Morning salmagundi 8/7/15: Music

I finally reached the end of the nightmare last night. The last compact disc disappeared from my shelves, digitally dismembered into the Cloud, its silvery blandness dispatched to one of half-a-dozen disc holders and sent to the bottom of a cupboard.

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There’s a lovely line in Andy Miller’s terrific book The Year of Reading Dangerously when he says he had ‘confused reading with shopping.’ For years, I made the same mistake with music. I’d plunder HMV for bargains, soak up Fopp’s latest offers, and watch my shelves fill up with music I knew nothing about and rarely listened to. Then, the iPod came along, and like everyone else I was plugged into the infernal bloody device, awash with music as I walked down the street – not really music at all, actually, just an incessant ambient electronic noise to which I paid little attention even while I grew more and more irritated with it.

Was there a finer emblem for this disposable, consumerist, unlovable period than the compact disc? A shitty circle of mysterious material, encased in a fiddly yet enragingly cheap plastic case, its sleeve no better than a primary school mailing to parents? And when we shoved it into the players which, somehow, the music industry had conned us into buying in the 80s and 90s, what did we find? More often than not, a badly remastered mess, which seemed to offer no more than the baleful ability to ‘skip’. Music wasn’t something to be wallowed in anymore. Music was something to have time found for, to be boiled down to those elements we, as listeners, found most immediately engaging. Steven Soderbergh says he decided to stop making films when he was on a plane and saw a man watching edited highlights of action films – just the bang bang bits, with all the dialogue and story expunged. That’s what compact discs gave us. Well, sod ’em.

I don’t listen to music when I’m working anymore. I don’t listen to it when I’m walking around in the world, which has birds and people and shit in it, all of them there to be listened to. I’ve just disabled Apple Music, the perplexing complexity of which turns listening into personal lifestyle programming, and I won’t have it. I listen to Tom Cox and Pete Paphides on Mixcloud, I listen to Cerys Matthews and Huey Morgan on 6music, I follow musical clues from good soundtracks on Rdio (currently: the playlist for True Detective Series One, the music for which was collected by T Bone Burnett, and what fool would use iTunes Genius instead of him for music recommendations). My CDs have been ripped and filed away. And, yes, of course, the vinyl has come out again. Last week I bought a record on eBay by an early ’70s country rock band named Poco who I first heard on Tom Cox’s radio show, recorded by musicians in the same room as one another. It was magnificent.

 

What modern music will endure?

We’ve been having a splendid time on Facebook suggesting albums which we think we’ll still be listening to in 20 years, amid a morass of manufactured and shrill digital pop pap. I’ve embedded the thread here – care to join in?

Blissed out in the Theatre Royal

They say (well, I say, at least) that the music you listen to in your teens is the music that stays with you the longest, but this effect is so pronounced that even music you didn’t know you were listening to remains wedged in the lizard brain, impossible to shift. When I was at my most musically aware, it seemed that every girl I knew had a copy of Aztec Camera’s High Land Hard Rain, and every one of them was a little bit in love with Roddy Frame, the skinny genius from East Kilbride who’d essentially recorded it. Aztec Camera never quite resonated with me back then: too smooth, too mellow, too (ahem) girly at a time when I liked my music exciting, spiky and chest-beltingly robust.

Or so I thought. Fast forward three decades (three decades!) and I get an email from a very old friend saying he’s got a ticket to the 30th anniversary concert for High Land Hard Rain, and would I like to go? I’ll admit that the venue – the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, of all places – was at least as intriguing as the talent, but I said yes without hesitation. And I’m very glad I did.

Roddy Frame is two years older and about four stone lighter than I am. He’s also modest, gentle, very funny and still so ferociously talented that those of us who play a little bit of guitar were breaking our own fingers by the end of the gig. Roddy played a small solo set to start, and then we were into High Land Hard Rain itself.

Song after song washed over me, played beautifully and all of them wistfully familiar. Some I recognised straight away, others took me a while, but all of them reminded me of quiet evenings in bedrooms in Kent with cigarettes and beer, talking about the future and planning the coming weekend’s parties. The lyrics of the songs seemed to be bravely hopeful and blissed-out; none of your postmodern ironic distance here, thanks very much.

People – most of them women – sang along to the songs, and the old theatre did begin to feel like the biggest bedroom in the world, full of your best mates. I really did have a huge soppy smile on my face the whole night. It might have been the wine. It almost certainly wasn’t just the wine. These songs had crept under my skin and waited there for thirty years to be rediscovered, like old friends you didn’t know the value of when you had them.

So thanks, Tim, for the ticket. Thanks to those old friends – most of them girls – who shared High Land Hard Rain with me back when music was the most important thing in the world. And thanks Roddy Frame for such a delicious evening of modest brilliance.

 

Heritage Rock done right

Luke Haines has an attractively nasty little song on his album Off My School At The Art School Bop. It’s called Heritage Rock Revolution:

It’s an effortless skewering of the rock heritage industry, and includes the lines I love rock ‘n’ roll, I hope it never dies, Put it in a time capsule, And bury it alive.

Now, young Luke is a year younger than me. So he was approaching forty when he wrote those lines. I wonder if that was relevant? I wonder if he was raging at his own musical tastes, like a homophobe enraged by his own sexuality? Because since I turned forty, my attitude to heritage rock has done the equivalent of a handbrake turn in a Ford Granada estate, drifting gently in a huge semi-circle to face the opposite direction.

These days, I can’t get enough of the stuff.

Last night I experienced the purest form of this particularly insidious narcotic: more than two hours of The Who at the O2. In the company of my son, who is experiencing a lot of this stuff the first time around. Backed by a ridiculously good band, the two remaining Whovians banged out a passionate, committed and epic version of Quadrophenia, and then finished the set off with as perfect a set of stadium rock standards as there is in existence: Who Are You, Pinball Wizard, You Better You Bet, Baba O’Riley, Won’t Get Fooled Again.

Two weeks ago, I went to see the Specials at the Brixton Academy. Same thing with a better beat and sexier dancing. Heritage Rock. A shared memory of something magnificent.

I once did some work with Grazia magazine, and in the editorial meeting one week I pointed out how so many of the fashions were essentially facsimiles of stuff from twenty years before. ‘It all comes round again, doesn’t it?’ I said. To which one very bright young thing replied: ‘Yes, it does. But there’s a rule: you can only wear it once.’ This is the exact opposite of music.

Over a beer ten years ago, a friend once asked me ‘if you had to choose between listening only to music recorded up until now, or only to music recorded from now on, which would you choose?’ I adopted a Luke Haines sneer and said the latter, of course. The future was all about possibility! Something truly great might come along! Why would you turn your back on that?

Ten years later, I’d like to change my answer, please.

The people who stare at bands

This is a tale of two gigs which took place last night. One I went to and one I didn’t.

The gig I didn’t go to was Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine at the Brixton Academy last night. I’ve seen Carter half-a-dozen times now, and have even met Jim Bob himself (who turns out to be as nice a person as you’d expect from his lyrics and his tweets and now his very funny novels). Carter gigs involve a lot of jumping up and down and shouting and singing and generally throwing beer around. They are, needless to say, enormous fun, as this fan will attest:

The reason I didn’t go this time was because the opportunity came up to see someone I’d never seen play live, who’s rarely on these shores and whose concerts are famed for their intensity: Lucinda Williams.

That’s right: Lucinda Bloody Williams. The High Priest of Heartbreak herself. She played the first of two nights at the Royal Festival Hall, and she was everything I’d been led to believe. Her voice was as clear as glass and as knowing as a New Orleans madam. Her band was tighter than Ginger Baker’s drum skins. And her audience….

Well.

We sat there in our serried ranks, not making a squeak during the songs. As she moved the set on – from low-pitched, sad ballads to the enormous boogying footstompers of the encore – we sat. We clapped between songs. We were glared at if we whooped. We stroked our chins and hugged our wives and generally behaved as if we were watching Kramer vs. Kramer and not one of the most potent live acts in the world.

And heaven forbid if any one of us should get up and dance.

At the end, a few of us braver souls stood and applauded and even whooped a little. I looked behind me when I stood, and there was a row of people: quiet, still, not even clapping. Just watching.

I suppose some of this is inevitable. People get older, and now more than ever those people want to watch the same music they enjoyed in their 20s. Big acts like Lucinda Williams aren’t going to tour England’s smaller venues, where it’s still possible to have a whisky and a bit of a boogie.

But I think there’s something else going on here. During the gig, Lucinda spoke about how wonderful the sound was in the Festival Hall. And it was, because the Hall’s built for symphonic music; when you shove the harsher and simpler acoustics of a rock band in there, they’re bound to sound amazing.

But the downside is that audiences then sit and watch music that was meant to be stood up and danced to. And they do it with this ponderous attentiveness which has as much in common with a traditional rock gig as ELO’s Rockaria has with Monteverdi.

So please, Lucinda. Next time you come to England, pick a big hall with a bar at the back and a sticky floor. Make it smelly and draughty, with toilets your mother would weep at. Pile up big cabinets on either side of the stage to make up for the awful echoing sound. And then play. And watch us dance.

That way, I won’t go home with one thought in my head: Should have gone to Carter.

A very strange piece of music

Like most middle-class males of my age in Britain, I grew up with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I was 12 when the radio version came out. I was 13 when the first book was published, and 34 when the final one came out. I was 15 when the TV version appeared. I was 39 when the movie version came out. And I was 34 when we lost Douglas Adams. Sometimes I feel like Hitchhiker’s is some kind of cultural childminder, watching over my development and careful of my towel.

And music being what music is, the trigger for nostalgic thoughts of Adams and Hitchhiker’s is always that theme tune. The strange minor-key banjo, the jaunty strings, the development from quiet to drama within seconds, the endlessly flexible use to which it can be put. I’ve always loved it so, so much. And last week I discovered I knew nothing about it at all.

I knew Bernie Leadon wrote it. I knew he’d been in The Eagles in their first incarnation. I’d always thought this was kind of interesting, and wondered how the BBC had persuaded an American rock god to write the theme for their little series.

Except of course he didn’t. Because the truth I discovered last week was this: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy theme tune is an Eagles song.

Apologies if you already knew this. I did not know this. I am genuinely amazed by it. What an extraordinary mixture of heritages: a gawky middle-class boy from England writes a sardonic, witty and inventive spoof of science fiction, which is turned into a radio and TV series by similarly gawky and middle-class boys from the BBC, and to introduce it they find a piece of music by a band who by then were the byword for west coast rock pomposity and excess. And somehow they find the one piece of music that band recorded that sounds like British prog.

But listen to it. It’s amazing. It’s a six-minute prog rock track inserted into an album by a folk-rock band who were already breaking sales records. Imagine Leadon bringing it into the studio.

“Ok, guys. We’ve got love songs. We’ve got rockers. We’ve got a bit of country. But I want us to consider a six-minute banjo orchestration that, six or seven years from now, will be chosen as the theme tune for a British sci fi comedy.”

Maybe they were too out of it to notice. But applaud Leadon’s brilliance – first for writing and recording it, then for getting it on an Eagles album. And think of Douglas Adams putting that Eagles album on his turntable, seeing the title ‘Journey of the Sorcerer’ on the track listing, sliding the needle over to it, and then…. mind blown.

Enjoy.

Picture credits:

Douglas Adams: by Michael Hughes from Wikimedia Commons

Bernie Leadon and Glenn Frey: from Wikimedia Commons

 

 

You couldn’t run a mud bath

I have this image of John Giddings preparing for an April walk in the Lake District. He packs flip flops, sunglasses, shorts and t-shirts, smears on the sun cream and looks forward to the ice cream. Then he arrives, and remembers that England is a temperate island on the warpath of every Atlantic weather front there is.

Who is John Giddings? He’s the man who brought you this:

In other words, he “organises” the Isle of Wight Festival. At which I had the great fortune to spend two windswept, mud-lashed nights over the weekend.

You’ve read the stories by now. You’ve seen the photos of attractive young girls covered in mud in the newspapers, smiling through the horror. What you haven’t seen is the crush for the toilets, of which there were hardly any (the toilets to the left of the main stage brought me my most terrifying crowd experience ever, not quite Hillsborough but chest-clenchingly panic-stricken none the less).

You haven’t sat in a car for nine hours on the Isle of Wight’s gridlocked roads – which were gridlocked entirely because the festival organisers made no provision for waterlogged car parks after the wettest month in living memory. Nowhere at the Festival – not in the car parks, not in the campsites, not in the main arena – was there a single piece of metal or plastic sheeting or even a bale of straw, the last defence against mud at the smarter, older, wiser Glastonbury. I didn’t take my car, but a great many people did. A lot of them spent Thursday night either stuck on a road, stuck on the mainland or (most horrible of all) stuck on a ferry going round and round, unable to get into the gridlocked terminals.

Think about that for a second: massive car ferries, stuck out at sea, unable to dock. Because of a music festival.

We travelled on foot, taking the hovercraft from Southsea, arriving at Ryde just after 4pm on Thursday, expecting to find a bus to take us six miles to the Festival. We found instead a 200-metre long queue, and no buses. “They’re coming,” we were told. “But the roads are gridlocked.” We waited two hours, and eventually got on one. It went a mile or two up the road.

And then it stopped.

Over the next two hours, we moved maybe 500 yards. So, with about three miles to go, we started walking through the wind and rain, and finally arrived as darkness was falling. Every campsite seemed to be full, until we were lucky enough to find an empty one opening (no signpost, no advice, no communication).

I spent two days there. The act I most wanted to see, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, were fantastic. So were Elbow. But as the crowds thickened, the main arena became a morass of sticky, fetid mud. The low point (after gridlock, rainy walk, muddy campsite, etc. etc.) was the walk back to the campsite on Friday night – thousands of people squelching through gelatinous mud, their boots coming away, falling left and right, Dante’s Woodstock.

On Saturday, I fled, to a house party in Somerset with beds, baths and good company. My two companions, hardier than me, left it another day and got back to London on Sunday.

Thousands stayed, and I’m sure many of them had a good time. There seems to be a significant constituency of festivalgoers who take misery as being part of the experience, who can cope with anything as long as there are enough drugs and drink. These people tend to be young and, on the surface, a bit mad. Personally, I can think of better ways of spending my weekend. And nothing makes me more irritated than organisers who take this kind of easygoing persistence for granted, and in consequence do little or nothing for those attending. An older American woman who was stuck on the same bus as us kept asking: “Why aren’t they doing something? And why isn’t anyone complaining?”

Well, indeed.

As for me, I will never, ever attend a Festival organised by the people behind this festival. I’ll go to Latitude, Glastonbury and even V, because I know those places make provisions for wet weather. To all those living on the Isle of Wight who had their lives disrupted by what is, when all’s said and done, just a music concert – I’m very sorry. I hope you get as sincere an apology from the IoW Festival itself.