Always more Colonel Mustard in the Pantry with his candlestick than Miss Scarlet in the Kitchen with her Rubber Gloves (off). And, it’s worse still when there are children involved. And even worse at Christmas. Put them all together and what do you get?

This… As inevitably as star-lit night follows bright-chilly Winter’s day, this week has begun on a truly cheery note – because the Daily Mail (who else) have thought it important enough to lead the charge of the light reading brigade with regard to Madonna’s Christmas arrangements. This is crucial, I can barely contain my excitement.

And so what do we discover..? She and blokey-bloke have agreed a truce. Oh… how charming of them. How very grown-up. What a vitally important piece of news.

Indeed… how awfully clever of the lady herself too. Because… as memory serves, isn’t she also meant to be a devout follower of Kabbalah, that (apparently) mystical off-shoot of Judaism which… errrm… doesn't actually celebrate Christmas? So… how’s she managed that one, eh?

Well, I’d imagine that she’s probably been given special dispensation by one of the Kabbalah elders by offering a lunch-box sized back-hander. Or… just maybe… in fact, maybe more probably… because she’s who she imagines herself to be, she’s simply utilised her self-justification mode and thought, bollox to the old religion bit for a few days, I’ll catch up with my own version of the real world a bit later. It’s that whole, I’ll do what the hell I feel like doing ethic – and sod anyone else.

Anyway, from what a ‘friend’ (its always a ‘friend' when it comes to being in the Mail and always a ‘pal’ if it’s the Sun or Mirror reporting) has revealed, they’ll all become happy campers around the log fire in Wiltshire for a few festive days. Wow… I’m so… impressed. A real log fire… better watch out children, Santa Claus is coming to your estate (sic) and… hey look, here comes the armed bullies to ensure you don’t get sparked. Catch a falling star..? I reckon so.

But… can’t we all just imagine the scene... the three children unwrapping their gilt-edged presents under their nice big tree… I mean what do you get for children who’ve probably got everything and more than they’ll ever need? And, from what we learn we discover that they’ll be having a lovely big Turkey and all the trimmings. Gosh – isn’t this so… exciting. And there will be Ma and Pa, setled comfortably either side of the lovely log fire, him with his pipe and slippers, studying the Radio Times… hey, listen(-up) children, guess what’s on the Radio later… it’s A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens… the bottle-blonde opposite, fiddling with her A-Rod-gifted pearl necklace mutters Bah Humbug and off they go… again.

Isn’t this such an important a piece of news that we’re all absolutely wetting ourselves to learn more.

Actually no… I don’t really think so.

Shouldn’t we be paying just a teeny bit more attention to this: the fact that many of the world’s leading banks are gearing up to show losses calculated in the billions… yes billions… because of a fraudulent Wall Street investment manager. The bloke concerned has, apparently, already been arrested (I should bloody well hope so), he’s called Bernard Madoff and he’s 70 years old and… from what I’ve read, a former chairman (or chairperson as they now have to be termed) of the New York stock Exchange. Shouldn’t he know better than to do something like this? Maybe – like the bottle-blonde, he’s not of the real world?

This is terrifying. As scary as the fact that the Daily Mail even thought it should give column inches over to the ex-mrs Guy Ritchie's festive arrangements.

Which leads me to wonder who on earth mister reverse polaroid himself, Alistair Darling is trying to kid when, during last month’s pre-budget report predictions he… predicted.. that the economy would start growing again during the second half of 2009.

It won’t. It hasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell.

Who are these people who simply play games with us, mere mortals?

At least one had the courage of his convictions to publically humiliate George double U-bend over the weekend. I gather that the culprit (not in my book, pal) Muntadhar al-Zeidi has been banged up in Baghdad and is now being questioned (the report I read mentioned the word interrogation – so we can guess what kind of questions he’d be being asked… and in what manner).

The authorities also want to know if anyone paid him. By my reckoning there would be a long, long queue of people begging to pay him for the absolute privilege… and can I be the very first in the line… please mister nice mister p’liceman?

The display of one’s shoe sole is a major sign of disrespect in the Arab world and… shoe-throwing is deemed far worse.

Why did no one think to do this before?

Oh well… another day closer to the Turkey-trot and also another day of anxiety about Project X but, my apprehension today is not because of any red or orange traffic lights.

Tomorrow’s anticipated meeting has been confirmed and yes, I’m all ready to roll so… hey, what are you doing getting all stressed out and nervous?

Because, the dratted Norovirus is not just in town but doing the rounds and good old Norovirus is – apparently – highly contagious. Bollox times three because that’s the medical term for one of my worst fears or phobias – and I’ve a few of them. Along with an irrational fear of microwaves and a more logical terror of extremely high heights and dentists you can add this one to the list.

Norovirus is a… vomiting bug… and, as anyone who knows me would know, I’d far happier do The Strand stark naked than throw-up.

Tomorrow I’ll be heading off early to my appointment on The Strand and there better not be anyone on my train with it.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Living In The Material World

And so… we sat down, switched on and watched; the all-knowing, ever-wise voters waited ever-so patiently before eventually getting to mark their telephone ballot cards… with the inevitable result being that the elaborately coiffed poodle beat the boy band’s predictable crew-cuts.

But… was she really the best of the three remaining contenders on last night’s trial by the Factor of X?

The public seemed to think so… but, I beg to differ.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that none of the last three standing were much cop at all – and, I’d not be in the least bit surprised if all of their names were no longer lit by the headlights of the parade in a year or less.

It’s just an opinion of course (my Voltaire) but, I’d like to offer this morsel up for contemplation.

Could it be argued that any one of the three acts on trial-by-tv last night – a gruesome Saturday night viewing segment that was about as entertaining as a public hanging – actually sang from the standpoint of soul?

I’m not coming at this by way of Detroit – the (possibly) more conventional overview of a so-entitled soul singer… Black / white / green / orange / in fact, any colour you like as well as from any genre of music you can think of... my definition is more along the lines of a soul singer being one who reveals their inner-being when they sing.

Someone who’s in possession of something truly special. One whose vocal delivery really touches the heart; who reaches deep into their soul to project the lyrics being sung.

It’s not just about the voice – its timbre, passion or depth… though, of necessity that adds momentum. It’s that something else; something almost indefinable that you know… just know… when you hear it.

Because it catches you totally unawares. That, I’d say, is the real X Factor – and isn’t anything that can be manufactured.

A little like when Chris Blackwell walked into a Birmingham night-club way back in the mid-Sixties. By his own acknowledgement, being taken some place he didn’t much want to go to see a band he’d not much interest in. Until… the singer opened his mouth and sang. That night, CB signed Steve Winwood – aged just 16 – on the spot. Winwood had and – forty-something years later – still has… that X Factor.

And that’s a far away cry from listening to the limited ability of a young girl who’d been persuaded to model her hairstyle on one of Louis XIV’s wigs warble her way through a song that everyone knows yet which her inadequate talent did absolutely nothing to garland.

Not so long ago, I hooked up with a former work-colleague whilst sojourning far from home; this goatee-beard on legs was, in a former life, one of the shakers and movers behind what became something of an Eighties legend, they sold a hat full of records all around the world, were a magnet for global audiences and, for my money, one of the finest live acts I’ve ever seen. In their heyday, a band of misfits who were about as hot as it gets. Ladies and Gentlemen – Kid Creole & The Coconuts.

Rynski – the man who precision-shaves each morning – and I got to talking one late afternoon in a mid-town bar; we were casting our minds back to an off-shoot of August Darnell’s much travelled musical-mind, a spin-off outfit that made just the one record entitled New York At Dawn. The group were called Elbow Bones & The Racketeers.

Their album ranges from being so-so in places to absolutely outstanding in others. It also possesses a lead off cut that doesn’t just stand the test of time but – again just my viewpoint – pretty much benchmark’s early Eighties NYC late-night life.

The album cut is magnificent in its own right but the 12” mix is something else again – from the moment the stereophonic needle drops, it’s a headlong rush into an astonishing melodious blend that effortlessly manages a seamless mix of big band and disco via a sublime horn arrangement underpinned by drum patterns to die for.

I’ve ever only owned all of the above on vinyl; and in this digital age that’s not the easiest of transfers across to an i-Pod. I tried doing that down in the dungeon at Merle HQ quite some time back via a combination of record decks and erratically-functioning software with wires and cables randomly connecting my computer to a pre-amp.

It worked but it didn’t – the levels were haphazard and, all in all, a bit too Heath Robinson to add in to a large (for the time) i-Pod selection I was assembling then as accompaniment for someone about to back-pack their fresh fruit in foreign places.

Rynski, however, comes up trumps. A few evenings later and we’re in a late night Brooklyn dive to see Charlie Lagond’s new outfit – The Element – trot out their formidable jazz-rap infusion. Charlie and his saxophone prowess is a link between all three; one of the long-term inmates of the Creole live show, part of the vast horn section that informed Elbow Bones and band-master of The Element. Whenever or wherever he leans back into that Tenor or Alto Sax, you just know it is going to be good; very good indeed.

Later that night, Rynski drops a couple of home-fashioned CDs into my pocket. The pocket that would later (or earlier, I know not) disgorge itself of my cell-phone. The CDs contain the entire Elbow Bones record as well as a live recording from the Ritz in New York of the Creoles when they were in full flight, when Darnell was nearing his zenith and just before they took Europe by storm.

As luck had it way back then, I was at that late-May 1981 Ritz show which closed with a truly awe-inspiring and utterly heart-wrenching version of Dear Addy – Darnell’s paean of love to his about to be ex-wife, Mama Coconut herself. Darnell’s vocal exit stage right has been treasured for nearly thirty years in my mind as a sublime musical moment. And, now Rynski’s digitally popped it in my pocket.

The next again morning and both are stored on the oversized Mac that I’ve been fashioning Project X upon and already i-Pod friendly. At which point I look to see what might be on the world-wide-wait for Elbow Bones. Virtually nothing – other than a You-Tube link. Click and…

Up pops the full-length Take Me For (A Night In New York) 12" mix video clip… all 7 minutes of it and yes, there’s a young Charlie brandishing his saxophone in the middle rank. Fabulous... I didn’t even know it existed… and, in this age of hugely tedious videos peopled by grunting rappers with their trousers only part-covering their arses ogling under-dressed bimbos shaking their booty, this has something going for it – it is beautifully shot and actually tells a bit of a story.

In full on You-Tube mode, I start to click on other links… stumbling across random pianists playing hit and miss selections before coming across a hirsute acoustic guitar player who’s fret-board wizardry put the fizz into whizz-bang, being possessed of a style and technique that would lead more jaws to hit pavements than there are sidewalks. Quite why hairy-guitar-bloke isn’t a global mega-star mystifies me.

However, watching him astonish the live audience to whom he was playing, led to another link-click on the basis that the bloke who’d posted the hairy-guitarist video might just have someone else interesting to put up. He had.

Nicholas Barron.


Never heard of him either – but… it’s a name well worth searching for. Why? Because he possesses that indefinable special something.

Don’t believe me..? Then, call up Saviour which is taken from his Live In Transient Sound record and… marvel.

Its like watching a man sing while undergoing some kind of out-of-body experience; it appears so effortless, like he’s not trying, as if he doesn’t even need to try… he opens his mouth and… there is this utterly remarkable sound – the sound of a man singing from deep within the well of his soul. Absolutely astonishing.

Would that man from the backstreets of Michigan have made the final last night – I doubt it. It’s not what that bit of prime-time tv is all about and besides, not as viewing-public friendly as the embarrassing poodle, the crew-cut four-piece and the awkwardly-blow-dried Irish lad clearly were.

The poodle will get her few minutes of fame as they all do – its what they crave, what they dream of; it’s why she cried on tv last night – her bedroom wet-dream of being a star had materialised.

I’d imagine that Nicholas Barron wells up for other, more meaningful reasons – like when his children do something out of the ordinary or, perhaps when his partner walks past and unexpectedly tousles his hair, whispering a soft I Love You in his ear.

And – while he really should be the one caught in the spotlight – he probably never will be and… I’d imagine he isn’t much bothered by that either.

Saviour and others of Barron’s songs are embedded under lock and key on my i-Pod alongside Winwood and many others who nature has blessed with that special something which comes from deeper within.

They’re the ones who really do have… the X Factor.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Up On Cripple Creek

Yesterday, I was taken to lunch by a long-standing friend… we’d worked together on the Nelson Mandela: Freedom At 70 show in London and collaborated on the Greenpeace in Moscow initiative; had always planned on working a lot more together but, inevitably I suppose, our respective career paths had diffused over time.

Having caught up somewhat at the Crematorium of recent memory, there was still a lot of catching up to do… something like ten years worth.

Bidden for midday, I bowled up predictably late as well as sans spectacles – thus necessitating the hovering waiter to read out the lengthy menu. By the time he’d finished explaining each dish in glorious technicolour detail, I’d forgotten most of what he’d said and just figured it’d be easiest to plump for number one on the list.

The salmon that arrived wasn’t exactly as I’d imagined it or how he’d explained it.

And, somehow that simplicity seems characteristic of so much nowadays.

Earlier today, I read – as is my wont – news reports that… and I really don’t understand this… but… they seem – increasingly – to infuriate. Is it just me or…?

Because, from where I sit, it’s as if sense and sensibility have taken the decision to divorce. Whereby, we really do now live in the Dress Circle at the Theatre Of The Absurd.

I wonder… honestly, I really do wonder. Don’t you..?

Try this then: a random headline that lead me to read the following – Postal workers in the UK have complained they were being pressured into walking faster to complete their rounds under cost-saving measures. The Communication Workers Union said delivery staff were being told to walk at a speed of 4mph, an increase over a previous target of 2.4mph.

Do Post Office bosses stand around with stop-watches..? Haven’t they anything better to do? Or hasn’t anyone thought through the fact that this is so unutterably juvenile that this sort of time and motion study is purely effin’ wasting money..? When the resource that’s being thrown down the drain could be better employed? Perhaps not. Perhaps common sense has been simply thrown out with the bath-water?

Ok… if that’s not mad enough for you, try this… The BBC isn’t going to broadcast Crufts next year. Oh dear… Why? Well, they and the Kennel Club (the organisers) are in dispute over the inclusion of certain breeds of pedigree dog in the competition.

Apparently, Auntie Beeb has insisted that certain breeds are excluded. Why again?

It seems that the dispute has arisen in the wake of a BBC documentary which claimed the breeding process used to produce pedigree dogs had resulted in a high incidence of inherited genetic disease.

Eh...? Is this the real world or not? There is, I would suggest, one reason as to why Crufts shouldn’t be televised and that is that normal dogs aren’t shown. By that I mean, proper dogs who just might be a bit scruffy. Digger – the longest resident of all at Merle HQ – would have been a worthy winner, that is if he could have been bothered to get up from his more normal position of being asleep on any available comfy surface.

Had enough yet… no, nor had I. I’m clearly a glutton for this sort of self-punishment. Lets have a look at this then… here is the headline: Naturists are vowing to fight plans to close one of Britain's first nudist beaches.

It seems that a 200 yard stretch of sand in Suffolk – that has been declared a clothes-free zone for the last 30 years is to be de-designated – that’s Local Council-speak for… keep your swimmies on (I think).

Why? Apparently, erosion of the nearby coastline had left "very little beach" for residents, meaning the nudist area should be made available for "families and others". That’s what the council reckon anyhow. However… they’ve not taken into account the nudies… oh no.

The sans-thong brigade’s spokesman is a certain Malcolm Boura who has outlined his party’s stance by saying… and I’m quoting his quote here; We would welcome any proposal to move the beach slightly further south. OK… and so who’ll be paying to move said beach?

Besides – how exactly dos one move a beach…? Have that particular local authority nothing better to spend their money on – like… oh, I dunno… perhaps healthcare for the elderly… educating the children round about… you know, just small stuff like that… yet, by all accounts, it seems that sort of thing is low priority and the movement of beaches is a worthy subject to discuss in Local Council meetings.

So… by now, you’ll be wondering why I even mentioned my Salmon in the first place. Here we go… Whilst forking slivers into my face I was told a really quite extraordinary tale – of how utterly self-centred humans – some humans – can be.

My similarly-fish-indulging friend works as a publicist for some of the biggest Hollywood names… all appear to have ego’s the size of small baronial estates and make requests (demands) that don’t just border on the illogical but cross the threshold of the absolutely ridiculous. We’ve both spent time working with people like that and have long-since become world-weary of that form of self-centredness.

Anyhow, it transpired that the wife of the director of this film had a cold. My fellow-diner was asked (ie told in no uncertain terms) to locate a doctor. The Hotel in which the cast and crew and sundry hangers-on were staying was of such 5-starred magnificence that it actually had its own, in-house, Doctor and staff on pretty-much permanent call. A fairly decent place to stay, I’d imagine.

Doctor on site equals a pretty good solution. Not. Why so? Because, apparently, this Director’s wife needed a specialist and named the person who was to attend her. Don’t forget, she had a cold… just a normal, boringly ordinary cold. They’re never nice, annoyingly frequent but… they are what they are.

My friend – who’s proper job is to man-handle belligerent tv crews, annoying journalists, terminally difficult radio people is also a bit of a whizz at solving the nigh-on-impossible – therefore sets about finding person X. And, for the sake of this, he’ll be known as Mr. Green.

This – by the way – is a true story, I’ve simply withheld any proper names for discretion’s sake.

So… Mr. Green is ultimately found. It takes much dextrous and highly ingenious phone-work that would have tested even Hercule Poirot’s little grey cells but, found he eventually is – or, at least his personal assistant is. After much cajoling, persuading and so forth an appointment is agreed upon.

Relief all round. Not. Oh no… 11.30am is completely out of the question. Earliest that the Director’s wife can be seen is 4.00pm. Why? Because she is having her hair done.

Back to the drawing-board and another call to the seemingly unflappable secretary to Mr. Green. By the time we’re attacking the chips that came with the Salmon concoction with gusto.

During this call with the level-headed lady on the other end of the ‘phone it transpires precisely why the appointment cannot be changed. And my friend is told the following: I’ve already moved Mr. Green’s next appointment by half an hour to accommodate your client. Perhaps you could explain to your client that Mr. Green is rather busy and the appointment I’ve moved by half-an-hour to make time for your client is a liver-transplant. He is (and here’s his real name is mentioned) one of the world’s leading transplant-specialists and therefore I would hope that your client understands that a common cold is of slightly less importance.

A week later, my friend was fired – for not doing the job properly.

And, today… I’ve discovered that NHS Direct is urging people suffering colds and flu to check their symptoms online. Why? And… what exactly is it that one needs to check? Baffled too – join the queue.

It is because of this: the number of callers to the NHS suffering colds, flu, coughs and fever has more than doubled in the past three months. And more people are expected to be struck down with such ailments in the coming months. Yes, the second bit is logical – it’s a bit nippy outside unless one lives by straddling the Tropic of Capricorn and yes, this is the time of year when people catch colds.

So… what have the NHS… the Great (?) British (?) National Health Service done…? Wait for it… they have launched an online symptom checker. What does that mean..? I’ve had a look and… in brief (or even in briefs – thus not a site for naturists) one can answer questions to work out if you need to be treated or can treat yourself. Wow… that’s really handy… self diagnosis for all.

In amongst more Project X work, I found a quote from someone called Anne Joshua, who is the NHS Direct's Associate Director of Pharmacy: The tool helps with self-care and also helps to decide when professional advice is needed or if the condition is serious enough to seek urgent medical help. The website advice will set out the options for self care - whether a visit to a pharmacy to speak to a pharmacist is needed, or whether it is best to contact a GP. And if necessary it might prompt you to go to A&E.

Ok… a resource that’ll tell you if you have a cold… I’d have thought that the rapidly emptying carton of Kleenex would have told you that… the runny nose, the sore throat… we’ve all had the symptoms but, I rather fear as we head into 2009, that we’ve lost any sense of self-responsibility. I mean… how difficult is it to go to a Chemist and acquire the correct remedies for… a cold?

Besides, self diagnosis can be fraught. It is not exactly a precise science. Fast backwards.

Rob and I are installed opposite each other in our normal lair in the War Room at Island – this’d be about 1979. My then lady-friend wanders in at close of play, ready for the lift home. What are you up to Rob? Oh hiya He replies, looking up from the book he’s been studying. I’m not at all well and I’ve been working out what is wrong with me. This is not abnormal – Rob, at that time, was deep into hypochondria, so much so that eventually certain doctors refused to see him, because nothing was actually wrong with him.

Oh… ok… how are you doing that, she asks, settling into a seat next to me on my side of the table. Well, I’m listing out the symptoms and when I’ve done that, I’ll be able to work out what is wrong with me… I really don’t feel at all well you know. Give me a minute and I’ll show you… its really good is this book.

A few minutes later, Rob hands over a sheet of paper for my then-girlfriend to study.

That’s brilliant Rob, She exclaims. Amazing. You’re unique.

Yes, well… I suppose I am. Says Rob, his chest puffing out a little. You are, absolutely unique. She says in measured tones, You’ve just diagnosed yourself to be suffering from Pre-Menstrual Tension.

Illogical madness has got to me… it shouldn’t have but it did. I need a jolt of reality. And, collect a little shaft of light that has been borne by winged e-message. It follows a meeting I had yesterday at one of the leading Music Schools (for that read Institute) in London. And, it tells me that this little thing I’ve been working on, this little undertaking I’ve dreamed up is… right. And, that the time is now. .. in capital letters.

I really hope that everything pulls together with (your project X). It's a mammoth undertaking and is a fantastic concept, which would be incredibly beneficial to anyone interested in music at all and would especially be of huge interest to the Institute and our students.

Is there finally light at the end of the tunnel..? Is the train pulling out of the station..? Wait and see.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

(I Did It) My Way

The door at the back-left of the impersonal yet surprisingly friendly chapel opens. First one then another and then, finally, seven Mariachi musicians – each traditionally dressed as for an afternoon out playing for tourists in Mexico City’s cafĂ©’s and bars – have formed a semi-circle in front of us all.

The trumpeter on the far left of the ensemble sounds the first note, two violins join in, the big acoustic bass is plucked by the man wearing the largest of all the Sombrero’s on display and gradually the song begins to take on a recognisable shape. Most of those sitting in the pews or standing behind where I’ve squeezed in or crouched in the aisles will have been more conversant with the leader of the rat-pack by way of Hoboken’s classic rendition of the song; some would say… his song…

This is just a little bit different… and somehow far more appropriate.

In the pew in front of me, Bono’s slightly grizzled semi-crew-cut head starts to nod, a pew in front of him and there is Tom Waits breaking into a smile; in front and to the left is Tina grinning broadly – the final master-stroke has been pulled off to make this funeral the tribute that it was always hoped that it would be.

Suddenly, there is the undeniable squawk of a mobile ‘phone going off beside me. Then another, from the middle of the aisle right behind – but, the band play gamely on, the trumpeter plays the vocal line just a tad louder drowning out the savage interruption by technology and the smiles just keep coming and coming.

I did it... my way...

A few minutes later, we’re standing in line, waiting to pay our final respects to the man who Billboard termed A Giant of PR; who others have termed as being far more than just that. He lays in a coffin up the short steps in front of us, a coffin unlike any other I’ve ever seen that looks suspiciously as if it has been constructed of slatted wicker-work. Inside, I’d not be the least surprised if someone hadn’t thought to have him adorned by his QPR scarf. Tina’s white Lilies lay a-top and beside it a framed picture of the man who’s finally sleeping in peace, away from pain.

We’re all slowly edging forward. Everyone stops to hug Tina. She wraps her arms around me and whispers in my ear, He wanted the band to be all dwarfs but… I don’t think he’d mind… do you?

A few minutes later, I’m outside and wander over to where Edge, underneath his trademark black bobble-hat crossed with a skull-cap is standing, lost in thought. Bono asks for a match, swiftly diving into his pack to share one of his Marlboro Lights. Do you know which way round he was, Neil? Asks Edge. Its just… I didn’t know if I was saying good bye to Rob’s head or his toes.

I wasn’t sure either, offers Bono, smoke exhaling from his nostrils like a horse breathing hard after a long canter in the cold afternoon air… So I sort of said goodbye to his middle.

A very long time ago, in 1972 to be exact, I’d joined EMI; my first foray into the world of the business of music. Within eighteen months or so, I knew that EMI was not where any kind of self-destiny lay… oh no, I knew where I wanted to work… EMI was but a stepping stone and Island was where my future lay. The job was secured and I casually mentioned that I was moving on to my parents expecting the happy kind of response. Error #1 – they were both aghast. What about your pension..? What is this Island label..? They’re not as big or important as EMI… are they? Why do you want to give up (what they saw as a career) to join… somewhere that didn’t much seem like a career (to them)?

I had but one answer. A few weeks before, the Melody Maker had advertised a series of articles on the smaller record labels. I don’t actually recall that it ever became a series – though the first piece most certainly did run. It was what I used to answer all my parent’s questions and was entitle Island Of Dreams. The journalist who penned the article – a three page, in-depth, fully illustrated spread was the man who lay before us yesterday; the man whose life we’d all gathered to honour… Rob Partridge.

An inbound e-mail from the Guardian’s Robin Denselow this morning prompted the use of that word; Very good to see you at that quite remarkable Rob send-off yesterday. An extraordinary event, and quite right too. It was an honour to be there.

It was also extraordinary… meaning… out of the ordinary. Here I should confess that crematoriums and self are not happy bed-fellows. In fact, its true to say that I come from the Tescos check-out side of belief with regard to crematoriums, as attractive a manner in which to finally depart this world as being met by the missing link as one guides an over-burdened shopping trolley to one of the tills, you know the one – he/she is bored to tears by the job and with minimal if any customer-service skills.

This, for many many reasons was totally different and has even started me thinking that its got to be about the best way to be despatched. I’m still not terribly keen on ending up as a puff of smoke – and have always wanted to be planted – but, the service… if that’s what it could be called… was what it was all about.

I suppose it has quite a lot to do with one’s own religious (or not) beliefs. And, for those who believe in something that isn’t constricted by constrictive doctrines – like me – whereby I subscribe to a church not made with hands belief… then, a humanist service has to be the way forward. It is spiritual yet earthly; it is full of light and never dark; full of sadness and yet with few tears. Happiness in the middle of a gale of sadness.

The minister – I suppose he’d be called that – was a long tall thin lanky fella called Mark Hayford. Straightforward yet neither solemn or business-like; it was as if he actually cared about the man who’s casket lay not ten feet from him – so unlike others who preside over such events.

We gathered outside, the Crematorium forecourt awash with people… it was like a gathering of the clans, everyone seemed to know everyone else, there were very few handshakes with people one hadn’t seen in years… just a lot of hugs and firm embraces.

The early arrivals included the Captain – Bill (now Nick) Stewart, the man who’d physically signed Paul McGuinness’ U2 to that skinny little label where we all worked in the late seventies; Paul himself standing alone just a few yards distant – one to thank for the kind, kind words he’d said of Rob during last week’s Radio 4 programme, The Last Word. He grasps me, pulls me to his large chest and, as I draw back see tears sliding like small rivulets down his face being dabbed away by a white handkerchief.

A few minutes later, its stumbling from one embrace to another; a sea of faces… everyone wants to talk to everyone… people from the past to the present face of Coalition; journalists to musicians, industry people like HMV’s head honchos Brian McLaughlin and Steve Knott – that company being amongst our very first clients before Coalition was so-named.

More usually, the coffin arrives last, preceding all the distraught relatives through a gaggle of onlookers – not so… Rob (as often he did) led the way and we all crammed in; we knew a lot of people would be there – you never can tell – but the attendance outweighed all we’d imagined. The doors finally shut, a little like on a crowded subway in Japan… there weren’t people pushing others in… nor were there people asking that we crowd down into the aisle… but, it was close. The most packed, standing room only, funeral I’ve ever attended.

Billy Bragg opened proceedings in his best bard-of-Essex manner. He sang Jerusalem unaccompanied; the words bereft of accompaniment, stark and forlorn. Tim – who now runs Coalition Management spoke eloquently and movingly; Nick Football (to differentiate him from Rob’s other footy-pal also called Nick) talked powerfully and with deep feeling; Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow / What A Wonderful World followed – a cherished musical moment from Rob’s diversely eclectic i-Pod – before a poem by Mary Oliver led into Tom Waits own Take It With Me – a song (so Barney Hoskyn’s reminded me) that he had dedicated to Rob and Tina from the stage at Edinburgh when last he played in the UK.

During which came a truly surreal moment. For me. Tom’s lyric over the starkly simple, crushingly-haunting piano melody are quietly tearing at my insides, there is a welling behind the eyes that’ll soon spill over.

I glance up and look toward to coffin, draped by the purple-green-orangey/yellow flag of the imagined Republic of Rob Partridge and look deep into the black and white picture of him, propped up against it.

He’s not smiling in that picture, he sort of is but isn’t quite.

As I glanced up and held the pictures gaze… it smiled… not for long. But, it smiled.

The song ends, Tony Crean who worked with Rob on all of the War Child records takes to his feet and starts to talk, using metaphors for time. In this broadband world, his words strike the most perfect note – we don’t spend enough time, proper time, with those we love… we put things off to the next again day, believing there’s something more important to be getting on with. Then, when its too late, we meet up at an event like this and realise it is just that. Too late.

Afterwards, Adrian Boot in his most nutty-professor guise wanders over saying, we all used to go to weddings and there would these kind of gatherings, now it only happens at funerals. I’m going to grow really old and outlive everyone. There won’t be any one at mine!

Unexpectedly – in that it wasn’t scripted, Tina gets up and makes her way to the podium. Clearly (and obviously) deeply emotional she looks us all in the face saying she had had just a wonderful life with Rob. I wanted it to go on forever. I couldn’t have had a better life. I’ve been hugely blessed. Love – and there is only one way to describe this – love comes back at her in waves.

Later and late, mentally drained and physically exhausted from the days intensities, I’m back to my suitcase existence. Back to the uncertain and unsteady word of Project X; back preparing for the next meeting next week… with Christmas fast closing in.

Rob never gave up on however improbable the task was – he just imagined different ways around whatever the situation might evolve.

30+ years of working together, on and off, and one learns a few things.

Project X may well be currently faced by Problem Y – the global economic crisis… thus, I reckon, time to think lateral.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

May the weight of the desert sands lay lightly upon him

This week’s been a bit of a strange one and for many, many disparate reasons; we’re entering the final-furlong countdown to Christmas, there is a funeral on the near horizon and no direction home.

People everywhere are starting to get festive in the streets, trying to out-drink one another at office parties in pubs and clubs, indulging the time-honoured game of grope-the-big-busted-blonde-from-accounts before she passes out on Advocat before, themselves, vomiting into gutters and over freshly-pee’d upon office steps.

Yet retailers all over the planet are in trouble – heap big trouble – with the wonder of Wollies no longer looking so very breathtaking (when did it ever?) and DSG, the holding group for Dixons appearing equally flimsy and who knows what’s going to happen to WH Smiths, one of the stalwarts of the High Street – will they be the next to fall at the Beacher’s Brook of retail? Place your bets here, please. And General Motors – will they survive much beyond Valentine’s Day or will they become part of the massacre? And will VAT go beyond the 20% mark..? I’d not bet against that one either.

A week also in which people have also been saying some truly wonderful things about Rob.

Working out of Coalition where his larger-than-life presence is already sorely missed; installed at a desk free-basing Project X and funeral-attendees spreadsheets with tributes that pile up on a daily basis nestling alongside e-mail inboxes overflowing with messages from people near and far, from long-past and current, all offering their own thoughts on his passing.

I look up from my borrowed desk and there, above the door that separates the Management and PR divisions, hangs a newly framed magazine back page.

From the earliest of Island days, we always used to frame front-pages but this back page is a bit special. And it more than deserves its place among the pantheon of magazine-art that surrounds it. It has been taken from this week’s edition of Music Week, that most august of British organs and the trade bible to the industry in the UK.

It’s a picture taken by Adrian Boot during the years when Rob and I sat across from one another in the War Room at Island. Boot had been in that afternoon, a brief photo-shoot for one of our artists or bands, I forget whom and, come the end of the day, was hanging out in our part of the building.

This was long before the days of digital photography; he had four or five frames left and, so as not to waste film, positioned himself right behind where I was sitting and focused on Rob who was on the ‘phone, chattering away to some journalist or other, smoking one of my full-strength Marlboro’s – an ashtray awash with nicotine detrius in front of him, leaning on his diary, with pens and scraps of paper covered in Rob’s collegiate hand spread around.

He initially caught Rob unawares – and one of those initial shots was used this week by The Guardian to illustrate Robin Denselow’s marvellous tribute. But, by the time Boot lined up to take his final frame, Rob had caught on and he was nabbed, snarling back at the camera.

And that is the one that’s been framed; the one that HMV – a long time client of ours – chose with which to pay tribute to him, the caption simply saying Rob Partridge – 1948 / 2008.

Looking to the dark-cold night sky I’ve also been thinking about what Tom Waits said: Here on earth a very bright and warm light has gone out but there is a strange new bird in heaven – the Rob Partridge.

One of the other things that Tom also said about Rob was that he was a pioneering navigator. Its an adjectival phrase that’s meaning has been utilised by more than one person – Paul McGuinness, for example, spoke on Radio 4 of Rob yesterday in like terms, saying that he went way beyond the parameters of his specified job.

All of which somewhat flies in the face of something pretty scary that I read earlier – an interview given by the recently installed EMI Music chief executive, a certain Elio Leoni-Sceti – a Roman by birth with an (apparently) idiosyncratic speech delivery that the Music Week journalist described as being like a gattling gun on fast forward.

The last year or so have been pretty lousy for EMI – the new owner (a bloke called Guy Hands) announced job-cuts for over 2,000 employees last January and fairly recently the company turned in a year-end loss of a staggering 750+ million pounds.

Maybe my use of the word lousy as an adjective wasn’t that wise a choice… Because it also appears that they’re going to slash into their roster of 14,000 artists signed to the label (and its subsidiaries, I assume). According to the Italian stallion, having a roster that top-heavy isn’t sustainable. I should think not.

Not least because – according to Maltby Capital (the vehicle that Hands used to acquire EMI in August last year) recently revealed that 88% of artists on the company’s roster made a loss. Hmmm… is this bloke going to be hands-on… or hands-off?

In any event, it’s an interesting statistic since it almost racks out against another I learned recently whereby any company business is often reckoned to be as follows: 80% income coming from 20% of their customers.

So what are the giant, EMI going to do? Are they going to bestride the world’s stage like a colossus or… Let’s have a little ponder, shall we?

Well, for a start they’ve employed a new Chief Executive to lead the slash and burn.

He, almost needless to say, speaks fluent corporate, fleshed out with meaningless buzz-words and jargon; a man who is evidently adroit with flow-charts, skilled with mission statements and dexterous at PowerPoint presentations.

This probably all makes perfect sense if one is fluent in waffle too – to me, though, its simply bollox.

Here’s what he says (judge for yourself): The one thing we have, that we didn’t have before is actually being able to inform our decisions on visibility of financial data about the roster.

He has also claims: This industry has been blessed by a revenue stream that was coming, and it was not forced to really scratch its head very hard to find the next one. We (EMI) are doing it now. What I have learned is to listen to consumers. I have been passionate about that.

He goes on to say: We want to bring the artists and the fans closer together. The word ‘closer’ builds on the concept of knowledge. That knowledge will help drive actions of both the artist and fans to create value. The actions (mean) basically giving the artist the knowledge of where the fans are and where to reach them… and to drive fans to action by bringing music to them so they can act upon it.

He then asserts: Wherever music meets people, that’s where we want to be. Our mission is to ensure action and value is created wherever music and people meet and wherever they experience music.

Apparently, he used to work for Proctor & Gamble. I rest my case.

But, actually – in my view – it gets worse. Far worse.

Because he wants to start: leveraging existing technologies and existing infrastructure since he thinks this is the key to the future and he believes it will be a way for EMI and the music industry to begin to reclaim control of the way music is experienced.

Oh… really?

Apparently, he and his team have been researching the company’s consumers. It seems they have done rather a lot of research – and have identified that there are six different types of music consumer and… they (the boffins in white coats and matching clip-boards) now know how they behave.

The newly-formed department within EMI responsible for this information is called Consumer Insight and Analytics.

Am I the only person absolutely terrified of people who behave like this?

Let’s listen to what the 21st Century Marcus Aurelius has to say on this 'ere subject: In our learning about the consumer there are different aspects. Some of them are about consumer behaviour, motivation and desires in the way they consume music at different touch points, whether that is live, digital or physical. One of the elements of the learning plot will be to enable us to interface with [consumers] on a constant basis as a learning lab.

So, instead of peace and understanding, we now have research and understanding.

But, apparently, this is going to be of great help to EMI because it’ll mean that the entire A&R process will be better informed and executed. Not just that – stop howling at the back – but, according to the man in the sharp suit, they will be better able to identify market gaps.

Because – and I quote again. You can be instructed by a market or consumer need. Is there a need for kid’s music? You can actually see market gaps and market needs in individual genres and try and address them by focusing one element of the creative process in that direction.

To me – and maybe I’m just being a bit old-fashioned here – this is treating the precious commodity of music as… product.

If this is the destiny for that most cherished of jewels as we lurch uncertainly into the 21st century, then I’m ever so glad that I’m long gone from this particular aspect of it.

Would Stax, Motown or Island have ever been founded on the guiding principles as outlined above? Not in a million years – thank the stars in all their heavens.

They were founded and staffed by people who worked on gut instinct and sheer enthusiasm; people who cared about artists and careers; honourable men and women who were in touch with the very heartbeat that will always pulse through the music world; soulful people who nurtured acts and helped them navigate their way forward; people who could inspire yet also understand that business and integrity are a hard marriage but who have hearts and minds big enough to encompass both; people who looked at the impossible and thought – why not?; people who were lucky enough to get paid for indulging a hobby.


People like… Rob.