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!!"