Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The record company thumbs a lift with hippies

There are two slices of Goo fudge cake left on the picnic plate. No one is claiming them and it doesn't look like that's going to change now that the rain is converting the icing to a brown soup. Soon bits of it start falling off like a sandcastle as the tide comes in. On stage the band are oblivious. The singer is having a ball underneath the hot lights and the dry ice. OK, so maybe I made up the dry ice up - but crucially everyone on stage is dry. For us, the audience, the concept of being dry is a sweet and distant memory. If my 'waterproof' jacket ever did make it to the North Face it would break down and beg forgiveness; I am clearly not dressed for this sort of weather.

Around me, my friends' children contemplate buying a T-shirt from the handy souvenir stall - do they sell souvenir umbrellas? Ah, it turns out they do. My own daughter is barefoot in her mud-spattered favourite dress, indifferently twirling an umbrella over her head. My friend, Mandy complements me on her stoicism but I know what is going through her head: when can we go home so I can watch High School Musical 3? And as another ear-splitting crackle of thunder breaks and the rain gets even more intense, the prospect of watching Troy, Gabriella and Sharpay going through their routines for the 38th time is beginning to seem attractive to me too. But two things keep me going. Well, three actually if you include the half bottle of red wine I've just downed in 3 minutes.

Firstly, we are not at Glastonbury. We are in London and can leave any time we want to. Hooray! OK, so it would be lovely to be at Worthy Farm with Springsteen, Albarn and Spinal Tap, bumping into friends I haven't seen in ages. But the big mistake to make about Glastonbury is that if you want to watch lots of your favourite bands it's probably better to stay at home with the telly. Glastonbury, as I discovered when I took Robyn and Maddy in 2005, is about serendipity; about chancing upon The Bootleg Beatles on a stage you never knew existed, about getting your face painted in the kids field, about walking around with no particular destination and no deadlines. The moment you start referring to your little Guardian timetable your weekend takes on a completely different shape, you'll find yourself saying sentences like "Christ, the White Stripes are on the Pyramid Stage in 10 minutes - we're never going to make it!!!" Far better to be wandering past a stage and catch a song by a stranger with a beard.

I used to go to Glastonbury for work but it was only when I went as a punter in 2005 that I felt like I'd sampled what the festival is all about. As an A&R man you're not actually working at a festival, just bathing in the reflected glory of your bands. And schmoozing with other industry folk in the Guest area between the Pyramid and the Other stages. And I did have a good time most years but let's be honest, small talk with the drummer from Echobelly or the scout from Rondor Music is not the cutting edge of festival pleasure. Particularly if you have to find your way back to a B&B in Shepton Mallet at midnight.

At Glastonbury in 2005, I smoked a joint for the first time in a hundred years. After the obligatory 15 minutes of complete paranoia where I thought I was going to get abandoned by everyone and end up sitting alone in a mud pool all night, I surfaced as officially the happiest person on site. I missed every performance, regularly arriving to see bands at the precise moment when there was a mass exodus from the John Peel tent. So we missed the Magic Numbers - big deal! we giggled, and made our way back for more drinks. I walked barefoot round the whole site at 5 in the morning just enjoying the morning. That's the sort of sentence you get punched for isn't it?

Contrast this with waking up in a posh B&B with the staff of BMG as I did in the 90s and finding there were no cabs to the site so we all had to hitch hike in. We eventually all got a lift in - I kid you not - a van filled with veteran hippies. There were about eight of us - from marketing to business affairs, all wearing our best festival gear. Hidden about each of our persons were mobile phones - a object which in those days was symbolic of being The Man. We all got into the back of the van and contemplated the unbelievable tableau before us - a mixture of teenager's bedroom and Moroccan bazaar, hand woven scatter cushions, empty bottles of Lambrusco and king size Rizzla.
"Welcome aboard. You guys come to Pilton every year?" says a long haired handsome guy whilst strumming a guitar (I am not making this up)
"Er, yeah, man" mumbles our head of legal, not wanting to say anything that might be used against him.
"We go over the fence" says another, slightly less benign-looking hippy.
"Can you still do that? I thought they'd clamped down on all that...stuff..." says a product manager instantly regretting he'd opened his mouth, "I mean, I used to of course... " Handsome hippy lifts his fingers from the strings and taps his nose,"You gotta know the right places, man."
Each one of us is silently hoping that our phones don't ring. Not before before we get to the festival site anyway - how much longer? Come on! If that happens then our cover of being young hitch-hiking gunslingers will be blown and our new hippy friends will probably wreak some horrible Manson-esque vengeance.

Or so I was thinking anyway. But we were lucky, we got to the perimeter of the site without ringtone incident. We waved goodbyes like the best of friends - see you in the Head shop, man! Turned down the offer of a bunk up over the fence too. Who knows, maybe everyone in the van breathed a sigh of relief as they sped away. Maybe they started back on the Pimms and lemonade and got out their own mobile phones: "Hello darling! You'll never guess what! We just picked some hitchhikers up! Ya! Totally wicked - Sebastian and Everard even pretended to be hippies! Priceless!"

Of course, we were the exceptions in the 90s - not many normal punters had mobiles at festivals . And this lack of contact was a good thing. I didn't bring my phone in 2005 as I recall and I tell you not being in constant contact with everyone and everything all the time really adds to the pleasure. Reception is never good there anyway, so why bother? But clearly many do - this year there was a mobile phone recharging area and of course a place where you could get your Wifi access. Yes, I read those Tweets, you sad people.

Before all this connectivity there would be a rumour every year that another pop Peter Pan had died - Cliff Richard. For several hours you could believe it was true - unless you had been there the year before when exactly the same rumour had gone around. And apparently this year when news started hitting the wires about Michael Jackson's death there was just as much confusion as when Cliff 'died' - lots of people running about asking "Is it true? Can it really be true?" I'm sure there were many who remembered the Cliff rumours and consequently assumed it must be a wind up. Apparently the massive BBC presence at the festival this year was utilised by punters simply to confirm the truth about the King of Pop's demise. So it was worth the licence fee funding all those presenters being there after all.

I'm not going to go on about Jackson here as you are no doubt fed up with hearing reminiscences and confessionals in the press. It is sad but at the same time, I suspect the O2 shows would not have been a pretty affair and so his death at least spares him - and his legacy - the ignominy of a 50 year old man thinking he can perform like he did in his thirties . As Paul Gambaccini said on Radio 4, the ugliness of the last few years will be forgotten just as Judy Garland's final years were and all that we will remember will be the fantastic body of work. And Bo Selecta obviously.

So if I wasn't at Glastonbury, why the hell was I standing in the rain in London? I'll tell you, I'd gone to see Ray Davies at Kenwood. How middle class and middle aged is that? But regardless of the weather - and I would submit, because of it - it is fantastic. The music is the second thing that was keeping me going (if you can remember that far back in this blog- the first thing was the fact that we were in London, remember!?)

There is nothing more English than unpredictable weather and arguably none more English pop than the Kinks. The fact that Davies had the Crouch End Festival Chorus with him too, added to the plaintive quality of the tunes and fell in with the blackening skies and ominous rumblings. So by the time he'd reached the bit where he played most of Village Green Preservation Society weather and music were locked in a groove - somehow Ray's lyrics about vaudeville, variety, china cups and draught beer seemed absolutely appropriate whilst every member of the very English audience grooved on the spot whilst clad in in makeshift rainwear, letting their wine get a heavenly top up. If there was any queuing to be done we would have been there like a shot too. And I'm sure if the sun had shone Ray would have been first to complain.

It was only then that I remembered we'd brought a cake and it was calling my name from the bag. I got it out and our group descended on it wolfing chunks down before the rain got there first. It kept us going for a few more songs. As Waterloo Sunset and Lola finished the show, we realised that no amount of High School Musical would make Maddy forgive us if we stayed any longer so we began to pack up. I left the remains of the cake out in the rain just like the Jimmy Webb song and watched the sweet brown icing flowing down...

Monday, 22 June 2009

Now That's What I Call A Compilation

This Father's Day I asked for nothing more than to be left alone. I just wanted to sit in the sun with a cup of tea and read one of the books from the teetering pile next to the bed. Anyone who has children will understand the excitement I felt at this prospect. Far from making me the most boring man in the world - although perhaps it does qualify me for the heats - this is surely what most dads want on their day. Certainly not a shaving mug, a 'novelty' card or God forbid, a CD compilation with the word Dad in the title.

If there is a God, I thank him or her that I wasn't the recipient of a Dad compilation on Sunday. Did you notice any of these pernicious things? I meant there's nothing necessarily wrong with We Will Rock You, Addicted To Love or Sweet Home Alabama but if anything proves Bill Drummond's notion of all recorded music having run its course, these compilations do. There is just nothing left of these tracks is there? Maybe for kids who've never heard them but surely not for the dads who were bludgeoned with them for 20 years by Simon Bates and now are insulted by them via the Tannoys of every chainstore and hold music of every helpdesk.

I speak specifically of EMI's 3 CD set Dad Rocks! and Universal's Dad's Jukebox - with tracklistings so predictable that it's almost as if a computer put them together. So who compiles these things? I'd suggest that in both cases it's a question of using what you have on the shelf (hence EMI including Coldplay's Clocks) but also it looks like these brands have been going for years and are subscribing to the Ain't Broke philosophy - rather like the annual appearance of the Best Xmas Album Ever and why you no longer find Jona Lewie in the kitchen at Christmas parties but gleefully rubbing his hands together at the bank. Perhaps you'll always find him in the kitchen at Barclays. On Father's Day you don't get Stop The Cavalry but you do invariably get Alright Now.

Every year these brands get rolled out and back in 2006 - Sony had a go with World's Best Dad - opening track? Van Halen's Jump - but relax, later on you do get a dose of Alright Now. There will be a few changes to the brand to keep the thing up to date, for example on this year's Dad Rocks! Pink Floyd's Money has been replaced by Razorlight's America - surely giving father a kick in the bollocks would have been cheaper? But do you ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

Despite the fact that I think I make a pretty mean compilation - or mixtape, as the kids now call burned CDs - I've never really been in the compilation game professionally. The closest I came was when the Head of Marketing at RCA asked me to put together a tracklist for a compilation of Irish and Scottish pop he wanted to do - you know the sort of thing - Van Morrison, The Proclaimers, The Saw Doctors, Clannad, etc. I leaped into action and immediately produced what I thought would be a good tracklisting. Then the research came back on what the title was going to be - Celtic Heart. My own heart sank. It's a title that reeks of marketing meeting, focus group and flip chart. But, it must be said, it would appear that this title has stood the test of time as it still appears to be available on Amazon and has at least two imitators which have stolen its title.

It might of course be my cunning and timeless tracklisting which has resulted in the continued availability of Celtic Heart- I mean, who can argue with the genius of kicking it off with Deacon Blue? Christ, what was I thinking? Still, at least I sneaked in Brian Kennedy who at that point had been dropped by the very label I was working for. Turned out that the exec who was masterminding Celtic Heart was unaware of Kennedy and liked the track so much he ended up resigning him to the label. Kennedy still didn't end up selling many records but he was a worthwhile artist who was given a deserved break. Those of you who've been paying attention will remember that the exact same thing happened to a band I signed, Club St Louis who got dropped by Warners label East West (a label they re-christened Least Best) and then re-signed as Honky to the Warners label over the road WEA.

But I'm digressing from compilations. I really don't mean to be down on them. Some of the best records are the ones that mash together a load of stuff you wouldn't think of putting together yourself. There are two reasons why compilation can work, one is where in amongst a quagmire of unlistenable bollocks you find a gem you've never heard of which immediately rises to the top of all your playlists. Examples of this for me are hearing Quincy Jones' sexed up version of Loving Spoonful's Summer In the City on the first of the three quite superb Blaxploitation CDs that BMG put out in the 90s, Stan Getz's bonkers I'm Late, I'm Late on frequently hard-to-like The Verve Album and Roger Eno outdoing his brother with Winter Music on an All Saints Records compilation I bought at SXSW. More recently, I was reviewing a compilation for Word Magazine called Destroy That Boy - More Girls With Guitars and in amongst the enjoyable if predictable collection of 60s girl bands was a track called Hold On by Sharon Tandy, which makes Janis Joplin sound like Sandi Thom and is a guaranteed air-punching winner. You never know where

The other, perhaps more valid, reason for compilations is when they work as bona fide albums; where the tracklisting works in a way that artist albums are supposed to. I'm not going to list my favourites because they are probably the same as yours but I'd argue that by far and away the compilations that work best are reggae and ska ones.

Reasons for this are twofold, firstly, many of the artists contained on these compilations were singles artists who made one or two definitive tracks which are great and secondly reggae and ska are so stripped down and muscular that disparate artists can sit alongside one another without jarring. Oh, and of course, the quality level is invariably high. I've lost count of the number of great reggae, ska and dub compilations I own or my good friend and reggae 7" collector Russell has bootlegged me, but it's certainly more than any other genre. Sometimes I yearn for more artist-based ska and reggae albums but then you have to remember than a lot of the time it's the same band I'm listening to - the Skatalites, the Soul Brothers, the Soul Vendors - they're playing on most of the great ska records of the 60s, either under their own name(s) or backing everyone from the Wailers to Desmond Dekker as well as ending up being manipulated by Lee Perry et al later in the 70s when dub came in. Those guys, Tommy McCook and Roland Alphonso on tenor sax, Don Drummond on trombone, Lester Sterling on alto sax, Lloyd Brevett on bass, Lloyd Knibbs on drums, Jackie Mittoo on piano, Jerry Hines on guitar and John 'Dizzy' Moore on trumpet, deserve the same respect afforded to the usual Mojo and Uncut suspects. Indeed, if anyone is looking for a good story like Nick Moran has just produced about Joe Meek, they need look no further than Don Drummond, the trombonist who was the creative force behind many of the Skatalites tunes, a schizophrenic who was locked up for murder and was then found dead in his cell amidst rumours of gangland revenge.

I'm sure I'm not telling you anything you don't know already but if for some reason you aren't a huge fan of this sort of music or you haven't got to it yet then I have two compilation tips for you. Firstly Jazz in Jamaica, a compilation of great good time ska instrumentals including Roland Alphonso's mind blowingly wonderful Yard Broom. For some reason it seems to be deleted but you can still get it secondhand - or from me if you ask nicely. And secondly Studio One's Dub Specialist which is packed with lots of the same ska recordings but put through the dub blender and rendered otherworldly yet still warm and melodic. Again it's deleted - clearly Celtic Heart fans aren't particularly moved by it.

Judging from this week's compilation charts, it would appear that Celtic Heart fans have been persuaded to get into ska but only on the terms laid down in 1980 by Jerry Dammers. Ska Mania is currently at number 3 in the charts, sandwiched between Dad Rocks and Dad's Jukebox - it's not a bad compilation, a nice mixture of Two Tone and original Trojan artists, and it's a much better paternal experience than anything with the D word in its title.

I was going to leave it there for this week but I want to leave you with one final piece of compilation advice - if you are tempted to buy Common People - The Brit Pop Story, make sure you go in with a firmly held remote control - or rip the tracks you want - because I can only assume that whoever compiled it was deaf. Or mad. A three CD set that starts with the criminally overrated Auteurs then, after the brief respite of Elastica, sucker punches you with Gene. Relax, it gets worse. CD1 particularly is insane - Dubstar are are loggerheads with Black Grape who precede Stephen Duffy - you couldn't make it up. By CD2 you are lulled into a false sense of security by Pulp's title track (but relegated to volume 2?), Supergrass' Alright and Sleeper's Inbetweener then before can say Parklife, you're hit with Echobelly, Northern Uproar and Powder. There is of course good stuff here and you know that the Britpop years in my opinion were healthy for British music but this compilation seems to have been put together with the meticulous hatred of a serial killer - someone who wants to bury the genre for good. Come out and show yourself, whoever you are!

Friday, 12 June 2009

What kind of music are you into?


There you go.

What are you going to say now?

Not a very interesting answer is it? Possibly the most boring and predictable I could give you.

But let me tell you how I got there.

It's the hardest question in the world isn't it? I mean, we've all got great taste haven't we? Yet, to boil down our taste to a balsam that encapsulates our very being is, well, unfair, right? I can never answer that question. Partly because it opens up a whole six pack of worms that cover my career, my life choices etc etc. It's like asking me: Hey, Ben, would you mind baring your soul and brains so we can take the piss? Which of course is why I write this every week. So I can get the satisfaction of revealing the bits I want to without giving the entire game away.

But, if pushed, my answer to that question is thus: I like White Man (In Hammersmith Palais) by the Clash and This Year's Model by Elvis Costello. Despite the fact that I decided that these were my favourites 30 years ago, when I'd probably heard about 20 albums at most - and most of those were by Geoff Love or ELO - I still stand by that single and that album as being my favourites. I mean, they never let me down. I can be in any sort of mood, any situation and a snatch of White Man or the title track from Model will set me right. So at the risk of completely giving the game away, I confess to liking skinny tie new wave or more specifically, records made in 1978. I'm writing something for Loops about 1978 at the moment so the subject is banging around my brain but also I've been thinking a lot about how tastes change but somehow always remain the same.

You may have noticed over the last year or so's blogs, that I have been making references to listening to English Whimsy. English Whimsy was my original name for the sort of music that covers eccentric pop oddities that have something peculiarly English about them - examples from my new wave fave category are The Soft Boys or Ian Dury's first album or the pastoral side of XTC, but the genre slips backwards into Eno, Barrett, Drake, Ayers, Wyatt, Martyn, and Harper and forward into Goldfrapp and Tuung, although it ceases to have as much fascination for me once it takes on that 21st century self awareness.

But despite branding it English Whimsy, I soon realised that what I was actually beginning to like was Prog. So added to this list soon came Genesis, King Crimson and Yes and before I knew it I was turning into the sort of person I hated at school - the guys in the Sixth Form common room who had the Breakfast In America poster on the wall, or Tyler in my class who laughed at my Buzzcocks fixation and carefully wrote out the lyrics to Stairway To Heaven on his rough book to show me how much better they were than "your punk shit".

But I couldn't help myself and soon I found myself doing a column on BBC Radio 4 about how great Phil Collins is, contemplating buying Thick As A Brick and Aqualung and exploring the solo works of Robert Fripp.

But as I listened to You Burn Me Up Like A Cigarette from Fripp's all-over-the-shop solo album Exposure, it dawned on me that I was going full circle - here was the loop I'd been looking for, the link between the Whimsy or Prog and the Skinny Tie rock that I love: it's the genre that never spoke its name or was possibly too bookish and shy to do so: Prog Punk!

This is of course what Magazine really were. So it struck me that I must listen immediately to early Ultravox! (when they still had the ! in the name) ... This week I wrote a piece for the Guardian music blog about Ultravox!'s label, Island Records, attempting to inject a tiny bit of sanity into the otherwise mouth-foamingly reverential coverage of Island's alleged 50th anniversary. Of course, I love classic Island more than anyone at the moment - much of what I have been listening to during my Whimsy obsession is from Island's undisputed golden period (although I still can't quite get behind Dr Strangely Strange). But what I don't mention in the piece is Island's singular flailing uselessness in the face of punk. I mean, Eddie And The Hot Rods is just not enough is it? Perhaps it was just not musical enough for them and, I suppose, they were proven right: not much from the punk years has endured in the same way as the reggae, ska, rock and folk that Island pioneered.

But at least they had a go at Ultravox!, whose Island debut contains songs with promising punk titles like Satday Night In The City Of The Dead, Wide Boys and My Sex. You can imagine the record company looking forward to hearing these tracks and finally having something that X-Ray Spex fans might want to buy. I can taste the fear of the A&R man at the time, who knew that promisingly titled punk wave rocker I Want To Be A Machine was actually an acoustic ballad which opens on the line "I found the bones of all your ghosts, locked in the wishing well..." And rather than being a chest-beating S&M thrash, My Sex, turned out to an ambient piano-led synth piece. Boy, did he have some prog on his face.

But listening to this album and the slightly punkier follow-up Ha!-Ha!-Ha! they sound way less dated that the Midge Ure's Oh Vienna new romantics - I cannot recommend Ultravox!'s Prog Punk classics highly enough,- give them a go on Spotify then snap them up for under £4 on Amazon.

So once I'd recognised the hidden genre of PP I realised that if my taste has evolved from the 13 year old who bought those Clash singles, it has gone in this direction. So a snapshot of PP classics from my favourite 70s period like Eno's Here Come The Warm Jets and Magazine's Correct Use Of Soap, Buzzcocks' Different Kind of Tension, the Cure's Seventeen Seconds and the first three albums from my perennial favourites Wire. But it also incorporates my favourite album of the last 20 years... Yes you guessed it, it's by Radiohead. But it's not OK Computer, it's The Bends.

It's hard to describe the indifference surrounding Radiohead when The Bends first came out. Sure, they had a fanbase, but even their PR company Hall Or Nothing used to show off about them being a 'best kept secret' - sort of like a hairdresser listing the number of bald customers he styles. I remember sitting on a train going to see some gig with a very well known indie tastemaker - he had a promo cassette (cassette!) of The Bends - "You like this lot, don't you?" he asked casually, "I can take it or leave to be honest" he added. I told him I loved My Iron Lung and had been played some mixes by John Leckie's management when they came in for a meeting. In fact they had wanted to play me John's work on Elastica but I had heard a handful of the new Radiohead tunes at a gig at the Highbury Islington Garage, the week before, and I still had a song called The Bends in my head. They obliged and played me an unmixed version of the track. It was electrifying - I'm not just saying that, even in the context of a workaday A&R meeting with some producer managers I found myself bristling with excitement.

So when the tastemaker offered me the unwanted promo cassette I grabbed it. For the next couple of months it the only thing on in the car. At first I found it heavy going - so much detail, layers of complex guitar, lyrics that seemed like a JG Ballad novel. But after two listens the song Black Star leapt out, then soon afterwards the rest of the album opened up like a flower. I became evangelical perhaps too much as no one took me seriously. In a world that was obsessed with Blur and snappy, cynical, handsome indie kids it just didn't fit. This was Sleeper's time and I of course was enjoying riding that wave. But I remember bumping into Radiohead's manager's at an EMI Music Publishing street party in Denmark St. They had a new band called Supergrass who looked like they were going to be the year's big thing. I congratulated them. Then told them that the band of theirs I thought were the best was Radiohead and how much I was loving The Bends - they looked slightly bemused ; who was this weirdo? Hadn't he heard the I Should CoCo advance cassette?

Of course Supergrass shared a label with Radiohead - they were signed by the same guy and I'm a big fan of theirs too. But I can't somehow see EMI releasing box set versions of their first three albums as they have just done with Radiohead. It was odd opening the Bends box, given that my old CD is as close to being worn out as CDs ever get. I thought I had most of the singles from the period but the accompanying CD of B sides is revelatory in that it threw up a load of tracks I never heard at the time but which, if not as good as anything from the actual album, are pretty splendid. And it's great finally to have everything together in one box. I'm sad enough to have wondered when EMI were finally going to package up the b sides, partly because I lost my favourite ones. I brought round my Fake Plastic Trees CD to Stephen Duffy's flat in Albert Street to play him the fantastic India Rubber and How Can You Be Sure? in 1995. I never got it back. I don't blame Stephen, you understand, it probably slipped fell under a sofa, and we were having such intense Britpop fun at the time that I only noticed it was missing several years later.

But as usual am I digressing into a sea of bollocks. Prog Punk then, is not the scratchy post punk that the newly-founded indie labels of the late 70s specialised in and which Simon Reynold's about writes so well about in Rip It Up. PP is actually rather well played. Radiohead's Just, for example, has several completely different sounding and incredibly well delivered guitar solos one after the other. But, like original proggers King Crimson, it doesn't resist the urge to rock. Something I find the later period Radiohead doing quite a lot. Of course, I know I'm in minority in thinking that The Bends is better than OK Computer, but as ever, as with my choice of favourite Bond film (On Her Majesty's Secret Service, of course - it's got the best music!) I am prepared to defend the underdog.

And what an underdog. Like White Man (In Hammersmith Palais) and This Year's Model, it always gets me no matter where I hear it and in what mood. It used to be my 'favourite album of the 90s' but looking back over the last 15 years since it came out, I should probably add another decade to that accolade. I certainly can't think of another album I've played more by a band who are still a going concern. And discovering this week that Thom Yorke is playing Latitude is exciting news - particularly in the knowledge that I might spy him in the audience for Magazine. Taking copious Prog Punk notes, I hope.

Friday, 5 June 2009

South East London Song Contest

The band are now playing at full pelt, brass section giving it oomph, Telecasters are chopping and bass syncopating with snare. But the enthusiastic dancers have given the floor over to someone who is clearly having it larger than they are. The shape thrower in question, who looks like a combination of the foreman from Auf Widersehen Pet and Little Krankie, has now stripped off his polo shirt and is doing bare-chested press-ups on the pub floor. Ah, it's good to be back in South East London on a Saturday night.

The patrons of the Ladywell Tavern must be the only people in the entire country who aren't watching the final of Britain's Got Talent. Why am I missing this televisual feast? Don't I want to see how SuBo is going to fare? Am I, as my good friend Andy suggests, "a bit weird"? Why would I want to miss the ultimate bit of communal A&R? After all, I couldn't resist sitting down with my five year-old daughter and watching a generous slice of Eurovision this year. No one can accuse me of being some elitist twat who only accepts music that has been blessed by hipsters as you will know if you've been reading this for any length of time. I am, in fact, the polar opposite of this; far more likely to embrace a Girls Aloud album than one by Bon Iver - how many tunes does Bon have per song? Answer: two at best; how many do Xenomania give Girls Aloud? Five per song. Fah. Eye. Vah! Count 'em.

Eurovision had the usual pitiful selection of tunes but some unforgettable performances - Dita Van Tease's appearance with Germany's appalling entry was so popular with Maddy that she forced me to sit through it a second time the moment it finished. How I cursed the Sky+. At least she showed a modicum of taste when half way through Norway's inexplicably winning entry, referring to an earlier Graham Norton quip, she said, "Daddy, I agree with what that man said before, I want to give him a slap too."

But why watch talent on the telly when you can go out and see some of it in real life? We were off to see the band - The Grey Cats - that a friend of mine plays in. The clue of course is in the name - these men are not young. Some of them are even older than me. By day they are all mortgaged, parenting, reliable pillars of society but every now and then they put on some black clothes, pick up horns, guitars and sticks and practice some Clash songs. They've all got their own hair and most of them are slim enough to have tucked-in shirts without looking like cabbies. In short: for a bunch of old fellas singing London Calling they don't look too ridiculous.

The pub is packed for their performance, mostly friends and family of course - but how brilliant does this feel? It's like I suppose it was before entertainment was provided so easily on recordings - when, as the cliche goes, you had to make your own entertainment. To a certain extent I go along with Bill Drummond who believes that 'all recorded music has run its course' and that we should ditch it all and 'start again'. Clearly The Grey Cats are not out to produce anything quite so radical as Drummond's choir - you can't imagine The 17 doing a version of Stray Cat Strut with as much gusto as The Grey Cats - but the fact that we have all come to watch some blokes playing for fun, who have no worries about playing a few bum notes or wonky time signatures, says something.

Perhaps it's what all of us who never really liked sport are destined to do - instead of golf or fishing or watching the cricket we dust down our guitars, buy some new plectrums and get on the phone to some cheap rehearsal rooms. I'm playing music again for the first time in 20 years, as are many of my friends. I've yet to do any gigs (and boy, if I do, am I going to keep that one quiet) but I'm in a minority - one bunch of 40-something friends are in a band called Mass Data Storage (I love this band name) - who, despite having a jazz-obsessed bass player with the brain the size of a planet, only play three chord new wave covers.

The beauty of pop music being so old is that we are now all mature enough to recognise it as something which we shouldn't feel bad about maintaining a passion for until we die. Why should we put childish things away as we puff up, lose brain cells and develop ear hair? Most of us had some sort of aspiration to play rock when we were young but it's only recently become acceptable for normal middle aged guys, who aren't Stephen King or Simon Armitage to get up and play just as badly as they did when they were teenagers.

And talking of teenagers, last week I also got some first hand experience of another phenomenon at the other end of the age spectrum: the pop music school. I was asked to talk to a bunch of students at a North London music school about their Myspace pages .

The idea of going to school to learn about pop music still seems slightly bizarre to me. After all, School of Rock was only a handful of years ago. But these schools are a massive growth area in the UK and seemingly there is no end to the amount of kids who want to formalise their pop music knowledge so they can earn a living from it. Come to think of it, my mate from The Grey Cats has a daughter who goes to the BRITs school in Croydon.

This was the first time I'd ever spoken to students about the music business and frankly I was a little alarmed. Not just at the prospect of standing up in front of a class who might take anything I said as undisputed truth but also at what you say to kids who want to get into the music business when no one really knows what this business is any more.

Of course, the usual thing happened before any of the kids arrived - no one could work out how to make the overhead projector connect to the laptop. It's always the same, whether you are organising a surprise birthday party for your wife or an international A&R conference: whenever more than 6 people gather together in a conference room, all AV gear will stop working for as long as it takes for everyone from Post Room staff to Prada-sporting CEOs to be on their hands and knees under furniture shouting "Is it working now? Can you press AUX? No? Well, press PHONO, see if that works!"

Eventually we got it working (one of the students saved the day, of course) and in the blink of an eye the two hours I was booked to talk to them disappeared. In that time I found myself spouting all sorts of music industry lore I never even knew existed. I've heard this is what happens to lecturers and teachers - you are seduced by the sound of your voice - hey, I'm making these guys laugh... I AM A GOLDEN GOD.

This was a very smart bunch of kids and most of what I was saying was simple common sense - about logos, images and blogs - but they still seemed to something from it. We didn't speak much about songwriting and the music each Myspace was promoting but in preparing for the lecture I'd come across some notes I'd made back in the 90s when I was at Indolent and listening to far too many demos. I decided to close on this just to give them a little hint at the depths of my cynicism - it's a list of the most common lyrical cliches I found on demo tapes. Believe me, these blunders are so common if you have ever written a song you will have used one. So here as a little bonus are the Top Ten Lyrics To Be Avoided

10 Deep inside (combined either with "I've got a feeling..." or "Make you feel good...")
9 How much you mean to me
8 I hope and I pray
7 Don't matter what I do (plus optional) just can't get over you
6 Change... rearrange
5 You can't run, you can't hide
4 Just can't go on (and yet somehow, they manage to...)
3 Should have seen those lies in your eyes (plus optional) made me realise
2 Never thought it could be this way
1 Till the break of dawn.

The Grey Cats have a couple of their own songs which avoid any of the above - something I think we must thank the punk rock idiom for is the absence of navel gazing love lyrics. And talking of navel gazing, I find myself staring at the naked torso of Mr Krankie who is now being escorted from the pub by the landlord. He is clearly no stranger to White Ace and has a face which tells a thousand stories - most of them ending in being escorted from the building. "He comes to all our shows" announces Grey Cats singer Jac, and there is a ripple of mirth before the floor fills again to the strains of a Message to You Rudie and I start worrying about the babysitter.