Friday, April 21, 2017

The F Word

Broadcast 2nd December 2016. (Click on this link then scroll down to find the words Column:
The rise of pop singles 'featuring' other artists) 

I'm concerned about the F Word in pop. Over the past decade it has gone from making a brief appearance in the top 40 singles charts to now occupying most of the top ten. What is going on? It's not right and it's undermining our respect for the artists involved. I

I am of course talking about singles featuring the word ‘featuring’. Haven’t you noticed? Well, as I read this I’m looking at the top ten singles chart (adopts Alan Freeman voice)

At 9 we’ve got Chainsmokers featuring Halsey,
at 8 it’s Weeknd featuring featuring Daft Punk
at 5 it’s Maroon 5 featuring Kendrick Lamarr
and at 2 it’s Rae Sremmurd featuring Gucce Mane.
Lurking on the outskirts are Ariana Grande featuring Nicki Manaj and the ubiquitous Sia featuring… oh go on then, Kendrick Lamarr.
What is going on? Why is this happening? Can’t artists make music on their own anymore? Can’t they perform alone? Since when did we have to gorge on two courses when we only ordered one?
Of course, I’m not really the demographic. When I sat listening to the Top 40 on Sunday evening as a schoolboy back in the 1920s, I never heard The Stranglers featuring Debbie Harry or Madness featuring Adam Ant. And later into the 80s and 90s I don’t ever recall being entertained by Prince featuring Madonna or Oasis featuring Alanis Morrisette. OK, occasionally we’d have an Ebony and Ivory. A seemingly mystical collaboration between two icons that worked less musically than it did financially. 
You can file Bowie and Jagger’s irksome collaboration under that as well (South America!) but charity records are the pioneers of the F word and should be excused.
But now it's different. And it’s been like this for some time. Five years ago we were listening to Rihanna featuring Calvin Harris; Labriynth featuring Tine Tempah, David Guetta featuring Usher and Maroon Five, this time not with Kendrick Lamarr (who hadn’t yet been invented) but with Christina Aguilera.
What about 10 years ago in 2006? Well, slightly less F word contamination but Justin Timberlake’s My Love was at number 2  and featuring Ti. 
No, me neither. 
And down at 9 was The Saints Are Coming by U2 AND Green Day. Presumably both groups so big and successful that they couldn’t bear having the F word between them.
But if we go back 15 years it was pretty much how it used to be - artists making records all by themselves. Albeit records by Blue, Westlife and The Lighthouse Family.
So what’s going on? What happened a decade ago which suddenly made popstars cosy up to each other and cross pollinate? Was it the sudden discovery that better records can be made if talents are combined? Sadly, I think you’ve already guessed the answer. It was the ruddy Internet reducing artists' sales. Two names on a record gives it double the fanbase and hopefully a big pile of cash.
I suppose I shouldn’t let this sort of thing bother me. After all the proper artists you and I listen to would never dream of featuring each other on singles.
Cue Queen and David Bowie's Under Pressure.

Less is MOR

Broadcast 28th October 2016. (Click on this link then scroll down to find the words
Middle of the Road Music) 

A quick glance at the current album chart confirms that it’s brimming with credible new releases from proper artists: over here are Skepta, Nick Cave, Sia and Michael Kiwanuka, over there, some tasteful and classic re-releases from The Beatles, Springsteen, Bob Marley and Led Zeppelin.

But look closely again and in amongst the Adeles, and the Bastilles, there’s a slightly more motley bunch: A line up that resembles a 1980s end of pier show: Shakin’ Stephens, Rick Astley, The Carpenters, Dolly Parton, Barbara Streisand, Whitney Houston, Chris De Burgh and Petula Clarke. 

Yes, while our attention was on grime and David Bowie, someone opened the Green Door and let MOR in. What is going on?

MOR, or middle of the road, is the genre that in many ways dare not speak its name. It’s big on heartfelt ballads and singalong choruses but crucially it is guileless: this is music that is desperate to be your mate, it may hint at rock, it may give a nod towards roll, but if you’re looking for trouble then you’ve come to the wrong place.

The term was coined by American radio stations in the ‘60s to distinguish easy listening, show tunes and pre rock ‘n’ roll pop from rival formats in the burgeoning rock market. Back then if you were over 30 you were probably desperate to escape the explosion of noisy youth culture that The Beatles caused. It must have been a comfort to snuggle up to Engelburt Humpedinck, Des O’Connor or Herb Alpert.

Once the 70s kicked in, MOR dominated the charts giving us names like, Dawn, Peters and Lee, Gilbert O’ Sullivan, Paper Lace and, er Middle of The Road.

By the 80s, pop had been stripped down and polished up but that didn’t stop MOR kicking some serious, comfortably clad butt; who can forget Bucks Fizz? Renee and Renato? And of course The Goobay Dance Band?

In this context Shakin’ Stevens seems almost like Sonic Youth. But his decade long run of hits, encapsulates all that is good and bad in MOR: a comforting nod to the past while reminding you that your dead up to date.

So what’s Mr Stevens’ first new album in 9 years sound like? Well, in the words of the press release “This album has grown from Shaky’s realisation that, like most of us, he knew so very little about the background of his family”. Please, Shaky, don’t make a concept album! 

Relax, he's still refreshingly easy on the ear.

Rick Astley’s honeyed larynx was always a comfort even when you were being Rickrolled and now he’s named his first album in 11 years after his target demographic: 50.

And so the list goes on. Some of these MOR successes are of course Best Ofs – you’d hardly expect a new album from The Carpenters or Whitney Houston (although being dead never stopped Elvis fronting the Royal Philharmonic last year) but Dolly Parton? Petula Clarke? Barbra Streisand? The latter’s duets album even features a duet with MOR behemoth Anthony Newley. Also dead. 

So is there an MOR conspiracy? No, the answer is simple: it’s the power of the known and the power of limited choice. If I’m midway through my weekly shop and I find myself in the middle of the music and stationery aisle, I’m more likely to put Dolly in my trolley than someone I’ve not heard of. Plus the chances are, I’m on a last minute gift hunt – Shaky for Christmas, Barbra for Halloween. The supermarkets know this and because they’ve got less space for music than they have for actual cheese, they’ll stock artists who they already know too. Less is MOR.

And while no one is likely to fess up preferring MOR as their genre of choice, because of its comforting familiarity and nostalgic charm, like a Chris De Burgh record in Sue Ryder, MOR is always going to be there. Waiting for us.

I'd Rather Jack

Broadcast 9th September 2016. (Click on this link then scroll down to find the words
The demise of the universal headphone jack?) 

I’m not going to explain Apple’s new headphone solution now; it’s busily being debated on Twitter and in branches of Starbucks, so you can find out for yourselves.

What I am going to say is that maybe we shouldn’t be too sad to see the back of the jack plug.  After all, we’ve lived with it since 1878; that’s almost a hundred years before Cliff Richard released Wired For Sound. Everything else in connection with the way we listen to music has changed so why not Jack? Why should we lament a phallic, metal nubbin that was used mainly for telephone switchboards in the 1920s?

It was in the 1950s, when his bad boy, quarter-inch version was used on transistor radios that Jack really began to swing. People listened on proto-headphones called headsets and he was just the plug for the job.

By the time pop music went massive in the 1960s, Jack was a slimline, mop-top 1/8” inch size. Mind you, he was usually stuck on the end of the wire of those sinister beige earbuds that looked like hearing aids. Anyone who grew up in the 70s listening secretly to the John Peel show in bed is familiar with the instant tinnitus they brought on. Happy days.  For the real hi-fi enthusiast, you could now get proper stereo headphones with earpieces the size of a loaf of Mothers Pride. Even the Fabs had a branded pair: “Stereo headphones with full colour photos of the Beatles on each ear cup.”

By the 1970s, there was no stopping Jack. Whatever the electronic device, Jack came tumbling after - regardless of whether you’d consider using headphones with it or not. What was the point of playing your Stylophone to yourself on headphones? Surely the point was to annoy as many people as possible.

Without doubt the greatest boot-up the Jack got was when Sony launched the Walkman in 1979. Overnight his lightweight, slimline looks became emblematic of fast moving, modernity. And Apple’s white earbuds continued the winning streak. Now no journey is complete without Jack and branded headphones.

So now the company that kept him alive has abandoned him, surely Jack’s on the way out. After all, we’ve moved on from all the other outmoded ways of listening to sound  - who, other than museum curators, cares about phonographic cynlinders? 8 track cartridges? Cassettes or indeed “Hear Muffs – the firstheadphones you wouldn’t kick out of bed”?

To be fair to Jack, though, he’s a simple, cheap and effective bit of design.  Plus of course he’s not just for music. Any electronic device, which makes a noise that we want to keep private has a 3.5mm hole all ready for him. Try playing a Gameboy, using Skype, or watching Netflix on your tablet while your wife tries to sleep.  Jack is always in bed with you.

So it’s not goodbye, yet old friend. There are still plenty of people out there who are going to turn to you whatever some Bluetoothed suit in trainers tells them. There are still people who, quite frankly, would rather Jack, than Fleetwood Mac.


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Never Mind The Old Artwork ...

Broadcast 28th June 2016. (Click on this link then find the section of the programme Updating Album Covers)

Over the last few months, fans of Phil Collins fans have been spoilt. Not content with reissuing all of his albums in shelf-taxing box sets, Collins has also chosen a unique way of re-promoting them. 1980s ubiquities like Face Value, No Jacket Required and Hello, I Must Be Going have all got new artwork. 

Well, updated artwork to be precise: Phil has reshot the front covers – covers, you’ll remember, which featured young Collins’ visage close up and looking straight at you. Now we see the current 65 year old, slightly desiccated Phil,  looking, beady-eyed, straight at us. It’s a brave move. True, it’s not as if he was a heart-fluttering Simon Le Bon or Sting back in the day, but most artists of his age might think twice about showing their current blemished selves so starkly.

Phil’s move is almost unique in pop. Despite being a commercial product, obsessed with youth and hipness, pop music is an old stick-the-mud when it comes to its packaging. Think about it: you go in a shop to buy some Kellogs Corn Flakes: sure you’ll find a row of boxes featuring some sort of cockerel and a Kellogs logo. The logo hasn’t changed but everything else has. Compare it to last year’s box or a box from the 80s and you’ll notice all sorts of rethinks – a font change here, an image switch there.

OK, fair enough, that’s just food. But what about comparable products like books or films? Every time a book is republished it is seen as an opportunity to change the typeface and update the imagery to appeal to a new demographic who haven’t yet read Ian Fleming, Graham Green or Emily Bronte. Penguin have brought back their vintage 1950s and 60s designs but crucially to sell merchadise not books. Likewise, when a old movie is  re-released in cinemas or on BluRay the distributers are falling over themselves to maxmise the opportunity to update the font, redesign the graphics and find striking new visuals which will appeal to a new generation of moviegoers.

The fantastic original Saul Bass artwork for Hitchcock's Vertigo bastardised for the DVD re-release.  Find this and other
examples of how Saul Bass' design work has been changed on this excellent site

So why is pop music different? If you walk into a record shop – and yes, they do still exist! – it’s like walking into an art gallery gift shop full of nostalgic familiarity: over there in the B section is the one with the four fellas on the zebra crossing next to it is the one with the guy with his eyes closed with the red lightning bolt over his face a little bit along from that is the man smashing his bass guitar on stage and oh yeah, they’ve still got the one with the baby swimming underwater after the cash.

All of these records came out over 20 years ago. Lots of the artists involved are dead. Wouldn’t the CDs be more successful if the packaging got updated every few years? There are examples of this of course. David Bowie reclining in a dress on the sleeve to The Man Who Sold The World got re-housed in a much more target market-driven Ziggy sleeve after he became a household name. Grace Jones’ Warm Leatherette got a similar treatment when the original, imposing Jean Paul Goude designed sleeve was changed to a video still of the singer  after her worldwide success. But crucially, in recent re-releases both of these changed sleeves have now reverted to the originals.

Imagine pop music where it was just music packaged in whatever a record company thought the market needed at the time. Imagine taking Dark Side of The Moon out of a light brown sleeve with a picture of David Gilmour soloing on it, or listening to the Sex Pistols debut whilst gazing a cover featuring child’s drawings, or buying the Velvet Underground & Nico in a sleeve designed by Mark Rothko.

It wouldn’t be right would it? Like Marmite and Lyle’s Golden Syrup, some packaging just shouldn’t be changed. Some music on the other hand… 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Americana Up The Wazoo

Broadcast 1st June 2016. (Click on this link then find the section of the programme Americana)

If you’ve been watching Martin Scorsese's HBO music biz drama, Vinyl, you will have heard country star Sturgill Simpson’s theme tune. It backs the grainy opening credits featuring dancing, drug taking and guitars. Alright, so Scorsese has always been adventurous with his music choices; he practically invented using pop music to soundtrack movies in Mean Streets. But this time he’s part of a growing trend of TV producers using country, blues and folk music to lend rootsy authenticity to their shows.

Back in 1999, when The Sopranos co-opted Woke Up This Morning by Brixton's own Alabama 3, something changed. Remember, The Sopranos wasn’t set in Tennesse or Mississippi but New Jersey. It could have easily gone for something more urban to reflect that; a bit of hip hop, some electronica. The fact that it didn’t was a stroke of genius.

Breaking Bad’s meth-dealing high school teacher Walter White was brilliantly summed up by the show’s theme music featuring sleazy bottleneck slide guitar, written by composer David Porter. Its spin-off, Better Call Saul (also set in Albuquerque, New Mexico) has music supplied by R&B trio Little Barrie. They offer a jaunty tremelo-arm led tune theme which is made no less authentic by the fact that the band hail from Nottingham.

Louisiana-based dramas, like vampire romp True Blood and Good Cop/Mad Cop series True Detective understandably use genuine country artists for their themes. The former uses Jace Everett’s guilty pleasure romp Bad Things against a, you guessed it, grainy stream of images juxtaposting swamps, blood and racy underwear.

The Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson tour de force that is True Detective uses alt-country husband and wife duo The Handsome Family’s Far From Any Road over a grainy montage of… oh you get the picture. Actually The Handsome Family are brilliantly qualified for this sort of thing as they have over 20 years form of performing songs about murder suicide and ghosts. Cheers!

Now some of these shows have the excuse that their settings are the places where this music originates. So what about Boardwalk Empire? In a show set in Atlantic City in the 1920s, you’d expect to hear the Charleston or some rag time. Instead you hear distorted electric guitars playing bluesy Americana. Thanks, The Brian Jonestown Massacre. When asked why he’d chosen a theme tune played on instruments which didn’t even exist in Prohibition-era America, series creator Terence Winter said, “I look at it as… a 90-second intro and then you have all the 20s you want.”

Of course, the daddy of all Box Set drama went one further. None-more-urban city under a microscope crime drama, The Wire used an obscure album track by alt-Hollywood godfather Tom Waits, and got it covered by different Americana artists: Season 1: The Blind Boys of Alabama, Season 2, Waits himself, Season 3 the Neville Brothers…

So what’s it all about? Why is American TV drama leaving the cities behind when it comes to theme music? Of course, there are dramas that eschew Americana-flavoured theme tunes – imagine Game of Thrones with a pedal steel guitar or House of Cards with a country fiddle. But largely, if it’s gritty authenticity you want – and let’s face it, what tanned Hollywood TV executive sitting by the pool doesn’t want that? – then it’s Americana all the way.

Morrissey Goes Borrisey


Recorded and produced March 2016

Morrissey's mayoral bid was too short-lived to stick around as a news story so despite being written and produced in lightning fast time, this was a column which unfortunately bit the dust. Still, it’s worth a listen so here's a link to it.

Those of you tempted to punch in #Morrisseymayor on Twitter will be greeted with a barrage of terrible mayor-related Smiths puns, which I’m not going to quote here.   Late last week, Morrissey’s semi official site, True To You, announced that the former Smiths singer had ‘been invited’ by the Animal Welfare Party to represent them as London Mayoral candidate.  It’s real phone-in show fodder, the question being ultimately, if Moz does become mayor What Difference Does It Make?

Well, one thing that does link Mozzer to London’s self proclaimed  “pro-alcohol, pro-motorist, pro-hunting” current mayor is absolute conviction to a cause. If Morrissey is going all Borrisey then it’s certainly not about his own glorification. At a recent show at the O2, we waited patiently, like all Morrissey crowds do, for him to play some of the old stuff. When he finally succumbed, he graced us with an extended version of Meat Is Murder accompanied by the most harrowing and disturbing Youtube clips of slaughterhouses.

No, there’s no worry about his sincerity: he means it, man. Check out this sentence from his official comment on the mayoral news: The abattoir is the modern continuation of the Nazi concentration camp, and if you are a part of the milk-drinking population, then you condone systems of torture. 

And I’m not even going to mention what he suggests ‘animal serial killer’ Jamie Oliver should do.

So while it might upset some people, sincerity, belief and conviction from someone with the will get into office is to be welcomed. But Morrissey isn’t the first pop star to feel the itch to represent - or indeed the urge to be mayor.

In 1999, it was former Sex Pistols manager and impresario, Malcolm Mclaren’s turn. He wrote his ‘Vision For London’ in the New Statesman as a first toe-dip in running for London mayor. However after a spot on Question Time in which he answered most questions by gently crowbarring the topic back to himself, his campaign seemed somehow a little, er, vacant.

The political landscapes of other countries are not uncontaminated by pop stars either. Back in 1979, having written his manifesto on the back of a napkin at a gig, Jello Biafra of The Dead Kennedys decided to run for mayor of San Francisco. In the end, the Holiday in Cambodia singer finished fourth out of the ten candidates, winning just under 4% of the vote. It’s a shame because some of his policies  - for example forcing businessmen to wear clown suits within city limits – seemed promising.

Whilst Biafra’s anarchist tendencies may have kept him out of any serious contendership, over in Detroit, Motown stalwart Martha Reeves actually got her hands dirty. In 2005 she was elected to the City Council but quickly found that when it comes to politics – and here I’m afraid I’m going to have to make a pun – there’s Nowhere To Run. In an interview during a UK tour, she foolishly referred to her council position as her ‘second job’; she was off singing Heatwave whilst crucial votes on sewage rate increases were happening back home. Like the song says: don’t forget the Motorcity. In 2009 she got less than 1% of the vote and proclaimed she was glad it was all over.

Let’s hope none of this puts Morrissey off. And while some killjoys are saying anything which can preoccupy him enough to prevent another novel is a good thing, I for one think it he’d make a refreshing change to London. After all, if the man who sang Bigmouth Strikes Again, can inspire more passionate people to represent us, that can only be a good thing.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Charity Shop Fruit Machine

 Our Price.

Virgin Megastore.


Along with all your favourite local record shops, they’re gone. With the obvious and Biblically huge exception of Adele, sales of recorded music are dwindling. And it’s not only CDs, downloads are plummeting too. It’s now all about the streaming. It’s in the cloud. It’s freemium, man!

But wait! Vinyl’s back. The kids want something they can hold. OK, so it’s not exactly keeping the music business afloat (that’s Adele’s job) but it is at least giving Taylor Swift fans a reason to get excited about artwork and inner sleeves and the magical tactile experience of music on shiny 12” discs.

But while it’s nice to be able to find pristine new copies of Pet Sounds and Nevermind, some of us still like going into dusty shops and experiencing the serendipitous thrill of finding an unexpected treat.

So where can I find these new record shops, I hear you cry? Relax they’re everywhere and they’re called charity shops.

No wait! Come back! It’s true. The charity shop is the new record shop for many reasons good – and bad. The good? Well, any real music fan will tell you that the well practiced thumb and finger rack-flick is a finely-honed skill up there with the deft pancake flip from Side 1 to Side 2. And charity shops, never short of well-thumbed copies of Mantovani, Mrs Mills, and Max Bygraves provide ample stock to practice our technique.

I challenge myself to find multiple copies of these unloved gems with a game I call Charity Shop Fruit Machine. The goal is of course a 3 cherry row. Top scores include a hat-trick of Sound of Musics, a brace of Carpenters and a clean row Green Doors. Once the sleeves are in position, I take a picture and put it online. Perhaps I should get out more.

Unlike every other product, albums never change their packaging so these sleeves are landmarks that record shops of old used to have; there’s a reassurance in seeing them there even if you’d never dream of taking them home. And the king of these unloved albums? No competition: Paul Young’s No Parlez. Phil Collins’ work comes a close second. Top score: No Parlez, No Parlez, No Jacket Required.

But here’s the key: only in a charity shop you can experience the sudden heart leap you get from discovering a Tom Waits nestling between a pair of Leo Sayers, a Public Enemy peaking out behind Hooked On Classics.

This feeling is the same one Nick Hornby was searching for when he confessed that despite having every single release by The Clash, he would still always check the C rack, just in case…

Of course, those of you already aware of the joys of these new record stores will hate me for publicizing our secret on national radio. But the rot has already set in.

The vinyl boom is encouraging record companies to repress their old catalogue like it’s going out of style. And while he pleasures of hearing The Queen is Dead or Dusty in Memphis on vinyl are undeniable, who gave the go-ahead to re-press charity shop staples like Herb Alpert’s Whipped Cream and Other Delights or Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells A Story on 180 gram vinyl?

It seems that record companies are in agreement that charity shops are the new record shops and are now busy manufacturing fresh stock accordingly.