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Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Old songs never die

I was astonished when a friend alerted me recently to the fact that a limited edition single by a band I fronted in the late eighties had been sold on e-bay for £170.

My guess is that the folk who were bidding for it were interested because it is rare, not because it is a work of towering genius (because it isn't). It is possible (or maybe even probable) that these bidders were hardly interested in the music at all. They may well have been specialist collectors interested solely in gathering artefacts from a particular time and place. In this case, their passion would appear to have focused on obscure Glaswegian pop acts of the late eighties.

When I buy music, it is usually because I like the song and /or the artist. I say ‘usually’ because I recall, with a degree of embarrassment, that I was once bedazzled into purchasing an Alicia Keys album on the back of a beguiling TV appearance. Talented as she is, I suspect that had Ms Keys looked like Jabba the Hut, I would have been rather less beguiled and rather more inclined to let her middling tunes pass me by. I’ve nothing in particular against her music, but the fact that, once purchased, I hardly played the album in question indicates that I was hypnotised more by her beauty than her talent.
So, the odd exception apart, I buy music because I like how it sounds. Whilst it’s true that there are artists that I really like (or even love), I don’t feel any particular need to own everything that they have ever recorded. If they’ve put out something that doesn’t hit the mark, I’m quite happy to let it go. But the true collector has a different mentality; he or she (and let’s be honest and acknowledge that ‘collecting’ is an overwhelmingly male occupation) will need to own everything once his full attention has focused on the object (or objects) of desire.

The unfathomable logic of this need to collect has now seen fit to bestow ‘value’ upon an obscure old song that, all but forgotten, had long been grazing in the far fields of memory. It’s been slightly odd coming to terms with the fact that music I made more than two decades ago has -for whatever reason- acquired some significance for a small group of people. Even odder is the fact that collectors are willing to pay extraordinary sums of money to own an artefact that had long ceased to have anything but sentimental value for me and, I’m sure, for the other musicians involved in making it.

As it happens, I have several of these valuable artefacts gathering dust up in my attic. Without wishing to get carried away or to diminish the exalted status of this rare piece of vinyl, I’m thinking that this might be the break that has been tantalisingly just around the corner since 1988. It may be time to quit the day job.

Friday, 16 September 2011

The trouble with trolling

It has been interesting to hear some of the comments made over the last couple of days in relation to the case of Sean Duffy. In case you missed it, Duffy from Reading, Berkshire, was jailed for 18 weeks for sending abusive messages on social networking sites. His victims were the bereaved relatives of people he didn't know and had no connection with, including the family of the Worcester teenager Natasha MacBryde, who killed herself after being bullied. He pleaded guilty to two counts of sending communications (via Facebook and YouTube) of an indecent or offensive nature.
Duffy appears to be a pathetic individual whose horrible and stupid actions have caused a great deal of grief. Some have suggested that the fact that he suffers from Asperger's Syndrome is a mitigating factor. This syndrome may well cause him to lack empathy, but there is, surely, quite a leap from merely ‘lacking empathy’ to posting the kind of vile messages he inflicted upon the grieving families.

We can argue about whether or not his condition may have been a mitigating factor, just as we can argue about whether or not a jail sentence was the appropriate punishment for his actions, but what is more concerning is the possible fall-out from this case. Almost all of the news reports have described it as a ‘trolling’ offence. Trolling, in internet slang, is the practice of posting inflammatory messages in an online community with the intent of provoking heated responses. Trolling is not big and it’s not clever, but it’s also not what Duffy was doing; his malicious actions deserve a far more pejorative label. The fact that he has been labelled as a ‘troll’ should worry us all.

If the notion that trolling can be criminalised is allowed to fester and grow, there will be grave implications for freedom of speech. Should we start to concede that trolling might be a criminal offence, we might as well declare open season for all of the single-issue zealots and grievance-monkeys who would jump at the opportunity to prosecute ‘trolls’ who expressed ‘unacceptable’ views on any number of topics – abortion, climate change, immigration, creationism, whatever.

The desire to close down debate is, in essence, a totalitarian impulse (both Stalin and Mao-Tse-tung criminalised and pathologised local dissent). If we open that door to the criminalisation of 'trolling', we face a bleak, Orwellian future.
It’s a fact of life that some people are morons and have stupid, hateful, ill-informed opinions. Internet traffic merely reflects that fact. That’s why the trolls should be left alone.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Art for art's sake

Songwriting and performing are subjects close to my heart, perhaps because I’ve written literally dozens of hit songs and played to thousands of people in fantastic venues all over the world.

No … wait a minute, I was thinking about someone else there.

Over at my website, I regularly post a ‘song of the week’, which is usually accompanied by a few brief notes designed to illuminate some of the musical and lyrical aims of each piece.

The idea for this week’s song (‘Novelty Act’ by The Eisenhowers) came to me while I was driving home to Glasgow at stupid o’clock, having played a gig in Aberdeen to not very many people. At that time in the wee small hours, faced with the prospect of dragging myself into work on a meagre ration of sleep, it seemed like rather a foolish way for a responsible adult to spend his time, an idea conveyed in the opening line: “To get right to the point: it’s looking bad.”

Up until sometime around your mid-to-late twenties, it’s relatively easy to maintain the enthusiasm, energy and belief required to play in a band. The combination of wide-eyed innocence and exuberant ambition can be intoxicating if you're on the inside, but also quite endearing for the observer. At that stage, you are pretty resilient (in fact, you’re close to being bullet-proof) because, essentially, you believe that your big break is just around the corner. As the years pass and you begin to realise that you are still quite some distance from becoming the next U2, you’ll wonder, sometimes, why the hell you are still doing it. Your friends and relatives, once full of enthusiasm and willing to turn up in numbers at your gigs, will start to withdraw, perhaps puzzled and slightly embarrassed as to why, in the face of all the available evidence, you’re sticking with it.

From that point, a peculiar brand of resilience is required to maintain your efforts, but it’s a brand that may lead those friends and relatives (and don’t even think about your enemies) to write you off as being -at best- slightly eccentric, but more likely drifting somewhere on the outskirts of Delusionsville, just a few short stops away from Nutter Central, where 55-year old postmen can turn up at the X-Factor auditions believing themselves to be the natural heirs to David Bowie or Jon Bon Jovi.

Anyway … to get right to the point. I concluded a long time ago that people should make music because they want to. If they are 'successful' (whatever that means), then good luck to them. If they are not 'successful', who cares? If you’re getting something from playing music, you should continue to do it. That 'something' could be peace of mind, catharsis, the sheer joy of making some meaningful noise, or perhaps the admiration of three slightly drunk folk at a midweek acoustic gig. Your 'something' might even be the deranged notion that somehow your genius will one day be recognised by the rest of humankind. Whatever. Making music might occasionally lead to heartache and humiliation, but it’s still better than lots of other activities I could name.

And that, I think, is what the song in question is trying to say. In spite of being forged in the dark foundry of jaded cynicism, it somehow manages to express a degree of optimism about the creative process.