Sunday, 29 June 2008

Independents Day

When it comes to selling your book to the public at large, any sort of success tends to sit at the end of a long and largely unproductive road so I say hurrah for independent bookshops!

After what seems like an eternity of traipsing around numerous branches of national chain store bookshops and trying to communicate with dead-eyed staff that are set on directing you to their call centre somewhere near the upper reaches of the Ganges rather than actually talking to you, I have struck gold.

My local independent bookshop ‘
The Chorleywood Bookshop’ is going to stock my book, ‘Memoirs of a Music Obsessive’ and sell it to an unsuspecting public – I hope. The shop itself is one of those places that you only find once in a while. It is small and neat and displays its books in a way that, as a book reader and ultimately a book buyer, makes you want to browse. By comparison, modern chain store sellers have that slight ‘pushing product’ feel which never sits easily with me.

Morag, the shop’s affable owner, obviously takes a pride in her enterprise and I hope my book will be happy in her capable hands and on her capable shelves – but not too happy that it won’t want to leave.

It’s all very well selling through internet sites like Amazon but there is nothing quite like seeing your book in a proper bookshop. This development has the beneficial consequence that some of my potential readers who have hidden behind their ‘I never buy anything on the Internet’ excuse, now have nowhere to run – except to 4 New Parade, Chorleywood where the Chorleywood Bookshop will be more than happy to sell them a copy.

So if you are in the vicinity of the Hertfordshire/Buckinghamshire border, do drop in and have a browse around, you never know what you may come away with.

On the same subject, I see that over on the west coast of Canada on
Allison Crowe’s blog, Adrian has posted a short review of ‘Memoirs’. This is the first time that anyone has, to my knowledge, referred to it on a blog, so a big thank you to Adrian for his kind words. Incidentally, I understand that Allison may possibly be coming to the UK in the foreseeable future to entertain us with her amazing piano playing and power pack vocal chords, so look out for her at a venue near you!

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Pet Sounds

Every once in a while, just when you weren’t expecting it, a song comes along that puts a big smile on your face. It isn’t always a great work of art nor is it generally particularly clever – it’s the great galumphing, floppy-haired, tongue-flapping dog of rock that you just know is going to slobber on your best trousers and trample on the flower beds but you’ll just smile benignly and ignore it. But you wouldn’t want to give it houseroom in the long term.

Such a song is Weezer’s ‘Pork and Beans’. The UK economy maybe crap, inflation’s through the roof and we’re all going to hell in a handcart (with in-cart CD autochanger, natch) but this song has cheered me up no end. I’m playing it on my computer as I write this and I’m nodding my head and grinning like a lunatic and tapping my feet in a strangely uncoordinated way and for three minutes all is well with the world.

‘Pork and Beans’ is American rock at its best. Its structure strongly resembles ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ with a catchy pared down verse in lull-before-the-storm acoustic mode followed by a great burst of chorus where sledgehammer guitars assault your senses and the irresistible hook has you singing along and playing air drums – or is that just me?

The thing is, I did have a bit of prior warning here. Way back in 1994, I bought a single by the self-same band called ‘Buddy Holly’ and guess what? It’s the great galumphing…etc only not quite so big and cumbersome and slightly better house trained. This song is a sort of ‘son of Pork and Beans’. It has the same genes but hasn’t quite grown up and is thus smaller and neater and doesn’t quite have the strength to frighten you with that gut-wrenching thump when the chorus kicks in. Nevertheless it is pretty nifty.

So why haven’t I bought any Weezer albums? Well, I did have a listen to the samples for ‘The Red Album’ but somehow a whole album doesn’t really do it for me. I’m not really that fond of big hairy dogs as permanent pets, I just like to giggle at their antics in the park once in a while.

Friday, 20 June 2008

White Noise

What would you do if faced with the prospect of following up one of the most culturally important albums ever? Good question. If you are The Beatles, you do the following. A) Bugger off on a long holiday somewhere hot like ooh…India. B) Write a whole load of acoustic guitar based songs whilst convening with the likes of Donovan etc C) Come home and release the whole lot on a huge sprawling double album despite people telling you that a judicious pruning would produce a much better single album. D) Watch it become, little by little, one of your best loved albums.

Yes, I’ve rediscovered the White Album after at least 20 years of its being discarded in a cupboard with a load of other ‘Oh, God did I buy that’ albums. So what do I think of it now? Yes, it could’ve been edited a bit and yes, it’s got some real clunkers on it but without them, it just wouldn’t be the same and thereby lies the appeal. Funny how it has crept up those ‘best of’ charts that appear from time to time so that it is close to being the best regarded fabs album.

From my viewpoint, I like it because it is such a mixed bag. You’d be hard pushed to find another double album that has so much musical variety, real quality rubbing shoulders with utter rubbish and a listen-to-once-only avant-garde musical collage. The only other double LP that comes anywhere close that I can think of immediately is Elton John’s ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ and that, perhaps advisedly, left off the collage.

But the one factor that has struck me after reacquainting myself with the ‘White Album’ is how playful it is. It is a million miles from the critical earnestness of ‘Sgt Pepper’ and seems to display a band who are unaffected by the pressure of success and have actually transcended the need to succeed. In other words they are free to experiment and have a good time doing it. Either that or they have lost the plot entirely under the influence of certain substances – you choose. It’s the little things that make me laugh. It’s John’s raucous ‘Eh-up!’ just before plunging into George’s ‘While my Guitar Gently Weeps’ and the snatch of intricate classical guitar that prefaces the jaunty singalong of ‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill’ which still make me smile.

But it’s not all whimsy. There are some real gems on this album, like McCartney’s ‘Martha My Dear’ and ‘Blackbird’ and Lennon’s ‘Revolution’, ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ and the immaculate ‘Sexy Sadie’. Without them the album would fall into the trap of being too irreverent and mediocre but being the Beatles, there is always enough real invention to keep you listening. How did they do it?

Sunday, 15 June 2008

E=MC² Indeed!

Do my eyes deceive me? Did I really just see that? Did I really just see that Dippy Diva Maria Carey has titled her recent album, ‘E=MC²’, thus aligning herself with a discovery by one of the most brilliant scientific minds ever to grace this earth? Is hers the most inappropriately named album of all time?

Well, maybe. The audacity is breathtaking, but it probably isn’t the worst case of naming albums in direct contradiction to the content or provider. For example, in the ‘Does What it Says on the Tin’ award category there is ‘Like A Virgin’ by Madonna to be reckoned with and indeed the later ‘Music’, so clearly there are numerous instances of this type of misrepresentation littering rock’s dubious past.

After all, I could name you a whole host of bands or artists whose ‘Best Of’ compilation could form the basis of a Trade Descriptions infringement so the problem is deeper rooted than we might first imagine. Further research reveals the existence of workaholic Phil Collins’s 1982 effort ’Hello, I Must Be Going’. If only! Not only did he not go, he stayed around for another 20-odd years bothering us with all sorts of insipid MOR fare.

There is also the case of The Beach Boys’ 1971 album, ‘Surfs Up’ foisted on a public who had known for simply ages that none of the Boys actually surfed (bar Dennis Wilson whose subsequent death by drowning still had nothing to do with falling off a funny-shaped board).

Album titles are strange concoctions being a sort of advertisement and insight to the purveyor all in one. The trouble is that it sometimes gives away more than was intended like a slipping towel on exiting the shower. It comes to light that a few confused souls are in a bit of a tizzy over their sexuality, like Susanna Hoffs’ ‘When You’re a Boy’ and Neneh Cherry’s ‘Man’, but I’m glad to report that Debbie Harry has no such doubts with her solo project, ‘Rockbird’.

Conversely, there are a number of album titles that hit the nail squarely on the head. ‘Fried’ by Julian Cope probably needs no further comment, nor does ‘Oops...I Did it Again!’ by Britney Spears so at least there is a bit of honesty in the industry to be applauded. I bet the marketing execs who came up with those two are wringing their hands now!

But the last, painfully poignant word goes to Nirvana whose ‘Nevermind’ now seems dreadfully inadequate given what happened to Kurt Cobain a few years later.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease...

Summer has finally deigned to show its face here in the UK and the cricket season is in full swing. Ahh cricket! Another of those games that we gave the world and then they turn up on our doorstep and beat the pants off us (see also – European Football Championships). Except New Zealand.

I’ve always been a bit of a cricket devotee, I was coached for a year or so at school and subsequently played for the school team as a middle order batsman and occasional wicket-keeper. My career ended at about age 16 when sport became terribly uncool but I then reverted to watching it on TV – before it was gobbled up by Satellite Channels. I remember with real fondness all those black and white Test Matches from the 1960s which featured names such as Dexter, Graveney, Boycott, Edrich, D’Olivera, Snow and Underwood. It was a period when England would get regularly battered by the West Indies in the form of fast bowlers Hall & Griffith and then hit all round the ground by Sobers, Greenwich and the rest of them. Happy days!

Cricket is a unique sport for many reasons and each of those reasons shows why it could only have been invented by the English.

It is the only sport that is played over 5 days. This means that a potential spectator is not limited to attendance at a certain time on a certain day and has a choice of dates. It also means that someone seeing play on say, day 3 will not see the beginning nor the end of the game. This is in compliance with the English attribute that says that ‘taking part is more important than winning’. Which is why we never win anything.

It is the only sport that revolves around meals, especially Tea. This is absolutely paramount. No English sportsman likes to go without his grub and to stop for Tea at 4.00 pm is entirely civilised. Pity nobody else takes our lead on this. All sports should stop for Tea at four!

It is the only sport that incorporates the weather into strategy and tactics. We all know that the English are obsessed with the weather, so why not make it part of the sport? It’s entirely logical that play should stop when it rains or when the light is so bad no one can see the ball, but is also logical that varying degrees of cloud cover, early morning moisture, pitch condition, wind direction and all sorts of other atmospheric factors should form part of the captain’s thought processes when directing his troops. It also means that when we play in the West Indies, Australia and India when it is just hot all the time we invariably lose.

It is the only sport where a draw is declared due to insufficient duration of playing time. I know that the concept of a draw is alien for you Yanks but just take a deep breath and think how satisfying a non-result can be when both sides have given their all. It is the classic English compromise and can be followed by a nice cup of tea!

Friday, 6 June 2008

We Started Nothing

I first saw the Ting Tings, comprising Manchester duo Katie White and Jules De Martino, on TV playing at Glastonbury last year and thought them worth a second glance. It was the reverse White Stripes set-up of a male drummer and female singer/guitarist that got my attention (perhaps they should have been the ‘Black Spots’?) So instead of Meg White on drums we have Jules De Martino and in the Jack White role of Vocals and Guitar we have Katie White – what is about the White surname, is it Musicians Union sponsored?

Apart from the gender/instrument reversal we also have a distinct difference in style. The Ting Tings replace The White Stripes’ earnest grungy blues/rock with a brand of almost superficial Indie/dance/pop that seems quite popular at the moment – witness a similar output from CSS. Now, after the fabulous single ‘Great DJ’ comes their first proper album ‘We Started Nothing’, a copy of which arrived with the post recently and a rather mixed bag it has turned out to be.

There seems to be a trend back towards shorter albums again after the excesses encouraged by the bigger capacity available on a CD and this one clocks in at around 37 minutes, which to my mind is about right. It contains 10 slices of perky dance pop, about 5 of which are quite irresistible and is the epitome of good feelgood pop. Let’s be clear here, despite the critical panning some quarters have given this album, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with disposable pop music provided it is enjoyable. The problems here are not to do with style but to do with the fact that outside of the really great 5 songs there are a few too many that become a tad tedious after repeated listens and the remainder of the album which is neither one thing nor the other.

Generally, given the self imposed limitations of a duo with only a guitar and a drum kit at their disposal, the album does manage to convey a number of styles and tempos but by blatantly cheating with the judicious introduction of bass, keyboards and some tasteful overdubs the limits of their sound have been successfully expanded. But still there remains the poor material.

The real worry about the Ting Tings is that they are being hyped mercilessly by the media and will probably drown in it. Whilst this album is for at least part of it, a fun listen, it is not the best thing since sliced bread and we should keep a bit of perspective here. It’s basically half a great album. Let’s leave them alone and see what comes next before beating the ‘next big thing’ drum.

Monday, 2 June 2008

In the Land of Grey and Pink...eventually.

In those long ago days of anytime before about 1985, music came on a 12 inch vinyl disc which was packed into a 12 inch cardboard sleeve. In order for consumers to differentiate between albums the cardboard cover was adorned with a bit of Art. That big square of design Art is one of the things I really miss about vinyl albums – in fact the old covers now look disproportionately large and in your face compared with a small CD insert. The mini versions just don’t convey the impact of an old LP sleeve.

Some covers were so intriguing that you almost had to buy the album just for the cover alone. I did this once with Talking Heads ‘77’ which had a bright pillar box red cover and luckily the music it contained was excellent. But there have been many others whose arty covers I have coveted without summoning enough courage to buy. One such album was Caravan’s ‘In the Land of Grey and Pink’ which was released in 1971 at a time when my purchasing power was very limited indeed and thus passed me by, but it did have a fabulous cover.

So here I am with a CD copy of ‘Land’ purchased 37 years too late because it was £2.98 on Amazon and I’m looking at that cover in its reduced size on the insert. It still looks great, if a little diminished, but never having listened to it until now, what about the music?

Well, Caravan were part of the great Canterbury Progrock scene of the early 1970s which included Soft Machine, Egg, Gong and Hatfield and the North, so ‘Land’ is predictably a classic progrock LP with a statutory 22 minute largely instrumental piece on side two as was de rigueur at the time. The overall feel is very pastoral as opposed to tough urban and has a folksy, rather hippyish ambience similar to Genesis’s early albums, ‘Trespass’ to ‘Foxtrot’ in particular.

The aspect that struck me very forcibly is how ‘English’ it sounds. It has a real non-transatlantic atmosphere which is not something you get to hear these days where most bands have a sort of melting pot mid-Atlantic face. In retrospect, progressive rock was a very English corner of rock’s history, most of the recognisable bands of the genre harking from the UK. It is not something that I have really dwelt on before but ‘Land’ has a very strong English folk meets Elgar/Vaughan Williams style which accentuates the quality. The vocals are a bit tentatively introspective and have an English accent whilst the lyrics are understatedly eccentric and wry. All this tends to make it sound a bit dated yet nostalgic and warmly comfortable. A bit like visiting childhood haunts.

So after all this time it was definitely worth buying – and the cover’s still wonderful. Pity I haven’t got the 12-inch version.

For more discussion about prog bands see my book 'Memoirs of a Music Obsessive'.