Tuesday, 27 May 2008

We come in search of bass strings ...

Have you forgotten me? I wouldn't be surprised at all. I wrote the last entry whilst on holiday Norfolk and that frankly seems like years ago. It was, to be precise, twelve days ago, which is about four Internet years. Still, from my stats it appears that people are still reading this which either means that word of mouth is generating more and more readers or the same increasingly bored punters are coming back to discover the last entry collecting dust.

So what's been happening? Well, for starters both of our bands have been on tour. The Girl band played London just before I went away. I hadn't seen them for a while as I've been busy with the Scottish band, and it was really refreshing to see them again. They've written a whole load of new songs and sharpened up their image. It was a really good show and afterwards I was greeted like a long lost uncle. The guitarist is one of those girls who is so attractive that she is able to make people (men and women) do anything she wants by the imperceptible movement of a shoulder or the slight raise of an eyebrow. I found I'd bought her a double Jack Daniels and coke without even realising it. Bless her.

The Scottish band's tour started in Leeds the day after I came back from my holiday. It was a good place to start as the indie label that we released our single on are based there. I went in search of Matt who co-runs the label in the record shop where he works. Normally, this would have been an easy operation, since most towns only have one record store if they're lucky. Leeds however is different. Recently a friend of mine sent me the list of Chain With No Name stores, the records shops around the country who still actively sell indie music and specifically still stock 7" vinyl. It's a really small list and another signpost towards the dinosaur status that all of us connected with the selling of music are threatened with. But amazingly, Leeds manages to have not just one by three independent record shops - plus the standard issue HMV and Zavvi.

I found Matt in Jumbo, a shop that has been going since 1971. It's in a pretty depressing shopping mall but once you're inside it sets your heart aflutter - racks of vinyl, box sets, secondhand albums... This sort of stuff really brings out the 14-year old in me, a person who I am mildly ashamed of but put up with on a regular basis because, as I think I've already confessed, I cannot walk passed a record shop without going in. Jumbo's logo is pure 1971, blobby swirling letters which conjure up images of Chopper bikes, Spangles and Curly Wurlys for 3p. And the idea that this very shop was once selling brand new copies of Hot Love by T-Rex or Hunky Dory by David Bowie filled me with a frisson of delight. I've since had a look at the website and disappointingly they've only been in that space since 1988 (a mere 20 years!) so I'll have to content myself with imagining people going in and buying Britpop CDs and You And Me Song by The Wannadies. Actually, as I was talking to Matt I noticed a piece of cardboard sticking out of the back of box of 7" singles with 60Ft Dolls handwritten on it. I pointed this out to Matt, telling him that they were on my old label. "Yeah," he said, defiantly uninterested,"we reuse the old name cards all the time..."

Later my managerial metal was tested when Andrew the bass player broke a string during soundcheck. He didn't have a spare and headline act Ida Maria's bass player couldn't find it in him to lend him his bass. According to a respected journalist friend of mine who interviewed Ida Maria, the bass player was auditioned from a modeling agency because the band, being Norwegian, thought they needed at least one handsome blonde person to justify their Scandinavian heritage. They had to teach the lucky winner how to play so no doubt having just learned, the poor chiseled Adonis was reluctant to let a professional put fingers all over his strings.

By the time Stringgate was upon us, it was too late for music shops to be open. Who did we know in Leeds who could help? The indie label fellas weren't around tonight - Matt was being treated by his girlfriend to a night out so was out of contact. I suggested local rehearsal rooms and was applauded for my managerial brains. Andrew produced an iPhone and started Googling. Jack looked at my previously quite impressive Nokia and raised an eyebrow - "Call yourself a manager? With that old thing?"

Andrew had got the iPhone by some twist of fate which renders him immune to service charges and tariffs. Very jammy - and also very useful as after much searching on it we were heading out of town to the one rehearsal space in Leeds which sells strings - the brilliantly named House of Mook. I've just discovered that one of my favourite writers Jeremy Dyson is in a band called Rudolf Rocker, who are or were on House of Mook's very own label. Dyson wrote much of League of Gentlemen as well as a very good book of short stories called Never Trust a Rabbit and the massively underrated comedy thriller Funland.

House of Mook, like Jumbo, was full of the nostalgia that now seems inherent in all things pop - the walls were plastered with old posters for long forgotten bands from the mid nineties who I remembered seeing as an A&R man. We bought the strings for £14.99 and returned to our waiting cab. His fare was of course more than the strings cost.

Ida Maria and her band played a good show. Too good - they had a much better sound than us which prevented me from fully enjoying their set. Not being a football fan, I'm unfamiliar with the camaraderie and rivalry of supporting a team but when I'm with a band who are sharing a bill I imagine it's comparable. Everyone is always jealous of the headline act who have the bigger van or the record deal-sponsored in-ear monitoring system. But the highways and byways of band rivalries are much more subtle and divisive than those of football fans - the tension is never diffused with a sweary song or comedy chant, it's much more likely to manifest in back-biting or cruel humour. I remember when Sleeper supported the Manic Street Preachers years ago. Ritchie Edwards was still in the band back then but painfully thin and barely audible on stage - it was clear that the band's biggest star was in bad shape. The Manics had taken their own catering on the road with them and very generously invited Sleeper to partake. But this didn't stop them cracking Ritchie's been stuffing his face again gags when the pies were running dry.

The highpoint of the band's set was a new song called Guns Go Bang, it rollocks along on a keyboard churn before opening up with a verse of pure pop followed by a clever time signature change. I'm resisting following the usual music journalist shorthand of saying it's The Zombies meets the The Libertines but crucially this new song is GREAT. I spent the rest of the evening drinking with the band, first the rider, then in a branch of the ludicrously overpriced Malmaison. After one round my wallet had a hangover so we relocated to the Travelodge bar and there, the conversation moved onto the important topic of which period HM The Queen was most attractive during. This was inspired by a sequence in an episode of Peep Show that I'd seen the week before where Jeremy goes to a sperm bank and discovers there is no pornography in his booth so opts to use a twenty pound note as an aid. You would think that she would look best on coins from the 1960s but we decided there was something about Liz's 1980s profile, which was quite alluring. Later in the week, whilst in Glasgow, keyboard player William gave me an old penny from 1965 and queenie's nose is a bit pointy. We decided she may have had some work done.

And talking of Glasgow, there's a whole load of things that happened there over the weekend which I must tell you about. But I'll have to do that another time because I've got to book some more Travelodges...

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Have you read my bog?

"Everyone else had gone to Midem, there was nothing to do in the office so I had to resort to reading your blog."

I suspect I'll have to write the above sentence on a Post It note and have it stuck to my monitor as a lesson not to get too cocky. I overheard myself when I was out with a few record company people the other night and I noticed the word 'blog' pass my lips perhaps over-frequently. Bugger, I really wanted not to become one of the self-obsessed; the type I always thought bloggers were. In truth, I don't think I have, but sometimes when people with whom I have only passing acquaintance or don't know at all, come up to me and say they're 'loving the blog', it's hard not to snatch a moment of glory-basking.

Someone did this to me at the Notting Hill Arts Club the week before last and it caught me unawares. And thanked him and shortly after privately crowning myself King of All Things, I went over to chat to an old A&R colleague and former boss Mike. I told him about the blog, foolishly expecting him to say how much he was enjoying it too and what a massive inspiration to his life it was - "Your bog?" he asked, mock incredulous, "Have I read your bog?" In many ways of course he has a point. I am asking people, you, to go through my private business. Still, I have nothing to be ashamed of so, I'm not, as it were too cool for stool so I'll continue letting everyone go through my bins until such time as it appears there is nothing left of interest in there.

Interestingly though, there is actually a brilliant Web site (I know, I know - how dull is it to hear that sentence, but really this one is great) The site's called Derelictlondon and it's dedicated to the bits of London that are falling apart, i.e. most of it. On it there's a whole section which covers the capital's public loos. There you will find jpegs of the interior of just about every bog in town regardless of its hygiene level. Perhaps I should cut out the middle man and just put a webcam in my lav.

Mike, who made the incisive bog/blog comment, was at the Notting Hill Arts club along with a large collective noun of London's A&R fraternity to see Manchester act Kid British & The Action Manky. Whilst not as ludicrously stuffed to the gills with industry as the White Lies show earlier this year it was clearly a band with a large industry buzz. A friend of mine at Sony/BMG said the entire A&R department would have been there had they not all been out entertaining Rick Rubin - now there's a measure of someone's importance. The band themselves were a very commercial variation on the mixed race ska band theme - some singing, some toasting and rapping and lots of chorus. I thought they were great, I must admit, maybe a little cheesy at times - there's even a track which samples Our House (the Madness version not the Crosby Still Nash song), but if they can convince the po-faced tastemakers of the Dazed And Confused Drowned in Sound club and so in turn fill the blank page of Jo Wiley's taste then I think the kids will lap them up. Does that sound cynical? It wasn't meant to but I've read it back and it sounds like a very bitter person having a go at the media. I'm not really, but I suppose after being witness to the way things in the media work for the thousand odd years I have been, some things do seem to crop up again and again. I'm currently experiencing the sharp end of getting press and radio attention for the Scottish Band and this massive dosage of deja vu that comes each time I am involved with a record release always takes me by surprise. Below are my current Top Ten - feel free to post yours, I'm sure there are loads I've missed.

1) No matter how much you know it's all about luck and circumstance, you always believe press, radio and other promotions people: 'Look into my eyes... in a moment I will list some well-known music magazines/djs/clubs. I will post your promo in a Jiffy bag to these people. When you wake up you will remember nothing of this conversation other than having a general feeling of confidence and well-being and a desire to pay me a large monthly retainer. 3-2-1 you're back in the room."*

2) Despite everyone making sure that artwork, music, etc is delivered on time, the record release date will always go back two weeks.

3) Just before the tour starts, the van you hire/buy to get the band to shows will develop an inexplicable problem involving a technical term you don't understand that requires a minimum of £300 to solve.

4) You will get a surprise result at radio which makes everyone feel great but requires all the plans to be changed to work around the amazing result (usually Radio 1).

5) The result at radio turns out to be a flash in the pan and you are back to square one. Only with all the new plans to implement.

6) The band will be offered a choice support slot with a hip band of the moment (e.g the Teenagers, the Ting Tings etc ) but won't be able to play it because they are already booked to play 3rd on the bill in a tramp's toilet.

7) The producer of the record remembers that there is a sample on it that he forgot to mention, but which he hopes is ok to use. It's usually Baby Love by The Supremes or Dazed And Confused by Led Zeppelin (NB this mainly applies to dance or hip hop acts).

8) The record has a swear word on it you never knew about until the band give you the lyrics for MTV. You promptly spring to action and attempt a 'radio edit' using the instrumental of the track that the producer prepared in advance for such an eventuality.

9) The producer can't find the instrumental.

10) You do finally get the hallowed NME Radar feature. You carry the PR guy aloft, as he or she is showered with flower petals from adoring masses. When you finally see the feature, it turns out to be a savage put-down which effectively ends your relationship with the paper**

*Obviously, I exclude the press and promotions people we are currently using - they are all adorable.
**OK, so this one is mainly about Sleeper...

Thursday, 1 May 2008

"Your Call Is Of No Importance To Us"

I've had a week of quiet frustration. It's almost as if I've been living out the lyrics of Dark Side of The Moon. What is it about modern Britain that makes otherwise intelligent people turn into idiots? My friend Andy wants to write a book called Nothing Works, in which he will catalogue every example of British disorganisation: call centres, public transport, PIN sentries... It's become easy to dismiss this sort of rage and frustration as being that of a Grumpy Old Man and I agree I'm sure I never used to get this annoyed when I was younger. But then that's surely because This Country's Going to the Dogs... Isn't it?

Last week I was trying to get across town from Holborn for a meeting with Geoff and Charlie in Charlotte Street. I was tear-jerkingly late already but decided foolishly not to walk but to get a bus. After a few, blissfully traffic-free seconds on Kingsway, I found myself stationary at green lights by Holborn Tube in steaming traffic.

Me: (To the driver) Can I get off before these lights please? There's nothing coming up on the inside lane so it's quite safe
Driver: (stares resolutely ahead)
Me: (Louder this time) Can I get off here please? - I've checked the road, there are no bikes, I won't get run over and try to sue London Transport...
Driver (slightly wobbling his head whilst tweaking a dial above it)
Me: Can you hear me in there?
Driver (slowly turning in my direction) Normally, when people shake their heads, they mean No...
Me: (Deliberately not rising to his tempting sarcastic bait) Oh, I thought you might have had some form of Tourettes...
Driver (Immediately very angry) You what? Tourettes!?
Me: (Really happy I've got him riled).. Yes, perhaps a strain which causes involuntary nodding but prevents the sufferer from actually saying anything.

Fortunately by this time, we had miraculously arrived at a bus stop and the driver had to let me off instead of caving my head in with his ticket machine. When I recounted why I was late to Geoff, he recommended this for any similar scenarios: ask nicely, then, if they ignore you - they usually do unless you're an attractive woman - simply pull the emergency lever above the door and get off. Why didn't I think of that?

To add petrol to the bile I've been trying to changing broadband provider this week too. It's been an odyssey of three month cancellation notice, inexplicable 'mac' codes and BT line availability. But the real pain and torment, the thing that really gives me a deep set desire for violent revenge is the call centre.

Me: I've phoning because you phoned on Saturday - it's about my broadband subscription
Sky: Yes, there's a problem with it
Me: Why?
Sky: Your old provider hasn't freed up the BT line
Me: OK, what about the box? You can still send me the box right? So I can set that up in advance?
Sky: No, it's been declined. Because the line's not free.
Me: So how do I (struggling with the powerful logic) 'free the line'?
Sky You have to phone your current provider or BT and get them to free it
Me: And then you can activate my broadband?
Sky: Then we can reactivate your order
Me: Do you have the number for BT? I'd rather eat my own head than speak to my current provider
Sky: (Not reacting to my ranting tone) Hold on, sir.... yes (gives me the number)

I phone the number she gives me. It turns out to be for a Barclays Insurance call centre. Maybe she did react to my rant and gave me the Barclays number as punishment. I grit my teeth and phone my current provider. I age another year whilst listening to the hold music. Eventually after a few pleasantries, I get down to business:

Me: I need you to 'free my line' apparently
Be Unlimited: Your line?
Me: Yes, my line. I'm changing providers and my new provider can't... er provide me with broadband unless they have the BT line
Be: You need to give them the 'mac' code..
Me: I've given them the 'mac' code
Be: OK. You need a ticket then
Me: What?
Be: Have you visited our website?
Me: Yes, of course, but I'm on the phone to you now....
Be: You need to raise a ticket for this on the Website, sir
Me: But I'm phoning you now, can you raise the ticket for me?
Be: No, I can help you once you have a ticket number
Me: Can't you do anything without a ticket?
Be: No, you must raise your ticket, sir and then I'll have the ticket number.
Me: OK, would you excuse me I just have to go and shoot myself...

I gently put the phone down then go into the front room and shout swearwords at the wall for a full minute. Geoff (yes, him again!) told me how, when confronted with questions which take them out of their remit, call centre operatives respond with a wall of silence. The more angry you get, the more articulate in your rage, the less they say, until they eventually put on a recording of some tumbleweed. At least I didn't get that. That would have sent me over the edge and as Geoff suggested, I be first in the queue for a ticket to Mumbai to demand satisfaction .

So along with this, plus the rain, the financial meltdown, and several people I really need to speak to about the Scottish band not getting back to me, it's not been the best week. But let's face it, eveyone apart from maybe the Queen and Rod Stewart has to deal with this stuff too. So in the spirit of cheering myself - and hopefully some of you - up, I thought I'd list five things that for me at least are making the world a better place right now. It's a bit bloggish, I know, but hey, look at what it says on the tin!

1) The Goldfrapp Album

FACT: The best album of the year so far! I actually won't have that gainsaid by anyone. And it's not as if I'm a big fan of them or anything. I'd kind of written them off after the last album; I was bored of the glam electro schtick and frankly I never bought the smuttiness either. But this is Kate Bush and Nick Drake, Nick Bush, Kate Drake... What's not to like? It fits perfectly into my current obsession with English Whimsy at the moment (Pink Floyd, XTC, Kate Bush, Sandy Denny...) but this is genuinely the sort of album that everyone will like. Every song is crammed to the brim with effortless hookage. It works privately on an iPod and publicly when you've got friends round for middle class snacks. It also sounds great in a shop: Agnes B and Fred Perry were both playing it the day I was killing time in Covent Garden a couple of weeks ago. And no, I wasn't buying - what, do you think I'm actually making enough money to buy clothes? It deserves to do as well for Mute as Play by Moby did. By the way, I think I may have invented the term English Whimsy judging from the confused looks or ridicule I get from anyone when I describe my current listening habits.

2) Dexter.

I missed this first and maybe even second, time around. It's a
truly great TV thriller - you care about the characters, there's backstory galore and it manages to have a lightness of touch, whilst being about very disturbing things. Best of all is that it features the permanently raised eyebrows of Michael C. Hall, who played gay brother Michael Fisher in Six Foot Under. I've just had to check his name on Wikipedia and have discovered that I am actually watching Season 1, which means there are two more left to see! This cheers me immensely. I won't go into the details of plot line because I'm convinced that most people reading this will be thinking: Dexter? - that's soooo 2007! but for those of you who haven't heard of it or didn't bother, it's really very good. I have to confess to being a bit of a time fascist when it comes to TV. I'm aware that this makes me sound like a twat but I'll only watch shows that I think I'm going to get something lasting from -whether from the content, from the people who are writing or directing or from the sound of my own laughter; I have no interest in reality competitions or sport or famous actors. Dexter is very much in the great writing camp but I confess I think Hall is brilliant, his face is a riot of constrained emotion.

After Eights

I know, I KNOW! Like English Whimsy, everyone I tell about my love of the wafer thin mint looks at me as if I'm mad. There's a stigma attached to them like Babycham or Twiglets, something of Abigail's Party and 1970s surburbia - a time when avocados were the height of sophistication and were called avocado pears. Well maybe I am mad - I'm mad for these little fellas anyway. But they are delicious - and after a hard day's of not getting calls returned and rocking a three month old to sleep I know there's some fun to be had in that little green box. And you know what, Walthamstow seems to be home to European After Eight mountain - you can buy them for a pound a box! As they say in Newcastle, mint!

4) Supergrass

Just think,
Supergrass have been going for 14 years - that means that if you or I had seen them as they are now but in the Britpop year of 1994, they would have been a band who had started in post punk year zero 1980. And yet, they still seem like a young band. Maybe it's because Gaz Coombes keeps pulling new, younger Coombes family members out of his hat to join the band. The latest is a willowy Kasabian-haired guitarist who fits in perfectly. Whenever I see them I'm always filled with a righteousness that stems from the fact that they haven't released a bad single in their entire career and yet resolutely never seem to be able to shake their early pop image - like Orson Wells, they did it all young and are spending the rest of their career in the shadow of their early achievements. They were superb at the Astoria two weeks ago, and the crowd - at a glance a bunch of teenage nutters going mental down the front; on closer inspection a bunch of 30-somethings reliving their youth - received them like Gods. But I couldn't help thinking how unfair their lack of BIG CROSSOVER is. The last time I saw them live, there was a little known band supporting them who also went on and failed to capitalise on their early promise. But I for one am glad Supergrass are still together - unlike the Libertines.

5) Princess Maddy and Esther's Smile

I was going to talk about Zinfandel and how frankly, after having been an evil villain trying to ensnare
Princess Jasmine for an hour before washing said Princess' hair and reading her a bedtime story, pouring one or two glasses of this down my neck is a wonderful experience. But actually, it then struck me that watching my eldest daughter's Maddy's furrowed brow whilst she is mid-Jasmine ("Daddy, pretend you're Aladdin and you want to marry me but the Sultan wants Jafar to marry me and you have to be Jafar and you capture me and then you rescue me when you're Aladdin again OK? OK? OK?) watching her excitement and frown of concentration is really so much better than booze. Esther now weighs almost 12 lbs (she was only 6lbs when she was born in January!) and for the last month or so just hasn't stopped talking bollocks. She is also a big smiler. I don't recall Maddy ever smiling so much - she was always incredibly intense, even as a baby. Hmm can't think where she got that... Esther likes to smile. Sometimes when, defeated after the day's rock, pop and call centre battles, I come home and sit down in my armchair with a grumpy man's glass of red, Esther will beam at me with her electric blue eyes and everything will be alright again.