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Saturday, 11 April 2015

Hence why I literally mean pacifically

A couple of days ago I was going through some emails at work, replying to important stuff and kicking some less important stuff into the long grass. It’s a shared workspace and the computer is used by a number of colleagues. I noticed, after a couple of minutes, that it had been left on an 'auto-correct' setting and was changing some words as I typed. I’m not keen on that sort of thing; I don’t even use predictive text on my phone, because I don’t like the idea of a piece of software interpreting my intentions, guessing what I’m about to do next (I’m not paranoid, but everyone else thinks I am).  

Responding to one particular message, I had to use the phrase his specific requirements. I typed it, added a sentence or two and was just about to hit the ‘send’ button when I froze in horror. There, on the screen, was an electronic grenade with the pin pulled. The software had corrected my intended ‘specific’ to the (in this case) deadly ‘pacific’. I’m guessing that I had somehow missed out the ‘s’ as I hurriedly composed the message. Accordingly, my email now featured the phrase his pacific requirements.

A shiver ran down my spine.  I was but one touch of the keyboard -a mere fraction of a second- away from personal and professional humiliation.

As a bit of a purist (some might say language snob, some might say pedantic tosspot), I could never have recovered from the shame of having put such an email into the public domain. Saying "pacific" when you mean "specific" is one of the unforgivable sins. It’s worse than saying "hence why" in a sentence. It’s worse than saying "I was literally shitting myself watching that scary film" when you weren’t literally shitting yourself watching that scary film. It’s worse than saying "I’m going to give this 110%". It’s probably even worse than saying "totes amazeballs".  

It is hard to imagine a more heinous crime than sending a message featuring the phrase his pacific requirements. Had I hit the 'send' button and released that toxic email into cyberspace I would have had no choice but to commit hara-kiri, such would have been the shame I would have brought upon myself and my family. I could not have endured the ignominy, the sheer loss of face. I could not have walked the streets again, knowing that people would be sniggering at me behind my back, passing comments about ‘the idiot who says pacific when he means specific’. Ritual disembowelment would have been the only honourable way out. 

Hence why, whenever I’m writing emails from now on, I’m literally giving it like 110% concentration, pacifically spelling and grammer wise.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Making an album, part 6: Vengeance (in E minor) will be mine

Have you ever been let down by a friend or a lover? Ever been betrayed or dumped for a younger, richer or more glamorous model? At some point in our lives, most of us will get ditched or double-crossed, pulverised or put down and the chances are that some of us will harbour dark thoughts of revenge. Harbouring those thoughts can be a frustrating way to pass the time, but if you’re a songwriter you can at least even things up a little by writing a revenge song. Your revenge song won’t quite make up for any slights you have suffered, but the process of writing it will be cathartic and, if you get lucky, it might even make you a few bob.

Well-known examples of revenge songs include Carly Simon’s ‘You’re so vain’ (which I think was probably about me), and ‘How do you sleep?’ which was John Lennon’s not-so-sneaky attempt at the character assassination of a fellow Beatle (nice work, John). ‘Goodbye Earl’ by The Dixie Chicks was an otherwise jolly country-pop hit which gleefully advocated the murder of a domestic abuser, while Elvis Costello launched a lucrative career on the back of a whole bunch of songs heavily seasoned with vengeful bitterness. 

Revenge songs, by their very nature, can get a bit ugly. Alanis Morrissette’s smash hit ‘You oughta know’ is a fine piece of music, but one can’t help but suspect that it represents six months of counselling distilled into four raging minutes of bombast. Addressing an unfaithful former lover, the lyric asks:

“Every time I scratch my nails down someone else's back
I hope you feel it ... well, can you feel it?” 

The answer is ‘probably not, Alanis’, but you do get the impression that she had to either write that song or go ahead and boil the ex-boyfriend’s bunny. 

In song-writing, as in life, I’m generally the sort of person who prefers to poke gentle fun rather than put the boot in, but the song I’ve linked to below (Angry Boy) does stray somewhat into revenge song territory. It was inspired by an awkward social encounter from about a year ago, when I was out having a few drinks in mixed company. During what I thought was a civilised and interesting discussion on the topic of Scottish independence, I was threatened by a middle-aged chap (who happened to be a member of the local arts community). When I say ‘threatened’ I mean that he actually wanted to hit me. From where I had been standing, I thought we were having a good old intellectual joust as he laid out the case for independence and I –from what was at the time an undecided position- batted back a few questions and concerns. Because I’m used to the company of people who like to discuss things without hitting other people, I had not picked up on the fact that my interlocutor was not enjoying a ‘good old intellectual joust’. Rather, he imagined that he was being deliberately wound up by the provocative wittering of an intellectual gadfly or, in his words, “a fucking pub troll”. In my experience, using the t-word is often a sign that someone doesn’t wish to engage in, or has already lost, an argument. Then he got right in my face with the ‘see you, Jimmy’ stare, which, although an authentic part of the Glasgow experience, is not one I’d necessarily recommend to visiting tourists. For all his ‘sensitive artist’ bona fides, the guy had lost the plot and was ready to knock me into the middle of next week. Only the intervention of a friend prevented an ugly scene which might have ended up with a late-night visit to Accident and Emergency. What with my pretty-boy looks and all, I can’t afford to take chances like that. 

As songwriters do, I stored the incident away for future consideration. What did it all mean? What had I done to provoke this sensitive fellow? Was it something I said, or something about my manner? Might I have done more to diffuse the situation? Did I really say something to offend him, or was he merely a jerk with a drink in him who didn’t like to be crossed in an argument? The evidence of the song reveals which option I went for.

The tune was one I had been playing around with for ages, while struggling to come up with a suitable lyric. Various drafts had withered on the vine as I grasped for a topic that would sit with the feel of the piece. The music always comes first, because I believe that there is no point in having good lyrics if the tune doesn’t cut the mustard. There are many classic pop songs that have great tunes and rubbish lyrics, but I can’t think of many acknowledged classics with rubbish tunes and great lyrics. When you live what, for shorthand purposes, I’ll describe as an ordinary settled life, finding interesting subject matter can be tricky. Lyrics written to reflect my day-to-day experiences might not necessarily interest the average listener. I suspect the market would be somewhere south of sluggish for songs with titles like ‘Do we need milk?’ or ‘Go and tidy your room, madam!’ Having said that, however, perhaps some readers will identify with my heartfelt power ballad ‘Broken photocopier blues’.

It’s worth taking your time with the words, because the difference between dreary lyrics (for example, pretty much anything by Oasis) and excellent lyrics (for example, pretty much anything by Joni Mitchell) is roughly equivalent to the difference between typing and writing. Once I’ve identified a theme and a title, the hardest part is coming up with a couple of lines that I like, signature lines that will encode the lyrical DNA of the song. Once those words are in place, I can usually work around them and start to embellish things reasonably quickly. In this case, I knew that I was going to write about the motivations of that mad guy in the pub, so the key words formed the opening line of the song:

“You don’t want to hear, you just want to bend somebody’s ear.”

Everything else flowed from that point. Once I got inside the mind of the character, it was relatively easy to lay out the possible and probable reasons for his behaviour. By the time the process was finished, I had accumulated enough material to make it a matter of what to leave out, not what to force in. To score an extra bonus song-writing point, I decided to present some of his anger issues in list form during the middle eight. Lists in songs, when done well, always impress me. Apart from anything else, it shows that the writer has given the words a little bit of thought, instead of just looking for things that rhyme, although REM’s impenetrable ‘It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)’ might just be an exception to that rule.

Perhaps the most famous example of a list song is ‘My favourite things’ by Rodgers and Hammerstein:   

“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things”

‘Let’s call the whole thing off’ by George and Ira Gershwin is another refined example of the genre, while Bob Dylan’s ‘A hard rain’s gonna fall’, written -according to legend- during the Cuban missile crisis, is said to be a compilation of the first lines of all the songs he didn’t think he’d ever get to write. A less portentous list appears on ‘Hello’, the 1990 hit by The Beloved, which features a roll call of various A, B and C-list celebrities. I salute any writer with the chutzpah to include the line:

"Sir Bufton Tufton, Jean Paul Sartre, Zippy, Bungle and Jeffrey Archer"

But I digress.

The list in the middle eight of my song lays out some of the things that might grind the gears of an angry man of a certain age:  

"You’re angry if they don’t, angry if they do, angry when they don’t think the same as you. You're angry with your boss, angry with your car, angry at the queue waiting at the bar.”

I’m going to write some other time about walking in the footsteps of my musical heroes, but it’s clear from the staccato delivery of the ‘angry’ list that this track is influenced by David Bowie. This impression is emphasised by some excellent ‘Scary Monsters’-style guitar provided by my chum Alan Robertson. Alan has been contributing to the album through the miracle of digital file transfer. The way it works is that I send him a copy of the track at a relatively early stage of its development and he adds loads of stuff at his home studio before emailing it back to me. He gives me lots of options, which is how I like it. Again, I prefer the mixing process to be more about what to leave out than what to put in; when it comes to selecting guitar or keyboard parts, my indecision is usually final. Fraser Sneddon’s bass, as ever, provides fluidity and heft, reminding me how lucky I am to know such talented musicians, people with the ability to bring my basis ideas to life.  

They say that revenge is a dish best served cold, but this particular dish will probably never be served; it's highly unlikely that the bloke in the pub will ever hear my song.

Now that I think about it, maybe I should have just punched him in the mouth.

Angry Boy.                                               

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Groom Service, please

During a recent visit to a Turkish barber, I made a startling discovery which I hope may lead to me being recognised as having made a significant contribution to the science of grooming. Like most folk, I believed that the science had been more or less settled since the mid-seventies, when Jorge Silva’s ground-breaking ‘The hermeneutics of grooming’ was published. Silva’s research established that there were six recognisable stages on the ‘male haircut’ continuum:

Passive → Larval → Peacock → Business → Utilitarian → Topiary 

The ‘passive’ phase encompasses the childhood years, when the male has no awareness of his hair and all responsibilities for grooming fall upon his mother. The second (or ‘larval’) phase begins when the young male becomes self-conscious and is, as Silva puts it, ‘quite fussy’ about his appearance.  
Stage three (the peacock phase) has been the subject of most academic attention. Gilligan and Porter’s influential paper on 'The Hair Delusion' (Oxford Tonsorial Review, 1991) observed that, during the peacock phase, a young man “may spend as much as one third of his income on hair products and spend as much as one hour getting his hair just ‘right’ for a night out.” During my own peacock phase, I was known to experiment with colours, lengths and -sadly- accoutrements. I do not exaggerate when I say that my ‘Mick Hucknall’ period is itself worthy of a psychological case study.

Stage four, the 'business phase', evolves over a much longer period (some males can take as long as 15-20 years to make the transition) and, because of where it sits on the continuum, there can be a certain amount of ‘crossover’ between the stage it follows (the peacock) and the stage it precedes (the utilitarian). 
According to Waldorf, Sanchez and McPhail, professors of Hair, Nails and Beauty at the University of Wisconsin, the average male, “having lingered in the hinterland of his peacock days, will make the inexorable graduation, first to the business stage (in which he seeks best value for a good haircut) and then to the utilitarian, in which he will pay the minimal price at any venue (within the parameters of established norms) for a haircut.” Note the absence of an adjectival descriptor for the haircut in that second definition. 

The Wisconsin team devised a simple equation to express the concept of customer satisfaction, which they believed delineated precisely the boundaries of this crossover period between the business and utilitarian phases:  

P = T x A ÷S/N 


P = acceptable price
A = aesthetic considerations
N = likelihood of negative reaction to haircut
T = willingness to invest time
S = sundry considerations (e.g. location, weather, chattiness of staff etc. ) 

Not all experts agree about the existence of an extended crossover period; you may recall the huge twitter row last year when Stephen Fry controversially stated that the difference between the business and the utilitarian period was so minuscule as to be ‘hardly worth the bother’, leading the international stylist John Frieda to describe him as a “preening jackanapes with all the insight of stale suet pudding.”   

Until my recent startling discovery, I believed (like most of us, I’d imagine) that the fifth, or utilitarian, stage had but one offshoot, namely that sixth (topiary) phase, the first to include trimming activities beyond the mere head of hair. I call this the “shall I do those eyebrows for you, sir?” phase, as those were the exact words put to me during a quick visit to a handy boutique in the summer of 2008. In existential terms, entering the topiary phase can be a defining moment, the point at which the mature gentleman is faced with the realisation that he has reached an age characterised by what Camus called “the ineffable desolation of eyebrow unruliness.” After the initial feelings of shock, desolation, shame and existential despair, I had more or less settled into the “shall I do those eyebrows for you, sir?” stage. I was reasonably content that my journey along the tonsorial continuum had reached its comfortable terminus.  

Until, that is, my recent visit to the Turkish barber.

After I had given my usual simple instructions (a ‘two’ at the back and sides and chop a bit off the top please), I sat back and relaxed, expecting nothing other than a pleasantly brief grooming hiatus in an otherwise uneventful Saturday morning.   

Suddenly, and with no prior announcement, the barber took a small set of clippers and applied them to my eyebrows and my ears. Further, he did this without even asking. After the initial shock, the realisation dawned that I was in uncharted territory: a new point on the haircut continuum. The barber had decided that my need for eyebrow and ear trimming was so pronounced, so obvious, that he had no need to consult me. There was, for him, no question to be asked, no debate to be had. ‘This guy’s eyebrows and ears are getting it,’ he must have thought. In Turkish.   

As I sat there considering the enormity of what had just transpired, it occurred to me that this is what Archimedes must have felt like as he sat in his bath and invented the Isosceles triangle. This was a game-changer.  

Accordingly, I have written to the Royal Tonsorial Society to suggest that some further research be carried out in order to establish the exact conditions and boundaries of this seventh point on the grooming continuum. I’d like to think that, in recognition of my contribution to the advancement of science, they may even allow me to name it.

Upon consideration, I believe that the ‘acknowledged overgrowth’ stage has quite a nice ring to it. 

I am aware that this subject has the potential to cause follicle offence and would not wish my admittedly hair-centric approach to upset any friends and colleagues in the bald community. There are many fine works available on baldness, among which I would thoroughly recommend Brandon Linklater’s excellent six-volume work ‘Depilation Row: male baldness and the 60s counter-cultural narrative.’  

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Eminent Hipster, horrible paragraph

I’ve just finished reading ‘Eminent Hipsters’, Donald Fagen’s erudite and witty homage to his favourite musicians of the 1950s and '60s. I’m not going to review the book, but something in it really caught my eye and I’m compelled to pass comment.

Some of my friends (particularly those who have, over the years, been bored rigid by my missionary zeal), are aware of my admiration and love for Donald's work, both as a solo artist and as part of Steely Dan. I was too young to appreciate The Dan when they were in their prime; my love affair with their music only started after a friend made me a compilation tape back in 1989. He knew that I was a big fan of the Scottish pop outfit Danny Wilson and, as he handed me the tape, said: “If you like Danny Wilson, just wait until you hear this”. It was the start of a love affair which endures to this day. Indeed, so great is my fan-boy love for this band that when, after a twenty year hiatus, they released their comeback album ‘Two against nature’, I took the day off work just to listen to it. Tragic, I know, but I relate this information in order to establish my Danorak credentials. Believe me, I’ve got lots of good stuff in the bank with Donald Fagen.

It gives me no great pleasure, therefore, to state that ‘Eminent Hipsters’ contains one of the most dismal paragraphs I’ve ever read (and, believe me, I’ve read plenty dismal). 

Just to set the scene: the second half of the book takes the form of a tour diary, wherein Donald writes (amusingly and with no little degree of acerbic insight) about life on the road with the Boys of September, an occasional combo he fronts along with Boz Scaggs and Michael MacDonald. Their act consists of standards, personal favourites and, of course, some of their hit singles (between them, they’ve had a few over the years). Although he loves the music they’re playing on the tour, there is a sense in which Fagen is slumming it a little, because he has to play smaller venues and stay in cheaper hotels than he would ever be required to do on a Steely Dan tour. He bitches amusingly about the travelling, the hotels and the crowds, many of whom he classifies as ‘TV babies’; by this he means folk who are not particularly fans of his music (nor that of Scaggs and MacDonald), but who expect to hear a shedload of hit singles at every gig. Having selected a really tasteful set of songs, Fagen makes it clear that, at certain gigs, his believes his under-appreciated band to be placing pearls before swine. I can live with his snooty disdain for the audience, particularly as he writes so honestly about the fact that his mental health and well-being is not always entirely robust when he is living the nomadic life. He gives an honest account of the psychic damage he endures through endless bus journeys, faceless hotels and interminable sound-checks; at one point, he even fantasises about a venue catching fire during one of their gigs.    

I’m fine with all of that stuff, but I’m not so good with this paragraph, written after a gig in Texas:  

I'm back from the show. The house was a legion of TV Babies, maybe tourists from Arizona. I don’t know. Probably right-wingers too, the victims of an epidemic illness that a British study has proven to be the result of having an inordinately large amygdala, a part of the primitive brain that causes them to be fearful way past the point of delusion, which explains why their philosophy, their syntax and their manner of thought don’t seem to be reality based.  That’s why, when you hear a Republican speak, it’s like listening to somebody recount a particularly boring dream.
In the sixties, during the war between the generations, I always figured that all we had to do was wait until the old, paranoid, myth-bound sexually twisted Hobbesian geezers died out. But I was wrong. They just keep coming back, these mouldering, bloodless vampires, no matter how many times you hammer in the stake. It’s got to be the amygdala thing. Period, end of story.  


Polite society frowns upon prejudices like sexism, racism and homophobia, yet here’s an outrageous example presented by an intelligent, sensitive, artistic man, that glibly dismisses around half of the population of the United States for their ‘primitive brains’. How, I wondered, could a cultured person succumb to such wretched complacency?

As if this tribal prejudice dressed up as intellectual rigour wasn’t ridiculous enough, Donald’s inability to comprehend the implications of what he said is mind-blowing. Because, at the heart of that statement about those ‘right-wing’ brains is something even more depressing than weapons-grade arrogance; there is a literal failure to understand and respect the ‘otherness’ of folk whose ideas don’t correspond to his own. That might save him the bother of having to negotiate the pesky minefield of intellectual argument, but if you ever find yourself resorting to the old Stalinist tactic of pathologising your opposition, you should perhaps give some thought to the intellectual company you’re keeping. It’s not, after all, like the 20th century didn’t provide us with plenty of examples of where this kind of thinking leads.   

I’m using broad brush strokes here, but I feel obliged to point out that I encounter this kind of thinking more among friends and acquaintances on the political left than among friends and acquaintances on the right. And, still using those broad brush strokes, I’d hazard the guess that this might be because folk on the left are more likely to believe in the perfectibility of humankind, a belief that is invariably underpinned by a self-regarding moral vanity which tends to overlook or ignore any inconvenient truths. Moreover, my experience has been that anyone who believes in that perfectibility is likely to fancy that it has already been achieved by … guess who? Why, by them, of course; by people like Donald Fagen. All of which leads me to conclude that Donald, in that one horrible paragraph, has inadvertently provided a perfect illustration of the complacent authoritarianism that seems to have infested a great deal of left-liberal thinking.

As I’ve already stated, I have enough in the bank for me not to fall out with Donald over this (and I’m sure he’ll be relieved to hear that). I love the guy’s music and will continue to love it. If I were to decide that, from tomorrow, I was only going to listen to music made by people who broadly share my political views, I’d have to throw out about 95% of my record collection. 

Listening to music because you agree with the politics of the folk who made it seems a bit silly to me. But it's nowhere near as silly as pretending that there is a neuro-scientific explanation for folk disagreeing with your interpretation of the world.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

'Kraftwerk: Publikation' by David Buckley

Back in the days before Twitter allowed us to find out what they were having for breakfast, pop stars could be quite mysterious and there was no act quite as mysterious as Kraftwerk. After they released their albums, they would invariably carry out a perfunctory bit of promotional work (usually, if memory serves, on the TV science show 'Tomorrow’s World') and maybe do the odd concert, after which they would retreat to their studios in Dusseldorf (the splendidly named Kling Klang) to start work on their next project, or maybe that should be projekt. When I say they ‘started work’, that would have been a guess. In those days, we had no idea what those mysterious Germans got up to. Years would pass; pop fashions and prime-ministers would come and go, but Kratfwerk wouldn’t even answer the phone. What were they working on? New music? Testing new synthesisers? Building robots? Constructing a time machine? Or perhaps a combination of all of the above? It turns out, according to David Buckley’s biography, that they were quite often goofing around with gizmos, enjoying coffee and pastries or indulging in that most rock and roll of pastimes, cycling.

Their imperial phase came in the mid-to-late seventies, with the albums ‘Radio-Activity’, ‘Trans-Europe Express’ and ‘The Man Machine’, with the latter -for my money- representing their finest work; the composition, structure and pacing on that album is flawless, a perfect realisation of their artistic vision. I love Kraftwerk’s warm analogue sounds and insistent rhythms, but my affection for their music is also informed by memories of a time when they didn’t just 'represent' something new; they were something new. In the 21st century, electronica has become the lingua franca of pop, but in the seventies, Kraftwerk were revolutionary, not in the sense of having anticipated or embraced the latest fashion or sounds, but in the sense of having invented a new way of making music, of having forged a new language for pop. That might be something that only a middle-aged person would say and, to be honest, I am not unsympathetic to Buckley’s ‘dad watching Top of the Pops’ view that pop and rock appears to have evolved into a self-referential ‘curator’ culture, wherein pretty much everything we hear now is ‘a bit 60s’ or ‘a bit folky’ or maybe ‘a bit RnB’ or ‘a bit 80s’.   

The author points out (correctly, in my view) that, by the time they had released ‘Computer World’ in 1981, the world had caught up with Kraftwerk. For the first time, they sounded contemporary, part of the pop landscape, where –just a few years earlier- they had sounded like they had arrived from the future. In the 1980s, their output declined to the point where to have described it as ‘sluggish’ would have been a generous exaggeration. The two main creative forces, Ralf Hutter and Florian Scheider, were happy living off the royalty cheques from the likes of 'Autobahn' and 'The Model' and were so into their cycling that the other two members, Karl Bartos and Wolgang Flur, had to find other ways to pay the bills.  

Buckley offers some good background material on the German cultural milieu of the late 60s and early 70s, but the book leans rather too heavily on interviews with musicians who have been influenced by the band. The author also reveals a bit too much about his own political views, which I’d wager are of no real interest to most readers. As one might expect, Ralf and Florian only appear in snippets from old interviews. Even in the age of social media, there exists an information black hole out of which very little emerges about these men; we know as little about them as we did thirty five years ago. Karl Bartos makes a modest contribution, but I suspect that he is keeping his powder dry for a book of his own.   

This might not be the definitive tome on Kraftwerk, but if you’re a fan of the band it’s a pretty good read. If you’re waiting for a comprehensive warts-and-all guide to the life and work of this fascinating combo, I’d advise you not to hold your breath.