Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Who Ate All the Pies?

We’re all researchers. At this time of year there is competitive desire to locate the season’s best mince pies. We read up on the best brands and we go into the field to test the results. As a family, we have done well. We’ve been enjoying Iceland’s ‘luxury’ brand. They came in at number two in a poll of pies conducted by Which? but are only three-quarters the price of the winner from M&S. And they are delicious.
            It has struck me that supermarket mince pies are always better than those that are homemade. This is one of those instances where the factory system does know best. The formula of balancing pie with filling is deceptively complex. It takes precision tooling and multiple repetition to get it right.
Quite naturally this revelation has led me to think, in turn, about Jimi Hendrix. In Charles Shaar’s Murray’s Crosstown Traffic there is an explanation of why the left-handed guitarist preferred right-handed guitars:
he seldom bothered with special left-hand models, both because right-handed guitars were more plentiful and easier to obtain, and because – with a touchingly American faith in mass-production – he believed that they were likely to be manufactured to a higher standard.
Hendrix knew a thing or two about guitars, so who is to say that he was wrong in this belief? If only he were with us now to help us choose our mince pies.

Saturday, 30 November 2019

Rocket Fuel

I have a confession to make. I wrote about the Elton John film Rocket Man before having seen it. Back in August I was stating, ‘if you want to see a movie that conveys the musical impact of Elton John, you would be better off watching the bus scene in Almost Famous than digesting Rocket Man’.
            I’ve now seen Rocket Man. For me it is a game of two halves. I like the coverage of the pre-fame years, particularly the scenes of Elton John as a boy in suburban Pinner. When he becomes famous, though, the film becomes dull. It’s not that stardom or drug addiction are inherently boring, it’s more that this film doesn’t really capture their highs, lows and weirdnesses. Interviewed by Graham Norton this week, Elton John had far more engaging things to say about the megalomania and depravity of rock stars, as well as about the oddities of fame. In particular, I enjoyed the story about introducing his partner, David Furnish, to his mother for the first time, only to have Michael Jackson turn up and come along to the dinner date as well.
            And what of the music? I think my hunch was right. Almost Famous is the more effective film when it comes to illustrating Elton John’s brilliance. There is one scene in Rocket Man that cuts through musically, however. It depicts the composition of ‘Your Song’. What I liked about this scene is its relationship with ‘truth’. It could be considered false in relation to music making, but true in terms of illustrating what it feels like to write a break-through hit. You capture lightning in a bottle.
            It takes place at Elton John’s childhood home, where he has returned to live with his mother and stepfather, bringing his lyricist partner, Bernie Taupin, along with him. Taupin hands John the lyrics to ‘Your Song’. John goes to the piano and writes the tune in real time. This brought to my mind Oliver Stone’s film, The Doors, in which the band similarly create their breakthrough hit, ‘Light My Fire’, in a spontaneous jam session.
Looking at the scene in The Doors again, the guitarist Robbie Krieger has scribbled down the chords and lyrics to ‘Light My Fire’ beforehand, and there is some tinkering around by the keyboard player, Ray Manzarek, before he stumbles across the Bach-inspired introduction to the song. The fully realized version that follows takes place in a different context: it soundtracks a montage sequence in which we witness the band’s escalating fame. In contrast, in the film Rocket Man, Elton John finds the tune to ‘Your Song’ immediately.
Why then does the naturalistic setting in The Doors feel corny, while the theatrical scene in Rocket Man rings true? Part of it comes down to this staging: naturalism can sabotage itself if the detail is not perfect. Melodrama, on the other hand, can capture a truth to feeling without having to concern itself with historical accuracy.
            Another reason is that The Doors scene surely is false. ‘Light My Fire’ may well have emerged from the scribbled notes, been worked up in rehearsal, and had a quickly realised intro because, in  Manzarek’s words, ‘It just came out of, you know, fifteen or twenty years of music practice’. Yet there is still the feeling that the whole process would have taken longer than this.
            Elton John, on the other hand, really does take the words of Taupin and create fully-realized songs off the bat. ‘I put my hands on the keyboard and away we go’, as John stated to Norton this week. As one example, he composed the music for the double album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, in three days. Lest we forget, this is an album that includes ‘Candle in the Wind’, ‘Bennie and the Jets’, ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’ as well as the title track. ‘Your Song’ was written just as quickly. John talked with Norton about its staging in Rocket Man. For him, the film gives ‘a pretty accurate description of how it was done’.
            Even though it is ‘true’, this remains a remarkable means of creating successful music. Other composers, in contrast, can toil for months. I’m not sure how widely known it is that John writes in this way. Yet my guess is, even amongst viewers who do not know about this process, the ‘Your Song’ sequence would still appear honest. Could it be that there something in the music that is letting us know?

Friday, 1 November 2019


Thursday, 31 October 2019


Monday, 30 September 2019

India on Film

In December 2018 I was interviewed for a television series about Indian documentary film of the pre-independence era. The reason why a popular music scholar was posing as a film historian was because my first academic job was as a researcher on the AHRC-funded project Colonial Film: Moving Images of the British Empire, which involved me viewing, cataloguing and analysing film collections held by the BFI and the Imperial War Museum.
            The resultant two-part television series, India on Film, was recently broadcast by Channel News Asia, who have made the programmes available via this link. They do an excellent job of bringing the early documentaries to life, and I am rightfully outshone by scholars who have spent their working lives studying India and/or film.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

From Bohemian Rhapsody to the Buddy Holly Story

I was recently interviewed for an article about the factual accuracy of musical biopics, written by Tom Fordy for the Telegraph. Following on from last year’s Queen film, Bohemian Rhapsody, which was criticised for manufacturing and being loose with the truth (notably in relation to Freddie Mercury’s diagnosis and disclosure that he had AIDs), there was a rash of articles that explored the printing of musical legends. With the recent release of the Rocket Man about Elton John, similar thought pieces have made a return.
            Fordy asked me to talk about the ‘truth’ of the Sex Pistols-related film Sid and Nancy and the Joy Division films Control and 24 Hour Party People. One thing that I wanted to get across, which is in the piece, is that music films rarely do a good job of dealing accurately with bands. They are oriented towards star turns by individuals, including the ability of an actor to assume the persona of a lead singer or musician. What they do not manage to capture is intra-band politics. Hence, Gary Oldham delivers an astonishing performance in Sid and Nancy, where he embodies the spirit of Sid Vicious. Andrew Schofield’s limp turn as Johnny Rotten could hardly be called nuanced, however. Similarly, the various Joy Division films have worked hard at capturing the tics of lead singer Ian Curtis, but have spent far less time on the other members of the band (this seems particularly unjust, as Joy Division are one of the rare bands in which each member’s contribution is equally vital). Bohemian Rhapsody offers a partial exception to this rule, with its attention to detail spreading beyond the lead singer. The fact that Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor acted as consultants to the film presumably helped here, as did the fact that the group had already developed ways of portraying themselves on screen, notably in the video for ‘The Miracle’, in which four young children do a great job of being Queen.
            Another thing that I talked about with Fordy, but which did not make it into the article, is that this analysis of historical accuracy should be extended to documentaries. It is presumed that they get closer to the reality of singers and musicians than acted portrayals, but I’m not sure this is always the case. On the one hand, musical biopics such as 24 Hour Party People or the Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan film I’m Not There have done a better job of capturing musicians and scenes than most parades of talking heads could ever do. On the other hand, a documentary can be just as partial as a biopic. They will be oriented towards one version of the truth or one member of a band. Take, for example, the three attempts that director Julien Temple has made to tell the Sex Pistols’ story. He has spoken of the Rotten-oriented The Filth and the Fury (2000) as being a ‘corrective’ to his earlier film, the Malcolm McLaren-instigated Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980). This did not stop him from having another crack at the Pistols, however, providing a more London-based setting in The Knowledge (2008). Each film has its moments, but they are also indicative of the fact that the Sex Pistols’ story is too rich and diverse to be contained. A further point about documentaries is that their tendency to place social context around music can be just as falsifying and mythologizing as the manufacture of narrative events in biopics. About ten years ago I heard a great talk by Richard Witts, in which he took apart the documentary Factory: Manchester from Joy Division to Happy Mondays, indicating that its scene-setting footage of Salford, which was supposed to visualise the milieu in which the members of Joy Division emerged, was in fact taken from an era prior to their births. It had originally been employed to illustrate ‘before’ and ‘after’ images of slum clearance, but the film implied that those slums were still there.
And there’s a final thing that I didn’t mention to Fordy at all. When analysing the ‘reality’ of music films, the focus tends to be on truth to history, truth to personality or truth to sociology. There is less discussion about truth to music. But which films best manage to capture the spirit of a song? Musical biopics are not the place to look. With their orientation towards narrative and character they lose the ability to deliver a good tune. Documentaries can edge closer to the marvels of music. As I have written elsewhere, there is something exciting about hearing music talked about. It sets up a thrill of anticipation for the moment that the song in question finally arrives. Ultimately, however, the films that best communicate what music feels like for us – the fans - are not the ones that concentrate on its makers. It is the reception of music that comes across most effectively. Therefore, if you want to see a movie that conveys the musical impact of Elton John, you would be better off watching the bus scene in Almost Famous than digesting Rocket Man.

And which moment of film best captures the essence of Queen? It’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in Wayne’s World of course. 

Friday, 26 July 2019

Dance to the Video

Earlier in the month I attended Orchestral Joy Division at the Royal Albert Hall, an event that was organized by the band’s old bass player, Peter Hook, in conjunction with Tim Crooks, conductor with the Manchester Camerata. There were three guest vocalists, one of whom, Bastien Marshal, became an Ian Curtis impersonator for the night. He had Curtis’s look and idiosyncratic dancing moves spot on. Is struck me, though, that Marshal is young and has grown up in a world in which he been able to access footage of Joy Division at the same time as he been able to access their sound recordings. This was not the case for me growing up. I first heard Unknown Pleasures not long after it came out. I heard Closer when it was released. Throughout this time I had not seen the band perform, though. I was too young to see them live and I had missed their three appearances on television. Two of these took place on the Granada network, so (I think) they were restricted to the north of England only (I was in the midlands). The third was on BBC2’s Something Else. This was a programme that I did see occasionally, but I missed this particular episode. In fact, I can’t remember when I did first see the Joy Division clips. It probably wasn’t until the end of the 1980s, when the first documentaries on the band began to appear. Three things follow on from this. The first is that what has become an ‘iconic’ dancing style, simply wasn’t so at the time. Most of the people buying and listening to Joy Division records didn’t get to see Curtis’s moves. The second is that the ‘iconic’ sleeves of the records took on even more weight. The sleeve to Unknown Pleasures in many ways was Joy Division. There were also key photographic images, but in contrast to Curtis’s manic dancing, these were stills. Conversely, the third thing is that is that if you did manage to see television clips in the pre-MTV and YouTube age, they did tend to stay with you. You had to register them whole. Johnny Marr suggests in his autobiography Set the Boy Free that Curtis cribbed his dance moves from David Bowie, via a one-off television appearance on the Dinah Shore Show in 1975. The evidence does appear to be telling. The question, though, is how did Curtis get to see this American programme?

Another thing that struck me about Orchestral Joy Division, and which also struck me when I saw Peter Hook and the Light at the Round House in 2017, is what a towering song ‘Ceremony’ is. If anything, it is even more powerful musically (but not culturally) than ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. It’s an unusual late twentieth century song, however, as it doesn’t have a definitive recording. The surviving members of Joy Division issued it as New Order’s debut single. This almost felt like a cover of Ian Curtis’s intended version. Then, when the studio recording by Joy Division was released on the Heart and Soul box set in 1997, this didn’t seem like it was the ultimate version either. Maybe, it is this situation makes the song so redolent live. It can only be completed by Joy Division fans.

Thursday, 11 July 2019

One Directive? Equitable Remuneration and the Making Available Right

On Monday 1 July I spoke at The Future of Music Law conference at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston. It was a good event, with a mixture of industry professionals (Ann Harrison, Judge Jules) and academics. Peter Hook was due to speak, but sadly had to pull out due to preparations for his Joy Division Orchestrated gig at the Royal Albert Hall.
            My paper concerned the European Union Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market and the fact that, despite promising to investigate the making available right, it failed to discuss what the European Commission had referred to as a ‘contentious grey area’ of copyright law. I contrasted this with the Commission’s measures for safe harbours and value gaps, which were not a part of their original proposals, but became the most prominent part of the Directive. You can access the paper here.

Friday, 31 May 2019

Unfinished Symphony

Three years ago to the day I was writing about the Verve’s 1997 song ‘Bittersweet Symphony’, searching for the author who had been most deprived. Famously, the composition has been attributed to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards as a result of the inclusion of a looped sample of their song ‘The Last Time’, as recorded by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra in 1965.
            There have been developments. Richard Ashcroft, the singer of the Verve who wrote the main body of ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ (i.e the 'unsampled' parts of the song) has become increasingly outraged at his lack of royalties. In November last year he declared, ‘I’m coming for that money. Someone stole god knows how many million dollars off me in 1997, and they’ve still got it’. He was pointing towards Jody Klein, the son of Allen Klein and inheritor of his publishing company, ABKCO. It is ABKCO who control the Rolling Stones' early repertoire and who had demanded 100% of the publishing royalties for ‘Bittersweet Symphony’.
There are reasons for Ashcroft’s intensified fury. Firstly, he was promoting his new album, Natural Rebel and this publicity was good publicity. Secondly, as I pointed out in my original blog entry, in the days of physical products he would not, ultimately, have been deprived. He may not have had the publishing for the Verve’s ‘Bittersweet Symphony’, but he did write the majority of the songs on its parent album, Urban Hymns, and would have received nearly 70% of the songwriting royalties each time a copy was sold. Urban Hymns is a platinum selling record in America and it is the 17th best-selling album of all time in the UK. Unfortunately for Ashcroft, streaming has taken us to a world where it is singles rather than albums that rule. ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ is his most successful song and he receives nothing for it when it stands on its own. He suggests that it is worth $50 million and that this money has been stolen from him.
            Jagger and Richards appear to have listened. Last week Ashcroft received the Outstanding Contribution to British Music prize at the Ivor Novello Awards. He used the occasion to announce:
As of last month Mick Jagger and Keith Richards agreed to give me their share of the song ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’. This remarkable and life affirming turn of events was made possible by a kind and magnanimous gesture from Mick and Keith, who have also agreed that they are happy for the writing credit to exclude their names and all their royalties derived from the song they will now pass to me.
I’m not sure if this is a happy ending. In the first instance, the copyright details for ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ have not yet been changed. The money, at present, is still going ABKCO. In addition, if the song is to be credited to Ashcroft, this might ruffle feathers elsewhere. Ashcroft believes he should have the sole credit for the song and has justified this as follows:
I was saying to myself, ‘look, rock n roll is a spirit, and if I want to sample something and make it into a hip hop/rock n roll anthem, it’s still rock n roll. And it’s even more rock n roll because it’s another white English kid, influenced by hip hop, sampling some fucking white English guys, influenced by black blues guys, and it goes on and on and on. But sonically what I’m saying at the end with “Money Money” is that you lot are just a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox of Xerox of a Xerox’.
What he’s attempting to state here is that, while the Rolling Stones took much of the inspiration for their song from the Staple Singers’ ‘This May Be the Last Time’, the Staple Singers in turn had drawn upon traditional music of no fixed authorship. It is only Ashcroft who is an originating author.
            This is dubious enough in itself, but what Ashcroft fails to mention is that the riff in the Andrew Oldham Orchestra sample does have an author and that it is not Jagger or Richards. The motif in the sample is only loosely based on Keith Richards' guitar playing. The main credit for it should instead reside with David Whitaker, who composed and arranged the orchestral score.
            One of things about rethinks is that they prompt further rethinks. Popular music has always had multiple authors – writers, arrangers, musicians, singers, producers, engineers, mixers – and it has always been unfair with its attributions of credits and royalties. Traditionally, many songwriting disputes have been settled out of court. This has suited publishers, as they do not want legal precedents to be set. It has also suited the victorious authors, as they have not want it known who is receiving shares of income and who is being deprived. Ashcroft might wish he had been quieter. If he has been successful in his pursuit of stolen dollars, then it might prompt the Staple Singers and the estate of David Whitaker to think about the money that is being taken from them.

Monday, 29 April 2019

The Story of Sound Recording

On Saturday the BBC World Service broadcast ‘The Story of Sound Recording’, the first part of a series exploring A History of Music and Technology. I’m a featured interviewee, alongside noted experts Mark Katz, Andre Millard, Greg Milner, Nick Morgan, Sophie Maisonneuve and Sean Williams. It’s a great series and for the second time in my life (following on from the Music on the Blockchain report), I find myself being introduced by Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason. The episode can be accessed via this link for the next 29 days.

Friday, 29 March 2019

Name that Timbre

Name that Tune was a quiz that had a long life on radio and television. It first began as a show on NBC radio in America in 1952. In Britain, it was first known as Spot that Tune, which ran between 1956 and 1962 on Granada Television. It was next seen between 1976 and 1983 as ‘Name that Tune’, a segment of the Thames Television show London Night Out, hosted by Tom O’Connor. After that, it became a standalone quiz, hosted by Lionel Blair from 1983 to 1988.  It was then revived on Channel 5 for a show hosted by Jools Holland in 1997 and 1998. The most recent version was witnessed in 2007, as part of ITV’s Gameshow Marathon, helmed by Vernon Kay.
            The premise was simple. Contestants would compete to name popular tunes in as few notes as possible (‘I’ll name that tune in seven’, ‘I’ll name that tune in five’ etc.). Rather than playing a record, the tune would be played live by musicians in the broadcasting studio. If singers were featured, they would replace the words to the song with ‘la la las’. The show was dependent on a shared knowledge of popular hit songs. It would not work effectively unless the contestants’ musical expertise found an echo in that of the viewers and listeners at home. The quick familiarity of melodies could be startling.
            Melody is not our speediest musical recall, however. We’re much faster with timbre, particularly the timbre of recordings. If I switch on the radio and a record I know is playing, I can name that sound within microseconds. The same is true if I’m in a club or a bar, and the DJ has cued up a familiar record. I will know it and I can name it immediately. I’m not alone in this ability. Most of us are startlingly fast.
            One of the few times that this ability has been captured on screen is in T2: Trainspotting. Early in the movie, the main character, Renton, returns to his childhood home and puts a record on the turntable. From the label we can guess that it is Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’. He plays a tiny burst of the record before snatching it from the turntable as he is haunted by the memories it conjures.
What is brilliant about this scene is that the filmmakers have the confidence, not only that the cinemagoers will recognize ‘Lust for Life’ from this brief excerpt, but also that it will take them back to the more extended use of the same record in the original Trainspotting movie, where it soundtracks a scene in which Renton is chased through the streets of Edinburgh. (There is also a neat joke. In the first film the use of ‘Lust for Life’ is non-diegetic, meaning that Renton will not have heard it himself. Somehow, though, the record and its associations have seeped into his consciousness by the time of the second film.)
            We need more of these moments on screen. How about a very brief quiz show called Name that Timbre? And how about pitting it against Name that Tune? The timbral contestants would surely be quicker than the tuneful ones.
As well as being entertaining, this could help us think again about musical hierarchies. Melody is prioritised in the law and in value judgements generally. One of the reasons why classical music maintains its elevated status is because it is melodically and harmonically rich in comparison with much popular music. But popular music wins on timbre. What then, if it is revealed that timbre is the fastest, most resonant and deeply penetrating musical quality of all?