Monday, December 20, 2010

Picture This

Dunno about you but, I’m a bit of an information junkie… For instance, I devour sleeve notes; call me a train-spotter but I really do like to know the inner bits and bobs behind the recording of the record I’m listening to… and, I don’t believe I’m alone in that enjoyment.

Same goes for art galleries… as much as I like to go and gaze at painting X or Y by great-master A or B, the same goes for the captioning thereof. To me, its all part of the learning; the acquisition of knowledge if you like – the tale behind the painting adds immeasurably to the pleasure in looking at what the exhibit’s curator has hung on the wall.

The upper space in this particular gallery is all whitewashed walls and rectangular shapes. The floors are anonymous pine planks; Norwegian blonde – each footfall echo bounces back in an area otherwise bereft of meaningful life. It reeks of uninviting post-industrial chic.

And, this scrupulously scrubbed room into which I have wandered through a wide white opening is perhaps forty feet wide by maybe thirty deep and about fifteen or so in height.

And there, hanging artistically off-centre and suspended from the ceiling, occupying some (but not all) of the white space in this white box-lozenge that has no door, is a huge jumble of autumnal-hued… string.

The string – so I’m reliably informed by the caption that’s been stuck at eye-level on the white wall – entitled ‘Untitled Number One’.

The first line of this ‘caption’ reads as follows: You may imagine that this is unfinished.

Taking my cue from the caption – bible-black, 14 point, Times Roman on the scrubbed-white wall – I extend my imagination.

However, much like an engine running low on diesel, it only travels so far: it splutters to a halt at the point when I’ve decided the dangling mess of twine resembles nothing other than a poorly assembled squirrel’s dray that has recently been savaged by a hungry feline on its quest for hatchling breakfast.

Looking for clues, I re-examine the caption again, the one that solemnly informs me: You may imagine this is unfinished. Sorry pal, I don’t imagine anything of the kind actually… What I clearly see – and right before my eyes – is a heap of total bollox… full-throttle pretentious, art-installation, crap. The person who ‘assembled it’, the people who commissioned this thing… AND the person who wrote this ‘caption’ – all of ‘em should be ashamed of themselves.

But… why are you here Neil… especially when you know this sort of thing irritates the be-jaysus out of you?
Ahh… I’m here because… but, you know what, I really wish I hadn’t bothered. Where, why, what, how, when… then?

Just the other day actually – when it seemed like a beezer idea to avoid Christmas shopping by nipping in to have a squint around an Exhibition that advertised itself as displaying loads of Edward Hopper pictures.

And, since I’ve been a bit of a sucker for Hopper’s art since my mid-teens… off I toddled. The only problem was that the advertising exaggerated somewhat… there were only a very few of Hopper’s work on display and very few had any meaningful captioning either. Plus, since the gallery's coffee-emporium was closed and they'd indulged in daylight robbery to actually get in to said gallery, exploration of the other floors seemed in order. Hence the reasons for the irritating ball of string encounter.

Anyway, Hopper’s art and I first became acquainted by way of another artist – Edward Kasper who I imagine, (tho’ honestly don’t know for sure), probably drank deep from the well of Hopper’s realism-inspired-inspiration. Edward Kasper… who’s he?

He’s the bloke responsible for this - the wrap-around poster-like sleeve to the original inner for The Band’s Moondog Matinee.

Not, frankly, the greatest album they ever delivered but it’s contained within one of my favourite covers. And, it’s not too far a throw of the imagination to see Kasper’s sleeve-art with its own antecedence in Hopper’s own Nighthawk’s masterpiece of 1942.

Which, led me to thinking… album art is not what once it was… is it?

Growing up musically (before) and during time spent at the coal-face of Island Records, one of CB’s (Chris Blackwell – founder of) firm beliefs that was imbued within us was… and I’m quoting him here; “If you felt that the artwork was intriguing then there must be something going on inside; there’s some thought, there’s some creativity. Artwork was very important to Island’s life”.

And it was… oh but it really was. Yet, as we moved from the 12 square inches – a format that gave designers space within and on which to create – through cassettes and in to CDs, the size came to matter. Why? ‘cos the combination of the art and the information became almost a by-product of the whole. It was as if… look, you’ve got the music, what more do you want?

And now, the art that comes with our music has been reduced to the size of a postage-stamp since that is what iTunes downloads dictate.

Time was when new-release record X or Y would appear in one’s local Diskery; the hard-earned would be handed over and one’d hop back on the bus and then it was either back home or to a mate’s house full of eager anticipation not just for the needle to make its first drop onto pristine vinyl but… to examine – in detail – the sleeve in which said new release resided. Why?

Because these sleeves were not only (in general terms) works of art in their own right but one also elicited a heap of information: who played what and with whom… who produced this or that… which studios were used… who engineered this or that… who was this or that person thanked and what role did they play in the overall proceedings? One stored this information up in one’s head and applied it to other albums, thereby drawing up a form of knowledge database.

Download your ‘product’ off of iTunes and none of this is contained within your download… you get the music (of course) plus the pea-sized replica of the sleeve. And that’s it.

The other day, I finally – and I’ll be beating myself for being late to the ball here – for some time to come… but, anyway, I managed to cotton on to what is rapidly becoming my album of the year. Seasons Of My Soul by the chanteuse otherwise known as Rumer.

And yes, the album art – a nice black and white image of the young lady – nestles quite comfortably in my iTunes folder. And (or should that be but) as much as I really like the music, there is nothing much – other than that nice black and white image – to look at. No real ‘information’ to acquire.

Big pity really… that the digital generation are cheated of this pleasure. I understand its not for everyone… but, I tend to think its for more than maybe people realise.

Perhaps that’s why there is a very real rise in vinyl sale… not just because of the (well-known) warmth of the musical-listening experience but equally because the sleeve designers can create better than is possible with a palette the size of a stamp.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

You’re Not Going Out Dressed Like That

It really has been a long old journey.

Ambling on stage is a five-piece band: first up is the boy-girl-boy bass player who sports short-cropped hair in a style that kd lang would ultimately confiscate as her own.

The lanky, shaggy-haired, drummer steps up to his mark: he wears an un-ironed Hawaiian shirt that could well have begun life by being drenched in the rabid colour scheme much-admired by Axminster carpet designers in the Fifties. The shirt has clearly lived a life of its own and looks as if it was lifted from a Salvation Army thrift store; impatiently, he raps out paradiddles on his snare-drum, waiting for the twin-guitarists to tune up.

The rangy axe-meister stage right – the one wearing the pencil thin tie, stands motionless; staring darkly into the middle distance, clutching the neck of his guitar so firmly that the veins on his stick-thin arms stand out.

The other tremolo-bender is raw-boned and facially angular as if chipped from the same block that carved Ian Curtis; un-smiling, he stares down at the assembled as if sizing up the length of a dole queue on Giro-collection day.

The singer who fronts this beat-combo is last to take his place.

Be-spectacled, possessed of thinning hair, he is anything but angular and more resembles a genial bookmaker or someone from accounts that you only see at Christmas parties – being violently sick into a potted palm in the corner after three too many Babychams.

It would not be unreasonable to say he looks entirely out of place in this place – he is sporting a slightly grubby, known-better-days, tartan dinner jacket above highly polished brogues and a quizzical grin.

Dateline: May 17th, 1980. Outside the University of Newcastle, the moon waxed in a perfect crescent.

If any of the History students attending to the bottom of their pints of Lager-top were thinking about it, they could well have been contemplating the 459th anniversary of the 3rd Duke Of Buckingham losing his head via a well-sharpened blow on Tower Hill. If that seemed unlikely, one couldn’t help but wonder if they were transfixed to the side of the Students Union bar by discussion of that very day being the 180th anniversary of the Relief Of Mafeking.

Maybe, however, their minds were further afield – contemplating the fact that martial law had, that very day, been imposed by General Chun Doo-hwan in South Korea in order to quell the student demonstrations that had broken out on the far side of their world. Maybe not.

In any event, the atmosphere that night was as sterile as a vasectomy, the room as welcoming as an under warmed oven; the only sound being the shuffling of feet wrapped up in a puzzled collective gaze at this bunch of misfits taking the stage.


The lights go down and the group’s first tune chugs into motion as the singer begins to sing songs drawn deep from the well of pure pop; collectively, they've reached deep down into the urn of angst where the shimmering light of soul meets the touch-point of dance. Collective heads, as one, turn…

Looking back, it was hardly a shock that uber-critics of the day (such as the NME’s David Quantick, Paul Morley and Sounds’ Dave McCullough) lauded this band from high in their marbled-towers as they did. The real bolt from the blue was that the great British public almost unanimously refused to catch on. The group were unceremoniously booted out by their record label and, after a period of time in the outer limits, fizzled out like a beautiful shooting star dropping over the far horizon.

Fast-forward thirty years and a little bit.

In the postbox are two card-sleeved CDs which, to be totally honest, I’d entirely forgotten were being sent. Yes, I’d been told that they were being mailed but, in this digital day and age, one is more used to ‘I’ll send them in the post’ meaning having one’s email in-box clogged with file-attachments that nestle up to solicitations suggesting I’d benefit from penis-enlargement than actually getting hold of the actual, physical… real thing… itself.

So… here they were, these two CDs – staring up at me from inside their dirt-brown Jiffy bag – that represented this group’s first new recordings in… twenty-five years or so. I gazed at the two sleeves – perfect little works of art in themselves – suddenly realising that I’d become just a little nervous for the music they contained.

Yes, the seed of doubt had taken hold – would these match up?

It’s all very well to hope, to hark back to those original recordings that remain as fresh today as when first laid down. But… would this just be a case of the two key components of a band giving it one last forlorn shot when really, they shouldn’t have bothered with booking the studio time? Only one way to find out…

That first moment of jangling guitar should have told me… the first moment of that voice certainly did. It has matured – and is now a subtle mix of summer sunshine honeydew melon infused with rich molasses; perhaps (quite possibly) a smattering of Smokey Robinson by way of Darryl Hall in there too… embracing yet not overtaking the space within the chord progressions. Here it was: three chords and the truth – alchemy within a melody pool.

But, above all… it’s all about the songs; and there are tunes here that are absolute, stone-ground, classics.

Yes, I know very well that that is a ridiculously over-used adjective, especially when used in a descriptive manner, nestled up alongside songs. But… you’ll have to trust me here. Really... you will.

Still unsure? OK… for the hard of accepting, lets put it this way: IF Jarvis Cocker had penned either Lost or Nicole, then the world of critics (swiftly followed by the public) would be all over ‘em like a cheap suit, claiming they were two of the great – lost – British pop songs.

Let us celebrate then: the globe’s most unlikely pop stars are back and… within the all-pervasive X-Tractor climate, my iPod is thankful that Father Christmas has dropped down the chimney a little bit early. So… why don’t you make yours a happy digital-download-device… put aside the mince pies for just a few moments and do the right thing… OK?

Because… my Lords, Ladies, Gentlemen and other readers of this little Voltaire out on its windswept grassy knoll on the world-wide-Prairie … please charge your glasses and welcome back… The Distractions.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Sound Of The Suburbs

The other night, while watching a favourite TV programme, a new (well, to my eyes anyway) level of advertiser’s intrusiveness was laid in front of us; the consumers curled up on the comfy sofa.

The commercial break was, as usual, annoying enough since it – again, as usual – interrupted the programme’s flow. But, it was what followed said commercial break that proved so aggravating because it appears that advertisers now feel we – the viewers / the consumers – can be devalued by a new treat from their bag of tricks.

And this new indulgence of theirs is..?

Well, the programme in question kicked off again… but… placed at the bottom left of the screen occupying (at a rough guess) approximately ten percent of the physical screen-space… was a run-on of one of the previous advertisements.

And, this animated mini-ad remained in situ for the entire duration of that segment of the programme.

With its’ positioning, one’s eye cannot help but be drawn to what is going on at the bottom left-hand-corner of the screen. Clever in one respect but exasperating and deeply annoying in another since this particular ad takes up just enough screen-room to intrude into what is actually going on in the programme one has tuned in to view.

Did it work, did this advert communicate its message? Did it bollox.

Lets take another quick example – which, according to Steve Purdham (CEO of an internet music streaming service in the UK called We7) is tied up in something he likes to call ‘dwell-time’. This (apparently – yeah, I know, it’s a laughable phrase, isn’t it) is the time one spends on site X or Y ‘engaging’ or ‘interacting’ with what they – the provider – have to offer.

Bypassing the corporate bullshit speak, it links into how they – the advertisers – can specifically target their audience. This is done via all the ‘bots’ out there that track one’s movements on the web (and there are more than anyone even imagines – hence new legislation in progress to combat big brother’s snooping tactics).

Clever… for sure it is. But… what actually happens is that one is continually being bombarded with advertisements that, because of their intrusive nature, are now having very little effect.

The other day, I was prowling about on the wibbly-wobbly after information and eventually linked in to an instructional video for a particular PhotoShop CS5 element I was having trouble grasping. But, before my cyber-teacher and I could ‘engage’, I was subjected to a thirty second advert.

The same goes for (herewith just another random example) tuning in to view a BBC video news feed off their site. Sorry chaps… I do NOT want to watch thirty or even fifteen seconds of advertising before I get to the news item in question.

So, all you advertising wallahs out there… know what happens…? I’ll go and stick the kettle on while your beastly advert plays out. And, quite honestly, I don’t think I’m alone in this.

Y’see, this little Voltaire out there on its grassy knoll in the windswept prairie reckons this (new) level of intrusive advertising is completely counter-productive. And, it ain’t the way forward for this medium.

Advertising is and has – for as long as anyone who reads this can remember – been part of the daily function of our lives. No big deal… it’s just a part of modern life.

However… with the economic world still grappling with being part of the new Millennium, the advertising agencies are trawling the depths of the barrel marked ‘new ideas’ as to how to get their messages across.

Some – indubitably – work brilliantly; lets take the Nike ‘swoosh’ logo as one example… its just an image, a graphic, an emblem and yet… gradually its seeped into the public consciousness and its now known the world over for what it is. No need for ramming the word Nike down anyone’s throat; no need for copyrighters’ silly tag-lines… just the graphic unobtrusively positioned. Very clever

Rapha (purveyors of top-of-the-line cycling clothing) are another such. It’s a brand created by Simon Mottram and he’s very cleverly positioned his company as much by subliminal advertising as by generating high-quality apparel that is and yet doesn’t appear to be branded (much like Nike).

One’d have thought that the market for cycling and accessories (clothing being a key component) would be limited. Not so. Mintel (as quoted in The Independent on November 4th) have stated it is worth 700 million (yes… million) squiddlys in the UK alone. And, in 2011 it’ll be even higher.

Among the (many) component factors that have clearly helped are the Manx Missile’s exploits in the Tour making front page news to the Boris-bikes initiative; from Briton’s winning a sack-full of medals at the last Olympics to people in general getting the message that getting out and about on your bike is a good step forward to being healthy.

And Mottram and his Rapha brand are not just riding the crest of that wave but expanding step by step internationally. And doing so exceedingly cleverly; while the US is now their biggest market he’s recently brought in a chap previously at Adidas to spearhead their forays into Europe.

The other day, I was out and about in a bit of a shopping frame of mind – perusing the wares on offer in a sports emporium; a shop that offered (across its four floors) everything one’d require if one was a real back-packer to gadgets designed to get the very best out of a snorkeling experience; from football strips in one’s favourite team colours to hiking boots and biking gear; from tennis racquets to rugby balls.

And… ploughing along the rails of replica cycling team-jerseys one stood out from the rest. It was off-white with the maker’s (team) logo discreetly positioned over the left breast in a silvery-white. From a distance, it looked like a simple off-white cycling jersey. Close up, the cleverness of the design became apparent.

How can white on white work..? Well… let me assure you, this did… it was exceedingly cool… and, not to put too fine a point on it, this Rapha jersey was the absolute puppy’s privates. Had I the spare wherewithal, I’d have had the plastic swiped and the item in a carrier bag with no hesitation.

In design terms, retro-chic is, I believe, the adjectival expression.

And, retro-chic that’s classy as opposed to the shoddy stab at the same genre by the designers of Team Sky’s dreadful 2010 outfit which, incidentally, hung alongside the Rapha jersey on the same clothing rail.

In 1930, Jose Ortega was quoted saying, "We live at a time when man believes himself fabulously capable of creation but he does not know what to create."

The same rings true today. We’re in the middle of a(nother) industrial revolution… and, just because there are different variants on advertising delivery / brand-awareness now available, it doesn’t follow that the model of twenty or thirty years ago will work.

While those that do embrace it will succeed, equally, its time that advertisers (in general) woke up and got smart to the fact that they’re simply pissing off potential customers – otherwise and before too long, someone smart will set up a pay-wall behind which people who don’t want to be intruded upon can retreat and not be subjected to what is, nowadays, advertising harassment.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Remake Remodel

So… to use (loathsome) modern music-biz parlance, Michael Jackson’s ‘new single’ Breaking News has… dropped.

And, dear reader, I have to inform you that... to all intents and purposes, it’s a bonafide turd.

It opens with 35 seconds of, poorly cobbled-together, spoken ‘news reporting headlines’ (eg: More allegations against the King Of Pop; Another lawsuit against Michael Jackson etc etc) played through static as if the listener was twisting the dial on an old fashioned radio.

Tellingly… the word unauthorised is used repeatedly.

Then, Jackson himself – so we’re led to believe – steps up the plate at 54 seconds in over a piss-poor breaking news (sic) shufflebeat accompanied by sampled violins with the opening line of: "Everybody wanting a piece of Michael Jackson; Every reporter stalking the moves of Michael Jackson; Just when you thought he was done; He comes to give it again," And, in the next line the singer mentions his (own) obituary.

And, it may well be – although probably not the one that he’d have liked.

Because… to the ears of this Voltaire out on its grassy knoll on the world-wide-windswept prairie, this doesn’t much sound like Michael Jackson singing before he entered or from beyond the grave.

It actually sounds like one of two things: either a very average MJ impersonator – you know the ones… young lads who appear of programmes like X-Factor and other rubbish TV like that. They’re all dressed up, their hair is done just so, they’ve practiced the moves, privately, in front of a bedroom mirror for months using a hairbrush as a microphone and someone, somewhere has said… ‘hey son, for you… Opportunity Knocks’.

Generally speaking, they disappear into the oblivion from whence they came.

Either that or this is conceivably a rough demo containing (probably) a guide vocal together with a 'rough arrangement' that a ‘producer’ has gotten a hold of and… ‘produced’.

According to Michael Jackson dot com, the song was cut during 2007 by someone called Eddie Cascio at his home in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey; ma and pa Cascio are, apparently, restaurant owners who specialize in Italian cuisine and gave their son his start in music by funding his piano lessons. Beats beating out pizza dough.

Graduating from Drew University, Cascio – via family connections – started writing for the New York based publishing company Sony / ATV Music before founding his own production company Angelikson Music and going on to work with the likes of Luther Vandross, Usher and NSYNC. And, apparently, Jacko tipped up in late ’07 chez Cascio and… laid down a few tunes.

However… and I confess to finding this pretty extraordinary, these ‘tracks’ that Cascio allegedly ‘produced’ of Jacko’s lay dormant (undiscovered / un-talked of) when Jackson’s estate recently concluded a deal with Sony – reportedly for 200 million dollars.

Hmmm… the woodwork squeaks and out come the freaks.

Sony have issued a press-statement that contains one or two interesting ‘wordings’ together with committing the cardinal sin within any media-release – that of using adjectival language. For example they state that this posthumous album (entitled Michael) is ‘much anticipated’. Is it…? That should be down to the public to decide, should it not?

Be that as it may, they also state that the album will be released by Epic in conjunction with the Estate Of Michael Jackson. Frankly as it should be but… how do they now quantify Jackson’s mother (Katherine) using the word fake (according to news sources) when discussing this posthumous album project (from which this track is culled) with… yes, you guessed – and who else but… Oprah Winfrey.

Indeed, TMZ are also reporting Prince and Paris (two of Jackson’s children) stating that they do not believe the vocals on parts of the album are their father’s.

Reading a bit further into Sony / Epic’s mdia-release we learn that: “Breaking News,” a never heard before song by Michael that appears on the new album was recorded in New Jersey in 2007 and recently brought to completion (my italics).

Aha… and therein lies the rub, the nub of the whole matter.

Clearly, even Sony / Epic are admitting that a producer has gotten a hold of this and… produced it.

Poorly at that.

IF it had the kudos of (say) someone with credentials such as Quincy Jones or even Will.I.Am then I should imagine people would take this posthumous offering a lot more seriously.

Do I have any authority to offer that as an opinion? Actually, yes I do.

Over the past year or so, I’ve been working on a number of tracks exactly as that – the only difference being that the artist with whom I’ve been working is very much alive.

Nevertheless, his view – to which I heartily subscribe – is as follows: while previously unheard track X or Y has value to the consumer within the context of an artist’s full body of work and therefore should be cleaned up and brought to the sonic standards people expect to hear in 2010; demos and especially those with guide vocals are best left as they were actually recorded. They are snapshots in time – and therefore should be left as exactly that.

Plus – although this was many years ago, I did have the singular pleasure of meeting the King Of Pop. We stood side by side in the gentleman’s urinals at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London when the annual BRIT Awards were hosted there. As his Giant Haystacks-sized minder guarded the door, we acknowledged the other’s presence by a simple nod of the head and got on the with business in hand (sic), staring at the white marble straight ahead, as gentlemen are won’t to do in such circumstances.

IF it began life as that, Breaking News probably sounded pretty interesting as a work-in-progress demo but now its been produced (with or without his own vocals) it sounds like extraneous matter within the largely formidable cannon of Jacko’s main body of work.

As it has been presented, "Breaking News" is the audio equivalent of a badly photoshopped picture.

And the thing is with turds… no matter how hard one tries, they cannot be polished.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Don’t Bang The Drum

A few days ago, dear old Auntie BBC broadcast the first in their series of Electric Proms performances – the mighty Leon Russell musically re-united with Sir Reg of Pinner - live and direct from The Roundhouse.

Not only was one able to view Sir Reg’s hair-extensions as well as LR’s monumental white beard in High Definition but, one could – if one chose to – listen along in equally HD sound via the BBC's I-Player.

And I most certainly did. Not once but quite a few times – perfect music-while-you-work fodder. A few bits, frankly, didn’t bear repeated listens but… most certainly some of the stuff that featured more LR than EJ did.

And… it got me thinking… wouldn’t it be great to have an audio souvenir of that evening at The Roundhouse. Not least, as I know that stuff up on the old I-Player gadget is only available for a while, ie its time specific.

So… how would I listen to my favourite bits in, say, a couple of months time?

One phone call to the audio-equivalent of Dr Watson, located a couple of parishes away, three emails later and a bit more Holmes-like investigation on the wibbly-wobbly, and… a rather splendid solution presented itself.

Its a gadget called Audio Hijack.

And, while its perfectly legal, its one of the scariest things I’ve seen on the web.

In brief, no audio recording out there available to listen to via wibbly-wobbly land is safe.

Audio Hijack takes but a few moments to download… Since I was in pure research mode I went for the freebie variant but, if you want all the bells and whistles, it comes at a price (about 20 squiddlys).

Installation is a doddle… a simple case of dragging the App into one’s App folder and the regulation double-click and bingo… you’re ready to go. Obviously I didn’t read the help-file or on-line manual… that’s a bit like reading the instructions on an Ikea shelving unit… hardly manly, is it? Plus, that’s why hammers were invented.

Anyway… I figured I’d try it out…

I called up Sir Reg and Mister White Beard via the BBC’s I-Player thingie, set the slide-control to a particular track I like and… pressed the button marked record. Music, maestro please… but, to be honest, I wasn’t quite sure if I was listening (again) to the tune I’d chosen or if I was listening to it as being recorded by this gadget.

Pressed stop at the end as gales of applause from The Roundhouse hit the headphones and… drat, nope, must have fucked up somewhere as no MP3 file was in sight. Hmmm… maybe I should have squinted (however briefly) at the manual. Thirty seconds later, I’d found the object in question, did the old double-click fandango and… bloody hell, there it was playing away perfectly out of I-Tunes.

Eeeek… I’ve hacked the BBC.

But… and, I promise you, this is quite serious… over the past few weeks while I’ve been re-designing Website X, I’ve also been planning on integrating music into said re-design.

And so, I have been studying the whole SoundCloud scenario which, on the face of it, was starting to look like the way to go.

Because, from what I had worked out, SC gave out great quality (ie you can stream .FLAC files – ie, lossless quality). Plus, various friends of mine from a variety of (name) bands had started to use it as a way of streaming their music… so, if it was good enough for them, then certainly good enough for my purposes. And, most importantly, from what I could work out, it didn’t appear hackable…


I’ve hacked SoundCloud as well.

Which basically means, if I can, then anyone can.

After a bit of a prowl around the wibbly wobbly again, I selected a juicy nugget posted on SoundCloud and… oh, shit, within five minutes I’ve acquired a track that was bonafide posted there as one of two things: (a) for anyone’s listening pleasure or… (b)if you paid X, then you were able to download it.

(a) is a great method of letting one's 'fans' listen to (say) early demos or otherwise unreleased tracks, perhaps rough mixes from an album in progress or finished tracks... all manner of things really. But, most importantly, since the internal SoundCloud gadget is set to non-download... thats the way it is - the listener can listen only and the creative isn't ripped off... Splendid... IF it works.

(b) is equally perfect since it means that creative person Y is PAID for their creativity on tunes that they are quite comfy to have downloaded.

Only problem is - as I proved earlier... it doesn't work.

So.. the solution to my own web-streaming-of-music conundrum?… Well, I guess it’'ll have to be a case of just doing what Apple are about to do on I-Tunes… and that’s plonk up only 90seconds of music.

And… streaming music as being the ‘solution’ via ‘sound clouds’ for creatives being paid as they should be… errr… nope… I wish it was, but today’s little exercise proves worryingly otherwise.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Take The Cash (K.A.S.H.)

It´s a secret operation, don´t want this getting out,
So watch it, watch it, watch it, if the payment doesn´t bounce,
It´s the sweetness of the readies, makes the bell ring on the till,
And if they say they’ll pay next week, you know they never will.

Take the cash, don´t let them pay you in kind,
Take the cash, before they change their minds,
And let´s see the colour of their money – take the cash

(words and music / E. Goulden)

Ladies and Gentlemen, please be upstanding for the downright brilliant songs of Mr. and Mrs Goulden’s lad, Eric – better known throughout the whole wide world (sic) as Wreckless Eric – whose songwriting, according to this little Voltaire out there on its grassy knoll on the windswept prairie, deserves far wider acknowledgement than it presently has or, indeed, has accumulated over the years.

Nevertheless, in this relative world, its probable that young Eric doesn’t do all that badly out of his songwriting royalties… even despite the fact that he (probably) signed a piss-poor publishing deal back in the day with his pay-meister’s at Stiff; the World's most flexible record label that was started up by Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson (Robbo) via a four-hundred quid loan from Dr. Feelgood’s Lee Brilleaux and which offered for our delectation some of the very finest (and also some of the most horrible) records issued in the Seventies and Eighties.

Amongst which, (the former that is), any discerning individual would list a high quantity of W. Eric’s tunes – lyrically as astute as it gets with a fine turn for a belter of a melody; consider the rhyming couplet delights within his second Stiff single (and, sadly, it was a stiff), Reconnez Cherie – On a convenient seat by the lavatories in the sodium glare; We used to wait for the bus in a passionate clutch and go as far as we dared; Do you remember when I passed my driving test; Took you to the pictures, forget the rest; Do you remember all those nights in my Zodiac; Playing with your dress underneath your Pac-a-Mac. And, on it goes into an entirely memorable chorus. I mean – c’mon… Cole Porter, eat your heart out.

And Eric… well, he’s been plodding along, ploughing his own, entirely unique, furrow these many years and, in an unlikely twist of circumstance, has returned to (some would say) his spiritual home by licensing his new record (with his wife, Amy Rigby) to the label – Stiff having risen once again, phoenix-like from its own ashes.

Aha… the key word here is licensed… as it looks as if our hero has his act together. And, is nowadays a lot more in control of his own work than (maybe) once he was.

Back in 1977, when his first record – Whole Wide World – hit the stores, young Eric was (quite possibly) relieved to have found an outlet for his music and (probably) never once thought about the long-term… At 32 Alexander St (Stiff HQ) it was all about madcap schemes hatched in any one of numerous nearby pubs with (probably) no real thought to how the label’s output would be considered (say) a quarter of a century later. At that point, the powers that be at Stiff were more concerned with what might happen next week.

Nevertheless, a true gem such as that (aforementioned) record was listed not so very long ago in Mojo Magazine’s ‘best punk singles of all time’ while also being acclaimed as one of the top-40 ‘alternative era’ singles between 1975 / 2000.

And, while written in its entirety by E. Goulden, the copyright would be shared (possibly at something of a disadvantageous rate) with his publishers. And, given the copyright laws in existence at that point, that’d be the case until the year of our Lord, 2033. Meaning – if my arithmetic is on song – that Eric wouldn’t have full control of his own song until he was 79 years old.

Quite a sobering thought that.

But, of course, more or less the same situation that any songwriter (unless they’ve either had exceedingly clever management or have been exceptionally astute themselves) will find themselves in for works (songs) registered before 1978. After that, the situation changes – and will do so radically – in 2013 when the 35-year-law comes into force… in other words, a fore-shortening of the length of time before copyright reverts. Yes, I realize this is all a bit publishing 101 but it’s for illustrative purposes.

This ownership and being able to work and properly earn from your own copyrights point being vividly brought home by a snippet spotted in today’s Guardian.

In which, we learn that Producers working at Channel 5 TV have been asked to ‘avoid’ using commercial music in their programmes as a method to bring down royalty 'payments'.

And, those 'payments' are songwriting Royalties which are collected by the PRS and then distributed to the Publishing Companies and then, eventually, paid – on a percentage rate – to the actual writer(s) are accrued from any public performance of said music be that on-stage, recorded, on the radio, on the telly, within a movie or… online.

Apparently this is all part of a cost-cutting drive to make C5TV more profitable.

But, what is not mentioned is the heinous manner in which they (and, it should be noted, most other TV as well as Film Production Companies) actually deal with the creatives – in this instance, those who write music which may or may not be included within said TV Programmes or Films and so forth.

The C5TV spokeswoman is quoted in today's Guardian saying "Channel 5 plan to commission more original music as they have excellent contacts in the creative industry.”

Well… on the face of it, that’s great – more opportunities for creative folk.

But, here’s the rub… C5TV (as above) are clearly wanting to pay as little as they can by way of Royalties but, at the same time, they’re also demanding their cut as a Publisher because, as the source said (and this was also quoted in The Guardian) “All publishing rights have to be assigned to Channel 5."

In other words, they not only want to cough up little as they can get away with or grab just a little slice of that nice (lucrative) publishing steak and kidney... oh no, they want the entire bloody pie, crust and all.

And, if you – writer X – do not kow-tow to their demands… then, like as not your music will not be used. Same applies if you’re already signed to a Publishing Company. If your Publisher doesn’t (or won’t) play ball then… that’s it, your music won’t be used.

And, either which way, you'll not earn as much as you should.

Double-edged sword or what?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

All The Boys Love Carrie

And so… and finally… a little cause for celebration – LimeWire is no more. Or, to put that into its proper context, the illegal part of LimeWire’s file-sharing activities has been closed down. At last, a little bit of action that will (hopefully) see the copyright holders reap their just rewards… as they should.

Mind you, its taken four years of legal wrangling for the RIAA to bring about this injunction that ‘compels the Lime Group to disable its searching, downloading, uploading and file trading features.’

If you link across to the LimeWire site, you’ll find a notice posted that says ‘This is an official notice that LimeWire is under a court ordered injunction to stop distributing and supporting its file-sharing software.’ Scroll on a bit and you’ll discover this nugget, ‘downloading or sharing copyrighted content without authorisation is illegal.’

Well well well… that’s big of them, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, LimeWire don’t – yet – appear to have been hit with the colossal fine that they so richly deserve; a fine that once imposed – and paid – should be plonked into the RIAA coffers and re-distributed amongst all those artists and writers (the creatives) who LimeWire have knowingly ripped off.

Meantime and besides striking (something the French are particularly adept at), their ISP’s are acting on that Government’s ‘three-strikes’ legislation. They are sending out an average of 25,000 letters a day to suspected illegal filesharers. Now, the French love paperwork and compiling what they call le dossier – I know this first hand since I used to live there.

But… sorry fellas… it won’t work… because you’re targeting the wrong people.

And, if I still lived there I’m wondering if I’d be on their radar for illegally sharing a (music) file?

Lets take a very recent example. A pal of mine (a highly respected musician for what its worth) recently got in touch asking if I had a copy of album X by artist Y. Frankly, while reading his email, I couldn’t remember – this being a pretty obscure record that I knew had never been digitally released.

Anyhow, a quick fizz through my bulging I-Tunes folder and… lo and behold… there it was; way back when I did live in France, I must’ve digitised this album myself by transferring the vinyl version across to my computer. Actually, it’s a fairly easy process to do that using gadgets (programs) like Audacity… and, even easier nowadays ‘cos one simply buys a turntable that connects to one’s computer via a USB cable.

So… I loaded it all up and, via a file-sharing program I subscribe to (regularly sending large graphics images and so forth) I fizzed the individual music files that comprised the full album over to my buddy in Ireland. Next again day, he writes back saying thanks (like you do) and… he’s happy that he can listen to something he’d been trying to find for some time and I’m happy ‘cos I helped an old friend out.

Does anyone have a problem with that..?

I should hope not – after all, the album in question was purchased – albeit many moons ago – legally.

In fact, now that I come to think about it, I probably paid 32 and 6 for it (which, in old money / pre-decimalisation equates to one pound sixty or so) thereby demonstrating just how elderly a recording it was.

However… IF I still lived in the semi-remote region of France that I once did, then chances are the cyber-authorities would have me ear-marked as a criminal. Indeed, how soon would the knock on the front door come… and would I face the prospect of being collared by the local Gendarmerie? Very probably.

And… this is why it (this three-strikes initiative) won’t work.

Because, while I freely admit (guilty as charged m'lud) that I sent a music file – files plural to be precise – to my pal, I’d have contravened legislation that says what I did wasn’t legal (based on the fact that the recipient didn’t pay for said files).

And, this is where it is going to go horribly wrong for the French. They get many things right – such as Confit du Canard in amongst some very fine wines indeed as well as more spectacular cheeses than there are days in the year – but… this clamp-down isn’t one of ‘em.

As with LimeWire, it’s the upload and download companies that have to be targeted – MegaUpload, Rapidshare, HotFile and all of those companies (there are dozens). These are the people who distribute the goods; these are the people who’re making zillions via subscription charges that allow ordinary folk to post links to albums / singles / 12” mixes (whatever you want) for others to download.

The other day, Q Magazine awarded its album of the year to The National – pretty sound choice in my view; it’s a cracking record but I’d hazard a guess that it wouldn’t take more than five minutes of searching to find it as an illegal download via either Rapidshare or MegaUpload.

This little Voltaire out there on its grassy knoll of the windswept www prairie reckons that’s serious food for thought.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Reasons To Be Cheerful (Part 3)

No, I don’t have a hangover tho’ by all accounts, I probably should – having enjoyed a bit of a stonking evening at the Liberal Arse last night. Mellow Johnny was in charge of slapping the Martini’s down, Mother Mary having taken an early bath from her usual duties.

In any event, by the time I’m awash with the third cup of coffee (meaning some sense of order had replaced that merest hint of morning fuzziness – brought about by the fellas wielding a large hammer and cordless drill in diabolical harmony upstairs at the hour designated as ‘how best to really annoy anyone within earshot’) – a small news item posted on the Music Week site via CNet had grabbed the weary eye.

It’s a leaked letter from a chap called James Pond… and Master Pond, so it appears, is one of the top dogs at Google… Splendid, we do love leaks don’t we?

And… a quick ‘Google’ of Master Pond – there’s no hiding place on the wibbly wobbly web, is there – reveals his ‘job title’ at Google is Product Counsel… no idea what that actually means but that’s how he has listed himself on LinkedIn.

And, after a bit more Google-fed prowling, its quite easy to discover he was previously a media lawyer at Osborne Clarke, a paralegal at both Freehill and Freshfields… having been ‘educated’ at both Oxford and Cambridge as well as at the Inns Of Court Law School… Marvelous – that’ll mean he’s one of their legal eagles.

So, doubtless he’ll be a bit cross that a letter of his has been leaked but… hey, its out there now. Besides, given that what he’s had leaked is – or should be – really important, equals... so much the better.

Because, it appears that Google might just be about to step up to the plate and… just might… get involved in stemming online piracy as well as helping copyright holders track down material that’s being put up and out there as ‘free’.

And this little grassy knoll out there on the windswept world wide praire says… about fuckin’ time too.

Google have a moral obligation to do this – not least, because theirs is the biggest search-engine this side of Mars.

CNet reports that Google will charge a fee for this service… yeah and they should ‘cos, after all, they’ll be offering a service… they have a ‘product’ (hateful word as it is) and… ‘products’ should be charged for in order that the person / people who have created said ‘product’ earn a living.

Don’t think anyone’s got an issue with that… have they?

I mean… c’mon… we all have to make a living… you go to work, do whatever it is you do… and, at the end of the week or month, you get paid… from that wodge of dosh, you pay your bills, put food on the table and… so on and so forth…

And, if you’re a creative kind of cove who… lets say… writes songs from which you make a living… then, you’d expect to be paid for that… wouldn’t you?

But, of course, the vast majority – and, especially those who’s careers are in their twilight years – most often do not get paid.

For why?

Ahh… and here’s the rub… and this is a critical aspect of all of this file-sharing that’s going on – and a part that doesn’t affect the successful artists out there at all (they have their own issues).

Lets take artist X who, in his (or her) career, has recorded – lets say ten albums.

Those records, in their time, gathered a certain degree of caché and sold pretty well on vinyl but have lain dormant for the last however many years. And, now that we’re well into digital middle age, most of those recordings in our example aren’t available via the modern medium. Why is that then?

It is because the Record Companies don’t consider the cost-effective equation viable.

Cost-effective means them (the Record Companies – who are the copyright holders) not making a decent return on the cost of actually digitizing and re-mastering those old recordings because they reckon they’ll only sell a handful.

Which, essentially, is food on the table for the companies that host the files – that the fans and collectors want – that, in turn, are put up by fans of the music in the first place. They – the fans / music bloggers – aren’t making any money out of this… if anything, they’re paying to put records up on the internet (‘cos, to upload X amount of music files via MegaUpLoad or RapidShare or any other Upload service you care to name costs).

They (the fans and bloggers) like the records and feel like sharing what they like.

Any examples? Hell yeah, as many as you like actually… but just one should suffice.

There’s one particular album I like rather a lot from the Seventies (ok, so it proves I’m quite old – get used to it) that I spotted the other day freely available to download.

And this came with a really interesting statistic attached to said download… it had one of those counter thingies attached… which showed that particular full album download had been accessed a smidge more than 29THOUSAND times.

And that was on one site among dozens offering the same full album download of an album that has (I know for a fact) never been digitized.

Oh – and do I have a copy? Sure I do – quite some time ago and when the technology first became available, I digitized my own vinyl copy… its not great quality but, it suffices.

By and large – and if one really wanted to – I reckon old fogies like me could not only replace their old vinyl collection for nothing other than an internet connection charge but also top up on all those old vinyl recordings that one never quite got around to purchasing.

In a sense, the fans who post these recordings are offering a service of their own yet it is highly probable that they’re the people who are going to get their teeth kicked in when the outraged might of Google comes a-knockin’

When in actual fact, its is Companies such as those named above who should be taken to the cleaners…

And, by that I mean, they should have the bejaysus audited out of ‘em – and yeah, I know it’ll take a long long time – and the money they have earned from those who have paid to upload files should be re-distributed to those who have lost out who are... the creatives.

Google helping out with the file-sharing issue – yeah, I’ll go for that BUT ONLY if they deal with the companies who are making millions out of it and feed that cash back to where it should, rightfully, be.

The other solution would be to bring in some form of legislation that would mean that the companies (as above but there are loads of ‘em) have to pay a royalty / percentage of their income to a central fund from which the creatives who are missing out would be paid.

File-sharing is a bit like prostitution, it’ll never go away. But, it can be harnessed and, if done correctly, then those whose work is being prostituted can, rightfully, earn.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Season Of The Witch

Sitting in an English garden,
Waiting for the rain to come…

So, following the much trumpeted Apple announcement out of San Francisco earlier this week, we’ve learned that the world according to Steve Jobs has decided that we now ‘need’ a ‘new’ social networking gadget; one designed to help us all in our (apparently ongoing) quest to ‘share’ music one with another.

Snappy name the good people at Apple have given to this new social networking device (app) too… Ping.

So snappy that an explanation was required – Ping, apparently, is a term used by computer geeks when they connect, one computer with another. How splendid… yet how equally unforgettable. Ping simply reminds me of Pingu, a cartoon television character my youngest daughter was enthralled with in her earliest years – and equally now, long forgotten.

There is a certain logic behind Apple’s decision to launch Ping – one can (easily) see the sense – and money-making sensibility – in that it should (with luck and a following wind) call the final death knell to what is a truly horrid on-line experience: MySpace; ie, all part of Steve Jobs’ quest to rule the known world.

Time was when MySpace was a relatively useful tool… time was when it seemed just about everyone had a MySpace page; bands you liked; bands you’d never heard of; people you knew – it was almost as if you didn’t exist unless you had a MySpace presence.

But, what did it become?

I should explain here that the only reason I maintain a MySpace account is that it enables me – very occasionally – to link to person X or Y should the need arise when I’m in deep research mode for one of my various archival projects. And – even as recently as the last couple of weeks – it’s been a handy device to employ in that regard.

But, do I search for new music off of it..? Do I ‘interact’ with other people – by sending instant messages to any of my MySpace ‘friends’ that I see online at the same time…?

Errr… no, I don’t!

For a start, MySpace is (nowadays) festooned with ads from some organization or other asking me (whenever I log on) if I want to meet Russian women. Actually, I don’t thanks all the same.

And, how many bands or artists of real worth – by that I mean long term worth – have actually come out of the MySpace axis? Arctic Monkeys immediately springs to mind – not, I admit, that I’m particularly partial to them… in that I don’t exactly rush home after a long day thinking… heck, I’d better hurry along ‘cos I’m absolutely busting to hear a new Arctic Monkeys’ tune. Lily Allen – sorry but the same applies.

Besides, MySpace has, for so long, been a haven for a veritable myriad of people recording not-terribly-good tunes in their back-bedrooms that it has never really appealed to me in my (always ongoing) search for new music. It’s not just the (potentially endless) trawl through rubbish that puts one off; it’s the simple fact that there aren’t enough hours in the day… even if one wanted to spend one’s every waking minute staring at a screen wearing headphones… and listening; sifting the wheat from the chaff.

So, factor in the (unwanted and unwarranted) plentiful requests to befriend seventeen-year old’s from out west of the Pecos, another hiccup in their miscalculations has been MySpace launching their own ‘recommendations’ – suggesting music, videos and games that I might like to tinker with – all, apparently, based on my previous search habits. Hmmm… clearly they (believe) they know some things about me that I don’t.

Bottom line: its intrusive and far from what I require as an online experience.

I’d rather the ‘proper’ recommendation of a ‘proper’ friend who one actually speaks to… I know, a bit old fashioned that but, talking (in my experience) does have quite a bit going for it – as opposed to living your life as dictated by a BlackBerry; ‘cos that’s pretty much like chattering to someone who camps out behind their sunglasses.

And so, back to Pingu…

From all that I’ve read, its basically going to be much of the same… an integration of what I (again, apparently) search for popping up as ‘recommendations’ fuelled by what one’s ‘friends’ on either FaceBook or Twitter are, themselves, listening to.

One teensy weensy little problem; it won’t work.

Why..? Well, for example, yesterday… there I was, deep in research mode… and, working my way through another music (and other things) related site – Amazon. My purpose… pure research. And, this is serious archival research into the obscure and long forgotten.

But, within five minutes, Amazon – bless ‘em… they do try hard – were starting to make these ghastly recommendations based on what I was attempting to find – these possible needles within their giant haystack.

End result… click off and head elsewhere.

One only has to take a swift glance at the new I-Tunes top page and more of these ghastly – region specific – ‘recommendations’ are there… straight-in-yer-face ‘recommendations’.

They’re based on a couple of things… firstly, what the ‘majors’ are plugging – ie, we’ll pay you (I-Tunes) X and in return you’ll give us a prominent position. Secondly, behind the I-Tunes wall there’s a gadget that tracks everything you do, look for etc etc… and, based on what it finds / whats logged in to it’s own criteria… then it’ll spew back its ‘recommendations’ at you.

Thanks but no thanks.

I don’t want big brother dictating my musical (or otherwise) tastes.

The other aspect that hasn’t been thought through – at all and by either side of the coin – is the base fact that I-Tunes (and Amazon and others of that ilk) are all not just region specific but are at the mercy of the licensors.

How does this affect the end-user…?

In brief, it means that no matter how much you may want to purchase tune X or album Y by artist Z, IF the artist’s work isn’t licensed by the copyright holder in territory A… in which you’re logged on… then you can’t affect said purchase.

I could list dozens upon dozens of examples here but just one should suffice: one’d have thought that a band of the stature of (say) The Average White Band would have their entire catalogue on sale globally through the likes of I-Tunes… Fact is, that’s not the case – only in certain territories is one able to download certain albums / songs with some things available only (for example) if one is logged on via a UK ISP… meaning that, if you’re travelling (for example) or live in another ISP ‘area’ and logged on in that manner… then parts of their catalogue are unavailable.


Its down to one thing and one thing only – the rights have only been granted (licensed) by the licensor (ie the record company) for certain territories.

Ok… so I accept that not every user of (say) FaceBook or Twitter partnering their I-Tunes up with the former might not be much interested in acquiring said records… but, the point is that while FaceBook and Twitter are global… the likes of I-Tunes and Amazon most definitely aren’t.

Ergo… IF one really was hell-bent on downloading those particular albums ‘cos you couldn’t acquire them through legal means… then, how do you do that..?

It is, frankly, far far too simple.

And, this is where the record companies and the ISPs both need to seriously wise up.

All you do is set your browser to search for images of the record covers… start hovering your mouse over the images – that way, the sites hosting said images will be displayed.

Don’t bother with any of the ‘proper’ sites but gravitate toward the blogging sites… the ones that basically list fan’s favourite albums by whatever genre you can think of.

You have to kiss a few frogs along the way but, it shouldn’t take more than six or seven clicks before you discover a nice picture of the album you have in mind and, below that, not just a track-listing but more often than not, a pretty good précis on album X or Y together with… a download link, generally powered by either RapidShare or MegaUpload.

Simply click on the link, hit free user and your download starts after a few moments.

It really is as simple as that.

Have I ever..? Yes – and I don’t mind admitting / owning up to the fact that I have.

Was I justified in doing it – well, on the basis that I’d bought the album as a vinyl copy when it first came out and had re-bought it at least twice subsequently… then, my legal payment(s) had been made; royalties had been properly collected and earned by the respective performers / writers and, of course, the record company concerned had earned its proper whack too. So, on that basis… while what I did was illegal, it was also done with a clear conscience.

Further to which, it was part of an experiment… I simply wanted to discover how quick the process could be. In that instance, all was done and dusted from first tapping in the album title into a search engine to landing in my I-Tunes within fifteen minutes.

Until such time as the copyright holders act… and act together… then this unholy situation will remain where, ultimately, it is the creatives who go broke.

And Pingu… it’ll gradually fade away. Besides being not a very good idea in the first place, public acceptance will count toward its demise – the key thing that Steve Jobs and his lot miscalculated… people, in general, are becoming increasingly fed up being ‘recommended’ things.

And… literally the moment I finished writing this… Twitter informed me of this: Follow Coldplay on iTunes' new Ping service to check out some exclusive studio photo/video content

Bollox... beastly things, these ‘recommendations’.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

New Amsterdam (so good, they named it twice)

Two, maybe three weeks ago… cruising along in the overtaking lane on the world-wide super-wait, and hey… what’s this hoving into view at

Its entitled A Knife, A Fork, A Bottle… and as sure as eggs are eggs – it’s the latest in a pretty much matchless line of Tom Southam’s thoughts and, as is fairly often the case, it’s a bit of word-play from him that doesn’t involve his profession but the next best thing… music.

In this instance, Tom and his Rapha / Condor / Sharp cohorts (including Kristian House, the reigning British Champion and the effervescent Dean Downing – all under the watchful eye of Bald Eagle (aka John Herety, the R/C/S team manager) are heading to the city of blinding lights.

First on the agenda, a spot of promo for their Rapha pay-meisters before heading upstate to indulge in a serious bit of racing at The Tour Of The Battenkill which is staged in Washington County.

This trip involves taking the silver-bird for as many hours as it actually takes – up a bit, along a bit, down a bit… bump, bump, bump… and clearly Tom’s i-Pod has been primed for the task…

So much so, that he’s posted his thoughts on the subject matter at hand.

But, while beguiling as his selection is – and I’ll tip my Trilby in a chapeau sort of manner to his proposals… here is a suggested companion CD to his original compilation.

Lets kick off with Take Me For A Night In New York – Elbow Bones & The Racketeers which, in brief, was a quasi amalgam of Dr Savannah & Kid Creole – under the baton of the zoot-suited ringmaster August Darnell himself.

This tune was the opening cut to their one and only record – but, it’s the full-length, six minute or so 12” version (a video of which is easily found on YouTube) that really late-night swings from its big-drums kick-in right through the truly sublime horn arrangements all topped off by a yearning, starry-morning-dewey-eyed, Cory Daye vocal.

Whats next..? Gawd, but there’s so much to choose from and… I think it should be…

Harlem Shuffle
– yes, there’s the Stones version from 1986 but it’s the bump ‘n grind Bob & Earl original that cuts the mustard this end. It didn’t much bother the chart-compilers in America but the opposite was true in the UK when it slid gracefully into the top ten during 1969. Still sounds like it was recorded yesterday too.

Empire State Of Mind
– ok, ok, I confess – after Grand Master Flash bewitched an unsuspecting world with his Wheels Of Steel and Tom Tom Club hit first base with Wordy Rappinghood, pretty much the entire genre of Rap and self became uneasy bedfellows…

I simply couldn’t get a grip on all that clutch-your-crotch / wear-your-jeans-halfway-down-your-arse and sport dark-glasses-indoors bollox until… Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ total out-of-the-park homerun with its entirely glorious hook that fizzed the airwaves from Brooklyn to Fulham Broadway Station.

King Of The New York Streets – and, long ago, Dion DiMucci was precisely that. The man who gave up his seat in the plane that took off from Iowa on a frozen winter’s night in 1959 that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper had a string of majestic 60’s hits (The Wanderer et al) before drink and drugs took hold.

Cleaned-up and having found God along the way, this is culled from his Dave Edmunds’ produced 1989 magnum opus Yo Frankie (that album also includes Written On A Subway Wall on which Paul Simon sings).

On Broadway – there are a zillion different versions of the timeless classic from the collaborative pens of Mann/ Weill / Leiber & Stoller that was first made famous by The Drifters (with a young Phil Spector playing guitar)…

For my money, however, the uber-reading is by the Kidderminster-kid – Jess Roden… originally demo’d in London, re-worked under Allen Toussaint in Memphis, re-mixed by Chris Blackwell in London and the opening cut on Jess’ first solo record. A stunning cut above the rest.

Take The 'A' Train – Billy Strayhorn’s classic / Duke Ellington’s signature tune that’s about as synonymous with the Big Apple as any song could be. It’s a toss up between Dave Brubeck’s version or Ella Fitzgerald demonstrating just how scat-singing should be with Brubeck winning by a short head.

Walking Down Madison – written by Johnny Marr and Kirtsy MacColl and opening cut to her Electric Landlady album… but… it’s the ‘6am ambient mix’ which gets the vote… looped percussion that resonates the city’s street drummers – the guys who sit on the sidewalks and ply their beats on tin cans and upturned plastic paint-tins… “from an uptown apartment to a knife on the A train, its not that far; from the sharks in the penthouse to the rats in the basement to the bag lady frozen asleep on the church steps… its not that far… I can show you if you’d like to…” A voice like no other.

The Apple Stretching – this paean to the city that barely sleeps wakening-up was originally included on Ms Jones’ Living My Life album (the last of her Sly & Robbie-centric Compass Point trilogy). Grace’s bitter-sweet snarl matched to the rolling thunder which is Sly & Robbie’s ridim section is, however, at its optimum on the hard-to-find eight+ minute version of Melvin Peebles’ original Broadway tune.

Hey, Manhattan – from the prolific pen of chief Sprout, Paddy McAloon – peerless lounge-lizard lyrics in amongst a beguiling swirl of Thomas Dolby infused strings and harps and an all-too-rare outing for Wendy Smith’s backing vocals. Genius stuff… Don’t believe me..? Try these rhyming couplets for size then:
The Brooklyn Bridge stretches below me
A billion souls all dying to know me
Well here I am ! Loaded with promise
And knee deep in grace
What I want is here on my face and
I feel like I own the whole damn place
Hey Manhattan ! Here I am !
Call me star-struck Uncle Sam.
Strolling Fifth Avenue
Just think… Sinatra's been here too
These myths we can't undo they lie in wait for you

Doesn’t get much better than that…

Downtown Train – its highly probable that Tom Waits’ grand-children will never need to work with the dollars their grandfather will have earned via covers of his songs.

This, 24-carat masterpiece is from his Rain Dogs album – and, for those who only know the ‘other’ the original makes Rod the Mod’s version sound pale, paltry and… well, basically pretty shit actually. Weirdly, though, that was the one that got Rod a Grammy nomination… which probably goes a long way to proving that people who judge those sort of things have limited (not to say, peculiar) taste.

With Tom’s song, you actually feel like you’re goin’ downtown.. a long, hard day up on 33rd and 9th and going home via Cortland Place or Rector St… That’s the difference between genius and plagiarism.

New York, New York – impossible to leave out (sorry Tom)… and despite Ms Minelli’s brave stab, there’s only the one that’ll do here. Yep, Ol’ Blue Eyes tonsils wrap themselves seamlessly around the song that’s about as synonymous with the city as any.

Last Exit To Brooklyn
– the theme from the film from the book of the same name - Hubert Selby’s 1964 novel that documented working class Brooklyn of the 50’s seen through the eyes of all manner of low life including junkies and alcoholics.

The whole album’s worthwhile actually – a stunning soundtrack by the twang-meister himself – Mark Knopfler.

Times Square – three versions to choose from and, you know what… I’m really not sure which to go for.

There’s the live one from Blazing Away, Marianne Faithfull’s album recorded in St Anne’s Church in Brooklyn on which La Faithfull’s sixty-a-day voice is at its cracked finest; there’s her studio original from Dangerous Acquaintances and there is co-writer Barry Reynolds’ own from his hard-to-find solo album, I Scare Myself.

Damn, decisions, decisions…

Hooverville – biggish (British) hit for The Christians (and, yes, they were all named Christian) that centered around the popular name for the shanty towns that grew up in the Depression era in Central Park (among other places) that were named after US president Herbert Hoover.

First We Take Manhattan – torn again; should it be Jennifer Warne’s from Famous Blue Raincoat, should it be the bard’s original with its stir-fried concoction of synths (well, that’d be souped-up Leonard-style) or Joe Cocker’s windmill-armed Sheffield steel throat-like-gravel roar?

Cohen’s own – from his 1991 Live In London - just shades it

Downtown – Petula Clark, Frank Sinatra, The Killer Barbies… errr, nope… it has to be Athens, Georgia’s be-wigged finest - The B52’s… final cut on their eponymous debut – original vinyl copies of which came shrink-wrapped with their first 45, Rock Lobster.

And, finally…

Fairytale Of New York
– a stone-ground, bona-fide classic and probably (very probably) the greatest Christmas song ever written.

Yes.. there is a version by Coldplay (honestly..!) and a truly terrible one by someone called Ronan Keating with Maire Brennan (Clannaad's chanteuse who, frankly, should have known better) and Kristy Moore chips in one of his own but… Shane, his no-teeth and band of drunken reprobates – The Pogues – trading bickering, hopes-crushed-insults with Kirsty MacColl win the day.

Little known factoid – Kirsty wasn’t actually due to sing on this, she only provided guide-vocals since her then husband Steve Lillywhite was producing the Pogues at the time. However, MacGowan liked what she’d done and the rest as they say, became history. And, for the uber train-spotters (factoid collectors) out there, a version survives that pre-dates the Shane / Kirsty version… we digress.

From those first minor chords… its all bittersweet call and response…

You took my dreams from me, when I found you

I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
Can't make it all alone
I built my dreams around you..

But then… just as we get to the instrumental bit underpinned by “The boys of the NYPD choir were singing Galway Bay”... I’ll share a secret… when those drums and strings come in (at 3.24 exactly) I start to tear-up… because … the lost longing of Christmases passed is all forgotten...

That’s the moment of healing; its like the start of the most delicious waltz down a snow-filled 5th Avenue – when nothing else matters; you’re sailing in redemption, wrapped within the arms of the one you love.

Now… where the hell did I put that number for BA..?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Berkshire Poppies

Oh… to be in Belgium – where the cobbles glisten as the rainstorms threaten. Oh… to be in Flanders fields – where the war clouds gather, ready to ride, ride, ride the wild wind from the West.

Ninety-five years ago – this coming April 4th… Easter Sunday that will be… Muddy Waters was born in Rolling Fork, Mississippi – while the shaping of a musical century was to be his destiny, its entirely debatable if Mr and Mrs Waters even knew of events unfolding on the far side of their world.

Seven and half thousand kilometers away and, on that very same day, it was more or less ‘all quiet on the Western Front’. The Ronde Van Vlannderen was just two-years old and had just been put on pause – the ‘war to end all wars’ had been raging barely a year.

As the trees left standing turned from bud into leaf, conscripts and regular militia on either side were recovering from the Battle of Neuve-Chappele while preparing for (another) oncoming onslaught in the vile mud-bath a bit to the south of Kotrijk; otherwise known (to historians and scholars alike) as the Second Battle of Ypres.

Just over 100,000 perished over the calendar month during which that battle raged… in the midst of which, Colonel John McCrae penned these – immortal – words on May 3rd:

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

And, war has, in its own way, shaped the epic battles that will be fought again across Flanders fields this coming Ester Sunday.

Belgium – probably more fought-over than any other country – was, of course, decimated and re-built only to be destroyed all over again in the 2nd War. However, turn off the highways – in immediate post-war times only the main roads were asphalted – and onto the by-ways and what remains is pretty much as it was after the first conflict; the countryside more or less re-built itself with what it had to hand.

And… that’s where the beating heart of this and any year’s Ronde Van Vlaanderen lays.

Sometime in the 1980’s, cycling historian, writer and all round bon-viveur, the late Geoffrey Nicholson observed, “apart from war itself, cycle-racing is the only international conflict that takes place on the doorstep”.

(ok, ok – in the spirit of a wee bit of plagiarism, the good Geoffrey’s 60-a-day quote actually referred to the Grand Boucle but, for this little Voltaire out on its windswept knoll in the fields beside the Oude Kwaremont, that’s as close as frankly makes very little difference).

This Easter Sunday, the scent of embrocation will outweigh incense swung from censers in churches and chapels alike; the air will be rich with the odour of frites mixed to the acrid exhaust fumes from the race convoy’s motor-cycle outriders; the fetid stench of over-extended burger-vans will mingle with cheap after-shave and the carefully selected best perfume of those out on the roadsides in their Sunday best.

This excursion into the tiny lanes of Flanders is an FA Cup Final, a SuperBowl, an Olympic opening ceremony and a Rodeo all rolled into one.

And, the cement that glues it all together consists of a vast volume of beer consumed amidst accumulated noise that makes a summer thunderstorm pale by comparison.

Because, come rain or shine (and many will pray for the most unseasonal – unreasonable – weather imaginable), around about a quarter of the entire population of Belgium will emerge from their doorsteps from dawn onwards, to gather along the roadsides that lead to the shrines of cycle racing that litter this tiny corner of Europe.

These shrines are, for the two-wheeled gladiators, their own stations of the cross.

The shrines are what define… and determine… the Ronde.

These are the short, sharp, ‘hellingen’ – quick-fire ascents that are more often than not cobbled; some rising to a 20% gradient, others that are little more than one, two or three-plus kilometre lengths of Napoleonic farm-track which end between high banks before bursting out onto decent tarmac’d roads for… a little bit.

The names of these ‘hellingen’ are the backbone to the Ronde Van Vlaanderen and trip easily off the tongue; Den Ast which comes first this year; the Klusberg and Knokteberg which precede the Oude Kwaremont – the pavé birth-mother to all of the sections of cycling-hell that follow.

The brutal 1 in 4 ascent of the Paterberg comes before the legendary Koppenberg – both lined from bottom to top ten-plus-deep with spectators screaming encouragement as the tv-helicopters chatter noisily overhead, transmitting the carnage unfolding below to millions watching around the world.

Then comes the Steenbeekdries, the Taaienberg, Eikenberg, Molenberg, Leberg and Berendries before Tenbosse. By now, the field (peleton) will have shredded – only the strong, the very very strong survive this far.

There'll be a slight lull in hostilities before… the Holy Grail of Flemish ‘bergs’ hoves into view… the fabled Muur… (in Flemish = wall).

And, aptly named it is – the ascent starts off in a relatively benign fashion… over the River Dender and then onto a pleasant enough (tho’ pretty steep) asphalt road before… suddenly… two right turns in quick succession and… ouch… big ouch… cobbles the size of bread-loaves that look (and feel) like they’ve been laid by a blind-man trusting to judgment rather than benefitting from using a spirit-level.

The Muur (or Kapelmur’s) cobbles kick up at 20% above Geraardsbergen. It is, in brief, the epicenter of the Ronde; its the fulcrum of all the viewing points and… as near as dammit a natural ampitheatre as if the climb itself was made for the race; where the slopes can accommodate many thousands of spectators and where the sound level approaches that of The Colloseum in days of old when the Emperor’s thumb hovered around the horizontal.

Imagine: a small, fairly non-descript Belgian market town – altho’ its actually a city (being proclaimed such in 1068).

Its perched half on and half off a medium sized hill above the River Dende and, in the fields on the banks of said river, not long before the Battle of Waterloo, Wellington and his Prussian counterpart Blücher, reviewed their troops.

There are the usual abundance of cafés; there’s a train station, boulangeries every few yards – touting mattentaart, a sweet pastry which is made locally - are interspersed with shops selling ladies undergarments - every shape or size and all tastes catered for. The market square is ring fenced with bars.

On this, coming Easter Sunday, the usual population of around 40,000 will grow ten fold.

And… this population-growth is not confined to rabid sports fans… by no means; we’re talking cuddling teenagers in the first flush of lust as much as babes in the arms of great-grandparents… and absolutely everyone one can think of in-between. Entire families dressed for the occasion and to impress too. Every sector of society, every race and creed… vegetarians to carnivores; men dressed as farm-animals, women with megaphones; drunkards and teetotalers alike (although it should be said this is not Lemonade Lucy territory… Geraardsbergen on Ronde day is not really a place for those who belong to the Temperance Society).

The Muur is one of these monuments (shrines) where disoraganised lunacy reigns supreme.

Goodness only knows what it must feel like to ride up through the cauldron of noise and emotion that erupts off of the side of the Muur.

Because, this is where the blood is shed; where the race is (most often) lost… or won… where the hell-hounds breathe down the neck of a potential victor… a few more kilometers, one more climb (the Bosberg) and twelve more rolling kilometers and God-like status is assured.

I’m not entirely sure who this quote should be attributed to but, whoever the wise person was, it rings true: “If you want to see a sporting event, go to the Tour de France, if you want to see a bike race, go to the Tour Of Flanders – the Ronde”.

Because… to this Voltaire’s way of thinking, the Ronde should be high on most people’s list of twenty things to see (experience) before you arrive at the Pearly Gates.

This coming Sunday evening, there will be many who saw the dawn, who lived the dream but whose sunset lays shattered and crumpled across Flanders' unforgiving fields...

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Weight

Dateline: just a few days ago. Location: somewhere in the thirty-second row.

Three men are gathered. The most senior wears a mane of snowy-white, quiff-quaffed hair over his beatific, all-knowing, perma-grin; the one approaching middle-years is topped off under his trademark black beanie while the youngest gunslinger huddles under a medium-brimmed hat, cigarette dangling from his lower lip.

One hundred and fifty years ago, the same three would not have appeared out of place in a mid-west saloon; tinkling piano in the background, a pack of dog-eared playing cards to hand and fresh shots of whisky lined up in front of them.

Tempers might well have become alcoholically frayed, gunfire would possibly have been exchanged on the turn of a card and so, yeah… it may well have got very loud.

Today, however, they are sitting around what passes for an economy-sized circular coffee table having strapped on an assortment of acoustic guitars. And, in unison, they have begun picking out introductory notes before gradually strumming their collective way through the opening chords of a song that needs no introduction… whatsoever.

A few bars in, the one in the beanie leans forward toward a conveniently-positioned microphone and opens up proceedings in his reedy tenor; the white haired rebel-rouser of old keeps smiling his genial smile as familiar words tumble forth and the young pretender in the hat gets ready to obediently trade verses with beanie-man…

I just pulled in to Nazareth,
Was feelin’ about half-past dead
I just needed some place
Where I could lay my head

Dateline: the rural bliss of late-Summer 1968. Location: the outer-edge of Tadley – a village that lays more or less at the epicentre of the lop-sided triangle that connects Newbury, Basingstoke and Reading.

Similar to many rural communities in that part of Britain, the village would (probably) have begun its existence as a simple clearing in the forest – indeed, in Old English the word ‘Tadde’ can mean frog as well as toad while ‘Ley’ means a clearing.

Equals (maybe) – the bloke who cleared the clearing was called Tadde because of his looks and, possibly (perhaps), therefore, I ended up living on the edge of a village named after a bloke who… you get the picture.

London – forty or so miles distant, is the metropolis to which my Dad commutes each day but to which I’d only been a very few times; New York and San Francisco – names of cities on my (musical) atlas that felt as far away as the moon.

I’m still a bit shy of sixteen years old and, throughout that summer term at school, my friends and I had been avidly studying chapter and verse of our musical bible, The Melody Maker. These were the days when future passed as we tried to grow our hair longer than the regulation short back and sides permitted.

The previous year had seen Sgt Pepper on everyone’s turntable while we’d been embracing the Summer Of Love as best we could – heck, I may well have had my first, junior-pubescent, snog listening to The Byrds as Scott Mackenzie encouraged us to wear flowers in our hair. My parents weren’t particularly keen on this bit although I must confess I imagined myself as the puppy’s proverbials sporting a healthy crop of fresh-picked dandelions.

We’d all shelled out thirty-two shillings and sixpence of our old pocket-money on Cream’s Disraeli Gears and The Doors’ first album, spending hours studiously picking over every nook and cranny of each cover; days when 12-inch sleeve design was developing into an art form all of its own.

These both competed for needle-time on our fairly rudimentary record players with the likes of Pink Floyd’s Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, Love’s Forever Changes, The Who’s Sell Out – ohh, so many happy memories of staring at Roger Daltrey on that cover sitting in a bath of Mr Heinz’ finest produce.

We’d tripped-out (in our own way since we’d no clue what acid was really like or what it actually did… then; we just pretended we knew) to The Stones’ Satanic Majesties as well as records by the Moody Blues, Donovan, Booker T, The Mothers of Invention, Procul Harum and the Small Faces. We were entirely transfixed by Hendrix’s gattling-gun-guitar on Are You Experienced? and entranced by the enticingly-sleeved Axis: Bold As Love before we’d even got to place the vinyl on the deck.

And… at the end of 1967 came Mr Fantasy – Traffic’s first long-player which, that winter and for quite a time to follow, was barely off our family Dansette in all its glorious mono-aural deliciousness… my copy pre-dating the stereo release which, when purchased, led to further envelope-pushing of my own musical horizons.

Yes, all (and more) of the above-listed were (and, I would contend, remain) milestone recordings that’d transported me to ecstatic musical nirvana but this… now, this particular record – Mr Fantasy – was something else again and a record which triggered my very first musical g-spot orgasm.

So, there we all were, one year on and 1968 is tickling my fertile imagination by serving up yet another rich palette of sound. The counter-culture revolution is reverberating at London’s LSE (of which a certain Michael Philip Jagger was an alumni); there are anti-Vietnam war rallies and demonstrations being held in Trafalgar Square and outside the US Embassy in London and further from my own (then)-radar – all across the US.

It’s the year of Van Morrison’s seminal Astral Weeks; Cheap Thrills that catapulted Janis Joplin to fame, booze and heroin in more or less equal measure; we danced to the music of Sly and The Family Stone and grew curious over precisely who The Incredible String Band actually were and just what The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter was as we got down with James Brown while getting bundled up in Dylan’s John Wesley Hardin – an album that actually straddled the previous year and this.

It was also the year when French wine growers got it in the neck when The Great Flood occurred – washing out much of southern England and with France particularly badly hit.

Which, in a sort of circuitous, almost-Freudian-like manner brings us to my second musical-g-spot moment (named, incidentally, after the gynaecologist Ernst Graefenberg).

As an aside, perhaps its worth noting that, two years earlier, Malcolm Muggeridge, the controversial British journalist, media-personality and latter-day Christian stated – “The orgasm has replaced the Cross as the focus for longing and fulfilment”.

And no, I’m not digressing with this mix of musical, biblical and sexual… bear with me. Please.

You see, my musical bible – the good old Melody Maker – had done a brilliant job as John the Baptist to a new offering on the altar of all that was good; so much so that, with my pocket-money in his wallet, my Dad dispatched his secretary to the new(ishly) opened Virgin Records emporium on Oxford Street to purchase a record that had been made on the far side of (my) world…

And, that night, following his return from London…

I found that my (own) next station of the Cross was contained within cover-art by Robert Zimmerman himself; a curious and child-like painting that featured a sitarist, a double-bassist, pianist, guitarist and drummer among the six musicians featured – although there were only five in the group – with an elephant staring in from mid-right. The group were not named on the cover, nor was a title appended.

(Later – and among other notables such as Millie Jackson’s Back To The Seat and Freddie Gage’s All My Friends Are Dead, it featured at an exposition entitled The Worst Album Covers Ever at the Fullerton Museum in California).

No matter the exterior, it was the interior that drew me in, deep within its velvet folds… then just as much as it has done every single time since. (whoops, am I grooving with Freud again?).

Maybe… ‘cos this was the open portal to what I’d argue strenuously as one of the finest débuts of all-time; where the warmth of vinyl fully encapsulated the uber-groove; where the furrow of music ploughed began a hay-ride into music’s nether regions that, on ending, begged another coin in the slot-machine marked… play me again.

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the world of… Music From Big Pink.

Four-plus decades on and I still can’t fully fathom its arcadian-driftwood delta-blues reference points. I’m forever (and happily) lost in its indistinct smokestack that opened a rich musical seam of down-home country / folk-rock by sleight-of-hand.

From that very first moment when the needle touched the edge of side one, I’ve been mesmerised by singers harmonising from deep within the well of their souls; entranced by the modest virtuosity that can only be born of playing every backwater bar-gig; fascinated and hypnotised in equal measure by its ethereal sparse simplicity.

I picked up my bag, went lookin’ for a place to hide
When I saw Carmen and The Devil walkin’ side by side
I said, Hey Carmen, come on, lets go downtown
She said, I gotta go, but my friend can stick around

But, hey… wait a minute, Chester… this is all very well but, its 2010 or hadn’t you noticed? Your days of strolling arm in arm with the Devil by the riverbank are long since passed. So… what’s your point?

Ahh yes…

Perhaps rurality has something to do with this because, back then, Big Pink came at me like a miraculous locomotive breath of new mown grass.

This was Mr Fantasy’s long lost cousin calling from America. Which, frankly, was so far away it equated to being outer-space.

Perhaps, therefore, its that craving for rurality deep within that’s led me to embrace two records recently; one of which has more escaped as opposed to having been released, the other having made much more headway – indeed, its been lauded high and low (sic) as much as the former – in my view – should have been.

A Town Called Blue (Evan Watson) and Oh My God, Charlie Darwin (The Low Anthem) both contain elements of that impossible-to-define special-ness that circumnavigates Big Pink.

Its also true to say that both are flawed in as much as Big Pink was as near perfection as makes no odds.


While that record has its own almost indescribable – unique of the time – orientation (as above); these two chart a similar course by harking back yet looking forward at the same time and, therefore, in their own manner creating a remarkable new roots synthesis that owes much to the sonic hedgerows surrounding Big Pink.

Some bright spark is bound to draw up a never-ending list of other records that would make commendable bed-fellows here… and that’s fine… Its just that the two I’ve chosen (which have nudged my musical trip-wire of late) are truly magical and… embedded within the silver-slither as they are, nowadays accompany me wherever I travel – just as much as The Band’s first album does.

And, I’d imagine that’ll still be the case forty-two years hence – the only fly in that particular ointment being that, by then, I’ll have (probably) become even more curmudgeonly and will be anticipating my centennial telegram from whoever – at that point – is in charge of the sum parts of Britain (Great or otherwise – your choice) and aspects of Northern Ireland.

Mind you, by then, the silver-slither will be an antique and vinyl… goodness, that’ll be like looking at old 78’s won’t it? ‘Hey great, great grandpa… did you really play music on… that?’

‘Yep… and, you know what… you should have a listen… ‘cos this is what broke the mould’.

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year’s Day

Around about this time a decade ago, we – the collective all-around-the-world we, that is – were mopping up after lashings of celebratory fireworks had been ignited amid a multitude of popping champagne corks; all to usher in not just a new decade but… a new century and therefore the dawn of a new epoch.

Birds flying high, you know how I feel
Sun in the sky, you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by, you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
For me… and I’m feelin’ good.

We all know the song – its been popularised by the likes of Nina Simone, Muse, Sammy Davis Jnr among many, many others as well as… dare one even mention it… something called The Pussycat Dolls and… Mr and Mrs Bublé’s son (whose warblings are, I confess, a long way off the Storey-radar although, according to those I know who’re in the know, his singing is said to be frightfully popular).

As much as that may be the case, the lyrics and the tune have also been sampled over and over again besides being used in tv-adverts the globe around… but… I’d suggest that one of the lesser-known renditions is the one that’s as near the definitive as it gets.

Think back a bit in time to… side two, track one – yes, we’re back in vinyl heaven – of a record entitled Last Exit. The final (at that time) Traffic album; comprising half studio material which, quite frankly, constituted little more than studio outtakes and singles’ ‘b’ sides cobbled together with two pieces recorded at the Fillmore West when the band consisted of just Mssrs Winwood, Wood and Capaldi.

A San Francisco show – about a nine on the scale of nought-to-ten of ‘jazz-cigarettes’ having been inhaled prior to (by artistes and audience alike) – that committed to posterity the uber-tight-looseness which was that band at that particular moment in time… smokestack-spiralling out from the traditional confines of mere ‘stoned-rock’ via jazz / folk and ending up in a hitherto unexplored musical universe.

Sure, from the first click of the needle in the grooves, the pungent scent of finest Moroccan was totally apparent… yet… there is something else – something that’s almost indefinable – within the ten minutes and forty-or-so seconds of their variant that places it on an entirely different plane to the more measured readings by any listed above.

Why mention it now? Well, for two reasons really.

One, because my entire archive no longer resides at what was Merle HQ. The rescue-mission came about via the generosity of Aunac’s very own Dark Lord, the Prince of Chisels himself (that’s as tight a fit as a pair of nun’s knickers, Neil) who offered to not only collect but store and catalogue the lot. Top fella indeed.

So, pretty much all that matters has made its way into one of his voluminous barns in my absence from French soil. And – among many other slabs of delicious vinyl – this little musical gem just alluded to and self will be re-acquainting ourselves before many more weeks are passed. Oh, joy.

Second is that it’s a tune which has been running around my head during the headlong rush of the last few days – not least as it evokes what could be / what can be / what will be. Thus becoming a fitting end to a decade that, to a large degree, was tempered by absolute betrayal.

Ah yes… the moment of perfidy – the lightning flash of tumblin’ dice within the bitter stench of that Judas kiss. Baby, I’m gonna crash your car in my Garden of Desire. Now, thank God, just a fading snap-shot in far-away time.

For way too long, I’d sipped from the poison flow and, it took a while to learn how to fly without wings and even longer figuring out that landing my suitcase in a safe harbour without a safety net was – truly – about as exciting as painting on a blank sheet of canvas.

Equals – those words above resonate. Because, this is a time to look forward and not re-cap the past.

Yet…every time one picks up a newspaper or looks on-line, we’re confronted by this full-frontal assault of ‘lists’ being trotted out. All pertaining to the great, the good and the ghastly; all relating to either the past year or the full decade.

Which, I suppose, is all very well – after all, it is that time of the year (decade).

But… this Voltaire on its windswept knoll out there in the wild-west’s-awake-prairie reckons a couple of things.

Firstly, that the commentators are blinkered in their thinking back… because, each ‘list’ one cares to peruse is as subjective as it gets.

As a – brief – for instance, the other night, I glanced through one of the UK’s leading newspapers’ listing of its top ten albums of the decade. I think there was one among the ten chosen which I’ve listened to a few times but not chosen to commit to the machine’s hard-drive / the silver slither i-touch… In other words, yeah, its ok but… am I really going to be listening to ‘that’ in another ten years… errr, nope.

So… was that ‘list’ a useful aide-memoire of music from the last ten years? Not particularly since choosing ten out of (probably) a million that have been issued is similar to saying X marks the spot of a single needle in that particular haystack.

Anyone can assemble these kind of lists – from the greatest sporting achievements of the decade to the most absurd hat seen on Ladies’ Day at Ascot in the last ten years. From the most useful gadget to the least appealing political leader.

And… all subjective; none objective

Indeed… this whole looking back exercise is (probably) better summed up by The Waterboys’ lynchpin, Mike Scott who, earlier this week, Twittered (or is that Tweeted?): only a very advanced consciousness can even part-interpret the meaning of a decade at its end. Our culture isn't filled with those. I mean, we're only now getting the point of the 19 feckin 60s. Give up now, newspaper article writers!

Secondly… given that there are a preponderance of this, that and the next thing lists… why have I yet to see a list of… lets call it, ‘one or two things the planet as a whole should buckle up and collectively address in the next decade’.

OK, as snappy titles go, it is absolute pants but – subjectively – it says what I want it to.

(a) Communicate – a hoary old soap-box subject this, isn’t it? But, the fact of the matter is we – and I’m in collective we-mode here – simply don’t communicate any longer. We think we do but, the real reality is, we don’t.

In fact, its almost becoming oh-so last century to actually… talk… one to another.

Think about it… people e-mail each other within office environments, thereby avoiding the physical act of walking from one desk to another and actually speaking to a colleague – the end result (far too often) being mis-communication because the written word is totally different to that which is spoken one to another.

Or what about this… the other day, I was out for dinner and, two tables along, there were three people sat together. One of the three sat for fifteen minutes studying the menu, repeatedly asking the waitress to return when they were all ready to order – the other two spent that entire time fiddling with their respective i-phone and blackberry. Time was when people went out to dine, to a bar, to a pub or a café to (yes) eat, drink, make merry and… talk.

There is a wealth of difference between relying on the technology one has at one’s disposal and utilising that technology to socially network as a screen behind which one hides.

The art of communication is – look around you – disappearing almost as fast as the ice-cap yet we have it in our collective power to put a halt to that… talking of which…

(b) Climate-change – this is a quote lifted from that most esteemed organ, Time Magazine – Scientists and serious minded people everywhere are saying that there is something wrong with the planet.

Even if we don’t travel, we have the technology now to see the facts for ourselves. The ice-caps both north and south are melting – that’s a fact; all over the globe, summers are warmer and winters colder – again, fact. So… why, on earth, is the ‘issue’ of climate change being addressed as something that’s clearly a lower priority than… that which is dressed up as ‘war on terrorism’?

The longer term of gaining climatic control will – of course – take time to implement; naïve I may be but… not that naïve.

Nevertheless, the shorter-term could be being taken care of better than it is currently… for example, wherever in the world one looks, new housing is being built. But… is any builder roofing with solar-panels as standard? We know the answer but it still begs the question – why not?

Why (just as one other example) are there so few wind-farms? Ecologically they make sense – like solar-panels, that’s been proven but… the aesthetic lobby appear to hold sway here. Fine, that’ll mean we’ll end up with a fxxxxd planet because we’re told that we can’t harness natural resources ‘cos the end result doesn’t look… errr…. pretty.

For pity’s sake oh ye political beings of whatever persuasion – this ain’t no beauty contest.

Lets just have a little look at what happened in Denmark the other day – lots of agree to disagree, lots of manoeuvring and posturing, political this that and the next bloody thing… The Chinese will only agree to this if Russia say that; America will only agree to something else if Pakistan don’t do another thing; Peru will only commit to whatever it is they’ll commit to on the basis that Holland says yes (or no) to something that Great Britain is dithering about but which Germany is quite keen on so long as France say maybe.

Ifs and bloody buts…

Isn’t it time for a David Attenborough equivalent to put every single world-leader into a vast bag and not let a single one of ‘em emerge until they all commit to radical change without these blasted reservations.

‘Cos, if they carry on the way they are, then there really isn’t going to be much left for our childrens’ childrens’ childrens’ children.

Ohhh… I could go on and on… In fact, I very nearly did…

My original notes for this piece contained other headings (Toleration – c/f the religious / oil wars; Fame – c/f society’s collective obsession with celebrity culture bound up in a world of reality tv that’s so un-real as to be (un)believable and Greed – c/f society brought to its knees by individuals / companies milking (hoodwinking) individuals / companies.

And, instead of ending with a few snappy stanzas from the prolifically splendid pen of Holt Marvell... remember this...?

A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces; An airline ticket to romantic places
A tinkling piano in the next apartment; Those stumbling words that told you what my heart meant
A fairground’s painted swing; These foolish things
The winds of March that made my heart a dancer; A telephone rings, but who’s to answer
The sigh of midnight trains in empty stations; Silk stockings thrown aside, dance invitations
Oh… how the ghost of…………

Ghosts..? Bah, humbug… its 2010.

Isn't this more apt; more appropriate..?!

All is quiet on New Year’s Day; A world in white gets underway
I… I will begin again
I… I will begin again