Wednesday, 28 January 2009

"Back in the garage with my bullshit detector."

I'm standing in the Purple Turtle in Camden. Outside it's raining and the wind is blowing copies of London Lite across the streets. Inside there is a small audience, most of whom seem to be industry types - I see a ageing manager I recognise from the early 90s, an A&R man whose name escapes me, a dusty old radio promotions guy who I see at every gig I go to... There is an atmosphere of treadmillery in the room. Or maybe it's just me. I'm here, as ever, as a spectator. I'm sitting in the A&Rmchair, commenting from the sidelines, not having to invest money or time in whoever it is on stage. Phew.

Tonight's support band plug in and almost the moment the singer opens his mouth I know it's time to leave. It's not that he's got a bad voice, or that the band are exceptionally awful either. In fact, if they were exceptionally awful I'd be more inclined to stay. They are young and clean and play with energy and determination but it's a heart-sinking spectacle - imagine all the rehearsals, all the intense discussions about the name, the lyrics and the 'look'. As it is I can't tell you what they sounded like or even what they looked like - apart from the fact that they are a three piece and the bassist has nice hair. At one point the guitarist/singer plays a clanging Wellerish riff and my 40-something synapses liven up. But then he starts singing in his dreary voice and the band lose me again.

Me and my gig mate leave after 3 songs and return to the pub over the road. We've both done this many many times. He still does A&R for his own label. Over drinks we have a conversation that maybe everyone in the music business is having this January:

-- Where are the exciting new bands?
-- Is trying to get a major record deal as an indie band now a pointless exercise?
-- Are we too old to be going to gigs?
-- What else could we do instead?
-- Just a half? Why not a pint? I'm having a pint!
-- Will the White Lies album keep its midweek of 1? (It did)
-- Are they any good?
-- Preferred Fear of Flying (WL's previous incarnation)
-- Me too
-- Is that why we're in this pub and not drinking fine wine at The Ivy?

OK, so maybe some of the topics covered aren't entirely universal, but I'm not going to relay the whole thing because it would be an episode of Last Of The Britpop Wine. Compo and whatever the others were called.

Talking of age - and let's face it, that's what I talk about here - one interesting development in music seems to be happening in the life of the older music fan: Playing it.

You may recall that a few weeks before Christmas I went into a studio with my brother to record a demo. Well, since then me and Russell - the Guardian-reading Sly 'n' Robbie, the riddim section with the mostest ear hair etc - we've been lending our 'talents' to another singer.

So far we've had two rehearsals with our new singer, Jess. She's got a proper bluesy voice, writes a robust song and miraculously hasn't fallen down in hysterics the moment we get our groove 'on'. Frankly, I've not had as much fun in a small room with two other people since well, the days of hanging out in the loos at Smashing. The weird thing is, I can't understand why I've not played music for fun for such a long time. It's not as if I'm a particularly adept bass player, but pulling a tune together in 20 minutes, experimenting a bit with arrangments (obviously Russell and I go for a reggae beat every single time then usually end up admitting that it doesn't quite gel with songs that sound like early Van Morrison and slip into a shufflely skiffle thing) well, that's all you need to have a good time.

I suppose it must be like going for a kickabout on a Sunday, or fishing, or playing golf. I don't know, I've never been interested in sport so I may be wrong. The one big difference is that there is normally a competitive edge with sport - it's all maths and size and who's better than who. With us at the moment, the only competition is who out of me or Russell can get away with saying the filthiest thing in front of Jess. How mature. Of course it turns out that Jess can outfilth us both without batting an eyelid. She even suggested we should call our band the Japanese word for getting an erection on public transport. I can't remember it, I'm afraid, perhaps you know. I want us to be called Younger Model.

At the last rehearsal there was a proper band in the room adjacent to ours. When I say proper, I mean young and taking it seriously. It's a great place where we rehearse (I'm not going to tell you where it is otherwise you'll all go and book it) but the one downside is that that you hear others rehearsing when you stop playing. You can see them too. From where I was standing with my wife's bass, slung sexy Simonon-style over me, I could see through the window in our door over to the adjacent room where a bass player half my age and with four times as much hair was giving it the full-on Kasabian. In a flash it became apparent that other bands were at it and could arguably be better. "We'll have their guitarist by spring" I told Jess with mock bravado,
"Are we going to play live?" asked Russell
"Of course, when we've got a name and six songs rehearsed," Jess said confidently.
Russell and I looked at each other - this woman really means it. So we do actually have to take this seriously. Bollocks.

Back at the pub opposite the Purple Turtle, my gig mate and I decide not to bother going back to the venue. We call it a night and walk back to his car. The headliners are on now and we can hear them through the wall as we walk past the venue. I can tell that I don't like them even through the wall. And that's probably what the lustrous-haired bass player in the adjacent rehearsal room said about us.

Monday, 19 January 2009

"See her picture in a thousand places, cos she's this year's girl..."

So the White Lies album is released this week. Relax, I'm not going to fall into the trap of giving it a review here. Besides, I haven't listened to yet. But those of you who've been reading this for a while will already know my thoughts on their live show and what I thought of Fear of Flying, so I won't repeat myself. Besides, you are probably sick to the teeth of reading about them on those New Bands For 2009 lists where people described as 'industry movers and shakers' (IMSs) pick their tips for the forthcoming year.

I mention White Lies because in another week of industry changes (Apple dropping its DRM, the Astoria closing, my local Asda no longer selling CDs), it's nice to cling on to good old fashioned highly-anticipated albums.

I was out with one of those IMSs last week. Tellingly, we actually went to the London Art Fair instead of seeing a band. It was fantastic, by the way, particulary the amount of Terry Frost stuff which, if I had a spare £20K, I would sooner invest in than a bank.

Afterwards over a bowl of noodles, the IMS lamented the lack of anything genuinely exciting out there. Now, this may sound like the usual jaded A&R whinge of cliche. Not so. Well, not so with this chap anyway, he's normally ludicrously positive about everything - there's generally a silver lining for him, even in acts which I can't imagine getting beyond their first single. With him, they get to the album and more often than not end up on the cover of NME. Sometimes they even sell loads of records. Not that I'm jealous of him or anything, you understand.

He actually has a lot of time for White Lies but beyond that - looking at the landscape of unsigned and newly-signed artists - he claimed that there really wasn't anything sure-fire exciting out there in the way that there is most Januarys.

But from all those IMS lists you wouldn't think that there was a dearth of new stuff, would you? How many times have you read the names Little Boots, Empire of the Sun, Florence And the Machine and La Roux? They were all present and correct on BBC's Sound of 2009 list, a list which has become such an institution since it tipped Duffy and Adele that news of Little Boots' top nomination ended up making the national TV news. They were also there in the Guardian, The Times, the NME and then were repeated ad infinitum down the chain of lesser titles who always follow suit with their 'picks'. I remember when I was an editor at AOL Music and we did our inevitable image gallery of annual music tips. Despite my loathing of many of the choices, like a coward I would always include tips from other media's lists because I didn't want to be seen missing anything. Remember when you couldn't move for accolades for The Bravery or Holly Valance? Incidentally, you really should click on that Bravery link and read it, then read this year's BBC tips - it will make you smile and nod sagely.

In yesterday's Observer Music Monthly list, there had clearly been an effort to swerve away from some of the more obvious choices and well done them for trying. The interesting thing about all the tipping this year is that with the record business in freefall, there is less and less chance of any of these tipped bands actually amounting to very much more than hot tips. Both Duffy and Adele were heavily invested in - certainly Duffy had to happen, the financial consequences would have just been too dreadful to contemplate if it hadn't worked. If the tipster's goal of 'getting it right' of being able to say at the beginning of the following year,"Yeah, we spotted Duffy ages ago" then the safest bet is to tip the artist who you know the record company is backing. Yes, that's why we all backed The Bravery in 2004.

Press expectation and the marketing budgets for White Lies are of a level that we now see less and less of; there simply isn't enough cash to do it on every new act. So aside from their Joy Division-meets-Duran Duran sound, there is something heart-warmingly old-fashioned about the whole White Lies vehicle, with its press ubiquity, its TV advertising and universal approval. That's with a small 'u' by the way. Even reviews where quite clearly the critic does not get it have been positive. Let's be honest, it is noveau goth music of the sort that teeenage boys can't get enough of; it's not made for 30-something critics who would rather be listening to Bon Iver (there, got a reference in this week, high five!). So critics have to judge it whilst wearing short trousers to avoid sounding dad-like.

In a similar way, I reviewed Graham Norton's debut in La Cage Aux Folles last night - except instead of short trousers, I had to review it in drag. I don't find camp funny of itself and most of the humour in La Cage is derived out of the assumption that men in glittery dresses and wigs is hilarious. But once I got into the spirit - and Norton, despite a limited vocal range, does a fairly good job - I found myself humming along to I Am What I Am along with the middle aged ladies and male couples sharing M&Ms.

Damn, this week, I wanted to go through the critics' picks of acts for 2009 and give you my informed and unbiased opinion on all of them. Instead, I've told you I like Sir Terry Frost and caberet. But would you really be interested to know what I think of Little Boots? Perhaps if I'd seen her live I would tell you but you don't need me to tell you what I think of her recordings - go and listen yourself. My one thought on her is this - and it probably applies to all the other lucky tipped artists too: in her Guardian Magazine feature two weeks ago, the interview ended with the usual bold copy where tradtionally, information pertaining to the release date of her record would be. But instead of these details it merely stated that we could hear her music on Myspace. Let's hope Atlantic are saving up a White Lies-sized budget for her campaign.

Monday, 12 January 2009

"Oh, I bet you wonder how I knew..."

Ah, Motown. Fifty years ago. And doesn't it feel like it? It was a label made on singles and truly we are in a place where no such label could exist today - I mean, who makes money out of singles? Where do you buy singles? Frankly, where do you buy music?

I went to Zavvi last Friday, tempted like thousands of other vultures by the announcement of the closure of 22 of its shops. There were of course no real bargains to be had; 20% off a full price album in a world where no one dreams of paying more than £8 a CD, is hardly boomtime. So what next for those of us who still enjoy buying music?

I went through my accounts over the weekend and discovered I'd bought more music last year than ever before, admittedly of a back catalogue nature. This was largely due to the fact that it all appears to be £5. So albums I'd always been curious about but had seemed too much of a punt at £15, were now worth grabbing. I didn't have too many disappointments either (apart from perhaps The Pop Group). And despite the trips to Fopp that I have written about here before, where did I pick up my Soft Machine, Rich Kids, Supertramp, Peter Gabriel, DJ Shadow, Kevin Ayers, Rory Gallagher etc? You already know the answer. Must buy less this year. And that's why Zavvi has gone. And why Pinnacle has gone, EUK and Sister Ray. And who knows where HMV is going to end up.

Part of me is sad and wants to support the high street. As well as the reason above, I went into Zavvi on Friday because when I'm in Oxford Street I always go into The Megastore, it's been part of my life. I used to go when it was Virgin. My brother used to steal vinyl there regularly on Saturdays, which is how we discovered the complete Bob Dylan, Doors and David Bowie catalogues without any financial strain. And before that, when Virgin was over the other side in New Oxford Street (where Argos is now), we used to go to the really exciting Our Price just down from the Astoria (where Boots is now). That's where I bought Another Music In a Different Kitchen when I was 13 - my second punk album and my first ever solo trip up to "London" from Blackheath.

This year is also the 50th anniversary of Warner Brothers records, a celebration that I suspect will not have the same timbre as that of Motown. Having said that, I really do think we should give Berry Gordy's baby a rest for a moment - I mean, haven't we all heard Dancing In The Street, I Can't Help Myself and I Heard It Through The Grapevine etc enough for now?

Don't get me wrong, I love Motown as much as the next man - not more than him, just as much as that next man - but I could do with a break from my life being 'soundtracked' by it. It was a friend of mine who suggested what I think it is a brilliant idea: a Motown Amnesty. He suggested this last year but it would work perfectly in 2009 to mark the anniversary. Basically, what should happen is this: the ban of all Motown singles from being played in public places like for example Starbucks, shoe shops, hold music, lift musak, supermarkets. We would allow album tracks, B sides and obscurities, the ban is limited to the songs that that have been sullied by overplay. The ones that our lives are being forcibly 'soundtracked' by. If we kept this ban up for a year, then we could return to Motown in 2010 with our ears refreshed and enjoy these brilliant recordings once again. Surely that's a better way to celebrate this wonderful music than using it to accompany commerce?

Incidentally, don't you hate that expression 'the soundtrack of my life'? Since we moved into the iPod shuffle age it's become one of the great cliches' of our time. I love giving myself private musical treats on the Pod as I'm walking to the shops, or doing the washing up but 'soundtracking my life'? Come on! That's just adding to the cult of self-glorification (OK, I freely admit that writing a blog is part of this cult too). Is listening to How Soon Is Now? when you reverse your car into a bollard going to sweeten that memory? Will you look back on Smells Like Teen Spirit as the song that you listened whilst watching your socks dry? Will Wonderwall be the song that you lovingly remember buying vegetables to?

Talking of soundtracks to my life, when we arrived back from the US we were greeted with two bits of bad news, firstly the situation in Gaza, about which I have nothing to say other than that it might be useful to reflect on it or indeed any localised violent feud currently happening (hello Ukraine and Russia) when we are whinging about our economy, getting parking tickets, the price of a pint of lager etc. The other bit of bad news, which I'm ashamed to say I felt more keenly was the death of Harold Pinter on Christmas Eve. Joe Strummer died while we were in Virginia at Christmas 2002 - the good ones always go at Christmas. James Brown went on the 25th two years ago. I can't really say I have heroes but I think Pinter and Strummer came pretty close.

Because my dad wrote about theatre, I was lucky enough to meet Pinter a few years ago. We went to a screening of the 1963 film of The Caretaker at the Barbican in honour of the man himself, who was by then suffering from the cancer which eventually took him. After the screening, there was a small reception for friends and acquaintances in one of the function rooms, so my dad and I duly got into the lift to the floor we thought it was on. When we got out, no sign of anybody - just an empty room. Silence. We got back back into the lift and took it to the next floor up. This time, we found a floor full of people but all of them dining in the restaurant, blissfully unaware of the presence in the building of Britain's greatest living playwright.

In the end we found the reception on another floor in another room - it really is all about rooms with Pinter isn't it? Dad, who used to be relatively chummy with Pinter in the 60s, introduced me and I shook the great man's reassuringly large hand - it was slightly cold and the shake was loose. I think, in a feeble attempt for him to like and remember me, I told him I lived near Thistlethwaite Road, the road where he grew up in Clapton. He muttered something about it and, I think, Michael Billington piped in with some useful biographical background - clearly the Guardian's theatre critic knows more about HP than the man knew himself.

By the way, if you are daunted by Pinter and find the cliche of his plays being full of boring, confusing pauses and silences off-putting, I would recommend you see 1973 film of Peter Hall's production of The Homecoming. It's as funny, frightening and frankly confusing as all of Pinter's best stuff, but has enough semblance of conventional drama to keep you transfixed. I saw it in November 1982, the week that Channel 4 launched and it was as revelatory as hearing Anarchy In the UK or kissing a girl. It also helped that we never had Pinter as an A Level set text so reading his entire works felt rebellious and exciting. Another thing about Pinter is his swearing - like the Derek and Clive sketch ("a prick in Pinter's hands is pure gold") he has a knack of a well-placed expletive that has only recently been equalled by The Thick of It. No one else could have come up with the insult "Minge juice bottler".

So, Motown and Pinter - two institutions that we'll probably never see the like of again. I've got another Pinter anecdote which I'll tell you another time but right now I've got to grab Esther and find out what's happening with the Wattingers and the Pontipines.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

"You say you want a resolution..."

We're seven miles up in the air somewhere over the Atlantic when Maddy asks me, "Daddy, what's 'meaning'?"

I've just read her the synopsis of the film Wall-E from the tiny screen in front of us and the final line says words to the effect of: '... and at last the lonely robot finds some meaning in life.' As questions go from five-year olds go - or indeed from anyone at all, "What is meaning?" is the big one. And to get it at 35 thousand feet up in the air on New Year's Day makes it seem all the more poignant. How do I answer a question like that?

We're coming back from a ten day trip to the US to visit Robyn's folks in Virginia. Yes, for those of you wondering what had happened to me since the last blog entry three weeks ago, that's where I've been. And now the holiday and indeed the Holidays are over. Interesting that the American catch-all term for Christmas is being increasingly used over here - I got a number of heartfelt corporate festive greeting texts from friends on my return, none of them mentioning the word Christmas. No doubt if any clients of a non-Christian faith received a greeting containing the word Christ during their hard-won Holiday, they would immediately declare a business fatwa on the offending well-wisher.

Yes, Holiday is over and I didn't even get the chance to wish everyone a Merry Christmas or a Happy New Year but I do hope you all had a good one and didn't spend the time between crackers and Auld Lang Syne worrying about what how terrible 2009 is going to be financially, ecologically and of course for the record business. I spent the time in Virginia in the middle of what they call 'The Boondocks' (trans. 'the back and beyond') not once looking at the Internet, the news on TV, a newspaper or even turning on my mobile phone. Instead I cooked, helped my daughters invent games with the dolls and dug deep into the iPod shuffle for Christmas greats (Hark The Herald Angels Swing by The World's Greatest Jazzband Of Yank Lawson & Bob Haggart got a lot of love) as well as returning to my favourite CDs of the year and of course plenty of Maddy's - incidentally, if you have kids under 10 and haven't heard the Carrie and David's Pop Shop album yet you're in for a treat - it keeps your children off the streets, gives an ex member of Linx some well-deserved earnings and you get the fun of spotting the musical references as they plunder every genre to bring pop alive for kids. More fun than listening to Bon Iver, I Grant you.

I must stop going on about Bon Iver, I'm sure he's a very talented and likable guy. I actually did try and have another go at the album over Christmas. I figured I was in the middle of a forest, in a log cabin-style house, it was frosty outside with the nearest town, Scottsville, a twenty-minute drive away; aside from the fact that I wasn't on my own with only my beard for company, surely the atmosphere was identical to the one allegedly endured by broken hearted Justin Vernon when he made For Emma? But no, the thing passed me by again. I love simple voice and guitar music, from Iron and Wine and Elliot Smith to Jake Thackray and Bert Jansch but, for me, there is something missing about For Emma, Ever Ago. I just don't like the fella's singing, it sounds like he's putting on mannerisms, as if his voice isn't his own. And it's double tracked a lot too (e.g on The Wolves) which is always suspicious. And of course, my hackles are always raised when something is universally praised by music critics - every one of them falling for the dubious mythology of the tortured artist doing it for love and making it all my himself in a shed. I'm sure he did, but that doesn't automatically make it 'haunting' and 'beautiful'. I'll give it this though, I do quite like the final track Re: Stacks. But what an annoying indie song-title...

Consensus terrorism as Douglas Coupland calls it, is always rife in the press. I've mentioned it here before, it's when a couple of leading critics set an opinion , which is then followed by all the lesser journalists out of laziness or fear of getting it wrong, then the public follows suit and before you know it, people are either afraid to admit to liking Coldplay or fearful of saying they don't think Pet Sounds is the greatest album ever made. Given that I had time to reflect over things during my holiday in Les Boondocks, I concluded that this is one of the things that obsessess me and is perhaps the underlying motivation in everything I write.

I was angry about consensus terrorism as an A&R man, finding myself quite often very against whatever artists who were getting other A&R folk in a lather, and looking for inspiration elsewhere. Often I was wrong, and whoever it was I didn't care for (e.g. recently The Klaxons, or years ago, Suede) became huge and I actually ended up quite liking their stuff but just as often I was right (Where are The Twang now? And I'll be surprised if we'll hear much more of the Courteeners in 2009).

But why should I care about what 15-year olds listen to? I feel like I'm already father to a teenager as Maddy now wanders round the house singing Fabulous like Sharpay in High School Musical 2. When I started this blog a year ago (yes, amazingly it's been 12 months! I would hold some sort of event for its birthday, invite all of you and bathe in glory if I was the sort of person I dislike . Incidentally, I have to admit the popularity of A&Rmchair is one of the most pleasing things about 2008 for me and, as the risk of sounding like Halle Berry at the Oscars thank you all for reading it in such numbers with such regularity.

But I am digressing again. What I was about to say was that a year ago one of the first entries here was about me getting stopped by a beautiful girl who was collecting for The Samaritans outside Farringdon station. After having done the usual bloke thing of assuming that she had collared me because she found my rather splendid looks beguiling, was told that I reminded her of one of her dad's mates. Since then, I have rebuilt my confidence back to being convinced of my adorability. I've done this by means of growing a beard (see, me and that Bon Iver, we've got more in common than you might think).

The beard happened over the summer by accident really; we were on holiday and I just didn't shave for a week. Then, on being complemented by my wife, I kept growing it until, in her words, it 'got a bit Mick Fleetwood' whereupon I trimmed it rather than the usual post-holiday clean shave. Now six months on and I have embraced being a beardy. I never thought I'd be one - my dad has always had a beard and I whilst I always thought it looked good on him, I was on the side of Roald Dahl who disliked them so much he included a whole chapter on them in The Twits. I wear the beard now with pride. But with it come all sorts of new responsibilities - like the wiping away of toothpaste after brushing, or the disentangling of toasty crumbs. Also, I now have to think about the way I dress because it makes me look grown up. I've been to the Old Blue Last many times and stood at the bar next to lots of bearded-up Hoxtonites, but I am aware that if I went now, I could not pass for one of the Mystery Jets unless I was the dad. The beard is not some facial equivalent of a leather jacket and girlfriend 20 years my junior.

This notion crystallised while we were in America. We were doing a shop for kids' clothes at a store called Old Navy which is like a kind of low rent Gap. I wandered off to have a look at the Men's section and found a whole load of T-shirts for $7 each (American T-shirts are always a bargain, it's almost as if they are subsidised along with the petrol). These shirts were individually designed, some had messages, others hand drawn Mo-Wax-style creatures or line drawings, here's one I really liked and tried on. It was then that it hit me: I realised that while I am still fortunate enough to have a waist and reasonably broad shoulders, I just can't pull off the logo T-shirt anymore with the beard (PB). In fact, I'm now not sure if I could even pre-beard (BB) It was a big revelation, to be honest, as I am a huge fan of graphic design on T-shirts, but right there and then I made the decision that I was no longer going to wear shirts like that anymore. I may not be mutton, but I'm damn sure not going to sink into some ignoble middle youth. So there's a New Year's resolution - along with all the others that I'm not going to share here. If you do see me out in a T-shirt, it won't have a graphic design on it. If it does, I hereby give you the right to say, "Oi, grandad! Get yourself something nice from Marks & Spencers instead!"

So what about meaning in life? What did I say to Maddy, who wanted to know about meaning all those feet up in the air? I said this: meaning is your friends, it's knowing that you're not alone - just like Wall-E in the film, which we watched about five minutes of before Maddy got too scared. I told her we were finally going to see her friend Katie who lives next door to us in Walthamstow. Katie, whose name Maddy had mentioned almost every day of the trip, normally in the sentence: "I'm bored, I want to go home, I want to see Katie!" It's about me going out with for the annual Scared Hitless Christmas lunch with two of my oldest mates both of whom are now hugely successful in the music business and being able to talk and laugh as equals for three hours and not notice the time pass or indeed the time that has passed between us - we realised that we'd been having these Christmas lunches for 14 years. So if meaning in life equals friendship, there's another resolution for all of us in 2009: think less about your office desk, your inbox and making money, and see more of your friends. Happy new year!