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Saturday, 22 February 2014

Let's not fall out over this

On a night out in Glasgow a couple of months ago, a friend-of-a-friend threatened to hit me because he perceived that my views on Scottish independence were somewhat at odds with his own. By 'somewhat at odds' I mean that I told him that I was undecided about how to vote in the referendum and presented some aspects of what I would regard as the case against independence (there are, of course, good arguments in favour of it, but since this chap was already making some of them quite forcibly, I felt obliged to present an alternative view). Sadly, my equivocation on this matter seemed to offend his braveheart sensibilities to the extent that he felt the best way to ‘win’ the ‘debate’ was to threaten violence. Yes, I mean actual physical violence. And this was an educated man in his forties. I was reminded of that old PG Wodehouse line about it not being difficult to tell the difference between a little ray of sunshine and a Scotsman with a grievance.

Now, I understand that this fellow's reaction was more about his personal issues than about his politics, but I do find this episode depressingly symptomatic of some of the grislier aspects of the referendum debate. You’ll often get the same kind of response (albeit without the threat of physical violence) on internet discussion boards if you express doubts about some aspect or other of the post-referendum Utopia envisaged by Yes campaigners. It’s as if people don’t want to hear the counter arguments and would rather shut the debate down when the ball isn’t rolling their way. The debate, such as it is, appears to have taken on some of the characteristics one would normally associate with discussions about religious faith, where the most important thing is not to win the argument; the most important thing is to have faith, because your faith that Scotland will be better off after a 'yes' vote over-rides any questions or doubts.

The SNP’s white paper set out a vision for Scotland as a modern, low tax, small-government, business-friendly wee country. But at the same time, it said that we're also going to retire earlier, have bigger pensions and have a bigger welfare blanket within a public sector-driven economy. Nobody has satisfactorily explained how that can possibly work. Is it that unreasonable to ask how the new Scotland is going to be able to ignore economic rules that apply to every other country? All of those questions about passports, jobs, currency, embassies etc. have to be addressed. It simply isn’t good enough to expect us to vote first and worry about the details later.
The No campaign, by way of contrast, tends to fall back on the "we’re all doomed!" line of argument, which is just as abject. We won’t get into the EU! We won’t have a proper currency! We’ll go bankrupt once the oil runs out! Businesses will flee in droves! There would clearly be hurdles to overcome, but I find it hard to believe that an independent Scotland couldn’t be made to work, one way or another. But before I commit, I’d like to have a clearer picture of what kind of country I’ll be living in after a 'yes' vote. Will it be significantly different to the one we live in now? Will we better off? How do we quantify the ways in which we will be better off? Will my children and their children and their children’s children be better off?

The overall standard of debate has been poor and both sides really need to up their game, but there is one crucial difference between the Yes and No campaigns. The ballot paper will be quite clear; come September 18th, we’ll have the option of independence or the status quo. The Yes team makes a lot of noise about their opponents not having a plan, but the truth is that the No campaign doesn’t need a plan, beyond pointing out the various downsides of breaking a 300-year old arrangement. A 'no' vote (or an abstention) is a vote for the status quo. And, all things being equal, the status quo will prevail if people think that change might make them worse off than they are just now. The onus, therefore, is almost entirely on the Yes campaign to convince the electorate that Scotland will be better off making that change.

In some ways, Mr Salmond is as cunning as a fox wi’ two heids, but he does give the impression that not only does he want us to vote for independence, he’d also like a say in how the rest of the UK gets to respond to that vote. It would be more dignified to accept that, if Scotland votes to break up the union, we’ll have made our bed and what’s left of the UK will then make whichever decisions it thinks are in its best interests. That ‘reduced’ UK will have no requirement to take into account anything that Scotland would like or wish for. And why should it? Former members of a club don’t get to have a say on what goes on in that club once they have left. The Yes team should stop making accusations about bullying and just stick to answering the questions. Apart from anything else, do we really want our country to be led by the kind of people who cry ‘bully’ when arguments don’t go their way?
And yes, I know that voting for independence is not the same as voting to be governed by the SNP, but since Mr Salmond is the sine qua non of the Yes campaign, it is not unreasonable to focus on his pronouncements. He needs to be able to address -and not just deflect- concerns that his version of independence looks a bit like a teenager choosing to leave home, but reserving the right to go back to mum and dad’s for meals, to get some washing done and maybe also tell them what they can watch on the telly.

I hope that we can keep this referendum focused on ideas and not on emotions because, whatever the outcome of the vote, we’ll all still be here on the morning after. So let’s acknowledge that we all care about the kind of country our children and grandchildren grow up in. Let’s appreciate that two people can review the same information yet reach entirely different conclusions.

And let’s agree not to hit each other if we don’t see eye to eye about the best way forward for our country.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Football on the Radio

I don’t know if there was, or ever will be, a ‘golden age’ of radio football commentary, but having been an avid listener for more years than I care to remember, I’d be willing to posit the view that we are not living through it right now.  The continuous deployment of shrill hyperbole appears to be the industry standard among the commentating fraternity, while any analysis invariably has ‘triumph’ at one end and ‘disaster’ at the other, leaving little room for subtlety or nuance.  It could be that the sheer number of games being covered has led to a lowering of the qualification bar. Alternatively, we could be going through the kind of cultural decline that I’d be willing to expand upon, but only after another couple of drinks. 

Many commentators appear to think that shrieking at every goalmouth incident will convince listeners that something exciting is happening.  They will routinely describe events at a 2-2 draw between, let’s say, Motherwell and Kilmarnock as ‘astonishing’ or ‘incredible’.  In my book, ‘astonishing’ takes quite some doing, while a word like ‘incredible’ should only be used if, for example, Dundee United bring on a two-headed transsexual substitute who scores a late winner and then gets sent off for defecating in the centre circle.

Back when I was a lad (and it was all fields around here), there was not that much football on the radio, which somehow made it seem just a bit more special.  Commentary, even on big games, would not start until the second half; to get the midweek football results, you often had to wait until a brief ‘sports desk’ at 10.15pm.  By contrast, today’s wall-to-wall coverage leaves nothing to the imagination.  Every incident, however mundane, is analysed, picked apart and debated as the pundits (aided and abetted by their phone-in punters) take the same forensic approach to an offside decision at Easter Road that the Warren Commission took to the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  Amidst all this babble and burble, wherein every single incident is deemed to be ‘incredible’ or ‘sensational’, it becomes difficult to spot something that genuinely is incredible or sensational.      

In addition to the rationed coverage, one of the features of the old days of radio commentary was the frailty of the technical links, particularly when the game was being played abroad.  Nowadays everything is digitally pristine, to the extent that a commentator at a game in Uzbekistan will sound like he is broadcasting from your back garden.  That is probably a very good thing, but there was something thrilling about tuning into a crackly old analogue line that seemed liable to break down at any moment; the fact that the commentator was often just this side of legible made it all the more gripping.  A game from Eastern Europe (a.k.a. ‘behind the Iron Curtain’) sounded like it was being broadcast from the moon, but what mystery and excitement those precarious signals evoked. 

I recall once sneaking a transistor radio into school to listen to England losing 2-1 to Czechoslovakia in a European Championship qualifier.  I can’t remember why the game was being played in the middle of the afternoon; perhaps those Iron Curtain commies didn’t want to waste good socialist electricity on decadent westerners.  For a brief moment, I was the toast of an admittedly very small section of the geography class who gave a toss about whether or not England got a result in that tricky away tie.  It was quite a tough Glaswegian school, so I was taking a bit of a chance by volunteering to be the bearer of news.  My fellow pupils were delighted that the English had lost, but had I reported that they had won the game, there might have been a danger of them adopting a ‘shoot the messenger’ policy.  I could have found myself hung up on the school railings by the hood of my duffel coat.  Again.      

In spite (or perhaps because) of the fact that I was rubbish at playing it, I was a football nerd in my teens.  One of the reasons that I don’t complain about my kids playing computer games is that I have enough self-awareness to acknowledge that, had FIFA or Championship Manager been available when I was a lad, I would never have left my bedroom; my parents, in fact, would probably have had to feed me through a drip.  Tragically obsessed with football facts and figures to an extent that would nowadays invite a diagnosis of mild autism, my Saturday nights would occasionally be spent trying to tune into a German radio station, trying to ‘work out’ what was happening in the Bundesliga games.  I should point out here that I could not speak a single word of German. 
Now perhaps you’d like to pause for a moment to take in the enormity of that last statement.  

A boy who didn’t speak German trying to listen to a (very weak) radio signal from Germany, trying to interpret what was going on in a game between two German teams.  On a Saturday evening.  I think it is safe to say that that would have earned me quite a high score on the ‘you’ll never get a girlfriend-ometer’. 

My greatest triumph in interpreting-dodgy-radio-signals-in-German was when I ‘worked out’ that Bayern Munich had got an absolute pasting in a game against Kaiserslautern.  The commentator was going mental –in German, obviously- as goal after goal seemed to fly in.  As the very weak radio signal swirled about, hovering intermittently somewhere between German football and what sounded like the Belgian pop charts, I knew that Kaiserslautern (or maybe Bayern) were scoring a barrow load of goals in a short space of time; either that, or I was listening to a ‘highlights of the season’ show.  The internet hadn’t been invented yet, so I had to wait a day or two to have the amazing news confirmed: Bayern had indeed been roundly thrashed and I was –probably- one of the first schoolboys in Scotland to know about it, thanks to the miracle of crackly medium wave radio.  I still count that as one of my greatest achievements in life, right up there with the birth of my children and the time I almost got a nine-letter word on Countdown.         

Having started this piece by complaining about ‘shouty’ football commentators, I’m now going to eulogise about a ‘shouty’ bit of commentary.  When used sparingly, near-hysterical excitement is a legitimate weapon in the commentator’s arsenal.  In Star Trek, Captain Kirk and his crew had their phasers on stun most of the time and only switched to the full bhuna in exceptional circumstances.  I would recommend a similar approach for commentators.  My advice would be: don’t simulate noisy orgasm when Queen of the South equalise with three minutes to go in a Ramsden’s Cup tie against Partick Thistle.  If you behave like that when normal stuff happens in a normal game, where can you go once extraordinary stuff happens in an extraordinary game?              

This clip (using TV pictures, but with the radio commentary) features the Dutch radio commentator Jack van Gelder and provides a wonderful example of how to invest a description with the appropriate degree of awestruck wonder.  It is minimalist in terms of its vocabulary, but the context renders this entirely appropriate.  The occasion was the 1998 World Cup quarter-final between Holland and Argentina.  In the last minute of a tense game, Dennis Bergkamp scored a stunning goal to take Holland to the semi-finals.  It was remarkable enough that Frank de Boer could play the 80-yard pass that he did; it was remarkable enough that Bergkamp could control that pass, flick the ball past the defender and then place a shot, with the outside of his foot, beyond the goalkeeper and into the far corner of the net.  But to do all of that in the last minute of a World Cup Quarter Final?  Now that, my friends, is astonishing. 
It will take 38 seconds of your time to watch the clip.  In that time, you will hear the joy and wonder of the commentator, but you will also witness sporting excellence, incredible spatial awareness, geometrical precision, astonishing technique and breath-taking guile, all condensed into one incredible, poetic moment.  Jack van Gelder rightly judged that this extraordinary moment was beyond ordinary words.  In truth, the only thing left for him to say was: Dennis Bergkamp!  Dennis Bergkamp!!  DENNIS BERGKAMP!!!

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

A 'spokesperson' for the Taliban

I nearly choked on my cornflakes this morning while listening to the 7am news on BBC radio. During an item about the delayed start of the proposed ‘peace talks’ in Islamabad, the newsreader started a sentence with this phrase:

“A spokesperson for the Taliban said …”

Excuse me? A spokesperson? For the Taliban? We’re unclear about the gender of someone speaking on behalf of the Taliban?

Here are some phrases you could hear any day on the news, none of which would cause undue alarm: “A spokesperson for Friends of the Earth said …” or “A spokesperson for Marks and Spencer said …” or perhaps “A spokesperson for Channel Four said …”

Not one of those phrases is in any way jarring, because each of those organisations might well have a 'spokesperson' who isn’t a man.

Perhaps someone on the BBC news team doesn’t know what the Taliban is, what it has done, what it stands for and what it would like to achieve. That would be pretty poor form for anyone working in news and current affairs; such poor form, in fact, that you’d have to imagine that anyone displaying such ignorance would be out of a job in no time at all.

You might think that I'm being a tad uncharitable by speculating that sheer ignorance might be responsible for the use of that phrase “A spokesperson for the Taliban".

That may be the case. But other, less charitable interpretations are available.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

It’s not (quite) about the money, money, money.

I’ve had some interesting correspondence since my previous post about deciding to record an album and to write about the various issues associated with that process. Most of the comments have been supportive, with some folk saying that they are curious to see how it will all turn out.  I was a little bit surprised by a couple of the more critical remarks, not because I expect everyone to think that my idea is great and that my music is wonderful, but because these comments focused on the fact that my opening spiel talked about money and, specifically, about my hope of recovering some of the costs of the venture. 

One correspondent suggested that I was approaching this from the ‘wrong direction’, because true artists shouldn’t be bothered with financial considerations; this person suggested that, if filthy lucre was at the top of my agenda, I would be better advised to stick to my day job. I’m intrigued by arguments about the ‘purity’ of art.  It seems to me that, unless you have a benefactor (or can survive on just the occasional bowl of steam), money will impact on how and when you produce your work.  If you can’t make a living from it -which is the case for the majority of artists- then whenever you spend time and money on your art, it is time and money you are not devoting to something else; it is time you are not giving to your loved ones and money you are not spending on essential bills or other items.  Should I spend a couple grand making an album because I feel the need to, or should I put that money towards my mum’s hip operation?  Should I hire some really good session musicians to sprinkle fairy dust over my stupid little songs, or should I use that cash to give my kids a really good holiday?  It’s a difficult call.  

Any musician who has their work promoted by a record company and any artist whose endeavours are supported through the public purse (for example, with a grant from Creative Scotland) is in an unusual and fortunate position.  I don’t have any choice as to whether some of my hard-earned tax buck should go towards subsidising another artist’s (no doubt worthy) efforts.  I do, however, have a choice in how I spend my own spare cash and -much as I’d love some additional support- I’m comfortable with the fact that I’ll have to record this album on my own dime.  If wondering how I might best manage that makes me some kind of philistine breadhead, then I guess I’ll just have to live with the stigma.     

If previous experience is anything to go by, I have about as much chance of getting my money back as I have of becoming the next James Bond; in fact, I would regard it as something of a triumph to recoup even a quarter of my costs.  My prospects of glory are somewhat south of ‘remote’, but that won’t stop me committing to the enterprise.  It would just be nice to think that I’ll be able to bank enough positivity to encourage me to start work on another album; that ‘positivity’ might be defined in financial terms, but it is just as likely to be something as simple as getting some good reviews and good vibes from a handful of supporters.  The truth is that the real reward will be the work itself and the completion of that work.     

I think that when people make art, they are probably making it first and foremost for themselves.  But even if that were not the case, I’m not sure why anyone would object to an artist hoping to get paid for their work.  It’s always nice to get a little approbation, but it’s probably nicer to get paid; and it’s probably even nicer to get paid a lot.  I heard the comic actor Christopher Biggins on the radio recently talking about his role in the TV comedy ‘Porridge’; he was, as I recall, a relatively minor character in the show (let’s, for the moment, leave to one side the question of whether or not Mr Biggins can legitimately be described as an artist).  In a charming interview in which he came across as an amusing and essentially decent chap, Mr Biggins revealed that every time the BBC shows an old episode of ‘Porridge’ on the telly, he pockets £1,000.  That, my friends, is a beautiful dollar.  Just imagine how good it must feel to get work that pays you at the time that you do it and is still paying you some forty years later.  No wonder Mr Biggins sounded so jolly.      

At the risk of causing offence, I’ll venture the opinion that writing a song is a purer artistic process than acting in a sitcom.  I would define it as purer because there is an unbroken line between intent and execution. It is pure in the same way that writing a poem or painting a picture is pure, because the intent of the artist –at that stage- is unmediated and uncompromised. 

On my way to the holy grail of completing the album, there are certain things I am able to do musically and certain things in the recording sphere that I can achieve on my own.  I have a basic recording set-up at home, but have neither the equipment nor the technical expertise to record to the standard I would desire.  Accordingly, I have to book time in a professional recording studio to realise my goal.  I must also factor in the additional cost of hiring session musicians.  You might argue that I could just record these songs with vocals and acoustic guitar and do a ‘purer’ version of the album without spending a lot of money.  I could do that, but it would result in a particular kind of album and not the one that I want to make right now.  The album I want to make has to sound as close as possible to what I’m hearing in my head; achieving that sound will necessarily involve a significant investment of time and money. 

There is, of course, an obvious tension between ‘how much’ money I am willing to spend and ‘how good’ I want this album to be; in my experience, the less you rush things, the more you take the time to review your options, the better the end result will be.  There might, however, be limits as to how much time you should take.  Many moons ago I was in a band that recorded a couple of songs at a ‘proper’ recording studio in Glasgow.  We sat on the tracks for a few weeks before deciding that they could be improved with some judicious remixing.  When we called the studio to book some additional time, we were told that our tracks had been erased to free up some room on the master tape.  Chastened and more than a bit crestfallen, we had to make do with the unsatisfactory versions we had.  Who knows, the entire course of pop music history might have been different had we only managed to remix those two tracks (although, if I was a betting man, my money would be on the remixed tracks still sounding a bit rubbish and the band still breaking up within six months).  These days, with digital recording and storage, it is unlikely that anyone would have their material scrubbed just to make some space.   

There are countless examples of the excessive (and compulsive) behaviour of bands in the studio, tales of musicians who spent weeks working on a snare sound or a difficult guitar solo.  Bryan Ferry -an artist I really admire- once used 30 musicians at six different recording studios over several years to make one album, the lush and lovely ‘Boys and Girls’, released in 1985. This album achieved some notoriety before it was released because Ferry had sunk so much cash into it; he is known to be something of studio obsessive, but –even by his meticulous standards- this one was a doozy.  You might argue that to spend so much time and money on an album was ridiculous, decadent and indulgent, but the end justified the means if the songwriter achieved what he set out to achieve. 
‘Boys and Girls’ is bejewelled with sonic delights, but there is one achingly beautiful piece in which the purity of the songwriter’s vision is illustrated. ‘Windswept’, like much of the album, features gossamer-light melodies floating on a beautifully seductive rhythmical bed.  About two minutes into the track, a violin appears stage left for a brief cameo, the job of which is to introduce a scorching and melodic guitar solo from Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour which –for 25 blissful seconds- lifts the song out of its seductive reverie, before we settle back once more into Ferry’s trademark elegant ambience.  You could argue that ‘Windswept’ didn’t need that brief appearance by the violin nor, indeed, the expensive guitar solo, but here’s the thing: Bryan Ferry thought it needed it.  My guess is that he wanted to create something beautiful, now matter how much time and money it was going to cost him.  He pursued his vision and, for an artist, that is what counts.  The bonus for Bryan was that the ‘Boys and Girls’ album gave him his only UK number 1 solo record. 

Now that I’ve fulfilled a lifetime’s dream by seeing my work mentioned in print alongside that of Bryan Ferry, there’s a link below to a work-in-progress, a song I’d like to develop into something more substantial and textured than it is now (without having to hire 30 musicians).  This is a basic version featuring only a rough acoustic guitar, a one-take piano part and a lone vocal.

It’s called ‘How will you know when you know?’ and the lyric is relevant to some of the topics I’ll be exploring in this blog.  The song is about being in a band and about hitting the wall of realisation that you are not going to be the next U2.  In the first verse, there is excitement and optimism as the band plan for a successful future, loading up their van to hit the road for a gig (in the exotic location of Aberdeen).  The second verse is written from the perspective of the morning after the night before, grinding through the day job and attempting to analyse events through a fug of sleep deprivation.  What was last night about?  Why did we do it?  Was it really a good use of our time?  The chorus illustrates that perhaps a certain realisation has occurred to the protagonist:  

“If every step we ever take leads us to where we ought to be,
shouldn’t we be smart enough to know we ought to rest there?” 

So here’s the demo, recorded a couple of weeks ago at Stealth Studio in Glasgow.  Perhaps because it was done really quickly it has a charm of its own, but my plan is to introduce some other instrumentation; one way or another, I’d like this song to inhabit a lusher soundscape. 

Now does anyone out there have David Gilmour’s phone number?                 

How will you know when you know?