A New Piece of Kit

bossI seem to have bought one of these; a device that will revolutionise my performances. As I don’t have a band, nor the ability to find one (nor the patience to lead one, nor the finances to pay one) this will be the way to enhance my live sound. What a loop pedal does is to enable you to set up various musical phrases, chords, beats etc. that will repeat (as if on loops of old-skool tape) as you play, adding depth to your music.

I do mostly acoustic gigs, however most of my songs are ‘band’ songs; they’re written with a full folk-rock/indie arrangement in mind. Only in the studio can I fully realise them as I originally heard them in my mind’s ear when they were composed. Some of you will have heard my song ‘Drifter’, performed here with flautist George Roberts:

Here is the recorded version:

So when I play live, there is a bit of a mis-match between what I’m presenting to people and how I actually see myself as an artist. I do have some folky tunes that don’t require extra adornment, but most of my stuff would benefit from some level of embellishment.

The trouble is that extra layers of sound don’t neccessarily add interest to a live set; in fact, for a solo act they can work against it. In ‘organic’ music (as opposed to electronic), the interest is generated by the fact that musician is actually playing in front of you in real time. Layers of recorded sound (even if you’re recording them  yourself during the performance) can detract from the spontaneity and humanity of your performance. If a solo performer’s sound gets bigger and more interesting during a gig, they themselves tend to lose charisma in comparison.

The widespread use of these pedals has led to a genre of ‘loop-folk’ where acoustic guitarists layer-up guitar parts, often to a beat that they have laid down by tapping the body of the guitar. Unfortunately, they usually use simple three or four chord sequences that don’t vary. The fact they are usually using the same sound for all their parts doesn’t help. I will have to work out how to drop in and out of loops so things don’t get tedious – dynamics and chord modulation are important to me.

This device will never become my ‘band in a box’. For reasons I’ve already explained, I don’t want to dilute the immediacy of my performance (such as it is), nor do I want to risk a poor imitation of the recorded versions. But it will enable me to feature my guitar technique more, which is more from the rock tradition – soloing over chords – than the folky self-accompanying style, which is what I have been restricted to. It will also enable me to lay down beatbox rhythms  and vocal harmonies, and add tonal colour.

These pedals should be used wisely, like The Force, otherwise the dark side beckons!

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meera-syal-headshot-2013Meera Syal appeared in a short play on BBC Radio 4 recently. Syal, a versatile actor and writer of Indian extraction, was playing a (presumably white) police liason officer called Jackie Hartwell in this mini-drama. She did a great job as usual, her ethnic background was neither here nor there. It made me wonder; are we entering a new post-racial era for actors, on the radio at least?

To some some extent we are seeing racial and gender lines disappearing across the arts. We have recently seen Maxine Peake playing Hamlet at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. idris-elba-as-james-bond
Then there were those rumours about Idris Elba taking over as James Bond. Why not? his fans enthused – Idris has the charisma, machismo and sex appeal required to play 007. Did Ian Fleming ever mention anything about his character’s race? And would it matter if he had? Eventually Tom Hiddleston was named as the new Bond, but the fact that Elba was mooted for the role shows that things are shifting.

In JK Rowling’s latest addition to the Harry Potter saga, the play Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, Noma Dumezweni, originally from Swaziland, takes the role of Hermione – heartily endorsed by JK Rowling might I add. 812Dumezweni was considered the best person for the role, but her casting is not merely irrelevant to the part, it is an exiting signal. There is a radicalism in opening out a franchise that so exemplifies the white middle class mileu (albeit with the addition of wands and talking hats). Admittedly, this has only happened on the stage, a world away from the risk-averse conditions of the film-industry, but it is a bold move.

So are we looking at a rainbow utopia where anyone can play a character of any cultural background? The answer is no. This cultural tide will only go in one direction, and for understandable reasons. In popular entertainment’s depictions of race, the shadow of ‘blacking up’ and minstrelsy still looms large. White people imitating black people, in stereotyped and clownish ways, continued on British TV up until 1978. For many years, the only black actors in film played nannies and ‘savages’, and black contributions to the moving image continue to go unrecognised. At this year’s Oscars, the lack of black nominees became such a hot potato that it threatened to derail the awards ceremony.

In the UK, the employment options for black actors are arguably worse, with many leaving to seek work in the US. Idris Elba himself took this route, eventually breaking through with his role in The Wire.

jrnarNon-white actors still need all the high profile parts they can get, which is why the instances of white actors playing people of colour is still so controversial. Ridley Scott’s 2014 biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings attracted flak for featuring a cast of white actors considerably ‘darkened’ to play their middle-eastern roles.

Of course, in an ideal world none of this would be a problem. All acting is inhabiting somebody else; attempting to understand the emotions and motivations of a (usually fictional) person who has nothing to do with you. It is a practice requiring the highest form of empathy, an empathy capable of crossing the boundaries of class, age, sex and yes race. You would usually want to make yourself look more like your character too. In purely artistic terms there should be no barriers to inhabiting the persona of another human being.

In societal terms, however, we still see structural discrimination in all areas of life. And until there is parity of opportunity and power regardless of race (and sex for that matter) then screen-based depictions of life will be part of an attempt to redress the balance. It’s not just about the art, it’s more complicated than that. It may be some time before a white actor gets to play Othello again.

Today BBC 6 music is making a big fuss about the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album because it was released exactly fifty years ago. Well, how astounding. What a perfect opportunity to celebrate a seminal work of popular culture, apart from the fact that Brian Wilson’s alleged masterwork sounds exactly the same as it did in 2015. And I can assure you that next year the notes will all still be in the same place.

The rock industry, like all aspects of mass-market culture – including books, films and wars – now relies almost exclusively on anniversaries to flog its wares to us.

The Beatles industry similarly kicks up a fuss about Sgt Pepper every ten years, provoking a frenzy of fake nostalgia for the ‘summer of love’ as if the whole nation was floating around on acid in 1967. Sure, the album was a hit but middle-of-the-road crooner Jim Reeves actually sold more records that year. The truth is that these albums accrue cultural value gradually, rather than landing like cultural meteorites.

A while back Iggy Pop re-released the Raw Power album (remastered and fucked-about-with no doubt) to celebrate the fact that it was forty years old, as if its original release had been some kind of great cultural moment – far from it, The Stooges were virtually unknown during their early career and Raw Power was one of a clutch of recordings that existed virtually underground, gaining a reputation over time.

All this wayward historiography would not be such a bad thing if it didn’t grab all the attention that could be available to current musicians.

These days it’s not uncommon to walk past a rack of music magazines in the supermarket and see a line of exclusively dead faces pouting at you. How depressing that pop journalists, lovers of an art form that can embody the present-day zeitgeist like no other should find themselves writing for what are essentially history magazines.

David Hepworth, the ex-Whistle Test anchorman, embodies this tendency of backward looking rock journalism. He has just published 1971- Never a Dull Moment, a misty-eyed eulogy to the cheesecloth generation, wherein he celebrates a year that produced enduring classics such as Led Zeppelin 4, Sticky Fingers and Tapestry. I’m sure it’s a great read but if he really wanted to cash in he should surely have waited until 2021…

Anyway, it has been decreed that today we must have a double collective orgasm because not only is this the anniversary of Pet Sounds, but also Bob Dylan’s album Blonde on Blonde was also released exactly 50 years ago. How amazing!

Blonde on Blonde is a great collection of music, but to me it sounds the same (and is equally as good as) his previous albums Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing it all Back Home. They all feature his mid-sixties persona of the acid-beatnick, musically featuring a ramshackle mix of epic folky ballads, mind-blowing lyrics and spiky rock’n’roll. It’s all great stuff, but personally I can’t fit a Rizla paper between those albums. Hang on though, Blonde on Blonde’s a double album – it must be a classic…

Humankind’s first steps into space inspired a rash of pop songs. In the wake of the first moon landing in 1969, songwriters started to imagine what space travel might mean for matters of the heart, and a mini-genre was born. Future-tastic sound effects, weightless melodies and tin foil in the videos all contributed to the kitschy glamour, as these mini-melodramas played out against the background of the cosmos. Set the controls for the heart of the fun – it’s time to find your inner space cadet…

  1. – David Bowie – Space Oddity (1969). The song that kicked off this trend (if we don’t count The Byrds’ Mr Spaceman) Bowie’s classic song features ‘lift-off’ sound effects and a general zero-gravity vibe, perfectly capturing the zeitgeist when it was first released, just before the Apollo 11 moon shot (this is the original lesser-known recording and video)

2. Elton John – Rocket Man (1972).

Perhaps a touch po-faced for this list, but the lyrics and ascending guitar motif place this track firmly in our spacey genre.

3. The Carpenters – Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (1977).

The slightly disturbing brother and sister duo join the space party.

4. Shelia B Devotion – Spacer (1979).

Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards from Chic add a touch of class to this sci-fi disco stomper.

5. Sarah Brightman and Hot Gossip – I Lost My Heart To a Starship Trooper (1979).

“Tell me captain strange, do you feel my devotion? Or are you like a droid, devoid of emotion?” sings saucy Sarah. A double clip with lashings of glitter and dry ice.

6. The Police – Walking on The Moon (1979)

This song is not about walking on the actual moon, but rather the semi-weightless feeling of being in love, but it earns its place in our list with a low-gravity arrangement featuring Andy Summers’ spacious, ambient guitar chords.

7. Rah Band – Clouds Across the Moon (1985)

Based around a lovelorn phone call, this would a great song in any genre, but in this case the two lovers are seperated by interplanetary space. A great video bursting with low-budget sci-fi camp.

bob and..

It could only happen in America. I can just picture hundreds of thousands of psychedelic beach chairs, picnic hampers and parasols spread out on the ‘Empire polo field’ (that famous rock’n’roll venue…) as Bob Dylan, the Stones, Paul McCartney, The Who, Roger Waters and Neil Young perform at a mega-gig in Indio, California this October.

The organisers of Coachella festival have persuaded these fading legends with more wrinkles between them than the Grand Canyon to unite for a three day mega-gig, for an estimated fee of £1000,000 per act.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with celebrating music history, but old legends banding together like this for a quick buck underlines the rift that exists between the older generation and today’s talented musicians. Now that record companies don’t put time and money into developing new artists, musicians are swept up and down on waves of hype, easily disappearing without trace if they don’t make quick returns. If they do get noticed, will their fans actually buy their music or simply play it on youtube, or Spotify where the royalty rates for artists are so pathetic?

This gig will be another easy earner for already-rich performers whose careers blossomed during a ‘golden era’ of huge record sales and music industry largesse. Their generation still have a dependable audience – many of whom are well off enough to afford what are sure to be obscene ticket prices.

It will be like a psychedelic Glyndebourne, glasses raised to the spirits of the past, without the risk of any new blood to spoil the orgy of nostalgia.

This is just another reminder that the music industry is dead on its feet. With no new acts being developed, where are the future elder-statesmen and women waiting in the wings? And there’s another point –  this assemblage of musos is the last gathering of the original rock brotherhood, time-travellers from an era when virtually the only important musicians were male. How dated that looks now.

Don’t they feel uncomfortable turning the stage into a retirement home without any sort of organic connection to what is going on in today? An event like this could easily have included some support acts, I would have thought Neil Young might feel this, or Pete Townsend, or indeed Jagger – who always likes to appear aware of what goes on outside his bubble, at least.

It’s great when old-timers headline Glastonbury; often they can whip the asses of their younger comrades in terms of stagecraft. But sealing themselves off like this is unhealthy. It stinks of greed, complacency and theme-park culture.

You can call him Al…

In the seventies there was a slew of tracks that blended folky balladry and rock textures and, although not neccesarily sounding like Dylan, they were clearly in debt to his epic style of songwriting. A long and winding melody would be combined with tasteful instrumentation and cryptic, poetic lyrics that were sometimes comprehensible, sometimes not.

Typical examples include American Pie, Hotel California and Sultans of Swing, and at the louder end Born To Run, Stairway To Heaven and Bat Out of Hell. The long-form song was nurtured by the album culture but these tracks were also catchy as hell and often big hit singles – that fact that I don’t need to mention the artists here attests to their iconic status the songs achieved in their own right.

Here’s a gentler example of the species – Al Stewart’s Year of The Cat. As seventies as cheesecloth and homebrew, and featuring a gorgeous alto sax break. Enjoy.

Remember this from David Bowie’s penultimate album The Next Day? It’s a perfect psychedelic pop melody; indeed it could easily have been written in 1965. Maybe it was, and he just kept it in his back pocket for some infathomable Bowie-ish reason. But no; the lyrics point a more contemporary subject; this is no romantic ditty but a song about a high school massacre.

Bowie’s Valentine is an alienated kid with a list of targets:“Valentine told me who’s to go…The teachers and the football stars “. As well as sketching a horrific, and common, aspect of American life today, Bowie is referencing the 1929 “St Valentine’s Day massacre” in gangland Chicago.

A jarring contrast between music and message is always a winning formula in pop/rock. This is the only song I can think of about a high school massacre since The Boomtown Rats’ “I Don’t Like Mondays”.

(Sorry this is not a very heart-warming post – blame Mr Bowie! 😉 )

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