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.


  1. How embarrassing, making a comment on my own blog. Well, someone has to - readers seem to prefer emailing or writing "on my wall" instead. Anyway, just wanted to correct the SISTER RAY comment above, happily the shop has been saved! Or so my mate Lee tells me, who does its press. Hooray!

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