Saturday, 17 September 2016

I love music so why can't I get excited about hi-fi?

Last week I was asked to write another column for BBC's Front Row. (you can listen to it here by the way, about 3 minutes towards the end of the show). They were keen to do something to mark Apple's announcement of the new iPhone 7 and its ditching of the 3.5mm headphone jack plug.

As I sat there  in BBC Gloucester with the avuncular producer in London, guiding me through my reading, it occurred to me that prior to doing the piece, I rarely gave much thought to the nuts and bolts of listening to recorded music.

This is odd because, I've got shelves and shelves of the stuff as you know: a mountain of CDs which I'm trying to offload; too much vinyl, multiple copies of Velvet Underground and The Clash, a habit Im trying to curb but which gets thwarted every time I go into a secondhand record shop or do another podcast - both weekly activities, by the way;  plus boxes and boxes of singles, old cassettes and 6 disc box sets up the wazoo. But my record player? My amplifier? My speakers? Meh.

Some of my records - as alphabeticised by my daughters.

The turntable, my wife bought me when she worked for Sony a gazillion years ago; it's OK and does the job but it's not something you can stroke and admire like some of the stuff out there. I was at a friend's 50th last year where everyone was invited to bring a 7" single to play.  He had an absolute beauty of a turntable -  the same one that features in A Clockwork Orange, which I now read is a called a Mitchell Transcriptor Hydraulic Reference Turntable. A real fetish item for collectors apparently.

Alex with his Mitchell Transcriptor in Kurbrick's A Clockwork Orange

My friend, I should say is a music professional as well as a connoisseur of 1960s art and design. But when we tried to play a 7" copy of Boy Wonder's 'Goodbye Jimmy Dean', there were precious little hydraulics and certainly no transcription as the stylus resolutely refused to play anything other than the run out groove. And eventually this 7" themed party reverted, like most parties these days, to being DJ'd by Spotify.

My amplifier until last year was a second hand NAD which I'd bought from my brother years ago. It had the Volume and Balance control on one hugely irritating dial, forcing you to hold the front bit (Vol) still while you fiddled with the bottom bit (Bal) to make adjustments. Like a stubborn jam jar. Also whenever I used it at a party it would cut out over a certain volume and have to be given an hour's worth of R&R to cool down before it returned to work. Not good when you've got a bunch of drunk 40 somethings all keen to continue dancing to 'Get Lucky'.

But did I ever do anything about it in all those (20 - argh!) years? Nope. Just a bit of occasional moaning before going back out to buy more stuff to play through it. I finally replaced it last year with a Cambridge Audio amp from Richer Sounds which is, by far and away, the most expensive bit of kit I've ever bought for the purpose of listening to recorded music. About £150. Steady on, Wardle.

And the speakers? Up until Chestnut The Cat went for them, I was using speakers I'd bought years before while I was an A&R man. I can't even remember their name. Nick, the lovely man from an outfit called Seven O Sound got them for me. His company used to get BMG all their hi fi kit. It was Nick who would come out and fix it during meetings as well. This would invariably happen when the MD or Chairman would want to play something to the A&R department and no one could work out how to get the system working. It was his job to use the line, "Have you turned it on?"You think I'm joking? A love of hi fi is not consistent with a love of music.

Chestnut realising the speakers are now too high for her to destory.

Anyway the speakers Nick got me which I'm sure were great and certainly cost quite a bit, eventually got savaged by Chestnut's merciless claws and I was forced to replace them. So did I buy What Hi Fi and seek out the latest state of the art kit? What do you think? I bought an old pair from my friend Russell who had them going spare. They aren't that pretty and they're certainly not new but someone once told me that British speakers were the best and these are British and made by Celestion. Hifi experts reading this will now be nodding sagely or shaking their heads in disbelief at my nativity but I don't care; they make a noise and you can hear the bass. Woofers? Check. Tweeters? You betcha!

One of my two Celestion speakers, yesterday. Note handy copy of Roger's Profanisaurus.

I've recently put all these bits into an organised shelf system on my study wall (see below) so I can sit and listen to New Boots And Panties at full volume in a chair whilst drinking tea . I am now faced with the reality of my hifi choices; there's nowhere for them to run. Now those speakers are on the wall in the correct place there is no excuse; now the turntable is on a shelf unconnected to the floor I can do as much dad dancing as I like without the record skipping. It sounds good to me. I'm sure if someone came round who really knew about hifi they'd immediately say that the stereo channels are back to front, I've used the wrong cables, the stylus is worn out or make an ironic comment about me still having a cassette player all wired up and ready to go (Ironically, my Yamaha cassette deck is probably the most state of the art bit of kit I have - another heirloom from A&R years).

The new shelves with my rather indifferent turntable centre stage.

But I don't care - I'm enjoying myself and that's the main thing. And remember when most of us listen to music on Spotify Premium via an iPhone in a car or a portable mono Bluetooth speaker why should we get uptight about whether we've our hifi is state of the art?

Mind you, if you have any advice for me on getting a new turntable do let me know...

Monday, 25 July 2016

Oh No! He's written a poem...

Given that more prosaic areas of my life have temporarily swallowed up regularly entries here, I took it upon myself to write a poem on Father's Day. Thanks to my wife who allowed me the time to write it and Esther who inspired me to write it, which you'll see if you make it to the last stanza.


After playing with Action Man
Not quite yet thirteen
Toys began to be replaced
With new discoveries
And so a life began through school
And university
The Jam, The Clash, The Buzzcocks.

The weekend plan was alcohol
In pubs around Blackheath
With sparkling lines we would approach
Girls in twos and threes.
Defeated, back at Robert’s house
We’d curse virginity:
The Jam, The Clash, The Buzzcocks.

The names began to mount up
A new wave family tree
Biroed on my Adidas bag
And torn from NME
Played on Radio Luxembourg
Before school on Sunday
The Jam, The Clash, The Buzzcocks.
And XTC.

In my teenage bedroom
A pungent sanctuary
Lying on the carpet
Reading inner sleeves
I’ve catalogued and labelled
Each new discovery:
The Jam, The Clash, The Buzzcocks.

Tapping fingers on the wall
The man nods frantically
He’s listening to The Snivelling Shits
In the British Library
Like me, he’s there to worship
At the altar of memory:
The Jam, The Clash, The Buzzcocks.

In the second hand record shop
Through racks from A to C
There’s the one with the yellow sleeve
There’s the one in green
I own them all a thousand times
But still I need to see
The Jam, The Clash, The Buzzcocks.

“I’m going to write a poem!”
My daughter says to me,
She asks me for some paper
And scampers off in glee.
On Father’s Day, I look downhill,
A lifetime lost at sea:
The Jam, The Clash, The Buzzcocks.
And XTC.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Why Do We Listen To Music?

Today I listened to Gregory Porter’s ‘Hey Laura’. It’s from his first album, Liquid Spirit, which I came late to. Strange because the genre, a sort of easy listening mid-tempo jazz sounds really irksome on paper. What is going on? I like scratchy guitars, backing vocals and lyrics about everything being terrible. Or failing that, just something recorded in 1978.  

I listen to everything but there are some records that transcend it all. And when records like this arrive, it’s like the Bell Jar lifting. Porter reminds me of Jon Lucien, in particular his song ‘Sunny Day’. I find it very hard not be swept away everytime I hear it. Everything seems clear; everything feels OK. All the worries, the problems in front of me and the issues in the world, all of them shrink down while the hairs on the back of my neck respond and I am cleansed in voice and tune.

This makes me realise the esteem in which I place music; the faith I lay in its power. Most of the time I find myself being disparaging about everything I hear. I now realize that this is because I have such high expectations. If music is capable of such mood alchemy then what is the point of music which doesn’t do this? Of music, which just exists for its momentary singalong value?

Then again, perhaps it’s just my mood. If a piece of music hits a mood full on, then there’s the alchemy. Like that euphoric moment where the drums come back in after a breakdown on the dancefloor, or a bright Sunday morning, sipping coffee and listening to pretty much any track from Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Or when driving back from having done something great and putting Fountains of Wayne’s Radiation Vibe* on the car stereo. 

Porter has what some writers might call a warm, honeyed voice; it’s reassuring and friendly in tone and it draws you in on the ballads. Perhaps that’s what grabbed me then;  the reassurance. It changed my mood from one of mild anxiety to a fuzzy dream state. I don’t know but whatever it was, like an addict I’m going to look for that thrill again. I may not find it again in the same song but at some point I’ll find it in another. 

*A truly fantastic record but one of the worst videos of all time - I have linked to the audio; don't, whatever you do, experience this song for the first time via the video.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

The Post Bowie Vacuum Finally Begins to Fill

Of course, the first thing you'd expect here would be a nice picture of The Dame.

I don't think you need to see another one, do you? You've already got your own best image of him in your head.

Like almost everyone who has already written things far better than I ever could, I never met David Bowie. And yet... and yet. He was personally important in ways which I  - and the rest of the world - are only now really realising.

I missed the one opportunity of meeting him when I was working at RCA/BMG and he signed to us for the Earthling album. He came into the building at Putney Bridge and by all accounts hung out for a bit and was very friendly. I was out that day; probably in a studio pretending to be important or maybe sitting in traffic on the M56 in an attempt to find a group in Manchester. I have no idea. I just remember that "guess who you missed meeting?" crowing on my return. Ah well.

Anyway, since I last wrote this on my return from all those US and Canadian record shops, where have I been? What have I been doing?

Well, for starters, although it seems like a lifetime ago, there was this:

Yes, that's me, gesticulating wildly whilst doing a lecture. I was explaining What's the Point of A&R?  to a hall of students studying Popular Music. Who would've thought that would be a course? It is, though. I wonder if I'd gone on it, I would have ended up signing more successful bands?

I also wrote a text version of it a couple of weeks ago for Music Business Worldwide and was astonished how many friends and colleagues got back to me agreeing with my 3 Commandments of A&R. After all, it's been a very long time since I actually did the job. It appears, however, despite massively decreased sales, that not much has changed about the actual job. And its necessity.

Then Christmas happened, Lemmy died, then Bowie and it we were suddenly beached into a whole new year where everything seemed different.

Since then, my bearings have been steadied by a number of things. Firstly, the new Mystery Jets album Curve Of The Earth. A friend of mine gave me an advance copy of it before Christmas and I've been living with it since then. To be perfectly honest, I don't often get excited about new records: last year I enjoyed Courtney Barnett, Ezra Furman and Slaves but I'm not sure I'll be continuing to listen to them much this year. This new Mystery Jets elpee is staying with me; it's about as good as it gets: opaque intriguing lyrics, brilliantly sung by a singer who's really got the chops and most important - the thing that gets underestimated or simply taken for granted - great soaring tunes that twist in unexpected yet entirely satisfying ways. These are songs that somehow always existed yet here they are for the first time! Listen to Bombay Blues if you don't believe me. If you want a glib, quick reference it's The Shins meets Arctic Monkeys. I've read a couple of miserly reviews in The Guardian and Mojo already. Ignore them, go and listen to it, then tell me I'm wrong if you must. I met two of them a few days ago for the podcast and they as good company as their music.

Another surprise and bearings-steadier in the post Bowie vacuum was discovering that Micky Gegus, co-founder and guitarist of West Ham hard case punks Cockney Rejects is a total gent.

I interviewed him ahead of a screening of Richard England's wonderful film about the band, East End Babylon and I suspect like a lot of people, I hadn't really properly listened to the Cockney Rejects during their heyday. They were too firmly aligned with football,which I have never been interested in, and the songs I heard on the radio (I've Forever Blowing Bubbles and Greatest Cockney Rip Off) seemed too lumpen and dull to warrant investigation of any album. Now giving their tunes a bit of time (in both senses: distance from the release date as well as my own listening time), whilst they're never going to compete with, say, The Clash or The Jam,  I was overwhelmed by their musicality and freshness. Tracks like East End or Oi Oi Oi are genuinely great. They were so young at the time too. And who can argue with a band who spent their advance on fireworks and treats from the school tuckshop?

I'm wasn't going to go about rock deaths today but after losing two originals like Lemmy and Bowie within weeks, I fear, we're going to have to start getting used to losing old friends over the next few years. Rock's first great wave are now that age: getting ready to leave the planet,  It's the pitiful cry of a 50 something white westerner but we're not going to see their like again; once they're gone, will we be charting the fascinating courses taken by Bieber, Swift and Kanye? Well, I'm sure some people will be, but not me.

Just before he died, Lemmy made an advertisement for a well know brand of Finnish milk. If you haven't seen it, have a look; it's the only advert I've ever seen where the product is actively spurned by the person promoting it. Anyway, it provided me with the inspiration to write a column for BBC Radio 4's Front Row about how products use wild men of rock to promote their stuff.

And if you like the sound of my voice banging on, try this one I did on charity shops being the new record shops - it was broadcast just tonight (Thursday 28th January) but I recorded it before Christmas as a timeless piece they could use to fill space. They added it so last minute that I don't even get billed on the website - it's about 20 minutes into the show.

A lovely thing appeared online towards the end of last week which for me, put an end to the unexpected period of Bowie mourning. It was the release of a bit of studio japery by the Bo-man recorded during the Langer & Winstanley sessions for Absolute Beginners. In it he impersonates Springsteen, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Anthony Newley and several others. It's both funny and also touching; a snapshot of the great man taking a break at work. I love the fact that he was capable of being a highbrow bonafide artist whilst simultaneously being a South East London piss taker. OK, so there are far less Laughing Gnomes than Beauty And The Beasts (and a good thing too) but there is also a catalogue of evidence, which points to Bowie being able to laugh at himself and others. To be perfectly honest, when I hear a band like, say, this week, Savages, talk earnestly about their art, I just want to reach for the eject button. When Ricky Gervais suggested Bowie finally got a proper job as he turned 60, the Dame apparently replied he had one and it was 'Rock God'. This is the man who talked in the unique scatalogical manner of Derek to Brian Eno's Clive whilst the two of them recorded Heroes and Low.

And of course his last TV appearance on Extras. Is it too much to ask for Little Fat Man to be released as a charity record?