Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Party’s Over

So, it’s the morning after the night before: The BRITS has been, gone and put back in its cupboard for another year.

Collectively, the UK business of music is nursing a monumental hangover; drinks were drunk, little black dresses got crushed and without a shadow of a doubt, some woke up this morning with an unfamiliar person next to them – its not always that the best fun is had in the kitchen at after-show parties.

Yet, while this is the British equivalent to The Grammys, it strikes me as being extraordinary that neither organising ‘committee’ on either side of the pond can get their own flagship ‘awards show’ anywhere near right.

The Grammy’s, for example, have in excess of one hundred categories… that’s a bit like awarding a child at school a prize for attending class; you know – the modern ‘no one is a loser’ ethic which, actually, stifles competitiveness.

It’s also a way (they would argue) of covering all the bases… when the reality is that they (the Grammy organising wallahs) are simply finding more and more genre boxes into which they can conveniently put ‘music’.

Have a look at category 108 and tell me about its relevance… please. It is: Best Long Form Music Video and subtitled (presumably for the hard of understanding) as follows – For video album packages consisting of more than one song or track. Award to the Artist and to the Video Director/Producer of at least 51% of the total playing time.

This little Voltaire out there on its windswept knoll would argue strenuously that there are only two of these cardboard boxes… one is marked good… the other is labeled bad. End.

Anyhow, as a consequence of this boxing-off of genres, The Grammys go on for… hours… really they do; quite literally from mid-afternoon to lateish in the evening. How those attending get through that without resorting to the intake of advanced pharmaceuticals to stave off the boredom of all those acceptance speeches (Mum, Dad, my Record Company, Juan Pelota my underwear stylist, my managers, the person tending my Cairn Terrier, Auntie Joan, God and, before I forget… you – the fans!!! And, Mum – this if for YOU… etc etc) is entirely beyond me.

Besides which, there are – in reality – almost two shows… the first (lengthy) segment isn’t televised… that’s when the boxes labeled ‘Best Sleeve Notes’ or Best Traditional World Music Album / Vocal or Instrumental – that being category 72 of the 108) are ticked and the (doubtless) worthy winner steps forward to thank God, his / her Mum and Dad, Lover, Dog (again), MTV, the Fans etc etc).

To underline the absurdity of all the categories, back in 1996 Eddie Veeder said, when accepting Pearl Jam’s Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance, ‘I don’t know what this means, I don’t think it means anything.’

The second part begins with the televising of the (ridiculous) parade down the blood red carpet when the interviewers ask, in the main, ‘Who are you wearing’ to each of the freshly-coiffed contestants. The answers that spill from between their professionally whitened teeth seem to (somehow) add up to enough product placement-endorsement to satisfy the likes of Armani, Malandrino, J-P Gaultier, Pucci, Cavalli, Givenchy and D&G as worn by the Beiber-ling.

After which, the main show begins with a mere twenty or so Awards… yet, this is so muddled as to make no sense… Best Recording is up against Best Song…? Errr. Hello?

The BRITS, on the other hand, only had – by comparison – a handful of trophies to give out… in which were categories described as… Best Male… Best Female… yes, but Best Male or Female what exactly…?

Well, in the former we had the likes of Paul Weller up against Robert Plant, Tiny Temper, Mark Ronson yet someone called Plan B won… other than observing that the ‘list’ is horribly mismatched, I find it hard to understand how someone like the constantly reinventing-himself Robert Plant isn’t recognised as being… the best.

As to the other ‘best’s of the evening… Adele is being lauded by the ‘real commentators’ for her performance of Someone Like You – sparse and real, just piano and vocal. Sure, it is a great song but, I couldn’t help feeling that – while great – that greatness could have been embellished with strings to turn her performance into something quite remarkable.

Money on a big string section that would, quite frankly, have been better spent by the organisers than on the horrid troops (sic) of totally unnecessary ‘dancers’ dressed up as quasi-Fascist riot police for Take That and… the aforementioned Plan B who reenacted some kind of eccentric court scene while strangling his lyrical language by rapping it at us in pure, unadulterated, estuary.

Best hair on the night belonged to uber-puppet Beiber – he turned up, looking far to fresh-faced from a transatlantic flight to be real – no dark glasses for him unlike Cee-Lo who swung very low in his.

Chaps – dark glasses indoors are a sign… a signal… of utter affectation; they’re not cool… not funny… not glamorous… they just make you look plain stupid.

And, of the acceptance speeches… Laura Marling’s was – without doubt – the most real, most normal. I admit I was rooting for Rumer in this category but, Ms Marling – who looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights – was head and shoulders (sic) over the likes of Jessie J whose crocodile tears were as false as her eyelashes. Critics’ Choice..? Well, in that respect, those critics should be lined up against a wall and… because time will out on this, as I guarantee that, in five years time, people will be asking… Jessie who? And, the song was… Do It Like A Prude..? Nah, don’t remember that one.

And… the best album… the BEST British album of the last year was… really… honestly… you’re telling me that Mumford & Sons’ record was THE BEST British album of last year… ok, I’ll accept it was better than Take T’at – who’re collectively fast becoming the Queen Mother of The Brits… I mean, they’re like a standard fixture aren’t they, rather like that bloke seen at every Rugby match, wearing a Union Jack coat and a top hat being the epitome of a British Bulldog by the touchline.

And, James Corden… well, he looked (and acted) more like a safe Vicar who’d had one too few glasses of Sherry at Christmas… bumbling and smiling inanely. Time, if ever there was, to bring back a proper presenter or to say sorry to Jarvis Cocker and acknowledge that his stage invasion whilst wacko-Jacko was acting out his Christ-like tendencies surrounded by children was a genuine act that everyone in the hall that night (including self) wished they’d have been nearer the stage and been able to protest in like manner.

Oh… and its about time that the background TV presenter stopped using the word Platinum… honestly, luv… no one out their watching from the comfort of their sofa knows what it means… neither is it impressive.

But, hey, this was all about the ‘live’ music… wasn’t it…? Maybe so – and Adele and the rather loud Arcade Fire certainly showed how it could be done… However, the Mumblefords, scored a spectacular own goal by playing like a bunch of subway-buskers who are so ordinary that one hurries by without dipping the hand in the trouser pocket.

And Rihanna… I’m told that was a medley of her hit… hmmm… clearly lip-synching, it was not far short of a total travesty; guileless style over minimal content… and with choreography (was that what it really was?) that was about as exciting as watching a parody of all those old Top Of The Pops routines. Grabbing your crotch while wearing a ?dress? that shows all and sundry that your bottom is the size of Trindad isn’t raunchy, its just plain sad.

And so… the morning after… and as much-heralded 24 hours previously, up on iTunes are the live performances from last night to download and enjoy… for as long as one likes…

Well, actually, that’s not quite correct – not all of the performances are there due to technical hitches (according to my mole); hitches like auto-tuning and lip-synching... ha ha!

Be that as it may, some are... go to The Brits site and up there on the top right hand corner a graphic shows that the Cee Lo performance with Paloma Faith is available via iTunes…

Except, its not… it is geographically challenged… meaning that if (for example) one is logging on from the US or Australia… its not available.

Brilliant… how utterly fxxxxxg dumb is that? Someone in (say, Detroit or Adelaide) wants that recording and so how do they get it..?

Here’s what they’ll do: they’ll go to YouTube, engage a gadget called AudioHiJack (a free download - about which I've written and emphasised the dangers thereof in relation to pircay before) and… press record… Four minutes and thirty-two seconds later and it’ll nestle happily within their iTunes folder.

For free… that’s zilch… nada… nothing… FREE…

Fuck me, but record companies are about as stupid as they get… one day, those that forge these licensing arrangements will actually understand that the web is a global entity… global equals worldwide…

Is it any wonder that the ‘record companies’ are losing money / the war against piracy?

And, as a final comment on the success of this year’s BRIT Awards… we need look no further than Music Week who have just announced that the 2011 awards had the lowest viewing figures for five years and was outstripped by not only the film, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding (6.5 million viewers against 4.7 for the BRITS) but also Holby City which attracted 5.6 million.

Re-make / re-model..? Yes, please.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

One Moment In Time

Today, via the auspices of Music Week – Britain’s one and only trade magazine for the business of music – came the news that tonight’s BRIT Award performances will be available online via a dedicated BRITS page on iTunes. All proceeds from said recordings will go to the BRITS Trust.

This follows last year’s ‘experiment’ of the same which saw the collaboration between Dizzee Rascal and Florence of Florence + The Machine sell over three hundred thousand copies of their mid-February BRIT Awards’ on-stage mash-up.

Not much to concern ourselves about here… is there?

Not really… so long as those involved (the artists / their management / the musicians involved / relevant record companies etc etc) are all totally cool flying by the seat of their proverbials.

And, so long as those who purchase said artefact of the night, fully understand what they’re shelling out their money for – ‘cos what the public will be offered to acquire will be nothing more than an officially sanctioned bootleg of song X / onstage collaboration Y.

Perhaps I should set my stall out here and state that I believe live recordings contain some of my most favourite moments within all music: this is when it really is down to those four fundamental chords and the truth. Its when the magic of a band at the top of their game can send shivers down the spine; moments that can never be replicated – it is, for the moment and of the moment – a true snapshot in time.

And, something that’s incredibly rare to capture since every single star has to be perfectly in alignment for it – the magic – to happen.

Come with me, if you will and we’ll head off to Hammersmith Palais on the night of September 29th, 1980.

This venerable building began life in 1919 as The Hammersmith Palais de Danse and, besides being a ballroom it hosted an ice rink and was also where tanks were constructed during the war besides doubling as a tram shed. It was also one of the greatest music venues in all of London… and I saw countless bands there… U2 supporting Talking Heads (standing next to Bruce Springsteen on the balcony and later helping smuggle his Broooceness into the dressing room so that Bono and Bruce’s first meeting could be committed to celluloid by (our) photographer who, himself, gained access to the inner sanctum through an open window); OMD, The Clash, the B52s, Nils Lofgren, The Cramps, The Alarm, King Sunny Adé , Orange Juice, The Waterboys and literally dozens of others.

Its a warm, balmy early autumn evening… outside and inside some three thousand or so punters are gathered – John Curd the promoter of many Palais gigs was never that fussed with fire regulations that called for specified maximum numbers of an audience to be adhered to.

Edged up onto the pavement is a big truck; a mobile studio… cables spill from its innards like so much spaghetti, trailing into the venue via side doors. Inside this state of the art (for its time) articulated lorry are slightly-bearded sound engineer Godwin Logie, a veteran from Island Hammersmith studios, The FallOut Shelter and the ever-suave Alex Sadkin, imported over from Compass Point in The Bahamas to produce the recording.

A large spliff smolders on the edge of the desk, the air is fetid with the reek of high quality grass. Marianne Faithfull and her then husband, The Vibrators’ Ben Brierly are hovering in the background. Richard ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson – more regularly employed as front-of-house sound engineer for The Jess Roden Band – meanders back and forth between his desk in the hall and the truck, checking and double-checking.

Inside, it’s a cauldron of noise, heat and anticipation – the latter most keenly felt by those at the sharp end of proceedings. A little over a week previously, a bit of a plan had been hatched… we’re going to create a bit of history here by putting out the fastest live recording in history; the Guinness Book Of Records are in our collective sights.

As near as dammit to the appointed hour, at nine pm, Toots and The Maytals bound on stage… theirs is high-energy reggae, not for them the languid build of a set… it kicks off in the overtaking lane with Pressure Drop (covered by label-mate Robert Palmer) and morphs along the central-reservation barriers almost seamlessly through classic Toots tracks such as Monkey Man, Funky Kingston, Time Tough and his timeless 54-46 That’s My Number… the crowd, predictably, go nuts… and, ninety or so minutes later… this one night of music is all there, committed to reels of two-inch, 24-track, analog tape.

The guys in the truck have been mixing on the hoof; they have time for one more pass of the entire show to readjust levels before filtering out the songs that – for whatever reason – are deemed (in those pre-ProTools days) as being sub-standard… thankfully, the key Toots songs have made it… Crowd noise is edited… the song sequence is chosen… before that is run off as a final, quarter inch, stereo mix.

A fast car is waiting… the stereo mixes – accompanied by Alex Sadkin – head to the mastering suite where the two sides of vinyl will start to take shape. The tapes are run through, levels are once again tweaked and the alchemy of mastering is underway; memory at a distance (in this instance) is hazy but, I’m pretty sure the knob-twiddler in chief would have been John Dent, one of the masters of this alchemic artform. In general terms, a good couple of hours would have been allowed for each track… but, on this particular night where time was of the essence, this vital process would have been cut to maybe two or, at a pinch, three hours max.

In the background – and only once the final album running order had been confirmed – the artwork was being completed… and sent straight to the printers, bypassing the usual colour checking processes.

Once the finished album had been mastered, the fast car was employed yet again – this time, destination EMI’s pressing plant at Hayes… the master became the laquer… the lacquer became the stamper that would produce the vinyl. The presses rolled early in the morning and each album was hand-sleeved… more fast cars stood by and, as record stores in London opened for business, the album was there to buy… recorded and in the shops in under twenty-four hours and yes… a few weeks later, the letter from the Guinness Book Of records people duly arrived.

So… how does all that relate to this evening’s little BRITS exercise…?

I’d say it was more down to the performance than anything… IF – and this a huge ask – IF everything goes according to plan for song X or Y then the sheer logistical exercise of putting that performance up on iTunes isn’t that much of a difficulty.

That IF, however, should be written in sky-high letters. For example – and lets take as one example the Grammys from the other night… in which Bruno Mars’ (sort-of) tribute to James Brown, a song called Grenade went horribly, horribly wrong.

For why…? Master Mars’ vocals were as flat as a pancake throughout much of the song… ooopsy, should’ve used the old auto-tune gadget, son… fixable after the fact in ProTools… yes, undoubtedly but… its time consuming.

So, lets imagine that there is a cock-up with an instrument… violas are notorious but lets think about something more fundamental, the bass drum pedal is at the root of most songs isn’t it?

So, consider what happens IF the mic isn’t securely-enough attached to the floor and, throughout performance Z… it moves… just a few centimeters but, trust me, that’s enough to matter. Why? Sonically (and noticeably) the song is out of kilter. Is it fixable… of course… ProTools to the rescue yet again. However… this, and trust me here, really can be time-consuming.

It’s a process I watched unfold during one of the archive projects I’m engrossed in currently – we wanted to use a particular live recording (from The Marquee since you’re wondering) and an absolute belter of a performance it is too.

However, during initial playback of the two inch multitracks something sounded… out… we couldn’t quite figure it out but, definitely something was wrong. My lankily-haired, cup-cake-eating, engineer cocked his head on one side… listened intently again and again then, one by one, started to ‘solo’ every single mic-input.

‘Aha… found it… the bass-drum mic moved.’
he pronounced after an hour of twiddling. ‘And the solution is…?’ I asked – worrying that this might be a problem too far even for his skill-set.

‘Well…’ he said, scratching what passes for a beard… ‘I could take one bass-drum beat right at the start where everything is aligned properly and use that and put it back on every beat in the song… that should, in theory, do the trick… you might want to go and make a big pot of coffee, though… we’re in for the long haul… it’ll probably take the rest of the day.’

The song was nine minutes long and… it did take the rest of the day. Ultimately, it did get fixed but the point is, it would have been unusable without that fix.

With the BRITS tonight… how will they do this; make sure that that we, the end-users – the iTunes purchasers, are on the receiving end of performances that are as good as they can be in every single way?

Well, if they’re heading down the sheer speed route, I’d imagine its highly unlikely that they’ll use the actual performance from the televised show – there will be a safety net in place whereby the run throughs, the sound-checks will have been recorded and those performances will act as audio-security… perhaps with a live (auto-tuned) vocal laid on top.

Why..? Well, I can’t imagine any of tonight’s scheduled performing (loosely applied adjective as that is) acts such as Take That, Plan B, Rihanna, Cee Lo or Tinie Tempah) comfortable enough with their own – raw – performances to allow anything sub-standard out there.

Arcade Fire or The Mumfords… perhaps… but then again and in the cold light of day, would one want to really head over to iTunes and pay to download a copy of The Mumfords backing His Bobness, growling out a dirge-like Maggies Farm from the recent Grammys?

You know what... quite honestly, I reckon its far better to leave everything as is... don't bother with the kerfuffle and uncertainty (and undoubted pressure) of recording to release from a show like this... leave it as a moment in time that can be found on YouTube in time to come, just like so many great performances where the visual combines with the audio - and its that which makes it work as well as it does - as a final example, Mick Jagger's solo Grammys performance of Everybody Needs Somebody To Love was hardly perfect but, the visual of Mick as man in motorway service station caught out by an over-hot hand-drier in the men's lavaotories, belting it out made it work.