Friday, 15 June 2018

You’re Only Singing When You’re Blowing Bubbles

The song ‘Guantanamera’ achieved popularity rapidly and it has spread far and wide. On a more modest scale, the same thing is happening with some thoughts I raised about the numerous versions of the song that are sung by football fans. In September I pointed towards an article written by Katia Chornik for the Spanish BBC website that drew upon comments that I made in an email conversation thread and which also formed a blog entry. Yesterday, Katia had another article published about the song. This one appears in the Economist and it too features some of my thoughts.
            My basic thesis about why some songs become and remain football chants remains the same: ‘Songs must have a great tune that has captured the public’s imagination and that they lend themselves to public singing. What is also important is how songs lend themselves to lyrics. The ones that achieve traction tend to be adaptable to short phrases’.
            However, what is true about adaptive football chants – the songs that are used by fans of numerous teams – is less true about club theme songs. These can have more extensive and less pliable lyrics. Think of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, which is sung by Liverpool fans fairly straight. The team that I support, West Bromwich Albion, has a slightly adapted version of Psalm 23 as its theme. Legend has it that it was adopted at a Sunday fixture in the 1970s (when games played on a Sunday were not the norm) and a hymn sheet was found on the terraces. West Brom fans always sing the words in the same way and they are not taken up and adapted by fans of other teams.
            Earlier this year I came across another inviolate theme song. West Brom were playing away at the Olympic Stadium in London. As I walked around the ground I found some curiously downbeat words inscribed on the entry doors. First up was the phrase ‘Fortune’s always hiding’. The next doors had ‘Then like my dreams they fade and die’. After reading this, I felt confident that my team would beat the home side, West Ham. It was only with the next words’ ‘They fly so high, nearly reach the sky’ that I realized I was reading ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’, the club’s theme, backwards. That said, the song isn’t any more positive the right way around. When heard at matches, however, it’s lilting communal refrain disguises the pessimism of the verse. Moreover, as it is a song that has not been adopted by other clubs, most outsiders only know the optimistic title lines anyway. Still, it says something about the realism of West Ham that they don’t shy away from its sentiment.
            The club’s fans have been singing ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’ since the 1920s. It was first adopted in honour of their player Billy J. ‘Bubbles’ Murray, who bore a resemblance to the famous Pears’ Soap advert of the time. The World Cup started yesterday. How many dreams will have faded and died by the end?

Monday, 14 May 2018

He Don’t Hang Around with the Gang No More

In 1949 I went to the cinema about three times a week, a compulsion which had little to do with the merits of the films I saw; Rank cinemas at that time, showed a healthy profit. In the late fifties, as my attendance at the cinema declined, I became aware that my thoughtless change of habit had created a crisis in the film industry, not only Rank losing money but I had even caused severe cuts in production at major Hollywood studios. (Richard Hamilton)
Richard Hamilton is right to point this out: we’re not only slaves to consumer trends; the market follows us. I should know. Just as Hamilton triggered economic shifts in the film industry mid-20th century, I bear a responsibility for music consumption today.
            There has been a turn away from bands towards solo artists. Adele and Ed Sheeran are prospering (they are numbers one and two in the latest Sunday Times list of the UK’s richest musicians under 30), while the group-oriented genres of rock and indie music are in decline (the Arctic Monkeys have recently been described as being ‘virtually the last indie band standing’). This change has, of course, been driven by record companies, as well as by artists themselves. It simply makes more sense to be a solo act. From the record companies’ perspective, solo artists are easier to market. Today’s industry is focused on social media and brands; it requires global stars. This situation does not favour locale-based groups who are cultivating underground notions of ‘cool’. From the artists’ perspective, it is obviously more prosperous to go it alone. In today’s climate there are fewer royalties to spread around. So why spread them around at all.
            This policy would not be effective, however, unless there was public demand for solo performers. And this is where I come in. I hardly ever buy music by groups any more. I don’t consume music by Ed Sheeran either (I’m one of the multitude who remain mystified by his appeal), but I do relate to the questing music of St Vincent, John Grant and James Blake, and I enjoy the big personalities of Beyoncé and Taylor Swift. It is solo acts that suit me now.
I think I know why. To become a fan of a band is to take on the ethos of their gang. You buy into the group’s notions of comradeship. The older I get, the more unsuitable this feels. I don’t hang around with gangs any more. Consequently, I can’t imagine what would prompt me to have any interest in the latest guitar group. And I’m not alone in being more alone. The popular music audience is ageing. There are large swathes of us who are no longer out on the streets, running with the pack. We haven’t given up on our music, though. We’re isolated in our homes, listening to solo performers.

Monday, 30 April 2018

Shiraz: A Romance of India

The BFI recently issued a DVD/Blu-ray edition of Franz Osten’s classic 1929 film Shiraz: A Romance of India. The film tells the love story that lies behind the creation of the Taj Mahal and is accompanied by a new score by Anoushka Shankar, the daughter of Ravi Shankar and half-sister of Norah Jones.
            Included within the release are the short films Musical Instruments of India (1944), which was directed by Modhu Boses, and Temples of India (1938), directed by Hans M Nieter. I’m responsible for the sleevenotes for these two films, which are drawn from articles that I contributed to the Colonial Film project nearly ten years ago. My sleevenotes can be found here and here.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Critical Approaches to the Production of Music and Sound

Shhhh . . . you know who!
I have for a long time been interested in silent records. I wrote an article on the subject for the New Statesman in 2012 and more recently completed a chapter for Samantha Bennett and Eliot Bates’ collection Critical Approaches to the Production of Music and Sound (Bloomsbury, 2018).
            In this book I enumerate six types of musical silence: notated silence (which is dominated by John Cage’s 4’33”); phonographic Cageian silence (which pays homage to Cage’s work but regularly misunderstands his intentions); political silence (where muteness signifies oppression); memorial silence (paying homage to the dead); technical silence (which highlights the ‘silence’ of different types of recording formats); and economic silence (where silent songs illustrate issues of authorship, ownership and recompense).
            I’m sure there are more types of silence, though, and there must be silent records that I have overlooked in the chapter.
            Do let me know.