Thursday, 11 December 2008

Good taste: it's all a matter of taste

Quick! While it's there, have a listen to me saying how great Phil Collins is on national radio. That's right, last Friday, I was back on Radio 4, gently closing the door marked Credibility on my musical taste via the medium of Front Row.

Of course, there is a certain amount of editorial exaggeration when it comes to these things but in saying that we should not be so harsh on Philly C (as he is known hip hop circles) I was being genuine. And as I suggested might happen in the piece itself, I have already had put-downs from some of my more image-conscious chums, announcing that all contact must now be severed; all skinny tie albums returned.

I've always been concerned about the need to be honest about musical taste and there is nothing that angers me more than people expressing enthusiasm for music they feel in order to wear it like a badge. I have no problem with people genuinely getting excited about say, Slint or Autechre; it's when they claim to really adore something for reasons other than listening to it that I get annoyed. I recently had an argument with a pal of mine, who works in the music business (and am being no more specific than that, I'm afraid) who claimed that most people in record companies and music publishers only listen to things they have to for their job but otherwise remain entirely indifferent to music new or old. I think that's harsh but having said that if you read those annual lists of top executives My Favourite Records of the Year that appear in Music Week, you will see lists of records that most have them have listened to no more than once. If that.

Like everyone, I pride myself on my eclectic taste but in my case, I honestly do have ludicrously broad taste - I bought the current Feeling album for example and whilst not as good as the first, I have played it a damn sight more than than the Bon Iver record. I'm not saying this to be iconoclastic or join the queue of Julie Burchill wannabes, I'm just telling you the truth. I like the Keane record too - admittedly, not enough to keep the CD after ripping it onto iTunes, but certainly enough to keep it on my hard drive and enjoy the tracks that crop up on Shuffle alongside Gregory Isaacs, Magazine and Friendly Fires.

Are you still reading this? I suspect that some of you may be thinking - where is this going? What is he going to reveal to us next? I mean, I know he signed Sleeper but Jesus, does he really need to show us his dirty sock draw?

I'll tell you where I'm going with this, I'm saying that so much of what Good Taste is, is about people not being courageous enough to recognise what they like.

A friend of mine who is a bit older than me was at Art School in the 70s when punk arrived. He told me recently what it was like there when the Clash and the Sex Pistols arrived - most of his mates were listening to Gong, Genesis and Yes and punk was rejected by most of them because they 'couldn't play their instruments'. There was a status that these groups had which you just couldn't knock. Recently he had a argument with a famous dance crossover artist about the unknockable status of the Clash - this musician was suggesting that you simply couldn't say anything negative about the band - they were the benchmark. But, said my friend, all you are doing is is what my old mates at art school did about Gong - you are adding to a consensus of what constitutes good taste - which is based on nothing more than random opinion.

My friend Polly went to see Ralph Fiennes in Hamlet at the Hackney Empire in the 90s. It was the hottest ticket in town and she was very keen on Ralph too. But she walked out. "Why?" I asked. "Because I didn't understand all that blank verse; I was bored." Now this girl is no fool, she is extremely bright, reads loads and went on to a very successful management career. It's just that she'd not seen much Shakespeare and had never read Hamlet. So rather than sitting in the dark for another two hours in the dark, she walked back to her flat in Hackney and had a bite to eat. There were probably lots of folk in the theatre that night who were dreaming of doing the same thing but just weren't courageous enough.

I went to the Royal Opera House this week to review a production of Hansel and Gretel. It was the first time I'd been to the ROH despite the fact that I've lived in London all my life so just going inside the building was a treat - brimming with posh old ladies eating Green & Blacks. The review I wrote was a fairly accurate description of what I felt about the show (a good night out) but if I'd had been a little more courageous I would have said- you know what, it really only got going in Act 111; I was pretty bored by Acts 1 and 11 - I mean, where was the drama? Where was the jeopardy? And frankly where was the trail of breadcrumbs? And I'm sure a lot of the punters there were thinking the same thing but the fact that the seats are the price of a weekly supermarket trip meant that they were clinging on to every morsel of proffered entertainment as if it was their last, laughing at things that had they been on the telly, wouldn't have raised a smile. And one last thing - you know the gingerbread cottage that the children eat in the story? Well in this production, it was a dolls house- two mouthfulls of digestive biscuit and it had pretty much gone; like Stone Henge in Spinal Tap. Sort it out! But there you go, I'm in print (next week) saying it's a good night out. Coward.

Earlier in the week I had slightly more fun at shouty metal entertainers, Slipknot. I went with my brother who is a big fan and it must be said they purvey a genius balance of dry ice, scary serial killer imagery, and trad metal with a mid song demeanor of Vegas Rat Pack: "Hey London, it's great to be back!" says the singer in a mask made of human skin, "you guys are just like family, we love you!"

There you are - that's how eclectic my taste is opera, Slipknot ... Keane. Next week I'm reviewing two ballet productions. It's all entertainment, catering for different tastes, maybe, but all of it is of merit and shouldn't be dismissed as worthless just because someone with alleged 'Good Taste' has set the consensus that it's no good. My mum is swayed by this sort of thing a lot: "Oh, it's not been very well reviewed, has it..." she'll say about a film or a play and I'll say, "Oh really, what did they say about it?"
And she'll answer, "Well, I don't really remember but they didn't like it."

"Just one review?"

"Yes, it was in the... Evening Standard, I think." (or whatever paper she happens to have seen that week)

"Oh right - who wrote it?"

"Oh I don't know. Anyway, they didn't like it."

And that's that. End of story. All that time and effort by the creators and just because someone got in print and didn't like it, thousands of people like my mum spread the vague word that it's not worth bothering with the film/book/play/album. My old head of A&R used to get so wound up by bad reviews - comparing the amount of energy, care, and creativity and of course cash that goes into making and releasing an album, with the solitary figure in a room, getting paid 30p a word for writing, "It's a bit rubbish."

So, when I say I like Genesis, The Feeling and Keane, I'm not trying to be contentious. I'm just saying, they may not be for you, but they are not entirely without merit. And liking them shouldn't make you remove me from your Christmas card list. I could tell you that in amongst my current listening is Soft Machine, The Rich Kids, Jake Thackray and Fleet Foxes. Some of these you might like - there is merit in all things. Apart from James Blunt, obviously. Now he really is rubbish.

Monday, 1 December 2008

We're shit-hot because we've got the combined age of 150

"Can either of you sing?"
"No, not me" says Russell.
"Yeah, I can do backing vocals," I pipe up.
"Ok, let's try it," says the engineer.

So there I am in the booth, with a pair of what we are now calling 'cans' on my head. And if they weren't slipping about on my balding head, I could kid myself that I was in a proper band with a record deal, a manager, and a big future.

In reality I'm in a studio in Willesden that my brother has booked to record some of his songs. He's doing it for fun. OK, so maybe like everyone who loves pop music, he's harbouring some delusion about suddenly being discovered, despite being in his late thirties - like those guys in Fever Pitch saying they could have played for the England squad if they had the breaks - and, as they later point out, "if it wasn't for the crapness."

Me, my brother and my rhythm buddy Russell (he's on drums, I'm on bass - like a Guardian-reading Sly and Robbie, or, if you like, a younger, slicker Bruce and Rick) - we're here to have fun and the studio engineer seems to understand this. What's strange about this for me is that it feels massively unfamiliar - I've been to studios hundreds of times in the past twenty years, demo studios in old warehouses, which gradually found themselves in upmarket areas, rehearsal rooms in worrying backstreets in Liverpool and Manchester, home studios and pre-production suites, top flight studios like Olympic and Townhouse (RIP) and Metropolis with plush loos that you could imagine Madonna or Clapton having a poo in, residential studios all over the country (many of which no longer exist), studios high up in skyscrapers in New York, and studios tucked away in the most unexpected places (did you know there was one round the back of Hammersmith Apollo?) and studios I have idealised for years like Eden (RIP) where Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe recorded This Years Model and of course, Abbey Road.

But for all this experience of being the organiser, the one who was either paying for the session or visiting the artist at work to hear their stuff, the feeling of going to the studio to play something myself is completely different. This is the first time I've done this since, well, blimey it must be late mid to late 80s. Scary. And equally, I haven't played bass for a lifetime. I've borrowed my wife's bass guitar for the day - a beautiful white Fender Precision that she used to play in her alt-country bands in New York. I remember when I met her for the first time in the Luna Lounge on Ludlow St and she told me she played bass. It was precisely then I knew I had to marry her.

Actually, judging its immaculate condition I'd say that she spent less time playing the bass and more time using various snazzy cleaning fluids on it. There is not a scratch or blemish - like our house before we had children. Most bloke's guitars get that lived-in look that our home has taken on since Esther arrived and Maddy started practicing her murals - our front room, for example, looks like Joe Strummer's guitar.

Recently I've been playing a bit of guitar again myself. I bought some new strings for my old Sigma and cracked open some old songbooks, you know, the usual ones, Bowie, Beatles, Dylan, Costello. It's been lovely. I've never noticed how adaptable John Lennon makes Dm7 - it's in both Girl and Strawberry Fields, but sounding completely different in each. When I used to write songs, using a minor chord was essential but I couldn't stretch to anything more complex. Those Beatles guys, they made it look easy.

I wish I'd played more of other people's songs when I was in my teens and 20s. Instead, I would strum chords whilst singing and come up with 'songs' that we would play in my bands. I never had the discipline to play other people's songs apart from the Clash or course, whose songs it was really easy to play and whose chords patterns I now realise I copied for all my 'own' tunes.

This was all happening before I got my first scouting job and I remember my mindset at the time: out there, in the music business, there were all the successful artists and there was me. I never thought that there would have been thousands of me's all over the world, all writing their three chord plodders and playing in rehearsal rooms. The moment I started scouting and took a look at the mounting pile of demos which I had to trawl through, I gave up making my own music. Clearly I was in it for the glory and not for the pleasure of playing. Now it's different.

The only time I let my former hobby of playing guitar cross over into A&R, was when I once lent my Sigma to the guitarist from Sleeper - an exceptional player called Jon Stewart, who like the rest of the guys in the band had to suffer the ignominy of being known as a Sleeperbloke. Anyway, he was quite fond of the rock and roll lifestyle at the time and when he returned my guitar, it was in two pieces. He eventually repaired it for me but I'm still not convinced that supergluing the headstock ever brought it back to its former glory. That'll teach me to mix pleasure and business.

And this separation of private and professional mindset was still in evidence as we travelled to Willesden to record the tracks.

"We've got five hours," said my brother,"That's way too much time to record three songs. I mean, each song is only about 3 minutes so we should have loads of time..."
"Yes," I absent mindedly said, "We should probably record ourselves live - you know, get a live feel, so it sounds like a real band playing together - don't want to do too many overdubs."

I think what my brain was attempting to rationalise was the fact that five hours is nowhere near enough time to do even one song properly - particularly if, like us, you had never played together before and in Russell and my cases, barely knew the songs. OK, there are all those stories about 60s bands recording their records in three mnutes - like the Animals recording their entire debut album in one night off during a tour - but that was then; a different planet. In all my experience of putting bands in studios to record, it's been a two to three day booking for two to three songs, with sometimes a further day added on to look at mixes which invariably always need a recall.

So there we were, four and a half hours later. The incredibly patient and gracious engineer Sean, had gently suggested we try two instead of three songs and we'd just about managed it. Russell and I had pulled a couple of good grooves out of the bag and only ballsed it up about eight times before we got a decent take.
"For never having played together before, you guys are good," Sean said generously.
"We'll we've got a combined age of a hundred and fifty so we know our shit." suggested Russell.

I then managed some backing vocals and they came out pretty well - my voice not sounding too strangled and just about working alongside my brother's. It was certainly a highlight for me. As Sean attempted a mixdown in - I kid you not - the last 20 minutes, I found myself slipping into musicianly, rather than A&R mode. Sure, I coudn't break a lifetime's habits so like an A&R man I stood directly between the monitors and nodded along sagely. But it took all the self control I could muster not to sally forth with, "I can't hear the bass, can you turn the bass up?! - and the backing vocals are too quiet! - more of me Me ME!!"

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Out on the town

The bloke in front is really annoying me now. Earlier on during the set, he was a mild irritation - a fly buzzing in the background, occasionally knocking against the windowpane - now he's a next door neighbour undertaking a major DIY job at 10pm on a Sunday night.

There he is, right in front of where we're standing - quite near the front of the stage in fact - chatting to his mates, leaping about all over the place to pull 'amusing' faces at girls, raising his arm in the air and doing some weird flicky thing with his fingers when he hears a song he thinks he recognises; except the flicky thing is neither in time with the music nor in keeping with the fact that he's at a Goldfrapp show. Kasabian, maybe, Oasis definitely - but not Goldfrapp.

Where do these people come from? I wonder. And at what point do they decide, yeah, you know what I'm going to pay thirty quid to see that dirty bird with the lalalala song who isn't Kylie - what's her name? Sounds a bit like one of those Starbucks coffees...

I'm aware I'm sounding like some old fella at the back who shushes people at Bert Jansch gigs but you know, if you come to a gig, get in the spirit of the thing! I'm here with someone who works at EMI and so traditionally we should be the annoying freeloaders who don't appreciate the ticket price and talk in loud voices all the way through the show. But actually we're both real fans. Much earlier in the year, I waxed in this very blog about Seventh Tree by Goldfrapp and I still stand by what I wrote - it's one of the albums of the year and no doubt will end up in many end of year Best Album lists. Mind you, it will be at position 87 much further behind more superficially exciting stuff like Glasvegas or Bon Iver - neither of whom, incidentally, I have been able to listen to more than once. But that's pop for you.

Talking of overrated things, I went to see Damon Alban's Monkey opera last week. I was reviewing it, so again, you could argue that my opinion doesn't hold as much weight as someone who paid good money for a ticket, but I have to say I really didn't like as much as I thought I was going to. Maybe it was the whole expectation thing - everyone I know who had seen it either in Manchester or at the Royal Opera House or in one case, Paris, darling! Everyone was raving. The costume, the music, the choreography... oh what a tremendous show, they all said.

My view... well, you can read the review. When I phoned in the star rating (three out of five) so they could have this for their editorial meeting, I distinctively got the impression that they were surprised I hadn't shouted "Five! No, fuck it, six out of five - it's a mindblower, my friends, start queuing now before it's too late!"

And who could blame them? Everyone else seems to have loved it and you know what, it is spectacular and the music and costumes are good, but come on, if it's supposed to have a story then let's have that made preeminent. As it was, even if you religiously read the surtitles (the show is in Mandarin, Parklife fans) you mainly got the libretto which only embellished a story you were supposed to already familiar with. On the subject of the surtitles by the way, they weren't 'sur' at all but 'side' - the stage was flanked with screens which forced any audience member keen on finding out what the hell was going on to constantly turn his head from stage to screen and back again; the cast must have thought they were watching crowd at Wimbledon. Monkey Tennis indeed.

Come to think of it, the side-titles were the wayward star of the opening night: during one particularly incomprehensible Mandarin moment, we swiveled our heads round to find out what had just been said and were greeted with a random string of letters splayed across the screen "ttttttttttyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy.. aaaa" as if a small child had been given free rein with the keyboard in the backstage side-titles suite. This was quickly replaced with the blank screen familiar to anyone who has had Powerpoint presentation issues. Shortly after this, we were treated to the sight of Damon's manager panicking past us towards the side-title suite with a large dose of Short Shrift.

I went out to see some new stuff last week too. I missed cutesy Brooklyn threepiece Chairlift at the Dublin Castle who lots of people seem to be looking at because I was having an interesting conversation in the restaurant over the road (one of the bonuses of being an A&R spectator is that if I don't fancy going I don't have to - brilliant!) Next night, I was asked out by a mate to see some more new groups that the industry are currently foaming up over.

First up, we went to Bar Rumba on Shaftsbury Avenue - not the usual venue you'd expect to find the future of music - a basement underneath the cinema and shopping centre. The band were female fronted and called Pageboy. My heart sank during the first song because the singer - seemingly styled by the Partridge Family in high-cut flared jeans with braces and fringe over her eyes - had one of those voices which is keen on revealing everything in one line of a song - vowel-stretching, yeah-ing, yelping and showing plenty of Come Awns, she was intent on proving just how damn good a voice she had. In my head I was forming sentences like Duffy singing for Toploader, but once the second song began it was as if the voice felt its work was done and the human being could come out and it was actually pretty good - more like Ann Peebles or Amy Winehouse, authentic, soulful and melodic. Bizarrely, I was greeted Bob Stanley who was watching Pageboy too. Kind of like seeing John Martyn at a McFly show.

Next up we braved the doors at the Hoxton Bar and Grill and got away with not having the right trousers. We were there to see the brilliantly-named Ou Est Le Swimming Pool, an inevitably East London threepiece who turned out to be a Klaxons-with-rapping combo with a neat line in chorus and very strong voices. Handsome fellas too - although the keyboard player had something of the night about him.

Still, at Monkey, at Pageboy and indeed in a club almost entirely full of Hoxton fashionista (the type who all have three jobs - DJ, photographer, club promoter - as well as three simultaneous haircuts) I fortunately didn't encounter anyone remotely as irritating as the gurning buffoon at Goldfrapp. Of course, mid set, as the fawn and stag mask-wearing backing vocalists stood back for some wonderfully pervy folk dancing (a brilliant juxtaposition of maypole- and pole-dancing) I walked up to him and had a word. He was instantly subdued and massively apologetic, promising never to behave like such a twat again and everyone around me slapped me on the shoulder and offered to buy me a pint.

No, of course that's not what happened. What actually happened was this: I pretended he wasn't there and after a while, aside from occasionally looming up like baboon in a wildlife park, he really didn't bother me. A response, I think you'll agree, very much in keeping with the warped English repression of a Goldfrapp show.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Sitting on the sofa in your underpants

"I'm looking at my options... I mean it's a shit time to be out of work but in a funny kind of way it's great to get off the treadmill, look around, see what's out there, you know... It's liberating and exciting."

The A&R man, or currently ex-A&R man, is saying all the things you say when you've been made redundant. He's making frequent use of words like 'options' and 'opportunities' and the ever-reliable 'irons' that are very much 'in the fire'.

There's a couple of us, chatting with him and we are sympathising - we've both been through similar things. After he's gone my pal turns to me and we look at each other, "Why don't people just tell it like it is?" he asks, "Why don't they say, 'I'm sitting at home on the sofa, watching daytime TV, miserable and bored, no one will return my calls - what is wrong with me? Why am I suddenly toxic?!' Then at least we'd all be able to bond with him and say - yeah, been there mate, instead of saying: ' yeah, good for you, nice to hear about your proverbial irons.'"

Last year (almost exactly a year ago in fact) a bunch of us were made redundant from V2 and I was over the moon. I don't recall any sitting on the sofa in my pants, weeping. But I was lucky, I think. I had a little money from them, and Charlie and I were starting the management company that became Riot Act. Our future looked bright. And now? Well, you know what's it's like now, you don't need me to tell you. The world has changed.

For those of you wondering, I am no longer doing the management thing. What!? I hear you scream. What about the Scottish Band?! - or indeed the band we now know as Isosceles? Well, there are still going and they're still great. But for reasons largely to do with money and time, we have agreed to part company. It was their decision, I stress, not mine - they made me redundant. But it's really for the best, it's great to get off the treadmill, look around, see what's out there, you know... It's liberating and exciting!

Seriously though, it is actually better for both of us. I've been busy doing many other things over the last few months, some of which you heard about here, and being their manager was only a part of those things. Although, it's hard to say how managers are going to work full time in an industry where the traditional source of finance in the early days (a record company) is not there any more, doing it part time is still not the best management strategy. The band were patient with me, while I went off doing editorial stuff but it was really hard to manage them, whilst, for example, sitting at a desk making sure the Website's homepage was up to date. Not to speak of being a decent father to my daughters. Remember my blog about In The City and how I didn't go because it was Maddy's birthday? Well, we had parted company when I wrote that, and the children's party seemed the best way of explaining it to myself. I realised, I didn't ever want to have an experience of missing something important like that because of something as transitory as music. Anyway, they are working on new material and I'll certainly let you know when it's ready, because I'm sure it will be great. I wish them all the best and hope they find another manager who doesn't get torn between them and a desire to write.

You see, I am not sitting at home in my pants watching daytime TV. Lord knows, I'd like to try that for a bit. What's been happening over the last three to four months has been the realisation of how much I enjoy doing all the things that were peripheral to managing a band: writing this, doing journalism, and observing the way the music industry is developing. A friend of mine said to me last week that reading this blog was, for him, like watching The Truman Show - with the show being about someone reinventing themselves. And it's true, from writing this initially about managing a band, I have gently slipped into writing about the A&R war stories and the way the music business is changing. And from this I am being asked to review gigs, present stuff on radio... well you know.

Admittedly, I am still some way off from being a proper grown up writer - I mean, even reviewing Hamfatter back in July was hugely exciting for me - getting to the front of the guest list queue and rather than saying I'm Ben from XXXX record company, being able to say I'm Ben from XXXX newspaper. It felt like a huge step forward; I was pathetically excited. Like a child being allowed into the cockpit of a big aeroplane. So ironically, like the former A&R man I mentioned at the beginning of this was bravefacing, I am genuinely finding it exciting and liberating. As well as a tiny bit scary of course.

And what of that A&R man I mentioned at the beginning? Well, he does exist but he is an amalgam of various people I've bumped into over the last few weeks. It's tough out there - record companies are signing less and paying less when they do - they don't need as many A&R folk as they did even a couple of years ago. Arguably, all you need is a marketing person who listens to Zane Lowe, reads NME, and watches Skins. Or at least, that's what marketing people would say anyway...

So despite not managing Isosceles, my observations about the record industry will go on. And of course my Truman Show analysis of what happens to me - but only if it's interesting and relevant of course. I wouldn't want to bore you with stories about my children, would I?

Sunday, 2 November 2008

How to really upset people

'There's a column we'd like you to write... oh yes and also there's a woman who wants to get in touch with you about something you wrote, which really upset her..."

The momentary pleasure at being asked to write another column for The Guardian is tempered with wondering what it is I've written that can possibly upset someone. After all, I'm adorable, right? Maybe it's someone who's taken umbrage at something I wrote in the A&R Disasters piece - possibly someone once involved with An Emotional Fish phoning up to tell me that they were actually very successful in Italy or something.

But no, it's nothing I've written for The Guardian, it's actually something on this blog that has done it. Back in June I wrote an entry about my A&R scouting days and the concept of going to see a band specifically so I could definitively pass on them - so I could close the book on the band or singer who was phoning me daily and making my life hell. So I could say, quite plainly: "I travelled to Stoke... The Bull & Gate... Stuttgart etc and saw your show and I can honestly say that it's not for me. Good luck in the future."

I told a story about how this concept was named - for it is a experience familiar to all A&R folk - and the artist whose name was adopted to name it. The person I offended turned out to be the sister of this artist; she was seething with rage because - as I had flippantly mentioned at the end of the column - the artist in question had died of cancer some years later.

Now, this was of course a small matter between two people, no big corporations were involved, and the readership of this column is minuscule compared to national radio BUT - and you can see where I'm going here, can't you? - I wonder whether Ross and Brand felt a similar guilt and remorse to mine.

I bet you're probably bored of hearing or reading about the Brandgate thing so if you are, skip down a few paragraphs to where I'll probably be talking about the death of the record business or something. But for the record, here are my thoughts on it: Firstly, if you haven't listened to the show, it's worth doing so because it seems to me that what is being debated is not so much if innocent members of the public or indeed actors should be able to come home without finding a whole bunch of tittering schoolboy abuse on their answerphones, but more that here were two huge celebrities killing time at the license payers' and Andrew Sach's expense. You could take the view - as the Daily Mail have - that they were sitting there, making it up as they went along and getting paid a fortune. As with the Brass Eye paedophilia episode, those who are complaining have probably got their information on the show secondhand.

Radio 2, as anyone who listens to it regularly will know, is a strange beast. It's not the sort of radio station that you can turn on - like say, pretty much every other commercial station - and know exactly what you'll get. Turn it on on a weekday evening after supper and you could happily think it was Radio 1 as Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie play a whole bunch of new releases - but if you leave it on after 10, you're suddenly thrown back into a parallel universe of The Organist Entertains or Big Band Special. If you're listening late at night you can find Steve Lamacq, Trevor Nelson and Mark Lamarr but if you find yourself tuning in on a Sunday then it's Alan Titchmarsh, Michael Ball and Elaine Page. Each, very much, to his or her own.

In fact when I think about it, Radio 2 is like flicking through the vinyl in a charity shop, it's the same feeling of excitement that you never know what you might find; fairly regularly it will be a Mantovani or a Jim Reeves but just as often you find a classic old Stephen Stills album or something by Lee Perry you never knew existed.

So Radio 2's listeners are inevitably going to be just as mixed. And crucially, they are going to be familiar with the schedules and when it is they like to hear their favorite shows. OK, so some of them are embracing the iPlayer and many are subscribing to the Podcasts but inevitably because of the older demographic they are a little behind Radio 1 in terms of adopting them. So when Russell Brand's programme went out on 18 October at nine o'clock in the evening it was probably not not Aled Jones fans or Elaine Page devotees who tuned in. And as we all know, out of the 400,000 listeners, two, that's 2, people were recorded as having complained - and they were upset about the swearing not about any invasion of privacy.

Now, many listeners who tune into the Organist Entertains or other more traditional Radio 2 fayre like Aled Jones and Elaine Page will no doubt also be Daily Mail readers who perhaps may not have even been aware that Russell Brand had a weekly show on their station on Saturday nights. So once the paper had done the job it does best and whipped them up into a self righteous frenzy, of course it was time to get on their computers and make their feelings known.

So what's my point? My point is that everyone has different tastes - and if you try and homogenise what you create so that it is acceptable to all you end up producing bland, boring radio - just try listening to Heart or Capital or frankly, even XFM. I'm not condoning entertainers making comedy at the expense of innocent parties or even the sort of broadcasting where smut and innuendo are substitutes for genuine wit - have you listened to Chris Moyles' show recently?

No, what I'm saying is - if you haven't already, listen to the whole of the Brand show and then tell me if it is not two incredibly talented performers involved in a high-wire improvisation act which, whilst occasionally sinking into Derek & Clive-style mutual abuse, is a tour de force of creative juices flowing. And forgive me, Andrew Sachs, but it is really funny.

Noel Gallagher, with his typical blunt genius, stated that all you need to do to appreciate how brilliant the BBC is, is to do a bit of travelling - go anyway in the world and you'll soon realise how spoilt we are, everyone else's media is sea of commercially-driven lowest common denominator fodder. It's easy to knock the BBC and there are always things that you can pull it apart over (Noel cited the removal of Top Of The Pops from the BBC schedule as being the reason we have a knife crime epidemic, er... right) but if the Daily Mail-supported campaign to do away with the licence fee is successful then I suspect that their constant fear of Broken Britain might stand more chance of becoming reality.

Blimey, bit serious this week. And you thought I didn't feel strongly about anything didn't you?

To return to my own story of upsetting the public, I took the offending post down the moment I read the sister's email. I realised how, having discovered that he had died of cancer after I'd written the blog, I really shouldn't have posted it up - or at the very least I shouldn't have mentioned his name. I have lived and learned.

That's it for this week. There's lots of stuff going on with me and my life in music at the moment which I promise to tell you about soon but for now I have to leave my desk and drive to a farm with my kids. I might even listen to Radio 2 on the way.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Whoops, I'm on Radio 4...

"Maybe it's because everything else is really loud now. In bars, or a car, or on headphones when you travel by tube - you're just never going to notice Charlie Watts' hi-hat or Joe Strummer's delicate fretwork. Record companies think: if I leave any quiet bits in, I'll lose the public's attention!"

"Can you start again from 'In bars'?"

"OK." I clear my throat and unwittingly make a effeminate squeak.

"In bars" my voice has now taken on a desperate tone, "I'll do that again.."
"Whenever you're ready"
"In bars OR in a car... oh bollocks... excuse me."
"That's OK, take your time..."
Christ, who wrote this shit anyway? For a moment, I feel like Orson Wells in those infamous frozen fish adverts, then I realise, it was me, I wrote this shit. It's all my fault.

I'm in a plush studio in BBC Broadcasting House, recording a 'column' for the arts programme Front Row. A&Rmchair has caught the attention of some people there and they've suggested I do one of their spoken columns on some aspect of the music business. I pitched a load of things and the thing they've gone for is Remasters. If you've ever attempted to get any of your writing accepted by radio or newspapers, you'll know how it's actually the pitch that is most of the work: the persuading, the levering of call returns, the attempts at constant politeness when you want to scream: WHY AREN'T YOU GETTING BACK TO ME? In this case they were astonishing swift and the pitch was the easiest thing.

But of course, as every glass-half-empty person knows: nothing is ever easy. What occasionally happens and happened in the case of this column, is that once the pitch is accepted you discover that the point you wanted to make is not as straightforward as you thought and
it's consequently much harder to write than you originally envisaged.

It turned out that my argument - about remasters being effectively the same record only a bit louder - was not quite right.
Earlier in the week, the Guardian had asked me to write something about the EU's findings on the health risks of having your personal stereo volume up too loud, so I was getting into volume quite deeply. And the more research I did, the more I discovered about the 'Loudness War' that's going on in the music mastering industry. Mastering has always been about making Everything As Loud As Possible but with the increasingly sophisticated digital compression available, there seems to be a demand to make every album release like a TV ad - IE something which cuts through any background noise.

This means that if it's an old record (and by old, I mean pretty much anything before the mid-nineties) it won't bear any relation to how it sounded when it first came out, because every light brush stroke, every whisper and every cough is brought up to the levels of a kick drum or powerchord so that rather like this sentence there is no light and shade, no nuance or subtlety and eventually after a while it just becomes an unfocused background noise which anyone over the age of 16 finds they need to turn off to preserve their sanity.

So back to my 'column'. Just as I am punching the air with joy that I might be on Radio 4, I start getting the fear that what I've proposed this isn't a brief, pithy column where I can pretend that I'm as funny as David Quantick, no, it's actually a lengthy, detailed article where I should talk about Metallica and Elbow and the the Loudness War and get quotes from mastering engineers from the US and the UK and I bring in loads of my own experience of cutting records... and you know what, suddenly I find my prose becoming a bit laboured and worthy and I realise that I'm writing something for a trade magazine. Bugger.

In the I end, I think I manage what I think is a fairly acceptable balance between facts and a bit of observational humour. Something like this blog, I hope. Except I don't anticipate - blimey, you'd think by now I'd start planning ahead wouldn't you? - that the tweaks and rewrites I make should actually be typed into the script I'm reading from. As it is, I am now sitting facing the microphone surrounded by sheets of A4; some are print-outs of my original piece emailed to the producer, some have her suggestions on in blue, some are my hastily-written-on-the-tube notes which, like all my handwriting (even the the variant of it where I use a quill and vellum), are completely illegible.

As I read off my A4 spread, my head is bobbing about like Bruce Foxton as I look for the relevant sheet. It's no wonder I'm talking bollocks. Fortunately, the producer is a total pro, she makes me feel as if I'm actually quite important to the programme and even sends another producer away who wants to use the studio we're in. The fact that we've been in here for days and the actual presenters now want to come in and record tonight's programme is kept from me.

I quite like it though - being in a studio when it's me doing the recording. All my life has been about going to studios where someone else is doing the recording - I'm the just the person whose organised it, just the person who's putting the cash up for it. There've only been a couple of times I've actually appeared on recordings myself and then they were brief. The first was when Neil Hannon was making his second
Divine Comedy album in The Church in Crouch End - incidentally, I'm not counting the first DC album as it is indie rock and not really part of the cannon.

I was friendly with him at that point, having tried to sign him but ultimately leaving it to his very capable label Setanta. The album, Promenade, features a track called The Booklovers and Neil had an idea to overlay the lyricless verse parts with the imagined voices of famous writers saying things they might have said. Everyone who popped by the studio was asked the same thing: pick a couple of writers from Neil's list and say something appropriate to them. I picked Mark Twain because he wrote my favourite book Huckleberry Finn and JG Ballard because I had just read Crash at the time (by the way, if you haven't read it don't be put off, it's much better than the film). So I did a terrible Southern accent for Twain and said "but I can't even spell Mississippi" and for Ballard I uttered the expression for dashboard which Ballard uses time and time again in Crash - normally when someone is having sex on one - "Instrument Binnacle". It is worth tracking down the album for the track Tonight We Fly which is the sort of song which continues to work on your body even after all the hairs on the back of your neck are standing up. Hannon's an underrated genius, who will eventually be recognised as such - I bumped into him several years after my recording experience with him. He was in John Lewis looking at fridges with his wife and I was still so star struck I didn't know what to say - no white goods gag came to me in my moment of need. But despte being proud to share an album with that song,
I have to say Booklovers is probably one of its weaker tracks.

The second time I feature on an album is on Stephen Duffy's I Love My Friends, the second record he made for my label Indolent. He asked me to shout 'Oi!' on the track Something Good, so he could mix it in with his own lyric 'shouts'. I really went for it with every ounce of South East London yobbo I could muster, hoping my vocal prowess would possibly lead to more invitations from him. Sadly it wasn't to be, largely because, we never made another record together. You see, I was required to drop him by BMG (Indolent's paymaster) before that album was even released, a tragic story which most A&R people probably have some variation of. On the CD booklet of the few copies we originally manufactured,
Stephen had dedicated the album to me but when Cooking Vinyl finally released it six months later, my name was inevitably missing from the label copy. Still, do try and hear this album (it still sounds amazing 12 years later) and you can hear my attempt at being a yob - albeit fairly low in the mix

I haven't heard the finished Front Row column yet. The producer has to edit it together and insert all the music I talk about - let's hope those remasters do actually sound different from the original otherwise we're all buggered. And let's hope I get invited back into a studio soon, I think I've finally got the taste for it.

NB: The piece was broadcast last night (Monday 27 Oct) so if you want to listen to it, go to the Front Row website, click on the Listen Again button for Monday's show and you'll find me about two thirds of the way through.

Monday, 13 October 2008

How to manage a children's party

What can I say. It's been a really long time hasn't it. And I haven't even had the excuse of being on holiday either. Quite the opposite in fact - I've been working. I finished on Friday and now I've got a bit of a taste for it. I mean, after all you get paid and everything. Unlike managing a band. Hmm.

I didn't go to In The City this year.

Actually, hang on, I didn't go to In The City last year either. But this year Isosceles were playing and frankly, I really wanted to go. For starters, in these times of global financial meltdown, the opportunity to nail an A&R man's head to the side of the stage whilst they played a brilliant set would have been useful.

Anyway, I didn't go and the reason I didn't is really the crux of what this blog has always been about: family commitment versus rock and roll. You see, it was my daughter's 5th birthday the day the band had their show and I frankly, I wanted to be there with her rather than mingling with ITC delegates. The band were hugely understanding. They're like that.

So rather than spending Sunday morning travelling up to Manchester, I spent it packing party favour bags, making sure there were enough packets of middle class child-friendly crisps (Pombears - but other savoury snacks are available) and inflating balloons with helium.

There is much to compare organising a children's birthday party with putting on a rock show - you need a venue, a backstage area where you can put the rider (the snacks for grown-ups) and you REALLY need some entertainment.

My mum found the venue, a fantastic old school of music and drama bang in the middle of Walthamstow Village complete with a stage, a grand piano and lots of space to run around in. We were going for a Willy Wonka theme this year as Maddy has become obsessed with the Gene Wilder film. Quite pleasing actually as I bought it for a couple of quid in Fopp and gave it to her on the off chance - she of course was entirely ungracious and said "That's the wrong one" meaning: it's not the one with Johnny Depp in it. The Tim Burton film is good of course but doesn't have glorious Gene, Anthony Newley songs or Roy Kinear doing his brilliant obsequious dad bit to Veruca Salt. But how to make that clear to a five year old? In the end I let her discover it in her own time and as I say, it worked its wonders eventually. She can sing all the songs now and frequently watches it on her own. Not that she doesn't still bang on about the Depp version, though.

Robyn found the entertainment. A children's entertainer who claimed to do a Wonka themed birthday thing - she arrived earlier, equipped with hardly any props but loads of ideas. We then found the Wonka font online which we used to do invites with - sprinkled with gold glitter as if each invitee had received a Wonka Golden Ticket. How great is that Wonka font by the way? So distinctive - kind of up there with the font Saul Bass used on loads of his film posters. Don't think there are any rock and roll fonts that compare to either of these are there? Maybe Malcolm Garrett's Buzzcocks font.

Eventually, Maddy's guests started arriving. How loud are children? Especially 17 of them. Blimey, we were glad when the talent arrived - she was dynamite - no props necessary just a constant level of energy that every parent envied. Once she'd legged it we had to distract them with lunch ("I can't eat that" "What are these?" "I don't like these sandwiches can you take them away..." etc) and pass the parcel to keep them occupied.

Robyn volunteered to operate the CD player for pass the parcel and frankly did a rubbish job "I can't see it - the writing's too small" She couldn't find the pause button. Oh well, we'd only had the machine for six months so understandable, I suppose. Meanwhile the kids didn't know how long they had to carry on passing the increasingly-ragged package around. "The Pause is the same button as the Play - just press it again!" I shouted helpfully. "Oh, right." And of course she stopped it so that the child left holding the parcel was the one who'd already taken a layer off. If they'd been old enough to know the vocab they would have been shouting "Fix! Fix!"

In the end, Maddy - that's right, a 5 year-old - suggested she might have a go and you know what, she did a great job. She even managed to remember who had already had a go taking a layer off so there were no upset children. Actually, I'm slightly worried that she may be too adept at controlling the CD and DVD players in the house. OK, so I probably set a bad/good example but she's racing ahead in her tastes as well. The other day, I caught her and her slightly older (7) friend watching the Rocky Horror Picture Show - I remember when I saw it aged 17 thinking that it was a bit racy. Still, she hasn't asked me to explain why Tim Currie was dressed like that yet so I think we got away with it. "My room, my rules" she says wagging her finger ghetto-style at me before she points to the MGMT cover and says, "Daddy, I'm marrying him" "Oh yes, that one right?" I say pointing at the one with the face paint "No, not him!" she laughs at me as if I'm a madman, "I'm marrying the
handsome one."

Fair enough. Girls know stuff like that, don't they? But at such a young age? Maddy and a friend (also 5) were sitting in the back on the car when I was playing Kings of Leon last week and she asked me to see the picture of them. They both looked at for some time,"Which one do you like?" I asked "Him" they both said after much deliberation, pointing at the bass player. And they were right, he is clearly the most handsome member.

Of course in amongst all this childcare and working, the world has very quickly being melting down. It's rather frightening and here is not really the place you want to read about something you hear every day on the radio but let me just say this... This is what the music business has felt like for a couple of years at least - freefalling economics with no parachute, no bailout and no alternative plan. Welcome, everyone else. Now, what are we all going to do?

By all accounts the band did a great show at In The City while I was picking tuna mayonnaise splats from the floor of the party venue. I must have been singing the Oompa Loompa songKitch Bitch.

while they were singing

Sunday, 28 September 2008

How I became a drug runner

We were recording in EMI Music's studio in Rathbone Place and we were up against it. The deadline meant that my dual choice of the world's most argumentative band and Europe's most stoned producer were now haunting me day and night. Desperation to get the project finished had driven me to this: five past eleven and speeding my company car to an address in North West London that had been jerkily written down on a scrap of paper by the producer. The address of a dealer. Yes, I had become a drug runner.

As far as I can remember, this was the only time I ever got involved in something along these, er, lines. The cliche about A&R people being the source of drugs for their artists is not true in my experience - as I outlined in Dads on Drugs. In fact I don't think I even knew the type of drug I was being asked to buy that night- on reflection it must have been cocaine, or possibly speed. The the only thing I cared about at the time the necessity for them to stay awake and get the tracks finished.

I've been thinking about this because we are currently looking for producers for one of our bands at the moment and whilst that sentence is one of the most widely used in A&R circles, it made me consider just what exactly the person behind the knobs and dials is for. What is the point of a producer?

And at the most basic level, a producer is the organised person who holds it all together. He (although female producers do exist - I've worked with one - they are very scarce) is the one in charge, a time manager and a people manager. If the producer I described above had actually been doing his job, he would have delivered the tracks to us on time. Or certainly, at the very least, given me advance warning that something was seriously delaying the delivery and we should start making contingency plans around the release date. OK, so every music journalist will talk with a misty-eyed reverence about Phil Spector or Brian Eno or Martin Hannett but the truth is, no one really wants a producer who has to threaten a band with a gun to get a performance. I mean, the chances of that resulting in a good performance can't be high can they? Even Starsailor weren't exactly raving about their 15 minutes in Spector's shadow.

And really, who wants to deal with riddles and games when a studio is over a grand a day? A friend of mine who was a session musician once worked with Brian Eno in the 90s and was creaming himself with excitement on entering the studio. He set up his drums and the great man came up and introduced himself, "Do you know the North Norfolk coast?" he asked. "Yes!" replied my friend, who happens to be a big fan of that part of the world. "Do you know the beach at Holkham?" "Of course - I think it'll be the last thing I see before I die!" he replied, somewhat over enthusiastically. "OK. Well," continued the ex-Roxy Music keyboardist, "remember the car park there, and the gravel walkway up to the edge of the beach?"
"Yes..." replied my friend.
"And when you get there, remember how it opens out into a vista flanked by pine trees with that view?"
"And now there's sand under your feet"
"Er, yes..."
"Well, that's what I want you to do." said Brian, and promptly walked off to brief another musician in similar detail.

OK, so I love Before And Science as much as the next man, and come to think of it, I own almost every Eno album (including Thursday Afternoon), all of which I enjoy, but surely there is a Pseuds Corner element to this sort of production. Or am I being churlish? And Hannett? Well, again, he's got an amazing CV but his reputation is just as much based on being a hedonistic, drug imbiber as it is getting a great drum sound for Joy Division. And after Factory went off with other producers he became just another producer looking for work. Have you heard Box Set Go by the High?

So what am I saying here? Am I advocating the fashionable view that bands should do it themselves? Am I suggesting that in the current cash-strapped climate, that along with being their own record company and marketing themselves, bands should also familiarize themselves with Garageband, get some decent reverb plugins and produce their own music? After all, no one knows the music better than the artists themselves, right?

Well, wrong, really. I mean, obviously artists have always recorded their own stuff and these days they're all familiar with how to produce a pretty decent recording of their music. But what I'm talking about is the thing the public get to hear - the finished work. With very few exceptions (the Friendly Fires album is fantastic and bar one track, entirely self-produced in a shed in St Albans) producers are absolutely essential for this- and now more than ever at a time when record companies can afford to do less and less.

There is a lot of nonsense spoken about the dark art of the record producer. This is partly down to the sort of eccentricity I mention above, but the simple fact is that the best producers are the ones who manage to make the band do what they do best - they're not inflicting any particular sound on the act, although that is the most widely held myth of all. Sure, you can here some similarities in treatment between the Sex Pistols and Roxy Music but you'd be hard pushed to say that Chris Thomas has a sound; likewise Stephen Street or Dave Sitek or Tony Hoffer. They all have a certain taste, it's true, and taste is precisely what is key to all successful producers. There are lots of producers who don't have the luxury of taste - like film directors or actors, many of them go with whatever their agent recommends will be good for their career. And who can blame them? If you were freelance and someone came along and offered you a job for a month with the potential of earning extra dosh if you manage to do work that someone else likes then you would take it. Who cares about the actual noise?

So what do you look for when you choose a producer? Christ, I wish I knew. Artists want to work with their heroes - often other artists, who can sometimes do a good job and sometimes can really let the side down. The answer most A&R people would give if they were honest would be a 'safe pair of hands - someone who isn't going to fuck it up' An A&R friend of mine once said that the best way of getting a decent finished recording if your producer isn't working out, is to master the demo - (ie, make it as loud as possible) - then speed it up a little. It worked for him every time, apparently.

Oh, two exceptions to my rule - dance producers do tend to have a 'sound', they add a bit of themselves to a track like an artist - it's no wonder that so many dance and hip hop producers are artists in their own right. From Dr Dre to Paul Epworth, these folk are introducing elements of their own songwriting and sonic template. An exception to this exception (gotta love that!) is James Ford, who has come from the dance world but is a traditional producer bringing the best out in the bands he works with without inflicting his Simian Mobile Disco sound onto them. No, I haven't worked with him - do you expect me to be that hip?

Most producers I have worked with were adorable - and I'm not just saying that, they really were. And this, I think is the key to making it long term in the record production business - you have to have people skills - if you have no emotional intelligence how are you going to get good performances from your musicians? Well, you know what Spector would say to that...

My first project, which is the one I described in the opening paragraph, was in many ways a necessary rite of passage. With hindsight, the musicians weren't really at fault- they were a naive young band, of course they didn't know what they were doing and were easily impressed by the idea of a rebel behind the console. The mere memory of this producer's arrogant, chain smoking presence still makes me shudder. I would ask him how he did certain things in the studio out of genuine interest and he would tap his nose and say, "trade secret... very complicated" and then laugh in a strange, high-pitched way that made me want to punch him into submission. Why didn't you fire him? I hear you ask. Good point, naivety on my part I think. I really didn't know what I was doing. In the end I did use another producer but by then the damage was done, the band had really 'bonded' with whiney, druggy man and they insisted on using him to record what of course turned out to be their last single.

The dealer turned out to be a bit of a disappointment - far from being an evil looking man dressed as a clown or something, he turned out to be a small, balding NME journalist. Ah well. Back at the studio, I was greeted by a fug of dopey air and not a single finished track. I remember noticing a copy of the recently-released CD of Sgt Peppers lying on a swivel chair. I handed over the substances to the producer, who muttered an indifferent thanks and then I drove home with a feeling familiar to all A&R people, - how do I get this lot out of my life really fast?

Later after the album was mastered and had limped into the shops, I discovered the idiot had sampled a track from that Beatles' CD. Possibly out of spite, I don't know. Luckily the band were never successful enough for anyone to notice. But it was all worth it because I had learned the most important A&R lesson: always work with a proper producer.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Why I never got my hands on a Hirst

It was Joe Strummer who told me the news that they were going to wind up the company: "It's not working out - none of us can agree on anything - apart from that smoking's really good." Fair play to them though, it was the best redundancy I've ever had - being let go by the lead singer of the Clash. All the directors and myself had just consumed a massive kebab lunch at Efe's on Great Titchfield St ("These are my people!" Joe had said, referring to his childhood spent in Turkey) - it was clearly a planned coup.

I'm reminded of that time - the time, as I think I have mentioned here before, when I briefly ran a label for Damien Hirst and rock pals Alex James and Joe Strummer - because the artist is of course in the news again this week for being £111 million richer. Not so much Golden Calf as golden goose. I'm also doing some work at another music web site based not far from the offices where the label was based, so I get reminded of the sandwich bars I used to go to, where I used to sit and wonder what the hell I was doing with my life. What?! I hear you say. Surely running a label for the world's most groundbreaking and successful living artist, your childhood hero from the Clash and the extremely personable bass player from Blur must have been a dream job! And initially it did seem like that was how it was going to be. But despite all the complicated stuff that I won't bore you with, the basic problem was that, as Joe rightly pointed out, they couldn't agree on anything - basic things like what type of music to sign, for example, were swept under a BonViveur's carpet with the oft repeated call of "Get on board!" An expression I heard Hirst use in a interview with Mark Lawson only the other day. I duly got on board but it was more Titantic than Double Deckers.

My job initially, was of course A&R but very quickly it became apparent that the job was everything but that; the A&R part, i.e. the deciding on what music we were going to put out, was up to the directors. And the director with the most in-your-face charisma was not Joe or Alex or even Damien - although they clearly put up some stiff competition No, the man who had that in spades was Lily Allen's dad, Keith.

Keith of course, had fronted the hugely successful Fat Les record Vindaloo which Telstar had released earlier that year to tie in with the 1998 World Cup. Now Keith had another event-related idea for Fat Les and the event this time was Christmas. Now the label name Turtleneck was actually going to become a real label. Of course I blame myself for everything that went wrong - you should know by now that I'm that sort of person. Clearly, the record was not a patch on Vindaloo in terms of pop simplicity or conceptual appeal but somehow I got swept along on the tide of Keith's enthusiasm. We all did. Well, actually, no, not all of us. Damien, didn't like it and said so. But he was outvoted. And very quickly, Keith's sketchy idea, written with Roland Rivron was fleshed out with Strummer on guitar, Alex on bass, Bryan Ferry and The The producer Bruce Lampcov behind the desk at Air Studios - and soon after Paul Kaye, David Walliams and Matt Lucas and a host of other soon-be-famous faces appeared in the meticulously directed (by Keith) video.

Naughty Christmas (Goblin In The Office) was no one's finest hour, it must be said. But we were all so wrapped up in it at the time that it felt like it could easily emulate Vindaloo and be embraced by a nation obsessed with the idea of cheesy Christmas past: Mary & Joseph and Morecombe & Wise as Squeeze once sang. After all, everyone can identify with making a fool of oneself at the office party. Actually, if the record had contained a fraction of the ideas contained in the video (which you must have a look at if you haven't yet - the quality on the above link is terrible but you'll get the idea) we would have been away. But even though you could hardly accuse Vindaloo of being lyrically verbose, Naughty Christmas went so far as to actually swerve the use of the word Christmas. Yes, that's right, we released a Christmas single which didn't actually mention the word Christmas. It's amazing we even got Woolworth's to stock it.

By the time Christmas arrived it was all over. We'd actually sold quite a few records - about 40,000 or something - a huge amount by today's standards and Keith's tireless self-promotion had done more than any amount of creative pr could do and made us a weeky fixture on LWT's chart show. But compared to the curry record which had sold a quarter of a million and of course, it also didn't have the cache of being connected with football. As a proud football ignoramus, I am always amazed at how much crassness is accepted in the name of the 'beautiful game' - do you really enjoy wearing all those synthetic fibres advertising airlines you've never flown or travel companies who leave you stranded?

At Damien Hirst's own office Christmas party - a relaxed affair at a lovely restaurant on the Farringdon Road, it was clear that we - the record label - were the runt of the Hirst litter. Everyone at Damien's company, Science, obviously thought he was wasting his money but actually he displayed a canny commercial nous that no one I've ever met in the music business had. At the marketing meeting I put together to discuss the campaign for Naughty Christmas, as distributer, plugger, PR and record company sat round the table discussing how many copies we thought we should manufacture and where we should stock them, Damien said, "Why don't we just make one fucking record and sell it for a million quid?" At the time everyone laughed indulgently: yes, very funny, Mr Hirst, you may not know much about music but you know what you like... Stick to your formaldehyde, sonny, let us professionals handle the campaign. What fools we were! Had we done exactly what he said we would have made a load of money and probably still got played on Radio 1. As it was, in the words of, oh probably Alex James, Naughty Christmas was "No Vindaloo".

Sitting gobbling quality chops at that Christmas party, with our record already a certified disappointment, I looked around the room and my eye alighted on a table of young, hipsterish folk who were about 15 years younger than all the alleged 30-somethings in the room. "Who are they?" I asked Damien's wife,"Them? Oh they're the spot-painters." Up until then I hadn't realised what almost everyone now knows now about Hirst's production line approach: he mass produces art in a way that record companies once made singles, whilst advocating making one copy of a record and selling it like an old master. Talk about being ahead of his time. And that's why last week, on exactly the same day that the know-it-all financial markets went tits up and all those people in their safe, proper jobs were made redundant, Damien added a quiet £111 million to his fortune.

If only he'd shown as much genius in choosing the music. That was supposed to be my job and, as I say. I blame myself for not putting my foot down and saying - "listen, what about the bubbly-haired singer we saw at the Bull & Gate? - he's good, a bit rubbish looking, I grant you, but he's got a great voice!" No, we never signed Coldplay. You can take a Hirst to water but you can't make it drink. And I did take the guys to shows - Damien was keen on Welsh indie janglers Murray The Hump and Keith came along to see them at the now defunct Falcon in Camden. Within two songs, he'd managed, via semi-complementary heckling, to divert attention from the band to himself. Murray the Hump didn't stand a chance after that. Keith just wanted to sign himself. Strummer had a huge musical knowledge but seemed pretty wrapped up with getting the Mescaleros together and never brought anything to the table other than a noble world music yen - he wanted us to sign something unusual. Alex, like me, wanted to get a cool indie band on the label - partly because that was his taste I think, and partly because he knew me best and was confident that that was what I could deliver. And Damien? Damien wanted to sign his mate Bez. I know, it sounds really prosaic, doesn't it - somehow you hope he would have had some ideas involving wild animals braying mixed with the sound of an organ transplant, all produced by Eno and the Aphex Twin. But no, Hirst plumped for the Freaky Dancer.

We once all went up to see Bez's band BMW (not sure how he planned on convincing the Bavarian car giant that they should share the name with him) in Manchester and they were more akin to a Skoda. After the gig we ended up in some house in Chorlton Cum Hardy, surrounded by some very frightening looking Mancunians who were overly keen on establishing exactly how much we going to sign BMW for. The next morning, the bloke I ran the label with, Alan, who had brought an disturbing amount of drugs with him, was getting no reply when he tried to phone Damien's room in the Britannia so he got the lift down to Hirst's floor to see if the great man was up yet - after all we had a train to catch. When he got to the room the door was ajar."Damien?" he tentatively asked before pushing it open. Instead of Hirst, there in the middle of the room was Bez - doing the Bez Dance! IN TOTAL SILENCE. Alan stood watching him for a moment before the Happy Monday noticed him. He stopped, gave him a a psychotic smile and said, "Alright mate... hey - you got any more of that stuff you ad last night?"

After Christmas , Alan and I returned to the Turtleneck office but it was obvious things weren't going to last much longer. Frankly, I couldn't wait for them to end. Working with hedonistic celebrities was like being a parent waiting in the car outside a party while your kids are inside having a great time. Actually, come to think of it I did wait outside the Groucho club several times. As I said earlier, I heard Damien being interviewed on the Front Row last week and he sounds a lot more mellow than he did in those days. Back then I remember thinking that if he hadn't done art he surely would have gone into some branch of entertainment, he had a wit quicker than most and an uncanny perceptiveness. On looking through a bunch of Polaroids that some of us had taken in the office, he paused on one of me standing on a table pouting into the camera. He looked up and said to me,"how old were you when your dad left home?"

I don't have many regrets in life but I must say, I do wish I'd left Turtleneck with some hard evidence that I'd worked for those guys. The obvious and most sensible thing would have been one of Damien's numerous sketches or doodlings that he did on postcards. I remember Alan nabbed one at the time and I think I may have mocked him for it. It's probably worth a few quid now. But actually what I really regret not saving, is nothing Hirst created at all. All I wish I had was a fax. I wrote the directors' biographies for the Turtleneck website (yes, we were cutting edge in 1998!) and everyone was fine with what I wrote. Everyone except Joe - he sent me a beautifully written three page fax. I say beautifully written in the sense that it was the same characterful handwriting you remember from various Clash books which reproduce it. But it was also beautiful in the sense that he managed to tell me he didn't like what I'd written about him (for example he objected to being cited for influencing U2, "I hate those guys") whilst being charming and complementary. And it was full of musical opinion too.

After Strummer told me that Turtleneck was all over, he suggested we go to the pub. And over several pints of fighting lager, presumably because he thought he owed it to me, Joe regaled me with war stories from the early days of the Clash. I went home with one less career opportunity but happier than I'd been in months. Yes, I wish I'd kept that fax more than any Hirst work.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

I'm all ears

I woke up in a hotel room on my own. It was dark and there was a ringing sound - kind of distant but very distinct. Where was it coming from? I lay there and thought about things, the mind did its conversational tricks, jumping from one subject to another and gradually drowsiness descended again. But just as I was about to drop off, the noise reappeared. What the hell was it? I leaped out of bed and drew the curtains - maybe it was a street light with faulty wiring. Yes, that was bound to be it. Outside it was deathly quiet, I wasn't used to this of course, living in Camden above the World's End pub, silence was not in great supply; even in the hours when everyone else in London slept, Camden High Street played host to all the world's nomadic insomniacs. And frequently it was my own friends, back from some fresh Britpop hell at five in the morning and wired out of all proportion to the event, it was a virtual no-brainer to pop by Ben's and see what he was up to. As if he'd be sleeping! Here in Southwold though, the streets were deserted by six and now, at four in the morning, the silence swallowed everything. Except, of course, there was no silence, there was only this fucking ringing.

That was how I discovered I had tinnitus. I joke about it now of course, but even writing about just then, brought back the terror. It was like discovering I had a rare disease that no one knew much about and really there was nothing I could do. With the added horror that my job - at that time I was beginning a run of A&R success with Indolent Records - depended on my ability to hear things. Scary.

I mention it now mainly because I read that news last Friday about the RIND survey which claims that half the 2700 people they interviewed said they had damaged their ears listening to loud music. And 80% of them had experienced ringing or the temporary reduction in hearing. I know I don't normally get terribly earnest in this blog but that is pretty worrying isn't it? I mean, fair enough for some A&R person to suffer a bit, after all, he's listening to music all day and if he's not listening to music he's on the phone the rest of the time (this was of course in the days before email, texting and Myspace). But this is normal people, kids who go to see bands or to festivals for fun. We all remember coming home from our first gigs with that exciting ringing in the ears - it was all part of the experience, it was a rite of passage.

There were two surprises in store for me when I discovered I had tinnitus. The first surprise is that doctors don't actually know what causes it, they kind of have an idea that it's the tiny hairs inside your ear canal getting permanently flattened by excessive noise but they're just guessing. There could be psychological as well as physiological factors that cause it. And along with the ignorance of causes goes the inability to do anything about it. I was lucky enough to have medical insurance at the time and I B-lined it straight to Harley Street. The Ear, Nose and Throat doctor there - or surgeon to be precise - was a Harley Street cliché, complete with clipped vowels and a deeply patronising manner. He advised me to "get used to it" a tip which I understandably felt reluctant to pay for. He did though, confirm that the sound I had - a very faint whine, as if someone in the room next door was rubbing their wet finger around the rim of a wine glass - was tinnitus, which at least prevented my natural hypochondria from imagining I had something much worse. The second thing I discovered, once equipped with the knowledge that I had it for life, was a good thing: Geraldine Daly.

The surgeon's other advice was that you I should wear protection whenever I went to gigs. What's the point? I probably countered, Surely I'm too late, the horse has left the stable etc. Well, yes but you can easily build on hearing problems, so I decided to treat my ears with the respect they deserved. After all, they were the keys to my fortune - they had helped me sign Sleeper (stop giggling at the back). So the patronising ENT surgeon sent me to a neighbouring Harley St practice, which specialised in making ear plugs and it was there that I met with my nice surprise.

Geraldine Daly is a music business legend. You won't find any articles in Mojo or Q about her, in fact you won't even find out much online about her, but her subtle influence in written into the fabric of the UK music business. I was shell-shocked when I first went up in the tiny old fashioned cage lift to the top floor of the Harley St building where she is based. After seeing the surgeon I was full of fear and loathing and consequently expecting to meet another indifferent professional who would sell me an ugly, malfunctioning piece of rubbish. Instead I met a dark-haired, petite lady with a favourite-auntie-like demeanor and a gorgeous, singsong Irish accent. "Oh poor you," she said, after I had given her the lowdown on my position, as if I was a family friend and it was the first time she'd heard this sort of story,"let's make you a good pair of plugs so you can't do yourself anymore damage."

I won't go into the detail of the plugs you get from her other than to say I still wear them - not all the time, it's true, sometimes the sound at shows is fairly reasonable (unless I really am going deaf) But most of the time I do wear them, they cut out 15db and crucially don't remove any of the top end which is what those crappy high street earplugs do, rendering everything into a muffled blur and not giving you any real protection anyway. I also used to have a pair of 30db ones, which I would wear in rehearsal and showcase rooms. Frankly, I would advise all drummers to get a pair immediately because it's those hi-hats sizzling away constantly that will do for the ears.

I've been back and forth to Geraldine many times since then - mainly to get replacement mouldings (the ear canal does change shape over time) and she's is always a treat to see - more often than not she will say, "Oh I had that XXXXXX in last week, do you know him?" And it will be the singer of a huge British band or the guitarist from a legendary metal band and she'll tell me about their hearing problems and always say how very lovely they are even if their public reputation depends on scariness or arrogance. I'm convinced she once told me that she'd made plugs for a very famous warty bass-playing who always bangs on about how loud he likes everything to be but I might be imagining it. Frequently, she will have seen one of my colleagues - the more successful the music exec, seemingly the more varieties of different plugs they will be having made. The fashion now seems to be getting plugs which fit over your iPod headphones. Hmm...

But what is fascinating is that she single-handedly and seemingly effortlessly has the monopoly on making and servicing ear plugs for the industry. There is no one else - as far as I know - who anyone uses in the UK. And who can blame them? Her bedside manner is too good! You'd be surprised how many industry people have plugs now - and even more surprised how many bands do too. Most of them are protecting their hearing, some of them (like Pete Townshend, Andy Partridge etc) have spoken publicly about it and many other much younger stars who have not, are dealing with tinnitus.

I'm loathe to say this but the ENT surgeon was right. After a harrowing six months back in the mid 90s, where I barely slept a night, I did gradually get used to the tinnitus. I used to de-tune an old radio to white noise and this would take my mind away from focusing on the whine. Eventually I stopped using the radio and now I only notice it very occasionally. Rarely does it give me the stomach-leaping fear that it initially did. My hearing is slightly less good in the left ear, which ironically I don't put down to rock & pop music per se but a decade of listening to managers talking bollocks to me down the phone.

So when I read reports like the one last week, I'm reminded of how I felt when I thought the game was up with my ears, and my heart goes out to anyone who may be in those early stages. Amusing though it may sound, I blame shoegazing for it. I'm convinced that my problems started back in the early nineties when I saw My Bloody Valentine at Cambridge Corn Exchange - the entire crowd stepped back as one when that wall of noise first came. I'd never been their biggest fan, frankly, but I did think that was just taking the piss out of the audience. So those pictures of the latest MBV crowds standing in front of the stage with their hands over their ears brought it all back. And actually, when you hear that both Kevin Shields (who now has tinnitus himself) and their crew were all wearing earplugs, you have to start to question the point of it.

Sermon over, I'll throw in some poo gags next week.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

We've signed a fucking chicken!

I'm back in our office. No one else is here, it would be deathly quiet were I not listening to Anthony & The Johnsons: The Disco Album and I'm wondering where summer has gone - not only is it cascading with rain outside, but it's the third of September, my brother's birthday, always the start of autumn in my book, was yesterday, my daughter started big school today and Isosceles are mixing their next single as I write. I should be excited about everything but I've got that going-back-to-school feeling that I always get around this time of year.

It's an odd thing being your own boss. I mean, obviously I'm not really my own boss - that's my wife's job, she really the one in charge - but I mean, not having a permanent job other than the one of managing the bands and doing freelance writing means that it's very easy to suddenly discover I've spent two hours online finding out how many skinny tie albums from 1978 I still don't own ... (unbelievably I still don't have The Cars debut!). I'm back here after almost a month working on that music web site. I may be back there next week too because another thing I keep discovering as my own boss is that I'm not paying myself any wages. Meet the old boss, same as the new boss, as they say.

Back to school, back to work, it's the same deal - working to other people's agenda's. My daughter expressed the same feeling about going back to school: but the teachers will make us do things! (it was much better expressed than that, but like all child aphorisms, if you don't write it down immediately, the genius is gone). But it's true: the teachers will make us do things and sometimes, there's other things we'd rather be up to. Although obviously Maddy would consider surfing the web for new wave CDs a waste of time. How much has she got to learn?

But how much have I got to learn too? I'd love to make it being freelance, being my own boss, but increasingly I feel torn between getting a job so I can afford to carry on. I went out with my friend Tony Fletcher a couple of weeks ago, who as far as I know hasn't had a proper, salaried job since we first met 15 years ago while he was doing A&R for an American record company. Tony's a proper writer - always has been, even when he was an A&R man. When he was a teenager, inspired by his love of The Jam, he wrote a fanzine called Jamming, which ended up becoming a proper magazine and he now has a bestselling book about Keith Moon under his belt. He lives in the States and we don't see each other that often, so we were trying to catch up over the course of this one evening. The last time we met was about a year and a half before when a band I was A&Ring were supporting Radio 4, whom he was managing at the time. And of course, despite both of us having a good idea of the general content of our respective lives due to the blogs, (Tony's, iJamming, has been going since before they were called blogs) despite this, there was bloody loads to tell each other and added to this, I'd kind of double booked Tony with another friend I hadn't seen for ages. This friend, David, is a senior lawyer at a major record label who is one of the funniest men I know. Frankly, I think he's wasted in law and in an ideal world would be playing piano in a bar by night and writing poetry by day. He arrived in the pub where Tony and I were, accompanied by a beautiful Russian blonde. "She's not my girlfriend," he protested. Anyway, the girl wisely left us when we did what 40-something blokes do when they're having a night out: went for a curry.

David, of course, has a salaried job and is doing very nicely, but ultimately he and everyone at the label is in some way beholden to X-Factor and the whims of Simon Cowell. Cowell's empire Syco is one of the few record labels which doesn't seem to be affected by dwindling sales. A friend of mine at Sony told me that Cowell stood up in a recent meeting and, with his usual iconoclasm, suggested that he had no idea what all this fuss about illegal downloads was - his sales were not affected in the slightest. I suspect this is because the demographic who listen to Leona Lewis et al are either children or middle aged parents who haven't fully grasped the potential of the Internet yet. David told us - possibly ironically - that he has to organise his holidays around the periods of the year when X-Factor is not happening. The rest of the year is kept busy because he has to do deals with every single one of the finalists so that Syco have the rights sewn up for the winners. And remember, X-Factor is now a global phenomenon and Sony/BMG have the international rights to it - so all of David's colleagues around Europe are doing the same thing. Apparently someone in France had called David earlier to compare notes on how they were getting on. "Signed anyone interesting?" he asked, the word out was the French favorite was some sort of poultry-themed act. "we have signed nothing!" they lamented,"apart from a fucking chicken!" Now there's job satisfaction for you.

When I was at RCA, I ended up in an office next to Simon Cowell. This was before he was Simon Cowell, of course, but even back in the 1780s he was riding high in the charts with Robson & Jerome as well as scraping the bargain bins with Steve Coogan. And he always knew what he was doing. Once in an A&R meeting he played a single (possibly by Zig & Zag, I can't be certain), and possibly because these were the days when singles were format crazy, with 2 CDs being the mode du jour, I asked him what he was going to put on the b sides, "I don't know, darling, but let's be honest, who cares?" he answered quite reasonably. He was always a very polite man - never the bad-tempered tyrant he plays on the telly.

So Tony, David and myself finished the vadai, the dosai and the vases of Cobra and wandered off down Cleveland St to find a tube station. Not that it's a question that anyone could reasonably answer but I wondered who is happier?- David, being an important lawyer but wanting to write poetry and or Tony, being a published writer but, like all writers, not knowing if the next book will be as successful as the last. The security of a salary versus the freedom of self-employment.

One thing I've noticed is if you are your own boss, things tend to grind to a halt if you don't constantly MAKE STUFF HAPPEN. You have to be permanently phoning and emailing and well... selling. Occasionally someone will return you call, offer a gig and occasionally send you a cheque. I invoiced that advertising agency yesterday - you know, the ones who are doing the acne ad with Isosceles' song. It felt bizarre - to be invoicing somebody else as opposed to be weeping over piles of unpaid invoices from others. It was such new territory that I forget to even put in an address. They phoned me today asking where they should send the cheque.

If my wife was here, she would probably have spotted my kindergarten error. I wasn't joking when I said she was the boss - it's not that she's always right, it's just that she has sufficient distance from the stuff I do to see the wood from the trees. It would of course be a nightmare if she really was my boss - my hairdresser mate told me about a colleague of his who went out with the female owner of the salon where he worked: his girlfriend was literally his boss. He was, apparently, a bit too fond of the old Charlie & Lola and prone to being a bit moody as well. After one particularly shouty day, she summoned him into her office and told him that his work was less than satisfactory, his client-base was dwindling and the other stylists were finding him hard to be around - in short he should find another job. He was speechless, and just as he was about to walk out of her office, she added, "Oh, and by the way, I'm pregnant - see you back at the flat."

There's another story about the same hairdresser and a ill-fated weekend trip to Spain with 'the lads' but I'll save that for another time. I've got to go off and make some things happen...