Saturday, June 15, 2019

About masters

An extraordinary story by Jody Rosen in the New York Times, about a fire at the Universal Studios in Hollywood in 2008 that destroyed the masters of sound recordings by, among many others, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Patsy Cline, Bo Diddley, the Andrews Sisters, Etta James, Ray Charles, Burt Bacharach, Captain Beefheart, Al Green, Iggy Pop, Nirvana... essentially, a massive chunk of 20th-century American music ceased to exist in matter of minutes. I’m not sure what’s more astonishing, that such a calamity was allowed to occur, or that its full extent is only now being revealed, more than a decade on. 

But does it matter that much? I mean, it’s not as if the music is entirely lost, is it? Well, some of it is: it turns out that some of the material lost to the flames had never seen a commercial release, had never made it off the tapes in the first place. There’s a bigger point, though, as Rosen argues:
But the case for masters extends beyond arguments about bit depth and frequency ranges audible only to dogs. It enters the realms of aesthetics and phenomenology. Simply put, the master of a recording is that recording; it is the thing itself. The master contains the record’s details in their purest form: the grain of a singer’s voice, the timbres of instruments, the ambience of the studio. It holds the ineffable essence that can only truly be apprehended when you encounter a work of art up-close and unmediated, or as up-close and unmediated as the peculiar medium of recorded sound permits. “You don’t have to be Walter Benjamin to understand that there’s a big difference between a painting and a photograph of that painting,” [producer Andy] Zax said in his conference speech. “It’s exactly the same with sound recordings.” 

Friday, June 14, 2019

About etcetera

Back in the olden days, when I’d get nervous if I hadn’t blogged for 48 hours, I’d often end up with half a dozen half-finished, half-arsed posts, all entirely unrelated to each other, that I’d crunch together into a single slab of incoherence. Inevitably these would usually turn out to be more popular than the finely crafted single-issue bits.

In that spirit, but with considerably less bang for your digital buck: a fascinating look at the Tokyo that nearly was; then a slice of urban strangeness that actually happened, with Simon Reynolds interviewing the late Andy Gill about the Sheffield music scene in the late 70s/early 80s; and this:

and this:

PS: ....aaand how we feel when we realise exactly how bloody old our favourite music is.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

About Cohen and Radiohead

I’ve written two proper books about popular musicians (and, if you haven’t had the pleasure, you really should, no, really), and I reached a similar frame of mind by the time I’d got to the end of both of them; that the music was ultimately less interesting than the people creating it.

I recently had my prejudices reinforced, twice over. First, I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of Nick Broomfield’s upcoming film, which tells the tale of Leonard Cohen and his long, complex relationship with his Norwegian muse Marianne Ihlen, which lasted from 1960 to 2016, the year they both died, just three months apart. At first, I thought it would appeal only to die-hard Cohen fans, a strange bunch, as I’ve discovered. But ultimately Cohen’s music fades into the background of a narrative that’s really about love and loss, death and ageing, and the search for personal peace. It’s gruffly tender and drily romantic, like the best of Cohen’s work, but exists beyond that oeuvre.

I have a similar attitude to Radiohead; I haven’t been particularly swept away by anything they’ve recorded since the Amnesiac album in 2001, but I still find them weirdly, awkwardly fascinating, not least in their constant awareness of the paradox they embody, a band that forges its identity through its opposition to global capitalism, but can only feasibly exist thanks to the operation of the same capitalism.

And that paradox bubbled up again this week when, after someone hacked into an archive of sessions from the OK Computer period, and held them to ransom for a six-figure sum, they made the whole lot available for £18, with proceeds going to Extinction Rebellion; the glumly realistic – and very British – sales pitch being that the sounds are “only tangentially interesting”.

PS: The Guardian rather misses the point by confusing what’s essentially a spontaneous reaction to digital skulduggery with a proper album.

PPS: Also, this.

PPPS: Then, through the letter box, comes this:

PPPPS: And in further LC news, the Leonard/Marianne letters sell for vast sums.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Not about Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson fans, we are told, are annoyed that a forthcoming Quincy Jones concert appears to have shifted its emphasis from being a tribute to the King of Pop, to a non-specific trawl through music from the 80s, with occasional nods to Jacko.

But what’s more interesting is that the posthumously disgraced Jackson himself barely seemed to figure, even in the original marketing. Sure, there was plenty of emphasis on his three most important albums (all of which Jones produced) but his tarnished name is conspicuous by its absence. Which is, I guess, a way to get around the whole problem of how to appreciate Great Art By Bad Men; we are allowed once again to appreciate a sculpture by Eric Gill, a film by Roman Polanski, an album by Michael Jackson, without any moral awkwardness, simply by dropping the Bad Man’s name from the credits. I’m pretty sure that this is not what Barthes was thinking of when he posited the Death of the Author – but hey, he’s only the author anyway, so who cares?

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

About Wefail

I’ll have to admit that I’ve only just become aware of the art collective called Wefail, the schtick of which seems to be pretending that Francis Bacon is alive and well and still gloriously aghast at the horrors of the world (and also discreetly forgetting that Bacon voted Tory). Nice work, though.

PS: Swift response from Wefail: “Of course Bacon was a Tory, he was a masochist.”

Saturday, June 01, 2019

About the 80s

The latest iteration of the unkillable NOW franchise would appear to be something called Forgotten 80s, a collection of 100 songs that a) were originally released in the 1980s and b) would appear to have been forgotten by someone or other. It’s this last bit that confuses me; who’s supposed to have forgotten them? And at what point are they remembered, if at all? When you read the titles? When you play the songs? Or are they buried so deep in the subconscious that they feel like entirely new songs, thus perfecting the music industry’s preferred tactic of re-issue/re-package to infinity?

I am, presumably, the target market for this sort of thing, having spent the entirety of my teenage years in that strange country we call the 80s. Unfortunately, when I looked at the track listing, I’d stubbornly refused to forget pretty much any of the songs included, whether they were loved (‘Louise’, ‘Da Da Da’, ‘Zoom’, the fabulous ‘Sonic Boom Boy’) or despised (‘Every Loser Wins’ by thin-tied wide-chinned Nick Berry). Which means, I guess, that I’m not the target market after all. The only exception was ‘Living on Video’, a 1983 hit by the Canadian band Trans-X. When I played it, I thought I vaguely recalled the flutey synth riff, but then again that could have been from 20 or 30 other songs of the time. And as I watched the video, which is so quintessentially 80s (The Hair! The Computers! The Earrings!) as to be veering into Lufthansa Terminal territory, I did briefly consider whether it might be also be a gloriously arch spoof, a recent concoction crowbarred into a decade-specific compilation to play games with critics who claimed to remember (and hate) it from the first time round.

And now I wonder if there are other people of my generation, hoping against hope that the one or two tracks they’ve tried and failed to retrieve from their own decaying hippocampi (Transvision Vamp? China Crisis? Sydney Youngblood?) are just tawdry postmodern japes and that in fact, their memories are as pure and clear and entire as they could ever be. Too Good To Be Forgotten, or Not Bad Enough To Be Remembered?

PS: And if you really can’t remember F.R. David or Haysi Fantayzee, you’ll probably have trouble with this as well.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

About Bradley Wiggins

The Times runs a regular Q&A column called My Culture Fix, in which people are asked to offer up their favourite books, films, music and so on. And this week we are welcomed into the soul of Bradley Wiggins, the celebrated cyclist.

Things get interesting at the very start when he declares – not “admits” or “confesses” because he doesn’t appear to be embarrassed about it – that he doesn’t really read books. But it’s his response to the next question, when he’s asked to identify his favourite play or playwright, that really sets the agenda: “No”. In its own way, it’s magnificent, a brutal shutting down of an entire art form, a refusal to let the merest whiff of greasepaint come anywhere near his nostrils.

But he does like Only Fools and Horses.

PS: That said, if you want to hear someone talking about his own cultural favourites intelligently and sensitively, but without getting too technical or highfalutin’, you could do much worse than listen to Derren Brown on yesterday’s Desert Island Discs.