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