Friday, 26 June 2009

The Old Grey Whistle Test

For those of you that remember the 1970s, even if it was through a haze of chemical substances, The 'Old Grey Whistle Test' was the must-watch TV music programme of the day. During a period when rock ruled the album chart and pop ruled the singles chart and never the twain met, it featured all those 'album' bands that never got airtime on daytime radio. I remember rushing home from the pub on a Thursday night to watch it every week without fail. It had a dead-pan serious, almost dour, presentation that was widely parodied in later years, but hey, at least someone was taking pop music seriously!

I watched a repeated episode recently because it featured US girl-rockers, Fanny and was surprised how downbeat the presentation was compared to today’s TV-on-speed manic-ness. The episode hailed from the very first series in 1971 when the presenter was journalist Richard Williams. If you thought that subsequent presenter, ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris was laid back, this guy was almost horizontal. The programme featured three ‘live’ spots, a couple of extracts from publicly available films and two or three album tracks fronted by clips from ancient silent or ‘art’ films, plus a rather feeble interview with Elton John and Bernie Taupin at the very beginning of their career. Each segment was introduced simply by Mr Williams who then presumably had a snooze before the next link.

But you know what? I actually found it quite relaxing to watch. There were no extended links to continually tell you what you had just seen, thus wasting prime music minutes and there were no constant stay-tuned-because-we-have-coming-up tirades. Why is TV is obsessed with telling you things over and over again as if to someone with an IQ of 10 or impaired hearing. In this programme, if you missed it the first time – tough! Even better, no one shouted at you and all the information you needed about the song, artist and a bit of background was forthcoming. It’s so simple really, why can’t TV presenters do that now?

By the end of the programme I was yearning for more relaxed TV. No shouting, no constant repetition, no ego-centric hosts. If TV reflects society then it just goes to show what an overloaded, rushed and breathless society we have become. And technology was supposed to improve our lives and give us more leisure to enjoy the good things. Huh!

Sunday, 21 June 2009

For the Love of Pop

I know I keep harping on about this, but just why is it that my generation and those closely aligned to it (that is, those born in the post-war period up to say the 1970s) hold popular music so close to their heart? The more I meet people who match the age criteria the more I am convinced that this is the case. Somehow, with a few exceptions, later generations just don’t get it. In an effort to get to the bottom of this conundrum I have compiled a list of three possible reasons. These are personal to my own experience but may hit a common chord - let the debate begin!

1. In the twenty year stretch between 1955 and 1975, pop music could be construed as ‘new’. Those of us growing up during this period were experiencing something that had not occurred before and therefore, more importantly, our parents had no previous experience of it. The music was fresh and inventive, nobody knew where it was going and it belonged to the young. The musical generation gap had been born and it was important.

2. During the same period, there was very little else to divert attention. There were no computers, video games, DVD players, gameboys, theme parks, paintballing or virtual reality games and so on. Apart from radio, films (which meant going to the cinema) and television (limited to 3 channels in the UK) there was not much else to talk about. Also, radio, TV and films were still largely in the grip of the older generation, at least initially. Music wasn’t.

3. But crucially, there was a sense of community. When pop music first became a marketable product in the 1950s and 1960s, the numbers of single and LP releases were small compared to today. By watching a weekly music TV programme, like Top of the Pops, a viewer became conscious of a good percentage of what was available to buy that week. The number of artists active was relatively small and anyone with an interest could be aware of the majority of them. Hence, the entire country was in the same position of knowledge and there was a feeling of ‘community’. These days there is so much music available across countless genres that the populous as a whole has no chance whatsoever of having a common footing. The singles charts barely exist and change wholesale from week to week and even those still interested cannot know about everything that goes on. There is no touchstone that a whole generation can refer to.

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that reason 3 holds the key to why a whole generation or two have such a soft spot for music, it was the glue that bound us together and to a large degree still does.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

California Dreamin'

The Susan Boyle saga has just underlined how utterly obsessed we all are with image these days. If she was an absolute stunner in her late twenties, no one would’ve been the least surprised that she could sing, but as it is we were - and we’re all guilty. In fact we probably wouldn’t have noticed if she could sing or not as image is everything. If someone looks like a star then they are 90% there.

It wasn’t always like this. Younger readers may be surprised to learn that, back in the primeval days of popular culture, music tended to be made by musicians, no matter what their appearance, rather than image conscious wannabes. I know this is a concept that is difficult to grasp, but just run with it. I watched a documentary about the Mamas and Papas recently which just about proves this contention. I mean, just look at them: a six-foot plus beanpole with a ridiculous fur hat, a hippy boy with a equally ridiculous beard, an overweight badly dressed woman who can’t dance and an impossibly beautiful one who seems hopelessly out of place. Who, these days, would take them on? Yet when they open their mouths a special kind of magic is produced. If anyone tells me that ‘California Dreamin’ is not a classic pop anthem then I will be forced to stab them with a sharp stick.

During this period of pop, no one really cared what people looked like as long as they had talent – which was just as well for some of them. The bug-eyed drummer with Manfred Mann haunts me to this day. But I can’t help thinking that if Girls Aloud were a bunch of ill-dressed plain janes we wouldn’t be giving them a second look, singing talent or no and this is where it has all gone wrong. Most bands that were forged during the 60s and 70s and subsequently became universal megastars were hardly model material. Have a good look at the members of Led Zeppelin, Who, Pink Floyd etc and tell me truthfully they’d make through today’s talent shows on looks alone. Perhaps I’m being a little unkind but compared to say, Take That and the previously mentioned Girls Aloud, they wouldn’t’ve got a look in. But as they were mainly heard and not seen, image didn’t really matter.

What we need is a return to musicianship and a bit less of the image obsessed culture the MTV generation has foisted upon us. Then perhaps music would dredge itself out of the mire it is currently drowning in.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

George Gently and a Period Piece

I have been watching the recent dramatisations of the cases of ‘Inspector George Gently’, originally novels written by Alan Hunter but now transferred to the small screen by the BBC. Martin Shaw in the title role has thrown off his youthful ‘Professionals’ image and is consistently engaging as the experienced Inspector Gently in much the same way that John Thaw settled sedately into ‘Morse’ after his swaggering run in ‘The Sweeney’.

But it is not the casting or the stories that have grabbed my attention, entertaining though they are, but the period. The action is set in about 1964, as far as I can tell and as usual with these sorts of period dramas, the attention to detail is excellent. I was a young lad of eight summers in 1964 and have fond memories of that time in my life (rose tinted no doubt), yet when forced to confront the reality of life in the sixties on the screen, it is sobering to realise just what a very different world it was – and worse, one that I don’t really remember at all.

Of course, recreating a period in history for a TV programme is no quite the same as real life yet my suspicions are that at least one aspect is true and it is that the early part of the sixties was steeped in the decade that preceded it and was not the hip young thing that spawned an explosion in British culture. It is all too easy to think of the 1960s as a time of rampant youth culture, media and artistic discovery, economic prosperity and hot summers, yet as this programme demonstrates, for most of the UK outside of Carnaby Street, the austerity of 1950s values pervaded long after the decade that formed them had passed.

There are things that I recognise instantly, mainly the cars (haven’t seen a Ford Anglia for donkey’s years!) and the clothes, but it is the mental attitude and social manners that are the eye-openers for me.

The attitudes of adults towards morality and the generation gap and the legal backdrop which sat uneasily with such issues as suicide, homosexuality and the contraceptive pill are all reminders of how repressive life was and how values have changed remarkably in a very short space of time. It was truly an altered world and as a child I had no real understanding of its intricacies so to see it now, like looking into a time machine is a bit disconcerting.

Just think - my life is now part of history. Oo-er!

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Old Songs, New Songs

It seems to be a given truth that even the most boring of all present day trivia will one day in the future be fascinating. You only have to watch an episode of ‘The Antiques Roadshow’ to realise that this is true. Suddenly, old tat from years ago that most sane people would’ve thrown away becomes transformed into a valuable and much sought after object (especially if you’ve still got the box). I wonder how much my ‘Roland Rat’ mug from 1984 is worth now? But I digress.

My real reason for bringing up the subject is to ruminate on how traditional folk songs have been the media for transporting much old tat down thorough the ages. I’ve been listening to a lot of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and Pentangle of late and despite what I said above, it really is interesting to hear songs that were written centuries ago and for two reasons. The first is that it just goes to show that musicians of the 17th and 18th centuries knew how to write a cracking good tune and the second is that the content of the lyric often gives us a tantalising glimpse into their lives. This is where the trivia theory comes into play. I’m sure that most of what they wrote about was common knowledge at the time and the majority of their audience was probably bored stiff with hearing about lost virginity, the problems of industrialisation of manufacturing and forbidden love across social divides, yet to us in the 21st century, it is all of great interest because it paints a picture of a long ago time and place from a human point of view.

On Maddy Prior’s 2000 album, ‘Ravenchild’ there is a song called ‘Rigs of the Time’ which she updated herself as a ‘modern folksong’ which incorporates what she imagined would be sort of trivia that would fascinate an audience hundreds of years hence. She includes rants against out-of-town supermarkets, the slavish adherence to designer labels and speculation about Charles and Diana’s marriage. Just the sort of stuff that the tabloids delight in and most of us are bored to tears over. Yet she is probably correct in that these seemingly turgid details and the seamier the better, will delight historians of the far flung future. Even 9 years down the line the subjects are beginning to take on an historical sheen.

Oh and as a final point, why is it that Sandy Denny, Maddy Prior and Jacqui McShee are not feted in the same way as say, Janis Joplin or Aretha Franklin – they move me in just the same way?

Monday, 1 June 2009

Joan Osborne

Aeons ago, when I was largely responsibility free, it was not unknown for me to spend huge amounts of cash on building the ultimate hi-fi. My dream was to own a system that would accurately portray the rhythm and dynamics of a piece of music as well as the individual timbre of each instrument and the vocal inflections of the singer. This was of great importance because, to me, music was never a background noise, it was always something to be listened to and the more of it you could hear, the better. Luckily, before marriage and families caught up with me, I managed to build such a system.

Having lived with this load of electronics for many years and listened to many CDs, it becomes apparent that there are two avenues that an aspiring band can travel when it comes to producing their album. The first is to strive to produce the most realistically live sound possible so that the listener feels like they are watching the band play in their living room. The second is to be daringly adventurous and do the exact opposite so that the sound of the album bears little resemblance to live instruments but becomes a collage of sound. Neither is preferable provided that the ultimate goal sounds musical and involving.

The reason I started to muse on this subject was because I sat down and listened to Joan Osborne’s ‘One of Us’ and I did so because it is an incredibly involving production. This is a type ‘A’ live production and it works beautifully. Those who know Joan Osborne or have watched ‘Standing in the Shadows of Motown’ will know that she is a commanding singer – her rendition of ‘What becomes of the Broken Hearted?’ is gut-wrenchingly emotional. The vocal recording on ‘One of Us’ is crystal clear and projects from the mix like she is standing in the room.

Equally, each instrument is carefully recorded. Anyone who has heard an unamplified drum kit will know that it sounds surprisingly loud and ‘messy’. That is, it rattles and reverberates. The drums in this recording are just that, loud and cacophonous – cymbals fizz and snares buzz – and you can just sense the drummer getting carried away and beating the shit out of them.

The lead guitar and bass also have a huge presence so that you can hear what they are playing all the way through without them ‘disappearing’ or moving in the mix. All this gives a great sense of a live band playing in front of you and it heightens the listening experience immeasurably. I don’t know who produced this track, but whoever it was, I salute them. It is the way all music should be heard.